Authors: Jonathon King
“So I've heard, CQ,” I said. “He didn't have anyone to rebound for him when he was a kid, so he developed that backspin so he wouldn't have to chase the ball.”
CQ shook his head.
“Ol' school, man. But you do what you have to do, right, Mr. Freeman?”
This time, he turned, cradled the ball in one hand, and reached out the other, offering it. The young man's palm swallowed my entire hand like I'd slipped it into a manila envelope. And I do not have small hands. “Maravich was a legend,” I said, looking into CQ's strikingly black eyes, the corneas so dark it was impossible to detect the color there. They made you stare into them a bit longer than was naturally polite.
“True,” CQ said. “But can you imagine a guy playing in the NBA today with the nickname âPistol'? Man, the press would crucify that dude.”
I was still looking into the kid's eyes, but felt myself smiling at his grasp of the world around him. “Probably true,” was all I said.
Clarence bounced the ball a couple of times and let an awkward silence sit for three beats. “Y'all didn't come to play, did you, Mr. Freeman?” he said with a smile of his own.
“No. I came to ask a favor, CQ, for me and for Mr. Manchester.”
The statement caused the young man's lips to seal and his eyes to avert for the first time.
“OK,” he said, stepping toward the empty benches at courtside. “Let's talk.”
So what did I need from him? CQ asked. I just had to name it. Mr. Manchester was his friend. He'd been supportive from a distance, not like the others who wanted to be close just for the sake of prestige or spin-off money or any residual self-gain they could get from “knowing” CQ.
“He's cool. And I met his lady once and she was cool, too. What do you think I can do to help?”
I gave CQ the facts in low tones on the courtside bench. The other players had left us alone. I explained the kidnapping of Billy's wife and the instant speculation that her case dealing with the extradition of a Colombian drug supplier had in all probability been the motivation.
“We think they'll keep her close, hiding her until they think they can use her in some sort of trade to keep their man from going to court here in the States.”
CQ had followed the logic. He was a college-educated twenty-one-year-old. In fact, he was smarter than a typical college kid because he knew both sides of the street: the campus and classrooms where he was learning macroeconomics, and the local corner where a more visceral form of business theory held sway.
“So you're looking for Mrs. Manchester and because you think there are drugs involved, you figure I might have access to relevant information, being that I have such wide connections within the drug underworld?”
Crafting his synopsis, CQ had discarded all hints of ghetto cant in his voice and diction. The metamorphosis was impressive, but I wasn't sure if he was employing it because he was pissed at me for making assumptions, or to show that he understood exactly what I was asking him to do.
“Y'all need a CI. Right?” he said, instantly switching up the lingua franca. “Somebody who know everybody in the 'hood and got an ear for the street scut.”
“Right,” I saidâno use hiding my intentions.
He stared out over the empty half-court for a minute, spinning the ball in his huge hands, letting it slide over his skin. With each revolution, there was a hissing sound.
“Are you providing incentive, Mr. Freeman?” he finally said, cutting his eyes at me.
“I am. I've got two grand in my pocket and more if the information pans out. Unmarked cash. You pass out the first taste, and then I'll personally deliver the follow-up if your source has more.”
Again, CQ spun the ball.
“That ain't the way the cops do it.”
“I'm not the cops.”
The ball stopped. CQ looked me directly in the eye, the way he'd been taught by his mother, the way that meant he understood what was being asked of him and that he was promising to do what he said he would.
“For Mr. Manchester and his wife, yes,” he said.
He reached out a hand. I reached into my pocket first and then gave him a handshake containing a disposable cell phone and a packet of a hundred twenties.
“You make the call to me and then ditch the phone, CQ. No blowback on you. We're not putting you in jeopardy.”
He looked past me, staring first at the ground and then raising his eyes past me in the direction of the porch where his mother still sat.
“Yeah, you are, Mr. Freeman. But it's cool. I know the game, and I'm better at playing it than you are.”
I thanked the young man, knowing he was correct, but justifying my actions as I walked off the court.
