Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors

By Steve M

Yeah, I wrote this. Blame no one else.

2019 - Destination Unsure

 

Part One
Both Sides of the Line

“Hey Trunk, there’s someone here to see you.” Danny’s voice told me what kind of person it was. Slightly annoyed, slightly scared.
I pulled myself out from under the 79 MGB on stands. I’d put it on stands to get underneath it and drop the oil pan. I could have used the overhead but since the width adjustment started getting sticky it’s a fight to get them close together for small cars like the MG. So I put it on stands nice and fast. Ten minutes tops and it’s off, once all the oil is out, of course. Danny is a cheap bastard and a new adjustment mechanism is over $400. So he ain’t buying one.
Standing beside the car was Danny and a man. I knew the man, Art Piro. Big, bald, muscles, smart.

“I’m busy,” I said.
“It pays real good,” said Art.
“Not interested,” I replied.
“I’ll leave you two to your discussion. Remember you promised Mr. Tidwell that you’d have his car finished this week. Don’t disappoint him, Trunk. He’s a good customer.”
Never disappoint the customer. Danny was always saying that. And as long as I don’t disappoint the customer, well Danny has a way of ignoring my other activities.

“What’s wrong with my money?” asked Art angrily.
“See that tattoo on your arm?” I asked.
“Yeah they told me to wear a long sleeve shirt. I told them you’d be a little more understanding than you’re being. I heard about your wife. I’ve got no problem with that. Love whoever you want.”
“You sure? Your arm says something else.”
“Listen, I’ve had a little brown sugar. It’s a fine thing.”
With those words I wanted more than anything to punch Art Piro, just knock the hell out of him. But I didn’t. Art could easily kick my ass and I ain’t stupid.
“We all make mistakes,” he added and I wanted to punch him a lot more.

Yeah I used to be married. Me, married. Yeah, right.

Not really the right sort of person for that position. But for two years I faked it as best I could. No sticking around the shop to burn one with the boys after work. Nosiree, I went home as fast as I could. Dinner every night together. Netflix on the sofa. Sex every night. And Emmie’s a looker too.

But one thing you need to know about me. I’ve managed to screw up every relationship I’ve ever had with a woman. Just can’t help myself. It was that way with the best woman I’ve ever known and the only one I’ve ever loved. Took her two years to see through me. Till Domingo came calling.

Domingo Sanchez asked me to find out what happened to his brother. I make very discrete inquiries for people who don’t want others to know. I’m a convicted felon so my chance of ever getting an investigator’s license in Florida is zero. So it’s a part-time activity for me. Pays well sometimes. Sometimes it pays nothing. Once it paid more than it ever should have. I’ll tell you about that later. Domingo paid very well.
Emmie divorced me right after I finished the job for Domingo. She was scared and I don’t blame her. She had never seen that side of what I do. She had never seen me like I was at work back then. And she sincerely thought I had traded her life for a confession from Domingo’s sister-in-law. ‘Go ahead and kill her’, were the exact words I said that Emmie never forgave. Of course they were lies! But only I knew that. Crystal Sanchez was unarmed when I said those words and I was holding a gun under my jacket. Of course I lied. I got the damned confession. Emmie could never get to the logic of that. Also she could never forgive me for letting Crystal go either. She hated the fact that she knew a murderer that got away with it and couldn’t speak up. Emmie has a strong sense of justice.

“Who are they?” I asked.
“Who?”
“The people who told you to wear a long sleeve shirt.”
“You know, them.”
“Do they have a name?”
“Dennis, Dennis Discrete and his sister, Sarah, Sarah Secret.”
Just what I needed a biker that thinks he’s clever.

“I’ve met them before. Still got shit to do. Sorry you wasted your time,” I replied.
“Listen if you succeed, you make 50 large.”
“And if I don’t?”
“5 large for your time.”

The price told me all I needed to know. It was drug money. A cheating wife is worth 5 large tops. Bikers don’t value human life, including their own, at 50 large, so it wasn’t murder. But I sure could use the money. I needed a new engine for my floating home. Fifty would get me an engine and a long time sailing in the tropics.

“Listen Art, I’m sorry your drug money got stolen. I believe it was your money fair and square and they had no right to it. None whatsoever. You’re right to be pissed off about it and I would be too. But I’m not the man for the job. And it’s not that I have a problem with drugs. I’m for you doing whatever you want to yourself. Don’t hurt no one else? Then go for it. It’s just the risk.”
“What do you mean the risk?”
“Druggies do weird shit. Nonsensical shit. They might shoot me when logic would indicate that is the exact wrong thing to do. This makes them unpredictable and dangerous when they’re armed and high.”
“It ain’t like that.”
“Yes it is. You know how they get. Do you like being around someone paranoid and armed? I sure don’t. Good way to get killed.”
“It ain’t like that,” Art insisted.
“Unless you’re running a Harvard LSD experiment, that’s how it is.”
“Will you shut up and listen for a minute?” Art said with an annoyed tone.
“OK. Go ahead.”

Art looked at the engine of the MGB.
“Tiny little thing, ain’t it.”
“Less than 2 liters,” I replied looking up at him from the creeper.
“You heard about the burn outs?”
“Yeah, who hasn’t. There was another one a couple of nights ago. How many they’ve got so far?”
“Five,” said Art.

The light went on in my head. I got it at last.
“How many of them were yours?”
“Five out of five.”
“Shit Art. I had no idea you were that deep into it.”
“A lot deeper than you think.”

Over the last two months someone had started burning down houses used in the manufacture of crystal meth, aka crank, aka speed in North East Florida. It was big local news. A drug crusading vigilante was interrupting a very lucrative business. There were three fatalities, unlucky bastards that never made it out in time.

“What’s at risk?”
“At least another twenty five of them between here and Orlando.”
“Damn Artie.”

I’ve always had a gift for finding things and figuring things out. Just a natural knack for it, according to my mother. Even when I was kid. Figured out a lot of things. Momma lied to us about how the dent in the car happened. Daddy slept with momma’s best friend. Sometimes its a curse.

“We need to stop them,” said Art.
“A competitor?”
“Not likely. We have an agreement that covers all of Florida. We each have our zones. Anyone that cheats exchanges their zone for a burial plot.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time an encroachment happened,” I replied.
“This one is sealed in blood. Our club president married the sister of our closest competitor.”
“Get the hell out. Gone all Shakespeare and shit. Smart diplomacy.”
“Listen, I understand if you’re trying to stay quiet right now. This is a very discrete job. No visibility whatsoever. We heard Father McCreary disappeared.” Art said with a smile and a grin.
“Yeah, I heard it too. As soon as I went looking for him, he takes off. Smart son of a bitch, if you ask me. No need for me to lay low. He’s gone to ground.”

Father Eugene McCreary. Another story for another time. But it’s a story you already know, unless you’ve been under a rock for a long time or done a Rip Van Winkle. McCreary’s Pleasure Palace was closed a couple of weeks ago. It turned out bad for him.

“Just want you to know that anyway you stop them is fine with us,” said Art.
“Good to have customer backing,” I replied.
“There is one thing though, we want to know how they know the location of our houses.”
“Someone is talking and you need to plug the leak.”

Reasonable request, not unexpected considering the circumstances. But think about how that would come about. How would I extract the information? How much pain would be involved. Plenty is the correct answer. Unless it can be reasoned. I’d prefer that. Less mess. I hate having to change clothes after things get messy, like with McCreary.

Art reached into the pocket of his t-shirt and took out a memory stick.

“Police and Fire Department reports,” he said holding it up.
“Freedom of Information?” I asked.
“Pension funding,” he replied with a droll tone.
“I’m gonna need a day to look at this and think about it. Alright?”
“Fine with me. Whatever you need.”
“What do the cops think?” I asked. May as well start with knowing that.
“They think its a lone vigilante, or a competitor masquerading as a lone vigilante,” Art replied. “It’s all in the report.”
“So they don’t know.”
“No. That’s why we’re coming to you. Five houses, three dead men. Men with wives and kids. We don’t want any more. It’s restricting sales.”
“I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
“You’ll see me tomorrow then,” Art said.
“I look forward to reading the reports,” I replied. It was an honest answer. The excitement inside of me was building.
“Then I’ll mention the sweetner now.”
“Please,” I said trying to be as calm as possible.
“If you find the person who did this, find out who gave them the locations, and deliver them to us alive, your fee will be doubled and you get 100 large for your work. Our little way of saying ‘job well done, thank you’”. Art sounded like a corporate boss when he said ‘job well done, thank you’.
“That’s a lot to think about.”

Not really.

You know those guys you see on television or in movies, the ones that always do what’s right? I’m not one of them. Or the guy who comes around in the end to do what’s right? Not him either. Sorry if you’re disappointed. Sometimes, but not always, I am the smaller evil that must be permitted in order to keep larger evil at bay. I serve this function often. I do not believe it to be wrong. In fact I argue that it makes me much more vested in right than wrong, and more vested in it than those who are only willing to do good things to achieve good outcomes. I consider that to be ignoring valuable weapons and is a significant tactical mistake. So I work on both sides of the line. If anything I experience a mild sense of satisfaction if things turn out well. For me, it’s just figuring things out and correcting them however I can. It’s never an emotional thing with me. No remorse, no guilt.

