.

Discharged!
by Stephen D. Rogers


......."The Professor is here as my guest."

.......Cunningham's three lieutenants stared at me with dead eyes. I didn't wave a greeting across the table or congratulate them on their success evading New Bedford's organized crime task unit, although I'm usually a pretty friendly guy.

......."The Professor will be assisting me in the matter we're about to discuss." Cunningham crossed his hands over his belly. "In this matter, he speaks for me, but only in this matter."

.......In other words, once this matter had been resolved, they were free to dump me in the Crapo Hill landfill. The remaining two of them, anyway.

......."Earlier this week, one of you three overstepped his bounds. If I'd wanted Manny capped to keep him from testifying, I would have given the order. I didn't. Now, instead of bribing an official, I'm looking at first-degree murder. The DA called me himself to gloat."

.......I could see why Cunningham brought me into this. The three men sitting opposite him didn't even blink.

.......I'm not sure why I expected anything different. They were small time thugs just like their boss; interchangeable, each fully capable of committing just about any crimes available in a small American city. Three finer men had never graced the inside of a federal penitentiary. I nicknamed them Slick, Eyebrows, and Wheezy to keep them straight in my mind.

.......Cunningham continued. "I don't need that kind of trouble, not with these upstart gangs snapping at our heels. While I can appreciate that whoever whacked Manny was just trying to protect me, the whole idea was ill advised."

.......Ill advised. What a quaint way to issue a death sentence. Someone outside the crime world, someone who didn't even skate along its edges as I did being a private investigator, might think the comment innocuous. Bureaucratic doubletalk. Fluff.

.......Those of us in the room knew better.

.......One of the three lieutenants (stooges?) was going to die shortly, and I had the dubious privilege of pointing the finger. Me, Dan Stone, PI. Defender of widows and orphans.And now, fingerman for the mob.

.......Cunningham chose me because I was based on the Cape and didn't usually work New Bedford, and never in these circles. So the lieutenants didn't know who I was, and that gave me the advantage. A very thin advantage. Perhaps just thin enough to cut me from ear to ear.

......."I asked the Professor to join us because I didn't feel like sending your guns to the State Police Crime Lab in Sudbury. I didn't want to wait two weeks for an answer." Cunningham laughed, probably imagining the day he got his hooks into that unit.

.......II wasn't about as much a professor as I was a ballet dancer, but the gold-rimmed specs and the old tweed jacket I'd found in the back of my closet much have convinced them.

......."Professor?"

.......My stomach lurched as I realized he meant me. I cleared my throat. "Gentlemen, I haven't been invited here to make accusations, but to run a scientific test of my own design. While I didn't realize my work was common knowledge, your boss isn't exactly John Q. Public."

.......Cunningham nodded, acknowledging the compliment.

......."I've been assured that none of you have had cause to discharge your weapons within the last week. My test can determine whether you have in fact fired your gun recently, no matter how well you may have cleaned your firearm afterwards."

.......Of course I was full of shit. I was running a bluff against three guys who appeared to have perfected the poker face. Not to mention Cunningham who wouldn't hesitate to kill me if he learned I'd lied to him.

......."Please place your weapons on the table in front of you."

.......They each looked to Cunningham. He nodded.

.......Three guns came out and were plunked down. All were .45 caliber semiautomatics. Not the most fashionable gun on the market, but deadly nonetheless.

.......Starting with Slick's gun, I made sure there wasn't a round in the chamber before I ejected the clip and handed it back to him.

......."As you may or may not know, when you pull the trigger of this or almost any gun, you cause the primer to ignite the propellant which creates an explosion which forces the bullet down the barrel. This process generates something called gunshot residue."

.......I laid three cotton swabs on the table.

......."Among other things, the residue contains compounds of barium, lead, and antimony. I've developed a formula that can verify the presence of a microscopic quantity of these elements. All in about five minutes."

.......I answered the question I knew they would have asked if they'd been free to ask questions. Fortunately for me, they weren't. Tough guys did not raise their hands in order to admit ignorance. Tough guys were morons that way.

.......A six-year-old would have cut my bluff to ribbons.

.......Next to the cotton swabs I placed a small glass specimen bottle which contained slightly gray tap water.

.......I studied the three men across from me. Before I could determine who was hiding his response to the test results, I needed to catalog the men's normal tics and behaviors. A person who clears his throat before speaking might be lying, unless that person typically clears his throat due to causes unrelated to the topic at hand.

......."I've conducted almost a hundred double-blind experiments, and my formula has never produced a false positive. If the moistened swab reacts to the inside of your gun barrel, you can bet your life you've fired your gun within the last week."

.......Cunningham laughed at my turn of phrase. He could afford to laugh. He was the house, and the house always won.

.......I pried the rubber stopper out of the bottle and dipped the first swab inside. Capped the bottle. Slid the swab down the barrel of Slick's gun. Repeated the ritual two more times.

......."Five minutes, gentlemen."

.......In five minutes the average person blinked sixty times and swallowed twice, but these were not normal circumstances. I didn't bother counting the blinks or swallows, the sniffs or shifts. Instead I watched for the tell that would indicate guilt. I waited for a killer's subconscious to confess.

.......Which was almost funny since it was losses at the poker table that brought me here.  Not the losses, which could happen to anybody, but the bluff I'd run on Cunningham:  pick up my marker and I'll be available if you ever needed an investigator.  I mean, what were the odds?

.......He'd surprised me by accepting the offer, perhaps even then knowing this day was coming. Perhaps he'd weathered several coup attempts already.

.......I made a show of checking my watch. How could one minute have passed so soon? My armpits were suddenly damp.

.......When Cunningham had summoned me to a bar in Brockton, he'd been boiling with rage. He'd called whoever killed Manny a traitor, a traitor who'd silenced Manny only to protect himself. Outside the DA's office, only Cunningham's three lieutenants had known where Manny was being hidden. Cunningham called in my marker, demanded I figure out which one had pulled the job.

.......Since I had no interest in spending any more time with these goons than necessary, I'd quickly fabricated my formula story and sold Cunningham on the idea I could determine the killer using science.

.......Did psychology qualify?

.......Two minutes were up.

.......Even the pair who didn't kill Manny should have been nervous. What did they know from false positives? If I screwed this up, they're the ones who might be wrongly accused. How could they not find that thought sobering?

.......None of the three appeared nervous, which made me nervous. Just knowing he had displeased Cunningham should have put the killer on edge, but then maybe he knew something I didn't. It suddenly occured to me that maybe the killer hadn't used the gun he'd placed on the table.How could I have missed that angle? How could I have been that stupid?

.......If that was true, I was sunk.

.......Three minutes were up.

.......Even those who understood the psychology behind tells were susceptible to them. Learn to stamp out one nervous behavior and another will emerge to relieve the pressure, greater now due to the additional effort of hiding the first.

.......How was my body showing my inner turmoil? Had the others in the room spotted my tell, guessed what it might mean? Or would they simply excuse any strange behavior on my part, accustomed as they probably were to people under a great deal of stress?

.......One minute left.

.......Cunningham cleaned his fingers, using the nails on one hand to scrape under the nails on the other, as if he didn't have a care in the world.

.......What about the killer? Was he replaying the highlights of his life? Weighing his regrets? Communing with his maker?

.......Perhaps he was too busy developing a plan of action. Scripting a bluff of his own. Or maybe he was betting on the long shot, gambling that science too had bad days, and that my test would fail for the first time ever.

.......Of course there was no saying the killer hadn't seen this coming and prepared for the eventuality.

.......For all I knew, he was two steps ahead of me. Maybe as soon as I announced the results of today's examination, he'd denounce me as a private investigator whose grade for chemistry had hovered around a D.

.......Then he'd shoot me with his backup gun. Or call in his friends who were waiting just outside the door. Maybe Cunningham would do the deed himself, outraged that I'd tried to con him with my talk of experiments.

.......Time.

......."When I withdraw the swabs from the barrels, the swab that has turned slightly blue will indicate which gun has been recently fired."

.......During these five minutes, I'd been analyzing the three lieutenants, watching for some indication of guilt, hoping that even a sociopath would feel remorse after betraying his boss.

.......There. As I reached towards the swabs, the killer revealed himself, a facial tic that nobody could miss except that all eyes were on my hand.

.......I withdrew each of the swabs and examined them. Once I indicated that one was slightly bluer than gray, everybody would see what they expected to see. That too was psychology.

.......After taking a deep breath, I nodded towards Slick.

.......He pushed back his chair. "No, I swear--"

......."Take him away. Put him away." Cunningham watched the brief struggle impassively, ignoring Slick's claims of innocence as he was dragged from the room.

.......I tried to ignore the proceedings, quickly gathering the swabs and slipping them into my pocket to distract myself from the fact I'd just condemned a man to death.

.......Whatever I might have done today, one of the lieutenants would have been marked for death. Perhaps my involvement had been the only thing keeping all three from being killed outright.

.......Cunningham had never been known for half-measures.

......."We're even then."

.......Cunningham smiled at me. "Yes. Until I need you again someday."

......."But you said--"

.......His smile became a frown without even moving. "And now I say different. You want to join the last man who forgot his place?"

......."No."

......."Good. When I call you, Professor, you come. Day or night, whatever you're doing, you come. Understand?"

......."I understand."

.......Outside, I marveled at how the sunlight tickled the shadows, how the breeze off the ocean dispelled the city's exhaust. I was alive. More than that, I'd seen my plan through to the bloody end.

.......By accusing Slick of the one crime he didn't commit, I'd cemented the position of Eyebrows, the traitor who would eventually take Cunningham down.

.......I could discharge my own debts, thank you very much.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Stephen D. Rogers



Over four hundred of Stephen's stories and poems have been selected to appear in more than a hundred publications. His website, www.stephendrogers.com, includes a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely information.

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