I pulled into the Nineties Bar on Woodward Avenue. It had a newish and very gaudy neon-lighted sign over the front door. There was an older one painted on the side of the building. Apparently the paint hadn’t been all that high a quality, and, it had faded with time. The word that the paint was attempting to cover up was—“Gay.” Yup, the old drinking establishment had been around a whole lot longer than the newer meaning of the word. The Gay Nineties Bar was now shortened to only two words, so as to not be mistaken for one of the many area saloons that catered to a very different crowd.
Times change, I guess.
The bar was a pretty good one. Soft lighting and soft music. Plenty of room in the back. Brick and I were in one of the booths. He was enjoying a Coors. Me, I was sticking with my Diet Coke. I had to admit in the past several months I had become quite an addict to the drink. Seemed I have a pretty dependent personality. Still though, a measureable improvement over the hard stuff.
At least I hadn’t wanted to put a bullet through my brain lately.
Brick was on number two. I was nursing mine a little more slowly. Sitting across from the man at close range, I noticed for the first time his absolutely penetrating and piercing blue eyes. When the man spoke, he had the somewhat disconcerting habit of looking directly into your eyes, and nowhere else—not even a glance. Yet for some reason I was absolutely convinced that he was probably well aware of everything that was going on around, and behind him.
Brick was an intense conversationalist. He could really nail you with those peepers. I suspected that in his time, he probably hadn’t been too shabby as an interrogator. I also suspected that was just exactly what he was trying to do with me right at the moment.
“I have to admit, Johnny, that I did a little research on you before accepting this job. I started out on Google. I didn’t think there would be that much to find, but then I hadn’t ever heard of Jack McGuire. Seems he has a pretty good-sized fan club.”
“Please don’t tell me you read one of the books,” I laughed.
“Tried to. But to tell you the truth, I couldn’t get that interested. No cop on Earth would do half the things McGuire does.”
“Well, Brick—to tell you the truth, all my cases haven’t exactly been fictitious. I’ve solved one or two with some pretty unconventional methods.”
“Like what?” Brick deadpanned.
“Like with psychics.”
“Psychics like Matt McCabe?”
I was startled. I thought Brick and I were starting off with a brand-new clean sheet of paper. It was turning out to not be the case.
“How do you know about Matt McCabe?” I demanded.
“I know more than just about McCabe,” he deadpanned again, taking a slow swallow of beer. “I know about the watch too.”
Now my surprise was total and turning into a full-blown panic. “That son-of-a-bitch!” I nearly shouted. Several heads at the bar across the room turned to look at me.
“Who’s a son-of-a-bitch?” Brick calmly asked.
“Howard Carter—that’s who. He never could keep his damned mouth shut.”
“Howard Carter hell, Johnny. Do you think you’re living in a vacuum, carrying around a thing like that? You seriously think that’s going to stay a secret for long?”
“Johnny, Johnny, Johnny,” Brick intoned condescendingly. “You’re playing in the big-leagues now. You need to up your game—or you’re going to get your pink little ass killed real quick.”
“Someone’s been trying to kill my pink little ass for most of my life. So far I’m still doing fine.”
“So far you haven’t met Saal Moradi.”
“He’s that good?”
“He’s better than me—and please don’t bother to tell me that you don’t know that I could kill you right here where you sit in this booth, take that damned watch out of your left-side jacket pocket, and walk free and clear out the front door in the next thirty seconds.”
“Or, I could just hand it over to you and save you the trouble,” I said, screwing my face into what I hoped was my best-ever, number one, first-place snarl. “That is, if you’re really as bad-assed as you seem to think you are.”
Brick just faintly smiled. “Keep it. I don’t want the damned thing. And I’m telling you this right now, buddy—you don’t know what the hell you’re playing with. You’ve got a stick of dynamite in your pocket, pal—and the fuse is already lit.”
“Who the hell are you anyhow?” I asked.
“Just a small-town cop—that’s all.”
“My pink little ass, you are. I’ve never known a small-town cop in my life that wasn’t armed to the teeth, just to make a routine traffic-stop.”
“I tried the gun thing, Johnny. It didn’t work out so well for me. Sometimes with guns the wrong people get dead.”
“And that’s why you don’t want the watch, isn’t it? You’re afraid you’d go back in time to fix whatever the hell happened to you way back when—and that’s just too much for your sweet little goody two-shoe heart to bear—right? Besides, that would ruin what is undoubtedly a terrific sob-story.”
Brick had been starting to take a sip of beer, but the mug never made it to his mouth. He slammed it down loudly and hard on the table-top, slopping beer out onto his hand. This time more faces turned toward us, and the bartender stopped what he was doing to eye us warily. I could see the muscles in Brick’s face bulge and strain as he fought to regain control. In short, I could tell I had hit a nerve, and I could also tell, with absolute one-hundred percent certainty, that he could have killed me right at that moment if he had wanted to. I had just seen him in action, and as close as I was to him, it would have been no contest. Wasn’t the first time I looked death in the eye, so I did what I usually do under the same circumstances—I laughed in his face.
It could have gone either way for a few seconds, but I guess I was slated to live long, prosper, and fight another day, as Brick’s features relaxed, and a slow smile came to his face.
“You’re a ballsy little bastard—aren’t you Johnny?”
“Thanks. I like to think so. Now you start talking, Mr. Brick. Just who the hell are you—and why are you here?”
“Eleven years ago I was a small-town cop, Johnny. Deadwood, South Dakota. I worked for a man by the name of Harold Wiggins. Chief Wiggins was my friend, my boss, confidant, advisor, and father-confessor—all rolled into one. He was the best man I ever knew, and he’s the reason I’m alive and sitting here talking to you right now. He was also friends with your Mr. Carter. They went back a long way—like they were in the Police Academy together since the beginning of time. That’s how I got this gig. Harold recommended me.”
“Still doesn’t explain how you know about the watch,” I observed.
“That I can’t tell you, Johnny. But it didn’t come from Carter. Carter’s just another little fish in a great big pond. A pond big enough to contain a Great-White Shark or three. You’ve got to learn to think a lot bigger, Johnny. You’re not in po-dunk, Washington anymore.”
“That’s pretty cryptic, Brick.”
“Well, that’s as damned good as it gets—for a while anyway. What’s important for you to know, Johnny, is that if I know about the watch—Moradi knows about it too. And trust me when I tell you, that’s real bad news. You think he’s gonna give you a chance to reach into your little pocket, go back a second or two and blow him away—well if you do, that would make you just about as crazy as a double order of steroid-laced bat-shit.”
“What I’m pretty sure you’re trying to tell me, Brick, in you uniquely poetic way, is that he’s going to be hunting me—right?”
“Wrong, Johnny. What I’m trying to say is that he’s going to be hunting us. We be partners now—remember?”
“How long we got?”
“Twenty-four to seventy-two hours—tops. Detroit and Dearborn are really small towns, Johnny. At least at the heart of it they are. In the Arab-American communities, everybody knows everybody.”
“You still didn’t answer my question, Brick. Why you?”
Brick paused a few seconds, then began. “When you faced down the eight-ball killer, Johnny, you took a bullet for your efforts. They had to dig it out of your spine. And yes, I know about your bad legs too. But you gave it back to him Johnny. You killed his sorry ass. Well, I’ve got a bullet in me too, Johnny. One they could never take out. Right up next to my main heart-valve. Removing it was a fifty-fifty shot at life or death, Johnny. I told the docs to leave it the hell where it was. A damned good reminder. A real nice semi-jacketed hollow-pointed bullet. Fired out of a real sweet short-barreled stainless steel .357 magnum revolver.
“Yeah, Johnny. Moradi. I’ve been looking for him for a long time now. I want to give him back his bullet. Figuratively speaking of course. I’ll be real happy to see his ass swinging from a rope—after I walk him up the gallows steps, that is.”
“Nobody executes by hanging anymore, Brick. You must still think you’re in the Wild West.”
“Some places still do, Johnny. Some places still do.”
I thought he was probably speaking metaphorically, but I made a note of the comment for further research.
“What your edge, Brick?”
“Thought you’d get around to asking that pretty soon, Johnny.”
“You’re here because you have the watch, Johnny—that’s your edge. And that’s the only reason you’re here. I’m here for one reason too—because I am the only man on Earth to have seen Moradi’s face—and lived. I can pick him out of a crowd.”
“When do we start?”
“Tomorrow morning. Bright and early. You, me, and Shahida Faris.”
“She up for this?”
“She’ll have to be. She has an edge too. One you and I can’t begin to match.”
“And that is?”
“She speaks six different languages—fluently. Arabic is one of those,” Brick responded, as he rose from the booth and tossed some money on the table.
“Drop me off at my motel, Johnny. Pick me up at nine in the morning. We’ll go get Faris at her house. Then we starting combing streets and asking questions. Apt to get pretty damned hot—right after that.”
“Moradi’s the trainer. What about the two doers?”
“Don’t sweat them too much, Johnny. They’re just a couple of candy-asses compared to Moradi. Once he’s out of the picture, we’ll put them down easy enough. And by the way, Johnny—you got some bad information. Moradi’s not the trainer. That’s a woman—generally known as ‘the Ice Queen’. She’s a stone bitch, but not that big a deal. Moradi’s the guard. The sentinel. He’s the one we need to get to first.”
“Why don’t we bait him and let him come to us?”
“Don’t know how you city-boys hunt bears, Johnny—but out in the country, where I come from, we don’t generally do it by smearing ourselves with bacon grease, honey, and blue-berries and sitting naked out in the woods.”
“Point well taken. Where you staying, Brick?”
“Well, it’s not the Hilton—that’s for damned sure. It’s the Motel 6. Right on your way.”
We left the Nineties Bar together, still partners and friends—but not all that gaily either.
I pulled the Town Car into the Hilton parking lot at about eight o’clock. The valet kid was long gone, replaced by a middle-aged man. He took the ten-spot I pressed into his hand and mumbled a thank-you. Once inside, I stopped off at the front desk and was gratified to find that at long last my Michigan State Concealed Weapons Permit had been delivered by the police. The desk-guy handed me my two weapons from the safe—both discreetly wrapped in brown paper—I stuffed one in each pocket of my overcoat. Thanking him, I turned and started up the stairs to my second-floor room. I guess I could have taken the elevator, but it was only a short climb, and I rather liked the ornate stairway.
Barely reaching the top, I was about to turn down the hallway to my right when I heard the voice of the check-in guy calling my name. He had come out from behind the desk and was standing nearly at the bottom of the stairs. I retraced my steps back down.
“Sorry to bother you, Mr. O’Brien, but I’ve just taken a call for you at the front desk. The caller said it was extremely urgent and told me to go and get you and not transfer it to your room. He’s on the line now.
I had to admit that I was a little disappointed in hearing that the caller was a man. I had spoken to Maggie only once since I arrived, and intended to call her again as soon as I got to my room. I had hoped it might be her—but as it was, the call was only likely to delay me a minute or two. More than likely it was either Brick, having forgotten to tell me something, or Howard with some news from the home front.
I made my way to the desk where the clerk handed me the phone. “O’Brien here,” I said, and waited for a reply. Nothing. Absolutely nothing, and nobody was on the other end of the line. At least no one that would identify themselves. Listening carefully, however, I was pretty sure I could make out breathing. I spoke into the receiver a couple of more times, and getting no response, handed it back to the clerk.
“Guess they had the wrong number,” I explained. “If the same person calls back, please just transfer the call to my room, regardless of what he says, okay?”
The clerk nodded his head affirmatively as I turned once more toward the stairs. That’s when my world was ripped apart—as a giant blast tore through the entire second floor of the hotel, and I was thrown a good fifteen to twenty feet through the air. I landed hard against a wall as all of the wind went out of me.
The sound of screaming came slowly to my ears. I must have been out for a few seconds, as I finally became fully aware of my surroundings.
It was like a nightmare. I had been in two explosions before—both propane. That stuff was bad enough. But this—this I had never encountered before. The destruction was nearly complete. I could actually see moonlight and clouds through what had once been a solid wall of the building. This had to be the work of plastic explosives. This was destructive efficiency—on steroids. A lady was slowly getting to her feet just a short distance from me. She had been thrown down the stairs. Her body was blackened and burned, and smoldered as she staggered forward in a daze. I tried to rise to help her, but my legs were temporally useless—gone out from under me, same as so many other times in the past. Another man sat on the floor maybe thirty feet away—holding a bleeding stump of his arm and crying. I realized there was nothing I could do for them. Certainly ambulances would soon be on their way.
Somehow I needed to get away from the spot I was in and get to my car. This was no accident, and I was certain that there was going to be more to come—and very soon. I needed to get out of here and get to Brick and Shahida. They could be next. Our plan was obviously going to need to be reworked. Our twenty-four hours or so no longer existed. Brick had been one-hundred percent correct in his assessment of the situation. As it turned out, even he had badly under-estimated Moradi.
Brick was right. I very much needed a different mind-set.
Finally I got my legs under me again, and I headed for the front door, shaking my head as I went and trying to get some hearing back into my blast damaged ears. Smoke was beginning to billow down what was left of the staircase and fill the lobby. I could hear sirens rapidly approaching—firemen, no doubt, that would be able to quickly quell the smoke and flames.
At last I cleared the doors and was slightly revived by the cold night air. I could see the Town Car parked a short distance away. The second set of keys were still safely in my pocket, so I avoided the valet shack completely and headed straight for the car.
I was approximately a hundred feet or so away from it when the second blast again took me completely off my feet and slammed me down hard onto the concrete. Vaguely, I remember rising up on one elbow and trying to understand what had just happened. That’s when I noticed the Town Car—now a virtual ball of flame and almost totally destroyed. The gas in the tank was contributing to the inferno. Another bomb had gone off underneath of the car. A car that I would have been sitting inside of if my bad legs had only worked a little faster. For once, my bum-spine had saved my life—instead of making it more miserable, as usual.
I lowered myself onto my back. The last thing I remembered seeing was the moon in the sky—on a surprising clear night, after a day of clouds and snow. And then I went unconscious.
I would stay that way for the next several hours.
* * *
This installment ends the Part One of THE RECKONING. Johnny O’Brien, et al, are going to be taking a little time off while a new non-fiction book begins on these pages. It is going to be called DEATH AT THE SUPERMARKET, and no, it’s not a murder-mystery, although quite a killer. Written by Larry the Fish Guy, this informative and entertaining little book will detail the troubles, travails, and downright dangerous things just waiting to take you and your loved ones out at the supermarket. Important, and interesting stuff. We invite you to read along. DEATH AT THE SUPERMARKER, and THE RECKONING, will be alternating for a while.
Let’s try this out, and just see how it goes.
As always, thanks for reading . . . and have a GREAT day!
Dumb Joke of the Day: