Better yet, leave me out of it. Give yourself all the credit, and if you’re like me and looking out the window at a foot or two of snow, you might want want to mention that it’s set in Key West….
I quickly wrote back and scheduled the publication of the excerpt here for mid-August, and for the next three weeks I had a strange feeling that must be something akin to what Olympic judges go through when they know that the best skating or gymnastic performance will be coming near the end of the program. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to share some great stuff with readers here over the past couple of years, and I’ve let you know what I liked. But I was aware — not to put fine a point on the analogy since fiction cannot be rated in the linear way that one might rate a performance, say, on the balance beam — that I wanted to save the 10s, because I knewThe Storm Killer was coming. Can a novel could be a 10? If so, I’d say this is a 10. It is a wonderfully ambitious novel of hard-boiled historical noir, and the author, Mike Jastrzebski, delivers on its potential in every way, with every sense, and with an astonishing ability to create, or perhaps recreate, the times and places and characters in this work of fiction.
Let me share a few reviews, and you’ll see — for whatever it’s worth — that I’m not a lone voice in the wilderness on this one.
“Time: 1935. Place: New York City. Crime beat reporter Jim Locke gets sucked into a quagmire of death, deceit, and danger when his actress sister is murdered – and he becomes the prime suspect. When he uncovers a pattern of similar murders, he is convinced that a serial killer is on the loose. But the police aren’t buying it, and it’s up to Jim to stop the madman. The hunt takes him from the grimy streets and smoke-filled bars of Manhattan to deceptively laid-back Key West, just as a killer storm bears down on the island. THE STORM KILLER has it all: hard-boiled narrative, gripping suspense, period detail, an unlikely hero battling his inner demons, and a stunning conclusion that you won’t see coming. Highly recommended!”
When I worked for my mother, Prozac was my drug of choice. Since moving to Key West I’ve discovered a slice of key lime pie works just as well. The night I found out Nick Hastings had been murdered less than two miles from where I was tending bar, I ate a whole damn pie.
Dirty Alvin’s is the kind of bar where you can get a burger at a reasonable price along with a frosty mug of beer and a slice of the best key lime pie on the island. They cater to a diverse crowd and the dozen tables manage to stay full about half of the time. The bar has eight stools squeezed into enough space for six, but it’s where most of the customers gather two or three deep to tell their stories and bemoan their days.
Customers were scarce that Thursday night and we were closing a little early. There were three of us working and I was cleaning up behind the bar. Tanya, the owner, was in the back room counting the till. When Tanya’s father, the original Dirty Alvin, died, she took over. I knew something about working for a family business and I suspected she had mixed feelings about running the place.
I took a moment to watch while Marissa, the waitress, struggled to slip into her leathers. She was a small blond with a tiny waist and large store-bought breasts, and male and female customers alike often took the time to stare at her. Outside, her girlfriend Christy was showing her impatience by revving up her Harley, which is why I didn’t hear the front door open.
When I looked up, a tall thin woman was standing in front of me. I jumped and a frown broke the deadpan look that was fixed on her pitted face. “What’s the problem?” she asked, as if she was used to having people jump at the sight of her.
Maybe she was, I thought. I shook my head. “Nothing. I didn’t know you were standing there.” I threw the towel I’d been using into the sink and met her gaze without flinching. “We’re closed.”
“That’s good for both of us.” She set one of the biggest purses I’d ever seen onto the counter and slid onto the barstool across from me.
Now it was my turn to frown. “I thought I said we were closed.”
Apparently the lady was deaf because she ignored me, opened her purse, and began rummaging around. At one point I swear her entire arm was lost in the void. When she finally finished digging into the abyss she pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a Bic lighter. She set them down and when I started to protest she interrupted me. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re closed.” She reached back into the bag and this time she drew out a badge and tossed it onto the bar. “You Wes Darling?” she asked.
I didn’t pay much attention to the badge. I’d seen them before. Instead I asked, “Did I serve a minor or something, officer…?”
She took the time to light a cigarette and drop the pack back into her purse before answering. “It’s not officer-it’s Detective Davies. I’m afraid this is a little more serious, Wes.”
I retrieved an ashtray and set it in front of her, then reached over into the cooler and took out a Miller Light for myself. I took a swig before asking, “You want one, Detective?”
Davies shook her head. “I’m working. I wouldn’t mind a diet Coke though.”
I grabbed a glass, turned my back to the cop, and filled it from the fountain. “So what did I do to warrant a visit from the Key West gendarmes?” I asked, pushing the Coke across the bar.
Davies wore a gray skirt with a matching jacket that needed a good ironing, and when she accepted the glass I noticed she didn’t wear a wedding ring. She took a slow, deliberate sip of her drink, and then took a business card from her jacket pocket. She placed the card on the counter and pushed it toward me, careful to avoid the water ring from her glass. “Recognize this?” Davies asked.
It was creased and had a stain in the middle faintly resembling a four-leaf clover. I picked it up and was surprised to see my name on it. “It used to be one of mine,” I said.
“Used to be?” She reached out a thin, tapered finger and flicked the edge of the card with her nail. “It says you’re Vice-President of DDA Security and that you specialize in discreet investigations.” She tapped the card one more time, snatched it from my fingers, and held it in front of her eyes as if she were studying it.
She squinted at the fine print on the bottom of the card and added, “It also says here you’re a security expert. Pretty pretentious of you, don’t you think? How does anybody become an expert at anything at your age? You’re what, thirty years old? And what’s this shit about being founded in 1876?”
“It’s true.” A flicker of pride rushed through me, as it always did when I spoke about the history of the agency. “My great-great-great-grandfather was a Pinkerton detective, a Wells Fargo shotgun driver, and he even knew Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. When he was forty-five he moved to Detroit and started the firm. Back then it was called The Darling Detective Agency.”
“Thanks for the history lesson.” Davies stubbed out her cigarette and set the card face down on the counter. Written in my mother’s precise handwriting was the name Dirty Alvin’s, and the address to the bar.
The detective picked up the card and slipped it back into her pocket, and then leaned toward me. “What I really want to know, Wes, is are you in Key West working a case? Is the bartending gig some kind of a cover? I don’t understand how someone goes from being VP of a big firm to tending bar in Key West.”
“Oh, come on, Detective. People have been coming down here to escape for as long as my family has been in the detective business. Let’s just say I left the business six months ago for personal reasons. I don’t have a clue where that card came from-or why you’re standing here keeping me from closing up.” I finished my beer in two gulps and set the bottle onto the counter hard enough to emphasize my irritation.
“All right,” she said. “Then explain to me how your business card ended up in the pocket of a body we discovered out at Smathers Beach early this morning. Murder’s bad for the tourist trade, and makes the city fathers nervous.”
Me too, I thought. I reached beneath the counter for the bottle of antacid tablets I kept there and popped four of them into my mouth. I’d left the agency for a reason. Because my family had been in the detective business for well over a hundred years, my mother expected me to take over some day. The trouble was I never felt comfortable dealing with the deceit, the dead bodies, and the cops. It only took one screw-up on my part to convince me to quit. Still, the business was in my blood, and Davies had managed to spark my curiosity.
“This body got a name?” I asked.
Davies turned her head slightly, watching me like a wild animal getting ready to pounce. “The guy had your card on him,” she said. “I was hoping you could tell me his name.”
“Look, Davies,” I said. “I’m not a psychic. Why don’t you tell me what you’ve got, and I’ll help if I can. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Davies sat there for a few seconds, then took a small notebook from her purse and laid it in front of me. “There was a driver’s license on the body, along with your card, and this.”
I recognized the notebook and my hand began to tremble when I picked it up and flipped it open. On the front page he’d written: stop and see Wes. Now I knew why Davies wanted to talk to me.
My mouth went dry and I had to work up a little spit before I could get the words out. “Nick Hastings?”
Davies nodded. “You know him?”
“He worked for our agency.”
“So you are a P.I.?”
I barely heard the question. Not only had Nick been my mentor when I started in the business, but for over twenty years he’d been involved in an on-again, off-again relationship with my mother. I wasn’t looking forward to being the one to break the news to her.
