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By Mike Knowles
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2008 Mike Knowles
All rights reserved.
Watching for the switch was the easiest part. This guy was such an amateur that he drew attention to himself just standing there. The bag, the object of my interest, was being held by a young kid with blond highlighted hair and several days' worth of dark scruff growing on his face. His small mouth was chewing gum, hard, and his head was looking around one hundred eighty degrees left then right. If he were capable he would have spun his head in a constant rotation, taking in everything in the airport. He couldn't even dress the part; he was wearing a long beige trench coat — unbuttoned with the collar turned up. The only thing missing was a fedora. I was sure he watched spy movies to pump himself up for the deal.
The deal itself was the only thing hard to figure. I had been paid to steal a package from an unknown person, and I had no knowledge about the courier, size, contents, or nature of the package. I knew only the location, Hamilton International Airport, which made any tools I wanted to bring pretty much useless. The airport was small in comparison to its counterpart, ninety minutes away in Toronto. The Hamilton airport ran about three hundred flights per week. Only one third of those flights were international. Most of the passengers who used the airport were businessmen on domestic flights to Ottawa or Montreal.
It was eight in the morning in mid-October, and the airport was in a lull. The passengers who had arrived on the red-eye had collected their luggage and gone outside, leaving only a hundred or so customers in the terminal. I had to intercept the bag before it got to a plane, and that meant I might have to follow it to a gate. So I came in light.
There were only a few minimum-wage rent-a-cops working as airport security near the entrance; there was no need for more. The crowds were sparse and half-asleep, and the real action took place after you bought your ticket. The blond kid moved around the terminal looking at brochures and the candy on display in the convenience store. I watched him and everything else in the terminal from a seat near a row of pay phones. No one else seemed to be watching the kid, which made me think the deal was going to happen on the other side of the metal detectors. Every so often, my gaze would catch the boy's blond hair, and I would focus on him. He was young, no more than twenty-five, and under the trench coat he wore a black Juventus soccer warm-up suit. The flashy labels on the casual clothes under the coat made the kid easy to spot. His light olive skin put his ancestors around the Mediterranean; the warm-up suit narrowed the geography to Italy. His hair had been dyed blond a few weeks ago, judging from the inch of dark roots visible above his forehead. He augmented his faux blond hair with a lot of gel, making him taller and more colourful than anyone around him. Everything about his outfit, his features, and the way he carried himself screamed, "Look at me!" He made no effort to be anonymous, to be invisible, like me. It made me wonder what I was doing involved with this kid, and it made me wonder about the bag. What could a kid like this be trying to move? And why would it be important to my employer?
Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, a watch started beeping. It was the kid's watch; the beeping startled him, and he shut it off so he could complete another full scan around the room. He moved toward a gate, and produced a ticket from an inner coat pocket. He would have to pass several small restaurants and stores to reach the double doors that led to the metal detectors. Only one of the doors was open, and there was a backup of ten or twelve passengers. I moved in behind the kid and took the roll of quarters from my pocket. If this guy was as amateur as he looked, it would all work out. I moved his coat to the side with my left hand and shoved the roll hard into his back right on top of his kidney.
"Turn around and walk to the bathroom now," I said, and shoved the roll of coins harder into his back like a gun barrel.
"What? ... What are you doing? W ... w ... why?" he stuttered.
"Too bad, kid. If you didn't know, you would have screamed," I said into his ear. "Move out of line and walk to the bathroom. If you don't I'll just clip you here. The gun is silenced. I'll be in the car before anyone figures out you've been shot."
The kid didn't question me; he moved away from the line and turned toward the washroom as though he was being pulled by marionette strings. As we walked, the back collar of the beige coat became brown with sweat. The bathrooms were down a long hall, and we had to weave around several people to get to the door. If this poseur had been anyone else he would have shoved off and been mixed into the people before I could get any shots off. But he wasn't anyone else.
"Stop here," I said as we neared the handicap washroom. I pulled down an out-of-order sign I had taped to the door and ushered him in. I eased up on his kidney, and he made his move, just like I hoped he would. He pushed back, trying to trap me against the door, and spread his arms, ready to take the pistol. If I had a gun he might have taken it, though more than likely I would have put a bullet in him. My foot found the back of his knee, and his body shifted down until his knees hit the tiles on the floor. I drove my forearm across his jaw, hard, and heard the sound of it coming out of socket; his mouth must have been open. Both hands had risen up near his face when I palmed the roll of quarters and went to work on his back. Two hooks to each side of the kid's body put him flat on the floor gasping. I lifted the bag. It was light, lighter than I expected, almost as if it was empty. I got over my surprise and got back to the task at hand. It was time to go. I eased the blond kid back onto his feet and laid a tight uppercut into his jaw using the quarters.CHAPTER 2
On the drive back to the office, there were no flashing lights in my rear-view, and no dark cars following in my wake. Even though I was sure that I had no tail, I manoeuvred the streets using random turns and sudden bursts of speed, keeping my eyes on the mirrors. No cars stayed behind my old Volvo, and no one on the street looked at the car twice. Its exterior was well worn, like most cars in the city, but I kept the guts in shape. The car was unobtrusive until it had to run; then you couldn't help but notice it — while it was still in view. The bag I had picked up was locked in the roomy trunk, unopened.
When I got to the office, I went right to the safe. I put the bag in and pulled out one of the ten prepaid cell phones that were arranged neatly inside. I closed the safe and took the phone over to the desk. The hard wooden chair groaned with my weight, but it held me without collapsing. I powered up the phone and dialled a number I had committed to memory.
"It's done," I said, and the line went dead. I knew from experience that I had an hour or two until pick-up — after that I could eat. I pulled my Glock 9 mm out of the top right desk drawer and set it in my lap, propped up against my thigh.
I waited, staring out the window, the chair leaned back and my feet resting on the windowsill so that I could see the street below. Across from my fifth-floor window was a worn-out high-rise, home to a number of small businesses like legal aid, a free clinic, and a blood donor centre. I spent an hour and ten minutes guessing which service each person entering would use. After ten minutes of inactivity on the building steps, I saw a woman in a fitted business suit make her way up the stairs. Each step bounced her large shiny purse off the back of her skirt. I imagined her at first to be a lawyer or doctor, but her bag was just a bit too shiny to be high-class. I pegged her for a working girl stopping into the clinic. Most of the working girls I knew tried to pinch every penny. No one wanted to work under men forever, and hookers needed condoms like offices needed paper clips. The sound of the door opening brought me back to reality. I swivelled in the chair, hand in my lap, to face the door.
"Morning, Julian. What's new?" Julian hated me and I knew it. I asked him questions because I knew it drove him nuts. He never had to answer questions to anyone but his boss, and I was certainly not him.
My pleasant, offensive good-morning was answered with a grunt as Julian moved toward the table. My hand instinctively tightened on the gun just as someone's hands would tighten on the wheel of a car if a bear walked toward the driver's side window. He was six foot four and at least three hundred pounds, but he didn't stomp; he glided to the desk and sat down. Julian was solid like a tree was solid, but he had some flab on his stomach and face. He wore grey cotton slacks and an untucked blue linen shirt. On the street people might think he was trying to be fashionable, but if you looked closely you would see that the shirt concealed an angular bulge at the base of his spine. The bulge was not a wallet; it was a gun, and judging by the size of the bulge, which I had seen on many occasions, it was big. The two of us enjoyed a friendly relationship; he showed up every once in a while and always left within five minutes. When he spoke he was pleasant, but under the pleasantries hid a killer. I had seen the real Julian once before, up close, and he had come out the winner. Julian had humble beginnings as a childhood friend and protector of Paolo Donati. He spent years looking out for the man who would one day be king of the streets. Julian was with Paolo for every step of his ascent. He went from being a leg breaker to working as the right hand of the most powerful mob boss in generations. He was the only person I saw when I worked for Paolo.
As Julian's ice-grey eyes stared into mine they momentarily lost their congeniality, but it returned as quickly as it had vanished. He was a pro, but there were some feelings he couldn't keep completely bottled up. His hatred slipped out like steam from a pipe ready to burst. He hated me and what I did, and he could never let that go. I stood, leaving the gun in the chair, and walked to the safe. I opened it and took the bag to the door. Julian rose without any indication of discomfort, placed a stack of bills on my desk, and moved to the door.
"What is it? In the bag, I mean. Did you look inside?" Julian always seemed unsure if anyone caught his meaning so he worked hard to make himself as clear as possible; he repeated himself over and over in different words, all meaning the same thing. It was an annoying habit, but I was sure no one told him that. I was also sure there would be a time when he wouldn't try to clarify his thoughts to me. When that happened, there would be trouble.
I opened the door, and he took the bag and walked out. He always asked the same question in some form or another. I never responded; I just held the door and let him walk. Julian knew I was a professional and that I hadn't looked in the bag. His question was a reminder that he beat me once, and that to him I was just an amateur. He used more syllables to say "fuck you" than anyone I knew.
After he was gone, I sat and watched the street again. I didn't see Julian leave — I never expected to — but I watched all the same. I thumbed through the money Julian had left on the desk; I didn't count it because I knew it would all be there. After a time I felt hungry.
I walked out the front door of the building, my own angular bulge in the back of my shirt. I walked down the street from the office, passing different windows that advertised sandwiches with more meat and less fat, some grilled, others toasted. I breezed past the advertisements until I came to a Vietnamese restaurant I frequented. The place was not a chain, and by no means a dive. The restaurant catered to Vietnamese people. Everyone who worked there and most of the people who dined there were from Vietnam. The menus were in Vietnamese with numbers and pictures for any interlopers who chose to stop in. The dining room smelled of spices and was heavy with steam from the kitchen. I took a seat in a corner of the dining room in a place where I could watch the street and the action inside. The lunch crowd was eating like it was Thanksgiving at the soup kitchen and no one looked my way — until a man stopped at the window.
He didn't slow and then stop; he stopped at the window, and put his face up to the glass. When his eyes found me, he was startled to see me looking back at him. He regained his composure, looked around for another ten seconds, then left in a hurry. I was surprised. It seemed the amateur from the airport had amateur friends who had identified and followed me. I ordered a number fifty-eight — the chicken soup, which was so much better than it sounded, and rice. I drank the cold tap water left for me out of a small glass half full of ice and contemplated how I had been followed to the office. No one had tailed me from the airport, so they had to know who I was. My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of two steaming plates. The soup was a dark broth, and in the centre was a piece of chicken still on the bone. The rice was light brown and smelled heavily of green onions. I stared at the food and had more of my water. I knew that the food was far too hot and that I had to wait at least five minutes before I could even try to eat it.
After I paid the bill, I left the restaurant and walked three blocks up the street to the gym. The whole way there I used store windows to look around me, and made several trips across the street to see if anyone followed, but no one did. There were no scruffy kids in tan trench coats reading newspapers under lampposts or lurking in alleys.
The gym was like a time warp back twenty or thirty years. There were no treadmills or flashy machines; there was only iron, tons of it. No one manned the front desk, and there were no trainers in neon outfits spotting out-of-shape housewives and businessmen. The place was old-school and hard-core. Just inside the front door was a sign: "Train or leave." It wasn't the club motto, it was a command. If you weren't there to work, you weren't there at all.
I had a permanent locker at the gym, stocked with several pairs of pants, shorts, shirts, as well as a shaving kit, and a knife. I kept several places stocked like this because I rarely went to the house I had spent my adolescence in, even though it was all mine and I was the only one living there. I showered at the gym and lived out of the office as much as possible.
I changed into old unwashed sweats, locked all my things in my locker, and made my way to the brightly lit workout floor. The room was well lit because it was a windowless box hidden deep in the concrete. It had a musty smell, like old shoes, which had developed over the past decade. There were only a handful of people there, not one of them talking over the loud thundering music. No one acknowledged my presence; they just kept on lifting. The majority of the people in the gym weren't large by bodybuilding standards. The men here didn't lift to look good — they lifted for strength. These men were like ants. They easily moved twice their body weight with just arms and legs. I found a spot and got ready to dead lift. I spent half an hour moving weight off the floor to my waist and back down again. Once I finished, I moved the bar and weights around and devoted my time to the clean and jerk. The gym was full of cops, firemen, and people like me. All of us worked here to be better. There was an unspoken truce in the gym. Everyone knew what everybody else was outside the doors, but inside the walls of the gym it didn't matter. It wasn't uncommon for cops to spot career lowlifes while they pushed hundreds of pounds above their necks. Letting the weight fall would have saved blood, sweat, and countless hours of manpower, but no weights ever crushed anyone's throat. The gym was time off the battlefield. Time off that everyone was grateful for.
It had been more than a decade since I was first shoved in the door by my uncle. He dragged me to the gym and told me if I wanted to work in the adult world with him I had to be able to pull my own weight. No one would work on a job with a kid in his late teens who looked like a target for any bully wanting to kick sand in his face. Since that day, I had never stopped coming. I trained every day; it was that or go home to the empty house I hated so much.
Excerpted from Darwin's Nightmare by Mike Knowles. Copyright © 2008 Mike Knowles. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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