Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Deadly Gamble Chapter Five

An Alexander Steele Murder Mystery

Chapter #5
Strange Bedfellows

Shakia had been looking forward to spending some quality time with her man.  It was Saturday morning, the day of the South Street Spring Festival.  The early morning sun peaked out from the distant rooftops.  While Shakia’s mind was on shopping Steele couldn't stop thinking about the case.  The two workbench images from inside the shed told the story. Before the murder a single lottery ticket could be seen in the corner or the bench but somehow after the murder the ticket had disappeared.  

Because Antonio used a high powered lens Stan was able to enlarge the photo so that Steele could clearly see the numbers. It was a perfect match to the winning Powerball numbers but very different from the discarded tickets in the trash can.  The apartment manager said Sam was happier than normal on the day he was murdered.  Anyone who was about have a $30,000,000.00 payday wouldn’t just be happy they would be thrilled.  Steele now had the motive. 

Steele had begun putting the pieces together.  Sam most likely shared the news with Mrs. Matthews and the two celebrated by polishing off an entire bottle of Jim Beam bourbon.  Once they were passed out it was easy for the killer to slip in, unleash the toxic chemicals and steal the winning lottery ticket. 

Two very important questions remained, who committed the murders and how did they enter and leave a locked building without leaving any footprints.

The crowd of festival goers on South Street was a lively bunch.  Throngs of bargain hunters made their way up and down Philly’s most famous street.  The smell of good food and live music filled the air.  Steele checked his watch.  Twenty minutes to go before Antonio’s clandestine meeting.  Steele carefully nudged Shakia in the direction of the restaurant where the meeting was to take place.  Shakia was a sweetheart but Steele knew there would be hell to pay if she found out he was working on a case during her me time. Fifteen minutes later Steele caught a glimpse of Antonio sipping a glass of white wine at the sidewalk café.  Just as he was about to move closer Shakia tugged on his arm. 

“Look baby, a gift shop.  We still haven't found the right wedding gift for Sugar Bear and Tina yet.  As Shakia led Steele into the gift shop he saw the back of a woman approaching Antonio’s table but his view was immediately obstructed by the mass of people milling about in the street.  

“Look at this chest Alex, isn't it beautiful?” Steele gave the chest a quick once over then turned his attention back to the sidewalk café across the street.  His view was even more obscured than before.  The only thing he managed to see was a woman’s hand passing an envelope to Antonio.

Shakia stood in front of Steele deliberately blocking his view.  “Okay Alex what’s out there that’s got you so preoccupied?”

Steele pointed to the restaurant across the street.  “You hungry baby?  There’s a sidewalk café right across the street.”  Shakia laughed, “baby you can't be serious we just had breakfast less than two hours ago.  I swear there are only three things men ever think about, sports, sex and food.”

By the time Shakia finished browsing both Antonio and the mystery women were no where to be found.  At least for now Antonio would be able to hold on to his secret.

After the South Street debacle Steele decided to shift his focus to Pablo.  At five o'clock he would be off the clock and since this was Saturday, Steele was counting on Pablo leaving the grounds for some weekend mischief.  He parked his blue Jag on the side of the road a block from the mansion’s entrance and crouched down in the driver’s seat.  Unlike Steele’s failed encounter with Antonio, Pablo did not disappoint.  5:20 Pablo was picked up at the front gate by a middle aged man in a silver Camaro.  Steele caught a glimpse of the driver as they passed by.  “Well this could be interesting” he whispered.  The man in the driver’s seat was Pablo’s old cellmate Nick D'Angelo.   Steele followed the Camaro to Huntington Park in North Philly.  

It was another cool spring evening in Philadelphia. Only a few nature lovers had ventured out into the park.  Although Steele was investigating a murder at the moment he was more curious as to why a drug dealer with ties to the South Philly mob would hook up with a low level hood from North Philly.  What happened next was even more peculiar.  Steele peered from behind a large tree as he watched another man approach the old, weather beaten picnic table where Nick and Pablo were talking.  His tall lanky frame was unmistakable. Hammer had joined the meeting.  It was as if someone had called a reunion of the ex cons.  Hammer’s brother Half Dead ran several meth houses in Germantown, North Philly and West Philly.  When he was sent to prison Hammer took over the business.  Steele thought to himself, “What the hell did I stumble into?”  Steele’s memory did not serve him well that evening.  By the time he remembered that Hammer never traveled without at least two body guards it was too late.  He looked over his shoulder as three huge, angry looking dudes approached him.  Realizing that most men who had pissed off Nick or Hammer never lived to tell the tail Steele had to think fast.  He reached for his cell and made a quick call before stepping out from the tree on to the dirt pathway.

“No where to run” he though.  “I have to make a stand.”  Out smarted and out gunned Steele needed to stall for time.  He reached down and pulled out a small gun from his ankle holster then reached inside his jacket for his Glock.  His actions were met with an immediate reaction from the surprised Pablo, Nick, Hammer and the bodyguards who had already drawn their guns.  “This is suicide” he mumbled as he walked closer to the trio standing near the table.  The innocent bystanders in the park knew the drill all too well.  This wasn't the first time they had seen a gunfight.  The bystanders scattered or hid behind trees.  With both arms extended Steele pointed one gun left at the men near the table and the other at the bodyguards approaching from his right.  Steele’s heart was racing.  At that moment he was painfully aware of his own mortality. 

Pablo may have been a lightweight thug but Hammer and Nick were not to be trifled with. Dozens of bodies in cemeteries’ throughout the city were a testament to their ruthlessness.  Steele was sure the only reason he was still alive was curiosity.   He had no current dealings with Hammer or Nick so why was he spending his Saturday night tailing them?

Nick D'Angelo laughed out loud.  “Hey if it isn’t Alexander Steele, I hope that call you made was to your priest.  He better hurry if he’s going to read you your last rites.”  Steele stayed calm, he snickered, “that call was for my backup.  They should be here any minute now.”  Nick wasn't buying Steele’s story. “I got one question for you Steele.  Why the hell are you sniffing around here?" 

Steele slowly pointed one of his guns in Pablo’s direction. “My business is not with you today it’s with him.  I’m working a case and I need to find out if he’s a murderer or just a dumb ass too stupid to stay out of jail.”

The sounds of sirens could be heard off in the distance.  A pissed off Pablo took a step closer to Steele and pointed his gun directly at his face.  He began yelling at Steele.

“I told you the other day to stay out of my business.  This is the second time you have interfered in my affairs amigo.  Now I'm going to make sure that it’s your last."

”Steele was on an adrenaline rush.  At this point he accepted the fact that he wasn't going to walk away from this one.  His focus shifted to who he could take out before they got to him but there was one more card to play.  

The sirens grew louder as Steele made his pitch. “You should know I have a death insurance policy” Hammer was confused at Steele’s odd choice of words and felt the need to correct the condemned detective.  “You mean you have a life insurance policy” Steele shook his head slowly.  “No, I left instructions with……… well lets just call them my people.  At the time of my death they are to post a $50,000 reward to anybody who can help the cops identify my killer.  I counted about eight people who saw you guys; in fact a couple of them are still around here somewhere, listening. Maybe one or two are filming this with their cell phones right now.” Hammer’s body guards were getting nervous.  They began looking around to see if anyone was watching. 
The sounds of police sirens were too close to ignore.  Steele had managed to anger all three men.  Nick looked at Pablo then waved his gun in Steele’s face.  The tide was slowly turning in Steele’s favor.  If he could stall for just a minute more he may come out of this in one piece.  Steele was starting to feel more confident.  Nick stepped closer and sneered at Steele once he figured out what was happening.  

“You dirty bastard, you called the cops didn't you?”  Steele stepped back and slowly pointed the second gun away from the bodyguards and directed it to Hammer and Nick.  He grinned at Nick.  “I told you I had back up.  I’m a taxpayer so technology they work for me.  By the way I hope those guns are registered, oh that’s right you guys are convicted felons, you're not allowed to carry guns.”  

Steele noticed the flashing police lights reflecting off the trees.  The police were only seconds away.  Nick turned to Pablo, “this is not our fight, deal with him on your own."  The men holstered their weapons and made a hasty exit in the opposite direction of the police who were about to enter the park.  Pablo gave Steele a nasty sneer before running off with the others.  Steele put his guns away and walked through the half dozen police rushing into the park.  Breathing a huge sigh of relief Steele said a little prayer as he left the park. 

He never did find out why the three men were meeting in the park.  More secrets, he thought.  Steele was just happy to be alive and still in one piece. The guardian’s angels were definitely watching over him.

After a long shower and a quick shave Steele headed to his club.  On the way to the Inner Sanctum he thought about Pablo’s behavior and decided that if he was involved in the double murder he must have had an accomplice.  Steele reasoned that a man with a thirty million dollar lottery ticket would have blown town right after the murders.   The fact that all of the suspects are still accounted for has baffled Steele every since he discovered that the ticket was missing.

It was Saturday night; all three floors of the club were packed with happy customers.  Steele smiled, waived, and shook hands with businessman, sports figures, politicians and a couple of models as he waded through the crowd on his way to the back booth.  Stan, Brenda and Sugar Bear were having a discussion about the murders.  After his encounter in the park seeing his friends gathered together in his private booth was a welcoming sight.  As usual Sugar Bear thought he had the entire case figured out. 

“Look guys, you got it all wrong.  It was the chauffer; he’s the one who murdered them both.” Brenda wasn’t buying Sugar Bear’s story.  “Look baby doll, the chauffer was seen at the car show an hour away from the mansion, I’m telling you it was the husband.  Don’t you think that doubling his wife insurance a little more than a coincidence?”

Sugar Bear ignored Brenda’s question and proceeded with his premise. “Listen Brenda all of these old mansions have secret tunnels, they had them built back in the days of prohibition to sneak the booze in and out.”

Steele slid into the bench seat next to Brenda and watched as Stan sat silently shaking his head side to side.  “So Stan how long has this been going on?”  Stan looked at his diamond encrusted watch.  “Way too long if you ask me, at least forty five minutes, besides everybody knows the chef did it.”

Sunday morning, while most of the cities 1.5 million residents were still asleep Steele was up and about.  He needed to clear his head so he went for a jog on Kelly Drive Steele had this nagging feeling that he had overlooked some important detail of the case.  After jogging from under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge to the bleachers near Boat House row Steele took a seat and starred at the lone sculler as he rowed past.  

Mrs. Matthews’s funeral was tomorrow, the mansion would be completely empty.  Steele called Tara and made arrangements to search the suspects’ rooms while they were out.  He needed more information and hoped this would be the perfect opportunity to get it.  His thoughts were interrupted by footsteps coming from behind the bleachers.  Steele reached for the small gun in his ankle holster but realized it wasn’t necessary once he recognized the familiar face. 

“Morning Vance, what brings you out here so early this morning?  Hey how did you know where to find me?  Vance smiled at his old friend. “How long have I known you man?  I'm on my way to church, I drove by your place and didn't see your car and since I know you’re working a case you usually go to one of two places to think.  It was either Belmont Plateau or Kelly Drive I heard about your run-in at the park yesterday.”  Steele shook his head. “Damn bad news does travel fast.  Well as you can see I’m still in one piece.”

“Steele these guys are cold blooded killers.  If things would've turned ugly yesterday this morning your life would have been reduced to a few paragraphs in the Philadelphia Daily News and your name in the obituary section.  Why don’t you get out of this business?  You have a beautiful woman and you certainly don’t need the money” 

Steele watched as a few ducks swam by.  Steele turned to Vance.  He thought for a moment before answering. “The world is better off without people who kill for power or profit.  Cops like you have to make nice and color between the lines.  I’m no crusader; I guess I’m in it to catch the bastards who think they are clever enough to snuff out a life and beat the system by not getting caught.  I’m drawn to mystery cases, it’s in my nature and by the way I never did like crayons.”

That afternoon Steele was back at the mansion.  During his jog something Pablo said clicked in Steele’s mind.  He replayed Pablo’s words “.  "This is the second time you have interfered in my affairs amigo.  Now I’m going to make sure that it is your last.”

What business, thought Steele.  He’s a freakin groundskeeper.  Then Steele realized he had never seen any of the cleared brush or dead trees Pablo claimed to have removed nor did he see a wood chipper on the property.   Pablo was off today so Steele was able to look around without being attacked from behind.  He made his way through the wooded area behind the pool house and the main house.  It didn't take long for Steele to find something out of the ordinary.   There it was right in front of him but it was still hard for Steele to believe.  Pablo had cleared out about an acre of land and planted a coca field complete with an irrigation system, grow lights and solar panels.  Rows and rows of coca plants swayed in the breeze hidden from sight. It was an impressive operation.  Suddenly everything made sense.  Pablo needed money to set up his operation so he borrowed it from Mrs. Matthews.  His meeting with Nick and Hammer was probably to set up a deal to have the plants converted into cocaine once they reached maturity.  It explained why Pablo was so protective when Steele came looking for the tin Antonio planted and why there were no dead trees.  Pablo was not clearing brush or trees he was tending to his precious plants. 

This created a new dilemma for Steele.  Was Mrs. Matthews a willing partner in Pablo’s drug operation or maybe she stumbled onto his operation and paid for it with her life.  There was still the missing lottery ticket.  It wasn't found on either of the bodies.  Why risk going to jail over dealing drugs if you had a thirty million dollar lottery ticket in your possession. Steele finally got some answers but with those answers came new questions.

For the moment Steele decided not to tell Mr. Matthews about Pablo’s illegal activity, instead he went in search of his one elusive target, Mr. Matthews’ sister Kitty.  Once again Kitty was no where to be found.  Steele ran into Antonio who was on his way to the kitchen for brunch. 

“Hey Mr. Steele have you made any progress on catching the murder yet?”  Steele wasn't about to tip his hand.  I sure have, three days ago I had four suspects and today I still have four suspects.  With a little luck I should have this case wrapped up by Christmas.”  Antonio laughed and invited Steele to have brunch with him in the kitchen.  On the way Steele asked, “did you happen to see Kitty around this morning? “  Antonio lifted his hands slightly, “Sorry Mr. Steele, she left for church about an hour ago.  Once the men reached the kitchen Steele sat on the stool and watch Antonio.  This is a good time to rattle his cage, he thought.  "So Antonio did you enjoy yourself at the fair yesterday?"  Antonio had his back turned to Steele; he paused but did not turn to face the inquisitive detective. “Fair, what fair Mr. Steele?”  Steele laughed out loud. “South Street, the sidewalk café around…………”  Antonio slowly turned around.  “I underestimated you Mr. Steele.  You followed me didn't you?  Well since you obviously know, I may as well confess it was Kitty who paid me to spy on her sister in law.  Even though the photos are as useless as Milli Vanilli concert tickets I still did the job so what you witnessed yesterday was her paying me.  Since it’s confession time I saw you going into the woods earlier this morning.  If you thought I was guilty of murder you wouldn't be spending this beautiful Sunday morning traipsing around in the forest.   Judging from the color of the dirt on your shoes I take it you found Pablo’s secret little project.”  Antonio was good; once again he had managed to deflect attention away from himself and throw Pablo under the bus in the process. 

Steele received a text from the coroners’ office.  Blood alcohol content levels 0.249%.  Also found in the body were significant quantities of NaOCl + 2NH3 --> 2NaONH3 + Cl2 which came from bleach combined with ammonia to make chlorine gas.  Cause of death chlorine gas poisoning.  The text confirmed what Steele had already figured out.  He quickly read the message and put his phone away. 

Antonio was backing up the bus to run over another staff member and Steele didn't want to miss a word. Steele prodded Antonio to go on.  “So how did you find out about Pablo’s new business?”  Antonio turned back to the stove and talked while he prepared two omelets. “Well Mr. Steele one day I overheard Pablo and Melissa, I mean Mrs. Matthews arguing over money she had lent him.  He pointed in the direction of the woods behind the pool house so I decided to take a look.  You see after the first affair Mr. Matthews cut his wife’s allowance down to almost nothing.  I guess he felt that if she could no longer afford to buy her boy toys expensive gifts it would cool her off if you get my drift.  Pablo and Mrs. Matthews were working together, he provided the labor and she provided the funds.  It actually wasn't a bad idea.  Who would ever think to look for coca plants on the grounds of a private mansion?"

Steele was closer to catching the murdered than he was willing to admit.  Tomorrow he would go fishing for more clues inside the deserted mansion.  

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Steele Cage


Alexander Steele Murder Mystery Trilogy
Author Larry J
Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.

The Alexander Steele Murder Mystery series consist of the first three short stories set in Philadelphia. Philly native Lawrence Johnson aka Larry J. takes you into Philly's neighborhoods by way of his fictional,suave,detective Alexander Steele. The semi retired PI is the proud owner of the Mount Airy hot spot known as the Inner Sanctum. Steele has a problem. He just can't seem to put his past life of crime solving behind him. A seemly endless stream of new clients come to his club each with tempting new cases for the ever inquisitive private investigator.
Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.

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