Authors: Tom Shutt
A Brooding City Novel
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © by Tom Shutt, 2015
This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.
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It had been
a messy break; not Brennan’s worst of the night, but far from the best.
“Remember the acronym I taught you,” Sam said, moving into position across the table. A long fluorescent light, lined on either side with ceramic billiard balls, illuminated the green felt surface and highlighted the crests and waves of his slightly curling hair.
“Think,” he said, drawing the cue level with the table.
“Imagine.” He emphasized this point by closing his eyes briefly and taking a deep breath.
“Take aim.” The pool cue slid back and forth in his hands as he confirmed his chosen angle.
“And shoot,” Brennan supplied. Sam’s cue connected awkwardly with the white ball, a hollow thwack that sounded as bad as the shot had been. Instead of a powerful stroke, he succeeded only in lightly scattering both stripes and solids. He scowled at the open table.
“You know I hate it when you do that,” he said, passing the cue back to Brennan.
“A good player should be able to deal with all distractions.”
“You sound like a golfer, not a pool player.”
“That was my father,” Brennan said distractedly. Despite his advice, he wasn’t much better at ignoring outside influences when it came to pool. In a moment of silence, he took an easy straight-shot and sunk a solid in the corner. “We didn’t make it to the back nine together very often,” he said, “but it was a good place for him to meet clients.”
“What did your father do?”
Brennan hedged. “He was a negotiator, of sorts. ‘High-risk asset management,’ he would call it.”
Sam glanced around at their nearest neighbors. A couple men sat in a corner booth, smoke drifting lazily from a half-full ashtray; they were engaged in a quiet conversation. Another gentleman, leaning heavily on his elbows at the bar, picked through a small bowl of corn nuts. Half-undressed and looking for work, a sultry woman of the night gave Sam a nod and a smile that promised pleasurable things to come.
“Six months ago,” he said, turning back to Brennan, “she would’ve been just my type.”
“Six months ago,
be the one getting between you and Bishop.”
Sam grimaced. “Don’t remind me. So your dad, asset management? Sounds like he was an accountant or something.”
“Something like that. How are things with the two of you?”
“With Bishop? They’re improving, I suppose. At least she’s willing to speak to me again, ever since the hospital.” He took a long sip from his beer before puffing up his chest. “Saving someone’s life will do that.”
“If I recall correctly,
“Details, details,” he said. “It’s the thought that counts. Probably too soon to tell, but I think things are on the mend.”
Brennan doubted the chances of them ever getting back together. Noel was a strong and independent woman, and as far as Brennan could tell, Sam had shot his odds to hell the moment he’d decided she wasn’t worth his complete devotion. Brennan wasn’t about to turn on a friend, though, so he let Sam hold on to his delusion.
Something vibrated; Sam deftly placed his empty bottle on a tall table and pulled out his phone. He smiled briefly before starting to tap out a reply.
“Well speak of the devil,” Brennan said, grinning as he drained the last of his own bottle. “How’s Bishop?”
Sam finished whatever he was writing before looking up. “Huh? Oh, fine. She wants to know if I’m available tomorrow night,” he said, a cocky smile tugging at his lips.
“Dinner and a movie?”
He scoffed. “I wish. More likely than not, she’ll want to take me on for the new case.”
Brennan grimaced. The prediction given months ago by Benjamin had proven to be true. Five bodies had dropped in the last ten and a half weeks, discovered every other Saturday morning like clockwork. The police had little information to work with, and the deadline for the next expected drop was fast approaching. If they didn’t have a breakthrough in the next four days, somebody would be turning up cold come the weekend.
“But I can’t,” Sam continued with an air of largesse. Sam McCarthy was a former detective himself, now in the business of private investigation. It was more lucrative, he set his own hours, and he was better than most at what he did. Unfortunately, his ego wouldn’t fit in the overhead luggage space of a jumbo jet. “Already committed to another case. I’m on retainer for the next two days.”
Brennan frowned. For as long as he could remember, Brennan had been able to tell when people were telling him the truth and when they were lying through their teeth. As a kid, it had been a quiet feeling in the pit of his stomach. It was the kind of thing that most cops had to some degree, a “gut feeling” that had better-than-even odds of being right. Nowadays, though, it was a small voice that whispered in his skull, equally as unavoidable as a speeding bullet or morning wood.
He lined up another shot, but the target ball bounced off the edge of a pocket and rolled hopelessly behind the 8 ball. He scowled and reached for his bottle before remembering it was empty. His mind was too distracted to play now.
There was no cause he could think of to explain why his best friend would lie to him now. Still, he had to trust that it was for a good reason. If he called out his friends on every white lie, he’d find himself alone very quickly. Brennan mustered his best poker face. While nobody could lie to him, he himself had become very adept at the talent. It was the greatest gift his father had ever taught him.
“Shouldn’t you be tracking down a missing husband or something,” Brennan asked, “instead of playing pool in a dingy bar?”
Sam finished another text and put away his phone. “You’re absolutely right,” he said, pushing himself away from the pillar. He grabbed his jacket from the back of his stool and donned it in one swift motion. It was the kind of move James Bond might have pulled after a long night of Texas hold ‘em. He caught Brennan’s eye. “I know you were joking, but I actually do need to go.”
“What? You’re leaving in the middle of our game?” Brennan demanded. Every ball was still on the table, with the exception of his one sunk solid.
“Sorry, partner. When the lady calls, I answer.”
That was as close to an answer as Brennan was going to get. He knew that Sam wasn’t working a case; maybe he was actually making progress with Bishop. “At least take your turn before you go,” Brennan said, offering the pool cue.
Sam sighed, took the stick, and quickly lined up a shot. He looked like a prowling panther over the cue, all black leather and lean body. A stripe sunk smoothly into the pocket, and he was in position for a follow-up shot before the white ball had stopped moving.
Another pocketed ball.
And then another.
In the span of a minute, Sam not only cleared the table of any striped balls, but he had also pushed Brennan’s solids into unfortunate positions against the walls. He was breathing calmly and wore only a hint of a smirk as he sized up the 8 ball. One fluid motion brought him down over the table. His face was a mask of concentration, his eyes focused entirely on the far pocket that was his goal. He breathed deep, and the cue moved in his hands as he exhaled.
A solid hit, and the game was over.
“God dammit,” Sam swore as the white ball followed its black companion into the pocket. The two men at the corner table shook their heads and gave him a look of empathy; everyone who played pool eventually got stung by the 8-ball rule.
“Don’t let Bishop hear you talking like that,” Brennan said, pulling on his own light coat. It wasn’t yet winter, but the wind was high and the temperature dropped steadily with each day. Odols, like the rest of Wisconsin, was famous for its half-year winter weather, and it seemed like this season was gearing up to be the coldest on record. He pushed open the bar door and was met with a gust of wind that wiped away the scent of beer and cigarettes.
Brennan accompanied Sam to the shuttle station. The shuttle loops ringed Odols in two massive concentric circles; moving like precise cogs in a fine-tuned machine, the shuttles ran a continuous circuit that provided transportation for the majority of the city’s public commuters.
“Give my regards to Greg,” Sam said, tipping an imaginary hat toward Brennan as he took a seat.
“I’ll let him know,” Brennan promised. His friend nodded and watched until he was out of sight.
He took quick steps down the tunnel stairs that led to his own platform. It amazed him how quickly the atmosphere could change, even for a brief moment between shuttle stations. The platform behind him had been busy, even at night, and the city sounds were a constant background noise. However, the moment he entered the connecting tunnel, all of that commotion was replaced by dull yellow lights and outdated event posters lining a mostly deserted corridor of concrete and neglected dampness. It was the kind of place that mothers warned their children about, a seedy location that begged for muggers and worse to take up residence.
