This is a work of fiction. While some events and characters may be based in some part on real news events, the names, characters, places, and incidents herein are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael Hughes
All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If You would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the author at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.
First edition: January 2016
Ty Connell • Book 3 The ‘Novella Series’
THE DECONSTRUCTION AND
DEATH OF A NATURAL BEAUTY
© 2015 Michael C. Hughes
The concept of love at first sight wasn’t something Connell thought about much. When he did, he considered it a starry-eyed notion. Well-intentioned—mostly young—people deluding themselves. And Connell knew better than that. He was worldly. He knew that love was not an event but a process, and that it couldn’t hijack you instantly. Certainly not at first sight. Silliness.
However, that was before he clapped eyes on Ronalee Gayle.
Then it nearly killed him.
It started uneventfully enough one morning with a call from Stevens, a young beat patrolman Connell knew passably well from seeing him around the C-11, Dorchester District of the Boston PD. Connell was at his desk, pecking away at the keyboard and making tedious progress on a stack of over-due reports when his phone rang.
“Connell,” he said distractedly, crooking the phone in his shoulder, his mind focused on the screen.
“Yeah, Connell, Stevens here. Say listen, I’m over here just off Neponset at a photographer’s studio.”
Stevens, being a unie, a uniformed officer, meant he was fair game for the more senior plainclothes staff.
“That’s nice, Stevens. ‘Bout time you updated that high school photo of yours. Especially since you’ve started shaving and everything.”
Stevens smiled into the phone. “Yeah, they do nice re-touch work as well. Could probably even take a guy from the detective bureau and make him look like a real working cop. Anyway, I’ve got something here you might want to look into.”
“I just know you’re going to tell me it’s a break/enter and theft of equipment,” Connell said, still concentrating on his screen.
“As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what it is. But the reason I’m calling a big hot shot detective like yourself with the Major Crimes Unit and everything is because of another factor.”
“And that is?”
“For starters, the missing equipment totals over a hundred grand.”
“Must be a nice studio, but that doesn’t really qualify as a major crime. That’s still only property theft.”
“It does qualify as grand theft, and that is under the purview of Major Crimes, not that I’m trying to tell you your job or anything.”
“Hmm, purview,” Connell repeated the word, eyes still on his screen. “That’s a big word. You might be detective material one day after all, Stevens.”
“Nah, I’m happy on the donut squad. Anyway, this is a nice studio. These photo guys own the whole building. Two stories of nothing but shooting coves and a monster set you can drive a semi onto. But here’s where a guy like you comes in. The primary owner here—a Mr. Patrick Harbron—says he’s sure the stuff was stolen last night by the Mongrels. They would be one of the bigger outlaw motorcycle clubs active at raping and pillaging in the New England area these days. You’ve heard of them, right, detective?”
As biker gangs went, the Mongrels weren’t the largest or nastiest bunch on the organized crime chart, but one of the busiest. Connell did know them well.
“And on what do you base that?” he asked. “That they’re involved.”
“Well, aside from the fact that their clubhouse is only a few blocks away so it’s as convenient as hell, Mr. Harbron here had a few of them in the studio yesterday doing some sort of fashion shoot. Featuring leatherwear, if you can believe that. He says the client wanted a realistic feel, and these guys were paid to be like hired props. You know, stand around, and look menacing. Well, it might have gotten a little too realistic. Harbron says that while these Mongrel meatballs were killing time during the shoot, one of them walks the entire building and eye-balls the hardware, all of which went missing twelve hours later.”
Connell let out a cynical little laugh.
“Talk about inviting the rats in for a tour of the cheese factory,” he said. But he was then interested.
The Mongrels were known to move dope for bigger organizations that might be under more scrutiny, and in particular they seemed to have some sort of connection with the Russian mob. From Connell’s perspective, you never knew what sharks might be drawn into the net when you start out after pilot fish.
“Yeah, Okay, Stevens, that sounds like a big ten-four, since I got nothing else going on today. How long are you going to be out there?”
“ ‘nother hour. We’re still cataloguing what’s missing.”
“Okay, what’s the address?”
“The building’s called Shooting Stars. On Darcy Street, just past Adams. Ten minutes from the stationhouse. It’s got a big logo out front. Even a guy in a suit can’t miss it.”
Connell smiled. With a mouth like that? Definitely detective material one day.
“Okay. I’ll be there soon’s I finish up.”
Twenty minutes later Connell walked into the open concept building. It was a brilliant sunny day outside and dark as a cavern inside, so it took his eyes a moment to adjust. When they did, he could see that the place was massive, more like movie sound stages he’d been to than a mere photo studio. Fifty-foot ceilings with little well-lit pools of activity here and there where overhead lights hung down on heavy cables. Full kitchen and living room sets off to one side. Rows of dressing rooms and offices on the loft level above running along the back. Very impressive.
He looked around and saw Stevens blue uniform in the far corner, and he headed that way. As he neared, he saw that someone was perched on the edge of a sofa, his head in his hands. He took it to be the owner, Harbron. Stevens was standing next to him talking with another fellow, possibly a photo assistant.
As Connell walked, he glanced around and he could see camera stands here and there with no cameras on them, consoles stands without any console panels, and boxy square steel equipment frames holding no equipment. Someone had indeed done a thorough job of cherry-picking the place.
Stevens watched Connell approach. Most days, Connell dressed down for his undercover role with the INSOURCE squad, as he had that day: unshaven, disheveled. Looking more like a street person than a cop.
Connell gave Harbron the once over and sized him up: clean cut, entrepreneurial, about Connell’s age, early thirties, obviously a major success with a studio operation like this one.
Stevens said, “Patrick, meet Det. Connell.”
Harbron looked up and gave Connell the once over, clearly confused at his scruffy presentation. Connell pulled out his badge case.
“Major Crimes Unit. I do a bit of undercover,” he said.
“What’s undercover doing here?” Harbron asked.
Connell exchanged glances with Stevens. “PC Stevens says that you have an idea that the Mongrels might have had something to do with your theft last night. I have an interest in them and what they do.”
Harbron snorted. “Its not just some frickin’ idea. I know they came back and cleaned me out.”
“Can I ask why you had guys like that in here in the first place?” Connell asked. “Why not just use ordinary male models dressed like bikers?”
“Oh, no,” Harbron said, a little bitterly. “No, sir. That wasn’t good enough for this client. This guy said he wanted nothing but the real deal. It had to be the most authentic look for his precious line of leather coats and accessories. He wanted a dose of real reality, and he was willing to pay for it. Well, he got what he wanted all right. They sacred the hell out of him, not to mention the rest of my staff and most of the models. Plus, they screwed up the whole shoot. My client got so scared he left the building and wouldn’t come back onto the set. So, I had to get my shot approvals by running proofs to him in the restaurant across the road all day. Shot by shot. It was a disaster. The most paranoid shoot I’ve ever had.”
As they were talking Connell glanced at the layout bank beside them. There were test shots of models posing in various pieces of leather apparel. And standing beside, behind, or in front of them were various Mongrels. Some astride big chrome Harleys. One set of proofs in particular caught Connell’s eye. Close-ups of a most striking looking girl with long flowing blondish brown hair, a soft almost endearing face, big brown eyes you could fall into, and an expression that was both alluring and whimsical. She was modeling a little black leather jacket over a low-cut V-neck sweater, and she had an uncommon kind of radiance about her. A freshness that seemed to light up the photos and come right off the page.
Wow! Connell thought. beauty!
He knew a little bit about photography and he asked, “You shoot mostly digital or film?”
“For fashion? Film. You get a softer look. A glamour look.”
Connell had to nod agreement with that. He could see it in the photos of this girl. He took a final glance and turned his mind back to the business at hand.
“So, Constable Stevens says that one of these Mongrels had a pretty good look over your stuff.”
“Yeah, goof called Drago. Ivan Drago. Guy gives me the creeps.”
Connell didn’t know him, but he’d heard the name from reports to do with the gang. Drago was their supposed leader. They were active in the crystal meth trade—a business Connell had a special hate for—not that they’d pass on a golden break-and-enter opportunity if it presented itself. Like this one had. To date, he hadn’t had occasion to look too far into their activities.
“So this Drago guy had a look around,” Connell said.
“Did the full studio tour while he was supposed to be waiting for a shot set up. You know this guy?”
“A little. And this studio tour, didn’t it make you a little bit suspicious?”
“Course it did, but what could I do about it? He didn’t ask. He just did it. Got up and started walking all around. I also didn’t think they’d be stupid enough to come back the same day he was in here.”
It didn’t surprise Connell. Some of these guys? Their imaginations are so stunted they only see what’s right under their nose.
“You have an alarm system?” he asked.
“I did, until last night. Somebody didn’t just cut the power source at the side of the building—they by-passed the wiring and tore the whole fucking thing right off the wall and dumped it in the dumpster.”
Somebody on the Mongrel staff obviously electrician experience before getting into the raping and pillaging biz.
“You’re insured, right?” Connell asked.
“Well, yeah, but I’ve got ten big shoots coming up in the five days. You know how long it takes to assemble all the top-end equipment I have? Plus, I got to wait for the claim to be settled before I can even go shopping. Meantime, I’ve got to rent everything. And I mean everything. It sure would save my ass if the van that left here last night with all my stuff on it just showed up at my back loading ramp with all my stuff still on it.”
Every theft victim’s dream.
Just then the front door opened, letting in a flood of natural sunlight and a tall slender girl with shoulder-length wind-blown hair entered. She was dressed in a long flowing skirt made of some light gossamer material that revealed long limber legs from ankle to hip in backlit silhouette.
Whoa! Connell and Stevens both had to stare.
This girl—this apparition—floated toward them with the natural grace of some sort of creature from the wild, a deer or a gazelle. And she obviously knew how to put herself together. Sand colored pumps added another three inches to her already tall five foot-tenish figure. A frilly little black lace top, more like a piece of lingerie, under a three-quarter cut pastel tangerine jacket. When she got closer, Connell recognized her as the exquisite girl from the proof sheets on the side counter.
“Hey there, Patrick,” she said in the softest accent from some southern state.
“Hey Ronalee,” Harbron said, casually.
Connell prided himself on being cool, composed, and worldly around women. Even those of the intimidatingly gorgeous variety. Maintaining a policeman’s professional detachment. But on this occasion that all went out the window and he found himself staring like a schoolboy.
There was something about this girl. A soft beauty and a deep sadness, both impressions hitting and overwhelming at once.
But beauty was a pale word to use.
Exquisite didn’t even do her justice.
A rare and gentle creature that radiated a kind of otherworldliness. A serenity and a vulnerability that seemed to draw in all who met her. Made them want to get closer. It certainly did Connell.
When she saw Stevens’ uniform she stopped and covered her mouth and made a little “Oh,”, like she had said something out of turn.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Patrick. Am I interrupting something?”
Harbron sighed and nodded toward Stevens and Connell. “These guys are from the C-11 Police Station. I got broken into last night.”
The girl made a little gasp and clutched her throat. “Oh, Patrick. That’s awful.”
Connell continued to stare unabashedly at her.
He also noticed her sneaking side-glances at him, and he realized it was two things. His stare. And his shabby old clothes.
“Oh, sorry, luv,” He said and dug out his ID again. “Det. Ty Connell. Major Crimes Unit, District C-11. I work undercover sometimes, so I don’t have my tie on today.”
More than just no tie, he looked like the homeless who walked the area.
Connell had a pen in his hand, and never one to resist the urge for a little showmanship, he twirled it in his fingers, like a small baton, revolved it in his hand briefly, again like a baton, and held up and empty hand. The pen gone, seemingly vanished.
“Oh, wow,” the girl said softly, impressed as much by the fact that he did it to amuse her as by the bit of seeming magic itself. “A magic policeman.”
“A little sideline,” Connell said with a fleeting grin. “And you are?”
“Oh, I’m just Ronalee Gayle,” she said, a soft upward lilt to the final few syllables as some Southerners will do, turning the simple declaratory statement into what sounded more like a question. He wondered which state. Mississippi?
Connell also noted the “just.” Just Ronalee Gayle. A small touch of humility that seldom went with such beauty and he liked this girl more every moment. Fashion models, Connell knew from frustrating personal experience, could be sullen, sulky, bossy, distant, aloof, and self-absorbed. All those prima donna traits. But this girl was refreshingly unpretentious and down-to-earth. So utterly fresh.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt anythang,” she said, in her velvety voice. “I can come back later.”
“No, no, not at all, kid. No bother,” Harbron said. “What is it? You leave something?”
She adopted a hapless look. “You’ll never believe it. My new leather jacket,” she said, and she made a self-deprecating little shrug and a goofy smile.
“What? The one you were modeling?” Harbron asked.
“Yeah. Drago bought it for me. Then, stupid me, I went and left it.”
“Drago bought it for you?” Harbron asked, a note of alarm in his voice.
“Yeah. From Lenny. It was sooo soft, and I really liked the cut. Drago up and paid for it on the spot. I said, ‘Oh, don’t be silly’ but he insisted.”
Lennie Sprackman apparently was the client who had demanded absolute authenticity on the shoot.
“But Lenny didn’t even stay around for the shoot,” Harbron said. “He sat across the street all day. How did Drago buy the coat from him?”
“Well, Drago asked the girl from the coat company how much it cost and she told him and he just pulled out the cash and paid her right there.”
Connell watched Harbron go through the usual reactions. First, he made an angry little huff and shook his head like he couldn’t believe it. Not only does the guy frighten his client to the point where he won’t even hang around for his own photo shoot, and then he does a walk-through and takes inventory of the entire studio so he can come back later and clean it out, but he hits on his top model while he’s there? Unbelievable!
