This is the first in the “Dark” series of Mike Angel, Private Investigator mysteries, and is set in the New York/New Jersey and Chicago areas in 1960.
Burdened by the unsolved murder of his father, a career NYPD lieutenant whose voice he begins to hear in his head whenever danger is near, 30-year-old Mike Angel is a Korean vet and bored private investigator of insurance fraud. When a wealthy ex-college buddy hires him to tail Joe Ambler, a petty blackmailer, Mike fixates on Kimbra, a stunning beauty who’s with the blackmailer. When Kimbra murders Joe, Mike impulsively helps her dispose of the body and finds himself on the wrong side of the law.
After he dumps Joe where no one will ever find him, he discovers that the dead man was the grandson of a feared and legendary mob leader, founder of Detroit’s Purple Gang of the 1920s and 30s. The same week, the wealthy buddy who hired Mike runs off with Kimbra and is murdered in the Bahamas.
Kimbra disappears. In his search for her, Mike stumbles across connections to the Russian-Cuban branch of the ring responsible for a string of unsolved murders in three states. The discovery leads to a chain of events and a frame up. Mike is convicted of murder, and is sent to the federal prison at Trenton, where the warden enlists him in a jailbreak with a hardened criminal with ties to the Purple gang. After Mike escapes, he goes on a desperate search for a missing witness who can clear his name, helped by an attractive but single-minded newspaper woman, Heddy McBright.
Mike locates the witness and evidence that will clear him, and discovers who was behind the frame and escape as well as an unsolved murder at Monmouth Park, New Jersey where he worked before going into the service. After a shootout, a crooked judge takes Mike’s investigator’s license. Mike moves to Chicago to follow a lead to the remnants of the Purple gang and decides to set up an office there. He is helped by Molly Bennett who has also left the New Jersey area after her boss was murdered. Molly becomes a good influence in his business and personal motivation. She becomes Mike’s main love interest and a major character in the series, along with Rick Anthony, Mike’s late father’s partner on the NYPD, who later retires from the NYPD and becomes Mike’s partner.
Sex, deception, murders, shootouts, more sex, and crooked officials, take Mike on a dangerous mission to the final showdown at mob headquarters outside the small town of Mattoon, Illinois, where he hopes to discover who killed his father and save the life of Nika, a woman he has fallen for.
Mike’s struggles with alcohol and attraction to the wrong sort of women often sidetrack his efforts to nail the kingpins of the gang, but also bring a growing self-awareness.
There might have been any one of a hundred reasons that made Kimbra plug Joe Ambler that night—I never understood why because I never understood her—but lack of reason made me cover up the crime: Kimbra flaunted some mysterious mix of power and vulnerability that hurled my caution out of orbit. She wasn’t the most glamorous dame I’d ever shadowed. But she was a powerful drug on my reason. Maybe I was tired of watching Joe smack her around for weeks and felt he’d earned a hole in his chest. Maybe I wanted out of investigations—I was tired of a lot of things. Tired of working with and against dirty cops—I wasn’t the only GI back from Korea who flunked out of the 23rd precinct for refusing the take. Since then, six years of following insurance cheats as a PI dulled my nights and wasted my days. Now and then a divorce case fed the bills, though barely. Looking back, it was all that boredom that made Kimbra so attractive. Six years of yawns set me up for a flashy babe with innocent lips masking lust and danger. Her gunshot spun me over the line I’d always resisted. I’d run afoul of the law. In my line of work that means trouble.
Here’s how it happened: I’d been hired to follow Ambler on a blackmail case when an insurance company tapped him for fraud. The company paid the mug off on a jewelry loss, but something smelled to the indemnity suits and I was called in by Ed Bergman, an old college buddy now a bigshot executive, to clear away the stink. Bergman confessed he was being blackmailed to rubber stamp the case.
After a few days I started watching Kimbra more than Joe. She was a man’s woman, doing things without words that ignited my insides. I went against everything I’d tried to be since I came home from what Truman called that “police action.” The way Kimbra walked invited me; the way she lit a smoke made me want her to light mine. Whatever her brand was would be my brand, whatever dance she offered was for me. The boredom was gone. Danger does that. I didn’t seem to give a damn about my investigator’s license. It felt like I’d been in the wrong line of work anyway.
After hearing the shot I strolled through Joe’s door like I was home for pot roast. The 1960 debates were on a black and white Philco in the corner and Nixon looked like he’d seen the killing. Kimbra trembled in a red bra and garter belt, trying to make her mouth form words. The composure she normally wore like permanent press was gone. In its place, cold wrinkled fright.
I peeled her fingers from the .22, a pearl-handled trinket no man should be killed with. Standing over the body I saw one wound in the heart. From across the room it was a good shot, a perfect shot. Lucky. That’s all it took, one peewee slug from a sissy gun with his name on it. Maybe she’d only meant to scare him—that’s how I wanted to figure it. But what she meant or what I thought didn’t much matter. The guy was just as dead as if she’d used a bazooka and planned it for a year.
There wasn’t much blood. Murder’s not always gory, but dead is dead and dead the creep was. Stacked next to the body were wads of fifties and hundreds big enough to choke an IRS auditor. Definitely not gory.
I pocketed the trinket and threw Kimbra a skirt and blouse from over a chair. She scooped up the dough before getting dressed—priorities. In a half hour we were cruising down Jersey Parkway through a mist thicker than London fog with Joe’s carcass in the trunk of my Buick coupe. Mike Angel, big shot insurance investigator, had graduated to big time sucker.
