The Extra Postage
Perspective’s a funny thing. For instance, ten millimeters is a tenth of a long cigarette. Smoke it and you’d hardly cough, let alone catch something fatal like lung cancer or emphysema. But ten millimeters as the diameter of a revolver barrel pointed at your face? That makes you think about your own mortality.
“Tie him,” Dick Haynes said. At least that’s the name he used to book the charter. His charge card was in that name, and the charge went through fine. Now I wondered if a pimply-faced 16-year-old Dicky Haynes somewhere had shared his Social Security number on the wrong website.
Dick was a bantam rooster of a man, but he looked even smaller compared to the two men who accompanied him. They could have modeled for the Easter Island statues, except their expressions weren’t as intelligent. One was Pete, the other Mike, no surnames mentioned. Right then, I couldn’t remember which was which. Didn’t matter much. Pete – or was it Mike? – unlashed a wooden folding chair from where I had it belayed. He flipped it open and held the chair while his partner pushed me into it. I tensed my arms as the guy behind me looped the belaying rope around my wrists.
I looked at Dick. Actually, that name fit pretty well.
“What, nine millimeters isn’t enough for you? You need a Smithy Six-ten? Bet you drive a Hummer.”
Haynes nodded to the thug. His ham-sized fist shot out and clocked me in my jaw. My whole skull vibrated. I tasted blood.
“Farrar, we know Diaz sent you a DVD by registered mail. We found the receipt. He won’t need it anymore, so why don’t you give it to us.”
“You killed Manny?”
Haynes stuck the Smith & Wesson 610 back in its holster hidden in the small of his back. He spread his arms in a let’s-be-reasonable gesture.
“Farrar, you’re a civilian. Diaz had no business drawing you into this. Look, the disc is meaningless to you. Give it to me. We’ll walk away.”
Considering we were floating in the Gulf of Mexico thirty nautical miles off Key West, I had my doubts they were walking anywhere.
When I didn’t respond, the big man in front of me drew back his fist…
That morning, my eyes had snapped open. I’d experienced such instant consciousness during my tours of duty in the Rangers. Usually it happened right before everything went to hell. This time it was someone knocking at my door. I swung out of bed and padded to the main room. My cottage has four rooms if you aren’t picky. The kitchen’s separated by a counter from the main room. There’s also a screened front porch that runs the width of the house, hidden behind bougainvillea, creating a magenta-and-green wall. Five rooms, I guess.
It was Phyllis, my mailperson, standing at the screen, looking fetching in her blue shirt and gray shorts. The pith helmet made the ensemble. “Morning, Brick. Got a registered letter for you.”
I hand-combed my sleep-tousled chestnut hair while she dug out her receipt book. After signing by the X, she handed me the envelope along with the rest of my mail. “See ya,” she called cheerfully as she left.
At my desk, I set the registered envelope aside. I sorted the remaining mail into piles of bills, business correspondence, and junk mail. The junk went straight into the shredder; the bills would wait until Friday, my check-writing day. The business included charter requests from repeat customers – always appreciated. There was also a computer disc in a mailer along with a note of thanks. We thought you might like the pictures we took that day. Thanks again. I couldn’t place their names, but I’d recognize them when I uploaded the pictures. For me, names are hard; pictures are easy – and they’re purr-dee, too.
I turned to the registered mail, a padded 9x12 envelope with the green registration slip in the bottom left corner. In the top right was a neatly glued postage strip and below it an American flag stamp that appeared added haphazardly. Ripping the envelope open, I dumped the contents out on my desk: a DVD jewel case and a brief letter: Brick, hold this for me. I’ll pick it up in a few days if I can. Otherwise dump it in the vacuum. Take care. Manny.
The jewel case was for a standard DVD-R and bore a printed label stating it was FBI property and giving a case number.
“Damn,” I said aloud.
There was a sharp triple-rap at my door. I slid the registered envelope and its contents beneath the other mail. The staccato raps repeated as I grasped the knob.
Standing there was Ralph Windler, the Key West chief of police. I’d worked with Ralph occasionally when his dive team needed an extra hand, or when they thought a missing person might be a floater. Ralph’s a war vet like me: Vietnam for him, the Gulf War for me. We even have similar builds, standing a couple inches over six feet with broad shoulders, though Ralph has a bit of gut. Too much time behind his desk.