Connell also knew that it was a tricky issue in the fashion biz. Clients or others on the set making gifts to the girls of expensive items that they were modeling. It was only done with the bald-faced expectation of buying their way into the girl’s life—or bed! Or both!
Harbron made a hopeless shrug like it was a mistake on Ronalee’s part to have anything to do with the guy, but it was already done.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s probably still in one of the dressing rooms. Go have a look.”
“Thanks, hon,” she said, and all three watched as she sashayed her way toward the dressing rooms.
“Sweet kid,” Harbron said. “Totally class act. She’s got that million dollar smile and eyes you can just fall into. And the camera just loves her. Everyone loves her.”
“I’ll bet!” Connell said. “Where’d she get that honey coated accent?”
“Tennessee. Bluegrass country somewhere.”
Connell had only just met the girl but he found himself feeling he same concern Harbron had, the fact that the likes of Drago had made a move on her and that she had been foolish enough to allow it.
“You like her, eh?” Harbron said, with a little laugh. “You and every other guy she meets. Everyone loves Ronalee.”
Maybe including Harbron himself, Connell thought in passing. He studied Harbron a little more closely. He knew that photographers often shared more than photo spreads with some of their models, and she and Harbron had seemed pretty cozy. Then he had to ask himself; what was that strange sensation he was feeling? Could it be … jealousy? Protectiveness? He didn’t even know the girl. How could he be feeling jealous and protective of her?
But Harbron caught the look in Connell’s eye.
“By the way,” he said. “And just for the record. I’m happily married with two boys. I do this for a living—and it’s a damn good living—but Ronalee and I are just camera mates. Like I am with about fifty other women in this town. My wife’s Sicilian and I like my balls. I don’t want them served to me in my pasta one day, so I keep it strictly professional with the girls. I mention this only because I don’t want you to start thinking that there’s anything funny going on between me and Ronalee and then next thing I’m in some love triangle with this Drago guy and then I’m dragged into some sort of police mess. I don’t need that. I know how you guys think.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything,” Connell said, innocently. “I’m just curious. Does she have a current guy?”
“Jeez, Connell,” Stevens said, “Why don’t you just arrest the girl and drag her in for questioning. You could probably find out everything there is to know about her love life in an hour or two.”
Connell cast Stevens a glance as though that weren’t a bad idea.
“As far as I know,” Harbron said. “There’s nobody in her life. She’s got family of some sort up here that she stays with. An aunt, I think. But she’s not going to be here long. She’ll be off to New York before you know it. Now, do you mind if we get back to the more pressing matter at hand here, which is—how the FUCK am I going to get my equipment back?”
“Mr. Harbron, settle down. I’m on the case,” Connell said, and he took a step back to the side counter where he picked up Ronalee’s test shots and glanced over them again before setting them down, as though he were burning her image into his mind. He said, “I’ll call as soon as I have something.”
He headed back to the stationhouse.
On the drive back, Ronalee Gayle was much on Connell’s mind.
What was it about her? How had she reached him a place other women hadn’t? Went zinging right through all his emotional armor like a hot dart into his heart.
He found himself rolling around elusive philosophical questions he seldom had to consider. Such as: what really is attraction? Is it based solely on some random and quirky arrangement of molecules that determine a person’s facial features and body shape that happens to conform to some specific and preconceived image a personal already has in their mind?
In the end, he decided that wiser men than he hadn’t come to terms with these questions over the centuries and that what he was feeling was simply attraction. Let it go at that. And what red-blooded man wouldn’t be attracted to a rare and natural beauty like Ronalee? It was the nature of things. Besides, he had enough women trouble elsewhere and didn’t need more. So, he did let it go.
It was time to turn his mind to the problem at hand, namely the recovery of Patrick Harbron’s photo equipment as a start point to a look into the activities of the Mongrel Motorcycle Club.
Mundane matters, such as theft—even grand theft—weren’t something Connell worked on every day. But the criminal thought processes is pretty much the same for most crimes, so he leaned back and put himself in the shoes of the Mongrels.
How would a not-too-bright slug like Drago think? What would he do? First, he’d have to realize that an entire van load of freshly stolen high grade camera equipment was going to be hard to sell and to unload locally, in town. At least as a quick turnaround deal and without bringing down heat on himself. Especially when it’s stolen in Boston. Every professional photographer in town would hear on the grapevine about the theft at Shooting Stars, and all the pawn shops would get the police circular detailing the equipment with serial numbers. So all the active fences and pawn shops in town—the only buyers for such goods—would be wary of touching them until they cooled off. Well cooled off. That meant having to dump the stuff somewhere other than Boston and further afield if you were looking for a quick sale.
So, if you were really anxious to turn hot goods into cash quickly—and Connell couldn’t see a Visigoth like Drago acting anything but impetuously—then the best place away from Boston was New York. Where in New York? The Bronx. The first borough you come to coming from the north and east. It was across two state borders and in a completely different police jurisdiction. The Bronx was a known major dumping ground for hot goods coming from points north.
So, there was a chance, Connell thought, that a van might have driven directly from Harbron’s studio to New York overnight and was possibly sitting somewhere in New York at that very moment.
There was little point calling the NYPD Hold-up Squad. They’d just blow him off. Too busy working their own backyards to deal with on an out-of-town problem that would do nothing but suck up time and bring no brownie points their own way in the end. But Connell had a few markers he could call in in New York. And they were in the Bronx. Only problem was, his favors were owed by a detective on the drug squad who would have zero interest in a hot goods case. That meant Connell would have to be creative somehow and make it worth his while.
The particular officer Connell had in mind was a bilingual Hispanic detective named Rafael Morales who worked the 4-3 in the south Bronx. In the typical fashion of Americanizing otherwise poetically-sounding ethnic names, the lyrical Rafael had become the distinctly working class Ralph. Somehow, Connell sometimes thought, too much was lost in the translation of some ethnic names into American. In any case, Ralph could maybe be enticed to do some pro bono spadework since he owed Connell. He decided to make the call.
His call went first to the 4-3 main desk.
“Det. Morales, please.”
A voice with a distinctly nasally Bronx accent came on the line. “Morales.”
“Yeah, Ralph. Connell. C-11. Boston.”
“Hey. Connell. How’s life in the sticks?”
“Just fine, buddy. You remember that little job we worked a few years back?”
There was a grunt over the line as Morales recalled the case. “That Bridgeport thing,” he said.
Bridgeport, Connecticut’s biggest city and one of its biggest headaches, was just up the highway from the Bronx and was going through a period of “gang infestation,” as the police there were calling it. Diversified multi-product dope dealing shit head gangs—meth, crack, smack, club drugs—were trying to expand both ways. Making inroads west into NYC through the Bronx, and north into Boston.
Morales had rounded up several suspects on tips from Connell. The case had won a major victory in court, and most of the credit had gone to Morales. But most of the intel had come from Connell.
“I seem to recall the case,” Morales said, purposely vague.
Connell had to smile. Morales not only got a conviction, he got a raise, and a promotion out of it.
“Thought you would,” Connell said. “Remember you said that any time I wanted something I just had to call?”
“Really? I said such a thing?” Morales said, playing really dumb.
“Must have been a mental lapse.”
“I’m sure it was. In any case, mi amigo, I need a small favor.”
“Very tiny. Should take no time at all.”
“Aw, come on, Connell. You know these favors always take more time than I have. I’m a busy man down here. Not like you guys, spend all your time planning your fishing and hunting trips. Bringing home all that fresh moose meat,”
“Yeah. Ralph, moose have been all but extinct here for about a hundred years.”
“Lobsters!” Ralph said. “That’s it. All the moose are up in Vermont. You guys give us all those lobsters. Okay. What is this favor?”
Connell explained that he was looking for: a vanload of recently-hot professional-grade camera equipment, probably being pedaled in bulk out of a rented cube van or moving van and most likely arriving in town early that very day.
“Now, why do think that Boston’s best thieves would bring their Boston junk all the way to our beautiful city?” Morales asked.
“Only reason I can think of, Ralph, is that it’s convenient as hell and they do it every day of the week.”
“This is one of our problems here,” Morales said. “New Englanders exporting their crime to us. How about I do this for you? I will make some enquiries. Call around and see what I can find out.”
“That would be great. And if you could get those calls in before the end of the day we might find the stuff still on the van.”
“I’ll call you.”
Connell rang off.
At the end of the afternoon Morales actually called back.
“So, Connell, my friend. I think maybe we found your camera equipment. Still on the van like you said. It was down in Hunts Point, over in the 4-1. A well-known fence.”
Connell knew the area only by reputation. That it was a largely industrial neighborhood on the peninsula part of the south Bronx. A long history of high crime rates.
“Really?” he said, a little surprised. He’d been more joking than serious about a call back that day.
“I wish I could tell you it was stellar police work, but this fence also moves narcotics around the entire area north of here and our guys were watching his warehouse. A cube van showed up at noon with Massachusetts plates. It was a no brainer.”
“You were there?”
“Again, I wish I could say that I was. But no. Not personally. I made a few phone calls. Your Boston guys were still inside the warehouse and the van was parked out front when I called around. The 4-1 guys had a mike on them and, when they realized it was just about a shipment of hot goods, they were going to let them walk away. Wait for bigger fish. Fortunately, they were all still inside dickering over sale prices when I called, so I asked the men to pick them up. They have them in holding cells and the van in possession.”
“Wow. Excellent work, buddy. One of the guys they’re holding, does it happen to be an Ivan Drago?”
Connell could hear paper shuffling. Morales looking through his sheets.
“Two males, from Boston. No Drago.”
So Drago had sent his minions, stayed home, and dodged the bullet.
“Well, I guess you got an easy ride one on this one,” Connell said.
“Yeah. That means we’ll make up for it tomorrow. You don’t get two easy ones in a row.”
“Okay, amigo,” Connell said. “I’ll make arrangements to have these clowns and the van picked up and brought back.”
“Hey, Connell. Any more that easy—don’t hesitate to call.”
By end of day the next day—only the day after the heist—the goods were back in Boston, still in the van which was then in the impound yard and the two Mongrel mutts were in holding cells in the basement of the C-11.
Connell called Harbron.
“Shooting Stars,” a sexy if somewhat jaded female voice said on the other end of the phone.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said in a professionally bored tone, “Patrick is on a shoot at the moment and can’t come to the phone.”
‘Yes. But he can’t come to the phone. Can I take a message?”
Connell let out a light laugh. “That’s okay. I think he’ll come for this.”
“I’m sorry, but Patrick doesn’t come on the line for anyone when he’s in the middle of a shoot.”
“Excuse me, luv,” Connell said, a little irked. “But this is Det. Ty Connell, Major Crimes Unit, District C-11 Dorchester, of the Boston PD and I really think Mr. Harbron will take my call.”
There was silence at the other end for a moment.
“Um, one minute, please.”
Harbron came up the line. “Det. Connell, I hope you have some good news.”
“I’d say so. I have all your stuff here.”
“What? Already? Where is it?”
“In the impound yard. I need you to come down to the station and fill out a few forms. And bring your insurance list.”
Harbron came by the C-11, and all serial numbers from his insurance claim form matched the equipment on the van. It looked like everything was present and accounted for.
“So I can take my stuff now?” he asked.
“Wow,” Harbron said. “What a relief. So what happens to those Mongrel goof balls? Do I have to worry about them?”
“Yeah,” Connell said, leaning back. “I wanted to talk to you about that,” he said. “Right now we’re holding the two they picked up down in the Bronx with the van. We have a couple of options now. One is, you press charges, we follow through, they get bail and walk out, and we all wait for their court date when they get off with a slap.”
“A slap? But they stole a hundred grand worth of equipment. My equipment!”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that they claim that they didn’t steal your equipment. They claim they only stole the van—with the equipment already in it.”
“They claim they came across the van, saw that it was loaded, had no idea whose stuff it was, and drove it to New York to sell the contents.”
“But that’s still stealing my fucking equipment.”
“It is. It’s possession stolen property. But it’s not break, enter and theft, which is the more serious charge. It’s stealing from persons unknown who they believed would never come forward to press charges because they would never know who took the van.”
“Who would buy such a load of crap?”
“Patrick, settle. It’s one hundred per cent bullshit. They’ve got a lawyer probably hitting them for big bucks and he’s spinning it any cockeyed way he can. And in court, strange things happen. They’ll claim that whoever stole your stuff panicked and abandoned the truck. They found it, had no idea it was yours—what do they know from camera equipment?—and they drove it to New York to turn a few quick bucks. As for proving that they were inside your place to steal it, well, you had them in for the whole day. So their fingerprints are going to be everywhere with legitimate reason.”
Harbron could not believe what he was hearing. “This is nuts.”
“Welcome to the world of law and disorder. But don’t worry about it. What this is all about is to get you so you don’t press charges. Make it too much of a hassle. So, if we don’t do anything, and you don’t do anything, they walk away. Clear.”
“Now you’ve got to be joking!”
“Patrick, can I just walk you through this with me?”
Harbron shrugged to go ahead.
“If you press charges, these guys are going to be out walking free when they make bail. Probably later today. And they’ll be free for months until their case comes to trial, not to mention the rest of the Mongrel brain trust which is already at large anyway. Even if convicted, these two goombahs will probably get a few months at most—even if their wacko defense doesn’t fly. So they’ll be right back out again before the leaves turn. So you are going to have some very irate Mongrels sitting about three blocks from your studio for a long time to come.”
Harbron rolled that idea around. “What am I supposed to do? Nothing!”
“I have an interest in these guys that goes well beyond the theft of your equipment. But I’ve already recovered your stuff, so at least we’re even on that score, right?”
“Okay,” Harbron said, cautiously, listening.
“So, you don’t press charges and two things happen. One, after a few days the Mongrels forget you even exist, which is a good thing for you. And two, it leaves the whole damn bunch of them out there like loose cannons and feeling pretty cocky because they just beat a rap on a bullshit defense, and that lets me follow them and dig into what else they’re up to which—now that they’ve made it onto my radar screen—is something I plan to do. I’d rather have them out there with their guard down and going about whatever it is they do, than going into a defensive lock-down mode and sitting in the clubhouse all day.”
Harbron thought that over as well and started to see Connell’s point.
“Okay,” he sighed. “I guess I can buy that. So, you’re saying if I don’t press any charges my problem goes away. I don’t have to worry about them coming back at me at all?”
“Right. I’ve got two of them sitting downstairs right now. When you leave, I’m going to go down for a little heart to heart. These guys aren’t brain surgeons. More like bottom feeders. Lucky to be able to lace up their own boots. I’m going to make it clear that they caught a break. A huge break. That, against my advice, you refused to press charges. You got your stuff back and you just want the whole thing behind you, and that if anything else goes missing from your studio from here forward—even a goddamned pen—that I’m going to be right back on their doorstep making them wish they’d done their time this time.”
Harbron thought that over as well. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “By the way. What was that thing you did with that pen at my place? When Ronalee showed up. That disappearing thing.”
Connell brushed it off. “Just a little magic thing I do for laughs.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know that. But where the hell’d the pen go? I was watching. You twirl your hand and make this weird movement and it was gone. Totally. What the hell’s up with that?”
“Magic, Patrick. Don’t sweat it.”
Harbron looked at Connell dubiously for several more moments. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “So, how do I get my stuff back?”
“I write you up a release form and you take it to the impound yard. I’ll give you the address. You’ll just have to show up in your own van and load it all across.”
“I’ll walk you to the front desk. We’ll get the paperwork started.”
On the way, Connell said, “So how’s our friend Ronalee doing?”
Harbron shrugged, “I don’t know. I work with her again next week. Guess I’ll find out then. I just hope that shit ball Drago hasn’t wormed his way in.”
That thought had also worried Connell as well.
When Harbron left, Connell decided to do a little research on Ivan Drago. He typed the name into Internal Records and the file came up with a sheet of not surprising charges and convictions going back ten years: drunk and disorderly, assault, theft under, theft over, receiving stolen goods, possession narcotics. What you’d expect. None of which surprised Connell.
What did surprise him was that he’d been nicked for a second possession/restricted weapon/restricted substance in New York city and been packed off to the Clinton Correctional Facility upstate in Dannemora, a town of about 5,000 near the Canadian border. The prison there known among ex cons and cops alike simply as Dannemora, that name itself carrying all kinds of grim connotations. One of the most feared prisons in America. A place you come out of vowing never to go back. He was sure Drago would feel that way about it.
The other thing of note was his country of origin: Czechoslovakia. He was not only fluent in Czech and English, but also in Russian. It then made sense, rumors of ties to the Russian mob.
The photo that came with the file showed a strangely conflicted face. Ugly at first glance with boils and pock marks everywhere, probably from bad acne as a teen. But also a vague kind of refinement. Like he’d actually been someone once and had had some kind of life before the Mongrels.
He was about to turn off the monitor when he decided, as a shot in the dark, to see what, if anything, he could find on Ronalee as well.
He went to the NPDB (United States Nationwide Police Data Base). It took a moment to scan the system but shortly something surprising popped onto the screen: Ronalee’s sheet with Tennessee State police. There were no charges, but a worrisome notation. Three years ago Ronalee was popped as a found-in a Knox County raid on a rural farmhouse where various drugs had been found and confiscated.
Charges against Ronalee were dropped, but charges against others in the house stuck—three males. Two cousins and a brother, all of whom had the same last name, Gayle. Her cousins and brother. They were sentenced to two years less a day for possession banned substance, sentences suspended as first time offences. At least the charges were short of trafficking, which would have meant automatic lock-up time.
“Ronalee,” Connell said aloud to the computer screen. “What are you doing, girl? You gotta watch yourself.”
He leaned back. Was it that big a deal? That she’d hung around with family a little too long when she should have cut out? Drawn into a mess not her own? Was that was why she’d left home territory for a far-flung place like Boston. Get away from influences? Make a clean start and get settled before trying to take on the Big Apple?
He glanced at his watch: 5:00. He shut down the program and turned off the monitor. He had a contact in the Russian community. He wondered what the guy might know about Drago. Maybe time for a visit.
Not many blocks away, Ivan Drago was sitting back in a battered old sofa at the Mongrel clubhouse making plans.
Drago, at six three two hundred and twenty pounds, was a big guy. A dedicated weight trainer on a steroid regimen. The ‘roids made him volatile and more than a little unpredictable, but they did make him well muscled and cocky about it. He was also handsome in a coarse way, even with the pockmarks patterning both cheeks. But that didn’t seem to slow him down with women. They found him—in Drago’s words—mesmeric. And in his own rough self-serving way, he probably was.
He was tipping back a beer with his ear to his cell phone planning the night’s activities.
“You sure that’s where she’ll be at tonight? You’ve seen her there before?”
He listened for a moment. “Jesus, all four joints? Yeah, okay, fine, she moves around. I get it. Hold on, I gotta write these down.” He turned over an old pizza flyer. “Yeah, what are they again?”
He wrote the names of four nightspots on the back of the flyer then ripped off the panel and tucked it into his pocket.
“So, does she have a favorite, or do I hafta check out all four?”
“Unh-hunh. Yeah, okay. I’ll try that first. I’ll call you later.” He flipped shut the phone.
He looked over the half dozen members flopped on sofas around the room watching the football game on the giant TV, deciding who was most suitably dressed to accompany him that night. The two who had just been released by police had been in the same clothes for three days and were too ripe: even Drago didn’t want to sit near them! Two of the other four were in dirty jeans, leather jackets and colors, which Drago did not want to promote that night. Two had shown up directly from their day jobs and were casually dressed and looked semi respectable. One was his de fact second in command. A fellow named Albert Chesterton who went by his biker name, Slag. He was wearing what might pass for club wear: a tight designer black leather jacket over a blue silk shirt and narrow pants.
Drago called to him. “Hey Slag. I want to make a connection tonight. At a downtown club. I want you to come along. The rest of yous can stay here. Do whatever the fuck you want.”
Slag went with Drago to his apartment a few blocks away so he could shower, shave, and get dressed in his Friday night best—a white pimp suit, lacquered black shoes, and a purple sateen shirt. He and Slag got into some prelim stimulants before heading out: at nine, he called for a limo, the contact that always drove him.
When the man arrived, Drago told him to be prepared to be with him most of the night.
Twenty minutes later the limo pulled up to one of the city’s current hot nightspots, a place called Croc Rock. On an Aussie theme.
Drago liked the place because it was on the raw side; plain concrete floors, exposed steel rafters, a second floor loft along three sides with rows of padded stools at the rail so you could sit up nice and high, nurse a drink, and watch the floor below. The music was deafening with the bass cranked up so the floor vibrated. The place had all the warmth of an abandoned and darkened warehouse shot through with laser lights and with pockets of blue mood lighting here and there from the various bars around the place.
They made their way to the back and ordered drinks.
Drago turned, parked his elbows on the bar, and cast a look around, looking over the crowd. After a few moments, he saw what he was looking for and headed through the crowd. Slag followed like a well trained Doberman.
At the end of one of the side bars Drago walked up behind a tall girl in spike heels, form-fitting black leotards, and a tight-fitting leather jacket. He leaned over and spoke loudly into her ear.
“Hey, babe. Love the jacket,” he said.
Ronalee Gayle swung around.
“Hey, there,” she said in a friendly way, “How are you doing?”
Her eyes widened and she flashed that smile that could light up Times Square.
“Better all the time,” Drago said, with unctuous charm. “How’s the jacket?”
“Oh, I just love it,” she said, giving herself a hug. It was a moto style with discreet little studs, belts, and buckles and made of ultra soft lambskin. Italian made, he had pointed out when he bought it for her. She had no idea he’d put out a thousand dollars for it.
He looked Ronalee over. He believed that he was one of the few people who knew her, not her personally yet, but what she was all about. Everyone else saw a doe-like beauty. Drago saw the vulnerability and the timid beauty as well, but he also saw something else. Someone wanting to break out. He sensed that she had a pent up side, a side that craved stimulation. He knew also that something in her was attracted to something in a guy like him. A taste for the danger, as the song says.
“You’re all alone?” she asked.
“Naw,” the said, turning, “This here’s my buddy.”
Ronalee was with a small group, three other models from her agency. “Hellos” were exchanged all around, everyone having to yell to be heard.
Ronalee was sipping something pink and girlie through a straw. “Patrick says I shouldn’t talk to you,” she said.
She had to yell into his ear.
As Drago leaned in close as well, he caught the scent of heavenly perfume on her neck.
“Now why do you think he’d say that?” he said, as her hair lightly brushed his cheek.
“He says you’re too rough.” She added that with a little laugh and a reserved giggle.
As he looked into her soft brown eyes he continued to assess her.
is a gal I want on my arm.
Drago hadn’t always been the rough, dope dealing, hard drinking, head bashing biker bad boy he was then. Before his biker career—and even before his first career as a legit electrician’s apprentice—he had once been a good student, gone to trade school, and had played double bass backup with the symphony orchestra in his home town back in the Czech Republic. Had also played with a gawky rock band and boxed amateur with a local youth club.
But all that was before the move to America and before hitting the club drugs, then the harder drugs, then, eventually, the needle, at which point he found his first real true loves—heroin and meth. Both exacting mistresses.
What Harbron had said about him he didn’t dispute with Ronalee.
“The photog’s right,” he shrugged. “For his world. He just doesn’t know my world. Or yours.”
They locked eyes for a moment and, when she didn’t flinch, he knew that he was right about her.
Still, even if it was true that she had a submerged craving for the unknown and the uncertain, it didn’t mean she was going to act on it. Lots of people had those crazy desires and never acted on them. But one thing that was certain was that a girl like Ronalee was going to take time to land. Take to stalk. She’d be cautious and skittish. Like deer back in the forests of his homeland. You took your time and didn’t make any sudden moves.
“What is that horrid pink stuff you drinking?” he asked.
“A Dolce & Gabbana,” she said with another shy giggle.
Cute. A drink named after a fashion house. Drago knew what it was. Diet Coke and grenadine syrup. No alcohol.
”That’s it?” he said. “Non alcoholic?”
“I don’t drink,” she said with a shrug. “What are you drinking?”
“Jack Daniels. Over proof.”
She made a face. “My dad and brothers drink that stuff. Bourbon. It’s too harsh.”
“Really? You think so?” he said. “Hold on a minute. I’ll be right back.”
Drago worked his way to the rear bar where he had a word with the bartender. The man left abruptly and took off up the employees’ back stairway to the bar on the second level, the so-called “luxury lounge,” and returned with a bottle. He poured out a bit and Drago returned with a two-ounce shot glass half full.
“Try this,” he said. “Just sip it.’
She did. “Mmm. Nice. What is it?”
“Wild Turkey. Twenty five years old. Bourbon, but a whole different ball game. Ultra smooth.”
Certainly not what the men in her family drank. Growing up, they’d partaken only of budget brands of whatever kind of booze was going. Sometimes outright moonshine from some neighbor, most of which were wildly over-proof and hard as lighter fluid.
After a while, Drago suggested that the entire group relocate—in his limo—to some other trendy spots along entertainment row. He made a call and, feeling like music and film stars, they all made a grand exit and piled into the long white stretch limo waiting at the sidewalk.
Inside, Drago put on a music video and cranked up the volume, and the interior of the vehicle was soon rocking as loudly as the club had been. Playing the genial host while watching Ronalee out of the corner of his eye, Drago pulled out a little packet of powder and another packet of pills. He took a tab and a snort and handed both around. Everyone dipped in readily except Ronalee, who simply passed them along. She did accept a diet coke from the bar fridge and sipped at it until Drago pulled out the Wild Turkey bottle. He’d taken it from the club.
Everyone had a good laugh at that and he slipped another shot into her hand.
Ronalee sipped at it politely.
Drago slid the moon roof open and told the driver just to cruise the club district. Slag and one of the girls stood and whooped it up as the limo floated passed sidewalks filled with party people, Drago’s gaze darting constantly but casually to Ronalee, seated beside him. Still assessing her, still taking her measure. Her little two-ounce shot glass remained mostly full, the bourbon only wetting her lips from time to time.
As they made their way north to the clubs around the Faneuile district, Boston’s high-end artsy sector along the Channel, Slag leaned across and tried to make conversational time with Ronalee. That is, until he caught the killer glare in Drago’s eye he realized he’d made a big mistake. He sat back and let it go. He got it. Ronalee was Drago’s property. And he was working her. Not worth dying over a girl!
A short while later, Drago leaned toward her. “You smoke?”
“No. I’ve never smoked.”
He nodded and thought for a bit. “You snort?”
She pulled back to have a better look at him, not sure what he meant. In her sleep? Snoring? Then she realized—coke.
“Oh,” she said with a little laugh of surprise. “No,” she said a little more frankly, not afraid to say so directly. “I don’t do anything. No drugs I mean.”
He fell thoughtful for another moment. “No pills?”
“You mean party pills?”
“Yeah. Ecstasy. Whatever.”
“Tylenol,” she said with a small grin. “Sometimes.”
She had obviously been through this line of questioning many times by guys probing for soft spots and had her standard responses down pat.
Drago nodded again, thought over what she said, and then he took a wild shot.
“Course, if you’re gonna do any of this stuff at all, there’s nothing like a little toke of meth.”
As he spoke he watched Ronalee closely and he noticed the slightest flicker of something cloud her expression. A vague haunted look, and he knew that he’d hit on something. What? Some sort of experience with the drug that had made her afraid of it? Watching family turn to it? Someone close? Drago knew then how he was going to seduce Ronalee Gayle.
He sat back, had another snort of his favorite powdered recreational medication, and knew his day would come. All it would take was patience and time. A skittish little doe in the urban forest.
After meeting Ronalee that first day at Harbron’s, Connell’d done his best to get her out of his head. And, occasionally, he forget about her for a whole day or so. Went on about his business and put her behind him. Ships that had passed in the night. But she wouldn’t stay out. He found himself thinking about her all the time.
Then one day he noticed, glancing through the paper, that there was going to be a charity fashion show and PR event in the Atrium at the Marriott Copley Place. And he noticed, as he scanned down the list of local celebs and models who would be appearing—which included local TV, radio, sports figures, and VIPs from around town—that Ronalee’s name was among them. And his heart suddenly ached.
She’s going to be so close.
Connell wasn’t normally a fashion show kind of guy—all the sullen strutting and fluffing in cartoonish getups no sane woman would ever be caught dead wearing in public before an effete audience of flakes and industry phonies. Not his style in any way. But this fashion show! This was one he was not going to miss.
He got out of his undercover street-person mode—he shaved, showered, put on a nice sports jacket and slacks, white shirt and oxfords—and he attended the show.
The Lobby Atrium at the Copley Marriott was a spectacular space. A massive and open six stories high with a curtain of mini lights cascading down from a glass-topped ceiling that let in all kinds of natural light.
The afternoon event was a well-attended and toney kind of affair with a mix of office workers from the towers nearby mingling with the well-heeled society-types who usually populate such fundraisers. The idea was—as these things always went—that a model came out wearing a particular item and people in the audience got to bid for the items. Whether they ever accepted delivery was questionable, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to raise money. Connell was cynical about these things. The items themselves, he thought, may well have been given away to Goodwill after being bought, which explains why you sometimes see bag ladies in haute couture labels among the five or ten layers of dresses they wear.
Over to the side, in a roped off section with lots of security, was the models area with makeshift change rooms like beach tents. Connell made his way over and decided to cheat a little. He pulled out his badge to the security kid and gained access to the roped off zone.
Ronalee was between turns, standing with a group of others modeling that day, some of whom Connell recognized as TV personalities.
She was in an odd looking silvery evening dress with strange cutaways and a cleavage that fell from her breast bone to her bikini line. Too much Ronalee and not enough dress, he thought to himself but said nothing. But even an extreme looking clownish concoction couldn’t diminish Ronalee’s personal allure. On her, it came off as stunning. She came off as stunning.
He walked up. “Hey, gorgeous.”
She turned. “Oh, hi,” she said, her eyes bright but questioning.
Connell could see that she knew they’d met but couldn’t place him. At the studio where he’d had a five-day growth and had been in his street garb. That day he looked like he might have walked out of a GQ shoot: clean shaven, hair gelled, nice after shave.
He had to prompt her.
“Det. Connell,” he said. “We met at Patrick Harbron’s studio a few weeks ago.” He saw that she was trying to recall. “You came back in to pick up your jacket.”
“Oh, yes. Hi,” she said again, her eyes brightening, it all coming back. “You look so … different.”
He took it as flattery.
“I was on long term undercover when you saw me. I’m on a different assignment today. I actually shaved and had a shower.”
Her expression lit up and she smiled. “Right. Det. Connell. The magic policeman. So how are you?” And she smiled that smile that had melted Connell the first time she directed it his way. Connell again felt like a snowman in a heat wave.
“So, what are you doing here?” she asked, interest and genuine enthusiasm in her voice.
Connell shrugged. “Oh, you know, I get around. I was in the area and I had some time to kill so I came in and who should I see walking down the runway but the most beautiful gal in the city? So I just thought I’d say a quick hello.”
She blushed. “Well, that is so nice.”
Then she leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial little whisper, “Are you going to be disappearing any pens today?” And she smiled that million-dollar smile so close to Connell’s cheek that he caught the warmth of her breath. Melt.
“No pens. Not today,” he said, and he held his hands up, rotated them both so that she could see he had nothing in either one and, with his right hand he reached out and touched her behind her left ear and—magically—had a golden John Adams dollar coin in his fingers.
“Can’t help myself,” he said. “My little compulsion.”
“That is so neat.” She smiled again, a wide-eyed kind of delight, the kind he usually saw on the faces of children. “I just love magic. Don’t you sometimes wish the whole world was magical all the time?”
“Like kids see it?”
She thought about that for a moment and titled her head. “Yeah.”
God, Connell thought not for the fist time, where does a girl like this come from? Not what state. What planet?
Someone from the side called out, “Ronnie, you’re up next.”
“Oh,” she made a little exclamation.
“That’s what they call you? Ronnie?” Connell asked.
She made a mock frown. “I hate it when they do. Anyway, I’ve got to run. It was so nice seeing you. Are you staying around? You’re coming to the after party, right?”
He was surprised to feel himself blush a little, something he never did. But he didn’t want to be moping around with a love struck look on his face all afternoon. And have to elbow his way past every guy at the party just to speak to her. He especially didn’t want to do something bone-headed like asking her out to dinner. Not yet. No. He’d pick another time…
He said, “No. I gotta go. I go on duty soon. But I’ll watch you do your next turn. I just wanted to stop by and say hi. I’ll catch you again soon.”
“I’d like that,” she said and leaned over and gave him a little brush-by kiss that almost caught on his cheek. “Next time,” she said and gave him that short, cute little “Bye” she did and she was off.
Over so quickly.
Connell watched her mount the stairs to the makeshift runway and wondered if he was absolutely stark raving crazy? Walking away from an invite like that. But it was the wrong time and the wrong place. He’d made a second contact. There’d be another.
But there was no next time.
Things got busy, Ronalee faded a bit from his mind and several months past. Connell was at his desk at the office, feet up. Nearing the end of one of his day shifts, day shifts being a bit of a rarity for him and intended as clean up days. Paperwork. Reports and forms. He was staring at a pile of them next to his computer screen.
Do them now? Leave them for later? He hated paperwork.
The phone rang.
“Connell,” he said simply.
“Yeah, Detective. Patrick Harbron. The photographer. You remember me?”
“Yeah, sure. Shooting Stars. Your and a camera are Miss Tennessee’s best friends.”
“Yeah, well, that’s kind of why I’m calling. About Ronalee.”
Connell put his feet down and sat forward. “Why? What’s up?”
“You got time for a coffee? I’ll explain.”
“I’ll be right over.”
When Connell walked in, the studio was quiet and dark but for a pool of light from a hanging overhead over a sofa in the sitting area over to the side. The informal lounge area on the studio floor.
Connell walked over.
“You off shift?” Harbron asked.
“There’s beer in the fridge.”
Connell pulled open the door. It was stacked with imports: Tuborg, Sapporo, Stella. He grabbed a can of Guinness stout, the really black like tar Irish pub stuff, and sat across the glass-topped coffee table.
“So, what’s up?” he asked.
“Ronalee. She’s disappeared.”
“That’s it? No idea where to?”
Harbron fell silent for several moments. Where to start?
Finally, he did start. Ronalee had left Tennessee for reasons, he said. Mostly to do with her immediate family and influences down there. Thing starting to go sideways.
Connell recalled the notation in the file. Her home region well used to self-medicating for centuries on moonshine and then grass and now moved onto oxycontin and meth country.
“You talking about meth?” he said.
“Yeah,” Harbron said, discouraged. “I think so.”
He had to decide again where to begin.
“Ronalee, when I met her, was starting at the bottom of the fashion industry. Just another gorgeous face on a chart of modeling agency head shots. But, of course, she had that magnetism in person and it all took off. A friend of mine knew her briefly in California. Another photographer. Before she came here. He said she left California also because things began to go sideways. Something about a party on a beach, a lot of dope sloshing around and her waking up in the morning in the nude in a hammock and that scared the hell out of her. No details, just that. Anyway, she left the coast and came here. More running from than coming to. And I started using her on shoots right away. Then pretty soon everyone wants her. Next thing, Ronalee’s being flown down to the Bahamas on all-expense paid fashion shoots with goofball directors and producers.”
“Yeah. Didn’t care a thing about her, just wanted to get her high and into her pants.”
“You know, I guess I’ve got to admit she broke my heart like she breaks every guy’s heart. That almost mystical beauty. Her aura. That soft round Tennessee drawl,” Harbron said and fell silent for a moment. “Lots of these girls break my heart. Occupational hazard of the photog biz. But, you know, you just fantasize for a bit, then you get over it. And I’ve got a great marriage and a great family I wouldn’t jeopardize for anything. But Ronalee was different. She kind of got under the defenses. But the thing is, with Ronalee, it wasn’t lust. It was protectiveness or something. You just want to hold that girl.”
Harbron’d had a long talk with her one time, he said. Ronalee was from good family in a little place called Sevierville near Knoxville, in the foothills of the Appalachians. Her father worked at the University of Tennessee Controller’s Office in Knoxville as a minor bookkeeper at a modest salary. Her mom was a Woodstock flower child who taught singing and piano. Old hippies. Birkenstock people. Rolled a little smoke, made a bit of wine, but mostly granola and quinoa health food types. Ronalee had grown up an outdoor kid, a true tomboy, playing tag and football with her brothers and their cousins, growing from this awkward, gangly kid into this gorgeously stunning natural beauty.
“You just want to hold onto her and wrap her up in bubble wrap and kick the shit out of anyone who tries to come near her.”
Connell nodded that he got that. That he knew that feeling around Ronalee.
“So what’s she running away from now?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. I’m also not sure she got away in time this time.”
Connell cocked his head. “Why? What do you mean?”
“I mean, I think maybe she started trying the stuff before she cut out from Tennessee. I think her brothers and cousins got into it. Then that thing back on the west Coast. Once you try that stuff … well you’re a cop. I don’t have to tell you. It doesn’t leave you alone. It invades you. You know any junkies?”
Connell let out a little snort. “In my line? Are you kidding? I sometimes wonder if there’s any straight arrow citizens left out there. But are you trying to say that Ronalee’s a meth head?”
“What I’m trying to say is that you can walk away from it, but it doesn’t walk away from you. I think Ronalee tried running, but it caught her. Maybe again.”
At that moment Connell let out another snort.
“Drago,” he said, bitterly, spitting out the name.
Harbron bobbed his head. “I heard he chased her pretty hard. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m afraid that girl might be headed for the big slide.”
Connell’s heart sank. “I thought her career would just be taking off.”
“Yeah, it is. She still gets a ton of calls—like we call her all the time. But she never takes them any more. She’s been out of contact for more than a week. Nobody knows where in the world she’s at.”
“Maybe gone back home?”
“Maybe. But I don’t think so. I’m really worried.”
Connell had to wonder where, at that moment, Ronalee was and what she was doing?
At that moment, Ronalee was lying back on a padded chaise lounge on a white sand beach half way around the world in Bora Bora, the tropical paradise deep in the South Pacific. She was looking through rose tinted sunglasses at the dormant volcano at the center of the island, Mt. Otemanu. All looked so peaceful. So magical. But things were things peaceful and magical? Had she made a mistake coming here?
Drago had won this junket at the Foxwoods Casino, a place he and his mates liked to burn through their money on the gaming floor and with hookers and strippers nearby. It was a trip for two—promoted as “The World’s Most Exclusive and Ultimate Luxury Resort Destination.” Foxwoods is the ultra luxe casino resort in Connecticut only a couple of hours drive south of Boston. Drago had worked his way up to a “Player’s Royal Card,” a virtually unlimited betting limit and a special privilege for those who have dropped enough money with the casino that they become “preferred gamers.” The Suckers Club, Connell called it.
How Drago’d “won” this trip? His “reward” for being such a “high roller” and all round good sport about flushing so much dough.
The trip was for two, but one of the “perks” was the option to “upgrade” and bring along “guests” for only an extra five thousand per person, payable up front on a major credit card or cash. No major credit card had ever been insane enough to issue Ivan Drago a credit card, but the cash part was no problem. And Drago had been as diplomatic as a Southern senator. He’d invited Slag along as his own “guest,” and he had asked Ronalee and let her ask a girlfriend. She had picked someone not from her fashion circle as the other “guest.” Drago and Slag were to share a luxury two bedroom suite, Ronalee and her friend their own two luxury rooms. No pressure on anyone. Just a laid back good time for all.
Slag was fine with the deal because it meant he had no ties and could chase any girl on the island he wanted, and for Ronalee and her friend, they didn’t feel trapped or pressured. But everyone—including Ronalee—knew what the game was: Drago’s big offensive to win her over.
For Ronalee and her girlfriend the chance to spend seven glorious days in the most heavenly place on earth may never come again. And Ronalee’d been handling slippery characters like Drago since she was fifteen. Worrisome to her a little bit was the fact that, deep in her mind and heart, she wasn’t totally repelled by him. He’d talked to her about his days playing back up for the orchestra, and about traveling around Europe as a teen with the athletic club, and about learning the electrical trade. In short, he’d softened her up. Presented himself as just a normal guy who happened to fall into breaking the law for a living and she felt she knew how to handle him.
