Friday, January 15, 2010

L.E.O. -- Chapter Eighteen

Johnny drove through the falling snow as the sun started to rise slowly behind him. Ellie sat shotgun, smoking a cigarette.

"Drive faster, man," she said, smirking. "Ellie needs her coffee."

"No doubt. Frank meeting us there?" Johnny asked.

"Mmmyep," she said. He just texted me. He finished handing over the rest of Vassily's guys to the FBI about twenty minutes ago."

"Outstanding. Here we are."

Johnny parked his truck outside Leo's Diner, which was actually a bit busy. Gary waved them to a table as soon as they cleared the door. He already had two cups of coffee waiting for them.

"Franky called ahead," Gary explained. "Get you something started on the grill, guys?" "God, yes," Ellie said. "Two eggs, toast, hash browns. You're an angel, Gare. A creepy, overweight angel."

Gary laughed and winked at her.

"What about you, Deputy?"

"The same, but with bacon," Johnny said. "Thanks."

"No bother, folks. Frank should be here soon."

In fact, Frank arrived before they'd gotten halfway through the first cup of coffee -- and he wasn't alone.

"Eric!" Johnny greeted.

"G'morning, folks," Eric said. He looked pale, but he was steady on his feet.

"I thought they wanted to keep you overnight?" Ellie said.

"They did. And technically, I let them. Then when 6 am rolled around, I called Frank to spring me. Tried you first," he nodded at Johnny. "But your cell's off."

Johnny checked his BlackBerry. It was, indeed, powered down, and wouldn't turn on again.

"Dead battery," he said. "Didn't notice."

"So how'd it go with Vassily? He still chilling in a holding cell, refusing to talk and acting insufferable?" Eric asked.

"Nope. Your boy shipped him off with some FBI agents," Ellie said, grinning.

"Nice play, Johnny. I'm impressed. He give you anything?"

"Yeah. Gave us the guy who bought all the hardware -- and what he bought matches up with the rounds we found at the Hassan scene."

"We get a name on the guy?" Frank asked.

"A fake one," Ellie said. "Ronan Six."

"I don't think it's Ronan, Ellie," Johnny told her. "I think it's Ronin."

"Like, the Japanese word? 'Masterless Samurai?'" Ellie asked.

"Yeah. And Six isn't a last name," Johnny said. "In Army radio code, the number six refers to a Command Element -- leader of the pack, so to speak. It's not a real name. It's a callsign."

"Think it's those Omega guys again?" Eric asked. Johnny shook his head.

"Nah. Doesn't fit their M.O., near as I can tell," Johnny said.

"Slow it up for the new people at the table," Frank said as Gary dropped off coffee for him and Eric. "What the hell is Omega?"

"Sorry. They're a group we tangled with and busted last summer. They were ex-military types, out hunting and killing Russian Mafia members in town."

"So, not them?" Eric said, stirring sugar into his coffee.

"I don't think so, but I could be wrong," Johnny said. He sipped his coffee. "In case I'm wrong, though, I want you to dig up anything you can find on Omega -- current operations, rumors, Internet chatter – anything."

Eric nodded.

"In-office day for me, then. Right on."

"I'm planning to head to the lab, see what they've got for us," Ellie said.

"I'm with you," Frank told her.

"And I'm going to check in with some old Army contacts, see if this Ronin Six thing rings any bells. My boss tells me the newspapers are already starting to sniff this one out, so the faster we move, the better," Johnny said.

"Papers? Which ones?" Ellie asked.

"World Herald, at least. Maybe the Weekly," Johnny said.

"Marisa Brighton the one who's calling?" Ellie said.

"That's the one."

"I'll talk to her -- we went to college together. See if I can buy us a day or two."

"That'd be a big help."

Gary came by the table with four plates -- he set them down, then pulled up a chair and sat.

"Heard from my old buddies at the station. Sounds like y'all have a real mess on your hands," he said.

"And then some," Frank said, nodding.

"Anything I can put on the network?"

"What network?" Johnny asked.

"Bunch of us retired guys. We can keep an eye out if you've got a description. Call if we see anything. And we can keep it closed-circuit and quiet -- one of us sees something, it goes right to you."

"They're all over the city," Frank said. "Might not be a bad idea."

"Agreed," Johnny said. He gave Gary a quick rundown of the details Vassily had given them on the suspect. He also let Gary know about the black Ford Edge with fake plates. He wrote his cell number on a napkin and handed it to the big man.

"Got it," Gary said, pulling out his iPhone and tapping away. "I'll email the boys. We'll let you know what we can find out."

"Thanks. I have a feeling we'll need all the help we can get," Johnny said.

After finishing their breakfast and more coffee, the group split up. Johnny dropped Eric at the Doubletree to pick up his BMW -- then he headed for South Omaha.

* * *

"Yep. Still shitty," Johnny mumbled.

Alex Kelley's neighborhood didn't look any better in daylight -- if anything, it looked exponentially worse. The street was filthy. Even the two-inch blanket of still-falling snow didn't hide the paper bags and discarded, broken 40-ounce bottles lying just off the road.

The fresh blanket of snow hadn't even been enough to make the neighborhood white, as it tended to in every other place Johnny had seen. Thanks to the large amount of garbage on the ground, the snow had turned gray as soon as it settled.

Alex's truck was parked out back. He checked all around the vehicle -- no tire tracks, fresh, tiny snow drifts around the wheelbase, and no footprints near any of the doors. The truck hadn't moved since the snow had started collecting more than four hours ago.

Johnny walked around the house to the side door. The two larger apartments in the building were accessible from the front door, but the only way to Alex's was a narrow, unheated staircase. Johnny paused for a moment before climbing the stairs, running though his suspicions in his mind.

The HK-117 was the first red flag. He remembered how adamant Alex had been about using that weapon in Iraq -- much like Vassily's mystery customer. The age didn't fit, though.

Vassily had pegged his customer in his mid-30s, and Alex was 28. Still, with his lack of sleep and weight loss, Alex could pass for 35. In fact, if Johnny hadn't known Alex was in his late 20s, he too might have guessed mid-30s.

Alex fit the rest of the profile, as well. He definitely had the attitude -- the "don't-fuck-with-me" vibe Vassily spoke of. Johnny had seen it the first night he'd tracked Alex down. He acted and appeared the way the Ukrainian had described. The only thing Johnny couldn't figure out was why Alex would murder these people.

He'd seen hatred towards Muslims in returning soldiers before, but it was relatively rare -- he'd seen it more in the general population. After September 11th, Johnny had been on leave in Nebraska, visiting his father and uncle. He'd been shocked at the level of hate he'd seen. Otherwise normal, rational people had suddenly gone nuts, muttering and yelling about "those fucking ragheads." He'd heard anger then, rage. It was unlike anything he'd seen in his life, and it sickened him.

The soldiers who came back from the war usually had more perspective. In Iraq, Johnny had met more normal, working-class folks than he had insurgents or extremists. He now knew the difference between the two. Most soldiers seemed to get it, as he did.

Alex was angry, sure. Unstable, perhaps. But deep down, Johnny didn't believe he'd done this. At least, he didn't want to believe Alex was responsible for the bodies of ten innocent people.

Johnny sighed and climbed the stairs. Alex's door was on the left side of a dirty little landing, one lit by a single, bare bulb. Johnny could see that the door was open a crack.

This is wrong, he thought, drawing his Glock. Alex was too paranoid to just leave his door hanging open. Johnny opened the door slowly. He kept his gun up as he scanned the living room. It was a mess, but Johnny couldn't tell if it'd been tossed or if it was always that way. He heard light snoring from the tiny bedroom just off the trashed, dirty living room -- weapon still ready, he headed towards the sound.

The bedroom didn't even have a door -- it looked like it once did, as there was a doorframe and holes where the hinges would have been. If Johnny was to guess, he figured that the landlord (though "slumlord" was probably more accurate) had cannibalized the door years ago. It might even be the same door he'd pushed open to enter the apartment.

As Johnny cleared the doorframe, he saw Alex crashed out in bed. The bedroom was in much the same shape as the living room -- wrecked. Several empty bottles littered the bedroom's ugly green shag carpet. Johnny checked the only other room in the house -- the bathroom, which also didn't have a door. A heavy sheet hung over the empty frame. Either Alex or a previous resident had nailed it there to at least give the illusion of privacy. Johnny swept the sheet aside and looked in. The bathroom was empty, and strangely clean.

Johnny holstered his weapon and sighed. Alex had passed out on his cheap bed fully clothed. Johnny grabbed the toe of Alex's freshly-polished combat boot and shook it.

"Get up, Alex. It's the po-lice," Johnny said, his voice loud.

Alex sprang into consciousness immediately, his right hand quickly going under his pillow. When he saw Johnny, he froze for a second. Then, slowly, he removed his hand from under the pillow, fingers spread wide to show he wasn't holding anything.

"Gun under the pillow? Really, bro?" Johnny asked.

"Saw it in a movie. Seemed like a good idea," Alex coughed, blinking several times. "What time is it, Sarge?"

"A little after seven in the morning. Your front door was wide open, Alex."

Alex shot up in bed, his eyes now wide open.

"No way. I put extra fucking locks on that cheap thing," he said, running to the bedroom's empty doorframe.

"Locks only work when you lock them. How much did you have to drink last night, Alex?"

"A lot. A fucking lot, but I locked myself in before I started drinking," Alex said. "Don't gimme that look, Sarge. I'm well aware that's weird, dangerous loner behavior."

"It is. At least you were sleeping," Johnny said. "That's kind of like progress, I suppose."

"Baby steps, Sarge. Baby steps."

Alex moved to inspect the front door.

"You know cop stuff. This door look forced to you?" he asked.

Johnny had already seen the locks -- all of them looked fine. He told Alex so.

"Huh. No idea. Sure I locked 'em, though."

"Listen, Alex. . . I came by for a reason. I need to ask -- Jesus. What the fuck is that smell?" Johnny said.

Alex took a deep breath -- from the look on his face, Johnny could tell he smelled it too. It was a thick odor of decay -- flesh rotting.

"Don't know, Sarge. Wasn't there yesterday. Maybe a racoon got under the house and died?"

"It's below freezing outside," Johnny said. "Has been for days. That smell's coming from inside the apartment."

"Probably the fridge busted again," Alex grumbled, crossing the room. At the far side of the living room, an old green fridge, an antique gas range, a sink, and two counters were masquerading as a kitchen. Alex threw open the fridge, and both he and Johnny saw what was inside at the same instant -- a decaying human arm, severed at the elbow.

Severed exactly where Tariq al Waziri's arm had been cut off.

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