MURDER AT RALLY J's
A/N: This is Ghostwriter film noir style. Imagine it kind of like an old black and white Lana Barnes movie. All of the characters in this story are from the TV show Ghostwriter, except for Krista, my own character, who I have never been able to write a Ghostwriter fanfic without including. It's a sickness, I know, but I hope you will enjoy this story anyway. This was written back in 2005, but never shared online before now. I guess I was perfecting it and I am really happy with the final results. If you want to try to guess who the suspect is as the story progresses, feel free to do so in the reviews. I'm curious to see who people think it is at the end of each chapter.
"Take 'em away, boys," the detective called out as the officers handcuffed the culprits and led them to the squad cars waiting outside. The detective watched from the sidelines, pleased at another job well done.
The sophisticated blonde walked up beside him and stared deeply into his eyes. "Looks like you did it again, Detective. I owe you everything."
"It's nothing, babe."
"I wish I could find some way to repay you."
"We'll work out something," he said and pulled her towards him in a warm embrace.
The steady clicking of the typewriter stopped as I finished the final page of my manuscript. I pulled the paper out and gave it the once over before laying it on the stack with the others. The ending of the story had been a struggle to get through, but it had been worth it. Finished at last, I leaned back in my chair and stretched. I had lost all track of time while I was engrossed in my writing, so I glanced at my watch to see how late it was. It was almost six, just enough time to get the manuscript over to my editor on the way home.
Suddenly there was a knock at my office door. My first instinct was to ignore it. Ever since I gave up my old line of work to write full time, most of my visitors were ones that I had to turn away.
There was another knock. I sighed and stiffly rose from my chair. Some people just don't get the hint. As I walked towards the door to see who was there, a piece of paper slid under the door. I picked it up and quickly opened the door to see who had left it, but the hallway was empty. I took another look to make sure no one was there before unfolding the note.
Murder at Rally J's
I turned the slip of paper over in my hands, examining it, hoping for more information. But there was no more than just those few words. No signature. Nada. Probably just a stupid prank. I went back into the office to grab my hat and coat and my manuscript, then locked up for the night and left the building.
The dingy streets of Brooklyn were dark and damp. It must have rained sometime during the afternoon when I had been absorbed in my writing. When I worked I was sometimes oblivious to the world around me, but when I was out on the streets I made a point to notice everything. This neighborhood was covered in a layer of filth that no rain could wash away. Some sleazy things happened here and you could never be sure what was going to creep out of the shadows or the alleyways. On this evening, as I stepped over the sidewalk puddles, I couldn't quite shake the feeling of being watched or followed. I kept an eye on my back, but never saw anyone suspicious, at least no more than usual.
After I dropped off my manuscript and headed back to my little apartment I passed by a club with a familiar name. "Rally J's"
I paused in front of the building and stared at it for a moment. The mysterious message was nagging at my brain and I couldn't quite convince myself to keep walking. I tried telling myself that I had left the detective business behind, but somehow that message never got through. There was always something to draw me back into the game.
I wrestled with the decision for a few minutes and finally decided that it wouldn't hurt to stop in for a nightcap.
When I opened the door and stepped into the night club, I walked into a room where you could cut the tension in the air with a knife. Sure, it looked normal, but the concerned and confused looks on the people's faces gave them away. Even a rookie could tell that something suspicious was going on.
The girl at the hatcheck was leaned forward with her elbows on the counter resting her face on her upraised palms as she stared forward blankly. When I cleared my throat to get her attention she jumped up, startled.
"I- I'm sorry," she said apologetically. She ran the palm of one hand over her head, smoothing back her dark hair as if she were trying to smooth over the thoughts in her mind. She stood up straighter and absently brushed down the skirt of her uniform.
"Can I take your coat and hat, sir?" the hostess asked timidly. Her tone was professional, but her distant, distracted stare remained. She looked like she'd just seen a ghost, but was trying to play it off as an everyday occurrence. I wasn't buying it.
"Sure thing, sweetheart," I said, taking off my outer garments and handing them to her. She handed me a round plastic chip stamped with a number and thanked me before walking off.
I surveyed the interior of the club for a moment as I took a few steps further inside. Aside from the charged atmosphere, everything looked normal. To my left was a bar where a waitress stood as she mixed drinks. To the right were a group of tables and chairs, mostly vacant at the moment, where a few customers were sitting, waiting for their drinks. On the back wall directly in front of me was a large stage. The curtains were open and the spotlight was on a lone figure behind a microphone. His voice carried the hackneyed punch line of a stale joke over the light background noise of the bar. The few patrons of the bar seemed more interested in their personal conversations or their drinks than the comedian's act.
I wandered over to the bar and took a seat. The waitress approached me almost immediately.
"Can I get you anything?" she asked with forced cheerfulness.
"Scotch on the rocks."
"Sure thing," she replied as she reached under the counter for a glass. "Are you new around here? I don't think I've ever seen you before. I've seen a lot of people since I've worked here, but I'm really good at remembering who's been in here before and who hasn't, but I don't remember you."
"I'm a first timer," I replied coolly, as I surveyed the place. It was a nice place, clean, quiet, and kind of cozy. I couldn't see anything unusual, but the weird vibe I had sensed when I walked in the joint hadn't gone away.
"Great. Well, I know you're going to really like it here. A lot of people come in here just as a one time thing, but they like it so much that they keep coming back. I know all of the regulars and I always remember their usual orders."
"That's great," I replied, hoping she wouldn't take that as a sign of interest. Man, this girl could talk. She was so bubbly and outgoing it was a wonder that anyone got their drinks at all.
The waitress was about to start gabbing on again, when she was interrupted. I turned around and followed her stare along the wall behind me. A dark skinned man peeked out of a doorway on the wall behind the bar and motioned her towards him. When she saw him, her cheerful expression suddenly became grave.
"Something wrong?" I asked casually.
"Oh no," she assured me that it wasn't. "The boss is calling me. Excuse me. I'll get your drink when I come back, hon."
I just nodded. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the waitress and the boss talking in the doorway. They spoke in whispers, trying not to attract too much attention to themselves, but it was obvious that something had gone wrong. The boss man didn't seem mad at the kid. He didn't give the impression that she had done anything wrong, but I could tell from across the room that something wasn't right. As they talked, I noticed that they both kept glancing and gesturing towards the backroom. My curiosity was starting to get the better of me and I knew I had to see what was going on back there.
After a moment of conversation, the boss went back into the other room and the waitress walked towards the hatcheck at the front door.
The audience applauded weakly as the man on stage took a bow.
"Thank you. Gracias. Thanks," he said. "Now it's time for the real star of Rally J's. The fashionable and talented singing sensation, Miss Lenni Frazier."
The audience clapped a little more enthusiastically this time as the singer stepped out onto stage. Her appearance was bold and flashy as she walked out wearing a bright feather boa and an elaborate hat that was twice as large as her head. She strutted out onto the stage with bold confidence and immediately began belting out a tune as the man who announced her played accompaniment on the piano.
I turned back to the doorway of the mysterious room in time to see a police officer hurry in from the front door. The hostess and waitress followed him into the bar, but hung back and spoke among themselves as he went into the other room, closing the door behind him.
"Waitress!" someone called out. I turned away and pretended to be interested in the singer on stage as the waitress turned in my direction. But out of the corner of my eye I could see her say something reassuring to the hostess, before returning to her duty. As she started to walk away, a couple who had just finished their drinks started towards the front door and waited as the hostess went to fetch their coats. I spotted my chance. Nobody was looking, so I sneaked over to the door to the backroom and opened it.
When I walked inside four pairs of eyes were on me immediately. I quickly looked them over. There was the boss man, the cop, a snide-looking blond man that I hadn't seen before, and a familiar brunette. When I first opened the door, the woman had been kneeling next to the body of an unconscious man, lying face up on the floor, who the other three men standing behind her had also been looking at. When they heard the door open and saw me standing in the doorway, the woman slowly rose to her feet and all four of them looked at me with surprise.
"Shut that door," the nightclub owner ordered. I did as he asked, but only after I was inside the room.
"Who's this?" the copper asked with an attitude.
"Hey, man, you aren't supposed to be back here," the boss addressed me firmly. His voice was more reasonable than harsh, but he flexed his biceps as he spoke.
"There's no way you're going to cover this up if people keep walking in like this," the blond man remarked with a self-satisfied smug look.
"Why don't you shut up . . ." the cop spoke up quickly.
"Take it easy," the boss interrupted before turning to me. "Who are you?"
"Rob Baker, private investigator," I replied. "I got a message that there's been a murder."
"What did you do, Ferguson? You went behind my back and hired a P.I.?" the cop asked the blond man angrily.
"I wish! But I didn't hire him," the blond man said defensively. "Did you?" he asked the woman.
Her eyes flitted from one man to another when they argued and rested briefly on Ferguson when he addressed her, but in between they settled on me. Her expression was contemplative and her tone was low and emotionless as she replied, "No."
"Look, this is my case. And I can handle it myself," the cop threatened.
"Fine," I shrugged. "I was going into retirement anyway. I'm actually a writer now and a part time journalist. I think I've just got a topic for my next article . . ." I started towards the door slowly, seeing if they would call me back or call my bluff.
"If you need a quote let me know," Ferguson called after me with a smile.
"Now wait a minute," the cop replied as he stepped towards me. I stopped and turned around to face the group. The cop glared at Ferguson, but turned to me with a friendly, yet uneasy smile. "We don't want you doing anything like that. First of all, you've got it all wrong. There's been no murder, just a little accident. And besides, this case is strictly hush hush." He stepped closer to me and spoke in a low voice. "Now what's it going to take for you to keep your mouth shut about what you've seen here tonight? Name your price."
Ferguson heard what the cop had said and spoke up. "Offering him a bribe, huh? And you always said I was the crooked one."
"I thought I told you to stuff it."
"Come on," the boss butted in again. "I think we can all get along here. We've got a difficult problem to solve and we need to pull together." Once the others were quiet he turned to me, seriously. "So now that you know what's going on, do you want to help us or be on your way?" he asked me.
"But I don't know what's going on. All I know is that there's an unconscious man in this room and a club full of edgy people."
"Look we don't have to tell you anything," the cop said. "I'm the professional here and I can handle this without you."
I looked at the faces around the room. This place was fishier than the tuna special at the local cafeteria. Sure they didn't want me here, but if I didn't get to the bottom of this I'd never get rid of the stink.
"Let him stay," the woman spoke up, staring directly at me. I caught her steady gaze briefly, but I couldn't quite read the expression behind her eyes.
"Have you got any credentials?" the cop continued. "You know, I can't let just any Joe off the street interfere with an investigation. I've got to make sure that you're on the up and up."
I gave the copper my card and he looked it over carefully before handing it back.
"Oh yeah. I've heard of you before. I remember now. You do good work."
"Thanks. Now can you fill me in on what's going on here?"
The cop ignored me and looked at the club owner when he spoke. "I just talked to the paramedics. They're going to take him out through the back way and try not to draw any attention."
"Good," the boss replied with a nod of approval. "I hope they can take care of it quickly. I am trying to run a business here."
"If that's what you want to call it," the blond man scoffed.
Before anyone else could speak, the door on the right opened and a pair of men came in carrying medical equipment. We backed out of the way as they went to work, loading the prostrate body onto the stretcher. The room was silent as they went about their business and carried the unconscious man out of the room. The woman was the first to speak up.
"I'm going along to the hospital," she said to one of the paramedics and then turned to the police officer. "Do you need anything else from me?"
"No. But we may call you back later, for further questioning."
She nodded before following after the paramedics. "You know where to find me."
"Wait, I'll go with you, Kris," Ferguson followed closely behind her. She didn't seem exactly thrilled that he was joining her, but she didn't protest.
"Fine, you can go too, Ferguson," the cop said. "But don't go too far. I know we'll need to talk some more about your late friend."
Ferguson rolled his eyes as he ushered her out of the room. For the most part she ignored him, but cast a quick glance in my direction before leaving the room.
"So what's the deal?" I asked once the group was gone and the door shut behind them.
"We were setting up for the evening, like usual, when the girls heard a crash. When they came back to check it out, they found him lying on the floor like this, unconscious," the boss replied motioning towards the spot where the injured man had been lying a few moments before. To the left was an overturned shelf. Its contents, including now broken bottles and cardboard boxes were scattered across the floor and over where the body had been.
"Looks like he had some kind of accident," the cop replied as he searched the area for clues.
"Who is he?" I asked.
"Jeffrey Baxter," the club owner replied with a frown. "He works for Calvin Ferguson, the guy who was just in here. Ferguson runs another club on the other side of town and he hired Baxter to spy on us."
"Spy on you?" I asked incredulously, wondering what was going on at this nightclub that would be worth sending a spy to check out.
"Ever since I've opened this club, Ferguson has been trying to take it over or shut it down. When I wouldn't sell, he started sending Baxter here to dig up dirt for him to publish and smear our club. It's all tabloid trash lies, but it's been working and we've been getting fewer and fewer customers all the time."
"Who are the girls you mentioned?" I asked the club owner. "The ones who heard the crash."
"Two of my employees, Tina, the hostess, and Gaby, the waitress. They were out front setting up for the night when it happened. "
"And you are?"
"I'm Jamal Jenkins. I own and run Rally J's," he introduced himself, offering a handshake.
"So when did Tina and Gaby hear the crash and why didn't you hear it too?" I asked Jenkins.
"It was about a half an hour ago, just before we opened for the evening. I was outside at the time, taking care of some business. I was on my way back in when Tina and Gaby came to tell me what happened."
"So do a lot of people come back here?" I asked. I already knew the place wasn't secure. I walked back here without anybody stopping me and that was when they were trying to keep this secret.
"Just the employees. Well, at least that's how it's supposed to be. I don't know how Baxter got back here. This room is for employees only and he doesn't work here, at least not for me.
"Who does work here?"
"There's me, Tina and Gaby, who I mentioned before, Hector Carerro and Lenni Frazier, who are our entertainers. They're the only ones that were here today before we opened and they all know about this. They're the only ones who know . . .except for the attacker."
"What about the other two that were just here? Who are they and how are they involved in this?"
"Krista Barnett owns the building and runs the hotel upstairs. Calvin Ferguson owns another club down the street. He was Baxter's boss. Both Ferguson and Barnett know Baxter, that's why we called them here," Jenkins explained rationally.
By this time the copper had finished searching the area and stood next to Jenkins. "Well whoever did it, didn't leave many clues behind. It's a clean job," he announced.
"There's always something to give the culprit away," I remarked dryly.
"That is, if it wasn't just an accident," Jenkins added with a shrug. "Baxter was kind of a klutz."
"If it wasn't an accident, it's going to be a tough case to prove," the officer declared. "But I'll bet you anything that creep Ferguson was behind it. He's got guilty written all over him."
"But why would Ferguson attack his own employee?" I asked skeptically.
"Who knows?" the cop replied with a shrug. "But I don't trust him. And he didn't seem very concerned about his partner's 'accident'."
"So if this Baxter guy worked for a rival club, then what's he doing here in the employees only backroom of your establishment, before the place was even open?"
"He must have sneaked in," Jenkins guessed. "He was always sneaking around, spying for Ferguson."
"I guess that's been happening a lot lately," the officer replied with an accusing glance at me.
This time, I ignored him.
As I processed that information, the cop spoke up. "Well I've got to get back to the station and do some background checks, file some reports, you know official stuff. Contact me if you get any leads. I'll be in touch."
"What did you say your name was again, officer?" Jenkins asked.
"Fernandez. Detective Alejandro Fernandez."
"Thanks, Detective Fernandez. I will be in touch," Jenkins said. Fernandez adjusted his hat and was out the door.
"Hey look," Jenkins said turning to me. "I've got to get back to my business . . ."
"No problem," I shrugged and followed him to the door. "I've got a drink waiting."
I took a seat at the bar and sipped at the drink Gaby handed me. The situation I had walked into had been less interesting than I had expected, but something about this evening was still bothering me. My instincts had always proven good in the past and they were trying to tell me something now. I just had a bad feeling about all of this, especially concerning the note that had appeared under my door.
"Murder at Rally J's." But there hadn't been a murder, not even a death, just an injury and an accident. If it was an accident. But whether it was an accident or not didn't concern me. Baxter didn't seem to be in critical condition. As soon as he woke up, he could tell everyone what happened himself.
My thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of a phone. Gaby and Jamal headed for it at the same time, but it was Gaby that answered it. After a moment's pause she turned to Jenkins and asked, "Do you know a Rob Baker?"
Jenkins motioned to me and Gaby passed the phone over.
"Rob Baker," I answered shortly.
The person on the other end sighed, with relief or frustration I couldn't tell. "I'm so glad I caught you, Robby."
She didn't have to say who she was. The sound of the woman's voice took me back to another time and place. It was Krista Barnett, the familiar brunette, who also just happened to own the building I was sitting in. And by the tone of her voice, even a stranger could tell that something was wrong. "What is it?
"I'm at the hospital. Jeff . . .Baxter is dead."
"What?" The news shocked me. Baxter hadn't looked well, but his injuries certainly didn't look fatal.
"It just happened," Barnett continued. "They said it was internal injuries . . ." Her voice trailed off into sharp breath.
" Are you alright?" I asked.
"Yeah," she replied. I waited for her to say more, but the line was silent.
"So why are you telling me?" I asked. She didn't say anything right away and I could sense her tension even over the phone. Only then did I realize how blunt the question must have sounded. But we hadn't spoken in years and she was calling me now for a reason. I just wanted to know what that reason was. Instead of taking the issue head on I broke the silence with another excuse, "I didn't even know Baxter."