A large pile of mangy fur coats and worn leather had made its home on several pieces of flattened cardboard. Only the slight movement from shallow breaths revealed that there was a person under all of those recycled animals. Brennan moved closer, but was almost instantly repulsed by a pungent odor emanating from the raggedy man.
“Sir,” he said, nudging one torn-up boot with his shoe. “You can’t sleep here.”
Red-rimmed eyes peered out from a fold in the fur. The voice that came from the chapped gray lips was soft and raspy. “Nowhere else
Brennan lifted his shirt just enough to let his badge show in the dim lighting. The man wrapped in throwaway coats sat up a little straighter, or perhaps a little more defensively, as if expecting trouble. “You can’t stay here tonight, though. This is a public transit center.”
“It’s cold out there, officer,” he said. “Too cold for the likes of me to just be huddling out in the open.”
He had a point, of course; the streets weren’t as bad as he said now, but they would be a death trap for anybody living from curb to curb at night during winter. Unfortunately, the tunnel wasn’t much better; the long, narrow space would just become a wind funnel for the frigid air blowing through the city.
Brennan noticed the sheen of sweat on the man’s brow, the agitated way he looked from one end of the tunnel to the other, and the insistent scratching at his own arm beneath the fur coat. He knew the signs all too well from watching his nephew.
“Are you on the patch?” he asked.
The man became more agitated. “Never touched the stuff.”
In the weeks following the demise of Leviathan’s patch-dealing operation, dozens of knock-offs had hit the streets. Without their signature product on the market, enterprising dealers catered to the pumped-up patch addicts, each with their own home-brewed blend. The result was a plague of symptoms caused by improper dosages and impurities in the base ingredients. As bad as Leviathan’s Chamalla had been, the aftermath of its absence was even worse.
This man needed help, and not the kind that came from passing strangers’ pocket change.
“There’s a church nearby, not too far from here. St. Agabus. You know it?” From beneath the matted clothes came a dazed look and incredulous eyes. “I’ll need a confirmation on that,” Brennan said. A shallow nod, mouth slightly agape. “Good,” he continued. “I’m going to pass through here again in ten minutes, and I expect you to be gone by then, you understand? Go to St. Agabus’s. They can get you a hot meal and a warm bed.”
Still confused, the man at least had enough sense to start gathering his meager belongings. Brennan had no intention of returning, but it was a white lie worth telling if it got this forsaken man off the cold streets for a night. He watched until the man had collected himself and left the tunnel before continuing to his station. He climbed the flight of stairs at the other end of the passage and came out to the shuttle platform, which was covered overhead by a wide strip of clear glass.
The shuttle he’d intended to take was already gone, but another would be along within ten minutes. He pulled out his phone and pressed the first number on speed-dial. A young man’s voice answered on the third ring.
“Hey, Greg, just calling to give you a heads-up that I’m coming home.” He looked down at his watch and added a half-hour for the commute. “I’ll be there by eight o’clock or so.”
“That’s good, I’ll see you soon.” His words sounded oddly slurred over the phone. “Want me to put a cold one on ice for when you get here?”
A “cold one”? Ahh, that’s it,
Brennan thought. His nephew must have snuck a little something out of his liquor cabinet.
“As long as it’s a Coke,” Brennan said. The three beers earlier hadn’t done much for him, considering his size, but they’d succeeded in making him a little drowsy. Likewise, the caffeine wouldn’t do much to wake him up, but at least he wouldn’t crash the instant he sat down on the couch.
“Will do. See you soon,” Greg repeated.
Brennan ended the call and leaned back against the bench, his eyes lifted upward toward the hazy night sky. The city was too bright for any stargazing, but he liked to imagine that he could see them, suspended high above like tiny snowflakes on cold black pavement. Low and heavy and full, the moon still outshone any light of man, and it looked larger than usual tonight. Brennan’s head lolled as he stared up at it, but the reverie was broken as his shuttle pulled loudly into the station.