A Mann's World

by Rick Beck

Chapter 14

Reaching Out To Touch Someone

Only after Robert was out the door, did he think about calling Mike. The phone in the apartment hadn't been working since the break in and he hadn't reported it to anyone. That didn't bother him half as much as forgetting to call in. He thought he should have done it on his way home to the apartment but events had started to overwhelm him.

There were two things troubling Robert Mann. One was distinct and certain, whatever he had in mind when he decided to become a cop, this wasn't it. At the same time guys like Albert, Phil, and Toby deserved safe streets to walk down and he wanted to make sure they had them.

He had talked to Mike yesterday and as usual Mike seemed angry with him about something. Maybe it was better if he didn't call in. There was nothing new he wanted to report anyway. He'd go ahead and make his rounds and call him in the morning.

It was a dark night and he wore the black coat that he liked but Phil hated. He decided to return to Southeast. He got a beer in Johnny's where now even the drag queen's squeals didn't bother him, but when one put her/his arm around him that did. Examining his beer, he smiled to himself and shook his head while thinking, what a job. He then pushed the beer aside and left. He walked the blocks around the bars, nodding to passersby while having no sense that he was close to the man he most wanted to find.

He stopped for a second beer in Joanna's before heading for the Georgetown Grill and a friendly face. Judy was in fast forward, dashing from table to table, retrieving and delivering drinks in some order only she could keep straight. The Grill was always full of laughter and friendly conversation. It reminded Robert of a corner bar in any town USA. There was a feeling of community and warmth inside the small club.

Judy was all smiles and managed to kiss his cheek as he worked his way up to the bar for one of the dark drafts that tasted so good to him. "Love the look," Judy whispered in his ear. "Black is your color, handsome." She was gone in a flash, halfway across the room, the tray hoisted over her head holding a dozen drinks or more as she slipped through the sea of humanity. Her voice could be heard above the rest as she chided, joked, and laughed her happy laughter.

"Don't you ever slow down?" Robert asked her as she washed glasses two feet in front of him.

"Kids don't get through college by resting. I can rest later."

"Your kids are lucky to have a mother like you," Bobby said, looking at Judy with admiration.

"Well, thank you very much and I predict whoever gets their hands on you has a prize on their hands, you lovely hunk of man."

"I kind of doubt it," Robert sighed.

"No doubt about it," Judy yelled as an abrupt roar went up from the packed bar. "If I was ten years younger you'd be on the top of my Christmas list, sweetie."

She raced off after filling beer glasses and collecting the mixed drinks the bartender had left on the corner of the bar.

Robert watched as the petite friendly beauty once more mingled with her minions. They all seemed delighted to be around her. Robert wished he could be around her more, even though he suspected she might be twice his age.

People yelled and shouted and laughed as Robert eased himself toward the front door. It flung open and another group of guys spilled in off the street as he stepped down onto the graying sidewalk. He pulled up his collar when a gust of wind ran down his neck.

The wall was on his mind as he walked. There was something about that wall that gave him the sense that it would figure in solving the case. He'd forgotten about the cold by the time he turned right at the first corner and walked away from Wisconsin Avenue and the hustle and bustle of a major downtown artery. Immediately he was in a residential area.

Two men came toward him as he neared the wall. One looked back but Robert ignored the suggestion he made and kept walking. There were now three boys sitting on the wall, watching for the next car. They all leaned back and hid something between them as Robert approached. It looked a little like a brown paper bag and he suspected someone had bought them booze.

He stopped, leaping up and turning in mid-air as he sat himself beside them having no feeling that there was any danger near. "What's happening?"

"Not much," the guy furthest from him said, leaning up to take a glance at the new arrival.

" I' m Cory. You looking for a date?" The same guy asked, leaning further forward to get a longer look.

"I really didn't give it any thought. I'm just resting my legs. What are you doing?"

They all three found this funny and exchanged laughter among themselves. "You new? A little old for this, huh?" Cory spoke around the other two, leaning to look at Robert some more.

"Yeah, something like that."

"I've seen you somewheres before," Cory added as he squinted to compensate for the too little light.

"I look like a lot of people," Robert said.

"I wish more people looked like you. Take off those glasses for a second. I seen you before."

"Nah, the light hurts my eyes."

Once again the three laughed at one another and found Robert's words amusing. The other two boys took quick looks but weren't as impressed.

"Seen anyone interesting? Anyone scary?" Robert asked, figuring there was no future in wasting time here.

"A couple a narcs is the scariest thing I seen," Cory replied, leaning back on both of his hands.

"Cool," Robert said, slipping back down onto the pavement. "Time to split. Nice talking to you."

"You sure you don't want a date?" Cory asked. "I'd pay you!"

"Sorry. Not tonight."

Turning the corner, he left the boys behind. He checked the church on the right for a spot where Toby might have slept.

The wall slowly declined as he walked away from the hustlers and the big red church came closer to the street. He felt no particular danger or presence that worried him. He had checked for cars on his way to Georgetown after leaving Southeast, but even with the feeling that someone was following him, he'd seen nothing suspicious and now he felt no apprehension at all.

It was odd because he had stopped listening to his inner voices shortly after arriving in Springfield. In the immense high school with over a thousand students, the voices had become a din that he had trouble silencing. At home he used the voices for guidance and even as company after his mother had died, but in and around so many people, it merely added another element he had to deal with and so he finally shut down that avenue to his other life.

Now they were back. Not nearly as strong as before and mostly offering warnings when Robert felt himself on uncertain ground. They had returned after the fight behind the bar at the Fraternity House. He wrote it off to his being overly cautious in a new situation but he knew the source and hadn't resisted their emergence too strenuously because this was new territory.

The sudden motion, first from the left and then from the alcove on the right, came with no warning. He would later talk to the voices, asking them, where the hell were you when I needed you? But just then there was only time to react with all the skills he'd gained in school and at the police academy, but mostly it was the instinct his father had constantly chided him to use.

Within a second he knew the man on his left would reach him first. He struck out in that direction making solid contact. Feeling the second attacker close to his right arm, he jammed his elbow into the man's stomach, dropping him to his knees. Robert leaned back to kick number one in the midsection as he once more came at him. Number two grabbed onto his flowing black trenchcoat, perhaps to steady himself and perhaps to restrain him, but it didn't matter, Robert came out of his coat as the side of his foot connected with the kneeling man's head.

He'd felt the burning at the side of his face as he carried the attack back around to number one, finishing him off with another blow to the belly. Robert recognized a sap when it fell from the first attacker's hand. He bellowed something as he went down hard, making the sound of a quickly emptying balloon. The only sounds, after that, were the soft moans of the two men who Robert had dispatched without much strain.

What the hell was that about, Robert wondered, still trying to get his wits about himself and now feeling wobbly? His glasses had broken and all that was left was one black arm that he brushed off his cheek. A sharp pain radiated from his jaw.

"Hey, dude, you better split before they call their buddies. Them's cops."

"What?" Robert said, unable to reconcile the contradiction.

"Those two hassled us a half hour ago. Ran us off the wall. We thought they left. They usually don't come back after flexing their muscles for us. Come on, we'll show you a place where you can lay low. Business is closed for tonight that's for sure."

Robert was confused. Cops? That was crazy. Why would cops be on his case again? He wasn't doing anything but walking down the street. It made no sense but getting out of there made plenty.

He tried to remember the sound that one of them made just before all hell broke loose. Was it, hey man, or had it been, hey Mann? He tried to play the sound back in his head but things had happened too fast and he couldn't be sure. He was only defending himself. There was a killer loose and you didn't charge at people without identifying yourself, even if they were cops.

The three boys ran ahead of him in the middle of the street, laughing loudly into the now silent night, describing the fight to one another as they went. They giggled and repeated the sounds they had heard and then they repeated it all over again with louder laughs.

"That one went OOOOOOOoosh."

The boys all laughed and skipped delightedly until they could go no further without entering the woods that bordered Rock Creek Parkway. They ducked in between two houses just short of the trees, moving a large four by eight sheet of plywood that gave them access to the house. They scooted down into the basement indicating for Robert to follow.

The hiss of the fuel announced the light of a Coleman lantern that gave a warm glow to the room. There were cushions spread around for seating with crates for tables. There were blankets spread out on the floor.

"Man, you sure put a hurtin' on them dudes. Where'd you learn to fight like that? That's Matt and Ben," Cory introduced the other two. "Did they do that to your face? They got their licks in huh?"

"Nah, that was last week's fight. That got me a good one on my jaw though."

"You a wanted man or what? What did they want with you?"

"Got me. I wasn't doing anything. Just taking a walk."

"I ain't never seen no one take on two pigs before. They know to bring reinforcements next time. You a bad mother."

"Just minding my own business," Robert said as he worked his jaw.

"Yeah! Right! You can stay here with us if you want. I wouldn't go out there tonight. Them dudes got lots of buddies. They catch your ass, you're dead meat."

"You sure they were cops?"

"Man, they drove up in a big black car. They went around the block and disappeared until you showed up. It's like they was expecting you. You sure you ain't done something weird."

"How do you know they were cops?" Robert asked. "Just cause they said so?"

"I know pigs when I see 'em. It's the smell…. and I saw the badge on one of their belts. You should check before you start swinging. They'll be looking for you for sure. It's safe here. No one knows about it but us. They just boarded it up last week."

Cory's hand slipped down onto the inside of Robert's thigh as he examined the latest marks on his face. The hand became dislodged when Robert stood.

"Look, I appreciate the hospitality. I'm suddenly feeling trapped down here. Nothing personal. I just need some fresh air."

"No problem. No one ain't going to bother you if you say not," Cory assured him. "You shouldn't go back out there. Cops are mean bastards."

"Yeah, I know, but I just feel like moving on."

"Be careful. Those guys catch up with you and I wouldn't want to be in your shoes. Man you sure as hell took care of them. I wish I could fight that good. You're bad even when you're good, dude," Cory said with admiration.

"OOOOOOOshhhhh!" Matt said as the other two boys rolled around the floor, grabbing their sides as the laughter started all over again.

The sounds died away after Robert pulled himself back out of the basement. He clutched his side where another sharp pain originated. Had he been hit there? He had no memory of it. He never remembered anything about a fight after he was in one, only having the word of the witnesses to go on. Everything just went black after the first punch was thrown.

He moved through the trees and ran across Rock Creek Parkway, checking to make sure the "P" Street bridge was just to his left where he calculated it would be. Entering the woods on the far side of the parkway, he started up the hill using the trees for assistance.

He had it in his mind to come out near "P" Street, walk briskly but not run, until he reached the Circle. He'd jog across it, making sure no one was tailing him, and only then he'd head for 19th Street and the safety of home. He would return for his car in the morning. He didn't want to risk crossing paths with the two guys that jumped him tonight.

Dead leaves crunched and twigs snapped under his feet, as he pulled himself up the steepest slope on the hill. The moon was high enough and bright enough so that he could see the field above him. With the most difficult part of the climb behind him, he focused on where he would come out on to the field. A sudden pain interrupted his momentum.

Grabbing onto a tree with one hand and his right temple with the other, he swayed, almost falling. He was paralyzed; couldn't move, couldn't breathe, disoriented. The pain passed through his eye and went out the back of his brain. It was only after it had faded that he remembered where he was and what he was doing.

He didn't consider finishing his climb right away. He stood, letting his breathing return to normal. Looking around, he felt danger close to him and a sense of fear. He listened to the empty night before looking back up toward the field. He wasn't certain where the sense of fear was coming from. It wasn't his fear.

He knew that no one could follow him in the woods at night. He'd hear them making the same sounds that he made. Except for the occasional car on the parkway below, there was only silence and the sound of his heavy breathing.

Once more he forced his attention back to the hill as his hand examined the side of his face for some clue to why the pain picked that time to kick up again. He took a few careful steps and then finished the climb.

He looked back at the woods when he reached the field above, and felt the evil was close, but he knew there was no one there, nothing human anyway. He thought about the pain. This was twice in one day. It had been only an occasional annoyance until that morning. Maybe it was the latest fight and the stress of being on the run. But there had been no stress this morning.

He walked the fifty paces to "P" Street swiftly and turned right toward the Circle, making sure to slow his steps to avoid suspicion. He passed the college housing and noticed that no one was on the street, although cars passed him. He didn't wait for the light when he dashed across.

He passed the empty alley that led back to the Frat House before working his way up to the Circle, jogging across it and up 19th Street without being as careful as he wanted. He stopped at the gate to take one last look up and down the block before going into the apartment.

Once inside he leaned back on the door, feeling both shaken and relieved. Yet again he'd crossed paths with the cops and once again the meeting had gone badly. While he felt too close to evil for comfort, he was no longer certain what direction it was coming from or why people were trying to hurt him. It made no sense.

Toby didn't stir when Robert slipped into bed, but earlier he had heard each sound that broke into the safety of the apartment. Once he fell asleep he was dead to the world and it took quite a disturbance to rouse him.

Robert found himself listening carefully each time a car moved up the block past the apartment. It had rained and the water sizzled on the tires but no one stopped near the building and he finally drifted off. An abrupt awakening didn't amuse him at all.

"What the…. Get off me," Robert moaned swatting Toby back away from his side. "What are you doing?"

Toby wasn't deterred and moved right back up to the unhappy man. Robert felt something very cold being forced against the side of his face. Toby was holding the ice in place, leaning back away just in case the angry arm came back at him with more force the next time.

"Get off me. What are you doing?"

"That eye is going to close if you don't take care of it. You only got the other one half open as is. Just leave it on for a few minutes. It'll help keep the swelling down."

"You got up to do this?" Robert complained, looking to see daylight behind the closed blinds.

"It's almost noon. I been up. Your breakfast was getting cold so's I ate it for you. Then I came over to see if you was alive because you haven't made a sound. That's when I saw your face. Ouch!"


"You need a body guard or something, you know. You're a mess."

"You haven't seen the other guy," Robert said.

"I seen you. I don't need to see no one else. Someone out to get you or what?"

"Looks that way. I can hold the ice. Does it look bad?"

"Don't look good. The ice will help but it's already black and blue and it swoll up on you. You should of woke me up and I'd a iced it last night."

"I was too tired. Thanks."

"No problem. Good thing I was here, huh?"

"Yeah," Robert said, mussing Toby's hair. He worked his jaw to make sure it was still in operation.

"Will you quit with the hair already. That ain't cool. It's hard enough to keep it neat."

"Yeah, how about that breakfast you ate? Anymore where that came from? I'm starved."

"Cool. I can dig it. Eggs, bacon, potatoes, coffee, and toast?"

"Yeah, that sounds fine with me."

After eating, Robert showered and shaved and considered going down to the Hubbard House to try to explain things to Fran but decided that wasn't a good idea. He figured he would let things cool off for a few days.

Robert hailed a cab and picked up his car. There wasn't any sign that it had been tampered with. He drove past Albert's on the way home and wanted to stop for some of that incredible coffee but decided he would call later to say hello and to explain how busy things were.

That evening Robert decided to meet with Phil at the Frat House to see how he was holding up. He was considering coming out to Phil as a cop so that he might intercede for him with Fran, thinking it could make a difference if she knew the truth. He no longer had the feeling that keeping it from Phil was all that big a deal.

It took two hours and two breaks for Robert and Phil to end up outside in the alley. He made up his mind that this was his chance to come clean. Just as he opened his mouth, three guys came roaming past the alley.

"Hi Bobby. You look nice tonight," one man said and the other's giggled as they all ran into one another trying to get into the door as Robert watched.

"You sure are popular."

"Don't remind me," Robert said, trying to stop blushing.

"They don't have many heroes."

"I'm no hero."

"You and I know that but those poor boobs don't."

"Look, I didn't come out here to argue."

"I can believe that. Looks like you lost the last few."

"Phil, I'm a cop." Robert took a deep breath and dove into his prepared speech. He'd done it now and he wasn't sorry. The sound of the word didn't make him feel as proud as he once imagined it would. "Look, Phil, I'm straight. I'm not gay."

"News flash! Tell me something I don't know. Well, that explains everything but that little boy at your place, but lots of straight guys keep little boys around just in case."

"It's not what you think. I couldn't just leave him on the street. It's dangerous out there. I owed him."

"Why are you telling me this? What do you want from me?"

"Phil," Robert leaned on his arm up against the building as he faced him. "I don't want anything."

"We all want something," Phil said. "You're not telling me this just to make mother the best informed piano player at the Frat House. What do you want and where did you get the new marks on your face? I thought it was healing. You've got them on both sides now Bobby!"

"My face is no big deal. I was jumped."

"Again? Not the cops again?"

"I'm not sure who it was. Could be."

" Look, I'm not talking to Fran for you if that's what this true confession is all about. She's been jerked around enough. You've got a lot of nerve thinking you can waltz up here and get me to be your dating service. What do you think I am?"

"Phil, what do I have to do? What do you want?"

"What I really want is for you to stay up at my place. I've already had a key made. The bedroom door has a lock on it, but you didn't use it the first night you stayed up there, so you know your perfectly safe. I'd prefer not to be alone right now. For that I might consider speaking with Fran on your behalf. She's convinced you're a jerk and I don't know yet how to convince her otherwise."

"I didn't do anything. She jumped to conclusions."

"Yeah, that's what they all say. She knows a turkey when she sees one."

"Phil, it could be dangerous having me hang around. I'm not sure you weren't right about me being followed the other day."


"That doesn't scare you?"

"It scares the hell out of me. I'm so scared I might pee my panties but I won't stop living. While we're at it, I want to make sure you understand me."

"This ought to be good."

"Stay away from Fran until this is over and I'll talk to her. If it's dangerous enough you're warning me, she doesn't need to be involved. Use your big head instead of the little one for a change."

"I like Fran a lot!"

"Good, then we agree. Here's the key to my place. You know the bedroom. Get rid of that little boy before he gets hurt! You should know better. I don't care what you owe him."

"He doesn't have any place to go. I can't just dump him. Everyone dumps him. I feel sorry for him. He's a good guy. He only needs a break."

"Okay, I'll find someone to take him off your hands. That shouldn't be hard."

"Yeah, look, I'm not going back inside with you. I think I'll roam over to Southeast. See if anything's happening over there. I've had enough adoration for one night."

"You better make the most of it while you can. It doesn't last long."

"I hope." Robert started walking down the alley toward "P" Street and Phil yelled after him, "You coming in tonight, dear. I'll leave a light on for you."

"Ohhhhh!" Came a catcall from the alley opening. "You go Phil. Nice catch. Night Bobbeeee."

"Maybe," Robert said, shoving his hands into his pockets, trying to get away before anyone else recognized him.

Robert didn't feel anything when he walked by the Plus 1. He thought about going into one of the bars but ended up walking the streets. It was cold and damp and had spit rain again. He missed his black trenchcoat and had no feeling that he was at all close to the Strangler or anything else. He finally gave up and headed toward Phil's.

Just after 2 a.m. Robert was letting himself in. Phil was sitting reading in his easy chair with a pink robe and the bunny rabbit slippers. Reading glasses rested down on his nose as a cup of tea steamed at his elbow. "Rough night?" Phil said, as he looked up over top of his glasses at the bruised face.

"Just more of the same. Everything is so bizarre in some of those places, I think the Strangler would fit in smoothly. Who would be able to recognize him if he wasn't wearing a sign?" Phil found the thought uncomfortable and smiled politely before going back to his reading.

"There's a pot of tea on the stove. Fresh brewed."

"No thanks. I think I'll hit the hay."

He moved down the hall and turned into the room he only slightly remembered.

The DC Strangler knew where Robert Mann lived. He'd been inside his apartment. He'd found out his secret. It was like the rabbit following the fox that thought he was chasing the rabbit. He was doing God's work and in his infinite wisdom God had led him to Officer Robert Mann's apartment so he wasn't killed by mistake. Now Officer Mann led him to people deserving of his special attention.

The hand of the Lord had been on him as he stifled the life out of the unclean. He had gotten special pleasure squeezing the life out of the pervert that meant to seduced the young police officer. That pervert would seduce no other. Then there was the piano player that guided Mann through the night. He'd watched Robert drop him off and was sure he had found his nest of filth. But it wasn't him, it was another like him that he had taken last.

The mistake had slowed his momentum. He had been shocked when the story identified the dead man. How could he have been wrong? But then he realized that God didn't always consult him before setting the wheels of judgment in motion. That pervert had died because it was his time to die. He'd only done the Lord's will in the Lord' time. The piano player's time would come soon.

He'd been careful to follow the piano player to his apartment the very next night. He'd keep his eye on him until he felt the time was right to start anew. He'd know when. He'd watch and wait.

While he wouldn't hesitate killing anyone who got in his way, he hadn't been chosen to kill innocents. But how many were truly innocent after all? He knew God would protect anyone deserving of protection while keeping him on the path of righteousness. He knew he was being protected because he got no feeling that the police suspected just how close he was.

Robert Mann was in no danger as long as he stayed out of the way. Mann had become a pawn to help him complete his task. God's wrath was meant for the sons of Sodom. He'd watched him bring home the boy who was yet another tempter that might seduce Mann to the side of evil. He thought of how easy it could be to slip into the apartment, but the time wasn't right. He'd watch and wait and strike when the way was clear.

Sitting in front of the green apartment building gave him a feeling that everything was under control. He did find it difficult not to go inside again but it wasn't time to exorcise someone that close to Mann. Maybe that's why the piano player was still alive and another sodomite died in his place. It was a special kind of judgment that had been prepared for them, he thought, laughing openly and loudly. Passersby moved along the sidewalk a few feet away. They had no clue of the power of the man who sat in the car. For he was the destroyer, the taker of lives, the right hand of God, and he knew it was good.

