Editor’s Note: Peter David Shapiro has entertained the Fictional Café habitués on several earlier occasions, for a simple reason: he is a prolific author with three novels to his credit. Debuting now is his first novel, Ghosts on the Red Line. It was followed by The Trail of Money and most recently Portrait of Ignatius Jones. Peter’s books are available in Boston area bookstores and on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback formats. An innovative author, Peter has made Ghosts available as an audiobook/podcast as well.
Peter is an innovator in another important way. It’s sometimes said an author writes the same book over and over, but this is definitely not the case with Peter’s novels. Each is distinctly different in subject matter: ghosts in the subway tunnels; crooked financiers laundering money in Hong Kong; an ignominious psychic out to fleece old ladies through the lure of a painting of a century-old dead spiritualist. When we published the excerpt here at FC, we wrote, “Capitalizing on the late-19th-century fascination with psychics and confidence games, with a dash of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the novel takes the reader from Victorian Boston to the Peaceable Kingdom of Vermont, where things are not as peaceful as one might think.”
Peter is one of the authors reading next Monday, September 28, at an event in his home town, Lexington, Massachusetts, called “Spellbinding Stories: Four Local Authors Read From Their Novels.” Peter will be be joined by Jack B. Rochester and X.J. “Joe” Kennedy. The event will be held at the First Parish Unitarian Church, 7 Harrington Road, Lexington, and starts at 7PM. Readings will be followed by a discussion of writing and publishing. Refreshments will be served.
And now, the opening pages of Chapter 8 from Peter David Shapiro’s Ghosts of the Red Line.
Michael Wallace huddled outside South Station with Ricky and Al, his two bodyguards and all-purpose muscle, and he was cultivating a very bad mood.
He had not ridden on the T for many years; it was too uncomfortable and unclean, with too many people he didn’t know who got too close. Wallace’s limo driver was supposed to pick him up in Boston but the fucker got waylaid due to a disagreement with Boston police. In other circumstances when he couldn’t use his Lincoln Town Car, which had special fittings for security purposes, he would have hired another limo, but the surface-road traffic was bad at this time of day and he was in a hurry. So it would have to be the T.
That it was hot outside was yet another insult, very unlike the well-chilled air-conditioned air to which he was accustomed. He could feel the sweat wetting his doughy closely-shaved cheeks and prickling under his chin and arms. The close heat on the sidewalk outside South Station left him distinctly uncomfortable in his bespoke dark-blue suit and brightly patterned silk tie, with his perfect triangle of matching silk handkerchief poking out of his jacket pocket, and his black laced shoes that were shiny enough to see his own face in them.
Because Wallace dressed well and required his people to follow his sartorial example, for which he provided an ample special allowance, someone casting a cursory glance at Ricky and Al might have mistaken them for beefy investment bankers wearing sharply-tailored business suits. Thus deceived, an ordinary and prudent passer-by would most likely mind his own business and keep walking. However, given their record, Ricky and Al might get a second look from the MBTA transit cops. It would create yet another hassle for Wallace if they were picked up.
And they would be noticed. Al’s head was as hairless as a bowling ball and almost as round. He had no eyebrows or eyelashes. His small piggish red-rimmed eyes at the center of the large smooth expanse of his face were closely-set and slightly crossed. He had a tiny bump of a nose and red lips, and a tattoo of a lightning bolt that emerged from his shirt collar and zig-zagged up his thick neck to his jaw-line just in front of his ear. Ricky on the other hand had long hair like Jesus, the way it came down to his shoulders, and his eyes were light grey, so light colored that his pupils stood out like crazed black dots.
When Ricky and Al were in Wallace’s presence, only Ricky talked while Al stood by silently, his tongue occasionally darting out to wet his lips while he awaited instructions. Wallace said, “Grab a taxi and meet me at the LiquorMart in Central.” He held an ownership interest in the store which he had obtained as a result of the former owner’s desire not to have the fingers of his right hand crushed like those of his left hand which had never healed completely. It was good business practice to visit the place occasionally, accompanied by Ricky and Al, to ensure that his interest was being managed properly.
For a big man, Ricky’s voice was surprisingly high, like a castrato’s, “You want us to wait for you by the front door?”
“No, I’ll get there before you. That’s why I’m taking the fucking T. I’ll be in the back checking the books. Just come straight in and join me there, to let them know we care how well they’re doing for us.”
Wallace could call upon the services of at least ten guys but Ricky and Al were his favorites. Not just because they were his nephews, since others in his crew also were family, but because they enjoyed their work. Al obeyed orders without question, an attribute that Wallace appreciated, and since Wallace’s orders were mostly to inflict pain, that was how Al liked it too. And when Ricky cast a hard stare at someone, that someone’s usual reaction of revulsion and fear suited Ricky just fine.
Wallace solicited payments from small enterprises in his territory, mostly in Somerville, and overlapping into Cambridge where he’d been expanding recently. His affiliates, as he called them, included owners and managers of clubs, restaurants, Laundromats, and stores like the LiquorMart, as well as purveyors of frowned-upon substances, the company of women, and other special products. Generally, once a business relationship was established, the payments flowed without interruption. Lapses were remedied quickly by Ricky and Al who would remind Wallace’s “affiliate” about his obligations, almost hoping that he would try to resist so that they could proceed to the next stage, of slamming, stomping, pounding, cutting, and chopping. For the most part, it was a well-ordered system.
Wallace’s secret to staying out of prison was to inject healthy fear into witnesses so that they would never testify against him. He would eliminate anyone who was dumb enough to talk despite being given fair warnings. Stool pigeons, tattle tales, rats, squealers, snitches, witnesses, ever since he was a small kid in Catholic school, they were all the same, and they made him crazy. He had learned – it was his cardinal rule – to shut up the talkers, no exceptions.
So when assholes who failed to understand the situation would complain to the police, they soon disappeared. Perhaps twelve or thirteen fools were buried in various unlikely places around Somerville, maybe a few more, he had lost count since his first when he was in juvie almost thirty years ago. Most were men, plus a couple of women who couldn’t be trusted to keep their mouths shut. Since the talkers would never be seen again, and therefore the condition of their bodies would not serve as lessons to others, they only needed one bullet to the back of the head, or a well-placed cut with a sharp blade, but Ricky and Al were artists who felt compelled to do more. They especially enjoyed collecting souvenirs of body parts while their victims could still suffer pain, fingers, ears, noses, eyes, even testicles when they were really into it. To stay fresh, Wallace himself had dispatched one of the women by strangling her with a leather belt, and a man who’d particularly annoyed him by clubbing him with a steel hammer, although he preferred to let Ricky and Al take on the witness disposal tasks which for them were treats as good as Christmas bonuses.
* * *
It was on one of her return trips to Alewife from Braintree that Janice Klein noticed the fleshy middle-aged man who boarded her Red Line train at South Station and sat about ten seats away from her on the other side of her train car. She noticed him because his hair was slicked back leaving no unoiled stragglers, and because his sharp attire was so atypical for Boston, let alone Cambridge; perhaps it would stand out less in Las Vegas, or New York. Evidently, the man was out of sorts, based on the way his full lips were pursed in a vexed pout.
He had ample reason to feel grumpy. Immediately after their departure from South Station, Wallace discovered that the Red Line passenger standing in front of him was definitely someone he did not want to see. Blood drenched his t-shirt from a deep cut on his neck from which it was still bubbling, his face was bruised all over, and one of his eye sockets was closed. He was top-to-bottom dirty, from the grit in his matted hair, to the dirt smeared on his face and on his clothes and his ragged shoes, like he had been rolling in it, or maybe buried under it.
“Happy to see me, Mikey?” the guy asked.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Wallace demanded.
“Your boys worked me over. I’m dead. And now I’m back to visit with you, you sick fuck. I’m here to make you sweat. That’s what I’m doing here.” The man gestured as he spoke with hands that showed bloody stumps where fingers were missing, and dirt fell from him every time he moved.
“Well, fuck off!” Wallace said. “Stay dead.”
“Mikey, you had me killed and now you’re going to pay,” the guy said. “My brothers, my sister, my cousins, my buddies, they all miss me. They think about me a lot. They’re still wondering what happened to me, where I went. When they’re on the Red Line and I visit with them, I’ll tell them. So fuck you, Mikey. They’ll be coming after you.”
Wallace did not relish seeing the ghost of a fool whose murder he had ordered. This fucking guy bleeding and shedding dirt in front of him on the Red Line had been gotten rid of precisely because he wouldn’t stop talking. And now here he was back again boasting that he would talk some more. It was really too much. It was one thing to be generally suspected, that came with the territory, but it was quite another to have the specifics of who, how, where, and when, all laid out in detail by the actual murder victim, a loser who was supposed to be dead and gone and telling no tales.
“Anyone you tell will be fucked,” Wallace said. “So, fuck off!”
But the guy had vanished, and standing in front of Michael Wallace instead was a tall blond woman. “Hello, sir,” she said, “My name is Janice Klein and I am working on a project for the MBTA concerning riders’ experiences on the Red Line. I noticed that you were talking with someone who was not visible to me and I wonder if I could ask you a few questions about it. Here is my business card.”
Wallace glanced at the card that the woman was holding out to him. He made no move to accept it. He glared up at her through eyes narrowed into angry slits above his smooth pudgy cheeks. “Fuck off!” he said.
“Sorry to bother you,” Janice replied, returning to her seat. In her notes, Janice described the sharply-dressed man, what she heard him saying to the empty space in front of him, and his ill-tempered response to her request for an interview. She noted that he left the train at Central Square.
Wallace berated himself as he climbed the steps from the station out to Mass Ave. He should have taken the woman’s card. She could describe him if anyone asked. He’d already forgotten the name she told him, Janice something. It would be better to know who she was and where she worked in case he needed to deal with her. Now he’d have to start tracking the relatives and friends of the dead guy – that asshole – so that he’d be ready if any of them came up from the Red Line babbling about the dead guy’s murder.
* * *
Later, Janice had better luck interviewing Franklyn Brazeal, a retired Cambridge police officer. Officer Brazeal had been confronted by a man who he had arrested and had died in prison. When the former cop, who was black, tall, thin, and bald, got off at Harvard Square, Janice followed him off and approached him on the platform, her business card in hand.
“Glad to talk,” Officer Brazeal said. “You say the MBTA is looking into this, that I am not the only one?”
“You’re not the only one,” Janice replied.
“Well, his name was Rafael Cruz. He shot his wife and her boyfriend, and took his two kids as hostages. He finally let them go and I was one of two officers who arrested him. He was sentenced to life in prison and I heard he got himself killed by another prisoner in a fight.”
“So it was Rafael Cruz who you saw on the train?”
“I couldn’t believe it. I don’t disturb easily after all my years on the force but I have to admit, seeing Cruz gave me quite a shock, like I was in a spooky movie all of a sudden. Here is a dead guy sitting beside me, who gives me a poke, and says, ‘Hey Officer Brazeal, how’re they hanging?’ I said to him, ‘I thought you were dead.’ He said, ‘I guess I am, but here I am paying you a visit, so you never know how things will turn out.’ I said, ‘They didn’t turn out so well for you, Rafael, too bad you messed up your life.’ And he poked me again and said, ‘You put me in prison.’”
“I told him, ‘You better stop poking me’ and he replied, ‘What will you do about it? Shoot me?’”
Janice said, “I was watching you and could tell something was going on. So he poked you. Was he threatening you in any way?”
“Not really,” Officer Brazeal said. “I was startled, and I can think of others who’d I’d rather have visit me from the hereafter, but it seemed he just wanted to get my attention in order to talk.”
