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Ghost Of A Ghost
About the Author: Martin Hill Ortiz, a native of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a professor of Pharmacology at the Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico where he lives with his wife and son. A score of his short stories have appeared in print, anthologies and online journals. His sixty-page poem, Two Mistakes, won the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid poetry award. He has authored four mystery thrillers, most recently A Predator's Game (Rook's Page Publishing).

The shoulder end of his arm sported a cobra tattoo. The fist end connected to my face. Sherm was playing a game of fist versus gun. He lost, I shot.

He folded in half as though the bullet in his gut had given him a tummy ache. His knees buckled as he tilted over backwards touching down on his tailbone.

“I think I broke my hand,” he said. His punch hadn’t even bloodied my nose.

Some careers don’t jibe well with mediocrity. Being a thug-for-hire doesn’t come with a health plan, which is what Sherm needed now.

“Who you working for?” he demanded as though he had won the fight.

“Nobody,” I said. Not anymore. “The real question is: who are you working for?”

He spat my answer back at me, then said, “Don’t tell no one you shot me with my own gun.”

Oh, yeah. He’d die of embarrassment.

Two minutes before all this, I was sitting on the corner of my bed, flipping through my notes, trying to make sense of the mess I was in. Then I heard a grunt from outside. The window rose up. One hand appeared from below and grabbed the sill. A second hand arrived, this one holding a gun. It let go of the gun in exchange for a second handhold. I took the weapon and stepped behind the bookcase as Sherm chinned himself up to the window ledge. Sherman Goff was tiny, wiry, twenty-something, punked out like a teen. He was a local dumb thug, proof of our failing educational system and that only bulls look good wearing nose rings.

He tumbled into the room and fished about for his gun. I showed it to him. He reacted with his fists going from stupid to stupider to lying on the floor, folded in half.

I unzipped his jacket and ripped the shirt from around his belly wound. I swaddled his midriff with a beach towel. That way he wouldn’t bleed all over my upholstery when I packed him in my sedan.

He whined all the way to the emergency room about how he wasn’t going to get paid when his boss found out I got the better of him. “Shot with my own damn gun!” Good, he was primed for some truth-stretching. With a little cooperation, I wouldn’t have to waste hours grilled by the police having to justify the shooting.

“I didn’t shoot you,” I told him. “You had an accident. Tell the medics you forgot about the one in the chamber. They hear that a lot, I should know, I was one of them. Tell them you were using the barrel to point out a tattoo.”

“You shot my Lucy?” This gave Sherm more pain than the bullet wound. He checked under the towel.

He had an inked drawing on his belly of a pinup girl straddling a rocket. Lucy had also taken one in the gut.

We pulled into the circular driveway of the ER. I made him a promise, “Sherm, I won’t tell your boss but I need to know who not to tell.”

For some reason this made sense to him. “Lancer,” he said, getting out of the car and heading for the double doors.

There were two reasons why Ted Lancer wouldn’t kill me: number one, he had hired me to keep him alive; and, number two, I failed. While my failure gave him a motive, death makes for a fine alibi.

I guess I’m making this story more complicated than it is. Let me start at the beginning.

The night before I was sitting alone at a booth in a tavern—they have taverns, not bars, up here in the touristy end of the Sierras. Skiers pitched woo by the fireplace. A mounted moose head served notice to Bullwinkle.

I came for the playoff game. I had left my cell phone at home, happy to be disconnected from the world. I was dipping into an overpriced basket of fries and sipping a whiskey and soda when I learned the game had been cancelled, along with my reason for being there. I figured I’d finish my drink and call it a night, when I noticed a bald weaselly man at the bar studying me. He had an anemic moustache and a sour frown. Alcohol flushed his face. He came over, scooting into the bench across from me.

“Ted Lancer” he said, offering me his name. “I saw you in the papers.” I had achieved some local notoriety as being the P.I. who stopped a bank robbery. “And, you looked like an hombre who can handle himself.”

“I won’t deny that.”

“Can you handle me?”

“Depends. Is that a pick-up line?”

He explained, “I need a bodyguard.”

“Is someone threatening you?”

“Repeatedly,” he said, gobbling down his drink. “If you’re up for it, I’ll pay you well.”

This story appears in our APR 2021 Issue
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HURRAY! Philip Prince, amateur PI is on the trail again! Love it!
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