Read an Excerpt
When you’re a spy, conducting business inside a restaurant or bar isn’t just about finding a comfortable place to have a conversation; it can also save your life. You want to make sure you get out of a meeting without a bullet to the back of the head? Schedule your meeting inside a McDonald’s Playland. There’s no rule that says homicidal maniacs won’t kill you in front of Ronald McDonald and Grimace, but the typical murderer tends to avoid crowded venues filled with small children eating Happy Meals. You want to kill someone and get away with it, do it in the middle of the night, in the person’s home, and use a silencer on your gun and a pillow on the person’s head, which will help absorb the sonic boom the bullet makes while traveling through the air. Do it right and you’ll have enough time to wipe down all the surfaces you might have touched. Do it wrong and you can still be in a country without extradition before anyone finds the body.
In general, however, the best way to avoid getting killed or finding yourself in the position to kill someone is to live your life cleanly, pay your taxes, go on sensible vacations and then retire with a nest egg that will let you peter out in the fashion you’ve grown accustomed. That way you’ll be able to eat or drink anywhere you desire without first making sure you know all the possible exit points, which is precisely what I did when I walked into the Purdy Lounge.
The Purdy is a perpetually dark bar in South Beach that’s decorated like a 1970s living room. Specifically, a bachelor’s living room. Lots of sofas, recliners, lava lamps and sticky surfaces. They even had a table stacked with board games. I was there to meet Barry, my favorite money launderer. He had called the night before and asked if I could help him out with a favor. I had the sense he wasn’t looking for someone to pick him up at the airport.
After my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I figured out that the only obvious way out was the way in, I found Barry sitting across the bar in a ripped-up Barcalounger. He had something on his lap that glowed bright yellow, then red, then blue, then green and then repeated the sequence again, this time faster. When I was a little closer, I realized it was a game of some kind, which was a relief. I half expected Barry’s favor was going to involve me clipping either the blue or the black wire on this device, thus saving or killing us both.
Across from Barry was an orange butterfly chair and a brown beanbag. Neither looked comfortable. Not in 1976. Not now. So I just stood in front of Barry and hoped he’d get the hint. Or he’d stand up and we’d walk down to the Carlito, which at least allowed sunlight.
“When I was a kid, this game was like alien technology,” Barry said.
“What was it called again?” I said. “Lite-Brite?”
He flipped it over so I could see the name in the center of the game. “Simon,” Barry said. He set it back on his lap and watched the blinking lights with great intensity and then tried to match the pattern by pressing on the corresponding lights, but kept getting it wrong. “Like Hal.”
“Like Simple Simon,” I said.
“That sounds right,” he said. He tried to match the pattern again, but was met with only a blunt buzzing sound.
“Maybe it would be easier if you took your sunglasses off,” I said.
“See, that’s the challenge,” Barry said. “They’re tinted green. You know, to keep the harmful UVs away? So that evens the playing field. All the colors are the same now, just in different shades.”
“That’s fascinating, Barry,” I said.
“Keeps the mind sharp,” he said. “You want a turn when I’m done?”
I looked around the bar. The bartender was a college-aged girl with tattoos on her shoulder and neck. Not like a criminal per se, but like a woman who saw too many movies about women who work in bars or just listened to too much Lucinda Williams. One day she’d be seventy and walking these same streets with a portrait tattoo of Jimi Hendrix on her shoulder and would have to explain to her grandchild why she had a picture of a man from history on her skin. There were two men I pegged as German tourists—yellow socks, sandals, shorts with too many pockets—sitting on a sofa drinking tall glasses of beer and talking too loudly about how drunk they were while simultaneously setting their coasters on fire. There was a woman sitting alone at a table near where the DJ was setting up his rig at the other end of the lounge. She had the kind of face that made you think she might be famous or at least bought a lot of magazines with famous women on the cover. The difference was that she was sort of crying in a weird, huffing way, like she wanted everyone to know something was wrong with her, but didn’t really want anyone to talk to her.
The end sum was that it didn’t look like anyone here was planning on shooting me, so when Barry didn’t seem to take the hint and continued to let me stand and watch him play Simon, I pulled up the beanbag and sat down. Barry gave the game one more pass and then dropped it down on the TV tray erected next to the Barcalounger. I made a mental note to never allow my mother into the Purdy, lest she decide to turn her house into a hipster dive.
“You want a drink?” Barry asked. He seemed uncomfortable, which didn’t exactly make me excited. I like my felons to be comfortable. Maybe it was just that no one looks exactly in-the-moment sitting in a recliner.
“I try not to drink before 1982,” I said.
Barry waved the bartender over, which caused the girl with the tats to exhale audibly, throw down the white towel she was using to absently wipe down the counter and make the long—maybe ten feet total—walk over to us in more time than I thought was humanly possible.
Barry shook his glass. “Another cranberry and vodka for me,” he said, “and whatever our man Flint wants.”
“I’m fine,” I said to the girl.
She stared at me for a long time without saying anything and then said, “You a cop?” like I’d stumbled into an SLA meeting and now I was in big trouble. Maybe later I’d break up a clandestine conclave of the Weathermen, too.
“No,” I said. “A spy.” I decided not to give her the complete rundown of how I went from being a top covert operative to being a man on the run in the space of a phone call one fine afternoon in Nigeria. Besides, the words “burned spy” don’t just roll off the tongue.
“I’ve seen you before,” she said. “Another club I worked in, maybe.”
“No,” I said. “You’re thinking of someone else. People think I look like other people all the time.”
“You look like a cop,” she said.
“I’m sitting in a beanbag chair,” I said. “How can I look like anything in a beanbag chair?”
“Cops make people nervous,” she said, “so don’t stay long. People have a good time here. Too many cops is bad for business. People don’t like to drink around 5-0.”
5-0. It always amazed me how people co-opted slang from music, which, in this case, had co-opted a phrase from television. In all of Miami, there were never two people having an original thought at the same time.
“If I were you,” I said, “I’d be more concerned about those guys over there in the yellow socks. I think they’re KGB.” The girl walked away, though this time she made it back to the bar in an appropriate amount of time.
I had to get out of Miami. When someone you don’t know recognizes you, that’s a bad sign. Problem was, since receiving my burn notice, I’ve been confined to Miami, which would be well and good if now other people weren’t coming to visit me here, too. People with guns. People who wanted me dead. People who were pleased that I’d been burned and no longer had any government (or quasi shadow government) watching my back. All I had for sure anymore were my friends Sam Axe and Fiona Glenanne. Sam is a former Navy SEAL who now helps me out on the few odd jobs I take to make ends meet and Fiona is my ex-girlfriend. Or, well, she used to be my ex-girlfriend. Now she’s . . . complicated. She also used to rob banks for the IRA, and periodically deals guns just for shoe money, and sometimes she helps me out with my clients, and sometimes, well, sometimes she’s not my ex-girlfriend for the night, too.
Like I said: She’s complicated.
And then, of course, I also had friends like Barry. People who could get me things I needed. People who referred work in my direction. People who, on a few occasions, had put their ass on the line for me. When I returned to Miami after getting my burn notice, I knew I could still turn to Barry for help. He might ask a few questions just to make sure he wasn’t going to find himself looking down the barrel of a gun or staring at an indictment, but for the most part he was as cool as the other side of the pillow: He did his job, got his fee and walked away like nothing ever happened. You treated Bad Check Barry well; Bad Check Barry treated you well.
The bartender filled Barry’s drink and brought it back, this time not bothering to say anything to me at first, but still staring at me with a confused look on her face. “I realize where I know you from,” she said.
“You have a brother?”
“Depends,” I said. “He owe you money?” My younger brother, Nate, has a habit of owing people money. Particularly people in bars.
“Yeah,” she said. “He walked out of here without paying his tab one night last week, but the moron left his wallet on the bar. He had a picture of you in it. I only remember because I thought you were cute and wondered how such a fuckup could have such a cute brother. One of those weird things you think about on a dead night, you know? If you want, it might still be in the lost and found.”
“Keep it,” I said.
The girl shrugged. “Suit yourself,” she said.
Barry watched her walk away. “I’ve been coming here for ten years, no one says a word to me. You’re here ten minutes, you’re already cute.”
Ten minutes was already too long. “You wanted to talk to me about something, Barry?”
Barry took a sip of his drink. “I don’t normally drink cranberry juice,” he said, “but I’m trying to cleanse my system. Start taking a little bit better care of myself, you know? Investing in me.”
“Vodka integral to that plan?”
“That’s just to mask the taste of the cranberry,” he said. “One-part question: How do you feel, generally, about criminals?”
“Generally? I don’t care for them, Barry. Specifically, I like you. I have feelings for Fiona. Why?”
“I have a friend,” he said. “He used to work in transactions.”
“Banking.” Barry took another sip of his drink and this time grimaced. “My mom? She used to drink cranberry juice all the time. Can’t figure out why.”
“Plumbing,” I said.
Barry thought about that for a moment. “You know what you never see kids drinking anymore?” he asked.
“I don’t spend a lot of time around children, Barry.”
“That’s a tremendous insight.”
“Another one? Delaware Punch. Sanka, too. No one drinks Sanka. My mom practically lived on Sanka. Sanka and cranberry juice. You think it’s related?”
“I think I want you to stop avoiding whatever it is you wanted to ask me about your friend the banker,” I said.
“He isn’t exactly a banker,” Barry said.
“Stunned,” I said.
“He actually robbed banks.”
“With a gun or with hundreds of bad mortgages?”
“Funny thing,” Barry said, “he was known for not using a gun.”
“Just charmed people into giving him their money?”
“He actually robbed safe-deposit boxes,” Barry said. “That was his thing. Or it was until he got caught.”
“I’m not busting your friend out of prison, Barry.”
“He’s out. Did a full bid at Glades, got out after twelve years for good behavior. You know they got cable in prison now?”
“I’ve never been to prison,” I said.
“But you know such places exist?”
I checked my watch. This was now fifteen minutes I’d never get back. Across the way, the Germans were now trying to set fire to the pools of spilled beer on their table. “Barry, I don’t mean any offense here. We’re friends. You’ve done me a lot of favors. But if you don’t tell me what you need in five minutes, I’m going to ask those German tourists to set me on fire.”
Barry nodded once but then didn’t say anything for a moment, which I took to be a bad sign. Barry isn’t an especially chatty guy. Oh, he’ll go on at some length about things he’s really interested in—forgeries, gold bullion, places one can purchase black-market kidneys on the cheap—but what makes Barry an especially good financial criminal is that he’s quick to get in and out of a situation.
“Hypothetically,” Barry said, “say you found yourself stuck in a place with no way of really earning a living.”
“And you had a mother that was driving you crazy, but you loved her, and didn’t want her to suffer, so when she got sick and you couldn’t afford her bills, you did the one thing you’ve been trained to do just to keep up with your mom’s prescriptions and medical appointments.”
“Have you been watching me, Barry?”
“Even Charles Manson had a mom,” Barry said. “And besides, this is all hypothetical. Your mother is sick, lots of bills, you have a skill set that allows you to pay those bills off with a minimum of exertion, hypothetically, don’t you do that? I mean, for your mom.”
Thinking of all the things I’d done for my mother, Madeline, was like sticking pins in my eyes. I nearly died cleaning out the calcified remains of Tater Tots beneath the seat of her car just a few weeks previous. “Hypothetically, what did this friend of yours end up doing?”
“He might have robbed a stash house out in the Everglades.”
“Either he did or he didn’t.”
“I thought we were still pretending this person didn’t really exist?”
I pointed at my watch. “Two minutes,” I said.
“Then he did.”
“And how is this now my problem?”
Barry exhaled. “See, here’s the thing, Michael. I like to think that you and me, we have a nice working relationship, right? You scratch my back, I scratch your back, and in the end, we both feel good, right? Just two guys who like to scratch each other, metaphorically speaking.”
“Tick, tick, tick,” I said.
“Now, a homeless person, a person with no real friends, whoever scratches a homeless person’s back, you know? You have an itch, you have to rub yourself against a wall or something, right? You following me?”
“Not in the least, Barry, but please continue. I have to know where this ends up.”
“My friend—we’ll call him Bruce—he’s been on his own for a long time and now he needs someone to scratch his back, but maybe I don’t have long enough arms. Or maybe I just don’t know how he likes to be scratched.”
“Barry,” I said, “speak English.”
“He wants to give what he stole back.”
Most everything. Two words that might equal the entire sum of human knowledge, but probably included drugs and guns. Maybe it just meant baseball cards and Three Dog Night eight-tracks, but probably not.
“And this is from his warm core of altruism?”
“There might be some extenuating circumstances, but that’s the rub on the deal. I thought maybe you could help him out. Stand behind him. Look menacing. Maybe send Fiona to lay a little ground fire. Whatever it takes.”
“This Bruce,” I said, “he have a last name?”
I wrote his name down on a napkin. “Let me have Sam check him out. He turns out to be a fraud, he can play Robin Hood all by himself.”
“I don’t think Robin Hood stole from people and then gave them their stuff back,” Barry said. “You’re thinking of The Thomas Crowne Affair. The one with that guy who was James Bond.”
“You get the point,” I said.
“Know what I don’t understand?” Barry said. “All these guys you see in movies, running around playing spies, how come no one ever kills them? Forty years James Bond has been running around killing people and no one bothers to just drop a bomb on him? He even went to the moon. Crazy, right?”
I stood up to leave, but Barry kept his seat. “This Bruce, he a good friend?”
“Taught me a lot of my tricks,” Barry said. “Back in the day, he was one of the best. An honor to the profession.”
“His mom really sick or is that just a story you told to get me interested?”
“I would have used a missing or dying kid. I don’t know how you feel about old ladies, but I know you got a soft spot for sick kids.”
“How do you know that?”
“Everyone knows that. Got a kid with cancer and you owe fifty large to the Mafia, Michael Westen can help you.”
I thought about that. It would have been a much easier way in. Helping a needy bank robber wasn’t exactly my wheelhouse. “Let me check this Bruce Grossman out,” I said. “I have questions, I’ll find you.”
“You always do,” Barry said.