by Sly Rabbit
© Sly Rabbit -- all rights reserved
Chicago... ah, Chicago. My kind of town. Smog clung to the skyline by day, and mafia clung to the streets by night. Thousands of microcosms thrived in that town: secretaries looking for work; white-collars looking for secretaries; swindlers looking to make a buck off the lot of them. You could order pizza and cocaine with one phone call. Murder, sex, rape, love, hate, robbery, adultery... why, it was a private eye's dream.
Too bad I didn't live there.
Detectives are like dogs; we're born and bred to sniff out trouble and fight it. A good case made me feel alive, as if I were being infused with the very stuff of life. I could taste adrenaline day in and day out. And at the end of the day the detective gets a pet on the head from his secretary with the obligatory "good job, here's your coffee."
Unlike dogs, though, old detectives don't go to Heaven. We end up moving into suburbia and stifling our hero complex. Maltese Falcons become Neighborly Neds who make their living sniffing out the next worst piece of gossip for a couple of church ladies with nothing better to spend their money on.
If only the academy could get a load of me now: Steely Victor steals away with a woman and pops out two of his own. Who'd of thunk it?
The smoke alarm screamed from the kitchen; dinner was ready. Cooking was the only thing Mindy wasn't good for; in our big city days we would just eat out. She was the coffee-maker, the call-maker, the letter-dictator, the glue that kept me together.
We were great together: a real crime fighting team. That's when we decided to run off to start a family. I had my fill of babes and bullets. She had her fill of late nights and tip-taking at all hours. A family would be a nice change of pace for us both.
What were we thinking?
I rolled my chair away from the mountain of papers on my desk. Coffee dripped from a freshly-stained bill I had been pouring over; after dinner I would probably have to put it in the ever-growing "unpaid" pile, and hope like hell that an armored car would just happen to crash into our home.
A private eye in suburbia. What were we thinking, indeed!
The TV set into our kitchen counters chirped about where all the action was: murder in the city; robbery at the bank; poor young dames left without a dime to their name. That old feeling came over me -- that need to make the difference -- but suburban life clamped down on my taste for action like a vise grip.
I looked to my wife with a half-grin. "Is it edible, Mindy?"
"Think so, Mister V." I was glad that she never lost that habit. Mister V just had that flair to it. Mister V was the loner veiled in smoke, the guy who flirted with the lady in red while secretly considering her a suspect.
But the times do change, don’t they?
I took a deep, tired breath and screamed, "Kids, dinner!" God, I hated the K-word. It made me sound so docile. At least I didn't have to call Mindy sugar, honey-bunch, pumpkins, love-baby -- I could at least pretend that nothing changed. But turn around and bam! There's all the proof you need.
The times, they sure have changed. I locked the zest of life in my gun safe and forgot the combination. I'm a stranger in a strange land, greetings and salutations, I hope you don't mind if I make camp here. At least Mindy tries to soften the blow: "Oh Mister V, just look on the bright side! You aren't stepping into the trenches every day with only a gun to call your friend, right?"
No, I always thought to myself, that's what's missing.
Down the stairs my progeny came, heads held low as if they were attending a funeral. In the casket was the charred corpse of what was once a meatloaf. The guestbook was sitting on my desk courtesy of Middleton Power and Light. Memories of the dearly departed played on the TV, all entertainingly depressing. And, at the head of the table, with a five o'clock shadow heavy enough to sand wood, was the pastor in all his washed-up glory. They had brought their own tissues: Randy with his readings, Krystal with her latest speech. Like good children they paid their respects in silence.
"Talk to them," Mindy hissed at me, "this family is becoming a disaster."
"Becoming?" A kick landed on my callused shin, and I turned to my daughter.
"You look nice today," I said in cold blood. She looked more like the hundreds of bag ladies I had seen over the years: dirt crusted on her face, ragtag clothing, bloodshot eyes, and a scowl that make children hide under the covers.
She looked up to me with her jaw gaping. "Dad, I will not look nice until I've been Tanked. You know that as well as I do."
"So I have a taste for a human look. Sue me." Women and political movements; they had so much in common it almost made me sick. My little gem, the ballerina, fairy princess for her fourth Halloween, and now she wants to put on the ultimate costume. The Anthro movement, they called it. The details were still a little too right for me to grasp, but apparently they felt that the human race could reach harmony and equality if only we'd be willing to take on personal totems.
My daughter was a rabbit in disguise... or something like that.
"My next speech denounces that," she said matter-of-factly. "That closed-minded train of thought will lead us down the same path our forefathers wore ruts in. Take, for example, the era of 36-26-36 and aneorexia----"
"Those were the days," I mused.
"You're part of the problem, Dad."
"What else is new?" I guess I was just too old fashioned to keep up with a girl like Krystal. All that hip new-wave philosophy didn't click with a man whose only moral convictions were truth and justice. If it were up to me I'd have the whole lot thrown into jail for disturbing the peace, then I'd start digging for the real driving force behind the group...
God, I needed a real case!
"It's people like you that keep people like me from my goal," she sneered. I just shrugged. I couldn't help it that the government sided with my view. Genetic tanking was limited to cosmetic changes. She'd be fifty before they'd let a bunny out of that tank at the earliest.
I could only grin. "Safety first, right Randy?" I looked to my son in hopes that he could back me up, but his nose was buried in a book. Great, I thought. At least Krystal was willing to talk, even if only she wanted to argue. Getting to Randy was like trying to swim through concrete.
Mindy cleared her throat and glared at me; it seemed that I was going to have to try to talk to my son, even if he didn't give a damn about talking. "So... what you reading there?"
He sneered. "It's the latest from Ricki Turnquist -- you wouldn't be interested." Damn straight I wouldn't be intereted! My son read trashy romance novels as if they were God's gift to this green Earth. When I asked he said that they were filled with heartwarming stories and well-characterized villains. It was that babysitting job, I knew. That woman he worked with must be recommending the junk to him.
Oh well; at least he was quiet. Silent stupidity beat boisterous stupidity any day.
We paid our respects to the burned carcass sitting before us in silence once again. Mindy looked as if she were eating a pile of lemons. Every time she bit into that charred piece of garbage she gazed at the ever-growing pile of bills, then at the thin stack of potential clients, then to a wall of newspaper clippings of the "good ol' days." She chewed and chewed and fretted and worried until it all came to a boil.
"This isn't working!" she pounded her fist on the table. "It's time that we talk as a family. A _real_ family. No one leaves this table until we get to the bottom of our problems----"
The phone rang. I pounced on the opportunity so quickly that I didn't even put down my fork. "Urgent call," I claimed as I stepped into the other room, "I have to take it."
"Sure thing, Mister V," Mindy replied instinctively. Then the turned back to grilling our two children like convicts in a big-news trial. I cradled the phone in the crook of my shoulder and walked back to my desk. It was habit for me; cracking leather chair that's stayed with me since big city times, Lucky Strike hanging from one corner of my lip, steaming coffee mug held loosely in my free hand. Why, looking at me on the phone you'd almost think I was a private eye in one of those detective movies.
My voice was cold, raspy. "Victor speaking."
"Steely Victor himself," the voice replied, "It's been a while."
"Fernando's cronies are probably tapping our connection," he replied, "We don't have time for many pleasantries. Meet me for donuts and coffee."
I was stricken absolutely silent. It had been _years_ since I heard code phrases, much less one for a drug cartel. He must have had the wrong idea, I thought. "Sir, I can't be of much help to you. If you haven't noticed I'm a bit out of the loop----"
"Exactly." And without another word he hung up. I thought about just forgetting about him and going back to dinner, but I had already scented blood. It felt so good to be on the hunt.
The old rendezvous sure wasn't what it used to be, that was for sure. Sure, there was always the scratched glass surrounding the chairs, and the graffiti on advertisement posters, but that bus stop just didn't feel right. Maybe it was the fact that I had driven in a dilapidated minivan instead of walking in the smoggy air. Maybe it was the new drugstore's ten-million watt security lights turning night into day. Maybe I missed the feeling of my trenchcoat wrapped tightly around my body. It was as if the world had been working overtime to bury my past life before just so that I'd have to go back to my ever-so-compassionate family.
The world couldn't take the smell out of the air. I could smell Chief Birch's anxiety mixing with sewage vapors from a drain nearby. When I walked up he didn't even turn to look at me.
"You always came from North Street," he said while lighting a cigarette, "What gives?"
I sighed and took a seat on the bus stop's bench. "Had to park."
"You drove?" He slid a black portfolio across the bench; I sat down and put it in my lap.
"I'm a victim of modern suburban life," I admitted, then undid the clasp on the portfolio. The combination of Mark's cheap cigarette's smoke and the criminal record in my hands were enough o send a jolt of electricity down my spine. It felt so good to be back in action, I thought to myseld over and over again. If only I could have gone back to the good ol' days, when I was on the case day in, day out...
"How's the family?" the Chief asked. I groaned, and he nodded. "Thought so. You never seemed like the kid type, Victor. Don't understand why you even tried."
"It was Mindy's idea." I reached into the folder, but Mark held out his hand.
"Pity, that. On the bright side, my little Cindy is doing fine. She just had her first piano recital today. Oh, she's just growing up so fast...!"
I chuckled. "It doesn't get any better, trust me. My boy's a recluse and my girl is trying to save up money for Tank time."
Mark blew a thin stream of smoke, whistling. "An Animorph? How did she end up with _that_ crowd?"
"Don't ask me."
"Suburbia's a funny place," he commented, then nodded to the folder. "My apologies for holding you back; I was having my backup check you for bugs. Police work isn't what it used to be."
"Still better than trying to be a dad."
"Your opinion." He shrugged and took another drag from his cigarette, so that his words came out in a fog. "We're looking at a real piece of work, Victor. Hernando Martinez is his name, drug smuggling is his game. If we can get our hands on some really solid evidence we can knock him into last Thursday."
"Why me, then? You've got good surveillance teams."
"That's the problem," Chief Birch sighed, "He's good. Damned good. We can't find a single thing on him. Whenever we do get some decent information he runs to Cuba; then we lose track of him."
"Oh, now _that's_ a cheery subject." He blew a smoke ring. "The Butcher, Hellacious Hernando, The Executioner... the list goes on and on. He's ordered the murder of fifteen people by our records: two stoolies, three enemies..."
"And ten cops." I whistled, and he nodded solemnly. "Now you see our problem. Anyone with decent information doesn't make it past his home's gates. I can't pay agents enough to get into his mob -- that's just suicide."
Chief Birch had a way of dragging things out, I knew. It was better to just force him right to the point. "Okay, sounds like a nasty guy. What's this got to do with me?"
"He has a son," Mark went on, unheeding, "An eight-year-old son named Juan. Juan still thinks the family business is in real estate."
"Fine and good, but once again---"
"And we think that, because of Juan, Hernando is trying to settle down. He just bought a ranch house near your neighborhood -- nice place, but it's pretty far out of the loop. Not Hernando's style at all."
Hmm. The suburban disease must have been contagious. "Go on," I said with furrowed eyes. I had Hernando's picture laid out in front of me -- sharp guy. He had a Latino look about him that would make the girls scream cailiente. Add that to the gelled hairstyle and you had one eccentric drug dealer.
And they couldn't get dirt on this guy? Whatever happened to hardnosed detective work?
"We need some old-fashioned detective work, Victor." He grinned. "The blockheads that come out of the Academy now are too reliant on technology. If it doesn't have a screen and a keyboard, it's not a viable source of information -- that kind of stuff."
"In other words, you want a washed-up private eye to take on one of the best druglords in the business." I patted my gun through my polo shirt. "I'm only one gun."
"You won't be needing it," Mark said with a smile. "I said I wanted some old fashioned detective work, but I didn't mention any conditions. The brains up top think they have a good plan for taking Hernando down... but we still need a good man. It's supposed to be hush-hush, too; we think that Hernando has connections to corrupt officers, and he'll notice if a member of our force is missing."
"We need to act now," the Chief insisted. "I've got a van waiting just around the corner. Give me the okay and we'll set things into motion."
He gave me that shit-eating grin and held out his hand, as if I would just jump on the opportunity to be a hero. Not so fast. "And the bottom line?"
"Oh, you'll be duly compensated. Check's in the mail." I thought about turning him down, but then my mind flashed to the unpaid bills and the charred meatloaf I had choked down at dinner...
"What the hell," I said, and Mark reached out. I felt a tiny prick at my arm, then all went dark.
I awoke to the sound of diesel generators and a transistor radio turned up to the point that distortion was louder than the music itself. I could smell latex and tire rubber coming from across the room. Overhead I could see a thousand little hoses; each hose was connected to a little box, which was connected to a gigantic computer. On that computer's screen scrolled a million Gs, As, Ts, and Cs...
A Tank? No, it couldn't be. Chief Birch would have nothing to do with the freaks. Absolutely nothing!
I tried to stand up but found myself hampered by glass. Trapped! Instinctually I reached for my gun, as if my captors would be so idiotic as to let me keep my heat. In fact, I was stripped down to my boxers and strapped down to a stretcherboard at the waist.
I had been in worse jams before, I thought to myself. Being caught in the middle of a 60s sci-fi flick wasn't terribly bad when you compared it to family life.
"You're awake," I heard someone say, "Great." His voice sounded as if it were going through a thousand layers of metal, the result distorted and twangy. When I turned in my little prison I saw Chief Birch staring right at me, a small grin on his face.
"Fancy seeing you here," I mumbled. "Glad you're enjoying yourself."
"Come now, Victor. Seeing you on the losing end is such a refreshing sight."
"You haven't met my kids." I spat back with a half-grin, then stared at the bulge in his chest pocket. "Got a cig for me?"
"I'm sure you're pretty damn desperate for nicotine right now. Hell, I could go for one right now." And he went about lighting his cigarette like a connoisseur would drink his wine: slowly and sensuously. If only I had that gun...
"I'm sorry that I had to do that," the Chief said after taking a long drag, "It was only a precaution. The folks here aren't exactly... legal, as I'm sure you've figured out."
"Nice tank you got here," I said, looking around for said folks, "If I weren't a cop I'd probably even say it's damn fine."
"They've made a deal with us," Chief Birch went on, "We're going to take advantage of their services, and we'll leave their facility alone until these Tanks are legal. And, if you ask me, they're making out like bandits."
Chief laughed, looked up above my glass cocoon, and winked at some people out of my sight. "This is about as secure as it gets; I can give you the rest of the dirt on Hernando now."
"There's more? I thought 'slick drug lord with a mean streak' was plenty enough for one guy."
"If only." He took a long drag of cigarette, frowned, and leaned close to the glass on the tank. "We haven't heard of him in a few months; we have the feeling that he's hard at work on this tank technology."
I looked around the room, sighing. Oh, the terrible irony!
"We think he's going to hardwire addicts for push-button euphoria," he clinched the point with his fist. "Use the tank to make them sweat dopamine and cry endorphins -- that kind of shit. If he gets that far he'll really screw up some teens."
"Teens that'll steal all their family's money to get the treatment."
"Exactly." He paced around the room as he talked. "We need a picture of this contraption to lock him away, before someone gets hurt."
"And I'm guessing that means I'm supposed to ask how."
He stopped pacing and grinned. "Knew you couldn't resist. That's why we're here, Victor. We're going to create the ultimate undercover agent for this one, an undercover agent so secret that he will hardly be able to blow his cover."
I snickered. "What? You're going to make me invisible?"