“Yo, Coach. Yo, check it out, Coach,” yelled another player who fired a twenty-five-foot air ball that again elicited hoots from the others.
As I moved past CQ's front porch, I cut my eyes to Mrs. Quarles, who was still in her chair, watching me with a relaxed but suspicious look on her aged and mottled face. She returned my nod, but not with full approval.
The Gran Fury was untouched under her protective eye, and I climbed in and keyed the ignition, rumbling the 420 V-8 to life, the noise helping me keep at bay the ethical argument that I knew was going to haunt my thoughts. But I had other stops to make, including one to a lawyer Billy would be loath to contact on his own, even though it was an obvious connection to the Escalante empire.
When I'd pulled away from CQ's neighborhood under the baleful look of his mother, I knew I was running without rules. And in the world of both the good and the bad guys, someone running without rules can be dangerous.
need something to drink. My baby needs something to drink.” Whine, whine, whine, Rae thought, looking over at the hooded woman on the bed. Christâthese rich bitches, always whining. She just stared at the figure, arms still bound behind her, propped up at an angle against the wall now, letting her bloated stomach take the softness of the mattress.
“The baby needs hydration. You must know that, sir. You must know that a child needs water. Please.”
Rae remembered the time one of her mother's boyfriends put up a sign in their trailer home above the kitchen sink in a place you could see from just about any spot in the front half of the trailer, which in reality wasn't but one room with a stupid bar counter separating the kitchen area from the so-called living room.
The placard was shaped like a traffic sign with a red circle and a red stripe lashed across the words
âlike it was the law or something in their home. And he hadn't been staying there more than two weeks, James or Jimmy or some damn out-of-work long-haul trucker dude. He was another of her mother's beaus, as she called them. Putting up a damn
sign in their home! Asshole would just point at the sign when he thought Rae or her mother was complaining too much.
He wouldn't even turn his head away from the big-screen television set he'd lugged in, obtained no doubt from some electronics theft ring that was actually in cahoots with the drivers of tractor-trailers who hauled the stuff from Detroit or Grand Rapids up north. He'd just point his finger at the goddamn
sign, and Rae would walk out the front door, flipping the bird at the back of the guy's head as she left.
“Please. Please,” the woman had whispered. Rae looked down at the Big Gulp that had been under the chair since Danny brought her lunch, a Coke and a taco from the 7-Eleven. The drink was warm by now, but she picked it up and stepped to the bed. The woman turned her head, and Rae poked the straw from the Big Gulp up under the hood, poking until the woman finally got it into her mouth and started sucking, a little at first and then as if her damn life depended on it. Not so haughty now, right, Ms. Rich Bitch? Us hicks ain't so much shit on the heel of your shoe when you need us, huh?
Finally, the woman started pulling at the straw, and Rae could see that the opening at the bottom of the hood was starting to gape. She was afraid the woman was trying to sneak a look at the floor, the room, even get a look at her, so she yanked the Big Gulp away.
Now you're taking advantage? Now you're trying to get over on me? She wanted to yell at the woman, but she held her tongue. Silence, Danny and the asshole Geronimo had said.
Instead, Rae retreated back to her chair and sat and stared at the hooded head across the room. Rich bitch trying to get over, like they all did. Always conniving, trying to figure out how to get their way, make their businesses more profitable, and put more in their pockets, and all the time sounding like they were doing you a favor. Yeah, she heard the big shots, talking at the bar about their big deals and methods of financingÂ. Talking about their hidden interest rates and sweetening the pot with government subsidies they'd never be on the hook to pay backâpulling a profit they couldn't dream of without those tax subsidies.
Oh yeah, they'd chat and whisper the internal dealings without the least concern over doing it in front of some backwoods bartender girl who'd be too stupid to understand the ways and methods of the big-business boys.
So was Danny any different? Hell, sometimes it was the car and truck and heavy equipment owners themselves who'd get him to steal the damn vehicles just so they could write it off on their insurance. Isn't that fraud? Isn't that a crime? Oh no. That's the game, baby. You need to know how to cheat without getting caught. It ain't a crime unless you get caught. The old “If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a noise?”
Hell, Rae had been working the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa bar on a Sunday afternoon with a basketball game on the big screen and heard the NBA commentator say that a player “would never make the big time if he wasn't willing to push the envelope, do what needs to be done. It's not a foul unless you get caught by the ref. That's his job. Not yours.”
The business boys drinking their lunch had looked at one another and nodded, and tapped their fists together. You tell it, brother. That's the way it's done, right there on national television. Cheat if you can get away with it.
Rae sat watching the hooded woman and slipped the Big Gulp back under her chair.
“Thank you,” the woman said. “You are very kind.”
didn't have an appointment, but I knew that Johnny Milsap, Esq., attorney at law, would greet me with an extended hand when he found out I was walking around with cash money. Just like on the street: I'd be different than some detective or prosecutor calling in a favor with the promise of a break or a reduced sentence. Johnny did his business under the rubric made famous by an old-time Philadelphia counselor and politico who was caught on tape braying: “Money talks and bullshit walks.”
I'd be talking his talk.
Not that I was making moral judgments. I'd already made two other stops, one to see a bail bondsman whose reputation was spread among the users and losers in the drug trade as the man to go to when you were in jail on a possession-with-intent-to-distribute charge, and the other to see a retired DEA investigator who owed me and still kept his finger on the workings of the cocaine importation trade on the Miami River in Miami-Dade County.
Neither of them seemed to mind taking Billy's money as a “consultant's fee” for any information, rumors or otherwise, they might come up with about who might be involved with Diane's abduction.
For a man I considered a low-life lawyer, Johnny's offices were decidedly conservative. He was on the sixth floor of a building on Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale. There was a community college across the street. The main offices of the biggest newspaper in Broward County were catty-corner. Just across the Intracoastal Bridge on Sixth Street was the county courthouse and jail complex where Johnny did his work. The reception area for Suite 609 was done in beige and lavender, with a thick carpet and artwork on the walls that was a couple of grades above Motel 6, but prints nonetheless. There were eight chairs in the room, all of them empty.
Milsap did most of his work defending drug charges against his various clients and being kept on retainer for bail service and for questioning the proper procedures of collection of evidence and the strength of warrants. His wealthier clients did not come to his office; they had their people do it.
But his more street-level clients were sometimes unpredictable and always carried the possibility of danger if their cases didn't turn out the way they'd hoped. The receptionist at Milsap's office was behind a sliding, pebbled-glass window, so you felt like you were visiting the urologist or the local psychotherapist. I could tell by the thickness that it wasn't bulletproof glass, and knowing Johnny, I wondered why not. I ignored the stupid-looking bell on the shelf and rattled the window with a knuckle instead.
The glass slid open halfway, and a receptionist with streaked blonde hair and the doe-eyed look and complexion of a seventeen-year-old met my gaze with emerald green eyes that hadn't a clue behind them.
“May I help you?”
I wondered if she knew she'd be the first one to take a bullet if one of Johnny's pissed-off clients came in with a grudge against her boss.
“Please tell Mr. Milsap that Max Freeman is here to see him,” I said with as little inflection as possible.
“Is Mr. Milsap expecting you?” the tiny rehearsed voice said.
I gave her a deadpan look that I imagined was worn by every detective or numbers enforcer or racetrack operator who ever actually came in to see Johnny.
“Not until you tell him I'm here,” I said.
The girl did not alter her Alice-in-Wonderland look as she said, “One moment please,” and then slid the window shut.
I did not sit and instead took two steps closer to the door leading to the attorney's inner office. It wasn't a long wait. In less than a minute, the handle clicked, the door opened inward, and Johnny Milsap greeted me with the practiced smile of a back-lot carnival barker or adjustable-rate mortgage brokerâtake your pick.
“Well, Max Freeman, friend and confidant of the illustrious Billy Manchester himself. To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”
He offered his hand. I stepped past it and walked directly into his private office.
Milsap's desk was second-rate, faux oak, and devoid of any files, a computer, or even pretend photos of family or friends. He probably had a law degree from some innocuous university, but it was nowhere in sight. There was a wall of bookcases behind him, but they looked so regimented and obviously untouched that I was reminded of a book dealer I knew who could order books by the yard in whatever color matched your wallpaper just to supply ambience. The framed art on the other walls were repeats of those in reception, and I actually had to give Johnny credit for not having black velvet paintings of Elvis up there.
I sat down in front of his desk and Johnny took up his post behind it.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Freeman,” he said with only the slightest hint of sarcasm in his voice. “What can I do for you?”
Elbows on the armrests of my chair, I folded my hands in front of me, looked unblinking into the attorney's face, and stifled my urge to strangle the man. He must have read my eyes.
“First,” he said, clearing his throat, “I would like to offer my condolences to your employer over this terrible atrocity involving Judge Manchester. It's horrific, unconscionable.”
News of the kidnapping of a federal judge would already have been flashed on CNN and rippled through the legal community.
Milsap knew that as Billy's investigator I would be focused on nothing else. But being coy at such a time was not below him. Again, I held my tongue and my homicidal urges in check and instead reached into my sports coat pockets and stacked ten thousand dollars in cash on Milsap's desk.
“I'm paying for information, Johnny,” I said. “You have more connections to drug distributors than any lawyer in South Florida, and it is a possibility that Mrs. Manchester's kidnapping may be the work of minions from the Colombian cocaine pipeline. I'm asking you to ask around, to listen carefully to the scuttlebutt among your clients. If you hear something useful and pass it along, there will be more of this coming.”
Now, it was Milsap's turn to be silent. He looked from my eyes to the money. It talks. Especially when it's sitting stacked up in front of a man like him.
Milsap and I had crossed paths a couple of times in the past, once when he was representing a Delaware investment group that was buying up the life insurance policies of elderly black women. Milsap acted as a go-between who would pass those names on to a white-collar degenerate who then paid a mentally challenged drug addict to smother the women if they began to outlive the actuarial profit of those policies.
Through Billy, I was put onto the case. When the shitstorm came down, Milsap claimed he never knew where the names were going, and never recognized them when they started showing up on the obit pages.
“It was a fiduciary responsibility on my part,” he told detectives who started sorting out the story after the killer of the women died at Sherry's hand. “I had no idea.”
Now, I was actively putting myself in bed with him. The sour taste in my mouth was starting to build with each second he delayed a reaction.
“You understand,” he finally said, nodding at the cash. “This retainer would be considered the formation of an attorney-client relationship, Mr. Freeman. Thus any conversation between you and me would be considered privileged. Any information that I might access and discuss with you would, I hope, be considered as such.”
“Be as slick as you need to be, Johnny. You get me something that gets us closer to the scum who took Diane Manchester, I pay you. I don't need names. I don't need affidavits. I need to be pointed in the right direction.”
Again, Milsap looked at me and then at the pile of bills.
“I know Judge Manchester was working on the extradition case for Juan Manuel Escalante, Mr. Freeman. And I know you and Mr. Manchester are smart enough to be aware of that particular businessman's connections and outreach. If in any way my assistance â¦”
“Your name doesn't come up, Johnny. I'm not DEA. This is freelance and it's mine alone,” I said, knowing there was an edge to my voice.
“OK, OK,” Milsap said quickly, raising his palms. “I'm just saying.”
“Yeah, I know what you're saying, Johnny.” I reached into my pocket to pull out another disposable cell phone and dropped it on top of the cash.
“I know you've used one of these before, Counselor. Untraceable, with a single number loaded into it. I've got its mate, also untraceable. You get anything, you call me. No way to connect it back to you.”
The attorney's hands were now moving across the desk to enfold the phone and the pile of cash.
“And if something good should come of my information,” he said, pulling in the money as though he'd just won a huge poker pot. “Perhaps one good turn from a fellow member of the Florida Bar might someday be returned by Mr. Manchester himself?”
I stood and gave the lawyer another eye-to-eye look.
“Don't push it, Johnny.”