Baltimore, Maryland, 2005
The victim had died with money in his wallet, a loaded .22 in his jacket, and a strip of condoms in his right front pants pocket. One way or another, he’d been headed for a big night.
There had been a struggle, though not much of one. The kill had been as quick as it was decisive. A swift and determined swipe of blade across the sandy-colored skin of his neck, severing the head of the cobra tattoo that led from his chest up to his chin. A prime piece of prison ink, ruined.
The body was found alongside a nameless, moss-covered pond in McClain Park, stretched out between a cluster of trees and a large rust-bitten waste can. An early morning jogger, still working on breaking that day’s first sweat, mistook the mound of humanity for some homeless guy passed out by the water --- a rare sight in this part of town. Then he saw the blood, and started sweating.
Baltimore had become known for its violent crime in recent years. Turf wars and careless tourists routinely led to dead gangbangers who hadn’t seen it coming and battered out-of-towners who never imagined it could happen to them.
But this one was different. This corpse didn’t belong here, not in this quiet residential part of town where every house was equipped with a security system because the homeowner could afford the tab.
That was one reason the cops had arrived so quickly, even before the onlookers, though they too were there now. Two dozen or more spread out unevenly behind the police barrier. Housewives on their way back from dropping their kids off at school, men and women dressed for business, some already late for work, joined by the usual array of folks who appear to have nowhere else to be.
All of them observing the lead detectives examine the body and its immediate surroundings, while a forensics team methodically set up to do its thing. A mass of curious people all watching the same thing, and generating a barely audible buzz, as though conversing any louder might wake the dead.
But not everyone is there for the same reason. One man in particular is more invested in this scene than the others. He hasn’t slept, he never does before or after a killing. But no one would know from looking at him.
He is of average height, average weight, and his face is as common and forgettable as dust. The way he’s dressed, this man could be mistaken for the guy in the third cubicle down the hall in any office. White shirt, blue tie, department store windbreaker, twenty-dollar haircut. Just another middle manager who hates what he does and counts the years to retirement.
Except this man is no middle manager, and he enjoys what he does. It’s the thing that keeps him going. Someone in the crowd sees that the victim’s neck has been cut from ear to ear, and whispers to no one in particular, “This makes seven --- no, eight.”
Staring back at a plainclothes cop who is scanning the crowd, the man thinks, This makes nine.
As his eyes made their second pass across the crowd, Detective Conyers realized how after a while all crowds look the same. Eighteen years on the force, the last seven as a homicide detective, had made it difficult for him to separate the faces that always seemed to be part of these scenes.
He imagined how Roman gladiators in the Coliseum might have regarded ancient spectators in the same way. Blank faces gazing at a scene that offers them only violence, death, and nothing of real value. Vain attempts to sneak a look at something they don’t truly want to see.
The odor of death blended with the delicate scent of a newborn day in a way that was both perverse and familiar to Conyers. He wondered if any of the onlookers noticed it, if it made them want to turn away or just get on with their lives. Conyers doubted it.
No one stood out from the rest of the crowd. Though he’d been trained to look for anyone with a motive beyond morbid curiosity, he had never succeeded in picking out a potential suspect. Not even once, not even close. After another pass revealed nothing new or useful, Conyers gave up and glanced over at Murphy, his partner, who was dictating the details into a tape recorder as though he was ordering the usual at the corner diner.
“The vic is Hispanic. According to his I.D., he just turned twenty-four, and he definitely won’t see the quarter-century mark. His name was Orlando Corpas.”
Conyers interrupted, “He went by, ‘Orlo.’ I knew him when I was working a beat.”
Murphy nodded, then went back to recording his observations. “Orlando,” he started, then looked up at Conyers, “a.k.a. ‘Orlo’ Corpas is now Corpas the Corpse on account of the ten-inch-long, quarter-inch-wide groove that someone opened in his neck. There are no signs of robbery.”
That triggered a memory for Conyers. Turning his attention away from his partner’s routine breakdown of the particulars, he began surveying the scene like someone playing that kids’ search game where valuable objects are hidden within a crowded picture. Conyers knew exactly what he was looking for, but not where to find it.
He walked around the large trash can and examined it carefully, not too concerned about getting some of the grime on his street-worn brown leather coat. He glanced back at his partner, who looked up from the body, saw what Conyers was doing, and shook his head then went back to recording his findings.
Conyers next searched the paved biking and running trail. He walked thirty feet away from the body, no need to go any farther if the previous crime scenes were any indication.
Conyers knew he resembled a shabby bloodhound as he glanced down and from side to side with each measured step.
He heard one onlooker ask another, “What do you think he’s looking for? A weapon? Blood splatters? Fibers?”
But Conyers wasn’t searching for anything like that, the sort of evidence that too often cracks fictional TV cases wide open. He walked back toward the body, then continued down the path in the opposite direction. Again, he covered the area a few feet at a time. Again, he came up empty.
He looked back at the crime scene and saw that Murphy had finished and was now talking to Bulling, the lead forensics officer. The small grove of recently planted poplar trees stood about midway between Conyers and the body. His black leather shoes sank a little into the moist ground as he walked toward the trees, and he felt the chill on the soles of his feet.
Though spring had started to arrive on the eastern seaboard, it had thus far produced only a smattering of leaves on the trees. They provided a splash of color, which seemed out of place at that moment, under these circumstances. But there weren’t enough of them to obscure much of the bark.
Conyers examined each tree from its base up to the low-hanging branches, but found nothing that shouldn’t have been there. Maybe this killing was different from the others. He would check out the shoreline, but already knew that would be a waste of time. He had walked it searching for evidence when they first arrived.
Then, as he turned back to where Murphy and Bulling were still talking, Conyers noticed a lighter piece of bark along the bottom of a thick branch. He’d been so focused on the tree trunks that he’d missed this before.
Conyers squatted under the branch and looked up. There it was. If it had eyes, they would’ve been staring down at him.
“Bulling, come here right now.”
Behind him, Conyers heard the large man moving in his direction, but he did not turn away from the branch.
“Yes, Detective?” Bulling asked, winded.
“We’re going to need a photo of that.”
Bulling carefully squatted and saw what Conyers was pointing at. A stick figure, comprised of an empty circular head, a torso, two short arms, and two legs had been carefully carved into the wood.
“Probably done by some kid, or a smartass with a pocket knife,” Bulling said.
Conyers shook his head.
“I don’t think so. In fact, I want you to cut this branch off at its base and take it back to the lab. I have a feeling you’re going to find traces of the vic’s blood in the grooves of that carving.”
Murphy walked up as Bulling wandered off to find a camera, some tools, and an assistant to do the difficult work.
“Check this out,” Conyers said, and Murphy bent down to get a look under the branch.
“A stick figure, big deal.”
“Yeah, like the one we found two weeks ago, painted on a bench near that pimp’s body. And remember last month’s ---”
Murphy cut him off.
“Con, you know what I see? I see a dead piece of shit over there by the water. I see a useless slab of meat that might’ve killed a kid in a drive-by a few days from now, or would’ve taken a shot at you, me, or one of our guys at some point down the line.”
Conyers listened. He understood what Murphy was getting at, even shared many of his partner’s views. But still…
“Listen, Murph, there’s something going on here, something bigger than some bullshit turf war, and it has to end.”
The man blends into the crowd that has been watching the two detectives. He understands what is happening, and knows what will happen next. The police commissioner, maybe even the mayor, will hold a press conference to reassure the public. They’ll claim that two rival gangs are responsible for the recent deaths.
But something else will be going on behind the scenes. The cop in the brown leather coat is going to kick up some dust. His partner will have to go along. There will be an investigation --- quiet, but thorough. In time, they will connect the killings. And maybe they won’t stop there. They might start digging further back, expanding their scope.
That would be bad. And the thought of that possibility gives the man a bone-deep chill, makes his muscles tighten so much he worries someone will notice.
The man has been through this before. Three years earlier in Pittsburgh, and in Cleveland before, and in St. Louis before that. These people, like the ones in those other crime- infested places, fail to appreciate what he can do for their community. What he has been doing for them and their kids.
As far as the man is concerned, Orlo Corpas had sensed his own purpose and destiny. Orlo had helped the man, leading him to other area scum, helping him gain access to some of the worst this town had ever coughed up. Orlo had been paid for his services, and now he had paid for his crimes.
Maybe the man needs to teach Detective Conyers a few things about the value of appreciation. He’ll do that, and then leave Baltimore. Walk away from a successful business, and never look back.
The man will find a new place to live --- again. Change his name and appearance --- again.
Things will be different next time. He’ll find a town where the people appreciate his unique ability to eliminate the pimps, gangbangers, and junkies. The human trash that has polluted every place he’s ever lived. And he’s lived in a lot of different places, and been known by a lot of different names.
He has already chosen his next destination. A week ago the man saw a face staring back at him from pages of a trade magazine. A real success story, the guy in the photo. The self-made type. One of the Chicago area’s bright new stars.
The man in the crowd knows otherwise.
He pulls the photo out of his wallet. The uneven edges of the thin paper are frayed and slightly curled. Taking his eyes off the crime scene, the man examines the black-and-white photo, just like he did earlier that morning, and the night before as he waited for Orlo to show up.
The smiling face looks up at him. Mocks him. The name is different, the hair too, but the man knows that face.
The man slips the photo back into his wallet as a feeling of absolute purpose rolls over him.
Yes, there’s more work to do. Important work. Something he’s been building up to for thirty years.
Oakton, Illinois, present day
The next newspaper story bearing Jim Chakowski’s byline would be the biggest of his long and successful career. All Chakowski had to do now was live long enough to write it.
Chakowski knew he could not let his guard down, not for an instant. Right now his life depended on his ability to stay cool, focused, and aware. He was good on two of those three --- his cool had checked out a few days ago.
Navigating through the crowded downtown street festival, Chakowski did his best to avoid eye contact, while still remaining fully in touch with his surroundings. A thousand or more people had gathered along three city blocks to listen to the REO Speedwagon cover band, drink beer, and just hang out.
Though Chakowski had grown up in Oakton --- one of Chicago’s largest suburbs --- worked here his entire adult life, made the place his own, it all felt foreign to him now on an otherwise pleasant October evening. He’d spent more than two decades writing Oakton’s story, chronicling the lives of its people --- the powerful and the not so. But now he felt like a virus the city was determined to purge.
Like a familiar stranger, he sensed the edgy glances and heard the whispers, real or imagined, as he weaved past people who were too tuned in to the music, or engaged in their own conversations to know what was going on. The size and density of the crowd was preventing Chakowski from doing what he desperately wanted to do --- run to his car, lock the doors, and drive away as fast as he could.
The sound of drumbeats and electric chords bounced off Oakton’s century-old downtown buildings along Clinton Avenue and conspired with smoke from grills to make Chakowski’s head pound and his stomach churn. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten, but this was no time for small concerns.
He glanced back after every few steps. Was that guy, the one in the St. Louis Cardinals cap, following him? What about that other one, over by the beer stand? Did Chakowski recognize him?
Once most of the crowd was behind him, Chakowski started walking faster, almost running, cutting down a side street, then another. The music and crowd noises fading away into the night, he rushed to his five-year-old metallic green Elantra, scanning the dark street from one end to the other before getting in.
As he emerged from his parking space, Chakowski noticed someone standing in the shadow of an alley. He thought about driving straight to the offices of the Chicago Record, his professional home for more than a quarter century, the only place he’d ever worked since graduating from journalism school. But he was much closer to his home, five minutes away or so, and the road didn’t feel safe right now.
Chakowski would write the story at home, give it a quick revision, and email it in. Then he would drive to his office at the Record, and guide it through the editorial and layout process.
He kept his eyes on the sideview mirror. As he watched the orange glow of downtown Oakton being swallowed up by darkness, Chakowski estimated it would take him no more than a couple of hours to bang out a story that would change his hometown forever.
The business district now in the far distance, Chakowski noticed a set of headlights some thirty yards back. Lots of people in Oakton, he thought. Even more on a night like this one, when the town throws a party. That’s probably a family of four back there. Kids already asleep in the backseat.
