“MSNBC has learned that the loss of power on Flight 279 may have been an act of sabotage,” intoned a reporter on the tarmac at LAX, the lights of fire engines strobing red behind her. “Although Homeland Security has not ruled out terrorism, they suspect Los Angeles District Attorney Jan Ryan might have been the target of an elaborate murder attempt. Police and federal investigators are…”
“Shut that thing off.” Ralph Smithers sucked down the rest of his Southern Comfort, got up, and poured himself another one. The new drink had no ice this time and disappeared in one gulp.
The 42-inch plasma went dead, cutting off the chit-chat between the news anchor and the reporter at LAX. Smithers’ partner, Rufus King, set the remote aside and continued nursing his own drink, a Chivas Regal and water. Behind King, the lights of downtown Monticello shimmered in the distance. King stared impassively back at Smithers. He could just as easily have been admiring the view of the skyline from his condo, perched some ten stories up on a the ridge that made up this section of the city.
Smithers poured a third drink, swallowed half of it, and took out a pack of Kools. He made a gesture, then lit one once King nodded. “Shit, when we was running the streets, we didn’t have to deal with this. Someone else was the big man. Someone else had to worry about whether their connect was bat shit insane or not.”
Smithers had changed little since those days. He still wore the Yankees hat and the leather jacket and the Air Jordans. He might be running the game in this dying steel and auto town, but he’d be damned if he’d put on a suit and pretend he was one of those Holland Island motherfuckers, with their boxy sedans and their tailored suits and the kids in the semi-private schools shared with the super-rich fucks over on the next island. Smithers still played the game, and dammit, he wanted everyone to know it.
Except the feds, of course.
Rufus King picked an invisible piece of lint off the cuff of his Brooks Brothers suit. “Joey Tran’s kept us in business for the last few years, Ralph. We can’t turn our backs on him. How would that look to other suppliers?”
“Like we wanted nothing to do with that crazy bastard. Why’s he coming here, anyway? If it were me, I’d have been out of the country before that cunt brought the indictment, not running to Ohio. Never mind that stupid shit with the airplane. Who in the fuck tries to blow up a 747 after 9/11 anyway?”
King sipped his Chivas, savored it, and said, “Joey Tran, that’s who.” He stood up and straightened his jacket. “Remember, Joey’s done us some solids these past three years. But I’ve made contingency plans. That’s what you pay me for. I called our Russian friend over in Cleveland. We’re already negotiating for product. The corners have enough stashes to get them through the next month or so.” King smiled faintly in a way that reminded King of Diddy. “And anyway, our connect is the Estradas’ connect. Those Mexican losers will either starve or come to us for product. Feel me?”
The rest of Smithers’ drink disappeared. “Yeah, yeah. So when and where is Tran coming in? Don’t tell me he’s stupid enough to come through the airport.”
“Private plane,” said King. “Friend of his owes him a favor. Should be landing at Cox Field around ten.”
Smithers looked at his watch. It was 9:23. “Let’s get out there, then. Meet the big man himself. Question is what do we do with him once he’s here.”
“I made some other phone calls as soon Tran called.” King finished his Chivas in one gulp. “Why else would he leave sunny Los Angeles on the spur of the moment to visit some midwestern dump in the middle of January?”
“We ought to cap him and be done with it.”
“Pier 9, Ralph? Is that what you’re thinking?”
“It’s what we do with anyone else who crosses us. Why? What do you have planned?”
Cox Airfield had once been Monticello’s primary airport. It was where The Beatles first came to town in the sixties. However, the city fathers (and the odd mother) decided it was too close to nearby Cedar Point Amusement Park and too small to accommodate the ever-growing Boeing fleet airlines were building at the time. Now it catered to private jets, charter helicopter outfits, and weekend pilots in their little Cessnas and Piper Cubs. Smithers wondered if King was creaming his shorts over the selection of private planes.
The Gulfstream G-100 carrying Joey Tran from Los Angeles touched down around eleven. Smithers and King met him on the tarmac. A short Asian man, Joey Tran carried himself like a tightly coiled spring. Smithers always admired that about the man. He knew Tran fancied himself as a modern-day Bruce Lee who had executed more than a couple of traitors in his organization bare-handed. Rumor had it an LA cop met a similar fate, which is what triggered his current indictment.
The fucker was late, though, and Smithers wasn’t having it. It was bad enough he was standing on the tarmac while an Arctic cold blast cut across the airport from Lake Erie.
They stood beside King’s dark blue Lexus, one of three cars waiting for the plane. The second was a Lincoln Town Car with tinted windows, the third a navy blue Ford Taurus. Only a uniformed limo driver waited outside the Lincoln. Two guys in dark glasses and black suits waited with the Ford.
Smithers didn’t like the suits. “Are those…”
“Just watch,” said King. “This will all work out.”
The Gulfstream taxied over to where the cars waited. King nodded once at the suits with the Ford. They opened the car’s rear doors, and two more suits, sans sunglasses, emerged. The first two men got back in the Ford and drove off.
One of the suits walked up to Rufus. “Mr. King?”
“You know who I am,” he said. “So your superiors are good with this deal?”
“We’d have thought you’d have called the Russians, to be honest with you,” said the other one.”
King tossed the first one his keys. “You drive. Torch the car when you’re done. For now, just take me and my partner back to Galway. We’d like to have a chat with our guest before we leave you to your business.”
The suit nodded and got into the front seat of the Lexus with his partner.
Four men, all as well dressed as Rufus King, got off the plane and slipped into the Town Car. As it rolled away, two more men in pilot uniforms came down the gangway, followed by a blonde woman Smithers suspected worked for a high-priced LA escort service. The first man, a white guy with graying hair, and the blonde said nothing as they watched a white Exec-Air van approach. The other pilot, an Asian, made eye contact with Smithers. It was not the polite, confident eye contact the other men made. This guy sized up Smithers, King, the Lexus, and the air field.
“Mr. Tran?” said Rufus King. He stepped forward and offered his hand to the Asian.
“Rufus,” said the Asian with a predatory smile. “Ralph Smithers. How are you?”
“We cool,” said Smithers. “Real cool.”
King opened the rear passenger door to the Lexus. “Get in.”
From Cox Field to Galway Village normally took ten minutes, cutting through Rock Ridge directly to the bluff overlooking Midtown. King had already instructed the two men in black to take the long way back, downtown, out the Parkway, then up a long series of switchbacks that led to Rock Ridge.
The three of them, Tran, King, and Smithers, remained silent until they left the airport grounds. Once on the Shoreway, with Lake Erie shimmering in the night to their left, Tran finally spoke.
“I hope you got a plan for me,” he said. “I’ve been damned good to you people for the last three years.”
And you keep reminding us every chance you get, Smithers thought to himself.
“We have a plan,” said King. “Tell us about the indictment. Maybe we can help.”
“That Ryan bitch smells blood. You know how LA is. Ever since OJ, they want anything that’ll get them on TV.”
“What happened? Why are they paying attention to you?”
“‘Cuz I got stupid. I caught a traitor in my organization. You know what I do with them. I snapped his neck like a twig. The fucker begged for his life for ten minutes before I did him.”
“That’s cold,” said King, though he wondered why Tran had to kill them bare-handed. He usually had traitors shot. Nothing personal. Just business. He learned that from an old Sicilian he once knew.
“I didn’t know he was a cop until they found his body under the Santa Monica Pier,” said Tran. “Kill a cop in LA, and everything turns to shit.”
“Okay, but here’s the part I don’t understand,” said King. “Why go after Ryan? You know if something bad happens to her, they’re going to bring seven times the heat down on you.”
Tran grinned. “That was the beauty of the plane. I had a couple people in Honolulu who owed me favors, a pair of mechanics. They worked for the airline Ryan flew out on, so I told them their debt would be paid if they made something bad happen to the plane.”
Jesus Christ, thought Smithers, did he really just hear this Asian fucker say that?
“The best part is, if the plane went down, they’d blame terrorism. Or mechanical failure. Guess I’m going to have to kill those fuckers for messing it up.”
King smiled. “It’s been taken care of. In the meantime, you need to get underground.” He reached over the front seat and tapped one of the men in black on the shoulder. “Change in plans. Go to the stadium. Mr. Smithers and I will drive ourselves home.”
The vast expanse of asphalt surrounded a behemoth called Bernie Kosar Field, named for a quarterback who made his name some forty miles east of this city. Tran didn’t like it. To be taken to an empty parking lot in a Midwestern city at nearly midnight smacked of Jimmy Hoffa.
The two suits in the front seat pulled up next to a bland-looking Volkswagen Jetta. Tran wondered who the hell drove a Jetta in this game? Then he realized two things: Rufus King insisted on being as inconspicuous as possible, and these Midwestern hicks had a blind loyalty to any company that provided them manufacturing jobs. Somewhere in Monticello, a factory cranked out Jettas and parts for the fake Beetles VW pawned off on an idiotic public. The Jetta would stick out like an invisible thumb in this burg.
Tran hated it here. It was cold. It was small. It was dirty. Another Midwestern shithole that had been on life support since the 1970’s, but refused to die and let nature reclaim it. And here he sat with two strangers in the back of a Lexus, less and less impressed with his surroundings by the second.
“So what’s the plan?” he asked.
“Mr. Smithers and Mr. King asked us to take you to the old port,” said the guy in the passenger seat. He sounded like that guy from The Matrix.
“What? You taking me out in a boat?”
“A boat,” said the driver, “would be less conspicuous than a car. Harder to track. Mr. King even suggested having you hide out on one of the islands until spring.”
“They got islands in this state?”
“I understand,” said the passenger, “that Mr. King even knows someone with a cabin on Rattlesnake Island. Even the federal government doesn’t go there.”
“Why the hell would I want to go to some island in the middle of a frozen lake in the middle of January?” asked Tran. “Listen, you guys get me to the Bahamas, I’ll make it worth your while.”
“You have funds in the Bahamas, Mr. Tran?” asked the driver.
“What? Of course.”
They said nothing as downtown Monticello, with its concrete towers, bright neon, and orderly maze of streets slid by to the right. To the left a suspension bridge stretched out toward an island with its own skyline.
“There’s an island,” said Tran. “Why not there?”
“Part of the city,” said the passenger. “That’s Holland Island.”
“Where the wealthy blacks all live,” said the driver. “And quite a few well-off whites. Chances are, they’ve seen your face on TV already.”
They crossed a long bridge over an inky black river that stretched off toward an eerie glow to the south. Tran suspected the glow was Monticello’s manufacturing core. If so, it was surprisingly active in this economy.
On the far side of the span, another suspension bridge, clearly under construction, also stretched toward Holland Island. The Lexus drifted onto an exit near the freeway that led to the new bridge, orange signs and barrels cluttering the shoulder and middle lanes. The exit led into a war zone, run-down buildings, liquor stores, and gun shops. A neon sign on a converted warehouse promised the most beautiful women in Ohio. Tran somehow doubted it. They probably all looked used and spent, their last stop before the homeless shelter or one last drug overdose.
They turned onto a street called Lake Road that ran underneath the Shoreway and along a series of abandoned piers. The Lexus turned into #9.
“We meeting the boat here?” asked Tran, though he didn’t believe it. They were a long way from that big island, from downtown, from the air field on the far side of the city.
The suits did not say anything, simply driving the car to the middle of the pier. A blue Ford Taurus sat to one side, its nose pointed toward Lake Road.
“You have the keys?” the driver asked.
The passenger patted his coat pocket. “Right here.”
“What’s going on?” asked Tran. “Where’s the boat?”
“There’s no boat,” said the driver, who turned and flashed his badge. It read Special Agent Ruffin of the FBI.
“Wait a minute. You’re feds? But you…”
“Made a deal with two of the biggest drug distributors in the city?” The passenger’s ID said he was Agent Packer of Homeland Security. “Well, see, you present us with a problem. We are under orders from on high to focus on terrorism. You’re little stunt with that plane’s hydraulic system forced us to take the eye off the ball.”
Tran had his hands up. “This is entrapment, you know. I’ll walk.”
Ruffin brought up his Sig Sauer 10mm. “No. You won’t. There won’t even be a trial.”
Rufus King was in a silk bathrobe when the police knocked on his door the next morning. Opening his door, he found a rumpled Lt. Mitchell of Narcotics at the door.
“Rufus King, as I live and breathe,” said Mitchell. “Damn glad to see ya this morning.”
King tried not to roll his eyes at Mitchell, but he also was in no mood for Mitchell’s sudden Lucky Charms Irish accent. The kindly beat cop routine meant Mitchell had come by to fuck with King. “What do you want, Lieutenant? I gotta get ready for work.”
“Oh, I know, Rufus,” said Mitchell. “I know. Tell me. Do you own a late model Lexus sedan?”
“Probably. I do own a car service, you know.”
“And did your service call you about a stolen car last night?”
“They might have. I would assume, though, the first call they’d make would be to 911, then our insurance company. Why?”
“Oh, no reason.” Mitchell turned to leave, then spun around. McColumbo, King thought. “Except there was a burned out hulk of a Lexus found this morning on Pier 9. The VIN number does, in fact, trace back to your service.”
“Fucking joy riders.”
“Maybe. But there was a crispy critter in the back seat. We have to send out for dental records. Ya might not be able to help us out, would you?”
“I have no idea. Who would be in the back?”
“How about your old buddy, Ralph Smithers? He’s been scarce these past few weeks.”
“Uh huh. For the last time, Mitchell. I’m straight. Do you have a warrant?”
“No, but I…”
King slammed the door in his face. After five minutes, he hit a number he had on speed dial. “Ralph, it’s Rufus. Police were just by. Mitchell thinks that was you in that car we sent Tran with.”
“Any word from our friends?”
“Nope. And if they stay true to their word, they’ll turn a blind eye to any odd traffic coming out of Montreal.”
“So we back in business?”
“We back. Joey Tran is on the slab.”
JIM WINTER builds web sites and databases by day and writes tales of nastiness at night when he’s not being a middle-aged college student, stepdad, or doting husband. Originally from Cleveland, he has been a factory grunt, a failed salesman, and computer repair technician. He can be found on the web at http://www.jamesrwinter.net, where the world may discover all things Jim. Except, yanno, that thing. He’s never going to admit to that. So don’t ask.