One bottle of corn oil and one can whipped cream.
I stared at the open bag resting on the polished bar in front of me, reflecting that this did not likely bode particularly well.
Howard was looking over at me with a raised eyebrow, while across the room, Ex was failing to contain a smirk. Monster was apparently ignoring the whole thing while sipping neat rum; I was sure he was tracking though. He doesn’t miss much.
The can of whipped cream was still cold, gathering moisture from the air, and the price tags were from Nomo’s Market about three blocks away from the Shack.
This was seriously fucked up.
Only two people on earth other than me would have any idea about the oil and whipped cream. One died three years ago. And the other ... well, I wasn’t sure.
I’m Poznac Godek, Sergeant Major, United States Army, Retired.
Youngest son of a pair hardworking Polish immigrants; they’d gotten on the wrong side of the Warsaw Pact political ideology. Slipped out just ahead of the police and wended their way to the US.
They’re the most American people I know, even if their accents are still heavy and the food very much Polish around the holidays. Still kicking and still hanging that Flag out every single day. And still proud of me to the core.
I’m not sure how proud they would be of me if they knew what I’d had to do to protect the country they love so much. But they’re pretty practical people, so maybe it wouldn’t bother them as much as it does me.
Poznac Godek is a mouthful, so it wasn’t long before I was tagged with the nickname Pogo growing up. I thought I’d be leaving that behind when I joined the Army, but about 2 minutes and thirty-three seconds into Basic Training I was renamed Pogo. Again.
Just like that damn possum in the Walt Kelly comic. Since I also have a slightly round nose and a thick brush of light blonde hair - which of course went completely white when I hit thirty - I was tagged for life.
Nomo had sent the package over just a few minutes earlier. He didn’t take plastic and didn’t take phone orders. Which meant Spooky almost had to be on the island. Three blocks away. Or less.
Twelve years is pretty long time to bear a grudge, but Spooky might.
Twelve years ago, I’d taken leave to help a friend of mine, Eugene.
He’d been shot in a home invasion in Coal City, just outside Chicago.
Eugene and I were pretty close to inseparable in high school before I joined the Army and he joined the Corps. We were quite a pair – the big black guy and the big blonde Polack - we’d chased girls, drank beer and barely passed Algebra together. We weren’t exactly the top of the class, but we did manage to graduate. With the economy the way it was, there weren’t a lot of good options and neither of us had the money for college, so the Army and the Corps were our only choices.
We’d stayed in touch, and met at least once a year to hang out, drink beer and bullshit each other. He’d left the Marine Corps Military Police after 8 years to open his own sandwich shop.
He loved being a Marine and liked being a cop, but Eugene had a thing about sandwiches. Always had. He made his shop the best sandwich shop anyone could dream of. Brick floor, oak counters and tables, brass trim, with Sinatra playing. Roast beef, pastrami, and dozens more, all on fresh baked bread with about a half million different toppings – served with thick cut fries. No hard liquor, but you could get a damn good beer.
Eating there was an experience. A little pricier than Subway, but it was a destination for a real meal rather than a quick stop. Eugene really had a thing about sandwiches.
He was good natured, nice to everyone, and cooperated with the robbers as much as possible. Just wanted it over with nobody getting hurt.
That didn’t work out. He was pistol whipped and shot through the thigh, shattering his femur.
I had thirty days leave built up and headed out as soon as I’d gotten his phone call. We’d just come off a mission, so it was good time for leave anyway.
Eugene was sitting up in the hospital bed when I showed up.
“So, I guess the Corps forgot to teach you about those bullet things you’re supposed to avoid.”
“Been out too long, the bullet proofing must’ve worn off.”
“So what happened?”
“Got a case of stupid – they pulled a bait-and-bitch on me. Shit, I even knew there was a problem in the area.”
I shook my head “Anyone could fall for that. There’s a reason it’s a classic.”
The “Bait and Bitch” or “B&B” is a pretty standard robbery tactic. Harmless-looking girl either comes to your door or waves you down on the road. Gives you the big tearful eyes with “my car broke down” or “I’m lost” or “I can’t find my dog” or whatever. The Heavy hangs out of sight until the door is unlocked, the car gets stopped, or whatever. I’ve used it myself to gain entry on targets countless times. Used to work it with an asset named Donna; that woman could seem helpless and harmless in about twenty languages.
Works a whole lot better than the pizza delivery scenario.
He shook his head, looking down. “Still. I should’ve known better. I figured if I played along and let them take whatever, didn’t make a fuss, they’d just leave, I’d file with insurance, everybody walks away and I go get myself a mastiff puppy. Lesson learned.”
I looked down at his leg. “So how’d that work out for you?”
He rolled his eyes. “The asshole with the gun, skinny fucker, decided to crack me over the head and shoot me in the leg while I’m down. The girl was cussing him all the way out. She was pissed.”
“Cops have a line on them?”
“Doesn’t sound like it. Actually it doesn’t sound like they care that much. I’m still alive and they’re dealing with unsolved murders. Got the JV team on it. I’ve got socks older than the team lead.”
I got it, I really did. He was alive, the victim of a couple small-timers. The cops had their hands full with bigger fish. Until the small-timers became killers they were on the back burner.
Still, it pissed me off. Eugene was one of the good guys. Your tire blows out? He’d change it for you. Short of cash? Here’s a twenty, you can get me back later. Even if he knew you never would.
Shit, he had a van, he would take “extra” sandwiches down to the park after the restaurant closed to hand out to the homeless. He stayed late and made those sandwiches himself.
“What’re you thinking, Pogo?”
“You need help with the shop?”
He shook his head “Nah, got a good girl managing it. I trust her. Great at keeping everything working and everyone listens to her. Just outta college but smarter than you and me put together.”
“Doesn’t have to be too bright then.”
“She’s my niece, but she’s still brilliant.”
I shrugged “Anything else?”
He started to shake his head, but stopped abruptly. “Pogo, I can smell it. They’re just going to keep doing this to people, it’ll keep escalating until somebody gets killed. Somebody innocent.”
“I think they might’ve picked me up at the ATM on 9th Street by the Laundromat. They knew I had cash, and that’s the only place I can think of they might have known that from.”
He was uncomfortable telling me and it showed in his voice. Over the years, Eugene had figured out more about my career than anyone other than me would probably be comfortable with.
“What am I looking for?”
“Salt and Pepper. The Heavy is a skinny black kid, early to mid-twenties, almost six foot, right handed, some kind of brand on his right forearm, has a 1911, maybe a Kimber, in nine mil. The Bait is a pale little white girl, brown hair with a touch of red – maybe 5 foot even. Eyes about the same color as her hair. Damn good at the puppy eyes, and I think she’s actually running the game, even though he thinks he is. She tore his head off for actually shooting me. Even dialed 911 on the house phone and dropped it on the floor on her way out.”
He looked at me from lowered brows. “No. She has a hard streak. Got the impression she just didn’t want me to bleed out and have the heat turned up with a homicide charge.”
“Which means she likely isn’t planning on leaving the area soon.”
“She was a pro. Let him touch anything in the house he wanted, but even when she picked up the phone she kept her hands in her sweatshirt sleeves. Older than she looked; seems about 17 at first glance but maybe early 20s.”
He looked out the window for a second. “Pogo, don’t kill them if you don’t have to.”
I didn’t answer that. I try not to make false promises, even implied ones.
The pain pills caught up to him about then, so after a few minutes, I headed out to find a place to stay for a couple weeks or so.
House hunting is a pain in the ass. Even when you are looking in a somewhat crappy neighborhood there are usually too damn many questions.
I finally found a place – a slightly run-down single home, with a dirt floor basement. The owner didn’t ask too many questions, and while it didn’t have any appliances, I figured I could eat out.
And it wasn’t too far from an all-night Laundromat.
I ditched my actual luggage and ID cards in the bus station locker and picked up some worn, but not shabby, clothes from the Goodwill store.
