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Murder on the Rocks
By Allyson K. Abbott
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Beth Amos
All rights reserved.
Stumbling upon a dead body before I've finished my first cup of coffee is not my idea of a great way to start the day. Not that anyone would think it was, but the discovery was more complicated for me than it would be for most people.
For one, I'm not and never have been a morning person, thanks to a biological clock dictated as much by nurture as nature. I own and run a bar in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which means I keep some odd hours. It takes a couple of cups of coffee every morning to fully wake me and get me thinking clearly. As a result my senses are dulled and sluggish when I first get up. Turns out this is a good thing because my senses aren't always kind to me.
The bar is called Mack's, after my father. He bought it the year before I was born and hoped to someday have a namesake son who would take over the business. I came along instead, and while I didn't have the right genital equipment, I did have my father's red hair, fair complexion, and, it seemed, his gregarious nature. According to him, the nurses who cared for me after I was born were fascinated because I was more interactive than any other newborn they'd ever seen. In hindsight, it may have been my condition that accounted for that, but no one could have known it at the time.
Anyway, Dad was not a man easily deterred and he managed to pass along his name by putting Mackenzie on my birth certificate and calling me Mack for as long as I can remember. Over time we became known as Big Mack and Little Mack, and Dad's future plans for the bar moved along.
My mother died right after I was born, so my father brought me to work with him every day, sharing my care with any number of patrons who came into the place. As a result, I had a handful of "aunts" and "uncles" who had no claim to me other than the occasional diaper change or play session. I've lived my entire life in the bar. I took my first steps there, uttered my first words there, and did my first pee-pee in the big girl's toilet there. I knew how to mix a martini before I knew how to spell my own name. During my school years, I spent every afternoon and evening doing my homework in the back office, and then helping Dad out front by washing glasses or preparing food in the kitchen. He always sent me to bed before the place closed ... easy to do since we lived in the apartment above, but the bar itself was the place that really felt like home to me.
It has been my home for thirty-four years, thirty-three of them very good. Dad died ten months ago so it's just me here now. It's been a struggle to go on without him, though he prepared me well by teaching me everything I'd need to know to take over running the bar. Everything, that is, except what to do with a dead body in the back alley.
Milwaukee is no stranger to dead bodies turning up in unexpected places, but my neighborhood, which is located in a mixed commercial and residential area built up along the river that runs through downtown, isn't a high crime spot. Despite that, this isn't the first time someone has died in the alley behind my bar. My father has that claim to fame after being mortally wounded by a gunshot just outside our back door this past January, though if you got right down to it, I couldn't say for sure that anyone really died in the alley. My father's death occurred in the hospital a short time after his attack, and I had no way of knowing where this second person died. All I knew for sure was that there was a body next to my Dumpster.
It was a little after nine in the morning on an unusually hot and humid October day, the sort of strange weather that has people nattering on about global warming and Armageddon. I'd gone down the private back stairs to toss my personal trash before readying the bar for opening. Because it was pickup day, the Dumpster was overflowing and extremely ripe in the stifling heat. The smell hit me as soon as I opened the back door and I had to force myself to mouth breathe. As I drew closer to the Dumpster the stench grew, becoming a palpable thing, something I not only smelled, but saw.
The combination of the heat and the olfactory overload triggered a reaction that might seem strange to most people, but is all too familiar to me. My mouth filled with odd tastes and I heard a cacophony of sounds: chimes, bells, tinkles, and twangs ... some melodious, some discordant. My field of vision contained flashing lights, swirling colors, and floating shapes. I struggled to see past this kaleidoscope of images and that's when I saw the arm—small and pale—sticking out from under a pile of torn-down boxes beside the Dumpster.
My first thought was that it wasn't real, that perhaps someone had tossed out a mannequin. After blinking several times in an effort to see past the weird stuff, I realized this thought was nothing more than blissful denial. The arm was real. Then it occurred to me that it might belong to someone who was sick or injured. It wouldn't be the first time I found a drunk passed out somewhere outside my bar. Just in case the person was more than ill, I grabbed a baggie from my personal sack of trash and used it to raise a corner of the cardboard without actually touching it.
I tried to see what lay beneath but my visual kaleidoscope swelled into something so big and encompassing it blinded me to all else, forcing me to drop the cardboard and stumble-feel my way back into the bar.
Once I was inside with the door closed, the smell dissipated and the air cooled. The images, sounds, and tastes began to fade. I made my way down the hall, past the bathrooms to the main lounge area, where I normally would be getting things ready in preparation for opening the doors to my lunch crowd: my neighborhood regulars and the hardcore drinkers who provide a source of steady income for me at the expense of their own livers.
