Twilight was descending when they pulled up to Mary Kincaid’s house. Rickie pulled the key out of the ignition and eyed Gutierrez.
“You know, I’ve been trying to think of another way to do this,” Rickie said.
Gutierrez slowly turned towards him. “And?”
Rickie looked at the house and let out a long breath. “Didn’t come up with anything.”
“Let’s go then.”
“Right.” Rickie opened the door and stepped out. They both glanced up and down the street as they walked up the driveway and the short walkway to the front door. Rickie stopped on the porch and looked at the door.
“What are you waiting for?” Gutierrez asked.
“Gimme a minute. I need to get in character.” He glanced at the pistol tucked in Gutierrez’s belt. “It might be better if you wait in the car.”
Gutierrez smiled, reached over Rickie’s shoulder and rang the doorbell.
Rickie wiped his hand down his face and along his neck and squeezed his eyes shut. Prying Bess from her drunken mother wasn’t exactly an act of mercy, but condemning the hopeless was a moral burden easily carried with enough money. Facing her in the daylight of sobriety, where she was a mother in fear for her daughter’s life, was a wellspring of humanity he wasn’t willing to drown in. If his flight had left thirty minutes earlier, none of it would have mattered. Now, it was a simple matter of survival.
Just as Rickie opened his eyes, Mary opened the door and peeked out. At first, her eyes widened when she saw Rickie’s face. Then her eyes narrowed to a simmering glare. “What do you want?”
“Mary, we need to -“
Before he could finish, Gutierrez shoved the door open and barged in, knocking Mary against the wall. He pulled the pistol from his belt and pressed the barrel against her forehead. Her lip quivering, she pushed herself up against the wall and stared at Rickie as he came through the door.
“What the hell are you doing?” Rickie yelled.
Keeping his eyes on Mary, Gutierrez said, “You don’t listen too well. The man told you how easy this is. So get on with it.”
Rickie crouched down next to her. Mary’s eyes were wide and jittering and her mouth quivered as she sucked in short gasping breaths.
Rickie flashed his best smile and said, “Mary, look at me.” She couldn’t stop staring at Gutierrez as he held the pistol against her head and she started to pant. “Put the gun down, man. She’s going to hyperventilate.”
Gutierrez stood up and tucked the pistol back in his belt.
Rickie reached out to touch Mary’s face and she jerked away, her mouth still quivering and her eyes darting between them.
“Mary, we found Bess,” he said.
Her eyes locked on him. “What?”
He smiled at her and softened his gaze. “That’s right.”
“Where is she?” She glanced at Gutierrez. “Who are you?”
“Don’t look at him, Mary.” Rickie put his hand on her arm. “Look at me. Don’t pay attention to him.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
He placed his other hand on her arm and said, “I know. Come on, you need to stand up now.” He helped her as she slid up the wall and smoothed down the front of her dress. He glanced at Gutierrez and pulled her away from the wall. He turned her around and started walking her down the hallway. “Come on, let’s go to the living room.”
He shot a glance at Gutierrez and shook his head. Gutierrez slowed his pace and fell back a few steps, then stopped at the entrance to the living room and watched as Rickie eased Mary onto the sofa.
“Do you want me to fix you a drink?” Rickie asked.
Mary looked past him and eased out a deep breath. “No. I’m trying to dry out.”
Pushing her through the maze of her new reality would have been easier if she had a drink. Maybe it would have been easier if he had a drink. “Okay. Fine.” He sat down next to her and laid his hand on her knee. “Now, I need your help Mary. Are you listening?”
“You said you know where she is?”
He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Sort of.”
“What do you mean sort of? And why -“
He pressed down, easing her against the armrest of the sofa.
“Sort of.” He leveled his gaze at her. “We know she’s alive.” He arched his brow and put his finger against her lips when she started to talk again. “And now we need to bring her in.”
Rickie shook his head and picked up her smart phone lying on the coffee table. “It’s complicated.” He took her hand and placed the phone in her palm.
“Remember the part where you said you were listening?”
“Good. Because that’s important. You need to really pay attention now.”
“Alright.” Her breathing had eased, but her eyes still stretched open and she looked like a deer in a forest who didn’t know which way to run after hearing a twig crack under a hunter’s boots.
“I need you to call the men you hired to find Bess and tell them you need to meet with them because you have some new information.”
“It’s not something you can talk about over the phone. Understand? They have to meet with you.”
