For the next while the Friday Fillip will be a chapter in a serialized crime novel, usually followed by a reference you might like to pursue. Both this chapter of the book and the whole story up to this point can be had as PDF files. You may also subscribe to have chapters delivered to you by email.
Lawyer, Guns, and Money
The odour was complex, an olio of scents now uncommon. All the woods: sweet cedar, rosewood with its attar, dark and mossy mahogany, cherry, walnut. Then the fungal, metallic tang of the old steel machinery and tools against the peculiar aroma of horsehide glue. Beneath it all there was the smell of sweat, because this was a workshop where men laboured. Once laboured. Now it was empty.
Even with two fresh corpses in attendance it was empty.
The best part of a company of armed and armoured men milled about in the street out front and in the alley behind, chivvied by loudspoken orders and the urgent high crackle of static. Inside, where it was unnaturally still, two armadilloed men and another man in nothing more than a suit and tie stood over the bodies, which lay as if arranged by an artful fate snugly side by side and head to toe. Both had been small men. Short, slight, made of rope and bone. They might have been brothers, except for the fact that one was Asian in appearance and the other was Caucasian. Even so.
“Oh boy,” said one of the two SWAT men. He didn’t mean the killings. He had seen enough killings not to be affected anymore by violent death. He meant the fact that they’d arrived unannounced only to find the birds had flown.
The other armoured man grunted in agreement and poked at a half finished instrument on the bench beside him, a violin, looking vulnerable as a newborn, pale, naked, full of curves, its ultimate lineaments only suggested. “Yes,” said Bodley. “I’m afraid so.”
He touched the cheeks of the corpses with the back of his hand. Hard to tell if they were still warm.
“I don’t get it,” said the first man, pulling off his helmet.
Bodley nodded. He stood up. “Why?” he said, looking around. “At least now we know for sure we’ve sprung a leak. Or two. Or more.”
“Good luck with that,” said the man who had grunted.
Bodley spoke into his phone while the other two set up perimeter guards to wait for the forensic people. When Bodley switched off, he crouched once more beside the bodies and examined the Caucasian as closely as he could without further contaminating the scene. Something one of the men had said while he was on the phone danced at the edge of his awareness. He checked his immediate area to make sure that he hadn’t altered anything or missed anything obvious. At the door out of the workshop, the one that led into the residence at the front, he turned and looked around once more. He looked down at where the bodies lay behind the big workbench, seeing only a man’s head and another man’s feet. And it came to him: ‘. . . gone to ground.’
He was on his phone even as he ran to his car, trying not to shout.
RANGEL CAME INTO THE motorhome with a decadent double-double from the D-Lux across the road. They were out of beans in Mitman’s increasingly elaborate drinks setup. And besides, there was only 2% milk and artificial sweetener in the kitchen, by order of the quartermaster. Who happened to be still in her office doorway when, after some chit-chat and half her morning syrup, she played her messages on the speaker.
The caller talked in a hushed voice that made him hard to understand at first, not a whisper, but something out of a hoarse, constricted throat.
“Ms. Rangel? Ms. Rangel? I . . . I think . . . I think you ought to, I don’t know . . . There’s a shitload going down here. Bad stuff. Like it’s all fucked. Bunch of us holed up in pit nine. But I could make it to the gate. Aw, geez —.”
“Withers,” said Rangel.
Mitman said, “Your Tom.”
They looked at each other. Mitman reached behind him to the hooks on the wall to his right, took off Rangel’s keys, and tossed them to her. She put down her coffee, giving it a last regretful glance. “Jackets,” he said, as they moved, always the mother.
“WHAT’S HAPPENING?” Mitman asked him. Withers was cowering, so both Mitman and Rangel found themselves crouching a little too. They were up tight against a behemoth of a vehicle that was quaking with the effort of an idling motor. Withers had driven it right up to the fence. He would have pushed it down if the gate hadn’t been open.
Withers spoke to Rangel. “I don’t know. I’m sorry I called you. We should all just get out of here right now.” The fear on his face made Rangel pale.
She shook her head impatiently. “Tell me. What?”
“I . . . really don’t know. Van drives up. Two vans and a bunch of cars. I didn’t see them, but Solly’s working flagman and he, he told me. On the Cobra.” He tapped the walkie-talkie in his shirt pocket. “Now I’m up on ridge four and I see them for myself. Everybody piles out. I mean a whole gang of guys. A whole mob shoving each other around and they go into the crusher shed.”
Rangel pushed. “I don’t get it, Tom. What’s the big deal?”
He said, “Right. Right.” And he swallowed. “So, okay.” He swallowed again.
Now Rangel put a hand on his shoulder. “Talk to me, Tom.”
Incongruously, he grinned, but with no humour in his eyes. “Bad shit,” he said. “Bit later another bunch of cars show up and some guys get out, only these are, like, Chinese, right? And, and, here’s the thing. They got guns. I mean guns. One guy, he’s packing this assault rifle, I guess it is. But you could see the other guys had like handguns.”
