From the author: A half-Cherokee plainclothes detective in Baltimore has twelve hours to find a woman kidnapped by the Russian Mafia, or admit that he has once again been defeated by his spiritual nemesis, Coyote.
“I know I’m not a good man, Lieutenant,” Rosco said. “But my wife, Alice, ha…had nothing to do with it. She shouldn’t pay for my mistakes.”
The man sitting across my desk was scared. Not top of the rollercoaster scared. No. He was Devil foreclosing on your soul terrified.
After twenty-five years on the force, first Homicide, now Plainclothes, I’ve learned that keeping the victim focused on details helps hold them together.
“When’d Alice go missing?” I asked.
“And the ransom note?”
“This morning. Stuck in my front door.”
“Let me see it.”
The paper was poor quality and Rosco’s fingerprints were probably all over it, but I put on exam gloves before taking it from his trembling hand.
Ur wife is with us. U pay what U owe by 12 tonite or she die.
A telephone number followed.
“You sure it’s genuine?”
Rosco looked down at his shoes, the red of his eyes showing. Before I left the reservation, I’d worked as a blackjack dealer at the casino, and Rosco was the kind of guy the house loved. A Loser, and he knew it. They all knew it, but they kept coming back, hoping the next hand, the next turn of the wheel, would somehow change their life and they could finally beat the house. Rosco was out of luck. He’d come to me for a miracle.
He swallowed. “Yeah. I owe money to some guys. Hard guys.” He swallowed again. “Russian mafia.”
“Shit,” I said. Those guys didn’t just talk. I looked at the clock. Ten A.M. Midnight was only fourteen hours away. I looked at Rosco. It was a cold blustery late-winter day, but his shirt was soaked in sweat.
“You got a million dollars?”
“No,” he said, wiping his hands on his pants. “Friend of mine got me in on something, said it was a sure thing. I believed him. I went to the Russians for the cash, and lost it all.” He put his face in his hands. “It was a sure thing.”
He probably still sends checks to exiled kings in Africa, I thought.
“How much can you raise?”
“Two-hundred thousand tops. Think that’d be enough?”
I knew the Russians would kill her if he was a dime short or ten minutes late. They’d lose the two-hundred grand he could pay, but the word would get out. Don’t mess with the Russians.
Probably best keep that opinion to myself, I thought. I remembered the last time I’d dealt with the Russian Mafia. We’d found the body floating in the harbor a week later.
They say we came from the ocean, and I believe it. The longer a body’s been in the water, the more it looks like a fish. Pale. Bloated. Thank God for dental records, or we’d never have been sure it was her. I tried to shake the image from my mind.
My Cherokee grandmother used to say, “Don’t let yesterday use too much of today.” I looked at Rosco. I couldn’t change what happened. Maybe this time would be different, but deep inside I was nearly as scared as he was.
Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry.
Coyote won the last time. I needed to win this one, as much as Rosco did.
“We can try. Call the number and ask to speak with her, to make sure she’s still alive. They’ll do that.”
Rosco nodded and straightened in his chair. Having something to do gave him focus.
“It’ll be a disposable cell phone,” I said, “and they won’t talk long enough to trace, but right now it’s all we got. Disposables don’t have caller ID, so use my office phone once I set it to record.”
Rosco sipped some water, his hand shaking. He was hoping for a miracle, and so was I.
I gave him the thumbs up when I was ready, but his hands were trembling so much that after three failed tries to punch in the number, I did it for him and handed over the phone.
The voice on the other end was distorted, like throat cancer patients with prosthetic vocal cords. “Da? You have the money?”
“I ain’t saying nothing ‘til I speak with my wife.”
We heard a gasp like a gag had been removed, then a woman’s voice. “Rosco?”
“It’s me, Alice. It’ll be alright.”
“Sea pen,” she said, then Mister Cyborg was back.
“So, you have the money or not?”
“I’ve got two-hundred grand. Please. It’s all I’ve got.”
“Not enough. No one cheats us and gets away with it. Call by midnight to arrange drop-off of one million, or she in morgue tomorrow.” The line went dead.
“Oh God, what have I done?” Rosco moaned.
“Sea pen? What the hell’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “Are you sure that’s what she said?”
“I’ll play it back.”
