Thursday, September 18, 2008

Chasing Smoke: Chapter One

Chasing Smoke by Bill Cameron



Chapter One


On my list of suspicious circumstances to avoid, cop waking me up by rapping on my car window at five o’clock in the morning oughta be right up there. Not as high as letting a liquor store clerk spot my piece before my badge maybe, but higher than being caught ripping coupons out of the newspaper on my neighbor’s stoop.

Oughta be, but apparently isn’t.

I peel back my eyelids and peer at the cop from inside a bewildered daze. The headlights of the patrol car blaze in my rear view mirror and needle my crusted eyes. I cough—a moist, phlegm-coated rattle that sounds like it comes from the bottom of a barrel. My breath mists the glass, obscures my view out. Just as well. I’m not ready to face a cop. My chin is wet and my mouth tastes of stomach acid. Can’t feel my arms or legs, but my gut is right where I left it, complete with clawing pain like a rat dragging itself through my intestines.

The cop raps again with his Maglite, then flicks it on and shines it through the fogged glass. “Sir?” His voice seems muted and far away. “Please roll down the window, sir.”

I reach for the window handle with my left hand. The rat picks that moment to clamp down on a loop of my gut with hot teeth. I shudder and clench my jaw, bite back a whimper. Don’t have my pills with me. I groan and lean against the door.

“Are you all right?” The cop grabs the door handle, but the door’s locked. “Detective Kadash? Can you hear me?”

I nod, unsurprised. He’ll have run my tags before he approached. Maybe he’ll go easy on another cop—not that I can tell you why he’d need to. Sleeping in your car isn’t the smartest thing you can do, but most of the time it’s not illegal. At least I’m not napping on my airbag. I take a breath and look around. It’s dark, but the grey gleam from a lone street light reveals the rough outline of the area. Old brick commercial, loading docks, a bridge overpass. Street split by an unused rail line. Eastside industrial district, I realize, down near the river, north of the Hawthorne Bridge. I can smell the river.

“Detective?”

I lift my hand again, try to wave him off. My arm starts to tingle. I manage to get a grip on the window handle and crank it a turn or two. Chill air and a splash of rain sweep into the car.

“Can you hear me, Detective?” his voice now sharp through the open window.

“Jesus, yes.” I lower the glass some more, then try to shift in my seat. Goddamn ass feels like wood. My feet go hot as blood rushes into my legs. I groan again, but the rat eases off, settling back down to its typical sharp-clawed wriggle. I can cope with fiery sensation returning to my numb limbs so long as the rat keeps its peace.

I feel the cop’s sleeve brush my cheek as he reaches through the open window and unlocks the door. “I’m all right,” I say. “I can get it.” I heave forward and pop the latch, then sag back into the seat. The cop pulls the door open. He puts a hand under my arm, but he just holds it there. Waiting. His face that odd mix of concern and suspicion that only young cops have—enough time on the job and the concern will burn out of him, leaving only the raw suspicion behind. I lean forward and succeed in swinging my feet out onto the pavement. I grab the door frame with both hands and, grunting, heave myself out of the car.

It works out as well as I might have hoped. I have to steady myself with one hand on the roof of the car, but otherwise it doesn’t seem like I’m going to face plant any time soon. I take a moment to catch my breath and look the cop over. Young fellow, shiny-cheeked and razor burned. Name tag reads BARNES. My height, five-eight or so, and about as heavy. Unlike me, he carries his weight in his chest and shoulders rather than his belly. His face is thick, lips full, with a flat nose and dark hair and dense eyebrows. Eyes too small and too close together. The overall effect is rather unfortunate, but then the overall effect of my face is even more unfortunate. If he can stand to look at me, I can stand to look at him.

Barnes gives me at least as thorough a once-over as I give him. “Have you been drinking, sir?”

