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Authors: Jonathon King

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BOOK: Midnight Guardians
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Without hesitation, he had found me a place to live, a small shack on a river at the edge of the Everglades. It fit my stated needs perfectly. It was isolated, hard to get to, and quiet in a way only nature can be quiet; a place to grind the rocks in my head, a place to disappear and, yes, a place to hide. Having researched Billy’s background, I also entrusted him with my disability insurance payout from the Philadelphia Police Department. He ensured me that he could invest the amount and that I would, given my severely modest plans and lifestyle, never have to work again.

I trusted him, not just because our mothers had trusted each other, despite the differences in their lives, but because I knew the odds he’d beaten, the climb he’d made out of the streets.

Billy had known Sherry for as long as I had. He was the one I’d come to when Sherry was part of a sheriff’s team investigating the abduction and killing of children from the suburban communities edging their way out into the once-wild Glades. Because I’d been unlucky enough to discover the body of one child on my river, I had been deemed a suspect. Sherry hadn’t trusted me until I ultimately solved that case, rescuing one of the missing children in the process.

Billy had admired Sherry’s investigative skills as a detective. And he had seen through her tough-minded way of looking at things without making prejudgments. He had, in fact, realized that before I did. When Sherry and I finally danced around our wariness of each other, and started dating, he’d been deeply pleased. With Billy’s wife, an attorney and then a candidate for a federal judgeship, he and Sherry and I were often a social foursome, dining together, or going to some show to which Billy inevitably obtained tickets.

I waved him off his apology for using a reference to wheelchairs and its possible personal connection to Sherry. Her leg fracture and subsequent infection and amputation had occurred while she was officially off-duty. But the fact is that you are always a cop, 24/7. When confronted by a crime, which in our case had been a robbery and abduction leading to multiple shooting deaths in the Glades, she was covered by her sheriff’s office insurance. She was taken care of, with her medical bills paid in full by the job. But I had stayed with her, in her Fort Lauderdale house, working, I thought, on the mental rehab I thought she needed.

“Not a problem, Billy. She’s actually getting used to it,” I said. “You know Sherry, nothing keeps her down.”

“B-Bullshit, Max.”

You would have to know how infrequently Billy’s language goes to the street to realize how strong the statement was. I stared into his face, feeling something rise up into my throat that I have rarely tasted in Billy’s presence.

“Sh-She will never g-get used to it, Max. She will adjust. She will f-fight. But you n-never get used to such things.”

I cut my eyes away from his, looked out over the lakefront, higher over the barrel tiled roofs of Palm Beach, and even higher to the horizon where the sky touched the ocean.

“OK. When do I meet this whistle-blower?” I asked, and drained the rest of my beer.




— 4 —



T 12:25 P.M., I was sitting in the parking lot of the West Boca Medical Complex waiting for Luz Carmen. Billy had given me the address and the whistle-blower’s name. He’d actually made the appointment before I’d arrived at his penthouse, knowing I would accept the assignment, and knowing I would be available for the rest of the day. Within a year of our meeting, I had become Billy’s full-time investigator. He had given up going into the streets a long time ago, admitting without chagrin that after what he’d witnessed in his childhood, he would never get his hands dirty again. On the quite literally grimy other hand, I could not stay out of the alleys and shadows and points of danger I’d learned to operate in. Billy and I developed a team, one that often worked well.

I parked two rows back from the entrance to the building, a spread-out affair that looked like they’d borrowed the site plan of the Pentagon but only needed one story. In this part of South Florida—the western cities and suburbs far inland from the ocean—there was no concern for the amount of cheap land developers used. Drain the Everglades by lowering the water table with gouged-out lakes or by dredging funneling canals to the ocean, and then fill and build. It had been going on for a century. Pave paradise, put up a parking lot; apologies to Joni Mitchell.

At 12:30 P.M. exactly, I got a call on my cell. The readout displayed the number Billy had given me.

“Max Freeman,” I answered.

“Yes, this is Luz Carmen, may I help you?”

“Uh, you called me, Ms. Carmen.”

“Yes, that’s possible, sir,” said a moderately young woman’s voice on the other end of the conversation, if you wanted to call it that. “Yes, sir, I am on my way this very moment, sir.”

“Uh, OK, Ms. Carmen, I’m out in the parking lot in a royal blue Ford F-150 pickup truck, two rows back from the sidewalk in the middle,” I said, getting the picture. It always makes me shake my head when people hear the title
private investigator
and instantly act like they’re in a Jason Bourne spy movie.

Less than two minutes later, I watched a woman whose age matched the telephone voice step outside, sweep the area as if she were worried about being followed, and then make a beeline to my truck.

She was short and slim, maybe five feet two and a hundred pounds. She had long black hair that was either so fine or so meticulously brushed, that even the mild breeze swept it off her shoulders and ruffled it as she approached. She was in heels, skirt just above the knees, and was wearing a white lab coat, like a nurse or doctor.

I started to get out of the truck to greet her when she pierced the windshield with an admonishing look and raised a hand, palm side out. The gesture said: Stay put, please!

Great, I thought—real deep undercover shit, covert ops and everything. I sat still nevertheless while she walked straight to the passenger door, opened it, and climbed in.

“Hi, Ms. Carmen, I assume,” I said, giving her my best welcoming and open smile. “I’m Max Freeman, Billy’s associate.”

“Please drive, Mr. Freeman,” she said, staring forward without looking at my face. “We cannot talk here.”

Ooooo, secret agent shit. They could be listening in with long-distance audio surveillance equipment. Maybe I ought to get out the special cone of silence. But I said nothing, started the truck, and headed out of the lot. I waited until we were on Glades Road before I asked “Where to, Ms. Carmen?”

“There is a park, Mr. Freeman, up here on the right. We can turn in there and talk where it is safe.”

I glanced over at her, already knowing she’d be staring out front, her face stoic and focused. But her fingers were also entwined as they clutched her handbag, her thumb rubbing one knuckle as if there were an itch there that could not be satisfied. She was good at hiding her anxiety, but no one is immune. I decided not to scare her more than she already was and simply followed her directions, letting her feel some control over the situation.

Finally, she directed me into a city park, where I followed a winding ribbon of asphalt to a picnic site. We got out and walked to a wooden table positioned under a huge banyan tree some thirty yards out from the parking area. At mid-afternoon on a fall day with school in session and the workaday tribes at their daily grind, the park was abandoned. Ms. Carmen, I assumed from the lack of a wedding ring, seemed to deem it safe enough and sat on one side of the table as I took the other, looking across, face-to-face, as if we were having some sort of business meeting—which we were, in a way.

“I trust, Mr. Freeman, that Mr. Manchester has filled you in on my situation?” Her language was clean and clipped, the pronunciation of the
a touch harder than an Anglo would use. Her English was school-perfect, but it was secondary to her.

“He gave me a very broad outline, Ms. Carmen,” I said, copying her tight demeanor. “But I would like to hear it again, in your own words.”

Her eyes were dark brown, so dark, in fact, that it was difficult to see the difference between the black pupil and the iris. She stared for an extra second at my face.

“Mr. Manchester says I can trust you.”

It was a statement, not a question, so I felt no reason to answer.

She took a deep breath and began.

“I have been working for Mediwheels and Prosthetics for eighteen months, Mr. Freeman. It is the third business I have been with since I obtained my associate nursing degree from Miami Dade Community College,” she said, keeping a strict, educated cant to her voice, but not for long.

“I know I need to get my RN degree before I can really work in a hospital, which is what I really want to do. And I know I could just work in one of the nursing homes, which I tried at first. But I really had a hard time with the elderly people and got way too emotional about the problems they were having. I do not like to see their suffering all the time, and…”

She caught herself. Recognizing the rambling and the increasingly high pitch of her voice, she stopped, gathered herself, and began again.

“So I took a position with the equipment suppliers instead,” she said. “The money is better. You don’t see very many patients. It’s mostly paperwork. I can save enough to get back into school.”

She stopped and looked over at me: I was at a loss.

“That’s admirable, Ms. Carmen. You’re what, twenty-two? Three?” I said, guessing low, because women like that.

“And you’re working toward a better education. That’s always a good thing. But please, go on. My understanding is that you’ve discovered something untoward in the accounting for this business?”

Her hands were back together; the rubbing of the thumb on knuckles had begun yet again.

“It is a small office, Mr. Freeman. There are two treatment rooms stacked only with boxes of forms. There are three wheelchairs, very expensive, top of the line, six-thousand-dollar wheelchairs that are set up for display purposes in the reception area. There are no prosthetics at all—none.”

This time when she stopped, I didn’t prod. I was thinking instead of the wheelchair that Sherry owned, and the busy, equipment-filled therapy rooms at Broward General Hospital where she did her rehabilitation. Sherry was already talking about the possibility of a prosthetic that could replace her lower leg and allow her to run, like some guy trying to get into the Olympics with a thing that looks like a fiberglass spatula attached to his partially missing leg.

“They are stealing,” Carmen said with enough force to snap me back to attention. “They are stealing the Medicare and Medicaid numbers of patients and using them to order expensive wheelchairs and medical equipment, and then cashing in the reimbursements themselves.”

Again I didn’t prod; I just rolled the scenario around in my head. Money from government programs meant to help disabled people was being funneled into the hands of con men who figured out how to game the system—nothing new. When I was a cop in Philadelphia, it was the food stamps, bartered on the streets like Monopoly money, traded for drugs and booze like any stolen merchandise. Go up the line, and subsidized housing gets used the same way. Hell, some big-name congressman in New York just got popped for using a rent-subsidized apartment as his elections office. I could now see why Billy got into this. This kind of thing enrages him: I, on the other hand…

“So does this illegal transaction of phony requests and exchange of funds take place in your office, Ms. Carmen?” I finally said.

“No, they wouldn’t do it there. No, someone gathers the numbers and then delivers them.”

“And do you know where this place is—the drop-off?”

“No,” she said, and turned her face away.

Ms. Carmen did not lie easily or well. There was something there that I needed to read. The sense of indignation was missing. This wasn’t just some employee angered by the unfairness of it all. I’ve seen the disgust of people in North Philadelphia when the drug dealing got so bad that their kids couldn’t safely walk to school, or had to stay inside on summer evenings for fear of getting shot in some 9 mm pissing match over a corner.

This woman was scared in a personal way: Was this an admission of her own guilt?

“So who is actually siphoning off the numbers?” I said. “Who makes the delivery?”

“A few months ago, I got my brother a job there,” she said, keeping her eyes down. “I was trying to help him. He has not done well for himself these past few years. After I vouched for him, he promised he would work hard, and do what he was told, and always be on time.”

Now her confident voice lost its power and conviction. A tear formed at the corner of one eye, but was held there as if by will alone; it did not drop. She blinked.

“So your brother is the one delivering the numbers?” I said, stating what she could not.

“His name is Andrés, Andrés Carmen. And he does not have good friends, Mr. Freeman. I am afraid for both him and myself.”

Nothing new here, I thought. Same game with a different name: numbers running, working the outlets, gathering the tickets, hoofing them to a place where they are sorted and used. Can you say Italian lottery, or the numbers game?

If I am surprised at all, it’s because in this day of electronic communication, instant messaging, and email at the press of a finger, this kind of enterprise wouldn’t usually be employing a hand-delivery system. It made me think of old-school criminals doing something new that they weren’t quite used to, so they stick to the tried and true.

“Your brother makes these deliveries when, at the end of the day? Twice a week?”

“Only once a week, on Fridays, I think,” Carmen said.

“And does he go straight there after leaving your office?”

“I don’t know. I tried to follow him once, but I couldn’t keep up.”

“OK. What does your brother look like? How can I recognize him?”

Now she hesitated. This had gone beyond making a whistle-blower complaint, and had taken on the feeling of a personal betrayal. This was where it always got them: a mother turning in a son’s drug use, a daughter confessing her father’s sexual abuse.

BOOK: Midnight Guardians
10.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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