The Specter of Justice

This is a flash piece that I wrote a couple of years ago. It appeared on Everyday Fiction in 2011, and I really like it. Our unnamed narrator has since developed a backstory and will be appearing in other stories.

I didn’t mean for it to happen. It just happened, and now there’s no going back.

It was late October. Me and Stitch were knocking over Paris Jewelers; we’d gotten a hot tip and wanted to hit the place before Scarpelli’s boys caught wind of it. Stitch cut the power to the alarm, I jimmied the lock and we went straight for the most expensive stuff. We’d be out in less than ten minutes.

It would have gone perfectly if the Grey Ghost hadn’t shown up.

You know the stories. The Grey Ghost –- Specter of Justice, terror of the underworld. It was all applesauce to me –- the guy was just as bent as we were, but instead of cutting capers he got his juice by dressing up in a cape and interfering with the rest of us while we were trying to make a living.

He was rumored to be some bored playboy with money burning a hole in his pocket, but I didn’t care. I just knew he was a huge pain in the neck, so when that voice boomed out of the shadows I knew we were in for it.

“Cease this criminal action! The Specter of Justice is upon you!”

Stitch jumped a foot but I stayed calm, scanning the room. Yeah, there he was. Like a sap I hadn’t noticed him in the shadows -– all Beau Brummel in a grey cloak, suit, fedora and that ridiculous mask. I would have laughed, but he also held an automatic in each hand, so I was inclined to be polite.

I threw up my hands. “You got us, Ghost. We’ll go quiet.”

I knew the drill -– I’d never been collared by the Ghost before, but I’d met some guys that had, and if I kept my nose clean I’d probably get out of this in one piece.  Already the wheels in my head were turning — I knew a sharp mouthpiece who’d get us off with as little time as possible.

None of this cut any ice with Stitch. He was shaking, his eyes big as saucers. He’d heard stories about the Ghost -– how the guys he nabbed were never heard from again, how he had a secret “Ghost Cave” where all the crooks were stuffed and mounted -– all the usual bushwa that hoods love to repeat.

I was about to tell Stitch to cool off when I saw that he held a .38 in his trembling hand. I hadn’t known he was packing heat. Stupid of me.

“Stitch!” I whispered. “Put that thing away you dope!”

“Listen to your friend,” the Ghost said. “You don’t have a –-“

Maybe Stitch meant to shoot. Maybe he panicked. Maybe he was shaking so bad that he accidentally pulled the trigger.  All I know is that a bullet caught the Grey Ghost in mid-sentence, squarely between the eyes, sending him to the floor without another word.

Even as the echoes of the shot rang inside the room I was kneeling beside the body, feeling for a pulse, and telling myself that I was an idiot for doing so. The poor bastard had taken a slug right in the forehead.

He was dead, of course. Flat as a mackerel. His suit wasn’t even wrinkled and his .45s were still clutched in grey moleskin-gloved hands.

Stitch just stood there, still trembling. The smoking pistol clattered to the floor.

“We’re both dead men, you stupid crumb.” I felt strangely calm –- realizing that you’re a walking corpse will do that for you. “The cops won’t stop until we’re both sitting in the electric chair.”

“I…” Stitch sounded like a confused child trying to explain how he hadn’t meant to break the lamp. “I… I thought he…”

“Put a sock in it, genius,” I said, reaching down for the grey mask, intact save for a round hole in the forehead. “At least we can find out who this mug is before we take it on the lam.”

I pulled the mask free…

And stared in disbelief.

“Bruno?” I spoke in a whisper. “Bruno Scarpelli?”

The man beneath the mask was one of the most powerful men on the east coast. His fingers were in just about every racket there was — bootlegging, blackmail, numbers, prostitution –- you name it. And he never seemed to get caught. Not by the G-men, not by the cops, not even by…

Not even by the Grey Ghost.

Of course the Ghost always swore that he’d get Scarpelli, that no one could escape justice.  Yet for all these years Scarpelli had eluded him.

Now I knew why.

Those wheels in my head were spinning again, but faster this time.

Stitch stepped closer. “Who is it?”

I shot him with one of the Ghost’s automatics.

Bruno Scarpelli ran one of the biggest and most successful operations in the country while moonlighting as the Grey Ghost, taking down his rivals and keeping his own business safe, fooling the cops, fooling the feds, fooling the detectives, fooling everybody. It sounded like the sweetest setup ever.

It took only a few moments to change clothes with the Ghost. We were close enough to the same size that no one would know the difference.  There would be questions about why the infamous Bruno Scarpelli and a two-bit hood had gunned each other down in a small jewelry store, but that wasn’t my problem.  The keys to the Silver Bullet, the Grey Ghost’s custom Cadillac, were in the pocket of his trousers. I suspected that the car would be right outside.

I have some cash saved up for emergencies -– easily enough to put the Grey Ghost back in business. The Specter of Justice is still on the job, and the city’s criminals still have reason to fear the night.

Most of them, anyway.

Now all I need is a new mask.

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