Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Red Serpent Strikes

A 1960s-style crimefighter returns—and Tom Jurgen is pulled into his most violent case yet.

The Red Serpent Strikes, Part One

Chicago, 1961
The four men huddled around a table in the hotel room, laughing as they divided up their stolen money.
            “That shopkeeper won’t stiff us again, will he, Lonnie?” A short, rat-faced man counted out bills.
            Lonnie took a swig from a bottle of cheap whiskey next to the ashtray. “Not after that beating Butch gave him.”
            “Next time we burn the place down.” Butch, a bear of a man, lit a cigarette.
            “Nah,” said the fourth. A .32 caliber pistol sat next to his glass. “Then he won’t have any money to pay us.”
            “Tomorrow night we go after that restaurant in Chinatown. Kent, bring your blackjack again.”
            Kent, the rat-faced man counting out the money, grinned. “Long as Ace has his gun.”
            Ace tapped the pistol. “Never without it.”
            The lights were low. The door was locked. The room smelled of whiskey, smoke, and filthy sheets.
            “Almost done.” Kent shoved the last of the bills at Lonnie. “Here you go, boss.”
            Lonnie smiled. As boss, he was entitled to a bigger share. The others grumbled, but no one had ever challenged him.
            “Okay.” Ace pulled a deck of cards from his back pocket. “We ready to play?”
            “I want to get something to eat.” Butch stood up.
            “Me, too.” Kent grabbed the bottle and had a swig. “Why lose all the money I just made? Besides, you cheat.”
            “Yeah, you—”
Ace’s laugh was cut off by a crash through the window.
            Lonnie stood up, reaching for the gun in his belt. Kent pull his blackjack from a pocket. Ace grabbed for his gun as shattered glass flew across the room.
            A man in black swung through the window. He wore a long coat, a low, wide-brimmed hat, gloves, and a red mask over his eyes.
            His fist held a .45 automatic.
            Ace lifted his .32, but the intruder’s gun spoke first—with a roar. Ace dropped, a slug in his stomach, and hit the floor. Dead.
            Lonnie got his weapon out, but again the stranger fired quicker. And again one of the gang died, a bullet in his chest.
            Butch ran for the door.
            Kent dropped his blackjack and lifted his hands. “Don’t—you can take the money! Just don’t shoot me!”
            “Do you know who I am?” The voice was quiet but full of menace.
            Kent nodded. “The S-Serpent.”
            His eyes gleamed behind the red mask. “That’s right. Now gather up that money and put it back in the bag.”
            Kent did as he was told, his arms shaking as he held the bag out.
            “Who did it come from?”
            Kent’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Sam Pilson. He owns that pharmacy on Halsted.”
            “This is going back to him and his family. And if I catch you shaking people down again, you’ll join your friends on the floor.”
            “Right. Right!” Kent back to the door. “Never again, Serpent. Never again.”
            He fled down the hall.
            The Red Serpent’s lips curled in a thin, humorless smile. He bent over the bodies of the two dead man and slipped off one glove, revealing a large signet ring. With quick, practiced motions, he stamped the foreheads of the dead crooks with his symbol:
            A red, twisted serpent.
            The police—and more important, the underworld—would know who’d killed them. A few might be scared off. Like Kent.
            Most wouldn’t. But the Red Serpent would deal with them in time.

