Troubleshooter – Six
by Andrea Speed
Ward’s apartment – if that’s what it was – was horribly sterile, all matte finished wood and beige wall to wall carpeting that should have been an executable offense. But if he was dead, perhaps he deserved it.
Blondie kept her distance, not wanting to give Z a chance to capitalize on her obvious inexperience at threatening people with a firearm. She looked more like a machete sort of person anyways. Z figured the time here was hers to waste, so she headed over to their beige striped couch (another crime against decoration – if this was Ward’s home, it looked like a dentist’s office waiting room) and casually threw herself down on it, waiting to get the show on the road. “So why the charade?” She asked. “Why ice Ward and replace him with a guy who doesn’t look remotely like him?”
“What? We didn’t “ice” him. He’s missing.”
“Sure he is.” Z sat forward, and wished she smoked, so she had something to do with her hands that could also convey nonchalance. Damn it – no wonder they always smoked in detective movies. “Don’t tell me, he’s stuffed in the freezer, wrapped in butcher paper marked ‘cutlets’ .”
The hard faced blonde looked mildly horrified, upper lip curling up in a half-hearted sneer. “You’re disgusting. I’m not a killer.”
Z looked at the gun she was holding – nine millimeter revolver, small, a purse sized gun, one that might be dismissed as a “woman’s gun”. She was sure if she lunged at the woman, she would shoot out of panic, but it was unlikely to hit her – or at least hit anything major – and she could take her down with little trouble. She didn’t so much smack of middle management as of internal security – the independent contractor, rent-a-cop version of Hilda of the SS. She was more accustomed to giving orders than doing actual dirty work.
She at least had the good grace to glance sheepishly down at her weapon. “This is just for my own protection. You have quite a reputation, you know.”
“Little old me?”
She arched a perfectly painted eyebrow at that. “Shaw’s dead. We think the people responsible for murdering him have the briefcase.”
“Firstly, tell me something I don’t know. Secondly, I can almost guarantee they don’t have the briefcase, ‘cause the moron that was sent to extract the information from him didn’t understand what Shaw was givin’ him.”
The woman’s cool blue eyes examined her like she had just dropped from the sky. “H-how do you know that?”
“Do you really think Shaw inflicted that much damaged on his assailant before he was killed? I don’t think so, honey.”
That seemed to take a minute to sink in, but her face was a perfect mask of emotional vacancy. “And you wondered why I have the gun?”
Z shrugged. She supposed she had to concede that point. “It was self-defense.”
“Isn’t it always?” She replied wryly, then asked, “Do you have the briefcase?”
She shook her head. “Not yet, but I think I know where to find it. But I ain’t gonna.”
That made her composure crack, and her jaw drop. “What? But you were hired -”
“Under false pretenses. Ward supposedly hired me, but he didn’t – you did. You and your people.” And it was then that she realized exactly who she was dealing with. “You’re with Osiris, aren’t you?” She reeked of corporate whore, and it made all the sense in the world.
Her response pretty much confirmed it. “Absolutely not.”
“Yes, you are. You’re Osiris, and Ward had something unbelievably illegal – or incriminating – on your bosses, and you believe that’s what’s in the briefcase. But no one can afford to be tied to it; so you hire me, under the identity of a conveniently missing man, so you could have plausible deniability if the shit really hit the fan.”
Her eyes remained unreadable, her heavily made up face reverting to a frigid mask. In the poor light, the thick brown shadow on her lids made her eyes look bruised. “You know, if any of that fairy tale was true, I couldn’t confirm or deny it.”
Oh yeah – corporate whore all the way. “That sounded so much like an official statement, I’m outta here.” She stood, and the Osiris woman jumped back, knuckles tensing on her gun until they turned white. It was hard to smell fear under so much Chanel No. 5, but you could still see the signs.
“Y-you can’t go,” she insisted, trying very hard to not make it sound like a plea. She failed.
“Can and will. No one uses me like this, even if I am getting paid.”
“How much?” Z didn’t respond verbally, just looked at her curiously, and Blondie nervously licked her lips before adding, “To keep you on the case. How much more money do you want?”
She shook her head, smirking at the woman’s audacity. “You can buy almost everybody, so go buy someone else.”
As Z started for the door, Blondie blurted, “Ten thousand dollars.”
That made her pause. “Excuse me?”
“In cash. I can get it for you by the end of the day.” Since she didn’t immediately respond, Blondie added, “You’ll get an extra ten thousand when you deliver the briefcase to us.”
She was dead serious, and while part of Z wanted to deck the bitch for suggesting that she could be bought for ten thousand dollars, another part of her thought she would be a fool to walk away from so much easy money …
But that was the problem, wasn’t it? It was easy money. If Osiris was able to connect the dots, they would have been able to recover it for themselves, and for much less money. Yet they needed someone to get it for them, an outsider … a scapegoat. Ward had been just that, and now it was her turn. “What’s in it?”
That seemed to catch her off guard. “What?”
“The briefcase. If you want me to find it, you tell me what’s in it. And I mean the truth, not this “experimental interface” bullshit.” She put her hand on the doorknob, ready to walk out. Blondie wasn’t going to shoot her, no matter what she did. She was desperate, but not that stupid. And for no logical reason, she thought Shan was loitering near the door on the other side. Maybe the mention of a gun sent him up, but he was smart enough to not charge in a room when he wasn’t sure where everyone – especially the gunman – was. He’d only come in if things went completely south.
Blondie’s eyes darted nervously from the door to her face and back again, deciding how much she dared tell her. “It … documents.”
“Highly classified ones, pertaining to a project for the Defense Department.”
Worth twenty thousand dollars and at least one life, possibly two? Worth it to Girani? On a tight time limit? Absolute bullshit – it didn’t track. But Blondie seemed to believe it. She probably believed what her corporate masters told her, and that was that. If she wanted her paycheck, she toed the line, even if it meant meeting a dangerous, crazy woman in a missing man’s condo and holding a gun on her. And if the threat of violence didn’t work, she would stick to the script of throwing money at the problem.
Amazing. How stupid did they think she was? Well, maybe it was in her best interest to let them keep thinking she was a complete moron. “I’ll contact you at the Ward numbers. And if you ever point a gun at me again, I will shove it so far up your ass you’ll taste in it in the back of your mouth. Understood?”
Torn between complete revulsion and utter terror, Blondie nodded quickly, meekly, and let the barrel of the gun drop towards the carpet.
As she came out, she saw Shan out of the corner of her eye, standing flush against the wall, ready to blindside the first bad guy. But because it was her, and she saw him anyways, he exhaled and pushed himself away from the wall. But he didn’t speak until they were outside the elevator. “Do I wanna know what’s going on?” He whispered, casting nervous glances back at the door.
“Probably not.” As they got in the elevator, she got out her cell, broke the connection between their phones, and checked for any messages. Nothing. Was Sajeet having a problem breaking the thug’s phone?
Shan must have been nervous, because he was quiet until they hit the sidewalk outside. “What the fuck’s goin’ on, Z? I understood, like, four things I heard. And what does Cypress have to do with this?”
It took her a moment to get that. Cypress equaled Osiris – either it was his transitory malapropism, or a bad cell phone connection. “Nothing. It seems I’m being set up, Shan.”
“For what? Why?”
“Not sure, and because Ward disappeared before he could take the heat.”
“And Ward is ..?”
“A missing guy.”
“Ah.” He scratched his head, careful to avoid the scars. “Yeah, okay, I’m still clueless.”
She stopped at the corner and turned to face him. People just walked passed them, not interested in their little drama, although some cast glances at her or Shan that were strangely appraising or inexplicably hostile. People were just like that nowadays, especially if you looked as weird as the pair of them did. “Do you think you could be me?”
He didn’t do a double take, but it was close. “Well, for starters, I don’t have boobs, and I suck at accents …”
“No, not like that. We’ll have to stop and get you some pants. You still got that bogus cop i.d.?”
He nodded. “At home, with the rest of the outfit.” He bought a “cop accessory kit” in – of all places – an “adult novelty store”. The kit came with an extremely realistic badge, a soft rubber baton that was an … unusual shape, “mace” (really spray on strawberry flavored oil), and a pair of working handcuffs, lined with extremely un-regulation, removable fake leopard fur. He claimed to have gotten it as a gag gift for someone else, but it was one of those things she felt she was better off not knowing.
“Okay. Let’s go to your flat and pick it up. By the time we’re done, there’s bound to have been a shift change over at the U-Store-It.”
His brows knit together in puzzlement. “Y’ mean the one across from the coffee place?”
“Exactly. I want you to go in there and be Detective Zane Stark, a big bully cop.”
“Your name is Zane?”
“No, of course not. Would you rather be Zack or Zane?”
“Zane it is.”
“Right. I want you to show a picture and basically lean on the clerk until he gives you a lot number. No physical stuff, just be belligerent and pompous.”
“Dick Cheney belligerent or Steven Seagal belligerent?”
“What’s the difference?”
“One is a worse actor.”
“Don’t go overboard. Just repeat what I tell you, and make him nervous enough to squirm and give you something to make you go away.”
He nodded, giving her a big goofy smile. “Make them ‘respect mah authoratay?’ Can do. So how much of the ten thou am I gonna get?”
She glared up at him, aware he was partially joking. It figured he would hear that part loud and clear. “Two hundred bucks, and all the boxes of wine you can drink.”
That rangy grin remained on his face, and was so innocent she felt like ruffling his hair. “You’re a … oh damn … miner?”
“Close enough.” She grabbed his arm, and led him down the street towards 24th, where his apartment building was. “Look, this is all gonna sound weird, but I need you to follow everything I tell you exactly, okay?”
“Okay. But, can I ask ya – why? If you think these people are setting you up, why are you doing this?”
“Because no one fucks around with me.”
“But … somebody’s dead, right? Shouldn’t you maybe, I don’t know, let this one go?”
“No one fucks with me and walks away without at least a permanent limp.”
He gave her the oddest look, his eyes bright with a combination of humor and fear, his mouth caught in a crooked half-smirk. It was the look of a man who knew sticking a barbecue fork in a light socket was wrong, but damn it if he wasn’t going to do it anyways. “You’re more macho than me, Z. You know how frightening that is?”
“Kinda.” It was then she caught a flash of light out of the corner of her eye.
She thought it was just a stray beam of sunlight reflected off a car’s side view mirror or chrome, but some part of her brain was insisting that was wrong, that something was wrong. It wasn’t from a car, it was across the street, in a dark recess between a Thai restaurant and a thrift store. Her stomach tightened as she suddenly remembered something similar happening once in Sarajevo, an inadequately concealed sniper’s blind, and how a single bad bounce from a car’s headlight exposed a would-be assassin, the light reflecting off a telescoping sight.
It was all instinct as she shoved Shan behind her, and reached for her SIG Sauer, trying to stare into the dark depths of the narrow alley.
And that’s when the shooting started.