Another freebie…this short story will introduce you to NYPD homicide detective Sgt. Rolando Castilblanco. You might not have met him before. This was written after Pop Two Antacids and Have Some Java, an anthology about some other cases he lived through with his partner, Dao-Ming Chen. They are main characters in The Midas Bomb and Angels Need Not Apply. They will also be featured in The Golden Years of Virginia Morgan…coming soon! A third yarn about Castilblanco helping Chen, who has been framed for murder, will add a true mystery tale to “The Detectives Chen and Castiblanco Series.” (I’ve decided to not call that a trilogy, because I like these characters too much.) Enjoy!
Steven M. Moore
Roles. We all play them. Some of us decide who we want to be and play that role. Others decide for us and we just slip into those roles.
I looked like a homeless person. I reeked of bad booze and bodily odors. The old stained raincoat had an old brandy bottle corked with a paper towel in one pocket and a screw-top bourbon bottle with a few fingers left in the other. They had wrapped my feet in rags and stuffed them into boots two sizes too big, along with the bottoms of the pants’ legs.
I was playing a role. I was trying to become a victim.
With all the layers of clothing, no one could guess that I had a Glock in a shoulder holster and a combat knife in my right boot. I was ready for the SOB. Where was he?
The Big rotten Apple is full of people dedicated to their role-playing. We have actors and musicians who make the big-time; we have wannabe actors and musicians waiting on us at our eateries; we have bloviating politicians, rabbis, and priests, some in the role of helping, others in the service of greed; we have our peons on the streets, buses, and subways rushing to their twelve-hour jobs; we have Wall Street bankers cooking up the next scheme to bilk these peons and others out of their money—all role-playing, and all making the city a warm and fuzzy place for the Joker but not Batman.
You have to have people willing to play the roles of victims because there are so many bad people who need victims. The homeless and the elderly are the obvious choices because no one cares about them. But I cared.
Murdering someone is a special kind of role. Keeps me and my partner, Dao-Ming Chen, busy. We solve as many as we can, but there’s always another one. Just turn on the news. At least in the tri-state area, especially New York City.
At that moment, I didn’t look like NYPD Sgt. Rolando Castilblanco. Someone was killing homeless people. Hence the role.
I could act the part better than Chen could. She usually looks like she just retired from the fashion runways. You’d expect her to have a line of cheap clothes in some cheap department store chain or some specialty furniture at a local furniture barn. But she couldn’t do the commercials. Can’t smile worth shit—just that Asian Mona Lisa thing where you can’t tell if she’s laughing at herself, you, or the rest of humanity.
Me, I have a wife who tries to dress me. I start OK when I go on duty, but over the day the cheap suit acquires wrinkles, the tie accumulates coffee spots and sauce dribbles, and the shoes, my most important equipment, become dirty and dusty. In bad weather, I don that same raincoat, sans bottles. I never worry about an umbrella or a hat—plenty of stores with awnings around the city. And subway stations.
I looked around the alley. Dark, no videocams, not many homeless. Many of the few in the alley were already sleeping.
I peeked at my watch. 2 a.m. I scrunched under my cardboard.
Three nights of this, changing around to different places, had made me sore and tired. How do they do this? I hadn’t even had bad weather. Nevertheless, there was a bite in the breeze that blew down through the skyscraper canyons.
Roles are layered. High above me, IT people might be wringing out the programming bugs from software that traders would use the next day to make more money in seconds than most people can imagine. Below me, Con Ed personnel might be patching old worn-out cables in the hopes that they wouldn’t send the city into a blackout—or, electrocute dogs on the sidewalks above when they turn icy.
The street people are the most varied. The homeless, drugged, drunk, or just down on their luck, would try to make it through another night only to be wakened by street vendors opening their carts and vans at dawn’s early light. The city never sleeps because the layers take turn sleeping.
I’d just missed the SOB two nights ago. Only blocks from me, he had filleted a man and taken his collection of old paperbacks. Literary SOB? I hadn’t asked why the victim had books. How did he read? During the day in Central Park?
It was a small area. We had other detectives playing similar roles. Still others canvassed the area at random hours. Eleven dead. We wanted this guy. Not because the Commish wanted him, though. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the Commish. The man’s a politician, maybe more so than the Mayor. I wanted this perp because he was a predator.
He had threatened prostitutes too, but did not kill them. That’s how we had a good drawing of him. One girl had even been a graphics artist, once one of those who made their livings drawing caricatures of anorexic women for the lingerie ads in the papers. She couldn’t even find a waitperson’s job. However, she drew an excellent rendering and other girls confirmed it. Luck.
I guessed he must be a real gentleman, leaving the girls alone, because they often carried some good money before their pimps took it away. He always stole something from his homeless victims, though. We profiled that as inconsequential souvenirs—he just enjoyed the brutally violent killing. That’s what drove him.
“Obsessed,” Chen had said.
“Obscene and perverted,” I had said.
“He has issues,” the psychs had said.
With so many cops out there at night, playing our roles, I didn’t expect to be the lucky one. I wanted to be, but statistics are like Jorge Washington: they don’t lie, except when politicos abuse them. The perp’s attacks were random, although confined to a small area. It was more likely he would get another victim before he attacked a cop.
The trouble with statistics, though, is that all events have a non-vanishing probability. You flip a coin. There’s a small probability you will get heads ten times in a row. It’s there. Lottery players keep going because of this.
I played with numbers—number puzzles, brainteasers, and the like. Drove my wife Pam nuts sometimes. We’d be out to dinner, usually in a new place that didn’t have a rep yet—more frequent after we married because our schedules didn’t overlap long enough for a decent meal at home. She’d disappear “to powder her nose”—always thinking of her appearance in public because she’s a TV reporter. I’d be working on a puzzle when she came back.
You know where I’m going with this. The perp picked me. Don’t know why. Maybe I played my role of helpless, homeless drunk too well? Or, just the toss of the coin?
I’d dozed off. Simple sore and tired had morphed into physical exhaustion. But I felt the slight tug at the cardboard.
I looked into the face. What the drawing hadn’t captured was the vacancy behind the eyes. The soft, multi-colored blinking from the neon signs in the street exacerbated the sensation of becoming lost in that Dark Energy behind those eyes, but I was sure they would look the same in daytime. This man was playing no role—or maybe the role of a soulless demon.
The scar, from the right eyebrow, down the cheek, to the right corner of the mouth, matched the drawing perfectly. His stubble was not yet a beard—he had shaved some days ago. I smelled cheap cologne. He wore his hair slicked back.
He was big. I guessed a shade taller than I was, with wide shoulders and immense hands. The left hand had lifted the cardboard. The right carried a baseball bat. MO number twelve.
I made a rookie’s mistake. I tried to pull my gun. One swing of the bat and home run. The Glock went spinning off into the night. My hand felt numb. Foul ball. Strike one.
He raised the bat with both hands over his head and brought it down. Strike Two.
Clean strike, though. The bat smashed into the pile of rags I had been using as a pillow. I had rolled aside.
Funny how adrenalin can speed up your reactions. Role change: I was now a cop. Or, maybe reliving my combat duty. In any case, I was no longer playing a vic. I was in defensive mode. That meant I was going to either kill the bastard or be killed.
He came toward me, his mouth twisted. The eyes were still vacant. But his role had now changed too. He was cautious. I wasn’t playing the role I was supposed to be playing.
His dwarfed my rookie’s mistake. He tossed the bat and rushed me. He was fast. I was faster. I sidestepped and pulled at a grasping arm, increasing his speed. His head slammed into the wall that had sheltered me a bit from the wind.
A normal person would have sunk to the ground, at least a bit stunned. He simply shook his head, pivoted, and came at me again.
That surprised me. Statistics, again. I was up against a big oaf who was fast and lethal. Not a bad description of me, but this person was farther away from the norm.
I stepped back and flattened his nose with the heel of my hand. That’s usually a good tactic, especially if you put a fist into his windpipe with the next punch.
Again, the slight shaking of the head and the advance. I tripped on something and sat down hard on my butt.
Those huge hands went for my throat. His weight pushed me flat. I thrashed a bit and went limp. He loosened his grip, maybe thinking I was dead, or unconscious. My right leg was free, though, so I pulled it up, took out the knife, and sliced through a carotid artery.
I watched him bleed out before I used my cell to call Chen for backup.
Time for a different role, that of husband. I was going home to Pam.
In libris libertas….
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