I think that is what scared Emmie the most.

Artie Piro would come back tomorrow and I would tell him that I would take his job.

 

Part Two

Land of the Chillin

Jimmy opened the door to his house. He was smiling.
“Trunk, come on in. It must be a Tuesday.”
There could be some predictability in my routines.

You know those little houses on dirt roads out in the country. The kind you pass and wonder who lives in them. Jimmy Shoud does. Jimmy and his wife, Teal, have lived in that house since his mother passed away. Took a year and a lot of paint before the cigarette smell finally faded. His mother always had one burning. Damnedest thing. Made my eyes water.
Teal was sitting on the sofa. She smiled, her chubby cheeks red and her teeth as straight as a military cemetery. Teal’s step-father is a dentist.

“How you doing party boy?” she asked with a chuckle.

The previous weekend I had been handed a bong after my seventh beer. Instead of just falling on my face like any reasonable person would, my body instead decided to projectile vomit onto whoever was standing near me. Three of my friends got sprayed. I was sick two more times outside on the lawn. Then I told people I just wanted to lay on the grass and sleep for a little while and I’d be fine. So they let me. They’re kind that way. I woke up around two thirty when a thunderstorm rolled in and soaked me to the bone. Teal’s brother drove me and my truck home with help from a friend. The rest of the afternoon didn’t get any better. After another nap I woke up just as the sun was going down. Having a hangover at dinner seemed incorrectly timed to me.

I’ll be straight with you, I can’t handle the booze. It messes me up every time. I’m much safer with the weed. That’s why I went to see Jimmy. Some people shouldn’t drink and I may be one of them.

“Can I see it?” I asked.
“Sure,” said Jimmy. “Come on back.” He motioned with his hand.

We walked down a paneled hallway. Past a bedroom with bunk beds for the children they didn’t have. Past the only bathroom in the house. To the bedroom at the back of the house. The bedroom was about twelve feet wide by fifteen feet long. Inside of it was a four foot wide by four foot long by 7 foot tall grow tent. There was also another one that measured two foot by two foot and only three foot tall.

“I’ve got a beauty for you, Trunk. You’re gonna love it. No limits. You want to get even higher, then smoke more. No ceiling.”
“Sounds good,” I replied.

Jimmy has been a friend of mine since I helped him out of a jam years ago. He didn’t have any money to pay me so he pays me in weed. He grows enough for me and him and one other friend, Piedmont. And of course Teal. Can’t forget about her. She can smoke some serious quantity. I’ve seen her hit the bong three or four times with smoke that makes me stop at two. Big girl, big lungs.

Jimmy unzipped the grow tent and pulled it open.

“Say hello to Jack Herer, the Electric Phenome. This is the stuff that legends are made from. I can’t believe I got one.” He moved his arms like one of those women on the TV that stand next to the prizes. It was stupid and funny and that’s why he did it. Jimmy’s a funny guy, always quick with a joke and a compliment.
“Excellent,” I replied. “Are you taking cuttings.”
“Got the nursery full of cuts. Twenty so far.”
“Sweet”.

Jimmy had real good luck. We’re talking one in ten thousand kind of luck. Best of all he was smart enough to realize he was lucky and was able to preserve it with cuttings, each of which would grow into it’s own plant, which in turn would yield it’s own cuttings. He could keep his good luck going forever.

“Sent a guy out in Cali 7 grams of the bud. He’s offering me a grand for ten cuttings.”
“Holy shit, Jimmy, that’s great.”

Jimmy works for his father’s heating and air conditioning company. He hates it. His dad keeps trying to get him involved in running the business but Jimmy isn’t interested. He hates his old man and his damned long-winded lectures. Her hates his step-mom’s big fake tits. Jimmy’s dad is the kind of man that won’t rest until you agree with him. I’ve seen him in action before. One of those bastards that believes that if he didn’t come up with the idea then it’s probably not any good. What a jerk. I feel sorry for any woman married to him. Until Jimmy is willing to take a role in running the business, his old man won’t even pay him as much as much as the other air techs. Jimmy is the lowest paid employee at his father’s company. What an asshole.

“I’ll be growing this for a long time.”
“Great.”
“But don’t worry, I’ll add a few of your favorites.”

Free weed for life. That was our deal. Jimmy was desperate when I met him, expecting to die within hours for something he didn’t do. It was turning out to be one of the best deals of my life. Jimmy’s been growing for years and seemed to have finally hit the right combination. “It’s not art, it’s science,” he tells me.

“White Russian is making a comeback,” Jimmy said.

Last summer Jimmy grew four White Russian plants and we make ourselves stupid every night for a long time. I’ve still got a half ounce stashed in a long term jar on the boat. It was that good.

“Remember where you are when you smoke it the first time,” he added.
“Oh yeah,” I replied. The first time I smoked it I took a three hour nap on Jimmy’s sofa. Woke up feeling great.
“Hey, did you get that thing you were talking about?” I asked him.
“Oh hell yes. Do you want to take a look?”
“Definitely.”
“Behold,” he said. He reached into the tent and pulled one of the plants over to him. He lifted the pot containing the plant and filled with what looked like musket balls. Below it was a bubbling cauldron of nutrient enriched water sufficiently agitated enough to splash over the plant roots that hung down from the pot and over the porous pot full of pellets.
“Wow. Do you like it more than dirt?”
“I think so. It’s more precise. But very unforgiving.”
“What do you mean unforgiving?”
“If I don’t have a spare pump for one of the plants I will get to watch it die very quickly.”
“That makes sense.”
“But we’re going to be getting a lot more now. Between the Deep Water Culture growing and the Screen of Green, we’re going to be getting almost twice as much as now.”
“Screen of green, that’s making it a fat wide plant and weaving it through the screens, right?”
“That’s the one,” said Jimmy. “Remember the Kali?”
“Oh yeah,” I replied.

Jimmy let me trim a lot of the Kali harvest. It was great fun. Had some really good scissor hash at the end of the day. Very potent. I remember the PVC pipe frame in the tent that supported the netting. Very unusual looking thing. But the harvest was significantly more than usual.

“I’ve put together a little bit of all of them for you,” said Jimmy.
“Gorilla Glue #4,” he said picking up an ounce bag.
“Jack Herer, Electric,” he said picking up another ounce bag. “Let me know what you think. I love the stuff.”
“Granddaddy Purple.” Another bag.
“And finally, our very own Bubba Kush.”
“Damn Jimmy, this is some primo smoke.”
“Then let me show you the specials.”
“What did you do?”
“I made bubble hash from each of them. Each of these pouches has enough to get knock you on your ass many times.”
“Holy shit. That looks dangerous.” I was smiling.
“Let’s get you travel ready.”
“OK.”

You ever seen one of those food vacuum sealers that they sell of TV? They have other uses too. Jimmy put all four ounces into a large plastic bag and then sucked the air out of it. When that was done, he did it again. Double vacuum sealed. My smoke inventory was very sufficient for the foreseeable future.

“Jimmy, what do you know about Crystal Meth?”
“Nothing, Trunk. Two different worlds. They don’t mix, except at the edges… or in front of a judge.”
“That makes two of us,” I replied.
“Hey you wanna stay for dinner? We’re having pillows.”

Pillows are those already prepared ravioli that you put in boiling water for a few minutes then smother with a jar of Alfredo sauce.

“I’d love to but I’ve got to get started on a job.”
“Who ya workin for this time?”
“Art.”
“Piro? The biker?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Be careful round them, Trunk. Those mothers are crazy. Real psychopaths. Don’t trust them. And get your money up front if you can.”

Jimmy doesn’t like bikers. He has history with them. It pays to know who you are flirting with before her boyfriend shows up and kicks your ass. Jimmy was in the hospital for four days. Fifty large they charged him for four days. No surgery even. Just some stitches, some reset bones, painkillers and antibiotics and some tubes stuck in his arm. Fifty large. And you know what the insurance company did? Those bastards denied the claim. Jimmy hit the asshole that was beating the crap out of him and the insurance company said that was assault. They denied the claim based on the commission of a crime. Only an asshole would put a guy in the hospital then turn around and press assault charges against him. Jimmy hates bikers. But he hates insurance companies even more.

“I’ll be careful.”
“Keep a gun handy.”
“I will,” I replied.

Yeah I know, cons can’t have guns and I’ve got three of them. I’m not running for office on a law and order campaign, so deal with it. I’m just trying to stay alive as long as I can.

“You got time to burn one?”
“No pilgrim, got to get started. Gotta some reading to do.”
“Well I hope you catch the bastard. How many people he’s burned up now?”
“Three,” I replied.
“That’s just wrong. I don’t like meth either, but I’m not gonna kill someone over it.”
“I see your point.”

I respect Jimmy and mostly try to be honest with him when I can.

I did see his point. I heard it, understood it, and understood it as a thing of Jimmy, a reflection of his personality, a nice, kind person.
But that was it. I did not feel the same.

Would I kill someone over meth? It is entirely situational and I suspect there are many circumstance where I would. It all depends. But for Jimmy to have a blanket prohibition, well that was Jimmy and that’s how he is. This is why I chose my words to him carefully. And I’ve been choosing my word carefully since I figured out my condition years ago. I’m pretty good at it now. Can almost instantly reconstruct sentences to remain truthful yet still be misleading. It just takes practice and I’ve got over a decade of it under my belt. No need to lie to Jimmy, there was no benefit.

I spent that evening laying on the bed of the rear cabin of my boat.

No I not a sailor. Not even close to it. Two years ago I couldn’t tell you port from starboard or bow from stern. Just that sometimes I get paid in stuff instead of cash. Same as me and Jimmy.
Trey Kolstead wanted to give it to me as payment for a job right after Emmie and I split. He was preparing to go through a real nasty divorce and it was an asset he didn’t want to have on the list when he told his wife he was leaving her. He wasn’t much of a sailor either. He owns a couple of beach condos. His new love nest was already up and running. And I needed a long-term place to stay and cons don’t get mortgages, so I said ‘yes’. Now I live on a 1991 Catalina - Morgan 44 foot sailboat. I’ve been sailing exactly four times in the two years I’ve had it. Three single overnight trips and one trip to Jamaica that wound up in Cuba after a bad storm that scared the crap out of me. It’s comfortable in the marina and not too bad since I added air conditioning.

Just can’t burn one tied up here. So I use a vaporizer onboard with a fan and air filters…Jimmy set it up for me. All the air in the boat is cycled through charcoal filters every two minutes. But it sucks electricity. I prefer to just go for a walk most days if I can.

But you probably don’t give a shit about where I live. I began reading the reports. Here’s the highlights.

Gasoline was the accelerant used in the fires.
Cops found evidence that the door locks had been jammed, they wanted the people inside to burn up.
There was a copy of the Koran on the sidewalk outside of each house. Police speculate it to be misleading evidence. I wondered if they are all the same edition, the same printer, the sale age. Wonder if Zon sold a stack of Korans in the last few months or keeps sending one after another to the same address. It’s these sort of things that I find interesting.
All houses were set on fire between 2:12AM and 3:36AM.
40% of the gasoline was used at the entrances and exits, the rest of mostly equally distributed.
The fire department believed the gasoline was sprayed on, based on a piece of siding that fell off before it burned up. They speculated on a garden sprayer, the plastic reservoir kind you can get almost anywhere. Many of them hold the right amount to fit the accelerant profile of the fires.
The closest traffic camera was over eight miles from one of the houses.
Only one camera citation was issued during the time of a fire. It was issued to Peter Bremininsky, a high school student who is not a suspect. He was meeting his girlfriend, Cathy Duberman, for sex and she corroborated his alibi. She’s pregnant and police believe them.
All of the houses had wood frame and wood siding. I thought about this a little more.

I opened up Maps and started putting pins at the burn locations. All remote. No close neighbors.

Let me tell you about houses out in the middle of nowhere. They aren’t all wood siding. Granted a lot of them are, but there are also a hell of a lot of 1,200 to 1,500 square foot houses that are made of bricks. You’ve seen them, those cramped little rectangles or if they had a few extra bucks they’re L-shaped. Husband, wife, and three kids will just about make that small a space into a madhouse. Most of them only have one bathroom. Next time you’re out in the middle of nowhere, take a look. A lot more of them than you think. I’ve noticed it since I was a kid. Had cousins that lived in those houses. I grew up in one. I needed to know how many of Art’s houses are wood and how many are brick.

Thoughts are a strange thing sometimes. They pop into heads constantly. We work to have them about a topic and we succeed mostly. But its not just the thoughts that give us knowledge. Without organization they are just random facts, there is no knowledge to be extracted from them. I figured this out a long time ago and I sort of do it naturally. Group facts together. Notice patterns. Sometimes its like that color-blind test, you know the one with the bubbles and the number hidden in it. I can see the numbers after awhile, if I’m lucky. It helps if I write things out. It’s a natural organizer. I’ve watched enough TV to know how to set up one of those crime boards.

I found some mind mapping software while I was working on a job last year. Late night stoner research and I got frustrated and asked for alternative to the little notepad that comes with the computer. I’m computer literate, but not gonna win any awards for it. But I do know enough to realize that ExploreYourMind is the coolest software I’ve ever seen. But then a browser and Excel are about as far as I go when it comes to software.

The opening screen for Explore is the dumbest looking thing ever. Cartoon clouds that multiply then begin to take positions on a grid that magically appears in the background. Wow, a bunch of people approved this as the start up screen.
I selected Random Entry.

You know all that stuff I just told you about? The Koran, the times, the gasoline? I put each one onto a little card that popped up on the screen.

Around 1AM sleep descended.

Next day - Wednesday morning

I pulled into Cresthaven Cemetery and parked near the largest mausoleum.

That morning there were three.
First up was Delores Panchow, followed by Pijoy Huthulu, and ending with Ronald Swift.

I will visit each.
Will watch the tears, listen to the prayers.
And I will feel nothing.
The husbands, the wives, the children, their cheeks wet.
And I will not have the slightest sadness.
No a lump in my throat, my eyes will remain dry.
As dry as they were when my mother died.

I have never felt anything for anyone, ever.
Except Emmie.
And this scares me. Emmie should not exist.
But she does and it gives me hope.
Hope that I am not completely lost to it.

So I will face my condition.
I will call it by its name.
And I will watch the dead be buried.

After the friends and family of Ronald Swift finally leave, it will be just me. Nobody else.

This comforts me.

It doesn’t cure me but I feel more at ease. Being at ease is important. I will feel in control and reaffirm that it is all manageable.

It is all about triggers.

I have identified several triggers for bad outcomes, the sort of things that ensure bad things happens, someone gets hurt, things get broken. It took me a couple of years before I realized triggers existed. It required a lot of reading. I was in high school when I discovered them. But I also identified things that reduce the chance of bad outcomes, I call them negative triggers. Being at ease with myself is one of them. In fact, it’s the top one. That’s why I smoke so much weed. Keeping it all under control, well managed.

 

Can’t go killin in the land of the chillin.

I bet your insurance covers mental health.

Mine doesn’t.

I got a text message from Danny. Art was at the shop waiting for me.

 

Part Three

High Octane Guilt

I watched a bug on the dingy wall of the lunchroom. It climbed the corner headed up to the ceiling like a mountain climber. Then it fell. I watched it plummet down to the floor. It hit hard and was still. I thought it was dead. But then it moved. It began moving back towards the corner. I understood the bug. We aren’t that different.

I heard the torrential Florida rain coming down against the metal roof of the building, those big rain drops that cover more than one freckle.

I turned my attention back to Art.

“Only six of us know where all the houses are,” Art said. “Everyone else on the payroll knows where one of them is,” Art said.

Compartmentalized knowledge. Smart Art. Wonder if that’s why he’s so smart, cuz every time someoney said ‘smart’ he thought they were talking to him and he’d better not let them down.

This middle aged man with a pony-tail and tattoos holds two Master’s degrees. One in Computer Science and the other in Theology. No shit, theology. A man who did a full five years in Federal prison can tell you all about the history of the early church and discuss epistemology. He had to tell me what that meant. Examining what we know and how we justify what we believe. Kinda like a knowing the different between bullshit and good shit.

In the end Art turned out a Buddhist. Its always a good bet that Art is the smartest person in the room. This time it was only the two of us. That makes me the stupid one.

“Let’s stop there for a moment,” I said.
“Why?”
“We need to cover off a few things first.”
“Like what?” asked Art.
“All the shit you are going to tell me.”
“Motherfucker, you tell anyone, you die. Anyone, not even your momma. It doesn’t get more simple than that,” replied Art.
“That part is understood. You don’t just pay me for my work but for my discretion.”
“Damn straight about that. You did your time, you know.”

Art was right.

I got five years in state prison and served three of them.

Fifty pounds of weed and a gun in Tallahassee. I hate Tallahassee.

When they searched my house cops found $137,495 in a floor safe. That was all it took. All my ghost money, gone.

It wasn’t even my weed.

I was on a job.

Dylan said he didn’t want to go by himself. That’s an invitation to get ripped off. I agreed to go along for 5K. I’m not big and mean but I can look like someone you should never mess with. And best of all, it’s true.

Dylan left the hotel room to get us a couple of soft drinks. That’s when it all went down. They must have thought he was leaving. They busted the door down while I was laying on the bed watching a sports channel. It was all so loud that after jerking my entire body like what happens when I fall asleep sometimes, I tried very hard to remain completely still. Men in black were aiming automatic rifles at me and yelling. So many of them were yelling at the same time it was hard to understand any of them. But after about ten very dangerous seconds things calmed down.

They grabbed me and flipped me over. I was laying on my stomach on the bed with my hands in cuffs behind my back. The cop had his hand on the cuffs and was pulling me up to my feet. It hurt. That’s when I heard the gunshot. A single shot.

And Dylan died.

Cops say he was resisting arrest, so they had to shoot him in the back. They also say he was armed and I know that’s bullshit.

I pleaded 20 years down to 5 and did my 3.

“It’s the amount of information you are going to share with me,” I said.

I looked out of the glass window of the lunchroom out into the shop. Mrs. Hutchinson’s Jaguar was waiting on me. I could see the back of the heads of the two bikers standing outside of the door of the lunchroom. One ponytail, one bald. Bald with neck tattoos is a naturally scary appearance.
“You want to know where they are, I get it,” replied Art.
“When was the last time you got laid,” I asked him.
“None of your fucking business.”
“I don’t mean anything personal by this Art, but let’s pretend the answer was about 3 months ago, right before the first house caught fire. Wouldn’t you agree that this answer would make it an interesting bit of information to know?
“Motherfucker, are you accusing me of burning down my own cooks?” Art said angrily. He took a deep breath.
“No, I am pointing out the level of detail I’ll be asking. Could be a disgruntled wife, an angry girlfriend, some one that wants to become club president. Hell, it could be a rogue cop. It’s a long list of possibilities. Maybe Trisha is tired of getting it every morning from her old man? Maybe someone down south is making life hard on you.”
“Good point. The Lambos are offering to fill the void at wholesale prices. They are offering a better price than I would offer them.”
Lambos isn’t really the name of the club. But for the boys up north they are all Lamborghini sniffing little princes down in South Florida.

“Interesting. How much better?”
“Twenty percent.”
“You buying?”
“A test buy. Not too much, but enough to see if it works. If it works, and I’m not sure it will, a commercial relationship could be a good thing. No more Whataburgers.”

Lambos and Art’s club got into a brawl that wrecked a Whatburger hamburger joint in Orange Park a few years back. When the fighting spilled into the food prep area they busted up a lot of expensive equipment. Almost fifty thousand in damages. Eight guys ended up in the hospital. But nobody pulled a gun. That was the remarkable things about it.

I would have.

If you’re beating the crap out of me and I have a gun, you’re going to stop immediately. It’s simple self-defense.

But not a single person in over 120 bikers pulled a gun that day.

And nobody pressed assault charges.
Glad I wasn’t there, would have been a different outcome.

“I have to ask deeply personal questions.
“I get it,” said Art.
“We’re talking about a lot of questions that aren’t polite.”
“Night before last,” Art said.
“Good.”

There were two white boards in the lunch room. One of them had the list of cars to be repaired. The other board was blank. Almost. Someone had written ‘Danny loves BBC’ on it. Now some of the more sophisticated of you may think that this means Danny like the British Broadcasting Corporation, Dr. Who and all those English programs. But the rest of you know what it really stands for.

Danny tried to erase it but it was written with a permanent marker.

I walked over to the white board and wrote the words ‘Prevention’, ‘Prior History’, ‘Event Circumstances’, ‘Motives’, ‘Profiles’, ‘Assessments’. Then I erased them.
“These are the topics I would like to start with. There are others.” I said.
“I’ll need to get Red and Puny in to get the best view of it all. I can only tell you about 95%.”

Red is Art’s right hand. He’s the contrast to Art. Where Art tries to be reflective, Red is active. Together they make a good team. You don’t get on the wrong side of Red. Ever.

“Who is Puny?”
“He’s our chief cook. Goes around teaching the others how to make those long crystals. Without him, we’re making the same crap as everyone else.”

“Let’s talk about prevention,” I said.
“A hot topic right now. We’ve got 26 sites and two men protecting each one, twelve hour shifts.”
“What about the cooks?”
“That’s not counting the cooks. They cook, someone else guards.”
“52 people, that a big round the clock commitment,” I said.
“You don’t have to tell me. I’ve got bitchy wives, bitchy girlfriends, and a bunch of members lined up to tell me how much it sucks. Take a number.”
“I bet,” I said.
“Even got a few of them that want to abandon the business. Just quit the business.”
“How much money are you making from this per year?” I asked.
“Three mill per house per year.”
“Holy shit,” I replied genuinely shocked.
“Puny ain’t no slouch, Trunk. He’s got degrees in chemistry out the ass. Daniel’s cousin, known us since he was a kid. Our houses are spotless, you can eat off the god damned floors. That’s how he runs them. With Red’s help.”
“I’ll need to see one.”
“That can be arranged,” Art replied. “But remember you ain’t no god-damned tourist,” he added gruffly.

I watched Duncan walk over to the lunch room. He spoke in a loud voice.

“I need to get the rest of my lunch outta there,” he complained.
“Fuck off, if you know what’s good for you,” replied the bald neck tattoo.
“You suck,” Duncan complained and walked back to his Alfa Romero with the hood up.
“One warning, pencil dick,” bald neck tattoo called out to a retreating Duncan.
“One warning,” Duncan repeated.

Duncan had a big messy roast beef sandwich for lunch. It was the dominant food odor in the lunch room and it was making me hungry. It wasn’t the sandwich so much the problem as it was Duncan.
“Excuse me,” I said with a smile.
I got up from the table and walked over to the refrigerator. It was an old one from Danny’s fishing camp. 1980s model. It would keep things chilled but never really make them cold. Broken thermostat. I opened the light brown box, took out the remainder of Duncan’s sandwich. I walked over to the soft drink machine and push the Diet Coke button.
“What are you doing?” Art asked.
“My good deed for the day.”
I brought the sandwich and drink to Duncan. He was smiling when he saw the sandwich.

Duncan is a good guy, a damned good mechanic too. He’s just a pain in the ass, might be a bit messed up in the head. He doesn’t process things properly or something. He’ll revert to an endless barrage of complaints to get his way. It is a very childlike behavior and annoying.
Most of us recognize it as some sort of mental thing with Duncan. But I didn’t get it at first. Some people don’t. Duncan gets beaten up regularly because of it. Gotta be annoying for the manager of a Burger King to punch you in the mouth, knowing it is gonna cost him his job. A customer service clerk at Costco slapped that crap out of him a couple of years ago and lost her job. Some people just don’t recognize his condition. I was one of them.

By the middle of the second day working around Duncan I was sick of his shit. He had badgered Tommy for hours about selling his car to him. Tommy wasn’t buying.
“I need the hole,” Duncan said, requesting the in-ground repair pit we use for fluid changes and repairs.
“As soon as I’m done with it,” I replied.
“How much longer do you have?” he asked.
“About an hour, hour and a half” I replied.
“An hour, a whole hour?”
“Yes.”
“Why? What are you doing for a whole hour?”
“Oil change, oil pan gasket, transmission fluid check and top up, rear axle gaskets and refill.”
“But you have a lot of other things to do on the car, don’t you?”
“Yes.”
“Then why don’t you do that now so I can use the hole.”
“Because I’ve already got it in place. I’m already draining the oil.”
“But once you’ve done the oil change you can move it and let me do my work.”
“Duncan it’s already there. No, just wait. Isn’t there other things you can do on your car?”
“Yes, but I don’t feel like doing them right now. They are all under the dash and I don’t like laying on my back for the next two hours in this heat.”
“Sorry, not going to happen,” I replied.
“But you must. I don’t want to fight with a dashboard for hours. It’s too hot.”

Danny has very large circulation fans in the shop. A big wonderful constant breeze blows. Even a hot breeze is better than no breeze. But inside of a car it’s a different matter, a Florida sauna.

I was standing in the pit under the car. I couldn’t see what Duncan was doing but a couple seconds later it became obvious when he walked to the front of the car and began to push it away from the tunnel.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m making it easy on you. So you don’t have to push it. I’ll do it for you.”

Duncan moved the car to the other side of the shop. I came out of the tunnel mad as hell. I grabbed Duncan by the shoulder and pulled his hands off of the hood of the car. He spun around. There was a look of sheer terror on his face.
“Please don’t hit me,” he begged. “Please don’t.”
He had that same look of terror as my little brother had when I was threatening to beat him up.

In an instant I changed my mind and I didn’t beat the crap out of Duncan. But I did hit him. I punched him in the arm. Hit him hard. It hurt, he yelled and it left a large bruise.

But it served its purpose.

Now I just threaten to punch him in the arm when he starts his shit and he changes his behavior and remembers to stay a safe distance. Sometimes he will tell me that he can still remember how much it hurt when I punched him. Sometimes he tells me that he almost cried from it. He’s trying to make me feel bad and I think that is funny. It makes me smile every time he tells me.

Why did I go get his sandwich? Because if I didn’t then Duncan was going to be Duncan and he would get one of his periodic beatings. But this time it would be from someone who was good at it. Bikers aren’t just hit them till they go down and that’s the end of it sort of people. No, it would be a trip to the hospital. So what? Why do I care?

I don’t and that’s the problem.

Duncan could start being a pain in the ass and wind up in intensive care for all I care. Makes no difference to me one bit. However, I do know that I am supposed to care and that I know this screws me totally.

I should give a shit but I don’t.

No matter how hard I try to care I can’t. And this makes me depressed. When I get depressed it always comes to me, the same stupid question. I can’t avoid it. What is the point of living if you have no feelings for others? It comes with a long list of memories of when I hurt people.

So I’m faking it.

This little act of kindness will avert me from a course that could cause me harm. No beating for him, no depression and suicidal thoughts for me. Sleight of mind. All hail the power of self-deception.

“Thanks Trunk,” Duncan said when I handed him the sandwich.
“Better stay over here and out of their way,” I said.
“Mean bastards. They’d better not be mean to you.”
“They’re being nice,” I replied.
“Good. I like their motorcycles. Especially the long one. I’d like one of those,” Duncan said with a smile. He unwrapped the sandwich and resumed eating it.

“Shit Trunk, you need a database,” said Art.
“I’ve got something I use at home.”
“OK, where were we? Puny is married. Wife is expecting their first soon. She teaches at Lutcher.
“Mortgage?”
“No”.
“How much do you pay him?”
“Him and Red make the same money. 500K”
“Holy shit,” I said. “That’s lucrative.”
“Let me break it down for you.”
“Please,” I replied.

“Big dog, one million.
Red and Puny, 500K.
Three Captains, 250K.
Cooks, 200K.
Soldiers, 100K.”

“Total payroll 16.5, now add in 4 to keep the locals quiet, another 2 for capital and equipment, another solid one for legal. Does that sum it up enough for you? Just under 25 a year costs. We’ve got a multiple of that on the top end so it turns out real well. A fair wage invites loyalty.”
“It sure as hell does,” I replied.
“A solid paycheck keeps a lot of grief asunder,” said Art.
“Who else knows the pay structure?” I asked.
“Everyone on the payroll.”
“Everyone? Are you shitting me?”
“No. Why keep it a secret? We’re grown ups, we can handle it. Besides, it stops a lot of rumors and shit talking.”
“$100K. I see where it may encourage responsible behavior.”
“Now you get it. When you’re well paid you don’t need to be a dick about money, you can relax, your bills are paid.”
“Nice.”
“Shit, I’ve got two guys studying chemistry at North Florida. Soldier paychecks for attending class. Investing in our people. That’s the best thing we can do.”

Damn they must be swimming in it. 75 sales, 25 costs, 50 net…yearly. Wait a minute, that will bring its own problem.

“What do you do with the profit?”
“Bahamas. We’ve got working arrangements with some banks. It’s right next door. Makes a nice couple of days away.”
“I bet.”

I hadn’t seen the right side of a vacation since my honeymoon and that was five years ago.

I was in the wrong business, that much was clear.

“How does Puny get along with his wife?” I asked.
“Real good. Normal. No violence. Wouldn’t even consider it. Puny married above his paygrade. Lucky egghead with a big dick.”
“Drugs?”
“He smokes weed. Beer on the weekends sometimes. But never really gets falling down drunk just happy.”
“Who likes him the least?”
“That would be Jono,” Art replied. “Jono was thinking he would be the right person to run things along with Red. He didn’t like it when we decided to go with a someone from the cook-side. He was loud in his opposition. He’s one of the captains.”
“How was it resolved?”
“With cash, discretely. Funded his retirement plan. I know, Jono knows. Now you. Don’t share it.”
“Is it resolved or is it festering?”
“Resolved. Completely.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Jono’s got a million reasons to let it slide, so he does.”
“Damn,” I replied.
“Look at the numbers. Harmony is worth it.”

Art’s phone dinged. He pulled it from his pocket and looked at the screen. Then he smiled.
“Good news?”
“Excellent. Some sumbitches deserve what they get.”
“Long as it ain’t me,” I replied.
“Bobby Turner.”
“Oh.”

Bobby Turner testified against the club four years ago.

He started getting high on the product. Kept it hidden. That’s what they all say, and it works for awhile. But a drug addiction can’t hide. Eventually everyone knows. He got busted in a bar asleep in a booth with a huge fun bag in his pocket.
He traded the only thing he had to offer, the location of a cook house. He turned it over along with the names of the cooks. Cops raided it at shift change so they could get both cooks.

It was big local news because it was the first pristine cook house the cops had ever seen, most of them look like a filthy squatter’s site with equipment. It was more a chemistry lab than a kitchen. The cooks got ten years each. Bobby Turner thought he would get away with it, nobody would find out it was him. He made it look like Chip did it. I know because I found the burner phone that put the noose around Chip’s neck.

Chip disappeared.

But a few months ago when the DEA shared a large bunch of information with local cops, Bobby’s deal came back to the club through well compensated channels. Bobby Turner was about to arrive in state prison on a robbery charge and I reckoned Art had a plan in place. There are those who have no problem killing what they think is a dirty rotten bastard. But when they kill one, then find out he ain’t one? Shit gonna hit the fan.

Guilt acts like high octane on a fire for some people.

It could cause rage. But Art meditates. 30 minutes every day. Says it helps him keep it all in order.

Sometimes I think he tries to be like one of those Indian holy men. I’ve seen them on TV a few times. A few turned out to be real dirty old bastards, didn’t they? Wonder why there aren’t ever any Indian holy women?. I’d be a hell of a lot more interested in that than some long haired bearded furry guy.

“Listen, we’re good to go, right?” Art said as he laid down an envelop on the table.
I picked it up. 5K up front money.
“We’re good. But tell your club that I will be asking a lot of personal questions and don’t want my ass stomped for them.”
“I have already talked to the captains. We’ll cover the rest as necessary.”
“I’m going to need at least eight hours of your time.”
“Not a problem. How about tomorrow?”
“Sounds good.”
“There’s a captain’s meeting tomorrow. You’ll get to meet them as well as Puny. You already know Red.”

Red and I met a few years ago when he asked me to check on his wife. She wasn’t having an affair, she was planning a surprise 40th birthday party for him. Red has a problem trusting people. I was glad it was one of those jobs where nobody got hurt. Only because I didn’t want to be associated with another dead body, the list is too long already. Often I tell people what I find, then hear about some tragedy days, weeks, or months later in the local news. Sometimes I get questioned by the cops because some snitch remembers I was asking questions. Fortunately the local cops don’t try real hard when a low life turns up dead or missing. ‘One less perp’ is how they cut that deck.
“I need to get moving. Darius is pitching this afternoon.”
Darius is Art’s son. He pitches for the University of Florida baseball team. He got a lot of local press in high school when he led his school to the state championship. Some of the major league teams have sent scouts down to take a look at him and another player on the team, a short stop with a one of the best batting averages in college baseball. There’s even talk that Florida could finally dethrone Louisiana State University, LSU, the powerhouse of college baseball.
“What time?” I asked.
“Noon. One guy has to ride in from Pensacola, another from Tallahassee.”
“Where? The Clubhouse?”
“No. The shop.”
Art runs one of the best automotive speed shops in North Florida, Custom Hyperdrive. If you want to turn your car from a stock factory engine into a screamer, Custom Hyperdrive is the store that will do it. They will not only sell you the parts, they will install them for you too. Serious gearhead stuff.

“I’ll be there,” I replied.
“Trunk, I’ll only tell you this one time. Don’t fuck this up. I like you. Don’t make me kill you.”
“I won’t”.

Art left the lunchroom. His two soldiers fell in beside him and about a minute later I heard the roar of their bikes. The rain had stopped.

About a half hour later my phone rang. I was Emmie.

“Hello honey,” I said.
“Trunk, you have to stop sending me flowers at work.”
“But you like flowers.”
“I know, but you need to stop. We’re not married anymore.”
“So what? You like flowers and I like you. We don’t have to be married for that.”
“So you need to stop.”
“But it makes you smile when you see them, don’t it?”
“Yes.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“It’s upsetting Andrew.”

Right, Andrew. More about him later. But for now just know that I’m working on a plan for him.

His life expectancy is measured in weeks.

 

Part Four

Groupthink

"Take a seat, Trunk," Art said pointing to the chair sitting next to him at the table. It was a nice table, solid wood, expensive. I sat down beside him in the cushy chairs.
"Most of you know who Trunk is, so I won't waste your time with introductions. Puny, this is Trunk."
"Heard you were coming, good to meet you," his voice sounded like what you would expect from an educated frat-boy.
Puny was the smartest of a large litter and got a free ride at college. He wasn’t like his name implied, he wasn’t small. People often pick up opposite nicknames. He was 6 foot four maybe 6 foot five, slightly overweight, and kept his hair cut short and ugly, kind of haircut your mom buys for you when you were five years old and she wanted you to look good for the pictures at Easter. You know the kind, tight cut on the side, big goofy part sticking up at the front. Now add black plastic framed glasses and you've got the complete picture. His handshake was big and strong, like him.
“Hey Trunk,” good to see you again. Jono nodded to me.
“Hey asshole,” said Chris with a smile.
Chris had never forgiven me for putting a knife to his throat a few years back when Art asked me to find out who in his club hijacked a truck full of HD parts. I could have killed him but I didn’t. Mostly because there was a bonus for delivering him alive. As soon as I recognized him I let him go. I just needed to know who. Still it’s a circumstance hr will always remember, when someone else had his life in their hands and there wasn’t shit he could do about it. I could have used a gun but I didn’t. I used a knife because it is more personal. It’s one thing to step out of the shadows with a gun, but to really scare someone, a knife to the throat wins every time. I felt his legs go weak, he almost cut himself on my knife when he swooned.
“Let’s get started,” said Art.
An instant later I heard a low electrical hum.
"Red, bring us up-to-date." Art looked at Red and nodded.
It’s coming and I don’t like it. I really don’t like this part.
Red reached into his pocket and took out a bullet. He leaned across the table and set the bullet directly in front of me. It was his way of reminding me of my non-disclosure agreement. He’d done this every time I did a job for the club. It was some sort of ritual to him but a waste of time and not at all intimidating to me. Put the bullet in a gun and it becomes intimidating. It’s just his tough guy ego gone stupid and I find it annoying. I’m not gonna forget the first rule is always discretion.
"NCS didn't break the deal," said Red. "I know we all thought they did, but it ain't so. It was a set up. Somebody called in a fake domestic disturbance."
"Why didn't they back away? That's what we pay them to do," asked Jono.
"Because we don't pay all of them and they sent a two year veteran to breakup of fistfight between a non-existing husband and wife. And he wasn't on our payroll. So when he figures out what's going on he calls for enough backup to invade Panama. God damned helicopters. Pissing away tax payers money on air superiority. At that point our subscribers can't get in the way. If they do, it's too god-damned obvious."
"Great. Another one for the bitch," said Chris.

'The Bitch' is Nassau County District Attorney, Wanda Ford. She's made a reputation for herself as one of the toughest DA's in Florida. WND they call her, Wanda No Deal. She sent about a quarter of Nassau County senior officials to state prison for bribes, scams and kickbacks. Many others quit or retired before she got around to them. One of them took his own life. Another tried to take hers.

She smart, she's black, and she's got a big mouth. But she's also damned honest, so honest that everybody trusts her.

How do we know she’s so honey?

Cuz she's one of the few DAs that will stop prosecutions dead in their tracks when it became clear that the defendant is innocent. This is America, it just doesn’t happen that way. Prosecutors are scored on their conviction rate and will do anything to add another win in their column. They get caught doing it sometimes too, but it’s rare. So when Wanda stops a case in progress it’s big news. She even sent two cops to jail in one of those cases. She has apologized to the accused and hasn't resisted wrongful arrest suits. There is talk she may run for State Attorney General. One of these days she might turn out to be Florida’s first black governor.

Every time she makes the news I pay attention. Last month her oldest kid got arrest for DUI. She left him in county for two days before she bailed him out. She got re-elected with 63 percent of the vote last time. She’s a freak and I hope we never cross paths.

“Screw that bitch. Somebody needs to take her deep sea fishing,” said Red.
“Come on now, we have a guest. Let’s not descend in front of him,” said Art.
It was his indirect way of reminding them that racist talk will cause a significant problem with me and personally I don’t like their odds for an undamaged outcome.
"I should have the 9-1-1 recording tomorrow," said Red. "But I've been told that the caller was a woman."
"A woman?" asked Jono.
"Yeah."
"What about Randy?" Asked Chris.
"Released on bail just after midnight," replied red. "Padding their numbers."

It's all about padding their numbers for the budget. That's why they wait till after midnight, so they can show a +1 higher prisoner population for the next day. It helps justify their budget. Surprised they didn't try to feed him breakfast before he left so they can show +1 meal too.

"How are the new kitchens coming?" Asked Art.
Red looked at Puny and nodded.
"One comes online this week, then two more next week," replied puny.
"That's good," replied art.
"What do you have for electronic surveillance?" I asked.
"Electronic surveillance? Of ourselves? What are you smoking?" asked Chris.
"I'm suggesting electronic surveillance be considered as part of a security upgrade,” I said.
“You lost your mind, boy,” said Chris with a laugh.
“Tell us about it,” said Art.

“Think of it as a house with three rings around it. The first ring is 100 feet from the building. Anything that comes within that ring requires immediate action. You need to see what is happening and you need to be armed. The second ring extends up to 500 feet from the building. You need to know about it, see it, and be ready to act if necessary. 500 to 1,000 feet you want to be able to see it. Six black SUVs kicking up a dust storm headed your way is bad news. A 30 second head start can make a big difference.”
“Not if we blow them up,” said Jono with a laugh.
“Don’t start that again,” said Pete.

At the last meeting Jono proposed packing some explosives into the houses.

I know this guy near Tallahassee that is making drone modifications. So far he has been able to add some C4 explosives to drones. He one of those basement evil geniuses. Detonates on impact. Enough to take out something as big as a bus. Government SUVs don’t stand a chance. He offered me a 25% commission on any of them I help him sell. A 2,000 dollar drone becomes worth 10,000 with the right options.

“So you’re going to have cameras everywhere,” said Chris like it were a stupid idea.
“You can watch it from anywhere. Your home, taking a shit, eating dinner at La No.”

“Well if you’ll just catch the son of a bitch we won’t need all this shit,” Chris replied.
“We might need all of this shit to catch them,” I replied.
“You know we don’t use the house next door to cook, don’t you? This ain’t no damned TV show. We specialize in our properties. End of the dirt road kinda places.”
“That makes sense,” I replied. “I’d like to outfit one house and then you tell me what you think.”
“What do you know about cooking and running kitchens?” asked Chris.
“Nothing,” I admitted.

I glanced at Art. He was smiling. I’d seen this before. Art liked letting both sides go at it. Told me once that it helped not only determine which decision was best but also revealed the level of cooperation he could expect. Then I got an unexpected ally.

“What do you know about cooking?” Puny asked Chris. “What are the primary ingredients? What parts of the process makes it necessary to use respirators?”
“I don’t know,” Chris replied. “Some Brazilian chemical shit.”
“Sometimes a fresh perspective is what is needed,” said Puny.
“You learn that in a college textbook?” asked Jono with an unfriendly tone.
“Actually I did. A history book,” Puny replied. “Kennedy screwed up the Bay of Pigs because he didn’t have enough viewpoints.”
“The bay of what?” Jono said with a laugh.
“Google Groupthink,” Puny said with a slight tone of satisfaction in his voice.
“I will as soon as he turns that damned thing off,” said Jono looking at Art.

Jono had just confirmed what I had suspected about the low electrical hum I heard. We were in some sort of enclosure that blocked cell phones.

“What do you think, Pete?” Art asked.
Pete took a moment before answering.
“I don’t see anything wrong with setting it up at one kitchen, as long as book boy here” he said looking at Puny, “and Delco makes sure nobody can hack us.”

Delco was a recent addition to the club. He came with a degree in computer science and a set of lungs that could handle multiple bong rips. He’d won the club’s most recent smoke out. Last man to lay his head down on the table wins. He not only won, he kept smoking.

“What about it, Red?” Art asked.
“You know I’ve been wanting to improve our security. Might be time to enter the 21st century.”
“Good point.”

Lemme tell you a secret.

Next year Art is going to give up his position as club president. He calls it retirement, but I’m not sure how that works in a motorcycle club. He became president because bladder cancer killed the previous president. Art says he’ll stop all day to day activities, limit himself to weekend club events and official meetings. Won’t even be a member of the management team. Just a regular member. No salary.
He told me it would be smart idea if they put a 5 year limit on being head of the club. That’s how long he’s had the job. He’s gonna suggest it when he steps down. But that’s the future, so it don’t count…yet.

“How long will it take you to do one house?” Art asked.
“One week,” I said. A few years back I helped a grower in Orlando setup security in some suburban grow houses. It took us four days.
“We need to coordinate. I want to do some fences and we should discuss how it will work with your equipment.” Red added.
“If I get the nod,” I said as a question to Art.
“Go ahead. But Chris I want you working with him, side by side. I want you to know what’s happening inside out. Got it?”
Chris looked at me and smiled.
“Got it,” he replied.
Great, just great, an asshole riding shotgun.

“I’ll need a clean address,” I said.
“Send it to the shop,” said Chris almost as a complaint.
I waited a moment before I replied.

“Let’s pretend that the DEA knows what you do but just can’t prove it yet. Let’s also pretend that they know every thing that is delivered to the shop via Amazon, UPS and the rest. Maybe they’re even watching this place. I’d rather send a lot of security equipment to an address that they aren’t keeping tabs on.”

“You can use my mother’s address,” said Art. “She’s done it before. I’ll give it to you later.”
“Thanks.”

Most of the equipment I would get from Bernie C. He runs a local store for home security in one of those tiny strip store centers, the kind that include a vape shop and a tattoo parlor. I met Bernie a few years ago when he did a big custom installation for one of those beach front mansions just south of the city. Poor bastard was monitoring it for the first week to make sure it was all working perfectly. He knew that. The rich old bastard who bought it knew too. But younger trophy wife and his twenty-something son did not. Bernie freaked as he watched them kill the old bastard. Bernie wanted to call the cops but couldn’t.
You see, Bernie isn’t really Bernie. Whoever he is, it’s not Bernie C. He’s probably somebody facing a solid stretch in prison. I don’t know for sure and it’s better for him if I don’t solve that mystery. Because of this I trust him about as much as I trust anyone else. Bernie will get me most of the items I need. But he won’t get some of them. Red flags he calls them. Hiding in plain sight for all these years has had an effect on Bernie. He’s the most paranoid person I know. Will only speak to me during store house and in person.

“Speaking of the DEA. We’re going to need your help on that. They have a new field operations lead. I’ll let Jono tell you about him,” Red said.

“Yeah. Ben Koppleman. “Was transferred in from Washington a month ago.”
“That’s unusual,” I said.
“We agree,” said Jono. “Most rats won’t leave DC after they settle into the cheese up there. But this guy, he goes from DC back onto the front lines.”
“Probably fucked his bosses wife…or husband. Let’s not besmirch the LGBT community,” said Chris with that smart ass smile he was known for. He got the smiles and chuckles he craved.
“According to our sources, he requested it,” said Jono. “But that could just be his ego lying about it.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time they pushed one out of DC,” I said.
“He’s white. Mid forties. Wife, three kids, attends that mega church downtown,” Jono added.
“Vices?” I asked.
“No. A man of god or so it seems. Real straight arrow.”

You show me a person without vices and most of the time you are showing me a liar, a pretty damned good one too. Gotta be to pull off one of the biggest lies of all, virtue.
But I will admit that sometimes there are those who are sincere about it. Luckily they are the minority. And they fall into two groups from my experience.

The first group are those who do it from some sort of internal compass, their own sense of right and wrong. They adhere to their principles and are quiet about it. These people are so rare that I think I’ve ever only met one of them.

More common is the second group. They are the ones all amped up from the outside, whether it’s a political ideology or some religious belief, they do it because of that. Now I’ve got no problem with that so far. Do what you want for whatever reason you want. It’s a free country, right? But they don’t stop there. They won’t stop until everyone else has to live the same kind of life. Real shove it down your throat kind of people. Some of them are liberals and say shit like ‘there ought to be a law requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets”. Some of them are the religious who ban beer sales on Sunday. Hell in some countries you can’t even buy a beer, that’s how bad it’s gotten.
“So you want me to take a look at him?” I asked.
“Yep. Usual fee?” asked Red.
“That’s the one,” I replied with a nod.
10K for a full work up with another 10K if I give them a big, fat, career-ending nugget on Ben Koppleman. You’d be surprised how many in law enforcement have skeletons in their closet. Almost all of them is the correct answer.
“Sometimes I think it would be cheaper just to have you join the club,” said Art with a smile.

Red, Chris, and Pete laughed. They knew that I don’t ride motorcycles.

It’s not that I don’t know how.
I almost died. Swore I would never get on another motorcycle.

Wet narrow road, pick up truck in front of me slammed on its brakes, and I got a trip to the hospital. Old bastard driving the pickup was too old to have a license. 92, who the hell 92 years old is still qualified to operate a damned motor vehicle? Nobody! I attended the old bastard’s funeral a year later.
He died peacefully in his sleep. I had nothing to do with it, if you’re wondering.

One of the mechanics from the shop opened the door and brought in a box of sandwiches.

“I got you egg salad like last time,” Art said to me.

I’ve been to exactly one other club management meeting and that’s what I ate. Art is an observer of people. He studies them. He told me once its important to figure out what someone is good at, what they suck at, what they want, what they hate, and what scares them. After that he knows how to get the most out of them, or so he says.

Pete looked over the table at me while we ate.

“Gonna need your help. Debbie found out about Clara.”

Clara is one Clara Waters, a very nice looking young woman about half Pete’s age. Debbie is Pete’s wife. Clara was supposed to be a secret. But shit happens.

The low level electric hum ended and when it did phone notification dings started going off one after the other.

I even got one. It was a text message.

‘I got your number from Emmie’s phone. WE NEED TO TALK’

It was from Andrew, an idiot with a death wish!

 

Part Five

Astral Projection

Andrew Padern was sitting at one of the picnic tables that form the outside deck seating at the Sand Dollar bar. Behind him was the Atlantic ocean and the sound of the waves gently tickling the shore. He waved to me.

I didn’t want to meet this man. I wanted him dead. But he called and sent me a text message and that saved his life. If he disappeared now I’d be the number one suspect thanks to god-damned phone records. Andrew Padern, a US Navy Captain, was within three weeks of a deep sea dive he’d never finish. But now? Now I didn’t know when I would be able to take him diving. Damn phone records. He stood up as I approached. He was five foot eleven or there abouts, maybe a round up to six foot, like me. He had smooth coffee colored skin, coffee with creamer that is, that light brown tone. He extended his hand to me. I ignored it and sat down on the other side of the bench.

“What do you want?” I asked. I wasn’t hostile, I made sure I was under control.
“Quite a lot actually. But let’s start with this, you’ve been a major part of Emmie’s life since you were kids. You’re important to her. So I wanted to meet you and get to know you.”
“Good luck with that.”
“I know you still have feelings for Emmie. That’s obvious.”
“You don’t say.”
“No, actually I do.”

I took a long hard look at this man. Ensign Karl Soffe had provided me some background on this career naval officer. I helped Karl when his wife had a drug problem last year. I negotiated a payment settlement between Karl and his wife’s drug supplier. She would no longer be a customer, go into detox, and her drug dealer would live to deal another day with her debts paid in full plus 10% for damages. You ever cut off someone’s finger and wish you’d saved it?

Andrew Padern, was from a family farm in Alabama. Full academic scholarship to Alabama. Joined the US Navy one week after graduation. Considered a ‘by the book’ officer, although Karl told me that if I ever met a black officer that wasn’t ‘100% by the book’ to let him know, he’d never met one yet. It was necessary to overcome the racism he said. Andrew was also a good looking man.

“Emmie told me a lot about you.”
“I’m sure she did,” I replied.
“She told me what happened with Crystal Sanchez.”
“She confessed.”
“That’s not the part Emmie emphasized.”
“I know, I was there.”
“You scared her, Trunk. She says she’d never been that scared before. Not even with that Bishop kid in high school.”
Judah Bishop tried to rape Emmie. It turned out to be a fatal mistake on his part.
“I was trying to get a confession. Cops lie to suspects every single day to get them to confess.”
“Then you let her go,” he said with a disapproving tone.
“It wasn’t for me to make that decision. I left it to the person who hired me. That’s the way it goes in that sort of work.”
“You let a murderer walk. She out there living her life without a care, thanks to you.”
“I don’t know about that. You ever meet her?”
“No,” he replied.
“She’s a pretty woman. Nice big tits. Got a square jaw too. She wasn’t born with it that way. No, she got that from her husband and the pin holding her jaw together after he broke it for the third time. Compound fracture from what she told me. But don’t worry about that. Beat your wife, put her in the hospital, nothing to worry about. Cops don’t care.”
“It was a police matter. You should have left it to them.”
“When was the last time you looked in the mirror?” I asked.
“I know, a black man shouldn’t recommend the cops for anything, right?”
“Pretty much.”
“I have a brother that is a cop,” he said.
“Back in Alabama?” I asked.
Andrew Padern looked at me differently for a moment when I mentioned Alabama. Yeah asshole, I’ve done my homework.
“No, Atlanta,” he replied.
“Well then, that cures the racist cop problem, doesn’t it?”
Andrew was silent for just a moment. I could tell that he was keeping his anger in check.
“No it doesn’t.”
“Then why did you bother to tell me about your brother?”
“Because I know there are good cops. I’m related to one.”
“Good for you,” I replied.

I needed to back off just a little bit. If there was a public scene with a lot of witnesses I would never be able to take this bastard deep sea diving. But it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. Every time I thought about his dick inside of Emmie… well, we need a new word, something stronger than ‘rage’.

The waitress came over to take our orders. Cute girl, nice shorts, her butt cheeks were on display.

“It’s happy hour for another thirty minutes, gents. What can I get the two best looking guys in this place?”
“Just a water,” said Andrew with a smile.
“Diet Coke,” I replied.
“Pity, would love to see you two having a wild night.”
“It’s Thursday. Catch me on the weekend,” I replied with a smile and a wink.
“I look forward to it,” she said and left to get us the cheapest order she probably had all night.

