Chapter 14

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Mary Kincaid Stood at the end of the hallway, staring at the worn out door with faded stick-on letters bought from a home improvement store.  The hallway was dimly lit and the carpet looked like it hadn’t been vacuumed – ever.  Stains from what she assumed were spills from coffee cups and the like created a random pattern that almost improved the carpet’s appearance.

She squeezed her eyelids closed when she felt her left hand trembling so she wouldn’t have to see the hallucinations that came with it.  She flexed her hand several times, gripping her pant leg until the trembling subsided and let out a slow breath as she opened her eyes.

The lettering on the door still read Tom Carlisle Investigations and Surveillance.  She cringed and let a slow breath out through her nose that ended in a wheezing grunt as she forced herself to walk down the hall.

She ran her thumb through the strap of the beige faux suede purse hanging over the shoulder of her matching suit jacket and knocked on the door.

“Yeah, come in,” a man’s voice grumbled from the other side.

The stained brass doorknob squeaked when she twisted it and pushed the door back to reveal a man sitting at a gray tank desk with scuffmarks from banging around in military warehouses until the man had found it in a surplus auction.

He wore a baby blue shirt with the collar open and stared at her with bloodshot eyes sunken behind the creases of puffy eyelids and circles underneath that nearly reached to the jowls hanging off his cheeks.  His chin rested on folded hands with leathery fingers bristling with black hair.

He looked at her as if she was interrupting something important.  The only two things on his desk were a black office phone and a laptop computer sitting on the corner and turned at an angle.  His expression didn’t change as she stood in the doorway and surveyed him and the worn paneled walls of his office.  A single door behind him led to a back office.  A gray steel filing cabinet stood against a side wall next to a rickety table with a cheap coffee maker.  The carafe was stained from years of use and the burner was nearly black with burned coffee that had never been cleaned up.

“I have an appointment with Mr. Carlisle?” she said. Her hand was still on the doorknob and it wouldn’t have taken much to encourage her to turn around and leave the way she had come.

“Yeah, that’s me,” the man said.  He waved his hand at a cheap blue plastic chair in front of his desk.  “Have a seat…”  He glanced at the laptop.  “Ms. Kincaid.”

She looked around the room one more time before letting go of the doorknob and sat down, setting her purse on the floor next to her.  She smoothed back her hair which was drawn back into a ponytail, crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap.

His chin still resting on folded hands, he asked, “What’s the story, Ms. Kincaid?”

Mary reached into her purse and pulled out a picture of Bess standing with her father in front of their sailboat and a trophy in her hand.  She leaned forward to place the picture on his desk.

“It’s about my daughter.”

His eyes glazed over and his lids seemed to droop even further.  It was the same look she had gotten from the others right before they told her they didn’t look for missing persons because the police were better equipped for that sort of thing.

She picked the picture back up and reached for her purse.  “Well -“

“What’s her name?”  He turned one hand over and motioned for her to give him the picture.

“Bess.”

He gripped the picture between his index and middle finger and glanced at it before setting it next to his laptop.

“Pretty girl.”

“Yes, she is.”  Mary settled back into her chair.  “Thank you.”

“How long?”

“Pardon me?”

He narrowed his gaze, impatient at not being understood.  “How long she been gone?”

Mary bit her lip and tilted her head sideways.  It was the question she hated most because she hadn’t started looking soon enough.  “Month now.”

He nodded, letting his eyelids droop even further and grunted. “Call the police?”

Mary closed her eyes and felt her hand starting to tremble again.  His eyes followed her hand when she tried to hide it behind the chair.

He reached down and opened a side drawer in his desk.  He carefully placed a capsule in front of her and refolded his hands.

“What’s that?”

“Diazepam.  Helps with the DTs.”

She narrowed her gaze and clenched her jaw.  “How did you know?”

He squinted back at her.  “Because I have Diazepam in my drawer.”

“Right.  Of course.”

“Go on, take it.  Goes down dry just fine.”

She eyed the pill and then snatched it up and gulped it down.

“Now, did you call the police?” he asked.

“Yes, but they haven’t come up with anything and I think they’re tired of me asking for news every day.”

“That’s because they’re not looking.”

Mary jerked her head back and scoffed.  “Of course they’re looking.  That’s their job.”

His cracked lips stretched into a hint of a smile.  “Nope.”

“Then why would they keep telling me they are and they’ll call when they have something?”

