|The Devil on the Flop
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Well, we don’t do assassinations anymore, or else there would be an easy way out of your dilemma.” Paul puckers up and blows a big smoke ring at the smudge-free windows of Locke’s D. C. office. In the glass he has a perfect view of the irritated twitch the other man doesn’t quite suppress without actually having to look at the asshole.
He and Stanley are about the same age, but while Paul has never pretended to accept convention, ol’ Stan had gradually gotten converted to the dark side by over-devotion to the job. Sanctimonious moron. If there is one thing Paul fucking hates more than the slick bastards who bend their way out of the cases he’d built up out of blood and adrenaline and little bits of hell on earth, it’s the fucks who’d condemned him in academy for playing faster and then think in middle-fucking-age that they can run the game better. Fucking amateurs, for one.
“This is not a joke,” Stanley snaps back. His forehead has new furrows stamped into it and the last time he and Paul passed each other, outside the director’s office about a month back, he didn’t have that little touch of gray at the temple that looks more like a dab of fuzzy fridge-mold than a hint of distinction.
“Fuck you. My body count’s twenty-five confirmed in seven goddamn states and I’ve got panicky locals calling me every ten minutes, but I trooped on back here when you called. I can joke about whatever the fuck I think is funny.” The cigarettes had stopped tasting remotely worth it about three months back, so Paul had started going for potency instead. Now he’s on some shit brand with Russian on the pack that ships from some place in Turkey, and the smoke’s so harsh it’s sooting the glass. He blows another ring.
Stanley looks about five seconds from punching Paul, which is still too fucking long considering Paul hit on every fucking rookie he could sniff out between the front doors and Locke’s office, and Stanley’s notorious prudishness. “Have you read the file on Lake Tahoe?”
“Even if I hadn’t, I think I would’ve gotten enough of a picture from the four-hour interview I had with Messner,” Paul snorts. He doesn’t add the ‘you righteous pea-brained dick,’ but he does do his best to write that in ash tapped off onto the windowsill. “Look, Stan. I’m on the clock and you’re on the conveyor belt to the shit-pile, so let’s get to it. You can’t have Messner charged because he’ll air your bloodstained laundry and while the top brass might like your unswerving dedication to the agency, I don’t think anybody who actually has to put themselves in the line of fire will. You can’t boot him out for the same reason, and if you sent him to Guantanamo, you’d have to let in the CIA.”
Nah, Locke doesn’t like Paul’s summation, but all the lip-pursing in the world can’t change the fact that it’s the truth, and Locke respects the truth oh-so-fucking much. He would have to, in his position.
“Now, let’s talk about me. If you’ve got the latest clusterfuck, then I’ve got the most publicized and longest-running one since fucking Prohibition. And I’m getting creaky and need babies to scoot out there and feed the cannons because my knees can’t take it anymore.” If Stanley were looking, or had the slightest bit of gut behind that cold-blooded career desker mind of his, he would’ve read a couple interesting things into the way Paul twists his face. Paul sure as hell does, every morning since the day the Saints stormed that courtroom.
But Stanley doesn’t. It’s the same reason he looked at a shivering, shell-shocked young man with blood on his shirt and thought agent and fucking walked off after threatening Messner with expulsion, of all things, coolly confident in the idea that that was even a threat at that point. Well, maybe it would be to him. The day the FBI goes down is the day Stanley Locke cracks into the gibbering infantile idiot he’s always been.
It’s a nice mental image, but it’s not going to happen in Paul’s lifetime, he wryly thinks a beat later. For two, he knows what he’s doing and what it looks like to him and to everyone else and yeah, lately, what it looks like to God. And he still fucking does it. “So can I take him or not?” he says.
Stanley blinks and the hoods over his eyes lift a little. He’s double-glassed, those dean of the college specs of his reflected in the window, but even so, he looks sorry. He looks like he fucking hates to do this. He probably does, somewhere in that starched suit of his. Not that he’s going to lose sleep over it, or even think on it again after he signs those release forms, and that’s why he’s a bastard and Paul’s a mere fuck-up.
“Yes.” He blinks again and his eyes are smooth as black glass.
The triple reflection, him to specs to window, doesn’t do Paul any compliments. And fuck this for compromising the soul if Paul’s going to let Stan judge him as part of it.
Paul leaves with the other man’s back to him, and doesn’t think twice on that.
* * *
In prison—detention, excuse him—there was a daily shower and all that, but it didn’t really have anything to do with cleanliness. They had given him clothes to replace the ones with Donald’s blood all over them, but that hadn’t been no fucking stain remover—excuse his English, thanks—and so Richard came out as filthy as he’d gone in.
He stared around the hotel room. It was neat as a fucking pin, everything smooth and untouched. Not as posh as the one Israel had been holed up in, but still pretty good.
“Paid with my ass to get these kinds of digs, so don’t sit on anything till you’ve given yours a good wipe, darling.” Smecker hadn’t spread around much, just some stuff on the writing desk, a suit-bag thrown over one of the chairs. A couple AAA maps spread over the bed closest to Richard, and a mess of the covers humped up on the other bed. “You live in town? Or do I need to stick my boot up Stanley’s ass again to get your shit shipped out to you?”
“No, my stuff’s—” Richard started to gesture, like some fucking air traffic controller of something. He saw his hand wave by and stared at it, then jerked it down with a grunt of disgust. He was a fucking idiot.
“Shit,” Smecker said. Thoughtful, staring at his phone. At first Richard figured it for a reply to some inconvenient text message, but then the other man turned to flick his eyes over Richard, drawling and contemptuous. “Didn’t fucking enjoy having my boot up there the first time, and now—well, hell. You’re built like a store mannequin. They give you back your wallet?”
Richard stared back. After a moment, he dug out the plastic Ziploc in which his personal effects had been stuffed the day he’d checked into detention and checked. He did have his wallet. “Fifty-five in cash. I’m pretty sure nobody was paying my credit card bills while I was in there.”
Smecker said ‘shit’ again, but he was distracted. He was still working his phone, now listening to some voicemail while he rummaged around in the stuff on his desk. His hand skipped over the notepad and went straight to the case files, which he flipped open so their guts spewed all over the place. Photos, reports, a couple little baggies of crap Richard couldn’t identify from across the room…they scattered over the desk and a couple glossies skidded all the way off the edge onto the floor.
If Smecker saw them—and it seemed like he’d have had to—he didn’t care because he turned his back on them, the wad of paper he’d wanted under the laser scan of his eyes as he dialed somebody one-handed. The moment somebody came on, he started bitching them out in a harsh, loud voice. Once he paused and there was a little click, and when he half-turned to get to the maps on the bed, he had a cigarette between his lips.
“Don’t get ash on my side,” Richard finally muttered. Way low beneath his breath, but Smecker still managed to catch it.
But all the other man did as Richard squeezed by was flip him the finger. Richard ignored it and went into the bathroom to hit the shower. They still hadn’t solved the clothes problem, but he was tired of sitting around feeling like the dirty one. He’d had enough time to think about it, really think about it, and as far as he was concerned, he’d been the fucking clean-up crew.
* * *
When he came out, Smecker was still on the phone. The other man glanced up, kept his head up, and after a second of genuinely frank appreciation, rolled his eyes. “C’mon, surfer-boy. I know you’ve heard of me and for one thing, this ain’t my idea of a come-on. For two—”
Smecker flicked his fingers at a large shopping bag on the chair. Then he went back to marking stuff on one of the several unfolded maps that now blanketed Richard’s bed.
“I know you’re gay, if that’s what you mean,” Richard said. He finished wiping off his chest with the one towel and hitched up the other one around his waist, then went over to take a look. “What, no G-strings?”
“You’re funny,” Smecker replied in a flat, humorless tone. He finally ended his call and slowly pivoted so he could sit down on the edge of the bed. For a couple seconds he stared at the far wall, and then he jerked up his arm like he was going to throw the phone.
Richard made some kind of noise that apparently snapped Smecker out of it, since the other man lowered the phone instead of turning it into silicon and plastic junk, like half the girls on the Strip. Then Smecker sighed, looking up so Richard couldn’t see his expression at all.
“Was that about the Saints?” The clothes were okay. They even looked like they fit. As for the fact that Richard was straight, straight, straight and Smecker was so damn gay they said he could do a limp-wristed flap that’d result in a hurricane of flaming fashion on the other side of the world—well, so fucking what? Like Richard gave a damn any more about what looked good or what was ‘right’ and ‘respectable’ and ‘appropriate.’
Maybe Smecker drifted off or something, since Richard got tired of waiting, went and dressed in the bathroom, and had come back out before the other man moved. He reached out and spun the map he’d been writing on towards Richard, so Richard wandered over to look.
“Latest killings in New Orléans. There’s an eye-witness saying that one of them got badly wounded,” Smecker said, voice clipped. He pointed, then pulled out the prelim report and a few photos with short, professional movements. “Of course, these boys redefine ‘walking wounded,’ so don’t be jumping in with some gung-ho shit about putting the hospitals on red-alert.”
Richard would’ve, about two weeks ago, but right now that idea didn’t even cross his mind till Smecker surprised him with it. He was rusty, he thought. And then he grimaced and gave himself a mental slap since it’d become damn obvious to him lately that he’d never been fucking keen in the first place. Fucking FBI. Fuck. He should’ve just been a cop, maybe a beat detective.
“I just got done arranging our flight down. We’re gonna spend two days there tops, just making sure the local dumbasses didn’t leave out anything important in their write-ups.” Smecker sat back, fiddling with his cell phone as he watched Richard. “Any questions, babe?”
“No,” Richard said.
The other man stared at him for a second. Then Smecker snarled and yanked himself onto his feet, going on an angry stalk about the room. “Oh, bullshit. Look, sugarpie, I know you’ve got brains enough in there to know when it’s worth asking the stupid questions.”
“Yeah, well, sorry if I didn’t realize that’s what you sprang me to do. I thought I was supposed to be your warzone gofer. You know, redeem my horrendous trip to Lake Tahoe so that the Feds can write me off as a martyr instead of…of…” It was on the tip of Richard’s tongue to say something like ‘whistle-blower,’ but then he realized that that would mean he’d have had to have stopped something before it actually goddamn happened. Something fucking real, too.
Smecker twisted on a heel to face Richard again. The guy really was as fucking nuts as everybody said he was: from Category Five to placid in about two seconds.
“Well, that would sure as hell suit Locke,” Smecker finally said. He came back over to the bed and started to pick up all the stuff on it. He pulled the photos, which Richard had been looking at, out from under Richard’s hand without so much as a heads-up, though at the same time he wasn’t being deliberately snappy about it. It was more like…like he’d tuned Richard out again. “Look, junior. I do need a partner. The Saints are tearing up the earth and since I don’t plan to retire during Armageddon, they have to be stopped. You’re photogenic enough, so you might as well be Our Savior.”
Richard wasn’t all that religious, and when he did think about that, it was strictly Protestant for him. Then again, he didn’t think Smecker was Catholic either—the gay, for one, and the way the man sneered and flinched at the same time when mouthing all that Mass-tinged bullshit. So whatever, anything to get Smecker off his back. Sarcasm he could still do. “Great. I always wanted to have people kneel to me while I was nailed to a big wooden cross. When are we leaving?”
For some reason, Smecker still seemed disappointed, but this time all he did was sigh and organize, slipping his long fingers between the pages like a magic—fuck. Fucking Buddy Israel.
“Tomorrow morning.” Smecker cocked his head, eyes going half-shut as he regarded Richard. He was mood-swinging so damn fast it was amazing he didn’t break something.
“Okay,” Richard said. Once Smecker was done, Richard stretched out on the bed and kicked the covers over to the opposite side. He closed his eyes.
He didn’t have nightmares when he was sleeping, contrary to all expectations. But getting past the flashes of gruesome memory that started whenever he tried to fall asleep did take some doing. And some time, though Smecker was still moving about when Richard finally did manage to find himself some temporary oblivion.
* * *
They went from the plane right to the scene, with Smecker only pausing long enough to find some dumb chump to take their bags to their hotel. The point man in New Orléans was a grizzled, cynical old Cajun who seemed to think Smecker’s whiplash changes of topic and general crankiness was a secret tribal sign, or something. Smecker noticed it too, but while he didn’t miss a beat in joining in on the verbal torture of beat cops and witnesses, he didn’t linger in it either. The moment somebody turned useful, he cut out the shit and then Richard had to note that Smecker sure did know his way around an interrogation.
“Nothing from the hospitals yet, sir,” said the current target.
“No fucking shit, Sherlock.” Smecker took a moment from perusing the initial ballistics report to peel off a couple more layers of the poor sap’s dignity with his glare. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but these guys’ idea of medical treatment involve hot irons. I don’t think they’re gonna be hitting the ER for a minor injury like a winged shoulder.”
Target shrank some more and babbled defensively about how his partner was positive the shot had hit bone at least. The Cajun wandered over from the line of bagged bullet fragments spread out on the table to join in, and Richard just ignored it all and drank his coffee. It’d been a pretty crazy scene, and before Lake Tahoe it probably would’ve been…well, he couldn’t even really think about how he would’ve reacted before. Tahoe hadn’t just been over-the-top; it’d been the first homicide scene of his life. And he’d been there for nearly the whole thing.
The Saints he’d heard of, vaguely, watching the CNN ticker in shitty hotel rooms while trying to ease himself off the bored-jumpy-bored hamster cycle that was surveillance duty. The latest nutcases on a shooting rampage. But they’d been all back East, and not only was it bad manners to stroll beyond your jurisdiction, it was also just plain bad operating procedure, usually. Nevada (Vegas) threw up more than enough problems all by its lonesome.
“Look, man, I got two dead beat cops and a major C. I. in the ICU,” target was bleating. “I got problems here.”
“Don’t we all,” Richard muttered. He finished draining his coffee before meeting the look he knew Smecker was throwing his way, along with everybody else.
Smecker spoke before Richard had to think of the follow-up comment that’d keep the locals from thinking he was a harmful nutball. “Dick, go down with Henry here and wrap up with the morgue. I’ll meet you at the hotel.”
Richard almost said he’d preferred sugar-pie, with the way Smecker rolled his tongue around the new nickname. But then the Cajun came on up, sneering and asking about the strength of Richard’s stomach, and he remembered he didn’t really give a shit what Smecker called him. Long as Smecker kept him the hell away from Locke and his crap about for the good of the agency.
“You’re talking guns only, right? No chainsaws or knives?” Richard blandly asked. And didn’t fucking explain when that earned him a sharp stare. He was content with the other man’s silence; he wasn’t keeping score anymore. Not when he already knew nobody was going to win.
* * *
Smecker, for all his fancy suits, could make himself at home in a greasy spoon as well as the redneck grumblers all staring at his swagger. Not that that meant he was welcomed, but it didn’t make a difference when the cowering waitress was bringing out two prime ribs several obvious degrees better-cooked than the shit at the other tables.
“Chicago.” The mashed potatoes were tasted, then liberally doused in pepper. No salt, though. When Smecker caught Richard looking, he grinned humorlessly and tapped the blue, twisty veins showing on the inside of his wrist. “I’m no spring chicken now, honey. And with all the incompetent assholes in the work that I have to depend on to do my good works, I’ve got to watch the blood pressure.”
“Huh.” Richard poked at his dish. He wasn’t really hungry, but if he hadn’t ordered something Smecker had made it clear that he’d get a dressing-down right there in the middle of Deep South Hillbilly Land. So he’d just said he’d have what Smecker was having, and hadn’t really listened to Smecker’s order.
Smecker’s amusement faded. He chopped off a couple chunks of pink-oozing meat before he said anything, though. “Next time just order the soup like the precious Cali thing you are, Messner. Till your agency credit card gets reactivated, you’re on my fucking account.”
“Sorry.” The prime rib was all right, once Richard had managed to hack off a piece with the shitty steak knife. He just didn’t really want to eat.
“What, the morgue was that bad?” Smecker snorted.
Richard bit down so quickly he chomped through the meat and slammed his teeth together, setting off a ringing pain that shot down his jaw. He looked up at Smecker, then back down. Then he shook his head.
He was still getting stared at, and not just from Smecker, but he flicked a mental fuck-you at them all and ate the damn prime rib. Suddenly he wanted to get back to the hotel and if he had to choke down the whole fucking plate, well, he could do that. He’d had a little practice in it.
“I did see the photos,” Smecker said after a moment.
Not the ones of New Orléans, obviously. “They don’t do what happened justice.”
“Yeah, like I think you said when we first met. But then, I don’t think you usually get justice in an elevator shootout.” When Richard checked, Smecker wasn’t smirking or anything, though his tone sure was sharp enough. Instead the other man was looking at Richard again in that narrow-eyed, almost meditative way. Kind of like some old white-haired kung-fu master from a hack Japanese martial arts flick. “I was talking about Carruthers. What were you talking about?”
Richard swallowed down more than something nasty, then chased it with a good gulp of water. It tasted gritty and metallic, and after a moment he waved over the waitress to ask for a beer. That’d be cheap shit too, in this kind of place, but cheap alcohol was a tad better. “Why?”
Something flicked through Smecker’s eyes, and it wasn’t right for irritation. “Messner, I don’t need a zombie. This is a hard case. This is not a stroll in a garden maze where if I give you a map you’ll get out at the other end okay.”
“What, I get some bull-man in the middle?” Richard muttered. He turned his fork on its edge and slid it deep into the pile of mashed potatoes. When he withdrew it, a yellowish cloudy slick began to pool out of the holes onto the plate. “Look, I can run with something by myself if you need me to. But if you got me out for my sparkling dinner conversation, I think you just might be shit out of luck there.”
“There weren’t any dead Feds there today, but there have been. I could show you pictures, if you need it.” Now Smecker sounded coaxing, almost gentle. The grate of his knife against his plate was jarringly out of place. “Does that make a difference to you at all? The Saints are cop-killers. Fed-killers.”
Richard snapped up his head to do something, and then forgot what. He just looked at Smecker, knowing he was missing a piece and knowing it wasn’t normal for it to be that way, and knowing he just couldn’t get up the energy to care. He stared at the other man, tired and a little chilly and just goddamn not hungry.
