The mirror’s steamed up on account of all the hot, wet bodies sheltering from the rain but the obscured reflection that greets me still looks haggard. I’ve been putting the decision off long enough and it’s not as if the weather’s going to improve any time soon so I down the golden film coating the base of my whiskey glass, pull my still-damp hat from the hook under the bar, and make to leave.
There’s a hand gripping the crook of my arm.
“You’re not going are you?”
I know this guy by sight; a recent transfer to the local police department from some out-of-city place I never bothered to learn. Some kind of big-shot detective, only unlike me he’s the kind that gets a regular paycheck.
“Are you buying?” I figure I’ve got nothing to lose by asking.
Mister Big-Shot gets Brett’s attention behind the bar straightaway – not a difficult job seeing as this cop is built like one of those new upright refrigerators; bulky, long-faced, distinctive nose – and indicates three whiskeys. He’s either being very generous, needs to drink twice as much to maintain his fluid levels, or he’s got a partner here I haven’t spotted yet.
“Let’s take them outside,” he says, handing me one of the glasses. “We might be able to hear ourselves speak.”
I don’t have much to say but I’m happy to listen if he wants an ear. It’s not that much quieter outside, truth to tell. The rain’s pelting down on the sidewalk and the guttering of the bar’s blocked, sending a waterfall crashing onto an iron chair not quite under the canopy out front. Still, it’s a little cooler and that’s something. The third guy in our group who was waiting outside has the look of a rookie cop and I figure if I get close enough to him he’s probably got that new cop smell too.
“Cheers!” I say, nodding appreciation and taking a sip of my gift. It could do with a little water and fortunately there’s plenty of that around so I stick the glass out from under the covers. I wait for an automobile to pass and for the waves in the surface water to hit the kerb. “You’re after my help with something, I take it,” I say, since nobody else seems to want to chat.
“Yeah,” says Big-Shot while chewing his lip. “People say you’re quite good at your job and we could do with a fresh look at a case. Any information, insights, ideas. That sort of thing.”
I raise the glass against one of the lights outside the bar to see if the colour looks about right. “I appreciate the drink,” I say, “but even I don’t work this cheap.”
“No sense of civic pride, Mister Rake?” That’s the rookie and I’m glad to see there’s a warm smile on his face. It’s quickly followed by a grimace as he tries to swallow the least amount of whiskey possible.
“The city will pay for your services,” I’m assured by the walking chiller cabinet. He then starts telling me about a series of murders that have been kept out of the press to avoid a panic or give any other lowlife an idea.
Auntie Annie was the first victim, attacked with an axe in the alley at the back of the brothel she runs – sorry, ran – down near the quay. I’d heard about her death but not the grisly manner in which it took place and like everyone else who knew her or her girls I’d figured it was probably someone upset at the cost or the crabs who’d finally flipped out. A butcher named Brian was then found beheaded at the back of the bus depot and this was quickly followed by the discovery of the cut-up corpse of Carlos, head chef at one of the few legal gambling venues in the city centre.
“I ate at that casino once,” I tell my cop friends. “Sick for a couple of days after. You sure this wasn’t just an upset customer with an upset stomach too?”
Detective Big-Shot shrugs. “Anything’s possible and I’m learning that in this city that is literally true.”
Two more killings are described to me. Some drifter forcibly drowned and then dragged up into the dunes to be discovered, and Edward Edwards, an engineer for the Eastern Express rail company, tied up and electrocuted in his apartment.
“I may be spotting a pattern,” I say sarcastically. My whiskey needs a little more water in it.
“Those people who said you’re good at your job weren’t joking then?” asks the rookie with a glint in his eye. I like him more than his partner.
“Obviously, you may well have a vested interest in this case now,” says Big-Shot sticking his head out from under the canopy and briefly squinting up into the sky. If he’s wondering if the rain will stop then I could let him know the bad news but I figure if he’s as good as his reputation then he should be given a chance to work it out for himself.
I swallow the end of my glass. “I reckon I can start to worry in around ten murders.”
I’ve learnt a lot in the past couple of months. Police pay isn’t great, for one. Still, it’s regular and it all adds up. Rookie’s name is Tommy Simpson. Big-Shot’s got a real name too but he’s not easy to get along with so I keep choosing to forget it. He’s not exactly police either but rather part of a unit dealing with serious interstate crimes – he’s been tracking and catching or killing people like this for years – and what we’re dealing with is something he classifies as a “serial killer”. For my own records I’m still labelling the perp as “sick nutter”. I’ve learnt that this sick nutter is nasty, nobody I know knows a damn thing about him, and that what he did to Larry the Leper in the library will give me nightmares to the day I die.
Even as I slam the door on the cab up I realise it’s going to be difficult to keep this particular death out of the papers. J.P. Patricks, publisher of the City Press is lying in the middle of the road, face down, arms spread. The rain’s diluting his blood and brain matter, washing bits of both down the overflowing drains. Even without the inherent media interest in this killing there have been witnesses this time and I guess that Big-Shot is talking to one of them. I sidle over as they’re standing in a doorway of an old city council building so it’s got the two benefits of being sheltered and not being quite so close the mess on the tarmac.
Make that three benefits: the witness is a blonde with perkiness in all the right places. Her eyeliner’s smudged and she looks pale but that more-or-less describes every dame in the city.
“This is Rick Rake, Miss Johnson, assisting us in this investigation,” says Big-Shot as he sees me. I’m silently grateful that he doesn’t emphasise “assisting” in quite the same way that everyone else at the police department does which makes it clear I’ve not been the great help I was made out to be. “She saw Patricks getting pulled out onto the parapet up there,” says Big-Shot, jerking his thumb upwards. “Large guy, dressed in black. Patricks was tied up and shouting. Knife used to silence Patricks, then pushed off.”
“Pushed off a parapet in public,” I say quietly. I can see Rookie a bit further down the road talking to some beat cops. “That must have been horrible to see, Miss Johnson,” I offer. “Can I ask where you were at the time?”
“Over there,” she says, pointing at a corner deli. Through the window I can see the owner giving a statement to a junior inspector. By the ground at Miss Johnson’s feet is the brown paper bag containing whatever she’d bought, soaked through now. For some reason, in spite of everything, it’s making me hungry.
“She says nobody’s come out of the building since the incident but there are too many windows around the back and two fire escapes to be certain. Uniforms have been in and combed the place; I’ve taken a quick look at the Patricks’ office too. Nothing.”
I’m looking at Miss Johnson’s lower lip. It’s dry and cracked and trembling slightly.
“You look like you could do with a drink and something to eat, Miss Johnson,” I say with not the greatest expectation of a positive answer but she surprises me with an emphatic yes.
Big-Shot then surprises me further by pointing down a side street. “There’s a French place I’ve tried a few times down there,” he says. “Why don’t you see if you can come up with any new questions for Miss Johnson. She’s an eye-witness so we’ll need to arrange protection for her anyway. I’ll go speak with the chief.”
“Call me Victoria.”
She’s drawing in deep on a cigarette and it’s creating some beautiful dimples in her cheeks. Throwing that first gin and tonic down her neck has given her a lovely bit of colour too. I’m smiling for a lot of reasons.
“So, Victoria, what sort of look did you get at the attacker?”
She shrugs and blows a cloud over the restaurant table. With her free hand she lifts her second gin. “Nothing of the face. He was muscular under the coat, a lot bigger than Patricks.”
“And did you know Patricks at all?”
“Everyone who works down this area knows him a bit. I’ve never spoken to him if that’s what you’re asking.” She looks thoughtful for a few seconds. “I’ve never seen anyone killed before. I thought I might feel different. Have you seen many people killed Mister Rake?”
“Lots of dead bodies,” I say. “That comes with the territory. Not so many killings but, yes, a few. People react differently. You might be feeling fine now but later… who knows?”
“Will you be protecting me then?”
I shouldn’t be thinking the things I’m thinking but this is my sort of broad. Gutsy, forthright, and right now out-drinking me. I’m trying to think of something funny to say but the waiter’s turned up with our food. I’m eating steak because I want to see if the Europeans can do it better than Mickey’s Grill over on Fourth Street.
“What did you pick?” I ask, looking at the pastry dish Victoria’s busy slicing. She shows me the menu, her thumbnail pointing out her choice as she blows gently and prepares to take a bite. It’s turning out to be a day full of surprises for me. This time it’s my reactions that impress me as I grab the fork before she’s got a chance to put it in her mouth.
