MULLIGAN sat at his desk staring at the phone in front of him and wondered if being single—as so many police officers were by choice or divorce—was the route he should have taken. He loved his wife, and he was looking forward to having kids. In fact, Kate was going off her pills after her prescription ran out.
Because he liked to think he had a life, he hated this part of his job the most. Well, maybe not the most, he thought. I really hate notifications of deaths. With a sigh of resignation, he picked up the handset and punched in a series of numbers.
“Looks like a long one tonight, honey.”
“You told me that this morning,” she reminded him. She sensed the disappointment in his voice. That emotion always showed through, no matter how hard he tried to mask it.
“I know, but, well, I had hoped I might not be involved in this operation.”
“That’s not true. You wouldn’t miss this chance to work with Phil Mamba again for the world.”
“You’re right. As usual. I’m glad you’re around to keep me honest with myself.”
“Actually, I do most of my best psychiatric work while I’m at school and you’re at the station,” she teased. “My fifth-graders are tougher reads than you are.”
“Thanks for the ego boost.”
“Don’t mention it.” Her voice softened as she added, “You be careful. Hear?”
“I will. Don’t worry.”
“I always worry.”
“That’s why I love you so much.”
“And I love you.”
“Hey, Mike!” Mamba’s voice echoed through the small office. “I’m starving. Let’s get moving. Everybody else has already gone off to eat.”
“Be right there,” he called to his friend. Then he returned his focus to his wife. “I’ve got to go. See you later, sweetie.” He hung up the receiver.
“You’d better,” she breathed her almost inaudible response as she eased the handset into its plastic cradle.
* * *
Flatly arrived at the designated address in a cab driven by a plain-clothes police officer. He clambered out of the taxi about a block away from the correct address. As directed, he walked toward the site of the buy.
The sound of a motorcycle brought the boxer to a stop. He turned in time to see Martinez round the corner behind him. In seconds, the undercover man had parked his ride and was standing beside his new partner.
“I don’t know about the hat,” Martinez said.
“What you mean? This is a stylin’ hat,” Flatly responded indignantly.
“I know it is. But, how will you keep it on when you’re riding with me on my bike?”
“I been thinkin’ ’bout that.” Flatly moved behind the behemoth. Once in position, he saluted from the top of his head into the back of Martinez. Flatly’s hand struck the Latino midway between his shoulder blades.
“Man, I could ride behind you a long way and never even feel the wind. Ain’t no way my hat gets blow’d off. You as big as one of them cruiser-weight fighters. How’d you get so big?”
“Clean living and . . . Mexican food,” Martinez answered as they approached the door to the buy site.
The door was unremarkable. The surface was flat, but there was a knocker. Martinez saw a viewing hole just below the knocker. That was common for the neighborhood.
“I can go a full ten if I need to.”
“Who am I?”
“Wha— Oh, you’re Cue Ball.”
Martinez nodded. I hope he’s as cool as he sounds. We’re going to need all the cool we’ve got tonight.
“All right then, it’s show time!” Martinez rapped the doorknocker in a specific sequence.
The interior cover of the viewing hole opened.
“Good to see you again, Cue Ball,” a voice from inside said. Then, in a worried tone, “You got someone with you?”
“This is my numero uno house man,” Martinez introduced Flatly Broke, He slid the boxer in front of him and maneuvered him to the most visible place for the viewing hole. “He’s always got room for a man to sleep it off.”
“Does your house man have a name?” the drug dealer asked.
Mamba twisted knobs on the top of the tape recorder that was recording the transaction. Martinez had come through loud and clear on the headset. That was a good sign. The seller’s words were a little garbled. Mamba cursed beneath his breath as the man spoke only short questions or phrases. “Keep him talking,” he muttered to himself.
At the sound of the profanity, Mulligan turned toward his friend. Phil Mamba was not a man who often swore. He wondered if something was wrong. He considered tapping Mamba on the shoulder and asking him but decided against it as the conversation continued in his earphones.
“Come on, man,” Martinez answered. “Sometimes it’s better to have no nombre. Es la verdad?”
“Sometimes,” the dealer admitted. “Why’d you bring him here? I thought we agreed that only clear people would come to my place.”
“My amigo is, what you call it? Clear,” Martinez assured. “I have said he is okay.”
“Well, I’m not so sure,” the dealer protested.
“Hey,” Flatly interrupted. “It’s cool, Cue Ball. If the dude doesn’t want me here, I’ll just go and buy someplace else. Let’s beat feet.”
“Good job,” Mulligan whispered to Mamba, who smiled and nodded. Flatly’s first words were delivered perfectly. They also recorded nicely.
“Buy?” the dealer’s interest piqued at the word.
“I tol’ him you had primo coke,” Cue Ball said in a stage whisper.
“How much do you want?” The change in attitude was dramatic.
“Quarter ‘K’,” Flatly repeated the rehearsed amount. The only sounds caught on tape were a sharp inhalation of breath from the dealer and the creaking of the front door as it opened immediately after that.
As the door swung open, a disheveled man of indiscriminate age stood in the doorway. Martinez immediately confirmed his identity as the Weston whose name was on Mamba’s list. Weston shot a furtive glance from Martinez to Flatly and back. He looked worried.
“Hey, Man, if that’s too heavy for you . . .” Flatly let the sentence hang. He watched the man sweat. He figured that the dealer must have looked about the same as he had back at the station when first heard the amount of coke he was to buy. Half a pound of the white powder was more than he had ever seen together in his whole life.
“You sure you want a full quarter kilo?”
“Does your friend have a hearin’ problem?” Flatly asked.
“No, man.” Martinez fought back a snicker. This guy’s a natural. “He’s just bein’ certain. Sí?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I’m just making certain. That amount is no problem.” The dealer assured his new customer, before qualifying his interest with, “If you’ve got the bread.”
“Right here,” Flatly said. Mamba could hear the sound of movement as their informant displayed the wad of marked cash the Department had supplied.
Enciso Martinez relaxed as the small, wiry man standing beside him threatened to take his money and walk out. Flatly Broke was doing the job. He wondered what Mamba had on the man to get him to compromise himself like this. He decided that whatever it was, it must be serious.
The script they had practiced for the buy was going as planned. It was as though everybody, even the supplier, had rehearsed their parts.
Then it started to unravel.
“Let’s go,” the dealer announced.
“Go?” Martinez asked. His mind began to race. Why would Weston want to leave? If we leave, the chances for trouble are way too high.
“Yeah. I’ll take you to the stuff. I don’t have that much around here.”
“But—” Before Flatly finished, he glanced at Cue Ball in his panic. The undercover agent gave the informant a meaningful look and a sharp jab to his arm. Don’t lose it now, amigo! The boxer choked off the rest of his protest.
Mamba hoped his informant stopped at a sign from the undercover cop and not from a move by the supplier. Say something, Martinez. Don’t leave me hanging!
“Tell me where we’re goin’. I’ll follow you on my bike, man. I can’t leave it here.”
“No way you’re taking your bike, Cue Ball. It’s too noisy. That makes it too obvious,” was the blunt rejoinder. “We’ll go in my car. It’s downstairs in the garage.”
Now it was Mulligan’s turn to swear. The garage was the underground parking structure upon which the apartment complex was built. The major issue was that the garage had three exits. He pulled off his headset in frustration.
“We can’t lose them,” Mulligan spoke the needless words. He snapped the radio microphone from its holder on the dashboard. His mind raced as it organized details.
“I know. I know,” Mamba responded, but the Lieutenant wasn’t listening; he was barking into the radio’s microphone.
Mamba paused the tape recorder, waited for his friend to sign off, and asked, “Got a car at each exit?”
“They’re on their way,” Mulligan muttered. “You and I have the south one!”
Martinez grabbed Flatly by the arm and guided him as they trailed their host towards the elevator.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered in the boxer’s ear. “They’ll be right behind us all the way.” He hoped he sounded convincing, because he wasn’t completely convinced himself. He didn’t mind surprises. But, right now, he had a civilian to worry about.
“Whatever you say, Cue Ball,” Flatly answered in a hoarse whisper, his unlimited confidence in the giant Latino showing through. “I’m with you.”
“Buen hombre,” Martinez murmured. Then he called to Weston, “Hey, Jefe, wait up. You tryin’ to leave us here?” He had to slow the man down to make certain that all exits from the parking structure were covered by the time they arrived at whatever transport vehicle Weston had in mind.
The drug dealer slowed his pace.
“Sorry. I’ve never dealt a quarter-K before. I guess I’m a little nervous.”
“Well, you just de-nervous yoursef,” Flatly said. “I don’ want no nervous Nellie driver-ing my car.”
Martinez relaxed a bit. The boxer was more than holding his own in this fight. He’d already landed a body blow that knocked the confidence right out of Weston. Now he was frustrating the drug dealer with an occasional verbal jab.
“I’ll be all right,” Weston assured his buyers. “We’re in luck. The elevator’s here already.” He reached out and held the door as the trio entered.
Weston directed the men to a sorry-looking green Ford coupe. He pulled the hinged back of the driver’s side bench seat up to the steering wheel and directed Martinez and Flatly to climb into the back seat.
“Sorry about all the crap back there, Cue Ball,” Weston called over his shoulder. “I wasn’t expecting any riders.”
“No hay problemas,” Martinez replied as he shoved at least a week’s worth of fast food lunch remains off the seat cushion and onto the back seat floor. “We’ve got lots of room.”
Despite the aged condition of the Ford, it roared to life with the first turn of the key. Weston slammed the car into reverse and accelerated backward out of the parking space. After screeching to a stop, he jammed the transmission into drive and left black skid marks for fifteen feet as he sped out of the underground parking area.
Mulligan pulled his car out of its parking space and crept along the curb. He eased the car’s front fender into the driveway they’d been assigned.
“Mike!” Mamba’s shout startled Mulligan into a reflex jerk of his leg. This led to an abrupt stop that sent the PI’s head snapping forward.
A battered, once two-tone green coupe roared toward the unmarked police car. It missed the front of their car by no more than a few inches.
Martinez saw Flatly blanch as the already dented left front fender of the Ford narrowly missed the front bumper of a car that was about to enter the driveway as their car roared out of the garage. But a sideways glance by the undercover man seconds later saw no lingering evidence of the scare.
Weston flipped off the other driver and added a nasty laugh. The Latino’s eyes sparked to life as he recognized the occupants of the offending car. He flashed a grimace to Mulligan and collapsed back in the seat hoping they realized the expression was supposed to indicate he’d recognized them.
“Dancer,” he whispered to his back seat companion.
Flatly started to look over his shoulder. Martinez shook his head no. The boxer nodded and leaned against the back cushion.
“You bet that guy’s a bastard,” Weston called over his shoulder after misunderstanding Cue Ball’s comment to Flatly.
“There’s too many drivers should be shot these days.”
“You got that right,” the dealer agreed. He made a hard right turn onto 22nd Street.
“That’s Martinez in the back seat,” Mulligan shouted.
“I know,” Mamba agreed. “Did you see the grin on his face as they passed us?”
“It wasn’t the happiest look I’ve ever seen. I’m not so sure he was glad to see us.”
“He couldn’t afford to let on that he recognized us. All he needs right now is suspicion from the supplier.”
“I hope your man doesn’t let on that he noticed anything,” Mulligan said. He hadn’t even heard Mamba’s rationalization.
Mike’s wound tight. I need to be a voice of reason. “Flatly’s not a pro, but he’s not dumb, either. He wants to get out of this in one piece. Believe me.”
“Suspect vehicle coupe. Ford, late sixties, green on green. Significant damage to both front fenders. License number,” Mulligan barked into his microphone. He turned to Mamba.
“Niner Zero Zero Able Baker Baker,” Mamba told Mulligan, then stopped talking as his friend repeated the plate number.
“Suspect headed west on 22nd Street. Report immediately when you make it.”
“This is one-Adam-seven. We’ve got him!” The voice of a patrolman in one of the black and whites crackled in the radio speaker. “Still west on 22nd, Lieutenant. We’re turning on his tail.”
“Roger,” Mulligan acknowledged. Then he had a flash of insight. He realized that the passage of time seemed to vacillate between speeding so fast that he couldn’t keep up with the action to slowing until time seemed to stand still. The switch from one speed to another was frequent and random.
“Stallings!” Mulligan snapped during one of the millisecond lulls. He’d decided to run rotation for the street surveillance of the green sedan. His brain raced as he visualized which patrol car would alternate with the unmarked cars available to him. Stallings response broke his concentration.
“Run parallel on 21st for two blocks, then move in behind Adam-Seven.” Mulligan placed Stalling’s g-ride second in the rotation.
“Check. Who picks us up?”
“Then we go in rotation by car number.” Mulligan decided that would be the easiest method of deployment of the cars in the sequence of the tail.
“We’ll follow car—” He paused and looked over at Mamba who scanned the roster of cars assigned to the detail.
“Fifty-seven,” Mamba said.
“We’ll follow car fifty-seven. So they’re picking up from you,” Mulligan reported. “That should give the dealer adequate time to forget he almost rammed us in the parking garage.”
“What about the black and whites?” the Sergeant asked. “You sure you want to include them in the tail?”
“We’ll work them in periodically.” Mulligan’s mind continued to race as he considered the question. “Adam-Seven’s already on the suspect. Might as well use car fifty-seven in the queue. Everybody’s been followed by a cop at some time or another. Especially at night.”
“Good,” Stallings said. As the ranking narcotics agent, Stallings was technically in command of the operation. But, Mulligan was a Lieutenant and had a vested interest in the situation. Besides, the plan for the tail was a good one.
As Mulligan pulled away from the curb, Mamba clicked the tape recorder back on. No use missing something we might wish we had later.
“Hey, man,” Martinez called. “You know where you’re goin’? We’ve been on Sixteenth Street already.”
“I know where I’m going,” Weston retorted. “Just sit back and relax.”
Cue Ball sighed. He wasn’t going to be much help to the tail. Weston was in no mood for conversation. He tried four more times in the next forty minutes to get some clue of their destination from Weston. He was no more successful on those than he’d been on the first. He risked only two other attempts after being directed to, “Shut up!”
The PI breathed easier with each of those reports. However, a sharp, “Shut up!” from the driver reduced the trickle of information to one drop at a time.
For over an hour, five police vehicles changed positions irregularly behind the dilapidated green Ford. The supplier followed a circuitous route that passed through a lower-middle-class neighborhood. At the moment, Weston’s car was less than two miles as the crow flies from the apartment where the buy failed to take place.
“This guy’s paranoid,” Mulligan said as a tail car reported the sedan to be slowing after turning down a side street. The strain in his voice made it clear that the lack of action was taking its toll on the man.
Mamba only nodded his response. There had been little conversation in the Ford as it maneuvered through traffic.
Flatly seemed to be holding up well in spite of the drastic change in the planned procedure of the buy. The tone of his occasional comments revealed neither overt fear nor panic. Mamba hoped that the man’s composure continued to hold when the men arrived at the new buy site.
The green Ford finally slowed as it turned down a cul-de-sac. The tailing police car, with Stallings and a uniformed officer inside, continued past the intersection after reporting the anticipated stop to Mulligan.
The boxer completed the relaxation technique he’d begun during the rehearsal and dozed off long before the green Ford turned onto the cul-de-sac. As they slowed, he stirred a little. When the car finally stopped, he jerked awake.
“Where we at?” he asked Martinez.
“Give me a second,” Mamba said. “I want to change this tape out. I hope this is where we pick up where we left off back at Weston’s.”
“Yeah. Good.” Mulligan had no idea what he’d just agreed to—or that he’d agreed to anything for that matter.