Had Sammy crushed the car, we might’ve never known.
“The economy’s in the crapper and scrap metal prices aren’t paying the rent.”
That was Sammy’s lament as we trudged around his junkyard just past dawn on Monday. We’d been best friends since kids in East New York, and I was contemplating some face-saving way I could stuff cash into his pocket. My name’s Bragg, and I’m a homicide, gold-shield detective. I’d stopped by Sammy’s before heading to Brooklyn South.
“Is that a new arrival?” I pointed to a 1959 faded-red Impala with a grimy, white vinyl top.
“Left outside my gate last night. According to the VIN, the car hasn’t been registered for decades. Dirty, but in decent shape. this baby sat under cover, maybe in a garage, for quite some time. If I had the money, I’d invest in restoration.”
“What will you do with it?”
“Probably crush and sell it for scrap. Why? You interested?”
“I wouldn’t pay you more than a thousand.”
Sammy smirked. “Since when did you become stupid with your money?”
I reddened. He’d seen through my clumsy attempt to overpay. I tried to recover. “Once she’s fixed up, I’ll make my investment ten times over.”
“Bullshit. What’s up?”
We’d neared the Impala and I was saved from answering Sammy’s question by an all-too-familiar odor.
Sammy’s nose crinkled, and he took a half step back. “What the hell is that?”
“Pop the trunk,” I said.
Sammy pried the lid open with a crow-bar, and the stench of death hit me like a liver punch.
“Shit.” Sammy’s eyes were wide as hub caps.
“Late-twenties man, as best as I can tell.” I called my lieutenant.
My case-load overflowed, but I wanted to protect Sammy from possible blowback, so I kept apprised when Lieutenant Dixon assigned the murder to other detectives. The double gunshot victim’s name was Gabriel Turner. When the detectives arrived at Turner’s apartment Monday before noon, they found Richard Grant asleep on a sofa. He claimed that he’d never met Turner, been drugged, and had no memory of the previous twenty-four hours. A glass with roofie residue sat on an end table. The .38 revolver murder weapon lay on the sofa next to him. He had gunshot traces on his hand and was arrested. The coroner’s report said that Turner carried the AIDS virus.
The prosecutor argued that Grant killed to avoid a date-rape by Turner, and the jury convicted him of manslaughter. At the trial, a couple of former girlfriends testified that he wasn’t gay, which raised my doubts about motive. A month after his conviction, he hung himself in his cell.
When I approached one of the arresting detectives, a grizzled, thirty-year veteran, he gave me the standard line. “If murderers were Rhodes Scholars, we wouldn’t catch them.”
“Why would Grant hook up with Turner if he wasn’t gay?”
The detective wheezed with impatience. “The case is closed, and I have other murders to solve.” He walked away.
The Impala had been wiped clean of fingerprints. After considerable digging, I discovered that the last registered owner had a grandson, Simon Fester, but there was no will on record and no proof of who inherited the Impala. I found Fester in a bar, the Iron Rabbit, blond, sinewy, in his forties, I flashed my shield and asked if he knew Richard Grant.
“Shame about his suicide,” he said.
“Tell me about him.”
“Always cheerful.” Fester’s lips curled into a sneer. “I found naïve his refusal to see the putrefaction of human nature. I suppose prison cured him of that.”
“How close were you two?”
“We’d been intimate, once, as teenage boys in his basement. He never showed interest in a repeat performance.”
“You felt rejected?”
“I admit to jealously observing his bevy of bimbettes.”
“But you remained friends?”
“Richard insisted on nicknaming me ‘buddy-boy.’ Infuriating. My name’s Simon, never Sy, and certainly not buddy-boy. Although I frowned at his greeting, Richard persisted.”
Fester’s clothes looked a size too large for him. His forehead glistened, and he had a persistent cough.
I said, “You look fevered. Are you well?”
“I won’t lie to the police. One unprotected liaison doomed me. I should’ve suspected that cherub-looking innocence masked poison under the skin. When the doctor diagnosed AIDS, I stopped hearing him. Why me? How unfair. I repaired directly here, like now, sipping but not enjoying Glenfiddich, thirty-year-old, single malt Scotch. I resolved to empty my bank account before I left this life as a drooling skeleton, stewing in bodily waste, ignored by an indifferent hospice staff.”
“Were you infected by a cherub named Gabriel Turner?”
Fester didn’t hesitate. “Who?”
“Did you consider taking revenge on the man who infected you?”
“Detective, let’s not be melodramatic. Have a Scotch, on me.”
The tattooed, flaming-red hair bar maiden produced the Glenfiddich, but I waved her off.
I suspected that the snub-nosed .38 revolver used in Turner’s killing had gang origins. I tracked down likely sellers. Under pressure, one remembered “a white dude.” He shrugged at photographs of Richard Grant, Gabriel Turner, and Simon Fester.
The next time I approached Fester at the Iron Rabbit, he appeared upbeat.
“My doctor prescribed a cocktail of three anti-retroviral drugs. The disease hasn’t worsened, and the chance that I’ll pass AIDS onto my numerous partners has been minimized. I’ve left a forbidding cave and stepped into the sunlight.”
“I’ve started inquiries on the revolver used in Turner’s murder. Will you be identified as the purchaser?”
“Gang bangers are such unreliable witnesses. Drugs and all.”
“Did I say that the gun was purchased from a dealer?”
“Where else would one find an untraceable pistol?”
“You’ve thought about this.”
“I’m being logical.”
“What ever happened to your grandfather’s red Impala?”
Fester smirked. “You have me there. Granddad died twenty years ago.”
“Turner was found in the trunk of your grandfather’s car.”
Fester’s face showed mock surprise. “What an amazing coincidence.”
Prick. My face got hot. “You think that you’re pretty clever.”
“Richard Grant was convicted of Gabriel Turner’s murder. Why are you harassing me about a closed case? Do you really have no other murders to solve?”
I huffed. “I’m keeping my eye on you. Spit on the sidewalk and I’ll run you in.”
Fester called the barmaid for another shot of Glenfiddich. “Sure you won’t have a drink?”
I left the bar.
That afternoon, Lieutenant Dixon called me into his office.
“Simon Fester launched an official harassment complaint against you.”
“Bastard. I’m sure that he killed Gabriel Turner and framed Richard Grant for the murder.”
“You have concrete evidence?”
I blew out a breath.
He shook his head. “Stay away from this Fester guy. That’s an order.”
I poured over the Turner file searching for a basis to reopen the case. Too often I worked homicides where I never discovered the murderer. Here, two men had been victims and I couldn’t touch the perp. I wanted to punch walls, and on two occasions I did.
I confronted Fester one last time, sidling up to him at the Iron Rabbit, smiling.
His eyebrows rose. “Must I report you again?”
I raised a palm. “I’m here to congratulate you for pulling off the perfect murder.”
“You’re a stuck record.”
“Seriously, you’ve stumped me, and that doesn’t happen often. Perhaps you’re in a good enough mood to tell me how you did it?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You killed Turner and framed Grant. Doing something amazing is more fun when shared. Plus, the opportunity to admit what you did to a homicide detective who can’t do a thing with the information, would be sweet irony.”
Fester smirked. “Would you like me to speak into the microphone?”
I unbuttoned my shirt. “Check. I’m not wearing a wire. Anyway, Grant was convicted of Turner’s murder. The case is closed., and thanks to you, my boss is on my ass.”
Fester’s chest expanded. “I might be willing to conjecture hypothetically.”
“Everything’s off the record.”
He chuckled. “You’re right. I’m dying to tell somebody.”
“I’ll take that Scotch now.”
Fester waved to the barmaid, and she poured me a double. He began his story.
“New York’s gun laws are draconian, so of course, I had no problem obtaining a revolver in the neighborhood where drugs are plentiful. Crack cocaine and guns go together like rice and beans. I arranged another tryst with Gabriel, this time inside his seedy apartment, next to an “L.” Three steps past the door, he was on me, but I held him off until I heard the roar of a passing train. At the sight of the pistol, Gabriel blanched. I relished his fear. Only a single shot was required. I was proud of that.
“I’d arranged for Richard to meet me in my condo. A welcoming Scotch and soda with a ‘roofie’ kicker quickly put him into a pliable condition. I thought to rape him, but my nervous excitement left me unable to perform, so I half carried him to my grandfather’s Impala. I’d kept the car in a barn on property I own upstate. Still ran well. I drove across town, then helped him into Gabriel’s apartment. I pressed the murder weapon into his hand, had him trigger a second shot, then left him in a slumbering state.
“I managed to dump Gabriel into the trunk of the Impala and left the car at a junkyard.
“Richard’s incarceration went badly. The time I visited him, he’d been sodomized. When Richard said that I was a true friend, I revealed what I’d done to him. He aged twenty years before my eyes. Sad, the choice he made. He could’ve loved me and thrived.”
The double Scotch went right to my head, and heat rose up my neck and face.
Over my shoulder, I heard, “Cheerio, buddy-boy.”
Grant’s greeting of Fester.
I snapped my head around but saw only the crowd of revelers, talking and laughing. My imagination? Someone playing a bad joke? Fester appeared not to have heard.
Later, patrons told detectives that I was standing, facing Fester, when the retort of a single pistol shot shocked the crowd silent. Fester doubled over like he’d been gut punched, then crumpled to the floor as his life bled away.
Gray smoke had billowed and stung my nostrils. I finished my Scotch before calling an ambulance
The investigation into Simon Fester’s murder confirmed that the gun recovered from the Iron Rabbit floor was the .38 revolver used to murder Gabriel Turner. Although the evidence-room surveillance video was examined, the removal of the pistol from the station wasn’t detected. All the Iron Rabbit patrons and staff heard the gunshot, and some witnessed Fester collapsing, but no one saw the murderer fire the pistol. After he’d ordered me to stay away from Fester, Lieutenant Dixon placed a disciplinary note in my personnel file. The detectives assigned to the case interviewed me, but no one was ever charged with the crime.
Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife, Jane, now live in Texas. Joe’s stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post and Shenandoah. His novel, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, was published by Harvard Square Editions October 2015. His second novel, Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller was published by HSE in June 2017. Joe was among one hundred Italian-American authors honored by Barnes & Noble Chairman Len Riggio to march in the 2017 Manhattan, Columbus Day Parade. Read the first chapters of Joe’s novels and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/