Marly Jackson is the toughest P.I. around. Tasked by her ex-lover Finn with finding a rare violin, the case explodes.  From back-alley deals in the slums to the halls of academia, it seems everyone wants a piece of the violin, and everyone is willing to kill to get it.


Doomed from the beginning Marly walks alone. A rich boy, a fence, a pimp, an arms dealer, a host of grifters, and a crazed West Coast P.I. are all involved in the theft which threatens to bring war between the strongest crime family in town and another with a price on her 
head. When a sniper begins cleaning up loose ends, it’s a race against time.
As the mystery stretches back further and further into the past Marly must find not only the violin, but its secrets. But when dead bodies begin piling up and the players go to ground it’s down to the wire. When revenge, passion, greed, and cold-blooded betrayal dance deadly around her, can Marly stay alive long enough to get to the truth and discover what is real and what is smoke and mirrors in The Violin Case?

Preview

CHAPTER ONE

Detective Story

 

A wailing siren from a passing fire truck cut through the sweltering night, distracting from the heat for a mere moment. My air conditioner was on the fritz and May in the great urban swamp of Chicago was hitting hard and heavy.

The woman at my desk wasn’t sweating nearly as much as I was; she was as calm and cool as cold hard cash could make a woman. I was trying to be nice, though the case she wanted me to investigate had trouble written all over it. She wore the promise of money like perfume and it was seductive. Air conditioners didn’t come cheap.

“There,” she said and passed me the form I’d handed over. It was all the facts of her son Jim’s life, school schedule, dorm address, known friends, car, and rich-kid stipend info.

Normally a P.I. like me worked on finding runaway teenagers, getting court evidence against cheating spouses, or proving workers comp fraud. Day to day business was slow and boring, but once in a while a case of note turned up. This one was off the beaten path, and promised money and trouble.

“You didn’t put the most important thing down, Mrs. Jeffries; why do you think your son is being blackmailed?”

Her hazel eyes, a shade darker than my own, closed as she sighed. She wore casual clothes, all in black, so quality was hard to tell but I knew the Jeffries family name and there were millions of dollars attached to it.

“Jim is gay.”

That told me all I needed to know. Oscar Jeffries, her father-in-law, had built up a food service supplying first the hotels of Chicago and then the world. Coming from nothing he’d turned his company into an international force, and he was known far and wide as a conservative prick. Saying he was homophobic was like saying Hitler had some pet peeves.

“So you think Jim’s recent changes in behavior, closing up and making increased demands for cash, means someone knows how gramps feels and knows enough to know it could complicate things?”

“Everyone knows my father-in-law is an ass, and my husband an idiot. I love him, but there’s a reason Oscar passed him over. Jeffries, Inc. is still family owned, and Jim is Oscar’s heir, my husband and I have a trust fund and that’s all we’ll ever have. But if Oscar finds out Jim is gay, he’ll take the company public and leave everything to charity and corporate officers.”

“So what are we talking?”

“In the neighborhood of a hundred million in liquid assets, almost five times that in holdings.”

I whistled and leaned back on my chair, brushing sweat from my brow. It was so damn hot I’d given up on my glasses and switched to contacts and it still surprised me to be frameless.

“Miss Jackson, I need to be assured of total discretion here. No one can ever know.”

“Not even Jim?” I guessed.

She shook her head. “Especially not him. He wouldn’t say anything to us. I want him to think this has just…gone away.”

I could only sigh. Rich kids always coasted. “Maybe he should learn his lesson. Be more discreet, or more mature. A smarter person in his shoes would have hired someone like me to find the blackmailer and handed him over. One of the more crooked P.I.s would have disposed of him.

“Speaking of which, I am not a killer for hire. I can find the bastard, get dirt on him, run him out of town, but I won’t kill him.”

“I just want him found. I want to know who he is, where my son meets him, and I want to know how the blackmailer found out. Christ, I don’t even know his boyfriend’s name, or if he has one.”

“I assume you want the names of lovers as well.”

She nodded and I bit back a curse at the sudden increase in workload on the case. If I stood to inherit half a billion from a bigot and was gay, I would anonymously cruise the adult arcades, but wisely shut my yap. I didn’t mind hitting the adult bookstores if I had to, but I knew now I’d probably never get a name on any “lover” other than “guy at glory hole number nine.”

Still, my usual fee was a grand, but with money and discretion on the line I could ante up. “Ten grand plus expenses. I need a grand up front. I assume we’ll be dealing with cash?”

“Of course.” She opened her purse and drew out two thousand in hundreds, counting it out slowly. “I’ll pay a cherry on top for no contract. I want no records kept.”

Suspicious as hell I nevertheless let my greed get the better of me. “Agreed. How can I reach you?”

“It’s better if I check in with you.”

“Fine.” I rose and she did.

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t do anything that Jim would find out. I’m sure if you follow Jim you’ll find what you need.”

“Mrs. Jeffries, why hire me?”

“I’d rather not say who gave me your name. Friend of a friend of a friend.”

I merely raised an eyebrow. The woman was plain: average height, average looks, slim build, a little older than I’d expect so probably not a trophy wife, but still she had all those millions behind her. My teeth were on edge but people got weird over family secrets.

