Authors: P. T. Deutermann
“Let me get this straight—you’re security contractors at a commercial power plant who’ve followed me, broken into my room, with at least one gun visible, and the reason I shouldn’t break out my cell phone and dial 911 is . . . ?”
“First of all, your cell phone is over there on the desk, and we have the battery. And young Billy here isn’t going to let you go over there and get it or anything else.”
I looked at young Billy, whose arm remained straight out with nary a tremor. That really was impressive.
“Secondly, your ‘going away’ is the operative part. It’s really good advice. We’re sorry for your loss and all that. We don’t know what happened, either, but what we do know is that the bad shit, whatever it was, didn’t come through my perimeter.”
My Bureau, and now my perimeter. “It came through somebody’s perimeter,” I said. “You got a name? Cops’ll want to know.”
He laughed softly. “You’re not going to call the cops, Mr. Richter. Unless you startle young Billy here, nothing’s going to happen. We’re going to leave, and you’re going to pack. Feel free to spend the night, but tomorrow, you’re going back to your fascinating private-eye work in beautiful downtown Triboro, North Carolina.”
“And if I don’t?” I said.
“There will be unpleasant consequences. The array of federal agencies involved in keeping nuclear power plants safe is, let’s see, how shall I put this—legion?”
“Oh,” I said. “Legion. Dozens of inept bureaucracies, tripping over each other while fucking up by the numbers?
legion? When you said unpleasant, I thought you meant Billy the Kid here.”
His semijocular, we’re-all-buddies-in-this-together expression slipped a little. “That can be arranged, too,” he said. “He’s young, but he’s impressive.”
“Holding that .45 straight out like that for all this time—that’s impressive,” I said. “But I’d guess he needs two other guys for anything personal.”
Billy’s eyes narrowed. I’d hurt some more feelings.
The third man turned around at last. He, too, was lean from top to bottom, in his early forties, with close-cropped blond hair and the face of a Nazi death camp commandant, complete with disturbing pale blue eyes. “You can try me if you’d like,” he said.
“Actually, I prefer girls,” I said. I stepped to one side and held open the door. I saw Billy’s trigger finger, which had been resting alongside the trigger guard, slip into firing position. For some reason, though, I didn’t think he’d shoot. They hadn’t come here to shoot people. This time, anyway.
“Why don’t you clowns just leave?” I said. “And now’d be nice. You’re rent-a-cops, and you have zero authority outside of your contract area. The fact that you’re even here means you probably
have a hole in your so-called perimeter, so why don’t you go work on that instead of bothering Mr. Hilton’s paying guests?”
The older guy sniffed and then got up, zipping up his windbreaker. “Okay, Mr. Richter. We’ll leave. But trust me, you will, too. C’mon, people.”
He walked past me without a second glance, as did the SS officer look-alike. Billy sat in his chair for one second longer than necessary, and then pocketed the .45 as he got up.
“That must be a relief,” I said. “My arm was getting tired just watching you.”
Billy sauntered by, never taking his eyes off my face. “Later,” he muttered.
“Earlier is better than later,” I said to his back. “That is, if you’re man enough without your ace buddies there. Nighty-night.
I closed the door and slid the bolt and chain. I went into the bathroom and checked for my weapon. It was there, but the magazine was gone. So they
found it. I picked up my cell phone, and yes, it felt lighter than before. I picked up
each of the two house phones, but neither of them worked, either. Thorough contractors, I’d give them that. If I wanted to squawk, I’d have to leave the room, and I really didn’t want to venture too far from my room just now. The best I could hope for was that Billy would come back to prove he was a man. I decided to prepare for that possibility.
Fifteen minutes later, there was a quiet knock on the door. I knew better than to peek through the little plastic optic. Our homicide crew had once found a drug dealer pinned to his hotel door by an ice pick that had been hammered into his eye through that little piece of plastic.
“Who is it?” I said in a singsong voice.
“It’s later,” a voice replied, and I recognized young Billy. Oh, good.
“Well, Billy,” I said, “you surprise me again. Why don’t you come on in and get your ass kicked.”
I stepped across the alcove, staying underneath the eyehole, removing the chain as I went. Then I crouched in the closet on the other side of the room door and wedged my shoulder against the wall. I unsnapped the dead bolt, and then, putting one foot about in the middle of the door, I reached over and pushed the door handle down.
He did exactly what I expected him to do, which was to kick the door as hard as he could the moment he heard that handle unlatch. If I’d been standing where someone normally stands when he opens a hotel room door, I’d have been hit in the face with the edge of said door and probably knocked unconscious. As it was, I was able to let the door swing halfway in against my cocked leg, and then I sent it back in
direction with the full force of
right leg. The edge caught him in the forehead and knocked him all the way across the hall, blood spurting from his nose and forehead as he slumped, cross-eyed and barely conscious, into a sitting position against the opposite wall, his scrawny ass on the room service tray. I reached up to the closet shelf, picked up the hallway fire extinguisher I’d lifted ten minutes earlier, and flooded his face with dry powder. He hadn’t let go of his .45, but dropped it now to protect his eyes.
It was a peppy little fire extinguisher. He was still sufficiently stunned that he failed to tuck and roll, and I flat covered his eyes, nose, mouth, and chest with that noxious powder until the spray petered out. Then I threw the empty extinguisher as hard as I could at his right knee, achieving an entirely satisfactory crack and a loud grunt from young Billy. A small cloud of white powder puffed out from his lips when he cried out.
I stepped out into the hallway and retrieved his .45. It looked a lot like mine, a SIG-Sauer model 220. Better than mine, it had a full magazine. I stepped back into my open doorway and then checked the hall. At the far end, to my left, near the elevator bank, stood the older man, leaning against the wall with his hands in his jacket pockets. He was looking at Billy and shaking his head. If ghosts could get nosebleeds, that’s what Billy looked like.
“Good help is hard to find,” I called down to him.
“Ain’t that the truth,” he said. I closed the door so he could retrieve his semi-wrecked, extremely white bad boy. I kept Billy’s gun.
I sighed as I washed some white powder off my own hands. I was pretty sure I’d get to see Billy again one day, and next time he probably would bring his friends. Then again, so would I.
Right now, however, I thought it best to leave town. Billy had been all noise and testosterone, but those other two guys looked like the real deal. Until I knew more about what the hell was really going on here in Wilmington, I’d probably be safer back home. I decided to take a shower, hit the sack, and go back to Triboro in the morning. Or I could call Mary Ellen Goode. I did that and got an answering machine. I told the machine I’d be back in a week and hoped to get together again.
A week later I surveyed my new digs in the village of Southport, a small but pleasant tourist town situated southeast of Wilmington on the estuary where the Cape Fear River pushes
a gazillion gallons of fresh water a day into the Atlantic Ocean. The house itself was a two-story, multi-bedroom affair that rented for obscene sums of money for the five months or so of the summer tourist season and then usually sat empty for the rest of the year. It had spacious wraparound screened porches on both levels and overlooked the river beach and the barrier islands across the Cape Fear estuary. I could see the ferryboat that went over to Fort Fisher ploughing dutifully through a light chop as it approached the landing north of the town. The air smelled of seashore and there was a fine layer of white sand on everything.
I was no longer flying solo, having brought two of my original MCAT team members, Tony Martinelli and Pardee Bell, down from Triboro. Pardee had been one of two black detectives in the MCAT. He was a big guy, two inches taller than I was, who had really enjoyed getting in criminals’ faces, especially black criminals, so he could punk ’em out, as he was fond of saying. Everyone thought Pardee had been brought onto the team to provide some in-house muscle, but he happened to have a degree in computer science from NC State and could do some real damage with a desktop. He was married to a whip-smart trial attorney in Triboro, and he’d lasted for about one week in “retirement” from the sheriff’s office before said lady lawyer told him to go find something useful to do besides cleaning the house twice a day and generally driving her nuts. He’d been a level-headed, highly focused, and very professional deputy sheriff, and we were delighted when he’d called in to join the old crew at H&S.
Tony Martinelli, on the other hand, was half-crazy, in the southern sense of that term, which connotes wary respect for the truly eccentric. He was a little guy, maybe five-seven or -eight with the right boots on, but an effective cop because no one, bad guys or good guys, knew quite what he would do next. His specialty on the MCAT had been finding and then following persons of interest. We’d learned early on to intervene if Tony had been on someone’s tail for more than, say, a day or so, because he would get bored with it and then
things were likely to go sideways. With jet-black hair, emotive brown eyes, and a puckish grin on his face, he looked like an altar boy who’d been caught trying out the sacramental wine. Women usually fell all over themselves to take him under their wings when he went out to party.
And, of course, now that I was in a house instead of a hotel, my trusty German shepherds were along for the ride. Frick was an American-bred sable bitch who would happily amputate the extremities of any intruder. I was her human, and she declined to share. Frack, the larger and older of the two, was an all-black East German border-guard model. He had a disconcerting habit of sitting down and staring at strangers instead of running around and barking like too many shepherds did. He had amber, lupine eyes, and lots of people were more than willing to believe me when I told them that Frack was really a wolf. As any dog owner knows, deterrence is ninety percent of the battle.
I watched Aristotle Quartermain coming down the ocean-front street in an elderly but shiny black Mercedes, holding a piece of paper on the steering wheel and counting house numbers. He finally looked up and saw me waving. The beachfront road was guarded by parking meters on the beach side of the street, and he found one with some time left on it. We gathered in the kitchen, where the coffeepot was happily making a fresh batch of Tony tar.
I’d briefed the whole H&S crew back in Triboro about my visit to Wilmington, cautioning them that the information about radiation poisoning was close-hold, at least for the moment. After a collective expression of shock, none of them knew what to make of it, or what to do with Ari Quartermain’s offer of employment. There was general agreement that I should go back, with help, and see what we could find out about what had really happened to Allie independent of whatever the feds were up to. I had asked Mel Lindsay to see if she could figure out what Allie’s personal business might have been about.
Mel and the office manager had finally managed to unearth a phone number for Allie’s sister, who was indeed
a Department of Defense schoolteacher at a joint Turkish-American air base. Mel knew from conversations that Allie’s sister’s first name was Meredith, but she didn’t know her last name. They tried Meredith Gardner, but the DOD school system drew a blank on that. They did have a Meredith Thomason at the base in Turkey, so we gave that a try. I’d made the actual call and got a surprise.
The phone connection wasn’t great, but it quickly became clear that Ms. Thomason wanted nothing to do with the aftermath of Allie’s death. Allie’s decision to become a cop in the first place had never met with the family’s approval, and the fact that she’d come to a bad end came as no surprise. She’d said this with more than a hint of comeuppance in her voice. She was neither interested in nor capable of making final arrangements. Basically, Allie was estranged from her family. She was as on her own in death as apparently she’d been in life.
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, and I surely didn’t understand this woman’s total lack of sympathy. I hadn’t told her precisely what had happened, and was tempted to when she gave me the brush-off. Then she asked me, as Allie’s employers, could we please just “take care of it”? Somewhat appalled, I’d said I would do that and simply hung up on her.
I brought Ari back to the kitchen and introduced him to my crew, both two- and four-legged. There was a big table in the kitchen, so Pardee, Ari, and I plopped there. Tony went upstairs to get something. I offered coffee, but Ari declined when he saw Pardee’s spoon freestanding in his cup.
“So,” he asked, “what changed your mind?”
I told him about the visit from the Helios physical security posse. He frowned when I told him about Billy the Kid.
“Those guys are mostly ex-military,” he said. “Their boss is a retired Army colonel, name of Carl Trask. Nicknamed Snake. He was one of those beret guys—Ranger or Delta Force, something of that ilk. Has been hiring only former military men, and takes himself and his job very seriously.”