Hidden Identity

an excerpt

Case file #101: THE FOREVER HAUNT

When tragedy invaded his life and forever changed him , it occurred during that tenuous time between boyhood and manhood, and what he remembered first and always were the sounds and smells, the strangled cry of agony, the whiff of cordite from spent ammunition. He would hear the explosion and then the exclamation, he would remember them both as though linked by that moment in time, the utter terror of his own screams that would keep him awake long after on cold nights. What next came to him were surprising images, oddly peaceful at first considering the presence of violence. The lazy climb of the morning sun, the blue sky that opened up a world fresh with possibilities, that's what his father had always told him. Finally, the lasting memory fell upon him like a weighted ghost, the body arching back in shock, toppling over a corner display of fresh cut flowers, roses and violets and daisies spilling onto the sidewalk along with the water that kept them alive, now streaming past the fire hydrant into the gutter on the corner of Tenth Avenue and 47th Street. In his mind, this incident played out like an old movie, sepia-tinged with a shiny red hue, like someone had failed in coloring it. Like he was watching through one half of the 3-D glasses he'd always liked to wear as a kid.

But he was no kid, not any longer.

Not after that day.

He had screamed out for the man who was his father, all the while holding him, trying to awaken him. In the distance came the far-too-late wailing of the police and an ambulance, both of them too late, too goddamn late. For even though his father's eyes were open as though looking up at the sun, they could see only darkness, a color beyond this world. Not that bright yellow sun, not that electric blue sky, not the bitter silver tears that fell from his only son's eyes.

A policeman tried to pry him from his father's lifeless body.

"Come on, Jim, let me help you," the cop said.

That's when the boy noticed that his clothes, a simple outfit of scuffed jeans and a T-shirt, so innocent and perfect for this early spring day, were now splattered with his father's blood. Reality began to set in. This was no dream and his father was dead. Later, his mother would attempt to throw away those clothes, as though such an act could wash away all he'd witnessed, all that had stained him. But he would retrieve them from the garbage bin at the back alley of his building, and he would lock them away, save them.

Because he would remember.

And one day, he would understand why his father had been taken from him.

And by whom.

* * *

Two agonizing weeks passed and in that slow passage of time, the fourteen-year-old boy watched as his father-a cop who dedicated his life, literally, to the city-was honored by that blue line, buried in a season that usually sprung new life, his body, if not his soul, safe now from the dangers that lurked on deceptive, sunlit streets. But on the next day, the police came around to their apartment and confessed that, despite retrieving the murder weapon, apparently dropped at the scene of the crime by a panicked criminal-murderer-they had no leads, no suspects. It was a simple robbery gone wrong, so they said, his father innocently caught in the fray. A stray bullet from a stray gun, the assailant fitting that hollow description as well. He remembered the look, if not the face.

The boy was supposed to be holed up in his room. This wasn't his business, his mother had told him, but he had sneaked into the hallway anyway because he needed to hear that there was "nothing more we can do at this time." He wanted to know what to expect from a world suddenly turned upside down, like when he hung from the monkey bars at the park on West 47th Street, the blood rushing to his head and altering his perspective. A colorless world existed, where fathers could no longer provide for their families, where his own could no longer spot him on a Saturday morning in the park.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. McSwain...Maggie. We loved our brother Joey beyond words. He was one of the best, part of our brotherhood, and while we'll never give up, right now there are other pressing cases that demand our attention. But know this piece of truth-criminals don't change, and he'll act again. And when he does, we'll find him. He can't stay buried forever."

A strange phrase, he thought. It was the polar opposite of what his cherished father faced for eternity, and a previously unknown sense of vengeance washed over him. The last tear he would shed for his father's death slipped down his cheek. Other cases called to them, that's what they had dared to say to the widow while sitting in her cramped living room and drinking her coffee, taking advantage of her understanding, generous nature. That's what stuck in the boy's mind, reverberating for forever.

"You boys, I know you'll handle it," his mother had said, her voice empty.

But her son knew they wouldn't. They'd already admitted as much.

Something wasn't right. Why would the cops not fight to the death to avenge their own?

They left, disappeared really, and somehow life was supposed to return to normal.

Three months later as a broiling summer raged, the case of the senseless murder of Joseph McSwain, Jr. grew ever colder, just as his father's body did lying in its solemn grave, his life remembered by his brothers just as his death was seemingly forgotten by them. Something else had also disappeared during this time, the boy he'd once been.

The man standing in his place was named Jimmy.

He was me.

Case file #101: THE FOREVER HAUNT

Case Status: UNSOLVED

Chapter One

He saw the punch coming, and in the time it took to have his nose smashed, Jimmy McSwain had three thoughts. The first thought was that this wasn't the first hit to the face he'd ever taken, and the second was that it wouldn't be the last. But he was comforted by the third, which was that it would be the last one his opponent would get in.

Jimmy McSwain always had a few tricks up his sleeve.

And he was remorseless when it came to payback. That's the code he lived his life by.

Thoughts ended. Then came the thud.

Though he braced himself for the impact, the actual moment when hard flesh met soft cartilage shook him to his core, stars lighting before his eyes. He'd moved at the last minute so it wasn't a direct hit, but he went wobbly in the knees. His recovery was fast, his fist remaining strong, closed...primed. When the expected second punch came his way, he quickly raised his left arm, his thick forearm taking the brunt of the assault. He followed up with his own thrust of coiled fist. When it connected with the guy's face, he heard an awful splat and felt the spray of blood hit his face. He watched as the guy went down without further fight.

"Told you, you don't want to mess with me," Jimmy said.

"Fucking faggot," the guy replied with anger.

"Yeah, look who's talking."

His opponent was down for the count, lying in the filthy alley, his fancy suit disheveled, and not just from the fight. The guy had been busy inside, seeking sexual favors in a downstairs room. Maybe the single punch had taken him out so quickly because he was exhausted from other physical exertions. Thin streams of blood dripped from his nose, staining his white shirt, the pale smooth skin of his exposed, flabby chest. Jimmy had noticed him from the moment he'd entered the bar, sliding his tie off like a businessman on the prowl for some after-hours activity.

Yet it was barely five-thirty in the afternoon on a late winter's day. Happy hour had now taken a decidedly bad turn for Richard S. Hickney.

Dick, was how his wife referred to him.

Jimmy was amused by the double-entendre.

"Who sent you?"

"Who do you think?"

The man hesitated, wiping blood from his nostrils. "Sissy."

Again, Jimmy was amused by the double-entendre. And he was right. He'd followed him here, he'd confronted him, he'd chased after him. The fight ensued.

"Actually, even if you're right, I can't reveal my client's name. Code of honor."

"Honor, who believes such idiocy? Fucking A, who else would have me trailed? Not like I come home with lipstick on my collar."

"Not unless you were into drag queens, and from what I've seen inside this dive, you're not. You go downstairs and then go down further on a guy wearing lots of leather. A dimly lit room, shadows covering up your imperfections. Combine that with a few shots of booze, and it sets a nice mood down there, eh?"

"You don't know shit," Richard S. Hickney said.

"Sure I do. Been coming to this place for years, but of course I stay strictly upstairs."

"You're a private investigator, and you're gay?"

Jimmy nodded, smiling a row of white teeth where one of front bottom ones grew slightly askew. "Here they just call me a private dick," he replied, "unlike yours."

Humor was not on the guy's playlist today. "So what are you going to do?"

"Not hit you again, if that's what you're asking. And I would advise you to follow my lead."

Jimmy then held out his hand, offering to help the man up. He was easily forty years old, with middle-aged flab at the waist. Normally, without all that blood on his face, he might be considered good-looking. Not his type, though. Jimmy didn't go for the closeted Jersey husband who worked in Manhattan and played after closing time with whatever boy-toy he found before returning to unsuspecting wifey and the kids. Probably voted Republican.

Richard accepted the help and was soon on his feet, dusting off the grime of the alley.

"I guess I have some explaining to do," he said, hanging his head low.

"Looks that way."

"You'll be reporting back, too, I assume."

"I would like to get paid. That's how it works."

"How much?" Richard asked, his eyes lighting up at the thought of escaping unscathed.

"Sorry, don't even try it," Jimmy said, pulling out his wallet to show off his official P.I. license. "This means I'm legit, but even if it didn't, my conscience dictates my actions. So I don't do bribes and I don't sucker punch my clients."

"Just their cuckolding husbands?"

"When provoked, yes."

"You tell Sissy this will probably end our marriage and ruin my life."

Jimmy nodded. "Or maybe you'll find it liberating. Nothing worse than being in the closet. It's the one place you can't hide from yourself."

Hickney straightened himself as much as he could while standing in the back alley of a notorious West Village gay bar, his handkerchief smeared red. He looked defeated, as though he'd gone ten rounds instead of one. He had nothing further to say, so he grabbed hold of the door they came through just a few minutes ago and disappeared in the swirling lights and music that thrummed against thick walls. He would wash up, grab his coat, slink back home. What else could he do?

Jimmy waited in the falling light of dusk for a few minutes, using the time to text Sissy Hickney. Just saying he had a bit of news-full report and photographs tomorrow. His cell phone buzzed back moments later, the yellow smiley face upside down. The Hickney's lives would change tonight, but in this city so many dramas played out, it was inevitable and perhaps necessary for Dick and for Sissy. That's how the world moved. You either played by the rules or you got caught.

Jimmy was about to step back inside the bar and grab a beer.

