First, here's a quick teaser for the Beware of Greeks.
When three corpses are found at a construction site in Philadelphia, homicide detective Samantha Ballard is called in to investigate the bizarre deaths. The withered bodies dressed in modern day clothing seem more like a hoax than murder. But, as more mummified corpses begin to appear throughout the city of brotherly love, Samantha must embark on an investigation that takes her beyond the realm of all that she thought was possible.
With his life in danger, Jack must join forces with Samantha to save the city from a centuries old evil that has returned to wreak havoc in Philadelphia. But with the odds stacked against them, can Jack and Samantha save the city of brotherly love from a trio of women with a sinister and deadly purpose?
Now, for your reading pleasure, here is chapter one of Beware of Greeks. Enjoy!
Samantha Ballard cursed under her breath as she watched the line of cars on South Street remain motionless, just as they had done for the past ten minutes. It was a typical Monday morning in Philadelphia with traffic tied up for blocks. She sat in the passenger seat of the Dodge Charger wondering if it would have been quicker to just get out and walk. Glancing out the side window, she took in the scenery, which was mostly brick, concrete, glass, and graffiti. A man carrying a laptop bag walked along the sidewalk past the car, moving at what seemed like the speed of light compared to her own forward progress. She could see the bus stop ahead at the corner of South and 15th Streets, with a dozen people waiting for the next bus. Despite having the Charger’s windows closed she could still smell the acrid exhaust violating her olfactory senses from the idle cars and trucks ahead. Someday she’ll end up with cancer from sitting in too many of the city’s traffic jams, Samantha often thought.
Flipping down the sun visor over her seat, Samantha gazed at herself in the small mirror. With a flick of her hand, she brushed a few stray auburn hairs back into place. Just like every other Monday, her hazel eyes seemed dull and tired. Although, she had gotten eight hours of sleep the night before, she still felt like crap. Samantha was no longer the kind to go out and party hard all weekend, and then rise early on Monday ready for another week. Telling herself that she was too old to still be acting like a college student, she had given up most of that life a few years ago. She was only thirty-three, but she knew her limits.
"Checking your make-up in case you find a corpse that interests you?" commented her partner, Peter Thornton.
Returning the sun visor to its original position, Samantha glanced at her partner. The tall, African-American was five years younger than Samantha, a fresh face college boy who had "rising star" written all over him. His face reminded Samantha of an inverted teardrop, with a round top covered in dark, close cropped hair, and a chin that formed a dull point. Dark eyebrows matched his hair, and rested above two narrow brown eyes.
Her captain had assigned the homicide division rookie to Samantha as her new partner three months ago, and it had been a long three months. She had never had much patience when it came to "mentoring" her fellow officers. Her previous partner, Eddie Murdock, had retired four months ago with a full pension and plans to move south to get away from the harsh Philadelphia winters. Having been together for five years, Samantha and Eddie had a routine, and they understood each other. It was almost as if they could read each other's minds. It was the repartee that she missed the most. Peter asked too many questions, forcing her to stop doing something that she could normally do with her eyes closed, and actually think it through in order to answer his inquiry. It was driving Samantha crazy.
"Fat chance. I've yet to meet a corpse I liked," she replied.
The Ford pick-up in front of them started to move, so Peter gently inched the car forward as well. Beginning to regret telling her partner to skip the lights and sirens, Samantha went back to staring out the window, and thinking of the past. She had been on the Philadelphia police force for ten years, five as a uniformed officer and five as a detective. Even as a child, it seemed that she was destined to be a police officer. Her father had been a uniformed officer in Philadelphia for twenty-five years, until he was killed in the line of duty. Her grandfather, on the other hand, had been lucky and retired from the force after thirty years. By the time she had turned five, her father had already taught her how to fire his department-issued revolver. These days, she could shot rings around most of her fellow detectives. Before she had turned twelve, she knew every legal move for taking down a perp, as well as a few illegal ones. By her seventeenth birthday, Samantha could recite almost every rule and regulation in the department. It seemed that she had been fated to become part of the thin blue line.
As an old man, wearing torn trousers and a stained T-shirt, pushed a rusted shopping cart filled with trash bags passed them on the sidewalk, Samantha felt momentarily nostalgic for her days as a uniformed officer walking a beat on the streets of the city. Patrolling the city had never been easy, but the one thing she loved was getting to know the people who lived and worked along her beat. Whether they were male or female, homeless or millionaires, young or old, she would remember the names of each and every one. It was a trick that her father had taught her. Now, the only faces that she remembered were the ones that had been brutally murdered.
Peter Thornton turned the steering wheel to the right as he guided the unmarked police car onto Broad Street. Traffic was flowing only slightly better, with their progress being a slow crawl as opposed to a complete standstill. As they inched up the busy thoroughfare, Samantha could see their destination ahead indicated by the flashing red and blue lights of two police cars parked in front. Five minutes later, Peter nosed the Dodge into a space between the two other police cars. Samantha glanced at her watch – eight thirty-seven.
"Let's go see what we got," Samantha said, as she pushed open her door.
The crisp, chilly March air forced Samantha to slide her hands into her grey overcoat, and pull it closed in front of her. It had been a colder than normal March, and it didn't look as if it would warm up anytime soon. Sidestepping to avoid a puddle of water left from the previous evening's rain, Samantha stepped up onto the sidewalk and surveyed the scene before her. The old six-story brick building was nothing more than a shell. The windows and doors had been removed, leaving nothing but gaping holes between the dark red brickwork. A large green dumpster, filled to the brim with lumber and other construction rubbish, sat to the right of the entryway into the building. Construction workers, most with yellow hard hats pushed back from their foreheads, milled around the exterior of the building talking and laughing amongst themselves. When Samantha strode by, the workers fell silent, some giving her physique their undivided attention, their eyes scanning her from head to toe. Others, however, turned away, avoiding eye contact with the police. Her five foot five trim physique was the result of years of a rigorous fitness routine that Samantha followed religiously. It was expected that every officer on the Philadelphia police force stay physically fit. For her, it was doubly so. Even during these enlightened times, there were still men in her male-dominated work place that would look for any excuse to get her fired. She didn't smile, or even look in their direction, leaving the construction workers to watch her pass. She wondered how many of those that averted their eyes had criminal records.
With Peter at her heels, Samantha climbed the three concrete steps that led into the old building. If she had found the exterior to be just a shell, the interior seemed even more so. The floor had been stripped down to the plywood subfloor, and the walls were nothing more than two-by-four studs. A string of bare light bulbs illuminated the interior of the building in harsh white shades of bright incandescent light. A uniformed officer had been waiting for their arrival by the entryway.
"Did you get stuck in that traffic?" the officer asked as they approached.
"No. We stopped to pick up a dozen donuts for you and your partner because we're nice folks," commented Samantha.
The officer snickered. "Ha, donuts! That's good."
"You have some corpses for us?" inquired Peter.
The officer gestured towards a flight of stairs in the far corner. "Down those stairs. Sergeant Williams is down there waiting for you," he said. Pausing, the officer then added, "I'll tell ya something. I ain't never seen anything like it before in my life."
Samantha replied, "Well, lucky for us you're not leading the investigation."
Pulling a small flashlight from her coat pocket, Samantha shone the beam down the dimly lit stairwell leading underneath the old building. The concrete stairs were damp and slick, and the two detectives had to tread carefully to keep from falling. The chamber below was cold, dark and empty, with the exception of the three figures standing at the far end.
"We're over here," said a raised voice.
As Samantha approached, she could see two more uniformed officers, and another man standing around the top end of a ladder, which disappeared into a dark hole in the floor. Sergeant Williams, wearing a white uniform shirt and black trousers, turned and waved to Samantha and Peter. His white octagonal police hat was pushed back on his head, with whiffs of dark hair peeking out from under the brim. The dark skin of his pudgy face showed the lines of a twenty-year veteran of the police force. Because of her father, Samantha had known Williams for many years. There were a few officers still on the force who could say they had watched Samantha grow up. One or two had even kept their eye on Samantha, even after her father had been killed. Williams had been one of those. The other officer, who, she thought, had all the looks of a rookie, was unfamiliar to her. The lanky, young policeman looked ill at ease in his pale blue uniform shirt, and his trousers still had the "fresh from the package" crease down the front.
