Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chapter 5

Crystal was still sleeping, her breathing ragged and heavy as she tossed on the futon and moaned almost rhythmically. It seemed her craving for the meth was becoming more intense. Eventually she would wake up and go out into the streets, looking for someone to supply what she needed. And, in spite of Billy Simpson murder, she would find that someone.

Did I really want to put in the time and effort necessary to discover what was happening in her life? Did I want to stand between Crystal and whoever hunted her? After all, it wasn’t my job. The cops could handle this—it was what they were trained to do, what they were paid to do. Besides, I had something else to put my time in on, no matter how short that time might be. Something I was committed to.

But one of those who hunted her might be a cop, and Chester had sent her to me. And the .44 would always be there if I needed it.
I glanced at my watch. It was nearly six p.m. I got up, showered and changed into my three-piece suit and fedora, then tucked the .44 into my overcoat pocket.
Frank was at the piano, where I’d found him the night before. He had finished setting out his music and was running a few scales. As soon as he saw me he began Stardust.
I left the bar without ordering a drink and went to the elevator in the lobby. Again panic jolted me as the elevator car took me down into the lower level of the parking garage, and again I fought it and won.

There were more cars than there had been the night before. It was earlier in the evening, and the hotel’s two restaurants were still busy. I wove between the cars, to the same rear corner where Frank and I had met the night before.

A pink Hummer? I thought, leaning against the Hummer 3. That didn’t make sense.
The Hummer’s alarm blared, startling me, and I jumped away. After a few seconds the alarm stopped and I leaned on the black pickup truck beside the pink car.

Frank stepped from the elevator after fewer than two minutes. He, too, zigzagged through the parked cars, pulling a cigarette from his ever-present pack as he made his way to the corner.

He almost leaned against the Hummer, but I pulled him away and he leaned against the pickup beside me. “Alarm,” I said.

“Of course.”

I nodded toward the Hummer. “What the hell’s this all about?”

Frank put the pack back in his inside coat pocket and smiled. “There’s a Mary Kay convention in the hotel. Started today.”

“Their incentives have certainly increased in value.”

“You can say that again.” He lit his cigarette.

“Shouldn’t you have played a set before coming down?”

“It’ll be alright.” He took a long pull on his cigarette, then exhaled the smoke. “I have something for you.”


“I talked to an old partner, Roger Elliot. He’s running Homicide these days, and he said there’ve been three similar crime scenes within the past week and a half.”

“There wasn’t anything in the papers.”

“And there won’t be. That’s not the kind of detail the police want to get out.”

The cops always held out a number of details from the media, just to weed out the inevitable loonies who always confessed to something they didn’t do. And the fact that there was a serial killer loose in Denver would certainly freak the city’s population. The cops didn’t want to start a panic.

“Any idea who the other victims were?”

“None yet. Like Billy, each was stabbed once in the stomach and once in the chest, then their hands and heads were pounded beyond recognition. It does look like they were homeless, though. Their clothing pegged them as such, at any rate."

“Maybe not. Billy wasn’t wearing his usual attire last night.”

“That’s true.”

I let Frank take another pull on his cigarette, then said, “What are the cops doing about it?”

“They’re asking questions around the homeless community. One of the victims had been hanging out on the Sixteenth Street Mall for a few months. Name was Bob—no last name. No one seems to know the other two.”

I nodded.

Frank took another long drag. A cloud of smoke escaped as he spoke. “The cops can’t figure out what was used to do the mutilations. I don’t think it would be smart to tell them what you know just now.”

“No. If the cops get anything....”

“Of course. I’ll keep in touch with them. You keep in touch with me. By the way, Elliot knows you’re looking into the case.”

“How does he know that?”

“I told him.”

“You did what?”

“He doesn’t know who you are, and he doesn’t know about Crystal—just that someone is looking into the killings.”

“What did he say about that?”

“He wasn’t happy. He wants you off it, whoever you are.”

“I’ll bet he does.” I turned toward the elevators. All Elliot needed was a civilian mucking around in his case, maybe even jeopardizing a conviction when they finally made an arrest.

“I agree with him,” Frank called at my back. “These guys are dangerous.”


It was nearly seven-thirty by the time I left the Hilton. I wasn’t sure Chester would still be in his office at Holy Sacrament, but I thought I’d take a chance on finding him there. I caught the shuttle up the mall, then walked the six blocks north-east to the church.

