"Hello? Where are you?" she said, voice raised.
"Up here. Third floor."
My place is a red brick foursquare, built In the 20's, when the Aspinwall-Delafield Land Company was busy enticing the Pittsburgh middle class out of the sweltering city and onto fertile bottom land where a young Henry J. Heinz had once planted cukes and horseradish. I've lived in the house for nearly ten years and have spent much of that time trying to remove all the improvements, like dropped ceilings and paneling, that previous owners had so thoughtfully added.
"What are you doing up there?" she shouted up the stairwell.
"Admiring my plaster and taping job." I said
"Didn't you finish that last week?"
"Yes," I said, descending the stairs and putting my arms around her waist, "But I'm still admiring it."
"Well, it's time to admire me for awhile."
After a bit of mutual groping, she pulled back with a grin on her face.
"I should go away more often."
"How was Baltimore?" I asked, as we walked downstairs to the kitchen, stepping around all the tools I'd left along the way.
"The city was fine, the client wasn't. Potential jerks. It's likely they brought us in just to prove to the other investors how off-the-wall anything other than the most traditional development would be."
"You were set up?"
"Looks that way."
Sam works for an architectural firm that specializes in developing residential housing projects that don't follow the standard post-WW II suburban model. They believe in such heretical concepts as having stores nearby and sidewalks that actually lead somewhere.
"Did you stop at that diner I mentioned?"
"The one run by prisoners?"
"Former prisoners." I corrected her, "Guys trying to catch a break."
"The client had something else in mind."
"Something with white wine and crab cakes, no doubt."
"White wine and sushi."
"Of course, that famous Baltimore specialty."
Sam and I met a year ago at a city zoning hearing. I came in late, just as a tall, slender woman with curly dark hair stepped to the open microphone. Her confident manner and soft voice quieted the raucous crowd and caught my eye. When the gavel fell at the end of the evening a group, including Sam and myself, lingered behind, discussing the issue. When someone suggested we go for coffee, I told them I had the perfect place.
"You haven't seen a newspaper since you got back, have you?"
"No. Our plane got in around five and all I've seen are brake lights on the Parkway and Route 28 until now. Why?"
"I had a very dissatisfied customer yesterday."
I told her about the shooting as we started dinner. She chopped up the salad as I lit the grill on the back porch and mixed some garlic and herbs de Provence into the ground beef. I looked forward to these simple Friday night cookouts. Politically incorrect cheeseburgers with a big salad.
"God, that's horrible." she said, carefully wiping off the chef's knife when I was done with the story.
"How‘s Jean taking it?"
"Jean's fine. Taking it like a trooper -- at least on the outside."
"Yea. But for her and the rest it'll be tough. Probably show up later. Sleeplessness, nightmares, that sort of thing."
"How are you?"
"I'm okay, cutie." I said, reassuring her, " I just want to get it settled."
"What do you think it's all about?"
"I think this guy got involved in something outside his control. Maybe drugs, maybe gambling."
"But why would they do it in your diner, why not the good ‘ole dark alley approach?"
"It may have been a message to others. Something like, ‘we don't care who you are or where you are -- we'll get you.'"
"On the other hand, that's giving them credit for having brains. They may simply have done this for fun ."
"Fun? You're serious?"
"Not our kind of fun, but I dealt with plenty of guys who used violence as a twisted form of recreation.
She stopped spinning the romaine and looked at me, her dark brown eyes serious and concerned.
"Is this why you left the force?
"No. I could deal with that." I smacked a burgher on the chopping block and returned her look. "You know why I left...don't you?"
"I know what you told me, about some guy pissing you off and you wanted a change and all that."
"Close enough. But I did leave. I run a diner now. And the biggest crime I generally face these days is someone skipping out on a check."
"But you wish you were on the case, don't you?"
I didn't say anything.
"Come on, Scotty. This is more jazzed than I've seen you in months. You'd love to be back on the street -- right?"
"Not entirely wrong...."
I shook some salt onto the burgers and thought for a moment.
"Look. I'm like a retired basketball player, a guy who lived and breathed the game for twenty years and then one day left it all behind and joined the real world."
"But the world doesn't have much juice, does it?"
"The real world has everything but juice...and that's good."
"But you think maybe you could play again?"
"I feel like I wandered into a gym and found a game going on...and even though all of the guys are younger and faster, I know I can take them."
"The Larry Bird of cops?"
"What's the coach got to say about this?"
"I'm afraid Paul is going to get tired of me wanting to get in the game."
