Friday, December 25, 2015

Chapter Fifteen : Brookshire

            Jericho never stayed in downtown Houston. It was too new, too clean, and too middle class for his tastes. Instead, he found himself taking his usual route along Interstate 10 West. In the past, the city had slowly petered out into rice fields before sprouting again, to lesser heights, to form the bedroom community of Katy. Those days were gone, the city furling its concrete rings tightly around the surrounding communities. Jericho kept driving. The West side of Katy looked as if it had been lopped off immediately following the mall. There were sprawling acres dotted with scrub wood. Nothing much large grew in the humid half-swamp, and the rice farmers had followed the sugar farmers to greener pastures as the liberalization of global trade rendered their craft less and less relevant. The next real town would be Sealy, known for its manufacture of military vehicles and for being the birth place of Eric Dickerson. It was little more than a wide spot in the highway, and one could look down the city streets and see cows pasturing not far away. But before one reached Sealy there was a smaller wide spot in the road, with a flea-infested discount motel that served as the local brothel, drug store, and rest stop for travel-weary pilgrims and desperados alike. Jericho turned off the highway, and pulled his wheezing rental into the lot. The front desk was atrociously 1970s pre-fab motel design, complete with plastic furniture and cigarette vending machine. A small and skinny man stood behind the yellowed formica counter, his back turned to Jericho, bony shoulder blades sticking out from his loose fitting and tattered wife-beater. A rather large Colt 1911 pistol with nickel finish and pearl grips stuck out from his waste band, contributing to the physics that conspired to remind Jericho that he needed to repair the dripping faucet at home. The man was of Mexican descent, and had a shaved head and earing which, combined with numerous tattoos, gave the man the air of a pirate. He turned to face Jericho, and a scruffy patch of fuzz on his chin and upper lip added to the image. He broke into a wide grin, and motioned toward Jericho in a way that conveyed something of a sense of shared kinship.

            “Yo, J-man. Long time no see, homes.” His accent was that odd Texican blend of Hispanic lilt and forced street slang. Two of his teeth glittered gold, at once enhancing his street cred while simultaneously hiding the deleterious effects of crystal meth use. 
            Jericho smiled wearily. “Nemesio. How are you, man?”
            Nemesio shrugged guardedly.”Oh, you know; mas o menos. You?”
            “Meh.” Jericho blew air through his lips and ran his fingers through his hair.
            “I hear you, bro.” Nemesio rejoined with a note of compassion that was perhaps a bit too sincere for the occasion. He reached under the counter and produced a bottle of Tres Cuatro Y Cinco like a new father proudly presenting his first-born infant. “This will help.”

            The men stepped over to an ugly round table and sat down in ugly plastic chairs, and Nemesio pulled the plug out of the handmade crystal decanter with his teeth and took a long swig. He slid the bottle over to Jericho who caught it just as it caught on a sticky spot and started to tip. He took a deep draught, and sighed. Nemesio’s eyes narrowed, and he slipped into a kind of sing-song voice. He was known as a holy-man; a man who officiated on the Day of the Dead, and interceded to La Santa Meurta for the locals. He relished the role.
            “You are here on business, my friend, but it is not business that worries you.”
            “Well, you’re right about the business,” Jericho deflected. “I was hoping you could help me with some Kabalah stuff.”
            Nemesio took a long slug of tequila. He had an odd way of drinking; instead of tilting the bottle up or his head back, he leaned his whole body back, tilting his chair on its back legs. The overall effect was supposed to look cool, but instead it came off like an SNL character mocking someone trying to be cool.
            “Sure, you do, my friend. And what piece of treasure do you seek this time? More pagan gold? The lost diary of Cleopatra? Jason’s fleece?”
            Jericho smirked. “That’s pretty rich from someone who prays to a corpse.”
            “Don’t mock the holy dead, my friend.” Nemesio’s voice had a bit of an edge, and Jericho remembered that he was a mean drunk.
            Jericho chuckled. “I’m just messing with you. Look, I was hoping you could help me out with a symbol.” He pulled a rumpled handkerchief from his back pocket, and a pen from his front pocket. Carefully, he scratched the shin enclosed in a triangle, and passed the fabric to Nemesio.
            He looked at it through narrow eyes, like a shaman examining a holy relic, then shrugged. He grinned broadly, his gold teeth glinting in the fluorescent light. “Who can say, my friend. Come! You look wiped. Stay the night, and I will research in the morning.”

            Jericho couldn’t really argue with that, so he followed Nemesio to the counter where he was handed an old fashioned metal key. The little circle of cardboard that hung from it had “21” written by hand with a blue ink pen. Jericho left the lobby, and slouched down the row of empty windows, as the setting sun pierced the horizon and danced like fire on the row of dingy brass door knobs. He found his room and opened the door a bit too hard, reminding him that he had consumed too much alcohol. He swung the door behind him, hoping that it locked automatically, and fell face-first into the bed. Sleep came fast and deep, and then gave way to sweaty and fitful dreams that felt like smoke, and guns, and danger, and sex, but Jericho could never remember what he had dreamed about.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Chapter Fourteen : Houston

Main Street, as usual, was packed, so Jericho steered the rented Mercury Grand Marquis onto Braeswood just before hitting the Bayou. Houston is never cold, and at this time of year it was hot and humid in a way that made a person lose their fear of hell. The entire triangle between the bayou, Main, and Cambridge is a sprawling concrete heat-sink of medical centers, housing some of the most advanced facilities and reknowned care providers in the world. Jericho hit a chuckhole and wondered how many decades it had been since this triangle of medical genius had seen a road crew. The tarmac was hot enough that it was oozing oil, and all the traffic tires made an odd zipping noise as they sped along. The air conditioning was on full blast,  crystalizing the salt in the sweat-stains at Jericho’s neck, armpits, and lower back. Jericho could see the condensation in the air, like a small cloud, as the air came out of the labored air conditioning vents. It seemed to have no effect on the temperature inside the car.

Jericho missed the turn off onto Bertner, and swore under his breath. One of the perks in downtown Houston was the 4G Sprint network that blanketed the city, providing state of the art GPS navigation with real-time traffic speed adjustments. One of the downsides was that Jericho did not have Sprint. A few minutes of jerking traffic and sweltering heat later, and Jericho was able to turn left on Holcombe, before taking a right onto MD Anderson Blvd. It is difficult to describe the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. It is one of the most advanced cancer centers in the world, housing some of the only instantiations of certain technologies for several timezones. One of these technologies was proton therapy, which sounded to Jericho like something out of Star Trek, and for the what he was paying, probably was. The impressive technology and expertise of MD Anderson was sheathed in a collection of equally impressive architectural genius. Everything was glass and steel and the redish-tan concrete that everything in Houston is built out of. Clusters of buildings clawed their way skyward like clusters of supernatural crystals, sunlight dazzling off of horizontal glass and smudging the edges of vertical concrete. Consisting of coastal wetlands and heat and skillet-flat clay, the largest plants Houston has ever grown are rice and sugar cane. As a result, it is very rare to see anything built out of wood or stone. Even the sprawling pre-fab mansions with perfectly kept lawns and annoyingly symmetrical design are made out of concrete.

Jericho passed under the glass tube walkway that joined a gorgeous red and beige concrete palace to the parking garage and turned left toward the self-parking area. He glanced at the sign, which read “MD Anderson Cancer Center” with the “cancer” part crossed out with a bolt red line in a font that roughly imitated a child’s crayon. Jericho was pleasantly surprised by how clearly marked the entrances and pathways were, despite the endless sprawl of the campus, which merged effortlessly into the nearby care providers, and from there into the indistinguishable Houston skyline. Everything was clean, and shiny, and clearly marked, with colored lines on the wall or floor or sidewalk leading to various destinations. It really did seem like the set of a science fiction film, only more friendly, and Jericho’s spirits were lifted by the thought that Caitlyn was able to receive world-class care in such a clean and warm atmosphere.

The man behind the desk was young, gorgeous, and a bit too peppy for Jericho’s mood.
“Caitlyn Slade.”
The young man smiled too broadly and typed a few keystrokes. His smile turned into a sympathetic frown that reminded Jericho of a disappointed Koala. “I’m sorry, sir; your name isn’t on the approved list.”
Jericho smiled with his teeth. “There must be a mistake. She’s my daughter.”
The young man put on his pouty face and pretended to do something with the computer. It was frustratingly condescending, but Jericho chalked that up to his bad mood, and the bile of fear that was rising in his stomach.
“No mistake, sir; I’m sorry.”
“She’s my daughter. I paid for her to be admitted. A lot, by the way.”
The young man’s face remained infuriatingly impassive. “I’m sorry sir, but I can’t grant you access if you aren’t on the list. You can check with our community relations department and see if…”
But Jericho had already turned away.
What has that crazy bitch done this time?

Fear and anger snatched at his stomach, and he suddenly felt nauseated. He fumbled his phone out of his pocket and pulled up his lawyer’s number. It rang, and then rang again, and Jericho realized that he was walking without direction or purpose. He had no idea where he was, and the phone call went to voicemail, and he was lost in a very large, very nice building where people came hoping not to die. And somewhere in the concrete and steel and LCD lighting and taupe carpets Caitlyn lay fighting for her life.

Sharon wouldn’t pick up, and her deadbeat pimp boyfriend’s number had been disconnected, of course, because he probably hadn’t paid his phone bill – again. A small part of his mind cursed at the money he had spent on a PI to get him one useless phone number.

God damn it! God fucking damn it! She has custody – she must not have listed me as an approved visitor. What a shitbag thing to do. She never thinks of anyone! And how much time has she spent with Caitlyn in the last year? A couple of hospital visits? I have taken care of everything. Everything! The bills, the doctors, the goddamn insurance companies! This can’t be legal. Life is a bitch without her throwing her two brain cells into the mix.

And yet for all his anger and angst, Jericho never once thought of suing her or hitting her or taking out his rage in a pound of flesh. Life was one shit sandwich after another, and hurting someone else would not improve anything.

The car was hot, and the air-conditioning ineffective, and the tarmac boiled under the fierce sun.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Chapter Thirteen : Airplane

The last few days had been a blur for Jericho. It had taken a couple of days for the police to clear Jericho to leave the country, but not before a tense interview with Scotland Yard. Jericho’s alibi was unshakable, but law enforcement was more interested in Zeke’s past, if he had any enemies, etc. The issue was compounded for Jericho, because he could only think of one possible motivation for Zeke’s death – their current case.

That’s insane. I’m chasing the chimera of a charlatan for a lot of money. There just isn’t anything there – certainly not anything worth killing over.

For a moment, an image of Mr. Dursley flashed into Jericho’s mind, snarling, “There’s no such thing as magic!”

But people really do believe in Magick. I wonder if they believe in it strongly enough to kill.

In the end, Jericho had mentioned that he was working with Zeke on historical research, but left out any reference to their odd “key” theory, or anything that might indicate they were involved with anything of value. It was just too absurd to be taken seriously.

As soon as he was cleared to leave, Jericho scheduled a flight to Houston, and now he found himself on an American airplane piloted by an American company. Jericho hated flying with American companies. The Middle-Eastern flights were the best, especially Etihad and Emirates. On those flights he was served halal lamb and rice, with wine from an actual glass bottle. British Airways was almost as good. Even their brief, coach-class flights included a lemon-scented steamed towel, and coffee in a real cup and saucer. When he boarded this flight there was already one passenger trying to stuff what looked like a body bag into the upper compartment. Unable to close the compartment, the man shrugged and slouched to his seat. Two minutes later a middle-aged flight attendant with a blouse slightly too tight around her middle stumped down the aisle. “Whoever’s bag that is, you gotta move it!” She grunted. “I’m coming back in five, and if its still there I have to check it.”

Ah yes, good old American customer service. And legroom, for that matter. Jericho supposed it didn’t matter. He had calculated that the restroom occupancy to passenger ratio was specifically calculated to get each passenger to spend at least 30% of the flight standing in line. At least he didn’t have to worry about deep-vein thrombosis. As he stood there, idly thumbing through his phone, his mind kept worrying the events immediately following Zeke’s death.

Upon the realization that Zeke was dead, Jericho had immediately slipped into detective mode without even thinking about it. He dialed 999, and then began taking inventory of the scene without disturbing any evidence. Zeke’s belongings were spread out as if he had been in the middle of working. His posture indicated that he had been sitting upright when killed, but had not looked around. Had the murderer been in the room already? There was no exit wound – the kill had been professionally executed with a small caliber weapon, probably a .22 or .25. Given that the .22 caliber is the most easily accessible in Great Britain, Jericho decided that was probably it. He couldn’t get a trajectory, but he could get a general direction. The killer had been in the flat, in the area of the sofa. There was no place to hide. Jericho’s stomach churned as the thought came back. He had seen death before – the worst kind of death while in the Army; even the death of friends – but he had never become comfortable with it. He heard a flush and the line inched forward. Only thirteen people to go.

Jericho had glanced at his watch, guessing he had maybe four more minutes before the police arrived. Perhaps it was a burglary? He scanned Zeke’s equipment, and his hackles went up. Zeke’s iPad was missing. He glanced frantically around the flat, careful not to touch anything, but there could be no doubt. It wasn’t in the flat. That didn’t mean it had been taken, but it didn’t mean it hadn’t been, either. But why would anyone want his iPad? Unless they were onto something very, very serious with this whole key investigation.

Bullshit. There is no way.

Jericho had moved closer, and examined the wound. There were burn marks around the hole, indicating Zeke was killed at close range, execution style. But it was something else that grabbed Jericho’s attention. Just below the hairline, positioned so that with normal posture Zeke’s hair would cover it up was a small, faded tattoo.

It was a small triangle, enclosing the Hebrew letter shin.