Worlds Upon Worlds

A thriller excerpt

Richie Krebbs is an ex-cop, a barely employed walking encyclopedia of crime and criminals who chafes at bureaucracy. Frank Robey, lover of comic books and classic soul, quit the FBI and joined the Detroit PD, obsessed with the case of a missing child and unwilling to leave the city before she was found. When Richie unearths a possible clue in one of Detroit’s many abandoned homes, it puts him on a collision course with Frank — and with depths of depravity neither man could have imagined.

Chapter 33

It was late afternoon when Richie was finished. Instead of going back to his room, he headed for the midtown neighborhood where Morton’s photo studio had been, hoping some of his fellow merchants might remember him. The effort was wasted; shopkeepers wanted someone in their stores who meant to spend money, which left Richie out. When he showed Morton’s picture, all he received in return were blank looks. After a while, he went into a nearby independent coffee shop called CupZ to make use of their free wi-fi.

The only customer was a man sitting at a table, reading a newspaper. Dressed in a pinstriped gray suit, he looked like he had stopped in on his way home from work. He took off a few minutes after Richie got a big mug of coffee and booted up his laptop. The loud rustle and snap as the man folded his newspaper, putting sharp creases in its edges, surprised Richie, and he realized it wasn’t a sound he heard much anymore. Most people got their news from TV or the internet. Not just news, but sports scores, even classified ads. Craigslist had taken over that business, he thought. He and Wendy had scored a couch off it just last year.

He remembered an early conversation he’d had with Frank. Frank was talking about his love of comic books, showing him the boxes he had stacked up in his den. “Can’t you read those online?” Richie had asked.

Frank looked horrified. “Sure, you can. But should you? Hell, no. Comic-style stories created just for online viewing, that’s different. Not something I’m interested in, but that’s its own thing, and I got no problem with it. But that’s not comic books. The pleasure of a comic book isn’t just the story, it’s the whole experience. When you’re a kid, you’re in the drugstore, maybe, while your mother’s picking up a prescription. You come across a wire spin-rack full of colorful, illustrated adventures about larger-than-life heroes. That ushers you into a whole new world that somehow you know is not shared by everybody. It’s special and just a little bit secret. Forbidden. Your teachers think it’s a waste of time, money, and brain cells. It’s like somebody invited you into the coolest club there is. You buy one and you take it home, read it in your room at night, turning those thin sheets of paper.

“See, a comic story isn’t just the picture in the panel, and the words in the panel on top of the picture. That’s part of it, but there’s also how the panels are laid out, how they connect to each other, what happens between the panels. What happens at the top of the page versus the bottom of the page. If there’s going to be a surprise, it’s going to come when you turn the page. You don’t get these things, not the same way, not online. You gotta have that tactile experience, turning the pages yourself, with your own fingers.

“Anyway, you get to be older, a teenager, comics are mostly available in comic book shops. Those aren’t hip places to be seen, necessarily, but you go there anyhow. Maybe not with your homeboys, or just the one or two who understand. You pick up your comics, but you don’t take ‘em to school or tell everybody you know about ‘em, like when you were younger. They’re your thing, something to share only with special people.

“You get older still, you’re an adult, going to a comic shop. You know that ain’t right, you’re supposed to be above all that. But that thrill of discovery from when you were a kid is magnified. The comic shop holds worlds upon worlds, more imagination and wonder than most people ever experience. Ask your neighbor what he’s reading, it’s the same book four other people on the bus are also reading, that new bestseller by that cat who wrote all those other bestsellers. But not you. You’re being taken on a different trip. And again, you can share it with friends, but the real moment, the true moment, is when you’re sitting in that chair holding that flimsy thirty-two-page book in your hands, watching the story unfold. That, Maynard, is what it’s about, and you don’t do that shit online.”

Once the man was gone, there was nobody in the place but Richie and the barista, an attractive woman of about twenty-five or twenty-six, Richie guessed. She had a fresh face, with pronounced cheekbones and frizzy red hair. Her eyes were light brown, flecked with gold, and reminded Richie of beach sand in shallow water catching light on a sunny summer day. She was tall and voluptuous, stretching her CupZ polo shirt almost to the breaking point. The arms extending from its sleeves were nicely toned and lightly freckled; on her left wrist she wore a variety of bracelets: metal, wood, and plastic all clacking together as she worked.

The air was redolent with the usual coffee shop smells. Richie’s own woody dark roast, cinnamon and nutmeg from the condiment stand behind him, the general warm embrace of the barista’s world. But when she passed by, dropping off his mug, straightening tables, the barista brought with her a slightly autumnal, fruity scent that evoked, for Richie, a memory of one brilliant fall day when he and Wendy strolled hand-in-hand through an orchard in Macomb County, sometimes laughing out loud, sometimes engulfed in a comfortable silence.

At one point he was deeply involved in an online search when she interrupted him. “Work or pleasure?”

He looked up, caught her eye. “Excuse me?”

She nodded toward the laptop.

“Oh. That’s work.” He didn’t want to go into any detail, certainly didn’t want her to see the sorts of things he was using her wireless service to look up.

“I can turn the music down if it’s bothering you.”

He had barely noticed it. U2, singing about a street with no name. “No, it’s fine. Thank you.”

“All right. Give me a shout if you need anything.”

“I will, thanks.”

Driving over from Elkhorn, a thought had been taking root in Richie’s mind. He didn’t like it, but he figured it had to be checked out. Barbara going back home to Virginia might have been reasonable; there had probably been enormous stresses in the marriage ever since Angela’s disappearance. But if she had gone home to Virginia, why hadn’t he just said so? Why make up North Carolina? Yes, they had changed their names — although, interestingly, she had stuck with Barbara for a first name even though he kept changing his — but he had to know some random neighbor woman couldn’t easily trace a Barbara Miller who didn’t exist to a specific place in a state the size of Virginia. Why go that extra mile and make up a lie? All of it made Richie think Barbara had never gone home at all.

Online at the coffee shop, he checked the local obituaries, going back to when the Mortons had lived in Omaha. He doubted there would be one for Barbara — he thought the cheerleader would have noticed that. But it was the first, most obvious thing to look at, so he did. When that proved as fruitless as he expected, he looked for reports of unidentified female bodies who might have matched Barbara physically. That, too, was a blank.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and started. “I’m sorry,” the barista said. She had a good smile, the kind that drew others to it, and she shared it liberally. “I just wanted to see if you needed a warm-up.”

She didn’t seem to be looking at his screen, or give any indication that she had been. “That would be great,” Richie said, closing the laptop a little as he reached for his mug. He held it out and she took her hand off his shoulder. It seemed like she had left it there a long time; he still felt its warmth as she tossed him a casual smile. She held a stainless-steel pot, and she steadied the mug with her free hand, fingers touching Richie’s, as she poured.

Richie glanced at the screen. It was on a news story, no photos. She would have had to read the text to know what he was looking at. She finished filling his mug and released it. “There you go.”

“Thanks.”

“I live to serve.”

Works for me, he thought, watching her behind as she returned to the counter. She really was attractive, in an overstated, larger-than-life kind of way. When she was gone, he focused again on his search, widening it.

#

He’d been at it for a little over an hour, and two more refills, before he found anything. The place was filling up, and he was starting to feel bad about taking a table for so long when he came across a story about a female corpse found buried near a creek bed outside Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the state line from Omaha. The woman had been stabbed three times in the heart, then decapitated, her hands cut off. As far as Richie could tell, she had never been identified.

If it was Barbara’s body, it meant Jarod had been clever enough to know that burying it there would cause jurisdictional confusion, making him harder to find and connect to the murder.

From what Richie could tell, given the bare-bones description in the news reports, it could have been Barbara. The age was close, anyway, as were the approximate height and weight. Beyond that, and short of a DNA match, there wasn’t much way to tell, considering the condition of the remains.

Getting away with murder was a cliché that had come about because it was supposed to be rare and difficult. The truth, Richie knew, was often very different. From O. J. Simpson to Ted Bundy, people skated on murders all the time.

Prosecutors took to court only the cases that were slam dunks, leaving behind other bodies, other families, other loved ones who would awaken every morning for the rest of their lives never quite certain that the killer had been found, that justice had been done. Robert Hansen probably killed at least twenty-one women, hunting them like animals in the Alaskan wilderness, but was convicted on just four counts. In some cases, like that of John Brennan Crutchley — the so-called Vampire Rapist — no murders were ever pinned on people suspected of dozens.

Even cutting off head and hands wasn’t a guaranteed walk. Joel Rifkin chopped up some of his victims, hid the parts in separate barrels, and tossed them in the East River, and he still went down. But that, and burying the victim across state lines — they were good moves if you wanted to stay out of prison. They made things a lot harder for the cops. Obviously, Morton had put some thought into disposing of his potentially problematic spouse.

When Richie had read everything he could find online about the woman, he shut down the laptop and closed it. His hands were trembling, and he couldn’t tell if it was from the stories or all the coffee. When he set his empty mug on the counter, he shoved a five-dollar bill he couldn’t afford into the tip jar. “Thanks for your help,” he said. “Sorry I used up so much real estate all afternoon.”

“Oh, not a problem,” she said. “You come back again.”

“Maybe I’ll do that.”

#

Since he didn’t know how thick the walls at the Satellite Motel were, Richie called Frank from inside his car. He got voicemail on Frank’s cell, and someone at the precinct who promised to take a message. Richie didn’t leave one. He couldn’t tell anyone but Frank about this. He called the cell phone back. Voicemail again. “Frank,” he said. “Give me a call as soon as you can. There’s something we have to talk about. Jarod Morton is not only a pedophile, I think he’s definitely a murderer. I think he killed Barbara — and maybe Angela, too. You need to see if you can find any reports within two hundred miles in every direction of a girl’s body found with no head or hands. You heard me right. As soon as you can.” He didn’t know what else to say, so he left it at that.

Chapter 34

Wil Fowler’s mother, Carlotta Gray, lived in a small house, not much more than a cottage, on Berkshire near Frankfort. The yard was well kept, but the low stone wall supporting an iron-spiked fence separating yard from sidewalk was covered in graffiti, and when he looked closely, Frank saw a bullet hole in the wall above a living room window. The house had seen its troubles, and he was willing to bet its residents had known their share as well.

He had torn himself away from his father’s bedside, mostly at Yolanda’s urging. “You’re doing no good here,” she’d insisted. “He wakes up, we’ll let you know. He don’t, you’re worth more out on the street catchin’ bad guys.”

He didn’t know how much of that he would get done today, but he figured he could go by Wil Fowler’s place, see what he could learn about the kid. Wil wasn’t home when he arrived, but when he flashed his badge Carlotta let him in.

“Why my boy locked up all night?” she demanded. She was short, not quite reaching Frank’s shoulder, but she was wiry and animated, and he got the feeling that crossing her would be a mistake. “You do that?”

“Ma’am, I’m the only reason he’s out.”

“What you mean?”

“I mean, he was in possession of stolen property, Mrs. Gray. He could have been booked and arraigned and you’d be fetching a lawyer right now, trying to raise bail money.”

“That boy ain’t boosted nothin’!”

“I didn’t say he did. I said he had stolen goods in his possession, which he did.”

“What was they?”

“A valuable coin collection that had been stolen recently.”

“I never seen it.”

“I wouldn’t imagine he’d show it to you.”

The house smelled of fish, probably what she’d had for dinner. It was clean, but close and dark, and Carlotta’s taste in home decor seemed to run toward religious representations of a particularly grim nature. The crucified Jesus painting above her plaid cloth sofa had dark skin and blood streaming from multiple wounds. “He wouldn’t dare.”

“There you go.”

She sat down on the sofa and wove her fingers together. Her expression was slightly less anguished than Jesus’s, but not a lot. “He ain’t had all the right things.”

“Like what?” Frank asked. “What’s he missing?”

“His daddy was gone before he was born. He got a stepdaddy, raised him up with me, but he in prison now.”

“What’s his name?”

“Clinton. Clinton Gray. We married nine years now.”

“What were the charges?”

“Oh, he a stupid man. Got hisself a gun, tried to hold up some stores with a friend even stupider than him. He come home with fifty-seven dollars and change, thinkin’ he the shit. Next day Clinton go out again, get caught in about fifteen seconds. Next thing, he in for five to seven, leavin’ me and Wil here alone.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am.”

“So I don’t want that boy catchin’ no heat.”

“That’s more or less up to him. I don’t want him in trouble, either, which is why I cut him loose.”

She met his gaze and held it for a long moment. “I appreciate that, I truly do. Sometimes trouble find somebody, whether he lookin’ for it or not.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“That’s how Wil be. He don’t look for it, but it look for him just the same.”

“I feel you,” Frank said.

“I got to deal with his stepdaddy bein’ in prison. That’s hard on a family, you know?”

“I know.”

“Visitin’, tryin’ to run a house, don’t leave a lot of time to deal with a headstrong boy.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I don’t want nothin’ to happen to that boy.”

“I’m sure not.”

