Grundy Dopps, a sour-looking little pinch of white trash, waddled out of his trailer that morning somehow knowing it wasn't going to be his day. Unfortunately, this was one of those rare times that his intuition was right. His hay fever was killing him. An angry tumor of phlegm festered behind a nose that was rubbed so raw, it felt like he'd been wiping it with steel wool. The midday heat pushed the thermometer in his toolshed up past ninety-five. Everything was turned around. It wasn't supposed to be so hot this early in June, and the tree pollen wasn't supposed to be so thick this late in the season. Not in Colorado.
"Go figger it," he reasoned pitifully as he sneezed. "Very weird." More sneezes. "Everything's always so weird."
Then there was that call that woke him up earlier. The guy said he was an investigator for an attorney. Grundy had his doubts.
"My name is Soyko," the guy had informed him.
"You got a first name or is that it?" Grundy asked, holding a soggy handkerchief just inches in front of his nose.
"All you need to know is Soyko. We gotta talk, you and me." It wasn't a request. "Man who hired me said we should go over your testimony. Make sure you get it right and all that."
Who does he think he is? Grundy wondered. Even Jesus Christ had two names. At least two. And what does he mean, "get it right and all that"? Grundy'd forgotten the attorney's name, but he had a good idea what was coming down.
"Is this about that maniac, what's his name?" he asked Soyko. "Fred Borders? Him and his murder trial?"
No answer at first and then a slow "That's it" slid out of the receiver.
"Ta-rrefic," Grundy mumbled and shook his head.
Tiny Fred Borders was a three-hundred-ten-pound bouncer at the Dangle, a biker-strip bar in Commerce City, just north of Denver. A sadistic lush who smelled like stale beef jerky, Tiny had all the charm of a buffalo with piles. One night a few months back, an investment banker wandered up to the Dangle for a little brush with life's underbelly and tested the big guy. He got stupid drunk and tried to stare down the bouncer.
"Nice bib overalls there, Gomer. Lose your way out of Green Acres or what?" the banker muttered in Tiny Fred's direction. Then he looked around the room, snickering at his own cleverness, and added in a loud voice, "What kind of loony breeding experiment produced a bloated moron like him?"
Truth, of course, was no defense in Tiny Fred's astoundingly limited mind. The bloated moron sucked in his enormous gut and simply went berserk. He threw the drunk, paisley tie and all, out into the parking lot. At that point, the banker shifted into some indignant mode and began cursing. The clown actually was going to put up a fight. Bad move. When Tiny Fred Borders decides to throw you a beating, about the best you can do is assume a fetal position until he gets winded or until his nominal attention span wanders. To call what happened next a fight is like calling what happens at a slaughterhouse a hunt. Still, when Fred finally stopped, the banker was able to totter to his feet, navigate to his BMW, and drive off. As he left the parking lot, he managed what proved to be the last gesture of a truly foolish man. He flipped off Tiny Fred.
Enraged, the bouncer jumped into his pickup and chased the doomed investment banker. About three miles to the south, he forced the BMW off the road and into a deserted parking lot. It was at that point that Tiny Fred, by virtue of one swift tire-iron blow to the head, made sure the uppity Yuppie would diss him no more. Grundy witnessed the fatal blow from the back porch of his welding shop, some thirty yards away. He recognized Tiny Fred standing in the headlights from his own numerous trips to the Dangle. Grundy saw the perspiring bouncer casually wipe blood from the tire iron onto the lifeless banker's pants and kick his stomach one final time. Then Borders farted passionately into the still night air, got back into the pickup, and drove away.
Wisely, Grundy shirked his civic duty and slipped out of town for a few days. He knew that calling the cops would put him on Tiny Fred's vast shit list. Just ask the banker what that felt like. But, alas, Grundy got drunk a couple of weeks later and started blabbing in a crowded bar. An undercover Denver cop overheard him and Tiny Fred was subsequently arrested.
"Listen up, you little turd," one of the investigating officers had admonished Grundy only the day before Soyko's call. "This trial starts in just four days, and if you even think of taking off again or if your memory goes lame on us, you'll walk into a shit storm so thick you'll never get out. You hear that, Dopps? We got us a dead white man here and we ain't gonna let nobody mess up our case. No way."
As he waited for Soyko, Grundy still wondered if he'd done the right thing by not splitting. Standing in the tepid shade of his shop awning, the welder idly ran one hand over his belly. He had an enormous gut and nose for such a short man with such a skinny face.
Suddenly a black El Camino in mint condition pulled up. The vehicle had a lone bumper sticker on the front proclaiming in green Day-Glo that "Disco Heals." It was Leo Soyko, with some guy in dark shades driving. They pulled around to the back, near the porch where Grundy stood when he saw the banker's murder and where he was now, more or less, poised. The car engine shut off, and the two men inside spoke to each other while staring straight ahead. Soyko then looked off as a narrow smile crimped his face. He had been at Tiny Fred's preliminary hearing. It was a joke. The welder up there on the witness stand all cotton-mouthed and twitchy, ratting out the big guy like that. Plain to see he'd rather be strung up by his toes than testifying.
Tiny's attorney knew that the state would have no case without Grundy but it had a virtual lock if a jury ever heard his story. Hence, Soyko was sent, cash in hand, to make sure that wouldn't happen. The lawyer specifically said he didn't want Grundy Dopps within a thousand miles of the courtroom come trial time.
"This is the damnedest thing I ever heard of," Soyko had told the attorney. "You want me to give this little punk three grand to cover his traveling expenses? Maybe I should kiss him goodbye, too."
The lawyer just glared and again told him to get Dopps out of town.
"You know, this screwing around makes no sense whatsoever," Soyko now told his driver, Jacky Romp. "On three thousand like this, we could party serious. He wants me to just give it up like this guy's doing us a favor. It wasn't for him talking, Tiny wouldn't have all this grief. Just how do these jackoffs get through law school anyhow?"
"Beats me," Jacky Romp answered without actually moving his lips. He looked pained behind his shades. "No sense to it whatsoever, like you said. The whole thing makes me sick."
"This welder gives me any shit ..." Soyko let the unfinished thought hang there in the midday heat. He sat for another minute, then got out of the car, still smiling.
What's so funny? Grundy wondered as Soyko moved toward him. Here the guy comes slouching up, dressed like James Dean just out of prison: blue jeans, white sleeveless T-shirt, dark motorcycle boots. His black hair was combed back in a casual pompadour, his sideburns were long and thick but closely trimmed. He was squinting into the sun. Too macho for shades, Grundy reasoned. When he got closer, Grundy noticed that his eyes were small and incredibly dark: deeply intense but flat. Even with the wide grin, there wasn't a sliver of warmth or humor in those eyes.
Two other things about Soyko stood out. First was his wide brown belt with the huge buckle. Second was his left arm. The muscles were impressive enough, like rubber stretched over chains. But high up on it there was a tattoo of a rattlesnake wrapped in barbed wire, coiled and ready to strike. Above the snake's head were two simple words: "Make Pain."
Damned Elvis impersonator on steroids, Grundy thought, then quickly said, "You must be Soyko." He tried to sound calm. "I'm the owner here. Grundy Dopps." He extended his hand.
Soyko kept coming slowly, looking around as he moved. He was still fuming at the lawyer's strategy and he didn't answer at first. Maybe he'd just handle this thing his way. Save the man some money and crank up his own fee. And look at this goof trying to act like he's in control of something. It was at that point that Soyko decided to free-lance.
Grundy neither expected the kick nor saw it coming. Soyko shot his right foot into the welder's unprotected groin so fast out of his casual stride, and Grundy fell so quickly, that it looked like the two men had rehearsed it. The air rushed from Grundy's lungs, so that when his knees hit the ground he was sucking hard. His hands instinctively shot downward to protect his aching balls, which had retreated inward in pain. He didn't fully understand what happened but a look of terror swept over his face. That was all Soyko needed to see. He swung his shoulders a bit to the right, and as he came back he let the welder have a solid backhand, two rings and all, to the side of his face. Grundy let out a scream and Soyko knew that somewhere behind him Jacky Romp was smiling.
"Let's us go over your testimony, pal," Soyko said. His thick smile remained despite what he'd just done. "We're not happy with it. Not at all. Guess you can understand that."
Tears gushed from Grundy's eyes as he struggled to get his breath back. The slap knocked him on his side on the filthy porch floor. He looked up at Soyko and squealed, "What the fuck you do that for?"
"If we're not happy, no way you're gonna be happy." Soyko waited a beat and then reached down and grabbed Grundy's neck with his left hand. "Let's get you up here."
There was just a trace of sympathy in his voice. His other hand snatched the front of Grundy's shirt as he guided him to a folding chair a few feet away. When Soyko got him situated on the chair, he stood over him. The smile was gone. His jaws clenched to indicate that maybe the worst was ahead.
Grundy felt blood rushing to his wounded crotch and he felt more blood flowing down his cheek. His nuts, along with the left side of his face, were swelling fast.
"I didn't want to tell them anything. Christ Awmighty, I didn't." Grundy's voice was shrill, tearful. His stomach was on fire. "They heard me say what I did about that Tiny guy and that was it. What am I supposed to do? Lie up there on the stand? They got me on record from that hearing. I change my story now, I'm totally screwed. Totally! They told me that already. You wouldn't believe the heat I'm getting from the cops. I can't lie up there on the stand."
The logic seemed highly reasonable to the welder as he spoke.
"No, we can't ask you to lie." Soyko sounded convinced, but he frowned. "You ain't getting up on no stand. That's guaranteed."
There was a finality in his voice that terrified Grundy even more. "I'm not?"
He was whimpering loudly now, and the sound infuriated Soyko. Little piece of garbage don't even know enough to protect his own balls and he thinks he's going to put Tiny Fred away, Soyko thought. Not in a million years.
"You're not. You're gonna be taking a long trip to somewhere very far away. Tomorrow night I'm coming back out here, and if you're still in this same time zone, I'll rip off your head and piss in your neck. You got that?"
A splinter of hope rushed through the man in the folding chair. Maybe there's a way out of this. He tried to focus. "I can't just leave, can I? I mean, I can't just ..."
Soyko's jaw clenched harder. "You can if you want to keep your head attached to the rest of that lard-ass body. I'm not so sure I'm getting through to you. Take maybe two minutes to think about it. I'm going over to the car out there, and when I get back, let me know what you decide."
With that he turned and moved fluently back to the El Camino. He went to the driver's side and leaned in, his face close to Jacky's.
"I'm saving everybody three grand. This guy's so scared, he leaves town, it's with his own money."
"He giving you some grief?" Jacky never really moved his lips.
"A little. Probably too much. He's still asking all these stupid questions. Some guys're more dense than others. Maybe he's one of them."
"What next?" Jacky wanted to see if Soyko was done being nice.
"You're right." Soyko looked at Grundy as he spoke. He and Jacky had worked together for years and had been through enough jobs like this that they had their own shorthand down solid. "Done wasting my breath." Then he started back toward the porch.
Grundy was breathing almost normally, and his thoughts were clearing. Maybe this insane dude would let him go with just the warning. Could he leave town for the trial? The question rushed through him furiously. By now Soyko was again in front of him, and the welder didn't know what to say. He was about to learn that this was no time to improvise.
"You done with your travel plans yet?" Soyko was smiling again.
That alone made Grundy recoil slightly, his hands moving automatically toward his groin. "I don't know. Those guys are gonna be really pissed when I get back. I miss the trial, they'll go ape shit on me."
The smile disappeared. "Let's us go inside and talk for a minute. You got any beer in there?" He nodded toward the shop door a few feet away.
Man wants a beer, Grundy thought. That's more reasonable. More like it. "Sure thing." He got up slowly and walked, huddled forward. When they got through the screen door, he turned to ask his visitor to sit down.
Soyko knew what had to be done, and he did it with few wasted motions. First, he grabbed the limping welder by the back of his neck. He squeezed so tight that Grundy couldn't see for a second and a harsh, gagging sound blurted from his throat. Soyko then reached down to his belt buckle and clutched it, moving his hand around. The welder was confused. Soyko shook his right hand, releasing the buckle head from the belt itself. It was a unique buckle, highly illegal. The head came loose from the leather, and when it did a four-inch blade slipped into view. Grundy could barely believe it. The blade must run behind the leather next to the buckle, hiding it.
Soyko lifted the blade to his chin level. Grundy felt warm urine flowing down his leg, but he had no idea where it came from. That was the last thing he ever felt, because Soyko thrust the pointed blade into his throat far too quickly for him to register any real pain. It cut his windpipe and slashed open an artery: either one could have killed him. A stream of blood shot out into the air for several inches, and Soyko knew Grundy was dead by the time he hit the floor. He'd seen it before.
"Tiny's trial is gonna go a whole lot easier from now on," he told Jacky Romp when he got back to the El Camino. "That's guaranteed."CHAPTER 2
Streeter knew that when you step into a lie, no matter whose lie, the same thing always sticks to your shoes. And what he was faced with now was nothing but pure, grade-A, designer crapola. From down the hall he could see the blonde take off her cervical collar and drop it next to her blood-burgundy, ever-so-stylish Prince gym bag. Then she grabbed her squash racquet and started bouncing it off her fingertips. Slow and relaxed, not even looking at it. Hot-shit boredom on her face, her hip cocked out like a naughty girl jock. She shot out her tongue for an instant, and the guy with her shook his head and laughed.
"Calvin, do you really want to beat up on a defenseless cripple like me?" She wore an innocent pout as she spoke. "But I guess I'm not supposed to say 'cripple' anymore, am I? Nowadays it's 'unabled' or 'differently capped' or 'structurally challenged.' Or whatever they call it so as not to make people feel like they're less than perfect. I can't even keep track of all the euphemisms we're supposed to call each other."
"Whatever they call it, I hardly think of the word 'defenseless' when I look at you," Calvin answered. "And that's even if you actually needed that collar."
With that, they both walked into the polished court.
Streeter touched the camera in his gym bag for assurance and headed down the hall. Clearly, the blonde hadn't seen him. The muffled smack of rubber balls on hardwood echoed around him. Subdued, almost eerie lighting engulfed the hallway. On both sides there were small doors with slit windows, like some kind of upscale prison in a Nike commercial.
He wanted to give the couple time to start their squash game, so he stopped in front of a tinted, one-way window looking into an empty aerobics room. Catching his reflection in the glass, he straightened his shoulders. Although he was pushing forty-two and he was just over six feet tall and weighed a solid two hundred ten pounds, Streeter still had the childhood habit of slouching. He also noticed that he should consider getting a trim. His thick brown hair was long and combed straight back. No sideburns. He kept his hair clean and combed. The ends fell nonchalantly far over the collar of his pale-blue Oxford shirt. He wore it long enough so as not to look corporate but still kept it neat. With his high, prominent cheekbones and clear, tan skin, he looked pleasantly rugged, but not pretty.