No One Left to Tell
Warehouse DistrictSouth Chicago
On the trail of money, Mickey Blair sniffed out opportunity like most men chased skirtsone led to the other but cash never got a headache. The piece of paper fluttered in his hand as a brisk wind caught its frayed edge. He scrolled it with spread fingers to read his own scribbling and looked up, squinting against the cold to verify the warehouse number. The place was a pit. He stuffed the crumpled paper into his overcoat. He'd hoped for better arrangements from his potential new client. The email he received late yesterday had been cryptic, but he was confident the job would be simple and the money irresistible. The best kind of incentive. A glance at his Rolex assured him he wasn't late.
With the sun fading into the layers of dark clouds along the horizon, the bite in the air stung his cheeks. Large, wet flakes accumulated on the ground, defying the swirling gusts. With a sideways glance, he caught sight of his black Mercedes parked to the left. His latest toy. He'd soon have it stored for winter. Time to break out his SUV. His work provided a nice little nest egg. Images of white sand beaches filtered through the cold. The imagined scent of coconut teased his senses. He pictured grains of sand clinging to his dark skin slick from tropical oils. Before long, he'd be set for life.
Killing was a lucrative business.
Safely locked away until he needed it for a job, his custom made Heckler & Koch sniper rifle had been a good investment. At his age, he had cultivated a dependable, discreet reputation over the years. Mickey enjoyed the best of both worldsflying below the radar of law enforcement while reaping all the benefits of his deserved notoriety. The art of assassination provided him a life worth living. He loved irony, when it suited him. A smile influenced his swagger as he approached the side entrance to the building. His unfastened overcoat buffeted in the breeze. Instinctively, he felt for his gun, a Sig Sauer secured in its leather holster under his suit jacket.
After a tug at the metal door, he rubbed his palms together to wipe away the rust and dirt, careful not to soil his coat or Armani suit. Once inside, he shortened his breaths to lessen the intake of stale air and surveyed the carcass of the old deserted warehouse. But his next breath morphed into an instinctive gasp when the door slammed shut behind him. He turned and heard a key slip into the lock. The deadbolt slid into place. And he caught the distinct sound of someone running away. He yanked at the door, the filth of the cement floor crunching underfoot. Locked.
"What the hell?" he muttered under his breath, then called out, "This isn't funny, you sick bastard."
Slowly, he gaped over his shoulder into the cavernous space. In the split second his eyes oriented to the murky and cluttered interior, the lights went out. Complete darkness. His equilibrium distorted, he couldn't see his damned hand in front of his face. He raised his weapon, fingers tensed against the grip.
"If this is some kind of joke, someone's gonna get shot!" He raised his voice, covering his tension with attitude. "I don't have time for this."
"Make time." A low voice assumed familiarity. An echo disguised its origin. "I made time for you."
The sound mutated to a whisper, prickling his skin.
"Do I know you?" Mickey swallowed hard. His eyes searched the dark for anything at all. No answer. The man wasn't giving him a chance to locate his hiding spot, offering a target for his Sig Sauer.
A glimmer toward his left drew his attention. Heading toward the flicker of light, he felt his way along a barrier of varying height, stubbing the tips of his shoes. In no time, he lost his way. He couldn't tell where he had entered the old building.
Thud! Thwack! Two rounds hit his chest. A burst of liquid burned his nostrils. Vapor stung his eyes. Silenced gunfire? His hands reached for the sore spots under his suit, rubbing the welts. Anger got the better of him. He returned fire. Pointing his gun into the dark, he shot twice before thinking. Muzzle flash blinded him. Fingers pressed against his eyelids, he squeezed his eyes shut and listened to the ricochet.
"Who are you?" he shrieked. Spittle ran down his chin. Feeling like a cat with nine lives, his hostility bristled. If the pellets had been real bullets, he would've been dead. "What kind of game are you playing here?"
The air was stagnating and thick. Sweat trickled from his brow, nearly blinding him with its sting. He leaned against something firm. All he needed was time to think. God, think!
"Who the hell are you people?" he shouted. More than one person hid in the dark. Strange animal noises erupted overhead. The muffled sound of laughter mocked his torment, his only reply.
Although he couldn't be certain, it appeared they were herding him through a maze of obstacles. They pounded him with pellets of some kind. The animal calls only got worseclamoring all around him. Primal instinct kicked in and panic gripped him hard, squeezing his chest. Remembering to close his eyes, Mickey fired two shots, reminding them he would be dangerous up close.
"There's been a mistake. I was asked to come here. Some guy had a job for me," he cried, trying to reason with his faceless attackers.
What the hell had he done? The irony wasn't missed on him. Normally the predator, now the tables were turned. This time, he would be hunted.
