This is a story I began writing a long time ago. I had the idea for it in the very early 1990s. I didn’t finish it until 2007 or 2008. I re-write it and finished that around 2010.
This is some of my earliest stuff. Like anyone’s earliest stuff, I recognize it has flaws. It’s far from perfect.
Still. I hope you find it entertaining — lots of bang bang shoot-em-up. It’s longer than a short story, too, I warn you: little more than 102,000 words, so take your time.
by Benjamin J. Kirby
In an irony, the grim note had been delivered to him by courier, a bike messenger. Like the better bike messengers in Washington, D.C., this one was efficient, quiet but polite, holding the clipboard for a signature, pointing to the little “x” on the page, offering the pen, a quick smile, then the unceremonious handoff of the goods. It was a simple envelope, letter-sized, manila color, sealed across with a piece of clear tape. His name was written in neat, compact letters on the front in a surprisingly dark red ink.
Stepping back inside his foyer he ran his finger through the top and managed a fairly smooth rip at the flap. There was a note inside. It was folded three times, the paper a middle weight cream-colored bond. He thought of checking for powder – anthrax, or even just baking soda as a scare – but it was too late, the envelope was opened. The paper had been folded into tight creases very carefully, fully even, measured.
The note was written in the same deep, blood-red ink.
The note was nothing special, even predictable. It asked for – no, demanded the money, had a throwaway line about not involving the cops, an almost comical deadline, some fairly horrifying threats. There was no signature. There didn’t need to be. He set the note on his desk and didn’t look at it again.
It was not the note that bothered him. It was the picture, which he still held between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand.
Something like this had not been entirely unanticipated. The talks with the Haitian had broken down and when threats escalated into action, the Haitian’s club had been burned to the ground. The man holding the picture had designed the arson specifically to kill the Haitian. The building was nothing but cinders and ash, but the murder failed.
And now the subject of the picture – a rumpled, rugged looking man on his knees in a faded blue t-shirt and cargo shorts with a deep cut above his right eye, handcuffed, holding a Miami Herald from a day ago, the tip of two automatics an inch away from either side of his head, yet a decidedly bored look on his face as if to say, Jesus, seriously? Come and get me the fuck out of here – stared back at the man.
Come and get me the fuck out of here.
The picture was disturbing, because the locale seemed distant, tropical. The blue ocean seemed calm in the background. A line of palms were set in a row, almost like a prop. He hoped they weren’t in Haiti. So he didn’t know where they were. This meant more contact from the Haitian – he’d have to contact him and tell him to go somewhere if he wanted his money delivered, and if he had any plans at all to release the captive man, which wasn’t at all definitive. This, of course, would invite considerable danger.
The picture was further disturbing to the man with the note on his desk, because of the handcuffs and because of the guns. Handcuffs. Not rope, not twine, not tape. The captive was going nowhere on his own.
The cut looked bad, but that wasn’t what bothered the man with the note on his desk the most. What bothered him most were the specific words the captive managed to point his fingers to on the paper. Using this right index finger, the captive had managed to point to a key word in a sports headline teaser: “Marlin Rookie Pitches for Save Against Mets”.
Using his left index finger, he’d managed to point a little lower. The man holding the picture looked again, closer. There was no mistaking it.
It was the sub-headline of an innocuous story about politics and federal banking policy. The words were a little blurry and you’d miss it if you weren’t looking.
Banking Chair Herzog Demands Stricter Fed Loan Controls.
The man in the picture seemed to be pointing just above a picture of a fat politician. But the man holding the picture traced to tip of his index finger, blotting out three letters in the fat politician’s name. He knew what the captive was saying.
The Haitian had taken her, too, and the captive either didn’t know where she was, or knew he had no means to rescue her himself. This was the message to the man with the note on the desk. Now he not only had to formulate a plan for his friend — Come and get me the fuck out of here – he had to find her, too. And that is what the man interpreted as a bad sign: the Haitian had said nothing about her in the blood-red note.
His mind began processing the options. And every one of them was more complicated than the last.
1999, in the middle of everything
Like most prisoners serving long stretches, Wilmer Denton had not aged well, his withering, thin body as dilapidated as his unit in D wing of Lorton Prison, located off the Interstate a few miles outside of Washington, DC. He rubbed the mottled skin under his gray stubble and tried breathing through his mouth to avoid the smell around him. Through old, bleary eyes, he considered his pencil and charcoal sketch. It was not properly scaled and this bothered him, though there wasn’t much he could do about it. It would have to do. Feeling good about completing the project on schedule, at least, he tried to draw in a breath and exhale deeply, like anyone does when the job gets done, only he ended up wheezing, then he cursed through the phlegm-filled cough and let loose with a series of violent hacks, fumbling without irony in his denim-blue shirt pocket for a cigarette of which there were just a precious two left. He was desperate to light up – anything to cover the smell.
While doing more than two decades of hard time in the hell of Lorton, Wilmer had never been able to totally get the stomach-curdling, briny stench of urine out of the back of his throat, where the deep smell – an unholy stink that flavored everything – seemed to take up a sort of permanent unwelcome residence. Except when he was smoking. He lit the cigarette, careful to save some of the ash in a tiny pouch he’d made from a strip of his sheets. The ash was important – it would serve as more of his art charcoal later. He might need another map.
His finished sketch was no more than about five inches square. It was a relief map, actually, a diagram featuring linear indications in various shades of dark and light, of rises and crevices, man-made obstacles, roads, and buildings. The yellowing notebook paper had been folded many times to the point it had worn thin at the creases – but the guards and administrative staff of the medium security facility would never allow him to keep such a diagram. It had to stay hidden and hidden well. And it did, tucked in the corner, into a small space by a corroded brick next to the pipe leading from his toilet to the outer wall, all hidden by a large flake of thick paint.
Wilmer didn’t suspect he really needed the hiding place as elaborate as the one he had for his little map – the guards stopped shaking down the prisoners many months ago when funding for the facility was finally cut to below critical levels. Still, he needed to take every precaution. His mapping experiment and his complex calculations (hidden with great care in other parts of his cell), had to be kept secret, especially from the guards, and most especially from the other prisoners. Wilmer took great pains to keep the other prisoners from spotting his work, sitting on his bed with his back to the bars, keeping an ear out for any footsteps coming down the cement hallway towards his cell. He told the other prisoners that when they saw him with his back to the bars, hunched over on his bed, hands hidden by a blanket and pillow laid out to build a soft wall around him, that he was praying to God Almighty, and that he had conversations with God that were important and spiritual and about Jesus’ path and his path and their path to Heaven, and that if he were left alone he’d share all the answers God had with them. It generally seemed to work, though it did require him to quote scripture more often than he cared to.
And there were the footsteps.
Wilmer Denton quickly put away his work, the unmistakable thump-thump of a jack-booted guard marching down the hallway in his direction. Prison, a unique kind of hell based on the agony of repetition, can only give hope if there is the promise of something different. There wasn’t at that moment a scheduled head count, and Wilmer’s mind began ticking through the possibilities. He thought that perhaps one of the guards – most likely a ridiculously overweight goober named Charles – was coming down to reprimand Haggarty, Wilmer’s next-cell neighbor. Haggarty had taken to screaming early and often, throwing his feces out of his cell and, of course, urinating on anything, everything, and everyone. His specialty was urinating on half a roll of toilet paper, lighting the other half and then throwing it out of the cell. The guards had taken Haggarty’s lighter several times, but he screamed for three days until his voice wore out. Wilmer didn’t sleep once during those three days. When the guards finally attempted to move Haggarty to solitary confinement, he began to break his own fingers backwards, each popping out of the joint with a sickly crack-crack. After a few days in solitary, they gave up on him and returned him to his cell. Once, in the early morning hours before the sun had come up, Wilmer heard Haggarty whispering through the bars. It took the old prisoner some time to realize Haggarty was addressing him. He finally shook off the sleep and listened. They’ll move me, Haggarty had said, over and over, they have to move me to the crazy house… Haggarty was no more crazy than Wilmer was, just desperate beyond measure for change. On some level, Wilmer understood his twisted desperation. But he still hated him.
As Wilmer straightened his sheets, he heard Charles the guard say his name.
“Good afternoon, Wilmer.” Wilmer had always liked big fat Charles.
“’Afta noon, suh.” Lorton had become informal in its own way as the prison wound down and prepared to close for good. Still, there was a certain level of appropriate respect that applied, even for dimwits like Charles, and Wilmer always obliged with the yes, suh’s and no suh’s.
“You have some visitors today.” This was obvious, as there was no other reason for Charles to even approach Wilmer’s cell. Wilmer had wondered if they might come and talk to him, and now his question had been answered. Of course they would. There was a sharp, metallic clang of metal on metal and he knew just then that his cell door was open. The routine for leaving the cell was standard and he had done it so many times he could do it without thinking. It was akin to breathing, like so many things in prison, and not at all what Wilmer was concentrating on. He was focused on the beating of the drums. That’s what it was called, the overpowering, rhythmic sound, as the men in each cell began to beat against a single bar on their cell door, usually with the heel of a shoe or boot. The dull clank-clank pounding was all consuming. It was a signal.
There are no secrets in prison, only temporary shadows and practiced sleights-of-hand, all of which eventually reveal themselves. It is the first rule in a universe built on formal and informal rules. Word in prison gets around fast as hell. Everyone in D wing – and probably in the prison – knew that Feds had come to the grounds. With no parole hearings scheduled for the day, it was plainly evident someone was going to have to rat on someone. Cops show up with a cold case, or even a new case, one of the boys maybe knows a guy or has a cousin on the outside, knows a friend of a friend, ran with a group back in the day. Saw something go down. Heard about something and never said anything. Tangential connections not easily unraveled are frequently how business gets done in the criminal justice world. Or maybe they were coming to discuss a technicality in a case pending against one of the prisoners, an admittedly less likely scenario. Wilmer didn’t have to wonder how everyone knew what was happening so quickly especially considering the various prison networks: factions, tribes, gangs. Unions, friendships, blood relations. Maybe someone with a view of the front gate saw an unmarked sedan drive in. They’d pass it on to the dude in the next cell over. He’d throw a note down to the guy below him. Or perhaps it was one of the guards. There were a handful who shared information with the informal prisoner leadership structure.
But Wilmer Denton was fairly well respected among the general population in Lorton. He was given a spot near the front of the line at chow time, the first and one of the more sure signs of respect. He hadn’t been beaten in years. Wilmer was on a more or less permanent safety list – he’d likely never get assaulted with the protection afforded him by the other prisoners. Wilmer was a grandfatherly figure in the prison, seen as a guru of sorts, a man who could dispense survival advice right along with spiritual advice, which were sometimes one and the same. Both remained at a very high premium. On more than one occasion he’d brokered peace treaties between rival gangs in the prison. His place on the social pecking order in Lorton notwithstanding, he got the same warning anyone would get: Don’t go and sell some brother out, especially not some brother serving time in here. The drums continued their rhythmic pounding. Haggarty was letting out a series of ape-like whimpers and moans.
Charles stood at Wilmer’s side and, trying his best to ignore the drums, marched him towards the activity building, which was completely weird because Wilmer had just assumed that if there were Feds coming to talk to him that the warden would participate. But the warden never went to the activity building. Wilmer knew the story of why, and it was hilarious, but he didn’t think of it now. The matters at hand caused him some vague concern. They were going to go about this in an unofficial way. Damn, now it was going to look as if he’d been asked to rat somebody out. No doubt about it. He’d be forced to do a couple of hours worth of shuck and jive with the boys tonight to explain himself. He set his mind to work on a worthy bullshit concoction.
Charles wordlessly escorted him like a lardassed prom date in beige across the campus and Wilmer took time to finish his smoke, flick it to the ground, and finally breathe in the fresh air. He took time, too, to look across at the dirt fields that prisoners before him had to work not all that long ago. There were certain things Wilmer was going to miss about Lorton, in their own way.
The Lorton Pen was in a state of transition. Congress had passed House Resolution 4328, the Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act of 1999. In that act contained Section 141, which was the language of a bill which had been called the Lorton Technical Corrections Act. In language more complicated than it needed to be, it said that the government would close the prison, hand the land and the buildings over to the State of Virginia, and farm most of the prisoners out to federal prisons elsewhere or have them paroled early. A lot of them went to Ohio. That’s where Wilmer assumed that the authorities might try to send him, Ohio. But he didn’t know for sure.
The red dirt fields kicked up wild dust, and swirled with brilliant colors as the sun prepared to set behind them. Wilmer smiled. It was a beautiful fall day. A football day, his brother had always said. Cool and crisp with the harsh winds of winter still a few weeks away.
The activity building was a gray and drab affair as well, but at least it didn’t smell of pee, for which Wilmer was thankful. Charles the guard, breathing slightly labored now, sat him down in a plastic chair in the hallway and undid the handcuffs. Charles turned to the door, also gray and drab. Behind the door was what looked like a classroom, because it was a classroom. Prisoners could take any number of classes at the prison, earning various degrees and certifications. In the room, Wilmer knew, would be the federal authorities, probably both men, probably both white, probably looking very formal, very dressed up. Suits and decent haircuts, clean shaven, department store silk ties with bold colors in solid, thick stripes. Silver watches – nothing like a Rolex, but something good, something heavy. Not a lot of jewelry. Maybe a wedding band, but that’s it. Their shoes would be buffed to a high polish, and their belts would match. He made a bet with himself they’d both be wearing white shirts with pinpoint collars and button cuffs.
As Charles was turned towards the door, Wilmer Denton did what he always did in the activity building at this particular location within the structure, which happened to be the main hallway, when nobody was paying attention.
He looked to his right.
Doing this afforded him a view out the window, which was not barred. It was not barred because in order for the new ping-pong table to be brought in to the activity center, the bars on the window had to be removed and the table lifted in through the open space. The doors just weren’t wide enough for the table to come through, and there was a ninety-degree turn around four feet inside – impossible to make the turn with the long table. But this is not what Wilmer’s gray eyes focused on, either.
As Charles heaved his frame, turning around and looking back at Wilmer, the old man swiveled his head back in just enough time, with just the right motion and speed. The guard would never check out Wilmer’s line of sight, towards the fading light of the outside world.
“Come on in,” offered the big goofy baritone drawl with not an ounce of authority in it. Charles was one of the nice ones – there had been guards who were indescribably evil – though none too quick on the uptake. In fact, most of them at least tried to be nice now, about ready to be paid to retire early. Wilmer stood and shuffled towards the door, careful not to look to his right again, out the window.
Two men stood in the room, and Wilmer assessed it fast. One was a veteran federal agent, too many years on the job already, annoyed with the assignment, annoyed with his new partner, working on divorce number three – maybe four – or maybe he was just plain tired. One was a rookie, painfully obvious. New, fresh faced, and scared shitless you could tell because he was overcompensating by being cocky as hell and letting it show. He wasn’t going to be intimidated by some crotchety old jailbird. The poor kid was a caricature, a joke. He looked like he might urinate on himself either from fear or excitement, like a puppy, and Wilmer hoped he didn’t as he’d had enough of the smell. Both agents certainly looked their part. The older guy gray-haired, handsome but craggy, the lines around his eyes telling the story his eyes were too exhausted to tell – a pang hit Wilmer, a slow hint of recognition. Son of a goddam bitch, who was he, again? Like that guy in high school you see at your thirty-year reunion but just can’t get the name down. Wilmer was momentarily stumped and winced at his slowness. And then there was the junior Boy Scout. He was overdone. It was a lock the kid paid more than thirty dollars for his haircut.
The suit was very nearly impeccable, too impeccable, and his cool, blue eyes worked hard at being steely. But even after years of olfactory abuse in D wing Wilmer could smell the fear, could see it, too. Damn, the kid was already working on a bead of sweat just along his brow and it was downright cool in the activity building.
And they were both wearing white shirts, button cuffs.
So, Wilmer thought, here they were, veteran and rookie, going to ask him about some long forgotten name. Did he remember So-And-So and thus and such a time? Wilmer hoped the old guy, eyeing him with a look that maybe you gave a fellow on the street you didn’t necessarily know, but certainly respected, would go first and break the suspense.
“Wilmer Denton,” naturally, and to his mild disappointment, the kid went first, “I’m Agent Tony Murtowski with the FBI. The kid pointed to the older man who didn’t even blink as he regarded Wilmer Denton with a combined sense of an almost holy reverence and profound sadness all at once. Dammit, he wondered, who was that old dude? “This is Agent Frank Craig.”
Nothing. The name didn’t register with Wilmer, and he lamented for a moment growing old.
“Pleez ta meech bofe ya’ll, nah,” Wilmer smiled and sat in the plastic chair in the otherwise relatively barren room. There was a dilapidated folding table and two more plastic chairs behind it. Agent Frank Craig sat on the far corner of the wobbly table, still regarding Wilmer as the kid stood at the other end of the table looking very stiff and nervous.
“Um,” Agent Murtowski coughed politely into his fist, “well, what we have, Mr. Denton,” he spoke so politely, quietly and with an air of formality Wilmer found amusing, “are a few questions we’d like to ask you. If that’s alright with you.”
“Well,” Wilmer scratched his beard and chuckled, “Ah sho cain’t says Ahs gots no problem with that, suh. No suh. You ask yo questions. You ask ‘em. Ah gots no-where tah be, no suh.”
“Fine, then. First, uh, Mr. Denton, are you at all familiar with a man named Jimmy Yakimoto?” The young agent seemed to take just a little too much pride in how he’d framed the obvious question.
Wilmer couldn’t help but smile as he answered. Well, sure, he thought, of course.
“Ahhh…well, suh, now Ahs don’ts rightly recolleck no Jimmy Yak-mee-mo-tee, nah…”
“Goddamit, Wilmer,” the older agent spoke in a near whisper, half under his breath. And it was just at that moment when the recognition clicked for Wilmer who immediately started kicking himself mentally for not putting it all together sooner. Of course, he thought, of course, of course…too good… It was the voice that did it. The scratchy, rough voice of years pissed away with heartache and misery and law enforcement. Hard drinking, hard living – the innumerable murders, rapes, robberies, crooks, villains, worse. Eventually it all defined a man, framed his face, showed in his hairline, his posture, the way he carried himself, everything.
Wilmer remembered it and remembered it all well. But it was too late to stop Agent Craig now. He was going to go with it – draw out the whole thing, probably for the benefit of the kid. Wilmer Denton was inclined to let him.
“Goddamit, Wilmer,” he said again, only a little louder, rubbing his eyes too hard with his hand, “you graduated at the top of your class from American University. You went to Yale for an M.F.A. You taught English Lit. You’re published in, what, four goddam languages? Last month alone you checked out twenty-five books from the prison library. You know you’re the only one in this place that reads, don’t you? You’re in the middle of, I believe, It Takes a Village, by Hillary Clinton. You know what, Wilmer? I’m tired. I’m tired, and I’m old, and so are you. Worse, I’m on a time-sensitive case with a new partner, a rookie,” this elicited a pained look from the kid, “and, frankly, I could really do without the Oscar-caliber act. So can we please cut out the goddam ‘yes suh, no suh’ shuck and jive bullshit?”
The kid, Agent Murtowski, seemed stunned, shaken, and even little bit hurt. He didn’t know what to do. It was obvious to Wilmer that Agent Craig hadn’t told him a thing about their visit, maybe as a sort of test. This was the best he could figure.
Wilmer smiled in spite of himself.
“Agent Craig,” he rubbed his beard and made a point of making eye contact with the older agent, “I am so sorry I did not recognize you. It seems that age and prison life are catching up with me. I do hope you’ll forgive me.” Wilmer noticed with some glee the kid nearly passing out as the accent made the cosmic transition from quasi-literate, low-capacity street thug to enunciated Yale snob. “Young man,” he spoke, addressing Murtowski, “get your new partner to give you the details on my background. I’m sure he expected you to read my file, which you obviously did not do.” Then, with a hint, a tinge of regret, “I am a prisoner, son. It’s meant quite a number of compromises in my personal life.”
Wilmer turned his attention back to the agent in charge. “But perhaps my background is irrelevant to why you’re here today. You’re both clearly on an urgent matter, so let’s get to it. And,” he looked prison-hard at Agent Craig, “I finished It Takes a Village, just so you know. I’m working on ‘Tis.” Which wasn’t true. He was currently finishing a trashy novel that had been smuggled in to him about a prison break, entitled The Big Run. It was hidden behind his sink, next to a photocopied article on how to design your own map.
“Wilmer,” Craig spoke, keeping solid eye contact with Wilmer Denton, “we need everything you got on an outfit called they Tokyo Tigers. They are a Yakuza subsidiary.”
Wilmer Denton sniffed. He knew it was coming.
“Jimmy Yakimoto – we need to know if he was connected to the Tigers.” The kid, shooting the whole load right away, eliciting an evil eye from Agent Craig.
“’Yakimoto’, you say,” Wilmer affecting his best New England country club elitist at this point, just for fun, “I really can’t say that I know the name. Since when has the Japanese mafia had any serious establishment in the United States?” An insulting, throwaway question that would only drag out his time with the agents further. Wilmer vaguely regretted asking it, beginning to think about getting back to the cell block, D wing, his home. The sooner he got back the better, the less to explain to the boys, though he was beginning to concoct a pretty good whopper involving Haggarty, his pissy cell block neighbor. Wilmer knew if he stayed too long with the Feds, his fellow inmates would start to talk, start to suspect he’d sold someone out, given all the details of some horrific crime in which he’d been involved . There would be a terrible price to pay if it were true.
“You’re lying.” Craig spoke deliberately, directly, staring at Wilmer. “You’re lying, Wilmer.”
This brought back memories for Wilmer. Frank Craig was always so defiant, always so sure there was something else under a stone left unturned, and very direct about it. It was how the agent had busted him so many years ago, even before he’d been convicted on his ‘third strike’ and sent away for a virtual lifetime.
The lynchpin player in the drug dealing and money laundering business has always been that of the courier, moving the product or cash from place to place safely, intact, untainted. It is also the riskiest gig. It is for these reasons that it requires someone with brains, someone remarkably smart, in fact, to arrange the transportation of money, drugs, weapons, whatever, from here to there, from kingpin to middleman to gangster to street dealer to junkie, and back. If Tony Murtowski had bothered to read Wilmer Denton’s file, he would’ve seen just such a person, a man of creative ideas and quick intellect. But certainly not your typical street punk.
Wilmer Denton had grown up in Washington, D.C., excelling in school and the first and only person in his family to ever go to college. He came back from Yale with an M.F.A. and a slight addiction issue, specifically to blow. It was big back then, and certainly nothing a few hundred dollars a week couldn’t take care of. Naturally, teaching didn’t provide this and Wilmer took to a corner bar in Northeast D.C. called Q.T.’s and set up shop.
“Mr. Denton,” the rookie spoke, his voice quivering with either fear or rage, maybe both, “if you don’t tell us what you know, it could mean that a perfectly decent guy – maybe an innocent man – might die.”
Wilmer looked a bit stunned, contemplated playing the race card – You mean a perfectly decent white guy who’s not in prison, as opposed to me, a perfectly indecent black man who is in prison? – but opted not to give away the entire farm, not yet.
Frank Craig let Wilmer’s silence go for a beat longer then gave it one more shot.
“Your operation. I know it was connected to Yakuza activity, Wilmer. I always knew that. You know that no one believed that, but I know it’s true.” Agent Craig, hinting at his life’s work, his life’s frustration. “Tell me how it worked.” He exhaled, knowing that he’d not only heard it himself a hundred times from a hundred different types just like Wilmer, but that Wilmer had probably told it a hundred times himself. “Again.”
“Fine, Agent Craig.” Wilmer himself sighed, decided to give them just enough – not too much – and see where they went with it. He really did need to get back to the cell and work on a cover story for the boys. What was going through his head now involved Haggarty and crimes of unspeakable evil and little children. Prisoners uniformly hate child abusers. With that hanging over Haggarty’s head, he wouldn’t make it to the weekend.
“We never saw faces,” Wilmer glanced from man to man, “we never knew names. It was a simple operation, really,” not mentioning it was one he’d set up, “a man would come by my corner every Thursday with a key to a post office box, the number simply taped to it. You either had to have eight thousand dollars in that box or a very, very good excuse. I can assure you I never had to have an excuse. This was the Seventies, everyone was buying because everyone was using.”
“Including you.” Agent Murtowski spoke well out of turn and earned glances of frustration and anger from both older men. He cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably on his feet.
“Even me, yes. Still, it was easier than it should’ve been to unload ten thousand dollars worth of mid-grade cocaine.” Wilmer could see Murtowski’s inner calculator adding up the numbers. “That’s right, son. We got to keep two thousand dollars either in product or in cash, whichever. I usually managed to ingest about five hundred dollars worth myself, leaving me around fifteen hundred dollars a week. Not bad. And that was it. After time, just like any business, you develop regular customers, develop a trust with those customers and hope that the good times continue, which for me they did. It’s just a shame that one of those people I developed a trust with was,” a matter-of-fact deadpan look to Frank Craig, “a cop.”
Murtowski all but slapped his hand to his forehead.
“A crying goddam shame,” Craig said. “Listen, the man with the key. Who was it?” Picking up on the one detail he knew he needed to. A potential lead, a person.
Shit, thought Wilmer, this could be too much already.
“I don’t know, Agent Craig. We just called him the key guy. Like I said, no names, no faces.” Wilmer began to fumble for his last cigarette, remembered it was his last cigarette, and decided to take a chance. “Do you still smoke, Agent Craig?”
“What did this key guy drive, Wilmer?” Craig didn’t answer the question but fished around in his jacket pocket for a smoke, handing it to Wilmer, and following it with a light from a silver Zippo.
Another tough question. Wilmer hesitated and drew in the smoke. Hell, if everything was right – and he had no reason to think it wasn’t – he could give these two just a bit more.
“I really don’t remember,” Wilmer exhaled with a laugh, “I really don’t. Something sporty, I believe.”
“A 1976 Pontiac Firebird?” A touch of spittle flew from Tony Murtowski’s excited mouth as he spewed forth the obvious answer, this time eliciting a look of just plain sadness from both older men.
“Yes,” Wilmer said, rolling his eyes, “that was it. A 1976 Pontiac Firebird. Sporty.”
“That sure is interesting.” Agent Craig had stood up. “Well,” he motioned towards his partner and they headed towards the door, where Charles stood on the other side waiting, “I suppose there’s not much more we can ask of you. Thanks Wilmer. Good luck.”
Wilmer contemplated the game they’d just played, and decided to give them just one more card. The ace was still up his sleeve.
“I’m sorry, Agent Craig. I’ve really never heard of Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto,” Wilmer, obeying the rules was still in his seat until he was ordered by a guard to stand.
Craig and Murtowski froze.
Craig turned and smiled a weak smile at Wilmer Denton, “No kidding?” He paused and said, with genuine concern in his voice, “It’s been a long time, Wilmer. Please, whatever you’re doing – take good care.”
Wilmer just smiled at the old agent and nodded.
After that, the departure of Craig and Murtowski was relatively abrupt. Except for the Zippo lighter Agent Frank Craig left on the table. Charles the guard saw it, grabbed it and left Wilmer standing out in the hallway, as he bounded the best he could down the stairs hollering after the agent. Plenty of time for Wilmer to look out of his bar-less window again, out at just under fifteen yards towards the weak point in the razor-wire fence, which coincidentally happened to occur at a low point, a mild dip in the ground. Weak because the metal pole that held the fence had become lopsided, aided by water accumulation in the bowl of the uneven ground. It had been a wet summer and fall and the loose soil underneath had become soft, the weight of the razor wire and steel metal pulling down, just slightly, the fence post. And beyond that his eyes focusing on the road that led up to the prison, making a curve not fifty yards from the ailing fence post. All of it was mapped with stunning accuracy with pencil and cigarette ash-charcoal on folded pieces of paper hidden in Wilmer Denton’s prison cell. Beyond the road was…simply nothing. Freedom, perhaps, and a fair stretch of Interstate 95 north and south through Virginia and then, as a matter of fact, Wilmer Denton’s home town of Washington, D.C.
The beginning of everything
There were four men in the plush living room of the Georgetown brownstone. The room itself looked like something out of a magazine. There were matching leather couches, and a plush recliner surrounding an elegant, long coffee table made of black steel and marble. There rugs flown in from Pakistan. A flat-screen TV was mounted in one wall, an impeccable fireplace to the other. There was Asian-themed artwork which everyone assumed was original work.
Despite the nice living room in the nice house in the nice neighborhood, two of the men looked horribly uncomfortable, desperate to leave, anxious and fidgety. The other two men looked totally stoned out of their minds, because they were stoned out of their minds. The two who were less than comfortable were Kurkel Neekelwender and Ritchie Torres, law partners. Torres, the younger of the two, held his hands firmly in his lap and discreetly picked at his thumbnail, which was becoming just a little bit bloody. Neekelwender blinked a lot and tried in vain to ignore his sweating brow. Stains were beginning to form under his arms, yellowing his white shirt. The smell of heroin tar smoke was killing Torres. The two getting high were their clients, a local crime boss named Hideo Fumiko and his chief lieutenant, Noboru Takagawa. Kurkel Neekelwender and Ritchie Torres had been representing the American branch of the Yakuza, dubbed by the media as the Tokyo Tigers, for just over two years. In those two years, neither lawyer had ever been very comfortable being in the presence of their clients when they were getting high, which lately seemed to be all the time.
Kurkel looked at Ritchie, sighed, blinked an inordinate number of times, looked at Hideo Fumiko who was starting to nod off a little bit, then discretely sighed again. The Yakuza’s Tokyo Tigers were becoming one of the preeminent Asian gangs along the Eastern Seaboard of America and were on track to be one of the largest in the country. The Yakuza itself remained a worldwide criminal enterprise, in recent decades specializing mostly in trafficking narcotics, though gambling, prostitution, and pirating various forms of weapons and contraband were always on their list of activities.
Both lawyers knew that it was going to be a difficult day for Hideo Fumiko and the gang. The Tokyo Tigers had lost three more men, foot soldiers, this time in a gangland-style shoot-out with Russian gangsters, who call themselves the Bratva, or Brotherhood, near Baltimore. It had been a particularly violent battle. Two civilians had died and seventeen more were injured, some seriously. A cop had taken a bullet in the leg. An article in the Washington Post had said they might have to amputate. Another cop was in a coma, probably forever.
It was that newspaper article which had persuaded both Kurkel and Ritchie that perhaps it would be best if Hideo and the Tokyo Tigers reached out to the Russians as sort of a truce in what was rapidly escalating from idiotic turf battle to outright war. Kurkel especially tried not to think of the lives lost and damage done over the course of the last several months between the growing Russian Bratva and the growing Japanese Yakuza. Perhaps, thought the lawyers, they could reach some sort of settlement that saved face – ever important in the criminal world, and especially important to the Japanese. Thinking of it more as a settlement and less of a surrendering truce might make it easier for the violent, quick-on-the-trigger Tokyo Tigers to accept.
A black phone sat on the coffee table in the attractive living room, and Kurkel, realizing that Hideo in his drugged state could take forever to respond, finally leaned over and held down the little gray ‘mute’ button.
“Hideo,” Kurkel’s Dutch accent barely audible now, “I have to advise you again, strongly, to take this deal. It is quite honorable.” ‘Honor’ was a big word with the Tokyo Tigers, Kurkel had discovered. It carried a lot of weight. “Two million is pocket change – you’ll make that up in a few weeks.” In fact, the difficult part of the meeting had come earlier, before Hideo and Noboru had started smoking the black tar heroin, when the two lawyers presented their case to the gang leaders. Both men had already floated the idea past the Russian’s lawyer and he seemed amenable to the notion, calling it ‘war reparations,’ and a ‘clean start.’ Boundaries along the East Coast of the United States had been drawn up, the Russian Bratva keept most of their distribution area around Baltimore, Philly and Delaware, the Tokyo Tigers, based out of Washington, D.C., with a convenient branch in Richmond, keeping most of those two cities, as well control over a number of budding meth labs in West Virginia, for themselves. Other international crime syndicates – the Italians, the Irish, the Nigerians, others – were not consulted regarding territory.
Kurkel raised his finger off of the ‘mute’ button and sat back. The two head gangsters had yelled, threatened death to anyone who surrendered to the Russians, threatened the lawyers, threatened the world, all to no avail. Hideo knew that in the end he’d have to take the deal. The Bratva were too entrenched in Baltimore, and he’d never be able to move enough resources up from Richmond, and certainly not from other branches of the Yakuza on the West Coast. They had in fact discussed hitting up other branches of the Yakuza for help – unusual, but not unheard of – trucking in guys from as far away as Chicago or the particularly vicious bastards out of Miami to help combat the Russian problem. It didn’t seem like the right time, especially since they were in a growing period. Ultimately, making overtures for peace – even temporary peace – was seen as a sign of a strong negotiator, a good businessman. Hell, ultimately, it wasn’t about winning a war. It was about bad publicity being bad for business.
When he first heard it, Ritchie had thought it was an absolutely terrible idea. Gangs making legal settlements, making reparations – and using lawyers to negotiate the deal – seemed to him like bad business, which of course it was. It was a ripe opportunity for misunderstanding and miscommunication, which in the business of international crime could only mean more wanton violence and unnecessary death. It was a risky proposition at best.
Besides, Ritchie had argued, from the lawyer’s point of view war was remarkably profitable. During times of increased street violence they billed the Tokyo Tigers double, citing their own safety concerns. This side of the argument especially appealed to Ritchie Torres. But Kurkel had argued that war was profitable for their firm only to a point. What could he do, he’d asked, let them all kill themselves? Who would they work for then? Clients as profitable as the Tokyo Tigers didn’t come along every day. It was better to save them from themselves before Hideo started his Porsche one day and blew up.
The turf war with the Russians had lasted several months, beginning in the spring. Prior to that there had been a number of even more violent skirmishes with the Felix Brother’s gang, originally out of Mexico. Kurkel and Ritchie had their contacts within the Tokyo Tigers management chain, too, and morale was beginning to wane on the front lines. And bad morale meant that drug sales would decline. It meant hookers would get lazy, numbers runners would get greedy, and smugglers would get ideas about skimming – or skimming more than they already did. All of that – especially the declining sales of narcotics – meant less money for the law firm of Neekelwender and Torres. Ritchie followed the logic and bought in to the plan.
Their strategy was to present the problem to Hideo and Noboru as a public relations issue, not a line in the sand with the Russian Bratva. The local citizenry of the Nation’s Capitol were beginning to make noise having read about increased violence in the streets. The Attorney General had been on TV denouncing street gangs and the havoc they caused. Both lawyers were sure she would create a task force. This was also bad for business, very bad. If no one was reading about overt violence, about innocents dying on the streets, about wounded cops, then the problem would essentially be ignored and the Tokyo Tigers could go back to the lucrative business of peddling narcotics, pimping whores, and illegal gambling.
During their preliminary conversation, Ritchie pointed out that this turf war had been instigated by the Tokyo Tigers. It could be a sticking point with the Russians, or at least drive up their price for a settlement. In fact, the initial offering by the Tokyo Tigers – a price agreed upon by both Neekelwender and Torres – was low-ball to the point of near absurdity. Eight Russians were confirmed killed, and there was no telling how many had been injured over the course of the war. Half a million dollars was conjured out of thin air. The Russian’s counselor hung up on them. They desperately called him back offering one million. He returned with an astronomical price of ten million. Kurkel and Ritchie explained that they simply couldn’t take that to Noboru as a serious offer. Finally, a price was agreed to: two million dollars and a call from Hideo Fumiko himself. In fact, both Neekelwender and Torres were thrilled with the final settlement price. It was a bargain.
It also had a lovely fringe benefit. Hideo Fumiko operated the American branch of the Yakuza’s Tokyo Tigers only under strict supervision from Japan. The Yakuza godfather was a man of great mystery named Kodama whom it was said was a direct relation to the same Kodama who had united the Yakuza factions in the 1930s and 40s. Word was he hated traveling, hated to leave Japan, and Neekelwender and Torres, as well as the Tokyo Tigers, were more than willing to oblige him. Still, the organization based in Japan kept Hideo on a tight financial leash and his independent credit limit never exceeded five million dollars. It became evident to both lawyers that the larger Yakuza structure envisioned their East Coast American enterprise as something of a testing ground. Both had heard that if Hideo Fumiko pleased the leadership structure back home through a successful venture in his branch in Washington, DC, he’d be first in line to run the operations for all of North America. After that, he might even be considered as the next godfather of Yakuza enterprises worldwide. Thus, Hideo tended to keep himself conservative, restrained. Except for the rampant drug abuse. And violent gang wars.
After more than thirty minutes of verbal wrestling with Hideo and Noboru, the lawyers convinced the two that a straight payment, preceded by a phone call, would be in their best interest. In fact, it was less the money that bothered Noboru, but more the phone call. It stung his over–inflated sense of dignity, but he was not a fool, and knew that at seven hundred thousand dollars he was getting a bargain. They’d be back up to full speed in their drug dealing enterprises by the end of the week.
Hideo leaned over the phone in the middle of the table and Ritchie silently thanked God that the man was finally about to say it, get it over with and move on with his life. But before the gangster spoke, he picked up a little black pipe along with a lighter. Ritchie’s
“Very well then, Sergei,” Hideo spoke as he held the thick gray smoke in his lungs, addressing his Russian counterpart who was somewhere in Baltimore. “Two million, as agreed upon by our lawyers. Four payments. You’ll have the first half million by next Saturday. You have my word.” He paused to exhale, and then he seemed to be thinking, pausing even longer. “We’ll let the lawyers arrange the rest.” This suited both Neekelwender and Torres just fine, though Torres discreetly rolled his eyes. This, he thought, is not what I signed up for when I went to law school, which had been Georgetown Law. It didn’t take him long, though, to begin to remember all of the fringe benefits of representing an international crime syndicate: his two bedroom apartment on the Hill, his shiny gold Rolex, the new BMW Roadster, not to mention the semi-regular services of a pricey hooker he had enjoyed the weekend before.
“Very good, Hideo,” the voice on the other end spat out, not sounding exactly sober either. “Half million next Saturday. Have the lawyers call Moisha and work it out.” The voice was thick, phlegmatic. Ritchie tried to conjure what the scene on the other end looked like. Probably much the same as it did in Hideo’s living room, except that their lawyer was far too bright to associate directly with the criminals he represented. He was extremely powerful; he didn’t have to.
“Peace, Sergei,” Hideo said with a wicked smile. It was the one word, the only word
Sergei grunted, “Good-bye,” and the phone disconnected.
Hideo closed his lips around the mouthpiece of the pipe and flicked the lighter again. The light grating noise of the spark wheel seemed to force something in both Neekelwender and Torres to snap, a signal, and both men abruptly stood.
“Very well,” Kurkel Neekelwender grabbed his briefcase off the floor and straightened his jacket, buttoning it just so. Business had concluded. “Is there anything else, Hideo?” A question more for the sake of politeness than anything else. These were not men who looked to spend recreational time with their clients.
“No,” Hideo breathed out the toxic smoke, “no, Kurkel, Ritchie,” he pointed lazily to both men individually, one after the other, looking them over with half-closed eyes. “Our business here is completed today. Please keep me posted as necessary. Arrange to withdraw the money from our narcotics account, but do it in individual withdrawals… But I am telling you your job. I am sorry.” He began to laugh, as did Noboru. Kurkel looked at Ritchie and nodded. It was very much time to go.
“We’ll keep you posted.” Ritchie said, already making his way past the two drugged out gangsters and towards the door.
“Please do. Please do.” It was doubtful Hideo had even processed the comment, now almost fully lost in a haze of narcotic stupor.
Kurkel and Ritchie stepped into the early evening sunlight, both visibly relieved, if only to be breathing air not polluted with the residue of second hand drug smoke and defeat.
“This settlement was a good thing.” Kurkel spoke, putting his forefinger to his lower lip as though deep in thought.
“Jesus, I thought we’d never get out of there. Goddam it, they do a lot of drugs.” Ritchie was virtually huffing and puffing. Finally, his partner’s words sank in. “I don’t know, Kurk, it’s not a corporate malpractice suit we just settled, here. It’s blood money. Worse than blood money. I don’t even know how, but it is.” He bit the last remaining piece of his thumbnail and realized it was bleeding into the palm of his hand. He worked to keep the blood off of his clothes by sucking the tip of his thumb.
“There is no comparison between corporate malpractice and what just took place, Ritchie. We have saved many lives today.” That was one thing that bothered Ritchie about Kurkel Neekelwender, his law partner: everything Ritchie said, Kurkel seemed to take as literally as could be interpreted.
“Never mind. I’m starving. Let’s go to Lem’s.” He turned towards his car, a light blue BMW.
“We saved many lives.” Kurkel couldn’t seem to let the point go. For Kurkel Neekelwender, law school had been a three-year epiphany. To the young Dutchman, everything suddenly related to the law. The rule of law, or at least legalistic thinking, guided everything he did. And he made the order of the law the order of his life.
Prior to representing the legal interests of ruthless Japanese Mafia members, Kurkel had worked as legal counsel for a defense contractor. His job was to set up dummy companies that directly countered the work of peace activist organizations. If the corporation planned on announcing a new missile, a new tank, some kind of gun, for example, and expected a few too many peace marches or annoying protest rallies near their publicity events, Kurkel would engage his considerable legal services. Usually the fake company would, under bogus pretenses conjured from thin air, sue the peace activists if they were organized enough, or the city or local government that had given them the permit to assemble. After that, Kurkel would ensure that the protesters were legally tied up enough that the event could go off without a hitch.
Prior to doing the Lord’s work for the defense people, Kurkel was with an international law firm with offices in New York, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami, London, Paris and Brussels. His crowning achievement at the firm had been the merger of an American defense contractor with an investment firm of dubious background, or at least low character. It was to become the company he’d later work for muzzling peace and environmental activists. Kurkel had been good at both jobs, both of which he’d done for more than a decade each. He had mastered the subject of the law and risen to the top of a very tough, very competitive field.
Ritchie Torres was less experienced, but no less savvy a lawyer. After graduating from Georgetown, he went to work for a congressman as a committee lawyer. Several rude rumors about the congressman came to light and he was defeated soundly in his re-election bid. After only a few years, Ritchie’s political experiences seemed to quickly be winding down. Ritchie and Kurkel met at a reception in the Capitol Hilton, hosted by lobbyists for the defense contractor that had employed Kurkel. Ritchie was looking for work, and Kurkel had long entertained the idea of starting his own small firm. For more
Finally, Ritchie cajoled Kurkel into the BMW and they sped away from Georgetown en route to their favorite restaurant, Lem’s Steakhouse. They had made the steakhouse their regular hangout starting the night they signed the Tokyo Tigers as clients. The restaurant suited both men very well. Hidden in the middle of a long string of K Street buildings, on the inside it was a vast affair of dark stained wood, brass with a low, heavy shine, deep maroon carpets and drapes so heavy they seemed to suck in light like a black hole. The overhead lighting was always a little low, and blue smoke hung by the ceiling as it drifted over from the bar in the front.
Ritchie’s favorite maitre’d, a much older gentleman named Mr. Vesta, was hanging out by the front and greeted both men by name. He escorted them to their usual table – they’d been patrons of Lem’s long enough to merit their own usual table – and wished them a pleasant dining experience, as he always did. The waiter, coincidentally Mr. Vesta’s son, immediately approached them for drink orders. Ritchie smiled brightly as he asked very politely for a much anticipated dry gin martini with three olives. Kurkel ordered a vodka on the rocks with a splash of lime juice. Many of the other patrons in Lem’s at that moment had similar drinks, clear and cold and full of alcohol.
Ritchie removed his cell phone from his jacket pocket.
“Why not call Moisha now?” Now that the deal was agreed to and the payment process was to begin, he wanted to get on with it.
“Perhaps we should wait.” Kurkel never seemed nervous, and he did not now. In fact he never showed emotion of any sort – a trait that Ritchie found to be more than a little creepy.
“Why? We call him up, he reads us some account numbers…,” the drinks arrived to the table, delivered by Mr. Vesta the Younger. Both lawyers thanked him as he backed away.
“I don’t want to know how much he’s taking off the top just yet.” It hadn’t been lost on either lawyer that Hideo had not bothered to read the agreement Kurkel had slid in front of him at the end of the tumultuous negotiation process, the one that he had signed blindly. The same one that said the law firm of Neekelwender and Torres would get twelve percent of the agreed settlement. It was one of the reasons Ritchie was antsy; he wanted his share of twelve percent of two million, which totaled two hundred and forty thousand dollars. Neither lawyer feared anger on Hideo’s part – both had said up front that there would be a fee, but Hideo was in a rage at the time and dismissed their fee out of hand.
“You think he’s getting more than twelve percent?” Ritchie said with a hint of disbelief. He picked up the oversized martini glass and sipped. The gin had been shaken to perfection with just a vague hint of vermouth. Beautiful ice crystals formed at the edge of the glass.
“I’ve no doubt that his fee will represent a very large percentage of this settlement money.” Kurkel sipped from his drink as well. It bothered him that there was a lawyer out there who might be better, wiser than him, though he resigned himself to the fact that it must be true.
“Come on, Kurk,” Ritchie said, smiling. “Here’s to good investing.” As lucrative as doing business with the Tokyo Tigers was, both men had not-so-secret plans to retire early, at least within the next ten years, or sooner. One hundred and twenty thousand dollars each, invested well, would go a considerable distance towards that goal. They clinked glasses and drank. It hadn’t been the first time the two celebrated a well planned, if somewhat minor, windfall. The war with the Felix Brothers had netted them almost as much, aside from their annual rate, which was paid in monthly installments.
Both men sat back in their seats – it was a booth, off to the side – and looked at the silver cellular phone of the table. Now they had to call. The not knowing what their counterpart had netted off the deal was far too great.
Their counterpart, the chief counsel to the Russian Bratva was a man named Moisha Bravinski, a highly regarded lawyer in town with a variety of blue-chip, high profile clients. Almost no one knew of his involvement with the Russian gangsters. Moisha was a partner for one of the large firms in town, had been for years and years, and would remain so until he died. Though they never found out for sure, Kurkel and Ritchie often speculated as to what the old man earned at the firm. Certainly it was in the many millions of dollars, including bonuses. It was a goal of both of the younger lawyers to someday be invited on to Moisha Bravinski’s yacht, kept harbored in the Potomac. Although Moisha technically represented competition for the firm of Neekelwender and Torres, both men respected their elder and considered him a bit of a mentor, though certainly neither of them would ever admit as much.
Kurkel picked up the cell phone and dialed.
“Moisha Bravinski, please.” Kurkel looked down at his drink keeping a straight, unreadable face. Ritchie took another sip of his martini and as always silently praised the work of Lem’s five-star bartender, someone whom he was sure was just a little bit magic. It was a good drink, and the gin had begun to soothe his nerves frayed by the earlier encounter with his client.
“Good afternoon, Moisha. It’s Kurkel Neekelwender.” A pause, and then, “Yes, Moisha, we are at Lem’s.” He offered the faintest of smiles to Ritchie who shook his head and smiled brightly back. The old man knew them too well.
“I’m sure you’ve already spoken with your clients in the shipping industry.” Kurkel was cautious and spoke in code, confident Moisha would understand.
“Well, then, very well. Fine.” The conversation continued like that for two minutes. A series of “fine,” “yes,” “of course,” and “very well.” At the end of the call, he abruptly flipped the phone closed and set it back on the table, right where it was before.
“Well…?” One of Ritchie’s mild pet peeves about Kurkel was that it always seemed forever before he finally got to his point, or even said anything at all.
“He wants to use mules.”
“What?” Ritchie nearly spit out an olive. He had hoped – even assumed – that Moisha would simply, quickly, recite a series of off-shore bank account numbers for deposit. Ritchie and Kurkel would make a few calls, visit a few banks around town and the money would simply be deposited. The same thing would happen again and again until the Russians had received their two million in full.
“Mules. He thinks that a direct transaction from any of… our accounts is too risky. The publicity has frightened him. And,” the other shoe was dropping, Ritchie could see it coming, “He wants it all at once. He claims his clients are nervous getting the money in installments. The clients say, and he evidently agreed, that too many small withdrawals and deposits would look suspicious. He began talking about the Department of the Treasury flagging strange transactions. There has been too much publicity, and he doesn’t want to get careless.”
“Jesus Christ.” Ritchie was trying to work through the physics of a two million dollar hand-off. He felt sick to his stomach, a feeling that would stay with him for some time.
“We can withdraw the money all at once,” Kurkel said, essentially ignoring Ritchie. “Our client’s funds are in enough different accounts that it won’t matter. But it’s the deposits that worry him. He wants one cash lump sum.”
“It’s dangerous. Very, very dangerous.” Ritchie said, picking up his martini glass to finish off the cold gin concoction. His nerves had frayed and he knew he’d need another one.
“Yes. Maybe just as dangerous as making a large deposit. But it is their prerogative.” Kurkel finished his drink as well and set the glass on the table. “We’ll have to call our client.”
Ritchie groaned as Kurkel picked up the cell phone and dialed. While it was ringing, Mr. Vesta’s son returned and asked under his breath if either man would care for another drink. Yes, Ritchie said, both of us, please.
“Mr. Yokohama,” Kurkel was fully aware of his use of the cell phone, and used Hideo’s code name. Hideo had been very explicit about concealing his own identity. He was not a public man, and both Kurkel and Ritchie appreciated this. Both men had no doubt there was an FBI file a foot thick on Hideo Fumiko and the Tokyo Tigers, and they were both quite conscious of wiretaps and surveillance. “It is your lawyers. There is some news.” He paused, evidently giving Hideo time to rouse himself from the drug-induced stupor.
“All is well,” he said, quietly. “Though there is one issue, and we need your assistance. Our friends are insisting on a direct cash transaction. In one lump sum. No account numbers.” Ritchie could tell that Kurkel was prepared to delve into the explanation, offering great detail, but the audible reaction on the other end stopped him. Ritchie raised his eyebrows as Kurkel held the cell phone now about two inches from his ear. Hideo was screaming and understandably so. This was never how these things had been done before. Or at least not for a long time. There was technology now. Bank accounts could be opened and closed, funds traded from one to the other online, even over the phone. Ferrying that much cash was dangerous, and Hideo let all of this out as Kurkel listened patiently. Their drinks arrived, mid-tirade.
“I am sorry, Mr. Yokohama, but it is incumbent on us to…” it was evident Hideo had cut him off. “Fine, then, Mr. Yokohama. Very good. We will be in touch with him and arrange it that way. Thank you.” Kurkel let his shoulders relax. The movement was almost imperceptible.
“He certainly sounded pissed, and I don’t blame him.” Ritchie was feeling a bit self-important having felt the pain of his client. “This stinks, Kurk.” He took a sip of his fresh drink.
“Oh, he was not happy. But he obliged in the end.” Kurkel took a deep breath.
“What is our plan? How do we do this?” Ritchie was now beyond hiding his anxiousness to get the deal through, over and done with.
“He has offered us one of his district managers, from Northwest D.C. Someone he trusts very much, has been with the organization for a number of years now. We will make several small withdrawals ourselves over the next few days, get the money to him, and he will pick up the delivery and courier it to our counterparts.”
“Good, I guess.” Ritchie felt a little better, but not great. He sipped his drink again, quietly craving a cigarette. They were back where they were before: simply visiting several banks around town, withdrawing the first five hundred thousand dollars, waiting a day, going to another bank, withdrawing another five hundred thousand, then another, then another over three or four days, putting it all together and giving it to Hideo’s man to deliver to the Russians. Nothing over-the-top dangerous, but riskier than sitting at a PC and entering bank account numbers.
“Yes, this is not as bad as we might have thought. We will begin with the banks tomorrow. One hundred dollar bills.” Kurkel looked up as Mr. Vesta’s son arrived with their salads. The young Mr. Vesta could see that they were in the middle of business and left them with their field greens wordlessly.
“Oh, this is very good.” Ritchie suddenly remembered his hunger and immediately dug in to his salad. “So,” he said, almost as an afterthought, “who did he give us?” Both Kurkel and Ritchie had made acquaintances throughout the leadership structure of the Tokyo Tigers and knew some of the men fairly well.
“One of the original Fukuoka Dragons,” Kurkel said, referencing a former rival Japanese gang that had, in the last couple of years, folded in with the Tokyo Tigers. “Someone he trusts quite a bit. A runner,” meaning a middleman, a deliveryman. A courier.
“Who?” Ritchie said with a hint of impatience, biting in to more salad.
“Jimmy Yakimoto.” Kurkel said, starting in on his own salad at a much slower pace than his partner. “Do you know him? I do not.”
“Yeah,” Ritchie said, mouth half-full. “Yeah, I met him. Bear of a guy. Huge dude. Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto. Great nickname, isn’t it?”
Baylor Roman sat low in the seat and stretched back. The handlebar grips were wearing through his gloves again, which pissed him off. He velcroed off the gloves and rubbed the calluses on the palms of his hands near his thumbs. Baylor looked to the crosswalk to his left, saw the do-not-walk sign counting down and quickly strapped his gloves back on, knowing the light was going to turn yellow in five seconds, four seconds, three, two… He cranked the pedals hard and by the time he was at the other side of the intersection, he was blowing past a double-parked car at a fair clip. Baylor Roman was a courier, finished with his deliveries for the day, on his way back to the office at the heart of downtown, off 17th Street, not at all far from the White House. There was no one faster than a courier with nothing left to deliver.
The office, which was just a dispatch room, was mostly empty. It was getting late in the afternoon and most of the other riders were either out on their last calls or headed home. Baylor Roman used a delivery entrance in an alley and came up a freight elevator to the fourth floor of a nondescript building. The office was a ghost town, just how he liked it. Leave his delivery signature sheet on the table, grab what he needed, sign out, and head home.
He locked the Scott Scale 50, a racing-grade mountain bike he’d tricked out to run lighter and faster and take the turns tighter in the city, to a dilapidated bike rack in the corner, and sat in an empty cubicle. Fontaine, another bike messenger for the company, had come through for him in spades. The photographs were in a thin paper bag, and had a little more heft than he thought they might. There must have been more than he expected. He shook the bag, it slipped a bit in his riding gloves, and four, maybe five of the pictures fell out. Baylor looked around the empty office quickly, let his eyes rest on his beloved bike, and then down at the photographs.
“Fuck!” He hissed. He bent down to pick them up. From just a glance, he could tell they were going to be real doozies.
“Sinner!” The sudden, shrill voice from behind him was startling and his face flushed beet-red. Baylor bit his lower lip, and choked back a curse. It was one of the dispatchers – and one of the worst – the woman who sat less than four feet away at the next cubicle, Lorrie Beth Hammond. Jesus, he thought, I nearly pissed myself.
“What on Earth do you mean, Lorrie Beth?” Baylor’s Arkansas accent melted his words like butter on bread, lent them a quality of sincerity that was as false as the day is long. He quickly scooped the Polariods and clutched them to his chest. Baylor tried to remember why Lorrie Beth was here – he didn’t remember taking any dispatch calls from Lorrie Beth all day.
“You’re not supposed to be looking at those sinfully dirty pictures. I saw your blasphemous, evil pornography,” she said it ‘porno-GRAPH-ee,’ “And your pornographies are all immoral.” The last word emphasized for maximum impact. “It’s in the Bible.”
Baylor couldn’t recall the passage in the Bible that prohibited him from viewing the specific images that had caught his eye, but he was damn sure he was clutching some sin to his chest. He turned to look at Lorrie Beth, whom he could tell already was preparing a
“Lorrie Beth, I’ve just got this one last package I’ve got to…” Baylor was concocting a plan on the fly, but it was hard looking at Lorrie Beth. She was sad in so many ways. She wasn’t even very good at her job. In fact, Baylor had lost count how many addresses she’d screwed him on, how many pick-ups she just forgot to call in. It happened all the time, it happened to him, to Fontaine, to all of them. Bitching about Lorrie Beth – her God talk, her unfortunate looks, her poor social skills generally, her crappy job performance – it was practically a job function with the bike couriers. Baylor tried to hide his flinch as he looked at her. Damn, she was hard to look at. Brown, mousy hair pulled back in a tight bun, a mole on her cheek with the hairs growing out of it, and everyone’s favorite – the golden cross, which hung constantly and heavy between the massive chasm of her considerable bosom. Blasphemy if I ever saw it, Baylor thought.
“Baylor, I saw your dirty filth pictures. And I’m telling Mr. Jennings.” Mr. Jennings was perhaps Lorrie Beth’s only fan in the office, or at least he put up with her. The couriers suspected they were somehow related, that her working there had been some sort of familial payoff, some sort of kinfolk deal gone horribly wrong. She had to be a cousin, a niece, something. No one could think of any other reason for Jennings to keep her around. “But worse,” you could tell she liked this part best, “you’re going to go… to hell!” She pointed a bloated finger, nearly touching his nose.
Baylor took a deep breath and prepared himself for another special performance, as he’d had to do many times before. A bit of him wished that someone could be there to videotape it. He was good. Really good. He often felt he deserved an award of some sort. But no one else was ever around, not even Fontaine. Fontaine would’ve loved it.
“Oh, Lorrie Beth,” he squinted his eyes, hard, working to force a tear. Please, he thought, just one tear. Like the commercial of that Indian looking at all the trash. “I need help. I’m a sinner, Lorrie Beth. A sinner! I need redemption. I need it SO BAD!” He was almost yelling now, and Lorrie Beth took a step back, stunned, looking around. “Lord, I beseech you, deliver me from this horrible, awful, agonizing, terrible sin!” He worried for a split second that he’d overdone it with ‘beseech’ and the four adjectives describing sin. Three probably would’ve worked. Besides, Lorrie Beth was not exactly an English major. “Won’t you pray for me, Lorrie Beth?” Finally the dam broke and tears streaked down his face, and he looked up at her with big, pleading eyes. He ran a hand through his dark hair, greasy from riding around all day, and began to shake, crying like the day he was born.
“Oh, sweet child, sweet lamb.” Bingo. The effort had paid off, again. Lorrie Beth was now standing directly over the quivering Baylor Roman, still on his knees from picking up the pictures, and she grabbed his head and thrust it towards her massive bosom. Baylor continued to weep uncontrollably, his sobs now muffled by the flesh of her large chest. “The Good Lord will take you in to his loving arms, as I have, and forgive your disgusting sins, the very worst sins, the sins of the flesh.” Baylor could feel the fleshy pictures in his brown bag. “Will you take the Lord in to your heart and accept him as your savior, here and now?”
No. At least not with this bag of dirty pictures in his arms.
“Yes, Lorrie Beth, yes. Will you pray with me? Will you help me pray, so that I can see the light? Will you pray?” Baylor had managed to pull away from Lorrie Beth enough to get that much out. He knew that she’d never prayed a prayer she didn’t like. Once, during the annual office holiday party, Mr. Jennings made the grave error of asking Lorrie Beth to bless the lunch they’d had brought in from the Chinese place downstairs. It took her a good twenty minutes. She thanked the baby Jesus, the good Lord Jesus, the Holy Ghost, the Virgin Mary, and a fair number of the Sainted for the food, the fruit punch, even the utensils, and just about everything else she could conjure. She also spent a fair amount of time condemning the unsaved, which was most everyone in the room, and went in to excruciating detail on the painful miseries of hell. Old Mr. Wilkinson, the office accountant, nearly fainted from keeping his head bowed for so long. When Lorrie Beth finally said ‘Amen,’ never had so many people in one place been so truly thankful.
“Of course,” she said, whispering, falling to her knees right there with Baylor. As Lorrie Beth closed her eyes and clasped her chubby hands in front of her, Baylor silently counted to four-Mississippi, then clapped his hands in front of his face and yelled, far too loudly, “Amen!” cutting off Lorrie Beth just as she was getting started in on the Lord, the Apostles, and several others. This startled Lorrie Beth and, wide-eyed, she nearly fell over backwards. Baylor worked desperately not to laugh right at her, instead reaching out and grabbing her considerable shoulder.
“Lorrie Beth,” he sniffled, “thank you. Thanks you so much.” He whispered, eyes brimming.
“But…” she was stuck, but didn’t want to not acknowledge the compliment. “Sweetheart, thank the Lord. He will cleanse your soul of the evils of pornography.” Porno-GRAPH-ee. Her smile was perfectly innocent, and Baylor wondered how people could be so gullible.
Without offering to help her up – and she certainly needed it – Baylor stood and turned to leave, glancing to the floor one last time, just in case he’d left one of the photos behind. Lorrie Beth had, apparently, completely forgotten about the filthy pictures in the heat of the God moment.
“Okay, well, I’ll see you tomorrow, Lorrie Beth. And,” he turned and looked down at her, oozing mock sincerity, “thank you again.”
Lorrie Beth, still on her knees, said, eyes fluttering, “Bless you, child.” But Baylor was already walking past her towards his bike. He didn’t know how many more times he could pull that routine with her, the instantaneous born-again act. Lorrie Beth had caught Baylor with materials of an explicit and graphic nature five times now. And every time she’d given him the full-scale fire-and-brimstone routine – today’s bit was easy in comparison to some of them. Each time he’d momentarily find God, credit Lorrie Beth, and get on with his life. The next day, Lorrie Beth would inevitably invite him to her church and he would have to come up with some elaborate excuse as to why he couldn’t go until the whole episode had finally been forgotten. Lorrie Beth had a very short attention span as well.
Baylor signed out on a clipboard strung up on the wall, unlocked the bike, and headed for the elevators down to the rear exit in the alley. He had stuffed the paper bag in his courier pack. He couldn’t wait to get down to the alley. Baylor had to see these shots for themselves. If they were as good as he thought they might be, it would be money in the bank.
Outside of the drab, gray building Baylor took a deep breath of the fall air. It was a wet day, overcast and particularly humid. Cool breezes offering an early hint of winter passed between the tall buildings of downtown. People passed by at a brisk pace twenty five yards in front of him, past the entrance of the alley, heads down towards the Metro or the bus stop or to their garage on the slick sidewalk, halfway watching their step as they went. The traffic, line after line of cars, rolled down 17th Street, the sound of wet asphalt hissing underneath the tires. Baylor stood for a moment in front of his building and absorbed it all, listening to the sounds, smelling the fall air, allowing his senses to react to everything around him. There was no one else around, not in the alley, anyway.
Baylor pulled the paper bag out and opened it up. Oh, sweet Jesus. They were perfect. Perfect. There were easily twenty, maybe two-dozen Polaroids, all in perfect focus. The woman in each one was stunning, amazing. Baylor couldn’t stop staring at her. She was average in terms of height, maybe a little petite. An Asian girl, and she looked younger than she probably was. The make-up was done perfectly, red lipstick but nothing overdone at all. She had very large breasts – not the smaller breasts associated with Asian women typically, but nice, full tits with dark nipples. Her breasts were perfectly smooth and rounded, not even surgically enhanced. In fact, that’s what kept Baylor’s eye, picture after picture – her naturalness. Her skin seemed perfectly smooth, her beauty seemed real, not fake like so many of the LA porn stars who are all plastic and filling and Botox. This girl, named Lynne, Baylor happened to know, looked amazing. If he saw her later, he’d make a special point to compliment her. Lynne was sweet – she’d appreciate that.
The man in the picture was another story. He looked happy – and considering the things Lynne was doing to him, he should’ve been. Other than that, he was an unfortunate character. Bald mostly, except for the ring of too-long hair in the very back of his head that stuck out on either side and made him look not a little bit unlike Bozo the Clown. That’s how Baylor thought of him, which was unfortunate for Lynne. Bozo had one of those crazy wide grins in every picture, and his teeth were yellow and crooked. Bozo was working on transitioning his beer gut in to full blown tub of lard. Little hairs ringed his bellybutton, and that was it. He was working on a pretty serious set of tits of his own, though not nearly as nice as Lynne’s. Baylor couldn’t help it and found himself looking at the man’s penis. About average, was the description that entered Baylor’s mind, followed immediately by a ten-year-old version of his voice saying, How would you know? Ha! In fact, the guy was respectable enough down there to impress Lynne. Baylor flipped to the last photo and nearly dropped it from laughing out loud. In was Lynne, in the leather bustier that revealed her breasts, black high heels, and nothing else, hair done back in a slick, long ponytail. The man, Bozo, was standing up, looking almost directly at the camera, that creepy smile on his face, oblivious through the fog of his orgasmic experience. But it was the look on Lynne’s face that cracked him up, in fact, made him nearly explode with laughter. She had one eyebrow arched just so, her head nodded to the right just a little bit, and the slightest of smiles. Lynne’s eyes did all the talking, had that perfect sparkle of a smile within. Her left hand was cupping his balls, and the base of his penis, as if presenting it for inspection, and her look, in as perfect a way as could be caught on camera said, Well, now, lookey here! Isn’t this something, Baylor Roman? In fact, after counting the photos again – two-dozen and one – he decided that this was Lynne’s little gift to him. He put it in his jacket pocket next to another, much more serious, much more sinister photograph, as a keepsake.
He put the rest of the pictures away, got on the bike and pushed out, just a slow ratchet towards the far end of the alley, closer to K Street. Traffic seemed especially noisy, and the people a little thicker than they had been, even just the week before. The city was preparing for the Millennium celebration, still a few months away. He sighed and pedaled down through to the street.
At first Baylor had loved the city life, the action, the bustle of crowds. And riding a bike through D.C. was like getting a free ride at Disney World every day, and getting paid for it. There was ample entertainment in Washington, and he truly enjoyed it, drank it all in and assimilated himself as a part of it, as though the lifestyle itself were a living thing. He felt whole, a contributing member of the collective. Now the whole damn place was just loud, overbearing. And they were going to celebrate it with the year 2000. It was time to get out, and recent circumstances were conspiring to give him a great reason to do just that.
Baylor had been feeling this way for about a year now, and occasionally tried to reexamine his emotions. The answer was always came back the same: time for a change. He turned the bike back down 18th Street and let a couple of hard turns and a quick shift of the gear carry him more than half a block.
By the time he’d gone the three blocks and a half to his destination, it was misting tiny drops, and the sky was beginning to go dark. He noticed the tires on the bike kicking up a little moisture from the street. Rain always depressed him in Washington, and not just because being a bike messenger was hard when it rained, which it was. The days were getting shorter now, and this made him sad as well. He stood at his corner and waited for his contact: a sixteen year-old punk of a kid. A high school student, a boy from St. Albans, the premiere snot-nose brat school of Washington, D.C. Senators kids, President’s kids. Congressmen and Ambassadors. Rich lawyers. All of them sent their pretentious little children to St. Albans.
Baylor stood, hand balancing his bike by the seat, flicking the gears and pulling the brakes. He ratcheted the pedals back a full revolution. He wasn’t in any hurry to do what he was about to do, and so he was patient, waiting under the awning of a deli that had closed at four o’clock. He was trying to stay out of the way and out of the line of sight of crowds crossing the street. In a sort of halfhearted way, Baylor hoped that Sam wouldn’t show up. The kid had said his name was Sam, and at first Baylor thought it was bullshit, but it turned out to be right. Baylor and Sam had met almost at random in front of a liquor store less than a block away about a year before. Sam had approached Baylor, and Baylor said, sure, he’d buy the kid a bottle of gin. Things escalated from there. There was more liquor to be bought, sure, but there was gambling, too, and even some trafficking in porn and cigarettes. Not a pack of smokes and a girly magazine, no. Sam got so much from Baylor, he could only figure the kid had a little distribution outfit of his own at St. Albans. It was business and like any business there was a bottom line, and that’s what Baylor cared about: the money. And no matter what, the kid always had enough money.
Sam showed up about a minute later looking like a strange cross between sheepish and remarkably tough for a kid. Baylor felt nothing but sympathy noting the enormous pimple on the young man’s chin. He always wondered how Sam had gotten in to this – he wasn’t a bad kid, really.
Well, maybe he was.
As Sam walked up, Baylor slid one of the pictures out of the bag and waved it back and forth.
“Shit, man! You got it!” Sam said, far too loudly. “It’s really him! Fuck, let me see it.”
“Woah, woah! You know the drill, kid.” Baylor held the picture back, Sam standing just in front of him, the bike in between. People on the sidewalk ignored them. People on the sidewalk ignored everybody. “Remember our deal? We had a deal, me and you, kid.”
Sam hated it when Baylor called him kid.
“Fine,” all teen attitude and pissiness. Sam looked around, quickly, and pulled a giant wad of bills out of his jacket pocket, the side with the crest on it. He started to hand it to Baylor, then pulled it back. “Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t get a good look. Is that really him? I want to make sure. Show me one more again. Show me.” Sam was a little shit, but he wasn’t stupid.
“Okay. Alright.” Baylor had to respect the kid for being smart about it. “Here.” He pulled one out of the bag at random – a good one. Bozo was lying on his back and Lynne was riding him like a cowgirl, her hands pressed against his big gut. Bozo had one hand on her right breast, squeezing it like a melon, and was actually giving the camera a thumbs-up with the other. He still had that weird, yellow-tooth smile. Baylor handed it to the kid.
“Holy fucking shit! I mean, fuck, dude! It’s really him! It’s really Mr. Spangler! Shit! I cannot believe you got these, man? And look at that bitch! She’s so fucking hot! Oh my God! That Chinese bitch is so fucking hot, and she’s fucking Mr. Spangler! How the fuck did you fucking get these… Ah… I mean… Oh, shit,” Sam seemed to stop short, catch himself.
“Oooh!” Baylor snatched the photo out of Sam’s hands with lightening speed, reflexes developed from biking through the fast DC traffic. “Remember, Sam? Remember what I said was the one part of this deal? Remember?”
Sam mumbled, “Uh-huh.” He’d gone ghost-white.
“I said no asking how the fuck I got these. Remember?” Baylor was asking in as condescending a voice as he could. Hell, he thought, Maybe I’ll just take these back, call the deal off.
“Right. Yeah. I remember… Look…” Sam was getting flustered.
“Also, that woman is not a ‘bitch’.” Baylor did the air quotes when he said ‘bitch’ for effect. “Don’t you call her that, ever. She’s not a bitch. She’s a lady. And that lady makes more goddam money fucking people like Mr. Spangler in a month that your father does whoring himself to Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Shitburger, Attorneys At Law all goddam year.”
This left Sam trembling, speechless.
“Now,” Baylor continued. “We agree that this is Mr. Spangler, having sex with this nice lady. Please say that.”
“Wh… what?” Sam looked confused now.
“Say it. Say ‘That’s Mr. Spangler, the headmaster or whatever the fuck he is, having sex with that nice lady.’ Say those words.”
“Th… That is… umm…”
“’That is Mr. Spangler…’”
“That… That is Mr. Spangler, the fuck… whatever… he fucks… fucking principal or whatev…”
“Jesus, just say it, Sam!” Baylor was growing impatient messing with the kid.
“That’s Mr. Spangler and he’s the principal, umm, headmaster at… oh, fuck…” Sam was rushing through it, trying too hard, tripping himself up. Baylor nodded along in mock encouragement. “And he’s having nice sex with the nice, with that very, um, nice, nice lady. She seems nice.” The last part done impromptu by Sam in hopes of getting back in to Baylor’s good graces.
“Good work, Sammy,” Baylor said, knowing the kid hated being called ‘Sammy’ as much as he hated being called ‘kid’. “Now. Tell me again what our deal was?”
“Alright,” Sam seemed exhausted now, drained. “The deal is that if you can show me pictures of Mr. Spangler doing it with a whor… um, lady, I guess, then I’d have to give you a thousand for the bike.” Sam had always loved Baylor’s bike. “If you couldn’t, by today, then I’d only have to give you five hundred for it. For the bike. Anyway, I don’t know how you did it and I don’t give a shit,” getting a little confidence back, “here’s a thousand dollars.Gimme the pictures. And give me my bike.” Sam shoved the wad of bills towards Baylor.
“Good,” Baylor looked at the messy bills, figured it looked enough like a thousand that it probably was and in that moment realized that Sam hand yanked the weight of the bike towards himself, grabbing the seat and kicking the pedals back. Baylor instantly regretted ever setting up the deal. Mostly because, in that instant, Baylor decided Sam was a little shit, not worthy of one of the finest bikes in the world, much less remarkably incriminating photographs of his school principal, that would by morning inevitably be distributed through every classroom in St. Albans. Poor Bozo, poor Mr. Spangler. He’d be out of a job by the end of the day.
Baylor handed the photos over to the kid and Sam grabbed them, clearly unsure of what to appreciate more: a kick-ass courier bike or hard-core porn. Baylor decided, in that two seconds in which Sam was struggling with the conundrum of what to enjoy first, that if the kid turned his attention to the bike that’d be it, he’d just walk away. But if it was the dirty pictures, well, that’d be a character flaw, now wouldn’t it? And he’d be forced to teach young Sam a hard lesson.
There were plenty of options. Likely what he’d do is have Fontaine deliver a similar bag to Sam’s mother who worked as an event planner out of their upscale house on Foxhall Road in an especially swanky part of Georgetown. The bag would contain pictures of Sam’s dad who did in fact work for a very big, very conservative law firm. Only Sam’s dad wouldn’t be having sex with Lynne, or anyone like Lynne. Unfortunately for Sam’s dad, and especially Sam’s mom, he liked to have sex with the more masculine of the species. Baylor had the pictures – these in secret, as Sam’s dad was a little bit more shy than poor Mr. Spangler – taken for a bit of insurance. Sam’s dad, doing some pretty intimate things with a handsome younger man named Stevie Ray. Sam’s mother would, of course, be crushed. Maybe even more crushed than Sam’s dad finding out about her slight addiction to cocaine. Anyway, if the kid didn’t make the right choice now, it was going to be one hell of a Christmas at Sam’s house this year.
The pressure was killing Baylor. Sam was stuck, looking back from the bike to the bag – bike, bag, bike, bag, bike, bag – a sort of goofy, Mr. Spangler-like grin across his face. Baylor remained motionless, waiting for the kid to make his choice. And then, just when Sam was about to renew Baylor’s faith in humanity and swing a leg over the bike (which was too tall for him, anyway), he broke down and reached his hand into the bag, carelessly pulling out picture after picture. He started giggling, guffawing to himself as he flipped through them.
Damn, thought Baylor, I hope you’ve got friends you can stay with, ‘cause it’s gonna get real ugly around your place, real fast.
“Alright, kid!” Baylor said, slapping the kid on the shoulder as he walked past.
“Yeah, right, see ya’ ‘round, man,” Sam was lost in a world of porn. Baylor could hear him mumbling to himself, “Oh, holy shit, I can’t believe they took a picture of that! Look at that! Oh my God! That’s totally his…”
Baylor Roman left Sam standing under the awning with his new bike and porn. When he got out of earshot, he called Fontaine on his cellphone and quickly related the Lorrie Beth story to great, thunderous laughter, gave him the address of Sam’s parents in Georgetown and told him what to do. Fontaine said, No problem, and Baylor said, Thanks, and hung up. Baylor Roman knew he’d never see Sam again and didn’t particularly care. Whatever, the occasional deal with Sam was small time – smaller than small time. Mostly it was stuff he did as a lark. Compared to Baylor’s other enterprises, which was primarily that of bookie. In the time he’d lived in D.C., Baylor had amassed a fair profit as a bookmaker for any given, usually football. He had more than two-dozen regular sports clients. But this was Washington, D.C., and except for the Redskins fanatics, the real sport was politics – and it was a blood sport. Politics was made for gambling, too. There were election outcomes – Baylor had made a fortune on the 1998 midterms the year before – but there were also Supreme Court decisions, even Congressional Committee vote outcomes to lay odds on. It was a fantastic racket, and with political tip-sheets and insider publications flooding the Beltway, everyone thought they had the inside scoop. It rarely worked out that way, and as it always is with gambling, the house usually wins. Baylor was a house that collected often.
. Being a courier in the city was perfect cover for running numbers. He got around fast, and covered a wide variety of clientele. On foot now, he approached the small hot dog stand on the corner of 17th Street, run by a Pakistani who had become a regular of his.
“Amin,” he smiled and waved, ducking his head past the small metal awning in front of the mobile stand. It felt weird to be walking through the city. He hated it. “How are you?”
“Mister Baylor!” Amin waved a set of metal tongs excitedly, splashing bits of over-cooked hot dog grease against the inside of the cart. “I am very hopeful for this weekend, my friend.”
“So am I.”
“Do you have any suggestions for a poor vendor?” Baylor, unlike most thug bookies, treated his clients with respect and an abundance of Southern hospitality. He often advised them on picks and plays, helping maximize their winnings. They never held it against him when they lost. Amin had his lunch eaten betting against the Republicans in the Kentucky Senate Race and for the Democrat in the Illinois Senate race the year before. And he was a perennial Redskins fan, losing big with them often.
“I’ve heard good things about the fourth race, Amin. That’s all I can say.”
“Then I will play it, my friend.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Baylor waved to him and walked away, leaving Amin to tend to his overcooked delicacies. He had always liked Amin, could always count on him for at a few hundred dollars a month. This weekend though, he knew would be different. The horse races were coming to town.
Baylor stood at the street corner waiting for the light to change. Oncoming was another perfect example of why he tired of city life – selfish, self-involved people, not paying attention. A young woman he’d seen before, well-dressed, attractive, was trying to cross the street before the light had changed, taking her life in her hands. She had made it about half-way across, shuffling her heels against the slick road, oncoming traffic speeding towards her without the slightest hint of slowing down at all. Baylor thought she was an idiot for trying. Fifteen more seconds, and she’d have the road to herself to cross, free and clear. Everyone more important than the last person, everyone trying to get somewhere.
She was just in front of the left-turn lane when it happened. Her heel slipped on the road, and she performed that inelegant maneuver that everyone has done when they nearly fall but don’t. Her arms flailed, and she gasped loudly, twisting her body in an odd way. Baylor could see it coming. An impatient yellow cab, not willing to wait behind the other slower moving traffic going straight or turning right shifted hard into the left turn lane and gunned it. Baylor was in to the street before anyone else could even see him. There were plenty of other people, staring blindly, waiting for the walk signal, on either side of the road. Baylor grabbed the young woman and pulled her close just as the yellow cab sped by,
laying on the horn, the driver screaming curses as he sped away.
For a moment, Baylor looked at her, this young woman in his arms. She was frightened, shaking and her eyes were dilated. She’d gone even more pale than she already was.
“Better watch it.” He held her arm as she seemed to regain her composure. Without so much as a smile, a thank you or anything else, the young woman readjusted her purse on her shoulder and shuffled off, double time.
Baylor just hated that.
By now the light had changed in his favor and he walked on towards his destination, a bar just two blocks away. It took him less than five minutes to get there. And when he did he was disappointed in his adopted city yet again. Crowded – just around six o’clock and it was nearly packed. I thought this was supposed to be a working town, he thought to himself. Endless names and faces flashed through his head, people who had bemoaned the harsh work ethic of Washington, D.C. It was so obviously a load of horseshit. If everyone worked so hard, why were they out drinking at six? He grumbled as he entered the establishment and, with a bit of divine luck, found the last seat at the bar. Baylor worked to get the attention of Andy, the bartender and one of his betting clients.
“Hey, Andy,” he shouted above the din, “beer.” Andy smiled and made his way down to Baylor’s end of the bar. He wiped his hand on a white rag dangling from his belt, and they shook hands.
“Baylor, what’s up, man?”
“I’m thirsty, that’s what.”
“Beer it is.” Andy was a nice guy, one of Baylor’s favorites among his clients. Always upfront with the money, never whined when he lost big. And they all lost big, eventually.
“You know what? I’m meeting a guy who’s buying here later. Make it a whiskey on the rocks.”
“You got it.” Andy took a few steps back and reached for a bottle of Jim Beam.
“Have you seen Laverty?” Baylor asked Andy as he scooped ice into the glass and expertly filled it with a double’s worth of liquor.
“The investment banker, or whatever he is?” Laverty, another of Baylor’s clients.
“No, not recently. I bet he comes in tomorrow for lunch, though. Big weekend, and all. You hear anything on it?” Andy set the drink in front of Baylor and leaned forward on the bar as he instinctively pulled a lighter out of his pocket.
“No, not much. Lot of people looking at something in the fourth race. But that’s just the buzz. Nothing specific this time around.” He took a sip of whiskey and put a Winston in his mouth. “You got some business for me this time?” Baylor remembered that Andy politely declined to play the horses last year. He didn’t hold it against the bartender at the time, as he knew Andy to be more of a baseball guy – that, and he thought he had some kind of line on House Appropriations Committee actions. But then a friend of a friend had mentioned just how much a good bartender can make in one night, and Baylor thought the guy had wasted an opportunity he could afford.
“Yeah, I think so,” Andy smiled and looked down. Someone called for him at the other end of the bar, and he strode over, looking back. “You’ll be here at lunch?”
“Sure will.” Baylor hunched down into his drink and let Andy get back to work. That was good news – more off the top for Baylor.
Ritchie Torres finally came through the door with a flourish and a dramatic wave of his dark hair. Baylor caught his eye and motioned him over to the bar.
“Where have you been?” He wasn’t serious, just yanking Ritchie’s chain a bit. He enjoyed the ritual of giving Ritchie shit.
“Sorry,” Ritchie said, not sounding at all like he meant it. “How are you?”
“Good, good,” he took a drag on his cigarette. “I’m good. You?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” and still not sounding like he meant a word of it. In fact, it sounded like someone had put Ritchie’s nuts in a vise and twisted it.
“You need a drink,” Baylor said, motioning to Andy. “Get this man a martini. Please. Before he starts crying.” Andy smiled and turned back with a thumbs up to Baylor. Ritchie sighed.
“You’re very funny.”
Baylor didn’t feel the least bit sorry for Ritchie Torres and noted the immaculately tailored Brooks Brothers suit and impeccable tie. In fact, not once, not ever did Baylor Roman feel sympathy of any kind for Ritchie Torres. They had met when Baylor first came to town a number of years ago after his uncles encouraged him to come to Washington. Baylor had worked some messenger jobs on Capitol Hill, and a few specifically for the same House Committee that Ritchie had worked for. They’d struck up a conversation while Baylor waited on his pick-ups. Normally a man as smug and self-righteous as Ritchie Torres wouldn’t have associated with a bike messenger, for God’s sake, but Baylor struck him as different, smart. Ritchie liked him, and saw how a man who knew the city at street level, and at high speeds, could be useful. No one ever questioned bike couriers. In fact, no one ever stopped and asked them their business, what they were doing there. The bike helmet (that some of them wore), the big bag, the shorts, or the spandex, or the tattoos, or whatever the look, it was just a universal look. Everyone knows the couriers. And nobody ever stopped them. Being a bike messenger, Ritchie knew, meant an all-access pass all over town. Probably the only place Baylor Roman couldn’t get in was the White House.
For Baylor’s part, Ritchie had referred several reliable clients to the company he worked for, and never seemed to let him forget it. Still, when the company called and asked for Baylor, it didn’t go unnoticed by the boss, Mr. Jennings. For doing that, though, every once and again Ritchie called in a favor, especially around the time of special events, such as the upcoming horse races. Baylor figured this was the purpose of Ritchie’s social call. It wasn’t out of bounds for him to ferry mysterious, hefty packages across town, usually to the custody of fellows just like him – probably another courier – or messenger an arcane and cryptic code to someone else. Baylor was under no illusions, and he found it amusing, funny really, a lark. And he certainly didn’t mind the under-the-table gratuity Ritchie provided Baylor for each favor, such as it was. But this, too, Baylor had grown tired of, or grown out of it. Or both.
“So, do you want to hear what the deal is or not?” Ritchie smiled and took a sip of the fresh drink Andy had placed in front of him.
“Are we talking about weekend plans?” Baylor motioned his eyes towards Andy, who was already making his way to the back of the bar again to refill another order for a round of beers.
“Then we should go somewhere else.” Baylor was less concerned about Andy hearing any dirt on the weekend races than his words allowed. He believed that if Ritchie was this anxious to get down to business, it had to be serious, and he suspected he might at least get a free meal out of it. Ritchie always paid.
“Fine. Let’s go to Lem’s. We can talk there.” He gulped at his martini.
Pay dirt – Baylor loved Lem’s, and silently congratulated himself, vowing to order the most expensive steak on the menu. Baylor slugged back the rest of his whiskey and made a gratuitous move for his wallet.
“Keep your money. It’s on me.” Ritchie was already folding out twenties for the drinks and laying the cash on the table.
As they walked out Baylor fished in his pocket for another cigarette.
“Mind if I have one of those?” Ritchie looked at Baylor with that desperate hope and expectation in his eyes that all reformed smokers get when they’re beginning a night of bumming smokes, about to fall off the wagon, hard.
“Thought you quit,” Baylor glanced at him as he tapped out another one and handed it over.
“I did. It’s been a rough week.” They stood in the doorway of the bar, Ritchie looking at Baylor with expectation and maybe a little impatience.
“I need a light.” Baylor said sheepishly. Ritchie sighed and pulled out a pack of restaurant matches, courtesy of Lem’s, of course.
Their cab ride took less than fifteen minutes and Baylor told a disinterested Ritchie Torres his story of the lady nearly getting hit by the cab. He thought it was interesting that Ritchie didn’t even ask about his bike. Sam’s bike now.
Lem’s seemed crowded for a Wednesday night as Mr. Vesta escorted the two to a table in the back. Ritchie and Kurkel’s usual was taken by a Senator and some lobbyists.
Baylor sat back in his seat at a booth and looked up, now at Mr. Vesta’s son. He ordered another whiskey and Ritchie ordered another martini, the exact same way. Baylor sat his pack of smokes on the table to see if Ritchie would take one, and without asking, he did. He’s nervous, thought Baylor. He waited patiently for Ritchie to begin. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Here’s the thing,” Ritchie took a deep drag. “You’re going to the races this weekend, out in Virginia, right?”
“That’s right.” Baylor said, expressionless.
“I need you to take something out there. It’s a duffle bag. I need you to give that to someone at the races.”
“Are you hiring?”
“What?” Ritchie blinked, taken aback.
“Are you hiring?”
“No. Why?” Ritchie was lost.
“Because, for all the shit I do for you, I ought to just come and work for Neekelwender and Torres. Jesus, look at that suit, man. That’s some serious style…”
Ritchie cut him off. “Stop it. Look. This is a big deal. I know it’s beneath you, or whatever the fuck. I know it’s all clandestine and shit. All James Bond secret agent shit. I know you don’t like doing this stuff.”
“Then why do you keep asking me to do it?” Baylor was getting miffed, still a little depressed about his bike.
“Because I trust you. It’s about trust, Baylor. This can’t get fucked up. It absolutely can’t.”
Their drinks arrived and both men thanked Mr. Vesta.
“Oh,” Baylor grabbed his own cigarette and the matches off the table. “Oh, you trust me. That’s nice. It’s lovely. Can I get that on a bumper sticker? ‘Ritchie Torres Trusts Me!’ Can you get it printed on a shirt for me? Maybe embroidered on a pillow. Is it too much for skywriting, you think?”
“Oh, Christ. Stop it. You’re being ridiculous. And unfair.”
“You ever think about doing this yourself?” This elicited a laugh from Ritchie Torres, his first in some time.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Why is that stupid? Why? You wake up Saturday morning, get dressed, buy a ticket to the races and take your… What is it?”
“Two million dollars.” Ritchie whispered, then took a long sip of martini.
This stopped Baylor cold. He didn’t speak for a long time.
After several moments of silence between the two men, Baylor took a long pull from the cold martini and finally spoke.
“Holy fucking shit. What did you say?”
“You heard me.” Ritchie took a hard drag and blew out a billow of smoke next to Baylor’s face.
“Jesus.” Baylor took his own drag and looked thoughtful for a moment.
“Baylor, believe me. Please. I would much – much – prefer to do this myself. I really would. You have to believe that because it’s true. But I can’t. You know what kind of business my clients are in. It’s about degrees of separation. I need another degree of separation, here. So. Will you do this, or what?”
Baylor let the time go by between them, sipping his whiskey and smoking. Mr. Vesta came to take their order, and Baylor followed up on his promise to himself and ordered a medium well filet. Ritchie ordered the same and another round of drinks.
“Ritchie, we’ve never talked about this before, but…” Ritchie cut him off again.
“I don’t want to hear about it. No way. Forget it.”
“You don’t even know what I’m going to say.” Baylor was getting angry again.
“I do know what you’re going to say. Something about getting caught.” He lowered his voice. “Well, you’re not. So just forget it.”
“Listen to me. Just listen, just once.” Baylor leveled two fingers at Ritchie, between which was clenched his burning cigarette. “I’m telling you now because I never told you before. Think of it as a disclaimer. Ignore it if you want, but at your own risk.”
“Fine,” Ritchie sighed.
“I want you and Kurkel to know,” he sipped his drink, “that if anything happens. Anything…like that, then I will disavow all knowledge of you. All knowledge of your clients. Anything. That’s the way it is.”
“Well,” now he’d gotten Ritchie thinking. “Just, exactly, how will you do that? Hypothetically speaking.”
“Hypothetically speaking,” Baylor said, “I’ll lie. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll eat my own tongue to keep from talking. But Ritchie,” he’d gotten his attention again, “I will not go to prison. Do you understand that?”
“Baylor, I have to tell you, you’re making me nervous. What you’re saying is contradictory.”
“You think you’re the only one in the world that knows criminals?” This elicited a harsh ‘shh!’ from Ritchie. “Do you?” He whispered, sipping his drink. “I know plenty of bastards that, were something to happen, hypothetically, could get IDed by me and I’d never lose a night’s sleep.”
“That’s reassuring. Maybe I should do this myself…” Ritchie was truly having second thoughts, Baylor could see this.
“No, no. Christ, I’ll do it. I’ll do it, I’ll do it. Jesus, Ritchie. Stop, look. Nothing will happen. It’ll be fine. I just felt like I needed to tell you that. If something happens,” he held his drink in his right hand, “I’ll never mention you. Trust me, Ritchie.” Ritchie couldn’t have looked like he trusted Baylor Roman less.
Both men decided to let it go.
“Well, fine. I’m sure it won’t. This is very low-key, under the radar.”
“Isn’t it always?” Baylor felt the mood lighten, but barely.
The two men enjoyed their steak dinners and discussed compensation, with Baylor getting ten thousand dollars and a free meal to act as a courier for the cash. Ritchie promised to take him out again after the races, to Lem’s even, if he really wanted. If it all went well.
Just Another Day at the Races
It was a beautiful morning, sunny and in the low 70s, but the weathermen had uniformly predicted pretty violent thundershowers for later in the afternoon which was a massive disappointment for those involved in the horse races. Generally, inclement weather wouldn’t necessarily shut down the races but the severity of the predicted storms was sure to scare away a good chunk of the spectators and worse, the gamblers. No one was sure what would happen but the event’s chief sponsors, Mavin and Odum Harlan had decreed that barring the most severe acts of God, the event would take place and would not be rescheduled. This announcement brought with it a mild sense of relief mixed with tempered jubilation for Washington-based bookies and gamblers everywhere.
Baylor Roman greeted the mild morning sun with a smile, knowing with some confidence that even if the hand of God himself reached down from Heaven and leveled the place, the Harlan Brothers would never cancel the event. He’d been placing bets at the ostentatiously named Virginia Gold Medallion Equestrian Exhibition and Races almost since he’d arrived in D.C. This was going to be a big year, he knew it. Nearly all of his clients had placed at least his minimum required bets for all nine of the races, each with their own special logic behind every race, behind every bet.
Besides a big payday for his enterprise, it was a nice getaway from the city. He enjoyed the drive nearly ninety miles out into Virginia, and especially on a day like today, crisp and clear. And though he’d certainly never divulge it to his clientele, aside from betting on politics, horse racing was his favorite gambling activity, far above football or baseball. And when you cut through the clutter of the title, that’s all the Virginia Gold Medallion really were: simple horse races. The races had been held in Virginia just past the farthest outskirts of Washington for nearly two-thirds of Baylor’s life. The event was modeled after the more famous, certainly more upscale steeplechase equestrian event, the Virginia Gold Cup, which had been running in Fauquier County, Virginia since 1922. Everyone knew about the Virginia Gold Cup, either through prominent radio advertising, newspaper advertising or through the multitude of social networks that existed in DC. Not everyone knew about the Gold Medallion, as it was geared towards a specialized audience, predominantly hard-core gamblers and bookies. This isn’t to say that it didn’t bring crowds from all over the country. In fact, the year before had seen a panoply of B- and C-list actors, starlets, pseudo-starlets, porn-stars, pseudo-porn-stars, a few half-decent record producers from LA, a lot of terrible record producers from LA, a couple of high-tech CEOs from Seattle on their way out, a retired football hero from Florida, and Tommy “Tweezers” Tuscalini, the relatively prominent Chicago gangster and his entourage.
Forgettable Hollywood stars, forgotten sports guys, down-and-out corporate hacks, and mafia wise guys, of course, were not the sole explanation for the generally lower-grade turnout at the Virginia Gold Medallion races, though it helped. It was common knowledge that most if not all of the nine races during the Medallion were fixed, the horses pumped well past the point of criminal abuse with steroids and other drugs, jockeys paid off to take a loss, you name it, it went down at the Gold Medallion. Because everything was so crooked, the action around the race centered not on which horses were going to win, place, or show, but on getting the best possible insider information. Baylor liked to think that he had ready access to that information, though he shared it rarely, if ever, with his clients. He didn’t want to take the fun or the money out of it.
The other explanation was the questionable background not of the horses or direct participants of the races, but of the sponsors themselves, the Harlan Brothers. The two brothers, each aging quite gracelessly, were the Godfathers of the Dixie Mafia, a long, if slow-to-rise force in the American criminal underworld. Mavin and his older brother Harlan had a number of legitimate interests throughout the south, including, but not limited to an aluminum can manufacturing plant in Arkansas, a tire manufacturing plant on the border of Arkansas and Texas, several textile mills in Tennessee, auto body shops in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, controlling interest in not one but two casinos outside of Tunica, Mississippi and countless theme restaurants stretching from Oklahoma to North Carolina. There were businesses of varying purpose throughout Virginia, West Virginia, too, but they resided in Washington, D.C., as they had for the last several years. Except for the horse races every year in Virginia, they hated it.
Both men could have easily existed as legitimate businessmen and lived quite richly, earning many millions a year from the varied business interests they maintained. But why be a legitimate businessman when your criminal dealings will net you much, much more? The Harlan Brothers lived in D.C. because while both men were quite red in the neck and certainly preferred Bible-belt states to inside the Beltway, neither were idiots. They had kept on the move not to avoid detection by the authorities, per se, but to keep the authorities on their toes. Both brothers had quite a sense of humor and they knew that changing their base of operations with relative frequency would continually flummox and infuriate the law enforcement authorities. Of course, both men thought it quite a hoot that they lived just a few miles away from FBI headquarters.
Mavin and Odum Harlan, both physically robust men, had previously enjoyed operating out of any one of their chain of Southern cooking-themed restaurants across the Southeast United States. For a number of years now, the location of their operation was in a place in the heart of Washington called QT’s Bar and Grill, another of their business concerns. It was in Southeast D.C., near the waterfront, and had worked well in keeping the cops off their scent. Crime was a regular occurrence in Southeast D.C., sure but still, no one was going to suspect two fat white dudes in the back of a restaurant because nobody would’ve imagined it. They had stationed themselves were nobody would bother to look, much less think to look, and suddenly they were as underground as you could get. QT himself was a Harlan Brother’s employee, and had after several years of service to the Harlan gang bought controlling interest in the restaurant. He loved them immensely and anything to do with the Virginia Gold Medallion races QT made available to interested parties. QT did it all, from distribution of the racing forms to arranging lodging for the guests and jockeys in town; only the most average of accommodations, of course. The Harlan Brothers respected QT’s loyalty and he respected them, keeping a large office in the back solely for their use, off limits to the other employees. QT Denton had sacrificed more than just time and energy and, in fact, most of his life for the Harlan Brothers: he had sacrificed family, his brother, Wilmer serving a very lengthy sentence in the Lorton Correctional Facility, having arrived there in the service of the Harlans.
Baylor spent the morning preparing for the races, counting his client’s money again, checking the bets and watching the weather. The prim meteorologist he’d had on for the
It took Baylor more than two hours to get out to the site thanks to heavy traffic leaving the city and the fact that his car just didn’t go very fast. He’d gotten it to around seventy-five one time and thought that it might just fall apart right there on the Outer Loop of the Capital Beltway. He kept it as near to sixty as he could.
The site of the races was little more than an open field on a piece of property spanning some nine hundred acres, owned of course by the Harlan Brothers. There were no signs directing anyone to the site, just a stream of cars headed down a dirt road about a hundred yards towards a pre-fabricated building housing the horses and several rows of metal portable bleachers. A crew of men worked to finish raking the track, which made a peanut-shape in front of the bleachers. There was a steward’s stand on the far side of the bleachers reserved for the announcer and the Harlan Brothers.
Orange vested attendants with yellow flags waved Baylor towards a parking area on the south end of the track, resting on a slight incline. The options at the track were simple. You could park your car back near the road, get out and hike the hundred or so yards to the bleachers or you could park on the incline and watch from the comfort of your vehicle. This was Baylor’s preference every time. He’d get out to place the bets at the steward’s stand, then come back to the relative comfort of his car and watch.
Most everyone had already arrived and, Baylor noted with some glee, had started the true tradition of the races: drinking heavily. The Harlan Brothers owned controlling interest in several beer distributorships and vendors representing them were out in force. There wasn’t a soul in the crowd not holding a plastic cup of beer.
Baylor was lazily waved towards the lot, the grassy incline and he pulled his little car up as far as it would go. He parked near the front next to a gaudy orange van. Baylor thought that was fairly rude despite the natural incline of the lot, to bring a van. It would surely impair the view of whoever was behind them. To his right was a purple Mazda Miata, which he admired for a moment. The car was empty, the occupants no doubt having gone to get a beer or place a bet for the first race, which would start soon. Baylor was in the second row of cars. Directly in front of him, angled slightly to his left, was a Pontiac Firebird, a mid-70s model. He sat up in his seat and peered over at it. While it was obvious some custom work had been done on it, not the least of which was a tacky dark-tint job on all the windows, it seemed to be in fine shape. The paint certainly seemed original, or had at least been painted in the original theme with the large orange bird on the hood. Baylor liked it a great deal.
He pulled a cigarette out of the pack and began to look for matches. None in his pockets, none under the seat. He was cursing, patting his jacket pockets, finding no flame. Instead, keeping the unlit cigarette in his mouth, he flipped on his little portable radio. The Harlans bought airtime on a low-band AM station to broadcast the races locally. It made sitting in your car to view the races that much more palatable. Finally Baylor found the voice of Mr. Flip Winders, master of ceremonies for the races. Flip was plugging QT’s Bar and Grill in our Nation’s Capital. Try their burger special, said the natural, if vaguely nasal radio voice, and get a dollar off.
Baylor looked up to the sky, noting with mild dread that the sunny, beautiful day he’d greeted earlier had turned in to an overcast, threatening afternoon, darkening considerably by the moment. He tugged at his leaky ragtop, making sure the seal was tight against the windshield as big droplets slowly began to splatter on to the field and the cars. Baylor knew the Harlan boys would wait for lightening and higher winds before even thinking about delaying the event. They’d damn sure try to sell more beer first. He went back to looking for a match, semi-consciously trying to remember when the lighter in his car had gone out.
“Woah! Goddamn!” The deep voice from just outside the small car boomed through the passenger window, the big knuckles causing a reverberating thud-thud-thud against the weak glass. Baylor thought he’d piss himself with shock. “It’s Jimmy Yakimoto. Unlock the door, man.”
Outside, bending over the tiny car was a remarkable hulk of a man. In fact, it was the largest Asian American person Baylor had ever seen in his life. Six foot five, maybe more and an easy two hundred fifty, two seventy-five, all of it muscle. Jimmy was dressed in black. Black pants, what had to be a custom-made black Oxford, buttoned at the sleeves and up to his stump of a neck and a black blazer big enough to sail a boat. He even had a ridiculous pork-pie hat, also black, that was far too small for his anvil-like head. Baylor doubted they even made hats big enough for Jimmy Yakimoto.
“Oh, Christ,” Baylor muttered to himself, cigarette still clenched between his teeth as he leaned over and unlocked the door.
Jimmy heaved his massive frame into the tiny car. For a moment Baylor didn’t think he’d actually make it, his legs far too long and his frame far too wide for the tiny seat. The MG had instantly turned in to a clown car.
“Shit, it’s gonna rain like hell. What’s the deal with that?” Jimmy took off his hat, which was getting crushed between his massive head and the ragtop of the car. Baylor worked at trying to play it cool, taking his mind off of what, to an outside observer, would be a comical scene.
“Glad to meet you, Mister Roman.” Jimmy thrust his meaty palm in Baylor’s face.
“Baylor. Please, call me Baylor.” An involuntary tear formed in Baylor’s left eye as he endured the crush of Jimmy Yakimoto’s vice-like grip.
“I’m Jimmy. They call me ‘the Deal’, so… Let’s deal!” It sounded to Baylor like Jimmy had rehearsed that line many, many times. He wondered for a minute if maybe the big man used to say ‘Let’s make a deal!’ Until someone told him about the old TV game show. Jimmy Yakimoto, come on down. Still, he was grateful for the Zippo that Jimmy pulled out, with some efforts, from his right pants pocket, lighting Baylor’s smoke and keeping it lit to light his own, which he took from the pack on the dashboard without asking.
Another car pulled in behind Baylor just then, a Nissan.
“Look, Jimmy. The money’s in the trunk. Why don’t we wait a minute or two, let folks go get a beer. Hell, we may be rained out before too long, anyway. The less anyone sees, the better. Right?” Baylor hoped that didn’t sound as rehearsed as Jimmy’s line did. “How ‘bout a drink?” He reached under his seat and pulled out the bottle of whiskey.
Jimmy involuntarily licked his lips.
“I don’t know… It was supposed to be in and out. That was the deal.” Jimmy said, not taking his eyes off the bottle. ‘That was the deal.’ Baylor was starting to wonder if that was how Jimmy had earned his nickname, using the word ‘deal’ in nearly every sentence, not the TV show.
“Come on, man. Just one drink. Won’t kill you. Who’s going to know?” Over the radio, Flip Winders announced that the races were being momentarily delayed while the weather ‘passed over.’ There was a collective groan from the growing crowd. “We’ve got a few minutes, here.”
“Alright!” Jimmy exhaled and grabbed the bottle. “It’s a deal!”
Baylor reached under the seat and grabbed two plastic cups. “Cheers.”
– – – –
It might be that the average person has never heard it, but when a handgun goes off it bellows with a thunderous resonance, deep and loud. It is an extraordinary sound,
Jimmy Yakimoto had been right, too: his was a very big gun with a very big kick. It could do a lot of ‘major damage,’ to use the two words he had used again and again. And as promised, it had done some major damage.
To Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto’s head.
Together Baylor and Jimmy had gulped and slurped down almost the entire bottle of whiskey, though most of it was in the now non-functional stomach of the late Jimmy Yakimoto. He was well on the road from inebriated to piss-drunk, the early stages of buzzed distant road signs well behind him, when he pulled out the gleaming, nickel-plated .45 to show Baylor. Giggling like a little girl, Jimmy had told Baylor about the ‘major damage’ he’d done to various thugs and low-lifes using just this weapon. It was clear to Baylor that Jimmy loved his gun. And rightfully so – it was a truly magnificent piece of hardware, shiny and silver, perfect and smooth.
Hold it, Jimmy had commanded Baylor, drink in one hand, cigarette burning in his mouth. Hold it and feel the weight. Feeeeel the weight, Jimmy had suggested. Baylor had complied, gently holding the gun, looking at it in his left palm. It was heavy, giving him an almost sexual rush. The perfect coldness of the metal, the mesmerizing glossiness.
As Baylor sat there, staring at the profile of the big .45, it discharged. It took him a moment to deal with the reality – an instantaneously new reality, a reality delivered with a
The gun was still in his hand, just a bit warm. A tiny trail of smoke leaked out of the barrel and drifted upwards. He could smell the burnt powder. This sensation ignited a stream of secondary thoughts, and somewhere in the back of his mind he realized he was freezing up. Without warning Baylor’s cousin Rudy came to mind. He’d completely forgotten about Rudy, an older cousin on his father’s side. Rudy had a Colt revolver, ‘just like the cowboys,’ he’d always said. One time cousin Rudy decided to show the kids how the cowboys spun the gun around on their index finger and subsequently shot his kneecap off. Baylor never got to see much of his cousin after that.
Finally Baylor began to break out of his trance. He looked around the car. Holy shit, what a goddam mess. Baylor again felt deceived by television and movies. Usually whenever someone got shot on TV, he remembered, there was a tiny little hole with a faint trickle of blood running down. Not even close. There was stuff everywhere, the windshield, the roof of the car, the floorboards. All over Baylor, he realized with some horror, where bits of Jimmy Yakimoto’s gigantic head.
A strong sense of claustrophobia began to quickly settle onto Baylor, and he looked
Baylor breathed deep and finally shook the buzz out of his head. He took off his jacket, turned it inside out and tried wiping the blood off of his face. According to his rearview mirror it didn’t work all that well. Looking around with more intent this time, he realized his little car was boxed in. The people in the van, the side door now open, were staring at him now. He was sure one of them had already gone to get security.
He grabbed Jimmy’s corpse and began to rifle through the pockets. He found some receipts, some change, the lighter and a key ring that held two metal keys to a Pontiac. Had Jimmy emerged from the Firebird up ahead? Surely Baylor would’ve seen that, would’ve remembered that. Then again, he’d been looking around at the other cars, too. He looked back at the van next to him. Two people were on their cell phones and they all sported the same concerned, furrowed brow.
There was simply no more time. Baylor stuffed his cigarettes into his shirt pocket, popped his trunk lid, tucked the .45 into his pants, and spun the Pontiac key ring on his right index finger, causing him to think of cousin Rudy again, and he fought the surreal memory back into the recesses of his brain. In his haste, he left the money his gambling clients had given him and Jimmy Yakimoto’s lighter.
He hustled to the back of his car, ignoring the people in the van who were now almost assuredly calling 911, grabbed the big duffle bag and marched towards the Firebird. In the time that they had been drinking, the rain had begun to steadily come down and the wind had picked up terribly. Still, with the beer sales still going strong, people were refusing to leave though not one horse had been put on the track.
The door to the Pontiac was unlocked and Baylor tossed the duffle bag into the passenger seat and shut his door. It was very dark inside the car with the tinted windows. With his eyes almost closed, Baylor slid the key into the ignition, effortlessly. He let out a small sigh.
A turn of the key, a little touch of the gas, and the Firebird roared to life and Baylor peeled away from the grassy incline towards the exit, completely ignoring the parking attendants who waved wildly at him with their flashlights and bright flags.
Ritchie Torres sat at the bar at Lem’s smoking a cigarette from the pack he’d bought in the vending machine by the bathrooms, taking a sip from already his third martini of the evening, and leaning his forehead against his sweaty palm. The restaurant was crowded – the booth usually occupied by Ritchie and Kurkel, taken – as it was dinnertime on a Saturday night, but the bar was relatively mellow. Ritchie began to feel the effects of the alcohol overwhelm his adrenaline from earlier in the evening and he started to sway gently on the stool. The night would get worse before it got better and he wanted to numb his mind to the pain.
He had called his law partner almost immediately and was surprised that he hadn’t heard the news already. In fact, just thinking about the earlier confusion of the day caused his blood to stir and to twist his face into a painful-looking contortion. Mr. Vesta, working
“Oh, I’m fine, thanks, Mr. Vesta. Just fine.” The words came out but he couldn’t hide his disgust, his fear. The only thing that sounded less fine than the tone of his voice was his sincerity to Mr. Vesta for inquiring.
Ten minutes later and Kurkel Neekelwender walked in the door and approached the bar directly. Ritchie, having professed to Kurkel earlier that year that he would quit smoking once and for all, made no attempt to hide his cigarette, taking another stout drag. Ritchie did not give a shit.
“I thought you had quit,” Kurkel said.
“Started again,” Ritchie said, almost absentmindedly. “We’re in trouble.”
“I will have a vodka on the rocks,” Kurkel said to Mr. Vesta, “a double, with a twist of lime.”
Ritchie, impatient now, waited for Mr. Vesta to mix the drink and bring it to Kurkel before speaking again.
“Have you not spoken to our client?” Ritchie really wanted to just ask if the man had talked to the Tokyo Tigers at all that day, but was still aware enough of his public surroundings to know better.
“No. It’s Saturday. I don’t usually work on the weekends. That’s part of our deal.” Which was true. Once the money from the Tokyo Tigers began to roll in, both men agreed that they would never work weekends, allowing themselves ample recreation time. Kurkel sipped his fresh drink gently. “I am assuming you have.”
“Kurk,” Ritchie said. He put his hand on his sleeve, leaning in close, cramping the European’s style. “Jimmy Yakimoto is dead. Our deal never got made, the delivery. Never got there. Moisha is pissed. The Russians, apparently, are pissed, and understandably so. Hideo, woah…” He took another huge gulp of martini, rambling now, trying to pace himself and failing. “He’s really pissed.”
Kurkel Neekelwender remained motionless, taking it all in.
“Hmmm,” he said, pretentiously placing his index finger on his lips. “Jimmy is…dead.” It wasn’t a question. Kurkel took another slight sip of his cold drink.
Ritchie sighed, annoyed with his fellow lawyer. Goddam Scandinavian lawyers, they’re like robots. Ritchie felt like he got a more personable experience taking money out of an ATM.
“Yes, Kurkel, actually dead. Deceased. Not among the living.” It reminded Ritchie of the old Monty Python skit about the dead parrot, and he started to smile, then held it back without much effort.
“And the Russians – Moisha – they claim that they never received their initial payment from the settlement.”
“Yes.” Ritchie, rubbing his brow now, the headache already starting to work on him.
“We assume that.”
“Look,” Ritchie spoke more quietly now, “I don’t know where you’ve been, but Moisha called me, furious. He’s pissed off, feeling pretty double-crossed. Hideo called me, even more furious having gotten a very threatening call from Sergei what’s-his-Russian-face.”
“Let’s just assume,” Kurkel said, “for now that the Russians indeed don’t have the money.”
“Jesus, what a fantastic idea.” Ritchie said sarcastically, beyond frustration.
“The Russians don’t have the money. Jimmy certainly doesn’t have the money.” He took a small sip again of the vodka and remained in a thoughtful pose for another beat.
Ritchie was starting to lose his shit. It was certainly obvious to him that no one who either had the money or was supposed to have the money actually had the money. And indeed, the last person Ritchie Torres knew of to actually see the money, have it in hand, was him. He kept wondering how long it would be before the Russians – or the Tokyo Tigers, for that matter – thought of that. It certainly didn’t look good.
“What exactly have you told Hideo?” Kurkel said at last.
Ritchie took a deep breath. He would definitely need another martini.
“I told him the deal would go down today, at the races. I had a courier take the cash to the races to deliver it to Jimmy Yakimoto. Hideo said fine.” He sipped down the last of his martini and waved to Mr. Vesta for another one. It was evident Mr. Vesta wanted to make sure that was a good idea with Ritchie, but then thought the better of it. Both men appeared locked in a very intense discussion. He got out the shaker and started to work.
Ritchie continued, “I talked to Moisha first. He’d sent a young law clerk to meet up with Jimmy, back of some book store in Arlington. The kid was harmless, seemed like their safe bet to pick up the money. Wouldn’t look suspicious. I forgot about it. Next thing I know, I turn on the TV and the top story is a shooting at the races. Moisha called five minutes later. His boy never came in with the cash. The news had already figured out Jimmy’s name, but that was about it.”
Ritchie stopped and took a sip of the fresh martini put before him then fished for another smoke, laying the pack of cigarettes on the table as he fished on out.
“What else?” Kurkel asked.
“That’s it. I hang up with Hideo and call you.
“And what did you say happened to the money when you spoke with Hideo?”
“That someone took it.” This line of questioning seemed idiotic.
“Ahh!” For the first time all evening – in fact, for the first time that Ritchie could remember, ever – Kurkel Neekelwender seemed animated. His arm flew up and lightening-quick, he grabbed Ritchie at the shoulder. “Ritchie,” he said, “who said someone took the money? Did the news say that?”
“No,” Ritchie said, still a bit shocked at the transformation. “No, the news didn’t mention the money at all.”
“No. They didn’t. That’s right, Ritchie.” Kurkel kept his hand on Ritchie’s shoulder, and it made him feel weird. “No one mentioned any ‘missing money’. How do you know the police don’t have the money?”
Ritchie thought for a moment. What a profoundly good question.
“Would it not have benefited you to speak with your courier, someone who was there, before proffering so much speculation to our client?” Kurkel said.
“I only really said what was on the news…” Ritchie was feeling lectured to, defeated.
“Except for the part about someone taking the money.” Kurkel took another drink and set the glass down. “What about Moisha’s boy? The paralegal?”
“You mean the law clerk. You really don’t watch TV, do you, Kurkel?” He’d told Ritchie once that he never, ever watched TV. It left him constantly perplexed. “What do you think the second item was in the evening news? A young man was strangled in an back alley in Arlington. They happened to mention he worked for Blue, Hatchett.”
This seemed to give Kurkel pause.
“The Bratva are eliminating all the possible options.” Ritchie whispered. Kurkel remained silent.
“Kurk, come on,” Ritchie said. “You know it was the kid they sent to meet Jimmy. Get real.”
The elder law partner didn’t say a word, sat motionless in his chair, staring into space.
“What?” Ritchie said. “What are you getting at, Kurk? What do you want me to see that I’m not seeing?”
Kurkel reached over and pulled a cigarette out of the pack, placing one between his lips. He lit it with the matches on the bar beside his drink. The scene, surreal, unnatural, left Ritchie momentarily stunned. This was not the Kurkel Neekelwender he knew.
“Let’s talk about your courier, Ritchie.”
Baylor Roman wouldn’t have woken up for hours more from the nightmare he was having if the little bedside alarm hadn’t gone off. It was blasting at an ear-splitting decibel an old tune.
“…when the chimes ring five, six and seven… we’ll be right in seventh heaven… We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight!”
Baylor slapped at the radio, finally silencing Bill Haley and his Comets. He did not remember, before crashing into the bed face first, setting the alarm. But he was glad it went off anyway. The digital display glowed 8:30AM. It was time to go.
He sat up slowly in the bed and took in his surroundings with the morning daylight shining around the edges of the drawn curtains. There he was, in the still-made bed. A small table and two chairs that had seen better days sat not three feet away, the bathroom to his back. His pack of cigarettes lay on the table. He’d forgotten Jimmy’s lighter and hadn’t bothered to get one on his way down. Baylor wiped his mouth, nasty and cottony, and groaned. There was crap in his eyes.
After he’d sped off in the Pontiac, Baylor cruised down to Interstate 66 and then on to Interstate 81, traveling alongside the Shenandoah National Park. If it had been earlier in the day, and if he hadn’t just fled the scene of a shooting in which he was the shooter, he would’ve been able to appreciate the beautiful drive. He was well into the depths of Southern Virginia before exhaustion finally consumed him. The drive wasn’t that long – just a few hours – but after leaving the races, it had gotten dark fast and the adrenaline rush had continued to hammer his body even as he got further away. He’d driven past Roanoke and gotten off the interstate onto highway 220 southbound. It took him twenty minutes to find Tall Oak, Virginia, population two hundred eighty-two. The ‘town’ seemed to consist of an Exxon, a BP, a Cracker Barrel, a seemingly nameless general store featuring a vague Dixieland theme, a McDonald’s, KFC, a Best Western and the Great 8 Motel, which is where he was, room 330. And with the exception of some modest houses set back from the freeway, not much else.
Baylor was mildly pleased to see he hadn’t slept in his clothes. His underwear was all he had on, his clothes piled in a corner by the little table. The bedding on which he had slept remained unmolested by his night of sleep, folded and tucked. The sheets and the blanket had a funny hotel room smell, a combination of stale air, bleach and, something disturbingly organic.
After a moment of coming to and shaking off the whiskey and adrenaline hangover, he began to shiver uncontrollably. It took him a moment but he realized that the air conditioner was on full blast, and he remembered walking in to the room with the heater on and nearly passing out. The little room was an oven at the time, but now the damn thing was a practically a meat locker. He stood up and flicked it to off, bending down to examine his clothes. They were covered in Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto’s brain goo and it caused him to nearly gag. The clothes sported an odd odor as well.
Baylor did another quick rifle through his crumpled clothes, avoiding as he could the contents of Jimmy Yakimoto’s head, looking for the gun.
The gun, he thought, though he nearly said it out loud. Oh, shit. It wasn’t in the room. And he decided that it was safe enough, probably still in the car. His head buzzed. Baylor wondered for a moment what to do next. Find the gun? Get cleaned up? Turn on the TV? Call Ritchie Torres?
That one hadn’t occurred to him before now: calling Ritchie Torres. But what good would it do? No. He wasn’t ready for that yet.
Baylor settled on getting cleaned up, and for some reason the idea of showering with his clothes on seemed like a brilliant idea. The water, the logic went, would just wash away all of the gross stuff and matter that had now dried to a sickening crust. After pulling on his pants and shirt he trudged to the bathroom, took a long, satisfying piss and started the shower, hot. He stepped in, clothes and all. As it turned out, showering in his clothes was a remarkably terrible idea. Everything was stained. Cursing his idiocy, he stepped out of the shower and slogged back to the bed. Finally, the best thought he’d had yet hit him: coffee. It would set everything right.
Baylor took off his sopping wet clothes and laid them on the vent of the unit that now chugged hot air, hoping to God they’d dry quickly. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he leaned over to the remote control which was bolted to the bedside table. He flicked on the television, not quite sure what he was looking for. Cartoons, a preacher who sounded suspiciously like Lorrie Beth Hammond, another preacher who sounded less like the other one though no less fire-and-brimstone, a commercial, then, there it was: the news. Finally. He sat on the edge of the bed watching for a few moments, dripping dry in the cold air that was slowly warming up. The news was local so he figured they most likely wouldn’t run a story on him. Then again, it paid to be cautious.
Baylor’s stomach began to grumble and he finally said, “Screw it.” Flicked off the TV after just a minute and climbed back in to his soggy clothes. He grabbed the room key and the keys to the Pontiac off the table and fished for a cigarette, realizing only after he got it out that he had no matches, no lighter.
Outside was a clear, cool morning, the sun shining bright in the sky, brighter than he expected. He shielded his eyes and looked up, taking in the fresh air. It was very quiet in Tall Oak. Baylor approached the Firebird, leaving wet footprints from his clothes behind him, and peered into the dark window. He thought he’d heard that tint was illegal, which bothered him, and he looked in through the windshield. Kicking himself, he saw the gun sitting on top of the duffle bag in the shotgun seat.
Jesus, he thought, what if some kid happened to see that? What if… He didn’t allow himself to finish the thought, the notion of someone not as innocent or friendly as a child seeing it too horrible to think about.
Fumbling with the keys a bit, he unlocked the door – at least he’d locked the goddam door – and grabbed the duffle, leaving the gun under the driver’s seat. He put the duffle bag full of cash in the back of the car and slammed it shut. He started to walk away, towards the office of the motel, but something stopped him. Baylor turned back to the car, unlocked it and grabbed the big .45 from under the seat. He checked the safety – in the ‘on’ position – looked around and stuffed it in the back of his pants, his shirt covering it.
Upon approaching the motel office he remembered a feeble old woman from behind the counter the night before, and damned if it wasn’t the same old woman this morning. She was listening to one of the preachers on the radio. Baylor couldn’t have been more thankful that it was the same old woman, not checking his ID against the fake name he’d put in the registry, mostly because she was on the darker side of blind. She said Thank ya’ now, honey, held her hand in his general direction and took the room key from him. He’d paid in cash the night before.
Baylor was starting to relax, just a bit. At least there weren’t fifty deputies sitting outside his room waiting to haul him in. He walked across the deserted road to the general store across the street, ‘Dixie’s Dime Store’, said the sorry looking sign above the entrance. Baylor remembered the Dollar General Store from his youth and this was a clear rip-off. But, he could see through the pane glass window, they had clothing, and that was just fine with him.
In fact, the only difference between a Dollar General Store and Dixie’s Dime Store was the Dixie’s did not feature the luxury of racks or shelves. Everything was piled onto cheap fold out tables, assorted roughly by gender and size. Men’s pants in one pile, women’s shoes in another, and so on. Under the watchful eye of the sole woman at the front, Baylor sifted through the piles of men’s clothing, finally picking out an appropriate outfit, one that wouldn’t have embarrassed his mother too badly. He plucked a white Oxford shirt that was beyond ironing and was missing only two buttons, a pair of seemingly clean socks, a faded blue blazer with black patches on the elbows that were themselves well-worn, a pair of wildly faded khaki pants that he knew were too big and a threadbare t-shirt that featured the insignia of the Tenley Roosters, whoever they were, a big blue rooster leaning on a baseball bat and wearing a t-shirt himself that said ‘T’. It was, without question, the best combo he could come up with.
Baylor brought his haul to the clerk, a plump lady with pouffy hair and thick glasses, setting everything down in front of her.
“Honey,” she said, sweetly, “what in Heaven’s name did you get in to?” Her weird smile of the world’s worst fake teeth made him wince, and he was acutely aware of the weight on the gun tucked into his pants, the shirt just covering it.
“Paint,” he blurted. “Paintin’ a house.” He jived her with his southern charm, a quick wink and the smoothest smile he could muster. Baylor immediately regretted the lie and wished he could’ve done better, thought it out more. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if she asked where he had been doing this awfully sloppy painting, as she would surely know everyone within a fifty mile radius, or at least in the town of Tall Oak.
“Sugar, you’d better just go back in the back there and change.” She began to ring up his purchases, totaling twelve dollars and fifty cents. Again he paid with cash and quietly thanked God that she didn’t want to know any more than he’d already volunteered.
After tucking the gun into the loose waist of the new pants – the new pants only being held up with some effort by his belt, which he kept – he walked from the back room and quietly thanked the clerk. Feeling much fresher, he climbed into the Pontiac, throwing the old stained clothes in the backseat.
Baylor adjusted himself, squirming in the seat, and fired up the car. Only stopping for gas at the BP – paying in cash, again forgetting a lighter or matches – he started back out on the road, headed south.
– – – –
Baylor was still desperate for coffee, and just barely stopped the car in time. Billy Jo’s Diner was tucked neatly away just after a sharp curve to the left off of Route 10. The only thing that caught his attention was the sign, one of those large road signs with the lit arrow over the top that featured the yellow flashing lights (which were now off). The sign featured seventy-five cent coffee, free refills and something about a blue plate special. There was a brown van parked beside the building.
Pulling the car in to the lot, turning it around to face the exit, he heard the gravel crunch and wondered what he might get. Eggs? Eggs and bacon, with toast, grits and lots of coffee and juice. Maybe a waffle, if they had one. Hell, it all sounded good. Baylor smelled it as he stepped out of the car, headed for the front door.
Inside was a typical diner with a counter and a few vinyl booths by the windows, though the shades were pulled because the morning sun was so bright. A woman stood behind the counter apparently doing everything herself, cooking, taking orders and ringing up the customers, had there been any customers but one. There was a large man in the corner, a dark, thick beard, grimy overalls with a heavier plaid shirt. He had an old Cat ball cap, the kind with the plastic webbing in the back. Like its owner, it had seen better days. Baylor thought he looked like an old beat-up lumberjack, which he could well have been. The smell of breakfast in the nearly-desolate diner was overwhelming and Baylor wanted very much to sit down and order one of everything.
But he couldn’t because she was there. A vision of utter beauty and stunning elegance. She was shorter than his six-foot-two, but tall herself, a bit lanky. Her dark hair was cut short and seemed to dance around her head when she moved. He noticed her skin, perfect and clear, very pale but in a classic, porcelain way. He very much wanted to touch her. Baylor noticed too that she had style, a style that he admired. Her clothes were dark, understated, not at all trashy, and certainly not purchased at Dixie’s Dime Store. Dark black pants tapered to meet her boots just right, and what could only be called an elegant faded gray button up shirt exposing a little less cleavage than would make her trampy. That struck him, too – her generous breasts, good Lord. Probably fuller, bigger than the shirt she was wearing would let on, but nice for her frame. He saw the gleam in her eye, a shine from her ever-so-slight smile and quickly wondered if this was what love at first sight was like.
She had a gun that looked exactly like the one Indiana Jones had in the movies, a big revolver, out and in both hands. That seemed strange to him, the gun – it was almost too big for her hands, but not quite. It looked heavy. He figured it was a .45 caliber, maybe even an old Webley revolver.
“Billy Jo, let’s get moving.” Oh, her voice! If it had been any other situation, he might’ve swooned. Her voice was magical, lyrical. The kind of voice that’s just an octave below what you thought it might be, with the faintest rasp to it. He tried to think of the celebrity she most sounded like but was interrupted.
“You just going to stand there?” She was looking at him now and there was no mistaking the fact that she had stopped smiling.
Wordlessly he fumbled to unbutton his blazer and reached behind him for the silver .45, pulling it out without playing with the safety.
“Okay, Billy Jo. Back to business. The cash register.” The woman behind the counter, in the yellow checkered apron let out a very sincere Oh, my Lord while Conway Twitty played on the jukebox in the background. The angelic woman with the big gun kept it trained on the woman whose nametag indeed identified her as Billy Jo, Baylor could only assume of Billy Jo’s Diner fame. Baylor kept Jimmy’s gun – his gun – trained at the fat guy at the end of the bar, who hadn’t yet moved.
“I hope you’ve got something good out there.” The woman glanced at Baylor again. Billy Jo worked furiously, beginning to cry quietly behind the register, stuffing small bills into a plastic bag.
“Uh,” Baylor seemed at a loss for words. “Yeah. A Pontiac? A Firebird?”
“Jesus, why don’t you just give them the plate number as well.” The young woman rolled her eyes. “Alright Billy Jo, give me that .38 I know you have back there, too. Real careful, now.” Billy Jo let out another Oh, my Lord, and with the tip of her forefinger and thumb dropped a black snub nose in the sack.
“Okay,” said the pretty woman, “let’s go. Thanks Billy Jo. Bye.” She lowered her gun and strode out of the room. Baylor blinked, then followed her.
He climbed into the car, throwing the gun on the floorboard, and fired it up. Leaning over, he unlocked the passenger door. No one got in.
Baylor leaned forward and looked out the windshield. Where the fuck had she gone? She was right there. Baylor started to breath heavily, sure that Billy Jo was on the phone to the police.
Then suddenly a loud knock on the window.
“Well, this is a nice ride.” The black-haired angel said, climbing in. “You weren’t gonna leave me, where you?” He couldn’t place her accent.
“Uh, no. No, sorry.”
She had a full backpack in her hands.
“Listen, I’d recommend leaving,” she began to duck her head below the dashboard, “right now.” Suddenly there was another huge reverberating boom, just like the .45 had done the day before. Baylor swung his head back – it was the fat guy holding a double-barreled shotgun. He was recovering from the recoil of the first shot and steadying to fire again. Baylor threw the car in gear and slammed the accelerator, spewing gravel back towards the fat guy. They were twenty yards out of the lot when the second boom went off. How the fat guy missed at such close range the first time remained forever a mystery.
“Sorry to be so short with you back there. You kind of threw me for a loop.” She was starting to smile again.
“Oh, that’s okay. Threw me for a loop, too.” Baylor was finally catching his breath, slowing it down a bit, but not much, wanting to get away from the diner as fast as he could.
“I’m Desdemona, by the way. Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper. Everyone calls me Des.” She didn’t take her eyes off the road. “Nice car.”
Des waited a minute, and now Baylor truly was speechless. He wasn’t sure where to start, or even if he should start.
“Well, you look just like they said you would. I mean, Mavin and Odum.” She pulled out a cigarette from a pocket in her backpack and lit it with her own lighter. She finally looked at him, and with genuine sincerity, asked, “How are your uncles, by the way?”
– – – –
“I just wasn’t… I wasn’t expecting…” Baylor said, his first verbalized thought alone with Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper.
“No, I’m sure. I had to go over to Winston-Salem. Something about running smokes up north. Whatever,” she waved her hand in the air dismissively. “I thought I might be able to beat you back to Little Rock. I guess you’re early.”
Baylor didn’t respond. He leaned to crack his window and toss out the last of his cigarette. He would have to ask a little more about the Winston-Salem trip at some point, but not now. The Harlans did a lot of cigarette smuggling – it’s where some of their best stories came from, in fact.
“So, this was…?” He rolled his eyes back, indicating the Billy Jo’s Diner incident they’d put behind them some twenty minutes ago now. The Tennessee border was coming up.
“Side job for your uncles. I didn’t get all the details, but I got the impression Billy Jo screwed them over somehow at one point. Who knows when. Mavin seemed especially pissed. Makes you wonder.” There was a little trick, maybe it was a Southern thing, which Baylor had never understood. Everyone called the Harlan Brothers ‘Mr. Harlan.’ If you had to address both of them you just said it twice. Mr. Harlan. Mr. Harlan. Even when they weren’t around that’s what you did because it was like they had ears everywhere. And yet here was this woman, Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper, speaking their first names. Unheard of.
She continued. “I’m not sure, but I got the sense that maybe she and Mavin…” An innocent look to Baylor and a slight shrug of the shoulders.
“My experience, I’ve found it’s a hell of a lot better not to ask on that kind of thing.” Baylor kept his eyes on the road and on the speedometer. He was acutely aware that they needed to find a side-road, fast. The police would’ve been called and if there were any cops near the freeway…
“I’m sure that’s true,” she said. Taking a minute, reading the signs on the road. “You could take the next exit. It’ll get us into Tennessee.” And then changing the subject. “We’ve met before, you know.” She smiled. It occurred to Baylor that this was the first time he’d seen her smile, genuinely smile, not the fake thing she’d curtly given Billy Jo earlier, and it pleased him greatly. She had a beautiful smile.
“You were four, I think. Maybe five? I was probably two. Mavin and Odum brought you to Nashville. My father was their number one get-it-done guy for years, he could get anything from point A to point B, and always on time,” Des suddenly seemed a bit sad, nostalgic. Baylor had remembered a man – it must have been her father – that they had called ‘Ol’ A-ta’- B’. He thought they were saying Olattahbee, some kind of weird Arabic name, or something. Took him years to figure it out. A to B, as in he could get it from point A to point B. She continued, “There was even a picture of us playing together. I think you pulled my hair and made me cry.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Baylor having no recollection of their having met even being mentioned.
This evoked a laugh, which he liked even more than the smile.
“God,” she said, drawing a breath, “whatever. Forget it. I just thought it was funny. Us being set up like this and we met when we were kiddies.” He liked her use of the word ‘kiddies’.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Your father – he had his own crew for awhile, didn’t he? I remember now. Mavin and Odum sort of bought him out.” The memory of Olattahbee
“You could put it that way.” Her smile, fading now.
“So, whatever happened to your father?”
She gave him a ‘don’t ask’ kind of look, and he immediately regretted the question. It was very difficult to live for very long in the world of Mavin and Odum Harlan. He went back to something she’d said before.
“So, this is a set up?”
“Not, like, a set up,” she posed her hand in the form of a gun, pointing at the windshield. “Like a blind date set up. You knew that, right?”
No, in fact he didn’t know that. It’s not what he’d discussed with his uncles, not at all. He was just supposed to meet the girl in Little Rock, and…
“Well, no. No, I didn’t. I…” Suddenly at a loss for what to do or say. This got her laughing again.
“Don’t worry about it,” a gentle hand on his right elbow, soft and nice, almost friendly. “It’s pretty obvious your uncles care about you a great deal.”
“I’d say so.” He raised his eyebrows, throwing the compliment up in the air and overboard so that she’d get the point. It kept her laughing at him.
“You know what I mean.” She pulled out another cigarette and cracked the window. They were on a rural highway now, heading in to Tennessee. “So, do you know where we’re going?”
“Yeah, and we’ve got a ways to get there.” He sighed and settled in to the bucket seat.
“Then we should know something about each other. I’ll start.”
“Okay.” He smiled and peered ahead, ready to listen.
Des began with her birth in Alabama, her father barely around, her mother flitting from job to meaningless job. They moved a lot. Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, her father always on the move from the law or from enemies in the business, which was primarily smuggling cigarettes and running an illegal sports book out of Nashville, where the family eventually ended up.
“It was always his dream,” Des said. “To make big money running the numbers. Hard to do, though. Hard to build up the reliable clientele.”
After the family life, she talked about being on her own. Baylor hung on every word. Early on, Des had worked very hard not to follow in her father’s – or her mother’s – footsteps. But she was a natural.
“Probably the only time in my life I wasn’t stealing stuff was when I was in California. God, it was awful. I never really fit in out there. It was just so different,” he didn’t ask her if the lifestyle was different or the work – thought he’d save that one for later. “Stayed just over a year and finally moved back this way. Dad was still working for Mavin and Odum, your uncles. Dad didn’t even ask me twice. I went to work with him the next day. Bank job. Pretty decent take and the cleanest getaway he’d ever seen, he said.”
“A father-daughter team. You don’t hear about that every day.” Baylor said.
“Well, he had his crew. He started me out just like everyone else. Scoping out the score, taking notes. Everything. It was hard work. I didn’t get here because of daddy.”
He sensed she was getting a touch defensive.
“No, not at all. I’ve heard you’re the best.”
“I don’t know about the best. We’ll see, I guess.”
Silence filled the car for several moments. The roadways had been mostly clear. A couple of rigs and several locals going home from church had passed them, or followed for a few miles, but otherwise, nothing.
“What do you think about Berryville, up ahead? By the way,” She pointed out the sign for the town, just a little bigger than Tall Oak, “your picture on CNN was terrible.”
This took him aback.
“What? Jesus Christ…”
“Yeah. CNN. It’s in the regular circulation. The feds are involved, and they’re being very selective. What,” she said, picking up on his shock, “you didn’t think they’d have figured it out by now? I mean, figured out it was you? Hell, you left your car there.” She wasn’t being unusually cruel, just truthful.
“Yeah,” he was resigned now. “But I thought I could get an extra day out of it. Shit.”
“So,” she said. “How did it go?”
“Do you want to hear how it went, or the whole thing?” He was enjoying talking with her, but wasn’t sure he was ready to recount the story yet. It was awfully fresh.
“How about the whole thing. But why don’t we pull behind the Motor Inn, here first. Check in and hunker down. Otherwise we’ll be a day early in Little Rock, and I don’t want to dawdle around there. This place is a lot less visible.”
Baylor pulled the car in and swung it around to the back of the Berryville Motor Inn, hidden from the roadway. He took ten minutes to check in to a smoking room on the first floor, paid with cash and found a soda machine. When he got back to the car, Des had scribbled a note:
Gone to get beer and snacks. Back in a minute. Write the room number on this note. D.
And there was a P.S.:
Don’t forget to clean up the ‘mess’ you left on the floorboard.
She had drawn a little kooky-faced person with zig-zagged eyes and a tongue sticking out. He found it to be strangely affectionate. Using the pen she’d stuck with the note under the wiper blade, he wrote ‘112’ on the back and tried to scribble an equally funny face himself. It didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped.
After throwing his old clothes in a dumpster near the car and discreetly stuffing the .45 in his pants, he walked to room 112, unlocked it and sat on the edge of the bed, fiddling with the remote right away, holding back his urge to pee. A few flicks and he found CNN. They were not running the story about him yet but he left it on, the sound low, just in case. Right before Des walked in with a bag full of two cold six-packs, chips, pretzels and other assorted junk food, Baylor began to wonder about the bed situation. There were two beds, of course – don’t want to be presumptuous, even if it is a ‘set-up’, goddam Uncle Mavin and Uncle Odum – but he didn’t have time to take the thought far.
“I get the bed by the door. Sorry. Called it.” She was smiling now, very pleased with herself. “It’s just a thing. I’ve got to have the bed nearest the door.”
“Oh, well…” He waited a beat too long.
“Mr. Stud, here. Goddam, didn’t think you were going to get lucky on the first date, did you?” She was clearly enjoying harassing him. All he could do was blush and shake his head.
“You’d better give me a beer, or you get to sleep in the car.” He was making the best effort he could to tease back.
Rather than answer him, she peeled a can off the plastic ring and tossed it in his general direction.
“You on there yet?” She nodded to CNN.
“Not yet.” The beer cracked open with a refreshing hiss and he took a long pull.
“Well, okay.” Des settled herself in a chair by the table which was not unlike the table from the motel in Tall Oak. “Let’s hear it. How’d it go in D.C.?”
“Farquier County, actually.” He said. “It went fine.” He took another long drink. “But here’s the whole story. ‘Bout a year ago, I decided it was time to retire…”
“Wait! Stop. Just wait a minute.” Des held her hand up in protest. “I’m sorry, but…retire? Give me a break. You’re my age. I thought the retirement age was sixty-something. Don’t you have thirty or so more years to go?”
“If I wanted to stay in the business, sure. But I found out after awhile that, unlike you, I’m not a natural at this. I think too big…”
“Oh, excuuuuse me.” She said, pushing it.
“You wanna hear this, or you just gonna give me shit the whole time?” The half a can of beer already allowing him to lapse into his Arkansas drawl.
“Sorry.” She shrugged defensively.
“It’s okay,” he said past the can nearing his lips. “Anyway, every job I did was half-assed. I wanted to do the big-time stuff.”
“But you never wanted to work to get there.” Des muttered. Then, defensively, “Sorry, sorry.”
He just looked at her.
“I started with being a messenger. A courier. Like your dad. Then I got in to the numbers, like your dad did, too. An’ just like you, Uncle Mavin and Uncle Odum started me at the bottom. I was an apprentice to a guy in D.C. Great guy. Taught me everything about the business. I built up my own clients and did okay for the business and for myself. Kept a semi-legit job as a bike messenger because otherwise I’d get bored as hell. And it was a good cover.”
“That’s the worst part of the lifestyle – it gets boring a lot.” This time he didn’t mind her interruption so much.
“Yeah.” He fished around in his pocket for a smoke and placed one in his mouth. “Poor Uncle Mavin – he’d just about lose it every time I came to see them. He’s the one with the temper. Uncle Odum’s a little cooler.” He was patting his pockets for a lighter or matches, which he didn’t have. Des stood and walked over to him, lighting a match under his cigarette.
“Thanks,” he said, and was thrilled when she sat just across from him on the other bed, facing him. “I’d have some huge, elaborate, foolproof idea. Couldn’t go wrong. ‘Son, you gotta work your way up to the big time.’ The sure loved to lecture me.” His impression of his Uncles was remarkably accurate.
“So, they never listened to anything you said.” Des had opened another beer and was handing Baylor a second can.
“Oh, no. They did after awhile. Ever hear ‘bout the triple armored car job in D.C.? Probably not…”
“No way! No fucking way! That was you? Jesus Christ! That was art! Real fucking art!” Des was quite animated now and Baylor took a moment of joy in watching her lovely figure bounce up and down off the bed in excitement.
“Well, I didn’t do the job, but it was my idea.” This seemed to let some of the air out of her excitement. Baylor read her mind. “Mavin and Odum didn’t think it’d be a good idea for me to go. But it was mine, anyway.”
“Is it true they took more than two million on that job?” Des seemed fascinated.
“A little more with the bonds.”
“Woah…” Des was smiling, drinking her beer.
“Well that one worked out for them. And I’m glad it did. But I needed to get out. I know that Mavin and Odum had this idea that maybe I’d take over the business someday,” he sighed, drew on the smoke and exhaled, watching her light her own cigarette in anticipation of the good stuff. “I don’t know. I guess I’m just lazy at heart, maybe. Or greedy. Hell. I don’t know.”
They momentarily turned their attention to the TV and CNN, which had just gone to commercial.
“So, I spent the last ten or twelve months trying to talk Mavin and Odum into letting me out. I guess it’s worked so far.”
“Every time I try to get out…” Des, doing Al Pacino from Godfather III now, “they pulllll me back in!” Not bad. It got a hearty enough chuckle from Baylor.
“Yeah, exactly. But I’m done. So, we worked this deal out, and…” He hesitated on saying ‘I will be set’ as opposed to ‘we will be set’. Events of that morning had fairly well confirmed her as his partner. She picked up on it and was sympathetic, for now, leaning back on one shoulder, holding the beer with the other hand.
“Tell me about the asshole.” She said, not taking her eyes off him. “I mean, I know about him, but what are the details.” He wondered if she’d picked up a bit of a California accent in the time she’d been out there. It was strange.
“Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto. Piece of shit. A goddam sellout. Skimming heavy off the top for years.” He realized he needed to back up, took a drink, and did so. “Sorry,” waving his hand, “you know that Mavin and Odum have a contract with a gang called the Tokyo Tigers, right? Supposed to be the American Yakuza. It’s all very complicated but basically they’re used as a front for Mavin and Odum. They drop some stuff about a guy in Japan who’s supposed to be the criminal mastermind behind pretty much everything they do. Mavin and Odum give them some space in D.C. to have a little fun, do whatever they want on the side, and everything’s kosher.”
“So,” Des said, eyes narrowing, “there really is no Yakuza.”
Baylor nearly spewed beer out of his nose.
“Oh, shit yeah there is. Damn. Big time. It’s just that Mavin and Odum and the Yakuza have a sort of gentlemen’s agreement. Everyone realizes the world is big enough for the both of them. World domination shit is for the movies.”
“Huh.” Des shrugged her shoulders, seeming to understand.
“Well, this guy Jimmy was low on the totem pole. But he’d been around for a good long while, now and I guess he just got greedy, got sloppy. Anyway, you know Mavin and Odum. They don’t take chances and I was on deck,” he took another drink. “so I got the job. My favorite part, though, are the lawyers. See, Mavin and Odum are smart. They convinced Hideo – that’s the Tokyo Tiger’s guy in D.C. – to hire some lawyers. One of ‘em, a guy I know, Jesus, what an asshole. All they know is they’re rolling in the cash to represent these Japanese gangsters. Mavin and Odum like their system of checks and balances. The lawyers help keep the Tiger’s cash in line, the Tigers do the real dirty work – street-level drug deals, gun running – and everyone is pretty happy.”
Baylor went on to explain his relationship with Ritchie Torres and all the things he didn’t like about the city. Then Des spoke about her situation in Little Rock, which led to the deal as a whole. They were up until nearly midnight going over everything for the next day.
New Kid in Town
I’ve been doing this job for far too long, thought Agent Frank Craig as he creaked back in his well-worn chair facing the opposite wall, adorned with plaques and citations, but not enough plaques and citations, in his small office. Certainly way too long to be breaking in a new recruit. But the Division Chief was a stickler for policy and the new procedure which paired young recruits with old-timers was one of his favorites. When the Division Chief, a squirrelly, desk-jockey type of fellow informed Craig of his responsibility to break in a new partner, the crusty FBI agent distinctly remembered thinking ‘fuck you’, and not much else. Oh, Craig followed the logic. He thought it made good sense, actually. But he damn sure didn’t want to have to do it. Craig very much would’ve preferred a partner more like him: older, experienced. Or better, to just be overlooked and left on his own. It wasn’t unheard of, despite the new rule. Besides, Frank Craig didn’t much care for the new face of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They were young and rich looking, preppie and arrogant. Most of them were technology savvy, or worse, lawyers. Christ, Craig hated lawyers. Computer geeks and lawyers – none of them, to Craig’s way of thinking, were very interested in old-fashioned law enforcement. The orthopedic pillow in his chair offered him only mild comfort from his many discomforts.
Frank Craig looked at the clock on the wall and wondered where the new kid might be. A rookie, first full day on the job – the time to make a good impression – and already he was running late. Running late. Instead of cursing the new kid, he picked up the file off his desk and began to leaf through it again. He quickly threw it back in disgust. He’d already been through it a thousand times since he’d been called in over the weekend. And already Craig could tell there would be complications with the case. Knew it from instinct alone. Most of the feeling came from something that wasn’t tangible, wasn’t specific. Just a gut reaction. The other part was from little things. He’d wait for the kid, see if he picked up on it.
Nearly fifteen minutes late now, and Craig was starting to get a little pissed off. He picked up the kid’s personnel profile. Hell, he could barely pronounce the name. Murtskies? Murtwitskee? If he’d cared enough, he would’ve begun developing a nickname for the kid, ‘Scooter’ or ‘Sport’.
Craig took time to think through all his old partners, going back to when he first joined the Bureau. None of them had nicknames. His first partner was a slightly effeminate nervous ninny named Simmons. Craig had immediately disliked him, but he didn’t have long to express his dislike. Six weeks on the job, fresh from the academy, and Simmons took a bullet in the head. Bang, it was all over. Every time Agent Craig thought of Simmons, he had to think of the side-story that went with him. Simmons had heard from a lot of the old guard that many of them had never used their weapons. Craig had a name for these guys: pussies. As it happened, Simmons had a wife and two very young children at home. Chasing the worst bad guys in America day in and day out and just having a gun is what made Simmons most nervous. He hated it. In fact, he hated it so much that he had not only never bothered to load his government-issued .38, he never even collected the government-issued bullets to put in it. Simmons had confided all of this to partner, Agent Craig, the day before he died.
“What if Wendy or Bobby were to find my gun,” whined the fully grown man. Craig remembered thinking Wendy or Bobby finding your gun is the least of your worries – what happens when they find out you’re a pussy? Simmons seemed truly anguished over the issue. “I could never live with myself.” As it turned out, he didn’t have to live with anything at all after that.
Craig had warned him that they were going in to a dangerous situation the very next day involving some opium smugglers coming over from France. The old agent could still see the stunned look on his partner’s face – still wondered what on earth he could have been thinking, pulling out a perfectly empty revolver and aiming it at a man with a perfectly loaded .357 – and still never felt even a twinge of guilt over the death of Simmons, though he did feel a bit bad about Wendy and Bobby growing up with no father.
The Bureau replaced Simmons fairly quickly with a man named Arleigh. Arleigh, as opposed to Simmons, had been a good partner. Craig and Arleigh had put in more than fifteen years together in the Bureau in the Violent Crimes Division. Though Craig had some doubts at first – Arleigh being African American first and foremost – they quickly dissipated. The two men worked well together and the majority of the plaques and accolades for Agent Craig came from his work with Arleigh. In fact, it was while he was partnered with Arleigh that Craig first began developing his wildly unpopular theory that an enormous amount of illegal activity in the south eastern U.S. was overseen by a Mafioso-style family, all of it overseen by two weird brothers. After just over fifteen good years of solving crimes and catching bad guys, while Craig continued to spend much of his free time developing his Southern Mafia theory, the Bureau saw fit to promote Arleigh out of field work. Both men still spoke occasionally, but it was different now that Arleigh was technically Craig’s superior.
While Craig smiled slightly at the thought of his friend and partner Arleigh, it didn’t take long for the smile to fade – fully in the groove of thinking about past partners, now – because the next guy was a complete idiot. Sanderson, that ass. After a number of questionable events, the Bureau finally sent Sanderson packing. Sanderson, the son of a bitch, had a nervous breakdown on the job, just completely lost his cool. Craig nearly sneered, thinking about the shivering mass of failure that was Sanderson. The last time Craig saw him the jerk was shivering, incoherent in the corner of a neo-Nazi’s house in Michigan. The guy had actually pissed himself.
Agent Craig remembered that Bureau psychologists had told him that Sanderson indeed tried to kill himself. Craig didn’t much care, but when his next and most recent partner – Tony Howard – had shoved the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, the bullet wasn’t a dud. That sonofabitch Howard had cost Craig valuable time in the field, as the Bureau saw fit to ‘evaluate’ Agent Craig for a number of months, wondering if he was just that difficult to partner with.
And now here, another ‘Tony’ for Frank Craig to deal with – Tony Murtowski. The young rookie swaggered in to Craig’s office, all arrogance and conceit, a full twenty minutes late. Agent Craig had seen it many times before – the young buck with the world on a string. The gun, the badge, the license to arrest, the license to kill. It was virtually impossible to get their heads out of the clouds.
“You’re late,” Craig looked up quickly at the lanky young man standing in his office doorway.
“Yeah, well,” sniff, sniff, drawing the hand across the nose like coke-heads do, as if that were cool. “Had to check out,” wink, “a couple things.” A not-so-discreet look down the hall. Craig started to ask just what the fuck he was talking about until Brenda walked by the open door, giving Craig a slight wave. Brenda was a twenty-seven year old red-headed bombshell. She was always dressed like a professional – a sexy professional, but a professional – looking immaculate and beautiful with a generous figure. What Murtowski didn’t know was that she was a devout Mormon, devoted to her husband of six years and had three kids at home. Rumor was another bun was in Brenda’s oven. All that and brains, too. Craig, and everyone else that had spent any time in the Violent Crimes Division, liked Brenda a great deal and not because she was hot. She was smart, she was funny, she worked hard, and she was good at her job.
Murtowski let out a soft whistle and shook his head a bit as the pretty girl walked down the hall.
Wonderful, thought Craig. In addition to being a pretty-boy, he’s a lech, too.
“Out of your league, dipshit,” Craig said offhandedly. Why fool around? “Besides, she’s married. So are you, Murdochee.” Craig had noticed the shiny gold band right at the start.
“It’s Murtowski,” the kid glared at the older man. “Mur-tow-ski. What’s your problem? I’m just being friendly. Jesus,” under his breath now, “I thought all you old timers liked chasing tail.”
This infuriated Frank Craig because indeed he did like chasing tail. At least until recently. For a little less than a year now he’d been dating a nice lady just a few years his junior who collected her deceased husband’s pension and worked part-time at the grocery store. They’d met while he was shopping. Craig decided right then that he hated Murtowski. Still, he at least wanted to see the kid’s reaction to the file folder. He opted to let it go.
“Just sit down, Scooter.”
“What the hell is Scooter?”
Craig ignored it, and sipped down the last bit of his already mildly cold coffee, reaching for the file in front of him.
“Have you been given a copy of this file yet?” Craig knew the Division Chief wouldn’t have given the boy the file yet. It was Frank’s job now.
“So,” the kid said, glancing down to his left side in a less than discreet manner, checking out the comfort of his shoulder holster with his thumb. Craig had seen it many time before and reluctantly admitted to himself that he’d probably done the same thing when he was green, just new to the Bureau: checking on the gun. He had decided a while back that it had to be a cock thing. The kid was sporting one of the new issue nine millimeters, a Smith and Wesson. Agent Craig remembered when they were all still given .38s. He missed the .38, and wasn’t as nearly proficient with the nine’s as he was with his old piece. “What’s the Div Chief got for us?”
Good Lord, the ‘Div Chief’ now.
“Sit down,” Craig said, impatiently. Murtowski was rocking back in the chair in front of Craig’s desk now, on the two hind legs. It creaked under his weight, which was substantial. Craig figured the new kid to be a high-school all-star football type, maybe wrestling, weighing in at a good two-twenty five on about a six-two, six three frame. “You’re gonna break the goddam chair. And don’t call him the ‘Div Chief’. No one calls him that. Who told you to call him that? Was it Rodriguez? I bet it was Rodriguez, that prick.” Agent Craig knew Manny Rodriguez, another old-timer, would never have told the kid any such thing. But considering how the two new partners had started out, Craig was starting to feel the slightest pang of guilt for not bonding right away at least a bit with the new kid. He was giving him an out, now seeing if Murtowski was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. Evidently he was.
The chair plopped back to the floor and Murtowski scowled at Frank Craig. Already the new agent didn’t like his partner, either. There had been many a bull session at the Academy in Quantico with the other recruits about how difficult it could be to work with the older agents, how they sometimes came off as resentful and condescending. Murtowski, a good Polish kid from the middle-class streets of Chicago, all-state wrestler and full scholarship recipient to Yale knew a few things about Craig, too – the old man’s reputation had preceded him. He’d hold back as well, though, save the good stuff for later.
“Look at this file, and I’ll give you the overview in broad strokes.” Craig was now leaning forward, his hands clasped together on top of his desk. The younger man grabbed for the folder. “There was a shooting in Virginia, a couple of hours outside of D.C. A possible robbery, though it could’ve been a drug deal gone wrong.” Craig didn’t buy that for a minute but he didn’t say just yet. “Almost certainly international gang involvement.” He let that little bomb soak in with Murtowski who worked very, very hard at showing no sign of surprise. Agent Craig continued. “Broad daylight at a big public event.”
“The Gold Medallion races.” Murtowski spoke up and the even, cold look from Craig showed that he disapproved of the interruption. Tony Murtowski had opened the folder and appeared to be leafing through the Virginia State Police report.
“The DOA was left in the car, as you’ll see in a moment.” The crime scene photos were paper clipped to the back of the manila folder, and Craig couldn’t wait for the kid to get to them. “Our perpetrator fled the scene, most likely in the DOA’s car, and in a real big hurry.”
Murtowski didn’t look up. “So some banger got whacked at the races,” he hadn’t yet reached the photos. “He’s probably holed up in Southeast somewhere, trying to wait the thing out.” He sighed and looked up at the old man who was now overtly glaring at him. “Big deal. Aside from crossing state lines, what’s it got to do with us?”
“Just look at the photos.” Craig was at the end of his rope, now rubbing his temple with his left hand, thinking about just how good another cup of strong coffee would be.
Murtowski hesitated for a moment then flipped to the back where the eight and a half by eleven photos resided.
“Oh, oh, Jesus Christ…” Tony Murtowski put a hand to his mouth and let out a peep. It was more than Frank Craig could’ve hoped for. The kid instantly turned green right there, and Craig though the rookie might actually puke. In the back of his mind, the veteran agent wondered why they didn’t prepare the recruits for this kind of thing a bit better down at Quantico, as it was inevitable. Finally, Tony composed himself enough to speak. There would be no barfing today. “Who is this guy?” It was a whisper.
“Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto.” Craig was now leaning back in his spring-loaded chair almost smiling. He let the kid work a bit more to regain some sense of balance and composure as Murtowski continued bravely to flip through the morgue photos. He thought about the first time he’d seen a crime scene and morgue photo set. It took him a minute, but the memory finally came to him. A drug lord’s girlfriend who had become a DEA informant, more or less against her will, had gone apeshit, picked up a fully loaded Thompson sub machine gun, just like the old Chicago gangsters used to use back in the 20s and 30s. She sprayed the drug lord’s palatial house, killing all but herself and one other who, if Craig remembered right, still got his meals through a goddam piece of tubing. The gun had actually cut two of the kingpin’s bodyguards in half at the waist. The photos from the scene were worse than horrific. Craig couldn’t remember if the woman was in witness protection or not. Probably.
“Holy Jesus, motherfucker…” Murtowski was taking it all in, photo after colorful, nightmarish photo.
“Okay, Scoop,” he still hadn’t found the perfect nickname. He’d have to keep working on one for this kid. “Tell me: how was Mr. Yakimoto killed?”
“What?” Tony Murtowski looked incredulous. “Goddamn, man, someone blew his fucking head off!” Craig relished the look on Murtowski’s face, one of complete shock, less at the photos now, more at his weird partner, clearly a crazy man.
“No shit, dumbass. Look again. How? Why? Who did it? Tell me something about it. What do the photos tell you? Look at them.” A faint flicker of guilt swept over Frank Craig. It was awful to put the rookie through this in his first hours at the Bureau. He had to do it sometime.
Murtowski cleared his throat and took a breath.
“Uhm,” a lot of blinking and more throat-clearing. “Well, a large caliber weapon. A .44. Maybe. Hell, at that range it could be anything. Fuck, I don’t know.” Giving up already, looking frustrated at his new mentor. Craig was a bit disappointed Murtowski didn’t just ask the obvious question, or at least flip over to the ballistics report. But he should’ve been able to tell by looking. Different calibers and different weapons did different kinds of damage to living tissue. Craig was quietly proud that he’d nailed the caliber on his first guess before ballistics on the mutilated slug even came in. It was indeed a .45.
“Softball question, Scooter.” Craig was shaking his head. “Ballistics is tab, I think, seven. Near the front there.” He flitted his hand towards the folder again. Murtowski didn’t even make a move to look at it. “It was a .45. Besides, Yakimoto was wearing a shoulder holster designed for a .45. What else?”
“Obviously,” poor Murtowski was slowly starting to recover, regain his bearings. This pleased the mentor in Craig. “near point black range.”
“How do you know it’s not?”
“What?” Again, confusion from the new recruit.
“How do you know,” Craig, tapping his temple with his finger. “it’s not point blank range, only near point blank?”
“Uh, well, there are no powder burns on… Oh, God… What’s left of his head.” Murtowski held up one of the scene photos, which featured a little red arrow sticker stuck to it, placed there by the Crime Scene Investigation unit to show exactly that. “The entrance wound is sloppy, not like he held it up to his temple and pulled the trigger. The bullet traveled, maybe not far, but it did, then slammed in to his head, smashing on impact and taking,” Murtowski, looking a bit green again, “a shitload of brain matter and skull with it. Spread out in his head, and took everything through a giant exit wound. I guess he could’ve used one of those gas-tipped bullets.”
This impressed Craig – thinking outside the box. He hadn’t thought of that himself: the notion that a new designer bullet was used in the killing.
“Not bad, Bubba.” No, ‘Bubba’ would never work. “So, where does that leave us?”
Murtowski sat motionless for a minute, thinking.
“I don’t have a clue.”
“It means,” Craig relented. “That he probably wasn’t executed. At least not in typical gang style. See, when the bangers execute each other, first, they usually use a twenty-two. They love it. Little bullet flies around your brain, mixes up your gray matter, but the outside is never as sloppy. Does the job neat. This is sloppy. Real sloppy. Also, whoever did this,” saving the good stuff for now, “didn’t hold it up to his head, make contact, like they usually do for executions. Finally, it’s one shot. Executions are three, at least. The good ones usually put a couple in the torso, too.” Craig let this settle with Murtowski for a moment. “Finally, just look at the guy. His hands aren’t tied up. They were in a parking lot full of people. In broad daylight. Hell, he’s inside a car. Not exactly ideal execution conditions. Come on.” Craig smiled now. “Didn’t you graduate from the Academy? Don’t they teach this shit anymore?” Frankly, the old agent didn’t remember getting taught any of this shit at the Academy, either, but it was a good opportunity to haze the rookie.
“What are you saying?” Murtowski suddenly looked spent, defeated.
“Hell, Yakimoto’s still got his wallet on him.”
“Frank,” the two hadn’t even formally introduced themselves yet, “are you suggesting this was an accidental shooting?” The moment he asked the question, Murtowski, who’d always wanted to be an FBI agent, thought that perhaps joining the Bureau had been a terrible mistake. This made him remarkably melancholy.
“Not even by a long shot, Champ. Check out the tattoos.” Murtowski reluctantly looked over the morgue photos again of the naked corpse of Jimmy Yakimoto. “We’ve got a file on Yakimoto. He’s an operative for an outfit called the Tokyo Tigers.” Murtowski stopped peering at the intricate body art which covered most of Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto. This was alarming news.
What Craig said next was even more alarming. “He was an informant of ours.”
“Woah,” Murtowski whispered, now staring off in to space, contemplating the magnitude of working an informant hit. Not too bad for a first assignment. “So you think it was a hit.”
“Junior,” Craig started – now, as good a time as any. “What do you know about me?” This, too, took the rookie aback.
“Well, nothing, I guess. Jesus, I just started.”
“Horseshit, son. I know how the Academy works. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the same instructors I had are probably still over there. Those bastards will never die” He leaned forward now, over his desk. “What have you heard. Be honest.”
“Well,” Murtowski took a deep breath. “That you’re a crusty old bastard. Nobody likes you. So far, that seems on target.” A hard sideways look from the young man. Craig believed him.
“That you’re one of four or five people in the Bureau who think that a lot of the crime in the South and Southeast part of the States is overseen by two old guys from Alabama…”
“Arkansas, actually.” Craig interrupted.
“Whatever.” Murtowski, warming up now, getting more comfortable despite the graphic images that still lay in his lap. “That these two guys do an enormous amount of drug dealing, big business in smuggling. Guns, I guess…”
“Cigarettes are big, actually,” Craig interrupted. “And liquor. They don’t pay taxes on the stuff. Keep going.”
“…A lot of illegal gambling. Prostitution rings. Drugs. Serious business. The Southern Mafia, or something like that. Anyway, you think that there are these two old guys and they run all that shit. And no one believes you.” The last part stung a bit. Craig thought that Murtowski took just a bit too much pleasure in saying it.
“Okay, all pretty much true. Why do you suppose,” Craig said, “no one believes me? No, wait – forget that question. Do you believe it?”
Murtowski desperately wanted to answer the first question with ‘Because you’re a crazy, mean-spirited old bastard’, but held his tongue.
“No. It just can’t be.”
“We would’ve found them by now. No one could run an operation that covers…what? Five, six states?”
“Nine. Plus Washington, DC.”
Murtowski ignored him, except for a cheap guffaw.
“Frank,” the kid finally said, seeming earnest enough. “There’s just no way. It’s not possible. That’s way too big an operation. DEA, Secret Service, us. Hell, someone would’ve picked up on that by now.”
“But what if they didn’t? What if,” Craig, being earnest himself now. “What if nobody knew about it because these guys – these two kingpins, mafia dons, whatever – were smarter than most criminals. Buddy,” ‘Buddy’ – it’d never work as a nickname. “Law enforcement is predicated on the perpetrator always leaving a clue, always screwing up somewhere. That’s what leads to the criminal, the arrest, the prosecution, and hopefully a
“Are you saying these two guys have never, ever screwed up? Never left a clue?”
“No,” Craig said. “I’m saying they’ve left plenty of clues. They’ve screwed up plenty of times. But,” he held a finger in the air, “what if they figured out a way to keep enough degrees between them and their operations that each individual crime we get a lead on never connects back to one larger organization?” This actually made Murtowski think for a moment.
“So, is this why they assigned you this case? You think these two kingpins…”
“Mavin and Odum Harlan. I’ve started a small file on them you can read. And I asked for the case.” Which was only partially true. He had a friend in the Division Chief’s office who followed cases with certain flags – meaning cases that were deemed weird by the Division Chief. This one was, and so Frank Craig was called.
Murtowski ignored the last part, for now. “You think these two guys, Mavin and Odum Whatever, have something to do with a dead American Yakuza?” Craig was pleased to see that Murtowski recognized the tattoo art of the Japanese Mafia, the Yakuza.
“I don’t know yet. I really don’t. We’re going to go to Lorton this afternoon, talk to an old prisoner who may know something about Yakimoto. Maybe not.”
“Yakimoto? We already know Yakimoto. How is going to see an old prisoner going to help?”
“Again, I don’t know. That’s why we’re going to see him. See what he knows.”
“He has something to do with your theory, doesn’t he?”
Craig was pleased to see that the kid was getting in to it, finally. The older agent decided that maybe Murtowski had some potential after all, despite the lack of a cool nickname.
“So,” Murtowski continued, looking at the photos one last, tentative time. “Who does this MG belong to?”
Blue, Hatchet, Lutrell & Kuhns
Breathtaking was the only possible way to describe the offices of Counselor Moisha S. Bravinski of one of Washington, D.C.’s premiere law firms, Blue, Hatchett, Lutrell & Kuhns. Indeed, it was offices, plural. On the seventh floor of one of the older buildings downtown, one floor below the large conference room and one floor above a veritable fleet of young associates, some ten feet from the elevator was Mr. Bravinski’s reception area. It was a small but elegant part of an entire floor commanded by Moisha Bravinski.
The reception area featured several stunning black and white photos of nearly every awe-inspiring monument and elegant building in Washington, D.C.: the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial (a favorite of Mr. Bravinski, one of the firm’s senior partners – the other partner based out of the D.C. office was Clyde Kuhns, son of founding name partner Clyde Kuhns, Senior. He was very old and ‘worked’ out of his home in Bethesda). The photos were awesome not only for their exquisite elegance, but also their size. Many were blown up to span an area of six or seven feet squared. At the end of the reception area was a large floor-to-ceiling window, darkly tinted, giving the room a cool, quiet feel.
At the other end of the area sat Elizabeth, Mr. Bravinski’s personal secretary. Elizabeth sat behind a silver-inlaid desk, rounded to half a circle that seemed to dwarf her a bit. It was kept immaculate, save for the phone and neatly stacked papers in the middle. Elizabeth had worked for Moisha for many, many years, and her late middle-aged beauty belied the enormous stresses placed on her by a demanding senior partner at the firm. Today, her reddish-brown hair was done up in a conservative bun, as it was most days. She sat behind her desk, slightly smiling as she did to all visitors to the office, and discreetly adjusted her cravat.
To the left of the desk was a plush leather couch, a light brown to match the wood in the room. There were no magazines to read – Moisha Bravinski hated to keep guests waiting.
Moisha’s inner office was even more impressive than the waiting area. Fully three times the size of Elizabeth’s reception area. If the reception area was a photographic altar to Washington’s most prized buildings and monuments, then Moisha Bravinski’s office was an altar to the old man’s political fortunes. Pictures adorned the wall from nearly the floor to the twenty-five foot ceiling, and a cursory glance offered up a clue as to why the firm of Blue, Hatchett, Lutrell & Kuhns paid him as much as they did. There were photographs of Moisha Bravinski with every president since Kennedy – some presidents appeared on the wall multiple times. There were photographs with senators, congressmen, ambassadors, generals, admirals, cabinet secretaries, not to mention CEOs, leaders of foreign countries – including, unbelievably, Fidel Castro – and celebrities of every ilk. There was Charleton Heston with his arm slung around Moisha’s shoulders. Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. stood on either side of Moisha, all in black tie, smoking cigarettes and laughing. There was a younger Goldie Hawn, gazing at a very handsome Moisha Bravinski. Everyone liked that one. There were many more.
A further study revealed something else impressive about the photographs in the office. Most of them – especially with the political types – were action shots, not just posed. This was a silent indication that Moisha had influenced world policy, had participated in American democracy at the highest levels. He worked and played at the highest levels, too. There were plenty of images featuring a drink in Moisha’s hand, a golf club in Moisha’s hand, or Moisha poolside at the elegant home of some Hollywood producer. Or on some famous person’s yacht out in the blue water. To scan the room was to take in the extraordinary political evolution of Moisha Bravinski.
The large, dark wooden desk in the corner of the room, opposite similar floor-to-ceiling windows (now with the curtains closed, darkening the room greatly) was nearly too imposing. It was conspicuous for its lack of paper, lack of junk. There wasn’t even a phone on the desk.
As Ritchie Torres took all of this in, that is what he wondered: Where did the old man keep his phone? It was odd. Ritchie thought of his own desk in his own slightly cramped office he shared with Kurkel Neekelwender on Capitol Hill. It was a messy affair – he didn’t know how having one client could generate so much paperwork – with scraps and memos and stickies everywhere.
Next to Moisha’s imposing, clean desk was an armchair, giving the whole corner a bit of a confessional feel. To the right of the room was another leather couch, this one black, and two more matching plush chairs crowding just a bit a small glass coffee table in the middle. The coffee table featured two oversized books stacked one on top of the other.
The one on top was entitled “St. Petersburg, Russia: A Pictorial History,” compiled by a man named Ivan Kornikov.
Ritchie wondered sarcastically where the old man had scored that. It seemed a rather overt statement coming from a man who would most likely rather die than have anyone know that he represented the Russian Mob.
Behind and to the right of the large desk was a closed door. To the left was another door, and this is where Moisha led Ritchie and Kurkel. Behind the door was a small conference table surrounded by six rolling chairs. It seemed to Ritchie to be very sterile. The room was windowless and had only lamps on small wooden stands in the corners, and three in the middle of the table for light. The most striking thing to Ritchie was the lack of abundant photographs. He was sure Moisha had many, many more in storage. On the wall at the end of the table was a large framed tri-folded American flag with just the stars visible. Behind the head of the table, where Moisha Bravinski took his seat, was a framed photograph of a young man in a Marine Corporal’s uniform. Below that within the frame were a series of colorful but small medals and pins, including, Ritchie was fairly sure, a Purple Heart. Ritchie bothered himself for a minute wondering who the young man was until the obvious occurred to him: it was Moisha himself.
Ritchie felt like complete shit and didn’t think it would get any better any time soon. He blamed his malady solely on the martinis, and rightfully so. When Elizabeth had offered him coffee, he though he would’ve grabbed her and made out with her if it had been physically possible for him to do so. The coffee she’d delivered to him in a quaint, white cup set gently on a saucer tasted like liquid Heaven. He took another sip now and set the
Moisha Bravinski had greeted both men with a broad smile and a more-than-firm handshake. The smile was gone now that they were in the old man’s inner sanctum. This worried Ritchie; there had never been a time, to Ritchie’s memory, when Moisha Bravinski had not prevailed. Both Neekelwender and Torres were convinced that the old man would now stick the Tokyo Tigers, and by proxy, the lawyers, with a stiff penalty, forcing the Japanese gangsters to plea with the home office in Japan for help. That couldn’t be good.
Moisha Bravinski was a man who looked his age, but didn’t look bad. He wore his nearly seventy years well, with a mane of silvery gray hair and full jowls. Moisha resembled an aging lion, still filled with fierceness for his opposition or anyone who crossed him. Even today, a Sunday, he was immaculately dressed in a double-breasted pinstripe suit and a tailored, well-starched white shirt, no tie, but highly polished black wingtips adorned his feet. Even in the suit, Ritchie thought Moisha still looked like a Marine, full and barrel-chested, damn tough.
“I’m very glad you boys called me,” Moisha’s voice was low and gristly.
I bet he used to smoke two packs a day, thought Ritchie nervously, realizing he craved a smoke himself.
“Moisha,” Kurkel started, “we were saddened to hear of Blue Hatchett’s loss.” He used the short hand version of the name of the firm. “Did you know the young man?” Both of the young lawyers agreed that a good first approach would be to play to the sentimental side of Moisha Bravinski before getting to the distasteful heart of the matter.
Moisha looked directly at Kurkel with piercing blue eyes.
“Well,” the old man tossed his meaty hands in the air with a sense of helplessness which was utterly out of character. “You see these youngsters running around, year after year. Sometimes they bring you a lunch. Sometimes you see them in the halls. Sometimes you stand next to them in the head taking a piss. Frankly, when you get as old as I am they all start to run together.” He smiled in a melancholy way. “But Jack,” referring to Jack Malveaux, the firm’s operations partner. “Jack assured me that this was a bright you man. A bright young man with a bright future. Franklin was his name.”
Ritchie recalled reading the exact same quote from Moisha Bravinski in that morning’s Washington Post. He’d been prepped on what to say and was just repeating the talking points, though doing a fairly convincing job of being mournful. Ritchie found this annoying and sighed loudly, conspicuously, catching the attention of Moisha, who shot him a look of utter contempt.
“Oh,” said Ritchie, working double time to recover, “it’s just that I remember starting as a junior associate. Those were tough years.” He offered a tight-lipped smile to Moisha, as if to say it’s the best I got, and instantly, Moisha’s look softened.
“Oh, I well remember those days, too.” A sad shake of the old silver head. “It seems very long ago.” Moisha now seemed reflective, staring at nothing in particular.
Kurkel finally spoke up, breaking the silence, but not before a small sip of coffee.
“Moisha, while we’re terribly saddened by the firm’s loss, I do think we should discuss the other issue that is of mutual concern.”
“You’re right. You’re right, of course.” Moisha, snapping out of his brief daydream, waving his hand dismissively as if swatting at the annoying insect of his past. “First, boys, let me say thank you for coming down here on a Sunday. I know you probably had to miss church this morning.” Neither Neekelwender nor Torres had to miss any such activity, but both remained tight-lipped, nodding silently in understanding. Ritchie was briefly appreciative to Kurkel for suggesting he wear a suit and tie to the meeting as opposed to the crumpled blue jeans and pullover sweater he was originally going to go with. “We’ve got some issues to address. Yes. Seems we have a matter of missing resources. And I need those resources to make good on a verbal contract brokered by you boys. Stop me if I’m wrong.”
The fact that Moisha insisted on calling the two lawyers ‘boys’ totally rubbed both Kurkel and Ritchie the wrong way, though neither would ever dare speak up.
“We agree, Moisha,” Kurkel said. “We have got a resources problem. Ritchie and I have some ideas where those resources might be. With that in mind, our clients want to respectfully ask for some time…” Kurkel was cut off.
“Now, Kurkel, again you stop me if I’m wrong, here. This was initiated by your clients, not mine. Your clients agreed to the deadline. We all agreed that two million was going to be paid by a time certain. We haven’t seen that yet. Whether you misplaced it or don’t have it is just not our problem.”
Silence filled the conference room for a moment. It was clear what was happening, and Kurkel and Ritchie were simply waiting for the other shoe to drop. Moisha was about to tack on a very large non-payment penalty fee.
Kurkel took advantage of the silence.
“Moisha, I’m sure you’ve heard by now that our clients have experienced a loss of their own. We were hoping you and your clients might be gracious enough to give them an opportunity to… mourn their loss and make the proper restitution.”
Ritchie thought it was a brilliant play on Kurkel’s part, and took a little bit of silent pride in having introduced the idea himself the night before, albeit in a haze of martini drunkenness. Use the sympathy card with Moisha. Hell, everyone has experienced a loss this weekend, let’s all take a step back, breathe, then try it again, no harm no foul. This would give the lawyers and the Tigers time to come up with money from somewhere else, ideally, though both Kurkel and Ritchie could predict what Hideo and Noboru would want to do. With that knowledge, the lawyers agreed they couldn’t burden the Tigers with an ultimatum from Moisha, too.
Moisha took a moment to contemplate his options and debated briefly calling the lawyer’s bluff. He knew there was still plenty of money in various accounts for the Tiger’s around town, that a payment could be made as early as that day. Still, he played along.
“I think I can get you a couple of days. At most. And that is charity.” He pointed a finger at Kurkel, then at Ritchie. “Charity doesn’t come cheap, so consider yourselves lucky on this one.” Kurkel and Ritchie inwardly sighed in relief. The great Moisha Bravinski was capitulating, meeting their request. The tiny, one-client firm of Neekelwender and Torres had successfully negotiated with the top gun at Blue, Hatchett, Lutrell & Kuhns. It was a red letter day.
Moisha rose from his chair indicating the meeting was over.
“Again, boys, thank you for taking your time.” This, even though it was Ritchie and Kurkel who had called to ask for the meeting. “Remember – two days. It’s the best I can do.”
“Thank you, Moisha. We’ll call very soon and let you know where we are with the arrangements.” Ritchie smiled and wished he’d sipped the last of his gourmet coffee.
“Take care, boys.” Moisha waved to the two young men as they walked through his vast office into the reception area. He walked back in to his office and sat down in his large leather chair behind the enormous desk and leaned back, stroking his chin thoughtfully. There were two slips of paper on his desk, messages taken by Elizabeth. One from a Congressman and one from the Secretary of Labor – people to call back later on the phone which was in yet another chamber in his enormous, labyrinthine office.
Moisha laced his fingers behind his head and stared at the picture of him with the President at Camp David. When that picture was taken, he remembered, he’d been working on a secret trade deal with Israel, representing an arms manufacturer. He let his mind re-focus on the issue of the day. Moisha Bravinski couldn’t conjure one single scenario in which things worked out well for the law firm of Neekelwender and Torres. And he was a real creative guy.
– – – –
At nearly three o’clock that afternoon, Ritchie and Kurkel arrived at Hideo’s townhouse to discuss the meeting they’d had with Moisha. Upon entering the townhouse and greeting Noboru, who always answered the door, Ritchie took a seat at the dining room table. He rubbed his head, wishing his major headache would at least downgrade into a minor headache. Ritchie fished around in his pocket for an aspirin, but came up only with a mint.
Hideo was pacing, looking agitated but at least sober, the lawyers were mildly relieved to notice. The gangster stopped for a moment and looked at Noboru. He shrugged, as Kurkel sat down next to Ritchie, and kept pacing around the dining room. Neither lawyer particularly noticed the shrug, not that they could’ve deciphered its meaning anyway. With that, Hideo picked up a glass tumbler with remnants of ice and a couple of sips of soda and whipped it across the room, through the living room and towards Noboru, missing his head by only a few feet, as it smashed into the wall. The glass shattered loudly and Ritchie let out a tiny peep of anguish as the sound sliced through his ears and penetrated his throbbing brain, sending his headache into a wild, uncontrolled tailspin of despair.
“I know that motherfucker stole our money!” It took a moment, but Ritchie and Kurkel realized that Hideo meant that Moisha must have stolen the money. Hideo was standing over the lawyers now, waving his arms maniacally, clearly ready to throw something else. Had there been anything handy, it was a guarantee he would’ve.
“Hideo, I can assure you, Moisha has not stolen our money.” If Kurkel or Ritchie had been at all in a better mood, both of them might’ve laughed at the notion. Moisha earned tens of millions a year. Two million was just not that big a deal. He had no motive to do so.
“Fine.” Hideo was being condescending now, and both lawyers resented it. “Then who?”
“Ritchie…” Kurkel turned to his partner, intending to ask him to address the present situation such as it was. Instead, it seemed to spark another idea within Hideo.
“If I find out you two weasels stole our money…” Hideo was hissing, pointing an accusatory finger at Ritchie. In fact, this was even sillier than the idea of Moisha stealing the money. So ridiculous, in fact, that neither of them had even considered that Hideo or the Tigers would or could contemplate it. Now both of the lawyers were visibly annoyed.
“Oh, God, Hideo,” Ritchie was vigorously rubbing his head. “Would we even be here if we’d done something so stupid? And, for fuck’s sake, why would we? Jesus Christ. Just think about it.” He tapped his forehead with his finger, which immediately caused him some pain.
Hideo didn’t speak, just walked casually to the chair across from the lawyers and sat down. He threw up his hands as if to say, well, fine – then tell me.
“Hideo,” Ritchie said, using his quiet voice, “we believe the courier we used. We think he took the money,” Ritchie was deliberately cautious with his language now, “and killed your friend, Jimmy Yakimoto.” It was a huge gamble. First, neither lawyer was sure that Jimmy could be described as a ‘friend’ to Hideo, though he was certainly an employee. The idea was to trigger what Kurkel called the honor response, which led to the second part of the gamble. Hideo wouldn’t ultimately be as pissed that someone took their money as he was that one of his own got whacked. Something clicked in Hideo, he slumped a bit and both Ritchie and Kurkel realized that the ploy may have worked.
“The Deal was a good man,” Hideo offered a resigned sigh. He suddenly looked very tired, defeated even. Like he was doing way more than he had ever bargained for. His bathrobe – he always seemed to be in a bathrobe, though Kurkel was quick to point out to Ritchie that it was not a bathrobe, but a kimono; Ritchie wasn’t sure of the difference – flopped open a bit, revealing a maze of colorful tattoos across his chest and stomach.
Ritchie nodded but thought that Hideo was a bit of a drama queen. He knew Hideo didn’t give a shit about Jimmy Yakimoto, or about any of the other guys who had died battling the Russians.
“Ritchie, this man, this courier,” Hideo spoke with a bit more pep, now, having spent four whole seconds reflecting on his ‘friend’ Jimmy Yakimoto. “Who is he?”
“Someone I’ve used before. He’s good. I thought he was good, anyway. He’s actually a bike messenger, a courier. You get a lot more information, a lot more intelligence, out of those guys than you think. He’s a bookie downtown, too, nothing big. Anyway, he’s a pro, that’s why I’ve used him in the past. With great success, I might add. The guy is small-time, not tied to you or us in any way.”
Hideo chuckled and decided not to comment on Ritchie’s overt use of “you” and “us,” as if there was some separation between the two.
“Ritchie,” he said. “Did you trust this man?”
“Why would you do it?”
This momentarily confused Ritchie, until he realized the boss was asking a rhetorical question. He just shrugged.
“Of course you don’t know, of course not.” Hideo was standing now, and Ritchie and Kurkel braced themselves for a sermon. “Ritchie, Kurkel – we’re one of the most powerful crime organizations on the East Coast.” Hideo was pacing around the table again. “But you know this. The money is nothing.” Not exactly true, but the lawyers were willing to let it go, as it seemed Hideo might be coming around to their thinking. “We make that much dealing heroin alone. Ritchie, Kurkel,” he was standing behind them now, clearly making Kurkel uncomfortable, exacerbating Ritchie’s discomfort level, “one of my men is dead. For no good reason. For pocket change.” Hideo was sermonizing now. “Jimmy Yakimoto was family, and as his family, we cannot let this murder go without being avenged.”
Ritchie and Kurkel had noticed that several of the Tokyo Tigers, now eight of them, had shuffled in from the back to hear Hideo speak. They found this disconcerting as well.
“So, Ritchie,” Hideo patted Ritchie on the shoulder, “what you have to understand is this. Your courier has killed a member of my family. For a very small amount of money.”
It sure ain’t that small, thought Ritchie. And then it hit him – Hideo had no idea how much the recent wars had cost the Tokyo Tigers. None at all. This alarmed him a bit, but he opted to keep his mouth shut until he could share this notion with Kurkel.
“I want this man found.” Hideo was addressing the small crowed near the kitchen now. “We will find him, and we will exact our vengeance. And we will settle our business with the Russians honorably.”
Despite the rising crescendo of Hideo’s voice as he addressed his gang leadership, both lawyers were quite happy with the direction the meeting had taken. Both Kurkel and Ritchie desperately wanted Hideo to focus on finding Baylor Roman, keeping his mind on the money, which was a far more tangible, real, and certainly the immediate issue. They knew that if it were left to Hideo, he’d simply go back to war with the Russian Bratva as opposed to begging the Japanese Leadership of the Yakuza for more cash. This bought them time.
“Ritchie,” Hideo said. “If you were this man, where would you go?”
“I don’t know, Hideo, but I’d guess either Canada or Mexico. Probably south, though. He’s from Arkansas. Maybe he’d stop in at home before disappearing. He sure won’t stay here, though.” Perfect, Kurkel thought, as Ritchie kept talking. Keep them focused on the courier.
“And what is his name?”
Ritchie wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw a flash of something in Hideo’s eyes. He wrote it off to a symptom of his own headache.
Hideo looked at Noboru and his lieutenants standing by the wall near the kitchen.
“Two million to the man who brings me the courier. Dead. Four million if he’s alive.”
This caused Ritchie and Kurkel to both nearly laugh out loud. It was all they could do to stifle smiles. There was no way – simply no way the mysterious Kodama from Japan would approve such a massive reward for a manhunt, nor would he likely allow the gang to ignore the lucrative business of pimping whores, running numbers, dealing drugs and smuggling to go unwatched while gang members chased down a man who by now was likely a ghost. Neither lawyer cared much, though they both knew that at some point sooner rather than later they would have to work to re-focus Hideo on that lucrative business.
The gangsters filed out of the door with a new sense of purpose, leaving the lawyers and Hideo. Noboru had followed the other men. Clearly, the meeting was over.
“Hideo,” Kurkel spoke,” Moisha has generously given us two days…”
But Hideo dismissively waved his hand. He was done talking, and the lawyers couldn’t believe their good fortune. The less they had to discuss with the man, the better.
Monday in the Air
Agents Frank Craig and Tony Murtowski had left the Lorton Correctional Facility in their Crown Victoria and headed straight for Quantico, Virginia, home to the FBI Academy, where there was a hidden airstrip about five miles away that was primarily used to fly FBI agents as well as DEA agents and other law enforcement officials all over the country and occasionally around the world. When the two agents arrived at the air field a few hours after leaving the prison, the Division Chief was waiting for them on the tarmac next to his own blue Crown Victoria, the only other people around being a driver sitting inside, reading the paper, and his partner, the security detail, next to him in the shotgun seat. The Division Chief, unsmiling and serious, held two thick white binders under his arms. Craig and Murtowski left their car beside the airstrip, watching the security detail guy get out and make his way to the car – his big job description for the day presumably being to drive their car back to DC.
“We’re going south, looks like,” the Division Chief said. He was an imposing man, six-five with the build of a linebacker, which indeed he had been, at Boston College. Division Chief Mike O’Kelley, a good Massachusetts Irish boy, had the thickest New England accent Craig had ever heard. When O’Kelley had called Craig on his cell phone just after the prison visit and told them to get their asses to Edgar International – the strip’s nickname, in honor of legendary Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover – Craig had barely understood a word he said. Sounded a lot like ‘sahmthin’s happahnd in Tennahsee…get you-ah ah-sses down to Ed-gah at Quan-tah-ko. Ah’ll meet yah they-ah.’ The guys sounded like Ted Kennedy had been sniffing glue. Craig nonetheless got the drift.
“The binders will explain everything.” O’Kelley didn’t even offer a handshake. He looked as though he’d been busy with something else, his shirtsleeves rolled, tie loosened, the top button undone. He was in pretty desperate need of a shave. “We’re thinking they’ll go through Memphis. When you get there, get with the Memphis P.D. and set it up.” The small King Air sat less than a hundred yards away, warming up, filling the void of their fairly attractive natural surroundings with the loud start-up whine of the engine noise.
“I’ve alerted the Section Chief you’re on your way.” Division Chief O’Kelley was shouting now.
Arleigh, Craig’s old partner, was the Section Chief for the Eastern Region, including New York, New England, and a fair chunk of the Eastern Seaboard. The Southern Regional Chief was a fellow named Wilson, who Craig also knew vaguely from the job. He remembered him as a little arrogant, one of these southern gentlemen snobs, but otherwise an effective law enforcement officer and a decent enough man.
“Listen, sir,” Craig yelled above the engines, taking his binder from O’Kelley. It was customary to call the lower ranking Section Chief’s ‘Chief’, but obligatory to call the higher-on-the-totem-pole Division Chief’s ‘sir’. “I think this is more than just a gangland hit. It’s something bigger.” He was referring, naturally, to his Big Theory which was not popular with O’Kelley, or anyone else in the Bureau. But, dammit, things were coming together.
“No shit it’s something bigger.” ‘Bigger’ came out big-gah. “Read your files.” O’Kelley nodded to the binders in each man’s hand. Craig, a man with whom people did not often agree, was stunned.
“Yes, sir.” Craig offered a tight-lipped smile to the senior Bureau man and turned towards the King Air, Murtowski trailing obediently behind him.
Both Craig and Murtowski spent the entire flight to Memphis reading their binders. It became apparent very quickly just why they were going to Memphis. The first pages contained information the two men knew, mostly, and the same morgue photos of Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto that did nothing good for Murtowski’s stomach on the bumpy, loud flight. Both men read with interest the pages identifying, in amazing detail, the identity of the owner of the abandoned MG. Baylor Roman: they had his age, his credit history, his history as a bike messenger, and a couple of photos, including his company ID pictures. There had been interviews with his boss, his coworkers – Craig thought the interview of Lorrie Beth Hammond was particularly entertaining, having invoked the term ‘sinner’ no less than twenty-seven times in a twenty minute interrogation. A full background workup had been done for Baylor Roman. He was from Arkansas, and if the event reports from Tall Oak, Virginia were correct, it looked like he was likely headed back there. Or maybe a stop there on his way to Mexico. Of course, there wasn’t as much there as the old agent had hoped for. Craig couldn’t help but turn his thoughts to the Harlan Brothers. He knew they were both from Arkansas. North Little Rock, to be exact. It was too weird. There weren’t that many people from Arkansas – there had to be a connection, but for now, his mind simply could not produce what that connection might be. Instead, he focused briefly on the police report from Tall Oak, Virginia.
Turns out Baylor had helped rob – or had walked in on a robbery and then helped rob, it was unclear, except that he drove the getaway car – a small diner near the Virginia/Tennessee border. Their only proof that it was Baylor Roman was a pretty good description of him and the car he and his accomplice had used to get away. Frank Craig flipped the page from the police report to the next tab, which was sealed with a sticker labeled ‘secret’ in bright red letters. This was odd as everything thus far had been fairly cut and dried, such as it was. Craig couldn’t imagine why there’d be anything secret in the binder, not meant for public eyes. In fact, he hadn’t even noticed the front of the binder, the small red letters at the bottom near his name which indicated that the binder contained classified documents.
Craig looked at Murtowski, about at the same place as him in the binder, quizzically, shrugging his shoulders. He popped the sticker and flipped open the thick cover page. His heart dropped and his face went flush. The urge to urinate overcame him. Craig felt a cold sweat instantly break out on his forehead and his throat began to close up. Somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered if he was having a heart attack or a stroke. He wasn’t. The secret document was called an intelligence analysis memorandum, usually done by FBI profilers and analysts deep within the bowels of the Bureau using the latest technology to produce remarkably accurate information on otherwise hard-to-get people, places, and things. The memorandum seemed cold, analytical, even a little bit dry. The paper began to moisten from his sweaty palm.
Analysis of behavioral characteristics of the second unknown perpetrator as well as technical evaluation of hard evidence – meaning that an analyst had reviewed the interviews from the victim of the crime, Ms. Billy Jo Beecham, as well as some kind of hard evidence left at the scene, like a fingerprint or a fiber, and ran it through their wizardry at the FBI – lead to a 99.99% assurance of the identity of said second perpetrator: Culpepper, Desdemona Elspeth.
It went on to list her last known height, weight, her date of birth, her natural hair color, the color of her eyes, copies of her fingerprints, photographs (they were all blurry and none very telling). Her father, Mr. Buford Culpepper, other family members, known associates. The identification went on for more than two pages.
“Holy shit,” Murtowski seemed shocked. Craig understood the sentiment. The understanding of the gravity of the situation made him feel like he might barf.
The analysis continued. Culpepper is a known member of a group of bank robbers. Craig would’ve laughed at the abysmal understatement if he could’ve. The ‘group of bank robbers’ that the memo referred to called themselves the New Riders of the Apocalypse. True, it was an improbable name for bank robbers, perhaps better fitting some sort of gun-hoarding militia group. Alas, all the New Riders of the Apocalypse ever did was rob banks.
Bureau men like to say that nothing scares the FBI. In fact, Agent Craig made it his own mission to live that unwritten philosophy. To be frightened of nothing, defend freedom at all costs, do anything to assure justice. There were probably more ‘No Fear’ bumper stickers on office doors and in Bureau cubicles than on pickup trucks in the entire lower 48 states combined. If Craig had liked bumper stickers at all, he’d have had one himself: No Fear.
The FBI was scared shitless of the New Riders of the Apocalypse. And for good reasons. First, the New Riders (most FBI agents couldn’t bring themselves to even invoke the whole name of the gang, or at least not the ‘Apocalypse’ part) were unbelievably, improbably successful. Bank robberies have the highest success rate of criminal cases solved, more than any other crime. But the chief success of the New Riders was that they’d never been caught. Not even close. Not one member of the five person team had ever been to prison, or even jail.
The New Riders were scary, too, for a reason that was controversial in its duality. They were effectively violent without being lethal. Also, they were alarmingly popular among the general public. The New Riders had, through success and sheer force of will, not to mention a complicit media, attained cult status. Academic studies were done. A book inspired by their exploits was being written by a famous author. There were rumblings in Hollywood and New York that someone was going to work on a documentary. There were even more rumblings of a feature-length film. Maybe Spielberg would direct it. Several works of non-fiction referenced them, but nothing was ever very detailed, because no one seemed to know where the New Riders were until they struck a bank. And then they were gone, usually for weeks and months at a time. The FBI was simply at a loss.
Violence without lethal force meant that in the more than twenty banks they had successfully robbed over a period of about five years no one had been killed, although a man well into his nineties cashing his Social Security check at a bank in Florida had a heart attack on the scene and died. In fact, DNA sampling, as well as the bank security cameras, had shown that it was Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper who had administered CPR to the old man until her colleagues all but drug her out of the building. It was the closest they’d ever come to capture. This wasn’t to say they weren’t violent – they were. Coming in – early in the morning or mid-afternoon – and shooting machine guns and pistols in to the air was generally considered violent behavior. Over the course of the career of the New Riders several security guards had taken slugs in the leg or in the arm, usually to prevent them from trying heroics. The ringleader, a fellow named Lance Sullivan, to whom it was believed Ms. Culpepper was romantically linked at least at one time, once slapped a teller because she didn’t move fast enough.
Agent Craig believed that any one of them would kill if they had to. And of all five of the New Riders, Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper scared him the most. Lance Sullivan might’ve been the leader, but Desdemona was clearly the brains behind the operation, meaning most agents and analysts at the Bureau believed she was the one who prevented them from killing. And from ever getting caught. She was widely considered to be a genius; a criminal genius, but a genius. You could learn quite a bit from digital enhancements of bank surveillance cameras and interviews with the victims of a bank robbery.
And now, scariest of all, it seemed Ms. Culpepper had gone rogue. An even scarier notion because a gang without the brains of the operation might get careless, might get more violent, might get deadly. And a criminal mastermind on her own must have something new cooked up.
As Agent Craig began to try and piece the bits of puzzle together – the Harlan Brothers, Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper, Baylor Roman, dead American Yakuza – the co-pilot came back to the cabin to announce their descent into Memphis. After several minutes of bumpy circling, the King Air landed with a thud at an airstrip outside of Memphis, Tennessee, not unlike the one near Quantico. It was out in the middle of seemingly nowhere.
Another Crown Victoria, light brown, waited for the men near the control tower and radar station. Inside were the keys and two phone charger jacks. Craig opened the door and peered inside. Just like every other car he’d seen in his career. He popped the trunk to check it out. Two short-barreled shotguns where strapped to the trunk lid. On the floorboard, next to the spare tire and jack was a first aid kit and a couple of black bags full of gear. Flares, extra handcuffs, ammunition, flashlights, even some meals ready-to-eat. FBI agents never went anywhere unprepared. He put his binder in the trunk and motioned for Murtowski to do the same.
Craig could tell that Murtowski was annoyed at him getting in to the driver’s seat. In fact, the junior man was supposed to do the driving, but Craig hated that. He’d always driven and he wasn’t going to stop now.
Murtowski decided to pry a little bit more.
“Doesn’t this seem weird to you? A bike messenger rips off a gang banger, kills him, drives off in a dangerously conspicuous car, then meets up in the middle of nowhere with one of the most wanted bank robbers in the history of America.” It sounded dramatic, but there wasn’t anything that Murtowski had said that wasn’t true: it was weird.
When he got no response, Murtowski pushed on.
“It seems to me that Culpepper has finally fucked up, taking off on her own, hooking up with some wanna-be crook…” This caused Craig to interrupt, even as he pulled away from the air field towards a dirt road headed west.
“A ‘wanna-be’ crook? What the hell is that? He is a crook! A murderer, no less. Not to mention the little illegal gambling operation he’s been running for a while now.” The binders had offered some intelligence, not previously known to either agent, on Baylor Roman. He was a bike messenger, true, a courier. His work was non-controversial in nature and frankly, not very important. No one had paid him much attention, and his background check, also included in the binder, reflected that. He had been a good enough citizen up until the previous Saturday, for the most part, and with the exception of the illegal gambling operation, which would likely never be a priority for any law enforcement agency around. In fact, the only reason the D.C. Police Department hadn’t busted Baylor Roman on the gambling charges was that they were hoping he might lead them to a bigger fish. Half-assed surveillance had never panned out. Essentially, in a nutshell, Baylor Roman was weirdo, a freak, an anomaly. Lowly bookies who usually ran gambling operations to pad their retirement fund never killed gangsters and made a run for the border. They certainly never associated with the most famous bank robbers in America.
“Okay, okay,” Murtowski said, annoyed. “But you get what I mean. He’s a nobody. All I’m saying is that this may be an opportunity to bust the New Riders. That’d be huge.” Murtowski went into an instant daydream, imagining his glory and rapid rise through the ranks of the Bureau upon arresting the person many people believed to be the devil herself.
“I’d get off that if I were you.” Craig said.
“Whatever,” Murtowski was dismissive. His questions about Craig’s Harlan Brother’s theory still weren’t answered. “So,” he said, “why can’t we just run this from Washington? Hell, why are we even here? Couldn’t we have just called the Memphis P.D. and the Tennessee State Troopers, our own guys down here? Put out an alert for a red Pontiac?”
Craig thought Murtowski knew why, that it was Craig’s own theory, that perhaps the Bureau was covering their bases just in case his insane idea was actually reality, or even just close to reality.
“Right,” Frank Craig said, speeding towards the on-ramp of the interstate now. “Why don’t we just put out an APB for every red hotrod in the south? I’m sure the cops around here are just dying to track down every little hoodlum that shoots a known gangster.” He totally avoided the Desdemona issue.
“The Bureau says that Roman and Culpepper meeting up was sheer coincidence.” Murtowski said. It was true. In fact, one anonymous analyst – they were all anonymous in those secret memoranda – suggested the probability was mathematically quite slim, the two had met previously or even communicated in some capacity. They further suggested an even slimmer probability: that perhaps Culpepper had actually kidnapped Roman and was using him as a sort of cover.
Craig grunted out a half-laugh. The car was speeding down the freeway now, towards Memphis, past big rigs and other late Monday traffic. Thankfully, the rush hour line of cars was headed in the other direction.
“Give me a break.”
“So you think there’s a connection.” Murtowski, for whatever it was worth, was relentless.
“I never said that.”
“You implied it.”
“Jesus Christ.” Craig wasn’t really annoyed. In fact he was pleased that the kid was beginning to draw his own conclusions about the case. He’d come around soon enough.
Murtowski ignored the old man. For as long as he could
“So, you think this was a calculated hit. That there is some connection between Desdemona Culpepper, Baylor Roman, Jimmy Yakimoto and these Harlan Brothers.”
“Hot Shot,” still tweaking the nickname to no effect. “Why on Earth would someone rob a shithole, out-of-the-way diner? Ask yourself that.”
“I don’t know.” Murtowski was at a loss.
“Think about it.” Craig knew that the diner was an X-factor of sorts. It didn’t fit in with any scenario, though Craig had some ideas he’d never be able to prove. Part of his theory was that the New Riders of the Apocalypse were a centerpiece, a Crown Jewel of sorts, of the Harlan’s operations, and the brothers used them for more than just robbing banks which was never extraordinarily lucrative, anyway. In fact, many of the banks robbed were either affiliated with or in some way associated with enemies of the Harlan’s, or so Frank Craig suspected. Craig thought the New Riders probably robbed a lot of them as a form of revenge. Having your bank robbed is pretty damn bad for business.
“I’m starving.” Murtowski said.
“Me too.” Neither man had eaten anything since breakfast, and the nervous jitters of the bumpy flight were finally wearing off to reveal a strong appetite. They were just fifteen miles outside of Memphis. “Let’s go find a bar-b-que place.”
Monday Afternoon in Memphis
Agents Craig and Murtowski entered the restaurant then stopped abruptly. They were momentarily stunned by what they found: nothing at all. Craig worked to quickly piece together the last seven seconds, from the time they had stepped out of the car, through the front door, through the four-foot by five-foot foyer and into the restaurant. He looked at Murtowski, who simply blinked, then shrugged. What on Earth, he wondered, had happened. Backtracking through his mind – the seconds, the moments before they entered the restaurant. Where had he been looking?
Of course: his goddam shoes. Agent Craig had been thinking that his shoes needed shining. It was a careless, wandering thought, brought on by the ease of their stakeout. And because he was careless he’d failed to keep his eye on the two suspects. And in failing that, the suspects had spotted him and Murtowski, then fled. But, damn, to where? His mind was racing even as he instinctively moved his hand towards his holster.
“Alright, fellas,” the voice came from in front, off to his left. It was Des’ voice and she had her black .44 out and in both hands, pointing it squarely at the older agent. She had the easy drop on them both. Baylor was standing behind her, the gleaming .45 out and in his right hand. Craig could see the barely perceptible but slight shake of the gun. He took two seconds to study Baylor Roman’s face.
“Shit,” Murtowski muttered.
“Shit is right, baby doll.” Des offered back very coolly. “Names, please.”
Craig and Murtowski stood still, stunned in to silence. They hadn’t even thought to raise their hands yet.
“Um,” Des nodded slightly, moved the gun three inches to her left and in what seemed like less than a second the glass behind the bar shattered to the ground, bringing innumerable bottles of various liquors with it as well. The noise from the gun and from the splintering glass was overwhelming, ear splitting and mind-numbing all at once. Both agents instinctively ducked and carelessly threw both their hands in the air as though they had been jerked up by strings from above. Baylor simply stared, saucer-eyed, at what was left of the bar.
Des finished her thought. “Names. Now, goddamit. Don’t you two have I.D.?”
“H. Christ,” Murtowski spat, clearly freaked out by the whole turn of events.
“Hmm, ‘H. Christ’. Interesting name. Must get annoying with all those people who take your name in vain, though,” Des said as sarcastically as she possibly could. No one dared respond with laughter, though Agent Craig thought it was fairly cute.
“Look,” she said, “since you two clearly can’t talk, I want you to pull your I.D.s out of your jacket pocket with the utmost care and place them on the bar. Go slow so I don’t shoot any penises off. Accidentally, of course,” she smirked, lowering the barrel of the gun slightly.
The waitress and the chef, a large black man in a hat not unlike the rooftop pig, had come out at the sound of the noise and now stood silent, motionless in the doorway to the kitchen. The waitress was crying just a little bit, and Baylor felt very sorry for her. He made a little ‘shh’ motion with his finger to his lips with his free hand as he walked past them towards the bar to collect the identification badges.
The two agents had slowly – very slowly – drawn their badges from their jacket pockets. Murtowski was slightly behind Craig, and Craig hoped like hell that the kid wouldn’t try any Clint Eastwood fast-on-the-draw shit. There was no way to turn and make eye contact with him, as the older agent’s eyes were now locked with the piercing eyes of Desdemona Culpepper. She really is very pretty, he thought. Scary as hell, but pretty. Part of the mystique around the wanted New Riders of the Apocalypse was the alluring beauty of Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper. A lot of the agents at the Bureau spoke of it in almost revered tones. Turned out to be true. Murtowski, newer and certainly less aware of at least himself had taken to staring at the generous curves of her body, until Baylor approached them both, covering them both with his gun, glancing at the badges on the countertop bar.
“Well,” Baylor sighed. “It’s the Feds, alright. FBI. Agents Murtowski,” he glanced Murtowski, “and Craig,” then a glance to the older agent.
“Really? You guys are working faster and faster. You’re going to put people like us out of business.” Des was half smiling now as Baylor backed toward her, never dropping his cover of the two agents.
“People like you,” Craig spoke, then looked at Baylor Roman. “You know what you’re involved in here, son?”
“Why?” Baylor asked. “Do you?”
“I know about the Harlans.” Craig just threw that out there, see what would happen. At first he thought it might’ve been a wasted effort, but the color clearly drained from both faces in front of him. Hell, this might be the real deal after all.
Neither Baylor nor Des spoke for a moment. Craig studied Baylor Roman’s face for just a moment longer.
“Look,” Des let out a half-laugh. “We’re going to have to get out of here, and we can’t have you two following us.” Craig heard Murtowski let out a little peep that he hoped only he could hear. The older agent kept his gaze trained at Baylor Roman, who was staring right back. It was a staring contest and it was evident Des wanted to grab his attention by doing all the talking. But why?
Then it finally occurred to him.
“You,” Craig lowered his right hand, just ever so slightly and began to point towards Baylor. “You. You’re the nephew, aren’t you?”
Baylor was giving him a sideways glance, now, narrowing his eyes. “Just what exactly does this old man know?” he wondered.
“Holy fucking shit,” Craig was outright smiling now.
“Keep your hands in the air,” Des said with authority. Frank Craig ignored her.