"Hardly." The Chief went back to pacing. "You see, Hernando is a family man. That's why he moved to the suburbs in the first place; apparently, he's opening up a legit hardware store in town. They say his son loves working with tools."
"Oh, you'll get to know him real well, real soon." A sly chuckle. "In fact, you're going to be that kid's best friend in the whole wide world."
"And his father isn't going to boil me alive."
"Heavens, no! He's a businessman, not a butcher. It's just not _right_ to touch innocent women and children----"
The ol' "something fishy" meter pegged out. "What did you say?"
"Women and children." He looked around the room, pointed at the cables, then to me, then to the cables again. "Put two and two together, Victor; that's what I'm paying you to do."
"I was never big on cyberpunk fiction," I replied smugly, "Spell it out for me."
The Chief sighed. "Fernando really needs a friend. Even Hernando knows it; his little Freddy never gets a chance to get close to a friend, for fear that they may discover what Freddy's Daddy _really_ does for a living. It's starting to make him a little careless."
"You mean, I'm going to slip under the radar."
The Chief smiled and flicked his cigarette to the grated metal floor. "As a ten-year-old boy, no less. You'll 'just happen' to move into the neighborhood, 'just happen' to have the same mischievous interests as Freddy, and 'just happen' to charm the pants off ol' Hellacious Hernando. Then you get him talking, maybe get a picture of that little machine his cronies are working on."
"You make it sound so simple."
"That's my job," he replied, grinning. "My _willing_ friends up in the booth will be in charge of making you into the most rambunctious child this world has ever known. You'll be playful, outgoing, rambunctious, filled with subconscious knowledge that will make you compatible with Freddy----"
"Do I get to keep my gun?"
"I'll let you just guess, Little Vinny." Ice-cold liquid began to flow into the tank. "Or maybe you'd like to go by an alias?"
I struggled to breathe through the freezing liquid; breathing tubes were starting to snake down into my little cocoon. "Call me Jimmy," I managed before stuffing the respirator down my throat. At least it was warm, I mused. Cold liquid started to pour into every crevice of my aging body, chilling me to numbness.
"It'll only be cold for a second, Jimmy" the Chief replied, "Just breathe deep and try to think about your favorite person in the whole wide world..."
No one came to mind. I took one breath and dissolved into blackness, right before the liquid sloshed over the top of my face.
Birds were singing when my mind came to. Up, down, left, right, ground, ceiling... all regular definitions of space ceased to exist. I was floating on a cloud of soft down, wrapped tightly and warmly in comforters. _Huge_ comforters. With a sigh I yawned and went about redreaming a good dream of baseball and bicycles.
Baseball and bicycles?
"He's awake!" A woman's voice pierced the air. I felt as if I belly-flopped into a cement pit from ten feet up. Swearing under my breath, I threw the covers off my body and tried to get up, only to fall straight to the floor.
And the woman dove down to my side. "Gosh! Are you okay, little guy? I didn't mean to startle you like that... It's just that you've slept for the past fourteen hours! I was worried!"
"It's all right." My voice was raspy and... childish. The tones were high and undeveloped. Maybe I had a little too much to drink the night before, I thought. When I tried to remember back that far I only found a dark haze.
"You're right; we'll be taking care of you for a while. That's what foster parents do." She grinned a wide, warm, caring grin. "And what's your name, lil' guy?" I swallowed hard. What was I doing in a foster home...?
Oh, right. "Jimmy. The name's Jimmy." I tried to offer a hand, but it was tangled up in the comforter. She helped my hand out of the jam; when I pulled it out it was attached to a toothpick of an arm, one that didn't fit the hand, let alone the rest of my body.
I was ten. I was poor, lonely little Jimmy looking for a good friend.
I used my toothpick arm to wipe the sleep from my eyes. It was dawn -- a dawn bright enough to give me a screaming headache. The room itself contained only a bed and a small desk, enough for a kid who would spend all his time outdoors.
"You're a cute kid, Jimmy" the woman admitted, "very cute indeed. My name's Jody. We're going to be good friends, I can tell." I liked that last sentence very much, for some reason: the idea gave me warm fuzzies all over. She was nice and caring and she was listening to me, and I just wanted to make her proud...
Just like a kid. _Perfect._
"I'm hungry," I said pitifully. I meant it, too; I felt as if my stomach was about ready to implode. As things stood I couldn't just drive to the local donut shop.
"Of course, Jimmy! We'll get you some clothes and go downstairs. I've already got something ready to whip up for you!" Then, with a grin, "I hope you like pancakes!"
Pancakes. Homemade pancakes. My mouth started to water. I looked into her eyes with eagerness. "With maple syrup?"
"As much as you want, honey."
This undercover job may not be a bad gig after all, I thought to myself as I cheered to the rafters. My host giggled and pointed to the closet. "There's a few changes of clothes in there; you can pick anything you want."
"Anything!" She smiled warmly. "And if you look _real_ hard you'll find a present..." That was all my ten-year-old mind needed to hear; before she could even blink I was sprinting toward the closet. I threw the door open and started tearing through the piles of clothes. She just laughed and walked back down the stairs.
And when that door slammed shut I froze. What in the world was _this_? I felt all electric inside, as if a million hamsters were running all over my body. I was _excited_ to be up, and _excited_ to be rooting around the closet for whatever treasure I could find. It was barely seven o'clock, and I was on the move.
Oh yes, I remembered. This was what it felt like to be alive.
Sure enough, there was a tiny box hidden at the very bottom of the pile. I opened it up to find a very nice pair of tennis shoes waiting for me. They wouldn't last three months on my feet, I knew, but they were better than nothing. Laying next to the shoes were a pair of shorts and a cartoon rabbit top. I threw them on without a second thought -- if I was going to be ten, I was going to go all-out.
There was a bounce to my step as I walked down the stairs; heavenly aromas were emanating from the kitchen. I could hear the sizzle of batter on a griddle. The kitchen island across from the stove was set for two, complete with tall glasses of milk and large boats of maple syrup. I squealed and ran to the table, thinking that she just maybe might have some pancakes already done...
"Here's the first batch for the hungry boy!" She turned and flopped four fluffy hotcakes onto my plate. Gosh, did they look good! I smothered my breakfast in maple syrup before forking off a large chunk and stuffing it into my mouth.
"They're great!" I chirped with a full mouth. Cake crumbs came flying out of my mouth, but Jody was nice enough not to chide me. She was such a nice lady! Why, she even wrote me a letter that was set out by my table setting...
Then I took a second look at the stamp. Oh; this was official business. I opened it and read the single line of text: "Your caretaker is oblivious to the truth. Keep it that way and you'll live."
"What's that?" Jody asked. I folded it and put it into my pocket, then went back to stuffing my face. I'd dispose of the note later, when she wasn't around. Hopefully she'd just forget and blame it on childish tricks, as long as she didn't get curious during breakfast...
Luck was on my side. "This is going to be so much fun!" she gushed, "And we'll get started real soon. Promise! Right now, though, I've got to go to work. You're going to go to a babysitter -- but only for a little while. Promise!"
"Who is it?" I asked, thinking I would have to dig for some eagerness. No problem finding that; a ten-year-old had more eagerness than you could shake a stick at.
She smiled; my go-get-'em attitude must have been charming. "A nice kid named Randy said he'd take care of you for free. Such a nice boy!"
My jaw dropped. Randy? My son? There was no way! Talk about a twisted way to get your quality time, I thought. I feared that he just might figure things out, catch the one detail his old man forgot to cover.
Then again, Randy knew as much about me as a fish knows about dry land. "That sounds like fun!" I replied with a big grin, "When do we go?"
"As soon as you finish your pancakes, dear." She squealed. "You are just _so_ cute! I bet Randy will _love_ having you around today. How could he possibly resist such a _cute_ and _charming_ little boy?"
