One Hand Clapping Installment 1

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One Hand Clapping

            a novel

        T. Keith Liggett

 

 

 

“They say you should not suffer through the past.  You should be able to wear it like a loose garment, take it off and let it drop.”

Eve Jessye

Born January 20, 1895

 

 

 

 

            (May 1970, Mekong River Delta, Viet Nam.)

 

I’d been out too long. 

The sun hit the edge of the paddy next to me. 

I was sprinting.  On the dike.  Half crouched.  Abruptly, I was thrown back and twisted to the right.  Then something else grabbed my hip, twisting me back, folding me in half, around to the left.

I heard the shots after I was hit in the hip.  A short thumping burst from a heavy AK.  I remember thinking, “At least the guys at the perimeter will come looking for what’s left.”  Then I hit the water.  Warm.  Like a womb.  Surrounding.  I lay on my right side and half on my stomach, twisted into the water and the dark mud and soft green stalks of the rice.  I felt for my Browning and couldn’t find it.  I tried to crawl, but my legs wouldn’t work and only my left arm moved.  I knew I was bleeding.  I was getting weaker.  Fast. 

The pain began. First dull, then coming as sharp bursting stabs.   I started falling in and out.  I came in and heard some guys talking.  Sing song talking.  Talking Viet.  They were laughing, too.  Boasting.  They finally got the Night Man.

I went out.

I came in again.  Flying.  Soaring.

I was back in Colorado, Aspen, moving over the Highlands and into Maroon Creek towards the Bells.  It was fall.  The aspens stood full spent gold all at once, throughout the basin.  Deeper, richer than any year I remembered.  They stood, barely moving in a late afternoon breeze.  I felt the last heat of the late afternoon wind and marveled at the deep greens of the evergreens against the gold of the aspen leaves.   The air carried the hard sharpness of moving toward night and the moldy odor of fallen leaves lying wet on the trails. 

As I soared up the basin, the air changed.  The higher I went, the cooler it became.  And it was noisy.  And I was so cold.  Shaking to the beat of the noise.

I was out.

In. Still flying

Over Santa Cruz, right over Steamer’s Lane,  Chris and Doug hung down below waiting for a set.  The only ones out.  Doug rode the board I’d sold him before leaving, the Hobie.  I waved and shouted to them.  I wasn’t very high.  The wind was offshore.  As the waves stood up in the shallow water, the spray lifted off the crests and drove sheets of white smoke across the blue of the fall swells.  Chris and Doug kept watching for the set.  Waiting.  They didn’t see or hear me. 

I wondered if I was dead.

I went out.

In. 

I hurt, but not so bad.  A muted comfortable hurt.  I couldn’t move.  Something held me down.  Kept me on my back.  I pushed.  I tried to sit up.  I couldn’t.

It was dark, really more dusk like. I was inside.  I slowly realized I was in a big room.  A low humming permeated air. Windows ran along both sides the length of the room.  I lay next to one of the windows.  In the half-light, I saw others in the room.  They looked like puppets in storage.  All held up by srtings and sticks.

And I had strings.  They came out of my left arm, just like a marionette.  My right arm was strapped to my chest.  Tight.  Real tight.  I still couldn’t move my legs.  And a string came out of my crotch.  Another came out of my stomach, on the left, just above my hip.  I couldn’t figure out what they’d move.  All I could move on my own was my left arm.  A little.  I wondered if the strings made the rest of me move.

I was in a hospital, but whose hospital?  There was a palm tree outside.  That didn’t help.

I remembered the talking about the Night Man.  They’d thought I was dead.

The guys must have found me.

For a little over three months, I recovered in Okinawa.  The first round entered below my right collar bone, passed through just above the lung and exited below my shoulder blade.  They put that together fairly easily.  The second round entered just above my left hip taking a bunch of intestine, clipping a kidney and then headed out.  That was a bad one.

In a month, I was sort of up.  My legs didn’t work all that well.  The doctors kept mentioning things like trauma and shock and I’d be fine in a bit.

“How long?”

“Oh, a while yet.”

After three months and a couple days, they figured they’d fixed all they were able and sent me back across the pond.  The Marines were generous enough to grant me a 45 day leave.  A band played as we walked to the homebound 707.  Played for the guys in chairs, on gurneys and in boxes, too.  I’d almost finished two complete in-country tours and then added some time in the hospital.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go home.  Or even remembered the location or meaning of “home.”

I wanted to be away from people.  Men.  Women.  Children.

Away.

Leaving the plane in Hawaii, I told the Duty Sergeant at the gate I’d finish the ride stateside space available when I felt like it.

In an airport shop, I bought a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of bleached white cotton pants with a string tie waist.  After changing, I stashed the uniform and my satchel in a locker.  Walking out of the terminal, I hailed a cab, still looking like a jar head, but not quite feeling like one.

I asked the cabbie to drop me at a good local travel agency.  Seven dollars and some odd change later, he left me at the door of a little storefront four blocks off the beach.  In the windows, the posters were faded from months in the tropic sun.  With the reds almost totally gone, so blue, they looked like surreal underwater shots.

Walking in, I immediately started shaking from the cold.  An ancient air-conditioner banged away in a back wall window sounding more like a Huey gunship than a machine making cold air.  At one of the two desks an older Japanese lady sat.  The other was empty.  I walked over and sat in the single chair in front of her desk.

She looked me over.  “Good morning.”

“Good morning.  I’m looking to go somewhere a little different.”

“Yes?”  She figured me in the service.  No doubt she saw enough R & R guys walking in looking for something a “little different.”  Clearly, she was not interested.

“I just spent a couple tours in Nam and the last few months in a hospital.  I want to be away from people.  I don’t care about booze, dope, or girls.  I want a bungalow on the beach, warm water, occasional good waves and no people to deal with.”

She smiled, nodding her head.  “I think I understand.  Do you wish to stay on this island or would you travel to another.”

“Makes no difference.”

“Perhaps I know of the place.  Please, let me make a telephone call.”

A couple hours later, I watched the waves pass below the pontoon of a seaplane heading I really didn’t know where.

The house sat back to a grove of trees fifty feet back from the palms delineating the storm line of the beach.  A bookstore on the big island shipped me books on the seaplane once a week.  Evenings, I experimented with recipes from the Dishes from the Orient cookbook I found in the kitchen.  Each day finished on the beach with an hour or so of reading poetry outloud to the waves.  Ferengetti.  Snyder.  Ginzberg.  And the steady pounding of long riding Pacific breakers.

In the middle of the third week I received a post card.

“Charley, Don’t worry about your stuff.  It’s safe at your folk’s old house.  Catch a wave for me.  Joey.”

I wondered how Joey found me.

It was a relief, but I didn’t really care, one way or the other.

 

Chapter One

(Late March, Wyeth, Oregon)

 

Every morning I sit or walk.

I seek the day.

The present.

That day, I walked.

Carefully, dis-engaging my arm and legs from Carole, I rolled from beneath the down quilt and tucked it back around her.  Pulling on a pair of fleece pants, a heavy long sleeved t-shirt from the District 12 Star Championships and fuzzy pullover, I headed out for the walk.

The clouds hung low, loose across the mountains.  The upper slopes lost in a flat gray, devoid of fine detail.  The bottoms sat rich with the spring sharpened greens of vine maples and white bloomed dogwoods scattered among the orange brown basalt cliffs.  The pines stood still in the morning calm, holding summer’s green in these last of winter’s dark days.

The grasses on the path to the river dripped with dew.  It wasn’t raining, but brushing through, my shins quickly became wet and chilled.  Without a breeze, the morning air parted thick with moisture and the smells of spring growth.  Winter’s broken end carried in the air.

The path drops from my house across a small meadow then into a narrow draw leading to from the river.  The Interstate bridges the draw and the wildlife of the valley pass freely below the road.  Tracks of deer, a doe and a couple fawn, a raccoon, a large cat passed leaving tracks in the sandy soil since the rains early the night before.

The Columbia River’s water level changes depending on the Corp’s whims.  Overnight, they decided to lose a couple feet.  Walking across the slippery cobble of the exposed river bottom, reaching the water, I dipped my hands.  The cold numbed my hands to the wrist.  Cupping a little, I wet my forehead and cheeks, moved back to the shore and began my walking.

I walked.  I listened to the birds, the muffled traffic on the highway, the lap of the water on the shore.  I watched greens change from blade to leaf.  The buds ready to burst, rust brown on the branch, tomorrow or the next day leaping into the air with a new green that almost fluoresces.

Finding the practiced pace on the path I’d worn in the months and years of my time at the river, I connected with the day.

Back at the house, I ground coffee and started a pot dripping.  Noticing a message on the phone, I punched in the code to replay the messages from our time out the night before.

There was only the one.  Joey’s.

“Hey, Charlie.  How ya doin’?  And how’s the Gorge these days?  I need a handball partner the day after tomorrow.  It’s a hot, hot game.  How ‘bout it?  No?  Come on.  At least think about it.  It would be good to play again.

“Seriously, this is Joey, Joey R up in Seattle.  You’re a hard one to find these days.  I’ve had a guy looking for you the last couple days.  All he’s found is your bar, a new batch of micro brews and a hangover.  Do you work any more?

“I have a bit of biz I need taken care of.  No ob’s on your part.  I’m not calling any markers on this one.  I need some outside, straight on help.  Should be simple.  Maybe not.  Just give me a listen and walk if you don’t feel good about it.

“Call me at the Blu.  No area code.  Bump the numbers 5 and above by one.  I’ll figure you’re in the Gorge.

“Be talkin’ to you.”

I called the Blu Flamingo in Seattle leaving a simple message, without my name, “I’ll be out until noon or so, Joey can reach me after that” and my slightly altered phone number.

Then wondering what Joey was up to, I walked back into the bedroom with a couple mugs of coffee. I stripped and climbed back into bed. Carole turned to me, with a low humming threw an arm and a leg across my still dew dampened cold body.

“How was your walking?”

“I sat.”

She poked my ribs.  “No you didn’t, you’re too cold.”

First tousling her short blond hair, I dropped my hand to her hip and pulled her closer.  Yoga. One day, not yet, I’d give in to her entreaties to join her in that practice.

“It was good.  There were some big cat tracks in the draw.  Maybe a bobcat.”

“Hmmm.”

I lay there with the taste of coffee in my mouth wondering what Joey wanted.  What was the “biz”?  We’d not been in the biz for a long time.  All social for years.

One Hand Clapping Installment 2

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Chapter 2

            (Hood River, Oregon)

 

Later that morning, Carole left for home, for Chicago.  After dropping her off at PDX, I drove the 65 miles back up the Gorge to Hood River mulling over Joey’s call.

The sun burned through the early morning clouds and the day promised to warm considerably.  The first true warm spring day.  A day for shorts and T’s with a fuzzy top to break the early chill.

Massive ice age floods carved the Gorge only a few thousand years ago. In a couple days, the equivalent of one and a half times today’s North American rivers funneled through the Gorge, a narrow mountain gap in the Cascade Range.  With walls now rising some 4000 feet in places, the days are an endless joy of shape and change, light and dark.

Twenty years ago, I’d taken my part of the biz and bought a dive bar in Breckenridge, Colorado.  With the gentrification of the town, the loss of the true ski bum to the entrepreneur seeking business opportunity, I’d sold.  And did very OK.

After a couple months of traveling, I found Hood River on the dryer end of the Columbia River Gorge.  For over 100 years the valley produced fine apples and pears.  In the early 80’s, the tales of wild summer winds started leaking out to the windsurfing world.  To the east, the Great Basin desert bakes in the summer, often creating a 50-degree differential with the ocean beaches only 200 miles away.  In an effort to equalize, the cool maritime air rushes toward the hot air.  All summer the winds blow 40 or better.  The influx of sailors built to a torrent.  Hood River became the summer windsurfing capital of the world.  And they all leave on the first of September.

