Crime Wave

an excerpt



Prologue

Case file #101: The Forever Haunt


It would always be his first case, and he would always be his own first client.

Not that he needed reminding, but what made him remove the photographs and files from the accordion file he kept hidden in the back of the black metal cabinet was a recent newspaper article about an eerily familiar crime. The photographs were more than fifteen years old, their color muted, and the clippings he'd compiled over the years were torn in some places. Even now, the Scotch tape was peeling off, the adhesive having lost its hold after the passage of time. The file held everything he knew about his father's unsolved murder on a Manhattan street. Joey McSwain was gunned down outside a deli on Tenth Avenue.

He often looked at the file while in between cases because he still sought clues to solving it, especially as the police had long since rendered it cold. He hadn't had a solid lead in years, really, and only a few months before had he renewed his inner determination to one day bring its mysteries to a satisfying end. Standing over his father's grave as an angry teen, he'd made that promise to his father, and now, at twenty-nine, Jimmy McSwain was not a man who went back on his word. Joseph McSwain, Jr. had also lived by a code of honesty, of respect for others, and he'd assured his son he would always be there for him.

Until one day a stranger with a trigger finger changed all that.

What caught Jimmy's attention this morning while he sipped coffee from the local deli was an article on the fifth page of the Daily News, bad placement nearly making him skip past it.

STRING OF DELI ROBBERIES CLAIMS FIRST VICTIM.

He read on for more details. The previous crimes hadn't been considered news before, just random incidents. Delis throughout New York City were hardly glamorous enough to send circulation figures through the roof. At least, not until someone got hurt, and get hurt they did this time, the immigrant owner shot dead last night right in front of his store. The killer had run off into the night, but the police were optimistic in finding him because of the images that had been caught on the surveillance camera.

"We'll get the perp, make no mistake about it," Captain Francis X. Frisano of Chelsea's 10th Precinct stated with easy confidence while standing on a street corner near the scene of the crime.

Jimmy could picture the captain, addressing the press in his neatly pressed uniform, its fit snug against his cut body, his dark eyes dancing with the excitement of the chase. His handsome face revealing a devilish smile amidst a perpetual five o'clock shadow. He hadn't seen Frisano in a couple of months, not since the Hidden Identity case, but Jimmy would see him soon because he wanted to know what the police weren't telling the press about the deli murder.

Jimmy's blue eyes darted back to the article. According to what he read, the crime had taken place at a 24-hour deli at on Eighth Avenue and 17th Street, at ten o'clock at night, a gun jammed into the face of forty-two-year-old owner Manjou Ghatek as the assailant demanded money. A fight ensued with the man grabbing at the cash register before making a run for it. The proprietor wrongly chose to chase after the crook and wound up taking a bullet on the street, his body dropping to the hard cement. It was the last act it would do in this world. A shiver ran through Jimmy despite the warmth inside his office. His mind pictured the bloody scene, how the blast of the gun must have shattered an otherwise peaceful summer night, not to mention that of a hard-working family.

"We believe the recent strings of attacks on delis are related, the work of one man," said Frisano. "But now he's escalated things."

Jimmy noted that they speculated this was the seventh such robbery, and the first one to end in extreme violence.

Setting aside the newspaper and taking a sip at his now lukewarm coffee, Jimmy pulled up the faded photographs of another deli, this one on Tenth Avenue and 47th Street, not far from his home, where he, as a fourteen-year-old boy, had accompanied his father on what should have been a simple run for bagels. Joey McSwain was an NYPD cop, off duty but never really so, and he'd attempted to stop an argument between two men from getting out of control, and he'd paid for it dearly-with his life. Now Jimmy, his son, a grown man and still tortured by all he'd witnessed, continued to pay for what he'd lost by always wondering why fate had stepped in to destroy a life and a family. And why the cops-his father's own brothers in blue-had bungled the case and failed to bring about an arrest.

Jimmy McSwain, sometimes rash in his daily life but always focused in the long run, might be a graduate of the police academy, but he had sworn never to wear the uniform. As he said, it was always good to know police procedure, but then use it to your advantage and act on your own instincts. Working as a private investigator meant you clocked your own hours, and on your own terms.

Since setting up his own office six years before, he'd solved many cases, yet his father's was the one where a truth continued to elude him. The evidence had dried up but never the hurt. The deli murder from the night before had just awakened a sleeping giant. And what struck most at Jimmy was the fact that in that attack, the alleged criminal was not some reckless kid looking for a bit of mischief, not according to the description provided in the article. The black and white sketch that accompanied the article had Jimmy staring at an older man with a thatch of gray hair and deep-set eyes that looked like they had seen terrible things in life.

Perhaps he had been in prison all these years for another crime, only now just released and wasting little time in resuming his familiar pattern of the easy robbery, this time taking on-and taking out-a defenseless deli owner.

Jimmy knew it was a long shot, near impossible to connect all those yesterdays with what was happening now. Still, that didn't stop him from focusing on the man's haunted face again, and this time, with his heart beating and beads of sweat forming on his warm brow inside his tiny apartment, he wondered if he was finally staring at his father's killer.

Case file #101: THE FOREVER HAUNT

Case Status: UNSOLVED







Part One



Summer in the City



Chapter One


Jimmy McSwain, licensed private investigator but today playing the role of dutiful brother, was working a case, and he wasn't happy about it for two reasons. First, he wasn't being paid for his services. Second, and at the moment far worse than the prior offense, he was sweating bullets, and not because he was anxious or tense about the stakeout he found himself on. Rather, it was late June, and the heat wave that blasted the city was in its fourth sweltering day. Summer had arrived with a vengeance and had brought with its sunny skies ninety-plus temperatures and ninety-plus humidity. The unforgiving heat that seared the cement sidewalks of New York had a tendency to make some people crazier, some hornier, and for some, much more dangerous. Such conflicting combinations could lead to bad mistakes when it came to relationships, whether personal or professional, often leaving a scorched path in its wake.

Hence, this current case, not to mention his current predicament.

Jimmy was seated behind the wheel of a dark blue 2001 Dodge Stratus, parked outside a five-story brownstone on 107th Street where Broadway, West End and Riverside Drive in a confluence of avenues. He'd been at this spot for the past two hours with the engine off, the window rolled down, and despite his proximity to the river, there was no crosswind to speak of. A bottle of water at his side kept him hydrated. Otherwise, perspiration dripped down his face, drenching his shirt, his underarms ripe. The heat served as just a preview of what would choke the city for the coming summer. Every once in a while, he would lean forward to peel his shirt off the car seat, hoping that if he had to make a sudden run for it he wouldn't stick to it. Wiping at his three-day scruff with a damp handkerchief, he stole a look down at his silenced cell phone to check the time and hoped night would arrive soon, providing a break from the sun.

6:35 pm.

No such luck, the sun wouldn't yet sleep for a couple more hours. It was a bright Friday night, the denizens of New York getting off work and heading to their favorite happy hour. What Jimmy wouldn't give to be inside Paddy's, his uncle's pub, right now, his hand wrapped around a pint of Smithwicks, pressing the cold glass against his forehead. Instead, he was working. Sort of. Just like lawyers did pro bono work, so too did private investigators, especially when the client asking for the free ride happened to be family. He wondered just how long the person of interest was planning on staying inside the no doubt air-conditioned apartment. If his client's suspicions were actually proven true and what was going on inside was actually going on, then he could be in for an all-nighter. Which made Jimmy want it to be true; that way the two-timing creep would be out of their lives.

See, Jimmy's client was none other than his younger sister, Meaghan.

Meaghan McSwain, with long red hair and an attitude she'd perfected as a child, also happened to be sitting shotgun, which made doing his job effectively even more challenging. Kind of like taking your mother to the prom, his sister on a stakeout put a crimp in his style. He had suggested she wait over by Straus Park, a leafy area with trees to block the sun and benches to wait out. He said he'd text her if anything happened. She said no; in fact, she said:

"I'm gonna kill him, you know that, Jimmy?"

"Easy, girl. Don't let the heat fry your nerves."

"You're not the one he's cheating on."

"That's because I wouldn't have made such a poor choice in a boyfriend."

"Please, you have awful taste in men," she said.

Jimmy chose to deflect that dig and get them back on topic. "Come on, Meaghan, Rocky Martino? You really expected a monkey like him to be faithful to anyone, much less you? Sorry, no offense. He's got a reputation as long as his rap sheet."

She looked away, not happy with her brother. But really not happy with herself.

Jimmy had known the hotheaded Rocky Martino since childhood-their families were tight, neighbors-and way before Rocky went away to prison. He had been out of the joint for all of two months, released early for good behavior he had claimed. Jimmy knew it was more likely prison over-crowding. Rocky had been caught dealing coke in the neighborhood, and the precinct cops had little sympathy for the homegrown kid; you don't shit where you eat goes the saying. Trouble had followed the reckless, handsome Rocky his entire life, starting with fights in the playgrounds of Hell's Kitchen to petty robbery at the local shops, finally graduating to the big leagues. So he'd been sent to the big house, his incarceration as inevitable as a blackout in the summer. He'd done one and a half years at Parsons Hill, a minimum-security prison upstate, the place hardly humbling him.

Rocky and Meaghan had crossed paths at the Mean Fiddler Pub on 47th Street between Seventh and Eighth about a month before, where a couple of beers had them deciding it would be fun to be a couple. Whirlwind romances always seem to have a ticking clock. Because now here Jimmy was, Meaghan in tow, trailing after a wayward Rocky, hoping to catch him in the act of couple-dom with someone other than his girlfriend.

"Jimmy, I really appreciate this...you know, following him."

"It's easy. He's too cocky to ever think he'd get caught. Just like when he was dealing."

"He's done with that, he promised me."

"Did he also promise that you were the only one?"

Meaghan again looked away, a frown crafting a shadow on her pale, freckled face. He felt bad for her, she wasn't so young anymore at twenty-three, but she was as naïve as they came. It was sort of refreshing that she still put her trust in people. Both Jimmy and their older sister, Mallory, a defense attorney for a fancy law firm over on Madison Avenue, knew differently. People had a tendency to disappoint, and Jimmy's thinking wasn't just because he and Mallory made their living on the right side of law enforcement. When it came to affairs of the heart, mankind could be just as cruel as any crook.

"He was so charming that night," Meaghan said. "He bought me drinks."

"And he's good-looking, so of course you swooned over his attentions."

"Swooned? Really, Jimmy?"

"Fine, you got a case of the hot pants, and you let him douse them that night."

"I think I liked you better when you were trying to sound all uppity."

Jimmy and Meaghan had been watching Rocky's front stoop earlier in the day when they saw him emerge and hail a cab on the corner of Eleventh Avenue and 54th Street. They'd set off after him, and watched when Rocky got out of the cab at the corner of 107th and West End, and made his way eagerly down the side street. Partially protected from the sun by the line of trees near the curb, he'd walked with an eye toward his back. That was just an ex-con who'd not released the fear of being inside. Still, Jimmy trailed him undetected in the car he'd bought from his grandmother Hester when she'd moved out of the city eight years before. He barely used it, keeping it mostly in the garage collecting rust. What was nice with a junker like his, it would never be noticed by a smug guy like Rocky. He liked things shiny and new, expensive. A limo.

Jimmy had squeezed their way into a parking spot in front of the building, and he and Meaghan settled in to see what transpired. They watched as Rocky depressed a buzzer for what seemed like the fifth floor, not even hesitating to check the location of the bell, Jimmy noticed. It had only taken a moment before the door clicked open and he disappeared into the building. Jimmy's eyes had gazed upwards toward the top floor of the building, imagining Rocky taking the steps two at a time, eager for whatever his rendezvous included. Not that he had proof of any transgression or infidelity, Meaghan based her paranoia on the fact that he'd broken their date for the night.

"He said he was feeling sick," Meaghan had told Jimmy.

"He looked fine to me," was Jimmy's reply. "Lots of energy."

Now two hours of nothing had somehow slipped by, the long day having held the night at bay for as long as it could. The foot traffic on the streets had increased as Manhattanites returned to their apartments after a grueling week at work, ready to meet up with friends at any number of the bars and restaurants that lined this section of Broadway. Had he been sitting by himself in the car, he might have drawn attention, but with Meaghan at his side they were less conspicuous. They were just two people innocently sweating.

Stealing a look at his phone again, he saw it was 6:41 now. "Uh, Meaghan, it's getting late. Not that you need reminding, but Ma's expecting you at the theatre by seven. You'll never make it." Both McSwain women were part of the front of the house staff at Broadway's Harold Calloway Theatre, Maggie leading the charge as the head usher and Meaghan working as one of the twelve ushers on her staff. Curtain time was eight, doors opened at the half hour, and so her reporting time was an hour prior the show. Even if she left five minutes ago, she'd be late getting to the theatre district.

"I know, but...I can't just leave until he comes out. I have to know."

"You don't know when that might be, and you also don't know what's going on. It could be as innocent...never mind, even I can't pull that bullshit off. Look, he could be settled in for the night. You gonna leave Ma short on the final weekend of the show? It's sold out."

Meaghan's pretty face looked deflated. "I need to know who she is."

Jimmy raised an eyebrow. "You sure it's a she?"

"Eww, Jimmy."

"You ever hear of Rocky the Musical."

"Funny guy. Trust me, Rocky's not gay."

"Not the kind of assurance I need from my little sister."

"Besides, just because you're gay, doesn't mean everyone else is."

He held up his hands in defense. "I don't make the rules; I just play by them. Sometimes. I'm just saying, prison changes a man. Or confirms what's laid dormant. He is a good-looking guy, I'll give him that. Not much else, but that."

Any chance of a reply from Meaghan was interrupted by the vibration of Jimmy's phone.

"It's Ma."

Even though he'd already told her she was late for work, Meaghan panicked. "Shit, don't tell her what we're doing. I'm not here with you."

"I can do discreet. But you need to get your ass to the theatre-now. The one train is four blocks away at One Hundred and Third."

"Right, I'm on it. Promise you'll stay here until Rocky comes out."

He thought it was a funny phrase considering what they'd just been talking about.

The phone buzzed a third time, and he grabbed for it just as his frazzled red-headed sister made a mad dash down the sunny street. She was young, she was in shape, and if she got lucky with the subway she just might make it to 50th Street with a minute to spare. It was the closest station to the Calloway; unfortunately, it was also a local stop so hopping an express at some point wouldn't help.

"Hi, Ma."

"Where's your sister?"

"She's on her way."

"How do you know?"

"If you didn't think I'd know, why did you call me?"

He was met with stony silence on the other end before she said, "No flies on you, Jimmy. Just because she's my daughter doesn't give her a free pass on being late for work. If she's not here by seven-fifteen, she goes home and Kevin works short."

Short meant working a double-aisle. You got paid double, too.

"Ma, she'll be there."

"Where are you?"

"Too far away if you're calling to ask me to fill in for her, or anyone else."

"I did need someone earlier, but I filled it."

Sometimes Maggie would call Jimmy at the last minute to work an aisle, and even though it was one of his least favorite jobs, worse than a stakeout on a steaming day, he would never tell her "no." Jimmy McSwain was raised to not only respect his mother, but sometimes to fear her Irish temper. She got it from her own mother, a fiery broad who could inflict a wound with just a withering glance.

