Read Never Play Another Man's Game Online

Authors: Mike Knowles

Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense

Never Play Another Man's Game

BOOK: Never Play Another Man's Game
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Also by Mike Knowles

Darwin's Nightmare

Grinder

In Plain Sight

For Andrea.

It could be for no one else.

CHAPTER ONE

T
he knock came at exactly seven in the morning. I was standing in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea and reading a story in the paper about a kid who had been dragged half a kilometre in a hit and run. The paper had plenty of quotes from the kid's parents, but no answers as to why the fifteen-year-old was out on the street, by himself, at three in the morning. Seven wasn't early for me — I didn't sleep much anymore, but it was too early for someone to be at the door. The knock had a fast beat: three solid knocks in quick succession. After the sounds, a heavy silence settled in like a fog. The quiet was interrupted by the sound of the furnace sputtering to life. The old machinery was struggling to keep up with the November chill.

I put my tea down and walked to the pantry. I had everything from the second shelf on the counter when the second set of knocks on the door sounded. I didn't waste time wondering who was outside — I knew who it was. Not long ago, I killed a cop and a few Russian gangsters. I thought I had gotten out clean, but the knocks saiddifferent. It was too early for salesmen, and I had never met one of my neighbours. It had to be the police at the door — Russians don't knock.

I poured three times, not caring about the overflow that soaked the counter. I had just put the metal container down and started corking when a third set of knocks rang out. Something was shouted, but all I picked out was the word “police.” The word was distorted from its trip through the door and down the hall, but it was understandable enough.

I had started taping when there was a new sound. The knocking had been replaced with a single sharp noise. Someone thought that they could kick my front door down. I grinned at the image of what had to be going on outside. Someone would be clutching his foot and swearing. The door had about half an inch of an old wooden door glued to the surface of a much more solid metal door. A foot would bounce off the door like bullets off Superman's chest. I had finished taping when something much more substantial hit the door. The sound came a second and then a third time. The third strike was louder than the previous two and I knew the door had started to buckle. I lit the tampon taped to the neck of the one-litre glass bottle and shouldered through the swinging kitchen door when the fourth blow sent the outside door crashing inward. The Molotov was airborne as the first cop stepped inside. The cop only managed to get one foot inside when the corked bottle exploded, sloshing the turpentine inside against the solvent-soaked fiery tampon duct-taped to the neck of the bottle. The patch of wall above the door burst into flames as a spray of liquid fire splashed onto the walls and floor. The police dove for the lawn while I backed into thekitchen.

I had managed to make three Molotov cocktails inunder a minute. I kept the bottles, tape, turpentine, lighter, and feminine fuses in the pantry for a special occasion. Most people have food in the kitchen for unexpected company — I kept something for other kinds of visitors. I took the open container of turpentine and pushed the swinging door again. I saw the police on the porch shielding themselves from the flames; they didn't see me toss the can into the hall. The fluid went up in a whoosh as I dashed back the way I came. I lit the second Molotov, threw it against the wall, and the kitchen blossomed into an inferno as I grabbed my coat and slipped into the garage. I got behind the wheel, buckled up, started the engine, and drove straight through the garage door.

The police had parked on the street, not wanting to announce their presence. Their tactical decision gave me enough room to drive across the neighbour's lawn and around the crude roadblock set up in front of the neighbour's house. None of the cops were prepared for a car chase and I saw men running towards cruisers in my rear-view as I drove down the street.

The Volvo was a custom job; the exterior was old and worn but the engine under the hood could have almost met drag racing standards. The car was at eighty before I turned the corner and at a hundred by the time I skidded onto the main road. I weaved through the early morning traffic, using the sidewalk as a passing lane, until I saw the first major intersection. I careened around the corner and aimed at the bumper of a Hummer. The black
h3
was a scaled-down version of the original design. The new Hummer was for yuppies and assholes, not soldiers. I rear-ended the
SUV
and felt the seatbelt catch my body as it was thrown forward and then back. I pulled the gun I kept holstered under the seat, lit the last Molotov, and opened the door. The
H3
driver was already out of his car with his arms extended in a
what the fuck?
gesture. The anger changed to confusion when he saw me pitch a flaming bottle into my own car. The Volvo was suddenly a fireball and the
H3
driver, a fat man in a leather jacket, was backing off. I grabbed him by collar, pressed the gun into his chubby neck right below his Bluetooth ear bud, and forced him back into the
SUV
. The fat man scrambled over the seat to the passenger side with his hands in the air as I slid into the Hummer. The other motorists and pedestrians were looking back and forth between the Hummer and the flaming Volvo. Some already had cell phones in their hands either to take pictures or to call for help. I put the Hummer in gear and hit the tail end of the green light. I used my elbow to shut up my passenger and then aimed the
SUV
for the highway.

CHAPTER TWO

One Week Later

The Shih Tzu in her arms couldn't have weighed more than two pounds. The pup had matted fur and an underbite. If Ruby Chu liked holding the dog, I couldn't tell. She let the animal lick her hand but pulled away whenever the dog went for her face. The mutt was young, just weeks old, and probably inbred, but it knew the score already. The more affection it showed, the longer it stayed out of the little box it called home. I had picked the pet store in Limeridge Mall for the meet once I had found Ruby. I learned through a friend that she was spreading word, and cash, that she wanted to see me. Ruby and I went way back, but that wasn't why I set up the meet. I didn't owe Ruby Chu a thing; we had lost contact years ago and I was fine with that. I had thought she had been too, but hearing that she was looking for me told me different. I didn't trust her — I had pissed off too many people and pulled too many triggers to think that there was anyone out there who just wanted to catch up. My life was an exercise in invisible minimalism. What remnants of a traceable existence I possessed would be hard to see with a microscope. I could count the people I saw more than once a year on the fingers of my right hand. That made the idea of someone suddenly deciding to look me up hard to accept as coincidence. I set up a meet with Ruby to see who, if anyone, was pulling the strings. Maybe the cops were using her; worse, maybe it was the Russians. I needed to know if someone was hunting me, and to do that I had to do a little hunting myself.

I started by following the whispers. I checked bars and asked about Ruby asking about me. I spread a little money of my own and found out that she was coming around every few days to look for me. The schedule had been steady for over two weeks — too urgent for an old friend looking to catch up. I spent the next two nights watching Sully's Tavern from the mouth of a nearby alley. The spot I chose was home to a Dumpster belonging to an all-day breakfast place. The smell of rotting bits of fried eggs and grease kept people from using the alley as a shortcut or an impromptu place to get high. The garbage even smelled bad enough to keep hungry scavengers away; there were plenty of other places to get a free bite that didn't trigger a gag reflex from ten feet away. The shifts watching the bar door open and close went slow. I spent the first hours of the first shift learning how to relax into the smell. There was no way to avoid it — it was everywhere and any attempt to combat it would just bring attention to me. Instead, I had to accept the smell and let it in. I gradually became able to take deeper and deeper breaths until I was relaxed in the dark and completely invisible.

“It's like that movie with the leather-faced Australian,” my uncle had once said.


Crocodile Dundee
,” I said. My uncle never knew the proper names for anything that wasn't directly linked to his wallet or his survival. Over the span of my apprenticeship, I learned to decipher his language of vague clues and basic descriptions.

“Yeah, stupid movie, but there's this one part where the blonde is filling up her canteen at the water's edge.”

“I know the part,” I said.

“I bet you do, but I ain't talking about her ass, great as it is, I'm talking about the crocodile.”

“It attacks her,” I said. I had seen the movie dozens of times. I had dropped out of school in favour of becoming a professional thief like my uncle. Instead of learning algebra and biology, I robbed banks and ripped off people who had more money than sense. I had a lot of late nights and
Crocodile Dundee
was a staple of late-night television.

“Yeah, the fucking thing goes for her throat. How's she miss it? It's right there the whole time. Watch the movie, not her ass, and you'll see it. Damn thing is so still, it doesn't matter that it's twelve feet long and a couple hundred pounds. Being still is the same thing as being gone.”

It was another lesson I didn't understand right away. I tried to get my head around it, but the stillness he talked about wasn't there. It was the first time in my life that my uncle didn't attempt to beat the rest of the lesson into me. Usually, anything worth teaching had both an oral and a physical component. What was said was reinforced through rigorous repetition and painful examinations. Stillness was a different lesson. The word was whispered again and again while we watched whatever it was we were going to take. Inside a car a block away, my finger would begin to tap on the window and my uncle would whisper one word, “Still.” My toe tapping while we opened a bank account in a branch we were about to close for a day would be reprimanded with a quiet, familiar mantra, “Still.”

Looking back, I realized that the lesson was something that could never have been beaten into me. Being afraid of a punch, or an elbow, would have never allowed me to be still. I had to learn it on my own. As I remembered each job in my mind, I recalled the subtle changes that took place. Surveillance began in cars blocks away, then moved to watching from across the street. Then the car disappeared and I started watching from crowds. Eventually, I cased jobs alone from distances close enough to hear a whisper. Over time, I had learned to be still.

I waited in the alley, like the crocodile in the movie, for Ruby to stop by the bar for her own drink. When she finally showed up, on the second night, she didn't see me. She checked the alleys and doorways from her side of the street, giving each dark space equal consideration. I watched her look into my hiding space from where she stood and felt no rise in my pulse. I was part of the darkness. Still. Ruby moved on and continued looking around the street. When she was finally happy with what she saw, she walked into Sully's. I stayed where I was and watched the bar. A second later, there was movement in the window and I saw someone looking out at the street. Almost fifteen years since I had seen her and she was still a pro. I watched her check the street again and then I picked up the car I had boosted from the airport parking lot. Forty minutes later, Ruby walked out of the bar; I watched her from under a burnt-out street light. I let the old con woman get around the corner before I started the car and followed.

I was driving a Honda Civic that was way more than five years old. Since losing the Volvo, I had been getting by without a car, but on a job like this wheels were necessary. I had boosted the Civic early that morning; it was a good choice. The grey car was common in the city, fast enough for what I needed, and the thick layer of frost on the windshield meant it had been there at least overnight. I took the car from the airport to the hospital and cruised the underground lot until I found another Civic. I parked nearby, switched plates with the doppelganger, and drove away with a clean vehicle.

I rounded the corner and caught sight of Ruby getting into a red Chevy Malibu. I accelerated and put my high beams on. When I passed Ruby, I watched her look away to avoid the harsh oncoming glare. She wouldn't have been able to identify the make of the car let alone the identity of the driver. I rounded the block and pulled to the curb; a few seconds later, the red Malibu passed by. I rolled away from the curb and fell in behind the Chevy. I followed Ruby to two more bars; she gave each one the same forty minutes that she gave Sully's Tavern. By one a.m., Ruby was on her way out of the downtown core. I followed her off King Street and wound through a few side streets until the Malibu pulled to the curb in front of a small house on Aberdeen. I had already clicked the headlights off when we entered the residential neighbourhood so there weren't any beams of light when I pulled to the curb fifty metres up the street from the Malibu.

Ruby crossed the boulevard and the sidewalk and walked up a short set of stairs leading to a small red brick house. Ruby entered the darkness of the porch and then disappeared into the house. I waited up the street, watching windows light up and go black before the house finally went dark. I pulled away from the curb, gave the car and the house one last look, and then went home.

My eviction the week before had cost me almost every possession I had. All of my tools, clothes, and what money I kept in the house went up in smoke as soon as the flames found the propane tanks I kept upstairs. The papers had done a front-page story on the explosion and the injuries to several police officers, but there wasn't much follow-up. What little the police knew about me atomized when their only lead blew up in their faces. The next day, I had rented a house just outside the core on Queen Street. The landlord, a grumpy painter, rented me the basement and the first floor of his pre-war house for the first two months' overpriced rent up front and in cash. I was fine with paying too much for a little while. The building kept me close to the city and offered both privacy and security — there were two exits to two different streets and a basement door that led to a backyard. I put a new lock on each door to keep the landlord from snooping and made do with the new space. There was nothing to sit on, not even a bed, but the new place would work until I found something more permanent. With the house, I had burned the front I lived behind. It would take some time to build up a new identity to hide under.

