Guardian Angel

an excerpt


Case file #101: THE FOREVER HAUNT

Clues had been few and far between lately for his first and still cold case, leaving him, on some nights, staring at a file that failed to provide him with any answers, much less any needed solace. Motivation can come from unexpected places, though, stirring a fierce desire to once and for all solve the mystery. On this starlit November night, he'd been downstairs at Paddy's Pub, the intimate bar owned by his uncle, his mother's brother. Paddy's was quiet tonight, closed for the holiday, so the only people inside were family, celebrating the annual feast that was Thanksgiving. It was only after the pumpkin pie--never his favorite--had been brought to the table that he slipped out the side door and made his way upstairs to the second-floor studio apartment that doubled as his office.

Grabbing a Yuengling from the small fridge he kept inside the apartment, he twisted the cap and took a grateful sip before setting down the bottle on the floor. Fortified, he then went to the closet and slid open the door to reveal the black metal filing cabinet he stored inside. Opening the drawer was always dramatic in his mind, almost like Batman unveiling the special access batpoles to the cave carved deep under Wayne Manor. This was his not-so-secret place, a go-to haunt where he went to fight a strange concoction of sorrow and --hope--where his soul was fueled, where he was reminded of what he'd lost and what one day he would solve. He withdrew a thick file bulging with yellowed newspaper articles, aging photographs, and other notes from a case that only seemed to grow more complicated with each passing year.

Next March, it would be fifteen years since the shooting, half his life in which he'd lived with his father dead.

Joseph McSwain had been a career NYPD officer, shot down while off duty during an innocent deli run to grab some morning bagels. He'd taken his only son with him, the son who later held him, watched as his father bled out while not even hearing his own screams, the look in his father's eyes forever ingrained: Why? Why indeed, he thought even today, because whoever had pulled that trigger and for whatever reason still remained a cruel mystery. In the past year, he'd redoubled his efforts to solve a crime the cops had long given up on, and while he thought he'd inched closer, this past fall had seen one pertinent clue dry up like a raindrop on a humid summer's day, gone before it had solidified.

Downstairs, he could hear the joyous celebration continue. This day was Uncle Paddy's favorite holiday, and as such he preferred to host. He closed the pub, covered the pool table with a plank of wood, then allowed his mother, Hester, to decorate and set the makeshift table. His two grown sons arrived, some years with a girlfriend, most not, because Paddy liked to keep things small, "just family," as he was wont to say. This year just Kellan and Taren were here, along with Grandma Hester, who came down from upstate Peach Lake, and of course Paddy's sister, Maggie, was there, along with her brood, daughters Mallory, who had brought her steady beau, Taylor, a pregnant Meaghan, and lastly the man who had now deserted the party, her son, Jimmy.

Jimmy settled down on the floor, sipping at his beer while flipping open the file. A photo of his father in his dress blues stared back at him, as it always did. His face was lit with a smile, his bristly handlebar mustache highlighting his handsome face. Jimmy saw himself in the man's features, the shape of his mouth and the slight hook of his nose. Where they differed was in the eyes. Joseph's were open, inviting. Jimmy had stared in the mirror often enough to know his eyes were darker, shaded with regret. He carried that look with him often, which some found enticing, while others saw only distance.

"Happy Thanksgiving, Dad," Jimmy said to the open space.

There was no answer. There never was. Joseph McSwain was as silent as ever.

Jimmy flipped another page, where he came upon his own notes about a recent twist in the case that had left him cold. A killer had been released from prison, only to kill again. After he was gunned down by the NYPD, an unknown sister had surfaced with new facts then one day retracted them and disappeared into a black hole provided by the authorities. Jimmy was told by the police it had all been fabrication, that the Assan case shared no link to the long-ago shooting death of their brother, Joseph McSwain. Skeptical of the story but with no place to turn, Jimmy had filed his own report and then pushed the Forever Haunt into the recesses of the dark closet, not to mention those regions of his mind that awoke only at night. Only after a visit from Captain Francis X. Frisano last month had a new fear sprung up inside Jimmy, one that suggested he'd been manipulated by results of the Assan case. A fresh clue existed somewhere. It had to. Jimmy would find it. A phrase the stuck out during the last case: Blue Death.

"I'll find the truth, Dad."

