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River City:

The Short Straw
By Kat Jones

Standing around in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain was never my idea of job satisfaction but I always seemed to draw the short straw in life’s happy lottery. There I was again waiting for some sleazy little shit that got through life on daddy’s paycheck before daddy bribed someone to kiss his sons ass and promote him over people who actually had two brain cells to rub together.

I yanked the lapels of my jacket up as far as I could to shield my face from the onslaught. I needn’t have bothered. The longer I waited the heavier the rain got until it was coming down so thick and fast I’d have to be back in my car to avoid feeling like a spider who’s about to have a choice encounter with a plughole.

Just as I was beginning to make a drowned rat look good Whitman finally put in an appearance. Slick black hair and a face that more than made up for whatever points he lost with the charm fairy, Richard Whitman was the poster boy for upper class America. Clean cut little rich kid with only his trust fund and daddy’s connections to help him make it in the world.

“Tell me why we needed to meet on the docks again?”

“This is the meeting point Murphy.”

“I’ve been waiting for an hour out here in this. I don’t see the point of taking it this far just to have the pleasure of your company.”

His teeth flashed white in a smile that seemed predatory. “That’s why you’re still a grunt. You can’t stand doing things the way they should be done.”

“So what have you got for me?” I asked, changing the subject before I said something I shouldn’t.

“You were right, there’s definitely a pattern. There have been several more encrypted messages sent from random terminals at Joe’s. We’re still working on the content but we’ve nailed down a time frame. Every day at either 11 am or 3pm a message goes out to a different server. The e-mail is received and the accounts deleted. Every day it’s a new account and a different IP address retrieving it. We can’t trace whoever’s on the other end so we need the guy sending the messages.”

“There’s a few regulars but no one stands out yet.”

Whitman pulled a crisply folded slab of notepaper out of his jacket and slipped it in my pocket.

“We know. Everyone is there. You have to do better than that.” He said in that patronizing way I love so much. “Read it, maybe it will inspire you to do some work for a change.”

Whitman’s amusement died down and something in his eyes changed. He laid his hand on my shoulder, shot me a smile most women would die for and gave me the benefit of whatever dregs he’d managed to steal from the charm fairy’s slop bucket.

“Have you thought about my offer Red?”

I’d need to shower for a week if I ever gave into that temptation. Pulling together the closest thing to a smile I could come up with I shook my head.

“I’m going to be late for my shift.”

Shrugging with all the arrogance of someone with enough money to buy the answers they wanted Whitman gave her a knowing look that made her want to slap the smirk off his face and slithered off to his sleek black BMW.

Cursing all men I went back to my beat up '92 Geo Storm, checked it was all locked up and set off for Joltin’ Joe’s Java junction.

***

“Yee-haa!”

I ignored the automated response to anyone careless enough to wander into this godforsaken place and walked through the front door to start my shift. The inside of Joe’s internet café come coffee house looked like a Country star took a train into wonderland on an acid trip and decorated before the flying elephants took up a paint brush.

The only thing worse than having to work in a place like this for the last two months was having to wear the uniform. If you can call a tacky western shirt and blue-jeans that would choke the life out of a Barbie doll a uniform. Still, as bad as I was at waitressing I had to be thankful for small mercies. The way my ass looked in these jeans when some slimy little customer dropped a coffee cup just to see me pick it up was what kept my cover in tact.

“You’re late.” Were the first words out of Vera’s mouth.

“My car broke down and I had to walk the last four blocks in the rain. That’s why I’m late.”

Vera was a nice enough woman but when she was annoyed and had a right to be she could make you feel like you were in kindergarten again and you were the kid stealing cookies at nap time.

I noticed a few of the regulars were in when I walked through to hang up my jacket in that cramped little space between Joe’s office and the counter. I took a few seconds to scan through the papers Whitman had slipped me. I felt my eyebrows creep up a notch when I came to Terrance Sanderson Jr. This guy was something. A 38 year old Trekkie who’d been surgically altered to look like a Klingon, living in his mother’s basement and they thought it was all just an elaborate cover.

The last name on the list took me by surprise. I knew something was up with him but I hadn’t figured that. I stuffed the papers back in my jacket and hurried to the counter. Vera was over at one of the tables serving Kix his order. Now I didn’t have a mirror but I’m pretty sure the look I shot his way could’ve torn through a small army given half the chance. He was just a drummer for a rock band called Windjammer or so I’d thought. My mistake, he was just another spoiled little rich kid who’d grown up, inherited everything his dead parents had to leave him and decided to schlep through life offering as little as possible to the world around him. At least that’s what I thought back then.

Running a cloth along the counter I saw another regular. Now there sat the kind of guy I always fell for. Always took a seat up at the counter and a cup of coffee to read his poetry over. Quiet and brooding, he never spoke other than to order coffee or his usual pastry, only smiled like he knew the secrets of the universe. Yeats today, well read copy too. I’d noticed it when I came in.

I turned back to serve a customer who’d made his way to the counter. Something seemed a little off about him. Long stringy hair hung around his shoulders like it wasn’t quite sure it had a right to be there and his shirt looked like he hadn’t changed it for a week or two but that wasn’t it. He looked wary, like a priest stranded in the red light district.

“What can I get you?”

His hand came up above the counter holding a 9mm Glock, pointed straight at me. “Cash lady. Everythin’ you got.”

Grab for the gun, push it out of the danger zone, twist and pull. That’s all I had to do and the gun would be mine. I had the opportunity, the reflexes and the training and too many people to see. No waitress could pull a stunt like that. Someone would catch on and the whole operation would be blown but how could I leave it like this?

“I said empty the register!” The guy yelled waving his gun at me. It would be so easy to take the damn thing. I couldn’t risk it.

I opened the cash register and started pulling out notes, my mind racing. Joe kept a piece under the register but it wasn’t loaded. I could go for the silent alarm.

“Nobody moves and nobody has to get hurt. As soon as Red gives me the money I’m outta here.” He shouted, turning away for a moment. I reached under the counter slowly, carefully but his head came back around. “C’mon Red. And no reaching for a silent alarm, or you will get hurt.”

I pulled my hand back up to the register and started stuffing the money into the guy’s bag. I kept my eyes on the cash but I could still see the room on the periphery of my vision. I saw Sanderson throw Kix his phone. Suddenly Sanderson started growling like a mad puppy.

“Mr. Robber?”

The guy with the gun glared at Sanderson.

“Yes, I am talking to you. What you are doing has no honour.”

“I don’t care about honour, I’m after the money.”

I kept loading the money while Kix made a call. 911?

Sanderson went on with his mad tirade. "You hold a phaser on a woman and demand money from her. There is no honour in that. If you did not have that weapon in your hand, I would cut you down with my Bat'leth in single combat, granting you the honourable death which you do not deserve."

"Just shut up!" The guy yelled. "C'mon Red!"

Sanderson moved forward and his boot squeaked on the linoleum. He froze as the robber pointed the gun at his head.

Joe came out and the gun was turned on him.

“What’s going on here?” Joe asked.

Before I could reach for the alarm Kix hurled a drumstick at the door.

“Yee-haa!”

The gunman whirled around to face the door then Kix was on him, the gun went down. Sanderson leaped forward, Joe smashing into the thief from behind. In moments they were on the ground the gunman struggling to break free.

Pinned to the floor unable to move the gunman stopped fighting and shouted, “This wasn’t supposed to happen!”

Sirens whirled, the screech of tires followed by car doors banging open sounded outside Joe’s.

Kix leaned down towards the gunman. "Song not playing the way you thought it would mate? You’re marching to the beat of a different drummer man now."

I let the bag drop to the counter and stood back, waiting for the cops to pile into Joe’s. Glaring at Kix I shook my head. Damn cowboy!

Before I could get my thoughts together Vera came running up with Joe in tow.

“Are you alright? Damn, I never woulda had the nerve to stand there like that packing the money away for him, not with that gun in my face. You’re so brave. Now I know that must have been a real bad shock honey so you just sit right down and take a load off. That bastard damn near killed you!”

While Vera went on a mile a minute spouting as much nonsense as she could pack in between breaths I gave up trying to get a word in. I was used to situations like this but she wasn’t and shock was making her edgy. By rights I should have been comforting her but I was supposed to be a waitress held up at gunpoint for the first time. Joe just shook his head in all the right places and tried to look as fatherly as he could manage.

“How much do I owe you Vera?” Kix said strolling up to the counter.

Vera, cut off mid sentence and looked up a little bewildered. “Huh?”

“I’ve come to settle my bill.”

“Get out of here Kix. Your money’s no good here anymore” Joe said grinning broadly.

Now that just took the frikkin biscuit. Sitting on piles of cash that no one knew about and he’d gone and won himself a free tab at Joe’s.

“C’mon Joe don’t do this to me.” Kix actually seemed a little embarrassed.

“I’m serious; your money’s no good here anymore. You stopped a robber from cleaning me out of today's profits, and you kept my staff and my customers from getting hurt. You won't spend another dime in here, Kix"

That arrogant little twinkle I’d thought was kind of cute for the last two months appeared and I wanted to slap him again. But then I tend to want to slap a lot of people on a daily basis.

"Well then, if I can't spend my money in here anymore, at least your waitresses are going to be getting some very good tips from now on."

Vera and Joe starting laughing and I forced myself to join in like the good little actress I was, trying to make up my mind about Kix. He was everything that always rubbed me the wrong way arrogant, over eager and a rich brat but maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy. He didn’t add up. Or at least he wasn’t as much like Steve Lindholm as I first thought. Steve Lindholm, the twisted, two-timing rich bastard I’d fallen for in college. The first and last time I’d ever trust money. I watched Kix pause as if to pick up the drumstick he’d thrown at the door and then leave. The drumstick he’d used to stop the robbery and save their lives even if it had been sloppy. I decided right then and there that maybe I’d stop judging people by their bank balance.

“Thanks Vera” I threw in before she got a chance to start talking again. “I’m a little shaky, you mind if I take an early break?”

“A break? Hell take your shift off, we’re not going to do much business with this mess” he said nodding to all the evidence tags and police tape. “We can handle the cops without you.”

“I’d actually rather not be alone just now. You mind if I hang around here for a while longer Joe?”

“Suit yourself” Joe said with a shrug.

I made my way to one of the corner terminals that had a good view of the place and sat at the machine. Maybe their guy would be scared away by the cops or maybe he’d have the balls to try anyway but I had nowhere better to be and a job to do.

It turned out I didn’t have to wait too long.

Rough looking guy, must have been late twenties walked straight past the police tape as if it wasn’t even there. I’d seen him a few times before, always dressed in sweats and a cheap jacket, never bought anything but internet access, never talked to anyone that I could remember. He’d never really stood out above the regular crowd before but this time he seemed different. It wasn’t so much what he did that bothered me but what he didn’t do. Despite the temporary mayhem around him he wasn’t the least bit curious, didn’t pay attention to anything but his terminal. He seemed relaxed and confident and the look he gave the place as he walked in, almost as if he’d expected it to look this way, set my mind reeling. I got up casually and went behind the counter and called to Joe.

“Alright if I get myself a coffee?”

I heard a muffled “sure go ahead.”

Checking that no one was looking my way I pulled the papers out of my jacket, shoved them under my arm and kept walking. I grabbed the newspaper Vera kept under the counter for those times when business was slow and slipped the papers inside. Pouring myself a coffee I paused over the sign in sheet then walked back to my terminal. Jack Smith my ass! I glanced through the list of names, most of which I recognised and no Jack Smith. Now Whitman might be an incompetent fool but the guys who worked for him sure as hell weren’t so that guy had to be here somewhere. I went over the list again and stopped at a name halfway down. Johnny Stoltz. The initials were the same; some people used the same initials for cover names so they didn’t get confused. I read the intel about him and there wasn’t much. His social security number checked out. Born in Hells Kitchen, no family to speak of. Worked as a sanitation engineer for the city of Des Moines until July last year. Nothing since then on his record. I looked up at the guy and then back the papers. What in the hell was a janitor from Iowa doing at an internet café in River city? Fresh start maybe. Could be anything, there were a thousand plausible reasons for him to be here but I couldn’t shake that feeling. Something was off about him. He stopped typing and got up from his terminal. He was leaving already. I had to think quickly. Getting up I made for the front door and turned my head to stare at the cop interviewing Vera just as he went for the door running headlong into him.

“Watch where the hell you’re going lady” he spat. He brushed himself down and marched out of the door shaking his head.

I watched him leave then went straight for the restroom out back. Locking the door I put the toilet seat down and sat quickly, opening his wallet. It was clear of plastic. I opened the billfold and flicked through what must have been about $400 in cash. Taking his driving license out of the front pocket I sat there staring at it. He had an address up in Moneyville and apparently the license had been issued almost a year ago. At the top it showed his name as Jason R Simmons. Something was more than a little off about this guy.

I looked at my watch 3:30 p.m. Throwing open the door I grabbed my jacket and ran through “Yee-haa” hell just catching Vera’s “it’s the shock you know” before the automatic door swished shut behind me. It seemed like forever before I mad it back to my car and jumped in, grabbing the mobile phone from under the passenger seat. Dialling I lay back in the seat trying to catch my breath until I heard Whitman’s voice answer “hello.”

“806 Sunset Avenue, Stephensville. Jason R. Simmons.”

“Got it. Now get back here, your horse has come in.”

I threw the phone on the seat, turned on the ignition and floored it out of the warehouse. They’d cracked one of the encryption codes.

I pulled up at a sleazy little place that could have been described as the wrong side of the tracks except there were no tracks anywhere near the dump. I ran around the back and into the kitchen of the run down one bedroom house and straight into one big cliché of jacketless Feds lost in a sea of coffee and donuts.

“What have you got Whitman?”

He looked up from the laptop some cyber geek was gesturing madly to and frowned. “Agent Murphy, nice of you to join us.”

The cyber geek stopped flailing his arms about long enough to look at me like I was Vlad the Impaler's first cousin come to lay waste to his village.

“We’ve broken through one encryption code and we have about 6 decoded messages now, addressed to three different people.”

I swear to this day I still have no idea how he made it through the next line looking so serious.

“Fluffles, Mr. Bunnyman and Mrs Coochy.”

“So we’ve stumbled on to a porn ring or these guys have a screwed up sense of humour.”

Choosing to ignore my comments as I find so very many people often do Whitman went on. I won’t bore you too much with the e-mails, four were exactly the same and one seemed indecipherable it was the last on the list that caught my attention.

Brewster wants out. I’ve arranged to give him the big pay off tomorrow at 2pm. Make sure you’re somewhere else with a lot of witnesses.

The next day at 2 pm Vera had booked off work go to some book signing at the mall. Evan Brewster. I doubt she’d ever read any further into his books than the glossy photo of his chiselled self on the back cover. Evan Brewster was Senator Charles Brewster’s one and only son. This could all be some funny coincidence that I’d laugh about when I was eighty five, toting my gun on the front porch and cackling at strangers but my gut told me Brewster was about to have his career cut short.

***

Rivergate Mall, just south of Moneyville was a shoppers paradise with anything and everything to satisfy tastes of all shapes and sizes. From credit card toting daddy’s girls to Joe blow watching his wife and kids fritter away his hard earned cash just about everyone came through here at some point. The closest I was ever going to get that day was the parking lot behind the back entrance to Petersons Bookstore. I could see everything from the back seat of the nondescript black car. Evan Brewster’s limo pulled up just before 2pm. Stepping out with all the arrogance his ego driven little heart could muster, he had barely enough time to straighten his ridiculously expensive suede jacket before it happened.

A single guy walked out from the cover of the big faded double doors, gun raised at a slight angle. Right behind him now, finger on the trigger the guy took aim at Brewster’s head. He would never have seen it coming. Ten agents piled out of cars, from behind dumpsters and just about every decent shadow respectably large enough to hide a man. Within seconds both men were down, arms pinned behind their backs, and being fitted with matching bracelets.

***

We didn’t learn much from either of them. The hit man was from an East side gang. His prints turned up a modern day essay on crime, the usual drug busts, fights and petty jail time but nothing on a scale large enough to put him at the top of an operation like this. Brewster rolled on a minor member of the Gianette family. It was all an elaborate money laundering scam using internet companies and offshore banks.

Evan Brewster’s high priced lawyer cut a deal with the DA for his testimony against the Gianettes but it went no further than that. Within two days of each other both the hit man and Evan Brewster were found dead; Brewster of apparent suicide and the hit man gunned down outside his apartment in what the cops ruled a drug related gang shooting. Jack Smith a.k.a. Johnny Stoltz a.k.a. Jason Simmons disappeared without a trace. The address up in Moneyville belonged to a nice little spinster who thought Gianette was a brand of cookie and had never heard of any of the three men, one of whom according to the DMV had lived there for the last eleven months.

***

So that was it, my first encounter with River City and to my unending frustration certainly not the last.

End

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