I’d heard right, she’d said “Sea pen,” or “see Penn,” or maybe “seeping.” But I heard something else, too. I played it again, reducing Alice’s voice but boosting the background. A ship’s horn.
“Hear that horn, Rosco? She must be near the docks. So, it must be “Sea” pen.”
He swallowed but said nothing. OK, maybe not a miracle, but it’s something to go on.
“She knows they’ll probably kill her,” I said. “This must be a clue to where they’ve got her.”
“Hang on.” I sent the note in a plastic bag down to the lab and put Detective Google on the case. Wikipedia said sea pen was some kind of marine life, like a sea anemone. C. Penn was a portrait painter in Vancouver, a long way from Baltimore.
We were screwed.
Rosco could see it in my face. “Nothing?”
“Nothing…yet. We know she’s near the docks.”
He shook his head. “There’s gotta be a thousand warehouses down there.”
He was right. The Russians probably had her in one they owned through a front. I’d get my computer wizards to pour through titles, but legit operations often owned warehouses through shell corporations to escape liability. The odds were long we’d find the right one in time. So far, it looked like the Russians had the winning hand, but I still had an ace to play.
“We’re not alone, Rosco. Kidnapping’s a Federal offense. Let’s see if the FBI can help.”
I called the local field office. Special Agent Baker was a decent guy, for a Fed, and said he’d have his guys help scan titles. “I can’t put anyone in the field today, Lieutenant Mankiller, sorry. Besides, your boys know the area better than we do. I’ll take over, after, you know.”
I did know. Either after the woman was rescued…or her body found. I knew which was more likely. “All right. I’ll keep you posted.”
After I hung up, I turned to Rosco, who’d started crying. “I need you to keep it together,” I said, “for your wife’s sake. I’ll get my guys. We can’t flood the area with blue suits or they’ll move her, or kill her, then run.”
“How many men can you send?”
“Fourteen men and women, all plainclothes. I’ll also have a twelve-man SWAT team nearby, ready to go as soon as we find her.” I sounded more confident than I felt.
I briefed the squad in the conference room before handing out assignments. To the untrained eye, the room was filled with longshoremen, shipping clerks, and truck drivers. No one looked too prosperous, or too official. They were pros; I hoped they were enough.
“The ship’s horn sounded pretty faint,” I said. “so, we can ignore the warehouses next to the pier. We’ll start from three rows away, and work our way out from there. We’ve only got ‘til midnight, so we don’t have much time.”
They shook their heads when I told them the deadline, and I was glad Rosco wasn’t in the room. “Hey, Lieutenant,” a voice in the back asked. “What the hell’s sea pen mean?”
“You tell me, and you get a day off, with pay,” I said. That got a few chuckles. Plainclothes Division never gives days off.
“I don’t want any heroes,” I said. “Let SWAT do the heavy lifting. You see something suspicious, you call it in. Got it? Remember, a brave warrior…”
“Makes a poor scout,” Sergeant Busby muttered.
I nodded. “Exactly. Let’s move!”
It was two hours from the time Rosco sat at my desk until we started the sweep, which wasn’t bad, considering how much had happened in that time. Still, those were two hours we’d never get back, and now we only had twelve hours left. We were looking for a needle in a haystack and weren’t even sure which haystack to look in.
To make things worse, it started raining. It was early March, and the freezing drizzle made us burrow into our coats when we stepped outside.
The afternoon wore on. I had Rosco with me in my car so I could take him to his wife--or to identify her body--right away, and to keep him on a short leash.
Then I got a call from Sergeant Busby.
“Found an old warehouse with the lock busted. Looks like ten, maybe twelve people in there. Mostly men, but a couple of women.”
The report of women in the group made me pause. Maybe so one woman wouldn’t stand out when they moved her? But why would they still be there? Only one way to find out.
“I’ll call SWAT. Be there in five.”
Sergeant Murphy, the SWAT commander, was like a human attack dog. Tall and lean, he didn’t blink much, but he smiled when he saw a building he could bust into. I was glad someone was having fun.
His squad surrounded the warehouse. At his signal, six of them broke down the door on the far side, as he led the rest through the one with the broken lock.
I followed the last man in, and when Murphy barked “FACE DOWN, NOW!” I almost dropped myself.
