Mystery Crime Suspense

A black cloud blotted out the sun. The wind kicked up, and I gripped the flaps of my pea coat to cover my ears while I waited to be let in. The air was wet with a coming storm and the clouds rushed by, grumbling above the world of man like a hungry beast.

Bates’s office was a few blocks down from the courthouse. It had seemed like an easy walk, but as I made my way down to Summit Avenue, I knew that I had underestimated the weather. My first day on the job was looking to be a dreary one. Dead ends. Dark skies. And a feeling of dread in my stomach that told me I was in way over my head, I just wasn’t sure why.

556 Summit Avenue was a two-story apartment house nestled between Self Reliance Federal Credit Union and the Vein Laser Center. The first floor was converted into Bates’s office. This looked like a place where dreams came to die. The exterior brick was a faded yellow. The stairs leading up were made of unadorned chipping gray concrete and the handrail was a cheap metal substitute that blew in the wind. Drapes were drawn over a garish set of bay windows. The placard on the door said “Law Office.” No sign or awning. The street smelled of diesel exhaust from the poorly maintained semi-trucks and axle grease wafting out of run-down luncheonettes.

As I rang the bell, I saw a pair of spectacled eyes nervously peer out of a corner of the drapes by the bay windows.

Evan Bates, Esq. came to the door in jeans and a Rutgers sweatshirt with no shoes or socks. He was a light-skinned black man of about sixty-five with a blue-collar air about him. His hair was unkempt. The years had scrubbed out any remnant of youth or determination. Here was a breathing, walking ghost of a man who had died decades ago. He was clean-shaven, with little stalks of gray that he had missed scratching out in a few disheveled patches along his chin and jaw. Bags that hung like sacks of regret protruded from his cheeks to his eyes. He gazed out with those small beady eyes, the eyes of a man receding into darkness, and out through a pair of spectacles. He was distressed by my presence.

“Come in, kid. You’ll catch your death of cold out there.”

His hand was shaking like someone with Parkinson’s who was having a bad day. He kept looking past me and down the street. But I didn’t know what he was looking for.

“I’m here—”

“—Wait, wait, I’ll get my briefcase,” he said. “And some shoes. Just give me a moment—”

“—To ask you a few questions,” I said.

He turned and looked at me. Just then a vicious wind kicked up and a scrap of crumpled paper blew in the door, flattening against Evan Bates’s chest, where he secured it with his palm. He grabbed it, read it with shaking hands, and put it in his pocket, peering his head outside and looking down the block both ways, before slamming the door shut and turning back to me.

“You’re from the prosecutor’s office, right?”

“Not anymore,” I said. His brow creased. Did he think I was here to pick him up and bring him downtown? He stopped in his tracks and put his hands behind his head, arching his back, his big belly rolling out beneath the sweatshirt.

Stepping in the door, I saw that a small office was stationed behind an accordion door that looked like it had once housed a closet. It was set directly to the left. It reminded me more of a hamster’s cage than a room fit for human habitation.

There was a radiator in the corner pushing out waves of heat, files, and boxes so close to the coils that the whole thing could combust at any second. Files were stacked everywhere, and dozens of stacked banker’s boxes formed a second wall. The clutter was so thick that the chair in front of the desk was nearly touching it. Bates pointed me to take a seat and he maneuvered around some stacked banker’s boxes to settle down behind his desk.

“If you’re not here to bring me down for questioning, then what brings you in to see me,” he said.

“I left a voicemail last night,” I said incredulously, looking over at the blinking red light of the phone on his desk.

“Oh, you did,” he said. “Been a bit busy over here lately. I must have missed it,” he said. “Ever since the Public Defender’s Office cut me loose, I’ve been inundated with files. I’m on the state and federal panels and I’ve got more files than I had back when I was with the office.”

“I’ve just been handed the Frank Murphy case,” I said.

Bates’s eyes widened, and flushed over with a dismissal of the idea, surely thinking I must either be mistaken or nuts.

“Ernest Cannon is defending him.”

“He was. But the old man has cancer, so he had to bow out of this one.”

“Jesus. Please tell me you didn’t sign up for this case. There’s a lot of bad juju on this one.”

“Sorry to say, it’s my case, unless I can get conflicted out.”

“Have you seen Frank?”

“Yeah, and he wouldn’t talk. He just told me to come see you. That you had information pertinent to his murder defense.”

“I imagine he wouldn’t want to talk until he knew he could trust you.”

“What’s not to trust, I’m his attorney?”

Evan got up and shuffled through some cabinets and pulled an accordion file out of the bowels of a bent and disordered set of hanging file folders that had been ignored and crushed, as papers and books were simply stuffed on top of them. Standing to his feet, Bates said, “What you have to ask yourself in cases like this is who stands to gain from Frank going down. If he’s not the killer, why would they finger a cop as their patsy? Who benefits from the takedown?”

