With a genius IQ, a past career as a circus acrobat, and a black belt in karate, criminology professor Dr. Robert Frederickson—better known as “Mongo the Magnificent”—has a decidedly unusual background for a private investigator. He also just so happens to be a dwarf.
On the eve of Thanksgiving, a murderous maniac with an ice pick has gripped New York City, killing at random and leaving terror in his wake. But despite the threat of the “Iceman,” Mongo is more troubled by the sudden appearance of the neighborhood crazy lady on his doorstep.
Normally, “Mama Spit” is as ornery as they come, but the polished and polite woman before him now bears little resemblance to the creature infamous for spewing vulgarity at everyone she meets. Mama claims a strange man gifted her with a bag of pills just before his untimely death—miracle pills that have made her as normal as the day is long.
Soon Mongo blows the lid off a conspiracy involving experimental drugs, escaped mental patients, and a government cover-up. But if he isn’t careful, he could hit his own expiration date . . .
Bleeding in the Eye of a Brainstorm is the 13th book in the Mongo Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Oh, woe was me. Alone and lonely on Thanksgiving eve, I was feeling sorry for myself, an unpleasant and enervating state of mind I thoroughly despised, and so I decided to seek out a little company and distraction as an anodyne. In New York City, if you are a chess player, you need never lack for reasonably respectable, like-minded souls at any hour of any day of the year if you know where to look, and so I headed for the Manhattan Chess Club in their new digs in a renovated four-story brownstone on West 46th Street, a ten-minute walk from the similar brownstone my brother Garth and I owned on West 56th Street.
I arrived at the club with its glowing twin globes flanking the entrance without having had my brain, heart, or spinal column aerated by an ice pick, which in this killing season on the city's streets was not something to be taken for granted. The crowd was sparse, even for the night before a holiday. Normally, you'd find upwards of a dozen grandmasters and international masters interspersed with sixty or seventy weaker players of all shapes, sexes, ages, and colors, but tonight there was less than half that number. I attributed the low turnout to the fact that even the rabid chess players, among the most compulsive of God's creatures, who usually frequented these haunts were reluctant to leave the safety of their homes in the midst of a horror that had caught the attention and chilled the hearts of even those quickstepping New Yorkers who thought themselves inured to the threats of random violence and sudden death in their everyday lives, whether from stray bullets, muggers, or unlicensed killer taxicab drivers.
For the past week a really serious maniac had been stalking the streets of the city, and this one was no garden-variety mass or serial killer. The man or woman had a startlingly simple MO, striking in an instant like a poisonous snake whenever, wherever, and as often as an opportunity presented itself, night or day, whether on a crowded subway platform, a lonely street, or in a knot of pedestrians moving along the veins and arteries of the city's sidewalks or momentarily clotted at a corner waiting for the light to change. There was no apparent similarity or connection between any of the victims, and pleasure- or rage-driven impulse seemed the only motive. The murder weapon was an ice pick, thrust quickly and deeply into the base of the skull or spinal column, or through the rib cage to prick the heart. Death was not only instantaneous, but relatively bloodless. By the time the victim had collapsed to the grass, gravel, or concrete, the killer had moved on, sometimes alone into the night, at other times through milling, anonymous crowds in the middle of the day. In this one week seventeen people had died — men and women, old, middle-aged, and teenagers. Thus far no young children had been victims, but the police theorized this was only because young children were usually accompanied by one or more adults, and their abiding fear was that the first child victim would undoubtedly be a little boy or girl momentarily left alone on a swing or in a sandbox on some playground.
Knowing that the stranger walking toward or behind you, or standing at your side, could end your existence in the space between two thoughts was not only enough to give pause but to induce panic in most people living in a huge, congested city of strangers like New York.
I looked around the main playing rooms for some action. There were a number of games in progress, and a few individuals sitting alone at tables and analyzing positions who might have been amenable to a friendly challenge, but I didn't see anyone I knew at the boards, and in my current snit of self-pity and loneliness I wanted to play with someone with whom I was familiar.
Finally I found someone who just sneaked in under that descriptive wire in an adjoining room where one of the club's assistant directors was conducting a three-round, game-in-sixty-minutes tournament for unrated players of unknown strength, usually beginners. By the end of the evening they would have earned a provisional rating, based on their wins and losses against other players in the tournament, which was supposed to be a rough numerical description of their relative playing strength, and which would allow them to play for cash prizes in tournaments sponsored by the United States Chess Federation, the country's governing body for the international sport.
