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A Study in Revengeby Kieran Shields
[ Chapter 1 ]
There was something strange about the stone, but Frank Cosgrove liked the feel of it. He’d first held it less than an hour ago. Since then it had remained hidden safely inside a cloth sack stuffed into a deep pocket of his coat. In the time it took him to make his winding, moonlit journey across Portland, Maine’s maze of angled streets, he’d already formed the habit of running his fingertips over it. A handful of etched symbols marred a surface polished as smooth as glass. Even though the carvings proved otherwise, some corner of his brain was tempted to believe the impossible notion that the stone had never been worked by human hands. The stone had a calming effect; it took his mind off the dull ache that was working its way up his leg.
Still, Cosgrove would never think of paying good money for it, not even a tenth of the amount he was getting paid to steal it. That was the beauty of this type of thing, a one-off piece. Cash was cash, never more than a flat deal. But something like this stone, there was always someone with enough taste to pay a lot for it. They called it taste, but Frank knew that was just another word for a guy with one of two problems: Either he suspects he’s got too much money on his hands or he’s got a woman who wants him to prove it.
He turned right onto Walnut Street and stared at his pocketwatch in the moonlight. Five minutes to three; he was right on time. The uphill walk was starting to take its toll, and part of him regretted his selection of a meeting place, but the end was in sight. Another block ahead, just past the intersection with North Street, he saw the steep earthen embankment of the Munjoy Hill Reservoir. The massive four-acre structure marked a sort of outpost at the edge of the working-class neighborhood. The land to the north and east was about the last open, undeveloped space on the Neck, the peninsula that made up almost the entire city. Besides being a quiet area where he was unlikely to be noticed this late, the reservoir had the added virtue of being a perfect dumping ground. If any police showed, he could heave the stone over the bank. The reservoir was forty feet deep inside and held twenty million gallons of water. He’d be out of Maine long before anyone ever managed to bring the stone back up.
Cosgrove made his way around the well-cemented hardpan that constituted the lower portion of the embankment. Farther along Walnut Street, a couple of houses stood in darkness. In the other direction, the grassy slope fell away to reveal the darkly shimmering surface of Portland’s Back Cove. The wooden span of Tukey’s Bridge crossed at the point where the nearly enclosed tidal cove narrowed and emptied out into Casco Bay.
As he neared the northeast corner of the reservoir, Cosgrove slowed his pace when a figure stepped into view. Even in the dark, he could tell that this wasn’t his man.
“What’s this?” Cosgrove’s entire body tensed, preparing to bolt at any sign of trouble. “You’re not—”
“Just a minor alteration, Mr. Cosgrove. You needn’t worry; your money’s all here.” He shook a small leather traveling bag. The contents gave off a dull shuffling sound as they bumped against the bag’s rigid frame. “You have it?”
“I wouldn’t bother coming empty-handed, would I?” Cosgrove asked.
“No. That would be a mistake.”
Cosgrove drew the cloth sack out of his coat pocket. He held it up for the man to see. The gibbous moon was enough for the outline of the object to be visible: a smoothed, oblong shape of about eight inches in length.
“That’s good,” the man said. “Very good, Mr. Cosgrove.”
“The deal I had was for five hundred.” The sudden appearance of a stranger was an unannounced shift in the plan, and Cosgrove couldn’t hide his irritation. He’d been in jail plenty of times over the years. He viewed predictability in his business transactions as the one thing that would keep him outside a cell. Minor alterations to plans were not welcome, especially any attempt to change his payout.
“I’m well aware. Here.” The man took a step and tossed the bag forward. It landed between them with a thud. “As soon as you’re satisfied, we can conclude this bit of business.”
Cosgrove crouched down on the thin, browning grass. He needed to peer close to better see the latches on the leather money bag. He set the cloth sack down, near at hand. If need be, the sack could be spun overhead; the weight of the stone at the bottom would make a crippling weapon. The rigid leather bag opened at the top, but he couldn’t get the second of its two latches to turn.
As Cosgrove tried to force the bag open, he kept throwing glances at the man. “It’s stuck.”
“Turn both latches together but in opposite directions,” the stranger said.
With the solution in hand, and the promised money so soon to follow, Cosgrove felt himself smiling. He focused on twisting each of the latches, one clockwise, the other counter. The bag top popped open. He reached in and pulled out the top stack of money, secured with a thin strip of paper around the center. Cosgrove had asked for ones and fives, since that would never raise eyebrows when he spent it. Something felt wrong to his expert touch; the weight of the bills was off. He held the stack close to his face with one hand and let the tops of the bills flick past his other thumb so he could check the whole wad. Only the few on the top and bottom of the stack were dollar bills. The center was nothing more than blank paper. Surprise ignited to anger in the mere second before he could speak.
Cosgrove was still close to the ground and saw only the flash out of the corner of his eye. He heard the bang at the same time as the blow hit him in the chest. It was as if someone had hauled off and swung a hammer, driving the head straight into his ribs. The force of it rocked him, and he tumbled backward, hands flailing as he tried to steady himself.
His vision went blank for a second; then he was looking up at the sky. He wanted to push himself off the ground, but his hands had instinctively gone to his chest. He stared at his left palm. It was wet, covered in slick, black oil. No, it only looked black in the dark. It was red. With the fingertips of his other hand, he brushed at his palm, but the dark stain wouldn’t wipe off. What was wrong with his hands? He remembered that he’d been holding something just a moment before. He looked to his left and saw the bills. The stack was ripped apart, and the papers were loose, skittering along the ground. Was this real? It had to be. He caught a glimpse of movement. The man was crouching nearby.
“What are you doing?” Cosgrove’s voice was nothing more than a whisper. He stopped caring even as the words left his mouth. The man no longer mattered. Cosgrove rolled and flung his right side over. He landed facedown, tasted dirt and grass, and felt a searing pain spread through his chest. He could do nothing but watch as the fake bills started to flutter away in the night’s gentle sea breeze.
[ Chapter 2 ]
The corpse seemed to defy gravity. The body slumped severely to the right, ready to slip off the side of the rickety wooden chair and collapse in a pile on the bare floor. The only thing holding the man up was the unlikely fact that the suit coat he was wearing had come down over the thin back of the chair. The buttons were undone, and the pull of the dead man’s weight stretched the coat awkwardly, but the seams had not yet given out.
Deputy Marshal Archie Lean of the Portland police had been circling the body and staring at it for several minutes, making some sense of the horribly scarred and disfigured face. Cracked blisters dotted the blackened skin, the charred bits flaking away from the underlying musculature and bone. It wasn’t so much that he expected to see anything new, but there was nothing else to draw his attention away. Apart from the chair and its disturbing occupant, the dingy second-floor room was merely an attic that had been finished off to its short peak with old barn boards. The space held nothing more interesting than empty booze bottles, old newspapers, and a few other scraps of litter. He circled his forefinger and thumb across his sandy, well-trimmed mustache. It didn’t satisfy the restlessness in his hands. Lean wanted to light a cigarette but didn’t want to disturb the air, which already held a strong smell, like that of a struck match or spent gunpowder.
According to the neighbors, the old house hadn’t been occupied in six years. After the last owner’s death in 1887, the place had passed to an out-of-state relation who had paid it no heed. The house had suffered badly enough from neglect even when it had a resident. The past few years had sped it on toward its inevitable condemnation. The property had been left to occasional use by vagrants and transients, and more constant abuse by neighborhood kids.
Lean heard the clatter of the horse-drawn carriage’s wheels rattling over paving stones. He went to the room’s single small window facing the front. There was no curtain, but Lean had to yank his handkerchief from his pocket, spit on the glass, and give it a firm rub in order to see through the stubborn layer of grime. Even from a distance, he recognized the man at the reins as Rasmus Hansen. The quiet but reliable man had formerly worked as the driver for Dr. Virgil Steig, before the latter’s untimely death last summer. The old city surgeon had been a trusted ally and a good friend. His murder in the course of duty, a death that could have been prevented, remained a painful memory for Lean. Still, he allowed himself a hint of a smile at the thought of the carriage’s current occupant.
