Checkdown - A Battle Red Blog Mystery (Chapter Seventeen)

The following is, from start to finish, a work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to persons alive and/or dead are purely coincidental, so please don't sue me (because I own nothing of value); unless, of course, it's a reference to someone here on BRB, in which case REALLY don't sue me.

Also, if you want to read Checkdown from the very beginning, there is a new section heading on Battle Red Blog called, oddly enough, "Checkdown." It can be found under the sections tab on the upper left hand side of the main page. Enjoy!

Chapter Seventeen - Endgame
On the way back to the station, Scott cupped his knuckles tenderly. Every couple of minutes, when the pain became too unbearable to stand, he would switch hands. It didn't take long for the pain to arrive; not even twenty minutes after...after...

He blanked. The last thing he could remember was Podolski telling him to go back to his family. Then he found himself with bloodied knuckles and kneeling over the bartender, with Carlyle shouting in the distance.

The sirens and lights outside split the night as well as his ears. With the cops sitting in front of him silent, it was the only sound that could be heard. In a way, he was thankful for it. The noise dulled the hollow crunches that echoed in his subconscious.

He didn't look at his bruised knuckles anymore. He couldn't. Instead he focused on the grate which separated the front and back of the squad car. It was only the second time he'd been in the back of a police car, but this time felt worse, like being locked in a cage.

The only solace Scott felt was knowing Frankie Podolski would be in a cage for much, much longer, and that Podolski would bring him one step closer to solving Eliot Nash's murder.

That is, assuming he didn't end up in a cage himself.

The longer he waited in the car, the more that he remembered about the fight. Brief flashes of the fight popped into mind. They came slowly at first, then picked up pace like a mental strobe light until the entirety of the fight came into focus.

Scott shuddered. Carlyle had seen it too, along with their relative conditions. Podolski had been beaten savagely, while Scott only had a deep cut in his forearm. How could they not toss him into a holding cell after that?

As the car turned in toward the police station, Scott scooted over to the door and prepared to get out. Then the car swung past the front entrance to the station and wound its way around to the back. Beads of chilly sweat formed on Scott's forehead. He reached to wipe it off, saw his bloodied hands, and used his forearm to wick the sweat away.

Oh God, Scott thought, they are going to toss me in the clink.

He stared at the back door grimly. What kind of horrors laid in store for him? He waited for them to hustle him out of the car and into his cell when the car suddenly jerked forward. Two more Crown Vics got into line behind his car, their lights still flashing cheerily.

Scott turned in his seat and watched as Carlyle came out of his car, hauled Podolski out the back, and shoved him toward the door.

Podolski looked worse than he did after the fight. Angry black and purple bruises mottled his face. His fine clothes were dingy and tattered.

Another cold sweat came over Scott. He hoped they didn't have one of those "family-style" holding cells where he and Podolski would be cooped together.

Once Podolski and Carlyle were safely in the building, the car pulled out of the back and into a small parking lot surrounded by high chain link fences topped with razor wire.

The two cops got out of the car and opened the door for Scott to get out.

"If you'll come with us, Mr. Brooks," the cop asked politely.

Scott got out of the car and stood between the two officers. They walked into the station and Scott had turned toward the visitor's section when he felt a hand clap on his shoulder.

"Not that way," the officer said.

Scott gulped, his fears of becoming acquainted with a seven foot tall hairy, tattooed man named Sue growing with every step. They navigated Scott down the bland white hallways. The severe white lights made Scott wince and close his eyes to narrow slits. He was grateful for his guides, or he would have smacked into every single wall in the station. Gradually his eyes gained focus and he could see where they were headed.

The hallway opened up to a large office with several rows of wood-topped steel desks. In the far corner was a small office with floor to ceiling glass walls covered by drawn vertical blinds. Opposite from the office was a large dry erase board which spanned the length of the wall. The board was covered with magnets and mugshots and arrows pointing at blurbs written in chicken scratch.

Scott breathed an audible sigh. Louise in holding would have to be disappointed.

I should've known better, he thought. They didn't arrest me, after all.

At the sight of Scott, one of the cops sitting at his desk got up hurriedly and began strategically erasing sections of the board.

"Over there," the other cop said tonelessly, pointing at a chair next to one of the steel desks. Scott went to the desk and sat down. He noticed that the chair was facing away from the board.

"Stay there."

Scott felt the sudden urge to bark, but thought better of it. Instead, he casually examined the desk he was sitting next to. The desk was larger than the one in his broom cupboard at work. A computer monitor and keyboard sat on the desktop, doing little more than gathering dust. Just below the keyboard was a well-worn notepad with coffee stains and scribbles from dying pens in the margins. Papers were scattered around the desk. They looked extremely important with the crest of the Houston Police Department emblazoned on the top. Must be reports, Scott thought. How many reports had they had to write since opening this investigation?

Seeing those reports made Scott think of the story he never got the chance to break. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise, since he had been wrong about the killer. But he still felt that weird empty sensation inside, like probing for a missing tooth. What had Carlyle told the press about the investigation so far? The case was only a couple of days old in the eyes of HPD. And Carlyle seemed like the type who'd keep things close to the vest. Maybe there was still a chance he could expose Carlos as the real killer before Flapjacks and, God forbid, Winslow could.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kick your ass off this case right now."

Scott spun around. Carlyle charged into the room like a raging elephant.

"Well? I'm waiting for a reason, lawyer boy."

The room fell silent; its attention focused on Carlyle chewing out Scott.

Scott refused to cower. "You need me."

"Need you? To do what? Ignore my instructions? Get into shit the likes of which you cannot possibly understand? You saw the knife, right? You're lucky you got away with only that," he gestured at Scott's arm.

"Did we or did we not get Podolski?"

Carlyle pulled something out of one of the desk drawers.

"'We? Who's 'we?' There is no we here. Not if you keep pulling dumbass stunts like that one."

"The guys you had standing guard outside were distracted. I saw Podolski run. What did you expect me to do? Sit on the sidewalk with my finger up my nose?"

Carlyle took a small brown square out of the foil-lined box, popped it in his mouth, and bit down hard on it.

"What if he'd had a gun, Brooks?"

"What?"

"I said, what if he had a gun? Did that ever cross your mind? Shit like that gets even the best cops killed. He'd have killed you and not thought twice about it."

Scott went pale. It never did occur to him that Podolski might have had more than a knife on him.

"Sorry."

"Save it. Just don't pull stupid shit like that again. Last thing I need is blood on my hands."

"So, what's the next move?" Scott asked, eager to put the whole business behind them.

"Next, we have a little chat with Mr. Podolski. Figure out how he fits into Nash's murder."

"I think I can help you with that."

Carlyle chewed the gum harder now, "Why am I not surprised? Okay. What's he got to do with Nash?"

"The night of the murder, Nash was at Trample getting friendly with..." his voice trailed away.

Carlyle waited impatiently for Scott to continue.

"...with one of the girls there. Podolski was the bartender that night. A little later that night, or I guess morning, this guy came in and started giving Nash trouble. They fled, and--"

"Wait a minute," Carlyle said, "How do you know all this?"

Uh oh.

"Who are you getting this from?"

Scott twisted his ring around his finger rapidly. "Crap."

"Tell me right now or you're done here, Brooks," Carlyle said glaring at Scott.

"One of the girls Nash was with the night he died."

"Why didn't she come forward herself? Save me a bunch of trouble."

Scott ignored the shot, "She said you'd never have believed her."

"Why wouldn't I?"

"She told me you wouldn't believe her because you'd think she was making up stories to get her fiancee out of trouble."

Carlyle paused as he let this new information sink in and nodded quickly.

"So they fled. Go on."

"Right. The guy that was causing them trouble followed her and Nash to the motel room. Nash and this guy argued and the guy left, leaving money for Nash on the nightstand. Then he's found dead by the housekeeper."

"Who winds up dead herself."

Scott nods.

"So where does Podolski fit into all this?"

"Podolski knew the guy who was giving Nash problems. He was arrested in the same raid that netted y'all Podolski. His name is Carlos Guerrero. That's why I ran him down, to confront him about it."

"Did he confess to it?"

"Might as well have. He didn't deny it."

"And you think Carlos killed Nash?"

"I think so. And I think he killed Belgreave."

"For the money?"

Scott nodded.

"But again we come back to 'why kill her before getting the money back?' "

"I have no idea. Only Carlos can answer that one."

