Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chapter Nineteen

Eric didn't wake up all at once -- rather, his sense of hearing returned first. He was aware that people were moving around him, speaking in tight, clipped sentences and hushed tones.

Sensation came next -- he realized that his arms were immobilized behind his back, and that he was sitting down. Finally, he managed to force his eyelids open, but all he saw was a watery blur of greys and blacks. He blinked a few times, and his vision cleared rapidly.

Eric was in a large, industrial room. It was night, as he could see through a window a good twelve feet from the floor. His torso was duct-taped to a chair -- feeling with his fingers, he found that his wrists were bound tightly with zip-ties. Several men were walking around in front of him, but there was one seated Indian-style on an old, scarred wooden table about ten feet directly ahead of him.

"Welcome back, Mr. --" the man on the table held up Eric's driver's license -- "Hawkins. Thank you for joining us."

"Doesn't seem like I had much choice," Eric replied.

"No, sure doesn't. Let's get this over with, yes? You're going to answer some questions for me. I like your answers, and you're on your way. I don't like your answers, I ask the questions again until I do. You follow?"

Eric shrugged.

"Starting with your name. Not Eric Hawkins, now, is it?"

"That's what my license says."

The man sighed and stretched out his legs. He walked about halfway to Eric and held out his hand -- one of the other men placed a bottle of water in it.

"That was an example of an answer I didn't like. One more of those, and you get to see how I get the answers I do like," the man smiled, almost sweetly. "Now, one more time. Your name."

"Eric Hawkins."

The man frowned and shook his head. Suddenly, Eric felt hands on either side of him -- the chair was being lifted and tipped over backwards. the back legs of the chair were propped up on a concrete block so that Eric was at an angle, the back of his head on the floor. One of the men placed a cloth over his eyes and forehead, and Eric felt water dripping onto the rag.

Eric knew what was coming, and knew it wasn't going to be pleasant. Before he could fully draw in his breath, the cloth was folded down over his nose and mouth, and Eric involuntarily gagged.

We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaming one's aim is a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this, Eric thought, forcing his brain to think of something other than drowning.

A hand pulled the cloth away from Eric's nose, and he gaspingly pulled in three breaths.

"Name?" Eric heard from above him. More water poured down on the cloth.

Tell them what they want to hear, his brain pleaded with him.

"Not sure I understand the question, Chief," Eric choked, spitting water as he did so.

The cloth was placed over his nose and mouth again, and more water poured down on him.

If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.

The cloth came away again, and Eric gulped in more precious air.

"You ready to give me an answer I like?" the man asked softly.

Yes! Eric's brain screamed.

"Getting a little thirsty down here. Think I can get a drink?" Eric sputtered.

"Dumb motherfucker," Eric heard one of the men mutter.

"Lock it up, mister," the man in charge spat gruffly. The cloth came down over Eric's nose and mouth again, and more water splashed down on him -- a lot this time.

Stay calm. You're not drowning. You're not drowning, Eric tried to reassure his brain. His brain, though, knew he was thinking this because he couldn't remember the words that were supposed to come next.

One of the men ripped the cloth away from his face completely, and the man in charge squatted down so he was face-to-face with Eric.

"You beginning to see how this works?" the man asked.

"Yeah. Badly. Look, I know you're not going to drown me. And if you do, so what, I'm dead. Big deal," Eric tried to shrug again, but found it wasn't very easy upside-down.

The man in charge nodded slowly. He gestured to his henchmen, and they hauled the chair back into a sitting position. The man in charge grabbed the back of the chair and started walking, dragging Eric along with him. Eric twisted his head around and saw where they were headed -- a large commercial freezer at the end of the large room.

* * *

Eric quickly lost track of his time in the freezer. He couldn't see his watch, of course, as it was zip-tied behind him. He could see his breath, so he knew the temperature was below fifty degrees, and Eric hated the cold. It probably had something to do with growing up in Nevada, Texas, and Florida. He'd done his best to outrun the cold, and now he had no idea how to deal with it.

Eric closed his eyes and tried to think of the hottest day he could remember. It had been in 1984, when he'd lived in Brownsville. He tried to put himself back on that 106-degree day, to feel the searing heat again so his current situation would seem pleasant by comparison.

Eric heard the door open, and opened his eyes just long enough to see a torrent of water spray directly on him, soaking him thoroughly.

"No sleeping," someone barked, and the door slammed shut again.

His shoulders started to shiver involuntarily. Eric tried to put himself back in Brownsville back in -- what was it? July? August?

You're losing it, Eric. Focus. It was. . . March. Remember? Way too early to be that hot. School got canceled. March 27. You tried to go outside and play and got sun poisoning.

Eric remembered now -- but he didn't feel any warmer. His entire body was shivering now -- it was all he could do to keep his teeth from chattering together.

Come on. You've been through worse than this. Hell, the water thing was worse than this. It's just a little cold.

The internal pep-talk wasn't doing much good, either. Reciting the Hagakure in his head wasn't working. Eric reasoned that if he told them his name -- his real name -- they might take him out of the freezer for at least a few minutes. It seemed like a perfectly logical plan, so he yelled.

"Hey! Ready to answer now!"

The door opened wide, and the man in charge walked in slowly. Eric could see the windows at the top of the room -- dawn was just starting to break outside.

"Good man. Knew you'd see it my way. Answer my questions, and we'll take you out of here."

Eric nodded.

"Now, what's your name?"

"What's yours?" Eric shot back without thinking.

The man in charge motioned behind him, and one of his henchmen came into the room with a bucket of water. Just before the water dumped over his head, Eric heard another one of the guys outside say, "You deal with him. I'm sick of that freak texting me."

"Name," the man in charge demanded.

"Name. Zavut. Kak tebya zavut? That's how you'd ask your question in Russian. Wie heissen Sie? That's German," Eric smiled.

The man in charge shrugged and turned to walk out.

"Tell Russel I said hello. Tell him it's your fault I missed our appointment," Eric called after him.

The man in charge stopped dead. It was only a half-second before he was moving again, and he closed the door behind him, but Eric grinned. He'd gambled correctly, and was starting to figure out what was happening. If he made it out of the freezer alive, he'd have to tell Nathaniel what he'd learned.

Eric spent several more hours in the cold cell (or, at least, it felt that way) before he realized his mistake. The revelation came when he closed his eyes for a few minutes and wasn't immediately punished with a bucket of ice water to the face -- they didn't need to ask him questions anymore. He'd given them all of the answers they wanted.

His cold-addled brain had been all too eager to put the puzzle together, but it hadn't stopped his mouth from spitting out Russel's name. In doing so, he'd given the man in charge access to information even the police and the Marshal's Service didn't have on him. Russel may not be able to talk, but that wouldn't stop him from telling these guys everything they wanted to know about him.

And these guys were obviously in contact with Russel -- how and for what reason, Eric hadn't figured out yet. Regardless, Eric was pretty sure they had no further use for him -- they'd just leave him in the freezer to die, or come in and put a round in the back of his head whenever they got around to it. He guessed the latter, so he quickly accepted that his lifespan was now a matter of hours rather than years.

The thought didn't bother him as much as he thought it would. He couldn't be sure if it was the cold screwing with his head -- if the interrogation techniques had actually broken him -- or if he honestly just did not care anymore. Instead of worrying about how they were going to eventually kill him, Eric idly wondered if they'd let him have a cigarette first.

At some point, Eric couldn't say when, the door opened again, and the man in charge walked in. He was dressed in black cargo pants, a Kevlar vest, and a black T-shirt. He had a Beretta M9 in a leg holster, but he didn't move to draw it as he walked across the room to Eric's chair.

"Hey, how's it goin'," Eric mumbled.

"Still have a few more questions for you, Mr. Austen."

"Oh yeah?"

"But they'll have to wait a while. The adults have to go out for a bit, but your pal Russel is coming over to babysit. You just hang out here -- we'll talk in a couple of hours."

"Yeah. Pretty sure I'm not going anywhere," Eric shrugged.

The man in charge shot him an wink, and the door closed and locked as he walked out. Eric sighed -- so he was to be tied to a chair, then, with Russel as his only company.

Tied to a chair, waiting for Russel to cut him up. At least he was in a familiar situation again -- the tile on the floor of the freezer even reminded him vaguely of the tile in Julian's kitchen.

Eric closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable -- Russel's creepy grin, the knife digging into his arms and chest, the blood running down the freezer's floor drain.

He must have fallen asleep, but he didn't know for how long. When he woke, however, he wasn't dead or bleeding. His torso was still duct-taped to the chair, but he realized that his hands were free.

And, best of all, the freezer door was wide open.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Chapter Eighteen

I-75, North of Ocala, Florida, 2009

Eric decided that he'd had enough of sitting in the back of various law enforcement vehicles to last a lifetime. Hopefully, after the day was done, he'd never have to warm the backseat of another Crown Victoria, Impala, or Charger ever again.

The sun was just coming up as the beige Crown Victoria cruised along the Interstate. Eric wasn't handcuffed, and had a cup of coffee from an @Starbucks in Gainesville in one hand. The car's driver, Marshal Valder, was also sipping a cup of coffee -- Marshal Valencia, in the passenger seat, had finished hers some time ago.

"So how'd you like Gainesville?" Valder asked, turning his head slightly to be heard.

"It was nowhere near as bad as that place in Illinois you guys had me at for a couple weeks."

"What, Moline?"

"Yeah. That place. Horrible."

"That's where I'm from, sport," Valder shook his head.

"Oh, shit. Sorry."

"Nah. 'S alright. I tend to agree with you, actually -- I got the hell out of there as soon as I graduated high school. It is pretty terrible."

"Any idea where I'm going to end up after the testimony today?"

"That's a little above our pay grade, I'm afraid," Valencia shrugged.

"Just so long as it's not that horrible, horrible town."

"They rarely shuffle protected witnesses back through places they've already been. You're pretty safe," Valder laughed.

They made it to downtown Tampa just before 9 a.m., when Eric's testimony was scheduled. There had apparently been a lot of media attention for the trial, which had been in progress for more than a week, as the place was a zoo.

Reporters from all of the local TV stations (and a few national news networks) were parked blocks away, as close as the Tampa Police cars blocking off the street would let them get. Even four blocks away, the Marshals and Eric could see a huge crush of people waiting outside the courthouse.

"Shit. Eric, put the hood on, sport. Don't want your face splashed on every TV channel in the world," Valder shook his head.

Eric put on the black ski mask sitting on the backseat next to him. The Tampa PD waved the car through the barricades, and Valder piloted the Crown Vic the remaining four blocks to the Federal Courthouse, where Eric had lived three months prior.

"You ready for this, Eric?" Valencia asked as uniformed police surrounded the car.

"As I'll ever be, I suppose," Eric shrugged, his words muffled slightly by the ski mask.

Valencia nodded to one of the officers outside, who opened Eric's door and offered a hand to help him out. Eric declined and stood on his own. He was sure he looked silly in a chocolate-brown business suit and a black ski mask, but he didn't care -- he only had to wear it until the courtroom, which was only perhaps two hundred steps away.

Those two hundred steps were much harder than Eric expected, however, thanks to the thunderous barrage of automatic weapons fire that ripped through the air.

Valencia and Eric were on the wrong side of the car, and the first spray of bullets caught them both. The force of the impact knocked Eric back bodily into the trunk of the Crown Vic, but the Kevlar vest under his white button-up saved him. He felt someone grab the collar of his jacket and haul him over the trunk, bodily dropping him to the concrete on the other side of the car.

Valder had pulled him to safety, and now, with his Glock 19 in his right hand, was making his way around the front of the car to help Valencia. The female Marshal was up and moving, but blood was streaming down her right arm -- she hadn't been as lucky as Eric, and one of the bullets had caught her shoulder.

Eric peered out from under the car to see if he could locate the shooters -- there were two of them, dressed in street clothes and Kevlar vests, both wearing Russian SPHERA helmets and balaclavas. Each of the shooters had an AK-47, plus a pair of Gsh-18 pistols duct-taped to the front of their vests. They were reloading the AK's now, and the police surrounding Eric popped up and returned fire.

Bullets bounced harmlessly off the SPHERA helmets and dug into the Kevlar, but the two shooters kept coming, now reloaded and opening up again. Valencia was safely behind the Crown Vic with Valder and Eric, but the car wouldn't hold up for much longer.

"How's your arm, Maria?" Valder asked, gently taking Valencia's Glock 19 from her right hand.

"Hurts like fuck. Which means it's not numb, which means it'll be fine," Valencia replied through gritted teeth.

"Right on. Eric, you just stay low and behind that tire, all right, sport? I'll have this cleared up in a jiffy," Valder winked, hefting a Glock in each hand. He waited a half-second after the second barrage of AK-47 fire died down, then popped up from behind the car, aiming carefully. He fired both Glocks at the same time, one round each, then ducked back behind the car.

Eric waited for the gunfire to start up again, but it didn't. The Tampa police moved as a single organism, rushing over to what Eric now saw was two very dead gunmen. Valder had managed to shoot both of them just below the SPHERA's faceshield, hitting one in the throat and one in the lower jaw.

"Jesus. That was a hell of a shot," Eric said in disbelief.

"Need a medic over here," Valder told one of the cops. A stretcher appeared, and Valencia was loaded into the back of an ambulance moments later. Valder, flanked by a Tampa PD officer on each side, escorted Eric into the courthouse.

"Where in the hell did you learn to shoot like that?" Eric asked as he was led to the secure area of the courthouse where he would wait until his testimony.

Outside, he could see the news photographers coming back out from their hiding spots, flashbulbs going wild over the entire grisly scene. The remaining Tampa police officers were doing their best to keep everyone away from the two downed gunmen, but as the door to the secure area closed, Eric saw that the scene was deteriorating quickly into chaos.

"Army," Valder shrugged, "Sniper school. Had to do something to keep off the streets."

"Marshal Valencia going to be OK?"

"Should be. Don't let her size fool you -- she's a tough one."

Another Marshal, one Eric hadn't met yet, came into the secure area with a digital camera. He showed some pictures to Marshal Valder, who nodded and motioned for Eric to come over. Valder showed him pictures of the dead gunmen's faces, or at least what was left of them.

"You know these guys?"

Eric nodded.

"Yeah. That one's Reggie Phelps. Don't know the other guy's name, but I've seen him a few times. They both worked for Julian."

"Thanks, Steve," Valder nodded to the other Marshal, who quickly left the room. "Well, looks like the cat's out of the bag on your testimony. I'll put some guys on figuring out how the order to take you down got out, but you're safe in here. I'll make sure we get extra security when we extract you."

Eric nodded numbly, then flopped into a chair. He couldn't get the images of Reggie's torn-apart face out of his head -- but for one misstep, Eric realized, that could have been him.

"Uh, sport?" Valder interrupted Eric's thought.


"Probably safe to take the hood off now."

Valder was grinning. Eric hadn't realized he still had the hood on, and suddenly, he felt extremely stupid. He clawed the mask from his face, then tossed it to Marshal Valder.

* * *

Apparently, Julian didn't know who the witness was -- just that there was someone coming to testify that could put the final nail in his coffin. Eric would later find out that Julian suspected Russel, who had wandered out for cigarettes a few minutes before the FBI raid and hadn't been seen since. He'd been able to find out when the witness was to be transported, hence the two-man suicide squad -- but he didn't have a name.

For the first time in the more than eight years Eric had known Julian, he saw genuine shock on the older man's face. As Eric was escorted to the witness stand, he smiled at Julian, and that shock quickly turned to rage. By the time Eric was taking the oath of the court, however, the rage had vanished from Julian's face, replaced with his usual half-amused smirk. Eric noticed, however, that the smirk lacked any of its animation -- it was hollow. Julian was fucked, and he knew it.

Eric had met the prosecuting attorney a couple of times, and had gone over the questions he'd be asked thoroughly. At the prosecutor's cues, he recalled his lengthy employment in Julian's organization, detailing all of the weapons deals, drug trafficking, prostitution, and law enforcement corruption to which he'd been a witness (and, in many cases, in which he'd actively participated). Eric's testimony of the murder of Jason Willis, as well as his own attempted murder at the hands of Russel Brandt, helped to paint a pretty damning picture of Julian as the head of a huge criminal organization.

The testimony took the better part of three hours, and there was a break for lunch before the defense attorney would have a chance to cross-examine Eric. Eric spent the hour in the secure room just off the courtroom -- Valder offered to bring him a sandwich, but Eric wasn't hungry. About fifteen minutes before court was to resume, Eric got another visitor in the secure area.

Agent Enano looked like he hadn't slept in days. Still, his face was animated when he smiled at Eric and pounded him on the shoulder.

"Look at you, man. That's a nice suit," Enano smiled widely.

"Yeah, your taxes paid for it. Might as well look good in it. See you've finally got rid of those horrible ties," Eric smirked back.

"Hey, promotion, buddy. I can afford the good ones now."

"That's right. I hear it's 'Special Agent in Charge' Enano now. Organized Crime Task Force. Good on you."

"The Marshals been treating you all right?"

"No complaints, sir."

"Looks like you've bulked up a bit. You been working out?"

"Not much else to do with my time."

"Yeah, well, that won't last. They get you in a permanent city, you'll have to work for a living just like the rest of us. Hey, you're doing great out there. Don't let Julian's lawyer rattle you."

"I don't rattle very easily, sir," Eric nodded.

"Good man. See you back out there."

Julian's defense attorney did, indeed, go for the throat -- but he was extremely clumsy about it. He tried to paint a picture of Eric as a career criminal, despite the fact that he'd only had one arrest in his life. He tried to claim that Eric and Julian had never even been in the same room, despite the forensic evidence presented earlier that showed huge amounts of Eric's blood (as well as the blood of several others) under the tile in Julian's kitchen.

"Mr. Austen, can you even offer any evidence that there is a criminal organization at work here? Much less that you were a part of it, and that my client was the head of it?"

Eric smiled. The defense attorney was obviously flustered now -- he had nothing.

Eric simply smiled and took off his jacket. He rolled up his right sleeve and showed his forearm to the court. The tattoo he pointed to covered the area from the back of his wrist to nearly his elbow -- a stylized, two-headed snake made out of intricate black tribal marks. It was the same tattoo that the two gunmen earlier had on the same spot on their forearms; it was the same tattoo Russel Brandt had on his thin, wiry forearm; and it was the exact tattoo that Julian himself had on his forearm, a picture of which was propped up on the evidence table with the note "Exhibit F" pinned to it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Chapter Seventeen

Russel spun on the balls of his feet like a dancer, whirling to the side and bending his knees as the BMW was almost on him. Eric heard two loud pops, and the BMW veered violently and crashed into the side of the building.

"Shit. I don't have collision," Yang Shao grumbled, pushing the deployed airbag out of his face.

Eric used one of the Ravens to slice his airbag, quickly deflating it. He tried to open his door, but the front quarterpanel of the BMW had smashed back against it, effectively locking him in. He leaned back and kicked against the door, and it opened just enough for him to squeeze out.

Russel was waiting calmly a few feet behind the wrecked sedan, admiring the tires he'd slashed with the Corsican blade he held in his right hand. As Yang Shao struggled out of the car, Russel flicked his wrist, sending the knife sailing into Yang Shao's arm. The thin Chinese dropped the Desert Eagle he'd been leading with, and in a flash, Russel was next to the driver's door. He kicked it with one massive boot, slamming Yang Shao's head between the door and the car's frame.

Yang Shao was unconscious, sprawled on the driver's seat, bleeding profusely from his nose.

Eric drew the other Raven, now with one in each hand. Russel nodded, and pulled out another knife, this one an all-too-familiar Hissatsu. With his free left hand, Russel wagged one finger at Eric in a "come here," gesture.

Both of them froze for a second as they heard sirens. Eric saw the Impala first, as it was coming up behind Russel. It was Johnny and Nathaniel, right on time to pick him up for his meeting with the Russians.

Russel grinned and reached into his cargo pocket, then threw something small and black over his shoulder. The street in front of the Impala suddenly exploded, and the car crashed into the shallow crater. The sirens wailed once more and died.

Russel smiled again and waved to Eric, then took off around the apartment building. Eric set off after him, but by the time he made it to the back of the building, the skinny assassin was already gone.

"Shit. I hate it when they do that," Eric grumbled, sheathing the knives under his shirt.

As he walked around the front of the building, he found Johnny and Nathaniel outside their wrecked cruiser, weapons drawn. Nathaniel was bleeding slightly from a wound on his forehead -- Eric guessed his head had bounced off the steering wheel when the Impala had plunged into the ground. Johnny looked uninjured, but definitely pissed off.

"Eric! Who the hell just threw a damned grenade at us?" Nathaniel yelled.

"That, gentlemen, was the famous Russel Brandt."

Eric looked into the BMW's cabin -- the driver's seat was empty. Yang Shao, like Russel, had pulled a vanishing act, leaving Eric to explain the wrecked black sedan registered to a Chinese assassin currently wanted by the two cops standing right in front of him.

"I really, really hate it when they do that," Eric grumbled.

* * *

Nathaniel was sitting at Eric's kitchen table, and Johnny was standing by the door, arms crossed. Eric was in the bedroom closet, digging for the medical kits he kept around out of habit. He noticed a few drops of blood on the closet floor and looked up -- there was a tiny blood smear on the crawlspace hatch. Finding two medical kits, Eric pushed one slowly through the crawlspace and felt it snatched out of his hand. He then went out into the living room with the other.

"You're lucky. It's not near as bad as it looks," Eric said, snapping on a pair of latex gloves and cleaning the blood oozing from Nathaniel's forehead with a gauze sponge.

"Sure is bleeding a lot."

"Head wounds tend to do that, boss, regardless of severity. Never cracked your skull open before?" Johnny asked.

"Not 'till now."

Eric applied a pair of butterfly closures to the gash. He checked Nathaniel's eyes with the medical kit's penlight.

"No concussion. How does it feel?"

"Minor headache. I'll live. There's going to be a lot of paperwork on this one, Eric. I'm not sure I'll be able to keep your name out of it."

"Yeah, I figured. Don't worry too much about it -- everyone and his brother seems to know where I am anyway."

"So what happened? I ran the plates on that BMW -- registered to the nutbag we had in custody a couple of days ago, Chen Yang Shao. Are he and this Russel character working together?"

Eric shook his head.

"I don't think so -- I think Yang Shao was waiting for Russel to show. When he did, all hell pretty much broke loose. Like you saw, actually."

"I'll say. I'll have to wait for the forensics guys to confirm it, but that was no ordinary grenade. It blew too big a chunk out of the street," Johnny said.

"Yeah, and Russel was never the type to use explosives. But let's get to the matter at hand -- your investigation."

"I think we have bigger problems to worry about, Eric," Nathaniel shook his head.

"We don't jump on this meeting with the Russians tonight, and we blow the whole thing. We blow this, you have scenes like the one out there," Eric waved his hand toward the street, "happening every night."

"I'll be going in with him, boss. One of those freaks decides to show up again, we've got 'em evenly matched, at least."

Nathaniel sighed.

"I don't suppose I really have a choice. The task force is already staging for the operation. We've got Joe's under discrete surveillance, so we'll be ready in force if anything bad goes down."

"That's the spirit," Eric nodded. "Just make sure you're very, very discrete. I don't want to spook this kid Pyotr."

"You won't see a thing," Nathaniel nodded.

Eric's cell phone vibrated once against his hip -- a text. He'd only gotten three or four texts ever on that line, and they'd all been @Twitter device notifications. He'd turned them off months ago, so he was understandably curious who was texting him now.

The text was from an 813 number that Eric didn't know. The text read:

You should know it was never my intention to kill the shrink. I just used her to flush you out. You're the only one in my sights.

"Something wrong, Eric?" Johnny asked. Eric realized he must have made some sort of face.

"Nah. Junk text. Casting calls in your area! That kind of crap."

The phone vibrated again. Eric looked at the screen:

Well, and Yang Shao. I'm definitely killing that guy. But that's a whole other matter altogether.

"All right, then. I'll go get changed," Eric said.

The phone vibrated once more:

And, well, anyone who gets in the way. Oh, hell, let's just make this easy -- the Stockyards. Midnight.

"They just won't leave you alone, will they?" Nathaniel smiled weakly.

"Unsubscribing now," Eric said, quickly punching in a reply text:

You're on, bitch.

Eric changed quickly into a black wifebeater and a pair of dark green cargo pants, which fit just loosely enough for him to strap one of the Ravens to the inside of his lower left leg without it showing. Out his window, he could see four more unmarked police cars -- members of the task force, no doubt -- and a tow truck pulling what was left of the BMW out of the side of the building. The old brick structure had actually held up rather well. . . the car, not so much.

$70,000, down the drain. This is why I buy cheap cars and fix them up, Eric thought.

Of course, that hadn't worked out too well for him, he realized. The Thunderbird was still presumably all the way across town -- with the events of the last day, he hadn't had a chance to go check it out.

The meeting with Pyotr wasn't until nine, and it was just coming up on seven, so Eric talked Johnny into giving him a ride out to the Thunderbird in one of the unmarked cars that had showed up on the scene. Nathaniel stayed at the apartment, on the phone with the office, getting a jump on the mountain of paperwork he'd have to deal with Monday morning.

"So what did Captain Henry Graham tell you guys?" Eric asked as Johnny piloted them out onto I-80.

"Absolutely nothing."

"Name, rank, serial number?"

"Not even that. The man just would not speak. We ran the info on his dog tags -- no Army record. No records at all, actually."

"That's weird."

"Gets weirder. We have him in custody maybe 25 minutes, and two FBI agents show up at the holding cell. Say they've got orders to take this guy into custody as a Federal prisoner. Their paperwork checked out, so we had to let them take him."

"The FBI give you any information on the guy?"

"None. Said it was classified. Hear that a lot from them, actually."

"What do you mean by 'a lot?'"

Johnny took the ramp for I-680.

"'Bout six months back, I arrested an Air Force officer -- 2nd Lieutenant, a medic -- for simple assault. Bar fight, but this kid took out three or four guys much bigger and meaner than him like it was nothing. We had him in the cell for maybe an hour, and same deal -- FBI shows up, takes him, says it's classified. Charges expunged from the record a few days later."

"OK, that's a pattern."

"Didn't think much of it at the time. Lot of military guys around here, what with STRATCOM right down the street in Bellevue. I just figured the kid was attached to some sort of hush-hush project, and his bosses made the charges go away."

"I wouldn't have thought any different, I guess, at the time. But now?"

Johnny grinned.

"Yeah, it wasn't a big leap. I put some feelers out to some of my pals in SF that're still in. They haven't got back to me yet, but if there's something there, they'll find a way to let me know about it."

"You're a sharp one, farm boy," Eric smiled.

Johnny pulled the cruiser up behind Eric's stationary Thunderbird and put the lights on. Eric walked out to his car and plucked a parking ticket from the windshield, which he held up to show Johnny.

"Sorry, homeboy. Gotta take care of that one yourself," Johnny laughed.

Eric shrugged and got into the car. He tried his key in the ignition, and the engine started right up. He noticed, however, that even idling, the temperature gauge was starting to creep up slowly. Eric shut down the engine.

"Overheated. I probably pushed it too hard last night. Mind driving me to a gas station? Some new fluids should make it drivable, at least in the short term, provided I don't get stuck idling too long. I'll tear the guts out tomorrow and fix it."

Johnny nodded. Eric was relieved that it wasn't a major fix -- after all, he needed a way to get to the Stockyards that night.

Johnny and Eric showed up at Joe's in Eric's car at ten minutes before nine. Pyotr was already there, suspiciously eyeing a cup of coffee sitting in front of him. His look turned even more suspicious when he saw the muscle-bound, overtly preppy Johnny, dressed in a pair of khakis and a black polo shirt.

"He looks like police," Pyotr spat.

"He is police," Eric smiled, sitting down across from Pyotr and motioning to Johnny to do the same. "Come on, Pyotr. You really think I like cops any more than you do? My man's straight. And you need him a lot more than he needs us right now."

"You police, big man?" Pyotr asked. Johnny said nothing.

"He's ex-black ops. You starting to catch on yet?" Eric waved down the waitress and ordered coffee. Johnny just nodded. The two steaming mugs arrived seconds later, and Eric sipped from his as he watched Pyotr try to reason out what he'd said.

"Black ops. This is like FSB?"

"Jesus. How long have you been doing this crime thing? Three, four days? It's amazing you can even feed yourself," Eric shook his head. "Fine. I'll spell it out. Try to keep up."

Johnny sipped his cup of coffee and stared straight at Pyotr as Eric talked.

"It shouldn't surprise you that the U.S. Government isn't happy with what you guys do for a living. I've found out they've decided to send a secret military unit after you guys, to wipe you out rather than arrest you. Are you getting this so far?"

"Then why is that one here?" Pyotr asked, stabbing his spoon in Johnny's direction.

"You have a special problem, you call in a specialist," Eric said. Johnny smirked and nodded. "I'm putting together a team of subcontractors to deal with your problem, but we don't come cheap."

"Vokov will pay whatever money you ask."

Eric shook his head.

"Not money, Pyotr. You tell Vokov I want a breakdown of all his operations in this town. We decide what we want, then we take our chunk. It's that, or these guys keep splattering yours until you're extinct."

"I can make no promises."

"It's that, or you deal with the problem yourself. Run and tell your boss," Eric said, waving his hand dismissively. Pyotr just sat there, staring dumbly at Johnny.

"He means now, little man," Johnny growled. Pyotr jumped up and scurried away from the table, out to his Mercedes SLK, and tore off.

"Ooh. Very nice touch, Johnny."

Johnny mock-bowed.

"So where'd you come up with that line of BS to feed him?" Johnny asked, finishing off his first cup of coffee and signaling for a second.

"Made it up off the top of my head. He bought it, though."

"And you're going to get him to reveal all of their operations in town. Nice. Boss'll love you for that one."

"And we can see by that breakdown where these guys are most likely to hit them next. Works on both sides of your investigation, I'd say," Eric smirked.

"All right. I'm going to report this back to the boss. You coming?"

"I think I'll get some food. Been a while since I've eaten," Eric told him.

"I'll catch a ride with one of the task force guys," Johnny nodded.

Eric had a thoroughly excellent omlette and another couple cups of coffee, then headed back out to the Thunderbird. He was actually feeling pretty good about meeting Russel later -- one way or the other, at least it would be over.

Eric was just about to put the T-bird's key into the driver's-side door when he felt a sharp pinch between his neck and shoulder -- the sting of a needle, he realized as his trapezius muscle flooded with a cold, liquid sensation. Eric tried to turn around, to spin and fight, but all he did was flop to the ground and flail around ineffectually for a few seconds before everything went black.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Wow. It's been a busy couple of weeks. I've not had as much time as I'd like to update the blog with non-story stuff, but rest assured, I'm still here. Tonight, I'm going to run down a couple of places the Twitter Novel Project has popped up, because I'm tickled that it's growing beyond Twitter, thanks to you fine folks.

So, I have some pretty damned cool people following me. First and foremost, Dennis "Machinegun" Thompson, who was kind enough to let me write a guest post for his blog earlier this month. If you're not reading Machinegun's blog daily, you really should be. Anyway, here's the guest post I wrote at Machinegun's blog.

Also, big ups to Trace Eber, one of my awesome followers, who got me mentioned not once, but twice on media outlets -- iReport and OpenSalon.

And thanks much to Richard at Every Writer's Resource, who's been a constant supporter, and gives me a spot to rant about my blog.

Last, but certainly not least, thanks to FatherLuke, also quite the supporter of the project and a hell of a writer, for the shout-out on his Literary Mary message boards.

And last. . . um. . . laster, I guess. . . thanks to Bex, Michael, and Noveltweets for hooking me up with re-tweets and shout-outs on Twitter lately.

You folks who follow me are, to the last one of you, outstanding people, and I'm happy to know you.



Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Chapter Sixteen

"I thought you used to be good at this shit," Yang Shao shook his head. The two of them were walking away from yet another crappy neighborhood in North Omaha, one with plenty of vacant houses. Still no sign of Russel, though the two of them had narrowly avoided a fight with a group of drunken teens over turf.

"Used to, I guess. Tampa was an easier town, and I already knew where all the thugs and lowlifes hung out."

"Look, sun's coming up in an hour or so. We're not going to find him tonight, and I'm about to crash. We'll call it a night, pick it up in a few hours."

Eric nodded -- they weren't having much luck, and they still had a lot of ground to cover. For only holding a million or so people, Omaha was a huge town. Finding one skinny white guy in all of this land area would be next to impossible, as he could be hiding anywhere -- even in the suburbs, which would expand their search quite a bit.