Chicago, present day
“I’m worried about my father.”
Elly Lamb was a lawyer. She was around my age—mid-40s—with curly black hair and a turquoise necklace dangling from her neck. “His name is Trevor Lamb. He’s 72. He’s a retired chemist. He lives two houses down from me. He’s healthy, but he has a home health aide most days, for physical therapy, along with cooking and housekeeping. Nice guy. George. He’s Hispanic. Anyway—” She shook her head. “I feel funny, coming to a private detective, but I think he’s going out at night, and I don’t know where or why.”
We sat at the dining room table in my apartment. More accurately, the apartment I shared with my girlfriend Rachel. She’d agreed to let me meet clients here, as long as it didn’t disturb her in her half of the office we shared.
            We’d moved in together a few weeks ago. Negotiations were still ongoing.
“What are you worried about?” I poured her some coffee.
            “I visit him almost every day. Some days he’s got bruises—he tries to hide them, but if he’s wearing a T-shirt I can see them on his arms. And some days he aches so much he can barely walk. I mean, he is 72, so he’s not exactly running marathons anymore, but this just seems . . . I have a funny feeling about it.”
            I follow people for lots of reasons, and this seemed pretty ordinary. “I can trail him if you want, see where he goes.” Another late night or two.
            “That’s all I want.” She wrote me a check.
            After she left Rachel emerged from the office for coffee. “What’s the case?”
            Rachel’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes. She was wearing cutoffs and a tank top. She’s at least partly psychic—and also pretty hot.
            “Following a senior citizen around to see what he’s up to at night. Should be pretty routine.” I hoped.
            She faked a pout. “So you’re disappearing after dark again? That sort of defeats the purpose of moving in together.”
            I shrugged. “Sorry. I’ll try not to wake you when I come back.”
            “Oh, you can wake me.” She grinned. We were still in a mini-honeymoon phase. Between negotiations. “Hey, did you see in the news about the Forehead Killer again?”  Rachel poured coffee for me. “Two drug dealers, and then he burns their drugs.”
            For the past few months someone had been running around Chicago apparently waging a war against gangbangers and other crooks. The cops figured it was a gang rivalry, with a twist—the killer or killers stamped some kind of symbol on the foreheads of the dead.
            The cops wouldn’t say what the symbol was—trying to prevent false confessions and copycat killings. So my former colleagues of the press—I used to be a reporter before becoming a private detective—had named him (or her?) “the Forehead Killer.”
            “That’s all we need, more shootings.” I picked up my coffee and notebook to head back to the office with her.
            “He’s taking drugs and guns off the streets, isn’t he?” Rachel sat down at her computer.
            “Yeah.” But I doubted the cops I knew saw it that way.

2:30 a.m.        
Two men sat in a car, watching an apartment building across the street.
            “I don’t like this.” His name was Junk—at least that’s what everyone called him. “There’s still people walking around.”
            “I just shoot straight. Not like the last time.” In the backseat Tony shuddered, remembering the look on the little girl’s face as he’d shot her father two months ago.
            “Where the hell is he, anyway?” Junk looked at the car clock. “Do we have to sit here all night? My girlfriend’s going to figure this out soon.”
            Tony groaned. “We have to do this. Hensley said. Victor’s going to talk.”
            “Hell.” Junk didn’t even like Victor. But that didn’t mean he wanted to kill the guy.
            The front door opened across the street.
            “Heads up.” Tony and Junk started opening their windows.
            A large black car pulled up behind them.
            “That’s him. Get ready.” Tony lifted his weapon. A Glock he’d bought from a dealer two months ago. After this he’d have to get rid of it and buy another one—and Hensley wouldn’t even help him pay for it. Bastard.
            “That’s it, that’s it . . .” Tony leaned forward. “Get ready to drive—”
            The roar of a .45 automatic split the night air.
            The man across the street froze, then dashed back inside.
            Junk twisted around. “Tony? What?”
            Tony slumped through the window, dead.
            A man in a long coat stared at Junk. He wore a red mask over his eyes, and his pistol was firm and steady in his hand.
            “Oh no, oh no, oh no . . .” Junk’s girlfriend as going to kill him. Except this guy was too. “Wait, wait, wait!”
            “Do you know who I am?” The voice was quiet, but full of menace.
            Junk gulped. “You’re that—that Forehead guy, aren’t you?”
            “The Red Serpent.” He pointed the .45 at Junk’s forehead. “Where is Hensley?”
            “I don’t know! I don’t know . . .” Junk tried not to pee his pants. “Don’t kill me, man! I only talk to Muntz!”
            “Who is he? Where is he?” The .45 didn’t move.
            “Franken . . .” Junk kept his hands on the steering wheel, crying. “Franken Storage. Most nights. Come on, Serpent, I got a girlfriend and a baby on the way!”
            The Red Serpent laughed. Then he pulled off his glove and stepped back to stamp his seal on Tony’s forehead. “Tell all your friends.”
            He turned and walked back to his big black car.
            Sirens screamed in the darkness as Junk watched the black car disappear into the darkness.

The Red Serpent Strikes, Part Two

9:30 a.m.
The next morning I called my client. “Nothing. Is there a back entrance to house?” I’d have to hire someone else to watch both doors, if she okayed the expense.
            “Yes, but it just goes out to an alley. He doesn’t have a car.”
            “What about George?” I was tired. I’d given up at 4 a.m., come home and gone to bed without waking Rachel, and now I was functioning on coffee and the need to pay bills.
            “He’s got a car, I don’t know what kind. But it’s not like he sleeps over, as far as I know.”
            “Okay.” I needed a new strategy. “I can’t do it again tonight. Maybe . . . Is your father ever gone during the day?”
            “Sometimes George takes him to the gym. Wednesdays, I think.” Today was Tuesday. “I can check. What do you want to do?”
            “Search the house. Do you have a key?”
            “I’m a co-owner.”
            Good. That would make it at least kind of legal. “If you could find out when he’ll be gone, I can look around. That might tell us something.”
            “All—all right.” She sounded nervous. “I’ll call you later.”
            Rachel peeked around the partition separating our workspaces in the office and punched my shoulder. “What time did you get home last night?”
            I sighed. “4:30. And I got nothing except six hours to bill to the client.”     
            “You okay?”
            “I may need a nap later.” But I had other cases to work on.
            “Well, let me know.” She punched my shoulder again. “I might be up for a nap too.”

1:30 p.m.
The next afternoon I was parked across the street from Trevor Lamb’s house, two houses down from Elly’s home in the Irving Park neighborhood.
            She’d given me a ring of keys. “This is the front door. I don’t know about all the rest.” She seemed nervous. “I insisted on all of them. They should be gone for two hours.”
            “I’ll be quick.” I was nervous too.
            At 1:30 a white Nissan pulled up to the house, and a young Hispanic man walked to the door. George, apparently. He was short, with a wrestler’s build, and he wore a red baseball cap. A few minutes later he and Trevor Lamb got into the car and drove off.
            So after a deep breath and a swallow of water, I locked my Honda and walked up to the house.
            Two stories and an attic. Plus a basement. I’d have to be fast.
            I didn’t spend much time on the main floor. The second story bedrooms took a little longer, searching dressers and running my hands underneath the drawers and below the mattresses. I didn’t know what I was looking for—I only hoped I’d recognize it when I found it.
            The attic was dusty and almost empty, except for a few boxes of old clothes and photographs. I didn’t bother with those, figuring I needed more recent information.
            That left the basement. I checked the time. One hour left.
            Downstairs I found a typical mancave: bookcases, a bar, a dartboard—and a door next to the paneled wall behind a big flat-screen TV.
            The door was locked. I fumbled with the keys, one at a time, until I found one that clicked. Then I stepped into a dark hallway.
I pulled on a cord dangling from the ceiling—
            And found an arsenal.
            Shotguns, pistols, assault weapons—all hanging on hooks, with cleaning materials and boxes of ammunition on a shelf at the bottom. Two big .45 automatic handguns that looked like WWII vintage were mounted at the top.
            A long black coat drooped from a nearby hook, a wide-brimmed fedora hat hanging above it, along with a leather shoulder holster dangling alongside.
            I ran my hands up and down the coat. It felt old and weathered, as if rain had battered it for years. I picked up the hat and put it on my head. Too big—it sunk down over my ears.
            On the hook next the hat hung a half-dozen red domino masks, the kind that just cover your eyes for costume parties. I left them in place as hung the hat back up. Then I kept moving down the shadowy hall.
A few yards down I found a flight of stairs. At the top I unlocked another door and flicked a light switch.
            A big black car sat in front of a garage door. It looked like a tank—or at least a gas-guzzling steel behemoth that Detroit had stopped making even before the Japanese took over the auto industry.
            I turned and tried to orient myself. If I was right, the door opened onto a street one block behind Lamb’s house. I’d have to check it out after I was gone.
            I took a picture. Then I leaned down, reached into my pocket, and attached a small magnetic tracking device behind the rear bumper. Part of being a private detective is getting to play with cool technology.
Back Inside the basement mancave I relocked the door and checked the time again. I still had 30 minutes.
            I didn’t want to push it, but I spent a few minutes looking through the bookshelves. Bestsellers, coffee table books, photo albums, a few scrapbooks . . .
            I flipped through one. Vacation photos with his young wife. Another one—Elly Lamb growing up. Cute little girl. The third . . .
            Newspaper clippings from the 1960s. About a mysterious criminal the papers called “The Red Serpent,” and his numerous murders of Chicago gangsters. He was known for leaving a stamp on the foreheads of his victims—an inked seal of a snake.
            That was weird.
            I took a few ore pictures. Then I put the books back, looked around to make sure I hadn’t changed anything, and headed upstairs.
Back at the apartment I fired up my computer.
            Rachel was working on a webpage in her half of the office, headphones over her ears. She’s a graphic designer, and she likes punk rock while she’s working. I go for classic 80s rock. It was part of the negotiations.
I kept my radio low while I searched. It didn’t take too long.
“Wow,” I murmured.
“Hey!” Rachel slugged my arm. “You know I can’t work if you’re talking all the time!”
“Ow.” I turned my radio off. “You were on your headphones listening to the Dead Ramones, or whoever.”
“I needed a break.” She leaned down. “What are you looking at? What year is this?”
I started saving files. “In the early 1960s, a lot of gangsters got killed by someone who left some kind of red stamp on their foreheads. It looked like a snake. They called him the Red Serpent. Look.”
I pulled up a newspaper page. MOBSTERS KILLED IN HOTEL, ran the headline buried on page six.