Rangel withdrew slightly, seemed to scrunch down. Mitman was becoming angry, his way of dealing with fear. “For god’s sake, why didn’t you call the cops?” he shouted at Withers.
“That’s the thing,” said Tom in a shrill protest. “Cop car’s already there. And Sully says he saw the chief go into the admin.”
Rangel pulled out her phone and punched Bodley’s number. It went to straight to message and she was succinct: “Sounds like some serious difficulty at Backton Aggregate. You’d better get people here quick.”
The three of them looked at each other for a moment. There was something comforting about nestling up against this trembling pachyderm. The hot air from the engine, the brown noise of the rumble, the rocking . . .
Rangel stood up straight. “Take me down to where I can see?” she said.
“Hey,” said Mitman. And he squared off against Rangel.
Withers darted his eyes back and forth between the two of them a bunch of times.
Mitman said to Rangel, “I don’t think . . .”
“Yeah,” said Withers. “Fuck it. Okay. Get in.”
It might have been a still life. Dead quiet, once Withers killed the engine. Swatches of vague hues were spread out in front of them, bleeding into each other like water colour washes. Nothing moving at all. Nature exhausted after being pulled, twisted, set. Posed.
Rangel set off walking towards the admin building. Mitman called to her, “Gregoria!” She didn’t turn and he went after her.
Fifty meters off they saw Nabel and Ronnie Dabord come out and head towards the shed beside the admin building. There was something awkward about their progress, and then the two men disappeared into the shed. Rangel altered direction to aim for the large, corrugated steel hangar that seemed to leap in size with each step closer. Rangel stopped but only for an instant at the side door that Nabel and Dabord had used. Then she pulled it open and stepped through.
Her first thought was that this was a freshman dance in the gym at high school. At the bottom of the great arching space, two lines of people stood facing each other across an emptiness, tense, poised, uncertain. Dabord and Nabel had positioned themselves more or less in the middle, their backs to Rangel and Mitman.
She walked towards them. All heads turned toward her and Mitman. Dabord and Nabel spun around. “What the hell . . . ?” from Dabord. Nabel’s face was trying to show a dozen emotions all at once.
Rangel was like someone who has woken up on an I-beam suspended over New York, her mind and her body separating. With a curious objectivity she scanned the Italian line of perhaps a dozen men. Yes, she thought. It could be. Dear god, alive after all this time. One man was writhing where he stood, his gaze fixed on a smaller, much older man in a work shirt and jeans. The smaller man held an automatic pistol, his arms folded loosely over his middle. Half of the men in the Italian line were clearly armed, the other half were trying to recede into the wall behind them.
“Ronnie,” said Rangel, hearing her voice from afar. “This looks tricky.”
“Get out,” he said. “Go now.” He shouted. There was a noise, sharpened by the quick echo.
Dabord drew his gun.
Clattering sounds, and ear-splitting bangs. People diving, falling. Bullets whanged off great iron machines suddenly in view as bodies fled for cover.
Rangel was down with Mitman spread on top of her. She smelled the concrete of the floor. Through fat ringing ears she heard Mitman weeping. Someone else was crying. Something ticked like an irrelevant clock. Nothing. A burst of machine gun fire. More nothing.
Suddenly the side wall behind the Vietnamese caved in with an unholy grinding and screeching, and two massive bulldozers ground slowly into the room, jerking left and right like a beasts in agony. A man trapped under a tread screamed and stopped. A couple of men fired at the lead machine and the blade went up and came crashing down banging and banging like a quake.
Rangel heard some shouting and then, as the Vietnamese ran, sirens screamed towards them. The bulldozers continued to turn and turn and smash at the ground as if in frustration.
“He’s dead. If it’s him.”
Rangel cried. Bodley was dabbing at her scraped face with a pad of gauze wet with alcohol. It stung like hell. “How many?” she asked.
Bodley sighed. “Five dead. Hold still.”
Rangel gently pushed his hand away. “I was afraid it would be more than that. Way more.”
“These mopes can’t aim. People get the wrong idea. You know, that every bullet is a death. War like this is a crazy adrenaline blur. All over in fifteen, twenty seconds. Guns jerking around.”
“So we’ll never know.”
“Who killed him. If it is . . . Jared.”
“Oh, we will. We’ve got everybody. Match up the guns to the slugs. Take a while but we’ll get there.”
Rangel tried to get up from the box she was sitting on. Her legs wobbled, gave way, and she sat again. She felt nausea. When it passed, she said, “Dabord? Nabel?”
“Alive,” said Bodley. “Nabel’s one of the wounded. Might have shot himself accidentally.” Rangel frowned at him. “He was carrying an old TEC-9 in his lap. You wouldn’t have seen. Barrel was still hot.”
Mitman came up and she reached and took his hand, squeezing it. He stroked her hand.
“Can we go?” he asked Bodley.
“Oh god, yes. We’ll take statements later today. This evening, maybe. We’ve got a bunch to do here.”
“Gladys,” said Rangel. “We’ve got to see Gladys. She’s got to . . . have a chance to see Jared.” Weeping again.
© Simon Fodden