Chapter 27, Snake
Sunday, June 15, 10 p.m.
“Lotsa people know this guy. Sorta,” said Danny. “They’ve heard of him because he’s some kind of dealer, or they remember talking to him in a bar. They remember the snake tattoo. No one I talked to remembers a name. Some of them called him The Snake or Snake like that was his name. Seems to be what he goes by.”
Falconer and Danny Armster were in the A4, parked on East Pike across from the Meteor, a tavern that had been in the neighborhood for half a century, decades before that part of Capitol Hill became trendy. For all that time, too, the place had had a rough edge and still did.
“I talked to people around here and kids on The Ave. Both places people said they saw him from time to time, every week maybe, sometimes every few days. Seems to wander across a wide territory, more like a wolf than a snake,” Danny joked.
“Maybe combines the dangers of both.”
“I think he wears a wig some of the time. Most of the time people said he was a skinhead, shaved bald. Some described him as having dark brown or black curly hair, though. So two guys with cobras tattooed on the back of their left hands, or one guy who sometimes wears a wig?”
“Has to be one guy.”
“Yeah. Whatever description they gave, if they could name a place they thought he’d be, most often this was it.”
“So, given the odds, we only have to wait three or four nights.” Falconer was sarcastic. Stakeouts like tipsters always seemed like a waste of time – except when they paid off.
“I don’t think so. See the guy crossing the street?”
“Looks like the skinhead version. Right height and build.”
“Could be. But I’ll bet you the next round of coffees he walks right past the place.”
“Shit, he did. No, no, wait a minute, Eric. He stopped to talk to the smokers.” They waited. A big guy with a gray Santa Claus beard and wearing a baseball cap pulled out his wallet, slipped a couple bills to the skinhead.
“Old debt or new order placed. I didn’t see our Snake hand him anything,” said Danny. “And he just went in. You lose, Eric. I know that’s rare, but you lose. He just went in.”
“Let’s give him a few minutes to get settled.”
After a while they got out and jaywalked. Falconer found a gap in the concert posters that covered the tavern windows and peered in. “Best of all possible worlds. He’s at the bar and the guy next to him just went to a booth.”
Danny went in first, sat on the Snake’s left, between him and the door. The tattoo was there, the cobra wrapped around a beer glass. Danny could see he had a couple decent sized scars where his hairline would be if he weren’t shaved and one down the side of his nose. “Right where Roman Polanski cut that guy in Chinatown,” Danny thought. “Rough life this guy leads.”
The bar was blonde wood, under thick varnish showing its own scars and cigarette burns. Behind Danny and Snake, only a few tables were occupied by Sunday night serious drinkers, the guys who wouldn’t let the weekend end even if they were working Monday morning.
Falconer came in and sat to the kid’s right. Close up, Snake didn’t look thirty, more about Danny’s age. That might have made his appearance at the Roberts’ place a little more plausible, somebody one of the kids could have met. You’re getting out of high school. What comes next? That age, there’s always a fascination with life’s rough edges, Falconer knew. You’re trying to score dope on The Ave and you run into this guy and that’s what you’ve found, a rough-edged son of a bitch, a sleazy little rabbit ready to lead you down a hole. Or, like the kids said, maybe he just crashed the party. Yeah, because somebody paid him to, thought Falconer.
“We’d like to talk to you,” Falconer said quietly, leaning into the kid’s space. Snake snapped his head from Falconer to Danny and back, figuring out who Falconer meant by “we,” how many there were, trying to decide if they were going to be customers or some kind of problem. Problems were always around.
“That little party in Laurelhurst you dropped by last week,” Falconer said. “Handing out free samples. Arson. That sort of thing.”
Snake pushed back from the bar. “That some kinda riddle? I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”
“We want to know who paid you,” said Falconer in the same level tone, no hint of threat, just assurance that, of course, there’d be an answer.
Snake turned and suddenly slid off the high padded bar stool, took a step toward the door. Danny spun around, cutting him off and, left food planted, slammed his right boot upward into the guy’s kneecap. In the same movement, he lifted Snake off the floor with a blow to his gut that took his wind and left only a silent scream for the damaged knee. The look in his eyes was one Danny recognized, a mixture of hatred and fear, fear dominating. From behind, Falconer grabbed Snake’s left arm and pulled it back and up between his shoulder blades. With a glance back to make sure nobody moved, he said to the barman, “Our friend’s a little drunk; we’d better get him home.” He and Danny lifted Snake between them and walked him out the door into the darkening end of the long summer day.
Around the corner and halfway up the side street there was no traffic and nobody on the sidewalk. Between darkened store windows, they held the Snake up against a dirty brick wall, seen from a distance a tight conversational group, maybe a drug deal. Who would care? Fists clenched not to fight but against the excruciating pain, Snake managed only a litany built of the words shit and motherfuckers. When he raised the volume, Danny took a small bat from his pocket and suggested Snake might want to keep his teeth because on top of repairs to his knee, dental work would be expensive.
“Fuckers. What do you want?”
“The name of the guy who paid you to drop drugs on those kids in Laurelhurst.”
“That wasn’t me. Somebody else.” Danny gave the dealer’s knee a light tap with the bat. “Shit!” Snake doubled over against the pain and they had to pull him upright.
“The name and how to contact him.”
“OK, OK. Give me a second here.” They waited while Snake took a long series of deep breaths. Tears ran down his cheeks. “OK. Don’t kick me again. This is the truth, I swear to God. They call on my cell. I never met them in person and I don’t know any names. I don’t know shit, man.” The tone was pleading, and contained a flash of insight that he was in the middle, dumb, used and screwed.
“Give us your cell phone.”
“No, man!” Not so much a refusal as another plea. “I can’t do business without my phone. You’ll put me out of business. Don’t do that.”
“Borrow one. We only need it for a couple days,” said Falconer. “Give us your address. We’ll mail it back to you – unless we decide to give it to the cops.”
“It’s OK. You can leave it with the bartender.” With a jerk of his head he gestured back around the corner toward the Meteor.
“Naw, we’d like to have your address,” said Falconer. “For insurance.” Bat back in his pocket, Danny swung his leg as though aiming, still holding Snake’s shoulder against the wall. Falconer wrote down the University District address he gave them. It was close to The Ave, where the homeless kids he preyed on hung out.
“And your real name, please.”
Snake gave up the fight. “Corey Wayne.”
“Doesn’t sound real,” said Danny.
“Fuck your mother, too.” The words came with spit. Danny tapped the knee.
“There’s more though, isn’t there, Corey? These guys weren’t just voices on the phone, were they?”
“I told you I never saw them.” Snake spit each word between teeth clenched against the pain. “That’s the fucking truth, you assholes. Just voices on the phone. Two of them.”
“Tell us the story,” said Falconer.
“About a month ago the first one called, says he got my name, not my real name, from a bartender I know. Not the guy back there. He’s straight. I mean he doesn’t deal, doesn’t help me.”
“The guy on the phone, what’d he call you?”
“Snake. Everyone calls me Snake. You seen the tattoo.”
“Yeah, great artwork,” said Danny. “Maybe someday they’ll hang your hand on a museum wall.”
“How much did they pay you?”
“$500.” Double that to get the right answer, Falconer thought.
“How’d they get you the money?”
“How I told them. Put it in an envelope, give it to a barman I know.”
“Which barman? Where?”
“I ain’t rattin’ him.”
Danny kicked him below the knee. Anyplace near the torn ligaments worked. Snake doubled over with a cry of pain. “Ohh, fuck.” A pause. “Guy named Ricky at Hole in the Wall.”
“A martini bar on Post Alley near Trattoria Mitchelli.”
“Ricky say what he looked like, your employer?”
“Like a lawyer.”
“That’s all he said. He thought he was a lawyer.”
“Why’d he think that?”
“How the fuck would I know? Maybe he was wearing a suit.”
“Maybe we’ll ask Ricky,” said Falconer.
“Oh, shit. I’m toast, man. Don’t do it.”
“What about the other guy?
“He’s the one who called and told me about the party and what to do. All the details. What drugs, you know. Even told me to burn the boat on the beach.”
“He knew about the boat?”
“Yeah. Said there would be kindling and a can of that charcoal starter stuff underneath.”
“And there was?”
“Yeah, why not?” Falconer and Danny exchanged glances.
“What’d he sound like?”
“Like you. Like he gave the orders and expected you to do what he said.”
Falconer nodded at Danny. They let go of Snake’s shoulders and he slumped to the sidewalk, whimpering with pain.”
“Take some pills for that,” said Danny. “You’ve probably got a pocketful.”
Back in the car, Falconer said, “I’m not sure you needed to kick him that hard.”
“Think of it this way. We didn’t have to waste our time trying to keep him from running away.”
“Point taken. Nice desert boots, by the way. You get those in Iraq? They look just like the ones your boss Paul Bremner always wore on TV news escorting junketing senators like John McCain around.”
“Not my boss and not quite the same. I got ’em here. They’re made for construction workers. What I like are the steel toes. You need those sometimes, like in case you drop something on your foot.”
Chapter 28, San Diego
Monday, June 16, 6 p.m.
“So this means it’s time to pay the piper, right, Mr. Mundy?”
“I suppose, yes, you could put it that way.”
Michelle Adams and Todd Mundy were in Adams’ ground floor apartment out by San Diego State, not exactly high rent. There were bars on the windows except for the patio door that led to a walled yard where dust coated the few spiny-looking plants. The sliding door was double glazed with tempered wire glass, installed only because Michelle agreed to pay half, an expense made bearable by the money she got from the mystery man or woman Mundy served. At least the reinforced glass and two dead bolts stopped the break-ins and now, Manuel, her 10-year-old son, was finally becoming less fearful.
Michelle paced, waving a bottle of Pacifico to punctuate her points, or stopping when her thoughts ran down to sit heavily on the couch. She wore a white scoop neck top and black cotton pants. The blue blazer she wore at work was discarded on the back of the couch. The lawyer sat at her small dining table, briefcase open in front of him, a glass of water handy. It was almost dusk and still 90 outside, 95 in the tiny room. A portable fan moved air around. This wasn’t a neighborhood cooled by breezes from the bay.
“Well, it’s not a surprise, is it? As they say, there ain’t no free lunch. Past couple of years, I’ve been figuring sooner or later the other shoe would drop. There’d be something I had to do for the money. Hardly a day I haven’t wondered about it, wondering who’s giving me and Manuel a thousand a month, plus money for his college education you say is put away somewhere.”
“It’s nothing you need to worry about. The college he enrolls in will be able to draw on it. You’ll be given instructions when the time comes.”
“Thanks a lot, Mr. Mundy. I’ll just go on feeling like a pawn in somebody else’s game. Story of my life, isn’t it? Mom pops me out at San Diego General and disappears. I’m adopted into working-class poverty by a shipyard worker and his wife and he’s dead of mystery lung cancer – oh, and of course it’s not work related – before I’m five. Going on second generation of single mom’s here, Mundy. I suppose I should be grateful for the allowance since that fucking TV station still only pays me twenty-eight five for being ‘assistant news producer,’ no raises for five years, either, since my job is non union. Yes, Mr. Mundy, I should be grateful.
“But now you think about this.” Michelle waived the bottle, now almost empty. “Who’s putting up this money? Almost certainly my birth mother or the guy who impregnated her, maybe someone acting on their behalf. Who else would care enough about me and their grandson to send money but not care enough to meet me, hug me, love me? How cruel is that, Mr. Mundy?” Her eyes filled with tears and she stepped into the kitchen to wipe her eyes with a paper towel, taking her time to open the refrigerator for another beer so the lawyer wouldn’t notice how close she was to breaking down.
Calmer, she sat on the couch. “I’m not a fool, Mr. Mundy. I’ve been looking for my birth mother since I was in high school. I think you know who she is and I have your phone number but I’ve never called ’cause I know you won’t tell me who pays you. We’ve been through that. I’ve been through your company’s website a dozen times looking for client names that might mean something. I even flew up to Seattle a couple years ago – you didn’t know that, did you? – and asked around. It’s gotta mean something that you’re from Seattle. She’s there, isn’t she?”
Mundy sat passive, silent, feigning indifference, pissed at the sweat soaking his shirt. He wasn’t going to smell great when he got on the plane and with his luck this would be the time he’d be seated next to a firm-bodied forty-something divorcee. By that standard, Adams was not much to look at, a little plump, heavy breasted, bra manufacturing a cleavage. Pretty face though, and despite his lack of interest, Mundy could imagine the striking teenager she had been. And she was probably right, too, about the mom or somebody being from Seattle and he wondered for the hundredth time who, among the women Victor knew, might be the mother. Or if Victor was directly involved, if the angry, ranting woman scraping by in this San Diego dump was Victor’s daughter with a right to a share in the family’s several hundred millions.
“I even spent five hundred dollars to hire a private detective – what a waste! He couldn’t find a trace of my mother but I learned a lot about lawyers. Their clients are as hidden as they want to be. Records sealed by attorney-client privilege, just like my birth records, impenetrable to me.” Michelle was standing over him and Mundy wondered for a second if she was going to hit him with the beer bottle. “Look at you Mundy! You know who my mom is – or you probably do. That’s more than I know and she gave birth to me!”
Michelle lowered the bottle and set it on the table, looked around for her cigarettes, found them and lit one. More in sorrow now than in anger, she said, “Do you have any idea what it’s like not to know who your mother is, to wonder every day of your life why she did this to you, left you alone, brought you into the world without a past? I cry for my son, Mundy, his family history is nothing, it begins with my adoption and his whole connection to the fabric of life is nothing but stupid, pathetic, lonely me. No, you don’t have a clue, do you? Look at you. Sitting there with your hands folded smiling sweetly like you do every time you come here, sweat beading up on your bald head – I bet you don’t like that.” She laughed, pleased that she could be cruel in return for the torment Mundy brought.
“I should hate you. I do a little bit. But I really hate the person hiding behind you, whoever you’re doing this for, someone who knows where I came from, how I came to be conceived and born and then dropped here – ejected – was it from your client’s womb? – into a doctor’s hands and passed like a little pink football to a lonely needy couple. Thank God for their kindness and now Darlene is dead and I don’t even have her and your client knows that because you watch me for her and probably write reports. How fucking sterile, you ‘write reports.’ She knows I am alone now and she still won’t come to me and let me touch her face and hug her. That is so cruel. How could she do this? I hate that person!”
Beer spittle from her outburst landed on Mundy’s head and he fished in his pocket for a handkerchief. He wouldn’t let himself make eye contact with Adams, who stood across the table from him, anger in her eyes.
“How could she give me up, just walk away from her own newborn child? I couldn’t do it. I found that out.” Michelle dropped her voice to a whisper, quietly opening a door to her soul. “Before he was born I thought about giving up Manuel. Rationally, objectively – if there were such a thing – it would have been better. I was a waitress going to community college and a part-time, unpaid intern at the station, knocked up with no money. But late in my pregnancy I decided not to give him up and when he was born I knew in an instant I never could have. I think giving him up after he was born would have been worse than an abortion. I don’t know, but it seems like it. The emptiness would have been worse, I know that. But I kept him and that didn’t happen. He’s my real, smart, kind little boy and despite how hard it’s been – you know, the single mom thing, Mundy. . .” She said his name with a sneer. “Despite that I have been happy every moment of my life since Manuel was born.”
The cigarette smoldered in the ashtray. Michelle took a long pull on her beer as though she needed the alcohol. Mundy didn’t move or speak. He stared at his hands folded in front of him. He had nothing, not one word, to offer her. His job was just to send Victor’s money every month, keeping secret everything else he knew, as little as that was. Today his job was to fly here and hand her plane tickets for Seattle and a hotel reservation and tell her that her benefactor insisted she come and that it would be important but he couldn’t tell her anything about it or what would happen in Seattle when she got there. He didn’t know. He’d delivered the message, handed her the tickets, declined a beer, apologized for not knowing more, shrugged, tried to play the messenger, blameless.
Michelle retreated to the couch. “I hate that person, Mr. Mundy, whoever you work for. Somehow I don’t think it’s my mom. No, if she knew about me, all the things I’m sure you tell your client, I know she’d come to me. No, I could never hate my mom. Not when I meet her. I dream about meeting my mom, Mr. Mundy and when I dream I meet her I always love her because it wasn’t her fault that she left me. It was her parents or a stinking boyfriend who date raped her in the back of a car or an older married man who led her on who made her give me up to keep his secret. I want to find my mom, Mr. Mundy. That would be a dream come true . . .” She hesitated, afraid to believe that the future could be any different from the arid past.
“Wouldn’t it?” she asked in a voice pleading for reassurance.
Mundy had to answer. “Yes, it would. I hope for you it happens.” Small connection made, both paused.
Adams stubbed out her cigarette and stared though the patio door at the darkening yard. The coach would be bringing Manuel home soon.
“So your client – patron or patroness – says I have to come to Seattle on July first. For what? No explanation. More mystery. I don’t trust that person, Mr. Mundy. Why should I?
“Look at this place, Mundy. Ever wonder why I’m still in the same grubby apartment you found me in three years ago, why with a thousand a month under the table from you I didn’t move?”
Breaking the connection, Mundy just shrugged. “No? Not very curious are you? Well, think about it. It’s simple. You and your client could cut off my – what should we call it, allowance? – any time. Maybe you will next month if I don’t use those plane tickets sitting on the table in front of you. How do I protect myself from that? I save. I save, Mr. Mundy. Every month, I save more than half of what I get from you and your boss so Manuel and I will never be as poor as we were before you showed up and I can get him through high school by myself and to the community college and if there’s a scholarship maybe even a better school.
“Mundy.” She made his name sound like something with a foul smell. “I just want to tell you and your client to go fuck yourselves but I will crawl across broken glass for my son so you tell me what it is we’re supposed to do in Seattle for four days and we’ll come along and make like the household help, folks who know their place and say yes, sir, and yes, ma’am.” She slammed the empty bottle down on the table in front of the lawyer. “Count on me, motherfucker.”