Hands thrust deep in the pockets of the absurd checkered hunter’s coat—protective coloration in northern Minnesota—Charles stared at the campground. Gray ash, blown into ripples, exposed an old campfire ring. On the edges of the clearing the ash melded into gray hills, low and still in death. Black spikes, the last rebellion of living trees, thrust up through the misery of destruction.
Giving God the finger, Charles thought. Never a good idea. Like most Catholics, Charles prayed to Jesus and Mother Mary when he bothered to pray. Jesus was in the redemption business. Not God; God was in the smiting business.
“What’re we gonna do, Dude?”
Charles slid his eyes toward the Fox River. The fire had been stopped by the water. Its final act of destruction was the campground. On the far bank, vegetation was a lush mockery; verdant greens, rich golds, and loud reds thrust out over the water like so many jeering faces.
“What’re we gonna do, Dude?” repeated the goon, slouching between Charles and the river.
Known facts automatically played in Charles’s mind: Sean Ferris, small-time muscle. Philadelphia, Chicago, then Detroit. Served three years for rape. Obedient, loyal. Attack dog. Ferris was old for this work, and fat. The black leather coat and pointed-toe boots stuck him in the sixties, too overdone even to pass for retro.
Charles took his cell phone from the pocket of the blanket coat and pushed the number three.
“Calling Mr. Big?” asked another of the goons Bernie had stuck him with.
James R. Spinks, forty-one years of age, out of Detroit, Michigan, connected to what passed for Mafia. Scum for hire. IQ of 84. Went by the name Jimmy. Grown men who liked to be called by little boys’ names needed to be hung by their tiny dicks, Charles thought.
Bernie picked up on the second ring. The fool must be hunched over the phone, waiting for news of his cunning foray into crime.
“Campground is burned,” Charles said. “Nothing to acquire.” The job was supposed to be a clean smash-and-grab. Bernie, Mr. Big, hadn’t done his homework. The fool actually believed Charles had no idea who was the so-called brains behind this caper. Bernard Iverson, forty-six, Edmondson, Canada, marine equipment, massively overextended, net worth five million dollars and still not worth the bullet it would take to kill him.
“One second, please,” Bernie said.
Unblinking, Charles waited, listening to a clatter that suggested Bernie was using his cell phone as a hockey puck. He gritted his teeth, his jaw muscles bunched into hard knots. This was the only outward show of emotion he allowed himself. Humans were masters at reading faces. A second’s hesitation, a flick of the eyes, a smile at the wrong time telegraphed weakness. Even people who didn’t understand what they were seeing retained enough feral instinct to home in on any chink in the armor. From that day forth they hammered at it until the chink became a crack and the crack a break. Once the soft flesh was exposed they went for the entrails with talons and tongues as sharp as harpies’.
The only earth the meek inherited was six feet down and capped by a stone.
A final scrimmage and Bernie was back. “There’s a second campsite about four miles north on the same side of the river. It looks like it didn’t burn. They probably stopped there.”
Charles kept waiting. Four miles, no trail, probably: not good enough. The whole setup was Mickey Mouse. Bernie didn’t know Charles, but Charles knew him. Michael had once said the so-called Mr. Big was nickel and dime, undermining unions, cutting corners, slighting on materials. That was why they’d bought him out. When it came to fundamental criminal activities, Charles doubted if he could steal a peek at a nudist camp. Given half a day, Charles could have come up with a better crew than Bernie’s bottom-feeders.
“I’ll get a bird’s-eye’s and call you back,” Bernie said finally.
Charles punched the disconnect. Jimmy, dressed in a coat identical to the one Charles wore, but with a matching hat and earflaps, spit a stream of tobacco juice into the ash. Mostly into the ash; a drop or two of spittle remained in the Ted Kaczynski–style beard he sported.
“What’s the deal?” Jimmy asked. His teeth were stained brown.
Charles looked away. “The target may be four miles upriver. The pilot’s doing a flyby. We wait here until we have a positive ID.”
“Then what?” This from Reg.
Reginald Waters, African American, thirty-one, Detroit. Ex-gangbanger, low-end drug dealer, con man. Into bookies for a hundred and seventy-three grand. Last call for repayment before the bad boys came for him.
“If the target is located, we move to acquire it,” Charles said without looking at Waters. Eye contact was an invitation to intimacy. Flee, fight, fornicate, or, Charles’s least favorite, ask stupid questions. Open honest intercourse was not a paradigm for leadership that appealed to him.
“Even with others he works alone.”
Charles’s brother had said that. A photograph of Michael clicked onto the screen in Charles’s mind, the black-and-white glossy taken for his senior yearbook. Next to it appeared the picture of the target lifted from the Internet.
Payback is going to be a bitch, Charles promised his little brother.
Copyright © 2014 by Nevada Barr