“. . . too smart to be a bagman.”by Frank Byrns
TODAY. . . .
“Hey, man, c’mon, your wife would love these.”
The guy had been trying to get Roy to buy some flowers for the last couple of minutes. Roy glanced at his watch again, ignoring him.
“Bitches love flowers. C’mon, man, I know bitches.”
Roy watched as another trainload of people came up the escalators, exiting the U Street Metro station. Mostly schoolkids, with a few folks coming off a six to three shift downtown mixed in. Another look at his watch. Rudy was late again.
“What, you don’t love your wife or something?”
Roy had had enough. He fixed the guy with his stiffest “Fuck off” stare. The guy may have had a bad sales pitch, but he wasn’t stupid. He beat it.
“That’s cool, man. Some other time,” the guy called over his shoulder as he walked down 14th Street, flowers in hand. “I’ll have some umbrellas tomorrow.”
Roy scanned the crowd, watching for Rudy. A homeless man sat on an overturned bucket to his right, softly playing on an old rusty trumpet, empty case open in front of him for tips. Next to him, two guys sold bootleg DVDs from a card table. The guy beside them had a table full of books for sale, mostly self-published urban fiction. Everybody looking to make a dollar, except for Rudy. Rudy was late. Again.
The trumpet player launched into a slow, soulful rendition of “Que Sera, Sera.” The song gave Roy pause, as it had been one of Flora’s favorites when it first came out; they must have seen The Man Who Knew Too Much five times that year. Whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see. . . Roy turned up the collar of his jacket to guard against the breeze. The cold made the song seem even more downbeat. I asked my sweetheart what lies ahead. . .
Roy recognized the jazz club across the street from the local news a few nights back. A man coming out of the club had been killed when he was struck by a stray bullet, apparently fired in a dispute over a parking space down the block. Roy disagreed with the concept of stray bullets; to his way of thinking, every bullet had a name on it, and there was nothing random about fate. Whatever will be will be. . . That was one of the reasons he had stopped carrying a gun, a long time ago.
The police had no real leads on that case, other than a sketchy report from a witness who remembered two men arguing over the space, but wasn’t real clear on the particulars. No faces, no makes, no models. Roy figured that they might get further with the case if they reassigned the two homicide detectives who’d visited him the day before. They’d stopped by a couple of hours after Agent Creighton had left, with Roy’s mind still spinning from the FBI’s discoveries regarding Flora’s accident and the possible connection to Ellis McCoy. Graham had still been at school when the police dropped by, sparing Roy the horror of having to explain to his son just why the Metro PD considered Roy the prime suspect in what had now become a murder investigation.
It seemed that the MPD had stumbled across the same evidence that Creighton’s team had. The brakes in Flora’s car had failed, but there was reason to believe that they had been helped along. There was a miniscule slice in the brake line, too neat to be natural wear and tear. The idea was simple: once the tiny slice is made, you sit back and wait for the line to snap. It was an expert job; Creighton had told Roy that the only reason anyone had even noticed was a crime lab tech who remembered a similar nick in the line of Ellis McCoy’s car a year prior. McCoy had been an up and comer in the District’s DA office who had gotten tangled up in some real dirty stuff. When he died after wrapping his Audi around a tree on Rock Creek Parkway, foul play was rumored, but no charges were ever filed.
The police had mentioned all this, too, especially given the fact that the dirty stuff McCoy had been into involved Harlan Frost. And if the wife of an alleged Snowman employee died in the same fashion as one of his former business associates. . . suddenly, Roy was the prime suspect in two murder cases.
The McCoy motive was easy enough; Roy the loyal soldier, doing the boss’ bidding. Finding a motive for Flora’s case was considerably more difficult, but the detectives had settled on a $15,000 life insurance policy that Roy and Graham were set to receive from Flora’s assistant manager job at Talbot’s in the White Flint Mall. Roy was insulted by the accusation, and told the detectives as much. He didn’t even know there was a policy.
“You expect us to buy that?” the taller detective, Wilde, said, his stated disbelief etched on his face.
“Yeah, a man like you, no idea of his wife’s finances?” the fat one, Hibbert, said. “C’mon.”
“You guys believe what you want,” Roy said softly. “I would never do anything to hurt my wife.”
“Never heard that before,” Wilde said.
“Yeah, except for about a thousand times,” Hibbert said. “Here’s what I don’t get. Let me paint a little picture here, see what you think. Guy like you, super strong, super quick, super tough – some other city, you’d be on the front page of the paper every day, fighting crime – or committing it, whatever – in a ski mask and long underwear.”
Wilde jumped in. “But instead, for whatever reason, you choose to live your life here, a city with no masks, no capes – “
“No glory, really,” Hibbert said. “And instead of being famous, all you are is a goon and a bagman for some dope pusher that, quite frankly, just between friends, we’re not even sure really even exists.”
“Like some kind of urban legend,” Wilde said. “I mean, personally, I find it very difficult to believe that after hearing his name for over five years – “
“And not just his name. Hearing that he’s got his finger in every ounce of heroin moving through the District for the last five years.”
“Five years, and the Knockos don’t even have the first photo?” Wilde shrugged. “See what I’m saying? Not even one of those grainy, long distance telephoto surveillance type pictures.”
“Nothing,” Hibbert added helpfully.
“You want to know what I think?” Roy didn’t answer. Wilde continued, undettered. “I’ll tell you anyway. I think that Harlan Frost is. . . ah, a construct.”
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Hibbert smiled, pleased with himself.
“Now that’s a great movie. You see it, Roy? No? You should. Classic.”
Wilde reached into his jacket pocket for a pack of Marlboros. He shook the box, offered one to Roy. Roy declined. Wilde shrugged. “Nobody smokes anymore.”
He pulled out a cigarette, paused before lighting it. “Somebody along the way decided that they’d invent this Snowman character. Get everybody up in arms, looking for Harlan Frost. Convince the world that he does exist. Meanwhile, right under our noses, the real kingpin is running the show, in plain sight.”
Wilde lit the cigarette, giving Roy a chance to digest his theory. “Am I close?”
Roy simply stared.
“Cause the way I see it, there’s just one guy on the payroll that’s super strong, super tough, and maybe, just maybe, super smart.”
“Maybe not super smart,” Hibbert said. “But definitely too smart to be a bagman.”
“But smart enough to be the Snowman?” Wilde concluded, shrugging again. “Maybe so.”
Both detectives folded their arms across their chests, then leaned back against Roy’s kitchen counter, waiting. The room was quiet; the second hand marking time on the wall clock was the only audible sound, even for Roy’s enhanced hearing.
“Gentlemen,” Roy said finally. “I did not kill my wife.”
“Take the shot, Roy!”ONE HUNDRED FIFTEEN YEARS AGO. . .
“Roy, listen to me! You’re too smart for this.”
“Flora, I don’t think you know what you’re – “
“No? Well here’s what I do know, Roy. You’re the strongest man I know. You’re the toughest man I know. Put a gun in your hand, and you’re the fastest man – “
“That Heck Baker kid is pretty fast.”
“Not as fast as you, Roy! Look, I’m your wife. Nobody knows you better than I do. You are too good at everything you do to be working as a hired gun for some no account opium lord.”
“The pay’s pretty – “
“So? Be your own man, Roy, and I bet in six months you’d be making twice as much money.”
“Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter what. You’re the man that killed Dollar Bill Wallach! The man that saved my life! You can do whatever you want. But if I were you – I’d doublecross that old piece of shit and go into business for myself.”
That conversation had taken place a year ago, but Roy remembered every detail as if it were yesterday. He was thinking of it now because the seed that had been planted that day had taken root, and was about to sprout; he was going to doublecross McKinney and go into business for himself.
McKinney received an opium shipment at his place the first Wednesday of every month; he got the good stuff, straight from China, rather than the subpar American-grown stuff. A guy McKinney’s crew knew only as Tenmen made the trip from Phoenix out into the Sonoran Desert down to Broken Land, Arizona, where McKinney’s Saloon anchored the Main Street commerce. Tenmen was just the bagman; he worked for a guy with deep ties to the old Guangzhou syndicates. Every first Wednesday he arrived, alone, carrying a beat-up old satchel full of drugs, and McKinney paid him handsomely for it.
Roy’s plan, like nearly everything in his life, was relatively straightforward. Once Tenmen had arrived and the narcotics delivered, the shooting would begin. And once the smoke had cleared, Tenmen and McKinney would be dead, and Roy and Flora would snatch both the drugs and the money and beat it east to El Paso. Flora’s cousin Miguelito waited for them there, already working at establishing a customer base.
Roy didn’t figure McKinney would pose much of a problem. The balding Irishman was foul-mouthed and loud, yes, but he was also fat and old. Roy also believed his boss to be too comfortable in his own skin, too complacent; Roy had never seen him handle a gun, or even feel the need to. He would never suspect a thing until it was too late, and he was dead.
Tenmen worried Roy a bit more. Roy had always figured “Tenmen” to be some bastardized version of the man’s given name, a poor American attempt at proper Chinese pronunciation. But a story making the rounds lately had “Tenmen” as more of a description of the man’s physical power; the story gave him “the strength of ten men.” It made a certain amount of sense to Roy; Tenmen always traveled alone, carrying large amounts of valuable goods in one direction and large amounts of cash in the other. Roy had never noticed Tenmen carrying a gun, either, but he knew the man had to protect his packages somehow. Still, though, Roy had read enough dime novels in his time to know just how easily myth and legend got tangled up with fact. All in all, the Gun that Killed Dollar Bill Wallach would take his chances with an unarmed Chinaman.
No, given the choices, Roy was fairly certain that if there were going to be trouble, it was going to come from that Heck Baker kid. Baker was McKinney’s other hired gun, and, just as he was every first Wednesday of the month, would be positioned on the opposite side of the saloon from Roy. The kid was still green, just ten months off the farm, but he was fast. What’s more, even despite what Flora thought, Roy had a very real concern that Baker might, just might, be faster than him. Roy couldn’t wait to find out.
The wildcard in this whole scenario was Flora. Once they set up camp in Broken Land, she had taken a job waiting tables at McKinney’s, and always worked Wednesday afternoons. Roy had pleaded with her to take the day off, to fake being sick, anything to keep her out of there when the gunplay went down. But she refused, just as stubborn as Roy was. Her argument, as usual, was sound: since she worked every Wednesday, not showing up could tip McKinney to the fact that something was up. Roy doubted the boss was that smart, but gave in to his wife nonetheless. Flora could be very persuasive when she needed to be, and reported to work as scheduled at two.
Roy made his way to the saloon at a little after four. It was raining as he rode in, hard, one of those Arizona summer squalls that comes out of nowhere and then just as quickly disappears. The brim of his hat hung heavy and low with rainwater as he entered the saloon, drawing a chuckle from Baker. The kid was already in place, dry as the Sonoran hardpan. Baby-faced, with a wild mop of thin red hair, Baker was built wiry and skittish, like a young, untamed palomino. He was engaged in his usual nervous habit of stacking a handful of dominoes on the table where he sat. Stack ’em five high, knock ’em over, start over. He watched the saloon intently as he did so, not missing anything. His eyes never stopped moving.
Roy nodded casually at McKinney, fat and happy behind the bar, a pair of green suspenders working hard to keep his stomach in check. “Damn, boy,” McKinney said as he watched the water drip from Roy. “Flora, get out here and get your man something to wipe himself off.”
Flora emerged from the small stockroom behind the bar with a pair of small bar towels, handed them to Roy. To Roy’s way of thinking, her hands lingered a bit too long in his as she did so, showing a bit too much concern. Roy was certain Baker had noticed. He knew that he would have noticed, if he were in the boy’s position.
Roy took the towels with a gruff “Thank you.” Flora went back into the stockroom without a word, playing it too cool for Roy’s taste. Her dark hair swished behind her as she went, as long as Roy had ever seen it, brushing up against the knot in the apron tied around her waist. He knew he should have made her stay home. Baker’s eyes kept moving, moving, ever vigilant, betraying nothing. Outside, the rain began to let up, the storm rolling on through town.
“You shoulda come ten minutes later,” McKinney said.
“Or earlier,” Baker said.
Roy removed his hat, soaked all the way through, and laid it on the bar. He used one of the towels to wipe his face, then ran the other through his short brown hair. “Maybe so,” he said to McKinney. He said nothing to Baker, simply watching the kid stack his dominoes.
