Stage Fright

an excerpt



Prologue

Case file #101: THE FOREVER HAUNT



He titled the thick file so because it was appropriate, the haunting unrepentant even on sunny days but mostly on dark nights when sleep would come and his nightmares consumed him. Unsolved mysteries lived inside the recesses of his mind, as well as deep in his aching heart, seemingly lodged there for forever. Being unable to close the most important case of his life represented his own phobia, a fear that answers would always elude him.

He had been fourteen when the deafening shot rang out, claiming the life of NYPD officer Joseph McSwain and leaving his son as empty a shell as the spent bullet. That son was thirty now, and on stormy nights when thunder rumbled across the sky and he tossed in bed alone, he heard that gunshot over and over. The blast would make him jump. He would awaken in a bath of sweat, the events of that warm spring day having come screaming back.

The police--his father's brethren--had never solved the murder, relegating the case to a steel file cabinet in the basement of some dusty precinct where it had grown, at least figuratively, cold. Jimmy McSwain, his son, not now or never a cop but a private detective, had sworn to keep the heat on, and only when the truth was uncovered would he find peace. In the past year, he had redoubled his lone efforts, the tragic realization that fifteen years had passed fueling him. The senseless execution of NYPD officer Joseph McSwain remained as much a mystery now as it did then.

And execution was how Jimmy defined it. Someone had wanted his father dead.

And someone knew something, still, and that person continued to remain quiet. A case-altering clue existed out there, it had to, waiting to be found. He just had to search in the right place. To find it, he was forced down to the lowest depths of the human condition, perhaps even to the highest ranks of the NYPD. Sometimes he felt they were one in the same.

Jimmy felt he'd gotten close this past summer. A crime wave of robberies at Manhattan delis had mirrored the manner of his father's death, but the suspect--a recent parolee--had been gunned down by Captain Francis X. Frisano of the 10th Precinct, during a tense hostage situation. The suspect had died on the spot, never able to confess to being involved in the shooting years ago of Joseph McSwain. Since then, the case had grown colder still, as the city had boiled, as the heat and humidity of August raced to the top of the barometer.

Jimmy fought an attraction to Frisano, an ambitious career cop with his own secret, though the two of them had once spent a passionate night together. But that relationship was over, another case of hope bled out by the blast of a gun.

On this hot day, Jimmy McSwain, dressed only in a pair of shorts and sweating despite the hard-working air conditioner, sat on the floor of his office, a studio apartment on the second floor of a building owned by his uncle. Paddy Byrne ran his own pub downstairs, and the floorboards often failed to hold the raucous music and laughter at bay; one of the reasons Paddy allowed his nephew to use this space for his private detective business, and at quite the discount. Any other tenant might object to those late-night disturbances, but as Paddy explained, "You can't complain, the rent is cheap."

"As cheap as that swill you serve as beer," Jimmy had once shot back.

"Talk to me that way again, and I'll have Maggie wash your mouth out with soap."

Maggie was Paddy's sister, Jimmy's mother. "Better than your beer."

Paddy had been a much needed father figure throughout Jimmy's teen years and as he hurtled toward his adult life. The two men could joke about anything, knowing their banter fed good times. And as much as Jimmy appreciated having his uncle a part of his daily life, he couldn't replace the tough-as-nails, heart as big as Manhattan Joseph McSwain. No one could.

Speaking of beer, Jimmy had a sweating green bottle at his side, Yuengling. He took a sip while he flipped through the recent articles he'd added to his father's case file. They were from the Post and the Daily News, both of which had covered the deli robberies closely, and had, on July 4th, splashed across the front pages the bloody hostage situation which had ended Rashad Assan's reign of terror. A photo of the day's hero stared back at Jimmy: Frisano was dressed in his uniform, slightly disheveled from an afternoon of taking down a killer but still as sexy as ever. Regret wound its way around the strings of Jimmy's soul, and he wondered, not for the first time, if he'd been hasty in dismissing Frisano from his life, and his bed.

He stole a look at his iPhone and picked it up. He scrolled through his contacts, landing on Frisano's name. Was there a reason he hadn't deleted the man's personal number? Was he holding onto it because he was secretly wishing that he would once again find comfort in the burly cop's strong arms? Or because he was an influential captain in the NYPD and might one day be useful in finding out what really happened the morning Joseph McSwain was stolen from him? Because Jimmy couldn't be sure of his motives, he set the phone back down and closed his eyes. Usually he saw only blackness, but today the image of Frisano unspooled before him, their time in an upstate motel when the only thing exploding had been their passion for each other. He could feel that sizzling kiss on his neck, the scrape of his whiskers while slowly unbuttoning his shirt... temptation leading them toward more.

Jimmy's eyes flashed open and suddenly time forced him back to the present.

He rose from the floor, finished off his beer and tossed the empty bottle into a trash bin.

Frustration filtered through his system, and he knew he had to do something. Anything.

The summer had been quiet, case-wise. Two simple assignments where he had to trail two separate married men whose wives thought they were cheating; both suspicions turned out to be true. Jimmy filed his reports, took the money, and wondered if anyone was really happy. But the final two weeks of August were proving to be quiet; maybe all of Manhattan was on vacation. Maggie and his pregnant sister, Meaghan, were still upstate at Peach Lake, staying at Grandma Hester's cottage. Soon enough they would both return to work at the Calloway Theatre, since its new show was scheduled to begin previews on September 13th. His other sister, Mallory, was on vacation at some luxury resort. All that meant Jimmy was alone, rattling around his office or at the McSwain apartment over on Tenth Avenue, or just stopping during the late hour into Paddy's Pub for a pint or two, as directionless as he was miserable.

He hated August. Life was as still as the air.

Jimmy McSwain needed something to jumpstart his heart.

As he put away his father's file, securing it into the metal cabinet inside the closet, he put on his sneakers and then headed out of the office. Craving company, maybe he'd just go down to Paddy's and drown his sorrows. That changed when he reached the bottom of the staircase, the ring of his phone echoing in the dim hallway. He looked at the screen. "No Caller ID." He still preferred to answer the call. Prospective clients often hid behind the curtain of anonymity.

"This is Jimmy. How may I help you?"

"Hello," came a woman's voice, accented, timid, uncertain. "This is Jimmy McSwain?"

"As stated. Who is this?"

"I have information for you, at least, I think I do."

Again he heard that uncertainty in her voice. Jimmy paused mid-staircase, not wanting to trip himself up. This call had his attention.

"I'm listening," he said.

"My name is Seetha," she said, "Seetha Assan."

It wasn't the first name that stopped him in his tracks. It was the last name.

"Tell me more."

"Rashad Assan was my brother," she said. "I'd like to meet with you."

"Where and when," he said, barely pausing between words.

There was a pause, and then he heard, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have called."

"No...wait..."

Did his voice betray his desperation?

There was no reply. He looked at the screen and saw the call had ended. His heart raced as he stepped out onto Ninth Avenue and a busy summer afternoon. Cars and cabs backed up the traffic on the avenue, pedestrians passed by, immersed in their own lives. Countless souls, going through the motions of life, oblivious to what ailed Jimmy. Except there was one person out there who shared his pain. One person who maybe had access to that elusive clue he'd been seeking all summer, all his life.

The call from the mysterious Seetha Assan had changed everything. The solution for the Forever Haunt was back on. Joseph McSwain, father, your killer will be found, Jimmy thought.

He slipped on a pair of sunglasses, as much hiding as shading his expressive eyes, and then he allowed himself to be absorbed onto the crowded, steamy sidewalks of the city, his steps fueled with newfound confidence. Despite the humidity, he felt he could breathe again.

Case file #101: THE FOREVER HAUNT

Case Status: UNSOLVED



Part One - A Preview to a Kill

Chapter One

"I'd like to hire you."

So far the meeting was off to a good start. Being hired meant being paid.

Jimmy McSwain nodded encouragingly. "Tell me more."

"I've known you a long time, Jimmy. Watched you grow up."

"This your way of asking for a cut rate?"

The older man with the comb-over of wispy gray hair on an otherwise bald scalp laughed. He sat opposite Jimmy, his expression serious. "Money is no object. I'm sure your regular hourly rate will be perfectly fine. And there is no cap on your hours. Completion of the job comes first. Protection is tantamount, followed by discretion. Which I know can cost additional."

Usually it was Jimmy who had to bring up the subject of a retainer to prospective clients. Instead, the man slyly slid a white envelope across the Formica table, stopping it right next to his untouched cup of coffee. Not that Jimmy didn't trust the esteemed T. Wellington Calloway (he never knew what the T stood for), but given that Jimmy was a private detective and suspicious by nature, he flipped through the envelope's contents anyway. A check for $5,000, made out to him, courtesy of The Calloway Foundation. Plus cash in ten one-hundred dollar bills.

He kept himself from whistling. He was on the clock, already being discreet. "Must be some case," Jimmy said.

"I don't like that word, case. Makes it seem..."

"Unsavory?"

"Official."

As if a check with several zeroes hadn't already said that.

"Welly" Calloway, as he was called by friends and enemies alike, looked sideways at the regular denizens of the Cosmic Diner on Eighth Avenue and 53nd Street. The place was a classic New York diner, where you could order any meal at any time of day from the voluminous menu, and today the tables around them were taken up by locals in search of a hearty meal at a good price. This was the kind of joint that was becoming a rarity in New York. Jimmy was glad to be here rather than a faceless Starbucks. No one here was on a laptop or tablet. Neither man wanted food, but that was fine with the establishment; the old-school waitress with a pile of aging blonde hair supported by a pencil through the middle of her bun was agreeable in giving them a corner booth just for the sake of sipping good, honest coffee. Not to mention private conversation. They had been there for five minutes when Welly got around to business.

"There are a lot of unsavory types around Broadway," he said.

Jimmy could only agree. Life in the theatre wasn't all bright lights big city. On this town, the Bronx might be up, the Battery down, but when millions of dollars were at stake, characters darker than those found in the songs of Sweeney Todd slinked out from under the Klieg lights of Midtown. Sometimes the only thing a producer enjoyed more than having his own marquee lit was having that of a rival producer's dark. And Welly Calloway was more than a producer, he was a theatre owner, a relic on the Main Stem, one of the last of the independents in an otherwise corporate grab for valuable real estate and the public's entertainment dollars. Indeed, Jimmy had known Welly nearly his entire life. Jimmy's mother was the head usher at the Calloway, which was still owned and operated by the original family which had built the famed playhouse.

The month had turned to September, the date the 12th. The mourning wail of another 9/11 had passed, taking with it the humidity of summer. The air was still warm, but finally dry. Jimmy was grateful for the blast of air-conditioning blowing down on them from the exposed vents. He was dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt, untucked, and a navy blazer, his attempt at looking professional. This was a business matter, after all, confirmed when Welly Calloway walked into the diner in his blue and white seersucker suit and stern expression.

After passing the envelope Jimmy's way, he tapped his fingernails on the tabletop. It had a rat-a-tat beat to it.

"Why don't you start from the beginning, Welly," Jimmy offered. The crisp envelope still lay between them on the table, its status--and Jimmy's agreeing to take the case--in limbo.

"As you've no doubt heard, we have a new show starting previews tomorrow."

"Triskaidekaphobia," Jimmy said with a nod. "A hell of a title."

"Indeed, horribly memorable. But it works. We in the company call it T13."

"Economical."

"Are you aware of what the word means?"

"I looked it up when Ma told me the name of the show. Fear of the number thirteen."

"It's a very clever play about fear, all sorts of fears."

"Is this the part where I ask you what you're afraid of, Welly?"

"Not me, per se," he said with a subtle shake of his head. That's when he reached inside his jacket pocket again and withdrew another envelope, the size of a party invitation. He slid the note toward Jimmy, who took hold of it. Inside the unmarked envelope was a card made of thick stock. The kind that might have a monogram or a name written across the top in fancy script. No such identification here. Just a quick, typewritten message.

ARE YOU AFRAID OF DEATH?

"Cryptic and a little creepy," Jimmy said. "Was this sent to you?"

"No. To Casey Crais."

"Who is that?"

"Our playwright."

"Ah. Not only cryptic then, but ironic."

"And threatening," Welly Calloway said, leaning forward to close the gap between them.

Jimmy considered the implications of the note. It could be completely harmless, a friend or cohort playing a practical joke, and considering the play's subject matter, not surprising. Or it could be a stunt to drum up publicity for a show in need of it. Have that gossip columnist from the Post get a hold of it, he'd write a hell of a snippy article about it and soon everyone within a ten block radius would be yammering about T13. Or, it was possible the note's intentions could be deadly serious--which Jimmy supposed was the reason why he was here at the Cosmic Diner, being offered a hefty retainer to find out which of these options was the truth. Jimmy had a few questions.

"Have there been any other messages?"

"No."

"Mysterious phone calls? Stalker behavior?"

Welly shook his head. "No. Not that I'm aware of."

"So I'm guessing you want to hire me to investigate who sent this, and why?"

"Indeed. The case, as you say, seems cut and dry."

"Why me? Have you notified the police?"

The moneyed T. Wellington Calloway scoffed at the idea. Jimmy didn't blame him. First of all, no actual crime had been committed, and second of all, the police didn't act upon anything until idle threats became tangible evidence. In other words, the cops needed a body before they got involved. Jimmy knew the routine all too well. Even then their involvement didn't guarantee success.

Jimmy knew that all too well, also.

Welly continued, his blank, hazel eyes cautiously looking around to ensure they were not being observed. Mysterious notes create paranoia. "We--myself, the other producers backing the show, Casey himself, too--would like to keep this, uh, hiccup as quiet as possible. The last thing we need is to upset the cast and crew as we wrap up rehearsals and prepare for our first preview. Sometimes bad publicity is just that--bad."

"How do you propose I do my job, ask questions of everyone, and not give people reason to worry about their own safety? Just who knows about this note?"

"No one in the cast," he said.

"Unless someone in the cast sent it."

"Jimmy, we are producing a psychological thriller. The drama is on the stage."

"For now," Jimmy said.

"You were a sweet boy. You sound cynical now."

"Cynicism buys results. It keeps you from accepting people at their word," he said. "Okay, Welly, how do we explain my presence at the theatre? Of course the house staff and crew know me as Maggie's son, a substitute usher when she's in a pinch. But they also know I'm a private investigator and when I'm not handing out Playbills to patrons, they might get suspicious."

"Already thought of that. Officially, Jimmy, you are joining the company as a security guard. Theatres all over Broadway do it, both front of the house and backstage. You'll have full access to the theatre." He paused, his tone shifting. "Jimmy, I'd consider this is a personal favor to me. The McSwain family has such a long history with the Calloway Theatre. Maggie runs a tight ship in the front of the house, just as she has for twenty years. It gives me great pleasure in having seen you grow into a responsible, dedicated man. You have a rare quality Jimmy: honor. Which is why I am entrusting the safety of everyone associated with T13 to you. Casey's safety, primary among them. A lot is riding on this new show, reputations, money, you name it."

"Just so we're clear, you're hiring me for two reasons. Keep the playwright safe, all while I investigate who might have sent this note."

"Casey will tell you more. He's waiting for you back at the theatre. Listen to him, please, no matter how...unique he may be. Writers are like that, quirky and distant. I don't have to tell you how vital he is to the show's success, since he may need to rewrite certain scenes based on our audience response during the early previews. He needs to keep his head on straight and this kind of distraction won't do. Jimmy, we have exactly a month to get things squared away," he said. "Opening Night is set for October 13th."

"You're taking a chance, aren't you?"

"What do you mean?"

"As your title suggests, there are people out there who fear the number thirteen," he said. "You're almost embracing the idea."

"It's a play about phobias," Welly said. "And our mysterious letter writer has found ours."

"Which is what?"

"Fear of failure."

Jimmy nodded, considered what was at stake. A show, not a life. Interesting.

That's when Jimmy McSwain finally put the envelope in his pocket. He took a sip of his coffee. It was cold.