Checkdown - A Battle Red Blog Mystery (Chapter Sixteen)

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 Sixteen - The Bartender

"I recognize this guy," Scott said in astonishment.


Detective Carlyle stopped talking with one of the blue clad officers standing outside the interview room and came toward Scott.

"What's that?" he asked, unsure if he'd heard correctly.

"I've seen him before. I even asked him about the night of the murder," Scott said, pointing at Podolski's mug shot.

Carlyle snatched the picture from Scott's hand.

"Have a look," Scott said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

Carlyle studied the picture. After a couple of seconds, he grimaced at the unfortunate appearance of the perpetrator, followed quickly by a long, low whistle.

"What?" Scott asked.

Carlyle remained silent, his eyes continued examining the picture.

"What,\?" Scott asked again in a louder tone.

"When you step in it, you use both feet, don't you?"

Scott looked at him confusedly. "What are you talking about."

"You have no idea what you've gotten yourself into here, do you?" Carlyle asked the way a father would ask a troublesome child.

All Scott could do was stare at him stupidly.

"I'll take that as a no. Do you have any idea who this is?" he said, thumping the mug shot with his index finger.

Scott let out a irritated growl. "You ever going to get around to telling me?"

Carlyle glowered at Scott. "This is Frankie Podolski. He peddles drugs for Hector Spinoza."

Spinoza? What did that name sound familiar? It didn't take long before Scott remembered the last time he'd heard that name. When he did, his blood temperature dropped several degrees.

"The Spinoza family?!"

"Give the man a prize," Carlyle said. "We've been trying to nab this guy for years."

"But..." Scott's voice trailed off, and he pointed at Podolski's mug shot.

"I know. I know," Carlyle said disgustedly. "Somehow he made bail last time we had him and--"

"Don't tell me. He never showed up for trial."

Carlyle nodded resignedly. "Half the guys we got printed and pictured managed to wriggle away. Jones!"

The blue clad officer walked smartly into the room.

"Go on over to..." Carlyle stopped, considered for a moment, then said. "You know what, Jones? Never mind."

Jones gave a quick salute to the detective and left.

"What was that all about?"

"Don't ask."

Carlyle looked out of the interview room and spied a fellow detective wearing a brown suit jacket who was peering back at him. He gave a polite, but terse, nod in the other detective's direction and spun around toward Scott.

"No sense getting him," he said tilting his head toward the other detective, "involved in this. My case, my collar."

Scott opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and closed it again.

"Now, where did you last see Podolski?" Carlyle asked genially.

He stared hard at Carlyle for a moment. If he was willing to cut out the guy in the brown coat from nailing this Podolski guy, who else would he stonewall from the investigation?

"I don't remember," Scott said.

Carlyle's face looked as if it would fall onto the floor. He sat down on one of the uncomfortable chairs and wheeled up close to Scott's face. His sad bloodhound eyes carried an expression of exasperation and anger.

"Don't start this shit again, Brooks. Where is Podolski?"

"And if I tell you, what then? Send me on my merry way? 'Thanks for all your help, lawyer boy, we'll take it from here?' You're not gettin' rid of me that easy."

Carlyle's didn't even flinch. His eyes remained locked on Scott's. This staring contest lasted for what felt like several days, but was probably closer to a couple of minutes.

Finally, Carlyle relented. "What do you want, Brooks?" he asked through gritted teeth.

"I'm coming with you."

"To do what?"

"Catch this Podolski guy."

Carlyle snorted. Based on his reaction, it caught him off guard. "The hell you are."

"That's fine. You can have fun tracking him down without me. It's been, what, two years now since he slipped away? I'm sure you'll make that big break any day now."

"Screw you, Brooks."

Scott got out of his chair and made for the exit. "Where can I get this validated?"

Carlyle sat motionless in his chair, staring at the wall that Scott had been sitting in front of.

"Wait," he said with no small amount of annoyance in his voice.

Scott stuck one foot out the door before he stopped and turned his head toward the detective.

"Changed your mind, detective?"

The silence that ensued was dotted with the occasional ring from an unseen telephone. One of those rings sounded close enough to make Scott quickly check his phone. It wasn't his phone.

When Scott looked up again, Carlyle was nearly on top of him.

