Playing Favorites – Chapter 15


Christopher

My life manages to get back to normal over the course of the next week. I go to college, I keep up on my studies, I go to work. It’s actually better than normal, in some cases. Zula, for instance, is pleased with my performance: apparently, quite a few customers have left positive reviews about me. Seems like I’ve been very smiley and friendly over the past few days. Mr Ivanov has also had some nice things to say about me. My math performance has improved, apparently. Seriously: my math performance. As to Mr Priddy, he’s been riding my ass hard as usual, but he’s actually complimented me during our last training. Well, he’s failed to criticize my game, but that’s the same thing as a compliment in his language.

The history group project is going well, too. We’re pretty much done with it, in fact. All that’s left is a round or two of proofreading. As expected, our most recent meeting has been awkward at first. I apologized to Hayley again, but she told me I had nothing to apologize for. She said she was happy for Jacinda and I, and even gave us a hug. I thought she was putting on a front when I first told her I was dating Jacinda, but it seems that she’s genuinely okay with how things turned out.

Speaking of Jacinda, she has been glued to my hip ever since last Saturday. She’s been sitting next to me in every class we both have, taking her lunch with me, and basically taken every opportunity to canoodle. In fact, Monday morning, she invited me to stay over at her house for a few more nights; I declined, though, arguing that I’m paying for a dorm room, so I’d better use it. No matter how shitty my roommate is…

Yeah, overall, it’s been a pretty good week.

That’s not to say I haven’t had any bouts of anxiety. I’ve had some trouble sleeping for a couple of nights. Fortunately, that’s nothing that couldn’t be solved by a quick videochat with Jacinda. Talking to her has become one of my favorite ways to evacuate the stress. The fact that she’s taken the habit of answering the phone while wearing nothing but pajama bottoms doesn’t hurt, either. I haven’t actually used my rubber band in a while; Jacinda has proven to be just has effective against panic attacks.

We don’t go further than teasing banter, though. I’m not one hundred percent sure why. I think there’s this understanding between us that it’s only a matter of days -weeks, at most- before the… main event, and so we’re saving our energy. No, it’s more like we’re starving ourselves before the feast. So for now, nothing’s happening, not even self-care. My balls have put me on their shitlist for this, but it’s going to be so worth it.

Manny has come back to school the day after his release. I was worried that this whole shitty thing might have marked him, but he seems to be just fine. He’s actually using that experience to pick up chicks. Seriously. All like, yeah, he got stabbed, no big deal. Yeah, it hurts sometimes, but it’s nothing he can’t handle. Nah, he wouldn’t say he’s brave, but… Right, you get the gist.

Ah, whatever. Better than being traumatized, I suppose.

“That’s it for this week,” Mrs Swindlehurst says, turning off the board. “I’ve put two exercises on the server, for those of you who are looking for extra credit for this unit. I’ll also remind you that you have only two weeks left to submit your project. Have a nice weekend.”

I stand up, my computer beneath my arm, and head out. Jacinda grabs my hand as I walk by her seat. Slapping a kiss on my cheek with those warm, wet lips of hers, she says in a whisper:

“Just got the call from Uncle Gordie. Are you free tonight?”

My eyebrows jump up. This is it.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Let’s go to my car.”

I breathe a sigh of relief when she turns on the self-driving mode. A destination has been pre-programmed into the on-board computer, most likely via Jacinda’s phone.

“Where are we going?”

“Not sure. Uncle Gordie just sent me an address where to meet him. Some place in Pacifica; I think it’s a hotel.”

“I feel like I’m in that spy flick we saw last Saturday,” I say.

“Are you ready for this? If you’re not, we can always…”

“I am.”

And I mean it. It’s kind of weird, actually, I feel like I should be more scared. I mean, confronting my dad? Only months ago, the very idea would have triggered a panic attack. But now? I feel like I always do before a big game. Confident, yet nervous. Eager, but with a hint of trepidation.

The address is indeed a hotel. Not a palace, but not a shitty motel either. The kind of basic, nondescript hotel a traveling salesman would probably use. I think it used to be part of a chain, until said chain went under and was bought by a competitor. Gordie is waiting for us in the very small lobby. I notice there is no one at the reception desk.

“I’d offer you one last chance to back out,” he says in lieu of greetings, “but I’d be wasting my breath, wouldn’t I?”

We both nod sharply.

“Right, so let’s get on with it.”

We hop on the elevator, straight to the fourth floor. Gordie directs us to the room numbered 409, next to the emergency exit. He pulls out his smartphone, and uses it on the card reader next to the door, giving us access. The room is obviously occupied, although its occupant is currently absent. The curtains are drawn, the bed is undone, and there is a mess of clothes all over the floor. There’s a faint, bad smell in the air. Jacinda’s nostrils twitch in contempt as she picks it up; no doubt it’s much worse for her than for me. An old laptop occupies the desk.

“Is this where you’re staying?” I ask Gordie.

He scoffs, but Jacinda answers before him: “No, I guess that’s where your dad is staying. Ew. He doesn’t shower much.” She raises her nose in the air and gives a tentative sniff. “He’s pretty stressed out, too.”

“You can smell stress?”

“No… Well, only when someone’s present. But he’s been smoking a lot of cigarettes in here.”

I’m pretty sure I saw a sign in the lobby saying the entire hotel was non-smoking. Hell, I don’t even think there’s a single hotel left in the entire Bay Area that allows smoking. Then again, my father has always thought himself as above the rules.

“Oh, he’s been stressed out, all right,” Gordie says. “With good reason.”

He opened the closet near the double bed, and pulled a suitcase out of it, which he opened as well. There, among several other clothes thrown in haphazardly, were several pieces of paper. A whole bunch of receipts, apparently.

“Who still gives out paper receipts?” Jacinda comments.

“Gambling places,” Gordie says. “You need something to prove that you won, if you want your money. Well, provided that you do win. Also, that guy doesn’t trust electronics.”

It’s true my father is kind of old fashioned.

“I’m guessing those aren’t winners,” I say. Looking closer, these appear to be for dog and horse races.

“Most of those are not up yet,” Gordie says. “Doesn’t really matter, though. Even if he wins, that guy’s probably going to gamble his winnings.”