Chester wasn’t in, but his assistant, Father Groff, was in Chester’s office, making an attempt at tidying up. He was totally bald, nearly as tall as I am, and heavy to the point of being obese. His black suit and priest’s collar somehow made him look heavier than he actually was.

“Where’s Chester?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t get in until after lunch. He wasn’t here.” His voice was shaky—he was nervous about something.

“Was he supposed to be in today?”

“Yes, he was. We were supposed to go over the parish books tonight, going to be at it until ten or midnight. I’m starting to get worried.”

“Was he at the rectory last night?”

The priest nodded. “He left early this morning for the church.”

“Did you two talk before he left?”


“And he didn’t say anything about not coming to the church?”


“Have you tried calling him on his cell phone?”

“All day. He hasn’t answered.”

I nodded. “If he comes in, tell him I was by. I’ll call him later. If I can’t reach him, do you have a cell?”

He gave me his number. I took it down on the back of one of the many scraps of paper on Chester’s desk. I stood, folded the scrap and stuffed it into my front trousers pocket, turned toward the door, then turned back around and faced the priest.

“Was the back door unlocked when you came in this afternoon?”

“Yes, it was.”

“That means he was here earlier.”

“That’s right,” Groff said. “I didn’t think of that.”


Rather than make an early night of it, like I knew I should, I decided to visit Schroeder’s, a bar in the Capitol Hill district, less than a mile from the heart of downtown Denver and my apartment. The walk was crisp but pleasant.

The sign outside the door showed Schroeder, from the Peanuts comic strip. He was playing his piano—all in neon.

I had frequented the bar at least two nights each week for the past two years. It was another piano club, but one in which the owner allowed his patrons to sing. Each pianist supplied two thick three-ring binders filled with lyrics. Only a few of the regulars were any good.

I never sang solo. Although I knew I had a good enough voice—everyone told me I did. I was just a bit too self-conscious for that. I’d spent most of my adult life trying to remain as much in the shadows as I could, and old habits are simply too hard to break. At least for me they are.

Still, I was known in Schroeder’s as someone who appreciated good music, and I did participate in the sing-along numbers on a few occasions. And during the past month or so I had actually started to sing out. Each of Schroeder’s five pianists was trying to bring me along.

“John!” the current pianist called out from behind the baby grand as I entered. “Good to see you.”

I nodded. He was short and balding, about fifty years of age, sporting a scraggily beard and mustache, with a good-natured twinkle in his intensely blue eyes. He wore a red satin coat he’d bragged about picking up on sale for only thirty-five dollars less than a month ago at a boutique store downtown. His name was Michael Quinn.

Quinn was accustomed to my not talking much. In fact, everyone in Schroeder’s was. Not only am I an extremely private person, but you never know when some small bit of information you give out might be used against you.

A narrow bar hugged the piano’s contours, and I sat at a stool directly across from Quinn. There was a couple to his right—my left—Rich and Linda. A man in a ball cap and a goatee sat to Quinn’s left. His name was Ken, and he occasionally brought in a violin to play with the pianist. The regulars nodded and smiled, and I nodded in return.

Another man sat two stools to my right, between Ken and me. I’d never seen him before. He was short, with a stocky build, dressed in black slacks and a dark blue polo shirt. He sat on his black winter jacket, his head down, a nearly empty Coors bottle on the bar before him.

The waitress, a dark-haired Greek girl in her early twenties, took my order for a Jack Daniels on the rocks and a Bud Light. She asked the man to my right if he wanted another beer, and he said he didn’t. Then she hurried away.

I glanced up at the large-screen television on the wall to my left. Two NFL teams battled it out. Neither was the Bronco’s, so I ignored the game and again glanced at the man to my right.

“Who you lookin’ at?” he said in a gravelly voice.

I shrugged. “How’s it going?”

“’Till you walked in, it was goin’ just fine?” he said.

I shrugged again, then returned my attention to the television screen. I didn’t know what his problem was, but I didn’t want trouble. Not here. Not tonight.

“You ignorin’ me?” the man asked. When I didn’t respond, he hammered the bar with his fist and snarled, “You hear me?”

I took my attention slowly from the screen, centering my gaze on the man. “I heard you,” I said. “I don’t have a beef with you.” Again I looked to the television.

“Maybe I have a beef with you. You ever think of that?”

Without turning from the screen, I said, “Leave me alone.”

“You want me to leave you alone, do you? I’ll show you how I’m goin’ to leave you alone!”

He got to his feet as I again looked in his direction, and his stool went over behind him. Taking two swift steps toward me, he threw a round-house right directed at my head.

My reflexes took over. I blocked his punch with my right hand without getting off my stool. In nearly the same motion I took his fist in my left hand and squeezed. He grimaced, but didn’t make a sound.

“I’m not sure you want to do this,” I said. “One of us might get hurt.”

“That’s pretty much what I planned,” he said, trying to pull his fist from my hand. It wasn’t going anywhere.

I kept my voice low and even. “It won’t be me who gets hurt.” I released his fist and pushed him in the chest.

He tumbled over his downed stool and fell to the floor. Struggling to get up, he became tangled in the stool. The look on his face told me he meant to try again.

“I wouldn’t,” I said, soft and low.

He stopped struggling with the bar stool, then slowly stood. “You haven’t seen the last of me,” he said, glaring. He strode stiff-legged from the bar. The door slammed behind him.

“What was that all about?” the pianist asked. He’d stopped playing as soon as the confrontation began.

“I don’t know. How long has he been here?”

“Forty, forty-five minutes.”

“Not long enough to get drunk, unless he started somewhere else.”

Quinn shook his head. “He was sober when he walked in, and he nursed that one beer like a newborn the whole time.”

“Do you know him?”

“Said he’s a Denver cop. First name’s Barry, I think. That’s all I know.”

Barry. That was the name Chester had been given at the church by the cop who’d questioned him about Crystal.

“You know his last name?”


“How often does he come in here?”

Quinn shook his head. “This is the first time I’ve seen him. He described you, though, and knew your name. And he was asking questions about you.”

“What kind of questions?”

“He wanted to know how often you come in, and asked if you live around here.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Nothing, really. I said you live somewhere in the area, but I didn’t know where—which I don’t. And I told him you come in a couple nights a week.”

I nodded, then asked Rich and Linda if they had seen him before. They hadn’t. I asked Ken.

“Not in here,” he said. “But I think I might have seen him a couple times in The Charger.” The Charger Lounge was a dive bar three blocks south and two east of Schroeder’s.

I nodded my thanks. It was too late to go to The Charger tonight. Besides, I was over-dressed for that sort of bar. I’d have to check it out in the next day or two.

Here, in Schroeder’s, I would have to come in more than the two nights a week I was accustomed to for a while. Five pianists played through the week. Michael played the early shift, 6:00 to 9:30 p.m., Wednesday and Friday. Paul, a blind man with incredible talent, played the Tuesday early shift, and Marianne the Thursday early shift. The Saturday early shift belonged to Ray, and Patrick played the late shift, from 9:30 to closing, Tuesday through Saturday. Sunday was karaoke night, which drew a younger crowd, and Monday there was no entertainment. I’d have to check with each pianist, the owner and the manager, and any regulars I happened across. I’d also have to come in Sunday to see if the guy took in karaoke, although I doubted that was the case, and Monday, too.

I hung around Schroeder’s another couple hours and caught Patrick as he came on-shift. In the process, I had a few more Jack Daniels, matched with an equal number of beers. I described the guy who’d jumped me to Patrick, but he couldn’t remember seeing him.


On my way home I stop at a pay phone on the mall and called the cell number Father Groff had given me. He answered after two rings.

“Have you heard from Chester yet?” I blew into my hands as I cradled the receiver between my shoulder and my ear. The wind was hard and cutting, adding a great deal to the chill factor.

“No,” Groff said, “I haven’t. And I’m getting worried.”

“Did you try his cell phone again?”

“I have, several times. Still nothing.”

I was silent for a few seconds, then said, “I’m going home. I’ll check back in the morning.”


I went through the knocking ritual twice with no response before I used my key. The door was locked, but the deadbolt wasn’t. Crystal wasn’t in the apartment. There was no sign of violence.

Probably out getting a fix, I thought. She’d looked pretty ragged the last time I saw her.
I wondered how Crystal would pay for her fix-up. I checked the money in the coffee can on the high shelf at the back of the closet—the insurance settlement from Sylvia’s death, several thousand from our joint account, and the little I made from watching the liquor store upstairs. Slightly more than a quarter of a million dollars in both small and large bills. It hadn’t been touched.