I heard shouts of “CLEAR!” as they went through every room, while the dozen people we’d just surrounded lay face down. I smelled urine. Someone had wet themselves. I checked to make sure it wasn’t me.
“No bad guys here, Lieutenant,” the SWAT commander reported. He looked down at the cowering homeless people. “What about them?”
“Get up,” I told them, “and get out. Trespassing’s very dangerous. No charges this time, consider yourselves lucky.”
They snatched their stuff and shuffled out in no time leaving behind the unmistakable smells of body odor…and urine.
“Back to your van, Sergeant,” I told SWAT. “We’ve still got time.” But not much, I thought. It was dark now and my watch showed eight PM.
Four hours left. As I left the building I could almost hear Coyote’s howl, mocking me. You haven’t won yet, you bastard.
Rosco had stayed in the car, but I didn’t have to tell him anything. He’d seen the homeless scuttle out the door.
The temperature was around forty, and as I looked at my crew I could tell they were all wet and miserable. “Sorry, guys,” I said. “Get some coffee, then get back out there. Get it to go.” They nodded. They could tell time as well as I could. We’d been through maybe twenty percent of the area, and the clock was winding down.
“Sea pen,” one of them muttered. The rest shook their heads.
I felt guilty sitting in my car while monitoring the radio. My guys were out there in the cold while I, their chief, was warm and dry. It hadn’t always been like that. As a young cop on the beat I’d gotten a lot of grief from the punks I’d hauled in, as well as from the other cops for my heritage. Having a name like Mankiller, then being assigned to Homicide…well, the local papers always managed to work my name into the story if I was involved.
It took me five years of begging before my transfer to Plainclothes. I preferred trying to stop killings to cleaning up afterward. The stereotype of the drunken Indian worked for me there, the bad guys never suspecting me of being a cop. The Lakota say that many a man has fallen with the bottle in his hand. It gave me a sense of justice to use the bottle as a disguise, twisting Coyote’s tail.
An hour later I was sitting in my car with Rosco, looking at a map of the district for about the twentieth time, when I got a call from Hernandez.
“Lieutenant, I think I’ve got something.”
“Not sure. I gotta show you.”
Hernandez was twenty-eight, and she’d only made Detective last year, but had grown up in the barrios and was street smart. I trusted her instincts.
“There in five.”
I made it in three.
“I went to get coffee like you said. Then I saw it.”
She pointed to a coffee shop down the street. It had a neon sign in the window that said OPEN. Then it didn’t. The right-hand side of the Oflickered off, then on, then off again, forming the letter C...making it CPEN.
“So, Lieutenant, about that day off…”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.”
We strolled across the street doing our best imitations of civilians, went inside and got coffee in paper cups, then sat by the window. I looked at the building across the street. The warehouse door was chained, but above it was an office with a dim light on. Maybe a security light? I saw a shadow flit by.
“Good thing we got it to go,” I said. We left the coffee shop and walked to our right. As soon as we were out of sight, I called it in. The odds were looking better, but there was still one hand to play.
My computer guys back at the station looked up the blueprints. Two exits on the ground floor, front and back, and a central staircase and fire escape on the second. Upstairs was a large office, with a smaller one in the back, accessible through the first one. With the front door locked on the outside, that left the bad guys the back door and the fire escape. Sergeant Murphy sent three of his men to secure the outside ladder, and one man to scout the back door.
Twenty minutes later, I was in a side alley with six of my guys and Hernandez when the SWAT leader reported the back door had a lookout.
“He gives the alarm, they might do something stupid,” I said. “Maybe hold a gun to her head and try to force their way out. We gotta take ‘em by surprise.”
I remembered something Grandfather Mankiller once said when telling me about fighting the Germans. “Never forget, Daniel. The weakness of your enemy is your strength.” I studied the door another moment, then turned to Hernandez.
“I got an idea,” I said, “but I need your help. It’s risky.”
She smiled, and one eyebrow went up. “I like it already. Tell me, Jefe.”
“Working girls pick up Johns down here. Care to see if ‘Ivan’ likes chicas?”
She laughed and started to unbutton her coat, then looked at us.
“Turn around, gentlemen.”
I heard the rustle of clothes, then she tapped me on the shoulder. “It’s safe now.” She handed me her slacks and blouse. “Keep these somewhere safe and dry.”
I suddenly found myself holding her perfumed, still-warm clothes while struggling with unprofessional thoughts.
She’d closed her overcoat and shivered a bit, but smiled.
While the rest of us hid in the shadows, she swaggered up and knocked on the door. Ivan was inside smoking and waved for her to scram. In reply, Hernandez slowly unbuttoned her coat and opened it wide.
I think Ivan swallowed his cigarette.
He opened the door, and I heard the soft “pop” as Hernandez hit him with a Taser. Don’t ask me where she’d hid it.
One of my guys sighed, “It would be worth it,” then flinched at my look.
“Let’s keep it professional,” I said. “That took guts.”
I crept in behind the SWAT Sergeant with his three smallest guys in the lead. There wasn’t room for any more. He turned to me, held up three fingers, then pointed upstairs. One down, three to go. I motioned to Hernandez to stay where she was to monitor Ivan, now handcuffed and gagged, and cover the stairs, in case any of the bad guys got past us. Besides, she definitely wasn’t wearing a vest.
This was it. I nodded to Sergeant Murphy and took a deep breath, my stomach like a balled-up fist.
One SWAT crept up the stairs as we crouched below, a Beretta in one hand, a flash-bang grenade in the other. We heard voices upstairs speaking in slow, short grunts. They sounded bored.
That was about to change.
The Russians never saw it coming. SWAT found them all flattened by the explosion in the main office; a folding table still teetered on its side and cards were everywhere. Sorry to spoil your game, fellas.
They were big guys, and just as I started to breathe easy, one staggered up and charged straight at Sergeant Murphy and me. Murphy dodged, tripping the Russian bull as he passed, and he slammed into me, sending us both tumbling down the stairs in a ball of arms, legs, and curses in Russian, English, and Cherokee. My gun went flying and I was too busy trying not to break my neck to do anything else.
We landed hard at the bottom, right at Hernandez’s feet. Her coat was closed, and any thoughts the Russian may have had to look under it were probably stopped by her nine-millimeter inches from his face. Between the hard landing and the gun nearly stuck up his nose, he was done. I cuffed him before I stood. The rest of the SWAT team charged in and each Russian got a two-man escort, while my squad followed in behind.
“You OK, Lieutenant?” Hernandez asked.
I shook myself, seeing what still worked, and enough parts of me reported in to keep going.
“Looks like I’ll live another day, thanks. Let’s go up. You should be there.”
I leaned on the handrail as I went up, letting Hernandez go first. Sergeant Murphy motioned us to the back office.
There, taped to a chair and gagged, was a skinny middle-aged woman.
I stared at the chair and knew that’s where she would have died, if she hadn’t kept her cool, and if Hernandez didn’t drink coffee. The fist in my stomach relaxed. We’d won.
Alice’s eyes were open and her pupils wide, but she wasn’t crying. One tough lady, I thought. I turned to Hernandez. “You do the honors,” I said. “You earned it,” and handed her my knife.
Hernandez smiled as she opened the blade. “Better than a day, off, Jefe,” she said, her eyes bright, “But I’m still gonna hold you to it.”
I could swear I saw a tear in her eye before she turned and removed the gag. “Hello, Alice,” she said. “My name’s Esperanza. In Spanish it means Hope, and I was hoping to meet you today.”
“Hello, Esperanza,” Alice managed to croak out. “It’s really nice to meet you!”
“Your little clue was smart,” I said. “What’d you tell the Russians it meant?”
Alice licked her dry lips, and said, “I said it was the name of the boat Rosco and I took on our honeymoon. They Googled it, and believed me.”
“If you ever want a job with us, let me know.”
The three of us laughed.
“I’ve had enough excitement, Officer. Thanks, all the same.”
While Hernandez cut Alice free, I called for someone to bring Rosco to us. The “after” I’d hand over to the FBI was the good kind, this time, and that felt Damngood.
I left Rosco and his wife alone for a couple of minutes. He looked at me as he held her. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to.
I was even more surprised at this miracle than he was because I knew the odds. It was good to finally see a Loser beat the house. He’d be offered Witness Protection, and if he was smart, he’d finally quit while he had a winning hand.
In your face, Coyote.