"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."
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.
"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."
"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."
"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.