A gentle knock stirred him. He looked up to find his mother standing in the doorframe of his apartment. Maggie was sixty-seven and still beautiful, with knowing eyes and a mop of gray hair. Her knees sometimes grew creaky, which might have come from a lifetime of climbing five flights of stairs to her home or up the grand staircases of the Calloway Theatre. Here it was only two. Still, she rarely visited his office, knowing this was his sanctuary. Another superhero image flashed in his mind, Superman hiding inside the cold walls of the Fortress of Solitude, but Jimmy possessed no superpowers, and even if he did, the knowing presence of Maggie McSwain was his Kryptonite. Whatever resolve of hiding up here dissipated with her arrival.

"Hey, Ma."

"Jimmy, it's Thanksgiving, a day of rest, of family."

"I know. I was doing great, until I wasn't."

"Do you always sit on the floor, or has the weight of the world on your shoulders pushed you down that far?"

He tried to smile. "I'll be down in a minute."

"The Martinos just arrived," she said, "Including Rocky. They brought a pecan pie. I know you prefer that over pumpkin."

Rocky Martino was the father of Meaghan's baby, due this coming February. They were not a couple, since Rocky had only been pretending to date her--one drunken night a notable exception, hiding his true sexuality from very traditional parents, both now considered extended family and thus partaking of the holiday dessert. All of their families went back years, growing up in Hell's Kitchen. Gentrification had pushed out some of the old-timers, that or death had, but these three clans--the Byrnes, McSwains, Martinos--still considered 10th Avenue their home, their turf, along with a host of other families who never referred to the neighborhood as Clinton and who refused to sell out to the high-rise, low-life developers.

"I'll be down soon."

"You could have brought a guest, too, Jimmy, so you wouldn't feel so..."

"I'm not alone, Ma. I got you."

"A thirty-year-old man, relying on his mother."

"I could be eighty, and I'd still rely on you."

"Hate to think how old that would make me," she said.

"You're timeless, Ma."

She came over to him and tousled his brown hair like he was still ten years old, a half-smile upon her face. She didn't need to say more. Sometimes words minimized earnest gestures. Maggie turned around and went back downstairs, leaving Jimmy to himself, his heart lifted. For just a brief moment, both of his parents had been inside his world, one ghostly, the other an ever-present angel. He closed the thick file but not before staring intently at his father's image again.

"One day, Dad, one day you'll rest."

Joseph McSwain was still smiling. At least one of them could.

The file put away, the beer drained, Jimmy McSwain left his office, dousing the light, and with it, the safety he always found inside. Darkness stared back at him, threatening to claim him. Clues were not going to be found among these silent walls but outside, floating in the blowing wind, white noise amidst the honking of horns, waiting for that perfect moment to drift down to the earth like snowflakes. Jimmy promised he would catch them, on his tongue and in his heart, and in doing so, he would catch a killer.

Time couldn't evade him forever.



The Devil Inside You

Chapter One

His left shoulder ached in the cold, but of course he'd been warned by his doctor that such a thing was likely to happen. A gunshot wound never fully healed. "Damn," Jimmy thought, stretching out his arm and trying to rid himself of the stiffness, "it's going to be a long winter." He'd taken a bullet last fall during the Stage Fright case. Not all of his cases were that dangerous. Of course, the future always held the potential for worse.

Considering the wound and the dropping temperatures, it didn't help that this was the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, and snow was already falling. Messy wet flakes coated the sidewalks of Manhattan, slippery if you weren't being careful, and the lady clinging to his arm was doing just that, being careful, even though they hadn't yet stepped out of the back of the car. She just had an overly familiar nature about her, like a snake trying to make nice with its prey before consuming it. He gazed away from the sight of the snow, his eyes reverting to her, the long dress, the shapely legs revealed by an edgy, high-cut slit, her black pumps, an outfit as inappropriate for the weather as it was necessary for the occasion.

"Jimmy, you are a dear for helping me out," spoke Serena Carson in her upper-crust voice.

"I do what I'm asked," Jimmy replied. "Especially when the client is paying."

"Client. I don't like that word. It's so...impersonal." With that, she tightened her hold on him. He could smell her perfume, a powerful floral scent that wafted through the back of the car. He could also feel the pull at his shoulder. Pain shot through him. He didn't show it. One thing you didn't show a client was weakness.

How strange it was to be in the rarefied company of a legendary New Yorker like Serena Carson, the real estate heiress who became famous at age eight when she walked away from a private plane crash that claimed the lives of her wealthy parents. She was front-page news then, now too, if not the headline grabber she used to be. The Post's Page Six still loved to report on her exploits. She was an ageless fifty-one, Jimmy was a weary thirty, and the way she leered at him just now--not to mention the heave of her bosom--set off warning bells inside his mind. Not that she wasn't attractive and not that he wasn't unaware of her cougar-like reputation (she'd never married, preferring to snatch up boyfriends who only got younger as the years passed), it's that Jimmy never mixed business with pleasure, not to mention the simple truth that women had never interested him, not in that way, not even obvious ones like Serena, not that he was involved with anyone else at the moment. That issue was complicated.

Jimmy closed his eyes and tried to shut out all the confusing notes in his mind. Even for him, those were a lot of notes to absorb. Life, as usual, seemed to be missing vital pages from its instruction manual. On this night, at least, his world was filled with beautiful images and imagery, the silver-tinged snow set aglow by the golden streaks from the city's streetlamps. No colored lights had surfaced yet. Lincoln Center's annual tree lighting was not until next week, same for Rockefeller Center, so the city seemed in holiday limbo, digesting turkey and football scores while awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus.

Tonight, though, it was Serena Carson, among many others of the city's privileged elite, whose presence was expected. Jimmy was just her guardian, an imposter in a tuxedo.

Jimmy had ordered a sleek Lincoln Town Car to take them to Lincoln Center, where they were attending a benefit performance of The Nutcracker. Given the number of boyfriends she had been through over the years, Serena had laughed over the irony of the show's title when she invited him. So the holiday season was beginning in grand style, with VIP guests and Hollywood royalty scheduled to attend the performance and subsequent big-money charity reception for the Help Is Here Foundation. Serena sat on the board, influence built from deep pockets. Gazing through tinted windows, Jimmy could discern eager paparazzi, flashes of light going off as some other celebrity attendee arrived on the red carpet.

This was the third job he'd done for Serena, having escorted her to a fashion show just last week and two weeks ago to a dinner party where he'd waited outside with the other bodyguards. He was her protector, not her date, then and tonight. Seemed Serena had gained herself a stalker, a man she'd dated for a few months who didn't seem to get the message that things had gone kaput between them. Not even the order of protection issued by a judge who happened to be a friend had an effect on the guy. If the well-connected Henderson Carlyle discovered what events Serena was attending, he would simply score an invite as well; he was from the same world; they shared similar friends. They had met as board members of Help Is Here--though she claimed Henderson had been voted out a few months back. Far worse, he'd been ordered to stay two hundred feet away from her, but that didn't stop him from sitting in the back row on the opposite side of the runway or from possibly sitting in the mezzanine section of a theatre while she sat in the orchestra. As Serena had told Jimmy during their initial meeting last month, "I can feel his eyes on me."

Jimmy's eyes gave her body the once-over, as though he were seeing her the way Henderson did. He saw that she noticed his lack of subtlety.

"I wasn't leering," he said.

"You I don't mind, Jimmy, not that it would make any difference," she said, with a laugh.

"Wasn't that my selling point, no danger of entanglements?"

"Such a fun word. You're both a catch and a waste, Jimmy McSwain."

Jimmy's sexuality was one of the reasons he'd been hired. Given her notorious nature for falling for men of all ages, often men who were all wrong for her, she had vowed that her guardian would be someone totally unavailable. She didn't want to be one of those people who ended up in affairs with their security guard, mostly because those hookups tended to play out on the front page of the tabloids. Serena insisted she was trying to downplay her reputation. Jimmy knew reputations often preceded the actual person, perception before reality. Still, when he'd received the call from his friend, Isolde Calloway, that the notorious Serena Carson was originally thinking of hiring a woman to protect her, another solution presented itself. Isolde knew how to keep things simpler for Serena.

Serena patted Jimmy's leg, met his eyes with hers, like sparkling emeralds. "A gay private detective. Who would have thought?"

"They don't go hand in hand, but they're not mutually exclusive either," Jimmy said.

"I'm sure I don't know what that means," she responded with a throaty laugh that had lured countless men into her clutches.

Serena wasn't a nasty woman, nor a vindictive one, but she was intimidating nonetheless. She'd grown up alone in the spotlight, and she continued to do so, nearly twenty-five years since she'd arrived back in New York to take the city--and its men--by storm. She was the classic Poor Little Rich Girl, now a woman with an unhealthy thirst for men and attention. A hellion when she was younger, she never shied away from admitting to her age. Being brazen meant she could do as she pleased. It was expected.

Through lips painted a ruby red, she said, "I wonder how many inches we'll get?"

Jimmy paused until he realized she'd been looking at the falling snow. He was saved from answering as the car pulled up along the long stretch of stairs before Lincoln Center's wide plaza. He got out, edged around to the other side and helped escort Serena to the sidewalk. Flashbulbs went off, several people with cell phone cameras held behind metal barricades screamed out her name. She didn't wave, merely offered up a knowing smile instead. She slid her arm into the crook of Jimmy's, trying to sidestep the mushy snow with her expensive pumps as they made their way to the David H. Koch Theatre, where the classic ballet had been performed every holiday season for decades. Jimmy noticed she was scanning the crowd, a furtive glance hooding her green eyes.

"You okay?"

"Just wondering. This is the type of event Henderson loves: hoi polloi, money."

"Isn't that why I'm here with you?"

"Sitting right next to me. You do like the ballet, don't you, men in so-tight tights?"

"There are things to admire about it," Jimmy said.

"At least we have that in common," Serena said, again releasing her noted laugh. "Oh, look there, it's Meryl and her daughters...excuse me won't you..."

Jimmy felt her slip away from his hold, her sudden action wrenching his shoulder. A shock of pain felt like a dagger inside him. Taking a deep breath, he swallowed the pain and trailed after Serena, who was finishing up her talk with the acclaimed actress. Jimmy sidled up to her, tossed her a look that said don't do that again. She slipped her arm back into his, tightening her hold on him. It was time to walk down the red carpet, tonight thankfully covered by a white tarp. The fans outside were as cut off as the snow. Jimmy was suddenly bathed in bright lights, more so when the photographers started clicking away. He wore a tux, because she'd asked him to, and she was in a couture gown of gold, which she revealed when she slipped off her fur.

"Who's your date, Serena? Another young one..." called out a reporter with a microphone.

"He is darling, isn't he? Jealous?" she shot back.

Jimmy hoped that was the last of it; the spotlight wasn't his world. He lived in the shadows, accustomed to the dark streets and noisy bars of Hell's Kitchen, blocks from here but miles away in quality of life, but there were a few more photographers along the red carpet to endure and a few pestering questions from reporters about Jimmy. The former she happily absorbed; the latter she cagily avoided. Soon the two of them were whisked inside the warmth of the theatre's lovely lobby. A glistening chandelier hung over them, its lights reflecting off Serena's gown, emphasizing her natural beauty. Still, Jimmy felt a tense shift in her body language, a clutch of his arm as her feet stopped in their tracks. Jimmy easily saw the reason why. Across the room at the champagne bar was none other than the man she most wished to avoid.

Henderson Carlyle was indeed in attendance, also dressed in a tuxedo, and damn if it didn't look like an extension of his skin. Jimmy filled his out nicely, but he was more muscled than this toned man. His first up-close look of him, he could see what about him had attracted Serena. At forty-one, he was tall, slim, and tanned, with a shock of premature salt-and-pepper hair. He came from money and knew how to make people notice him. He also had about as nasty a reputation as you could get, and according to his research, Henderson had once been arrested in his twenties for beating a woman back in his hometown of Santa Fe. Not much had changed for him. Serena just a recent victim. How many were there between the first and latest? Seeing his smarmy look now, Jimmy wondered what motivated him and what protected him. The former, no doubt a powerful insecurity; the latter, money. Money bought clean police records.

With a sideways glance at Serena and by default Jimmy, Henderson made the word smug ashamed of its definition. A simple raise of his glass seemed like a taunt, yet he remained in place, careful not to violate the terms of the restraining order. He might be an asshole, but he was a smart one, which also made him a dangerous man.

"How about we get our seats?" Jimmy suggested.

"Actually, I could do with a glass of bubbly myself," she said.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea. No reason to aggravate the situation."

"He won't try anything, not here, not with such a hunk on my arm." She paused then, with a vulnerable tone to her voice which surprised him, said, "Don't let go of me, Jimmy."

As they approached the bar where the city's high-glamour residents mingled and talked, a delicate dance began. Henderson swirled back, keeping his eyes on them but never drawing closer, almost as if he'd advance scouted the building and marked off the two hundred-foot barrier. That didn't change the underlying threat. Jimmy swallowed a rising urge to approach him and wipe that hateful expression off his face with his fist. Instead, Jimmy stared him down, receiving back an Oscar-caliber look of woe-is-me innocence. Jimmy turned back when Serena handed him a glass of champagne.

"Better not. I'm on duty," he said, refusing it.

"If you don't, people will know you're security, not a date. Henderson will know."

"That's important to you?"

"I can't let him beat me," she said and then, with regret lacing her voice, said, "Not again."

Jimmy allowed Serena to clink glasses with him in a silent cheer, noticing how her left arm shook. He took a sip then gazed back to the area where Henderson Carlyle had been circling. The man was no longer visible, a specter instead of a spectator. Jimmy couldn't decide which one was worse, being seen or knowing he was lurking somewhere in the shadows.