Chapter Twenty-Three: The Exchange
This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.
I answered the phone and Alan said from the other side, “Cliff, got somebody here that wants to talk to you.”
Sari’s voice was a little rough from just waking up, “I’m in one piece, but we have to make the exchange.”
“Where are you?”
“It’s me again Cliff. Like she said, she’s okay. We’re on our way to your location now. I’ll give you details about the exchange when we’re about to arrive.”
How did he know where we were? Did Sari tell him?
“Where exactly are we?”
“We’ve narrowed it down to that club over on the Jersey shore. Baydacious I think it’s called? Have since verified it. You’re definitely there.”
“And why do you think we’re there?”
“Cliff, I’m not stupid. I do this for a living. I just got word an hour ago that they fished our mutual acquaintance Kyle out of some very suspicious circumstances. Funny though, he doesn’t have his phone. Apparently you do. I had a trace on his phone from back when he and I were working together.”
Rayne still has Kyle’s phone. I looked at her standing there with Gavin and Francesco behind her like wingmen, the three of them posed like frozen action in a publicity photo for a new movie or TV show. Baydacious, starring Rayne Showers with Scarface Francesco and Gavin the Butler. Gavin was even holding that tray on which they had spread the drug like it was cocktail hour in the library. Was this dose of the drug making me hallucinate?
Alan was saying, “It’s about twenty-five miles across the bay. I’d say about an hour. Talk to you then.” This time he hung up on me.
“Well?” Rayne was demanding answers.
Some of my caution and rational intentions from before the dose still had momentum. I knew I just wanted the mix returned to Alan and Sari back with us. I didn’t want to lug any more bodies around and get in more trouble than we already were. Rayne and her factotums were going to scheme to somehow get Sari back and keep the mix. I knew it wasn’t going to work. Alan was holding all the cards. These three action heroes had to be bypassed to conclude this situation successfully.
“He knows we’re here and is coming later this evening.”
Francesco stepped forward with a glint in his eyes like a lion sensing its prey. He only managed to say, “Here?”
“Yes Rayne,” I looked at her, “You apparently kept a certain person’s phone? They’re tracking it.”
She was silent and staring at me. Did she understand what I said?
“Where’s his phone?”
She continued to stare unresponsively.
“I’m thinking.” She walked over to the couch and found the hooded sweatshirt she had been wearing when she hit Kyle. It was in its pocket.
She handed it to me and I put it in my left pants pocket where it was obstructed by something already there. I dug it out and it was Kyle’s glasses which I had swiped up and pocketed when John found them. I examined them. They had metal frames and the lenses in them were dirty with gunk and smears. Rayne’s eyes got even wider when she realized what they were and she recoiled slightly as if afraid they might have an odor.
I couldn’t tell you why, but it seemed like a good idea at the time to put them on. I looked at a blurry Rayne and probably made some kind of goofy face. “Remember these?”
She sneered in disgust and her eye twitched, “G…get those off and get them out of here.”
I turned and walked by Francesco, then out the office door. I guessed I’d find the mix in that private room I had found Rayne in earlier. It was there, right next to where she had been sitting. Now it was held in a plastic bag, the kind a restaurant might use for take out. I picked it up and checked it. We were down another vial. It was on that tray or up our noses. Otherwise everything seemed in order. I took the bag and retraced the route by which I had gotten there and finally was outside going toward the dock. I took Kyle’s phone out and winged it out into the water, then did the same with the glasses. The phone barely made a splash sinking fast and deep; the glasses lingered on the surface for an awkward second before disappearing, first one half, then the other like a sinking ship.
It was my intention to wait there on the mini beach for Alan and avoid the mix nuts inside. I hoped to conclude this business with Alan by myself before the rest of them knew I was missing. I looked at the time. I had about thirty five minutes until Alan got there. I went off the dock and got comfy in one of the Adirondack chairs and waited for Alan’s yacht to arrive from Fowl’s Point.
As soon I got situated the drug began warping things badly. Something about the way I was sitting low in the chair with my hands grasping the armrests got me thinking about my step mom. She had a favorite seat in which she’d sit doing crosswords and reading historical novels. In her final years dying of cancer she sat there a lot and she wore a bright red robe that had a zipper up its front. In my memory now its redness was Santa Claus red, beyond that even, a brand new fire truck red, a red beyond red. When somebody visited her she would lean forward as if about to get up, knuckles tightening against the ends of the armrests, fighting the gravity well of the chair’s design coupled with her frailty. She never got up, the attempt was more the gesture, a courtesy. She was at the stage where her hair had gone and started to come back in the image I had of her and with her hands locked on the arms and the scarlet red robe and the red head wrap she wore to cover her mangy head, she looked like that painting by Velazquez of the pope, the one that a twentieth century surrealist recreated as a ghoul screaming behind a sheer curtain. I found myself turning into all three of these figures, a three dimensional version there on the beach, the cancerous pope in the chair with crosswords, then the cackling abstraction, all of them near-corpses laughing at their absurdity, their mortality.