I grabbed the bar phone since my cell was still upstairs and dialed 9-1-1.
"9-1-1 operator. Do you have an emergency?"
I felt weak in the knees and leaned against the back bar. "There is a dead body in the alley behind my place." I relayed my name and address to the operator, who instructed me not to touch anything. Too late for that.
"I'm dispatching officers there now," the operator said, and then she started asking questions, some of which I couldn't answer. "You said the body is outside?"
"Yes, it's on the ground beside the garbage Dumpster."
"Is it male or female?"
I hesitated, struggling to interpret what I'd seen when I lifted the cardboard. I knew the arm was small and not muscular, and I thought I recalled a hint of femininity in the edge of a sleeve. "I think it might be female," I told her.
"But you're not sure?"
"Is the body mutilated?"
"I don't know. There's cardboard piled on top of the body, so I couldn't see the whole thing, just part of an arm." This was a tiny lie but with any luck, no one would know I'd lifted the cardboard.
"I see," said the operator in a tone that sounded skeptical. Realizing our conversation was likely to get more confusing if it continued, I prayed the cops would arrive soon.
And just like that my prayer was answered. Someone pounded on the front door and a male voice hollered, "Milwaukee police."
I hurried over and undid the locks, letting in two uniformed male officers. "The police are here," I told the operator. I relocked the doors, disconnected the call—thus ending my inquisition, though there would be plenty more to come—and switched my attention to the officers.
"You have a dead body here?" said the taller one, whose name pin read P. Cummings.
I nodded. "It's out back in the alley, by the garbage."
"Male or female?"
"I'm not sure." I repeated my covered-with-cardboard lie as I led both cops to the alley door. As soon as I stepped outside I switched to mouth breathing to try to forestall another reaction. I stopped several feet from the Dumpster and pointed to the pile of cardboard where that one pale arm protruded.
Both officers were wearing gloves and Cummings's partner, whose name pin read L. Johnson, walked over and lifted the cardboard. Instinctively I clamped a hand over my mouth, a fatal mistake since it forced me to breathe through my nose.
The heat and smell hit me full force, triggering a cacophony of sound. The kaleidoscope of images blinded me again and some weird tastes followed. I found myself wishing for a drink as alcohol tends to minimize my reactions. And with the way things were going, this was starting to look like a four-martini day.
Taking over the bar hasn't been easy for me, and not just because Dad is no longer here. I've had to deal with an assortment of other bizarre happenings of late, like discovering that a few of my open booze bottles had been drained and replaced with colored water, something that didn't go over well with my patrons. Toward the end of this past winter I had this god-awful smell in the bar, and it took me two weeks to find the rotting rat carcass inside a heat vent. In the early summer I was hit with a cockroach infestation that gave me nightmares for weeks. And as if all of that wasn't enough, I've also come up several bottles short on my more expensive booze inventory lately, and there have been a few times when money I set aside in the safe for my bank deposits has gone missing. If I was more prone to believe in the supernatural, I'd think the place was haunted.
I've managed to keep going despite these setbacks, but business is down and money is tight. The last thing I need is one more reason for patrons to avoid my bar, which is another reason why discovering a dead body in the alley, mere feet from where my father was killed, ruined my day on many levels. Though given the sort of day the person in the alley was having, I don't suppose I had a right to complain.
I turned and stumbled back inside the bar, leaving the cops behind and feeling my way along because all I could see at first was a mishmash of moving colors and images. Fortunately once the door to the alley was closed the sounds and images began to dissipate, and by the time I returned to the lounge both my vision and my hearing were nearly back to normal. There was a pounding on the front door and it took me a few seconds to determine if it was a real noise. Once I determined it was, I went over and let more cops in. Three uniformed officers entered—two men and a woman—followed by a man wearing slacks, a white shirt, a suit coat, and a tie. A detective, I presumed.
The uniformed cops hung back by the door, scanning the inside of the bar. The suit walked up to me.
"Where's the body?" he asked. Despite the abrupt and rather crude nature of his question, I liked his voice. It was calming, deep, and soothing, and there was the faintest hint of a Scottish accent. It made me see blue crisscrossed by even, steady lines of bright green, and I also experienced an intense, sweet taste in my mouth, like melting chocolate. The experience was puzzling but pleasant.
"It's out back, by the Dumpster." I pointed toward the alley door, having no desire to go out there again.
The detective fixed his gaze on the female uniformed cop whose name tag read B. Blunt, a moniker I would soon learn was stunningly apt. "You stay here with her," he directed. "The rest come with me."
I stayed behind the bar, silent, shocked, and unsure of what to do next. I busied myself washing glasses that had already been cleaned while B. Blunt stood at the front door looking out and not saying a word. After several interminable minutes of awkward silence, someone knocked on the front door. I expected to see more cops outside, but when I looked over I saw Joe and Frank Signoriello peering through the window at the top of the door. The Signoriellos are two elderly brothers who like to do lunch and a beer at my place every day. They live together in an apartment above a clothing store that's located down the block.
Blunt opened the door and said, "Sorry, the bar is closed."
She started to shut the door but the Signoriellos weren't about to be put off that easily. Frank stuck his foot in the opening with the practiced smoothness of the door-to-door insurance salesman he used to be. "What's going on? Where's Mack? Is she okay?"
"I'm fine," I hollered from where I stood, and upon hearing my voice both Frank and Joe tried to edge their way past Blunt, who didn't take it very well.
"I said the bar is closed," she repeated, placing herself in front of them. It was an impressive bit of bravado given that the brothers were a good foot taller than she was and each of them outweighed her by at least fifty pounds. Then again, I suppose having a loaded pistol and a Taser on your hip makes courage easier to come by.
"Mack, what's with all the cops?" Frank asked, ignoring Blunt but not trying to push past her. "Joe and I saw them pull up and we were worried something had happened to you."
"I'm okay," I told the brothers. "But we had a little incident here this morning that the cops are looking into, so I'm afraid the bar may be closed for a while."
"How long?" Joe asked over Frank's shoulder.
"Indefinitely," said Blunt, making me groan.
"Can we get something to go?" Joe asked. "A sandwich and a beer, perhaps?"
"How about a citation for being a public nuisance?" Blunt snapped, clearly tired of their game.
When I heard Frank mutter, "Pushy damned broad," and saw Blunt put a hand on the butt of her Taser, I hurried over to the door, hoping to salvage the dedication and freedom of two of my most reliable customers. "Hey, guys," I said. "Why don't you come back tomorrow and I'll give you a beer on the house to make up for your inconvenience, okay?"
Joe and Frank looked at one another and frowned.
"I'll throw in the sandwiches, too," I offered, upping the ante.
The brothers shrugged and Frank said, "I suppose we can go to Singer's just this once."
Joe's frown deepened. "Their beer tastes like piss," he grumbled. "But I guess we don't have much choice."
Frank pulled his foot back and, as the two of them turned away, Blunt shut and locked the door.
"Don't you have a closed sign we can put up?" she said, sounding irritated.
"It's already there, in the window to your right."
She looked over at it with a frown.
"They live nearby and I'm sure they got worried when they saw the cop cars pull up. They didn't mean any harm. They were just looking out for me." I started to tell her why the Signoriellos were so concerned but when I saw the unfriendly look on her face, I changed my mind. No need to complicate things yet.
I returned to my spot behind the bar and started drying the glasses I'd just washed while Blunt and I shared a spell of awkward silence. Moments later the suit came back in and settled on a stool across from me. He removed a notebook and pen from his jacket pocket and then took the jacket off, tossing it onto the stool beside him. The armpits of his shirt were damp and I caught a whiff of him. Fortunately it was a clean smell, like just-laundered sheets, and as I registered the scent I heard a faint rushing sound in my ears, as if a gentle wind was blowing by.
The suit opened the notebook, clicked the pen, and then pinned me with his gaze. "I'm Detective Duncan Albright. I'd like to ask you a few questions if that's okay."
"Sure," I said, tasting chocolate again. "Go ahead."
"You found the body?"
"Mackenzie Dalton. People call me Mack, or sometimes Little Mack."
"Like the bar?"
"I take it you own the place, then?"
"I do, though it was originally my father's. His name was Mack Dalton."
Albright was scribbling this information in his notebook when he paused and looked up at me. He was attractive, with even features, light brown, sun-streaked hair, and a pleasant face with laugh wrinkles around the corners of his eyes and mouth. His eyes were a deep, dark brown, the kind you find on cuddly puppies. I pegged him as around my own age—somewhere in his mid- to late thirties—and I ran a self-conscious hand through my hair as he stared at me, wishing I had showered and fixed myself up a bit before all this happened. My hair is a nest of wild red curls that I typically pull back into a ponytail or clip, but I hadn't done so yet this morning. The least the killer could have done was give me a heads-up so I could fix my hair and put on a little foundation to cover my freckles.
"Forgive me," the detective said finally. "I'm new to the area, but that name rings a bell."
"That's probably because my father was murdered this past January, shot in the alley out back, not far from the body that's out there now. It's still an open case. The cops who investigated thought it was a robbery gone wrong."
Excerpted from Murder on the Rocks by Allyson K. Abbott. Copyright © 2013 by Beth Amos. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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