Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chapter Ten

"Cracked ribs, concussion, two broken fingers. You got away pretty cleanly, I'd say," Nathaniel said, flipping through the pages on Eric's chart.

"I've had worse. When are they going to let me out of here?" Eric asked, looking with disgust on the sorry excuse for dinner on the hospital tray in front of him.

"They need to keep you overnight for observation. Standard procedure with a concussion, I hear."

"Yeah, it is. I fall asleep, I could die. I've heard it all a bunch of times. Said it even more."

"How are you feeling?"

"A little dizzy. Otherwise fine. How's Johnny?"

"Pissed off. His dad gave him that car. 'Course, if you guys had been in your T-bird, you'd have been a smear on the eastbound lane, so it was a good thing his dad gave him a freaking tank. Tell me about this rival gang that hit the Russians. You know them?"

"These guys weren't a rival organization, at least not one I'm familiar with."

"How can you tell?"

"No tattoos, for one. Tattoos are big in that world, and these guys weren't rocking any."

"That's hardly a basis to say it wasn't a rival gang."

"Oh, there's more. The way they carried out the hit -- totally not consistent. These guys were organized, professional. You saw the Mercedes. You find any bullets anywhere but where the bodies were taken from?"

"Not a one."

"It's not like there's a weapons-training program for gangs. You just kind of figure it out, which means a lot of shots go wild, a lot of collateral damage. These guys poured 40, 50 rounds into the car and didn't miss once. Also, these guys were older than the typical runners you get to pull a public hit."


"Low-level members. Street-gang types, mostly. Guys their age, or my age, really, are usually at least middle management."

"So they're older and more experienced. That all you got?"

"They were dressed the same. Like, in uniform."

"Not to mention they had throat mics and in-ear recievers," Johnny said from the door of Eric's hospital room.

Damn. I didn't even notice that. Maybe this guy isn't such a bad cop after all.

Eric nodded as if he had noticed it, too.

"And the hardware they used. They weren't carrying some knockoff Chinese AK-47s -- their guns were military ordinance," Eric continued.

"What? So you're saying that the fucking Army is taking out random members of the Russian Mob?" Nathaniel shook his head.

"Maybe not the Army, but definitely Army-trained," Johnny said. "These guys moved and operated just like the SF guys I saw in Iraq."

"Is that what you're going to tell the Russian Mafia in your meeting with them Friday? Yes, Johnny told me. And yes, I think it's a terrible idea. There's no way I'm letting you go through with it."

Eric sat up in his hospital bed, and he could tell from the sharp pain it brought exactly which ribs he had cracked.

"We don't have a choice now. These guys, whoever they are, know that the law is onto them now. Unless we find out what the Russians know and put a stop to it quick, you're going to have open warfare in the streets. You'll have blood running knee-deep in the storm sewers within a week."

The hospital released Eric the next morning after a minor bit of concern over his lack of appetite. Eric assured them he was fine, deciding not to mention that the quality of the hospital's food was the reason he wasn't eating. Nathaniel had offered to come back before work to drive him home, but Eric declined -- he'd just take a cab.

That plan, however, had one unexpected kink -- judging by the hour and a half he spent waiting outside the hospital, Omaha had exactly three cabs, and all of them were off duty. An hour and forty-five minutes after he'd initially called, a red and white Chevy Venture finally pulled up to the curb. Seven minutes later, Eric was unlocking the door to his apartment.

"Would have been faster if I walked it," Eric grumbled.

The @Newcastle Johnny had brought over the night before was still sitting on the table. Eric put it back in the fridge, though he had no idea what he'd ever need it for. He'd already called work the night before and let them know about the car accident, so he had the day off. Eric realized he hadn't gotten more than two hours of sleep in the last 48, so he headed for the bedroom. He was out as soon as his head hit the pillow.

When he woke up five hours later, he was hungry -- he realized he'd barely eaten in the last 48 hours, either. The @Newcastle was all that was in the refrigerator, so a restaurant was pretty much the only viable option. He quickly showered, shaved, and dressed, then walked outside, got in the Thunderbird, and drove off.

Not thirty seconds after he had left, a black BMW 525 parked across the street from his apartment. A shockingly thin man with long, black hair, dressed all in black, got out and went into the building.

* * *

Eric was halfway through a well-deserved steak when his phone rang. He considered not answering it, but it was Nathaniel's office number, so he pressed the Talk key and brought the phone up to his ear.

"Hey, Nathaniel."

"Eric. I need you to come down to the station as soon as possible."

"Can it wait? I'm in the middle of, you know, food."

"Johnny dropped by your apartment to check on you. He caught someone inside. Guy took a shot at him, but Johnny managed to take him into custody."

"Is Johnny OK?"

"Yeah, the guy missed. I'm going to have to ask you to come in and see if you can identify this guy."

The waitress was just passing by, and Eric flagged her down.

"Can I get you to wrap this up and bring me the check?" he asked. She nodded.

"I'll be there in 20 minutes."

Eric hung up the phone, paid his bill, and got directly into the T-bird. He'd driven halfway to the station before he realized he'd left his to-go container sitting on the table in the restaurant. He was still hungry, but it would have to wait -- he needed to find out who Julian had sent for him.

Johnny met Eric at the station's front door.

"Hey, Eric. Looks like someone wanted to pay you a visit."

"Sounds like. What does the guy look like?"

"Skinny. Long hair. Doesn't look like much, but damn if he isn't scrappy."

Eric felt a chunk of ice drop into his stomach. Russel.

"All right. Let's go take a look at him."

Johnny escorted Eric upstairs to an interrogation room's observation area, where Nathaniel was sitting, looking through the glass at a man they had shackled to the table. He was thin and had long hair, as Johnny had mentioned. Somehow, though, the Deputy had neglected to point out that this man was Chinese.

"You know this guy, Eric?"

"Not to speak to. Met him once. I know his reputation, though. That, gentleman, is Chen Yang Shao. He's an enforcer for the Chinese Mafia down in Miami. And I'm frankly surprised he didn't kill you," Eric said, nodding at Johnny, "You must have some moves, farm boy."

"I'll run him through NCIC. First name Chen?" Nathaniel asked.

"Last name's Chen. He insists on the old attribution for his name, which I don't think is actually his name. And don't bother with the NCIC. You won't find anything. He's completly off the grid -- you won't even find a birth certificate or ID on this guy."

"How do you know that?" Johnny asked, scratching his neck idly. Eric noticed that the index and middle knuckles on his right hand were bloody.

"Like I said, I met him once, but I've heard a lot about him. Triads smuggled him into the country from Hong Kong in '96, when he was in his early 20s. He'd already racked up a pretty decent number of kills for the 14K Triad over there, and the South Florida organization paid to get him. The Triad here in the states was still pretty small at the time, but they've kept him insulated from law enforcement ever since. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the one arrest he's ever had."

"The guy didn't seem that tough to take down. I mean, sure, he hit hard, but come on," Johnny shook his head.

"Like I said, you got game, Johnny."

"But why is he here?" Nathaniel asked.

"Have you asked him yet?"

"Of course. But the guy doesn't speak English. We're waiting on an interpreter."

"Oh, fuck that," Johnny said, flinging open the door to the interrogation room and stalking inside. The door closed behind him, and Johnny turned to Nathaniel.

"What, does he speak Chinese, now, too?"

Nathaniel turned on the microphones in the room so he could hear what was going on.

"You," Yang Shao smiled at Eric.

"Yeah, me. Cut the shit, Yang Shao. I told them you speak English."

Yang Shao spread his arms as wide as the shackles would let him and shrugged his shoulders.

"Ah, well. The gig, as they say, is up, I suppose. How you been, Eric?" Yang Shao grinned, his English as smooth and unaccented as if he had been raised in Dumptruck, Iowa.

"Motherfucker," Johnny shook his head.

"Quiet," Nathaniel hissed.

"I've had better days. So, Jian Wa sent you up here to kill me, then."

"My, my. Aren't we full of ourselves? I show up here in Redneck Falls, and you assume it has something to do with you."

"I'm not wrong."

Yang Shao smiled widely. His skin was paler than Eric remembered, and something looked off about his eyes. It could have been his imagination, as well, but the man looked thinner than when Eric had met him two years before.

"But in this case, my friend, you are, in fact, wrong."

"Right. You drove 25 hours just to -- what -- vacation? In my living room?"

"I don't vacation. I'm not here looking for you -- obviously, I knew right where you were. I'm here looking for someone who's looking for you. Simple as that. Now, if you should happen to get caught in the crossfire. . . " Yang Shao shrugged as he trailed off.

"Yeah. In case you haven't noticed, you're not really going anywhere."

Yang Shao smiled again.

"You really believe that?"

"Tell me who's after me," Eric demanded flatly.

"Oh, you already know that," Yang Shao nodded.

"I suspected."

"Of course you did. And you were right."


"He's already here."

Eric stood up from the table. As he placed his hand on the door, he turned back to Yang Shao, who smiled at him.

"No worries. We'll see each other soon," the thin Chinese said.

It sometimes amazed Eric how fast the human mind worked. In the time it took him to open the door, he decided that he was much safer with the Chinese assassin free than locked up in county jail. In the time it took to walk through that door into the observation room, Eric realized that Nathaniel would never agree to release Yang Shao, though Eric decided he'd try convincing him anyway. By the time he'd closed the door and opened his mouth to speak to the two Sheriff's Deputies, he'd already hatched a plan to break Yang Shao out.

"I need to ask you a really big favor, Nathaniel."

"Hopefully it's not what I think it is," Nathaniel sighed.

"I need you to cut this guy loose."

"Yep. That's what I thought it was. No way, Eric. I'm beginning to trust you, and all, but I don't even trust my own wife that much."

"I'd say not. You're getting divorced. No ring, but the imprint of one that was there for a long time," Eric answered Nathaniel's shocked look. "The guy that's after me is just as bad as this one, if not worse. I stand a much better chance of surviving with Yang Shao out on the streets."

"I sympathize," Nathaniel said after a pause, "Really, I do. But we've got him on breaking and entering --"

"Which goes away if I say I let him into the house."

"Assaulting a police officer --"

"Which goes away if Johnny says so."

Johnny shook his head.

"And possession of and discharging an unregistered firearm. A Desert Eagle .50, if you were interested. That one doesn't go away. This guy's going to County no matter what."

"I understand you can't release him, but I'd definitely advise against County."

"And why is that?"

"Look at him. He's sick. He didn't used to be that thin, and his skin isn't supposed to have that unhealthy grey color."

"Didn't hit like a sick guy," Johnny muttered.

"He is. I -- well, Eric Austen was a medic. Have someone check him out."

"Fine. We'll take him to the hospital under guard. I'll have a doctor look him over."