“He’ll probably tell you where.”
“How do you know?”
Rickie pressed down on her shoulder even more. “You have to keep this simple, Mary. Just listen.”
She looked at the phone and blinked.
“Mary, you can do this.”
Still looking at the phone, she said, “Alright.” She sniffed and started dialing.
“Put it on speaker,” he said.
The line rang three times and then clicked. “This is Tom.”
“Mr. Carlisle? Hi, um, I think I have something we need to talk about.” Rickie narrowed his gaze and leaned in. “It’s about Bess,” she said.
“I’m listening,” Tom said.
“Not on the phone,” she said.
Silence poured into the room as Rickie counted the seconds between the time the man on the other end was just wondering what had happened and the time he would know something was wrong.
Finally, Tom said, “Okay. We can meet somewhere I guess.” Rickie couldn’t discern the thoughts behind the voice, but he could tell the man wasn’t quick to trust her calling out of the blue when his trail had gone cold.
“Your office?” she asked. Rickie smiled and nodded. Good girl.
More seconds ticked by.
“We have a room at the De Marco. One thirteen.”
“Alright. I’m on my way then.”
“That’s fine Mrs. Kincaid. I’ll see you when you get here.”
The line went dead and Mary stared at the phone. Rickie looked over his shoulder to see Gutierrez holding up two fingers. Rickie shrugged and turned back to Mary. “Will they both be there?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
He took the phone from her hand and slid it into his jacket pocket. “Okay, Mary, let’s go.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her from the sofa as he stood up.
She yanked her arm away and asked, “When do I get to see Bess?”
Rickie shook his head as Gutierrez placed his hand on the grip of his pistol. He flashed Mary another smile and showed soft eyes again. “Before that can happen, we have to meet your friends. One step at a time. Simple. Remember?”
He placed his hand on her back and eased her towards the hallway as Gutierrez stepped aside to let them by.
“I don’t like this,” she said.
Rickie could tell the initial shock of having somebody storm her house with a gun in his hand was wearing off. He would have to remind Ramón that compliance and persuasion were two different things. She had complied out of fear, but that would wear off soon.
“Just keep walking, Mary,” he said. “You don’t have to like this. You just have to keep walking.”
“What happens next?” she asked.
Rickie wanted to tell her something that would make her feel better. He wanted to tell her something that would make him feel better. He even wished he could tell her the truth, but he wasn’t sure he knew what that really was. The only thing he could tell her – that he had to tell her – was whatever would keep her moving down the hallway and out to their car.
“We find Bess.”
Tom thumbed off his phone and set it on the round table by the window. He paced around the table, brushing his fingertips along its cheap vinyl covering.
Clients usually called to ask for an update when they didn’t get results fast enough. Sometimes they called because the bill was too much, but Tom hadn’t set Mary Kincaid a bill yet. Then there were the ones who called wanting more. The pictures were great but their lawyer thinks they can get more if they can get a snapshot of actual kissing – or worse. That sort of thing.
But the one thing they never did was say they couldn’t talk. If they had information, they blurted it out. If they had a question, they asked it. The case here was about a missing girl. There wasn’t anything that couldn’t be discussed over the phone.
Tom bit his lip as he eyed the door and then stepped to his stack of cardboard filing boxes. He pulled one of the drawers open and pushed the files back to expose a thin plastic case on the bottom.
He slid it out slowly, as if it were some delicate treasure and not just a box full of electronic parts, and laid it on the table. He carefully snapped open the lid to reveal a maze of compartments with an assortment of computer cables, chips, wired connectors – and a few odds and ends that even most computer technicians wouldn’t recognize.
One of them was a black cube of plastic with a circuit board affixed to the top that he had etched and soldered himself.
He pulled out a USB charger, plugged it into the wall and inserted the small end into the side of the case to charge the lithium battery inside. As the box charged, he pulled out a small pair of scissors and a strip of Velcro, trimming it and fitting it on top of the box with a few drops of Superglue.
George was supposed to come in that night, but now Tom thought it would be better for him to wait. While he waited for the box to charge, he sent a text message to George for him to stay in orbit and wait for a call from either him or the black box. He checked his watch, figuring he had about thirty minutes before Mary would arrive. He could only hope that the battery would charge up enough by then to record the half hour of voice data it could store.
The knock came sooner than that. He pulled the charger out of the wall and tucked it back into the case. He ran a strip of Superglue along the back side of the Velcro strip and pressed the black box against the underside of the table for a few seconds to make sure it was secure.
The knock came again, louder this time, as he slid the case back into its hiding place in the file box.
The knock came a third time and he cleared his throat to squelch any tension in his voice. “Hold on a minute.”
He let out a sigh and sucked in his breath through his nose as he paced to the door and turned the knob. He shuffled back as the door flew open and Mary tumbled into the room, pushed from behind.
A man wearing a yellow windbreaker stepped in behind her while another man shoved Tom against the wall and pointed a pistol at his nose.
Windbreaker Man guided Mary into a chair at the round table by the window and turned around. “You need to stop doing, that,” he said. “It makes people nervous.”
Tom held his hands next to his shoulders and cocked his head as Gun Man held the barrel to his nose and said, “I just want to make sure everybody knows who’s in charge.”
Windbreaker Man stepped over and placed his hand on the pistol, easing it down from Tom’s face. “This could take a while,” he said. “What are you going to do, keep a gun on him for the next few days?”
“Days?” Gun Man asked. “What do you mean days?”
“Like I said, this could take a while.”
“Then we’ll take turns.”
Windbreaker Man scoffed. “I don’t do guns unless it’s necessary. It’s not necessary here.”
As the two men looked at each other, Tom said, “Yeah, my name is Tom. What do I call you fellas?”
Windbreaker Man glanced at him and said, “Rickie.”
Gun Man rolled his eyes and said, “Just call me ‘sir'”. Then he tucked the pistol into the back of his belt.
Tom eased his way back to the round table and sat down next to Mary, nodding at her as she stared into the room like a trapped animal. He folded his hands in his lap as Rickie opened the closet and swiveled his head, checking to see if anybody was inside.
“So what’s the story, fellas?” Tom asked, easing his hand under the table and onto the black box.
Gun Man flopped on the bed next to the closet and pulled a pillow out from under the bedspread to prop himself against the headboard.
“Well, we were just about to get to that,” Rickie said, sitting on the bed next to the round table. He folded his hands in his lap and said, “You’re Tom Carlisle, licensed private investigator and all that.”
Tom let his eyes drop to half mast and kept his face as still as ice. “That’s right.” When Rickie took a breath to say his next words, Tom pressed up on the black box, feeling a soft click he hoped nobody could hear.
“Think of us as new clients,” Rickie said, “who want the same thing as Mary here.” He leaned forward, the corner of his mouth curling in a half smile. “We’re looking for her little girl.”
“Kind of hard to do that with us all just sitting around, don’t you think?” Tom asked.
Rickie arched a brow. “Were you doing something else before we got here?”
“Setting up my new office.”
Rickie grunted. “Yeah.” He swept his gaze around the room. “Looks nice.” Settling his gaze back on Tom, he asked, “Where’s your partner?”
“I needed Whiteout.”
Rickie leaned back, narrowing his gaze.
Gun Man’s voice drifted across from the other bed. “Show him the gun. Respect. Every time.”
Rickie rubbed his forehead. “Seriously, where is he?”
“Truth is, I don’t know,” Tom said. “He’s a bit of a renegade. Especially when it comes to girls in trouble.”
“Is he coming back?”
“I expect so.”
Rickie’s gaze drifted to the table. “That your phone?”
Rickie stood up and shoved the phone in his jacket pocket. “You can have this back when we’re done.”
“Done with what?” Tom asked.
Rickie moved behind Mary and put his hands on her shoulders. Her eyes jolted open for a moment and then she slumped down, staring at the table.
“We’re going to wait until young Bess calls her mother here.” He squeezed her shoulders and Mary’s arms tensed. “We just need to make sure we all know where to pick her up when the time comes.”
“You know where she is, then?” Tom asked, leaning forward in his chair.
“No. We don’t. If we did, we wouldn’t be here.”
Tom wanted to press him for more, but could tell by the way Rickie looked at him that he was already starting to wonder about his questions. It wouldn’t matter anyway. All George needed to know was that they had lost track of her, which meant she was in the open. His partner could figure out the rest.
Tom leaned back and nodded once. “I understand.”
“Good,” Rickie said. “Then we’re all on board here.” He stood up and nodded at Gun Man. “Now, it’s time to go.”
“Where are you taking us?” Tom asked.
