My stomach lurched as the bus went over another pothole, making noises like it could break down at any minute. But considering the other passengers, maybe I shouldn't be surprised. I was wearing jeans, a leather jacket, and a T-shirt with a classic rock band logo on it, a tailored suit compared to what everyone else was wearing. This was a cheap bus service delivering a couple dozen passengers to the suburb of a city on the east coast, and a lot of the people on the bus had the telltale marks of crushing poverty. Most of them had been unemployed for years, and were desperately looking a spot where they could get some work.
I suppose I wasn't too different. After my last job left me hospitalized for months and my clients avoiding me like the plague, I was also dirt broke. I only looked nicer because I spent the last two months in a rehab clinic, trying to ween myself off of the Oxycontin my doctor gave me. It was a surprisingly nice place, they tried to keep me comfortable as they dictated every aspect of my life for fifty-nine agonizing days before they let me check out. I went straight from the rehab facility to the bus depot with all my worldly possessions in my backpack, and for the last day and a half I've waited for the bus to finally arrive at the suburb where I would pick up my contract.
The tedium was broken up somewhat by the Blue Heeler who sat next to me for most of the trip. He never gave me his name, I only know one of the homeless men on the bus called him Hawkeye. Hawkeye, like most dogs of his type, had a bushy tail and somewhat stocky build. His bluish fur also had a dark mark around his right eye that almost looked like an eyepatch. He was tall for a Blue Heeler though, almost matching my height of 6' 1”. He was wearing an army jacket and cargo pants with a camo pattern, but both were a little grimy, and he constantly fidgeted with a lighter that had a Marines insignia on it. While I have seen plenty of unemployed people relying on second-hand clothes replicating that look, with the way Hawkeye carried himself I could tell he really was a veteran. Seems odd he'd latch onto me as a companion during this ride, but then again I wasn't exactly a man who did honest work, so maybe it would fit that I was chatting with someone who killed for the government.
Hawkeye groaned as we went over another pothole. “I swear, I've been on bombed out roads that were smoother than this.” He was getting fidgety. Having already read my book on anatomy twice, I had been documenting his habits out of boredom. He was a heavy smoker, and would get stressed out after exactly three hours since his last cigarette. He always kept his tail close to his waist and would flatten his ears when nervous, though beyond that he did nothing but talk, either to me, the Pit Bull behind him, or to himself on occasion.
I was the target of conversation as the trip was drawing to a close, and he soon turned to me. “So stranger, you got a name? I know where you're coming from and why you're making the move, but I didn't catch a name.”
“I didn't catch your name either.” I replied, getting more than a little impatient as I lost feeling in my tail over an hour ago.
He chuckled. “No one's called me by name in years, stranger. I used to be a Chief Petty Officer so some people call me Chief, friends call me Hawkeye, and that's been going on for so long I don't even respond to my name anymore.”
“It's not too different with me.” I replied. “I guess you can call me Jack though.”
“Funny name for a big Shepherd like you.” he said, pulling his brass lighter out of his pocket again and twirling it between two fingers, unable to smoke on the bus.
“No one really gave enough of a shit about me to give me a worthwhile name.” I muttered. “I'm not really a good topic of conversation.”
“Not a vet?” he asked. I shook my head. “So, up to no good then?”
“That depends. I don't know the details of the job I'm going to accept. I'm not exactly a nine to five guy.”
“Neither am I.” Hawkeye said, lighting a flame with the Zippo before quickly shutting it and putting it out. “I've been out of the service for only three years now, but I'm already moving for the third time.”
“Why're you moving?” I asked, feeling a little curious now. He seems too smart and too capable to be on the bus.
“Nothing's really gone right in my civilian life. My first girlfriend lied about her age, I was so lonely I never questioned it, and her mother found out. I've had to move whenever neighbors figured out my real name and began harassing me about my record. It's also hard to get a job with that dangling over my head. I'm on the bus because the city we're heading to has an overzealous police department, a poverty problem, and a gang problem. Bail enforcement's the closest thing to a real job I can get these days.” He flicked his tail a little as he looked me in the eyes. “Your said your last job was a bust?”
I nodded. “I was working a job back west, getting some dirt on an ex-wife who screwed her husband in the divorce, only the client sold me out and her boyfriend shot me. Word that I screwed up the job spread through the net, and after a long recovery the only job I could get was out here.”
“Unlicensed PI?” Hawkeye asked.
