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I’d grown sloppy. That’s what happens when you go straight.
“Do exactly as I tell you or I’ll put a bullet in your spine.”
The accent was male and Eastern European. I detected no tremors or hints of anxiety in his voice. The tone sounded even and measured. This wasn’t a threat; it was a statement of fact. If I didn’t cooperate, I would be shot.
I felt the unmistakable electric pressure from a handgun pressed into the small of my back. My first instinct was to lean in to the barrel and spin sharply to my left, turning the shot away from my body. The guy was probably right-handed, which meant he was naturally exposed on his left side. I could throw an elbow through that gap into the guy’s face as I turned, giving me enough time to break his wrist and bury the weapon in his forehead. Old instincts, but the guy who could do all of those things wasn’t around anymore. I’d buried him along with my past.
Without pressure on the faucet, the patter of water falling on porcelain faded. I felt my fingers shaking as I raised my wet hands in surrender.
“No need for that, Mr. Flynn.”
He knew my name. Gripping the sink, I raised my head and looked in the mirror. Never saw this guy before. Tall and slim, he wore a brown overcoat over a charcoal suit. He sported a shaved head, and a facial scar ran vertically from below his left eye to the jawline. Pushing the gun hard into my back, he said, “I’ll follow you out of the bathroom. You’ll put on your coat. You’ll pay for breakfast, and we’ll leave together. We’re going to talk. If you do as I tell you, you’ll be fine. If you don’t—you’re dead.”
Good eye contact. No blushing of the face or neck, no involuntary movement, no tells at all. I knew a hustler when I saw one. I knew the look. I’d worn it long enough. This guy was no hustler. He was a killer. But he was not the first killer to threaten me, and I remembered I got clear last time by thinking, not panicking.
“Let’s go,” he said.
He stepped back a pace and held up the gun, letting me see it in the mirror. It looked real: a snub-nosed, silver revolver. I knew from the first second the threat was genuine, but seeing the short, evil weapon in the mirror set my skin alive with fear. My chest began to tighten as my heart stepped on the gas. I’d been out of the game too long. I would have to make do with thinking and panicking. The revolver disappeared into his coat pocket and he gestured toward the door. The conversation appeared to be over.
“Okay,” I said.
Two years of law school, two and a half years clerking for a judge, and almost nine years as a practicing attorney, and all I managed to say was okay. I wiped my soapy hands on the back of my pants and ran my fingers through my dirty-blond hair. He followed me out of the bathroom and across the floor of the now-empty diner, where I lifted my coat, put it on, slid five bucks under my coffee cup, and made for the door. The scarred man followed me at a short distance.
Ted’s Diner was my favorite place to think. I don’t know how many trial strategies I had worked through in those booths, covering the tables with medical records, gunshot wound photos, and coffee-stained legal briefs. In the old days, I wouldn’t have eaten breakfast at the same place every day. Way too risky. In my new life, I enjoyed the routine of breakfast at Ted’s. I’d relaxed and stopped looking over my shoulder. Too bad. I could’ve used being on edge that morning: I might have seen him coming.
Walking out of the diner into the heart of the city felt like stepping into a safe place. The sidewalk bustled with the Monday-morning commute, and the pavement felt reassuring under my feet. This guy wasn’t going to shoot me in New York City, on Chambers Street, at eight fifteen in the morning in front of thirty witnesses. I stood to the left of the diner, outside an abandoned hardware store. I felt my face reddening with the pinch that November brings to the wind as I wondered what the man wanted. Had I lost a case for him years ago? I certainly couldn’t remember him. The scarred man joined me at the boarded-up window of the old store. He stood close so we couldn’t be separated by passersby. His face cracked into a long grin, bending the scar that bisected his cheek.
“Open your coat and look inside, Mr. Flynn.”
My hands felt awkward and clumsy as I searched my pockets and found nothing. I opened the coat fully. On the inside I saw what looked like a rip, as if the silk lining was coming away from the stitching. It wasn’t a rip. It took me a few moments to realize there was a thin black jacket inside my coat, like another layer of lining. I hadn’t seen it before. This guy must have slipped the jacket sleeves into my coat when I was in the bathroom. Slipping my hands across my back, I found a Velcro seam for a pocket that sat low down, just above my waist. Pulling it around so I could get a look at it, I tore open the seam, put my hand inside, and felt a loose thread.
I pulled the thread from the hidden pocket. But it wasn’t a thread.
It was a wire.
A red wire.
My hands followed it to what felt like a thin plastic box and more wiring, and then to two slim, rectangular bulges in the jacket that sat on either side of my back.
I couldn’t breathe.
I was wearing a bomb.
He wasn’t going to shoot me on Chambers Street in front of thirty witnesses. He was going to blow me up along with God knew how many victims.
“Don’t run, or I detonate the device. Don’t try to take it off. Don’t attract attention. My name is Arturas.” He pronounced it Ar-toras through his continuing smile.
I took in a sharp gulp of metallic air and forced myself to breathe it out slowly.
“Take it easy,” said Arturas.
“What do you want?” I said.
“My employer hired your firm to represent him. We have unfinished business.”
My fear subsided a little: This wasn’t about me. It was about my old law firm, and I thought I could palm this guy off on Jack Halloran. “Sorry, pal. It’s not my firm anymore. You’re talking to the wrong guy. Who do you work for, exactly?”
“I think you know the name. Mr. Volchek.”
Oh shit. He was right. I did know the name. Olek Volchek was head of the Russian mob. My former partner, Jack Halloran, had agreed to represent Volchek a month before Jack and I split. When Jack took on the case, Volchek awaited trial for murder—a gangland hit. I never got to look at the papers in the case or even meet Volchek. I’d devoted that entire month to defending Ted Berkley, a stockbroker, on an alleged attempted kidnapping charge—the case that broke me, completely. After the fallout from that case, I’d lost my family and then lost myself in a whiskey bottle. I got out of the law almost a year ago with what was left of my soul, and Jack had been only too happy to take my law firm. I hadn’t set foot in a courtroom since the jury delivered their verdict in the Berkley case, and I hadn’t planned on returning to the law anytime soon.
Jack was a different story. He had gambling problems. I’d heard recently he planned to sell the firm and leave town. He probably split and took Volchek’s retainer with him. If the Russian mob couldn’t find Jack, they would come looking for me—for a refund. Cue the strong-arm routine. With a bomb on my back, what does it matter that I’m bankrupt? I’ll get him the damn money. It was going to be okay. I could pay this guy. He wasn’t a terrorist. He was a mobster. Mobsters don’t blow people up who owe them money. They just get paid.
“Look, you need Jack Halloran. I’ve never met Mr. Volchek. Jack and I are no longer partners. But it’s okay; if you want your retainer refunded, I’ll gladly write you a check right now.”
Whether or not the check would cash was another issue. I had just over six hundred dollars in my account, my rent was overdue, and I had rehab bills I couldn’t pay and no income. The rehab fees were the main problem, but with the amount of whiskey I was putting away, I would’ve died if I hadn’t checked myself into a clinic and gotten help. In counseling, I’d realized that there was no amount of Jack Daniel’s that could’ve burned away the memory of what happened in the Berkley case. In the end, I’d gotten clean of booze and I was two weeks away from securing a final agreement with my creditors. Two weeks away from starting all over again. If the Russian wanted more than a few hundred bucks, I was screwed—big-time.
“Mr. Volchek does not want his money. You can keep it. After all, you’ll earn it,” said Arturas.
“What do you mean earn it? Look, I’m not in practice anymore. I haven’t practiced law for almost a year. I can’t help you. I’ll refund Mr. Volchek’s retainer. Please just let me take this off,” I said, gripping the jacket, ready to heave it off.
“No,” he said. “You don’t understand, lawyer. Mr. Volchek wants you to do something for him. You will be his lawyer and he will pay you. You’ll do it. Or you will do no more in this life.”
My throat tightened in panic as I tried to speak. This didn’t make any sense. I felt sure that Jack would’ve told Volchek that I’d quit, that I couldn’t hack it anymore. A white stretch limousine pulled up at the curb. The shining wax finish carried my distorted reflection. The rear passenger door opened from the inside, sweeping away my image. Arturas stood beside the open door and nodded at me to get in. I tried to settle myself; I deepened my breathing, slowed my heart, and tried desperately not to puke. The limo’s heavily tinted windows spread an intense darkness over the interior, as if it were brimming with black water.
For a moment everything became remarkably still—it was just me and that open door. If I ran, I wouldn’t get far—not an option. If I got into the car and stayed close to Arturas, I knew he couldn’t detonate the device. At that moment, I cursed myself for not keeping my skills sharp. The same skills that had kept me alive on the streets for all those years, the same skills that helped me to con million-dollar-salary defense attorneys before I’d even been to law school, the same skills that would have spotted this guy before he got within ten feet of me.
I made my decision and climbed into the rabbit hole.
Copyright © 2015, 2016 by Steve Cavanagh