"If you do come, then you will do exactly what I say. You will not argue, you will not complain, you will not even so much as breathe a single word unless I allow it. As far as you're concerned, while we are looking for this guy, my word is nothing short of the word of God. Do I make myself clear, lawyer boy?"

It wasn't quite Ned Beatty's speech from "Network," but it got the point across to Scott, who nodded dully to Carlyle.

"Now I will ask you one more time. What rock is Podolski hiding under?"

"He works at a nightclub down on Westheimer called 'Trample.' He's a bartender there."

Carlyle looked at his watch.

"I don't know about you, but I could go for a drink right now."

**********

By the time Carlyle received authorization to chase after Podolski, the inky blackness of night had enveloped the city. Carlyle and Scott passed by Trample multiple times in one of several unmarked squad cars. The parking lots that had been empty the last time Scott had been down there now had cars packed together like sardines. The creepy valet he'd spoken to hustled to get cars in and out before patrons started complaining. The strips of neon light along the club's facades split the darkness like a flare in a starless sky. A bouncer who looked like he could take on the Hulk and win stood impassively at the door. Before the bouncer stood a line that seemed to stretch all the way to New Orleans. It was populated by men in suits that reminded Scott of feminine hygiene products and women in skirts and dresses so short they left little, if anything, to the imagination. Some of the clubbers weren't even waiting to get into the club to start bumping and grinding.

Scott rolled his eyes as he watched them preening and posturing. Maybe he was getting old, but they looked utterly ridiculous standing there. Still, he wasn't about to say it out loud.

Most of the convoy parked just out of view of the club, which was also where the closest available parking happened to be located. Somehow, Carlyle lucked out and got a space opposite from Trample, allowing him and Scott to watch the entire operation without being spotted.

"Moving toward the club, now."

Carlyle picked up the receiver and pulled it close, "Keep us posted, Mahoney."

The blinding lights from the club stung Scott's eyes. Out of the corner of his eye, Scott thought he saw something move. He turned to his right. The car next to him was rocking vigorously, its windows were thoroughly fogged, and muffled groans came from within. For some reason, watching that made him think of Claire. He checked his phone again; she still hadn't called.

Scott nudged Carlyle in the arm and pointed at the rocking car. After he shot a withering glare at Scott, he said, "What about it?"

"You're just gonna let them keep on?"

"Ain't hurtin' anybody near as I can tell. Now be quiet."

Scott sunk into the seat and watched the club's front door. The undercover cops grouped together at the door and stopped.

"Where do you think y'all're goin'," the bouncer asked in a rich, booming voice.

"Houston police, we have reason to believe a major drug buy is supposed to be going down here tonight," said Mahoney.

"That's a new one. Can I see some proof?"

There was a slight pause as the undercover cops made small movements as if to flash their badges at him. The bouncer inspected the badges.

"Shall I call security to assist you, Officer?"

"No, the fewer people that know about it, the better."

"Nice one, Mahoney," said Carlyle.

"Have a good time," the bouncer said with a quick wink.

A moment later, the bouncer stepped away and opened the door for them. All except a lone policeman went inside the club. The people in line threw up their hands and, from what Scott could see, shouted at the bouncer for the unfair treatment they'd received.

Scott smiled at this.

The one who stayed behind paced the front of the club and pretended to leer at the women there; at least Scott hoped he was pretending.

Dubstep and electronic music filtered onto the radio with intermittent laughter and excited chatting by people inside the club. Fifteen seconds into a remixed version of "Somebody That I Used To Know" had Scott rubbing his temples in tight, circular motions. A minute in, he wanted to take a power drill to his skull. He was just about ready to hang himself with his seat belt when the phone rang. His phone.

He pulled it out and checked the caller. It was Claire. Scott looked at Carlyle and pointed at his phone. Carlyle pointed outside, then at his watch.

Scott was out of the car in under three seconds, slammed the door, which spooked the overly amorous couple in the car next to him, and answered the phone.

"Claire?"

"Hello, Scott."

"God, I'm so glad you called. H-how are you?"

He smacked his forehead.

"Fine. We're...we're okay, Scott."

"That's good. A-and the kids?"

"They're okay. They miss you a lot. Rachel's been crying since...you know."

"Poor baby."

This got a slight chuckle from her.

"And you, Claire?"

"I'm...okay."

"No. Not that. Do you miss me, too, I mean?"

There was a long, uncomfortable silence on the other end.

"You really have to ask?"

Scott walked a few steps toward the street. The line now stretched all the way to Mobile.

"Brooks," Carlyle grunted. "Get back here!"

"Then come back, Claire." Scott said into the phone. "It doesn't have to be this way."

"I...I don't know if I can."

"Listen, sweeth--"

"No. I was thinking about what you said before..."

"About what?"

"About this being the right thing to do."

"Go on."

"I think...I think..."

A wild shout came from the line snaking down the sidewalk. Scott covered his other ear.

"I didn't catch that, could you say that again?"

She repeated herself, but it didn't much matter. The shouting grew to a frenzied pitch. Scott stood at the edge of the sidewalk and turned to see what the racket was all about.

The neat orderly line he'd last seen was almost gone. Instead there stood a mob of clubbers beneath the marquee grasping in the air for what looked like small bits of paper falling down on and around them. He shook his head and looked again. Dollar bills floated down to Earth. As it fell, the clubbers shoved one another away to get to as many bills as they could get their hands on. Other clubbers, unconcerned about the money, tried sneaking into the club. Between the mob in front of him, the money raining down on him, and rogue clubbers trying to get past, the bouncer was simply overwhelmed. The plainclothes officer who had been roaming the line joined the fray in an attempt to re-establish order. Then Scott noticed the one who wasn't reaching for money; he didn't need to. He had massive wads of cash clutched tightly in his fists. He flung both wads into the air and watched the madness that ensued.

"Scott? Scott? Are you there?"

"I'll be damned," he said absently.

"What's going on?"

Her irritated tone got through to Scott. "What's that?"

"You're working the case, aren't you?"

"What? N-no! It's not that it's..." his voice trailed off. He scrambled to think of what else might have been distracting him.

"Don't, Scott. Just. Don't."

"What were you saying before? Come on, you have my complete attention now."

"No, I don't. And that's the problem."

"Claire. Claire?"

He looked at the phone's screen; only his Texans wallpaper showed up.

"Damn it!" he shouted, and shoved the phone in his pocket. He looked again at the man with the wads of cash. Thoughts of Claire and the kids went through his mind, that he might never get to see them again and for what? To track down a double murderer? And that bartender, Scott thought, was in it up to his pointy nose.

As if he had read Scott's mind, the bartender tossed the last bundle of cash he had into the air and dashed off into the murky night.

Scott looked back at Carlyle, who shouted orders into the radio, coating it in a thin layer of spittle.

The plainclothes cop had been subsumed by the mob.

Scott scowled at the last place he'd seen the bartender. He would not get away, not this time. Before he knew it, he found himself chasing into the night after Podolski.

As he got further away from the obnoxious neon lights of Trample, the more he realized just how bright they had been. The night seemed to enshroud him, the faint buzz replaced by the sounds his own footfalls and the racing of his heart. What he couldn't hear or see was where Podolski had gone.

A lone dim streetlamp provided only enough light for Scott to see his breath turn to steam. He let out a brief shiver and stopped, listening for any clue as to where Podolski might have gone. There was a gust to swirl around the chilly, stagnant air; it made the shiver Scott felt only that much worse.

"Should've gotten my coat," he said ruefully.

A massive old warehouse stood in front of Scott where the road took a sharp right turn. That sharp turn dead-ended at a loading dock. Podolski was nowhere to be found.

In the distance, metal clapped against metal making a sweet, tingling sound, almost like a wind chime. The breeze died down, thankfully, but the tingling did not. It sounded less like a wind chime, and was joined by a series of exhausted grunts.

It's him. He's close.

Scott skulked down the street. The clatter only grew louder, as did the frustration curses that accompanied it.

"Son of a bitch!"

He stopped. More clattering, it almost felt like it was on top of Scott. He walked softly over to the side of the building and ducked his head around the alley.

The alley was mostly empty save for a large packing crate pressed up against one side of the alley. A single light on one wall flickered and popped, which occasionally plunged the alley into total darkness.

Podolski was sprawled out on a chain link fence. His feet moved in rapid circles like the Road Runner, desperate to gain traction. Each time, his foot would slip and he would end up back on the ground.

"You know, there was one thing that I couldn't figure out about this whole thing."

Podolski jerked around. "Who's there?"

Scott hid behind a large crate midway down the alley. "How did Carlos know that Nash was at Trample the night of the murder?"

