Keeping Bad Company,
Copyright © 2014 by Lauren Gilley
Leo watched his computer go black as it shut down, his reflection filling the screen in the absence of light. He saw the bags, the lines, the gray at his temples: the bad things. The signs of stress, amplified by the incoming light at his back. It was eight-oh-two. Time to follow through on a terrible decision.
“Hey,” Barr said as he got to his feet. His long-time partner wore a now-usual look of concern, his dark features plucked with curiosity. “What’s up?”
“I’ve got an appointment.” Which wasn’t a lie. He shrugged into his jacket and glanced toward the door; he wanted out of here before their captain came in. “I’ll be back by nine-thirty.”
So this is what it felt like on the other side of the interrogation table. A preview, at least. “Nah, Just a physical.”
Barr checked over his shoulder, then stepped in closer. “What’s going on with you, man?” he said just above a whisper. “I know something’s on your mind. If you need help–”
“Miguel, I’m fine.”
“Yeah. Sorry I asked.”
Great, he thought. He could add pissed off partner to his list of Things Bound to Bite Me in the Ass.
Not wanting to risk his unmarked being spotted, Leo took his personal car to his meeting with the Russell crew: a 2002 4Runner his sister kept telling him he needed to replace. He folded up his suit jacket, hung it from a peg in the backseat, and pulled an old Cardinals cap down low over his forehead. He thought he looked less like himself; less like a detective.
A text alert chimed on his phone as he started the 4Runner. It was from Sly Hammond: On our way.
C u there.
Grey wanted to meet downtown, not in a tucked-away café or restaurant the way Leo would have chosen, but at the High. The High. What kind of pompous, mob boss shit was that?
He worked himself into a heartburn-ridden state on the drive into the city. A situation not helped by the stress of finding a parking spot that wouldn’t get him towed. He had a cherry light in his glove box for emergencies, and propped it on his dash, hoping to scare off a tow truck. Then, thirty minutes early for Grey, he went to meet his hired thugs.
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta was a beautiful, modern structure, a work of art in itself, white and geometric with long horizontal panels of windows that gleamed in the sun. A ramp stretched from the main entrance, across the manicured lawns, and ended in a short concrete wall that was the perfect spot for an outdoor lunch. Or pressuring a cop. Either one. It was a safe spot, lots of family foot traffic and tourists checking out the futuristic sculptures on the lawns; two busloads of high school students ate sack lunches on the grass, under the watchful eyes of teachers and chaperones. There were at least two hundred sets of eyes that could land on him at any moment; that was why Grey had picked this spot. The safety of being in public.
Ray Russell’s boys waited for him along the wall: Hammond, O’Dell, and Sanchez. Johnny Russell didn’t appear to be around anymore.
“Been waiting long?” he asked as he joined them.
Eddie O’Dell, sitting on the wall with his hands braced behind him, said, “Is this your covert ops look?”
Leo reached to fiddle with the brim of his hat and frowned. “You haven’t spotted Grey yet, have you?”
“We don’t know what he looks like,” Hammond said in that infuriating, emotionless drawl of his. “So no.”
Leo shoved his hands in his pockets. This had been a huge goddamn mistake.
Sanchez, skinny and friendly as a puppy, shoved away from the wall and stepped forward, something clenched between his thumb and forefinger. “Is it okay if I plant this on you? It’s a mike. I’ve got an earpiece and that way I can listen to you guys’ conversation.”
In his near-panic, all his years and years of police training, his inherent common sense, had abandoned him. He should have thought to bring a mike. All he could see was Ruth’s smiling face reflected in those of her children; all her could do was flail blindly and ask a bunch of criminals for help. He couldn’t even think to spy on this meeting properly.
“Yeah.” His tone was short, and he regretted that a little. Rico was the best of the bunch.
“’Kay.” Rico leaned in and clipped the tiny wireless device to the back of his tie, out of sight. He fitted a flesh-colored bud into his ear. “Say something and let’s test it out.”
“Can you hear me?”
“Okay,” Hammond said, “here’s how this’ll work. I’m gonna be over there” – he pointed to a wire bench a hundred yards down the sidewalk – “so I can see the two of you. Eddie’ll be there” – across the street at a wheeled hotdog stand – “and Rico’s gonna play dopey college kid and sit right over there” – on the lawn – “so he can listen in. We’re all packing. If shit goes south, say my name, and we’ll engage. Otherwise, we’re just here to listen and watch your back.”
It was a day for firsts, he guessed: his first time being on the other end of a monitored stakeout. It left him short of breath. “What the hell does ‘engage’ mean?”
“Exactly what you think it means,” Sly said.