“Something like that, yeah.” I replied, bracing as the bus driver went over another pothole. “I had a juvenile record a mile wide, I couldn't get a real job no matter how hard I tried. Some psychiatrist left a mark on my school records that lead to the police and military rejecting me, and I didn't get along well enough with others to go for athletic pursuits.”
Hawkeye shook his head a little. “I hear ya, stranger. I've gotten more forgiveness out of people that got my gun shoved in their face.” he shrugged. “If you're interested, I could put in a good word for you at the bondsman's office.”
“What type of papers would I need for a job like that?”
“Passport, or license with proof that you're from around here.”
I sighed. His suggestion was actually half tempting, but... “It would take me weeks to get my hands on papers like that. I'm afraid that offer will have to wait.” I spotted a road sign out of the corner of my eye. “I think we're close.”
Hawkeye nodded. “Yep, about five minutes out of the depot.” he looked ahead to the front of the bus. “And not a minute too soon. Our driver looks like he's about to burst. Dumb fuck grabbed a huge thing of coffee at the last stop.”
The terrier behind Hawkeye spoke up at that point. “Chief, you said one of the buses at the depot would take me through town, right? My sister's on the other side of the city.”
“Yeah Corporal, it's waiting for our bus. I'll point you to it when we arrive.”
I looked back at the terrier. Corporal Black, a solid white Pit Bull dressed in an old boiler suit, was actually a disgraced SWAT member slated to become a mall cop. I remember seeing him in the news, he screwed up with a flash grenade and panicked when he was blinded by his own grenade. He wound up shooting two unarmed teens who had taken their hostages using knives and tear gas. I wasn't surprised to see him on the bus, he wasn't indicted because the dumb bobcats he shot survived and the DA covered his ass, but he was forced to leave by people outraged at another instance of unauthorized violence not being prosecuted. Don't know if I should pity him or myself for being on the same bus as this moron. How'd he get to be in SWAT anyway? Aren't SWAT officers exposed to those grenades during training so that they won't freak out when something goes wrong?
I soon heard the squeaking of the buses breaks, having zoned out as Hawkeye began chatting with Black instead. Looking out the window, I could see the bus depot, a small fleet of other buses and a couple of taxis waiting for us to either get on board or fuck off so they could begin their next trek. I stood up and slung my backpack over my shoulder, thrashing my tail as I tried to get feeling back to my ass and everything below it, my movements almost in tune with a grim cacophony of groans, cracks, and startled yelps as everyone else either got up or were poked awake from their naps by other riders. After a minute, the bus doors opened, and I made a beeline for the depot itself.
The depot had a small storage facility where things could be kept for new arrivals. After showing my ticket to an attendant who was far more engrossed in a magazine of various wildcats in lingerie, I made my way to a locker that the client had reserved for me. I cracked open my phone and read the information on the locker. Here we go... locker 117, combination 21-5-33. True to what the client said, there were two manilla envelopes inside, one marked “Fragile.” I slipped them into my backpack and put my slip on the attendant's window, again ignored in favor of a lioness wearing a thong and hiding her nipples with her tail. Odd for a woodchuck like him to be into lions, but whatever.
Once outside of the depot, I began looking around. My client said I would be able to see a hotel that would have a room waiting for me at the northern exit. Hawkeye was standing just outside, finishing off his first cigarette since we got into the state and letting out the smoke in an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Shit, I need to quit...” he muttered, tossing the butt to the side of the road and washing the tar flavor down with a sip of Coke. “You know where to go from here, son?” Hawkeye asked, surprising me a little as I realize he had spotted me.
“I'm going to spend the night at Black Bird, after that I'm heading into the city for the job.” I replied, spotting my hotel from where I was standing. “I need to study up on the town itself a little more too, and get myself some wheels.”
Hawkeye finished off his soda and tossed into a trashcan nearby and picked up his small, solid black duffle bag. “The bail bondsman lives right on the border of this town and the main city, I need to finalize some paperwork.” he paused to hand me a small handwritten note. “Call me if you need help or are ready to take on a slightly less deranged job. I'll see you around, son.”
“See you around, Hawkeye.” I said, watching him head north. I looked at the note real quick... it had his phone number and the information for a bar in the main city. After stuffing the note into my pocket, I made my way to the hotel.
The Black Bird Inn was advertised as a friendly mom and pop joint on the outskirts of the city that catered to weary travelers who were tired of the hustle and bustle of the big city. Then again, the city advertised itself as a paradise for families and the business conscious, not a yuppie shithole with a gang problem. What some extra digging turned up was that vice had made several arrests at the Black Bird Inn, that for an extra fee they would accept cash as a payment and not actually register you into their database, and that for people who did pay that fee, there was an hourly rate just in case you and a special someone wanted to “Relax a little.” And even before I walked into a room, I could smell a smoke that wasn't coming from tobacco.
I walked into the office. A beaver with ashen fur was watching something on his computer, but looked up when he heard the chime over the door ring. He squinted a little as he looked at me. “Mr. Durden?”
“Yes.” I said, nodding. “I was told my room is ready.”
The beaver reached under the counter and pulled out a key card. “Room 106, it'll be one of the first rooms on your left after you walk outside. Mr. White told me you would only be staying for tonight, but he has already taken care of the service fee, so if you just introduce yourself to any other attendant as Mr. White, it's $50 each additional night. First night's on me, a favor to Mr. White.”
I quickly nodded, snatched up the key, and made my way to Room 106, which was on the far corner away from the bus depot. After doing a quick scan for onlookers, I went in, taking a quick look over my room. The room was very clean, sterile even. There was a lingering smell from very powerful cleaners even though the carpet of the room was new, telling me that this wasn't likely a room given to normal customers. It had a typical set-up, bathroom in the back, bed, desk, TV set up on a chest of drawers, and end tables next to the bed. Opening one drawer, I even spotted the Gideon Bible that for some reason was in over half the hotel rooms I went to. A note on the end table mentioned the name of this complex's WiFi signal, the username, and password. Spotting a minifridge on the other side of the bed, I quickly opened it up and found an odd gift... a six pack of energy drinks. Was that the client's doing, or the hotel's doing since this room lacked a coffeemaker?
Something I can reflect on later, it was time to get to work. After locking up my room and doing a quick sweep for any surveillence, I sat down at the desk and pulled the envelopes out of my bag. The one labeled “Fragile” contained a large tablet, a keyboard I could hook it up to, and the cord for plugging it in. I quickly set up my new laptop, but it wouldn't start when I hit the power button. After plugging it in, I noticed it's power indicator flashing, indicating it's battery had died. The client managed to get me a tablet, but couldn't make sure it was charged? Well then again, maybe he didn't buy it. Once the tablet began booting up, I opened the other envelope. In it were a small stack of papers, photos, and an SD card with a 20 gig capacity. Most of the dossier, and a program to encrypt communications over the tablet, would be on the SD card. The papers and photos were just for quick review.
After the tablet was finished booting up, I entered the username and password that were written on the card. After a “Welcome!” notification indicated that I was logged in, it switched to a desktop and quickly began loading files off of the SD card. After two or three minutes elapsed, Skype suddenly opened up on the desktop, and shortly afterwards, my phone rang. I quickly answered it, the familiar, gruff voice of the client coming over the line. “I see you've logged on. I'll be brief, the dossier on the card will include information on how to transfer your down payment to your account. The beaver, let's just call him Mr. Black, is in on the job, and will point you in the direction of an auction set to begin tomorrow at noon. The auction is for impounded vehicles that were never claimed, drop my name and they'll let you pick one. The paperwork for it will be legitimate.”
“The tablet?” I asked, curious as to where he got this hardware if my vehicle was to be something claimed from an auction block.
“Practically brand new, the previous owner gave it to a friend of mine after a new model came out on the market. Again, you can hold on to it. Just consider it another part of your down payment, and a tool to make our business together more easy. I'm not going to ask you to stick your neck out without covering some bases for you first.”
I didn't ask further questions. Better to keep friendly with your client. I quickly opened up the dossier file, a PDF popped up detailing the personal information of a dingo, one Lieutenant Vinnie Buckland. “The mark is Vinnie Buckland....”
“Yeah...” the client said, his voice thick with disgust. “The bastard's supposed to be helping the local precincts deal with two rival gangs that are on the verge of war with each other. Only over the past four months, five undercover cops in either gang had been outed. The lucky ones got the shit beaten out of em, though one of em was burned alive by those sick fucks. Problem is, Internal Affairs doesn't believe there is a leak. I want hard evidence that your mark is in bed with the gangs, afterwards you know what to do. Pay is $9,000 up front plus the goodies, I can make additional money available to you if necessary and can provide some information on the gangs once you get a clearer picture. If the job is complete, final payment is $121,000, plus additional work. If you prove he is guilt free, I'll give you $21,000 for the investigative work.”
“Any time frame?” I asked, scrolling through the PDF.
“Nothing concrete, though I suggest you work quickly and carefully. He is a trained officer and you don't want to blow your cover around him.”
“Anything else I should know?”
“The neighborhood he's in is a nice looking pit, no one there talks to police unless they absolutely have to, and a lot of people come and go out of the neighborhood, so so long as you keep yourself clean you should blend in. Otherwise, everything else is in the dossier. I'm sorry I can't give you more information right now, but if this were an easy job I wouldn't have hired you. Take care, Mr. Durden.” he said, before the line went dead. I began to read the dossier, learning as much as I could first about the mark.
The dingo was 46 and has been a police officer for 20 years. He was on the fast track to becoming a fed in 04, but got married after his girlfriend unexpectedly became pregnant and he couldn't leave the city. In '12 he was promoted to Lieutenant, but then the problem behavior started. Several low level flags like problems on his physicals, complaints of misbehavior and people arrested by him complaining of being roughed up began to appear. Earlier this year he had a very ugly divorce, his wife claiming he forced her to marry him and that her child was the product of him raping her. The case was quickly thrown out after neighbors and his department came to his defense and claimed the ex-wife was prone to hysterical fits and may have been bipolar, but despite that the custody battle ended in a stalemate. The wife was declared unfit to watch over their son, but he wasn't home often enough to look after him, so instead the boy wound up with relatives on the other side of the state.
The first blown cover happened a month after the divorce, coinciding with the mark somehow paying off the mortgage on his house even though his wife was the big money earner. The money supposedly came from savings and there was a bank statement backing up his claims, but the bank fell under surveillance last month when evidence came up that suspected members of both gangs did their banking there.
The blown covers don't seem to have that much of a pattern though. They seem to happen at random times and with varying levels of penetration. The second one outed wasn't even investigating the same gang as the other four, he was looking into the Kings, and died after being trapped in a burning meth lab during a shootout, along with two gangbangers and someone that may have been a snitch that tried to save the cop. The other four were beaten after their wires were discovered, but a note stated that other attempts to infiltrate the gangs have failed ever since the info leaks began.
The mark still lived in his house in the White Oak Village, a relatively wealthy neighborhood, only he lived alone now. There wasn't a lot of information on the house and any assistance someone who works nearly 100 hours a week might receive to keep the White Oak Villa's Homeowners Association off his back, a quick Google search on White Oak Villa revealed at least five stories of people being pressured to leave their homes after they failed to keep up with the WOVHA's standards on things like yard care, or even a clear schedule. All the dossier did mention is that he he was currently out of the city, supposedly visiting his son, and that he wasn't scheduled to come back until Thursday, and today's Saturday. It meant I would have an opportunity to set up a good base of operations around the White Oak Village and scout it out. Until I had a good lead, I would have to focus on him outside of work. If I was caught on camera too many times around him, he may figure out who I am.
Further details on the dossier wouldn't be that helpful. What type of car he drove, his license plate number, and details about what type of training he received. He wasn't very good with his pistol and managed to avoid major shootouts, but still carried around a personal M1911 with pearl grips. He was something of an amateur boxer, but I can handle myself in fights.
The dossier was detailed, but it was almost entirely focused on the mark. Tips on his neighbors, cases, or family that I could have used as an angle were somewhat lacking. Did the client include the divorce in the dossier to make sure I had a good starting point to establish motive? Probably.
I did a little preliminary work, trying to take in more information on the neighborhood and the local crime tales that were relevant to the case. The White Oak Village had been making several complaints about criminals in the area and petitions had been made to either try and establish a neighborhood watch or get some kind of gate around the one road that lead in to the neighborhood, only no one really seemed to care. Most of it related to a small gang of lion delinquents, and I kept seeing odd police reports relating to a Corgi wanted for questioning in a possible murder/suicide, only the sightings are sporadic. I should be careful, I don't exactly have good luck with large cats.
White Oak wasn't the only portion of the city having crime trouble. The mark was involved in investigating a gang called the Kings. According to one local newspaper article the Kings were a bizarrely well-funded gang that dealt in guns and meth. They have had relatively few encounters with police as the meth dealing is mostly done in the city's suburbs, and their guns seem to be a semi-legitimate business. The article says they span off from a larger group in the Midwest, but again, the police have their hands tied because the group they span off from was a militia group that existed legally, and attempts to track down their meth labs almost always ended in failure. The Kings and the survivalists they sprang from seemed to specialize in turning cops either through making them sympathetic to their political agenda or buying them off, but most of the leaks benefited their rival gang, so it seemed unlikely that the Kings had turned the mark.
The Kings primary rival were the Jackals. The Jackals, lead by a collection of seven, what else, Jackals, is an old and very entrenched organized crime group that specialized in almost any vice you could name. One newspaper claimed that they may control as much as 80% of the prostitutes in the city, only none of them testify against the Jackals who take their protection details extremely seriously. With local Vice police being notoriously brutal, some confirmed working women say they call Jackal enforcers rather than the police.
But controlling prostitution isn't their biggest accomplishment. Supposedly through a mix of careful dealing, bribes, and no shortage of agricultural brilliance from a suspected leader, the Jackals are one of the largest local drug producers, most of their income actually comes from selling product they manufactured or stole to gangs and dealers all over this state and the surrounding states, with reports of trademark Jackal drugs appearing as far away as my old state.
I paused and double checked the address of the hotel. I was getting hungry. I switched back to look over the files on the SD card and saw something labeled “Payment.” Inside it was the information for a series of bank accounts, all under the same family of offshore banks. Since every transaction those banks did were completely anonymous, it would be easy to transfer the funds to my own account without it tying back to the client. Two of the nine accounts had transactions pending, I couldn't log on to the other seven. They must have held the rest of the reward. After a little work, entering in my own bank information on the pending transactions, I confirmed the transfers had begun, though I wouldn't have access to all the money until tomorrow when the transactions finished. $500 was available to me right away though, so I quickly looked up local delivery spots.
Three blocks down there was a sandwich place that delivered. It catered to frat boys who attended a nearby university, most of the dishes had “Humorous” names, but it was still nearby. After ordering a particularly unhealthy meal of a foot long hot dog with onions and some kind of special sauce, some of their house made chips, and cole slaw, I cracked open an energy drink and went back to work on studying the gangs.
The Jackals and Kings being at war were my next topic of study. Supposedly the Jackals escaped retaliation from coke cartels with the aid of the Kings who, being guided by the cyber division of the Jackals and with some aid from crooked cops, actually killed a cartel hit squad before legitimate military forces locked on to the Cartels and forced them to back off, apparently even very well funded cartels have problems facing off against a gunship, but their brief alliance quickly fell apart. Sources in either gang claimed that one group betrayed the other while anonymous sources claimed that the Jackals failed to deliver a promised shipment of the cough medicine needed to cook meth. There were small fights between dealers, but neither side wants to fire the first shot in a gang war because the Jackals, who have been established for 20 years, had over time acquired an arsenal that make even the Kings hesitate. The Kings are still better armed, but locally the Jackals have better numbers and inside the city are still very dominant, most of the Kings best set-ups are in the neighboring small towns.
I looked up from the tablet and began thinking. Either gang could be paying off the mark. Even if most of the alleged leaks benefited the Jackals, supposedly neither of the gangs have been infiltrated since the leaks began. The Jackals are again the clear beneficiaries, but no one has managed to infiltrate the Kings out in the sticks? It was interesting that the mark was supposed to be coordinating precincts in the entire county, he could very well be behind the leaks.
After a while my meal landed and I alternated between enjoying the dog with very good spicy mustard, gagging on the cole slaw, and trying to read into the designer drugs the Jackals sold. Those were hard to get information on, most of what I found were bullshit speculation articles done to get views from stupid parents. The ones that did seem plausible were performance enhancing drugs that didn't show up in normal urine tests, a low risk but highly addictive form of heroin, and something called “Pixie Stix,” an extremely potent painkiller that was actually linked to a few accidental deaths. That could be interesting. After wrapping up the meal, I switched to Google Maps and began looking up important addresses.
The client lives almost smack in the middle of the White Oak Village, and after a minute I committed a map of the area to memory. No hotels close to the villa, at least hotels with lax enough security measures for it to be safe for me to stay there for any period of time, but I could worry about that once I actually began the job. The auction house where I could pick up my vehicle was... oh, wait, I recognized the building, it was one of the last ones the bus drove past before arriving at the depot. Less than ten minutes on foot. And finally the bar Hawkeye recommended. Not too far away from the Village, luckily enough.
After skimming one more time over the dossier, checking to see if I missed something, I opened the web browser. It wasn't even eight by the time I wrapped up, so I had time to kill. I spent the rest of the night watching local news programs and looking up local papers. With luck, they'd turn into a lead. Tomorrow, in one way or another, my work would begin again. My rational side was nervous, knowing how high risk this job was. But the rest of me was excited. Work, and a challenge. The months of sitting around were about to come to an end.