Forever Haunt

an excerpt

Prologue



Case file #101: THE FOREVER HAUNT

The past stared back at him, a ghost with glowing eyes. He hadn't looked at these clothes in nearly a year's time, not since last March, the anniversary of his father's death. March 18th, mere hours after the entire family had celebrated a traditional, and for them--final--St. Patrick's Day together. He wasn't sure what hidden impulse had him withdrawing the plastic bag out of the back of his closet today, or why he was looking at ancient stains, rust colored and crusted, that too long ago bore the bright crimson of freshly spilled blood. A pair of faded jeans, a simple white T-shirt, dirty sneakers, the lone survivors of that awful day. His mother had thought she'd thrown them out. Except he had fetched them out of the dumpster in front of their building and never told her he kept them. Back then, when a teen, he'd been afraid to say so, fearful she would steal them away. Today, the soiled clothes served not as a reminder of the terrible unsolved crime because he didn't need one, but instead was more of a talisman in this quest he'd sworn one day to complete. The clothes remained in the plastic, a transparent coffin.

He'd inched closer in the last year to finally adding the word SOLVED to the file, the one cold case that continued to deny him sleep. The case was labeled file 101 because it had been his first ever as a private investigator, he his first client. He'd redoubled his efforts in the past ten months, fresh, unexpected clues starting to fall into place. It was like he could taste a resolution, on his tongue and feel it in his heart, within his soul. Both words, forever and haunt, could at last be laid to rest beside his father.

A new year had at last arrived, and with it came a renewed sense of hope, of salvation, as it always did. Except this year was different, because it would be the fifteenth anniversary of the murder of Joseph McSwain, and the truth had been buried too long. Almost like the dropping of that sparkling, diamond-encrusted ball in Times Square, the anticipation of its descent offered up a sense that brightness filled the future. All you needed was an official countdown. Then you could cheer. Then you could celebrate triumph.

Now, though, distant stars dotted a clear night sky that was slipping into the brightening horizon. Morning was edging in, pushing out the past day, bringing sun-filled promise from the east. Wide-awake and restless, he stared at the window of his office, a studio apartment found on the second floor of a walk-up on Ninth Avenue and 46th Street. The time was approaching 4:30 in the morning, the city gone quiet. It was one of those rare times when Manhattan defied its hard-earned reputation. The bars were closed, people slept, the only signs of life coming from the occasional cabs passing by, empty. The lights on the roofs beamed like fallen stars.

Jimmy McSwain had been asleep but his pattern was interrupted, as it was most nights he stayed here. He easily fell asleep, usually around 1:00 a.m., only to awaken somewhere between four and five. He would then do case work, mostly the online research which only seemed to suck up valuable time during normal waking hours. He was between cases right now, which is when he usually turned to the Forever Haunt. He would take out the thickening file of fading memories and reread articles his lips knew all too well. Tonight he'd altered his routine, left the file in the closed drawer, and instead reached back and found the plastic bag of clothes.

It hadn't happened far from here, the murder of his father. At the corner of 10th Avenue and 47th Street, a block from the safety of home, an avenue from here. A nexus between his home life and his business, a perfect storm of tragedy and destiny. He should never have lost his father that day, not in that way. Imagine if Joseph McSwain had lived, where would Jimmy be now? Not awake, not being taunted by darkness that lived not only in the night sky but inside his heart. Morning would shun the night and bring the new day it always did. Not the same for what ached inside him, because the wound never did go away. He knew the feeling too well, especially with the anniversary looming. He could hear the loud blast of a gun just as much as he could the constant ticking of the clock. A countdown indeed, the sort that kept sleep at bay.

Jimmy released the faded curtain, closing out the waking city. Encased in his own world, he sat on the worn sofa, the bag of bloodied clothes keeping him company--his younger self still beside him. He leaned forward and instead grabbed the television remote. He flipped the power button, watched as the TV blared to life. He pressed the mute button, not ready for both sight and sound. The cable box always went directly to NY1, the 24-hour news channel in Manhattan. Time was four thirty-one, the early morning anchor detailing the "weather on the 1s." It was going to be a normal February day, high of 37. He didn't have much planned for the day. At night, he had promised his mother he would pick up a sub shift at the Calloway Theatre. Not his favorite job, ushering the people to their seats, but he did help in a pinch.

Anything for Maggie McSwain.

Including ultimately solving the murder of the only man she'd ever loved.

On the screen Jimmy noticed video of a crime scene unfolding along one of Manhattan's waterfronts. Emergency lights swirled in the background, adding garish red streaks to the night. The scenario grabbed his attention. He clicked on the sound, rewound to get the report from the start.

"Breaking news now. Police have responded to a shooting that has taken place along the East River near 14th Street. Early reports have the NYPD harbor patrol retrieving a body from the river, but no other details have emerged yet. We are waiting for word from the officials on hand but until then we go now to our on-scene reporter, Jillian Jansen, who is standing by. Jillian, can you tell us the latest?"

"Pat, police responded at about 3 a.m. to a call of shots fired on the pier here on the east side. We expect to hear from the responding precinct captain in a matter of minutes...wait, I see someone walking to a makeshift podium...it's not the precinct captain but NYPD Commissioner Patrick Delaware himself. This is an interesting turn of events, which makes this incident a high priority. Let's listen in."

Jimmy leaned in, as though doing so got him somehow closer to the action. He watched a distinguished, gray at the temples man of about sixty step up to the microphone. As someone who took careful notice of the activities of the NYPD, Jimmy knew Delaware's florid face quite well, but it was the two men who flanked him that added to the unfolding intrigue. First, he recognized a one-time family friend, Lieutenant Lawrence Dean, and second, on the left side of the commish was another of his trusted lieutenants, Salvatore Frisano--who happened to be father to Francis X. Frisano, captain of the 10th Precinct in Chelsea and Jimmy's current lover. Seeing such a high-powered press conference unfold had Jimmy wondering who the victim could be. He felt his heart racing quickly, anxiety winning out over curiosity.

"Good morning, and it is an early one at that," Commissioner Delaware began. "I stand here with a heavy heart, regret filling me as I report that one of our finest, Officer Denson Luke of the 10th Precinct, was found washed up along the waters of the East River at approximately 3:45 this morning. The circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery, though I can confirm that it was neither a suicide nor an accidental drowning. Officer Luke was killed by a single gunshot to the forehead, and while an autopsy will be performed, we are treating this as not only a homicide but an execution of a man in blue. His brethren of the NYPD will devote all our waking hours to finding the perpetrator of this terrible crime. We will all know why Officer Denson Luke lost his life."

Jimmy felt like the past never stayed where it should, his life a constantly staged revival. The bloodied clothes served as a prop in a tragic play, the men at the podium the leads. Jimmy a mere spectator, the man who put people in their seats, just as he'd been during the days after his father's murder. That was back when the police swore the same commitment as he'd just heard. No one gets away with killing an NYPD cop. Yet someone had, long ago. The police had come up empty back then, and who knew, perhaps they would now.

Jimmy focused back on the television, where the Commissioner was still talking.

"I have asked two of my trusted aides to form a task force to investigate this brutal crime, working in tandem with the 10th Precinct, where Officer Luke was assigned. Many of you know Lieutenant Lawrence Dean, who works within a special branch of our Internal Affairs bureau. And Lieutenant Salvatore Frisano, who has overseen many high-profile cases, though much of his investigative work is done behind the scenes. Together, these two dedicated men in blue will protect one of their own, even when--especially when--one cannot protect himself. Thank you. I wish us all better days ahead."

Jimmy sat there, stunned as the three powerful men in uniform broke from the podium. He absorbed what he'd just heard. The 10th Precinct was under Captain Frisano's command, and now one of his officers was dead. His father heading up the task force. Jimmy thought about calling or texting Frisano, but what would he say, what comfort was there? Frisano was busy no doubt, perhaps even among those first responders assembled on the pier. He gazed at the screen to see if he could recognize anyone walking about but the camera then panned back to where the reporter stood. Jimmy listened in.