“Was he trying to deliver a message to you?”
“Yes, that I should have his death in prison on my conscience since I was the senior arresting officer who put him away. He said the wife and her boyfriend deserved what they got, and that should have been taken into account. It would have been better, he said, if we’d shot him at the scene rather than sending him to prison. I told him I was only doing my job.”
“How did this visit from Rafael Cruz end?”
“When I got off the train, he didn’t follow. I didn’t look back to see what happened to him.”
Janice wrote down Officer Brazeal’s contact information and asked that he call her if he had any more visits from Rafael Cruz while riding on the Red Line. “Or from anyone else,” she added, “since we are trying to find out any patterns in these events.”
Officer Brazeal said he would. Janice took the next Red Line train to complete her run to Alewife.
Once Officer Brazeal was on street level outside the Harvard Square station, he called a former colleague on the Cambridge police force.
“Hey James,” he said. “You got a minute?”
“Always time for you, Franklyn,” Sergeant James Murphy said. “What’s going on?”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“It’s early in the day to be hitting the bottle, Franklyn.”
“No, I’m dead sober.”
“OK, I’m listening, old buddy.”
“You remember Rafael Cruz, that scuzzball we arrested who killed his wife and her boyfriend in their house in East Cambridge, and then hid behind his two little kids?”
“Yep. Heard he was killed in prison. His one good deed, saving the Commonwealth the cost of his room and board. What about him?”
“He – or his ghost – visited with me a few minutes ago when I was on the Red Line on my way here to Harvard Square. He was sitting beside me, kept poking me in the arm. He was real chatty.”
“You saw Rafael Cruz. The one who’s dead. You’re messing with me, Franklyn.”
“I’m telling you, James, I’m serious, it was Cruz.”
“I would have recognized him anyway but he identified himself when we started talking. There’s no question who I saw.”
“Did anyone else see him?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. It was strange; while I was talking with Cruz, it was if we were the only two people in our train car. It’s real focusing, talking with a dead man.”
“Franklyn,” the Sergeant said, “You’re a good friend, but if you’ll excuse my bluntness, I’m afraid you’ve got a few screws loose. Just a sign of age. No offense.”
“I’d think so too,” Officer Brazeal said, “except that a young lady followed me off the train and wanted to interview me about what I’d just seen.”
“No shit. So she also saw Cruz.”
“No, she saw me talking to him which she said looked like I was talking to myself. But get this, James, she works for a consulting company that was hired by the MBTA. She told me I was not the only one to have that kind of experience on the Red Line and they’ve been hired to figure out what’s going on.”
“What’s the name of her company?”
“According to her card, Blair West International. They have an office in the Andleman Building, in Central Square, suite 401. I’ll email you her phone number and email address.”
Sergeant Murphy said, “I know the building. I’ll check them out. I’ll ask around about the Red Line. Maybe some of my buddies in the MBTA Transit Police have heard something.”
“Keep me posted,” Officer Brazeal said.
“Will do, Franklyn,” the Sergeant said. “Thanks for calling me.”
“I figured the Cambridge police should be informed if ghosts of dead people are materializing under our streets on the Red Line trains. Especially if they are killers who we arrested and sent to prison.”
“You’ve done your civic duty today, Franklyn. You’re an upstanding guy.”
“Well, about the CPD being the last to know, you’ve heard what they say about the best way to grow mushrooms.”
“Feed them shit and keep them in the dark.”
* * *
Peter David Shapiro was born in Montreal, Canada, and now lives in the Boston area. His novels derive from his experiences as well as from his imagination. He frequently rides the Red Line where commuters see their Departed in Ghosts on the Red Line. He spent time in Hong Kong where a story of intrigue and revenge unfolds in The Trail of Money. He also has enjoyed many visits to Vermont where a remarkable oil painting opens a portal for the paranormal in Portrait of Ignatius Jones. Currently he’s working on his next project and practicing his flute.