In Chains Police Procedural Short Fiction By M.E. Proctor

In Chains: Police Procedural Short Fiction By M.E. Proctor

M.E. Proctor, author of In Chains, has previously published short fiction in Vautrin, Bristol Noir, Pulp Modern, The Bookends Review, Shotgun Honey and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas.

Mystery Tribune has previously published Family and Other Ailments from the author.


“What’s that kid doing here all the time?” Tom Keegan said.

“Delivering lunch.” Al “Matt” Matteotti reached for his wallet. “You can set your watch by the boy.”

Tom grabbed a stack of files and dropped them in a drawer. “How old is he, fourteen? He shouldn’t be here.” He waved at the cluttered, litter-strewn detectives’ desks, at the crime scene photos on the board, at the funk of smoke hanging over his bleary-eyed, unshaven colleagues. The place was a pig sty. They had been on duty all night, working the phones, deep into a gruesome dismemberment case. Two working girls chopped up in the Castro. The place reeked of sweat, burnt coffee, and stale cologne. “You think that’s suitable for a kid?”

“Gianni might appreciate your fatherly concern,” Matt said. “I’m sure he likes the tips more.” He motioned at the boy to come over.

“It isn’t …” The phone rang and Tom picked up. “Detective Keegan.” He listened, one hand over an ear to dim the office noise. He cradled the phone on his shoulder and grabbed a notepad and a pen. “Say that again? Chained? Uh-huh. Embarcadero. Got it.” He looked up from his scribbled notes and found himself staring right into the boy’s wide eyes. “Jesus, beat it, kid. We gotta go, Matt.”

“My lunch …”

“It’ll keep. We have a floater. Or something like that.” As he reached the door and turned to grab his hat and his coat, Tom glanced at the kid again. Gianni was frozen in place, staring at the pictures of the butchered hookers pinned on the wall.

What a cluster … There was no time to take care of that now.

“Okay if I drive?” Matt said. The question was rhetorical. Matt always drove. He liked it and he was good at it. “Did I hear Embarcadero?”

“A fisherman saw something between the pier pilings. Turned out to be a body wrapped in chains.”

“And it’s floating? That’s special,” Matt said.

“That’s really special. Somebody wanted it found.”

“The end of the chain was nailed to a dock post.”

“That’s really special. Somebody wanted it found.” Matt hit the siren to clear a path through the lunch hour traffic.

Tom popped two cigarettes out of the pack and lit them. He placed one between Matt’s lips and cracked his window open. “You still have an in with the Sicilians?”

“I haven’t heard anything lately.”

“But you haven’t asked.”

Matt groaned. “The less I poke, the better it works.”

“Yeah, shouldn’t overfish the pond.” Tom had his own informers, in different quarters than Matt. There were the cheap ones he could squeeze as a matter of course, and the valuable ones better kept for cases that mattered. This case was shaping up to be the kind that mattered. Why chain a body to a pier when you could lose it at sea and let the wildlife do the disposal? The local hoods knew the currents. The tide didn’t bring back an inconvenient package. The package was tied with a metal bow. For guaranteed delivery.

They didn’t have to wait for the body to be pulled out. It was on a tarp on the dock, with the heavy chain still in place. The stench was thick, less pungent thanks to the sea breeze, but still stomach-turning. The chain went between the man’s legs, under his arms and twice around his waist. It bit deep in the sagging flesh.

Matt kneeled next to the tarp, a hankie over his nose and mouth. “Bullet in the back of the head, came out through the eye. Economical. We won’t have a slug to look at. He might have been cut too.” He got to his feet and his knees cracked like dry wood.

“Was he killed here?” A young officer in a spanking-new neatly-pressed uniform said.

“With the drenching rain we had this past week, if there was blood, it’s been washed off,” Tom said. “Who found the body?”

“A fisherman. Fred Collins. He’s over there,” the officer said. “He says he called it in as soon as he realized what he was looking at.”

“Who pulled the body out?” Matt said.

“Harbor Patrol. We couldn’t get to it from the dock.”

The two boat cops were at a safe distance, upwind. One of them looked gray. They had done the dirty work. Most days Tom envied their beat, zipping through the bay, taking in the sights.

“Where was the chain attached to the dock?” Matt said.

The officer pointed at a spot about one foot above the water level.

“They didn’t lower him from the dock,” Matt said. “This was done from a boat.”

“Meaning he was killed and trussed somewhere else.” Tom turned to the young officer. “Talk to the boat crews and the businesses nearby, ask if anybody noticed anything out of the ordinary these past few nights.”

The officer trotted off.

“If anything pops from that, I’ll cover your bar tabs until retirement,” Matt said.

The medical examiner had arrived. They left him to his observations to go talk to the fisherman, Fred Collins.