“They haven’t told you they’re looking.”

Mary clenched her jaw tighter, seething under her breath.  “Yes they have,” she protested.

“What they told you is they would let you know if something comes up.”

Mary looked away, blinking as she called up the exact words.  She grunted in recognition when she realized he was right.  They had used those exact words.

“Which means they’ll call you if she falls into their lap.”

“How does that happen?”

“Like any other small miracle.  Chain of unlikely events ending in a phone call to you.  She gets picked up in some place like LA or New York City.  North Dakota.  Any number of places.  Then she gives them her real name, which is entirely up to her.  Then she tells them where she’s from and gives them your name.  Then you get a phone call.”

“Are you saying she ran away?”

“No, I’m saying the police think she ran away.”

“Why?”

He glanced at the picture again.  “Much past 12, that’s what happens most of the time.”

Mary slumped in her chair and stared at the front panel of the desk.

“How did you two get along?”

What could she say about her relationship with Bess when she couldn’t remember most of what had happened in the past two months?  The girl seemed to be in trouble all the time, out of control.  Hadn’t she done the right thing to send her off?  What difference did it make if they got along?  A mother’s job wasn’t to be a friend, was it?  But then again, maybe being sober was also part of her job, something she couldn’t deny she had failed at.

“Not so great I guess.”

He unfolded his hands and laid them flat on the desk.  “There are networks that reach out to the streets. If she hears that you’re looking for her…  Well, I’d try one of those anyway.”

Mary’s shoulders slumped as she stared at the desk, losing herself in the grey wash of it surface.  She hadn’t said a kind word to her daughter since Mason died.  What reason would Bess have to hear them now?

“I already did.”

“Uh huh.”

“Is there anything you can do?” she asked.

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“A man I was seeing took her to a rehab clinic.”

“Rehab clinic?”  He leaned forward and cocked his head.

“Yes.  She was in trouble and I thought it might get her back on track.”

“Did you call them?”

“Yes.  They said she never arrived.”

“Back up.”  She looked back up at him.  He furrowed his brow squinted hard, looking past her.  “Who took her?  What’s his name?”

“Rickie Hewitt.”

The door behind him opened and a tower of a man with coal black skin stepped into the room.  Mary figured him at 250 pounds, most of them muscle and bone.  His shirtsleeves were rolled tight over thick sinewy arms.  His hair was cropped close and his eyes shone with a glaring intensity.  His face was lean, with a chin sloped almost to a point.

She detected a soft southern twang that had been worn away over the years.  “Did you say Rickie Hewitt?” he asked.

“Yes.  Why?  Do you know him?”

Tom leaned back now and folded his hands behind his head.  “No, we don’t know him.”

The other man said, “Nobody does.”

They seemed interested now, in a way that the others hadn’t been, and Mary pulled her shoulders back, tuning in to their words.  Still, they didn’t seem to be giving her answers.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

Tom said, “Rickie Hewitt is an alias.  Used by… who knows how many people.  It’s a throw away.  Anybody chasing down Rickie Hewitt is chasing down a room full of ghosts.”

“Why didn’t any of the others mention this?”

The towering black man stepped around the side of Tom’s desk and looked down at her.  “Because they don’t know.”

Mary felt herself easing away from him as she studied his eyes, which glared down at her like headlights.

As she studied the man, trying to determine if she should be frightened of him, Tom said, “Most of them are ex-cops or bail bondsmen who got bored or process servers who spend too much time on the Internet instead of walking around and talking to people.”

The other man hadn’t moved.  Still glaring at her, he said, “So they don’t know about Rickie Hewitt.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “We haven’t been introduced.”  She extended her hand, slowly as if she were reaching out to pet a snarling dog.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and his face opened with a canyon of a smile covered by a wall of ivory.  He grabbed her hand and said, “George Maddock.”  He was surprisingly gentle as he shook her hand.  “This here is my boss,” he said, pointing at Tom.

“It’s nice to meet you Mr. Maddock.”

“Nah, you call me George.”  He reached back and grabbed the plastic chair next to the coffee maker.  He slid it around so the back was facing out and sat down.  “Now, I know what you’re thinkin’.  Old man all curled up behind an old beat up desk.  Big black man from Alabama talkin’ at you.”  He cocked his head with a smile that Mary would have mistaken for flirtation anywhere else.  He arched his brows.  “Am I right?”

“Well, I -“

Before she could figure out how to overcome her embarrassment, he continued, “But we’re smart, too.”

“Mr. Maddock, you don’t have to sell me.  Frankly, nobody else would take my case.”

“Well, we haven’t told you our fee yet.”

“And how much is that?”

“Like I was sayin’, you need somebody smart, somebody street smart, to help you find your little girl.”

“Well, what is it you do, Mr. Maddock?”

“Me, I explain things.”  He bobbed his head up and down as if he had said something profound.  “For example, the fact that you know somebody named Rickie Hewitt tells us something.”

“What?”

He looked at Tom, who gave him a consenting nod.

“A man come into your life and go to the trouble to get to know you to the point where you trust him to take your little girl to some place you ain’t never been.  That means she was kidnapped.”

Mary gasped as she thought of Bess tied up in a dark corner with a gag in her mouth.  “Oh my God.”

“No no, that’s a good thing.”

“How the hell is that a good thing?”

“Means she’s alive.  Nobody goes to that kind of trouble if they gonna’ kill her.  No, a man go through the trouble to warm up to a widow drownin’ herself in liquor just to get close to her little girl – he want her alive and well for something”.

Mary’s mouth fell agape.  She wanted to slap him.  The only thing that held her back was that he was telling the truth – but she didn’t appreciate having it rubbed in her face by a strange black man from Alabama.

Her tone was flat and cold when she asked, “How do you know I was drinking?”

George scoffed and waved his hand at Tom. “‘Cuz you look like him.”

Tom raised his hand and tucked his head in with a sheepish smile.

“So what is it exactly that you can do to help me find her Mr. Maddock?”

“George.  Me?  I walk around and talk to people.  As you can imagine, they most often prefer to say something meaningful just from lookin’ at me.”

“I’m not interested in hiring somebody to beat the truth out of people.”

He let out a little puff of air.  “Naw, ain’t like that.  They just need to think about me beatin’ it out of them.  The mind is a powerful thing.  But there’s more to it than that.  Like I said, we’re smart.”

Mary pinched the bridge of her nose and let out a sigh.  “And what does he do?” she asked, waving her hand at Tom.

“Oh him, mostly he watches Netflix.”  He turned to Tom and asked, “Anything good this month?”

“Oh hell no,” Tom said.  “Just more movies I’ve never heard of and half my list is gone.”

“So you watchin’ Friends then.”

“Mm hmm.”

George turned back towards her and said, “He like to watch Friends.  Bunch of dumb white kids yammerin’ on about nothin’ important.”  He shook his head lightly.  “I don’t get it.”

“It helps me relax,” Tom said, pecking at the keyboard of his laptop.

George stopped talking and looked at Mary as if he were waiting for something to happen.  She softly cleared her throat and tried to adjust herself in the plastic chair, unable to find a comfortable position.  She started to tap her foot and caught herself.

“Um -” she started to say.

George held up his index finger, which was nearly as long as her entire hand, and said, “Wait for it.”

Tom turned the laptop around and Mary saw a picture of Bess on the screen – one she hadn’t seen before.  Her daughter stood in front of a white background, her hair drooping past her cheeks and her mouth drawn into a sad frown.

“Looks like your Bess got into some trouble,” Tom said.  “Says here assault and battery against somebody named Tony Halk.”

“How did you find that?” she asked.

“Tom here is a cracker,” George said.

Mary put her hand to her chest and angled her head to the side, glaring at him.  “I beg your pardon.”

“See, most folks would call him a hacker.  That’s because the news been gettin’ that wrong since forever.  Bill Gates is a hacker.  Knows how to fiddle around with computers and get them to work.  A cracker is somebody who breaks into computers to find stuff he’s not supposed to see.  Gives hackers a bad name when they haven’t done a damn thing to deserve it.”

“George is big on words,” Tom said.

“That’s right,” George said.  “Spade ain’t a hoe.  It’s a spade.”

Mary shifted her glance between them and let out a short laugh when she realized what they were doing.  “What’s your background?” she asked.

“Tom here used to be a programmer.  Got himself a degree in computer science from some cracker school on the East Coast.  What was that place?”

“MIT,” Tom said, turning the laptop back around.

Emphasizing each letter, George said, “MIT.”  He was practically beaming.  “The very home of the Apollo Guidance Computer.  Did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t,” Mary said, rolling her eyes.  “And what about you?  George.”

 His smile vanished.  His eyes half closed as if he were entering a trance.  He spoke in a somber voice from another time and place.  “I conducted counterintelligence in the KTO.”

“KTO?”

“Kuwaiti Theater of Operations.”  He took her hand and pressed it between his with a consoling warmth.  “Mrs. Kincaid.  I know something about bad men hurting little girls.”

She looked back at Tom, who stared back impassively, letting his partner’s words sink in.  She closed her eyes and took a long breath through her nose.  Bess was probably alive.  Nobody had told her that before.  She was still breathing somewhere.  But what else was she doing?  Did she have enough to eat?  Did she have a place to sleep?  Was somebody hurting her?  Did she scream when they did?  She hadn’t thought of such questions until that moment.

She opened her eyes.  Before she could ask again, George said, “Our retainer is ten thousand dollars.”

Mary reached down and squeezed her purse.  She had brought that much, and more.  The insurance policy she hadn’t known about until she started collecting the paperwork from her husband’s desk had been enough that she didn’t have to worry about money ever again.  Ten thousand dollars bought a lot of whiskey.  Or it could buy the hope that two strangers could find her daughter and bring her home.  She wasn’t sure if either would bring her peace, but she couldn’t spend the rest of her life knowing she hadn’t given Bess a chance.

She dipped her hand into her purse to retrieve the bulging envelope, pulled out a thick stack of one hundred dollar bills and placed them on the desk.

Without touching the money, Tom said, “We’ll be in touch.”

“When?” she asked, picking up her purse.

“Soon.”  He pulled a receipt pad from his desk drawer, scribbled out the details on the top sheet and ripped it from the pack.

Taking the receipt, she grimaced and took a deep breath.  She stuffed the receipt in her purse and slipped out the door.

After she had left, George glanced at his partner and said, “That woman didn’t come here to find her daughter.”

“I know,” Tom said, staring absently at his laptop.  “She’s carrying a lot of guilt.”

“If that girl hadn’t been kidnapped, she would have run at some point anyway.”

“Yep.  Might have been better if she had.”

“Nope.  We’d never find her if she did,” George said, walking over to the coffee maker.  He picked up the carafe and swirled around the last bit of coffee at the bottom.  “Right now, we have a good chance of tracking her down.”

“This is going to get ugly, George.”

“I know.”

“You still have your Smith 500?”

“Yep.”

“Let’s get to work then.”

***

 

Standing inside a bus waddling down the gutter of Central Avenue, George reset his grip on the plastic loop hanging from the roof. As the bus made its way west towards the valley, the passengers declined in both number and caliber until he saw what he was looking for. Haggard women with yellow teeth and skirts that got shorter by the block lugged up the steps and moved to the empty seats in the back. After a few stops, men with darting eyes and twitching faces would step up, pay their fare and find their way to sit next to the girl they thought they liked most. Hushed tones and crumpled bills they thought they could hide would pass between them and then the woman would stand up. He could tell the men who didn’t know the drill, as women had to ease them back down to their seats and tell them, “Next stop, sweetie.”

George shook his head. Having arrived in the right part of town, he got off at the next stop and reached under his sport jacket to adjust his holster. His Smith and Wesson 500 wasn’t the most practical as handguns went, but he liked having the final say when it came to stopping power. One shot from its .50 caliber chamber was enough to end most encounters that required a gun.

As the bus pulled away, he continued walking towards the deepest hollows of the south valley, reviewing the only plan he really had. Since there had been no ransom demand, there was only one good reason why a man would go to the trouble of inserting himself into a grieving woman’s life to separate her from her daughter. Two major interstates ran through the city and it was less than a day’s drive to the border. That it was well suited for trafficking live cargo like Bess Kincaid was not a well-kept secret. Knowing where she would have been taken wasn’t so obvious. The most likely place was south of the border, in which case she would never be seen again. But business on this side of the border was both more lucrative and growing.

In a market inundated with Russian, Mexican, Vietnamese and even Arab girls, there was still no substitute for the local cuisine. A pretty white home-grown girl like Bess was the highest grade of product to men like that. And the money that paid for that product was walking down the street right beside him.

There was also the risk factor. With every mile cargo was hauled, the chance of it being discovered grew. A state police trooper pulling over a truck for a broken tail light had led to an investigation by the FBI that had brought down one of the largest trafficking rings in the country. No, men who went to that much trouble to acquire cargo wouldn’t want to haul it around the countryside too much.

This was how George figured it, anyway. It made sense. But the real truth was that it was the only scenario that worked. If she was in the area, he would find her. If she wasn’t, there was no hope.

He pulled the picture from his shirt pocket as he approached a slender woman with hollow eyes and a red skirt that was too short to leave a man wondering what was for sale. When he got within a few feet, she looked up and stretched her mouth into a vacant smile, careful to keep her lips closed to cover what he was sure were teeth bathed in crystal meth.

Showing her the picture, he asked, “Have you seen this girl?” She didn’t even look at the picture as she shook her head and backed away.

Moving on, he found another woman, younger this time with a complexion that hadn’t yet been ruined by her addiction.

“Have you seen this girl?” The woman looked at the picture and then beamed an ivory smile framed by wet red lips that were smooth and firm.

“No, sugar, but why don’t you buy me a drink?”

He smiled sheepishly and slipped her a twenty-dollar bill. She glanced around as she quickly slipped it beneath her halter top. “Maybe another time,” he said. “But right now, I’m looking for this particular girl. My friends said, well…” He shrugged.

“Sorry.” She narrowed her eyes, still smiling as she ran her hand over his chest. “You sure you don’t want to buy me that drink?”

“Next time,” he said as he eased her hand away from his chest. This one was spry and still looking for clientele. He felt a soft tug in his chest, knowing it wouldn’t be long before all that changed.

The next one was somewhere in between. She was tired looking, but still had life in her eyes. “No, man,” she said. “Haven’t seen her.”

He slipped her a twenty and asked, “Are you sure?”

“You want ones like her, go on down to the Blue Eagle,” she said, then turned and walked away.

He walked a full block without talking to anyone else. By the time he got to the next street, he saw a silvery Escalade pull up to the intersection and stop. It was comically out of place against the landscape of decaying shops and streetwalkers. George stopped and stuffed the picture back in his pocket when the driver turned and glared at him. They locked eyes for a moment and then he flashed his gaping smile and walked towards the vehicle.

He waved and said, “Hey, maybe you can help me here?” The driver’s mouth parted and his gaze narrowed as George trotted up to the vehicle. He pulled out a picture from the same shirt pocket – this one of a black woman in her thirties with curly black hair and a splay of fake gold necklaces hanging over a low cut halter top. He held the picture out and asked, “Have you seen her?”

“Who are you looking for?” the driver asked, flicking his eyes at the picture and then locking his gaze back on George.

“My ex-wife man. She owes me alimony.”

“That right?”

“Yeah. It would really mean a lot if you could tell me where I might find her.” George reached into his pocket and pulled out another twenty to hand to the driver.

The driver ignored the bill and let his eyes wander over George’s torso. The change in his expressions was so slight George almost missed it, but the man’s eyes flared for just an instant when his gaze stopped on the outline of the holster under George’s jacket.

“There’s nobody like that around here,” the driver said. “You should look somewhere else.” He locked his eyes on George for a moment longer and pulled away.

Watching the vehicle turn onto the street and pull away, George licked his lips and his skin tingled the same way it had when he had moved along shelled out buildings looking for insurgents left behind to ambush American soldiers. He had already caught their attention, and they didn’t want him looking. Which meant there was something to find.

He kept to himself for the next several blocks, quietly strolling along the darkening sidewalk as the sun slipped behind a curtain of orange haze on the horizon. Just as the last of the day was fading, he found the flickering neon sign hanging over a grungy glass door that read Blue Eagle. It was a hole-in-the wall bar that you wouldn’t notice unless you had some reason to. His kind of place.

He dashed across the street against a red light and pulled the door open. The scent of smoke greeted him as the door closed behind him. Some came from cigarettes. Some came from cigars. Cigar smoke meant one thing: money.

He walked slowly, conducting a hasty tactical survey of the interior. To his left was a small carpeted area with black leather sofas. Young women in their twenties and dressed in sparkly bright colored hip-hugging dresses draped themselves over men wearing mostly expensive suits. The women caressed their lapels and smiled while the men tried to hide their gawking behind glasses of brandy and cigars. Each woman had made herself up immaculately, with richly decorated eyes and sensuous lips framed by rouges that were understated in their sensuality. Their teeth were white as pearls and they each had eyes only for the man next to them as they poured champagne into tall flutes and drank it down in slow sparkling rivulets.

Further into the room, a bar hugged the wall. The bartender wore a vest, white long-sleeved shirt and bow tie. He stood in front of a rosewood-framed mirror reflecting bottles of top-brand liquor sitting on the polished shelves tiered in front of it.

Polishing a glass with a clean white towel, the bartender turned towards George as he approached the bar. The bartender’s face was stoic, soft and most importantly, the face of somebody who did not recognize him. George didn’t look away, knowing that he had been made as somebody who did not belong in the Blue Eagle the moment he walked in the door. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t wear the same expensive suits as the rest and, unlike them, had more charm than money. It was simply that he hadn’t been invited. But nobody could tell him that, because then they would have to explain why somebody needed an invitation to walk into a bar through an unlocked door. He was certain they would give him polite unspoken clues to make it clear that he should go somewhere else. And if he were just another man who had stumbled upon the place, he would. But he wasn’t just another man and he knew the Blue Eagle was exactly where he needed to be.

Three men sat at the bar, idling over their drinks. One sat apart from the rest, with his elbow propped on the bar while he pressed his forehead against his hand and stirred his drink with a small wooden stick.

As George sat down next to him, the man stirred hard enough to scatter a few drops on the cloth napkin underneath his drink and then tapped the stick on the rim of his glass before dropping it on the bar.

The bartender still hadn’t taken his eyes off George. Now, he eased closer, studiously polishing the glass that was already beyond clean. George folded his hands on the bar and looked at the bartender as if he was somebody who strolled in and sat on the same stool every day of the week and that the bartender had better damn well offer him a drink before he decided to get upset about it.

The bartender pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. “What would the gentleman like?” he asked.

George flashed him his ivory smile and announced, “Stoli on the rocks.” The bartender nodded curtly, letting his gaze linger a moment longer before fetching the bottle from its perch on the shelves in front of the mirror.

George glanced at the man sitting next to him, who started stirring his drink again but still hadn’t taken as much as a sip.

The bartender slid a cloth napkin in front of George and set his drink on top, just a little too hard so that some of it swirled out of the glass and splashed onto the napkin.

“That will be the usual price,” the bartender said.

George caught his breath and then started to chuckle. “Of course.” He pulled a stack of bills out of his jacket pocket and peeled off a ten-dollar bill. “Keep the change.”

The bartender frowned and let his eyes droop.

George laughed and said, “Just kidding.” He slipped a twenty from the stack and put the ten back in his pocket.

The bartender grunted and cashed the bill into his register, taking a ten back out and stuffing it in his pocket. He kept his eyes on George as he walked away and ducked through a door behind the bar.

George took Bess’s picture from his shirt pocket and slid it next to the man’s drink.

“Have you seen this girl here?” he asked.

Still leaning his head against the palm of his hand, the man stopped stirring his drink and stared at the picture.

George sucked in a quick breath and felt the clock inside him running out as his muscles tensed, preparing to run when the bartender came back from making his phone call telling whoever was on the other end that a stranger had come into the bar uninvited.

He started to slide the picture back. The man placed his hand on the picture and held it against the bar. He finally took a sip from his drink and said, “Los Rojos.”

The man kept his eyes locked on the picture of Bess. He knew something and George could see it smoldering behind the man’s eyes. His secrets were like a trapped animal, pawing at the bars of a cage the man was too afraid to open.

“Where is that?” George asked.

The man took another drink, draining it by half. “I don’t know.”

George slipped the picture back into his pocket just as the bartender emerged from the door. He was out of time and had to stand up.

He was already half way to the door when the bartender called out, “Excuse me, sir.” George heard the bartender step out from behind the bar and start to jog towards him as the men on the sofas cast a casual gaze towards the commotion.

George knew the bartender wouldn’t follow him out the door, but he also knew somebody outside was already looking for him. He ripped the door open, ran halfway down the block and then cut into traffic, dodging cars screeching to a stop as he dashed across the street. He cut one way and then the other, hoping to blur into the background, but he knew he was too big for that.

He caught a glimpse of the bartender watching him as he ran past the cracked marquee of an abandoned theater. His legs carried him to the corner in a few long strides and then he turned down a side street and slipped into the darkness of unlit sidewalks.

He kept running, cutting along the side streets, turning right and left in a self-imposed maze until he was sure he had thrown anybody who might have been following him off his trail.

