Authors: Steven J Patrick
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Retail, #Suspense, #Thriller
I knew this guy was military, just as I knew the Sarge-thing had never worn any other uniform in his life.
"Semper fi," I nodded to him.
He smiled lazily and moved away from the Jeep.
"Yep," he murmured. "Did that. Not you though."
"Swabbie," I nodded.
"Southeast Asia?" he asked.
"You wanna shut the fuck up back there?" Sarge growled.
"Son, you interrupt me again and I'll stick that fancy satellite phone of yours up your ass," the older guy said mildly.
"Jesus Christ!" Sarge growled. "The next person who calls me 'son' is gonna get his ass beat. As far as you three are concerned, I am God. Got it?"
"Son, you're not fooling anybody," I smiled. "Now zip that thing up while the grownups talk."
He was a big guy who showed evidence of a lot of free weights and road time. That kind almost never actually has a physical conflict because their size and physique are usually enough.
He came in too high, just like I knew he would, winding up for what would probably have been the most pathetic roundhouse ever thrown outside of kindergarten catfights.
The guy was so pitiful I almost laughed. The angry red mist blew away like dandelion fluff. Far from delivering the six-week hospital stay I had intended, I settled for a sort of 3/4 –strength shot just below his sternum. He doubled over and puked on everything from his Sam Brown belt down as he fell. He hit on the side of his face and rolled into a fetal ball, whimpering as he labored to suck in air through a frozen diaphragm.
The older guy came over and looked down at him as though deciding whether to step on a bug or go around it. Now that I could read it, his name tag said Allen Simmons.
"Went kinda easy on him, didn' cha?" Simmons chuckled.
"I'm a bleeding heart liberal," I shrugged. "I don't pick on the less fortunate."
"Huh," Simmons replied. "I'm a democrat myself. Not quite a liberal, though."
He turned and kicked the Sarge squarely in the ass. It looked like it had to hurt.
"You'll…" Sarge gasped," "You…guys all…saw that. Jarrett…Franklin! Ar…arrest him!"
"Saw…what, sir?" one of the guards said. They all wore big goofy grins.
"God…God…damnit," Sarge gasped, "Simmons…you're fired!"
"No," Jack said, squatting down to look at him. "Actually, you're fired. I don't need some tin-plated bully like you out here dealing with the locals."
"Nobody fires me but the guy who hired me!" Sarge said, recovering. He started to get up.
"Stay down there, kid," I said quietly. " You get up, I'll drop you again."
"You got lucky," he spat, getting to his feet. "I wasn't ready."
"Okay," I sighed. "You ready now?"
He did an elaborate series of kung fu moves and settled into his battle stance.
"Try it now, smart ass," he growled.
"You sure you're ready?" I asked.
"Whassa matter?" he sneered. "Can't take a man straight on?"
I moved slightly toward him. He bit, committed, and came in with a slightly less pitiful jab.
I stepped inside the punch—the last thing he expected, I knew—and gave him the same shot as before, but a bit harder.
There was nothing left to puke, so he settled for just the fetal curl.
"Better," Simmons nodded. "You punch like a swabbie, though. Too straight-on. You should come up at more of an angle."
"Damn, shoulda been a marine, I guess," I sighed, glancing down at the kid, still moaning on the gravel. "Now that the big Dick contest seems to be over with, Mr. Bartinelli here—who actually is one of the partners in this thing—would like to talk to the site manager."
"No problem," Simmons smiled. "I'm liaison between security and projects. Could I just see your driver's license, Mr. Bartinelli?"
Jack popped out his wallet and passed it over. Simmons checked it carefully and handed it back. He looked at me and I shook my license out of its holder and passed it over.
"I'll be dipped," Simmons said softly. "You're Tru North? Colonel Truman North?"
"Am Tru," I nodded, "was Colonel."
"Damn," Simmons smiled. "You really took out Saropoulou?"
"So they tell me," I shrugged. "I didn't stick around to find out."
"You busted Sam Wilkins out of Laos, too," he smiled. "I owe you one for that. Sam was best man at my wedding."
"Sam's the best man in most crowds," I chuckled.
"I'll be damned," Simmons grinned. "Look, buy ya a beer after shift, swabbie? You got any Sam stories? I'm lookin' for blackmail material."
"He tell you about Kuala Lampur?" I asked.
"No," Simmons grinned evilly. "Not a word."
"Uh-huh," I laughed. "You're buying."
"I'm filthy rich," Jack interjected. "I'll buy if we can go see the site manager now?"
"Sorry, sir," Simmons murmured. "Let's saddle up."
Simmons rode with us, after cramming Sarge—real name Aaron Weber—into our back seat, where he groaned and muttered until I offered to clean his clock for him again.
The site manager turned out to be a natty little Brit named Dennis Steptoe, whose wispy red moustache, khakis with epaulettes, and wire-rim glasses caused me a great deal of effort in struggling not to whistle the theme from "Bridge on the River Kwai."
Steptoe managed to be thoroughly accommodating while providing no real help at all. He made numerous poorly-veiled references to the utter impropriety of Jack's showing up without proper notice. He made a very brief phone call to New York and was evidently told to be courteous but not too courteous and became even less helpful than before, if a tad less disapproving.
Jack endured all this for maybe 30 minutes longer than I would have. I wondered if rich guys become more patient because they know that, sooner or later, they'll win little set-to's like that. Just as I was fumbling with the concept, Jack finally hit the wall.
"Mr. Steptoe," he said mildly. "I've come to see you today as a courtesy. I felt that we were on the same team. Perhaps we actually are. But you seem to feel—to extend the analogy—that you are the coach of the team, while I am the water boy."
"Actually, the reverse is true. If I were to become, uh, disillusioned with all this, and withdrew my $100 million, you'd be back in Watford within the week, probably asking folks if they'd like tartar sauce with their chips."
"I see no need…" Steptoe began.
"You see no need to be helpful, is what I'm getting," Jack continued. "More to the point, you don't seem to know much of anything. I ask where the nearest motel is, you don't know. I ask what crews are working where, you don't know. I ask about production schedules, you don't know."
"Tell you what. I'll make you a bet. I bet that, if I were to take my cell phone here and call Anthony Pembroke the Third, my $100 million trumps your job status. You have any firm ideas about that?”
“No,” Steptoe said icily, all traces of old world charm now completely absent. “As in all things, I take my instructions from London.”
“Y’know, Dennis,” Jack mused, “I don’t think it’s a very sound position to have a manager in place who can’t make any decisions for himself. I’ll be talking to Anthony later on. I think we’ll change this."
Jack stood up. I followed suit. Steptoe looked as though he had shrunk into his clothing like a turtle.
"In the meantime, Mr. North and I are going to look around for a few days. Anyone who interferes with that is fired. Your head of security is now Allen Simmons. I fired that thing you had in place. Write him a check for three months’ pay and tell him he’ll be arrested for trespassing if he shows up here again.”
“I don’t know if that…” Steptoe interjected.
“I’m aware that you don’t know, Dennis,” Jack smiled. “You don’t need to know. It’s done and it’s final. If you think I don’t have that authority, I suggest you call P.P.V.’s attorneys.”
“I shall,” Steptoe growled.
“While you’re on the phone with them, have them explain your role here. And mine. If I see you tomorrow and your attitude hasn’t changed, I’ll put you on an airplane myself. Clear?”
“Very,” Steptoe muttered. “An if my behavior has seemed uncooperative, I…”
“Save it, you supercilious little snot,” I snapped. “You had a chance to be cooperative and you didn’t take it.”
They were the first words I’d uttered since “hello.” I’d vowed to keep quiet but my mouth, as always, seems to operate independent of me.
Steptoe looked at me in shock, as did Jack. He then looked at Jack with an expression clearly meant to convey his displeasure at being addressed in such terms by Jack’s subordinate.
“He doesn’t actually work for me,” Jack chuckled.
“I’ll be speaking with your superior, Mr. North,” Steptoe snapped. This was clearly his sort of management function. “I’ll have his name please.”
“Hmm,” I mused. “My superior, that would be Mahatma Ghandi, M.L.K. and God. You’re welcome to contact any of the three."
“I’m not joking, Mr. North,” Steptoe snapped, tapping his toe impatiently.
“Neither am I,” I smiled, “You just put your foot in it, pal. Try being man enough to accept that you fucked up.”
I followed Jack out and closed the door.
“Supercilious?” Jack laughed. “They never taught me that word at Maryland.”
“I’ve been saving it for just the right moment,” I sighed. “I believe that was it.”
“I’ll say,” Jack grinned, slapping me on the back.
“Sorry for mouthing off at your meeting,” I offered.
“Don’t apologize,” Jack said, shaking his head. “You just said what I was thinking.”
Simmons did a few shift-ending pieces of paperwork and then took us down the road about two miles opposite the way we’d come in, to an ancient log roadhouse called Cascade Jack’s.
It was my kind of place. Long, polished mahogany bar with precious few scars on it, neon beer signs that leaned heavily toward mass-produced domestic brews, two well-worn pool tables, booths along the back wall, and a real juke box that was blasting a George Strait tune as we came in.
People were unashamedly smoking cigarettes; something which would have gotten them first shunned and eventually killed in Seattle.
The booth farthest back contained Aaron Weber, doubtless burning a hole in his severance check, and two companions who appeared to have shared his shipments of steroids.
He looked up and saw me and elbowed his companion. The three rose as one and started our way.
“Trouble,” I said to Simmons.
“Hey, fuck face," Weber shouted. “Who invited your faggot ass into my bar?”
“Aaron, Goddamnit!" The women behind the bar shouted. Weber gave her a curt, dismissive wave.
“Shut the fuck up, Doris,” Weber snapped.
The three came up to us and Weber’s two buddies swung out to flank us. It was obviously a maneuver they’d used before.