“I just thought it was a good idea for us to meet. We both care deeply about Em and that makes us allies, whether you believe it or not. Under different circumstances we could probably be friends,” he said.

Thank god I wasn’t drinking something when he said that

“Under different circumstances I wouldn’t know who the fuck you are.”

After a few seconds he nodded in agreement.
There was a long silence before he spoke again. There was something on his mind. This sort of chit-chat was a waste of time.
He didn’t seem scared of me, which was a mistake. Maybe he was just good at hiding it.

“Listen, I don’t know what happened to that Bishop kid and I don’t want to know. I just want to know that the same thing won’t happen to me,” he said.

I found this very interesting. He showed none of the tell tale signs of fear. You know, the nervous hands, the leg movements, the messed up cadence of their sentences, and the eyes, the eyes alway give it away. He displayed none of this, yet his words indicated it was his concern. Conclusion? He was lying. Mr. ‘by the book’ was not being truthful. Something was wrong. Something was missing.

“I’ll share a little secret with you,” I said leaning in slightly, “I don’t know what happened to that Bishop kid either. What did the police say?”
I paused for a moment before continuing.
“Something about a bus ticket out to Los Angeles. I bet he’s sucking dicks on Hollywood Blvd to make his rent. Apartments are expensive out there, LA prices.”

There was in fact a bus ticket to Los Angeles. But it was for an empty seat. There was also a computer bag with Judah’s laptop, his password on a post-it note, and $1,500 dollars in a side pocket of the bag in the overhead rack. But the cops lost interest when the person who stole the laptop started using it online. A missing person case turned into a run away case. Dr. Bishop even hired private investigators to find his son. But LA is a large place and they came back empty-handed. They should have looked about a mile offshore from Jacksonville Beach, although by now there’s nothing left, he’s been fish food since the turn of the century.

“I understand,” said Andrew with a knowing tone of voice like he was some sort of Sherlock Holmes.

He couldn’t have been farther from it if he tried. I know because Sherlock Holmes has been my boy since the first time I read ‘The Hounds of the Baskervilles’ when I was a kid. I still read those stories. If I had to choose a desert island book, it would be Hounds. Andrew Padern couldn’t investigate his way out of a paper bag that is open at one end. Sherlock is like me, a freak. He keeps it under control with morphine and cocaine. I use weed to keep it in the basement.

“What’s the point of this conversation?” I asked. “You want for us to become friends on social media? Are you going to send me a friend request?”

And just for a moment, a tiny little sliver of time, I saw fear. Less than a second, almost a nothing, it showed in Andrew’s eyes. Then he took a deep breath.

“I’ve asked Em to marry me and she said ‘yes’,” he said in what was supposed to be a calm voice but came out like a blurted confession.

He sighed when he finished his sentence, probably disappointed in how he delivered the big news.
I didn’t say anything.
The only thing going through my mind was a big red banner that reminded me: you can’t kill him here.

Emmie was the only person I’ve ever loved and now she was going to give her love to someone else. Permanently. I wanted to cry. I wanted to kill. She was the only proof I had that my condition might not have complete control. She gave me hope that I could recover. Someday. Maybe. I got a sinking feeling, like someone tied an anchor to me and pushed me overboard, just like Judah Bishop.
There was a real long silence.
“Say something,” he said.
“What do you want? Congratulations? That ain’t gonna happen.”
“I know, I know.”
I stood up to leave. Safer for both of us if I left.
“Wait, I’m not done yet,” he said.
“Yes you are,” I replied.
“No, I’m not. I’m being transferred to San Diego in three months. Em and I are going to get married in Alabama next month.”

I looked down at the table then the man seated at it. The table had the cutlery wrapped in a white paper napkin. I considered my options. I could stab him with the knife. Plunge the fork through his skull like a horror movie. I could use the spoon to gouge out his eyes, like the Contras did to the peasants in Central America the year I was born.

But I’ve been to prison once. That was enough for me.

“Motherfucker, what do you want? My blessing?”
“No. Safety. You don’t know how scared Em is.”
“She is always safe around me.”
“She knows that and I’m pretty sure that’s true too. She’s scared what you will do to me.”

I had to clench my jaw to keep from smiling. Emmie knew me as well as anyone could. Andrew continued.

“Not today, not tomorrow. Maybe not even this year. But she thinks that you will at some point in the future murder me. And considering all she has told me about you, I share that concern.”

I didn’t say anything for a long, long time. Just watched him sweat.
Finally I spoke.

“Listen Captain, she chose you, right?”
“Yes,” he said looking confused because it wasn’t going as he planned.
“Then don’t you think that if I really love her, I mean really, truly love her, I’d want her to be happy, even if it wasn’t with me?”
Captain Andrew Padern heard the words he wanted to hear more than anything else.
“Are you serious? You’re not kidding?”
“It’s how I define love and think it’s how most reasonable people would define love.”
He smiled broadly like the man on death row who just got a last minute reprieve from the Governor.
“You’re a surprising man, Dennis Trunk. Surprising,” he said.
“I have my moments. But let me tell you this and I do mean it most seriously.” I put my hands flat on the table and leaned close to him.
“If you ever hurt her, I will kill you. Got it?”
“Understood,” he said. “Never, ever going to happen.”
“Now I’m not going to wish you all the best, because I don’t. But I wish it for her and since she chose you, you inherit it.”

Then I took my hands from the table, stood upright and extended my right hand. The look on his face was just precious, as my grandma used to say. Confused, surprised, and happy, all at the same time. The effect is that Captain Andrew Padern looked like he was in the special education class.

Never seen a man pop up from a table that quickly before.
He has a firm handshake.

“Emmie knows I love her, so just tell her that I wish her all the best. Will you do that for me?”
“Yes,” replied the smiling captain.

I turned and walked away. The waitress was coming back with our drinks. I stopped her and gave her a twenty.

“Apologies, darling. Something came up.”
“Well don’t be a stranger. Come back sometime soon, ya hear.”
“Yes, ma’am.”

When I got to my truck I thought about all the things I had with me that I could use to kill Andrew. Crowbar, lug wrench, hunting knife, the weight of the truck itself. I was sitting in my truck for a good two or three minutes when I noticed that I had tears running down my cheek. Started up the truck and left. It was about a five minute drive to the marina and home.

Yes, I lied. Of course, I was still going to kill him. As long as he’s alive Emmie and I can’t get back together again, now can we?. It’s just that now I have to plan the perfect murder. It’s a challenge, but I’m up to it.

When I got back to the boat, I turned on the television. Some stupid news about a local official caught taking bribes from a contractor. It wasn’t even that much money. Just 2,000 dollars. When did our official become so cheap they’d sell out for one or two mortgage payments?

I took my laptop and went back into the rear cabin. My boat has a cabin at the front that is real nice. But the one at the back is called a stateroom and is especially roomy and nice. A bench to sit on, a small desk and chair, and a queen sized bed. And air conditioning, it’s Florida after all.

I sat at the desk and looked at the computer screen. The background screen was a picture of me and Emmie on our honeymoon. All smiles and sparkly eyes. Hope does that, the sparkly eyes effect. So does stupidity.

There was a pretty painting I saw a long time ago. Bales of wheat in winter covered with snow. The entire picture was created mostly in black and white and the many shades between. It is the most soothing image I’ve ever seen. I keep it book marked and pulled it up. Then I set it to be the background screen of my laptop. So long Jamaican honeymoon, hello soothing image. Then the most peculiar thing happened.

The instant I changed the image I began to cry. And I don’t mean polite little tears on the cheek like before. No, I began to cry and wail. Loud full-throated moans escaped from somewhere deep inside of me. I tried to stop but I couldn’t. The most important person in my entire miserable existence was leaving, going far away. I’d never see her again. My little sliver of hope against the madness inside of me was dying. I cried for the loss of the woman I love, those special tears, saltier than the rest, alkalinity built from rejection. I cried for never making love with her on a Sunday morning again. We made love every Sunday morning, before the Crystal Sanchez mess. I cried for Wednesday movie nights we’d never have again.

I don’t remember when I fell asleep. It might have been after I started thinking that now there was nothing to stop the madness from having all of me. May as well go check myself into the padded room for the rest of my life. I’m done. I’m over with. Drool onto my gown until I get old and my heart stops. It might have been around that time.

But I do know when I woke up. 5:12 AM. My phone was ringing and it was right beside my head.

“Wake up, sleeping beauty. Time to go to work.” I recognized Art’s voice.
“Do you know…aw fuck it, I’m up. I’m up.” I pleaded.
“Good then get your dick out her and meet me at the shop.”
“When?” I asked.
“Now motherfucker. Now, I’m already here waiting on you. Get a move on.”
“OK, OK. Keep your shirt on. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
“Make it fifteen.”
“I can’t get there any faster than that.”
“Try astral projection.”
Shit, astral projection.

Buddhism gives people a funny sense of humor. Or it did Art. Astral projection meant only one thing.

There was a dead body.