Pizza: it was the first thing that came to mind when I stepped out of the car. Mozzerella and tomato sauce were heavy on the air. A delivery car was pulling into the parking lot right behind Jody's car. The Little Bear Daycare was actually tacked onto the back of a carry-out pizza place; it seemed like every kid's greatest dream when it was laid out, I bet.
My own mind was putting together a mental image of long tables, where hundreds of kids ate mountains of pizza day in, day out. Oh, how sublime it would be!
We walked through the squeaky-clean glass door, and immediately I knew I was in for a long day. Daycare was a wide-open room with tiny tot's toys spread all around -- you know, the kind of stuff parents think is too cute to pass up, but the kids actually hate with a passion? Worse, the lunch and snack were displayed by the entrance so that the parents were sure that their kids weren't having a day in paradise in here.
That lunch and snack? Bananna, granola, and good ol' PBJ. Yum. I was salivating at the mere sight of it, let me tell you.
De facto segregation ruled this daycare like any other meeting of children. The preschoolers were off playing with the sit n' spins and hopping balls. The oldest kids were playing some game involving stacks of disks and a slammer. And the middle kids...
Do you even have to ask? The middle kids were in between, with nothing to really fit their bill. At the time only one person was standing there: a latino with slicked-back hair and a very expensive outfit.
Jody bent down with her smiling face and asked, "You'll be okay here?" It was too late to even get my attention. I walked right down the center line, making sure to keep friendly eye contact with the familiar stranger. Fernando Martinez looked up from the carpet with anticipation.
"Looks like I'm stuck in the middle with you," I said, "What's your name?" A formality, it was. But it was a formality that would make him comfortable.
"My friends call me Freddy," he said with a thick Spanish accent, "I haven't seen you around here."
"I'm Jimmy." Still smiling, I reached out for his hand. "I just moved here." He took the handshake professionally, like every ten-your-old kid shouldn't know how to do. It was the handshake of a businessman in the making. If he only knew what the family business would be...
He pulled me close and turned my body towards an empty corner. "Here's the skinny. In a few minutes our sitter's gonna come out of the office. Today it's either going to be Dee or Randy." I grinned an adult grin after hearing that; it had always been a whim of mine to see my son in action. "If it's Randy we'll be free to do as we please; he's too tied up in his book to ever notice us."
Ouch. Chalk one up for "the father is always right." "And if we have Dee, then what?"
He grimaced. "If we have Dee, it's going to be a _long_ day."
"You don't even want to know." It looked like Freddy bit into a sour lemon. "She's the most girly girl I've ever seen. When she's around you can't even walk two steps without her cooing and running over to give you a big hug."
"It's terrible, I tell you. And she's got cooties!" He pointed his finger down his throat. At least the boys back at the Tank had been nice enough to let me keep a good chunk of my adult mind; having to worry about cooties would have simply driven me bonkers...
...but for sake of the bust I had to just play along. "I know what you mean. I _hate_ girls!"
"Me too." There was the sound of a door latch sliding open. "Here they come! Try to look busy or else they'll notice you!" There were no toys around, so Freddy and I just played hand slap while watching the office door out of the corner of our eye.
The office door opened slowly, then stopped. The sound of two people ending a conversation came from within. Freddy and I almost forgot to keep our hands up, the suspense was so high. Would it be a free day or a night of sitter hell? My heart was pounding: I wanted the free time to crack the case, and my ten-year-old mind dearly wanted to run and play uninhibited.
Finally, the door swung full open. Freddy spat a string of words in Spanish that I'm sure weren't pleasant. The older kids groaned. The little kids cheered; they were too stupid to know it was anything other than extra attention.
For there, standing in the frame of that office door, stood Randy. My _daughter_ Randy.
"Why did it have to be Dee?" Freddy groaned, "The first time I actually have someone to play with, and _she_ has to show up! I'm one of her favorites, too; we won't have a moment to play today."
"Maybe Randy...er, Dee isn't that bad," I offered. "Let's just try to talk to her. I'm sure we can work something out." It was Randy, all right; the face didn't lie. Other than that he--well, she could completely pass in the real world. Dee even had a decent-sized chest that couldn't possibly have been faked. Where she got those I'd be damned to know.
"You don't know who we're talking about here," Freddy insisted, "This woman is a _monster_. Don't do anything to draw attention to yourself, or she'll be over you like bees on a honey-dipped dog!"
I laughed and let my head droop to the floor. "You're just overreacting----"
And her eyes met mine just as I said the words. "What do we have here?" she cooed. God, she even had a passing female voice! "Why, is this a new kid? I haven't ever seen you around before, little boy!" She rushed over on tip-toes, cute and girly. Her breasts giggled as she ran -- more disgusting proof that they were probably real. She reached out her hands to hold mine, the wrists limp and loose. Her hair smelled of floral shampoo. Her spring dress danced on her body.
I just wanted to puke. This was daddy's best boy?
"Oh, you're a little shy." She pouted with pink lips. "Don't be afraid, little guy! I'm not going to hurt you! Come on and give Dee a hug; you'll feel better."
No, it won't. You've already hurt me. All the thoughts bubbled to the surface, but before I could say anything she had her arms wrapped around me. The skin was soft. The arms were hairless. Her eyebrows were plucked in perfect arches. Not one thing on Randy's body was even remotely male. Not one thing!
"I need to go outside," I mumbled.
"Not until you give me a hug," she cooed.
"No, I think I _really_ need to go outside. I'm getting dizzy." Her perfume was eking all the oxygen from the air. I felt lost, sick, horrified, angry, guilty... all at once. This was my young man dressing up in curls and a pretty pastel dress! Visions of my rough n' tumble boy hosting a doll tea party came to mind; that made my stomach do more cartwheels.
Her powdered face twisted. "Oh, are you sick? Come here; Dee'll make you feel better. Come on, now..."
And, when I thought all hope was lost, Freddy tugged at the hem of her dress. "Dee, I'd like to go outside too."
The cheerful, overwhelming love in her face fell away, leaving only a cold and hardened mask. "So be it. You two can go out on the playground."
"Thank you kindly," said Freddy. Then he took my still-shaking arm and walked me out to the wood-chip back yard where a thick mass of tubes and slides waited for us. I stared blankly at the kid; he had barely lifted a finger to gain control of that situation! Here was the supposed babysitter -- and supposed girl -- trying to keep control of a mass of kids. She was the law, plain and simple.
Freddy just walked up to a cop and had his handcuffs unlocked. Plain and simple.
"You can thank me later," Freddy winked, "I know that Dee's downright scary."
"You don't know the half of it," I replied, still shaky. "How did you do that, anyway?"
"Oh, the control bit?" He laughed. "My dad has a lot of connections, that's all. Randy and Dee are always that way with me."
"Wow," I said in my innocent kid voice, "That sounds cool. What does your dad do for a living?"
"He runs hardware stores," Freddy said proudly. "And he does manufacturing on the side."
"That's a huge word, Freddy! That's bigger than any word I've ever heard!" I was fishing for the answers, now. I was always a good fisherman; the trick was to reel them in without them knowing they're on a line. Just a bit further and I would have had him...
"Hey, let's play a game!" Drat. My childlike perceptions made my heart jump at the mention of game, though. I was in need of some entertainment. "What games do you like?"
"Your pick." I couldn't honestly remember a single game from my childhood, save dodge ball. That wouldn't have fit the bill at all; no, it would wait until we had _everyone_ out on the playgrounds and Freddy and I could be on the same team.
Freddy looked to the ground and put a hand to his chin. "What game... oh! I know! Let's play Cops and Robbers!"
How appropriate, I thought to myself. "Okay. That sounds like fun!" I looked over to the dipping and diving tubes of the playset. They just looked like so much _fun_!
God, I was a kid again!