Slings & Arrows, as it was named, had a pretty good selection of tap beers. He figured the one hard punch had earned him two beers, and then he'd see how the night went. It was Monday, a fresh week, and clearly Richard S. Hickney had needed a quick fix after a weekend of constraining suburbia. But what about Jimmy McSwain, a creature of Manhattan, who knew its alleys and lived life by his own code, his own unfulfilled desires? What waited for him tonight?

His phone buzzed again. This time a call, not a text.

So much for those beers, so much for a night of uncertainty. He knew just what to expect from this call.

"Yeah, Ma, hi," he said.

"Dinner's in an hour, your sisters are coming. Mallory needs to talk to you."

On Monday, her dark night, Ma liked to cook and have her three children at the table.

Family meant everything to Maggie McSwain, and Jimmy was not one to turn her down.

* * *

Tenth Avenue and 48th Street had been the address of the McSwain family for nearly thirty years, Joseph and Margaret McSwain having moved in after the birth of their third child, finally getting out from the crowded apartment of Maggie's aging, demanding mother. Sure, it was only a block and a half away from her, but at least it was theirs, a place for the NYPD beat cop and his Broadway usher wife to raise two girls and one boy, who was the middle child.

Jimmy returned to his home neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen, having taken the Number 1 train from Sheridan Square to 50th and Broadway. Darkness had finally claimed this early March night, the air cool but not as bad as it had been during the harsh, snowy February. A light wind ruffled the shock of brown hair that he wore longer than his mother liked, but hell, he was twenty-nine and didn't he get to make those decisions now? Didn't stop her from commenting, didn't stop him from enjoying a long distance relationship with his barber.

Once Jimmy got to his front stoop, he slid his key into the first lock, entering a tight vestibule of metal mailboxes and discarded flyers. Rite-Aid was having a big sale on feminine hygiene products. He didn't need them, and he certainly hoped the mood was positive enough inside the McSwain house with his mother and two sisters that he wouldn't need to run out for them. Heineken twelve packs were going for $9.99. Maybe he'd run out anyway.

He pushed through the second door and hustled up the four flights of stairs. Having lived here for as long as he could remember, Jimmy was undaunted by the number of steps and used them as a form of exercise. It's why he was in good shape, possessing tight abs and strong legs. Those legs got him upstairs in no time and soon he was walking into the apartment, smelling steaks sizzle on the stove.

"Hey, Ma."

Maggie McSwain poked her head out from the kitchen. "You're late."

"Subway was slow."

"Hmm, your usual excuse. Where'd you stop?"

"Ma, I was on a case," he said.

"You picked up your phone, means you're not on a case. Where'd you stop?"

She knew him so well. He'd actually gone back into Slings & Arrows for one brew.

"Never mind," he said, opening up the fridge to extract a bottle of Heineken. His mother must have used that flyer already, stopping at the Rite-Aid on Eighth Avenue not far from the theatre she worked at. He popped the top and took a long pull.

"You forget something?" Maggie asked.

Of course he had. Jimmy leaned over and planted a peck on her cheek.

"You're hurt."

"I'm fine."

"You always say that."

"I'm breathing. Walking."

"In that case, you need a shave, and your hair is too long."

"Ma, I had a case. How I look doesn't matter. You, on the other hand, look great."

She waved off his attempt at sucking up. "My day off. I mostly sat. I walk those stairs enough, eight shows a week," she said, "Speaking of, you need a little pocket money? I got two shows for you, Wednesday night and Friday night."

"I'm late both shows?"

"You think my staff takes off on early shifts?"

Maggie McSwain worked as the head usher, what the old-timers called the Chief, at the Harold Calloway Theatre on West 47th Street between Broadway and Eighth. Her job was to make sure she had full front-of-the-house staffing for the show. The job had all sorts of crazy rules, at least to an outsider, but for Jimmy who had heard nothing his entire life but coded phrases like "early shift" and "late shift," "in between shows," and "double-shift," he was practically a veteran on the aisles.

"Mom, I told you, Jimmy's going to be working elsewhere."

Jimmy spun around to see his sister Mallory, who had just come from the bathroom. She had short dark hair and today wore a stylish green suit that highlighted her chocolate-brown eyes. At least she'd taken off her pumps in an effort to relax. But as much as he loved looking at his successful sister's fancy clothes, he was more intrigued by her comment. Mallory worked for a high-powered law firm on Madison Avenue and as a result had taken an apartment on the east side. She was the only one in the family to get out of the neighborhood. Having just wrapped up the Hickney case, work sounded good, especially if it was coming from her firm. It wasn't the first time, and they paid well.

"What do you got for me?"

Jimmy felt the light smack of his mother's hand against his head. "This isn't a business meeting. At least say hello to your sister first."

"Ow, Ma...hey, Mallory," he said, kissing her too on the cheek.

Mallory rubbed her cheek. "Ma's right, you need a shave. My gig is professional."

He never really gave shaving a thought. He guessed he'd missed the last few days, and the thick dark stubble had reached its scratchy stage. He waved off her comment, drank his beer, and was told to sit at the table. He did as instructed, taking his usual seat on one side, Mallory sitting in her usual spot too, opposite him. When Maggie saw the last chair empty, she rolled her eyes and called out.

"Meaghan, dinner!"

No response, and another minute went by, the chair still empty.

"I'll get her," Jimmy said.

"She's probably wearing those headphone things, can't hear a damn thing."

Jimmy went down the hallway and knocked on the second door to the right. Again, he got no response, so he turned the knob and opened it. Meaghan, all of twenty-two, was lying on her bed, talking on her phone.

"Jessie said you left the floor early," she said to whoever was on the other end. She paused, smacking her gum. "I'm not telling Ma, she hates this petty crap. Hey, not my fault Jessie was late getting back. You don't leave the floor...wait...oh, hey, Jimmy."

"Dinner's ready. Ma's calling you."

"Gotta go," Meaghan said, flipping her phone off.

Soon the McSwain family was seated around the table, the four of them in the same places they'd sat in all their lives-the girls on one side, the lone boy on the other. Maggie sat at one head of the table, but the other was empty, just as it had been for more than half of Jimmy's life. They no longer kept a place setting, but Joseph McSwain Junior's beer mug still sat there as clean as if he'd just taken it out of the dishwasher himself.

Holding hands, they said grace. Then they dug into a hearty meal of steak and potatoes.

"So, Mallory, what do you have for me?"

Maggie didn't look pleased that they were discussing business, but she sat and chewed and stared ahead at the empty chair opposite her. Like she was commiserating with the man who should have been there.

"Missing person, actually."

"Oh, cool," Meaghan said. "Runaway wife? Angry child? Paternity issue?"

Meaghean watched too much Jerry Springer and Maury Povich in the afternoons. She had a lot of free time during the days since she worked her nights and weekends alongside her mother at the theatre.

"Ignore her," Jimmy said.

"Story of my life."

"Meaghan, let your sister talk."

Peace restored, Jimmy continued. "What else can you tell me?"

"Actually, one of the senior partners wants to discuss it with you," she said.

"Why me?" Jimmy asked, skeptical now that it involved someone rich. Rich people liked to hire the poor to help them navigate dirtier worlds.

"Because I recommended you," she said.

"Let me guess," Jimmy said, "whoever is missing, he also happens to be gay."

Mallory sipped her wine, but she nodded.

"Look at that, Jimmy, you've got good gaydar," Maggie said. She had no problem with Jimmy's sexual orientation and she was always trying to fit in.

"No, Ma, that's not what that phrase means." Meaghan said. "Gaydar is, like, when you try and guess if someone's gay or not. Like Chad at the theatre..."

"Oh, he's just a nice boy," she said.

The three McSwain siblings laughed, and Maggie waved off their nonsense.

"So, Jim, anything you can do about that bruise on your nose before morning?"

"Guess I can cover it with L'Oreal," he deadpanned.

They talked more as they ate, a congenial family who clearly enjoyed sharing meals and time together. Maggie would have it no other way. "Who's going to want dessert?" she said, her chair scraping against the floor.

Jimmy was already thinking about a bigger dessert, a huge payday from a hot-for-shit law firm. "So, where should I meet you, and when?"

"Tomorrow, noon. You'll have lunch with Mr. Rothschild and his wife. They want to discuss their son with you."

"I repeat, why me? And I mean the real reason."

Mallory waved off his suspicion. "Let's just say you two have something in common."

Jimmy nodded. He was guessing the Rothschild's son was gay. As though like knows like, and a straight P.I. wouldn't be able to help.

Mallory continued. "Eighty-second and Fifth. Wear a tie."

"Anything else?" Jimmy asked.

Maggie whistled as she set down an angel-food cake in front of them. "Jimmy, you dress nice and professional and don't forget to shave. You want the job, dress like it."

Sometimes she made Jimmy feel like he was ten years old. But if that was the case, he would be able to glance at the end of the table and see his ruddy-faced father downing a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer while saying, "Saints alone, leave the poor boy to himself, Maggie, you're gonna turn Jimmy into some nancy-boy if you keep that up." But Joey was gone, so he listened to his mother, and how about that? He was a nancy-boy anyway.

"Yes, Ma."

"Jim, why not wear one of those nice suits Remy gave you," Meaghan said.

Silence fell over the table until Jimmy slammed his fork down. His brown eyes darkened further as he stared daggers at his annoying sister. Leave it to mother McSwain to come to the rescue. She knew just how to steer the conversation away from unpleasant topics.

"This job Mallory's got for you, Jimmy, I think it's what they would call paydar."