“I’ll be damned. Christ, I’ve been hearing about you since you were born. Do you know that? Do you know how hard those two old fuckers worked to keep your very existence a secret? Damn. I’ll be a sonofabitch.”
“You’ll be fucking dead if you don’t keep your hands in the air,” Des was much cooler now. Cool in a dead-level, scary way. She had taken a step and a half forward and pulled back the hammer on the gun.
“I thought you didn’t kill people.” Murtowski finally spoke, and Craig, ashamed for him, could hear the quaver of his voice.
“Not unless we have to.” Des said, never looking at him. It was evident Craig was the real brains of the operation. Murtowski responded by looking at the floor and offering a resigned, quiet ‘Oh.’
“Let me guess,” Craig was still smiling, looking up at the ceiling now as if for divine inspiration. “You’ve come back home to take care of some family business. No! Wait!” He was excited now, almost shouting. “Shit! Are the Harlans getting ready to retire? And you’re going to take over the business! With a little head-start, a little help from Peaches, here,” he completely lowered his right hand now and pointed to Des. “Goddamn!”
Des took one more step forward – she was less than seven feet from Craig, now – and he put his hand back up, still smiling. Baylor had an almost sad look on his face. He wasn’t sure where to go with what was happening.
“Agent Craig,” Baylor said, lowering his gun just a hair, but keeping it trained on Craig and Murtowski, back and forth, back and forth, stepped forward, parallel with Des. “Agent Frank Craig…” He trailed off, not saying any more, but giving a knowing smile and a nearly imperceptible nod. Both Des and Murtowski independently found this to be extremely bizarre.
“Look, I hate to break up a happy time, but we’re going to be spending the night in a Memphis jail if we don’t leave. Now.” She gave a sideways glance to Baylor, who nodded, still smiling at a man he’d heard about all his life. The way the Harlan’s had talked about Agent Frank Craig, you’d have thought he was the boogeyman. The monster under the bed. A goddam fable. Baylor had always sort of half-assumed they’d made up the crusty old FBI agent who was always sniffing around their business.
“You’re going to be sleeping six feet under when I get my hands on you, bitch,” Murtowski, who had found a storage of rage somewhere, managed to spit every word.
“Oooh,” Des said, and every man in the room, to include the cook, who was now hugging the little waitress, thought that it was the sexiest ‘oooh’ they’d ever heard from a woman. “Cowboy’s getting agitated. Better watch him, Baylor.” She was gaining control again. Of course, Craig was now thinking that this was it, the perfect nickname for the new kid: Cowboy. He simply couldn’t wait to use it.
Des covered the two agents while Baylor carefully extracted their guns from the holsters and stuffed them both down the front of his pants, handles facing opposite directions. Then, as per Des’ instructions, the two agents embraced, arms intertwining. Frank Craig’s right arm went over Murtowski’s left shoulder, as his left arm went under Murtowski’s right armpit. Then, using the agent’s own cuffs, Baylor cuffed them in that position, less carefully extracting the keys from both men and pocketing them. The chef and waitress watched, motionless and silent the entire time.
“Listen, I’ve got to know,” Craig spoke after Baylor had finished. “Was Jimmy a hit? Or was it an accident and your uncles are trying to help you get out of it? I’m going to find out. Why not just tell me?”
Baylor didn’t say a word.
“You know he was an informant,” Murtowski spoke now, not realizing he was stating the obvious. “They’re gonna fry you.”
“Just for the record,” Baylor spoke in almost a whisper, patting Craig on the shoulder. “I don’t know anybody named Mavin and Odum Harlan, and I don’t know anybody named Yakimoto. Sorry.” He winked at the older man and smiled in a you-know and I-know and you-know-I-know kind of way. Craig just chuckled and shook his head as best he could against his partner’s shoulder.
Everyone heard the sirens at the exact same time. They were just a few blocks away.
“I am so sorry about the mess. Put it on the FBI’s tab.” Des gave a look of sincerity to the waitress – still crying – and the chef, who just looked stunned.
As the two walked out the door, leaving the two FBI agents handcuffed by the bar, Craig spoke one last time.
“Hey, Baylor,” it was a flat, dry tone. Baylor turned to look at Agent Craig as he held the door open, Des in front of him headed to the car already. “I hope the Harlans are doing right by you, son.” He looked back up at Craig and offered a wink, then turned to run out the door.
Baylor and Des walked very quickly to the car, tossed the guns on the floorboard, along with the keys from the agents, and fired up the Pontiac. They pulled out and drove at a reasonable pace away from the restaurant with the pig on top. In less than fifteen minutes they’d crossed the Mississippi River and sighed together when they passed the sign welcoming them to the Natural State.
Off the Chain
It didn’t take long at all for the Memphis P.D. to hacksaw Murtowski and Craig apart, finally freeing them about the time a locksmith showed up to pick the locks of the silver bracelets around each of their wrists. In fact, the uniformed officers were extraordinarily polite to the two agents showing pure southern hospitality and charm, and not a little bit of concern for their well-being. The well-being of the agents was fine, though their spirits were a bit dampened by the course of the most recent events.
Section Chief Wilson was standing outside in the middle of what he liked to call a clusterfuck. Four squad cars had arrived on the scene, each carrying two officers. Since the time of his arrival, two motorcycle cops had shown up, along with two more Memphis Police cars, as well as an ambulance and some off-duty cop on his way home, not to
mention the locksmith. Lights blazed in the now-dark night air and police tape was fluttering in the wind as a young looking rookie wound it around a signpost and across the front door of the restaurant. The red and blue pulsating light gave the immediate area a sort of carnival feel, only without the happiness and joy usually associated with carnivals.
Section Chief Wilson was a man more or less Frank Craig’s age, thinning gray hair and deep, dark lines under his eyes. His tie was loosened dramatically and skewed far to his left, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up more than twice revealing pasty white forearms with an abundance of their own gray hair. Craig spotted Wilson as he left the restaurant, ducking the police tape, rubbing his wrists, and approached him slowly.
“Christ,” Wilson spoke, half smiling, “you’re lucky they didn’t have you strip and fuck each other in the ass, Frank. Hell, it could happen.” Craig smiled and looked at the ground. He could practically hear Murtowski cringing and stewing in the frothy juices of his own humiliation behind him. Craig thought to respond to the comment directly, and then remembered that Wilson had been involved in a minor flap at one point in his career, something about discriminating against homosexuals. He decided to let it go for the sake of his superior.
“Any read on ‘em? Highway patrol pick ‘em up yet? I’m sure they’re in Arkansas.” Craig realized he was, right off the bat, speaking desperately, frantically and immediately regretted opening his mouth at all.
“Nah,” the Section Chief said. “Nothing. Hell,” he looked at his watch, “they’re probably at least outside of Little Rock by now, if they’re not there already. It’s just a couple of hours away.” Wilson saw the look of utter disappointment intermingled with the exhaustion of a spent adrenaline rush in the faces of the two agents and did what he could. “Still, the Arkansas State Troopers are staked out along the interstate…”
“Well, who the fuck is in charge over there!” Murtowski practically screamed, getting the attention of not only Craig and Wilson but of several nearby police officers and rubberneckers, all of whom had done a stand-up job of turning out for the spectacle. Agent Craig was instantly grateful that Murtowski had now come off as a bigger asshole than he had moments earlier.
“Woah, slow down, son.” Section Chief Wilson spoke in a slow, deliberate manner, raising his hand in a calming motion. “We’re doing everything we can. You take it easy. Go sit in your car.” It was calm, cool and very clearly an order.
“Look,” Murtowski raised an insubordinate finger to the Section Chief. “I’m not sitting in the fucking car. I’m going to Little Rock. And when I find this fucker Baylor Roman and that shit eating little bitch he’s with, I’m going to fucking kill them!” He was screaming now, turning purple as he went. “I’m going to rip their goddam guts out and watch them bleed.”
Craig realized the time had come, and so much sooner than he could’ve hoped for.
“Cowboy,” he said, quietly, calmly. “Just go sit in the car. We’ll get ‘em. It’s cool.” Craig hated to use popular language, but the situation with his rookie partner was desperate. As Murtowski – clearly either ignoring or totally missing the ‘cowboy’ reference – turned and fumed away towards the one car without the light flashing like hell, Craig gave Wilson a knowing wink. He didn’t want the boss to think that he’d actually given Tony ‘Cowboy’ Murtowski a license to turn in to a maniacal killer should they actually find their perpetrators.
“New kid,” Craig jammed a thumb in Murtowski’s direction, “hot head.” He shrugged his shoulders, something he rarely did and hated to do.
“Just watch him, Frank. He’s your responsibility.” Wilson wasn’t being condescending in the least, just truthful.
“Yeah,” Craig said. “You got a smoke?” He was working very hard at remembering whether or not Wilson smoked and suspected he still did, detecting a just-barely-there odor of smoke on his rumpled clothes. Frank Craig had not smoked regularly in nearly a decade. In fact, his memory of quitting was still quite clear. He bought a quart of very cheap whiskey, a carton of very cheap cigarettes, brought it all home and proceeded to drink and chain-smoke until he passed out on his living room floor, not only puking on his carpet but burning a hole in it as well. When he woke, he had not only quit cigarettes but went on the wagon for a very long time. This was how Frank Craig cleaned himself up after his doctor told him he should try ‘clean living.’
“Sure,” Wilson nodded, pulled out a pack of Marlboros and tamped a couple out, all in a non-judgmental manner. “Care to tell me what happened in there?”
“On the record or off?” Craig put the cigarette in his mouth and held it up to the bright flame of Wilson’s silver lighter. He inhaled deeply, then breathed out. It was as though he’d never quit.
“Why don’t we start with off? We can put it all down on paper later.” Wilson, dragging on his own smoke, walked to the other side of his car and opened the door.
Frank Craig sat in the passenger seat up front, smoking, Wilson behind the wheel.
“Totally by the book, boss,” Craig finally started after a moment of just enjoying the nicotine rush he was experiencing. “Damndest thing, though. We pulled up here to get something to eat. We were going for an early dinner, then we’d call you. Work it out with your local guys, the Memphis P.D. But why not get started on a full stomach, right?” He chuckled a little bit and looked at the boss. “Anyway, it was a one in a million shot. Maybe a one in a billion deal. They were there. They were there. In the goddam restaurant. Just happened to be the same place. Never seen anything like it.” Craig took another deep drag on the cigarette and thought again about how it all happened. “Well, so there we were. We went for it. My call. The two of us walk in right as they get dinner and ask them to step outside. I even had some cash in my pocket to cover the tab. We got out of the car…” Craig realized with some shame that he was having difficulty looking at Wilson now, and decided that looking at the car radio was just fine.
“You called for backup first, of course.” Wilson interrupted.
“Yeah, of course we did. The kid did it. Asked for some support and we headed in. As we approach, I’m…” Craig realized his shoe story was totally ludicrous.
“…Looking at your shoes.” Wilson didn’t bother to try and make eye contact. Knew what the man was going to say before he even said it.
Craig was left speechless, staring mildly slack-jawed at his superior.
“Yeah, it’s happened. Hell, it happened to me once, too. You ever tell anyone…” Wilson, pointing at Craig now with the cigarette clenched between his index and middle finger, didn’t need to finish the thought. Craig nodded like an idiot. “Look,” Wilson drew in the smoke, “it really does happen all the goddam time. Something with the mind, the psyche. I really don’t understand it. You get inside your own head and get lost in a world of thoughts. Next thing you know, you’re hustling towards a house full of suspects and you’re staring at your shoes, thinking, ‘Christ, I’ve got to get those things shined.’”
“That’s no excuse. And anyway, where was the kid? Isn’t that why we have partners?” Craig recognized he was shifting the subject away from himself and towards Murtowski. This brought him only a momentary glimmer of shame.
“Well, he’s new. He was probably looking at the gun. That’s gotta be a cock thing, right?” Wilson asked the question rhetorically then, dismissively, flicking his cigarette out the slit of the open window, said, “So, you guys are shining your shoes, expecting Memphis P.D. to come rolling up any minute now. Then what?”
“Look, we should’ve looked the hell up before we walked in…” Agent Craig sucked down the last of his smoke, nearly to the butt, and tossed it out his own half-open window, instantly wishing for another one.
Wilson sighed loudly and Craig took the hint to shut up. The Section Chief was staring out the windshield now. He looked like he would rather have been anywhere but there.
“Frank, this could really fuck up an otherwise damn fine record. They say you’ve got some weird theories up and the Bureau, but you’re respected in the field. You know that,” Wilson said, still staring away. In fact, Frank Craig didn’t really know the part about being respected in the field, and it made him feel quite a bit better. “Hell, that hothead kid hasn’t even started a record.”
“Yeah, I know. I fucked it up good,” Craig said, without the slightest hint of self pity.
“You fucked it up good and you’re goddam lucky you didn’t get shot today.”
“He’s the nephew, you know.”
“Oh, Christ, not this…” Wilson immediately began rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands. This was that arrogant part Craig had remembered from earlier. Always dismissive, Wilson was, always ready to just belittle every damn idea.
“Chief, he admitted it. In the restaurant. He is the nephew of Mavin and Odum Harlan. He knew their fucking names.”
“He said their names?” This did seem to momentarily stop Section Chief Wilson, who had indeed heard of Agent Frank Craig’s Master Theory of the Harlan Brother’s Crime Syndicate of the Southern American States. While he certainly believed that there could well be two brothers named Mavin and Odum Harlan who were indeed criminals, he doubted that they were the evil masterminds that Agent Craig insisted they must be.
“Knew ‘em. Both. Ask the kid.” Craig was getting a little bit excited.
“Look, Frank, I’m not ready to get in to this with you. And neither is O’Kelley. The troopers in Arkansas will probably pick them up at any time now, and we can head over there together if you want. I’ll get one of the agents here to take Murtowski, one of the young guys…” Wilson started to regret saying it, but then realized he didn’t care. “Listen, Frank. I talked to the Memphis P.D. and the sergeant on duty. They fucked up, too, if you can believe that,” his voice, dripping with sarcasm. It was clear to Craig that Wilson had had difficulties with the Memphis cops in the past. “Came in with sirens blaring, not to mention late as hell.” Craig had been wondering about that. Before they exited the car, the dispatcher had come back with a question: code ten-thirty-nine or ten-forty, the first being fast, loud and furious and the second being quiet and a bit more reserved. Murtowski – all on his own, Craig was proud to see – called for a ten-forty so as not to alert the suspects with the sounds of wailing sirens and screeching tires. Turns out none of it mattered because about the time they were getting cuffed by Baylor and Des, Craig had begun to wonder just where in the hell the cops were, exactly.
“Of course,” Wilson said, “this ought to go straight to O’Kelley, who’ll be pissed as hell. But it won’t. It’s not worth the hassle. The Memphis P.D. – and me – will forgive your sins, you forgive theirs. Everyone’s happy.”
“Thanks Wilson. I appreciate it.” Craig was getting a little bit annoyed, a little bit antsy. Mostly he hated to thank anyone for anything.
“Now that we’re sharing,” Wilson said as Craig slumped in his seat a bit more. “I ought to share a bit of updated information with you.”
“Oh?” Craig offered hopefully. He looked up and it was as if the Section Chief could read his mind, fishing for more cigarettes in his shirt pocket.
“Do you remember what your intelligence analysis binder said on the most recent location and activity of the New Riders?” Wilson lit his cigarette first, keeping one for Craig in his left hand. He had simply assumed – correctly, of course – that Craig would want another one.
“We have a solid tip. It’s one-hundred percent.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense, Chief.”
Wilson waited a beat, then two, finally giving Craig the cigarette, letting him bend his
“They’re in Little Rock.”
Wilmer Denton was annoyed. It was less than thirty minutes to lights out in D wing at Lorton and he was distracted by thoughts of his visit from Agent Frank Craig and the kid. Murtowski, wasn’t it? Wilmer rubbed his eyes and set down his little scrap of paper and the toothbrush with ash on the end. Severe budget cuts made access to art materials impossible, and he hated it. Plus, other prisoners, ever nosy, would want to know what he was drawing, and he couldn’t have that. The jury-rigged materials made it so much harder to calculate necessary acceleration rates – and, interestingly, impact ratios – but he couldn’t concentrate, anyway. Goddam FBI agents and their questions. His mind drifted, specifically to a time when he wasn’t in D wing at Lorton Prison.
It was the mid-Seventies and he’d had much better hair. Wilmer loved his hair then. He kept it in a pretty well-trimmed afro, neat, classy. That, along with some wicked sideburns, and you could almost mistake him for an intellectual Denzel Washington. Looks to match his brains – oh, how the ladies had loved him. He missed his old look. He missed driving his little convertible MG, too. Missed his light-brown leather wingtips, polished to a high gloss, missed some of his better Brooks Brothers jackets, the summer weight ones that went with anything, missed this one particular pair of slacks that fit like a damn dream. Wilmer always looked so sharp, so classy. He missed his old pad up in Northeast, missed cruising around the city, enjoying life. His mind came back to what he really missed: hanging out with his brothers, talking politics and city gossip – they had been a good team and he had loved that they were proud of him.
Wilmer was the oldest, the one who set the example, and he knew it, even as a young man. He was the educated one, the one who’d gone to college, gotten the degree, gotten the advanced degrees. He thought of the irony, him the brainy one, the good looking one, the one to set the example, he thought of the irony now of his successful brothers on the outside and him doing hard time in prison. Some example. But it wasn’t like that. They knew the score, the importance of his serving the time, what it signified for their family.
His mind drifted and he allowed himself to feel nice for a bit longer, still really being someone in the family who was important, who they needed. Wilmer remembered a fishing trip with his brothers and one of his cousins. By that time the Denton Brother’s father had long disappeared and they were older now, practically grown men. Standing on the old dock by the river, talking to his brothers, telling them about his big dreams. He’d go to college. And then go to graduate school. And maybe even become a doctor – a Ph.D. Education was Wilmer’s dream. They stood on the dock fishing, he and his brothers and his cousin, and they listened to Wilmer talk and talk. He’d come back to D.C. and teach probably, and dress nice, and drive a nice car. He’d be popular with the ladies, and if his punk ass brothers were good, maybe he’d share the wealth a little. Ha, ha, they laughed and laughed and teased Wilmer about his educational ambition, but they loved him, and they looked up to him. In that moment he still remembered, clear as day, he felt like the strongest, most important man in America. He loved his brothers. If only he hadn’t started with the cocaine.
Oh, screw it, he loved the coke, too.
Wilmer loved snorting coke and he loved dealing coke. It was so easy, and so profitable. Why wouldn’t you do it? He remembered, too, approaching his brothers about the two fat men who’d contacted him. He’d already started, a bit, the dealing. That he picked up at American University. A professor had approached him, asked him if he knew anyone, anyplace he could get some, you know, drugs. Fuck this guy, Wilmer had thought at the time, racist, presumptuous asshole. In fact, the professor was racist and presumptuous. But he was also Wilmer’s first customer. Wilmer hadn’t known anyone who dealt drugs personally, but he knew some guys who knew guys. Christ, just because he was black and grew up in D.C. didn’t automatically make him a felon. It took him about two weeks to get to that point. He hooked up with a guy who dealt coke in Southeast. At first, Wilmer did it to get an ‘A’ in the course, not that he needed to bribe anyone with drugs. After that, it was for the money. Turns out the professor had friends. Within a year, Wilmer had expanded from the campus back towards downtown. He temporarily handed his operation over to his brothers – who were happy to take up the job in Wilmer’s stead – while he went to Yale to get the M.F.A. That’s where he picked up the habit, which he brought back to D.C. It was providential – a coke habit developed along with an ivy league education and a good job to go right along with it.
Wilmer was wondering about how to expand his little operation, both to his buyers and to his nose when the Harlan Brothers contacted him.
Wilmer shook himself out of the dream and rubbed his eyes. It was quiet, and he was thankful for that. The lights clicked out systematically and D wing went dark. Lights out! came over the loudspeaker, and he hid his mathematical calculations pages in the post of his metal bed, and lay down on his back, creaking and moaning as he went. Tired, a tired old man, just resting his eyes for a minute now, in the dark. Haggarty was gone now. He was grateful for that. The lie to the boys had worked. King Dog, one of the original badass motherfuckers, had hit up Wilmer early right during dinner, a mountain of a man with tattoos so old and wicked you couldn’t even tell what they were anymore.
“Down there talkin’ to the man, I see,” King Dog had said, sitting himself next to Wilmer at chow time, his posse all around for protection. Clack, clack, trays hitting the table, plastic dinnerware scraping into hash and bologna and carrots and something jellied.
“’S’right,” Wilmer said, not looking up, a sign of respect to King Dog who in fact he actually did respect. The sound of feeding mouths was all around him, almost a warning itself.
“I know a motha fucka ain’t comin’ after one a’ my boys,” King Dog took a mammoth bite of hash. He was asking Wilmer about the visit right off the bat. Word got around fast in D wing. They knew he’d been to see the feds and King Dog was asking if they’d asked at all about anyone in his crew.
“No suh. No, I ‘spect not.” The other inmates knew how Wilmer really talked, but were more comfortable when he made the effort to sound a little more street.
“I know a motha fucka ain’t comin’ in fo’ none a’ my bitches,” meaning one of the prisoner’s King Dog used for… pleasure.
“No suh. ‘Spect not, either.” He didn’t think King Dog had a sexual affinity for Haggarty.
“Hmmm,” King Dog was trying to decide if he cared about anyone else. He didn’t but he asked, anyway, “Know a mutha fucka ain’t comin’ fo’ yo’ sorry ol’ ass, heh.”
“Heh-heh,” Wilmer let out a genuine chuckle. “No, not for my sorry ass, King.”
King Dog was silent for another minute, finishing his meal in around five bites total, cleaning the tray. For a moment Wilmer thought that maybe he wouldn’t bother to ask.
“Who a mutha fucka come in fo’ then?” This was going to be critical – life and death, actually – because if King Dog’s bullshit detector went off, it’d be the end for Wilmer. A bullshit detector becomes finely tuned in prison. It has to or you will die.
Wilmer took his time, took a mouthful of sour, over-steamed carrots, chewed, and breathed out. He slowly, slowly, looked up at King Dog, who was uncomfortably close, sitting right next to him, looking back. The King’s meaty arm touching Wilmer, just barely. It was intentional, just to remind him of the limitless power that was only barely contained right next to him. Wilmer didn’t blink, kept chewing. Watching the smile – not too much, just enough, barely there, and the breathing, had to keep the breathing steady. The big bastard would sense the minute you started talking too fast or breathing too heavy. Bullshit. Then they’d come out with clubs made out of towels and soap and probably a shiv. Break some ribs, and at Wilmer’s age, probably die by morning.
“You know that boy, piss-smellin’, next to me?” Wilmer blinked once, swallowed – Good, good, he thought, so far, good. “Haggarty, his name is. You know him.” Pushing the big man just a hair, a little light smoke up his ass to keep the roles defined. King Dog, the big deal, sure, a big guy like you, you remember this guy, right? Sure you do.
“I know dat pissin’ mutha fucka. Alright.” King Dog contemplated the tray, and Wilmer breathed a sigh of relief. Were King Dog to make him go further in the lie it would almost surely result in the beating or even the murder of Haggarty, and Wilmer didn’t want a lockdown now. Lockdown would not be good.
“What’d a mutha fucka say ‘bout that pissin’ mutha fucka?” Dammit, the curiosity was too much for King Dog. He had to know what the feds wanted.
“They wanted to know,” Wilmer took a last bite of wet, pathetic hash, and looked deadpan at King Dog, “if that mother fucker was fucking potty trained.”
There was a beat, and then a laugh – a big one – from King Dog, followed immediately a half-second later by laughter from the posse, which in turn sparked noises, laughter, grumbling, curses, yelling, from the general population in the mess hall. Finally one of the guards bleated the air horn over the PA system, their way of telling the inmates to cool it.
“Alright, then, you crazy old mutha fucka. Alright.” King Dog stood up and his posse stood up right behind him, watching his back. Wilmer would wait until later to breathe a sigh of relief. King Dog walked past Haggarty a few tables away with the other crazies and gave him a hard eye. And a hard eye from King Dog was enough to make any prisoner shut up and think about things for awhile. Wilmer was fairly confident King Dog wouldn’t try anything with Haggarty. Haggarty was low priority, a waste of time. He’d get beaten or get shivved and there’d be lockdown and an inspection. Everyone’s cell would get turned over, weapons confiscated, porn confiscated, contraband confiscated. It would take months and months to build up the collection again. Why waste the effort on a piece of shit like Haggarty? Besides, the look from the baddest mother fucker in the prison was enough to shut him up for a few nights. Wilmer, falling asleep, was grateful for it.
Baylor and Des were up nearly at the break of dawn, having been awoken twenty minutes prior to Des’ wristwatch alarm activating by the blaring horn of one truck, then another, followed by a third and maybe a fourth. It was a sort of morning rallying cry of the league of truckers at the truck stop.
“Christ,” Baylor said, rolling back and forth in his reclined bucket seat, rubbing his eyes. He had slept as well as could be expected in a car. Des stirred too, and Baylor took great delight in looking at her face, her puffy eyes and wry, tired smile.
“Coffee?” She asked.
“Sure,” he said. She yawned.
“I like mine with sugar,” another wry smile, followed by a tired half-laugh.
“Goddamit.” Baylor groaned, stretched and opened the car door, grabbing his wallet as he went.
He returned with the coffee, one in each hand, to find Des brushing her long dark hair. She seemed more awake now, and the brief walk in the brisk morning air to the front of the truck stop building had done a good job of waking him up, too.
Over the course of the next fifteen minutes the two plotted out the back-road course into Little Rock, staying off I-40 almost entirely, followed by one last look at a well-worn map of the city. Their first stop would be easy to get to, and Baylor fired up the car and put it in gear. They were just outside the city limits within an hour and a half, no sign of police anywhere.
Baylor pulled in to the Wal-Mart and parked the car in the middle of the lot next to only a handful of other cars. The store was open, but it was too early in the morning for many customers. Besides, they had arrived a little earlier than they expected. Baylor decided to let her tell him more about Bella del Cruz, Mexico.
“Like I said, it’s a sort of resort. Only not cheesy.”
“How’d you ever hear about it?”
“Well, it’s sort of like a Club Med, only for…” She looked away, slight exaggerated grimace.
“Something like that,” she said with a insincere sounding chuckle, and began fishing for a cigarette.
“So, everyone talks about it?” He accepted the cigarette she offered him and began unsuccessfully fishing around his pants pocket for a light.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. We talked about going there for a long time. Do one more job then head down to Bella del Cruz. Cheap liquor, lots of gambling, nice hotels. All on the waterfront, too.”
“Sounds really nice.” He tilted towards the tiny flame from the match she had struck.
“I think it will be. You’ll like it.” Something in her voice troubled him but he couldn’t say just what it was. Later he’d wonder why he didn’t press her on the subject.
For the next thirty minutes or so they sat in the parking lot, talking mostly about nothing important. When they felt ready, they wordlessly got out of the car and headed in. Baylor went in one direction, Des the other. Within fifteen minutes, they’d met back up at the cash register. Baylor had several cans of spray paint piled in his arms, Des had clothing. They paid in cash and left.
“Around back, you think?” Baylor had already started the car as Des placed all of the items in her lap.
“Sure, check it out.”
The back of the store was perfectly empty. Baylor parked by a dumpster and got out.
“We’ll paint it first. Then change.” He was already shaking up a can of glossy spray paint and the little metal ball inside was clack-clacking away. Des had her own can and was doing the same.
“Just watch the windows.” They went to work, and in less than half an hour, they’d painted the red car entirely black. It wasn’t the best paint job ever, but it was more than passable. In fact, Baylor was somewhat proud of the amateur paint job. Very little spray had gotten on the windows, and there was none on the wheels.
“So,” Baylor said, completely oblivious to the fact that black paint dotted his face and arms. “What’d you get us?”
Wordlessly Des opened the car door and threw Baylor a pair of pants and a shirt. The pants were nice, dark slacks with a deep crease. They were a dark gray, nearly black. His shirt was a white Oxford, a button up. Des had a similar outfit, only her pants were lighter. Baylor’s regret was that his outfit didn’t quite match his casual brown shoes. It didn’t matter, she told him, after watching him change. As she disappeared behind the dumpster, next to some bushes, he wished he could peek at her again, as he had in the motel room. Baylor reminded himself that if any discipline was to be shown at all, today was the day to do it. Des reappeared in a matter of minutes, looking better than ever.
“Let’s get down there,” she said.
– – – – –
Bobby Ray ‘Dunk’ Bradford was the kind of man who, had made very few mistakes in his life and had been the recipient of very little bad fortune, starting with his birth. He was born to Mister and Misses Bobby Ray Bradford Senior, wealthy landowners in central Arkansas, a people who came from very early railroad and timber money. Bobby Ray Sr. had served in the Arkansas Legislature for a number of years, as well as on several local and national boards and commissions. It was all to occupy his time. There hadn’t been a true working Bradford for generations. None of them ever had to. But Bobby Ray the elder was a strict disciplinarian and a tough dad – he wanted his only son to know the value of hard work, and he demanded no less than excellence from the young man. Dunk Bradford graduated at the top of his class in high school and was an all-state basketball star, which earned him a full scholarship – not that he remotely needed it – to the University of Arkansas. Dunk could’ve gone to school anywhere but his father had also taught him a love of his home state, and the young man went to Fayetteville to become a Razorback. He was a basketball star there, too – hence, the nickname Dunk, though the only thing he ever dunked was a doughnut into his morning coffee – as well as a stellar student. He graduated in the top of his class before going on to get a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Dunk Bradford didn’t have to, but he decided to go in to banking, becoming the youngest Chief Operating Officer an Arkansas bank had ever seen. Within a year, he married a former Miss Arkansas. Within two years of that, he had his own son. Within ten years, he would become Chairman of the Board not only of the First Union Bank of Little Rock, but serve on the board of a trucking company, a foods distributor, and two charities. With technology taking off, he was beginning to explore business options there as well.
Most days Dunk Bradford drove around town in his brand new Mercedes – he bought one every year, trading in the old one – thinking that he’d gotten to where he was by making the right choices. In fact, Dunk Bradford would’ve been roughly in the exact same spot had he never, ever made a choice in his life. The biggest worry he had was that his son, about to graduate from high school himself, might be planning to go out of state for college, which he was. LSU, of all fucking places. This caused him severe stomach pains and violent headaches.
What Bobby Ray ‘Dunk’ Bradford didn’t know was that he had indeed made a poor choice in his life. In fact, several, starting with his wife. Sadly, he wasn’t aware that his wife, the former Miss Arkansas, had not only formed a very heavy dependency on a variety of pills, but had taken to performing some pretty fantastic sex acts with a number of lovers slightly lower on the Arkansas social scale than the Bradfords themselves. The pool boy, a waiter downtown, a mechanic (Mercedes, of course) and a fellow who had been delivering pizzas for more than ten years figured they were just about the luckiest men in America. Miss Arkansas still looked pretty good.
There was another, ultimately more costly problem concerning Mrs. Bradford. She had taken to gambling to cover her necessary expenses with pills and lovers. On the face of it, this seemed ridiculous considering the many millions she had easy access to in the First Union Bank of Little Rock, for starters. But if there was one thing about Dunk Bradford, it was that he was the curious sort. That, and he liked to keep the checkbooks balanced, such as they needed to be. Of course, there were several blue-chip accountants to handle this for the Bradfords, but Dunk kept a close eye on them. Mrs. Bradford – her name was Holly Anne – knew this, and knew that if money started hemorrhaging from the accounts, Dunk would notice. She couldn’t have that.
At first, Holly Anne went to Tunica where there were plenty of casinos. Turns out she was a terrible gambler and lost several thousand on her first few trips there. Dunk screamed at her for a week. She thought he might actually have a heart attack, as his old man had done, and then it wouldn’t matter. He didn’t.
Holly Anne needed another way to get money, lots of it, and fast. It was her doctor, the man who blindly wrote her prescriptions for whatever she needed – meaning whatever she asked for – who finally pointed her in the direction of a man named Alton Washburn.
Alton Washburn, a bookie with a solid reputation as far as bookies went, operated out of an apartment in Southwest Little Rock. During her first visit to Alton, he showed her just exactly how he operated, putting money down on football games, how to cover the spread. Alton even covered the horse races at Oaklawn when they were in season, baseball, boxing, whatever she liked. He showed her how to take fifty dollars and double it. Or a hundred and double that. Holly Anne Bradford, the former Miss Arkansas, whose talent had been to sing ‘How Great Thou Art’ and whose turn-offs were rude people, gave Alton Washburn five-thousand dollars and told him she wanted to turn it in to ten, please.
Alton Washburn, much like Dunk Bradford, liked to think that he had made a lot of smart choices in his life. Which is why he did exactly what Mrs. Bobby Ray Bradford wanted that first time. When she returned later in the week, he shook her hand, smiled a toothy smile and said “Congratulations!” handing her four thousand dollars in cash, minus his commission. Of course, she hadn’t won by a mile, but customers don’t come back if they lose. The first time. Holly Anne won the first three times she placed bets – all at about ten-thousand dollars, her regular allowance allocated by the man of the house. The fourth and fifth time, she barely broke even.
The sixth time, she lost. Alton Washburn calmly explained to her that, hey, you can’t always be a winner. Holly Anne Bradford simply could not grasp that concept, though it didn’t prevent her from coming back the next week to place another bet. She lost again. Within a year, and with the acquisition of another lover for whom she felt obligated to pay for ‘special services’ rendered, and with her pill expenditures lining up, she had extended a vast line of credit with Alton Washburn. In fact, she was in the hole for nearly one million dollars. In those first days, Alton had neglected to mention the concept of accruing interest.
She’d managed to keep all of this from her loving husband. But the situation was getting desperate and Holly Anne was starting to panic. The phone calls came from Alton first. She told him not to call anymore. Then he came by the mansion. She politely asked him to stop that, too. Then it was strangers coming by. And the strangers were woefully out of place in the Bradford’s neighborhood. It was almost funny how they didn’t really seem to care… almost. What they did care about, and what they made clear to Holly Anne, was that Alton wanted his money, and he wanted it much sooner rather than later. Holly Anne was losing control, and Dunk Bradford was oblivious. But she was only aware of the tip of the iceberg; she only thought her problems were bad. What she couldn’t possibly have known was that she was not in debt to Alton Washburn.
She was in debt to Mavin and Odum Harlan, for whom Alton Washburn worked.
The first bad day that Dunk Bradford ever thought he had was when he twisted his knee in college and was told he could never play basketball again. In fact, he recovered nicely from the sports injury, and since it was the sole reason he managed to avoid the war in Vietnam and go on to extraordinary success in his life, it was actually a pretty good day. His first bad day, ever, really, came late one afternoon, after another slow day at the bank, as he turned his silver Mercedes into his driveway. His cell phone rang.
“You need to give your wife a little money.” Dunk didn’t recognize the deep, southern, gravelly voice at the other end of the line. With a sudden jolt, Dunk Bradford realized that no one had ever told him anything in his life; everything had been a question, or a request, or a very gentle, very respectful suggestion. Dunk didn’t like it.
“Who the fuck is this?” He hit the brake and sat idle in the driveway, staring at his mansion.
“Give her the money she owes. Do it today.”
Dunk Bradford hung up. He shut off the ignition and got out of his car. It was the strangest thing, and he was sure it had been a prank caller. Though there was something in the timber and inflection in the man’s voice that troubled him. It didn’t matter, because things quickly began to fall apart when he walked into his enormous house. He decided to approach Holly Anne about the phone call.
“Damndest thing. Someone says I need to give you some money,” he laughed, standing in the foyer, his jacket draped over his arm and his tie loosened. Dunk Bradford was still a handsome man, as if wealth and success weren’t enough, and he held himself well, hoping that he’d get a laugh out of his wife. It occurred to him that she had seemed a touch distant lately. Maybe he needed to take her on another one of his famous golfing trips. Every year they jetted off to Scotland so that he could golf. He assumed she shopped.
The instant he spoke, Holly Anne Bradford broke down. She confessed everything: the affairs, the drugs. Dunk was particularly angry about the pizza delivery guy because he’d often chatted the fellow up and given him a generous tip when ordering a pizza on game day with his son. Watching the Razorbacks and gorging on pizza with his kid had been one of his favorite pastimes and now it was ruined forever. After listening, red-faced, to Holly Anne for a good forty-five minutes, Dunk Bradford made arguably the second-worst decision of his life. He called the police. What he couldn’t have possibly known was that a beat reporter for a local TV station was sitting at the police dispatcher’s desk when his call was patched through. The news was there almost before the cops were. He had ostensibly called the police to go find this goddam bookie, but Alton Washburn was long gone. Instead he spent that evening chasing off the news trucks, then later, with a drink in his hand, he watched a frantic version of himself on his giant TV chase down cameramen on his perfectly manicured lawn.
The next two months saw Dunk Bradford age by fifteen years. His hair began to fall out and his skin became pasty and wrinkly. He was losing weight dramatically. In the most public manner possible, Dunk sent his wife to re-hab and immediately filed for divorce. His son became distant and resentful, confused by the whole ordeal. He didn’t go to the bank for weeks, just sat around in his underwear, wondering what furniture in the house his wife had violated, wondering just where he’d gone wrong.
The worst part was, the phone calls didn’t stop. But in this, he held firm. He simply refused to pay whoever in the hell kept molesting him about his wife’s gambling debts. Fuck ‘em, was the only thought he offered up. He thought about calling the police again, but decided that the public spectacle he’d created earlier hadn’t done him any good. Why bother now? He changed his phone number. They still called. He threw away his phone. They called his home number. He threw that phone away. They actually left a phone on his doorstep, and called him on it. Always the same gruff voice, always the same message: We want our money.
Dunk Bradford was fairly sure he was losing his mind, but he would be damned if he’d pay that money. He sat in his comfortable chair, stewing. Even his business world was starting to suffer. The charities had discreetly asked him to resign, and every board except the bank had more or less thrown him off. He didn’t care. Besides, he didn’t think he was that bad a guy. While he rather suddenly found his wife to be an abhorrent whore, he did take the liberty of at least sending her overseas for treatment. He told himself it would be the last thing he ever did for her.
Some time early in October, the phone calls stopped. Dunk Bradford was thankful.
The Redneck Gambit
The largest branch of the First Union Bank of Little Rock was housed in a relatively nondescript seven story building on Markham Street, not far from downtown. It occupied the first two floors of the building. Never in the history of the bank had it ever been successfully robbed. In the early seventies, a man with a mask and a gun had marched in to the bank. It was his misfortune that he’d chosen the very day that the State of Arkansas paid their State Troopers, and no less than seven troopers were in the bank when the poor man entered. He was shot some nineteen times, and Dunk Bradford kept a picture on his office wall on the second floor of the deceased would-be robber, the man, the floor and much around him covered in blood. Dunk liked the no-mercy image it projected.
Baylor and Des sat outside the bank for five minutes, the engine to the car popping as it cooled in the fall air. Neither spoke, though Baylor fiddled with the big .45, checking the cartridge twice, then a third time as if by some miracle it could have miraculously un-loaded itself. Everything seemed to be in place.
Des looked at her watch.
“Here we go,” she said, a tight smile on her face as she opened the car door and stepped into the cool morning breeze.
To Baylor’s eyes, the bank lobby seemed almost sterile in its serenity. It was quiet and a little bit chilly. The air seemed very dry.
“Awright, muther-fuckers! Ya’ll stay cool an’ keep yer heads down and me an’ Jeb here won’t have to pop no caps on no one’s ass!” The voice was shrill, piercing the quiet air of the bank and echoing off the high ceilings.
“Shit, uhh…. Jim. You done used my real name. Goddamit, it’s supposed to be ‘Jim’, jest like me, so’s they cain’t tell us apert.”
Baylor would’ve laughed if he could have, if perhaps it had been a television show or a movie. Something funny, God, anything at all. There they were, as had been promised to both Baylor and Des, independently, and much earlier: two very young, very greasy hillbillies, both in tattered overalls, both with shotguns and both, comically, with dark tan pantyhose over their heads. The two fools stood at a teller’s window shuffling back and forth. The one who had spoken second had a small problem. His pantyhose had ripped a little at the cheek to reveal pimply stubble that burst through like hairy bread dough. They were looking at each other.
The morning customers, which were few, were scattered on the floor, face down. Baylor noticed a security guard face down on the corner as well. It seemed no one had been hurt, yet.
“Hell, Jeb, it don’t matter none now,” ‘Jim’, or whatever his real name was looked back at the teller. “Keep fillin’ the bag, bitch!” With their nervous shuffling from foot to foot, waving the shotguns aimlessly and with their wild screaming, it was clear these were novice robbers, quite possibly on drugs or at least drunk.
“Jim. Jeb. Cooter. Whatever the hell your name is. Shut the fuck up. You’re supposed to treat the employees with respect,” Des spoke as though she were delivering a seminar on robbing banks, with the exception of the profanity. Jeb/Jim and the other man whose name evidently was not Jim, or was Jeb – it simply wasn’t clear – swiveled quickly and both leveled their shotguns at Baylor and Des. There was a rather long moment while both amateur robbers took their own sweet time in comprehending that someone had not obeyed their command to lie down on the floor.
“Holy fucking shit, lady, get your motherfucking shit ass on the goddam floor. Jesus, bitch…”
The shot rang out, resonated throughout the bank, echoing from one wall to the other. Jeb/Jim, the one who had spoken to Des, fell immediately to the floor, dropping his shotgun with a loud clatter. A splatter of dark red appeared near the base of the wall below the teller window where he had been standing. Following the dying echo of the shot, everyone on the floor – including the guard, Baylor noticed – let out a half-scream of terror that resonated even more. Jeb/Jim was on the floor, clasping his knee, or what was now left of his knee, and crying, rolling back and forth in agony.
“Well, J-man, what’s it going to be?” Des was now pointing her gun at the other buffoon. “Either you get on the floor, or I put you on the floor.”
All Baylor knew to do was stand next to Des, his .45 in hand aimed roughly at the torso of the man. The still-standing robber began to sob softly beneath his ripped pantyhose. He was looking at his friend on the floor. Everyone seemed to realize, with a sort of internal wince, that a permanent limp, at best, was going to be involved. The second goober dropped his gun and fell to his knees, continuing with the sobbing, which Baylor found mildly depressing.
As both robbers curled in to the fetal position, one crying, one moaning in pain, Des and Baylor turned their attention to the teller behind the open window area. There was no glass protecting the back of the bank – and the vault – from the lobby. The young woman, a pretty girl that in fact reminded Baylor and Des of the waitress in Memphis, seemed young, and she, too, had been crying. Her mascara had dribbled all the way to her chin.
Des approached the two bumpkins on the floor, and stepped over them.
“Give me the bag, sweetheart,” Des smiled at the girl. Baylor noticed that she kept her gun level, pointed up, but didn’t think she’d actually shoot the teller. He certainly hoped she wouldn’t. The teller complied, starting to cry again a bit, and Des quickly rifled through it with her free hand as the bag sat on the counter. She pulled out a cluster of bills and tossed them on the floor. “Paint packet,” she said, and as Des hoisted herself over the counter, Baylor worried again she might shoot the teller. “Baylor, cover Hee-Haw and Mr. Limp, here.” This sent both men on the floor into further hysterics, made subtle only by Baylor’s tentative approach of the two.
“Okay,” Des said. “What’s your name?” She looked directly in to the teller’s eyes.
“M…M…Maggie.” She was in her early twenties. Maggie shook like a leaf.
“Okay, Maggie,” Des was using a calm, sweet tone. Baylor found it unnerving. “Have you pushed the alarm? Please don’t lie to me.”
After a very brief moment of considering her options, Maggie nodded her head yes.
“Fine. Thank you for telling the truth. Now, one more question. Has the manager opened the vault for the morning count yet?”
Another moment, this one delayed by a bit of confusion. Finally, she nodded again.
“Good. Very good, Maggie. Let’s go to the safe, now.” Des gave a fast look to Baylor, and with her free hand gave him the sign. He nodded and stood in the lobby, alone with the upset robbers and the rest of the bank staff and customers.
“Don’t worry, everyone. Everything will be all over in two minutes.” Actually, things would be over in about forty-five seconds, or less. Baylor and Des knew that the cops would, or at least could, arrive in under a minute and a half, perhaps less. They’d have to get what they came for and be out and away in under a minute. They had wasted a good fifteen seconds at least on the two hillbillies. While the bank security cameras would capture the exact time they had spent inside the bank, it was helpful to confuse the witnesses as much as possible, hence the similar clothing. It could buy them a little bit of time, if they needed it.
While Des and Maggie had disappeared into the vault in the back – hidden from view in the lobby – Baylor kept a discreet view on his watch. Fifteen seconds, then twenty, then thirty. At forty seconds, Baylor whistled loudly. He needed to pee terribly.
When the two women returned from the safe, Maggie carrying two large bags and Des carrying one, Baylor realized he hadn’t heeded Des’ advice from two nights prior: don’t forget to breathe. He’d been holding his breath almost the entire time. As Des climbed over the counter, handing Baylor a very full bag of what appeared to be nothing but one-hundred dollar bills, she tucked the gun in her pants and grabbed the other two.
And that’s when everyone heard the sirens.
“Okay, here we go,” she whispered. They strode quickly out of the bank and to the car, just a handful of spaces down in the parking lot, but easily visible through the glass front doors of the bank. The bags of money went in the back, and Baylor realized that there was quite a bit of money in his car, none of which was his.
Baylor took a breath, put the key in the ignition and promptly flooded the engine.
“Goddammit!” He slammed his fists against the steering wheel. The sirens were very close now.
“Stay cool. Put the accelerator to the floor and try it again.” Des still sounded calm, but her words were clipped and terse.
He took another deep breath and did just that, pumping the accelerator one time, then mashing it to the floorboard, turning the key. The sirens got louder. Baylor thought they might be right behind him. The engine coughed, and he thought he’d lost it again, then it roughly caught.
“Jesus,” he whispered, putting the car in gear.
“Nice, slow, normal pace now. Down Markham, then our very first left. They’ll be coming from the other direction, still two blocks away. We’re doing fine.”
The New Riders of the Apocalypse
In fact, both Baylor and Des were doing so good, they treated themselves to drive-through burgers, fries, and milkshakes before heading over the bridge to North Little Rock. So far the plan was working immaculately. The country boy robbers had been there, as promised, and everything had worked like a charm. Baylor ate his burger and fries as they drove over the Broadway Bridge into the city north of the Arkansas River.
“So did we get what we needed in there?” He asked, mouth full and ketchup on his chin.
“Exactly what we needed,” Des’ mouth was full, too. She was shoving fries in one after the other. “About a million and a half.”
“What…?” Baylor stopped eating. “I thought we only needed one. We did. We only needed one million. That’s what that dummy owed Uncle Mavin and Uncle Odum. Fuck. They’ll be pissed as hell.”
“Big deal. So we keep a little extra for ourselves. Who cares?” Des was still eating as Baylor began negotiating the streets of North Little Rock, headed to the destination Des
had told him about earlier.
“Uncle Mavin and Uncle Odum will care, that’s who.” Baylor was a little peeved, and maybe a little nervous.
“Fine,” Des threw up her greasy hands in defeat. “We’ll send this bastard Bradford half a million back. I’ll wire it Western Union.”
“It’s not that,” Baylor said, feeling bad now about being angry.
“What is it, then?” Des crumpled up her burger wrapper and stuffed it into the sack on the floorboard.
“I mean, the poor guy. His wife is a drug addict, she’s got a gambling problem, and evidently she’s a sex addict. He’s probably ruined. Not to mention the two rednecks. Hell, I thought you didn’t like violence.”
“Not violence. Violence is okay if you have to. I figured she’d hit the alarm. We needed to get going and I didn’t have time to mess with those two. Besides, did you see them? They were all crazy on meth, or something. Jesus. I didn’t want to hurt them, but I had to. It’s okay if you have to. I just don’t like killing people for money.”
“All I’m sayin’, did you really have to shoot that guy?” Baylor understood, but still felt the need to question Des on her tactics.
“Yes. Baylor,” she said, getting a bit impatient, “sometimes you have to hurt people to get them out of the way. Christ, they’re lucky I didn’t shoot him in the head. Both of them.”
Baylor let that sit for a minute, because she was right.
“So, have you?” He asked, finishing the last of his hamburger, pulling in to a part of town called Levy.
“What?” She asked, fishing for a cigarette.
“Don’t need to ask you that, do I?”
Baylor let it go.
Now that they’d finished what both had conceded was the hardest part of the plan, they prepared themselves for the next step, a step Baylor had been privately skeptical of, if not nervous about. He pulled the car in to a gravel lot next to a small brown house, all shaded by an enormous maple tree. There was a small garage, a shack, really, that was precariously leaning to one side. Des pointed for him to pull the car up off the gravel lot and park beside the shack and behind the house, hiding the car from the road.
“No one’s home,” Des smiled, and Baylor realized with a hint of disappointment that this was the true, unguarded Des, one he had yet to meet. She was full of pure joy. She had come home. “That’s okay. We can get started on the car.”
Baylor stepped from the car, and for the first time that season he felt a chill. Next to the bags of money were the other cans of spray paint. He enjoyed this specific part of the plan, and took some pride in having helped devise it. Rob the bank, ensure everyone sees the black car. Then, as soon as possible, lay low and paint it back to red. The police, especially troopers and the highway patrol, relied on eyewitness descriptions and accounts. If the getaway car had been black, then it was a black car the cops would look for. If, perchance there was another account that witnessed a red car, well, that’s two different colors. The police couldn’t pull over every red and black car on the road. They’d go with the most recent account – black.
Baylor, shaking a spray paint can, looked at the little house. It was a very modest, one– or two-bedroom affair with white peeling paint and window screens that had long rotted out. The roof seemed to sag a bit. It would’ve been nice had someone bothered to fix it up a bit. But with the exception of a large number of beer cans and liquor bottles piled into the corner of the back yard by the fence, Baylor didn’t much think it seemed the kind of place where wanted bank robbers hid out. Which, he thought, is maybe why no one had ever caught them.
The two worked quickly on the car, not doing as nifty a job as they had before, but certainly passable. The car was red again, mostly, hints of black seeping through the still-wet paint. Des sighed and offered Baylor a cigarette, which he took. He fumbled around his pockets looking for a light, and she finally handed him a book of matches, which he took and after three attempts, lit his smoke, handing the book back to her. As he passed the book of matches back to her, their fingers touched, gently. Baylor felt something, heat perhaps, an unnamable pressure. It warmed him, made him feel good, relaxed. He smiled, as did Des, and for a brief, shining moment in time, he thought he might have the nerve to lean in and kiss her.
All that stopped their moment was the roar of engines in the driveway. Baylor pulled the .45 out of his waistband, but Des placed her hand gently on his forearm.
“No, they’re here.” She was smiling again, and Baylor felt a mix of emotions. Pleasure and joy at her touch and at her smile, melancholy and not a little bit of frustration at the sudden interruption.
The dark green vintage Ford Mustang slid into the gravel lot sending a cloud of dirt and dust into the air. Two motorcycles came in close behind it. All of the noisy engines shut off at once, and people began to pile out of the car. The first was Lance, and Baylor’s heart broke a little bit as Des ran to him, her arms outstretched.
“I knew you’d make it, girl.” Lance was smiling, not quite taking his eyes off of Baylor Roman. He was a large man, a physique that most men envied. The bodybuilder type. He was dressed James Dean cool in a t-shirt and a leather jacket. His jeans looked as though they’d been painted on. Lance was blonde. Baylor hated him already. “Baylor, it’s good to meet you finally, brother.” He extended a large hand towards Baylor who shook it wordlessly.
In fact, Baylor was replaying the coy words his Uncle Mavin had left him with regarding Lance and the New Riders of the Apocalypse. He had remembered that last meeting with his Uncles well, and over the course of the last three days, often. They had been eating fried chicken, butter beans, potatoes, greens, biscuits and gravy and sipping mint juleps, all favorites of the Harlan Brothers, and of Baylor, too. It was their sendoff dinner for him, and he had asked if he could trust the New Riders and this mysterious girl they were so anxious for him to meet, Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper.
“You can only trust someone,” his Uncle Mavin, cheeks full of chicken, said the word ‘trust’ as though it were ‘truss’, “as much as they trust you. An’ you have to figure,” ‘figure’ came out ‘figger’, “that out in the first minute you meet them. Otherwise, they start actin’, an’ if they’s good, you’ll never know ‘till it’s too late. Too late. An’ in our bidness, they’s always good. They’s always good.” Baylor’s Uncle Mavin had a small problem of frequently repeating the last two or three words of the last sentence he spoke. His Uncle Odum didn’t talk as much.
Baylor had taken this under advisement, and was now considering Lance, judging with the best of his ability. Lance had clear blue, piercing eyes that didn’t seem to waver. Baylor didn’t much like his toothy smile, but otherwise, the man was hard to read. He decided to be on his guard.
“Baylor, brother,” Lance had his arm around Des, and she seemed to be enjoying it. “I want you to meet Frankie, Will, Big John, and Marcy.” Frankie and Will had been on the motorbikes, what looked more like dirt bikes, with knobby wheels and everything. They were wearing motorcross jumpsuits, Frankie in a lime-green one and Will in black. Big John and Marcy looked as though they’d fallen off a train earlier that hour. He had on a ‘Rolling Stones’ concert t-shirt that was ripped and faded. His hair was a mess. Baylor thought he might’ve smelled bad, but worked to keep upwind so he wouldn’t have to confirm that notion. Marcy, Baylor thought, looked like a trashy version of Des, and not nearly as pretty. The four, standing behind Lance, nodded as one, not saying a word.
“Pleased to meet you,” Baylor said, feeling the need for someone besides annoying Lance to say something.
“Let’s get inside, get a beer. Whadda ya’ say, brother?” Lance turned with Des stuck to his side, and slapped Baylor on the shoulder, just a little too hard.
“Yeah, sounds good.” Baylor decided that he didn’t trust Lance even a little bit, but the notion of a beer sounded wonderful, despite the fact that it was still early in the day.
The inside of the house was just as sad and messy as the outside. The furniture was minimal, including a beat-up dining room table, some mismatched chairs around it and a refrigerator in the kitchen. In the living room – by far the biggest room in the house – there were two decimated couches, one actually held together fairly sturdily with quite a bit of duct tape, and a couple of La-Z-Boy recliners. There was a color TV in the corner – the nicest thing in the house – and Marcy or someone had grabbed a remote control and flicked it on. The four sat on one couch, weirdly scrunched up next to each other, not saying a word. Baylor opted for a less filthy recliner and sat down. He had to turn his head slightly to see the TV, but he didn’t much care. For some reason, the gang thought it’d be fun to watch cartoons.
Lance now stood over Baylor, towered over him, really. Des was still locked into his right side, her arms around his buff torso. The annoyance in Baylor continued to percolate.
“How ‘ bout that beer, brother?” The ‘brother’ stuff was cool the first couple of times but it began to grate on Baylor’s nerves.
“Yeah, I’ll take one.” As he said it, Baylor realized that all four members of the New Riders were staring at him with a ‘Night of the Living Dead’-type look on their face. Sort of non-committal, non-emotional. They simultaneously, and with a little bit of seeming mechanization, moved their heads back to the direction of the TV. Something gnawed at Baylor. Something was not right. He took a deep breath and tried to force his mind to work. Answers to the questions weren’t coming fast enough, and he realized he was feeling the adrenaline rush of that morning begin to wear off. It was a little like having a hangover.
“Alright,” Lance, finally, moved his hand and arm away from Des and gave a loud clap. “You guys want one, too?” He pointed at his gang on the couch. They nodded yes, again mechanically and simultaneously. “And you, babe?” This to Des, who might as well have been hanging off the arm of some Hollywood heartthrob. As she fluttered her eyes at Lance, Baylor indiscreetly rolled his. Lance either didn’t see or didn’t care. “Cool,” he said. “Be right back.”
“So,” one of them said. Baylor thought it was Will. “You been doin’ banks?”
“Well, uh…” Baylor was going to respond with a simple answer in the affirmative.
“Yes. We have.” Des spoke and Baylor realized she was glaring at the couch potatoes. Why, he wondered. It was another question his mind wasn’t acting quickly enough to answer.
“So,” Baylor said in a feeble effort to get some conversation rolling. “what’s on?”
“Toons,” one said, not moving.
“Okay, beer! Ice cold! Here we go, brother,” Lance said, handing an opened bottle to Baylor, who was getting more annoyed with the perpetual exclamations than ever.
“Thanks,” he said, taking a long, good pull off the bottle. He noticed that no one else had been given a beer, though they’d all asked for one. He looked up at Lance who was still towering over him.
“Oh. Shit! I guess I’d better get these guys one, too!” Lance, big goofy grin on his face, strode back to the kitchen. “You guys tired? Been doing a lot of drivin’ lately?”
“Yeah,” Baylor said, taking another long sip, “quite a bit.”
“Man, I know what that’s like, brother. Those long, dry, dusty roads,” Lance yelled from the kitchen. “How’s that beer?”
“Good. Thanks.” Baylor had the beer in his hands less than fifteen seconds, and already he was working on finishing a third of it, maybe more. He guzzled it down.
All four of the New Riders of the Apocalypse slowly turned their heads in unison and looked squarely at Baylor, alone on his La-Z-Boy recliner. Suddenly, Baylor was feeling more tired than he had before. Exhausted, in fact. Indeed, lifting the beer to his lips was an effort of Herculean proportions. He couldn’t do it.
Lance walked slowly back in the room, putting his arm around Des again. He wasn’t carrying any beer for Des or the gang. Baylor felt that he couldn’t move his arms. He looked at Des, who was smiling, but it was unlike any smile he’d seen yet. It certainly had no love. Finally he felt himself fade into the recesses of his subconscious, his eyelids too heavy to bother keeping open. In the back of his head he could hear the echoes of his uncles laughing, and that really pissed him off.
– – – – –
It was simply impossible to immediately tell how much time had passed, because his eyes weren’t working very well yet and his watch was simply a blur on what he hoped was still his arm. He couldn’t feel it, so he couldn’t really be sure it was, in fact, his arm. His head pounded and his ears started a simultaneous ringing and pounding, both of which quickly made their way into his temple. He was fairly sure he had either vomited or was about to vomit, or both.
“Shit,” was the first word he heard from just outside the door to his left. It was the voice of a woman, not Des. “I think he fuckin’ puked it up. Will that shit still work on him? Fuck, I think he’s waking up.”
“God dammit,” said the voice of a man, not Lance. Baylor heard a door shut, hard. He was blinking now and working to raise his head. He took some deep breaths and tried to make his body coordinate the necessary movements to position himself upright. It was harder, more complex, than he thought.
It was made all the more difficult by virtue of the fact that he had been tied up, his wrists together behind him.
Somehow at some point he’d been moved to a bedroom, placed on a naked mattress and simply left there. The room stank of beer and piss and smoke, and this made him cough and gag, but miraculously, he did not throw up again.
Baylor’s first coherent thoughts were that he despised Lance, then his anger seeped into loathing for Des, then the New Riders of the goddam Apocalypse, and the rest of the world followed quickly behind, including his uncles, the sons of bitches. His next thought stream tended towards the more practical. He wondered why they hadn’t just shot him. He struggled with his hands behind his back – he was face down on the mattress – and felt them loosen.
He gently kicked his legs and realized they were not tied. Struggling, he stood. Baylor was acutely aware that his body was on the verge of collapsing again, and that if he allowed that to happen he might be in the dark bedroom indefinitely. He fought the effects of the chemical working in his bloodstream, in his brain.
The window had been covered in black plastic duct-taped to the edges, and turning his back to it, he grasped it with his bound hands and pulled away a small piece, which seemed to be very hard work for what it was. He forced his fingers to pull the tape back, rip the plastic back to reveal the bright sunlight of the outside. It hurt his eyes, but helped wake up his senses another step. This was good, because he could now smell the gasoline.
Oh, shit, he thought. He knew what was coming next.
His ears perked up, and he could hear Lance and the crew out in the living room, the sloshing of liquid in canisters.
“Fuckin’ watch it!” One of them yelled.
Baylor turned his attention back to the window. He pulled back a bit more plastic and looked outside. The room he was in faced the back of the house. He could see the Firebird and the run down little tilting garage. Perfect, he thought. Quietly, gently, and with as much speed as his drugged body would allow, he pulled away most the rest of the plastic and let it fall to the floor. The bright sunlight burned his eyes, but he didn’t care. The smell of gasoline had permeated the entire house now, and he knew it was time to get out. With everything that was in him, Baylor contorted his hands into a narrow shape and pulled. The rope burned the skin, and when his left hand finally broke free, it took a good amount of skin with it.
Rubbing each wrist as the ratty rope fell to the floor, Baylor pushed up on the window, hoping that the goddam bastards outside hadn’t thought to nail it shut. He shut his eyes and lights flashed and pain seared through his weak body as he tried to open the window. It opened, first two inches, then five, then seven. Finally, he had opened it enough to squeeze through.
He breathed the fresh air from the outside first for five seconds, then ten. It felt refreshing and good, the cool breeze washing over his face, his arms, his body. Closing his eyes, he could’ve stood that way, by the window, for a long, long time. But he didn’t. Baylor poked his head out the window and peered. Nothing, no one, which was good and he recognized it as a bit of luck. The bastards, the goddam New Riders of the Apocalypse – including the woman he had thought was his friend, Des – were out front, or at least off to the side, getting ready to run.
Baylor managed with some effort to get himself out of the window, head first. It hurt like hell, the drug seeming to force him to exert energy he just didn’t have, his wrists screaming in agony. Just below him he could see the car, and then the dilapidated garage, and he knew where he’d have to go. Finally, with just his legs to go, he fell out of the window and landed in the back yard with what seemed like an inordinately loud thud. It took him almost half a minute to pull himself to his feet.
His demise seemed like uncharacteristically bad planning on the part of the New Riders, for which he was grateful. This notion caused Baylor to briefly consider his uncles, Mavin and Odum Harlan. He started to curse their names, wondered if perhaps they’d been aware of what the New Riders had in store for him. No, he told himself, can’t be. Uncle Mavin had once expressed his disdain for date rape drugs, saying that if a man can’t get a girl on his own, it didn’t seem right that he’d have to drug her. They hated the stuff. Baylor guessed that either the New Riders just hadn’t told the Harlans the plan, or more likely, Mavin and Odum, two men who loved to see drama play out, had orchestrated the whole deal in hopes that either Baylor would get killed, or survive and get the girl. The Harlan Brothers were big on survival lessons, especially, it seemed, for their favorite nephew.
Baylor, in his drugged way, lunged for the garage, making it to the side in just five long steps. From this position he could peer into the freshly painted Pontiac. At first he’d considered it a miracle that he had puked the drug out of his system, allowing him to escape. But the real miracle, he decided, was before his eyes – Jimmy Yakimoto’s nickel-plated .45 sat on the floorboard of the driver’s seat, shining even through the dark, tinted windows. Gingerly, Baylor leaned over and opened the passenger door, listening to the commotion out front. It was eerily subdued, though he could guess what they were doing: loading up the Mustang and cycles to take off.
Panic overtook him as he simultaneously looked over the shotgun seat to see the money still in the back – they wouldn’t leave that – and heard Lance’s voice shout something about getting the money. The drugs were still playing tricks on his ears, but he knew that in just about five seconds, one of the gang, maybe even Des, would be at the car to collect the money from the bank and from the deceased Jimmy Yakimoto. No time to get the money. He grabbed for the gun, fumbled for two harrowing seconds and then pushed himself out of the car without even closing the door.
It took four seconds to shimmy himself along the wall of the garage to the back of the beat up building. He knew that he had about six more seconds before whoever had been sent to collect the cash noticed that not only was the car door open, but that the window to Baylor’s bedroom tomb was open.
The back of the garage had only five, maybe five and a half boards to cover it. It hadn’t been used in some time. He climbed over some old wood and junk and stood in the relative darkness of the old building, which creaked and moaned in the wind. There was no time, but he needed to formulate a plan. Quickly, he popped the clip of the .45. Seven bullets, just as he’d suspected. This wasn’t a worst-case scenario, but it could be a problem. There were, including Des, six New Riders. If he missed just twice there could be all sorts of issues with reloading.
Baylor scanned the dark garage. To his right was a wall that almost seemed improbable in the old, drafty building. Certainly it was a neighborhood hazard. Standing barrel up, one after the other, were a series of guns of every manner – shotguns, rifles, machine guns. Of course, Baylor thought, they’re bank robbers, for God’s sake. They’re gonna have guns. Baylor marveled and wondered, considering the amount of guns and the wide variety, it would seem that they weren’t so much bank robbers as Armageddon gun nuts. Gun nut, though, didn’t seem to fit the Des profile, anyway. It occurred to Baylor that they might come looking for some of these weapons before they left, and he forced himself to hurry.
Above the stacked guns were a series of boxes, easily and readily identifiable as ammunition, as widely arrayed in style and caliber as the guns themselves.
“Holy shit!” came the voice from just outside the garage. He couldn’t identify it right away, and it caused him to jump, coming clearly and cleanly through the sorry building, but suspected it was Will or maybe Frankie. “What the fuck… Goddamit, he’s…”
Baylor grabbed the shotgun because it was closest and had a strap which he threw around his neck. It was tough enough, the drug still working on him, standing and holding one gun. Shaking now, he opened a box of ‘Yellow Jacket Super Striker .45 Rounds’ and pulled one out, and popped it into the clip of the handgun. There were footsteps – he took it as a good sign for his health and consciousness that he could hear footsteps now, though the implication scared the shit out of him – outside the garage. He shoved the box into his shirt pocket.
He closed his eyes once for a full second, took in a deep breath and prepared himself for what he’d have to do now.
Just as Lance said with a great deal of aggravation, “Well, where the fuck is he?” Baylor, with a two-step sort of lunge, burst through the rotten double garage doors, his .45 extended. It almost hurt more to have the sawed-off shotgun bang against his side than to have several splinters enter his arms. As he stood for a moment, just a second – the sun shocked his eyes more than he’d expected after suddenly emerging from the dark garage – one of the New Rider’s lit the house with a whoosh that was surprisingly loud. The house was consumed in flames in nearly an instant.
Baylor was turning to his left, squeezing the trigger once, twice, a third time. He shot Big John basically in the back three times as the velocity of the hits propelled him into the car. It had, after all, been Big John to first discover the missing Baylor Roman. Big John was leaning in to the car to get the money out, and he never knew what hit him, dying before he even went face-down in the passenger seat.
Frankie and Lance stood less than ten feet away, mouths open in wonder and shock. The gun had let out a terrific noise, and it stunned even Baylor. Still, he was faster and shot Frankie right near the heart just once. Frankie had been standing square in front of the Pontiac, and he fell to the ground, twitching in violent convulsions, blood filling his chest cavity.
Will and Marcy had fired up the motorcycles, adding to the now-consuming noise of the gun and the blazing fire, which was crackling and popping and roaring larger and larger. Baylor was in motion now, walking away from the garage, from the car and from Lance. At less than five yards away, Baylor shot Will through the faceplate of his helmet, and he fell off the back of the motorcycle, which remained on the kickstand, running. At the sight of this Marcy let out a scream, and Baylor in an instant wondered if there could be any more goddam noise, because his head hurt terribly.
Still screaming, Marcy pulled what appeared to be a .45 of her own, tucked in the back of her pants, and swung it towards Baylor. He fired twice and she fell off to the side, seeming to swallow her scream.
Baylor did some quick math – he was out. Or was down to one. Well, no time to figure it and certainly no time to gamble. He dropped the .45 on the gravel driveway, and swung back to Lance, putting his hands towards the newly acquired shotgun. It was almost too late. Lance stood next to the car, the flaming house not ten feet away.
It was certainly an unpredicted sight. Lance had a gun in his hands, but his arms were raised, as if he were giving up.
“Brother,” he said, smiling, even, “I’m gonna throw this gun down. You oughta do the same. We can split this up, no harm, no foul.”
Baylor remained wordless, his hands edged onto the shotgun.
“Look,” Lance continued. He dropped the gun into the grass. “See? I’m unarmed.” He kept his hands up, bent slightly at the elbows. Baylor saw it first – a twitch, a little tic –
Standing in the immense heat and light of the fire, he took one second to examine himself, then remembered: Des. She was still behind him.
He aimed hard towards the car, and damn near shot it. He was glad he didn’t.
Des stood by the open door of the driver’s seat, emitting something like a cross between a grunt and a moan.
“You’re the luckiest bastard…” she said through clenched teeth, not looking at him. Her right hand clutched her left arm, and he realized that Lance, dying as he hit the ground, had inadvertently shot his girlfriend in the arm.
“We gonna move, or are we gonna go to prison?” he said, smiling just a bit. Baylor pointed the shotgun at her and waved her over to the Pontiac. He covered her from behind, watching her walk to the car, wondering if he would be better off shooting her now. He didn’t want to, so he didn’t. “You know,” he said, “it’s you who’s lucky. I don’t guess I’ll kill you today.” As he walked past it, he dropped the shotgun and picked up the .45, hoping that as she got in the car, Des wouldn’t remember that he was empty, or close to empty. With her one good arm, she slung the dead body of her former gang member out of the seat, grunting the whole time. He was sure it hurt.
“Fuck off. You’re dead. As soon as I get the chance.” She more or less plopped down in the car.
“No, I’m not,” he said, sitting next to her and closing the door, keeping the .45 trained on her with his left hand.
Ashes from the inferno just a few short feet from them began to rain down like snow, covering everything. The heat from the flaming house was immense, overwhelming. The fresh paint on the driver’s side of the car had begun to bubble up just a bit.
“Is that what you think, motherfucker?” She was still hissing at him, and he realized her wound might be more serious that she was letting on. It was certainly bad enough that she wouldn’t let go of it, even to hold a gun.
“Yeah, that’s what I think.”
The car keys were still in the ignition, and he fired it up.
“We had too good a plan, at least up until now,” he said. His head was throbbing – the gunfire hadn’t helped matters any – and he ached all over, but he couldn’t let on. “I think we should incorporate my part of the plan now. Besides, we’re partners now. You wouldn’t do anything to hurt your partner, would you?” He was being facetious, and she resented it.
“I was in love with Lance,” she said through a small sob.
“You’re a goddam liar,” he said, laughing. “Don’t give me that shit. He was a fuckin’ moneymaker, an’ that was about it. Baby, it was time for you to move on. Hell, I did you a favor. Don’t tell me you loved him. That’s a lie.”
He put the car in gear and pulled out through the driveway slowly, gritting his teeth as he went over Marcy’s body. Too bad. Baylor pulled out on to the street, which had gathered a small crowd to witness the inferno that was reaching its peak, and drove down the road. It was four blocks before Des spoke again.
“Would you have killed me?” she wasn’t looking at him, just staring ahead.
“What?” he shot her a glance, but kept his eyes on the road. There’d be not only fire trucks, but police called to the scene, too, what with all the shooting and dead bodies.
“Would you have killed me?” Baylor thought she might’ve been slurring her words just a hair, which was a bad sign.
After a moment, he said, “Nah.” He felt like answering honestly, but the truth was, he wasn’t sure. If he absolutely had to, he was fairly certain he could’ve pulled the trigger on her. “Nah, I wouldn’t have killed you. ‘Course, you fucked me over pretty good, but I wouldn’t have killed you, I don’t guess.” He added, “I don’t suppose I’ll kill you now, either.” It was as good an excuse as any to drop the gun on the floorboard.
Des didn’t speak for a long time, just sat there, holding her bleeding arm. Baylor wanted to stop but knew he couldn’t. He negotiated through the neighborhood, slowly making his way towards the freeway.
“Dammit,” she finally whispered. “Dammit.”
“Lance,” she breathed in through what he suspected were genuine tears now, “Lance would’ve killed me, for sure. For the money. If I’d screwed him, or even one of those asshole New Riders, he wouldn’t even think twice – he’d kill me.”
Baylor didn’t say anything.
“You could’ve killed me back there. The dumb shit shot me, and I dropped my gun, but you could’ve killed me. You didn’t.” It was her way of acknowledging the level of trust that had just been built between them. Baylor let it go as a way of agreeing with her.
“How’s your arm?”
“Hurts. We need to get gas anyway. Buy me a first aid kit.”
“Okay, we’ll do that.”
“So,” she said, “what’s this new plan, or whatever.” It was less a question, more a statement of interest.
Baylor smiled a genuine smile, and felt himself relax – the drugs finally having something of a positive effect, easing the edge off of the adrenaline rush.
“Why,” he said, matter-of-factly, “we’re gonna head back up northeast.”
The Directorate Central
Agent Frank Craig thought that this clusterfuck made the one in Memphis look like a ride at Disney. He started by counting the police cars at the scene of the fire. There were seven marked patrol cars, each with lights blazing, most of them blocking the street in some fashion, a couple actually in the yard. Police barricade tape snaked through the area like some sort of streaming bizarre yellow banner advertising disaster. There were three more unmarked cars, their dash lights pulsing as well. An ambulance was parked in the lot next to the charred rubble of what used to be a house. Its lights were distinctly and grimly not on. Craig could see another inert ambulance further down the street. There were two fire trucks as well, and while the lights still flashed – ensuring the scene had a sort of morbid carnival feel – the firemen in their gear surrounding the trucks seemed relatively mellow.
It was obvious there was not much left to save. The kicker, though, was the tow truck someone had weirdly thought to call in. It was parked off to the side and the driver, a man in his late fifties with large tattooed forearms leaned against the big hood, smoking a cigarette, waiting for one of the many people of authority to tell him what to do. He was eyeing the pretty green antique Mustang. No doubt he’d already appraised the car’s value and was scheming on how he might get a piece of that in his lot.
As Craig and Murtowski pulled up behind one of the other unmarked police cars, two press vans pulled in behind. Uniformed officers descended upon them, hands up as if to ward them off.
Yes, thought Craig, it is now, officially, a class-A clusterfuck. He briefly considered sharing this concept with the rookie next to him, then thought the better of it. A cop was already approaching their car with a furrowed brow. As the two agents stepped out of the car – their own light flashing, thanks to an overzealous Murtowski – they showed their badges and the cop backed off, wordlessly.
When Craig and Murtowski had gotten the call earlier from Section Chief Wilson, Craig couldn’t help but smile. Oh, this wasn’t totally unexpected, but it certainly signaled that things were coming to a head with Baylor Roman and Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper. He was anxious to know if her body was among the dead. In fact, Wilson had told them first about the bank and the two hicks – though Murtowski was visibly shaken and horrified, Craig could barely hold back the laughter – and they were on their way to see a Mr. Bobby Ray Bradford. But the shootout and burning had happened so soon after the robbery, the two FBI Agents abandoned that mission and went straight for the latest crime scene.
“I guess this really fucks up your whole theory about the Harlan Brothers,” Murtowski
said as they climbed out of the car. He was feeling smug.
“Not really,” Craig said. Then, “why?”
“Jesus, Frank,” Murtowski said, incredulous. “They’re obviously just a couple of crazies, probably running to Mexico. We should get down to the border.”
It wasn’t lost on Craig that Murtowski had, nearly from the beginning, envisioned an elaborate, high-profile arrest of the whacko Baylor Roman, getting his name in the paper, probably a few pictures, some air time on CNN. Now, after Memphis, Craig had figured – correctly – that Murtowski wanted nothing more than a big shootout with what had to be just some guy who snapped one day and was now going on a multi-state rampage, picking up a wanted bank robber on his way.
“Oh, I see, then,” said Craig. “A nameless, faceless courier murders an international gangster, steals a million and a half dollars, heads south – towards his home state – meets up with the premiere bank robber in America, promptly robs a bank, burns down a house,” he swept a hand towards the direction of the still smoldering ash, “and you think running down to Mexico where he lives out his days is the next logical thing? Hell, you’re a goddam policing mastermind.”
For a moment Murtowski was speechless.
“Yes! As a matter of fact, that’s right, I do think that’s the next logical thing. Jesus Christ, yes. What in the hell is the matter with you?” Murtowski was sputtering.
“Murtowski, you have no imagination.”
“Look, you learned the same thing I did at the Academy. The simplest explanation is usually the truth. That’s the simplest explanation. It’s gotta be true.”
“Listen, Cowboy, if that’s what you learned at the Academy, then I’d urge you to forget it. Forget it fast.” Craig felt this was the best advice he’d given his new protégé yet.
“Why don’t you just admit that you’re running blind. You’re running us blind. You don’t know where in the hell they’re going, who he is or what they’re going to do next. Why don’t you just admit that. He’s going south. They’ve got to be going to Mexico. Where else is he going to go?”
“Tony,” finally using his first name, “you’re right. I don’t know who this kid is. I don’t know why he met up with Desdemona Culpepper, or how. If it was planned, or just an accident. To tell you the truth, I don’t really care. I want them in as soon and as safe as possible. But to get there, we have to weigh every possible angle.”
Murtowski was sighing now, crossing his arms, indignant.
“Just listen to me for a minute. Now, you could be right. And I’m not discounting that, I’m really not. Yes, he’s going south, and there’s a good chance some poor Border Patrol bastard is going to have to deal with him before it’s all said and done, or maybe Roman’s got some elaborate scheme to get into Mexico. I don’t know. Yes, we should probably head down there, soon. But what if,” eliciting another dramatic sigh from the junior partner, “wait a minute – what if… What if Baylor Roman really is the nephew of the Harlan Brothers. What if the Harlan Brothers are real. Just think about that for a minute. If – and I’m just saying if now – if he is, then don’t you think he’s got something very dramatic and very clever, not to mention well planned, up his sleeve? Murtowski, we’ve got to think like he does on this one. Just in case.”
Craig had made a vaguely compelling argument, and it at least kept Murtowski at bay, for the moment. Both men stood outside their car looking as the firemen drug hoses around the remnants of the house and as policemen tried to keep the growing crowd away from the scene.
“Who the fuck is that?” Murtowski was looking away from the mess now. Four men in identical dark black suits stood by at the corner of the crowd, outside the police tape. There were no sirens, no lights for their two cars, black Crown Vics. Each man stood shoulder to shoulder, hidden behind dark sunglasses. Finally, one spoke into a black cellphone. Other than that, they remained motionless.
“See, Murtowski? Sometimes you have to take into account the unexpected. And you’ve got to roll with it.” Agent Craig smiled and opened the car door to sit down. He was tired. Murtowski just stared.
– – – – –
The four men were an advance team from the FBI’s innocuous sounding Directorate Central, Craig explained to Murtowski. Probably they’d arrived at the scene of the fire so fast because they were monitoring the local police frequency. The radio chatter from police dispatchers to local units had done a pretty good job of describing the scene at the bank – complete with ‘shots fired’ codes and descriptions of two additional suspects, aside from the hillbillies, matching the description of Baylor Roman and Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper.
They sat in the car and Agent Frank Craig decided, finally, to fill in Murtowski on just what exactly the Directorate Central was. The secret component of the FBI was not taught at the Academy in Quantico. In fact, it was not taught anywhere.
“Directorate Central is a secret task force of specially trained agents with a broad mandate and authority given by the President of the United States,” said Craig. “They were first formed in the early Eighties, mostly to try and put a leash on the drug kingpins.”
Murtowski knew better than to interrupt early with questions, though he was desperate to do just that. In fact, while the mysterious Directorate Central was not taught by anyone of authority at the Academy, they were legendary, almost a ghost story that the young trainees discussed amongst themselves late at night. None of the recruits knew anything about them, what they did or even if they really existed, but they all had ideas.
“Basically we were the best cops they could find authorized to do whatever we had to do to shut down the big kingpins, the big drug operations. No Miranda, no judge, no juries. No arrests. All very black bag stuff, ‘worked around the Constitution’ and shit like that, some of the lawyers would say. In fact, that was the whole point.” Craig waited for a minute. Murtowski raised his eyes expectantly, a question without words.
“Yeah, we just took ‘em out. Killed everyone. Assassinations and cleanups. That was our deal.” With a deep sigh, Frank Craig was ready to leave it at that.
“So,” Murtowski dared to speak. “You were actually in the Directorate Central.”
Craig smiled and rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. Shit, he’d let himself get carried away, let nostalgia get the better of him. The kid had caught on and was going to put him on the spot. Well, no point in stopping now.
Craig sighed. “Look, I’ll only tell you this once, and don’t you ever fucking repeat it. Ever. Got it?” Craig had his index finger in Murtowski’s face to punctuate the point. He figured the little bastard would probably tell the whole goddam world, but who cared, right?
“The story is this. In Eighty-Two, Eighty-Three – back when you were still shittin’ diapers, anyway – we found ourselves with a new breed of criminal. Violent. Evil. The social work-types called them ”super predator,” which was about the best description I’ve ever heard. Mean motherfuckers who just didn’t give a damn about anything except moving large amounts of drugs into the country and on to the streets. They did not care about cops or the FBI. Or anything. The blue uniform didn’t scare them. Nothing did except maybe other, bigger drug dealers, or worse, profit loss. All that mattered was moving the drugs. Cocaine, mostly. And lots of it, Murtowski.” Craig now wished he wasn’t going to have to tell this story, but he was. There was no stopping.
“We couldn’t arrest these guys fast enough, the few who lived to get arrested. Most of them would rather have died in a shootout than get caught. And for every one that died or got arrested, there were five more that popped up just like them. It was all about turf, and they would do anything to defend it. Most of the big cities were deteriorating into huge war zones, but they didn’t care, just so long as the price of coke stayed high and they had plenty of customers, which they did. These people killed everyone in their path. Without mercy. Women, children, innocent neighbors, priests, cops, each other. It really didn’t matter. So the Directorate Central was created to thin the herd, as it were.” Craig sighed again. “Hunters. That’s all we really were. We’d go out and kill them. No trial, none of that shit. Once we were called, it was all over. We would target a guy and his crew, distract the local cops, then barge in and kill every living thing. Burn it all down.”
“Jesus…” whispered Murtowski, eyes wide, mouth slack.
“We had the best stuff, too,” Craig couldn’t help the smile. “State of the art. Lightweight nine-millimeter prototypes, revolver speed loaders, laser sights, night vision, all the best communications gear. Christ, Cowboy, we had these rocket launchers that were actually banned by the U.N. Got them from somewhere in South America.”
Murtowski let out another reverent ‘Jesus’.
“Anyway, things got a little more stable a few years ago, and they didn’t need us as much, at least not for the drug dealer types. Thank God I got out when I did. They do specialty jobs now, clean up jobs. They’re cleaners.”
“But that’s not why you got out.” Murtowski had taken a huge leap of faith in the hopes of keeping Craig talking. He figured it would be more or less even odds that Craig would clam up. But it was worth the shot.
“You new recruits hear a lot of shit, you know that?” Craig said, a little frustrated. Inside he was screaming for a cigarette. But he kept talking.
“We were in Florida. Miami. That’s where we did a lot of work. It was a really beautiful night. We were in a safehouse getting suited up. We got wired with our communications gear and grabbed our weapons. My crew always laughed at me because I carried an extra clip for each gun I had.” Murtowski furrowed his brow, not understanding. Craig caught on. “It was crazy, they thought, because we each carried enough ammo to take out the goddam Russian Army. What’s one more? But,” here, he hesitated, “I was kind of superstitious. It was just a thing. Two Smith & Wesson nine millimeters, a Tec 9 and a .38 strapped to the ankle. Not counting the knives and grenades.”
The firemen had sprayed most of what was left of the house with water. All that stood were black, charred boards shooting into the air, the devil reaching from the ground with a gnarled, clawed hand. They were rolling up their hoses now, examining the area one more time for more hot embers.
“So, it’s in the middle of the night and we call in a nine-one-one with an ‘officer down’ at some bullshit location across town. That would keep the Miami P.D. at bay for a little while – and it always worked. We piled into our van and headed to the site. This Bahamian drug lord named Vandiver. You wanna talk about a bad motherfucker… Jesus. He’d shot a bunch of cross town rivals, personally, and his boys were in to the ritualistic torture of hookers who didn’t draw in enough cash and dealers who had a bad night or were skimming off the top. Torture like you’ve never heard about, like you wouldn’t believe. Torches and pliers kind of shit. Anyway, the sonofabitch had taken over most of a neighborhood. He owned it. That, and the guy was dealing in millions of dollars of cocaine a month. He was minting money, couldn’t rake it in fast enough, Murtowski.” Craig had started thinking more about a cigarette, and he stopped for a minute.
Murtowski leaned in, expectantly. Jesus, the guy couldn’t stop here. It was just getting good.
And Craig didn’t stop. “Anyway, we do our usual deal, three of us creep around back, me and this guy Tony Howard creep around front. We had two side-men, too. It’s fucking three in the morning and the place is not only still awake, it’s jumpin’. These bastards, this guy Vanidver and his gang, are coked up and partying hard. There’s music blasting and who knows what the fuck happening inside. Cowboy,” Craig rubbed his eyes again, “this was a no-brainer. Been done a hundred times.”
“Look, Craig…” Murtowski, even his own disbelief, began to stop Craig. If the old fart didn’t want to tell the story, he shouldn’t have to, much as the rookie wanted to hear it.
“It was easy. Me and Howard take out the guard in front. He’s a kid, maybe eighteen if he’s lucky. Slice his throat. Then we throw a couple of stun grenades through the front windows, just as our side boys cut the power. We had it timed to a science. The grenades go off and the bastards go apeshit crazy. They come running out screaming and either holding their bleeding ears or blasting their AK-47s or whatever just indiscriminately. We’re used to it. Howard and me, we blow away the first four or five guys that stumble out the front door and some coked up, half-dressed whore who fell out with a .357 Magnum in her hand. We crash in through the front, the men in back crash through there. Murtowski, those Tec-9s are like a goddam river of bullets. And they’ll go forever. So, we’re blasting away, hosing the place down with lead. I mean, there’s nothing and nobody that’s not shot. How we avoided friendly fire, I’ll never know. It’s my turn to go upstairs, so I do, creeping up, unloading on anything that moves. There’s a room at the end of the hall, and I start there, listening to the guys destroy the downstairs. I open the door…” Craig stopped, staring out the window. Murtowski let him have his time.
“It’s a mother. Cuban girl, she’s little. No way she’s eighteen. She’s holding her baby – God, a brand new baby, just a few weeks old – in her tiny arms. Well, all I could do is stand there like the asshole that I am. Which was stupid, because we’re supposed to kill everything. No matter what. And what does she do?” Finally, Craig looked at Murtowski for the first time in several minutes. “She pulls a piece and shoots me.”
“Holy fucking shit.” Murtowski croaked as his jaw went slack.
“Exactly. Holy fucking shit. She has this snub .38 and she shoots me, nearly point blank.” Craig laughed a melancholy, quiet laugh. “Well, the little bitch shot once, and it hit me square in the chest. Since we’re so packed with ammo, I had to keep the spare clip – remember, I told you I always carried extra? – in a little zipper pouch in front. She hit that and it sort of sparked and flew up and off. Knocked me square on my ass. Because we were bogged down with so much equipment, we couldn’t wear Kevlar. I always figured that clip saved my life. A total fluke, really.”
Murtowski was stunned, almost wholly unable to believe what he was hearing.
“Tony Howard is right behind me, and all he sees is some bitch with a gun and me go to the ground. He emptied that Tec-9 into the room. A full clip.” Craig sighed, then said, “They didn’t even find all the pieces of the baby.”
“Oh, fucking hell…” Murtowski put his hand to his mouth. For the first time since looking at the pictures of Jimmy Yakimoto, he had to fight like hell to keep from vomiting.
“Shit, Cowboy, that’s not the worst part of it. The minute Tony Howard realizes what he’s done, he flips out. I mean, he losses his shit. Never seen anything like it. The guy walks into the bathroom down the hall, puts his handgun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Bad news. We had to carry his body out, throw it in the van and ride all the way back to the safe house with him. Torched the house. Anyway, I transferred shortly after that.”
Tony Murtowski couldn’t speak. He sat in the passenger seat of their car, hands lying palms-up in his lap, his face drawn and pale, mouth wide enough to catch flies.
Craig took a deep breath and made a strong effort not to look at Murtowski. He opened the door with a sigh and climbed out. He’d seen Section Chief Wilson pull up behind them about halfway through his story. It was time to check in with the boss.
“What’d they do, Chief, fly you down here?” Craig smiled, erasing the memory of his shameful story as quickly as he’d slammed the door to his car. He was approaching the driver’s side of Wilson’s car, nearly identical to theirs. The Chief, thankfully, had opted not to turn on the red strobe.
“Yeah,” Wilson said. “Get in.” And Agent Craig complied. As he adjusted himself in the seat next to Craig, Wilson offered him a cigarette from a half-empty pack. Craig was overjoyed, and accepted with somewhat shaky hands. Recounting the story of his experience with the Directorate Central had shaken him up more than he’d thought. If Wilson noticed, he said nothing.
“Thanks,” he said, putting the cigarette in his lips, and leaning in to the light from the lighter held by Wilson.
The two men sat in the car wordlessly for a moment, just looking at the rubble through the windshield. The firemen were wrapping up their business, but the entire area still reeked of melted plastic, scorched metal and burnt wood. Two more ambulances had also arrived to help dispose of the corpses. Several policemen sifted through what was left of the house, but mostly at the edges. Even the crowd surrounding the area had begun to drift back, losing interest now that the best parts were over. All that remained of the dead bodies, now in somber, quiet ambulances, were brownish red stains on the grass and in the driveway.
The four men from the Directorate Central still stood at a safe distance, examining in eerie silence. Murtowski took it upon himself to go help the police look for whatever it was they might be looking for, maybe evidence of what started the fire, though Craig knew it was a torch job. The place must’ve been doused in quite a bit of gasoline, or lighter fluid, or some other kind of accelerant for it to burn so hot and fast. Murtowski waded around in the black and gray embers.
“What the fuck is he doing? He’s gonna hurt himself.” Wilson pointed with his cigarette in hand to Murtowski, who, as if on cue, stumbled on whatever and promptly put the palm of his hand down on something sharp. He cursed, loudly enough for the men in the car to hear, and for what was left of the crowd to go ‘ooh’. A fireman turned to attend to the wounded FBI Agent.
“Christ,” Craig said, laughing just a little. He took a drag on the smoke, then said, “He’s a cocky bastard, but he’s smart, Chief. He’ll be alright.” Craig wasn’t necessarily referring to the hand, and the Chief seemed to know it. “Look, you could’ve told me they were bringing in the Directorate Central guys.”
“I didn’t know myself until after I talked to you.” Wilson looked at Craig, making eye contact. “That’s why I flew down here. I was going to tell you face to face, but the bank…” he waved a dismissive hand and didn’t even bother to finish the sentence. He wasn’t used to explaining himself to subordinates, even ones he liked, like Frank Craig.
“Yeah, I know.” Craig didn’t hold it against the Section Chief. “So, what’s the deal. It takes four guys to advance an operation? Used to take two.”
Wilson ignored the sarcastic comment. “These guys follow you now, Frank. Wherever you go, they go. When you catch up with Roman and Culpepper, they’ll be ready to call in the rest of the squad and do the clean up.” Wilson was trying to be as forthright as possible. He truly did like Frank Craig, and would probably even give him high marks in the after action report on this case, when it was over. Wilson hesitated, then said, “I called them in, Frank.”
“You called them in?” Craig seemed baffled. He thought Wilson was cool.
“Fuck! You said you wouldn’t tell anyone about Memphis! Goddamit!” Craig was furious, and he flicked his cigarette out the open window of the car, immediately wishing he’d taken at least a couple more drags.
“Calm down, Frank. I didn’t tell anyone about… no one has to know. Look, I know you think this kid is somehow connected to…” he hated to say it. “Dammit, Frank. I’m not supposed to tell you, but Division Chief O’Kelley called them in. They’re a threat. And this proves it.” He nodded towards the decimated house. A fire truck began to back up just a bit and bumped the garage, which fell even more, causing a commotion. Apparently there was something inside which caused quite a fuss. Craig ignored it.
“Chief, this guy, Baylor Roman – he’s the Harlan’s nephew. He all but told me…”
“And what if he is, Frank?” Wilson was starting to get perturbed. “What if he is? You think that everyone at the FBI discounts your Universal Theory of the Harlan Brothers, but you just don’t get it. It’s not that they discount it, Frank. It’s that they’re scared of it. Why in the hell do you think O’Kelley called these guys in? Mavin and Odum Harlan run every criminal enterprise in the Eastern United States? Shit, don’t you think they have a plan to get their nephew out of whatever trouble he’s in? And don’t you think it has the potential to get damn violent if a couple of FBI Agents get in the way?” Wilson was exasperated.
Craig was silent for a moment, taking it in. He rarely, if ever, admitted he was wrong. Be he certainly had begun to come to a clarity about the situation.
“Okay,” he said quietly.
“Look,” Wilson said. “Why don’t you and the kid get down to Mexico. They’re running for the border.”
“You alert Border Patrol?” Craig interrupted.
“Done. Just get down there. These guys will follow. Pick a place you think they’ll most likely go through, and maybe you’ll get to see the kid before…” Wilson looked in his rearview mirror. It was obvious he was checking out the Directorate Central guys, who had taken an interest in what was in the shed. One of them was pointing to it.
“If it’s alright, Chief,” Craig said. “I’d like to stick around here for just another hour or two. At least let us get something to eat here. Then I’ll get us down to Mexico.”
“Okay,” Wilson said, instinctively knowing better than to question a career agent. “Get a bite to eat, then get down there. The Mexican border.”
Craig nodded in understanding.
“Looks like there was one hell of a shootout here.” Wilson said, finally, changing the subject.
“Anyone see anything?” Craig asked.
“Doubt it.” Wilson shook his head once and flicked the butt of his smoke out the window.
“Makes you wonder, though – anybody else get shot and we just don’t know it yet?”
“Let’s hope not. Running wounded is a hell of a lot worse than just running,” Wilson sighed. “Check in, okay, Frank?” He offered a tight-lipped smiled to the older agent.
“You got it, Chief,” he said, opening the car door and stepping out.
Murtowski was waiting by their car, just in front, holding his hand.
“Jesus, Cowboy,” Craig said. “What’re you doing climbing around in that shit?” He looked over the top of the car to his partner’s hand and winced a bit. A fireman had given him some gauze from a first aid kit, but the ambulances had taken off with the dead bodies already. Murtowski lifted the gauze slightly to show Craig. It was a fairly nasty gash.
“Looking for clues?” Murtowski shrugged his shoulders. “Bunch of goddam guns in that shed.”
“Bank robbers tend to have a lot of guns. Tools of the trade,” he said. “Don’t bleed in the car.” Craig got in and fired up the engine. As Murtowski buckled in, Craig slowly backed up, then pulled away from the scene slowly. People – firemen, police and the die-hard rubber neckers – still filled the street.
“We’ll stop at a place and get a first aid kit for that, maybe a sandwich. Then we’ll head down to the border.”
Murtowski felt an overwhelming sense of vindication, though it didn’t make his hand feel any better. He knew they’d end up in Mexico. Craig drove towards the freeway and stopped just before an exit heading north, finally finding a gas station convenience store. Murtowski stayed in the car while Craig got out and walked in. He was slow, because something just didn’t feel right about Mexico. He was lost in thought. The old guy behind the counter nodded and Craig nodded back.
He picked up a little white box that had gauze, band-aids and some anti-bacterial stuff and brought it to the counter.
“’Nother first aid kit? Hmmm,” the old man said and shrugged.
“What do you mean, ‘another’ first aid kit?” Craig asked, looking at the old man.
“Sold one just a little while ago. First time I’d sold one in years. Young couple came in here, got some junk food, some sodas and a first aid kit, just like that one there,” he nodded to the counter. At that very moment it occurred to Craig that there was a first aid kit in the car, and he was wasting his money. It was standard issue in the FBI cars. But he’d forgotten about it. “Seems the young lady – saw her sittin’ in the car – had hurt her arm. Didn’t say how.” The old clerk smiled.
Craig looked back out of the glass front of the store, past Murtowski in the car, past the gas pumps towards the freeway sign indicating a northerly direction.
“No shit?” Craig said, smiling.
Baylor Roman couldn’t possibly have known, but as he drove down the freeway with a beautiful, wounded, wanted woman, Ritchie Torres was trying to recover from getting loaded the night before. He was all but physically removed from Lem’s bar after flirting in vain and far too aggressively with a woman across the bar who he though looked not unlike Ashley Judd. Her husband thought so, too.
Ritchie had barely left Lem’s since Sunday. The next morning he’d worked to cure a hangover with a strong shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream and an unsuccessful masturbation session to a picture of Ashley herself in ‘US Weekly.’ It hadn’t done the job. His tie was a stained mess and his shirt had, somewhere, somehow, lost a button. As for Kurkel, he still looked sharp, though the fatigue showed in his eyes, in the dark circles under them.
Neither knew what to say to Moisha Bravinski now that the deadline had come and gone. Almost as alarming was the news from Arkansas. Everyone knew it was Baylor Roman – their missing courier – and the bank robber girl that had raised so much hell. Both Ritchie and Kurkel hadn’t even bothered to check in with their client, the Tokyo Tigers. God only knew what Hideo would say. But they hadn’t gotten the money from them, either.
“Well,” said Moisha, wearing his charcoal gray double-breasted suit and a no-shit two-toned tie. He took a sip of coffee, none of which had been offered to the two lawyers in front of him. “What do you say?” He knew good and well they didn’t have the money. But he had been dying to hear what they might offer in their feeble defense. It pleased him greatly that they looked like hell.
“Moisha,” Kurkel spoke with a clearing of the throat, clasping his hands in front of him and placing them on the smooth, dark table, “as I’m sure you know, we…” Shit, thought Ritchie, here it comes. “…Don’t have the money…” Oh, God, “…For your clients… At this time.” Ritchie squinted a bit as his partner spoke, half expecting Moisha to bitch-slap one or both of them.
Moisha, still smiling a serene smile, sipped his coffee again and let out a small chuckle. He set the cup down on the saucer slowly and took a deep breath.
“Boys,” he breathed out, “I know you don’t have the money. I knew you wouldn’t get it. Hell, you think I don’t watch the news? I’m sure that all poor Hideo and the Tokyo Tigers can think about right now is getting their hands on that hell-raiser and his girlfriend, or whatever the fuck she is. The last thing they want to think about is paying the Russians Bratva.”
Both men were silent. Never before had they heard someone else utter the names of their client so boldly.
“Well, Moisha…” Kurkel started.
“Goddamit, son, let’s cut through the shit,” Moisha had quickly set the cup down again, aborting an oncoming sip, causing some of the brown liquid to spill over the side and fill the small dish. “First off, let’s try Mr. Bravinski.”
Kurkel was mortified. How could he have overlooked such a simple protocol? He had no time to ponder the question.
“Now, your goddam courier is out there with a murder hanging over his head, a bank robbery and two million of our money. And he’s probably damn close to Mexico if he’s not there already.”
“Moish… Mr. Bravinski, we don’t know that he’s in Mexico…” Kurkel tried again, but ‘Mr. Bravinski’ was having none of it.
“You’d better hope to hell he’s in Mexico, son,” Moisha was now waving a thick index finger at Kurkel. “If the FBI or whoever in the fuck they have on this gets him first, then he really is gone – gone forever. And so is the money. And here’s the bad part, son. They’ll track that back to you. And the Tigers. And the Russians. No way that can happen. You two idiots clear on that?”
Kurkel could only nod his head. He wasn’t about to try speaking again.
“Your problem,” Moisha said, “is no longer about how you’re going to pay off the Russians. It’s about insurance.”
Ritchie and Kurkel stared, scared of what to do or say.
“If he’s in Mexico and he thinks he’s safe, they’ll start spending that money. And that’s when we – meaning you – can find him. Do you get this, boys?” Ritchie and Kurkel nodded like obedient school children.
“Two million dollars for this sonofabitch Roman. Another million for the whore he’s with, just as a bonus. That’s what my guys are gonna pay for their own protection. That’s what they’ll pay to stay out of this mess. It’s their insurance policy, boys. And mine.” Moisha took a moment to calm himself, breathe out. “You boys understand… This is open to anyone.”
It dawned on Kurkel before it dawned on Ritchie whose head still buzzed with the after-effects of continued acute alcohol abuse.
“Meaning,” Kurkel dared, “it’s open to the Tigers, too.” He practically whispered as a smile slowly crept across his face. Of course – a loophole. How perfect. How lawyerly. Not only could the Tokyo Tigers exact their revenge, get their money back, but they could settle with the Russians, too, and still make a handsome profit, if they brought in the girl, too. The Tokyo Home Office would love it.
Moisha was smiling unashamedly now, leaning back, crossing his arms.
“You’re very smart,” he said. “Very smart. We’re a fair organization. I want you two to know that. I gave you two days to get that money. This could be a real opportunity. For both of us.”
Kurkel wanted to continue his little spiel, explain that Hideo had absolutely forbidden them to pay the Russians with any of the other funds from the bank accounts. He wanted to explain that he thought with just a bit more time, he could convince Hideo to start paying the Russians off, just to stop the violence. They’d find the rest of the money somewhere. Mostly, Kurkel was desperate to explain that this had gone far beyond the two million dollars and had turned into a huge deal of honor for the Tigers. But the last part of what Moisha said stuck with Kurkel, and he thought it out.
Of course. In fact, it was so beautiful, he could only think in the silence, revering the mind of Moisha Bravinski. It was perfect. The Tigers get their man and claim the high-stakes reward money – a three million if they bagged the girl, too. Kurkel and Ritchie would claim their fifteen percent commission for ‘special projects,’ which was standard language in their contract with the Tigers. Doing the math, Kurkel figured they stood to make…
“Ninety thousand bucks,” Moisha said, reading the younger lawyer’s mind. “That is, if you boys are so old-fashioned you wrote a fifteen percent special projects clause into your contract.” He smiled condescendingly. Kurkel nearly asked what his was with Blue, Hatchett, Lutrell & Kuhns, but thought the better of it.