Freddy had the same gleam in his eye. "I'll be the robber, and you be the cop. Let's see... Okay. I'm Calamity Jake. I just stole a million dollars from the bank. You're chasing me down." Oh, the joy of youth! Games weren't structured; they were nonsensical exercises for the imagination.
I could only grin and dig my toes into the wood chips below. "Calamity Jake, you're going down!" And we singed off into the mass of tubes, cargo netting, and ballpens. We laughed and cheered, shouted old movie lines at each other, pretended to shoot each other with our finger guns. The daycare became First National Bank; the swingset our jail; the sidewalks our roads; the ballpen our Lake Erie.
Every time I had Freddy cornered, though, he managed to talk his way out of it. His mobmates would come in and distract me, or he'd have a getaway car come to pick him up. I tried to hint to him that playing through the arrest could be fun, but he didn't understand it at all. It was like he just didn't know how to lose!
Finally I just had to give up -- always losing the criminal could get on a detective's nerves. Freddy ran off towards the tubes for another chase and I just retired to the swing set. "What's wrong?" the kid asked before turning to join me.
"I'm just tired of Cops and Robbers," I replied. "It gets boring after a while."
"Yeah." He sat down into the swing beside me and pushed off. "I know exactly what you mean."
"What do I mean?" I asked, fishing again.
"Boredom." The word came out in one soft breath. His swing went in ever-lengthening arcs until he was parallel with the crossbar. "You and I are the same."
"Not really," I mumbled.
He jumped from the swing at its highest point, then turned to say, "You should come over for dinner sometime." My eyes widened. "Actually, Father said that I could bring someone over tonight. He's having a lot of his business partners in, and I always complain that it's boring."
A break in the case already! I struggled to keep myself from jumping off the swing and cheering. "Your Father must really love you."
"He's really cool!" Freddy replied, "He always does things with me, no matter how busy he is."
Good father, bad career choice. I had heard the story a million times before in the movies. Too bad that reality made parenting a living hell; it sounded so nice to be close to your kids. "He's really that nice?"
"Yeah! I bet he'll do something with us both, if we're nice." He grinned. I grinned. I wanted to meet Hellacious Hernando. He wanted me to meet his Father.
"You know, I'd like that very much." And we left it at that.
Daycare went on in a pretty routine matter after that; we went inside, ate our lunch, and ran from Dee as much as humanly possible. She kept after us, but every time she opened her mouth I would just walk away. My son was a sissy boy: who knew?
Jody was slightly nervous about letting me go home with Freddy, but Dee managed to convince her that they were good people. At least he was good for _something_, I thought as Dee gesticulated and praised the Martinez family as if they were saviors. It was enough to make Jody simply give in and let me go.
Freddy's dad drove up in a black Mercedes, stepped out, and straightened his Armani suit. Two more men stepped out of the back seat, each one wearing the same clothing. One look at his son and Hernando dropped to a knee. "Fernando!" he said with warm tones.
"Papa!" They ran towards each other and hugged. "It's good to see you, Papa!"
"And it's good to see you, too!" He chucked his child on the cheek playfully. "So what did you do today?"
"Papa, you won't believe it!" he pulled away from the embrace and ran over to me. "This is my new friend, Jimmy!" I nodded and waved, trying to look innocent as hell.
"Jimmy, hmm?" Hearnando reached out for my hand. "You seem like a good boy, Jimmy. A very good boy. Freddy has always hung with the good crowd." I hesitated before shaking his hand; this was a callused murderer that had ordered the execution of fifteen people. Here he was offering his hand to a little boy as if he were the Man of the Year!
Fifteen people. And if I wouldn't have taken the man's hand with a firm grip I would have been the sixteenth.
"What a good boy," he said again, but grimaced as a note was passed to him by one of the suits. Reading it only made the frown lines dig deeper. "We'll need to take care of Lance," he said flatly to the two in back, "This is all the dirt I have on him."
One of the suits looked up with a grin. "Rub-out?"
"It's his time," Hernando muttered, then pointed to the shiny black Mercedes. "Come on, kids! Fila has dinner waiting for us!"
There were more suits waiting when we stepped out of the Mercedes; they followed Hernando around like a bunch of tiny kids meeting their idol. I stepped out of the car close behind Freddy, making sure to stay in the friendly bubble those suits were forming around us.
The place stretched over acres of clean-clipped grass and flowering gardens. It was as if Midas himself had streaked across the house and grounds, making it all shimmer and shine brightly enough to hurt a kid's eyes.
"You two go play," Hernando said with a soft, glowing grin. "Us adults have... business to tend to before dinner." He turned with the regality of a king, and his entourage followed...
But before they could go any further the king turned around. "Lance, go get fishing poles for the kids. We'll fill you in later."
"Okay boss," said one suit, and he walked over toward us. He had a gentle, if old, face that spoke volumes without saying much of anything. In his deep wrinkles I could almost see a story, one of hard times and hard crimes...
And suddenly it hit me. My blood ran cold.
"We're going fishing!" Freddy cheered, "Aren't you excited?"
I looked to the ground and sighed. "Yeah... Tell you what; I'll go help Lance get the tackle."
Freddy shook his head. "Don't worry; he'll get it for us! Isn't that right, Lance?"
My face warmed with honesty. "I was always taught to pay back favors. You let me come here for dinner; let me at least do something for you in return."
It took a while for his ten-year-old mind to digest the information; when it sank in he lit up like a light bulb. "Oh! That sounds like a great thing, Jimmy. Be sure to pick a good pole for us both!"
"Sure thing!" And before Lance could refuse I was at his side, gleefully smiling. Sure, he tried to shoo me off, but I kept following until we made it to one of the many outbuildings on the massive property.
We opened the doors to reveal enough fishing poles to clean out the Great Lakes in two days. "You're a nice boy," he said flatly. "It's no wonder Freddy likes you."
I nodded and walked straight into the shed. "They're going to kill you," I said as I sifted through the poles, "I heard them talking."
There was a flash of a nervous face. "You must have misheard their words. What they say isn't what they mean----"
"Didn't the Force teach you any better, Calhoon?" That was enough to get his jaw to drop. "This guy's already chopped down ten cops; do you want to be the eleventh?"
"Who are you---" he started, but suddenly he lit up with understanding. "Victor. So you finally cracked, did you?"
"You're not taking this one away from me, Vick." He took a step toward me, finger thrashing the air. "You've always been one step ahead of me. This time, I'm not going to be second banana."
"Listen to me----"
"I don't care if you have some crazy disguise," he continued, "And in all reality I should arrest you for illegal usage of genetic modification. I'm _this_ close to getting the skinny on Hernando's plans. One more night of this act and I'll be the hero."
"This isn't because of that whole Son of Sean thing, is it?"
"You ruined me with that, Catcher!" He stomped his foot and kept his lips tight, though the curse was still loud. "I'm not going to let you come out of retirement to ruin me again."
"But they're going to kill you!"
"I've got a good feeling about this one, Catcher. I'm trusting my instinct." I could only sigh; Calhoon had never been one of my favorite people, and probably never would be. If he made up his mind, it was set in stone.
Too bad it was usually wrong; this would be the last time. "Have it your way," I mumbled. With a sour face I grabbed the poles and ran out to the lake. A man passed me on the path as I ran, and I didn't look back.
Freddy smiled as I came back. We sat down on a wooden dock. As we baited our hooks I heard the distinctive sound of a silenced pistol discharging into human flesh. Freddy seemed to pay no mind.
"Dinner, boys!" Freddy jumped up and left his pole laying on the deck. It was probably better that we didn't have to take the things back at the time.
Dinner was an understatement. Fila served up a five-course gourmet meal: exotic greens salad, leg of lamb, and all the trimmings. The suits were drinking and cheering, even though their ranks were one thinner. Mambo music played over the high-quality stereo system as they talked and laughed.
