Chapter Eight

My cell phone woke me, then a hammer blow of pain in my back reminded me I was still alive.  I growled as I rolled over.  I was still on the stairs where I’d fallen.  I looked for the Reaper, but he was long gone. 

“Asshole,” I called out to his long departed shadow and wondered why he hadn’t put a bullet in my skull.  He probably thought the fall would kill me.  It would be tidier that way.

I screamed out when I reached for my cell.  The fall hadn’t been far and I hadn’t broken anything, but it had reawakened old wounds and injuries in my back.

I flipped open the phone.  Grieves’ name appeared on the display.  I cursed before answering.

“What have you got for me, Hayes?”

“Nothing much.”

“Nothing much?  I thought you were hooked into the homeless community.  You were supposed to work your magic and find me a killer.”

Yeah, I was, except that someone was doing their damndest to make me look like the killer.  Until I could prove someone else was responsible, I couldn’t share shit with Grieves in case it led back to something that might incriminate me.

“Sorry, Grieves, I don’t know what to tell you.  I’ve looked, but I haven’t come up with anything yet.”

“Is that because you're too high to know fact from fiction?”

“Fuck you, Grieves.”

“Fuck me?  No, fuck you, my friend.  You're wasted.  I can hear it in your voice.”

No, you can hear genuine pain, but carry on.

“You’ve been flying below the radar all day.  You're supposed to be a cop, protecting and serving.  Instead, you run around like a junkie.  What did I tell you last night about keeping it together?  I brought you in on this case because I thought you could help.  You embarrass me on this one and I’m tossing you to the Hall of Justice wolves.”

I said nothing.  Grieves wanted a fight, but it’s hard to fight when your opponent doesn’t throw a punch.  I let the silence sap his anger. 

“Where the hell are you?” he asked after a long and awkward moment.

“I’m working a couple of angles.  If I turn something up, I’ll get back to you.” 

“Jesus, Larry.  You need to get your shit together before it destroys you.”

Too late for that, I thought.  Time to get off the Larry Hayes bandwagon of shame.  “But what about you?  What have you come up with?”

“Striking out here too.  Jesus, a homeless murder is going ruin my record.”

It ruined Jon’s life more, but I didn’t bother pointing that out to Grieves.

“Okay, Larry, let me know if you turn anything up and I’ll do the same.”

I hung up and forced myself to my feet.  An electrifying wave of pain crackled through my back, driving me to my knees.  I didn’t know if I’d scream or throw up.  I managed to do neither and remained hunched on all fours until my brain told me it was okay to move.

I reached for my weapon, but it wasn’t there.  The son of a bitch and taken it.  I felt sick for entirely different reasons now.  I’d put a gun on the streets and I had to get it back.  There was no way I could report the weapon lost.  I was really screwing up and gathering speed now. 

I staggered back up the stairs and reclaimed my crowbar and flashlight. Doing this had been a monumental task, but descending the stairs nearly killed me.  I clambered through the busted window and staggered down the block to my car.  Sinking into my car seat was one of the most glorious feelings of my life.  I just sat there for a minute.  As much as I wanted to kick the pills, I needed them tonight.  I twisted the key in the ignition and drove to Ludo’s.

I parked on the cross street, ducked into Ludo’s building and made the familiar climb to the top floor.  Each step became harder to take.  Stairs were hell on my back, but I carried the weight of Kate and Victoria’s disappointment with me too.  I couldn’t help myself.  I needed the pills.  I would change.  I would kick the habit.  Just not now.  Just as soon as I caught Jon’s killer.

I reached the top floor and stopped.  Something was wrong.  It was in the air.  Everything was completely still as if frozen in the moment.  The lack of energy and Theo’s absence made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.  Theo might leave his post for me, but he wouldn’t leave for anyone else.  I didn’t call out as I walked up to Ludo’s door.  I wasn’t about to announce my arrival.

The door was ajar, but it hadn’t been forced.  The stink of cordite leaked through the doorway.  Instinctively, I reached for my weapon and grabbed air.  On a good day, I’d be calling for backup, but this was a bad day, so I was going in alone and unarmed.  I eased the door open with my toe.

Theo lay face down in the foyer in a pool of his own blood.  He'd taken two shots—one in the back and one to the back of the head.  Atomized blood spray marked the walls and floor.

Poor Theo.  He was solid guy despite his line of work.  As I sidestepped the bodyguard’s large frame, being careful not to leave any footprints in the blood, I fought the urge to call Ludo’s name.

I systematically cleared each room and found Ludo in his favorite spot, the living room.  He sat disheveled on the sofa with his arms spread wide and his head kicked back.  He stared up at the ceiling with eyes that no longer saw.  A bullet hole ventilated his skull square between his eyes and the back of his head was painted over the wall behind him.

It was easy to tell what had gone down.  The killer had gotten the upper hand on Theo, walked him in at gunpoint, executed him once he'd gained entry and performed an encore on Ludo.  What I couldn’t tell was whether Ludo knew his killer.  The takedown had been so efficient it made me think so.

“Who did you piss off this time, Ludo?”

I went to Ludo’s medicine cabinet.  It wasn’t locked.  Using a handkerchief, I opened it.  His stash stared back at me.  That was interesting.  If someone had capped Ludo as part of some turf war or robbery, all his shit would be gone along with his cash.  No doubt that if I went hunting for his money, I’d find it here. 

There was only one reason someone would want to execute Ludo—me.  He was a loose end that couldn’t be trusted to keep his mouth shut.  He could identify the dog killing Reaper.  He’d served his purpose.  It was better just to kill him.

I scanned the shelves for oxy and grabbed a bottle.  Robbing the dead.  Hardly my finest hour, but Ludo owed me.  He should have never given me those ruffies.  I popped the cap on the bottle and dry-swallowed three pills.

I closed my eyes.  I couldn’t wait for the effects to kick in.  The sound of approaching sirens brought me back to the world.  Red and blue light splashed against the windows.

My brothers in arms were closing in.  I could easily prove I hadn’t killed Ludo, but I’d have a hard time explaining my reasons for being here.  It was time to go.

I jogged back to the doorway and footsteps pounded the stairs.  The fire escape wasn’t an option.  There'd be someone covering the bottom.  I glanced up at the access hatch to the roof.  I jumped and grabbed the hatch release.  It dropped open and I yanked down the steps.

I dragged myself up the steps.  Each rung drove blades into my spine, but I bit down on the pain and kept climbing since I wanted to escape.  As I spun around to draw the steps back up, I caught flashes of uniforms between the floors.  I closed the hatch before someone looked up at me.

I rushed over to the parapet and stared over.  My brother officers were arriving in force.  I counted six squad cars in front of the building.  One car was parked across from my own.  No getting back for a quick getaway.

I watched my fellow officers follow procedure.  They secured a perimeter to preserve the crime scene for the detectives, medical examiner and crime techs.  Next, they would conduct a sweep of the building.  This rooftop wasn’t my sanctuary for long. 

Thank God for row housing.  There was a narrow alley between the buildings to the south, but it was too far to jump.  That wasn’t the case with the building’s other neighbor to the east.  The buildings were pressed up against each other.  The only problem came with Ludo’s building being a floor higher than its neighbor.  I lowered myself over the side, then dropped the rest of the distance.  I failed to stick a perfect landing and ended up on my butt, but I didn’t break anything.  The jolt did send shockwaves of pain through my spine into my brain.  I jumped two more buildings before climbing down a fire escape.

I found myself on the street again without a car.  I was running out of fingers to plug the crumbling dyke. 

My cell rang.  It was Cho.  If she had a lifeline for me, maybe I could escape this mess.

“You're working late for me?  You’re a sweetheart,” I said.

“You wish.  Blame the lateness on a bad day at the track and the fact that I had to do this one when no one was around.”

“What have you got for me?”

“You're not the only one having a bad day.  Crap, that’s what I’ve got.”

A fresh chill ran over me.  The grip I thought I had on that lifeline slipped away and I was flailing.  “What are you talking about?”

“I hope to God you weren't relying on this print evidence for your case, because what I have is worthless.  Didn’t anyone tell you not to handle the evidence, Detective?  There’s only one set of prints on this knife and they're yours.”