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