“You all right?” I thought I detected a touch of sympathy in her voice, but when I looked up her eyes were cold and unwavering.
No, I wasn’t all right. My eyes started to water and I fought to blink back the tears. I’d been raised to believe crying was a sign of weakness. The last thing I was going to do was shed tears in front of a cop, especially a woman cop. I took a deep breath, gnawed at the inside of my cheek until it felt raw, and then said, “Sorry, but I didn’t hear the question.”
“You said he worked for your agency.”
“It’s actually my mother’s agency. I used to work for her, but like I told you, I quit six months ago. How’d Nick die?”
“Shot. Twice at close range.”
“No. At least nobody’s come forward. You have any idea what he was working on?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t even know he was in town.”
“Are you telling me he was working for a business your family owns and you don’t know why he’s in Key West? I find that hard to believe.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? I quit the business-all right? Wasn’t cut out for it.” I started to reach for another beer, but thought better of it. “As far as I knew he was still in Detroit. I wish he had stopped in last night. Maybe we would have had a drink instead of him going off and getting himself killed.”
Davies looked down at the counter and used the thumbnail of her right hand to pick at something only she could see.
“Maybe you knew he was in town, maybe you didn’t.” She raised her eyes and they were hard and unyielding. “If I find out you’re holding something back from me that will affect the outcome of my investigation, I’ll toss you in jail myself.”
“Do you mind if I call and break the news to my mother?”
Davies reached back into her purse and pulled out a daily planner, accompanied by a business card which she handed to me. “If you think of anything, give me a call and let me know. I’ll need your mother’s name and phone number so I can call her and find out if Hastings was working on a case down here.”
After writing down the information I rattled off, she tossed the planner back into her purse, grabbed the bag and slid off the stool in one easy move. “Do you know who Hastings’ next of kin was? Someone will have to make arrangements for the body.”
I shook my head. “I know his mother and father are dead. He never spoke to me of anyone else. My mother might know.”
“If you could stop by tomorrow and identify the body it would help. You can’t tell shit from the driver’s license picture.”
“Where do I go?”
“His body’s still at the hospital if you want to see it. Otherwise, you can stop by the station and I’ll show you some pictures.”
“I’d rather see the pictures,” I said, not sure I could handle viewing Nick’s body.
Davies turned to leave. She proceeded to the door and pausing with it half open glanced over her shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she said. “I’ll be expecting you tomorrow.”
It was 2:30 a.m. when I stepped out of the front door of Dirty Alvin’s and started jogging west along Caroline Street. Most nights, the flick of palm fronds brushing against tree trunks and the smell of the salty air blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico have a soothing effect on me. That night, I was only aware of the grating sounds. I heard a baby crying through an open window, a man and woman shouting at each other, and a silent mantra playing over and over in my head-Nick’s dead, Nick’s dead.
I never knew my father. According to my mother, I was the result of a wild weekend in Acapulco with a Vietnam vet who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know where he was from. I didn’t even know if he was alive or dead. At this stage of my life I didn’t really care.
Nick was the father figure in my life. He came to work for the agency when I was six years old. He once told me that was the day he fell in love. It took my mother a little longer, but by the time I was eight Nick had moved in with us.
My mother and Nick had a troubled relationship. When I was sixteen Nick moved out for good, but it didn’t end the relationship. He continued to work for the agency and he would often spend two or three nights at a time at our place. As far as I knew my mother never dated another man, although I suspected that when the relationship was in an off again phase, Nick went out other women.
It took me ten minutes to jog to the city marina dinghy docks. I was living aboard a thirty-six foot sailboat, which I had purchased when I moved to Key West. Rough Draft was moored in the Garrison Bight mooring field, a large permanent anchorage surrounded on three sides by land. It offers good protection from most Atlantic storms. Its only downfall is that a good northern wind strikes at least two or three days a month during the winter, tossing the boat around so badly I’m unable to sleep. That night the breeze was kicking up some whitecaps, an omen of things to come, I thought.
Slowing my pace when I turned into the parking lot, I walked past the over-flowing trash container to my van. After exchanging my running shoes for a pair of Crocs I headed across the lot, dreading the call I was about to make.