“So they suck even more than the usual bad guy does,” he eventually said. “Shit. What a fucking tragedy.”
Smecker put his knife down and called the waitress over. He was done, actually—Richard blinked when he saw the nearly clean plate, since it hadn’t seemed that long and Smecker didn’t gobble—and now he wanted a chaser. Most expensive whiskey on the list, neat. So much for the expense account. “You’re one to talk, Kevorkian.”
“The fuck?” Richard snapped, staring again. Then he dropped his fork and knife and pushed the plate to the side, suddenly fed up with trying to even pretend. Fuck it, let them trash the food. “Where do you get off…with all the guys that died, and then…and then it wasn’t even going to save anybody else, probably. Locke wanted to know how to wrap up the old cases, the murders that already fucking happened. Wasn’t going to save anybody who wasn’t already dead.”
“And despite your interesting train of reasoning, you still sidestep the fact that you killed those two men, sure as that hellcat with the fifty-millimeter—how the fuck does that kind of shit trickle down to the streetwalker level, by the way—banged out four of your crew,” Smecker calmly said. He turned and got his whiskey from the waitress before she even had a chance to put it down, then tossed it back in one go. “Who made you judge and jury?”
Everybody was staring at Smecker now; they couldn’t hear what he was saying but they sure admired his way of taking a drink. And Richard sure was digging his fingers into the underside of the table to keep from strangling the smart-ass shit’s neck. “Well, it wasn’t going to be Locke. Or the director. Who told them they could make the lives of their men equal to the lives of…of…of a renegade agent who’d hire an assassin to cut out his own kid’s heart?”
Smecker put the tumbler down and raised his elbows to rest them on the table. Then he propped his chin on top, looking thoughtful. “Well, we’re finally seeing a rise. So let’s accept the premise that the fact of Primo Sparazza’s death can be justifiable, if not the circumstances of it. So what about ol’ Buddy?”
“He was dumb enough to play his way in too deep. If he’d stuck to the stage he wouldn’t have been worth going after and nobody would’ve gotten sent to protect him.” Richard glanced around and saw the beer he’d ordered and then forgotten about. He hooked a finger around the neck and dragged it over, then slouched back as he tipped it into his mouth. Half a bottle, worse than paint thinner, eating into his gut in about five seconds. “We aren’t supposed to protect murderers. That’s not our job.”
If Smecker had noticed the slight pause, he was keeping that knowledge close to his chest. He just watched Richard, almost looking through him like Richard was a screensaver or something for what was really on Smecker’s mind. “He didn’t kill anybody himself, you know.”
“I know. But he still was responsible for it happening,” Richard finally muttered. “He—Donald died—took out that nutcase with no fingertips because he thought Israel was—he thought he was helping with something that wasn’t even…and you want to tell me that’s okay?”
“I’m not telling you anything, though I know a couple people who’d agree with you.” And with that comment, Smecker turned away and called for the bill.
* * *
Richard hadn’t asked why, but he had been paying enough attention to know that, in the two days they spent in Louisiana, they didn’t find anything that would’ve suggested Chicago. But he got on the plane with Smecker, and they’d just touched down at O’Hare when the message came in that the Saints had struck again.
Weirdly, considering his obvious ego, Smecker hadn’t had an ‘I told you so’ moment. He’d just looked at the breathless junior agent who’d delivered the message like the poor chump had spit in his drink, and then he’d shoved brusquely by, muttering about the traffic and how long it’d take to hit the scene.
“Jesus. He’s really fucking nuts.” Junior looked at Richard like Richard was supposed to be sympathetic, or comforting, or something. “He wasn’t even surprised, did you see that? It’s really like he is reading those psychopaths’ minds.”
“Though I guess there’s a time delay or something?” Richard snorted. “Which way to the car?”
* * *
“Il Duce,” Smecker pronounced, looking at the bloodstain. He walked in a slow circle around it, his arms down at his sides but his hands crooked at different angles. Every few seconds he changed the directions his fingers were pointing at, paused, and then repeated the procedure. Once in a while he’d do a little pirouette.
Richard watched him, idly noting when and in what position Smecker would make a rare approving nod before twisting around some more. “How can you tell?”
“Because I’ve got psychic powers, sugar-pie.” Smecker cooed and made ‘whoo’ gestures with his hands, ending with a sudden jerk towards the nearest local. The smile on Smecker’s face didn’t really have much to do with any amusement at the skittishness of the poor labbie, who’d yelped and jumped. “I can look at a bloodstain and get a ‘read’ on the unfortunate asshole who made it.”
The other people in the room moved a couple more feet away. Carruthers had used to do something a little like this with newbies, putting on his act to scare them into believing his rep. His taste had run more towards grossing them out with how strong his stomach was—he’d nearly tricked Richard into thinking that eating shit was the best way to assess narcotic levels—but Richard still recognized the tells. “No, I meant how do you know Il Duce made that shot? I thought he got his hand blown early and spent the whole time in the corner, with the kids covering.”
For a moment, Smecker just looked at him. Then Smecker stepped over the stain and walked over, stopping only to grab his half-finished cuppa joe from a cringing flunky and down it like he wished it were the whiskey from the other night. He wasn’t smiling anymore and he wasn’t pretending to find it funny either.
“How do you figure I’m doing ballistics?” he asked. Casually enough.
Richard shrugged and stuffed his hands in his pockets. His right hand bumped into his notepad, which he’d picked up somewhere, probably the hotel, and kept out of habit. He wasn’t taking notes when it was obvious enough he was here just to do what Smecker wanted and not to learn, for God’s sake. Who the fuck wanted an agent that thought? “That’s what it looks like. I’m probably wrong.”
“You’re not.” Smecker closed his mouth so sharply it was a surprise there wasn’t a click and slowly hooked his hands half-into his pockets, rotating his shoulders along the way so he sort of body-waved. Somebody across the room snickered nervously, then scuffed away when Smecker glanced over. Then Smecker went back to looking at Richard, his thoughts hardening his features into a face that wouldn’t look out of place on a cathedral. “Not that you give a shit, huh.”
“What’s it matter that Il Duce shot the guy who was standing there?” Richard asked indifferently. He would’ve preferred to have just stared back, but by now he knew Smecker wouldn’t get fed up and leave like a normal person.
Blink. This close, the slight cloudy film that age and extreme exhaustion threw over Smecker’s eyes damn near blocked out everything else. “It matters because that guy shot back and so that stain is Il Duce. The man’s older than I am, and carrying more injuries than a protester at the G8 summit. This one’s put him down.”
“I’m not about to ask whether we should issue a bulletin to the hospitals and clinics in the area,” Richard replied. He looked around the place again.
It was a bar, the wood dark with age so the blood barely showed, and the stink wasn’t exactly the same. He didn’t feel too sick when he started to pay attention, but nevertheless he didn’t want to get into it too much and so tried not to think a lot. But it wasn’t easy, with the way Smecker kept staring up at him as if…as if he thought Richard could do better. It wasn’t even a question; it was an expectation.
A labbie finally interrupted things with a query to Smecker. He turned, dealt with it in five cranky words, and then shot Richard a last disappointed look as he stalked away. “Connor and Murphy could still walk. You can see that over here.”
“So…why don’t we put out an APB to the ERs on Il Duce?” One of the locals got a little too impatient with the whole thing and jutted out his head at Smecker, almost mad-dogging in his anxiety for an answer.
Smecker leveled a contemptuous glance at him before going back to poking at stains and bullet gouges.
“Hey, why the fuck not? Goddamn it…” The local snarled and lifted his foot, like he was planning on kicking it into the floor.
“That’s fucking evidence you’re about to grind on,” Richard said. “Wanna save your hard-on for something worth the time?”
Of course Smecker, who brought everything worth it with him and so never worried about such things, had just lit up over on the other side of the room. His cigarette smoke curled up behind the local’s reddening face. “Yeah, well, did he declare it so? Thinks he’s the goddamn fucking Pope, yeah?” snapped the beat detective.
Richard opened his mouth. Then he closed it, giving himself a good shake, and wished he had a cigarette. Or a whiskey. Or hell, that crap beer Donald always ordered, given half a chance.
“Look, two of them can walk, they can carry the third guy. They can carry him, they can patch him up themselves. Daddy was a pro in his time and he taught his boys too well to think they can dump his famous mug on a hospital door-step,” he finally sighed. “Anyway, some of these weapons traced back to an IRA supplier in Boston. Pretty good bet they’re survivalists too.”
“Not bad.” Smecker came up out of nowhere and slid on by into the hall. His hand bumped Richard’s elbow, gave it a short pull, and then drifted off. “C’mon, Dick. We’re done here.”
* * *
Dinner this time was some soup that didn’t have any flavor so it wasn’t too hard for Richard to forget he was eating and just let mechanical motion move the spoon. “So?”
“So apparently there are reasons why a straight old-timer like Carruthers would bother with you,” Smecker said. He’d gotten chicken today, pronouncing the item with a French flourish that had made their waiter sneer at his back. He’d been a little more animated since they’d left the scene; not exactly doing the Gene Kelly, but definitely more peppy. “Just the one thing, though. Those boyos never met up with their papa till just over three months ago.”
Richard blinked. He’d read up on Il Duce, way back at the Academy; the elaborate set-up needed to take that one alive was a ‘70s legend. “So who taught them? He board them out with the IRA while he was in jail?”
“None of them are IRA, though they’ve got a couple connections. Nah, they answer to a higher power.” Smecker made a pious obeisance to the ugly Art Deco lamp above them that would’ve made an archangel retch. “They’re God’s soldiers. Who needs learnin’ when you’ve got Him on your side?”
“You do a pretty good Deep South evangelist for somebody who sounds like distilled Manhattan,” Richard snorted. His spoon scraped against the bottom of the bowl and he looked down to find himself out of food, and not feeling any different from when he’d started eating. He shoved the bowl aside.
Though Smecker’s eyes followed that, he refrained from commenting this time. In fact, he hadn’t made a crack about having to pay Richard’s way all day. “You’re not religious?”
“No. I think sometimes it’d be nice to have somebody to ask why the fuck is a shit-storm like Tahoe allowed to happen, but for all I know God would just turn around and say ‘cause I fucking said so, is all. And if I want that I know where to get it.” Fucking Locke might say his orders came from the Director, but Richard had seen enough of the man to get that nothing happened in his jurisdiction without some kind of input from him. “These psychos think they’re working God’s Will on earth? One of them have a vision or something? We gotta worry about an insanity—”
“And suddenly the Flood is upon us,” Smecker solemnly intoned. When he was in the mood, he could’ve given Marlon Brando a run for his money. Or maybe the collective cast of SNL, since there wasn’t much Smecker didn’t find hilarious for one reason or the other. “Well, Mr. Messner, are you now engaged in the case?”
It took Richard a second to place that one, and when he did, he pulled the soup bowl back so he could dig at its rim with a thumbnail. “Fuck you. I’ve heard enough of Locke for the rest of my life.”
“Hoping the road’s gonna end at Tipperary then, son?” Apparently Smecker had a whole selection of play-accents. Though when Richard jerked up his head, the other man was chewing on a mouthful of chicken with what looked like a genuinely pensive expression on his face. “Connor and Murphy did in a couple mobsters before they met up with Daddy, so maybe there was a vision in the beginning. Pretty happy-go-lucky one, for all the homicide involved. But Il Duce’s a stone-cold Biblical scorcher of the earth.”
“Getting your metaphors mixed up there,” Richard said. His thumbnail suddenly bent oddly and damn near snapped off in a sharp burst of pain. He yanked his hand away and started to lift it towards his mouth, but then he remembered Smecker and just curled his thumb into his fist instead, squeezing hard. “Well, Daddy’s out of the driver’s seat right now, right?”
“Yeah. So they’ve got no direction.” Smecker didn’t sound entirely happy about that. He pushed his peas around his plate, then mashed them one by one with the edge of his fork. Part of his lip disappeared beneath his upper canines, then flipped back out with slowly fading red lines running across it. “Doesn’t mean they don’t have the guts, or the brains. But Il Duce’s the one who’s been telling them the when and the where and the who, and with him incapacitated, they’ll have to sit tight till one of them remembers how to figure that out.”
Richard looked at the other man, wondering why Smecker would sound almost disappointed. “It can’t be that hard. With how far they’re in the shit, they don’t exactly have a buffet to choose from.”
“Really,” Smecker said, eyebrow raised. That weird tragic air dropped off and he was all preening needles again, his gaze stabbing out and then flaking up bits of Richard like somebody poking a good pie crust. “What’d you do then, if you were in their shoes?”
“You want me to think like a trio of psychopaths who kill people based on selective interpretations of the Ten Commandments?”
Smecker blinked, looked mild. “Kill criminals only, or so they say.”
“Yeah, so they say. I’m not sure how they square off killing feds who were just trying to enforce the law with that,” Richard muttered.
“In that case, it okay if they end up swinging back to D. C. to take out Stan Locke?” The way Smecker said that was weird, like he was trying not to sound leading.
Then again, he’d boomeranged so much in the past few minutes that maybe that was just Smecker trying to be straightforward. Frankly, Richard was just taking it as a sign for why he shouldn’t have gotten dragged into talking in the first place. “Who made them judge and jury? That bastard let Car—let all those agents walk into a fucking man-trap, but he—he—it’s the same thing he did. He thought he got to decide who lives and who doesn’t.”
“You think they’d count you as a kindred spirit or as somebody who’d violated their code?”
“I—” Richard started. His breath choked up at the top of his throat, all thick and hot. He swallowed, looked away from Smecker’s steady gaze, and swallowed again though that hurt. “Who says I have to decide?”
“Well, you took that responsibility upon yourself once. Didn’t you?” Smecker insisted. Gently and lowly, like a fucking snake hissing through the grass.
He waited a moment, then suddenly dropped his fork; it hit the plate with a loud clatter that made Richard jump, jerking up his head, and their waiter come over to see what was the matter. Smecker ordered him to get the check, then turned back to Richard.
“You feel good about that still?” he asked.
“I didn’t feel good about it back then. It wasn’t—it all just made me sick. Locke, Israel, Sparazza…it just wasn’t worth…it just was less sick than standing around while Locke and Sparazza got what they wanted, or Israel—” couldn’t fucking forget him “—got to ride out another song-and-dance. Okay? That enough for you?”
Those half-hooded eyes were back, all reptilian cool. “I’m asking to see if it was enough for you, Messner. You suicidal now?”
“No,” Richard said, and laughed. He choked a bit, startled by the raspy sound of it, and shook his head. “Yes. No. I can’t really—I just want to throw up all the time, okay?”
“Okay,” Smecker said, surprisingly enough. Then he turned around to get the bill from the waiter.
* * *
It was the weirdest briefing Richard had ever gone to, and Donald had had an annoying habit of giving his at the kind of greasepit where the only redeeming factor was the real hand-cut fries or the ribs made to great-grand-daddy’s recipe before the War of Confederate Secession or some shit like that. Smecker walked into the conference room, swept his gaze once around the room of pin-neat, anxious agents and cops and detectives as he went to the front, and stopped by the big bulletin board where somebody had painstakingly tacked up reports and maps.
The board was the roller type. One good heave from Smecker sent it across the room and crashing into the wall so everybody flinched and at least one cop nearly fall out of his chair; a field agent from the Chicago office snapped her pencil so hard the pieces jumped into the next row.
“That’s all bullshit now,” he told the room. His suit-jacket had gotten pulled tight over his shoulders and he took a second to tug it back into place. Whatever the hell he used in his hair, he hadn’t used enough of this morning so a forelock fell into his eyes and added to the whole air of borderline breakdown. “Il Duce was the engine of this hell-train, people, and he’s just thrown a couple rods. These guys are officially derailed.”
Everyone was clearly thinking that that was more like Smecker, but Richard had seen the man snarking about exorbitant tips for crap service and stumbling around bleary-eyed in the early hours, mishandling an urgent phone update and his toothbrush at the same time. This whole professional crazy-man routine, it was about as real as anything that happened on a Las Vegas stage.
But it was effective, Richard had to admit. Smecker had everyone’s undivided attention now. “You’ve been thinking like a sixty-something devoutly violent fanatic for the past three months, and that ain’t gotten us shit ‘cause real fanatics don’t think—they just have faith,” Smecker spat out, eyes blazing. He stalked up and down the room like an angry tiger. “But lucky us, God isn’t up with the times, people. He didn’t bulletproof the ol’ Duke, and so while the Duke may still have the faith, he sure as hell doesn’t have the wheel. That’s up to them.”
Two loud slaps pasted big glossy headshots of Connor and Murphy MacManus to the wall behind Smecker. Then he walked out of the way and let people look for a moment.
The photos must’ve been taken pretty early on, or maybe even before the whole slaughter had started, since they wouldn’t have looked out of place on some teenage girl’s wall. Grinning, cocky young shits, Richard idly thought, and then he looked down and glimpsed the photo badge clipped to his shirt. He grimaced and tucked it behind his suit-jacket lapel, and then just took it off and stuffed it into his pocket; he was already in the station and known to the precinct, so like he fucking needed it. Or wanted it.
Smecker had turned around, hands clasped behind his back like some old-time schoolmaster, to stare at the pictures as well. He spoke quietly, more thoughtfully. “They’re scared shitless, ladies and gentlemen. It’s one thing to mix God and your own neighborhood feuds—hell, your mothers brought you up on both, so it’s downright natural—but it’s another to go on the crusade. And these boyos, well…they don’t think long as somebody else is doing it for them, but like I said, Il Duce’s down. Now get to work.”
People took a few seconds to get going, just sitting there in stupefied confusion till their heads caught up with Smecker’s dramatics. Then they started moving, leaning over to talk to their partner or grabbing up a file and running out like they’d just realized where the missing piece of the puzzle was. And all through that, Smecker kept on standing there and staring at the photos.
Richard went up, once most of the room had cleared out. “Hey, so are we letting them do all of it?”
“I’m over the fucking hill, Dick. I want to go to a race, I’ll buy a ticket to the Chicago Speedway,” Smecker muttered, not sounding into it. “You got a bright idea or something?”
“Not really.” The MacManus brothers looked all right up close. ‘Angels of the choir’ floated through Richard’s mind, and after a second he placed it: character testimony from their old parish priest. “They don’t have the faith, huh.”
Smecker looked at Richard, that mask of hellfire-and-brimstone screeching gone. Behind it were dark eyebags, age-spotted liver-tinted skin, dulled eyes—it made Richard stare, wondering because he suddenly knew he wasn’t getting an act anymore either. No smartass, no cranky old cunt, no eccentric genius.
“Nobody fucking does now. And if they do, well, it doesn’t work. Not with the way we’re built to function, to live with each other. Somebody pops up with faith and we have to kill them to survive,” Smecker said. He closed his eyes for a moment while he was talking, like he was admitting something that hurt him.
“You can’t have faith in the law?” Richard asked harshly.
The other man looked at him, a little contemptuous but mostly tired. “The law’s just there, Messner. It’s a tool, a reference point. It’s not some savior that’s ever going to come riding down from the clouds. Otherwise people would never fight over how you’re supposed to serve it. Right?”
Rhetorical question. While Richard blinked and forced a swallow past the hard clench in his throat, Smecker simply pivoted and passed by him. Smecker’s head was slightly bowed, and he was rubbing at the side of his face when he turned through the doorway and into the hall.
* * *
It didn’t take long for them to find the McManuses—the wiseass beat cop who’d checked out the pharmacy robbery break-through site had suggested ‘McMani’ and Richard had started to deliver a chewing-out over the phone before Smecker had even shown up. The whole fuzzy state of uncaring that’d carried Richard from between those two hospital beds to Chicago had evaporated somewhere along the line and now he was rolling along on a hard boil of flat-out rage. He didn’t know how it’d happened, he didn’t know what it was about—except that actually, it wasn’t so much at Locke as including that asshole—he didn’t know a damn fucking thing besides that he didn’t know anything, and though that was actually getting back to normality for him, he wasn’t fucking embarrassed. He was just pissed off.
“They’re holed up in the room at the end of the row. It’s all been evacuated, nice and quiet—they didn’t suspect a thing and we almost got close enough to hit the door before something tipped them off,” the point man smugly informed Smecker.
Richard knew where and how Smecker was going to take that, so he just tuned out. They were all crouched behind an armored SWAT truck, since at least one thing that should’ve wiped the smile off the point idiot’s face was the fact that Connor and Murphy had big enough caliber guns to make Swiss cheese out of the cop Caddys initially used to block off the parking lot. And once Richard had sneaked his head around the tire, he could see that went for the cops that had been driving those cars into position. The blood slick ran from the wheels across twenty feet of pavement right up to the doorstep.
“General consensus is everybody wants to charge in like Custer,” Smecker said, suddenly hanging over Richard’s shoulder.
“I thought it was Custer’s last stand. Don’t you mean…there was some poem, or something…shit.” It was a hot, sunny day and brushing up against the hubcap nearly took off a layer of skin from Richard’s elbow. He twisted the rest of the way around while touching as little of the searing pavement as he could, and caught Smecker actually, honest-to-God smiling.
Not smirking or doing a rictus, but a real, relaxed, amused smile. The man’s eyes even twinkled. “‘Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.’ Yeah, you got some learning.”
“Thanks.” Some moron took a potshot that had both Richard and Smecker cramming down while the return fusillade thundered overheard. When it was over, the knot of cops to their left was scrambling to triage and a second blood slick spreading out made Richard turn away, nausea clawing up his throat. “Shit, that’s—they have a whole fucking armory in there. We charge, they die, but how many fucking ones of us go too? Shit!”
“Hey,” Smecker said, startled. He yanked at Richard’s arm and Richard was still surprised himself at his sudden snap and let the other man. “Hey, calm down. Listen, get me a bullhorn. With all these cowboys around, somebody had to have brought one.”
Richard stared at him. “You’re gonna negotiate? I don’t think—”
“Yeah, don’t.” Bad knees aside, Smecker twisted pretty gracefully while in a crouch. “Listen, Richard. I’ve been following these guys for longer than anybody, back before anybody thought they were saints. I know how to talk to them. Now get me that bullhorn.”
“It’s why I fucking brought you here,” Smecker snapped. “’less you’ve suddenly recovered from Carruthers biting it in fucking Tahoe, of all places, over a sixty-year-old agency fuck-up?”
“Fuck. You,” Richard said, with real feeling. And he got moving.
* * *
Bullhorn in hand, Smecker did strike up a rapport right away with one of the brothers. Connor, Richard thought—a second voice, too young to be Il Duce, occasionally added a comment but it was too weak for anybody besides Smecker, who was an eye-popping five yards in front of the firing line, to hear. Wounded Murphy, then.
“They’ve been gabbing away for fucking hours, goddamn it,” the point guy snarled. “I just heard from the ER and we lost Charlie, we’re losing—goddamn it, let’s go.”
“And lose Dick and Harry too?” Richard hissed. Though he was wondering too, the chattier Smecker seemed to get. It was almost like he was sitting down to a friendly high school reunion, and not standing in the middle of what was probably the most heavily armed stand-off north of Columbia. “Wait.”
“For fucking what?” point fuck demanded.
Connor laughed at something Smecker had said: shaking, desperate, sorry. Smecker said—he said—well, Richard didn’t fucking get it, but it was obviously the right thing to say because Smecker sneaked another couple of inches without getting shot at. Richard still had a death-grip on his gun, and he still was on one knee and a foot and ready to lunge, but he couldn’t see a reason to be the one to trigger this bloodbath.
“For him,” he said, and just then something moved at the window, making the curtains sway.
Through a spray of blood as big as a roulette wheel, Richard saw the gleam of a muzzle and something else. He was already up on his feet, running towards Smecker’s body and shooting at the damn wet sheen when he thought it’s an eye. But by then the fucking thing was gone, fallen backwards as the glass literally exploded from the window frame and some lucky shot knocked down the curtain-rod, and Richard wasn’t even looking inside, or at the trickle of blood coming under the motel door from the inside.
He was down by Smecker, trying to jam the heel of his hand into the spurt that’d flopped the other man’s tie out of the way, and Smecker glaring up at Richard and grabbing at his wrist, trying to say something. To do—to do—fucking hell, Richard thought, blinking tears out of his eyes. Fucking hell no not again.
There were still shots coming from the inside, though now the door lock had gotten blown out and was hanging open. Richard could see inside, could see somebody’s leg trying to crawl off, like the fucking—a bullet cracked so close to his ear that he flinched, fell over Smecker. Then he could see the whole body and his gun-arm was already flung out.
He shot. Then he shoved himself up on an arm and shot again, and then he was up on a knee and squinting through all the dust in the air and making sure. Even though they were screaming behind him to get down—somebody was running up behind and Richard nearly turned and shot them before something clipped his shoulder. He was knocked over, down on his elbow, but he rolled with the momentum, rolled forward and then he was inside the door and he could see them this time and it was crystal clear what he had to do.
* * *
The door rattled. “Fuck off!” somebody rasped, coughing wetly.
Richard stared at the body in front of him. Murphy’s—he grimaced, the thought of a name just jamming up against the sight of the shattered bloody eye turned towards him, and yeah, he saw what he’d done. And he still felt like throwing up, and he fucking well did. Lost his lunch all over the body, fuck the evidence, and even when he closed his eyes so the heaving wouldn’t pop them out of their sockets, it still didn’t make things better.
“Well, like anybody resurrects the dead these days.” Smecker thumped down next to Richard, coughing again. Something about the way that sound rattled at the end…the old bastard grinned sourly when Richard looked up. “Wipe your mouth, Dick. You made it. Again.”
“You’re…you’re going to,” Richard said, sucking in his breath. He looked wildly about, then had his gaze dragged back by the wide red stain across Smecker’s chest. “Oh—shit. Shit, med—”
“No,” Smecker snarled. His eyes flashed brighter than Richard had ever seen them, and this was no-act Smecker too. No mask, no theatrics, just…the man. “No, you stupid fuck, you’re not here—I’m not Donnie. I’m not. You get it? Nobody gets a real second chance, nobody gets to—” he spat blood, head jerking hard to the side like he took personal offense “—this is what I got you here for. This.”
Richard half-heard him, only the raw scarifying emotion punching through the panic as Richard scrambled up to grab Smecker’s shoulders. He tried to shove his hand under Smecker’s shirt and find the entry point to put the pressure on it while looking over the man’s shoulder for their fucking—where was the fucking back-up this time? “What? No, no, no—”
“I did it too!” Smecker’s fingers clawed into Richard’s shoulder down to the bone. The man forced Richard to look at him. “I—me and Locke, we thought—no, I wasn’t part of Tahoe but I’m the same. The same, all right? I helped Connor and Murphy, helped them get into the courtroom the first time…”
“What?” A second time, Richard tried to call for help, but Smecker suddenly fell hard against him, throwing an elbow into Richard’s solar plexus so he gasped airlessly instead. He could hear them outside but they weren’t coming near, they were talking about securing the perimeter…“What? You…you did what? But—I heard about—”
“Listen.” More blood burbled out of Smecker’s—a hard dig at Richard’s shoulders made him look back up. Smecker’s pupils were huge, practically black holes. “I thought…law doesn’t serve justice, too many loopholes. But them, those two…they served justice. On those who…”
Richard stared. The bile started to climb his throat again and his fingers loosened on Smecker. “Who—who made you judge and jury?” he rasped.
Smecker grinned without humor. “Me. I fucked up, can’t take it back…feel sick all the time and…I’m too fucking old…done and now—Richard—how—how do you rule?”
“This?” Richard said, barely hearing himself. “This?”
“Yeah.” No apologies from Smecker. But then he knew—he knew what good those would do. Even if he’d meant them.
And Richard knew, and looking around himself, he also knew now what he’d meant to do when he’d wrapped his fingers around the plugs to Israel’s and Sparazza’s life-support. He got what it meant, what he’d done. And he felt sick all right, but he’d set up the scales and seen on which side he’d come down.
“You’re not like Locke,” he told Smecker.
The other man blinked, then laughed. Short and hard and bloody. “Thanks, but—I knew where I was going. I knew—when I was wrong. You know yet?”
Richard squeezed his eyes shut to keep the tears from burning them out. He swallowed, tightened his arms around Smecker. “Yeah.”
When he opened his eyes, Smecker was dead.
* * *
“Eight SWAT guys and fifteen other local cops plus three regional agents saw me run in there and kill Il Duce and sons,” Richard says. He drags on his cigarette. He’s still not used to the burn of it—he could’ve started with a lighter brand, but that’d just be an increasing gradation of harshness and he doesn’t see the point in delay. “You can read in all their official reports how I protected Agent Smecker. And he’s damn near sainted in Boston, at least.”
Locke is a black silhouette against his big, bright window. He probably thinks it helps him be intimidating, and it would work on most people, but not on Richard, not now. Not when Richard can see it just shows up how little depth the man has, how he’s never going to get what cost means and so how he’s never going to understand he’s dead fucking wrong all the time.
You serve something, that implies payment. Payment, cost, same damn thing.
Carruthers got that. That’s why he was okay with dying—at the time, he thought he was just sending his dues to the right place. He didn’t live long enough to know otherwise. Smecker did, and he was smart enough to know that sometimes you just have to cut your losses, or get cut off yourself. And he knew it wasn’t the agency, of all things, that he had to be afraid of leaving him alone.
“Excellent summation.” It sounds like it’s killing Locke to say that. “And your conclusion, Mister Messner?”
Richard isn’t afraid now. He’s kind of lost his appetite for good, and the cigarettes aren’t the best substitute in the world, but they’ll do. He knows eventually he’ll have to make good on how he’s played his life, and he knows—he’s been shown by two men who really understood what they had done—how to tell when, truly, it is his turn. And he’s fine with that. He doesn’t have the faith, but he has the knowledge and that’ll probably last him as long as he can stand to not lay down his hand.
And he knows when it is time, he’ll be more than happy to go.
“Agent Messner,” he concludes.