“Look at this,” Hammond nodded down the road from where we were parked.
A vintage black Jaguar purred as it rolled to a stop in front of the bistro down the street. From our vantage, we could see the back of it clearly. It looked awfully familiar.
“Is it just me,” he said, “or does that look like the car from the video?”
The chef didn’t have any cars registered in his name. We’d checked. So I snapped a picture of the license plate, which hadn’t been visible in the footage. We watched in silence as the man himself walked out of the plain, unmarked door just down from the restaurant, bald head and everything. He was even wearing the same coat.
Hammond started the car as I took a few more pictures.
“Who’s driving?” he asked.
I shook my head. A man, it looked like, but I couldn’t see.
The Jag pulled away and we followed. It was a sweet car, too—an MK10, four-door, all black. Late 60s I’d say. We tailed it north to the office of a commercial moving company, strictly nonresidential, specializing in large items, like art for offices and expensive factory equipment. He met with them while Hammond and I waited down the road and across the street.
“Think he’s going somewhere?” I asked.
Hammond nodded. “Tell me again how you found this guy.”
“I never told you a first time,” I teased.
“Come on,” he chided. “How many million people in this city? We got a random picture of one. You go away and come back a couple days later with a name. How’s that work? And don’t say facial recognition because that’s bullshit. We didn’t have a face.” He turned to look at me. “This guy’s a ghost. Here he’s implicated in at least four murders and God knows what else, and we got no way to find him. And yet, you pull his name out of thin air.”
“Like magic,” I said.
It was nice being back with Craig, but there was a definite illicit feel to the whole thing that I could’ve done without. For reasons he didn’t want to elaborate, he got away from his partner, Detective Rigdon, for the afternoon, and it seemed to me he didn’t want the man to know, like he felt it was cheating—a work affair. I never got the whole bromance thing. Too many fucking rules.
“Look,” I said. “I took a gamble and it paid off.” That wasn’t exactly true, but it was close enough that I didn’t mind leaving it there.
Hammond turned back to watch the door down the road. The Jag was nowhere in sight.
“You don’t wanna tell me,” he said, “that’s your prerogative. Just don’t insult my intelligence, all right? That a fucking deal?”
I scowled. “Whatever. You don’t get to pick and choose what you wanna know and what you don’t.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about. I mention anything to do with the occult, anything at all, and you cover your ears and start making baby noises. La-la-la-la-la.”
“No, no. I do not.”
I’d tried to talk to him a couple times. I tried to talk to him after the Sacchi case. We had a row. He thought I was going over, as in losing it. Got hard for him to trust me with his life after that, which I understood. Eventually, I put in for a transfer. More for his sake—and his family’s—than mine.
“Target’s on the move,” I said flatly.
Étranger stepped from the office door as the black Jag pulled up with perfect timing. They drove a few miles down the road to a florist, where the chef spent all of five minutes before coming out with a tasteful bouquet.
“Maybe he’s got a girlfriend?” I asked as we pulled into traffic.
Hammond laughed. Genuinely. He just looked at me and shook his head.
“What?” I asked.
“For all the women you’ve dated, you’d think you’d be able to tell the difference.”
“The difference between what?”
He put the car in drive and pulled out. “That’s a funeral arrangement, you dope.”
“Really? How could you tell?”
“You didn’t see the white lilies? And the fern branches? In a short round pot? Give a gal something like that and she’s liable to think you’re planning to kill her.”
We passed a gourmet grocer and watch and shoe repair shop, on the roof of which stood a gray wolf as big as a horse. It watched us as we passed. Pretty sure I was the only one who saw it. I didn’t say anything.
“How do you not know that?” he asked.
“Whatever, man. Flowers are flowers. I get whatever looks nice. Or whatever she says she wants.”
“By ‘she’ do you mean the one with the colorful hair and the yoga legs?”
“Yoga legs?” I turned to him. “That’s what you remember?”
He shrugged. “What was her name again? Kinsey?”
“Kinney,” I said after a moment.
“Ah,” he said in understanding. He got from my tone that we weren’t together anymore. “She liked you,” he said. “She liked you a lot.”
I didn’t reply, and he waited a few minutes before asking. “You wanna talk about it?”
I made a face. “What do you think?”
“I’m just asking,” he said holding up a hand.
I watched the Jag, which was several cars ahead of us in traffic, as we inched toward the freeway. It took us another twenty minutes to get there, after which we wound through Queens and crossed the river before turning north up the FDR. Hammond followed at a safe distance. That we were following a vintage car and not just another silver SUV made it easy enough to spot, even if we lost sight for a minute.
“You think I don’t listen to you?” Hammond asked out of the blue.
I squinted at him. “What?”
“You said I don’t get to pick and choose what I wanna know and what I don’t,” he explained very deliberately, like he wanted to be sure I understood his meaning. “Does that mean you think I don’t listen to you?”
I kept squinting at him as he changed lanes on the expressway. “What’s with you? You got ball cancer or something?”
He pulled a stick of gum from his pocket. He handed it to me, but I refused and he unwrapped it and put it in his mouth. I could smell the mint.