Beside Ralph was a middle-aged man. His dark hair was trimmed short and he wore glasses with unstylish heavy black frames, the kind you’d get as a $39.95 come-on price. His suit screamed Fed, especially with his Sphinx-like expression, common for the alphabet-soup brigade. They must think it makes them appear all knowing and threatening. To me, they just look constipated.
“Morning, Brick,” Ralph said, using the good-ol’-boy manner he cultivates for public consumption. His eyes, though, are sharp. “Thought you might be out on a charter.”
“Caught me on a slow day, Ralph. Got a short-notice charter this afternoon but that’s all. What can I do for you?”
“This here’s FBI Special Agent Benjamin Wharton. He wanted to talk with you, so I thought I’d come make introductions.”
Wharton whipped out his ID and stuck it in my face. The picture almost looked like him – unusual accuracy for a government ID.
I stepped back, gesturing for them to enter. “I could put on a pot of coffee?”
“Kind of you, Brick, but this shouldn’t take long.”
Ralph settled on the couch closest to door while Wharton made a wide circuit of the room before choosing an arm chair in the corner. His scenic route took him by my desk.
“I see the mail’s come,” Wharton said. He stared at me as if he’d made an accusation and awaited my confession.
“When was the last time you saw Manuel Diaz?”
“Manny? Maybe two years ago. He brought his family down on vacation.”
“Heard from Agent Diaz recently?”
“No,” I said blandly, glad the envelope was hidden. “What’s this about?”
When Wharton didn’t answer, Ralph jumped in. “Agent Diaz was investigating an organized crime family in Chicago. He’s gone missing, Brick.”
Wharton leaned forward. “Manny’s target was the Morenti crime family. Meanest SOB’s you’ve ever seen. Manny told me he was worried someone in our office was leaking information to them. He got an in camera approval for a special surveillance, like we do in terrorism cases. He thought the traitor was his partner, Stan Gerard, but he had no proof. ‘That may change soon,’ Manny told me last week. Now Manny’s missing and the tape he made is gone.”
“A tape, like a VHS cassette?”
“No, a computer disc. Everything’s digital these days.”
Give me the case number, I thought, and I’ll see if they match. Out loud I said, “I’m sorry, but I haven’t gotten anything like that.”
“I’m here, Mr. Farrar, because Manny told me that if he was ever in a tight spot, you were the guy he wanted to have his back. You were in the Rangers together, weren’t you?”
“Manny never said what you did.” He looked at me, implying a question. I smiled back sweetly, and silently. While in the Rangers, Manny and I did some special TDAs – temporary duty assignments – of the I-could-tell-you-about-it-but-then-I’d-have-to-kill-you variety. No joke. When I didn’t respond, he said, “I came here on the chance he sent the recording to you.”
“Sorry. I haven’t gotten anything from Manny.”
“Didn’t I see a disc mailer on your desk?”
“Oh, that.” I held it up for Wharton to see. “It’s a photo disc from a charter. People will send me their pictures. I use them on my website and Facebook page, and in my brochures. If you’ve got time, I’ve got several hundred photos I could show you.”
That elicited a thin smile. “No, thank you.” Wharton stood up. “I need to find that disc. Gerard’s suggesting that Manny was the leak.”
“If your boss believes that, he’s an idiot. Manny’s so straight you could use him to make rulers.”
“I know that, but the innuendo’s sticking. You’re sure you haven’t received it?”
I looked straight into Wharton’s eyes. “Positive.”
“I’ll be in town for a couple days. If it comes in, I can be reached through Chief Windler.” He headed outside, but stopped at the door and turned back to me. “Manny’s my friend, Mr. Farrar. I’ve eaten at his table; my kids play with his kids. I’m not going into hysterics, but if someone’s hurt Manny, I’ll gut him and make sausages from his intestines.”
With that benediction he left.
“Thanks, Brick,” Ralph said, following.
I watched them leave. Manny, what have you gotten me into?
The charter was set for 1 p.m., late in the day but not unheard of. They’d chosen my “Come as You Are” package, where I provide poles, permits and bait, which for marlin is usually mackerel or skipjack tuna. The bigger predator preys on the smaller, though man is the only animal that exploits the weak to catch larger prey.
My boat, the Juliet, is a Cabo 45 Express, powered by twin Caterpillar C18 engines. It’s a great boat for sport fishing, with its built-in bait tank and two fish boxes, and it has enough storage cabinets to hold all the tackle and other equipment needed. I’ve installed a NavNet 3D system and a DDF1 fish-finder. The fish can’t hide from the Juliet.
By one, I had the rods and gaffing hooks in racks on the gunwales and the bait tank filled. I’ve a catch and release policy, after taking pictures so a taxidermist can model the fish for the client. I stocked the fish boxes with beer and soft drinks covered in ice.
“Ahoy there!” a voice called from the dock. “Is this Captain Farrar’s ship?” It was followed by an ain’t-I-cute snicker.
Three men stood on the dock. One was slight of build, with black hair slicked straight back like he was stuck in the ‘Eighties. He was the valley between two man-mountains. They were both tall and broad – weight-lifter bodies built for power rather than speed – with matching high-and-tight haircuts. Tweedle-dumb times two. All three wore white chinos and deck shoes with hideous Hawaiian shirts peeking out from beneath windbreakers. Maybe they stopped at a costume shop on the way.
“It’s a boat, actually. I’m Farrar; are you Mr. Haynes?”
The slim guy gave a quick wave. “That’s me, though call me Dick. You know, I never know the difference, boat versus ship.”
The snicker again. Haynes was like the high school class clown, all grown up and still as obnoxious.
I resisted the urge to swat him. “A ship’s larger, and has at least one air-tight deck below the main deck, though subs are also called boats.”
“Hey, I learned something new.” Hee-hee. Dick gestured to the others. “These are Pete and Mike. Glad you could accommodate us short notice.”
“It’s not busy in August. Winter and spring are the prime times. There’s always a chance of a hurricane this time of year.”
“There’s not one of those coming, is there?” one of the tweedle-dumbs said. He looked worried.
“Nope, looks like smooth sailing.”
The worried expression changed to a frown. “You use a sail on this?”
I expected him to smile, but he was sincere. “No, it has engines. Come aboard and we’ll get under way.”
Haynes and one man-mountain moved forward, but the worried one stayed rooted on the deck. Haynes turned back.
“What’s the problem, Pete?”
“I – I can’t swim. I never liked the water. Too many nasty things in it, like sharks and electric eels.”
“I’ve got life jackets,” I offered. “You might feel better with one on.”
“Yeah, Petey,” his twin said. “Gotta wear your water wings.”
Haynes stepped close to Pete, his face hard. “You gonna be a problem?”
“No, no, I’ll be fine.” Pete steeled himself and came aboard. I held out a life jacket but he waved me off.
I cast off and backed out of the slip. Keeping the Caterpillars leashed, I guided the Juliet out of the marina to the channel. I had a boat-load of fishing neophytes and landlubbers. It was going to be a long afternoon.
I had no idea how right I was.
Once in open water, I shoved the throttles forward and let her cruise at twenty-five knots. Setting the autopilot, I turned to the others who were sitting on the bench seats of the helm deck.
“We’ll run into the Gulf northwest of the Keys.” I went through my usual spiel on boating safety, including where the lifejackets were stored. “I recommend you wear them. But you’re adults, it’s your choice. Just know if you choose not to and something happens, I’m not liable.”
“Oh, I think we’ll be fine,” Haynes said. “Besides, I hate lawyers. They poke their noses where they shouldn’t.”
“When we troll, you can each take turns in the cockpit’s fishing chair.”
“Why don’t we all cast out lines?” Pete – or Mike – asked.
“This isn’t like sitting on a dock, fishing for perch or sunfish. You need to be strapped into the chair, wearing a harness. Otherwise when a marlin strikes, it’ll either rip the rod out of your hands or pull you over the side.”
I pointed them to snacks and drinks before I returned to the wheel. The tweedle-dumbs eventually went aft. Haynes stayed by me, asking about the boat and the navigation equipment while making stupid jokes that he thought were witticisms. I gripped the wheel tightly. After forty-five minutes of his snickering, he joined the others. Fifteen minutes later we reached an area I’ve fished before with success. I cut back the engines to idle and joined the others in the cockpit.
Haynes had climbed half-way up the ladder to the tower, holding his cell phone high.
“No signal? I’ve got a sat-phone you could use.”
“I was trying to reach a friend,” Haynes said as he climbed down. “He had told me we had a common acquaintance.”
“Who’s that?” I grabbed one of the poles from the rack.
I turned back, and found myself staring down Haynes’ gun barrel.
The fist buried itself in my stomach. Air exploded from my lungs. Haynes leaned close.
“Farrar, there’s no need for this. Tell us where the disc is. I’ll even pay a bonus for the charter.”
Pete – or Mike – came from behind me where he’d been holding the chair. Guess he wanted a better view.
“What’s so – important – on that disc?” I asked as I tried to refill my lungs.
“Call it a candid camera tape, though these aren’t funny home videos. My boss had everything fixed and then Agent Diaz broke it – got pictures he wasn’t supposed to have.”
“Boss? You mean Morenti?”
The two henchmen looked at Haynes, surprised I knew the name.
“Did a Feeb come looking for the disc?” Haynes asked sharply. “Did you give it to him?”
“You keep telling me Manny sent me this disc.”
“He had to. He had it within minutes of when we snatched him outside the Post Office. It was gone, but there was a registered mail receipt in his pocket with your name and address. That was three days ago; it’s had time to arrive. Now, tell us where it is.”
I looked at him defiantly. “Sure, I’ll tell you. As soon as Pete and Mike learn to walk on water.”
“Again, Mike,” Haynes said. So it was Mike doing the honors.
Mike cocked his fist, but this time I was ready. As the fist neared my face, I shoved hard with my feet, sending both me and the chair somersaulting into the helm deck. Pete started laughing.
“Damn! That was a hit and a half, Mike.”
Mike stood there, confused. He hadn’t felt contact; why had I flown back? I completed my tumble and landed crouched on the deck. They hadn’t noticed that I’d freed my hands. Tensing the arms is an old escape artist’s trick I’d learned during survival training. The bindings look tight, but when I relaxed I had some wiggle room. Once Pete came from behind me, I slipped the knot.
The Juliet has compartments with push release latches. I slammed my hand against one by the wheel. Inside was a pump-action shotgun with a folding stock I used for killing sharks, but it worked on other predators. Mike came at me, still puzzled about the phantom punch. I brought the gun to bear and chambered a cartridge. His hand darted inside his jacket. He’d freed his own gun when my shot caught him full in the chest. Mike fell back against the transom, his eyes unfocused, clouding.
I turned and pushed the throttles full forward while spinning the wheel hard. Pete was caught off balance. He stumbled backwards and hit the transom, tumbling over it. His scream was cut off by the water.
The windshield exploded behind me. I dropped to the deck. Dick had loosed his cannon, but with the shifting deck he couldn’t aim. It didn’t stop him firing again, this time into the dash by the wheel. I jumped up and fired the shotgun at where he had been, but he was already scrambling up the ladder to the tower.
Taking the high ground is sound strategy – except when you’re on a boat and you have to shoot down at the hull. Then it’s suicide. This was lost on Dick. I stepped to the center of the cockpit, just as Dick fired down through the roof. The bullet left a hole in the deck where I’d been standing. Damn! There were the engines, gas tanks, and the hull itself below me, none of which work well when shot.
I had two cartridges left in the shotgun, plenty for a shark but not for a fire fight. Another bullet came through the roof. I felt the port engine begin vibrating roughly beneath my feet. I couldn’t rush Haynes; he’d shoot me before I got to the ladder. I also couldn’t let him keep shooting my boat. I raised the shotgun, asked the Juliet for forgiveness, and sent a shot through the roof. I pumped the final shell into the breach and fired, then pumped it again and dry-fired the gun. The click was audible; he’d know I was out of shells.
I tossed the shotgun onto the bench and lunged for the starboard rack. I heard Haynes on the ladder. He was sliding down, holding the bars with one hand and his feet, the Smithy ready to blast me. By the gunwale rack, I had a selection of filleting knives, wickedly sharp. I grabbed one with an 8-inch blade. As Haynes appeared on the ladder, sliding fast, I thrust the blade between the rungs, catching him low in his stomach.
Gravity did the rest.
I limped into the marina after 7 p.m. I could have called Sea Tow, but I’d only been in the Keys six years and I felt the need still to prove myself to the conches, as the locals are called. The port engine crapped out, thanks to Haynes’ shot, and the pump was working hard to keep her afloat. I headed straight to the marina’s winch. It would be a while before the Juliet floated again.
Sheriff Windler and a couple of deputies were parked there, along with the coroner’s van. I’d been on my sat-phone for most of the trip, letting the authorities know what had happened. Dick and Mike were covered with tarps. I’d searched for Pete, but never found him.
Ralph stepped aboard with the marina attendants. While they attached the winch straps, he lifted the tarps and checked the bodies.
“We’ll need a full statement, Brick. Seems pretty straightforward, though. How ‘bout you come round the office tomorrow? We’ll dot the i’s and cross the t’s then. We’d better get you home.”
Shadows shrouded my street as I parked my pickup on the shell driveway and walked wearily to the porch. When I stepped inside, I saw my place was trashed. Papers scattered across the floor, albums dumped, and my CD collection was a pile of discs and open cases.
Then I heard a gun being cocked behind my head.
“Raise your hands. Turn around slowly.”
I did as told.
“Good evening, Special Agent Wharton – or should I say Gerard.”
The glasses were gone, as was the suit, and the hair was now a dirty blond – close to his natural color, I guessed. He could stroll past Windler on Duval Street and not be recognized.
Gerard pushed the door closed and motioned with his gun for me to move further into the room. I backed up slowly, mindful of all the items he’d dumped on the floor.
“I take it Morenti’s men are dead?”
“Two of them are for sure. The other one’s out in the Gulf. Maybe he learned to swim, but I think he took the sink option.”
“You’re funny, but I’ve no time to laugh. Where’s the disc?”
“I told you, I – ”
“Shut up!” He sidled over to my desk and reached down with his left hand. His eyes remained on me, as did his Berretta. At least he was satisfied with a 9mm. “I found this under your mail.” He held up the registered envelope. “I read the note. Manny won’t be picking it up, ever. You don’t need to dump it into a vacuum, whatever that means. The disc – now!”
“Where’s the real Wharton?”
“Benny’s on vacation with his wife and rug rats. He left his badge locked in his desk. Not a wise choice.”
“Windler will raise questions.”
“The description he’ll give matches Wharton – glasses, dark hair, officious to the point of obnoxious – but Benny’s got the perfect alibi. They’ll figure Morenti sent one of his men in disguise. You’ve got two choices, Farrar: a quick death, or excruciating pain until you give me the disc, then you die.”
“What if I choose C? You take the disc, I let you walk away, and I go on breathing?”
Gerard thought about it, but not for long. He grinned. “I think we could both live with C. Where is it?”
“Follow me.” I led him into my bedroom. Like the living room, Gerard had trashed it – bed tipped over, dresser drawers dumped, my hanging clothes on the floor. “There must be something incredible on that disc.”
“Enough to destroy Morenti and roll up every cop, politician, and judge on his payroll. I’d told him where we had bugs and cameras placed. He began using a restaurant back room for meetings. It’s a legitimate business, owned by a shell company; the Bureau didn’t know it was his. But somehow Manny discovered it and got the secret surveillance approval. And one of the people caught on the recording was me. Manny called me after he saw it. He wanted me to turn myself in, testify against Morenti. Instead I bluffed – told him other agents were helping me and would make the disc disappear. I found him with a GPS trace on his cell phone and had Morenti’s men grab him, but he’d already sent that damn disc to you.”
“You’ve been working for Morenti all along, haven’t you?”
“My parents were the housekeepers for his mother-in-law for decades. When I was in high school, Morenti offered me a deal. He paid my way through college and law school, after which I joined the FBI. I worked to get assigned to Chicago, to be his inside man.” His voice was tinged with bitterness. “There’s a fat account waiting for me in the Caymans when I retire.”
“It wasn’t what you expected, was it? Living undercover? Dealing with the constant tension?”
“You have no idea.”
Actually, I did, but only for brief periods. Gerard’s whole life was undercover. Then I realized his play. “Morenti sent Haynes and his crew here. Dick was surprised you’d come as well. You’re here on your own. You want the disc to buy your way out of your deal.”
“I can’t go through another dozen years like this, wondering if someone suspects me, if people around me are wearing wires. That disc is solid gold, Farrar. Morenti will happily give me everything he promised in exchange for it. I’ll be a free, very rich man.”
“But the disc hurts you, too. Morenti could use it against you.”
“I’d get a couple years. Morenti would be locked away the rest of his life. They’d confiscate his businesses under the Corrupt Organizations Act. He’d lose millions along with his freedom. Hell, Morenti would give me everything I want if I simply destroyed the disc. It’s radioactive to him.” He smiled. “Tell you what: give me the disc and I’ll send you a couple of grand. Call it a finder’s fee.”
I slid the dresser away from the wall and knelt on the floor. Pressing one end of a floor board, the other end teeter-tottered into the air. I pulled the board out of the way and withdrew the jewel case with its FBI sticker.
“Here you go.” I tossed high and as Gerard grabbed it, my hand plunged back into the hideaway, withdrawing the Glock I’d hidden there. I brought it to bear just as Gerard aimed his gun at me. We froze, staring at each other.
“You didn’t believe I’d let you go?” Gerard said.
“Don’t believe in Santa Claus, either.”
“Look, Farrar, I’ve got the disc. That’s all I need. I walk away, and you live a long life.”
“Or we could kill each other.”
“Not my first choice.”
“Mine, either. Go.”
I covered him as he backed away. He held the jewel case in his mouth to free his hand to open the door. Then he holstered his pistol as he disappeared through the doorway. I heard the screen door slam.
Then the world outside exploded as police cruisers raced forward, lights flashing, sirens screaming. Just as planned, Windler was across the street with another unit. A spotlight lit up the front of my house, and Gerard with it.
“This is the police,” Ralph’s voice boomed through a bullhorn. “You’re under arrest, Gerard. You can’t run. You’re surrounded. Lay down on the ground. Agent Gerard, do as I say.” Windler’s words turned urgent. “Get him, now!” Shadows flashed through the spotlights while shouts erupted.
I stood and walked into the main room. Suddenly I was hit with a bone-deep weariness. I dropped into my desk chair and laid my Glock down beside the mess of mail.
Ralph came in, carrying the FBI gem case.
“You got him?” I asked.
“Not before he broke the disc into quarters and stomped on the pieces. It’s destroyed.” He looked at me. “So where is the real disc?”
I pawed through the mail and grabbed the photo CD mailer from this morning. I handed the disc inside to Windler, who inserted it in the gem case. “I figured since I’d shown the mailer to Gerard this morning, he’d ignore it when he searched. Damn, now I’ll never know who that family was.”
“I’ll need the wire back, Brick.” I lifted my shirt and pulled off the mike taped to my chest, handing it to Windler. “How did you know he was dirty?”
“Manny told me.” I handed Ralph the registered envelope. “Look at the extra postage.”
It was a moment before his eyes lit up. “He inverted the stamp. The American flag is upside-down.”
“A seaman’s distress signal. Manny knew he was in trouble. He put on extra postage to warn me not to trust anyone.”
Windler read Manny’s note. “What did Diaz mean about dropping it in a vacuum?”
“It was a joke I made. Manny was frustrated with the FBI bureaucracy. I told him that the Bureau’s headquarters wasn’t named for J. Edgar Hoover. It was actually named after the vacuum cleaner manufacturer, because they suck.”
“That assistant director you talked to is coming down personally to pick up the disc.”
“Make sure you check his ID.”
Windler chuckled. “It’s incredible they had no idea what was going on.”
“Manny worked this solo. Not the FBI way, but that was the Ranger in him. Considering how it turned out, he was right not to trust his coworkers.”
“That AD was salivating about this disc. He said, with the added murder of a federal agent, Morenti will be stuck in a Super-Max prison for the rest of his life.”
I thought about straight, dedicated Manny in an unmarked grave, his wife widowed, his children fatherless. Sending Morenti to a super-max wasn’t worth the extra postage.