Johnny nodded. A hospital, even with a police guard, would be much easier to break Yang Shao out of than the Douglas County jail. It would mean dismissal from the Witness Security program if he was caught, and probably a nice, long stint in Federal prison -- but it was better than being hacked up and fed to whatever wildlife was indigenous to this godforsaken part of the country by a certain mute sociopath.

Twenty minutes later, Eric was outside the station, leaning on the trunk of his car and talking to Johnny when the doors opened. Two large Deputies were escorting Yang Shao to a cruiser. Eric and Johnny stopped talking and watched as one of the cops opened the cruiser's back door, the other holding tightly to Yang Shao's left elbow.

What happened next happened in slow motion. Eric heard the handcuffs hit the pavement as Yang Shao whirled, his hands and feet a blur. The cop who had been holding his elbow flew backwards, his face streaming blood. Before the other could get his hand on his gun, Yang Shao bounced his head off the side of the cruiser.

Eric felt Johnny drawing his gun, but Yang Shao was already over the hood of the cruiser and gone around the corner. Eric and Johnny set off after him, but by the time they rounded the corner, the thin Chinese was nowhere to be seen.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Chapter Nine

Tampa, Florida, 2008

"Usually I'd have Russel run this kind of errand, but, as you know, he's down helping Jian Wa with a few things in Miami," Julian said. Eric could hear music in the background -- no doubt his boss was "entertaining" some female acquantaince.

"You pay me, Julian. You don't have to ask me nicely to do my job," Eric said into the phone as he pulled his Land Rover into the parking lot of his apartment.

"Oh, but I do so enjoy being polite. After all, what else separates us from the jackals?"

"Point taken. So, what's the job?"

"Nothing major, my boy. You're to meet a few of my boys down at the docks -- Reggie and Edward, you know them -- and one of Jian Wa's people. There's a container coming off of a Chinese freighter tonight."

"What's in the container?"

"Whores, my boy. Jian Wa has graciously agreed to sell their contracts to me at a steal, and I'm opening a brothel up here. You're just management -- just make sure they all do their jobs, and then take the weekend off."

"Sure thing, boss," Eric said, unlocking the door to his apartment. "What time?"

"Oh, the witching hour, of course. Listen, darling, I have to go -- this silly woman has just spilled Pinot Nior all over my couch. Call me when you're done, yes?"

Eric hung up the phone and threw his keys on the dining room table. It was already getting on towards eight at night, and he'd need a shower and dinner before heading out. Before the shower, though, he went to the closet and picked out a pair of guns for the night -- two matched Glock .23s -- and tossed them on the bed.

* * *

Reggie was waiting at the gates to the Port of Tampa when Eric pulled up in the Land Rover. He liked Reggie -- though the kid wasn't even yet 21, he seemed pretty smart, and the kid could definitely make a joke. Reggie closed the gate behind the Land Rover, then got into the passenger seat.

"Hey, boss," Reggie smiled widely. "Glad it's you tonight and not that nutjob Russel."

"Ah, don't take it so hard on the guy."

"Yeah, but he never talks. Freaks a brother out, you know?"

"You never heard why he doesn't talk?" Eric asked, slowly heading for berth 36.

"No, man. Not like he'd tell me," Reggie grinned.

"He doesn't talk because he can't. His father was kind of a bastard. When young Russel wouldn't stop babbling one day, Daddy cut his tongue out with a straight razor."

"You're fucking with me."

"Nope. That's what Julian told me."

"Now I feel bad for calling him a nutjob," Reggie shook his head.

"Don't. I like Russel, and all, but there's definitely something wrong with the boy," Eric told him as he rolled to a stop near berth 36, where Edward and a young Chinese guy were waiting, smoking cigarettes. Eric killed the headlights, but not before he noticed the pair of brand-new cargo vans parked just behind Edward and his Chinese pal -- the transport for their cargo, he assumed.

Eric shut off the engine and got out of the car. Edward shot him a nod, which he returned. The Chinese guy next to Edward stuck out his hand.

"Billy Tan," he smiled widely.

"Eric Austen," Eric said, shaking the young man's hand.

"Heard a lot about you. Jian Wa thinks you're all right."

"Happy to hear it," Eric nodded to a long, red cargo container, "This our can?"

"Yes, sir."

"All right, let's do this quick."

Edward and Billy went to the cargo vans -- each pulled an AK-47 from the front seat. From behind the container, another young Chinese appeared, shuffling through a set of keys.

"This's Harold," Billy nodded at the other Chinese.

"I thought there was only supposed to be you?"

"I get bored on the drive up from Miami."

Eric nodded. Harold finally found the right key and unlocked the container. The smell was what hit Eric first -- the people in the container obviously hadn't had access to shower or toilet facilities in quite some time. As the containers doors swung all the way open, Harold shined a Mag-Lite inside -- huddled together in the center were no fewer than twenty people, male and female. It took Eric a second to realize that not one of them was a day over twelve years old.

Edward and Billy gestured at the kids with their weapons, and Billy growled something in Chinese.

"Hold the fuck up. Julian said we were supposed to be bringing in prositutes," Eric yelled.

Billy looked at Eric and grinned. The lower half of his face was all teeth.

"Yep. That's them, right there."

"They're children."

Billy started giggling.

"Whore's a whore, man."

Billy's giggle turned into a full-blown laugh, and he gestured at the kids again with the barrel of his weapon.

Before he knew what he was doing, Eric had one of the Glocks from his behind-the-back- double holster in his hand, and he was squeezing the trigger. The first bullet augered into the side of Billy's head, sending a huge spray of blood and bone over the door of the container.

Eric whirled, drawing the other gun, and fired three shots as quickly as possible at Harold, who was just reaching for a weapon. Harold's head exploded into a wet red mist, and the man's body thumped to the dock.

Reggie was frozen in place next to Eric. Edward still had his gun pointed at the kids, and he slowly turned to stare at his boss.

"Eric. What the fuck, man! Don't you know what Julian's going to do to you?"

"Put it down, Edward. I don't want to shoot you."

"I can't put it down, Eric. This cargo doesn't get delivered, it's my ass and yours," Edward shook his head, slowly bringing his AK-47 to bear on Eric.

"Dammit," Eric muttered, squeezing the trigger on the Glock in his right hand. Edward dropped without firing a shot, blood from his head wound pooling on the concrete.

"Run, Reggie. Get the fuck out of here, now," Eric growled, not turning to look at the younger man. He heard Reggie sprint away towards the gate.

* * *

Eric had managed to get all of the children into one of the vans, which he had left parked in the handicapped space in front of the Tampa Police Department's Franklin Street station. He then walked a few blocks north and stole an Acura Integra, which took him less than a minute to hotwire.

He knew Julian would be looking for him, and his apartment would be the first place he'd check. Still, he had a rather large amount of cash stashed there, and he'd need it -- Eric planned to vanish off the face of the Earth. He figured he still had an hour, maybe two, before Julian figured out what had happened.

He was wrong. When he opened the door to his apartment, he saw Russel's disturbing grin. Then he saw Russel's right fist, and then he saw black.

* * *

Eric awoke to room-temperature liquid splashing in his face. From the way it burned his nose and eyes, he assumed it was gasoline -- burning, then. Julian was going to torch him alive.

A few drops of the liquid trickled past his lips, and Eric found that it wasn't gasoline -- it was Southern Comfort. Probably not burning. . . the SoCo was just meant to wake him up. It had worked.

Eric blinked the remaining Southern Comfort out of his eyes, and found as they refocused that he was in Julian's kitchen, whic was a bad sign. His arms were lashed, underside-up, to the same oak chair he'd seen Jason butchered in.

Great. Bleeding to death. Not the way I wanted to go.

"Oh, look, Russel. Eric's back. How's your breathing, my boy?"

Eric hadn't realized it, but he was having a problem drawing in air through his nose. Russel must have broken it, which is why the Southern Comfort stung so much.

"It's been better," Eric coughed. There was dried blood in the back of his throat. Definitely a broken nose, then, and a pretty bad one at that -- most likely, he guessed, both eyes were black by now. He must have been out for more than an hour for the blood to have dried.

"I guess. Looks like you hit him pretty hard, there, Russel. Not that I mind so much," Julian grinned, lighting a cigarette.

"Look, Julian. We both know where this is going. What say that, for once, you skip the speechifying and just have the freak cut me up?" Eric sighed.

"Ooh. Look at you, big guy. I remember when I met you, you were just a sad little drunk who couldn't have weighed more than 110. Now you're firing orders around the place --"

"So no skipping the speeches, then. I get it."

"You have to let me at least have that, Eric. You did cost me more than $10 million tonight," Julian shrugged.

"Yeah. From peddling children into the sex trade. I feel real bad about that, Julian. I really do."

"Sarcasm. Nice. Haven't you learned anything working for me, Eric?" Julian asked, nodding to Russel. Russel pulled his Hissatsu from behind his back and ran it quickly across Eric's chest. Eric gasped as blood started to flow freely down the front of his shirt.

"Morality. It's an obsolete concept anymore, Eric. When this world finally falls apart, I'll hold the head of the last moral man in one hand, and the head of the last brave man in the other," Julian said. He took a long drag from the cigarette and nodded to Russel again. The knife flashed out once more, slicing across the cut he'd already made. More blood poured down, splashing onto the kitchen floor.

"Morality gets in our way, Eric. For example, if I was a moral man, I would have had a problem putting cameras up in your house. I wouldn't have known about the girlfriend you never mentioned, the one you thought I didn't know about. Don't worry about her, my boy. Russel already paid her a visit."

Eric bucked in the chair, pulling against the arms with all his strength. He felt the wood start to crack, and he began to rise onto his feet, still strapped to the chair. Russel stabbed the Hissatsu down into Eric's right thigh, and the chair fell down to the floor. He quickly pulled the knife out of Eric's leg and slammed it into his left shoulder, pinning it to the back of the chair.

"Why, thank you, Russel. My, Eric. You have gotten strong in the last couple of years. I do believe you could break out of that chair in time. Weaken up those guns a bit, would you, Russel?"

Russel picked up a scalpel from the kitchen counter. Eric was still struggling in the chair as Russel brought the blade close to his left arm.

"Now, don't fidget, my boy, or Russel here might accidentally nick an artery," Julian laughed, snuffing out his cigarette.

The point of the scalpel touched lightly to Eric's wrist.

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

Russel nodded, then plunged the scalpel deep into Eric's wrist. There was blood, certainly, but not as much as Eric was expecting. He saw the flesh of his arm split apart like an overcooked sausage casing as Russel ran the blade all the way up to his elbow.

"See, if the Chinese had caught you first, they would have done this 'death of 100 cuts' thing. None of the cuts would be fatal, but you'd bleed to death anyway. I kind of like that, but I don't have the patience," Julian explained, pouring a glass of Southern Comfort. "Drink?"

Eric was too busy trying not to scream to form any sort of answer. Julian shrugged and poured the entire glass of liquor on Eric's arm.

Eric screamed then, and didn't stop until he'd passed out.

* * *

Eric couldn't see anything. Couldn't feel anything. But he could hear Julian cackling.

My, that's a lot of blood. He's got to be gone by now, no, Russel?

A long pause.

Ah. No matter. He will be soon enough. Sun will be up in an hour. Let the pelicans feed on what's left.

A very long silence. Suddenly, the pain hit him with a huge, violent, full-body fist. Eric forced his eyes open -- they stung, and he realized he couldn't breathe. He was underwater. Salt water -- the bay. His shirt, still tucked into his pants, hung in tatters around him. Eric ripped off the two largest pieces and tied them around his forearms as best he could, then started kicking upwards.

His legs were barely moving. He couldn't see light, wasn't even sure he was headed up. He kicked for as long as his legs would let him, but his head didn't break the surface. He didn't have anything left.

Then, he was facedown in the sand. It took all of his effort to lift his head, but he managed to do it. It was dark, but he could tell he'd washed up on a beach. A public beach, with a public phone fifty feet away. He tried to claw his way there, but his hands didn't want to work.

Eric managed to belly-crawl across the sand. It took everything he had to reach up and grab the phone. He was pretty sure he pushed in the digits 9-1-1, but there was no sound from the earpiece for a long time. Finally, just before his eyes slid shut, he heard in a far-off voice, "911, what is the nature of your emergency?"

Eric could only force out one word before he collapsed, leaving the phone hanging just above the sand.

"Murder," he choked. His forehead hit the sand, and the pain went away.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Yep, tonight I'm finally going to get around to answering some of the questions I've gotten in email and via DM. I have no clue why so few of you comment on the blog (thanks to those who have), but don't be shy -- we can always get some discussions going. And now, I give you the Q&A for the past week or so:

  • Q: Are you writing this all out ahead of time?

    A: Not really. I write something, copy it over to OpenOffice to make sure I have enough words for at least 20 tweets, then immediately start posting it to Twitter.

  • Q: Where did you get the idea for this story?

    A: Not to sound too much like a dick, but I just made it up. I had the original idea a while back, but never did anything with it (and I'm kind of glad, because this story is taking a completely different course from the one I had mapped out for that one), and I just started writing Eric the day I started this project.

  • Q: How is it you make money off this project?

    A: I've actually been asked this a couple of times, and there's a very simple answer. I don't make money by doing this. If you're looking for one of those "I can show you how to make money with Twitter!" guys, you'll be wanting to look in another direction. I'm just here to tell a story, folks. For free, as it turns out.

  • Q: Seriously, though. You can tell me. How are you making money doing this?

    A: OK, I'll tell you. I'm not. It's that simple. By following my plan, you can also not make money.

  • Q: I think I know you. Are you [this guy]?

    A: Nope. That's some other guy. In all seriousness, if I do know you, and you've sent me an email, I've already confirmed it.

  • Q: Why the big identity mystery? Ashamed of who you are, that it?

    A: You've found my horrible, dark secret! Who I am is irrelevant. It'd probably just get in the way of the storytelling, anyway.

That's about all of them, I think. Keep the emails, comments, and DMs coming in -- I'll try to answer them somewhat more regularly.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Chapter Eight

"You keep looking at your knuckles," @blondie80 said.

"I got into a fight today," Eric told his therapist.

"Now, you know that violence never solves anything," Dr. Kepler chided, making notes on her pad.

"Oh, I disagree. Violence solves a whole lot of problems. Throw enough violence at a problem, and it'll probably go away. But I'm trying to be of the opinion that it's not the preferred problem-solving method."

"That's some progress, at least."

"To be honest, Doctor, I'm more than a little disappointed in myself. I knew I could have talked my way out of the fight, but I just wanted to hit someone."

"Would this person have hurt you?"

"People, yes. And it was pretty clear they wanted to kill me. That's not the point, though. There's something I'm trying to do here. . . to become something other than a petty thug, I guess."

"And that's the reason for the somewhat monastic lifestyle you seem to have adopted since entering the program? No alcohol, no cigarettes, no sexual relationships?"

"It sounds so clinical when you say it that way. But yes, that's part of the reason. I have a feeling that. . . have you ever read Hagakure?"

"I don't believe so, no."

"Um, OK. That analogy probably won't make much sense, then. How about this. . . do you think that, with enough discipline, someone can rise above their programming? That they can become something better? Something more than they are?"

"That's kind of the whole idea of therapy."

"Then that's what I'm trying to do," Eric nodded. "Agent Dean tells me that a lot of guys in the program don't take it seriously, don't work at it. A lot of them end up in jail or dead in a few years."

"And you don't want that to be you."

It wasn't a question Dr. Kepler asked -- more of a statement of fact -- so Eric didn't bother to answer it. Instead, he checked his watch.

"Looks like our time is about up," he mentioned.

"Looks that way. Next week?"

"Until they say I can stop showing up, yeah."

Eric turned and smiled at Dr. Kepler on his way out. In another life, he would have found the thin, blonde 30-year-old almost irresistible -- she was smart, funny, and didn't seem to judge him in any way (though she wasn't much of a therapist, really -- she mainly told him things he'd already figured out). Whenever he had those feelings now, though, he just shut them off as best he could and thought about something else. He picked up his appointment card from the temp at the front desk, walked out to his car, and started the long drive east towards his apartment. After the day he'd already had, he just wanted to get some sleep.

He clicked the in-dash MP3 player over to "Lexicon Devil" by the Germs as he merged the decade-and-a-half-old Thunderbird onto I-680. After the fight with the Russians in the bar, Eric had considered taking one of their guns rather than trying to buy one, but, for some reason, he'd left all of their hardware on the floor with them. He told himself it was because the program didn't allow him to have a gun, so he didn't want a gun, but Eric knew the real reason -- if Russel was alive and after him, he'd probably never have a chance to use the thing anyway.

So Eric decided to keep the emergency fund where it was for the time being. He knew how Russel operated -- he'd just have to keep his eyes open for any sign of the man and hope he would see him coming. Then, at least, he stood a microscopic chance.

* * *

Eric had been asleep on the couch for a couple of hours when a loud knock on the door woke him.

"Shit. . . someone knocks like the po-lice," Eric mumbled groggily, rolling off the couch and stretching out the knots in his lower back.

Another loud knock.

"Coming, coming."

When Eric opened the door, he found that it was, in fact, the police on the other side. Specifically, Deputy Johnny Teal. Eric poked his head out the door and looked around.

"Boss isn't with me," Johnny told him.

"Oh. Uh, right, then. What brings you by, Deputy?"

"I think we can call each other by first names, Eric."

"Johnny. What's the reason for the visit?"

Johnny was in street clothes, Eric noticed -- the same type of khakis-and-polo combination from the night before, only in different colors. From behind his back, Johnny held up a six-pack of @Newcastle.

"I bring an olive branch," Johnny smiled. He had freakishly good teeth -- Eric guessed they were implants.

"I don't drink. But knock yourself out," Eric said, opening the door and beckoning Johnny inside.

Johnny noticed that the apartment appeared to have been refurnished recently -- there were still indentations in the floor from a much larger couch sticking out from under what looked to be a brand-new, red IKEA knockoff. The coffee table looked showroom-new, and the entire place was obsessively clean.

"I wish this was just me dropping by to hang out, Eric, but I need some help on something," Johnny started, taking a seat in a brand-new leather armchair.

"I suspected."

"I've been a cop for a long time now -- six years in the Army as an MP, four in the Sheriff's department here -- and I've never had to deal with organized crime in any real fashion. Street gangs, sure. Organized retail theft once, which was pretty cool, actually. But the capital-M Mob? I'm in over my head."

"Yeah, it's not like it was in the old days, where you pretty much knew where the mob was and who ran it. Today's organized crime is all about making money and staying out of sight as much as possible."

"So how do we go about getting a handle on the Russian problem? More to the point, who's knocking them off? Can two factions really carry off a mob war this quietly?"

"I think I'm going to be able to help you out a lot, actually. I got into a fight with the Russians from the other night today. . . before you say anything, no, it wasn't on purpose. I was dumb and walked into their bar with a co-worker without realizing where I was going."

Johnny had been getting ready to open a beer, but as soon as he heard this, he stood quickly and set the beer back on the table.

"Shit. Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"

"Um, I'm telling you now."

"Think, Eric. You just poked the hive. Don't you think we should take a look and see what the bees do when they're threatened?"

Eric blinked twice. It was a shockingly competent piece of police thinking, which he hadn't expected from Johnny. From Nathaniel, maybe, but not Johnny.

"I'll get my keys."

* * *

Johnny parked his truck, an immaculate 1989 Dodge Power Ram, in a public lot across the street from the Russian's bar, which Eric now noticed was named Alexander's. He had a cup of @Starbucks on the dash in front of him.

"So, I never got to tell you how the fight panned out."

"You're still alive, so I assume you won," Johnny smirked.

"Well, yeah. But I got them to agree to have their boss meet me in a couple of nights."

"How'd you do that?"

"I posed as a freelancer. Discuss holes in their security, as someone does seem to be murdering an awful lot of their people."

"I'm not sure the boss is going to be down with this. Scratch that -- I'm sure the boss is going to think this is a terrible idea."

"And you?"

"I think that, if we can trust you, we might as well get someone they won't suspect inside to get some more information. I figure any way we can get the bodies to stop dropping, we have to try."

"Good man."

"So can we? Trust you, I mean?"

Eric let a breath out through his mouth, slowly.

"To not get you killed? Sure. To not flip and go back to my evil ways? I'd love to say yes, but the jury's still out on that one."

"I'm just going to pretend you said 'yes.' Lot less disturbing that way," Johnny shook his head. "Black Mercedes."

Eric followed Johnny's line of sight, and the same black car from the night before was just pulling out of the alley behind the bar.

"Can't be a re-up already. We follow them, they'll lead us somewhere new," Eric suggested.

"Agree," Johnny said, starting up the truck. He followed the Mercedes up Dodge Street, heading north, keeping a few cars back.

"So I ran the plates on that car," Johnny said, sipping from his coffee as he drove.

"Registered to a nice little old lady with dementia in a nursing home with a non-Russian last name," Eric guessed.

"How'd you know that? You haven't been hacking our databases, have you?"

Eric chuckled.

"Nope. It's standard operating procedure if you want to stay ghosted. Nothing in your name, nothing to connect you to anyone or anything else. I drove a Land Rover for years that was registered to a 97-year-old schizophrenic in Temple Terrace."

Johnny nodded slowly.

"That makes sense, actually. Smart."

The Benz traveled up Dodge past 42nd Street, and traffic started to ramp up a bit. Johnny moved the truck closer, and the two of them could see that Nikolai was driving. Another man, one they hadn't seen yet, was in the passenger seat.

"Looks like you were right. They've passed where they were headed last night."

"My guess is they have business spread out all over this town. It's big enough that they can decentralize and communicate by cell and email, but small enough that they can get from anywhere to anywhere else in 20 minutes in a pinch."

"Yeah, and they get so the local lawmen don't know their faces," Johnny said as they followed the Benz past 72nd Street. A dark blue Nissan Titan sped by the driver's side of Johnny's truck, cut in front of the Benz, and slammed on the brakes inches from the Merc's front fender. The Benz slammed hard into the bed of the truck, and both vehicles screeched to a dead stop.

"What the fuck!" Johnny yelled, slamming on his brakes.

The Titan's doors flew open, and two men in black cargo pants and T-shirts hopped out holding assault rifles. They fired into the Benz's windshield, quickly dumping forty or fifty rounds into the sedan's passenger cabin.

Johnny had his radio in his hand.

"Officer needs assistance! Shots fired, 81st and Dodge!"

The two men yanked open the Mercedes and dragged out the bodies, then threw them into the bed of the Titan as if they weighed nothing. Johnny grabbed his Glock from the holster on his belt and jumped out of the Ram. Eric, not knowing what else to do, hopped out as well.

"Sheriff's Department! Drop your weapons and get down on the ground, now!" Johnny yelled.

The two men just looked at him. One of them cocked his head to the side and muttered something. Then they both got back into the Titan and tore off.

"Fuck!" Johnny hopped back into his truck, and Eric followed.

"Officer in pursuit, dark blue 2007 Nissan Titan, license HJU --" Johnny never got a chance to finish yelling the plate into the radio. Another large pickup slammed into the passenger side of the Power Ram at better than 65 miles an hour, flipping the huge old truck on its side.

* * *

Consciousness flickered in and out like a cheap candle with a burned-over wick.

Eric was hanging upside-down, the powder-blue polyester of the truck's seat belt digging into his shoulder.

He blinked -- he was on the roof of the cabin, and he could see his shoe sitting right next to his head. Eric reached out for the shoe.

He blinked -- he was half-out of the smashed passenger window. His right hand held on tightly to the black Converse Chuck Taylor that had been sitting next to his head. Eric could hear sirens off in the distance. He was face-down, and could see glass splayed all over the pavement.

He blinked -- we was laying on his back, looking up at the night sky. He tried to lift his head, but he suddenly felt like he needed to vomit. He tried, instead, to roll his head to the side, so as not to choke himself.

He blinked -- someone was shining a light in his eyes. He could smell gasoline.

"Sir? Can you hear me?" someone asked.

"Yeah," Eric coughed.

Eric blinked again, but this time, the scene didn't change on him. The light clicked off, and he saw the face of a youngish black woman staring down at him. There were streetlights blazing above, and he could hear traffic going by slowly. The truck -- or what was left of it -- was about a hundred feet away from him, in the oncoming curbside lane, flipped on its roof, all of the glass busted out. Two cops stood guard over the motionless hulk, which was cordoned off with yellow tape and flares.

"You were in a car accident, sir," the young woman said. She was wearing a dark blue T-shirt and blue vinyl gloves. The wingless caduceus inside the asterisk on the left chest of her shirt identified her as a paramedic -- about a million and a half years ago, Eric Austen had owned a couple of shirts that looked exactly the same.

"You think?" Eric tried to smile. He tried to lift his head once more, and found it much easier this time.

"Don't try to move, sir. You could have some spinal damage."

"Sir. Do I really look that old?" Eric found that his shoe was still off, and he wiggled his toes. "Look. Toes are moving. Not paralyzed."

"Not yet," the paramedic muttered.

"Zing!" Eric smiled at her.

"Look, you have a concussion. At least. You mind not making my job any harder? Just lay there and stay awake so I can get you into the ambulance, OK?"

"Fine, fine. How's Johnny?"

"Better shape than you," Eric heard Johnny grumble. He was sitting on the curb, holding a bloodied ice pack against his forehead. Another paramedic, this one a young Asian guy, was bandaging a cut on the Deputy's forearm.

"Hey, Johnny," Eric smirked, trying not to giggle.


"You get the license number of that truck that hit us?" Eric smiled widely, now unable to hold in the laughter.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Going Old School

So, just as I'm preparing to start updating tonight, the Internet at my house goes out. I considered posting an Admin Tweet from my phone apologizing and promising a double update for tomorrow, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I'm enjoying the process so much that I just had to get tonight's tweets up.

So I asked myself, "WWNDD?" (What Would Nic Davis Do?) The answer became clear at that point -- Wardriving.

Long story short -- longer than usual update tonight. A Holiday Inn is probably not too happy with me, but you guys get your update, and I can go to sleep. Hooray for netbooks and Wi-Fi!

UPDATE: So, of course, the Internet was back up by the time I got home last night. If I would have just displayed something called "patience," I wouldn't have had the fun of driving around in my car looking for an open Wi-Fi network late at night. . . but I also wouldn't have found out just how important this project is to me. To all of you who've taken the time to follow, comment, and read, I just want to say thank you once again.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Triple 7's

According to OpenOffice's running tally, the book now stands at 16,777 words. (Funny enough, I don't actually write in OpenOffice -- I write in Notepad [I'm old-school, yo], then copy and paste over to OpenOffice to get a word count every now and again.)

I look at some of the passages I've written and just cringe, but I really like some others, so that's a positive sign. Besides, there's time to prop up the bits I'm not too fond of in editing, which will come later -- the whole idea is to have you all along for the ride as I bang out the first draft, so I'm leaving everything pretty much as it is when it goes up on Twitter (with the exception of fixing a minor spelling mistake or two along the way).

I'm humbled and flattered by all of the new folks who have started watching in the past couple of weeks, and I hope to keep you at least mildly entertained for the next few. Thanks again for reading, and keep hitting me with comments, emails, and DMs. I'll probably use the next posting to answer a few questions I got this week, but for now -- food.

Chapter Seven

Before he even realized who was on the other end of his office phone line that Wednesday morning, Federal Marshal Ryan Dean could tell that this person was angry. Almost too angry to form coherent sentences, actually.

"Look, sir, calm down. I do have to advise you that this call is being recorded, as per Federal guidelines."

The line went dead, and a second later, Dean's cell phone rang. He saw from the caller ID that it was Eric Hawkins' cell number.

"Yes, Eric?"

"This line tapped too?"

"No, this is my private number."

"Good. Now why the fuck am I getting calls from Julian Clayton?"

For the first time he could remember since high school, Ryan Dean was at a loss for words. After several seconds of silence, he finally managed to choke out, "Say again?"

"That's right, motherfucker. Julian Fucking Clayton has my fucking phone number. You want to tell me how the fuck that can happen?"

Eric was, indeed, angry. But Dean couldn't say he blamed him.

"Eric, I. . . I have no idea. Where are you now?"

"Home. I called in sick to work."

"Stay right there. I'll be over in twenty minutes."

Eric didn't say another word -- he just hung up the phone.

* * *

Eric had calmed himself down slightly by the time Dean knocked on his apartment door -- he still wanted to knock the huge Federal agent in the skull with something heavy, but now there was very little chance he would actually do so. Fifteen minutes before, he wouldn't have been able to say the same.

"I need you to tell me exactly what happened," Dean said, taking a seat on the couch.

"I got this voicemail at about three in the morning," Eric said, putting his phone on speaker and dialing into his voicemail. He played the message back for Dean, who listened intently with his fingers steepled.

"You're sure that was Julian Clayton?"

"Yes, I'm fucking sure."

"Do you have a number he called from? I need to run a trace."

"I'm not an idiot, Dean. I ran it down already. Coleman Federal Prison."

"See? He's in prison."

"I know he's in fucking prison. I put him there. What concerns me is how he found out where I was in the first fucking place, not to mention all of the people in his organization you didn't lock up," Eric growled.

"They're low-level street dealers and thugs for the most part, Eric. They're not much to worry about."

"Russel Brandt."

"Russel Brandt is dead, Eric. We found his body, remember?"

"You found a body. I never saw it. I never got to see the autopsy. I'm in no way convinced Russel is actually dead."

"The FBI identified the body, Eric. It was Brandt."

"And how, exactly, did they do that? Russel Brandt lived completely off the grid, which means no social security number, no driver's license, no criminal record, no employment history. I'm pretty sure he even destroyed the original copy of his birth certificate. So how, with no prints and no ID in the system, could they have identified his body?"

"I think they did it by dental records."

Eric ran his hands through his military-short hair and plunked down on the couch.

"He didn't have dental records."

"Everybody has dental records."

"Not Russel. If your body had dental records at all, they were forged."

"Look, Eric, I'll look into it. Just calm down, OK? You're perfectly safe here, and I've alerted the Deputy assigned to you to keep an eye out."

"Fantastic," Eric said flatly.

"I'll also put a Marshal on stakeout outside your house, if you like."

"Save the manpower. If Russel is alive and coming for me, you'd never see him anyway."

"We're not completely incompetent, Eric. We're actually very good at what we do."

"Unfortunately, so is Russel."

"Cheer up. There's not a lot Julian can do to you from prison. I mean, he's only allowed one phone call a week, and he used that to call you. He's just trying to rile you up, make you paranoid. It looks like he's succeeded."

Eric shrugged and walked over to the kitchen drawer. He pulled one of the Camel Lights out of the pack and lit it.

"I thought you quit," Dean said, lighting one of his own.

"I did. Extenuating circumstances, so don't give me any shit. Look, I'm sorry I'm freaking out on you. This is just fucking with my head. Do me a favor?"

"I can try."

"See if you can track down the autopsy report for Russel Brandt. I'd feel a lot better if I could take a quick look at it."

"I'll see what I can do. Just stay calm, take the day off. Relax. I'll call you if I find anything, and you can call me if you need anything. Good?"

"Yeah, sure."

"I'm going to head back to the office and do some digging. You good here?"


Dean stood from the couch and nodded at Eric, waiting for a nod in return. It didn't look like that nod was coming, so Dean simply left and walked back out to his Crown Victoria.

Eric waited half an hour after Dean had gone, constantly checking the window to see if Dean or Johnny (or anyone else) just happened to be passing by. After he was totally sure that no one was watching, he grabbed his keys and cell phone and walked out to the Thunderbird.

The first thing he'd have to do would be to sneak into his office and get to his cubicle without anyone seeing him. There, taped to the back of his bottom drawer, Eric had a substantial amount of cash set back for an emergency. He'd hidden it at the office so Dean or the police wouldn't find it.

Next, he'd have to find out just where in Mayberry On Acid one could find and purchase an illegal firearm.

* * *

The dim, green digital clock on the T-bird's dashboard was just turning over to noon as Eric pulled into the parking garage near his office. With any luck, most of his co-workers would be out to lunch by now, making it that much easier to sneak into the office, get the cash, and get back out undetected. He took the back way into the building and used the service elevator to get up to his floor.

The large expanse of cubicles where his was located seemed to be relatively deserted. Eric made it from the elevator to his cube without seeing another soul. He'd just sat down in his chair and opened the bottom desk drawer when an unlabled DVD came whizzing by his head, bouncing off the fabric wall of his cube and plopping, motionless, on his desk.

"That code you were supposed to check for bugs this morning? Fucking failed regression tests, Eric! What the fuck have you been doing over here all day?"

Eric stood to face Kenny. Though Kenny was taller and weighed more than Eric, he knew he'd have no problem putting the guy down on the floor. Eric's right hand flexed almost involuntarily -- it had been over a year since he had hit someone, and he had missed it.

"Look, you're obviously having a bad day, Kenny, so I'm going to pretend you didn't come at me like that," Eric said slowly. His adrenal glands were spooling up something fierce, and he wanted more than anything else to just fire off an overhand right into the side of Kenny's head.

"Fuck no, Hawkins. You're the one who isn't fucking doing your job, you --"

Eric's right hand shot out quickly, coming to rest on Kenny's shoulder.

"Kenny, man. I'm out sick today. I just stopped in to get my doctor's phone number out of my desk. But something's wrong, man. This isn't like you. Come on -- I'll buy you a beer over lunch. Let's talk about what's bothering you," Eric sighed.

A large part of him wanted to take the hand resting on Kenny's shoulder and use it to tear out one of the guy's eyes -- but that was the part that had gotten him into so much trouble in the past. He'd been making every possible effort not to listen to that part.

Kenny's shoulders deflated and he nodded.

"Yeah. OK. I'm sorry, man. You really want me to talk about it?"

"Sure, Kenny," Eric said. He hoped he sounded convincing.

The two of them walked a few blocks down to a bar Kenny had picked out. Eric hadn't been to many of the bars in this town, but they all pretty much the same to him. This one was a bit dimly lit, and pretty much empty save for the bartender, a cute college girl reading @jonathansegura's first novel. Eric walked up to the bar and flashed a smile.

"Hi. Can I get a @Pepsi and a @Coors_Light?" he asked.

"Sure thing," she smiled back.

No game, indeed, Eric smirked to himself.

Eric hadn't even made it back to the table with the drinks when the doors opened. The two Russians from the night before, followed by the kid with the cornrows, walked in and headed for the bar. Eric tried to duck out of sight, but he wasn't fast enough.

"That's him! That's that nigga right there!" Cornrows yelled, pointing at Eric.

Eric dropped the drinks on the table.

"Kenny. . . leave. Now," Eric warned. His hands fell loosely at his sides, fingers stretching out.

It looked as though he was going to get the fight his brain wanted, after all.

The kid with the cornrows reached into his waistband, moving his oversized shirt aside. Nikolai, the Russian in the wifebeater, held up his hand.

"Wait. You are sure this is the man?" Nikolai asked.

You still have a chance to talk your way out of this, a part of Eric's brain said.

Quiet, you, a much louder part disagreed.

"You mean the guy who stuck you for a bunch of unlocked GSM phones and a .40 cal? Yeah, that's me."

"To come in here, you must be crazy or stupid," Nikolai shook his head. He looked at his pals, then slowly reached behind his back -- but he never got a chance to touch whatever he was reaching for. Eric rocketed forward, slamming his forehead into the bridge of Nikolai's nose. As Nikolai reared back, gushing blood, Eric's right hand shot out and grabbed Cornrows by the wrist. Before the kid could get his fingers around his gun, Eric had snapped his wrist in at least three places. To his credit, the kid didn't scream, exactly, but he did let out a high-pitched yelp.

The second Russian was just pulling the hammer back on his revolver when Eric's left foot smashed into his groin. The Russian fired wildly, lodging a .38 slug in the rafters. In a flash, Eric grabbed him by both shoulders and drove his knee into the Russian's ribcage. He heard a satisfying series of snaps and crunches before the Russian fell to the floor. The .38 clattered to the linoleum, and the Russian tried to roll over and reach for it, but Eric stomped hard on the small of his back. The Russian decided to stay put.

Cornrows was trying to use his other hand to dig out his gun, so he was completely unprepared for the solid overhand right that slammed into his temple, dropping him to the floor.

Eric whirled on Nikolai, ready to cave his face in, as well, but found the man with one hand holding his profusely bloody nose, the other held straight out in front of him.

"All right. Enough," Nikolai gurgled.

"Not quite," Eric shrugged, firing a straight left, then a corkscrew right into Nikolai's face just below the eyes. Nikolai hit the floor and stopped moving.

Eric kicked the .38 away from the second Russian -- the only one still conscious -- and rolled the man over with his foot. He knelt down and calmly dug a Camel Light from the pack, then lit it. He inhaled deeply -- God, it's going to be impossible to quit now.

"Next time, tell your boy not to waste time talking and just shoot. Would've saved you all an assload of pain. Get me?"

The Russian nodded, wheezing in pain.

"Put some ice on those ribs. Then tell your boss I want to meet him here on Friday night to discuss the holes in your security."

The Russian nodded again. Eric stood up, took another drag from his cigarette, and walked over to the bar. He opened his wallet and took out two $20 bills, which he set on the counter in front of the bartender.

"Sorry about the mess," he winked at her.

As Eric walked out, he didn't even notice that Kenny was still sitting at the table, stone-still, just staring at him as he left.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Oddness. . .

For some reason, my last several story posts are not showing up on my Twitter profile. I've checked with a few people, and they're popping up in the friends timeline. . .

I'll give it until tomorrow before I repost the missing tweets, just in case they happen to pop back up (Twitter's been over capacity a bunch lately, so this is probably a temporary thing).

Thanks again for riding along!

Chapter Six

Tampa, Florida, 2006

"How is it that you haven't seen 'Evil Dead?' It's not like you haven't had the time since it came out," Eric Austen shook his head.

"When it came out, I was only five and live in Vladivostok. Was still Soviet Union then, so we don't get American films," Alexy replied, rolling down the Land Rover's window a crack and lighting a cigarette.

"Yeah, but you've been in this country, what, six or seven years now?"


"And in all that time, no one's said, 'Hey, Alexy, have you ever seen 'Evil Dead?'"

"They have not."

"Well, that's something we're going to have to fix. We get done with this thing, I'm having you over to my place. Beer, nachos, Evil Dead. You in?"

"In what?"

"Are you coming?"

"Sure. If movie is as good as you say it is."

"Oh, it's pretty much the best movie ever."

Eric and Alexy were driving down I-75 from Tampa to Miami. Julian had asked the two of them to go to a meeting with some Triad types -- Chinese mafia guys that Julian wanted to work with against the Russians. Despite being Russian by birth, Alexy seemed to have no problem with this -- his dislike of the Russian Mafia was what made Julian want to hire him, in fact.

Apparently, when he was a younger man and still living in Russia, Alexy had run afoul of the mob, and had lost his two sisters in the process. Now that he was in the States, he jumped at every chance Julian gave him to lash out against his former countrymen. His knowledge of their organization had come in useful more than once, and Eric had made it a point to learn as much as he could from Alexy Odoshevny.

"What do we know about the Chinamen?" Alexy asked, offering the pack of cigarettes across to Eric, who took one hand off the Land Rover's steering wheel and took one of the Dukats out of the box.

"Well, first, we know not to call them Chinamen. They really don't dig that," Eric laughed, lighting his smoke.

"Political correctness. Is bane of my existence, Eric."

"Second, we know that they're Triads, so they're well-organized and can be violent when they want to. I have the feeling that the less we say around them, the better off we'll be. It's like meeting your girlfriend's parents for the first time -- yes sir, no sir, please and thank you, all that shit."

"This, I can do."

"Good. We're just there to open lines of communication, so I don't anticipate any problems. We're supposed to invite them up to Julian's house in Tampa next week for some kind of get-together, and just sort of feel them out on a possible merger of certain operations."

"And I am here because?"

"Because Julian asked me to go, and I get bored on long car rides, so I asked him to send you along."

"You did not feel like talking to Russel the whole way?"

"I think you've noticed by now that Russel is rather limited, conversationally."

"That is one way to say it. Another is to say he is creepy," Alexy nodded.

The meet in Miami was at a South Beach restaurant, one that Eric was pretty sure he'd eaten at a few years before. He'd had no idea then that it was a Chinese Mafia front -- he just remembered it as being somewhat swank and expensive.

"Eric Austen and Alexy Odoshevny," Eric winked at the hostess, a cute blonde 22 year-old.

"Yes. Mr. Tong is waiting for you in the VIP room. This way, please, gentlemen," the hostess replied, stone-faced.

"Your game, I think it needs work," Alexy muttered as they followed the hostess.

"Apparently," Eric shook his head.

"Eric! Alexy! Welcome to Miami, guys!" Jian Wa Tong bellowed from his table. Jian Wa was young, perhaps 22, but already working on a middle-aged quality gut. He was dressed in a smooth black suit and black shirt and smoking a cigar.

"Hey, Jian Wa. Good to meet you in person, my man," Eric said, sticking out his hand. The young Chinese took it and shook vigorously.

Alexy offered his hand as well, and Jian Wa shook it with the same enthusiasm. He motioned to the table, a lacquered cherry-wood four-top, and as Eric sat, he saw for the first time the huge Chinese bodyguard just behind Jian Wa, almost completely hidden in the shadows of the room.

"Your man joining us?"

"Only if there's trouble," Jian Wa smiled widely.

Jian Wa opened a box of cigars, offering them to Alexy and Eric, who each took one and lit up.

"Something to eat, gentlemen? A cocktail, perhaps?"

"I'd love a gin and tonic," Eric said.

"The same," Alexy nodded.

"No vodka?" Jian Wa grinned widely.

"Never had the taste for it," Alexy grinned right back.

A waiter appeared from behind the huge guard, three gin and tonics on his tray. He set them down on the table. Eric took a sip from his -- it was a bit watered down, but acceptable.

"So, brass tacks, gentlemen. You didn't drive four hours on a Saturday evening for no reason. What can I do for you?"

"Brass tacks. I like it. To be blunt -- you have problems with the Russians. We have problems with the Russians. We've mostly driven them out of Tampa, but they're still fucking with our operations in Miami -- operations, I might add, that don't cross with your operations."

"Yeah, the Russians are assholes, no doubt. No offense," Jian Wa tipped his glass at Alexy.

"No, I tend to agree, sir," Alexy smirked.

"But what's to say that once we get rid of them, we don't have something worse to deal with? Your people, for example?"

"Valid concern. We don't intend to cross you, and if you don't intend to cross us, there's no problem there."

"You know what my father taught me? Never trust a criminal. Of course, he didn't think that one day I'd be a criminal, so I don't know how valid that advice was. Alexy, let me ask you something. Do you trust this man?"

"I do."

"You seem like a trustworthy man, indeed. So here's what I'm prepared to do. I'm prepared to make this agreement, Eric, with you. If it goes well, you and I are the best of friends. If it goes badly, you're the one I blame. Deal?"

Eric couldn't help it, but looking into Jian Wa Tong's smiling eyes, he realized that nothing would make him happier than hunting Eric down and slicing him up.

"Deal," Eric said anyway, forcing a smile.

* * *

It was almost three in the morning by the time Eric had made it back to Tampa and dropped Alexy off at his Bayshore Gardens apartment building. Still, Julian had told him to come to the house and report as soon as he got back, and Julian never seemed to sleep, so he drove about a half a mile south down Bayshore until he got to Julian's neighborhood.

When he had first moved to Tampa, he'd joked that a lot of the houses in the Bayshore Beautiful neighborhood looked like "Colombian Drug Lord Houses." It made a certain kind of sense to Eric that Julian would buy a house here -- it was very much like him. Opulent, expensive, and a bit on the obnoxious side, but charming nonetheless.

Eric had stopped ringing the doorbell at Julian's place years ago. Julian rarely kept the front door locked if he was expecting Eric to drop by, as we was tonight, so Eric simply walked in and turned on the lights in the entryway. The place seemed empty.

"Julian? You home?" Eric called out.

"Eric, darling! In the kitchen. Hope you haven't just eaten!"

Eric assumed that Julian had been up late cooking again, which wasn't uncommon -- several times, Julian had told him that he would have been a chef if there was any money in it. As he walked into the kitchen, though, he saw that Julian had not, in fact, been making a tasty meal. Rather, he and Russel were making a bloody mess of the tile kitchen.

Eric had met the man strapped to the heavy oak chair once or twice before. His name was Jason, and he worked for Julian as a runner -- a low-level drug dealer. From the state he was in now, though, Eric was honestly surprised he recognized the man -- his face and torso were covered in blood, and large swatches of skin had been flayed away from his body. If Jason wasn't already dead, from the amount of blood covering the kitchen, he would be soon.

"Eric, you remember Jason. Jason seemed to think he could deal with the Russians behind my back, feed them information on us. Now poor Jason's had an appointment with Russel's Hissatsu," Julian shook his head sadly.

Russel held up the aforementioned knife, a long, thin, sick-looking modernization of a Japanese Tanto. It was slick with blood, and Russel was grinning that freaky grin again.

"Well," Eric shrugged, "Sometimes you have a human resources issue to deal with."

"See, Russel? This is why we like him. He gets us," Julian beamed.

Russel nodded, wiping the knife with what Eric assumed had been Jason's shirt.

"How'd the meeting with the Chinese go, my boy?"

"Looks like we can do business together. Tong will be up to meet and greet next week. I'm personally on the hook for this one, though, boss, so can we try and be nice to this guy?" Eric chuckled.

"But Eric, my boy. . . I'm always nice to everybody," Julian smiled, then looked over at Jason. "Well, except him, of course."

Eric finished his report on the meeting, making sure to mention the muscle Jian Wa had on deck even for a social call. Julian listened, nodding, and thanked him for the information. As Eric left, he tried not to step in any of Jason's blood on the way out.

It was no mean feat -- there certainly was a lot of it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Yeah, that was a long one.

So, Chapter 5 came out longer than I originally intended. Ask anyone who knows me, though, and they'll tell you I have a problem with shutting up.

A reader sent me an email the other day, noting that I've put Dead Kennedys songs in the novel twice so far (which is, of course, correct). There's no hidden reason for this, really -- Eric, the main character, just likes the Dead Kennedys. But that did get me thinking about a couple of things that I should probably mention.

  • Remember, everyone. This is a first draft. Yes, I do write everything I post on a certain day on that particular day. This means there may be misspellings, grammatical errors, double-Dead-Kennedys references, and so on. I try to fix at least the spelling and grammar stuff before I port over to the blog, but, again, I'm in first-draft mode, so not much editing gets done.
  • I listen to music while I write. I, like everyone else in the free world, have an iPod, and it's rare not to find the thing attached to my head. I listen to a lot of different stuff, but I try to keep the stuff that the characters listen to in step with who they are. If you notice something that just doesn't seem to fit with a certain character, by all means, call me on it. Email me or comment. Bring it up for discussion. I'm quite a music nerd, so I'm always down for a discussion about it.
  • Actually, that last point doesn't just go for music. If you find anything you think I fucked up on, call me on it. That includes spelling and grammar, factual errors, something dumb I said -- whatever you like. Feedback, folks. I love it.
  • Apropos of nothing, thanks much to @JohnnySix for dropping the first comment on the blog. You're a gentleman and a scholar, sir, even if you are five-foot-nothing. Just kidding, of course.

I think that about covers pointless rambling for now. I'm off to catch up on some TV, as this has been a rather busy week, and I haven't had time to watch anything for a while. Take care, everyone, and keep the emails and comments flowing in. I love to hear from you.

Chapter Five

Eric didn't hear from Nathaniel for a couple of days, so he assumed that he'd gotten all of the information he needed at breakfast that Sunday morning. So much the better, Eric admitted to himself. Now I have time for all the. . .

As hard as he tried, Eric couldn't figure out how to finish that sentence. He'd replaced the radiator in the Thunderbird on Sunday, and that was the one thing apart from work he had on his calendar in the near future, or, to tell the truth, at all.

It was a Tuesday, and just after six in the evening. Work had been just as boring as ever that day, and Eric had just come back from a five-mile run from his place just east of Dundee up to Benson and back. He noticed as he ran that this part of town had kind of an odd makeup -- low-income, almost ghetto areas gave way to modest buffer zones, then really nice houses, then another buffer zone, then back to the ghetto. He saw all of this within two miles.

Of course, he'd noticed that this was a phenomenon localized to the older parts of town. In his first few weeks in Omaha, when he'd been feeling particularly adventurous, he'd driven way out to the West part of town, which took easily 45 minutes (anyone who had the idea that this was a "small town" would be immediately disabused of that notion after such a drive). Out west, the houses were all huge and ludicrous McMansions, the type that popped up in less than a month and sold for an easy $425,000. Even when he'd been pulling in more money than he'd ever dreamed of, Eric couldn't understand why anyone would actually want to live in one of those places -- they were god-awful gaudy, and couldn't have been constructed too well.

Of course, this was all conjecture, as Eric had never actually owned a home. Out of college, he'd rented a very nice apartment in Hyde Park, as he'd scored an executive-level job with an Internet startup. After the startup imploded due to massive corruption, he'd rented a place by the month in a horrid area of Tampa for a while before working for Julian. During the eight years he worked in Julian's organization, he'd lived in three progressively nicer apartments, all in buildings owned by Julian's "legitimate" real-estate empire.

"Bought that building with the proceeds from a stolen Ukrainian fishing ship loaded to the gills with old Soviet surface-to-air-missles," Julian had told him of one place he'd lived, a tasteful two-level loft in a downtown Tampa skyscraper.

Eric popped his iPod onto the docking station in the living room and clicked it over to The Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist album. As near as he waS aware, he had no neighbors on either side of him, so he could have played it as loud as he liked, but he kept the volume reasonably low as he started to rummage through the cabinets in the kitchen in search of dinner.

"Soup is Good Food" wasn't even halfway over when his cell phone started vibrating on the kitchen counter. The caller ID screen let him know it was Nathaniel's office number.

"Evening, Nathaniel," Eric answered.

"Hey, Eric. Bet you thought I forgot about you."

"Nah. What's up?"

"You busy later on this evening? Say, about 9:00 or so?"

Eric looked around his empty, quiet apartment.

"I think I can shuffle some things around."

"Great. I'll drop by, if that's all right."

"Yeah, that should be fine. It gives me a chance to clean up, anyway."

"See you in a bit."

As Eric hung up the phone, he looked around the living room to see what needed cleaning. The threadbare couch, the secondhand coffee table with his laptop, and a small end table with the iPod dock were the sum total of the contents of the room.

He'd planned a weight workout, and he'd have plenty of time to do that, of course. Afterwards, he resolved to fire up the Internet and finally check @TargetINC for some halfway decent furniture and just maybe, if he was feeling crazy, something to hang on the walls.

* * *

Nathaniel was nothing if not punctual. Just as the clock on his cell phone switched over to 9:00, Eric heard a knock on the apartment door. Eric had already showered and changed into a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, and opened the door to find Nathaniel wearing pretty much the same thing.

"Evening, Eric. Feel like a little field trip?"

Eric shrugged and followed Nathaniel outside, locking his apartment after him as he went. Johnny dressed in a pair of khakis and an untucked polo shirt, was standing outside of Nathaniel's Impala.

"So, where is the class headed this evening?" Eric asked.

"South Omaha. A CI we have down there has noticed a bunch more Eastern European faces in the neighborhood lately," Johnny told him.

"Yeah, and you'll blend right in, Chief. Nice undercover look you've got going there."

Eric could see that Johnny wanted to say something, but Nathaniel cut him off with a look. Instead, Johnny just opened the driver's door of the Impala.

"Wait. That's the car we're taking?" Eric shook his head.

"Yeah. Why?" Johnny sighed.

"You two just might as well wear signs around your necks saying 'I'm a fucking cop.' That car is going to stick out like a sore thumb down on 33rd and L. You need something that looks worn, beat-up, ghetto."

"Like that piece of shit you drive?" Johnny smiled.

"Sadly, yes. Touche," Eric admitted, tossing his keys to the short, overmuscled cop. "Care to drive?"

Johnny caught the keys and opened the driver door. Nathaniel opened the passenger door, then looked over at Eric and nodded to the backseat.

"I have to sit in the backseat of my own car? That's just wrong, man," Eric bitched, but he pushed the passenger seat forward and crawled into the tiny backseat anyway. Nathaniel and Johnny got in, and Nathaniel moved his seat forward a bit.

"Got enough room back there?" Johnny snickered.

"Shut the fuck up," Eric grumbled.

Johnny smiled and started the engine. A low, deep growl vibrated through the entire vehicle as the Thunderbird roared to life.

"Whoa. This the 3.8-liter V6?" Johnny asked.

"No, that was the SC. This is the LX. 4.6-liter V8."

"Hell of an engine."

"I bought this thing for a reason."

Johnny nodded appreciatively and backed the T-bird out of the lot, then piloted onto the streets. It was still warm and muggy out, but the weather people hadn't predicted any rain, so it was likely to stay that way.

"Air conditioner work in this boat?" Nathaniel asked.

"It should. I just fixed it a couple of weeks ago."

Nathaniel turned the knob all the way into the blue, and frigid air started pouring out of the T-bird's dash. Nathaniel pulled his radio from his pocket and set it in the center console between himself and Johnny, then turned the volume up a bit.

"So, boss tells me you know a lot about these Russians," Johnny started.

"More than either of you two," Eric nodded.

Johnny let the remark slide.

"What do you think are the chances they're set up in South O? That's Mexican territory."

"La eMe?"

"What the fuck is that?"

"Never mind," Johnny shook his head. "Wherever these guys are holed up, they're probably not going to be walking around, making a big spectacle of themselves. I doubt they're running their operations from South O, because some pale motherfuckers like that in a Chicano neighborhood are bound to draw attention, which is exactly what they don't want."

"So no, then?"

"Well, not exactly. They might have some presence, some business they need to handle down there. It's worth taking a look at."

The drive from Eric's place didn't take more than fifteen minutes, even at the five miles under the speed limit Johnny kept the car pinned to. He parked the T-bird along the street across from a thrift store that Eric was pretty sure he'd bought his couch from.

"So, what's the plan? Split up? Look for clues?" Eric joked.

"We wait and watch," Nathaniel said. "Mind if I smoke in your car?"

Yes I fucking mind, because the entire car will smell like smoke for days, and I'm still trying to quit.

"Knock yourself out."

* * *

They'd been there for four hours, and had seen nothing more interesting than a young Mexican mother wrangling her three children at midnight, which Eric found all sorts of creepy.

"Call it a night, boss?" Johnny yawned.

"Yeah, we've got an early day at the station. Might as well pack it in." Nathaniel shrugged.

"You could do that. Or you could follow that black Mercedes that just pulled out two blocks down, because those are your guys. You know, whichever you feel like," Eric shrugged.

"You're fucking with us," Johnny accused flatly.

"Only one way to find out, isn't there, Sparky?" Eric grinned, slapping the Deputy on the shoulder. His hand hit solid, granite muscle.

Johnny fired up the Thunderbird's engine and set off after the black Mercedes sedan, keeping at least a block between the two cars. As crappy as the two of them seemed to be at investigative police work, Eric had to admit that Johnny was damned good at following someone without being seen -- never once did the black Benz off in the distance give any indication that they were aware anyone was following them.

Their drive took them up to 42nd Street, past the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and just a spit away from Johnny's own neighborhood. They continued North, however, past Benson, all the way up to 31st and Grand Avenue -- a part of town that the locals referred to with trepidation and loathing as "North O." If one was to hear of a shooting overnight and Omaha, the intersection of thirty-something and Grand had a very decent chance of being mentioned, and the black Mercedes parked just off 31st street, right in the thick of it all.

Both of the Benz's front doors opened, and two young men got out. They were as white as could be, and both had short, dark hair. One wore cargo pants and a wife-beater tanktop, the other jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt. Both of them had tattoos all over, and, from where Johnny parked the car, they could see the artwork pretty clearly. As the one in the wife-beater knocked on the door to a run-down ranch-style house, the three men in the Thunderbird saw a cross tattooed on the inside of his arm.

"Told you those were your guys," Eric sneered.

Johnny said nothing, but Eric could see his jaw clench just slightly.

A young black man with cornrows, baggy black jeans, and a T-shirt two sizes too large for his lanky frame opened the door to the ranch house. There was a short conversation between the two young Russians and the young black man, and the Russian in the wife-beater reached into his cargo pocket and pulled out a large plastic bag full of small vials.

"Heroin?" Johnny guessed.

"I'd bet," Nathaniel nodded.

The young black man looked inside the bag, smiled a huge grin, and handed over a brown paper bag. Wife-beater looked inside, nodded, and pounded fists with the young black guy.

"And that, guys, was a re-up. Congratulations. The Russian Mafia is running drugs into your town, at least."

"I wish we had some bugs on that house. I'd love to hear what they're saying," Johnny shook his head as the two Russians headed back to their car.

"Should just go up and ask the black kid," Eric shrugged.

"Yeah, that'd work. I should just walk right up and have a chat with him, shouldn't I, boss?" Johnny chuckled.

"Nah, both of you are still wearing those 'I'm a fucking cop' signs around your neck. Kid would make you in a second," Eric shook his head.

"Yeah. Hate to break it to you, pal, but you're pretty clean-cut yourself. You look like one of us," Johnny shot back.

Eric took off his long-sleeved T-shirt, leaving only the grey wife-beater he had on underneath. Johnny and Nathaniel saw, for the first time, the plethora of tattoos covering Eric's arms from his shoulders to just before the backs of his hands.

"Wrong, Chief. I look like one of them."

It took Nathaniel a moment to speak-- apparently, Eric guessed, both cops had skipped over the "Scars and Identifying Marks" entry on his file. When the senior Deputy finally did find his voice, the words he delivered came with a shake of the head, free of charge.

"No way, Eric. You're not a cop. I can't have you questioning a suspect."

"I'm not pretending to be a cop. I'm just one guy talking to another guy, albeit in slightly odd circumstances."

"We just observed that suspect in an illegal activity. I say we call in some backup and bust that whole place," Johnny said, reaching for the radio.

"I wouldn't. You do that, the Russians know you're on to them, and they go even deeper underground. The only reason they got sloppy enough to be seen tonight is that they've been in town for years with no hint that law enforcement knows anything about them."

Nathaniel considered. Eric was probably right -- he'd checked with the liason officer at the Omaha Police Department about Russian Mafia activity in town, and all he'd gotten was a disbelieving laugh.

"Look, kids. My gut tells me you haven't told your bosses you're even out here tonight. Would make you look pretty silly if it turned out that Witness Protection Boy was full of shit, and you chased down whatever Russian Mob fairy tales he threw you. I get that. So, as long as we're off the books here, why not see just how much we can take back to your superiors?"

Johnny looked at Nathaniel.

"I hate to admit it, boss, but the guy has a point."

Nathaniel lit a cigarette. He took a long, thoughtful drag, then blew out smoke as he spoke.

"Yeah. Yeah, he does. All right, Johnny. Drive us about a block away and we'll drop you off. You can approach on foot. Any idea what you're going to say?"

"I'm good at this sort of thing," Eric said.

* * *

Speaking English was easy enough -- Eric had, after all, been raised with the language. Speaking Russian wasn't that hard, either -- he'd taken three years of it in college, and had plenty of practice using it when he worked for Julian. But speaking English with a Russian accent and making it convincing? That was a whole different animal, Eric realized as he strolled slowly up the block towards the stash house.

If he played it Walter Koenig-style and really belted it out for the back row, the kid would surely see through him -- Eric assumed that the young black kid had been dealing with Russians for some time now, and would be used to the accent. If he came at it too soft, though, the kid wouldn't buy him as anything but an American playing Russian, which would be just as bad. As he got within 50 feet of the stash house, Eric tried to put himself in the past, talking to Alexy again.

Eric knocked on the door, and the same kid from earlier answered. Behind him, Eric could see two other kids about his age, playing Left 4 Dead on @Microsoft_Xbox. The stereo was bumping out @young_jeezy, though not at a volume that would wake the neighbors and get the police called.

"What up, man. They was already here," the black kid answered wearily.

"Who was here?" Eric smiled, trying to sound as much like Alexy as possible.

"Your boys. Nicolai and, uh, the other one. Nigga that wear all the skin-tight shirts."

"Damn. I was supposed to meet them. They say where they go next?"

"Prolly back to the bar, man."

"Yes, but which bar? We have more than one, yes?"

"Yeah, right. Not the one uptown. The other one, just off Jackson outside the Market?"

"Yes. That one. I go meet them there. Look, help a brother out?"

The young black kid chuckled at Eric's attempt at Russian-accented slang.

"Yeah, man. What you need?"

"Do not tell Nicolai I was late, yes? Already, I am on thin ice with him."

"No problem, man. In fact, I can do you one better. Hold up."

The kid vanished inside for a second, but left the door open. One of the guys playing Xbox looked over at Eric and nodded.

"What up," he said softly.

"What is up," Eric waved back.

"That some sick ink, G."

"You like?," Eric held up his forearms. "I have some done in Moscow, some done in Miami."

"Nowhere around here, though?"

"Have not found good place yet. You know one?"

"Big Brain, G. Only place worth a fuck in this town."

"I have seen it, I think?"

"You should. It's like a block down from that bar you guys own."

"Yes, I have seen. Never open this late. In Moscow, tattoo shops open late nights."

"Yeah, they close at like 10."

The young kid appeared at the doorway again, handing Eric an unmarked, dark green backpack.

"I forgot to give this to your boys when they was by earlier. You can say you got here before they did and picked it up for them."

"Thanks, brother."

"Anytime, man. Peace," the young kid said, holding his fist out. Eric tapped it with his own, then started to walk away. He heard the door close behind him, but waited until he was well out of sight to open the bag.

Inside were several @BlackBerry devices -- cloned, Eric guessed -- and a .40 Sig Sauer handgun. He zipped up the bag and walked back to his car, where Nathaniel was standing outside, waiting and smoking a cigarette.

"The kid talk to you?" he asked as Eric got into the car.

"Yep. Gave me a location on one of their operational areas downtown."

"Good work, Eric!"

"Oh, yeah. And you might want to find something to do with this," Eric said, dropping the backpack into Nathaniel's lap as Johnny drove them out of the neighborhood.

* * *

As Eric finally walked back into his apartment around three, he kicked his shoes off and stretched. Work was going to come very early tomorrow -- or today, really, he supposed. He considered just staying up for a few more hours and going in on zero sleep as he took his keys and phone out of his pocket.

As Eric looked at his phone, he saw that he had a new voicemail. He hadn't notice a missed call, but service did tend to get spotty in a few areas of town. Wondering who would have called him this late at night, Eric dialed his voicemail and listened.

The voice on the other end was garbled and staticky, but Eric recognized it right away.

"Eric, darling! You never call, you never write. I'm beginning to think you don't love your old pal Julian anymore."

Eric had never had a heart attack, but he imagined that the tightness in his chest wasn't far off from how one would feel. He hung up immediately.

Well, at least I won't have a problem staying awake, now.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Ten Thousand

We like Open Office. Today, it told us (and I have no idea why I'm referring to myself in the third person -- bad habit I picked up from an old pal forever ago, I think) that the draft now stands at 10,000 words and change.

That's a fifth of a book right there, folks. And I've picked up a bunch of new followers in the past week or so, to boot, so I'd like to welcome and thank each and every one of them. I do love to write, but it's nice to know I have an audience.

Also, I want to thank those of you who have sent me email. I've gotten back to most of you already, and I'm planning to knock the last few out tonight, as soon as I hit "Publish" on this post. I always love getting email, (the link's in my profile here on the blog), but don't be shy -- if you want to, go ahead and comment on the blog. We could get some discussions going, even if they are of the "Good Lord, I hate you, faceless Internet guy" (that would be me) variety.

And now, off to the email. Again, thanks for reading, and I look forward to putting something called a "plot" into the story pretty soon, here.


Chapter Four

Eric had planned to sleep in on Sunday, but whoever was on the other end of his loudly ringing cell phone had other ideas. Stifling the urge to throw the phone into the cheap drywall across the room, Eric picked up the phone and mumbled "What?" into the receiver.

"Mr. Hawkins. It's Deputy Moore."

"It's," Eric pulled the phone away from his ear and checked the time "6:30 in the morning, Deputy."

"I'm aware of the time. I was wondering if you've had breakfast yet."

"That would be a no."

"What a coincidence. Neither have I. I'm outside your apartment right now. Shall we say five minutes?"

More than anything else, Eric wanted to tell the cop to fuck off so he could go back to sleep. Still, he supposed he'd better do what he could to keep himself on the good side of local law enforcement, so he just sighed and said "sure."

Eric quickly threw on a pair of jeans and a black long-sleeved button-up. He actively tried to not think of the Camel Lights in the kitchen drawer as he laced up his boots and grabbed his keys from the table by the door. Just as he'd said, Nathaniel was outside, leaning on the side of an unmarked Chevy Impala. He was out of uniform, dressed in a pair of jeans and a white shirt.

"Good morning, Mr. Hawkins."


"If that's the case, I'm Nathaniel. Sorry to wake you up so early on a Sunday, but if you don't get to breakfast before the churchies, you're probably not going to get it."

"Fair enough."

Nathaniel motioned toward the Impala.

"No cuffs this time?"

"Not necessary. Your alibi for that last body checked out, as well as for the previous two. You're off of that particular hook."

Eric shrugged and got into the passenger seat of the Impala, which was, indeed, an unmarked police car. Eric had never been in the front seat of one, but he'd been in the backseat of several. The radio was crackling away, but as Nathaniel started the car, he turned it down to a soft murmur.

"Where are we going?"

"Place called Joe's, up in Benson. Ever been? It's not but five minutes from here."

Eric shook his head.

"Well. Just hope you're not a vegetarian."

The low, brick building they pulled up outside of a few minutes later was, indeed, called Joe's Diner. Eric had been half-expecting a flashing neon "Eat-At-Joe's" sign out front, but he was disappointed on that count. The two of them walked inside -- apart from two old-timers smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee at the counter, the place was devoid of customers. Without waiting for someone to seat them, Nathaniel took a booth near the back of the restaurant, sat down, and turned one of the coffee cups in front of him right-side-up. Eric followed suit, and, as if by magic, an elderly waitress appeared and filled both mugs with coffee.

"You boys need a menu?"

"Thanks, hon," Nathaniel winked at her.

As the waitress toddled off towards the kitchen, Eric took a sip of his coffee.

"So what's the reason for the social call, Nathaniel?"

"To be honest with you, Eric, I need to pick your brain."

Eric knew where this was going, and he already didn't like it.

"You need some help configuring an SQL database? Some C++ programming assistance, maybe? Because I'm a computer programmer, Deputy. Nothing else."

"You know that's not what I mean."

"I thought the whole point of this was a chance to start over in exchange for my testimony? Check with the FBI. Hell, check the Tampa papers from late last year. I gave my testimony, and I got a new life in trade. Granted, it's not the best one, but I'm trying my goddamndest to make it work."

"And I understand that, I really do. But that little piece of information you gave me the other day? About the prison tattoo? It checked out, and it checked out in a big way. Before you wandered into my office --"

"You mean before Captain Napoleon dragged me into your office."

"Well, yes. Before we met, I should say, we had no idea the Russian Mafia was even operating in the Midwest, much less right here in town. I've got no one who has any sort of meaningful experience with these guys -- closest thing I have to an expert is a part-time Russian professor at UNO. You know what he does for full-time work? He runs a coffee shop."

"And I check security software for bad code."

The ancient waitress creaked by again, and both men ordered. She nodded, slowly scratching their orders into her pad with a chewed-up golf pencil. After she had left, Nathaniel pulled a pack of Marlboro Reds out of his shirt pocket and lit one. He tilted the pack towards Eric.

"I quit."

"Good for you. I never was able to. Look, Eric. I know what you're trying to do here, and I respect that. But look at it from my perspective. I'm in a situation where I've got a major organized crime faction operating in my quiet little town -- not only that, but I've got someone else killing them off. This isn't a violent place, kid. This isn't the type of city where a mob war happens. And I have absolutely no idea about any of this stuff."

Eric sighed and finished off the rest of his coffee. The waitress appeared out of nowhere again and refilled it without him having to ask. He took another sip.

"You know this isn't a new thing, right? The Russians being in your town? They've been here for years."

Nathaniel shook his head.

"We would have noticed. The information I have on the Russian Mafia says they're excessively violent. Not subtle guys."

"Where'd you get that information?"

"Internet," Nathaniel admitted.

"It's old info. Sure, maybe in 1992, the Russians were using Kalashnikovs to splash their enemies all over the streets, but they've evolved. Gotten smarter. If a criminal organization is going to be any good, they're going to make sure you never see them, never hear about them. They become ghosts."

"So they don't kill their enemies anymore?"

"Sure they do. They just do it quietly. Either you haven't found the bodies yet, or they've managed to roll them into your nice, quiet city's murder rate -- which isn't so quiet, by the way. I looked it up. You're well above the national average here for murders, Nathaniel. Seems to me this is a perfect place for them to operate -- law enforcement assumes they'd never move this far into the country, and there's a high enough murder rate for them to drop the occasional body without anyone noticing."

"See? This is exactly the kind of information I need."

Shit. Eric thought. I didn't think I'd let him talk me into helping out this easy.

"All right. Fine. I'll give you whatever help I can, mainly because my life as it is now is so fucking boring it makes me want to scream. A few conditions, though," Eric said.

"I expected that."

"First, my name never shows up in any paperwork. No memos, no files, not so much as a fucking post-it floating around the office. Same for my phone number, email address, bad sketches of me -- anything."

"Fair enough."

"Second -- I work with you on off hours only. You need something while I'm at work or have something planned, you're shit out of luck. Third, you get that overzealous Deputy of yours to give me a little space. I know it's fair play to keep an eye on me, but I'm considering asking that jackass to move in just to make my life easier."

"I'll do what I can to accommodate your schedule, of course. And Johnny will back off. He doesn't, he answers to me."

"OK. Tell me what you think you know, and I'll tell you where and how you're wrong," Eric grinned as the elderly waitress plunked plates down in front of the two men.

* * *

After dropping Eric back at his apartment, Nathaniel headed for home. His head was still spinning with all of the information the younger man had laid on him at breakfast -- he'd expected Eric to know a few things, sure, but it seemed that he knew everything about the Russian Mafia, from history to current operations in several major areas of the United States. He knew their organizational structure, what kinds of business they usually dealt in, and even where they most likely got their weapons from.

Nathaniel decided to do a bit more checking on Eric's background. He called Johnny, who was in the office, as usual, though it was the younger cop's day off, too.

"Deputy Teal," he answered on the second ring.

"Johnny, don't you have hobbies? Interests outside of work?"

"I'm aware what hobbies are, boss. Some paperwork I wanted to catch up on."

"Likely excuse. Hey, I need to ask you a few questions about the Marshal's Service briefing you got on Eric Hawkins."

"Sure thing. Let me find my notes," Johnny replied. Nathaniel could hear paperwork shuffling for a few seconds on the other end of the line. "OK, shoot."

"First off, he has a rap sheet, correct?"

"Not one they gave me. There was the matter of the three dead bodies at the Port Of Tampa, but those were pardoned as part of his Witness Security deal. Never went on his sheet."

"What did they tell you about his background?"

"Not a lot. My notes are, like, three lines, here, boss. Eric Hawkins, was involved in an organized criminal enterprise headed by someone named Julian Clayton III. Worked directly under this guy, who I get the impression was a huge fish down there, for just shy of eight years."

"Anything else?"

"The guy who briefed me -- uh, Dean. Marshal Ryan Dean. He let me know that the guy had a real history of violence. He's in mandatory counseling for it, actually. Part of his deal. Other than that, I got nothing, really. DOB, Scars and Identifying Marks, real name. That's it."

"Real name was?"

"Eric Peter Austen, DOB 4/11/75, Carson City, Nevada."

"All right. Thanks, Johnny. I'll do some checking around and see what I can find out."

No problem, boss."

As Nathaniel hung up the phone, he could see the driveway to his Benson house -- it was within shouting distance of Joe's Diner, actually. He parked the car, got out, and locked it.

The house was a lot more empty this weekend, as his ex-wife Sheila had come by during his shift on Friday and cleaned out the rest of her stuff. She'd been trying to coordinate a time with him for months -- he'd finally just told her to use her keys whenever it was good for her, hoping that he wouldn't be home when she showed up. Thankfully, all of the extra hours he'd been putting in on the three Russian corpses had kept him out of the house more than usual.

His computer was still there, though she'd taken the vintage roll-top desk it used to sit on. He moved the @toshiba laptop to the kitchen table, plugged it in, and went to get himself another cup of coffee while it started up. By the time he'd added sugar and cream to a warmed-over mug of yesterday's brew, the login screen for the NCIC was waiting for him to type in a username and password.

Nathaniel entered the requested information, then sipped his coffee as he waited for a server somewhere in a basement in Washington D.C. to agree that he was, indeed, Deputy Nathaniel Moore of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department. He entered the name and date of birth Johnny had given him, and Eric Austen's entire criminal history popped up a few seconds later.

Most of said history, it appeared, had been provided by Austen himself during several FBI interviews. He had one arrest, when he was 22, for public intoxication in Clearwater, Florida, but the story his statements told were, to say the least, frightening.

After losing his job (Chief Technology Officer of a dot-com startup that had been embezzling investor funds, which Eric himself had no knowledge of until the company folded), Eric had an almost year-long stint of unemployment. He got into a barfight that brought him to the attention of Julian Clayton III, who seemed to run more than 90% of the illegal activities in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area, not to mention almost 30% of the same in Miami.

Eric seemed to be mostly an enforcer for Julian's organization -- he made collections, hit people who needed to be hit, and shot people who needed to be shot. Julian's people dealt in drugs, prostitution, weapons, organized theft, large-scale auto theft, and murder for hire, among other lesser crimes. Then, in late 2008 (though the file didn't say why), Eric had turned on his boss and entered Witness Security. Apparently, Julian was such a large prize for the FBI that they had absolutely no problem overlooking three young men that Eric admitted to killing.

The file had information, but it didn't answer as many questions as Nathaniel had hoped it would. He made a note to check into Julian's NCIC file when he got the chance, but more pressing matters demanded his attention -- like replacing the bed and living room furniture that Sheila had finally removed from his house.

As Nathaniel shut down his computer, he had no way of knowing that a ghosted email server in Hong Kong was already sending out a message. He certainly didn't know that the message bounced from server to server all across the world before it popped up on a computer screen in Clearwater, Florida before he'd even started taking inventory of what he'd need to buy. And, of course, there was no way he could have known that the person sitting in front of that screen, a hacker with the 'Net handle @shroudripper, immediately picked up his cell phone and made a call.