Four hours after she got off the plane in Detroit, Crissa was parked on a downtown street, watching a rust-eaten Subaru with half a million dollars in the trunk.
“You sure that’s it?” she said.
Charlie Glass, the one who’d brought her into it, said, “That’s it,” and gave her the binoculars. He was behind the wheel, Crissa riding shotgun. They were in a stolen RAV4 with smoked windows, parked two blocks down from the Subaru, on the same side of the street.
From behind her, Larry Black said, “Taking a chance, aren’t they? Leaving it out there like that?”
Beside him, Cordell, Glass’s cousin, and the only one she didn’t know, said, “Nobody’s got the balls to touch it. Marquis know that.”
Through the binoculars, she could see the black and red Tigers cap on the rear deck, where Cordell had said it would be. A half block behind the Subaru, on the opposite side of the street, a black Nissan Armada with tinted glass sat at the curb.
“How many in there?” she said.
“Three usually,” Cordell said. “Sometimes four. Getting sloppy, though. Marquis caught them getting their smoke on in there last month. He rolled up with Damien to check on them. Whole ride smelled of reefer. He had Damien put a beating on them for that.”
“Who’s Damien?” she said.
“His brother. A couple years younger. He’s the muscle.”
She looked at her watch. Almost five on a Saturday, but only a handful of cars had passed in the half hour they’d been here. This was a business area once, sandstone office buildings and a bank, a row of stores. Now the bank was a discount furniture showroom, and most of the storefront windows were plywooded over, or covered by riot gates scrawled with graffiti. A barber pole hung drunkenly beside a doorway, all the glass gone. No one on the street at all.
She lowered the binoculars. “This is no good. Staying out here too long.”
“Thought you’d want to see the setup,” Cordell said. “So you’d know I wasn’t lying. This might be the last chance for a while.”
Fifteen minutes ago, they’d watched the Subaru pull up. The driver, a black man with dreadlocks, had gotten out, locked the car, and started walking. A Honda Accord had picked him up a block away and driven off. Almost on cue, the Armada had appeared from a side street, taken up its station.
She turned to hand the binoculars to Larry, took a better look at Cordell. Close-trimmed hair, round gold-framed glasses, denim jacket over a tie-dyed Bob Marley T-shirt. He looked like a college student.
“How often do they switch cars?” she said.
“Every time,” Cordell said. “Different hour, different street. But that Tigers cap is always there. That’s how they know.”
Larry was looking at the Subaru now, resting the binoculars on the seat back. “Just the Armada?” he said. “They don’t put anyone in one of those stores around there, cut a hole in the plywood, keep a lookout?”
“Guess he figures with those boys on watch, he doesn’t need to,” Cordell said. “They been doing this no sweat for over a month now.”
Glass looked at her, said, “What do you think?”
He was tall and dark-skinned, scalp shaved clean. She’d worked with him once before, a takeover at a check-cashing store in Pittsburgh two years back. The take had been weak, but he’d been solid, dependable. When he’d contacted her about possible work in Michigan, she’d agreed to fly up, meet with him, take a look.
“Not sure yet,” she said.
Larry lowered the binoculars. “What do they carry in there?” The oldest of them, he was from Kentucky, had a faint accent that drifted in and out. Early fifties, but fit, pale blue eyes, black hair swept back and showing gray.
“They go heavy,” Cordell said. “Shotguns, MP5, an AK maybe. There to scare the gangbangers away, is all. Shit was crazy here the last couple years. Dodge City, for real. Even an OG like Marquis has to watch his back. These young’uns don’t care who he is.”
“This Damien,” she said. “He ever in there?”
“No, Marquis keeps him close. He’s the palace guard. Never strays too far from the king.”
Larry passed the binoculars back to her.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Seems a little careless, considering the kind of money supposed to be in there.”
“Not careless,” Cordell said. “Confident.”
She half-turned in her seat. “All these stores out of business?”
“Yeah,” Cordell said. “The whole block, except for the furniture place.”
They heard a siren. She saw a blue and white Detroit PD cruiser coming up behind them, rollers flashing. Her stomach tightened.
The cruiser went by without slowing, past the Armada, past the Subaru. At the intersection, it braked, then turned left against the light.
She exhaled. Larry took out a stick of Juicy Fruit, peeled away the wrapper, folded the gum into his mouth.
“How do they get the car back?” she said.
“Same way on the other end,” Cordell said. “They take the money out, put the product in, park the car somewhere, make a call. Marquis sends someone to get it. Then they junk the car afterward. That’s why they always use a hooptie.”
“A what?” Larry said.
“A hooptie. A piece of shit. That way, it’s parked there, it doesn’t stick out. And nobody drives by, wants to steal it, either.”
“This the way it always is around here?” Larry said. “This empty?”
“On weekends, yeah,” Cordell said. “During the week, there’s more people around. There’s some office buildings back that way. But on weekends, or after dark, it’s like this.”
“He’s right,” Glass said. “I’ve been in this town two weeks. It makes the ’Burgh look like Times Square.”
She looked up at the buildings, a pale moon already showing in the afternoon sky. In the far distance, half hidden by other buildings, the gleaming glass columns of the Renaissance Center caught the last of the sun off the river. But this block was hard-stone, Depression-era architecture, dates carved into cornerstones. Empty windows, dark doorways. Ghost town. Deadtown. She pictured the vacant spaces inside the buildings, trash-strewn floors, broken glass.
“How long should we wait?” Larry said, and, as if in answer, a dark-blue Camry drove past. It slowed near the Armada, then again near the Subaru, stopped at the intersection. When the light changed, it made a left, the same direction the cruiser had gone.
They watched in silence. Two minutes later, a man came around the corner, not hurrying. She raised the binoculars. He was light-skinned, Hispanic, wore an olive-drab army jacket. He crossed the street, unlocked the Subaru, got in. After a moment, dark exhaust coughed from the tailpipe. The car pulled away, made a right at the intersection. The Armada waited, then pulled out after it, made the turn in the Subaru’s wake.
“They’re waiting to see if anyone’s following,” Cordell said. “They’ll stay with it a few blocks, then turn around, go home.”
The street was empty now. A scrap of newspaper blew across the lanes, flattened against a riot gate.
“It looks too easy,” Larry said.
“It is easy,” Cordell said. “But it won’t be for long. This a temporary thing, with his new connect. They may change it up next time, do something else entirely. But right now, like I said, they sloppy.”
To Crissa, Glass said, “Should we follow them, see where they go?”
She shook her head. “No need. If we do it, we’ll do it right here, on the street, before they get moving. Let’s sit a few minutes. See if anyone else comes out of the woodwork.”
The sun was slipping behind the buildings now, the street falling into shadow.
“Has to be a smarter way to move that much money,” Larry said. “Out in the open like this, doesn’t make much sense.”
“Like I said, it’s temporary,” Cordell said. “He heard that was the way Nicky Barnes used to do it, up in Harlem. That’s his idol.”
“Nicky Barnes is in prison,” she said.
“Not anymore,” Cordell said. “He’s in the program now. He went and testified against all those boys used to work for him, the Council. That was his revenge, because they disrespected him when he was in prison, went behind his back.”
“Bullshit,” Larry said. “A rat’s a rat.”
“Who does the driving on this end?” she said. “For the drop-off?”
“Just some low-level boys,” Cordell said. “Nobody he’d miss if they got arrested. Nobody who’d know anything worth telling the police, either.”
“None of them been tempted to just keep driving?” she said. “Head south, keep all that cash themselves?”
“What I’d do,” Larry said.
“They’re too scared,” Cordell said. “Marquis would find them sooner or later.”
“Tell the story,” Glass said. “One you told me.”
“Couple years back,” Cordell said, “a bagman took off with ten grand. Damien tracked him down in Cleveland a month later. Put two in his head, did the girl he was with, too. But first Damien cut off his dick and made him eat it. Just for ten grand. Word got around.”
“Sounds like street bullshit,” she said. “To keep the troops in line.”
“Maybe,” Cordell said. “Maybe not.”
“How many people know in advance where the drop-off’s going to be?”
“Five, six. Shit needs to get organized, people need to be told what to do, where to be. No way he can keep it a secret.”
“That five or six includes you, right?”
“Has to. I find the drivers, that’s my job.”
“So if his money gets taken, you’re a suspect.”
“We talked about that,” Glass said. “There’s no way around it.”
“I won’t be here to find out anyway,” Cordell said. “Soon as we do this…”
“If we do this,” she said.
we do this, I’ll be long gone afterward.”
“What about Damien?” Larry said. “Thought you said if someone ripped him off, they’d get found eventually?”
“Marquis headed for a fall,” Cordell said. “It’s just a matter of time. His connect got busted a while back, that’s why he’s buying from the Mexicans now, doing these hand-offs. Chances are his old connect is going to roll on him. Marquis an easy target. Word is, DEA been looking at him for a long time.”
“When’s the next drop-off?” she said.
“Next week. Don’t know what day yet.”
“He’s moving that much product?” Larry said. “Half a mil a week?”
“He’s stocking up, in case it goes dry again,” Cordell said. “He needs to keep the cash coming in. He owes money to the Mexicans, too, for what he already bought on commission. So he’s padding the bag a little each week until he’s caught up.”
“Five hundred thousand sounds high,” she said. “You see the money before it’s packed?”
“Nah, they do that up in the office. Behind closed doors. No one in there but Marquis and Damien, and this boy they call Metro that does the counting.”
She was wondering how much of it was street talk, Glass taken in by Cordell’s story. Cordell looked too young, soft, to be in the Game in any real way. But the drop-off and pickup had gone as he said they would. And even a quarter million might make it worth doing.
“How far in advance do you know the location?” she said.
“Couple days, maybe.”
“Not much time. Who picks the spot?”
“Marquis talks to the Mexicans. They work it out between them.”
“I know how it sounds,” Glass said. “But Cordell’s right. This is sloppy right now, because they’re fat and lazy. That’ll change. We got a window of time here. They may get their shit squared away at some point in the future. It won’t be so easy.”
“Body armor,” Larry said.
She turned to him. “What?”
“I’m just saying. If we do this—on the street, like this—we need body armor, vests. Any of the rollos in that Armada start popping off at us with that kind of hardware, stoned or not, I want some protection.”
“Good idea,” Glass said. “I can handle that.”
“You financing?” she said.
“Much as I need to. I’ll take it back off the top.”
“That a good idea?”
“You worried I’ll want more say in how we do it?”
“Should I be?”
“No. Just thought it would be easier that way, for me to put out the money up front, given the time factor. That’s all.”
He was right. And aside from the body armor, they might be able to do it with minimal expense. She was looking at the spot where the Subaru had been parked, thinking it through, considering the angles.
“Well?” Glass said.
“We’re good for now,” she said. “Drop me back at the hotel. We’ll talk tonight. I have some ideas.”
“You thinking it’s doable?” he said.
“At the moment,” she said, “I’m just thinking.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Glass said, and started the engine.
Copyright © 2013 by Wallace Stroby
WALLACE STROBY is an award-winning journalist and a former editor at The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. Shoot the Woman First is his sixth novel, following the acclaimed Kings of Midnight. He lives in New Jersey. The Crissa Stone novels are in development for a TV series by Showtime.