As for the trip to date, Ronalee’s girlfriend surprised her by virtually disappearing from the picture by hanging at the beach bar till all hours and finally picking up a minor actor to spend her every minute with. That left Ronalee mostly on her own—even had the room to herself—to be able to avoid the partying and the drinking scene so she could enjoy some quiet, contemplative time. She luxuriated in walking the warm waters and silky sands of hidden coves, the winds balmy, the sun bright but not too hot. Then there was the delicious array of gourmet foods in the evening. More scented breezes off the sea and moonlight on the water.
She’d even found a secluded little lagoon bordered by stands of palms trees on the far side of the resort that no one else seemed to know about. She began making hiking treks to the place, made it one her daily stops. She even got to go skinny dipping away from prying eyes. Strip off her little bikini bits and let them fall to the sand. The complete freedom of no work, no stress, no clothes, no worries. Therapy for the soul. She just didn’t know that the ridge behind the beach became one of Drago’s prime lookout spots with his field glasses.
Bird watching. The most enchanting and elusive bird of all. Ronalee!
There was a tense moment at the resort, when Drago found his buddy, Slag, heading down the same foot path Ronalee had begun to use. On his way to spy on her secret swimming spot?
Drago caught up to him and spun him around. “What are you doing, man?”
Slag was casual about it. “That girl of yours, she goes swimming, man. Nude!”
Drago shot his right hand into Slag’s throat with a lock on it like a junkyard dog. And he started pushing him backwards, down the trail.
Slag fought for breath and to pull Drago’s hand away until Drago threw him down, hard, and stood over him.
“Don’t ever go near her,” he said, teeth clenched. “I’ll kill you. She’s mine!”
Slag pushed himself away a bit, crab style, digging in his heels and moving back.
“Jesus, man! Fine. I was just having a little look.”
“Come near her again and you’re fucking dead,” Drago said his finger in his face, and he stormed off down the path.
Slag sat beside the trail for several moments, rubbing his throat and gathering his rattled nerves. “Fuck you,” he muttered, when Drago was well out of ear shot.
But he never spoke to Ronalee again.
Whenever Drago pushed Ronalee a bit, to join the group, to have a smoke or have a drink, she demurred and he backed off.
“Hey, that’s cool, babe. I just want you to have a nice time.”
But everyone could see that every word Drago said to her was calculated and planned, part of a gradual, drop-by-drop, hour-by-hour, day-by-day campaign to break down her resistance. He had reasoned—quite rightly—that he’d never get a woman the quality and rarity of Ronalee by pressuring or threatening. If it was just wanted an attractive well-stacked gal to accompany him on trips, he could have his pick of strippers, hookers, and addicted alcoholic emotional basket cases from his own circle. Many of whom actually looked up to him as a cool kind of guy.
But that’s not what he wanted. He wanted what he couldn’t have. He wanted Ronalee.
So he tracked her cautiously. One misstep and the game is off and gone for good. But Drago was a skilled stalker. And he knew that, with enough patience, he could figure out the chink in her amour. He enjoyed the game. And, while she wasn’t looking and wasn’t around—off on one of her “walks”—he was having his pick of party girls at the beach bar. For him the trip was pure win win.
Then one evening, their second last, Ronalee had a few more daiquiris than she planned to have. Real daiquiris with real alcohol. It was a farewell Friday night back-to-work-and-reality party for those flying home in two days. The idea being that they’d need the next day, Saturday, to sleep late and recover from Friday night, then pack and turn in early to be up for an early flight Sunday. It was an ongoing type of farewell party held each Friday night on the beach in front of the hotel.
They were sitting around on lawn chairs and logs, watching the sparks fly up from a fire and kicking back with drinks in hand, trading stories, playing out the string after five days in paradise. Ronalee was seated in the sand next to Drago, an evening shawl around her shoulders.
Several were smoking and passing around joints. Drago had been watching Ronalee closely and he’d sensed a subtle shift. That she was more relaxed, as well she should be after five days of sun, sand, and long walks. She was less tense and, maybe, less guarded.
The first joint was eventually drawn down and disappeared. Then Drago made a subtle shift in his laid back strategy. He pulled out a joint himself, lit it, and passed it around.
“Cheers,” he said, as he handed it off.
Before long, he’d had lit up another, and the two joints were being passed in opposite directions, eventually, coming back to Drago—and to Ronalee. Ronalee, several times, had passed it to the woman beside her until one of the group finally said, “Aw, for Pete’s sake, Ronalee, we’re heading back to the real world in two days. Have one toke for the road and lighten up.”
Hearing this and seizing his cue, Drago smoothly reached into his pocket and pulled out yet another joint. But this one was shorter and a little thicker than the others although, in the shadows of the bonfire, no one noticed. He lit it, took a drag, and passed it to Ronalee.
She took it, and this time the woman to her right pushed her hand back when she went to pass it off. Drago exhaled and lay flat out on his back in the sand. He threw his hands above his head.
Ronalee sat with the joint in her hands for several long seconds, staring at it, torn with indecision. “Oh, come on Ronalee. It’s not poison,” the woman said. “You’ll be floating on the cosmic waves. Just lie back and get lost in the universe.”
Exactly what Drago was doing.
There was something about that imagery that was suddenly appealing: getting lost in the universe. She also may never be in such a lush, exotic—and expensive!—place again.
She thought, Oh, what the heck.
“One puff, then you guys’ll leave me alone, right?”
There were several mumbled “Rights,” and “Sures,” and other assurances, so she decided to take a puff.
Any non-smoker who is unaccustomed to having any kind of smoke in their lungs is going to be hit harder than a seasoned smoker when they take that first drag.
Drago sat forward and put his hand on her back, comfortingly.
“Breathe deep, babe.”
Ronalee inhaled the smoke deeply and awkwardly and tried to gulp it down as non-smokers sometimes will do. And, for an amateur, she took a pretty long drag. Once she’d done so, Drago reached up and gently pinched her nose.
“Just hold it in for a few seconds, babe.”
She did so and when she exhaled … the top of her head flipped off like it was on spring and the moon and the stars shone right in, lighting up her mind and her entire body. She was flooded with a delicious and indescribably serene all-enveloping warmth. She lay back on the sand and had the wondrous sensation of floating around out there somewhere; on the celestial waves and on the wind. At one with the universe as the woman had said. It was the most exhilarating sensation of body and mind she’d ever experienced. She never wanted it to end.
After she’d exhaled and flopped back, she’d dropped the joint. Drago had scooped it quickly. He snuffed it in the sand and, rather than passing it around, he stuffed it back in his pocket.
And he turned to watch Ronalee. She was lying there, breathing deeply. Her breasts rising and falling rhythmically which, for Drago, was both hypnotic and erotic. She stared up at the stars for what seemed, to her, like hours, but was in fact just twenty minutes. And she continued to just lie there, floating.
At midnight people had begun to wander off. Drago moved around and sat behind Ronalee, lifting her and cradling her in his arms, and he rocked her soothingly.
He knew she had blasted off and wasn’t going to come down for some time yet. And what had caused such an extreme reaction? She had no way to know, but it was not a simple toke. It was a bomb. One of Dragon’s custom rolls. So-called “wheelchair weed” mixed with cocaine resi and finely crushed crystal meth. Drago had been planning all week how to slip it to her. Even a seasoned weed/coke/meth head would have been leveled by the potent joint he’d given her.
When they went to leave, she could hardly stand and Drago guided her up the slope to the hotel.
“I’ve never seen anybody get hit so hard by one little toke,” one guy said.
“Virgin lungs,” someone else said.
Drago took her to his room.
The next morning, Ronalee awoke naked and with a pounding headache. And next to her under luxuriant percale sheets was Ivan Drago.
That day, Ronalee and Drago stayed under the sheets not talking for an hour, she not willing to have the sheets pulled away and not knowing what to say. Drago finally rolled out, wrapped himself in the thick white hotel spa robe, and disappeared to the bathroom.
When he returned, he handed her one of the robes and she wrapped herself and disappeared into the bathroom, taking a long warm shower. The water there was so soft; it felt like bubbles on the skin.
When she came out it was almost noon. Drago’d ordered brunch sent in. He was sitting at the wicker table by the sliding doors. A light breeze was stirring the sheers, nothing but dead calm ocean outside the window, the view wrapping all the way around the floor-to-ceiling glass wall. On the table were china, silverware, linens, little wicker baskets, juice glasses. A serving tray next to the table was loaded with stainless steamer domes—scrambled eggs. Bacon, pomme frites, a coffee pot on a warmer. Koto flute music was floating in from speakers somewhere in the ceiling.
Ronalee sat down, tentatively, and pushed away a long strand of blonde hair that had fallen across her face.
“I don’t know what happened to me last night,” she said. “That was some kind of reaction.”
Drago was patient. He began to serve her breakfast.
“It was the joint,” he said. “A magic joint.”
“Magic? Really. Wow, it sure sent me down the rabbit hole. What an amazing world.”
She took a sip of orange juice and looked at the glass. “Mmm. What is this?”
“A crush. Saffron sugar, vodka, and Cointreau in OJ with crushed ice.”
She didn’t reject it and, when their eyes met frankly, Ronalee knew that they had made love most of night. Passionate love. Her head had been swimming, but she remembered fragments of moments. She remembered that he’d been mostly gentle and occasionally very powerful.
They nibbled breakfast and sipped their juice and next thing Ronalee knew, her glass was empty and she was pouring herself another from the chilled container set into an ice bucket like champagne.
They finished brunch and moved to the love seat on the wide deck. Sitting, talking, finishing the crush. When that was gone, Drago reached for the champagne in another ice bucket and they started on that. Staring at the unbelievably deep azure blue of the waters, Ronalee was slipping back under the influence. Drago’s influence.
By dinner time, she was flying again. This time on vodka and Cointreau, and Drago pulled out another joint. This time, she didn’t draw away, her eyes lit up when she saw it and she felt a powerful excitation.
She noticed her hand trembling with anticipation as she reached for it and she took it quickly and drew deeply. She kept the inhale in her lungs as long as she could, and handed the joint back to Drago and lay back, her head against the back of the sofa. When she blew out a steady stream of even more potent crack and meth than the night before the entire top of her head lifted off again.
From her eyes up she felt a sensation of sunshine flooding in as she floated upward with such pull that she had to stand and pace slowly around the floor, her hands out at her side, her face staring skyward, feeling as though she were floating, her feet not even touching the floor. She walked around like that, zombie-like, for several minutes and, when the sensation waned just a little, she walked back over to the table and Drago passed her the joint again.
This time, her mind blew open completely and she was in a state of utter cosmic ecstasy. She wasn’t even sure if she was standing or lying down.
The next thing she remembered, it was the next day, she was under the covers again, Drago had packed them up, and before she knew it they were in seats on the shuttle bus to the airport.
Back home, things continued to move quickly in Ronalee’s world.
Her answering machine was backed up with messages from the modeling agency: where are you? Also from Harbron and several other photogs she worked with. She’d missed gigs and people were concerned. She hadn’t wanted to tell anyone about Drago or about going to the South Pacific. She even started to dodge the girlfriend when she called. As for people in her circle, they had no idea where she was.
Also, back in Boston she had to deal with her feelings about what had happened. Fond ones about the beauty of the place. Even fond ones in some ways of Drago. But also mixed ones, conflicted ones. About Drago seducing her. Also about the seductive power of the magic joints. About the sneaky feeling welling up from deep inside sometimes. That craving and the siren call that beckoned her. She tried to fight it off, but it kept coming back and finally she had to face it—she had liked the experience. Wanted it again.
And Drago had been cool about it when they returned. Gave her a kiss when they parted and said, “Catch you soon, kid.” But he didn’t call and he didn’t bug her. Gave her her space. Let her come back to him.
Finally, she did.
Could she drop by for a visit, she asked? To his penthouse suite in that old low-rise apartment he lived in.
“Sure, babe,” he said. He even sent for a cab to pick her up.
This time when she walked in there was no pretense.
He had a magic joint rolled and ready for her and she greedily drew it in as deeply as she could, pinching her own nose, and finally letting it all back out in a long steady exhale.
And she was gone.
She had her own clothes off before she’d even settled from the hit. Then she took another, and she and Drago were all over each other for hours on the bed. It was the aphrodisiac quality rocking her world as much as the euphoria.
Drago had an endless supply of smoke—and of liquor—and Ronalee passed out at midnight.
When she came down, came out of it, and awoke, it was noon again and, when she looked around, she realized that, again, she was in Drago’s bed. This time Drago was still unconscious beside her. And this time, when she realized what she had done—again—the guilt hit her. Hard. She had broken one of her deepest codes; to not have meaningless sex with anyone she did not feel for. Not something she ever wanted for herself.
Then the crack/meth paranoias set in. Gripped her with powerful fears. Was that the police in the hall outside the door? Would they be busting in any second? Had she picked up something by sleeping with Drago? Would she develop awful symptoms? AIDS? STD? Hep A, B, C, D, E, F, G? Was she going to die? Dark thoughts filled her mind, which was still racing. Even though the meth and crack had cleared her blood stream hours ago, her nervous system was still in toxic shock and trying to re-acclimate.
She gathered her clothes as Drago snored, and hurriedly got dressed. She looked out the peep hole before stepping into the hall, to see if there were police there. Then she cracked the door open, peeked out, and made a run to the elevator, pushed the down button and, when the elevator, arrived, she dashed in, rode it down and walked straight out to hail a cab to her own small apartment.
When she got there, she locked the door and resolved—that was it! Enough!
She had experimented twice now. No, make that three times! Had been seduced by it three times. But she wasn’t going to be seduced again. It was too scary. She felt too out of her self when she was high, too exposed to risk when she was with Drago, and then too jittery and panicky when it was over. No. That was it. She had satisfied her curiosity. No more!