“Wait a minute,” Ritchie finally spoke. His voice was raspy and pained. “What’s in it for your guys? What’s in it for you?” The deal seemed too good to be true.
“Well, after we deduct the two million your clients owe, we clear our name, wipe out the connection. It’s worth the cost. I told you. It’s insurance.” Moisha had a look of ‘what did I do’ on his face.
“There’s something else,” Ritchie said. He could practically smell it. He could practically hear it: the other shoe, dropping.
“And the Russians get the technology corridor.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ…” Ritchie threw up his hands and saw Kurkel’s head drop in defeat. Well, that was certainly the other shoe. Of course it would cost the Tigers something. The something being handing over their most lucrative drug-dealing real estate. The technology corridor had sprung up almost overnight outside of Washington, D.C., the area in Northern Virginia housing a large number of technology companies, home to innumerable computer geeks. Technology meant that the geeks needed something for the all-nighters, frequently speed, and the instant millionaires needed something because life was boring, usually designer pills or coke. The entire venture brought in quite a bit of money for the Tigers, and was one of the reasons they remained based out of the D.C. area, as opposed to moving north to New York. To give up the technology corridor would be business suicide.
“I’m sorry, boys, that’s the deal. Non-negotiable. Take it or leave it.”
“Mr. Bravinski, you know there’s no way we can authorize that kind of deal.” Kurkel put his hands in the air in a defensive position. “You know that Hideo and the Tigers will never go for it.”
“Hmm, you’re right.” Moisha said. He was rubbing his chin, leaning forward, and it occurred to Kurkel that they were being played, and he resented it, not a little but a lot. “Well, there are options. If someone else were to bring in the fugitives…the Tigers would get to keep the technology corridor.”
“But…” Ritchie was growing impatient and tired. Already the need for alcohol was consuming him.
“Mr. Bravinski,” Kurkel said, resigning himself, “perhaps it’s best if you just tell us what you’re thinking.”
“Fine,” Moisha said with a chuckle. “Here’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking that you two are far too loyal to an organization that is rapidly going down the shitter. I’m thinking that both of you, despite your appearances,” he looked somewhat condescendingly at Ritchie, “are good, quick lawyers. I’m thinking that when the Tigers start going down, you don’t want to be left holding the bag.” He paused. “Now, an organization like Blue Hatchett could use a couple of upstanding, solid lawyers like yourselves.”
My God, thought Kurkel, he’s not really doing this, is he?
“Mr. Bravinski, are you recruiting us to Blue Hatchett?” Ritchie was a bit taken aback.
“You bet, son.”
“I don’t…” Ritchie started.
“I do, Ritchie,” Kurkel said. He could only stare coldly at Moisha Bravinski. “We put the idea in Hideo’s head that he can head down to Mexico, or wherever and hunt down the two fugitives, bring their heads back on a platter – settling a personal score, settling a debt to the Russian Bratva – and all the while turning a handsome profit. Irresistible.” He spat the last word. “Of course, it would fall to you and me to deliver the reward money to our clients. Only we won’t be doing that because we will not be employees of the Tokyo Tigers but of the law firm of Blue, Hatchett, Lutrell & Kuhns. No doubt we lure Hideo and the Tigers…somewhere where they will be ambushed and slaughtered by the Russians.”
“I don’t get into that part of it.” Moisha said matter-of-factly.
“Tell me, Mr. Bravinski,” Kurkel said, still staring at the man. “The three million. It
“Oh!” Moisha laughed. “Oh Lord, no, son. No. You’ll each get to keep somewhere in the low six figures or so, maybe a little more. Something like that. The rest comes back to us. Not that it ever leaves, of course.” He took another sip of coffee and made a face. It had gone cold. “I think the contract says something about you being employed here for a certain time, you won’t go AWOL, that type of thing. Frankly, that contract shit bores me. Someone in human resources writes them up.” He chuckled again at this irony: a lawyer who was bored by contracts.
Ritchie finally got it – and he wasn’t as appalled as he thought he’d be. Fuck ‘em, he thought, why not? Hell, the Tokyo Tigers would do all the dirty work. All they’d have to do is sell the Tigers on the plan, which shouldn’t be too difficult. Hell, he thought, Hideo was damn near ready to go find Baylor himself last Sunday.
Kurkel wasn’t so sure. It seemed a sort of perverse betrayal. And who was to say they could suddenly trust Moisha Bravinski, anyway? He could just as easily leave them out to dry – then what? He didn’t even want to think were that would leave he and Ritchie with the Tokyo Tigers. Still, he spoke up first.
“Give us your draft contract language now. We’ll look at it tonight and let you know something first thing in the morning.” Kurkel looked carefully at Moisha, trying unsuccessfully to read his face.
“I’ll give you the contract language now, look at it over dinner, and call me tonight. If you do this, you’ll have to sell your boys sooner rather than later. I’ll be here late. We put in hard hours here at Blue Hatchett, but it’s worth it.” He smiled. “I think you boys are up to the task, though. The packets are out front.”
And there was the cue: meeting over. Both Kurkel and Ritchie rose and turned towards the door of the conference room. Neither had the stomach to shake hands with Moisha Bravinski. He seemed to understand.
“Boys,” Moisha, still seated at the table, spoke up, “I’m looking forward to working with you.” He smiled the widest, most evil smile either of them had ever seen in their lives.
– – – – –
Lem’s, it seemed, was not providing its usual aura of sanctuary for either man. Both had gone straight from Moisha Bravinski’s office at Blue, Hatchett, Lutrell & Kuhns to the restaurant and bar. Neither man spoke on the way over. There was just too much to contemplate.
Ritchie and Kurkel sat at a corner booth, looking down at the legal sized manila packets in front of them. Just the look of it made the usual even-keeled Kurkel sick to his stomach. Still, when the waiter came, he ordered a vodka, double, on the rocks with a twist of lime. Ritchie had his usual martini, though somehow over the course of the last forty-eight hours they’d managed to lose their flair. He lit a cigarette and offered one to Kurkel, who took it wordlessly.
“Fuck it,” Ritchie finally said and tore open the sealed envelope. The front, to his mild embarrassment, bore his full name, typed out on a label just so: Ricardo Guerrero Torres. He hated his Hispanic name, the name of his father and his father’s father. It sounded too Puerto Rican, and it needlessly shamed him.
“Well?” Kurkel spoke, unsure of what he was asking.
“It’s a no-shit deal, about like he said.” Ritchie sighed after scanning the documents for a moment more, then taking a drag on the cigarette. “He’s not bluffing. We’ll make a small fortune at Blue Hatchett. Not to mention the…signing bonus.” Ritchie raised his eyebrows to Kurkel and sighed again.
Kurkel finally opened his folder and examined the documents as well. It was true – an exorbitant amount of money, just in the first year alone. Better, even, than when he had done corporate law. It dawned on him that Moisha was one smart bastard, and though he had built a career of expertly throwing money at problems, he realized he did not totally enjoy the feeling of being the problem, money or not.
“Kurk,” Ritchie said in a low voice, “what do you think?” He genuinely didn’t know what to do, and felt ashamed for feeling so lost. He hated seeking guidance, but worse, he hated knowing he needed it.
Kurkel was silent while their waiter brought them drinks. Each took a long, slow sip.
Ritchie spoke again. “If we take the deal, we screw the Tokyo Tigers. They’ve been good to us, Kurkel. But this is so much money. If we don’t take the deal…” Ritchie let it hang. They were both painfully aware of the implication of what could happen to both of them were they not to play ball. This was getting beyond money – this was life and death.
Six months prior, Mavin Harlan sat at his desk poking at a vanilla yogurt as he watched his brother, the fatass, eat an entire foot long steak and cheese in under a minute. The yogurt – fat free – was doctor’s orders. This — cutting out red meat, eating right and maybe getting a little exercise – had come from the doctor’s after Mavin’s first heart attack. A ‘cardiac incident’ they had called it, but Mavin knew it was a fucking heart attack. He didn’t start taking the advice until after the second heart attack.
Thanks to the extended hospital stays and the George Washington University Hospital, as well as the new diet, Mavin Harlan was a much slimmer man that his brother, though he looked older, gray hair, bags under the eyes of his now pale skin. Mavin was, in fact, older than his brother, Odum, but only by two years. These days he looked ten years older. Mavin hadn’t mentioned it to Odum yet, but he was thinking about retiring from the gangster business, and the recent call from his nephew hadn’t helped matters. They were waiting on him, the nephew, for a meeting he’d requested.
“Know what? You eat like a fuckin’ pig.” Mavin reluctantly slurped down a spoonful of the yogurt, getting a bit on his chin.
Odum considered making an extremely crude comment to his brother about participating in gay oral sex, but held his tongue – he was sensitive to his brother’s condition – and wordlessly pointed to his own chin. Mavin wiped his own with the back of his hand.
In fact, the two brothers couldn’t possibly look less like the two most powerful crime figures in the Southeastern United States. Mavin wore Carhart overalls – keeping a loaded .38 in one of the front pockets at all times – and scuffed work boots. Odum, his dark hair slicked back with hair wax, wore frayed corduroys and a plaid flannel shirt, no matter what the temperature. They looked more like they might fix your plumbing than make millions running drugs, gambling, pimping hookers or smuggling guns and cigarettes.
“He should be here by now.” Odum finally spoke after guzzling a cup full of iced tea. He had never been satisfied with the iced tea since leaving Arkansas, and always made a face after drinking a glassful.
“He’ll be here.”
Mavin and Odum sat in the back of a downtown bar and grill called QT’s. They each had a desk, one facing the other, with nothing on either but a phone. They both loved to work the phones. It was how business was done, how it was always done, how it always would be done. Computers, aside from being out of their league technologically, were too messy, too easy to trace. Every week a man came in to check the phones for bugs.
“Is he gonna ask what I think he’s gonna ask?” Odum spoke again. In fact, his two sentences in the last minute were more than he usually offered in the presence of anyone else. Odum was considered the muscle behind the Harlan Brothers because of his silence, but this was a fallacy. Both men were the brains of the operation, both exerted muscle mercilessly in pursuit of their criminal objectives.
“I suspect.” Mavin hadn’t thought that his younger brother’s simple question would set him on a path of reminiscence, but it did. This brought to mind he and Odum’s younger sister, Evelyn, now deceased, and the day she gave birth to their nephew. It was the happiest day of their lives, and it was the closest either came to ever giving up the criminal life. But it was also the time in their lives when the Harlan Brother’s enterprise was just getting started. Money was all but being minted by their operation, and it was too tempting to set down, even in the name of family. Both brothers doted on the boy. As he grew older, and as the brothers grew more powerful, they devised a plan to groom him to take over the operation. Neither man had ever had any children, though Odum had been married once and had carried on countless affairs after his wife died, and Mavin had been married twice. His most recent romantic excursion – with a small-time fry cook in rural Tennessee named Billy Jo – had ended in a mild disaster that even Odum knew better than to ask about.
Mavin and Odum Harlan grew up in North Little Rock, Arkansas, the sons of a railroad man. The Harlan parents were hard working people, good Baptists, friendly in the community, and Mo Harlan (Mo, a play on his initials, which were M.O., which stood for Mavin Odum) had expected his sons to go right to work for the railroad, too, as soon as they were old enough. And they did, Mavin first at 16, and Odum two years later. Odum was a pipe fitter and Mavin a brakeman. They might have simply grown and retired with the railroad, but destiny intervened. The brothers joined the union. Through the union the brothers made contacts all across the South. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the union caused the brothers to enter a life of crime, but it certainly helped facilitate it. By the time they were in their mid-twenties, each had left the railroad and begun smuggling illegal liquor and cigarettes in freight cars across the South.
Mavin Harlan was still thinking about the old railroad days when Q.T. knocked on the door – twice, then three times, the code to let the brothers know it was him. Odum reached towards the buzzer on the side of his desk and listened as the door clicked. Q.T. would’ve been a thin man had he not spent a lifetime sampling his own food, most of which was deep-fried. He simply stuck his head through the thick, heavy door and raised an eyebrow.
“Let ‘em in.” Mavin stood as he spoke, and Odum stood, too. “You ask him if he wanted anything? A san’wich or somethin’?”
“Yes, suh. He says he’s fine.” Q.T. smiled and turned away.
A moment later there was another similar knock on the door, Odum buzzed it again, and Baylor Roman walked in.
“Well, looky here!” Mavin greeted his nephew with his usual enthusiastic smile.
“Whadda ya’ know, Uncle Mavin?” Baylor smiled and went to shake his uncle’s hand.
“Howdy, son,” said Baylor’s Uncle Odum, already reserving himself. They shook, and sat down, Baylor in the only other chair in the room. Mavin and Odum never took a meeting with more than one person at a time. It was too dangerous, despite Mavin’s loaded .38 and the sawed-off shotgun under Odum’s desk, not to mention the two bodyguards they kept stationed in the restaurant at all times, or the sentries who drove around the neighborhood.
“Hi, Uncle Odum. You both lookin’ good.” He said this more for Mavin’s benefit. In truth, Baylor thought he looked even worse than last time. Baylor wanted to ask about Mavin’s diet, but spotted the half-eaten yogurt on the table and decided against it, knowing Mavin’s feelings on the issue.
“This fat sonofabitch gonna be like me with a couple a’ bypasses before he knows it, he don’t stop eatin’ that goddam steak shit.” Mavin smiled at Odum, who pursed his lips. The brothers never, ever disparaged each other in front of anyone except for their nephew, who laughed.
“Well, I think you two probably gonna live forever, anyway,” Baylor said. There was an innocent part of him that believed it, too. Pleasantries continued for another ten minutes, focusing heavily on Baylor’s love life, or lack thereof, before they got down to business. Both men – even the usually mute Odum – encouraged Baylor to get laid more. Baylor listened to their advice with a tight smile and a nod of his head.
“So, let’s hear it. We’re on pins and goddam needles over here.” Mavin finally gave the formal end to the small talk and opened the floor for business.
“Uncle Mavin, Uncle Odum,” Baylor started, looking at each man as he sat to the left of their tables, “you both know I can never repay you for what you’ve done for me. And giving me a start here.”
“Son, you did that on your own,” Mavin offered a rare interruption. But it was true. When Baylor first came to D.C., both men told him – flat out – that if he wanted to get started in their business, and they wanted him to, it’s true, he’d have to start from the bottom, like everyone else. Running small time numbers was the way to go. Then, maybe later, move up to setting up big scores. But it would take time.
“I know, Uncle Mavin, I know. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to start. You gave me that, and there’s no denying it. But…” He stopped. This was going to be harder than he thought. The brothers sat wordlessly, waiting. “I think the two of you are ready to retire.”
Had either brother been in possession of a real sense of humor, they might’ve laughed. But neither Mavin nor Odum thought it was very funny.
“What?” Mavin said, pursing his lips. Odum had already crossed his arms, a sure sign, Baylor knew, they were beginning to close their minds.
“Wait, wait – just hear me out. I’ve saved up some money,” he took a breath, waited for the set-up, and then, “I want to buy the two of you out.”
“Son, why do you want to do this?” Odum spoke, which threw Baylor just a bit.
“Uncle Odum, what did you and Uncle Mavin teach me about gambling?” He waited, and when neither man responded, he answered his own question. “That the only way to get out ahead is to know when to cash out and walk away. Otherwise, the house takes you for all your worth. I know you two want me to take over, it’s what you’ve had me in training for the last few years. But I look at it like this. You two been running this thing successful for almost forty years. A lot longer than I been alive. I figure that this business is really just one big gamble, right? I mean, you two are the best at it. The very best. Never been busted because you played your bets conservative. But it still takes confidence because it’s still a gamble.” Baylor paused for a breath.
“You sayin’ you don’t have the confidence, Baylor?” Mavin asked.
“Not that, Uncle Mavin, not at all. I’m sayin’ this. You two been playing craps for forty years. Now, at some point soon, you want me to take over at the craps table. But that game’s been played out. I want to move it. Take it somewhere new.”
“I ain’t followin’ you, Baylor.” Mavin had crossed his arms, now, and both men had gone red in the face.
“Look, like I said, I’ve saved up some money. I’ll get on a payment plan, pay you guys every month, and I take over the operations. But not out of D.C.”
“Where, then?” Mavin said.
“I’m thinking the islands. Around Montserrat. The Virgin Islands, that area.”
Both of Baylor’s Uncles sat quietly for a moment.
“Why?” Uncle Mavin said.
“Uncle Mavin, you two read the papers. There’s new competition out there. The Mexicans, for starters. Unorganized street gangs are making a comeback, too. Coke and heroin are making a comeback, driving up the price which is great for us, but you know that also means an increased risk.” Baylor was getting to the good part. “But do you realize that there is more cocaine waiting to be shipped up through those islands than comes over through Mexico and Europe combined?” In fact, the brothers did know this particular bit of information in remarkable detail, but they still said nothing. “Look, we set up a ten year
Baylor Roman might’ve been the only man in America who knew what the brothers wanted. Mavin wanted to construct a modest house in the Ozarks and watch a lot of football on TV and build model railroads. Odum wanted to go to Florida and buy a beachside condo and finish his days fishing in the ocean. Just because they were criminal masterminds didn’t mean they were without the same dreams as anyone else.
Baylor wound up for the final pitch. “Don’t you two deserve to retire? I mean, you can’t work forever.” In fact, while both men had harbored their fantasies of easy retirement, they also both just assumed they’d work forever, until they died doing what they’d always done: be criminals.
Odum was the first to uncross his arms. He let out a long sigh and took another long gulp of his iced tea with a grimace. Mavin leaned back even further in his chair.
“So,” the older brother said, “you propose to just buy us out, over time, move everything to the islands where you can live like a prince, fuck a lot of local girls, become a cocaine kingpin? That it?”
In fact, that was about the scope and range of his pitch. With one exception that he would not, under any circumstances, share with his uncles. Maybe not ever.
“Well,” Baylor paused, “yessir.” He had even brought a few brochures for the islands as a visual aid for his pitch, but decided now to keep them in his jacket pocket.
“Just that easy,” said Odum.
“Yessir.” Baylor said.
Now both brothers laughed heartily. Baylor looked perplexed.
“Son,” Mavin said, wiping a tear from his eye, still chuckling, “you can’t even start to buy us out. My God, you can’t even begin to afford it.”
Baylor had been afraid of this.
“Well,” he said, reluctantly, “what’ll it take?” He had hoped against hope that he wouldn’t have to ask the question.
“There’s a nice girl I want you to meet. ‘Bout your age.” Mavin was smiling now, and offered a wink to Odum.
“Uncle Mavin,” Baylor said with as much measured patience as he could, “we already talked about this. I was dating this one girl. There’ve been other girls, too…”
“Not like this one. Tell you what. Let me an’ your Uncle Odum, here, set you up with this girl, then we’ll talk about us retiring and you takin’ over.”
“That’s it? I go out with some girl an’ you’ll let me take over? That’s all there is to it?”
“Oh, son,” Odum said, leaning forward. Baylor wasn’t exactly intimidated by his Uncle Odum, but he knew that Odum Harlan’s face was less adept at hiding some of the darker secrets of criminal life, and he had learned to listen with a little extra respect when the man spoke. “It’s going to take much more than that.”
– – – – –
For a moment, Baylor worried that Des had fallen asleep, and he wouldn’t have blamed her. It had been a big day. A bank robbery, her gang slaughtered, their hideout burned down. And she had been shot. But she was awake.
“So, they had you kill Jimmy ‘The Deal’ Yakimoto.”
“Yes. That was step one. Kill him. But Uncle Mavin and Uncle Odum don’t have you do anything without benefit to yourself or at least to others they’re associated with. So, I got two million out of the deal. I’ll tell you about that later. Now, here’s where the plan gets sketchy. See, they like to gamble. They knew putting me and you together they’d get one of two outcomes. Either I’d get killed, which would mean I never had the right stuff to take over anyway. Or I’d kill the New Riders – maybe even you – and that’d save them some trouble.”
“But why? We were the best gang they ever saw.” Des was perplexed because it was true.
“Remember what I said about gambling? Now, what if the Harlans had come to you and said it was time for ya’ll to pack it in. All lucky streaks end, there’s this new kid running stuff, and it’s time to end your run. You wouldn’t have done it. Besides, I don’t think the Harlans ever much liked Lance. I mean, he got the job done, but they know you were the brains behind that operation. They like you. That’s why they set this up.”
“None of this is what I heard. At least not exactly.” Des seemed depressed now, and this saddened Baylor a bit. But not much, for had it gone her way, he’d be dead now.
“Well, let’s hear it.”
“Your Uncle Mavin called me up. Wanted me to meet you, see what I thought. I knew they were setting me up on a blind date, of sorts, but I didn’t mind. Yeah, Lance was an asshole – and it’s true, we were starting to take more chances all the time – but I never figured they wanted him and the gang dead.” She sighed and winced. Her arm was starting to hurt more again, and she looked in her bag for more ibuprofen.
“Can’t always tell with Uncle Mavin and Uncle Odum.”
“Bring you along. Rob this bank in Little Rock, owned by a guy whose wife had screwed them out of some money, and then turn you over to Lance and the New Riders.”
“And may the best man win.”
“They were testing you.”
“Sure they were. If you and the New Riders had killed me, well, they’d still have their business and a gang of the best bank robbers in America. But I got the gang first, and now they’ll feel good about retiring.”
“And what about us? What are we doing now?”
Baylor was prepared to launch into the second part of his pitch to the Harlan Brothers and what they’d agreed to, and the part that he didn’t tell the Harlan’s about. Of course, it was all contingent on his survival.
He started to speak, but he didn’t have time.
The siren blared once and the lights seemed extremely bright. Neither of them had seen the state trooper’s car approach from behind, lost in the story of how they got where they were.
“Sonofagoddambitch,” Baylor let his foot off the accelerator and the big engine started to wind down.
“Damn. Pull over.” Des looked at Baylor and wondered if this was in the goddam plan.
“Yeah,” he slowly edged the car over to the side of the road, downshifted and let it come to rest on the narrow shoulder of the highway. Baylor was fully aware of Des now reloading her .44 with bullets from her shirt pocket. If she was going to shoot him, now was the time, but instead he worked at convincing himself that the trust had been rebuilt, at least mostly, between them. He quickly reloaded the .45 and set it on the floorboard.
The two of them sat in the car for what seemed like several minutes. The trooper’s car remained behind them just a few yards back, lights pulsating. It gave Baylor a minor headache, and he considered asking Des for some ibuprofen, which she had been popping almost non-stop since they left Little Rock.
“Get out of the car.” The fuzzy voice came over loudly from a speaker behind them. It was the cop.
“Dammit,” Baylor said.
“He checked the tags – he knows it’s us.”
They each opened their doors and slowly got out of the car, facing the flashing lights behind them, and beyond that, the makings of a beautiful red sunset. After a few more moments, the trooper stepped out of his car and began to approach them. He was a young fellow, clean shaven, chiseled good looks. Probably used to play high school football, or something along those lines. Baylor made a mental note that the cop was alone.
“Sir,” the cop said as he approached Baylor, “your driver’s license, please.” He remained a good five feet away from Baylor, holding him with a steady gaze, using every bit of his raspy southern drawl to convey authority. The scowl said that he enjoyed being a state trooper.
“Sure, sure…” Baylor said working desperately to smile. Jesus, he thought, maybe he doesn’t know. Then again, why did he have us get out of the car? Wants to keep an eye on us. Baylor reached for his back pocket and his wallet and the trooper let out a very fake cough and rested the palm of his hand on the wooden butt of his revolver, a not-so-subtle way of saying ‘take it easy’. Without taking his eyes off Baylor, he spoke again.
“You too, ma’am.”
Baylor pulled out his license from his wallet and slowly extended his arm towards the cop.
“Freeze,” Des’ voice was almost quiet, ice cold and calculating. She had her .44 out and in both hands, both arms extended over the top of the Pontiac. It looked like it hurt. The barrel of the gun wasn’t seven feet from the trooper’s head.
If the cop had done what Des had suggested, Baylor certainly would’ve known what to do: simply handcuff the guy with his own cuffs to a tree or something nearby and immobile. It would’ve worked. Perfect, really. Still, the young trooper didn’t freeze. He pulled his revolver faster than either of them could see and pointed it right at Baylor’s head. Baylor couldn’t even blink before he was looking down the barrel of the big Magnum. It took both Baylor and Des an extra beat to realize what the cop had done.
“Ma’am, put that gun down right now or I will shoot this man. Please.” His slow drawl was alarmingly calm. He was actually managing the difficult task of looking at both Des and Baylor, one out of each eye, using the full extent of his peripheral vision. Smart fucker, thought Baylor. “If you shoot me,” he said, “I will shoot this man. We don’t want that, do
we?” He was counting on Des not wanting to see Baylor shot. He couldn’t have known how close they’d come to killing each other just a few hours earlier. Worse, the nature of what the trooper had done seemed predicated on what he couldn’t know: that perhaps Des might be an emotional, sympathetic woman who wouldn’t really shoot anyone. Or maybe the trooper knew who she was after all, and was counting on the fact that she’d never killed anyone in a bank heist. Baylor felt a bead of sweat form on his brow.
“No,” she said, “you put your gun down. Do it!” Des raised her voice. The noise of the crickets and bugs in the field next to them began to fill the evening air. She felt a mosquito bite her arm and resisted swatting at it. Had the trooper or Baylor been able to look closer, they would’ve seen Des shaking just a bit due to her injury, which was bleeding again.
“Ma’am, I should tell you that I am the fastest gun on the force. I can unload this thing in under three seconds. I’ll kill him, and I’ll kill you.” The trooper remained so reserved, that Baylor was finding it more and more disconcerting.
“Then I guess we get to sit here and wait, because I’m pretty fast, too.” She said.
“Ma’am, if I don’t check in with headquarters every fifteen minutes, they will come looking for me. So why don’t you put that gun down, save everyone a lot of trouble?”
“When was the last time you checked in with headquarters?”
But the trooper wasn’t about to give away his wild card. It could have been fourteen minutes, it could have been less than a minute, right when he pulled them over.
“When was the last time you checked in?” Des asked again, her voice beginning to strain. The trooper still didn’t respond. Baylor took a deep breath, getting ready for what he thought might happen, what he thought could happen.
“There’s ten million dollars in the back of this car,” Baylor said.
“What…” For the first time, the young trooper seemed thrown off track, unsure. Baylor gave him the perfect poker face, all stone pure sincerity.
“Ten million. Every dime of it yours. You let us go.” Baylor kept his hands just above his shoulders, raised palms outward.
The cop was silent for a good fifteen seconds, clearly racking his brain, but his gun didn’t waver.
“Listen,” Baylor said. “If you look at our licenses, you’ll see were wanted. If you didn’t know that already.” Silence from the trooper. Hell, thought Baylor, he did know. “We’ve got ten million, large bills. You want it? Take it. We just want to go. That’s all.”
“Tell me where you’re going.” The trooper finally spoke again only this time his voice cracked just a bit. “What’re you two doing?”
“We’re going to Mexico. Over to Oklahoma, then Texas, then south.”
“You’re on an east-bound highway. You’re a liar.” The trooper’s gun remained rock-steady in his grip.
“Fine, fine – you’re right. We’re not going to Mexico.” Baylor sighed.
“Canada,” Des spoke. “We’re headed north of the border. Now what?”
The cop allowed a sly smile to cross his face, though he knew better than to say anything. Baylor could read him like a book – probably the only kid at the station house that thought these two fugitives would double back. Maybe he had a bet with the other guys.
“Tell you what,” he drawled, slower than ever. “I get the cash in the trunk, and maybe I
did see this vehicle going westbound.” He nodded slightly to the Firebird.
“You asshole,” Des hissed, shooting a fast glance to Baylor. It took him a split-second, but he caught on fast. She was playing along. “Now this prick gets all the money? God dammit.”
The trooper’s smile remained. Pissing Des off was practically incentive enough to take the money.
“Alright, let’s open the back.” The trooper took two small steps back but kept the gun aimed right at Baylor’s head.
“Okay,” Baylor said, “I’m going to reach in to the car and get the keys. We’ll open up the back.” He began to back up one, then two steps towards the door. He took a deep breath, working and re-working the timing in his head. There would be no need for anyone to be shot if this played just right. The trooper slightly nodded his approval and slowly worked his way to the back of the car, keeping the Magnum trained at Baylor.
Baylor, as if in slow motion, turned his back just slightly on the trooper and opened the door to the Pontiac. He turned and crouched over the bucket seat, leaning into the car, bending at his knees. He reached into the ignition and turned the key chain, pulling out the keys. For the first time he noticed that there was a tiny magic eight-ball dangling at the end of the key chain. He took a second to look at it. Rather than think to silently ask it if this plan with the trooper might work, he wondered if he would ever sleep with Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper. Maybe later, it said.
“Get over here and open this up,” the trooper shouted, though still calm.
Baylor began to rise, but in one fluid motion reached with his left hand under the seat of the car and grabbed Jimmy Yakimoto’s .45. With one more swift turn of his left arm, he managed to shove it into his pants, letting the baggy shirt cover it from view. His heart skipped a beat, but it worked.
“Keep those hands up!” The cop yelled now and Baylor threw his hands in the air, the key ring dangling from his index finger. The trooper was standing squarely behind the car now, Des even closer than before, just to his right, training the .44 at his head.
Baylor made his way to the back of the car, just a touch more quickly now. The trooper, who had been holding the gun with both hands, let it go with his right and extended it towards Baylor. The gun was steady enough in his left. Baylor, who had stopped just right, handed him the keys for the small space in the back of the car with his thumb and index finger, like holding a piece of rotten fish.
“It’s all yours,” he said in a whisper, with just the slightest smile. Needed to keep that thought of big bucks – the big payoff – in the trooper’s mind.
For all three of them, time had become an excruciating slow motion picture show, everything seemed to take hours not minutes and seconds. Baylor kept his hands up, but not very high. Using his gift for peripheral vision, the cop found the keyhole and the back opened with a gratifying pop and a swooshing hydraulic noise. The trunk space mechanism released, and the rear windshield lifted from the frame of the car.
The trooper now offered a slight, almost imperceptible grimace. He would have to take his eyes off Baylor and Des to look down at the back of the car, into the trunk space to confirm the money was there. He could look at the both of them, down the barrel of his gun, but he couldn’t look down, too. Still, he would have to. The train had left the station, and he was in far too deep now.
And that’s when it happened, just as Baylor had hoped it might – an event even the trooper couldn’t have foreseen, his back to the road and oncoming traffic. This was unfortunate, really, because the trooper was fast. And he knew he was fast. He was prepared to glance his eyes downward, see the money – certainly no ten million – realize the setup and either shoot or do something else. But that would never happen.
Baylor had seen the faraway headlights from an oncoming car way in the distance when the trooper first asked him for his license. They were tiny specks, off in the horizon and Baylor wasn’t sure then that such a situation would ever present itself. He had gambled on the young trooper’s greed and won. Even then, the timing would have to be just so. And it was. At nearly the perfect moment, the trooper made the decision to look down, just a split second. In fact, he had prepared himself to look down and shoot Des first – she had the gun he knew about – then shoot Baylor and plant a little .22 he had in the car on him, keep the money for himself. It would’ve worked, too, but as the car sped by the parked cruiser and the Firebird, he just couldn’t help but look up and glance over. It was instinct ingrained in him from hours and hours of training. Troopers get killed on the side of the road every year and they have to be careful. Watching out for oncoming traffic is just something you do. Worse, the car was overflowing with college kids who whooped and hollered wildly as they went by, the radio blasting something awful, apparently oblivious to the dangerous situation on the shoulder. It was more than Baylor could’ve asked for, really. The young trooper lost not one, but two valuable moments.
And that’s when Baylor – not as fast as Des or the trooper – pulled the .45. The gun barrels from the trooper’s gun and the .45 could’ve touched had Baylor just shifted slightly to his left. When their eyes met again the trooper visibly winced, realizing in an instant the tragic mistake he’d made.
It was true, though, that the cop could’ve still shot Baylor, but he wasn’t fast enough to take two guns out. He could’ve tried for the girl – he’d noticed her slight shaking – but now the guy would get him for sure. And the inverse was true. He was stuck, surely dead if he fired on either one.
“Put it down,” Baylor said. He spoke as casually and as assuredly as he had before, maintaining eye contact. The noise of the speeding car faded in to the distance. There was no more oncoming traffic on the lonely back highway.
“Motherfucker… that ain’t ten million dollars.” The cop snarled and his gun clattered with a lot of noise to the ground.
“You knew we were lying about Mexico,” Baylor gave him an I-can’t-believe-you’re-so-stupid look. “What on earth made you think we had ten million? That’s not even close, I’m sad to say.”
The cop didn’t answer. Now his lower lip was starting to quiver. Baylor turned to Des, who was pale and clearly stunned herself.
“Will you go turn off those goddam lights, please?” He asked her. Wordlessly, she walked back to the trooper’s car and in a moment, the lights died. The sun was setting and it began to get darker and darker on the cloudless evening. There were no streetlights.
“Well, alright, then… you gonna kill me?’ The trooper finally burst in to wild, uncontrolled sobbing, his tears flowing freely and unashamedly. Baylor worked hard to contain his laughter. It occurred to him that his crazy smiling and giggling weren’t doing much for the trooper’s morale.
“No,” Des said, returning to the Pontiac, her gun still out but now relaxed by her side. She wasn’t using her left arm at all. “We’re not going to kill you.”
“Here’s what you’re going to do for us. Jesus Christ, stop crying.” Baylor couldn’t believe the trooper was still sobbing like a child. “Get on your radio and tell ‘em you saw this car,” he pointed to the Pontiac, “with those tags going west. Say it was across the median or something, you couldn’t get over there in time.” The trooper looked puzzled, and he sniffled. “Just do it, okay? We won’t kill you if you do it right.” The slight, well-hidden look of admiration from Des did not go unnoticed by Baylor.
First, the trooper radioed his headquarters. Both Baylor and Des were sufficiently pleased that he didn’t use any sort of code to give them away. Also, Baylor noted with some relief that the cop’s voice wasn’t too shaky. This was enough to satisfy the fugitives that the cops would be thrown off their scent, at least for now. After the radio call, Baylor instructed the trooper to strip down, completely naked. The only joy he took in doing this was on a frat-boy level. It generally wasn’t pleasant, and he wanted to make Des turn around or something, but this was not about the trooper’s dignity, something he’d totally lost during the first crying jag. It was dark now, and getting colder. The trooper’s bare skin was covered in goose bumps, and his penis was a shriveled tiny lump between his legs.
Des put the trooper’s clothes in the back seat of the cruiser, along with the duffle bags of money. Baylor walked the trooper from the other side of the car, hidden from traffic, non-existent now, anyway, to the Pontiac. The trooper worked to cover himself in vain. The trunk space was still open.
“Get in,” Baylor said. There was little room, but just enough if the trooper got in the fetal position.
“It’ll be alright,” Des said. She was consoling, now, as the trooper had begun weeping again. There was a low grunt as Baylor closed the hatch on the trooper.
Wordlessly, Baylor and Des climbed into the Firebird, and he started it up, heading a few miles down the road towards the interchange. It was a good ten-minute drive. When they reached it, Baylor counted to twenty-Mississippi, then turned around in the middle of the dark road. He drove about halfway back to where the cruiser had pulled them over originally and stopped the car at the grassy side of the road. They waited for a yellow pickup truck to pass, made sure no one else was coming from either direction, then got out of the car. Baylor opened the hatch to the back where the trooper lay curled up, still crying quietly.
“Okay, get out,” Baylor said, and leaned down to offer his hand.
The pain came from out of nowhere – it shot through Baylor’s right arm, all the way to his shoulder. He fell back on his ass and grabbed his forearm, yelling. He looked up in time to see Des thrust a fist – her good arm – downward, hard and heard the satisfying ‘smack’ and a groan. Des reached in and with just a slight tug, pulled the tire iron out of the grasp of the trooper, dropping it to the ground. Luckily, the trooper had very little leverage to get off a decent swing. Baylor stood up, still rubbing his arm.
“Alright, you fucking shit, here’s the goddam deal.” Baylor was now in a foul mood, and didn’t care if the trooper cried for the rest of his life. “You can either run towards the interchange and you might be able to see if we’re really going north, or if we’ve changed our minds and are now going south.”
“You two are dead…” The trooper hissed, spittle forming at the corners of his pale lips.
“You’re in the middle of nowhere. You can turn and run back to your car and maybe get dressed before your buddies show up. Or you can try to see where we’re headed. But no way you have time for both.” Des was leaning over the shivering trooper now.
“You come running for us, they’ll definitely find you before you get back to your car and get dressed. I imagine that’d make you the laughingstock of the force for a long, long time.” Baylor said.
The naked cop bowed his head, defeated.
“We gotta go.” Des said. They got in the car and drove away, watching the state trooper get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.
All My Ex Theories Live in Texas
Craig was thoroughly convinced that there was no way the two fugitives were on their way to Mexico, but convincing Section Chief Wilson was another matter. The first aid kit tip bought him a few more hours before heading to the Little Rock Airport, where a plane would be ready to take them to Dallas, then Austin. After another briefing with the Directorate Central and the Border Patrol, they would board another, smaller plane that would take them to Laredo, McAllen, Zapata, Eagle Pass and several other border towns where they would get the border patrol posts on high alert, watching for the two fugitives. Helicopters were being fueled at strategic points along the border to pick up the agents – or the captured fugitives – at a moment’s notice. They would have the net set up across much of the passable border before morning.
Of course, all of it was assuming that the two were actually preparing to cross the border into Mexico. No longer believing that was the case, Craig was still hoping for some sort of breakthrough as he and Murtowski ate at a Waffle House before heading to the airport. Craig had encouraged the rookie to eat up, as it might be the last time they got to eat something half-decent for some time. Border stakeouts were notoriously long – certainly longer than their stakeout in Memphis – and frustratingly unproductive. Craig hated the thought, the sand and the heat. He shuddered at the notion as his cell phone rang.
“We may have a sighting,” Wilson sighed the news reluctantly, not a man used to being wrong, or being proven wrong, especially by subordinates.
“Where?” Craig said, already pulling out his wallet to pay for the food
“Northeast Arkansas. Got a state trooper up there, and I don’t like what I’m hearing.”
“What are you hearing?”
“Nothing, that’s the point. Get up there, fast. Run the siren. Some troopers will be on standby to escort you up there, get you through traffic.”
Agent Craig didn’t even say goodbye, he just flipped the phone down and started to shuffle out of the booth, leaving way too much cash by the check.
“What?” said Murtowski, his face still crammed full of fries.
“Instinct, Cowboy, instinct.” Craig couldn’t help but smile a bit. So, Baylor Roman and Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper had a little run-in with a local law enforcement goober.
Craig realized he couldn’t wait to hear what, exactly, happened. That no one was dead seemed to him a slight miracle.
“What!” Murtowski said again, working to choke down more fries and a bite of his burger.
“I’ll explain as we go.” Craig was already running out the door.
It took them only a few moments to cross the Arkansas River and head north. The traffic gave their speeding car – lights flashing, siren blaring – plenty of leeway. And as Wilson had promised there were two State Trooper cruisers pulled off to the side of the road, not five miles in to I-40, waiting for the FBI Crown Vic. One pulled in front, one blew ahead to clear traffic, and they had an impromptu motorcade. Agent Craig was pleased.
Of course, they couldn’t have predicted the truck jackknifed twenty or so miles into their trip, cutting off all four lanes of traffic. As they approached the scene, the troopers stopped, got out and inspected the damage along with a couple of other cops who had just shown up as well. One of the troopers, standing just a few feet from the overturned rig, looked back at the Crown Victoria and just shrugged.
Murtowski thought fuck, and Craig just seethed. It didn’t seem they could get around without driving through a very deep ditch, and though he was in the mood to try, Craig thought the better of it. Finally, after moving some of the debris out of the far right side of the roadway, and moving a few cars ahead and around the overturned truck, Craig and Murtowski followed one of the troopers around as well. They lost almost an hour.
When they finally did arrive at the State Trooper’s outpost near Jonesboro, they had more or less forgotten the incident, though Agent Craig was officially in a bad mood, and Murtowski had to pee like hell. Even though the trooper with whom they were to speak – a ‘Tommy’, according to the Division Commander – had been back for several hours now, the two FBI agents were made to wait. This infuriated Craig even more.
The Division Commander returned with two file folders containing the statement that Trooper Thomas Ridgley had given. Agent Craig felt the runaround even before he’d received the file folders. Something had happened – he was sure – and it was evident that the local Arkansas State Troopers were working fiercely to protect their own. Finally, Craig and Murtowski were escorted to a small room in the back, the windowless interrogation room. Inside sat a young man, short blond hair in his rumpled trooper’s uniform. His eye was black and very swollen, his cheek cut, with two small band-aids covering it, and his lip was puffy. There were blood stains on his uniform.
The Division Commander, before closing the door to leave the two agents alone with the trooper – something Wilson had set up – gave them each a stern look. “Now, Tommy hasn’t gone to the hospital yet,” he said, creasing his brow, “he’s been waitin’ here on you two so you can get his story. Now, I’m gonna ask nice – don’t you two take too long. We need to get this man to a hospital. Tommy,” he turned his attention to the young trooper, “you need anything, you just holler, now, hear?” Tommy muttered a yessir, more under his breath than anything.
That did it. The Division Commander was clearly working to protect his young trooper. But from what? Craig didn’t know yet. Even being in the interrogation room was suspect – the Division Commander and others could and would watch from behind the one-way mirror.
“Well, Trooper Ridgley,” Craig started out slow. On the way up, he’d briefed Murtowski on the whole thing. He wanted to handle the questioning, because if there was any discrepancy at all, the troopers would undoubtedly work to change it, and he needed to know exactly what happened with Baylor and Des. “I believe you’ve run in to some folks we’re looking for.”
Ridgley remained silent, fiddling with his hands.
“Tommy,” Craig said, “we’re in kind of a hurry, here. Can you tell me where they were headed? Which direction?
Ridgley shrugged his shoulders and let out a kind of noncommittal grunt.
“Now, surely you saw which way the car was going.”
“I dunno.” Trooper Ridgley never made eye contact. Agent Craig was working very hard to remain patient. But his patience was running out. Why couldn’t the boy just give a goddam direction? What on earth was he afraid of? This noncommittal nonsense could only mean that something terrible happened, and he just didn’t have his story straight yet.
“Listen, Tommy,” Craig, trying again. “You told the other troopers that you ran in to these two. What happened?” This was a broad approach, and not one that Craig wanted to take, but it was clear that Tommy Ridgley was clamming up. Craig leaned in, just a bit, in order to shield his face a bit from the mirror, and gave a glare to Ridgley.
“I pulled them over. ‘Bout six-thirty.” He was looking down, no eye contact.
“Records says more like six-forty-five.” Murtowski couldn’t keep his damn mouth shut. Craig shot him a glance, trying to wave him off. The least little thing could shut Ridgley down.
“Whatever,” Ridgley continued, “six-forty-five. Did the routine. Called it in.” Ridgley looked at Agent Craig, now. “I mean, hell, they weren’t going too fast, an’ everyone with a car like that ‘round here gonna go a hunnert miles an hour, specially down that stretch a’ road. ‘Less they’re tryin’ to hide something.”
This was a start.
“So,” Craig ventured, “who had the gun?”
Ridgley waited a moment, then spoke. “It was her,” he spat the word ‘her.’ “She pulled her gun out first. An old lookin’ .44.. I put my hands up, like they tole me to, like they taught us.” He had stopped fidgeting, Craig noticed. “But then, he pulled a gun on her.” Now he was beginning to make eye contact. His story was coming together.
“Right, keep going, Tommy.” Craig was leaning back in his chair now, his hands folded in his lap, non-threatening.
“Can I have a smoke?” Ridgley asked. Craig briefly glanced at Murtowski and pulled out a pack of cigarettes he’d bought for himself back in Little Rock under an inordinate amount of guilt. He tamped one out for the shaky trooper and lit it with the matches from the gas station, the smoke finally escaping the young man’s trembling lips.
“They started yellin’, bout the money. He told her to back off, an’ she wouldn’t do it,” now he was speaking too fast, “an’ then he said he’d kill her, an’ then her him. That’s when I jumped him. Well, she came aroun’ the other side of the car and knocked me on the head.” He put a delicate hand to his face. “And that was it. They beat me pretty good.” He took a deep drag on the cigarette. “That’s why I don’t know where they’re going. I was too beat up to tell.”
“So, they were fighting,” Craig said.
“Yeah. Real bad.”
“But they drove off together.”
“After he pulled his gun on you.”
“Except…,” Craig hesitated, to see if the kid had caught the switch and to see if the Commander would bust through the door and have the two agents escorted out. No one wants to see one of their own busted. “Except I though you said she pulled her gun first.”
“What? No. Yeah. I mean, yeah. She did. Look, my head is all fucked up,” Tommy shook his head and tried to flutter his eyes. The poor sick kid; Craig wasn’t buying.
“Let’s back up.” Craig leaned back, trying to calm the situation. “You pulled them over, going north-bound.”
“Right,” Ridgely was starting to sweat, and the smoke from his cigarette dissipated into the air with every tremor of his hand.
“And a fight broke out shortly thereafter.”
“That’s right,” Ridgley was starting to get exasperated, and Craig knew he’d have to work even faster.
“So, how come when you checked back in after you said you were beaten, you claimed to be going southbound?” Silence filled the room. Agent Craig had taken a chance that the kid would just instinctively remember that he was going northbound at the time he pulled them over, and agree to it. That, for whatever reason, he’d changed up the story.
“Ridgley,” Murtowski started in, but got another glance from Craig.
“Ridgley, look,” Craig said, “whatever happened, I don’t care. I need to confirm that this was them, and you need to tell me which way they went. If they’re southbound, and just drove up here to throw us off, I’ve got five-hundred guys, probably more, at the Mexican border I need wake up right now. If they’re northbound, and you don’t tell us, they’ll get away. You want that?”
Ridgley shrugged, working his way back into his protective shell.
“Fuck!” Craig screamed, trying a different approach, knowing he had about ten seconds before the Commander and about five other troopers came in to shut down the interview. “Well, how about this, you smarmy fucking redneck. One of them pulls a gun. But you’re a cowboy about it, and rather than just throw up your hands, you pull a gun, tough guy. Maybe you point it at the other one, right? A real Mexican fucking standoff. What next? One or the other gets the drop on you. They offer you money? She has fantastic tits, I hear. She offer to flash her tits to you? Goddamit, Ridgley, where the fuck did they go?” The door to the room burst open and there stood the crusty old Division Commander and six other troopers, all of whom looked quite pissed.
“I think he’s had enough, Agent Craig,” the Division Commander kept his tone low and cool, but forceful. Craig ignored him, stood and threw down his chair, knocking it over.
“What was it? They didn’t cuff you. What? They knock you out? Those cuts look pretty bad. Was it hard to hit yourself? We can take you in to forensics, prove that you hit yourself, Tommy…”
“Goddamit! I said he’s had enough!” The Division Commander wasn’t holding back any more, and the other troopers were coming through the door, behind their boss.
“North or south, Ridgley,” Murtowski said from the back of the room. But Craig didn’t need the answer. It was confirmed in Ridgley’s pathetic silence. He would say all night that he didn’t know, because he’d convinced himself that was true. But everyone knew the truth now. Baylor Roman and Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper were going north, and Trooper Ridgley had just happened to catch them at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Craig and Murtowski began to leave the room, brushing past angry troopers in the process. As they reached the door to the little room, Craig spoke one last time.
“Tommy,” he said, “at some point, if anyone ever takes the time to give a shit, they’re going to figure this one out. I’d have a better story if I was you.”
Avery Denton Nationwide Trucking
Baylor Roman had driven through the night and it showed. He had taken a more circuitous route than any time since his adventure had begun just days earlier, around back roads, dodging even small towns. He’d gone past Jonesboro, then straight up to Missouri, then east again, into a bit of Kentucky and finally back south to Tennessee. When he finally stopped, they were not far at all from the Virginia/Tennessee border, where Baylor had crossed going in the other direction.
It had been a long, slow drive. At some point late in the evening, Desdemona fell asleep in the passenger seat. Baylor pushed through, keeping the radio on but low, only able to tune in low-wattage country and bluegrass stations, and the occasional talk-radio show. It was fine with him, though he was tired as well. There were few other cars on the road in the dark of night. He felt as if they were in reach of the final leg of the trip. This made him feel alternately very good and a little bit melancholy. Melancholy, perhaps, because he liked the road, liked the driving – even on the run. Also, maybe, because he knew that no matter how this turned out for him, for Des, for his uncles or for anyone else that time on the road – for better or for worse – can never be replicated.
He spent some time watching the glow of the dashboard lights reflect off Desdemona’s white skin. She was sleeping peacefully, deeply, and barely stirred as the car growled through the night. Baylor took this as a good sign, that her wound wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, though he still didn’t think it looked very good. If she was sleeping well, she could handle the pain. This is what he told himself, and it was some comfort.
It was three in the morning on Wednesday when he finally reached his temporary destination: a truck stop near the freeway and not far from a highway that could take them in a totally different direction, were an emergency to arise. It was a twenty-four hour little place – the kind with showers and a lounge in the back, designed for cross-country truckers who were just too tired to keep going. A weigh station on our route to destiny, Baylor thought, and pulled the car into the lot. No trucks were moving or even running. There was a light on in the restaurant and store, but he didn’t see anyone. He drove the car around back. The building hid them from the freeway, and a giant green dumpster hid them from the entrance. He had squeezed in beside a semi so it would be tough to spot the car. He killed the engine, and curled up in his seat, hoping for five hours of sleep, but figuring more like three or four, that the truckers would start up for the road about six-thirty, maybe seven. Baylor fell asleep thinking about the last three big steps that would be taken before all of this was over.
The truckers gave Baylor about four hours, and the first rig fired up at just before seven o’clock, and the second and third followed shortly after that. One of them released air brakes to a squeal and a whooshing sound, and that’s what woke Baylor. He was groggy, and looked across at Des, who was awake, but not moving. She finally yawned, unapologetically.
“Where the hell are we?” she asked. Her shirt was wrinkled and here eyes were puffy. Baylor noted with a combination of relief and great pleasure that she hadn’t killed him in the night or even run off. Somewhere along the line, she had become convinced that his plan might work. Shortly after leaving Trooper Ridgley in Arkansas, he’d begun to tell her the rest of the story he had been cut off from before.
“We’re here,” he said. “Let’s get something to eat.” He looked at his watch, and straightened his cramped legs as best he could. He opened the car door and almost absentmindedly grabbed the .45, tucking it into the back of his pants, pulling his shirt down past it. As they climbed out of the car, their joints popped and cracked. Des arched her back to the sky. Even tired and in the early morning sun, she was beautiful.