“I know there are a few bad apples on the police force. But murdering someone? Pinning it on another cop? You’re talking like a conspiracy nut.”

“Think about it, kid. The risks someone took. Assassinating a perp inside the precinct walls. Trying to pin it on Frank. What if it went wrong? Frank is no withering daisy. What if he fought back? Someone decided that whatever Frank was up to, it was worth risking everything to take him out of the game permanently. And what do you think is going to happen if this case gets away from them? You’ve got to get Frank moved.”

“What in the hell are you talking about?”

“You’ve got to get Frank moved into protective custody and out to another lockup unless you want to have the blood of two men on your hands.”

I stood up and was about to leave. I just had to make a statement first. “Listen, pal, I’ve had just about enough. I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

Bates pulled the note from his pocket and looked at it, grimacing. Then turned back to his accordion file.

“Here it is,” Bates said.

“And what’s that?”

“I call them the ‘X Files’.”

“Ta na na, na na na, na na naaaaaa,” I hummed and whistled, saying, “If that was your attempt to make me feel like you had something legitimate to tell me, you are doing a stand-up job.”

But more out of morbid curiosity than any thought that this was going to be in any way relevant, I sat down. This guy was clearly not playing with a full deck.

“It is a catalog of woes. A compendium of corruption. The real deal external affairs reports.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well, Frank and I had a sit down back when I was with the Public Defender’s Office. I had this case where my client, this guy Arty Knuckles told me that a plainclothes agent ripped off 50 kilos of cocaine that he was transporting. The guy was sure the cartel was going to kill him in the can. Frank told me that this officer, a guy by the name of Sgt. Danny Gelbin, had been doing this for years. I told him that I’d share these cases with him if he’d help me get some of my defendants they had fingered off without making things too public. But the files started piling up.”

“So, what, you’re saying there are a few bad apples on the force?”

“I’m saying there are more than a few bad apples, there’s a barrel full.”

“And what is the angle? What are these cops doing, lining their own pockets?”

“These cops started out as a plainclothes division. They built trust with confidential informants by buying drugs off them and showing that they were from the streets. They parlayed intel on rival gangs, busts that were going down, and even paid out cash. And these cops rose through the ranks. They went by the ‘Jump Out Boys.’ Because they started taking contraband and blood money themselves. But out the middleman.”

“You’re talking about a legitimate organized crime element within the police department. A bunch of desperados. That’s absolutely preposterous. This isn’t Baltimore.”

“Why do you think I haven’t reported any of this?”

“Because you can’t prove it?”

“Son, take a look at these files.”

I thumbed through the files while Bates stared at the note which he gripped in his right hand like it was a plastic Life Alert button, and he was having chest pains. There were witness statements, pictures, and hard evidence. It was outlined methodically. But it was all circumstantial. None of it would hold up in court.

“The prosecutor’s office dropped all these cases dealing with the Jump Out boys. Jeb and Rocco approved the dismissals. As soon as I brought up any evidence that would implicate the Jump Out Boys, the cases went poof.”

“So now you’re saying that my old boss and the star prosecutor are in on it?”

“No, not necessarily. But if you see something isn’t right and you just look the other way, I don’t think you can claim to have clean hands, you know.”

“Jesus. Every allegation coming out of your mouth is worse than the last.”

“These aren’t allegations, son. This is real life.”

“If half of what you said is true, all you’d have to do is make this public and you would be the hero of the Public Defender’s Office. Hell, you’d be on Hannity and Rachel Maddow. You would have a basket full of acquittals. But I’ve never heard of you.”

“One day Chief Lhami strolls into the Public Defender’s Office and my boss, Myriam Cutler, the Public Defender herself, calls me in ten minutes later and gives me the can. He tells me that he was informed that I had been practicing ‘unethical tactics’ and ‘tampering with evidence’ and told my boss there was an ongoing investigation on me.”

“Finally, something I can agree with.”

“Ever since then, I’ve been in private practice.”

“So now you think the Chief is carrying water for these deadbeat cops?”

“I didn’t say that either. I’m just telling you that somebody wanted me out of the way. Whatever levers they pulled; the axe fell the second they smelled trouble.”

“So, what do you say these cops were doing?”

“They’d schedule these rips, where the Jump Out Boys would break up a drug deal and ripoff the goods, funneling it through associates, so the drugs landed back on the street, only the cops were given a big payout for the rip. But Sgt. Gelbin got greedy with the Arty Knuckles case. They took the drop and ripped off both the payment and the drugs.”

“I mean if we are talking about small-time drug busts, there wouldn’t be much money in it. It would hardly be worth it.”

“That’s not what this was.”

“What do you mean?”

