Authors: Sean Costello
Ronnie just stared at him, vapor jetting from her flared nostrils. Then she lowered the gun, turning into the wind to go back inside. “I can’t sit around here much longer,” she said, not looking at him. “We leave together—tonight—or I leave alone and to hell with you.”
Breathing hard, Dale followed her inside.
Ed barked his brother’s name into the handset a couple more times—“Dale?
—but it was clear the dummy was gone.
He cradled the receiver and looked across his desk at the two men Randall Copeland had given him as enforcers, Sanj and Sumit Sengupta, thirty-something East Indian brothers with meticulously coiffed hair and a peculiar skill set that made them ideally suited for the job. And although they always did exactly as they were told, without hesitation or complaint, Ed had never quite gotten used to them. Two Bollywood-handsome dudes in expensive suits and Armani overcoats who had no qualms about torturing a man for hours after they’d gotten what they wanted out of him, and then carving him up into tidy Glad Bag-sized filets for disposal. And while from a businessman’s perspective Ed understood the necessity of the process, the fact that these guys clearly relished doing it gave him the willies, pure and simple.
Of the two, though, Sumit, the youngest, creeped Ed out the most. He was the instigator, the one who always took things too far. The man had a genuine taste for the wet work. Ed suspected that Copeland gave his lieutenants crazy fuckers like these to remind them of what lay in store should they ever decide to step out of line. And it was working like a charm today.
Ed got up and stood behind the brothers, knowing it made them nervous. He said, “I know where he is.”
One of Trang’s men had called him in a panic about an hour ago, describing in broken, rapid-fire English the bloody mess at the take-out joint. Fortunately for the caller, he’d been out doing another buy during the exchange and had come back hours later to find the three men dead, Trang with his balls blown off. And now Ed had to deal with it.
Dale had left him no choice.
He said, “One night when we were kids he decided to take the old man’s Caddy out for a joyride, but the dummy ran over the dog backing out of the garage. The old man loved that little mutt. Dale panicked and decided to run away. Drove all the way to our uncle’s cottage on Kukagami Lake. Dimes to donuts, that’s where he is.”
Turning in his chair, Sanj said, “So what now?”
“Now I gotta go see Copeland.”
Sumit stood. “I’ll get the car.”
Ed said, “No, I’ll do it. You two take Sumit’s Mercedes, it’s got four-wheel drive.” He took a key out of his vest pocket and handed it to Sanj saying, “Spare key to the Ram; try to bring it back in one piece.” Then he returned to his desk and started drawing a map. “It’s a long drive, but easy enough to find.”
When he was done, he handed the map to Sanj and said, “He’s an asshole, no escaping that. So far over the line right now Jesus Christ Himself couldn’t save the kid. But he’s still my brother.” He dug a single .45 caliber round out of his vest pocket, kissed its the blunted tip then handed it to Sanj. “Quick and painless, understood?”
Sanj said, “Yeah, Ed. It’s my specialty.”
“Good. Call me when it’s done.”
Adjusting his boom mike, Tom said, “This is QVB airborne over Biscatosi Lake. ETA Home Base in approximately one hour.”
Mandy’s voice in his headset: “Acknowledge, Quebec-Victor-Bravo. That storm front reach you yet?”
Leveling off at two thousand feet, Tom said, “Still creeping this way, but I think I can get around it. What’s it like there?”
“Flurries right now, but it’s pretty dark out your way. Birthday or not, Tom Stokes, you put down and wait it out if you have to. Steve’ll understand.”
Tom said he would, but he hated the idea of missing his son’s birthday; and what made it even more special was the fact that they shared a birth date. How often did that happen? Tom saw it as the most important occasion of his life now. And he was already running late, dusk less than an hour away. He’d hoped to meet his son as he got off the school bus.
Mandy had been right, of course. If there was work to be done, he couldn’t resist doing it. Just like his dad. He could have split those stove lengths another day and been home with plenty of time to spare. And that sky was looking much worse now than he was letting on.
Mandy said, “I know what you’re thinking.”
Tom reduced power to seventy-five percent, settling in at a cruising speed of 125 knots. He said, “Oh? And what might that be?”
“Promise me you’ll sit it out if the weather gets bad.”
“Roger that. Any rug rats show up yet?”
“Nice try, Stokes. I need you to
you’ll sit it out if it gets bad out there.”
Mandy said, “That’s how I got pregnant the first time,” and Tom laughed.
He said, “Mandy, I promise, okay?”
“I think of it more as a Buick,” she said, and Tom pictured her wedged into the rolling chair in front of the desk at home, leaning over the huge mass of her belly to reach the Comlink handset. She was already three days overdue.
He said, “Wouldn’t it be wild if you delivered today?”
Chuckling, Mandy said, “I don’t even wanna think about it.” She said, “Oh, Steve just got off the bus,” and Tom could almost see the little guy hopping down off that high step with only his face showing in his red snowsuit, waving to his mom in the window. “Wanna say hi?”
“You know I do.”
While he waited Tom reduced power again and began a gradual descent, a squall coming up on him all of a sudden. The sky ahead was sheer gunmetal now, forward visibility less than a mile, and it occurred to Tom that he might actually have to take his wife’s advice and sit this one out.
He glanced out the side window at the terrain below: blunt stone hills dotted with scrub; lakes of all sizes, flat, blue-white patches amidst the humps of pre-Cambrian rock. In a few minutes he’d be over the Kukagami tourist area; if he did have to put down, chances were good he could find a cozy ice-fishing shack and some company to pass the time with.
At a thousand feet he banked left, thinking if he got lucky he could flank the worst of it, lose only twenty minutes or so.
Then that sweet little voice was in his head, subdued as it always was when his son talked to him over the radio.
* * *
Red-faced from the cold, Steve took the handset from his mom and said, “Hi, Dad.”
“Hey, big guy,” Tom said, his voice scratchy with static now. “Happy Birthday.”
“Happy Birthday, Dad. Will you be home soon?”
Tom said, “Before you know it,” and the doorbell rang.
Steve said, “Someone’s here,” and took off running, almost dropping the handset passing it back to his mom.
“I bet that’s Fran and her daughter April,” Mandy said into the mike. “I think our boy’s a little sweet on her.”
Tom replied, but his words were garbled by static now. With fresh concern Mandy said, “Tom, are you reading me?” and Steve came bombing into the room with April, a tiny five year old cutie in a frilly pink party dress. Fran, the girl’s mom, came in as Steve pressed his ear to his mother’s belly and invited April to do the same.
Ignoring them, Mandy said, “Tom?
” and everyone took a tentative step back, forming a silent tableau around her.
* * *
Tom heard his son say, “Someone’s here,” through a burst of static, then lost contact. There was some turbulence now, a couple of solid bumps, then a real good one, the Cessna dropping like a stone for about thirty feet, giving Tom that weightless feeling in his gut.
He heard his wife’s voice only in fragments now—“...sky...dark out there...set down...”—then nothing but static. White noise.
He banked the aircraft away from a towering storm cloud and started looking for a place to land.
Even through her anger Ronnie noticed the sound—the distant buzz of a small aircraft—and thought it odd, someone out flying in weather like this. But the thought was gone as quick as it came and she bent over her coke mirror for the last two lines, cool crystals bracing her nerves through a cocktail straw.
Fucking Dale. Like talking to a wall.
It boggled her mind how she wound up with wimps like him. It was her only weakness, falling for puppy dogs like Dale, little boys who needed their mommies. When she thought about it, which was as little as possible, she guessed it was because stronger men always ended up treating her like property. Dale, at least, showed her respect. Still, she wished he’d show some balls right now. She’d told him a half hour ago to get his shit together, they were leaving, and what does he do? Another hit of smack, then runs himself a bath. Fucking moron.
“You’re a waste of skin,” Ronnie said, straightening now, her husky voice raised. “You hear me, Dale?”
She looked down the hall at the closed bathroom door, then out through the picture window at the storm that had come up all of a sudden, hard flakes riding in off the lake on a bitter wind. Unbelievable. What in the name of Christ was she doing in a shit hole like this?
“I’m getting out of this deep freeze,” she said, shouting now. “You want to sit here and wait for a bullet, be my guest, but I am gone.”
She went back to gathering her things—coke mirror, cigarettes, pink Bic lighter, the Colt .380—stuffing it all into her floppy leather bag. It was pointless talking to Dale when he was wasted, but she wanted to sting him, stick it in and break it off. If they’d headed south like she said, not looked back until they hit Miami...
“Ziggy said I could come crib with him,” Ronnie said, aiming her words at the bathroom door. “Anytime. Can you picture it, Dale? Ziggy’s condo in Palm Beach? Unlimited coke? Ziggy’s big black dick—and me. You getting all
in Panavision, you junkie fuckweed?”
She paused, listening, then picked up the gym bag and the briefcase, liking it’s heft. She strode down the hall to the front entrance, side-kicking the bathroom door on her way by.
In the foyer she set her cargo on the mat and pulled on her coat, not bothering to do it up. She said, “Last chance, Dale. You coming or not?” When she got no reply, she walked back to the bathroom door and shoved it open. She stood in the doorway, looking at the back of Dale’s head, all that was visible over the rim of the old claw foot tub. There was a collapsible dinner tray Dale had set up next to the tub with his smokes and lighter on it, his works and a couple of beers from his uncle’s fridge. Trang’s 9mm Beretta was on there, too.
“You’re going to die, Dale,” Ronnie said. “If Copeland doesn’t do you for ripping him off, you’re going to O.D. Either way, you can count me out.”
She tugged Dale’s engagement ring off her finger and tossed it into the tub. It landed with a soft
between Dale’s splayed legs and sank in lazy arcs to the bottom.
“’Till death do us part,” Ronnie said. “Look at you, man. You’re already dead.”
She watched him a moment longer, still as a statue in the tub, too stoned to see what was happening. Then she picked up the dope and the money and went out the front door into the storm, in her anger barely aware of the small aircraft, closer now, and it’s faltering engine.
The truck started on the first try and Ronnie drove out of the yard without looking back.
“This is Home Base calling Quebec Victor Bravo,” Mandy said, fighting a wave of nausea. She’d had terrible ‘morning’ sickness with this pregnancy, the kind that lasted all day, and stress only made it worse. “Come in, please. QVB, are you reading me? Tom?”
Earlier, after doing her best to reassure Steve that everything was going to be fine, she’d asked Fran to take the kids out to the family room and get them started on a video game or something. As if on cue, the doorbell rang again and Steve got right back into the birthday spirit, racing out to see who it was. That had been ten minutes ago, minutes that dragged like hours, and now her throat was parched with the strain of her repeated, fruitless calls over the radio.
Fran came into the room now saying, “Any luck?”
Mandy put on her game face and shook her head.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Fran said, patting Mandy’s shoulder. “And don’t worry, I’ll stay as long as you need me.”
“Thanks, Fran. I’m going to give him another five minutes, then I’m going to call Search and Rescue in Trenton and put them on alert.”
Mandy returned to the radio then, resuming her efforts to reach her husband. Fran lingered a moment, then returned to the family room, the place alive now with chattering kids, squalling kazoos and the manic rev of video game engines.
Ed Knight arrived at Randall Copeland’s Hamilton mansion as the sun was going down. Copeland kept an armed guard at the wrought-iron gate, and Ed gave the poor jackass a sympathetic wave. Twenty-five below and the mook was standing out here in a fall jacket and driving gloves, his pocked face the color of brick.
“Use the side entrance,” the mook said, teeth chattering, and Ed drove past him shaking his head.
Another hard-on met him at the side door, this one in a strappy T-shirt showing slabs of muscle, and stared at him while he stepped out of his overshoes. The guy frisked him thoroughly, then led him downstairs to a thirty-seat home theater where Copeland sat alone, sipping a cocktail and watching a Jackie Chan movie.
He saw Ed come in and waved him over, muting the volume as Ed took a seat next to him. Copeland was a big man in his late fifties with the imposing thickness of one who still possessed great physical strength but, through a life of continual excess, had managed to insulate himself in a layer of fat that seemed dense enough to deflect bullets. In Copeland’s case this was almost literally true. A couple of years back, in the can at one of his favorite restaurants, a rival crime boss had pumped three .38 caliber rounds into his belly and Copeland had still managed to break the man’s neck before walking back to the bar to call an ambulance.