“He’s definitely a degenerate gambler,” I say, slightly emphasizing the word “degenerate”.

“Quite right. And that attitude has become something a problem. It seems your dad has gathered a… sizable debt. In fact, over the last few years, he has betted -and lost- more money than he has. A lot more, actually.”

Interesting.

“I don’t know the exact figure, but it’s safe to assume it’s in the five figures, possibly reaching six.”

“He’s gotta be borrowing this money,” Jacinda says.

“And I doubt there’s a single bank in America who’d loan money to him,” I say. “So what you’re suggesting is…”

Gordie nods, smiling wryly. “Your father’s in business with, shall we say, a less-than-reputable character who acts as a loan shark, to enable his addiction.”

Surprised I am not. It’s perfectly in-character for that prick to get in bed with a criminal. A fellow criminal, I should say.

“But every loan, whether it’s given by a bank or by a slightly shadier business, has to be repaid eventually,” Gordie goes on. “And the longer that “eventually” takes, the more impatient the loaner grows. I don’t suppose it’ll come as a shock to learn that mister Jeremy Baldini is not currently in any position to repay the debt he has accrued, interests and all. This may reflect badly on his future.”

“In other words,” Jacinda says, “either he ponies up some cash money, or they break his legs.”

“I doubt they’ll stop at his legs, but that’s the gist of it.”

“Good,” I say.

“Not so much, no.”

I frown. Gordie explains himself:

“That means he’s getting desperate. Which in turn means he’ll do anything he can to get your tuition money.”

Ah, shit, he’s right. Desperation and sociopathy make for terrible bedfellows. No wonder that bastard went from stalking to straight up assaulting one of my friends.

“Do you know who the loaner is?” I ask.

“I do: a guy named Colin Merrick. Real piece of work, from what I hear. Does a bit of everything from arms trafficking to smuggling, with some extra violence and murder on the side. He started his operations in Los Angeles, but he’s been spreading out over the last year. The FBI is currently investigating him in connection with two murders. I also found out that your dad has been doing some odd jobs for him, trying to stave off his debt.”

Gordie riffles through the bag.

“What about Manny’s attack? Did you find more about this?”

“I talked with one of my old contacts from… my previous life. There’s only one drug dealer who could have done it: some low-life that goes by the name Fuschia, a meth addict who occasionally moonlights as a robber.”

“Fuschia?” I repeat, my lips twisting into a smile.

“Yeah, because of his skin color apparently. Guy’s half-Goblin. I thought Goblins all had yellow or green skin, but I’ve been told some come in pink. Anyway, get this: Fuschia’s been selling on and around campus for a little while with no problem; playing it smart and discreet. Except recently, he’s been arrested by a plain-clothes police officer. But here’s the weird thing: SFPD has no record of such an arrest.”

“My father did it.”

“That’d be my guess. Another educated guess would be that he then offered Fuschia a choice: go to jail, or do a little job for him.”

“That’s fucked up,” Jacinda growls.

“It gets worse: given that Jeremy was a witness to the attack, he now has something else to pin on Fuschia, thus guaranteeing that he remains under his thumb. Classic trick,” Gordie adds with a scoff.

Gotta admit, that’s pretty clever from my father -in a very psychopathic way. I wonder how many times he’s pulled something like that before…

“Did you find anything we can give to the authorities?” I ask. “I mean, between the false arrest, the assault, the entrapment…”

“Sorry, lad, your dad’s been playing it smart. I didn’t find much, and what I did find wouldn’t hold up in court, from the way I got it.”

“Right…”

“But you’ve got a plan, right?” Jacinda asks.

“You bet your fluffy tail I’ve got a plan, lass. I’ve got a cunning plan, even.”

He pauses for a second, staring at us expectantly. I think he’s just made a cultural reference and he’s trying to see if we get it. If that’s the case, we most certainly don’t.

“Okay, so what’s the plan?” I say.

Clicking his tongue, he replies: “Yeah, normally that’d be the part where I don’t tell you a thing so as to maintain plausible deniability. But once again, I’m going to guess that you won’t take no for…”

“Sure won’t,” Jacinda interrupts.

“Right-o. Here we go, then. The objective is simple: since your father didn’t make any mistake on his own, I’ll push him to make one.”

“How?” I ask.

“By pulling a Burn Notice on him,” Gordie says.

After another silence, he sighs. “You lot depress me. Don’t you ever watch TV? Ugh, nevermind. Simple version is, I’m going to push him to commit a crime, and arrange it so he gets caught.”

“What, like come after us?” I almost yell. “The whole point is to avoid that!”

“No, obviously not. Give me some credit, mate, my plan’s much better than that.”

“I hope so. Did you also factor in the fact that he’s a cop? Even if he gets caught, odds are he’ll still walk.”

“Ah, but that’s the best part,” Gordie calmly replies, wiggling his eyebrows. “See, he won’t exactly get caught, he-”

“Can we do the explaining somewhere else?” Jacinda says, tapping her foot. “Somewhere that doesn’t reek of nicotine and old dudes who don’t wash themselves.”

“Yeah, good idea, lass. There’s an Irish pub nearby.”

“You do know we’re not drinking age, right?” my girlfriend says as we leave my father’s man-hole.

“Oh, I’m well aware of how messed up your whole country is,” he says, making sure to put everything back like it was before we leave the room. “Driving at fourteen, voting at eighteen, and drinking at twenty-one. It’s even more of a rollercoaster than your imperial system!”

“Isn’t the imperial system originally British?” I point out, but he ignores me.

A couple minutes of walking later, we’re sitting inside a pub of arguably Irish inspiration. The whole place is rather bland, as far as the decoration goes. The music, however, is loud enough that Gordie doesn’t bother lowering his voice, despite the questionable content of his conversation.

“First, I’m going to approach Jeremy, and pretend to be one of Merrick’s guys. I’ll tell him I’ve got another job for him.”

“And that job is going to go tits up, and he’s going to get caught red-handed,” Jacinda says.

“Something like that, yeah.”

“What’s our role in the plan?” I ask.

“Why, to make sure it does go tits up. Now, open your ears, and don’t write a single thing down.”

Gordie might act all glib and jaunty, but his plan is pretty damn thorough -professional, even. He explains it clearly and simply, like it’s a story he’s told a thousand times already. Or rather, a job he’s done a thousand times. Seriously, the way he presents it, his plan can only work. We eventually agree to it, although I’m still not completely convinced. There are some parts he hasn’t really explained, some details he hasn’t gone over. Sounds to me like my father could find a way to inveigle his way out. But Jacinda trusts that he knows what he’s doing, and that’s good enough for me.

The next morning, Jacinda and I are sitting on a public bench, in a park close to Toulouse’s. We are both wearing AR glasses connected to Gordie’s smart lenses, which capture both sound and video. Jacinda’s honorary uncle is walking by my usual place of work, whistling some tune I don’t recognize. Seated in a rental car in front is no one else but my dear father. Gordie had found out that the bastard was regularly stalking me at work, having figured out that most of my shifts were on Saturday mornings. Not wanting to attract unwanted attention, he no longer entered the shop, and preferred waiting in his car, observing the comings and goings.

The asshole hasn’t changed much since the day I ran away from home. He’s gained some weight, and has either decided to grow a beard or given up on shaving. In addition, he’s looking very tense, a lot more than he used to be. 

So, how is Gordie going to approach this? He’s probably going to play it subtle, but…

Nope, he straight up opens the passenger door and sits down in my father’s car.

“You’re an easy man to find, Jeremy,” he says in a detached tone, and a rather good imitation of the West Coast accent.

“Who the fuck are you?” my father bellows. “Get out of my car!”

“The name’s Andy, but it doesn’t matter who I am. Only who I work for. Who we work for.”

The confusion on my father’s face dissipates, but his anger stays. “What do you want?”

“Take a wild guess,” Gordie chuckles. “You’re supposed to be paying your dues today, Jeremy. Actually, you were supposed to pay them a couple of weeks ago, but I guess you’ve been busy.”

My father’s eyebrows join in the middle, his teeth clenching. “I’ll pay, all right? I’m working on getting the money. Go tell him that.”

“Not to be a Negative Nancy, but I don’t think the boss will be seeing the money today either. As to your little surveillance, you might as well pack up and go back to your hotel. He’s not going to be in today.”

The asshole’s eyes narrow, and he shoots a glance at the coffee shop’s front. “That’s my personal business, okay?”

“Oh, believe me, I couldn’t give two shits about your family issues. What I do care about is that you’re wasting your time on this wild goose chase instead of focusing on making the money you owe.”

“I said I’ll pay. I’m working on a big payout, I just need more time.”

“Ah, yeah, the boss said you’d say that. Then he said: “No more time! I want my green or else”. Well, I cleaned up the dialogue a bit, but you get the idea.”

Nervosity shakes my father’s hands. Normally, I’d be enjoying watching him stew like this, but I can’t. Because, as he starts to fidgets, the coat he’s wearing pans open, revealing a concealed-carry pistol against his left flank. I suddenly really, really hope Gordie knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t seem worried at all, though.

“And he’ll have it!” my father says agitatedly. “It’s just a matter of days. I made my move, now I just have to put the blade against that kid’s throat and he’ll buckle.”

“You’re talking about how you got your son’s friend shanked? That was an interesting strategy. Using the dealer was a nice touch. You’re lucky he wasn’t one of Merrick’s guys.”

“I did my homework.” My father’s mouth quivered slightly when Merrick’s name was spoken.

“Clearly not well enough. Do you know why your son is not at work today?”

“He’s just running late. He never misses a shift.”

“Exactly. So why isn’t he here?”

Jeremy -I’ll just refer to him by his first name, as I’m tired of mentioning how he is related to me- groans, dipping his head.

“Fine, I’ll bite. Why?”

“He’s been tipped off.”

“By who?”

“By whom,” Jacinda mutters. We’re on mute, obviously.

“Technically, by you,” Gordie answers. “Between the fact that you’ve shown your face to his manager and your noisy little stint on campus, he’s become more careful.”

Jeremy taps his fingers on the wheel. “I’ll just have to change strategies, then. I’m not giving up on my money.”

“And neither is the boss. Like I said, you’re not getting another extension. How much cash do you have on hand?”

Dithering, Jeremy says: “Look, I said I’ll get the money, and I will.”

“I want to believe you, buddy, I really do, but I’m afraid Bossman won’t accept “because I said so” as a payment method. Now, come on. How much do you have here? Five hundred?” Silence. “Four hundred?” Another silence. “Ah, come on. Three hundred?”

After ten seconds without any answer, Gordie-Andy goes on: “That’s not good, Jeremy.” He shakes his head with a mirthless chuckle. “That’s not good at all. Do you really want to end up like Villeneuve?”

“Villeneuve?” Jeremy says.

“Ah, come on, you must have heard about it, you covered his disappearance case -and lost some evidence, I’ve been told. Guy owed Merrick a hundred big ones. One day, Bossman got tired of getting the runaround, so he had him buried in a slab of concrete at that new mall they’re building in Angelus Vista. You could be his new neighbor!” With a laugh, Gordie adds: “Real estate in LA, man. It’s a cutthroat.”

Jeremy looks out of his window, the nerve on the left side of his forehead pulsing so hard it looks like it’s going to burst.

“Soooo…” Gordie says.

“Okay, what do you want?” Jeremy blurts.

“I just told you what I want. Money.”

“You know I don’t have it. So come on, already. You clearly want something else from me.”

Gordie scratches his chin, staring in the distance like he’s deep in thoughts.

“Well, now that you mention it… I’ve got a job lined up, and I could use some backup.”

It’s Jeremy’s turn to scoff.

“There’s this cargo that’s supposed to depart from the docks this evening,” Gordie explains. “I already have a buyer lined up. Fifty grands easy. You help me with this, there’s ten grands in it for you.”

“If we’re partners, I expect us to split the profits fifty-fifty.”

“We’re not; I’m your employer on this one. I found the stuff, contacted the buyer, and came up with the plan. You’re just providing some legwork. Ergo, I get the lion’s share. American capitalism, baby. Also, maybe you need to remember which one of us is over a barrel, here.”

“Speaking of employers,” Jeremy says, a glint of malice dancing in his eyes, “does Merrick know about this job?”

Gordie gives him a side glance.

“He knows what he needs to know,” he replies calmly.

“Sounds like a no. Maybe I should give your boss a ring, and tell him about this.”

“You’re gonna call him, while he’s being watched by the feds? Yeah, go ahead. Even if he actually picks up the phone, my guess is the first words out of his mouth will be “where’s my money?”.”

“Oh, I think turning in a disloyal employee will earn me some brownie points. Maybe another extension.”

I obviously can’t see Gordie’s reaction to those words, given that I’m witnessing the scene from his eyes, but from Jeremy’s self-satisfied smirk, I’m guessing he’s faking concern very well.

“Now who’s over the barrel, huh?” the bastard says.

“All right, all right,” Gordie grumbles between his teeth. “Twenty grands.”

“I said fifty-fifty. Or I make the call.”

“Jesus fucking Christ!” he calls out, throwing his hands in the air. “Fine! Twenty five each. Don’t push it,” he adds, brandishing a finger in his direction.

My father’s expression of superiority is almost delicious. That poor bastard really thinks he’s in control.

“Also, we could use your dealer. We’ll be needing a distraction. Let’s say he’ll be included in your rate.”

“That can be arranged.”

“Good. Now drive. I’ll show you the place.”

Jeremy puts his cardkey in a slot on the dashboard, pushes a button, and the engine comes alive.

“Right, that’s our cue,” Jacinda says to me.

 

Gordie

There are some people out there who love to be loved. They enjoy the attention, and for this they’ll often play roles, put on masks: friendly, funny, pitiable, etc. I’ll admit, I’m kind of one of those people. That’s part of the reason why I used to be a crook; that, and the money, of course. My old mate Duncan was one of those, as well. That is, until he found the love of the one person that made all of the others’ irrelevant. Lucky bastard.

Then, on the other side of the Bell curve, there are some people out there who you’d swear just love to be hated. It really feels like they go out of their way to be as unlikable as possible, and to rid themselves of any redeeming traits. Where some blokes do random acts of kindness to strangers, those people do random acts of kicking puppies around.

Jeremy Baldini is definitely one of the latter. There is virtually no low he hasn’t stooped down to. He’s an abusive father, an abusive husband -and unfaithful too, according to the background check I ran on him-, a corrupt cop, and a wanton criminal. In his job as an officer of the LAPD, he routinely rackets the good people he’s supposed to be protecting and serving. In his other job as Merrick’s enforcer, he… Well, actually, he does pretty much the same thing, except he doesn’t get to keep the money. He also helps other criminals get away with it, in that same quality.

Even my mother -God rest her Methodist soul-, who used to pray for the Devil to be forgiven would be hard pressed to find a single valid reason to spit on that man if he were on fire.

Hell, even the brand of cigarettes he smokes are shit. His car stinks even more of the stuff than his hotel room. My window stayed open all the way throughout our ride.

He parks his car in front of the docks, a couple of yards away from the warehouse I indicated. This section of the docks is rather quiet, due to it being rarely used and somewhat isolated from the rest. Near the warehouse is a small pier, to which a small boat is attached. The Bay Bridge can be seen in the distance, despite some fog coming up.

“All right, so this is the boat,” I say, pointing at it. It looks a bit out of place near this half-abandoned warehouse: it’s rather a nice, expensive-looking boat, the kind a decently rich guy undergoing a middle-life crisis would sail around the Bay, possibly with a much younger girl at the front. “So, tonight at nine, a van’s gonna show up. One driver, and one guy riding shotgun. Both armed. Plus the lookout, right there.” I point at a male Red Oni vaping a few feet away from the building. He paces back and forth, checking everyone passing by in the street from behind his sunglasses. “He’s got a piece, too. See it?”

He grabs his binoculars from under his seat and looks through them. “Uh-huh. What’s the cargo exactly?”

“It’s valuable,” I say. “What more do you need to know?”

Lowering his binoculars, he stares at me silently.

“Cybernetic implants,” I answer with a groan. “All right?”

“What kind of implants?”

“Do I look like an engineer to you? The kind they build in Korea and assemble here in America. Thing is, normally, that kind of implants you can only get if a doctor signs off on them, and provided your insurance can take it.”

“But if you know the right people,” he says, “you can get them on the black market for cheaper and without a prescription.”

“Right.”

“That guy doesn’t look like the sort of security guard a pharmaceutical company would hire,” Jeremy comments, getting another glance at him through his binoculars. “We’re robbing criminals, aren’t we?”

“Yup. No chance they’ll call the cops.”

“How about whoever they work for?” he retorts.

“That’d be Michael Suarez, a local drug kingpin looking to expand his activities. And, yes, that’s a valid concern. That’s where your pet dealer comes into play.”

“Aaah.” He smiles. Damn, those are some really yellowed teeth. “A fall guy. I thought he was going to be our diversion.”

“Well, he’s gonna be both, really.” My put-on accent slips a little on that last word. “Here’s how it’s going to go down. The van shows up at nine, and they start loading up the crates on the yacht. Then, your guy Magenta-”

“Fuschia.”

“Whatever. Your guy Fuschia will show up, trying to break in from the back, and triggering all the alarms as he does. Two of the guys -the lookout and the van’s passenger- will go check it out.”

“How do you know they’ll send two guys?”

“Because when the alarm was triggered last week,” I explain, “that’s what they did.”

“What happened last week?”

“They’re not sure, they didn’t find anything. Probably a hobo or a stray dog or something. A hobo or a stray dog who seemed to know the cameras’ blind spots.”

He scoffs.

“So two guys go, one guy stays,” I say. “You distract the one guy left, while I get on the boat and sail off with the stuff. As soon as I’m out of range, you get the hell out. Then, we both head to the meeting point on the Petaluma River, near Burdell. The buyer will meet me there tomorrow at five in the morning. Last step, we split the cash, and go our separate ways, and we never have to see each other again.”

“I do like that part,” he says. “Less so the part where you expect me to just let you leave me behind while you make off with the merchandise. How do I know you’re not gonna meet with the buyer at a different place and cut me out of the deal?”

“I guess you’ll just have to trust me,” I retort, placing my elbow over the open window.

“Don’t think so there, pal.”

“Well you don’t expect me to stay behind while you sail off, do you? Look, it’s my idea, my plan, and my client. So we’ll be doing it my way.”

“Think again, Andy. Either I’m on that boat when it leaves the pier, or I’m not doing this at all.”

I bump my head against the headrest, groaning.

“Give me a break. And what are we supposed to do about the third guy, then? Ignore him and hope he returns the favor?”

“We take care of him.”

Unsurprisingly, he has not so much as wobbled when he’s suggested offing someone.

“Yeah, great,” I snark. “How?”

He taps the butt of his pistol.

“Are you serious? You realize the whole point is to say incognito, right? Firing a gun at night is the opposite of that. The other two will be back in here within seconds, and on top of that, somebody could call the cops.”

“Okay, then…” Jeremy grumbles. “I don’t know, stabbing?”

I laugh. Just like I suspected, that bloke has never actually killed anyone. He’s just one of those macho arseholes who figure it’s easy as pie.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to kill a man with a knife? I know this guy who got stabbed nineteen times, and still lived.”

That’s actually a true story. The lad lost a pint of blood, and was still healthy enough to break his attacker’s ankle, then run to safety.

“Strangling?”

“Do you feel confident you can outpower a guy like that” I point at the Orc “and hold him long enough to kill him?”

He visibly hesitates. No surprises there either: the man’s a bully. He’s only strong because he picks on the weak. Taking on someone who looks to be about fifty kilos heavier and thirty centimeters taller doesn’t seem so appealing to him.

“Yeah, yeah… So what do you suggest?”

“That we follow my plan.”

“No. Forget about that.”

I grumble again, and pretend to think for a while.

“I can get my hand on some tranquilisers. The kind they use on bears who show up in neighborhoods too close to the forest. I suppose one of us could make some noise or something, then the other sneaks up on the guy and… syringes him.”

“I’ll get his attention, you’ll tranquilise him,” he immediately says.

“Whoa there, buddy. How about the other way around? You’re a cop, you’re supposed to be able to handle yourself in a fight.”

“I am, but I won’t. It’s your tranquiliser. How do I know you’re not gonna give me a syringe full of water, leaving me to fight a pissed off Orc while you flee?”

“Fine, mister Paranoid.” It makes perfect sense that his mind would go there, though. That is exactly the kind of shit he’d pull if our roles were reversed, and like all arseholes, he naturally figures everyone is as twisted as he is. “I’ll take care of the last guy. What else? You need your shoes tied?”

I don’t bother pointing out that he’ll ultimately be doing very little, especially for someone who blackmailed me into splitting the benefits evenly. That kind of logic simply doesn’t work on people like him. He’s above the rules he enforces. The only fairness is the kind that’s fair to him.

“Whatever,” I say. “Are we on for tonight?”

“Yeah. We’re on.”

“Good. I’m texting the buyer to confirm.”

I pull out a prepaid cell phone from my pocket, and tap a few keys. From the corner of my eye, I see him glance at my phone, with that look cops have when they’re observing closely while trying to seem like they’re looking away.

“We’ll meet here again at quarter to nine,” I say after hitting “send”. “Can you drop me off in South San Francisco? On the East Side, if possible.”

Grunting in acknowledgment, he puts the car in gear, and we get back on the road.

 

Jeremy

Andy gets off near a convenience store on East Grand Avenue. I pretend to drive off, then stop my car past a corner. I watch him as he gets back to his own car, parked near said store. It’s an old Ford hatchback with a dark blue paint; I quickly grab the notepad and pencil in my glovebox and jot down the license plate.

I had that guy pegged the moment I saw him. He acts all casual and a little careless, makes a big smile and cracks a few jokes, all the better to lower his prey’s defenses. It didn’t take me long to figure out that guy’s been in the game for a while. He looks to be in his early forties, and I’ll bet he stole his first wad of bills before he stole his first kiss. The kind of guy that lies as easily as he breathes, in other words. If he says the merchandise is worth fifty thousand dollars, then it must be worth a hundred. It’s not a good idea to steal money from your partner, Andy… I strong-armed him into giving me a bigger cut than the pittance he first offered, so as to make him believe I had fallen for his little scam.

The way he drives back to his place confirms it: he knows how to lose a tail. Sadly for him, this isn’t my first rodeo. He almost loses me at a traffic light by gunning it right before it turns red, only to have to break when another car fails to give him right of way, nearly causing a collision. He’s also smart enough not to park his car near the place he’s staying at, making sure to take a bus the rest of the way.

Andy is staying at a cheap motel between Burlingame and Millbrae, the kind of place where everybody is too busy with their own shady business to pay any attention to yours. He has a room on the ground floor, right next to the laundry room. Not great for the noise, but useful if one needs to abscond via the fire exit at its back. After making a quick stop at a phone store nearby, I manage to rent the room next to his. The rooms are not very well insulated; I can hear him going about his business with my ear to the wall.

I wait patiently for an hour, during which he gets some food at a vending machine in the lobby, and eats it while watching an episode of some reality show on his room’s crappy TV. Finally, the opportunity I was waiting for presents itself as I hear Andy entering his bathroom and locking the door. I quickly and silently leave my room. As expected from a place that cheapens out on cleaning, the security is not up to snuff. The master key I borrowed at my station works on his door’s card reader. I make sure to wait until I hear the shower turn on before I come in.

It doesn’t take much browsing to find some very interesting stuff, the kind that would be of interest not just for my colleagues, but also to federal agents. “Andy” is apparently also known as Charles Fitzgerald according to an Illinois driver’s license, and as William Pressley on an Oregon ID card. He also keeps about five hundred dollars in cash money and a couple of bags of thin powder in a hollowed-out Bible. Naughty, naughty.

What I’m actually looking for is hidden in a nightstand’s drawer: his cellphone. I had gauged the brand and model correctly when I bought its twin sibling at the phone store. It’s pre-paid, obviously, and has only the most basic functions. I turn it on and look at the text messages. Unsurprisingly, Andy has made sure to delete every text, along with his call history. No contacts saved either, of course. No matter. I pocket the phone, and place the one I bought in its place. In the bathroom, Andy is now using the blow dryer, which means it’s only a matter of minutes before he gets out.

I hurry back to my room, and connect the cellphone to the laptop I also borrowed from work. Bingo. As I suspected, Andy either didn’t think or didn’t have the knowledge to erase his metadata. Let’s see… My new partner is not much of a talker. He’s only made a few calls ever since he acquired the phone, his conversations have never lasted more than a couple minutes. He’s even more laconic in his texts. There was a very short exchange almost half an hour ago.

Unknown: Has B paid up?

Andy: Taken care of. Be back tomorrow in LA with the money.

Unknown: Good. Drop it at the usual place.

Merrick. At least Andy has handled his side of our deal. That’s good. Now, I should have all the time I need to get back to my business with that little shit, as soon as I’m done with this thing on the docks.

Another exchange, from a different number. From the timestamp, it took place while we were at the docks.

Andy: We’re ready for the party tomorrow. You got the green?

Unknown: OK. Yeah I got it.

Andy: All right. Text you the address later. Radio silence until then.

It seems that my new partner keeps all critical information close to him and only divulges them when necessary. Clever. I memorize the buyer’s phone number. And speaking of phones, I need to call that moron Fuschia to give him his orders. Expectedly, he puts up a fight, but I quickly get him back in line with a reminder of what’s going to happen to him if he keeps this up. Now, I just need to find a little something online, and I’m all set.

I go to the lobby to pay up. The receptionist does not even bat an eyelid at the short duration of my stay; just another john, he probably thinks. I drive back to a parking lot near the docks, grab a cup of joe from a nearby store, put on some dark clothes, and wait out in my car until it’s time.

Once again, Andy barges in my car like he owns it.

“All right, I shut down the cameras,” he says. “Ready to get rich?”

I chuckle to myself. You have no idea, buddy.

It’s dark out when we make our way to the warehouse. We hide behind an enclosure wall, and Andy gets started on picking the lock on a door. The van arrives at nine on the dot; the gate opens automatically to let it in. Andy disables the alarm on our side, and we sneak in undetected. Then, we quietly observe as two of the goons get six big shipping crates out of the van and load them on the boat, while the third keeps a lookout. I send Fuschia the green light via text as soon as the sixth crate is loaded. Less than ten seconds later, we hear one of the guys swear loudly.

“The hell is that?” one of the others says.

“Perimeter alarm. Someone’s breaking in. Jiang, come with me. Melvin, watch over the stuff.”

Two men run to the other side of the warehouse.

“You have the tranquiliser?” I ask.

Andy responds by opening his gloved hand, showing a small syringe. I nod.

“All right,” I say. “I’ll make some noise. Be ready to act as quickly as possible.”

We split up, losing sight of each other. I can’t see the guy anymore, but Andy is keeping him in his sights. Looking around, I spot a box of screws on top of a crate. That’ll do perfectly. I mentally count to ten to give Andy time to get in position, then I bump into the crate, causing the box to fall, and its contents to fly over a large surface.

I hear the guy’s exclamation of surprise, followed by a strangled half-scream, and sounds of struggle. Sounds like the guy is giving my new partner a run for his money. Good. Without hesitation, I run to the boat, untie the mooring, and jump in. The commands are pretty straightforward; I quickly find the ignition button -the activation card is already inserted.

“Hey! What the fuck?”

That was Andy. I don’t need to look back to imagine his expression, but I do anyway, pulling out my pistol as I do. He is standing on the pier, about to jump on the boat too. My gun has dissuaded him of that, though.

“What are you doing?” he says between his clenched teeth.

“Sorry, partner,” I simply answer before putting on the gas.

The engine roars, propelling the boat like a lion leaping. I admit I underestimated how much horsepower that thing’s got. It’s only a couple minutes later that the warehouse is out of view. I put the thing on autopilot, then set the GPS to that place near Dumbarton bridge I found earlier. It’s both accessible by boat and out of sight. Perfect for my purposes.

Speaking of which, I have a text to send. I pull out Andy’s phone and type the GPS coordinates. Soon after, I receive a response confirming that my buyer will be there at the agreed upon time.

Dropping the phone on the dashboard beside the wheel, I start laughing. Andy’s face as I left him in the lurch was a fucking picture. What did he expect? It’s exactly what he was planning to do to me, after all. Oh well, that’s in the past. Let’s focus on the future, and on the hundred thousand dollars waiting for me. Only a few hours, now…

 

Jacinda

“I love it when a plan comes together,” Gordie says, pushing his car seat back so he can put his feet up on my dashboard.

“Care to tell me how that plan “came together”?” I scream. We’ve got to be a few miles away from the warehouse now, but I still don’t let up on the gas.

“Perfectly, that’s how,” he replies, crossing his arms behind his head.

“Uncle Gordie, you had a gun pulled on you!” I’m not trying to sound like I’m calling him an idiot, it just comes naturally.

“He didn’t shoot,” he shrugs. “He was too focused on making a quick exit, like I knew he would be.”

“He got away with the boat!”

“Exactly.”

Taken aback, I continue: “The- The plan was for you to take the boat, and leave him in the warehouse to get caught.”

“When did I ever say that was the plan?”

“You… But… You clearly implied it. I mean, that’s the reason you had me call the cops and told them I saw a crime being committed at that pier.”

“Ah, no. That was so Fuschia and the other guys would get caught. Preferably before anybody got killed.”

I blink. What the hell is going on here? Everything went tits up, and Uncle Gordie is acting like he had foreseen it. Planned it, even. But there’s no way- I mean… Did he…?

“You wanted him to get away with the stolen merchandise?” I slowly say.

“Oh, yeah. That was the easy part, honestly. I knew immediately that offering that bloke an inch would compel him to take a mile. That’s just the way the narcissist’s mind works.”

“I don’t get it. How is the police ever going to catch him? He could be on the other side of the Bay, by now!”

Frustratingly, he ignores that question, instead activating his AR lenses and connecting them to my car’s computer. He opens his list of contacts, selects Christopher, and types a quick text.

“And that was the easy part?” I go on. “What was the hard part, then?”

“Getting my arse the hell out of here,” he says like that’s the most obvious part in the world. “But you got here right on time, lass.”

“You knew I was gonna-”

“Fly to your beloved uncle’s rescue as soon as he calls for help? But of course, darling.”

Right, well… I guess that part he could have planned. But the rest?…

As I’m about to continue hounding him with questions, my phone rings. I put the call on the car’s computer.

“Chris,” I say. “How are things on your side?”

 

Christopher

“Fine,” I say. “I just pulled up.”

“You sure she’s gonna be here?” my girlfriend says. “On a Saturday evening?”

“Oh, yeah.”

No friends, no real hobby, no spendable income. She doesn’t even have a car. Where else could she be but home?

“Will you be okay to drive back in the dark?”

“Sure, I think I’ll just put it on self-drive and sleep through most of it.”

“It’s illegal to sleep at the wheel, even on self-drive,” Jacinda says. Heh. This coming from the girl who thinks using your blinkers before changing two lanes is merely a suggestion.

“Not on the interstate, it’s not,” I say. “Okay, talk to you soon.”

The house looks mostly the same. The only real difference I can spot in the streetlamps’ dim light is that a portion of the fence has collapsed. I can see the TV through the living room’s window. Good, she’s still awake. I rap on the door, and wait.

The door opens. There’s a gasp, and something falls on the floor. It looks like a ladle, but I really can’t tell in the poor lightning.

“Christopher!”

She sounds beyond stupefied, like she’s doubting her own perception. 

She has not changed much, either. Her emaciated face still makes her look malnourished, as does her small neck. She stills wears simple clothing in discrete colors, and wears her dirty blonde hair in a loose ponytail. Lots of makeup too; her prick of a husband hated to see her without makeup, and he made that clear to her. Her small wrists still fidget the same way as she rubs her hands nervously, making her look like a little bird fallen from the nest. She looks to be tinier than I remember, although realistically it’s probably that I grew a couple more inches since the last time I saw her.

“Hello, Mom.”

“You… You can’t be here. Your father is not home, but…”

“No, he’s not. And he won’t be back for a long while.”

“What are you talking about?” Her eyes shoot wide open.

“Mom, I need you to come with me. I’m getting you out of here.”

“Christopher… No! If your father finds out… If…”

“He’ll never hurt us again, or anyone else,” I say with confidence. “You’re going to be safe now, I promise you. But you need to come with me.”

“Come with you where? I don’t understand.”

“I’ll explain everything on the way,” I say, offering her my hand. “But we need to go before the police get here.”

“The police?!” she squeals, slapping both of her hands over her mouth. “But…”

“Please, Mom. Trust me.”

Actually, the police probably won’t come to the house before a day or two, according to Gordie, but he said it’s better to be sure, and I agreed. There’s also the possibility that my father might not be the only rotten apple in his precinct, and that his colleagues might come to the conclusion that my mother snitched on him. One way or another, Mom shouldn’t have to suffer for the consequences of her husband’s actions. My part in Gordie’s plan is making sure she won’t.

Stuttering, at loss for words, Mom makes a hesitant step outside the house. I gently take her by the hand and lead her to the car. Nova has been nice enough to lend me her car for this; she insisted on it, really. I make sure Mom has put on her seatbelt before I pull out of the driveway.

“Where are we going?” God, her voice is so frail I get a stomachache. It feels like I’m kidnapping her, all of a sudden.

“Berkeley. I have people there who can host you for a while, until…”

“Until?” she asks.

“Until you’re ready to start your new life,” I say.

A few moments pass by as she acknowledges what I told her. Then, suddenly, the dam bursts open. Tears start to flow from her eyes, unending, steady streams. She hiccups, her hands trying and failing to contain her tears. Watching my mother cry is a spectacle both heartwarming and painful at the same time. As soon as we make it to the interstate, I release control of the car to the on-board computer, and take her in my arms. It strikes me as I do that this is the first time my mom and I hug -at least as far as I can remember-, yet it feels natural. It feels right, even. She stammers, words drowning in her mouth as she tries and fails to get them out. But I don’t need words to understand her.

“I’m so sorry,” she manages to say. “I’m so sorry…”

“It’s okay.”

After a few minutes of hugging, she’s soothed enough to smile, although tears still fill her eyes. Returning her smile, I report my attention to the road. Okay, now it’s only about six hours of driving on a straight, dark road. A nap has never sounded so inviting. But before I get to that, I have to call Jacinda back.

“How did it go?” she says, her face appearing on the computer screen. By her side, Gordie is almost lying down on his seat.

“Everything went fine,” I say.

“Well, that’s no surprise. You had the easy job.”

“Who is this?” Mom asks.

“That’s Jacinda. My, err, my girlfriend.”

“Oh!” Some color livens up my mother’s face. “Um, hello Jacinda!”

“Hello, Chris’ mom! How are you?”

“A little confused, to be honest,” Mom giggles nervously. “You can call me Maria, by the way.”

“Okay, Maria. Yeah, I get that you’d be a bit lost right now. Chris, what have you told her so far?”

“Not much, I was waiting for this call to tell her everything, just in case anything went wrong.” Also, I’m not sure where to begin. “Did the plan go fine on your end?”

“Uncle Gordie says it did. I’m skeptical.”

“Oh, it did,” Gordie says. “Jeremy Baldini is currently sailing away on a stolen boat, carrying about a hundred and twenty thousand dollars in stolen implants.”

“What?” Mom timidly mutters, her jaw dropping.

“And that’s good how, exactly?” I ask.

“Yeah, Uncle Gordie,” Jacinda says, clearly upset. “Are you going to explain why we should celebrate the fact that he escaped, or are you finally going to admit your plan has gone wrong?”

“Ye of little faith,” he groans. “Come on, people. Think this through. What was the objective here?”

“Put Jeremy behind bars,” Jacinda says. “And make sure he stays there.”

“Right. And how do we achieve that?”

“We get him caught stealing the stuff,” I say. “Which failed.”

“Ah, but didn’t you say your father could probably beat the rap if the cops caught him?”

“Sure, he’d probably pretend to be undercover, or play the buddy system, or something. He’s always found a way in the past.”

“So what would be a surefire way to have him put behind bars?”

“I don’t know! Short of him actually confess-”

The end of my sentence hangs in the air as a lightbulb turns on in my mind. Holy shit. No, there’s no way.

“You didn’t.”

“Oh, I sure did, lad.”

“What the hell did I just miss?” Jacinda says. “What did he do? What did you do?”

“It wasn’t Michael Suarez my dad just robbed, was it?” I say.

“Nope,” Gordie calmly says, lengthening the “n”.

“Oh God, now it makes total sense!” I laugh, electing looks of concern and confusion from both Jacinda and Mom. “I was wondering how you would avoid any retaliation from Suarez after that, against both you and Fuschia.”

That drug dealer may have hurt my friend, but I don’t want him dead. He was just the hand, anyway. As to my dad, he may be a massive piece of shit, but I don’t want his death on my conscience either. Not to mention how Mom would feel about it.

“And I’m assuming when you cut the alarm, you forgot to cut the cameras.”

“Blimey, I think I did.” Gordie slaps his forehead with faux shock (fauck?). “Oh well, no worries, I made sure to stay in their blind spots the whole time. But I’m pretty sure your father… Oh, bugger.”

“Wow. My hat is off to you, Gordie,” I say, punching my wheel in laughter. “If there was a Nobel Prize for magnificent bastards, you’d get my nomination.”

“Why, thank you. It would fit nicely on my mantle, next to the Mastermind Fields Medal.”

“Yes, kudos,” a frustrated Jacinda says. “Hey, imagine for a second that there was someone in this conversation who has no fucking idea what the hell you’re talking about. Do you think you could explain it to him or her?”

“Hold on for a second, lass,” Gordie says. “Now, for the coup de grace, I just need to call Jeremy and clue him in to what he just did.”

“No, wait!” I interrupt. “Can I do it?”

Gordie nods. “I thought you might, actually. But keep us on the call, would you please? On mute. Here’s the phone number.”

I select the number to Gordie’s prepaid cellphone -well, Jeremy’s prepaid cellphone now- and press the call button.

“Hello?” I hear my father’s voice on the other end.

“Hey, Dad. How are you doing on this fine evening?”

“Christopher?” he mutters.

“Congratulations on committing yet another crime. At least this one will be the last.”

“What the fuck are you going on about? How do you know about this?” He’s starting to sound more agitated. Schadenfreude, here we come. “How did you get this number?”

“Ah, geez, you haven’t figured it out yet?” I chuckle. “You probably haven’t figured out that it wasn’t Suarez you’ve just robbed, either. It was Merrick.”

“What?” There’s a bit of shuffling on his end of the call. “No. Fuck! No, no, no, no, NO!”

“Oh yeah. And that’s not all. That buyer you contacted? The one you’re on your way to meet right now? He works for Merrick too. No doubt he’ll identify the merchandise as soon as he sees it.”

That last revelation -which was just an educated guess, by the way, but Gordie’s expression tells me it was right on the money- is met by a barrage of swears. I can hear my father punching something in rage. After a while, he seemingly regain control of himself, and says:

“You think you’re so fucking clever. How about this? I’ll just throw the stuff overboard. No one will ever find it. No one will ever know. And after that…”

“Oh, someone will know all right. You see, your partner “Andy”…” I finger quote the name “kinda, sorta forgot to cut the cameras around that warehouse. Especially the ones filming the street. Your car, your face… Yeah, I haven’t seen the footage, but I’m guessing Merrick will have little difficulty identifying you. That is, if he hasn’t already.”

“I’ll… I’ll run,” he tries. The barely contained desperation in his voice is a gourmet dessert to me. “You think you have me cornered? I’ll run!”

“You could do that. It might work. Then again, it might not. I mean, you don’t have any money, and you’ll soon have a murderous, angered, well-connected criminal coming after you. I know you’re a degenerate gambler, but that’s just a stupid bet. No, really, if you want to avoid becoming the next name on Merrick’s list of victims, there’s only one way.”

I expect him to ask me which way that is, but he doesn’t play ball. Tssk. Figures.

“You have to turn yourself in.”

“WHAT?” my father screams like I’ve just uttered the most awful profanity ever.

“The FBI is building up a case against Colin Merrick. If you turn yourself over to them, and collaborate by telling them everything you know about him and everything you did for him, they’ll offer you protective custody. Better to end your days between four concrete walls than between four planks of wood.”

Wow, my snark tastes extra sweet tonight.

A bitter, angry, terrified silence falls on the other end.

“There’s an FBI antenna in San Francisco,” I say. “You can be there in a few hours. I’d make my decision quickly, though.”

After another silence, I hear a barely Human scream, followed by some kind of liquid noise, and then the line goes dead.

“I think he threw his phone in the ocean,” Gordie says after I unmute him. “The GPS tracker I put in it just went offline.”

“You think he’s gonna go for it?” I ask.

“Oh, absolutely. Your father’s a piece of shit and he’s as cowardly as they come, but he’s not suicidal.”

“HO. LEE. SHIT.” Jacinda looks completely stunned. “Uncle Gordie, that’s insane. You actually were planning for this all along!”

“What’d I tell you, darling?” He holds his hands up in the air in a “ta-da” gesture. “And great deduction, Chris. Keep this up and I may allow you to marry my niece.”

“Uncle Gordie!” she howls, blushing furiously. Turning back to me, she says: “I’ll talk to you tomorrow morning.”

“See ya,” I say.

The screen goes black.

“Oh my God,” Mom says. I turn to her. “It’s… Is this real? Are we… Are we really…?”

“Yeah, Mom, it’s real. You’ll be safe, now.”

With a tearful exclamation of joy, she throws herself in my arms again, nearly strangling herself with her seatbelt in the process. She cries again, and this time so do I.

It’s over. It really is over.

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One thought on “Playing Favorites – Chapter 15

  1. Man, when I heard Jeremy was an utter piece of shit who extorted and emotionally abused his family for gambling money, hurt Manny, and used his position to get away with all of his crimes, I honestly wished he’d get a karmic comeuppance. But hoooo boy, did you deliver! Trapping him between turning himself in for his crimes and facing the wrath of the criminal he had been paying debts to? That, hombre, is what we call force feeding him a big fat slice of humble pie.

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