An excerpt from
You know what it takes to sit across the table from a man, listen to him talk, look into his eyes ... and then blow his brains all over the wallpaper?
And the more of that you have, the easier it is.
"You pick a spot yet?" The voice on the cell phone was trying to come across as bored with the whole thing, but I could pick up little worms crawling around its edges. Impatience? Nervousness? No way to know for sure.
"No," I told him. "And if I can't find one in a few minutes, we'll have to do it next time."
"Hey, pal, fuck you, all right? There don't have to be a next time."
"Up to you."
"Hard guy, huh? I guess that's right—it's not your kid."
"Not yours, either," I said, my voice level and unthreatening, sending my calmness out to him. "We're both professionals—how about we just keep it like that? This is a trade. You know how trades work. Soon as I find a safe spot, I'll pull in, just like we agreed, okay? We'll hook up, do our business, and everybody gets paid."
"You don't find a spot soon, nobody gets paid."
"I'll get back to you," I said, and killed the connection.
It had taken weeks to get this close. A missing kid. Too young to be a runaway, but there'd been no ransom note. Just a ... vanishing. That was almost ten years ago. It wasn't a media story anymore. The cops told the parents they were still looking. Maybe they were.
The parents were the kind of people the cops would put out for, that was for sure. She was a gynecologist; he did something in biochemistry. But they were also first generation Americans; Russians. So when they got a call from a man who spoke their language, a man who said he ran a "recovery service" on commission, they took their hopes and their fears to Odessa Beach. Not the one on the Black Sea, the one in Brooklyn.
In the Russian mob, even the grunts have a hierarchy. You can read their rank right on their bodies—the specialists mark themselves with prison tattoos. The symbols tell you who's the thief, who's the assassin, who uses fire, who does bodywork. But they didn't have anyone who does what I do. So Dmitri, the boss, reached out across the border. To a Chinatown restaurant run by a Mandarin matriarch who trafficked in anything except dope and flesh. She didn't sell food, either.
"Half a million dollars?" I asked her, seated in my booth in the back, the third bowl—of a mandatory three—of hot-and-sour soup in front of me.
"They say," Mama answered. Meaning: she wasn't endorsing it herself; she wouldn't vouch for anyone involved at the other end.
"And a hundred for me?"
"For whole trade," she said, reminding me that I hadn't found this job on my own—they'd called her. The whisper-stream knows a phone number for me. After it bounces around the circuits, it eventually rings at of the pay phones in the back of Mama's restaurant.
"Six hundred," I added it up. "And Dmitri, he's going to taste too, right?"
"He say, same country, he help for nothing."
"And you say ...?"
Mama just shrugged. We'd never meet the parents. What they wanted was a middleman. The hundred large was all there was as far as we were concerned, no matter who else was getting what.
"Why come to me, then?"
"Cossacks know I find you. Say you know ... these people."
"You mean they think—?"
"Not same people. Those people."
"Ah." Sure. Who knew the freaks better? They raised me. Recaptured me every time I ran, aided and abetted by the only parent I ever had: The State. I learned from the freaks, did time with them. And, when I got the chance, I hurt some of them.
Never enough of them, though. Those scales would never balance.
Mama was silent, letting me decide. Work was money. This deal wasn't a retirement-size score, but it was strong cash.
Any other circumstances, she would have been all over me to take it. Instead, she looked a question at me.
I knew what she needed to hear. "I can do it," I told her. Meaning: I could trade cash for a stolen kid and just walk away. Keep it professional.
Mama gave me a sharp look, then nodded slowly.
Whoever they were, they knew their business. I was waiting at the corner they'd had the Russians send me to, standing next to a pay phone. It rang. I picked it up.
"You're going to hear me say a 917 number. I'm only going to say it once. You walk away from that pay phone. Far away. When you get far enough away, you call the 917 number. Don't bother writing it down—it's going to disappear after this one call. That's the way we're going to work this, until we get it all sketched out. A new number each time, understand?"
"Yes," I said, keeping it short. If he thought I was trying to prolong the conversation, he'd smell cop. And that would end it.
"You ready for the number?"
He gave it to me. I shook my head "No!" at the men from Dmitri's crew who'd been standing next to me and walked over to where my Plymouth was parked, keyed the ignition and took off.
I drove all the way out of Brighton Beach, one hand on the cell phone the Mole had built from spare parts around a cloned chip. As soon as I got clear, I punched in the number he'd given me.
"Go ahead," is all I said.
"We're not going to play around," he told me. "The Russians, they're already satisfied, understand? So don't be asking any questions about the merchandise. All you and me have to do is figure out how to make the exchange."
"Safest place is right out in public."
"Safest for who, friend? I don't think so."
"Just tell me how you want to do it."
"That's the problem ... I can't think of a way to do it and still be safe. And I have to be safe. Otherwise, I'm just going to keep the merchandise. I was told you'd know a way."
Who told him? The Russians? Someone else? Or was this just his way of saying he was putting all the weight on me? I spun it through my mind quickly, but nothing came up on my screen.
"You know East New York? The flatlands south of Atlantic?" I asked him.
"Sure. Not a chance."
"Maspeth, then? By where the water tanks used to be?"
"Nope. I'm not going anywhere near tunnels, chief."
"Hunts Point?" I offered, letting just a trace of annoyance show through.
"Where in Hunts Point?"
"You know what I'm driving?" I asked him, ignoring his question, trying to feel my way through to him. He talked like a pro, flat-voiced, detached. But what pro snatches a kid, keeps him ten years, and then turns him loose? The cash wouldn't be worth the risk. He kept saying "I," as if it were just him, as if I were dealing with the kidnapper himself. But that didn't ring true. He had to be a middleman, same as me.
"No," he answered.
"Listen close: 1970 Plymouth, four-door sedan. Painted a dull gray primer with a bunch of rust blotches on the sides. Outside mirror's held on with duct tape."
"Sounds like an old yellow cab."
"That's exactly what it is. You won't see many like it still alive. But the nexttime you see it, it's going to have a broad stripe of day-glo reflecting tape, orange, front-to-back. No way to miss thatin your headlights, right?"
"So I drive to Hunts Point. Triborough to Bruckner Boulevard to the Avenue, make a right, okay? Then I go out into the prairie, moving nice and slow, make a few circuits. There's a thousand places for you to stash a car in there, and I don't know what you'll be driving, see? You watch me pass by, you check for tags and wait. Or you pull right out behind me; do it however you want. Soon as you're happy, you ring me on my cellular ... I'll give you a number for that night."
"How'll I know it's—?"
"Let me finish. You'll like it. I find a good spot. I park. You watch me from a safe distance. You sound like a man who knows where to get some night-vision optics. Make your own decision when to come in. Or not. Soon as you're ready, you tell me what you're driving so I don't spook when I see you pull up. We make the exchange, takes about fifteen seconds—me to check for a pulse, you to count the cash, okay?"
"I'll get back to you," he said.
He'd done that. And tonight, he was somewhere behind my rear bumper, watching and waiting.
I pulled into a strip of concrete that dead-ended at the river. Some kind of garbage dump or recycling plant to my right, wasteland to my left. I did a slow U-turn until I was facing out the way I'd come.
I saw a pair of headlights blink on-and-off once, about a hundred yards away. Had to be him. I thumbed the cellular into life.
"How's this?" I asked him.
"I don't like that abandoned car on your right."
"If you were closer, you could see it's wide open. Nothing left but a skeleton."
"You got a flash?"
"Get out. Shine it on the car. Light it the fuck up, understand?"
I didn't bother to answer him. Just pocketed the phone, climbed out of the Plymouth, walked carefully over to the stripped-to-the-bone car and sprayed it with a mega-watt halogen beam. In the ghost-white light, the car looked like an Oklahoma double-wide after a tornado.
"I still don't like it," the phone said. "Find another spot."
I didn't say a word. Got back in the Plymouth and pulled out ... slowly.
He passed on my next choice too. And the one after that. I went on auto-pilot, hardly speaking at all, mechanically searching for spots. I left the cellular on, the lifeline between us.
"Change of plan," his voice cut into my thoughts.
"I found a spot. Just past the meat market. Drive back over there."
It was only a couple of minutes away. But when I drove by, slowly, I couldn't see anything but a couple of burnt-out hookers waiting on a semi. Or a serial killer. Car-trick roulette, with all their blood-money on the double-zero.
"Keep going," the voice said.
He must have me on visual now, I remember thinking. I didn't answer him, just let the Plymouth motor along, a touch past idle.
"See the train?"
Train? I saw what was left of an abandoned railway car sitting on rust-clogged tracks. "Yeah," I told him.
"Kill your lights and pull in there."
The ground was all ruts. I drove real slow, like I was worried I'd snag an axle, but the Plymouth's independent rear suspension handled it fine. I'd told the trader the truth about what the car had started out as, but all it had in common with the original was the body.
I figured he was somewhere in the shadows, and in a four-by, too. He didn't know what the Plymouth could do, so he thought he'd given himself an edge.
But it was me who had the edge—my Neapolitan mastiff, Pansy. One hundred and fifty-five pounds of war dog, resting comfortably in the Plymouth's padded trunk. Pansy's about eighteen years old. I'd raised her from a tiny pup, weaned her myself. She's lost a step or two. But you couldn't have a better partner at your back. More than a partner ... part of me. And like everything that was part of me, we'd chosen each other.
When I got almost parallel to the boxcar, I could see I'd been right on both counts. His ride was a black Lincoln Navigator, crouched in the boxcar's shadow.
"Get out," his voice came over the cellular. "And keep your hands where I can see them."
I did that, moving like I had major arthritis, slitting my eyes against the expected blast of light.
He didn't disappoint me. It was so white I felt the heat. Then it blinked off. I kept my eyes on the ground, waiting for the ocular fireworks display to fade.
The driver's-side door to the Lincoln opened. A man got out. At least I thought it was a man. I'd never be able to pick him out of a lineup.
"Where's the money?" he called over to me.
"In the back seat."
"Get it ... slow."
I walked stiffly back to the Plymouth, opened the back door, reached for the satchel on the floor. At the same time, I pushed the button to pop the trunk. Not all the way, just to the first detent. Maybe six inches of space. But Pansy was free now.
I stiff-walked back to where I'd stood before. Dropped the satchel to the ground at my feet.
"Step away," the man said.
"No. This is as far as I go without the kid."
"You'll get the fucking kid, friend. Just move off a few feet, that's all."
I did that.
"Get out here!" he snarled over at the Lincoln.
The passenger door opened and a kid got out. I couldn't see him real well ... only knew he was a boy because that's what the Russians had told me. Real skinny. Wearing a dark jacket and jeans. His pale hair was shaved on the sides and spiked in front. The kid seemed to know what he was doing—walked to my left until he was out of the shadow and I could see him better.
"We trade steps, now," the man said. "One for one. You get closer to him; I get closer to the money. Got it?"
We each started walking, me slower than him. I still had the edge—the kid could move on his own, but the money couldn't. As soon as I got close enough for the kid to hear me, I said: "Come over here to me. Everything's going to be all right now."
The kid started toward me. I stood my ground, turning my head slightly to watch the guy pick up the satchel. The kid made some kind of grunting sound. I looked back and saw him holding a pistol, aimed right at the center of my chest. I tried to dive and roll, but I was too slow—the first couple of shots hit me in the rib cage. I staggered back, groping the darkness like it was a handrail, felt another shot slam into me somewhere.
Then I heard Pansy's war cry as she launched over the rutted ground, heading for where I'd fallen. The kid saw her coming, the hellhound on his trail. He turned and ran but Pansy hit the back of his thigh and pulled him down like a lioness dropping an antelope.
The guy near the money started shooting at me. It felt like a sledge hammer to my kidneys. He ran past where I was lying in the dirt, yelling something. I was fading, going dim.
© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from the novel Dead and Gone by Andrew Vachss.
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