As hard as he tried, Eric couldn't figure out how to finish that sentence. He'd replaced the radiator in the Thunderbird on Sunday, and that was the one thing apart from work he had on his calendar in the near future, or, to tell the truth, at all.
It was a Tuesday, and just after six in the evening. Work had been just as boring as ever that day, and Eric had just come back from a five-mile run from his place just east of Dundee up to Benson and back. He noticed as he ran that this part of town had kind of an odd makeup -- low-income, almost ghetto areas gave way to modest buffer zones, then really nice houses, then another buffer zone, then back to the ghetto. He saw all of this within two miles.
Of course, he'd noticed that this was a phenomenon localized to the older parts of town. In his first few weeks in Omaha, when he'd been feeling particularly adventurous, he'd driven way out to the West part of town, which took easily 45 minutes (anyone who had the idea that this was a "small town" would be immediately disabused of that notion after such a drive). Out west, the houses were all huge and ludicrous McMansions, the type that popped up in less than a month and sold for an easy $425,000. Even when he'd been pulling in more money than he'd ever dreamed of, Eric couldn't understand why anyone would actually want to live in one of those places -- they were god-awful gaudy, and couldn't have been constructed too well.
Of course, this was all conjecture, as Eric had never actually owned a home. Out of college, he'd rented a very nice apartment in Hyde Park, as he'd scored an executive-level job with an Internet startup. After the startup imploded due to massive corruption, he'd rented a place by the month in a horrid area of Tampa for a while before working for Julian. During the eight years he worked in Julian's organization, he'd lived in three progressively nicer apartments, all in buildings owned by Julian's "legitimate" real-estate empire.
"Bought that building with the proceeds from a stolen Ukrainian fishing ship loaded to the gills with old Soviet surface-to-air-missles," Julian had told him of one place he'd lived, a tasteful two-level loft in a downtown Tampa skyscraper.
Eric popped his iPod onto the docking station in the living room and clicked it over to The Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist album. As near as he waS aware, he had no neighbors on either side of him, so he could have played it as loud as he liked, but he kept the volume reasonably low as he started to rummage through the cabinets in the kitchen in search of dinner.
"Soup is Good Food" wasn't even halfway over when his cell phone started vibrating on the kitchen counter. The caller ID screen let him know it was Nathaniel's office number.
"Evening, Nathaniel," Eric answered.
"Hey, Eric. Bet you thought I forgot about you."
"Nah. What's up?"
"You busy later on this evening? Say, about 9:00 or so?"
Eric looked around his empty, quiet apartment.
"I think I can shuffle some things around."
"Great. I'll drop by, if that's all right."
"Yeah, that should be fine. It gives me a chance to clean up, anyway."
"See you in a bit."
As Eric hung up the phone, he looked around the living room to see what needed cleaning. The threadbare couch, the secondhand coffee table with his laptop, and a small end table with the iPod dock were the sum total of the contents of the room.
He'd planned a weight workout, and he'd have plenty of time to do that, of course. Afterwards, he resolved to fire up the Internet and finally check @TargetINC for some halfway decent furniture and just maybe, if he was feeling crazy, something to hang on the walls.
* * *
Nathaniel was nothing if not punctual. Just as the clock on his cell phone switched over to 9:00, Eric heard a knock on the apartment door. Eric had already showered and changed into a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, and opened the door to find Nathaniel wearing pretty much the same thing.
"Evening, Eric. Feel like a little field trip?"
Eric shrugged and followed Nathaniel outside, locking his apartment after him as he went. Johnny dressed in a pair of khakis and an untucked polo shirt, was standing outside of Nathaniel's Impala.
"So, where is the class headed this evening?" Eric asked.
"South Omaha. A CI we have down there has noticed a bunch more Eastern European faces in the neighborhood lately," Johnny told him.
"Yeah, and you'll blend right in, Chief. Nice undercover look you've got going there."
Eric could see that Johnny wanted to say something, but Nathaniel cut him off with a look. Instead, Johnny just opened the driver's door of the Impala.
