DISTRACTED: A THRILLER
Each one symbolic of far more than just the courage and resiliency I showed in overcoming each of them. I glanced down at the man who’d attempted to add a sixth to the chaos of old wounds already present on my upper body. A dull blade rested just out of his reach on the oil-stained concrete bed. His right hand lay at an odd angle, particularly slack at the wrist joint. No two fingers on the hand pointed in the same direction. His moans were as muscular as winter wind. And the smells associated with his fear—urine, voided bowels, vomit—made breathing the stagnant air of the mostly empty warehouse an unpleasant exercise.
I ignored his moans and his closed eyes and began relaying the extensive history of my scars. “This,” I said, raising the tail of my T-shirt to expose the thick caterpillar etched into my abdomen, “was my first. A dull blade like the one you just tried to use on me. The infection was far worse than the cut. The first time my invincibility was ever called into question.”
Water dripped from the eaves in a hypnotic plop. Physically I struggled to stay in the moment, eyes burning, nostrils flaring against the horrid smells, my mood crying out for an attentive audience at the very least. But the downed man’s eyelids were shut, and the tortured sound that reminded me of early January continued to flow from his mouth.
A decent man would have accepted the quit in him.
No one had ever accused me of being a decent man, though.
I nudged his tender ribs with the toe of my shoe. He winced and squirmed on the cement floor, moving like spilled milk on a tilted tabletop. I flexed my gloved hands in response, my veins rich with adrenaline. Life had always proven itself to be unsuitably complex for me. There was little I knew with certainty. My skills and acumen were limited. As much pain as I had inflicted, I didn’t even have a firm grasp on that. What did pain truly feel like? What thoughts crossed the mind of those in the clutches of it?
Ending the pain, though…in that area I had clarity.
I dropped down in a baseball catcher’s crouch and whispered to him, “This one by my left pectoral, precariously close to my heart, isn’t actually from a knife. It’s circular as you can see, but ragged around the edges. Looks like a disrespectful cigarette burn in the carpet. Gun shot wound.”
He didn’t look. I decided to hold that against him.
“Right forearm,” I continued nonetheless. “It looks rather substantial but it’s really not in comparison with the others. Not worth more than an ancillary mention.”
His eyes remained closed.
“But the right shoulder was a doozy,” I went on. “I lost a great deal of blood on that one. Someone upstairs loves me despite my many sins.”
And the fifth and final indignity, another thin caterpillar along my jawline, left side. I told him of that one as well. As with the others, he didn’t respond in any noticeable way.
Symbolic, those five scars. Each one, in my mind, represented a life I was responsible for. Five women in just as many cities.
I slapped the man’s face, trying to wake him to reality. Finally his eyes opened. I asked him a question.
The struggle for an answer was a billboard advertisement on his battered face: furrowed brow, swollen but contemplative eyes, pursed lips. And no forthcoming answer to my question. His brain had been seriously jarred.
I sighed audibly.
Noting that, he began to tremble. Tears leaked from his eyes. He wanted to help me. He wanted to answer any question I asked. He really really did.
I glanced over at Murdoch, the only other occupant in the cavernous warehouse with us, and asked him the question that had gone unanswered. “What’s his name?”
Murdoch half-smiled. Appreciative of my coldblooded precision, no doubt. Cause pain and ask questions later. In the short time Murdoch and I had been acquainted he’d learned how brutal I could be. In that same short time I’d been more so than usual. Lives were at stake. Five of them.
“Yerby,” Murdoch answered. “Joseph.”
“Joey?” I turned my attention back on the downed man, nudging his ribs once more. “You want to help us out, don’t you, Joey? Murdoch and I?”
Joseph Yerby offered his best approximation of a nod.
“Mr. Coke has concerns about you testifying against him,” I said. “You can understand how that prospect would leave his spirit somewhat troubled.”
Whatever answer Joseph Yerby was prepared to provide was muffled by the end of the pistol I pulled from my waistband and forced between his bloodied lips. A modified Ruger with an integrated suppressor. It clashed with his teeth before finding rest a finger deep in his mouth. Thankfully, he didn’t gag or vomit again. “You had your chance. This is my time,” I explained to him. “Up on your knees, Joe-Joe.”
A moment’s pause, then he struggled upright, a man praying on his knees at the altar. I stood from my crouch slowly, hovered above him. Across from me Murdoch released a low whistle, shook his head, chuckled softly.
His approval was like the sudden appearance of warm sunshine on what had been an unseasonably cold and gray day.
Murdoch was the means to an end.
Joseph Yerby as well, I supposed.
Lives were at stake. Five of them.
The doomed man raised his arms and laced his fingers behind his head. A growing butterfly of new urine stained the front of his pants.
The cold finger of the Ruger still rested deep in his mouth.
I said, “Your testimony would be damning for Mr. Coke. Would it not, Joseph Yerby?”
He hesitated, unsure whether he should speak or not. I’d placed him inside of a trick box.
“You’d be wise to answer,” I said. “And truthfully. That’s all I ask of you at the moment. Your testimony would be damning, correct?”
He managed a nod.
I exhaled, said, “Thanks for your honesty, Joey,” mussing his hair like a child before taking off the back of his head with the suppressed report of the modified Ruger.
Joseph Yerby’s body fell forward like a sack of something on the cold cement flooring.
Murdoch was surprised but didn’t allow it to show around his mouth or his eyes. Life in general had hardened him. Life with Coke had made him as close to impenetrable as a person could get.
I looked at him with an equally unfazed visage. “You have someone to clean up?”
“Probably be best we did it,” Murdoch said, his tone even, unaltered by the tension of the moment. “Mr. Coke’s cleaner charges a league.”
A league was ten thousand dollars.
I usually charged two leagues to end someone’s pain.
“I’d get the cleaner,” I said. “This is a real fine mess.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Mr. Coke didn’t ask me to handle this, this way.”
I glanced down at Joseph Yerby’s shell sprawled on the ground. “I’m sure there was no other way to handle it, Murdoch. We’ve done the Big Man a favor. Joseph Yerby was intent on jeopardizing Coke’s freedom. I would hate to have seen that happen before I even got a chance to deal with the man. Coke’s hands have a lot of blood on them for sure, but Yerby wasn’t set to receive a Susan B. Anthony distinction either.”
“He had some blood on his hands as well,” I said.
Murdoch looked down at the broken man, eventually nodded as realization took hold. “Mr. Coke would probably do well to finally meet you,” my sudden benefactor said in a raw whisper.
I’d planted a seed and he was now watering it.
It took all I had to keep a smile from my face.
THE ARTERIES THAT LEAD to me are purposely convoluted. Five cities and an equal number of women working for me. All precisely fitting to a type. Late thirties, early forties. Single, with at least one child. Discreet and compensated well enough to be unafraid of any legal fallout resulting from the support they provide me. Each with a specific purpose in my busy affairs. Lawyer, financial advisor, real estate agent, reformed gangbanger, physician.
Following the regularity of all the major holidays, a florist, a different one each time, delivers potted flowers to the five women. Embedded in the soil of those potted plants were ten thousand dollars cash and a forged business card with a number scrawled on the back, written in erasable ink with my left hand. Independence Day’s card, the latest, marked with a private voice mail box for a massage parlor in upstate New York. My Five took messages from those looking to procure my difficult-to-obtain services and forwarded all vetted inquiries to the private voice mail box. Veronica, the lawyer of the quintet, handled all of the vetting.
Someone had broken into my Network. Discovered my women and their roles in my life.
Lives were at stake.
Five of them.
I had a forced job to complete, without my usual remuneration of two leagues. Do it and my Five would live. Falter and they wouldn’t. Despite the complexities of my life, that was a simple proposition.
So Roger Coke had to die.
And I was the one that had to make sure that happened.