“Clinton, he a good man mostly. Stupid sometimes is all. Tryin’ to provide.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Only time Wil keep clear of trouble is when he sit in his room drawin’ them pictures.”

Frank was surprised. He had stereotyped the kid as much as anybody else might have, and artwork had not entered into his image of Wil Fowler. “He draws?”

“Can’t hardly stop him.”

“Can I see his work?”

Carlotta narrowed her eyes at Frank, as if he had just asked permission to torch her house. “Suppose it won’t do no harm. You already think he’s a thief. How much worse is a thief who draws?”

“There’s nothing shameful about being an artist, ma’am. Some folks make a good living at it.”

“Easy for you to say, you got a job. You makin’ somethin’ of yourself.”

He didn’t want to spend his day fighting a pointless battle. “I’d like to see his pictures, if I could.”

“All right.” She took him to Wil’s room, which was clean, though furnished with a kind of boot camp simplicity. He didn’t have a drawing board, but he had an old carving board propped up on a desk, piles of books behind it holding it at an angle and a couple of nails driven into the desktop keeping it from slipping. There was a sheet of illustration board taped to it, with a street scene lightly sketched out in pencil. Nearby was a stack of other sheets.

Frank thumbed through them. Most were Detroit street scenes like the one on the board. Some depicted places Frank recognized: an abandoned building in midtown with all its windows gone and “PAIDAWAY!” painted in giant letters near the top, the anti-Semitic Father Coughlin’s vaguely phallic Shrine of the Little Flower, the Majestic Theatre on Woodard, a store on Michigan Ave called Everything For Dollar. The scenes had been drawn with an almost Impressionistic approach, suggesting real life rather than mimicking it, but the figures inhabiting those places came straight out of Wil’s world. They were mostly black folks, standing on street corners, playing strike-out in front of a square painted on a wall, throwing dice, holding bottles in paper bags, kids playing in a street while parents watched from stoops. He had worked them into the scenes with a realism that was almost photographic. Not only was the kid talented, but his combination of ultrarealistic humans set against a suggested cityscape was unique, in Frank’s experience.

“He’s very good.”

“You say so. You clownin’ me, or you want to buy one?”

Actually, Frank did. But he wouldn’t, not without Wil there to sell it to him. He wanted to make sure it was something Wil didn’t mind parting with, and that he got the money. Most poor kids Frank had known who tried to use legal means of bettering their position in life chose hoops or rap. Those dreams rarely panned out, but the example of a single Eminem could spur thousands, white and black, to try. Frank thought a dream that never came true could be devastating, but in the long run he would rather live in a world where people had dreams, even if they didn’t materialize, than one in which hope didn’t exist at all. As long as there was hope, there was possibility. So he would take the Eminem wannabes, the would-be Lebrons, and be glad that, for a while, at least, people wanted something bad enough to make an effort.

Anyway, a couple of kids he’d met had done all right for themselves. He couldn’t think of any he’d encountered who had chosen art for that purpose, and he wasn’t sure that was Wil’s intention. But he expected Wil could pull it off if he wanted to. “I will sometime. From Wil.”

“Yeah, what I thought.” Carlotta walked out of the room, leaving Frank no choice but to follow. He would rather have spent more time with the artwork and less with Carlotta.

Back in the living room, she paced and launched into a diatribe about Clinton Gray’s troubles. Frank felt an overwhelming urge to flee. She wasn’t telling him anything about Wil, not intentionally, at least. Instead, she sounded more concerned about her husband than about the possibility that Wil might be following his path.

He excused himself as soon as he was able, letting himself out into a cool evening breeze. Outside, he felt like he could breathe again. Loud hip-hop blared from down the block, and he let the music wash over him for a few moments, then got into his car and cranked up some Al Green.

#

He had the police radio on, and after one song he turned down the Reverend Al enough to hear the steady, crackling hum of conversation. He wasn’t ready to go home yet, but he didn’t want to go back to the hospital, to the depressing sight of his unconscious father, kept breathing by machines. Instead, he cruised the streets of his beloved city. When Al Green ended he put on a CD by Martha and the Vandellas, Heat Wave. His father had played alto saxophone on two of the album’s tracks, back in his musician days, before he decided that gigging wasn’t steady enough work to pay the bills.

When he heard a report of a domestic disturbance a few blocks from his location, Frank shut off Martha and said he’d respond. A domestic disturbance could be a scary thing. You never knew how people would react to having a cop show up and interfere in their private lives.