Eric was driving the BMW, as Yang Shao was starting to phase in and out of the conversation.

"Coming off the amphetamines is never pretty," the thin Chinese shrugged.

Eric pulled the BMW into the parking lot of the @PaneraBreadCo just off of Saddle Creek Road. He shook Yang Shao, who had fallen asleep just after bitching about stimulant withdrawal, and the two of them walked into the restaurant, which had just opened.

"Hi, what can I get for you gentlemen today?" the too-perky-for-6am cashier greeted.

"Coffee. Lots of motherfucking coffee," Yang Shao growled.

"Um, sorry about him. He's cranky," Eric mumbled. "Four large coffees. Strongest stuff you have."

Eyeing Yang Shao, who was staring off into space like a zombie, the cashier produced four Styrofoam cups and filled them with the darkest of dark Kenyan roasts. Eric paid her, then handed two of the coffees to Yang Shao. The two of them took a table near the window, and Eric sipped at his coffee while Yang Shao downed both of his. Eric slid the third over to him, and Yang Shao began sipping at it.

"So, we're going about this all wrong," Eric offered.

"I'd say. We've found fuck-all," Yang Shao nodded, some of the animation returning to his face after his mega-dose of caffeine.

"What I'm saying is, I know how Russel operates. I worked next to him for eight years. He knows I know where he'd go, so he'd make sure not to go there."

Eric pulled out his phone and connected to the restaurant's wi-fi. Thirty seconds later, he looked back up at Yang Shao.

"He's checked into the fucking Hilton. Under his own fucking name."

Yang Shao was halfway through his third coffee now.

"Great. We go back to your place, I dose up, and we go pay him a visit."

Eric shook his head.

"No way. We're both wrecked, and you need to crash out for a while before you go hitting the Dexedrine again, unless you want to have a massive heart attack."


"Where have you been sleeping, anyway?"

"Caught about 15 minutes on your couch this morning."

"Jesus, man. Take a nap every now and then."

Eric drove them back to his apartment, still finishing off his coffee. Yang Shao had decimated all three of his, then bought two more from the cashier. He was almost out.

As the two of them walked into the apartment, they saw Captain Henry Graham struggling to get out of the chair they'd duct-taped him into.

"Oh, yeah. Forgot about him," Yang Shao said disinterestedly, as if he was talking about a letter he'd neglected to mail.

* * *

Eric had to talk Yang Shao out of shooting the soldier and disposing of the body, which actually took far longer than it should have. In the end, Eric decided to call Johnny -- he'd recognized Graham as one of the shooters from the Dodge Street fiasco, and was sure the police wanted him for questioning.

Johnny was none too happy about being woken up at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, but he told Eric he'd be over in about ten minutes. Yang Shao disappeared (and Eric was just starting to wonder exactly where in his tiny apartment the Chinese assassin managed to hide himself) just before Johnny knocked on the door.

"How'd you get a hold of this guy?"

"He was waiting for me in the apartment. I just got lucky -- caught him when his back was turned."

"Hey, I've been meaning to tell you -- I'm sorry about what happened to Marshal Dean. The two of you were friends?"

"Sort of. I didn't want to see him get killed, that's for sure."

"I contacted the Marshal's Service after the ambulance showed up last night. I wouldn't be surprised if you're getting a visit from them sometime today."

"You all ready for tonight?" Eric asked.

"Um, yeah. But I'll just be sitting in the car waiting for you, so there's not that much to be ready for."

"I meant to talk to you about that. I need you to go to the meet with me. I need them to think I have a crew, and you can be a scary-looking dude when you need to."

"You sure? You wouldn't rather have the boss?"

"Nathaniel's fine and everything, but we need to sell them on the fact that we know more than we do about the people who are after them. You're ex-military -- you can talk that language. I sure can't."

"So how should I, you know, look?"

"Wear the same thing you normally do."

"You mean the shit you said makes me look like a cop?"

"Exactly that. You'll see my reasoning later."

"Well, I'm sure the boss will feel better sending you in with a cop, anyway. But why me? There are plenty of ex-military guys in the task force."

"Couple of reasons. One, you already know who I am. That's big -- I want to keep this as small as possible. Two, and I hate to say this. . . I trust you. Yeah, I thought you were an ass when we met, but you've turned out to be a hell of a guy, and a lot smarter than anyone gives you credit for."

"Um, thanks for that. I get the impression that everyone just thinks I'm good at hitting people and not much else. But, truth be told, I've never done undercover work."

"Just follow my lead. And the less you say, the scarier you are. Remember that, and you'll do fine."

Johnny nodded as he cuffed Graham and started cutting the tape from the chair.

"One other thing -- don't bring your gun."

"What? Why?"

"It's something you'll have to trust me on. You trust me?"

"I'm getting there. At least, I think you're less and less of a lowlife thug every day."

"That's pretty much the most I could hope for," Eric smirked.

As Johnny hustled Graham into his car, Yang Shao appeared at Eric's shoulder.

"Still think you should have just let me drop the guy in the river," the Chinese assassin grumbled.

"Jesus, man. Make some noise or something," Eric said, jolting slightly in place. "Where do you keep vanishing to, anyway?"

"You've got a crawlspace over your bedroom closet. I could live up there for days."

"That's. . . disturbing. Go get some sleep. On the couch, not in the crawlspace. We'll roll to the Hilton later today -- I'll stay up for a couple hours in case Russel decides to visit us first."

Yang Shao nodded and headed over to the couch. Within moments of putting his head down, the thin Chinese was out cold. Eric grabbed a can of @Rockstar_Energy, booted up his tiny netbook, and camped out at the kitchen table.

* * *

Yang Shao woke about noon, and immediately started preparing a hypodermic from a bottle stashed in Eric's spice rack. Eric, rather than watch Yang Shao shoot up, shut down his netbook, headed to the bedroom, and passed out.

When he awoke, it was nearing 5:00. Eric quickly changed, choosing an overshirt that would let him conceal the two Raven WSK knives. Yang Shao was in the living room, playing Gears of War 2 on @Microsoft_Xbox.

"When did I get an Xbox?"

"Went shopping."

"You ready to roll?"

"Shit yeah."

Yang Shao pulled a pair of Desert Eagle .50 pistols from under Eric's couch. He slid them into his belt, then threw his shirt over them.

"OK, just how much shit are you hiding in my apartment?"

"You really, really don't want to know. Really."

"Just clean it up before they assign me a new Marshal, yeah? I don't feel like going to prison because you forgot to pick up your stash."

"Yeah, yeah. I'm on it. Come on, let's roll."

Eric and Yang Shao hopped into the BMW, and Yang Shao sped for downtown. The radio was silent most of the way, until Eric finally had enough quiet and turned it on. Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight" blared through the BMW's cabin. Yang Shao quickly reached out and turned the stereo off.

"You listen to Patsy fucking Cline?" Eric said, trying not to laugh.

"You know, I still haven't decided for sure not to kill you yet."

"OK, all fine and good. But Patsy Cline? Come on, man. I thought you were hardcore."

"Really, Eric. . . you're not helping your fucking case any if you want to stay alive after we deal with Russel. Really."

"All right. Leaving it alone now," Eric smirked. Still, he had to actively fight to keep from laughing.

Yang Shao rocketed past the Omaha convention center and e-brake turned into the parking lot of the Hilton. Without another word to Eric, he got out of the car and stalked towards the hotel's main entrance. Eric finally let out a chuckle, checked his knives, then followed the assassin toward the lobby.

Eric probably should have known it wasn't a good idea to piss off a violent killer doped to the gills on amphetamines, so he made sure to make it to the front desk ahead of Yang Shao. He smiled politely at the young man behind the desk, putting up a hand behind him to stop Yang Shao from beating Russel's room number out of the poor kid.

"Hi. We're looking for a friend of ours who's supposed to be at this hotel. Jimmy Branch? Could you ring his room?" Eric leaned his elbows on the desk, still smiling, and leaned in as the kid typed the name into his computer. A guest registry popped up on the screen, and Eric could just make it out -- Brandt, Russel, Room 345.

"Sorry, sir. We don't seem to have anyone by that name," the kid said, involuntarily backing up when he saw how close Eric was leaning.

"You sure? He said he was checking in today," Eric said.

"No one by that name in our computers."

"Ah, well. Thanks for checking. Maybe he just hasn't gotten here yet."

"Sure thing, sir," the kid breathed an almost inaudible sigh of relief as Eric finally backed away from the counter.

"Yeah, you accomplished nothing," Yang Shao shook his head as Eric ushered him away from the front desk.

"Calm down, will you? Look, I'm sorry about the music crack. I listen to some way more embarrassing stuff than that. Besides, I got Russel's room number. 345. As soon as the kid behind the counter stops looking at us, we're into those fire stairs," Eric said, nodding at the stairwell just off the hotel bar.

"See? That's the kind of stuff that helps your case. Not giving me shit because I listen to one of the greatest country music vocalists who ever lived," Yang Shao smirked. He almost immediately dashed into the stairwell, and Eric followed -- he hoped the kid at the counter had turned away, as he really didn't want to be identified.

Yang Shao took the stairs three at a time, and though he was in pretty good shape, Eric had a tough time keeping up with someone with that much amphetamine kicking around in his system. Yang Shao made it to the third floor in less than 40 seconds, and flew through the door and out into the hallway before Eric even hit the third floor landing. He caught up to Yang Shao in the hall, just as the thin Chinese kicked in the door to room 345.

"Shit. Hannibal on the jazz," Eric shook his head as he rushed into the room after Yang Shao. He found the assassin with his gun pointed at a profusely sweating, overweight, middle-aged man in a towel.

"Russel Brandt. Where is he?" Yang Shao roared at the man.

"What?" the middle-aged man stammered, raising his hands above his head.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I probably wasn't clear."

The explosion from the Desert Eagle's barrel was deafening, like standing too close to a sonic boom. Eric's ears were ringing, but he could still hear enough to know that the middle-aged man had just lost his shit and was sobbing uncontrollably. The room's 32-inch flatscreen TV was now no more than a memory, and Yang Shao had his gun pressed right up to the man's throat.

"Russel Brandt. I'm not asking again."

"I'm Russel Brandt!" the man shrieked.

Eric had picked up the man's wallet, which was sitting on the table next to what was left of the TV. He checked the man's license -- Russel David Brandt of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"Shit. Wrong Russel Brandt. Thirty, forty seconds until hotel security gets here. Move," Eric spat. Without even waiting for Yang Shao to follow, Eric vanished back down the fire stairs.

He needn't have worried if Yang Shao was on his heels -- the amphetamine-boosted hitman quickly passed him on the fire stairs and burst through the emergency exit well ahead of him. Eric poured on as much speed as he could, and made it into the BMW as Yang Shao was starting the engine.

"You need to run faster, white boy," Yang Shao cackled as he slammed on the accelerator, rocketing them out of the Hilton's parking lot and onto the street.