"And the only lead we got on Carlos is Podolski," Carlyle said. "I guess I should go see if he's finding the interview room comfortable."

"Can I be in the room too? I have a few questions for him, too."

Carlyle stared at Scott for a moment. Scott nodded as he realized the ridiculousness of the notion, like he had asked Antonio Smith to teach him the ways of the ninja.

"Can I at least watch through the two-way mirror?"

"Two-way mirror," Carlyle asked. "You watch too many cop shows. It's all on cameras and videotape now. You can watch in the media room. It's where we record everything that happens in there. Just keep your mouth shut while you're in there. Bob tends to get a little...cranky if he can't hear what's going on."

"Where's it at?"

Carlyle directed Scott to the room.

When Scott heard "Media Room," he imagined a room with wall-to-wall television screens with angles on everything from the interrogation rooms to the counter of the little cafe in the lobby. Instead, the room was painted a drab olive gray and about the size of a stall in the men's room; at least it felt that way to Scott.

Bob growled and flinched as Scott opened the door, letting light into the room. He hissed for Scott to close the door quickly, so he did.

"Which screen should I be watching?" Scott asked.

Bob grunted irritably and pointed at the far left screen. Podolski sat in one of the cheap metal chairs Scott found himself in earlier that day. Podolski looked like hell on a spit, and the camera wasn't doing him any favors, either.

"I want my phone call," Podolski shouted to nobody in particular. His voice, still nasal and tinged with New Jersey, sounded tinny on the speaker.

Podolski was soon joined by Detective Carlyle in the room. Carlyle's nose was buried deep in a manila file folder. Scott assumed it was some kind of ploy of his.

"I wanna press charges!"

Carlyle flipped the file closed, "Charges? Who against?"

"That asshole who did this to me," Podolski indicated his face and clothes.

"Were you in a fight?"

"You shittin' me? You saw what happened!"

Carlyle looked puzzled. "I didn't see any fight."

Scott smiled weakly.

"You saw him kneelin' on me! Jesus, you friggin' blind or something?"

"Not at all. I see very well. And you know what I see, Mr. Podolski?"

It was strange to see Carlyle acting calmly and talking to Podolski as if he were just some guy off the street, as opposed to the screaming elephant Scott had been arguing with mere minutes ago.

"What?" Podolski asked irritably.

"Your future."

Carlyle sat down at the table across from Podolski. "And it doesn't look good."

"You don't scare me."

"Me? No. No. I'm not the one you should be worried about. Possession, intent to distribute, assault with a deadly weapon, aiding and abetting a known fugitive, and that's not including the failure to appear charges you face for skipping court a couple years back. I'd say your future looks pretty bleak, indeed."

"Screw you, dick."

"Well, that's not very nice," Carlyle said feigning insult. "And here I was even going to help get some of these charges dropped. But if you don't want my help..."

Carlyle made for the exit.

"Wait," Podolski shouted.

"Got him," Bob grumbled.

Scott leaned back in his chair, impressed with the way Carlyle turned him so easily.

"What do you mean 'help?' "

"I thought you didn't want my help."

"I changed my mind, okay? Now what kind of help are we talkin' here?"

"Since you asked nicely..."

Carlyle sat back at the table. "I can make some of these charges go away."

"How about getting them all dropped?"

Carlyle laughed. "That's just not going to happen. But a five year stint beats...well...the alternative."

"Uh-huh. Enough carrot. Where's the stick?"

"I'm trying to solve a murder investigation, Mr. Podolski. And I hear you happen to know someone that we'd like to get to know a little better ourselves. You help me solve my case, and I'll put in a good word for you later."

Podolski tapped his fingers on the table rhythmically as he considered the deal before him.

Carlyle stood up again. "This deal is void when I leave this room. So in five...four...three," he turned around to leave the room again.

"Fine," Podolski said almost inaudibly.

"What was that?"

"I said, fine, whatever, you've got a deal. Now what the hell do you want from me?"

"Where can I find Carlos Guerrero?"

Now it was Podolski's turn to laugh, "You don't."

"Don't what?"

"You don't find Carlos. Carlos finds you. Lookin' for him is just askin' for trouble."

"How do we get him to 'find' us, then?"

"You got a reason for him to come after you?"

Carlyle looked up at the camera, as if looking directly at Scott.

"I think we might have something he wants."

Scott frowned at the screen. "I'm getting a bad feeling about this."

Carlyle continued, "You know how to get in touch with him?"

"I might," Podolski said, trying to be coy.

Carlyle tossed his phone to the bartender. "Make the call."

He looked at the phone, a comically old flip phone. "It won't work."

"Why not? We get service here."

"He won't answer if he doesn't recognize the number."

Carlyle ducked out of the room and came back a few minutes later with the phone they found on Podolski when they arrested him.

"Now call him. Tell him someone found his money and they want to give it back."

Podolski dialed the number quickly, as if trying to get it over with so he couldn't change his mind.

"C? s'Frankie. Ya lookin' for that money still?"

Podolski looked up nervously at Carlyle. "Yeah, yeah, I'm still here. I know who's got it. He...he wants to meet. Shit, I don't know, maybe he's hoping for a reward or something."

There was a long pause as Podolski listened to Carlos' instructions on the phone.

"We'll be there. Late." He hung up the phone.

"What's this 'we' bullshit?" Carlyle asked angrily.

"I have to be there or he won't. He doesn't trust nobody."

"Sigh...where's the meet at?"

"The footbridge at Hermann Park, tomorrow at noon."

Carlyle swept out of the room and instructed a nearby officer to escort Podolski back to his cell.

"We got a deal, dick! Remember that!"

Waiting at his desk for him was Scott.

"What was that all about?" Scott asked, gesturing at the media room.

"I have a plan," he said in a way that made Scott even more uneasy. "I need you to go with Podolski for this meet tomorrow."

"Me?! Are you insane? Why?"

"It'd take a lot longer to prep someone else, get them up to speed on the investigation, prepare questions for them, than it would to wire you up, set up a camera. Besides, you said so yourself, you know more about this case than most anybody else here."

"What would I have to do?"

"We'll get a bag of bogus cash for the drop. You just hand it over to him. Once you do, we'll swarm the bridge and take Carlos down."

"That's it?"

"Nothin' else to it. It'll be over before you can even bat an eye."

"I still have a bad feeling about this, but I'll do it."

**********

Scott had been to Hermann Park countless times. Most of those times came as a kid when he would go on field trips to the Natural History Museum. Inevitably, he would find himself standing on the top of the hill overlooking Miller Outdoor Theater and rolling down the hill at least half a dozen times. As a father, every year he would take the family out for a picnic on the island in the middle of McGovern Lake. It was one of his favorite places to go.

It was a beautiful day to be at the park as well. The grass at the park was like a thick green carpet, pine trees clung to their needles as if taunting their bare counterparts, the sun hung in the pale blue sky and the water shimmered like diamonds as he stood just out of view of the footbridge. Not a soul was anywhere in sight.

Scott wished he could have been anywhere else in the world other than Hermann Park at that time. Podolski stood next to him looking at Scott like he had just caught a whiff of Pasadena wind.

The backpack he carried weighed a lot more than Scott had anticipated. It was how much $75,000 would have weighed, if it were real, that is. He dropped the backpack and resumed fiddling with his glasses. He had never worn glasses before in his life, but after an hour of trying to straighten them out, he swore that if it ever came to either wearing glasses or going blind, that he would opt for the white-tipped cane instead.

"Stop messing with the glasses," Carlyle said. "You'll screw up the camera."

"Dick, you never said I'd have to go with this guy," Podolski whined, the last two words dripping with venom.

"Your name is Dick," Scott asked, holding back a chuckle.

"No."

"Oh."

"Listen, if you get into a bind, or you're starting to panic, say the word 'azure.' We'll be all over the bridge in ten seconds. Got it?"

Scott and Podolski repeated the word.

"Good. Remember: give Carlos the bag, make sure you show him taking the back with your glasses, then back away. We'll take it from there. Understand?"

Carlyle looked at his watch. "It's nearly noon, now go out there and act natural," he said, placing extra emphasis on 'natural.'

Podolski grabbed the back of Scott's shirt and pushed him toward the footbridge.

"Look, um, about last night," Scott said.

"Screw you. Shut up and move," Podolski said. "If it weren't for this deal, I'd off you myself."

He gave Scott an extra shove.

A man dressed entirely in black stood in the middle of the footbridge when they approached. He was a rotund man with a long scar trailing down his cheek.

Podolski's face, such as it was, brightened as he saw Carlos. "C! What'd I tell you?"

Carlos stood in place, not even looking at Podolski or Scott.

"You got my money?"

"He does," Podolski shouted cheerily, turned to Scott and snarled, "Open the damn bag."

Scott did as he was told and showed the bogus money to Carlos. Carlos nodded, lifted his hand off the rail of the bridge and gestured for the two of them to come closer.

They did so, but at a snail's pace. The wood creaked below their feet, but Podolski watched only the water as he shuffled his feet, as if it would jump up and drag him off the bridge.

Carlos, still looking off at the water, raised his palm to the pair of them and they dutifully stopped. He turned to face them. His eyes were cold and hungry and looked at Scott like he was next on the menu.

"How'd you get my money, cabron?"

"Me?" Scott asked.

"I'm not askin' this piece o' shit here. Where'd you get my money?"

Scott stammered. Carlyle didn't say anything about Carlos questioning him.

"I-I got it from that housekeeper."

"Why you? Why'd she bother wit' givin' it to you?"

"Um, uh..."

Podolski took a step forward. "Does it matter? He's got the money, so take it and go back to the boss with it."

"Ye-yeah, just take it," Scott said meekly, holding out the backpack to Carlos.

He looked at the backpack, then Carlos, back down to the pack, and Carlos again.

"Why do you keep lookin' at the pack, huh? Jesus, Maria, where'd you find this guy, Frankie?"

Podolski was silent.

"Who the hell are you?"

"Just take the money," Scott shouted, and thrust the bag again at Carlos.

Carlos looked closely at Scott's glasses, then at the backpack, then glared at Podolski.

"You got the cops involved in this?"

"No, C, I wouldn't, I woul--"

There was a loud scream and a grunt followed by a splash and pleas for help. Scott looked over the rail; his glasses slid off and fell into the water. Podolski bobbed up and down like a fishing lure, trying desperately to keep his head above water.

"I thought I'd warned you not to poke your nose into things it shouldn't be poking into," said a harsh, familiar voice that made the back of Scott's head throb painfully.

"You," Scott said to the man who stood behind him. "You stole my notes."

"You know this guy, Nate?"

The man he called "Nate" didn't say anything.

"I see."

"Wh-what about Podolski? You can't just leave him like that!"

"Keep your mouth shut, puta," Carlos said, whose gun was trained on Scott. "Or you'll be joinin' him with St. Peter. Now move."

He gestured with his gun for Scott to move across the bridge. "If I see any cops, you're dead, y'hear?"

The splashing grew weaker.

Scott undulated across the bridge, with the help of several sharp jabs to his ribs from Nate.

"Carlos Guerrero! Houston P.D. Don't move," Carlyle's voice boomed over the bullhorn.

Carlos pulled Scott up against him and pointed his gun at his head. "I swear to God, you come any closer, I'll start shooting! That what you want? A body count!"

Scott squirmed in Carlos' grip. Being part of a body count was not something Carlyle had prepped him on.

Nate spun around and drew his gun. He hit the ground before he could fire a single shot.

There was another splash. One of the cops waded into the water to retrieve Podolski, who they hoped was still alive.

"You think I'm screwing around," Carlos screamed, pointed his gun in the air, shot three rounds, and pointed it again at Scott.

"Put it down, Guerrero. I'm not going to tell you again," Carlyle said.

"Go on, pig, shoot."

"No! Don't shoot," Scott demanded.

"You already got two bodies, what's two more? You think you can get a shot off before I do? Hmm? Try it! C'mon! Shoot me!"

Carlos pointed his gun at Carlyle but stopped short of shooting. With all his might, Scott smashed his elbow in Carlos' gut. He wheezed, dropped his gun, and loosened his grip on Scott.

Scott, not being an idiot, ran for the bridge as fast as his feet could carry him. Carlyle went the other direction, with, as he promised, a swarm of blue-clad cops following behind him to take Carlos into custody.

'Nothing to it,' he said. 'It'll be over in the bat of an eye,' he said, Scott thought as he leaned against the railing of the bridge.

"Carlos Guerrero," Carlyle said proudly, "you are under arrest for the murders of Helena Belgreave and Eliot Nash."

TO BE CONTINUED...

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