Troubleshooter – Five
by Andrea Speed
Could it be this simple?
Z stood on the corner of Perry Street, surveying the block. It was the area connecting the business district to the seedier part of town, and it showed. There wasn’t enough room for a full strip mall, but all the constituent parts were there: clothing chain store, doughnut shop, karate center (why were they always next to the doughnut shop? Was someone trying to send a message?), chain hair salon, two competing fast food joints, and – in a deviation from the norm – a self-storage unit. It still had the fake adobe façade of the Mexican restaurant it used to be, with the second story of huge windows and fake brick looking like it was the top of another building. Some nascent fungal growth of a frozen yogurt shop springing to life on the back of the U-Store-It, like a mushroom on a rotting log.
Clouds had moved over the sun, but conversely it seemed hotter than before, and she was already sweating in her goddamn leather jacket. But she couldn’t really take it off, as it was hiding her gun. She had taken her SIG-Sauer P226 and belt holster before taking the cell phone down to Sajeet’s, careful to hide it far behind her right hip so he wouldn’t spy it. Guns made him nervous, and she couldn’t blame him really – they were nasty things. And the P226 wasn’t a pretty thing at all, just a short barreled semi-automatic with little phallic appeal, but it was a gun made specifically for business, not for showing off to your friends.
She walked down the dreary block to the mini-storage, and questioned the clerk on duty, showing him Bryce’s photo. The man seemed to have a naturally nervous disposition, so she couldn’t tell if how much was lying, how much was truth, and how much was him just being pissed off at having his day interrupted by someone who wasn’t even interested in renting something. He claimed not to recognize Bryce, to have no Bryce Shaw on the rental register (but he wouldn’t use his real name – it was a pity she had no idea what aliases he would use), nor an Andrew Ward. She gave up with the nervous nebbish, and figured she’d try her luck later with the next guy on duty.
She went across the street to the ubiquitous coffee shop, bought a lemonade iced tea, and sat at one of their small sidewalk tables, keeping an eye on the storage place (not a lot of traffic), and pulled out her own cell phone. She was waiting for Sajeet to get back to her, but, more importantly, she needed back up. She could take care of most problems herself – and usually did – but there was no such thing as too much coverage.
She hit speed dial and waited for only two rings. “Yeah?”
“Shan, you busy?”
“Zee?” Shan replied, sounding pleased. “Hey! Naw, I ain’t busy, just doin’ laundry. I found out I had nothing to wear that didn’t smell like my Uncle Sean’s feet.”
“Thanks for the olfactory imagery.”
He chuckled, sounding like a low rent Santa Claus. “Well, it’s true. So, I’m guessing you’re not calling to be a social … a social thing.”
She was so accustomed to his struggle for the correct words she hardly noticed. “No. I think I might need some back up. You game?”
“You mean, either that or laundry? Do you think that’s a hard choice?”
“I’m at Caffeine Rush on Perry Street. Know where that is?”
“Just down from Dawson Avenue.”
“Okay, I know where that is. Give me, uh … umm …”
He must have lost the words. Apparently there was no medication to help that yet. “Five minutes?”
She heard him snap his fingers. “Yes, yeah that. See ya.”
Z hung up the cell and shoved it back in her pocket. Shan, known to most people as the alliterative Shane Shanahan, was – on the surface – the perfect muscle to watch your back. But if you knew him, you might think he was ill suited for the job.
Shan was a jock boy, a former college hockey player almost turned pro, six foot six and two hundred and twenty pounds of pure, well toned muscle, a bouncer down at the trendy club Delirium. In fact, she met him there while on a case, tracking a man suspected of being an embezzler passing off funds to an accessory in the drug trade (it didn’t turn out to be nearly that interesting). He was technically off duty but hanging around the bar in case there was trouble, nursing an orange juice (she thought it was a screwdriver – she was wrong; he couldn‘t mix alcohol with his meds). While she watched the man she was tailing trying to desperately impress his much younger date, Shan attempted to chat her up, which was difficult since the music was so loud and she wasn’t paying any attention to him. But then he asked, “There’s no chance you’ll sleep with me, is there?”
It struck her as bizarre, even more so when she saw he was looking at her with an almost innocent curiosity. He really had no idea, and wanted to know. For some reason, she didn’t belt him, she just told him, “No.”
He nodded, placated, and asked her why she was watching “Humbart Humbart over there” – yet another surprising thing for him to say. And then she noticed the scar on his left temple, disappearing beneath his chocolate brown hair like a white worm.
While in college, a strap broke on his helmet in the middle of a hockey game, but rather than go back to the bench and get another one, he kept playing, and took a violent cross-check that sent him crashing to the ice. He told her he still has no memory of hitting the ice; just falling, and suddenly waking up two months later in a hospital bed, with tubes snaking in every orifice. It seems he suffered a skull fracture when he hit the ice, and had intra-cranial bleeding that almost killed him, and put him in a coma. He’d had brain surgery – hence that ghostly white scar, which was actually just one of several; if you asked nicely, he’d part his hair and show you the rest – and was left with “minor” brain damage. His intellect wasn’t too severely impaired (“What intellect?” He would say, laughing), but he did have almost a year of physical therapy, learning to walk and gain a sense of proprioception again. He also had two obvious, lingering effects of his brain trauma: petit mal seizures, and an occasional transitory inability to remember the words he wanted use, or understand them. It wasn’t aphasia, and most people assumed it was just malapropism on his part, but the only thing the neurologists would tell him was it “might” be related to some “trauma” in his left parietal lobe, but they couldn’t say for sure. Just like they couldn’t say for sure if he’d ever recover from any of it, or if his seizures would get worse.
Petit mal seizures weren’t seizures people were generally familiar with. It meant he would sometimes pause, often in the middle of conversations, and freeze – his eyes would be focused on nothing, and he would just stop, like a toy whose battery had gone dead. Then, after several seconds (once she timed one at over a minute), he would instantly resume whatever he had been saying, unaware he had “checked out” or had a seizure. They were described to him as electrical storms in his brain, that basically made him stall like an old car. But petit mal seizures could eventually become grand mal seizures; the kind that made you convulse and lose consciousness. But they could also “clear up”. The doctors just didn’t know if he’d live with it the rest of his life, or if he’d recover, or get worse. Perhaps he lived with this uncertainty by being as bold and unusually open as he was, or that was – as he liked to claim – just another side effect of his head injury. As he once told her, “I think my brain getting rattled made me lose my ability for … umm …. Self-battleship.” She assumed he meant self-censorship, but didn’t bother to correct him, as he didn’t know he’d said it incorrectly, and why embarrass him?
He loved being their occasional back up. He liked to say he was the white Hawk to her and Alex’s “joint” Spenser, and it made her feel obscurely bad for him. How bad did your life have to be to look forward to shit like this? He was extremely odd, but a good guy all the same. And it always paid to know a bouncer at the trendy spot in town.
She was half way through her drink, and wondering how the self-storage place could stay in business with so few clients, when he came jogging up the sidewalk, making the small crowd of shoppers and pedestrians part for him. Many glared at him, annoyed, but Shan didn’t notice. He came to stand near her table, pressing two fingers to his throat and looking at his watch as he took his pulse. “Hey Zee,” he said, panting slightly. “Aren’t you overdressed?”
Shan was wearing worn Nikes, beige walking shorts, and a black tank top that had the words “Please Don‘t Feed The Animal” printed across the chest in cracked white letters. She scowled at him. “Shorts? Do you think you can be intimidating in shorts?”
He looked down at himself, as if only now aware of his wardrobe choice. “Everything else is in the dryer.”
Oh man. Why didn’t Spenser ever have these problems? “Great,” she muttered, taking a last drink of her tea. As she stood up, she handed the sweating cup to Shan, who took it with a grateful nod.
Standing next to him, she felt positively Lilliputian. He was only a foot taller than her, but he was so wide across the chest she felt diminished, too small to be any good in a fight. Of course that wasn’t true, but that’s just how imposing he was. A physically perfect specimen, with just a few key imperfections in his head.
He gulped down the rest of her drink in two swallows, and set the cup on the table. “So why the jacket, Zee? You packing?”
She stared at him in disbelief. Sometimes this was the drawback to working with him – secrecy wasn’t his forte. “Could you say that a little louder? I don’t think everyone heard you.”
He grimaced sheepishly, glancing down at the sidewalk. “Sorry. But it isn’t like you don’t have a concealed weapons par – uh, oh shit, I just had the word …”
She started walking down the street, and he followed dutifully, her large, hulking shadow. “Doesn’t matter. We’re going here.” She handed him a slip of paper with Ward’s address on it, the one on his employee file and the one the impostor gave in her office. She didn’t know if it was a trap, an abandoned flat, or a murder scene.
Shan studied the address for a moment, probably trying to place it. “Oh. D’ya think they’ll let me in? Maybe I shoulda found some pants.”
“It’s a condo, not a restaurant.”
“I know. Still -”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re with me.”
He nodded and gave her back the slip of paper, which she shoved in her pocket. They must have made an odd looking pair, the good looking, big bouncer and the small, black haired, overdressed woman. It could have been worse – she could have dyed her hair purple.
Shan was right that Ward lived in one of the few fancy condos along the downtown corridor, a tall glass and steel spire that looked like just an office building with a weight problem, as it was twice as wide as its nearest neighbors. It would seem like a dreary place to live, what with an excellent view of bland skyscrapers and a slice of sky that was almost always the color of asphalt. “So what, you can’t take this fancy pants guy?” Shan asked, looking up at the condo in question.
“I could take him and the guy impersonating him at the same time – they’re not the ones I’m worried about. It’s Girani getting in on this that bugs me.”
“Girani?” He puzzled over the name for a minute, scratching his head. “Oh, hey, the … oh, the … shithead?”
“D’ya think I should call in Buddy, just in case?”
Buddy was a fellow bouncer, a loose acquaintance of Shan’s, who “bounced” at a biker bar on the outskirts of town. He also had the ability, at any time, to just get a bunch of drunk bikers itching for violence (the who and the why totally irrelevant) to show up anywhere, just by asking. That was the great thing about knowing a bouncer – they knew other bouncers. “No. Let’s keep him as a last resort.” The bad thing about getting a bunch of drunk violence bikers involved was that meant she had lost control of the situation, and those yahoos would guarantee at least one grand jury investigation. She didn’t need that.
“Okay.” The condo was the kind where not just anyone could waltz in off the street, you had to be buzzed in, but she was prepared for that – it was an expensive building, so she figured it would have some security. She had a cover story ready.
As it was, she didn’t need much of it. She just rang intercom buttons until she got someone at home, and explained she was FedEx, and had a package for a Mr. Yamamoto (a real tenant), who wasn’t answering his buzzer. The tenant hardly waited for her to finish her story before he buzzed her in, and she wondered why she bothered to even have one ready.
The lobby was spacious and empty, with faux marble tiles and burgundy accents, wood polished to a high gloss and reeking of Murphy’s Oil Soap. There were mailboxes on one side wall, a staircase that looked more ornamental than used, and a bank of elevators that rarely rested. “Synch up,” she told Shan, and he pulled his slim cell phone out of the pocket of his shorts. He called her, and she answered, but only by slipping her open, receiving cell phone in her coat pocket.
“Getting a signal,” he confirmed. “Usual sign?”
“Yeah.” He would simply listen over the open line, and come storming in if he heard lots of shit going down, or the code word, which was ‘amigo’. If the signal dropped, she knew he’d just come upstairs and hang near the door. He might have been kind of fucked up, but you could never question his loyalty.
He went and sat on the stairs, phone glued to his ear. “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” She didn’t actually believe in luck, but there was no point in telling him that now.
She took the lift up to the tenth floor, and came out in a sterile, beige dominated hallway, wide and brightly lit, with an air conditioner humming away, traffic noises below politely muted. It seemed sadly sterile, like living in a shopping mall.
Ward’s condo was at the very head of the hall (of course he’d have a lovely window view), and she stood to the side, out of the range of anyone shooting through the door, before she reached out and knocked on it. It was unlikely that anyone would respond, but she had to make sure before committing a B&E.
To her surprise, there were noises inside, someone unlocking the door, although when it opened, the flimsy chain lock remained in place. A woman’s eye, blue and startled, peered out. “Yes?” She said, her voice a mere squeak.
It hadn’t said he was married on his employee file, but that meant squat. This could be a live-in, a girlfriend with a key … or someone else entirely. “Sorry to bother you, ma’am. I’m looking for Andrew Ward. Is he here?”
The single eye scrutinized her for a moment, and she didn’t seem to like what she saw. “Just a minute.” She shut the door, and there was the scrape of the chain being undone. When the woman opened the door, she was careful to stand back, out of reach, the revolver leveled straight at her chest.
She was a woman of average height, dressed in a dark business suit, consisting of a masculine style navy blazer and a long navy skirt. Her harshly dyed blonde hair was pulled back in a severe bun that seemed to accentuate the sharp planes of her angular face. It could be said she looked slightly less than pleased. “I was wondering when you’d show up. I thought you were better than that.”
“We all have off days.”
“Are you going to come in?” She wondered, motioning with the gun.
“Why should I?” There was no way she’d shoot in this building, at least not in the hall. Not only would someone call the cops in this building, they’d respond fast, unlike at the Calico Cat Motel.
“I don’t think you’d want anyone overhearing some of the things I have to say, Stark.” She said her last name like a threat – which it probably was. But did she really know anything about her, or was she bluffing? Only one way to find out, wasn’t there? She tried to look behind the woman, see if she could see a corpse, but she must have moved it.
Z went inside Ward’s apartment, and closed the door behind her.