Auld Lang Syne: Crime Short Fiction By Thomas Belton
Thomas Belton, author of Auld Lang Syne, have previously published short fiction in Adelaide Literary Magazine and Mystery Weekly among others.
The squad car was stifling with the wet stink coming off of Sergeant Murray’s woolen longcoat. The smell permeated the air like a ripe animal pelt, as if some cur from the weed-filled lots surrounding the Booker T. Washington Projects had scurried out of the snow and buried itself in the huffing heating system of the old Black and White.
Alone on the corner as New Year’s Eve crept to a close, Murray was alternately cursing his partner who’d called in with the Blue Flu and nursing the soothing possibility of zipping over to Al’s Diner for a quick cup of Java before midnight came roaring down like a runaway train.
Midnight at Booker T on New Year’s Eve could be the most dangerous place on earth as smoke-filled, booze-fueled parties all emptied into the streets, where for a few raucous minutes every felon and runaway, whore, bookie, dealer and sociopath in town were momentarily standing next to each other in the cold screaming their heads off and shooting .22 handguns in the air while small children and blowsy housewives banged pots and pans together trying to shoo away the past years lousy luck with a triumphant shout, as if to say “Hey world, I’m still fucking here!”
Midnight at Booker T on New Year’s Eve could be the most dangerous place on earth as smoke-filled, booze-fueled parties all emptied into the streets…
Murray could relate to this collective feeling. He’d been a Cop too long and saw the need for people to cut loose, throw a little insanity into the mix, grope around for something else in a shitty world where most people worked endless hours of back-breaking work and for a few cents of pay while others sold dope for a few minutes a night then partied till dawn.
When you had citizens living cheek by jowl with predators, trying every day to keep their kids from the morgue, it was easy to see how living and luck could sour in an instance.
Through his fogged window Murray could see down a long pathway that led between tall brick buildings huddled in a circle surrounding a small courtyard with benches and a playground. Kids in spite of the cold were playing basketball on a cleared section of the snow laughing as they slipped and slid around.
“B’Ball on ice,” Murray thought. “Someone’ll bust a gut or break a leg soon. Maybe I could run him over to the Medical Center and get warm,” he mused hopefully.
But with unearthly grace and balance borne of the young, they skated back and forth, hardly ever falling, shooting from the corners, the chain-link net rattling every time a shot went in, the backboard resounding with a dull thud as the frozen ball smacked in and echoed off the surrounding walls. None of them had boots on. One was wearing a pair of Sky Jordan sneakers, the bright red high tops blooming like poppies in the snow, the kid’s green socks bloused up over his jeans to keep the snow out.
A constant flow of people entered and left the buildings; out one door then in the next. Most of the people didn’t have coats on since they were just making a short run from one block of flats to another; women dressed in bright velvet dresses, men in loud shirts with wide collars and rolled up sleeves, sometimes small children too young to be left at home alone were bundled into tiny blankets, only their little leads visible as parents ran down the ice-crusted walks and into the vestibule of another building.
Murray rolled down his window and listened for a minute to the mix of voices; catcalls from the teenagers milling around across the yard and the steady flow of laughter as neighbors came and went in the night. Rolling the window back up and blowing on his hands to push away the cold, Murray looked at his watch, “Eleven thirty-eight, best stay on station till the mayhem’s over,” he thought.
Murray reached into the back of the squad car and pulled a small sandwich from under the seat. Peeling the wrapper back he smelled salami and provolone with a dash of mustard. Eleanor had made it just the way he liked it. A slip of paper fell from the wrapping and slid into his lap. In El’s small scrawl he read, “Happy New Year, Big Guy. Keep warm and safe. Love, your Honey Bear.”
Murray smiled as he took the first bite of the sandwich and stuffed the slip into his coat pocket. “Women are kinda amazing,” he thought. Here he was thinking about a million things and the only thing she’s thinking about is me. “We put a lotta miles on us,” he thought but lucky to still be together.
As he bit into his sandwich Murray heard a sharp crack; sounded like a big armed center fielder hitting one for the stands but he knew better; recognized the report of a small caliber pistol better than he knew the sound of his own kid’s voice. He rolled down the window and looked across to the basketball court.
He leaned a little out the window and looked up and down the street.
Place was as quiet as a freakin morgue in less time that it takes to unwrap a sandwich. Murray reached over and taped the Radio control; “Central this is Unit 642; I’ve got the sound of gunshots at west end of Booker T. I’m alone out here, send me some backup. Out.”
“Unit 642, this is Central,” came the reply. “Backup Unit 564 is enroute. ETA 5 minutes. Do you need additional assistance?”
Murray chirped the radio, and said, “Negative Central. It might just be somebody shooting at the stars. Give us a minute and I’ll get back. Over.”
Murray dropped the sandwich back into the paper bag and placed it on the dashboard. Turning off the car he pulled his hat from the back seat and placed it on his head as he opened the door to a blast of ice crystals that flew into his eyelashes on a gust of wind. Straightening up his six foot-three frame he rolled out of the car like a centipede trying to place each segment on end, a piece at a time, unrolling until he stood completely still, looking out across the now deserted playground. Still, no one around. Taking a few tentative steps away from the Squad Car he looked down the projects away and could see a few faces peeking out of the small wire reinforced windows in the middle of each building door but no one was outside; except for the body lying under the backboard.
Murray would have missed him too except for the bright green socks bloused high over the pant legs. The fellow, he figured, must have had taken a shot, lost the game to a sore loser or perhaps just thought it time to take a nap.
Then somebody borrowed his shoes? Unlikely.
Walking over with one hand on his gun he pushed the squawk on his shoulder mounted Walkie-Talkie and called it in, “Central, this is Unit 642 at Booker T. I’ve got a man down in the central courtyard. Request you expedite backup. And send a wagon,” he added.
By the time the homicide detectives arrived, Murray had draped a ring of yellow crime scene tape around the stiffening corpse, had returned to his Squad Car and had finished his sandwich.
“Shit,” Murray muttered as he saw the two plainclothes get out of their unmarked car, “Freaking Frick and Frack!”
Pushing his hat down squarely on his head and buttoning up his collar Murray pulled himself out of his car and met them at the tape. Frick was a tall cop named Cardiello with doughy features and a hemorrhoidal nature. Frack was Sam Trogon, a smaller version of Frick but a muscle-bound weightlifter who lived on steroids and creatine supplements. They were both dressed in black raincoats with wool watch caps pulled over their ears against the cold.
“S’matter Murray,” Frick said, “we interrupting your nap.”
“Shove it Cardiello,” he replied. “You want I should stand out here protecting a circle of snow so you two can show up and dazzle me with your Grade-A prime detection. I figured all you needed was a body; the rest’s all smoke and mirrors.”
“You’re supposed to keep the crime scene intact,” Frack said.
“Body’s not even cold, asshole. He’s lying here not ten minutes. You see any footprints in the snow. Your scene’s intact. Now d’ya want to hear the rundown or are you gonna run your mouths off all night?”
Murray told them about the previous half-hour; the basketball game and the shot he’d heard. How he came out and found the kid dead in the snow.
“You didn’t call an ambulance?” said Frick.
“I called the meat wagon. I know a stiff when I see one.”
“You think one of the kids shooting hoops with him did it, or maybe just a stray shot from one of the buildings,” Frack said, looking up through the swirling snow at the twelve-story structures that hovered over the playground, each Christmas lighted window adorned with a face to follow the Cops like it was a TV show in the snow.
“Way I figure,” Murray said shoving his hands deeper into his pockets as he watched the morgue wagon and the Medical Examiner meat truck drive up, “is that the kid was whacked for some beef on the courts. Find the kid with his shoes and we got the shooter.”
“Great,” Trogon said with a smirk. “So, what do we do, Einstein? Pull every kid in the Projects out for a sneaker check.”
“Tell you what Sherlock,” Murray said. “You give me ten minutes inside that building there and I guarantee I can come up with the perp.”
“You can ID the kid?” Cardiello said. Why didn’t you say so?”
“Nope, it was too dark when I saw them playing B’Ball but I got an idea. You wanna bet? Twenty bucks!”
“This I gotta see,” Cardiello said.” Yeah, I’m in.”
“Me too,” said Trogon.
They left the body with the ME, who was already prodding it in places the kid’s mother hadn’t touched in years and walked to the main building in the center of the Housing Projects. Murray pushed through the heavy steel door and said, ‘Excuse me’ to the gang of curious kids hovering just inside who were watching the ME and the flashing lights through the snow.
“Come on,” he said to Cardiello and Trogon, “the party’s in here,” and led them into a large recreation hall that ran the length of the building. It was filled with people in the deep winter version of a Block Party. The ceiling was covered with sheets and filled with multi-colored balloons all primed and ready to be dropped at midnight when the lights would go out and the slow dancing and kisses would seal the deal on another year survived in the projects. The walls were covered with red and blue streamers, the tables filled with food and punch bowls for a potluck celebration.
“Good evening,” Murray said to a crowd of revelers who just stared at his blue uniform as he pushed his way through the crowded room, most slow-dancing to a Smokey Robinson tune. He was a foot taller than almost everyone there and looked like a giant strolling amongst Munchkins.
Murray approached a man sitting by the record player and said “Hello Mr. Jackson,” taking off his hat and wiping the sweat off his brow with a sparkling white handkerchief that El had placed in his pocket, the steamy room a sauna after the cold outside. “We got a problem, George,” Murray added, indicating the two murder detectives who rolled up beside him and looked down at the glassy-eyed stares of the partygoers, whose expressions had already turned angry at the Cop’s intrusion into their party.
“What can I do for you, Officer Murray?” Jackson asked, slowly getting up from his chair. “I heard we got a shooting outside. Damn if it ain’t started already. Ain’t no place safe in the world, I declare. And what we all really wants to do,” he added – swinging his arm out to capture the revelers in the room or perhaps all the people throughout the world – “is just have a little fun before the midnight rolls around.”
“Well, you see, here’s the problem,” Murray said. “We got a predicament. These Homicide Detectives want to stop your party right now and interview each and every one of you to get to the bottom of who shot that poor kid lying out in the snow. I know that’s a terrible thing to do to you all; have these good people sitting on their hands for two, three hours while midnight rolls past, but what’s a fella to do. Without cooperation?” he added significantly.
“We got a predicament. These Homicide Detectives want to stop your party right now and interview each and every one of you…”
A slowly growing hush spread away from Murray and Jackson as first one then another reveler whispered what the two were talking about until the only sound left in the long room was the sad voice of Smokey Robinison singing ‘The Tracks of My Tears,’ which echoed off the cinder block walls.
“Well, that’d be a dammed thing to do on New Year’s Eve, Officer Murray,” the Buildings Superintendent said, looking with unabashed animosity at ‘Frick and Frack’ who just stared back implacably.
Jackson walked over to the old stereo and pulled the needle off the ancient turntable, stopping the vinyl record with a loud screech and ending poor Smokey’s crooning as the crowd turned with sad expectant faces.
“We got us a situation here,” Mr. Jackson hollered to the crowd. “These here murder police say they gonna kill our party and interview us all night lest we up and tell them who shot that poor boy out on the playground. Anyone here got any ideas on who done it?”
“Jesse Wolfe!” someone shouted from the back of the hall.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” yelled a kid in a hooded Jersey and oversized drooping jeans from the farside of the room as he pulled a gun from his pocket and made for the doorway but was grabbed by a dozen sets of hands, which found their way around his arms, pulling the gun away and propelling him across the floor to Murray.
“Take him,” Jackson said and turning back to the DJ added, “Lets dance,” as a great cheer went up from the crowd.
Murray looked down and saw that the boy was wearing the bright red Sky Jordan sneakers he’d seen in the twilight out on the playground about a half an hour ago. Grabbing Wolfe and taking the pistol from the large man that held him, Murray turned both over to Frick and Frack and stood there with his palm out.
“Well boys,” he said. “How’s that for grand detecting work. Where’s my money?”
Just then a loud bang went off from the back of the room; a cherry bomb, and balloons began to fall, people hugging and kissing in the New Year, and Jackson walked over smiling and placed a drink in Murray’s outstretched hand as “Auld Lang Syne” came out of the overhead speakers.
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