Red Riley #1: Chicago Blue (Excerpt)
I left the coffee shop and headed along the lake. It was spring in Chicago, a city known for being too hot, or too cold, but today was a Goldilocks day, and I enjoyed the cool breeze and the sunshine. Not even my bandaged head or the heavy duty painkillers I was taking could ruin the beauty.
I breathed deeply, and relaxed, until suddenly sirens split the air a block or two away. That was part of Chicago, too. I craned my head to the right, and could see black smoke rising behind a few of the skyscrapers. There was a fire, or something going on, but I was suspended, so screw that. I lightened my step and whistled as I strolled along the lake. Whatever that was, it was somebody else’s problem. Today I was not a police officer, I was just Kay Riley.
I turned onto the block of the office building that was listed on the Marty’s business card. It was fancy and about thirty stories tall. This couldn’t be right. I’d only met Marty a few times at Ruby’s place, and not only was he too young to live in a place like this, he was way too uncouth, unwashed, uneducated, un-everything. Don’t get me wrong, he was very bright, but in a relaxed, laid-back way that certainly didn’t fit in with this neighborhood. I leaned against a tall lamppost made of black aluminum, looked again at the card, and reached for my phone—it made sense to give a call first.
As I was dialing I heard a strange metallic “ping” sound above my head, and I felt a tremor pass from the light pole to my shoulder. I looked up, expecting I don’t know what, when there was a ricochet sound by my feet and a sharp pain in my lower left calf. Ouch, damn it! Just then a wasp buzzed by my ear and my drugged-up brain finally made the connection. Someone was shooting at me!
This seemed ridiculously unlikely. Cop shows and news hyperbole aside, there isn’t a huge amount of gunplay on the streets of Chicago in broad daylight, and especially not on Lake Shore Drive. So, I did the foolish thing: I stood there and looked around. When I noticed an SUV with tinted windows idling half a block away, I suddenly got a creeping feeling all over my flesh. It was so unquestionable, so visceral, that I knew I was in real danger. I doubled over and puked my coffee everywhere, perhaps saving my own life as I heard another bullet ping off the lamppost where my head had just been. I looked up to see that the SUV had lurched out of its parking spot and was speeding toward me.
Without thinking, I sprinted up the walkway to the glass entrance of the building. I heard a screech of tires as the SUV jumped the curb and started after me. A man exiting the doorway looked up in surprise, and then terror, and then leapt away to the side. I ran through the door as it was swinging shut and heard the squeal of brakes behind me. I hunched my shoulders, waiting for the shattering of glass, either from bullets or from the vehicle smashing into the front of the building, but it didn’t come. Without looking back, I ran for the place ahead that seemed safest: a solid wooden door to the right of the elevators. I burst through it and into a stairwell, with so much momentum that I couldn’t stop, and ran straight into the metal railing, knocking the wind out of myself. I turned to see the door close behind me, but when I stepped toward it the world tilted and then went dark.
When I woke up, my head was a cracked church bell. I was lying flat in bed, looking up at a movie poster of Olivia Newton John and John Travolta. No, wait, that’s Michelle Pfeiffer, must be Grease II. Where the hell was I? I turned my head to see a wall covered with movie posters, all from the 1980s. Seriously, where the hell?
I sat up slowly, and pulled the blanket off me, only then realizing I was in my underwear. Jesus Christ! I jumped back under the covers in a panic. A secret government prison wouldn’t feature a poster of Blade Runner, would it? How about a crazed serial killer? More plausible, although surely a twisted maniac wouldn’t have left my underpants on and put me in a soft bed, would they?
The room was clean and simple. Besides the movie posters, there was the bed, a chest of drawers, and a bedside table with a lamp. A clock on the table read 11:00, but I didn’t know if that was AM or PM.
Just then a door opened. I clutched the blanket up to my chest as a young man entered.
“Oh good, you’re up. I was about to call an ambulance.”
“Yes, that’s right. You’re Kay, right? Ruby’s friend?”
“Where the hell are my clothes?”
“In the bathroom. You had puke all over them. I washed them in the sink. It was pretty gross.”
“Shut up. Stop.”
“Just. Stop. Back up. How did I get here?”
Marty took a step back and raised his arms in a gesture of surrender. He was in his early twenties, and unshaven. He wore jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, dark-framed hipster glasses, and had bare feet. He didn’t look particularly threatening, but I was completely freaked out.
“I was working at my desk when I heard loud noises,” he began. “Squealing tires maybe, or some sort of accident. I came out in the hall and up the stairs to see what was going on and found you lying on the landing covered in puke—and bleeding.”
My hand went instinctively to my head, but only felt dry bandages.
“I put a new bandage on,” Marty said, “and one on your calf.”
I reached under the covers and felt, sure enough, some sort of gauze taped over the back of my left calf. I had no idea why I would be bleeding there, but then again I was a bit lost at the moment.
“Thank you,” I said calmly, but my brain was screaming. “Could I get my clothes please?”
“I’m sorry, they’re soaking wet. You’ve only been asleep about forty-five minutes.”
“How about something else, then? Do you have something I can borrow? Because I am about to completely lose my shit.”
Marty pointed at a dresser in the corner. “Help yourself,” he said. “I’ll be in the other room.”
His entire wardrobe seemed to be made up of jeans and sweatshirts, and a few minutes later we were standing in his living room looking like twins, or an ad for Old Navy.
I felt so much better being dressed. I don’t think I had ever thought of myself as particularly shy, but I don’t like to think of myself as weak, and it’s hard to feel strong when you’re half naked, and not by choice. My nerves were shot, and my mind was still going to a thousand different places, but as I stood there, barefoot on the grey industrial carpet, I was able to take several deep and calming breaths, like I had learned in taekwondo class a million years ago.
The room had a kitchenette and a small work area that was mostly taken up by two six-foot folding tables acting as a computer workstation. There were three monitors, and many small boxes with flashing lights, well beyond my skill level, and of course cables running everywhere. To the right of the table was a floor-to-ceiling corkboard covered with slips of paper, tacked-up photos of computer equipment, and a poster of Michael J. Fox climbing out of a Delorean. Marty saw it catch my eye.
“That’s a great one, huh. Hello … McFly!!” He reached out to rap his knuckles on my head but thought better of it, either remembering the big bandage on my skull or just from basic manners, I’m not sure which. He gave a halfhearted knock on his own head. “A classic.”
“Surely,” I agreed, with the slow nod one saves for the less lucid citizens one encounters on a cop’s daily beat. “Can we?”
“Right. Right!” he exclaimed, and gestured to the bar separating the kitchen from the rest of the room. I gingerly climbed up on one of the barstools while he got me a glass of water and leaned on the other side of the counter.
“Okay,” I began. “You said you came up the stairs. Are we in the basement?”
“Yes, it’s, uh, my artist’s studio.”
“With no windows…”
“Not all artists use paint, you know. Technology is where the front edge—”
I held up a hand to stop him midsentence. “Sorry, headache too big.” I hated to be rude, but a longwinded explanation of the deep artistic aspects of computer coding was not what I was up for just then.
“Right. Right!” He had a way of emphasizing the second “Right” as if he had just suddenly understood an incredible mystery, thanks to you. His eyes widened and his eyebrows shot up. It was a little adorable. He rummaged through some of the kitchen drawers until he came up with a bottle of aspirin, which he handed to me.
“We’re in the basement, in my brainstorming bunker, as I like to call it. I have a little house in Evanston, but when I’m working on a project I like to come here so I can focus, and also remain anonymous.”
I was shocked.
“You have a house?? I thought you just fixed old computers. Last time I saw you at Ruby’s, I swear you asked her for twenty dollars.”
He looked away sheepishly.
“That was a long time ago. A year, maybe? Things change quickly in my industry. I’m working on some very exciting game applications, and some other things as well.” He looked to the side again as he spoke. He was a terrible liar—or I’m an excellent cop—but I let it go for the moment.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, and I realized I was. When I nodded, he pulled out some eggs and cheese and started to make an omelet. “What are you doing here, in this building?”
“I was looking for you, actually,” I said, and he turned around with alarm. I pointed to my leather bag, which I had spotted in the corner with my shoes. “My laptop is frozen and I was hoping to either have you fix it or pick up a used one for me to use while I’m on suspension.”
He sighed in relief.
“Oh yes, I heard about that. I’m sorry. Throw it up here on the counter and let me take a look at it.”
“I should call Ruby,” I said, “and let her know I’m here.”
He looked at me again and his brow crinkled. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” he said, and as he attempted to turn the omelet it became clear I would be having scrambled eggs.