"Pat, we just learned more details about the victim. Officer Luke was on the force for five years, and he leaves behind a wife and two young children. We will have more for you later. For now, I'm Jillian Jansen, live in Manhattan..."

Jimmy pressed the power button and watched the image disappear. So easy to douse, just like a life. Everything was instant these days. Except pain. That didn't disappear so quickly, if it ever did. Jimmy thought about Officer Luke, and he thought about the man's family, who would wake up to the news of his death, if they hadn't already been informed. Their lives were altered forever. Jimmy understood all too well.

Crime never solved anything, not for the perp, not for the vic. It just did damage.

Jimmy tossed the remote aside, wiped a tear from his eye as he retrieved the bag of soiled clothes from the sofa. Walking across the room, he opened the closet and set the bag on a high shelf. Out of sight, but never out of mind. He returned to the window and saw the first break of light on the horizon. He was grateful to see the hint of a new day, an orange glow of hope. Not everyone got to witness such radiance, and so few appreciated it.

In truth, few appreciated their life. Not until death readied its final nail.

Resolution was near. He could feel the tingle in his fingertips. Bring on the morning, that fresh start so many sought.

Through another family's pain, mourning, Jimmy McSwain had found new determination to finally close out his first case, no matter the circumstances, or consequences. He was going to bring the heat to this cold case.

Case File #101: THE FOREVER HAUNT.

Case Status: UNSOLVED





Part One

Blue Death



Chapter One



February was the shortest month by the stretch of the calendar, a mere twenty-eight days, yet there was something that made the days feel especially long. Perhaps the weather was a factor, a tease between the cruelty of winter and the promise of spring. For private detective Jimmy McSwain, the reality of life went beyond temperature. This time of year had, for a long time, been a deeply personal one, now made two-fold. Firstly, the anniversary of his father's death was creeping ever closer, now just a month away, the grief always enveloping him early, the rawness that lived inside him bubbling to the surface with uncontrollable sadness. That rawness had a way of renewing his determination to see the cold case solved. Yet there was newfound warmth to be found in this young year, as secondly, anticipation gave the McSwain family a reason to hope, like a fresh bud on a tree branch. His sister Meaghan was in her ninth month of pregnancy and ready to pop any day. More than ready if you went by her.

"I feel like a whale," she said.

"If it's any consolation, you look like one, too," Jimmy said, smiling jokingly at her.

She popped a bubble from the gum she was chewing. "You're an asshole."

Meaghan always did have an edge, even as a kid. Now she was hanging over the cliff, done with this pregnancy, even if the baby wasn't.

It was a typical Monday night in February, with Valentine's Day just four days away. No one was feeling the love tonight inside the McSwain household on 48th Street and 10th Avenue in the ever-evolving world of Hell's Kitchen. Gentrification and construction had altered more than the skyline; the demographics and the economy had changed, too. The McSwains had lived in the neighborhood for three generations, with barely anything changing, much less evolving, inside their cozy apartment. Youngest sibling Meghan had been in a pissy mood pretty much her entire life, more so since the new year arrived, and her impending childbirth. It had been a long six weeks to get them to this moment.

"Oh, I'm out of chocolate chips. Now how did that happen, I just went shopping last week," Maggie said from the kitchen, where she was standing in front of the open door of the refrigerator. Mama McSwain had been intent on baking a chocolate chip sheet cake for dessert, now stymied by the lack of its sweetest ingredient. "Meaghan, did you eat that entire bag?"

"What, I can't have cravings?"

"Well, I need a new bag."

Two voices suddenly rang out.

"I'll go!"

Jimmy looked at his sister Mallory, who was also feeling the effects of her sister's pregnancy. Both in need of a temporary reprieve from Meaghan's eternal foul mood. A quick deli run would easily remove them from the current situation. Jimmy won out, thereby giving the three McSwain women a chance to bond, or at least for two of them to calm the ornery, younger one. He grabbed his leather jacket and left the apartment for the cold outdoors, bounding down the five flights of stairs much as he'd done his entire life. He was thirty, but sometimes on the trek back up he felt older, like the stairs were toying with him, keeping him simultaneously in shape while serving him a reminder that his knees were victim to the passage of time.

