CHAPTER 45

Avi Stern arrived in a tan trench coat and a grey loden hat. “Who’s he supposed to be?” Ryan muttered. “Sherlock fucking Clouseau?”

I made the introductions. Avi’s hand was clammy with sweat when I shook it. His brow and upper lip looked shiny too.

“You okay?” I asked him.

“I’m trying not to think about it,” he said. “I mean, I never went into the army like you did. My idea of excitement is going somewhere new for lunch.”

“You’ll be fine,” I said. “Got your recorder?”

He pulled a small chrome item from his coat pocket.

“Fresh batteries?”

“Oh,” he said.

“Never mind. We’ll stop on the way. How much time on the cassette?”

“What cassette? This one’s digital. Sixty-six hours of memory.”

“If we can keep Birk talking that long,” I said, “we’ll definitely have what we need.”

“Why am I even here? Why don’t one of you just take the recorder?”

“You’re an officer of the court. You’re going to observe and record everything that is said and you can swear that it’s authentic.”

“Nothing he says will be admissible if it’s made under duress.”

“Duress? Who said anything about duress?”

“You’ve got guns,” Avi said. “You’ve got him,” indicating Ryan.

“How do you know I’m the duress inducer?” Ryan said. “You haven’t seen Jenn here in action.”

“All I’m saying is, I can record Birk like you asked, and as an officer of the court, I can swear it’s him on the tape. But he could confess till the memory card’s full. It won’t matter if there’s a gun on him.”

“Let’s see what we get out of him,” I said. “Then we’ll worry about getting it into court.” We took Ryan’s car. Avi didn’t want his anywhere near the place and I didn’t blame him. On the way to the Millennium Skyline, we stopped at a convenience store and got fresh batteries for Avi’s recorder. We also got him a bottle of water. “I don’t think my throat has been this dry since we climbed Masada,” he said.

We parked on Randolph, a short walk or fast run from the site. We divvied up the guns: a Glock for Ryan, the Beretta for me, a Baby Eagle with a polymer frame for Jenn.

“It’s lightweight,” Ryan said when he gave it to her. “Not that I mean anything sexist by that.”

“You better not,” she said. “You’re already in my bad books for the thigh grab.”

“Has more to do with your shooting experience, or lack of it. It’s twenty-seven ounces but shoots like a much bigger gun.”

“No matter what you talk about, Ryan, it still sounds like dick talk to me.”

I swear I thought I saw him blush. “How come you can talk to me like that,” he asked, “but anything I say to you I get shit for?”

“It’s a woman’s world, Ryan,” she said. “We’re just letting you live in it.”

“One fucking generation,” he complained. “That’s all it took. Like the Cold War-boom, suddenly it’s over and everyone’s asking what the fuck happened. Wasn’t thirty, forty years ago, a man knew his place and a woman knew hers. The old-timers didn’t hear about it every time they put their hand on a woman’s leg, unless it was someone else’s woman.”

“Kids,” I said. “We have a criminal trespass to plan here.”

“I’m a dead man,” Avi said miserably.

We got out of the car and formed a tight huddle alongside the hoarding, moving along to the entrance where the trailer was. “Whatever we do from here,” Ryan said, “we do it fast and quiet. Decisive. You’re not sure what to do, look to me. Don’t pull your gun unless you have to. It’ll cut down the chances of shooting one of us. There’s already a round in the chamber, so you won’t have to rack the slide. Just keep the safeties on till I say otherwise. We good?”

I looked at Jenn. She looked back. We nodded at Ryan.

“Just remember what we’re here for. We want to nail this fucker and anyone who’s with him and we want to sleep in our own beds tonight.”

“Please God,” Avi said.

“Jenn,” Ryan said. “You’re up.”

She leaned over, grabbed his sleeve and kissed him on the cheek, then walked toward the site entrance.

“What the hell she do that for?” he said. “She trying to throw me off my game?”

“She likes you,” I said.

“Yeah? Suppose I’d done that to her?”

“You’d be counting your molars.”

“Man, what a fucked-up world this is. Am I right?”

“No argument here,” Avi said. — Jenn knows she’s gay. I know she’s gay. Even Ryan had grudgingly accepted this “tragic fucking waste,” as he put it.

The poor schlub in the trailer did not know this. It proved to be his undoing. Jenn ran up to the gate and waved frantically at him. Her breasts-or the Magnificent Ambersons, as she sometimes calls them-were pressed up against the fencing in a way that made them all the more fetching. The guard leaned out of a window and looked at her-them-his brain shutting down as his blood flow reversed itself to nourish his other head.

Jenn was doing her best horror-movie heroine shtick-looking frantically behind her, rattling the fence and calling for help.

The guard came out of the trailer. He was a portly sixty-year-old with a day’s growth of beard and a belly that hid most of his belt. The perfect guy to have around to make sure no one stole a brick or some tools. But in his mind’s eye, I’d have bet, he was a strapping young swain who was going to rescue this maiden from whatever trouble she was in, then nuzzle the Ambersons as the curtain fell. He came to the gate and said, “Trouble, Miss?”

“I think someone’s following me,” Jenn said, her eyes wide, her lips wet and parted. I almost jumped in to help her myself.

“He’s old,” she said-not wanting to scare off the guard, who was hardly a paragon of studliness-“but he’s still giving me the creeps.”

He breathed in deeply, trying to move his bulk from his gut to his chest, trying to look like a hero and coming off more like a pigeon. “Want me to call the cops?”

She looked him straight in the eye. “Do you think we need to? Maybe if he just saw you… or maybe if I could wait inside with you until he goes away.”

“I’m not supposed to-“

“Please,” she said. “It’s cold out here.” The evidence of that was mighty clear. The guard stared at her nipples like he was trying to memorize them. “I won’t touch anything I’m not supposed to,” Jenn said. “I promise.”

“Well,” he said, looking back at the deserted site, then at the Ambersons, then quickly up to Jenn’s wide blue eyes. “Maybe just for a minute.”

He had a heavy ring of keys hooked to his belt with a retractable chain. He pulled them away and unlocked a heavy padlock. As soon as he rolled the gate open, Ryan moved in and stuck his Glock in the guard’s ear. He handed the guard a pair of swim goggles whose lenses had been covered over with hockey tape.

“Slip these on,” he said.

The guard’s weight sagged back to his belt. “A set-up,” he sighed. “I should have known.”

Ryan said, “You think?” Avi and Jenn went to wait by the elevator and keep watch for any cars turning into the site. We took the guard, whose name tag said he was Henry, into the trailer. I locked the door and closed the blinds over the only window. Ryan took Henry’s elbow and steered him behind a service counter that had been built at one end. He told Henry to kneel and put his hands behind his back. Henry looked like he was going to die of a heart attack before making it to the ground.

“If I was going to shoot you,” Ryan said, “would I bother tying your hands?” He pushed his foot lightly into Henry’s knees and they gave way, and he sank rather gently to the floor. Ryan got skate laces out of his backpack and bound Henry’s wrists.

“We’re going to make a phone call now,” Ryan said.

Since he had already heard Ryan’s voice, I kept quiet.

“Who do you call in an emergency?” Ryan asked.

“Mr. Curry. Francis Curry.”

“From which phone?”

“Mine. On the table there.”

“You’re going to call that number and tell Mr. Curry a strange black woman in a hotel uniform showed up at the site and demanded a meeting with Simon Birk, immediately, or she’s going to the police and tell them about this morning.”

“A strange black woman. You don’t want me to say African-American? That’s what they tell me I’m supposed to use.”

“Just tell him she wants to see Simon Birk. Alone. And she wants double her fee, in cash. Got that?”

“Double. In cash.”

“If he asks what she looks like, you say tall with lots of freckles.” Those were the main details I’d remembered and given Ryan.

“Tall, freckles.”

“And a hotel uniform,” Ryan said. “Like a chambermaid, don’t forget that.”

“Okay.”

“If he asks to talk to her, you say she took the hoist up to the top of the building. You tried to stop her but she pulled a knife on you. Got that?”

“Okay.”

“Say it,” Ryan ordered.

“A woman came to the gate-“

“What woman?”

“Tall, with freckles.”

“And?”

“And a knife.”

“Okay, Henry,” Ryan said evenly. “You got those goggles on, which is good for your overall prospects. But if you didn’t have them on and you could see the look I’m giving you now? This is a look, Henry, that has brought a hundred deadbeats, snitches, tough guys, bikers and other unfortunate souls to their knees. So believe me when I tell you that if you say anything other than what I told you, anything cute, your blood will spill and your life will end right here.”

“I don’t want that,” Henry said.

“Course you don’t. So make it short and keep it sweet.”

Henry turned in a fine performance as Night Security Guard #1. With Ryan standing over him, listening in on the cocked receiver, he stuck to Ryan’s script. Didn’t deviate or elaborate or say anything that sounded coded. Kept most of the fright out of his voice.

“Yessir,” he finally said. “Forced her way past me and went right to the top, it looks like.” Listened, nodded, said “Uh-huh” twice. Then, “Really?”

Ryan gave me a thumbs-up.

“If you say so,” Henry said. “If you’re sure, Mr. Curry. You know I wouldn’t on anyone else’s… Okay, good night then.”

Ryan ended the call and turned the phone off. He said, “Mr. Curry told Henry to go home, take the rest of the night off, still get paid the full shift.”

Ryan told Henry to lie on his side. He tied the man’s ankles together with a skate lace then stretched a strong elastic, the kind used to hold hockey shin pads on, around Henry’s shins. He knotted a third hockey lace between the bound wrists and ankles. Henry wasn’t uncomfortable but nor could he move an inch.

Ryan opened a side pocket of the backpack and took out a pair of conical earplugs and slipped them into Henry’s ears. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They’ve never been used.” Then he looked around the trailer and found a set of headphone-sized hearing protectors and slipped them over Henry’s ears.

“He wouldn’t hear an explosion,” Ryan said.

Ryan unclipped the keys from Henry’s belt and flipped them to me. He produced a roll of duct tape and wrapped two lengths around Henry’s mouth. Henry was now out of sight, out of mind, out of human contact.

“Check this out,” I said. On a table next to Henry’s half-done Sun-Times puzzle and Thermos were two walkie-talkies set in chargers. The green lights were steady: two fully charged units.

I handed one to Ryan, who pressed the talk button and said, “Breaker, breaker.” It came through loud and clear on my unit. “You try,” he said. “Leg breaker, leg breaker. Over.” “Very funny. Over. Get the fuck out. Over.” He unscrewed the bulbs that lit the trailer and closed and locked the door behind him, settling into the shadows to wait for Curry and Birk. I walked to the elevator, wondering where Ryan had dumped the woman’s body. In the Chicago River, in a hockey bag weighted with stones or bowling balls from the Sports Authority? Down in the caisson of an unfinished building, a ton of concrete and rebar for her headstone?

I tried to resist the images coming to mind; there might be other bodies to dispose of before the night was through.

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