CHAPTER ONE

Wile E. Coyote

 

I was having a bad day.

The ugly thug facing me readied himself for the next swing. “What did you say, bastard?” His red-splattered knuckles were ready for the next round; my body wasn’t.

“I’m haffin a fah fay,” I managed to repeat through a mouthful of saliva and blood.

That made Julian Ragazzo, former welterweight boxing champ and top bodyguard to the city’s prime Italian Mafia family, smile. His wet beard glistened with sweat beads around stained teeth. Glad one of us was happy.

I took stock of the damage Ragazzo had already done. Broken nose, check. Split lip, check. Swollen eye, check. Broken rib, double check, and the list went on and on. It could have been worse. The injuries, though painful, weren’t enough to put me in the hospital. Sure, I’d hurt for a week or four, but I’d live to tell the tale outside of a body cast. I knew that, and Ragazzo did, too. This was a game we’d both played before … not that I’d gotten any better at it.

I caught a reflection of myself in the glossy surface of a cabinet door. My messy mop of brown locks was matted with blood on one side and the five o’clock shadow had a hard time concealing a fast-bruising chin. One eye was swollen shut and the other had a pale blue, haunted orb dancing amidst a sea of red veins. I was a mess, and not a hot one.

I closed my good eye and waited for the next blow. The bodyguard didn’t disappoint. A second later, he delivered a power punch and I saw stars. It didn’t help that I was tied to a chair and my already sore shoulders screamed in protest at the added strain. In a noise that only I could hear, my body cried out, ‘How in all the hells was this part of the plan?’ Fair question—it wasn’t.

In truth, there may have been a few glitches here and there. Like those two extra guards at the office building’s back entrance, plus that wrong turn I took on the fourteenth floor. Yeah, okay … the plan was just as screwed as I was.

Ragazzo followed up his haymaker with another kick in the guts. It would have ripped a scream out of me if I’d had any breath left for it. Instead, my lungs just took in short, choppy gasps I couldn’t control.

“Well, well, well … look what the cat dragged in,” taunted an Italian-lilted voice.

I recognized the lazy drawl and opened my good eye to confirm my suspicions. Sure enough, Alonzo Vitorini, Cold City’s resident wannabe kingpin, stood near the entrance in a dark-green pinstriped suit. Shit, looking at his ugly get-up hurt worse than any of Ragazzo’s blows.

Vitorini sauntered into the room, smiling as he noticed my stare. “Like the suit?” he asked, doing a little pirouette to show off this walking insult to fashion.

I wasn’t going to reply, but the second my eye caught sight of the finishing touch, a pair of black-and-white spectator shoes, my mouth kicked into gear on its own.

“Al Capone called,” I wheezed out. “He wants his brogues back.”

Vitorini laughed, the corners of his muddy-green eyes wrinkling. Not sure if he was laughing at the crack or the fact that he was going to kill me for it in another minute or two.

Vito, as most of us on the street called him, was in his late forties and his family’s only remaining heir. Upon his father’s death, he’d inherited the business: gun running, money laundering, and illegal gambling, complete with a cover-up network of legit storefronts. He’d done what he could to keep the business afloat, but he wasn’t his father. The Great Recession had hit everyone pretty hard and things weren’t like they were in his dear ol’ dad’s heyday. His father had built an empire, paid for in blood—an organization now turned to little more than a bitter aftertaste. More efficient predators than Vitorini had put him under new management, something he chafed at.

“Bellamy Vale,” Vitorini said, forcing out a theatrical sigh. “I might have known.”

I gave him my best Cheshire Cat smile and winced as it pulled at every sore spot on my face.

The mob boss chuckled before turning to his bodyguard. “Where’s the girl?”

“Next office, with Giovanni,” Ragazzo said, wiping his bloody knuckles with a handkerchief.

“Good.” Vitorini brushed a thin hand through his greasy, shoulder-length, dirty-blond hair. “Don’t lose that one. She’s worth two hundred thousand.”

The girl was Marion Townsend. From what I’d seen of her, she was a thirteen-year-old kid with wavy brown locks, dark-brown eyes, and a shy smile. I had a picture of her in my army jacket’s breast pocket to confirm it. Her mother’s shaking fingers had crinkled one of its corners as she passed it to me—the person she felt was her only hope of finding her daughter.

Her husband had handed me a comfortable retainer and articulated an even bigger number if I brought his daughter home safely. While Mrs. Townsend was more expressive in her feelings of sadness, her husband showed more self-control and that only made him more frightening. I feared the rage that would flow out of him if I did not complete the task that they had assigned me.

“Kidnapping kids, Vito?” I muttered through the blood in my mouth. I turned my head to the side and spit it out. “That’s a new low, even for you.”

“Business is business,” he replied with a shrug of his epaulette-clad shoulders. “Money is money.”

If my body wasn’t so busy processing pain and firing nerves, I’d have rolled my eyes. Sure, Charlie Lucky had said the same things back in the day. But this little pissant wasn’t fit to lick the founding father of the modern Mafia’s much more tasteful shoes.

“I faced off ghouls who had higher moral values,” I said.

“Been knocked on the head one too many time, huh, Vale?” Vitorini flashed a smile full of crooked, yellowed teeth.

“Now, don’t take this the wrong way—” he opened the side of his vest, revealing a white shoulder holster, and drew out a gun—“but it’s time for you to die.”

The pistol, a custom 1911 nickel-plated .45 Colt, was on a par with the rest of his outfit—stylized excess that leaped past the boundaries of form, function, and profanity alike. No wonder the Vitorini empire had deflated so quickly. Its leader was behind the rest of the world by at least four decades, caught somewhere between The Godfather and The Untouchables.

Vitorini took two steps closer, apparently so I could appreciate the gaudy silver-and-gold engravings on the pistol’s barrel. Not that I wanted to get shot on top of everything else, but whatever happened to a good old-fashioned holdout pistol that you dumped after the coup de grâce?

My smile vanished and I kept on working on loosening the ropes behind my back. I chanced a quick glance at Ragazzo to make sure he hadn’t noticed. The beefy man was propped against a wall, taking long drags off a joint. He looked … satisfied. As if getting out some of his aggression earlier had done him good.

Others might have been pissing themselves right now, but not me. “Private investigators always keep their cool,” or so I’d read. Besides, the thought of getting killed by something as ridiculous as that gun was good incentive to stay calm and focus on freeing my hands.

The rope wasn’t coming free fast enough. For at least the twentieth time since I’d been hauled into this office, I cursed myself for taking this case. It was the type of job I usually refused. There were dozens of reasons why I should have said no from the start. For one, taking on mobsters wasn’t a PI’s business; it was the police’s responsibility. But damn if I didn’t find one to make me say yes.

You’re a big softie, man, I thought to myself. One broken-hearted mother comes to you with the picture of a smiling angel and you come a-running, right into a trap. Some professional you are.

I felt the rope shift under my fingers. The next step was going to hurt, but there was no getting around it. I turned my hand sideways, pushing it as far as I could, and twisted my thumb. As the bone snapped out of the socket, I fought to not let the burning pain register on my face. That’s right, keep talking, Vito.

Vitorini took another step. A cruel and devious smile crept across his face; strands of greasy blond hair fell into his deranged face as he plunged the trigger, savoring the moment of murder. Time slowed to a near standstill as my brain tried to order the details of my death: Bellamy Vale, died age 33, killed by baby mobster Alonzo Vitorini. He thought he was doing the right thing.

Was this it, I wondered. Was this my murder? Was today the day I died? There was no fear in me as I looked down the pistol’s barrel. I exhaled and waited, letting Vitorini’s finger finish its long drag on the trigger.

I waited for the bang.

The pain.

The white light taking me beyond.

But it never came.

After all that build-up, all Vitorini, Ragazzo, and I got out of it was an annoying click. As a wise man once put it, “I might have known.”

I took advantage of the confusion distracting my captors to work my semi-broken hand free. I got through the rope, flipped it away, and lunged right at Vitorini. The Colt went flying into a corner, the bullet still jammed inside the barrel.

The would-be kingpin backpedaled under my weight until he hit a glass wall. He fell to the floor in a daze, momentarily out of commission. It gave me vital seconds to land a winning blow on Ragazzo. That human oak had been breast-fed on ring fights. I knew that if I let him get another punch in, I was toast. I kicked him low, catching him on the side of his knee. Something delicate cracked underneath my combat boot, making the man howl in pain. Off balance, he tried to take a swing at me, but I sidestepped the blow. Bad footing is a bitch.

I reached for the phone on a nearby wooden desk and threw it at him. It went flying, the cord ripping right out of the wall socket. It caught Ragazzo on the side of the head. I’d sort of hoped that would be enough, but I should have known he’d stay on his feet. A boxer is trained to take that kind of punishment and keep swinging. A fine trickle of blood ran down the side of his face and his gaze lost some of its focus.

I cursed and made a grab for the next item in reach. I hurled it at him with all the strength I had left. It hit him in the same place, before exploding into glinting fragments. This time, the champ went down for the ten-count. Julian Ragazzo—zero. Orange World’s Best Dad mug—one.

Bending in two to try and catch my breath, I turned to the place where I’d last seen Vitorini. Empty space stared back at me … the damn coward had fled. His vanity-plated Colt was still there, lying at the foot of a potted plant. I reached down for it and yanked the slide back to clear the chamber. My ribs protested my movements, but I choked the pain down. There was no time for it. Thanks to me, Marion was now in grave danger. Her status had just gone from product of the year to major liability in the space of about five seconds.

I darted out the office and veered left. I just managed to catch sight of the elevator’s doors closing, a little girl’s scream for help cut off in mid-yelp. Shit, definitely no time to lose. I ran forward and tried to make out the illuminated floor indicator with 50% visibility—thirteen.

A gun fired behind me. I ducked just in time. Plaster exploded inches over my head, covering me in fine white dust. I rolled to the left, got up on one knee and did a one-eighty. I fired two rounds from Vitorini’s Colt and missed a bald man wearing gray fatigues by just a few hairs. He retreated for cover into the office he’d been hiding in.

I had maybe two seconds to do the same. In this barren corridor, I was a six-foot-tall sitting duck. I stayed in a low crouch, glanced at the elevator—ten—and used my shoulder to push the door in. Two more bullets narrowly missed me as I got in some executive’s office. Once there, I checked the Colt’s magazine—five rounds left in the clip plus the one in the chamber.

“The hells,” I cursed. Vito was making his escape with Marion in tow, while I was playing bullet tag with his boys. Once they got out of the building, I’d have a hard time tracking them down again … and I doubted that Marion would be alive by the time I did.

I looked around for a solution, but this was just another office on a floor full of them. Two fully laden desks, high-backed leather office chairs on wheels, the latest gen in computers, one ugly potted plant in the back corner, inane corporate motivational posters urging their viewers to “be the best you can be” and “always aim for the top” … wasn’t there anything useful in here? Finally, I spotted what I needed. I grabbed the silver tray next to the coffee machine and reached for the nearest chair.

I rolled out of that room in style, letting the momentum carry me across the battlefield. I knelt on the chair, the tray sandwiched between me and the chair’s back to act as makeshift Kevlar. Three nine mils came to a loud clanking end against the flat surface before I rolled to an abrupt stop against the corridor wall.

I jumped backward, kicking the chair towards my sparring partner. He kept firing at it while I fired at him. Two bullets nailed him, one at center-mass and the other one a few inches below his left shoulder.

Now that my assailant was ancient history, I took a deep breath and got back on my feet. I did a quick check of the elevator indicator; it was stuck on three. With adrenaline taking the edge off my pain, I made a run for the stainless-steel doors that would lead me to the stairs.

As I ran down I tried to recall the building’s layout. It was a fourteen-floor, thin, rectangular building, maybe twenty feet wide and three times that in length. The exterior was comprised of beige stones and endless rows of windows, all except the front which was a solid sheet of glass. SeaVenture, the luxury liner company started up by Vito’s father just a few years before he croaked, owned the entire fourteenth floor. I had no idea who occupied the other floors … companies who couldn’t afford the top floor somewhere else?

With four shots left in the Colt’s mag and the nagging feeling that I was throwing myself into yet another trap, I pushed open the door to the third floor. A quiet, empty corridor awaited me on the other side. I breathed a sigh of relief as I advanced, my finger hovering over the Colt’s trigger just in case. I rounded a corner, found nothing.

A whirr in the distance caught my attention. I picked up my pace as I retraced my steps. It was the elevator, going down again—two, one, ground floor.

“Shit!” I spat. That bastard in pompous shoes was getting away. I rushed back to the stairs. I had to get to him before—

Wait. I froze in my tracks, my hand resting on the staircase door handle. Something didn’t add up … the third floor, why had they stopped on the third floor? The elevator had been here for … what, two, three minutes? Why?

I looked around the place some more. All I found were cubicles and private offices. One of them had another cheerful poster on the wall beside the entrance. It said in big bold letters “With us you can” over a picture of an open can of white paint with a brush dipped inside.

Only one thing could have made that two-bit Mafia heir stop at this level … he wanted to throw me off his trail. Marion had to be around here somewhere. I turned my back on the staircase and elevator and entered the lobby beyond the paint poster.

Much as I wanted to plug him with his own gun, Vito could get away for all I cared. He wasn’t the mission. Marion was. I’d already promised her parents that I’d get her back, a promise I was going to keep or die trying. The pain of having to survive your own child’s death is unspeakable. I’d do my damnedest to make sure the Townsends never found that out firsthand.

I moved forward, past a row of identical desks laden with identical fittings and stacks of paper. A sound disturbed the silence in the distance, a muffled scream … Marion.

I quickened my pace, ran down another row of desks, turned a corner, and cruised through a conference room. There were three private offices on the far side with identical wooden doors. The last one on the right was ajar.

I made a run for it, kicked the door wide open, and fired the moment I had a lock on my target. No time for second-guessing.

“Aim and shoot, son. Just aim and shoot,” my Navy Chief at Great Lakes used to say in that thick Southern drawl of his. It was a lesson I’d retained, the kind of behavior that had saved countless soldiers’ lives, including my own. On the battlefield, there wasn’t room for anything else but your training.

The floor-to-ceiling window behind the goon in front of me fractured as my bullet hit him right between the eyes. Gray matter and blood had just enough time to splatter on the glass before it all turned to splinters. No time to celebrate, though. I scanned the room for more thugs. My eyes found Marion in an instant. She was kneeling at the foot of a desk, fear plaguing her face while tears spilled from her eyes.

Weapon at the ready, I continued the sweep as I made my way over to my clients’ daughter. A flurry of movement on the right got my attention. I threw myself behind a five-foot steel cabinet just as the first bullets flew my way. I returned fire, wasting two more precious bullets on a blurry shape I hadn’t had time to identify, much less get a bead on.

The girl screamed. I glanced over at her to see if she was hurt. She wasn’t. She’d recoiled as far back as she could, curled up into a tight ball of fear in the room’s back left corner. She looked scared but unharmed. As I took it all in, I realized she was in decent striking distance of the door. Two or three long strides and she could be out of here. On the other hand, my jumping behind that filing cabinet had taken me further inside the room. I was almost equal distance between the entrance door and the large hole where a window used to be opposite it.

