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  • nukeboy8


August 23, 2022

Macomb, Michigan

The exit wound caused the most damage to Quinn Murphy, leaving him with chronic pain two months after taking the bullet. The entry wound had been clean, the slug ironically passing through his gut without ripping his organs to shreds. Unfortunately, that was the limit of his luck. The nine-millimeter round fractured a lumbar vertebra and sprayed bone fragments into a nerve bundle.

“Inoperable,” the doctors concluded. At least for another few months when a team of specialists could reassess the damage. He would remain sidelined on reduced paid leave from the department at least through August.

Physical therapy continued working its wonders and his strength increased daily while the pain was reduced from stabbing spasms to a tolerable level of discomfort. With a couple of Motrin in the morning, even that was easily managed. About the only thing that still tested his limits were long periods of time spent behind the wheel. Something about sitting in that position put pressure on all the wrong places, and the pain would flare back with a vengeance. Until he got that under control, logging any serious time back in a State Police cruiser was out of the question. So too was traveling more than a few hours in any direction for a change of scene. It was going to be a long, boring summer.

Well, pain, or no pain, he was going stir-crazy staring at the sterile, white apartment walls and one brainless television show after another. He clicked off the TV, grabbed his Red Wings cap, and headed to his storage unit to work on the Vette. The car had been left to him by his best friend, Sergio Montez, who was killed in a standoff with a drug addict robbing a party store. Sergio loved the ’72 Stingray and was restoring it when he was shot. The car was in rough shape, but Murphy was committed to keeping his friend’s dream alive. He did a quick mental inventory of the most pressing issues and decided that replacing the water pump would at least make the car drivable and kill a few hours in the process.

The parking lot outside the E-Z-Storage was nearly full as Murphy drove through the gate. He had seen auctions selling off the contents of vacated units before, so the gathering of suburban treasure seekers was no surprise. What caught his interest was one of the units being auctioned. It sat two doors away from his, and he had watched one man occasionally unloading various boxes and bags from a black Cadillac Escalade. Murphy had seen his face but thought little of it until a few weeks later when it reappeared on the news.

Gianni Bassetti, a suspected mafia hitman, violated the terms of his probation and went missing. In Murphy’s mind, the contents of that storage unit just became much more interesting.

Judging by the rows of dented, rusty, hard driven pickup trucks, he concluded that none of them had been sent by the mob to quietly purchase the contents of unit 336. Most likely, none of these people had a clue as to the actual identity of the former owner.

The auction wasn’t starting for another half hour, so he decided to do some snooping. Erma, the owner of E-Z, would be the best source of information on Bassetti, so he headed to the office.

“How are you feeling, Officer Murphy?” She asked, genuinely concerned. Erma was a sweetheart of a woman, always dressed classy business casual in a pair of plain jeans, her short gray hair just kissing the collar of her freshly pressed white shirt with the company logo over the breast pocket.

“It’s always better the less I think about it.”

“Did they ever catch the guy who shot you?”

Murphy shook his head. “They have some leads but not much more. He’ll trip up eventually. They usually do.”

“I hope so,” she said. “So, what can I do for you today?”

“I’m curious about the auction on the unit near mine. Was that registered under the name Bassetti?”

Erma pursed her lips, looking from side to side. “I’m not supposed to give out that information. You’re a cop. I’m sure you understand.”

Murphy nodded. “I saw the guy once in a while. Did he talk much to you?”

She shook her head. “Nah, he was standoffish. Not the friendly type at all. Kinda creepy if you ask me. But he always paid on time in cash. That is, until now. He’s four months overdue, and I haven’t heard a word.”

“I was thinking of putting in a bid, but I have no idea what he kept in there.”

“Our gate is open twenty-four-seven, and he came and went at odd hours.” She pulled a logbook, flipped through, and pointed to a page. “Yeah, see here, it shows him coming in at three, four, five in the morning. Strange bird, that one.” She grinned mischievously. “His license plate is easy to read on these surveillance pictures, don’t you think?” She glanced around again. “The gate security login automatically pulls up the ID of everyone checking in.” Her brows raised. “I have to get something out of the back room. I’ll just leave this here for the moment. Don’t take any pictures or anything. That might not be legal.”

Erma winked as she stepped away, then rounded a corner, knowing exactly what he intended to do.

Nice lady, he would owe her for this.

Murphy clicked a few images with his phone, then studied the name on the check-in log: ‘John Smith.’

Not very original, but it confirmed that his missing storage compartment neighbor was accustomed to keeping secrets. He closed the book, then walked back to the auction.

The coordinator was an attractive, older brunette in a pair of form-fitting jeans that complimented her shapely physique. She smiled as he approached, then ran a quick check on his credit to enable him to bid. Within minutes he was signed up and had one of those fancy numbered paddles.

“I recognized your face from an article about you being shot in the line of duty,” she said, reaching out and shaking his hand. “Thank you for your service to our community, officer. And good luck today. You’re welcome to take a look at the unit’s contents from outside the door.”

Murphy thanked her, wondering if she was flirting with him. He was lousy at reading the signs. That’s probably why he was still single at thirty-three.

He walked to unit 336 and joined the small throng of people gawking at the contents. He stepped alongside and peered in. Nothing jumped out as especially suspicious or, for that matter, valuable. Twenty or so standard cardboard file boxes sat stacked three-high against the side walls. Two shelving units stood along the back and were loaded with miscellaneous items. A cursory glance told him that the Holy Grail or anything from King Tut’s tomb would not be found among the contents. Nothing here but the accumulated treasures of a wise guy who kept late hours and collected junk like everyone else.

Murphy was about to return to replacing the water pump when something caught his eye. He stared back another moment before realizing the significance. A couple of mover’s quilts were wadded up and tossed in a corner. Partially concealed beneath lay an old brown and gray leather and canvas duffel. To the casual observer, it didn’t merit a second glance. But Murphy saw something else. The strap handles, the zippered lock, the partial bank name and ID number stenciled on the side. Now, he thought, things were getting interesting.

He let the other bidders do all the work, trying to get a feel for what it would cost him to get involved. It also offered more opportunity to observe everyone else.

As he’d suspected, the mob hadn’t sent anyone to outbid everyone else. No dark-suited muscle men lurked in the shadows. Bassetti’s employer likely knew nothing of his secret treasure trove.

The other bidders were already balking at going above the current price of $125. Murphy was thankful for that. He was interested in digging through the contents, but his paid leave checks left little spare cash at the end of the day.

“One forty,” he called out, holding up his numbered paddle. There were muffled murmurings among the crowd, but in the end, no takers.

“Going once. . .going twice. . .sold to the handsome cop for one hundred and forty dollars.” The attractive auctioneer gave him a sly wink with a mischievous grin.

Yeah, she was flirting with him.

Murphy dug through a toolbox, fished out a spare padlock, then pulled down the door and locked up his newly acquired unit.

The auctioneer was packing her gear and moving to the next unit up for auction, but he noticed her sneaking occasional glances his way. He needed to pay her anyway and decided now would be a good time to strike up a conversation.

“I believe I owe you some money,” he said, sauntering over.

She smiled back, and he realized how very lovely she was. “Luck was with you after all,” she said, taking his credit card and swiping it on a card reader. “You find any hidden bars of gold in there?”

Murphy chuckled back, thinking the best he had done was maybe purchase evidence of an old armored car robbery. If not, the bank bag would likely return what he spent if he listed it on eBay. “You, ah, work all day at this?” he asked.

“Some days, yes. Today, thankfully, is nice and short. Why, what did you have in mind?”

Murphy was beside himself. She was doing all the work and saving him from getting tongue-tied. “A couple of adult beverages and a quiet conversation would be nice.”

“That does sound good. I’ve got to go home and feed my cat first, but I could meet you later. Say, seven o’clock at Baldwin’s?”

He’d never been to the swanky grill, but this was turning into a day for adventure. “Yeah, that would be great. Seven it is.” He held out his hand, and she took it, holding on an extra moment as they locked eyes.

“I already know your name,” she said. “Mine is Tracy.”

“Very nice to meet you, Tracy. I’m looking forward to tonight.”

