Small crimes, p.1
Small Crimes, page 1
Dave Zeltserman recently left software development to write crime fiction and study Kung Fu. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, Judy, a homeopathy practitioner. Small Crimes is his third novel.
A complete catalogue record for this book can be obtained from the British Library on request
The right of Dave Zeltserman to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
Copyright ©2008 Dave Zeltserman
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, dead or alive, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
First published in 2008 by Serpent’s Tail,
an imprint of Profile Books Ltd
3A Exmouth House
London EC1R OJH
eBook ISBN: 978 1 84765 624 7
To Alan Luedeking
This was going to be our last game of checkers. Usually we played in my cell; this last game, though, we were playing in Morris’s office. Over the last seven years we had played tens of thousands of games. Every fourth or fifth game I’d win, the rest I’d let him beat me.
Morris Smith ran the county jail here in Bradley. He was a large round man in his early sixties, with soft rubbery features and small wisps of hair framing his mostly bald head. I liked Morris – at least as much as I liked anyone. He could have made my life difficult the past seven years; instead he treated me about as well as he could’ve.
I spent a few seconds studying the board and saw that I could force a checker advantage and a sure win, but I could also set myself up to be triple-jumped. I pretended to be deep in thought for a couple of minutes and then made the move to let him force the triple jump.
Morris sat silently, his small eyes darting over all the possible moves. I saw a momentary glint in his eyes when he recognized the combination leading to the triple jump, and watched with some amusement as he tried to suppress a smile. He pushed his checker in place with a large, thick hand that shook.
‘I think you made a mistake there, young fellow,’ he said, his voice coming out in a low croak.
I sat there for a long moment and then cursed to show that I realized how I had screwed up. Letting loose one last profanity, I made the move I was forced to make and watched as Morris pounced on the board, making his triple jump and picking up my checkers.
‘That should be about it,’ he said.
We played out the rest of the moves. I knew Morris took great satisfaction in removing the last checker from the board. When the game was over, he gave a slight smile and offered me his hand in a conciliatory shake.
‘You gave me a good game,’ he said, ‘except for that one mistake.’
‘What can I say? You’ve been kicking my ass for seven years now. I just got to admit I’ve met my match.’
Morris chuckled, obviously pleased with himself. He glanced at his watch. ‘Your paperwork is all done. You’re a free man. But if you’d like, I could order us some lunch and we could play one more game.’
‘I’d like to, but it’s been a long seven years. I’ve been craving a cheeseburger and a few beers for some time now.’
‘I could have that brought here.’
‘Well, yeah,’ I said, hesitating, ‘but you could get in trouble doing that, Morris. And, besides, it wouldn’t taste the same in here. No offense.’
He nodded, some disappointment showing on his round face. ‘Joe, I’ve grown to like you over the last few years. I didn’t think I would after what you did to get yourself in here. Can I give you some friendly advice?’
‘Why don’t you start fresh someplace else? Maybe Florida? Myself, soon as I retire in three years, I’m moving to Sarasota. You can keep these lousy New England winters.’
‘That’s not bad advice, but one of the conditions of my parole is to stay in Bradley—’
‘You could petition for a change of address.’
‘Well, yeah, I guess I could, but my parents are getting up there in age, and I’d like to make up for lost time.’
He shrugged. ‘I hope you at least think about it. I don’t think Bradley’s a good place for you anymore.’
‘I appreciate the advice. But I don’t have much choice in the matter. At least not right now.’
We stood up and shook hands. I turned away to pick up my duffel bag and Morris asked whether I wanted to call my parents for a ride. I told him I’d get a cab. I made a quick phone call, signed whatever paperwork I had to, and was led out of the building by Morris. A cab was waiting for me, but there was a man bent over, talking to the driver. The cab pulled away, and as the man stood up I recognized him instantly. I’d have to with the way his face was carved up and the thick piece of flesh that was missing from his nose. At one time, he had been a good-looking man, but that was before he had been stabbed thirteen times in the face.
Morris looked a bit uncomfortable. ‘Well, uh,’ he said, ‘it was a pleasure having you as my guest, young fellow. If you ever want to stop by for a lesson on the theory of checkers, feel free.’ Then, seriously, ‘Try to stay out of trouble.’
He gave me a pat on the back and waved to the other man before disappearing back into the building. The other man stood grinning, but it didn’t extend to his eyes. Looking at him was like staring at an open-mouthed rattlesnake.
I nodded to him. ‘I don’t want any trouble, Phil,’ I said.
Phil Coakley just stood grinning with eyes that were hard glass. Phil was the district attorney in our county. I knew he’d been stabbed thirteen times in the face because that’s how many times they told me I’d stabbed him. That was a good part of the reason I’d spent the last seven years in county jail.
‘I’m sorry for what happened,’ I said, keeping my distance.
Phil waved me over, his grin intact, but still nothing in his eyes. ‘I don’t want any trouble either, Joe,’ he said. ‘As far as I’m concerned you’ve paid your debt to society, and what’s done is done. I just want to clear the air, make sure there are no hard feelings. Come on over here. Let’s talk for a minute.’