As he came to the first floor, he noticed a stack of cardboard moving boxes in the vestibule. They were typically marked: kitchen, bedroom, bathroom. What he didn't see was who the boxes might belong to. It had been a while since a new neighbor had moved into their old building, one of the last surviving so-called tenements on 10th Avenue, now home to too many high-rises. While his family's steadfast presence helped preserve neighborhood traditions, other forces--those with money and influence and big development plans--were busily tearing down the past and floor-by-towering floor transforming old school Hell's Kitchen into new world Clinton, a more prominent district that guaranteed higher rents. Jimmy wondered which of the apartments in his building this person, or persons, was moving into. Mrs. O'Brien on the first floor had died seven months ago at age ninety-two, so maybe her relatives had finally given up the place.

As he dashed out into the early evening, he saw streaks of dark blue light hovering across the western horizon. Another sign that winter was on the wane. He also noticed a moving van in front of the building, but again, he didn't see anyone milling about. Like a ghost was moving in, not yet ready to reveal its intentions. Jimmy refocused on the task at hand. His mother was nothing if not a stickler for time, and the fact she was missing an ingredient for her weekly family dinner probably had shifted her own mood. Meaghan didn't come by hers innocently. He had to hurry.

His destination was a deli on 10th Avenue, a mainstay, even though it had changed owners over the years. Still, it was the same one which had changed Jimmy's life and where his father's life ended. Breaking up a robbery on what should have been a quiet morning. Jimmy continually saw the shrouded assassin stop, pivot, shoot. His mind, his eyes, focused on the firepower from the bullet rocketing through the shaft. So quick but also somehow in slow motion. Joseph McSwain had gone down, Jimmy had cradled him. Felt the warmth of his blood as it soaked into his clothes. Heard the man's final breath escape his lungs, felt his body shudder.

Jimmy would never forget the notion of life draining out, as though it was that easy to die. Now he was opening the glass door of the scene of the crime, as he had so often over the years. For such a simple thing, too, a yellow bag of Nestle chocolate chips. He found them on a back shelf, then went to the cooler and grabbed a six-pack of Bass. He wasn't sure what was in the fridge back home; not like it would go to waste.

"Evening, Habib," Jimmy said.

"Interesting combination," the clerk said looking at Jimmy's chosen items.

"What can I say, you can't control your urges."

"The choices from customers get more interesting as the night goes on," he said. "Usually Red Bull and condoms."

Jimmy laughed as he paid, grabbed the plastic bag and started back up 10th Avenue. As he approached his building, he noticed a young woman emerge from the back of the moving van. She awkwardly carried a cardboard box that seemed too heavy for her toward the door.

"Hey, how about we switch?" Jimmy said.

The woman paused. Then she smiled, lighting up an already pretty face. She was probably no more than twenty-five, Hispanic it appeared, with long dark hair and high cheekbones.

"I'm fine, it's not heavy, just bulky. But if you could get the door."

Jimmy did as asked, slipping his key into the front-door lock. "There is a catch, where you can secure the door so you don't have to keep opening it," he said. He then demonstrated, flipping a metal clasp to the lower part of the front door.

"I wasn't sure if I should do that..." she said. "Leave it unattended."

"It's pretty safe here. Really, let me take that box."

Jimmy set down the bag from the deli and the woman relented, seemingly glad to have the weight off her arms. Jimmy went into the building, the woman directing him to the rear apartment on the first floor. Just as he'd suspected, Mrs. O'Brien's old place. He smelled fresh paint as he entered the small apartment. He saw more boxes, no furniture. Setting the box down near them, he wondered if anyone was helping her. A boyfriend, or a husband...hell, even a hunky moving man would do. He supposed he'd just stepped into that role.

"You're moving in by yourself?" he asked, turning to her. She stood in the doorframe, like she was afraid to step across the threshold. Afraid of her new home or perhaps an uncertain future. Or a bad past? Something unwritten, or unplanned?

"No, no...I have..."

"Mom...mom...I saw a bug in my room..."

Jimmy spun around to see a young boy, probably no more than five or six. He had the same dark hair as his mother, wide brown eyes and a sudden fearful expression on his face when he saw Jimmy. The boy stopped in his tracks.

"Who's he?"

"Actually, I don't know yet, but he lives in the building. He had a key."

Words that sounded like assurances. To the boy, and to her.

"Jimmy McSwain," he offered. "I live on the fifth floor. My mother and sister do, too."

The woman finally stepped into the apartment, her hand extended. "Carmen Ramirez. This is my son, Sonny."

Jimmy smiled at the boy. "Almost sounds redundant."

Sonny looked like he didn't understand his comment, or at least like it. "Mom, I'm hungry."

"We'll eat soon. Just a few more boxes. Why don't you run out, get the easy stuff? Lamps."

"Okay."

The boy dashed past Jimmy without even a cursory glance. As though Jimmy didn't exist, a phantom needing to be exorcised from his new home. Worse than any bug he might find. Maybe the boy was used to men not being around. It seemed to be Carmen and Sonny against the world.

"Don't mind, Sonny. He's a...cautious kid."

"No worries," Jimmy said. "Welcome to the building."

"Thank you. And thank you for your help with the box. You didn't have to."

"Are there many more?"

"Just a few. I can handle them. Furniture movers arrive tomorrow. Not that we have much." Jimmy nodded. He sensed a vulnerability within her, an emotion she was trying her best to hide but failing in her attempt. He read her body language, arms wrapped around herself. The bag from the deli had been set down on the floor just inside the apartment. He went over to it, withdrew two bottles of the Bass Ale. Maybe she could use a cold brew, even on a winter day. Moving was worse than work. It was life-changing.

"No, that's okay, but thank you, Jimmy. You are very sweet."

Jimmy realized the bottles weren't twist off. He'd have had trouble opening them anyway. A flush of embarrassment hit him, as though he'd failed her. Which was a ridiculous notion. He didn't know this woman, nor did he bear any responsibility to her. Didn't stop him from an inner need to want to help her. Then he caught a view of the bag of chocolate chips. His mother was no doubt waiting for his return with her usual Irish impatience.

"Carmen, I'm just a few floors away. You need anything, just let me know."

"Thank you. I'm sure we'll be fine."

Jimmy nodded, picked up the deli bag after putting the two bottles back inside their carrier. He paused at the doorway, turned back to her. A question formed on his lips, and even though he knew the answer was none of his business he felt the urge to know. He felt a sudden responsibility to the new residents of his long-standing home.

"If I may ask, is there a Mr. Ramirez?"

Carmen paused. Was she wondering whether to answer, or what the right one was?

"Sort of. Somewhere," she finally said.

"I'm sorry," Jimmy said. "Anything I can help with?"

"How could you possibly help?"

He stepped back toward her, this time extending his hand. "Jimmy McSwain, private eye."

"You're kidding."

His expression said otherwise. "Carmen, are you in trouble?"

"I'm fine. Sonny is fine," she said, dismissing Jimmy's concerns with a wave of her hand. Then she paused before continuing. "Really, everything will be fine. Thank you, Jimmy. I should see what's keeping Sonny. He likes to put up a brave front, but he's moved around a lot. He's only six. New surroundings can confuse a child."

"I'll let you go to him," Jimmy said.

"I'm sure I will see you around. Goodnight."

Jimmy knew a dismissal when he heard one. He left with a mix of emotions, thinking she'd used the word fine too much. And the phrase "will be." Usually an indication things were anything but. Walking back up the stairs with the weight of the world squarely on his shoulders, he tried to tell himself Carmen's troubles were none of his business. If she didn't want help, who was he to force his services on her? Except he felt something gnaw at his insides, a sense that there was much more to their story, and that whatever the Ramirez family's story was, it couldn't be good. Carmen might have sent him away now, but he believed she'd come knocking eventually.

Carmen Ramirez was living in fear. That was no way to raise a son. That much he knew.

* * * *