* * *

Yang Shao was good at avoiding the police -- he'd been doing it since he was eight, just about the time he started stealing cars in Hong Kong's Kowloon Tong. Of course, this particular car wasn't stolen -- it was even registered in his own name -- but old habits died hard, and Eric was thankful. He was making friends in the Sheriff's Department, but Nathaniel and Johnny probably wouldn't spring him from the accessory charges he would definitely face if he and Yang Shao were caught.

"Man, I'm beginning to wonder if you're half as good as your reputation used to be. You're kinda crap at finding people."

"Not people. Russel. You know anyone who's better at not being found than he is? Besides, you're not doing so well, yourself."

Yang Shao shrugged.

"I usually know right where the people I'm looking for are at. 'Sides, I've never had to hunt another fixer before. I figure, I stake out the target, he shows. Hasn't quite worked out that way."

"So we can both admit that we're in over our heads here. What next? We keep banging on doors until Russel slips up?"

"What I'd normally do if someone was this hard to track down is hit up my contacts. I don't suppose you have any contacts in this town?"

"Cops. A dead Federal agent. A former frat boy who supervises a software development team. That's the sum total of the people I know in this town."

"They probably wouldn't be worth much if you did. Not like any of them would have known who the hell Russel was, anyway," Yang Shao slapped the wheel in frustration. "Well, shit. I'm out. I have no idea how we're gonna find this slippery son of a bitch now."

"I don't think it's going to be much of a problem," Eric sighed as they approached his apartment.

"Motherfucker," Yang Shao breathed slowly.

There, sitting casually on the stoop outside as if he was merely waiting for his ride, dressed in a pair of khaki cargos and a sleeveless black shirt, was Russel. He had cut his hair short, so he looked a bit different -- but like Eric, he couldn't hide the shoulder-to-wrist tattoos that covered his arms. Unlike Eric, though, he didn't bother to try. When he saw the BMW approaching, he stood and waved, smiling that creepy grin of his.

Yang Shao hammered down on the accelerator, sending the expensive sedan hurtling towards the thin, goofy-looking man standing calmly on the steps of the ancient apartment building.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chapter Fifteen

Tampa, Florida, 2008

Eric was sitting on the bed in the holding cell where he spent all of his time these days -- at least, all of the time he wasn't in the car with Enano and another generic agent, showing them all of the horrible things that had been going on right under their noses.

The cell was located in the basement of the Federal Courthouse in downtown Tampa. Eric guessed that the cell itself wasn't used often, or at least not for more than a night or two. He'd been there two weeks, and had only had one roommate so far -- a tiny, frail accountant-looking type. Eric had considered fucking with the guy just for entertainment, but the poor tiny man already looked scared to death.

Instead, Eric tried to be as cheerful as possible around the guy, but that only seemed to make him worse. In the end, he'd just decided to ignore his cellmate, who was moved out the next morning, still wide-eyed and shaking.

As holding cells went, he figured, this one wasn't too bad. It was clean, for starters -- the one other time he'd been in a holding cell, it was in the Pinellas County Jail for a night. That place wasn't clean -- it looked like it had last been mopped in about 1972, and only then by someone who was working just hard enough not to get fired. He hadn't had much space to himself, either -- the jail was so overcrowded that the staff had to set up cots and mattress pads in the common areas in addition to packing three people in each two-person cell. The nightmare toilet situation there still made him shudder a little.

The Federal cell was the @Marriott_Tahoe by comparison -- roomy, only two beds, and even a little writing desk (bolted to the wall, with a stool bolted to the desk). Most of all, though, it had semi-private bathroom facilities, which was unfortunately where the little accountant had spent the most of the night hiding.

Eric just happened to be looking out the tiny perspex window in the huge steel door (there wasn't much else to do, as he was alone in the cell and had been for three days) and caught a glimpse of Enano talking to another man, a man who had all of the bearing of the generic agents Eric had been in the car with, though he wasn't FBI.

The back of the man's windbreaker said "U.S. Marshal."

When Enano noticed Eric looking at him through the glass, he quietly ushered the Marshal away from the door and into the hallway where Eric could no longer see them.

* * *

Later that night, Enano came to visit Eric's cell. Eric had a raging headache, one he wanted to blame on boredom but knew was the result of withdrawl from alcohol, tobacco, and any number of recreational drugs. He'd already burned through the hydrocodone they'd given him for his still-healing knife wounds, and he desperately wanted something stronger.

"Got a minute?" Enano smirked.


"Let's talk, then."

"It interrupts my busy 'staring at the wall' schedule, but sure. I can squeeze you in."

Enano took a seat at the writing desk, facing Eric, who was still sitting on the edge of the bed.

"So I've noticed some things during these last couple of weeks we spent together. You're a smart guy, Eric. Really smart."

"Yeah, I'm pretty much a super-genius," Eric grinned.

"You're also a third-rate, lowlife thug. You don't often see the two traits together, but here you are."

Eric was about to say something, and it wasn't going to be nice at all -- but Enano held up his hand.

"The reason I bring this up is that I see potential in you. I think you could be a lot more than you are. In fact, I think you could actually turn out to be a halfway decent human being."

"Thanks. For the decent human being bit, not the part where you called me a bag of crap."

Enano grinned again.

"You're a reader, right, Eric?"

"I used to read a lot, yeah."

Enano reached into his jacket and pulled out a thin black paperback with some sort of red design on the front -- three swans in a circle that sort of reminded Eric of the biohazard symbol.

"Think you can power through this by tomorrow morning?"

"Shouldn't be too tough."

"Good. I'll be back at 8 am. At 9, we'll be joined by another visitor," Enano tossed him the book.

"You've got some reading to do," Enano grinned as he was let out by the guard.

Eric looked at the name of the book, also written in red on the plain black background: Hagakure.

* * *

According to the cell's clock, embedded behind two inches of steel grating, Enano was two minutes early the next morning. He was dressed, as usual, in a dark grey suit, but this morning he had something new -- two cups of @Starbucks coffee, one of which he handed to Eric.

"You, sir, are a god, and I plan to build several churches in your honor," Eric said, quickly taking a large gulp of the dark blend. It burned his mouth and throat, but he didn't care. It'd been weeks since he'd had caffiene.

"You read the book?" Enano asked, taking a much more civilized sip from his own cup.

"Three times."


"There's something there, isn't there? I mean, not dedicating yourself to your Lord or your master, as, you know, Feudalism died out quite some time ago."

"Ready to have your mind blown?" Enano smirked. "What if your 'master' is an ideal rather than a person?"

Eric sat back and considered this for a moment. He hated to admit it, but it all sort of made sense now.

"You get it. I can see that you do," Enano nodded. "You see, there's a way that you can be a warrior in today's society. There's stuff in that book, when looked at through a certain lens, that tells you exactly how to do so."

Eric nodded back. He wanted to say something, but his mind had suddenly gone blank -- too many wheels were turning too quickly in the back of his head.

"Remember I said we'd be joined by another visitor?"


"I want you to keep thinking of the things that are obviously bouncing around in your brain right now when you talk to him. He's going to offer you a choice, and if I've read you right, then you'll take it."

Eric nodded dumbly again.

"Good. The guard will be bringing in breakfast in a few minutes. After you've eaten, we'll begin."

Eric's breakfast was horrible -- lukewarm oatmeal, soggy toast. Still, he barely even noticed he was eating it. When the plate was clean, he pushed it out through the slot in the door, and the guard took it away. For the next twenty minutes, he just sat on the edge of the bed, his mind blurring along. He knew, now, that he was done with drinking. Done with amphetamines and barbiturates. Hell, done with smoking, if he could manage it.

The door opened, and Enano escorted in a young man in a very nice suit. This man nodded to Enano, indicating that the agent should wait outside.

"Mr. Austen? Hi, James Lombard, U.S. Department of Justice," the young man stuck out his hand, and Eric shook it.

"Please, have a seat," Eric told Lombard, indicating the small stool attached to the writing desk.

"Thank you. Mr. Austen, I'm going to cut right to the chase, here. Agent Enano has recommended you for Witness Security in exchange for your testimony against Julian Clayton, among others, whom the FBI took into custody last night."

"That was very kind of him."

"Well, it wasn't an easy sell. We usually don't offer this program to people with. . . well, let's just say you've admitted to killing three people. That would normally exclude you from consideration. But Agent Enano really went to bat for you."

"He's a good man. I'm very appreciative."

"Well, don't be too appreciative," Lombard smirked. "You did just make his career, after all."

Eric simply nodded at the comment.

"Right. Um, now, there will be some conditions to this program. The Marshals Service, who you'll meet with later today, will fill you in a little more thoroughly, but in the broad strokes -- you won't exactly be a free man. You'll be constantly monitored by a Federal Marshal. You'll be required, because of the violence in your background, to meet with a court-appointed therapist at least once a week for at least two years. Your communications will be monitored. You'll be expected to find gainful employment in whatever city we choose for you, though there is some provision for your needs during the time it takes to find work. Am I going too fast?"

Eric shook his head.

"Let's see. . . what else. . . oh, you won't be allowed to own a firearm. I figure you can guess the reason there. You'll be transported back here to testify in the trial in a few months, though we'll keep your identity secret during the trial. Sound good?"

"Except for one thing."


"You don't have to keep my identity secret. I want to show Julian who it was that turned him in."

"I'll. . . see what we can do about that. But the rest of the terms?"

"'It is said that one should not hesitate to correct himself when he has made a mistake. If he corrects himself without the least bit of delay, his mistakes will quickly disappear.' You'll get no argument from me, sir."

"Sign here, please."

* * *

It wasn't directly after Eric put his name to paper that the door was opened and left open, but it seemed that way. Enano was waiting out in the hall with a huge grin.

"You can come out now," he winked at Eric.

"What? No shackles?"

"Nope. You're a quasi-free man, sir."

Eric tugged at the bright orange jumpsuit he was wearing.

"Any way we can do something about this?"

"Yeah. I brought you some of my stuff. You look about my size," Enano said, pulling a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt out of a plastic grocery bag. He handed these over to Eric.

"After you get changed, we'll go see the Marshals. They'll bore you to tears with all of the many, many details of your release and relocation."

Eric stepped into the bathroom and exchanged his prison togs for the clothes Enano had brought for him. He was a little taller than the agent, but fortunately, the jeans were cut long, so he didn't look too ridiculous. His arms were still covered in bandages from the elbow down, making it appear as though he were wearing a long-sleeved shirt under the black T-shirt, which Eric noticed had an FBI Academy logo on it.

Enano walked Eric upstairs and dropped him off at the door reading "U.S. Marshal's Service."

"Well, it's been interesting, Eric. I do want to say thanks, if I haven't already -- you really helped my career out a lot here, and Tampa's looking to be a much safer place for the near future."

"At least, until someone steps in to fill Julian's shoes."

"Unfortunately, you're right. But we can dream, can't we?"

Enano shook Eric's hand, and with a final grin, walked off down the hallway. Eric watched him go, then walked into the Marshal's Service office. There was one desk with a receptionist -- Eric gave her his name, and she made a quick phone call. Not thirty seconds later, two agents, one male and one female, came out to meet Eric. She was tiny and quite attractive, and he was tall, bearded, bald, and overmuscled.

"Good morning, Mr. Austen," @OValencia, the female agent, greeted.

"Though that won't be your name for long," the male agent, @Valder137, smiled at him. "I'm Marshal Valder, and my lovely associate here is Marshal Valencia. We get to sit with you through the most boring PowerPoint of your life."

"Any questions before we begin?" Marshal Valencia asked.

"Yeah. Where am I going to end up?"

"That's yet to be decided. You'll be funneled through several different safehouses in different cities until the trial. After that, we find you a permanent home. Los Angeles, maybe? We place a lot of people there."

Eric nodded. A part of him wanted to ask Marshal Valencia if she'd be the one "handling" him, but he shut that part of his brain down right away. Gotta stop thinking like that. 'It is because a Samurai has correct manners that he is admired.' Damn, that book really did get into my head.

"Los Angeles," Eric said instead, "I could definitely see that. Also, if I can ask another question?"

"You're awfully polite for a criminal," Valencia smiled at him.

"I make an attempt, ma'am."

"Go ahead and ask," she replied.

"What will my new name be?"

"You get to choose, Sport. The only thing we recommend is keeping your first name -- that way, someone says 'Yo, Eric,' you're not stuck for a response. Any ideas?"

"Hawkins. I think I'd like to be called Eric Hawkins."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Chapter Fourteen

The Thunderbird's speedometer read 95, but Eric knew the needle was bent. He was doing at least 110. He was tearing west on Center street -- not that he had any idea where he was going, but Dr. Kepler had mentioned once that she lived "out west."

With one hand on the steering wheel to keep him from swerving off the road in a spectacular display of fiery doom, Eric speed-dialed Dean's mobile number and put the phone up to his ear. The stereo was silent, but the T-bird's redlining engine was loud enough.

"What's up, Eric?" Dean answered. From the noise in the background, it was obvious the Marshal was out at a bar. Eric might have guessed as much -- it was, after all, a Friday night, and Dean was pretty normal.

"My therapist's home address. I need it now."

"Oh, Eric. Don't be that guy," Dean chided.

"Russel is in town, Dean. He's threatened her life."

Eric could hear the phone pulled away from Dean's ear, and buttons being pressed. A few seconds later, Dean came back on the line.

"1306 181st Plaza. It's near 180th and Pacific. I'm only a few miles from there -- I'll meet you."

Dean hung up, and Eric hammered down on the accelerator. He flicked on the stereo with one finger -- Minor Threat's "In My Eyes" didn't drown out the roar of the T-bird's V8, but it certainly made a valiant effort.

* * *

Eric didn't slow down until he saw the flashing lights in the back window of Dean's Crown Victoria. He jammed on the brakes, and the Thunderbird decided to stall. Eric parked it behind the Crown Vic, and noticed the driver's door was open, though no one was inside.

Eric suddenly felt very stupid, indeed, for not putting his paws on a gun. He'd had several chances, but he'd always left them where they were. He cursed the stupid, deluded part of his brain that kept talking him out of going back to carrying a weapon as he tried to move stealthily towards the front door of Kepler's house.

Eric heard a wet cough to his left and spun on it, hands relaxed and ready to spring out and break faces. Lying half-over a decorative flowerbed was Federal Marshal Ryan Dean. He was coughing blood onto the nice, clean concrete of the upscale house's walkway.

"Fuck. Dean, how bad are you hurt?" Eric asked, gently rolling the agent off of the flowerbed and onto the ground. He could see that the agent had been stabbed several times in the chest -- he was gushing blood from his heart. Eric tore off his own shirt and used it to put as much pressure on Dean's chest as he could.

"He's done, Eric," Yang Shao shrugged from beside him.

"Shut the fuck up and help me," Eric growled.

"Nah. He's gone. I'm gonna check inside. You see Russel, you yell for me."

Yang Shao tried the door handle, but it was locked. It took him less than thirty seconds to pick both the lock and the deadbolt, and the thin Chinese vanished inside the dark house.

Eric took one hand off of Dean's sucking chest wound and dialed Johnny's number on his cell phone. He quickly explained the situation with the phone jammed between his shoulder and his ear. He could feel the agent bleeding out under his hands, but there was nothing he could do to stop it -- Dean had already lost consciousness and was probably only a minute or two from dead.

"She's asleep upstairs. She's fine. Looks like Supercop here spooked him. You know, before Russel diced him up," Yang Shao reported. Eric hadn't heard him walk up, but he hadn't expected to.

Eric didn't say anything. He checked Dean's pulse -- nothing. The huge Marshal wasn't breathing, wasn't moving. The medic in Eric told him that Dean was a black-tag for sure, but Eric still kept pressure on the wound far longer than he needed to.

When he finally stood up, he could hear sirens coming -- Johnny and Nathaniel, he hoped. Yang Shao was just getting ready to disappear, but Eric placed a hand on his arm.

"Let me borrow your T-shirt," Eric nodded. Yang Shao was wearing a black @nineinchnails T-shirt over a long-sleeved dark grey shirt.

"Aw, come on, man. This is from the Fragility 2.0 tour."

"I'll give it back."

"You'd better," Yang Shao grumbled as he pulled off the T-shirt and handed it to Eric, "I've killed for less."

By the time Eric had shrugged into the shirt, Yang Shao had vanished.

Not thirty seconds after, Eric saw the flashing lights of an unmarked white Impala. He really hoped it was Johnny or Nathaniel, or he'd have some very uncomfortable explaining to do -- why a Witness Security protectee was standing over the body of his handler in front of his court-ordered therapist's home, for starters.

Fortunately, when the driver's door opened, Johnny's sizable bulk popped out.

"Oh, shit, Eric. You told me on the phone it was bad, but. . . shit," Johnny shook his head.

"I need you to forget I was here, Johnny. You got a tip from a CI that the body was here, and you acted on it. If the Marshal's Service finds out I was involved in any way, they're going to make me disappear. And we're so close on your case."

Johnny nodded.

"You're just listed as an anonymous CI in our files. Boss was very clear on that. I'll just put this call down as that number. It'll square. You know who did this to him? That Chinese nutbag we had down at the station?"

"Wasn't him. He shoots people. He doesn't cut them up."

"Who, then?"

Eric held up his arms, the long scars from his wrists to his elbows facing the young Deputy.

"Same guy who did this to me."

* * *

Eric's Thunderbird stalled out again about six blocks away from where Marshal Ryan Dean had met his end, and this time it wouldn't start up again. He hated to have to call Johnny for a ride, especially since he'd just dumped a huge headache of a homicide in the poor guy's lap, but he really didn't know anyone else in this town apart from Nathaniel, and he really didn't feel like going through the story yet again that night. Still, he sat in the car for a good twenty minutes deciding if he should leg it home or not, taxis being what they were in this town.

He stepped out of the car into the muggy night. The emergency pack of Camel Lights had relocated from the kitchen drawer to the aging T-bird's glove box, and Eric was resisting the temptation to light one up before he called Johnny and asked for a ride like a kid whose parents had forgot to pick him up at soccer practice. Just as he was about to pull out his cell phone, a black BMW 5-series with blackout-tinted windows purred to a stop next to him. The passenger window rolled down, and Yang Shao's excessively pale face floated into view.

"You call for a taxi?" the Chinese assassin grinned.

Eric shrugged and locked up his own vehicle, then climbed into the passenger seat of the BMW.

"So Supercop is all sorts of dead. They put the sheet over his head and everything," Yang Shao commented, as if he were discussing nothing more interesting than the day's hockey scores.

"You catch Russel's trail at all?" Eric said, biting off the urge to yell at Yang Shao for being an insensitive bastard. It was only then that Eric realized he had really liked the now-deceased Federal Marshal.

"Nope. Didn't expect to, though. I don't leave a trail, and while Russel's not as hardcore as yours truly, he's not going to leave one either."

"You ever think of taking the hunt for Russel proactive? Like, trying to find him rather than just haunting me, waiting for him to kill me?"

"I could do that, but then I'd be leaving the one place I know he'll eventually show up."

"What if you could do both?" Eric asked.

It took Yang Shao a second to react to that.

"Interesting. And here I figured that going on the straight and narrow had made you all soft and weak-willed. You want to hunt with me, then, killer?"

"Beats waiting around for him to hunt me."

"And what would your cop friends think about this?"

"A third of them are dead anyway," Eric shrugged, "And there's not much to be gained by dancing around the subject. Better to proceed straight ahead, dash in headlong, as it were."

"That sounds familiar. Are you paraphrasing from something?"

"No," Eric lied.

The exact words he was thinking, however, flashed around and around in his head like the lights on the dead Marshal's empty Crown Vic as he looked out the window at the passing streetlights: When one has made a decision to kill a person, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead, it will not do to think about going at it in a long roundabout way. One's heart may slacken, he may miss his chance, and by and large there will be no success.

* * *

Yang Shao suggested a couple of places they might begin their hunt -- run-down motels that didn't ask for ID, houses recently vacated thanks to the crappy national economy, junkyards that stored condemned mobile homes. They were all rational and logical suggestions, as Russel would need somewhere to base himself out of -- so Yang Shao was understandably surprised when Eric insisted that they go to a bowling alley.

"Russel doesn't seem like the bowling type," Yang Shao shook his head as he typed "Maplewood Lanes" into the BMW's GPS.

"No, he doesn't," Eric answered simply. "You don't need the GPS. I can tell you how to get there."

"Look, Chief. This car cost more than $70,000. You know how many skulls I had to crack for that kind of cash? I'm using every feature on this damn thing," Yang Shao told him.

"Turn left," the GPS replied.

"Goddamn right I will."

By the time the BMW's GPS got them to the corner of 101st and Maple, it was going on 11 pm. Eric had never been to the bowling alley before 9:30, and had only done so on Friday and Saturday nights. As he and Yang Shao walked in, they found that the entire place was lit by strobes, blacklights, and lasers.

"Fuckin' cosmic bowling? Why the fuck would Russel be hanging out with a bunch of drunken frat boys listening to. . . what is that horrible noise, anyway?"

Eric didn't know the name of the song that was playing, but he had to agree that it sucked. He motioned for Yang Shao to follow him to the far side of the alley, which was a little better lit and contained several pod-like bowling lockers. Eric dug his keys out of his front pocket and unlocked locker #231. Inside were two bowling bags, one of which he took out and handed to Yang Shao.

"Hold that for a second."

Yang Shao unzipped the bag. Inside was a pair of @redscorpionsix Raven WSK knives -- big, scary-looking blades with razor-sharp edges.

"Ah. I get it now. You come in here when the light's all fucked up -- no one can positively ID you, and no one can see all the naughty shit you're storing in your locker. Smart, really."

"Close that thing, will you?" Eric shot, annoyed. He pulled a pair of black military-spec combat boots from the other bag, quickly changed into them, and put his Chuck Taylors in the locker. He snatched the bag from Yang Shao, and they headed for the door.

"So you were ready for Russel to come all along."

"Sic vis paca para bellum," Eric replied.

"What the fuck does that mean?"

"Not important. Come on. We're burning dark here."

"One second," Yang Shao said, stopping at the pro-shop counter. "You have those T-shirts in. . . what are you, Eric, a medium?"

Eric nodded. The guy behind the counter produced a shrink-wrapped, dark blue "I Scored At Maplewood Lanes" T-shirt. Yang Shao traded him a $20 bill for it, then tossed the package to Eric.

"Now give me my shirt back, motherfucker."

Friday, April 10, 2009

Chapter Thirteen

Eric had expected the dinner gathering at Nathaniel's house to be him, Johnny, and Nathaniel. He wasn't expecting to have to park half a block down for all the unmarked Chevy Impalas clogging the driveway and the street.

"Fuck," Eric grumbled to himself, pressing down on the accelerator and driving past Nathaniel's house. As he cleared the intersection onto Maple Street, he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed Nathaniel's mobile.

"Hey, Eric. You on your way?"

"Joe's Diner, ten minutes. You or Johnny only. Clear?" Eric growled. He didn't wait for a response before he hung up the phone.

Though it was the dinner shift, the same ancient waitress that had served him breakfast earlier in the week was working. Eric suspected she was the place's only waitress, possibly its only employee besides the cook. Eric took a seat and ordered a cup of coffee.

Nathaniel walked in two minutes later -- his place was just down the street, really, and Eric didn't expect it to take him ten minutes.

"Eric? What's wrong, pal?"

"Don't pal me, Nathaniel. What did I tell you? I work with you and Johnny, and my name doesn't get mentioned anywhere. Remember that conversation?"

"Sure I do."

"Then what's up with the Douglas County Law Enforcement Convention happening at your house?"

"This case has gotten big, Eric. Our boss has hooked us up with OPD and the state police. We're talking honest-to-God Mafia now."

"The Russians have been here for years, Nathaniel. It's not my fault none of you figured that out before I got here. But I was under the impression this was about the bodies, not about organized crime."

"The scope's been expanded."

"Great. I wish you all the best of luck."

Eric threw a five-dollar bill on the table next to his untouched coffee and stood up to leave.

"Wait," Nathaniel yelled after him.

"We had an agreement. You changed the terms of the agreement without consulting me, so I'm walking away."

"We need you on this, Eric."

"You should have thought of that before you invited every cop in the world to get a chunk of me."

"What if I told you that none of them will know your name? Know who you are at all?"

Eric stopped in the doorway of the diner.

"How are you going to manage that?"

"I got put in charge of the task force. These guys will do what I say, or they're off the force, which none of them want -- this is kind of the biggest deal we've had here since. . . ever, really. It's a career-maker."

Eric had heard those words before.

"Fine. These guys are backup. Have them hang back and only come in if something gets hairy. Meanwhile, call Johnny and have him meet us up here. I have a few things to bounce off of you two."

Eric sat back down and took a sip of his coffee -- it had cooled down perfectly during his temper tantrum.

* * *

Eric had gotten used to hiding his tattoos in public, so he felt a little odd walking into Alexander's with bare arms. He had the backpack he'd taken from the stash house over one shoulder -- the gun had been confiscated by the cops, but Eric managed to convince Nathaniel to let him return the @BlackBerrys -- after, of course, he'd tagged all of their GPS signatures.

The Russian who hadn't been killed in the Mercedes, whose name Eric still didn't know, met him at the door. He moved slowly, stiffly -- Eric could see through his tight shirt that his ribs were taped up.

"How ya feelin', Sparky?" Eric grinned at him.

"Follow me," Sparky growled.

He led Eric through the bar, which was packed. "Spitfire" by @the_prodigy was blaring loudly throughout the club, and there were plenty of young, well-off white people flailing their limbs in a pitiful, drunken approximation of dance. Eric resisted the urge to kneecap one or two as Sparky led him to a door at the back of the club, opened it, and moved to push him in.

"Remember what happened the last time you tried to lay hands on me?" Eric yelled over the music.

Apparently, Sparky did remember -- he stepped back from the open door and politely motioned Eric in.

As the door closed behind him, @the_prodigy song cut off completely. The room was obviously sound-proofed, which did little to comfort Eric -- he'd been in sound-proofed rooms before.

Nice shot, my boy. You blew off his kneecap. Oh, please feel free to scream all you like, Ian.

Flanked by two heavily tattooed young men at a long table sat an ancient, wiry man with a shaved head and a thick, Neitsche-esque mustache. The old man smoked a long, thin brown cigarette that smelled of pipe tobacco. He motioned slightly with his left hand, and Eric felt hands grab the backpack off his shoulders and immediately begin patting him down for weapons.

"I don't carry guns," Eric told the old man.

"Then you are a fool, young man," the old man shrugged. The hands went away, and the backpack landed on the table in front of the old man. He motioned again, and one of the thugs flanking him opened it and showed him the contents.

"So. You have returned my phones. How thoughtful of you."

"I didn't stick you just to stick you. I did it to test your security, which is shit, by the way."

"You would do well to watch how you speak here."


"I am Andrey Vokov. Your name?"

"Eric Austen."

"Ah, yes. Austen. Seems I have heard of an Austen before, have I not?"

"I wouldn't be at all surprised."

"The Austen I've heard tell of was no friend to the Russian."

"Those folks being Russian had nothing to do with it. Being assholes, however, spoke volumes. Look, we can dance around this all night -- yep, I took a couple of your people to school in South Florida, but I haven't killed any of them. No blood feud exists here. I'm freelance now, and your organization is in the middle of a huge fucking problem, am I right?"

Vokov lit another cigarette and sighed. He motioned again, and the bag of phones vanished from in front of him -- one of his guards stashed it in a filing cabinet at the back of the room. Vokov poured himself a glass of Vodka and took a tiny sip.

"Unfortunately, you are. What do you know about the gang hunting us?"

"I know it's not a gang. I was tailing your boy Nikolai when he got hit the other night. These people are organized, almost military. This isn't a rival faction."

"And you? How do you propose to help?"

"You said you've heard of me."

"I have."

"Then you know who I am, and you know what I can do."

"I know your reputation. And if you're half the reputation, then you have the job."

"Smart man. I need everything you have on this problem, and I need it now."

Vokov nodded.

"You will speak with my nephew Pyotr. He has been in charge of our security thus far," Vokov used the point of his cigarette to indicate the broken-ribbed young Russian Eric had, until then, been calling Sparky.

Eric stifled a laugh.

"All right, Sp -- Pyotr. Let's talk."

Pyotr led Eric into yet another room in the back of the club -- this one was smaller, and had several notebook computers set up on cheap banquet tables. All of them were inactive at the moment, but Pyotr booted up the nearest one. Eric noticed the letters слон tattooed on the back of his hand.

"Where'd they have you locked down?" Eric asked as they waited for @WindowsXP to load.

"Yekaterinaburg. It's--"

"I know where it is. I have a friend who did some time there. Not an easy place to spend a couple of years."

"And you? Where were you in prison?"

Eric grinned.

"Haven't been, and I plan on keeping it that way. What are we looking at, here?" he asked, nodding at the computer screen.

Pyotr brought up some cached security video from the club's cameras. It was grainy, jumpy, and in green and white, but Eric could make out figures moving around the bar. They were dressed in black cargo pants and black T-shirts, and all of them wore ski masks.

Eric counted six men altogether, and they were using crowbars, baseball bats, and axes to smash up anything they could get their hands on.

"This is first time we have problem, three or so months ago. We come in to open bar, and find everything broken. We check security cameras and find this."

One of the men on the video stopped, put his hand to his ear, and tilted his head to the side for a second. He straightened his head again, held up his right hand, and made a few quick signals with it. The other men stopped what they were doing, and all six of them ran out of the camera's range.

Military hand signals, Eric thought, though he didn't share this information with Pyotr. About a minute later on the tape, flashing lights appeared outside the front window of the bar, and two Omaha Police officers stepped inside, flashlights and guns at the ready.

"Hrm. Run it back one more time," Eric told Pytor. The young Russian did as directed, and Eric took special attention to memorize the hand signals the man used this time.

"All right. What else have you got for me?"

Pyotr just looked at him.

"You do have some more on these guys, don't you?"

Pyotr merely shrugged.

"And you wonder why they're grinding you up like hamburger," Eric shook his head. "All right, kid. I'm going to do some digging on my own. You meet me here --"

Eric opened up @Google Maps on the computer and typed in the address for Joe's Diner.

"-- tomorrow night at 9:00. Just you, kid. If anything should happen between now and then, I want you to take note of everything you can about these guys -- license plate numbers, physical descriptions, identifying marks or tattoos, anything. And try not to get killed before tomorrow night, yeah?"

Pyotr nodded. Eric walked back out through the room where he'd met Vokov, which was now empty, and back out through the still-jumping club. His car was parked three blocks away, but Johnny fell into step next to him after he'd walked one.

"How'd it go?"

Eric held up his right hand and repeated the signals he'd seen used in the security video.

"Mean anything to you?"

"Yeah. Form up on me, file formation, move. How'd you learn that?"

"One of the Russians showed me a security video of six guys busting up the bar. The lead guy did exactly that."

"Those are definitely U.S. Army signals. No doubt."

"All right. I've got another meet with them tomorrow night, this time out on our turf."

Johnny nodded.

"I'll tell the boss. Meet back at my place in 20."

"Will do."

Johnny peeled away and walked off down the street, and Eric walked the last block to his own car. A warm, soft breeze kicked up, and Eric noticed a white slip of paper under the Thunderbird's driver-side windshield wiper. At first, he thought it was a parking ticket. As he picked it up and read it, though, he only wished it was a parking ticket.

In short, blocky handwriting that Eric recognized all too well were the words "You never could protect your women."

"Fuck," Eric said out loud. "Yang Shao, if you're still haunting me, pal. . . I hope your creepy ass can keep up."

Eric got into the T-bird, fired up the engine, and tore off down the street.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pleased to meet you -- I won't make you guess my name

So, I've been getting a bunch of email recently asking "Hey, are you this guy?" To all of which, I've had to answer "no." One of my favorites was someone who downright accused me of being Jello Biafra, and mentioning the Dead Kennedys to sell more copies of records and reap the royalties. I wonder at how the conspiracy theories work in this guy's brain.

To put anyone's mind to rest -- I am not Jello Biafra, though I do highly enjoy his music.

Hello! Name's Shawn Kupfer. You probably don't know me and have never heard of me. If my name sounds familiar at all, it was probably attached to a tech article you read in a magazine a while back, or you're possibly one of the 15 people who read my first novel way back in the far-off land of 1999. If you Google my name, chances are I'm responsible for what comes up.

Why do this now, 32,000 words into the book? To be quite honest, people trying to figure out who I am was taking a little bit away from the story, which is what I want to be putting out there. So now you know, and knowing is half the battle (I know this is true, because Barbecue once told me so after lecturing me on fire safety).

Nothing has changed, though. All you know now that you didn't before is who I am. I still love to interact with you, so keep those emails, DMs, @replies, and comments coming!

And thanks much for following along!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Chapter Twelve

Tampa, Florida, 2008

Eric's throat was extremely dry. That was the first thought that came to him, that he desperately wanted something to drink. He then noticed that he couldn't see anything, and thought for a moment that he'd gone blind. He forced his brain to calm down and attempt to open his eyes.

The first thing he saw was a bright blur. He blinked a couple of times, and the blur sharpened up a bit -- a wall. A corner. Someone sitting in a chair.

"Hello?" Eric croaked. He sounded 90 years old.

"Your driver's license is expired," the person in the chair answered. "By about four years."

"OK. . ." Eric said, blinking a few more times as if that would clear the confusion.

The blinking did help clear his vision, though. The man sitting in the chair stood up -- Eric could see he was a shorter main, Asian, wearing a black suit, white shirt, and awful tie. He was young, though, and clean-shaven.

"I would ask how you're feeling, but generally I'd imagine waking up from three days in a coma after losing 40 percent of your blood doesn't feel too great," the Asian man told him, standing over Eric's hospital bed. Eric then realized that he was, in fact, in a hospital.

"Where am I?" Eric asked.

"U.S. Air Force Hospital, MacDill Air Force base," the Asian said. "You washed up on a military beach."

"And who are you?"

"Agent Enano, FBI. I'm here because you washed up on Federal property. Well, that, and because someone obviously tried to bleed you to death, which is sort of a crime. So, why not make my job easy and tell me who tried to kill you so I can just go arrest them and go home, already."

"No one --"

"Right. No one did this to you. You were just, what, chopping some onions and the knife got away from you, so you decided to stop the bleeding by throwing yourself into the bay?"

"Slow down, Chief. I was about to ask if anyone knows I'm here," Eric coughed. Nothing came up, not even saliva. "Can I get a glass of water or something?"

"Oh. Uh, yeah. Sure."

Enano called for the nurse, who was a young man with a buzzcut and pale green scrubs. After a short, hushed conversation with Enano, the nurse brought Eric a bottle of water, then vanished out into the hall without saying a word. He closed the door behind him, and Eric was suddenly struck by just how quiet it was in the hospital -- not like any other hospital he'd ever been to.

"So, tell me your story, Eric Austen, DOB 4/11/75," Enano said, reading from Eric's license.

"You said you're FBI, right? You guys deal with organized crime, don't you?"

"Not so much anymore. Now we're tasked with a lot of counter-terrorism stuff, like questioning suspicious people who trespass on government property, then go comatose and bleed all over Uncle Sam's sand," Enano winked. "Yes, we handle organized crime. Why? Jimmy The Nose do this to you?"

"So you're telling me that there is no organized crime anymore?"

"Not as much, no."

"What about the Triads?"

"You're saying they're who cut you up? Death of 100 cuts? And then you floated all the way up here from Miami?"

"No, I didn't come from Miami."

"There are no Triad cells in Tampa."

"You're right there. Ever ask yourself why that is? It's not like this town is any less juicy for business than Miami."

"Tampa doesn't have an organized crime problem, kiddo."

Eric took a long drink from his bottle of water.

"First off, I'm older than you, so I don't think 'kiddo' is really the term you're looking for. And you didn't answer my question, Agent Enano. Why aren't the Triads in Tampa?"

"Because of the Russians."

"You're a bit out of date, there. Russians got moved out of Tampa altogether in 2004."

"By who?"

"That's the question, isn't it? Who's powerful enough to move out the Russians and keep the Triads from moving in?"

Enano looked uncomfortable, and when he didn't reply for a full minute, Eric felt a grin creeping up the corners of his mouth.

"You really have no clue, do you? He's been operating for fifteen years in this city, and you don't even know he exists."

"You're just making shit up now."

"What reason do I have to lie?"

"What reason do you have to tell the truth?"

"Ah, touche. That, I think, is going to require a few things -- a lawyer, first. Someone to take a deposition. And, not to say anything against you, but a lot more Federal cops than just one guy."

Enano pulled a chair up next to Eric's hospital bed.

"So let me get this straight. You're telling me that there's a criminal organization out there that we no absolutely nothing about? Controlling, what, 20 percent of the crime in Tampa?"

"Try 90. There aren't many pies this guy doesn't have a finger in."

"And you know this how? Because you crossed them?"

"Because I was one of them."

Enano leaned back in his chair, shaking his head.

"I need you to tell me everything."

"And I need the stuff I mentioned before. And a cigarette."

* * *

Two hours later, the room was filled with smoke. Eric had just polished off his 16th cigarette -- I really need to quit, he realized. The lawyer from the Department of Justice, a tall, thin man with large plastic glasses, kept waving his hands in the air around him as if flies were attacking him. Eric knew the attorney was trying to hint that Eric should stop smoking, which only made him want to smoke more.

Enano had been hanging on every word since Eric started talking. When Eric finished with the broad strokes of the organization, he stood and opened a window. The attorney shot him a look of gratitude.

"Two problems that I can see, Eric. One -- why'd they try to kill you? You didn't mention that part of the story," Enano said.

"I'll tell you soon enough."

"Fine. Two -- there's not a shred of evidence to back any of this up. You realize that?"

"When do the doctors think I'll be able to walk around again?"

"Couple of days."

"Then, sir, in a couple of days. . . you'll have more fucking evidence than you can handle."

* * *

"Are the leg shackles really necessary?" Eric bitched from the back of the Crown Victoria.

"Your wrists are still way too wrecked for handcuffs. And you did kind of admit to being, you know, a criminal. I have to keep you restrained -- it's my job," Enano shrugged from the front seat. Another agent, this one older and with a grey buzzcut, sat in the passenger seat. They'd been in the car for 45 minutes, and the older agent hadn't said a word.

"You'll want to take a left up here," Eric sighed, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. The sun was just going down as the silver Crown Vic turned onto Highway 60, headed from downtown Tampa towards Brandon.

"Two miles up on your right. The place is called Jorgensen's Heavy Equipment Sales. You don't want to get too close -- 'sides, you'll be able to see it from quite a distance."

"We have done stuff like this before," Enano told him.

"Yeah. Not with these guys. You know why you never found out about them before? Because that's how they wanted it. They know how to keep things subtle. The only reason you're going to see anything tonight is because I'm going to tell you exactly where to look, and because they can't exactly hide this cargo too well."

"About that -- you still haven't mentioned what this cargo is."

"I like to see the look on your face when you realize all sorts of nasty shit has been going on right under your agency's nose for years. Like the one in the hospital."

Enano frowned, and Eric smirked.

"Not that look. Close, though."

Jorgensen's Heavy Equipment Sales, a low prefab-metal building, was just coming up on their right.

"Go past it and park in the next lot over. Then we kill all the lights and wait a couple of hours."

Enano obviously didn't like Eric or the way he was acting, but he did as he was told. They sat in the car for two and a half hours -- Enano asking some more specific questions about Julian, the older agent still saying nothing. Then, at just after 9:00, an unmarked box truck pulled up in Jorgensen's dirt lot. It was white and unmarked, just like any general contractor might drive. The guy who got out of the driver's seat even looked like he could be a general contractor -- young, grey T-shirt, workboots, tattoos. A few more general-contractor looking guys came out of the building, followed by a young black guy driving a forklift.

"Oooh. So they're dropping off heavy equipment after hours. By all means, let's go arrest them. They're evil," Enano said flatly.

"Just watch."

The truck's driver opened the back of the panel truck, and the forklift driver piloted the skids inside, hooking onto a pallet. It was then that Enano noticed that the two other guys -- the ones who didn't seem to be doing anything -- had drawn handguns and were looking around. They were standing guard.

The forklift backed away from the panel truck, bringing with it a pallet stacked high with long, narrow wooden crates.

"What are those?" Enano asked no one in particular, bringing a pair of binoculars up to his eyes.

The older agent, though, didn't seem to need binoculars.

"Surface-to-air missiles," the older agent said. It was the only thing Eric heard him say before or since.

"Please tell me they aren't planning on using those things on American soil," Enano said. His face had gone somewhat pale.

"See? There's the look I was after. And no, truth be told, guy probably isn't planning on using them at all. He'll sell them on, probably to some jackasses in some shitty South American hellhole."

"How does he get a hold of something like that?"

"Probably from Belarus or the Ukraine. He has contacts out that way."

"But. . . why?"

"Think about this -- the Jackson Height Posse or the Pompano Boys buy their weapons somewhere, right? So he has to supply for them, among other various outfits and street gangs. Then good old Vassily the Ukrainian mentions he's got a bunch of spare missles he needs to get rid of. He's already smuggling in a bunch of AK's. Might as well fill up the shipping container and hold onto the missiles until he can hook them up with someone in, say, Columbia, who will pay triple what Julian paid to get them."

"We should go down there and arrest them right now," Enano said, already reaching for the Crown Vic's door handle.

"I wouldn't. You'll get four guys on some smuggling charges, and that's it. You won't find anything around there to tie it to Julian or anyone other than those four guys, and it'll be tough to make even that stick. I just showed you this to give you a taste."

"A taste? You mean there's more?" Enano looked uncomfortable again.

"Oh, Enano," Eric grinned. "Cheer up. It's so much worse than you think."

* * *

It was a different agent with Enano in the front seat this time, but much the same situation. Eric was still leg-cuffed to the bar in the backseat, and the other agent still wasn't talking. This one was a bit younger than the previous one, maybe 45, but he had the same short hair and serious expression.

The silver Crown Victoria was parked under the shadow of I-275 on Hanna Avenue, about a block down from Nebraska Avenue. Enano was pale again, and Eric was fighting off a smile. The two agents had just witnessed a massive shipment of heroin being dropped off at a shitty house near the intersection. In the past three days, Eric had shown Enano brothels, gun running, drug trafficking, chop shops, and six or seven meth labs.

The kicker, though, was tying it all in to Julian. Eric knew that the paper trail wouldn't do it -- Julian had none. The only way Eric was going to be able to bring down the whole organization was to testify, and he knew it. He just needed to convince Enano that Julian's operation was big enough to make it worth his while.

If tonight's display didn't work, Eric reasoned, he'd take Enano to one of the body-dump sites Russel had used, a condemned house not far from where they were currently sitting. Assuming they hadn't closed up that particular shop, Eric knew there would probably be four or five bodies dissolving in polystyrene containers full of acid in the house's basement.

"You're saying one guy controls all of this?" Enano shook his head slowly.

"This, and more. Seen enough yet? Ready to talk about a deal for me?"

Part of Eric was hoping Enano would say no, just so he could see the expression on the young agent's face when he saw the dump site, smelled those poor souls slowly melting away in hydrophoric acid.

"Yeah. I'm ready. Tell me what you need," Enano nodded, starting up the Crown Vic and heading for the Interstate.