Copyright 2020, Mark Edward Jones
Reluctant to continue a conversation, I stared while Manny took the woman’s dirty glass and pitched a wet napkin in the trash.
He stood straight, then tilted his head. “Something else, detective?”
I hesitated, but said, “I’m a little confused by her story.”
His eyes offered nothing but a vacant gaze. He placed his palms on the damp copper bar and leaned toward me, so close I could see his longest mustache hairs twitch with his breath.
“Angela did not tell you everything. Her husband’s death was no accident. Someone murdered and dismembered him in Prague after tracking a killer he thought had crossed the Atlantic. His murder became another of the unsolved deaths. He thought he was on to something … something big.” Manny shoved an index finger on my chest and sneered. “Pay attention, new detective. Angie Marconi knows her business. Learn from her if you dare … and watch your smartass mouth.” He scowled, then turned back to the sinks, filled again with unwashed mugs.
Burned popcorn kernels and brown peanut skins hid the bottom of the wicker basket in front of me. I rotated on the barstool, surprised by the score of standing customers huddled in clusters, many staring at the vacant seat next to me. A young woman burst through the door, glanced around the room, then hurried toward me, bouncing onto the empty barstool while the other patrons dithered. She brought a breeze of flowery perfume, a fragrance my grandmother might wear.
We exchanged small talk over the noise. The charming two-story building had been both horse stables and a warehouse in its past, its brick walls generating echoes from dozens of conversations. She bought me a second beer, this time served by a younger male bartender while Manny washed and dried the never-ending stack of mugs and glasses.
Nika wore an expensive-looking blue dress, and a BMW emblem dangled from her designer purse–no wedding ring, but a classy watch hung loosely around her left wrist. She worked for the State Department, not unusual in Alexandria, where hundreds of men and women worked for the government or other influencers. A petite brunette with big brown eyes, she gave a slight giggle at the end of every sentence.
“So, Henry Pierce, I’ve gone on and on about me. Your turn for the where and what.”
“The what? Oh … I grew up near Blacksburg. After I graduated, I moved closer to the district and worked as a patrolman at Mount Vernon. Now I’m a detective here in Alexandria.”
“How exciting.” She giggled, then munched on the cherry from her whiskey sour. “I bet it’s fascinating work. Say, I have a neighbor that needs a detective. Could I have your card?”
I opened my wallet and offered one of my new business cards. “I work for the city’s homicide division.”
“So, you couldn’t help my neighbor?”
“Only if it’s connected to a crime investigated by the city police. I’m restricted to those cases.”
She dropped my business card into her purse. “What’s the ‘I’ for?” she asked.
“It’s noisy in here, isn’t it?” She patted my arm, then left her cold hand on mine. “I said, what’s the ‘I’ for?”
“Your name. The business card says, Henry I. Pierce.”
I raised an eyebrow. “It’s the initial for my middle name.”
Her shoulders slumped. “No kidding? What’s your middle name? Gawd.”
“‘I’ is for Ike?”
“Yes, my grandmother liked Eisenhower.”
“Eisenhower. The general. President Eisenhower, for God’s sake.”
She rolled her eyes. “So, where does Ike come from?”
“His nickname was Ike, and my family still calls me that.”
“Your name is Henry Ike Pierce?” She giggled again and grabbed my hand between hers. “Don’t be so sensitive. My middle initial is ‘I’ for Irina—that’s why I asked. My father was from Slovenia … Slovakia … one of those.”
“But when you introduced yourself, you said your last name is Campbell.”
“My mother chose it. She was a Kovać, a Keurig … crap, I can’t remember that either, or she changed it after my father left. She called him an izdajalec … a traitor.”
“That’s all I know.” She looked away and sipped her drink, now mostly ice.
The day had been exhausting, and my early evening now included murders in Prague and giggling Slovenians. “Nika, I’m scheduled to see my boss first thing in the morning to review a case. It’s been nice to meet you.”
She gave an exaggerated wink. “Okay, Mister Detective, go solve a crime. The city needs your help from what I’ve heard. Here’s my number.” Dating someone new wasn’t something I wanted while starting a new job, but I took her business card anyway.
“Have a good evening,” I said, trying to hurry toward the door.
Manny hovered near the entrance, wiping a table while watching me wade through the sea of people. He grinned and opened the frosty door. “My, my, Henry Ike Pierce. It seems you have stepped into several piles of it today.”
“Yeah, thanks for the … great evening.” The door smacked my right heel on the way out.
I ducked under the dripping canvas of a green awning hanging too low over the front door. The only lights reflecting on the wet sidewalk were strings of low-wattage bulbs clipped to the trees lining Duke Street. Parked next to the front door, a sullen man sat behind the steering wheel of a white BMW 7 Series. He stared as I struggled to slide between its bumper and a Mercedes parked ahead of him. I jaywalked across the slick cobblestone street and used both hands to clear my Toyota’s slushy windshield.
The door at Manny’s opened again. Nika’s smile gone and her phone smashed against an ear, she slid into the back seat of the BMW. The glum driver maneuvered out of the tight parking spot, the engine growled, and the car slipped away through a curtain of snow.
The brown Chevrolet sat alone in the parking lot near the front entrance of the orange-bricked library, its colonnaded portico reminding me of Jefferson’s home at Monticello. The parking lot’s bright white lights cast a glow on a copse of leafless birch trees surrounding the lot. Yellow police tape stretched around and between three poles.
Two patrol cars and an EMT unit sat nearby, their flashing red and blue lights reflecting against the library’s windows. A policeman waved at Eddie and directed us to park next to the ambulance. The Ford’s brakes squealed as we rolled to a stop.
Marconi threw open her door. “Update, guys,” she said, ducking under the tape, then marching closer to the Chevy.
Eddie and I hurried to follow, the bitter night wind whipping around us. We stood a few feet from the driver’s door with its shattered window. “That’s Dick’s car for sure,” Eddie said. “Who’s the primary here?”
The female officer nodded toward Eddie and me, then addressed our boss. “I’m Officer Krista Jimenez. This is Officer Stewart and Officer Miller. I was on normal patrol when I noticed this Chevrolet with its lights on, but I couldn’t see anyone in the driver’s seat. I drove into the lot and investigated this idling car. The driver’s window had been shattered inward, and I saw a body slumped to the right into the passenger seat. I called for backup and an ambulance.”
Jimenez hesitated, waiting for a reaction. Marconi said nothing while Eddie fidgeted with his holster. “I found a significant blood pool from an obvious wound to the victim’s head. I leaned in and checked for a pulse in his arm. The EMT unit arrived and confirmed he was deceased.”
Marconi cupped a hand over her mouth and shut her eyes. She grabbed Eddie’s right arm and pulled him toward her. “Come on.” They approached the car with me following. Marconi peered through the smashed window. “Oh, God. His family.”
Eddie moved back, leaning against a light pole while Marconi pulled out her phone and stepped away. I glanced into the car. Dick had fallen to his right, blood covering the seats with spatter spread across the passenger window.
“What the hell, Eddie?” I asked. “He was supposed to be driving by my apartment.”
Eddie wiped his face. “Yeah … this isn’t a random shooting.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve done this for almost forty years, my friend. That’s how I know.”
Marconi grabbed Eddie’s shoulder, clutching her phone in a fist in her other hand. “I called Commissioner Bates. He’ll follow protocol and contact Dick’s wife for body I.D. God, Eddie, you never know in this line of work.”
“Something’s not right with this,” he said.
She swiped at her bangs, then sighed. “Yeah … why was Dick parked at the library at eleven o’clock?”
A monk appeared through an obscure side door, next to the massive brass organ pipes looming over the altar. His head covered by a cowl, he moved to an exit behind the organ player’s bench seat, pulled a key from his brown robe, and pushed it into the tarnished metal lock. He turned the key, and the ancient door released from the wall. After giving a wave to Marconi, she motioned us to follow.
I ducked under the doorway, so low that even Eddie had to stoop under the organ pipes. Echoes rebounded after he let the door slam behind us.
The bright chapel transformed into a dark corridor dripping in moisture and gloom. It smelled of mold with a catacomb of rooms hidden behind ancient dark doors. Lightbulbs had replaced torches in the holders lining the passageway.
“This is the old monastery,” Marconi whispered to me.
“I guessed that,” I said. “Where are we going, and why are we whispering?”
“I can’t help it.”
“I’m hungry, Jesus,” Eddie yelled, spawning more echoes. “And my feet hurt.”
Marconi gave a pretend kick. “Shut up, Eddie.”
“So, where are we going?” he asked.
“I said, I don’t know.” She pointed at our guide. “He’s leading the way.”
The monk halted near the end of the hall and raised his right hand, his sleeve dropping down his hairy arm. Dim light glittered against a gold pinky ring. Reaching to his right, he struggled to pull the door open with one hand, then used both, and the door’s hinges groaned from movement. The monk disappeared into a chamber.
“Well?” I asked. I tried to see through the cracks in the door’s shiplap slats. It opened again, a stubborn groan echoing through the corridor.
A hand motioned to us. We stepped inside and stood against a cracked plaster wall. The tiny cell had a square window fitting snug against the ceiling—one hanging bulb provided the other light. Furniture was sparse, a half-folded blanket covered a canvas cot shoved below an empty shelf. A blue porcelain washbasin sat on top of a rickety square table, and above it, someone had taken down a Christian cross, its outline a bright white on the dingy wall. The monk pulled back his hood.
“Rijad?” Eddie asked. “What the hell?”
“Yes, Eddie. Good morning, Director Marconi … Sergeant Pierce. My official Vienna welcome, I suppose.” He had shaved his beard, leaving only the thick black mustache.
“It beats dark rooms in museums,” I said.
“Yes, it does. My supposed superior made a show of tracking you down at the museum. I must be careful as I’m not convinced of his alliance.” He eased down onto a three-legged stool.
“Thank you for meeting us, Rijad. None of this would be possible without your help,” Marconi said while smoothing her bangs.
“Hey, Rijad,” Eddie said, “I have a simple request.”
“I want to know what the hell is going on, that’s what.”
“Eddie,” Marconi said, “come on.”
Eddie shrugged. “Two-thirds of my career has been about Jack and his murder, blah, blah, etcetera. Sorry, Angie, but it’s time to fish or cut bait as my daddy would say.”
“Let’s see what Rijad has to say.”
“Please listen to Angela,” Kastrati said. “I’m here to help.”
Eddie nodded, then winked at me.
“Let me catch everyone up. Please sit, maybe on the cot.”
Eddie and I took a seat on the cot that seemed from the Napoleonic Wars, a heavy smell of mold and body odor wafting upward when we sat. “Okay. Go on,” Eddie said. The canvas bed sagged in the middle, causing us to lean toward one another.
“Eddie, I’ve abused the trappings of this church to hide my business, and I apologize for that.”
“A rationalization,” I said.
He shot me a glare much as he did the first time we met in his coffee shop. “Let me finish, young man. It is a place few would think to search for me.” He smoothed his mustache. “As Angela should have told you, I am not who I seem.”
We crossed over from well-kept grounds to a world of twisted tree branches covered by dormant strands of ivy. The last season’s leaves scattered into dead piles of rotting vegetation, emitting a heavy smell of mold. This was a place of dead silence, with a landscape of grays and browns, disturbed only by intermittent piles of dirty red bricks.
My breath spewed small circles of vapor. “This must have been what Alice felt like when she stepped through the looking glass.” The stillness even seemed muffled—the wet forest floor masked the noise of our steps like walking on a soft carpet.
“Damn, Ike, your grandma may be right about bad juju.”
“I can hear myself breathing.
“What happened to the traffic noise?”
“Growth is too thick, I guess.”
“I wonder how many people died here?” Eddie asked before holding a finger to his lips. He pointed to his left at a depression running down the hill underneath the canopy of gangly birch limbs. A finger of fog floated through the sunken trail down to the river. Eddie squatted and considered his discovery. “Come here.”
I leaned over and followed his pointing finger. “A path?”
“Seems so. More bricks about thirty yards down.” We worked our way toward what had been a trail to somewhere. A massive natural stone wall came into view. Eddie walked next to it and stared at its top. “Hmm … look at this. They carved a wall right out of this granite hill. Thirty feet tall, I bet … twenty yards wide.” Eddie eyed the rock, then rubbed his fingers on the gray monolith. “Yeah. That’s what I thought.”
“See these indentations and chipped spots?” he asked.
“Yeah, they’re everywhere.”
“Bullets … or where bullets struck. Some holes are deeper than others.”
I rubbed my hand across the rough stone. “God. They lined up people here for executions, and who knows what else.”
“Yeah, I’m almost certain. You see these darker areas that go from the ground to a few feet up?”
“Old blood. They would get shot, and the bodies slid down … Ike, this is an awful place. We need to take care of business and get out of here.”
Vojacek mashed his coffee cup into his picked-over food. “I’m aware of many mysteries in life, Mr. Žăk, but this should not be one. The Kurić organization is precise with its instructions. Mr. Žích will give the yellow and red backpacks to Mr. Stranksy—he will check them and then return to our table. Mr. Stranksy? Please proceed.”
Stranksy leaned toward me, pulled the backpacks off the ground before I reacted, and disappeared into the restaurant. “Where is he going?” I asked.
Vojacek frowned again and then turned his attention back to Žăk. He leaned so far forward his face hung over the umbrella hole in the table’s middle. “Listen to me, … both of you. I am not stupid, and my colleagues are not fools. The Macedonian proved himself dependable and kept his mouth shut. He took care of many things for us … always. He understood that errors are not tolerated and dealt with in a way that becomes uncomfortable to mistake-prone individuals.”
Žăk’s face grew crimson, a lighter pink creeping up through his near-shaved scalp. He remained quiet, gathering his words. “Your warnings are unneeded, Mr. Vojacek. We will continue the Macedonian’s standards.”
Copyright 2017-2020 by Mark Edward Jones, Edmond, Oklahoma 73034.
All rights reserved.