Last September I finished the first full-length Smitty novel entitled, Dark Retribution. Now, for those of you are not familiar with Smitty . . . think of a dark-eyed hit-man with a rigid set of code of conduct rules. A genuine killer who only hunts, and removes, bad guys.
I know, I know; it already sounds like a bad cliche.
But what's a cliche? It's an oft-quoted reality of life that continues in perpetuity. It's a cliche because it's true---only applied too often. Yes. Smitty is a hit-man. But he's a cliche only if he just mimics what other hit-man characters have already done.
But if he captures your attention and holds it until the bitter end . . . is he still a cliche?
Okay, this is what's bugging me. I finish the novel. I sent it in to a new publisher who specifically likes this genre. I thought the book would be a perfect fit. It was rejected. Why? Because he couldn't believe the set-up on why a hit-man would want to work with a cop in finding a serial killers. So this is what I want you to do. Read the first chapter. And then tell me if it pulls you into the story. Or, if it doesn't, tell me why it doesn't.
Convince me to change it. If it needs changing.
Twisted to the breaking point. Wound so tight he could barely keep his hands under control. He sat in the booth of the small diner and directly across his partner he tried to act calm. Tried to look normal. Impossible. Even when he lit his cigarette it was obvious. The hand holding the cigarette lighter danced the flame around at the tip of the cigarette like he was beating a drum. But flipping the old Zippo closed with a loud snap he slid the shaking hand into a pocket and sat back in the booth. Eyes filled with worry, he turned and stared into the gloom of a foggy night.
Knowing he was doing something wrong. Knowing that, if caught, it would be the end of his career. The end of everything. Ten years. Ten years as a cop. Flushed down the tubes and forgotten. If he was caught. If. . .
“Artie, you all right? You feeling sick?”
He blinked a couple of times, his partner’s voice bringing him out of his dull reverie of the night’s fog and forcing him to turn and look at the red nosed cop sitting in the booth opposite him.
His partner for the last two years, an Irishman by the name of Joe Gallagher, sitting across from him, lowered his cup of coffee and looked at him with eyes of concern. All night long on their shift he had barely spoken three words. But then the call came to go out and check on the report of a body lying in the street down in front of Pier 86. It was another victim. Another butchered woman. Number five for the maniac the papers had dubbed ‘The New Jack Ripper.’
“I’m . . . fine, Joe. Fine. It’s just that, well . . . it’s the fifth prostitute killed. The fifth one on our beat. Cut to pieces like she was a piece of fine beef fresh from the slaughter house. Jesus, what a mess. And what a crowd we had to hold back. I mean, people everywhere. Reports and cameramen. Everywhere. Down to get a glimpse of the body. Sick. Just sick if you ask me.”
His partner frowned, set the coffee cup on the table, and nodded. Yes. It had been a bloody mess. Always is when someone is eviscerated. Just thinking about the gory mess the two of them had stumbled on made him shiver involuntarily.
“Listen, the shift’s over. We can write our reports tomorrow. Let me drop you off at your house. Get some rest. Drink a beer or two. Try to forget about it.”
“You go on home, Joe. I’m supposed to go over to a friend’s house and drink a couple of beers with him. I’ll just call a cab and wait for it here.”
Gallagher’s brown eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he sat in the booth and looked at his partner. Artie Jones was a good cop. A very good cop. Slightly bald, getting a little paunchy around the middle, always a smile on the man’s face. Yes, a good cop. But one who thought too much. Cared too much. Maybe, maybe tried too hard in trying to make the world a better place. Not that there was anything wrong in that. The trying. The caring. But sometimes it got to you. Sometimes the meanness of humanity becomes overwhelming.
Sometimes, to be brutally honest, it was best to not care so much and just do the job needed to be done. Better that than driving yourself into an early grave trying to save the souls of those who didn’t want to be saved.
“All right. But get some rest, Artie. Jesus, but you look terrible. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Artie nodded, waved a hand, and smiled as his partner slid out of the booth and walked to the diner’s entrance. He turned and watched Joe unlock the door to the black and white patrol car and slide in. It was almost one in the morning. Dark. The street lights glowing a dull orange yellow, filling the wind-swept street with an eerie feeling almost palpable.
What if the sergeant found out? The Louie? What if someone sees him talking to him? Hell! Was he even going to meet him tonight? I mean . . . come on! He was a cop. He was supposed to stay away for this guy unless he was arresting him for a crime committed. But hell. Everyone knew they needed a break. His discreet phone call to the phone number Smitty advertised in the paper, done on a landline in an office building where no one knew him, asking for help, could get his ass fired if anyone found out. Everyone knew Smitty. Supposedly the very expensive security consultant/private detective who worked out of a small set of offices over on Brewer Street. A one of a kind professional who hired out at top dollar, usually to large corporate clients who needed his kind of specialty, i.e., meaning industrial espionage, yet he also worked for individuals. Rich individuals, but not necessarily always rich individuals. But there were the rumors as well. Every cop in the city knew the rumors. He was supposed to be the mob’s top hit man. He was supposed to be invisible. He wasn’t even really known by those who employed him, for chrissakes! No two mobsters brought in for questioning ever described Smitty in the same fashion. He was tall. He was short. He had shaggy brown hair. He was a blond with a flat top crew cut. He was heavy built. He was a slim as a toothpick. Whenever a victim of a contract killing was found there wasn’t a single piece of evidence linking Smitty to anything. No video. No witnesses. No prints. No residual evidence.
Crazy. Just crazy.
No one could pin anything illegal on this guy. All anyone could say for sure was the guy was an absolute merciless killing machine. He somehow could slip in, silence his victim, and slip out and no one would know until hours later. And he had connections. Knew everyone who was anyone to be known on the streets. That was the deciding factor. That was the single point for him to get this wild idea. Ask Smitty for help. The police department, the entire city, was baffled. Scared. Frozen in indecision. This madman left no traces. He left no evidence behind. He left no DNA material behind. It was like, like he was a ghost who prayed upon those who practiced the oldest profession in the world. No one knew why.
So maybe it would take a ghost to find a ghost. A killer to stop a killer.
A shaking hand ran across his lips as he looked down at his coffee cup. With the cigarette between his fingers he reached for the cup just as he heard the noise of an approaching car through the plate glass window beside him. Lifting the cup Artie turned to look outside.
He froze in mid motion. Eyes almost popping out of his head with a mixture of surprise and horror.
A cab–an old Ford Crown Victory–battered and abused, sitting parallel to the curb in front of the diner, its right rear door open. Waiting. Waiting for someone to get in. The clatter of his cup slipping out of his fingers and bouncing on the table top made everyone in the diner turn and look at him. Blinking a couple of times, color draining from his face, he stared at the taxi for a heartbeat or two and then turned to look at the eight or ten people sitting in the dinner.
They were staring at him. Faces puzzled. Or bemused.
“Hey, buddy!” the guy behind the diner’s long counter said, holding a phone up to one ear and staring at him irritably. “It’s the cabby outside. He’s says the meter’s running. So how about it? You want him to take you someplace or not?”
Artie Jones stared at the diner’s chief cook for a moment in shock and turned his head back to look out the window and at the waiting taxi. He hadn’t called for a taxi. The story he told his partner about going over to see a friend tonight in a taxi was just that. A story. So how . . . how . . . how . . ?
“Hey, Mac! Some time tonight, okay? I got orders to complete.”
Artie felt himself nodding. Moving his hands and his body to slide out of the booth. He felt himself walking down the length of the diner and out through the entrance into to the hot night. Like an out of body experience he saw himself walking down the sidewalk toward the open door of the cab and folding himself up and sliding into the back seat. He saw himself close the cab’s rear door. Felt the cab accelerate away from the curb rapidly.
Saw it all. Experienced it all. Yet couldn’t believe it. Didn’t want to believe it. It was so surreal. So bizarre!
The car accelerated hard down the street and then made a sudden right-hand turn. A block later it turned again sharply, and turned again straight into an alley. The headlights went off as the car bounced and rolled down through the alley rapidly and came out on the opposite street. The lights snapped by on as the car slowed down.
