by Gary Sensenig
Despite the cold, Officer Alex Morelli was sweating heavily as he stood in the front hall of the dingy safe house, waiting for a superior to show up and take charge of the strangled body on the floor. Morelli himself had been in charge of the body while it was alive and that, of course, was the reason for Morelli’s sweat.
For two days, he’d been one of the guards assigned to Jake Fishel, a harmless accountant who’d been unlucky enough to witness a mob hit. The D.A. had begged Fischel to testify and vowed he would be kept safe from the long arm of the Popov crime family. Officer Morelli had stayed with Fischel, working 12-hour shifts and actually growing to like the meek, mousy witness. And now this.
The doorbell startled Morelli and he opened up to admit Captain Cromwell, a whirlwind in a rumpled suit that flapped in the frigid breeze.
Cromwell stared down at the corpse. “Why was he left alone?”
“I got a call from your office,” Morelli stammered, pulling out his two-way radio as if it proved something. “I was ordered back to the stationhouse. They said another guard would take over. It was half an hour before I got wise and got back here.”
“Just because it came on the right frequency, you didn’t think to question it? The Popovs have connections, you idiot. They own people.” The captain sighed. “Who all had keys?”
“I had the only set. I told Fischel not to open up for anyone. When I closed the door, it locked behind me, then I heard him throw the deadbolt. You know him, Captain. He wasn’t a reckless guy.”
Cromwell knelt by the body. “Strangled from behind. Probably a wire. Who would Fischel open the door for? Who knew he was here? It’s time we got answers.”
The captain grabbed his overcoat from a hook and led the way to his car. Morelli grabbed his own coat and followed.
The first lead came from the safe house’s phone records. Just the previous night, the victim had sneaked a call to Luther Dross, his brother-in-law. “My wife’s in intensive care,” Luther told the officers when they visited him at his locksmith shop across town. “Jake and her were real close. Jake was worried and wanted the latest news about her condition. We talked for maybe five minutes. He knew it was against the rules and he never told me where he was.”
The captain pulled a notepad and pen from his coat. “Where were you today around two?”
“Is that the time of death?” Luther asked weakly. “I was installing locks in a new apartment complex on Prospect Road. Some of the workmen must have seen me. I came back here to clean up before going to the hospital. Can I go now?”
Officer Morelli came up with the case’s second lead. Four months ago, he remembered using this same safe house to protect Buddy Banks, a mob informer. When the D.A. was trying to convince Fischel to testify, he brought in Buddy to calm the accountant’s nerves and tell him how safe protective custody could be. “Buddy knew where the safe house was. He had mob connections. And Fischel knew him, so he might have opened the door.”
Banks had moved 20 miles away and changed his name. Cromwell and Morelli tracked him down to a phone company where he worked as a directory assistance operator. Cromwell showed his badge and had the former informer sent out on a break. He told him the news.
“Wow,” Banks said and looked sick to his stomach. “I feel terrible. If I hadn’t talked him into testifying, he’d still be alive.”
“Did Fischel make contact with you?”
“No, I swear. I only saw him that once in the D.A.’s office. And I had no way of knowing they’d send him to that safe house.”
“You could have found out.”
“Look, I’ve cut my ties to that whole world. I work 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, and I’m straight as an arrow.”
Cromwell and Morelli drove the 20 miles back to the city, turning everything over in their minds. “The killer always makes a mistake,” the captain mumbled.
“Yes,” Morelli agreed.
They both stayed silent for the rest of the drive.