Always the first question once the pleasantries are over. In my patrol days, if I’d come across a guy passed out in the front seat of a car on some dark street I’d have asked the same. Don’t mean it doesn’t piss me off a little. I was born with the ruddy and swollen complexion of a hard drunk. A lifetime of explaining it away left me a mite tetchy on the matter. But I also know he’s just doing his job so I shake my head and try to laugh it off. Find myself scratching my neck instead. That causes him to look away. The other thing I was born with was a patch of skin on the side of my neck the color and consistency of raw hamburger. These days, I suppose a child thus disfigured would be shuffled off to the plastic surgeon. Buff the bad patch off. All paid for by insurance. When I was a kid, we had no insurance. My mother could hardly afford a doctor for the inevitable broken bones and stitches. She sure as hell wasn’t going to pay someone to pretty me up.

“What are you doing here?” he says, eyes still averted.

“Sleeping, what it looks like.”

“And you’re sure you haven’t been drinking?”

In the few moments since he woke me, the sky has gone from black to deep grey. No telling how long I’d been asleep, but it wasn’t long enough. It was never long enough anymore. “Son, you want to haul me back to the precinct and make me breathe into the machine, knock yourself out.


But your blow stick won’t pick up anything but hell’s own morning breath.”

I guess he could take or leave the sobriety test. Either he’ll give me the go home if you need to sleep lecture, or he’ll whip out the bracelets. Frankly, I don’t give a shit which so long as he gets on with it. He surprises me and chooses door number three.

“Are you armed, Detective?”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Sir, just answer the question.”

I can’t read his expression. “No. I’m not.” Wary now.

“Can I see some I.D.?”

Like the thing on my neck isn’t I.D. enough. I hand him my wallet, wait while he inspects my driver’s license. My badge and gun are back at the house. I haven’t carried either in months.

“Satisfied?” Wallet back in my pocket. The rat takes a nibble and I wince.

“Detective Mulvaney is on her way to a scene. When she heard I’d come across you, she asked me to bring you down.”

Jesus. All I want is to get back in my car and go home. Take a pain pill and wait it out until my appointment with the goddamn doctor later this morning. A crime scene is the last place I want to be. “Forget it. I’m on leave, or didn’t she tell you that?”

I turn to climb back into my car, but Barnes reaches out and grabs my upper arm. His grip is strong. I back up, find myself pressed up against the door frame.

“Sir, she was insistent. You can follow in your car, or ride in the back of mine. It’s up to you.”

I sag. There are few on earth who can insist as inexorably as Susan Mulvaney. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to dodge her in recent days, but she’s upped the ante by sending a cop after me. She probably told the bastard to arrest me if I refuse her summons. I throw up my hands, tell him fine, I’ll follow.

He drives south and west, weaving toward the river, and finally comes to a stop just outside the parking lot under the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge. I park further up the block on Water Street, close enough to keep him from getting pissy but far enough to keep the escape lanes open.

Barnes waits for me to join him, then leads me past his car. I see another patrol car parked beyond, engine running and lights spinning. A pair of uniforms are inspecting a silver Jeep Grand Cherokee off by itself near the pedestrian ramp that curves down from the bridge.

“What’s going on?”

“Detective Mulvaney will explain everything when she arrives.”

The sky continues to brighten. I can see the river now. Clouds overhead, more thin rain. I have a vague recollection it had been hot the day before. A hundred degrees and twig-snap dry. That’s why I was in my car. No air conditioning in the house, and the heat riling the rat. I’d popped a couple Vicodins and gone driving to try to cool off and relax. Now I wish I’d brought a jacket.

He tells me to stay where I am. He walks over to the Jeep, speaks to the other uniforms, then pulls out a cell phone and makes a call. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but he keeps his beady eyes on me.

I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of thinking I give a damn, so I show him my back and gaze out over the Willamette. The water is dark and choppy, swept by listless gusts of moist wind. Fingers of fog clutch at the edges of Waterfront Park and the downtown towers across the river. Overhead, the elevated section of I-5 grumbles with early traffic. The morning is still more dark than light, the sky a sodden grey, but joggers and bikers are already working both sides of the river. Before me, at the edge of the lot, the broad, paved path of the Eastbank Esplanade overlooks the river.

I hear footsteps and turn. Barnes is done with his call. “You got a body in that Jeep,” I say. Not a question.

“Detective Mulvaney is on her way.” Not an answer. “You can wait in my car.”

I hear the alarm cry of a marsh wren from the trees below the bridge. “Right here’ll be fine, thanks.”

“Sir—”

“Son, you know I’m police, and since you’ve been talking to Susan you know I’m Homicide. I know how this shit works.”

He frowns. After a moment he says, “Stay out of the way. Give me any trouble I’ll cuff you and sit your ass in a puddle.”

I chuckle. The bastard has grit. That, or he knows I’m a dead ender with zero traction in the bureau. He goes back to the others, and I listen to them set up lights and tape off the area around the Jeep. I feel no curiosity. I watch the river and shiver. Every so often a runner or skater passes on the Esplanade, their ears wired into music players strapped to their arms or waists.

After a while, I hear a car roll to a stop, a door open and close. Whoever it is doesn’t come to me right away. Jeep more interesting, I guess. A few minutes pass, and then I sense a presence at my side. I glance over and see Susan. Beyond her, the Jeep’s doors are open on the driver’s side, and I can just make out a still form in the back seat.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you siccing Officer Snippy on me.”

“Skin, you haven’t returned my calls. I’ve left messages on your cell phone. I’ve been worried.”

“The battery’s dead.”

I can hear her breathe. “I tried your house too. You never answer.”

I don’t bother to say that I expected folks to take the hint.

She offers me a Starbucks cup. “I brought you some green tea.”

“That’s your idea of a peace offering?” I glare at the cup even as I accept it. Green tea is my new drink of choice—recommended by Jimmy Zirk, my doctor’s medical assistant, and endorsed by Ruby Jane Whittaker, my caffeine pusher. Don’t care for the stuff much. I miss my coffee. Miss my smokes too, for that matter. But green tea is supposed to be good for me, and coffee’s diuretic quality puts unnecessary stress on my renal system. Gotta go easy on the renal system these days. I sip the tea and try not to make a face.

“What were you doing sleeping in your car, Skin?”

I’ve known Susan Mulvaney for over seven years, partnered with her for most of that. The only detectable change in her during that time has been a deepening of the hollows around her green eyes, a growing furrow between her eyebrows. She’s tall and slender with dusty blond hair perpetually pulled back into a loose bun. This morning she’s wearing a tailored beige suit with a white blouse and sensible brown shoes. Her badge hangs from her jacket pocket—I know she has an extra layer of interfacing sewn into the pocket to ensure it retains its shape.

I don’t want to answer her question. I gesture instead. “Who’s in the Jeep?”

She looks me over. I’m thinner than when she last saw me, with a lot less hair. The effects of cancer and chemo are easy enough to spot, and I quickly feel my impatience flair up. “Come on, Susan, spill it ... or let me go home.”

“Come have a look, let me know what you think.”

“I’m off the clock.”

“It will only take a minute.”

“What’s going on, Susan?”

“Just take a look.” She meets my eyes with her own. “Then we can talk.”

I don’t like the sound of that. The Jeep is parked off by itself. Clean, less than a year old. The tires have minimal wear. An off-road vehicle that has never been off-road and likely never will be. I glance through the open rear door at the body in the back seat, then look away again as the rat stirs. “What do you want me to see?”

“Whatever there is to see.”

“You don’t need me for this. Where’s your partner?”

“Kirk will be here soon.” She takes my tea and hands me a pair of blue nitrile gloves. “Just take a look.” I sigh, but I know she won’t let up until she gets what she wants. I pull the gloves on, then move to the driver’s door. Start in the front. Worry about the stiff after.

