Sunday, July 17, 2011

A complete short story for fans of crime and murder

HANDLER HANK by Vincent H. O’Neil

Here’s a question for you: When are undercover cops most at risk? Some people think it’s when they’re all alone with a gang of criminals, completely cut off from backup—but that’s wrong. That’s the meat-and-potatoes of undercover, and most of the people who do this kind of work are pretty comfortable with it. They’d better be, anyway. No, the most dangerous time for undercovers is when they’re meeting their handlers. Just about any other situation can be explained, but being spotted at an out-of-the-way place having a nice little chat with a police detective is pretty much a death sentence.
That’s where I come in. Although I’m not actually a cop anymore, and I’m not officially a handler, my nickname with a tiny group of police detectives is Handler Hank. I take that potentially lethal circumstance—the contact between the undercover and his or her managers—and make it almost perfectly safe.
I say ‘almost’ because nothing in this world is perfect. Most of it’s not even close.
My latest imperfect day started early. I was standing on the loading dock in back of my business, sipping coffee and watching the bicycle messengers clown around. It was a cool morning, early spring, but the sun was beginning to show itself and it looked like it would be a pretty nice day.
            Elvis Coolidge, an early-twenties black guy with a shaved head and the lean physique common to my bike employees, was just winning a bet he’d made with the other messengers. The rear tire of his racing bike was planted neatly in the middle of an overturned egg carton, and he was almost motionless. Keeping a bicycle upright without pedaling is no feat for these kids, but this particular display was still something. With a quick dip of his shoulders, Elvis surged upward in the pedals while yanking on the handlebars. The bike jumped just high enough to crush the container’s next two cardboard egg holders, and once again he was immobile.
            He seemed well on his way to winning the bet (that he’d be able to crush all twelve egg holders two at a time in six hops) when I heard the motorcycle coming. It was one of those big ugly monsters that make you wish you hadn’t left the windows open on a hot summer night, and I recognized it as belonging to one of the two undercovers I was currently hosting.
            “No-Show’s here.” Benny Martinez, one of the other messengers, announced brightly. As usual, he was wearing a long-sleeved top that hugged his torso to cut down on wind resistance. It hid the tattoos that covered most of his upper body, but the purple rooster’s comb in the center of his dark hair almost made up for their absence. If a tattoo is supposed to make a statement, this kid’s body is just plain babbling.
            “He ain’t the only no-show around here, numbnuts.” That came from Tracy Witten, her brown hair pulled back into a French braid so tight that I swear she couldn’t even make a frown. But it was all part of the bike messenger ethos—reduced wind resistance, you know.
            The undercover pulled in just then, riding the loud Harley and looking like he hadn’t slept in a week. He wore black boots, jeans, a heavy work shirt, and a leather motorcycle vest with a big American eagle on the back. His cover name was Bobby Moore and I honestly don’t know what his real name was. I almost never do. He parked the bike off to the side and approached with a worried look on his face.
“I really screwed up, Hank.” Moore spoke from a chair in my windowless office in the dead-center of the building. The place was an old warehouse that I’d converted into a combination bike-and-van delivery service with a printing-and-mailing shop in the front. I had seven bike messengers working for me, five people in the print shop, three van drivers, and a couple of maintenance guys who kept everything running. Although none of them knew about my secret life, almost half of them were ex-cons.
            Which is why a deep undercover like Bobby Moore (or whoever he was) could just ride up to my place and walk in. Or spend several hours in my very secure office typing up a report. Or even sleep over, if necessary. That’s because I hire lots of people with criminal records, many of them on parole, and even let a few of them slide on things like coming to work.
            That’s what Martinez meant with the ‘No-Show’ name. For a fee from their criminal associates, I give jobs to the recently paroled and never require them to show up. If their Parole Officer ever checks, which most of them don’t, I say that they just missed the gainfully employed ex-con and promise to have him call. Our city’s one organized crime family feeds me a steady stream of their newly-released personnel who are needed elsewhere, and it supplements my income nicely.
            It also lets me harbor undercover cops from a special unit run by an ambitious senior detective named Angela Ringgold. She inherited me, so to speak, but recognized the important service I provide and continued the relationship. Every now and then she’ll send me a deep cover operator pretending to be a recent parolee who needs a phony job in order to work the streets. Bobby Moore had been doing that for the past three months, slowly making friends with one of our city’s motorcycle gangs.
            “Tell me what happened.” I almost whispered this to him, having worked undercover myself in another life and recognizing the strain.
            “Everything was going great. I been hanging out with the Scavengers more and more, and some of ‘em were finally saying I should prospect with them.” In motorcycle clubs a prospect is like a fraternity pledge, someone going through a grueling probationary phase while being considered for full membership. “Last night we were partying pretty hard and one of the guys—No-Class Nate, I’ve told you about him—asked if he could crash at my place.”
            “Good sign.”
            “It is, ya know?” He leaned forward suddenly, anxious to make the point. “I’m getting somewhere here. Been working at that chop shop for months now, slowly gettin’ to know these guys when they come by, playin’ it cool like you said, and they’re finally starting to trust me.
            “But when me and Nate got back to my place I had a phone message waiting. I don’t have to tell you we were both shitfaced.” He didn’t; I could smell him from behind the desk and his eyes looked like they needed a tourniquet. “So I played it without thinking. And with No-Class Nate standing right there . . . I hear my mother telling me my dad died.”
            “My God.” That just came out, but for good reason. First, he’d actually given his mother the phone number to the apartment where he was living undercover. Second, his dad had just died. Third, his assignment was already over even if he didn’t recognize it.
            “I know, I know!” His face contorted briefly, and he looked at the floor in a mix of grief and embarrassment that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Tears welled up in his eyes and he wiped them away quickly. “I know I shouldn’t have done it, but my dad’s been sick for a long time and I wanted to make sure they’d be able to get in touch with me.”
            That was understandable, but unacceptable all the same. And not because I’m some rules-and-regs kind of guy; quite the contrary as you’ll soon find out. But what he’d done could easily have gotten him killed, and he still didn’t seem to know it.
            “Anyway, Nate gave me a big hug, and the next thing I know he’s saying he wants to go to the funeral, me bein’ such a good friend of the club and all.” This wasn’t surprising. I’d read his reports before passing them to Angela, and the Scavengers put a lot of stock in that kind of gesture. Most of the outlaw clubs do.
“I’m so sorry about your father, Bobby.” Undercover is a strange world. His real dad was dead and I was consoling him under his false name.
            “Thanks, man.” He fixed me with those bloodshot eyes for a moment, and then asked the question that I’d been expecting almost from the start.
            “Any way we can fix this, Hank?”
I tried to convince him that his current job was over and that he should now report this to Angela, but that’s when one of the ugly traits of so many undercover cops showed up. He was so invested in the assignment that he wasn’t going to give it up until he had actual proof he was blown.
            So I played along for awhile, thinking I might have to call Angela myself even as I gently shot down each of his outlandish solutions. I pointed out that a sudden disappearance, coupled with a lie about running from an old enemy, would take him out of circulation for much too long and also make the bikers suspicious. A fake arrest wouldn’t work either, because as a parolee it would mean he’d have to go back inside. Even worse, it might not stop the Scavengers from sending a representative to his father’s funeral.
            Not that they’d show up in his real hometown. His cover was good enough for them to believe he came from someplace else entirely, and at least he’d warned his mother not to use his name on the phone. He came from a cop family, so his mom had known to only call him ‘sweetheart’ or ‘honey’ even in delivering sad news. That was too bad, actually, because if she’d used his real name his cover would have been well and truly blown.
            Undercovers are a different breed, bloodhounds that will chase a scent until it kills them, and I soon saw that there was no convincing him to throw in the towel. As someone who’d done that kind of work—and, in a way, was still doing it—I sympathized with his mad desire to find a way to keep the act going. So when he began babbling about creating a fake funeral in his fake hometown, I pretended to think that crazy notion had some merit. I told him to lie down on the cot in the back room while promising to think his nutty idea through, and was just reaching for a secure cell phone for my call to Angela when I got an idea of my own.
I’ve been in my current job for several years now, and I know a lot about what goes on in this city. I was medically retired while still in my twenties, shot twice in a way that really didn’t hinder me much but served as an excellent excuse for my old department to put me out to pasture. I’d relocated from one coast to the other just after that, and had a fateful lunch with a very senior detective in the city that I now call home. We’d met on the job years before, and he’d come up with an idea about creating a legitimate business that would hide undercover police. He’d sensed that I wasn’t finished being a cop just yet, and talked me into sinking my severance into a small delivery service that grew a lot as time went by. I actually owned and ran the place, under a new identity of course, and had been surprised to find I enjoyed running it. My secret boss had passed me on to Angela when he’d retired—and that was when I realized that he’d told almost no one about me, if he’d told anyone at all.
Angela had kept the thing as a going concern once she saw the value I could add to her career.     Between my new friends in organized crime and my bike messengers, I’ve become one of the most connected guys out here. There are times when I know more about the crime in this city than the criminals themselves, and Angela has made full use of that knowledge. It’s a two-way street, though, as access to the undercovers gives me information I couldn’t get in any other way.
Which is why I already knew so much about the Scavengers. From Bobby’s reports and my own observations, they were a well-disciplined gang of outlaw bikers who moved drugs as their main source of income. They were smart enough to keep the violence at a low level, but ruthless enough to carve out a nice territory for themselves.
            They were also just a tad predictable.
My imperfect day got a little less perfect an hour or so later, when Gary Fields paid me an unexpected visit. I was immersed in my slowly emerging plan to help Bobby when the second of my two undercovers walked in.
            I think I mentioned that the people I handle are high-end undercover, and it doesn’t get much higher than Gary Fields. At least at the municipal level. Tall and handsome, he was always decked out in expensive clothing and all the glitter that went with it. As you might have already guessed, he was not pretending to be a parolee with a no-show job at my place.
            Fields had created his own cover while working a dead-end assignment in some forgotten wing of our detective branch, and it was pure genius. Most assignments are like Bobby’s: They give you a reason to be around the places where your targets hang out and hope you make a contact. It takes an ungodly amount of time, and many promising assignments are terminated prematurely because they don’t seem to be going anywhere. Fields had bypassed all that by taking up with the widow of a recently-deceased mid-level guy in our local Mafia. He’d been a stockbroker earlier in life (he was now forty-five) and had convinced her he was a financial advisor with a wide range of clients.
            Gary was a natural impostor and a legitimate man’s man, so the wiseguys in his new lady friend’s social circle took to him at once. He’d shown no interest in their activities and even brushed off their first suggestions that he might help them hide illicit revenue. One of the biggest tricks in any con man’s bag is the initial refusal, and if it’s done right it really whets the mark’s appetite. He’d left them salivating while he contacted Angela personally with the revelation of what he’d been doing, and she’d gladly had him transferred.
            Fields had done all that without authorization, and mostly in his spare time. I might harbor a sneaking admiration for that, but I’ve never been comfortable around him. My print shop produced voluminous financial reports for his business, so he had good reason for dropping by every now and then.
            “I need a special delivery from you, Hank. Kind of a rush job.” Fields sat across from me in the same chair Bobby had occupied, smiling as usual. He wore a tan suit that day and looked like he’d just returned from a month in the Caribbean.
            “How big a rush? And how special?”
            “This afternoon would be good. Relax, it’s right here in town. And here’s how special.”  He’d been carrying a small backpack when he’d walked in, and I’d wondered what it contained. He now reached inside the bag and came up with a tall, quart-sized bottle filled with what looked like very large, very long human fingers. They were packed in some kind of brine, and I needed the label to see what they were.
            “A rush delivery of pig’s feet?”
            “What can I say? The guy loves ‘em. And they’re hard to get around here; I had to hit three shops this morning just to find those.” Fields smirked at me for a moment longer before dropping the act and continuing in a straight voice. “I’m trying to get somebody to stop looking at me.”
            My antennae came up. “How close they looking?”
            “Oh, nothing special. It’s just that there’s a new guy in town, a wiseguy from down south, and for some reason he doesn’t seem to trust me much.”
            “Imagine that.”
            “I know—everybody else in the crew likes me just fine. Anyway, one of the others was ridin’ him a little when we were out last night, calling him a hick and things like that. So I figure if he gets a delivery of these he’ll get good and mad at that guy and forget all about little ol’ me.”