She smiled again. “You should.”

* * *

Murphy checked his watch. There was plenty of time to investigate locker 336 before heading out to his evening rendezvous. Besides, curiosity was gnawing at him like a deep-seated itch.

He rolled up the door, clicked on the overhead light, then moved slowly through the unit, eyeing everything like a forensics tech analyzing a crime scene.

The first thing he reached for was the money transport duffel. He hooked a finger into one of the straps and lifted, checking its weight. Definitely empty. He clicked a quick photo with his phone, then opened it, surprised to find a couple of tens and twenties at the bottom. The serial numbers on the bills might be traceable if this was evidence from a robbery. Murphy set it aside for now and popped off the covers of a few boxes. The first one he examined was filled with framed Family photos. Mostly older shots depicting life from an earlier, easier time. Just beneath lay a stack of photo albums. There would be more time to look through these later.

The following few boxes revealed nothing of interest. Personal effects, knick-knacks, the sort of stuff you either throw out or bury in the basement because your wife insists it doesn’t blend with her decorating. Gianni Bassetti likely loaded everything he held dear into these boxes, awaiting a suitable home where they could be displayed. Maybe he’d recently left his wife. Perhaps he changed residences so often that he grew tired of the endless circle of packing and unpacking. In any case, much of his treasures were now Murphy’s trash and would soon be dumpster-bound.

Murphy grabbed a hand truck from 332 and began rolling the stacks of boxes the short distance to their new storage spot.

He was on the third load when he glanced up and noticed a shoebox in the rafters partially concealed by the roll top door. He retrieved a ladder from his unit, cautiously worked up the steps, and slid out the box. There was some weight to it, and something slid around inside. Murphy carried it down to 332 and set it on the fender of the Corvette. His anticipation built as he carefully slid off the cover, then stared down at the first real trophy of the auction; a pistol.

But not just any pistol. This was a custom build, from grips to finish. A Smith & Wesson, model sixty-three. An eight-round, twenty-two caliber revolver with chrome finish and ivory grips. That made it a bit of an oddity as well as old and pricey.

He resisted the urge to lift it out and examine it closer. For all Murphy knew, this could be evidence from any number of crimes.

He resealed the box, then carried it, along with the bank bag, to his car. He worked a little longer, transferring two more stacks of boxes from one unit to the next before deciding to call it a day. He had until the end of the week to empty the rest so there was no rush. He pulled down both doors and secured the padlocks, then did some back stretches to work out a muscle cramp as he walked to the car.

Time for a quick shower before heading out for drinks. And as much as the discovery of the pistol intrigued him, he found his thoughts returning to the attractive auctioneer. He didn’t want to assume he was getting lucky tonight but decided to take an extra pain pill to ensure he could handle a bit of extracurricular physical activity…just in case.

* * *

Murphy sipped the morning’s first cup of coffee as he watched the sun rising through a line of clouds on an overcast Friday. One thought had dominated his dreams and remained at the forefront of his mind; the gun. Well, maybe two. He was already looking forward to spending more time with Tracy, thankful he had straightened up his apartment the day before. The extra pain meds had also served their purpose, and his thoughts drifted back to the night before. It was easy to lose himself in everything from the smell of her perfume to the touch of her skin. Reluctantly, he pulled himself back to the present. First things first, he chided, first things first.

Purchasing a firearm at an auction required him to have it checked out by law enforcement. The serial number was not altered, so he doubted Bassetti acquired it through the black market. Someone had special ordered this pistol, and there would be a paper trail.

The flashy twenty-two was not the type of weapon he expected to find in the possession of a man with a reputation for ending lives. This piece was collectible. Someone carried this pistol because they liked the look and feel of it in their hand. And if Gianni Bassetti was a smart man, it would be as clean as the driven snow, though Murphy wasn’t willing to bet money on it.

The long drive downtown was uncomfortable. He kept reminding himself about the necessity of the trip as he shifted his weight awkwardly from side to side on the way to the State Police forensics lab in Detroit. He parked across the street and twisted the knots out of his back as he walked toward the entrance. At the front desk, Murphy signed in and checked the firearm through security to take up to the ballistics lab.

Katie Rakowski’s face was buried in a dual eyepiece comparison microscope as he padded quietly over and set down the pistol box, along with a dozen donuts.

“I can smell those from here, Murphy,” she said without looking up. “What are you buttering me up for now?”

Murphy fought back a smile. “Good to see you too, Rakowski.”

Rakowski finally broke away from the microscope and turned her round, pleasant face his way, eyeing him up and down. “You look good, Quinn. No one would know there was a big hole in you just a few months ago.” She pulled off her purple exam gloves and scooped up the box of donuts. “And you know better than to bring these in here.” She glanced slyly about the room and opened the box, giving Murphy the stink eye. “You did this to me,” she said, taking a large bite of a cream-filled donut. Her eyes slowly closed in a moment of sugary bliss. “Oh, but these are sooo good.” She set down the box and quickly devoured the donut. “Okay, I’m in your power,” she said, licking her fingers. “What do you need?”

“A favor.” He pulled the cover off the pistol box. “I bought this at an auction and need it checked out.” He leaned in closer. “I’ve got a feeling it may have a little history if you know what I mean.”

Rakowski held her hands behind her back, bending over and eyeing it carefully. She finally nodded, then pointed to a nearby shelf. “Leave it up there. I’ve got a big backlog to get through first.”

Murphy did as she asked. “You might want to check this against any unsolved murders going a few years back,” he added.

“That sounds like more than just a feeling, Quinn.” She quickly scribbled a note, washed her hands in a nearby sink, and donned a fresh pair of gloves. “Well, at least the small-caliber narrows things down a bit. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks, Katie, you’re the best,” he said, turning to leave. “Give me a call.”

* * *

Murphy took his time driving back, stopping for a bite to eat and to stretch his legs. He decided now was a good time to move the rest of the boxes from unit 336 and do a little more exploring. As he neared the gates, he noticed two fire trucks and multiple police cars blocking the entrance. He parked on the shoulder and walked toward the office, flashing his identification to an officer standing near the yellow and black caution tape wrapped across the entrance.

He spotted Erma sitting outside an ambulance, a blanket over her shoulders and an oxygen mask on her face. He hurried over. “Erma,” he called out. “Are you all right? What happened?”

Erma blinked and looked up groggily. “Officer Murphy,” she said, pulling off the mask. “In all my years, I have never… I don’t understand.”

Murphy sat down beside her. “Take a few breaths,” he said.

She stared off into the distance as though recalling every detail. “They snuck in and attacked so fast. I hardly saw a thing.”

“You were robbed?”

“That’s the crazy thing,” Erma said, shaking her head. “They didn’t take any money.”

“What then? What did they want?”

She glanced at him with a bewildered look in her eyes. “The gate log book and the surveillance camera discs. They burned them. They started a fire in a trash pail in the office and dumped gas all over the log books and security archive DVDs. Why would they do that?”

A gust of wind blew, parting her hair and revealing a large bump on her forehead. “Did they do that?”

She nodded. “Three of them wearing ski masks. A big one knocked me down and waved a gun in my face. They wanted the log books for the gate. I told them where they were, and. . .and. . .he hit me with the gun. I came to and managed to crawl out before the smoke got too thick.”

“They didn’t take anything else?”

“I’m not sure, but the cash drawer was still locked. Oh, and the gate was jammed open.”

Murphy’s face went pale. His gut told him exactly what that meant, but he fought the urge to jump at the only conclusion that made any sense. He stared off, willing himself to plug the bizarre actions into any other possible scenario. There was no point. The facts spoke for themselves and the answer flashed in his mind like a bright neon sign. These people had been sent on a mission to erase evidence of someone passing through this gate. So either one of the storage units here concealed even darker secrets than the one he had already uncovered, or he was wasting time trying to flip it any other way.

“I’ll be back,” Murphy said, running through the gate and into the storage yard, straight to 336. The padlock had been cut and the door rolled up. The unit, as he suspected, was empty. Someone else had finally put the pieces together. Murphy shook his head, surprised only that it had taken so long. Gianni Bassetti’s secret storage space wasn’t so secret anymore…

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