(Below are the first few chapters of a mystery novel I’m writing.)
I never minded getting up early. Raised on a farm, 4:30 AM was an old friend. Even during my 20 years on the Philadelphia Police Force, I always preferred an early tour. With luck, some days I could be home by 3 in the afternoon.
But now with 20 more years (and almost as many extra pounds) under my belt, the early morning shift was becoming far less attractive. Still, it was my radio station and the morning drive show set the tone for the rest of the day. Most shows on the station were pretty standard talk radio fare, although I was never quite conservative enough for the high tone suburb of West Chester, Pennsylvania.
This Monday was starting off like most; not too much news from the weekend, bad traffic jams as the entire suburban population tried to get into Philadelphia simultaneously and the rush of usual callers, anxious to be heard after a weekend of silence, or at least boring their relatives in person rather than on a 10,000 watt radio station.
“Hello, you’re live on WWCT on the Doug Carter show.”
“Hi Doug, it’s Tim”
“Hello Tim, what’s on your mind?”
“It’s the Mayor again. Why doesn’t he just switch parties and be done with it? He’s more of a Liberal than Kennedy?”
The Mayor of West Chester, Rich Stoddard, was what I always called a thinking man’s Republican. He bought into just enough of the party line to keep their support but wasn’t afraid to go against the grain when he thought he was right.
“John, Bobby, Teddy or one of the kids?” I asked.
“I should know better than to criticize Stoddard to you. Birds of a feather you two. “It’s you damn Liberals who are…”
I cut him off. Only a few rules on my show. Rule number one: No labels, especially proceeded by a pejorative modifier. Hey, I make the loan payments, I pay the exorbitant utility bills, I set the rules. Seems fair to me.
“Call back when you calm down Tim. It’s 5:45 AM and 15 degrees in West Chester. Clear and cold for the next few days. We’ll be right back after this Wall Street Update.”
Although it was tad dry, this 3 minute syndicated bit allowed me to check with Mary, my newsperson and grab another cup of coffee, my third of the day. If it really did retard cancer, I’d be cacogen free for the next millennium.
“Call on 07,” Mary said.
“No, but he wouldn’t give his name.”
I never liked off air calls. It was usually a listener who wanted to vent in private about me or a caller. But every once in a while, it was worthwhile news tip.
“Hello, it’s Doug,” I said as I picked up the phone. “I’ve only got a few seconds.”
“Stoddard’s a dead man,” an obviously affected voice said. Then the phone went blank.
“Back in 10 seconds,” Mary said, unaware of what I’d just heard.
“Run some spots,” I replied as I grabbed my cell phone. Mary obliged.
I hit *57 on the studio phone to log the threatening call and then dialed the West Chester police on my cell. I knew most the guys on the force pretty well and they never hesitated to help me out and vice versa. I asked Sergeant Wills to do a dump on the studio phone to find out who was making what I hoped were empty threats, which was still a crime. He obliged and said he’d have an answer for me by 10 AM.
I also asked Wills to assign a couple of men to the Mayor and his family. Wills knew I was retired from the job and wouldn’t have asked for this kind of thing lightly. He assured me that they’d keep the Stoddard family under close observation.
“You’re back in 10, unless you want more spots.”
“No thanks, Mary. We run that many spots in a row, they’ll think it’s Limbaugh or Stern before he went to Sirius.”
The West Chester Police Department was located in Borough Hall, a brand new, state-of-the-art building, just on the edge of town. Completed last year, the 2-story building had just enough traditional accents to fit in with the quaint historic town. The area was booming, thanks in large part to the explosive growth of several large corporations who had moved there when land and taxes were cheap.
“Sorry, Doug,” Sergeant Wills said. “That your wacko used a prepaid cell phone. Someone paid cash at the Best Deals Store. Bought it last week
“They have a security camera?”
“We’re checking that now. We’ll look at all the cash transactions.”
“Can I be there when you look?”
“Thought you retired, Doug. Oh, I guess you have to justify that PI license. Sure, we’ll call you.”
When I retired from the force, I got a private investigator’s license. I used it occasionally…okay, maybe more than occasionally. $500 a day plus expenses went a long way to paying off the loan for WWCT. What? And quit show business?
I stopped by Stoddard’s office, which was in the same building. As mayor, he ran the police force. Not a bad job for a retired career Marine who’d earned 2 PhD’s, one in economics the other in history.
“Hello, Mr. Mayor.”
“When are you going to start playing music on that station? You’ll get in less trouble.”
“We play music.”
“I wasn’t counting the Italian show, Doug.” The Mayor was of Irish ancestry.
Every Saturday evening, the local Sons of Italy had a 2 hour show where they played traditional and contemporary Italian music. A little out of place on a talk station, but they paid for the time and they were good friends of Anthony Carlo, who, along with the Mayor, was one of my closest friends.
The phone rang in the Mayor’s office. “It’s Wills; the store has the video ready.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
“Just let my guys do their jobs. You do piss them off from time-to-time.”
“Keeps them regular.”
It was one of those beautiful October days. 70 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. We walked out of Borough Hall toward the Mayor’s black, Borough-issued sedan. In a town as quiet as West Chester, you notice tires squealing, especially this loud. I looked up and saw a silver Escalade racing into the parking lot.
When it sped up and headed directly toward us, I grabbed the Mayor and pushed him behind a trash can. As I ducked behind it as well, what sounded like at least 2 fully automatic weapons cut the trash can in half. Our cover compromised, I motioned to the Mayor to stay low and get behind a parked police cruiser.
His military training very apparent, he rolled three times across the lot and got into the cruiser. I reached into my calf holster and pulled out my .380 backup automatic. I was more than outgunned, but the remaining half of the trashcan provided some cover for one person.
The SUV was circling the small lot and the weapons, which I now made out as 2 Mac 10 autopistols, started firing again. I couldn’t make out the driver or shooters, because of the heavily tinted windows. Their destructive force was now concentrated on the cruiser where the mayor had taken refuge. The windshield disintegrated, along with the passenger side windows.
The gunmen were too focused on shooting at the Mayor to notice me taking a careful bead on the SUV. Not much stopping force with a .380, I needed quantity. I squeezed off 4 quick rounds into the passenger door. I saw the Mac 10 sticking out the passenger side window fall to the parking lot.
It had only taken seconds for the police in the building to run from the building with some impressive looking automatic rifles. They started firing at the SUV. Quickly covering it with holes and flattening the front tires.
The passenger window was still open, so I took careful aim and fired 4 more rounds into the SUV. After my fourth round, the vehicle careened out-of-control and crashed into a parked pickup truck. Out of ammunition, I quickly changed the second loaded clip I kept in my calf holster.
As I was running over to the nearly destroyed police car, hoping the Mayor was okay, the back door of the SUV opened and a man armed with a large revolver ran out toward the Mayor’s sanctuary. Before I could fire, I heard 4 deafening shots and saw the Mayor, leaning out of the car, holding the pump action shotgun that was standard issue in most police cars.
What was left of this final assailant fell in several different bloody piles. The Mayor’s blasts had literally blown him to pieces. I arrived at the car at the same time as the police. It was obvious that the Mayor had been shot several times. I heard an officer call the nearby Washington Hospital for an ambulance.
“Did I get him?” he said, dropping the shotgun. Before I answered, he collapsed, bleeding more than I’d ever seen anyone bleed, even after 20 years as a cop.
Police Chief Michaels’ office was as Spartan as his demeanor. No photos, no artwork, just a mass of papers piled high on his desk. But he always knew where everything was.
“It doesn’t make sense,” I said. “The tip-off phone call and then the attack.”
“It worked. They almost finished him.” From a different man, this would have been a very cold and calculating remark. From Michaels, it was just the same way he dealt with everything.
The Mayor was in intensive care in the hospital. He had not regained consciousness. His wife and 2 married daughters were at his side. Half the West Chester Police force was stationed throughout the hospital and on its grounds. I had been there for a few hours before going to Chief’s office. I knew I could do him a lot more good helping to find out who did this.
“Chief, I want in. Rich is my friend.”
“Never figured it any other way. You can do things we can’t. Just keep me in the loop and don’t piss off my guys. Maybe your friend Anthony could help. ‘Bout time he did something worthwhile. Never understood why you 2 are so close. Even the Mayor likes him. Not me, I don’t trust that, that…”
“I was going to say gangster.”
“That gangster, as you call him, has saved my life more times than I can count. Saved yours once, too.”
“By killing 3 guys.”
“Actually 2, I killed 1 of them, remember?”
“Yeah, yeah. Clean shootings, no charges. You got to keep your PI license and Anthony didn’t do time. You’re all saints. Now, get the fuck out of my office and call me when you’ve got something.”
“I really miss have a nice day.”
I had a good house, right in town. A big row home two doors down from WWCT. I was in my den trying to put everything together when Anthony came in. He never knocked. My 6’, 200 lbs, was dwarfed by his 6’6”, 350 lb. solid frame. As big as he was, I had never seen him sweat or out of breath, even after an extended run or fight. And, he was the second best handgun shot in Chester County. I, of course, was the first, but never wanted to argue with the guy about it.
“Bad news about His Honor. I just came from the hospital. He ain’t doin’ so well. Still in a coma. Took 5 bullets, 3 clean through.”
“Doesn’t make any sense, Anthony. First, I get that wacky call at the station and he gets hit a couple of hours later. It’s like they wanted us to know they were coming.”
“Does it ever make sense?” he asked.
“Good point. Any word on the street?”
“I keep telling you I don’t have any of those connections you always think I have.”
“You’ve provided a lot of useful information for someone with no connections.”
“I hear things, that’s all,” he said. I always thought if he ever said more, he’d have to kill me.
“Okay, who hates the Mayor?” Anthony asked. “Who hates him enough to kill him?”
“Maybe they weren’t trying to kill him.”
“Okay, who wants to kill you? Oh, wait, your list is a lot longer than the Mayor’s. A lot longer than most people’s. In fact, it may be one of the longest…”
“Okay, I get it! In 20 years, I probably put away a few thousand guys. Some big fish, some little fish.”
“With this kind of firepower and expendable manpower, think big fish, really big fish. That was a suicide mission. Those guys had to know it.”
I didn’t want to think that one of my closest friends was in a coma, near death, because he was hurt in a failed attempt to kill me. In the 5 years of my retirement, I had been confronted by a few people looking for revenge. One I even had to kill, right outside the radio station. That had been great for business. Lost almost every advertiser I had for months.
“They saw me and drove toward the Mayor.”
“Okay, they were after him. Or maybe they wanted to hit him to get to you. You know, kill one of your friends and leave you alive to suffer.”
“Tell me again why we hang out together?”
“You like my restaurant, not to mention my charm and good looks.”
Calling Anthony’s little 8 table bar a restaurant was like calling a kayak a yacht. Still, it boasted the best Italian food in the area, thanks to Anthony’s mother, who, even at age 80, cooked there every day.
Nice happy hour crowd at the bar. Two couples having an early dinner at the tables. Anthony’s mom adopted everyone who went into the restaurant on a regular basis.
“Hi, mom.” I said as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, lit only by a few stained glass lamps.
“Douglas, so much sadness. The Mayor is a good man. Who would want to hurt him? These are scary times. I’m glad I’m on my way out. You young people have to face so much.”
I hugged her, everyone always hugged her. “You keep calling me young, Mom. I’ll keep coming in here every night. Alex around?” Alex was the borough’s unofficial Mayor. If it happened in West Chester, Alex Heinz knew about it…usually more about it than anyone else.
“He’s in the back,” she said, motioning to the kitchen. I walked back. Alex was standing and eating in the kitchen. He always did this so he wouldn’t be interrupted while he was eating.
“Well, well, it’s Dom Imus…or is it Sam Spade. Probably Spade, you’d be more of a PI with all the things going on right now. You can be a radio guy next week, when you crack the case.”
Alex had once hired me to get proof that his wife was cheating. I did, in less than a day! Grateful as he was at the time, he always resented that I did find proof. Even though he fared well in the divorce, the discovery had placed a strain on our friendship. He was always sniping at me. I never came back at him. He really loved her; the divorce almost completely destroyed him.
“Any word on the street?”
“This isn’t Philadelphia, bucko. It’s West Fuckin’ Chester! We got one street in and one street out. And they don’t have much to say.”
“Okay, any word about Stoddard?”
“I told the police I saw that silver SUV in town about an hour before the shooting. I noticed it because you don’t see many silver Escalades, mostly black or white. 4 guys went into Martin’s Drugstore, came out with sodas. I just noticed because of the Escalade. I really want one of those.” And he had the money to buy one for cash.
“What else did you notice?”
“They were alive. I hear that has changed.” Alex was as anti-gun and anti-violence as they come. He and The Mayor had many spirited debates about war and gun control. Neither ever changed the other’s mind. “How can you live with yourself? Figure you’ve killed a dozen or more people since you moved here. Never understood why you didn’t go to jail. But then I remembered the blue wall of silence. Ex cop, I figure you got a license to kill.”
Ordinarily, much as I always cut Alex a lot of slack, I wouldn’t have let that go. But I had just begun my investigation and pounding the snot out of Alex wasn’t going to help Rich. Besides, it was almost 7 and Alex wasn’t feeling any pain at this point, probably hadn’t since about 3. In no mood to argue with Jack Daniels, I walked out the back door, headed back to the station.
We were fully automated at night and played syndicated talk shows. They weren’t the cream of the crop programs, the Philadelphia stations had grabbed up all of them. But, they were free as long as we ran their commercials. Even got a few minutes each hour to sell our own commercials. Now, if I could just find a salesperson who knew how to sell radio. I had tried to sell commercials but wound up giving away more time than I sold to all the charities funded by the local businesses. But good salespeople cost real money, not the kind of revenue generated by a small market radio station.
As one of those “George Washington Slept Here” towns, West Chester was crisscrossed by narrow alleys that had been major thoroughfares in colonial times. My eyes were already adjusted to the dark form Anthony’s dimly lit restaurant at the end of the alley. I saw 4 men walking toward me. They were young. I figured them for University Students. I moved to the right to allow them to pass. After they walked by, I felt a searing pain shoot through my side.
The pain was so great, I started to loose consciousness and fell to my knees. This time, I saw an object moving toward my head. Unable to do anything else, I let myself fall to the cobblestones, avoiding what my clearing vision recognized as an aluminum baseball bat. Still in pain, I reached under my jacket and removed the Smith and Wesson .40 caliber automatic from my belt holster. I figured right that I’d need more firepower after the Town Hall shooting.
I quickly fired a round at the leg of the man with the baseball bat. In perfect order, I heard the weapon discharge, the sound of the hollow point round shattering his shin followed by the staccato clinks of the baseball bat dancing across the pavement, the thud of his body as it slumped to the pavement, punctuated by a scream and string of obscenities.
I saw another man raise another object like he was going to throw it at me. I fired into his body twice. No sound of impact, no scream, just the fall of a dead man followed by the clank of the tire iron he was going to throw.
I was still on the ground when opponent number 3 charged at me, firing a large revolver. Someday I’m going to find out why most thugs are such lousy shots. He missed. Conversely, I heard the bricks on wall behind him shatter as the two rounds I squeezed off passed clean through his chest. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Unfortunately, number 4 held a high-tech looking long-barreled automatic pistol, probably a target .22, extremely accurate and lethal at this range. “Drop your gun or die, asshole,” he said.
As I wasn’t pointing my gun directly at him as he was at me, I complied.
Two shots rang out. The sound was so loud and hurt my ears so badly I let out a small cry of pain. But that was the only pain I felt, until my final assailant fell on top of me. I struggled to free myself from his large frame. He had to be well over 250 lbs.
“What the fuck, if you’re going to dance with him, give him a kiss.” Anthony said the words as he lifted the dead body off me, with one hand and throwing it to the side.
“Show off,” I said, looking at Anthony’s .50 caliber tiger striped Desert Eagle automatic. It was the only gun he even carried. He used to boast a round from it could penetrate any body armor.
“You gotta get that attitude of gratitude, my friend. How many times does that make that I saved your ass?”
”Eight, but who’s counting.”
“This is probably a part of the Stoddard thing.” he asked.
“You have a talent for stating the obvious.”
The police had arrived at the alley,. Anthony and I knew the drill, both placing our weapons carefully on the ground and raising our hands. We’d be answering a lot of questions that night. Wish I had eaten at Anthony’s; it was going to be a long night.
Marsh Creek was one Chester County’s best kept secrets, especially during the week. With its huge reservoir and abundant forest, it was one of the prettiest parks in the state. I was out for a run with my dog Mussette. I’d had her for over ten years, since she was a puppy at the shelter. She was a terrier mix, about 27 lbs., and, for a 10-year-old dog, very active. She loved these runs and hadn’t noticed that I was slowing down maybe even more than she.
Anthony would come on these runs when we had something to talk over, and right now we certainly did. He never broke a sweat or even breathed hard. It was demoralizing. I would be barely able to speak and he was spouting off without a care in the world, not so much as a huff or a puff.
“Okay, the guys who tried to get you last night are local talent. Muscle, not hitters, muscle. Just wanted to ruff you up, until you and raised the stakes. Three of them are dead. The guy you shot in the leg is still in the hospital and already talking lawsuit. Claims they were just asking directions.”
“Just what I need. Chief Michaels said there a lot of local politicians wanting to pull my P.I. ticket, ex-cop or not. Every time I have to shoot someone, they start up their vigilante accusations and try to yank my license. No license, no gun.”
“They ain’t gonna do nothin’. Just beating their chests, trying to look important to the voters. Anyway, ya still got me. I do body guard work, ya know.”
Actually I did know that. Anthony was often hired by the local TV stations when they had a visiting celebrity. I’m sure just his imposing size alone avoided quite a few incidents.
“Look, he continued, “it’s got to be about money. You always say that on your radio show, follow the money. A suicide mission and then they try to beat the crap out of you and kill you. “This is just fuckin’ strange.”
“I agree,” I replied breathlessly. Anthony was still doing fine, but I was near exhaustion and Mussette was breathing hard.
“It has to be about money…huge money. Any big real estate deals the Mayor tried to crush lately?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” I replied. Stoddard was afraid of the over development of West Chester. In borough meetings, he always held firm to existing zoning laws. But, even with his veto power, he was usually overruled by the Borough Council.
“Maybe the who and not the what makes it unordinary.”
“You mean extraordinary,” I corrected, noticing that Anthony was now carrying Mussette. A few years ago, she could have outrun us both. I never wanted to think about her getting older.
“Okay, let’s walk it out,” Anthony said, breaking his stride.
“I’ll check the recent real estate transactions at Borough Hall. And I still want to get a look at Great Buys’ security camera, see if I can recognize the guy who bought the prepaid cell phone. The police say he’s not in any face recognition database.”
“Well, you are the detective, I’m just a humble barkeep.” Anthony put Mussette down and she sniffed her surroundings, but stayed close as we continued to walk. “You going to bring Barbara over for dinner tonight?” he asked. “Mom’s making lasagna.”
“Unless they arrest me first.”
“What a beautiful woman like that sees in you is beyond me.”
“Hey, I’m a radio star!”
It was a great little radio station. 10,000 watts during the day and 500 at night. Still, due to nighttime propagation we still covered most of the county. Ralph Johnson was doing his afternoon talk show. He was a bit conservative for my taste, but the advertisers liked him and he worked in exchange for a few spots for his antique business. Like me, he had a perfect face for radio. But he always wore a really nice suit. Most everyone else at the station wore t-shirts and jeans, but Ralph was too proper for that. His grammar and pronunciation was always perfect. The listeners loved talking to him.
“So your owner is at it again,” I heard the caller say. “He’s gonna kill us all.”
“Just the Liberals and Conservatives, he’ll spare the Moderates. Something about killing his own kind” I saw him press the disconnect button. “I’ll be right back after the news. I’m Ralph Johnson on WWCT.” He ran a tight board. Immediately after he said the letter ‘T,’ the theme for the network news sounded. Ralph always ran a tight show. Figured his life was like that, too. Always felt a little sorry for his wife.
“Nobody will ever accuse you of kissing the boss’s ass.” I said. “Geeze, Ralph, how about a little support?”
“You want us to tell the truth, right? That’s how I felt. Are you going to be one of those unreasonable station owners?”
He had me there. The other station in town was run by a tyrant who was always firing someone. His station was smaller than mine, but much more profitable. The owner, Sam Beatty, paid very little and was an extremely good ad salesman.
“Just keep up the good work. But if someone else calls in and wants to accuse me of being a serial killer, tell them I have a great dog.”
Ralph had stopped listening. He was busy scanning the Internet for more show fodder. It always amazed me that he did a passable show by researching it on the fly.
Our newsperson, Mary Dobbins, was finishing up for the day. She got the station before me, usually by 3 AM. And she stayed until she did the 7 PM newscast. I made my usual mental note to see if I could afford to pay her more, considering she did the work of 2…maybe 2 ½ people. She was more dedicated than any other newsperson I had ever hired. She had been head librarian at the University, retiring after 25 years. She had always wanted to work in radio and now, her pension allowed her to work for what I could afford to pay her.
“Mary, did you have time to research those real estate transactions?”
“Right on your desk. Didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, no patterns, no apparent patronage.” Did I mention that she had also always wanted to be a cop?
I went into my office and started going through the impressive pile of papers Mary had left for me. I hated paperwork more than anyone I know, but in 20 years on the job I solved more cases looking through papers than I ever did pounding the pavement.
After a few hours, I confirmed what Mary had said. Nothing out of the ordinary. I didn’t recognize one name that appeared repeatedly on the requests for zoning variances; Mark Jenson. I made a note to check the name, picked up the phone and called the hospital.
“Yes, checking on Rich Stoddard?” I asked. I got to hear almost a complete instrumental version on Stairway to Heaven while I waited for the answer. “Conscious? Thank you.” I was off to the hospital.
Washington Hospital had been there forever. It had grown to serve a growing population and was now one of the largest suburban hospitals in the area. All the policemen nodded in recognition to me as I made my way to the Mayor’s room. His wife and daughters were there and he was alert and speaking with them. They left as soon as I walked in. I couldn’t blame them.
“Hello, Mr. Mayor.” He was awake, but was still very pale. Still, for a man in his 60’s who had been shot 5 times, he looked great.
“Doug, they told me you were alright. What the hell happened? What do you know so far?”
“Not much, but I have a few leads to follow up.”
Copyright 2016 Steve Bryant – No portion of this may appear in any print or broadcast medium.