Breathing hard from his sprint, he checked his holster as he surveyed his surroundings. He walked a few blocks parallel to the main avenue, his head on a swivel for any sign of somebody watching him. He wanted to put as much distance between him and the minions that drove Escalades and polished clean glasses as he could, but he knew if he went any further, he wouldn’t be able to watch for the man to leave the Blue Eagle.

Treading his way back towards the lights and traffic of Central Avenue, he surveyed the rusted chain link fences and weed-infested yards of darkened houses with boarded up windows along the way. He crossed to the other side of the street to give a wide berth to one house with a porch light shining down on drowsy dogs guarding the doorway.

When he reached the lights of Central Avenue, he stopped and swept his gaze along the sidewalk on the other side until he saw the man standing on the corner one block down from the bar. The man checked his watch and then scanned the street – probably waiting for a cab.

George started to step off the curb to cross the street when two men walked up behind the man. Before George could say anything, they grabbed the man and dragged him along the sidewalk to the alley behind the bar.

George bolted across the street and ran towards the men as they stuffed a rag in the man’s mouth and dragged him into the alley. George was still half a block away and running hard when he heard them throw the man on the ground and the muffled thump of boots against ribs. The grunts from their exertion told him his ribs were already cracked and he heard a muffled scream trying to get through the rag in the man’s mouth.

George slid to a stop at the end of the alley and pulled his Smith and Wesson 500 from its holster.  Still panting from his second burst of running, he winced as one of the men slammed the toe of his boot into the man’s jaw. He heard the crack of bone as his jaw dislocated, followed by the primal scream of a wounded animal swallowed up by the rag.

He glanced at the security camera mounted over the back door of the bar staring straight at him like a severed robotic head impaled in the wall. In this light, he knew it wouldn’t capture much more than the hulk of his body, but the smart thing would have been to duck back and run.

The man was whimpering as another boot pulled back, ready to strike again. George was out of time and he could feel the trail of clues that would lead him to Bess slipping away. Mostly, though, he couldn’t watch them beat a man within an inch of his life – or worse.

“That’s enough!” he yelled, leveling the barrel of his revolver at the men. They jerked their heads to stare at him with eyes wide, looking like teenagers caught boosting their neighbor’s car.

Before he could tell them to get on their knees, they bolted for the truck just down the alley that he hadn’t noticed before. The doors slammed closed and the engine roared to life as the headlights blazed on, blinding him. He wanted to put a .50 caliber round right into the engine block, knowing it might kill the engine cold at such close range. Instead, he let the truck lurch back and scurry down the alley in reverse, turning hard onto the side street at the other end before screeching away. It was more important that he talk to the man.

George holstered his revolver and ran up to the man, who was gurgling blood as it dripped down his chin and splashed on the ground. He knelt down next to the man and gently pried the rag from his mouth. The man coughed and groaned in agony, more blood dripping down the side of his mouth. “It’s alright, man,” George said. “I’ll get help on the way.” He pulled out his smart phone and dialed 911.

The man grabbed his arm, trying to choke out words. George grabbed the man’s hand and held it as he talked. “I’m at Central and Parsons, in the back alley. Subject has blunt force trauma and a severe head injury. Subject is responsive and awake, but bleeding profusely from mouth and nose. Central and Parsans. Callback 505 177 3250. He put the phone back in his pocket without hanging up and leaned down as the man struggled to say something.

His voice was a gurgling grunt as he struggled to say the words. “Lo – ” he coughed and gagged and tried again. “Los.” He grunted and winced hard as a deep cough rattled his chest. “Rojos.”

“Los Rojos?” George asked, gripping the man’s hand tighter. The man nodded and let out a raspy wheeze. “OK. That’s good. Just stay still now. Help is coming.”

The man smiled, proud of himself and George could see him letting something slip away. “You did good,” George said.

“Told her-” The man coughed again to keep from choking on his own blood. “I would go back.”

George gazed into the man’s eyes, seeing him slip away and gripped the man’s hand tighter. He didn’t want the man to suffer any longer, but if he had more to say, George knew he had to hear it.

The man groaned and then grunted a final word before he fell unconscious. “Fuego.” After that, he wheezed out another rattling breath and closed his eyes.

George felt for his pulse. It was still there – rapid and weak. The man was still breathing as bubbles of blood danced along his lips.

“You did good,” George said again. He held the man’s hand tight and watched the alley until he heard the first faint wails of sirens.

NEXT


©2017 Michael J Lawrence