Tug’s Tavern was a throwback to traditional taverns of the past. It avoided becoming a coffee house in the 1950s and 60s. More important to the owner, Cap’n Tug, was the avoidance of even a hint of disco influence in the late 1970s. Today, it was a local hangout. If an analogy was required, Cheers would be the closest fit.
The décor was nautical to the extreme. And, even in this day of emerging women’s rights, the bar was decidedly male.
Dancer, as Phil Mamba was known in this part of town, entered the dark interior of Tug’s Tavern at 11:30 A.M. He stood for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the lack of light. Instinctively, he scanned the bar and tables that crowded the interior of the tavern. The scan was a ritual he’d learned as a police officer. It was so ingrained in his nature that it carried over into his current profession, which wasn’t a bad thing. It was early enough that only one table and three stools at the bar were occupied.
“Ahoy, Dancer!” The Cap’n bellowed his greeting to the PI.
“Permission to come aboard,” Mamba called. He knew the routine.
“Permission granted! Welcome aboard!”
“Glad to be here, Cap’n.”
“Your boy’s not in port yet,” the bartender informed Mamba. “Navigate over here. Whatever you want is on the house.”
“Sparkling water with a twist of lime.” He piled a plainly wrapped package and two boxes on the bar to his right. “I want to be on my toes.”
“Can’t say as I blame you. You always did want that. We both you never can tell what’s going on in Flatly’s beat up noggin.” The Cap’n plopped a glass down on the bar.
It was obvious to Mamba that the Cap’n had taken his usual tack of accepting all interactions at face value until the situation required other interpretation. He thinks Flatly’s got information for me.
Mamba reacted to the bartender’s service by slapping five, five-dollar bills beside the glass. He took a sip of his drink to cover his smile.
“What’s this?” the Cap’n asked. Then he broke out in a gap-toothed grin. “Now I remember. This is my Reed money.”
“I want people to know I keep my word.”
“No worries there, Dancer,” the Cap’n assured him. “Everybody knows you’re good for whatever you say.”
“And I plan on keeping it that way.”
“Hey, Cap’n!” A cry from the doorway broke into the conversation.
“Who wants boarding privileges?” the bartender demanded.
“It’s me, man,” a body emerged from the light beyond the doorway and gave substance to the voice. “You gotta know me, man.”
“Right on time, Flatly,” Mamba answered for the bartender. “Come on in, I’ve got your clothes.”
“All right!” the ex-fighter enthused as he came to Mamba. Grabbing the packages on the bar in a remarkably agile move, he said, “Let’s have me a look.”
Mamba sat and watched while the man ran his gnarled hands over the material of the shirt and slacks. Flatly’s mouth dropped open when he lifted the lid of the shoebox and inhaled the scent of new leather. But, his biggest reaction was for the hat. The flashy felt number was decorated with a large purple feather. He placed on his balding head with reverence.
“Thank you, man,” he breathed.
“You’ll earn it.” Mamba’s simple phrase brought reality back into the scene. Flatly deflated.
Too much truth too fast. Don’t lose him, flashed through Mamba’s mind. I need to re-inflate the man.
“Go ahead. Put them on. Then we’ll have some lunch and head on down to the station.”
“So soon?” the informant moaned. “It’s still early.”
“We’ll go over the plan a couple of times with everybody at the station so there won’t be any mistakes.”
Flatly’s brow furrowed while he processed the plan as fast as his battered brain cells allowed. Seconds later, he nodded to himself.
“Hey, Dancer, that’s a real good idea. I don’t want no foul-ups.”
Neither do I, Mamba thought as he watched the ex-boxer enter the dingy men’s room to change into his new clothes. Neither do I.
* * *
The ride in Mamba’s sedan from Tug’s to the division station was a quiet one. Neither man knew what might be an appropriate topic for conversation between them outside the business at hand. But, after Mamba parked the car, and as the two men were walking towards the station’s front door, the trip became a study in Flatly Broke’s persona.
Mamba knew the man well enough to have predicted his silence during the ride. He expected nothing different until they were working on the plan for the sting. The first ten yards of their walk across the parking lot did not alter his thinking.
However, the closer he got to the station, the more swagger Flatly added to his steps. You’re somebody now with your flashy threads aren’t you? Mamba thought as the swagger evolved into a strut.
By the time the men were crossing the last of the open asphalt before the station’s entry, the boxer was nodding and pointing at or waving to everyone who looked his way.
He’s playing to the crowd!
It was all Mamba could do to maintain the state of mind he knew the rest of the day required. Geez, Louise. Mike Tyson’s lucky you got your bell rung too many times, Flatly. You’re as much a showman as he ever was. He dropped back and allowed the full wattage of Flatly’s imaginary spotlight to envelop the man.
Once they entered the reception space, Mamba moved up beside his charge.
“You wait here. I’ll find out where they’re waiting for us.”
“It’s all fine,” Flatly replied with a gesture mimicking rubbing his hand across a smooth surface. He looked around. Once sure of an audience, he gave his feather a manly swipe.
Mamba shook his head and went to the front desk leaving the man to preen in peace. After a brief conversation with the Desk Sergeant, the PI led the boxer down a hallway.
“Whoa, Dancer? What we doin’ here?” was Flatly’s question as Mamba placed his hand on the interrogation door handle. “This room is for criminals! I ain’t no criminal!”
“When the police don’t have any criminal’s to fill these up, they use them for meetings. This is where our meeting is.” Mamba held the door open.
With doubt oozing from his features, Flatly tip-toed through the portal.
Mulligan, Stallings, and an officer unknown to Mamba were already in the room.
“Mr. Mamba, how long are you planning on supervising us on this operation?” Stallings asked.
Mamba felt the hair on his neck bristle. He hadn’t wanted to start the meeting with attitude showing on either side.
“I have no desire to do anything more than make sure my CI understands what’s going on before he’s thrown into the breach.”
“I see. What’s going down later, it wouldn’t have anything to do with one of your cases, would it?”
So this is where it’s going. I see some prejudices extend across the country. I never saw Stallings playing the PI card. Mamba’s mind clouded with emotions from revenge to persecution. He decided it was best for all concerned for him to take a neutral position.
“I’m not going to lie. I asked another CI for information. That was the lists you got to start this party. It was part of an investigation I’m conducting for a client. Turning the lists over to MPD wasn’t motivated by untainted altruism. Although, scum like the names on those lists need to be scraped off the pond and disposed of.”
Stallings stared at the PI for several seconds. He’d felt himself react to the term altruism. He hoped Mamba’d missed it, although he doubted that. Touché, gumshoe.
Mulligan felt is shoulder muscles tensing. I know you, Phil Mamba. Just let this go! And Stallings, the last thing I want is to have to come down on you in this meeting. The stare-down continued. Come on, guys, let’s all play nice.
Flatly was looking back and forth between Mamba and Stallings, much like a spectator at a ping-pong match. Finally, the Sergeant gave a quick nod. Mulligan thought he heard the breaking tension drop to the floor.
“Now, to more directly answer your question,” Mamba said.
Stallings raised his hand in the universal STOP gesture. Not quite yet. You need to know that I do my homework. As soon as it was clear that Mamba understood the action, Stallings began again.
“I did some investigating into your background, Mr. Mamba. I uncovered several interesting tidbits.”
Mamba set his jaw. He began running scenarios and responses through his mind.
“First,” Stallings continued as though he hadn’t noticed Mamba’s change in body language. “You were a seriously good cop.”
The PI’s eyebrows shot up.
Stallings facial contortions were evidence of his fight to keep from smiling at the reaction to his first revelation. He cleared his throat and reset his jaw before continuing.
“Second, you’re pretty much relentless when it comes to following what you think is a good lead on a case. In fact, if the scuttlebutt around here is true, your Captain’s opposition to just such a decision on your part is why you are no longer employed by the City of Manzanita.”
Where’s he headed with this?
“That’s a reasonable description of that event,” Mamba offered. He still had no basis for trusting Sergeant Franklin Stallings any further than any citizen had a right to trust any policeman.
Mulligan relaxed. It appeared as though the monochromatic Stallings was showing his true colors.
Flatly Broke had stopped listening at Stallings’ use of the term tidbits. He yawned—it was many an athlete’s answer to stress.
“Anything else?” Mamba asked, although he figured that there was.
“Quite a bit, actually, but only one more for public consumption.” There was a dramatic pause.
“About your nickname . . . Is ‘Dancer’ your second job?”
This time, it was Mamba who choked back a laugh. Mulligan grinned. The unknown cop looked lost.
“Oh, no!” Flatly answered Stallings’ question. “I’ve never seen a white cop what could dance a lick. He’s Dancer because he—”
“I think the Sergeant knows more than he’s letting on,” Mamba said, cutting off the boxer. “Am I right?”
Stallings shrugged. But he smiled, too. Mamba took that as an invitation to get back to the meeting’s agenda.
“I don’t think I know you,” Mamba said to the unfamiliar cop.
“He’s from Information and Surveillance,” Stallings answered for the man.
“New unit?” Mamba asked.
“Yeah. It’s partly my idea,” Stallings said. “There’s so much change in the equipment used for both information-gathering and surveillance that the street cop can’t keep up with the advances. The I and S unit spends the time it takes to learn the latest about the greatest. Then they teach and monitor the use of new equipment until other officers are comfortable using them.”
You may be okay, Sergeant Stallings. You might just be all right, Mamba thought before he introduced Flatly all around.
Only then did the I and S officer officially begin the meeting.
“This device is an SK-90,” he said as he held up a small electronic transmitter. “It is the most sophisticated piece of equipment of its type that we have.”
“It’s a Fargo, Flatly,” Mamba interpreted. He’d watched his CI’s eyes widen during the description of the transmitter and knew he had to translate the technician’s information.
“Hey, man, so that’s what one of them looks like.” The boxer reached for the device. A nod from Stallings gave permission. The technician handed it to the boxer who held it between his thumb and index finger. “Sure causes bunches of trouble out on the street.”
The technician took the device back from the informant. “You’ll be wearing this when you get to the meeting.”
“I know. I know,” was the half-hearted reply.
“Do you want me to continue?” the technician asked.
“No. It’s okay. I’ve used this before,” Stallings answered. The I and E officer gave head nods all around and left.
“Take off your shirt,” Stallings ordered Flatly without preamble. He reached toward the ex-boxer.
“You be careful, man.” Flatly’s left hand shot out and caught Stallings right hand as it approached. It was a reflex. He’d deflected scores of punches in similar fashion while in the ring.
Stallings stiffened. The boxer pushed Stallings’ hand away from his chest and began unbuttoning buttons. “These are new threads.”
Stallings rolled his eyes and leaned back against the table behind him, glad to have someone else to this part. Flatly removed his shirt and hung it with care over the back of a chair.
Stallings never worked narcotics as a street officer. His duty stations included several areas of Crimes Against Persons—robbery, assault, even a stint in homicide. But dealing with street people was not his forte. There were too many uncontrollable variables when working with civilians. He preferred to implement, not micromanage events, as he called situations like today’s.
Mamba stole a look at Mulligan, and they both smiled. It was obvious that Stallings was not used to dealing directly with street people on a routine basis. He wondered how the man had landed in narcotics. Several of his mannerisms didn’t fit someone in that particular assignment. He decided it must be his organizational skills that prompted the department’s decision to assign him there. I know he’s proud of his part in establishing that new unit.
After minimal discussion, it was decided to attach the transmitter to Flatly’s chest just below his pectoral muscle. Stallings used a long strip of adhesive tape to hold the device in position.
“Now drop your pants,” he ordered.
“Hey, man, watcha gon’ t’ be doin’ wit’ my pants down?”
“See the wire that’s hooked onto the Fargo?” Mamba asked. Flatly looked down at his chest and nodded.
“That goes to a power supply, like a battery. The Fargo’s no good without a power source. Can we show him the battery pack?” Then he turned to Stallings. “Another tidbit I’m certain you uncovered is that I like to be involved with my cases.”
“Just color within the lines, Mr. Mamba,” Stallings said before he reached behind him and picked up another tiny piece of equipment from the table. He handed it to the detective.
“Understood, Sergeant,” Mamba said before addressing Flatly, “We have to tape this power source to you, too. Without the battery, the transmitter doesn’t send us anything.”
“You guys use them special alk’line batteries?” Flatly asked in earnest. “I want t’ be sure there’s extra power in this sender. I want it to keep goin’ and goin’, you know. Like that bunny rabbit on TV.”
All three of the other men laughed.
“These are better than alkaline batteries,” Stallings assured the informant. “You won’t have to worry about losing power during the deal.”
“How come I got my pants down?” Flatly returned to his earlier question.
“We don’t know if you’ll be searched tonight or not,” Stallings continued the explanation. “If you are searched, we don’t want them to find our transmitter.”
“You don’t!” Flatly exclaimed. “Hey, man, I don’t want that at all!”
“When I said we, I meant all of us here.” Stallings defined his position as best he could with a wave of his hand around the room. He turned to Mulligan for help.
“I can’t think of anyone who would be more concerned than he would,” Mulligan deadpanned. “What do you think, Phil?”
What goes around comes around, Stallings, Mamba thought. It’s time for some payback.
“I’m sure Flatly is the most concerned of the group,” Mamba corroborated Mulligan’s position as he fought, with only partial success, to suppress a smile.
“Thanks,” was Stallings’ sarcastic expression of feigned gratitude. He turned back to the informant. “Nothing will go wrong if we get this placed properly. Your pants, please.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Flatly hesitated. He appreciated Stallings as a target. Usually he was the one squirming at the expense of other people. He was enjoying watching someone else on the hot seat. He stalled a little longer.
“You better show me how this is gonna look on me,” he announced. “Why don’t you take your pants off?”
Even the laconic Stallings had to chuckle at that. He turned to Mamba and Mulligan. The friends were laughing heartily.
Flatly was grinning, but he was standing in only his boxer shorts with his hands on his hips and his pants puddled atop his shoes when Stallings looked back at him.
With exaggerated care, the Sergeant taped the battery pack high in Flatly’s groin area. Unless the person searching Flatly was an adventurous female, or a far too friendly male, there would be no way the power pack for the device would be discovered.
The thin wire from the pack to the transmitter was taped in place beside the navel on the former boxer’s still reasonably flat stomach. With the transmitter taped discreetly off center on the man’s chest, there was the least possible chance for the Fargo to be detected.
With the wire in position, Flatly put his clothes back on while discussion of the procedure for the buy began.
“While you’re wired, you only answer questions,” Stallings told Flatly. “Let my man do most of the talking.”
“I understand,” the informant nodded. “Last thing I wants is a problem with these folks. Hey, Man, I don’t do drugs. Those users are strange people.”
“Hola, amigos,” boomed from the doorway as Martinez arrived at the debriefing. Flatly gave a start at the boisterous entrance. Mamba signaled thumbs up to his CI and hoped he was up on the meanings of current gestures. When he flashed his raised thumb in response, Mamba relaxed.
Meanwhile, Martinez closed the door behind him. “Is the wire set?” he asked in his most professional voice.
“He’s ready,” Stallings answered.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” Flatly answered for himself. If this is the undercover cop I’m goin’ with, I for sure want him to know me real good, rattled through the boxer’s brain. He decided to find out. “You another cop?”
“Detective Enciso Martinez, Narcotics.” He extended an enormous paw to the diminutive fighter. “You my new partner, amigo?”
“Sí,” Flatly answered in one of the few Spanish words of which he was certain of the meaning.
“¡Muy bien!” Martinez bellowed. “You call me Cue Ball whenever we’re together. Got it?” Noticing the quizzical expressions on Mamba, Mulligan, and Flatly, he explained.
“I met Weston in a pool room. I shoot a mean game of rotation.” Dazzling white teeth exploded into a gigantic smile as he added, “My head helps solidify the name, too.” He pulled off the brightly colored bandana and rubbed his shaved skull with some relish.
“Sure, Man. That’ll be easy cuz that bald head of yours surely looks just like,” the CI paused. His brow wrinkled in concentration before announcing his conclusion. “You know, cuz you’re a Mexican and all, you look more like a seven ball than a cue ball, right?”
Mamba and Martinez burst into laughter. Stallings smiled.
“We’re going to do just fine tonight, amigo!” Martinez decided.
“You know, Cue Ball, Flatly’s not the only one to notice the resemblance,” Mamba said. He was glad to see positive attraction and relaxed interaction between Martinez and his CI It boded well for the success of the sting. “If only I’d brought my break-down cue stick.”
“Not on your life!” Martinez produced a shocked expression and re-covered his head. “I always keep covered during the game. Just in case.”
“All fascinating, but non-essential information. We need to get back on task,” Stallings advised. “We’ve got to script the buy now.”
“My favorite time.” The giant Latino grinned broadly and finished in a stage whisper to Flatly, Mamba and Mulligan as his gaze moved from man to man to man, “I’m a great writer.”
“I can imagine. I bet you’re the Mickey Spillane of the division,” Mamba said.
“My agent’s working on a contract for one of those beer commercials.”
“And I’m sure all your friends in the department will get ample mention,” Mulligan hinted. “Along with a cut of the contract dollars.”
“No way, José! This deal’s for the famous scriptwriter only.”
“I appreciate dreams and ambitions,” Stallings stopped the conversation cold. “But we need to get on with the business at hand. We’ve only got three hours before the buy.”
“Plenty of time.”
“Never the less, I want this to go down smooth. Real smooth.”
“Yes, sir,” the undercover officer responded. Martinez knew that tone of voice. The time for frivolity had passed.
“Give me a hand, will ya?” Mulligan asked Mamba as he grabbed one end of the table that had been pushed against a wall.
With only a nod in answer, Mamba walked to the other end of the table. Together the two friends muscled the large piece of furniture into the middle of the room.
“Bet you coulda done that by you’sef, right?” Flatly asked Martinez.
“With one hand and holding a burrito in the other,” he answered with a grin and a flex of both biceps.
Stallings chose what had become the head of the table. He opened a manila folder and spread several papers in front of him. Then he motioned for the others to find a seat. Chairs scraped across the tiled floor as each man grabbed a chair and sat down.
“What’s those papers for?” Flatly asked as he took his seat.
“Just some names and a general outline of the procedure we’ll use during the buy.”
“Do I gots to know all the stuff you got written down?”
“No. Your part is to say two or three things to make them think you’re for real,” Mamba answered as he placed his hand on the fighter’s shoulder. “You know, like a real drug buyer.”
“Mr. Mamba is correct,” Stallings acknowledged but shot Mamba an I’ve got this look.
Mamba’s mental response was, sometimes you got to do what comes naturally. When he said nothing, Stallings picked up where he’d left off.
“We’ll go over the whole procedure so you’ll know what’s going on. Then we will practice what we want you to do. Got it?”
“OK, man,” Flatly decided after additional brow furrowing. “But, don’t forget the practice.”
“Just think of this as going a couple of rounds with a sparring partner,” Mamba grinned, interjecting his comment as another reminder that the whole scenario was the result of his work. “Tonight’s the main event.”
“Right,” Flatly grinned back. “I gots that action, Jackson.”
Ignoring Mamba’s interjection and Flatly’s response, Stallings began at the top of one of his pages of notes.
“We send Martinez and your man into the apartment complex at about eight o’clock. “We’ll use two cars, one with you two in it.” He motioned at Mamba and Mulligan. “I’ll be in the other with a uniform.”
“How close will we be?” Mulligan wanted to know.
“In the street beside the main entrance to the complex.”
Flatly jerked his head toward Mulligan. The whites of the boxer’s eyes seemed to occupy his entire forehead.
“We’ll be close enough to get to you in plenty of time—if anything goes wrong. Right, Stallings?” Mulligan asked.
“No problem. We’ll be at the apartment door before the buy’s completed.”
“Remember, I’ll be there, too,” Mamba said. He shot Stallings a look. The Sergeant nodded his approval.
“Besides, amigo,” Martinez placed a meaty hand on Flatly’s shoulder. “Cue Ball will be in the room with you. Ain’t no way they’ll get us both before our helpers arrive.” He winked at Flatly.
“Thanks, man.” Flatly relaxed at the words from the mammoth undercover agent and the weight of his hand on his shoulder.
“Two squad cars and another undercover vehicle will act as our backup.” Stallings continued his narration as though there had been no interruption. “Once the buy is set, we move into position and bag Weston.”
“You figure he’ll talk?” Mulligan asked.
“I think we can wring enough from him to establish grounds for a warrant or two,” Stallings answered. “Then this takes off like a pyramid scam.”
“Remember the guy we’re dealing with tonight knows me as Cue Ball,” Martinez picked up the story.
“Did you have a point you were trying to make, Officer?” Stallings soured the air with his tone. “Or were you just practicing your story-telling?”
“No, sir. I wanted our CI to know enough to make him comfortable with anything I say.”
“Hey, man, you got me all comfortabled up. We’re partners!”
“Continue,” was Stallings succinct directive.
“They think I’m a renegade biker. I’ll arrive on my Harley.”
“How will I get there?” Flatly asked. “I don’t ride no Harley, Cue Ball.”
“If you were just buying for yourself, what would you do?”
“Take a cab, Man,” was Flatly’s immediate response. His eyebrows shot up as he realized that the answer might have sounded too spontaneous, so he added, “Not that I’d be doin’ any of dis wit’out it bein’ the Dancer’s, uh . . . idea.”
Four men exchanged skeptical looks while they fought to suppress smiles at that comment.
“All you have to do is follow my lead,” Martinez explained. “I’ll give the dealer some background on you. Then he’ll ask some predictable questions that you’ll have to answer to his satisfaction.”
“That’s all there is to it,” Mamba confirmed. “Just remember who you are supposed to be and answer any questions like you would if you really were that person.”
Flatly’s brow furrowed again. The conversation was moving faster than he was used to listening, and the vocabulary in use far exceeded his. After several moments, he pursed his lips and nodded.
“Sounds easy enough. Just who am I goin’ to be?”
This time, it was Mamba who relaxed.
“A friend of Martinez.”
“That’s Cue Ball,” Flatly corrected.
“Right,” Stallings said before he consulted his notes again. “You have a place he, Cue Ball uses to crash from time to time.”
“Like an apartment?”
“Probably a house.”
“Oooeeee,” Flatly whistled. “I only been workin’ for the police for only a few hours and I already owns me a house.”
“But not too nice of one.” Martinez punched him gently in the arm. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be seen with someone like me.”
The boxer sat up straight in his chair. With the gravest of expressions on his face, he turned and scrutinized the undercover officer. His brow wrinkled with the intensity of his concentration. After a beat, he leaned back in his chair before he spoke.
“I’m just sayin’, Cue Ball, you look so bad I’m not sure if it’s cool to be seen wit you anyway.”
It took all Mamba’s self-control to stifle his laughter at the candid comment.
“I am offended.” Martinez placed crossed his arms and stared hard at the CI.
“I’s only kiddin’,” Flatly said with a smile. He reached over and punched his newfound compadre.
Mamba and Mulligan leaned back in their chairs. This was going extremely well. Stallings flashed another brief grin at the realization that the boxer had played Martinez.
“Gentlemen. Since we have only two hours until we have to be at the apartment, it might be appropriate if we did some rehearsing.” Stallings frowned his emotionless statement. Mamba wondered if the man used sternness as a tool to control the direction of conversations.
“Yes, sir,” was the response. But this time it was a choral response from both the Martinez and his new partner.
Stallings shook his head—his frown frozen in place. He was tempted to say something about the importance of the following of procedure, but he figured it would only confuse the muddled brain of the punch-drunk man with a foolish grin on his face who sat beside his undercover officer. Besides, he’d been pleasantly surprised at the mostly appropriate spontaneity of the man. He relaxed his frown to a neutral expression.