He strode across the room, careful to avoid stepping on the sooty footprints that marked the dull, scuffed floorboards. Leaving the door open, he made his way down the creaking stairs. He kept his feet to the outer edges of each board, again to avoid damaging the prints, but also out of concern that the worn and cracked treads might not support his sturdy frame. The front parlor was mean and empty except for bits of trash along the baseboards and a clinging odor of dampness tinged with urine. Every stick of furniture that had ever been in the house was long since sold, stolen, or smashed to kindling and burned in the room’s small fireplace.
Lean eased open the front door of the run-down little building and stepped outside, onto the crooked stoop. He stared once more at the blackened shape of a hand, fingers splayed, that was scorched into the door. A few people stood in a doorway along the narrow, unpaved stretch that led from the house down to Vine Street. More faces craned in from the sidewalk where this alleyway ended. A uniformed patrol officer, Harrington, made sure none of the overly interested neighborhood gawkers got any ideas about wandering close. Lean was glad for the timing of it, ten a.m. on Friday. The demands of the weekday had already thinned the early-morning crowd of schoolchildren and men walking to work.
After fumbling in his pocket for a match, Lean lit a long-overdue cigarette. He was glad that Harrington was the officer at hand. The man was a veteran whose combination of solid nerves and blunted imagination kept him from getting keyed up at crime scenes. At the moment, Harrington was staring in the direction of the newly arrived carriage.
A man in a lightweight frock coat had exited and now stood examining the house and its environs. Lean recognized the sharp features of Perceval Grey peering out from beneath the brim of a black brushed-felt hat. He recalled a similar arrival by Grey a year ago, in the dead of night, at the scene of a young woman’s gruesome murder. That night he’d met the man for the first time in an atmosphere of desperation, skepticism, and irritation at Grey’s condescending arrogance. Now he simply smiled, glad to see his onetime partner again.
“Y’know,” Harrington began, without taking his eyes off Grey, “the more I think on it, the more I’m sure I’ve seen that guy up there.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, toward the upper floor of the house. “Course, can’t say for sure with his face the way it is.”
“It’s Frankie the Foot,” Lean said with all the enthusiasm of a desperate card player forced to reveal his own middling hand.
“What?” The announcement was startling enough to yank Harrington’s attention away from the new arrival for a moment. “That’s impossible. Frankie’s—”
“Yes.” The look of utter disbelief that greeted Lean was exactly what he’d expected. “He certainly is.”
“Then how the hell could he be here? And looking like that?”
“The question of the day, right there.” Lean blew out a cloud of smoke and watched it disintegrate above him.
An uncomfortable silence settled over the deputy and the patrolman, as if Lean had just committed an embarrassing gaffe with a pronouncement that caught Harrington so far off guard. A guttural sound escaped from Harrington’s throat as Grey approached and that man’s slightly dark complexion, inherited from his Abenaki Indian father, became apparent.
“Not this one.” Harrington’s raspy voice was suddenly thick with disapproval. He sounded like a man readying himself for a confrontation. “Such a high-talking windbag.”
Lean knew that Grey’s work was earning him a reputation around the city, one not fully appreciated by the other members of the police department.
“It’s all right. He’s here at my request”—Lean fished about for the right way to justify calling on a private detective during a police investigation—“as a sort of expert on . . . unusual matters.”
The look in Harrington’s eyes still bordered on hostility, so Lean suggested the man take a stroll past the onlookers down the alley, to see if anyone had had a change of heart and now wanted to offer up something useful.
“Deputy Lean.” Grey touched the brim of his hat, then cast a dubious glance at the ramshackle building. “Forgive me for showing up empty-handed. Your note didn’t mention that this was to be your housewarming.”
Lean chuckled. “Good of you to come, Grey.”
“I was surprised to hear from you so soon.”
Lean tilted his head. “We haven’t spoken in nearly a year.”
“Yes, but during that last bit of business, you voiced your hope that we wouldn’t need to renew our professional acquaintance.”
“Yes, well, I missed that radiant bonhomie of yours.”
“Bonhomie?” Grey chuckled. “Good to see that the Vocabulary for Policemen correspondence course is paying dividends.”
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