As the burgers sizzled on the grill, we took tall glasses of iced tea to the front porch and watched the sun settle down. First bright, then hazy orange and finally just a red tinge at the edge of the dark thunderheads that were building up.
"So you really do miss being a cop?"
I looked out across the shady front lawn and sipped.
"Yea. I do."
"And this is tough, isn't it?"
"Christ! You should be the cop -- talk about the third degree!"
"I didn't mean it that way. I'm just interested. And you do seem a little riled."
"I don't get riled." I said, standing up to get rescue our burgers. "I become demonstrative."
"Bull shit." She laughed.
When I returned with the plates, Sam sat up and gathered her long hair into a ponytail. She is beautiful and smart, and for the first time since I'd know her, I think she was a little afraid. I'd neatly romanticized my former career for her. Old cop war stories were nothing like this. This killing was close and violent and personal. We didn't talk anymore about the murder, but I realized now it would effect us. In some way, it would change our relationship.
After dinner we went upstairs and made love as the storm blew in. When a violent clap of thunder shook the old windows in the bedroom we kidded about feeling the earth move.
"Yes, I think it did," Sam said, "Now let's see if lighting can strike twice in the same place..."
I woke instantly when the phone rang. It was two days later. Sunday afternoon. The New York Times, my cat Frank and the TV remote control all scattered as I jumped up from the living room couch. The Pirate's were silently losing again on the muted TV. I stumbled for the phone, groggy and out of sorts.
"Yea?" I grabbed the phone just as the answering machine clicked on.
"Scotty?....'you have reached'.....Are you there.....'if you'd like to leave a message'... Hey Scotty.....Is that you Corrado?.....BEEP."
"Christ, Scotty, are you there or what?"
"I'm here, Paul. Or what."
"Okay, then grab a pen and right down this address."
Scanning for paper and finding none, I scribbled on the palm of my hand.
"It's the ‘House of Hit Men.' At least we're pretty sure. A fairly reliable snitch of mine just ID'd the place as the current residence of your shooters. Care to join us?"
"You're asking me to the bust ? How considerate."
"Do you have a better invitation for this afternoon? Wait a minute...listen. Instead of meeting me there, why don't you drop your car off here at the station and ride with me?"
"Be here in an hour."
"Pull the plug on that goddamn answering machine."
I took a shower to clear my head. I'd been up since 3:30 and had already put in a full day at the diner.
I dressed, went back downstairs and put on a pot of coffee. I brought my 9mm Walther with me and set it on the kitchen table. Corrado hadn't said anything, but I knew the chance he was taking by bringing me along. If anything went wrong, he was facing a disciplinary hearing or worse. If I was carrying, it could be much worse.
Impatient, I pulled the coffee pot away before it had finished its cycle. As I filled my mug, the remaining coffee dripped and sputtered rhythmically on the warmer. I shoved the pot back into position, checked my watch and made my decision. As I headed out the door the gun was firmly tucked in my rear belt holster; uncomfortable and comforting at the same time.
My pickup rumbled out of Aspinwall and up onto the Highland Park Bridge. Crossing the Allegheny River near Lock #2, I looked down river to the small group of bait fishermen who stake out a sand bar just below the dam. In the midsummer heat they were sitting and waiting, as I imagined the fish were.
Traffic slowed on the steep hill by the Pittsburgh Zoo, where a tired old station wagon was struggling to make the grade. The car was overflowing with six flailing kids and a frantic German short hair pointer which had her sharp eyes on one of the peacocks that wanders the zoo grounds. I saw the driver look over his shoulder, then reach for the dash. Suddenly the rear glass window started rising. The pointer kept her sharp little snout outside until the very last moment. They speeded up after that and stayed ahead of me as we zig-zagged our way up to the grand old entrance to the Highland Park reservoir. The family and their best friend turned into the park. I headed downhill toward East Liberty.
Corrado was standing near his car in the parking lot when I pulled in.
"Thought it might be better if you didn't come up. Less people know about this the better."
"And your partner is where?"
"I told him I'd handle this."
"And he was okay with that?"
"He was happy to have the day off."
I wasn't sure I believed him, but it didn't really matter. I reached under my windbreaker and held the Walther low for Paul to see.
"You cool with this?"
"I wouldn't do it any other way. But Scotty, go easy."
I waited for the punch line, but none came. Corrado averted his eyes, flicked his cigarette onto the gravel and got in the car. He reached over to the unlock the passenger door and I slid into a patrol car for the first time since I'd left the force. Corrado had always been hard on vehicles and this one had gotten his full attention. The seats were torn, coffee stained the dash and crumpled fast food bags littered the floor. There was no telling what was in the trunk.