I stumbled down the ramp and along the dock to where my dinghy was locked, and sat on the pier with my feet resting in the seat of the boat. When I took out my phone I wanted to throw it as far out into the channel as I could, or better yet, fling it against the concrete break wall. Instead, I opened it, blocked my number, and called my mother.
Even though I knew she must be sleeping, she answered on the third ring. “Hello, mother,” I said, holding the phone away from my ear. My mother has a deep, raspy voice. It’s the product of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, and years of living by the philosophy that the loudest voice wins any argument. When she’s angry or excited, she sounds like a man and she can swear like a sailor doused in rum.
“This is a surprise. Don’t tell me Nick knocked some sense into you and you’re ready to go back to work.”
I bit back a retort. It was obvious she knew Nick was in Key West, and just as obvious she didn’t know what had happened to him. I choked back a sob, took a deep breath, and because I couldn’t think of an easy way to put it, I said, “Nick’s dead, Mom.”
There was a moment’s silence, and I could almost see her sitting up in bed and reaching for her cigarettes. It was her way of handling stress, and had been for as long as I could remember. When she finally spoke her voice quivered. “Are you sure?”
“The cop I talked to, a woman by the name of Davies, had Nick’s driver’s license, but I haven’t seen the body. I’m supposed to stop in tomorrow and make the ID. Hopefully, they’ll have a little more information by then.”
There was another pause. “I can’t believe he’s gone, Wes.” I could hear her sobbing on the other end of the line and I almost broke down myself.
“You going to be all right?” I asked.
Her sobs died off as she reined in her feelings, and a moment later she was in control again, the mother I remembered. “I need you to do me a favor, Wes.”
“I want you to wrap up the investigation Nick was working on.”
I cringed at her words. I wanted to be a good son, but I couldn’t risk being sucked back into that life, so I had to disappoint her-again. “It’s not going to happen, Mother,” I said. “I’m out of the business for good. I’m happy doing exactly what I’m doing.”
“You’re too fucking old to run away, Wes. You can’t be a boat bum and a bartender for the rest of your life.”
I thought about what she said. Although the nightmares still troubled my dreams, they came less frequently since I’d moved to Key West. I wasn’t kidding when I’d told her I was happy playing the role of beach bum.
“At least I can’t kill anyone working behind a bar,” I said.
“You didn’t kill the girl, Wes. The F.B.I. screwed up, not you.”
“Mother, we’ve had this conversation a dozen times. Nothing you say is going to convince me to get back into the business.”
“Well, I don’t have anyone else I can send down there right now,” she said. “When you ran off it left me short-handed.”
“I gave you two months notice.”
“Right. Like I can hire a licensed operative in that short a time. Why do you think Nick was down there? He was too old to be in the field. If his death was a result of this case, you can blame yourself.”
“That’s a shitty thing to say, mother.” I knew she was upset, but her words still stung.
I thought I heard her crying again, but I didn’t know if the tears were real or if she was playing me; she was capable of it. I felt bad and I knew it was what she was aiming for. When she finally spoke she dug the dagger in a little deeper.
“I’m going to have to come down and claim Nick’s body. That’s going to take awhile, not to mention the hoops I’m going to have to jump through. There is no next of kin. Still, I guess I can find time to wrap up the case while I’m down there.”
She thought she had me, but I wasn’t biting. “Nick was working in the field because he liked it,” I reminded her. “And we both know that either Sam Jackson or Will Harris can fly down and take over the case. Stop laying a guilt trip on me.” I gave her my new e-mail address and added, “Let me know what flight you’ll be on and I’ll pick you up at the airport.”
“Don’t you think you should give me your phone number?”
I hesitated. I’d changed my number after seventeen days in a row of her calling and demanding that I grow up and get back home to the office. With a sigh I gave it to her and added, “This is not an invitation for you to harass me, mother.”
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
“Of course you would,” I said aloud after I hung up. “Of course you would.”