She felt humiliated and dirty. Was desperate to get it behind her.
But, like Connell couldn’t stop thinking about her, she found that the harder she fought to stop thinking about the meth, the more it crept back. What was it with that stuff? Why didn’t it just leave her alone?
Still, she didn’t go to work. She left the drapes closed, watched TV, and slept all day. Messages continued to pile up on her machine.
Then, two days later, she broke down and called Drago again.
She said she was really depressed, would he come by and visit a friend who was down?
Drago knew exactly what she meant.
That night was a repeat of two days earlier, but with one big difference; this time, when it was over and she awoke at noon of the following day, she didn’t have any remorse. She had only the meth on her mind. And so they binged again and stayed in her apartment with the drapes drawn for another two days.
At that point, Ronalee had to stare at herself in the mirror and be honest. Admit it. She liked the stuff. She was hooked. There was no turning back.
Her life then began to devolve at frightening speed.
After meeting with Harbron, Connell turned finding Ronalee into a personal mission.
Had she gone home?
Her mother in Tennessee wasn’t hard to locate. She was listed in the 411 Lookup. Connell said he was a friend from Boston who had a lead on a good photo assignment for her; did she know where she was? But her mom hadn’t talked with Ronalee in more than a month. And she seemed casual about it. As thought she knew that her daughter was a free spirit who came and went and that she, herself, was an old hippie who simply shrugged off not hearing from her for long periods.
No help there.
From the mother he got the number of the Aunt in Brookline, where Ronalee had stayed her first month or two in town. But she was just like the mother: she hadn’t been in touch with Ronalee since she’d moved to her own place more than a month ago. Again, she didn’t seem concerned: “The girl is twenty one.”
Made sense, Connell guessed, the lack of concern. Since this was the mother’s sister. Another old hippie who shrugged off Ronalee’s comings and goings. And she was twenty-one.
Ronalee also wasn’t in any way a C-11 case. She apparently lived somewhere on the west side, although exactly where and at exactly what address no one seemed to know. Just another young woman who had disappeared into the rental world with no way to track her.
Whatever was up with Ronalee, Connell felt certain, it had something to do with Drago and the Mongrels. And the Mongrels were in C-11 territory. He just had to sell it to Nolan and his INSOURCE captain, that this girl was connected to the larger case he was working, pursuing the Mongrels. She could lead him places.
So he put together a plan to do surveillance on the Mongrels clubhouse. He just needed a few days. What he needed mostly was budget for a rental truck. One with a window in the rear rollup door. He couldn’t stay parked in a car along the street near the clubhouse without drawing attention. But he could nest in a van in the lot across the street from the clubhouse and behind a chain link fence. From a rear window he could set up a direct site line to the clubhouse and even if the truck didn’t move for days, no one would notice or care.
He got the funds, rented the van, and he set up the watch. A surveillance team of one.
The clubhouse was a two story cinder block affair with barred windows and anti vehicle cement bollards along the front, like the stubby silent sentinels they have in front of embassies.
In two days he hadn’t sees Drago once, but he saw one scruffy red-haired character come and go numerous times, often with others. When he was with others, he always led the way and others seemed to defer to him. Drago’s second in command? Connell shot some clear head shots with the zoom lens. The guy had pulled up in front on a Harley. Connell captured the plate as well.
Back at the C-11, he ran the plate at Motor Vehicles and got an ID: Albert Chesterton. When he checked his court records sheet it was the usual biker bullshit with some minor prison stretches. And a street name: Slag.
“Well, hello, Mr. Slag.”
Next day, Connell took the van to the home address given, a rooming house not far from the clubhouse. He got in place early in the morning, and he waited.
About ten, Slag came out and climbed into an old Hyundai. Connell followed. What the guy led to brought big surprises in more ways than one.
The guy pulled into a warehouse in the north east part of town. Along the Channel in an industrial park. When he pulled in, who should come out the side door to greet him but Ivan Drago?
A girl—young, twenties, thin, even emaciated, greasy blonde hair falling over her face, a black leather jacket and black jeans. She followed Drago out the door and stood by him.
“And who have we got here?” Connell said, focusing the field glasses.
He almost dropped the binoculars.
He could barely believe his eyes.
“Ronalee, what the hell are you doing, girl?”
She looked terrible. And his heart sank anew.
Surely she hadn’t got on the stuff like Patrick had worried about. Surely she wasn’t that far gone. Not with Drago.
“Aw, Ronalee. What are you doing?”
The more he looked the more he realized that she was in big trouble. She looked so rough.
Shortly, another car pulled in, a late model black Mercedes sedan. Three serious looking dudes in suits climbed out and Connell fixed the boom mike on the scene. The three spoke a few words to Drago in Russian then switched to heavily-accented English. Russian mob.
They were inside for only ten minutes then everyone came back out. Ronalee following Drago like a dutiful puppy. This time the lead Russian had a suitcase which he loaded into the trunk. A few more words were exchanged and they left. Connell caught the whole thing on video with sound. A drug drop.
Ronalee went back inside with Drago.
“So, that’s where it’s at,” Connell said aloud.
Drago got his hooks into her. But how far in? Past the point of no return?
He sat in the van for a while. Trying to absorb it all. Letting reality really settle in.
It didn’t take him long to piece it together. Ronalee had fallen into the classic trap. Drago’d start her on a bit of light booze a bit of light smoke a lot of patience, then move her to things more potent. Stronger booze, stronger smoke. The gateway opening up. Then he’d eventually slipped some meth into the mix. Smoke or powder? Didn’t matter. Eventually, she’d like it so much she’d ask for it. The next step was needles. The cycle complete. Then she was hooked. More than hooked? Enslaved? And where else was she then going to get an unlimited and daily supply of pure crystal meth for free.
Who, in this day and age, didn’t know the horror stories of the party and play meth culture and Connell’s heart just kept sinking: an intense euphoria that users can only replicate with more of the drug, the cycle of addiction having them by the throat. Damage to receptors and neurons in the brain. Actual brain shrinkage and catastrophic changes in metabolic activity. Meth mouth causing dryness and grinding and spitting out your own teeth. Hypersomnia: awake for days using followed by crashing and days spent sleeping followed by waking and going right back at it all again. The endless binge and crash cycle that eventually kills. The heart only taking so much. So many horrible and irreversible effects to mind and body. Why? To chase a false euphoria that diminishes with every round?
Connell ached to think that Ronalee could be caught in such hell.
When Connell returned to his desk at the station, John Henry was already at his across the aisle.
Connell leaned back in his chair, not wanting to start but knowing he had to. As he thought about it, John Henry looked over and could tell that he was grappling with something. Building up to something.
He too leaned back. “So, man, why don’t you just get it out,” he said.
Connell still wavered.
“It’s that Tennessee girl, ain’t it?”
Connell nodded and said nothing for several moments.
“Yeah,” he finally said. “I just don’t get it. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. When I go to sleep, I think of her. When I wake up, I think of her. When I’m shaving, I think of her. When I’m driving, I think of her. And you actually get a bit weak in the knees when you’re around them. Sounds goofy. But that’s me these days.”
Morgan got a distant look in his own eye, and said, “Yeah, man. I bin there.”
Connell looked over. Curious. “So, how’d that play out?”
“Well, Ty, you met Clara and the boys. That’s how that played out.”
Connell nodded his head in quiet amazement. “Wow. I never thought it actually worked out that way for anyone.” Then he looked directly at his sometime partner. “Good for you, bro. You’re a rare and lucky man.”
“Don’t think it’s been all roses and sunshine all the way,” Morgan said. “Strong attraction can create some big sparks. Like two continents colliding. Don’t think there wasn’t earthquakes and volcanoes blowing. Man alive. Talk about dicey moments and dis-putes. In the end we had to actually wait for some of that love at first sight electricity to wear down before we could really start getting along.”
Connell said nothing.
“So what’s happening with this girl?” Morgan asked.
Again, Connell was silent for several moments.
“She’s on meth,” he finally said.
Morgan let out a low whistle. “Aw, man, that ain’t good. How do you know?”
“She disappeared for the past few weeks. Then I just saw her now. She was with one of the Mongrels …”
“The motorcycle dudes?”
“Yeah. Their leader. Piece of shit named Drago. Meth is their game. She was at his side when he handed off some stuff to Russian mob guys. She had the look. She’s on the stuff. Already looking pretty beaten up by it.”
Morgan whistled again. “Aw man,” was all he could say at that point.
“Well, Ty,” he said, eventually. “Looks like you got two things going on here. Both not good. One, you’re in a one-side love affair, which is never good. More stress and heart-ache than practically anything else. Two, you can’t stop an addict. Once they’re got theirselves on the course it’s got to play out. The best thing you can do is get this girl out of your head for now. See if she comes out of it on her own, because you’re not going to be able to bring her out of it. If she can pull herself out, she might come out stronger. Maybe then you can look her up again.”
Connell shook his head. “Stand by as she slowly disappears into hell?”
Aside from his ministry work as a deacon with his church, Connell knew that Morgan had alcoholic and addicted family; brothers, cousins, uncles. So Connell knew John knew what he was talking about on that score.
But Connell couldn’t do that. Wait and see.
“I can’t do that, John. I can’t sit and watch that girl go down. It’s too hard.”
“Ty, there’s families of addicts everywhere saying the same thing and getting nowhere. At least this girl’s not family.”
Connell sat forward.
“No. She’s not family. But I can’t sit on it. Will you work with me?”
“Aw, man, I knew that was coming. You wanting to do some big intervention.”
“No. Well, yes. But not the way you mean. I want to start dragging these pieces of Mongrel shit in and bust up what they’re doing.”
Morgan nodded his big head. “Start cracking some skulls of dope dealing motorcycle shit. Yeah, I could be up for that. You got an idea how?”
“Yeah. I’ve been tracking them for a few days. There’s a second in command. Guy they call Slag. I know he’s walking around with pockets full of meth and at least one concealed illegal weapon every day of his life. We pick him up and bring him in. Shake him up then let him go. Stir up the whole fucking hornet’s nest and see where it all leads. They’ve got to have a lab somewhere.”
Morgan nodded again. “Okay, man. I can see that as a starter.”
Picking Slag up off the street wasn’t difficult. They staked him out at the apartment were he lived and, about ten o’clock, he exited his front door and down the steps on his way to his old Hyundai. Connell was leaning on the fender as he approached.
Slag eyed him a smarmy psycho smile.
“You just got your day off to the wrong start, man,” he said, reaching into his pocket.
Connell pushed himself from the fender and pulled his case and flipped the badge.
John, walking up from behind, said. “Mr. Albert Jeremy Chesterton, you’re under apprehension for being a dirt bag,” and he snapped the cuffs on his right wrist, pulling it around, and snapping the other cuff on the other wrist.
“What the fuck, man,” Slag said all indignant. “What kind of bullshit charge is that?”
“If I was you, man, I’d just be hoping I don’t spread your real wus name to your Mongrel buds. Just shut up and keep walking.”
“Don’t worry, sunshine,” Connell said. “We’ll clean up the wording when we do up the charge. Maybe having shit for brains and defiling the sidewalk every time you sneeze. We’ll work on it.”
Morgan led him across the street and half threw him headfirst into the back of the unmarked.
“Watch your head,” he called in after Slag had bounced off the far door.
Connell purposely didn’t pat him down when they took him because he wanted to do it at the station. He had a plan. When they did, they found exactly what Connell said they would find. Baggies of crystal meth in three different pockets, a Ruger 9mm semi auto in an under arm holster—considered by most cops to be a piece of junk—and a Raven Arms .25 semi auto in his boot and considered by cops to be an even bigger piece of junk. Both good for two years on conviction.
“Well, boy, you really go for them discount weapons,” Connell said as he kept searching. “You on a tight budget these days?” He pulled a balisong knife from another pocket, and a steel-studded knuckle glove from another.
“This what you were planning to use on me this morning?” he asked. Connell slipped it on then pointed suddenly across the room. “What the hells’ that?”
Slag turned to look and Connell gave him a shot to the face, raking the studs across his left cheek.
“That what you were planning for me, smart guy?” he said. “Too bad you got that scrawny two week beard. Some of them welts might even have showed. You coulda complained.”
Slag shrugged off the shot. He’d obviously taken worse in police stations.
“None of that crap’s mine,” he said. “I passed out last night and dressed in some other dude’s clothes. This crap ain’t mine.”
At that Connell had to smile. “Really? You’d go with a defense like that? With your wallet and your ID in these here clothes that ain’t yours? Cool. Stick with that.” He let out a cynical little laugh. “I love guys like you. Smart mouth like yours. You might just piss off some judge enough that he’ll send your sorry ass all the way out to the ADX. Just to teach you a lesson. But you’d like Colorado. Nice scenery. If you ever got to see it. Mostly your view’d be looking up fat hairy butts.”
Connell took the glove off, took the weapons, but left him with everything else, including his cell phone and escorted him into an interrogation room. They removed the cuffs and John babysat him while Connell left to get the intake work up forms.
When he came back, he spoke directly to John. “John, we got a call out here.” Then he directed himself to Slag. “Sit tight, Einstein. We’ll be back in ten.”
Connell then steered Morgan around the corner to the viewing room, Connell going to the mike settings turning the interview room mikes to high. And they watched and listened through the one-way glass as Slag dug out his cell phone and, glancing nervously at the door, made a call.
