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Prison does strange things to a man. No, not what you're thinking, but it does give a man an education. Leaves him with a sense that he can handle pretty much anything that comes his way. You have to survive; there are extremely limited options on the inside: you adapt or you wither and die. One thing you can't dispel is the feeling that you might end up there again someday, and regardless of the education, no one wants to take that round trip twice.
A light on Matt Spear's phone system blinked. He picked up and noted a hint of desperation in Trudy's voice. "It's Hannah again. She really wants to pick up some things from the house, but wants to talk to you first. What do you want me to do?"
Matt looked at the two police detectives who were sitting on the opposite side of his desk. Only one answer came to mind. It wasn't perfect, but it was all he had. "Tell her I'll call back. No more calls, Trudy. Not until I'm finished here."
What else could he say? “Hi, honey, I'm being interviewed in connection with an attempted sexual assault and theft, but don't worry. I know we need to work this stuff out. I'll be home in an hour.” No, that would wind her tighter than she was already. He wanted it to work with Hannah. He wanted it to work so badly. She thought it was too soon to get married, and he thought the time was just right. Where do they go from here? His lifestyle and business operation were a lot for anyone to take. And now this.
Before he replaced the handset, Matt pondered whether to put a call into Nathan Draper, his accountant and closest friend. He also doubled as Matt's legal advisor, especially since his release. Draper was the one who patched the whole appeal together. The other legal brains were either not smart enough or just didn't care enough. Nathan was both. He was smart and ruthless, with people as well as with information. Matt eyed the not-so-dynamic duo and felt confident enough to take them on solo. He placed the handset back onto the cradle.
"Couldn't have been easy on the inside, Spears, for a good looking boy like you, an ex-copper and all. What a welcome party that must have been," Detective Sergeant Miller said. "But enough chit-chat about sunny days gone by; let me see if I got your story straight. You asked Chantelle for money that you claim is a debt in your collection book. She's alone, she looks vulnerable, and you thought why not take advantage? Who'd care; who'd even notice? Just another junkie flake. That sound about right?" He smiled. Argument concluded, as if a confession would come on the back of that horseshit.
"Have you seen Chantelle?" Matt asked.
"I wouldn't touch her with your penis attached to the end of a long stick."
"That's not the point. We've had a complaint. We have to look into these things."
"Very civic minded of you. Look, Miller, I went to collect a debt for a client. The flake in question, Chantelle Christie, owes him a considerable amount of money. She didn't have it and said that the debt belonged to Rooster, her boyfriend, so I took an inventory of the lounge and kitchen. By the time I had finished, she was splayed out starkers on the rug like the five of clubs."
"Sounds like you're stalling to me. You expect me to believe that?"
Miller smirked. "You think you're so fucking clever."
"Define clever. You mean smarter than you? Then yes, clever." Matt kept his voice even.
Miller was an old school dirty cop. They had met many times back when Matt was on the force. Miller was the best detective sergeant that money could buy. Over the last few months, he had developed some form of bowel disorder and his weight had plummeted. He had taken on the look of a tortoise popping its head up from his oversized shirt collar.
But even Miller was an improvement over his sidekick. She was a new face to Matt and not an attractive one. Overweight, with a bad-fitting suit, and what looked like unmanageable facial hair. Think bulldog chewing a wasp.
"So what did you do with the parcel?" she asked.
"Where is it then?"
"I didn't take any parcel. When she did the strip, I got my stuff together, left a business card, and told her that if she didn't come up with a payment plan, and quick, I'd sequester goods to the sum of . . . Do I really have to keep repeating this?"
Miller took a sidelong look at Detective Bulldog. She nodded, which made Matt wonder who was in charge.
"Look," Miller coughed into his fist, "we need to find the package that was at that house. It didn't belong to her; it belonged to someone else."
The way he said, "someone else" made Matt want to call Nathan after all. In an attempt to buy time, maybe to look even the slightest bit interested, he dragged a legal pad out from the bottom drawer of his desk. Sliding the pad out revealed a marble, a spilled box of paper clips, his tanning salon membership card, and a pen. It was almost out of ink. He drew a doodle as if he was about to take notes--it passed the ink test--and then waited for the interrogation to continue. Maybe electrodes on the balls would be added to the next line of questioning.
Miller's flame-thrower breath continued, "You have clients; we have clients."
"The public? Taxpayers, you mean?" Matt asked.
"Sure, the public, but we also have members of society who ask us to look out for certain specific items."
"Like missing parcels? Surely you're mixing up policeman with postman."
Miller didn't respond but his constipated expression turned even more unpleasant. Red on positive, black on negative. Choose your testicle.
"What about the alleged rape charge?" Matt said.
"If the parcel turns up, I'm sure that'll go away." He used his hand in a shooing gesture.
Of course, it would. And everything would be nice and neat so everyone could go home and get their lives back on track. However, there was a problem. Matt didn't have the parcel. This package that Miller and Bulldog were banging on about wasn't in his possession. It was obvious that the package was important--Chantelle couldn't take her eyes off it, until she stripped--but he didn't have it.
Chantelle Christie was a skanky crack addict and Rooster was only a minor improvement. They must have been acting as couriers for some big time player. With these two cop clowns making a special guest appearance, chances are this parcel was worth something to someone. They wanted something to take back to whoever was paying to have it found. The only way of proving his innocence was to produce the offending item. Give them what they wanted or a lead to where it might be. No escape. Catch 22. Trying to prove a false positive.
Matt placed his feet onto the desk and crossed his ankles, admiring his new Adidas running shoes. Trudy was in the outer office taking calls--all from Hannah, he didn't doubt--as he wondered how to play these goons. He glanced at the safe in the corner. A few novels were stacked on top. They were worth more than the safe's contents. Inside, he kept two fake Rolex watches and a small stack of counterfeit twenty-pound notes that someone had once tried to pass off to him. As well as the above, another incriminating element was William's gun. William, Matt's father, had owned an illegal automatic H & K 9mm. After he died, Matt had kept it. Stupid, but it was in there and it seemed to be, along with the counterfeit cash, drawing heat.
"Is it in the safe, Matt?" the bulldog woman asked.
Good point. "Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but I can't get into the safe right now either way." Genius. They couldn't force him to open the safe, and he could give them the impression that he might have the parcel until he found out what was happening. The heat was dissipating.
"You may as well tell us what's in there then," she replied.
Her lips twisted into a grin, more like baring her teeth. Matt wrote a number along the bottom edge of the pad and tore it off, folding and sliding the scrap of paper towards Miller.
"What's this?" Miller asked suspiciously.
"If you need me to open that safe, then you'll need to speak to Nathan Draper. That's his direct number. He'll pick up."
"Then we have a problem." Miller said.
"We do?" Matt replied.
Miller stood and pulled on his topcoat, one that used to be a snug fit but now made him look like he was wearing a small shed. "Let's go," he told his partner.
"Don't you want to know why I can't get into it?" Matt questioned, leaning back in his chair.
Miller stopped in the doorway. "What? It'll diminish your super-powers? I've heard all the stalling bullshit that I can take for one day," he said. "Another ten minutes and . . . never mind. Mister Barbour can ask you for the package himself. You might need the freak after all."
Matt sat upright. The freak was how Miller referred to Nathan, never to his face, mind you. However, the word "Barbour," the very word alone, had weight. Matt had been trying to avoid Vincent Barbour for over five years although he knew they would have to meet one day. He wasn't ready yet. He wanted air, fresh air. Well, maybe not air, but he wanted something. Escape maybe. Permutations of leaving the country flickered through his head. He thought of the last time that he had seen Barbour. Matt and William had not spoken about it since then. "The debt's square," William had told Barbour, those fading words slammed around his head like a tennis ball that refused to lose impetus and die.
"Hang on, Miller. You saying this parcel belongs to Vinny Barbour?" Matt stuttered.
The fat lady decided to sing. "Yes. Now will you hand over the package?"
"I've already said--"
"Then we have nothing more to say." She stood and followed Miller through the door.
Miller and the woman walked past Trudy's desk and stopped. Miller turned and looked back through the open office door. "I heard you were having trouble with that pretty girlfriend of yours."