But he was nearby, and it would take his mind off his own issues. He rolled up to a house. Most of the streetlamps on the block were out, but the home in question was blazing with light. Two figures were silhouetted against a sheer white curtain, facing each other. Frank could read the tension from the street.

He glanced at the house next door, where faces were faintly visible in the moonlight shining on a front window. Probably the ones who had called in the complaint. He nodded at them once and strode toward the brightly lit house. The people inside were screaming at each other, so loud and frantic that he couldn’t make out their words. The tone was bad enough, though, each shouted syllable dripping with contempt.

Frank pounded his fist on the door and announced himself. A momentary lag in the screamfest followed, but it didn’t last. He tried the doorknob, announcing himself again. “Detroit police!” he cried. “I’m coming in!”

He found them in the kitchen. A cheap dining table had been upended, a checkbook and a stack of bills strewn all over the floor. Not hard to see what this fight was about. He faced a white man, backed up against the sink, who looked to be in his mid-thirties, gaunt, unshaven, with tattoos on both arms. He wore a plain blue T-shirt with a small hole at the gut and sweat stains under the arms.

“Tell this bitch to chill,” he said when Frank entered.

The woman was skinny, with a dark complexion and black hair. Her backside might have been a boy’s, her arms little more than bone and muscle. Her hands were held in front of her, out of Frank’s view. She glanced over her shoulder at him, her eyes huge and dark. “Fuck off,” she said.

Frank suspected that the five beer bottles and the half-empty White Wolf bottle had something to do with the extremity of the situation. The rounded, yeasty scent of the Miller seemed to buttress the sharp-edged tang of vodka. “Ma’am, I’m a police officer. I’m going to need you both to calm down and talk to me.”

“You’re gonna have to cuff her, man. She’s fuckin’ nuts!”

“Both of you, take a step back from this. It hasn’t gone too far yet.”

“Dude, it’s way too far,” the man cried.

The woman made a slow, casual pirouette, and Frank’s gaze locked on the gun in her right hand, a small, blued, semi-automatic pistol. He almost felt the adrenaline kick up a notch. He held out his left hand toward her, wishing he had already filled his right.

“Ma’am, you’ve got to give me that.”

“She got it from the bedroom closet,” the man said. “I keep it in a box there, you know, just in case. I never thought she’d pull it on me.”

“This fucker can’t hold a job. He spends money on booze and dope and hookers, and I’m fucking sick of it.”

“We can talk about all that,” Frank said. “But please, give me the weapon before somebody gets hurt.”

“That’s pretty much the point of a gun, isn’t it? To hurt someone?”

“We can work this out, ma’am. Really.” Frank took a careful step toward her, gliding, trying to keep his body language unthreatening. He was a dozen feet away, ten feet. Eight.

“I think I already figured out the best way to work it out,” she said. She spun away from Frank. He lunged, but the gun boomed an instant before he reached her. He threw his arms around her, driving her to the ground, pinning the gun. She writhed and wriggled but he got a grip on her arm, tugged it free and twisted. He felt her tendons and bones rotating, hoped she would give up before he snapped her wrist. Finally, tearing off a curse, she released the weapon. As soon as it clunked to the floor, he snatched it up, then shifted off her, transferring it to his left hand and drawing his duty weapon with his right.

“Okay,” Frank said, “let’s all settle down, now.”

Then Frank looked at the man. He held a hand over his mouth, but it couldn’t contain the blood that spilled from above it, between upper lip and nose. There was a word for that spot, but Frank couldn’t remember what it was.

Blood splashed down the man’s shirt, onto his shoes, the floor. His eyes were already going glassy.

Frank dropped the little gun into his pocket, whipped out his cell, pushed 911.

It would be too late for the man. Frank had been too late before he even reached the house.

Palms against the littered floor, the woman awkwardly pushed herself to hands and knees, wincing. Frank hoped he hadn’t broken any ribs when he’d landed on her. Then again, he couldn’t say she didn’t deserve a little pain.

She reached for the kitchen cabinet and drew herself upright, then saw her husband, sinking while she rose. She let out a pained cry and fixed Frank with a ferocious glare. “Look what you’ve done!” she said. “Look what you’ve done!”

Frank had known a cop who’d ventured into a domestic dispute in which a man was threatening his wife with a hunting knife: six-inch blade, serrated back edge, a truly wicked weapon. The cop got between them, backed close to the woman to shield her in case the husband made a play. While his back was turned, she picked up a heavy crystal vase and brained him with it.