“Dinah and I got this gal we talk to,” he said. “You know, a complete stranger you tell all your secrets to. But I like her, believe it or not. She doesn’t let me get away with the bullshit. Not that I’d ever let her know that. Anyway, the consensus seems to be that I can open up all right but I’m not a very good listener.”
I shook my head with a smile, choking back the easy jibe.
“Laugh all you want, Chase. Some of us take our relationships seriously.”
“That’s not why I’m laughing, ass. I’m laughing because it took you almost fifty years to figure that shit out.”
He nodded solemnly—like it was my words, versus what everyone else in his life had been telling him, that clinched the truth of it.
“You’re not a bad listener,” I explained. “You’re just selective. When you wanna be, you’re Fred fucking Rogers.”
He shook his head. “In the session the other day, I was distracted. Dinah thought I was mad, but I couldn’t stop thinking about a case I had recently. My Alexa Sacchi, I guess.”
“The triple I mentioned. This Chinese girl. Wasn’t much older than my Hadlee. I sent her to you. The Chinese girl. Did I tell you that?”
I shook my head.
“She started talking about . . . you know, all that kinda stuff.” He waved a hand. “She had a tarot deck and was talking curses and shit and I thought ‘Oh Christ. Here we go.’ And I told her to talk to you. I thought you could sort it all out. I didn’t wanna deal. I already had a caseload up to my sack and I didn’t want to waste time wading through all the—” He stopped.
We watched as the Jag exited the expressway. Hammond hit the blinker and we followed it into Spanish Harlem.
He sighed, like he was sorry he mentioned anything and wanted to wrap it up. “So now I’m wondering if I treat all the women in my life that way.”
He was asking me because I didn’t count. In Craig Hammond’s mind, I wasn’t a woman. At least, not in any way that counted.
“You really worried?” I asked.
“I’m just wondering how many times I’ve sent the girls to their mother like that, when they were going on about school or some boy or something, because I was too busy trying to put some asshole away.”
“Naw,” I said. “I don’t see it. No offense to Dinah, but you’ve always been a better dad than a husband.”
He nodded again, wistfully.
I turned to him. “You wanna talk about it?” I asked with a wry smile.
He snorted. “Fuck you.”
The Jag pulled into a three-story public parking garage.
“Shit,” he said.
If we followed them right behind, there’s a good chance we’d be spotted. If we rolled around the block, we’d probably lose them on foot.
“There,” I pointed.
Just inside the alley between the garage and a hair salon there were three open spots, reserved specifically for police. Hammond pulled in as I pulled the car’s department registration from the glove compartment and tossed it on the dash.
We jumped out at the same time.
“You go east,” he said, and took off the other way.
I moved down the alley, eyes scanning the parking garage for any signs of the Jag or the man in the fantastic coat. But there was nothing. I ran out to the main road at the far side of the alley which was lined with single-story shops on both sides of the street, the kind with narrow facings crammed full of wares where the signs displayed the brands for sale rather than the name of the store. Men’s clothes, a couple ladies’ boutiques, a Farmacia Latina proudly displaying the Puerto Rican flag, a combo wig shop and hair salon, a convenience store, a falafel shop, a taqueria, a pet supply store, a liquor store, and more, all the way down to the train tracks that ran over the street two blocks from me.
Cars were parked at meters along the street, and there was the usual forest of telephone poles and street signs. With the crowd, I didn’t have any trouble keeping cover. And the chef wasn’t hard to spot, not with that bald head and that pot of flowers cradled in his arm. He crossed the street and stopped two blocks down in front of a large mural painted on a brick wall facing the main road. It was a swirling, floral, blue-and-white tribute to a goateed man, whose likeness took up most of the image. He was looking up and away to the horizon warmly but resolutely. Smaller depictions, presumably scenes from his life, fell away on both sides of his head surrounded by turning bands of flowers and curls. Most of it was done in white paint. The shading and contrast was all the same tone of gray-blue. The sidewalk underneath was filled with flowers and votive candles of all kinds.
The chef added his contribution, which looked horribly formal and out of place, before stepping back to admire the image. I took the opportunity to snap a photo of the mural from my perch behind a parked car on the other side of the street. A quick image search told me this was a memorial to a local man named Alonso White, who had apparently died the year before. I read as much as I could. He seemed like quite the guy: community organizer, counselor, later an ordained Unitarian. Had some political ambitions but not the kind that got anyone worried.
I glanced up from my phone every few seconds to check my quarry, who seemed to be paying his respects. That was when I caught the date of Alonso’s death. And that made me pause. He blew himself up in some Wall Street office the very same night Kent Cormack was shot—the night I had my first seizure in decades.
When I looked up, the chef was gone.
I turned my head right, then left, and spotted him walking down the road under the train tracks. I just had time to see him disappear around the corner on the other side. I ran after, drawing a screech and a couple honks when I crossed the road, but as soon as I passed the train and took the same turn, I ran right into a dead end. I slapped my hand against a wall of brick. I spun and scanned the street in every direction. But he was gone.
That’s when I saw someone on the roof of the building across from me—a big guy in a leather coat. He turned and walked away before I got a good look at him, but I’m positive it was the driver of the Jag. It was a set-up.
We’d been made.
rough cut from To the White of the Bone, third course of my forthcoming five-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.
cover image by Aykut Aydogdu