"Sh-show yourself!"

"Then I discovered you knew him. Didn't you...Frankie?"

"I ain't kidding," Podolski said, doing a terrible job of masking the fear in his voice. "Come out and face me like a man!"

Scott stood up from behind the box and walked to the middle of the alley, "Why'd you do it, Frankie?"

"Screw you! I ain't telling you shit!"

The light flickered back on again, shining on Podolski. His hair was frazzled and his shirt torn by the tines of the fence he tried so hard to scale. He appeared to have aged 20 years since Scott had seen him only a few days earlier. Any trace of the kindly, charismatic bartender he'd encountered before was gone. All that remained was the two-bit crook who would fight and claw and scrape to survive.

Scott took another couple of steps toward Podolski. "You told Carlos where to find Nash. Why?"

"You better just walk off now. I ain't jokin'," he said, his native New Jersey accent spilling out. "You're gonna get yourself hurt, y'hear?"

He grabbed Podolski by the lapels, "God damn it, tell me!"

Podolski pushed away from him and dusted off his ragged shirt. "Get outta here. Go on back to your family."

They say that when you punch someone in the face, your hand feels like it got run over by a steamroller. But when Scott smashed Podolski in the jaw, the only thing he felt was an overwhelming desire to do it again.

Podolski reeled briefly from the punch and pulled out something from his pocket. There was a click and a glint of metal in the flickering light said that it was a switchblade. He lashed out at Scott and caught the side of his forearm. Podolski lunged at Scott for the kill, but went wide left. Scott grabbed his arm, long past caring about the knife, and hammered it against the wall with every ounce of strength he could muster. There was a loud whelp of pain and the knife fell to the ground. Scott grabbed Podolski by the lapels and drove him against the wall, making sure to bash his head against it first.

"Tell me," Scott gasped in rage. "Why did you tell Carlos?!"

"The bo...The boss."

"Spinoza? What about him? Answer me!"

"Boss told us to fi-find Nash."

"Why? Why did he want Nash? Is it about the money?"

Podolski grinned defiantly and shook his head weakly.

Scott threw him down to the ground like Brooks Reed and pinned his arms down. "So help me God, if you don't--"

"That's enough, Brooks!"

Scott looked toward the alleyway entrance. Detective Carlyle stood there flanked by half a dozen uniformed officers.

"Stand up."

Scott looked down at Podolski, finally realizing just how much damage he'd done to the bartender. His face was matted with blood, some of which dripped from Scott's knuckles. The shirt he'd worn was black with soot and dirt, and nearly as dark as his trousers. He got up off of Podolski's arms and staggered back against the wall, taking in the scene. An icy chill went down his back as he realized that he couldn't remember anything that had happened in the last five minutes.

"Take him away," Carlyle said, indicating the badly battered bartender.

"This isn't over, Podolski!"

Podolski cringed briefly before being shoved into the back of one of the squad cars.

Scott examined his forearm absently. Streaks of blood went down his forearm from a broad gash just below the elbow. It didn't even hurt. The thought made him want to laugh, but he couldn't force it out.

Carlyle immediately turned to Scott. "When I say 'Get back here' do you think I'm goddamn kidding?"

Scott shook his head blankly. "I--I--"

"Don't speak," Carlyle said slowly, his voice quivering with anger.

Carlyle turned to go back to the car. Scott said, "Would you have found him?"

"What was that?"

"If I didn't tear off after him, would you have even noticed him running?"

"You disobey my orders one more time and you are off this investigation," he said flatly. "Now get out of my sight."

Carlyle pointed at one of the squad cars; one that Scott noticed was not his. It didn't matter that Carlyle didn't answer. Scott knew what his answer would have been.

He dutifully got in the car and they drove back to the station. On the way back, Scott thought about several things. Podolski said that the "Boss" was looking for Eliot Nash? What could Hector Spinoza have wanted with the Texans quarterback? It sounded like Carlos was supposed to fetch him. Was it to pay him his money? But so little money, it hardly seemed like enough for a decent bribe. But most of his thoughts were about what happened in that alley. He'd made threats to punch people out before. Winslow could've attested to that. But this...this was more than just punching someone out. This was...he didn't want to think about it; the answer was too frightening to consider.

Instead, he thought about how much trouble this little adventure of his had cost him, and about how Podolski would be the key to finding Carlos.

He had to be.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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