“Hope that storm doesn’t delay our friend,” McKinney said, coming out from behind the bar to peer out the window.
“I believe he comes from the other direction,” Baker said, knocking over his stack of dominoes and starting over.
His face now reasonably dry, Roy dropped the wet towels on the bar beside his hat. He walked alongside the bar that ran the length of the saloon and took his place at a table that sat against the middle of the back wall. When Tenmen arrived, he would be triangulated. He and McKinney would conduct their transaction at the bar, as always, face to face. From his spot sitting parallel with the bar, Baker would be looking directly at Tenmen’s back, watching his face in the mammoth mirror McKinney had installed behind the bar. From Roy’s vantage point in the back of the room, he had a direct line of sight through Tenmen’s shoulders and out the door onto Main Street.
Roy had mapped out these positions for McKinney a few years prior, before Baker had come on board. Every angle was covered, and McKinney conducted all his transactions this way. His final one, too, Roy thought to himself.
The minutes melted off the clock as they waited for Tenmen. Baker continued to stack and re-stack his dominoes, all nervous youthful energy. Roy, on the other hand, sat completely still, the slow rise and fall of his broad chest the only indication that he was even alive. As he waited, his mind filled with thoughts of old hunting trips with his father, up into the Huachuca Mountains. Back then, he would sit just like this, motionless, for hours on end, just waiting for that perfect buck to happen by.
Tenmen pushed through the swinging double doors at exactly five o’clock. Though not nearly as big as Roy was, Tenmen was easily the largest Chinaman any of them had ever seen. Broad-shouldered with thick, square legs, a thick bushy chin beard and long, thin ponytail the only hair on his clean-shaved head. The man never wore a hat; Roy had often wondered how he kept from getting burned on his long sunny rides through the desert. Wonder how he’ll tan in Hell.
Tenmen never spoke during these transactions; he merely shook his head no to Flora’s offer of something to drink. He never sat down, either; he placed the satchel on the bar and simply stood there, hands resting on the handles as McKinney made an exaggerated show of counting out the money.
“I don’t know why I even do this – not like the goddamn Celestials can count,” McKinney said to no one in particular, as if Tenmen wasn’t even there. McKinney had always mistaken the man’s quiet nature for ignorance. Roy knew better.
McKinney finished his counting, then slid the stack of bills across the bar. Tenmen took the money with a small nod, then pulled a small burlap sack from his inside coat pocket. Roy had seen this exact transaction performed exactly this way countless times before. Everything was playing out just as it always did.
From across the room, Roy could feel Baker’s eyes on him. The kid should be watching Tenmen, yet he was watching Roy. Somehow, Baker knew that something was up. Roy was starting to get the feeling that this was going to go badly.
Flora came back out from the stockroom then. Roy’s heart leapt into his throat as she went over to wipe off the table directly between Tenmen and Baker, definitely not a part of the plan. She was supposed to stay in the back until the shooting had stopped -- As she bent over the table, she turned her face to look at Roy, a very clear “Now or Never” look on his face.
Roy stood, drew, and fired, all in one fluid motion, just like he had done countless times on the ranch’s back forty growing up, just like he had done countless times since. The bullet struck home in Tenmen’s neck, just below his left ear. The big man turned his heads towards Roy, a look of genuine confusion at being double-crossed on his face. Without taking his eyes off of Roy, Tenmen reached out across the bar and wrapped a meaty paw around McKinney’s neck and squeezed. McKinney went down, eyes bulging, blood spurting from his nose and mouth, his head hanging at an unholy angle.
Roy fired again, this time catching Tenmen right between the eyes. This time, Tenmen went down. The strength of ten men, maybe, but definitely not bulletproof.
All of this took just under two seconds. But by the time Roy turned towards Baker, the kid had grabbed Flora from behind. His left arm was snaked around her neck in a chokehold, and his right arm extended over her right shoulder holding a pistol aimed straight at Roy, using Flora as a shield.
“Roy,” Baker called, confusion creeping into his voice. “I’m not sure what’s happening here, Roy.”
Roy trained his pistol on Baker and his wife. “Just let her go, Heck. This doesn’t have to be about anything but us.”
“Roy!” Flora’s voice was strained by the chokehold, but still forceful. “Take the shot, Roy!”
“I don’t think you want to do that, Roy,” Baker said, some of his normal confidence returning to his voice.
“Roy! You could shoot him in any freckle you want to – Take the sh – “
Baker twisted away, spinning Flora directly into the path of the oncoming bullet. She fell to the floor softly, bleeding from the chest.
Baker fired. The bullet struck Roy in the chest, just below his heart, and bounced away with a soft clink to the dusty wooden floor. Baker’s jaw fell, eyes wide with surprise.
Roy fired again. This one caught Baker right in the sternum, sending him staggering backwards into the wall. Roy fired again, the second shot landing a half inch from the first. Roy put his final bullet in Baker’s forehead.
Fifteen seconds after Roy fired his first shot, it was all over. Tenmen was dead. McKinney was dead. Baker was dead. And Flora lay dying on the dusty wooden floor of McKinney’s Saloon.
Roy rushed over to his wife. He sat on the floor cross-legged and cradled her head in his lap, watching as she died. “You were right,” she said weakly, a thin snake of blood trickling from her small smile.
Roy brushed her long, dark hair back out of her face. “Shhh. Don’t talk.”
Flora closed her eyes. “There’s always someone faster. . .”
And then she was gone.
“No, I just need to talk to him.”TODAY. . .
4:15. Rudy was now half an hour late. Roy felt the ground vibrate slightly as another Green Line train passed by underneath. Maybe Rudy’ll be on this one, he thought. When Roy had been Rudy’s age, a young man just starting out in the world, he had been late. Once. His father had seen to that. These kids today, though, had no concept of responsibility. No crew Roy had ever run with would have worked without some sense of self-responsibility; he couldn’t imagine how Rudy’s ever worked.
“There he is!”
Recognizing the voice, Roy turned to see Rudy gliding up the escalator out of the subway station. Rudy was wearing his usual winter get-up: baggy jeans, unlaced tan work boots, a ridiculously large black parka, a black Wizards hat tilted to the side just so. He approached Roy with an outstretched arm, looking for a handshake. Roy kept his hands shoved in his jacket pockets.
“What’s up, Dawg, you mad at me or something?”
Roy looked at the sidewalk as his spoke. “You’re late.”
“Nah, man! I know that’s a big thing with you guys – “ Rudy pushed up the right sleeve of his parka, revealing a large, gaudy silver watch. “See?” he said, showing the watch to Roy. “Quarter after four. Just like you said.”
“I said quarter ’til four.”
Rudy shook his head. “I don’t know, man – maybe you got some of that Old-Timer’s Disease creepin’ in.”
Seeing that this was going nowhere, Roy changed the subject. “Where’s your sidekick?”
Rudy made a face. “Echo? He had to go. Let’s leave it at that.” Rudy reached up and resituated his hat, tilted just so. “Where’s your boy at?”
“I thought it best to keep this between us.”
“All right,” Rudy said, getting excited. “Man to man.”
“Something like that.”
Rudy snapped his fingers, remembering something. “Hey, man, sorry about your wife and all.”
Roy nodded in thanks. “I appreciate it.”
“My cousin ’Zo, he works up at the Carmax in Laurel? He says that a Camry’s a good car, but sometimes the brakes just don’t – “
“I need you to find Juarez Hart for me.”
Rudy’s eyes lit up, remembering the wild brawl between Roy and Juarez over off North Capitol the week before. “For real? Oh, it’s on! Time for the rematch! Some payback! My man Roy’s gonna kick his ass the right way this time!”
Roy shook his head. “No, I just need to talk to him.”
Rudy gave an exaggerated wink. “Oh-Kay. Sure. Whatever you say.”
“I’m serious, Rudy. I just need five minutes of his time. Neutral ground. He can pick the place – doesn’t matter to me.” Roy looked Rudy square in the eyes, holding the stare until the younger man stopped grinning.
“Yeah, man, I can find him,” Rudy said, nodding vigorously. “Gimme coupla days.”
“No. That’s not soon enough. I need to see him tomorrow.”
“OK. Yeah, no problem.”
“I mean it, Rudy. Tomorrow.” Roy paused, waiting for Rudy’s acknowledgement. Rudy nodded, as seriously as Roy had ever seen him. “Good. The shit’s about to hit the fan, Rudy.”