Mike Shannon is used to taking on the hard cases. He's a private investigator and ex-cop in St. Louis, and when the authorities throw up their hands, Shannon is there to bring the guilty to justice. But doing what's right doesn't mean keeping your hands clean: he's stacked up quite a body count over the years-something he's not proud of-and it's beginning to take its toll on him.
When a teenage girl goes missing, Shannon takes what he believes will be a simple case. But when he finds cocaine hidden in the girl's bedroom-cocaine that apparently came from the police department's evidence room-things begin to get complicated. Things get even worse when Shannon begins to suspect his own ex-partner, who was brutally murdered, may be linked to the girl's disappearance and the stolen drugs.
Shannon's investigation of a possible runaway is shaping up into one hell of a case against police corruption and drug trafficking. As Shannon digs deeper, the danger escalates when he comes face to face with a dark figure from his past, a rogue CIA hitman known as the Sandman. Shannon might be in over his head, but that's never stopped him before. In all the confusion, Shannon is sure of one thing, he's not done killing yet.
As Shannon's past catches up with him, his two worlds collide and the dead bodies begin to litter the streets of St. Louis, with a trail of blood leading downtown to the Arch, The Gateway to Hell.
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The Gateway to HellA Mike Shannon Novel
By Ray Mileur
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Ray Mileur
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThey wanted him dead.
He heaved a deep sigh. It was almost dawn, and the muted darkness was eerily quiet. Mike Shannon, the private investigator who had made a career of taking cases the St. Louis Police Department couldn't-or-wouldn't take, stood alone on the balcony of his loft apartment overlooking the river, wearing only his white cotton boxers. His cover had been blown. He held a cold can of Dr. Pepper in his left hand and a Springfield Armory XD .45 in his right, half expecting to take a sniper's bullet in the chest.
He carefully scanned the neighborhood below. Last night's horde of tourists and locals had deserted Laclede's Landing. A couple of cars and delivery trucks dashed across the Martin Luther King Bridge into the city, ahead of the rush hour traffic. The small grey squirrel he fed in winter was making its early morning rounds, jumping through the trees that lined the narrow cobblestone streets.
The slight odor of stale beer from Big Daddy's bar, and garlic from the Spaghetti Factory, permeated the heavy, humid air. In the background, the tireless movement of the Mississippi River passed under the massive cantilever truss bridge. It was quiet, except for the serene hum of three ceiling fans and the ticking of an antique wall clock coming from inside his apartment.
Shannon was a highly decorated Marine Corps veteran and a member of an off-the-books paramilitary unit with tenuous ties to the Central Intelligence Agency. After two tours with the Marines, he had served eleven years with the St. Louis Police Department as a tough and uncompromising street-wise cop. Newspaper headlines often recorded his exploits and he became one of the most decorated police officers in the city's history.
He glanced at his watch. Forty-eight hours ago he had led his black ops team, Sabre 6, and successfully rescued the daughter of a U.S. ambassador from the hands of what was left of the Escobar drug cartel in Columbia, South America. In the name of God and Country, he had fought in unconstitutional wars, carried out clandestine commando missions, participated in the never-ending, futile war on drugs, and the misguided war on terror. He had killed more men then he cared to remember. Their ghosts haunted him. His unwanted memories fueled his relentless pursuit for redemption.
He had often tested fate and usually took danger in stride without apparent concern for his own well-being, but he harbored no illusions of his own invincibility. He had just walked away, virtually unscathed, from another deadly gunfight, and it was beginning to weigh on his mind that his time could be running out. He was conscious of his own brutality. He wondered how long could he could fight monsters before he became one? Each time he took someone's life, he felt a piece of himself die.
He could hear the rumble of the distant thunder and a sense of dread washed over him. He knew they were coming for him. He was living on borrowed time, but he'd be ready for them. He was experienced at war and experienced at killing; it's what he did, it's who he was.
Chapter TwoHe parked the stolen black Cadillac Seville at the airport, in long-term parking. It would be days, or even weeks, before the cops would discover the body in the trunk.
In the terminal, Anthony "Tony" Morreti, aka "the Sandman," the most prolific contract hitman of his time, passed undetected through the TSA checkpoints at LaGuardia. The elite, lone-wolf assassin, known for his lethal grace and unwavering precision, looked like any other businessman boarding the early flight to St. Louis. Morreti's business was murder and business was good.
Morreti was a second generation Italian American. He stood 6'2" and weighed 200 pounds, all of it lean muscle. He had a full head of coal black hair, dark olive skin, and piercing gunmetal-colored eyes. He was dressed to kill in a tailored black Armani suit and wore a solid gold Rolex President, and the obligatory mobster pinky ring. For over a year now, he had moved like a cat through the concrete jungle of New York City; a predator stalking human prey.
Morreti began his bloody career as a young Marine Corps sniper; a big-game hunter on the battlefield. He had often penetrated deeply into enemy territory, waiting for the right moment to take the killing shot with a single bullet. The CIA had recruited Morreti, and his platoon sergeant, to carry out covert paramilitary operations in central America and the middle east, assigning them both to the Special Operations Group within the Special Activities Division of the Company.
On the record, Presidential Executive Order 12333, issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, prohibited the CIA from conducting assassinations. But, off the record—before he left the reservation to go into business for himself—Morreti's body count for Uncle Sam had soared past forty.
A buxom, blond forty-something flight attendant with American Airline wings on her blouse, greeted Morreti at the door of the Boeing 747. "Good morning," she said. "Welcome aboard flight 624 to St. Louis."
"Good morning," Morreti replied as he took his seat in the front row of the first class section.
Morreti always travelled first class. He was fond of great Italian food, fine wines, custom tailored suits, fast cars, and faster women. He stayed in the best hotels and ate in the finest restaurants, and passed the costs of his extravagant lifestyle to his desperately motivated clients. By his own estimate, without any reservation or remorse, he had killed over 100 men, making him a much sought-after specialist in the underworld. He was the perfect ice-cold killing machine, taking great pride in his work. And the money was very good.
Once they were in the air, the flight attendant served a complimentary breakfast. He ate, sitting quietly for the rest of the flight, reading a newspaper he had purchased at the airport and leafing through the in- flight magazines.
Despite his storied background, the police had never linked Morreti to any of his free-lance killings. On this assignment he would fly in and out of St. Louis without being detected, leaving behind one dead cop. If everything went according to plan.
It always did.
Chapter ThreeShannon's loft apartment was accessible by an open-grillwork freight elevator, which had a single slab-opening door and a wrought iron stairway in the back that served as a fire escape. The apartment featured a large open living room and kitchen combination with fifteen-foot ceilings, four large skylights, arched cast-iron framed windows, and worn chestnut wood flooring.
The living room was furnished with a group of heavy antiques and a large bomber-jacket microfiber sofa and recliner, giving the room the comfortable feeling of old-fashioned luxury. On one end of the room, the home entertainment center held a big screen TV. A couple of Georgia O'Keefe prints were displayed on the exposed brick walls. His grandfather and great-grandfather's shotguns hung above the mantle over the fireplace.
The kitchen contained the latest appliances, including a stainless steel fridge and an impressive state-of-the art range that he used only to prepare chips and dip.
Shannon strolled through the living room and picked up the cell phone off the kitchen counter. "This is Shannon," he said as he walked down the hallway to the bathroom.
"Mike, this is Jackie, are you home?"
"I got in late last night."
"Have you seen the news on TV?"
"I've seen it," Shannon moaned.
"They're making you out to be a hero."
"You can't believe everything you see on TV."
"I can believe the hero part," she replied. "I thought you would be excited about the free publicity."
"I'm not," Shannon said, knowing the trouble that was coming his way. "It comes with a price."
"I don't understand."
"I don't expect you to."
She took a deep breath. "What do you want us to do?"
"Call Chili and J.T.. Have them meet us at the office at eight. Tell them to expect the local media to be camped out in front. Have them park in the garage and slip in the back entrance."
"Okay Mike, anything else?"
"No one is to make any comments to the press."
"I've got to go take a shower and unpack."
"Is it true what they are saying about you? Did you really kill all those men?"
"We'll talk about it later, kid," Shannon said.
She thought his voice sounded tired and weak. "Okay."
Shannon laid the cell phone on the bathroom sink. He peeled off his skivvies and tossed them on the floor, and took another drink of his Dr. Pepper. The soda was the only bad habit he had; at least the only one he could admit to in public. He turned on the hot water in the shower and let it run for a couple of minutes before he stepped in.
He was on the backside of forty, crowding the big "five-oh", and the excessive wear and tear on his six-foot, two-hundred-pound frame was beginning to show. He often thought that the warranty on his body had expired after he hit forty.
Shannon lingered in the shower, letting the cascade of steaming water gently massage his aching and battered body. He noticed a deep purple contusion on his left shoulder and couldn't remember how he had hurt it. He brushed his teeth, filled his mouth with water from the shower head, swirled it around, and spit it out.
Shannon reached down and turned off the shower. He stepped out of the stall and dried himself with a large, thick white towel. He carefully patted the purple bruises on his chest, courtesy of two 9MM slugs, that were stopped by his Second Chance ballistic vest, during the rescue of the Ambassador's daughter. He wrapped the damp towel around his waist as he glanced at the small clock radio on the counter. He had lost track of time. He been in the shower for over thirty minutes. The older he got, the longer and hotter the showers had become. He grabbed a hand towel hanging on the rack next to the sink and wiped the steam from the mirror.
As he reached for his razor, he glanced at his reflection. He saw the scars on his body that testified to the violence that he had endured; and a face hardened by life, lined with pain and sorrow; battered eyebrows, scarred in countless forgotten brawls. The eyes that stared back at him had seen too much violence and too much death. But he knew that there was more to come.
Shannon shaved and applied Old Spice sport stick deodorant under his arms and added a touch of Lagerfeld cologne to his face. The bottle of cologne was almost empty. She had given it to him last Christmas, before the divorce. It was her favorite scent. He still wore it for her every day, as if it mattered anymore.
He took a bottle of Advil out of the medicine cabinet and washed four of them down with what was now a warm, almost flat Dr. Pepper.
Shannon ambled down the hall to the bedroom, leaving a trail of wet footprints on the hardwood floor. He grabbed a pair of clean underwear from the top dresser drawer, put them on, turned around, and began to unpack his bags.
After he unpacked, he returned to the kitchen. The pantry served as his arms room. He opened the door and took out his handgun cleaning kit, and placed a green felt pad over the round oak dining room table that had been in his family for more than 75 years.
In Marine Corps basic training, at Parris Island, his DIs had drilled into him that poor weapon maintenance was a common cause of misfires. More than once, Shannon had lived to fight another day because some poor dumb bastard had failed to clean his weapon properly. The Springfield Armory XD .45 was Shannon's weapon of choice; it was a black matte polymer, double action semi-automatic, with a 13 round magazine. He carried it religiously.
He removed the magazine from the .45, cleared the round from the chamber, double-checked the chamber, and pulled the trigger back. Then he pointed the weapon toward the brick wall, removed the slide from the receiver, and removed the barrel from the slide. He carefully and meticulously cleaned the weapon inside and out. When he had finished cleaning his weapon, he washed his hands and put the cleaning kit back in the pantry.
He walked back to the bedroom. The king-size bed in the middle of the room seemed bigger now that she was gone. But now, he mused, he had the walk-in closet all to himself; it beat living out of his Marine Corps sea bag.
Shannon dressed in his usual business attire; a starched white shirt, open at the neck, tucked into his khaki slacks. He slid on a pair of brown, handcrafted, ostrich Justin cowboy boots, and put on a matching brown belt. He slipped on his holster, a double magazine pouch, and a pancake holder with a pair of handcuffs and a small flashlight. He grabbed a blue blazer from the closet and put it on, and from the top of the dresser, he picked up the brown leather ID folder with his PI license and put it inside his jacket pocket. Then he grabbed his Ray Ban aviator sunglasses.
Shannon returned to the dining room table. He reassembled the .45, loaded a hollow-point round in the chamber, and inserted a fully loaded 13-round magazine. He placed the weapon in its brown Bianchi holster on his right hip, and stuffed two additional magazines in the leather pouch on his left hip.
Shannon paused in front of the full-length mirror in the hall next to the ancient freight elevator. He inspected himself and adjusted his gig line. Even on the backside of forty, he still projected the aura of a man not to be trifled with.
He coughed lightly and his face twitched with pain. He shook his head.
"This is as good as it gets," he said to himself.
Chapter FourShannon hit the button with his right thumb and took the freight elevator down to his office on the ground floor.
Walking through the frosted front door, painted with a sign that read "MIKE SHANNON, PRIVATE INVESTIGATIONS," was like stepping into a perfectly preserved time capsule from the early 1900s. The fifteen- foot brick walls, with their original nine-foot arched windows, open oak ceiling beams, and wood plank floors, all showed their age; a stark contrast to the boring modern architecture and interiors found in the downtown area.
The casual observer rarely noticed the state-of-the-art security system that Shannon had installed when he bought the place. The system included several hidden cameras, both inside and out, with motion sensor detectors and lights for protection. Shannon still had plenty of friends on the job, ensuring a rapid response for any breach in security.
Adorning the brick walls in the small reception area were four custom-framed prints by Georgia O'Keefe. Shannon loved the turn- of-the-century artist for her distinctive paintings of flowers, animal bones, and landscapes, in which she synthesized abstraction and representation.
Art critics and writers often claimed that Georgia O'Keefe was born ahead of her time. Shannon, who longed for a time when life made more sense, always felt that he was born 100 years too late. He was a hopeless romantic, and thought that if he and Georgia could bridge the gap of time, they would be perfect soul mates.
An old handrail separated the reception area and the secretary's office. Shannon had salvaged the antique 36-inch oak banister from the historic Marion County courthouse in Hannibal Missouri, the boyhood home town of Mark Twain. There were four 1920s banker-style chairs lined against the outer wall of the reception room. Past the handrail, into the front office area, stood Jackie Chase's vintage oak library desk with a computer work-station, a copier, and a fax machine. Her desk and work area was clean and tidy, a stark contrast to Shannon's own cluttered office.
Shannon's private office was down the hall, the first door on the left. It featured an ornate Persian rug that he'd brought back from one of his overseas missions. Various mementos from past cases were on display on the sleek mahogany desk and in his bookcases.
Further down the hall, past Shannon's office, was the break room containing four chairs drawn up to a round table. A microwave, blender, toaster, and coffeemaker were sitting on the Formica counter top. A new refrigerator stocked with Dr. Pepper and unidentifiable leftovers, sat in the corner. There were two more offices in the back. One was a combination conference and library room. Shannon's associates, J.T. Thomas and Willie "Chili" Brown, shared the other office.
Shannon walked into his office and sat down in his high-back leather executive chair. He put his feet up on the desk, grabbed a stack of St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspapers and scanned the headlines, to catch up on the local news.
Excerpted from The Gateway to Hell by Ray Mileur Copyright © 2012 by Ray Mileur. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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