A Walk In The Rain
by TS Hottle
It was a long walk back to the service station, where Lenny would be waiting for me, not the sort of walk I wanted to make at 3 AM. Granted, North Royalton was as far from East Cleveland as you could get, but who wanted to walk a rural stretch of road in the dark?
I know I didn’t.
Still, as I locked the gates and whistled for the guard dogs, I began my two-mile walk back into North Royalton. Over the horizon, the lights of Cleveland cast an eerie haze into the night sky. I was too far out, almost twenty miles, to see the skyline, but the lights were bright enough to reveal the late April rain coming in from the lake. I could see lightning off to the west. It was going to be a long walk indeed.
But it had already been a long two nights…
The previous night found me in the Flats at a place called Muldoon’s. It wasn’t the hottest spot on the Cuyahoga River. That was its charm. The dingy tavern predated the upscale saloons and nightclubs that had invaded the old industrial heart of the city, and stood today as one of the few reminders of it. Only now, it featured live music, usually by patrons.
Patrons like me, Tom Landrum, and Angie Warren. We had all gone to high school together, gone to Ohio State together, and, inexplicably, returned to Cleveland together. Well, actually, we all hailed from Medina, to the south, but Cleveland was our spiritual home. Together with a shifting group of folks who hung out at Muldoon’s, we made up a tolerable band called Shamus. The name, according to Angie, was in honor of my current profession. Oddly enough, I was an insurance investigator when she came up with it. We’d been a band for four years, and I’d only been a PI for two. These days, the band was supplemental income.
That particular night, Tom and I arrived early to set up for the gig. Sitting in was my ex-boss and college roommate, Bob Povic, on bass, and a strange, hairy guy named Clyde on drums. Tom and I played guitar with Tom doing the vocals. I’d sing, but it’s bad for business when a tavern’s patrons can’t hold down their drinks before reaching the back alley. Angie sang with Tom and played keyboards, or would have, had she shown up. By nine, we found ourselves playing a stripped down set of raw blues without her. It wasn’t half-bad, actually, but we had to drop a number of tunes on the fly without our female vocalist.
Angie was a pro, someone already on her way up in the music biz. She still played with us almost religiously to “stay grounded in her roots.” I’d always loved her for that. This, however, was the first night in memory that she had not shown without calling. By the end of the first set, none of us could concentrate. We had no call, no page, nothing to tell us what had happened to her. Bob insisted that we were overreacting, that Angie could take care of herself. No sooner had he said that then Angie walked in with her keyboard case. She was a spare woman, medium height with long brown hair tied back in a pony tail. Her eyes were green and her skin pale.
And black around both eyes.
The rain started to fall as I walked Ridge Road back into North Royalton. I crested a hill and could make out the lights of the Speedway up ahead. Lenny wasn’t there yet, but would be waiting for me. I patted the phone clipped to my belt for comfort. A quick page with the message “911” would pull Lenny out of the Denny’s in town and bring him to the Speedway just as I arrived. He had no clue what had happened. He never asked; I never told him. I’d covered for him enough times to know I could trust him.
By nature, I’m not a lawbreaker. I’ve been known to bend the law on occasion, but seldom break much more than the speed limit. My job sometimes requires me to pull stunts I would never have done as a cop or a claims investigator. Occasionally, I helped Lenny dump a car he’d stolen, but I never questioned him about it. Becoming a PI had brought me to the dark underbelly of society, darker than anything I’d seen as a suburban cop or an insurance man. It meant getting my hands dirty.
As I started down the other side of the hill, I absently wiped my hands on my pants…
The second set at Muldoon’s was surreal. Despite her two black eyes and a bruise forming on her upper arm, she acted as though nothing had happened. Tom managed to ignore her plight and concentrate on the music. Every time I glanced at her, though, I found myself hitting the chords just a little too hard, dirty looks from Bob forcing me to concentrate.
We finished our second set well after 12:30 when the source of Angie’s grief burst into the room.
Tall, crew-cut, with the posture that came only from the Marine Corps, he strutted through the barroom, cutting a swath through the crowd with sheer attitude. “Get home now!” he bellowed as he reached the stage. Bob, Tom, and Clyde surrounded Angie, blocking him.
I stepped off the stage and up to him. “All right, Kopinski, settle down before you get thrown out of here.” I smiled at him. “Let me buy you a…”
He shoved me backward into the stage. I fell backward against the edge.
“Stay out of this, Kepler! And quit sniffing around my wife! Fucking private dick!” Kopinski read too many bad detective novels.
“I am not your wife, Joe!” Angie said, with a force of will I’d come to admire in her. “In fact, I’m not your girlfriend anymore. If you’re not out of the house by the time I get home, I’ll have the police drag you out.”
Kopinski leapt over me onto the stage, his fist drawn. Clyde — strange, hairy Clyde — pushed him backward. Kopinski landed flat on his back.
Kopinski got up and lunged at me. I got ready to roll out of his way when someone from behind yanked him backward by his collar. Kopinski looked blearily up into the face of a fellow ex-Marine, a white guy about my height and build, with Kopinski’s crew cut and a much better physique. He put a foot on Kopinski’s chest and pulled out a badge.
“Do you know what this is, soldier?”
Kopinski looked up and sneered. “Fuck you, pig. That’s a Fairview Park badge. You ain’t got no jurisdiction in Cleveland.”
Someone behind the ex-Marine called out, “Kick his ass, Wolf!”
Wolf snorted as he shoved Kopinski back down with his foot. “I am still an officer of the law, asshole.” When Kopinski grabbed for his foot, Wolf shoved harder. He shook his finger at him. “Ah, ah, ah! One false move, and I bust your ass for assaulting an officer.”
“You ain’t got no jurisdiction, pig!” He slurred his words badly.
“But I do.”
The new voice came from a tall, black man in an Indians jacket and faded jeans. He had a badge, too. And a gun, which he held on Kopinski. “I’m Deputy Sheriff Reese. Unless you agree to quietly leave as soon as Officer Wolverson let’s you up, I’m going to haul you in for assaulting an officer, aggravated assault…” He looked at Angie. “…and, most likely, domestic violence.” He aimed his .357 it at Kopinski’s forehead. “Or, I could shoot you in self-defense. I’ve got a room full of people here who would see you make a wrong move on me. What do you think’s going to happen?”
Kopinski snorted. “Fucking cops! Always stick together!”
Even from where I sat, I could smell tequila on his breath. No doubt Wolf or Reese would report a drunk driver the minute he left the parking lot.
“Actually,” said Wolf, “Deputy Reese and I don’t like each other. What’s that say about you?” He grinned. “Now, are you going to be a good boy, and leave nicely? Or will Mr. Reese have to do an off-duty prisoner transfer?”
Kopinski stared at the barrel of Reese’s gun and paled. “All right, all right, I’ll go!” He stood as Wolf took his foot off his chest. He pointed at Angie. “This ain’t over! Not by a long shot!”
Angie just glared at him. “Be out of my house by the time I get home. Or else.”
Kopinski was itching to make a move, but couldn’t. Not with Reese still holding a gun on him and Wolf clearly waiting to break one or both of his arms. Kopinski stumbled out of the bar, Reese and Wolf following him. Sure enough, Reese pulled out his cell phone and called 911. Kopinski had a surprise waiting for him as soon as he rounded the corner.
The rain poured steadily as I started up the next hill. I could still see that haunted look in Angie’s eyes that she couldn’t hide. For as long as I had known her, Angie took crap off of no one. Yet, for some reason, when she started playing music professionally, she had fallen in with Kopinski. I shook my head. Even now, with the rain clearing my sleep-deprived mind, I still couldn’t understand what she saw in that monster.
Then again, I have a bad history with abusive men. In my five years as a cop, it was a guy like Kopinski who prompted my only instance of police brutality. Never mind that he was a fellow officer. Never mind that I was able to justify the use of extreme force on him, preventing him from killing his wife. The fact was that, like Kopinski, the man was a beast. Unlike Kopinski, who was just a drunken musician with no day job, the cop I’d pistol-whipped hid behind his badge for years.
Quite frankly, I enjoyed beating the hell out of anyone who preyed upon the weak. I was sorry Wolf and Reese had stopped Kopinski. I wondered if I had pounded his face into the floor a few dozen times if I’d be walking along Ridge Road in the dark on a rainy night…
As soon as Kopinski left, Angie headed into the back room. Tom and I followed. We found her slumped at a table by the kitchen stove, crying. Tom and I pulled up chairs and sat next to her.
Tom touched her arm. “Ange, are you all right? Do you want to go to the hospital?”
Angie just shook her head, waving us off. “I’m all right. I’m all right. Just let me… let me…” She continued to sob, despite the brave front she put up for us. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come.”
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Hey, we’re your friends. What kind of talk is that? Someone beats the hell out of you, who are you supposed to turn to?” Tom scowled at me. Once again, I’d proven my talent for saying the wrong thing. “Do you want to stay with me and Margo tonight?”
She shook her head as she tried to compose herself. “I’ll be fine. Just give me a minute.”
I sat back and watched as she somehow pulled herself together again. She became that same iron-willed woman who strutted into the bar earlier, seemingly oblivious to her bruises. She smiled. “I did it tonight. I kicked him out. He’s gone.”
Tom shook his head, frowning. “I don’t understand why you didn’t throw him out the first time he laid a hand on you.”
Angie hugged herself and started looking for a cigarette. “I guess I wanted to believe that this wasn’t the real him, that it was just a phase.”
I shook my head. “I told you before, Ange, his kind doesn’t have phases, especially when they drink as much as he does.”
“I know.” She relaxed a little. “Tomorrow morning, I’m getting a restraining order and pressing charges against him. That sonofabitch is going to jail.” She started to cry again, but she was smiling. “Too bad I can’t give him what he really deserves.” She put her arms around both of us. “Tom, Nick, thanks.”
“For what?” said Tom. “Those cops did all the hard work.”
“For being there,” she said. “It really means a lot.”
We just didn’t realize how much.
The next night, I was awakened by Margo, my better half for almost three years now. As black as I’m white, she was slender, tall, and, even half asleep with her hair all askew, as graceful and poised as a princess. She shook me awake around midnight. I grumbled something about meeting a client at seven the next morning when I saw her holding the phone.
“It’s your friend, Angie. She sounds upset.”
I took the phone and listened, not saying much. As soon as Angie hung up, I was out of bed, pulling on a pair of khakis and a T-shirt.
“Bad?’ Margo asked.
“Very.” I strapped into my shoulder rig, checked my Browning 9mm, and pocketed a fresh clip. “Don’t ask.”
She smiled at me. “I know the drill. Be careful.” Her smile disappeared. “I don’t want to lead tomorrow’s noon newscast with your death.”
I kissed her. “Or my arrest if I’m even more careless.” I grabbed an Indians windbreaker and my cell phone. “I’ll be back, babe.”
She leaned back onto the bed and draped an arm across her eyes. “I’ll probably be at work when you get back. I’m covering the anchor desk for Cleveland AM tomorrow.”
Great. Another night sleeping alone. I hate television.
I raced out of the lot of our Lakewood apartment and out onto the Shoreway. I headed for Brook Park, just to the south of the city, right next to the airport. My mind raced as I wondered what to expect. I arrived at Angie’s place in less than fifteen minutes. The State Patrol must have been ignoring I-71 that night. That, or no one expects a speeding Honda Accord to be a menace to traffic.
I found the door open, Angie sitting on the couch, her head in her hands. She looked up at me. “I shot him. Right before I called you.”
As I closed in on the Speedway, I could see the lights of a tow truck approaching the station. It had to be Lenny. Sure enough, it was. I could see the emblem for his garage painted on the side, a skull from something that resembled a Klingon, only with horns. I could spot that perverse logo anywhere. My guess was that Lenny had watched Star Trek once or twice while dropping acid.
The rain let up, but I was still soaking. As was typical in Northeast Ohio in late Spring, it was humid as hell. I wanted desperately to lose my windbreaker, but needed to conceal my gun. That would have been a little hard to explain. I wanted to get to the station and dry off. I was miserable, as my shoes squished, my hair dripped, and my pants stuck to my legs. I was going to need a shower before going back to bed.
Not that I’d be able to sleep that night…
Joe Kopinski lay on the floor, a large hole in his chest, blood staining his shirt and the rug. I turned around and notice another hole in the wall behind me. “No cops?”
“I didn’t call them,” said Angie. “I panicked.”
“What happened?” I asked. “And why didn’t the neighbors call?”
Thunder exploded outside as a storm passed through, the third one since sundown.
“That’s why they didn’t call,” said Angie. “They’re mostly yuppie wannabes here. They wouldn’t know the difference between a lightning strike and a gunshot unless they took the bullet themselves.” She smiled. “Not bad for a New Age peacenik.”
I pressed my lips thin, unsure of what to say. “An abused New Age peacenik. What happened?”
She stood up and began pacing, waving her hands as she spoke. “He came in around eleven thirty. Said he wanted to talk. Like an idiot, I opened the door for him.”
I sighed, “Ange, after all he’s done…”
She put up her hand, silencing me for the moment. “I know, I know. Just listen. He burst in, shoved me to the floor, and pulled out a gun.” She indicated a .38 Police Special lying on the coffee table. “He started ranting, waving the gun. I got to my feet just as the idiot accidentally shot at the door.”
That explained the bullet hole.
“He came after me,” she continued, hugging herself, now just standing and staring into space. “My God, he looked possessed. He chased me around the living room. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t just shoot me.”
“Probably because he was drunk,” I said, “but I wouldn’t complain.”
She shrugged. “He tried to jump over the sofa to tackle me, but he caught his foot and fell to the floor. I dived after the gun and came up with it,” she said. “If I’d have been thinking straight, I’d have forced him out of the house and called the cops.”
She shook her head, still staring off into space. “But I wanted to end this, once and for all. I wanted to make him pay for all the hell he’d put me through.” She looked at me, her face hard. “He saw I had the gun. He stood, put his hands up, and started to back away towards the door. I made him stand in the doorway to the kitchen and put his hands behind his head, then I shot him.” She let out a sigh of relief. “God, I feel like a millstone’s been lifted from my neck.”
I felt like she’d promptly hung it around mine. “Angie, you’re battered. You’re bruised. You have a bullet hole in your wall. The cops won’t question self-defense. Or if they do, the prosecutor most likely will call it Battered Women’s Syndrome.”
Angie shook her head. “I need your help, Nick. I need you to purge this… this… thing from my life.” She looked at me the same way she did when we were kids to get me to do something I didn’t want to do. “I want you to make him disappear.”
I sat down, rubbing my eyes. Outside, a distant storm rumbled. I looked at Angie again. “If I get caught, we both go to prison. Both of us.”
She shook her head. “I go to prison. If you make him disappear, I’m the only suspect. I know you can get rid of him so no one knows. C’mon, Nick. I’ve seen some of your informers. I know you can do this.” She smiled at me. “Please?”
I stood up and looked over Kopinski’s body. He lay on a throw rug. How convenient. “The carpet yours?”
I turned and looked at the wall where the first bullet had hit. I didn’t see a bullet hole outside, which meant the slug was in the wall. “Can you plaster over that hole and paint over it?”
Again she nodded. “I told the landlord I wanted to repaint anyway.”
I picked up Kopinski’s gun and unloaded it, pocketing the bullets. I tossed the weapon onto Kopinski’s body and began rolling the carpet around him. I looked up at Angie when I was done. “Where’s his car?”
I speed-dialed a number on my cell phone. A muffled voice cursed at me upon answer. I just grinned. “Good morning, Lenny, I need a big favor. Do you know where I can dump an 87 Monte Carlo this time of night?”
Lenny knows more swear words in English and Polish than anyone I know. At that moment, he used all of them on me.
As I strolled into the station’s lot, Lenny, pumping gas and pretending to read a map, took no notice of me. I slipped into the john and took a long, hard look at myself. I was pretty pale, the result of walking in the rain and lack of sleep over the last two nights. Circles had started to form under my eyes, and the brown irises sat in a sea of red. I slicked back my hair, even blacker than normal, being wet, though some of the wave had come back. At thirty-three, I was still surprised I hadn’t sprouted any grey hairs.
I splashed water on my face, then dried off. Out in the store, bought myself a Coke and a pack of gum. The night clerk mumbled something about me looking like I’d been beat up.
“Something like that,” I told her, and headed back outside…
Once Kopinski was tucked away in the backseat of his car, I followed Lenny out onto I-71, praying that the corpse in the back wasn’t facing any outstanding warrants. We made our way past the airport, past Berea and Middleburgh Heights, to the very edge of Cuyahoga County and the last vestiges of rural Ohio within a thirty-mile radius of Cleveland. We got off on State Route 82 and headed into North Royalton, a sleepy little town on the border of Medina County. To the north, the city and the airport glowed ominously along the horizon, present, but not visible.
We drove through the center of North Royalton, even passing the town’s sole cop on duty that night. He ignored us. To him, Lenny was just another tow truck. I was just another night owl.
We turned south onto Ridge Road, headed for a spot just south of town over the county line. As we crossed into Medina County, Lenny pulled off into a junkyard, hopped out of his truck, and opened the gates. I pulled up behind him as two large Dobermans came tear-assing from behind a stack of cars. Lenny whistled at them, and they skidded to a halt at his feet.
Lenny stroked the two dogs between the ears, then clapped his hands. The dogs jumped up and followed him over to me.
“Stick out your hand, so they can sniff you,” Lenny said.
The dogs growled upon seeing me. I reached out my window toward them as Lenny shushed them. The dogs tentatively sniffed my hand, then began licking it.
Lenny grinned. “You now have the run of the place. You know how to run that crane, right?”
“Turn everything off before you leave.” He handed me a set of keys. “Lock the gate when you leave and call me when you get back up the road. I’ll be waiting in town for you.”
“Stranded motorist act, like we agreed?”
Lenny grinned. “You owe me more than seventy bucks for making me do this so late. What’d you do? Kill somebody?”
I shrugged as I started up the car again. “Not exactly.”
He waved and headed back for his truck. I drove deeper into the auto graveyard and headed for the crusher.
In reality, I could have just left the car there until morning. The owner, Lenny’s cousin, would have automatically destroyed it without question. Lenny was a helluva mechanic and tow truck driver, but his real talent was grand theft, auto. I knew his cousin stripped some of the ditched cars for parts. I couldn’t chance him finding Joe Kopinski wrapped up in a carpet in the back seat. That meant doing the job myself.
I fired up the crane and hoisted the car, Kopinski, and his gun about thirty feet in the air, maneuvering it into place over the crusher. To the left, I could see a stack of crushed steel cubes, no doubt headed to the steel mills in Lorain some time tomorrow. I lowered the car into the crusher, then killed the crane. Moments later, I fired up the crusher and watched. Within minutes, all evidence of Angie’s crime… if it really was a crime… was reduced to a three-foot cube of metal. By the end of the week, it would be melted down, rolled, and shipped off to Detroit.
It was possible someone might discover what was left of Kopinski in that cube, but I doubted it. By the time anyone figured it out, he’d be part of a washing machine. I powered down the crusher and headed for the gate.
Lenny and I did the stranded motorist act for the benefit of any witnesses. After passing him seventy bucks to supposedly tow my car, I jumped in, and we headed back through North Royalton. Once we hit the freeway, he finally turned to me. “Who was it?”
I just looked at him. “Just a client’s car. Keeping her out of trouble.”
Lenny shook his head. “You never ditch hot cars. You just help me do it. Who was it?”
“Who was who?”
“The stiff.” He grinned. “C’mon, Nicky. I always knew you’d cap someone someday without being able to explain it to the cops.”
I sighed. “Oh, there was an explanation, but the shooter didn’t want to give it to them.” I settled back into the seat. “Can’t say that I blame her.”
Lenny seemed satisfied with this and drove in silence the rest of the way back to Brook Park. As he dropped me off at Angie’s apartment, he leaned out the window. “You know, Kepler, you shouldn’t have done it.”
I looked at him strangely. “What do you mean?”
Lenny grinned. “Kopinski. You shouldn’t have offed him. He should have been whacked already.” He cocked his head in the general direction of the Flats. “Reese should have popped a cap in his head last night instead.”
“Whacked? What are you? Donnie Brasco-ski?” I shrugged. “Reese would have to explain himself to the Sheriff, the Cleveland Police, the Plain Dealer, and every TV station in town. Anyway, I didn’t off him.”
“Yeah. Right. Better him than you. He’s got a badge and the race card to get out of it. You have to hope Kopinski ends up part of a car by weeks end.”
“Oh, well. Who said life was easy?” I waved to Lenny and headed into Angie’s apartment. She was waiting.
I just stared at the floor. “I’m sorry, Angie, but I looked all over for him. He seems to have disappeared.” I waited a couple of seconds, then smiled and winked.
Angie rushed up and threw her arms around me. “Thank you,” she whispered, then kissed me on the cheek. “I owe you everything.”
“You owe me nothing,” I said. I stepped back from her and looked her in the eye. “If you hadn’t killed him, I would have.”