So this was it. After six years of life in the fast lane, I was sitting in the bar of the Gritti Palace Hotel, still in my twenties, very much on the upside of a skyrocketing career and feeling like it was the end of the world. I was a guy on the wrong end of a fox hunt. Everything I had played for was going up in smoke.
My problem was marriage. I was about to propose to the woman of my dreams, or so I had thought. Now the idea of getting hitched was going down for the count. My mind seemed intent on finding a way out.
The bartender, who had been busy polishing glasses, turned and addressed me in a tone befitting the elegant hotel.
“One more Bellini, Signore?”
“Oh, si. Sure. Why not?”
He produced the drink and cleaned up a bit around my elbows. It was the equivalent of closing time in America. Two o’clock. Last call. The party’s over, pal. Time to sweep up the peanut shells and mop the parquet floor.
Only it was more like five in the morning. The parquet floor was polished marble and I had rococo architecture surrounding me in place of peanut shells.
I turned to look out at the Grand Canal, having spent the better part of the past three days commandeering various spots along its banks and watching the gondolas glide by. Blissful lovers in every one of them, and all it had done was bring on more doubt. Bliss in marriage? All I could see was the fun going out of things. This was where you bought the condo, assumed a thirty year mortgage and turned into what you had hated about your parents.
Faced with wedding bells, I was looking for someplace to run.
I pulled the ring box out of my pocket one more time and peeked inside it. The gold band and diamonds sparkled against black velvet.
The plan had been for me to get down on one knee three days earlier, but Roxanne had been delayed in LA, again and again, leaving all this extra time for things to bounce around in my head.
The glory days of my youth flashed before me one more time. Hustling Hollywood at twenty-two. Rubbing elbows with Harrison Ford and the likes by the time I was twenty-six. Stealing panties from blushing starlets. My life was like a raunchy bachelor flick. Why put an end to the good times now?
I had gotten where I was by taking chances and going for broke, having swaggered my way up through the land of lounge lizards and empty heroes, stepping over whatever obstacle happened to get in my way. Now I was
looking down the barrel at thirty and getting all trembly like in the face of words like responsibility and commitment.
It’s time to grow up, Roxanne had told me.
I once had the world by the tail. Now love had me by the throat.
I came back from my reveries to find the bartender rearranging cocktail napkins on the bar top one more time. Clearly he wanted to go home. I saw dawn blushing over the rooftops outside. A few of the gondola drivers were stirring along the canal. I finished my Bellini, threw a pile of lira on the counter and saluted the bartender. Neither one of us bothered with ciao or the usual formalities.
Impulsively, I had started out towards the canal but stopped myself. Best to get some sleep. Roxanne was supposed to be here around five that afternoon.
Jesus, I thought, as the rattling old antique elevator lurched up towards my floor. I never imagined it turning out like this, me hooked and my wings about to be clipped. Time to run as fast and far as I could. That or chuck the whole bad boy image and settle down to my tea and paper at four.
I had roughly twelve hours to make the decision.
A few special operations missions went off as smoothly as you saw them in the movies. Most did not and Ryan Weston was one man who could tell you the difference. He had seen his share of action flicks. He had participated in his share of SF operations.
Like that time he and a handful of fellow Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group were dropped into Bosnia on a snatch and grab operation. The year was 1997, the target Slavko Dokmanović, a Serbian leader who had been palling around with the likes of Miroslav Radić. If Radić was the king of spades, Dokmanović was the king of clubs.
Dokmanović was mostly responsible for the Vukovar massacre, a nasty bit of vengeance exacted on the local population when the battle for Vukovar went south on the Serbian troops. On his way out of town, Dokmanović and his pals dragged some 200 male Croatian civilians and POWs from a local hospital. Their brief odyssey ended at a farm in the town of Ovčara. One bullet in the head followed, but not before those Serbian boys had a bit of sadistic fun with their bound and helpless prisoners.
Dokmanović had been the mayor of Vukovar at the time. Some mayor. Six years later, he and Radić were still on the run.
Ryan was just settling into his new position with the 5th group when some Intel finally came through about Dokmanović’s whereabouts. Most of Ryan’s teammates had already been around the block a few times and went to grab some chow. Ryan, not knowing crap, sat down to buff up on the Intel. By the time he had finished reading the files, Ryan was ready to cut Dokmanović’s balls off. Capturing the bastard had been the stated preference of the brass upstairs but killing him was all right too and Ryan didn’t like Dokmanović’s chances of surviving the mission. Not if Ryan got his hands on him first.
The minute the green light went up on the mission, the 5th group team was flown in to link up with a Polish GROM Special Forces unit in Bosnia. This was basically the US brass placating egos on the NATO side of the command. Those Polish boys might have been highly trained and capable operators but the U.S. general in charge didn’t trust them as far as he could throw them and expected his own 5th group team to do the bulk of the heavy lifting.
The raid took place in what was otherwise some lovely farm country. Rolling hills dotted with woods and a farmhouse here and there.
Early on, the GROM unit made a flanking maneuver, hoping to set a trap for Dokmanović. The 5th group was left to confront heavy fire coming from a cluster of farmhouses about 200 to 400 meters out. A scouting patrol quickly assessed the Serbian position to be roughly 75 militiamen strong and scattered among the farmhouses and surrounding woods. The 5th methodically worked their way through this resistance, tree by tree, farmhouse to farmhouse.
If you were in the Special Forces and you had seen this kind of action portrayed in the movies, you knew that Hollywood got it wrong more than they got it right. Things were never quite as efficient as they portrayed it, or flat out crazy. When bullets started flying, the thousands and thousands of hours of training kicked in and translated into sheer muscle memory. You did not have time for cute hand signals and clever dialogue. You nodded your head. You pointed. You whispered, “Go.” That was about it.
Eventually that afternoon, Ryan and his boys found themselves positioned outside an isolated farmhouse. Three Serb militiamen were confirmed to be holed up inside of it. Possibly there were more.
As the guy popping his special ops’ cherry, Ryan was given the role of lead breacher. The rest of the team gave Ryan cover while he threw a frag grenade in through a window. As soon as the grenade detonated, Ryan kicked in the front door.
In that split second, a rush of adrenalin overtook Ryan’s emotions and the mission became a dreamlike sequence in time. He hardly noticed the two
fellow green berets following him inside. Ryan turned right. A second team member went left. A third one proceeded to clear the middle.
A few paces into the next room, Ryan stumbled upon a big Serbian son of a bitch with the muzzle of his AK coming up. Ryan already had the red dot of his M4 trained on his center mass and pulled the trigger four swift times. The Serbian flew backwards. All four of Ryan’s rounds had slammed into his chest with a dull thud. The man was lying on his back now and looking very dead. Ryan approached him cautiously, his rifle still aimed and pumped a round into the cranial cavity for good measure. You never left any doubt, unless you wanted to find yourself dead too.
As Ryan’s team went on clearing that farmhouse and some adjacent buildings, word came over the radio. Mission success. The GROM unit had captured Dokmanović. Every one of his fellow militia members was either dead or on the run. The US boys had done the bulk of the work. The GROM got to stick around for the photo ops.
The 5th group took a moment outside for some somber backslapping. Mission accomplished, and without a single loss of life. Dokmanović, who had been terrorizing the surrounding villages for years but was out of commission. The local people could finally sit down to their evening meals in peace.
Ryan looked out across the dusky land, realizing those folks would never know a thing about him and his teammates, but he knew their gratitude would be there nonetheless. Which was central reason why Ryan had gotten into this business. The sheer rush of adrenalin, sure, the feelings of brotherhood, but mostly for the sense of righteousness that came from ridding the world of evil men.
That much, at least, was right out of the movies.
THE MODERN OFFBEAT
Sam Baxter was staring out the windows of his fifth story office building, taking in the glorious Miami coastline. South Beach looking north. Miles and miles of white sand and turquoise seas on a blustery day.
Someone was parking a yellow and white ’58 Olds convertible out in front of the renovated art deco motel across the street. Could have been the fifties, from the looks of it. Could have been the Keys from the way the blustery afternoon wind had turned the Atlantic blue-green.
Sam noticed his reflection in the tinted glass and tugged at his waist band. He turned sideways, the tummy tucked in. Noticing the bald spot on the back
of his head, his hand impulsively reached for that. Goddamned middle-age. Things just seemed to sag and settle on you with the years.
What the hell. Nothing a few hair transplants and that South Beach diet wouldn’t fix.
Sam glanced back at his office and flinched. It was another reminder that the A train to success had left the station without him. His shot at the big time had come up a few miles short. The furniture said it all. Chrome on black leather, a few decades out of date. The aging building said it, too, populated as it was with an assortment of South Beach losers. A hair and cosmetic product wholesaler ran their operation next door. It was the sort of place where folks fumbled with their keys and mumbled hello as they tried to open the door.
While Sam was staring up the coast with his thoughts, the phone rang. He looked over his shoulder at Rita, his paralegal, this Puerto Rican Barbie Doll in rayon slacks and open toed slides. She was seated on the black leather sofa with one leg tucked up under her cute little ass. Like a lot of people in South Beach, Rita had arrived by way of New York. A tough cookie from the Bronx and sharp as a tack, never mind the frizzed hair and all the fougetaboutits.
Sam liked having Rita around. She gave him a hard on. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he had this misplaced notion of them falling in love. They’d get married. Have a few kids. Rita would do the mambo while making dinner. Sam’s vision of it was very breezy.
Frank, Sam’s private investigator was sitting over there on the arm of the sofa, schmoozing with Rita and putting on a show. Frank was from Staten Island so the two of them were always reminiscing. You remember this? You remember that?
Oh yeah. Fougetaboutit.
Frank had shown up in South Beach twenty years earlier. Someone handed him one of those embroidered barber shirts and a set of dark shades and that was that. With the slicked back hair and the polyester Harris dress slacks, he looked like a mob vacation gone all wrong.
“Rita!” Sam said. “While you two are fucking around, do you mind answering the goddamned phone?”
“Sorry, Sam. I thought you were going to get it.”
“And I have you around because?”
Rita made a gesture at Sam, slipped into her dainty little Barbie Doll shoes and sashayed over to the desk.
“Baxter & Baxter.”
There was a pause.
“Yes, of course. Just one second.”
Rita put the call on hold.
“It’s that Dan Rivera guy from Fidelity Life.”
“All right,” Sam said with a finger pointed. “You two keep it down while I’m on the phone.”
Rita went back over to the sofa and continued her conversation with Frank in whispered voices now. Sam punched the blinking button.
“Sam Baxter here.”
“Sam, it’s Dan Rivera. How’s it going?”
“Did you have a chance to do your research on that Pirelli case yet?”
“Sure, I dug up some old records on him. Everything going back to his college days. It’s going to take a bit of work. I’ll have to send my private investigator over to St. Petersburg and the Bayonet area to poke around for something more current, sift through all the fine print in these files I have and depose a few people but don’t you worry about it. I’ll find the chinks in his armor. By the time I get done with this guy, he’ll wish he was never born.”
Pacing the room, Sam made eyes at Frank.
“So, that’s your sense of it,” Dan said. “You really think he’s vulnerable?”
“Let me tell you a secret, Dan. Anybody’s vulnerable. I could make you look bad, if somebody wanted me to.”
Sam made eyes at Rita this time and went back to stare out the window at the coastline.
“It’s all in how much you have to lose, Dan, and that’s what jumps out at you about this Pirelli character straight off. The bastard’s got both a reputation and plenty of money lying around, which means he won’t hesitate to spend a fortune to protect the two of them.”
“All right, look. I want you to meet over at Coco’s Café in half an hour. Can you do that?”
“Good. We’ll discuss all the details then.”
Sam got off and started gathering things into his briefcase.
“So, what’s up, Sam?” Frank said.
“What’s up? Business, that’s what. Speaking of which. Why aren’t you over there on the gulf coast, digging up some dirt on Pirelli, like I told you to?”
“Oh, I already got plenty of dirt on that guy.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Oh, all kinds.”
“Oh, people who would just as soon see him dead, for starters.”
“Oh, fellow doctors. Former patients.”
Frank offered Rita a wink and a smile.
“Well, they will be former patients when I get done with them. I’ll have a list for you a mile long.”
“You will have a list for me.”
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m plenty worried about it. When I hear ‘I will’ I get plenty worried.”
“I said, don’t worry about it. I got it all figured out. I’m going to sit out in the parking lot of his medical practice and write down the license plate numbers of all his patients. Then I’ll make sure they get a nice little phone call. ‘Were you aware that Dr. Pirelli was under investigation for medical malpractice? No? Wellllllllllll, let me tell you all about it. An otherwise healthy man went in for back surgery just last week and now he can hardly walk’. You know how it goes with these old geezers. They hear one story and they’ll have ten of their own to tell.”
Frank offered Rita another charming smile.
“I don’t know, Frank,” she said. “That sounds awfully shady to me. I think it might even be illegal.”
“Neah,” Frank said. “Don’t even worry about it.”
Rita turned with a pleading look at Sam.
“You said you were plenty worried? Well, I’d be plenty worried about Frank’s little scheme here.”
Sam stood there, biting his lip and thinking.
“Oh what the hell,” he said. “It’s nothing the bastards can’t already read in the newspapers.”
Rita made a face and Sam saw his blissful, mambo marriage flitting away. Then he remembered the money. Dan had dangled five, ten million in front of him. That would paper over a lot of misgivings.
“Look,” he told Frank. “I don’t care how you go about it. Just get me some dirt on this guy and don’t get caught doing it.”
Sam grabbed a few more things from his desk, looked out at the glorious coastline one last time and snapped his briefcase shut.
“I’m off to meet with Rivera so let’s get to work, Frank. You too, Rita. The two of you have done enough romancing to last you the rest of the year.”
Rita made a face at Sam and sashayed back over to her desk.
“Jeez. I thought we’d be drinking champagne by now or something.”
“When I have ten million dollars in my bank account, we’ll drink all the champagne you could want. In the meantime, why don’t you dig up those records from Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland like I asked you to.”
Rita made another face and grabbed the phone. Frank came and leaned over her desk.
“Go on, you son of a bitch,” Sam said with a kick at Frank’s ass. “Out the goddamned door with you.”
ADDICTION AND RECOVERY
In the best of times, I was having Sunday cocktails at the Boat House in East Hampton. The annual pig roast over at the Atlantic Golf Club was next on my list. Or I was sipping a tall one down at the Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, or it was ‘greet the author day’ in the whispering woods of the Aspen Club & Spa. Even down on my luck, I was a smash on the backyard rib circuit in Des Moines. You got a few too many drinks in me and the tall tales inevitably followed. I never much waited around for the laughter to die down. I was too busy looking for the next drink or beer, hoping some schmuck wouldn’t corner me before I could disappear.
“Son, that was one hell of story. You ought to write yourself a book.”
“Yeah, yeah, thanks.”
I was great in front of a crowd. I had no talent for talking one on one.
For the better part of a decade, those words were rolling around in my brain. You ought to write a book. Of course I had thought about it. Then I’d awaken the next morning with the previous day’s madness chasing me down the road like a summer wild fire.
I had started out as something of a poor kid from a working-class town in Pennsylvania. Then suddenly I was a rich kid from one of those patrician enclaves further upstate. We went from a happy little life in a clapboard box with a kitchen and three bedrooms down a hall from the living room to a curved driveway and manicured trees and a white portico porch.
Out of nowhere, my old man had all the money in the world, and the power and big houses and fine cars to go with it. He could have picked up the phone to call the President for a chat, had the notion struck him.
My older sister and brother were delighted as hell with our sudden change of fortune but my life started to spin out of control within months of leaving behind our working-class origins. A few bad breaks, a few run ins with the law and my parents were busy shipping me off to a prep school on the other side of the country, as far away from their version of the lifestyles of the rich and famous as they could get me. They didn’t care much what happened next.
I presume the idea of a prep school was to tame the feral part in me. Instill a bit of proper breeding. It was hoped I would come back with a proper Parliamentary accent. Only the experiment went terribly wrong and my life
was all about tough breaks, bad decisions and looking hard over my shoulder from there going forward. Who had time to sit down and tell a story?
Eventually I drifted down into the West Indies, hoping to get the taste of all that proper breeding out of my mouth. What I ended up with was one too many piña colada and cocaine mornings, the cigarette butt in front of me like the ruins of yesterday’s adventures smoldering in my brain.
A few years of that and I went fleeing back to Pennsylvania, only to have the dregs of my Caribbean escapades follow me home. When my parents got wind of what their son had become, they handed me a few thousand buck and a one way ticket out of their blue-blooded neighborhood.
I took my madness and headed for Minnesota. By the time I hit California a few years later, hoping to escape yet the latest spate of sordid adventures, it had become abundantly clear, even to me, that the string of cans tied to my tail was a matter of my own personal karma and little else.
Apparently the authorities up in Minnesota had come to the same conclusion and sent me a one-way ticket back from California. A question and answer followed. The answers led to a sidebar in a Minnesota slammer. When I got out of that lockdown, the powers that be in California invited me out for a question and answer session back on the west coast and I was soon trying out their version of a lousy time behind bars.
By then, the fun and mystique had completely gone out of things. I decided to go straight but quickly learned that there was a lot more fun in being a rogue and a scoundrel. It sure as hell made for a better story.
Being locked up as I was, I decided what the hell. I had all the time in the world. Why not sit down and finally write that book?
I soon found myself confronted with a completely new dilemma. Where to start? Between the morning gruel and Sloppy Joes for dinner, a thousand assorted vignettes kept popping into my head.
There was that midget couple I had fronted on the bachelor party circuit up in Minnesota, for instance. He came in wearing a cowboy outfit, doing somersaults and blasting away with his six-guns. She sashayed in doing a sultry burlesque number. We were a big hit up in Fergus Falls.
Or there was that piracy episode down in Curacao, though I cringed to remember it, let alone admit my part. I had been hooked up with a shady boat owner named Rocky at the time, and he was running a coke route from Columbia to Puerto Rico. Rocky came back to our boat one day, saying he had overheard this fool in town shooting his mouth off about a forty-three meter Trinity.
Even I have to admit. You start flaunting your wealth on the seedy end of Schottegat and you’re asking for trouble. But piracy? I thought right away.
Jesus, Rocky. You’re going a bit overboard here, but he was determined and we boarded this guy’s yacht about twenty nautical miles out of Curacao. Rocky promptly had the wife and two kids duct taped into submission. I was trying to subdue the husband when my spear gun accidentally went off and shot him through the right foot. Now nailed to the teak foredeck, he was doing circles like a wind vane, trying to get at my throat. It would have been hilarious, except the poor son of a bitch was only trying to save his wife and kids.
That night, while running hard to sea on a leeward wind, hoping to outrun any authorities who might have taken an interest, I had the first of many personal confessions, revelations that would take another five or six years to finally sit. Never mind my parents and their sudden interest in a proper upbringing. I had gotten a long, long way from my own dearest visions of how a decent life ought to look.
WOMEN IN THE WORLD
It was seventeen degrees below zero and I had just stepped out of a car in front of a Siberian mall. I took a breath and for a very brief split second, it felt entirely normal. Then that frigid, dry air stabbed into my lungs with the feeling of knives. I tried to speak to my Russian translator Lidiya but could not. I tried to move but my boots appeared to be locked to the ice.
Meanwhile, Lidiya was trekking across the snow covered parking lot, chattering away as if I was still right next to her.
Holy Jesus, I thought. She’s abandoning me to the wolves.
I tended to think of myself as a tough gal from New York City but at seventeen below, I was dreaming of the first flight back to Manhattan. If my friends could only see me, they’d laugh me right out of the city. I was wearing a long, sable-trimmed mink coat, with the flaps down on the giant, black fox tapper hat over my head. A ‘70s pimp from the Upper East Side had nothing on me. It was Shaft does the holidays.
In Siberia, I definitely looked the part. Even the homeless I had seen were wearing furs head to toe.
Finally, Lidiya realized I wasn’t at her side and turned to look back. The chattering had stopped. The two of us were staring at each other from across the frozen parking lot.
“Are you okay?” she called back with a smile.
Oh sure, Ms. Astrology Charts. You check the moon and horoscope every morning before heading out the front door? You tell me.
“You look like maybe you are having shock,” Lidiya said.
“I am,” I said with a sarcastic laugh but quickly learned that laughter in Siberia hurt even more than breathing.
As Lidiya waited with a puzzled smile, I unlocked my boots from the ice, pulled the scarf further up over my nose and forged ahead. Once I had caught up with her, she resumed her chattering as if there had been no interruption.
I listened in silence as we made our across the frozen parking lot. It was enough to take in the spectacle of this frozen land locked in the grip of winter. There was nothing but snow and ice. As far as you could see, the land was covered in snow and ice.
Amazingly, in such deep space conditions, there was still a steady flow of cars on the icy road next to the mall. Even more amazingly, when two of these cars suddenly careened out of control and crashed into each other, the drivers merely climbed out and engaged in a cordial conversation, like they were discussing the weather and their kids. In New York City, there would have been a fistfight. There was a final laugh, a convivial salutation and off the two men went. All the transaction had lacked was a bottle of vodka.
I looked back towards the approaching mall entrance and noticed two women walking along with their baby strollers, only the strollers had sled tracks in place of wheels. That was Siberia; the incongruous, the unexpected. Since leaving the airport earlier in the day, I had seen eighteen wheelers inching along the icy roads side by side with reindeer sleighs. The modern world and antiquity intersected endlessly in Siberia.
For reasons I cannot explain, except to think I probably wanted to feel the warm Latin sun on my skin at that point, my thoughts hurtled back to my Uncle Manolo’s garment business in Manhattan. It was summer, in the heat of August and I was hanging around the warehouse as a young know-it-all kid. There was the scent of packing tape getting warm on the boxes. Salesmen had come around to show their lines and my uncle—this great, menacing hulk of a man—would have them hang their garments from a chain link fence that separated the warehouse from his offices. As my uncle inspected their wares, the salesmen scurried around trying to please him. I was off to the side thinking, I wouldn’t mind being a big shot garmento. Except my visions of it was the glamorous buyer, jetting off to Paris on the Concord. Milan, London. It sounded like a hell of a ride.
Then I got out of NYU with my MBA and quickly came to terms with three things. When it came to the garment business, much of what I had learned in college was useless. The Concord was no longer in service and fashion shows never were my style.
I was the kind of gal who liked to get down in the trenches. That was where I eventually cut my teeth, and the trenches in today’s garment business meant you traveled to Siberia, even if it was the dead of winter. You trekked to the highlands of Peru. You journeyed to Shanghai. Like my uncle often told me when I was a kid. You need to know the price of rice in China if you want to make it in this business.
In a way, being in the trenches has represented its own form of glamour and excitement for me. I am able to wheel and deal daily on a global level. I travel all over the world, but none of my experiences in the United States had prepared me for what I would find in these faraway places; girls having to choose between marriage at thirteen or working in a sweat shop, indigenous people being bullied about like chattel, poor mothers sitting on dirt floors and sewing garments together while they breastfed their brood of children, knowing some little bastard would come around to beat them later that day because they hadn’t sewn the garments together fast enough.
But in a world where the difference between the cost of making a pair of designer jeans and their retail price on Fifth Ave. was about $200, you inevitably came face to face with some of life’s shittiest realities. And like anyone with a bit of sympathy in their heart, I had been up more than a few nights thinking about these things, trying to square the global economy with what it did to the poorest and most helpless among us. It really killed me at times, what was going on with these impoverished people, but as a woman who had been determined to frame her own destiny from an early age, I realized the best gift I could give them was the art of making a buck. Capitalism wasn’t going to disappear any time soon. You had to strike a balance between these differing interests. Teach these women who were sewing garments together on a dirt floor how the process worked, from start to finish, and maybe they could eliminate that bastard in the middle. To make things better, you had to provide a better alternative. Give a man a fish and he will be hungry tomorrow. Teach him to fish and not only can he fish for himself, he will have fish to sell to others.
Which, in large part, was what had led me over to Siberia. The Russian government had tried and failed for years at bringing the indigenous Nenet tribes into line with their economic policies. I specialized in solving this sort of challenge. They had heard me speak. They thought I could help.
Upon my arrival, I found that some of the richest people in Russia had come to Siberia, seeking even greater riches, and had plowed under most of the old borscht carts and open air markets in the process. In their place, in the middle of the snow and ice, they had erected these gargantuan super malls.
The people of Siberia now had Ikeas and Mango stores—side by side with local stores being run with all the flair of a Soviet era meat shop.
The international stores were crushing the local competition. It happens in every emerging market.
