Appealing to the Past: A Clarification

In my thoughts I usually end up appealing to the superiority of the past in some ways. I want to be clear that this isn’t because I think that any age of the past was in any way perfect or didn’t have its own problems or even that there were times and places where people generally much worse or much worse off than we generally are today. I don’t idolize the past.

However, though every age of history has had its problems, they generally don’t have the same problems. If a problem exists in one age and not in another, then a good way of identifying how to solve that problem is to ask what changed between one and the other. Late twentieth century America does not have a malaria problem; late nineteenth century America did. What changed was that DDT was invented in between those two ages.

Now, the fact is many of our problems today did not exist, or not to the same extent, in most past ages. I think it’s therefore useful to ask what changed to create or exacerbate that problem. That points to how it might be able to be solved.

Well, that, and we don’t exactly have a lack of voices talking about the sins of the past and the improvements of the present: it’s one of the basic assumptions of modern culture. Thus I think the danger of dismissing the past unfairly or taking the present too much for granted is much greater than the danger of idolizing any past ages.

In short, I simply find it more profitable, as well as more interesting, to focus on the advantages of the past relative to the present.

 

Thoughts on the Church Abuse Scandal

I have been delayed in writing about this due to being on vacation, and from arranging my thoughts. Even so, this is going to be a very rough outline.

Despite taking so much time, I still find my thoughts in disarray, just because there is so much to talk about and so much of it (as with most contemporary issues) requires us to look in the opposite direction from where we’ve been taught to look.

Let me put it this way; the problem is not with the Church. The problem is that many in the clergy, laity, and hierarchy don’t want the Church. They want a kind of non-profit social program with the respect that the Church once held. They don’t want Christ or truth or salvation; they want ‘progress’ or ‘social justice’ or whatever other silly idol is popular with the smart set of today.

So, to be clear, when I say the problem is not with the Church, I mean that if the Church acted like the Church, and not even the ideal Church triumphant, but simply like the Church of past ages, this situation would never have happened, at least not to this extent.

Let me explain: in today’s Church, at least in the west, there is very little discipline, whether in the liturgy, doctrine, or morality. For instance, just a few weeks ago Fr. Thomas Rosica, an attache of the Holy See’s Press Office, called the Catholic devotion to Scripture and Sacred Tradition “and unhealthy attachment” which the Church is moving away from. As far as I know, nothing has happened to him. He hasn’t lost his job, been stripped of his office, or even been rebuked by his Bishop. In a sane age, a Catholic priest, even one not attached to the Holy See who said something like this would have his Bishop down on his head like a ton of bricks.

And this sort of thing is common: priests publicly denounce or oppose doctrine – and not obscure, fiddling dogmas, but basic truths of the faith – every day without any ramifications. The liturgy is regularly mocked and gutted by celebrants without any correction on the part of the Bishops, most of whom are no more concerned than the priests themselves. If anyone – priest or laity – complains, he’s more likely to receive a rebuke for being ‘intolerant’ or ‘rigid’ than to bring about any corrections. Again, Priests and Bishops shrug off or openly advocate for moral evils in the name of ‘tolerance’ and reserve their rebukes for those who call them on it. Morality and doctrine, for many in the contemporary Church, are determined by the latest fads in the secular world.

This is not how a Church that actually believes in the Gospel behaves: this is how a political organization that wants to attract members behaves.

I could go into the background of this, the various possible factors involved from Marxist infiltrations to Vatican II to just the absurd habit that most moderns have of treating their ancestors with dismissive contempt (see the recent move regarding the death penalty). Probably I will sometime, but the point is that all this amounts to a reluctance in the Church, as in the secular world, to call evil evil and falsehood false. Priests are all-but forbidden from calling each other out on liturgical or moral or doctrinal matters lest they be branded ‘intolerant’ or ‘judgmental.’ Even discounting tales of officially-imposed bullying and cover-ups, any warning signs or smaller infractions on the road to full-blown abuse were not acknowledged and not permitted to be sanctioned because to do so would be intolerant.

This is one principle we desperately need to relearn; that evil does not happen in a vacuum. A man does not one day become a pedophile or commit sexual assault or rape without first having gone down a long line of lesser sins. This is one reason for the Church’s former refusal to tolerate even small, venial sins or minor sexual infractions: because with the wisdom of ages, she knew that it never stops at these things. Now, however, along with the rest of the world we delude ourselves that these things don’t matter and then are shocked when they blow up in our faces.

Nor do I think the lack of doctrinal or liturgical discipline is unrelated. Even if we discount supernatural effects, there is simply the question “we don’t expect them to think like priests or pray like priests; why are we surprised they don’t act like priests?” We put up with heresy, sacrilege, and irreverence from them every single day without a word and then we are shocked to find them abusing their position. Once again, these things don’t happen in a vacuum.

All this is a way of saying that the Church is in this position because so many within her do not actually believe in Christ or want anything to do with Him. They believe in politics, in progress, and in all the other idols of modernity. I don’t say this as a judgment, but as an observation. If the Church is to have a renewal, I’m afraid she can no longer tolerate such members, at least not in the clergy. There needs to be a great cleansing within the Church, not just of those who are guilty of abuse or of aiding it, but of all those those who worship the gods of the marketplace rather than Christ. True, this would leave her a shrunk shell of her current self, but she could recover. She cannot recover as long as she continues to tolerate this kind of hypocrisy among her priests.

As so often happens, the answer is “Repent and Believe in the Gospel.”

5 Impossible Things

Found this video drifting around YouTube:

Assuming any of these things are actually true (when you’re looking at something lightyears away you will forgive me if I don’t absolutely buy that you’re seeing what you think you’re seeing).

  1. Two Shadows: Okay, this is pure padding. Multiple shadows happen all the time on the Earth, any time you have two or more light sources. Give me a break here. Also, I don’t know if this has ever actually happened, but theoretically if you had a very bright full Moon and Venus was at her closest approach to the Earth on a clear night, you could have multiple shadows without manmade light.
  2. Ice-7: Oh, yeah; that’s cool! Super-pressurized water that solidifies into  warm ice. Lot of pointless speculation about what might live in the planet-wide ocean, though (so, basically we’ve found Manaan from Knights of the Old Republic).
  3. Rock-Clouds that rain lava: And the rock condenses to stone before it hits the ground. Here on Earth we need poltergeists to create that kind of effect! Also, I want to know what a rock-cloud looks like.
  4. 2 km Per-second winds that rain glass: I have to work a glass storm into a story somewhere. It’s such a great image.
  5. Flying on Titan: Yep, knew about that. In one of my many works in progress I even have people on Titan developing an air-borne sport to take advantage of this (they are also extremely fragile and physically weak compared to other people and tend to be the best pilots since they learn to fly almost as soon as they learn to walk. Maybe I’ll finish that story one of these days).

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Nick Windworth and Karen Stillwater in The Crush of Evidence

 

Karen Stillwater eyed the man before her with distaste. Though a few inches taller than she was, something about his sloping shoulders and somewhat drooping face made her think of him as a little man. He wore a dirty jacket, shirt, and unkempt tie and hung a battered felt hat on the peg by their table. Everything about him, she thought, screamed ‘crook.’

But if she’d wanted to associate only with decent people, she wouldn’t have become a cop. So, carefully concealing any sign of either her suspicions or her dislike, Karen listened as Nick “Breezy” Windworth told his story about happening, during the course of one of his apparently numerous con-jobs, to run across a murder plot involving John Chen’s daughter, who, according to her senior partner, Detective Crane, was in the hospital recovering from a bad bout of influenza. According to Windworth, he’d heroically pieced the information together and arrived just in the nick of time (he had used that pun himself in the course of his story) to stop the assassin after braving imprisonment and torture by Tony Mistretta, the top local gangster.

This, Windworth assured them, had led to a fight to the death in the hospital elevator, during which he had used a concentrated anesthetic to kill the other man in self-defense, explaining the report from earlier that evening about a dead man discovered in the hospital elevator while another man, dressed as an orderly, disappeared out the back amid the confusion.

“You do realize,” she said when he’d finished. “That this would most likely be the first case of self-defense with poison gas in recorded history?”

“Technically, the gas wasn’t poison,” he said. “Just very dangerous.”

“Also that you’re admitting to killing a man under suspicious circumstances, not to mention several other crimes?”

“The thought had occurred to me,” he said. “That sound like something a lying man would do?”

“No one’s accusing you of lying, Breezy,” said Crane. “At least, not yet.”

Windworth shrugged. “I figured it was implied by the fact that you’re speaking to me.”

“Are you a liar, then, Mr. Windworth?” asked Karen.

He turned mischievous eyes on her.

“Everyone lies, Detective; how many lies make a liar?”

“Enough,” said Crane. “We’ll let your story stand for the moment. What I want to know is whether Mistretta and Gallano are really working together, because if so that changes the whole setup.”

Karen pushed her annoyance with the witness out of her mind and considered the matter objectively.

“It certainly would explain a few things,” Crane went on. “Like how Gallano’s able to keep himself so squeaky clean even as his boys tear up the city. Anything too close to him he farms out to Mistretta and the other local gangsters.”

“Meanwhile,” Windworth put in. “He’s able to run you guys ragged trying to keep up with this war of his with El Jefe.”

“Who?” asked Karen.

“Oh, you didn’t know?” said Nick. “That’s what these Mexicans call their employer. No name, just ‘the Boss.’ Apparently he’s a big deal south of the border.”

“Well, we can’t worry about that right now,” said Karen. “Our business is putting Gallano and Mistretta and anyone else involved away for good, preferably before anyone else gets killed. How do you propose we do that, Mr. Windworth?”

He laughed at the appellation.

“That, Detective, is your business. Literally. I told you what I know, now you’re the one who’s gotta figure out a way to use it.”

She scowled at him, but as she started to reply Crane nudged her and she fell silent.

“What I’m thinking,” said the senior detective. “Is that maybe we can use Mistretta to get to Gallano. He’s a weaker target.”

“Don’t know if I’d say that,” said Windworth. “Most people around here are more scared of him than they are of Gallano.”

“That’s exactly the point,” said Karen. “If Mistretta’s at the forefront of Gallano’s power in this area, then he’ll have to be more actively engaged and run more risks. That makes him more vulnerable.”

Windworth nodded.

“Sounds like your girl knows what she’s doing.”

Karen scowled, but refrained from comment.

“We’re going too fast,” said Crane. “First we need to confirm that they’re even working together at all. I’m not saying you’re lying, Breezy, and I’m not even saying I don’t believe you, but it’s only your conclusion, and that from evidence that we haven’t seen. Taking on Mistretta will be a pretty big job, and we can’t afford to waste resources on a wild goose chase these days.”

“No, I see your point; gotta ration the number of lives you’re willing to throw at this thing.”

If that was a joke, Karen thought it in bad taste. Windworth leaned back in his chair, studying the ceiling.

“If it were me,” he said after a moment’s consideration. “I think I’d check out Mistretta’s headquarters. He operates out of a garage on Pico Boulevard; it’s a front for a chop shop. He likes it because there are all sorts of horrible instruments handy in case someone annoys him. But the point is that I’d imagine there’d be some kind of evidence, or paper trail, or something of the kind in his office there to link him to Gallano.”

“Why would he keep something like that?” said Karen.

Windworth smiled.

“That’s the nice thing about us criminals, Detective; we know better than to trust one another. Most of us would turn on each other at the drop of a hat to save our own skins, and since the ones who survive know that perfectly well we tend to keep insurance. Mistretta’s sure to have dirt on Gallano somewhere, just in case the other guy ever tried to turn on him, or just in case he decided it was worth his while to turn on Gallano. Handy, isn’t it?”

“That’s a fine way to live,” said Karen. “Always looking over your shoulder to see who’s ready to stab you in the back.”

“It’s only a matter of being aware, Detective,” he said. “Criminals are no different than anyone else except we understand the world we live in and accept it. I mean, can you honestly say you’ve never been betrayed by anyone?”

Karen shifted uncomfortably, remembering Detective Pallin.

“Never mind,” said Crane. “You say Mistretta’s likely to have dirt on Gallano?”

“Probably a lot of other people too,” he said.

“Do you think we’ll be able to get a search warrant on his testimony?” Karen asked, pushing her discomfort aside.

“Oh, I suspect you would, but wouldn’t find anything,” Windworth said.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Crane asked.

“Only that if Gallano, Mistretta, and their friends have compromised some of the police, they’re likely to have compromised lawyers as well. Probably even a judge or two. By the time you got the warrant, Mistretta will have been tipped off and all your evidence will be gone.”

“He’s right,” said Crane. “We don’t know how connected these guys are. We’d best keep it to as few people as possible until we’re ready to move.”

“And how do we know he isn’t going to tip Mistretta off?” Karen asked, nodding at Windworth. He grinned.

“You don’t,” he said. “That’s the point I was just making. Though if it’s any comfort, he is looking to kill me, so it wouldn’t exactly be in my own self-interest to walk into his shop with all the drills and blow torches and asked to speak with him.”

“If Breezy wanted to do that he wouldn’t have come to us in the first place,” said Crane. “What I think it comes down to is that one of us will have to go in undercover, or sneak in, and see what they can find.”

“Good idea, Detective,” said Windworth. “The best part is that I can’t volunteer, since Mistretta knows me and hates me.”

“Guess it’s up to me then,” said Crane.

“Uh, I wouldn’t do that,” said Windworth. “He knows you too. Most of the crooks around these parts know you, Detective; you’re practically an institution.”

He looked at Karen.

“When did you join the force, anyway?”

Karen saw where things were going and did not like it. In fact, she was surprised by the vehemence of her own revulsion from the idea, but she carefully kept her feelings hidden.

“About two weeks ago,” she said.

“And you made detective that quickly?”

“I was a detective in Springwood,” she said, unable to keep a trace of irritation out of her voice. “I have been a police officer for nearly eight years.”

“Must’ve started young,” he said. “But the point is that you haven’t been around here long enough for the local toughs to have gotten to know you very well. I mean, I didn’t even know you’d taken up with Crane, and I usually know these things.”

“Won’t Pallin have told them about me?” she said.

“He worked for the Mexicans,” Crane reminded her. “I doubt they’re sharing intelligence.”

“Besides,” said Windworth. “You won’t go as a policewoman; we’ll work something out and dress you up so as to draw attention away from your face.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded in a more startled tone than she had intended

He laughed. Even Crane seemed to be keeping his composure with difficulty.

“You’ll figure it out,” said Windworth.

She still didn’t seee what he was getting at and didn’t think she wanted to.

“So, just so we’re clear, you want me to go in undercover to try to get this supposed evidence from Mistretta?”

Crane and Windworth exchanged glances, and Karen felt a subtle shift in the conversation. Before now it had been her and Crane against Windworth. Now the two older men were arrayed on one side and she was on the other.

“Well,” said Crane slowly. “We may have to think about this, but at the moment it doesn’t look like we have much choice. Like I said, it’s hard to know who to trust these days. And Breezy’s right; you’re the only one of us that Mistretta probably won’t recognize straight off.”

“Okay, but even if he doesn’t, and assuming we come up with a good cover story, how am I supposed to find this supposed evidence?”

“If it’s at the shop at all it’ll be in his private office,” said Windworth. “All we need is to get you in there alone for as long as possible. It won’t be anywhere obvious, like a drawer or filing cabinet, but if you search smart you should be able to find it.”

“’Search smart’?”

“You know; use your brains. I assume you have some.”

“As a matter of fact I do,” she said. “But why would Mistretta take me back into his private office to begin with?”

Windworth’s eyebrows rose.

“Detective Stillwater, are you really asking why a man would want to be alone with you?”

Karen opened her mouth, then closed it again without speaking, feeling her face growing hot. She saw what he was getting at. On the one hand, his flippant, cynical manner annoyed her and she did not like the idea of relying on her looks – of which she had never had a high opinion – to get her through a dangerous mission. But, at the same time, and to her own surprise she couldn’t help being rather pleased that Windworth seemed to think she could. In spite of everything, it was rather flattering.

“Of course, the problem is that accent of yours,” said Windworth. “What is that anyway?”

“British father, Mexican mother,” she explained.

“I see. Can you lean it more to the maternal side?”

Karen considered a moment, then asked, in a voice that would have been appropriate to someone born and raised in Juarez, “How’s this? And what are you planning anyway?”

“Perfect,” said Windworth. “So, here’s what I’m thinking…”

###

            The large garage from which Mistretta ruled his kingdom stood on a corner in one of the nastier neighborhoods of LA. A couple unpleasant-looking youths were lounging by the entrance, smoking and leering at passersby. In the neighboring alley a few wino dozed against the side of a dumpster, while stray cats slunk in and out of sight amid piles of trash.

Karen hesitated on the corner across from the garage. She was surprised by how nervous she was, and didn’t like it. Ordinarily she had a very cool head for danger; she remembered once partaking in an armed raid on the home of a trigger-happy meth-head and she hadn’t felt this nearly this uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the prospect of trying to fool a very dangerous man, or that she felt self conscious in her tight, cleavage-bearing crop-top and short skirt. It wasn’t the kind of thing she’d ever consider wearing normally, but it fit the character she was meant to portray.

Who was she kidding? She knew why she was nervous and knew why she had been so reluctant to accept this plan in the first place. It was the simple fact that she’d already cheated death once this week and didn’t fancy the prospect of trying her luck a second time.

That, and she didn’t trust Windworth, whatever Crane said. He struck her as a fundamentally weak, cowardly man who would do anything to save his own skin and had never once lifted a finger to help anyone else. She disbelieved his whole story of saving the girl and thought that he probably had some kind of agenda of his own.

In any case, he was gone now. After they’d worked out the plan Crane had asked him to stay and help them nail Mistretta.

“No sir,” he’d answered. “This is all your problem now. First thing tomorrow, I’m hopping the first train to anywhere not Los Angeles. Just an expression, Detective,” he’d added at Karen’s disgusted look. “I’ll pay for my ticket like an honest citizen.”

“You know,” she replied. “There really isn’t that much difference between an honest coward and dishonest one.”

He had almost laughed at that, confirming her worst ideas of the man.

In any case, this meant it was only her and Crane to try to pull off this scheme. She didn’t like it, but it was their best chance to finally start to make some progress on this case.

With that in mind, she squared her shoulders, threw out her chest, and sashayed across the street. She wasn’t exactly the flirting type herself, but she’d been through vice squad training and so knew the basics. She saw the two sentinels watching her with leering enjoyment and flashed them a vapid smile as she strode right past and into the shop. They didn’t try to stop her, probably figuring she was no danger and that doing anything would only attract more attention than it was worth.

Inside the shop was crowded and noisy. Several men were working on a rather expensive-looking car set up on a rack while rock music blared from a boom box. Workbenches and racks of tools stood along the walls and between the three large garage doors, while the air reeked of gas and oil. The men looked up as she came in, and they continued to look as she sauntered up to the nearest one and demanded: “Where is Mistretta? I have something he wants to know. I mean to tell him something.”

The man she accosted looked at her with a leering enjoyment.

“He’s busy,” he said. “Sure we can’t help you with anything?”

“I don’t need help,” she said. “I’m here to help you. I got something he’ll want to know, and that I want to tell, see? You let him know that. It is about El Jefe’s people.”

That changed the tone of the conversation at once. The men looked at each other, then one of them hurried back to an office in the rear of the building.

A few minutes later, Mistretta himself came out. Karen had never seen him before, but Crane had told her what to expect. He was hard, compact, and square-jawed, without an ounce of fat on him. He wore dirty jeans and a work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, showing the hard muscles of his burly arms. Karen saw his cold grey eyes sweeping her body with a hungry expression. That was good as far as it went.

“You Mistretta?” she said.

“That’s me.”

“I got things to say to you. Things you’ll be wanting to hear, right?”

“I think so,” he said, with a nasty smile. “Come on back and we’ll discuss it.”

He took her arm, not forcefully, but Karen was immediately aware of the terrible, crushing strength of this man’s body, like a chimpanzee. Though she was a strong and athletic woman, she thought he could probably break her arm with ease if he wanted to.

His office was a crowded, narrow space of metal cabinets and a steel desk jammed against the corner. The cinderblock walls were stained and water-damaged, probably with leakage from the bar-covered window looking into the alley. Oddly, there weren’t many papers or typical office equipment in view, though there were several tools lying on the desk.

Mistretta placed Karen in the chair opposite his own, but didn’t sit down himself. Instead, he continued to stand over her, one hand on the back of her chair, leaning over her. It was a very alarming position to be in, and it took all of Karen’s considerable self-control to act as though she didn’t notice it.

“So,” he said. “What do want to give me?”

She gave a vacant smile.

“I don’t like getting’ involved in no trouble,” she said. “I keep clean, see? But I don’t judge neither. So, I am seeing this man, Juan Estravedos. He does things for me, buys me things, takes care of me, see? So I don’t ask too much about what he does for then money. I hear a few things, I see a few things, but I don’t think I care, because I am taken care of, yes?”

“That’s the way to do it,” he said. One of his fingers began fiddling with a stray lock of her black hair.

“But then…” she said. “These last days, I find out that he’s been going about with this blonde piruja. All this time, he’s two-timing me!”

She spat on the floor.

“So,” she went on. “I think, how do I get back at him? Maybe I tell some of things I hear, and maybe he learns what happens when you cross me.”

“And so you came to me?” said Mistretta.

“That’s right,” she said. “I think ‘there is this big fight going on. These gangsters are shooting each other up. I would be glad to see the bastard shot, so I will tell someone how to do it.’”

Mistretta laughed.

“You are a nasty bit of goods, chiquita chiquita.”

Karen squared her shoulders and flicked her head to pull her hair out of his reach.

“I have myself to look out for,” she said. “Maybe my next man knows not to try two-timing me.”

“So, what exactly…” Mistretta began, but at that moment there was a knock at the door and one of his thugs poked his head in.

“What is it?” the gangster snapped.

“Sorry, boss,” said the man. “There’s a cop here, says he’s got some questions for you. It’s about…” he glanced at Karen. “About that thing yesterday.”

Mistretta swore and looked down at Karen.

“You just wait here a bit, chiquita,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

“Oh, I’ll wait,” she said with a smile.

With that he followed his man out, shutting the door behind him.

I cannot believe that worked, Karen thought as she immediate stood up and began searching the room. She didn’t know how long Crane could stall him; probably about five or ten minutes at best.

Windworth had said that the evidence wouldn’t be anywhere obvious or easy to get to: not in a drawer or cabinet, for instance. That honestly didn’t leave much. Karen drew a deep breath and forced herself to look at it calmly.

If she were a gangster, and meant to keep dirt on her associates just in case, where would she hide it? It would be somewhere that no one would just happen upon by accident, but also somewhere you could get at it fairly quickly.

She looked behind the cabinet, but nothing there. She eyed the ceiling, but it was solid plaster. Then she wondered whether there might be a hidden drawer or compartment in the desk.

Karen tugged open one of the bottom drawers, intending to feel about on the inside for a false bottom or a hidden lever. But when she opened it, she found that it contained nothing but bricks. Ordinary masonry bricks, stacked two deep. She checked the drawer on the other side, and it was the same.

Drawers full of bricks. And the desk itself was a heavy, solid, metal affair. It would take a strong man to move it at the best of times, let alone weighted down.

Karen knelt down and looked under the desk. The inner left corner, which, facing from the door, would be right behind Mistretta’s chair, and which bore the brunt of the weight from the bricks, was missing its leg and instead was propped up by a couple of thick leather binders.

She looked over her shoulder. She didn’t know how long Mistretta had been gone. It felt like a long time, but objectively she knew it wasn’t more than a minute. Could she possibly get the binders out of there before he came back?

Karen felt them, but as she’d expected they were wedged in tight and impossible to move. If she got the bricks out she might be able to shift the desk enough to retrieve them. But would she have time?

More importantly, would she ever have another opportunity?

With a hasty glance at the door, Karen began piling bricks out of the desk setting them on the floor. They were heavy and scratched her hands, and every time she set them down on the tiled floor they gave a ‘clunk’ that she felt must be audible from the main shop. But no one came; no angry faces burst in on her.

She was able to take about two bricks at a time, and in about half a minute had cleared out one drawer and started on the other. Her heart hammered painfully against her chest, and the tight skirt she had to wear didn’t make lifting the bricks any easier. Every second she expected Mistretta to return and catch her. The music still blaring into the shop outside made it impossible to hear any signs of his approach.

The second drawer was cleared. Karen ducked under the desk and tugged at the leather binders. Even without its load of bricks, the desk was heavy; too heavy for her to lift by herself. She bent and braced her back against the top of the desk and pushed with her legs. It lifted, not much, but just enough. The binders came free.

For a moment, Karen felt exulted with triumph as she tucked the binder into her purse. But then she realized that, first, she now needed to put all the bricks back before Mistretta arrived, and second that without its brace the inner corner of the desk sagged noticeably; Mistretta would know something was wrong the moment he returned.

Thinking quickly, Karen seized one of the bricks and jammed it in under the desk. The game would be up the moment he looked at it, but at least the desk wouldn’t wobble too much. This done, she began piling the bricks back into the desk. Time was running out; she could feel it, but she didn’t dare go any faster lest the bricks clang loudly against the steel.

Back and forth, two at a time. Every time she looked at the door, she expected to see it open, to see Mistretta standing before her. She had no idea what she’d do if that happened: she had her sidearm hidden in her jacket pocket, but at this close range she didn’t fancy her chances of getting it out in time.

The left hand drawer was filled. Now for the right. Seven bricks to go. Five. Three. One…

Karen pushed the drawer shut, then noticed the dust and crumbs that had come off of them. Hastily, she seized a ledger from the desk and swept it as best as she could out of sight under the desk. It made a nasty scratching sound against the tiled floor. Putting the ledger back as close as she could to where it had laid, heart pounding with her triumph, she threw herself back into her chair.

As though it had been a signal, not five seconds after she’d sat down the door opened and Mistretta came in. He seemed in a bad temper.

“Now,” he said with an attempt at a suave smile that reminded her of a dog baring its teeth. “Where were we?”

He ran his hands along her shoulders and felt at the edges of her shirt. Karen pulled away, standing up.

“Not that far by a long shot,” she said, waggling a finger at him and leaning against his desk. She hoped very much she was screening the brick from sight.

“You all right?” he said. “You seem nervous?”

“Nervous? No! I am angry!” she said. “I think of what this man has done to me, and then I am kept waiting for so long, it is enough to infuriate!”

“Cops,” he said with a shrug. “What’re you gonna do? Anyway, what’s this you want to tell me?”

Karen willed herself to focus through her fear. Though her heart was hammering and she expected every minute for him to peer through the lining of her purse and see the stolen binder, she nevertheless stayed in character and gave her spiel. The information was all fake, but just close enough to the truth to be convincing. She told him where one of the Mexican gangs supposedly had its hide out and their schedule for receiving shipments.

“If you time it right,” she said. “You not only kill many of these pigs, but you get a nice bonus for yourself, eh?”

He nodded.

“I’ll take a look,” he said. “If it checks out, then I’ll owe you chiquita.”

“Just kill Juan Estravedos,” said Karen with a convincing approximation of a hateful snarl. “Then I will be happy.”

Mistretta grinned.

“Well, that’s the important thing,” he said.

Karen nodded, as if to say they were done, and started for the door. But Mistretta put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. Once more she was aware of that terrifying, animal strength.

“You know,” he said. “There are ways to make you happy right now.”

Karen feigned a flattered smile even as a faintly sick feeling came into her stomach.

“Thank you, but I’m not that kind of girl.”

“Oh, I think you are,” he said. His grip tightened on her shoulder. “Or else you wouldn’t be here, would you.”

Karen swallowed and her smile faded, replaced by a hard, watchful look. Her mind was running through several possible gambits to get out of this situation. Once she tried one, she’d be all in, and none of them seemed to offer good odds.

“Take your hand off me, please,” she said.

Mistretta’s face twitched. Instead of complying, he seized her right arm in a grip that made her wince.

“What’s the matter?” he said. “I’m not good enough for you?”

“You’re hurting me,” she gasped.

“Don’t worry; you’ll get to like it before long. They all do.”

Time was rapidly running out. She needed to act now or not at all. She’d knee him in the crotch and make a break for the door, drawing her pistol as she went. With luck, the pain would make him lose his grip, and she’d be armed and out of reach before he could recover…with luck. But if it didn’t work…

Before Karen could start, however, there was a heavy knock at the door to the office. Mistretta clapped a hand over Karen’s mouth and shouted “Not now!”

The door opened, and Karen’s confusion (and probably Mistretta’s as well), one of the winos from the alley stumbled in. He smelled rancid, and a half-empty bottle dangled from one hand.

“Sho-sorry,” he muttered, clearly in an advanced state of intoxication. “I’m jush looking for a bathroom…”

“How the hell did you get in here?” Mistretta snarled, throwing Karen into the chair by the desk. She seized her chance to reach into her jacket and pull out her sidearm…but then something very strange happened.

The foul-smelling wino had stumbled into the office and seemed to be trying to find his way among the metal cabinet. Mistretta gave him a hard shove to the chest, meaning push him out through the doorway. But as he did, the wino suddenly turned with the blow, and using Mistretta’s own momentum pulled him off balance, slamming him face-first in the cabinet. While the gangster was still reeling from the blow, the wino smashed his bottle across his face, dropping him to the floor in a cloud of blood and broken glass.

Karen hadn’t quite registered what had happened when the wino seized her hand and pulled her to her feet. They were out of the office and into the main shop before she had realized what was happening. As they ran through the crowded, noisy space, she saw that Mistretta’s men were all lying incapacitated against the workbenches or stretched out on the floor.

The next minute they were out the door, down the alleyway, and had emerged on the opposite street, where they slipped into the foot traffic. Karen hastily returned her gun to her pocket.

The ‘wino’ kept moving until they could duck into another alleyway and out of sight of the street.

“You all right?” he asked, and his voice confirmed what Karen had been vaguely aware from the moment he’d entered the office.

“Windworth!”

“Please, not so loud,” he said. “I’ve got a price on my head, remember?”

“But…what are you doing here?”

“Saving your hide; what’s it look like?” he said. “Would have been there sooner except I had to deal with the guards.”

“Wait, but, how did you know…”

“I was watching, of course. Through the window. You weren’t lying about having brains, either; figuring out the deal with the bricks was smart work. Gutsy too. Took me a while to get what you were doing.”

Karen brushed a stray lock of her hair out of her face. She was trembling and breathing hard, though she thought she could pass that off as due to running.

“You knew something like this would happen, didn’t you?”

“I knew it was the weakest part of the plan,” he said. “I don’t mean to get sappy, but you are a very beautiful woman, detective. I knew that a man once alone with you would need a lot of self-control to keep his hands to himself. And Mistretta’s not the self-controlling type. So I kept an eye out to see if things got out of hand, and obviously they did, so I came running.”

Karen wasn’t really sure how to respond to that, both because the comment on her looks made her uncomfortable and because she’d never really been rescued before.

“You smell terrible,” she said by way of buying time to collect her ideas.

“Thank you,” he said. “It’s part of the disguise; don’t want someone looking too close, discourage them from getting too close.”

“Well, thanks for the help,” she said. “Where did you learn to fight like that anyway?”

“Boy Scouts. By the way, did we actually get anything from all of that?”

In the excitement of the escape, Karen had almost forgotten the binder. She took it out and flipped it open to find it contained hand-written notes, photographs, and memoranda, which a glance told her pertained to criminal activity.

She smiled broadly, too exhilarated and too frazzled to hide her feelings.

“Got them,” she said.

“That’s a relief,” said Windworth. “Best get that to Crane; I’m gonna get out of town before Mistretta wakes up. This is all your problem now, detective.”

She gave him a shrewd look.

“That’s what you said yesterday, and yet here you are.”

He looked at her with a strange expression she couldn’t quite place, then shrugged.

“What can I say? I’m a liar.”

 

 

 

A Thought on Aretha Franklin

More specifically, on some of the responses to her death.

I’m a Detroit native, and for that city the death of Aretha Franklin is as the death of a home-grown President or war hero. She was a major and beloved figure in the city’s history and culture, all the more so because, unlike many of her contemporaries, she continued to make her home there after she made it big. Personally, I don’t have much interest in her music, but that hardly matters; the woman left behind a staggering artistic legacy and brought joy and inspiration to millions, and that counts for a lot.

The trouble, and the reason I’m writing this, is that I keep hearing commenters who seem to think that isn’t enough. They keep trying to talk about how she ‘changed the world’ or ‘changed the complexion of American music and society.’ Meaning no disrespect to her (and I suspect she’d agree with me), but this is nonsense. Black female singers were not at all uncommon or unpopular before Miss Franklin. In terms of breaking down barriers, Marian Anderson, a generation before, was probably much more instrumental than Aretha Franklin.

This is a problem I notice a lot when a major entertainment star dies; people feel the need to insist that their work had a significant social or political impact. That it ‘changed the world’ somehow, rather than simply being an excellent example of the craft. I remember the same thing was done when Prince died: articles about how he ‘changed the world.’

The problem with this is not just that it’s faintly ridiculous, but that it is actually rather insulting to the field of entertainment. It seems to imply that the real purpose of entertainment, the thing that makes it worth celebrating, is the effect it has on the socio-political landscape. Not whether it brings joy or inspiration or comfort to people, but whether it moves the social needle in the preferred direction.

See, to my mind the fact that Aretha Franklin was a fantastically gifted performer whom millions of people loved to listen to is far, far more important than any supposed social impact her music had. The latter will always be dubious at best (how can you possibly say objectively what effect a certain brand of music had on people’s opinions or behavior? Individuals would be hard pressed to definitively say that of their own lives, let alone some armchair commentator speaking about thousands upon thousands of strangers), the former is undeniable. The latter is, when all is said and done, ephemeral: social issues come and go (despite the best efforts of some parties to keep them on life support for as long as possible), but art and music remains. It may not always be as popular, but if it touches hearts in one generation, it will do so for as long as it is remembered. Great entertainment and great art are immortal, or at least much longer lived than socio-political matters.

Moreover, being a singer was her profession; the celebrate the fact that someone did her life’s work so well seems far more to the point than celebrating third-party speculation about how her work may have affected some other issue.

Basically, what I am saying is that entertainment has value independent of and superior to any kind of socio-political effect it may have had. I think most people would agree with me on that, but one would hardly know it from the way we tend to honor the passing of great entertainers. This is part and parcel of our tendency to subordinate all other concerns to the political, causing us to devalue the actual virtues of a artist’s work in a desperate grasp to talk about the same tired issues once more.

In any case, Mrs. Franklin left behind a great body of work that will likely remain beloved for generations to come, which is an enviable legacy. May she rest in peace.

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Nick Windworth in The Man in Grey

DP 2

The shop bell chimed and a young woman entered. Nick guessed she was in her mid twenties; pretty, though less than she might be. Her fair young face was worn with anxiety and her light brown hair was tangled, probably from the number of times she’d run her fingers through it. She looked anxiously around the shop, then approached the counter in an uncertain manner.

“Well?” said Nick in a gruff tone that suggested she was interrupting something important. “Can I help you?”

“I…I’m here to see Mr. Eickstein?”

“He’s busy. What do you want?”

“Uh, I…I think I ought to speak to him personally…”

“I’m his partner,” said Nick. “Anything you can say to him you can say to me.”

She looked him over for a moment, as though trying to gauge his threat level. He was neared forty than thirty, with round shoulders and a slightly drooping face that somehow made him look a lot smaller than he really was. He wore a dirty old suit and tie, while a battered felt hat hung on the peg by the register. To all appearances, Nick very well might have been the junior partner of a low-rent pawnshop.

The woman swallowed and squared her narrow shoulders.

“I’ve come to redeem a necklace,” she said with more conviction that before.

“Oh?”

“My name Linda Hauge.”

“Oh! I see,” he said, nodding as if he’d been expecting her. Nick opened the logbook and ran his thumb down the figures.

“Hauge: one antique necklace for five-hundred twenty-three dollars. Is that right?”

“Yes,” she said.

Nick checked the tags and found the necklace, but he didn’t hand it to her.

“You have the money, I presume?”

Linda Hauge swallowed.

“No,” she said. “At least,” she added hastily. “Not all of it. But you see, I need that necklace for tonight.”

“Well, that’s awkward,” said Nick. “You need the necklace, I need the five-hundred twenty-three dollars.”

“The thing is, my husband doesn’t know I pawned it,” she explained. “It was…we were desperate. Now he has a new job and things are going well, but his parents are coming in tonight, and it’s a family heirloom, so they will want to see me wearing it, and if I don’t…they’ll be so angry with me. They – they were against our marriage in the first place and this…”

She swallowed, blinked a tear out of her eye and reached into her purse.

“I have three hundred and seventy four dollars,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been able to save thus far. I will get you the rest, I swear, but I need to have it back tonight.”

She placed the roll of cash on the table. Nick looked from her to the money, as though thinking about it. He picked up the cash and deliberately counted it. Mrs. Hauge waited with baited breath.

“Forget it,” he said.

“But…”

“I mean, forget the rest,” said Nick, taking the money and pushing the necklace across to her.

“I…what?”

“You take the jewelry, I’ll take the money, and we’ll call it even,” he said. “I’ll mark your account as closed. But only on one condition.”

Mrs. Hauge, who had been looking stunned and eager, now suddenly shied.

“What condition?” she asked.

“That you never come near this shop again,” he said. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “If anyone ever found out that we’d done this for you, our business would be over. Understand? So don’t ever let me catch you anywhere near here again, and don’t you dare mention this to anyone.”

“I won’t!” she said eagerly. “I swear, I never…Oh, thank you, thank you so much!”

“Damn,” he said, handing her the necklace with a wink. “And here I thought I was heartless.”

She took it, and to his surprise suddenly kissed him on the cheek before rushing out of the shop.

Nick “Breezy” Windworth rubbed the spot where she’d kissed him, sighed, shrugged, marked the Linda Hauge account as closed, and then put the roll of money into his pocket.

The truth was, Nick didn’t work in that little shop. He didn’t exactly work at all these days. He got by on his quick wits and quicker fingers: picking pockets, forging checks, running low-level schemes when he thought he could get away with it, that sort of thing. In a word, he was a crook. Today’s excursion to the pawnshop was one of those endeavors, though the arrival of Mrs. Hauge had been an unexpected complication. Still, she’d seemed satisfied with the results and he was quite sure Eickstein never would have let her off the hook that easily, so he decided he’d count it on the positive side in that night’s examination of conscience.

Nick didn’t think of himself as a particularly dishonest man…at least, no more than anyone else. One thing life had taught him thus far was that practically everyone lied, everyone cheated, and everyone was mostly out for what they could get. Nick was just willing to play the game with a straight face. Besides, he wasn’t nearly as bad as some he could name: he was just trying to get by, not out to reach some imaginary summit by turning his fellow creatures into stepping stones.

Right now, though, Nick wasn’t really considering any of this; he just wanted to get out of the shop before another customer arrived, as he didn’t think he could square two such missions of mercy in one day. He came out from behind the counter and head for the door, intending to turn the sign on the door from ‘open’ to ‘closed’ and leave, but a man walked in before he’d quite reached it.

He was not a tall man, nor especially large. He was, in fact, almost wholly unremarkable in appearance. He had sandy brown hair, was about ten years younger than Nick, and to judge from his gray suit might have been anything from a lawyer to an office worker. But what struck Nick most of all, from the moment he laid eyes on him, was the way the man carried himself; that confident, cool, predatory poise that comes to men sure of their own power.

It was something Nick was all too familiar with.

Adjusting at once to the new situation, Nick converted his path to the door into a path to adjust a clock that stood on an antique dresser, then turned to meet his new customer.

“Can I help you?” he said.

The man looked at Nick with pale blue eyes. Those eyes made Nick’s blood run cold, but he met them steadily, opting to appear too dense to recognize their expression.

“Where’s Eikstein?” he asked.

“Sick in bed,” Nick answered. “Name’s Elijah Gould: I’m his partner.”

The man in grey frowned at him.

“I’m here to pick up a package,” he said. “Mr. Mistretta said you’d have one for me.”

Nick raised his eyebrows and whistled.

“Well, if it’s for Mr. Mistretta, then we’d better find it,” he said. Though all his instinct screamed against the move, he turned his back on the man and bustled behind the counter, adopting a somewhat lopping walk as though he weren’t used to much activity.

“Surprised he didn’t mention it to me,” Nick went on. “But then, he’s not got the best memory in the world, you know; he doesn’t write something down, he doesn’t know anything about it.”

Morris Eickstein’s bad memory had been why Nick had decided to attempt this angle in the first place. Well, that and his bad temper and habit of charging customers almost double what he’d paid them for their pawned goods. An unfortunate hand of cards had created something of a set-back in Nick’s plans to finally get out of LA and set up shop somewhere far away; further than San Francisco or San Ignatio. Maybe Houston, or St. Louis, or New Orleans. Anywhere no one would know his name and he could start over.

Nick had calculated the amount of money he would need for the move, and had almost gotten there too…until that cheat Lenny Sorrell had started clearing him out. Fortunately Nick had the sense to know when to get out of a game and hadn’t thrown all his cash away, but it had been enough to set his plans back quite a ways.

That’s when he’d hit on the pawn shop angle: pawn his watch, the only valuable thing he owned, get the money, then a few days later come back and reacquire it, crossing out the account in the process. Nick had a handy little gadget he’d borrowed from a locksmith friend, with which he’d made a copy of the shop key before the owner had even realized it was gone. Eickstein’s on coming flu – a pure stroke of luck – had helped with this, and the rest was just a matter of watching the shop until the day he didn’t come in. Now, thanks to both Mr. Eickstein and Mrs. Hauge, he had all he needed and more, and he just wanted to get out of there and start pulling up his stakes.

Instead, he found himself obliged to fill and order for the scariest gangster in Northern LA and what was apparently his pet psychopath. That was just his luck, but then if he could rely on luck, he probably wouldn’t have become a crook.

“You couldn’t possibly describe what you’re looking for?” Nick asked after a few minutes’ searching behind the counter.

“You don’t need to know that,” said the man in grey.

“Kinda do if I’m gonna give it to you,” said Nick. “Like I say, he didn’t write anything down. Suppose that was the idea, but it leaves us in kind of an awkward position, don’t it?”

The man considered a moment more.

“It’s a gas canister.” He said. “About a foot long. Green. Unmarked. Check the back.”

Nick nodded and went into the back room, searching along the shelves. As he did so, he was thinking. Who was this guy? What did he want with this cylinder, and why all the secrecy? What was Mistretta up to?

He soon found what he was looking for; an unmarked, dark green gas canister, but he kept pretending to search a while longer, concocting a plan.

Finally, deciding he could delay no longer, he picked up the cylinder and returned to the main shop.

There she is,” he said. “It was tucked back behind a box labled ‘cleaning supplies.’ Go figure. So, is there a charge for that, or…”

“More of an exchange,” said the man. “You hand it over and don’t mention this to anyone, and you don’t have anything to worry about. Understand?”

“Perfectly,” said Nick, handing the canister over. “I know how to keep a secret, and who not to get on the bad side of.”

The man in grey said nothing, but took the canister and tucked it inside his suit (which was evidently tailored for such a conveyance).

“Anything else I can get for you?” Nick asked, coming out from around the counter as though to offer one of the items on a distant shelf. “We have some lovely…”

“No,” said the man in grey. “Nothing more.”

Nick looked at him, seemed to hesitate, and then nodded as though resigned.

“All right,” he said. “I hope you’ll come again, though.”

He went and opened the door for the man, standing on the near side of it as though to hold it in place with his body. The man gave him an inscrutable look, then passed out, just brushing against him as he went.

As soon as the man was out of sight, Nick locked the door, changed the sign to ‘closed’ and hastened out the back way. Clutched in his hand was a neatly folded envelope that had come from the man in grey’s pocket. He didn’t know how long it would take for the man in grey to notice his loss, but once he did he’d probably know exactly what happened and Nick meant to be far away beforehand.

About a quarter hour later, having travelled down three streets and four alleyways to end up in a run-down diner just coming off of the breakfast rush, Nick ordered himself a coffee, selected a booth with a good view of the door, and sat down to study his find.

It wasn’t much; a photograph and a strip of paper. The photograph showed a pretty, smiling Asian girl of about fifteen or sixteen, he guessed. She looked like a nice kid. The paper had a few terse words written on it:

St. Andrews. 332. Five-thirty.

Nick sipped his coffee, thinking. St. Andrews was a hospital. ‘332’ was probably a room number, and five-thirty was obviously a time…though there was no date, so that could be five-thirty today or tomorrow or next week, morning or evening…no, more likely today, if this is what the cylinder was for.

As for what would happen at five-thirty in room 332 to this girl, he had known that from the moment the man in grey walked into the shop.

Nick hadn’t always been a small-time crook. Back when he was young – strange to think of that now – he’d been around quite a lot; he’d gone to Vietnam with the first wave and stayed for the duration and a little after, did a lot of things with and without official approval, and met a lot of people. Over the years, he’d gotten to classifying people rather like how a taxonomist classifies animals, and by this time he could pretty well tell the genus and species of a man within a few minutes of meeting him. But people like the man in grey he’d learned to spot almost at once. They were predators, and the rest of the world was prey to them.

Mistretta was like that too. Nick had only met the gangster once or twice, but that was enough for him to know to steer well clear of the man. Mistretta was pretty small time compared to the big crime syndicates – Gallano, for instance – specializing in protection rackets, money laundering, and car thefts. Strictly local crimes, but anything that fell under that category answered to Mistretta.

And apparently he wanted the man in grey to murder this girl. The canister, no doubt, had something to do with that. That probably meant it was happening today.

Nick sighed and checked his watch. Assuming the man in grey stuck to the schedule, that left him about eight hours to work. He’d done more with less.

###

            Nick’s first move was to start the information train rolling. To that end, he headed straight for the place that was the secret of his success: the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A good con-artist required two things; the right attitude and the right information. The former he had for free, but the latter required a reliable source and usually a fair amount of cash. Nick’s primary source for most things was a middle-aged, three-hundred-pound tiger whose parents, showing an appalling lack of foresight, had christened Angel Sue Lewee. Had they been more prescient, they probably would have called her “Cerberus.” Like that creature, she was terrifying and indomitable, but could be appeased with the correct type of gift. In her case, that gift tended to be money.

Nick found her, as usual, terrifying some poor citizen who was taking his written driver’s test.

“You think the yellow line means passing allowed?” she snapped, smearing a great line of red across the paper. “Why not do us all a favor and drive yourself into a tree on your way home? Then at least you won’t take anyone else with you.”

“Angel, my angel!” Nick said as the would-be driver beat a hasty retreat from the gorgon. “You’re looking radiant this morning!”

Angel snorted like an irritable bison.

“Cut the crap; what do you want, Breezy?”

“Information,” said Nick, passing her a roll of bills. “And it’s for a very good cause this time.”

“Bull,” she answered, flipping through to confirm they were all the correct denomination before pocketing them. “Your last good cause was a pyramid scheme.”

“Serious this time,” said Nick. “I need you to look and see if you can find anything at all on this girl, and particularly who her parents are and any known connections to crime or criminal organizations.”

He handed her the photograph. She looked at it, then glared suspiciously at him.

“Isn’t she a little young for you?”

“Yes, but this is business, not romance. Besides, you know you’re the only woman for me, Angel.” Then, adopting a more serious expression, he explained. “I think the girl’s in danger and I want to find out why.”

Angel frowned, evidently surprised to see this side of him.

“You serious, Breezy?”

“Serious as can be,” he answered. “I need it as soon as you can, and if you need more cash just name your price.”

“Wow, you are serious,” she said. “You have a name?”

“No, not yet. What me to let you know if I get one?”

“Don’t bother; I’ll probably have it faster than you.”

“Then you’ll do it?”

She considered with a noise like a bear weighing the pros and cons of raiding a campsite

“Fine, I’ll see what I can dig up. But you better not be lying!”

“That hurts, Angel; it really does.”

She snorted. “What are you gonna do in the meantime?”

“If I knew, I’d tell you,” he sighed, walking off with a wave.

Nick didn’t doubt she’d find out what he needed. If you wanted to know all there was to know about someone, the best source in the world was an unscrupulous civil servant with an intimidating personality. Angel didn’t technically have access to the city records, but that had never stopped her in the past. She wasn’t the kind of woman that people generally said ‘no’ to. She’d come through. In the meantime, he needed to double check that the girl was still alive and make sure she stayed that way until he could figure out why someone wanted her dead. To that end, upon leaving the DMV, he headed straight for the hospital.

It is very, very tricky to pretend to be a doctor. You need to be very precise in the personality you convey, as well as have a pretty good basic knowledge of the subject and an air of authority so that you can delegate anything you don’t know.

Pretending to be an orderly, on the other hand, that’s much easier. All you have to do is put on the right uniform and always be carrying something about with a look of purpose.

In this way, with a bundle of towels taken from a supply rack, Nick made his way to room 332. The tag on the door read “Jenny Chen.” He knocked and entered in proper hospital fashion.

It was her alright. She sat propped up in bed, reading a book, looking distinctly paler and more worn than she had in her photograph (unsurprising, since no one looked their best in hospitals). However, she looked up and smiled at him as he came in.

“Excuse me a minute,” he said. “I just need to change the towels.”

“Thanks,” she said in a slightly croaking voice that suggested throat trouble. “But I think they just did that.”

“Really? Well, can’t hurt to do it again. That’s how things work around here; hasn’t been used, so we might as well clean it.”

She laughed, which brought on a brief fit of coughing.

“How’re you feeling today?” he asked as he replaced the towels.

“Better,” she said. “Doctor Johns says I can go home tomorrow. I just wish this hadn’t happened in the middle of soccer season.”

He smiled. As he thought, a nice kid.

Now the question was how he’d keep her alive long enough to go home. That and why anyone would be trying to murder her in the first place.

He abandoned the unsoiled towels in a likely-looking receptacle and descended to one of the employee exits in the back of the building, still thinking. He wondered whether Angel had found out anything yet, and whether the man in grey had yet discovered his loss and, if so, how he had reacted to it.

The latter question was abruptly and unexpectedly answered when Nick, turning the corner on his way from the hospital, was suddenly struck hard on the back of the head and knew no more.

###

            Consciousness slowly returned, bringing with it a throbbing headache and a vague sense of paralysis. The vagueness became sharp when the process was accelerated by a sharp knock on the head. Nick blinked into the veiled light coming through a plastic-covered window and saw that he was in an empty room that looked like it was destined to one day be an apartment, but hadn’t yet made the grade. He was handcuffed and tied to a metal chair, and a breath mask had been strapped over his nose and mouth. A tube ran from the mask to what he was unpleasantly certain was a heavy-duty shop vac.

Two men shared the room with him. One was the man in grey, who stood by the vacuum, glaring at him with silent malevolence. The other was Tony Mistretta.

“Welcome back, Breezy,” he said.

Mistretta was not a large man, but he conveyed an unmistakable sense of power. He was square and compact, with a hard eye and probably no an ounce of body fat on him.

“So, Breezy,” he said. “I hear you been spying on my boy, Serjy, here.”

He nodded to the man in grey.

“’Spying’ is such an ugly word,” said Nick. “More of an accidental point of interest.”

Serjy flipped a switch on the shop vac. Nick immediately closed his air passages as best he could, but still the wind was sucked from his lungs and he couldn’t draw breath to replace it. His body spasmed painfully against his bounds, but his mind remained oddly clear, speculating in a strange, detached way whether they meant to kill him outright or just to torture him for a bit. Strangely enough, he was more curious than frightened. Death didn’t seem to matter that much…

Then the vacuum was turned off and air, blessed air, returned, along with a body-wide ache and a sick, dry sensation in the mouth. His sense of detachment was suddenly gone; now the important thing was to keep the air coming, because air was good.

Serjy turned on the vacuum again, and the whole terrible ordeal started over, except now the detachment was gone. He wanted air, wanted it badly, desperately.

Again it was turned off, and again he gasped for breath, with that nasty sense of dryness in the mouth.

“What were you doing in that shop?” Mistretta asked. “We checked with Eickstein; you don’t work there. He doesn’t have a partner.”

Nick drew a deep breath.

“I had been minding my own business,” he answered. “Your boy walks in and asks for a gas canister, so I gave it to him. Simple as that.”

“Then you picked his pocket,” Mistretta added.

“I…”

The vacuum was turned on again. This time Nick felt darkness creeping around the edge of his vision before it was turned off and he was allowed to breathe.

“You picked his pocket, going straight for his instructions from me, and I’m supposed to believe you met by coincidence?”

This was not a good development. Mistretta now had an idea in his head about how Nick had become involved: an erroneous idea. He thought that Nick had somehow planned the whole thing from the beginning, possibly to get to him, which would imply Nick was working for or with someone for their own ends.

Now, when a man has the wrong picture of a situation in normal life, it’s usually pretty hard to convince him of the fact, especially if his false view includes a ready made reason you might be lying. When he’s a ruthless criminal in the process of torturing and probably murdering you, on the other hand, it’s all but impossible. That was part of the trouble of torture: it’s so easy to get wrapped up in preconceptions that you don’t profit by anything you actually hear.

“Well,” Nick said, playing along. “Maybe not a complete coincidence…”

Mistretta grinned.

“That’s better. Now, why don’t we start with just how much you already know?”

Cautious devil. Best to try to ascertain what the subject knows before you ask him anything else in case you end up telling him more than he tells you.

“Well,” said Nick. “Quite a bit. I know the kings of England, and can quote the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical…”

The vacuum was turned on again, but only for a moment.

“I meant what do you know about my operations,” said Mistretta.

Not so much as the ghost of a smile or the trace of recognition. Uncultured thugs.

“We know the obvious,” Nick answered. “You’re Tony Mistretta, you run just about everything there is to run outside the drug trade in this end of town. Lately you’ve taken to hiring Mr. Personality over here to murder innocent little girls, which, I have to say, we think is pretty low.”

Mistretta grinned.

“I’m sure you do. So, who is ‘we’ here?”

“My friends and I,” said Nick. Then, taking a shot in the dark, he added. “Some of us also suspect that you might be in, shall we say, an expansionary phase?”

“Oh, is that what you think?” Mistretta with a grin, spotting the obvious ploy.

“Well, you know what they say, Mr. Mistretta; you’re either growing or your dying. Me, I’m of the other camp: I think you’re dying and that killing Jenny Chen is an act of desperation. I mean, why else take the risk?”

“There is no risk,” said Mistretta hotly. “You think I’m weak? You think I’m falling apart? I’m on my way to the top! In another week, no one’ll be able to touch me, you understand?”

As he had thought, Nick had hit a nerve.

“I guess that proves me wrong, but then why kill the girl? What’d she ever do to you?”

“Not a damn thing,” said Mistretta. “I don’t know her from Adam, and you know what that means? No motive. No motive, no risk. Simple as that.”

He wiped a bead of sweat away from his forehead, then checked his watch.

“Damn, I’ll be late,” he said. “Leave him here, Serjy. We’ll find out the rest when I get back. Meanwhile, stick to the plan.”

Serjy nodded, then turned the vacuum back on for a moment just out of spite.

Nick was thus left alone in the room, exhausted, but more importantly unguarded. For a moment, he contented himself with breathing the sweet, sweet air, refilling his depleted lungs, and making sure that Serjy wasn’t coming back right away. Then he set to work.

One way or another, Nick had developed a few habits over the years. He never entered a room without immediately identifying the exits. He changed his handwriting every time he signed his name or wrote a letter. And he always stashed little hairpins or razorblades inside the cuffs of his shirts for just such an occasion as this. It was far from the first time he’d been captured.

Feeling along the cuff, he found the stashed hairpin and pushed it out through the small gap in the stitching, and with an expert’s hand began working the lock on the cuffs. He’d opened more than his share of locks in his day, and it wasn’t long before the cuffs dropped away. A moment later he’d torn the mask off his face, untied his ankles, and stood up, wincing from the cramps that came from being bound in place for too long. He rubbed his arms and legs vigorously to get the blood flowing again, then checked his watch. Five after five.

Swearing softly to himself, Nick rushed to the door. It was locked, but a few minutes with a couple hairpins fixed that. He burst of the room and into the hall. It was empty, of course; an unfinished apartment building when the workers were on strike was the perfect place for an illegal detention and interrogation. He took the stairs two at a time to the ground floor and emerged onto the street. There wasn’t a lot of traffic around, but there were a few cars parked by the side of the road.

Nick checked the road signs: Ash and Fresno. That was about a mile from the hospital.

Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, Nick went to the first car he found and, not having time for subtlety, elbowed in the driver’s side window to get at the lock. The noise would almost certainly attract attention, but he couldn’t help that: he’d just have to be quick about it.

A moment later he’d hotwired the car into motion and was pulling away from the curb. As he did so, he saw a pedestrian making for a payphone, eying him with horror and disgust. Oh, well; couldn’t worry about that now.

Nick rode the gas all the way to the hospital, running red lights where he dared, but taking a somewhat circuitous route to try to avoid the regular police hangouts. He arrived with ten minutes to spare. That is, assuming Serjy stuck to a strict schedule, which he doubted.

Leaving the car parked out front, Nick rushed inside. He had to slow down on entering; if he got caught by hospital security that would be it.

“Hi,” he said, approaching the front desk. “My name is Reverend Moran, I’m here to see Jenny Chen. Her parents asked me to come by to let her know there’s been an emergency and they won’t be able to pick her up tomorrow.”

“Oh, dear!” said the desk nurse. “I hope everything is alright.”

“That’s in God’s hands now, ma’am,” he said. “But I need to see her right away.”

“Of course,” she said. “Room 332: take the elevator and it’s just to your left.”

“Thanks,” he said, dashing to the elevator and pounding the ‘three button’ and ‘door close’ in quick succession.

The ride up seemed agonizingly long. It hadn’t been this long the last time, had it? He paced anxiously in the small space, cursing the delay.

The doors slid open. He stepped out into the hall; not too many people about. Room 332…and a doctor just opening the door.

Nick usually tried to act with finesse, to think his way through situations and manipulate events to his advantage. No time now. He darted forward and seized the ‘doctor’ by the wrist.

He and Serjy looked at each other, and for an instant those soulless eyes showed shock and disbelief, but they almost immediately resumed their cold, calculating expression.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

“Doctor!” said Nick. “You have to come with me this instant! A man is dying, and you’re the only one I’ve been able to find!”

For a moment, time seemed to stand still as each weighed how far he would push this angle. Then Serjy nodded.

“Very well,” he said. “Take me to him.”

Nick took him by the arm and they moved to the elevator. He could feel the tension in the other man, like a rattlesnake preparing to spring.

They entered the elevator, Nick pressed ‘L’ and the doors slid shut behind them.

The instant they were out of view of the rest of the hospital, they both moved at once. Serjy aimed two quick blows at Nick, one at his face, one at his solar plexus, but Nick was expecting the attack and blocked them both before countering with an uppercut to the chin. Serjy reeled back against the wall, surprised.

“You know how to fight, Breezy.”

Nick shrugged as he hit the ‘emergency stop’ button to ensure they weren’t interrupted.

“Beginner’s luck.”

Serjy reached into his pocket. Nick closed as soon as he saw the move and caught his wrist before he could bring the switchblade to bear and bent his wrist hard to make him drop it. This forced Nick to drop his guard and he took two solid blows to the ribs, which hurt a lot and would hurt even more once the adrenaline wore off. He tried to elbow Serjy in the gut, but he struck something hard that bruised his funny bone.

He’d almost forgotten the cylinder.

Serjy took advantage of his momentary disorientation to wrap his arm around his neck in a brutal chokehold.

“This time, you little prick, I’m gonna squeeze all the wind right out of you!” he snarled.

Nick gagged, unable to speak, but didn’t even try any of the techniques he knew to escape the hold. Instead, while Serjy was focused on choking him, he reached inside the assassin’s lab coat and drew out the cylinder. He was fading fast, but his mind was once more remarkably clear. The cylinder was already hooked up to a breath mask. He took this in one hand and before Serjy realized what was happening, Nick jammed the mask into his face and flicked the valve open all the way.

The sweet-smelling gas was practically shoved down Serjy’s throat. He yelled and released Nick, batting the mask away, but already the damage was done. Nick hastily switched the valve off even as he himself gasped for breath, breathing in the gas. Serjy staggered against the wall of the elevator, his eyes rolling up into his head as he tried to stay awake. Nick, feeling woozy himself, rushed against him and again forced the mask onto his face and opened the valve.

This time, the assassin was too weak to push it away, and within seconds he had stopped moving entirely.

Nick switched off the gas, struggling to maintain consciousness. He’d only gotten a brief whiff himself, but it was enough to nearly knock him out. Apparently the stuff was some kind of concentrated anesthetic. He needed to get out of the elevator fast.

Fumbling, he reversed the emergency stop button, taking them down to the lobby. There weren’t many people around at this time of day: visiting hours were over, so no one immediately noticed him staggering out of the elevator. He didn’t dare use the main exit; instead he went deeper into the first floor, along a hall, and into a back room. With clean air to breathe he was able to steady himself enough not to attract too much attention as he moved purposefully to the employee exit.

 

###

 

By the time the police had arrived to examine the dead man in the elevator, Nick Windworth was back in his own apartment, weighing his options.

Jenny Chen was safe, for now, and with such a spectacular failure on his hands, Mistretta wouldn’t try for her again in a hurry. He was much more likely to come after Nick for messing up his plans, whatever they were. Not to mention that he had now killed a man, his fingerprints would be on the canister, and he’d committed auto theft in broad daylight. Not a lot of positive spins you could put on that.

The smart thing to do now would be to get out of town, to disappear just as he’d planned to before all this had started. He knew perfectly well that once he left Los Angeles he could vanish so thoroughly that no one would ever find him.

That was the best option, and he would need to move fast to make it happen. Yet he hesitated, sitting in his tiny room, smoking a cigarette and looking, to all appearances, as though he hadn’t a care in the world. He still ached from torture and the fight; his head throbbed and his side was sore, but he seemed indifferent to the pain. He was thinking hard.

After a short while he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Angel, my love, tell me you have news,” he said.

“You sure can pick ‘em, Breezy, that’s all I’ll say,” she answered. “Jenny Chen is the daughter of Joseph Chen, who is a lawyer with the District Attorney’s office.”

“A lawyer, huh?”

“Right. And here’s the interesting part: for the last few weeks, Chen’s been trying to put together a big case…”

“Let me guess,” said Nick. “Against Tony Mistretta?”

“No,” she answered. “Against Eugenio Gallano.”

Nick started. All at once, Mistretta’s taunt about having no motive for killing Jenny Chen made perfect sense. He didn’t have a motive, but Gallano did. If Mistretta killed her on Gallano’s behalf, it would have been very hard to link either of them to it, since no one suspected…

“They’re in it together,” he groaned.

“What?”

“Mistretta and Gallano have done a deal,” said Nick. “They’re collaborating on select crimes so that neither one is implicated. Local gangs and organized crime in one neat little package.”

Angel whistled.

“If that’s the case, I want I want nothing to do with it,” she said. “Digging up public records is one thing; tangling with Gallano is something else. You best find someone else to do your dirty work from now on.” Then, after a pause, she added (as though grudgingly), “And watch yourself, Breezy; this is all way outside our league.”

She hung up. Nick put the phone down, thinking.

Even with the money he’d paid Angel, he still had enough to get out of town. He could be out of LA within an hour, and free of all this. It would be so easy.

He’d leave it all behind: Gallano with his drug war tearing up the city, Mistretta sending assassins after innocent kids because their parents were trying to do the right thing, a police force that was half corrupt, half oblivious to just what was going on…

LA was becoming a warzone. War was something Nick had had enough of. It wasn’t his job anymore. The police could handle it. There probably wouldn’t be too many more people killed before they figured out the full extent of what was happening, as they surely would sooner or later. It wasn’t his concern.

Nick stubbed out his cigarette, picked up the receiver, and dialed. The phone rang several times before it was picked up.

“Yes?” said a female voice.

“I need to speak with Detective Crane,” said Nick. “I’ve got some…important information for him.”

“He isn’t available right now,” she said. She had a faint, but very peculiar accent that Nick couldn’t quite place, though it was pleasant to listen to. “Perhaps you can tell me? I’m his partner.”

“Detective Archer!” he said, unable to resist. “Sounds like you’ve had a little work done.”

“No, not Detective Archer!” she snapped. “He is on medical leave; this is Detective Stillwater. Who is this?”

“Nice to make your acquaintance, Detective Stillwater,” said Nick. “Just tell Crane that old Breezy has something he’ll want to hear about the Gallano case.”