Best to just get the case over with as quickly as possible. I hated these weird ones, the last strange case that crossed my desk in November left five people dead, enabled a mob takeover, and somewhere out there was a small boy who’d never know his mom.

I pushed those thoughts out of my head and held out my hand. Curiously I noticed she had calluses when we shook. Not typical of rich women, nor was her plain speaking. It was frankly refreshing.

“I’ll stop by again in…are you open weekends?”

“I never close, less I’m in the field.”

“Two days, Saturday then. I hope by then you have what I’m looking for. Friday night he’s never home, that would be the best time to find out who he’s meeting.”

My cell phone buzzed so I politely railroaded her to the door and into the hall. A crying child and tired looking mother left the dentist’s office next door and she hung back for a moment.

“You think two days is enough?”

“I hope. I’ll pick him up after his evening class tonight and stick to him Friday all day.”

“He does sleep in. Thank you, Miss Jackson.”

“See you Saturday, any time after noon,” I strongly clarified.

I watched her go and checked my watch. There was enough time to go air conditioner shopping, join my uncle Buzz for a drink, then swing back as Lupita was closing up the third tenant of the second floor of the office building, the ESL school, and the real drinking could start. Or would if I didn’t have a case.

Damn it, I couldn’t stick to my usual schedule, so scratch Lupita. I’d see Buzz, get my AC installed, and limit myself to two beers before tailing the gay rich kid.

I closed the door and checked my phone. I’d missed Marcus. He was a mercenary, the real deal, and sometimes we worked together as backup for one another, but mostly we traded information. He was German born, his accent slight now unless he was out of sorts, he never drove the same car twice, and he was expensive for a backup man, but worth every penny.

I hadn’t had to call him on any case since the big one six months ago, filed in my records as the Case of the Missing Millionaire. It had been a doozy, to say the least.

I called him back and he picked up on the third ring. “Ja?”

“It’s Marly, you just called.”

“Yes. Any big cases lately?”

I went to find my gun belt and debated a windbreaker. I had a conceal-and-carry permit, but it was over ninety outside, bizarre for early May, but no use fighting it. “Just finished two standard cheating spouses, one runaway who was holed up in a drug house on the west side, now trying to track down someone blackmailing a rich gay kid with a bigot grandfather. Why?”

He was silent for a moment. “Marly, there are some heavy hitters in town. General miscreants, but word has it that La Cosa Nostra might have a big job out there.”

I almost dropped the phone, debated pissing my pants for a moment.

Last November Stephanie Montgomery, surprise baby of the Irish mobster Godfrey Montgomery, had come of age and pulled her first job for daddy. She used me and a host of others including her own sister and a psychopathic killer to get the head the Outfit, the Italian mob, thrown in jail so Montgomery could claim large chunks of his territory.

So far the Outfit was scattered to the wind, but when they pulled back together the blame for Alfred Sorvino in prison would fall to me and Michael Finnegan, a fence turned pornographer. He’d sold some of his actors to Sorvino’s daughter for a blackmail and sex-for-hire scheme, and we’d both gotten embroiled in the younger Montgomery’s plot as a result.

The “big job” could be a hit on Montgomery, his daughters, a senator’s daughter, some male whores, Finn, or me. Everyone involved. Hell, probably Kevin Meyers as well, a debatably innocent male whore who had taken some of the legal fallout and was rotting up the river now.

“Marly, you need someone to watch your back?”

“If you could get more info I’d appreciate it. If that crew is gunning for me, I’ll need to disappear. Then maybe I’ll need help.”

He was silent for a moment. “What is it?”

“There are some Javier crew in town.”

“This is a stopping point to their Canadian territory.”

“Not the usual faces. Some fresh imports.”

“I’ll be fine,” I insisted. Once I had spent some scary time with the head of the Javier cartel, Alejandro. Fast talking had kept me from a Columbian necktie, but if they ever proved I had once helped rob one of their carriers, I was toast. Years had passed with them on the west coast and me in Chicago safe. I knew it couldn’t always stay the same, and I’d always thought I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. The Outfit had left a vacuum and new players were filling the void. I was on that bridge but had yet to see if it was on fire.

“Stay safe. I’ll call as soon as I have anything.” He hung up, typically brusque.

My sweat turned cold and I dropped the gun belt and found a cigarette. Montgomery had paid me seventy thousand for the misadventure, twenty-five which went to Marcus as his fee, the rest into repairing my destroyed office, paying off debts, and admittedly the last had trickled into cigarettes and booze.

Every damn time I closed my eyes, I saw the picture of a toddler sitting on a desk above his mother’s cold lifeless body, blood pooling on an office floor. Everyone else in the case could rot but some innocent secretary in the wrong place at the wrong time had taken a bullet to the head.

It had been the first case I’d ever taken with murder on the menu, and I wanted it behind me, I wanted the memory of that woman and her boy to stop haunting me. Montgomery claimed I owed him a marker and someday I’d have to pay my dues to the Outfit, and until that day I just drank the nightmares away.

I thought of Susan Jeffries and the two grand in my pocket. I didn’t smell death here, but the stink of something more complex than she was letting on. But my pride came as cheap as my will to survive and with two grand in my pocket I would just ride this blackmail case out.

Yeah, I could brave mafia assassins for some cool air. This town was always dripping with trigger happy idiots. On days like this it was just a question of whether it would be the bullets or the heat that would kill me.

 

***

 

James “Jim” Jeffries was like every other North Shore kid. Gramps lived in a giant house along Lake Michigan in Kenilworth, mom and dad had slightly smaller house in Winnetka just next door. Jim had a premium dorm at the University of Chicago, and from my research I knew it was gramps’ name on a building that got him in, not grades.

He drove a Mazda Miata, probably an attempt to not appear as rich as he was, and he drove like a maniac. My ancient Cutlass could barely keep up with him as he left his evening pre-law class.

I expected to tail him to some apartment, motel, or one of the gay clubs on the north side, but he drove past them into Wicker Park, past the major intersection with all the bars and clubs into the residential area.

I had to hang back and nearly lost him, but as he circled for parking I knew he was going into Danny’s. The bar wasn’t in any way hostile to homosexuals, but it was blue collar, a working man’s bar, where the old residents went to avoid the clubs growing more popular with the suburban refugees. I hadn’t been there but once it had been an ex-boyfriend’s old haunt and from what I knew I didn’t think Jim Jeffries would fit in.

I found parking where it wasn’t legal, knowing I still had enough connections from my days as a cop to beat any ticket. Danny’s was small but I wasn’t worried about being spotted. Jim didn’t know me from Adam, and until he figured out I was following him getting close was safe.

The bar was on a corner and as I approached I saw Jim, a fairly good looking boy of average height, slim and full of smarmy promise, standing next to a stout, gruff looking man thirty years his senior, with dark hair and a small scar beneath his eye. The brunette smoked his cigarette down to the filter and tossed it, and then they headed inside.

I hung back so as not to be too obvious, lighting my own cigarette. One hazard of my profession was being a solid judge of character, and instinct told me the brunette was no lover. Not a blackmailer either, that brand of scum liked to keep their distance and work remotely. But why was a rich kid at a dive bar with what appeared to be a Teamster?

The door swung open and out stepped a mountain.

Once upon a time, Max Trenton had been a heavyweight prize fighter, an up and comer destined to take the title from Tyson. He’d been a brawler for the Crips, a small arms dealer, pulled into a better life by a pimp named Alabaster we both had history with. But Trenton had killed too many men in the ring and nearly killed too many women in bed.

Gone was the big house, the contracts, the flashy life, and he was back to dealing in small arms and beating up Alabaster’s whores. If you wanted a gun, didn’t have a gang connection, and didn’t want to buy legal, crazy Max Trenton was your only avenue, and the vacant-eyed brawler was the road less traveled.

“Jackson,” he said, giving me his unnerving stare. Some fight had blinded him in one eye and he refused to wear sunglasses or an eye patch, so one milky white orb stared blankly out, matched by a disturbingly pretty green eye, courtesy a white mother who’d lost the war in skin pigmentation.

“Hey, Trenton. I’m not here to hassle you. I’m here for somebody else.”

“Bullshit. This here my turf. I don’t want no cops sniffin’ around.”

Shit. Way Alabaster told it Max didn’t have that many IQ points before he lost the remaining ones in the ring. I put my hands up in a surrender motion. “I’m no cop. Fact, I hate them too. You know how the force fucked up my life.”

“You were. Once. You here for me? Who you been talkin’ to? Alabaster?” He came down the steps and I backed away in equal measure.

There were ghosts in that head flinging their fists at his face. People now napping in the dirt forgot that and got close enough that when Trenton swung back, a new ghost joined the collective howling.

“I haven’t seen Alabaster in months. I didn’t even know you were working out of Danny’s.”

That green eye sharpened for a moment. “That fence always on about you, Finn?”

I laughed. Figured people in our world thought Finn and I were an item, but I was indifferent at best, and waiting to blow his brains out at worst. “Hell no. Look, I’m just tailing a cheating spouse.”

He sniffed the air, that eye searching the darkening sky. “Somethin’ in the wind, dick. Big Bad coming down the pipe. Dicks should stay in their pants.”

“Amen to that,” I grumbled. Shit, he knew something about the business Marcus was on about, and if I pressed I was stupid, but if I didn’t I might be dead. “I got a line on something big. Just a warning. Wise guys getting involved. I want no piece of it. I just want to know if anybody’s gunning for me.”

He stared at me for so long I began to feel like he was calculating which punch would kill me the fastest.

“Ain’t no hits on you, dick,” he said at last. “Nobody cares about you. Nobody will, as long as you stay off my turf. You hear me? Right here and now I’m the Big Bad.” He took a step towards me with a glare that ricocheted off the brick wall.

I backed up further. “Yes, sir.” It was only half an answer but all I could expect to get.

In all likelihood Jim was there to buy a gun. Most people being blackmailed looked for forms of protection, but last thing I wanted to know was the shitheel kid had a gun from the lowest and worst dealer in town.

If Jim wanted to pack heat the blackmail had turned dangerous. I backed up until Trenton finally turned around and went back in, but I had to stay close. If he was buying a gun something bad could go down, and I couldn’t afford to lose Jim, not with eight grand coming my way.

I retreated around the block away from my car in case Trenton shadowed me, but he didn’t. Probably had a bag of Uzis in the bar, some stupid buyer coming up, and was afraid I’d blab. Being a P.I. meant walking in the shadow of cops, dipping into the underworld. I knew enough about Trenton to know he’d get his ticket punched someday, and frankly it couldn’t be soon enough.

Back in my car I moved it so I had a line of sight on Jim’s and pulled out my cellphone, flipping it open. Alabaster was a preset number. The pimp had once been a classmate in high school, never a friend but an associate, hell; we’d even worked a summer job together as kids. I went on to graduate, and he went from selling the heroin that gave him his nickname to hustling broads.

He was smart and dealt in information as much as women. Alabaster had a protégé named Jonesie who was the facilitator who knew everyone and everything. Jonesie had the line on the gangs and Eddie Harwood, a north side club owner, knew what was going down with the mob. If I wanted answers Eddie was the better choice but with Trenton’s cryptic warning I was betting Jonesie knew the score, but to get to Jonesie you had to go through Alabaster.

He was far from the worst pimp, not close to the best, and he owed me. I got his voicemail and told him to call me. If he knew what this phantom job was, I’d consider it even.

I sang through two Zeppelin songs before Jim emerged, alone. There was no tell-tale gun  bump under his black short-sleeve t-shirt, but his baggy shorts could probably hide an assault rifle. Kids, today, I grumbled and turned over my engine.

This time he drove maniacally towards Boystown, the gay district. I cursed, merely because parking there was only for the criminally determined and the congenitally insane.

I really hoped he wasn’t going to one of the clubs like Berlin. I’d traded my ugly glasses for the contacts my uncle nagged me into wearing, but I still favored hiking boots. Granted, with my old, worn green tank and khaki shorts I looked like a rumpled Lara Croft, or so I assured myself. I’d seen the movie when it came out last June and enjoyed it. Still, rumpled was the operative word. I’d fit in at a NRA meeting, but not in the gay clubs with all the flash.

To my relief he turned onto School Street and went a few blocks east. He slowed at one three story walk-up but had to circle for parking. I slid in front of a hydrant and waited.

Fifteen minutes later he jogged back to the front door, fished keys from his giant shorts, and let himself in. Hopping out, I made my way up onto the sidewalk to get a better view of the windows. It wasn’t terribly late, just half past ten, but the first floor was dark, the second floor lit up, and the top floor just had one light on. I waited a house down, craning my neck over the fence. Another light popped on the third floor. Bingo.

The yard was gated but the front walk was not. I jogged up to the buzzer and saw the first two floors had names, both couples, but the top floor buzzer was blank. New tenant.

I pulled out my steno pad from one of my pockets and wrote down the address and the management information from the tiny plaque on the fence.

Surprise, surprise, rich boy wasn’t smart. Cruising would be better, but this made it appear he had a boyfriend, and a steady boy toy was like an engraved invitation to an enterprising blackmailer. The lights went out and he was probably in for the night.

Snapping my pad shut I walked back to my car, lit another cigarette and waited but nothing changed. I’d soon have the lover’s name for Mrs. Jeffries; all that was left was the blackmailer.

And if this were a movie, they’d be one in the same. Knowing my luck they weren’t, and the blackmailer was Max Trenton. And no amount of money behind me could run him out of town.

Hell, maybe I should let Jim get that gun and kill Trenton. That would solve a lot of problems for a lot of people. Disturbingly, I thought I could sleep like a baby if that happened.

 

CHAPTER TWO

The Tijuana Story

 

The University of Chicago was an endowment school, had a solid reputation, and also had an unusually large Jewish population. That meant a lot of rich kids, not too many poor kids on scholarships got through, though it sat on the south side, a traditionally rougher part of town. It was an interesting school, strange enough the thirty-something woman in the white Cutlass didn’t stand out too much.

Mrs. Jeffries had wanted this done quietly, but I wouldn’t get too far too fast without breaking a few eggs. Jim was still in the apartment, and the management company had actually answered the phone late to tell me the apartment was leased to a company, Bollinger Industries. No such company existed anywhere I could find. It seemed the rich kid had some smarts, and now I had to work around his brains.

I parked on the street, feed some quarters to the meter and polished off my cigarette. In my experience if you wanted to understand a kid, do not ever talk to the parents, parents don’t know shit. Friends do. Every runaway teen I ever found I found through the friends.

Whatever was going on with the heavy hitters in town, I thought I’d be all right at the college. My best guess was someone from the old country was there to take over the Outfit which had been in flux since Sorvino got popped and there was no heir apparent who could hold on, just a series of incompetent lieutenants more interested in in-fighting than leading. If that was the case, a smart don would leave me alone, and look to Stephanie Montgomery to take the fall, debut with a splash. I had, after all, created the vacancy he’d now fill, and the territory they’d lost had been mostly taken by Godfrey Montgomery.