The town combines orchards, tourism and athletics in a single setting.  With the sports–windsurfing, white water kayaking, climbing, skiing on Mt. Hood–the town carries the closeness of a familiar mountain town.  The hundreds of acres of long standing orchards give the town an underlying stability.  And the Hispanic pickers add a dose of salsa to what otherwise would be any other white bread yuppie resort town.

Turning off the freeway, I crossed the bridge over the railroad tracks and into the center of town.  Two blocks up the hill, I turned right into a narrow alley and parked, squeezing the Trooper between a dumpster and a brick wall with the remnants of a painted Coca Cola sign barely visible.  Tossing the last of my coffee and the cup into the dumpster, I walked into the back of the Grill.

The building originally served as a fruit warehouse.  Ten years ago or so, the escalating paper value of real estate in downtown Hood River theoretically no longer made industrial use the best and highest use.  The packing company built a new warehouse and packing plant up in Odell, in the middle of the orchards, and divided the old space downtown for commercial “opportunities”.

For some reason, timing, wrong tenants, bad weather, the project never took off.  When I found Hood River, I also found the old Alvik Warehouse empty and for sale.  I bought it and, not knowing what else to do, took one end and cobbled together a bar.  In the next year or so the rest of the space filled out as the Grill started drawing customers.

The ceilings are 15 feet with open industrial metal web trusses.  The river side has large industrial-style metal mullioned windows with chicken-wire glass.  On a clear day, you feel like you’ll land in the river if you fall out a window. The snowy bulk of Mt. Adams lies an apple’s toss away.

After buying the building, I wandered around the Northwest looking for furnishings and a bar back.  The chairs and tables caught my eye at different times and places.  None come close to matching.

The bar back is another story, a true classic.  Mahogany, 10 foot and a bit high, with mirrors, glass door below-counter beer coolers and booze racks on each side of the mirror. Originally a fixture in Baker City bar, to the east, it sat disassembled collecting dust and chicken droppings in a barn for years, maybe 20 years.  I was having a beer in the Geiser Grand Hotel and mentioned, “I ‘d like a bar like that.”

The bartender, an old timer, said, “I know one.  Only it’s quite a bit bigger.  And in a barn.  In pieces.”

A couple phone calls later and a short ride out of town, I was looking at what I knew would work perfectly.  Work perfectly with a bit of restorative work, that is.

The bar itself is a single wide mahogany plank spliced down the middle of its 40 foot length.  Maple butterflies secured the splice. A mix of equally old bar stools sit screwed to the floor along its length.

Walking in, I nodded at John leaning on the back bar coolers in his normal, languid manner.  Growing-up on an orchard at the foot of Mt. Hood, John carried the attentive relaxed manner of a long-time mountain kid.  Seasons matter, the rest of it will fall in place, you simply let it ride a little.  After ski racing on the Hood River High School team, for the University of Colorado on a scholarship, he’d been tagged for the U.S. Ski Team Development squad.  After graduating, in a fit of post-September 11th redneck patriotism, he joined the Army and shipped off to Iraq.  He was a slender, deceptive six-four, with a huge mustache.  The ponytail he grew after getting out of the Army just got longer.  Coming and going in style, his hair remained pulled straight back through the years.

At one of the middle tables, toward the front, two men argued.  One, standing, wore a satin purple muscle shirt and a pair of wild brush stroked jams.  With his cropped hair and short sculptured broad build, he looked like a miniature Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The other, leaning back in his chair, looked tall even sitting down.

As the guy standing ranted, punctuating every phrase with arm motions, the one seated casually looked at his fingernails, carefully not paying attention to the growing tirade from Muscle Beach.  In a yellow polo shirt and white tennis shorts, he sat with the air of a New England blue blood.  No doubt, for generations his family shopped the same stores and vacationed in the same house on Martha’s Vineyard.

The two men, so totally engrossed in their own scene, didn’t notice I entered.  Staying in front of the bar, I passed John and moved toward the street, closer to the action.

“The case, man.  Give me back the fucking case.  The party’s over, asshole.  You guys like the shit, right? You won’t pay, so give it up.”  The purple shirted muscle man pounded the table.

Shaking his head, the preppie inspected his cuticles.  A leather brief case sat under his chair. Softly he said, “Make your call.  You’ve got yours. Check it out.”  He looked at the little guy, “The case is mine now.”

As the one standing straightened up, I heard him say, “Shit,” under his breath.  He switched personas.  He became calm.  Reaching into the waistband of his jams, he pulled out a small blued automatic pistol.

Very evenly, coldly, he spoke again to the man sitting, “OK.  Now, real slow, reach under your chair and give me back my fucking case.”

The lanky one paid close attention now.  Slowly with deliberation, he picked the case from between his legs under the table.  As he came up with the case, he exploded into the table pushing it up, and into, the surprised muscle man.  With a last twist of a flying table leg, the tall guy set the table directly on top of the smaller man as he fell on his back to the floor.

Leather case in hand, the Prep headed for the door in a full sprint.  John no longer leaned against the coolers stroking his mustache.

Squirming from under the table, the Junior Terminator put one round into my corrugated tin ceiling.  Dropping the case with the shot, the Prep continued at an even faster sprint toward the seeming safety of the open door.

Once free of the table, the little guy stood, feet apart, both hands on his weapon, swinging to aim at the fleeing man, now without the brief case, just reaching the door to the street.

Without thinking, I picked up a chair and swung across his outstretched arms.  The gun, knocked from his hands, skittered across the floor stopping short of the brick wall on the far side of the room.

He followed and reached down for it.

Right behind him, I grabbed his shoulder, pulling him back, “No.”

He glanced over his shoulder at me and came up with a right roundhouse.

I ducked inside, stood back up against a left into his solar plexus.  He gave a sharp gasp with the loss of air.  I put a right and a left jab into his jaw.  The first one was square on his chin, slowing him.  With the second, I connected below his ear, snapping his head sharply back to the right.  His knees gave and he dropped against the wall.

There was a time, long ago time, I reveled in such encounters.  A time long ago.  No more.  Picking his gun off the floor, I pulled a chair up, flipped it around in front of the little Terminator and sat in it backwards, my arms resting on the back.

I was pissed.  Adrenaline made it difficult to steady the gun in my hand.  My breath was sharp and deep.

Shaking his head to clear himself, he came out enough to realize I’d pulled up the chair and his gun was loosely pointed at his nose from a few feet away.  I flicked the safety on, then off with my thumb.  The soft clicks finished pulling him out of his haze.

“Hey, asshole, customers popping customers is not a good way to build business.  I don’t get off on it.  OK?”

“I’m with the government.”

“Sure.”  I held out my hand.  “ID?”

“Shit, I don’t have it on me.  Do you think I’m stupid?”

I looked at him sitting against the wall with his legs out straight, “You don’t really want me to answer that, do you?”

John resumed his familiar relaxed, bemused pose against the back bar.  Glancing back at him, “John, go pick up that brief case and let’s see what these guys were arguing about.”

John walked to the brief case lying on its side, almost at the door, hefted it, smiled and walked back with it.

“Want to open it?”

“Go ahead.  You take the honors.”

He set it on the table next to my chair and tried the clasp.

“It’s locked, but I may have the key behind the bar.  Just a sec.”

Reaching over the bar he picked up the large chef’s knife for cutting drink garnishments.  He moved in a mock Errol Flynn sword dance, “This ought to work.”

Slicing the leather just above the clasp, he opened the case and pulled out three packages wrapped plain brown waxed butcher paper.  All the same, the size and shape of a medium sized bag of rice, he laid them in a row on the table.  He looked at me, raising his eyebrows.

With some reservation, “Go ahead.  Let’s see what we get for our birthday this year.”

The size of the packages.  The look.  The neatly folded corners to create a tight wrap.  The even rectangular shape with all the edges rounded.  Everything was right to be completely wrong. I wanted to know what was in the packages.  At the same time, I knew what they held.  I hoped I was wrong.

As John started to open one of the packages, the Muscle Man silently watched from the floor.  Slowly, he moved one leg back, seeking to get a purchase for moving away from the wall and out of his rather immobile awkward situation.

“Move that leg any more and I’ll put a round right in your cap.  Understand?”  I pointed his gun at his knee.  “Any questions?  Legs out straight.  Back flat against the wall.”  He hesitated.  “Now!”

The man returned to his former resting position and John went back to opening the package.  The paper covered a plastic bag stretched full by a white powder.  Coke.  Two-kilo packages of cocaine.

John popped the corner of the bag with the knife and loaded the tip.  Taking a very small pinch, he dropped it on his tongue and rolled it around his mouth.

“Whoa.”  He shook his head in dis–belief and offered me the knife tip.

I took the taste and as it hit my tongue knew instinctively from the sticky texture, it was not coke.  It was China White.  Heroin. Smack.  The new hot drug of choice in so many upper society circles.  The sweetness spread across my tongue and onto the roof of my mouth as my tongue moved, spreading the taste around. So sweet.

In the years since my final foray into Nam, a full year after the official withdrawal, I consciously and studiously avoided any taint of my loose days before.  I set that trip as a hard divider.

The three bags sitting on the table in The Grill breached the dam creating a flood of memories.  Good.  Bad.  Distant and yet completely immediate.

I wanted to be rid of this guy and not have him return.  Ever. And I wanted it done now.

Old drug.

New drug.

I wanted none of it back in my life.

None of it at The Grill.

While finished, I could not afford to have it appear near me.  Even as a bust bystander.  And in this case, tagged a participant.  My bar.  My turf.  I was physically involved.   The carefully created distance remained significant, but not enough to risk the questions brought about by six keys of China White surfacing in the waters around my life.

“John, call the cops.” I paused, “And call Andy, down at the News.  Tell him we got a live one and he ought to run over with his camera.  Give him a couple minutes’ head start, then call the cops.  Pack this shit up and toss it in my office.  I don’t want any hint of it being around with the cops or the papers.”

I turned to the guy on the floor,  “You can be the front page tomorrow.  ‘Tourist beef-cake shoots up Hood River bar.’  Part of your fifteen minutes of fame.”

“Wait a sec. . .You want to make a deal?”  He sounded worried.  “I’m really with the government.”  He nodded his head.

“No, you wait.  There’s no outside dope investigation going on in town.  The chief’s a good friend of mine.  We had dinner last night and there’s no one but locals working town right now.  He ought to be real happy to have a little chat with you on your activities leading up to the last few minutes.  Mentioning the dope will only get you in way deeper than you already are.  I’d let it drop if I were you.”

He studied the wide board pine flooring between his legs.  I looked at his gun.  It was a well balanced Italian 9mm.  A Berretta.  Smoothed from being carried, he’d had this weapon for a while.  Turning it over in my hands, I noticed the numbers were missing.

“Nice piece.  Nice it has no numbers.  The cops will just eat that up”

I looked over to the bar.  John still hadn’t moved, amused.

“John, make those calls.  I’m tired of holding this guy’s pop gun.”

“Sure.”  John started down the bar.

“Wait,” brow furrowed, he spoke looking at the floor.  “I got a number you can call to confirm I’m with a government agency, OK?”

John stopped and leaned against the wall next to the phone.

I thought for a second, then turned to John.  “You know how to use one of these, don’t you?”

John walked over, smiling, and took the pistol from my hand.

“Let’s see if I can remember from those far away days across the ocean.  I pull this little dealy and the bullets come out the pointy end.  Right?”  He grinned at me, then at the muscle man on the floor.  Pointing the automatic at the guy he said, “Cool.”  He flicked the safety on and off to get the feel.

“He’s yours for a bit.  If he tries anything, shoot a leg or a foot, then hit something very final.  No more questions. OK?”

John slid onto the chair as I stood, “Not a problem.”

I walked to the bar returning with a napkin and a pen.

“OK, let’s have your numbers.”

“Call 703…542…14..40.”

“And who do I ask for?”

“Mr. Anderson.”

“And who are you?”

“Dean.”

“I just got a brilliant idea.”

From the front of the bar, I picked up a leash lying on the windowsill, “Let’s tie Dean up and toss him in the walk-in.  I’ll feel better with a couple of extra steps between us while I call for his confirmation.”

John smiled and nodded.

Dean slowly extended his wrists toward me.

“No way, on your belly, dude.”  He reluctantly rolled belly down on the floor and put his wrists behind his back.  I looped the leash around his wrists and finished up tightening it at his elbows.

Lifting, John and I, a hand under each arm, brought him to his feet.  Keeping our hands on his arms, we walked him back to the walk-in cooler and settled him against a tall stack of Full Sail cases.

In the open door, I turned to John.  “Same goes here.  Pull up a chair in the hall.  If he tries anything, nail him.”

To Dean, trying to get comfortable in the cold and against the beer, “I’ll tell you what’s going to happen.  Your Mr. Anderson will be out, busy or something.  If I leave a number, he’ll get back to me as soon as possible.  I won’t leave a phone number.  I will leave the number of a couple of old friends back in the same area code and my old ID number.  Mr. Anderson can call and find out a little about me.  Not a lot.  There isn’t a lot immediately available.  I’ll mention I have you hog tied in a cooler dressed for a beachwear fashion show in Santa Cruz to put some immediacy in their situation. Don’t expect the cavalry, I won’t give them a lot of time to make the call or to make up their mind.”

Dean looked at me with a growing mixture of disbelief and surprise.  “Huh?”

“You don’t think I ended up with your piece and you ended up keeping a bunch of beer company because I mix a decent margarita, do you?”

Closing the door, leaving Dean in the dark, I walked to the office to make the call.  I started to dial the number on the napkin and stopped, hanging up after the second three-digit group.  Leaving the napkin on the desk, I ran to my Trooper, pulled the cigarette lighter charger out of my cell phone and returned to the office dialing as I walked down the hall.

“Fourteen forty.”  The evenly modulated female voice answered on the second ring.

I paused a second before answering.  “Hi.  I have Dean, who says I can call this number, ask for Mr. Anderson and everything will be OK.  Is Anderson around?”

“Mr. Anderson is out of the office at this time.  Can I take your number and have him return you call?”

“No thanks.  You have Mr. Anderson call to verify me, just to make this interesting, OK?  Phone number to verify is 703…453…1237.  ID Number 327…2…550.  He just has to ask for Control.  I’m sure he knows the routine.  You might also tell Mr. Anderson his buddy Dean is dressed for a day on the beach and I have him hog tied in a freezer for safekeeping.  Dean’s fairly anxious about his situation.  In fifteen minutes from now, I’ll call back and expect to talk to Mr. Anderson.  Got it?”

“Yes, sir.  If you could hang on. . .”

”The number you’re trying to trace is an ID blocked cell phone from the 503 Portland, Oregon exchange.  Not easily traceable.  Understand?  Fifteen minutes.”  I hung up.

Sitting at the desk, I decided to call an old friend in Washington, D. C..

“Boyd Mitchell, please.” An even modulated male voice this time.

“May I tell Mr. Mitchell who’s calling?”

­”Charles Stone, an old friend.”

“Just a minute, Mr. Stone.”

I waited with D.C. pabulum music force fed into my ear hoping Boyd was in and I could get through to him.

“Charlie,” Boyd came on the phone laughing.  “How you doing?  Where are you?  And what do you need?”

“I’m doing great.  I’m in Hood River and I need some information.”

“What sort of information?”

“A quick fix on a couple of guys.”

“Well, if it’s not deep, no problem.”

“Got a pen?”

“Sure.”

“Write this number down.  703…542…1440.  I need to know about the number, a Mr. Anderson and a guy working for him going by Dean.”

“The first is easy.  That’s a switchboard at Langley.  It’s an operations division. You know, covert stuff.  The other will take a couple of minutes.  I’ll get Joyce on it and be back with you in a sec.”

The wretched music returned while I waited for Boyd to come back on the line.

“So, Charlie, what are you doing?  This is a real switch from what the rumor mill has you doing.”

“I am very retired. I sold the bar in Breckenridge a little over 15 years ago and, not knowing anything else legit, started another in Hood River.  I pull beers.  That’s it.”

“As I remember, just after we got back, in ’70 or so, you bought a condo in Breckenridge.  Still have it?”

“Yeah.  I get out for a few weeks skiing every year, to stay in touch with the Rockies.”

“Get to Chicago much?”

“Some.   A lot of friends there.  I go back once in a while for special events.  Parties, Bears games and so on.”

“Here’s Joyce.  Let’s see.  Mr. Anderson is an old Asia hand with some experience in Central America. In the late 90’s he became involved with Afghanistan and then with Iraq, of course.  Has been attached to the DEA a couple of times, so he must have foothold in that area.  Recently, it looks like he’s been doing something back in Afghanistan or Pakistan from the people on his list of contacts.  Nothing on your Dean fellow.”

“That’s interesting.”

“What’s up?”

“Well, this guy Dean’s trussed up in my cooler right now keeping the beer company.  He got pissed at a guy and was about to take some pot shots at him when I took him out.  The guy leaving dropped a briefcase six keys of very pure China White.

“After a song and dance, he said call Mr. Anderson before I called the local paper and the cops.  I got the standard routine.  Anderson’s out, leave a number.  For kicks, I left our old control number and my number.  I thought I’d give you a ring to give you a heads up.  What’s the CIA doing in Hood River?  Isn’t that a little out of bounds?  And what’s the dope doing here?  Domestic investigations?”

“Way out of bounds.  This information is all without ringing bells.  Want me to go deeper over the next couple of days?”

“Don’t bother.  I’ll work out a fast and clean hand off.  Something with leverage in case they come back at me.  You coming skiing this next winter?  Or are you still begging off?”

“I’m too old.”

“Get serious.”  I laughed.  “I have a friend you’d hit it off with. She’s a red head and a ski instructor.  A good friend.  I’ll set you up.  You’d get along great.  Both of you old enough to be sensible, but neither passed out of childhood.  Actually, she’s coming off a divorce and strictly into having a good time.”

“I may take you up on it.”

“Just do it.”

“Easier said.  Gotta go.  Good luck with Dean.  Let me know if I can do anything more.  Stay in touch, OK?”

“Thanks.  I will.”

Before getting up, I thought about the two of us.  We’d seen tough times.  Boyd lived for getting out of each foray and back to Susie, even when they weren’t getting along.

In the early 70’s, in Cambodia, he got malaria.   Thinking of Susie kept him alive for the time it took us to get the word out and a med-evac in.  His divorce from Susie had done him in for a couple of years.  Maybe still.

Since the days overseas, we talked every year or so, a couple of times managing to meet halfway in Chicago for a long weekend and a Bears game.

He’d threatened to visit Breckenridge ever since I bought the condo, but never made the plane.  I had to remember to push this time.

Push hard.

One Hand Clapping Installment 3

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Chapter 3

 

I walked out of the office, passing John leaning against the wall in his chair.

“He’s a live one.  We’ll need a couple of beers.”

Behind the bar, I pulled and opened a couple of Pacificos, grabbed a lime for each and headed back to the hall.

John took the beer from my hand, squeezed the lime into the neck.

“So, what’s up?”

“Dean’s number is a Langley number.”

“So?”

“Langley’s CIA.  The CIA’s charter specifically prohibits domestic ops.  I’d say Hood River is definitely a domestic operation.  Remember the fallout when Nixon used a bunch of agency bagmen?  The Watergate deal. Big no-no for those guys.  This sort of stuff is DEA and FBI territory.”

“Anderson told you this?”

“No, Anderson was out.  I made a call to a guy I worked with and got a quick read on Anderson.  Nothing on our buddy Dean.”

“What’s this old number shit?  I didn’t know you worked for those guys.”

“I didn’t really.  When I was in Nam and then after, in a couple of deals, I was working with them, but not for them.  Sort of joint projects.  I was what they now refer to as a contractor. After I quit and before I moved to Breckenridge, I did one last hard gig in ’75.  They had four guys up in the Highlands, in the Golden Triangle, who’d been working with the Hmungs in their poppy growing and weapons training.

“Everything intertwined back then.  Hmungs grew poppies with the Agency’s help and advice.  Air America, flew the paste to a lab in Hong Kong.  The cash from the paste and then the China White bought weapons back in and paid folks off-the books. We funded the really deep black black ops for the Agency.  Air America flew the stuff back and forth.  Cash off-the record. Self-supporting loads flying both ways.  Probably still works that way, somehow.  I’ve heard pretty interesting rumors the Agency ran the same deal supplying the Northern Alliance before we moved into Afghanistan. Remember the contractors in some of the firefights on CNN just before the invasion? Same deal. Contractors consulting. Poppies for cash for the Northern Alliance.

“Any way, with the fall of Saigon, some Agency guys were trapped up in the Golden Triangle.   For a large sum of cash, and the dubious promise of permanent retirement, I gathered together a team, went in and extracted them.  My only contact since has been my Control.  I’ve done several informational jobs for him over the years.  We stay in touch.  No hard stuff.  Too old.”

“You looked OK on the hard stuff today.” John laughed, shaking his head.

“That was soft.  I want this guy out of here and I don’t want the dope to surface in any part of it.  I’m too close to some stuff after Nam to have that happen here.”

John took a drink, wiped his moustache.

“You don’t have to mix much with them on this, if you don’t want to.”

“How’s that?”

“Have Greg handle it.  As Chief, he would have a lot of leeway.   On the record or off.  As they leave, he can hand them his card, ‘Any questions, give me a call.’ With a little local egg on their face, they may want to stay out of town for a while.  Don’t mention the dope. Dean’ll clam up too.”

“Makes sense.  I’ll call Greg.”

Tracy answered at the station.  “Greg’s out, Charlie.  Can he call you later?”

“Have him call me as soon as possible.  It’s business.  In the next ten minutes would be great.”

“I’ll page him.  Are you at The Grill?”

“Yeah.”

“It’ll be a few minutes.”

“Thanks.”

I set the phone down on the desk and leaned back in the chair to wait for Greg’s call.

It rang almost at once.

“So, what’s all this business shit?  Someone hold up your bar for the twenty-seven bucks and loose change in the till?”

“No.  I wish.  I have a spook in the walk-in.”

“You need an exorcist, not a cop.”

“CIA.  The Agency.  A Spook.  For some reason, looking for quiet place I guess, this guy ended up in The Grill, taking pot shots at his buddy running out the door.  Something went sour.  Real sour.”

“How do you know he’s with the Agency?”

“He gave me a phone number and a confirmation number.  The phone number’s a covert operation desk at Langley headquarters.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Greg, this is no joke.”

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah, I just want the guy out of my life.  Simply.”

“I thought you were out.”

“I am.”

“Well, as they say, ‘Only in Hood River.’  Where do I come in?  Book him on a weapons discharge?”

“No.  I don’t want to do this as a ‘Book him, Dano’ sort of deal.  I want you to help me turn him over.”

“Official or unofficial?”

“Let’s start unofficial and hold the official in the wings in case they move back.”

“I’ll change and be down in a few minutes.”

“Great.”

“This could be great fun.”

“I’m glad you think so.  I think it’s a bloody hassle.  I was rid of these jerks and now they’re busting up my bar.  I’m pissed.”

“Lighten up.  We’ll dump the guy and you can go back to your simple life of pulling micro-brews.  OK?”

“Yeah.  Sure.  Wear that red ball cap with the bird logo.”

“Anything else?”

“Not that I can think of.”

“This ought to be a gas.  I haven’t dealt with these guys for years.”

“Great.  See you in a bit.”

“I can’t wait.”

“Shit.  I’ll bet.”  I hung up the phone.

John looked me.  “And the dope?”

“I think I’ll keep it as security ’til I’m sure these guys are going to leave us alone.”

“Think it’s a good idea?”

“Yeah.  With a couple of pictures of the crew, me with the goods and the pictures, I ought to be OK.  It’s all leverage.”

“OK.  You’re calling the shots.”

 

Chapter 4

 

Using my cell phone again, I called Anderson exactly fifteen minutes after the first call.

“Fourteen Forty.”  The same calm female voice answered.

“Hi.  I’m calling back for Anderson to see what he wants to do with Dean.  Is he around?”

“Mr. Anderson is right here.”

“I’ll bet.”  The Control is always right there.  Always.

“This is Mr. Anderson.”

“I called earlier…”

“Your name, please.”

“You have all you need to…”

Very firmly, he interrupted me again, “Your name, please.”

“Listen, Anderson, cut the bullshit.  You only need to know what you got off the line a few minutes ago and that I have Dean.  If you are trying to string me along to trace the call, I’ll give you a hand.  Got a pencil?  The number is 503…807…17…13.  It’s a cell phone.  It’s GPS disabled.  The billing is JCS and Associates.  201 South West Morrison, Suite 1204, Portland, Oregon.  If I’m giving you the number, you can bet Dean isn’t there.  It’s actually my attorney’s office.  They’re paid very well and very protective of me.  Shit or get off the pot.  Do you want Dean back?”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, then Anderson answered,  “We want him back.”

“Fine.  How long before his back-ups get to Hood River?”

“They are on their way now.  Perhaps 45 minutes.”

“OK.  We’ll meet at a place called The Grill.  It’s on Oak Street between 5th and 6th about halfway down on the left as you’re going east.  There will be a guy at the bar drinking a tonic and a lime.  About 55, in pretty good shape, six-three or so, rugged in a Ralph Lauren sort of way.  The Chaps look, but warn your guys, he grew up on a very different block.  He’ll be wearing a red ball cap.  In one hour…”

Anderson interrupted, “I think it might be better if we met at the…”

“Listen, Anderson, I have Dean.  I make the rules.  You have a problem with that, I’ll see the paper gets him first, then the local cops can have round with him, and they’ll let you have what’s left after they’re done.  OK?  It’s my way or my way.”

“Your way.”

“In one hour from now, not before, two of your guys walk, understand, walk, down Oak toward the Grill.  Don’t even think about sending in the troops.  OK?”

“Fine.  One hour.  Two men.”

“Right.  They get to the Grill.  One sits on the bench in front of the little bookstore across the street, the other walks into the bar and asks the guy, the older guy at the bar,  “I’m looking for Dean.””

“I’m looking for Dean.  Then what?”

“We’ll take it from there.”

“Now wait a minute…”

“No, you wait a minute.  Your guy Dean put one round in the ceiling and was about to take out a customer when I decided enough was enough.  We’re doing it my way.  I can call the newspapers and the cops…”

“I don’t have much of a choice.”

“Right.  Do a good job on this one deal and you may just save your sweet Langley ass.  See your guys in an hour.”

With the mention of Langley, he hesitated for a moment then replied, “One hour.”

“Right.  In one hour and ten minutes, Dean will be on the front page of tomorrow’s Hood River News, Oregonian and the Seattle Times, so be on time.”

“We will be there.”

“Bye, Mr. Anderson.”

“Good-bye.”

I walked down the hall and retrieved my beer from the floor next to John’s chair.  He sat leaning against the wall with the automatic resting on his thigh.

“So what’s the deal?”

“They want him back.  In an hour, a couple of guys will be here to pick him up.”

“Simple as that?”

Before I could answer, a voice demanded from the bar, “Hey anybody home?  How does a guy get a drink?  Is it serve yourself day?”

I could hear a fist pounding on the bar top.  “Yo, anybody home here?”

John and I walked out to the end of the hall.  At the middle of the bar stood a tall well built guy in yellow baggie shorts and faded Mt. Hood Jazz Festival T-Shirt from a decade ago.  A red ball cap sat on the mahogany bar top.   His hair, mostly gray, was short cropped in a monk’s type horseshoe around his head.

Greg saw us, grinned and said, “So, how do you get a beer in this place?  Beg?”

“Close.”  John walked behind the bar, reached into the middle back cooler and pulled out another Pacifico.  Presenting it to Greg, as if a bottle of wine, he said stiffly, “Today, sir, in light of the occasion and the presence of our unexpected honored guest, we are drinking Pacificos.  Would you care to join us…sir?”

Greg looked keenly at the bottle.  “Ah.  A vintage bottle.  The middle of last week, no doubt.  It was a great week, it was.  Are we drinking these with a lime or without?  With a glass or without?”

“The lime is a matter of personal preference, but we generally consider the fact they travel and arrive in a glass container sufficient for our needs.”

“Great.  I’ll take one,” he paused, “With a lime.”

“Coming up directly, sir.”

Greg watched as John served the beer with embellishments and a lime balanced on the neck.  After squeezing the lime down the neck, he took a long pull.  “Ah, yes.  Last week. That is the week.”  Then, looking at me, said, “So, you caught yourself a spook.  You haven’t done that for a long time have you?  Thought you’d quit the game.”

John glanced at Greg and then at me, quizzically.

“I have,” I replied

“So you want to tell me what’s going on in this little yuppie micro-brew bar of yours?”

I shrugged my shoulders and started in on the happenings of the last half hour, finishing with the recent conversation with Mr. Anderson.

“I’ve a brief case the guy leaving dropped. I’m keep as collateral ’til things cool down.”  Not bothering to detail the contents, I hoped Greg wouldn’t pry.

“Not a bad idea.”  Looking at his watch, Greg asked, “So, when are they going to be here and do you have any thoughts on how we proceed?”

“Fifty-six minutes.  It’ll be simple.  You’ll be at the bar.  John behind it.  I’ll be outside.  When the one comes inside, I’ll pick up the one outside and bring him in.  We pat them down.  Take their weight.  We bring out Dean, take a roll of happy reunion pictures for old times sake and send them on their way–without their heat and their briefcase.”

“You really think it’s going to be that simple?”

“Yeah.  There’s enough open in my file they won’t want to fuck with me.  If they start to dig, they are going to get a ton of questions and I don’t think they want that.  They want to get in, out and beat feet with Dean.  The big problem, after they get out, will be the fact we have a roll of pictures of the three of them in a Hood River bar.  That’s going to keep them away.  I hope.”

“You’re calling the shots.  John?”

“Fine with me.  I used to deal with these guys in Baghdad.  I always did OK.”

He smiled and shook his head.

Sitting at the bar just before my time to set up outside, the phone rang.  I picked it up.

“The Grill.”

“Charlie, you answer your own phone.”

“Joey.  How you doing?  Long time.”

“Doing great.  So you got my message.  How ’bout a game tomorrow?  You up for it?”

“Not a chance.  It’s a 4-hour shot, one way.  It’d have to be for the best game of ball ever.  And even then, I’d think twice.”

“I talked to Eddie after I got your message.  He’s got a chopper coming up from a re-build at h is shop in Aurora.  It can land in Hood River in a couple of hours.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Would I kid you?  Are you coming or not?”

“Wish I’d known earlier.  I dropped Carole off at the airport in Portland this morning. She’s headed back to Chicago.  She could have stayed another couple days.”

“Bummer.  I didn’t know you guys were still seeing each other.”

“We took a few years off and got back together a couple years ago.  Actually, this time we see a lot of each other, between her skiing and my getting back for the Bears’ home games.”

“Shit.  A long term deal for you.” Laughing.  “Almost married.”

“Stuff it.  What’s going on?  Bumping numbers and using a different name isn’t for some hot game.”

“Well, it’s a long story and a short one.”

“Let’s hear the short one.  I have company coming in a few minutes.”

“I’ll try.  Is this phone OK?”

“I’m out, but let me go back to the office.”  I put the phone on hold and said to John and Greg, “I’ll be in the office for a couple of minutes.”

Walking back to the office, I wondered what Joey couldn’t handle himself?  This day was becoming a very strange day as blasts of the cold past tumbled in hot all around.  My edges started to rag out.

I picked up the phone in the office.  “OK, I’m back.  Let’s hear the short one.”

“Great.  You know, I spent years cleaning the stuff Dad left when he died and the Uncles settled with me.  I’ve done all right.  Most of my investments paid off real well.  Made some great pre-IPO angel investments in small technical development companies worth a bundle now.  All the bucks Dad left were clean well over 20 years ago.  Took a lot of work and trouble on my part, but I’m totally, 100 percent, legit.

“So anyway, about a year ago, I start hearing rumors of some new guy moving into town.  Dope.  Started into the street scene right off with real clean China White.  I still see the Uncles and the Cousins on the holidays and so on.”

“China White?”

Joey’s story began to set me on edge.  An edge too close to the day and too close to our mutually removed past.

“Yeah.  China White.  The real stuff.  The stuff from the labs in Hong Kong.  Sometimes it’s delivered in stereo cabinets.”

He laughed and paused.

“So, anyway, about a week ago, Peter, you remember Peter from Chicago?”

“Yeah.”

“Well he just drops in on me at the Blu and says, ‘You should have talked to us, Joey, before coming back in.  We could have helped you and would be happy to have you back.  Now you’ve stepped on a lot of toes and the younger cousins are pretty mad.’  I tell him I’m not in the market, not even close.  He says, ‘Sure,’ shakes his head and walks out of the club.  Doesn’t even have a drink and flies back to Chicago.”

“He flew out from Chicago just to drop in like that?

“Right.”

“And he didn’t believe you?”

“No way.  So, I go out and do a little checking.  Through a couple of friends on the street, I find that I’m back in business in a big way.  I have the best and the finest China White.  Straight from the source-type pure stuff.  All the guys who’ve been in for a long time with Mexican Brown and the Afghani shit are still holding, ’cause no one is buying anything but the great white stuff.”

“Good for you.”

“Charlie.  I’m not dealing.  I’m clean.  I don’t even do an occasional line any more.  Shit, I only drink at special occasions and that I keep to a couple.  I’m clean.”

“Where do I come in?”

“I want you to find who’s putting it out.”

“Call the cops.”

“Yeah.  Right.  I have friends there, too, and the word I have is, in a couple of weeks, we ought to have a Joey Rico feeding frenzy simultaneously in downtown Seattle and Chicago.”

“Joey, I haven’t been on the Chicago streets for almost 30 years and, even then, I was only a part time player.”

“Maybe part time, but big.  Big shots at regular intervals.”

“I’m out and I want to stay out.”

“You’re big on information.  I know you are still connected. You never let go of connections. You knew the big shots and ran in the right circles on both sides of the fence.  We ran together, only you were a bit higher on the ladder ’cause neither side could figure you out.  No motivation either way.”

“And?”

“And you had an ear to the top long after I was 100 percent legit.  I’m stuck.  I’m my father’s son, so I can’t go to the cops.  I’ve gone straight, so I can’t go to the family.  I’m stuck.  All I want is a direction.  I don’t need the person.  I just need to know which way to look.

“So, anyway, there’s more.  On a stupid hunch, I called a friend in New York a couple days ago, just to see how things were going.  He’s part of the Family.  He said not well.  Some guy moved in with semi-loads of China White and you can’t give Mexican Brown away.  There are some pissed people on street corners in New York.  He’d heard it was from Chicago and said if I heard anything to give him a jingle ASAP.

“Charlie, I’m getting set up.  Maybe we’re getting set up.  I need to know what’s going on.  I’m not calling any markers on this.  It’s a big one, I know.  Just come up here for a couple days, talk and look around.  Maybe buzz out to Chicago for a day.  If you don’t like it, walk, I’ll understand.  You are the only person I could think of who could walk in, get a clue, and walk out without anyone noticing.”

“Thanks for thinking of me.”  I shook my head wondering.

“Really.  It’s true.”

“Is there a handball game?”

“Yeah.  The club Doubles Champs from two years ago.”

“Shit, Joey, all your water’s over my head on this one.”

“If you don’t like it, walk.  I mean it.”

“OK.  I may walk.  Straight info.  Nothing but talk.”

“Fine.  A car will meet you at Boeing when you land.  How ’bout dinner?”

“Sure.  This may be a good time to leave for a few days, anyway.”

“See.  It’s a good thing I called.”

“Yeah.  Right.  This’ll be an in and out deal.  I need to keep my distance, same as you.”

“Info.  In and out.”

After I hung up the phone, I sat and stared blankly at the cluttered top of my desk.  The day turned thick.  First the China White in the bar, then Joey calling about the same stuff surfacing, with his name on it, which means our names, in Chicago.

It had to be a coincidence.

I hoped it was a coincidence.

One Hand Clapping Installment 4

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Chapter 5

 

(Evening, Boeing Field, Seattle, WA.)

 

We approached Seattle after sunset. A few clouds hung over the jumbled white mass of the Olympic Range across the Sound. The lights of the city were on, but you could still make out the details of the buildings, the people on the street and the landscape in the dusk. The clouds over the Olympics turned orange and illuminated the water as we circled north, across the city and settled below downtown into Boeing Field.

The whine of the helicopter’s turbines wound down as we taxied, hovered, over the tarmac toward the south terminal.  A Boeing landing is always a treat. The field sits just below downtown Seattle.  The city lies right there, dropped on the edge of the improbably blue Puget Sound.  Across the water, the Olympic’s.   On the mainland side, even taller mountains rise, individual Cascade volcanoes.  Rainier, Baker, St. Helens.  All rising singularly from rolling foothills.  The Sound never looks better than landing at its edge. That night Baker and Rainier rose dark at their foot and the summits fully lit in a pink alpen glow.

After loading my single duffel into the limousine and seating me, the driver slid open the divider and asked, “Mr. Rico wishes to know if Lenore’s would be all right for dinner?”

“That will be fine.”

“Excellent.”

The driver slid the partition closed and returned to his driving until we reached the unassuming storefront restaurant on the south edge of downtown. Stopping in front, he stepped around to the curbside of the limo to let me out.

“Mr. Rico mentioned you were staying at the Paramount. Would you like me to drop your bag off for you?”

“That would be great.” I reached into my pocket to give him a tip.

Raising his hand, he stopped me. “Mr. Rico has taken care of everything. Enjoy your evening.”

He nodded and walked back around to the driver’s side.

The name of the restaurant was Lenore’s, but for years everyone called it Mom’s because Lenore invariably remembered and asked about your kids, your parents, and so on.  As you recounted their status, Lenore dispensed wise and reasonable advice.  By this time, Joey owned, several times over, a small round corner booth in the back corner.  When he called ahead, it was reserved.  One of the two or three reservations honored at Lenore’s.  The menu was serious Italian with a Staten Island accent.  The wines all vintage Classicos, with a special imported estate bottled back cellar for regulars.

I was led back to the table where Joey waited with an opened bottle of wine, one half glass and two empty glasses.  Gracefully, he slid across the far edge of middle age.  When I first met him, he was a stereotypical wiry, wise-ass Italian.  5 foot 8, not a quarter inch taller, he carried himself like a full 6 foot four first draft linebacker.  As he aged, gathered wrinkles, laugh lines and gray at his temples, what once was wiry became defined muscles.  What had been sassy, became deep-seated confidence.  He wore khakis and a dark green short sleeved knit polo shirt.  Even at this time of year, he seemed tan.

“I hope you don’t mind.  Margie’s joining us.  It’s the only night we ser aside for a dinner out.  After, she’s going to a movie with a couple of girlfriends.”  Joey shrugged his shoulders.  “Usually we do something together, but I begged off, with you being up here and claiming a bit of work to do, late.”

“That’s fine.  I haven’t seen either of you for, what, three years?”

“Maybe four?  When was that race to the islands?”

“They alternate years, Vancouver and LA.  This year was LA so it must have been five years ago.”

“Too long.”

“How are the girls?

“Total babes.  Total nightmares.  My nightmares.  They’re great.  Rachel started high school last year.  Cheerleader.  Had every guy on the basketball team eating out of her hand like trained chimps.  Drives them up a wall.  Won’t date.  Just wants to be friends.”  He threw his head back in a laugh.

“Lucky you.”

“No shit.  I have visions of sitting on the front steps with a shotgun waiting for guys to bring her home.”  He laughed his deep rolling laugh again.  “So far I’m lucky.”   He took a sip of wine and, as he set the glass down, started to stand, “Here’s Margie.”

We both stood as Margie walked to the table.  Roughly proportional to Joey, she aged in the same athletic way manner as Joey.  Her hair just broke her shoulders.  The blonde seemed a little sharper, but she still wore very little make-up.  Years younger than Joey, she seemed the quintessential younger woman.  Always the most beautiful and youngest one in the crowd.

Dinner talk was catch-up stories, jokes and who’s hitting on who.  A serious ration of grief about Carole and I still seeing each other and the difficulties of long distance relationships.  A gratuitous comment on the use of the Skype for gratification.

Joey told stories about the hazards of coaching girls’ soccer.  Hazards from the girls and stories of parents making the classic Little League stories seem positively civil.

As we ordered after-dinner drinks and espresso, Margie excused herself.

“I’m meeting a couple friends and we’re seeing a chick flick you two wouldn’t be caught dead at.  I’ll see you at home.” She gave Joey a peck on the cheek. “Where you staying Charlie?  With us?”

“The Paramount, here downtown.  I’ll be around for a couple days.  Maybe dinner again tomorrow night?”

“That would be great.  We’re free.  Come on over to our place.”

“I’ll try.”

She kissed Joey again and left the restaurant.  Not speaking, we watched her leave the restaurant.

“You’re a lucky guy Joey.”

“Don’t I know it.”   He shook his head in mock disbelief.

There was a pause.  A gap.  We dined.  We wined.   Now, we would talk business.

“So, Joey,  who’d you talk to?”

Joey looked down at his snifter as he swirled the Armagnac almost to the rim.

“Oh, you know.  The guys my Dad ran with and their kids.  They grunted at me.  So, I went to a couple of friends down the ladder a bit, in the bookie end of things.  They said the word on the street was, I was playing.  Playing big.”

“Why do you say you aren’t calling any markers on this one?”

He took a sip as he looked me straight on.

I answered for him.

“You think this may not be simple and you want to give me an out, if it gets complex.”

“That’s part.  The other part,” he paused, looking into his glass and then at me, “We’ve both worked hard for our bucks and have clean, legit lives.  Shit, I have a beautiful wife and three great daughters.  Finding, or even asking about, a smack dealer is not something a family-minded business guy does.  And ones with skeletons in the closet, want to keep that door closed, barred and padlocked.”  He took another drink.  “Charlie, you and I will always be too close to the old days to try to find someone peddling drugs without risking what we’ve built.”

“If you go rolling in the barnyard, some of the shit’s going to stick, even if it’s only one roll.”

“Right.  There are still people who would love to have our necks.   I’ll always be the son of a Don, no matter how straight I play.  You may not have been an obvious part of the scene out there, but enough people know a little about your days in Nam and the street rumors in town.  By stepping back onto the street, we risk every bit of distance built over the past thrity and some years.”

“So why bother”

“To preserve the distance we’ve built.  I need to know where the word’s coming from and stop it before it gets any more out of hand.  Someone’s put my name on the street in a very big way and it’s starting to mess things up.  I want it to end, but I don’t want to it mess you, too.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate that.”  I laughed.

He smiled, lifted his glass to me and downed the remainder.

“No problem, bud.”  Beckoning to waiter, Joey motioned for another round.

­”So really, who’d you talk to?”

“In New York, I have a real cousin who is still working with the family.  He told me about the white hitting there.  And, my CFO has a friend, a new social acquaintance. That’s Ken’s way of saying, politely, a woman he’s dating.

“So anyway, this social acquaintance has a brother on the force and she ran a couple of questions by him and it came back I was back playing.  And my two bookie friends.  That’s it.”

“When did this start?”

“Today is Wednesday.” He hesitated, “It started a week ago, the night before last.  Monday.”

“The white hit Monday?”

“No.  Peter came by the club and took me aside.  Since then I’ve done the little digging I’ve done.”

“When did the white hit the street?”

“It’s been coming in for about eleven months.  Will ya look around a bit for me?”

“Sure.  I’ll need you to call one person for me, the others I’ll do on my own.”

“Who?”

“Peter.”

“You want the moon.”

“No.  Just that one guy.  Can you do it?”

“Sure.  He’s pissed at me over this deal, but you’re a different matter.  They still owe you.  I’ll set it up.  When do you want to go?”

­”Anytime tomorrow after lunch.  I’ll take a red eye tonight.”

“You still have a car there or do you want to borrow one of mine?  I still have a place in Chicago and a couple cars.”

“What do you have that you can spare?”

“An old, beat up Porsche.”

“Right.  Last year?  Or the year before?”

“Old.  I’ll have it dropped off at… you staying at Carole’s?”

“I suppose.  I’ll call her and tell her I’m coming in on her heels.”

“So, I’ll have it dropped off at 8 or so.  OK?”

“Make it 10.”

Joey laughed.

“This is in and out for me, OK?  One bit of direction and I’m history.”

“Charlie, that’s fine.  I just need an arrow, not a whole game plan.“

I stood, “Let’s go.  I have a feeling I’m not going to get a lot of sleep.”

Joey pushed himself up from the table

“Come on.  I’ll give you a ride.”

 

Chapter Six

 

(Morning, Chicago at Carole’s townhouse.)

 

The morning after dinner with Joey and our late night talk, Carole and I continued the routine we established the prior weeks she’d been in the Gorge.  Well, not exactly.  I didn’t get my sit or my walk.  Carole picked me up on the “Arrivals” curb at O’Hare a little after seven.  I’d slept some on the plane, but carried the overnight travel buzz from a cramped red-eye night.

Once at her townhouse, I ground and made the coffee.  She started the shower.  After showering together, we drank coffee, ate a bagel with butter, discussed the conversation with Joey and read the papers.

At ten, I was pulled to the door by a horn honking in the street.  Leon leaned into an immaculate red bathtub Porsche 356 convertible, tweaking the horn.  “Joey said you needed the beater for a couple of days.”

Leon hadn’t changed one bit since the evening I met him at the opening of the Blu Flamingo.  Casual, in shape, and at ease in a tux or a pair of running shorts, a T-shirt and track shoes, he was a large black man standing casually next to a very small red car.

Laughing.

“Beater, my ass.”

Carole was laughing behind me.  “Leon, you make that thing look like a toy.”

“Yeah,” he smiled, “You want a laugh, you ought to see me driving.  Now that’s a sight.  I look like a Shriner clown. So, Charlie, how long you in town?”

“Through the weekend.  Not much longer.  I didn’t know you still worked with Joey.”

“We set up a sports licensing deal.  We’re partners.  I put together events.  He puts together money.  And, every once in a while, I deliver cars.”  He laughed again.  “When he told me you were back for a couple of days, I had to bring it over.”

“Charlie, quit being rude.  Invite Leon in for coffee.”

“Come on in.  The second pot’s about ready.”

He took the steps two at a time and dropped the keys in my hand as he reached me.  “You’re gonna love that little thing.”

“Old beat up Porsche, my ass.”

 

Parking the Porsche a couple of blocks north of the weathered gray stone fountain in Lincoln Park, on the city side, I walked well past and back again looking for watchers.  A concrete spider web of walkways split the park running out from the rhythmic splashing of the water spilling down the levels of the fountain.

As I wandered, looking, I thought of growing up in Chicago and, early one morning just as the sun was breaking the lake waters, Mick and I tossed our dates into the fountain. Jumping in after them, we laughed, carefree, as the sun rose and dried sitting on the riprap lakeshore.  Mick married his date of that night.  I have no clue what-so-ever what happened to Beth.

I shook my head at the difference in our lives and looked around again.

The park seemed clean.

Tommy Paget leaned in the same spot, maybe in the same clothes, watching the boats.  The day was similar to the day Joey introduced us, more than thirty years earlier.  A good breeze beat the lake and everyone who could possibly play hooky was out sailing or at least walking along the shore.

“Hi, Tommy.”  I sat next to him on the fountain’s edge.

He looked over, “Hi, Charlie,” without a touch of surprise in his voice.  “You’re looking fit.”

“Thanks.  You don’t look half bad yourself.”

He smiled.  “I’m great.”

We watched the boats without talking.  A fleet of Lasers were making practice starts just off the beach with the starts and the post-start critiques given by a coach with a megaphone in a center counsel Boston Whaler banging back and forth in the short wind chop.

“So, what’s up?  You haven’t been around for a while.  Still in Breckenridge?”  He continued watching the Lasers tacking off the beach.

“Not much.  Moved to the Columbia River Gorge a few years ago.  Hood River.ood RiverHH  Hood”  I hesitated, thinking to myself, well here goes.  “I need a favor.  I’m trying to find something out for a friend.  Information.  Simple information.  I heard Joey Rico’s playing again.  Is that true?”

“Isn’t he a friend of yours?  And your old partner?  Why don’t you ask him?”

“It’s a little complicated, but I’d rather not.”

“Joey’s playing.  Playing big.  Trying to corner the market with this incredible China White. Just like you guys delivered in the late 60’s, early ’70’s or when ever that was.  Same shit.  Exactly.  Set up a whole new distribution system.  The works.  It looks like he’s going for turf.  There are some pissed people walking around right now.”

“How so?”

“He didn’t talk.  Just, out of the blue, started in again.”

“Family’s pissed?”

“Man, you gotta believe it.  The word I heard, they figured it was him a couple weeks ago.  Went out to Vancouver, BC or Seattle, or where ever he lives, and talked to him Monday.  He played dumb, but everyone knows he’s playing.”

“Why?”

“When Joey quit, he kept some of his Dad’s guys around.  The word is, they’re the ones who set everything up.  It’s going through these guys, straight to the street.  No one else in town touches it.  One stop.  And the street.”

“Is there any way it isn’t Joey?”

“I’d say no.”

“Can you look into it a bit?  Say it isn’t Joey, who would it be?”

“I couldn’t say.  You guys were the Chinese Twins for a long time.  No one’s filled those shoes since.  ‘Till now.”  He looked over at me.  Questioning.

“Look a bit for me, OK?”

“You don’t think it’s Joey?”

“I think Joey’s clean.  It’s a gut deal.  I want to know for sure.  That’s the head deal.  You know?”

He nodded.  “Drop back tomorrow. Late in the afternoon.  Maybe just before sundown.  Let’s see what I dig up.”

“Thanks.”  I handed Tommy a business card from The Grill.  “On the back’s my number here in town, my home number in the Gorge and my cell number.  If I miss you tonight, give me a call, OK?  If you come up with anything, even a couple weeks down the line, let me know.”

“Yeah.  I will.  Later.”

“If you ever want a break, come on out. It’s nice country.”

“Not likely. I’m pretty fine right here.”

We shook hands and I walked back up the park, heading into the wind.

Tommy remained as I found him, leaning on the stone rim of the fountain in the center of a web of walks.  Relaxed, he watched the Lasers making start after start in the building breeze with just a hint of whitecaps breaking the tops of the waves.

 

Across the street from Lincoln Park, up a bit from where I parked the Porsche, was a pay phone.  Perhaps one of the few remaining in all of Chicago. I dodged a couple of cars running across the traffic to it.  Somehow, I pulled Mick Cooper’s number out of my memory and called him.

“Detectives.”

“Mick Cooper, please.”

“Who’s calling?”

“Charlie.”

“Last name?”

“Charlie’s fine.  I’m an old friend trying to catch up with him.  Only in town for a couple of days.”

Long ago, Mick and I established I never left my last name.  He could not risk being connected with me in the early days and the habit carried over after I moved to Breckenridge.

“I’ll see if he’s here.  Please hold.”

Mick and I went to high school together.  Double dated half the time and always ended up on the beach watching the sunrise with our dates the morning after Prom.  He went to a couple of years of college and then to Nam.  I went after I finished school.

Back stateside, our lives diverged radically.  He finished school at night after joining the Chicago Police Department.  Back a year, he married his high school sweetheart and started popping out kids in a fine traditional Catholic fashion.  The first three were girls, so they kept trying.

Once in the mid 70’s and then about 1980, I helped him with some specific personnel and talent information.  Both cases, highly politically charged murders, needed quick resolutions.  Every angle he tried hit brick walls.  Mick approached me because he knew I had been involved in “intelligence” in the service.  He wanted information not available through their normal channels.  On both occasions, I discovered a key, letting homicide, at least appear, to wrap the cases.

“So, Charlie Won’t-Leave-A-Last-Name, what are you doing in town?  Perhaps, more to the point, are you even in town?”

“I’m in town.  You don’t think I’d call on my nickel if I was out, do you?”

“No collect calls from Won’t-Leave-A-Names.  You have to put out either a name or the cash.  What’s up?”

“Are you booked for lunch?  It’s almost that time and it’s my turn to buy.”

“Let me check.”  Papers rustled.  “Humm.”  Mick paused.  “I have a post-mortem at one. Other than that, I’m off.  No murders scheduled for this afternoon that I know of.  And you’re buying?  Where do you want to go?”

“I’m open.  You pick.”

“I can’t remember the name of it, but how ’bout that greasy spoon you used to drag me into down by the park.  Is it still there?”

“Yeah.  Fay’s.  Long and narrow with red Formica counters?”

“Right.  It’s 11:30.  I’ll be there in fifteen minutes or so.”

“Fine.  See you then.”

I walked downwind the block and a half to Fay’s.  In spite of the breeze off the lake, the heat of the day was building.  While not the summer, a hint of the summer’s omnipresent Midwestern humidity level brought back unpleasant memories.  Afternoons of swimming and wondering how one could dry in that sort of air. The humidity hitting a level that makes a bath of ice water seem simply dry.

I felt a sudden strong urge to be back in the Gorge.  Now.  Not so much the weather, though that was part, but the simplicity.

This was becoming increasingly complicated.

Fay’s is a diner.  A true diner.  One long room with the counter on one side, in front of the grills, and tables scattered down the wall opposite.  In the front, five four-tops sit in the windowed storefront.  Along the wall opposite the counter, all the tables are deuces.

In the years I’ve eaten at Fay’s, I don’t think a thing has changed, just faded with wear.  In front of each counter seat and on the corners of the tables, the red Formica has worn through to the white below.  Floor tiles in the traffic areas have no pattern left.

And every surface is spotless. Perfectly spotless.

Before you sit, they wipe the table, the chairs, the salt and pepper shakers, the ketchup, the mustard and each piece of the silverware as they put it down.

The menu appears standard, but a cut well above any run-of-the-mill diner.  Fay buys the best.  And she charges for it, too.  The burgers she grinds in the back.  The soups she builds daily from scratch.  All her veggies come from farmers she knows and cultivated for years.   Fay invented vertically integrated quality control. The Japanese merely studied her methods and copied them.

The early lunch crowd was starting.  I grabbed the next to last deuce down the wall.

“Coffee?”

“Sure.  I’ve got someone joining me in a few minutes and he’ll take some, too.”

I glanced at the menu.  Unchanged.

Mick showed up looking essentially the same as when he got out of the service except his cropped hair was now fully gray.  Still pushed and sprung off his toes as he walked. He carried a casual awareness of everything around. Loosely aware.  Always moving.

As Detective, he wore a coat and tie.  Unlike most Chicago cops, Mick had taste in clothes and his wife had even more.  If GQ ever did an issue on cops at work, Mick would be one.

As he sat, the waitress arrived, “Know what you want?

“Mick, you go first.”

“I’ll have a Milwaukee Burger, the one with kraut, a small milk and a half order of fries.”

“And you?”

“The Blue By You with onion rings instead of fries.  Just coffee to drink.”

“Water?”

“Please.”

She left and I turned to Mick.  “So, how are you doing?  Long time.”

“I was trying to think when I last saw you.  Maybe after the playoff game in 2006 when we lost tot he Panthers. I ran into you at Stoney’s.”

“I’d forgotten that.  How’s Marleen and your harem?”

“Fine.  Two left in college. Lizzie here in town and the Becka at Yale.  She got an athletic scholarship for running.  Took State in the mile and the half-mile last year.  I guess the coach is looking to the Olympics for her.  She’s really good.”  He shook his head in half disbelief.   “Meg’s in grad school at UC Santa Barbara and Jill is a reporter for a small town paper in Indiana.  It just doesn’t seem like it’s been that long.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

After lunch, Mick and I walked along the edge of the park back toward the precinct house.

“Charlie, don’t tell me this was totally social.”

“No.  I just wanted to get out before we talked.”

“So what’s up?”

“I need a some information.  Department talk type stuff.  Do you have a problem with that?”

“No.”  There was a slight hesitation in his answer.

“Is Joey Rico dealing again?”

Mick stopped and looked at me.  “Where’re you comin’ from?”

“I’m just trying to find out a little something for a friend.”

We started walking back up the park again.

“Charlie, I’ll tell you what I know and if you find out any more you let me know.  I share.  You Share.  OK?  Deal?”

“Deal.”

“OK.  About 11 months ago, maybe a little more, someone new started peddling smack.  China White.  The same stuff pushed around ’till the late-seventies and then it just sort of phased itself out.  Back then, the word was, you and Joey were pretty tight and the guys behind the stuff, but vice could never get a handle on either one of you.”

He stops and looks at me. “You know, I always had a problem with that and we never talked about it. I just shut up about it.”

I shrugged and said nothing.

He continued down the sidewalk, not looking at me.  “It first showed up in Vancouver, BC.  Hit here a couple months later. Ever since it hit the streets, the guys in Vice have been working overtime trying to figure out where this shit is coming from.  For once, a lot of people on the street are willing to help.

“It’s not going through normal channels.  Someone set up a whole new network and cut out a bunch of very well established folks.  In the middle of last week, one of the guys pulled a bunch of info together and came up with Joey Rico.

“It fits.  The only rumored name with the stuff is an old guard from Joey’s Family.  Joey was heavy into the White thirty years ago and the supply of Mexican shit has been pretty sporadic. It’s low quality and shitty for reliability the last few years.

“When that shit happened in Afghanistan.  The Taliban burned the poppy crops under their control leaving only the crops in the north and in Pakistan.  The coin of the refugees for the first months of the war was opium paste and then it ran out.

“When we went in with the Northern Alliance, we opened the door for crops across the country. And there was an opening for a connected steady supplier.  The UN reports put Afghani poppies at about 13% of the world supply in 2001, before we invaded. In 2012, the Afghani’s supplied over 90% of the world’s paste and that didn’t include the stockpiles they held back from the market.

“So we’ve set up a stoolie government that is getting rich off selling poppies and heroin back to us. We’re pulling out and it’s only going to get worse. Somehow Obama’s really fucked the dog on this one.”

“But Bush was the one who invaded and started the whole thing.”

“Yeah. Right. But Obama’s the one who got us in this mess. He’s way off base now. So back to your buddy Joey. The word is, Joey has major commercial contacts in that area of the world. He’s in it neck deep.”

“So, he’s dealing.”

“Well, let’s put it this way.  It’s been fifteen, twenty years since your names popped up in a Vice meeting and Joey’s came up last week.  There are a couple of guys nearing retirement who would love to rip off either of your scalps.  They have long memories.   They still say Joey and Charlie in the same breath.  I don’t know if you were involved back then.  I don’t know if you’re involved now.  As a friend, I’m telling you, I’d keep an eye peeled behind.  If they’re looking at Joey, they’re looking at you.”

“I’m totally clean.  I own and run a bar in the Gorge.”

“Right.  I know.  You told me that night at Stoney’s.  And I believe it, but there are people who never will.  And those are the people still want your head.  And Joey’s.”

“What’s the deal on the streets with this stuff?”

“Whole new distribution.  Set up, literally, overnight.  One day, everyone is doing Mex and the next day every junkie has a tasty spoon full of China White.  Just ka-boom.  My understanding is, now they figured it’s Joey, we aren’t the only ones going after him.  The Family’s pissed, too.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“What else?”

“Nothing, that’s it.”

“Talk to Joey yet?”

“Not really.  Just socially.”

“Well, stay in touch, OK?”

“I may head back to Hood River and keep a low profile.”

“Not a bad idea.”

“Give Marleen my best.  We’ll get together next time for dinner or something, OK?”

As we shook hands, he gripped my shoulder looking me square in the eyes.  “Charlie, seriously, don’t get close to this.  If you’re out, stay out.  Don’t get mixed up with Joey again.  There’s an informal task force already and serious talk of setting up a formal inter-agency multi-state group to get this rolling fast.  Head back to your gin mill.”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks again for lunch.”  Mick walked off, up the park toward the station.

One Hand Clapping Installment 5

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Chapter 7

 

After lunch with Mick, I dropped by Carole’s townhouse to see if there were any messages.  The message light flashed on Carole’s answering machine.

“Charlie, Joey here.  Peter seems reluctant talk to you.  He may meet with you tonight, but he wants you to get together with an associate, Benny, first.  You’ll need to call Peter at 675-1227 to set up the when and where.  It sounds like you may have a late night, if all goes well, so talk to you tomorrow.  Good luck.”

I dialed the number.

A flat baritone male voice answered, “Hello.”

“This is Charles Stone.  I would like to make an appointment with Peter Marconi for this evening, if possible.”

“He is expecting your call and asked that I make the arrangements.  Peter asked that Benny meet you for the preliminaries and then, perhaps later this evening, Mr. Marconi will have time to visit briefly with you.”

“That’s fine.”  At this point anything would be welcome.  I needed a feel for what Peter’s boys felt of the lay of the land and a hint of direction.  Even with an unknown like Benny.

“Are you familiar with No-Man’s Land just below Kenilworth on the lakeshore?”

“Yes.”

“There is a restaurant called Basil’s.  Meet Benny there at 3:30 this afternoon.”

“A couple hours?”

“Correct.”

“Anything I should know about Benny?”

“No.  He’ll have a table waiting for you at Basil’s.  What sort of vehicle will you be driving?”

“A red 356 Porsche cabriolet.  1962.”

“Benny will find you.”  He chuckled.  “Good day, Mr. Stone.”

“Good bye.”

As I hung up the phone, I wondered at his chuckle and the hurdles set before me by Peter Marconi.  When Joey’s Dad died and we’d discovered the subtle manner of the hit, Peter called an immediate Council meeting at his home in Glencoe.  An hour after our initial conversation delineating the hit, Joey and I displayed the independent autopsy report and photos to the hastily gathered Dons.

It seemed China White on the streets did not generate the intense concern Joey initially thought.  It couldn’t be a high priority if they planned on passing me up through the organization layers.  Maybe Peter just happened to be out west and dropped in on Joey to feel him out on the possibilities.

Interesting, also, because this somewhat countered what I’d learned from Tommy and Mick.  On the other hand, each layer would be an opportunity to learn a little more.  Bits add up.  Perhaps more leeway and time existed than we first thought.

As I looked at the different angles and started to relax, to enjoy the rush of being back on the street.  Unexpectedly, I had some unforeseen room and suddenly the pressure was off the chase.

I decided to lay back a bit and enjoy the hunt.

On the kitchen island, I left a note for Carole.

“Meet with one of Peter’s men this afternoon.  May see Peter tonight.  Likely back late.  Love, C.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A block from the lake, Basil’s occupied a small flat roofed building of a commercial Tudor style.  Off to the right, the lake side, an arbor of huge rough beams extended over an outdoor patio.  Grape vines wound up the posts and onto the beams of the arbor shading the outdoor tables.

The restaurant sat close enough to the lake that the cooling from the nearby water would make outdoor eating enjoyable on all but the stillest, hottest days.

Only two cars were parked in front of the restaurant.  American clone cars.  I parked and walked through the double doors into the restaurant.

The exterior Tudor beamed motif carried inside.  After a dark entry with a host station, the restaurant proper wound off to the left.  A couple of French doors opened to the right on to the patio.  Directly opposite was a darkened coat checkroom with an empty heavy wood counter in front.

“A quiet day at Basil’s,” I mumbled to myself as I looked into the main room and saw no one seated.  All the tables had place settings.  Maybe Basil’s catered to the early lunch crowd.

“I’m glad you could make it Mr. Stone.”

The voice came from behind.  I remembered the darkened coat check area.  I started to turn.

“Please remain facing away.”  The voice was very firm.  Used to commanding and being obeyed.  “Move over to the host station.”

Slowly, I sidestepped over to the station, my back remaining toward the voice.

“Now, place one hand on each side of the lectern, spread your feet and move them away, so you are leaning on your hands.  I believe this is called assuming the position.”

Again, albeit reluctantly, I followed the instructions.  This was not exactly the reception I expected, but going along might still help.

“I’ve heard a bit about you and prefer not to have any accidents.  So please move slowly and don’t make me nervous.  I am very light on the trigger these days.”

Looking down at my feet as the hands started up, I saw two pairs of feet.  One belonged to the fellow patting me down.  The other a back up.

The man with the voice remained enough off that I couldn’t see his feet.  There’s a point of vulnerability, as the person searching moves up, their head lies in a direct line with the elbow of the person being searched.  Feeling fresh from the little spiff back home, instinctively, as the hands reached my upper thigh, I leaned heavily on my right arm bringing my left elbow down hard of the searcher’s head sending him sprawling.

As I finished the follow through, my arm was twisted up behind my back and I was lifted and slammed forward into the host station.  The top edge drove in to my chest just below my sternum.  As I doubled over to absorb the edge, the man holding me delivered two quick sharp jabs into the soft tissue of my lower back, each one driving me against the edge.  I lost my breath.  He reached up and running his hand from the nape of my neck into my hair grabbed a handful and pulled my head back hard twisting to the right.

Softly in my ear, as I tried to relax and not work against him, in a coarse voice from a once broken voice box, he whispered, “When I let you go, take your best shot pretty boy.  It’ll be just like the pictures.”

He let go.

I stood off the heavy wood of the lectern, shook out my hands and came around ready to swing.  As I started to straighten my arm, he feinted left and sank a left and a right into my mid–section throwing me back into the wood.  As I hit the edge, he followed with three more body shots exactly opposite the edge’s position on my back driving it into my ribs.

I lost my breath again, doubling over.  I tried to say, “Enough,” but had nothing in my lungs.  Motioning to stop, I slowly stood.

Perhaps 6 foot, in his mid-twenties, slicked back black hair, dressed in a light gray suit, his skin was a pale white from being indoors.  Not unhealthy, just un-tanned.  His red club tie still lay perfectly in place.  He reached and adjusted it just to be sure.

Meeting my eyes, he opened his hands palm up.  Questioning without speaking.  Had enough?

­I nodded and raised my hands.

Before I could react he delivered two more body shots driving me again into the host section.  And, then, as I dropped forward, protecting myself, he came in with a right directly to my sternum that seemed to lift me off my feet.  I fell on my left side, reaching with my arm to break my fall.  Before I’d a chance to roll away, he found the little finger on my left hand and ground it into the carpet with the heel of his loafer.

I felt the finger give and, when he lifted his foot, pulled the hand to my stomach.

“Enough.”

The command of the first voice stopped the man as ­he reached again for my head.

Scooting back on the floor, holding my left hand to my chest, I moved to put my back to wood while staying on the carpet.  Once defensively settled, I looked at the three men.

The man with the first voice casually held a snub-nosed revolver.  The rough voiced man straightened his tie again.  The third man leaned smiling against the door jam, obviously enjoying the whole scene.

All three wore suits of varied gray shades.  Judging from the strong build of each man and the fit, the suits were not off the rack.

My finger shot pain to my elbow.  The shock of the body blows kept me without breath.  Breathing actually hurt and I wondered if the edge hitting my back cracked a couple of ribs.  My chest felt like someone dropped a concrete block on it from two stories.

When I finally tried a deep breath, the hurt drove knife–like front and the back.

No one moved, letting me take inventory of the situation. When I tried to take a deep breath, I could feel the grind of one rib. Broken. Maybe two.

“Enough, Mr. Stone?”

I raised my right hand.  “Enough.”

“If you agree to refrain from your absurd macho antics, I’ll have Victor and Mark assist you to a table and we can have our little talk.”

“Fine.”  I paused.  “Thanks for calling him off.”

­”Are you carrying any weapons?”

“No.”

“Fine.”  He motioned to Victor, the quick one, and Mark.  “Help him to a table and have Basil send out a Brie with sun dried tomatoes, a roasted garlic and some bread.”  He looked down at me.  “Would you like something to drink?”

They moved to help me off the floor.  “A. . .”  He motioned with the pistol, stopping me, interrupting, “I’ll take an armanac.  Charles here will have a St. James on the rocks with a splash and a lemon twist.  Two glasses of water also.  OK?”

“Fine.”  Anything to deaden the growing pain.

Mark and Victor each put a hand on an elbow and lifted me off the floor.  Obviously enjoying the situation, each with a single hand on my elbow, they carried me suspended with my feet a few inches off the floor to the second table in the dining room.

Smiling as they set me down, Victor with a nod of his head said, “Good to meet you, Mr. Stone.”

I shook my head in disbelief at the man.  “I wish I could say the same.”

Taking the compliment, he smiled.

As the man with the pistol sat, I asked, “Benny?”

He merely nodded and sat waiting impassively for the hors d’oeuvres and drinks to arrive.

I remained silent, thinking.  These guys were extremely serious.  There was a point to what happened in the entry and I was not having a difficult time figuring out what the point might be.  Someone was pissed.

Joey dealing?

What was up with this?

Could Joey be dealing?

Did they think I was back in too?

Wiggling the little finger on my left hand, I wondered if it broke under Victor’s heel or if the give had been the joint dislocating.  Laying still it throbbed.  Moving the finger shot pain again to my elbow.  I felt the grind of bone against bone.  Broken.  I looked at it and saw the swelling, already growing discolored, yellow and deep blue, pressing against the skin like a bruised Vienna sausage.

As the hors d’oeuvres arrived, I realized time had run out.  Instead of having no pressure, I suddenly understood that the pressure was dangerously intense.  I wondered what they would offer us to get out of the trade and then shook my head at my thoughts.

We were not in the trade.

Or rather, I was not in the trade.

With the garlic finished and most of the Brie, Benny sat back in his chair looking over at me.  He beckoned to Mark.  “We’ll take another drink and then you can leave us alone.”

“All right, Benny.”

Mark delivered the drinks and left with Victor.

Once alone, Benny looked me over again.

“We are not real happy that Joey’s back in the market.  And even less happy to find you are back in with him.”

“I’m not.”

“So why do you want to talk to Mr. Marconi on Joey’s behalf?”

“Joey asked me to find out who was peddling the China White.  Peter’s a logical place to start.  He approached Joey about the White.  That was the first Joey knew of it.”

Benny laughed.  “You know I’d heard stories about you from your days of running with Joey.  One tough smart cookie.  So much for tough.  And so much for smart.”  Laughing sarcastically, he stood.  “I’ll call and see what time the Council will meet with you.  Sit tight.”

As he walked off, I wondered where he’d put the pistol.  I couldn’t find the push of a holster against his suit.  I wondered about my meeting with Peter suddenly becoming a meeting of the Council.  My finger was killing me.  It hurt to take a breath.

And I wanted to be back in the Gorge again.

Now.  Home.

Benny sat back at the table.  “Want another drink.  You have ’til eight tonight.”

“Just water.  Can I get my book out of the car?”

“No.”  He shook his head.  “You stay seated right here.  Victor will get it.”

“Thanks.”  And again I wondered at the seriousness of their action.

In the wait, I had difficulty concentrating on Kem Nunn’s last book, Tijuana Straight, and kept ranging back to the conversations I had with Mick and Tommy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The evening was warm and, even with the top down, I didn’t feel chilled.  The stars blurred, hazed by the lights, the humidity and the heat.  I missed the sharpness of the stars and chill nights in the Gorge.

Victor drove the Porsche north along Sheridan Drive.  We moved out of the pocket of high rises on the lakeshore and into the area of lake front mansions stretching north through Kenilworth to Glencoe and Highland Park.

Leaning against the passenger door, half watching Victor drive, I mulled the specifics of the street talk on Joey’s dealing.  Mick and Tommy were positive Joey was behind the China White.  Mick referred to Vice putting the “whole” picture together and coming up with Joey implying not just one item, but an aggregate of items pointed to Joey.

Peter always maintained close internal contacts in the force, so when they figured it out, Peter was pulled into the loop.  In a very real way it was his problem, too.  Or maybe Peter pulled them in after he figured it out.  Anything to drop Joey from the picture.  The White jeopardized the livelihood of several layers of Peter’s organization.  And the well-established order of the Family.

A multi-state task force to deal with the White indicated Vice was fairly positive of Joey’s involvement and intended to waste no time stringing him up.  If that happened, I fully expected them string me right along with him.

Peter Marconi stepped into the position of the Senior Don with the death of Joey’s father, Mario Rico.  I first met him at a picnic hosted by Joey’s father.  Peter came across as an individual who prefers to deal with issues in a straightforward manner.

We did not become good friends, but remained comfortable together. In the Family environment of political maneuverings and backstabbing, he prided himself in dealing straight on with problems as they arose.  Everyone thought of him as fair.

And everyone knew him as ruthlessly hard.  His line was a razor’s edge.  Step off and you were gone.

Period.

Obviously, I’d stepped off, never even seeing the line.

I wanted to talk to Peter because he would give me straight answers to my questions, and he had a vested interest in stopping the China White.

If Joey started dealing again, I suddenly had a vested interest, although from a different angle, in getting Joey out of dealing.

If Joey was not dealing, Peter, Joey and I shared an interest in finding who ever was spreading the White around.

None of the options looked good.

Joey dealing was suddenly a front-runner.

But why?

Margie and Joey had no problems I’d ever seen.  Three great daughters.  His investments worth a bundle.  All he ever put into were start-up companies that went public a couple years later.  He was set.

Why deal?

Once before I visited Peter at his home on the lake.  The week after Joey’s father’s death.  Joey and I called a meeting of the Dons who worked under his father.   Our limo had not even paused at the gate to the estate.  That particular day, our minds had been so occupied, I hadn’t noticed the neighborhood we traveled through.

This second evening in the area, I noticed the high walls broken by wrought iron gates every few hundred feet.   Houses so far from the road, most were not visible.

Not the sort of neighborhood you hopped the fence and ran next door to borrow a cup of sugar.

Peter’s place was even more discreet.  An opening in a high white washed wall with three numbers on one corner.

The opening was a walled lane leading toward the lake.  We turned down the lane and followed as it curved left.  As it curved, it narrowed until barred by two wooden plank entry gates with hammered iron hinges At the gate the lane narrowed to only slightly more than the width of a full sized car. With the gate blocking our progress, I realized the entry was defensive.  Once started down, because of the left curve, it would be hard to back out at any rate of speed and no doubt there was some sort of a stopper behind us on the drive.  At the gate, the walls were so close, getting out of a car any bigger than Joey’s Porsche would be a real trick.

Two cameras viewed the area directly in front of the gate.

Victor pushed the button on the intercom.

The same flat toned voice that set up the meet responded.

“Good evening, Victor.  Mr. Stone.  Thank you for coming. Victor, please continue to the house.”

The gates swung open.  Victor drove through and continued down a tree-lined drive.  The headlights showed little lanes leading off occasionally on either side.  The main house was a large 1920’s era beam and stucco mansion built just back from a darkness that must have been the rust colored bluffs dropping down to Lake Michigan.  Lights in a couple of upper rooms were lit and the whole first floor blazed.

Leading to the double front doors, the flagstone entry stairway was lit by the insets cut into the stone risers between the steps.

Centered in the wide expanse of the doorway, Peter stood with his hands clasped behind his back.

We stopped and I stepped out of the car.

Peter greeted me in a formal, yet friendly fashion, “Well, Charlie, it’s good to see you, although these are not the best of conditions.   When this deal’s over, we’ll dine socially, OK?  We haven’t for a long time.”

He motioned for me to come up, laughed and said, “I would like to hear what you have been doing these past years.  Victor will park your car in the Carriage House and retrieve it when you leave.  Come on in.  Please.  I asked a couple of friends to join us.  I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.”  I reached the top step and he shook my hand.

Peter looks and acts like your favorite Uncle.  He is a little shorter than I, maybe 5-10.  I have never seen a picture of him with more than a fringe of hair over his ears.  He never tried to hide his baldness.  The rim of gray hair is kept short and unobtrusive.

When you are a member of his group of friends, he firmly grips your right hand and, with his left, either grips your arm a little higher up or gives you a playful shot to the shoulder.  I got a shoulder shot, jarring my ribs causing me to suck in my breath and make my ribs hurt even more.

Peter pointedly ignored my wincing.  “Come in.  Come in.  We are in the library.  Follow me.”  He turned to the left and walked briskly just ahead of me down the hall.

The floors of the house were wide oak with dark cherry plugs.  The heels of his shoes clicked on the floor.  My Teva’s squeaked like the first quarter on a parquet basketball court.

In the library, three men, all in their late sixties or early seventies, stood leaning against overstuffed leather chairs and the dark paneled wall off to the right around the pool table.

One man, about to shoot when we walked in, stood up and looked at us.  I remembered Louis from the last meeting.  One of the youngest invited to join the council, he might now be 50, but I doubted it.

Carl walked from the bar on the left with a new round of drinks.  “Mr. Stone, I took the liberty of preparing a St. James with a twist for you.”

“Thanks, Carl.  You’ve a great memory.”  And I knew where Benny picked up his memory.

“You’re welcome.”  He placed my drink on a tall table on the close side of the pool table.

I wondered what I walked into.  I wanted to talk to Peter, not precipitate a full Council meeting.  If my meeting with Benny was preliminary, the follow up was not looking to be much more fun.

After Carl passed out the drinks, he looked to Peter and asked, “Is that is all?”

“That will be fine, Carl.  Thank you.”

Carl walked to the tall doors, turned and closed them as he left us in the library.

Peter motioned to the men around the room.

“You know everyone, right?  Tony.  Roland.  Nicky.  Louis.  You play?”

“A little.”

These were the Dons Joey and I met with over the death/murder/hit of his father.  Everyone.

“Let’s start a new game.  Louis, rack ’em.  Charlie, you’re my partner.  House rules run a little different here.  It’s Eight Ball.  Call your shot.  Even on the break.  No slop.  If it’s not called, it comes out to the spot.  As long as you make your shot, you keep on shooting.  So, if you’re stripes, and don’t have a shot, you can put in a solid and keep shooting.  No restrictions on combo’s either.”

“A combination of straight and Eight Ball?”

“Correct.  One other quirk to add a touch of calculated risk.  Eight needn’t go in last.  You can shoot it at any point, if you run the rest of your balls after you put it in.  If you don’t run ’em, it’s an eight ball scratch.  You’ve lost.  OK?”

“Sure thing, partner.”

As Peter was explaining the rules, I picked a cue, a perfectly straight two-piece 18.  Louis pulled the balls from the slit leather pockets and racked.

Hanging the rack next to the cues, Louis turned to me, “Lag or flip for break?”

“Lag.  A couple of practice shots to get the feel of the table?”

“Sure.  Whatever you need.”

The rack sat sequenced and tight.

Leaning over the table, I gently placed my left hand on the felt with as minimal pressure as possible on my finger.  Bending over without my ribs hurting was impossible.  Gritting myself for a painful game of pool, I banked the cue off the right rail next to the triangle of balls, into the back rail and off the left rail clearing the rack on all sides.  I made the same shot from the other direction.  The roll was fast and even.  The rails firm and springy.

“Nice table.  I’m set.”

I set the cue on the second diamond and put a touch of high English on the ball.  It ran to the far rail and back, stopping five inches or so from the front rail.

Louis placed a block of chalk on the side rail to mark the spot.

Roland shot and came up a few inches further away.

The chalk stayed.

Peter lagged and came half a ball closer to the rail.

Louis moved the chalk.

Louis lagged the ball within an inch of the rail, shrugged and said, “Luck.”

I knew better.  Nothing seemed to be dropping my way this day.

Placing the ball just behind the diamonds to the right side, he said,  “I’ll do the fifteen one rail down here.”

He shot firmly, taking the fifteen off the corner of the rack, into the back rail and back down into the corner pocket breaking up the rack at the same time.  He dropped four more balls, two of each, before missing.

After his last shot, he stood looking at the table, looked at Roland who nodded his assent and Louis said, “We’ll take stripes.”

Peter motioned for me to shoot.

“No.  You were closer to the rail.  You go.”

He dropped a couple of balls and as he was walking to the other side of the table asked, “So what did you want to talk to me about?”  Peter stared intently at the lie of the balls on the table.  The other four stared at me.

“Joey Rico.”

“That’s what we thought.”  He found a bank shot, dropped it, then moved to the other end of the table.  “What about Joey?”

“He says you think he’s dealing again.”

“He is.”

“Joey says he’s clean.”

Nicki snorted, took a long pull off his drink.  “I’ll tell you something, if you came out here to convince us that Joey is not dealing, you can save your breath.  He’s…”

Peter broke in, quietly, “Joey is dealing large amounts of China White, like you two used to bring in.  He opened first in Vancouver, BC, then in Seattle, then in Chicago and most recently in New York.  We don’t know where he’s going next, but we want it stopped.  Now.  That is the only reason you are here tonight.  That, and our very serious concern, you may be back in with him.”

“Why do you think Joey is dealing?  Just because it’s China White?”

The five men stood still for a second, looking from one another, and after reaching a silent consensus, Nicky broke the silence.

He put the butt of his cue on the floor grasping the top with both hands.  Looking over the blue tip directly into my eyes, he started, “I have a bunch of guys that do work for me down on the South Side.  Before the stuff hit the street, a couple of them got real scarce.  Like disappeared.  Then, they showed up again and they were putting the shit on the street direct, without going through me.”

Peter had not taken his next shot.  He stood letting Nicky talk uninterrupted.

Louis took over the conversation.  “Three guys left me to put the White out.  Same deal.  Split for a few days and came back working for someone else.”

“So why are you pinning this on Joey?”

Peter leaned on his stick and looked at me for a second before he answered.  “All the people involved in the China White were part of Mario’s operations.  Some just small time, way down the line guys, but all tied to Mario’s old operations.”

“What’s the Vancouver connection?”

“You two live in the Northwest.  It first landed in your home territory. We never tied down the exact location of your lab, but it was, is, in Hong Kong.  The triads came into Vancouver big time with the exodus just before China took over the island.  And a lot of money moved into Vancouver at the same time.  Joey has a couple of companies in India and Pakistan. At least one in Hong Kong.  He’s centered in Seattle.” He points to me. “The CIA and their contractors have been in Afghanistan for years.  With the invasion, poppy growth exploded. Now Obama is out. Army. Marines. CIA. Contractors and all. With your connections and Joey’s business contacts, we think you’re not letting all that great paste go to waste.

“Perfect timing. It’s logical. Filling the vacuum. A profitable combination of old and new channels.”

“What’s the New York connection?”

“A year after Mario’s death, two of his senior men moved to Manhattan and retired.  We haven’t told any one in the New York Family yet, but they are the ones connected with the white in the Apple.  We all would like to take care of this here, quietly.”

I motioned to Peter.  “Take your shot.”