"So...you remember this?" Paul said, taking both hands off the wheel and a making broad, inclusive gesture.
"Yea." I said. "I remember."
"We were a decent team, weren't we?"
"Better than average, I guess."
"You miss it?"
"Now and then...Kinda like the way you miss an old girlfriend...or an old wife..."
"Oh, Christ! Those are two very different things, Scotty."
"You know what I mean. You remember all the good stuff and you eventually forget why it was you broke up."
"I don't think you've forgotten that."
"No. In this particular case, I haven't."
"You wish you hadn't done it?"
I thought about it for a second. The radio crackled, loud and annoying.
"No. It had to happen. I was so wired and angry and ready to go off. Better that I lost it with Addison than with someone on the street."
"They fucked your career, Scotty! Addison set you up."
"And I thank him now and again."
I'd seen it coming at the time, in slow motion, the way accident victims recount their experiences. In the corporate parlance of today, I was missing an important tool in my job-related skill set -- I couldn't kiss ass. Back around 1998 I'd butted heads with a butt-head Commander named Dave Addison and lost.
Addison wasn't good at much else, but he played politics with great gusto. I didn't. Addison was just the final kick in the pants, though. I was tired of the lack of support, the lack of respect and the public's general assumption that everything the cops did was suspect. I was ready to leave.
"Yea, well it was a wild-ass fight, Scotty. I'm still not sure why I dragged you off the little worm."
"You were playing ‘good cop' that day."
"Yea well, you'll be happy to know that your nickname sticks with Addison to this day."
"Like stink on shit."
Corrado turned off Center Avenue onto the restricted East Busway and avoided all the traffic into downtown. The road follows a railroad right-of-way and is only used by Port Authority buses, cops and emergency vehicles. In a city with what must be the world's shortest subway system, this passes for modern mass transit.
"So what do you know about these guys?" I said, changing the subject.
"Like I said on the phone, a geek of mine pointed to them."
"What was his percentage?"
"He was motivated by a rather serious felony possession charge. It seemed like a good trade -- if it pans out."
"What else do we know?"
"Here, look this over" Corrado said, reaching onto the dash for a crumpled computer printout. If Corrado's tip was legit, the guys we were going to meet were named William ‘Billie Boy' Powell and Nate Young.
"Beautiful." I said, "Sounds like the cast of some 1940's detective movie."
"Yea, but these guys would probably do better in something like Death Wish."
Both men had been busy, with felony convictions for robbery, assault, auto theft, drug sales and lots of smaller stuff. Both had served time. Both had outstanding warrants. Both were not yet able to drink a beer legally in the State of Pennsylvania. Kids these days.
"The warrants are a nice touch."
"Yea. Lucky as hell. If we want to go in, there's nothing stopping us."
We took a left off Brighton Road on the North Side, made a couple more turns and ended up on a very narrow street called Barton. Rundown clapboard row houses nosed out close to the pavement. They were interspersed with small, cheap single-family houses that probably went up quickly right after WW II. Most of them hadn't been rehabed since. Corrado pulled to the curb and cut the engine.
"Number three forty seven is that lovely one over there" he said, pointing down the street.
The narrow structure was painted a hideous bright blue from the foundation to the the second story. Above that it was pale white and peeling, large curls of ancient paint revealing gray asbestos shingles underneath. Some enterprising painter had either run out of paint or ladder. The first floor windows of the house were covered with sheets, pinned up on the inside. A derelict Honda motorcycle was parked on the sagging porch, alongside an abandoned stove and a pile of aluminum lawn furniture strung with festive plaid plastic mesh.
Across the street a stocky black man got out of a ancient Buick land yacht and walked toward us.
"Frank Sterling" Corrado said, tapping me on the arm, "You remember him?"
"Just the name."
"He's a tough motherfucker. Took three slugs last year and couldn't wait to come back. I'd have taken the disability and sat out my days in a La-z-boy."
Corrado rolled down the window.
"Just telling Scotty here about your heroic exploits."
"Was nothing like that." He said looking me over, then smiling," But I think the limp gives me a little character."
"Scotty and I partnered a few years ago."
"I'm flattered." I said.
"I didn't say it was a good thing I remembered." He laughed.
"It was Scotty's diner that got shot up, so he's along for the ride. Help me watch his back, will ya'?"
Paul's paternal attitude stung, but I figured there were better times to air that out.
"How do you want to handle it?"
"Any other way out?" Paul asked.
"A back door and the windows over the porch roof."
"All right. You and Murph cover them and Scotty and I will go in the front."
"You got it."
We got out of the car and walked slowly down our side of the street as Sterling and his partner got into position. I felt the Walther pressing at the small of my back and felt a shot of adrenaline in my gut. I was glad for both of them.
We crossed the street in silence and quickly walked up the steps to the house.
We both drew our guns, fingers poised on the trigger guards. I stood aside as Paul knocked on the door. Nothing. He knocked again. Louder this time. Still nothing. I tried the knob and it clicked open. Corrado held his hand up to keep me back, as he pushed the door fully open with his foot.
"This is the Pittsburgh Police -- anybody in there?" he shouted.
Paul peeked around the corner of the doorframe and then stepped across the threshold into the house.
"Pittsburgh Police. Is there anyone home?" he said again. "I have warrants for the arrest of Nate Young and Billy Powell. If you're in there, come out now."
No one answered and I heard no sounds of movement inside. Corrado moved through a small vestibule into the front hallway.
I followed about two steps behind. The stairway to the second floor was just to the left, with a living room on the right. Paul covered the stairs as I quietly sidestepped through the dining room and kitchen amidst a clutter of frayed furniture, stained rugs and filthy dishes. The different colored sheets draped over the windows gave each room its own unique hue. The kitchen got the most appropriate color scheme -- chartreuse fabric was catching the late afternoon sun and washing the dirty walls in a sickly shade of green. It matched the smell.
"Let's do two." Paul whispered. "Me first."
Corrado started up the steps with his back to the wall. I lingered behind, covering him from the short landing on the first floor. As the heat rose up the stairwell it was carrying with it the odor of rotting food and acrid smoke. Paul held his gun at shoulder height as he edged his way up the groaning stairs. Once he reached the top, I followed. There was a small bathroom to the left with the door open. There were two other rooms, both with their doors closed.
"Pittsburgh Police. If anyone is in there, get your ass out here now!"
Corrado nodded at the door nearest us. I crouched low as he kicked it open.
"Oh, shit." Paul lowered his gun and shook his head.
I followed him into the room, where the bodies of two young black men were sprawled, dead. One on the floor, the other on a tattered couch. From a quick glance there didn't appear to be any bullet wounds or other marks on them. There was no blood.
"The other room." I said.
We busted into the front room and found nothing but two mattresses on the floor, some clothes and a few empty beer cans.
Paul snapped up his radio as we walked back to the scene.
"Unit two, we're secure. Close up and come on in. We've got two dead males."
"Well fuck me." Corrado said, holstering his gun. "What did these guys do?
"Celebrated their success a bit too much?" I said, pointing to a crack pipe.
"Probably right. Partied ‘til they popped."
"And will you look here", I said.
"Nine-mil", Corrado said, as I used the barrel of my gun to ease up the front cover of a porno magazine, revealing a blued automatic on the end table.
"Forensics is going to have a feast."
Murphy and Sterling came up the steps behind us.
"Guess we got here a little late," Sterling said, surveying the scene.
"Yep, the party's definitely over" Corrado quipped, "And our hosts have danced their last dance."
I left before anyone official arrived. Three cop cars and the Coroner's wagon passed me as I made my way back down to Brighton Road and the long wait for a weekend bus. Corrado had assured me that Murphy and Sterling were cool, and that my presence at the scene would remain a secret. Whoopee.
The story lead off the eleven o'clock news, which gave me a chance to see toothy reporter Ken Powers again, at his intense best. He did one of those pieces where reporters roam through a house with the cameraman, pointing out significant details they are pretending to discover for the first time.
"Police say they found the two men in this second floor bedroom, along with traces of cocaine and a number of handguns and other weapons. Informed sources say they believe these two men are the same pair that, two days ago, shot down Kevin McAllister, son of prominent Fox Chapel developer Robert McAllister, at Scotty's Diner. A preliminary statement from the Coroner's office says they believe the cause of death to be cocaine intoxication, but a final report will await a full autopsy and toxicology tests. Bill."
Ken tossed the story back to the studio, where the anchor buddies were turned to a monitor with furrowed brows.
"That's amazing, Ken."
"Ken, this is Susan. Did police say how they were able to track down the killers in such a short time?"
"Nothing official, Susan. But a source close to the investigation told me it was really just ‘good old-fashioned police work'."
Good old-fashioned luck is more like it. If it hadn't been for the inspired ratting of a felonious punk, I would have spent the afternoon snoozing through a baseball game, Corrado would have been bowling duck pins with his league in Etna and two dead men would have continued to bake in the afternoon heat.