Vito’s man, whom I now saw was some short, ginger-haired teen punk, had retreated further into the room. He was sandwiched between the gaping hole I’d made and a tall promotional display consisting of rows and rows of paint cans. My bullets had hit two of them; red and pink paint pooled on the gray-carpeted floor. I could make out the man’s reflection in the ex-window’s shiny frame, reloading his gun. Lucky bastard … he had a spare clip while I was down to my last bullet and my options thinning as fast as the sun was setting.

I turned to Marion. She was a frightened ball of crumpled clothes and wild dark hair. I could barely make out her face.

“Marion,” I hissed at her, “can you hear me?”

I didn’t get a response, but I kept talking. “You’re going to be all right, Marion. Your parents sent me to get you.”

That got a sliver of recognition from the girl, making her uncurl an inch or two.

Two more bullets crashed into the metal filing cabinet. “You and that girl ain’t getting out of here alive, Pops!” Ginger shouted.

“Don’t listen to him, Marion, listen to me!” I urged. “Look at me, Marion. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”

Three more bullets clanged against my shield cabinet to argue otherwise. But I saw a shy pair of brown eyes turned upwards and got my first real look at Marion Townsend. Although she was a mess, she was definitely the girl from the picture. The thin eyebrows came from her mother and the round cheeks from her father.

“Run,” I mouthed to her. “Run!”

She shook her head.

“Go on!” I kept mouthing. “Run!”

She shook her head again.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. This kid didn’t know me from Adam and on top of all that I looked like I’d just lost a fight with Rocky. I caught her gaze and willed her to believe me.

“Please, Marion!” I whispered. “It’s time to be brave. Just get to your feet and you’ll be home in no time.”

Her lips trembled, but she nodded and uncurled her legs. She was wearing blue jeans and a Bugs Bunny sweater. I smiled at that, I was a fan too. Marion was short and thin, and I hoped she’d move fast. Two or three quick strides in the right direction and she’d be safe.

I gave her a nod and turned my head away from her. Ginger was hiding behind his paint display, probably lining up his next shot. With the Colt held in my right hand, I counted down from five with my left. When I ran out of fingers, I pushed my fist in the direction of the door. Marion bolted for the exit and I ran forward to place myself in the line of fire. Vitorini’s man missed the girl, but he didn’t miss me.

A bullet ripped through my left arm, and a haze of red clouded my vision. I careened towards Ginger, dodging a couple more shots on the way. My vision blurred as I felt my body giving up on me. I forced myself to keep moving, to keep running. When I got close enough to make out my target through the haze, I aimed, shot … and kept running.

I couldn’t stop. My feet weren’t responding anymore and the momentum carried me forward, right through that mess I’d made of the window. I had just enough time to hear the crunch of the glass beneath my boots before I fell.

A misspent childhood watching The Bugs Bunny Show every Saturday hit me and I chuckled as I said to no one but me and the gods, “Eh, look at me, I’m Wile E. Coyote!” Then it all went black.

 

***

 

Death smelled surprisingly nice. Every part of me hurt, and I was uncomfortable as hell, but at least death smelled sweet.

I rolled over and forced my functioning eye open. It was now dark and—I blinked, once, twice—what I was seeing looked an awful lot like the building I’d just made a graceless exit from. Why, it even had the same gaping broken window on the third floor.

A silhouette came into this confusing picture. It took me a moment to focus on the man towering over me, but I knew that face. Forties, short brown hair, bushy eyebrows supporting a mile-long and all-too-familiar scowl.

I don’t know how but I managed to find enough strength to giggle at the sight. In retrospect, it might have been the concussion talking, but at that moment I found it hilarious to have drawn the short straw yet again.

“There’s no way a guy like me could get the winning ticket and just die, is there?” I croaked.

“Shut your mouth, Vale,” Detective Lieutenant Jeremy Morgan said, pulling out a pair of bracelets. “You’re under arrest.”

 

Don’t want to miss the rest of the story: pre-order now !