“Hey!” She begins to say something else but I cut her off.
“What do you do for a living Victoria?”
“I work for a family construction business. I thought we were done with questioning.” She’s trying to force the forkful of food towards her face again but I’m stronger than I look, take it off her, and put it down on the plate. She’s giving me a look that says that the chance of anything hot happening later is cooling down faster than her untouched meal. “Cost analysis, if you’re really interested,” she continues. I’ve got this horrible prickling sensation down my neck and spine. It’s that old detective’s hunch finally kicking into gear so I ask for her specific job title and she tells me. Damn.
“Any chance you were named after Queen Victoria?” I ask next and this time it’s her turn to look surprised.
“My mother was a British historian,” she tells me by way of explanation. “Are you going to tell me what the problem is?”
I’m thinking it through in my head, finally putting all the pieces together, and I’ve got a horrible feeling that we’re both in serious danger but I don’t want to create a panic. I’m about to say something when I see her glance over my shoulder. I start to turn but feel a hand press around the back of my neck. I’ve felt this hand on me before, only then it was in a crowded bar.
“We need to have a quick word,” says Detective Big-Shot. I can’t quite turn my head around or up enough to face him but I can tell there’s no suitable negative answer he’ll accept on account of a hard prodding in my upper back. Victoria’s looking confused but not overly concerned and I don’t think I’m going to be able to convey “get out of here and bring as many police officers as you can back with you” in a glance since we’ve only just met.
“Stay right there Miss Johnson. Someone’s coming to look after you in just a minute.” And now he’s leading me into the men’s rest room.
“A gun?” I ask when the door’s closed. “I felt sure it was going to be the rope you took off Patricks’ body. Miss Johnson said his arms were tied but they were spread when I arrived. I guess you just waited in the building until the regular cops arrived and then started searching with them.”
“You are smart Rake. I’ll give you that.” The hand not holding the weapon pats his pocket and then pulls out the climbing rope that earlier had been used to restrain the deceased publisher. “Be smart a little while longer and don’t struggle too much. Rick Rake in the restaurant with a revolver works for me just as well.”
“You’ve missed out Q though. Sorry to disappoint you but the quantity surveyor named after a queen never ate poisoned quiche. Why don’t you think about starting from A again?” I doubt he’s going to take up my suggestion.
“If Miss Johnson happens to die out of order… well, it’s only me who’ll know and I think I can live with that.” He’s gesturing for me to kneel down and I can’t see a way out of this so I do as he says. In a flash I feel the rope around by neck and I reach to pull it away but there’s a knee in my back keeping me still. I’m trying to breathe but the pressure on my windpipe is too much. I can feel the rope twist a little, burning slightly as it tears at my skin, and then it loosens enough for me to get a finger in place. I manage to get some air into my lungs.
There’s a loud bang and a crushing weight falls on me. A sharp pain in my head and then blackness.
The rain’s coming down much like it always does but there’s a make-shift shelter outside the restaurant which is keeping me dry. A medic from the police department is wiping blood off me. Some of it’s mine from the cut on the temple I received from the toilet bowl but most of it is Big-Shot’s. I don’t know for certain why he did what he did. Maybe he just spent so long tracking the insane he thought he could do it better.
I’ve shaken the hand of the rookie already and he’s off being congratulated by his colleagues and superiors for ending the life of this sick nutter or serial killer; whatever you want to call him.
“You saved my life,” says Victoria. I hadn’t heard her approach. She’s smoking in every sense of the word.
“And he saved mine. And probably yours too,” I reply, nodding at my saviour’s back.
Victoria shrugs and looks at her cigarette with disinterest. She drops it and stubs it out. “You’re still my hero Rick Rake.” She touches the mark on my neck gently and then kisses me on the cheek. It’s less than I hoped for and more than I deserve. Blind luck that the rookie came down to the restaurant and needed to use the conveniences. I’ll take blind luck. “I heard them say he’ll probably be promoted to Sergeant for this.”
I nod. Saved from strangulation by Sergeant Simpson. On this case I shouldn’t have expected anything else.