Chapter 1: Once Upon a Time in a Brothel
I slid the chamber closed on my 9mm one last time before I replaced my Glock in its hip holster. My hand reached out to pull on the trunk lid.
"Come on! Pop the trunk, old man," I good-naturedly ribbed my partner.
"Why? Are you really in such a hurry to bust up a whorehouse, Lane?" Mike laughed while reaching in his pocket for his key fob and pushing the trunk release on the remote.
"Oh yeah," I laughed. "It's my ideal way to spend a Saturday night."
Mike snorted as I reached into the trunk for my gear bag and grabbed his as well to toss to him. "Girl, you gotta get your priorities straight." His olive skin twisted into a sly smile and I knew what was coming. Even if his use of "girl" hadn't tipped me off to the unwanted marital advice every single woman seemed doomed for. "I've got a cousin who'd be just perfect for a single gal like you."
Read: He's single.
"Really?" I snorted. "One of your hundred cousins is still single?"
Mike grinned wider. "Well, I'm sure one of them still is."
I strapped my back-up weapon, a nice compact .40 caliber Smith & Wesson, into my ankle holster and pulled my boot-cut slacks over it. The tennis shoes didn't exactly go with the dress slacks, but I was more from the school of wearing clothing that was comfortable and that I could run in. Mike tended to be old-fashioned. A lot like the other forty-something detectives were, actually. He still wore dress shoes, a shirt and tie, and either a sport coat or jacket. And if a suspect decided to rabbit, I was the one who had to catch them. Mike insisted it was because I was junior to him as a partner, but I always insisted it was because he was wearing a suit.
Mike grunted as he pulled his bulletproof vest over his increasingly protruding belly. Okay, maybe I had to chase the suspects because Mike had had one too many donuts over the years.
"Ugh." Mike grunted along with a few choice swears as he retucked his shirt at his back.
Definitely too many donuts.
Hey, clichés are clichés for a reason. They're usually true. You try sitting in a car for hours waiting for something to happen without lots of coffee and some donuts to soak up all the liquid caffeine you poured down your throat in an effort to stay alert.
I smoothed my own vest in place and grumbled under my breath, "Why couldn't we just let Vice handle this?"
"Because they may be able to handle a normal prostitution raid just fine, but this new group from Mexico running these girls are bad news, Lane. Vice are used to pimps who beat on their girls and yeah, occasionally kill a few if the pimp gets outta hand, but these guys are something else. They already killed four guys that we know of in the Lower-Eastside gang. Brutal shit too. You saw the crime scenes. If the CPD doesn't shut them down now, we're gonna have a goddamned bloodbath on our hands when it becomes a street war. That means Homicide, Narcotics, Vice; everybody plays nice and works together." He shoved his now empty gear bag back into the trunk and turned his head away from me as he said under his breath, "Even if none of us want to work together."
I tossed my bag into the trunk as well and shut the lid. "I know, Mike. I've just got an uneasy feeling about this raid."
"You worried about that curse that Gypsy woman put on you yesterday?"
Those words coming out of anyone else's mouth would have been cause for laughter, but I knew Mike was absolutely serious. He mostly did believe in curses and shit like that.
Still, I couldn't help by roll my eyes. "The correct term now is Romani, not Gypsy," I informed him. "And no, I'm not worried about some nonsense some old woman spouted at me because we arrested her grandson."
I started to turn away from the car but Mike grabbed my elbow. I didn't much like being grabbed, but Mike and I had been partners for five years now, ever since I'd moved back to Chicago. We'd had each other's backs a lot in that time. And luckily for him, I was used to him enough that him suddenly grabbing me didn't set off any nasty reflexes anymore. Others weren't usually so lucky.
"But you said she put a death curse on you. Maybe you should have someone counter it. I know an old woman that—"
I cut him off there. "Enough, Mike. She spouted off some garbage, most of which I didn't catch because I only know a bit of the Romani language. Just because she said something to the effect of banishment and death doesn't mean she put a death curse on me."
"But she threw that magic powder on you," he insisted.
"You’re too damned superstitious for your own good, ya Wop. Magic's no more real than all that other Catholic crap all you Italianos believe in."
He scowled at me, but it didn't reach his eyes. "One of these days, I will save your soul and convince you to be baptized and reborn a Catholic."
I laughed at that, just as I always did. "Sorry, Mike. 'Fraid my soul's past ever being saved."
We walked away from the car towards our rally point near the warehouse together. Mike continued to babble on about how he would eventually wear me down and save my soul, but I only listened with half an ear.
Unconsciously, I rubbed the spot on my vest over my heart where the Romani woman had thrown her powder the day before. Mike was superstitious, but deep down he didn't really believe in magic. And the rest of the world tended to be blissfully and wholly unaware of the other things that existed out there. Things not human. Real beings of magic. I knew better than most what things were out there, lurking in the shadows, hidden from the naïve eyes of most humans. But I'd certainly never been naïve. Nor was I like most humans.
But still, the powder hadn't felt to me of magic. So it couldn't be real.
Mike and I cautiously edged our way through a small service door at the back of the warehouse. Since the raid had originated in their department, Vice wanted to be the big dogs and run things, so they were covering the front entrance where most of the action was and the customers came and went from. It was also where a majority of the gang members were lounging and likely where all the prostitutes were.
Mike had the most seniority in Homicide, but he'd agreed to let Vice runs things and not push for us taking over the raid.
"Hey, it's not our rodeo," he'd responded when I'd asked him.
Eight of the other Homicide detectives with us on the raid followed in behind Mike and I, spreading out to take their assigned areas of the warehouse to clear. It wasn't much of a force to cover the large warehouse, especially with everyone remaining in pairs, but our sources had said the back of the warehouse was virtually empty. We were just supposed to be there for more numbers and "strictly as back-up" Fortelli had told us.
Plywood on the ground caught my eye. In the littered warehouse, it shouldn't have seemed out of place, but I could just see something under the edge of it. I knew Mike was close behind me, but I still whispered, "Sarge," to get his attention. I jerked my head towards the plywood and he nodded in response.
With my Glock still drawn, I moved forward and kicked the plywood to the side several feet. Underneath, a hidden stairway was revealed. I stepped closer but could only see partway down the stairway before it was shrouded in darkness.
I glanced over my shoulder at Mike.
He stepped closer and peered in as well. "Whad'ya think? That G.I. Jane sixth sense telling ya anything?" he whispered.
I ignored the stupid name just as I had the last thousand times he'd used it. I closed my eyes and tried to push forward with my mind to see if I could hear any thoughts down the stairway, but I was getting too much interference from all the cops that were still surrounding the building. Not to mention all the prostitutes and gangbangers.
"Nope, sixth sense is giving me nothing," I whispered back. Much as I had come to trust Mike, I wasn't about to elaborate on what that sixth sense was. My telepathy wasn't exactly an exact science anyway. So I wasn't sure how exactly to explain that I could hear thoughts from twenty or maybe thirty people who weren't cops and I just couldn't exactly pinpoint a direction to go with any of those thoughts. There were just too many of them.
It was one of the few things Mike didn't push me on for answers. He'd always accepted that sometimes I just knew things about people because I'd been a Marine and had training that made me good at reading people before I'd come back to Chicago and joined the police force. Superstitious Mike might be, but stupid he wasn't. He thought it was better to leave whatever I could do in simple generic terms, like referring to it as my sixth sense, than to ask a question about something he wasn't altogether sure he was ready to hear an answer to.
Mike glanced around, looking for the other detectives who had come in with us, but none were in sight. He sighed. "Well, guess we better check this out and clear it too, Lane."
I nodded and pulled out a flashlight from my belt to hold next to my gun as I slowly descended the stairs. They ended at a concrete wall and turned sharp to the left. I couldn't see beyond the ninety-degree turn ahead, and I still couldn't sort through the thoughts I could hear to pinpoint any of them in a particular direction. The cacophony was too much and too loud, so as I descended the stairs, I concentrated on closing them from my mind and focusing again only on what my ears could hear.
At the bottom of the stairs, I carefully peeked around the corner, confident that Mike was right behind me and would cover my back. The hallway was nearly as dark as the stairs, but I could see the faint glow of light coming from under several closed doors. I tried to ignore the smell that assaulted my nose, but it was difficult to block the stench of stale humid air, unclean bodies, and rotten food. Another all too familiar smell was laced in there as well: the coppery tang of old blood.
Slowly making my way down the darkened hallway, I paused to check the doors. They all appeared to be locked, and I didn't want to risk the noise of forcing them open.
Suddenly shots began to sound out overhead. Stupid goddamned Vice cops! I cursed internally. The door I was just passing clicked as the lock was thrown and the door swung into the room. I instinctively moved backwards, in the direction I had come and in the direction of the safety of my partner. A shot echoed in the concrete hallway and I was aware of the sounds of it ricocheting on the concrete as Mike grabbed my shoulder to pull me backwards further.
"Fuck!" I yelled, as I felt a burning pain in my right bicep. I touched it with my fingertips and felt the wetness of blood. My right hand was still wrapped around the Glock, but I slid it to my other hand and flexed my right hand. The pain in my bicep was sharp and burning, but I could still move my hand just fine. It was too dark to assess the damage any further.
"Damn it," Mike swore from behind me, "you've been shot. You're bleeding."
"Just my arm. I'm fine," I assured him. "Damned Vice cops had to start playing cowboys and now we're stuck in the OK Corral." We both heard the sounds of a thud and a woman's pained scream, followed by glass shattering in the room the shot had just come from. I told Mike over my shoulder, "Give me your flashlight. I dropped mine." He started to argue that he should go first, but I cut him off, demanding the flashlight again. We both knew I was quicker. Plus, it was always in the back of my mind that he, at least, had a family. A wife and kids waiting for him to come home. I didn't.
He handed me his light with a huff and I struggled to keep a firm grip on my gun with only one blood-slick hand to grasp it. I shone the light into the room to see a woman huddled on the ground, crying as she rocked back and forth. A lamp on a table in the corner lit up the area near a mattress on the floor and gave the room the same faint glow I'd seen under the doors of the other rooms. I quickly looked around the rest of the room and found a busted out narrow window near the ceiling. A man's legs were just kicking and wiggling through as I dashed across the room to grab at them. I could only hold on with my left hand to pull downwards on his leg, but Mike was right behind me to throw his weight into bringing the asshole back down. I knocked the gun out of his hand and let Mike have the pleasure of pulling his hands behind his back and cuffing him. He was Latino, just like the rest of the thugs in his gang, but I was surprised by the youth of the little punk. I doubted if his face had even seen a razor yet.
Although if you judged his age based on the foul Spanish and sprinkling of English he was spitting at us, he'd pass for a lot older.
As Mike read him his Miranda rights, I stepped over to the dark-haired girl still wailing in the corner. I could see that her arms were covered in gray and green old bruises and spattered with fresh blood. Either she fought being forced into prostitution, or these guys just liked to be rough. Maybe both.
"Hey, you're going to be alright, sweetheart. We'll get you some help," I told her in a quiet, soothing voice.
I had just reached out to touch her arm when that warning internal voice of mine went off. What the hell are you doing walking right up to a cornered, injured animal? You of all people should know better! I had just dropped my hand away when the girl looked up with wild eyes. I registered several things in a matter of split seconds. She couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen years old. And the hand that swung up towards me as she scrambled away wasn't empty. I didn't know where the gun had come from, but I had no time to react before it went off less than a foot from my chest. Maybe death curses are real, my mind wondered.
The force knocked me backwards, leaving my eyes fluttering as one last thought ran through my head. I can't believe my story ends with me being killed by a child in a brothel.