“I’m Detective Matteotti. This is Detective Keegan, Homicide. Where was the body, sir?”

The man pointed at the pilings. “Under there.”


“Some of it. The tide was falling. There was a mess of gulls shrieking like banshees. They were so excited they didn’t move when I came in to dock. Then I smelled it. I gave the gulls a blare of the horn. By the time I was back from calling you guys, the birds were back at it.”

“You didn’t see the birds when you left?” Tom said.

“It was still night. The weather’s been a bust. Today was a bit better. I started early. Trying to make up for the loss.” He shrugged. “They weren’t biting. And another storm’s coming in.”

“Did anybody spend the night on your boat?” Matt said.

“Not since Sunday.”

Three days ago.

“Is anybody else usually tying up here?” Tom said.

The fisherman pointed. “Burt’s Rosalie. He hasn’t had better luck going out. He didn’t even try today.”

Tom gave him his card. “Give us a call if you think of something else.”

The man tipped his hat and pocketed the piece of paper.

The harbor cops were next.

“Thanks for getting him out, Riley,” Matt said. He knew the older of the two, and shook his hand. “Have you met Tom Keegan?”

“Heard about you, Keegan. You cover some ground.” He chuckled. “A manner of speaking. This is a wet one. He’s been in the drink two days at least. Never seen that kind of gear before. It’s medieval.”

“Would he have been dry at low tide?” Tom said.

“And hard to miss, you mean?” Riley said.

Tom offered him his pack of cigarettes, and both harbor cops helped themselves. The younger one pulled out his lighter and gave a light all around.

Riley blew a white stream of smoke, pondering. “I think he was strung up at low tide. That chain looks about the right length. Any skipper coming in or going out would have seen him hanging there like a chunk of bait, but the weather’s been miserable. Boats stayed put. And to top it all, the full moon jacks up the tide.”

“So he’s been in the water longer than the killers expected,” Tom said.

“Yep. I don’t know what it means for your investigation. Makes it stink more.” He spat in the water. “Good luck, gentlemen. You need us around?”

“No, thanks Riley,” Matt said. “Safe sailing.”

The harbor cops went back to their boat. They couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

“I always thought they had the coolest job,” Matt said, “but they get their hands in the goo more often than we do.”

“In the open,” Tom said. “It helps.”

The medical examiner was supervising the removal of the corpse. “Squishy,” he said.

“Was he worked on before the bullet in the head?” Tom said.

“It looks like it, but with the birds, the fish, and tissue degradation, I need more time on him. White, male, middle age, and overweight. Not that his feeding habits contributed to his demise. Call me in the evening. I’ll have more.”

“Nobody would go to this much trouble for a shopkeeper that doesn’t pay his dues. I’m guessing turf war or payback,” Tom said.

“Somebody’s missing a soldier,” Matt said. “Drop me near Russian Hill. I’ll find my way back.”

“You’re sure?”

“The best police work is done on foot, paisano.” He handed the car keys to Tom.


Back in the office, Tom dug into missing persons. Gangsters had families. If a husband or father didn’t come home in days, somebody would notice. No report matched the victim. He started calling in favors. Was another law enforcement team, local or federal, missing a source, a witness, an undercover asset?

Negative. All accounted for. A few sympathetic officers promised to keep him posted if anything surfaced. Very funny, ahah. Everybody’s a comedian.

It was late enough to hit the bars. Matt hadn’t come back to the office and he hadn’t called. Tom knew reporters on the organized crime beat. They rooted out gossip with the dedication of truffle pigs.

He started at O’Dell’s, an Irish watering hole on Mission. It was a favorite with the Chronicle reporters. Cops hung around too, lured in by the buzz and the booze. Intense horse trading took place in there when drinks loosened tongues. Everybody was everybody else’s confidential source. Tom drank little, said even less, and listened a lot. Amazingly, he was well-liked all around.

That evening, the joint was packed and hopping with excitement. The action was concentrated around a table in the middle of the room and the atmosphere wasn’t conducive to whispered confidences. The barkeep was sweating more than a hunk of suet in a steam bath, juggling the orders and the frenzied betting.

Tom scanned the room for Van Deering, one of the Chronicle’s crime reporters. He was always good for a hint and a hunch, providing Tom returned the favor on occasion. He pushed to clear a passage and bumped into a woman in a brown suit. He noticed her outfit was practical, tailored, and far from new. She was attractive, with an angular face lit by slate-gray eyes and short, businesslike brown hair.

“You’re Tom Keegan,” she said, her tone clipped, more East Coast than West. “You’re good at catching people. I’m Rachel Holm.” She held out her hand. “The Chronicle’s best crime reporter. Great meeting you.”

It came out rapid-fire and well-rehearsed. She must have been practicing that tempo with Kate Hepburn and Rosalind Russell. It was more than a little annoying. Tom pretended he hadn’t seen the extended hand.

