Photo by Scott Anderson
The late morning heat was stifling and the humidity was oppressive. It was early May but the climate in the Northeast was so screwed up it felt like July in the old days. I hate this weather. I keep telling myself that as a private investigator I can set up shop anywhere. A cooler climate would be nice. But that is another day. Got to meet my client.
I drive down Floral Ave past trees butchered by the electric company in order to free the wires of damage from tangled limbs. They didn’t even look like trees, more like skeletons sliced through the ribs. I dodge deep potholes as I head to Danny’s Diner. Since the economy collapsed road paving has been slipping. Christ, weren’t we supposed to have hover cars by now? After all, it’s 2022.
I text the client to say that I arrived, he texts back that he is in the last booth on the left.
Danny’s wasn’t crowded. It was 2 pm, the lunch crowd had already left. Luckily the soup specials kept the business going.
I nod to the cook. “Hey Jaymo, how’s things?”
“Can’t complain, Mr. Steele.”
I had busted Jaymo when I was a cop. Small stuff really, some shoplifting and stealing copper pipes from vacant houses, but he cleaned up and Danny gave him a job.
Danny sat at the end of the counter, coffee cup in one hand and scrolling through his Facebook page with the other. The local newspaper was on the counter. It was the only one left in the city after the others had shut down. It barely had 10 pages and the obituaries took up three pages. Since the federal libel laws went into effect and the fake news mantra overwhelmed the public they were scared to print anything political. It was filled with ads of stuff nobody could buy and feel good stories. The front page had a picture of a golden retriever licking a smiling baby’s face. We are seriously fucked. One thing you could say for it, when toilet paper was scarce it came in handy.
I greeted Danny, walked to the last booth and sat down.
“Mr. Azid? I’m Derek Steele.”
“Thank you for coming here. I didn’t want to be seen going to your office. Friends have told me you are an upstanding and fair person. That is why I called you.”
I looked at him to size him up. Middle Eastern, about fifty, sad dark eyes, black hair starting to thin and go grey.
“Mr. Steele, I understand you were with the police force at one time. I heard you left when it went political. I also heard you butted heads with ICE when they came around to round up people and you are on the outs with the local politicians.”
I scowled at him. “Who’s the investigator here Mr. Azid? Yeah, I don’t like politicians. A bunch of bought and paid for weasels. We can skip the rest. So what is your point?” I said sharply.
“Mr. Steele, I do not mean to offend. It is just that I come to you because I think you can help me and us.”
“Go on,” I said.
“Mr. Steele, people have gone missing. One of them is my son Tarik. The local mosque and other groups have collected money to hire you.”
“Do you think he is mixed up with terrorists?” I asked.
“No, not my Tarik. He does not like those people. He was born here and loves America. He is what you would call progressive. Not very religious either, to my regret.”
“Mr. Azid, it wouldn’t be the first time a kid fooled his parents and joined a cult or a bunch of radicals. But you said other people are missing and other groups also collected money.” I looked at him quizzically. I was getting a bad feeling about this in the pit of my stomach.
He ticked off a bunch of names of organizations and groups. All wanted their names kept confidential. It was a who’s who of local immigrant rights and progressive groups. Now I was getting concerned.
“Mr. Azid, this is kind of out of my league. Runaways and cheating spouses are one thing. This has the smell of politics all over it. And as things are now in this country this can be a career-ending case or worse for me.”
“You are our last hope, Mr. Steele. We have no one else.”
Now I am a bit of a mercenary. Everyone has to eat right? So I told him my going rate.
“And I want half of it in cash the other half crypto.”
He handed me a list of names with their pictures. He also gave me the name of a person to contact. It was old school but he and they wanted it that way. You never know who is searching your data anymore and you can bet they were. We shook hands and I left.
Sullivan’s Pub is where I needed to go to think this case through.
I ordered a whiskey on the rocks and went to a booth for privacy. President Pence was on the wall mounted TV spouting off about something. Probably more keep the faith and pray bull shit. Thankfully, Sully had the sound muted.
I looked through the names and pictures. I opened my laptop. A friend, a real tech guy, assured me it would be safe from prying eyes with all the bells and whistles he installed. I started some searching. Friends of the missing were sending out messages and postings on Facebook asking “have you seen so and so.” It seems to have started a week ago.
I left the bar and went to my friend Jeremy who owned a car repair place. Business was good. People were holding on to their old cars. Prices for new ones were out of reach for most except the fat cats in their guarded communities. And those people never came to the neighborhood Jeremy worked in and lived.
I went to the back door. Jeremy kept the bay doors closed and the front door locked. You had to ring a bell to gain access. I had special privileges and knew the key code for the back.
The bays had five cars in them. I would place a bet that at least two of them were hot and ready to be stripped.
One of the mechanics looked up. His head was shaved, tats all around and a nose ring. It was Jeremy Nazarian. His blue tooth was playing a song by System of a Down. He liked them not just because it was retro metal but that they were Armenian, like his family.
“Officer Steele,” he called out, a big grin on his face.
Yeah, I knew him when I was a cop.
“Hey, Jeremy. How are they hanging?”
“As always, down to my ankles,” he laughed. “What brings you here? That fancy Audi of yours breaking down.”
It was a nice car, just a little too connected for this job.
“No, but for the job I’m on now I need something off the grid.”
He looked at me with concern on his face.
“I have one I can fix up for you. Kind of a boring car. Something an old man would drive. It will be wiped clean of any tracking software. I can also add some blocking devices. You could drive right in front of the police station and they wouldn’t even pick you up on their scans. And I can fix the license plate too.”
“Thanks, Jeremy. I will have some cash so that won’t be a problem.”
“Hey Mr. Steele, I don’t want to even know what this is about but if you need any help you know you can count on me right?”
I knew I could. And I might.
A few days later I went back to pick up the car. It was a beater.
“Jesus, Jeremy, you could have at least got me an old Audi.”
“Sorry, Mr. Steele, but you want to fly under the radar this is what you get. And trust me, this is what you need.”
He ran down all the blocking devices and other tech shit I knew nothing about. But I trusted him to do me right.
“I’m renting this car not buying it, Jeremy, so don’t hurt me.”
‘You’ve always been good to me and my family. You get the family rate.”
I peeled off some large bills and handed them to him, got in my “new” car and pulled away from his shop.
I headed to the East side to The Daily Grind, a coffee house known as a hangout for local immigrants and students from the University. I walked in. It wasn’t very crowded this time of day but every last one of them turned and looked at me. Can’t blame them. I looked like a cop. Hard to shake that after so many years on the force. If I was ICE I wouldn’t have been alone. Did I tell you I hated ICE?
A young woman came to my table. She was dressed in all black. Pale skin with just a hint of freckles. Her green hair stood out but it was the tattoo of the letter A with a circle around it on her arm that told me more. Anarchist and proud of it. I smiled and ordered a plain coffee, light on the cream and no sugar. Her name was Desi and she was the name Azid had given me.
She brought my coffee over and I popped the question.
“Do you know Tarik Azid?”