“Oh?” I asked, raising my eyebrows. I could see he was trying to judge just how much to tell me. He knew I was a cop, after all.
“It’s just that the excitement upstairs earlier … after I carried you down here, I went back up to the lobby and looked around. A lot of guys in dark suits. They didn’t see me, and I think it is good that they didn’t. And better if Aunt Ruby doesn’t know anything about it.”
“They were after me,” I told him in a flat voice.
“Whatever you’re into, you don’t have to worry about these guys. They were after me. I stopped outside to call you before knocking on your door, and someone in a black SUV with tinted windows started shooting at me.”
“You’re kidding me! Why?”
“I don’t know. It’s got to have something to do with Carter Blalock.”
“The CEO who blew up all over you?”
“Well put,” I grimaced. It had to be connected to Blalock, my attempt to apprehend him, and the subsequent explosion. There was not a single other thing in my life that would cause someone to take interest in me, never mind try to kill me. My run-in with the telecom CEO was the only thing unusual that had happened to me in … I don’t know, a decade?
He slid the eggs onto a plate and set them in front of me. As I dug in—I was ravenous—he plugged my laptop into something on his worktable. The screen lit up and things began to beep.
He came back over to the kitchen, took two glasses from a cabinet, and poured us both some orange juice. “So you don’t think this had anything to do with me?” he asked.
“No, it doesn’t, but you clearly thought it did.”
“Well, there’s a lot of balls up in the air right now.”
“Marty…” I gave him my big sister stare. He was cute, but a decade younger than me. Flirting was unlikely to work. If I was going to get any help from him, it was clearly going to be playing up my friendship with his aunt.
“And you’re a cop,” he continued.
“Not right now, I’m not.”
“True. Still, we don’t know each other very well. I think it’s best to stay on subject.”
He carried his juice over to the laptop when it made a new and different beep.
“Here we go!” he said, and started typing on the keyboard. I swiveled on the barstool but couldn’t see the computer screen, only his lit face, which moved slowly from delighted, to concerned, to aghast.
“What is it?” I could feel panic rising in my throat.
He looked at my bag in the corner. “Is your cell phone in there?”
“No, why? I mean, I dropped it on the sidewalk when the shooting started. It’s probably smashed.”
“Good,” he said grimly as he crossed the floor and took each of my upper arms tightly in his hands.
“What the hell?” I tried to pull away.
“Good,” he repeated. “Then nobody knows you’re here,” he said, and dragged me off the barstool.
At first I thought that he meant something sinister, and he was going to either kill me and eat me, or keep me in this basement in a cage. Neither of which was very appealing. But that wasn’t it.
“Look at this!” Marty exclaimed, pulling me urgently across the room. I realized that he didn’t actually mean me any harm, he was just freaked out.
He pulled me to the screen of my laptop, which was showing a video of a local news report. On the screen I could see a downtown skyscraper and, as I watched, a fiery explosion blew out one of the upper-floor windows, sending glass and debris raining down to the street below. This image was replaced by a newscaster, and Marty hit the volume button as the woman began to talk.
“Emergency crews are still arriving on the horrific scene here at IllCom Tower, where we have confirmed at least one person severely injured from an upper-story explosion. The building is currently being evacuated. After last week’s bombing at the Farnham Building, the tech world is understandably on edge.”
“Oh my God!” I gasped, but Marty shushed me.
“Wait for it…” I looked back at the screen, where the action had shifted to a man behind a desk in a newsroom.
“Police have not released the name of the bombing victim yet, but they have circulated this photo of a person of interest in the crime.”
“Oh … no…” I croaked as my police ID photo came up on the screen, with my name beneath it.
“Suspended police officer Kay Riley is sought as a suspect in today’s bombing. She was last seen in the Lake View area. Viewers with information on her whereabouts are urged to call the hotline number at the bottom of your screen. While police have refused to articulate Riley’s involvement, it should be assumed that she is potentially armed and dangerous.”
I sat down heavily in his office chair, staring at the screen. Marty reached forward and muted the sound, and then looked at me.
“I don’t…” I said. “That’s not…” And then I started heaving up the eggs I had just eaten.
“No!” Shouted Marty. “No, no, no, no!” And he spun my chair away from the computers and toward the trash can in the corner. And just in time, too.
End of excerpt
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