Frank had visited his friend in the hospital, where his head had been shaved and stitched. The cop had never gone back to the job after that; his short-term memory had turned to shit.

Even a couple engaged in a vicious fight could reunite against the hapless officer stuck in the middle. He hoped this woman wouldn’t go that far, and he desperately hoped she wouldn’t try to pin her act on him. He’d snatched the gun to keep it away from her, but without gloving up; his prints had almost certainly obscured some of hers. He had to get a crime scene unit out here in a hurry to run GSR tests on them both, and even at that he might have been close enough to her to test positive. He needed another detective here to take their statements.

Two hours passed before Frank could leave, the time filled with flashing lights and sirens, angry looks and recriminations. Dark humor passed between cops and paramedics, outside the hearing of neighbors and onlookers. Frank would have yet more paperwork to do, but that wasn’t what bothered him the most. What bothered him was the job, the fucking job. He thought about it as he leaned against the car, eating a Milky Way from his glovebox. The adrenaline rush had used up all the sugar in his blood, leaving him shaky. The candy bar helped settle him down.

The fucking, sonofabitching job.

As a boy, Frank had seen his father as something elemental, like the salt he brought up from beneath the city. A man of granite. It took a hard man to do that work. Frank could never hack it down there. But then, his father had seemed a little like Superman. Frank couldn’t blow a horn well enough to make it onto a Motown record, could never carry a football for thirty yards with three guys literally hanging off him.

In spite of his other interests, Pops always made time for his kids. Frank remembered the time Pops took him and Yolanda—Claire hadn’t been born yet—to the Grand Freedom March, down Woodward Avenue. That had been the twenty-third of June, 1963. Frank had been a small boy, and he didn’t remember much about the speechmaking, but he recalled lots of adults. Somewhere between knee and hip height on most grown-ups, he’d been intimidated by the size of the crowd. He clung to his father’s hand, and to Yolanda’s, so they wouldn’t be separated. “You ever see so many black folk all in one place?” his father had asked. “All so happy to be here. It’s a beautiful thing.” Pops had been right, they were glad. The size of the crowd was overwhelming, frightening, but the mood was joyful. He remembered seeing smiles, hearing laughter and cheery shouts. Grown men hugged one another and slapped palms, and women in tears cried out “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” and even at his age, Frank had understood that those were not tears of sorrow.

He had read the day’s most significant speech later, had seen film of it, and had come to understand that his father had skipped work that day because he knew that it would be something he would want his children to experience. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King had appeared at the Grand Freedom March, and he had delivered words that would send chills through Frank’s system every time he encountered them, for all the rest of his days. “I have a dream,” King had declared, in a precursor to a slightly altered speech he would deliver in Washington later that summer. He had gone on to elaborate on his dream. He had ended his speech with a roaring, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” and the crowd had gone berserk, screaming and clapping and howling so much that young Frank had thrown his hands over his ears and started sniffling.

Yolanda, older and wiser, had made him uncover his ears. “You want to remember this, Frankie,” she had said. “You want to remember all of it!”

Later years had scraped away some of the sheen his father wore. Adolescence tended to do that. Frank had learned to question the old man’s seeming perfection. But then more years passed, and Frank had come to realize the sacrifices Pops had made for his family, the effort he had put in, the granite constitution that kept him at it, and admired him all over again. Superman was Frank’s fictional hero, but Pops was his real-life one.

Pops gave up on music, gave up on athletics, traded his dreams for a steady gig, a regular paycheck, honest work he could be proud of, down under the ground in the salt mine. Frank’s life had been spent in law enforcement, the Bureau and the DPD, trying to do work that made a difference, that helped people. And how did people repay that help? They faced off, they shot each other, they blamed you.

He had grown up in one country, but now he lived in another, and he hadn’t moved. The America he saw in his memory, his father’s America, was a place in which people took responsibility for themselves and their actions. They sucked up their troubles and did what was right, or they tried to. That had changed. Now it was a matter of doing what was easy, what was convenient, what seemed to feel good in the moment. Was this progress? He didn’t think so. He didn’t know what to call it, but he didn’t like it.

He keyed the ignition. Martha and the Vandellas slipped from the speakers, smooth as glass, and he felt like a man out of his time, born too late, a man who had never quite found a place where he truly fit.


From the thriller Empty Rooms, by Jeffrey J. Mariotte. Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey J. Mariotte. Published by WordFire Press.

Find it at your local independent bookseller, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon, in paperback and ebook.

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