Theo Barnes, who was on my very long, very eclectic list of acquaintances, was dressed in faded jeans, high-top black sneakers, and one of the garish, baggy, short-sleeved Hawaiian shirts he always wore year-round, regardless of the weather. Barnes was someone I'd once relieved of a few dollars one lazy Sunday summer afternoon in "Hustlers' Alley" at the southwest corner of Washington Square Park down in the Village, one of several sites in the city where people came to play chess. Barnes was no beginner — I rated him at about expert strength, which placed him in a very small percentile of the country's chess-playing population. But neither was he a tournament player, and as far as I knew he was not even a USCF member. Barnes, whom I judged to be about thirty years old — although his pockmarked face and generally grubby appearance made him appear older — was a street person, a chess fanatic and strong natural player who preferred the raucous, manic, motor-mouthed sprints of speed chess in Washington Square Park to the tight, nerve-racking, disciplined, long-distance-run style of play necessary for successful tournament competition and subsequent ascension in the ranks of titled players — National Master, Senior Master, International Master, and Grandmaster. He lived, so I was told, in a leaky basement, cooked on a hot plate, and stored what few clothes he owned in cardboard boxes that ringed the mattress he used as a bed. Nevertheless, I considered him a successful man; in my view, a man or woman who can manage to earn a living, however meager, doing exactly what he or she wants to do — something which he or she would otherwise be doing anyway, for nothing — is a success. Barnes supported himself by hustling chess-playing tourists, the vast majority of whom were "patzers" who seriously overestimated their own skills while underestimating those of the ragtag band of players in the park who might be carrying on simultaneous conversations with half a dozen kibitzers gathered around the concrete tables while offering a running commentary — usually derogatory — on an opponent's moves, all the while making moves and punching the button on a chess clock with lightning speed. Five bucks a game.
Theo Barnes was definitely not the Manhattan Chess Club type, and I assumed that he, like not a few other New Yorkers, had been driven indoors from his usual open-air haunts by fear of the Iceman, as the killer had been dubbed, none too creatively, by the media and police. Less clear to me was what Barnes was doing standing around watching a beginners' tournament instead of working the rooms and trolling for potential marks, however scarce they might be in this place, to at least earn back his admission fee.
He glanced up, saw me coming over, and started. That made me curious, since I could think of no reason why I should make Theo Barnes nervous. He retreated a couple of steps, then, apparently deciding that escape was impossible, turned back toward me with a decidedly sour expression on his cratered face. By moving away he had revealed what he had apparently not wanted me to see — namely, that he had been standing behind one of the players in the tournament, closely monitoring his play. The man at the table was about thirty-five, with a boyish face and a high forehead. His brown hair was raggedly cut, as if by somebody with dull scissors who'd been in a hurry. His narrow, aquiline nose looked as if it might break easily, and he had thin lips. Even in profile he looked to me slightly dazed, and he would occasionally touch his cheek and shake his head, as if to help him to focus his concentration on the game. He had on baggy slacks which looked like they had come from the same Salvation Army center where he had gotten his cracked plastic shoes. His shirt, however, had definitely come out of one of Theo Barnes's cardboard boxes; it was a blaring Hawaiian print with an old ketchup stain on the right sleeve.
I found the situation, if not surpassingly strange, at least mildly curious. Theo Barnes was self-centered to a point just outside the city limits of sociopathy. For the grungy chess hustler to take an interest in what anyone else was doing was most uncharacteristic; and for him to give away or lend something that belonged to him was downright extraordinary. The man with the chopped brown hair and narrow mouth obviously had no money, so he wasn't a potential mark, and he just didn't look like the type who would be part of the hustler's very limited social circle. Then again, neither did I.
Then again, again, crack private investigator that I am, upon reflection I was fairly certain I could divine the root of their relationship. I didn't particularly care what he was up to, but it did explain why Barnes wasn't all that happy to see me. He reluctantly came over to me when I beckoned to him, grudgingly accepted my handshake.
"How're you doing, Theo?"
He considered the question carefully, like a chess move in a slower-paced game than he usually played. He apparently hadn't showered in a few days, for he was slightly rank, and also hadn't shaved for the same period of time. His long, stringy blond hair was greasy. He certainly looked like a bum, which was not a disadvantage in his chosen profession, but if you looked in his face you knew he was more than that. His pale blue eyes, if perhaps a bit too wide and manic, glittered with intelligence, and were unclouded by the use of drugs or alcohol.
When he had finally finished calculating all the possible variations on his answer, he replied, "I'm okay, Frederickson. How are you?"
"Actually, I'm feeling a bit out of sorts, and I'm looking for company. To your good fortune, Theo, I've chosen you. Let's play some blitz."
"I don't play chess with masters, Frederickson."
"Aw, come on. A couple of ten-minute games. We don't have to play for money."
"I never play chess except for money. What, you think I do this for my health?"
"Okay, I'll give you odds. Your ten minutes to my five. A buck a game."
More considerations, more calculations, thoughts skipping like stones on water across the cold, pale blue surface of his eyes. Finally he said, "My five minutes to your one. Fifty bucks a game."
"That's a little fast, and a little steep."
He smiled thinly, revealing surprisingly good teeth considering the fact that he probably hadn't been able to afford a trip to the dentist in years. "Come on, Frederickson. Be a sport."
"I don't mind being a sport, Theo; what I'm trying not to be is a sucker. I like your game; you never saw an unsound pawn sacrifice you didn't like."
"If you want a game with me, Frederickson, those are the odds I want."
Theo Barnes obviously wasn't going to amuse me with a chess game, at least not under reasonable conditions, and so I decided to amuse myself by trying to rattle his cage a bit. I looked over at the player wearing Barnes's Hawaiian shirt just in time to see him glance up at a clock on the wall. Then he reached into his shirt pocket, carefully removed a rather large black-and-yellow capsule. Holding the capsule between his thumb and forefinger, he unselfconsciously popped it into his mouth, swallowed it without water.
"Who's your friend, Theo?"
"The one wearing your shirt."
"How do you know it's my shirt?" he asked without bothering to turn around.
"I was hanging out watching the action the day somebody dropped their hot dog on it."
"He's ... a student of mine."
"No kidding? I didn't know you took on students. From the looks of him, he'd be hard pressed to pay for a meal, much less a chess lesson. You doing pro bono chess teaching these days, Theo?"
He flushed slightly, and this had the effect of making the scars on his face even whiter. Although I wouldn't have thought it possible, his eyes grew even colder. "That's my business."
"The New York Open is coming up. It looks to me like you're trying to load a sandbag."
"Maybe you should mind your own business."
"I'm surprised you're willing to be seen with him here. Most of these players know who you are, and what you do."
"Not everybody is as nosy as you are, Frederickson. And I still think you should mind your own business."
He was, of course, absolutely right, and so I proceeded about my own business, challenging one of the men analyzing in another room to a game. He turned out to be a Peruvian grandmaster. To an average player looking on, the game probably would have appeared close, with the contest about even right up to the point in the endgame when I finally tipped over my besieged king. In fact I'd been thoroughly outplayed, put at a positional disadvantage which had only grown worse right from the opening.
My brief, sour conversation with Theo Barnes and sound thrashing at the hands of the grandmaster had purged my loneliness and restored my normal taste for solitude, and so I headed home, trying to concentrate on my surroundings so as not to get stuck with an ice pick, but at the same time compulsively replaying in my mind, as chess players always do when they have lost, the moves in my last game, trying to figure out where I had gone wrong. As a result, I wasn't paying much attention to what was directly in front of me, and I almost fell into the lap of the person sitting on the stoop of my brownstone. I whooped in surprise and alarm, then almost tripped over my own feet as I hurriedly back-pedaled to the curb, where I stood and stared into the chiaroscuro pattern of light and shadow at the middle-aged woman who had taken up temporary residence at the entrance to my home.
The woman's gray hair was severely pulled back from her oval face and secured in a ponytail by a rubber band. I thought she might be in her mid-fifties, but it was hard to tell because what could have been exposure to sun, wind, cold, and rain had weathered her skin to the point where it looked like worn leather. She wore no makeup, and her full lips had a purplish-blue tinge from the cold of the late November night. Her eyes, in the moment I had looked into them when I almost stumbled over her, had appeared to be a pale violet. Her clothes must have come from the same Salvation Army bin as those of Barnes's "student"— a long, flaring polyester skirt that was much too big for her and draped down over the steps, and a wool sweater with holes in it. It wasn't enough for the night and she was trembling, but I sensed that her shaking was as much from fear and anxiety as from the cold, for there was a desperate, haunted expression on her face.
My first reaction was that I didn't have the slightest idea who the woman was, or what she was doing on my stoop. But as we stared at each other in the night across the great territorial divide of the sidewalk, I experienced a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature as I slowly began to realize that I had, in fact, seen the woman before — in another context, and with her behavior and appearance so totally different as to suggest she might have blinked into existence on my stoop from an alternate universe instead of only a half block or so to the east. The woman sitting and shivering on my doorstep was none other than Mama Spit.
Excerpted from "Bleeding in the Eye of a Brainstorm"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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