The Preserved (Chapter 1)
This is a short science fiction story, with a bit of horror. It follows a older detective, about ready to retire, who lives in Miami, Florida. He's a bit of a resourceful fellow, even for his age and has earned his position in the streets over many years. Never one for leadership roles, Detective Percy is one of those ancient warrior types, who hate to think of themselves as warriors at all. They just love to figure stuff out and do the right thing, even if it means playing a bit dirty. But when the call comes, they, like Percy, are always ready. This particular case, however, has Percy using all of his skills and wits, just to stay alive. It's a tad beyond his experience.
(Note: I occasionally update my stories, but 'try' to follow the same story line -- and dig out the typos, that are the bane of my existence.)
Ocean Avenue wasn’t busy. The steamy asphalt still awaited the burning sunrise. Soon, the vapors would dissipate, the shadows would disappear, and the drowsy drivers would take to the streets. The oven-like sidewalks, having cast off their morning mist, would then prepare to bake their daily bread, the plump and pinkish tourists ready to slog behind their significant others.
Usually, I'd be sipping a cup of coffee, while tucked into the back of one of my favorite dimly lit breakfast joints off the strip about now. There, with the locals, avoiding the constant crowds, I'd have my breakfast, while squinting in the sunrise. I'd also be thumb-scrolling the assignment boards on my cell phone.
Not today though. Today, I was already at it above the beach on one of the Sentinels of the Sea. That was the name of one of the concrete megaliths along the Miami Beach shoreline. A parade of precast condo-castles, this one accented in pastel orange, but all of them blindingly bright in the liquid sunrise. They emerged as one for their early salt-mist facials and awakened their beach-loving brood within – residents, the re-digested nutriment just now peeling their sardine cans open for a look at the baking sands washed by the warm sea foam.
It was just another day, as the nutriment people, transplanted sun worshipers, probably New York retirees, filed into the local breakfast eateries or dined in their plush condo-association club restaurants. They were like soldiers on leave. Glad to be here, but wary about the near future. They didn’t seem to welcome the coming sea breeze and the ones here at the Sentinels of the Sea, were much too young for retirees, I learned later.
The condos served another function too. They were oversized gravestones. Helping people enter the next life more peacefully. Dying them in their sleep, at dawn, on their balconies. And those were the lucky ones, I thought now. Because, I was the one who had to make sure they hadn't been murdered in their sleep by the gang wildlife hereabouts. That was my job. Keeping the thugs on their toes and the sardine transplants in their cans. Especially, when the circumstances were a little odd, like today’s death.
It was my first trip to the Sentinels of the Sea. There had been more naturals – or should I say ‘unusual deaths’ – during this past month, but none here. People dying of unknown causes was a troublesome thing. Younger people dying of them, was a bad sign. In their 20’s and checking out, often meant a new drug. A big share of the Sentinels of the Sea folks were of the younger crowd. So, I expected an overdose case now.
I stood breathing in the salt air, on another death balcony, after nine in the morning, minus my coffee. The body was on a teak recliner. A man. A dead kid, really. Age 22. I shook my head. What a waste.
The crime tech, Chip, was just leaving. He nodded.
“Looks like another natural,” Chip said. “Except for the blue stuff on his face.”
Chip left quietly, as always, while I pondered the death scene. I hadn’t seen him go. Getting too old, I guess. And what the hell was he talking about? Blue stuff? How would it be a natural death, if this kid was a junkie? Chip the joker. I liked the hell out him.
Alone in the condo now, I started nosing around. Except for the seagulls chattering on the balcony railing, a constant sea breeze, the low hubbub of the street traffic and the small plane, its engine whining high above the aquamarine waves, with the restaurant advertisement banner flapping behind, it was quiet. As good a place to die as any, I thought. But to overdose? Maybe.
The dead kid was wearing a white terrycloth robe, with a sherbet orange ‘SOS’ – Sentinels of the Sea – logo on the lapel. His hands were smooth, but sunburned. Bits of shells and sand were jammed under his toenails. He’d been on the beach recently. A transplant, from up north? I wondered. He had slight tan.
The kid's sunburn contrasted sharply with the milky white bottle of rum he had on his lap. He was smiling. Eyes wide open, dry. His lips were smeared with a bluish powder and on the glass table next to him, more of that blue crystal powder, set in a spiral pattern.
A probable overdose. Straight forward, I thought. Except for the blue powder. It was out of place. And why the spiral shaped design on the table? Did the kid lose it? Make designs with his dope, then die?
As a detective, I’d never seen this substance before. It wasn’t cocaine. Not heroin. Not even "meth." Some new form of ice? I doubted it. It had to be some new alternative drug. Some mashed up psych pills, maybe.
I bagged a bit of the blue junk using the dead guy’s sunglasses nearby. Dusted them off afterwards, then put them back exactly like I'd found them. Didn't want to screw up the crime scene too much. Harry Duncan, the assigned detective, would pop a vessel. But he was not an early bird.
After I labeled the plastic baggie, I stuffed it into my pocket. I'd learned, over the years, to always keep a few evidence bags handy. For lots of reasons. Including overnight stakeouts -- instant bedpan. And sandwiches.
Although Chip, the crime tech, had already taken samples of the blue stuff, I wanted a little extra. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him or the lab guys, but I had my own connections and I planned to drop it off later. Have my ‘special’ narc guys look at it, after I did a little street work. My special narcs were the real dopers on the strip. They’d never led me astray, because I always made it worth their while. One hand washed the other.
“The chief doesn’t want you in on this one, Percy.” It was Harry Duncan, a new detective. He was taking my spot when I retired. Another climber. A young kid, with only a few years on the force and already making the big collars.
Harry had padded in silently. One of those book-smart types with the ego smile to cover his nervous laugh, trying to get the drop on me. Prick, I thought – you’ll probably go far, or somebody will knock you off.
“Just doing a little reconnoiter,” I said. I turned to go. “It’s all yours.”
Harry seemed to accept that. Gave the condo a quick scan though. I could see his tumblers turning. Did I touch something? Harry sighed and leaned over. “What’s with this blue stuff?”
“Beats me,” I replied, waited. “Well, I’ll let you at it then.” I made to leave, then turned. “I’ll be in the coffee shop if you need me.”
“Hey!” Harry yelled. I turned again. He'd noticed the smudge of dope. I was had.
“Damned seagulls. Get! Go on, get out of here!” Harry shooed them away. They hovered in space, just beyond his reach and reattached themselves to the railing. Squawking, irritated now. One gave a squirt, to make point of it.
“Have these birds been messing up my crime scene, Percy?”
I shrugged. “Ask Chip, if you can find him.” I locked the door, stepped a few feet away, listened. I could hear Harry cursing under his breath inside.
Chip had a bad habit of ignoring his phone, and emails. I usually had to track him down at a scene he was working. Harry was a straight-laced cop. He’d use the phone and cussed when Chip ignored him. It was sweet revenge for a ‘know-it-all,’ I thought.
I made my way to the restaurant on the first floor. The elevator was bumpy, and it squealed in protest. I looked at the inspection sticker. I always did. Habit. It was two years out of date. You’d think that a high-end place like this would keep things in order. The elevator finally settled. A hard grinding screech, then the doors opened halfway. I squeezed through.
The high-rise cases were often natural deaths. Some old widow usually. Too much booze or coke or they died peacefully while looking at the moonlit waves, a poetry book fluttering open next to them. Heart attacks and strokes. Another stiff on a balcony.
Sometimes they weren’t so stiff. They were overripe. Rarely was there any foul play. But the blue powder next to the kid was a bit out of place. My mind kept going back to the sparkly blue spiral on the glass table, next to the stiff. What was up with that? Most druggies had dope all over the place. Snorting the carpets, if necessary. But a careful spiral?
In the restaurant, I skimmed the caller details on my cell phone, as waited for my coffee. It came in at six in the morning. Anonymous. “There’s a dead guy in 805 – Sentinels of the Sea.” That was it. I played it three more times. I could hear wind. Either the caller was in a boat offshore – and maybe he saw the dead guy from there -- or he saw from an adjacent condo building.
I pulled up a map on my phone. Zoomed in. There were no condos nearby that faced the dead guy’s balcony. His was facing the ocean directly. I wondered if the plane saw him. Maybe a drone.
I was grasping at straws. I sipped my coffee. It was cold now.
The caller was probably the killer. Or maybe the kid's drug dealer, who felt a bit remorseful. I phoned the station, asked if they’d made any headway tracing the caller. Yes, they had. So far, they’d traced it to an old type pre-paid cell phone.
The mystery deepened.
I finally got some more bad coffee. The waitress said she was new and apologized. She even hinted that I should leave.
That was odd, I thought. Maybe they didn’t want me to worry the residents. Ask too many questions. I ignored her.
A squat elderly lady with a blond wig watched me from the check-in desk, so I wandered over. Sipping my coffee, trying not to pucker. I asked to see the manager. He was expecting me.
“May I ask who you are?” the blond clerk asked. Stalling. She knew who I was. I could see the camera pointing at me from behind her head. I couldn’t place her accent either. Russian? German? And she spoke quickly.
I showed her my Miami-Dade creds.
“Okay. The night manager is still here.” She phoned him. “A detective Percy is here to see you.”
A man in a red jacket appeared momentarily. He looked tired, worn-out, his gray hair uncombed, too long. A coppery tinge to his skin. He straightened his green tie and nodded.
I stared at the ‘SOS’ logo on his lapel. Waited.
“Detective...what can I do for you?” he finally asked.
The night manager – Corwin -- his name-tag read – motioned me to a side office, as two curious residents approached. I followed. He closed the door, then sat behind a desk and pulled a computer flat screen toward him. The room smelled of stale weed and lemons.
“I already gave the other detective all we have on the resident in 805,” he said. He leaned back in his chair, self assured.
Another odd accent. Different from the blond wigged clerk. I couldn’t even begin to guess the origin and I used to pride myself on that. It was sort of clipped, but precise and New Jersey fast.
“Great,” I replied. “No, this is just a follow up.” I smiled. “You know how it is. We can’t be too careful.” I talked slowly, on purpose.
His eyes rolled. “Okay,” Corwin answered, seemingly placated now. I could see his impatience building.
“Any parties here last night?” I asked, slowly again. He seemed to twitch at every syllable.
“No. It was a quiet Wednesday night. Maybe on a Friday or Saturday.” He was fidgety.
I let the moment drag by.
“How about his habits?” I asked, after a bit.
“You mean Mr. Dufrane?”
“Yes, the deceased,” I answered. Truth was, I didn’t even have the guy’s name yet. I was working on the fly.
“He was a walker, like I told the other detective. Every morning the same thing. He got up, had breakfast, went back to his condo, then about a half an hour later, I’d see him leaving through the pool gate out onto the beach.” His speech was becoming faster. It seemed like it took him considerable effort to slow down.
“Well, usually, I or Carol – the clerk – would see him at lunch, if I worked days. Sometimes he’d eat in the restaurant and other times, presumably, he ate in his condo.”
“Was he a big eater?” I asked.
“Big eater?” Now he slowed.
“Yes, did he eat a lot of food?” I was playing with him.
Corwin arched his brows, then paused. “When I’d see him, it was just a sandwich. And his drink.”
Measured responses now. Why? I wondered.
“What kind of drink?”
“Rum and soda. His usual.”
“What kind of soda?” I’d never heard it said that way.
“Cola,” he said.
“Any particular brand of cola?” I asked.
“No.” He looked concerned. Like he'd made a mistake.
"Rum and coke," he blurted out. Satisfied now.
"Thanks," I answered.
I let it drop. I was scratching a few notes in my tablet. The night manager – Corwin – was becoming even more impatient. He glanced into the corner. He did it again.
“Just a few more things,” I said. I tapped my pen against my notepad. Corwin's face was changing colors. A reddish shade from the neck up, but he wasn't sweating.
I was looking around the office now. Casually. Noted the old photos of family. One of those store-bought fakes. I asked about it. Family. He lied. He looked at it, as I let my eyes wander. A single ashtray on a credenza. Otherwise, nothing else of consequence, except a blue petaled flower under a lamp near a dark corner. It had spiral shaped leaves under its petals. That’s where he had been looking.
I met his gaze, then went on.
We discussed Dufrane’s habits. What he liked, disliked. Friends? He had none. Kept to himself. When did his wife die? The circumstances of that death? Normal, he said. What had both done for a living? Bus drivers. Relatives? None listed. Bedtimes? Late. What kind of cars did they drive? They didn’t. Were they rich? He didn’t know, but they had been one of the younger couples. No money problems. Been here less than a year? Six months.
Corwin was sweating now. Beads of perspiration were balancing on his nose, but he didn’t wipe it away. Interesting. I had only seen that once before, when I'd interrogated a schizophrenic at Bellevue.
“Had been?” I asked
Corwin stared. “Pardon?”
“You said that they 'had been' one of the younger couples.”
“Other, younger couples have died here recently?” I asked.
He didn’t answer immediately. “My boss told me only to discuss this case, not the others.”
“Your boss isn’t here,” I said. “But, let’s move on.”
He was dripping sweat on his desk calendar now.
“Your partner has them.”
Corwin rubbed his chin, then looked down on his pad. We’d been talking for almost ten minutes. The damp of his desk calendar seemed to confuse him. He rubbed it with his fingers, then examined them.
Odd. He didn't know that it was his own sweat?
He put his hand down. “Let’s see, Corwin said. “The hallway outside Dufrane’s door – all night. From the time before he entered till eight a.m. today. That’s what I gave Detective Duncan.”
“What about the rest?” I asked.
“The rest?” He gave me a bored look.
“Everything else – for the same time frame.”
“That will take a while. I’ll need to get permission and have my maintenance guy burn you a few more disks.” His words were speeding up again.
“Okay.” I smiled. “That’ll be a great help.”
I refrained from asking about the blue powder on Dufrane’s face, but I was certain Corwin knew about it. And knew where Dufrane had gotten it. He was hiding something.
“I’ll wait,” I said.
Three hours and four more cups of coffee later, I had the video disks and Harry was still upstairs dealing with the crime scene. I figured I’d work in the corner of the restaurant and wait for him.
I saw the body taggers take Dufrane out and that kind of irked the residents. I didn’t recognize the body bag, though. It was a white bag and not the usual black. They took Dufrane out of the front too, not a side entrance. I watched the van pull away, then got back to work. Harry shouldn't be long now, I figured.
The hours started to crawl.
I ignored the late lunch crowd and focused on my work, which was, at this point, reviewing the videos and watching the residents go about their day. And I had hours of recordings to check.
The mood at the Sentinels of the Sea was somber. Word had spread, and everyone was speaking in low tones. Giving me knowing looks. Which meant Corwin had alerted everyone. Or maybe it had been Carol, the clerk. Either way, everyone was acting a bit shy.
I had my laptop out and I was going over the videos still. They were nothing spectacular. Comings and goings of everyone. No visitors that night. Pizza delivery at nine p.m. Dufrane was a late eater. Late night beach walkers and pool goers milled around. A dead restaurant after 10 p.m. Lame stuff. I almost nodded off. The coffee was no longer working. I ordered more.
One thing bothered me, however. The pizza guy that walked into Dufrane’s apartment with his damned helmet on. What was with that?
Because the condo association apparently opted for a cheaper video system, I was only getting stop-motion recordings in the hallways. I couldn’t see if the pizza guy left Dufrane’s condo or not. I could only see him stand at the door, deliver the pizza and disappear, like a ghost.
I rechecked the lobby recordings and didn't see pizza guy come by. Did he live in the building? I wondered. Clearly, I was going to trouble Corwin for more video disks. A larger chunk of time, to satisfy my pizza guy curiosity. Watch Corwin's neck turn red again.
The waitress said she had been told to let me be, but she kept stopping by. Getting a bit too friendly now. I caught her peeking at my work. I finally relented and had lunch. To keep her busy. Then I scanned the ceiling.
Sure enough, I was being watched. There was a camera bubble just over the big screen TV. Funny, I didn't recall having the video record of this angle of the restaurant. I wondered how many more video's I was missing. Time for a camera count, I knew.
When I finished with what I had, Harry still had not come down. The kid was slow. He probably thought he was being methodical, memorizing the scene. Giving it the old college try. I had decided to check on him, just as an Asian waitress walked up.
“Soda?” she asked. She was plain looking and hard. It was more of an order, than a question. They were tag teaming me now?
“No thanks.” I was already paid up. I closed my laptop, tucked it under my arm to leave.
"Free refills," she said. Then she made a effort to smile.
I looked back up. She was holding a pitcher in her hand. It was full of blue liquid. No ice. I saw that her black hair was crooked. Another wig?
I smiled. "Maybe next time," I said.
Gathering my things, I saw the new Asian waitress duck into an elevator, still holding the pitcher of blue liquid, just as the first waitress who had been feeding the late lunch holdouts, walked back in. I asked after the other waitress, but Margie – that was the first waitress’ name – said she was on until six p.m. – by herself.
I packed my car quickly, thinking about the Asian waitress. Kind of strange, I thought. Like Corwin and the stout clerk with the blond wig.
As I walked back toward the building I saw a yellow moped tucked in next to the trash dumpster. I’m nosy like that. Normal things in the wrong places, in this case, a moped parked in front of a garbage dumpster, got my street-cop senses going. There was a pizza box strapped to the back. It looked a bit soggy, like it had been strapped there all night and the humidity had collapsed it.
Momentarily forgetting the Asian waitress issue, I went over and put my hand on the motor of the small motorcycle. It was cold. It had been here a long time. The pizza box was empty too – clean -- not a crumb. This was a prop of some sort. Probably a drug dealer, but where was the dealer? I wrote down the tag and VIN numbers and took some quick photos. Could be nothing, I thought, but just in case, I called it in. Uploaded the pic files to my cloud account.
I thought of the pizza guy at Dufrane's doorway, on the video. Things were beginning to connect.
I scanned the parking lot. Already, the day’s heat was making me drip with sweat. If the moped had been parked here that long, it should be on video, but I didn’t remember seeing it on the disks Corwin had given me. That was wrong. It should have come up. I had all the parking lot videos, Corwin said.
I found the camera. I could see that, normally, it recorded this section near the dumpster and the back lot. Where I was now. Now, however, it was broken. Smashed and pointed upward. Someone had taken pains to do that, I figured. Probably from the stairwell, just adjacent to it. It was an easy reach for anyone on the third floor of the stairwell to lean over and disable the camera. No easy task from the ground unless you had a long ladder.
My phone chimed. The VIN on the moped didn’t exist. Not the tag either. Another dead end. I notified our tow truck contractor. Once impounded, maybe the owner would show.
Back at the manager’s office I was told that the camera had been out for about a month, but it was on a repair list. I reminded him about the elevator. But I held back accusing Corwin of forgetting to give me all the videos available. I wanted to do a little more poking around first.
Soon, I saw the maintenance guy giving me dirty looks as he drove by in a golf cart, a very long ladder was strapped to the top. First the video disks and now this. I could hear him thinking that. Maybe he was missing his drinking time.
Harry was still at it. It was three p.m., so I gave him a buzz. Then another buzz.
He didn’t answer. I checked, but his car was still in the lot, in the same spot. I rang him again. Still nothing. I was hanging out in the lobby now, hoping to see the Asian girl come through.
I asked the waitress -- Margie -- again, but they’d not hired any Asian girls lately, she said. And Margie seemed nervous now. I wasn’t feeling too good about things. I felt like I walked into a foreign gang’s turf war. Maybe a crooked billionaire’s secret dope lair.
Maybe I should call some back up, I thought. No. I only had suspicions. The chief wouldn't like it. I needed more. Not just my street sense.
I focused on Corwin. Corwin was a seedy character, he was hiding something. I was sure of it now. He’d been keeping tabs on me. Drifting in and out of the restaurant. Reminding Margie to ignore me, probably. At the same time, annoy me. He'd watch me sit in the lobby. Saw me pick up the desk phone and dial.
I called 805's landline. Harry didn't pick up. When Dufrane's answering machine clicked on, I hung up.
I checked with Carol, the clerk, again. Asked after the pizza deliveries. She said that only Dufrane had those deliveries. He used a local place, but she had never gotten the name. The pizza guy always walked by with his helmet on, she said. Took the stairs. No, she hadn’t seen him today. And no, she never ordered from the same place. Neither did Corwin. How convenient. All tied up in a bow. This whole thing was starting to stink, I felt. Lax security too.
Of course it was all a lie. Carol knew who pizza guy was and the fact that she was covering for him, was beginning to piss me off.
At the door to 805, I knocked. There was no guard. Harry hadn’t posted one and he didn’t answer my knock. I tried the door and it was unlocked. I walked in.
“Harry?” Still no answer.
The place seemed darker than before. Had Harry turned the lights out?
The sun shone through the tinted sliding glass doors – and they were closed now. I pulled them open. Looked over. Maybe he was gone and I'd just missed him. It would be just like him. Dodging me to bring the goods home to papa. My irritation grew.
“Detective Duncan!” I yelled as I stepped onto the balcony. A pelican flew by, gave me the eye, then darted away as his eyes shifted left. He’d been startled by something. I looked over. Shit.
I found him on the teak chair. The very same one where Mr. Dufrane had passed hours earlier. “Harry?” I asked. He didn’t respond. I had a suspicion. Moved closer.
“Harry?” I squatted, peered into vacant eyes. He wasn’t breathing. Shit again. He’s dead.
What the hell? I stumbled forward, felt for a pulse. Nothing. A cool wrist. Tried the carotid and just as I was about to do CPR, I looked at his nose. Blue powder. I drew away. Harry’s hands were the same. Stained in blue. I glanced at the glass table, where the spiral of blue powder had been. It was gone.
I reached for my phone. Had he doped up? Like an idiot? Died?
“I thought you’d never come up."
"Put your phone down, slowly."
I let my phone snap back into its case, at my side. Then I left my hand there, near my pistol.
The voice came from the kitchen, but I couldn’t make out the face, just a vague silhouette. I did see another face, however. It was Chip, the crime tech. He was on the couch.
“Is he dead too?” I asked the shadowy figure behind the bar. I nodded at the couch.
“You mean Chip, Miami Dade’s finest Criminal Technologist?”
“He’s preserved – dead.”
“What?” I asked the voice. It had moved, quickly.
“I killed him.” The voice seemed feminine and foreign. “Now, I kill you.” More movement.
Asian. That had to be it. The voice had an Asian accent, but then it didn't. Like the weird waitress. I decided to push her buttons and my luck.
“Are you mad because I wouldn’t accept the poison soda you offered?” I asked.
"It would have been easier that way," the girl said. She spoke quickly, just like everyone else here.
“What do you mean, ‘preserve?’” I was stalling again. Moving my hand toward my pistol, very slowly.
I could hear movement again. Something fell in the darkness. Then a hissing sound. Like a pissed-off cat. She needed a better angle. Shooting through the sliding glass doors might not work.
I looked down. I wouldn’t make the pool if I tried to jump over the balcony. Eight floors down to decorative tiles. Not an option. Just a splat.
“What are you preserving?” I asked again. I had moved to the right, slowly. Putting my gun side out of view of the kitchen. Each nudge to the right I made, she compensated. I bladed myself as best I could, but my gut wouldn’t cooperate. Too many burgers.
“Stop!” came a cold hiss.
“Why?” I asked. The fact that I was still alive meant that she – if she was a she – didn’t want to kill me. At least not shoot me. It seemed that she preferred to work quietly.
“You shouldn’t be here – they will come after you now.” Silence then.
I moved to the right again. She didn’t respond.
“We had a deal,” she said finally.
We had a deal? What deal? I was about to ask her, but I saw a reflection. The silhouette was sliding closer.
I reached for my gun as I dove to the left, over Harry’s body, just as two shots rang out. Neither one hit me. I returned fire into the kitchen, aiming at the bar, hoping the bullets wouldn’t penetrate the walls and kill an innocent resident next store.
Silence again. She had stopped moving. Had I hit her? I lay there, heart pounding, sweating, pointing my pistol. Nothing happened.
A sudden movement then. She was running for the door. I rolled over to get a better shot, my arthritic shoulders crackling. Peered under the dining room set. Two thin legs pumped through the dimly lit doorway. I fired at the ankles. Someone screamed in the hallway.
I was up immediately. Bounding for the door. I passed through the open doorway, lost my balance, then slammed into the wall opposite, knocking my shoulder hard. She wasn’t there. I lowered my pistol.
The scream had come from another resident, a young woman on her back, groceries spilled next to her. She raised her head.
“Which way?” I asked.
The young woman looked dazed, but pointed to the stairwell.
“You okay?” I asked.
She nodded. Held her head.
I sprinted for the stairwell. At the door, I paused, then kicked it open. Two more shots rang out -- and missed. I kicked a second time and heard footsteps echoing away. She was running, but much too fast. Footfalls almost vibrating it seemed. Like a hammer drill chipping away on concrete. It didn’t make sense. Was I chasing a machine, or some drugged up speed demon?
I gave chase. Old shins aching. Looking down the dizzy stairs as I descended. Heart ramming in my chest. Throat squeezing.
Another shot from below. Another miss. She darted into the parking lot, five levels down. She was getting away. How had she managed that?
At the fourth floor I stopped. The stairwell opened to the outside. The backside of the parking lot was directly below. I thought of the small moped. Could it be? I glanced over.
There she was, running – nearly flying – for the moped. She snagged a helmet from a small bush as she ran. Pulled it over her head. Tucked the gun in her waist like a pro and hopped on. The speed at which she moved was mind-blowing. She almost blurred, she moved so quickly.
I didn’t say halt. If I had, I think she could have dodged my bullets. It took three shots, before she went down. She actually looked up at me as I fired. She wasn’t faster than my bullets, after all.
I breathed in hard. It had been a long time since I had chased a perp. I leaned on the ledge and watched her body. After I caught my breath, I called it in. I hadn’t even had time to describe the girl I’d shot or where she was, before I heard a car. Within seconds – too soon – I heard sirens. A squad car rounded the parking lot a moment later, driving fast, directly to the girl lying next to the moped.
Who were these guys? “Do we have someone on duty at the Sentinels – a squad car?” I asked Sheila. I’d known her for at least five years. She was on the line, taking my report. She handled the emergency calls at the station. I was still breathing hard, so I had to ask her several more times, before she got it.
“No, Percy. It’s not ours. Can you see the markings?”
I chanced a look. “It looks like one of ours, but, well, no numbers. It has the emblems, lights and all that, but no identifiers.” I thought about getting their attention, but something was telling me that was a bad idea.
“It’s not ours, Percy. Wait one.” Sheila put me on hold.
I looked over the ledge again. The two cops – or whoever they were – had lifted the girl’s body into the back of their unit. She appeared lifeless. Limp.
I hid behind the post on the forth floor, in the stairwell. Tried to keep an eye on the new cops. One was rolling the moped now. Then lifting it into the trunk. Shit, I thought. They were taking the evidence. These weren’t cops.
Sheila still had me on the on the line, but I was transferred.
“Yeah,” I said. “Who’s this?”
“It’s Frank, Percy. Frank Wells, in Narcotics.”
“Frank Wells? Don’t know you. Put Sheila back on.”
“Can’t do that, Percy. Listen. You’ve stumbled into our case. I need you to back out.”
“What?” I said. “I’ve got two men down and I shot the perp and they – some fake cops – are loading her body and –”
“Where are you, Percy. Where are you now?”
Sheila broke back in – “sorry Percy, I lost you – there’s no squad car of anyone’s in your area and –”
“Sheila!” She paused. “Yes?”
“This line is compromised. Don’t say anything.” I waited. “You there Franky?”
“Yes, Percy. Call everyone. Get them here now!” I hung up, then I looked down. The two fake cops were staring back up. They knew I was in the stairwell now.
“Hi boys!” I said. “Hiding some evidence? And those uniforms. You make them yourselves?” It had the intended result.
The one near the passenger’s door reacted first. An Uzi appeared from nowhere and he sprayed the stairs above me. They hadn’t spotted me, and I played dead. From behind the palm fronds at this level, I had good cover.
One moved toward the driver’s side of the unit below. I leaned over, parted the palm fronds and fired. The shot hit in the guy in the chest and he went down. The other guy opened up again. His Uzi painting black chips in the stucco walls. I ducked and headed up two levels. Unfortunately, the palm tree didn’t grow this high. No more cover.
I took a quick peek. The Uzi guy was on his phone, back pressed to the wall below me, just under the broken camera. I aimed, fired – missed!
The Uzi guy disappeared then. The guy I hit in the chest was still laying on his side in the parking lot, the driver’s door to the fake squad car, open. I could see that he had a pony tail. It must have been tucked in his hat before. But his hat had rolled away. Then his hair fell off. I looked again. The cop – or fake cop – was bald. He had been wearing a wig. His skull was oddly shaped, more pointed and more copper in color, than normal. I couldn’t put it together. I wasn’t making sense.
I heard a door close below. Soon after, a new spray of Uzi fire ripped into the wall to my left. I dove through the door onto seventh floor hallway, at a run. Pumped my legs down the long carpeted hall to the first intersection and hung a right, just as the next spray of Uzi bullets ripped into the wall sconces, sending green glass into my arm. I didn't feel any pain, but I knew I would soon enough.
He wasn’t far behind and like that Asian waitress, he was fast. Too fast. I could hear him running. It sounded like a vibration, rather than steps. There was no way I would win this race. I had to make a stand.
“Halt!” I yelled. The vibrations stopped. I did the old 'hand around the corner trick,' pointed my pistol, but didn’t fire. I pulled back just as he blew a huge chunk out of the wall where my hand had been. I was already running. Took the next corner right. Maybe I could get behind him, I thought.
More vibrations. He was coming. I went low and rolled into the intersection of halls – and fired as I cleared it. I had seen him but missed the shot. It stopped his advance again. He had ducked into a doorway. I waited. Listened. Apparently, he was doing the same thing I was. Speed or not, bullets hurt.
“Come on out and play!” I yelled. I wasn’t insane, I just wanted a shot.
A hiss in response.
What are you? I thought. I wiggled low, peeked down the hallway. I could see his shoes. Two tips of black from a recessed doorway, maybe two condos away. I was thinking about a toe shot when three children exited a side doorway. I scrambled up and dove forward, took a low shot at the Uzi guy’s shoes and plunged the kids back into their open door. I plowed over a woman as well. They’d been about to walk into the middle of a gun fight.
“I’m a cop!” I yelled. “Lock this door!” Then I shut it. “Call the police!” I yelled again. “There’s a gunman!”
I leaped back across the hall. More Uzi bullets whizzed by. He was closer now, but taking his time. Moving in for the kill. I squeezed into the recessed doorway as best I could. He knew where I was.
I looked left. I was at the end of the hall. A dead end. That's why he was being careful. He had me. I checked my pistol. I had three rounds left in my mag, but I had another full one.
A soft click, then a metallic thump. Uzi guy was changing his magazine. It was my only chance.
I dove again and rolled. He was standing 20 feet away looking at his Uzi, pushing the new magazine home, raising the weapon. Stupid mistake. I let him have it.
My first round plunked his shoulder and spun him off target. His bullets trailed up, chewing an ark into the ceiling. A clinking sound, then his Uzi roared. He was correcting, when my second round, then my third, plugged him center mass. He was flung backward, still pulling his trigger, until the Uzi flew out of his hand, cartwheeling. He landed hard and went still. A wisp of smoke drifted from the barrel of the Uzi that had landed a few feet away.
A door started to crack open. A resident. The woman who I had roughly shoved back through her door, with her three kids. She was stepping into the hall.
“Stay inside,” I yelled. “Call the police.”
She was ignoring me. “Ma’am!” I was still trying to catch my breath.
“You need to leave,” she said. Stone cold eyes. Perfect hair. Another blond.
“What?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I got to my knees, ejected my magazine and popped in a new one.
“You should go, now,” she hissed. That sounded familiar.
Another door opened. Another young woman. Only this time, she wasn’t Caucasian, but Asian looking. Short cropped black hair. She stepped out, took one look at the dead gunman and lifted a cell phone to her ear. She began to chatter. Was that Chinese? It sounded familiar. More hissing now.
I stood and called the station again. “Put Sheila on,” I said. The line buzzed.
“This is Sheila.”
“Sheila, this is Percy. Have you cleared the line?”
“Yes, I switched to the old trunk. Whoever they are, they’d need to get in manually now. Plus, I’m piggy-backing,” Sheila said.
“Good,” I replied. But I wasn’t quite sure what she meant.
“Leave now,” the woman across the hall said again.
“Who’s that?” Sheila asked.
“Not sure. A woman I saved, I thought. She’s telling me to leave.”
“Leave? Should you? Are you safe, Percy?”
“Not sure. Harry is dead. Chip is dead. I just had a shoot out with three bad guys, Well, one girl.”
I walked over to the Uzi guy. Kicked his gun away. Reached down, searched him.
“Who are they, Percy?”
I pulled out a wallet. Thumbed it open. A police photo, with no badge number. Showed my perp smiling, cop hat on. Any civilian would be fooled. According to the card, his name was John Jones.
“What’s the matter Percy?” Sheila asked. I knew everything was being recorded. “John Jones. That’s what it says on his card. Miami-Dade PD. Please run that.”
“What’s his number?”
“No number, no precinct. Just that name,” I told her. The Asian woman was still using her phone, but she was not speaking on it. She was recording me instead. The other blond woman had vanished.
“I got nothing Percy. Nobody in the county is listed. Is he a Fed?” Sheila was still on the line.
“I don’t think so. Unless they all wear pony-tails and carry Uzi’s these days. And…”
“Go ahead Percy.”
“There’s no blood.”
“Say again detective?”
I tugged the shooter’s shirt up, where my bullets had entered. There were two clean holes in his chest, but there was no blood around them. Not a drop. They had a bluish tinge to them.
“I’m guessing his heart stopped instantly. There’s no blood here,” I told her. “Maybe some bruising. I’m sending you some pics.” I snapped photos of the guy. His gun. The wounds. I rolled him over to see the exit wounds. Bluish chunks of flesh stained the carpet. What the hell?
“You get those?”
“I have them," Sheila said. She paused. "Sending them to Doug. By the way, he’s listening, but he can’t talk to you. I can relay.” Doug Chatham was the chief.
The Asian lady had moved closer now, making it obvious. I told her to stand back, but she stood her ground. So, I snapped a few photos of her.
“Hey!” She had a fast heavy accent. “You no can do this.”
“Sure, I can. Don’t get near my crime scene. In fact," I said, "you come any closer, I’m going to arrest you.”
That got her attention. She retreated to her condo. “I call cops,” she said.
“You do that. Tell them Detective Percy is on the seventh floor.”
She shook her head, then closed her door.
“You’re on seven?” It was Sheila.
“Yes. In front of,” I looked over. “Door number 720.”
“Dennis and Chuck are on the way too.”
“ETA?” I asked, but the line went dead. “Sheila?”
I looked at my phone. The battery was charged, but the signal showed ‘no bars.’ I stood, walked around, holding the phone up. Still nothing. Just as I was looking at it, the screen shattered. I turned. The woman with her three kids were standing in the hall. She had a gun in her hand, pointing it at me.
Not again, I thought.
I slammed myself back into the recessed doorway. She fired again and again. I took quick looks at her and her kids. The kids were standing there, a serene look on the faces. I noticed one of the kids had no hair. He had an oblong coppery shaped skull. What was I seeing? Had I accidentally touched the blue stuff? Was I hallucinating now?
I dove and fired. My round caught her in the head and had no effect. She kept shooting, until her pistol clicked empty. I glanced out from the second recessed doorway I had rolled into. The woman was looking at her gun, confused. I stepped out, crouched and put two rounds center mass. She crumpled.
I slowly stood. The three kids had turned. They were looking down at the woman’s still form, not at me. One of them started to hiss, then all three. The bald one reached down, pulled at the woman’s arm, tugged. Then with a snap, the bald kid ripped the arm away and started to...eat it.
No way, I thought.
“Hey!” I yelled at the kid, just as the Asian woman exited her condo with a second Uzi.
Shit again – I thought. I dove toward the nearest door, fired at the doorknob as I went, then plowed ahead. The door burst open and I headed for the balcony, still stunned.
Shots splintered the statue of a crystal blue snake to my right. It disintegrated. The Uzi was doing its job again. Drawing death in lines as I bobbed and weaved in a strange condo full of...flowers. Blue flowers, with spiral leaves. I couldn’t believe it. I shot out the sliding glass doors at a full run, crashed through, hoped, and leaped into the air...
The next day.
I awoke in the hospital, with a start and tried to roll from the bed. I only succeeded in pulling out my IV and setting off the alarms. I was still in a panic.
Chuck jumped up and grabbed me, “Hey – Hey! You’re okay. You’re here – in the hospital!”
I shook my head, but my heart was racing. I tried to think through it. A nurse came in, plugged me back in and I apologized.
“Where’s Harry? Chip?” I asked, after the nurse left.
“I know Chip. He was like family. Harry, well…” I waited for Chuck to say something. He didn’t.
“You mean how did you get here?”
“You are crazy, that’s how. You jumped from the building and landed in the pool. The doctor said he thinks someone’s rubber float saved your life.” He let that sink in.
“What about the SOS?”
“The what?” Chuck asked.
“The Sentinels of the Sea – the building full of wackos?”
Chuck looked concerned. He moved to close the door, then pulled the chair up. He spoke softly.
“When we arrived – about seven minutes after your last call – the place was engulfed, Percy.”
“On fire?” I asked.
“A complete loss they said. In fact, the Fire Marshal’s preliminary reports indicate incendiary devices, so now we have the Feds crawling all over us.” He sat back. Let me absorb that.
“So, Chip and Harry?”
Chuck nodded. “I hope they can find some bones. Confirm it, for their families.”
“Did they arrest anyone?”
“Nobody,” Chuck replied.
I pulled myself up. “Nobody? How is that possible?"
“It gets worse,” he said. “All of the files you uploaded, the calls between you a Sheila, everything – it has been erased.”
I thought about that. “Erased? Inside job?”
“No. This was sophisticated stuff. Even the Feds, the NSA – are scratching their heads. They've been waiting to talk to you. And Percy?"
I think they are going to arrest you."
We spoke for another hour. I gave him a recorded statement and promised a full report when I got back. Chuck said that the Feds wanted a full statement as well and should be here within the hour. Hint: I had one hour to get the hell out of here.
Chuck was shaking his head.
"What?" I asked.
"It's just that..."
"It seems impossible, right?"
He nodded. Had a sad look now.
"I'm not cracked -- yet -- Chuck."
"Maybe you can ask to retire earlier, not wait out the two months?" Chuck said.
I shook my head. "I might just stick around now. Figure this out." Pay them back.
He saw the look in my eyes. We didn't say anything for a few minutes. It wasn't that I didn't like Chuck, but he was a bit trying at times. I'd know him for over 30 years. We both pulled the crap jobs together and lived.
Finally, Chuck said, "I'll back you. You've saved my ass more than once. I don't care that I don't believe it. I'll need to see some evidence." He straightened up.
"I'm working on that," I said.
"Anything you need?" Chuck asked.
"Get me my pistol."
"They won't do that. You need an eval, they said." Chuck looked over his shoulder, then pulled out his own pistol, stuffed it under my pillow. He handed me two full magazines. "Here, suitcase these."
"Funny," I said. "But I got glass in my ass."
Chuck laughed. "No, they pulled all of that out."
"No wonder everything hurts," I said.
"I got to go. They said I could do this, but then report back." Chuck turned to leave.
"10-4," I said, grunted. "Hey?"
"Yeah?" Chuck looked back.
"My paranoia says that they don't like witnesses."
He sighed. "There are two guards at your door. And, as we agreed."
"Okay," I said and Chuck left, but I didn't feel any better. The 'as we agreed' part was the signal. He was asking an old friend to arrange my getaway.
I turned on the TV to catch some news. Waited.
Instead of the news, the programming showed an old series. It was the end of another one of those alleged real-life UFO dramas. How appropriate, I thought.
An elderly man was being interviewed. Answering questions. He sat there, hands on his stomach, staring straight into the camera. It looked dated, maybe 1980’s.
“They like the young ones best. In their 20’s,” he said with a drawl. “They set them up, money, homes, usually big buildings or retreats. All the sex, drugs – they even have their own blue stuff – supposed to be the best high ever – anything they want,” the old man said.
“And then they ‘preserve’ you?” the interviewer asked. Apparently, that part was important. And a bit of comedy relief for the show.
My ears perked up, pulse quickened. But why was this show playing right now?
“No,” the elderly man said from the TV. “They make you into ‘preserves.’ We’re a delicacy. Like sardines. Hell, from this county alone, we’ve had over 5,000 kids disappear since the 1940’s! Where do you think they all went? France?” He shook his head, no.
“A delicacy?” The interviewer said it with a tone of disbelief. His eyebrows arched.
“Yep. They ship us – the freshest flesh -- all over the 'local group' I was told.” The old man looked serious.
"The 'local group?'"
"To the stars, you idiot -- the local ones!" The old man was irritated now.
“Okay, okay, Mr. Andrews. So, what does a preserved human look like?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Hmmm.”
“Nope. But I can tell you what the aliens look like”
“Okay, Mr. Andrews. What do these bad alien cannibals look like? Tell us please.” The interviewer waited patiently.
After considering, the old man squinted at the camera.
“Best way I can say it. They come in two forms. You may have heard about them before. The grays aren’t the little squint-eyed midgets we hear about. That’s all baloney. They are closer to Asian. And the Nords, a bit taller and Caucasian looking.”
“So, they look like us?” The interviewer cleared his throat.
“Kind of, except for the wigs, coppery skin – they use simple make-up to disguise that – and their skulls.”
“They are all bald and oblong.”
The interviewer was laughing. “I’m sorry, Mr. Andrews. I’m sorry.”
The camera panned and tilted. There sat the elderly man in overalls. He was frowning. The camera zoomed away. In the foreground, the soft blue petals of a dewy flower swayed gently in the breeze. Beneath its petals, spiraling green leaves.
The camera zoomed in again. It was the interviewer this time. He was walking along the quiet dirt road, near Mr. Andrew's home. He was closing the show.
“Well, there you have it, folks. Mr. Andrews of Perkshire Farms, Kansas. A small town with the dubious distinction of having more missing children than anywhere else in the country. Is Mr. Andrews an old sage or not? You decide.
"Tune in next week, where we visit yet another area in the U.S. -- where they have experienced unusually high numbers of missing children – or is it all a conspiracy?”
The credits started to roll, and eerie spacey music began to play. The screen started flashing photos of missing children and...aliens.
The camera focused in on an old barn out back then. There, just above the hayloft, tacked near the peak, to cover a busted board, was a rusted sign. It was still legible. An advertisement from 1940. It read: “Blue Flower Jams and Jellies” and “It keeps you well preserved.” There was a green and blue spiral design, faded, but discernible, beneath the printed words.
I turned the TV off. It came back on -- all by itself. A man's face appeared on the screen. It was Corwin, from the Sentinels of the Sea. The night manager himself.
"You didn't like that show we sent you?" Corwin asked, in his usual hyper-speed chatter.
You're kidding me, I thought.
"Don't look so surprised," he said. "We've been here a long time. And we intend to, how do you say here, 'hang around.'"
"What do you want?" I asked. I was playing for more time. Just a few more minutes, was all I needed.
"You, Detective Able Percy. We want you." Corwin reached up, grabbed his gray hair and pulled. Off came his wig. A coppery skull, nearly pointed. It gleamed wetly.
"Jesus, you're one ugly alien," I said. "Now I know why your heads are like that. Your brains are in your asses."
He ignored me, but I didn't have time to chit chat. I looked over at my jacket hanging from the hook near the door. From the left pocket I could see the corner of a plastic bag and a shade of blue.
I carefully stood, pulled my IV out and reached over and unplugged the heart monitor. I knew the nurse on duty, Samantha. We went way back. Saved her daughter's kid from becoming a crack baby. Chuck had given her the nod. She didn't report it when the monitors went silent.
I dressed quickly.
Corwin's face was still on the TV. "Where are you going, Percy?" he asked. "Aren't you going to wait for our Feds?"
Our Feds? I thought.
He was talking to someone of camera now, hissing.
I reached up and smashed the video camera with the butt of my pistol. The one watching my room. I saw Corwin's reaction immediately. He suddenly jumped backward. I pulled the TV cord out next, but Corwin's face remained.
"Detective?" Corwin asked.
I smashed the TV screen then. Hit it until Corwin faded out.
Great, I thought. Now everyone is going to think I am nuts.
Then I heard an Uzi in the hallway.
Shit, not again.
© 2018 Jack Shorebird