Extending his hand to Samantha, Williams said, "Sam, good to see you. I think we've got a real hummer here for you." Williams turned, and gestured to the third man, and continued; "This is Stanley Henderson. He is the assistant foreman for Rhinehold Construction. They've been doing the renovations on the building. He discovered the bodies."
Peter Thornton pulled a pair of latex gloves from his coat pocket, and as he pulled them over his hands, asked, "Where are the stiffs?"
Williams pointed towards the ladder. "Down there."
Samantha's feet touched the cobblestone-covered ground as she stepped off the bottom rung of the ladder. The fetid air was a musty mix of odors, from mildew to a faint smell of vomit. Clicking on her flashlight, she swept the room with the beam of light to get her bearings. The walls and low ceiling of the near claustrophobic chamber were lined with rotting timbers held in place with old peg and hole construction. Centered on the floor was a round opening, like an oversized manhole Samantha would expect to see on any street in the city. An oxidized ring of iron encircled the outer edge of the opening, and must have been, at Samantha's best guess, at least a century or more old. Attached by a crude hinge at one side of the ring was a heavy iron hatch, five inches thick. Embedded into the cobblestone surrounding the opening were eight thick iron hoops, covered like everything else in layers of rust and oxidation. A long length of chain, with its metallic links corroded with age, snaked across the floor, ending in a pile in the far corner. Aiming her flashlight into the hole, Samantha discovered a deep well, about ten feet down by her estimation. It was a narrow deep shaft with red bricks forming the outer walls. The sandy bottom of the shaft was uneven, and, although she couldn't be sure, appeared to hold the indentation of numerous footprints.
As her light swept to the opposite corner, it froze on the three occupants of the chamber. They were seated on the floor with their backs propped against the wall. The attire adorning the three corpses seemed as modern as anything she would see on the streets above her. Blue denim jeans, grey trousers, white shirt and tie, tan work boots, and even a green Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt seemed like perfectly normal clothing to find on a modern day corpse. What caused Samantha to shudder were the faces and hands of the three bodies. The skin on each face had a color and texture more like dried, cracking leather than human flesh, and had sunken in around the skull, giving a distinctive outline of the underlying bone structure. The flesh on the fingers of each hand had the same leathery appearance as the face, and seemed to have shrunk around the bone, revealing every joint. The eyeballs looked lifeless and unreal, as if they had been substituted for eggshells. Stepping off the ladder behind her, Peter Thornton turned, and followed her gaze.
"Wow! Didn't expect this!" he exclaimed.
Taking a cautious step forward, Samantha felt uneasy, and a little fearful. The scene seemed like something out of a horror film. Between the modern clothing and the dried mummified remains, she couldn't help but wonder if someone was playing an elaborate hoax. She knelt down before the middle corpse to get a closer look, and immediately felt ill. She fought back the bile that was rising from her stomach.
Upon closer examination, Samantha noted that each corpse had hair, which was something that she never remembered seeing on any museum mummy. The first corpse had a full head of dirty blonde hair, which looked freshly washed and styled. The thinning hair on the second corpse was grey. And, although bald, the third corpse had a tuft of dark chest hair peaking out from under the green sweatshirt. A silver watch dangled from the emaciated wrist of one of the bodies, and a gold wedding band hung precariously from the bony knuckle of another. Around the neck of the bald corpse was a silver chain, on the end of which hung a St. Christopher medallion. Standing beside her, Peter summed his own assessment of the unusual crime scene succinctly by saying, "It's a hoax. It's got to be."
Without responding, Samantha rose to her feet, and swung the flashlight around the chamber once again. The beam halted on the iron hatch, and she studied the reddish orange object carefully. The metal work looked crude compared to modern day standards. It was pitted and uneven, with round indentations scattered around the surface. Samantha stepped closer, and peered at the indentations. As she focused her flashlight on one of the indentations, she was surprised to see a row of four smaller depressions. Studying the markings, she felt certain they looked familiar.
"Peter, look at this hatch," she said, using the beam of light as a pointer. "What do you make of these dents?"
"That's solid iron. They must have occurred when the hatch was forged."
Silence fell over the chamber as Samantha continued to examine the markings on the hatch. She tilted her head to one side, and then sighed. Making a fist, she looked at her hand for a moment before gently inserting it into the indentation on the hatch. The raised knuckles on her hand slid into the row of small depressions almost perfectly.
Looking up at Peter, she said, "How strong would you have to be to put a fist-shaped dent into an old slab of iron?"
The Crime Scene Investigation team was just arriving when Samantha and Peter emerged from the dark hole. Sergeant Williams was still standing above with Stanley Henderson and the other officer. Samantha peeled off the latex gloves from her hands, and slid her flashlight back into her coat pocket.
"Whose vomit is in the corner down there?" she asked.
Williams smiled, and jerking a thumb towards the young officer, commented, "That would be Officer Stoltz. He went down with me when we first arrived. It's his first murder scene."
Looking towards the blushing young officer, Peter commented, "You picked a dozy to pop your cherry on."
Turning to the representative of Rhinehold Construction, Samantha inquired, "Can you tell me what happened here?"
Henderson slid his yellow hard hat from his head, and rubbed his high forehead with his hand. The blonde hair was thinning along the top of his square head. Henderson’s muscular arms stretched the fabric of grey t-shirt he was wearing, and hung out from underneath his yellow reflective vest that rested over his broad shoulders. His dark blue jeans, although permanently embedded with stains tracing the history of dozens of construction sites, looked freshly laundered, and the tan steel-toed Timberland boots appeared to have been recently cleaned, showing only a faint coating of construction dust around the toes.
Reseating the hard hat on his head, Henderson explained, "We've been working on this site for three weeks. On Friday morning, I had a crew of guys working down here in the basement, breaking up the old concrete to pour a new floor. One of the guys broke open that hole with his jackhammer. Some of these buildings were built right on top of older structures, so it isn't too unusual to find the occasional hidden room. Our foreman, Steve Rafferty climbed down to check it out. He found that hatch down there. Our SOP when we find old shit like this is to put a call into the historical society. It's an agreement we have with them. Keeps us from damaging anything of historical value. They come out, check to make sure it isn't anything important, and then tell us it's okay to continue working. Well, they couldn't get anyone out here until Saturday morning. The job site is usually closed on the weekend, so Steve agreed to meet them here on Saturday to let them in. When my guys and I got here this morning, we found the job site open, and those things down there."
Peter Thornton asked, "So, where is Steve Rafferty? Can we talk to him?"
"He's down there, the one wearing the Eagles sweatshirt," Henderson explained, his voice cracking with emotion.
Samantha glanced at Peter, and then back towards Stanley Henderson. She noticed the pained lines on his face along with the quivering lips of an emotionally charged frown, which seemed to perilously balance between anger, sadness, and confusion. Samantha said, "If this is some kind of joke..."
"I swear! He always wore that St. Christopher medal around his neck. His kid gave it to him a few years back."
Samantha gestured back towards the dark hole. "The bodies down there look like they're at least several months old. You can't possible tell me that one of them is the body of a man who was alive just last week."
Henderson was becoming agitated as his careful balance of emotions began to crumble. He tried to explain. "Look, I can't explain it. All I know is that Steve hasn't been seen since he left his home Saturday morning to meet the guys from the historical society. I called his wife to check."
Peter Thornton replied, "Then he must be playing a joke on you."Henderson's voice rose with emotion as he said, "I've worked with Steve for ten years. I know him when I see him. It’s the same baldhead, the same necklace, and the same wedding ring. I don't know how or why, but one of those things down there is Steve Rafferty!"
Copyright 2014 by Michael Bradley