Her smile disintegrated.
“You a fucking cop?”
“Private investigator. Name’s Steele, Derek Steele.”
“Why do you want to know,” she said quietly as she looked around to a table with two guys at it.
“His father has reported him missing. Tell me what you know.”
It was then that I noticed the two young Hispanic men get up from their table and walk over. I placed my hand on the small of my back where I kept my Glock. You can never be too careful in this business.
They pulled out two chairs from my table and sat down.
“Who is this guy, Desi?”
“Says his name is Derek Steele and he is a nark looking for Tarik Azid,” said the girl.
“I’m not a nark and you need to trust me.”
I wondered if they did or would.
“Listen, Tarik’s dad hired me. He wants to know where he is, that’s all.” I didn’t let on that I knew others were missing as well.
“I heard about this guy,” said one of the two as he looked me over. “He stopped some ICE agents from rounding up some people a few years ago.”
“That was you huh,” said the other one. “I remember that because it was in our neighborhood, Hondurans, like us.”
“Was a career limiting move,” I said.
I didn’t say it to them but I felt the whole ICE thing was wrong. Not content with fucking up our own country we just kept exporting our fucked up attitude to other countries and fucking them up as well. We seem to be good at it. Those Hondurans were just looking for a safe haven. They thought the Statue of Liberty meant something. They got here and found out it was a scam. When we got the call from frantic people in that neighborhood I faced down the ICE agents and told them to get lost. We were still a sanctuary city then. It was pretty tense for a while but with people videoing it on their phones the agents decided to retreat. It went viral of course. I was enemy number one to them from then on. It didn’t go down well with my captain either. I was told to either get with the program or find another line of work. I left the force soon after.
“So what can you tell me, Desi?”
“He used to come in every day. Then all of a sudden he didn’t. His dad was here a week ago asking about him. I don’t know where he is.”
“You do know he isn’t the only one,” said the Honduran.
And there it was. Word was out that something was going on.
“As I said, you have to trust me.”
The Honduran laughed. “Sorry jefe, we have heard that line before.”
I decided to come clean. I told them what Mr. Azid had told me and that I knew others were missing.
“So, you want to help or not,” I said, a little rougher than I intended. “How about we start with you telling me who you are.”
Desi walked away to help other customers.
They were both in their mid-twenties and both Honduran. They were shorter than me by a lot. I was 6 foot but they were rugged. They introduced themselves as Enrique and Gilberto and said they came up through Mexico one step ahead of the death squads.
Enrique spoke first. “There is an abandoned warehouse where many so-called illegals live. So far ICE hasn’t raided it. They are mostly young men. They work all over the city doing jobs no one else will do. They might know what’s going on. We can take you to it and see if they will talk to you. But remember jefe, if you betray us or them, you are a dead man.”
The look in his eyes told me he wasn’t bluffing.
Enrique told me to meet them later that night at the Grind.
I went to my apartment. Before I headed back to the coffee house I put on a black T-shirt and black jeans. I pulled up in back of the Grind unlocked the doors of my car and let them in.
Gilberto got in the back and let out a laugh. “You must not make much money if you have a car like this.”
I glared at him in the rearview mirror. “Temporary car and just what we need,” I growled.
We drove down Chambers Street towards the river. It was a side street rarely used anymore. An old brick warehouse, partially gutted by a fire years ago, hung along the river bank near other abandoned buildings.
I backed deep into an alleyway and turned the car off.
“OK, we go on foot to the place. No need to panic anyone.”
It was pitch black. The streetlights long dead and the city felt no need to replace the bulbs.
We circled around to a half-hidden opening the two Hondurans told me would be the way into the immigrant camp.
We went in quietly but it wasn’t quiet inside.
Further into the building and near the original delivery entrance, a group of young immigrant men were lit up by bright halogen lights mounted on top of a black SUV. The immigrants were surrounded by seven men dressed in black with Kevlar vests. They were heavily armed and had some of the young men already handcuffed with tie wraps. One was lying very still on the dirty concrete floor. Blood pooled around his body.
We were far enough away and in the dark so they didn’t see us.
The leader of the armed men gave an order to two of them to drag the body over to the river and toss it in.
I motioned my two new friends back out the hole.
As we were leaving something scurried through the hole behind us.
I pulled out the Glock from the small of my back not knowing what to expect.
It was a young boy. I looked into his eyes and saw fear.
Gilberto spoke rapidly to him in Spanish and then pulled him along with us.
We hurried to my car and got inside. I told them all to lay down low. I settled down just barely seeing above the steering wheel.
It took about twenty minutes, but from around the other side of the building two vans and a black SUV drove by.
I was glad Jeremy gave me this car. It looked like it would fit in well at a dump and tonight we blended in with our surroundings. Probably save our lives.
I gave the convoy a few minutes before I started the car and drove out of the alley. What I saw in the warehouse told me something wasn’t right. ICE agents have their logo prominently on their uniforms. These guys had nothing. And as far as I knew ICE agents didn’t kill people and dump their bodies in the river. But the guy that seemed to be in charge was familiar. He was with ICE when I faced them down in the Honduran neighborhood.
I drove back to the city. It used to be like a carnival, good times, with people getting along and having fun. Now it was like an old run down haunted house and the demons under the stairs were loose.
I dropped off my passengers at the coffee shop. The Hondurans said they would take care of the boy. I knew they would. Somewhere a Honduran mother will be filling his stomach with baleadas and pastelitos with chicken. I could go for some myself.
The next day I went to Jeremy’s garage.
He saw me come in the back door and smiled.
I wasn’t in a smiling mood and he caught that.
“What? You don’t like the car?”
“The car is fine, a life saver I might add. I need a favor. I need you to deliver a message for me.”
I told him how to contact Azid and that I wanted Azid to meet me tonight at 8 pm in front of the Crounse building at the university. Seemed as safe a place as any.
I arrived at the university and saw Azid in front of the building. We went inside and into one of the empty lecture rooms.
I told him what I saw at the warehouse.
He went from a concerned look on his face to shock when I told him they dumped a body in the river.
“This is disturbing news, Mr. Steele.” His hands were shaking. “What do you think it means?”
“It means, Mr. Azid, that there is a rogue group around that is grabbing immigrants. What I don’t know is why they are doing it instead of ICE and what is happening to the people. I gotta say it doesn’t look good. I also don’t know if what is happening involves your son missing or the others.”
I didn’t tell him I recognized one of the guys in black as an ICE agent and that the others looked pretty shady. An “off the books” operation I suspected and using contractors back from one of our illegal war zones.
“From now on, Mr. Azid, no phones. I will have someone contact you when we need to talk. The reverse is true also. If you need to contact me you go through Jeremy.”
It had been a long day. I headed back to my apartment. Not much and not as nice as the house I had. Divorce will put you in those circumstances. At least I had visitation rights with the boys. The life of a cop can be rough. I was hoping my new job would get me back in good graces with the ex. Have to stay alive for that to happen.
I turned on the TV to the news. Riots over food shortages in Kansas City. My small city wasn’t immune either. And there were people saying we had too many mouths to feed and something had to be done. I think I saw some of the “remedy” tonight.
It was a sleepless night. Sirens and a howling hot wind that brought in another of our freak thunderstorms had me tossing and turning. Visions of a body being thrown into the river added to my misery. I got up at 6 am, the world still dark. I went out to the kitchen and turned on the coffee maker. I brewed it for extra strong. I had to figure out where this case was going. I smelled a connection between Tarik’s disappearance and the warehouse roundup.
That afternoon I went to The Daily Grind but in through the kitchen, not the front. Desi was getting an order. She saw me and smiled. I asked her to have Enrique and Gilberto meet me in the parking lot.
“OK, I guess you aren’t a nark. You at least saved one kid.” She picked up her order and headed out to her customer’s table. She looked back “I still hate cops though.”
I was sitting in my car with the air conditioning on high. It was struggling. They got in.
“How’s the kid,” I asked.
“He is fine jefe. He is being taken care of. His parents were deported last month. He wasn’t home when ICE grabbed them and has been hiding in the warehouse.”
“I’m glad the kid is ok, but don’t call me jefe anymore, it’s wearing on my nerves. So here is what I want you to do. You can go underground but I can’t. My Anglo face says cop all over it. I need to find the connections here. You saw what I saw. Something smells and it looks bad. You work your end and I will work mine. I still have friends that can clue me into who those people are and where the immigrants went.”
I peel off some cash and send them on their way as instructed. I drove to the house of a friend, a former judge that still had his connections.
I knocked on his door.
“Derek Steele.” His ruddy face broke into a smile. “Come on in son.”
Judge Townsend was in his late 70’s and retired. Was considered a liberal when he plied his trade in our legal circus. Caught a lot of flak for sticking up for the wrong people. One of the few black judges in this city. He thought the constitution meant something and still did. We had a lot in common. My dad was a strong union man and considered a trouble maker. Some of it stuck on me.
I followed him into his study. A rambunctious beagle bound over to me.
“We have a guest Zeus, be good.” He turned back to me. “Have a seat. Bourbon?”
“Sure, Judge. Won’t see me turning one down.”
He went to the sidebar and poured two.
“What brings you out at night? Has to be important.”
I took a sip of my bourbon and told him about my case, the roundup at the warehouse, and the body being thrown into the river.
He put his glass on the end table and paced around the room. I had disturbed him with my report.
“I’ll tell you what I think, and I am sure you reached the same conclusion. Rogue unit unhappy with the legal roadblocks we threw in front of ICE to block their Gestapo style actions. They have recruited not just ICE agents but mercenaries as well. What we don’t know is who is giving them their orders, how many of them there are, and what was done with the people they rounded up the other night. We also don’t know if Mr. Azid’s son and the other missing people are connected to this.”
The judge was sufficiently concerned that he said he would make inquiries with some of his contacts in the legal profession.
A few days later I went back to the coffee house. It was night. I felt safer from prying eyes in the dark, but who knows how many CCTV’s there are in this city. That was one thing the budget cuts didn’t scale back on.
I walked in from the back. Luckily Desi was working. I wondered if she ever went home. I nodded to her and walked back out to my car. She knew the drill now. Within minutes my sidekicks came out and got into the car.
“Mr. Steele, we think we have a witness to Tarik Azid’s disappearance. We can take you to him now,” said Enrique.
“Do you have your phones on you?” I asked.
“Of course,” said Gilberto. He looked at Enrique quizzically.
“Take them in and give them to Desi for now. We don’t need trackers picking up our scent.”
I drove over to the west side of the city. More upscale than other parts but sliding down like the others.
We pulled in front of a six-story apartment building and Gilberto rang a buzzer. A voice asked who we were. Gilberto told him.
The door unlocked and we went to the third floor.
An Indian kid opened the door. He greeted my sidekicks warmly but looked at me with hostility. He invited us in and I was met with staring faces of four others. They were Indian students from the university.
After Gilberto explained who I was and my showdown with ICE in their neighborhood the students relaxed. It seems they were meeting tonight to decide whether to go back to India or apply to colleges in Canada. They were afraid to stay here anymore.
The Indian kid that opened the door said his name was Arjun. He proceeded to tell me about the last night he saw Tarik. He was nervous and afraid. He looked to his friends for back up but he was on his own.
“Tarik left the Grind before me. But I remembered I wanted to tell him something about the last immigrant rights meeting we had. So I went out the door to catch up with him. He was a few blocks away and a black SUV was on the other side of the street. It turned on its lights and cut across to where Tarik was walking. He was texting on his cell and didn’t see them coming. They pulled up alongside him. Two men jumped out, slapped his cell to the sidewalk, grabbed him and pushed him into the SUV. Another guy stepped out of the front passenger side and picked up the cell phone. He looked back but I had ducked into a doorway so they wouldn’t see me. I wanted to chase them but I was frozen. I couldn’t move. That was the last time I saw him.”
We left Arjun and his friends and went back to my car.
Gilberto and Enrique started speaking rapid-fire Spanish.
“OK guys, slow down. Tell me what you are talking about.”
“This sounds like how some of our people in Central America have been picked up by death squads,” said Gilberto looking furtively towards Enrique.
“I know it looks like that, but shit, this is America, not Honduras or El Salvador. We just don’t do that kind of thing here.”
They looked at me like I was stupid or naïve. Maybe I was. The truth was I didn’t want to admit that it could happen here.
I dropped them off at the Grind and drove to my apartment. I decided to hold off on telling Mr. Azid what Arjun had told me. I had more to look into.
Later that night I went back to see the Judge.
He opened his front door and looked at me with hostility.
“Don’t come here anymore, Steele,” he said in a loud voice. Then he leaned in ever so slightly, winked and whispered, “Come around the back in half an hour.”
I got the message. He was being watched. I drove around for half an hour and parked a block away. I walked to his house, went through his garden gate and to the back of the house. He had turned the security lights off so I was unseen. I knocked softly on the back door and he let me in. He had Zeus in his arms keeping him quiet as I walked into his kitchen.
“What’s up Judge?”
“Just want to be on the safe side. Some strange cars been driving around the street the past few days…and nights. Let’s go into my study.”
The heavy drapes in the study were closed. He walked over to his old school turntable and receiver, a nice old Macintosh, and put some music on louder than normal.
He poured us some whiskey and motioned for me to sit in one of the two leather chairs near the stone fireplace. He pulled his towards me so we were almost knee to knee.
“You first,” he said. His face was grim.
I told him what Arjun had said about the disappearance of Tarik.
He didn’t seem shocked by what I told him.
“Things are getting dicey Derek. I think we are at a tipping point. We are ready to go over the edge. I talked with some of my old contacts. Remember when they set up those detention camps for illegal immigrant kids a few years back after their parents were deported? Well, it seems more camps have been set up and more people are being put in them. And not just immigrants but people born right here that don’t like what’s going on. Your client’s son and those others on your list probably have been picked up in one of their sweeps. And you were right. It is ICE and contractors doing it. It is illegal but certain politicians are either supporting it or ignoring it.”
“Jesus Judge, what have we become?”
“Well, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we are at this point. You’ve seen the videos. White people threatening to call ICE because people were talking Spanish in a Manhattan deli for Christ’s sake! Mosques being torched. Immigrant kids being separated from their parents and then disappearing down some black hole. I could go on but you get the picture.”
By now I need another drink. I thought I was tough but my hands were shaking. It was all catching up.
“Steady now, Derek. We have work to do. I found out where the local detention camp is.”
The judge and I planned all night. In the morning as the sun was coming up. I stretched out on his couch and fell asleep.
In the afternoon I started to stir and thought my ex-wife was kissing me. I opened one eye and looked into the face of Zeus.
I smelled coffee and the judge came into the room with two cups.
“Rise and shine, Derek.” The judge handed me a cup. “We all set?”
“I think so. I need today and tonight to work it all out. You too, right?”
“Yep. See you there, Derek.”
I went to Jeremy first. I told him what had been going on. He suspected some things but was angry when I gave him the details. I told him what needed to be done and where we were going.
“I told you before, Mr. Steele, you can count on me.”
“Go see Azid. Tell him what is going on and to get his people together.”
Next, I went to The Daily Grind. Of course, Desi was there. Did she ever leave this place?
I told her about the plan. She smiled and said yes and that she would get some of her anarchist friends. Enrique and Gilberto weren’t there but I told her to give them the plan and to tell Arjun and his friends.
“Time is critical Desi,” I warned.
I went to religious folks I knew and some media people that were out of work that I could trust. I even contacted some of my dad’s union friends. I didn’t know if our plan would even work. My faith in people had downgraded in the past few years.
It was another sleepless night. I got up, made some phone calls and downed strong coffee. I drove to the park that was our assembly point. To prying eyes, it would look like a company picnic. The judge and I scheduled the gathering for 12:30 PM. I was getting nervous wondering if people would show up or if we would be stopped by the police.
At 12:15 the first line of cars showed up. By 12:30 there were at least 100 cars, a couple of city buses packed with people and even some tractor trailers.
The detention center was near the park in an old abandoned Kmart. The judge had found out that it wasn’t just immigrants but US citizens being rounded up, especially activists and leaders of political groups on the left. We clearly had gone down the rabbit hole.
The judge had a bull horn and called out to the gathered crowd.
“My name is Judge Townsend. You all know why you are here. We are going to spring a little surprise at that detention center. Make sure your phones are charged. We are going to send the videos of this action out live. I don’t need to tell you this will be dangerous. I expect you know that.” He looked around at the crowd. His voice dropped and choked up a bit. “I am glad so many of you came. Young and old, from different ethnic groups, political beliefs, even religious beliefs. Some of you have been fighting this for years. We are at a crossroad in this country. If we can do our small part here maybe we can make a difference. Are you ready?”
The crowd yells back that they were and held up their cell phones.
I walked over to my client Mr. Azid and looked him in the eye. “Let’s go get your son and his friends.”
Our caravan headed to the old Kmart. I figured the CCTV’s had already picked up on us so we didn’t have much time. Luckily it as only a five-minute drive.
Some of the cars and buses pulled right up to the entrance of the detention center while the tractor trailers pulled around the back and blocked the bay doors.
People poured out of the cars and buses. The chant “the whole world is watching” erupted from the crowd. I looked back and saw more cars coming into the parking lot. Cell phones were on and showing the world our action.
I stood next to the judge. Enrique and Gilberto walked up to me. Behind them some of their friends from the Honduran neighborhood. Jeremy Nazarian was there with his friends. And of course Desi, with her contingent of anarchists dressed in black and ready for a fight.
The judge walked to the front of the Kmart doors. He tried to look in but the glass was covered over. He pounded on them hoping to get someone’s attention inside.
Silence. The only thing moving was a remote camera over the door scanning him and the crowd.
Frustrated he backed away from the doors.
“Hey, judge! Duck!”
The voice was from one of the anarchists. He had pulled a large rock from inside his knapsack and threw it, smashing the glass.
“We are supposed to be a legal protest. That isn’t going to help,” the judge yelled.
“In case you haven’t noticed your law doesn’t mean anything anymore. The real lawbreakers are the ones running this Detention Center,” said Gilberto
The doors of the Kmart flew open. Five heavily armed men and one guy who seemed in charge came out and walked over to the Judge.
I walked over and stood next to Judge Townsend. Flanking me was Jeremy Nazarian and my Honduran friends.
The man in charge looked at the Judge and then at me with dark predator eyes. He was my size but more muscular. His gunmetal grey hair was shaved close. He was the ICE agent I stared down a few years ago.
“Derek Steele. Still don’t know what side you’re supposed to be on I see. And you, Judge Townsend, always a problem.” He glared at us. “What brings you and your motley crew to Kmart? Looking for some bargains?” The armed guards laughed at his joke. We didn’t.
The judge spoke first. “What’s your name? I notice you don’t have a name tag. Neither do your men.”
“You can call me Commander. As for my men? None of your business.”
The judge continued undeterred. “We believe this is an illegal detention center. We want everyone released.”
The commander laughed.
“Come on, judge. We have turned away senators from places like this. You think we are going to listen to you?”
Of course, all this was being live streamed and sent out to the world. A photographer from one of the shutdown newspapers was clicking away with his camera.
It didn’t take long for the police to pick up on what was going on after phone calls started flooding into headquarters. They saw the live stream on Facebook too. We could hear the sirens. It wasn’t long now.
Behind us, an impatient bus driver who had been listening muttered, “Fuck this. Some of my regulars are probably in there.”
I watched him get into his bus. He drove slowly forward, blasting his horn as a warning for people to clear the way.
The bus gathered speed and headed for the doors of the Kmart.
“Jesus,” yelled the commander as he and his men scattered.
“Shoot that son of a bitch,” he yelled.
The men opened fire striking the driver.
But the momentum had been too much and he crashed through the doors.
Our crowd was screaming, running, but a few brave souls still videoed the action.
By now the police had arrived with armored vehicles, LRAD sound cannons, and facial scanners. Seeing the shooting and the bus they encircled us and the guards with weapons drawn.
I walked slowly over to them with my hands up. I saw some cops I knew from the force. Thankfully they recognized me but that didn’t stop them from surrounding me.
A lieutenant I knew came up to me. “Steele, what the fuck is going on here?”
As I explained it to him people started coming out of the Kmart. They were disheveled and dirty. The looked they had been sleeping in their clothes and the truth is they had.
“Christ, what the hell is this?” said the Lieutenant.
“Don’t they tell you anything anymore? It’s a fucking concentration camp.”
The Detention Center guards tried to force the people back inside. They drew their weapons on them and pointed.
“You there, stand down!” shouted the Lieutenant.
The commander came over to the Lieutenant. “This is federal property you have no jurisdiction.”
It was then that Mr. Azid found his son Tarik. They hugged and wept.
“Judge, that’s the Azids,” I said.
The judge walked over, spoke to them and brought them to the lieutenant.
“Lieutenant, you know me. This boy and others like him have been kidnapped, held against their will, without charges, and without a trial.”
As all this was taking place the immigrants that had been held were silently being put into the backs of the tractor trailers and inside of cars to be shepherded away from the detention center and to their freedom.
“Is this true?” the Lieutenant said to the commander.
The commander looked at me and the judge.
“I have no comment.”
The commander looked at Tarik with loathing. “You are free to go.”
“No shit,” said Tarik.
The commander turned to walk away from us, thought otherwise and walked back to me and the judge.
“You have this one, but you are up against powers beyond your control. We will see each other again…soon.”
Of course, there was nothing in the news, but that didn’t matter. Social media spread it far and wide. The bus drivers’ union held a memorial heralding the driver as a hero who gave his life to free others.
Investigations were promised and the politicians said the Detention Centers were to be closed down. I was extremely doubtful. Meanwhile, I have my cash, some crypto, and my old car back. I didn’t know at the time what was in store for me.
After my little escapade with ICE at the Detention Center, my few friends still left on the force let me know that my name was on a list and it wasn’t for a wedding. Even my ex-wife was worried, especially for our two boys. Visitation rights were put on hold after the ICE commander paid her a visit and told my young sons it was their duty to tell him if they saw me. He wore his black uniform either to impress them or scare them. I figured the latter.
I knew it was time to leave and go into hiding. I settled my affairs and contacted a friend who lived upstate near the Canadian border. He was a local historian who knew the old smuggler trails between the two countries. He said business in hiking over the border to Canada was good recently and it tended to be one way. He would also hook me up with a ride to an area in North Ontario I knew from when I would travel with my dad for some good walleye fishing before he passed away years ago. Out in the middle of nowhere and populated with the villages of Canada’s indigenous people. I rented a cabin with some of the money I got from my last job, no credit cards on me that could be traced. I used a false name and gave the owner some extra money for his trouble. It was quiet and I felt secure. I had grown a beard, grew my hair long and beefed up some from helping locals with odd jobs and some heavy lifting. I had grown flabby over the years and this little “vacation” helped shape me up a bit. Hopefully, I had changed my appearance in case someone came north looking for me.
But I was getting antsy for home. I wanted to see my boys, even from a distance and truth be known that is how the ex-wife wanted it too. It wouldn’t be easy seeing them and not being able to scoop them up in my arms and hug them for eternity.
I also had a slow burn going on for the past two years. I was really pissed at what went down at that Kmart. Twice I had faced off that ICE commander and now he kept me from visiting my sons. He was a piece of shit sucking in valuable oxygen.
So I decided to go home. I contacted my friend the “smuggler” and told him my itinerary. He got in touch with the person who got me this far and we just simply reversed direction. Of course, more money left my pocket.
We traveled at night. It was too hot to hike in the day even in October. The climate was seriously screwed up. 85 degrees Fahrenheit at night in Toronto for fuck sake. Night time also limited drone activity along the border but even that was problematic especially considering the tension between the two countries since that idiot Trump started waving his dick at them. Pence tried to patch things up but hard feelings don’t disappear overnight.
My smuggler and I met on the border of Canada and the US.
“Derek Steele. I hardly recognize you son,” he said laughing and giving me a big hug. “You sure you want to do this?”
“Yea, I want to do this. I can’t live like a hermit for the rest of my life. I’m not cut out for that. Besides I want to see my kids grow up.”
He gave me a serious look. “Derek, they might not give you that chance. I hope you have been following the news so you know what you are getting into.”
I knew what was going on in my country. It wasn’t good and I didn’t like it.
President Pence had canceled the November 2024 elections claiming that the interference in the integrity of the election process was so great that until they get to the bottom of what was going on that “for the health of the nation” elections would be held in 6 months instead. Lying bastard. Nobody believed him.
Violence had broken out across the country of course and who could blame them. Martial law was declared in some areas and whole cities were being policed by a combination of a militarized local law enforcement, contractors and ICE.
My smuggler friend passed me on to the new Underground Railroad. They weren’t used to smuggling people in but they did it on the word of my friend. He didn’t tell them who I was and I didn’t offer my name.
I had kept my new disguise and in fact, looked even a bit worse for wear than before I left Canada. The people in the underground gave me some supplies and old clothes that I had asked for. They even set me up with the new federal id everyone had to have. I needed to not look like Derek Steel private investigator and wanted man by ICE.
Car to safe-house and safe-house to car, but before long they got me back home. I knew where I needed to go. I waited until dark hit the streets and went over to the west side. I looked like a bum and wanted it that way.
I saw the house, went to the side and started rummaging through the metal garbage cans making enough noise to wake the dead.
A dog barked and a spotlight came on. A heavyset black man with salt and pepper hair yanked the side door open. He held a small caliber pistol.
“What are you doing”?
“Just looking for some food, sir,” I said as I hunched over.
“You know there is a soup kitchen two blocks down don’t you?”
“I didn’t know that.”
“You head down there, they will feed you.”
As he turned to go back in his house I simply said, “Thank you, Judge Townshend.”
He spun around.
“Who in blazes are you?”
I straightened up and looked into his eyes.
I could tell he recognized me.
He looked around and said loudly, “The soup kitchen might be closed. Come in and I can give you something to eat.”
He took me in and turned off the spotlight. Zeus came bounding toward me barking madly.
“Hush Zeus, this is our friend Derek.” The judge turned his nose up and grimaced.
“No wonder he doesn’t recognize you. You stink.”
“Just part of the disguise, judge.”
“Well let’s get you a shower anyway and while you’re doing that I will fix you something to eat.”
I came down from the shower twenty minutes later.
The judge looked at me. “I see you didn’t shave or cut your hair.”
“I have to be invisible for a time, judge. I have some unfinished business.”
He put a plate of eggs, sausage and toast on the table in front of me.
“Derek I need to bring you up to speed. Things have got worse since you were gone.”
He poured two bourbons and handed me one. Not what I usually drink with eggs. I wanted to sip it but slammed it down instead. I knew bad news was coming.
“The mayor and city council, worthless as they were, have been replaced. Since our little escapade at the Kmart Detention Center, the feds decided to look at the accounting books of our fair city and decided we couldn’t run things on our own. So the mayor and council have been replaced by an appointee from the federal government and a board of directors. No vote, nothin’. They are running things now Derek and it isn’t good.”
“Jesus, judge, didn’t anyone fight this?”
The judge bowed his head down and looked into his glass.
“There’s more Derek.”
He poured me some more bourbon.
“Mr. Azid’s mosque got leveled. Someone with enough explosives took it down. No one was there at the time but a message was sent. Your two Honduran friends…” The judged hesitated. “I don’t know how to tell you this Derek. Gilberto was deported back to Honduras and Enrique was found on Hudson Street. Shot in the back of the head.”
My mind swirled. I controlled my anger, but the news of the two Hondurans was like a gut punch. They were stand up guys and were there when I needed them. I left and they were on their own and the result was fatal for one if not both.
I focused my thoughts. “Is that ICE commander still around?”
The judge caught the menace in my voice.
“He sure is. They have him in charge of all the local law enforcement, if you want to call it that. More like a law-breaking group. Constitution, Bill of Rights, Miranda, doesn’t mean a thing to them. In fact, I suspect he is behind a lot of the shit that has been going down. I found out more about him. His name is Xavier Cutter. He was a military contractor. Sent all over the world for a specific job—to eliminate the opposition. He has a lot of blood on his hands. Looks like he is doing the same thing here.
“God damn, judge. This can’t go on.”
“I agree Derek, but what are we going to do?”
“Not sure, but I have some old friends to see.”
“You got a place to stay here if you want. Just rattle the garbage cans. Oh, and showers are mandatory.”
I left the judge and headed over to the Daily Grind. I wondered if Desi was still working there.
By the time I got there the humid night had left me sweaty and in need of another shower. The hot wind blew dust and grit in my eyes as I neared the Grind. It wasn’t very crowded yet. I walked in the front door and went to a back table. Although I still had on my old clothes the shower had a least left me with a more presentable look.
Her back was to me but I recognized Desi. Her hair wasn’t green anymore and I couldn’t for the life of me begin to describe the color. She turned around and headed towards my table.
“What will you have?” She barely looked at me as she scanned the room. Some guys at a table were laughing and being loud.
“Just a regular coffee, light on the cream and no sugar, Desi.”
She turned back to me and stared.
I got the same reaction from her as the judge.
“Look who is back from the dead. Where the hell have you been, Steele?”
“On vacation,” I said.
“Lucky you,” she said icily.
“Can we talk?”
“Not now. Finish your coffee and come around the back in 15 minutes.”
I sat there enjoying my coffee as Desi went over to the table where the loud group was. They were in their early 20’s. Probably students at the university.
I could hear their accents now. Russian. Had to be sons of oligarchs. Nobody else could afford college here anymore or like others, didn’t want to be. They acted like they owned the place.
One of them grabbed Desi’s arm and looked at her Anarchist tattoo.
“You know in my country we would have you shot but not before we pleasured ourselves.”
He looked back at his friends who were laughing.
Desi reached behind her and put her hand around a small knife in her waistband.
I stepped over to her quickly.
The Russian punk scowled. “Hey, old man, are you her grandfather or something?”
I grabbed the wrist that held Desi’s arm and squeezed it.
He let go of Desi’s arm and started to get up.
“Don’t,” I said as I looked in his eyes and kept his friends in sight too.
His grin was malicious. He continued to stand up. I smashed his wrist down on the edge of the table. The crack was loud. He screamed and held his arm in agony.
His friends looked at me like a pack of feral dogs.
I backed away and headed out the back door as one of them got on his cell phone and made a call.
Desi came to the back. “Jeez Steele. Welcome back. You sure know how to stir things up. Here is the key to my place. Go now and I will get there when my shift is over.”
She gave me the address and I started moving. Sirens in the distance. Probably for me but who knows in this wreck of a city.
I was dozing off on Desi’s couch when she came in.
‘You should have let me stab that fascist pig.” The look in her eyes told me she would have too.
“They don’t know who I am. Safer for you that way. I need you at the Grind. What happened after I left?”
‘Our local security forces showed up as well as the EMT’s to fix his wrist. You caused him a lot of pain.” She smiled when she said that.
“Anyone from ICE?”
“There is always at least one with them,” she said. “They asked me about you and I told them I didn’t know who you were and that you were probably a homeless vet. You need to stay away from the Grind for a while.”
I slept on Desi’s couch and left early in the morning. She loaned me a baseball hat to help disguise me. Desi had a sense of humor. The red hat said Make America Great Again. She stole it off a guy at a Trump rally years ago after she kicked him in the balls.
My walk took me to Jeremy’s garage. I went to the back and pushed the key code like I always did. The door stayed locked. I tried it again. Still no luck so I pounded on the door.
Jeremy pulled the door open and pointed the gun at me.
“What the fuck. Everybody in this city got a gun?” I smiled at him but there was no return smile until he recognized me. At least my disguise was holding up.
He dropped the gun to his side and invited me in.
“Good to see you, Derek.” He clasped my hand and drew me in for a hug.
“You too, Jeremy.”
“You know you shouldn’t be back here. The cops and ICE have been looking for you.”
“Yea, but I need to be. You still have my cars here?”
“I kept them on the side of the lot covered up. The Audi and your favorite midnight special,” he said with a grin.
That midnight special took me and my Honduran friends to the warehouse. The memories of those two choked me up.
“Derek, you know what’s been going on here right?”
“The judged filled me in,” I said huskily. “Were you ok after I left,” I said guiltily.
“Derek, I understand why you disappeared. You were number one on their list. The rest of us faced a lot of harassment but it was worse for Enrique and Gilberto.”
“I’m back for some unfinished business, Jeremy.”
“OK then. And if you are here for a car I would suggest taking the beater again. I will paint it a different color and update everything. Leave the Audi here. It’s too visible. And from the looks of you, I don’t think you want to be visible either.”
My ex-wife and boys don’t live in the city. They are out in the suburbs. In order to even get a glimpse of my boys, I need a car. The Audi would fit in better with that neighborhood but it would be instantly recognizable to them and I can’t risk that.
I made plans for picking up the car and said goodbye to Jeremy.
This city isn’t large. One could walk to all the neighborhoods and wards if you had good legs. The only hindrance today was the heat and humidity. And it was late October. As I said before, I hate this weather. Like ICE, me and climate change are not friends.
The city was worse than when I left. The smell of decay was everywhere. There seemed to be more destitute and desperate people. The malls were closed, stores boarded up and some neighborhoods didn’t even have a grocery, just mini-marts that gouged their customers. The local farmers market was the mainstay because they set up mobile markets in needy areas of the city so people could at least get fresh vegetables. But even that wasn’t enough to survive. Rolling blackouts cut off electricity and shut off air conditioners and fans. The EMT’s were kept busy with heat-related patients or opioid overdoses. Some EMT’s just stayed in place and waited for new people to treat or haul away in a body bag.
The police presence was everywhere. It wasn’t just patrol cars. Now the city was militarized with “security forces” driving around in armored personnel carriers and since the lifting of restrictions on the transfer of military equipment to the police, it only added to the tense situation between people and the cops. Stop and frisk was everywhere and you had to have the new federal id when they asked for your papers. I sat down with some street people and asked how this city was. I pretended to have just arrived. They told me the security forces considered all civilians the enemy and it seemed like they were being pushed to react. If they did, well the outcome was quick and lethal. If you ran they shot you. No warning. You were expected to know that you weren’t supposed to run no matter how scared you were.
I wandered around and passed by the empty lot that was Mr. Azid’s mosque. Just an empty hole filled in with debris. When it started to get dark I went to Judge Townsend’s house. I rattled the garbage cans, just like he said.
“Need something son,” he said.
“Just some food sir.” And with that, he let me in.
We settled in his living room. Zeus bounded up and greeted me this time.
“Everyone seems scared judge.”
“What do you expect, Derek? This place is like the Wild West and there are a lot of cities like this now. So how did you make out today?”
I told him what I saw and what I was told. He nodded and understood.
He told me the upstairs guest room was all set for me.
“I’m heading up judge. I’m beat.”
My sleep was fitful. Even with the on and off air conditioning going the sweat poured out of me. Nightmares crept into my head. Enrique came to me in a dream, pointed an accusing finger and said, “So what are you going to do about all this!” I awoke with a start and went downstairs. The judge was asleep. Lucky him. Zeus was awake as usual and followed me into the living room. I poured myself a drink and thought, what the fuck am I doing here?
In the morning, bleary-eyed, I came back downstairs to the smell of coffee. The judge had an old school percolator going.
“Wow judge, you know they have new coffee makers now in the 21st century,” I said laughing.
“Those things don’t make a decent cup of coffee and never will,” he said as he whipped up some eggs. “So what is your plan today?”
“Back to Jeremy’s to see how my car is going and to scope things out a bit.”
“Just be careful. Don’t forget your MAGA hat,” he said grinning.
I walked back towards the central part of the city. An armored cruiser passed by and in the passenger seat was the ICE commander Cutter. I could recognize his bullet-shaped head a mile away. He turned towards me and absently looked at me. I don’t know if he recognized me or not but I took no chances and walked slowly into an alley, stopped and looked around the corner of the building. Sure enough, the cruiser slowed down and turned around.
Luckily the alley had a way out and I moved quickly out the back and onto another side street. I ditched the red MAGA hat.
I finally reached Jeremy’s after an hour or so and told him about my close call.
“Do you think he recognized you somehow?”
“Not sure. Maybe something gave me away,” I said.
“Well, your car is ready so you don’t have to walk the streets anymore and I can scrounge up some clothes for you so you won’t look the same.”
I drove around to see other parts of the city that I missed before. A soup kitchen with a long line. Two gangs fighting for scraps of a turf that nobody really wanted.
After a while, I stopped and parked a block away from the judge’s house. I walked towards the corner and turned. There was a crowd, police cruisers and yellow tape in front of his house.
The coroner was bringing out a body bag. I knew it was the Judge. Who else could it be? A neighbor was holding a trembling Zeus in her arms. The cops kept people back and out of the house came the ICE commander.
I crept closer through the crowd. Someone asked a cop what happened.
“Accident. Judge fell down the stairs.”
Grief started to overwhelm me. I backed away, knowing the judge didn’t just fall down the stairs.
I walked back to my car and drove away. I was at least 30 miles down Route 17 before I pulled into a rest stop. I burst into tears.
“God damn it!”
I sat there for a good hour. My grief spent I turned slowly inward. I knew this couldn’t go on. I also knew that I had an enemy that would either kill me or I would have to kill him. I knew I wanted to live. I also knew the commander had to pay and that I had to become as cold as ICE. Thoughts and a plan formulated in my brain. I got back on the road and drove to the city.
I still had the key to Desi’s apartment. I let myself in and waited. The lock turned and Desi walked through the door. I could see the mark on her face. Someone had slapped her, hard.
“Desi, what the hell happened?”
“That ICE fucker came to the Grind. Said he knew you were back in town and wanted to know where you were. I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about and that I hadn’t seen you for two years. That is when he slapped me.” She paced the room like a caged animal wanting to strike out at whatever moved. “He also told me that Judge Townsend was dead. An accident at his house. He had a sick grin on his face when he said it. He also said if I did see you to call him. Then he threw his card in my face.”
“Did you save the card Desi?”
“Yea why? You gonna call him,” she said sarcastically.
“I just might. By the way, do you have any friends that are artists, the kind that paints?”
“Fine, get me a list as soon as you can.”
“What the fuck is going on, Steele?”
“I’ll let you know when I figure it all out.”
With that, I left and headed back to Jeremy’s garage. I had to tell him about the Judge and Desi. I also needed him to contact Azid for me.
I met Azid at our former meeting place at the Crounse building at the University. Jeremy told him that my appearance had changed and described how I looked. I didn’t want to scare him when I met him.
The Crounse building was circular with lecture halls on the first floor and a book store and small café in the basement.
I went to the café and saw Mr. Azid at a table. He looked in my direction and his quizzical look turned into a smile. He stood up and greeted me. “As-salaam alaykom, Mr. Steele.”
“Peace to you too, Mr. Azid, but it seems to be in short supply around here.”
“Yes, you are right,” he sighed. “But why are you back here?”
“My sons are here and I have some unfinished business.”
He looked at me gravely. “This is a dangerous city. Your sons are here, my son left. He said, how you say it, ‘It is too hot here to stay around’. I don’t think he was talking about the weather.” A sadness showed in his eyes. “I would think it is hot for you too.”
“I also came back to say I am sorry for leaving. Maybe if I stayed your mosque wouldn’t have been leveled and Enrique would still be alive and Gilberto…”
“Mr. Steele, one person couldn’t have stopped that. In fact, you probably would have been found on a street with a bullet in your head like Enrique. Look what they did to Judge Townsend. You know what is going on here.”
“Yes I do and it has to end.”
“You have courage, Mr. Steele, much more than I.”
“It’s not that I have courage, Mr. Azid, it is that I have a plan.”
I left Mr. Azid with hope and some doubts, but revenge is a deep emotion and it will override doubt.
I got the list of artists from Desi and I went to visit them one by one. When I asked them if they could paint a certain way they looked at me questionably. I narrowed my choice down to one artist and she had to be not only good but she had to be on our side and vow to keep a secret for life.
Next, I went to see Jeremy. I needed a couple of carpenters. They too had to be reliable and able to keep a secret.
I had my workers. Next, I took them to see the location of my plan. It would take a week to get my project finished. Enough time to goad the commander to come for me. I hope all would go to plan and there would be no glitches.
Meanwhile, my tech friend fixed me up with some burner phones. Two weeks later I made my call.
“Commander Cutter,” the voice answered.
“I know you killed Judge Townsend and slapped Desi around you piece of shit. You want me? Come and get me.” With that, I hung up. Let that fester awhile I mused.
Two days later I called him again.
“Commander Cutter,” he growled into his phone. I could hear the noise of his SUV in the background.
‘You know who this is,” I said, but before I could continue he interrupted me.
“Derek, how nice of you to call me again,” he said maliciously. “I have someone you should talk to.”
I could hear muffled voices in the background.
“Steele, it’s me Desi.”
It was a gut punch. She sounded scared.
“You OK, Desi?”
“Yea, I’m ok but…”
Cutter was back on the phone.
“Listen to me Steele, there are ways we can end this. If we don’t come to an agreement I am going to turn over your little girlfriend here to some Russian students we both know. I think one of them is nursing a broken wrist. What they do is beyond my control. Got it?”
“Cutter, let her go and you can have me.”
“It’s not that easy, Steele. I let her go when I see you and not before.”
“It’s six now, I will call you back in an hour to tell you where we can meet. Hurt Desi and you are a dead man.”
“Ok tough guy. Call me at seven.” He laughed as he ended the call.
I made some calls to the people that were in on my plan and told them it was a go and it was in two hours but with a complication. I headed to the location.
At seven I called Commander Cutter back.
“Cutter, I have been living at the old abandoned Tri-Cities Knitting Company. Come through the front and come alone. I am the back office.”
“No tricks Steele or your girlfriend here will be learning Russian.”
“Meet me at eight,” I said and hung up.
I walked through the knocked open front door of the knitting mill and checked out the work my artist and carpenters had done. It fooled me. I just hoped it would fool Cutter.
It was getting to be dusk and perfect for the plan. The less light the better. I had set up my nest in the office so cutter could see it. A sleeping bag, some groceries, and clothes strewn around. A battery lantern gave off just enough of a glow.
At eight I heard Cutter’s SUV pull up. I stood in the doorway of the office so he could see me.
I saw him through the window get out of the SUV and pull Desi with him. She had tie wraps binding her wrists and duct tape on her mouth. He stepped through the open door. His gun was in his right hand, and he held Desi in his left. He started towards the office.
God, don’t bring Desi with you I pleaded silently.
“Hold it right there Cutter. Let Desi go.”
“Are you armed, Steele?”
I held my arms up. “No,” I said and I wasn’t. It was nearby but I hoped if my plan worked I wouldn’t need it.
“In that case, I will let her go.” He cut the tie wraps and ripped the duct tape from her mouth.
Desi yelled out “Motherfucker!” and went to kick Cutter.
“Feisty bitch isn’t she, Steele.” He laughed. “Go now sweetheart or I will change my mind and give you to Vlad and his friends.”
“Go now, Desi. Everything will be alright,” I said. She looked at me with doubt in her eyes and hesitated.
“Please, Desi,” I pleaded.
She backed out of the door and out of sight.
Good, I thought. Let’s end this.
I turned back to Cutter. My anger was back. “Why did you have to kill the Judge?”
Cutter snarled. “He was being uncooperative. I asked where you were and he didn’t want to tell me. When I ask questions I expect answers. It’s as simple as that.”
He kept coming forward scanning the area for hidden danger.
“Pretty unsafe here Steele.” He stepped around holes in the floor and made sure to stay on the wood planks of the knitting mill floor that led to the office and Derek Steele.
“You know Steele, I don’t think I will take you in. This is as good a place as any for your final resting place.”
He raised his gun and kept walking.
I backed up as he came forward.
As he came towards me the floor made a creaking sound. He looked down and then up as the floor gave way. His scream echoed into the void beneath him.
I went over and peered down.
Out of the shadows came Jeremy with his cell phone flashlight on and holding a .45 in case things didn’t work out. He pointed the light down.
“Is he dead”
There was Commander Cutter splayed out on the old knitting machines that were in storage in the huge basement of the mill. The blood oozed out of him as his body twitched and then was still.
“Yes.” There was no remorse in my voice.
Desi, who had been hiding just outside the door of the mill came in.
I walked towards her and stepped on one of the gaping holes leading away from the office.
‘Look out, Steele,” she screamed.
I stopped on top of the hole and stood there smiling. I didn’t fall through.
“What the fuck,” Desi said astonished and wondering if her eyes were playing tricks on her.
“These holes aren’t real,” I said, motioning to the holes scattered around the building. “But that hole is.” I pointed to the large hole that Cutter had fallen through.
“I wanted this to look like an accident and I also had to make sure Cutter followed the path I wanted him too. That’s where your artist friend and the carpenters came in. The dark holes are 3d images like the ones I saw painted on sidewalks in Canada. I actually saw people walk around them. They look real and in this light, I knew he would stay away from them here. The floor he did step on was just very thin planking painted to look like the original flooring that the carpenters pulled up two weeks ago. Some dust and fake footprints added to the illusion. The fake planking was thin enough that when he stepped on it he would fall through. I knew the deep basement here held the old machines and if he landed on them it would kill him.”
“So just an unfortunate accident, Steele?”
“Yes Desi, an accident. You know how these old buildings can be,” I said. “OK, let’s finish up and get out of here.
Jeremy’s carpenter friends and the artist were called and came to the mill to finish their work. The original planks were situated and fixed so they looked like they collapsed from age and the commander’s weight. The fake holes were painted over to look like the original flooring and old debris from the mill was scattered about hiding the newness of our work. The SUV was left outside the mill so it and the body could be found. Nothing was to look suspicious. An accident while the Commander was looking for a fugitive.
We stood around the pit and stared down at the body of Commander Cutter.
“For Judge Townsend,” I said
Jeremy spit into the void. “For Enrique and Gilberto.”
“For all those you terrorized,” said Desi.
We left that dark place and felt at peace.
A few days later, after the call went out that Commander Cutter was missing, a homeless man found the SUV and the body in the basement of the Tri-Cities Knitting Mill. The overworked and tired coroner ruled it an accidental death, but the commander’s crew wasn’t buying it. They knew Cutter had a lot of enemies but couldn’t narrow it down to me.
I knew I wasn’t out of the woods yet but a least, for now, I had some breathing space. Judge Townsend had done me a favor and kept my Private Investigator license from being revoked while I was in hiding. I was able to open up my office and start my practice again thanks to him. I cleaned up, cut my hair and put on some decent clothes. I felt and looked like the old Derek Steele.
The commander’s crew got replaced and a new one brought in. There was someone with the pull that wanted a change. How long it would last was up for grabs.
My next stop was to Jeremy’s garage. I had the new key code and let myself in.
It sounded like old times. Jeremy was singing along to a System of a Down song. His voice left a lot to be desired.
“Hey, you look like the Derek Steele I remember,” he said, putting his wrench down and shaking my hand.
“Any regrets Jeremy?”
He looked at me with hard eyes. “None. That bastard deserved to die.”
I nodded at him.
“So how is my Audi?”
“All cleaned up a ready to go.”
I got in and settled into the leather seats. God, I missed this car. I pulled out, waved to Jeremy and headed to the west side of the city.
Judge Townsend’s neighbor was waiting for me. I had called her earlier with a request.
She met me out front with Zeus on his leash.
“Well, here he is Mr. Steele, all ready for you.”
I opened the door and he jumped in.
The judge’s neighbor peered in and said, “Isn’t it terrible what happened to that Commander Cutter.” Her smile belied her concern.
“Yes, just awful. Accidents will happen,” I said as I put the car in gear.
I drove out to the suburbs. The ex said now that the commander was no more and wouldn’t be putting pressure on the boys to turn me in, visitation rights were back on. She said the boys looked forward to seeing me. Oh, and they want a dog. I have just the one I told her. Everything seemed normal and like the old days. I knew it wasn’t. The country was still a mess and the security forces still held a grudge against me.
The drive back to my office was uneventful, but I kept looking in the rearview mirror.
You just never know what, or who, can sneak up on you in this wreck of a city.