The Keepers by Jeffrey B. Burton: New Excerpt
I spent the bulk of the call with my eyes shut, thinking I was still asleep and in some kind of lucid dream. I may have even called the night sergeant out of the Chicago Police Department’s 12th District “Mom” before he barked at me to wake the hell up and get my ass to the address he was texting me. He said as soon as I got west of the river, to follow the noise and the glow—the sound and the fury—and that I’d be a damned idiot if I missed it.
I sat up in bed, wiped eye snot off my lashes with both forefingers, and then opened them. Elvira, my golden retriever puppy, stood on the opposite corner of the bed, tail wagging and staring back at me as if she’d been a participant on the call.
“No way I’m starting you with a blazing warehouse fire at,” I peeked down at my cell phone, “three o’clock in the morning, Vira.” I’d been training her as a cadaver dog and, considering her age, she’d been showing remarkable ability. And endless enthusiasm. “You’re getting there, girl, you really are, but let’s have you and Maggie hold down the fort.”
My name is Mason Reid—I go by Mace—and I specialize in human remains detection—that is, I train dogs to hunt for the dead. My HRD pups and I help the authorities—the Chicago Police Department and various sheriffs’ departments—in their searches for the missing and presumed dead. In fact, I’ve knighted Vira and my pack of cadaver dogs The Finders and would have that imprinted on business cards had my kids opposable thumbs in which to hand them out or pockets in which to place them.
It was a quarter to four when I parked my F-150 a couple city blocks shy of the address the sergeant had provided. The streets were littered with fire engines for pumping water and chemical flame-retardants as well as fire trucks for hauling ladders and rescue gear, a line of squad cars, and an ambulance or three idling, empty. There were more flashing lights than on bingo night at Caesars Palace. My wake-up call had informed me that CFD—Chicago Fire Department—had spent a chunk of the night fighting a warehouse blaze in the Fulton River District, which is situated on the border of Chicago’s downtown and considered part of the Near West Side. The area had once been known for transportation and industrial warehousing but had, in recent decades—like many other quarters in the Windy City—turned residential.
Sue, my alpha male of a German shepherd, and Delta Dawn, my farm collie, and I threaded our way around local news vans, cameramen, and huddling reporters as we came upon a white-haired man standing next to a fireman. Both stared fixedly as the crew of firefighters finished hosing down the burned-out warehouse through a haze of smoke and steam, ash and soot.
“How long has it been vacant?” The fireman, whom I took to be a lieutenant or captain, asked.
“Two years,” White-hair, whom I took to be the warehouse owner, replied. “A company that shipped aluminum rented the spot for twenty years before going under.”
“You got a homeless problem?”
“Once a space that size goes empty,” he nodded toward the smoldering facility, “you’d have to live here around the clock to chase out any transients.” White-hair shrugged. “I call the cops now and again.”
Our trio continued onward with Sue, as always, in the lead and ID’d ourselves through a series of officers acting as sentries. The scent of smoke hung heavy in the air. I found myself blinking the grime from my eyes every couple of seconds, wishing I’d brought along a quart or two of Visine. As we approached I could tell from what remained of the structure—ruins to be more accurate—that the inferno had been devastating. The place resembled old newsreel footage of Berlin in 1945, and I wondered if some kind of electrical or lighting or heating equipment had triggered a flame that soon met with combustible materials.
I spray a protective film on all of my dogs’ feet in order to protect and toughen their pads and paws. I hope the darned stuff works. I wasn’t worried about the hot concrete, as the facility had been doused in an ocean of water. I was more concerned with any smoldering or sharp debris my pups might step on.
Once we’d advanced to the front line, we were instructed to hold our horses as another forty minutes passed until the fire commissioner himself gave the all clear for us to enter and search for human remains in the wreckage of the burned-out facility.
By daybreak, Sue, Delta, and I had worked our way through the scorched remnants of the Fulton River District warehouse. The kids, as though working in unison, had led me to the northeast corner, opposite from where we’d been allowed to enter. It had taken my dogs all of five minutes to weave and wind about the soaked and steaming wreckage, leading me around twisted metal, busted rubble, and blocks. Delta tapped at the wet concrete in front of her with a single paw while Sue just stared back at me—pawing at the ground was beneath him.
I flagged a handful of firemen over and, as they pushed aside the blackened debris, they uncovered charred human remains.
* * * * * * * * * *
I followed the story in the Chicago Tribune. Originally, it was thought to be the work of idiot kids playing with matches or maybe that homeless fellow we’d found tried cooking himself a chicken dinner and, poof, everything went to hell in a handbag. However, a couple days later, the fire commissioner confirmed that accelerants were involved—both on the victim as well as on the floor and walls of the warehouse. It had been intentionally set . . . arson. And though he’d not been accused or arrested, White-hair—whose real name turned out to be Howard Costa—protested his innocence, “Why would I torch my own building?” he said to the press. “It wouldn’t make sense to burn it down in some kind of insurance scam when I’ve had a ton of offers—developers wanting to spit up even more and more of them goddamned condominiums.”
Without intact fingerprints, it took investigators a couple more days to match dental records and DNA to a man by the name of John Averbeck. Turns out Mr. Averbeck was anything but homeless as had initially been surmised. Averbeck was an employment lawyer who’d gone to pick up Chinese carry-out for dinner earlier in the week, never to return home or be seen alive again. He’d been reported missing by his wife. As it turned out, the fire hadn’t killed Averbeck. There was no smoke in his lungs. Mr. Averbeck had been stabbed to death and his body dumped in the warehouse prior to it being set ablaze.
In other words, he’d been burned postmortem.
Another week or two passed and, eventually, the Tribune had nothing more to say on the matter of the deceased employment lawyer John Averbeck.
Just another murder in a city of unsolved murders.
David Siskin wondered why he bothered checking into the Courtyard Marriott on his bimonthly trips to Chicago as he always worked late into the evening at the office suite off North Dearborn. A cot in the copy room would save the business money as well as save Siskin mucho time since booking a room at the Marriott for the equivalent of a lengthy nap didn’t help the bottom line.
And, as a real estate investor, David Siskin was all about the bottom line.
His wife, Cherie, had knighted Siskin a workaholic decades ago, before the two had even tied the knot, but she didn’t mean it in a bad way. Cherie had her book clubs, her quilting classes, her floristry, her fundraising for the Alzheimer’s Association—the disease that first stole her mother’s mind and then her life—as well as a half dozen other public-service hobbies that never registered on Siskin’s radar but kept her busy now that the kids were grown. By contrast, outside of work, Siskin had no hobbies. Sure, he suffered through endless rounds of golf as that was part of the game you played to rub elbows with investors and property financiers, but the actual pastime never took hold of him. However, when Siskin hit middle age and began fretting over the expansion of his midsection, he took up biking. Siskin even dumped a couple grand into a Cannondale CAAD. Siskin’s hobby lasted all of a week. He was biking around Lake Nokomis one beautiful summer evening, enjoying both the exercise as well as life in general—until the debacle. Some hothead in a yellow Corvette laid on the horn and didn’t let up. It startled Siskin, sending him into the curb and from thence ass over teakettle onto the sidewalk. Bruised and bleeding, Siskin glanced up in time to witness the Corvette speed past with a middle finger salute held high out of the driver’s side window.
The road bike had been gathering dust in the garage ever since.
Siskin lived in Minneapolis, had all of his life, and—like loads of other business commuters in the Twin Cities—he took the United Airlines puddle jumper to O’Hare and, two or three days later, took it home again. Siskin’s Chicago partners, venture capitalists one and all, didn’t burn the midnight oil like he did. Siskin’s Chicago partners were more clock-watchers—golf-playing nine-to-fivers.
That didn’t bother Siskin. There were no hard feelings. Siskin’s Chicago partners did their jobs.
They made money. They invested money.
Siskin heard sounds from the outer office and wondered who in hell that could be. Margie, the spinster admin who drenched herself in so much perfume that her fragrance lingered long after she’d exited your office, had waved goodbye hours ago. And the night janitor, Juan or Raul or whatever, had already passed through the office suite with his trash cart and vacuum cleaner and dust wand. Siskin glanced at his Rolex Explorer—a gift from Cherie given about the time of his biking debacle—and figured it was time to head over to the Marriott for his nightly siesta.
It was then a throat cleared and Siskin’s head snapped up.
An impossibly large man filled the doorway of Siskin’s office. The unannounced visitor was not basketball-player tall but appeared to be seven feet in height, possibly aided by the pointed-toed cowboy boots on his feet as well as the black fedora on the top of his head. The unannounced visitor was dressed in a classic black suit, cut well for his size and height. The unannounced visitor also sported an unbuttoned brown raincoat that hung down to his ankles and appeared to contain enough fabric to sail a small skiff to China. The man was a living chiaroscuro, a Goliath of light and shadow, and looked as though he’d just muscled his way out of an old black-and-white Humphrey Bogart movie.
“Is this a bad time?” the unannounced visitor said.
Siskin hadn’t been this startled since the unfortunate biking incident at Lake Nokomis. “The office has been closed for hours.”
The unannounced visitor glanced about Siskin’s twenty-fifth-floor office. “You don’t say.”
Siskin saved and exited the Excel sheet he’d been working on and leaned back in his chair. “What can I help you with?”
“Do you mind if I sit?”
Siskin motioned to the guest chair in front of his desk, hoping it was sturdy enough to support the man’s bulk. Mike McCarron flickered through Siskin’s mind. Michael J. McCarron was one of his Chicago business partners and the president of the investment company in which he currently convened with the unannounced visitor. Michael J. McCarron and that Irish sense of humor of his, always ready with an off-color joke, always filling dinner conversation with the high jinks he’d pulled on his wife and children, friends and neighbors, and even some of the raunchier practical jokes he’d pulled during his years at Columbia University. Siskin thought he heard light rustling coming from the outer office and imagined McCarron and one of the other partners hiding behind the door, keeping their chuckles to a minimum after imbibing a single malt or four at a nearby tavern where, evidently, they’d met this guy who looked like a film-noir version of Paul Bunyan and convinced him to participate in some kind of office prank.