“Yeah, man,” he began. Yeah man had to be to Drago. He gave the short version of being picked up and needing to call in the lawyer. “Yeah, fine. I’ll call him with my call,” Slag said, no doubt meaning he’d use his one official call to call whatever sleaze ball lawyer they used for bail situations these days. “Yeah, I’ll come up soon’s I’m out of here,” he said and hung up and shoved the phone away quickly.
“You know,” Connell said. “It always amazes me how totally stupid some of these cheeseballs can be. He’s sitting there in front of a big mother of a mirror and what’s he doing? His eyes are glued to the door while he makes a secret phone call. They don’t know, in this day and age, that we’ve got these rooms miked? Don’t they ever watch movies or TV? Unbelievable!” He let out a little snort of derision and shook it out of his head.
“Anyway,” he said. “My guess is coming up means going somewhere other than the clubhouse or the warehouse, which are both nearby around different corners. Maybe somewhere else worth knowing about. Guess we may as well go get ourselves some lunch and when this Nobel Physics Prize Winner here bails, we’ll see where he takes us.”
An hour later, the lawyer swung by and Connell and Morgan followed them in an unmarked. The guy drove Slag back to his apartment. He ran inside, came right back out, and booted it away in the baffed-out old Hyundai. Not going to be hard to keep that one sight. A—it was bright red; and B—it had the acceleration of a sewing machine.
Slag worked his way through the city to the 93 northbound and stayed on it all the way, exiting the city at the north side and continuing north up through Medford and Stoneham, hanging east at the I-95, twenty miles out. Just before the town of Wakefield, he turned off and started down a series of side roads.
Connell was at the wheel. He had to pull back when they hit dirt backroads so he wouldn’t send up a trailing dust cloud of his own. But, by Slag’s dust, they were easily able to keep him in view. Finally, the dust stopped and they knew he’d turned in. They continued along and saw his car down a long lane lined with trees and a big old farmhouse at the end. At the top of the lane was a heavy steel gate, swung open and the chain sitting on the post, the gate unlocked. Slag’s car was at the side of the house.
“John, I think we just hit the mother lode,” Connell said.
“Sure does look like a nice spot for a meth house, way out here in the country,” Morgan said. “All this fresh air and spring water. Blue skies. Cows in the fields. Peaceful like. Kind makes you wish you was in the meth trade. So what next, man?”
“Next is a fly over. Make sure this isn’t someone’s grandma’s place.”
He took down the address from the small metal county sign posted at the roadside: 4133 County Road.
The fly over that night came back positive. The DEA man who’d gone with the pilot, an Agent Crowder, called it in to Connell in the morning.
“Yeah, Connell, your little house in the prairie grass is a meth super lab all right. So much so, it doesn’t even light up from above?”
Connell was confused. “Then how do you know it’s a meth lab?”
“I could tell by looking at hundreds of these that they’ve insulated the house to keep the heat from escaping and lighting up like Christmas eve from overhead at night. Problem with that for them is then they gotta install commercial type blowers to suck out all that heat, as well as all the fumes the rest of the toxic crap making that shit stirs up. We picked up two air vent signatures. One at each side of the kitchen. Probably a monster country kitchen. Now a monster lab. You did good.”
“Okay, listen, Crowder” Connell said. “Here’s the deal. I’ve got a personal interest in this one. I’m not turning it over to you guys to run with.”
“What the hell, Connell. You’re down in Boston. You don’t have any jurisdiction up here. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.”
“No. Crowder. Listen. You’re not hearing me. You guys can organize going in, fine, but I’m going to be there and I’m going in first.”
“Now why’s that, detective? You got a death wish?”
“I told you. I have a key player I’ve got to make sure gets out of this.”
He could hear Crowder blow out a sigh. “Yeah. Fine. Okay. You know what? You get the paperwork done up your end and you better call my Lieutenant about that. Name’s McCauley. Bit of a hard ass. You’ll have met your match. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Connell brought Morgan along with him on the drive back to Wakefield next day, more for moral backup than anything after getting Crowder’s dire warning about McCauley. He might need an ally. The meetup was at a truck stop along the I-95 on the westerly outskirts of town. About five miles from the target site.
McCauley might have been the hard ass Crowder said, but that morning he was just as glad to let Connell take the lead and go in first if that’s what he wanted.
“Hey, Connell, you’re this big undercover guy. And this is your baby, if you wanna deliver it …” was his take on it.
He handed Connell a Cobra mini two-way radio.
“Ever use one of these?”
Connell nodded that he had.
“So I don’t have to explain the safety setting?”
Connell knew the little units were voice activated. Put it in you shirt pocket and just talk. He knew also that the safety setting was a special feature on the police model so you could set it to ultra sensitive pick up—so it could pick up outgoing signals even at a whisper—but the incoming signal could only come through at ultra low volume. For those times when you’re in close to your target and what you didn’t need were unexpected squeaks, squawks, beeps, or panicky voices coming through.
He flicked on the safety setting on and held it forward.
McCauley peered at it. “Good. Then we all know what we’re doing here.”
“And McCauley,” Connell said, stopping him as he turned. “I want this on a band only going between me and John. I don’t want to have to cope with chatter from the whole bunch of you when I’m in there.”
“Fair enough,” McCauley said and took Connell’s unit and moved it to a preset band. He then turned to Morgan. “You relay to us whatever Sherlock here has to say. Let’s move out.”
They piled into two DEA vehicles—a Denali SUV, and a customized weapons and equipment van. A hundred yards from the house the pulled down a grassy lane sheltered by a bank of trees at the roadside. They re-grouped again around the van.
Connell lifted his field glasses to get an idea of the place. He had an unobstructed view over a crop of wheat in the fields to the side and front of the house. There was a kitchen at the rear with a small backroom attached. Then there was a short walk across the rear lot to a large shed.
McCauley also scoped out the place with his glasses.
“Okay,” he said as people moved in to listen. “I think we all know this is no SWAT raid today. But we got a no knock warrant. Entry and apprehend. There’s six of us and you two,” he said, indicating Connell and Morgan. “Us four,” he said, pointing at three others. “We’re gonna take the woods at the side, front, and back of the house, in the trees but still pretty close. Maybe fifty feet or so. You, Connell, can get yourself to this side of the place to have access to the front door. Morgan, you hang back and backup Connell. Willy and Jim, you two stay with the van and be ready to come in if we call you.” Here he turned to the young agent he’d called Willy. “You see that that big old clump of trees alongside the driveway …” Everyone could see it with their bare eyes. It was a large stand of mature old maples with a cluster trunk, multiple trunks spreading out from the same spot which made it about fifteen feet wide across the base. “If you gotta bring the van in, pull in behind that maple stand for cover.”
So, Connell was going to get what he wanted: to be the one to go in.
It was a long walk to their posts. They dispersed and set out on foot. The DEA men going the long way around through the fields, following the tree lines and hedge lines to the far side of the house. Connell following cover of the trees along the roadside, Morgan following him.
Long before Connell and Morgan moved into position behind the maple stand, they could hear the music. Latino pop music, loud and pounding from the back of the house, the kitchen area. But no signs of anyone outside.
“You okay to do this, bro?” Morgan asked.
Before Connell could answer the side door opened and they had to hunch behind the trees.
Again Connell couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.
From the side door stepped a slim barefoot girl with dirty blonde hair. She was in a threadbare print dress with a watering can in her hand. She stooped to water flowers along the side of the house, turning at one point to look up at the sky. Maybe to see if rain clouds were coming in. She seemed uncertain and a little lost. Her face was as gaunt as her frame. Cheeks hollow, dark under her eyes, the dress hanging loose.
Morgan looked directly at Connell.
“That your girl, bro?”
Connell nodded. Aching for her.
“Man, that poor girl’s a mess,” Morgan said. He could see then why Connell wanted to intervene.
He could see also that Connell was itching to grab her right then. But that could blow up in every possible way. The run was too far. She seemed to be dazed, might resist in her confusion. Anyone could come to the door at any second.
Then the girl went back inside and that decided that issue.
“John, I’m going to make a run for it. I gotta get in there.”
Morgan pulled his weapon. “Okay, bother. I got you. Just remember … this girl ain’t family and you’re a cop. Don’t do nuthin’ stupid.”
Connell moved quickly across the driveway, up the short flagstone walkway, and up the small porch. He looked in the window and could see down the main hall. Everywhere the house was in darkness but for the kitchen, and it was lit up like New Year’s Eve.
He turned the door knob and gave the door a little push … and it opened. Not locked. Amazing! But, then, who would they be expecting?
He pushed a bit more and stuck his head in. No sounds or lights from any other part of the place.
He turned John’s way, gave him a going in sign, and stepped in, onto a frayed carpet in the front foyer.
He pulled his weapon and raised it in his right hand while steadying himself along the wall with his left as he crept toward the kitchen.
The kitchen door was set into framing about a foot wide on each side. The door itself was swung fully open so that Connell was able to slide behind it and get to the long crack of light to look in.
One of the first things he saw were the chemicals lined up against the far wall. Stacked high. Most home based ma and pa meth operations use chemicals acquired in small quantities at hardware and drug stores. Large scale super lab production of methamphetamine, like this one, used large lot industrial source chemicals and supplies. That’s what Connell saw. Labeled bulk chemicals: plastic containers, metal cans, shipping boxes, heavy duty packing bags. It takes some thirty-two different chemicals to make industrial grade crystal meth. Phosphorous, hydriotic acid, hydrogen chloride in gas form, lye, inert fillers, many others. They were all there.
Most of all, a commercial operation needs a ready supply of pseudoephedrine in its pure powder form. Amateurs have to scramble around to get enough brand name cough medicines to crush and extract the ephedrine from. Commercial operations obtain it illicitly by the crate load. He also saw the two industrial sized fans at each end of the kitchen that Crowder had mentioned. Whirring away, drawing out the fumes and the heat. There was also a commercial stove with a massive range hood vent and a couple of commercial fridges. This was the cooking room and he supposed that the shed out back served as the drying and packing room.
It broke his heart to think of Ronalee being in such a place, never mind being turned into a zombie and slave labor in this kind of hell.
It would have been easy to let hate overcome him and he felt his blood start to do a slow boil.
Someone’s gonna pay—and they’re going to pay.
But first … Ronalee gets clear.
It looked like there were three Latinos—likely sent north and smuggled in by the cartel to help run the operation and keep an eye on things—plus Drago the Piece of Raw Shit. Off to the side, mixing something, was Ronalee, looking like a lost soul in Hades. The Latino rock music was so loud you could barely hear.
Connell turned his head aside to whisper into the two-way in his pocket.
“John. John. Can you hear me?”
Morgan’s voice came back like from the bottom of a well: faint and a bit echoey.
“Yeah. That music don’t help. But, yeah.”
“I’ve got five here that I can see so far. Three look like illegal aliens—probably Mexican—that Piece of Shit Drago, and Ronalee.”
“What’re you gonna do, man?”
“Not sure. Re send to McCauley. Let him know what’s in here.”
Connell turned back to the sliver of light.
As he did, Drago called to two of the others and they followed him through the small back room and out the back door.
“John. Drago and two Mex shit just walked out the back. I’m gonna pull Ronalee out now. Make sure McCauley gets this.”
Connell raised his weapon, did a deep inhale, and said under his breath, “Now or never.”
He swung around the door, stepped into the room, and leveled his weapon.
“Freeze!” he yelled, and the lone Mexican did exactly that.
When the man looked up his eyes widened like they’d pop and he threw his hands straight up.
But Ronalee didn’t turn around. She seemed to be lost in the music and was maybe also lost in her own head, blocking all this out.
“Ronalee!” he shouted.
Still, she didn’t hear.
He’d have to go up to her. But first there was the Mexican. The guy was standing rigidly at the end of the long table looking ridiculous with his roly-poly beer belly and his hands so high it looked like he was about to do his morning workout.
“Down,” Connell barked, motioning with the barrel of his weapon and the man threw himself onto the filthy plank wood floor.
Connell went to him quickly and dug one knee into the guys’ back. He parked his weapon on the table at eye level and within ready reach and pulled the man’s pudgy hand behind his back and locked one of the cuffs onto it. He pulled the arm around the leg of the heavy wooden table and locked the other cuff onto his other hand.
“They’ll have to saw the leg off this thing get you out of this, Pedro. That or your fucking arm. Don’t matter to me,” Connell said, and he ran to Ronalee.
He touched her shoulder and she turned.
“Oh,” she said, surprise in her voice, but no panic and no alarm. Not all there. “It’s you.”
He looked into her eyes. They were wildly dilated! Her expression almost vacant. Her movements sluggish.
This kid’s in a world of trouble.
“Ronalee, we’ve got to go,” he said, and he took her by the arm and started to pull her away.
“Right now?” she asked, and pulled back, not sure what to do with the mixing spoon in her hand.
Connell had to take it and toss it on the counter. He led her again toward the door.
She seemed dazed, lost in her own zone. Smiling, vacantly, and he could see that she’d chipped off a front tooth. Her skin looked like putty. Probably running on no sleep and who knows how many cc’s of meth.
He took the Cobra from his pocket and pressed “send” to override the safety setting and go full volume.
“John,” he yelled. “We’re coming out. The front door. Do your read me?”
“Yeah man. But better hurry. Drago and them dudes are coming back in.”
“Relay to McCauley,” Connell yelled, dropped the little device back in his pocket, and tried to hurry Ronalee along.
But she was resisting. It was like she was confused. Not sure she should actually leave. Or maybe afraid to leave. Connell continued to look her over closely. Her face. And he could see bruising start to come up on her left temple, on her right cheek, and on her neck. Her lower lip was swollen. These weren’t meth affects. She’s been knocked around. Pounded on. The closer he looked, the more he realized: she’s been knocked around good. Someone used to doing this. Using something on their fists. A cloth or scarf or something so the punches would land as hard but wouldn’t cut and wouldn’t bruise up as fast.