I ate, slept, and went back to Ruby's for ten the next night. I took a spot fourteen car-lengths away from the Malibu and watched the house. There were lights on, but I had no way to know if Ruby planned to hit the town again. Ruby had been by two bars after Sully's. I had been by each one after I heard she was looking for me. From what I had heard, she wasn't in every night. That either meant she was checking other places other nights, or that she was working a rotation. I got comfortable in the seat and waited. The November air was frigid and its cold fingers worked their way into the car. I sat in the below-zero silence watching the house. I left the engine off; a car parked on the street with the engine running would attract unwanted attention. I waited until one before I backed out of the space and turned around. I was being extra cautious with Ruby. I didn't want to risk a chance of her seeing my car drive by her house. The sight could easily set off something in her con brain that she would feel as gut instinct. I didn't want to give her any warning. I wanted her thinking she was the one doing the looking so that she would never see me coming.

I was back the next night just in time to see Ruby leave. The Malibu pulled away from the curb with a screech of tires and tore down the street. I didn't follow the car; instead, I stayed where I was and watched the house. For twenty minutes, I watched the windows. All of the lights were off and no one opened the curtains to look at the street. At ten thirty, I got out of the car and walked towards the house on the opposite sidewalk. I passed Ruby's place and crossed the street when I reached the park a half a kilometre up the road. I walked down the other side of the street watching for any nosey homeowners who might be peering into the street from their living rooms. When I was sure that I was not being watched, I turned off the sidewalk and walked over the lawn to the side of Ruby's house. The space between the house and the neighbours was separated by a six-foot-tall wooden fence. The solid fence, and the lack of a light on the side of the house, made picking the lock easy. No one noticed me crouching beside the reinforced metal door. The lock took thirty seconds to turn.

I opened the door and stepped inside unafraid of tripping an alarm system. Ruby was a grifter — she ran cons, picked pockets, and committed every type of fraud imaginable — so she would never want the law in her house even if she were the victim of a crime. I checked for an alarm just in case, but I was right. I then checked if anyone else was home. All of the lights in the house were off, but that didn't mean the house was clear — someone could have been sleeping. I checked each room and found no one catching zzzs. The house was empty and there were only size-four clothes in the closets. Ruby lived alone. Throughout the house was picture after picture of Ruby with a young boy. In each picture, the boy got bigger and older until the boy maxed out and no longer grew. I'd never known that Ruby had a kid.

I walked away from the frames and began a deeper search of the house. I found money stashed in a coffee can in the freezer, a gun under the mattress, and several fake pieces of
ID
with the same woman's face on them. I also found three wigs in the bathroom. All three were the same colour and the same length — each just in a slightly different style. Inside the medicine cabinet, I found more pill bottles than any person should have. I also found a daily pill dispenser. I popped open the pill slot for the next day and saw that Ruby would be taking twelve pills on Tuesday. I didn't recognize any of the names etched on the pills, but the cancer pamphlets on the night table filled me in.

Ruby had lung cancer. To fight the disease, she had been going through radiation and chemo. The pamphlets listed hair loss as a possible side effect; the wigs confirmed it as a definite. I went back into the bathroom and looked at the wigs. Beside the three, there was a fourth Styrofoam head that was bald. This was the style that Ruby had chosen for the night. I pulled the folded piece of paper from my pocket, placed it in front of the head under a prepaid cell that I had bought the day before, and then I walked out the door.

The next day, I tailed Ruby to Limeridge Mall. She drove a lot more carefully and checked behind her a lot more often after she had found my note, but it didn't matter — I was able to stay far behind her because I had the advantage of knowing exactly where she was going. Ruby parked where I had told her to and went into the mall.

I followed her inside and waited for her to sit down in the food court. From the second floor, I could see down into the dining area. Ruby sat alone for five minutes; she did nothing to signal anyone. She looked a lot like I remembered. But now, she looked more like the older sister of the petite Asian woman of my memories. She wore jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. On her shoulder, she carried a large leather purse. The jet-black wig she wore had been on the second Styrofoam head the night before. It must have been an expensive wig because I would have never noticed it was faux hair had I not been inside her house.

BOOK: Never Play Another Man's Game
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