Rickie grunted and curved another half smile. “Somewhere else.”
Gun Man rolled off the bed and stood up. “Wait, what about the other guy?”
Rickie looked at Tom and said, “He’s not coming.”
“How do you know?” Gun Man asked.
Rickie grunted and said, “Tom, let me ask you something.” Tom arched his brow and shrugged. “What is it about guys who think having a gun means they understand everything?”
“I think it’s more like a control thing. You expect the universe works a certain way when you have a gun.”
Rickie chuckled. “See? Tom here is smart. I like you Tom.”
“Yeah, I like me too.”
Tom would never know if his box had picked everything up and was then able to send it to his partner. He had to rely on his own handiwork to do its job silently. He let his mind wander, thinking through the design in his head, looking for any reason it might not work.
It was the only distraction he could think of that kept his mind away from what he knew to be the truth as Rickie and Gun Man hustled them out into the hallway. Neither he nor Mary would live to see Bess Kincaid.
For the first time in his life, he was in what George simply called the corner. He thought of his partner’s words, knowing his life now depended on them. ‘When you’re out of luck and in the corner, you need to pay attention so you don’t miss whatever comes up that will give you one more chance to save your ass.’ Tom understood the shorter version better. Don’t give up just yet. But it was a lot easier said than done.
George pulled over to the shoulder when his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number, but Tom was the only one who knew his, so it had to be the black box.
He didn’t say anything as he opened the line, instead hearing a beep and then a strange man’s voice talking about new clients.
When he heard Tom’s voice, he held his breath and focused on every word, trying to memorize them all as they spilled out from the phone.
After he heard something about waiting for Bess to call, the words started to fade and crackle. After another minute, all he could hear was the soft sizzle of voices without being able to make out any words. Then the line filled with a dull hiss and disconnected.
His hand shook as he tried to redial the number, hearing only the three scaling tones and a robotic message telling him the number was out of service.
He dropped the phone in the passenger’s seat of the compact he’d rented the day before and blinked, looking at the traffic streaming down the interstate in front of him.
He rubbed his face with both hands and shook his head, trying to clear his mind. Sleep deprivation was catching up with him and he suddenly had a new equation he had to figure out. He felt the sourness in his stomach from too much coffee and not enough food welling up in his throat as he sensed that he had one last shot to save the girl.
He picked up his phone and thumbed a number he hadn’t called in a long time.
“Hey, it’s me.”
The momentary silence told him it had been too long since they had last talked. Favors grew stale, especially when time smeared ink on the ledger of good will. Even the bonds of war eroded, especially when somebody let their comrade down. George hoped, as always, that the man on the other end might have forgotten by now. But he knew better.
“Yeah.” George shut his eyes and pressed his lips together, hoping he could find the right words. “I need some help.”
“That’s funny. I remember saying the same thing once.”
“This is different, Special Agent Morris. We need to set that aside. At least for a minute.”
“You have a CART on Bess Kincaid.” George could almost hear the man leaning forward in his chair.
“Hold on.” George waited, listening to the click of a keyboard in the background. “This is pretty old. If she hasn’t surfaced by now -“
“She’s in the open.”
George waited while he tried to imagine what his old comrade was thinking.
“How do you know?”
“That’s the favor part.”
“No, that’s the obstruction of justice part.”
“I’m sure there is. Best if you tell me now George.”
George rippled his fingertips along the back of his phone and took a deep breath. “I need you to tag me when that CART gets called in.”
“That’s fine. What have you got?”
“Somebody’s looking for her.”
“Los Rojos. It’s a body shop and she got loose.”
“Alright. Anything else?”
“They have Tom and the girl’s mother at the De Marco. I think they’re waiting for her to call in.”
“So they can pick her up.”
“Which means we need to move now. It’s good that you called, George. I’ll be in touch.”
The line clicked off and George set his phone in the passenger’s seat. He sat stooped over the steering wheel as traffic sped out away from him, running away like every option he had found. A step behind them all, he tightened his grip around the steering wheel, crippled by the gnawing urge to do something when his only option left was to wait for somebody else to give him the very air he needed to breathe.
He grasped the cheap plastic handle of the gearshift on the floorboard, nudged it into drive and pulled onto the freeway to dash down the asphalt with the rest of the traffic, having come from nowhere that mattered anymore and going nowhere that could matter until he heard back from an old friend who still didn’t trust him.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence