The house was empty. The furniture was gone, the walls were freshly painted, and the carpets were steam cleaned. The soles of my sneakers left noticeable prints that irked me. Even the fridge was clean and defrosted. On the kitchen counter sat an ancient rotary phone. I put it to my ear and listened to the old buzz of an open line. I put it back in the cradle, and wondered when the last time I’d put a rotary phone to my ear had been.
Walking across the yard I pulled out my phone and called the boss’ direct line. Toni, his daughter, the company vice president, my sort of partner and immediate boss, answered.
“It’s empty,” I said.
“How empty,” she asked.
“Like it’s about to go on the market,” I told her.
The woman and her daughter had been taken in a home invasion in Highland Park the night before. The client, their husband and father, had returned home to find a man sitting in his recliner watching television and drinking his booze. He was wearing black clothes, a mask, and gloves. He’d rolled the bottom of his mask up over his lip so he could drink. His smile twinkled with diamonds and gold.
He made the client open the safe in his office, and then roughed him up some, to get the point across that he shouldn’t do a fucking thing until he called later with his ransom demands. The call had been made to the husband from the phone in the kitchen a few hours later. He had until close of business hours to assemble two million dollars in cash. The next call would be made later that evening.
“Ok, Jeb,” she said, a slight hint of indecision in her voice. “We have a lead. At 3:32 this am, someone used the wife’s quick pay tab to buy gas at a Mobil at Westmoreland and Camp Wisdom.”
“That’s not far from here. I can swing by there and see if they have a security tape,” I asked. If she didn't give me the go ahead, my first order of business would’ve been to start going door to door, canvassing the neighborhood. Scoring a security tape with faces or a vehicle and plates seemed like a better trade off for time.
“Good. But don’t be too rough, babe. If they won’t volunteer it, it’ll take a search warrant or a court order.”
“Didn’t you hire me because you needed muscle?”
“Don’t worry sugar-tits, I got plenty of charm,” I told her. She switched off without a goodbye.
I stood in the little worn yard with its thin, scraggly grass, and looked up and down both sides of the street. I didn’t see anyone peering out at me from behind curtains, or gang soldiers on guard duty, and the little hairs on the back of my neck didn’t stand up, signaling a warning.
Disappointed, I walked back to my truck setting at the curb, a short bed step side F150 4x4 extended cab, black, and slid in behind the wheel. I fired it up, took a drink from a bottle of cold water from the little cooler in the shotgun seat, and felt the delightful blast of cold air rush from the AC to me. My father had been a Ford man, and I’d buy Fords until I died or they took a bailout. Thinking about my father, and the one I was trying to help, I drove the two blocks to the gas station.
The attendant behind the register was an overweight woman somewhere between a rough 60 and a tragic 40, and reminded me of too many mothers of kids I’d knowing growing up in East Texas. I wondered if working in a predominantly black neighborhood made her racism act up.
“What do ya need?” She asked through what few teeth she had. If her voice had been the twang of the pines, instead of the flat prairie of West Texas, I’d have played up the regional angle. I showed her my identification.
“Yes ma’am, I’m a private investigator. Your regional director hired my firm to perform a security audit of each property in this area.”
“I ain’t heard nothing ‘bout that.”
“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t. I’d really appreciate it if you’d let me see the surveillance feed from last night.”
“Horseshit,” she said, her ash laden cigarette nearly falling from her lips. “We’ve been getting robbed once every couple of months for fifteen years. It’s like a sport to the motherfuckers around here. Corporate don’t suddenly care about security.”
“Ok, then, how about this. The truth is a woman and her daughter were abducted last night. Her gas card was used at 3:32 this morning to pay for gas at this location. I’m trying to locate them. I don’t have much time. I’ll pay you a thousand bucks cash if you’ll let me look at the tape.”
“Shouldn’t the po-lice be involved in this?”
“I wish. The husband has reasons not to involve them. Please, it won’t take but a minute.”
“Two thousand, upfront,” she said. I just stared at her.
“Five up front, the rest after I see what I need to see,” I told her. She finally stubbed her cigarette out, and leaned over the counter.
“Let’s see it, hot shit.”
I took my fold and peeled off five c-notes. I’d stocked up on grease money at the office. I held it out, and when she reached for it, snatched it away.
“Video first,” I told her. She got huffy, but stared at the money, then rolled her head past her shoulder, toward the door offset from the counter. I walked around the around a cooler filled with soggy ice and discounted sports drinks, and followed her into the little office.
On a metal shelf cramped beside a tiny battered desk, sat two screens. Below them sat the recording stations.
“Is the disk from last night in still in?” I asked.
“How about that five hundred bucks?” She asked. I stared at her a moment, wondering what the consequences of ripping her throat out might be, and then handed her the money. Maybe I was getting soft.
“You need anything, yell, I’m gonna step outside for a smoke,” she said, folding the money and stuffing it in the pocket of her jeans. I nodded, hoping I could get out of there before she died of cancer.
I took a moment to look at the setup. It wasn’t sophisticated or up to date. Just two cameras with feeds to two different recorders. I didn’t know if the cameras were motion sensitive or just ran continually. The station sat on a busy street corner, so I didn’t really think motion activated would do a whole lot for them. Given the age of the equipment, it might even be too much for it to handle. I found the control panel, stopped the recording where it was, and then played it back.
It took a few minutes of playing with it to get where I needed to be. At 3:28, a 80’s model Cutlass, painted a strange glittering burnt orange color pulled into the lot. A black man got out and held the fast pay tag to the little pad on the pump, and filled up his tank. Then he got back in his car and drove off. I wrote the make, model, and plate number down on a post it note I stole off the desk. For five hundred bucks, they could spare a post it note. Then I pulled the disk from the player, wrapped it in my bandana, and dropped it under the light blue newsboy hat I wore over my shaved head.
I heard the front door open, and too many footsteps, the certain click of a lock, and stood from the desk, ready to leave. I stepped out of the office to see Miss Menthol, 1968 standing just inside the door, as two men straight from the trailer park who looked too stupid to be anything but her blood walked toward me with the narrow vision of predators.
Goddamn it. It should’ve clicked inside my thick skull. She had no reason to go outside to smoke, except be out of ear shot.
I pulled the big fold out again, hoping they’d be happy with the two grand I’d promised her. That’s what expense accounts are for anyway.
“I owe you fifteen hundred, right?” I asked, going over the fold. “I sure hope you’ll sign a receipt. My boss will take it out of my check if you don’t.”
“How about you just hand over everything?” The first one asked. He was a good foot and a half taller than I was, with long curly hair that needed to see some soap and water like nobody’s business. The other one was short, stockier than his friend, with a burr haircut. What passed for their clothing would’ve been thrown in the dumpster at most second hand stores.
“Oh, is that how it is,” I asked, slipping the money back in my pocket. The tall one leaned against the wall and looked down at me. I snaked my hand beneath my tropical shirt to the keychain at my waist, and slipped a finger into the single knuckle top popper attached to it.
“Yep, that’s exactly how it is, friend,” he said. He lifted his stained t shirt to reveal the butt of a revolver. I looked up at his wide, stupid grin, shifted my feet, and took a quick step, closing the short distance, delivering a decent uppercut to his chin. His head snapped back, his lights went out, and he fell back.
I stepped past him as his brother, or cousin, or retarded friend tried to figure out what move to make. He had one hand behind his back, but if he had a gun, he didn’t pull it out. I put the toe of my right sneaker between his legs, right in his taint, and watched him gasp and fall, heaving.
By this time the old woman had turned, and was trying to work the latch on the door. I grabbed a handful of hair on the top of her head, yanked her back away from the door, spun her around to face me, and pushed her face into my punch. Between all the extra upper body strength, and the top popper, well, her face was kind of a mess when she fell to the floor. The second punch had been for meanness, the third for fun.
I turned away from her, pulled the guns from her two darling sons, pulled the second disk from the recorder in the office, grabbed a Dr Pepper and some beef jerky on my way out, leaving the three idiots to their slumber. I dropped the guns, and disks in the shotgun seat, drove a few blocks away, and parked in the parking lot of what used to be known as Redbird Mall, but was now something else.
I pulled out my laptop, found a wireless network, and ate a beef stick with cheese while I waited for it to connect. In the desert, the first time I’d gone over, when all I could think of was the girl back home and the life I’d left behind, a beef and cheese stick combo, washed down by a Dr Pepper, had been one of my touchstones. The perfect snack from my redneck youth. This one tasted like it’d been on the shelf since jr high, and the Dr Pepper was flat as I washed it down.
The connection caught, and I navigated to one of the many databases the agency paid a stipend to use on a regular basis, and plugged in the plate number. A generation before, a P.I. would’ve had to wave money or sports tickets in front of their cop poker buddy to run the plate, now there’s so much personal info available at our fingers I think the culture is numbed to our impending doom.
The car was registered to one El Ron Lavay, whose last known address was less than two miles away. I pulled out my cell and started to call Toni, but stopped. Technically, she was my supervisor, and my next move should’ve been to call her. If I did, I knew she’d wait for the next call, giving the kidnappers, the enemy, more time to cultivate whatever plan they could. It meant more time for the tension to build between the kidnappers and the hostages. If the kidnappers were professional, I’d have been less worried, but these people didn’t strike me as professional. Before I’d gotten laid up in Dallas, I’d done some recovery work in the K&R field, and knew that when dealing with amateurs, quick reaction was even more important than usual. Amateurs are usually lazy, and make stupid, sloppy mistakes. Kidnapping is sloppy enough work as it is. Pro’s will be too busy planning and prepping, to molest, rape, or torture someone in the first few hours, if at all. Unless that’s what it’s about, and they plan on killing them anyway. Amateurs, on the other hand, might do those things for revenge, or to relieve boredom, or they might feed them something they’re allergic to, or put them in a box without enough oxygen.
The client was a defense attorney, big time, with a rather distinct personality, a minor celebrity. Before that he’d been a prosecutor. Before that, he’d been Navy Ace in Vietnam. An outspoken libertarian, he had a reputation for defending any and all non-violent drug offenders with a righteous zeal. I liked him more than a little bit. Enough to look over the sports personalities he’d gotten off rape charges. Of course, if you’re a cocktail waitress who goes to a millionaire athlete’s penthouse suite overlooking downtown, in the very late hours of the night, and don’t know what you’re doing, you’re probably either a liar, or too stupid to breath.
He also sat on the boards of several different corporations, had assorted interests in real estate, wanted to legalize gambling, flood the Trinity, and put a casino downtown on the river. He had five children, all girls, and six or seven ex wives. There was no telling how many people in his case history or personal life would be willing or capable of kidnapping his wife and daughter. If I called Toni, she’d tell me to sit on the house and pull surveillance. She’d tried to convince the client to bring in the cops, which would mean bringing in the Feds, if for no other reason than manpower, but he wasn’t having it. It would take too long, and he didn’t want his family turning into a media circus for by the book bureaucrats and careerists, only to wind up one more sad story on the evening news.
If I didn’t call with the information, Toni wouldn’t like it whatever move I made, and her father, a former army CID man and retired FBI agent, would like it even less. He didn’t much care for me anyway. Toni had not convinced him to bring me on because I had a bachelor’s degree in bullshit, was a people person, or even the best team player, for that matter. I was only a couple steps away from the contractor I’d been when I’d gone back to war. Since Dallas isn’t the type of city that has a heavy flow of work for journeymen protective agents, I helped out on their more traditional investigations because it meant learning skills I wanted to cultivate, skills that would be helpful in my other line of part time work.
I slid the phone into its holster clipped to my visor, and drove to the house, trying to decide what to do.
The burnt orange Cutlass was setting alone in the driveway. I rolled past it, and then made the block. I drove down the alley behind the house, and the parallel streets, before making my way back to the house. I parked down the street, and sat for a few minutes, watching. My phone rang, and I held it in my hand and looked at the Toni’s name on the screen, and debated answering it.
If the kidnappers had been pro’s, I wouldn't have thought twice. At the client's house I’d seen the struggle they'd put up. In the master bedroom, the bed had been torn apart, covered with sweat stains, and used condoms had been left there. The man who met the client hadn't let him see that, until after he'd left. He’d wanted him to see it after he'd taken the money from the safe. After he'd let him know he'd better not go call the cops. So, he had the kind of vicious, savante like intuitive intelligence criminals often do, but he wasn't a pro. A pro wouldn't have bought gas with the victim’s card. A pro wouldn't have left DNA evidence at the scene of the crime. A pro wouldn’t have been there when the client arrived home.
From behind the seat I pulled a metal clipboard, the square box kind traffic cops have to keep papers in, and took my back up gun, a snub-nosed Ruger .357, with the hammer chopped, and slid it atop the magnet I’d put inside the box. My carry gun was a pimped out Glock 19, with a nickel boron slide and barrel, Big Dot sights, and Lasermax guide rod, grip adapter, and melted and stippled grip.
Normally I carried a custom 1911, but it was August in Dallas. So, yeah. About that.
I was wearing some light cargo pants from Old Navy that I’d had for years, with all sorts of pockets most people never use. I turned the volume function off on my phone, and slid a pocket at my waist, beside my spare mag. I got out of the truck and walked across the yard to the door, writing a script in my head.
The door was answered by a scared looking black girl in sleep plants and blouse, who couldn't have been very far out of high school.
“What you want?”
“Census, it won't take but a few minutes.”
“I’m just staying here right now. I don’t live here.”
“Well, is Mr. Lavay in? Can I talk to him?”
“Oh, he’s busy,” she said, shaking her head. She wouldn't look me in the eyes. She also looked like she’d been crying.
“Really, well, can I ask you your name?”
“La-Rhonda, my name is La-Rhonda,” she said.
“That’s a real pretty name, La-Rhonda,” I said, writing on a piece of paper.
“Thanks,” she said, hiding a sniffle. I got the impression she probably wasn’t a party to it by choice. Keeping my hand in place, I shifted slightly, forcing her to turn with me, and showed her the clipboard.
“It’d sure be a real big help if you could take a minute and answer some questions for me,” I said, handing her my pen.
I watched her lower lip quiver as she read what I’d written.
“It’s for you, help us, help you,” I told her. If it wasn’t a government talking point for the census, it damn sure could’ve been. She looked at me, her eyes wide and wet. “Trust me, it’s for the best.”
She shook her head, and wrote, tears rolling silently down her face. She handed the clipboard back to me.
“How’s that?” She asked. I looked at her answers to my questions.
Are the mother and her daughter here?
Girl is in the back room. Her momma died a couple hours ago.
Where in the house in are they?
In da front bedroom.
How many people besides yourself, are here with them?
Where are they?
Front room, kitchen, bedroom with da girl.
I looked at the list. The mother was already dead. Fuck. I wrote one more thing down, Ask me if I want some water.
“I just need one more signature, right here,” I said. She read what I wrote. “Man, it sure is hot out here.”
“Yeah, that’s da truth. You want a glass of water or something?”
“That would make my day,” I told her, and then a man stepped into the doorway and snarled.
“Oh, hell no. She gave you what you want. Get the fuck out of here.” His mouth twinkled with diamonds and gold. I raised the clipboard and shot him in the face.
La-Rhonda screamed, and I pushed her hard away as I stepped fast and low through the doorway, and over El Ron’s body, chucking the clipboard away from the gun. To my left was a doorway at the hallway, in front of me was the entrance to the kitchen, and to my right was the back of the couch in front of the entertainment system against the wall. A man came out of the doorway swinging a sawed off pump toward me, and I turned, emptying the little .357 into his torso.
An arm reached around the corner of the kitchen, firing some obscure Mac on full auto, and I rolled over the side of the couch trying to get out of the way. I landed on my back wondering why I hadn’t been hit, when I heard them curse, and begin changing magazines. In the movies they have endless mag’s, but in real life full auto eats that shit up pretty quick.
I dropped the Ruger, tore the Glock from its holster, and listened to them slam a fresh mag home. Shit, that was quick, I thought. I looked up to see the doorway into the kitchen in the reflection off the glass in the entertainment system. I stayed flat on my back, stared at the reflection in the glass, aimed the Glock at the entrance, pressed the button on the frame activating the laser, and waited for them to move first.
First I saw the stubby barrel of the Mac, and then his face right next to it, lean around the corner. I watched the red dot find the center of his face, and I fired. I put three bullets into his face before he fell, and then recovered, first rolling onto my side, then taking a knee, then standing. I moved my support hand to the gun, and turned off the laser, scanning, more with my ears in the confines of the house than anything.
If I’d been on a range, I would’ve heard nothing but ringing. Here, in combat, the adrenaline took care of that.
I moved through the kitchen, clearing it before hand as best I could given the constraints. From the kitchen, I moved shortly forward, and stood near the doorway, listening for movement. All I could hear was crying and shuffling in the front bedroom. I needed to make sure the two left were in the same room before I moved. Otherwise, no matter what I did, one would be behind me.
“Hey, fuck heads,” I yelled. “How’s the girl?”
“Fuck you!” One of them shouted back.
“That’s not very helpful.”
“Man, you were supposed to play ball!”
“Yeah, well, you weren’t supposed to grow up to be kidnappers, now were you?” I said. He shouted some more curses, and I heard some more shuffling, and cries.
“Say, I’ll make you a deal. You let her come to me, we walk out of her, and you guys get a head start on the cops."
“Man, fuck you. We want our money!”
“Yeah, well, you fucked that up. We can work something out. Best case scenario is you give me the girl, and I tell the cops I don’t know what you look like. It’s true. I haven’t seen your faces yet.”
“You serious,” another voice asked, from inside the room. Confirmation. I side stepped away from the doorway, slicing the pie, and caught the eye of the first man, and shot him twice in the head. I followed him in as he fell.
He was against the wall, an ancient Taurus 92 against her head. He wore nothing by loose jeans, and his face, chest, and arms, were covered with deep, bloody scabs. What clothing she had ne was torn to the point of nothing. Her nails were broken and bloody. They both stared at me.
“Drop the gun, let her go.”
“You still gonna give me that head start?” He asked, a false smile creeping across his face.
“Sure,” I lied. They both knew it. He didn’t have another chance. He dropped the gun atop the bed and let her go. She took one slow step, and then stopped, staring at the gun on the bed.
Believe it or not, there are actually people in this world that think victims should not fight back. They say it’s safer not to, and some even go so far as to say more moral not to. All this ever does is instill in those who’ve been victimized a sense that they deserved what happened to them, and that animals who made them suffer were more worthy than themselves. What a bunch of idiotic, twatwaffling bullshit.
I took the gun from the bed, and when she looked at me like she didn’t believe what I’d done, I handed her my own.
“Use this. It’ll look like I did it. You won’t need the hassle, Katherine,” I said, using her name. She took the gun from me, turned, and fired until the slide locked back.
I walked her through the house. She was in a daze. I tried to find something to drape over her, but she wouldn’t wear anything from the house. I pulled off my tropical shirt, which I always buy way too large anyway, and slipped it over her head. It swallowed her. I thought she might pass out, and I might have to carry her, but she walked under her own power out to the truck, where we sat under the arctic blast of AC, and waited.