"Ma, I'm on a job," he said.

"Something interesting?"

If she only knew. "Boring stakeout. Been sitting here so long, I've got grill marks."

He heard her laugh and then her good-bye. Jimmy hung up and resumed his watch, hoping for some action at the front door. It was a standard New York brownstone, a stoop of eight steps with metal guardrails that led up to the double set of doors. Jimmy considered getting out of his car, if only to stretch, but more so to see if he could catch a name from the buzzers by the door. Grabbing for his phone, he stepped out of the car and felt his damp T-shirt cling to his back. Once free, he felt better, released. A slight breeze was finally coming off the Hudson and down the narrow street, providing Jimmy with a brief respite from the stifling heat. Thankfully, the parking spot he'd found was beneath a tree, so at least he'd been in the shade all this time. Now, though, he stepped into the direct sunlight as he strode toward the stoop. He looked around as several people walked by, none of them paying him any mind and none headed toward the same building. New York was good for that, people minding their own business.

He took hold of the rail, walked up the steps to a set of two wrought-iron covered doors, each of them adorned with a brass knob. He tried them, knowing they'd be locked, and he was right. Not that he planned on going in, good to just check the security features. Looking to his right, he saw a series of buzzers, each accompanied by a strip of paper with names printed on them. There were twelve apartments in all. His eyes immediately went to the uppermost buzzers. Crouse, Wolciezcweiz, Ahkbar, Benson-Rather, wondering if the last listing was a hyphenated single person or a dual-named married couple. Thinking he'd never remember all of them, he pulled out his iPhone and snapped a quick picture. Which of these names, he wondered, and which apartment had captured Rocky's interest?

Jimmy retreated back to his car, leaning against the hood. He occupied himself with his phone if for nothing else than to look distracted. He kept a sidelong glance at the building, and it was another twenty minutes before there came any activity. The door opened, and stepping out onto the stoop were two people, Jimmy easily recognizing Rocky, his dark hair cut short against his skull, prison-like, his large frame thick from workouts. He was holding hands with the other person, but Jimmy couldn't get a good look. Partly blocked by Rocky's big body, and partly by tree branches, he tried to peer without being obvious. Thankfully, Rocky moved sideways, his head bending down to plant a kiss on the person's lips. And not the kind of kiss you gave a friend. It was soulful and lingering, the afterglow following a particularly passionate afternoon of love-making.

When Rocky pulled away, Jimmy finally saw who he was with. He had to give his sister credit, she'd pegged Rocky as a cheating louse and here he was doing just that, plain as the day was long. But Jimmy took the ultimate prize. Because Rocky was in the tight embrace of another man, more slight than he with curly dark hair and chocolate-colored skin. When they parted, the smiles they exchanged could only be translated as one thing: Rocky Martino was in love. And if so, then what was this entire pretense with Meaghan? She said they'd been sleeping together, so did that make Rocky bisexual? Under whose covers did his true self live, a man's or a woman's?

Jimmy had never trusted Rocky, not before prison, now not after.

Now Rocky had gone one step further by messing with his sister. Tempted to confront him now, he held his anger in check. Thinking the two lovers were about to part ways, he instead saw them clasp hands and begin to walk down the quiet street and go past an empty lot, each of them with noticeable bounces in their step. When the lust was fulfilled and you still acted that way, it had to be love. Rocky was thirty-one, two years older than Jimmy. His partner looked a bit older, maybe thirty-five.

They turned onto the busier stretch of West End Avenue and entered a bar on the corner called the Tomorrow Lounge. They had to go down a few steps to go in, a black awning there to shield them. Jimmy knew a lot of the gay bars in the city and this one wasn't one of them. Still, Jimmy silently thanked them. It would be nice to get out of the sun. Because he wanted to talk to Rocky, and what better way than to do it over an ice-cold beer.

He followed his prey, and soon, he was entering the dimly lit space.

Rocky Martino's night was about to turn bad.