In front of him all he saw as the back of the head and the upper shoulders of a man wearing a cabbie uniform. Glancing down at the back rest directly in front of him he looked for the small plastic pocket which was supposed to show the cabbie’s license and photo. There was no license. No photo. But there were eyes. Cold black orbs staring at him. Reflecting off the rear-view mirror whenever a sliver of street light flashed past.
Cold eyes. Hard eyes. The eyes of a killer.
“I hear you’ve been looking for me.”
A surreal, almost rasping harsh whisper. Coming out of the darkness of the front seat. Unnerving. Making Artie involuntarily wince.
“That’s what some people call me, Artie. But I answer to a number of different names.”
He felt a cold chill run down his spine. He tried to swallow. Tried a couple of times. But he was so scared there was nothing to swallow. He lifted a hand up to his face. Almost. But he stopped suddenly when the whisper exploded in the darkness. Like a scalpel flashing out of the darkness.
“Make sure you keep you hands away from your gun, friend. Away from any pockets. Understand?”
Artie hesitated, looked at his hands, and then back up at the rear-view mirror and nodded.
“Good. Now tell me.What does an honest cop like you want to talk to a man like me?”
How was he going to do this? How was he going to ask for help? He was a cop, for chrissakes. Cops go after the bad guys. Cops solves the murder cases. Cops are the ones who are supposed to protect the public from madmen like, like this new Jack the Ripper. Or from the likes like Smitty.
“Well, you see, we’ve, we’ve got a problem. There’s man we’re after. Crazy. Insane. A fucking madman. He’s going around killing women. Prostitutes. And we’ve got nothing. Absolutely nothing. He’s been killing for the last four months. We know about as much now about this guy as we did when we found the first body.”
The cab flew down empty streets. Never staying on one street for more than two blocks. Swift, hard turns right and left. Mostly right-hand turns. A few left. But in general Artie got the feeling they were traveling in one twisted, jagged, clockwise circle. Somehow he knew that when this conversation was over he would he would not return to the diner.
“So what is it you want me to do.”
It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t a statement. It was decision time. For Artie. Say what had to be said, Artie. Say it firmly and without hesitation. Let the Angel of Death, as some people whispered this man actually was, decide if he would help or not.
“We’ve got to take this guy off the streets. We’ve got to stop him. Stop him before he kills again. So, so I’m asking you to help us.”
Slivers of light exploding in the interior of the cab momentarily as they slid underneath a street light. Explosions of light. Followed by enveloping, inky darkness. Surreal. Down the empty streets the cab flew. Streets walled in on both sides by long rows of old apartment buildings and brand new apartment complexes. Sitting in the back seat of the cab Artie waited. Waited for some kind of response to come out of the front seat. Waited. And waited. Each passing second working like a carpenter’s file sliding across raw nerves.
When the dark figure in front answered the man’s harsh whisper almost sent Artie screaming out of his seat. But somehow, somehow, he controlled his urges and tried to react calmly.
“Why would I want to help you, Artie. You or the police.”
He blinked a couple of times. He opened his mouth to answer. But nothing came out. He realized he had no idea why this man would help him. Why would a killer hunt a killer? The only thing he could do was shrug his shoulders and shake his head in despair.
“I can’t answer that,” he admitted and smiling weakly. “I don’t even know why I came down here. Desperation I guess. If my desk sergeant or the task force lieutenant found out I was in this cab with you I’d been suspended indefinitely. Maybe even arrested. Certainly fired. But something tells me we’re not going to find this guy. Not by our normal methods. It’s like this guy isn’t human. He makes no mistakes. He disappears into the night. Leaves nothing behind. So I thought, I thought, you might be our best hope. Our only hope to nab this guy.”
The car rocking and swaying as it moved. The flashing explosions of light. The shadows of parked cars and SUVs whipping past them. The rows upon rows of town homes and apartment buildings. All of that painted in layers upon Artie’s hyper active conscience as the figure in front remained silent and drove.
“How do you know I am not this madman? You’ve heard the rumors. You know what I sometimes do for a living. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? So tell me, why not consider me as a prime suspect?”
He shook his head no. Silently. Vigorously. The one thing Artie was sure of was this; the guy known as Smitty wasn’t a homicidal maniac. He didn’t kill for some sickly thrill. Some perverted pleasure. Smitty was a professional. A master at blending in and out of a crowd. Of taking out his assignment with a cold efficiency a lot of his fellow police officers grudgingly admired. And so far, so far as he knew, this dark eyed man had never killed an innocent victim. Each of his kills had been someone from out of the crime world. Someone who deservedly needed to die.
“I know it’s not you. I know this. These murders don’t fit your MO. They don’t make sense. Your hits always make sense. You hit someone for money. But your targets are slime balls who need to be put down. Uh, no offense, by the way. About the slime ball thing.”
A flicker of a smile flashed across the dark eyed man’s thin lips. But the eyes never blinked. They kept moving. Watching. Calculating.
“What do I do with this man if I find him. Do I kill him? Do I hand him over to you?”
“I dunno, Smitty. I dunno,” he answered.
Truthfully. He didn’t know.
If suddenly a street cop came walking into the precinct house with this guy cuffed what would he say? How could he explain to everyone this miraculous nab when the entire detective division was completely stumped. How could he explain this to his partner? Joe would have a thousand questions to ask. Questions he couldn’t possible answer. Not in a hundred years. Not in a thousand years.
“You’re asking me to find this guy and take care of him. You don’t necessarily want me to kill him. But you can’t bring him in. And I can’t reveal myself to your bosses. Interesting. What we have here, Artie, is a conundrum. A social intersection of impossibilities. A most curious dilemma.”
It was as if he was a giant balloon filled with helium and a kid came along with a big needle and stuck it in him. All the energy, all the worry, the fears, the emotions, dissipated out of him and into the night like escaping helium out of the balloon. Dropping his head in defeat he stared at his hands silently. Blinking back tears of frustration.
“This is what you’re going to do.”
The voice. Not so harsh. Still a whisper. But softer. Almost gentle.
Looking up Artie’s eyes flashed to the rear-view mirror and saw the black eyes of the killer staring at him. A flicker of hope burst into his gut. And he waited. Waited to hear what Smitty had in mind.
“Tomorrow night at exactly a quarter to midnight you’ll leave everything the police have in a folder in the back seat of this cab. The cab will be parked on the corner of Fourth and Elmore. In front of a liquor store called Bud’s Light. You know where it’s at.”
Artie nodded. He knew the place well. Been there several times to buy a bottle or two of good wine on the way home from work.
“Everything, Artie. Forensics reports. Photos. Everything. Even the doodles the detectives scribble on the note pads. Can you do this for me?”
“Do it by yourself, Artie. Don’t involve your partner in this. Don’t tell anyone else about our little meeting. Don’t make me start thinking this might be some kind of trap. Just a friendly warning. If I think you’re trying to screw me, Artie, I’ll come for you. And I’ll find you. Understand?”
Gulp. Yes, he understood. There would be no one else he’d talk to. There would be no traps. Smitty had nothing to worry about in that department.
Silence. A long stretch of terror filled silence.
And then the screeching of brakes and the car rapidly decelerating to a stop so suddenly he was almost thrown into the front seat. When his momentum threw him back into his seat he looked up and out of his door side window. And blinked a couple of times in amazement. His house. The small ranch house sat back deep from the street, a carpet of thick green grass between him and the house. The lights to the house were off. Except for the front porch light. The front porch light was always left on. His wife always left that on for him to see his way to the front door.
He threw the back-door open and started to get out. But the whisper froze him in his seat.
“Remember what I said, Artie. About not making me worried. I know where you live. I know where your wife works. I know where you hide the spare key to the house. I know about the gun you keep under the mattress on your side of the bed. I know, Artie. I know everything about you.”
He barely had time to slam the back door closed before the cab took off down the street. Bright red tail lights lit up the night momentarily before disappearing around a street corner, leaving him standing almost in the middle of the street. He was shivering like a kid straight out of a cold shower. Shivering uncontrollable.
How the hell did he know about the gun underneath the mattress? About the spare key? How?
He was scared. More scared than he had ever been in his life. Eyes staring into the void of the empty street in front of him he kept asking himself the same thing. Over and over. The same thing.
What the hell have I done? What the hell have I done? What the hell have I done?