I placed the handgun beside it.

After a shower, I sat in the easy chair in my red plaid bathrobe. For just a few minutes, I told myself.

“How are you feeling?” Angel said from across the room.

“I don’t know. Mostly confused, I guess.”

“Confused about what, John?”

“About everything. About Crystal, and Billy Simpson, and Chester. But I think mostly about....” I paused, unable to say it.

Angel, however, could say it, and did. “About you wanting to commit suicide? About whether or not you should go ahead with your plans to kill yourself?”

I glanced toward the closet. Then I looked into the corner at the far side of the room. The rat’s eyes again glowed red out of the darkness.

“Yes, that’s right,” I finally said, “about my suicide.”

“Well, John, maybe it isn’t yet time for such an irreversible act. Maybe you still have too much left to do before you check out.

“Maybe,” I said. But I doubted it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Chapter 4

I felt myself being drawn into Crystal’s problem, like water circling a drain. I didn’t want to become involved, but I knew I might not have a choice.

 “The cop knew Crystal’s name?” I asked.

Chester shook his head. “He didn’t seem to, but he gave an accurate description. And he said he saw her come in here last night.”

“Did you know him?”

“I didn’t.”

Chester knew all the cops from his police district, I knew that for a fact. That meant the cop was either from another district, or he was new to this one. Or, perhaps, he wasn’t a cop at all.

“Did you ask for ID?”

“No, I didn’t think to. Darn!”

“Don’t worry about it. If he wasn’t a cop, he probably had a fake ID that would pass inspection. Did he give a name?”

The priest nodded. “Barry... something.”

“Barry what?”

He looked away, then back. “I can’t remember. What do we do now?”

“I have a friend with contacts in DPD looking into similar murders.”

“And Crystal?”

“If they’re looking for her, I guess she couldn’t be much safer than with me, for now. Particularly if there’s a cop involved. Still, I’d like to eventually get her situated somewhere else—maybe out of town.”

“She said she doesn’t have anyone,” Chester said.

“She told me the same thing.”

“Maybe I can find somewhere for her. I know a number of pastors out of Denver who might be able to set something up. At least for a while.”

“That would be good. What can you tell me about her?”

“Just that she comes in for the lunch about half the time. I tried to get her into a drug rehab program in October, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with it. And I gave her a coat and gloves a couple days ago.”

“She didn’t have either last night when she came to my door.”

“She had them when I saw her. Probably sold them for drug money between here and your place.”

I nodded. “By the way, what’s her last name?”

“I don’t know. She never would tell me.”

“Is Crystal even her first name?”

Chester shrugged. After a few seconds, he said, “I guess you’ll be around for the holidays.”

“I guess so.”

“Can I count on you to help with Christmas dinner again this year?”

 “I’ll be there, unless something comes up.” Each year on Christmas, Chester served turkey and all that goes with it to two thousand of Denver’s less fortunate. He provided toys for the kids, and soap and other toiletries for the adults. The past two years I’d helped out on the serving line.

“Good. Is there anything else, John?”

I got to my feet. “No, I don’t think so.” Then I said, “Yes, there is something. I passed a guy in the hall coming out of Father Groff’s office.”

Chester gave me a blank stare.

“Tall, large, light gray suit, curly white hair and beard.”

“That would be Senator Arnold Hogan. He’s donating three hundred high-end ski parkas to the church for distribution to the poor, everything from small children to large adult—just in time for Christmas.”

It made sense that Groff would talk to the senator about his donation. The assistant pastor handled the money side of the parish business, while Chester did the hands-on, people stuff. Groff would take possession of the coats, making sure they were inventoried and properly written off. Later, Chester would hand them out to those who needed them.

“That’s a fine gesture,” I said. 

“It is. But there’s a stipulation on his donation. Several groups of people can’t receive them. Certain undesirables.”


“He doesn’t want the parkas going to gays or drug addicts.”

I nodded.

As I went through the church I wondered if Crystal would receive one of those high-end coats. I doubted it.

I put a couple dollars in the poor box on my way out.


I’d heard Crystal tossing and moaning the night before. I knew she needed sleep, so rather than go home immediately from the church, I stopped at a Starbucks on the Sixteenth Street Mall and had a large latte while watching the crowd build as lunch hour began and the offices around the mall emptied.

It was shaping up to be a fine day. Although it wasn’t particularly warm, the sun was out and shining brightly, and the snow from the storm the night before had nearly melted away. I’d read somewhere that Denver was blessed with more than three hundred sunny days in the average year. The sun somehow made everything tolerable.

It was too early to contact Frank Nelson. Besides, I don’t own a phone—cell or landline. Of course, I knew his number and I could use a pay phone along the mall, but I didn’t want to do that this early. He needed time to meet with his contacts in the Denver Police Department, and I knew I’d see him tonight, at the hotel bar, as I had the night before.

I left the coffee shop as it began to fill with office workers looking for lunch. There was a new sandwich shop two blocks east and one north that the office workers didn’t seem to know about yet. The crowd there would be lighter, and they made a great turkey on sourdough with avocado. I ordered a sandwich and a cup of water.

I sat gnawing on the sandwich, thinking about what Chester had said this morning. Although I didn’t want to admit it, he was probably right. I undoubtedly did need help getting past all I had faced in the three years since returning home from Afghanistan. What happened there that last op had scarred me—not just physically, but also mentally. And then, what I learned when I returned to the States, about my wife and our unborn daughter....

I’d started group therapy for PTSD at the veterans’ hospital when I first got back to the States, to get over my anger and gain at least some control of my violence addiction, but I left the group less than a month into the sessions. My thoughts were still in Afghanistan back then, as they were now, only to a greater extent. I was still too close to the bloodshed and the fear, and I couldn’t wrap my head around what waited for me at home. The last thing I’d wanted to do was talk about those things with a room full of strangers.

So I internalized it all, brooding on it. And my addiction to violence grew like a fungus in my mind.
At the same time, I came to realize I was not fit for any sort of civilian job. The SEALs had taught me how to move stealthily and how to kill proficiently, but not how to bake bread or manufacture car parts. And in my present state of mind no one would hire me and train me to do those kinds of things. I was out of place in the civilian world. I didn’t know how to act or re-act, and it was only a matter of time before I hurt someone.

I knew I should return to therapy, but there was something approaching punishment in my decision to again refuse Chester’s offer of counseling. Living with the horror and guilt was part of my atonement for what I had done.

But I could do nothing about all that now. Afghanistan was a world away, although in my nightmares it was closer than my skin. The cops had no leads on what happened to Sylvia, beyond the suspicion that it was some sort of gang initiation, and there was no way I could chase leads down on my own. I had to depend on Frank Nelson and what information he might be able to gather from the San Diego Police Department, through his contacts in the Denver PD.

Those thoughts chased themselves around in my mind with no hope of resolution. Before I knew it, it was three in the afternoon. I went home to check on Crystal.


As I had thought she would be, she was still in bed. Again, she was sleeping restlessly, but at least she was sleeping.

I put the .44 in the closet, on the high shelf. I wanted it there in case I needed it—not just to take care of anyone who might come looking for Crystal, but also in case I needed it for myself, for my unfinished business. I didn’t think I would take my life now, without deciding what, if anything, I’d do about Crystal’s problem. But I wanted the weapon close at hand, for either option.

While in the closet, I made sure my funds were intact. The coffee can bank hadn’t been touched.

Careful not to bump the futon, I went to Angel’s cage on the shelf beyond where Crystal slept. The rat was in her igloo-shaped plastic house. I took some pellets from the bag on the floor and placed them in the rat’s food bowl, then took three or four sunflower seeds from a smaller bag and put them on top.

Angel came out as I turned away. I turned back and rubbed her cheek through the wire bars.

“How is it going, John?” she asked.

“Better than last night, I guess.”

“Then you won’t be doing what you’d planned last night?”

“Not right away.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” the rat said. “I’d miss these conversations.”

“I’ll bet you would.”

I went back to the other side of the room and collapsed onto the chair. I was tired—too damned tired. The nightmare had been with me again last night, just as it had been nearly every time I tried to sleep since I’d returned to the States. I had again been in the rugged mountains of northern Afghanistan, battling enemy forces. My SEAL team was far behind enemy lines.


The night was cold and moonless as I led my SEAL team through the forest’s dense underbrush on a mountainside in the Zhawar Kili area of Afghanistan. 

 I walked point. As a lieutenant I was in charge, and couldn’t expect one of my men to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself. My primary weapon was an M4A1 carbine, tricked out with an AN/PVS 14 night vision sight. My secondary weapon, in a special holster on my hip, was an MK23, a .45 caliber pistol. Not only did the handgun possess excellent knock-down power, but it was fitted with a KAC sound suppressor, in case silence was needed. 

Directly behind me came a tall red-haired young man from New Orleans, Rubin Shavers, an expert in most marshal arts, who had at one time tried out for the Olympics. His M4A1 was fitted with a Trijicon Reflex sight, allowing rapid acquisition on close targets. His handgun was a nine millimeter M11 Sig Sauer.

Third in line was the team’s radioman, Warren Oldfield, thin and prematurely bald. He wore night vision goggles and carried two sets of communications equipment—an extra in case the primary was disabled. He also carried an un-modified M4A1, and a M11. He was from New York City.

The last man in line was Emory Hawley, a large raw-boned black man from Detroit. He was our M60 gunner, carrying the MK43 Mod 0 variant and its belt-fed ammunition. His handgun was also a M11. 

All three were enlisted men.

My SEAL team made its way silently toward the caves spotted only hours before near the top of the mountain by an unmanned Predator aircraft. Intelligence had indicated that tonight one of those caves would host a meeting of high ranking Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives.

Our objective: to capture as many of those operatives as possible for eventual interrogation.

I knew we would never get them all. There would simply be too many, and those we could not take we must kill. Still, I had hopes we would bring at least a few of the enemy in for questioning. My team was one of the SEALs’ finest. We were trained to a sharp edge of perfection.

But in order to bring the operation off successfully, we would have to be at the cave within half an hour—without being spotted. And there was sudden movement on the trail ahead.

Cautiously, silently, I advanced my team toward the movement on the trail. The lack of a moon made it impossible to tell who was there, even with our night-vision capability. But that also worked in our favor, hiding us from the enemy.

I knew for certain that it wasn’t animals ahead—I could hear soft voices, although I couldn’t understand what was being said. The voices were speaking in one of the many native dialects.

In only a few minutes we were near enough to see that we were faced with an Afghan villager, his wife, and their infant child sleeping in its mother’s arms, coming down the trail toward us. This was not good, particularly since another group, somewhat louder, was coming down the trail nearly fifty yards behind the villagers. That would be the operatives we were hunting.

The look of shock on the Afghan villager and his wife’s faces said it all. They knew they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I gave them a thumb-up gesture, one known as a sign of friendliness to the Afghan villagers, then motioned for the man to raise his tunic to show he wasn’t hiding a weapon. The man did that and I motioned him and his wife off the trail, into the dense brush.

We crouched there beside the trail, listening—SEAL team, villager, wife and infant—as the enemy approached. The enemy was talking loudly and laughing. I put a finger to my lips, making sure the villager and his family remained silent. Everything depended on maintaining the element of surprise.

Suddenly, the infant became restless. It wasn’t crying—not yet. But it was obvious it soon would be.

I took the infant from its mother’s arms, held it gently and placed my large hand over its nose and mouth. Soon, it was quiet. I handed the infant back to its mother.

We closed on the enemy and the fighting was bloody and fierce. They would not give up without considerable resistance.

The battle quickly became hand-to-hand, and one of the enemy slashed my face. A blaze of excitement flared in my mind filling me with blind rage. I fought like a wild animal, allowing no quarter. Had any of the enemy wished to surrender, they would not have been able to. I saw to that.

No prisoners were taken for interrogation that night.

And it wasn’t until after the firefight that I realized the infant was dead.

When I woke I knew that I had fallen asleep and relived the nightmare of my final op. And then the memory of what I had faced when I returned to the United States filled my thoughts.

My wife had been raped and brutally murdered, and our unborn child had died in her womb. I hadn’t been there to stop it, and the killers had never been caught.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chapter 3

The next morning we sat on the two stools on either side of the breakfast bar and talked over mugs of steaming coffee, after bowls of cold cereal in non-fat milk. The coffee was real, brewed—not the decaffeinated instant we’d had the night before. It was a special blackberry blend sent two years ago by my nephew, Tyler, in Seattle. I’d never had reason to brew a pot until now. Mine had a shot of Jack Daniels in it.

Crystal looked as ragged as I felt. She hadn’t had a fix in at least a day, maybe longer. Her fix up had been interrupted by Billy’s murder. Her hair stood out in all directions and appeared considerably dirtier than the night before. Her eyes were more shadowed, her hands shook on the counter before her, and she slapped at something invisible crawling on her legs and arms. I knew she hadn’t slept last night. I’d heard her moaning and tossing on the futon.

I hadn’t slept well either. But then, I seldom did since returning from Afghanistan. And when she went to the bathroom at about four in the morning, I checked my coffee can bank in the closet. It hadn’t been touched.

“I had a horrible nightmare last night,” Crystal said after taking a tentative sip of steaming coffee. “I dreamed the short man smashed Billy’s head with the sledgehammer.”

“That wasn’t a dream. It was a memory.”

“You mean it really happened?”

“That’s right.”

“Why didn’t I remember it last night?”

“Your mind was trying to hide something that scared the hell out of you.”

Again we fell silent.

“Where are you from?” I finally asked, wrapping my hands around my mug to warm them. I used electric space heaters in the apartment during the winter months, and by morning there was usually a chill in the air.

Crystal shivered, then warmed her shaking hands on her own mug. “From here, for the past four years.”

“I mean before that. Your accent sounds southern.”

She nodded. “Georgia. Atlanta, Georgia.”

“And what brought you to Denver?”

“Work. I was doing television—the weather for a network affiliate.” That explained her precise speech pattern. “I was offered better pay to come out here.”

“What happened?”

She paused, then shrugged and said, “I guess I fell in with the wrong crowd. One thing led to another, and I started using drugs. I got hooked, lost my job and eventually burned through my savings. I’ve been on the street now for the past two years.”

Her story was an all too common one that could have just as easily applied to me, had I not got at least some control over my life. In spite of the ravages of meth and two years on the street, she did look like she could have been on television at one time. Her face had the underlying bone structure that belonged in entertainment. And let’s face it, television weather is about half entertainment. If the weather person isn’t an intelligent wise-cracking male, she’s air-headed eye candy. The weather is the only place on the evening news where the networks and their affiliates can inject a bit of not-so-subtle sex.

But as soon as word gets out that the weather girl is married, she loses her appeal and is replaced. 

And, if she starts using drugs, and it begins to show....

“Do you have family in Georgia?”

She looked down into her coffee and shook her head. “No one who would claim me.”

“No one, anywhere, who might help you, who might put you up for a while?”

Without looking up, she said, “No one, except for Father Albright.” She finally looked up. “And he sent me to you.”

“So he did.” I’d have to talk to him about that. “I’ll go see him this morning, see if he has any options for a place for you to stay.”

But if the killers saw her last night, I thought, maybe it’s best she stay here, with me. That was probably what Chester had been thinking when he sent her to my apartment. I just wasn’t sure it would work out. I had other plans for my life—or lack thereof.

I finished my coffee, then did the breakfast dishes and re-enforced the door-opening instructions with Crystal. When I was sure she understood the security precautions I tucked the .44 beneath my jacket at the small of my back. I didn’t usually carry a weapon around town, but I couldn’t see leaving the pistol in the apartment with someone strung out on meth. And if she went looking for the gun, she might stumble across my coffee can bank.


The weather was crisp and clear. If it weren’t for the eight inch blanket of snow on the ground, it would have been hard to believe there had been a blizzard the night before. But that’s Denver. One day a blizzard and the next near spring weather.

Chester’s church, Holy Sacrament, crouched in the shadows of a glass and steel skyscraper in lower downtown Denver. The church had deeded the property to a developer fifteen years ago, with the understanding that the church could remain on the property as long as the building stood—the skyscraper, not the church. The modern office building wrapped itself around the Gothic architecture of the church as if protecting the older building from all elements of the modern world.

I climbed the worn marble steps to the massive wood and brass doors. Pulling them open, I slipped into the relative darkness inside.

My eyes adjusted quickly as I stood at the back of the church. Then I made my way up the central aisle toward the large ornate altar, my steps echoing in the empty church. I went to the left, around the altar, stepping through a nondescript doorway that led to a series of small rooms. I went past the choir director’s office/music room and on toward the assistant pastor’s office.

As I approached, a large man in a light gray suit, sporting long, curly, brilliantly white hair and a neatly trimmed white mustache and goatee, opened the door and stepped from the assistant pastor’s office. He seemed to be a very fit fifty-five or sixty years old.

“Thank you, Senator!” came Father Andrew Groff’s voice from his office as the white haired man passed me in the hallway without a word, not even acknowledging my presence. He went out into the church.

I continued on down the hall. The sign on the door where I stopped read: Father Chester Albright, Pastor. I rapped lightly on the frame.

“Come in,” came Chester’s pleasant tenor voice.

I opened the door and stepped inside. He sat behind his desk, doing the inevitable paperwork. Papers and books were stacked in every corner and on the straight-backed chair before the desk.

“Welcome, John,” he said, getting to his feet. He was dark haired with gray at the temples, of medium build and five-feet-nine. “I thought I’d see you today.” He offered his hand.

I shook it across the desk. “Chester.”

“What happened to your teeth?” he asked.

“You didn’t know what you were doing, but you saved my life last night.”

The priest frowned and sat back down behind his desk. “It’s become that bad?” He motioned for me to clear the papers off the chair and sit. I put the papers on the floor.

“It has,” I said and sat.

“You have to get beyond your loss, John. And you have to get over what happened in Afghanistan.”

I nodded. “Both of those things are a huge part of it, but not all of it.”

“There’s something more?” I nodded. “What is it?”

I waited a few seconds, then said, “It’s the loss of everything I possessed in Afghanistan, everything I could lay claim to as a Navy SEAL. I feel myself getting weaker by the day. Every minute I’m away from the SEALs, away from special ops, I’m losing a bit more of the only thing I could ever do well. It’s all I’ve ever known, all I’ve ever been. Without it, my life has become useless and hollow.”

“There’s nothing you can do about that, John. You know there isn’t.”

Chester was right, of course. He was the only person I had ever told about how I left the military. It hadn’t been a voluntary separation. I’d been released from the Navy SEALs because of what had happened during my final op in Afghanistan, because of what I had done to the enemy. And it wasn’t the first time something like that had happened under my command.

“And your anger management issues?” the priest asked, as if reading my mind.

“It goes far beyond anger management. Let’s face it—I’m addicted to violence.”

The priest nodded. “Are your urges lessening?”

I shook my head. My addiction to violence was as strong as it had ever been. The excitement I’d felt the night before at seeing Billy Simpson’s mutilated body, the two men on the mall shuttle, and the old man outside the hotel had made that abundantly clear.

Chester frowned. “Are you considering what I think you’re considering?”

“That depends on what you think I’m considering.”

“Suicide.” I didn’t respond. “You know that’s a sin.”

“Not for an atheist, it isn’t,” I said.

“Yes, it is. An atheist just doesn’t know it’s a sin.”

I grunted noncommittally. I’m not absolutely sure I’m an atheist—more an agnostic leaning toward atheism. But I’ve found it easier to simply tell everyone I’m an atheist, and let it go at that. And I hope with all my heart there isn’t a god. If there somehow is one, I know that at my death I will be shuffled off to the darkest and hottest corner of hell. If there is such a place.

“You aren’t going to do it right away, are you?”

“No, not right away. First I want to figure out if I’m going to get involved with Crystal’s problem, or not.”

“God provides,” Chester said. After a pause, he continued, “I’m going to ask you one last time, and then I’ll never bring it up again. Will you let me arrange for counseling? You need help, John.”

“I don’t need help,” I said.

“I think you do. Killing comes at a high psychological price.”

“Not for me, it doesn’t.”

“It does for you, too. You just don’t know it yet.”

I shrugged. “At any rate, I don’t need counseling right now. Crystal’s problem will see me through for a while—if I decide to help her.”

“Then there’s actually a chance you won’t?”

“A good chance. I’m not sure I want to become involved. And I don’t know why you sent her to me. You know it isn’t the right time for this—for her. The holidays, and again no Sylvia.”

“I thought you might do her some good. If nothing else, you could protect her. And it sounds like it would certainly do you some good as well, if only to postpone matters.”

Again, I didn’t respond. After a couple seconds, the priest continued, “She told you what she saw?”

“She did. I took a look for myself.”

“What did you find?”

I told him, and he went pale.

“Pretty grim stuff,” he said.

“You can say that again. But I guess as long as they didn’t get a good look at her, Crystal will be all right.”

“I don’t know,” Chester said, shaking his head. “There was a cop in here this morning, asking about her.” 

Damn, I thought, it can never be that simple.