Stranger still, they included Freddy and I both into the merrymaking. Hellacious Hernando was especially warm and cheerful as we ate. "Here's dirty joke even the kids will get," he said. We looked toward him expectantly and he only added "Here it is: a boy fell in a mud puddle."
I tried not to groan. The Butcher himself was a corny dork of a dad!
"How's the batting going, son?" he asked, then turned to me. "Freddy's been working on his swing for months; tells me he's going to be a Major-Leaguer when he grows up."
"I will, Papa! You just wait and see!"
"Of course!" Hernando laughed and patted his son on the shoulder. "I have all faith in you. That's what I'm supposed to do."
They hugged. "I love you," said Freddy, and his father chuckled understandingly.
I felt a pang of guilt in my stomach.
And suddenly Hernando shot bolt upright in his seat. "Come! The sun's about to set. Who's up for a game?"
That night I played baseball with the most ruthless criminals this side of the Appalachians. If anyone would have seen the Armani-suited men running their sandy lot's bases, they would have simply thought that a business lunch had broken into fun and games.
I woke up the next morning in Freddy's room – a real beast of a room, let me tell you. He had the back end of a real Ferarri for a bed, and there were racing flags all over his wall. His father said that they were real; each had been used in the Indianapolis 500 at least once. They were signed by the winning drivers of each race.
When I woke up I heard voices. Hernando was talking to his son in low tones about nothing in particular. Quality time, I thought; the man was making quality time for his son despite his criminal schedule. What a man, oh, what a man!
Something about the conversation must have piqued Freddy's interest, because he immediately jumped out of bed and ran over to my cot. "Jimmy!" he screamed, "Guess what, Jimmy?"
"Wha?" I tried to sound tired. I wasn't. I never needed sleep, anyway.
"Papa's gonna take us to his first hardware store!" he jumped and yelped for joy. "It's a fun place; there's lots of big pipes and shelves to play hide n' seek in. We'll have a lot of fun!"
"That does sound like fun." I paused.
"And we'll both be back at the daycare before your mommy gets home," he assured me.
"Jody isn't my mommy. She's just taking care of me, is all."
"Oh." He frowned. "We'll have fun, then. You and me."
How could I refuse? I grinned, hopped into borrowed clothes from Freddy's closet, and tromped down to the Mercedes. Birds sang as we drove out of the mansion's property, out and onward to the ever-so-cool hardware store...
Not exactly. The place was a dump. You could actually see the rust on the power tools displayed up front. PVC pipes had crusted over with dust. The tools on the shelf were older than my grandpa. Cryptic sale signs hung over each of the three aisles in the tiny place. The workers were too busy watching TV to even notice us walk into the tiny hut of a store.
Someone didn't care about their product at all. And Hernando was backing this place? Naturally. Why else would the hacksaws, PVC piping, and lighters all be located in the same area?
"You two kids have fun," Hernando said cheerfully, "I have some business to attend to. Enjoy!" He walked down one of the aisles, turned a corner, and disappeared down some back hallway. A suit popped out of that same hallway, looked around, and rearranged some stock on a wall.
Opportunity! "Come on!" I screamed to Freddy, "Let's play Scavenger Hunt!" He barely had a chance to say yes before I was running down the tiny aisle, my sleeves brushing up against a million whoosits and whatsits. Around the corner I roared, hot on the tail of a lead.
I felt like I was back in the big city. God, did it feel good!
"Let's look for secrets!" I yelped to Freddy. As I spoke I started pulling wrenches from their pegs, looking for some hidden knob or latch on the wall. Before I knew it Freddy was right alongside me, ripping away a line of zip-ties with a giggle.
Nothing. This pegboard-covered wall was a whole lot of nothing! Here was this little outcropping looking like a tumor on someone's nose, and I couldn't find a damn entrance. Freddy was having fun looking, but it didn't seem like he was finding anything. Besides, he was enjoying throwing stuff around more than he was looking. All was hopeless for this in cognito child...
And when I thought my chances were all gone I looked to a hole in Freddy's pawing area. There, cut into the pegboard, was a small intendation. If I weren't looking for it I would have just walked right on by.
This... this was beyond comprehension. The break of all breaks. My heart started pounding in my chest. I turned to Freddy to find him still happily ripping apart the stock. "Freddy?" I asked, "You want to play another game?"
"Sure!" he dropped what he was doing without a second thought.
"We'll play hide and seek. I'll be it. I'll count to a hundred and find you."
"Cool!" And when I turned I heard his footsteps pounding out the back door and into a mass of large water main pipes out back. When he was out of earshot I pulled a length of soldering wire from the shelf and started working my way into the lock.
This was it, I thought. This was the evidence we needed! All I needed to do was crack this one lock, get one good look at the machinery, find a document or two...
Bells tingled. I split like a frightened rabbit, wondering if another suit had decided to join the party in the secret room. From behind a rack of screws I peeked towards the door, hoping like hell that it was just another innocent customer.
A female voice cut the air. "Hey Pedro, Juan. How's business?" My daughter! What was Krystle doing in a low-down hardware store like this...?
The two clerks turned off the TV.
"So, what do you say to the White Rabbit?" She was wearing her ears again, I noticed, and with that same sort of pride. Her mannerisms bordered on anxious, but she struggled to maintain control.
"Good stuff today," one of the clerks mumbled. "Check the signs." She looked towards the signs, then scanned the aisles. There was a moment when she looked down my aisle - _right at me_ - then turned back to the clerk.
"I'll take two bags."
And out came the angel dust. Oh, she was going to get it when I got back! Why, she should have just sold her soul to the devil! Buying drugs, of all things! Her father was going to be incredibly mad...
Her father also didn't give two shits about anything in her life, unless it was troublesome. And even then he was pretty lax.
"It's the only way I can be free," Krystle said, bowing. "That is, until the Tank is available."
"And the price...?"
"Cash. Bring cash."
Krystle's face was cold with determination. "Right." She walked out the door with the bag under her overalls. She was going to become a rabbit, but with what Tank? Hernando was working on one, yes, but he couldn't possibly that close. It couldn't be!
"You didn't find me," Freddy yelped. I nearly jumped out of my skin. "You were looking in all the wrong places. Too bad!" He grinned. "Guess you'll have to seek again."
"Actually..." I sighed. All I wanted to do was march after my daughter, but what could I do as a ten-year-old-boy, ok pouty? It would just have to wait until later. "Okay. I'll have to give you a second shot, I guess."
"Yay!" And I was back to hunting; what I was hunting for I still didn't quite know.
I didn’t get a second chance to look at that lock a second time. By the time I got up the never to walk back into that hardware store Hernando was picking up the pieces, laughing and looking altogether cheerful. “You kids!” he yelled lightly, “Why, if it weren’t for boys like you we wouldn’t even know how to be messy!”
He left it at that. We were whisked off to our next destination: daycare. Freddy was bubbling with happiness; I tried to be happy, but Krystal’s little act kept poking at the back of my mind. Why? Where had I gone wrong? What could I do to rectify it?
I’d catch Hernando, that’s what I’d do. I’d throw his drug-selling ass in jail. I’d burn his Tank down. I’d… I’d…
I’d sit in his Mercedes and accept all the lavish hospitality he was offering me. I’d come to the realization that this heartless drug dealer had a soft side bigger than the detective. I’d find that Hernando was better at severing ties with work than this tired old detective could ever possibly claim to be.
Damn it all, Hernando was shaping up to be the better man!
I was supposed to hate the man’s guts, I knew. This man had ordered fifteen -- no, sixteen -- executions. He was selling cheap highs to kids on my family’s block. He was going to create a Tank in which the same kids could sell their humanity for a shot at greatness.
Then they’d get Reverted by the government. Then they’d get depressed. Then they’d buy more drugs. It was a vicious, cold, highly-planned cycle, created for the sole purpose of manipulating his clientele. He wanted to seem like a good guy, a real renaissance man or sorts.