That piece of shit’s been beating her!
His heart sank again.
Shooting her up to make her one hundred per cent compliant then beating her when any will she might have had left dared show itself. Connell ground his own teeth so hard he thought he might chip one off himself. But Ronalee’s chip wasn’t grinding from meth mouth. It was from being hit in the mouth!
His radio crackled. “Ty, they’re coming in! Get out of there, man!”
Connell got Ronalee to the door and started down the hall as Drago was coming in the back way.
But Ronalee wasn’t moving well. Still resisting. Obviously terrified. Afraid of another beating?
Connell had to pull her down the hall physically and, when he turned and looked up, there was a man at the bottom of the stairs staring right at him.
Overweight. Swarthy. Mustache and tousled dark black hair. Another piece of Mex shit? He was in a cutaway wife-beater T-shirt looking like he’d just woken up and had stumbled downstairs. And he had a monster handgun in his right hand.
They both stopped, then raised their weapons and fired.
The fat man’s round slammed into the doorframe next to Connell’s head sending a spray of splinters into the side of his face and Connell’s round slammed into the banister by the man’s hand, more splinters flying.
Connell happened to be next to a room and he glanced in, the dining room of the old place. He pulled Ronalee into the room and past a dining room set, solid old table and chairs, toward the rear, next to the side window. There, he pushed her down, behind the end of the table and out of line of any gunfire, raised his own weapon and locked his sights on the open door. Waiting for whatever was coming.
Then the fat man—stupidly!—rounded the corner and Connell fired.
The round went straight through the man’s throat, throwing him back like on a spring, spraying blood. He hit the wall heavily and started slowly to sink as his knees locked up and he slid stiff-legged and ass first down the wall, coming to rest in a seated position on the floor. His eyes were wide with disbelief and shock, but he wasn’t seeing much. He was bleeding out. Dying slow.
Into that scene stepped Drago from the other direction, shrieking.
He had a machine pistol gripped with both hands, the weapon leveled, and before Connell could react, Drago fire Connell’s way with a wild burst on full auto.
The rounds pounding first into the table, then up to the glass, blowing out the window, the arc racing toward Connell’s head.
Connell threw himself down and onto one knee and returned fire.
He didn’t aim. As Drago’s rounds slammed into the wall over his head he just hunkered down, raised his weapon, and began filling the air with return fire. Where they were landing he had no idea.
When the roar finally stopped, Connell was sweating and panting, prepping mentally again for another assault.
But it didn’t’ come.
Then he could hear mad scrambling in the hallway.
Drago retreating? Regrouping? Getting ready to come at him?
Or had one of Connell’s rounds hit home?
Was the piece of shit down? Getting help and being dragged away?
Didn’t matter. He had to get Ronalee out of there.
With his gun butt, he knocked away the last of the glass shards in the window frame. As he did, he saw that the DEA van had been called in. The gate had been swung shut and locked when he and Morgan made it to the maple stand and the van drove clean through it, popping the chain and blowing the gate off its hinges, pulling in behind the bank of maples.
Ronalee was cowering in the corner, her hands to her ears from the roar of heavy weapons fire in the contained space.
Connell lifted her to her feet and drew her to the window, speaking to her soothingly. He had to get her through this. He leaned out and looked down. The house was on an old stone block foundation with a raised basement. A good six foot drop to the ground.
“Okay, Ronalee, come on. Work with me. I gotta lower you down.”
He started to lift her toward the ledge but she drew away, frightened again. Fought him. Was she so far out of it she didn’t even know who he was?
“Ronalee. Please. We’ve gotta do this.”
As he spoke, he heard stirring again from the hall. When he looked back he saw that Drago was alive. Able, at least, still to walk. Connell could see the tiniest bit of cheek showing around the corner as the guy was obviously readying to swing around for another assault.
Connell had to turn away from Ronalee briefly. He popped out his clip, shoved in a full one, lifted his weapon again in a two-fisted firing grip, and spread his feet in a firing stance.
“You’ll never take her!” Drago screamed, ready to round the corner … and Connell began shooting.
He pulled off rounds in a deliberate and steady progression up the wall starting at waist height and rising to where the voice was coming from.
Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.
The reports were deafening. Drywall dust spraying back as the slugs tore a determined pattern of holes as they marched up the wall.
Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.
When he was done, Drago had not returned a single round, his glimpse of cheek was gone from the doorway, and all was silent.
Then panicked screaming started up.
Voices from the kitchen. Men’s voices. Loud and angry. Spanish voices.
Had he hit the Piece of Shit this time?
There were then hurried sounds of dragging. Dragging Drago away? Out of range of more gunfire?
Then he heard glass breaking. Both from the rear—the back of the kitchen—and from above, from upper windows. Others asleep upstairs now awake? Shooting at the DEA guys who were maybe moving through the trees into closer positions?
Connell grabbed Ronalee around the waist and lifted her onto the ledge. He spun her feet around, dangling them out the window, then hugged her under the arms and nudged her off the ledge. As she dropped he shifted his grip, one at a time, to her hands and lowered her until her feet touched ground.
When he let go, she crumpled to the grass.
As Connell turned to let himself down for the drop, one of Mexicans raced right past the door toward the front of the house. Then he heard more glass breaking and more gun fire and he knew that those in the house were now in a full firefight with the DEA.
Ronalee was never going to be able to handle a run for it, so Connell scooped her up, and he sprinted the fifty feet to the stand of trees with her in his arms.
Morgan guided them quickly behind the cover of the trees and Connell set Ronalee on her feet. He leaned back, against the side of the van, panting to catch his breath. He was bent over, his hands on his knees, totally relieved to get them both out alive and to safety. Miracle. Whatever happened from here, he didn’t care. Ronalee was out and they were safe.
John looked over his partner. He was beat.
“You done good, man,” he said. “We’ll flush this shit out and finish this off.”
A temporary calm seemed to have settled. The DEA maybe pulling back, retrenching, awaiting the arrival of reinforcements and heavier weaponry.
Connell stood before looked Ronalee and looked her over again. Searching her eyes. Looking for floaters behind the retinas that might indicate brain trauma. The poor kid’s so wired and so terrorized she can’t stop shaking. He held her by the shoulders to calm her, still searching her eyes.
“Ronalee, have you used meth today?”
She was disoriented. She shrugged, and he took that as a “yes.”
Another shrug. He took that as a “lot.”
“Anything else?” he asked. “Anything else besides meth?”
She clapped her hand to her forehead as though trying to stop it from throbbing and to be able to think.
“I … I don’t know. I don’t know what was in it?”
Connell was more alarmed. “In it? In what?”
Connell went stock still. Not moving a muscle. Then he broke his stare, having to look away to handle the rage that was welling up. Wanting to hork up a big wad of green runny crap and spit this whole day out of his system. Wanting to drive a stake into Drago’s heart.
At least she seemed to be stable on her feet at the moment, and there were detox treatments when they got her away from all this.
Over her shoulder and he could see to the side kitchen window. He was curious about what was happening since the firing stopped.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “You just stay here and try to get your head cleared. Okay?”
She merely nodded.
Connell turned to Morgan. “John, can you stay by her?”
“Yeah man. You do what you got to do.”
The two DEA men from the van had moved to the far edge of the tree stand, which was directly opposite the kitchen. Connell moved in next to them.
“What’ve we got guys?”
“The calm before the final storm,” one said. “And it’s going to be shit storm when the cavalry gets here.”
More agents would arrive and, eventually, an armored vehicle to keep this craziness from going on through the day and into the night and becoming a media circus. Ram the house, blow in the gas, flush the suckers out.
Connell wondered about Drago. Had he been hit? How could all those rounds through the wall have missed?
Then he squinted, focusing on something at the house.
“Is that a fucking rifle?” he said aloud to no one in particular.
He turned to one the DEA men, the one with the MP5 with the rifle scope.
“Can I see that thing for a second, buddy?”
The man handed it over and Connell began to sight the scope on the kitchen window, the portion that was up a few inches. As he worked the settings, pulling the window into sharp focus, a solitary shot rang out.
Connell raised his head for a quick look around.
Where had that shot come from?
Then squinted again into the scope. Was that the tip of a rifle barrel poking out the kitchen window? Barely visible as it rested on the ledge.
Then, from the corner of his eye, he caught Ronalee make a little shudder.
He glanced her way. The worst of the psychological trauma of past few months starting to work their way out? The psychic release beginning?
She had a fixed stare, looking forward. Then, when she turned Connell’s way, he could see that there was a trickle of blood from her mouth.
Then she fell to her knees.
What the hell?
Connell threw the rifle around his shoulder and ran to her.
Then he saw it … the brand new hole in the yellow side panel of the van. A clean little circle with bright shiny edges and a small smear of red around it. Blood?
Then he looked left and saw: a clear sightline to the kitchen window through a V in the trees.
Ronalee collapsed and he caught her.
She made another shudder and her eyes rolled up. Blood was pooling inside the flimsy dress like from a tap.
The high powered round had passed through so cleanly there was barely a visible mark in the fabric. It had come in high in the upper back and gone out high in her upper chest. At the heart. Through and through.
For several long moments Connell could only stare as her life drained away.
It couldn’t be!
It just can’t be!
He’d got her out safely! She was safe!
He felt like his head was going explode, blood and grief surging together. Then he felt utter defeat. The Piece of Shit had been able to see her between the trunks.
He owned her. She was never slipping away!
Noooooooooooooooooooooo!!! Connell heard himself yelling as though the shriek of pain was not of his own body, coming from somebody else, somewhere else. And he did something he’d never done before. Certainly never done as a police officer.
He raced from behind the trees into the open and swung the machine gun around.
“You piece of a shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!” he screamed and he began to rake the kitchen window with automatic fire.
Then he sprayed the entire wall. And he kept on pounding rounds into the old wood- shingled wall, wood splinters spraying up settling the grass like huge snow flakes, until the weapon ran out and there was nothing but the dry click of an empty chamber.
He threw it aside and let out another scream.
“Aggghhhhh!” and he pulled the Glock from under his arm and began firing again into the house until that clip was empty.
When it went on dry click, he threw it aside and pulled out the backup Astra .25 from his ankle.
With another cry of rage, he continued to fire into the kitchen wall.
Then a return shot echoed from an upper window and one of the DEA men ran to Connell and made a flying tackle, tumbling both into a shallow gully in the grass.
But Connell wrested away and stood again.
As he let off the last of his rounds there was the boom of a small explosion from inside the kitchen.
Then there was another boom and flames started up. One of the Mexicans tried to flee out the back door, blazing away with a machine pistol, but he was met by DEA at the rear also blazing away, and he tumbled back inside.
Then there was another boom and more flames. The entire store of chemicals going up, fire spreading through the kitchen and into the house.
Then there was a final massive boom as the propane tank behind the kitchen went off. The explosions seemed to feed on each other, merging into a giant ever expanding fireball that billowed skyward, the debris cloud blocking out the sun. Chunks of wood and dry wall that had been pin-wheeling a hundred feet in the air began to rain down like a twister had passed through. The blast was visible—and felt—for miles.
Those still in the house were trapped by the flames and all but vaporized by the explosion and fire that followed. Drago’s body was found in the ashes. What was left. An autopsy showed that two rounds had lodged deep in his hip bone, shattering it and disabling him. He’d fallen and hadn’t been able to get back up. Died in the flames.
Had Connell’s rounds been the ones to take him down?
Could never be proven. The lead was so badly melted and misshapen no one could even say what weapon they came from. But Connell took some small satisfaction in knowing that they had to be his.
At the inquest that followed Connell was questioned hard by a young DA out to make a name.
“So, Det. Connell, it’s says in this report that you emptied three different weapons into the farm house. One a Heckler & Koch MP5 nine millimeter submachine gun with a thirty round clip. Is it fair to say you lost it that day,” the young fellow said.
Connell had sat stone faced through the proceedings. Barely speaking. Barely there.
“It’s fair to say that I returned fire and that I lost a lot that day. Say what you want. Do want you want. I don’t give a shit.”
It also could never be proved that it was one of Connell’s shots that had set off the series of explosions that ended up turning the entire house into a fireball and then into a cinder and ash heap. A mini Waco. All bullets recovered too warped out of shape to even know what caliber they were. Six dead in the ashes. Drago, and five others never identified. Believed to be undocumented illegal aliens. Most likely from Mexico. No disciplinary actions were ever taken.
Connell put the whole thing as far out of his mind as he could. He was just never able to get Ronalee out.
Det. Ty Connell has never met anyone as lovely, gentle, exquisite, and captivating as Ronalee Gayle. A truly breathtaking beauty. He meets her at a friend's fashion photography studio, a model who has come in for a shoot. The friend says that she's the sweetest girl he's worked with and hasn't an enemy in the usually catty back-biting world of high fashion. Like so many others, Connell is captivated but also frozen by her beauty and she stays in his mind, and maybe his heart. He comes across her again at an event at a downtown mall, performing in a fashion show that is part of the activities. This time he speak with her again and he does what every man does -- he falls completely under her spell. Her voice, her mannerism, her ways, all with a softness not really of this harsh world. But he glimpse something behind the easy smile and the glamour and bustle of her fashion world. And what he sees is sadness. And a fear of something. Of what? And what would make this enchanting girl sad? He begins to make inquiries and, as he finds out more about her, he starts to sees different picture. A girl in trouble and headed for more. When she seems to disappear it's time to intervene. But events are spinning out of control. Can he save an innocent beauty from forces of destruction circling her? Does she even want to be saved?