Yet another story from my strainge-fiction alter ego, Eric Stringer….
Susan Herndon drew back the gauze-like drapes on the window of her suite. She touched the glass lightly, as if caressing it, as she looked out over the city. The view from the 134th floor was incredible.
Lesser skyscrapers stretched away over the rest of the business district, giving way to lower, more modest buildings. In the distance, a suburb filled the space between the city proper and the leading edge of the early morning mist that marked the river. From the mist protruded the dingy steel and brick structures that comprised the industrial part of town.
She focused her attention on the south end of the industrial park. That’s where it all started, she thought.
She turned away from the window, leaving the drapes open.
The man at the desk across the room looked up, glanced past her at the open drapes. Probably okay, he thought. Who’s gonna see in? He went back to the crossword puzzle in The New York Times.
The man looked up again. “Yeah?”
“Do you think maybe it’d be all right if I go just down the hall for a Coke? I assume there’s a machine.”
He stood and took his jacket from the back of the chair. “Sorry, but I can’t let you do that.” He put on his jacket and shrugged. “Security, you know. I’d be happy to get it for you though. Coke you said?”
“Be right back.”
She watched from the center of the room as he walked through the door, listened as the heavy lock clicked into place. She turned and walked back to the window, put both palms and her forehead against it, and gazed across the miles to the south end of the industrial park. She focused, and finally saw the top of the red-brick smokestack that marked the place where her life had taken a wrong turn. A sob caught in her throat and she pushed away from the window. Softly she said, “Damn it. Damn you, Abruzzo.”
She turned and walked to the doorway that led into the hall. She stopped, put one hand on the door and whispered, “Sorry, Officer Dalton.” She turned and looked again at the window. Then she took a deep breath and sprinted across the floor. There was a sudden, tremendous impact to her forehead and wrists, and then she knew nothing beyond the glass shattering into a million shards and the wind racing past her body.
She first met Michael “Big Mickey” Abruzzo at his request at the base of that red-brick smokestack, which rose from one end of an abandoned warehouse. When she drove up in her car, her headlights played briefly over a black Cadillac. She parked, rolled down her window and waited.
In a moment, the passenger side door of the Caddy opened and a thin man stepped out. He approached her car slowly, then shone a flashlight through the windows into the back seat. Then he turned out the light and leaned toward her. “Mr. Abruzzo would appreciate a moment of your time. He wants you should join him.” He opened her car door, stepped back and gestured toward the Caddy.
She got out and waited as he closed the door, then accompanied him to Abruzzo’s car.
As they approached, the back passenger door opened and Abruzzo stepped out. He offered his hand. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I appreciate your time.” He flicked a quick look past her shoulder and the man who had retrieved her from her car backed away. Abruzzo gestured toward the warehouse. “Let’s walk over here.” After a pause he said, “You come to us from Iowa, is that right?”
“How you likin’ the city so far?”
“It’s all right.”
He nodded. “Been good to me, that’s for sure.” He raised his right hand and snapped his fingers. A shorter man in a suit ran past him and slid a large bay door open a few feet. As Abruzzo and Susan approached the door, he stopped and pointed into the warehouse. “Recognize him?”
She looked and immediately felt dizzy. “Ron!” She turned to Abruzzo. “That’s my brother! What are you—”
“Whoa, whoa!” He put his hands up as if to fend off a blow. “I ain’t gonna do nothin’, y’get me? A couple my guys found him outside a bar an’ he was about to have a problem. They recognized him, so they took care of the problem and brought him here for you could pick him up.”
“Hey, it ain’t like they could bring ‘im to your office, counselor. Or wouldn’t you mind them parading your junkie brother past your boss?” He glanced past her and nodded, and the man slid the door closed.
She looked at Abruzzo. “So I can just take him? Just like that?”
He nodded. “Sure, sure, just like that. Of course, if you wanted to do me a favor in return… what, am I gonna turn down a favor from a friend?” He grinned.
“Jesus,” she said, and shook her head. “Okay. Okay, what can I do for you?” She stepped toward him, starting to unbutton her blouse.
He laughed and backed away, his hands raised again. “Whoa, whoa! That’s not what I want from you. Whaddyou, nuts? My wife’d kill me.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Vinny, would Marie kill me, or what?”
“I didn’t see nothin’, Boss. I don’t think she seen nothin’ neither.”
Abruzzo turned back to Susan. “You heard that, right? He said he doesn’t think she saw anything either. I can’t teach these guys anything. But even if she is around, so what, y’know? I mean, what is it with you broads? Alla you think a guy’s on the make all the time. I mean, I wouldn’t do anything anyway. That’s not what this is about, like I said, but hey, what if my wife was in the car over there, y’know? Maybe we’re on our way to a nice dinner but she understood I hadda stop off and talk a little business with my friend here?”
She turned slightly away from the Caddy, then rebuttoned the only button she’d opened. She glanced at the Caddy. Is that a woman in the back? Hard to tell. “Okay, so what do you want then?”
His voice quiet, he said, “Look, don’t getta attitude. Don’t do that, a’right?” He looked at her for a moment. “Okay, counselor, you got a case comin’ up tomorrow, maybe the next day, that’s all. Minor thing. One of my guys was pinched. I don’t know, traffic ticket, a parkin’ violation… you know, somethin’ minor.”
She shook her head and smirked. “Mr. Abruzzo, they don’t lock people up for traffic tickets and parking violations.”
“Whatever. I’m tellin’ you, don’t wax wise, counselor. The point is, whatever the beef, you can make it go away. Tell you what, you do this little favor for me and young Ronny there will be home safe and sound a half-hour after I get your call.”
Her eyes grew wide. “But—but you said I could—”
“Yeah, well things change, don’t they? Attitudes change things, counselor. You don’t lock people up for traffic tickets? You lock people up for bein’ loyal to their boss? How about for doin’ the deed on a guy was gonna rat me out? Yeah you lock ‘em up for that, but you ain’t gonna lock up Joey Bones Pesto, ‘cause he’s gonna walk, y’get me?” He pointed at the warehouse. “Same as young Ronny in there’s gonna walk. Am I right, or am I right?”
“Y-you’re right, Mr. Abruzzo. Of course.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what I thought.” He snapped the fingers on his right hand and the thin man from before came up, handed him a small cell phone. Abruzzo handed it to Susan. “Call me on this. Let me know when Joey’s clean. Then open the back,” and he turned over the phone, “take out the battery and chunk it, and take out this little card and smash it, y’get me? Then just throw away the rest of the phone. But not in that place where you work, right?”
She took the phone. “Right.” She glanced at the warehouse door.
“He’ll be all right, Miss Herndon. Just like Joey.”
The next day, Joey Bones Pesto walked out of his arraignment when the district attorney dropped all charges for lack of evidence. That afternoon Ron Herndon was in the local hospital detoxing.
That was a year and a half ago, and there had been many Joey Bones Pestos since then. Finally, finally the feds had caught Abruzzo in a compromising position. Susan’s former boss, the DA, had noticed that most of her cases were clean, but a particular type of client regularly walked for lack of evidence, despite the police having delivered all the evidence they needed to get an indictment. He had pointed the feds in Susan’s direction, and only two hours into their chat, Susan had agreed to testify against Abruzzo.
The feds had secreted her in a luxury hotel downtown and posted guards around the clock. They should have posted two.
And that’s how I came to be here, she thought, then frowned. Where’s the wind? Her heart leapt in her chest. Did I hit? Am I dead? She tried to raise her arms to check for damage but was unable to lift them.
“Well, hello there, Miss Herndon. Glad to see you’re with us again. You’re going to be just fine.”
She strained to look in the direction of the voice but was unable to move her head. “What… happened?”
“Ah… well, the gentleman who brought you in said you were apparently running across your room, tripped and fell, striking your head on the window sill. Probably lucky you didn’t brain yourself.” He laughed lightly. “Sorry for all the technical medical terminology.
“Anyway, there was some strain on your neck as well, so we have your head immobilized for awhile. Probably one more night. You have a pretty serious bump on your forehead, but thus far we believe you suffered only a slight concussion. Your vision’s probably blurred right now too, from the meds, but you’ll be a hundred percent in a day or two.”
He laid a clicker near her hand. “I have to finish rounds. Just buzz if you need anything. A nurse will come right in.” He glanced at his watch. “She should be in anyway in a few minutes with your supper.” He leaned down and, as if conspiring, said quietly, “Eat the Jell-O. The rest is up to you.” He laughed again as he exited the room.
She remembered. I was trying to kill myself. I didn’t want to testify, so I was trying to kill myself. A tear ran from the corner of her right eye down past her ear. But I didn’t, and I was wrong. I’m going to be all right, and I’m going to put that bastard so far away he’ll never see light again.
A half-hour later, the door opened. The voice was tentative. “Miss Herndon? Miss Herndon, the nurse was delayed, but I have something for you.”
Susan felt breath on her forehead and she struggled to open her eyes.
A face came into view, vaguely. The woman clamped one hand over Susan’s mouth. “See, we met once before.” She pulled the cap off a hypodermic needle with her teeth, then held the needle up and cleared any air bubbles. “Well, you know… I saw you, but you didn’t really see me. You was tryin’ to make it with my man. He told me everything, how he had to meet you out there and pay you to leave him alone. See, he’s a family man, miss big shot.”
Susan tried to move her head, tried to bite the woman’s hand.
The woman smiled and shook her head slowly. “No no, Miss Herndon. Here… here’s a little somethin’ to help you sleep.”
There was a sharp prick under Susan’s left jawline, and almost immediately she was warm, calm, relaxed.
The woman removed her hand and smiled. “See? Feel better already don’t you? Nighty night.”
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