The next morning, Tom Carlisle opened the door to his office to find the room in shambles. His desk was flipped over with its legs sticking up – like a dead animal that had been shot. The drawers had been pulled out and tossed on the floor, next to their scattered contents. A half dozen legal pads scribbled with notes along with a dozen half used pens had been thrown against the wall. The laptop was closed and sat on the floor next to the desk.
Everything was a mess, but as Tom scanned the room, one detail rose above the rest. Nothing had actually been taken.
He walked across the room and opened the door to George’s office. Everything was in order, right down to the half-filled cup of cold coffee on the corner of his partner’s desk.
He eased the door closed, picked up a blue plastic chair and turned it over to sit down. He rubbed his chin and scanned the room again, looking for anything that either belonged there and was gone or didn’t belong there and was new.
His gaze wandered along the seam between the ceiling and wall, looking for any new holes or cracks. He eyed the fluorescent light nestled in one of the false ceiling tiles.
The filing cabinet was still standing. The table next to it had been turned over and the coffee maker lay shattered on the floor. He stood up and paced to the cabinet. He grabbed the handle and thumbed the latch, waiting a moment before he pulled the drawer open.
The files on every case he and George had ever worked were still inside. The crisp edges of manila folders from the newer cases fanned back like a deck of cards, morphing into the worn edges of the older cases. As far as he could tell, nothing had been taken. Whether or not anybody had looked at the files was less obvious.
He jerked his head around when he heard footsteps crunch on the debris scattered on the floor. George stopped mid-step, standing halfway through the door.
Tom let out a soft sight. “You startled me there, George.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” George brought his other foot inside and surveyed the room. His eyes stopped when he saw the shattered carafe and cold coffee splattered on the floor. “Aw, man, they broke the coffee pot.” He moved to the center of the room and glanced at his office door.
“It’s fine. They stayed just long enough to do this,” Tom said, sweeping his hand around the room.
“How are the files?’
Tom shook his head and shrugged. “Fine as far as I can tell.” He watched a few moments longer as his partner conducted his inspection of the room, noting every detail that Tom had – probably more.
“Is this about the girl?” Tom asked.
“Probably. I stepped into something pretty deep last night.” He was still looking around the room, distracted by the need to figure out what had happened.
Tom’s voice had an edge of impatience. “George.”
His partner stopped his inspection and looked at him. “Yeah boss.”
“Yeah. I started showing her picture around and got eyeballed real quick. Fella got a free ride to Lovelace for talking to me.”
“Say anything useful?”
“Los Rojos.” George reached down and picked up the handle of the broken carafe. “Man, we need a new coffee pot. What kind of animals break a man’s coffee pot?”
“Yeah. And, um, fuego.”
“Los Rojos and fuego?”
George nodded and lifted his brow. “Yeah. Man damn near died telling me, too.”
“What is that? Los Rojos and fuego.”
“I don’t know. But the trail starts down at this place called the Blue Eagle.”
“Yeah.” Tom looked around the room again and let out a sigh.
George knitted his brow and stepped closer. “Tom. We found a hot trail. We’re onto something here.” He tilted his head. “You don’t seem too excited about that.”
“We follow men who cheat on their wives and write up smear sheets so lawyers can get a better deal for our clients. The kind of people who get pissed off and then pay through the nose to buy their own guilt. Not people who do this.” He waved his hand around the room.
“What are you saying?”
“We’re in over our heads. We need to hand this over to the police and walk away.”
“And what about that ten thousand you have in that body wallet you’re wearing?”
“We give it back.”
“You know those surveillance gigs you’re talking about?”
“Well, we haven’t had one in a while. Ever since -“
“Yeah, ever since my relapse. But I’m back on track now.”
“That’s great. In the meantime, we don’t have any money.” He tossed the carafe handle on the floor. “And we need a new damn coffee pot.”
“I’m not prepared for this sort of thing, George.”
Tom rubbed his chin and looked around the room one more time, looking for any details either of them might have missed.
“Fine.” He stood up. “I need to set us up a new shop. I’ll get us a room somewhere.”
“Make sure it has one of those little coffee pots.”
“Maybe they’ll have room service, George.”
“Hey, we don’t have that much money.”
“Did you see that envelope she brought in? It has more. She can afford it.” He stooped down to pick up the carafe handle. “What’s your next step?”
“I’m going back down there.”
Tom eyed his partner. “You sure about that?”
“It’s ground zero. Everything starts right there.”
“Alright. Check in with me this afternoon.” Tom watched him step towards the door. “And George…” His partner stopped and looked over his shoulder.
George flashed his ivory smile and said, “You get me a new coffee pot?”
Tom shook his head and scoffed. “It’s a deal.”
By three o’clock, Tom had set up the files in cardboard boxes against the wall of the hotel room they would use as their office until he knew they were safe. He stood over them, shaking his head. He had thumbed through all of them and as best as he could remember, every file was still there. They hadn’t made a file for the Kincaid case, so there hadn’t been anything to find yet. Not that there would have been much – they didn’t really know anything yet.
He sat down at the round table next to the window. He had pulled the drapes the moment he entered the room. Now, he tucked the edges over each other again to make sure not even a sliver of light showed through.
He stared at the screen of his laptop. He had scoured every corner of the Internet he could think of – every search engine, every secret chat room he had infiltrated over the years. Nowhere had he found anything about Los Rojos that had any bearing on a kidnapped girl. Usually, if he couldn’t find something in the ether of cyberspace, it didn’t exist.
This time was different. He thought of the clutter strewn around his office. Somebody had invaded his corner of the universe. Somebody had found him. And it was because of Los Rojos, a secret buried so deep in the darkness that he felt a shiver when he thought of the kind of people who could do that.
He eyed his smart phone, itching to dial George’s number. But he knew better than to risk exposing his partner during one of his ‘tactical recons’. He smiled, thinking of George’s penchant for holding onto that part of him that was still a soldier. He had once tried to explain to George that not everything was a fight. But he knew his partner would never see it that way. And with a girl involved, Tom didn’t know just how far his partner would go. More secrets in the darkness that he never talked about, except to say, “KTO.” And that always meant the same thing: he was done talking about it.
He glanced at his watch. It was 3:30. He tapped his hands nervously on the tabletop, then tucked the curtains one more time and snatched up the keys lying next to his laptop.
Driving down Central Avenue, Tom patted his jacket again, checking to make sure his smart phone was still there. He wanted to check to see if it was set to vibrate in case George called, but he had already done that at least five times.
He scanned the shop fronts and signs lining the street as he idled behind the choking smoke of a bus. The further west he drove, the more broken down shops and boarded over signs he saw as he descended into the decay of that part of town which had been surrendered to the kind of people he knew George hated most. More importantly, he knew George was a man driven to defend the kind of people who found themselves trapped there.
As the bus pulled away and its black exhaust curled into the air, Tom caught the dingy outline of scripted letters on the blue wooden shingles hanging over a darkened glass door. It was the smudge of words that stayed behind when a neon sign was pulled down. He drove slowly, staring at the words until he was close enough to make them out. His chest twinged when he was able to read them: Blue Eagle.
He pulled over and parked next to a meter. As he stepped out to drop in coins, he saw the glass on the meter was cracked and covered with remnants of red tape indicating it was broken. He scoffed. A broken meter would normally be an omen of good luck, but he had a feeling that a working meter was the exception in this part of town.
He walked down to the corner and waited for the light to turn green before crossing. Glancing around, he saw he wasn’t out of place. Balding men in suit jackets avoided his gaze as they shuffled along the sidewalk and looked at the cracked cement beneath their feet as if there was some good reason for them to be there. But the most interesting thing was the shoes. They were all black, shined and expensive.
As casually as he could, Tom approached the door to the Blue Eagle and tugged on the door. Locked. He cupped his face against the glass and looked inside. The only light was the splash of daylight probing through the glass door as he peered through it. The floor was bare. A discolored swath swept along the wall to the left where rugs had protected it from wear. A bar jutted out from the wall on the right, a large mirror mounted behind it. There wasn’t a single chair, table or stool and there wasn’t a liquor bottle to be seen.
Tom tugged at the door again, rattling the latch against the frame. He stepped back and glanced around, looking for a face that might tell him somebody knew what had happened. The only one he saw that could help him was the driver of an Escalade stopped at the corner and looking in his direction. But helping a man staring into the emptiness of the Blue Eagle was not the driver’s job. Tom kept his head and eyes moving, as if he was just another confused customer who would shuffle along the sidewalk not knowing where to go next.
Careful to avoid eye contact with the driver, he walked back to the corner and waited for the light to turn green. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the driver glaring at him. He glanced up and down the street, trying to look as if he hadn’t noticed and forced himself to walk casually when the light turned green.
He angled for his car and quickly opened the door without looking up. Before the door had even closed, he started the engine, checked for traffic and pulled onto the street, heading west. He glanced at his rearview mirror and saw the driver still watching him as the Escalade pulled in behind him.
It wasn’t until he had put three blocks between him and the Escalade that it finally turned around and drove back the way it had come.
Tom let out a slow sigh and kept driving west until he found an entry ramp to the freeway. He would keep driving until he was sure nobody was following him and he could find a motel behind a truck stop somewhere to hole up for the night.
Once he was out of town, he pulled the smart phone from his jacket and thumbed the listing for George. He pressed the phone to his ear and listened as it rang. Neither of them had set up voice mail, in case somebody who shouldn’t have their numbers called. Instead, it just kept ringing.
After he had lost count of how many times, he thumbed off the call and tossed the phone on the passenger’s seat.
As he drove towards the sunset, its orange light cutting through the drab brown hills of the desert, Tom thought of the room he had just rented. Would he find his files scattered on the floor and the table turned upside down when he got back to it? He felt like an invisible enemy who was already three steps ahead had surrounded him.
And they didn’t have a single clue about the whereabouts of Bess Kincaid except for the words Los Rojos, something – or somewhere – that didn’t even seem to exist. And now, George was gone, too. Tom latched onto what he felt then, knowing that Bess probably felt the same way, except that for her it was something that was probably drowning her. For the first time in years, Tom felt alone.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence