Book excerpt

The Poor Boy's Game

Dennis Tafoya

St. Martin's Press

1
 
 
 
Frannie Mullen stood behind the counter at a sports memorabilia store on Arch Street, waiting for a felon. The felon’s name was Otto Berman, and he had embezzled three hundred thousand dollars from a mobbed-up linen supply company in Atlantic City. When he got caught, he tried to turn state’s evidence, offering up his bosses, and when he decided he was more frightened of his employers than he was of the feds, he jumped bail and ran.
Berman’s office in a Point Pleasant strip mall had featured a water-stained ceiling, leaning stacks of dusty files, and a pressboard desk, but there had also been baseball cards neatly framed on the walls, some of which looked to Frannie like they were worth money. When they peeled open his cheap safe he had two more, including a signed Hank Aaron card in his Braves uniform. So she and Sleeper, her partner from the task force, dug through his credit card receipts (stuffed in a box from Discount Shoe Warehouse) and turned up the place he dealt with, so that three weeks later she was standing behind a low glass counter and waiting for Otto to pick up a Babe Ruth card from 1933 worth eighteen hundred dollars.
Now it was almost five and Otto hadn’t shown, so they were beginning to think he wasn’t coming. There were three on her team: Joe Carson in a UPS truck on the street; Eric “Sleeper” Hansen standing in the doorway to the back wearing a blue shirt with the name CHUCK in script over the pocket, pretending to look at a clipboard; Frank Russo out of sight with an automatic rifle, the barrel down along his left leg, and a black ballistic vest that read U.S. MARSHALS across the chest. He was paging through a catalog of sports memorabilia. He lifted his head to wink at her and mouthed, Where you at?
It was something he did: When he was one of her instructors at Glynco he had stopped her in the middle of a talk about search and seizure and asked her where she was at. She had looked around the room at all the other 1811s, the Treasury agents and ICE agents and the other Marshals, but they all sensed a trap and looked away. She had stammered something about the training, how it was going, and Russo smiled and said, No, where are you at? Your location, right now, physically. If you need help, if somebody gets hurt, if you need backup, you have to know where you are all the time. Not how you’re doing, Mullen. No one gives a shit how you’re doing. Just where the hell you are. Now Frannie was lead on the team, and he smiled and tapped his watch, telling her time was almost up.
*   *   *
On the wall above the cash register a photo caught Frannie’s eye; two men, brown skin slick with sweat and oil, one of them with blood spread bright and vivid across his nose and cheeks. Frannie knew it immediately and forgot everything, standing with her back to the open room: Hagler versus Hearns, a fight from 1985 that people still talked about. They called it “The War.” She had the fight card signed by Hagler in a closet somewhere and looking around at all the framed cards and signed bats and balls she wondered what it was worth. Maybe she’d sell it. She had a walk-in closet full of junk from the house she’d grown up in, and she hadn’t gotten around to throwing it away after her aunt Rodi died. Maybe she’d dump it all on eBay, find out what she could get.
*   *   *
In her earpiece she heard Joe Carson say, “You got a guy coming in.” Carson was in the UPS truck, in front of the parking lot two doors up, with a newspaper on the dash and a Benelli M90 shotgun behind the seat. This part of Arch Street ran through Chinatown, and on the street Frannie could see bright signs decorated with ideograms that shimmered in the rain.
She cleared her throat. “Description?”
“Six-one, six-two, two hundred pounds. Black raincoat, gray hair, came from the parking lot on Race.”
Sleeper looked at her, his eyebrows raised, but she shook her head. Into her mic she said, “Thanks for the heads-up.” To Sleeper she said, “No, he’s too tall and he’s got hair.” She had a photograph on the counter in front of her, the same one Sleeper had clipped to the clipboard he carried as a prop. Otto Berman from his license, a wide face, thin lips, a fringe of brown hair that seemed to recede while she watched it. Worried eyes that looked down and away, set in dark smudges. As if he had already been on the run when the picture was taken, as if he’d been born guilty of something he could never make right.
There was a muted chime and the door moved, the guy in the black raincoat coming in and going immediately to a framed Raúl Ibañez jersey by the door. He had neatly trimmed white hair, a suit and tie under the raincoat, looked like an executive, a lawyer maybe, from one of the white-shoe firms sprinkled around City Hall. She’d have to get rid of him, in case Berman was still coming. There was a flash from the street and she flinched, then a low, echoing boom that rattled the windows. Her earpiece hissed and snapped and the man with the raincoat smiled at her. “Here it comes,” he said, nodding his head toward the street, and the rain came down in wide sheets that flexed and broke as the wind picked up.
Frannie looked at her watch and stepped from behind the counter. There was a hiss in her ear and she heard Carson say something, his voice raised, but there was another blue flash of lightning in the street and whatever he said was lost in static. She turned discreetly and tapped the earpiece while it clicked and hummed, and then the bell chimed and Berman walked in. Frannie stopped, looked back at the desk and the open doorway to the storage area, but Sleeper and Russo were out of sight and she was too close to the customer and Berman to say anything over the radio to Carson.
Berman looked nervous, his head jerking from side to side, taking in the businessman, who stood, head cocked, in front of a jersey that Pete Rose had worn during his Philly years and then Frannie, who tried on a bland and distant smile. The accountant’s clothes were rumpled, like he’d been sleeping in his car, and his sparse hair was lank and looked unwashed. He closed an umbrella clumsily with his left hand and dropped it on the carpet by the door. His right hand was in his raincoat pocket, and his eyes jumped in his head.
“May I help you?”
Berman looked toward the back. “Where’s Emile?” Emile Frankel was the owner, and he had turned over the store for the day to the Marshals and made himself scarce. Frannie had the impression he was only too happy to help the feds because he didn’t want anyone asking a lot of hard questions about his business, his tax status, and the provenance of some of the stuff on the walls, the signed jerseys and autographed footballs that sold for thousands of dollars because of the unrecognizable scrawl of some ballplayer who had been dead for twenty years.
“Mr. Frankel’s just stepped out. Were you looking for something special?”
Berman didn’t say anything, but turned for a long moment to look at the customer by the Pete Rose jersey, then out at the street, and then swung his head to look hard at Frannie. She saw the bulge in his pocket where his hand was in his coat and wondered if he had a weapon and if she could grab the arm before he could get it clear of his pocket. She took a small step back toward the counter, and she heard him shift and move with her. She was wearing a Tahari suit cut loose under the arms to cover a concealable ForceOne bulletproof vest and hemmed a little long in the legs to hide the Galco rig holding a small-frame Glock at her ankle. There were ten rounds in the pistol and a twenty-one-inch spring-loaded Peacekeeper baton under her coat. The vest would stop a magnum round, but if he had a knife, or if he pointed a gun at her head, or the customer, things could still go wrong.
“I’m here to pick something up?”
“Of course, sir. Just let me…” She pointed toward the counter, hoping that Sleeper would figure out what was going on without popping out and spooking Berman, or that Carson had noticed him come in and was getting a position on the guy to grab him when he walked out if she made the decision to let him walk rather than risk the arrest with a civilian standing three paces away. She hated this calculus, the figuring of lines and angles. She wanted to grab the accountant and throw him to the floor.
She crossed to the counter and turned to see Carson crossing the street in his UPS uniform, a long box under one arm. He was moving his lips, probably trying to reach her or Sleeper or Russo. The radio was dead, but she was still hearing a voice in her head, the voice that told her when things were slipping beyond her control. Now a van was pulling to the curb, cutting just behind Carson as he stepped from the street to the wide sidewalk. The van had the words SCOLARI AND SONS PLUMBING on the door.
Frannie had just reached the counter when Carson got to the door, left arm around the box. He pushed at the heavy glass door and Berman was suddenly beside her, grabbing her arm with his free hand. She turned to see him staring out the window, the tension in his arm communicated to her directly, physically, as if in touching they now shared the same nervous system. The van was idling at the curb, the side door slowly sliding open to reveal only a dark hole. Joe Carson shouldered aside the heavy glass front door, his hand slipping inside the box. There was a moment when everything slowed down and seemed to get very close, as if she could extend her arms and touch every single thing in front of her—the white van at the curb, Carson coming through the door with his eyes on her, the oblivious customer turned away, Berman’s yellow, clawlike hand on her wrist. She saw that his nails were ragged and bitten down, and she could smell the rain in his coat and beneath that his unwashed hair and the curdled wine on his breath. She saw in his darting eyes and jerky movement that he was drunk and scared out of his mind.
She pulled the Peacekeeper out of her pocket and swung it down to snap it open, then reared back, pulling Berman off balance and bringing the baton down hard on his elbow as he tried to get the pistol clear of his coat. He screamed, slamming his arm back and catching Frannie across the bridge of her nose, a jolt that rattled her skull, and she tasted metal on her tongue as Sleeper came over the counter, cuffs out. She dropped to one knee and felt for the ankle rig.
Carson was through the door and closing the distance, the black shotgun coming up, when the man by the door in the raincoat, the man Frannie made for a lawyer, pulled a heavy dull-metal revolver and put it against Carson’s head in one smooth motion, like it was a trick they’d worked out in advance. Outside there was a silent blue flash and the room went dark, so that for one long moment Carson and the man who held a gun to his head appeared in black silhouette against the windows. The lights clicked and buzzed and came back on and no one had moved that Frannie could tell. Sleeper had one of the cuffs locked on Berman’s right hand, and Frannie herself was crouched at Berman’s feet, her right hand on the butt of the small Glock 27 in her ankle holster. The man with the pistol whispered something and fanned back the hammer and the Benelli dropped slowly to the carpeted floor at Carson’s feet. Sleeper opened his hand, releasing the handcuffs, and Berman took a step back. Frannie felt blood on her face and tasted it on her tongue.
Behind her Frank Russo said, “Nobody needs to get hurt, partner.” Russo was dark and had razor-cut black hair, an Italian boy from Oregon Avenue, but he talked the way all the male Marshals talked, with the rhythms and tones of the Southern plains, a drawl that seemed to come with the badge, like it was issued at the federal training center at Glynco. Like they were all the sons of Wyatt Earp.
Berman took a step back, and then another. Frannie could feel Russo beside her and shifted her head to see him with the M4 up at his shoulder, the barrel trained on the face of the man wearing the black raincoat with the pistol at Carson’s head. She touched her lips and her hand came away smeared with red.
Berman ducked behind Carson to reach the door, one handcuff dangling. “Let’s go,” he said, his voice thin with tension. The white-haired man looked at each of them in turn and grabbed Carson by the collar, pivoting him awkwardly to use him as a shield and backing toward the door, the barrel of his pistol tight against Carson’s skull. Joe Carson’s arms were up in front of him, showing them all his empty palms.
The man with the gun shook his head. “You said there’d be money here, Otto.”
“Shut up, Arthur.”
“I mean, what the hell, Otto? Who are these people?”
“Arthur!” Then he said something fast in what sounded like German. She couldn’t catch it.
Berman grabbed Carson’s shoulder and ducked behind him to claw at the door. Frannie heard Frank Russo say, “Otto. Don’t do this.”
He stopped, but didn’t turn. “You think I want to do any of this?”
Frank Russo said, “Listen to me, Otto. You’re in trouble, I know. You’re scared, you feel trapped, but this is just a mistake and nobody’s hurt. You go out that door with our guy and you throw away any chance you have to get clear of this.”
“Man, I got no chance now.” He crouched awkwardly behind Carson, who stood rigid, his eyes pinned to the right side of his head, trying to see the barrel of the gun jammed against his temple.
Arthur turned his head slightly to Otto and spoke again, fiercely, two quick words in the same language, a harsh clicking of the tongue that might be German.
“No, you do have a chance, Otto. The prosecutor will still help you—”
“The prosecutor? Who gives a shit about the prosecutor? You know who I owe money to? You know who those people are?”
“Otto, you got to think about what you’re doing.”
“Everybody wants me dead!” Berman looked back and forth between Frank and Sleeper and then down at Frannie where she stood in her half crouch, one hand on the Glock. He said, “Jesus, look at her, look at her face. She wants to kill me so bad she can taste it.” He found the door handle and was tugging on it with his thin arms, the heavy glass door swinging in. Arthur crowded in as Berman pulled and Frannie saw what was coming and tensed, narrowing her eyes and gritting her teeth as the door swung in and hit the tall man’s gun hand.
The gun swung wide and Joe Carson moved fast, smacking at the man’s wrist and trying to wrench free of his grasp. Frannie pulled her Glock as Berman yanked harder at the door, his face set, and the gun in Arthur’s hand went off with a hard pop. Frannie saw a flash, a white star imprinted on her vision as she extended her arms toward the struggling men, her pistol locked in both hands. Carson yanked himself free and Frannie fired one shot and the man’s head bounced off the door and he went down, his eyes rolled back and his muscles loose in death. Berman screamed, a sort of high-pitched wheeze, and launched himself through the door and took off down the street. Frannie could hear him screaming as he ran, his arms up as if to ward off the rain and the noise he made changing, becoming a throaty sob as he disappeared from view. The van at the curb pulled out, following Berman down the street.
There was a moment’s silence, Frannie still standing with her pistol pointed at the dead man, Carson standing with his hands drawn up under his chin like an actor about to deliver a line. Frannie could hear something, a hiss or a rasp, and took a moment to realize it was coming from Frank Russo, who stood with his hands on his throat while bright blood jetted through his fingers.
Frannie threw the Glock down and grabbed at him, putting her long white hands over Frank’s thick fingers and looking into his eyes. He was trying to talk, making terrible noises, and Carson stammered into the radio while Sleeper put away his pistol and helped her get Frank into a sitting position. In seconds she was covered in his blood while they both squeezed at the ragged hole. She heard Carson saying, “What? What? The corner, at the corner, come on.” His voice caught in his throat, and Sleeper stood up and grabbed the radio from him and started walking whoever it was through the situation, repeating the address, saying there were plainclothes officers at the scene so nobody would come in shooting. He pointed at the door with one red hand, and Carson nodded, his eyes wild, and took off after Berman.
She tried to keep her face open so that Frank would see her and be calm. She remembered him telling her she had to know all the time where she was. The street, the directions, the flow of traffic. She said, almost to herself, “1013 Arch Street, tell them.” Frank was too caught up in what was going on inside him to notice them, too lost in his own dimming mind, thinking maybe of his wife, his two girls. She said, “I’m here, Frank. I’m right here.”

 
Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Tafoya

DENNIS TAFOYA was born in Philadelphia and now lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Poor Boy's Game is his third novel, following Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park.