"Wait. That's the car we're taking?" Eric shook his head.
"Yeah. Why?" Johnny sighed.
"You two just might as well wear signs around your necks saying 'I'm a fucking cop.' That car is going to stick out like a sore thumb down on 33rd and L. You need something that looks worn, beat-up, ghetto."
"Like that piece of shit you drive?" Johnny smiled.
"Sadly, yes. Touche," Eric admitted, tossing his keys to the short, overmuscled cop. "Care to drive?"
Johnny caught the keys and opened the driver door. Nathaniel opened the passenger door, then looked over at Eric and nodded to the backseat.
"I have to sit in the backseat of my own car? That's just wrong, man," Eric bitched, but he pushed the passenger seat forward and crawled into the tiny backseat anyway. Nathaniel and Johnny got in, and Nathaniel moved his seat forward a bit.
"Got enough room back there?" Johnny snickered.
"Shut the fuck up," Eric grumbled.
Johnny smiled and started the engine. A low, deep growl vibrated through the entire vehicle as the Thunderbird roared to life.
"Whoa. This the 3.8-liter V6?" Johnny asked.
"No, that was the SC. This is the LX. 4.6-liter V8."
"Hell of an engine."
"I bought this thing for a reason."
Johnny nodded appreciatively and backed the T-bird out of the lot, then piloted onto the streets. It was still warm and muggy out, but the weather people hadn't predicted any rain, so it was likely to stay that way.
"Air conditioner work in this boat?" Nathaniel asked.
"It should. I just fixed it a couple of weeks ago."
Nathaniel turned the knob all the way into the blue, and frigid air started pouring out of the T-bird's dash. Nathaniel pulled his radio from his pocket and set it in the center console between himself and Johnny, then turned the volume up a bit.
"So, boss tells me you know a lot about these Russians," Johnny started.
"More than either of you two," Eric nodded.
Johnny let the remark slide.
"What do you think are the chances they're set up in South O? That's Mexican territory."
"What the fuck is that?"
"Never mind," Johnny shook his head. "Wherever these guys are holed up, they're probably not going to be walking around, making a big spectacle of themselves. I doubt they're running their operations from South O, because some pale motherfuckers like that in a Chicano neighborhood are bound to draw attention, which is exactly what they don't want."
"So no, then?"
"Well, not exactly. They might have some presence, some business they need to handle down there. It's worth taking a look at."
The drive from Eric's place didn't take more than fifteen minutes, even at the five miles under the speed limit Johnny kept the car pinned to. He parked the T-bird along the street across from a thrift store that Eric was pretty sure he'd bought his couch from.
"So, what's the plan? Split up? Look for clues?" Eric joked.
"We wait and watch," Nathaniel said. "Mind if I smoke in your car?"
Yes I fucking mind, because the entire car will smell like smoke for days, and I'm still trying to quit.
"Knock yourself out."
* * *
They'd been there for four hours, and had seen nothing more interesting than a young Mexican mother wrangling her three children at midnight, which Eric found all sorts of creepy.
"Call it a night, boss?" Johnny yawned.
"Yeah, we've got an early day at the station. Might as well pack it in." Nathaniel shrugged.
"You could do that. Or you could follow that black Mercedes that just pulled out two blocks down, because those are your guys. You know, whichever you feel like," Eric shrugged.
"You're fucking with us," Johnny accused flatly.
"Only one way to find out, isn't there, Sparky?" Eric grinned, slapping the Deputy on the shoulder. His hand hit solid, granite muscle.
Johnny fired up the Thunderbird's engine and set off after the black Mercedes sedan, keeping at least a block between the two cars. As crappy as the two of them seemed to be at investigative police work, Eric had to admit that Johnny was damned good at following someone without being seen -- never once did the black Benz off in the distance give any indication that they were aware anyone was following them.
Their drive took them up to 42nd Street, past the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and just a spit away from Johnny's own neighborhood. They continued North, however, past Benson, all the way up to 31st and Grand Avenue -- a part of town that the locals referred to with trepidation and loathing as "North O." If one was to hear of a shooting overnight and Omaha, the intersection of thirty-something and Grand had a very decent chance of being mentioned, and the black Mercedes parked just off 31st street, right in the thick of it all.
Both of the Benz's front doors opened, and two young men got out. They were as white as could be, and both had short, dark hair. One wore cargo pants and a wife-beater tanktop, the other jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt. Both of them had tattoos all over, and, from where Johnny parked the car, they could see the artwork pretty clearly. As the one in the wife-beater knocked on the door to a run-down ranch-style house, the three men in the Thunderbird saw a cross tattooed on the inside of his arm.
"Told you those were your guys," Eric sneered.
Johnny said nothing, but Eric could see his jaw clench just slightly.
A young black man with cornrows, baggy black jeans, and a T-shirt two sizes too large for his lanky frame opened the door to the ranch house. There was a short conversation between the two young Russians and the young black man, and the Russian in the wife-beater reached into his cargo pocket and pulled out a large plastic bag full of small vials.
"Heroin?" Johnny guessed.
"I'd bet," Nathaniel nodded.
The young black man looked inside the bag, smiled a huge grin, and handed over a brown paper bag. Wife-beater looked inside, nodded, and pounded fists with the young black guy.
"And that, guys, was a re-up. Congratulations. The Russian Mafia is running drugs into your town, at least."
"I wish we had some bugs on that house. I'd love to hear what they're saying," Johnny shook his head as the two Russians headed back to their car.
"Should just go up and ask the black kid," Eric shrugged.
"Yeah, that'd work. I should just walk right up and have a chat with him, shouldn't I, boss?" Johnny chuckled.
"Nah, both of you are still wearing those 'I'm a fucking cop' signs around your neck. Kid would make you in a second," Eric shook his head.
"Yeah. Hate to break it to you, pal, but you're pretty clean-cut yourself. You look like one of us," Johnny shot back.
Eric took off his long-sleeved T-shirt, leaving only the grey wife-beater he had on underneath. Johnny and Nathaniel saw, for the first time, the plethora of tattoos covering Eric's arms from his shoulders to just before the backs of his hands.
"Wrong, Chief. I look like one of them."
It took Nathaniel a moment to speak-- apparently, Eric guessed, both cops had skipped over the "Scars and Identifying Marks" entry on his file. When the senior Deputy finally did find his voice, the words he delivered came with a shake of the head, free of charge.
"No way, Eric. You're not a cop. I can't have you questioning a suspect."
"I'm not pretending to be a cop. I'm just one guy talking to another guy, albeit in slightly odd circumstances."
"We just observed that suspect in an illegal activity. I say we call in some backup and bust that whole place," Johnny said, reaching for the radio.
"I wouldn't. You do that, the Russians know you're on to them, and they go even deeper underground. The only reason they got sloppy enough to be seen tonight is that they've been in town for years with no hint that law enforcement knows anything about them."
Nathaniel considered. Eric was probably right -- he'd checked with the liason officer at the Omaha Police Department about Russian Mafia activity in town, and all he'd gotten was a disbelieving laugh.
"Look, kids. My gut tells me you haven't told your bosses you're even out here tonight. Would make you look pretty silly if it turned out that Witness Protection Boy was full of shit, and you chased down whatever Russian Mob fairy tales he threw you. I get that. So, as long as we're off the books here, why not see just how much we can take back to your superiors?"
Johnny looked at Nathaniel.
"I hate to admit it, boss, but the guy has a point."
Nathaniel lit a cigarette. He took a long, thoughtful drag, then blew out smoke as he spoke.
"Yeah. Yeah, he does. All right, Johnny. Drive us about a block away and we'll drop you off. You can approach on foot. Any idea what you're going to say?"
"I'm good at this sort of thing," Eric said.
* * *
Speaking English was easy enough -- Eric had, after all, been raised with the language. Speaking Russian wasn't that hard, either -- he'd taken three years of it in college, and had plenty of practice using it when he worked for Julian. But speaking English with a Russian accent and making it convincing? That was a whole different animal, Eric realized as he strolled slowly up the block towards the stash house.
If he played it Walter Koenig-style and really belted it out for the back row, the kid would surely see through him -- Eric assumed that the young black kid had been dealing with Russians for some time now, and would be used to the accent. If he came at it too soft, though, the kid wouldn't buy him as anything but an American playing Russian, which would be just as bad. As he got within 50 feet of the stash house, Eric tried to put himself in the past, talking to Alexy again.
Eric knocked on the door, and the same kid from earlier answered. Behind him, Eric could see two other kids about his age, playing Left 4 Dead on @Microsoft_Xbox. The stereo was bumping out @young_jeezy, though not at a volume that would wake the neighbors and get the police called.
"What up, man. They was already here," the black kid answered wearily.
"Who was here?" Eric smiled, trying to sound as much like Alexy as possible.
"Your boys. Nicolai and, uh, the other one. Nigga that wear all the skin-tight shirts."
"Damn. I was supposed to meet them. They say where they go next?"
"Prolly back to the bar, man."
"Yes, but which bar? We have more than one, yes?"
"Yeah, right. Not the one uptown. The other one, just off Jackson outside the Market?"
"Yes. That one. I go meet them there. Look, help a brother out?"
The young black kid chuckled at Eric's attempt at Russian-accented slang.
"Yeah, man. What you need?"
"Do not tell Nicolai I was late, yes? Already, I am on thin ice with him."
"No problem, man. In fact, I can do you one better. Hold up."
The kid vanished inside for a second, but left the door open. One of the guys playing Xbox looked over at Eric and nodded.
"What up," he said softly.
"What is up," Eric waved back.
"That some sick ink, G."
"You like?," Eric held up his forearms. "I have some done in Moscow, some done in Miami."
"Nowhere around here, though?"
"Have not found good place yet. You know one?"
"Big Brain, G. Only place worth a fuck in this town."
"I have seen it, I think?"
"You should. It's like a block down from that bar you guys own."
"Yes, I have seen. Never open this late. In Moscow, tattoo shops open late nights."
"Yeah, they close at like 10."
The young kid appeared at the doorway again, handing Eric an unmarked, dark green backpack.
"I forgot to give this to your boys when they was by earlier. You can say you got here before they did and picked it up for them."
"Anytime, man. Peace," the young kid said, holding his fist out. Eric tapped it with his own, then started to walk away. He heard the door close behind him, but waited until he was well out of sight to open the bag.
Inside were several @BlackBerry devices -- cloned, Eric guessed -- and a .40 Sig Sauer handgun. He zipped up the bag and walked back to his car, where Nathaniel was standing outside, waiting and smoking a cigarette.
"The kid talk to you?" he asked as Eric got into the car.
"Yep. Gave me a location on one of their operational areas downtown."
"Good work, Eric!"
"Oh, yeah. And you might want to find something to do with this," Eric said, dropping the backpack into Nathaniel's lap as Johnny drove them out of the neighborhood.
* * *
As Eric finally walked back into his apartment around three, he kicked his shoes off and stretched. Work was going to come very early tomorrow -- or today, really, he supposed. He considered just staying up for a few more hours and going in on zero sleep as he took his keys and phone out of his pocket.
As Eric looked at his phone, he saw that he had a new voicemail. He hadn't notice a missed call, but service did tend to get spotty in a few areas of town. Wondering who would have called him this late at night, Eric dialed his voicemail and listened.
The voice on the other end was garbled and staticky, but Eric recognized it right away.
"Eric, darling! You never call, you never write. I'm beginning to think you don't love your old pal Julian anymore."
Eric had never had a heart attack, but he imagined that the tightness in his chest wasn't far off from how one would feel. He hung up immediately.
Well, at least I won't have a problem staying awake, now.