The truck stop was one of those places teetering between reality and the surreal world of the American trucker. Scruffy men in worn caps and cowboy hats sat at various places in the restaurant side of the building, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. On the other side, a bored young woman was watching a morning show on a television mounted in the corner, sitting behind a register, waiting for someone to buy an air freshener or some junk food, maybe a bumper sticker or a quart of oil. It was a strange place, had a strange aura. There was a comfort, but it was filled with people who don’t know each other. Still, there was an atmosphere of camaraderie, built from a mutual life lived on the road. All of them – except for the waitresses and the bored girl – drove very big trucks filled with important things going somewhere important. Or filled with empty things going home – it didn’t seem to matter. Baylor took special notice of the man who looked just like Richard Petty in his big black cowboy hat with feathers and such around the brim, his black t-shirt and mirror sunglasses talking to two other men nearby, both of them somewhat overweight, scruffy beards and longer hair. Their hats were different, their shirts were different, but that was about it. They laughed quietly and respected the morning mood.
Baylor and Des both drew in deeply the smell of breakfast, and realized that they were starving. Sizzling bacon could be heard on the griddle in the back. Des smelled frying eggs, Baylor took in the coffee. They were shaking.
There was a booth near the corner where Baylor led Des. Sitting facing the door was a black man – the only African American fellow in the place, though this didn’t seem to bother him or anyone else – wearing a thin rayon shirt and a ratty cap, the kind with the plastic netting in the back. Baylor watched him sipping his coffee, digging a fork into a big plate of eggs and potatoes. As they approached, Baylor motioned Des to sit down. She wasn’t entirely sure about the situation but sat on the inside of the booth, by the plate glass window, looking out into the field of gas pumps set up for semi trucks.
Baylor spoke first. “Hey, Avery.” He smiled, but he didn’t offer his hand. “Man, that coffee smells damn good. Avery, this is Des. Des,” he looked at her to his right, “this is Avery.”
“Boy,” the older man said, ignoring the introduction, “you two are all over the TV.” He spoke in a quiet, gravelly voice.
“I’ll sweeten the pot, Avery,” Baylor said, looking down. “Another ten-thousand. How’s that?”
A woman in a brown plaid dress with comfortable yellow shoes came to take their order. They both ordered the largest breakfast on the menu, and Baylor got an extra side of toast and grits.
“For another ten – okay. You’re uncles would be proud of you, boy, making it this far.” He turned his steely eyes to Des. “As for you, young lady,” he extended his right hand across the table, took her hand in his briefly, and made her blush with a deep, soulful look into her eyes, “I was bettin’ on you all along.” Des smiled, keeping her eyes locked on the old trucker.
Avery proceeded to tell them how their entire story was being replayed on just about every news channel in America. He specifically highlighted the parts about the FBI agents in Memphis and the bank in Little Rock, which is what most of the stations were focusing on. This troubled Baylor, and he’d hoped the news cycle would churn it out and folks would lose interest. It didn’t seem to be playing that way. Many of the news outlets were focusing on Des’ past – Avery paid particular attention to her when he talked about this, as they gulped down bite after bite of piping hot breakfast.
Baylor finished breakfast listening to Avery talk about the different aspects of the news coverage and didn’t say much. His analysis was mixed – the abundance of the coverage was bad. But if there was going to be a time to focus great attention on their past actions, now would be it, as they were preparing to lay low, if only for a short time. It was decent timing.
After everyone had finished their food and finished listening to Avery tell them about their fifteen minutes, Baylor and Des went to the bathroom to finally freshen up from the drive through the night, and walked out of the restaurant, leaving plenty of cash on the counter to cover the tab and the tip. They met back at the Firebird. Des grabbed the two guns from the backseat, the first aid kit and stuffed it all into her backpack.
“Well,” Baylor said, opening the back to get the money out. “What do you think?” He was smiling, but she could see he was tired. He grabbed the bags from the bank and the money from Ritchie Torres. It was a lot to carry.
“Aren’t you going to miss this car?” She asked him, grabbing one of the bags with her good arm.
He paused. “Sure. It’s been a good car.” They looked at it, side by side, for a moment. He felt a little guilty suddenly, leaving it by a dumpster as if he were throwing it away. That wasn’t his intention. The car had been good to him.
Finally, they walked away.
On the other side of the building next to the gas pumps was a concrete field that seemed to sprout trucks of varying shapes and sizes. Most were attached to long trailers, some carried cars headed for a dealership somewhere else, and still others had nothing behind the cab, maybe headed home. Nearest to the building, a large white cab towing a dirty trailer had pulled within twenty feet of the building. It was a Mack truck, with a large cab and an extended front to house the big diesel engine. On the side, painted in a faded blue were the words ‘Avery Denton Nationwide Trucking.’
“Here we go,” Avery himself leaned out of the high window of the truck, smiling but clearly ready to get a move on. The news coverage of his new freight had made him nervous, and for this Baylor felt a little guilty.
Wordlessly but quickly Baylor and Des walked to the other side of the cab and climbed up. Baylor, sitting in the middle of the cab and Des to his right, by the window. The cab of the truck had been completely customized.
“It’s my home away from home,” Avery smiled at them both as he put the rig in gear, “may as well have it be as comfortable as you can.”
The front featured a bench-style seat that ran the length of the cab, and a back that was tilted backwards. Baylor noticed that Avery had a variety of pillows and small blankets stuffed behind and under. He’d heard stories from his uncle’s about their trucker friends in the Teamsters with bad backs from driving for forever. The cockpit of the cab was epic, and it looked like something out of a science fiction movie. Baylor looked at Des and raised his eyebrows in wonder. She started to say something sarcastic about his choosing a sports car over a rig like this, but held her tongue. She liked Avery Denton, and didn’t want to run this risk of offending him.
The back of the cab was what was truly amazing. It was almost six feet tall and maybe a little deeper. There was a small cot, a set of shelves – one of which featured a television and VCR – and a small closet area that featured jeans and several more rayon shirts like the one Avery was already wearing. It was a little tiny bedroom in the back of the truck. Baylor was wildly impressed.
“Is that where you watch TV?” Baylor asked, realizing he’d never really thought about where a man who was driving all day might watch TV at night. He’d assumed the man just got a hotel room – but hotel rooms were expensive.
“At night. Usually just pull over to a truck stop or a rest area. Nothing like it late at night, everything’s quiet, and I can just lay there and watch a little news, maybe the weather. Get some sleep and be back on the road. Don’t have to worry about checkin’ out, ‘bout your luggage. An’ it’s free.” Avery seemed much more relaxed as he pulled the semi onto the freeway.
“So, how far you think we got to go?” Baylor asked.
“Well, with no troubles, should be just about seven or eight hours to the shore. I’d say five, maybe six this afternoon, if we stop for lunch.”
They sat watching the trees and green go past. It took him time, but Baylor finally realized that he felt strange because he hadn’t been driving seventy miles-per-hour, as Avery was doing now. It felt faster because it was faster. Baylor began to feel the heaviness of breakfast take its toll on him, and his eyes grew heavy. Still, Des spoke up first.
“Listen, now, Avery,” she said, “I don’t want you to take offense, but I am so tired…”
He didn’t even let her finish.
“Well, girl, I was just gonna say,” he smiled and looked at them, but then quickly turned his eyes back to the road. “You two ought to lay low. These windows not tinted like that Pontiac. People look in an’ see an ol’ black man driving two white kids in a semi, they’re gonna wonder.” This brought him great pleasure to say and he smiled wide, as did Baylor. “Why don’t the both of you climb into the back there, get some rest. There’s a shield that closes. You can turn on the TV, you want to.”
Baylor gave Avery a pat on the shoulder, and allowed himself a smile as the older man gave him an overt wink. It occurred to Baylor to perhaps drag the bags of money along with him from the floor of the cab, but that would probably offend Avery, too. So he let it go.
The two fugitives sat side by side on the small bed, and Baylor Roman realized for the first time just how awkward their immediate situation had become. Des didn’t seem to care, and she offered a sly smile and took off her shirt. Baylor was stunned, and too tired to say anything, anyway. She looked extraordinary, better even than he had imagined her, with skin pure and silky, and her breasts filling the black lace bra and then some. They were smiling, and he reached behind her to turn off the little light by the bed.
Less than five hours later, long after they’d fallen asleep, his arm draped around her, Avery was reaching back to pound on the divider.
“Boy, turn on that TV in there!” Avery was yelling.
“Yeah, okay,” Baylor said loudly, working to lose the grogginess from having slept so hard. He shook it off, felt glad for the nap, felt that awake feeling of being rested and quite refreshed. Des was awake, too, and coyly pulled the covers up to her chin. Her smile was purely innocent now, in a manner of speaking, and he liked it a great deal.
“I could’ve used another hour,” she whispered to him.
“Hmm,” he smiled back at her as he leaned to turn on the little TV set. It took him a few minutes of clicking around the stations, waiting to get a little closer to a station tower from the interstate, but they finally, if barely, picked up a local broadcast. It was a special report.
“…FBI now has reason to believe that the fugitives, known now as the ‘Firebird Fugitives’, are heading north, contrary to earlier reports from investigators who had followed the two south…”
“They’re on to us. Heard it on the radio just a bit ago, couple a’ rednecks talkin’ back and forth.” Avery lowered the shield between the back of the cab and the front. “I assume you two are decent back there.” He wanted to laugh at his own joke, but was too worried now. Baylor didn’t need to say anything. It was obvious Avery was right. He turned his attention back to the little set. Des was now sitting up, listening intently, trying to ignore the static.
“…have found what they believe to be the Pontiac Firebird used by the two fugitives at a truck stop near Interstate 81 at the Virginia border. More details at…”
That was all any of them needed to hear. They’d found the car. Somehow the FBI had figured it out. Baylor was frustrated. He had been fairly proud of this part of the plan in that he was sure the FBI would be piled up on the Mexican border. Maybe poor Tommy Ridgley had figured it all out. Des interrupted his train of thought, reading his mind.
“It doesn’t matter how they figured it out,” she touched his arm gently, “they figured it out.” She was sitting up, and Baylor hoped that Avery couldn’t see into the back because she was completely topless, letting the sheet and blanket fall to her lap. “Hand me my shirt?”
He certainly didn’t want to, but he did just that.
“Son,” Avery was yelling back to them again, “if they know you ditched the car at a truck stop, they’re going to be looking for a truck. I don’t think I’ll be able to get you as far as you need to go.” He seemed truly distraught by this notion.
“You’re right, Avery – besides, I wouldn’t want you to try. Too dangerous.” Baylor was pulling his own shirt over his head, now. “How far are we from D.C.?”
“Maybe an hour or so. Traffic doesn’t look too bad. Maybe less.”
“Listen,” Baylor was dressed now, leaning over the back over the seat into the cockpit of the cab. “We’ll be fine, Avery. No problems. Our deal is still on.”
Des was leaning forward, too. Baylor took notice that she’d re-bandaged her arm. And tucked one of the .9 millimeters into the back of her pants.
“You two get ready to run,” Avery was clearly in full-fledged worry mode again, and they could tell the truck was gaining speed. “God forbid. And just stay back there until we hit D.C.”
Baylor and Des leaned back into the floor of the sleeper cab, leaning next to each other against the side of the little bed. He looked at her as she rifled through her backpack.
“Are you going to be okay?” He was asking her specifically about her arm, but it was fair to apply to everything in general.
“Sure,” she smiled, handing him a gray cell phone she’d pulled from her bag, “maybe you need to make that call to your friend now.”
The plane ride wasn’t getting any better, and even Agent Craig, who had ridden in dozens, maybe hundreds of planes just like this one, was starting to feel slightly ill. He’d watched Murtowski squirm out of his jump seat of the C-130 and rush towards the back of the plane, looking for a bathroom to puke in. The turbulence was nearly unbearable, but this was the fastest way to get the agents back to D.C. – Craig was now convinced that Baylor Roman and Desdemona Culpepper were headed back there; why, he couldn’t say – hitching a ride on a military transport plane. The Section Chief actually apologized after an FBI team out of Nashville drove to the site of the Pontiac and confirmed it as the one Baylor Roman had taken from Jimmy ‘The Deal’ Yakimoto. A trucker who had spotted the car and thought it looked suspicious called the tip line number he’d seen on TV. Had it not been for the tip, the entire task force would likely be assembled on the Mexican border right now, with the fugitives headed back north, even after the incident with the Arkansas State Trooper.
Murtowski was back, fumbling with his buckle in the jump seat. Unlike conventional aircraft, the C-130 was noisy, not geared towards passenger needs.
“Why are they headed back north?” Murtowski had quieted down a great deal over the last several hours. Before, he’d openly questioned Craig’s notion that the pair were not headed to Mexico, but were on some kind of diversionary mission. He thought Agent Craig’s idea of the Harlan Brothers was ridiculous. Now he didn’t know what to think.
“We’ve been going about this all wrong.” Craig said, screaming over the roar of the engines. “It’s not just one thing – one job. Baylor Roman killed Jimmy Yakimoto for a reason. He robbed the restaurant in Tennessee for a reason, he met up with Desdemona Culpepper for a reason, and they killed the gang for a reason. They robbed the bank for a reason. And they’re going back to D.C. for a reason.”
“It’s like an obstacle course.” Murtowski said after a moment.
“An obstacle course. Like at Quantico. It’s not just the one thing – running up a hill, jumping through hoops, whatever – it’s all of it. We’ve only seen them go through a few obstacles. But maybe they’re being judged on the whole thing…” Murtowski trailed off, realizing where his logic was taking him.
“Right, Cowboy. That’s right.” Craig actually admired the kid’s train of thought, and appreciated where it was taking him. “So, that leaves us three big questions: What’s the next obstacle? And when do they go through it…”
“And who’s putting them up to it?” Murtowski finished.
“That’s right, Cowboy. That’s right” Craig decided to let the rookie think on it for a bit and sat back as best he could in the seat. Agent Craig wasn’t so sure that D.C. was the final stop for his prey. It didn’t make sense. A city crawling with federal agents – the headquarters of all of the federal policing agencies in America – not to mention the local police who would be on alert by now, as well as the surrounding areas, on the lookout for the two fugitives. No, they were headed somewhere else. ‘Where’ was another matter.
As Agent Frank Craig sped towards D.C. in a military transport plane, Ritchie Torres and Kurkel Neekelwender were leaving, driving east towards the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Less than two hours before the two lawyers had gotten in the car, Ritchie Torres got a call he’d been expecting for some time. This excited him, but any condition to deal with excitement was nearly beyond repair. After several straight nights of steady drinking and smoking, he’d begun to look like a wreck. He was unshaven, dirty, and bleary-eyed. And that was just the look. The smell and feel were much worse.
Tuesday night, after opening their envelopes at Lem’s, Ritchie and Kurkel had spent hours sitting, drinking, reading the offer from Moisha Bravinski and Blue, Hatchett, Lutrell & Kuhns. The two men ordered drink after drink, debating whether or not to sign on to the deal which would ensure their relative long-term wealth and job security, but would require them to sell out their current clients, ruthless and vicious gangsters, to a rival gang of ruthless and vicious gangsters. Before even opening their offer packages from Moisha Bravinski, Ritchie and Kurkel postulated hypotheticals on how they would deliver the Tokyo Tigers to the Russian Bratva. At this point, Ritchie didn’t know that Baylor was on his way back to D.C.
“We tell Hideo and the Tigers that he came back – that maybe the girl made him come back. That I talked to him and he’s going to be at such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time, they show up, Moisha’s guys come in,” Ritchie drew heavily on his third martini of the night. “It’s all over.”
“And what of Baylor?” Kurkel wasn’t convinced.
“What? What about him?” Ritchie was getting drunk, fatigued from the stress and night after night of excessive alcohol consumption. “He was just the goddam courier, Kurk. He’s in Mexico right now. If he can just avoid the feds for one more day, the Tigers will never be the wiser.”
Kurkel paused for some time, drinking his vodka, contemplating some more.
“What if the police do catch him? Say, tonight?” The two lawyers drank and talked about different scenarios for hours. It all came down to the same thing – if at the very least they wanted to live, then Baylor Roman and Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper needed to be brought back somehow. Or the war needed to be brought to them.
“We get a team from the Tigers down to Mexico. Wait for Baylor to surface, and…” Ritchie had taken to finishing sentences this way: ‘and…’ fading off, realizing that his partner was fully aware of what it entailed: bloodshed, betrayal, death for gang members who had been very good to them and a fairly comfortable lifestyle for themselves in return for a much more comfortable lifestyle. It was the American dream. As the men got drunker and drunker, nothing got resolved. Finally, both Kurkel and Ritchie signed their papers, placed them in the night deposit delivery at Blue, Hatchett, Lutrell & Kuhns and went home, depressed, with no idea of how they might fulfill their new obligation.
– – – – –
Ritchie Torres woke up late the next morning to a ringing phone, for some moments indistinguishable from the gin-induced ringing in his ears. He still had no idea what he and his partner might do to find Baylor Roman, and now they had committed themselves to Moisha Bravinski and to doing just that. Kurkel had mentioned something about maybe lying to everyone, getting them all to Mexico somehow. Tipping off the Mexican gang, maybe the Mexican gang would just kill them all, and it wouldn’t matter. As for Ritchie, he too wondered if lying somehow could get them all out of it. Just pretend that some poor fools were Baylor and Des, have the Tigers kill them, then let the Russians go nuts. He wasn’t very comfortable with that plan, but didn’t know what else to do.
Then the phone rang.
– – – – –
Ritchie was speeding his BMW towards Kurkel Neekelwender’s apartment. He was in the best mood he’d been in for some time. Kurkel, standing outside of his apartment building near Foggy Bottom, was dressed like a college professor. Ritchie got a kick out of it, the baggy, worn khakis, the loafers and the turtleneck sweater with a tweed jacket. Classic Kurkel – uppity Euro-trash. He climbed in to the car and looked just as hung over as his law partner.
“I hope it doesn’t rain. I love this drive when it’s not raining.” Kurkel didn’t look right at Ritchie, who was smoking a cigarette.
“You’ve been out there? When?” Ritchie was surprised. He didn’t think Kurkel ever went anywhere.
“Yes. Many times. It’s quite nice. Wonderful steamed crabs.” Kurkel kept his eyes straight ahead as Ritchie put the car in gear and sped away. “You mean you’ve never gone?”
“No, no.” Ritchie shook his head and took a drag on the cigarette, working hard to imagine Kurkel, in his silly jacket and nice pants taking a mallet to a steamed blue claw crab, shifting gears, then offering the pack to Kurkel, who took one seemingly reluctantly. “I don’t know why. Just never had the time, I guess.”
There was a silence between the two men for a little bit, until after they left the District of Columbia city limits and were headed eastbound on Route 50. Finally, Kurkel spoke.
“So,” he said, “you got a call.”
“Yeah,” Ritchie said, sighing deeply, unable to hide his smile. “Can you fucking believe it? I mean, the answer to our prayers, right? Just falls in our lap. It’s amazing.” Ritchie flicked the smoke out the window. “He called this morning. Said he wanted me to be out there this afternoon. Idiot called me from a cell phone. You believe that shit? A fucking cell phone.” Ritchie realized he was rambling now, but didn’t care. For the first time in his life, he was going to be successful, really, really successful. Finally able to live the life he’d always wanted. Do this deal, then sit back in his cushy law office at Blue Hatchett, maybe make a couple of phone calls and enjoy his money. That was it. God, it felt so good.
“And you called Hideo to arrange things?” Kurkel still seemed to be uneasy.
This vaguely annoyed Ritchie.
“Goddamit, yeah, I called him. He was all into it. Wanted to know when and where. Made this big production – with me on the phone! – about how they’d kill this courier and really cash in with the Russians. Stupid fuckin’ idiot.” Ritchie guffawed. He wished Kurkel would relax a little. The biggest problem in their life had been solved. For whatever stupid reason, Baylor was coming back, and the Tigers were playing ball. All they had to do was watch.
“Did you bring…” Kurkel spoke very slowly and quietly, “a gun?” Kurkel finally looked directly at Ritchie, who glanced back at him and smiled. That morning, right after the phone call, Ritchie began to plan his day, starting with his wardrobe. He picked out blue jeans and his favorite tennis shoes. They were beat to hell but comfortable. He had a white Oxford shirt that wasn’t too wrinkled and stained and a sweatshirt to go over it. He had an
Ritchie put his hand in his pocket and slowly pulled out the heavy gun. He held it with between his thumb and forefinger.
“Just this.” He said, careful not to raise it too high. There was plenty of traffic – not too much, but enough. It wouldn’t do for someone to see him waving a gun around in the car. “You?”
Kurkel wordlessly turned in his seat and from his jacket withdrew a .45 with a brown handle. It even looked old. It looked like the perfect gun for Kurkel Neekelwender, effective but laughingly out of date, completely lacking in style. Ritchie smiled at the idea of Kurkel even owning a gun, much less shooting at something or someone.
“Why,” said Kurkel, “do you suppose he is coming back?” Kurkel had been fairly sure that the police would capture Baylor and Desdemona at the border and that the two young lawyers would just be out of luck, if not dead, and that would be it. But after Ritchie’s phone call, and after Ritchie hysterically roused Kurkel from a deeply dormant hangover sleep, he was sure of nothing now.
“My guess?” said Ritchie. “He got near the border, realized it’d be crawling with cops, realized he was making a spectacle of himself robbing that diner, robbing that bank, killing those people in Little Rock. Hell, you may not believe this Kurkel, but I think he realized that I’m the only friend he’s got. And he had to come back here to get me to help him.” Ritchie wasn’t sure if he believed that himself, nor did Kurkel, but neither man particularly cared. Baylor Roman was coming back, and that’s all that mattered. Still, Kurkel let curiosity get the better of him.
“So, what exactly did he say?” Kurkel asked.
– – – – –
“Hey, Ritchie. It’s me. It’s Baylor. Did I wake you up?”
Fuck, Ritchie remembered thinking. I can’t believe the prick is on a cell phone! He recognized the scratchiness, the static in the air right away.
“Woah,” Ritchie had said. “Hey there, man. Yeah, no. It’s okay. You didn’t, uh, wake me up.” Sounding exactly like a man who had just been roused from sleep. “Hey, you’re… not on a cell phone are you?”
“Got no choice, man. We’re on the move here, and we don’t have a lot of time.”
“Right, right. What do we need to do? Where are you?” Take it easy, Ritchie told himself, don’t scare him off. Of course, Ritchie tweaked some of the specifics for Kurkel as they continued driving east.
“Well, we’re headed back your way, actually.” Baylor didn’t sound scared. That was the first thing he noticed.
“Oh, good! Good! Let’s meet at Lem’s!” Shit, Ritchie thought, you stupid aggressive fucker, don’t oversell it. Ritchie at this point was out of bed, pacing the bedroom.
“Um,” a slight laugh, “no, the steakhouse is no good, Ritchie. We’re headed a little further east. Ocean City. I’m going to need your help, I think. Can you meet me out there?”
You bet your dead fucking ass I can, you murdering dipshit redneck, Ritchie thought. He fought to contain the words.
“Uh, of course. Sure. Yes. I’ll bring Kurkel, too. We’ll work everything out. When? When? And where? Where are you? Where are you going to be?” God, calm down, you moron. He felt ridiculous, and wished he wasn’t so hung over. He was ecstatic at this point. Baylor and the girl were coming back, right into their hands.
“Listen. Right before you get to the city itself, before you cross the drawbridge, there’s a marina. They’ve got a lot of big boats. Fifty footers. Big ones. There’s a gravel lot and a little seafood place nearby. Meet us in the lot by…”
For a moment Ritchie thought he’d lost the connection.
“Hello? Hello? Hello? Oh, shit! Are you there? Can you hear me? Hello? Fuck!” Ritchie’s heart raced and he was an instant away from throwing the phone across the room.
“Hey, Ritchie. I’m here. Jesus, man, calm down. We’ll be there about six. Is that alright?”
“Yeah. Yes.” Ritchie was actually breathing hard now. “Yeah, we’ll take care of you two. We’ll bring you in.” Fuuuuuuckkkk! Ritchie thought. Why the use of those words particularly? Didn’t cops say ‘bring you in’? Didn’t gangsters say ‘take care of you’, meaning kill you? Oh, good Lord. He left this minor detail out of his retelling to Kurkel. It sounded bad.
“Hey, Ritchie,” Baylor said tentatively, “you two guys will be alone, right?”
Okay, calm down now, seriously. “That’s right, Baylor. Just me and Kurkel. That’s it. We’ll get it,” measuring his words, “worked out.” He sighed.
“Alright. I really need your help. Thanks.”
“Okay, Baylor, see you soon.” He was laughing just a bit more than he should’ve.
The two men hung up, and Ritchie immediately fell into a conundrum: call Hideo and set the deal up himself, or call Kurkel with the good news first. He finally settled on Hideo. All the details were fresh in his mind. Besides, Kurkel would just ask a million questions, and then he’d be in no mood at all to talk to Hideo. It turns out that Kurkel was grateful for this, preferring to hear of the details after Ritchie had worked it all out. Ritchie also took the liberty of talking to Moisha Bravinski, who’d kept him on hold a good minute and a half, listening to Muzak, before finally taking his call. Ritchie explained the situation, and Moisha listened intently. In fact, so quietly, so intently, that Ritchie thought that perhaps he’d just hung up on him.
Finally, he paused long enough that he prompted the old man to whisper in a fairly sinister tone, “yes?” The ‘s’ hissed out like a snake. Ritchie explained, somewhat nervously, that the Tigers were insistent on seeing the money before Baylor and Desdemona were killed or delivered.
“The money will be there,” was all Moisha Bravinski said before hanging up on Ritchie Torres.
– – – – –
Noboru was confused, even as the lawyers sped east towards the Atlantic Ocean.
He took a long hit off the bong – he was trying to do milder drugs since he found out his girlfriend was pregnant; being a father meant being responsible – and scrunched his forehead.
“Is it like we’re getting bought out?” Of course, his English was perfect. He was born and raised in Bethesda, Maryland.
Hideo took a hit, too and thought for a minute.
“Nah, man,” his English, just as good – Delaware, “it’s more like they’re paying us off. Heh.” He still thought it was funny.
“Hmm,” Noboru clearly still did not get it.
“Look,” said Hideo, getting mildly irritated. “We run a gang, right?”
“Duh,” said Noboru, as sarcastically as he could, making himself giggle.
“Right. So, we have these shitbox lawyers who are supposed to be taking care of our money. Right? They put it in a bunch of accounts, but it’s really the Harlan’s accounts, right? Right. Anyway, they never know that part, see. We all work for the Harlan Brothers, but we never knew it before, right?”
“I guess,” Noboru was drifting a bit, but to his credit he was trying hard to follow along.
“There are a lot of gangs like that around, No,” he said, calling his friend by his nickname. “We do our stuff, but the money gets funneled to the Harlans. And what do we care? We’re not doing the accounting ourselves, so we never know. There’s still plenty for us, and we get protection – like, financial protection – too. Anyway, the Harlans got a guy on the inside of our operation.”
“Baylor,” said Noboru. “Like the school in Texas.” This caused more laughing on Noboru’s part.
“Look, man, do you want to know what the deal is or not?”
“Right, right,” Noboru said, working to regain composure.
“So, he’s the Harlan’s nephew, so he’s like the shit, right? Right. Anyway, he gets in good with Ritchie or whatever and Ritchie starts telling him all this shit. This is like CIA stuff, man. It’s big time secrets about our operation. Except he, Ritchie, doesn’t really know that Baylor is a part of our deal, or the Harlan’s nephew. So, he, Baylor, tells the Harlan Brothers and they go looking for new lawyers even though Ritchie and Kurkel don’t know they’re working for the Harlan Brothers. Right? Right. Well, you know that place, Blue, Hatchett, Lutrell & Kuhns in town?”
“Yeah, I heard of it,” said Noboru, briefly removing his mouth from the bong, vaguely realizing that Hideo’s habit of asking ‘right,’ and then answering with ‘right’ was real goddam annoying.
“They got those guys. Turns out one of the honchos brought over a bunch of Russians at some point. Anyway…” Hideo took another hit himself.
“So, what’s with all the other shit? Hey! What’s with killing Jimmy?” Noboru was getting as excited as he possibly could considering how high he was.
Hideo sighed, vaguely frustrated.
“Dude, I told you – Jimmy was bad fucker, man. Skimming off the top. Totally. Right? Right. Not to mention working for the Feds. That’s some fucked up shit right there.”
“Oh, right,” Noboru said. “What about the other stuff?”
“Just stuff, man. I don’t know.” Hideo was getting tired to trying to explain the whole thing to Noboru. Besides, he wasn’t sure he understood it all, either, nor did he particularly care.
“So, what do we do now? Wait to hear from the Harlan Brothers?”
“No,” Hideo looked up, very serious, somewhat sobered. “We wait to hear from the new lawyer. He’s the new guy in charge of the money. We’ll see what he says do.”
“Yeah,” said Hideo.
“Hey,” said Noboru, spaced out. “What’s the new guy’s name?
“Mister…” Hideo was starting to nod off, too, “Bravinski.”
Pay the Man
Baylor Roman, Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper and Avery Denton had arrived several miles outside of Washington, D.C. in the rig, and were waiting for their car to show up. Each of them was nervous, and quietly sat eating their fast food burgers and fries in the cab of the semi, mostly without words.
Avery felt terrible that he couldn’t take them any further as had been previously arranged. But it was just too risky – in fact, it was risky enough taking them this far. And he still had another rider to pick up near the freeway soon. Also, he worried about Baylor and the pretty girl with him. Everyone in the truck knew that things were finally going to come full circle. It was all getting ready to go down.
Earlier, when they’d parked the rig next to a large warehouse and several other tractor trailer trucks, the air thick with carbon monoxide and smoke and dirt, Des had jumped out to run across the street to the fast food joint.
“Son,” Avery had said, glad for the opportunity to finally have a moment alone with Baylor, “You know that I’ve always liked you.” Avery wasn’t much good at the personal talk, and kept his sunglasses on, staring straight ahead.
“Well, I like you too Avery.” Baylor gave a curious look. “I think it’s fairly obvious, though, I’m spoken for.”
“Damn, son, shut up.” Avery was fidgety now. “Look. I like you. I like your uncles, too. They – and you – well, you’ve been good to our family.”
“You’ve been good to ours, Avery. What’re you getting at?”
Avery hesitated for a moment.
“How you know you ain’t been sold out?”
Baylor knew how hard that must’ve been for Avery to say. Suggesting that Baylor’s uncles, the Harlan Brothers, would have him killed.
“No, it’s not that.” Baylor sighed. “Think of all of this as a test.”
“A test.” Avery looked at Baylor deadpan now. “What’s that mean? A test…”
“A test. Sort of. Didn’t you have to take some kind of driving test before they let you run around in this giant goddam rig?” Baylor looked at Avery now.
“Well, yeah…” it began to dawn on Avery. Of course. A test. Baylor’s uncles were testing him. “Then what’s with the girl?
“If I pass the test,” Baylor said, realizing he was hungry, watching Des cross the street with bags of burgers, “and she doesn’t kill me, I get to keep her.” He smiled widely at Avery, who didn’t quite know what to do but laugh.
“I wish that car’d get here,” Avery said, changing the subject. “You two need to roll.” Des was climbing back into the truck cab, forcing Baylor to scoot to the middle. They all wordlessly wolfed down their food.
As they each finished, crumpling bags and tossing them to the floor of the cab, a car pulled in to the lot, flashing its lights – the signal.
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, thought Baylor. Des thought roughly the same thing. Avery just said it out loud.
The car pulled in front of Avery, who flashed his light back. Out of the car jumped a little man, Hispanic, his filthy baseball hat on crooked and his oversized shirt a mess. Nobody could believe the lousy turn of luck, and Baylor had to chuckle at his own carelessness.
The car was a Pontiac Firebird.
“Goddamn, Chaco, don’t you watch the motherfuckin’ news?” Avery was pretty pissed, climbing out of the cab of the truck.
The young man clearly didn’t understand why he was being berated in such a manner.
“Hey, you hasked for de car, main. You din ever say wha kine,” he shrugged his shoulders, crossed his arms and stood by the car.
It was a somewhat newer model than had belonged to the late Jimmy Yakimoto. The color, where it wasn’t rusted out, was a deep blue. Inside, the interior was shot to hell, and yellow foam leaked out of each bucket seat. Many rolls of duct tape had been used in and around the vehicle. The front bumper was literally wired to the frame. As was the muffler. The glass wasn’t tinted like Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto’s Firebird, just dirty.
Chaco was exactly right, though – Avery had made the call to his older brother, Q.T. Denton, and asked for a car. The Denton Brothers were notorious for playing cruel hoaxes on one another, and Baylor couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t a Q.T. special – a really, really bad joke. Either way, it was time to pay Chaco, who stood with his palm out, as though asking for a tip.
“You know,” Des said as she lit a cigarette, slowly circling the car, “maybe this isn’t so bad. They’ll never expect us to be in another Pontiac Firebird. Right?”
Of course she was right. Brilliant.
Baylor just shrugged. He reached into the bag of money from the bank and counted out fifteen hundred dollars, far more than the car was worth. Just before he put the money in his hand, he said, “It better not fucking break down, comprende?”
Des let out a disapproving cough. This was, after all, the relative charity of the Denton Family at work. No one had to arrange the quickie sale.
“No way, main. Me an’ my brother – we fix it up good,” Chaco smiled as Baylor placed the money in the little chop shop operator’s hand. Chaco didn’t even count it. He stuffed it into the pocket of his dirty pants and walked down the road at a pretty good clip.
Between the bank money and the money from Jimmy Yakimoto, he counted out twenty thousand dollars.
“Avery,” he said, handing the money to the truck driver, “thank you. Couldn’t have done this without you.”
“Baylor, I feel bad taking your money. You been so good to my brothers, and what you’re about to do…”
“Hey,” Baylor cut him off and shoved the bricks of money towards him. “Forget about it. Look out for a postcard.” Baylor offered him a big smile and turned towards the car.
Avery turned towards Des.
“You know that he’ll be good to you, right?”
“You know, it’s funny, Avery, I do,” she leaned forward and gave the older man a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you. I promise we’ll see you soon, okay?”
“Not too soon – you two need a nice, long vacation,” Avery smiled and watched as the two fugitives climbed into the car. Five minutes later, he was driving back out of town, headed south in his rig. He really did hope the best for them.
– – – – –
It took more than five minutes to get the car started, and more than once Baylor considered calling Avery or Q.T. and demanding another car or his money back. But it finally kicked over and rumbled to life. Still, now both Baylor and Des were in pretty foul moods. Nervous, anyway. They remained wordless out of D.C. and headed east on Route 50, driving just around the speed limit and hoping to hell the hard-core Maryland State Troopers wouldn’t pull them over.
Des was cleaning one of the .9mm guns, and Baylor realized he wasn’t shocked to learn that she had a gun cleaning kit in her bag of stuff. Her brow was furrowed, and she seemed deeply involved in the task. It was probably a good task to undertake, lose yourself in the repetitive particulars of it.
Baylor took in the view. It was very fall-like and the trees were a beautiful mix of colors. He cracked the window down and waited for the smell of the ocean. He saw, at times, dark gray clouds coming in from the horizon, and that meant rain from the ocean. Could be a big storm, which, even if things were their best, could either still be good or very bad.
The Big Run
At the end of the day, Agent Frank Craig did a pretty good job of hiding his anger at himself for not figuring it out sooner. It pissed him off. And now there was Murtowski, acting smug and disgusting simply because he’d managed to say the words before Craig thought them: the ocean.
The ocean thing had been a guess, speculation, really, on Murtowski’s part. They were on the plane, looking at a map of the eastern seaboard and there was the ocean. Murtowski just said it.
“Hey, they’re going to the ocean.”
Of course. It made sense to Craig now. Baylor Roman had gone south – back home to Arkansas to get something. What? It didn’t matter. Maybe to rob that bank. There was something fishy there, anyway. Maybe killing the New Riders. That was fishy, too, but more likely since he was still with the girl. So now they weren’t headed back to DC as if they might settle down there and live happily ever after. No, it was ultimately the ocean, though they had to get there through D.C. – the reason why was anyone’s guess. Murtowski had comprehended none of this as Craig had. The look on the rookie’s face was like that of a third grader who happens to get an answer right after a shot-in-the dark. Still, there was no mistaking what the silence meant from Craig after he’d said it.
“They’re going to the ocean,” and Craig just stared at him. Of course. In under an hour after they’d landed at Andrews Air Force Base, a helicopter was there to take them to Ocean City, Maryland, a tourist town right on the water, complete with a Coast Guard station.
In fact, the realization that they were going to the ocean was the worst possible news – worse than Mexico.
“If these two get on a boat, we’ve lost them.” Craig felt the back of his neck beginning to tighten. This was going to be it. They’d either pick these two up here, in Ocean City, after chasing them across half the country and back, or lose them forever. The Directorate Central guys seemed pissed, and Craig was glad that their helicopter showed up first.
Although they could be going to any little seaside town up or down the Eastern Shore, Craig was fairly certain it’d be Ocean City. It was big enough to get lost in, and right at the end of Route 50. Since they’d landed at Andrews, Craig had been on the phone almost non-stop with Division Chief O’Kelley. O’Kelley agreed with the agent that it was most likely Ocean City. His report back a few minutes later wasn’t good. The local cops were moving slow, as was the Coast Guard. There were a couple of forty-four footers and some utility boats in the water now, but the hundred and ten foot cutter was out on patrol – way out, and wouldn’t be able to make it back any time too soon. There would be a helicopter on standby, though, and the Maryland State Troopers would be at their disposal. Otherwise, Division Chief O’Kelley had said in his Boston accent, it’s anoth-ah clus-tah fuck down the-yah.
And another clusterfuck it was, reminiscent of the previous clusterfucks in Arkansas and Memphis. As the helicopter landed at the Coast Guard helipad, Craig let out a low groan. Murtowski offered a shiteating grin for the whole world to see. It was like the circus, only in hell. There were easily nine patrol cars parked around the guard station all dangerously close to the helipad. This was the local P.D. There were undercover cars, too, with every possible light flashing. Some genius had bothered to call the Ocean City Fire and Rescue Squad. This brilliant team opted to leave every light pulsating as well. The local cops were working very hard to keep the reporters at bay – Craig counted three network vans and a truck that must’ve been media; he stopped counting cameras at twelve. That would be the work of the local cops, too.
Craig and Murtowski climbed out of the helicopter. It was beyond chaos, and the noise was nearly unbearable. Reporters were screaming questions at anything that moved. The lights were ridiculous. There was a noise of motorboats getting started off the nearby dock. Craig looked out into the water. There were a couple of fast-looking forty-one foot utility boats circling, and some smaller, orange boats stuffed with men, trolling around.
Craig finally heard his name over the din. It was Section Chief Arleigh, Craig’s old partner. Agent Craig, who was having a very bad few days couldn’t help but smile. It was good to see his friend. Agent Craig approached the large African American man with his hand out.
“Good to see you, sir,” he said. “This is my partner, Murtowski.”
Arleigh nodded to the rookie, who was still enjoying the spectacle.
“Let’s get inside.” Arleigh grabbed Craig by the elbow and walked him to the big building on the water.
Inside, the Directorate Central guys stood in the corner, brooding, waiting. Arleigh ignored them, and walked past a crowd of bustling Coast Guard men and women – all very young, Craig thought – towards the operations center. It looked out on the water, through dark, thick glass that was floor-to-ceiling. Maps were strewn across several tables. A couple of Coast Guard officers watched the boats in the water, now in more of a formation, through big binoculars. Arleigh put his palms on one of the maps, leaned over and took a deep breath.
“What do you think,” he asked. “Why here?” Section Chief Arleigh was an imposing figure – more than six feet, five inches tall, still in good shape for a man in his late fifties. Even the gray hair around his temples gave him an aura of authority. He looked like a man who often got his way, and often got the answers he was looking for.
“International waters. They get out there, and the globe is theirs,” said Craig.
“Still,” Murtowski chimed in, “this guy Baylor, he’s no sailor.”
Oh, Jesus, Craig thought as soon as the idiot said it. The rhyming. Murtowski’s face went red and Craig rolled his eyes.
“No experience with boats that we know of, no,” said Arleigh, effectively ignoring the unintentional alliteration.
“Doesn’t much matter. He goes out, what, a few miles, he’s in international waters, he’s gone. Maybe he heads north, hit’s Canada, he’s home free.”
Murtowski bounced back fast. “Maybe he goes a little further out, ditches the boat, hops an international freighter and goes to Europe.” Arleigh and Craig gave the rookie a dry look.
“I’m thinking Canada is our best option,” Arleigh said, glossing over Murtowski’s scenario all together, leaving the young agent red-faced and quiet. “Let’s notify the Coast Guard in Massachusetts and Maine, just in case he has to come into our space.” He turned towards one of the officers by the window. “Captain…”
But he was interrupted by an aide in a brown suit, a young agent named Jarvis. Kind of a wormy fellow with wire-rimmed glasses and thin hair. He’d been on his cell phone since Craig and Murtowski had entered the room. Craig had seen him around, didn’t much care for him.
“Sir, the Marshal’s have just confirmed it. Fifteen escapees. Three caught. Four dead. Eight unaccounted for.” Jarvis offered a pursed lipped expression and stepped back into the background, flipping up his cell phone to make another call.
“Just one damn thing after another today…” Craig smiled hearing his old partner use an expression he’d often heard him use before, especially in the old days.
“Escapees, sir?” Craig was really just curious, but in the back of his mind, something began to sink low. A sick feeling in his stomach he couldn’t quite explain. No, he shouldn’t have asked, but it was too late now.
“Prison break,” Arleigh was rubbing his forehead now. “Lorton. Semi rig crashed the gate a few hours ago. Wounded some guards, killed some prisoners. Looks like about eight are on the run. They think the truck might’ve hit a weak place in the fence. It’s starting to look premeditated.”
Craig really wished he hadn’t asked.
“Sir,” Craig’s voice began to weaken, and he looked at Murtowski – the oblivious newbie staring clueless – then back to Arleigh. “Do we have the list of names of the escapees? By any chance?” It was time for a smoke, but there was a big ‘no smoking’ sign on the gray and drab wall of cement block. The wall – what did it remind him of? What was it? Where had he seen a wall, gray and drab, just like that…
“Sure,” Arleigh turned to Jarvis. “You got the names?” Jarvis, hustling hard, scurried forward and nodded frantically with the phone still up to his ear. He mouthed the words ‘just now,’ and handed his boss a torn piece of paper.
Craig all but snatched it from Arleigh, who at this point was becoming genuinely concerned. He could not see the connection. Murtowski, also clueless, peered over Craig’s shoulder.
Come on, thought Agent Craig as he looked at the names of the men who were now on the run.
Craig felt like barfing right there in the Coast Guard command center. In his mind, he begged God not to let the name he thought might be on the list actually be on the list.
Thaddeus Winslow, of all things.
Oh, no. In fact it was right there. The last on the list, as it happened. Craig almost felt like crying but certainly knew better. Murtowski finally saw it too and let out a string of whispered obscenities. Craig simply dropped the list to the floor and looked out at the ocean. Arleigh picked the list back up, wondering what had gotten into his former partner. He looked down at the list.
Boom Boom Boom Boom
Des was trying to remember if in the short time she’d known him, she had seen Baylor Roman smile this much, even in the sleeping quarters of the rig. He hugged the small black man again and laughed some more. Tears of joy ran shamelessly down his cheek.
“You got here,” he said. He repeated it over and over. Then finally grabbing the man at the shoulders, “I knew it’d work. Avery get you here okay?”
“Of course,” the old man said, tired, as if he were talking to a child who kept demanding answers he’d already given a thousand times. “He had a friend who got me here in quite a hurry. Under three hours, if you can believe it.”
Baylor turned when Des gently nudged him. They were standing outside the car in the large parking lot of the biggest marina just short of Ocean City.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Baylor said, sheepishly. “Wilmer, this is Des. Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper. Des, this is Wilmer.”
“Dear girl,” the man said as he clasped her hand between both of his, “it is a pleasure to meet you.”
Des was struck, as she whispered the words, ‘You, too,’ of just how dignified Wilmer Denton seemed to be, considering he’d been in prison just a few hours prior. She had come to realize that this was more than just a friend of Baylor’s – this was his mentor, perhaps even a father figure. She thought of how he spoke of Wilmer, in nearly reverent tones, how the old man had gone to prison in order to protect the Harlan Brother’s criminal ventures and had never, not once, not ever, used their names. Baylor had told tale after tale of mostly letters between himself as a younger man and Wilmer through the years, and even occasional prison visits to talk with the old master. Wilmer, from prison, took young Baylor Roman under his wing, and it was Wilmer who got him started on the right foot in the business of crime.
And, of course, Baylor had explained to her in the car after ‘kidnapping’ her for the second time how Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto and the Tokyo Tigers were just a front for the Harlan operations, and that the lawyers – as well as Jimmy – were skimming off the top. The whole story began to come together. He explained his proposal to his uncles – that he buy them out and move down to the islands for a little while, run the family business, start a little boutique smuggling operation on the side. The two million from the Jimmy ‘the Deal’ Yakimoto hit was Wilmer Denton’s starting over fund, his generous reward for staying quiet while spending many years in prison. It had simply been laundered through Ritchie and Kurkel – in order to expose them, bring them out into the open. The money for Baylor and Des was the million (and a half) – from the bank job in Little Rock. There was another three million on its way as well, from the Harlan’s new lawyer. As with everything, there were strings. If Baylor and Des were to survive, they would keep their money as an investment – seed money – for starting operations anew in the islands.
Baylor was pleased with the whole plan, though Des was a personal fan of the notion that the Harlan Brothers had mostly orchestrated their meeting as a sort of blind date. Frankly, she was still a little skeptical that this was all there was to it. She suspected the Harlan Brothers had more tests. But there was no point in giving up now.
– – – – –
Ritchie Torres didn’t like it the minute he pulled into the parking lot. It just didn’t feel right. The whole place smelled like salt water and rotting shellfish, which he hated. There was Baylor, standing next to a very ratty car parked right beside a dumpster, off to the corner of the mostly empty lot. Next to him was an attractive woman – attractive, though somewhat pale. He assumed it was the woman, Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper. In between them was a small black man holding a very large duffle bag, looking a little shell-shocked. Ritchie didn’t know who in the hell he was. Not ten feet away from them was a wooden walkway which led to a maze of floating docks, each slip holding what seemed to be a veritable fleet of water craft, from jet skis to boats measuring well over fifty, sixty, even eighty feet. The place was desolate except for the fugitives, and now the lawyers.
Ritchie looked out past the boats into the water. It was a inlet, southwest of Ocean City, behind it, as it were. If you were in a boat, you’d have to travel around the peninsula of the city, through a somewhat narrow channel if you wanted to reach the ocean. There weren’t too many boats in the water that day. He didn’t know why, but he wondered about the Coast Guard.
Ritchie pulled up just a few feet from the beat up Pontiac and parked. He didn’t say anything to Kurkel, just opened his door and quickly climbed out. It felt good to stretch his legs after the drive. Ritchie reached quickly into his jacket pocket and touched the handle of the .357 one more time, just to be sure.
– – – – –
After someone brought him some water, Craig regained a bit of his composure and managed to tell Section Chief Arleigh, his old partner, the entire story with a focus on the implications of Wilmer Denton being free. Something much larger was at play here, something not even he had been able to figure out from the start.
The FBI men, including the team from the Directorate Central, pushed their way through the onlookers and reporters towards the cruisers. Murtowski and Craig climbed into a Crown Victoria and put a pulsing red light on top. Arleigh, the Directorate Central crew and several State Troopers and local police all got in cars and followed as well. It was an extraordinary motorcade of lights and sirens screaming down the road. A Maryland State Trooper’s helicopter buzzed overhead.
There was a crackling of the radio in the car.
Bayside Marina… Affirmative, Base Two-One. It was the helicopter pilot talking to the Coast Guard headquarters. Murtowski and Craig could hear the pilot, but not the base. More static and crackling.
Uh, FBI lead, respond. Craig and Murtowski realized simultaneously that they were the lead car. Murtowski fumbled with the radio mic.
“Flight, this is FBI lead, over.” Murtowski had gone from excited to very nearly out of control. He’d given up all pretense of hiding his giddiness at the happenings around him and had a ridiculous shiteating grin on his face. Craig had a sort of perpetuating urge to smack him. ‘Flight’? Is that what you called the helicopter? He doubted it, but let it go.
FBI lead… crackle, hiss. Be advised. Bayside Marina is the nearest public boating station. And that is… three hundred yards on your… left. Over.
“Copy that, flight, thanks. FBI lead, over and out.” Craig rolled his eyes, even as he drove close to eighty-five miles per hour down the small road.
There was more static on the radio. This time it was Arleigh.
Frank, it’s just ahead, not far at all. You go in first. We’ll cover you. I’ve got units going down to the other marinas, just in case. Remember, Directorate Central right behind us. Out.
“Copy that,” Craig said. That’s what he liked so much about Arleigh – why he always liked him when they were partners. They had the same instincts. Craig knew it’d be this place. Had a feeling. Arleigh did, too. That’s why they were stopping there. Hell, he wouldn’t be surprised to see Baylor Roman and Desdemona Elspeth Culpepper standing right in the goddam parking lot.
– – – – –
The Russians were there first, but it almost didn’t matter because the cops were right behind them. Baylor, Des, and Wilmer saw the flashing lights coming over the low bridge leading out of the city towards the mainland just as the big men in the overcoats emerged from the docks.
That’s about when the first shots were fired. Baylor, Des, and Wilmer were standing beside the car, Ritchie and Kurkel more or less in front of it, but walking towards the three. The first of the Russians to emerge were large men, their overcoats buttoned high, holding very big briefcases in either hand.
That would be the money, thought Ritchie at the time. It was the four, then seven, then ten other men in trench coats that appeared from nowhere that threw him off. It was just about that moment that he wondered where in the hell the Tokyo Tigers were. The other men – the men without briefcases were carrying M4 machine guns, and they looked extremely anxious to use them.
Ritchie screamed the words, “That’s them!” Pointing a gun – Jesus, thought Baylor, is that a fucking gun he’s got? – not really at Baylor or Des but more at the car in general. And in fact Ritchie had pulled his gun out, the .357 magnum. It was unclear whether it was the sight of the gun or the shouting or just the fact that it was time that caused the shooting to begin, but Baylor knew something was off as soon as it did. He and Des and Wilmer dove and crouched behind the car, near the dumpster, hidden from the road and the line of sight from the Russians, but the shooting began like a rainstorm and didn’t stop.
The noise was overwhelming, deafening, and that’s why Baylor didn’t hear Des scream. She’d been hit in the arm – the arm that had not been shot before – this time, much worse. He already had Jimmy Yakimoto’s .45 out and he leaned towards his left. Shit, he thought, this is Uncle Mavin and Uncle Odum’s idea… Had to get one more little test in before they let me go. He wasn’t far off. The Russians only halted their advance on the Pontiac when the cops showed up, who ducked behind their own cars and joined the fray.
– – – – –