She spoke slowly, deliberately choosing her words. "I'm convinced that what happened tonight was no accident. He was deliberately pushed. I want to know who killed him," she paused, but when I didn't say anything this time she continued. "The cops probably won't do anything about it and even if they try, they're nothing compared to you. You're the best."
"Was," I corrected her "I'm retired."
"Oh," she said, sounding defeated.
"Sorry, sweetheart, but those are the breaks."
"I'm sorry too," she said quietly and hung up without saying goodbye.
I sat there for a moment, still holding the phone, though the connection was dead. Finally I returned the receiver to its hook and rose from my chair.
As soon as I had hung up, Gaby was there to return the phone to its place underneath the counter. "So who was on the phone? I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but it sounded like there was some big news."
"Yeah, you could say that," I said as I reached into my pocket to pay for the drink.
"So what was it?" Gaby asked curiously.
Secretly I thought that the barmaid should learn to mind her own business, but instead of telling her that, I decided to give her the news. I dropped the money on the counter and said, "Baxter's dead."
The news had the effect that I thought it would. Gaby gasped, her cheerful, inquisitive expression vanished and she seemed almost speechless. "Oh, my gosh."
I nodded gravely and turned to leave. On my way back to the hat check I passed by the door to the back room and remembered the mess of toppled shelves and broken bottles and seeing Baxter lying unconscious on the floor as Barnett kneeled next to him and the three men stood over him. Maybe there had been a murder after all and maybe the case would never be solved if I walked away now. Something had led me here tonight and whatever was going on, I decided I had to see it through.
I doubled back and looked for Jenkins. By the time I found him, he had already heard the news from Gaby.
"I was wondering, do you mind if I check out your backroom again and see if I can find any clues that Officer Fernandez might have missed?"
Jenkins paused a minute, trying to decide. Reluctantly he agreed, "Go ahead, man. But you do understand that we don't want this story to get out. It'll be bad for business."
"I got ya. Mums the word," I promised and headed for the backroom.
I stepped inside and took a look around. The first thing I noticed was an unlocked safe on a table against one of the walls. I pushed the partially open door so it swung open all the way. It looked like it had been tampered with, but oddly enough it hadn't been cleaned out. Maybe Baxter wasn't only a spy. Maybe he was a thief as well, but he didn't get the chance to finish the job this time.
I wandered around the room casually. When I didn't come across any other hints of what had happened here earlier that night, I started to wonder if I had been wrong about Fernandez. Maybe he had done a more thorough job than I had thought. Maybe the flatfoot was on the up and up.
I was about to give up the search when a glimmer caught my eye. I looked back into the corner underneath the table and found a plastic chip. #42. A hat check number. It could be a clue. I knew that only employees were supposed to be back here and employees probably wouldn't check their coats with the hostess like the customers. The chip hadn't collected any dust, but I still had no way of knowing how long it had been lying on the floor or who had dropped it. I decided to take a chance and give the number to the hostess and see what I could find out, after I finished inspecting the room.
After a few minutes of fruitless searching in the backroom I walked up to the front desk and handed the chip to the hostess, Tina. Wordlessly she took the number from me and went back to collect the garments. She returned to the desk with a hat and coat and handed them to me almost absently, before leaving her post to have a few words with Gaby, the waitress.
The items definitely belonged to a man. One who was sort of tall and thin by the looks of it. I checked the pockets. Inside were a wallet and a set of apartment keys. The wallet contained a few bucks and some cards. There was an I.D. for one Jeffrey Baxter. But how could Baxter have checked his hat and coat if he sneaked in before the club was even open? I pocketed the wallet and the keys secretly and then motioned for Tina to return.
"Is something wrong?" she asked quietly.
"Yeah, I'm afraid I gave you the wrong number. This isn't my stuff."
"But I'm sure I had the right number. 42, right?"
"Oh no. It wasn't your fault. It must have been mine. I set my number down at the bar and I must have picked up somebody else's. Here's mine."
She looked at me curiously, but said nothing as she took Baxter's belongings and went back to get my garments.
"By the way," I said as I took my hat and coat from her, once she returned. "Do you happen to remember who had #42?"
"Just curious. I'll catch you later," I said and walked out of the club. I'd be back soon though. I wanted to go check out Baxter's apartment before the cops got there and messed stuff up. I needed to find some clues as to why anyone might want him dead.