The engine of the green sedan came to life. The car slowly eased away from the curb and up 19th street.

Robert slept on the green satin sheets for the second time but had no memory at all of the first night he'd spent at Phil's. The room was all done in shades of green, even the walls were evergreen and for some reason he saw Commander Brown. He better call in before he left Phil's. He'd leave out the sordid details and not bother to speak about his latest clash with his brothers in blue.

The excellent lighting in the bathroom gave him an opportunity to examine the bruises more carefully. He thought there was likely to be a mark from the corner of the eyebrow to where it disappeared in the scalp where the baton had connected. It was still a little sore to the touch but the persistent headaches and throbbing had mostly disappeared. The new mark was more dense and he worked his jaw to make sure it hadn't gotten worse. The bruise wasn't nearly as serious but it had turned such a deep blue that it looked black and the swelling was apparent.

Phil was sitting at the dinning room table, feet propped up on another chair, pink robe, and pink slippers in place. There was a colorful scarf wrapped around his head and two pink hair clips held some protruding hair. He had the paper opened and didn't look up from it. "I put a cup out for you. Coffee's in the percolator."

Robert reached for the extra cup. There was a pink pig standing on it's hind legs holding a cup like the cup Robert held. It was clad in a white collar and red tie with a derby hat on it's head. There was a chuckle from Robert and a head shake, "You pick this out especially for me?"

"Yeah, thought you'd enjoy it."


Robert carefully prepared his coffee with the cream and sugar that was placed beside the pot. He turned to sit at the table and Mike Connell had appeared from somewhere. Shaking his head, he wondered if he was still asleep.

"You stay last night too?" Robert said, after processing the fact that he was really there. "Why am I too dense to see a set up? Thanks Philip, I have a long memory."

"Inexperience," Connell said bluntly. "The most dangerous man in the world is one who thinks he knows what he's doing and doesn't have a clue."

"Where were you hiding?" Robert said to his coffee before placing the spoon beside the cup and taking a seat at the far end of the table so both Phil and Mike were in front of him.

"You walked right past me. See what I mean. Inexperience. What if I had been him?" Connell's words came with a bite.

Robert looked into the dark living room. The only light flooded out of the dining room. The drapes were pulled tight and little other light got into the room. The easy chair was turned and facing the dining room and Robert suspected he had walked within a foot of Connell, never seeing him. For some reason the knowledge wasn't at all comforting.

"Phil." Connell said.

"Don't you think I've earned a right to know what the hell is going on."

"Phil." Connell said again, stepping aside so Phil had room to exit.

Connell took his time preparing his coffee. He wore a long black raincoat that covered all but the shiny black shoes and the final twelve inches of his blue trousers. He sat at the opposite end of the table and they both drank the coffee.

"I see you evened out your face. Two black eyes are better than one, I suppose. You don't look like the same guy."

"Courtesy of the local police department," Robert said, failing to hold onto the information.

"Come on."

"They jumped me on the 'meat rack' in Georgetown. There were some hustlers who saw it. They said the cops had just hassled them just before they came after me."

"Yeah, well that explains the warrant for your arrest. I guess I only need to look at who swore it out to find the culprits. It seemed so simple."

"They swore a warrant on me?"

"Cops tend to take it personal when someone kicks shit out of them. Their story is they approached you to question you about what you were doing there. You attacked them."

"Get real. They never identified themselves. They came at me."

"It is real. Brown'll take care of it when I figure out how to tell him," Connell said, stirring and stirring his coffee as he watched the swirling brown liquid.

"Will he take care of them?" Mann asked.

"Don't get all bent out of shape. We've got to be careful. They don't know you're on the same payroll as they are. I don't know he's going to let that out right now. We're standing on some pretty shaky ground here and I'm responsible for whatever happens, but Commander Brown is going to take the heat."

"And I'm all you got."

"Why didn't you tell me about number eight? Don't you think that might have been a good piece of information for me to have? And number nine, you know what that means?"

"Not now. I thought I knew what it meant. I figured he knows who I am because of the paper. I'm a fucking target and you've led me up here to Phil's. You think of that?"

"Everyone knows who you are."

"That wasn't my doing. You cops arranged that."

"Number nine might not quite see it that way," Connell said, stirring and watching Mann. "Why the hell didn't you tell us? That's why I am here. We had to talk and I wasn't sure you were going to call."

"I never gave it that much thought, except I knew he was close. I could almost feel him that day. But feelings didn't seem to be what you wanted to hear. You said call if I had something."

" That is my fault and I was wrong. I should have listened to you. Now Brown wants you off the case."

"What do you want? You know I'm close to this guy."

"No, he's close to you. There is a difference. He knows who you are." Connell sipped his coffee while he looked at a more self-assured Mann. The street was seasoning him but Connell knew the dangers.

"I want you to be careful. If he is following you, you let me handle that. You go about your business, circulate, act like you don't have clue. Don't make it too easy on the guy and keep your eyes open for a face, a car, something that keeps turning up. That's where he'll make his mistake."

"I don't want you setting yourself up as a target. As tempting as that might be, I don't think that's a good idea. He's been close to you and he'll get close again. Don't push him. If you're tempted to do that, remember, you walked past my elbow and never knew I was there. If I had been him…. Don't go off on your own."

"He's been in my apartment."

"What?" Connell leaned forward and listened carefully. The expression on his face revealed his alarm.

"My apartment was broken into a couple of days ago. Nothing was taken."

"Is anything there?"

"Yeah! Everything I got's there."

Connell stared at the wall and leaned back in the chair, easing his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankle as he pondered the news.

"So he knows? That's the piece that was missing."

"I'm sure of it. I couldn't prove it in a court of law but the only things that looked as though they weren't touched were the box where I keep my police ID and my service revolver, the one you don't want me carrying, and the clothes bag I brought from the academy. It was too obvious. He's either very confident or he wanted me to know. I think he wanted me to know."

"Or both. We should have taken precautions. This is something I hadn't figured on," Connell said, considering the next move. "This guy is good."

"Who'd know my picture would be plastered all over the papers? Why would he come in and not take anything? He was snooping. Have any of the victims been burglarized first? I might should know that."

"Good thinking. I'll get on it."

"I don't like being watched. I led him right to nine and that pisses me off."

"Gives him power. He's in control. I'll check on the burglary angle. I'd bet this guy's too careful to do anything predictable. You were a special case he was drawn to and that's what got him into your apartment. He wanted to get close to you before he killed you."

"That's still pretty bold no matter the reason," Robert thought out loud.

"He wants to prove he's smarter than we are. Believe me he wasn't expecting to find out you were a cop. I better put someone on your apartment. If he's coming back there we might get lucky."

"Cops? You're going to put cops on me?"

"You are a cop, Mann. You don't judge other cops. What else can I do? Want me to get you a couple of hippies? The guy is a cold blooded killer. He's not done with you. He's like a cat with a mouse. You're fun to play with, except now he knows."

"Hippies might not be so prone to jumping me for no reason. I don't want cops anywhere near me. I don't trust them and I'll disappear if I see one."

"I'm a cop."

"You hear me? No cops! I've got a feel for this guy. I know when he's around and I know when he isn't. Besides, you put cops on me and he'll know. No cops and I'll do whatever you want."

Connell felt a chill run through him. He didn't trust Mann's judgment and Mann no longer trusted the only protection he could provide for him. Connell could order Mann out but he knew he wouldn't and he wasn't sure Mann would listen if he did. He'd heard stories of cops going undercover and never getting back from the role they were required to play.

"You're a sitting duck, Mann. He knows where you live." Connell looked at Mann as he spoke and knew, if Mann looked in his rearview mirror and thought he saw a cop, he'd no longer trust him either. There was no easy answer and he wasn't ready to give up on the idea of keeping Mann undercover. Mann had been close to the Strangler and Connell had no doubt he would be close again. The trick would be to keep him alive long enough so they could catch the guy.

"No cops. You pull me off this thing if you think you need to put cops on me. I don't know who I can trust."

"This guy can decide you're next at any time, Mann," Connell sipped before and after he spoke, watching Robert carefully, trying to read him.

"I'll take my chances with the queers and the killer. At least I know where they stand. The guy could have gotten me instead of Andrew Parkson. He didn't for a reason. He was obviously there. I'm betting he doesn't want me but he wants me to feel he's there, especially now that he knows."

"Parkson was before the break-in?"

"Yeah. Before."

"He's toying with you all right. You're famous. That picture got his attention. It took him away from his game plan. I hate to say it, but you're now the wildcard in all this."

"He didn't figure me for a cop."

"Yeah, he was trying to unnerve the local hero when he picked up that little tidbit. I wonder what went through his mind."

"He's killing gay guys. I'm not gay. I think he's figured that out."

"It could be that simple, Mann, but why just gay guys? He can't be sure. There's only one way to know for sure. Most of my friends are married or have been. Why not a cop now and again if you're a killer?" Connell thought aloud as he looked for clues inside of clues. "What if a cop gets too close? Would he kill him or ask him about his sexuality first?"

"Let's hope he doesn't change his MO."

"Yeah, we'd be mightily embarrassed should you wake up dead one morning."

"Thanks a lot. I'd be a whole lot more than embarrassed but I think I can handle this guy."

"That's what worries me. Get out of that apartment. That's a setup for this asshole."

"I've got somebody watching it for me."

"Jesus, Mann, get that somebody out of there too. Don't you understand? He wants to show you he's smarter than you are and I see nothing that convinces me he isn't right. No one is safe there. He'd take pleasure in killing someone that close to you. It would prove how skilled he is and how inept we are."

"I don't think he'll be back. That would really be dumb. He'll expect some kind of surveillance."

"I'll play along with you for the time being but you've got to play along with me. I'll leave Brown out of the loop on some of this stuff. You keep me advised. Don't make me come looking for you again. We're on the same team." Connell took a long look at his subordinate between sips of coffee. He knew he should drop Robert Mann. It was becoming too risky but he wanted his plan to work, not just for his own sake but for the Commander.

"You've done a good job in spite of yourself. I see a real change in your attitude. You're becoming more professional. I wasn't sure a rookie could cut it, but you're an important part of the investigation now. We're depending on you. We're only going to get this guy when he makes a mistake. You're going to be in the best position to catch him when he does."

"Exactly. The rest of your cops don't care as far as I can tell."

"It's true. Cops might not respond as quickly as we might like under certain circumstances. They are human and they've been programmed in a certain way. The last generation of cops was brought up thinking it was fine sport to beat the shit out of gay men. Teach them a little lesson. Give them an incentive to change their ways. What are cops for anyway?"

"That's strange coming from you. You don't seem the least bit outraged that they beat up men for no other reason than they don't like them. They're cops!"

"It hasn't been that long ago, it was a crime being homosexual. There was a certain logic involved when they were busting their heads. It was an object lesson of sorts. Instead of arresting them and ruining them by making their perversion public, they hurt them to make them understand. It was all quite honorable… unless you were the guy getting your head busted. Then it might seem a bit harsh."

"That still sounds strange coming from you."

"I'm still a cop. I still see what cops see."

"You can't justify beating people up for being in a gay bar," Robert said, absently feeling the side of his face as he was speaking. "Sometimes they're wrong when they think everyone in a gay bar is gay."

" I never said I condone it. I said, I understood the logic behind it. I understand how it got that way."

" Well I've done it without any help from the cops so far."

" You just can't afford to go it alone on this. If you want to end up a cop you've got to play ball. I'll take care of your latest misadventure and get the warrant purged. Brown has to know about that one. There's no way I can get it done myself without setting off the bells and whistles of the bureaucracy. He'll yell a lot and threaten some punishment worse than death, but I'll keep him on board if I can."

"I didn't do anything. They came at me. I didn't know they were cops until the damage was done. I'm not sorry I defended myself. They'd have gladly stomped me into the ground. I'm about sick of being their whipping boy. I'm not standing there and letting them beat up on me."

"Yeah, well, when you're reassigned, maybe you'll get to explain that to them if you end up in their precinct house, huh? They say it happened different than what you say. There are two of them. You see the problem."

"Yeah, well I got witnesses that saw it."

"High class citizens no doubt. Willing to come to the aid of the downtrodden. You've got a lot to learn, Mann. You don't know what you're up against. People believe cops because they're cops."

"I'm a cop."

"Yeah, there is that. How did I get myself into this mess?"

"You want to solve this case and you know the cops assigned to it could give a shit less. I'll do the job and they won't. That's why."

"What Bland did to you was wrong and he'll be dealt with at an appropriate time. We'll send the strongest possible message about gay bashing. The other two might be a bit more problematic."

"Not on my account you won't! Not those other cops either. You're not putting it on me."

"It has nothing to do with you. It has to do with their actions and the consequences. Those other cops will see the error of their ways after Brown is done with them. You came out a lot better than either of them."

"I won't go against another cop if they don't force me. No way."

"Once we've caught this guy, the city will need to heal. The gay community will be watching us. If they're ever going to trust the police we've got to give them something to show our good faith."

"Don't ask me to be a part of it."

"Where'd you learn to fight like that? Those guys were a mess once you got done with them."

"I had to fight every day when I was a kid. Something about my skin totally pissed people off."

"In North Dakota?"

"Yeah, on the res. Funny thing was, I ended up in the public school because I couldn't get along in the Indian School. Then I had to fight with them because of my hair. It was coal black and went halfway down my back."

"Why not cut it?"

"I was Arikara. I wasn't bowing down to no white boys."


"I don't know what I am anymore. I think I know and then…."

Connell uncrossed his legs and stood up, looking quite tall and looming in the black coat. "That's out of both of our hands. We've got to catch this guy and you be whatever it is you've got to be to do it."

"I can feel him, you know."

"That's all you have?"

"Yeah, that's all right now. I feel him sometimes. I get a feeling he's watching. I can't explain it but something always happens. I don't understand it yet."

"Don't be giving me no Voodoo shit from your redskin ancestors. We're cops, not Shamen."

"It's not Voodoo." Mann was surprised by the word. He was getting better at playing the game but there were still things that confused him. He didn't want anyone else to die on his watch and he was sure he was in the best possible position to stop the killer.

Connell felt the same way even with Mann's lack of experience and his independent attitude. Things had played out better than he could have hoped but it was a lot more dangerous for his rookie than he had anticipated.

"We've got to reconsider everything. First, the gun and the ID in that shoe box. Start carrying them on you. I think we're both on the same track. I want you to keep me advised but lay low a few days, stay off the street until I can clear this warrant thing up."

"I'm all ears. Tell me what you want. I'll do my best to give it to you."

"Next, clear out of here and stay away from Phil. Clear out of your apartment if you won't let me protect you there.

"Got it."

"Is there a place where you can go that no one knows about? I don't have to know where it is. A place where you can lay low? Give it three days and I'll tell you if you can come out or not or if I need more time on the warrant."

"Let me think about it. There is one place no one knows about but me."

"Good! I feel better. Here's some extra cash. Here's a card with my home phone number and address. You use it if anything goes wrong. I wouldn't advise you to use Brown's number unless you have a death wish. I'm all that's keeping you out here right now and we need to work together. He believes in both of us but Lord knows why. I think we owe him our best shot but I don't want him involved in these decisions. This is all on my dime, Mann. I want to keep him in the clear if I can."

"Got it."

"It will shake the Strangler up when you move. Do it in a way that he can't follow. Drive up a few streets and down a few alleys. Don't park the car in front of where you're staying."

"Give me some credit. I'll ditch the car. I've got my own out in Virginia. No reason I can't drive that."

"Something nice and plain that will blend in so it isn't easy for him to spot you, I hope. They call it undercover for a reason."

"Yeah, I know."

"Good idea. Keep my card on you in case you get into trouble again. You seem to have a natural attraction to trouble. Be careful and stay in touch. Only use Phil to contact me if there is no other way. I'd like to keep him out of it until we get this guy."

"Got it," Mann said, picking up the large roll of bills as Connell disappeared into the living room and out the front door, neither man being sure he was being told everything the other one knew.

"Can I come out of the closet?" Phil asked from the hall.

"I don't think that's been an issue for you for some time."

"Yes, a lot of the boys tell me that," and May West was back in his voice. "So, I've used up all my credibility with the strong silent one?"

"You could have told me it was a setup, Phil. I don't like being blind sided."

"Yes, but would you have hung around if I had? I was asked not to tell."

"Yeah, well, I appreciate the bed. It's more comfortable than mine."

"That fold away job or do you have one stashed away somewhere else in that expansive apartment?"

"The police don't rent expensive apartments. I'm sure they picked the couch up along side the curb somewhere in Southeast after an eviction. The springs in that thing are deadly."

"Bobby, be careful. Don't do anything foolish. You've got a key. I'm not so scared I wouldn't help you if you need it. Don't listen to Mike. He thinks he can protect all of us. You come here if anything happens."

"You've been watching too many movies. I'm not doing anything foolish, but thanks for worrying about me. I'll be fine."

Mike Connell had shed his black raincoat before going up to the office. He was surprised to see Detective Pollard seated near his desk. "I just talked to Bland. He said you had a doctor's appointment. You get lost?"

"Don't start. I need to talk to Brown."

"Well, the commander is a little busy. I clear his meetings and you aren't on his schedule. Perhaps if you care to level with me, and explain why you're lying to your partner, maybe I can work you in."

"It's Bland. I want another partner. I don't care if it means I'm off this deal. I don't care what it means. I'm tired of tiptoeing around him. Since his wife left him he's worse, and I'm becoming a basket case trying to stay out of his way. I'm tired of baby-sitting your bad boy."

"So what did he do to deserve this? I just talked to him two hours ago and he was as happy as a clam."

"Yeah, he's like the eye of the hurricane. The guy is crazy and I'm not crazy enough to want to deal with him. I let him have his way but I'm getting tired of it. I want off. I want another partner."

"He had some ideas about getting another car so you two could split up for even more of each day. I gave him my okay. Maybe if you go along with that, it'll work for you and we don't have to do a lot of paperwork."

"You're telling me I can't see Brown?"

"Commander. Pollard is out here. Has a problem only you can solve."

"I've got a schedule. He know anything about schedules and phones? He's got two minutes and it better be worth my goddamn time."

Connell stuck his hand out, palm up, to indicate Pollard should make the journey down the hall, but after hearing the tone of Brown's voice, he suddenly wasn't so sure he wanted to go.

"In." Brown was sitting at the desk looking over the top of his glasses at the new arrival as he came in the door. I'd ask you to take a seat but you aren't going to be here long enough to sit down."

Pollard stiffened to attention in front of his boss.

"Cat got your tongue or you just come here to memorize what my black ass looks like? The clock is ticking. You got a minute left."

"No, sir. I came about Bland."

"Don't even! He's already on my shit list. That where you're aiming to go, son. You really want to go there?" Brown's attention was all on Pollard now.

"He's nuts. I can't deal with him anymore. I like my job and I can't do it while trying to stay out of his way. I want another partner or a reassignment, Commander. That's it."

"Oh! That's it?" Brown watched the cop in front of him squirm under his gaze as he thought about his words. "Keep an eye on him for me. He's not my favorite cop right now. I'm aware of the situation and I'll consider your request. I'm just too busy to do anything right this minute. Can you stand it for a few more days? Isn't he asking for another car so you two can be on your own most of the time anyway."

"It's the first I heard of it. I mean Connell just now said it."

"He didn't run it by you?"

"He doesn't run anything by me. I don't have a clue what he does all those hours he's out there by himself at night."

"How many hours?"

"I don't know. Thirty to fifty miles a night doing something. I figure he's working eighteen hours a day. He looks like shit."

"He's only signing for ten."

"I know he's obsessed with that Mann kid from the Post. The one he belted. I think Bland could hurt him if he thought Mann might damage his career. I had no part of that."

Brown stared at him in silence while he thought. "You just come up with that off the top of your head or do you know something I should know?"

"Up until a few days ago he was worried to death Mann would come forward and file charges against him. I told him gay guys didn't come forward, ever, against cops. He asked me to find out where he lived and then he says he's got some guys that are going to talk to him and I shouldn't worry so much. The guy isn't right in the head, Commander. I don't want him ruining my career. I ain't no great shakes but I try to be a good cop."

"Okay. Keep your ears open and stick with it while I look at alternatives. I hear what you're saying but you can do us more good by keeping an eye on him. Whatever he does won't reflect on you. I'll see to it. I've got your back from now on."

"Yes, sir. That's all I ask. I don't want to be held responsible if he does something crazy, and he will do something crazy sooner or later."

"You got it, now get out of here and let me get back to work." Pollard was on his way out when Commander Brown got on the intercom. "Connell, what's Bland up to?"

"I don't know. Pollard says he's up to no good."

"He told me he's obsessed with Mann. What's Mann doing?"

"I guess we need to talk. I've got him on the move and he's going to lie low a few days. Something's come up that makes that advisable."

"How much are you not telling me, Connell, and how long before my ignorance comes back to bite me?"

"Nothing you want to know, sir. Not until I can get things back under control."

"Under control? Meaning things are beyond your control? Why am I feeling someone's hot breath on my ass all of a sudden?"

"You had burritos for dinner last night?"

"Very funny, Connell. Don't get too far out ahead of me. Carry on!"

"Yes, sir," Connell said, thinking as he let his finger up off the intercom. Robert Mann was out of reach, for how long he wasn't sure. He suddenly felt uneasy about telling him to lie low without knowing where he was doing it.

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