“You must be new on staff, Miss Holm,” he said, and felt like a heel.

It threw her off for a couple of seconds, then she rebounded. “What about that body in the harbor? Chains. That’s unusual. What do you think it means, what can you tell me? It looks like a mob hit. Are we heading for a gang war? Come on, Keegan, give it to me.”

Tom smiled. She reminded him of his sister’s puppy, jumping to get picked up. “It is very early in the investigation, Miss Holm.”

“That’s baloney. It’s that thing between the Romanos and the Spinellis, isn’t it? It’s all over North Beach. Some kind of feud. Somebody got their knickers pinched. So, who’s the body? A Romano or a Spinelli?”

She looked capable. And she was telling him more than he gathered from his dutiful phone calling. “We should continue this conversation somewhere else. What’s going on here, anyway?”

“A challenge. Downing an ungodly number of shots, and having a go at arm-wrestling. In that order.”

Tom peered over the heads of the spectators. The contestants were comically mismatched. The woman was small and wiry. The man was at least three times her size.

“My money’s on her,” Rachel said. She pointed at a roundish fellow in a drab raincoat and greasy fedora standing on the other side of the improvised arena. Van Deering. Tom’s Chronicle buddy. “He’s betting on the guy. We’re in cahoots. At the end we divide the take. We can’t lose, see?”

“Smart. Why doesn’t everybody do the same?”

She winked. “Because, in this nest of scorpions, nobody trusts nobody.”

The noise level in the bar reached a new peak. The contestants were going through the shots. The woman was methodical, the man was sloppy. When they reached the end of the booze array, they got in position for the muscle trial. The man’s hand completely engulfed the woman’s.

Tom winced. “He’ll crack her like a walnut. I can’t watch.”

Rachel wrapped an arm around his waist. “This isn’t where the real action is.”

He felt the warmth of her body against his and the tickle of her perfume in his nose. Sandalwood. The crowd was pressing them close together. Tom thought of what she said. A Romano or a Spinelli. If she was right, this was huge.

The crowd’s explosive outburst crashed through his meditation. Rachel threw both arms around his neck and kissed him. “She won! Told you!”

Tom didn’t care about the contest. Romano or Spinelli. If the mob was on a war path, what the fuck was he doing here? He had to get back to the office and get rid of Miss Rachel Holm. She was a liability. He didn’t want to think about what she could drop on the Chronicle’s editor’s desk that would turn this investigation into a nightmare. He could see the headlines. Gang War on the Bay. Chain Reaction. Good God! Could he stall her? Had she filed something already?

Rachel was laughing and holding him tight. “I don’t want another drink,” she said, her face very close to his. “What about talking this over somewhere else, as you said?”

Okay, she wanted to know more. Maybe she hadn’t written anything yet. The crowd was all over the woman who won the challenge and the bartender who was paying the bets. Tom took Rachel’s arm and led her through the crowd.

“I’ll drive you home,” he said.

Rachel’s cheeks were flushed with the tension of the contest and glints of bright silver flashed in her eyes.

“Tell me a story, Tom,” she said.


“Where the hell have you been?” Matt said when Tom walked in around lunch time.

“I was up late.”

“Up, yeah, I bet,” Matt said.

“Knock it off. What’s going on in North Beach? The old families. You must have heard something.”

The door opened and Gianni walked in with the lunch orders. Tom glanced at the board and was relieved to see that somebody had removed the crime scene pictures.

Matt tilted his chair back and stared at the ceiling. “You have a toe in the water, I see. Okay. There’s something brewing between the Spinellis and the Romanos.” He made quack-quack with both hands. “Yapping. When I pushed they clamped shut.”

Rachel Holm was onto something, indeed. “The Spinellis and the Romanos have no overlapping business. They don’t operate in shouting distance of each other. What gives?”

Non lo so. They keep apart. Some obscure old country gripe. Probably going back to the stone age. I’m not Sicilian enough to be told. Very segreto.” Matt snorted and pushed an open folder toward Tom. “I looked at the photo albums for both families. This guy fits the specs from the doc – 6 foot 2, heavy set, brown hair, brown eyes. He’s fifty-six, in the age range. He also didn’t show up at his place of business this week.”

The file picture and the pre-autopsy shot were side by side. There wasn’t much resemblance. The man in the file photograph was young with a strong chin and a shock of dark hair. The man on the morgue slab had a face like a puffer fish.

“Giuseppe Romano, goes by Joe,” Tom said. “This file is twenty years old.” He pushed the photos to the side. “He’s kept quiet all that time?”

Matt put his feet up on the desk. His balance on the tilted chair was perilous. “He owns a garage, employs five people. Profitable business. He’s married, two sons, one granddaughter. The youngest son, Vic, graduated college last summer. Berkeley, if you please, engineering.”

Matt was a background genius. He managed to gather a lot of information in a very short time. “Where’s the wrinkle in the success story?”

“I haven’t found one. The oldest son, Lorenzo, fought in the Philippines. Demobbed a lieutenant. He’s married and lives in Oakland. Works for an insurance company. Clean as a whistle.”

Tom leaned on their double desk with both elbows. “Honest Joe Romano is the exception that confirms the rule?”

“The mob does that sometimes. Keep a young one pure, like a good luck charm.”

“Or a legit front. Honest Joe’s got a bit of a sheet.” Tom patted the file.

Matt shrugged. “Read the damn thing. A liquor bust. He was out before he had time to sober up. His older brothers run the show.”

“So he’s dead because somebody has a beef with the top guys but doesn’t have the balls to go after them directly?”

Matt spotted the delivery boy. “Hey kid, that sandwich from yesterday? I had it later, still crispy.”

“I’ll tell mamma. How come you never order anything, Detective Keegan?” The reproach was subtle.

When was the last time Tom had a decent lunch? He had breakfast at Rachel’s. He couldn’t remember a time when food wasn’t an afterthought. In college, money was scarce. The war was better, rations kept coming. And in this job, there was always something that distracted him.

“I’m sorry, Gianni. I forget the time and I forget to eat. I don’t know what I’m running on.”

“Cigarettes and fumes,” Matt said. “Broads.”

Gianni dug into his satchel and pulled out a wrapped hero. “I have a spare. The guy wasn’t there. Cheese and ham.” He set the package on the desk.

Tom got his wallet and counted the money. The boy didn’t pay attention. He was staring at the pictures on the desk. Tom swiped them up and stuck them in the file.

“You shouldn’t bring the food up here anymore, kid. This isn’t a good place to hang around.”

The boy whispered. “Is that Lorenzo? Is he dead?”

Matt dropped the sandwich he was about to unwrap.

Tom took the boy’s hand. He held the picture from the file. The old one. “You know this man?”

“It’s Vic’s brother. What happened? Emmy will be sad.”


“We work together at the shop.”

“Emmy who?” Tom felt a nerve pulsing at the corner of his eye. He blinked. The nerve still pulsed.

“Emmy Spinelli. She’s going to marry Vic. Lorenzo’s brother.”

“Gianni,” Tom said. “Wait for me at the elevator. I’ll be right there. Go now.” He gave the kid a little push on the shoulder to get him moving.

The boy walked out of the office, puzzled.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Matt said. “Forbidden love? O Romeo? Extreme reaction, no?”

Tom got to his feet and checked the gun in his shoulder holster. “We’ll need men. Tell the captain we better haul ass before the fireworks start. It’s a miracle the fuse hasn’t been lit yet.” He thought of the close call with Rachel Holm. He lied to her, spun a tale. She was going to hate his guts. Too bad, she was a keeper.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll get the lovebirds.”


Tom Keegan didn’t witness the SFPD deployment of force. Emmy Spinelli and Joe Romano’s family kept him busy. Vic Romano and his brother Lorenzo, who was a spitting image of his dad at the same age, were stricken by the news of their dad’s passing. Tom didn’t go into grisly details, but the family knew it was mob-related. Fortunately Joe’s sons didn’t think grabbing a gun to go shoot a Spinelli was a good idea.

Especially with Emmy crying her heart out in the next room. It was all her fault. For having fallen in love with Vic against the rules. For being related to the men who killed her fiancé’s father.

Cornelian dilemma. Classical drama. Vic Romano, thank heavens, had no taste for the tragic. He declared that he was going to marry Emmy as soon as possible and get the hell out of there. The criminal dealings of the Romanos and the Spinellis were repellent to him.

“Papà slammed the door on that fucked up mess years ago,” Vic told Tom. “I hope the murderers rot in jail. You should have let them shoot each other. Good riddance.”

A few weeks later, Matt, nursing a beer in O’Dell’s, expressed a similar sentiment. “If they’d put a bullet in Joe’s brains, fast and clean, I might have some respect for them, but they tortured him. A man that hadn’t done anything and had nothing to tell them. Vicious animals. Rounding them up to prevent a war doesn’t feel right.”

“You’d rather fuel the vendetta for years to come?” Tom said.

“It’ll happen anyway. Mark my words. A Romano will make a move, years from now, and render justice the old way.”

“We arrested the killers, and Enzo Spinelli who gave the orders. Justice will be done.”

“Yeah, keep telling yourself that, Tommy boy. Did you make up with that lady reporter?”

Tom swirled the last of the scotch in his glass. He moved his chair to have a good view of the entrance of the bar.

If Rachel walked in, it would be a good omen.


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