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The Dead Detective
Chapter OneI don't know why I agreed to go with Leo that night. I didn't need the business that badly. But I always had a hard time saying no to Leo, and he promised me this would be a simple job.
"He is a very nice guy," he told me. "You'll like him."
"It doesn't matter if I like him or not, as long as he pays me," I replied nonchalantly.
"He doesn't need much. He just wants to upgrade his computer for the shop. And he wants to network it with his PC in another room. And I know he would like to play chess."
"Chess," I nodded. Of course. Leo was a chess player. That was one of the things he had wanted on his computer. A good chess program.
So there I was, late on a Friday night with nothing better to do than go to a pawnshop to talk computers with a new customer. My mother would freak. The thought made me smile for the first time that evening.
I nearly backed out, though, when Leo pulled into a parking lot at a convenience store down the street from the pawnshop. I lifted my eyebrows at him and he patted my hand reassuringly. I jerked it away. I hated it when he treated me like a blonde. Leo nodded toward the alley. "He lives down there. We go in the back."
"Of course we do," I sighed, looking nervously at the dim alleyway. "Nice neighborhood your friend lives in," I added, taking shallow breaths to try to avoid the noxious smell of spilled beer andcigarettes.
Leo looked at me reproachfully. "He lives in back of his pawn shop."
I stepped out of the car and shivered in the sudden chill of the evening. We walked down the alleyway, stepping gingerly around the fast food wrappers and other assorted trash. Leo stopped at a steel-plated door. The knife hole in the middle didn't make me feel any better about being in a cold dark alley behind a pawnshop late at night. Leo started to knock, but stopped in mid-motion when he saw the door wasn't closed all the way. "Hello?" he called. There was no answer so he called again and with a shrug, pushed against the door. It stuck in the damp spring air so he pushed a little harder. The door slowly creaked open. "Hello!" Leo called for a third time. When there was still no answer, he started to move inside.
Suddenly he stopped, a look of horror crossing his face. I nearly ran into him and peered over his shoulder. "Oh shit!" I whispered. There was a body sprawled across the floor. "He's dead," I said stupidly. There was no doubt about it. Half of the guy's face was blown away.
Leo swayed unsteadily, and I put a hand out to steady him, even though I was in need of some steadying myself. Leo stumbled back against me, his face an awful mixture of horror and disbelief.
I patted his shoulder awkwardly. "Are you sure it's him?" I asked.
Leo nodded, still staring at the body. Then he started to move into the room.
"We shouldn't go in there, Leo!" I warned him but he didn't seem to hear me. He walked right in past the body. I didn't see anything to do but to follow him so I stepped gingerly inside, cringing as I edged past the corpse. A sickly sweet smell assaulted my nostrils and I felt my stomach roil. "Oh no!" I murmured and looked for a bathroom. There were two doors to choose from, so I picked the one that was halfway open. Fortunately I picked correctly. I barely made it in time.
I stayed in the bathroom until I was sure my stomach was okay. When I came out, Leo was sitting on the sofa. His face was flushed, and he was breathing hard and shaking.
"Leo, are you okay?" I asked, realizing as soon as I said it how stupid it was. Of course he wasn't okay, not with his friend lying dead on the floor. I forgot my still queasy stomach in my concern for Leo. There was a clean glass on the drain board and so I brought him some water. He was trembling so hard he couldn't hold the glass. I was afraid he'd spill it so I held it to his lips. He took a sip and looked a little better.
"I guess we'd better call the police," I said.
Leo looked vaguely around and started to move toward a phone but I shook my head and pulled out my cell phone. "We don't want to mess up any fingerprints," I said as I punched 911.
The dispatcher assured me someone would be there quickly so I sat down next to Leo and waited. We didn't speak to each other. Leo seemed to have gone into some sort of trance. His eyes were half closed and his lips moved although no sound came out. Somewhere a faucet was dripping and that was the only noise we heard. There wasn't even any noise from the street outside. Except for the drip, drip, drip of the faucet, it was totally quiet. It was spooky. Real spooky. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't avoid looking at the body, so I took a deep breath and decided to study it analytically. I'd read murder mysteries all my life and always resolved that if I ever encountered a dead body I would act sensibly and rationally. Here was my chance. He had been a scrawny little guy when alive, and now he was a scrawny little corpse. From the look of things, he was dead before he hit the ground. The body reminded me of the guys from my high school physics classes. The ones with programmable calculators on their belts, Albert Einstein hair, and high squeaky voices. All brains and no brawn. I wondered if this pawnbroker had been a physics nerd in high school. Most of the nerds grew out of that stage into first-rate hunks, but this one looked like he never had. Of course, it was hard to tell when I couldn't really see his face.
I looked around the room. He had a real fancy sound system and walls filled with books. Lots of books. "Didn't know pawnbrokers were so literate," I commented to Leo. I don't think he heard me. He just kept muttering whatever he was muttering.
I got up to take a closer look at the shelves. I'm a reader myself and am always glad to meet up with another one. He had a surprising range and variety of books. Me, I read mostly mysteries. Okay, that's all I read. But he seemed to read a lot of everything. Science fiction, mystery, philosophy, classics. Not just a pawnbroker, but a very well-read one. Even a few books about physics I noted. He really was a physics nerd! About the only thing I didn't see there was romance or westerns.
The pawnbroker seemed to have had broad interests, and I started to warm up to him as an intelligent man, possibly a kindred spirit. He must have been a pretty smart guy, I thought. Or at least that's what I thought till I came across a large section of books on the occult and new age mysticism. My favorable impression of him plummeted. He was just another flake who collected books.
It seemed to take forever before the police got there, but it really only took about ten minutes. After a quick tap on the door they came in. They looked down at the body with a yep-that's-a-body look on their faces and then politely told me to go sit with Leo on the couch. One of them took our names and asked a couple of questions. The older one asked me if I was okay. I pointed out that I was fine, but I wasn't too sure about my friend. The cop didn't seem too worried about Leo.
Pretty soon things got busy as more police arrived. They moved all over the room, taking pictures and stomping on the floor. Everyone pretty much ignored Leo and me, and I started to wonder how long we were supposed to just sit there.
As usual, Leo wore too much of his cloying cologne and that, mixed with the smell of the dead man's blood made me start to feel nauseous again. Just when I thought I was going to have to run to the bathroom and give a repeat performance, another man arrived. I groaned inside. I knew that face, and I did not particularly care to see it right now. His name was Frank Guerman and I'd dated him in high school. Well, we'd only gone out once. But that one time had been enough for both of us. I squirmed uncomfortably on the couch and wondered if there was any way I could sneak away. Maybe with any luck he wouldn't remember me.
Frank listened as one of the police officers filled him in. "His name was Cecil Dirkwood. He lived here in this back room. Not married. We might already have a good lead. Seems a couple of weeks ago he turned in a gang member called Mouse for trying to pawn off stolen merchandise."
The tall guy nodded, then absent-mindedly pulled a toothpick out of his breast pocket and stuck it in his mouth. "Okay, we'll check it out. Know any more about him?"
"Not much. He's never been in any trouble with us. In fact, he's helped us out a time or two. As pawnbrokers go, he was okay. His friends over there on the couch found the body. The call came in at 9:35 from a cell phone"
"What are their names?"
The police officer pulled out his pad. "Leo Kajosh and CJ Thomas."
He looked over at Leo and me for the first time, and his eyes creased. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he remembered me. I braced myself.
He sauntered over. At first he ignored me completely, thank goodness. He stuck his hand out towards Leo. "Mr. Kajosh, I'm Lieutenant Guerman. I've just got a few questions for you, and then we'll try to get you out of here as soon as possible."
Leo managed a nod.
Frank turned towards me. "Hello, Chrissie-" he said. Then he stopped.
To my surprise a purple flush stole over his face. I realized he was as uncomfortable as I was, but he didn't seem to be angry with me, just embarrassed. Suddenly I felt much better. "Hi Frank," I said and held out my hand. "I go by CJ now."
He relaxed visibly and grinned. "CJ," he nodded. "We'll get you out of here as soon as we can."
"Thanks," I replied, and then nudged Leo. "We're in good hands," I told him. "Frank and I went to high school together."
Leo rummaged in his pockets before pulling out a handkerchief. He wiped his forehead with it and then carefully folded it to put back into his pocket.
"I'm sorry," he apologized in his thick Middle East accent. "I've never seen anything like this before. My friend, he was a good man."
"Tell me what happened, Mr. Kajosh," Frank said.
Leo shook his head. "We just opened the door and found him, just like that."
"Okay, when was this? What time was it?"
"What, CJ? About 9:30?" Leo looked at me for confirmation and I nodded.
"Okay. So what were you two doing here anyway? It's an odd time for a visit."
Leo and I waited for each other to answer. Frank nodded at me so I shrugged. "Leo was bringing me to meet Mr. Dirkwood. He wanted to get a computer system for his pawnshop. I'm a freelance computer consultant and was going to advise him."
"So, you did not know him?"
Frank looked at Leo. "How long have you known Mr. Dirkwood?"
"For two years. We met at a psychic fair a couple of years ago, but didn't become friends until we met again at a chess tournament. We play chess every Friday night."
"A psychic fair?" Frank lifted an eyebrow. I put a properly cynical expression on my face so if Frank should chance to look at me, he would know what I thought about psychics. I didn't want him to think that I would ever go to a psychic fair.
"Yes," Leo replied, unfazed by Frank's amusement.
"Do you have any ideas on who would want to kill him?"
"Must-a been one of those gangs. They're everywhere." He shook his head sorrowfully.
"Did you see anybody when you got here? Any cars in the alley?"
Leo shook his head. "No one. It was empty."
Frank nodded. His next question surprised me. "What kind of chess player was he?"
Leo shook his head. "Pretty crazy. Always trying some crazy move that no one else would even think of. But he would win. Not all the time, but most."
Someone tapped Frank on the shoulder, and he turned away for a second. The two men carried on a conversation about a palm print on the door. Frank listened and nodded a few times and then turned back to Leo and me.
"Okay. Let me get your addresses and phone numbers." Frank pulled out a notepad and looked at Leo, writing carefully as Leo gave his address and phone number. He looked at me, and I gave him my information as well. "I'll get someone over here to take your finger and palm prints. Then you can go."
The shout nearly made me jump off the couch.
"What's the matter, CJ?" Frank asked.
"Who said that?" I demanded.
"Who said what?" Both Leo and Frank looked at me with puzzled expressions on their faces.
"I heard someone say 'Boo!'" I insisted and then suddenly felt very foolish.
Frank looked at me for a long minute and then carefully said, "I didn't hear anything, CJ."
Great, I thought. He thinks I'm crazy. I could see it all over his face. I shook my head. "It must have just been my imagination," I mumbled.
Frank nodded skeptically and moved away. Leo and I waited to have our prints taken. In the meantime I watched Frank as he wandered around the room. He'd certainly grown up nicely since I knew him in high school. Then he'd been what we called a goat roper. A tall, gangly, skinny kid with a Lincolnesque profile. All arms, legs and adam's apple. I, of course, had been a beauty queen. Really. My mom'd had me in pageants as soon as she brought me home from the hospital. Okay, maybe I exaggerate a little, but she did enter me in a beautiful baby contest when I was six months old. I won too. I won every pageant she ever entered me in.
Now it looked as though Frank could win a few pageants himself. He had definitely grown into a hunk. I never would have thought he was the cop type, but he seemed to wear the badge well. He moved around the room, watching the other officers at work and studying the surroundings. Pausing by the answering machine, he pressed the play button. The dead man's voice filled the room. "Hi there. I believe in psychics, but I'm not one of them. So, you'll have to leave a message. You know when and you know how." There was a shrill beep, and then a woman's voice filled the room. "Tag." Another beep, then a monologue from a credit card company. Then the woman's voice again. "Your turn."
Frank removed the tape from the machine and slipped it into an evidence bag, carefully marking an I.D. on the outside. I idly wondered who the woman was. A girlfriend maybe? Probably not. In my experience, girlfriends generally left more detailed messages.
A one-eared black cat crept into the room from the alley. He looked around at all the activity for a moment and then meandered over to the couch where he rubbed himself up against my legs. I bent down to scratch its remaining ear. He was a funny looking little thing with that one ear sticking up like a flagpole. "Is this his cat?" I asked Leo.
He shrugged then fastidiously shifted his legs away from the cat. "He was a sucker for stray animals. He'd feed them and try to find homes for them. I guess that one was his latest."
Someone finally came to take our prints and told us we could leave. I gave a last pat to the cat, briefly wondered who would feed it now, and then walked outside of the shop and down the alley. It was near midnight, dark and chilly, a typical Texas spring evening after a week of rain. The air reeked with the smell of worms and wet concrete. A gang of kids had moved to the lamppost by Leo's car, clustered in the light like junebugs, all trying to act like they weren't watching what was going on.
The closer we got, the more the kids swaggered. Teen-agers, at the height of their toughness. The boys out to impress the girls they had with them. The girls in streetwalker clothes, the boys in leather. They wore dark purple baseball caps turned backwards. They looked at us as we approached the car, and Leo stiffened. The kids stayed well away, however. Of course, the place was crawling with cop cars. I didn't think there was anything to worry about. Still it was good to get to Leo's car and drive away. It had been a long night and I was ready to get home.
Excerpted from The Dead Detective by Lorene Robbins Copyright © 2006 by Lorene Robbins. Excerpted by permission.
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