Lonnie Dixon and Lewis “Ace” Alford were found dead in the Montgomery Hotel on Clark Street last night. Both are reputed to be members of a mob organization. Police say they were found with the image of a snake stamped on their foreheads—a clear sign of the killer some in police circles and even in the underworld are calling The Red Serpent.

            “What are you saying?” Rachel crouched down. “That guy—the Red Serpent—is the Forehead Killer? After what—60 years?”
            “I’m just trying to find out the connection. No one ever figured out the Red Serpent’s identity. He just faded out of sight.”
            “Maybe he was killed?”
            We might never know. “The question is, what’s the connection between him and my client’s father?” I told Rachel about the weapons, the car, and the scrapbook.
            “What are you going to do? Call Sharpe and ask about the forehead stamp?” Detective Anita Sharpe was my contact with the Chicago Police Department. She didn’t exactly like me—none of the cops I knew did—but we’d worked together reasonably well on vampire cases.
            “I can’t.” Not yet. “If I ask whether it’s the Serpent mark, and that turns out right, she’ll want to know how I know. And that could be—awkward. At least I have to talk to my client first.” I picked up my phone.

7:30 p.m.
We met at Elly Lamb’s house that night. I brought Rachel, and Trevor Lamb brought George.
            Lamb looked pretty fit for 72. A broad chest, lean legs, and silver hair. George had a friendly smile and a scalp shaved to a trim crew cut.
            We sat in a small living room. Elly served coffee and cookies.
            “Dad, this is Thomas Jurgen. He’s a private detective.” Elly was nervous. Unerstandably.
            “And my associate Rachel,” I added. Rachel waved a hand. She was in jeans and a jacket, and her laptop case sat next to her feet.
            Lamb nodded. “Nice to meet you,” he said in a gravelly voice.
            “I hired Mr. Jurgen because I was worried about you. You’ve been going out at night, and I don’t know where. You have these bruises and aches. I asked him to follow you, but he couldn’t. So, I, uh . . .” Elly looked at the carpet. “I gave him the keys to your house.”
            I wasn’t sure what to expect. An explosion? Denial? Storming out of the house? Instead Lamb looked me over calmly. “What did you find?”
            “Firearms.” I glanced at Elly. “A car in another house. And a scrapbook about the Red Serpent.”
            He sighed. “I wish you hadn’t found all that.”
            Elly reached out. “What’s going on, dad?”
            Rachel pointed at George. “Hey, wait—”
            George pulled something from his pocket and hurled it onto the ground. It looked like a marble—until it burst, spewing smoke into the air.
            I grabbed Rachel and tried to shove her toward the front door, but the smoke spread fast—too fast to be normal. It smelled like eucalyptus and rubbing alcohol, and I couldn’t stop myself from inhaling it.
            George helped Lamb stand up, and they ran for the door. Rachel tried to follow, but she tripped and dropped to the carpet, gasping. I leaned down to check on her, but a dizzy spell sent me tumbling next to her.
            I felt Elly Lamb fall behind me. Then everything went dark.