In a sidebar to these changes, the Russian government wanted the indigenous tribes to settle down in one place and make more goods and generally become part of the global economy. Problem was, in constructing several new local highways, the government had done so with the express purpose of trucking their newfound natural gas out to market, not as a way for the indigenous Nenets to ride their reindeer into the mall. So, for want of a Ford Focus, a people that had lived out on the ice for millenniums had no convenient way of bringing their goods to town and were being relegated to an old Russia, and the old Russia was dying. Not that the Nenets cared a whole lot, one way or the other, but the times were clearly passing them by.
Not entirely convinced that any of this was in the Nenet’s best interest, I asked if I might go visit them for myself and was given permission to do so. My translator Lidiya came along and after driving out several miles through more utterly barren and frozen terrain, and dodging eighteen wheelers along the way, we were greeted at a Nenet village by two sisters and their six children. The women wore beautifully handmade clothing, as colorful as any Bavarian wedding dress, and as clean as if you had run them through a Maytag. They and their children seemed perfectly healthy and happy to me. In the ice and snow of a Siberian winter, they seemed to be the very heart of humanity. Hand them a kite and they could have been a kid anywhere in the world.
Everything I witnessed among these people suggested that they enjoyed wealth and happiness, but it was another kind of wealth and happiness. If a Nenet family had lots of reindeer and yaks, they were well off, and every family I saw had lots of reindeer and yaks.
From Lidiya, I learned that even when the rest of Russia was starving during the Stalinist regime, the Nenets had flourished. They were happy back then. They were happy now. With the global economy tanking, they would be happy tomorrow. In short, take away gross median income as an artificial barometer of well-being and they were in a lot better shape than the people trying to educate and bring them into the 21st century.
Upon my return to the city, I told the Russian government as much. If there is no necessity, there is nothing to change. My uncle had always told me this. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The Russian officials were not thrilled with my assessment, but how do you justify making someone miserable who is perfectly happy?
I expect the government will find someone else to tell them what they want to hear, but I have another saying. If you want me to yes you to death, I charge you double.
As a note of irony on how little esteem the local populace has for the Russian government, I was invited to speak at two conferences in Siberia and in both instances, when one of the government apparatchiks got up to speak, he was booed off the stage. It was a near riot.
The audience was then asked who they wanted to fill in the remaining time and audience shouted out…Ms. Perez!
I was delighted to have the opportunity, because I truly wanted to help these people. You can stick your head in the sand but it won’t change the inevitable. The tectonic shifts of a new economy were coming, whether you liked it or not.
In returning to the podium, I got back to the spirit of why I had flown over to Siberia in the first place. Okay, wow. You now have Ikea and Mango stores. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and see if we can you’re your own mall stores as successful as your snowbound borscht carts and open air markets used to be.
I had been sitting there in the dark for a spell longer, toying with the puzzle of two deaths and Audrey’s inexplicable behavior when the phone rang. It was Whalen. Doubting he had experienced a change of heart, I hesitated to answer. Chances were, he had just figured out I was lying to him.
The phone kept ringing so I finally picked it up.
“Yeah, Pat,” I said.
“Like to take a ride?”
“Why? So you can bust my chops while I’m locked in the back of your squad car?”
“Aw, poor Devlin. Got his feelings hurt. Let it go, for chrissake. I was only pulling your leg.”
“Yeah, some fun.”
“Don’t take it so hard.”
“Yeah, right. So what have you got?”
“Well, didn’t you say you were up at the Sea Shanty in Newport today when those two goons roughed you up?”
“Yeah. I’m still trying to forget it. So what?”
“So, the cops from the local beat just fished a dead body out of the harbor. They have him lying in a shipyard just to the other side of your restaurant. The
driver’s license says this boy likes to bed down up on Allview Terrace. They want me to come down and have a look. Being lonely and all, I thought you might like to come along.”
“Yeah, sure. Anything to get out of this heat.”
I hung up the phone and headed out the door. Ten minutes later, Whalen and I were skirting the coast north of Scotchman’s Cove. I noticed Whalen stealing glances at me as we drove along.
“What do you see out there, Devlin? Something you lost?”
He looked forward again. I continued to stare out at the ship lights. There was a strange longing to be out there with them, all alone on the black sea—a longing that seemed to involve a boat, a doll, a bottle of booze and swells slapping away at the bow.
I was working on that thought when Whalen got back to harassing me.
“You still think Connie and Cliff’s murders are related?”
“We have three murders now,” I reminded him.
“So we have. You think all three of them are related.”
I shrugged, still staring out to sea.
“You’re not being very talkative tonight. Those two girls really break your heart today, did they? Never kiss a girl again?”
Whalen finally gave up and went back to his driving.
A few minutes later, he was taking the loop onto Newport Boulevard. Across the bridge, he turned left and worked his way down to a dead end street along the backside of the harbor. The shipyard and the lies I had told him were straight ahead. If those two Feds were hanging around, Pat would soon start learning things I did not want him to know.
These various concerns came to a crescendo as Pat pulled down the street towards the shipyard. An armada of squad cars was parked out front, putting on a light show. The swarm of news trucks and reporters was just to the street side of the cop cars. They had simply moved up the coast seven miles since the last time I saw them.
Whalen got out of his side of the car. I got out of mine.
“Hey, Devlin!” Bernie called out as Pat and I crossed under the yellow tape. “What do you know?!”
I pointed at Whalen and followed him in, my ears pinned back for any sign of Dick and Tom. They did not appear to be anywhere in the shipyard but I noticed several restaurant balconies looking back at us from over on Lido peninsula, and a handful of stray boats floating around out on the harbor. You never knew with men like Dick and Tom.
Pat had waved to his counterpart from the harbor beat as we walked in. With a wave back, the counterpart wrapped up his conversation with a uniformed cop and started across the shipyard. His air was of a bull looking for trouble. I read Sgt. Hernandez on the badge as he pulled up. Hernandez was something of Pat’s twin; the same butch haircut, the same workout build, the same lifeguard look, if you could picture a Mexican lifeguard.
He shook Pat’s hand and said hello, way too seriously for my tastes. I noticed he had ditched the Latino accent, as much as was possible for a man who had been born in the barrio. Pat introduced me as a private dick and I received a nod instead of a handshake.
The three of us stood there looking around the crime scene. It was still as hot as hell. There were klieg lights everywhere and forensics folks at work, all of it made surreal from that armada of squad cars putting on a light show. Most of the cops were standing around the perimeter, shooting the breeze with each other. You half expected someone to show up with a box of doughnuts.
“Hot one,” Hernandez said to Pat.
“Yeah, hot one,” Pat said to Hernandez.
Sticking to the outskirts of their conversation, my mind flashed back to a July evening long ago, when I had been driving down to Cabo San Lucas and stopped to spend the night in Loreto. It was nine o’clock when I stepped out of my air-conditioned car and the air had slapped me in the face like a hot barber’s towel. That sort of weather never relented. Midnight and the porches along the streets were still stocked with restless souls. There was no breeze. You couldn’t sleep. Maybe standing right down next to the gulf, you’d feel a little coolness lapping up from the waves. Maybe, and it was just that sort of night in Newport. The heat made you want to dive into the harbor, as foul as it was with diesel fuel and boaters dumping their toilets on the way in from a day of fishing.
“Better have a look at the corpse,” Sergeant Hernandez said. “Before they toss him into the back of the wagon.”
We circumvented the crime scene markers and walked down towards the water. The corpse was on the concrete ramp adjacent to the dock, covered with a plastic tarp. The harbor water was lapping not fifteen feet from the shoes. Hernandez pulled back the tarp to reveal a trim man, a few inches under six feet, who appeared to have put on some weight from his tour around the harbor. A few strands of sea grass were tangled in his coarse hair. The hair looked rust colored in the artificial light. I had an eerie sense of him smiling at me. He appeared to have had that kind of happy-go-lucky face,
forever optimistic, everyone glad to see him when he walked into a room. He would have been in his early sixties, had he still been alive.
When it came to corpses, I had never grown accustomed to seeing one, especially not after it had been floating around in the brackish brine of the back harbor for a few hours. There was already a sad, surreal quality about the dead, as if someone had made up a copy of your Uncle Bob, only with the spirit noticeably absent. Add a bit of brine and they became especially grotesque. You could not help but think how fragile your own hold on life was from moment to moment.
“Name’s Dan Colby,” Hernandez was saying. “And besides bedding down in your town, he happens to own this shipyard. Or used to.”
“Know him?” Hernandez added.
Pat shook his head. “Where did you find him?” he asked.
“A couple in a power boat spotted him on their way in from Catalina. Called the Harbor Patrol. By the time the patrol arrived, he was bobbing around under the dock. One slug in the chest. Looks like he took a brief tour of the harbor and washed back up right where he had started.”
“Doesn’t make any sense,” Pat said.
“Nope,” Hernandez acknowledged. “He didn’t drown. And no one tied him to the bottom with rocks, so unless a swim at the end suddenly struck him like a great idea, you’re right, it doesn’t make much sense. There’s blood up in the office, and a trail of it all the way down to the shore. There’s also a big gorilla up there named Jack, who happens to be the shipyard foreman.”
“Any motive there?” Pat asked.
“Hell, who knows? The Harbor Patrol noticed him slipping out of the office as they pulled up to the dock. His story was, he had forgotten to write a check for one of their subcontractors. Saw all the blood and was heading off to call the cops. We asked him the usual. Why not use the phone right in front of you? He told us the usual. He had panicked.”
Pat had been listening to Hernandez without emotion.
“But motive?” Hernandez said. “Other than his mere presence in the office tonight? Not that I can see. Maybe you’d like to go up to the office and have a chat with him.”
“Does he bite?” Pat said.
“Ask him. When we told him about Colby, his eyes got the size of saucers.”
“You think he knows something.”
“He knows how to get real scared. Or how to fake it real well.”
I had been staring at the corpse throughout this entire conversation.
“You done looking at him?” Hernandez asked me.
I nodded and Hernandez dropped the tarp. He and Pat started up towards the office.
“Guess I’ll take in the harbor,” I told them.
“What’s the matter?” Pat said. “Afraid you’re going to see someone you know?”
Hernandez looked from Pat to me and back at Pat again.
“Seems like a couple of goons roughed him up this morning. Over behind the Sea Shanty. Divorce case. That’s how he got the gash”
Pat winked at me and looked back at Hernandez.
“That’s his story anyway.”
Hernandez eyed me with renewed interest. At the very least, he had some sort of tutorial on his mind—don’t mess with my crime scene—but in the end he let it ride and headed up towards the office with Pat.
Far down at the end of the dimly lit tunnel, I saw the lights of the commons and plodded along in that direction. The damp rocks bled water and dripped around me. My heavy steel boots clanged against the magnetized metal catwalk with every step and echoed down the tunnel. Out of nowhere, I suddenly felt very alone. Most everyone had gone into town hours ago.
A minute later, I passed into the bustling square, packed with the never ending parade of rogues and adventurers who crisscrossed the asteroid belt. There were also many of the two hundred or so long term residents who lived on Argos277. Service personnel. Maintenance personnel. Miners. Security. Argos277 had lot of security personnel. Target owned everything on the rock or had a franchise on it and piracy was rampant out here on the frontier.
I skirted the rowdy throng and headed for the Where The Stars Come Out At Night Café. There were three other little late night dives around the commons, plus a donut shop, a coffee shop, a sandwich shop, a media café and an ice cream parlor. They even had a couple of boutiques, but The Stars was the only real place to party in town.
Like any gold town on earth three hundred years earlier, people came to service the miners. Women, especially. One of them smiled at me going by. I ignored her and made my way inside The Stars. The guy who ran it, Welshy, had installed a real time projection of the passing sky on his ceiling. I saw Jupiter rushing by as I walked in.
The smoky atmosphere of the packed bar was made all the more surreal by holographic images everywhere you turned. I passed through several of them on my way to the back wall. The holograms were, for the most part, comprised of gyrating, suggestive images. Everything in that bar was designed to make you drink and want sex, the crowd on the dance floor included. At least Welshy kept the volume of that unending techno-music to a minimum.
I found a quiet corner and took in the scene. A droid waitress came by my small table a minute later.
“A modiva,” I told her.
“Ah, you like the cool blue.”
I nodded. I liked the cool blue. I had never figured out exactly what was in a modiva, but it tasted like carbonated popsicles.
“Cool blue is cool,” she said and left.
Droids. It was hard warming up to them, especially these Generation II models. Target must have gotten a bargain. He had a few dozen of them working around the base.
Before leaving Mars, I had crossed paths with a Generation IV model and thought it was an actual human being until somebody told me otherwise. A Generation IV model would have said, “Oh, cool blue. Nice choice. I love them too.” Not some comment that had been plucked from a play list.
The waitress came back a few minutes later with my drink.
“Will you be eating tonight?”
“Yeah. Patty said she had a burger for me.”
“I’m sure she will then.”
The waitress tapped at her clear plastic tablet and the cost for my drink popped up as a hologram at my table. She moved on to the next table. I took a sip of the modiva and watched Barnes. He had taken off his metal shoes and was floating around the bar with a droid call girl. I had visions of a rubber sex doll. Boor that he was, Barnes was soon simulating sexual intercourse with his date in midair, to great cheers and laughter.
The Generation II models were a far sight better than rubber dolls. Nice looking, in fact. Certainly better looking than most of the human trash that passed through these asteroid outposts, but they made love like a broken record. Feigned passions, feigned orgasms, and all out sync, like you had hit the wrong button.
Patty came flying through the bar at one point and noticed me.
“Hey Apollo,” she said, hovering over me. “Ready for that burger?”
“Yeah. I already told the waitress but check on it for me, all right?”
She pushed off the wall and went flying the other way, her blue hair swaying. I went back to watching Barnes. If somebody had to be lost in space, why not him?
Within minutes, Patty had returned with my burger. It never took long to sizzle up that artificial crap.
“Another one?” she said about my drink.
She flew off again. I bit in, trying not to think about what my burger had been a few minutes earlier.
Sometime later, as I was tossing back the last of my modiva, Barnes floated overhead with his droid fling. Botsies, men had taken to calling these pleasure models—short for robot, with the ending throw in for fun. Naturally, men riffed on the theme from there. Boopsies. Bopsies. The more scatological it got, the more you got a laugh.
“What the fuck, Apollo?” Barnes said from overhead. “You too good to join us?”
“I’m eating a burger.”
“Your burger’s done. Come on and join the party.”
“I’m tired, Barnes. And frankly in no mood to party.”
“Yeah?” he said, waxing serious all of a sudden.
While pulling himself down onto the chair next to me, he poked a finger at his date. She floated up towards the ceiling like a balloon. Seeing her blank smile, I shuddered. It was the uncanny valley. She was a beautiful blonde. She blinked like a plastic being.
Barnes leaned in close to my ear and whispered.
“We’re staging a revolt tomorrow.”
He leaned back to look at me.
“So, what? You’re not in?”
“I’ve got a contract to fulfill, Barnes, and I intend to do so.”
“Fuck that. Target let Casey just float off into never, never land today and for what? To save himself a few hundred federals worth of fuel?”
I stared off at the raucous bar scene, intent on ignoring Barnes.
“You don’t even give a fuck, do you, Apollo?”
“About what?” I said, looking back.
“Fuck you. About Casey. About fucking looking out for ourselves up here. That prick Target has no right to treat us like droids.”
I glanced up at Barnes’ bimbo blonde date and back at him.
“He didn’t tie himself off. Did I miss something here?”
“What a prick you are, Apollo.”
Barnes went to push himself off but leaned in closer to my ear before he did.
“There’s going to be a revolt here tomorrow and you’re either with us or you’re not.”
Barnes let that sink in and floated off.
“Better make up your mind, dickhead.”
I looked away without a word.
Barnes was soon lost in his debauchery again. I sat there considering his words. The supply ship was due in sometime the following afternoon. No doubt Barnes knew about that. This sounded like more than cheap talk.
While I was weighing things in my mind, a ruckus broke out at the bar. A couple of heavies were at the center of it, the usual space trash, drug runners, probably, just passing through and looking for trouble. It appeared that a beautiful young woman with short, black hair was the object of their attention.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. She was wearing thigh high black boots and a black Naugahyde jumpsuit.
One of Target’s combat class droids stepped in to help settle the problem and one of the men took a swing at him. The droid sent him flying across the bar. When those combat models got involved, somebody usually took a ride.
There were screams and tables overturned, followed by laughter. The other heavy had his hands up as if to say, hey, we’re good here. The black haired woman had used this opportunity to slip away. The droid went to deal with what was left of the other guy.
Distracted, I hadn’t noticed Olga squeezing into the other seat at my table. My mind quickly scrambled for a means of escape but there was none. Fuck. I should never have made love to her. There were all kinds of red flags right from the start. She was a beautiful Russian blonde doll…and psychotic. Naturally I had let the blonde doll part override my better judgment.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” Olga said first thing.
“I haven’t been avoiding you.”
“Yes you have. I know when people are avoiding me.”
“Christ,” I muttered under my breath and looked up at the stars.
“Don’t swear at me.”
“I’m not. I’m swearing at Jupiter up there.”
The first approach having born no fruit, Olga tried maudlin.
“Why can’t you say something sweet to me?”
I shuddered visibly. The answer was, you’re insane and begging me to say something sweet repulses me even further.
I didn’t say as much. I just stared forward.
“You know, Apollo, I have another man who wants me. I just thought, you know, before I committed to him, I should be sure. You’re the only man I really wanted.”
She reached out and touched my forearm with her fingernails.
“Please, Apollo. I need your sweetness. Not what I got. Look how you treat me. As soon as you got what you wanted from me, pffff.”
She flung one hand out dramatically. I rubbed my forehead. It had started like this between us and had gone downhill from there. She lied and manipulated, then played the victim. She put words in your mouth, then watched you squirmed and tried to repudiate them.
What a cunning bitch. I wanted to be kind to her, but couldn’t.
“Look, you’re a sweet lady, Olga, okay?”
I had said this, hoping to defuse things. I should have known better. She leaned in closer and waved a finger at her lips, wanting a kiss now.
“What? You don’t want to kiss me?”
“No. I think it’s best if we’re just friends.”
She pulled away violently and sulked.
“Look. I’m glad you have this other man. I wish you the best.”
I glanced at the maelstrom of emotions twisting up in her face. There were tears, stewing in a sea of latent violence. I thought for a moment that peace might win out, but no. Olga tossed her drink in my face and stormed off. I had half the bar staring at me.
Christ. I could only hope that was the end of it.
While drying myself off, I noticed Barnes at the bar, downing shots with one hand, feeling up his droid sweetheart with the other and making a lot of noise with everyone around him. The prick had to turn everything into a spectacle. He was incapable of breathing without being the center of attention.
Distracted with Barnes, I hadn’t noticed the young woman with the thigh high black boots and black Naugahyde jumpsuit taking a seat across the table. She could have been a pin up, if not for the attitude. I had little use for the outfit, either. Dominatrix had never been my scene.
I gave her the once over and looked forward again.
“Not interested,” I said.
“Fuck you. I’m not selling,” she said.
“Sorry. You looked the part.”
“And I can see why women throw drinks in your face.”
I shrugged again.
“There are plenty of other seats in the bar.”
“I happen to like this one.”
I shrugged again and started to get up, in no mood for two insane women in one evening. She reached out with her hand, forcefully enough to stop me in midair.
“Look. Let’s not get off on the wrong foot.”
I gave her the once over again and sat back down.
“Just don’t toss you’re drink in my face and we’ll be all right.”
I sat there waiting. I knew she had something on her mind.
“I came over here to ask you about Casey. That bar waitress Patty said you were one of his friends.”
I glanced across the table at her. She kept glancing at two more heavies who had appeared at the far end of the bar. They took a seat, ordered drinks and turned to stare at us. The young woman lit up a cigarette nervously.
“You know them?” I said.
“No,” she said.
I had no reason to believe her and didn’t.
She puffed on her cigarette and tried look nonchalant but I could tell those two men had her worried.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Kali. What’s yours?”
“Apollo. So you were Casey’s date tonight.”
“How did you know?”
“I put two and two together. You were looking for him and he had mentioned having a date tonight.”
“Can you tell me more about what happened?”
I looked away.
“Nothing. He was in a hurry and forgot to tie himself off.”
I looked back.
“I’m guessing you were the reason he was in a hurry. Putting two and two together.”
She shook her head slowly and looked away. I looked up at the image of Jupiter flying by again.
“And now he’s out there somewhere.”
“So why wouldn’t Target let you go look for him?”
I glanced at her and returned my attention to the two heavies.
“Because it was a waste of time.”
“And that’s it? Nobody even put up a fight?”
I glanced at her again.
“You had to be there.”
The waitress came and Kali ordered an Avanti.
“Ah, the red,” the waitress said. “Very good choice.”
She pulled out her tablet.
“Is this the same tab?”
“Yes,” Kali said.
“No,” I said.
The droid’s brain stalled in the confusion. I was waiting for smoke to come out of her ears.
“All right,” I said. “Put it on the same tab.”
The waitress came out of her brain freeze, punched in the price and left. Kali studied my face for a moment and leaned in towards my ear.
“Look, Apollo. The whole point was, I’ve got trouble and need a good hand. That’s why Casey was meeting me here tonight. I had asked him to join me.”
“What kind of trouble?”
Kali darted a glance at the two heavies and looked back at me.
“I really can’t discuss that that right now.”
I started to get up and again Kali reached out her hand.
“Look, just hear me out.”
I sat back down.
“I was on my way in from an ice run to Iliad-4073 a few months back when a call came through from Destry’s people.”
My eyebrows went up at hearing the name Destry.
“Yeah, you know him,” Kali said.
“Who doesn’t? So, what was the message?”
“My instructions were to meet a supply ship here sometime this week. Supposedly I’m making a food run to Destry666 but some really weird shit has been going down ever since I agreed to take on this job.”
“Like when I was crossing the Kirkland gap between Hygiea and Eos, I spotted a Drake bootleg ship closing fast in on me. From the direction of Themis. No markings, no signature. At least from what I could gather viewing them on my long range satellite imagery.”
“And that’s it?”
“Yeah, well you try to outrun a hotrod like that for half an AU. I have a Drake SE that was souped up plenty before I took it off the lot on Ceres. I can outrun any stray patrol, but who knew what kind of fuel capacity they were carrying? The amount of times I had to stop, I expected them to pull up any minute while I had the fuel nozzle in my tank.”
“But that’s it?”
“What do you mean, that’s it?”
“I mean, that’s it. If you’re running the Kirkland gap from Hygiea to Eos, you may as well anchor with a loaded galleon along the old Barbary Coast.”
“Oh, an historian, are we?”
She pretended facetiously to be impressed.
“I’m just saying, what’s so unusual about crossing paths with a few scalawags while passing through that neck of the woods?”
“I’ll tell you what’s so unusual. I picked up on no less than five more ships tracking my movements on my way here, but not one of them tried to board me. They just hung back, keeping a close eye on things.”
“So you think maybe they’re waiting for you to load the cargo you were supposed to pick up here on Argos.”
“Well, what would you think?”
I glanced over at the two heavies. They were still sitting there, staring at us.
“If those guys are part of your welcoming party, I’d say don’t meet them in a dark alley anywhere.”
“No shit,” Kali said and sipped her drink. “I’m pretty sure they’re the ones who tracked me in from Themis.”
“Hmm. Well, getting back to your question, I’ve got my own plans. Besides, if you have a whole pack of wolves on your tail, I don’t know what difference I could make.”
“So you’re useless with a gun.”
“I didn’t say that. I just don’t like the odds.”
“There’s big money in it,” Kali whispered with a lean in towards my face.
I nodded and looked straight ahead. Yeah, money and adventure, and this Kali was starting to get under my skin.
“Okay, I get it, Apollo. You’re down to months on your contract digging holes for Target and don’t want to fuck it up, not even for a tidy little fortune on my end.”
I let Kali know she was getting warm with a little lift of my eyebrows.
We sat there for a spell watching the show in silence.
“So, what else is going on out there?” I said without looking Kali’s way.
“You mean, with the Federation?”
“It’s falling apart. The Russians and Chinese and Americans are butting heads again like they’re ready for war.”
“So what else is new?”
“Yeah. I don’t even bother to report in when I cross the border these days. Especially going in and out of the Russian sector. Their sentries are worse than the pirates. You don’t when to feel safe anymore.”
I nodded, not wanting to show my envy. It should have been my ship we were talking about. Shit. So, six more months and I’d be back on Mars, shopping for one.
Kali downed her drink.
“So, I take it you’re not game on joining me.”
I shook my head. She saluted me with her empty glass and stood up with a slap of her knees.
“Okay. Don’t know if I’ll ever be back in these parts again, or when, and you’ll probably be gone by then anyway, so best of luck.”
She started to leave.
“Oh, and hey,” she said, turning back. “Too bad about Casey. He seemed like a hell of a guy.”
I nodded. Kali pretended to tip her cap and left.