I didn’t like it, but I didn’t feel as if I had any choice. When I moved closer to him, I could see the scarring along his face more plainly, and it was all I could do to keep from looking away. The damage was far worse up close. He looked almost as if someone had played tic-tac-toe on his face. As if he were some grotesque caricature from a Dick Tracy comic strip. Parts of his face were uneven with other parts, and that chunk of flesh missing from his nose, Jesus Christ. As tough as doing so was, I kept my eyes straight on him.
‘I hope you don’t mind, Joe,’ he said, ‘but I asked your taxi to come back so we could talk for a few minutes.’
‘Sure, that’s fine.’
‘I’ve been waiting out here almost an hour. Your parole was supposed to be completed by noon.’
‘You know how Morris is. He takes his time with things.’
Phil gave a slow nod. ‘Look at you,’ he said, ‘Joe, I think jail agrees with you. Your beer gut’s gone. Damn, you look better now than you’ve looked in years. But I guess you can’t say the same about me.’
‘If there was any way I could go back and change what I did—’
‘Yeah, I know, don’t worry about it. What’s done is done.’ He paused for a moment, his grin hardening again
I didn’t say anything. He gave a careless shrug, still grinning. ‘But that’s all in the past,’ he said. ‘You paid your debt, even though seven years doesn’t quite seem long enough. What was your original sentence? Twenty-four years?’
‘Sixteen to twenty-four,’ I said.
‘Sixteen to twenty-four years.’ Phil let out a short whistle. ‘It seems to me like a hell of a short sentence for what you did. And you only had to serve out seven years of it in county jail, all the time being waited on hand and foot by old Morris Smith.’
‘It hasn’t been all that easy. My wife divorced me—’
‘Yeah, I know. My wife divorced me, too.’ He paused. ‘I guess she had a difficult time looking me straight in the face.’
He had lost his grin. I just stared at him, stared at the mass of scar tissue that I was responsible for. After a while, I asked him what he wanted.
‘I just wanted to clear the air,’ he said. ‘Make sure there are no hard feelings between the two of us. Also, I want to talk a little police business with you. After all, you were a police officer in this town for twelve years. You hear that Manny Vassey’s dying of cancer?’
‘I heard something about it.’
Phil forced his grin back and shook his head slightly. ‘The man’s only fifty-six and he’s dying of stomach cancer. Manny always was a tough bird. Normally I wouldn’t have a chance of cracking him, but, when a man’s dying, sometimes he needs to unburden himself. You know, at one point I think every drug, gambling, and prostitution dollar that flowed through Vermont went into his hands. You remember Billy Ferguson? I think you investigated his murder.’
‘I guess you would,’ he said. ‘It’s not as if we have a lot of murders here, and I don’t think we ever had one as brutal as that one. How many years ago was that?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe ten.’
Phil thought about it and shook his head. ‘I think it was less than eight and a half years ago. Only a few months before you maimed me. I’ll tell you, Joe, that was one hell of a brutal murder. I don’t think I ever saw anyone beaten as badly as Ferguson was.’
He waited for me to say something, but I just stood there and stared back at him. After a while he gave up and continued.
‘Billy Ferguson was in way over his head with gambling debts,’ he said. ‘As far as I could tell, he owed Manny thirty thousand dollars. I suspect Manny sent one of his thugs over to collect and the situation got out of hand. Do you remember anything from your investigation?’
‘That was a long time ago. But as I remember, we hit a brick wall. No fingerprints, no witnesses, nothing.’
‘Well, I’m not giving up on it. I’m making it a point to visit Manny religiously.’ Phil laughed, but his grin was long gone. ‘I’m spending time each day reading him the Bible. I think he’s beginning to see the light. With a little bit of luck I’ll get a confession any day now and clear up Ferguson’s murder along with a few other crimes that have always bugged me.’
I didn’t bother saying anything. He was wasting his time, but he’d find that out for himself. Manny Vassey was joined at the hip with the Devil, and there wasn’t a chance in hell he’d ever find God or confess to anything. My cab pulled back up to us. Before I could say a word, Phil grabbed my duffel bag from me and swung it into the cab’s trunk. ‘Be seeing you around, Joe,’ he said as he walked off.
I sat back in the cab and took out of my pocket a worn and creased photo of my two daughters. The picture was taken at Courtney’s first birthday. Melissa at the time was only a little over three, and the two girls were standing side by side, Melissa holding Courtney’s hand to keep her standing upright. They wore matching yellow dresses, both with pink ribbons in their long blonde hair. Both girls looking a bit chubby, Courtney more so than Melissa. I felt a tug at my heart seeing the shy little smile breaking out over Melissa’s face and the look of total confusion on Courtney’s. I remembered the rest of that day. The way Courtney’s face had ended up covered in chocolate ice cream, and Melissa later hugging Courtney like she was some sort of doll. And both girls jumping onto my lap, both giggling like crazy. I had few other memories of my girls, at least ones that I cared to remember.
After a while I carefully slid the photo into my wallet. Then I closed my eyes and thought about how I had ended up the way I did.
Nine years ago I was up to my eyeballs in gambling debts. I was in deep, a lot deeper than Billy Ferguson ever was. Back then I was out of control. It wasn’t that I was a coke fiend, but I did too much of it, and I did too much drinking and too much gambling. Way too much gambling. Especially on football games. I would’ve been better off flipping a coin than the way I picked them. There were weeks I was shut out completely. But that’s the thing with degenerate gamblers – you always think you have an edge, that you’ll make it all back with one big bet. Of course I never did. All I ever accomplished was getting myself in deeper.
I owed Manny a lot of money. I was paying him back as much as I could, but it was never enough and he kept putting the pressure on. When he threatened to hurt my wife and children, I knew I had no choice. I agreed to do jobs for him to work down the balance. At first the jobs were small, fairly inconsequential, but over time Manny kept upping the ante. Somehow I had to get out from under him. I started taking bigger chances with what I stole from the police evidence room. The sheriff of Bradley County, Dan Pleasant, who was maybe the most corrupt law enforcement officer I’d ever met, found out that Phil had discovered some of my forged documents and was building a criminal conspiracy case against me. I thanked Dan for the information and told him I’d take care of things.
I was pretty coked up the night I broke into Phil’s office. I found the documents implicating me. I was pouring gasoline around his office when he showed up. It was past midnight and he had no right showing up when he did, but there he was. We just kind of looked at each other. He knew what I was up to, and he should have left and called the police. Instead he tried to stop me. Now Phil’s a big guy. He was a star linebacker in high school and even played in college, but I was fighting for my life. I guess I was also kind of crazed from the coke and the adrenalin.
Somehow I got him on his back and grabbed a letter opener from the desk. I guess I was stabbing him with it. To be honest, that part is nothing more than a blur in my mind. I really don’t remember too much of it. What I do remember is at some point Phil had stopped moving. I got off him, lit a match, and waited for the fire to spread before leaving.
The funny thing was I had always liked Phil. I always thought of him as a solid person, a good family man, just an overall decent human being. If I’d had a real knife, like a fishing or hunting knife, I would’ve killed him that night. The letter opener wasn’t sharp enough. I did damage – Jesus, did I do damage – but I didn’t kill him.
About the time I was setting the fire he must’ve pulled a silent fire alarm. I didn’t see him but he must’ve done it then. The police and the fire trucks showed while I was leaving the building. I just about walked into them. My dad was working as a fireman then, and he was with them. Hell, I think I was still holding onto that bloody letter opener.
I was arrested that night. I could see the disappointment in some of my fellow officers’ faces, but I could also see some anxiety. Several of them would go to prison if I talked. Harold Grayson, probably one of the better lawyers we have around here, was hired for me by the police union. He wanted me to plead innocent, claiming I suffered diminished capacity due to my excessive cocaine use. I refused and pled guilty instead. It seemed time to take my medicine. And I kept quiet about everything
During the last seven years, when I wasn’t playing Morris at checkers, I spent my time trying to understand how I had taken the turn that I did. It shouldn’t have been that way. There was nothing in my background to suggest I’d end up a crooked cop, a cocaine user and a degenerate gambler. I’d had a normal childhood. I was born in Bradley, spent my whole life there, played quarterback for my high school team, and ended up marrying my childhood sweetheart. I’d only been out of Bradley County a few times in my life and never more than a four-hour drive away. Hell, I’d lived the perfect Norman Rockwell existence.
As a kid, I watched Adam-12 and Dragnet and can only remember wanting to be a cop when I grew up. After I graduated from high school I joined the Bradley Police Department. I never looked to make any money on the side, but the bribes were there waiting for me and I took them. Some of the local bars would offer me fifty bucks to look the other way on Friday and Saturday nights about their customers maybe driving home drunk. And then I started getting my weekly stipend for ignoring what was going on at a local strip club named Kelley’s. And there were other things. Like us splitting up money that disappeared from the evidence room and helping ourselves to what we could take off the occasional drunk. It started out small, little crimes, nothing big, but that’s what got me into gambling and cocaine. The payoffs and thefts made me feel dirty and made me want to unload the money as quickly as I got it. I’m pretty sure that’s what got me started.
The big crimes began one summer night about twelve years ago. It was three in the morning, and I was having trouble sleeping. I had gotten into my cruiser and was driving around town when I noticed the front door of a jewelry store jimmied open. As usual, I had my service revolver with me, and when I went to investigate I found Dan Pleasant and several of his boys ransacking the place. So I had a choice; bust our county sheriff and several of his officers or go in for a split. I guess I felt uneasy busting a fellow officer, especially feeling as dirty as I did, so I took my cut. Dan worked with a fence in upstate New York, and my share was fifteen grand – which I pissed away as quickly as I got it. After that robbery I joined Dan on others and got hooked up with Manny.
by Dave Zeltserman / Mystery & Thrillers / Horror / Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes