Thursday, June 9, 2011

Chapter Eight

The little guy wasn't in a hurry to start talking. He slowly pulled a gold windproof lighter from his jacket, clicked it open, and touched the tip of the flame to the cigarette in his mouth. I was glad Mike was such a heavy smoker, so I was used to it now, but back when I quit two years ago, this guy lighting up right in front of me would have driven me to homicide.

"Now, we both know why you're here, and why you were at a certain room across the street this morning. You even made it out to the complex, which surprised them."

"Them?" I asked.

"Yes, them. Not me, though. I told them not to underestimate you."

I considered pushing for a more accurate description of who "they" were, but something in the guy's face told me it was pointless. "They" were simply "them." Best to let it stand and move on.

"Well, I'm a smart guy," I said, shrugging my shoulders.

"Hardly," the little guy chortled, sending micro-puffs of smoke my way. "But you are, as I mentioned before, stupidly persistent. It was only a matter of time."

I considered again pouncing on this dude from across the room. How quick could his sniper friend react, anyway? Still, self-preservation instincts kicked in, and I let the comment slide.

"Now. I must warn you -- as a friend, you understand -- that your continued persistence in tracking down this young lady will only result in bad things for you. And not just for you," the little guy continued, nodding slightly at me.

"For who? My family?"

"Patronizing me is not a healthy course of action," he told me. "You don't have a family. Only child, mother died when you were three, father drunkenly crashed his patrol car into a tree in your senior year of high school. But you do have friends -- Mike DeLonge, Quentin Barnes. One in downtown, one in Silver Lake. Quiz me if you don't think I have their exact locations at this very moment."

Shit. "They," apparently, knew everything there was to know.

I was stuck, and I knew it. If this guy didn't get the answer he wanted, I just might live long enough to make it back to LA and find Mike and Quentin dead. I had to say it, but I didn't have to mean it. No rules against lying.

"Fine," I said, sighing. "You've made your point. I'm off the case.'

"It was, of course, the only choice you could make," he told me, nodding. "See that you stay clear. Go back home, take a few days off. The whole situation will be done by the time you go back to work, and you'll never have to spare a thought on it again."

I nodded, gritting my teeth together as I did so. The little guy smoothed out his black jacket, stood, and tucked his cigarettes back into his pocket. As he started for the door, I saw the red dot vanish from my chest.

It would take the little guy's sniper buddy time -- a couple of seconds? -- to reaquire me, and I knew I could move faster than that could happen. In half a second, I had the little guy tackled to the carpet. I'd already punched him once hard in the face, and I was bringing up my fist to deliver another blow. He laughed.

"That was... unwise," he chortled, spitting up a few drops of blood.

The windows suddenly exploded in on us. Gunfire ripped up the walls, the beds, and the door as I threw myself flat on the floor and pulled out my Sig. Don't know who I was planning to shoot at, but it felt better to have it in my hand than not.

The gunfire was flying over my head, and I realized the sniper couldn't see below the windows. That meant he was probably close to the same height in the building across from us, and it also meant I might be able to belly-crawl to the door. I checked the floor next to me -- the man in black was still chuckling on the floor, bleeding from the mouth.

"You should have listened to me, my friend," he shouted over the continuing gunfire. "You would have survived."

"Oh, shut the fuck up," I grumbled, shooting my right leg out and catching him in the side of the head.

The little guy's lights went out almost immediately, and I quickly rifled through his jacket pockets. Inside, I found a Glock .23 pistol, his cigarettes, and a set of car keys. I took the gun and the keys and stashed them in my jacket. Just as I was crawling away, I noticed a small, gold pin on the jacket's lapel, a sweeping, inverted triangle design. It tried to ring a bell in my brain, but nothing came up right away. Maybe the continuous gunfire was distracting me.

I crawled out into the hall, where I could just see people running for the elevators. As soon as I cleared my door, I got up and ran along with them, throwing myself into the elevator just as the doors closed and the car started to descend to ground level.

I knew I couldn't go for my car -- they'd have that covered for sure, and the Imperial Palace Parking garage was small and closed off. It would be a turkey shoot in there. My best bet was to stay with these people in the elevator, try and slip out into the streets in the confusion and get some distance. That was, of course, assuming I could blend in, and that they didn't have guys waiting at every exit.

When the elevator doors opened, the people inside with me simply joined the chaos in the lobby. Surprisingly, there were no cops at the front doors yet. That struck me as odd, as it felt like the little guy's buddy had been shooting at me forever, and the Strip was usually crawling with LVPD. Still, the front doors weren't covered, and the chaotic mess of people was heading that way, so I hunched down into the crowd and spilled out onto Las Vegas Boulevard with them.

Most of them were just standing around outside, not sure what to do after they'd made it out of the building. I immediately took it on my heels, sweating intensely underneath my leather coat. I didn't dare take it off, though -- the two handguns under my jacket were sure to draw some attention, especially so close to an area that had just gotten all shot up. I headed north up the Strip, but there wasn't any strategy behind that. I just wanted to put as much distance between myself and the crime scene as possible.

I knew I was in trouble. Once the cops got there, the Imperial Palace would let them know who was staying in the room that now resembled North Vietnam. About ten minutes after that, they'd have my driver's license picture in every patrol car. The Beast might as well have been parked in Guam, because as soon as the little guy's friends were off it, the cops would be on it. I had no room, no transport, about $25 in my pocket, and a credit card that had about $50 in available credit on it. Couldn't use the card anyway -- as I'd proved last night, it was a nice, easy way to track someone down.

It was pretty stupid to kick the crap out of that little guy. I know this. I should have just done what he told me and walked away, but it wasn't something I thought out. Rage was rarely logical, and that was the fuel behind the little guy's beat-down. I'd made things a whole lot worse for myself, but still...

Damn it felt good to kick the shit out of that guy.

I just kept walking, and ended up at the Riviera after a bit. I was covered in sweat, so I popped inside to get some air conditioning and will my hands to stop shaking. My heartbeat was probably still north of 100 BPM. I know the big, tough-guy move would be to say I wasn't scared, but that would be a lie. You try being calm and collected when someone just pumped a couple of hundred rounds in your direction.

As I wandered around the casino floor, I realized I needed to make a couple of phone calls. The little guy had threatened Mike and Quentin, and while I was sure they could both take care of themselves, I needed to give them a heads-up. My cell battery was still pretty well charged, but the roaming charges were going to be killer. Yeah, you think of strange stuff when you're in panic mode.

I called Mike first and explained what had happened. Mike has more cop buddies than any man I know. It's one of the perks of his job, and the fact that he's actually pretty likeable. He wasn't happy with the situation I'd gotten him into, but I was sure he'd be fine. He'd let his cop buddies know someone was out there with a grudge against him, and they'd keep an eye on him.

Quentin was armed to the teeth and never left the house, so I was even less worried about him. He had cameras covering every inch of his crappy-looking property, so no one would even get close without him knowing about it. Still, I gave him a ring and let him know what was up.

"Damn, man. Another person out to get me? You got a name or anything?"

"Nah. Little guy. Eastern European. Tough as shit. And he has friends."

"No ID at all on him?"

When Quentin asked, I remembered the pin on the little guy's lapel. More importantly, I suddenly remembered where I'd seen it before -- on a wall behind a disinterested secretary in Santa Monica.

"Umbra Dynamics," I told Quentin. "I think the little guy works for them."

"Oh, shit. You really got us into a mess now, boss," Quentin groaned.

"What? You know something about Umbra Dynamics?"

"A bit. Nothing good."

"Think you can hack them for me, get me something to work with?"

I could hear Quentin cover the phone, and even with his hand over the reciever, I could still hear him laugh hysterically for a couple of seconds.

"Seriously, Jake. Umbra is un-fucking-hackable. They're a Defense Department contractor, but they're harder to hack than the Pentagon. If they don't want to kill me already, me trying to hack them will definitely put me on their kill list."

"You saying it can't be done?" I said, smirking to myself in spite of the situation. I knew how Quentin would respond to that.

"Whoa, whoa. Hold on there, big guy. No one said I couldn't. It'd just be a bad idea."

"Hey, you can't do it, you can't do it. No worries."

"Fuck. Give me ten hours. I'll meet you on the top floor of the Stratosphere at midnight," he growled.

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