Saturday, February 28, 2009

Chapter Two

After eight hours of stomping huge bugs in line after line of drool-enducingly boring code, Eric powered down his Dell laptop and vacated his cubicle in favor of the still-hot downtown streets. As he fired up the V8, he noticed that the temperature gauge was already creeping toward the center line -- not a good sign. Eric resolved to take a look at the engine the next morning, Saturday (assuming the Thunderbird made it back to his apartment).

The old coupe did, indeed, make it back to the apartment, though the temperature was solidly in the red zone when Eric killed the engine. A loud pop echoed through the street, followed by a long hiss as superheated engine coolant flooded out from under the T-bird's hood. Eric watched the steaming green mess flow downhill toward the sewer grate and shrugged. Definitely should take a look at that.

Eric's wrists were killing him, and he was looking forward to getting into a short-sleeved shirt as soon as he got into the apartment. It wouldn't be particularly hard to find one, Eric saw as he walked into the apartment -- his few clothes were strewn all over the living room, and there was a rather large man in a black suit rummaging through the drawers in his kitchen.

Over the past several years, Eric had gotten into the habit of sizing other men up as soon as he met them. Men like Kenny, for example, were easy prey -- one or two solid hits to the skull and they'd go straight down. The man now smoking a cigarette and tearing through his belongings, however, was a different story altogether.

Even hunched down, Eric could see that the man was tall, though not so tall as to be awkward or ungainly. He was also heavy, but not in the typical American too-many-donuts way -- Eric estimated his weight just north of 200, most of it muscle. The gun bulge evident in his suit jacket wouldn't make the guy any easier to take in a fight, either. Eric should have been worried about the huge, buzzcut guy rifling through his possessions, but instead he just sighed.

"You know, you could have called first," Eric greeted, tossing his keys on the small table next to the door.

"Read the terms of the agreement you signed. Surprise visits. Wouldn't be much of a surprise if we called and gave you time to get rid of all of the guns and drugs, would it?"

"One, no guns or drugs. You've probably figured that out by now. Two, technically the person who signed that agreement doesn't exist anymore, does he? And three, would it have killed you to put the stuff you threw out of my closet back in the closet?"

The Federal Marshal straightened up and snuffed out his cigarette in Eric's kitchen sink. He immediately pulled a pack of Marlboro lights out of his suit jacket and lit another, then offered the pack to Eric.


"You're an asshole, Dean."

Dean smiled, showing two rows of straight, nicotine-stained teeth.

"I'm going to need to search your vehicle, as well," he said, inhaling from his cigarette.

Eric picked up his keys and held them out to the Marshal.

"You want these? Or does breaking and entering make you feel more manly?"

Marshal Dean snatched the keys from his hand and walked out the door.

"See if you can fix the radiator while you're out there," Eric grumbled. He walked over to his fridge, pulled out a can of @red_bull_energy, and downed it in a shot. It cooled him off a little, but not near enough, and the air conditioning in his apartment was of course broken, so he downed another, heart palpatations be damned.

Eric plucked a brown T-shirt off the couch and stripped off the long-sleeved shirt and polo, then replaced them with the lighter shirt. The tattoos on his forearms were visible now, but he didn't care -- Dean had seen them already, and it was too damned hot to keep schlepping around his own place in too many layers. He rubbed the long, thin vertical scars starting at the underside of his wrists all the way up to his elbows -- working on a keyboard all day managed to irritate them nicely.

Now, don't fidget, my boy, or Russel here might accidentally nick an artery.

Eric shivered in spite of the extreme heat and shook his head violently. He'd had a bad enough day already without thinking of that.

Mind the tattoos, Russel. It's beautiful work, isn't it? Hate to spoil them.

Eric splashed water on his face in the kitchen sink, trying to ignore the extinguished cigarette Dean had left there. His short hair now wet and plastered to his forehead, Eric collapsed on the couch. He tried to flip through the channels on the TV for a few minutes, but found it hard to concentrate on much. He turned off the TV, tossed the remote on the cigarette-burned surface of the coffee table, and waited for Dean to come back in and give him more shit.

About five minutes later, Federal Marshal Ryan Dean did, in fact, return to the apartment. He pulled up one of the kitchen chairs across from Eric, sat down, and pulled out his notebook.

"Staying out of trouble?" Dean asked, clicking his pen.

"Of course. I don't think there's any trouble to get into in this town."

"Work going all right?"

"It's mind-numbingly boring and way beneath my skill level. Other than that, it's lovely."

"Have you contacted or attempted to contact any friends, family, or other associates in the city of Tampa?"

"I have no friends, family, or other associates, in Tampa or otherwise."

Dean finished scribbling on his notepad and returned it and the pen to his suit jacket.

"Look, Eric. I know we give each other a lot of shit, but sadly, I really do care about you making a life here. So, really. . . if you do have any problems, I want you to tell me about them."

Eric blinked -- this was the first time in months that Dean had acted remotely human towards him.

"Um. . . no. I mean, apart from being bored, nothing wrong, really."

"Good. Just stay out of trouble. Follow the rules. It's tough starting over, but I've seen guys make it," Dean handed Eric a business card, "If you need anything, just give me a call or shoot me an email, all right?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Also, we'll need you to come into the office sometime in the next week. Nothing huge, just a post-trial debreif. Carve out a couple of hours and give me a call, yeah?"

"Will do."

"OK. Oh, and you might want to look at your radiator. Damn thing's leaking all over the street," Dean grinned as he walked out the door.

* * *

The next morning, Eric was up at 6:30. After a quick two-mile run around the neighborhood (which sucked with a long-sleeved running shirt) and a 45-minute weight workout in his apartment, he changed into a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt and dove into the engine compartment of his Thunderbird.

The radiator was cracked, and would need to be replaced. Eric was just about finished removing the old one when he saw blue and red lights flashing behind the T-bird. He stood and wiped off his hands on his jeans, and came face to face with the Sheriff's Deputy that had been driving past his house every morning.

"Um, hi," Eric started.

"Hands where I can see them," @JohnnySix spat. He was shorter than Eric, but visibly a lot stronger. Eric put his chances at beating the Deputy in a fight at about 60%, but he wasn't going to go slugging a cop. Not anymore.

"Sure thing, Deputy," Eric sighed, raising his hands to shoulder level. "Mind if I ask what this is about?"

"The less you say, the better, Killer," Johnny growled, reaching slowly for the handcuffs on his belt.

Eric had been introduced to Deputy Jonathan Teal four months ago upon relocating to Omaha. It was standard Marshals Service practice to alert local law enforcement when a Federal witness was being placed in their town via Witness Security, and Johnny Teal had been the officer assigned to keep tabs on Eric. On that day four months ago, Teal hadn't even bothered to look Eric in the eye or shake his hand -- he'd spoken only with Marshal Dean, acting as if Eric was beneath his contempt.

Johnny cuffed Eric's hands behind his back and ushered him to the waiting cruiser. Eric decided that his best bet was just to play along until he found out what the hell was going on. He knew he still had Dean's card in his wallet, so if they gave him a phone call, he supposed he'd use it.

Johnny didn't say a word on the way to the station, which left Eric with little to do but stare at the back of the Deputy's head. He guessed that Johnny was a couple of years younger than him, probably not yet even 30, but the man's hair was already turning grey. He also had a long, wide scar on the back of his neck, one that looked decades old.

The ride to the Douglas County Sheriff's Station wasn't a long one -- it was just off 16th and Leavenworth Streets downtown, not far from where Eric worked. Still, any ride with a short, burly cop who obviously didn't care much for him seemed much longer than it was. By the time the cruiser stopped at the station, Eric was racking his brain to figure out what he might have done to bring him there. He'd kept very much to himself apart from work and eating out once in a while because he was too lazy to cook (and he never was a terribly good cook, anyway). As near as he could remember, he hadn't even fractured a speed limit since he'd been in town.

"Out of the car, Killer," Johnny barked, throwing open the cruiser's back driver door.

Eric allowed himself to be roughly trundled into the building, though his urge to slip the cuffs and put Johnny on the floor was definitely rising. Johnny tossed him into an elevator, and a few seconds later, hustled him through a door that had "Criminal Investigation Division" painted on the frosted glass. All the way in the back of the large, dimly lit room was a door that said "Shift Commander." Johnny stopped manhandling Eric long enough to knock on this door.

"Come in," a deep voice came from the other side of the door.

Johnny opened the door and pushed Eric into a chair across the desk from another man, slightly older, in a County Sheriff's uniform. @HuskerNate79 wasn't a Marine, and he never had been, but he looked like one. He had a short, efficient haircut, was meticulously clean-shaven, and rose from his desk chair with an air of command and authority that Eric had only previously seen in members of the military.

"Thank you, Deputy Teal. You can close the door," Deputy Nathaniel Moore said.

Johnny closed the door and posted himself next to it like a sentinel, keeping his eyes locked on Eric as if he expected the man to spring from the chair and kill them all.

"You'll forgive me for the early-morning wakeup call, Mr. Hawkins, but we seem to have a bit of a problem here."

Eric was still getting used to the last name Hawkins, but if he had any doubt that Nathaniel was addressing him, it was erased by the commanding Deputy's intense focus in his direction.

"We do?" was all Eric could think to say.

"Indeed. I'm sure you've noticed during your hundred or so days in this town that we're used to a nice, quiet, pretty stress-free life around here."

"If you mean boring, then, yes. I have noticed that."

"Call it what you want. But not two weeks after you moved from the hotel to your apartment, we found a body on the banks of the river. We do get a few of those around here -- bodies, that is -- but not the way this man was found."

Nathaniel flipped open a file folder and pulled out a crime scene photograph. It looked to have been taken in daylight, and there was, indeed, a body splayed out by the banks of a river, shot more than once in what used to be his head, but was now unrecognizable. The man's left arm had also been severed at the elbow.

"Now, unfortunate and a bit gruesome, to be sure. But not a pattern. Once is unfortunate. Twice is bad luck," Nathaniel continued, opening another folder and showing another picture to Eric. The setting for this one was different -- warehouse, maybe? -- but the subject was the same. Another male body, headshot all to hell, left arm severed at the elbow. "But three times, Mr. Hawkins, is a pattern."

Nathaniel opened yet another folder and produced yet another picture. This one was in an alley, but it was familiar nonetheless -- another body, face down in the dirt, butchered in the exact same fashion as the previous two.

"We found number three late last night. So, I made some calls to a friend in Tampa P.D., and he emailed me these."

Nathaniel pulled three just-printed photos off of his desktop. The setting was again different -- an industrial port -- but in each of the three photos were men splayed on the concrete, shot several times in the head.

"Recognize the work, Killer?" Johnny growled at Eric.

"What was the time of death on your victims, if you don't mind my asking?"

Nathaniel shrugged, as if to say What could it hurt?

"Last one was killed around noon yesterday."

"Ooh. Sorry, can't help you out there. I was at work noon yesterday. Your boy here," Eric nodded at Johnny, "Could tell you that, I'm sure, as he makes a habit of driving by me every four hours or so."

Johnny grumbled something under his breath, and Eric tried not to smirk.

"Look, I know, it's tempting. Something fucked up happens, you pull in the new guy in town with a jacket. Can't say I'd have done much different myself. But, believe it or not, I have been keeping to myself, and keeping to the rules of the program."

"You'll forgive a bit of skepticism, Mr. Hawkins, but it's not easy for me to believe a man with three bodies on him," Nathaniel said.

"Well, technically, Eric Hawkins has no criminal records, but that's just splitting hairs. Check with the U.S. Marshals Service, and you'll find out that those three bodies were classified as killing in self defense, and that any charges their killer may have faced were dropped."

"Cut the bullshit, Killer," Johnny sneered.

"Thank you, Deputy Teal. I think I can handle it from here. Please remove Mr. Hawkins' restraints and return to work," Nathaniel glared at Johnny. Johnny straightened up immediately, uncuffed Eric, and left the room.

"I apologize for him. Johnny's a good cop, but he's a bit of a broadsword. You need someone beat on, he's your man. You need critical thinking, look somewhere else," Nathaniel sighed.

"I know the type," Eric nodded, rubbing his wrists.

"It goes without saying, Mr. Hawkins, that we're going to be keeping a bit closer an eye on you. I doubt you're necessarily responsible for these recent bodies we seem to have found ourselves saddled with, but I would also be remiss to rule you out just because you seem nice enough."

"Understood. Look, Deputy, you seem smarter than your dog out there. I can assure you that I have nothing to do with those three unfortunate souls, but I did notice something in the last picture you showed me."

Nathaniel handed Eric the picture, and Eric nodded. He turned the picture around to face Nathaniel, tapping the back of the corpse's neck.

"Russian Mafia. I've. . . seen them before."

"How can you tell?"

"The tattoo on the back of the guy's neck. It's a little covered by all the blood, but you can just make it out."

Nathaniel took the picture back and looked closer. There was, indeed, a tattoo on the back of the man's neck -- thin and faded, the Cyrillic characters СЛОН.

"What does it mean?"

"It's an acronym for Solovetsky Lager' Osobogo Naznacheniya, a Soviet prison camp that closed years ago. It's a popular tattoo in Russian prisons, though, with a different meaning." Eric decided not to mention that the tattoo was generally understood to mean Smert' Legavym Ot Nozha, or "death to cops from a knife."

"Now, that just means the guy probably spent some time in a Russian prison. But the severing of the left arm is what clinches these guys as Mafia. They'd all have a tattoo there, a kind of a cross wrapped in barbed wire or a spiderweb design. Someone wanted to throw you off the trail by getting rid of the identifying marks -- they just must not have noticed the one on the back of this guy's neck," Eric explained.

"You're sure about this?"

"Pretty sure."

Nathaniel considered for a moment. It was obvious to Eric that the Deputy didn't terribly like a scumbag from Witness Security's low end of the food chain coming into his house and telling him what was what -- but he probably knew from Eric's record that this particular scumbag had spent several years inside an organized criminal organization. Eric's experience as a criminal lowlife might just be the most useful break they'd had.

"All right. I'll get Deputy Teal to take you back home. Just do me a favor and stay outof trouble, please?" Nathaniel asked.

"That's pretty much my entire mission objective these days, Deputy," Eric nodded.


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  3. Hey Shawn I see you had some punk rockers checking out the novel. Machinegun had 336 first time visit yesterday wow!

  4. Kim -- That's awesome! Machinegun's blog is now the top Google hit for Twitter Novel Project, and I couldn't be happier!