Damn those two words. A cop wasn’t supposed to have a conscience when it came to the law, and yet here I am. As I’m shepherded into a daycare ran by my son/daughter, fully realizing that my daughter is on angel dust, knowing that my family has gone to hell in a hand basket, I can’t help but wonder what this man has figured out with Fernando. How can he be one hell of a dad _and_ one hell of a criminal?
I started to scream, but Freddy’s anxious face reminded me of my own place. It didn’t matter what I knew; a ten-year-old just doesn’t have the pull he needs to do a man’s duties. So for the time being I’m stuck playing Cops and Robbers under my shemale’s watchful eye.
And -- wouldn’t you know it? -- Dee was on duty that day. “Boys and girls, it’s a beautiful day!” She pranced around on heeled sandals like a pixie. “Aren’t you happy to see me?”
No one spoke. One kid coughed and immediately hid his face. Dee looked as if she had been hit by a brick. “Aww… is everyone feeling grumpy today? Well, we’ll just have to fix that…”
And, like Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and all the mad scientists that preceded them, she ducked down behind a desk to reveal her greatest creation yet. “It’s movie time, kids!” Everyone groaned. It was one of those sappy, canned excuses for animation that's bad enough to only be released on video. She must have got it at some bargain bin in the middle of a store; if so, she at least learned something from her father.
Lord knows what she -- he -- could be if he learned a bit more.
"Come on, kids! it'll be fun! Come on and sit by the TV; I'll fix some popcorn in the microwave. We'll have a blast, trust me!" No one trusted her, me least of all. What else was there to do, though? If someone complained she sat them in time out, then informed the brat's parents. Why get in trouble twice when it was esier to swallow your pride and just go with the flow...?
I was tired of being the little kid. My grown man was literally becoming a woman before my very eyes; I'd be damned if I was going to stand by and let it happen. With a sad look on my face I ambled up to Dee, my eyes shining with freshly-faked tears. It worked like a charm. "What's wrong?" she asked with a pouty girl's lip. "You not feeling well."
"You could say that, Randy." Her jaw dropped. I made sure Freddy was absorbed in the movie before going for the kill. "I'm sure your dad's real proud of you."
"But..." she was grasping at straws. "How would you know such a thing?"
"Let's just say I hired a private eye." I winked at her, and the transexual nearly wet himself. "So Randy, what did I do wrong? Did I not love you enough? Was I not there to teach you the ways of a man?"
She sighed and hardened her resolve with a few quick breaths. It seemed to me as if she had been expecting it sooner or later, even if it only came from a ten-year-old dad. "It's not you, Dad -- can i call you Dad?"
"Call me Jimmy," I hissed, "I'll explain later."
"It's just always been a part of me," she continued, heedless. "I just knew I was supposed to be a girl. There's no other way to explain it."
"And so you pick up a babysitter's job where you can appear female all the time----?"
"Kids don't know any better." She sighed. "And besides, it was a good way to get in with Hernando."
"The Butcher?" It was my turn to gape. "Why in the hell would you want to be in with _that_ guy?"
"His Tank." She let out a long hiss of breath. "If I make nice with Fernando, he says that he'll give me free tank time."
I grinned. "No wonder you let him slip out so easily."
"Going outside with a kid his age?" She let out a bark of a laugh. "You better believe it! That's like landing on Free Parking."
"You don't say."
She looked worried. "You're... not mad at me, are you?"
"I'm not sure yet."
"I mean, I know Hernando is a bad guy and all, but he has what I need. If I play my cards right I can get my dream for free. You just have to understand..."
"I understand all too well." I looked over to the TV. Freddy was starting to get restless; it was time to clock back in for my undercover job. Without another word I turned my back on my pseudo-son, trying to walk proudly back. At least being ten let me forget that my entire world had turned upside down in a matter of moments.
Hernando was doing this world a _favor_. God damn it, he was a great guy after all!
- - -
Jody came to pick me up that day. I walked right on by, not even thinking. Hell, at that point I was too stupefied to even consider a thought! Here I was, an undercover cop, standing right on the edge of a landmark break in the case of the century. If I stuck it out for a few more days I would be hailed as a hero.
And despite all that I didn't want to catch Hellacious Hernando.
He had killed fifteen people! Fifteen. I spoke the word again and again in hopes that it would sink into my wavering mind. This man was a cold-blooded murder that didn't give two shits about moral integrity. What kind of heinous man should be allowed to get away with such a thing?
A damn good father. A man who was willing to put his own safety and freedom on the line so that his son could have a good friend. A man who really cared for what mattered.
A man who was better than I was.
How could that possibly be? For years I knew that I was better than the criminals I busted. There were crack whores so drugged up that they couldn't see straight. There were muggers who lived off the purses of old ladies. There were rapists who weren't about a twelve-year-old lay. I coudl bust those people no problem, put them away without thinking twice.
This... this was different. Hernando loved his son. The way he and Freddy got along, how the kid had his own dreams...
I couldn't bust them.
I felt like a pussy. No, not a pussy. That was my son. This, well, this was just aggrivating. Two more days of leading the two along and I'd have it. I just knew that would be the case. Yet something kept telling me to give up now and let the guy run free.
Free! It was like I was trying to be some sort of martyr for the man's cause.
Hernando was going to save my family. With his business ventures he gave the kids something to look forward to. His Tank would give my kids their dreams.
And yet it was illegal!
People were screaming after me. I just gritted my teeth and ignored them. They weren't the ones swallowing a horse-pill of a realization. My kids hated me, and were flocking to a criminal holding the secret to their happiness. My son wasn't a son. My daughter wasn't a daughter.
They were dodging bullets, and I was about to take the hit for them.
Footsteps on gravel. The thoughts on my brain went to the back burner as I went into defense mode, craning to find out more. There were three, maybe four followers, middle-aged, decently built. They walked with a purpose.
I turned a corner in hopes that they would just walk on, but they followed right along. My feet threatened to break into a dead run, but I kept myself in check. Much better to let them feel like they're still unnoticed, then ambush them later. All I had to do was find a good corner to turn, wait until the right moment, then grab a human shield...
My face ran flat into the rock-hard stomach of a large suit. "Hello there, little boy." And with that he brought down his club on my head, leaving only darkness.
- - -
Darkness. I feel cold, ribbed steel beneath my body. Moist dew bit on every breath I drew. Around me were three siholuettes, each one holding a small glint in their hands. More cold steel, I assumed instinctually.
I tried to act as if I were still unconscious. Maybe they'd leave me for dead.
"Let me stick 'em now, boss" came a harsh voice. "I'll fix him up real nicely."
"We should sink him to the bottom of the river," another voice hissed, "Damn cop deserves it."
"Yeah! He's involving women and children in Family business, boss! Women and children!"
"Hush, all of you!" This next voice was stern, though forced. "Boss said he wanted us to keep the kid alive -- whatever."
"Whatever," they agreed, and the matter was dropped. That didn't mean that they were nice to me, though; as consciousness started to come back to me I found that my wrists were bound with bungee cords and my legs cuffed together. My fingers felt like cold sausages in a meat market. My face was pulsing with pressure -- a sure sign that I was a target of no little aggression.
And above it all was the smell of crusting blood, blood that caked on my chin as I tried to stay completely motionsless. One of the three shapes ran his knife along my side, dancing the tip over my important parts. "Man. I was looking forward to a little action. This one would be tender..."
"You would," the stern voice came again, "That's why you're part of the family. You do the dirty work so us dads don't have to."
"Someone's gotta do it." The man spat without turning his head, the phlegm landing right on my chin. I tried my best not to retch.
And suddenly they parted. A small shape came from the darkness, slinking along with a confident stride. "You didn't hurt him, did you?"
"No boss." The crazy man backed away so that the newcomer could look.
"Didn't hurt him my ass!" The Boss screamed. "He may be a cop, but he's still a kid. Get rid of these binds." He turned and looked more closely at me. "And get him a rag! He's _filthy_!" I turned and opened my eyes slightly....
To find Hernando!
The binds on my limbs were released, and then the feeling in my fingers came back. Not to say that it was a _good_ feeling, but at least it was something. A towel was tossed into my gut so hard that I had to double up.
"So sorry that we had to meet on such terrible circumstances," said the crime boss. "I wished it wouldn't have to be this way, Jimmy. Or would you prefer Victor?"
"Your choice," I spat. It didn't matter _how_ I acted to the man anymore; I was had. Why pull punches when you were already down for the count?
"Okay then, Victor." He looked to the moon, took a deep breath, and hissed it out in one long sigh. "You have crossed the lines of morality, you know. Your government insists that it will never use innocent children on the front lines, and yet you do exactly as they say. It is a tribute to the hiprocisy of society, it is.
"Save your speeches, Hernando. Just get to your point."
He nodded solemnly. "If this would have transpired only a few years ago, I may have simply let Squelsh here take care of your body for me. Wouldn't I, Squellie?"
"Yes indeed." His eyes glistened with lunacy, and I couldn't help shivering.
"Your petty law enforcement couldn't break the case like men, so they have to send a lone wolf in sheep's clothing," he shook his head. "Pathetic. That you had to befriend my Fernando to come close to the truth is a testament to how low an officer will stoop."
"I'm a private eye."
"Even worse, then." He walked slowly towards me, put a hand on my still-filthy chin, and wrenched my face to meet his. "You are no better than I, Victor. No better at all." The hand drew back and landed smack on my chin, sending fire down my spine.
I started to cry.
"Oh, is the big, tough kid going to wail now? Ism's he scared? Aww... that's so cute!" He turned to his cronies and nodded. They walked off, snickering. Hernando wanted to do this job personally, they realized; to help him out they left their wicked tools on the ground as they walked away.
"Cry some more," Hernando whispered, "It'll throw them off track." I was past the point of questioning; I cried my eyes out while the suits tromped off, trying to put on a good show. I didn't know what this man had planned, but if I played along I just might survive.
"Good boy," the crime boss said at last, "Good, good boy. Now lay there and stay quiet while I get some tools." Tools? It made me want to scream, though I knew that would only aggrivate him more. Besides, I was very tired...
"Here." the man tossed a folder into my lap. "I want you to do a favor for me."
"Well..." he blushed. "A second favor. I'm paying you back for the first one right now." I looked confused and he explained, "My son. You've done a great deal for my son."
He closed his eyes tightly, breathed deeply, and looked me right in the eye. "My son has been an outcast for years. Because I move from place to place so much he never had a chance to know anyone in the area, and those who seemed to gravitate toward him only asked for stuff. You... You let him be a friend to somebody."
"I don't understand."
"I can't bring you along, Jimmy --the cops would be all over me. But that doesn't mean I can't recognize a good thing when I see it. You've shwon me what Freddy _needs_ in his life: good friends and a good father who really is there for him. I've tried my hardest to be the good father, mind you, but... well..."
"Being a father is hard when you're a villian."
"Maybe that's it."
I sighed; who knew I'd be having _this_ conversation with a criminal? "It's not easy on this end, either."
"You're always gone..."
"...tied up with the business..."
"...out all night on a sting operation..."
Hernando laughed. "We're kindred spirits, you and I."
"Guess so," I responed, a little strength returning to my terrified body.
Then he nodded to the folder. "Inside you'll find a large portfolio of fabricated information. I'm going to turn myself in, get a plea bargain, and hopefully start anew. Maybe if I'm lucky they'll give me parole, since Freddy's in my care."
"What about the mother?"
"Family business," he frowned. "She didn't make it to his second birthday party."
"I started this whole deal to support a family," Hernando continued, "I didn't really have a better career choice on my horizon. For lil' Fernando, though, I was willing to take the risk. Sure enough I started climbing the ranks, and----"
"Why didn't you bow out?"
"When you're climbing the ladder, there are tons of pepole pushing you onward. It's impossible to get out unless you're killed or arrested."
"You'll go back to HQ and turn in those documents," Hernando said, "Then you'll take these two papers home to your children." Out came two black slips of paper; I looked at them quizzically. "They're black dots; they'll know what to do."
"You catch on quick," Hernando said, smiling. "The Tank should be ready to roll in about one week; I'll stall the cops until the important cases can get their time. After that the mafia can decide how they're going to use that Tank."
My jaw was touching the ground, I was so floored. "This is it, then."
"This is it. Tonight I turn myself in, then I start my new life."
"But nothing," Hernando put a finger on my lips. "This is the right thing for Freddy. As a father I'm sure that you understand."
"I'm not sure if I do."
"Everyone's gotta learn sometime, I guess." He turned away. "Walk straight away from the front end of the truck; there will be an unmarked van waiting for you. They're FBI. I've used you as barter for the first part of my plea bargain."
And before I could say anything else he was gone like a whisper on the wind. All I could do was turn and walk away, desperately confused, holding onto my children's dreams and Hernando's hopes.
- - -
I was home.
I was in my bed.
Dusk shined in my window.
"Good to see you again," my wife cooed, "I thought you had bit off more than you could chew that time."
Moaning, I brought myself to a seated position and tried to get my bearings. My body felt heavier, bigger, older. Of course; the FBI had given me my old body back. It felt so good to be back to my old self, let me tell you.
"You were carrying this when they brought you home." My wife presented a folder with two black dots clipped to the tab. "Said that you'd want it."
"Sure." it was the first thing I managed to say. The tone was almost dark, my voice felt so low.
I looked over the papers. My long-time partner sighed and tried to make herself look presentable. "I've been thinking about this, Mister V. You know, we do have money problems. And we haven't been in the most savory profession all of our lives. Then we went and had kids, and... well..."
My voice started to come back to me. "You don't think that it's right."
"Yes. It just seems like we're dragging our kids' feet through the mud. I mean, Randy never talks to us anymore and Krystle is so set on being a political activist that you can't even speak to her. We've let them drift away from us, Victor, and it isn't right."
"Gotta pay the bills somehow," I said, sighing. If only I could have some sort of break...
Then I opened the folder.
"Something wrong?" my wife asked, "You look awful pale..."
"The bastard," I whispered, pulling out a large package of stock certificates, "Wouldn't even let me consider him to be a bad man." There had to be a million in stock stowed in that portfolio, I guessed; more than enough to pay off my debt. Why, with that kind of money a guy could retire and do the important things in life!
Two important things, in fact. Two important things that had not seen priority for a long time indeed.
My wife looked over my shoulder and fainted. I probably should have fainted, though I was just laughing too hard to stop. "Kids!" I screamed, "Get dressed! We're going out tonight, you and me. We'll eat out!" The two came streaking by from the living room, where they were probably watching TV...
My son turned, sneering. "Yes, Dad?"
"We're going to buy you a new outfit tonight before we eat."
"How does Victoria's Secret sound for a good first stop?" His jaw dropped, and I winked. From there you could have knocked him over with a feather.
"Dad, you're the best," came Randy's reply.
"No problem, Dee" I responded with a grin. "And I'm saving the best for dinner: you and Krystle both."
"What could you mean----" I pointed to the black dots; he seemed to understand immediately. He couldn't get Dee ready fast enough, it seemed. I could only chuckle and ease my way out of the bed, still a little disoriented, but at least I was smiling.
Sure, the world could be a terrible mistress. My family was still broken up, but at least I knew how to fix it. We were out of the line of fire. I wouldn't need to dodge bullets to feed this family any more.
And, in a secluded corner of my mind, I was happy that Hernando was enjoying the same luxury.
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