Here’s an excerpt from the third book in the Bailey Crane Mystery Series. Hope you enjoy it.
Just when you think you’ve got all systems going in harmonious sync, that’s the time old Chicken Little’s doomsday utterance settles a might too snugly into the conscience: The sky is falling!
Well, my sky was falling, literally, inexorably, and with undue haste! Not to mix metaphors, but the falling sky was becoming a raging hell!
The very large warehouse roof was collapsing bit by fiery bit, and the bad guys were winning.
The bad guys were also getting away.
“What a way to go,“ said to myself and to anyone around to listen. “Dumb! Stupid! XO#*!!!”
And I had not even done my Christmas shopping.
It was Thursday, December 24, mid-afternoon. The temperature outside the Old Guthrie Warehouse was seventy degrees. It was a cloudless, real charming Chamber of Commerce day in Phoenix, Arizona. Inside the warehouse, in my little corner, the temperature was rising and the smoke was a dark, dense, viscid blanket which seriously threatened my breathing.
Having some vague recall from my firefighting boot camp training, courtesy of the United States Navy, my body was flat on the floor where the air was less heavy and thick. My vision was impaired by the smoke but could see orange diffusion all around me, could hear frantic cracking sounds of bursting embers and swirling fire fury, and could feel the heat, stinging, becoming a palpable furnace against my face and hands.
The large pneumatic door by which I had entered this ill-fated building was not far away. Could reach it except for one minor, make it, major, problem. A huge piece of timber frame had me wedged face down between some old metal file cabinets and a huge, heavy wooden desk. It was a corner office in the aged warehouse, and, at my arrival some twenty minutes ago, it had seemed so incongruous in it setting. It didn’t matter a whole lot now. The fire would equalize all parts of the structure soon enough into a smoldering pile of ashes.
My boss, my buddy, Ross Milburn, had said it would be a simple matter, this visit to the Old Guthrie Warehouse. Just wanted to ask some questions, get some answers, about some nefarious shipments in the dark of night, and about some sort of big crime event about to happen. No big deal, he had said. One day, I would need to talk to Ross about his rather trivial disregard for my bones and his utter failure as a soothsayer.
Not so simple, it had turned out. A big deal, it had turned out. Someone, some evil SOB, someone or some ones, had set us up big time. Certainly, being the most seriously and immediately aggrieved, about to be consumed by uncaring flames, it appeared that some amount of complaining and whimpering was in order.
‘Oh, just stop with the whining and figure a way to get us out of this mess.’
My alter ego tried persistently to keep my thinking straight. And, of course, he was always spot on. Didn’t really matter at this point that we had been set up. Just, figure a way out. The only thing was, my strength was not sufficient to move the timber frame or my wedged body. My efforts were hopeless.
Earlier, when we arrived in our unmarked vehicle, the warehouse had a dark and abandoned look. Ross had gone to one end of the huge building to check a hazy light and what he thought were voices. I had gone straight to the warehouse office where, upon entering, had gotten blindsided by a two by four. At least, it felt like a two by four. On my hands and knees, head hanging loosely and all systems swaying surrealistically, heard loud, cursing, anxious voices retreating from the room.
Shortly after the bad people left the office, my befogged mind registered some gunshots and it appeared that Ross was calling to me from far away. Then, there came a thunderous, reverberating roar, slamming me roughly into the corner where that piece of timber frame nailed me helplessly to the floor. Soon, there was the sound of crackling fire, smoke, heat — and old Chicken Little.
The permutations of my Cherokee mind astounded me. Here in this conflagrant environment, I started thinking about Christmas presents and Jingle Bells. ‘Hey, beam up, Bailey Boy! You’re about to fry. Like, get some kind of desperate.’
Don’t get me wrong, knew that I was in trouble, but my brain was no doubt altered by the two by four whammy. All it wanted to do in those split seconds was vacillate wildly, acknowledging my impending death and wandering off into the past to revisit old memories, old loves, old dreams. The gray matter meandered those old trails until the intense heat got it back to the present and to thoughts of Janice and Bobby.
That’s when I felt the first really urgent pinpricks of fear and desperation. My first subliminal thought had been that this fire business was likely a temporary inconvenience, that Ross and his Arizona Rangers would be bursting in to get me out any minute. The harsh reality of that not happening was now becoming much more evident. The mind could spin crazily fast and illogically in moments of impending peril.
Strained all muscles in my body to the max and could not budge for any appreciable leverage. The panic that should have been there much sooner now came fully empowered with Satan’s rage.
This was it! The moment most people only obliquely confronted when the twilight years were upon them. The moment that fascinated the philosophers and the poets. The moment of no more options or delusive dithering. The moment of utter, stark, finality.
Death! Its black unctuous veil, heavy, gagging, suffocating, consuming and final, its heat a furious rhapsodic resonance. Death! My own death was now here, coming on the neuronal tap dancing tremors that was now my body.
So much for soliloquies. Here was heap big trouble for this southern white man with the Cherokee blood, heap big trouble right here, right now.
Struggled mightily, gagged, coughed, frantically reached maniacally within myself for air. Thoughts were trying to convey themselves to me, thoughts of sorrow, deeds undone, loves unfulfilled, all the roads untraveled; the body, the mind, a frenzied duo fighting out of sync in blind attempts to right themselves, both so near some great effulgence of truth, the ultimate enigma, the greatest mystery of a lifetime. … death. Would I know? After it was over, would I know? On some level, would I know? Would I know what death was about? Would I know and be alone in the knowledge? Would it matter? Would I go to a Hell? To a Heaven? Life’s lore had followed me to the great gate of the hereafter.
“I long for death, death longs for me. But it is dark to die, and, oh! I fear that I still wish to be!”
The lines came to me unbidden from a book by an old friend: Hell’s Music. The book was about two soldiers in a foxhole during the Korean War, seeking some ultimate clarity of their lives..
No more soliloquies for the moment.
Among gritty, dirty perspiration and the awesome heat, I could distinguish my own tears flowing down my cheeks. Then a smile, mildly sardonic and wistful, came to my face. “It’s okay to cry, Bailey Boy,” whispered to myself. The urgency to live, to struggle with the Grim Reaper, was leaving me. The incredible flush and quake to my body was like a wild, pulsing, out of control roller coaster about to plummet from its highest arc. My breathing was short, hot, gasps of sucking, bringing enormous thermal pressure to my lungs. My heart seemed to inflate within me, and I felt like a bloated Salvadore Dali figure on some primordial pastel plain.
Death had come for me. Could it truly be?
On some unclear periphery of consciousness came soft sounds of a great ripping and tearing, of things falling; feet, hands, moving to a kind of melodic, slow motion, far away squeal. My name was being spoken over and over in low guttural, foghorn slowness, like the languid flow of dream sequences portrayed in old forgotten movies. Hands reached for the timber frame beam amid grunts and groans; feet scraped on a raspy floor. All motion was torpid; faces in punctuated and sustained grimaces and worry. Sweeping, lazy sprays of water fell all about me. The black smoke began to dissipate. Patches of blue sky came sporadically through the thinning mist. Air became breathable.
There on the edge I saw Ross Milburn’s black shiny face, contorted with an etched fear, almost purplish in its sheen from the light play and the scattering smoke. Such a beautiful face! The face of my friend. Ross was sitting on some green and yellow contraption with two thick metal prongs sticking out of it. There were chunks of charred wood and wallboard hanging from the prongs. In my fevered brain it came to me that Ross had driven that alien metal monster into the outer wall of the warehouse office. He looked comical and out of place, his white shirt smudged with black soot and his tie loosened and thrown over his shoulder. He was beautiful. I thought about laughing but gagging and coughing stopped me.
The people lifting the wooden beam from my body were now recognizable. The men of the blue cloth, my comrades at the Phoenix Police Department, ‘The Arizona Rangers,’ had come to the rescue after all. A siren announced the arrival of fire engine and crew.
As the weight of the beam was hoisted above and away from my body, my breathing became more relaxed. It was indeed a most marvelous thing, this breathing. The now languid body no longer trembled with hysteria, but there was incipient soreness that beckoned for attention. My upper thighs and my kidneys were aching, but it was a subdued aching. Tentatively, I wriggled my toes within my shoes, then my feet and legs. My miraculous body seemed battered, bruised, otherwise nastily mistreated, but unbroken.
Managed a silly smile and a thumb’s up for the beautiful and glistening face of Ross Milburn. He smiled inanely back until he seemed to become aware of some fundamental Keystone Kop element in the quaint montage. Then he lifted himself from the seat of the strange machine and jumped to the ground. Ross stood with one foot inside the warehouse office and one foot on the asphalt outside the crumbled wall.
While trying to stand, a pain akin to electric shock shot through my pelvic area. Awkwardly, I fell back to the floor among all the broken wood, glass and plaster.
“Stay where you are, Bailey!” yelled Ross, noticing my efforts to rise and my subsequent discomfort. “You might have something broken or torn inside.” He came toward me, dodging the debris.
“Think I’m okay, Ross-man, just tried to get up a little too fast. Probably a misplaced hillbilly gene or hormone getting realigned.”
Hey, it was a small and weak attempt at humor. I was alive. A few minutes ago, I was … Okay, enough already on that death business. Later, maybe, all of this could be revisited.
“Here,” I said to Ross when he was standing over me, “give me your hands and pull me up gently.”
“Bailey, we should wait until …”
“C’mon, pull. Gently, as you go.”
