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Shots in the Dark
By Allyson K. Abbott
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Beth Amos
All rights reserved.
The winter streets of Milwaukee could be tough to negotiate on the best of days, but this was the one time of year when no one seemed to mind. Bright lights reflected off crisp white snow in a kaleidoscope of color and holiday cheer. The air smelled of pine, cinnamon, and a buttery goodness, which helped to ease the bite of the bitter cold air that stung my nose when I breathed. Varying strands of music — some close, some from afar, some secular, some holy, some vocal, and some instrumental — mixed and mingled in my ears. Christmas was right around the corner, and the city streets were filled with happy-looking people, their cheeks flushed red by the cold winter air, their eyes alight with warmth and anticipation, their souls filled with holiday spirit.
My name is Mackenzie Dalton, though most everyone calls me Mack, and as I walked amid the holiday throng, I couldn't help but feel like an alien, an impostor, a hypocrite. I had no interest in holiday shopping, sharing a wassail, or singing a carol. I wasn't feeling the holiday spirit. And at that moment I hated the cold, because it reminded me of things frozen, unmoving, and dead. I'd never been a big fan of Christmas, and I was dreading this one in particular, not because I was a bah-humbuggy Scrooge type, but because all those noises, sights, and smells had an overwhelming physical effect on me. I have synesthesia, a neurological disorder that results in my sensory input getting cross-wired. Because of this, I experience every sense in at least two ways. For instance, I may taste something I hear, or see something I smell. Even my emotions come as a two-for-one sale.
My emotions during this holiday season were more intense than usual because I had recently lost someone close to me — several someones, in fact — and hanging over my head was the threat of more to come. It began with my father's murder back in January, and then his girlfriend, Ginny, was murdered in August. Both deaths occurred in or near my bar, and the Grim Reaper had been a rather persistent companion of mine ever since, so much so that my planned Christmas gift to everyone was to try to prevent any more murders among my circle of friends. It wouldn't be easy, for reasons I'll explain in a moment.
Mack's Bar was my father's legacy to me. He opened it right before I was born and named it after himself. Then he named me Mackenzie, with the assumption that I would one day carry on the business. I grew up in the bar with my father; my mother died right after I was born, due to a traumatic head injury she sustained in a car accident. She was left brain dead from the accident, but the doctors were able to keep her alive long enough for me to grow inside her and make my entrance into the world. My father and I lived in an apartment on the floor above the bar, and now I live there alone. As a result, my childhood days were spent mingling with any number of strangers and "regulars" who patronized the place, and I knew how to mix a slew of drinks before I knew basic math. Up until my father's death, my life was tidy, predictable and, some might say, boring. I liked it that way.
My father's death put an end to my comfortable, complacent lifestyle, and Ginny's death compounded the problem. A lot of new people came into my life, the most noteworthy being Duncan Albright, a homicide detective who was relatively new to Milwaukee at the time. As part of his investigation into Ginny's murder, he worked undercover in my bar and ended up under the covers on my bed. He discovered my disorder could be useful in helping him solve crimes, and he dragged me into a few cases. I resisted at first because my synesthesia was something I felt a need to hide; it embarrassed me and made me feel like a freak. But when Duncan showed me how I could use it to do something good, my attitude began to change. I opened up my mind to the idea of my synesthesia being something both helpful and useful. And I opened up my heart to Duncan.
Neither change came easily. It seemed the general public and Duncan's bosses weren't as open-minded about my synesthesia as Duncan was. When the local press got wind of my involvement in a high-profile case involving a missing child, news pieces about how the local police were using witchcraft, ESP, and voodoo hit the papers and the airwaves. This didn't go over well with the brass at the Milwaukee Police Department, and Duncan ended up getting suspended. We spent some time apart, hoping the furor would die down, but it didn't. If anything, it got worse. My life was turned upside down to the point that it became the antithesis of that dull, predictable life I'd had while growing up. This was due in part to other deaths associated with my bar. One of those deaths was that of my bouncer and fill-in bartender, Gary Gunderson, who was murdered just two days ago. And in a way it was my fault.
I was being stalked, taunted, and tormented by a diabolical killer. This person kept sending me letters with puzzles I had to figure out by a deadline in order to prevent the death of someone I knew. And just in case I doubted the veracity of that claim, the writer killed one of my customers, Lewis Carmichael, a nurse who worked at a nearby hospital. Lewis was not only a customer but also a member of the Capone Club, a group of crime solvers from a variety of backgrounds who came to my bar on a regular basis.
The first couple of letters that arrived after Lewis's death I managed to interpret and solve in time, but I stumbled over the last one. My initial interpretation was wrong, and by the time I figured out what it was supposed to be, it was too late. Gary died because of my mistake.
On the heels of Gary's death, my fear and frustration with the letter writer morphed into a white-hot anger. I became mad as hell and determined to find the person behind it all. I wasn't alone in my efforts, because I had the help of some of the members of the Capone Club. A handful of them — those I was closest to, those I considered my family now that I had none of my own — knew about the letter writer. Cora Kingsley, a forty-something, redheaded man hunter and computer geek, was like a sister to me. Her skills with computers had proved invaluable, both in interpreting the clues and in logging my synesthetic reactions so I could better use and understand them. And Joe and Frank Signoriello, two retired, seventy-something brothers who were ex–insurance salesmen, were also in the loop. These two men have known me my entire life, and when my father died, they took on the role of advisers, becoming the closest thing to family I had.
These three people and Duncan knew about the letter writer. The others in the Capone Club did not, and this created a dilemma for me since the letter writer had said the victims would be among those I knew. The deaths thus far had proven the truth of this claim, and every hour I debated the wisdom of keeping the others in the dark. But I was afraid that if the news got out about the letters, the writer might seek revenge by going on a killing spree.
While the letter writer hadn't specifically said I couldn't use the Capone Club to help me solve the puzzles, I was wary of pushing that envelope. And the instructions did make it clear that I wasn't allowed to use the help of any cops, with Duncan getting specific mention. This made my decision not to inform the club members about the letter writer a little easier, since some of the local cops participated.
Thus far I'd managed to skirt the no-cops edict by keeping Duncan involved on the sly while making it appear as if the two of us were on the outs. This facade was made easier by the fact that I was pretending to date someone else, a fellow named Mal O'Reilly, who happened to be both an undercover cop and a friend of Duncan's. I allowed the cops who participated in the Capone Club to help us solve other crimes we were working on, but I kept the letter writer to myself and took care not to involve them in any part of that investigation.
It was a thin wire I walked, because there were lots of cops around at the time, and not just because they liked my coffee. They were also around because they were investigating Gary's murder by questioning me, my employees, and many of my regular customers. Gary's death hadn't occurred at my bar, but the connection to it was clear. Not only had he worked for me, but his body was found with one of my cocktail napkins wadded up and stuffed in his mouth. Because of this, a trio of detectives had been more or less living at my bar since Wednesday night. Duncan was not one of them.
Gary's death hit me hard, not only because it ramped up my anger and my fear level, but also because I felt indebted to the man. He was an ex-con — a fact I discovered by accident during the investigation into Ginny's death — and this knowledge had colored my impression of him. When I realized how wrong I was, he not only forgave me, he literally took a bullet for me, saving my life. That put avenging his death high on my list, though my task wouldn't be an easy one. Not only did I have no clue who the letter writer was, but I was also laid up with a broken leg I'd sustained in a car accident while rushing to get to the correct location indicated in the most recent letter before the deadline. That accident had cost me time and as a result, it had cost Gary his life. Though I was determined not to make the same mistake again, my confidence had flagged. And my investigative efforts had been further hampered by the reporters who were hounding me. Still, I was determined to find a way, to figure it out before another one of my friends, employees, or customers ended up dead.
It was this need that brought me out into the colorful holiday mayhem: I needed to visit the location indicated in the last letter, the location I hadn't made it to on time. I was heading for the Milwaukee Public Market.CHAPTER 2
Winter was well established, with a foot or more of snow on the ground and the threat of more to come. For the time being, the snow and cold were welcomed by most as part of the holiday experience, but I knew that once Christmas was done, the real depression of winter would set in: two to three months of cold dreariness with little to break the monotony.
I generally don't mind the winter weather, but negotiating slippery sidewalks and streets on crutches, with one leg in a cast, had given me new insight. I nearly fell twice on the way to my car, and getting into it proved a nearly equal challenge as I fumbled with the crutches. Fortunately, the leg I broke was my left one, and I was still able to drive, but I was forced to position my legs awkwardly to make room for my plaster encasement.
The Public Market was less than a mile from my bar as the crow flies, but it took me fifteen minutes to get there, thanks to heavy holiday traffic, slippery roads, and bad stoplight karma. It was a Saturday, a busy day for the market, and the closest parking space I could find was two blocks away, forcing me to negotiate the slippery terrain again. In retrospect, I realized I probably should have had someone tag along, if for no other reason than to drop me off and drive around until I was done so I wouldn't have to deal with parking and the treacherous walk.
The Public Market is a vast, high-ceilinged warehouse-type building filled with a variety of shops. Floor-to-ceiling windows keep the place well lit during the day, and at night the overhead lighting, combined with the individual shops' lighting, creates a cozy ambience. It was mid-afternoon, and despite the bitter cold, the day was bright, with a blue, cloudless sky.
The onslaught of sights, sounds, and smells as I entered the place triggered a synesthetic frenzy of reactions that nearly overwhelmed me. But I was used to it — it happened every time I came here — and I knew what to do. Just inside the door I stopped, closed my eyes, and took a minute to suppress all the ancillary sensory experiences I was having, including the visuals, which didn't stop simply because I had my eyes closed. Images flashed across the backs of my eyelids like a movie in a darkened theater. Over the years I had learned how to deal with these situations, and after a minute or so of suppressive efforts, I felt comfortable enough to open my eyes and venture deeper into the building.
The synesthetic reactions I had to the smells proved the hardest to ignore because there were so many different aromas mingling and mixing together, many of them quite strong. The salty smell of fish mixed with the fragrant aroma of freshly ground coffee, and the sugary smell of just-baked cookies mingled with the perfumed scent of hothouse flowers. Since all the shops were basically open stalls of some sort, all the smells were free to infiltrate the building. On top of that, there were the people smells: perfumes, shampoos, aftershaves, laundry detergents, even the occasional whiff of body odor. Given that each of these smells triggered either a sound or a physical sensation in me, it was a constant struggle to dampen my senses and stay focused.
The last letter I received, the one that led to Gary's death, had contained a number of small items — a tiny portion of a map, magazine clippings with pictures of a faucet and a Broadway marquee, fish scales, a single flower petal, some ground cinnamon, a piece of coffee-soaked filter paper, a tiny piece of green terry cloth that had been soaked in wine, and a small piece of bread — multiple clues that, when put together, pointed to the Public Market. But Cora and I had put them together in a way that seemed to point to another location, a local church. By the time we realized our mistake and I headed for the market, time had run out.
Even though it was too late to save Gary, I desperately wanted to get my hands on the next clue. Over the past two days I'd been thinking about how to go about this task, and I knew I needed to start with the market vendors. I had no way of knowing if any of them were the target the letter writer had singled out, but based on past experience with the clues and the fact that the vendors were the one constant during the window of time I'd been given in the letter, I assumed one of them would prove to be key. Several specific vendors had been referenced in the clues, and I figured I'd start with them first. Duncan's surreptitious analysis of those clues using the police lab had uncovered some flower pollen mixed in with the cinnamon, something that might have been intentional or accidental. If it was intentional, it meant the florist shop was referenced more than the other shops, so I decided to start there. Granted, it was little more than a hunch, but I had to start somewhere, and it made as much sense as anything else.
The florist shop was located near the spice store, so my olfactory senses were working overtime as I approached. A white-haired, grandmotherly type woman was standing behind the counter, and she smiled warmly at me as I hobbled up.
"You look like you could use a little something to brighten up your day," she said, no doubt in preparation for her sales pitch. Her voice triggered a citrusy taste in my mouth.
I smiled back and gave her a half nod of agreement. I had a backstory I'd used when I'd approached others about the clues, and since it had worked before, I decided to stick to it. "I do need something, but I'm not sure exactly where it is, and I may be too late. There's this scavenger hunt game I participate in online. Well, you sign up for it online, but the hunt part is in the real world. Anyway, you get these clues that are delivered to people and places out and about, and you have to decipher the clues in a limited amount of time in order to get the next clue. My last clue led me here, but on the way I was hit by another car, which ran a stop sign, and I ended up with this." I waved a hand toward my leg. "Because of that, I missed my deadline, but I'm hoping someone might still have my next clue. Any chance you had a package delivered here to your shop with instructions to give it to someone who looked like me or to someone with the name Mackenzie Dalton?"
The woman gave me a bemused smile. "Are you saying someone bought you flowers that you're supposed to pick up here?"
"No. I don't think so. It would be an envelope of some sort." I wasn't certain of this, but that was the format used with the previous connections, so I was inclined to believe this one would be the same.
"Sorry, honey, but I don't have anything like that."
"You didn't receive a package or an envelope of some sort with instructions to destroy it if it wasn't picked up by a certain time?"
Excerpted from Shots in the Dark by Allyson K. Abbott. Copyright © 2016 Beth Amos. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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