Monday, February 28, 2011

"The Things He Leaves Behind" by: Aric Mitchell

"The Things He Leaves Behind"
by: Aric Mitchell
as published in
Masked Gun Mystery #1 

Hi, I’m Reese Fuller. I work the afterhours beat for the Clarion. I see the ugly side. The grit and grime of the streets, the lost souls at the end of a rope. I see what makes the child cry in the night. I get up close and personal with what makes the lawman crawl inside a bottle of booze at the end of his shift. I know what keeps him awake at night on a first name basis. Maybe it’s a dead hooker or a drug deal gone bad. Or perhaps the guy who just got laid off and is now about to light a match against his kerosene-drenched clothing.
No rest for the weary, none for the wicked. And nothing for those of us trying to make sense of it all.
My beat is a book filled with stories. And no matter how many there are, no matter how far I reach, I can barely tell one before the next one comes along. But someone told me a long time ago it doesn’t matter if the rest of the world is going to hell in a handcart. All you can do is work the leads you got. Make them the best they can be. I don’t always succeed. I can’t. The house has too good of odds. But I can play smart. I take my cards. I watch for the signals. I learn the other players, and sometimes I hold the winning hand.
Yes, I work the after hours beat. It’s the place that seeps into nightmares as the world sleeps. And it’s the place I call home.

Home is where the heart is, they say. Sometimes it’s a heart as black as the night itself. That’s why I like to focus on the good whenever I can. Traci DuBois is part of that good. I’ve worked with her for five years now. She’s a social worker. Our paths have crossed more than once in a professional sense. Who has the time for anything else? But every evening we’re both available, she meets me for drinks at the Crow’s Nest just off Southport.
Nights and weekends you couldn’t fit us in with a shoehorn. Too many men and women wrapped up in the latest trendy clothing trying to look fashionable, hoping they attract someone that wants the same things they do. Meanwhile, there is the tap-tap-tapping away of the smart phone, feverish hands doing whatever they can to stay busy. It’s a world where the hopefuls care more about documenting life than actually living it.
Listen to me, calling the kettle black.
My whole job depends on getting the story and then sharing it with the world. Still, there seems some higher purpose in the work I do. If not, why else do it?
“You’re zoning,” Traci says. That’s what she calls it when my words go silent and my thoughts pick up behind dark and weary eyes.
“I’m sorry, Trace. Long night.” And it had been.
She knows I’m covering. “Well this should cheer you up.” Cory the Bartender clunks two mugs of beer down in front of us.
I snake my fingers through the handle and feel the ice cool of the glass against my knuckles as the rim nears my lips. “It helps.”
“So am I gonna get the real story, or do I got to keep pumping you for info like you’re my wife?” For a moment, her eyes lock onto mine and it’s like I’m looking in a mirror. Then the rest of her fills out. The creamy complexion in the blue light of the neon beer sign above. The pointed features of resilient beauty unaffected by her line of work. The smooth skin of her arms shooting out of her dark sleeveless blouse. Feminine. Delicate. Graceful. Not me.
“Don’t know about any story,” I say. “Still working on it.”
A smile. “You’re like a blunt instrument, Reese. Long as we’ve known each other, I still can’t figure why you’re not out busting heads somewhere.”
“Been there, done that, dollface.”
“Again with the dollface? You know it’s the Twenty-First Century, right? I swear you were born in the wrong time. You’re like some kind of muckraking wiseguy.”
“Watch your mouth.” I’m always telling her to watch her mouth. She never listens. Part of the charm, I suppose. She’s always telling me how outdated my brand is. Like if I’m not careful the world is going to pass me by.
“Seriously, you won’t even set up voice mail on your cell phone, and the only reason you even carry one is ‘cause the paper makes you. God knows if the day’ll ever come when I see you on the internet.”
“Never mind.”
It’s a changing world. Funny, I should be changing with it, but Traci’s right. My mind is stuck in a time when feet pounded pavement and pages spooled from a typewriter. Maybe it’s my heritage. I come from a long line of whistle-blowers. Why should I be any different?
I make an attempt to pay for her, but she’s having none of it. “This ain’t no date,” she says, and muscles the ticket out of my hand. A light dusting of small talk powders our time at the Crow’s Nest before we pay our tabs and hit the streets. Then it’s on to matters of business. And the business that’s been keeping me up at night is murder.
Particularly, a lost soul named Frankie Donovan. Frankie was a two-strike loser working on number three. He’d been in and out of state custody since he was thirteen. Not the kind of bird I’d think twice about if he should encounter a couple of broken wings. Sympathy for the devil has never been one of my strong suits. But no man walks this earth without bringing at least some value to it. Sometimes it comes in the form of personal redemption. Other times it’s the things he leaves behind. Such is the case with Frankie.
God, kids can be forgiving. Crammed into a hovel with a deadbeat dad and an indifferent sandy blonde they called “Mom,” it was a wonder the quartet of Donovan children ever got a hot meal, much less any time to feel like children. Between Daddy’s drug associates and Mom’s meth habit, the only relief for Billy, Kortney, Alex, and Roger were the few times per week they got to school. The younger kids showed up a lot more. Billy made sure of it. As the eldest by seven years, he had a little of that nurturing parent in him that the real deals seemed to be missing. He wanted the other kids to have better opportunities, make the most out of their education. But when it came to his own, all he wanted was to hang out in the streets and smoke dope. It was on one of these little holidays that Billy and a friend got caught, arrested, and sent to juvenile detention for an overnight stay. The experience stayed with him. Both in the way he had abandoned his siblings and in the way Daddy marked up his face afterward. It was the only proof he could ever inspire a sense of passion in his old man, but it was also the last thing a child wants to get from his father. Especially when dear old Dad was known to get tangled up in much worse.
The relationship festered and bruises became the norm. I never suspected at the time what was going on – just that Billy stayed in trouble at school. His fighting had become somewhat of a chronic problem and from the looks of things he wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t know at the time that the fights he was picking weren’t occurring at school – in fact, he wasn’t starting them at all. The truth came to me about one week ago tonight. Frankie was walking back to his hovel after a trip to the grocery store for a pack of cigarettes and a loaf of bread.
“Evening, ma’am,” he said to an elderly woman on the street. Not the kind of detail that seems noteworthy unless you’ve seen eighty birthdays in the same area of Chicago and the most exciting thing in your life is a Tuesday Night Knitting Club with the women of South Side Baptist. Then, being the last person to speak to a murder victim alive shortly before someone punches three nickel-sized holes in his face becomes a big deal.
Frankie turned the corner and walked down to the end of the block where a ratty tenement awaited him. He marched up the stairs to his third floor apartment, closed the door behind him, and, somewhere between the entryway and the kitchen, took three bullets in the head.
Police arrived to see all the kids standing on the street corner. No tears, the report said. A true testimony to the parenting skills of one Frankie Donovan, no doubt. Mom stayed gone for days. It would be three more before anyone could find her to deliver the news. In another year, maybe she would realize it.
Standing out there with them was big brother Billy. They clung to him like heat to a flame. He was their rock, their strength, their protector. Their father. Such a young age to be left responsible for three children, especially when you aren’t in any position to make the calls for yourself. But that was his hand, and he played it well. What he didn’t do so well was lie. Sure, he tried it. Told the police a man had busted in and shot dear old Dad while he was cooking dinner. Said the guy wore a mask. Told him not to say a word unless he wanted the same treatment.
There were enough plot holes in Billy’s story to conjure up images of a bad movie with a shoestring budget and a cast and crew of drama school dropouts. It didn’t take long for the boys in blue to pick it apart. For one, there was no evidence of forced entry. Two, the best ballistics could tell, Frankie had been shot with his own gun. Some doing if one believed Billy’s break-in version. The assailant kicks in the door, which, after investigation, seems to be the only thing in the entire building still in great shape. He has Frankie wait for him while he rummages through the underwear drawer and grabs Frankie’s pistol, then returns to the area between living room and kitchen where they kept a dining table and plugs him three times.
There was also a partial print on the barrel of the gun. Billy’s. And while that fact was circumstantial in nature, it was peculiar that the gun could live in that tenement apartment for any length of time and only have one print all together. Not Mom’s, not Frankie’s, not the younger children. Only Billy’s. It was as if someone had thoroughly wiped down the gun and left it without realizing.
Something was definitely rotten in Lawndale.

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