“So . . .” The unannounced visitor spoke again after cramming his heft into the cushioned armchair. “You’re the Jew from Minneapolis?”
“Yes,” Siskin replied, now convinced this stunt was more of McCarron’s tomfoolery, “I’m the Jew from Minneapolis.”
“My name is Cordov Woods, as in a cord of wood.” The big man smiled. “I shit you not. My father laughed his ass off every time he introduced me. But everybody calls me Cord.”
Siskin definitely heard rustling in the outer office. “What can I do for you, Mr. Woods?”
“Do you like idioms? You know, a turn of phrase that contains a special meaning?”
Siskin shrugged. “I haven’t given them much thought, one way or the other.”
“I find idioms fascinating—what they mean, how they came into being. And you’ve no doubt heard the one that goes ‘don’t upset the apple cart’?”
“It’s basically the same expression as ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ Both idioms generally mean—and pardon my French—don’t fuck with the status quo. Because, if I’m selling apples, I’ve stacked my cart in a tidy structure—an orderly manner—which keeps the merchandise from rolling off the cart and all over the street. Do you see what I mean?”
Siskin nodded again. He felt goose bumps forming, the hair on the back of his neck began to prickle, and he was no longer so certain this encounter was a Michael McCarron– hatched gag at all. He began to suspect that other thing . . . the one he’d been assured—not assured but promised—would be kept in the strictest of confidence.
“So, if I’m out selling my apples, trying to make a decent living for myself and my family, and then some shit-hog comes along and pulls an apple out from where he shouldn’t. And before you can say fuckity-doo-dah, my employer has me chasing runaway apples all over the goddamned street.” The unannounced visitor stared at Siskin a long moment. “Now why did you have to go and yank that apple off my cart, Mr. Jew from Minneapolis?”
It took Siskin a second to speak, but when he did, he spoke fast—a nervous habit that kicked in whenever he came under pressure. “This is insane. You had to have checked in with the lobby guards at the main desk. They’ve got cameras all over the building . . . they even track your card in the elevator at this time of night.”
“Tell me about it.” The big man shrugged. “Makes me pine for the olden days. A simpler time. I’ve got several friends, colleagues to be more exact, I’ll never see again unless I visit them at the Stateville Correctional Center. And I ain’t visiting Stateville. Now, all these old colleagues of mine had to do was stay current; just enter the twenty-first century for crying out loud, and they’d have never seen a second inside of SCC.” The unannounced visitor who called himself Cord Woods tried leaning back in his chair. However, considering his bulk, there wasn’t much room to maneuver. “But to your point, I didn’t come in through the lobby and I didn’t sign in at the guard station. As for cameras and elevator cards and all that jazz—another idiom by the way—I’ve got a world-class IT guy that has my back.”
“You’ll never get away with this,” Siskin spoke again, not so fast this time, now feeling as though he were about to vomit.
“You don’t know Jethro. The guy’s an awful conversationalist—don’t even get me started on the lost art of conversation or I’ll wax on all night—but Jethro’s a true magician, he really is, although he may be somewhat autistic or, what’s that other thing that’s not as bad? Asperger’s syndrome? Jethro’s probably more Asperger’s than autistic, but, bear in mind, I’m no expert, and I doubt Jethro’s ever been tested. You see, as long as Jethro kept fetching daddy’s ice beer from the fridge, his parents didn’t give two shits about any irregular behavior on his part. A sorry state of affairs that was, quite frankly, but they’re both now out of the picture—figuratively and literally—since back when Jethro proved his worth. Dear old dad’s ice-beer days are gone forever.” The big man added, “I saw to that myself.”
“What do you want from me?” Siskin knew he’d never be able to retrieve his iPhone from the breast pocket of his suit jacket, so he inched some fingers toward the desk phone.
“First off, I’m not going to hurt you.” The unannounced visitor flicked his head toward the outer office. “Jethro’s going to town on your network server. And he’ll need your laptop, of course, when he’s done with that. If I were you, I’d just sit back and relax.”
Siskin closed his eyes and thought of Cherie. He thought of that crooked smile of hers, and he thought of the kids—the kids who were now adults but would forever be his kids—and he knew that sitting back and relaxing was out of the question. Siskin seized the phone off the cradle, pressed the number nine with a forefinger, but that was as far as he got before the unannounced visitor towered above him, guest chair flying backward into the wall.
“I told you I wasn’t going to hurt you.” The giant who called himself Cordov Woods kicked at Siskin’s desk with a boot, sending desk, phone, laptop, yellow notepad, and a couple of Mont Blanc pens soaring across the room.
There was now nothing between the two men.
“But I am going to kill you.”
Copyright © 2021 by Jeffrey B. Burton.