Since I work nights, my normal routine is to sleep until noon and then do boat chores for a couple of hours. The night I found out about Nick, I was awake most of the night and up before seven. I dressed in my usual shorts and t-shirt, put on a pot of coffee, and stepped out into the cockpit. There was a chill in the air, but the sky was cloudless. The wind had died and the water was as still as the Detroit river after a week-long cold snap.
When I began to shiver I moved down below. Slipping on a sweatshirt, I poured my first cup of coffee, and headed back outside. I sat sipping coffee, listening to the quiet, and thinking about Nick until the calm was shattered by first one boater, and then another, starting their dinghy motors and heading to shore. I returned a wave from a couple on the next sailboat over, and then stood and went below to refill my cup and grab my computer.
I don’t get TV reception on the boat; or rather I get three Spanish speaking stations and a local one that plays the same old movies and 1940’s era serials over and over. But thanks to my cell phone provider I have a card for my computer that gives me broadband speed Internet access.
I read a couple of newspapers online and then went to my e-mail account. The only message I had was from my mother. It was short and to the point, and infuriated the hell out of me. Wes, hon. I really do need your help on this one. I don’t have anyone free to handle this. I’ve attached a copy of the file in case you change your mind. I’ll call and let you know when I’m arriving in Key West.
I couldn’t count the number of times I’d made it clear to her I was through with the business. I knew what she was doing. She’d once told me I was a good detective because I had the curiosity of a six-hundred pound cat. Well curiosity be damned, I thought, just before shutting down the computer without opening the attachment.
I didn’t want to go down and identify Nick’s body. Instead, I spent the next several hours doing boat chores. I hooked up a hose to the wash down pump and sprayed off some bird droppings. Once the deck dried, I taped, sanded and varnished a section of handrail that was beginning to weather under the harsh tropical sunlight.
When I finished, I put on my swimsuit, dove off the bow, and did thirty laps around the perimeter of the boat before taking a quick shower. Of course it’s the only kind of shower you can take when your tanks only hold sixty gallons and you have to haul water from shore in five gallon cans.
It was eleven by the time I sat back down at the computer. I played a couple of games of solitaire, but I couldn’t concentrate. I kept going over in my mind what had happened to Nick, and I wondered if his death had anything to do with the case he was working on. Finally, after getting up several times and wandering out to the cockpit and back again, I gave in and downloaded the file my mother had sent me. There were actually two files, one document file and one picture file. I opened the document file first.
There wasn’t a whole lot there. The client’s name was Frank Szymanski. He hired the firm to find an ex-girlfriend. He claimed they had an argument, she ran off, and he was heartbroken. Her name was Gail Bernard and she was a stripper who used the stage name ‘Destiny’. He also provided the information indicating she was originally from Key West, and had gone to school at Michigan State University. According to the client, he met the girl at a party in Detroit and fell in love.
The file listed Szymanski’s address in Grosse Pointe and his cell phone number. Nick had placed a note in the file referring to him as ‘that Frankie Szymanski.’
It wasn’t much to go on, so I went hunting on the Internet. Under Destiny I found reference to a comic book character, several nightclubs, and even a church, but no stripper. Under Gail Bernard, I hit the jackpot.
The articles in the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press were four years old. Both stories stated that as a freshman Bernard had been expelled from Michigan State University for running an escort service out of her dorm room. The cops found out about her enterprise when one of her girls, a fellow student, filed a complaint against a school football player. The courts went easy on the girl and Gail was given two years probation.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Frank had been one of her customers and maybe read a little too much into what would have been a business transaction. Maybe the girl had even led him on a little in hopes of having a few extra bills tucked into her g-string.
Any thought of Frank Szymanski being a victim ended when I Googled his name. What I discovered was enough to have me reach for my bottle of Tums. It appeared our client was the same Frankie Szymanski who had started his career as a hit man for the mob. The same Frankie Szymanski once linked to the nineteen seventy-five disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The same Frankie Szymanski who had been brought up on racketeering charges in nineteen eighty-five.
Damn, I thought. If my mother was serious about handling this case by herself I was going to have to step in. She was right, it had been a long time since she’d been in the field and I didn’t want to lose her too.
I was swearing under my brea