The quarry next to my uncle’s house near Wildwood had been deserted for decades. I used to play there as a kid and knew every hole on the place. Some were bottomless with caustic, quicksand-like mud.
The mist turned to light snow, which quickly dusted the quarry. I’d rolled the body in a carpet at the murder scene, rubbed my prints off the barrel of Kimbra’s popgun, leaving hers, and slipped it into Joe’s pocket. I sealed the makeshift body bag with duct tape. At the quarry Kimbra waited in the Buick, steady, like she was job interviewing.
The wind whipped the flakes into a blinding swirl, but I knew which way to head. At least, I thought, no one could see me unless they were standing next to me.
Across the valley a Central Jersey locomotive wailed. Angry ice pellets stung my face. My shoes skidded on the gravel. After fifty feet or so, three dark ovals loomed on the ground just ahead. Nothing had changed. I knew right where I was. I staggered right to the deepest yawning pit, dropped to one knee and dumped the body down that hole. I never heard it hit bottom.
Standing upright, I stared down the shaft, silently hurling a nasty and well-deserved goodbye after Joe. He wouldn’t smack Kimbra around now, or anyone else. I lit my last Lucky in his dishonor, inhaling the smoke deep in my lungs. There’d be plenty of smoke where he was headed.
Snow raced down thicker, harder. My blood slowed to a crawl, bringing back nightmares a guy doesn’t forget—the paralyzing cold of Korea, the frozen face of death I’d faced there. I flashed to a ravine where I once left three bodies, one a buddy.
My lungs ached. My shivering body wanted to go, but I wanted to make Kimbra wait. Didn’t want her to think it was too pat for me; wanted to figure what to do next, and how and why I got to this spot.
No use wondering why, no use trying on what-if’s—I was as guilty as if I’d planned the shooting. I knew why—Kimbra was why—I wanted to cash in my good deed to get next to her: another stupid urge on the night of all stupid urges. She didn’t have the greatest body or the prettiest face, but it was that mysterious element.
I flipped the cig butt down against the wall of the shaft, watching the sparks fizzle out into the blackness. That’s what life is, I thought, a little spark or two and then, nothing.
How did I get so crass at 30? Maybe it was time to ditch investigations and get a real job. Maybe something out West, outdoors.
When I got back to the car I had no thought of what to do next, what she’d do. When you don’t know enough to plan you wait like a stupid turkey for the ax to fall. Wait for life to close in. Wait for those last sparks.
Driving back we were silent. I thought about Dad. He’d been a cop all his life. All he ever wanted to do after retirement was set up his own agency. Right out of the chute he solved a splashy murder case. He got such a kick out of sharing all the clues and casework with me. He solved cases with his brain, his shrewd sense of people and a never-die way of pushing through obstacles. But he was found shot in an alley a week after making the case. No arrest was ever made. Nobody knew why he was even in that alley. I didn’t have an inkling either, and it angered and tormented me that I didn’t. What had I missed? Dad used to joke that if he knew where he was going to die, that he’d never go near the place. As a kid that joke made me feel safe, that Dad would live forever. I knew why I followed in his path—it was to make sense of it all, to gain what he had wanted and died trying for. I didn’t need a couch and a shrink, not as long as I could self-analyze.
Now Kimbra’s composure was steady. She’d been a mummy all down to the quarry, past the point of my no stupid return. Now, almost back in the city, she slid up close and perched her head on my shoulder. A touching play that seemed fake, her Hero the body-dumper. Her breath was an even feather against my neck, like she hadn’t a care. I couldn’t square the relaxed kitten with the trembling shooter in red undies; but then, I never did square much about Kimbra.
Someone might miss Joe in a few days, or maybe never. He wasn’t the type to have a lot of pals. Does anyone ever miss a toothache?
I’d need to stay cool, to revisit the murder scene to make sure no details incriminating Kimbra or myself were left behind. After being this reckless, I needed to be logical. An idea crept into my head—Kimbra would have to find another city to bat those eyelashes in, another shoulder to put her cute head on. Yeah, the view down her dress and her lilac fragrance were tempting, but I kept both hands on the wheel and drove. I didn’t stop until we arrived at her place on West 58th Street.
I switched off the motor. She lit a cigarette and turned to me with the match swaying below her face and said, “Thank you” without a whole lot of emotion. She was steady all right. Cold and steady and polite—though it was obvious none of it fit her or the fix I’d fallen into.
“You ready to explain before I buy you a bus ticket to Topeka?” As if her reason might be my redemption, explain my foolish help.
She didn’t answer. She didn’t smirk or blink or flirt. She just sat there. Her fingers pressed around the flame with a light hiss. Obviously, she had some sort of plan, and I soon found out it included me.
She reached for the wheel and tapped it lightly, provokingly, cutely even, next to my hand, like it was some sort of signal I was supposed to understand. It only made me antsy, peeved. I yanked the cigarette out of her mouth and flung it out the window behind me, leaned a little and took hold of her shoulders. I wanted to slap her but I knew that was only a cover for other urges. Kimbra was the sort of dame that rough stuff would be ice cream to. I understood Joe Ambler’s brutality right about then.
Then I took it, the first step. It felt better than socking her. When I let go of her, she slid to the door and rubbed the back of her hand against her mouth. She tasted fine. I wanted more, needed an aspirin for why I’d lowered myself into such a pit, even though I was halfway down and the ladder above me crumbling. Impulse and a kiss weren’t enough cause to break a career pattern of staying uninvolved, boredom aside. I waited for her to show herself. To show me a better reason why I’d been the sap, something redeeming in her that I’d only sensed.