If libraries and the internet are the public storehouses of global knowledge, and satellites, cable and fibre-optic lines the information super-highways along which this commodity flows, then prostitutes, thieves, bookies, confidence men and low-level drug dealers are the veins and the arteries, the nefarious pulse of street intelligence. They are the living conduits through which a continual stream of information is collected, stored and transported. Street-level drug addicts and thieves collect information to trade for favours and to sell to police officers who brandish get-out-of-jail-free cards if they help the authorities incriminate higher-level drug deals and criminal kingpins.
In contrast, major players such as the drug importers and exporters, by virtue of the large quantities of illegal narcotics they import and distribute, cannot normally defer their arrest. Instead, they serve hefty chunks of federal prison time. This prison sentencing truth brought me into contact with some of Canada’s wealthiest drug lords. I hoped to obtain the services of one of those entrepreneurs. Nobody on the street would speak to me, a stranger, a suspicious character. Even if I knew whom to approach. Which I did not. So I broke a personal edict to put my prison past behind me for the second time in three days and reached out to Ace, an underworld figure well feared and respected.
Ace enjoyed the distinction of being a horserace-fixing, heroin-using, cheating, cardsharp who, if properly motivated, might charm the habit off a nun or quietly arrange someone’s death by whispering a name into the right ear. Ace was a rounder of no small repute who at one time ran one of the most elaborate heroin cartels in North America. His operation reached from the Atlantic seaboard in the east to the Pacific west coast ports of entry. Propelled by low prices and grown by constant product availability, Ace’s entrepreneurial successes crossed boundaries established by biker clubs, mafia and Asian gangs, all of whom fattened their underworld accounts by doing business with him. Even the police could not say with certainty how far his influential tentacles reached. Certainly Stateside. Probably Mexico and Central America. Evidence suggested ties to Afghani poppy fields.
At the height of his drug importation career, millions of dollars of heroin changed hands with no more than the tilt of Ace’s head. On most nights he ate at the same restaurants. Drank at the same lounges on most weekends and visited the same racetrack without fail. If you had the money, if you were acquainted with one of Ace’s inner circle members and that person was willing to vouch for the transaction with their life, Ace arranged the sale through an intermediary. Never in person. Ace reduced business contracts to one’s personal bond.
Should the deal go sour because of a lie, a broken promise, loose lips or another reason, Ace absorbed the loss, arranged a quiet accident for all parties involved and the next day it was business again as usual. Second chances were nonexistent if anyone defaulted. There was no bartering. No apologies. Ace was fond of saying it wasn’t the money or the drugs cheated out of his organization which mattered. The money they did not cheat Ace out of is what they should have worried about. Stocks and bonds come and go but Ace’s word was more valuable than gold. During the years in prison where I shared his company whiling away the hours with cards and conversation, never did he forfeit a solemn vow. Ace was a prince. A very shrewd and dark prince, but a prince nonetheless, admired by those of the underworld. Scoundrel through and through one could claim with impunity from conscience regret were it not for several esteemed qualities that conjoined to confound further odious description.
Filled with certainty Ace would heed my call, I travelled to our meet. Located next door to a sports stadium, a four-storey automated parking complex reduced the likelihood of human presence. There were two double entrances and exits for vehicles and four pedestrian doors. I took for granted Ace had posted cars and men at each entrance and exit after I had entered. Illuminated by low wattage fluorescent lights, I recognized a familiar rolling gate. Ace ambled down the row between isles of parked vehicles. When his gaze found me and hesitation suggested uncertainty, I nodded emphatically.
“Garland? Is that you? Speak up for Christ’s sake. I got your kite.”
A kite is a message. It comes from the days when messages were written on a piece of paper and thrown from cell to cell until it reached its intended owner.
“Jesus Christ, old age isn’t fair. I’m too old to be climbing apples and pears or taking meetings in these underground lairs.”
“It’s me all right. Thanks for coming, Ace.”
“Every rookie bottle n’ stopper is combing the skids, pulling doubles for a career pinch.”
Translation, I thought to myself, police are working overtime searching the downtown area. The high-profile nature of my alleged crimes placed my name front and center on the city’s most wanted cuff and crush list.
“Have they splashed your pot?” I probed, smiling as we dropped into prison lingo, asking if Ace had felt the heat as police questioned known criminals and undercover contacts.
“They’ve jacked a few nickel- and dimers. Nobody I can’t replace The man is committed to this one. They’ll go to the mattresses for one of their own. Do you wanna go to ground till things quieten or do you need a pipeline out of Dodge?”
“South Street South is out. It’s personal. Somebody jacked my twist and twirl. Her father dropped the dime on my six. Bottle n’ stoppers believed his intel, naturally. It’s been rock ’n roll at the OK Corral ever since.”
“Is your skyrocket short bees and honey? Say the word and you’ve got a heavy Chevy at the levy,” he said, offering money and muscle.
“I’m good. A shadow swarmed my twist and twirl. Dudes are cliqued tight. This isn’t their first rodeo. Do you have the rap?” I asked, a shadow being an unknown person and a clique is a group of bikers, mafia or another organized gang.
“I’m not much more than a tourist these days. Mostly retired.” This meant he confined his business dealings within the province or maybe just the country, I decoded. It was difficult to read Ace. “I can check around, but I ain’t heard of new cowboys. Word is your twist and twirl’s old man is a shooter,” Ace replied alluding to Robert’s money and affluent lifestyle.
“Scales are off-kilter. They bungled the snatch and put a cap into a square john neighbour. The night before this one I found one Dudley Do-Right done hard and cold from behind. His partner got popped in the chest. He was still breathing when I left him. Whoever did it are packing heavy, muffled and silenced. GI Joe tactics and equipment. Later, I stumbled over a tripwire in Odera’s crib. They laid for me like I was fresh meat stepping into the joint.”
Translation: a new prisoner entering prison without survival knowledge.
I shared everything but omitted the conclusions I had drawn. I wanted to hear Ace’s take, hear what he deduced from the same facts. It also occurred to me Ace probably possessed more recent information on my situation than I held. A door opened at the other end of the parking lot. Light splashed out, which drove me further into shadow. The building’s caretaker threw a pair of garbage bags in the dumpster.
“Add some product into the mix and I’d say you fucked with a Machine, Garland.” At my blank look, he said, “Machines are highly motivated, extremely dangerous, crack-cocaine and/or crystal meth organizations. Ruthlessly cruel and well-armed. They’ll stop at nothing to expand territory and increase sales. Because of the heavy coin they pull in, Machines offer substantial bribes and payoffs. They employ mercs to protect and to enforce their interests. Cops and square johns are but ants to crush beneath the heels to these guys. Word is radical Muslims are doing business with cartels now that Uncle Sam uses NSA listening posts. Enforcement agencies have created special divisions to search for anonymous donations by interested third parties, and they aggressively capture international bank accounts. Nine-eleven and the patriot act changed the rules. Drugs are a quick and dirty means of generating large, untraceable sums of cash.”
“Wouldn’t you have knowledge of a Machine making noise in your city? And isn’t that an American problem?”
“I run a sportsbook and a few men’s social clubs. Sometimes a kilo gets moved here. I’m not in the life as I once was. But yeah, I would have heard whispers if a Machine opened shop.”
“Tell me why you believe it’s a Machine if by your own admission you haven’t heard anything to validate that assessment.”
“Look at it this way: at least four people snatched your Cinderella. And I don’t have to tell you that’s a lowball number. How many have you bumped into? Of course, some may have been reruns, but snipers with military hardware point to a dedicated group of specialists. Flash- and sound suppressors, Mac Elevens, and IR imaging equipment. The equipment gives them up. And they kill bottle n’ stoppers like rodents. Symptoms never lie. You were in the forces. Didn’t they teach you guys how to rig explosives and set up ambushes? Sounds to me like a Machine with mercs on the payroll. You said they could be Mexican. Go further south. There’s a big turf war brewing down there. Mucho product crossing the border. Lots of cash to hire elite forces. Mexicans could be on the payroll, though.”
“Okay. Fine. You’ve convinced me. It’s a Machine. I’ve come across mercs, at least one techie and I recognized a military influence as well before I got squared away. I wanted to hear it confirmed.”
“How tight are you and Cinderella?”
In other words, how far was I willing to go to find Odera.
“Graveyard tight: four by eight and side by side.”
“Are you thinking serial?”
“Only if they skin or plant her,” I told him, explaining if this Machine raped or killed Odera, I’d go the distance. “I’d rather dip in, grab her and then fly out South Street South.”
“Let me turn some taps. Machines aren’t street-level. Only the runners. Give me twenty-four hours to lift a few rocks…see what crawls out. Meanwhile, find out what this Machine wants with your twist and twirl but keep it on the down-low. If she’s so clean and you’re not in the life, somebody fucked up. Unless you’re protecting your hole card?”
“Do you have ears downtown?”
“One or two.”
“Here are some odds you’ll like. One gets you ten this Machine hasn’t applied for a prize.”
“Cough it up, Garland. What do you have that you haven’t shared? If I’m going to high step out into the open, I gotta know what’s what to make the proper deductions.”
“I wish I knew, Ace. All I have right now are computer questions. I have one more card to play before I can begin to say without it being a wild guess. Got me a little recon assignment. It might answer a number of questions and I have to visit a sick friend. Twenty-four hours. I’ll lay everything on the table face-up.”
“Not an hour more. While I am mildly curious to see how you get yourself free and clear, I’m not invested to the end. These folks are resourceful. In the meantime, stay KGB,” Ace warned, meaning, keep a low profile, like a spy. “Every four hours your map is splashed over the TV and radio. Someone’s paying to keep you top of the news hour; which ain’t hard in this case. Guaranteed this Machine employs hitters. I would. And the bottle n’ stoppers advertised you as a cop killer. That makes you ‘shoot on sight.’ This Machine has ensured if they don’t end you first, bottle n’ stoppers will. You’ve pissed in the wrong bowl of cornflakes.”
Scratching his neck, Ace went on, “In three of four days they’re going to know you top to bottom. After that, your family’s vulnerable. They’re trying to dump you. That tells me they feel safe. They’re cleaning up loose ends, but then they go and let you bust into her crib. That doesn’t add up. Why weren’t you capped before going inside her condo?”
“Will they negotiate?” I asked, not answering his last observation, keeping my cards close to my vest.
“Now that depends on why they grabbed her. If she stumbled onto a shipment date, they’ll take you both down when it’s a done deal. Same for storage or relay points. They’ll relocate and then settle their debt with you. Leverage might buy you days, even get your twist and twirl back. It won’t keep either of you breathing. If you grab her back this Machine will cash in payback. No way they’ll let you walk away Scot-free. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Sends the wrong message. Either way, you’re a dead man walking. You gotta find out what your twist and twirl knows and then see what you see.”
“What if the bottle n’ stoppers locate this Machine before I put it together?”
“They’ll cut their losses and run ― without Cinderella ― and set up shop somewhere else. Remember, it ain’t likely they’re distributing here. I’d have heard something if a big outfit was making big noise. It’s my business to know such things. You got two advantages.” Ace held up two fingers. “Machines are run by foreign nationals and they don’t know you’re a rounder, or that you got military training, yet. But they’ll know everything about you soon. Count on it. Seems like you got an edge in the short run if you play it right. If you stay low. But you gotta move quickly. You pause to take a breath and you’re dead bang gonzo.”
I picked up Ace’s thought, “The first advantage being the core group of this Machine. Crush them and the Machine grinds to a halt. Second, they might think I ran after the explosion. And third, when they do learn my background, they just might think I’m a dumb convict who got booted out of forces and isn’t much of a threat on my lonesome to a big outfit like them.”
“Yeah, well, that last part ain’t too far off. Thing is, you showed up at two locations. They know you didn’t run. Sure as shit stinks at this very moment they’ve hired investigators. Possible dirty cops. And they’re leaning on the broad to learn everything about you. Believe me, she’ll talk. Anyone would. Besides, who else would visit Cinderella’s crib?”
“I’m not sure what it is they think I have, but it’s connected to Odera. Hell, I’m not even ten percent certain about anything except its computer-related. I wish I could be clearer. Up to now, I’ve been reacting. They’ve been setting the pace. I’m missing the piece Odera found. But I think I know where to look for it. Got me a twitch says I’m going to play donkey piñata.”
“Remove the serpent’s head or walk away. The choice is simple.” Looking at me through hard cold eyes, he said, “Is this broad worth your life and maybe your family’s? It’s not too late to travel South Street South to Marguerita land. Back away and they’ll quit looking. I can drop word on the street the Machine will hear. It’ll broadcast you’re considering a vacation to a place unknown with no further interest in this matter. We might even be able to open Swiss talks. Perhaps negotiate a premium for your everlasting silence.”
Ace gave me two choices: walk away and live or make a stand against odds stacked against me. Which included the police. According to Ace, my family would soon be at risk. I believed him. The smart way to play a busted hand was to fold it under and wait for a new deal. Let the cops do their job. A citizen would turn himself in and tell the cops everything. That’s what I told the parole board I would do. I was supposed to be modelling a citizen. Doing what was smart, what was necessary, had helped me survive prison. Pick your fight and pick your ground, do not let it pick you. Like so many flinders blown asunder in Odera’s home, so, too, were the sensible reasons for emulating a citizen. In the end my heart won. It was the only voice that mattered. There had never been another choice.
I held Ace’s calculating green gaze and let mine turn cold.
“A lot can happen in three or four days. You don’t fuck with a man’s woman. If this Machine uses high-tech electronics, mercs, state of the art weapons, techies and employs dirty cops, then I’m going to stay off the grid and go low-tech. Dark Ages style. Fuck the Machine. It’s time to go to war. Will you fill a shopping list?”
“Be warned, Garland, once you start this train rolling down the track there’s no stopping and no turning around.”
“I’m as serious as a heart attack,” I said cold and low.
Disappointment showed free and clear in his expression.
“Encrypt the list and forward it to a number my guy sends you. Meanwhile, I’ll send the flowers myself ― never could abide a bare grave.”“Address them to the Machine.”