"None of your business." Matt shouted without looking up from a note he was scratching onto the pad.
Miller nodded and left. Whatever that meant.
Trudy swiveled in her chair and kinked an eyebrow. "What did they want?"
"The usual--money. Or some package from Chantelle Christie's place. Pair of idiots. They'll be back though."
She shrugged, "Want your messages?"
"Why not? The morning is going so well, why not ruin the rest of my day?"
She read off a series of gripes from clients or debtors. Virtually everyone had the same complaint, just from his or her own viewpoint. Clients wanted more money collecting and debtors wanted to offer less. It was the same negotiation week in and week out. This business had turned to crap. William insisted that it had always been like this. Being an ex-con, albeit a fully pardoned ex-con, and an ex-police officer limited his career options so here he was in this crappy inherited mess.
"Gyro," Trudy said. That caught Matt's attention.
"Wait, did you say Gyro?"
"Yes." She thumbed back through a couple of the NCR slips and produced one that contained a single name, a bit like Cher or Seal. This one had a mobile phone number written next to it.
Great. Gyro was Vicious Vincent Barbour's conduit to the world. A horrible machine of a man, a bit like a manhole cover, he was big, black, and if treated with a lack of respect, could do an awful lot of damage to your fingers.
"Any more calls?"
"Excluding the panicky ones from Hannah about picking up a designer dress."
"Then . . . no."
Business concluded, Trudy swished around and rolled back up to her desk, where quite happily in the presence of her boss, Matt, she carried on polishing her CV. She was always threatening to leave but never followed through. If she did, Matt knew that Buffalo Collections Inc. would be in deep trouble. She kept the whole ship from sinking and no one else in his or her right mind would take the amount of crap that she did, not for the salary that he paid anyway.
He dialed the number from the slip into the phone system and picked up the handset. It rang twice. "Gyro?" Matt said, trying to sound happy about making this call.
"Speak." His voice had that Louis Armstrong timbre.
"It's Matt Spears. You called?"
Pause. "Spears? Oh yeah. You in the shit. You been stealing from Vincent."
"Let me correct that. Miller thinks I've stolen something, a package or something, from Vincent." Matt hated saying that; it was like admitting he was a creep or another of Barbour's flunkies. "However, I don't have any parcels, letters, Christmas presents, or anything else of his. Hold that, I've just discovered some pictures of his ex-wife. They were in a periodical I found in a public restroom."
Pause. "You trying to be funny?"
"Just stating the facts."
"Be at Lucky Pierre's in one hour." Gyro said.
"I've got a personal training appointment and then I was planning on a tanning session."
"You sure are a funny guy. I heard that about you."
"You know what they say, he who laughs last thinks slowest."
"Just be there. And, Spears, be alone."
"I'm a little insecure about coming alone but my tan seems to be helping with my insecurities."
"That tan is the least of your worries. One hour."
Matt stared at the phone system. The lights were all dark, which was how he liked it, not a great indicator of the way business was going though. He dialed another number.
"Nath, it's me."
"How are things? You ironed everything out with Hannah yet?"
"I'm trying but she's not being very cooperative. Her parents really hate me and they keep telling her ... never mind all that."
"I have a fantastic best man speech. You are probably the only person I will ever be best man for, so I'm pushing things a little. This speech is so snappy that--"
"Look, Nathan, I'm sure it's a hoot. But I've just gotten a call from Gyro." Matt said.
Silence, then, "Why?"
"I'm getting the distinct impression that I'm being fitted up by D.S. Miller."
"Do you want me to write a letter or maybe pay him a special visit?"
"Not really. Vinny Barbour wants to see me in an hour."
Nathan didn't reply for a few moments. He wasn't usually one for hesitancy. If he hesitated, it meant something was very wrong. Then he spoke. "Extremely short notice and extremely poor manners, not to mention poor taste. I'll pick you up in ten minutes. Can you be armed?"
"Don't worry, old friend, I can."
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Barry Crowther has made his home in San Clemente Southern California. Originally from Manchester England. He has had short stories published, this is his first novel on the eBook platform. He continues to work and write on the follow up novel in the San Clemente sun with his three daughters, wife and chocolate lab Coney.