SHORT STORY: Like a Snowball in Aspen

As a treat for my readers and subscribers, I present a short story I wrote several months ago that I recently came across again. I really liked it, so I decided to clean it up a little, make it more presentable, and post it here for all of you… free of charge. Enjoy!

Okay, this is bad.

It’s pitch black. The kind of dark where I can’t see my hand in front of my face. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was still unconscious. The pounding in my head and the endless pressure on my chest tell me otherwise.

Wet dirt cakes under my fingernails. The silence is interrupted only by my gurgling stomach. I knew I should’ve grabbed a snack before walking out the door this morning.

Was that this morning? Is it still today? How long have I been out?

Most importantly, where the hell am I?

Okay, playing 20 Questions with myself won’t solve anything. The fog is slowly lifting in my brain, but now I’m dizzy. And nauseous. I choke on the stench of the dirt when I try to suck in a breath. On second thought, I’m glad I didn’t eat earlier.

Last thing I remember, I was tailing the cops. They were downtown, trying to break down the door to a politician’s penthouse. I can’t remember if they were looking for drugs or a body or what, but they broke out the SWAT gear and everything. At the moment, I can’t even remember the politician’s name. In the interest of lying about my age, I’m going to say the lack of oxygen is why I’m so foggy.

Guess this is as good a time as any to mention I’m a P.I. I don’t have the greatest reputation in the world; in fact, half the police force threatens to arrest me every time they see me. The other half threatens to bash in my face. Mess up one murder investigation, and suddenly everyone thinks you’re a hack.

The forged degree doesn’t help either.

Truth is, I’m not a goody-goody P.I. I’m not even the sort they made movies about in the 40s. I don’t have a fedora, my office was shut down last month over some bullshit “building code violation,” and the next time a potential client becomes my femme fatale will be the first.

See, the politician they were after — now I got his name: he’s a high-profile Senator named Wilkins — he’s been linked to underground drug money and sex trafficking for more than two decades. Nothing’s ever stuck to him, though, mostly thanks to me. I’m not tailing him to get dirt on him; I’m tailing him to make sure no one else gets too close.

Well, I was.

Is it a shit job with thankless hours and a bowl full of moral questions? Abso-fucking-lutely. Am I a terrible person for taking this job? If you said yes, I wouldn’t argue. But here’s the deal: I’m set for life. My daughter’s about to graduate from MIT with no debt. My old man beat lung cancer last year and never had to a pay a dime. So while you’re hand-wringing over the moral quandary, I’m thanking Senator Wilkins for the seven-figure salary.

Course, if I’m gonna see my next check, I gotta find a way out of here. The heat and the pressure are unbearable. I can feel the oxygen level depleting. The headache is subsiding, though that may be a response to the adrenaline rush. How am I still alive? Hell, how am I even conscious? The dirt should be pressing down hard enough on my chest that my ribs snap like kindling.

I somehow manage to pull my smartphone out of my pocket and push a button on the side. The screen lights up, illuminating my surroundings. From what I can tell, the only thing missing is a coffin. I notice dried blood on my fingers; with my free hand, I push loose dirt away and touch my temple, then my nose and lips.

The blood’s not mine.

Before I can process that information, I’m startled by the sound of something digging into the ground. I remain as still as I can, trying to ignore the pounding heartbeat in my chest. There’s the sound again. And again. With each muffled shunck, dirt shifts and falls against me. Even as the pressure eases, uncertainty gives way to fear, and my instinct is to curl up against myself.

The shunck grows louder and more frequent. Before I know it, light begins piercing the pitch black. My eyes can’t adjust to the contrast, and all I can see is a pitch-black figure.

“Cole!”

It takes a second for the voice to register. Yeah, that’s my name, and I recognize that voice. But for a few seconds, it just don’t click.

Cole!

I sit up as much as I can before I feel a sharp stabbing pain in my right side. I grit my teeth and recoil before glancing up at the hole. A hand is extended toward me and for the first time, I can see details. The purple nails are my first clue, but once I see the pitch-black hair framing the woman’s face, I know my momentary savior: Chloe van Kempt, a deep-cover detective who specializes in narcotics who’s the only friend I have on the force.

We don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to Senator Wilkins, but I trust her. For some reason, she trusts me too.

“Come on, Cole!” she hollers. “We gotta go!”

Don’t have to tell me twice… I grab her hand and, with a strength that doesn’t match her short frame, she lifts me out of the ground. I stumble onto the grass, taking a moment to appreciate how cool it feels compared to the dirt. I gulp large chunks of fresh air as fast as my lungs can take them, hacking and doubling over before slowing myself down.

I don’t really feel like blacking out again.

“What,” I’m still having a hard time breathing, “what the hell happened?”

“You were knocked out and buried alive.” Chloe is so matter-of-fact about it. I lay still as she places a call to the dispatcher, taking a moment to make sure everything’s still attached. My side still hurts, but it’s not nearly as bad when I’m prone like this. As long as I don’t have to bend at the waist or get up or anything, I should be okay. Then again, it’s kinda hard to investigate things while on my back.

“Who?” I ask once she’s finished.

“I think it was someone with the senator.”

I cough in surprise and jolt upright… only to recoil and grunt once the pain shoots up my side again. Sweat coats my forehead, and I can feel the dirt caked into my graying beard. “Guessing you forgot the part where he pays me.”

“No, I’m quite aware of that.” She glances over her shoulder whenever she thinks I’m not looking. Never mind the fact that she’s not the only detective here. My guess: whoever put me in the ground is still close. “This runs a lot deeper than we thought.”

Without warning, Chloe grabs me under my arms and lifts me to my feet. I howl in pain before she hoists one of my arms over her shoulders and leads me to her squad car. I look around for her partner, Ramirez, but it’s just Chloe and me.

“What about the paramedics?”

She doesn’t answer me. She moves with a determination I’ve yet to see from her, eyes focused straight ahead. Something’s going down, something beyond just me.

My roll into the passenger seat will never be considered graceful, but the pain’s so blinding that I can’t even crack a joke as Chloe starts the car and peels out into the night. I lean against the door, swallowing back a combination of bile and fear. Chloe swerves from lane to lane, which doesn’t help the on-again, off-again nausea.

“Who’s behind us?”

“What?” Her eyes dart to the rearview mirror. “No one. Why?”

“Cause you’re driving like we’re being chased.”

“Vincent’s dead,” she announces as the squad car races through a red light. A fire engine whines to life in the distance.

The news doesn’t immediately register. Part of it’s the pain in my side, which flares up again with every bump in the road. Part of it’s the unnerving reality that I was buried alive. When we pass under a street light, I can still see the dirt caked under my fingernails. I don’t think one wash will suffice for my pants. I’m damn sure not gonna get the stench out of my hair for at least a week. But hey, I’m pushing 50, so I’m just glad I still have hair.

But if the Chief of Police is dead…

“Who?”

Her eyes scan the mirror again. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

I force myself to sit up, yelping like a wounded animal when my side flares up again.

The car pulls into a dark alley. Chloe kills the engine but not the headlights. “You’re hurt.”

“No shit.” I grimace, reaching down to hold my side. My fingers find something warm and wet. I frown. It was my blood after all. How did I not notice that before? I must’ve been so preoccupied with the whole being-buried-alive thing that I didn’t notice the wound.

“We should get you to a hospital.”

“And what?” I counter. “Shoot up a flare to whoever put me in the ground, tellin’ ‘em where I am?”

Chloe throws the keys onto the dash and sinks into her seat. She knows I’m right. I know she’s right. If people weren’t being killed and buried left and right, I’d march my happy ass to St. Mary’s or whatever and let them do whatever my insurance would cover. But if Chief DiCicero is dead, then who knows how many other bodies are waiting to be found.

“Who was it, Chloe?”

She’s not sayin’ anything. She doesn’t wanna tell me. Can’t say I blame her. Hell, something tells me I already know.

“It was Wilkins.”

I almost don’t hear her. I grab a handful of napkins from Chloe’s glove box and press them against my side with a grimace. Once the worst of the pain subsides, I give her a sideways glance. “Shit,” I growl. “You sure?”

Chloe looks me dead in the eye. Even in the dark, I see the tears burning the edges. “I saw him do it.”

I stare through the windshield, forcing myself not to look back at Chloe. I hate seeing people cry. I’d rather be shot in the crotch than see someone in tears. I avoided my mother’s funeral for just that reason. I can handle grief. Anger. Sadness. Feel those near every damn day. But crying? I can’t deal.

“Two weeks ago,” Chloe explains, sniffling, “I told Chief our Special Investigations unit had solid, concrete evidence that Senator Wilkins was involved in a sex trafficking ring with ties to the Yakuza. Signed documents, audio recordings, GPS signals, everything. I’ve been working Wilkins for three years and this was the first time we had anything that could stick.”

I frown in confusion. “Didn’t Wilkins help pass a law fighting international sex trafficking?”

“Yeah, but it had no teeth. It was nothing more than a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo bluster that was impossible to enforce — especially on the international level. Total PR move.”

I shake my head. “That way, if word got out of his involvement, he had an easy way to deflect the bad press.”

I’ll admit to not being in the loop when it comes to Wilkins. He signs my checks, he gives me assignments, but I know next to nothing outside of that. He keeps me just out of arm’s reach. Close enough to be of use, far enough away to not be a threat. But I’m obviously a threat to someone; otherwise, I wouldn’t have woken up in a bed of dirt.

“Chief wanted to go forward,” Chloe continues. “He ordered a warrant and everything. Then the FBI called.”

Argument over jurisdiction, probably. More like a “my cock is bigger than yours” pissing contest. Always happens when one of the law enforcement alphabet soups get involved.

“He tried to stall them,” she says. “The FBI. This was our case, our investigation. In Chief’s mind, if anyone brought in Senator Wilkins, it would be us.”

“Why wasn’t I told about this?”

Chloe gives me an emotionless smile. “Didn’t think you’d take kindly to watching the gravy train fall off the tracks.”

Fair point.

“Two days ago,” Chloe added, “Senator Wilkins announced he was forming an exploratory committee to run for president.”

“So now he’s gotta make all that baggage disappear. Can’t run for the White House if people think you fondle kids.”

That explains why the chief was killed. That explains how I wound up in the ground. I always knew I was expendable; Wilkins said so to my face more than once. I just figured it meant I’d be replaced with another P.I. I never thought he’d try to kill me, too much at stake in his career. But if he’s willing to off a police chief by himself…who knows what else Senator Wilkins can do?

Normally, I feel a rush of adrenaline whenever the puzzle pieces start fitting. That jolt has gotten me through many a case in my day, both as a cop and as a P.I. But with this picture getting clearer by the second, I’m not ready to jump off any rooftops. Mostly, I just wanna bury my head in a trash can and retch til I’m inside out. Probably hurt less than my side right now anyway.

“Let me guess,” I groan, “Chief goes to move quickly on this, someone close to Wilkins catches wind of it…”

“…Boom.” Chloe shakes her head. “I was this close to –”

I notice the shattered glass before I see the bullet tear through Chloe’s shoulder and bury itself in the console. She growls in a mixture of horror and pain, clutching her shoulder and doubling over against her seatbelt. I duck, doing my best to ignore the pain as I glance over the edge of my seat. We never heard the car sneak up behind us, and we sure as shit didn’t hear the gun being fired. Another round is fired, missing us both.

“Get the fuck outta the car, Cole!”

It’s Senator Wilkins.

Chloe is too busy applying pressure to her wound to do anything else. Sirens blare in the distance, drowning out her harsh breathing. I reach over and grab her gun, giving her a reassuring nod when she shoots me a look of protest. Hey, if I had my weapon, I’d use it, but for all I know, the Senator took it from me before tossing me in the ground.

“Get out of the car and put your hands above your head!”

I take a deep breath to steel myself, hiding the gun in the waistband of my pants. I open the car door, each movement shooting pain up and down the side of my body. I’m not sure I can even stand upright, but I have no choice. I don’t fancy having my brains splattered on the ground in some random alley.

With tremendous effort, and a fuckload of pain, I stand. I have to lean against the car to turn around, facing the Senator with my hands above my head. Sweat rolls down my temple. I’m trying like hell not to shake. Fear mixes with adrenaline. My body’s telling me it needs help. Chloe’s still dealing with the hole in her shoulder.

And there stands Senator Stewart Wilkins, all 6-foot-4 of him, wire-rim glasses and the build of a linebacker. All-American at Nebraska, had a promising pro career cut short ‘cause of a fucked-up knee. Got into law to make his daddy proud, then ran for public office for… well, no one’s exactly sure why.

“You always were a crap shot, Senator.”

Wilkins sneers, cocking his gun. “I don’t want her dead, Cole… not until I retrieve the file.”

I cast a sideways glance at the car. An overstuffed manila folder cradled in a cardboard box sits on the backseat. Everything Chloe and the rest of the NYPD have to nail Wilkins, no doubt. He knows the file’s in there. He really is tying up all his loose ends.

I can’t help myself. “So I’m guessing a spot on your cabinet’s out of the question.”

“What was your first clue, Cole? Sticking you in the dirt or the bullet in your gal Friday’s arm?”

“Shame,” I tease. “I had my heart set on Secretary of Interior.”

“No,” Wilkins waves the gun at me. “The shame is I kinda liked you, Edward. But you got too damn nosy. Why, Cole? Was I not paying you enough?”

Nosy? I roll my eyes. It’s in my freaking job description — or it would be, if I bothered to sit down and write one. “Can’t be nosy about something I didn’t even know about until she dug me out of the ground.”

I’m leaning against the car again, gulping breaths as the pain in my side becomes almost unbearable. I can feel something throbbing under my skin. My fingers are twitching. I’ve broken into an even more intense cold sweat. I can hear Chloe’s muffled voice. If she’s as smart as I think she is, she’s called for backup.

Hopefully some medical attention too.

“Consider what I did… pre-emptive.”

“So you think it’s that easy?” I warn. “Just wipe out everyone you’ve ever met and stroll into the White House, no one the wiser? It’s 20-fucking-15 now, Senator. Nothing’s private anymore.” He’s squeezing the handle; I can see his knuckles turning white. Good. “You’ll never kill the rumors, Stew. And eventually, one of those rumors is gonna become a report, and that report’s gonna become an investigation… and on and on it goes, like a snowball in Aspen. Killin’ Vince won’t change that. Killin’ me and Chloe won’t change that. You think puttin’ a bullet in my head and throwing me into a hole will help you become president? You’re a lot dumber than I thought.”

Blam! I feel an intense burn in my right knee. I drop in an instant. Suddenly, the pain in my side isn’t so bad anymore.

You ever been shot? I don’t recommend it. I’m not even sure I can come up with the words to describe how it feels. All I know is, I’m hobbled on the ground, my right leg bent in a pool of my own blood. I hear sirens again, and they’re growing closer. I hope it’s an ambulance. I hope it’s backup. I hope it’s the bullet that puts Wilkins out of our collective misery for good. Hell, if I’m really lucky, it’s all three.

But I’ve never been that lucky.

“It’s not about smarts, Cole.” Wilkins stands over me, pressing the warm barrel against my temple. “It’s about power. Haven’t you paid any attention since you’ve been working for me? Money, power… I have it. You don’t. By the time I hit the Iowa caucuses, no one will ever know about Thailand or Indonesia or Santa Monica or any of that.”

He cocks the gun again. I flinch.

“I’m tempted to let you live,” he whispers. “Just to rub it in your face when I finally –”

Blam!

I flinch again, but feel no pain. I open my eyes, eventually dawning on the fact that I wasn’t shot again. There’s a gun at my side… and a dead Senator face-down at my feet. Blood oozes from his forehead and mixes with my own. I can see the hole in the back of Wilkins’ head, brain matter stuck in his ghost-white hair.

Remind me to throw up later.

My eyes dance around our surroundings. There’s no one else here. Just the dead Senator, Chloe, and me. Chloe’s leaning out the driver’s-side door now, cringing and talking on her police-issued phone. She says something about the folder in the back seat, a wry smile on her face. I try to focus on her words, but an ambulance screeches to a halt in the entrance to the alley. I sigh in relief as two medics leap from the ambulance and bolt our way.

No sooner does the female medic reach me, though, I pass out. Like a fuckin’ lightweight.

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