Ross shook his head in feigned disgust and gave me his big handsome hams. With utmost care, his eyes watching mine, he lifted me to my feet. Shifting weight from foot to foot, tentatively, I put my hands on my love handles and turned my upper body slowly to one side, then to the other. My first step brought no elaborate pain so I took another. Then, another. Ross stayed by my side, his hands and arms out like he was ready to start shaping some clay statue.
“Hey, everything works, Ross-man. I’m okay. You okay? I heard gun shots. Right?”
“Yeah, you heard right. We winged two of them. We got ’em in a cruiser, bleeding all over the seats, waiting for the EMT to take ’em to St. Joe’s, then on to lock-up. The other two got away in an old blue Lincoln Town Car. Trent put out an APB on ’em. They won’t get too far.” Trent Casals was another buddy, one of my partners at the PPD. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. A little sore but nothing’s broken. That was something else, Ross. It’s never been quite that way before. Thought maybe this could be the time for my big trip beyond. The mind behaves strangely when … Hey, you’ve been there. You don’t need to hear it from me. Let’s get out of this rubble.”
We walked some distance from the smoldering heap, away from the people and the noise. I sat in the PPD unmarked Chevy as Ross talked to Trent outside the cruiser holding the two bad guys. Trent broke away just long enough to come over and check me out.
Trent, a tall, lanky, double-jointed ex-basketball player, ugly and beautiful all in one, looked like a ‘Jack Palance’ or like an imagined ‘Ichabod Crane.’ He cared but he did not make a show of caring. He stayed for a few minutes, muttered some inanities, patted, gripped my shoulder, and walked back to the cruiser.
Sitting there, windows up in the car, watching the near noiseless activity around the warehouse rubble, a strange soporific calm engulfed me. Quiet, sensory messages of great meaning were being transmitted from somewhere deep in my soul, just out of my cranial grasp, the import of which was not as important as the knowledge of knowing they were being sent. The nonsensical aberration brought a smile to my face and I dropped my chin, closed my eyes, and shook my head gently in silent acknowledgment to the miracle of life and God’s inscrutable stage-fare.
The car door opened and slammed closed. Ross got behind the steering wheel and stared at my stupid face, the inane smile still in place.
“What, BC? What? The look? What transpires inside that looney bin scalp?”
“Just being me, Ross-man. You don’t want to know. Believe me, it’s better kept very far from you, very far from anyone. It’s a mind trip.” I stared back at Ross and saw the helpless expression come to his face, saw his eyes get all squint-like. “Hey, I’m okay,” I said quickly. “What’s with our two criminolos? They talking or what?”
Ross finally broke his stare. He put the key in the ignition and started the engine. “Yeah, they’re talking, but they’re talking pig Latin or some other derivative language I don’t know. You know them, I think. Art DeFilo and Eddie Briscoe?”
Nodded in the affirmative. Yes, the worthless goons were known to me.
Ross put the gear in reverse, carefully backed circuitously around three police cruisers with red lights and blue lights still flashing. “Art DeFilo, the short, squat one?” He glanced over at me for an up and down head shake. “He said one thing that baffles me. I mean, I got his words. I just don’t know what they necessarily mean …”
Ross drove forward, dodging people and debris, crossed the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks and headed toward Van Buren Avenue.
“Well, what did DeFilo say, big guy? Don’t keep me in the dark.”
The western sun felt hot against my nape, but not hot like the just recently known hot. This was enjoyable hot.
“He was a little sappy. Guess the bullet that passed through his shoulder had him swooning. He was mumbling a lot. But he said something peculiar, then got all red and sweaty after he said it, like he couldn’t believe he had said it …” Ross turned east onto Van Buren.
“Said WHAT? Crimminy, Rosser, you’re infuriating. What did the short, squat, Artie DeFilo say?”
He glanced quickly in my direction, then back at the road. With a serious and stern expression, and a lot of pseudo drama, Ross spoke: “He said an odd thing, especially weird for a small time hood. You know we’ve been expecting something big from Fistucci and his group. Well, what this creep said might just be tied in with that big event, whatever the hay it is.” He paused, glanced my way with a wrinkled brow expression.
“What, dip-hole? Tell me what he said or I’ll choke you right here on Van Buren.”
He chuckled for a moment, then put his serious face back on. “Okay, okay. What he said was, he said, and this it really way out, man, I kid you not …” He saw me about to erupt. “He said, ‘Beware the Brutus Gate.’”
Didn’t know whether to hit him or jump out of the car.
‘Beware the Brutus Gate.’
Cute. Very cute.
END OF EXCERPT – Please visit these links for information on ordering and/or synopses of other books in the Bailey Crane Mystery Series. Also check out the author’s other books: “Mama’s Madness” – “Butterflies And Jellybeans – A Love Story” – “The Cracked Mirror – Reflections Of An Appalachian Son” – “What Happens Next? – A Life’s True Tale”
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