The headlights were still there four blocks later, then six. Right turn --- still there. Chakowski’s heart was trying to punch its way out of his chest. Sweat, cold and thick, gathered along his brow and washed down the middle of his back.
Chakowski gripped the wheel like it was a lifeline. No longer worried about taking the shortest way home, he turned left, sped up, then left again a block later, and fixed his eyes on the mirror.
No lights, now. The road was his, and for a moment Chakowski remembered why he loved this town.
Over the years he had turned down offers to work at bigger papers in cities that made national news much more often. He had instead dedicated himself to becoming a big frog in a midsized pond. He’d gotten to know all of the players in the city’s government and business, and in the process became something of a player himself. But the ground had shifted under him over the past year, and now he finally understood why.
He leaned on the gas and kept the car moving just a bit over the speed limit. Driving down one of Oakton’s wide, quiet streets, his pulse retreating toward normal, Chakowski began to wonder how much of this fear was the product of his writer’s imagination.
Then Chakowski realized he had become disoriented, lost track of where he was. He turned north --- no wait, west. Finally, he gave in just a little and pulled over. Peeling his hands off the wheel, Chakowski wiped the sweat from his forehead and neck, and leaned back in the driver’s seat until his breathing found its natural rhythm.
As he drove off a minute later, Chakowski spotted a mailbox at the next corner. That triggered something in his mind. He pulled up next to it, popped open the glove compartment, and withdrew an envelope.
He wondered whether there was any real reason to mail it, or if the information he’d hastily cobbled together and shoved into the envelope would make any sense to anyone else. This seemed so much more important an hour ago, when Chakowski’s thoughts were rabid with fear.
But Chakowski knew his concerns were real and well justified, and the reasons behind them had not changed. He stepped out of the car, peering in all four directions down the murky streets before dropping the letter into the box and hurrying back to his car.
After finding his way to a major street, Chakowski had his bearings again. He decided it was time to go home.
His house was in one of Oakton’s older neighborhoods. An area that had undergone a transformation over the past decade as young couples, many with small children, had replaced the older ones. Chakowski didn’t have children, and it had been some time since he’d been half of a couple. He’d lived alone all of his adult life, and now that he was in his mid-fifties, Chakowski understood it would be like that the rest of the way. He’d planned on marrying, once upon a time, starting a family, all of it, but the job always seemed to get in the way.
No, it hadn’t gotten in the way. The job had been the way.
“You’re either a good reporter or a good family man,” Chakowski had once explained to his father. “Being both would require two lifetimes.”
His well-maintained two-story colonial near the end of a long street of nice homes with large yards had been there for more than sixty years. Chakowski slowed to a deliberate cruise as he turned onto Dwight Street. He stared into the vague shadows that gathered around large trees and near the far end of long driveways.
Slowing down to just above a crawl, Chakowski drove past his house. Then he repeated the exercise, approaching from the opposite direction. He’d never before realized just how many hiding places his neighborhood could provide to anyone wanting to do some harm.
After the third pass, Chakowski was as convinced as he could be that no one was waiting for him in the dark. He swung the Hyundai into his driveway, then sat for a moment, letting the headlights bathe the front of his garage. Everything appeared exactly as it should.
But as he stepped out of his car Chakowski heard a jingling sound from somewhere nearby --- right behind him. He ducked by the rear driver’s side door, then inched toward the back of the car to get a look. Peering around the trunk of his Elantra, Chakowski saw the next door neighbor’s teenaged son getting into a beater that was parked on the street. Chakowski felt foolish, and even more certain that he just needed to get this over with. Get the story written, buckle in for the fallout, then go on from there.
The only other car parked on the street was a widow neighbor’s white Cadillac, right where the old woman began leaving it some years ago when backing out of her driveway started to become a challenge. The more Chakowski surveyed his surroundings, the more it looked like just another night in Oakton.
Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing out of place. Nothing to worry about.
The house was dark, just as he’d left it. No reason to leave security lights on in this neighborhood. He wanted to approach his house as he would on any other night when he came home from work at 1 A.M., or later if he stopped to grab a drink with his colleagues. Instead, Chakowski walked to his front door the same way he’d approached his car --- aware and alert, searching for any movement in the dark.
But the only moving shadow was his own, spreading across the front lawn, then climbing up the thick old ivy that clung to the façade of his house. He made a final, careful scan of his front yard and the street beyond, then keyed the lock, turned the knob, stepped inside, and quickly closed the door.
Chakowski did not turn on the lights right away, choosing instead to wait for a moment in the dark, his back pressed against the front door. Gradually, Chakowski’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, and all seemed right in what he could see of his living room.
He listened for the sound of movement in his home’s creaky wood floor, but heard none. Then he recognized the low-pitched buzz of the humidifier coming from his bedroom upstairs. And the hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen. He waited another minute, then two, but heard nothing else.
I’m acting like a frightened fool, he thought.
That was something Jim Chakowski had never been, and he decided right then, at that moment, that he’d filed too many hard-earned stories, tangled with far too many would- be tough guys, to start acting like a child now. Lose your nerve and it’s gone forever.
This was his town, the one he’d written about and helped to define in the minds of his readers, for more than twenty- five years. And it was his life, the one he’d sacrificed to build, one byline at a time. He would not let fear enter into the equation.
Chakowski pulled back the curtain, and took a defiant look through the window at the dark, empty street beyond. Then he dropped his keys on the side table by the door and flipped the light switch. Nothing happened.
He turned back toward his living room. The light from a lamppost across the street spilled in through the window, past the curtain that he’d drawn, and reached to the far end of the room, well beyond what he could’ve seen before in the dark. But Chakowski didn’t recognize what he saw. There were papers littered across the beige carpeting, a table was turned over, and his bookshelves had been emptied, their contents thrown to the floor.
Chakowski didn’t know what to make of the sizzling sound that seemed to be moving through the walls. Then he heard a muted pop coming from somewhere in the basement.
But only his neighbors heard the explosion, an instant later.
Interstate 80 connects New York to San Francisco, waving hello and then goodbye to several Midwestern cities along the way. But this particular westbound stretch between Toledo, Ohio, and the Indiana-Illinois border offered little of interest.
Alex Chapa watched the speedometer climb past seventy, then thought better of it, remembering that he was transporting precious cargo, and eased off the accelerator. He was about to sneak another glance at the backseat when his cell phone began playing “Daydream Believer.” Until recently its ringtone had been set to “Guantanamera,” the classic Cuban tune that his aunt Caridad once claimed was her signature song back when she performed at the Tropicana --- before “The Beard” ruined paradise.
Chapa checked to see who it was, and saw Chicago Record on the caller I.D. He had taken two weeks off from the paper, which meant he wasn’t required to give a damn about the call. It was the first time he’d been away from his job for that length of time since the birth of his daughter, more than ten years earlier.
He chose to ignore it, wondering what could be so important that someone would bother him with it during a rare off time. There were other writers at the paper. Few with more experience, perhaps none as accomplished, but so what? He was off the clock.
Chapa let it go, and turned his attention back to the countryside racing past in dying shades of red and brown. His thoughts melting into the lonesome notes that were cascading out of a long lost saxophone and pouring in through his car speakers, Chapa focused on the road ahead, and the unique opportunities the next few days would offer.
Again, the speedometer in his late 90s Corolla slipped into the red, a fact that Chapa was alerted to by the rattling of his driver’s side door handle. He eased off the gas, again. The car ran just fine at speeds beyond the legal limit, something Chapa tested on a regular basis. Despite its age, the Corolla didn’t have any rust on its aqua-green exterior, the air conditioning worked most of the time, and the heater always blew hot, especially in July when the car sometimes confused the two.
But on this trip, Chapa had far more important concerns than the condition of his vehicle. For that matter, Chapa didn’t much care whether he pulled into his driveway an hour early or two hours late. His priorities had shifted in a different and welcome direction.
Stan Getz was cruising through “Misty” when the phone interrupted again. Apparently, someone at the assignment desk hadn’t gotten the message that Alex Chapa was not available. But it was strange that they would call twice. One call could have been an oversight, but two suggested intent. He decided to check his messages, something he hadn’t done since stopping for breakfast that morning just outside of Erie, Pennsylvania.
Chapa immediately recognized a harried voice belonging to Matt Sullivan, the news editor at the Record.
Alex, I know you’re taking some vacation time, but I could really use you back at the paper. Something terrible happened last night to Jim Chakowski, and with everything that’s going on right now, I need you to step in for him as soon as you can.
Chapa listened to the message twice. Matt Sullivan wasn’t prone to wild exaggeration or quick to panic. Chakowski had been the paper’s chief political reporter since before Chapa started there fifteen years earlier. The veteran newsman had taken Chapa under his wing and guided him through some difficult times.
What could’ve happened? Chapa wondered. Something terrible? If it had been a heart attack or car accident Sullivan would’ve said so. Concerned for his friend, he tried to think of a way to find out without calling the paper. When he came up dry, Chapa let out a long breath, and phoned his editor.
“It’s awful, Alex. They’re blaming it on a gas leak, maybe some bad electrical wiring, or a combination of the two.”
“How did it happen?”
“Damned if I know. But it was an old house, and it had old wiring and probably even older pipes.” It sounded like Sullivan was making no effort to hide the tension in his voice. “You’re heading back, right? On your way home?”
“That’s right. What was Jim working on?”
Chapa felt himself slipping back into investigative reporter mode. His instincts muscling out everything else.
“The usual, local business news, some politics. I’m sure there was a pet story or two that he was tracking. But Chakowski is like you.”
Chapa noticed Sullivan’s use of present tense --- Chakowski is like you. It would take a while for a lot of folks to get used to the idea that someone as vital as Jim Chakowski was gone, just like that.
“I take that as a compliment, Matt. But like me, how?”
“You both have a habit of telling me what you’re up to on a need-to-know basis. As a result, your editor sometimes doesn’t know much.”
Chapa liked Sullivan. The guy didn’t always hold his own against the brass, but he was one of the good guys and very good at his job.
“Look, Matt, I’d love to help out, I think you know how I feel about Jim, but I don’t know squat about his beat,” Sullivan was trying to sneak in a word or two, but Chapa didn’t let him. “And even if I did, I’ve got other plans for the next several days.”
“I know you do, and I respect that, but it wouldn’t take much time, not really. Jim already had a couple of stories in the pipeline, and I could scale back the number of column inches you’d have to fill.”
Chapa wanted to think about this situation, and told Sullivan that, then signed off before his editor could pitch it to him again. Part of him felt he owed it to Chakowski. Who else could take over? No one. Then there was the issue of job security, or rather the lack of it. Sullivan had been decent enough to avoid bringing that up. But Chapa, like most other newspaper reporters in the twenty-first century, had no guarantee of still having a job next month, or even next week.
Those were the simple realities of working in an outdated industry, and several years of falling revenues and budget cuts had left him vulnerable to the next wave of layoffs. He was well paid and a columnist, both of which made him expendable. Taking over an existing beat could buy Chapa an extra week on the job, and maybe that could lead to an extra month, perhaps longer.
He took his eyes off the road long enough to sneak a glance in the direction of the backseat, and reasoned that doing what his editor was asking would only take him away for three or four hours a day, tops. When Sullivan called back a short while later, Chapa didn’t hesitate.
“I’ll do it, Matt, but I get overtime for the next two weeks.”
“I can do that.”
“And none of this counts as vacation time.”
“A little tougher to pull off, but consider it done.”
“Give me the address.”
“806 Dwight Street, it’s over by --- ”
“I know where it is, I’ve lived in Oakton for a long time. I’ll be there in less than two hours.”
As Chapa put the phone back into a cup holder that was still sticky from a minor coffee spill a week earlier, he heard his traveling companion stirring in the backseat. He took a look in his rearview and saw her eyes open.
“Hi Daddy,” Nikki said in a voice that was still more asleep than awake. “Did I hear my favorite song playing on your cell phone?”
Excerpted from MOURN THE LIVING © Copyright 2011 by Henry Perez. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.