These identities became shifts beyond my control. I wasn’t finding it easy to snap out of one into the other, to discern where my mind ended and theirs began, if I even had an independent mind anymore. My step mom laughed, revealing the missing upper incisor that always drew one’s eye. The pope was laughing in the only way a sinister guy like that would laugh and that connected to Zarathustra laughing with the Dwarf and soon I was heading back, laughing at these transformations, these shades of my dark side I had visited like a trip into the underworld.
I looked up and a young couple was subtly watching me, whispering about me. They had strolled down to the little beach for some bay watching and found a cackling pope tentatively rising to greet them. Reality Cliff, here and now. The dead versus the living. Focus on the sand beneath your feet. The sun sweating your brow. The sweet smells of barbecue mixed with the bay brine. The pop songs piped outside as background ambiance for these dully curious tan youth in their fake cut-off jeans and muscle t-shirts. The girl was wearing some kind of fishnet leggings, the kind that have become not uncommon in everyday use and which we’ve had to dress code in recent years at school. They had given up on the idea of taking selfies with me leering at them and removed themselves from my vicinity.
My phone was ringing. Alan.
“Cliff, we’re here. I’m not taking my vessel any closer to shore. You’re going to have to use one of those dinghies or something. Come out alone with the product. Once we verify it is the real McCoy, you and Sari can be on your way.”
“See you soon.”
He hung up and I stood to spot Alan’s yacht anchored out in the water about the length of a football field away. I could see two figures standing in it, presumably Alan and Rudi. I saw a small one engine motor boat that looked manageable sitting in the sand near the dock. I went to it and tied the handles of the plastic bag and put it on the floor of the boat. I took the gun out of my rear waistband and put it on the floor of the boat. I assumed I would be frisked upon entering the yacht.
The boat itself wasn’t secured and was easily shoved into the water. I walked into the water getting wet up to my ankles and carefully got in the boat. The motor had to be swung down into the water and turned on with a button. Forward and reverse were clearly labeled and I carefully backed out and turned.
A voice yelled from the shore: “Hey Cliff!”
It was Gavin at the water’s edge making a what the fuck are you doing expression with his hands up. I turned away and watched the yacht, the midday summer sun lighting the men up and making a swarm of blinding bullwhip reflections in the water around them. It was a beautiful day to be out on a boat, made me more eager to get a normal life back, to get rid of the mix and all its problems.
I churned forward, my own Ahab, my own Cap’n Crunch, eyes locked on the two men. I tried to pick out details on them as I closed the distance. Alan’s gut, Rudi’s top heavy shoulder span. Was he wearing sunglasses? They both made a sudden movement, responded to something nearby. Another figure appeared and went into the air and over the edge of the boat in a perfect chin tucked-in dive. Sari. She escaped.
I throttled the engine toward her as she surfaced and swam toward me with a steady and deliberate form that showed she had spent a lot of time in the water growing up. I glanced up to the men on the boat and they were leaning forward watching, helpless. I slowed down the boat by reversing and Sari grabbed onto the edge. I helped her and her sopping clothes up into the boat.
We hugged. I kissed her, then turned the boat around. “I can’t believe you just did that. Are you okay?”
She laughed, “They had me tied up with nylon ropes and stuffed me in a closet. When I knew we were close and heard you were coming I burnt off the ropes on a pipe from the hot water heater and broke open the door.” She was ringing water out of her hair and turned to wave at her shrinking former abductors. “What a bunch of amateurs.”
It looked like Alan was watching us with binoculars. I didn’t wave sarcastically like Sari; part of me didn’t want Alan to think I had been deceptive in my intentions, that I hadn’t approached in good faith.
A crowd had gathered at the shore. Rayne, Francesco and Gavin were in front.
Sari saw the audience. “How are things back at Baydacious?”
“Crazy. They got into the mix and did up an entire vial.”
“They’re test tubes, not vials.”
“Did you do some?”
“Uh, yes I did. Rayne was insistent. She is really on fire. She’s established herself as some kind of empress.”
Sari looked at Rayne standing with her arms crossed on the shore like the queen of the land ready to greet foreign ambassadors. Sari shook her head like a reproving adult does with a kid, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”
We were approaching the shore. Gavin had taken off his Timberlands and was standing in the water ready to receive us. He seemed happy to see us, thrilled by Sari’s escape. The only people that weren’t smiling or wide-eyed at the spectacle were Rayne and Francesco. She looked like somebody who didn’t approve of things going on without her consultation. He stood next to her giving us his best bleary-eyed Scarface stare.
Most of the fuss was focused on the escapee Sari so I got the bag with the mix and snuck the gun in there too. Nothing about a bag of takeout could seem strange to anybody. We all went inside and the sisters went off for some sister time and to tend to a burn on Sari’s arm from the rope removal. I had been waiting for a call from Alan and it came just as I sat at the downstairs bar full of young people where Gavin got me a drink. I stepped away from the noise of the bar TVs and sipped my beer. He was still using Sari’s phone.
“Nice one. That girl is something else. I still think you’re the only reasonable one. I’m going to give you one more chance before things get truly ugly. Reinforcements have already arrived. They’re probably in that place right now. Would you like to try this again?”
This was a tough call. Going behind Rayne’s and her boys’ backs was one thing, but Sari’s?
“I take your silence to mean you think we don’t have leverage now. Why should you deal? Let me tell you. These Eastern Europeans are plentiful and are resourceful. They don’t just work in the boardwalk ice cream shops. I bet you one of them is watching you in that room right now. My point is we still have leverage because you’re infiltrated and your building is surrounded. It’s only a matter of time. If you want to avoid harm to yourself and your friends you and I can rendezvous at a safe place and finalize this business. Call me within the hour and let’s do it before it’s too late.”
He hung up. I put the phone in my pocket and raised my beer bottle while looking at the two dozen patrons. More were coming in every second. There was probably a line outside. What did a Russian look like? A Ukrainian? A whatever. The iron curtain covered half of Europe when you looked at it on a map. I teach that shit in European history. But that didn’t help me spot them. Rudi didn’t look especially different. Didn’t they have a hard time smiling from Soviet deprivation and soul-crushing totalitarianism? From what I saw mulling around in that club in those afternoon hours it turned out not many people actually smiled outside of selfies and TV. They looked like people distracted by getting ready to have fun—but it hadn’t happened yet. All the girls looked like they could work in one of those ice cream shops.
Unless they were all spies.
We had to shut the place down, empty it out, go on a lockdown. I hurried off to find the others.
I hid the mix and the gun in the supply room near the office. There was a high shelf with boxes of drinking straws and bar napkins, the kind of stuff that doesn’t get touched often. In the space behind them where only dust bunnies roamed the bag fit nicely. Then I went in the office where I found Sari and Rayne bickering and Francesco sitting at his desk catatonic. The girls were looking unkempt with wild hair and sweatpants. When was the last time any of us had eaten or slept?
I told them, “Alan has sent people in. They could be down there right now.”
The girls only half heard me, unable to break out of their hushed argument. But Francesco heard me and stirred to life, started looking at each of his security monitors in turn. I too looked in them. One showed the bar where I had just left, another showed the front door where a line of people were passing through Gavin and some other employee who took their money and checked them for contraband. The other cameras showed a hallway to the bathrooms and the deck outside. Two other monitors were shut off, presumably showing the activities of the empty bar on the second floor and maybe the private lounge room.
I said to Francesco, “You should shut the place down, empty it out. There’s no way of telling who it could be.”
He didn’t say anything, just scrutinized the screens as if he would be able to spot them.
“They’re not going to look like what you would expect. They’re not going to be that obvious.”
Was he hearing me? I thought I should try the girls. I went over to them and told them again about Alan’s threats, about the invasion of Eastern Europeans, how he said the place was surrounded. The details got them to pay attention. They finally grokked the severity of the situation.
Sari said, “He could be bluffing. Trying to scare us.”
“Could be. Or he’s got half a dozen Russians on his payroll and they’re waiting for the right moment to strike. Is it that hard to believe after we’ve seen what Rudi can do?”
Rayne asked, “Who’s Rudi?”
“That big Russian. He killed Kyle’s girlfriend.”
“Kyle had a girlfriend?”
“Long story,” I said, “We have to at least get a group text on our phones, connect up with Gavin, whoever else works here, so they can report anything suspicious. I think we should probably just shut the place down.”
Sari said, “Alan has my phone. You should probably make sure your location sharing is off. If we can get out of here we don’t want him being able to track us with my phone.”
Rayne asked, “Did you give him your unlock code?”
“I did. Probably shouldn’t have but I didn’t want to give them an excuse to strong-arm me.”
Meaning the hostage Sari was scared but she doesn’t want to admit it.
Rayne was checking her phone for the location sharing, then I gave mine to her because I didn’t know where to look. I went over to Francesco who was still immersed in his security monitors. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary on the screens. I said something to him but he didn’t respond. He was useless so I returned to Rayne. I wanted to get Gavin to shut the place down and he might listen to her. Sari had vanished. Rayne was thumbing through my phone still, clearly looking at things other than my location sharing. The look in her eyes was like when she had found out about that old boyfriend and flipped out about it.
I said, “What’s up?”
She looked from the phone at me with a scrutiny tinged with disgust, muscles popped in the side of her face from grinding her teeth, “I saw you kissed Sari out in that boat.”
“I just gave her a hug because she was safe.”
“And a kiss. And you told me that day you went to see her you met Sari in the bar.” She looked back at the glow of the phone. “Sari’s text says, ‘I’m back at the Hairpin. Come up and see me. Room 3.’”
“Yeah, so I went over and she met me at the bar. Come on Rayne, you’re being paranoid.”
A new face had taken over Rayne, one closer to hate and repugnance.
Her lips were trembling, “I’m not paranoid.”
From over at the desk Francesco’s voice finally did something, “There’s something going on at the front door.”
I walked over and there was some kind of commotion at the front door camera. Gavin was in the middle of it, pushing back against a belligerent man and some others and right in back of him trying not to get knocked over by the shoved bodies was Sari.