HANGING CURVE - DAN AMES
Fourth Place Winner in the recent Watery Grave Invitational
Looking back, it really all began and ended with a photograph.
As I stood and looked down at the black and white image of my brother, I sensed the irony immediately. You see, even though I was two years younger, we had looked almost exactly alike. Our build. The way we spoke. Our mannerisms.
In fact, when we were growing up, people constantly got us mixed up with each other. Our friends and our teachers would call us by the other’s name. It was like we were twins. But there was one thing that was different between us, and it was dramatically different.
It was the way we thought.
People sometimes joked that the way to tell us apart was that I was the one with the brain. Now, looking at the crime scene photograph of my brother, the memory seemed to echo.
Because someone had blown my brother’s head off.
“I really appreciate this, Mike,” I said.
“Least I can do,” he said, and flopped my brother’s flimsy case file onto his battered metal desk. Detroit was down to nothing in terms of money for cops, and Mike Haverley’s corner of the world was a prime example. He looked at his shabby black desk chair, then back up at me.
“I’m thirsty,” he said.
We walked down to a cop bar a few blocks from the station house.
“To Joe,” he said and held his bottle of Heineken up toward mine. We clinked, and he drank half of his in one long pull. Mike and my brother had been good friends growing up, often partners in crime until Joe had left to play ball. Mike had stayed.
I looked up at the television toward the other end of the bar. The Tigers were playing the Brewers. Mike followed my gaze.
“He was something else, wasn’t he?” he said. Mike smiled at the memory, and I took in the lines in his face, how was one of his teeth was cracked.
“Effortless,” I said. Because I knew, without asking, that Mike was talking about my brother’s ability on the baseball field. Joe had been a star for East Detroit High School, had gotten a full-ride scholarship to a college in Ohio where he’d promptly been booted out a year later and wound up on the Tigers’ farm team. A year after that, he was playing in the pros.
Mike slid a document out from the inside of his tan and coffee-stained JC Penney sportcoat.
“Don’t read this now,” he said. “An ongoing investigation, a lot of press because of your brother’s...” He paused, looking for the right word.
“I understand,” I said. Even though a bar is a great place to have a discreet conversation, it’s not foolproof.
He drained the rest of his beer and I signaled the bartender for another, which she placed in front of Mike. My beer’s level was still visible above the label.
“Can I ask you a question, Tommy?” he said.
I nodded, already knowing what was coming. The same question I’d been asked a million times as a kid, and later, after Joe was playing ball for the Tigers.
“It ever bother you?” Mike said. “How good he was?”
“No,” I said. “I loved to watch him play.” And it was the truth. Joe Locker was the single most natural athlete I’d ever seen in my life.
“Besides,” I said, “all of our coaches told me the same thing.”
“What’s that?” Mike said. He looked at me, a little surprised at my honesty.
“I think too much.”
A day later, Mike called and told me the investigation was over. They had the guy. About a year before my brother Joe’s murder, a homeless guy had been found in an abandoned lot south of the city with his head blown off. And according to the report, that wasn’t just an expression. Literally, the head was almost completely gone.
Just like Joe’s.
The coroner was able to dig double-aught buckshot out of the neck stump and guessed the shotgun was probably a 10 gauge, maybe even an antique 8 gauge, judging by the size of the shot.
After the first homeless guy was found, every month or two another one was found around the city, usually in the poor sections. Unfortunately for Detroit, the poor sections constituted most of the city. The victims were all similar in that they were drunks, drug users, homeless, or all three.
My brother was a drunk and a drug addict, but I had bought him an apartment years back so he was never homeless.
Not that it mattered.
The cops had done their work, and eventually with some tire tracks, a key eyewitness and an informant, they had followed the trail to a guy named Wayne DeVoss. An artist with a warehouse studio overrun with rats, crack pipes, some unusual paintings and a suitcase with nearly fifty grand in cash.
At first, the suitcase got all the attention, but eventually, it lost favor to the canvases. Which soon revealed the heavy impasto and thick textures weren’t oil or acrylic, but blood and brain tissue.
Maybe inspired by the urban legend of snuff films, Wayne DeVoss had been an artistic pioneer, opening up a whole new field of modern art.
Death paintings, he called them.
The funny thing about being labeled as an athlete who thought too much was that, even back then, it didn’t offend me. Because I knew they were right. My brother could play deep shortstop, backhand a high bouncer, whirl and throw, with a fully unconscious grace, a “frozen rope” to first base. I was the opposite. I would charge a ball, sacrifice my body to knock it down and then throw it with a clenched fist and gritted teeth, holding onto the ball too long so that it scorched dirt at the first basemen’s feet.
Thinking too much.
Not a good trait for an athlete.
So I turned to computers. While Joe was out every night, drinking, getting high, getting laid, I focused on the family computer. I studied it. Took it apart and put it back together again. I studied software, learned code and, more importantly, what good code could do. Within six months, I had hacked into our high school’s computer system. Another six months and I was browsing private files at the University of Michigan, General Motors and the Detroit Mayor’s office.
But I never told anyone.
Even back then, privacy was all I really wanted.
And time to think.
I didn’t attend any court appearances featuring Wayne DeVoss. The man meant nothing to me. Instead, I booked a room at a nondescript hotel in a suburb of Detroit and fell into a routine. Early in the morning, I would study deals, contracts and project files for my company. I had also added a bit of a venture capitalist arm to my original software business and the profits from those half-dozen deals had made me a very wealthy man.
In a way, my success had eerily counterweighted Joe’s fall from grace.
His rookie year for the Tigers would be his best. The big contract that followed at the end of that year opened up the gates to the Party Palace and kept them open until long after Joe, his booze, his drugs and his money were thoroughly exhausted.
It happened quickly. After that first season, the steady diet of booze and drugs began to eat away at his reflexes. The errors occurred with greater regularity. His batting average, always high because of his instinctive hitting style, began to drop. At first, a few digits every month. And then double digits. During his sophomore season with the Tigers, he started using heroin, in addition to cocaine and alcohol. And then, in a colossal blunder, he started sleeping with, and introducing drugs to, the 18-year-old daughter of the team’s owner, a billionaire businessman and entrepreneur named Nicholas Kuchin. The girl wound up overdosing and nearly dying, the tabloids went nuts, and at the end of the season, Joe was history in Detroit.
According to the homicide team’s notes and photographs, obtained for me by a subcontractor of my company who was an expert at illegally accessing government computers, DeVoss’s setup for his death paintings was somewhat ingenious.
The subject was placed on a chair, in profile, in front of a large canvas on an easel.
Directly in front of the subject was an old-fashioned still camera. The huge kind used by old portrait photographers, where the camera operator ducked under a black velvet shroud.
What DeVoss had, though, was a double-barreled shotgun set up inside the contraption. A thin plate of mirrored glass prevented the models from seeing the working end of the double-barreled shotgun.
DeVoss would no doubt tell the subject to remain still, then blow their heads off, splattering the canvas in the process.
A one-take shot.
Despite my reputation as being somewhat cold, a rational man driven by logic, I felt the fury building inside me.
So I did what I’ve always done best.
I thought about it.
The crux of the problem was that for the police, the victims of DeVoss were pretty much the same. They were drunks, drug addicts, homeless people, or some combination of the three.
My brother fit perfectly into the victim profile DeVoss had followed.
The cops thought so.
And I did, too.
Or, at least, I had initially.
But then I thought about it. And thought some more.
Eventually, I reached a decision.
It came down to the blackballing. That was the thing that really set Joe back. It hadn’t just been his own torrid demise, as thorough and impressive as that had been. In addition to himself, he’d also practically brought down the entire organization. The owner’s daughter, Victoria Kuchin, wound up in drug rehab, having narrowly escaped death. Nicholas Kuchin, at the end of Joe’s sophomore season, had a massive brain aneurysm, some claimed brought on by the stress of his daughter’s problems. The team had their worst season in twenty years, and nearly everyone blamed Joe. It was hard enough trying to find a new team when you had botched your own season as a player. But when you’d practically brought down a franchise single-handedly, well, no one wanted you. Period.
That summer, I bought Joe a first-class ticket to the West Coast and, after I had badgered him enough, he finally relented and came to see me. And to get out of Detroit.
I’ll never forget the look on his haggard face when we toured my headquarters, which at the time, was easily half the size it is now. But Joe was genuinely happy about his little brother’s success. And everyone at my place loved Joe, his easy humor and graceful presence even apparent away from a baseball field. They didn’t see him as I did. To me, he was a drink and drug-addled shell of his former self. Even at half power, though, his personality and spirit were enough to win people over.
That night, over broiled lobster and a few bottles of white wine on the balcony of my flat overlooking the Pacific, he let me get a glimpse.
“I’m finished,” he said. “I let down the wrong people.”
It was maybe the third time in my life I’d heard him say something negative.
“Baseball is a huge community,” I said. “Even you couldn’t piss everyone off.”
He took a deep drink of his wine.
“No, not all of them,” he said. “Just the ones that matter.”
The more I thought about it, the more it came down to that suitcase of cash. My expertise had to do with computers. But that suitcase made me think. I went back to the police reports and read them front to back, back to front, and back again. I set the papers down and went to the wing chair in the corner of my hotel room, turned it toward the window and stared until the last of the sun began to fade behind the wall of brownish green suburban sprawl. When the truth hit me, it did so as it often does; like a fist to the belly accompanied by a streak of white-hot exquisite pain.
I was up early the next morning. The freeway was packed but I eventually made way to the hallowed ground known as Grosse Pointe. I swung my rental car onto Lakeshore Drive and, when I got to the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, turned left and cruised north along Lakeshore Drive. I caught flashes of the lake in between the pine trees, circular drives and mansions with their security gates. When I came to one of the biggest homes on the strip, I immediately saw the mailbox, which was a miniature replica of the huge home. I drove by slowly and took in the monstrosity. I’d read that it was nearly forty thousand square feet, with fifteen bedrooms and twenty or so bathrooms. When I saw it, the only doubt I had about the numbers was that someone might have underestimated.
It took me the better part of two weeks, which included lengthy staring sessions at aerial photos of the mansion and its grounds. There had also been dozens of articles written about the construction of the home, including plenty of photos. I hacked into the home’s security center and downloaded everything I would need.
My preparations included a dry run and an unsupervised, unauthorized tour of the place. When I went back for the last time, I brought my equipment with me. I utilized the blind spots in the security camera angles, keyed in the alarm code and made my way inside. The security personnel were stationed at specific posts, including the exterior gate, and a small building just off the main house where another guard monitored the security cameras.
I went to the study, where an interview in one of the local business magazines had been conducted. The interviewer had marveled at the design of the space, stating that it was more of an art gallery than an office. I had to agree. It was two stories and the upper floor had a handrail that extended out over the lower level. I found what I needed, pulled a chair over to where I wanted to sit. And then I waited.
She walked in with a cup of tea and a cell phone. The phone was pressed to her ear and she sat down behind the desk, which was situated near the front of the room. It was a nightly ritual for her. In several magazine pieces, she had described her routine of logging into the company’s stock portfolio every evening and studying the day’s gains or losses. She said it gave her comfort. That it helped her sleep better.
“Don’t bother hitting the panic button,” I told her. She looked up at me, not exactly fear in her eyes, but annoyance. And recognition. The phone was on the top of her desk. I knew she had a Bluetooth earpiece but it wasn’t in. And I knew she wasn’t on speakerphone. The call button, wired into the surface of the desk, was now dead.
“I thought you were supposed to be the smart one,” she said. The funny thing about people like Victoria Kuchin was that when they had absolute power, they rarely had to hide anything. If they wanted to fuck you over, they just did. No obfuscation needed.
I reached over the desk, took her phone and slid it across the hardwood floor into a darkened corner.
“I came here to get my brother,” I said, and gestured to the canvas I had taken from the wall and leaned against the edge of her half-acre desk. She didn’t even glance down at it.
“Well, you don’t appear deranged,” she said. “So you must be on drugs now, too?”
“DeVoss had fifty grand in cash, Victoria,” I said. “There were seven victims, but only six canvases in his studio. Which meant he’d only sold one painting. And Joe wasn’t homeless like the others. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was.”
“Convinced?” she said. A sneer on her face. “Of what? That your brother was a worthless asshole who ruined people’s lives? Because that’s what he was.”
I shook my head. “I know what you did, Victoria. The cops don’t, but I do.”
Her face was a smear of white against the dark wood behind her. “When I OD’d, it literally killed my father,” she said. “When I finally got clean, the first thing I found out was that the old man was dead. It took me ten years to put my life together. Your brother killed my father. He got what he had coming.”
“I figured that,” I said. “When I realized Joe wasn’t another one of DeVoss’s random victims.”
She looked at me, pure, raw hatred on her Botoxed, heavily scalpeled face.
“I just had to think about it,” I said. “And when I did, I realized that someone hadn’t bought that painting of Joe. Someone had commissioned it.”
Her expression didn’t change. I gestured at the few hundred pieces of art around the room. “Your reputation as a serious art collector is well-known, Victoria. I’m sure your artistic connections told you about the nutcase in Detroit making Jackson Pollack splatter paintings with a shotgun and some poor, homeless bastards. Ruining Joe’s career wasn’t enough for you, it never had been. You wanted him dead and a piece of him hanging on your wall. Like a trophy, right?”
She laughed then. And on her face, the bleached and polished teeth stood out like a death mask.
It was the first time I’d ever hit a woman in my life. I threw the punch without a thought in my head. It was pure, unconscious, and the only time in my life I experienced what it must have felt like to Joe when he threw a baseball. It was a perfect strike, right on the point of her chin. She flew off the chair and slumped against the mahogany paneled wall. I went to the side of the desk, pulled the canvas aside and lifted the duffel bag I’d brought. I pulled out the rope and the camera and got to work.
I drove north along Jefferson, until I got to the first public beach access. I grabbed the canvas and a few items from the duffel bag. I walked down to the shoreline, found a small jumble of rocks and set the canvas on top. I squirted some lighter fluid on it and tossed a match into the middle. The canvas and wood stretcher were immediately engulfed in flames. I sat on a fallen log and watched the last bit of my brother go up in smoke. It took another few minutes for it all to burn down to nothing.
The suicide of Victoria Kuchin made the sports page of the Los Angeles Times. I skimmed the article when I grabbed a coffee from my favorite coffee bar on Main Street in Venice, a stone’s throw from my condo. It appeared that the heiress had never really gotten over her various addictions, and she’d been found in her study where she’d hung herself after shooting up with heroin. I left the article in the coffee shop and walked out into the California sunshine and smelled the damp, salty ocean air.
I walked a few blocks up the street until I came to the shop. It was a small operation, known for their exacting standards and high prices. I picked up my order, which was quite large, and went back to my place.
I ripped the brown paper from the framed photograph, and found the hanging wire on its back. I went over to the space I’d cleared on my wall, just to the left of the picture window looking out over the Pacific. I hung the framed photograph there. It looked good. It was a black-and-white shot, a bit abstract, but one could vaguely make out a form that looked somewhat human. The figure appeared to be hanging, almost twisting slightly.
I made sure the photo and its heavy frame were hung perfectly straight. Then I sat down, looked at the photograph, and looked back out at the water. This was my favorite place in the world. It was where I loved to sit and think, and where I would always remember my brother as he was when he was playing. Smooth, carefree, living life like a cleanly hit ball soaring into the blue sky, unaware and unconcerned with the completion of any predestined arc.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago