by Christopher Iozzo
The stocky, hammer-faced man sitting behind the wheel of his late-model sedan leaned forward on the steering wheel. Flicking a cigarette onto the sidewalk to his left, he looked up at the lighted window across the street to his right. For many people, especially during the past few days as the riots broke out, it would not be safe to sit in a parked car in this section of the capital city. Frank LaFoe was not concerned, however. This was his neighborhood, his world. He’d shown up just in time to see the light go on behind the sheer curtains in Elwood Ducksworth’s office up there on the second floor. Hardly a need for the light tonight, he thought, looking left at the multiple orange glows lighting up the western horizon over the building tops. He looked at his watch and wondered if one of those glows was the actual sunset.
Noting the time, he redid the math in his head. LaFoe had some severe constraints to deal with. It’s gonna be close to get all three of them before the axe falls, he thought. Still, he needed patience, he told himself. You can’t rush it on a night like tonight. No second chances.
The truth was everyone was running out of time but almost no one knew it. Just like every other day, he chuckled. LaFoe had chosen Ducksworth as the second of his four stops for two reasons. First, he knew Ducky would not be around before a certain hour and, second, once he gave his lieutenants their marching orders, there’d be little in the way of security to deal with at this hour. The need for swift action kept competing with the need to wait until the only door into the building under that lighted window opened and eight or nine men walked out.
Admittedly, Ducksworth was out of his way but LaFoe knew it to be the biggest score on his list. The last two stops were close to each other and headed north, out of the city. First stop was that little weasel Scarandolo who LaFoe was seriously considering ending after he took his stash and then up to the cusp of town to that push-over Hartsdale and his book-making operation. Right here and now, he did not think Ducky would give him a hard time if Frank got past his men. Elwood was the boss of this quadrant for a reason and he’d see the only play left to him.
Red light poured out of the doorway of Ducksworth’s establishment. Red, thought Frank, Ducky enjoys being a throwback. One after another, a line of serious looking men emerged from the brothel. Some broke right, others left, down the street to their assigned duties. The fifth walked straight across the street and hopped into the driver’s seat of the vehicle parked five spaces ahead of him and pulled off. The door shut and the street returned to its usual mix of shadow and yellow street light.
Opening the sedan’s door, LaFoe reached for the leather sap lying on the seat next to him. Old school, he grinned. His sap was eight inches long and flat. The thin, flat handle was bound in leather and contained a spring within. This gave it more impact force when swung. The handle spread out to a flat, circular striking surface containing a medallion of lead for weight, earning it the nickname ‘beaver tail’. When swung relatively lightly, the weapon was capable of injuring. When swung hard, it could break bones. It was, of course, illegal to possess one in the capital city.
Rising from the car, he dropped the sap into his inside left jacket pocket. He locked the car with a swipe of his hand down the door jamb and strode down the sidewalk. Coming abreast of the Blue Parrot Cabaret, LaFoe crossed the street and banged loudly on the steel door. Nominally, the joint was a strip club but everyone, except for the occasional stray, knew what the place was really about.
A slat in the steel door opened and a familiar eye appraised LaFoe. It said nothing.
“Tell Ducky I gotta talk to him.” He waited a second and then added, “Now.”
“Hey man, he just got here,” said the eye. “He got shit to do first, ’fore he can take visitors.”
“I’ll burn this place down, you don’t let me in,” LaFoe’s expression was humorless.
The eye hesitated for a moment. Finally, the slat shut and LaFoe heard the latch release.
The door opened to reveal the rest of the man on the other side. Reagan Whitaker filled the hallway. He did not look pleased. LaFoe knew him fairly well. Not too bright but slow to anger, steady and reliable, with good judgment. He had a good temper for working a strip club/brothel where alcohol and hormones mixed in unexpected and sometimes explosive ways.
Frank stood only five foot nine but was thick. Whitaker had more than six inches on him with an arm nearly as big around as Frank’s thigh. Reagan began walking down the narrow, red-walled corridor saying over his shoulder at LaFoe, “Shut that.” Frank heaved the door as he walked away from it. It made a clattering sound as it hit the metal jamb and the latch clicked back into place.
Emerging into the club, the two men confronted a bartender behind his island bar and two women spinning lazily around the poles located at either end of it. The customers consisted of three men at the bar who looked more likely to be there for the drinks and drugs than the show and two men sitting off alone in a back booth. The man in the booth facing LaFoe glanced over the other’s shoulder for a moment as Frank entered the club and then resumed his intent gaze at the man who held him in conversation. Reagan nodded at the bartender as they passed him and pointed up at the ceiling. The bartender took two steps farther down the bar and reached under it. The door the two men were headed toward opened before Reagan got to it.
This hallway was painted a deep blue and was considerably wider than the entrance. No need for a bottleneck here, thought LaFoe. Whitaker entered, stood to the side to let LaFoe pass and shut the door behind them. When he got to the stairs, LaFoe climbed the first step and then turned to face Whitaker.
Reagan said, “I buzzed him. He watched you come in the club. The door should be open,” giving his head a nod up the stairs toward the door at the top of the landing.
“Thanks.” Frank said. As Whitaker turned to go, LaFoe pulled out his sap, “and… Sorry.” He swung with medium force and connected with the back of Whitaker’s head with a dull slapping sound. Reagan collapsed in a heap in the hall, unconscious.
Now! Frank thought. Now! Move! Move! He took the stairs two at a time, not knowing if Ducky had cameras in this hallway. At the top of the stairs he grasped the door handle and twisted. It opened.
* * * * *
“So what’s it gonna be… Mr. D?” The two men’s faces were literally inches apart. Seconds earlier, LaFoe had burst into Elwood Ducksworth’s office, sap in hand, and knocked out both of Mr. D’s “bodyguards” with two swipes. He then climbed over Ducky’s desk as the man tried to retrieve a pistol from one of its drawers. Before Elwood could get a handle on it though, LaFoe hit him in the chest with a foot, sending him and his wheeled office chair clattering against the curtain-covered, bulletproof picture window beyond. LaFoe then lifted him out of his chair and pinned him against glass.
Dropping the sap, Frank lifted his right leg and pulled out a Smith and Wesson double-edged boot knife, placing the blade to the man’s throat. This action was followed by the demand for all the gold in Ducksworth’s office.
Still confused about this turn of events, all Ducksworth could manage was, “You wouldn’t!” Then, desperately confused, “This ain’t you, man!” he objected.
“Let me show you something Ducky,” LaFoe said. He pulled the man away from the curtains and whipped them open. He then slammed Ducksworth back in place.
“Hey!” Ducksworth protested as his head bounced of the lexan. He struggled a bit until LaFoe pushed the blade harder against his throat, bringing the man to stillness once again.
Frank paused, looking over Ducky’s shoulder for a second to take in the scene outside. To Frank, there seemed to be more orange glows rising from more quadrants of the Capital city than the past few days. Are the riots getting worse? he thought to himself. Maybe. Or maybe it looks worse because I know what’s coming.
Bringing his attention back to the man in front of him, “You see that out there?”
Elwood struggled not to grimace at the smell of LaFoe’s stale tobacco breath and twisted his head to take in the view with one eye. “Yeah? So? That shit’s been goin’ on for days, man.”
“Maybe so, but there’s something new in the air tonight, Ducky,” Frank said firmly. Then changing his tone, “I’m not stealing from you tonight Big D, I’m trading you.” LaFoe eased back slightly from Ducksworth. Ducky had a good four inches on LaFoe and maybe twenty pounds but LaFoe was certain, as soon as he’d laid hands on the man, that success had made him soft.
“And what’ve you got that I need?” Ducksworth demanded bringing his attention back to the man with the knife at his throat.
He’s got a lot of sand for a guy with a knife at his throat, LaFoe thought. A smile came to his face. “I’ve got this: the government’s falling. Tonight.”
Elwood blinked. Two heartbeats passed. Then, “WHAT?!” as the news registered.
“I’ve got my sources. The government fell already, in fact. The news is being held back until key people can make their escape from the city, or the country. We’ve got two hours, at most, until the news can’t be contained and the whole city—hell, the whole country probably—tears itself apart.”
“So here’s the deal, Elwood. You’re a piece of shit but you’re a smart piece of shit. I know that after the last two currency devaluations you lost a lot of your worth and that you’ve been collecting gold and silver from customers instead of cash whenever you could. I know that you have at least two stashes. You have a little one here for emergencies,” LaFoe nodded his head slightly back toward the center of the room indicating the office they were in, “and a bigger one, your real stash. So the deal is this: you give me the stash here and I let you walk out of this office with a two-hour head start on the rest of the world or I slit your throat right here and now and walk out that door alone. Your choice.”
The spot just under Frank LaFoe’s left ear began to vibrate and, within that ear, he could hear a low-toned ringing. “Great. Perfect timing,” he said to himself. To Ducky he said, “Elwood, you’ve got ’til the end of this phone call to make up your mind.” With that, Frank let go of Ducksworth with his left hand and tapped the spot that was vibrating under his left ear. “LaFoe,” he said.
LaFoe reclaimed his grip on Elwood’s suit, “Yeah… Who’s this?”
Frank’s eyes narrowed, “Yeah… ahhh… this ain’t really a good time,” he attempted.
“There’s no other.”
Shit, he thought. “Where are you?”
“The National Archives.”
That’s halfway across the goddamned city! he thought. “And this can’t wait?” No answer. “OK. Give me…” Frank paused and looked at Elwood Ducksworth. He could tell the man had made up his mind, “…twenty minutes. It’s bad out there.”
“Great. And Frank?”
“Bring your squad car.”
* * * * *
“Bring your squad car.” As LaFoe drove his unmarked vehicle across the city, trunk filled with four attaché cases of gold and silver jewelry, coins, heirlooms, and various other items, he wondered about the request. Bring your squad car? How else did he think I would make it across the city during a riot in twenty minutes? Better yet, why make a point of saying it?
LaFoe had, of course, gotten the loot from Ducksworth. Elwood was slippery and conniving and faithless but he was shrewd too. If the government had fallen, which it had, the only advantage left was to see it coming before anyone else and prepare. Ducksworth had been preparing for the worst in recent years by collecting gold and silver. His payoff to LaFoe gained this valuable information in advance of everyone else and continued his life. Two hours is a lot of time to prepare when all hell is about to break loose. Ducksworth had not only come to a decision during the time the phone call gave him, he’d formulated a plan and even helped Frank carry the cases to the car as he headed out to wherever his plans told him would be the best place to meet what was coming.
For his part, LaFoe really would have killed Elwood if it came to that. Elwood knew this too. The information was not free and only a co-conspirator could own it. During the few seconds of that phone call, Ducksworth had worked out that he was either in the-know or he was dead. Cop or no cop, LaFoe could not let that information spread before implementing his own escape plans. This truth was the reason LaFoe was considering killing Scarandolo at the next stop whether the man paid him or not. He’d never keep his mouth shut.
Bring your squad car? The last person LaFoe had expected to hear from on this night was Pickering. Dan Pickering had saved Frank’s life in the line of duty almost fifteen years ago. Pickering was a straight-laced cop who’d grown up in the suburbs and believed in the oath, believed in making the world a better place. LaFoe had grown up poor in this very city and had seen early on that one of the best ways to be a crook was to own a badge. He had managed to pretty much keep himself out of trouble during his youth in anticipation of gaining entrance to the police academy as an avenue to success. The two men had crossed paths once, coming at each other from opposite directions in life.
LaFoe was on the crooked end of a drug deal gone wrong. The two had met while LaFoe was lying on the ground, cocaine in a satchel next to him, a bullet in his chest, and Bobby Featherstone standing over him about to put another in his head. Pickering chanced upon the scene while on patrol. Not only did Pickering save LaFoe’s life by putting Featherstone down but he did not report the scene as he came upon it and LaFoe got a commendation instead of jail time. After the hospital photo-op and the decoration ceremony, they had never spoken again. LaFoe was left wonder about Pickering and why he had not turned him in.
Now, tonight of all nights, Pickering was calling in his marker. It could not be a coincidence. Not tonight. Could Pickering know what was coming? When Frank had said that this was not a good time, the response was “There’s no other,” and that troubled Frank.
LaFoe pulled up to the Archives to find a newer model Ford sedan parked on the sidewalk. No one actually lived anywhere around here and, though he could hear sirens and shots in the distance and see the skyline of the city behind him lit up in a fiery orange glow, LaFoe felt an eerie silence around him.
Popping the trunk, Frank pulled out his shotgun. He tapped his neck to activate his phone, and said, “redial last.” The connection was made and LaFoe said without preamble, “Dan, where are you? I’m out front.”
“Just come in the front door. It’s open. Take a left. I’m in the side atrium.”
The scene was nothing Frank LaFoe had expected. There were four dead bodies around the room. Three of them were normal looking punk kids with tattered clothes and odd haircuts, the kind he’d seen protesting on the streets the past few years. The fourth was an officer. The officer was propped upright against the wall and had a multi-pronged stainless steel device sitting atop his head. The whole atrium was wired with explosives. There was a detonator device sitting on a box about ten feet from the officer’s body.
Dan Pickering stood facing LaFoe as he came in the room. He too was taller than LaFoe. He still looked fit, LaFoe thought. Pickering was wearing casual civilian clothes and in his hands he held a small monitor. LaFoe saw this, along with the device on top of the officer’s head, and his heart sank. “Oh, shit,” he said. “Why’d you call me Dan? Tonight of all nights?”
“You’re the only one I can trust,” Pickering replied.
That was the last answer LaFoe expected to hear. “Me?!” he asked incredulously. He looked around the room again.
“You know that officer?” Dan pointed at the cop in the corner.
“No. Why? Should I?”
“Not really,” Dan shrugged. “I know him though. Pete Simpson. He was top of his class. Four-square, Internal Affairs, commendations, et cetera, et cetera… I shot him.”
“You…” Frank could just gape. This whole evening was beginning to go sideways on him.
“That’s why you’re the only one I can trust. You’re the most crooked cop I know. I can’t trust the ones I’m supposed to. Not after this,” he looked down at the monitor. “I was headed to work. They put out the call for all off-duty personnel about half an hour ago, right?”
“Right. I heard.”
“So I live out this way and, as I’m coming in, I see the lights on in the Archives. Just one room. It’s my job to stop and look, so I stop and look. They put the call out for everyone and that means big trouble, right? I parked out front and came in and, well…” He waved the monitor out in front of himself.
The hairs on LaFoe’s neck stood up and he felt a chill run down his spine. Definitely don’t like the way things are going, he thought.
He walked over, handed Dan the shotgun and took the monitor from Pickering’s outstretched hand. His right index finger hovered over the “Play” button on the screen.
The NXT-138, or NeXT Questioner, was a device the department had owned for about three years. The capital city was a test market. The metal device on the officer’s head had needles embedded within its six tips. These needles bored into the skull of the deceased and if the victim was recently expired, within about ten minutes depending on conditions, the NeXT Questioner could reanimate the memories and answer questions. The whole process was unsettling to witness or even watch on video because the victim’s mouth would move as the device worked off the victims artificially recharged electrical impulses and picked up the thought-words, playing them over the monitor’s speakers. A robotic voice synced with a moving corpse’s mouth did not make for a pleasant experience. Frank did not relish the idea of watching the video.
“Can you just give me the highlights?” he asked.
Pickering paused, thinking. “You’re going to want to see it after I tell you, but yes. That officer,” he pointed, “was setting the explosives. Those three,” pointing at the kids, “were brought here, dead, by him as patsies. I shot him when I interrupted his plans to blow up the Archives. He went for the detonator after I caught him. He was going to kill us both to achieve his plans.”
“And you have that on here?” Frank looked down at the monitor in his hand.
“OK,” Frank said and hit “Play.” The monitor showed a propped up Officer Simpson against the wall where he now sat. Down the right side of the screen there was a set of displays which showed the corpse’s temperature, synaptic response capacity to questioning, and the estimated time to signal degradation and session completion. On the device he could hear Dan Pickering ask, “What were you doing here?”
Simpson’s mouth moved. Roughly timed to its movements could be heard the artificial, emotionless male voice of the monitor, “Setting explosives to destroy the Archives.”
A surprised Pickering could be heard asking, “Why would you be doing that?!”
Simpson’s lips moved, “The government is falling tonight. There are secrets here that cannot see the light of day.”
“How do you know that? Who sent you?”
The corpse responded, “I am part of the Secret Keepers. I was tasked with this mission three hours ago.”
Now it was LaFoe’s turn to be shocked, he pressed “Pause.” He had a source high up within the government and he’d only heard about this news an hour ago.
Pickering interrupted LaFoe’s thoughts, “Now you know why I called you?”
“Huh?” Frank said absently.
“The government is going to fall and this guy is tasked with burning down the Archives to keep the secrets of some of the most corrupt people in government. If the public gets in here and goes through this building, who knows what they’d find?”
Focusing again LaFoe said, “Well, obviously, he and his buddies know what they‘d find,” nodding at Officer Simpson, “
“You don’t find this news unsettling? The government is collapsing!”
LaFoe managed to actually look a little embarrassed, “Yeah… well… I already knew about that.”
Pickering stared blankly at him for a full two seconds and then shook his head, “Of course you did. You’re you.”
Getting back on topic LaFoe continued, “You called me because…?”
“Because this guy is the most reputable kind of officer I know. Because he’s connected high enough up into the government to know that it is falling. Because he was sent here by someone to blow up this building. Because this guy says that all the Secret Keepers are clean cut, upright citizens. They are on the side of the authorities; they don’t deal in the seedy world of criminals. Because if this guy is hiding in plain sight as a reputable officer, I need to find the most corrupt guy I know. That’s you. You are the only person in the world I know for sure isn’t working for these guys.” Pickering paused, “And I know you’ll help me.”
Frank shifted uncomfortably at the allusion to owing Pickering his life. “Alright,” he said resignedly. “What else does it say?” handing the monitor back to Pickering.
“I’ve got the full ten minutes on this thing,” Pickering said, shaking the monitor at LaFoe. “He says that this group, these Secret Keepers, have been doing these various jobs for centuries. When I asked him how long, he says theirmythology tells them they burned the ancient library at Alexandria in Egypt to keep the information within it from getting out. The library wasn’t sacked by barbarians. When I asked him why, he said that governing is messy and people would not like it if they knew the truth. This group of theirs cleans up little messes mostly but when something like tonight happens they have to wipe the whole slate clean. He says the corpses were to be left here and made to look like an act of vandalism by amateurs had gone wrong in the aftermath of the collapse. He says he killed them in Century Park and brought them here. He says…”
“OK, OK,” LaFoe interrupted, raising his hands in the air for the man to yield. Pickering was beginning to sound panicked repeating what he’d heard, as if saying these things out loud made them more real. “I get it. This information is dangerous. It could change the country; hell, the world. I get it all. It’s personally dangerous for you to know and I get why I’m the only one you can trust. What do you need?”
“You know more about saving your own skin than anyone. You know how to operate in this environment. I need your advice.”
“That’s easy. My advice is to move on out of here and forget this ever happened. Or you could blow up the Archives and destroy all the evidence.” LaFoe was serious, then added, “Your choice, because you’re you, includes whether or not to tell the world what you discovered.”
LaFoe waited a moment for his message to sink in, “And my car? Why’d I need to bring my squad car?”
“Rumor has it that there are a few unassigned monitors making the rounds on the black market. I needed you to bring your squad car because I am hoping that you have another monitor in it.”
Frank stared at Dan. He did have monitor and it was unassigned. The monitors used to activate the NeXT Questioner were assigned to a select group of officers. Each monitor had to be keyed in biometrically with the officer to whom they were assigned. Once keyed in, their ownership could not be altered. Once data was recorded into a device, that data could be neither altered nor erased. These were failsafe measures installed to assure that the devices could not be tampered with. They helped sell the public on the inviolability of the use of such technology and the unimpeachability of the information collected.
Dan Pickering had obviously wanted to collect the answers to why he had just been forced to shoot a fellow officer when he strapped that device to Pete Simpson’s head. Now that he had landed himself into a whole other mess, he was desperate to get himself out of it unscathed. Both Pickering and LaFoe knew that the Secret Keepers would be able tell the officer had been scanned. The bored holes in the skull could not be hidden. From that evidence, it was a short walk to finding out how many NeXT Questioners were issued in the capital region and even less distance from there to approaching these officers and requesting their monitors. Two of the three choices Dan had to get himself out of this jam required a new, unrecorded monitor.
“I do have a monitor, unassigned.” LaFoe carried an unassigned monitor for the very reason that he thought he might one day have to swap one out to keep a secret. The cost had been astronomical even with the dirt he had on the man he’d traded for it. LaFoe would most likely not need a monitor in the future with the way things were going tonight so he said, “I’ll get it,” without protest.
Three minutes later Frank LaFoe handed Pickering a new, unassigned monitor that had cost him seven months of a policeman’s salary. They shook hands, calling it even. As he was leaving, LaFoe turned and asked, “Why didn’t you ever turn me in?”
Pickering paused and then said, “I thought about it after you passed out and I was waiting for the ambulance. It was a close call. That was a mess you put me in. The problem was ‘what is the greatest good?’ You’re a corrupt cop but, relatively speaking, you’re small potatoes. The damage the news about you would have done to the department after the Murray affair, the betting scandal, the resignation of the Commissioner and the rest of the bad press at the time just seemed like unnecessary fuel on that fire. Our popularity was already pretty low and corrupt cops aren’t really news to the department even though they might be to the public. Letting you slide seemed like the better choice.”
“That was the only answer I could work out after all these years but it’s good to know for sure,” said LaFoe. “Good luck with this new ‘greatest good’ question you‘ve got in front of you now,” he continued, glancing over at the four dead bodies. He nodded and continued toward the door.
“Thanks.” Pickering did not seem pleased at the decision he was about to have to make as he looked down at the new monitor in his hand. “Thanks, Frank.”
* * * * *
Walking toward his squad car, LaFoe took one last look over his shoulder at the Archives building. He was pretty sure that Pickering wouldn’t blow it up. Pickering was a good man and that came with strictures: he couldn’t commit an overt wrong. As LaFoe saw it, the choice for Pickering was to tell the world or to cover his own ass and hope the mobs made it to the Archives before the Secret Keepers learned their plan had failed, sending someone else to finish the job. Personally, LaFoe knew, he’d blow the Archives up. At times like these, life turned into a stark math problem. There’s no sense in taking the chance that someone would come looking for you, he thought. Especially not someone calling himself a ‘Secret Keeper,’ and especially not when you had the world’s biggest secret. LaFoe thought self-sacrifice was a noble concept to wrestle with in the abstract but in real life he preferred considering self-preservation.
Frank’s plan was to get out of the city for the first week or two of what was coming. LaFoe wanted to make it to at least the suburbs before the news broke. Suburbanites weren’t too bright and the new reality of their situation would take a while to sink in. While they watched their world end on TV, he’d get past them and out to the hunting cabin his cousin owned. His hope was to avoid the worst of the carnage. He knew from experience that when everything went to hell people go crazy and everything becomes too unpredictable. Once order was restored, no matter what type, or by whom, LaFoe could safely operate in the world again.
Frank began putting the shotgun back into the trunk and then looked once again at the western horizon with its multiple orange sunsets and thought better of it. It couldn’t hurt to leave it on the passenger seat, he thought. With that thought, he looked at his watch. Just under an hour and a half left, at most. Two more hoodlums to hit up before this world ends, he thought. He started the car and put it in gear, pretty sure Scarandolo would not see the next dawn.