Second Shot

an excerpt



Prologue

Case file #701: Fortune's Enemy

What was that old saying? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jimmy McSwain thought such a phrase was much like Dickens' dilemma, it being the best of times and the worst of times. A series of contradictions. Life was ever--evolving, ever--changing and each morning came with its own unknowns.

There were a few constants. Guilt, remorse, regret. Each eating at his insides. Recurring dreams, blood soaked, never fading away into night's shadows, remaining cruel even in daylight. Among them the haunting events of his last case, the Fresh Kill investigation, most notably the final shattering blast of a gun. How, the trajectory of the unleashed bullet could have gone right through his flesh. Ended him. It hadn't, thanks to a last--minute, desperate maneuver, a rush of adrenaline fueling his fight against a powerful assailant.

The bullet had struck the other man and done its fatal damage. Landing a direct hit, right through his chest. His body falling to the floor, slow motion absorbing the shock. Liquid crimson everywhere. The impact forever quieting him.

While the bullet hadn't done any physical harm to Jimmy, its resonance still served as a reminder deep within him. When you play with guns, they tend to go off. Usually at a time when the sun was low and the moon bright, when motives crept toward morning. His life as a private investigator had taught Jimmy a harsh truth. One bullet led to another. To a second shot, and with it, a second chance at vengeance.

, Jimmy usually awoke in a cold sweat from these recurrent dreams. He'd known for half his life a bullet's enduring effect. A split second that lasts forever. Spent cordite part of your DNA.

Time advanced, the clock one guide, the sun another, its hold on the world unstoppable. Labor Day weekend was fast approaching, the summer months waning. Nature's scheduled change, humans going back to work, part of the world wafting toward hibernation. What, or who else, had gone into hiding? A new enemy had. Truth was, there had been no sign or sight of the dangerous Mr. Wu--Tin, rendering Jimmy's pursuit of him dormant. The lack of leads had only led to an exponential frustration. Gone since slipping out of the country after the debacle that was the end of his last case, bodies left behind in its wake; way too many of them. One was too many. Wu--Tin's legacy of death was all that lingered, a selfish stench hovering over a humid city. Jimmy had checked in often with Lieutenant Roscoe Barone, now down at One Police Plaza, the headquarters of the NYPD. Barone was newly in charge of the Special Task Force, which investigated, among other cases, the alleged crimes of the notorious Chinese mobster. The last Jimmy had heard was that if--and when--Mr. Wu--Tin decided to return to New York, he would be the focus of a renewed probe. His crimes were known. Just unproven. For now, radio silence reigned.

So, if some things hadn't changed, surely some aspects of life had. The easy answer was lots. Jimmy had turned thirty--one, his birthday two weeks ago, his new age meaningless to him. He still felt young at heart, in body, in mind. Except on those early mornings when his shoulder felt stiff after a long sleep. Another souvenir from an old case. At least no gray hair yet. Despite the stresses that came with his job and the way in which he held the weight of his world on his shoulders, he continued to defy tomorrow. He'd adopted such a strategy since the death of his father. Responsibility wasn't just a big word. It was his choice.

He'd just returned home from the small town of Brewster, located ninety minutes north of the city, which is where he'd spent the month of August, nestled in the company, the comfort, and cuisine of his family: Grandma Hester, Ma, Uncle Paddy at times, Meaghan and Baby Joey, and of course a still--healing Mallory. They had celebrated his new year with a dinner, then a cake with many candles. Burning flickers a taunt. But, hey, it was just a number, all was fine so long as the family stuck together; we're all still here. Mallory had been granted a rare reprieve from the Hammondsworth Institute for the night's festivities. All the gift he needed.

He'd foregone a wish. Why ask for something that wouldn't come true?

Of course, he'd thought of his father. Missing yet another year. Sixteen of them now.

More years without him now than with him. Justice had enemies, time its primary one.

Who else wasn't there stung too. His former lover, Captain Francis X. Frisano. Except he didn't possess that title anymore. Jimmy had not seen nor spoken to him in over two months. Not even on his wish list to do so. A new year in his life had fallen, Jimmy having to face the truth of moving forward. He'd spent the month of July devoted to easy cases, earning quick money. Then he chose to take August off and retreat to his grandmother's cottage on Peach Lake, swimming, walking, playing with his young nephew. Give his mind a rest while strengthening his body with morning jogs and laps in the lake. Private eye Jimmy McSwain had given himself a time--out.

Now, the month of September loomed, just hours away. Jimmy was back home in the fifth--floor apartment located at 48th Street and 10th Avenue. The apartment in which he'd grown up, the room where he still stayed most nights. Now, drinking coffee and staring out the window, he watched a new day arrive. He was struck by the changes happening in the neighborhood. For so long as he could remember, from its front--facing windows the apartment provided a scenic view of the mighty Hudson River. Enabling him to watch the river's ebbs and flows on quiet mornings and on dark nights. That view was fast changing with the construction of a new high--rise being built on the northwest corner of 10th Avenue. Projected at fifty--floors, the McSwains would soon gaze upon steel and concrete rather than water and nature. The construction workers had made significant progress during this past month. Seven skeletal--like floors of steel shot upward from the hard ground of Manhattan. Soon, he wouldn't recognize the world he'd always known.

A thought hit him. How long before their landlord sold this building?

Jimmy shuddered as he finished his coffee. It had grown cold, anyway.

Walking to the kitchen, he put the mug in the dishwasher and grabbed his charging phone from its socket. He locked up and headed out, uncertain when he would return. He might stay a few nights at his Hell's Kitchen office. Found on Ninth Avenue, still a street he thought his beat--cop father would recognize. His uncle's pub, Paddy's, remained, a neighborhood fixture. Tenth Avenue was the current victim of gentrification. East and West were creeping ever closer.

One avenue was the difference between what had changed, what remained the same.

Jimmy found himself walking beyond Ninth, finding his way to the congested corner of 47th Street and Eighth, where he could see the marquee of The Harold Calloway Theatre. While its lights remained unlit in this early day, a new marquee and placards had been posted: a revue called "And the World Goes ‘Round: The Songs of Kander & Ebb." An off--Broadway hit years ago, now making its official Broadway premiere. Advertised as an 18--week "strictly" limited engagement. First preview was September 5th, with an Opening Night scheduled for September 21st.

Which meant his ma would be coming home soon, back to work. Back to reality. To life.

Jimmy wondered if his older sister would be coming home, too.

Mallory had made amazing progress over the course of the summer, walking with the aid of a cane. Her wits were as potent as ever, her tongue, silenced after the shooting, as tart now as that of the mother who'd raised her. It's like she'd been granted a second shot at life. That was a good thing, not only for her but in setting an example for the entire family. A second act, in theatre--speak. Way back in June he'd pressed the reset button on his own life, successful when it came to his business. His personal life? That had ended at intermission.

He claimed inwardly he was done with men, with relationships. That didn't mean he was looking for a woman. You can't change biology. Just boyfriends, and right now he didn't want one.

Encouraged by the fact his family would be coming home for a new Broadway season, he retreated to his second--floor office at 45th Street and Ninth. He checked his iPhone. No texts and no calls. All quiet, too quiet. He wasn't sure he liked that. Noontime found him wandering over to the small fridge and grabbing a bottle of Bass Ale. He took a deep pull and then went over to the window.

A different view from the construction of 10th Avenue awakened his eyes. Which meant he was focusing on the same view he'd seen for years. Thankfully, no changes here.

Ninth Avenue was the equivalent of comfort food, like the multiple pages of a diner menu still offering the classics. The same restaurants, the same bars, the same shops, some of the same people on the street familiar to him, even in a city overflowing with strangers and tourists. Hell's Kitchen was home; to actors and stagehands, beat cops, waiters, mothers, grandmothers, lots of dreamers. Families still. Filled with people who believed that old school still taught the best life lessons.

Progress had a way of battling with the past.

Still draining his beer, Jimmy contemplated not yesterday but the uncertain tomorrows each new sunrise would bring. What was next?

An eventual phone call would give his thoughts its answer. Don't look back, Jimmy, but don't look forward either.

Live for today. Something was always happening in this city.

***

That eventual call came the next morning, way too early for his tastes. A time when even the sun seemed uncertain about beginning its ascent into the sky. Stretched out on the sofa underneath a single blanket, a swirl of air conditioning keeping him cool, Jimmy stirred. He looked at the screen of his phone. 6;11 am. A 212--area code, rare these days. Everyone had cell phones. This was a landline. Which meant it was business, which also meant he should pick up. Fast.

"This is Jimmy."

"McSwain?"

Because he was still half asleep it sounded like a stupid question. He paused. "Uh, you're the one who called. At six--eleven in the morning."

"Yeah, I think I've got the right guy."

"Who is this?"

"Byron Streb."

Jimmy sat up, elbows digging into flattened pillows from his night of sleep. "Streep?"

"No, not like the actress. Streb. I know, it's weird, but it's my name." He spelled it.

"It still means nothing. Who are you?"

"I'm a partner at Loeb, Rosenstein, Caravel and Streb."

"Glad you got in on the tail end of the letterhead." He knew the law firm, at least the first three names Streb had spoken. "Mallory's firm."

"You're her brother."

"I am. But I don't know you."

"I'm fairly new to the firm, I joined a few months. I merged mine with theirs after the untimely death of Saul Rothschild. I've been told you've done work for uh...us, before.

"I have." Jimmy was skeptical. He didn't like cold calls. But work was work.

The man's tone shifted. "How is Mallory?"

Well, score a point there. Even though Streb was new, he had a shred of compassion, and that was rare for many people, much less a lawyer. It had been a while since he'd done work for the firm, not since the Hidden Identity case. But the Madison Avenue firm specialized in a variety of legal needs: taxes, estate planning, wills, and of course, criminal defense, so this call could be about anything. Jimmy, tired as he was, figured Streb had a delicate situation that required the services of a discreet PI.

His initial thought: an early morning call, someone was dead.

"It concerns a will. And its rightful heir."

Okay, time for Jimmy to stop assuming. "Can you give me a second?" he asked.

Streb was conciliatory. "Oh, sure, sorry, I realize the hour. I'm a morning person."

"I'm not," Jimmy said.

There was a chortle on the other end of the line. "Love it already."

"Love what?"

"You sound like the classic PI. You are just what the client requires."

Jimmy considered what he'd learned so far. Not much beyond justifying stereotypes. Both about him and about lawyers. Extended phone conversations didn't do much for him. He liked to hear the details of a potential case face--to--face. You not only got the low--down on the crimes in question, you got to observe the body language of the person looking to engage your services. The latter offering up insight to what he might be facing. Or what they were hiding.

"Let's set up a meeting," Jimmy offered. Gazing at the red digits of the alarm clock he never used. He hoped the guy didn't suggest an early breakfast.

"Lunch? My treat. I know this pub on Fifty--Second and 2nd."

"Jameson."

"You know your city."

"I'm beginning to think you know too much about me."

"Lawyers should always know the answer to a question before asking it." And then, not missing a beat, said, "We will see you later."

"We?"

"My associate. He'll be your main contact. Mrs. Portnoy is really his client."

He didn't offer up the name of the associate. The two of them ultimately agreed to meet at twelve--thirty, giving Jimmy five hours to prepare (or sleep) for what might turn out to be his next case. He admitted to being curious. A will. That meant wealthy clients. He hadn't expected to get a lead on a case so quickly after returning to the city, but isn't that why he'd come home? His stretch of R&R was over, time had come again to return to the life he had forged for himself. Saving lives, protecting lives, deflecting his.

Second shots were everywhere.

Showering but still not shaving off the beard he'd grown earlier this summer, Jimmy was dressed and tying his shoes when he heard his cell phone ring for the second time this morning, charging in the kitchen. Disappointed that the luncheon was about to be called off, what he saw instead lifted his heart. The Caller ID read, "Mallory McSwain." It had been nearly six months since he'd seen her name pop up on his screen. Shot in the head, incapacitated, coma induced, followed by painful healing and countless weeks of grueling physical therapy, she'd finally been granted, barring a relapse, release from the Hammondsworth Institute. She was on outpatient basis now. Receiving her call proved she was slowly returning to the real world. He grabbed the iPhone before it could ring a third time.

"Mal?"

"I hear you got a call. A case."

"News travels fast. Guess you're feeling better. You shouldn't jump back in so fast."

"I refuse to be an invalid. I plan to be back to work in a month. Back to the city."

"Okay, I'm on your side. You know that, Mal. Always." Not wanting to push beyond what she was capable of, what strength she could conjure, he also would welcome her insight into the two men he was about to meet. He asked, "What can you tell me? About this Streb guy."

"Old school. Pretentious. Thinks his shit doesn't stink. Think he went gray at thirty."

Mallory might have moved to the East Side and gone to work for a fancy law firm, but you couldn't weed the girl out from her tangled roots. She inhaled more of Hell's Kitchen than she exhaled. It gave her a streetwise edge in her line of work.

"Got anything else for me?"

"Streb is the figurehead, appeasing the family by allowing them to think a partner in the firm is directly involved on the case. In reality you'll be interacting with this young associate, Brandon Hendricks." A noticeable catch in her voice. "He filled Taylor's job."

Taylor. Mallory's chicken--shit ex of a boyfriend who flew the coop and across the pond for a safe life in London, all happening after her injury.

"You okay with me taking this case?"

"Jim, I told them to call you."

"You should be resting."

"I am. I'm fine. I'm healing. I've got help."

Just then, Jimmy heard a sound through the phone. A sharp, eager sound.

"What was that?"

"My new friend. Jimmy, Grandma Hester and I went for a ride yesterday. Her idea."

"I think I'm gonna need more details."

Then he heard the sound again. It sounded like "woof."

"Who is that?"

"That's Shade. My dog. A rescue, trained as a service animal. Just what I need."

Jimmy smiled. Not because of the dog, but because it meant that Mallory had committed herself to rejoining the world. Nothing would stop her from fully healing, from restarting her life. The shades served as protection. An appropriate name. Everyone deserved a second chance at life. Yup, that elusive second shot.

A new case would soon begin. He named them all. Grabbing for his files, he began filling out the initial paperwork. Sometimes the title came first. This one was a natural.

Case File #721: SECOND SHOT

Status: UNSOLVED





Part One



Justice Denied



Chapter One

The dank establishment wasn't his first pub and it wouldn't be his last. They were part of his world, especially given the fact that his uncle Paddy owned such a place and Jimmy worked from an office one floor above it. Life in Hell's Kitchen was familiar and true, but for Jimmy McSwain, while admittedly out of his neighborhood, he was certainly not out of his element.

He walked into Jameson's dressed in black jeans and an untucked chambray button--down shirt, sleeves rolled up, wondering if he'd gone too casual for this business meeting. But perhaps the look was what they expected. Independent and tough. He'd skipped tossing on a blazer because the early September air still held summer's humidity. The restaurant had not just air conditioning but also possessed a sense of cool remembrance; he might have met a date here once. He exhaled, feeling comfortable. Give him a high--end bar, exclusive hotel, champagne and caviar, he might seem out of sorts. But this was his world. Jameson's was darkly lit, the long bar populated with what appeared to be a cast of regulars and local businessmen. Twelve--thirty in the afternoon, it was a different universe within these walls, the sunshine as unwelcome an as AA meeting. Subdued light fixtures set the mood, men, a couple of women, just wanting to escape from the world for a lunch break of liquid courage.

Some might criticize them their indulgence.

Others would envy their ability to push back at the stresses of the day, if only briefly.

Jimmy felt neither. Work was his choice, he had that option, especially given the fact that he had no boss. Unless he counted his mother, Maggie. After he casually arrived, he noticed two men seated at a back table, both dressed in designer suits, assuming they were who he was meant to meet. Nodding at the bartender behind the bar--a thick--bearded, long--haired hipster who looked like he belonged in Williamsburg and not Midtown Manhattan--he cruised toward the well--heeled gentlemen. They looked up at him with curious anticipation.

He addressed the older man. "Mr. Streb?" Jimmy asked.

"You must be Jimmy."

"More than must. I am."

Streb looked at his associate. "Like he's just stepped into a film scene. Classic."

Jimmy bristled at the man's comment. He was far from central casting, but his words just made him think Streb had a limited imagination. Much like his personal style. Pin--striped suit, one of those light blue shirts with a white collar, a yellow--striped tie. Talk about answering an ad, this guy was the ideal Wall Street wolf, circa the Wall Street movie. Michael Douglas would slap him silly nowadays. He was chubby, puffy, with thick gray hair swept back, a florid complexion that the glass of whiskey in front of him only exacerbated.

As opposed to his companion.

Bright blue suit, those brown cordovan shoes that were all the rage with young executives, noticeable when he stood to shake hands. Clean shaven, preppy, stylish. He was a man still trying to prove his worth to his employer, playing the conflicted roles of ambition and sycophant. Jimmy was glad he hadn't travelled down this path in life. Being a private detective meant you lived life on your terms, your clock, your streets. Your code. This guy, he'd bought into the corporate dream: probably owned a Soho loft, a BMW that he hardly ever drove--paying more in parking than in insurance--and a Platinum Amex bill that added up the points to the point where all his flights were free. Damn if the associate wasn't also handsome, Jimmy noted, his expensively styled hair dirty blond in color, with a severe part on the right. GQ circa now.

Jimmy considered if he'd come out of the closet yet. Tough to do in his line of work.

Offered a seat, Jimmy accepted, looking between the two contrasting men.

He first addressed, again, the older man. "Mr. Streb, thanks for the invitation."

"Call me Byron."

Jimmy nodded. "Okay. Byron."

"Man of few words."

"I talk when I need to. Generally, I listen. It's a good quality in my profession. You called this meeting, so I'm guessing you'll be doing the talking."

"Actually, I will."

Jimmy now turned to the other man, the young one. The cute one with the expensive suit and trendy haircut. It was a distraction.

"Brenden Hendricks," Jimmy said.

Not a question.

"I'm impressed. Mr. Streb told me he spoke with you but didn't give specifics."

"I have other sources," Jimmy said.

"Meaning Mallory."

"I don't divulge. I'm discreet. It's why I get hired."

He felt both men were about to respond to that when a waitress appeared. Did Jimmy want anything? He took a quick look at the beverages in front of the two lawyers. Streb with a tumbler of whiskey, Brenden with a glass of red wine. Jimmy decided to add to the eclectic mix and ordered a pint of Guinness. Old--fashioned place like Jameson's, located on the East Side, it just made you feel that much closer to Dublin.

The three of them were studying lunch menus when his drink arrived. They ordered. Burgers for all.

Then they were left alone. Together, ready to get down to business.

"Thanks again for meeting with us on such short notice," Streb said.

"Your timing was good. Plus, I'd do anything for Mallory."

"I only worked with her for a couple months before..." His voice trailed off.

"She was shot. It's okay. It happened. She's healing. She's determined to get back to work. My sister is nothing if not unstoppable." He paused. "Kind of a McSwain trait."

"Noted. You're loyal."

"Loyalty is for dogs. Love triumphs. Family rules." He hesitated whether to further add to his philosophy. Then he spoke because he didn't believe in unfinished thoughts. "Business comes a distant third."

Streb and Hendricks exchanged looks, almost like they were signaling their agreement. But not about what Jimmy had said. About the reason for their gathering, for wanting to hire him.

Jimmy took a deep sip of his Guinness. "Want to clue me in to what's going on here?" He looked first at Streb, then at Hendricks. Letting his gaze linger longer on Hendricks. Saw deep blue eyes and wished he hadn't dived into them. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Feeling Brenden give off a mutual vibe. A momentary stare. Jimmy warned himself to keep things professional.

Streb set down his whiskey, cleared his throat and said, "We have an unusual, uh, client."

"So I gathered."

Streb continued. "As you may be aware, Jimmy, our firm represents clients of considerable wealth. The kind who value their privacy."

"Rich white men," Jimmy said. "I know. Not my first rodeo."

"I prefer not to generalize, but, uh, yes, in this case." This coming from a man who thought Jimmy fit the profile of a modern--day Sam Spade, minus the long trench coat and hot dames. Streb drained his glass of whiskey, maybe instilling within himself needed fortitude. A troubled case already. "Can we keep such judgments to the sidelines and concentrate on the game playing out? I assume you understand sports metaphors?"

Jimmy frowned. "Foul ball."

There was a pause in the action, which coincided with Brenden stifling a laugh.

"Sorry, I don't mean to insult you. I mean, you are..."

"Gay? Yeah. Mets are having a terrible season. Can't wait for the City of Angels revival."

There was a pregnant pause. "Point taken."

"Listen gentlemen, this is about business. As you said, let's forego the generalizations of my world and I'll put a hold on stereotyping white men who still think they control the free world." He leaned forward, tempting him, taunting him. Streb quieted, nodded, refused another drink when the waitress came by.

"My apologies, Jimmy."

"Moving on." He leaned back, drank his beer. "Tell me about the client."

"Why don't we let Brenden take the lead here." Turning to his associate, he told him he had the floor.

Jimmy knew little about this new associate at his sister's firm. Only truth he knew was that he had assumed the job vacated by Taylor Smith, who had claimed to love, promised a future, then betrayed Mallory. He left town, tail between his legs after the shooting. It wasn't right to take out his resentment on Brenden, so Jimmy decided to remain open minded. He'd made good money in years past from Mallory's influential firm. You didn't burn a bridge just because some jerk crossed it the wrong way. What he didn't like was how he'd now involuntarily leaned in closer to hear what Brenden had to say. As though he wanted to be a part of his universe.

Cute.

Too cute. In that preppy way.

"Mr. McSwain," Brenden began, "My client insists on the utmost discretion."

"That's where the private part in my title comes in. No worries. And, please, it's Jimmy."

"Thanks, and, uh, thanks."

Jimmy thought he detected a flush of heat hitting Brenden's cheeks. Maybe the wine. Or not.

"Chaz Portney currently lays in a coma. Fell down the stairs at his Westchester home."

"Accident?"

"So the police say."

"You don't?"

"His wife doesn't."

Jimmy paused, drank, thought about the phone call this morning. "I thought this was a case about a will. Now we have a question of a possible attempted murder."

"It's even more complicated than that," Streb said.

Jimmy straightened up, waiting for the complication of the shoe drop. "Keep talking."

"See, here's the thing. Chaz is a bit of an enigma."

"That's just a big word for meaning he's a liar, or a cheat. At least, in my business."

Brenden then said, "To get to the heart of the case: we're, uh, in truth...we're not sure the man lying comatose in the hospital bed is Chaz."

His words--and tone--proved to be an interesting twist for sure. But more questions would have to wait. Their burgers arrived and the three men took a moment to dig in. A bite, dipping a fry into ketchup, Jimmy asking for BBQ sauce instead. The break from their talk was welcome, the food giving them fuel to navigate what had gone from a simple case to a complex one in a matter of seconds. Jimmy put down his burger for a moment, question in his mind on pause, now set to play.

"How do you not know he's not your client? Is he a twin?"

"Simply, yes."

"Where is the other one?"

"Good question," Streb said. "There's a lot of money at stake. Millions."

"Is the so--called Chaz expected to recover?"

"Too early to tell. The next few days will reveal more."

"If he survives, that renders the will issue moot. No one can lay claim to it, there's no need. If he dies...then we have a bigger pickle."

Brenden took a large bite of the gherkin on his plate. Distracting Jimmy. Their eyes briefly locking before the lawyer said, "Assuming it's him. Yes."

This was more than puzzling and Jimmy waited for whatever more they had to share.

Streb finished his burger, pushed his plate away. He checked his phone. "I'm sorry, I have another appointment. My apologies. Hendricks here will answer any additional questions, as well as settle the bill. I will leave you two men to your own, uh, devices."

It was an abrupt departure, and a telling one. Was it the pickle? The portly Byron Streb had relinquished control of the client, giving his associate free reign over the rest of the meeting. But in doing so it seemed dually motivated. Because what Brenden said once the two of them were left alone gave Jimmy an indication that not only was the case complicated, but so too was the dynamic between the two of them.

Brenden Hendricks announced, "Jimmy McSwain, you are so completely hot."

***