I lean in, wrists propped against my knees. The interior is as clean as the exterior, discounting the mess in the back seat. Almost looks like it’s just been driven off the lot. Creamy leather seats, inlaid panels of polished wood in the dashboard. Driver’s seat forward, tilt wheel up. Keys hanging from the ignition. Dash free of dust and the specks of crud you find in even the most fastidiously maintained vehicles. Odometer is electronic, so I’ll have to turn the key to see the mileage. I stand and look more closely at the tires—minimal wear, but not no wear. At least a few thousand miles on them. I think it possible a criminalist might not turn up any fingerprints at all.

The passenger seat holds the goods. A pint of Crown Royal, only a finger or two of whisky left, and an empty quart of whole milk. Two prescription bottles, the same anti-nausea med I take and an opioid pain killer. Prescribing physician, Doctor Tobias Hern, for one Raymond Orwoll. The doctor’s name makes my stomach jump, but Orwoll means nothing to me. Presumably the fellow in the back. Both pill bottles are empty. Looks like a fairly typical case of suicide by overdose. Mix the booze with the pills, douse it with milk to keep it all down. Cut and dried, except even the cursory glance I’d given the body before turning to the front seat indicated that probable cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head.

The body lays slumped against the door on the passenger side, left leg stretched across the back seat, right leg splayed open with the foot on the floor. The fellow is tall and dark haired, dressed in a grey dress shirt and charcoal slacks. Just one of his leather shoes would cover my car payment.

I don’t see a gun, but black stippling on his right hand suggests he’d fired one, muzzle pressed under his chin. Small entry with blackened star-like striations at the edge indicates a contact wound. Gun hand on his belly. No evident exit wound, minimal blood. Bladder and bowels had let go, and there’s vomit on the back of the passenger seat. That last had to be pre-mortem, and might explain why he decided to give a bullet a try. Assuming he’d been the one to pull the trigger.

Even with two doors open, the interior reeks. Besides the stench of shit, piss and puke, the air is thick with the bittersweet smell of burnt powder. And something else, just a hint I can’t place at first. A familiar odor that hovers at the edge of scent. Then I have a thought. I look at the console under the dash. The ashtray is full of change.

I rise, my stomach burbling. Take a moment to breathe.

“What do you think?” Susan asks.

“He’s not gonna make it.” I close my eyes and strip off the gloves. Turn and take a couple of unsteady steps. My hands feel clammy and cold, and the urge for a cigarette swells up in my chest like a bubble. After my initial review of so many crime scenes I’d lost count the first thing I’ve always done is wander off to the side for a smoke and a little thinking. Nothing like a smoke to clear the mind, along with the nasal passages. But about three months back I saw that first vivid streak of crimson in the urinal. It wasn’t long after that my internist sent me to Doctor Tobias Hern, oncologist, who explained the link between smoking and bladder cancer with the help of full-color photos in a medical text book. “We can beat this, Thomas,” he told me, “but you have to work with me. The time has come to end your dependency on cigarettes.” Bastard. Still, I did what he said, for all the good it’s done me. Blood still tints the john, and now my gut is in on the act. God only knows what that means.

“Skin?”

I open my eyes. Susan stands in front of me, her face a mask of concern. I feel a thin coat of sweat on my cheeks and neck despite the morning chill, and I realize I’m holding my breath. I press a hand against my stomach and breathe, fixing my eyes on her own. “Does Doctor Hern have something to do with this mess?”

“He’s your doctor too, right?” She hands me my tea. “His name has turned up on pill bottles at several scenes in the last couple of weeks.”

“Jesus, Susan, what are you telling me?”

“Four suicides.”

“This one too?”

“One of the responding officers found a twenty-five between the body and seat back when he was checking for I.D.”

Across the river, the fog is thinning, but it remains dense around my head.

“You knew I was Doctor Hern’s patient when you told that asshole to bring me here.” I knead my gut with my free hand, try to massage the rat into complaisance. “What exactly is going on, Susan?”

I hear the wren call and Susan looks out across the river. “A young woman named Jerilyn Titchmer came to us a week or so ago. She had a list of five names, five men whom she claimed were targets. One was her father, Davis Titchmer. He was dead, self-inflicted gun shot the previous week. Kirk and I had given it a glance, but didn’t think there was anything there. Of the other four men, two were dead, also suicides. Now another one is in that Jeep.” She points as if I need to be reminded which Jeep she’s talking about.

“That doesn’t explain how Doctor Hern comes into it.”

“Jeri Titchmer knew the dead men were his patients. She claimed they became friends through some kind of support group he runs.”

I know about the group. Coping with cancer, that kind of bullshit. It’s not actually Hern’s group—it’s run by Jimmy Zirk. I’m not a sit-in-a-circle-and-share kinda guy, so I’ve never gone. Not sure Doc even knows I’d given it a miss.

“And this daughter thinks what, exactly?”

“She was pretty vague, to be honest—adamant about only one thing. She is convinced her father didn’t commit suicide.”

“They never think dad scrambled his own eggs.” No response. The rat squirms and I suppress a grimace. “What’s Owen say?”

“He’s a problem.” She purses her lips, a strong reaction for Susan. “His position is that Jeri Titchmer is crazy, unwilling to accept her father’s suicide and desperate for another explanation. The congruence of the suicides is a fluke, and not surprising given the men’s medical history. No reason to suspect foul play. He doesn’t want us wasting time on it.”

“But you think there’s something more.”

She exhales noisily. “Listen, Owen is probably right. But he has us all on a tight leash these days. I can’t do anything without him yanking me back.”

“Dolack?” Her partner since I’d dropped out.

“He’s new, Skin. He’s not going to cross Owen.”

“Wouldn’t wanna piss off his sugar daddy.” I sigh. “Okay, what’s your theory?”

“Not much, at this point. Five men on Jeri Titchmer’s list, four now dead. The connection is the daughter.”

“And Hern?”

“Probably peripheral.”

I close my eyes a moment. “You think the girl killed them?”

“Or she knows something she isn’t telling.”

“And since I’m tits in the wind you figure I’m free to take a run at her. Christ, Susan, have you noticed anything unusual about me lately?”

She reaches into her jacket pocket and hands me a sheaf of a dozen or so folded pages. “I need a fresh pair of eyes to take a look, see if there is anything that will force Owen to open this up. Something more than a crazy daughter or the fact the men were all in the same cancer support group.”

I flip through the pages, photocopies of notes written in Susan’s small, careful script. “Three of the men were dead when the girl appeared with the list?”

“That’s right.”

“So at that point she’s just nuts with grief. Now you got a fresh corpse and it looks like she knew what was going to happen.”

“You don’t think Orwoll killed himself?”

“I dunno. Probably he did, but get Ident over here before Owen has a chance to stop you. Maybe something will turn up.” I look at the Jeep and shrug. “In any case, you don’t need me. What you need is get to the fifth guy—” I check the first page of notes, see the name. “Abe Brandauer, whoever—and protect him. Then round up this girl and sit on her till she gives.” I offer the pages back to her.

“Keep them—” She seems about to say more, but her eyes move past me and she presses her lips together. I turn, but I already know who’s there. I jam the notes into my back pocket before he catches sight of them.

“Kadash, what in hell’s holy name are you doing here?”

Richard Owen is a big man, gut like a sack of feed corn, bald head, slick of grey sidecar hair behind the ears. He’s wearing an expensive, well-cut blue pinstripe suit. Not so long ago, he’d been one of us, just another dick on the Homicide Detail, but shortly before I took leave he got kicked up to lieutenant in charge of Person Crimes. I guess with the new rank, he had to upgrade his wardrobe to something more appropriate for a guy who now spent half his time on the fourteenth floor trying to be seen by the chief.

“I asked you a question, Kadash.” Loud enough for everyone present to hear.

“I guess I just miss hanging with the cool kids.”

He glances around. Susan’s eyes are fixed past his ear, which appears to confound him. Quickly he zeroes his sour glare back on me. “You’re supposed to be sick.”

“You can’t believe anything you read on the internet.”

The uniforms have all stopped what they were doing and now stand quietly watching the scene unfold. Off beyond the crime scene tape on the Esplanade side of the lot, a few civilians gather. Kirk Dolack appears off Owen’s left flank. He glances my way but doesn’t meet my gaze. Owen’s got his big bad scary cop face working, which has the same affect on me as a clown face on a balloon.

He puts his hand on Susan’s shoulder. “A word with you, Detective.” To me he says, “You don’t go anywhere. Dolack, stay with him.” He and Susan go around to the far side of the Jeep. I can see his head bob, like a pigeon on a roid rage, but he keeps his voice down. Susan only nods and offers monosyllabic responses.

Beside me, Dolack reaches into his shirt pocket, pulls out a pack of Merits. He lights up casually, his eyes narrowing at the rising smoke. Pretty goddamn brash with the lieutenant twenty feet away. Then he surprises me by extending the pack.

I want a cigarette like I want my next breath. “No, thanks. I quit.”

“Really?” he says. “Little late for that, isn’t it?”

“At least I have the capacity for change, Kirk. You’ll always be a cunt.”

A jet of smoke shoots from his nostrils. Owen chooses that moment to return, sparing me Kirk’s attempt at a comeback. “Detective, get rid of that cigarette. You know better than that.” Dolack steps off to the side and flicks the butt into the street, his expression dark.

Owen’s draws himself up and looks at everyone in turn, an imperious chieftain. “Detective Mulvaney agrees with me that most likely the man in the car shot himself, but in light of other information we have about the victim we’re going to go ahead and give the Jeep a work over to see what turns up.” He focuses his gaze on me. “Since you have no business being here in the first place, Detective Kadash, you’re dismissed.”

The smart play is to get the hell out of there before my flapping gums get me any deeper in the shit. I look at Susan instead. “Two things come to mind. The driver’s seat is pushed forward, but Orwoll’s a tall fellow. Makes you wonder, did he move it up before climbing into the back, or was someone else driving?”

She pulls out her notebook, nodding and ignoring the heat rising on Owen’s neck. “Even if someone wiped the steering wheel and gear shift, they might have forgotten the seat adjustment lever.” A long shot, we both know, but it won’t hurt to check. “And the second thing?”

“Someone smoked in the car. You can smell it. But the ashtray’s clean.”

“Bullshit, Kadash,” Owen snaps. “If you smelled anything it was your own goddamn smoke.”

“Your boy’s the one who lit up at a crime scene, not me.” Owen’s ears turn red, but before he can pop off again I say to Susan, “We finished? I got a doctor’s appointment.”

She reaches out to squeeze my forearm. “I’ll walk you to your car, Skin.”

Nice to offer, but I’m still thinking about how I ended up here. “Don’t bother.”

I feel a hitch in my stomach as I push past Owen. Without thinking, I thrust the half-empty cup of tea into Dolack’s surprised hand. Manage not to laugh as the lip pops off and tea splashes onto his arm. As I head across the lot and under the tape, I hope I can complete my escape without throwing up. I need to clear my thoughts, to focus on something other than the body in the Jeep, something other than Owen. Down at the river, the wren calls again. The piercing trill does nothing to reassure me.

5 comments:

peggy said...

oh wow. this is really great! I can hardly wait to find out what happens next.. great start to the book! Bill you did Good!

laughingwolf said...

damn bill... bloody brilliant, as my pals in ol blighty would say!

by Karen Dionne said...

Marvelous opening, Bill!

Bill Cameron said...

Thanks, everyone! :D :D :D

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