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The Skull Hunter, 4

The Kaining of Rick Vargo

by S. Michael Leier

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Part 1 of 2

Ghosts, demons, witches... What a royal pain in the butt. If anyone ever has any doubt that something happens to us after we die, just send them to me. There is an existence after this life, and some of it is very, very bad. I know: I deal with it every day. I’ve seen it up close and personal. The things that make most people wake up in a cold sweat are par for the course in my job. My name is Rick Vargo. I’m a private investigator, and these are my stories.

Kaining of Rick Vargo I was driving home on a cold January evening. The pure December snow had turned black with the dirt and grime of the city. Amazing how different the city could look and feel in just a month. In December, the streets were clean with pure white snow. The buildings were lined with lights, garlands, and the other essentials of the holiday. People who wouldn’t cross the street to spit on your shoes were suddenly going out of their way to say hello. Those with money and those without seemed to co-exist in a spirit of fellowship. Music and singing could be heard playing from the houses.

On December 31, it all cumulated into one big party as everybody hugged each other and celebrated well into the night. Just 24 hours later, it all changed. People looked like they had just been hit by a bus. They walked the streets with an expression like someone had stolen their favorite pet. No one said hello, no one even looked up as you passed. They were all wrapped tightly in their coats and hurrying to wherever.

Strange that the night before they were hugging total strangers, wishing them the best for the New Year. Once it arrived, they ignored each other like the plague. Yeah it’s amazing how things can change in one month.

It didn’t matter to me, however; I was happy. I had just finished a job and had some money in my pocket for the first time in quite a while. The first thing that entered my mind was getting an apartment. I had been living in my office for the past five months since my friendly landlord evicted me. I found out that if you don’t pay the rent for one...two... okay six months they have the nerve to throw a guy out into the streets. I was looking forward to getting on my feet, trying to get back to normal again. Well, as normal as my line of work allowed.

I pulled up and parked my car next to the sidewalk across from my office building. My office was on the third floor. I had a smile on my face as I looked at the old building with its gothic architecture. It even had gargoyles on the roof. Seemed rather appropriate for the office of a Para-normal private eye. I patted my pocket, the wad of cash bulging there made me feel warm. Yep, for a cold January it had been a good day. That’s when I heard someone yelling from inside my building.

“I knew it was too good to last,” I said starting to run for the entrance.

Before I could get there, Sam the night watchman burst outside screaming at me. “Mister Vargo, get down!” screamed Sam. He ran right to me, I could see his eyes were wide with fright as he grabbed my coat, flinging me to the roadway.

“What...” I started to say when the top half of the building exploded in a ball of flames. Glass from the windows showered the ground around us, as did pieces of brick and mortar. The sound was deafening, and my ears were plugged with a constant ringing. I looked up at Sam who was moving his lips, but I couldn’t make out anything he was saying.

He was shaking me as his muffled voice began to clear in my head. “Mister Vargo, are you all right?” he was asking with desperation.

“I don’t know,” I answered, confused. “What happened?”

Suddenly I saw headlights bearing down on us. I grabbed Sam and rolled away just in time to be missed by a passing car that splashed mud all over us. Recovering, I looked up at my office building and saw that it was ablaze. I grabbed my hat, which had been smashed by the car, and threw it back down in disgust. “So much for my good day.”

It took two hours for the fire department to extinguish the fire then let Sam and me inside to check the damage. It was a total loss. Everything was gone, including my couch, desk, and clothes.

“This looks like where it started,” said the Fire Chief as he knelt on the scorched floor in the middle of the room. “Must have been some kind of incendiary device, judging by the scorch marks. You can see how the ceiling above it has burned all the way through. Yeah, it looks like someone definitely did this on purpose.”

The Chief looked at me in a sum-up sort of way. “You got any enemies that you know of?”

“None living,” I said with an uneasy grin. “Sam, did anyone come up here?”

“No sir,” Sam shook his head firmly. “No one could have gotten in here without me seeing them. The back door to the alley was locked tight. I had just checked it before this happened.”

“How about the window?” asked the Chief.

“No way,” I stated without hesitation. “That window has been painted shut since the Stone Age. Besides they would’ve had to climb up three stories.” I walked over to the window to inspect it. “The pane has blown out, there’s no glass inside the room, so no one broke the glass to get in.”

“Sam you said you received a phone call just before the explosion?” asked the Chief.

“Yeah, I got a call from a man who said that there was a bomb in the building and I had five seconds to get out,” Sam looked as thought he was reliving the experience over in his mind. “Then he started counting down 5... 4... 3... by the time he got to 2, I screamed and ran out of the building. That’s when I saw Mister Vargo. I grabbed him and the next thing I knew... boom!”

“Strange,” said the Chief, puzzled.

“Yeah you get used to that around Vargo,” a gruff voice said from the doorway. I turned and saw Detective Sergeant Brogan chewing on a toothpick and grinning. Brogan didn’t like me; the feeling was mutual. He was a barreled-chested Irishman with a chip on his shoulder. We’d had several run-ins in the past, and he took particular delight in harassing me.

“Brogan, I thought I smelled your bad breath,” I sneered.

“Keep it up, pal and you’ll be wearing my shoe for underwear,” Brogan replied, stepping into the room. “Looks like you had quite a party here, Vargo.”

As Brogan stepped down, I heard the crunch of something breaking. “Oops, hope that wasn’t anything important.” He said in a half-handed fashion.

“Not anymore,” I replied sarcastically.

“So there appears to be no forced entry, Chief,” Brogan asked.

“None that I can determine, and the evidence all points to arson as the cause,” answered the Chief. “Well I’m done here for now. I have to get back to the station. You’ll have my full report by morning, Detective.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” said Brogan as he stopped in the center of the room and looked at the scorch mark. He used his foot to spread out some of the debris. “Where were you tonight, Vargo?”

“I was just coming back from a job.”

“What kind of job?”

“You know I can’t answer that.”

“I hear you’ve been a little down on your luck lately,” said Brogan as he continued to inspect the room. “I hear business hasn’t been too good.”

“What are you getting at, Brogan?”

“Just interested in your life, Vargo. Is there something wrong with that?” Brogan smiled a sly grin. “Not having any money can make a man do some pretty strange things.”

I knew what he was getting at. “Do I look like a guy who would have insurance?” I asked angrily. “Everything I owned was in this office. Now it’s gone and I ain’t got any way of getting it back. Now if you have an accusation to make, make it. If not, then get the hell out of my office.”

Sam fidgeted as he felt the tension grow in the room. “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I have work to do,” he said then quickly left the room.

“Getting a little touchy in your old age, Vargo?” Brogan asked. The calmness of his voice raked across my spine. All I wanted to do was take out my frustration on his round bulldog face, but better judgment stopped me. “Anyway this is an official investigation. Since the Fire Chief believes this to be a deliberately set fire it means we have an arsonist to find.”

He turned and looked coldly into my eyes. “That’s a real investigation for a real person. I intend to find out who did this and see them locked up for a very long time.” He turned and started towards the door. “Stay in touch, Vargo. I gonna want to know where you are... for future questions. Have a nice day.”

I watched Brogan disappear through the door and my rage boiled over. I kicked at the floor scattering a pile of debris. I glanced down and saw something in the scorch mark. The black shadow seemed to have formed around something long and slender.

“It can’t be,” I said kneeling down to look closer. “It looks like the outline of a foot?”

* * *

The sun was still several hours away when I opened the door of a boarding house several blocks from my office. It was run-down and smelled of stale urine, but it was homey in a septic-tank sort of way.

I was tired, my clothes smelled like smoke. I noticed something on the old wooden door. Two deep parallel scratches running diagonally that were torn into the wood. I was carrying a black bag with a few small personal items when I walked to the front desk and saw a fat man in a torn tee shirt sleeping in a worn out chair. A cigar hung from his drooling lips. I banged on the counter. Startled, the old man sat up bleary-eyed.

“What do you want?” he said in a deep gruff voice. He coughed, hacked, and spat on floor.

“I need a room,” I answered.

“Do you know what time it is? Come back later,” he said harshly, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes.

I was about to answer when a voice whispered my name right next to my ear. I dropped the black bag and swung around, but no one was there. Confused and blaming it on lack of sleep, I turned back to the old man when I heard it again. This time I saw a dark shadow out of the corner of my eye. I instinctively pulled out the pistol in my front coat pocket. The man behind the counter bolted from his chair.

“Look I don’t want no trouble,” he said nervously eyeing the pistol.

“What... Oh,” I said, putting it back in my pocket.

The old man grabbed a key off a hook and tossed it on the counter. “A room is $10 dollars a night or $50 for the week.”

“I’ll take the week,” I said reaching into my pocket. So much for that warm feeling I had had earlier.

“Towels are fifty cents extra. If you want clean sheets that’ll be a dollar extra. Your room is right up those stairs to the right. The bathroom and shower are at the end of the hall.”

“Do I need to sign anything?”

He quickly grabbed a book and slid it under the counter. “Don’t worry about it. I keep a quiet place here, if you know what I mean,” he said with a sly grin. “But I don’t want no trouble.”

“All I want is sleep,” I said picking up the bag and walking away. “By the way, someone ripped up your front door.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by S. Michael Leier

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