I was strolling down the row of dorms when I saw someone that shocked me. Ryan Madigan had one season with Washington until a back injury ended his NFL career. He’d tried to work for Finn’s porn company Gold ‘N’ Rod, but seeing as Finn still fenced he couldn’t use big names or attract attention. So Ryan got loaned out to Sorvino’s daughter as a whore she used to blackmail her friends. He wasn’t terribly smart, but he was innocent, and god I hoped he was there to see a new girlfriend, someone in the PhD program who’d take care of the muscular blond all his days.

“Marly?”

“Hey, Ryan. What are you doing here?”

“Working, you?”

“Working.”

“I’m waiting on my ride. Can I bum a smoke?”

I pulled out my pack and pushed one up for him, then passed the lighter. “Rough night?”

He set his gym bag down and lit the cigarette before passing the lighter back. “I’ve been stripping. Just did a twenty-first birthday party. Jesus, girls are brutal.”

“The female of the species is always more deadly than the male.”

He shrugged as that went over his head. “I thought it would be easy.”

“Didn’t Finn hire you on?” Last I’d heard Finn had made an offer, was cutting back on fencing.

“Later, he says, always later. He did get me this job. I get five hundred per party, give my manager two, and I keep tips.”

“Who’s your manager?”

“This guy Carlos.”

“Finn’s assistant?” I remembered the slim young man. Smart, a smartass, starry-eyed, and a glorified secretary was my impression. A lost puppy dog being happily corrupted by his master Finn.

Ryan just nodded.

I felt guilty over all that had happened to Ryan. I knew I shouldn’t but that didn’t help. “Look, surveillance is a shitty job. So shitty I usually hire out for it. Just means following somebody watching until something important happens, then calling me. Pays all right, twenty bucks an hour, if you’re interested.”

He made a noncommittal shrug. Hell, I knew I couldn’t compete with stripping wages; he’d just cleared over three hundred in probably half an hour.

Still I gave him my card and we talked about the weather like any two people with no mutual scars normally would.

I saw him into a new model Ford driven by muscle and then pulled out my notepad. Too many reminders of the past and new worries cropping up. A case from a rich dame, wise guys flooding the market, Alabaster’s pet off his leash, and now the most untouched survivor of the case that haunted my dreams showed up in front of the same dorm Jim lived at. A superstitious woman would be searching for four leaf clovers but I’d just keep my eyes open.

Maybe I’d handle the blackmailer myself, demand a bonus, and go to Bora Bora. Waste away on the lagoon surrounded by honeymooners, free of shadows in the tropical sun. I’d bake and drink and never have to deal with any of this shit again. Someday, I promised myself.

The dorm was a nice newer building, the security lax, and I made my way through typical college kid antics until I found the right room. I knocked on the door cracked open but nobody came, so I let myself in.

There was a living room and kitchenette; two doors visible I assumed were bedrooms. There were two couches and more gizmos on the TV than I thought the power grid could handle. Damn, my dorm had been ten by nine and shared with a girl with a nice smile and a hoarder mentality.

“Hello?”

Something snorted, sounding like a pig and then a hand appeared on back of one of the couches. Slowly up came a geek, a very drunk one.

“Hiii?”

“Which one are you?”

“Huh?”

“Are you Robert, Samuel, or Avi?”

“Ahhhhviiiii,” he said with a giggle. Shit, drunk and high, great combo.

“Don’t suppose you’re close enough to your right mind to talk about Jim.”

“Jim! Heee’s, uhhh, da man!” With that he flopped back to the rug.

“You’re looking for Jim?” a new voice said behind me.

I turned to find another collegiate wonder. This one looked sober and unremarkable. “Not exactly. Who are you?”

“I’m Brian, I live down the hall. Someone said there was a MILF who looked like Lara Croft on the floor.” He looked me up and down. “Niiice.”

“I carry more guns,” I said flatly, offended at being called a MILF. Damn it, I’d just gotten out of college a little over ten years ago and to me children were pets crazy people kept.

His smile slipped a little, but not much. “Who are you?”

“I’m a friend of the family. We think Jim is in some trouble.”

Brian laughed and slouched further in the doorway. “He’s always in trouble.”

“How so? He keeps us in the dark.”

In possession of salacious gossip the young man’s eyes lit up. “He’s a magnet for trouble. First it was extreme sports. The drag racing until he totaled his car over on Racine when they closed the gates one night. He dated skanky girls, the kind mommy and daddy don’t approve of. Now he’s dating some skanky guy.”

“He’s gay?”

Brian shrugged. “Maybe he is, maybe not. Right now he’s got a boyfriend. Met him once, nice guy for a Latino pretty boy, but he works in the black market which rings Jim’s bell. Jim’s been talking about transferring to UIC where the boyfriend goes, like y’all would let him do that, and he’s been skipping classes. Barely sleeps here anymore. Says he found some hot action, and by that he means something illegal and dumb.”

“You see anybody following Jim? Anybody else asking these questions?”

“No, why?”

“He seem unusually stressed? Mention money problems?”

“Quite the opposite. He’s always been mum on the trust fund, but lately he’s been flashing cash. Says he’s met some guys into ‘moving things,’ and that’s a direct quote.”

“Who’s the boyfriend?”

“He’s a fence, or works for a fence, I can’t remember. Jim didn’t get too detailed, he barely pauses for breath when he’s on about some caper.”

My blood chilled. I’d just been thinking of Carlos, and if memory served he was gay, and matriculating at UIC. Shit, Madigan getting work in the dorm was a sign after all. Time to go find some clovers.

If there was blackmail afoot, I had a good idea who was behind it. And the last time a case had taken me into Finn’s world a lot of shit came down and nobody but Finn had an umbrella.

“Thanks kid, you’ve been a real help.”

“You a cop?” Brian asked suspiciously as I tried to brush past.

I gave him a smile. “Not today.”

They said once a police, always a police, but sometime last November I’d crossed a line. I always thought the trip back was just as easy, so why did I have the feeling I was going further down the rabbit hole?

 

***

 

My usual alarm cut through the thick of my hangover until I crawled from my pull-out and answered the phone.

“Marly Jackson, go,” I groaned out and fished around the side table I used as a night stand for my cigarettes.

“Marly, it’s Marcus. Sorry if I woke you, it is almost noon.”

“You call me before noon? Brave man, Marcus, you know I carry guns.”

“But you do not know where I live. Look, I am working another job right now, I will be hard to reach, but I have some more information.”

“Let me guess, it involves arms.”

“What?”

I related Max Trenton’s paranoia about my presence on his turf and finally found my Camels, lighting one up.

“Hmm. Look, I do not think you have to worry. I am getting mixed signals. I heard from an old friend someone was trying to hire a thief. Two other friends swear it was moving something, another says a drug shipment.”

“Maybe it’s stealing a drug shipment.”

He was quiet for a moment. “I do not think so. The Javiers have this town but the Russians are gaining edge. The Ciceros will not touch drugs. The Outfit is unusually quiet, last I heard Lefty Louis had to take the night train. So with no head they are barely holding onto their central territory and they are no threat to anyone but themselves. I think you are safe.”

I blew out a plume and opened my eyes to the bright cheery sun streaming through the blinds. “For now.” I’d put away the big man, and someday the piper would knock at my door.

“Well, always smart to watch your six anyway. If you need anything tonight, call my partner Josef. Still have his number?”

“Yeah, I just dial mercenaries-are-us direct.”

He chuckled and hung up with his usual abruptness.

I got through my cigarette, hit the head, put on the coffee, showered, dressed, and folded the couch back up by one. My mini fridge in the back room had a pack of breakfast sandwiches so I nuked one and had it with my coffee as I did the skip tracing on Jim.

Looking close indeed I didn’t see a pattern of blackmail. Didn’t mean it wasn’t happening. If he was smart and being blackmailed he would raise the money and not hit the trust fund, and in the short run crime did pay, if you were lucky as well as smart. Going to work for a fence was a way to raise cash that would never be reported, but dumb all the same for Jim.

This was shaping up to be a simple case after all in one manner: I just had to find out what Jim was doing, corner him, and find out if he was being blackmailed, take care of it, jerk him out of the fencing game, collect my cash.

That meant taking him away from the top fence in the city. Finn. As much as I wanted to avoid him I was all too happy to think I was going to snatch an asset from him.

On the shelves behind my desk there was a photo of me and Mayor Daley, from when I won a medal for catching the 94 Killer, a disgruntled sniper. Finn was the third body in the photo, covered by a post card from St. Louis. My college roommate had sent it to announce the birth of her third kid last year.

It was four by the time I did all the computer work I could. I had just one more report to look through…holy shit. Just for shits and giggles I used a program Marcus had given me that got me access to flight info for Midway and O’Hare, as well as passenger lists for Amtrak. Just click and hack. Highly illegal, but it was worth it when I got a hit, which I did.

James Jeffries Jr., Sr., and mommy dearest had left that morning for a three day weekend in Mexico. Heart pounding as that niggling feeling something was off was confirmed, I went ahead and searched for Susan Jeffries. When I found pictures I cursed.

The woman in my office was a fake. She had just walked in, paid me to follow some college kid who just happened to be boffing Finn’s right hand man…I saw red. I was either being set up for something or Finn was behind this in yet another hare-brained scheme to help our pelvises get along.

I strapped my gun on and left, needing a break. The best person in the world to talk things over with was a partner, but I preferred to fly solo. My last partner of any kind, Arthur Bowers, had double crossed me and disappeared with quite a haul of cash and drugs, leaving me to face the scandal. It had ended my career as a cop and put me in the private sector. Before that my only other partner had been Finn. He’d been a partner, friend, and lover…right up until I met his wife.

So my Uncle Buzz was the closest I got. He was a retired cop, leaving at the rank of captain. He spent most of his days either fishing with friends or at the Jackrabbit Inn on the northwest side. He was dating the weeknight waitress there and she had a half shift Friday nights starting at three, so I headed over.

Buzz was tall like the men in my family, and he looked like a cop no matter what he wore. Sun-worn and robust, his hair was still thick but white, cut into the buzz cut he’d sported since ’53 from whence his name came. He sat perched on the last stool, talking baseball with Steve the bartender.

I shook hands with Nick, the Asian Elvis impersonator and fellow regular, and nodded to two uniforms, one whom I actually remembered from my days on the force.

Joanne was in back grabbing some snacks from Dave the cook and I nodded to her through the door port windows as I slid next to my uncle and godfather.

“Hey Buzz, Steve.”

“Hey kiddo.” Buzz pulled me close and kissed my temple.

“Usual?” Steve asked.

“Just the beer for now. I have to do some thinking.”

He nodded and stepped down to get me a Smithwicks and another Miller Lite for Buzz.

My uncle raised one thick white eyebrow. “Working on something new? It’s been nice and quiet and simple last six months.”

“Yesterday this woman came in to hire me. Told me her son was being blackmailed for being gay. So I follow him. Turns out he’s sleeping with Carlos Muniz, Finn’s right hand man. Got two problems now, first off, found out an hour ago the woman isn’t who she claims. She just walked into my office and paid me a cash deposit. Said she’d come back tomorrow.”

“So? Either she shows up tomorrow and you get answers or she takes the weekend off and you keep the deposit.”

“I keep wondering if Finn is behind this. I’m sick of his harebrained schemes.”

“Can you blame him? If he walked up to you asked you out, what would you say?”

“Nothing. My fists are enough of an expression.”

He snorted and insisted on paying for my beer when our drinks were set down. “Got it, kiddo. Don’t worry about Finn. He still has buddies on the force. Word is he’s retired from fencing. Full time in the movies now.”

“Hardly. Finn always has a plan, eyes on the seven chess pieces you can’t see on the board. He won’t get out until some big score so he can firebomb all his bridges.

“Speaking of which, my second problem: something is up. Got Max Trenton all riled up. Ran into him tailing Jim. My guy tells me rumors are flying around goons like old people at bingo when a friend is late. Some big job out there, some say drugs, some say hijacking, my friend thinks it might have something to do with the Outfit.”

Buzz frowned darkly at that. “You need to lay low, keep away from that. Not sure the hubbub is all about but seems there are a few heavies in town, Sorvino’s successor is coming soon. Now, he may send you a Christmas card or try to bury you on a horse farm. Best you stay out of it. When we know for sure what’s going down, you come to me when you need help, got that?”

“Yes, sir.” I took a pull of beer and felt only a little guilt at lying.

We spoke no more on it because, hell, he was right, Buzz was always right. He got my grandmother’s genes and was an honest, hardworking, and loyal man. My dad took more after gramps and so did I. I was a constant fuck-up with amazing luck, like a rabid alley cat.

Days like this I felt it more and more, being pulled to some darkness looming over me but yet unrealized. I stumbled along the edge and always made it through, but God knew I had no idea how.

My next stop took me right past the spot where the misadventure that had gotten me thrown off the force began. In the parking lot of the Admiral Theater, my partner Arthur had been accused of killing a man. The witness was an off-duty cop known for being honest. So had Arthur, right until I helped him rip off a Javier mule to get money for his defense, and then the cache, Arthur, and his wife had disappeared, leaving me to hold the bag.

Tucked behind it was an old ice warehouse converted in the fifties to a social club. Now it was a bar, somehow low level mobster Eddie Harwood had scraped up the dough to buy it. He was half Italian, property of the Outfit, yet this was Cicero territory, the Irish mob. No one knew how he did it but he was charming and smart, and playing all sides made him the man to go to when you needed the low-down on the heavies.

Denny was on the door, a roughneck who resembled a young Mickey Rourke and talked like Lenny Bruce.

“Marly. Boss man’s in, he ain’t gonna like your shoes.”

I wore my Doc Martens, steel-toed, good for ass kicking and running, common themes in my life whenever cases took a turn like Jim Jeffries’ had. Harwood had a shoe fetish, a real hard-on for high heels. “Can I help it if I think fuck-me pumps are for wusses?”

“Fuck-you boots work on ya. Just remember no smoking inside. Boss man is real edgy lately.”

“Yeah? What about?”

Denny eyes glazed hard, shutters closing. This was the one way he was smart, and because of that he was one of Eddie’s few full time people. The bartenders got switched out almost daily to stop gossip. “Nothing you need to worry about.”

He waved me in and I knew I’d come to the right place. Whatever the buzz was, the Outfit was involved, and the only soldier in the ranks who wouldn’t shoot me on sight was Harwood.

I found him at the far end of the bar in the corner by the bathrooms. He had books open, tallying numbers. The dance floor was empty, the music piped in from satellite radio. There were three aging mobsters, one complete with oxygen tank, at a booth. One bartender on duty stood reading the want ads, and he shifted up to help me as I strode up.

“Eddie.”

He looked at my boots first and grimaced, but smiled at the legs, my shorts, and my SUI tank top. By the time he reached my eyes he was grinning. “Marly Jackson. No more glasses. Nice.”

“Too damn hot for them. They steam up.” I sat down next to him and he called out to the bar back for a Jameson. I liked Eddie. He was direct, plain spoken, and his flirting was harmless. Sometimes I actually wondered if the was anything behind it.

I was fairly attractive if I put effort into it. A lot of men wanted to fuck me, true of any woman who bothered to notice, but only Finn insanely wanted to date me. Eddie’s flirting made me feel like I had options. At nearly thirty-two, it was reassuring, even if it meant my choices were a mobster or a fence.

“I think I know why you’re here,” he said as he handed me my drink and waved off payment. I tipped the bar back who nodded and went back to the Trib.

I saluted him and knocked back a sip. “Word on the street has something coming down the pipe.”

“Rumor mill’s been going nuts. Lot of people have come through the door last forty-eight hours.”

“So what’s behind it all?”

“Fear, mostly. Look, what I’m telling you is on the level because I like you, despite your taste in footwear. As far as anyone knows in the lower ranks, it was Montgomery that got Sorvino canned. Any digging is on hold until the new captain takes the ship. Christ, with war coming Sorvino’s top lieutenant fucked up and fucked up good, and nobody even has time to worry about anything more than saving their asses.

“Last year there was a million dollar job in the air. All we know is it came from the old country. It was hush-hush back then but now people are talking. My guess is someone involved spilled his guts a little too much and everyone let their imagination run.”

“Usually your ship don’t have so many leaks.”

He shrugged and sat back with a sigh. “The two lieutenants left vying for top dog are sweating. People get paranoid, they dredge up the past and examine it hoping for clues to certainty. Someone from the old country is coming, some old guy. They’re saying it’s just to smooth things out with Montgomery and ease the transition but our rumor mill has it as a new don, as in permanent.”

“So?”

“Bear with me here, Marly girl. Word has it that that big job came from the old country. Sorvino must have handled it, probably a shooter, but who knows? Now the few of us in the Outfit with half your skills pieced together it came from Franco Bellaforte. Old school, made man, the real…family. Only it was all kept so quiet, nobody knows what’s happening.

“Now, flash forward to earlier this week, and guess who’s coming to smooth things out?”

“Bellaforte.”

He nodded. “So everybody wants to impress the new boss. What was the job? Was it taken? Maybe not in the family so let’s talk to everyone. You know how it goes.”

“Jesus, you boys are worse than a sewing circle.”

“We get nervous, everyone gets nervous.”

“Yeah, including Max Trenton.”

He stopped and cocked his head. “Jesus, that’s right, he’s out on bail. This time he almost killed one of Alabaster’s favorite girls.”

“Great, so we got a bear loose with no handler.” I finished my drink and shook my head when he offered another.

“I love it when the circus is in town. Look, Marly, what I’m about to tell you is between us, right? You don’t tell anybody.”

I nodded, but decided to wait to see if the promise was worth keeping.

He leaned in close, unbuttoning his suit to make it easier, and swiped a hand through his thick brown hair. “Nobody knows for sure, but the biggest rumor was that the job last year paid a cool million, and required a fence.”

Shit. Everyone knew the biggest and best fence in town was Finn. There was no way the fake Mrs. Jeffries hired me to tail Jim who was boffing Finn’s assistant multiple times a week without an ulterior motive concerning Finn. Jim was hanging around Trenton’s new territory and he was after these rumors.

How did it all fit together? Trenton was guns, Jim was a professional asshole, and the job required a fence. And just who was the fake Mrs. Jeffries? None of it made sense.

“I don’t know, Eddie. Max Trenton is in it, and he’s a low level arms dealer. Sells the hand guns he pulls off punks. Finn’s pretty exclusive. Hard to move things, paintings, jewelry, that means he’s the only fence anybody would need on a million dollar job. There’s nothing that would require them both.”

He hadn’t backed up and I realized he smelled like tobacco and peppermints. He was also a smoker, but kept it outside with the geriatrics inside. The combination was a little distracting, but in a pleasant way.

“Tell you what. I’ll take time out of my busy schedule and look into Trenton for you if it’ll put your mind at ease. And gratis, of course. Your advice on the VIP area is paying off. I owe you one.”

I felt a flash of guilt. “Any fallout on your shoulders with Sorvino gone?”

“My place was strictly decorative in the Outfit, now it’s strictly decorative with a few investors. Don’t you worry about it. Stop by tomorrow and I’ll tell you what I can. And make sure you wear nice shoes.”

“I’ll hit Payless on my way home.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “While they’re fitting you, have them check for a pulse.”

“Well, guess I’ll call it an early night. Thanks, Eddie.”

I was already turned to leave when he called out, “Wait a minute! Actually, I won’t be around tomorrow night, got a thing. I’ll just call you when I get word.”

“You got the number.”

I left and pushed past Denny checking IDs on two women who looked like they got paid by the hour to club and walked a ways.

So a year ago ostensibly Finn had taken a job, fencing something. The guy that posted it made sure it was kept real quiet at the time.

Now he was coming to town and those who weren’t in the know were grasping at straws. Trenton was dumb as a box of rocks, but I doubted even he would chase Outfit phantoms without some promise of a payday.

Now some woman hired me to tail Jim. Why? If the job was a year old Jim had nothing to do with it. But if she was just another player trying to track down info on it, Jim was one hell of a strange straw to grasp for.

Buzz and Eddie were right. I didn’t want or need this trouble. I deserved a weekend off, so I got to my car, headed to the liquor store and then the pizza joint, and I swore to myself to let it drop.

I had two grand, well half that with the new AC, and if I didn’t swim with the sharks I wasn’t going to get bit. So I’d stay out of the water, and swim in a few drinks until it blew over.