Blood boiled under the surface of his skin. He shrugged out of his overcoat and kicked it aside. Tugging at his tie, he pulled it over his head and hurled it into the dark, not caring where it landed. Only a week ago, he'd bought the designer tie, more impressed by its price tag. Now, he didn't give a rat's ass about any of it. His fingers slick with sweat, he yanked at the collar of his shirt. Buttons popped off onto the warehouse floor.
He squinted in every direction. Nothing but blackness. Emptiness magnified the sound of his heart. Another blast from above. Something slapped him hard. It burned the skin of his neck. He winced and shrugged a shoulder. An object stuck to his body, then slid under his collar and down the inside of his shirt. His fingers followed the path, but he gave up trying to find it.
"What the hell? Jesus. What's wrong with you people?"
With these bastards tracking him in the dark, it meant only one thing. He had to find a hole to hide, unsure where that might be. Feeling his way on all fours, Mickey crawled to change positions. His fingers felt along a wall. But he didn't know if he'd be heading for the door or deeper into the maze. One way might be his salvation. The other would be certain death.
Thwack! A round hit above him. On instinct, he covered his head with an arm. A damned sitting duck!
No time for doubt. He had to move. Slowly, he stood and picked a direction to run, a hand out in front. He trusted his luck for a lifetime. Surely, it wouldn't fail him now.
Thud! An explosion against the side of his temple sent swirls of blinding light through his head. His eyes on fire, they burned like acid. Chills of shock ran through him. When he slumped to the floor, his gun skittered across the cement, lost in the darkness.
Stunned, he only needed a moment to catch his breath. Only a moment. He pushed against the wall behind him, struggling clumsily to his feet. But a deathlike stillness seized him. A presence eased closer. Slowly, he turned his head, tears rolling down his cheeks. Someone was...
An arm gripped his chest, cradling him in the grasp of someone standing behind him. He smelled alcohol on the man's breath.
"You're mine now." The intimate whisper brushed by his ear. It shocked him. The familiarity sounded like it came from the lips of a lover. "Don't fight me."
For an instant, Mickey relaxed long enough to hopemaybe all this had been a mistake. Then he felt a sudden jerk.
Icy steel plunged into his throat, severing cartilage in its wake. A metallic taste filled his mouth. Its warmth sucked into his lungs, drowning him. Powerless to free himself, Mickey resisted the blackness with the only redemption possible. He imagined high tide with him adrift. He struggled for air, bobbing just beneath the ocean surface. The sun and blue sky warped with a swirling eddy. Mercifully, sounds of surf rolling to shore clouded the fear when his body began to convulse. Dizziness and a numbing chill finally seized him. And the pounding of his heart drained his ability to move at all.
Then a muffled gurgle dominated his sensesuntil there was nothing.
Euphoria swept through him with Blair's last breath. The man's body now hung limp in his arms. With a gloved hand, he reached for the night vision goggles and tossed them to the floor. He filled his lungs with the coppery aroma of fresh blood. Closing his eyes, he released the body to fall hard to the cement. He'd used the ego of his prey as a weapon against him. His plan worked. Thinking of Mickey Blair lying dead at his feet, only one thing came to mind.
"Death humbles you when nothing else can."
The sound of laughter dotted the dark landscape. His men rose from their positions, one by one. It had been a successful hunt. The contractor on this job would be pleased. With the overhead light crackling to life, shadows ebbed from the grisly tableau.
"Job well done, men." He raised his voice, relishing the attention. He stood amidst his men. Their applause and shouts fueled his adrenaline. "But it ain't over. Let's get this place cleaned up. We got a delivery to make. And we're on a tight schedule."
St. Sebastian's ChapelDowntown Chicago
Father Antonio's footsteps echoed along the dimly lit corridor between the rectory and the chapel, accompanied by the soft rustle of his cassock. The nip of an early freeze bore through mortar and stone, intensifying the musty dank smell of the old church. The change in season always challenged his patience.
"Holy Father, why do you torment me so? Have I not been a good servant?" The young cleric smiled. His feelings toward the first cold front had been cultivated from childhood. It had nothing to do with his vocation or his faith.
Arched windows lined the hall, offering a secluded view of the church cemetery. His heart sank at the sight of a dusting of snow that outlined headstones and crypts. Images of death, covered by an early winter, encouraged his reflective nature. And sparse lighting along the perimeter of the graveyard only marginally repelled the decaying gloom. He identified with the daunting struggle of light against darka symbolic reflection of his life's work. Without slowing his pace, he let his eyes drift from one window to the next as he walked through the dim passageway.
But tonight, a lone man caught his attention. Father Antonio stopped. His breath fogged the small glass pane.
"There you are, my friend. What demons have drawn you out on such a cold night?"
Bundled in a long dark coat, a man hunched against the cold under a pale light, his back turned toward the priest. His body cast a faint shadow in the mantle of snow. A gust of wind swirled white crystals at the man's feet, clinging to the hem of his overcoat. Despite having only a scant glimpse of him, Father Antonio knew his identity by the family tombstone.
Years ago, he'd investigated the gravesite to learn his name. With the man so reticent to talk, the cleric succumbed to his mortal weakness of curiosity. He'd invaded the stranger's privacy by searching cemetery records and old newspaper stories at the librarya result of another long winter season with too much time on his hands.
"Come inside, where it's warm, my friend. Or do you relish the weather's punishment?" He understood the need for penitence.
It was the man's ritual to stand by the grave before he'd wander into the smaller chapel to sit in the last pew on the left. Always, the man would be rapt in his own contrition. But tonight, his observance changed. He turned to look directly at Father Antonio from across the burial ground. The man peered up through the murkiness of dusk. His eyes locked onto the priest.
Father Antonio gasped. He stepped back from the window. His reaction purely instinctive. With his heart battering his chest, he closed his eyes and filled his lungs. After a moment, he exhaled with deliberation to calm his panic.
"Not very charitable, Antonio," he muttered, shaking his head. Why would he react so strongly? But he knew the answer to that question the instant he examined his recoil.
The eyes of the man were haunting. Beyond the sadness the cleric expected to find, death shadowed the stranger. That fact tempered any further interest the priest had in him. Chastising himself for his weakness, Father Antonio forced his gaze into the graveyard once again. He wanted to redeem himself as a compassionate man. But the stranger had gone.
In that brief instant he ducked for cover, the man vanished, leaving only faint impressions in the snow that he'd been there at all.
"Holy Father, give me strength," he pleaded, whispering for his own benefit. Glancing at his watch, he noticed it was after seven. Already late by his usual schedule. Now, he'd have to rush through prayer after this little delay.
Resuming his duties, he headed for the entrance to the auxiliary chapel. With the larger cathedral closed for restoration work, the smaller facility remained open to the public at this hour. Unlocking the breezeway door into the church, he was surprised to find the chamber dark. Light from the street filtered through the ornate stained glass windows. Eerie hues of blue and red spilled across the floor, eclipsed by shadows of tree limbs tossed in the brisk winds off Lake Michigan. The stone walls of St. Sebastian's muffled the howl of the winter blast.
He expected the stranger to be seated in his usual spot at the back of the church, not sure how he'd handle the awkwardness at seeing him. A sense of relief came when he found the place dark and empty.
Allowing his eyes to get accustomed to the dark, he remained at the door. He listened to the sounds of a room he knew well. With the stillness, he presumed he was alone. But who had turned out the lights? Feeling his way in the dark, he found the control panel for the interior lighting.
"Let there be light," he commanded. Slowly, he turned the knobs for the fixtures along the walls. It would be all the light he'd need.
With barely a glance through the church, he set about his routine. Late night confessions in this urban setting brought a variety of sinners to God's door. Over the years, Father Antonio grew familiar with many of their faces, people who'd be invisible to others in the light of day.
Kneeling at the base of the crucifix, he closed his eyes to pray for his flock. It had become his nightly ritual before he'd slip into his confessional at the first sight of a sinner seeking absolution. The hush of the church graced his prayer, making it easy to lapse into the familiar. But a faint repetitive noise beckoned his awareness, detracting from his purpose.
A rhythmic patter summoned his consciousness.
A measured tedious sound.
Being a resident of St. Sebastian's, he'd grown accustomed to rain finding its way through the worn roof of the rectory. But the chapel and its sacristy were another story. Opening his eyes, he caught sight of motion to his left. He spied the offending puddle. A dark slick pool collected at the base of the crucifix. It bled through the spacing between the patterned tile. Now, a metallic odor invaded his senses, mingling with the sweet aroma of incense. Nearly choking on his next breath, Father Antonio felt the chill of the empty chamber crawl along his flesh.
Inch by agonizing inch, his eyes trailed up the wall.
The beautiful porcelain face of Jesus Christ, forever frozen in his sacrifice upon the crucifix, had been replaced. Lifeless eyes stared down at him. Grotesquely twisted in death, a man's head dangled at an odd slant, contorted by a gaping wound across the throat. The body reflected the pale light of the church in its thin furrows of blood.
A muffled scream gained momentum, reverberating through the chapel. For a long while, Father Antonio hadn't realized the cry was his own.
© Jordan Dane