            “I see.” Something in the way I said that must have told him I didn’t see at all, because he leaned forward in his chair and did his best to work a sincere expression onto his face.
            “Really, Hank, I need this to happen pronto. I think he comes from a crew that doesn’t accept outsiders as easily as mine does, and he might give them ideas. We were all up late last night, so he’ll be sleeping in.” He dropped an address and a name on the desk before getting up to leave, taking the now-empty sack with him. He stopped before he got to the door. “Do I have to tell you to make sure nobody can trace this back here?”
Of course I didn’t need this extra chore just then, but you gain a few strange skills after working undercover for even a short time. You’re juggling the information of two different personalities, so you get good at focusing on the task or the conversation or the crisis at hand. Looking ahead to something that’s not going to happen until later can make you slip up in the here and now. While I would have preferred to concentrate on Bobby’s problem, most of that plan could wait until later—and so in the here and now I decided to handle the errand for Fields.
            After some preparation, I ended up window-shopping in another part of the city that afternoon, just across the street from a row of stylish front stoops. The visiting wiseguy from down south lived in one of those, and I watched the reflection of a kid I’d never met pedal up in front of his door. He was carrying a package that I’d wrapped myself, bearing bogus postal stamps and the label of a bike messenger service that didn’t exist.
            Elvis Coolidge had picked the kid out for me, and clearly he’d coached him well. When he rang the buzzer, a tall man with dark hair came to the door wearing an expensive bathrobe and looking like he’d just been shaken from a deep sleep. The kid made him sign for the package, and even shook him down for a tip before quickly pedaling away.
            Things happened fast after that. The same door opened abruptly less than two minutes later, and the robe-clad man stepped outside to look up and down the street. He was wide awake now, and didn’t look much like a mob guy unhappy with his most recent gift. He looked scared.
            I walked around the corner by instinct, and it turned out my instincts were still sound. He’d rushed back inside by then, and not five minutes later a big black car came racing down the street and cut across traffic to park where the messenger had dropped his bike. Three men and one woman, all dressed in business suits, piled out of the car and through a front door that was held open by the bathrobe guy. He was half-dressed by then, and I briefly glimpsed a gun in his hand before the door slammed shut.
            I’d posted Tracy Witten behind the apartment block, just in case, and so I now called her on my cell as I walked away. She took a leisurely ride by the place a few minutes later, just in time to see the big black car pull away with five people inside.
            Damn you, Fields. Southern wiseguy my ass. I kicked myself as I walked away, for not seeing the other message that a jar of pig’s feet might convey. There was no way of knowing what agency the people in suits worked for, but my guess was FBI. Fields had spotted one of their undercovers in one of the circles he now frequented, and had decided to make the guy go away. He was territorial by nature, and no doubt was breaking a few rules while undercover, so it made sense for him to scare off this interloper.
            Pig’s feet. Pig. Police.
            At least he’d warned me to make sure no one could trace the package back to us.
Just as undercover work allows you to focus on the task at hand and ignore the things you’ve yet to do, it also lets you forget the things that have already happened. Mad as I was at Fields, I had to put his little shenanigan behind me if I was going to help Bobby maintain his cover with the Scavengers—and keep from going to jail, or getting killed, while doing it.
            I already mentioned that the Scavengers are a little too predictable for their own good, but some of that’s unavoidable. Ritual and tradition hold high places in the world of the motorcycle clubs, and one Scavenger tradition involved bonfire parties in the early spring. Their clubhouse, a concrete-block affair that had once been a youth center, sat in front of a large playing field that was now little more than a vacant lot. A dense stand of trees backed up to it, and several Scavenger prospects were piling wood into a teepee shape when I drove by just before it got dark.
Here’s a little advice: If you ever have to kill someone, do it alone. No partner watching your back, no buddy waiting with the getaway vehicle, no girlfriend swearing you were with her. So even though I’d used both Elvis and Tracy for our little delivery that afternoon, I darn sure didn’t use them for the night’s activities. Or anybody else, for that matter.
            I waited until after midnight before entering the woods behind the Scavenger clubhouse. It was cool out, and I was wearing a dark jacket over black jeans and black boots. I moved very slowly, aware of the garbage that had been dumped there over the years, reminding myself over and over again that I had all the time in the world. The bonfire was larger than a man, and the outlaws’ gophers kept it blazing, but I was surprised that I wasn’t able to see it until I’d traveled deep into the woods.
            That was good; I wanted all the concealment I could get. The party was going strong, with over twenty bikers and almost as many girls all swigging from various bottles and standing close to the flames. That was good, too; staring into the light wasn’t going to help anyone see into the trees. Not even the ones who walked out there to relieve themselves.
            I’d backed up against the thickest trunk I could find close to the wood line’s edge, and let several opportunities pass while the cold slowly seeped into my bones. Most of those chances had been ruined when more than one biker had stumbled into the darkness at the same time, but I’d hesitated too long on at least two others. I knew why, and so I simply waited. And thought about my last day as an undercover, years earlier and on the other side of the country.
            Not knowing my cover had been blown, I’d meekly followed three of my new criminal friends into the basement of one of their houses. It had been cold down there, too, and it got a lot colder when one of them switched on a light to reveal a large wooden chair with handcuffs attached to it, sitting on a big plastic tarpaulin. A long table stood nearby, and a grisly assortment of tools had been carefully arranged on it. Two of the three were now pointing pistols at me, and in that instant I’d been sure that I was experiencing my last moments on the earth.
            The one behind me had gotten a little carried away, though, and had punched me in the back of the head as hard as he could. I’d reeled forward, out of control, straight into the table loaded with all that scary gear. One of the items had been a hatchet, probably put there just for show, but I’d snatched it up in a heartbeat and moved with the speed that only comes from mortal terror.
            I’d buried the thing in one of the two who’d been holding a gun, following him to the stone floor while desperately scrambling for his fallen weapon. The next seconds had been taken up by a loud roaring, a madly swinging overhead light, and a hit-by-a-bus pain in my left leg. I’d gotten them all, and later one of my bosses had said I was lucky to have only been shot twice.
            The memory did the trick, but not the way you might think. Standing there in the woods, the damp chill from the ground rising through my boots, all I could see in that blood-spattered cellar was that horrible wooden chair with the handcuffs—and a mangled Bobby Moore seated in it. That’s why I was there. That’s why I’d decided to do what I was about to do.
            A voice called out from near the bonfire, louder then the rest, and another one answered it almost right behind me. One of the bikers stumbled past, temporarily blinded in the transition from the flames to the darkness. He moved unsteadily forward until he was a few feet in front of me, and I heard him unzip.
            I got lucky just then, as one of the club’s many bikes roared into life. Its rider was really screwing it on, attention-seeking behavior that had always offended my undercover sensibilities. But it gave me protection, and I knew the moment had come. Using the engine’s roar, I stepped out and brought the sap down on the back of the guy’s head.
            He dropped to his hands and knees, but he was an outlaw biker and so I was ready when he didn’t go down completely. Two more hard shots, smothered by the motorcycle’s roar, finally put him out. Another bike joined in with the first as I dragged him facedown to a small depression I’d noticed nearby. I hung his head over the edge to lessen the backsplash, and the bikes really began to howl when I took him by the hair and put the knife to his throat.
Almost everything I’d worn or carried went into the incinerator when I got back to the shop. The knife and gloves, quickly rinsed in a small stream as I’d made my escape, had gone into three separate dumpsters as I’d cut through the alleys on my way home. I live at my delivery service, in a nice upstairs apartment, but I stayed downstairs for a long time.
            Once the clothes and boots were burned up I walked naked into the middle of the small bay where we wash the vans. I set the overhead sprayers to a mild rinse before stepping into the middle of the deluge with arms raised and eyes shut. The soap took off whatever traces might have been left on me, and it washed down the center drain with a hungry slurping sound. I could have turned the sprayers down much further (at full strength they would have taken the skin right off me) but for some reason I left it pretty strong that time.
            I only stepped out of there after I’d reached the point where I simply couldn’t stand it anymore.
Wanna know when an undercover is most at risk? It’s when they’re meeting their handlers. And although I’m not undercover anymore—at least not officially—I had to take that risk two days later when Angela called for a meeting. Bobby Moore had been quietly sent off to bury his father, a fake obituary was running in the paper of his phony hometown, and the Scavengers motorcycle gang had gone on full alert. Armed men now stood on the roof of their clubhouse at all hours, you didn’t seen them riding alone anymore, and the word was spreading that they were very interested in finding out who’d hit them.
            They’d completely forgotten about Bobby, which was why I’d chosen the method I’d used two nights before. A rival biker gang would probably have resorted to a spray of gunfire or a bomb, so the stealthy killing of one of their own just a few yards from the group had left them plenty confused. Believe me, if there had been another way I would have used it.
            Angela Ringgold sat in a high-backed booth in the rear of a hamburger place out on the highway many miles from our city. She wore an expensive lavender suit that showed off her trim figure, and her long black hair was loose over her shoulders. I have it on good authority that when Angela had been a patrol officer she’d kept her hair cut close to her skull and worn a special set of tactical shoes that she’d joyfully applied to criminals who ran from her. She still ran like a deer, and trained at a martial arts school where her classmates were afraid to spar with her, but now she was moving up the ladder and that was one reason why she put up with me.       
            In addition to providing her undercovers with sanctuary and guidance, I’d made sure early on that Angela understood I bring a lot of things to the table. I already told you I know more about what’s going on in our city than most of the criminals, and I’ve helped Angela’s career more than once by giving her the answers to big questions being asked at police headquarters. I doubt anyone above her pay grade even knows I exist, and I want to give her every reason to keep it that way.
            You see, when my cover was blown years ago it was because someone who never should have had access to that information had blabbed about it. Some mid-level brass hat had been trying to impress his girlfriend, and a wiseguy sitting in that same bar had overheard just enough to figure out who I was. That’s why they were so eager to pin a medal on me and give me that retirement; it’s my understanding that the brass hat who almost got me killed is in line to become the commissioner in my old department some day. God help them.
            “Hello, Hank.” Angela’s dark eyes swiftly looked me up and down. When you run undercovers, you fall into the habit of examining them closely whenever you get the chance.
            “Hi Angela.” I sat across from her, uncomfortable to have my back to the door even though we were at the end of the row and the booth concealed us both.
            “Our friend got off all right.” No one was near us, but it was our habit to speak in riddles like that anyway. “From what I hear, he won’t be missed.”
            “He should be fine to come back and pick up right where he left off.”
            “Oh, I’m not too sure about that. His playmates are a little on edge.”
            “I heard about that.”
            She tried not to snort, but it happened anyway. Her face was usually a mask of amused neutrality, but every now and then it slipped. She recovered quickly. “Odd timing, that little event. Really turned the spotlight somewhere else.”
            “From what I hear, the spotlight’s jumping all over the place.”
            “Exactly my point.” The control was back, and so I waited for her to say what she’d summoned me to hear. “I don’t like things that I can’t control, Hank. Even things I value.”
            She’d guessed my involvement, as I’d expected she might. But then she’d weighed what I could do for her career against what I could do to it, and still found me worth keeping. No doubt she was already getting her denials in a row for that imperfect day in the future when she might have to sever our relationship, but that works too—she’s not likely to tell anyone about me if she’s going to claim to hardly know me some day.
            “I understand.”
            “Good.” She actually smiled, a ghostly thing that reminded me of that cold cellar on the other side of the country. She slid out of the booth, her eyes already checking the clientele to see who’d arrived since she’d sat down. “You do fine work, Hank. And my boys like you, even the older one. Let’s keep it that way.”
            “Have a good day, Angel.”  I mispronounced her name on purpose, knowing it irked her.
            “Angel.” She repeated, as if hearing the word for the first time. She looked down at me for the briefest moment, the smile back again. “If you say so, Hank.”
And then she was gone.
So there it is. Why I do the things I do. Those undercovers are all alone out there. No badge, no backup, no gun most of the time. Many of their bosses don't even know who they are. I'm all they've got, so I give them everything I have. I'd do anything for any of them, even Angela’s conniving older one, Gary Fields. Anything at all.
You could say I already have.

Vincent H. O’Neil

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