Moving in was pretty painless, what with having no furniture and all. I bought a lawn chair, a blue tarp, some tools, some screws, bolts and a little bit of assorted hardware, and a sleeping bag. A few groceries, a Styrofoam cooler, a copy of Stephen King’s “It” and a deck of cards pretty much completed my efforts.
Then I began to hunt.
It really feels more like cane-pole fishing than hunting and it requires patience.
I’ve got the patience for it, but it still drags. Move in as slowly as possible, become part of the pattern of life, the normal. Find the right look – affluent enough to be worth targeting, poor enough not to be risky. Hit the ATM, pay cash for groceries. Move a little awkward, like you’re getting over an accident or something. Predators and scavengers look for the sick and the injured.
I almost missed her.
I did miss her, to be honest. Damn, she was good. I only saw her because her accomplice had all the surveillance skills of a Fourth grader playing hide and seek.
He was tense and kept shooting looks at her to make sure she was where he left her.
I could feel her aggravation with him. If she’d have been alone, I wouldn’t have picked her up. Maybe she had been alone the day before. Or even for the last few days. She was a fucking ghost, sank right into the background. Spooky as hell. I let myself feel a flash of admiration for her skills. Gotta give the skill level a little respect – it helps you remember to be a little more cautious around them.
I stayed on script. Hit the ATM, pulled cash, headed to the little grocery.
He was still on me, although I couldn’t see her – but then I wouldn’t. Damn, she was good.
Pissed me off a little – and that always makes me a little crazy. I guess I just feel like I have to prove myself or something. Some warped form of jealousy or machismo or some shit. I started to veer off script a little.
I grinned inside as I picked a small bottle of corn oil off the dusty shelf and pulled a spray can of real whipped cream out of the dairy section. Even got the name brand. Extra creamy.
Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.
I walked home the same way as always.
He was almost comically bad. It was like a watching a bad episode of “Get Smart”; I swear to God I kept expecting him to answer his damn shoe.
She, on the other hand, was still nearly invisible. Effortlessly disappearing into shadows and bad angles without looking remotely suspicious.
I was at the house almost too soon – I could have happily led them down a few more streets just to see how “Spooky” handled the changes in light and shadow. Just to watch her work. She was a natural.
Still, it was time to get this road on the show.
I slipped into the house and blocked the door – if I was right, she would be cautious enough to wait fifteen to twenty minutes just to let me settle in and drop my guard – but I couldn’t be certain.
So I prepped everything as quickly as possible and settled back to wait for their arrival.
She was even more cautious than I expected – it was nearly thirty minutes before she knocked on the door.
I took two breaths and yanked the inner door open and popped the latch on the outer door for her. I didn’t wait for her to talk and I didn’t make real eye contact.
“Wow, you’re early. Well, come on in. It’ll be at least an hour before anyone else shows up.”
I promptly spun on my heel and started to walk toward the back of the room before the Heavy even had time to pop out of the shadows.
I heard them move through the door, completely uncertain how to react.
Their hesitant steps betrayed their confusion.
I suppose it really is understandable.
How often could they have had a stark naked man, coated in corn oil, holding a can of whipped cream, answer the door and act like they were expected?
I kept talking “You can leave your clothes in the back room, there’s plenty more oil back there and some towels.”
I heard the door close, then the heavier steps started toward my back.
The Heavy was getting impatient.
Bad move – if things seem off, they are off; figure out what is going on before you commit.
I spun around to my right. His right as well. It’s an old gunfighter’s trick. That put me on the outside of his raised arm as he prepared to strike me with the pistol. The arm is weaker and slower to the outside lateral, slower to react. It’s a little thing, a small difference. But knowing those little differences is how you get to become an old gunfighter.
I’m not Monster; I don’t have his natural ability, his speed, his absolute precision.
But I did train him. And the Monsters that came before him.
I caught the upraised pistol with my left hand. Pushing it higher. He’d taken his finger off the trigger to pistol whip me and now my hand and wrist were in his way.
He had other problems anyway; he couldn’t twist to punch effectively and my right hand had come up and he had a face full of whipped cream.