“These were big paydays. Martin had an expensive hair transplant done. Reggie was nursing an expensive stripper addiction. They were seen at fancy restaurants, buying summer homes in LBI. Trips to Vegas. Living the life of vice. They were all driving brand-new luxury cars. This one Knocker, Vito, hired his own driver and a security guard to tail his wife when he wasn’t home. These guys were branded the Millionaire’s Club.”

“Wouldn’t that be pretty brazen and obvious? I can’t believe that if this is true no one knew what they were doing.”

“That’s the thing. They are protected. The rot goes all the way to the top. And everyone knows. Maybe not the whys and the wherefores, but certainly the how of it. And Frank was building a case. Quietly. With my help. But somehow, they caught on.”

“How big are we talking—how big were these heists?”

“The scams grew over time. The big one was a $3.3 million hit, where the Jump Out Boys got wind of a big cash shipment. One of their informants learned that his truck wash station was going to be the drop-off point for a big cash shipment for a score of cocaine that was coming from a Mexican drug cartel. The Jump Out Boys stopped the semi and logged the bust, but only $2.3 million made it into the evidence locker. And more than half the drugs were funneled back to the street. It was reckless. It’s one thing to skim a little off the top. But everyone noticed this bust looked like an op.”

“You’d testify to all of this.”

“Son, it doesn’t matter whether I would, or I wouldn’t, I’d never get within a country mile of that witness stand still drawing breath.” Bates looked back at the paper and began to sweat from his brow. “I shouldn’t be talking to you about this,” he said. “It isn’t safe.”

“All right. Well, Frank was right. I don’t like what you have to say.”

“It’s the truth.”

“Even if it is, this entire city is like a powder keg—if this gets out it could just be the match that blows the whole thing to high heaven. How could we even have a police force if even half of what you said came out in public?”

“Ernest was about to kick the door in and expose the whole bloody mess to the light of day. That’s why I can’t believe he’d pass over the case—he’s been waiting his whole career for something like this.”

“Well, cancer’s a bitch. But I have no intention of persecuting the boys in blue if that’s what you’re thinking, or what he’s thinking.”

“I’m just hoping you make it out of this alive.” Bates looked down at the crumpled note again. What was on that note? He pulled a handkerchief out of his desk drawer and started mopping his forehead with it.

“For all I know you and Frank were misled by some street pushers and career criminals trying to save their own necks—or Frank is the dirty cop and he’s trying to smear his fellow officers. To cover his tracks. Ever think of that?”

“Look kid. The only way you are going to get Frank off is if you out the Jump Out Boys. And if you decide to do that, they’ll be coming for you. They won’t be able to simply stop you from breathing, but they will apply pressure like nothing you’ve ever seen in your natural life. You will be a pariah and they will be coming at you from all sides.”

“Sounds lovely,” I said. “You do know this is my first day working for the defense? You aren’t exactly welcoming me to the club with open arms here.”

“Anything you need, kid. I’ll do what I can.”

“Can you send me a copy of those files?”

“Only if you promise to keep them somewhere safe.”

“Oh, I will.”

“And one more thing, kid, take a look at this.”

I stared at the note. The note read, “You’re next. –Rizwan Abadi.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Who is Rizwan Abadi?”

“Well, kid, it means that if you come around asking and you can’t find me, you may want to call homicide, because someone wants to make sure I never speak about what I know. And as for Rizwan Abadi, he is a Hessian. Paramilitary. The kind of person who you never want having your name in their mouth—not if you want to have a long life.”

As I walked outside into the dirty streets, under an overcast sky, the wind kicked up and I pulled the flaps of my P-Coat up over my ears. Looking out at the gray horizon, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, and I made my way over to internal affairs.

As I crossed Summit, the wind kicked up and a crumpled piece of paper hit me square in the chest. I pulled the paper taught and worked out the creases and stared down at the handwritten note.

“You’re next. –Rizwan Abadi.”

I pulled the lapels of my pea coat up and fastened the button to keep the chill off my neck. Meanwhile, a chill was running down my spine and the wind was bringing tears to my eyes.

I wasn’t taking Evan Bates’s word for any of it. But I also wasn’t going to back down. I had never been the kind to respond to threats. But I couldn’t help wondering who Rizwan Abadi was and how these notes were gusting about as if the work of some strange magic.

One thing I learned while working at the prosecutor’s office was that the truth was expensive. To get to the bottom of a thing like this came at a cost.

March 08, 2024 07:27

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Shahzad Ahmad
11:50 Apr 05, 2024

Jonathan you have penned a great story and some of the phrases so precisely express the sentiments involved, my favourite phrase was "bags hung like sacs of regret" that distinctly captures the heaviness of remorse. Well done!


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Alexis Araneta
09:56 Mar 08, 2024

You did it again, Jonathan. Another riveting tale. The entire time, I was on the edge of my seat. Lovely flow to this with great descriptions, as usual. Lovely job !


Jonathan Page
03:10 Mar 11, 2024

Thanks, Stella!


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