"Look, sir, calm down. I do have to advise you that this call is being recorded, as per Federal guidelines."
The line went dead, and a second later, Dean's cell phone rang. He saw from the caller ID that it was Eric Hawkins' cell number.
"This line tapped too?"
"No, this is my private number."
"Good. Now why the fuck am I getting calls from Julian Clayton?"
For the first time he could remember since high school, Ryan Dean was at a loss for words. After several seconds of silence, he finally managed to choke out, "Say again?"
"That's right, motherfucker. Julian Fucking Clayton has my fucking phone number. You want to tell me how the fuck that can happen?"
Eric was, indeed, angry. But Dean couldn't say he blamed him.
"Eric, I. . . I have no idea. Where are you now?"
"Home. I called in sick to work."
"Stay right there. I'll be over in twenty minutes."
Eric didn't say another word -- he just hung up the phone.
* * *
Eric had calmed himself down slightly by the time Dean knocked on his apartment door -- he still wanted to knock the huge Federal agent in the skull with something heavy, but now there was very little chance he would actually do so. Fifteen minutes before, he wouldn't have been able to say the same.
"I need you to tell me exactly what happened," Dean said, taking a seat on the couch.
"I got this voicemail at about three in the morning," Eric said, putting his phone on speaker and dialing into his voicemail. He played the message back for Dean, who listened intently with his fingers steepled.
"You're sure that was Julian Clayton?"
"Yes, I'm fucking sure."
"Do you have a number he called from? I need to run a trace."
"I'm not an idiot, Dean. I ran it down already. Coleman Federal Prison."
"See? He's in prison."
"I know he's in fucking prison. I put him there. What concerns me is how he found out where I was in the first fucking place, not to mention all of the people in his organization you didn't lock up," Eric growled.
"They're low-level street dealers and thugs for the most part, Eric. They're not much to worry about."
"Russel Brandt is dead, Eric. We found his body, remember?"
"You found a body. I never saw it. I never got to see the autopsy. I'm in no way convinced Russel is actually dead."
"The FBI identified the body, Eric. It was Brandt."
"And how, exactly, did they do that? Russel Brandt lived completely off the grid, which means no social security number, no driver's license, no criminal record, no employment history. I'm pretty sure he even destroyed the original copy of his birth certificate. So how, with no prints and no ID in the system, could they have identified his body?"
"I think they did it by dental records."
Eric ran his hands through his military-short hair and plunked down on the couch.
"He didn't have dental records."
"Everybody has dental records."
"Not Russel. If your body had dental records at all, they were forged."
"Look, Eric, I'll look into it. Just calm down, OK? You're perfectly safe here, and I've alerted the Deputy assigned to you to keep an eye out."
"Fantastic," Eric said flatly.
"I'll also put a Marshal on stakeout outside your house, if you like."
"Save the manpower. If Russel is alive and coming for me, you'd never see him anyway."
"We're not completely incompetent, Eric. We're actually very good at what we do."
"Unfortunately, so is Russel."
"Cheer up. There's not a lot Julian can do to you from prison. I mean, he's only allowed one phone call a week, and he used that to call you. He's just trying to rile you up, make you paranoid. It looks like he's succeeded."
Eric shrugged and walked over to the kitchen drawer. He pulled one of the Camel Lights out of the pack and lit it.
"I thought you quit," Dean said, lighting one of his own.
"I did. Extenuating circumstances, so don't give me any shit. Look, I'm sorry I'm freaking out on you. This is just fucking with my head. Do me a favor?"
"I can try."
"See if you can track down the autopsy report for Russel Brandt. I'd feel a lot better if I could take a quick look at it."
"I'll see what I can do. Just stay calm, take the day off. Relax. I'll call you if I find anything, and you can call me if you need anything. Good?"
"I'm going to head back to the office and do some digging. You good here?"
Dean stood from the couch and nodded at Eric, waiting for a nod in return. It didn't look like that nod was coming, so Dean simply left and walked back out to his Crown Victoria.
Eric waited half an hour after Dean had gone, constantly checking the window to see if Dean or Johnny (or anyone else) just happened to be passing by. After he was totally sure that no one was watching, he grabbed his keys and cell phone and walked out to the Thunderbird.
The first thing he'd have to do would be to sneak into his office and get to his cubicle without anyone seeing him. There, taped to the back of his bottom drawer, Eric had a substantial amount of cash set back for an emergency. He'd hidden it at the office so Dean or the police wouldn't find it.
Next, he'd have to find out just where in Mayberry On Acid one could find and purchase an illegal firearm.
* * *
The dim, green digital clock on the T-bird's dashboard was just turning over to noon as Eric pulled into the parking garage near his office. With any luck, most of his co-workers would be out to lunch by now, making it that much easier to sneak into the office, get the cash, and get back out undetected. He took the back way into the building and used the service elevator to get up to his floor.
The large expanse of cubicles where his was located seemed to be relatively deserted. Eric made it from the elevator to his cube without seeing another soul. He'd just sat down in his chair and opened the bottom desk drawer when an unlabled DVD came whizzing by his head, bouncing off the fabric wall of his cube and plopping, motionless, on his desk.
"That code you were supposed to check for bugs this morning? Fucking failed regression tests, Eric! What the fuck have you been doing over here all day?"
Eric stood to face Kenny. Though Kenny was taller and weighed more than Eric, he knew he'd have no problem putting the guy down on the floor. Eric's right hand flexed almost involuntarily -- it had been over a year since he had hit someone, and he had missed it.
"Look, you're obviously having a bad day, Kenny, so I'm going to pretend you didn't come at me like that," Eric said slowly. His adrenal glands were spooling up something fierce, and he wanted more than anything else to just fire off an overhand right into the side of Kenny's head.
"Fuck no, Hawkins. You're the one who isn't fucking doing your job, you --"
Eric's right hand shot out quickly, coming to rest on Kenny's shoulder.
"Kenny, man. I'm out sick today. I just stopped in to get my doctor's phone number out of my desk. But something's wrong, man. This isn't like you. Come on -- I'll buy you a beer over lunch. Let's talk about what's bothering you," Eric sighed.
A large part of him wanted to take the hand resting on Kenny's shoulder and use it to tear out one of the guy's eyes -- but that was the part that had gotten him into so much trouble in the past. He'd been making every possible effort not to listen to that part.
Kenny's shoulders deflated and he nodded.
"Yeah. OK. I'm sorry, man. You really want me to talk about it?"
"Sure, Kenny," Eric said. He hoped he sounded convincing.
The two of them walked a few blocks down to a bar Kenny had picked out. Eric hadn't been to many of the bars in this town, but they all pretty much the same to him. This one was a bit dimly lit, and pretty much empty save for the bartender, a cute college girl reading @jonathansegura's first novel. Eric walked up to the bar and flashed a smile.
"Sure thing," she smiled back.
No game, indeed, Eric smirked to himself.
Eric hadn't even made it back to the table with the drinks when the doors opened. The two Russians from the night before, followed by the kid with the cornrows, walked in and headed for the bar. Eric tried to duck out of sight, but he wasn't fast enough.
"That's him! That's that nigga right there!" Cornrows yelled, pointing at Eric.
Eric dropped the drinks on the table.
"Kenny. . . leave. Now," Eric warned. His hands fell loosely at his sides, fingers stretching out.
It looked as though he was going to get the fight his brain wanted, after all.
The kid with the cornrows reached into his waistband, moving his oversized shirt aside. Nikolai, the Russian in the wifebeater, held up his hand.
"Wait. You are sure this is the man?" Nikolai asked.
You still have a chance to talk your way out of this, a part of Eric's brain said.
Quiet, you, a much louder part disagreed.
"You mean the guy who stuck you for a bunch of unlocked GSM phones and a .40 cal? Yeah, that's me."
"To come in here, you must be crazy or stupid," Nikolai shook his head. He looked at his pals, then slowly reached behind his back -- but he never got a chance to touch whatever he was reaching for. Eric rocketed forward, slamming his forehead into the bridge of Nikolai's nose. As Nikolai reared back, gushing blood, Eric's right hand shot out and grabbed Cornrows by the wrist. Before the kid could get his fingers around his gun, Eric had snapped his wrist in at least three places. To his credit, the kid didn't scream, exactly, but he did let out a high-pitched yelp.
The second Russian was just pulling the hammer back on his revolver when Eric's left foot smashed into his groin. The Russian fired wildly, lodging a .38 slug in the rafters. In a flash, Eric grabbed him by both shoulders and drove his knee into the Russian's ribcage. He heard a satisfying series of snaps and crunches before the Russian fell to the floor. The .38 clattered to the linoleum, and the Russian tried to roll over and reach for it, but Eric stomped hard on the small of his back. The Russian decided to stay put.
Cornrows was trying to use his other hand to dig out his gun, so he was completely unprepared for the solid overhand right that slammed into his temple, dropping him to the floor.
Eric whirled on Nikolai, ready to cave his face in, as well, but found the man with one hand holding his profusely bloody nose, the other held straight out in front of him.
"All right. Enough," Nikolai gurgled.
"Not quite," Eric shrugged, firing a straight left, then a corkscrew right into Nikolai's face just below the eyes. Nikolai hit the floor and stopped moving.
Eric kicked the .38 away from the second Russian -- the only one still conscious -- and rolled the man over with his foot. He knelt down and calmly dug a Camel Light from the pack, then lit it. He inhaled deeply -- God, it's going to be impossible to quit now.
"Next time, tell your boy not to waste time talking and just shoot. Would've saved you all an assload of pain. Get me?"
The Russian nodded, wheezing in pain.
"Put some ice on those ribs. Then tell your boss I want to meet him here on Friday night to discuss the holes in your security."
The Russian nodded again. Eric stood up, took another drag from his cigarette, and walked over to the bar. He opened his wallet and took out two $20 bills, which he set on the counter in front of the bartender.
"Sorry about the mess," he winked at her.
As Eric walked out, he didn't even notice that Kenny was still sitting at the table, stone-still, just staring at him as he left.