Lowlifes

Chapter Eleven

The movement of the van roused me.  I was in the back, face down on the bare metal surface.  They'd cuffed me at the wrists and ankles, then looped a chain between the two sets of cuffs, effectively hogtying me. 

The awkward position drained the blood flow to my extremities, leaving my arms and legs numb.  I rolled onto my side to take the pressure off my joints and restore the blood flow.  I pumped my hands and they burned as the feeling returned.

Rawlings sat opposite from me, cuffed wrists in front of him, but they'd opted to gag him.  I nodded at him and he acknowledged the nod.

I had no way of knowing how long I’d been out, but I estimated at least ten minutes.  From the steady roar of the engine and the sensation of movement, the van was travelling at freeway speeds. 

The van’s rear doors were solid metal with no windows, but there wasn’t a partition between the van’s cargo area and the cabin.  I peered out the windshield to see the familiar suspension cables belonging to the Bay Bridge whipping past. 

The passenger heard my movement and turned to face me.  Long, dark, shaggy hair framed a narrow face.  It was my friend, the Reaper, from the Tenderloin building. 

“What are you looking at?” he said.

“Just trying to place you.”

“I’ll make it easy for you.  I threw you down a flight of stairs.”

Technically, I fell down a flight of stairs, but I didn’t bother correcting him.  “Yeah, you're right.  I never forget an asshole.”

“Fuck you.”

“You should have killed me when you had the chance.”

The Reaper laughed.  “Like you're in any position to save yourself.”

“You'd be surprised.”

“I doubt that.”

“Cut that shit out,” the driver said.  He spoke with a familiar lisp.  The last time we’d met, he had his hand in my pocket stealing the Rohypnol.  That explained a couple of things.

The discovery of my lisping friend changed the complexion of the night Jon had died.  The theft of my tainted drugs hadn’t been a theft, but a recovery mission.  If I’d gotten picked up with Rohypnol in my pocket as well as in my blood stream, it would have put a different color on the situation.  It would have been very hard to explain my part in Jon’s murder when I was doped at the time, so they needed to recover the pills after they'd done their job.

The van lurched forward as Cuban Heels slowed for the off-ramp. 

“Shut him up,” he said to the Reaper.

The Reaper clambered into the back of the van and jammed a bandana into my mouth.  I gagged on the dry material, but my saliva soon soaked it. 

They didn’t need a gag.  I wasn’t Rawlings.  I wasn’t going to cry out for help because the demons had snatched me.  I wanted to see where this was going.

Cuban Heels guided the van through the city.  The second we hit the Embarcadero I knew where we were going—Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf, another of the addresses on Rawlings’ list.  The heavy traffic reduced our progress to a crawl, delaying our inevitable arrival.  The delay was torture.  It was obvious what would happen to us when we got there.  I didn’t need it dragged out.

Finally, Cuban Heels pulled the van off the Embarcadero and onto the pier.  He threaded his way past the tourists and stopped in front of a warehouse at the end of the pier.  The Reaper swung open the doors and Cuban Heels drove inside. 

Our abductors opened up the van and dragged us out.  I hit the ground on my side.  The short fall from the tailgate to the ground sent a shockwave through my chest.  I coughed hard against the gag.

Cuban Heels bent over, putting his face in mine.  “Am I going to have a problem with you if I pull that gag out?”

I wanted to tell the prick he'd always have a problem with me, but I wanted the gag out my mouth, so I shook my head.

With the distance back to Fisherman’s Wharf and the sheer noise of the tourists taking in the sights, I knew a cry for help would go unanswered.  The boats and ships cutting through the bay would have no interest in a derelict pier.  Our only help looked to come from a passing sea lion.

“Good,” he said and jerked the rag free.

I coughed and retched.  The gag has sucked every drop from of saliva from my mouth.  My throat burned every time a sucked a breath.

The Reaper repeated the exercise with Rawlings’ gag. 

Rawlings spat on the ground.  “Don’t think your human masks are fooling anyone.  Your alien stench gives you away.”

Cuban Heels laughed.

“Laugh all you want.  I see beyond your lies.”

The Reaper drew back his arm to pistol-whip Rawlings.

“No, don’t!” I shouted.

The Reaper froze.

“Joseph, keep it to yourself,” I said.  “You're preaching to the converted.  We know who they are and where they're from and so do they.  So what do you say you keep it for the next sermon?”

Rawlings nodded.

The end of the warehouse opened out to the water.  The Reaper hoisted Rawlings to his feet and led him towards the open doors.  The preacher to the homeless looked old and tired.

“For that, you’ve earned yourself a reward,” Cuban Heels said. 

He rolled me on my side and undid one of the handcuffs, releasing the chain that made the connection between the handcuffs and the ankle shackles.  It felt so good to have my body bending the right way that I sighed with pleasure.

Cuban Heels stepped back, gun pulled.  “Now cuff your hands in front of you.”

I’d take anything I could get and I did as I was told.

“C’mon, up,” Cuban Heels said.

He watched me struggle to my feet. 

“Move,” he said and indicated with his gun to follow in Rawlings’ footsteps.

I did as I was told.

This warehouse wasn’t just a nice place to execute a couple of idiots.  It looked to be their base of operations.  Out on the water, a fifteen-foot inflatable with a canopy bobbed against its moorings.  Off to my right, I recognized a drug lab.  It was a temporary affair.  Lots of plastic sheeting covered an aluminum frame to provide something of an improvised lab.  A vent stack poked out from the lab and climbed skyward, piercing the pier’s roof.  I figured this was where they'd set up shop after moving out from the Tenderloin.

“So what are you cooking—meth, crack, coke?” I asked.

Cuban Heels pressed the muzzle of his gun into my back.  “Just keep moving.”

“My vote is meth.  Am I right?  At least tell me that.”

“You win a prize.  You're one hell of a cop.”

“At least you know what you're doing.  Meth production can be very hazardous.  I don’t see any cooks.  When do you do the cooking—at night?  That would make sense.  Too many tourists during the day.  This place isn't as discreet as the building on Jones Street.  You must have been pissed when Rawlings started making noise.  Did you guys find Jon Barnes poking through the place?”

“Look, asshole, do I have to gag you?”

“No, no, I’m just trying to understand.”

“Keep it to yourself.  Okay?”

“Message understood.”

I walked toward Rawlings and the Reaper.  They'd stopped twenty feet short of the opening to the water.  Rawlings was on his knees.  The Reaper stood behind him with a pistol pointed at the back of his head.  Rawlings murmured the Lord’s Prayer.

“That’s far enough,” Cuban Heels said.  “On your knees.”

Just like Rawlings, I dropped to my knees.

“What happens now—a bullet to the back of the head?” I asked. 

“That followed by burial at sea,” Cuban Heels said. 

I shook my head.  “I can't believe I’m going to die and I don’t even know the reason why.”

“Life isn't fair,” Cuban Heels said and pressed the pistol against the back of my head.

The entrance gates swung open and a car eased through.

“It’s him,” the Reaper said.  “We’d better wait.”

I turned to watch a Ford Crown Victoria approach.  Only three kinds of people drove Crown Vics—cabbie, cops and seniors.  I’d take any of the above.  I just needed help.  My heart sank at the sight drawing closer.  The car was dark green.  It was my Crown Vic.  It made sense.  It needed to be here to complete the story. 

The driver stopped the car and I saw who was behind the wheel.  It physically hurt to see him.  I felt the pain deep in my gut.

Grieves climbed from my car with the biggest shit-eating grin in world history.

“He’s one of them,” Rawlings said.

“Oh, I know,” I said.

“I’ve seen him a lot.  Where they go, he goes too.”

“Will you shut him up?” Grieves barked at the Reaper.  The Reaper smashed Rawlings across the back of the head, sending the preacher onto his face.

“Hey, that’s not necessary,” I said.

“I’ll decide what's necessary,” Grieves’ snarl turned into a grin again.  “Is it all making sense?  Your face earlier said no.  Have you worked it out, Larry?”

“You and these clowns are operating drug factories out of unoccupied buildings around the city.  Not hard to work out.”

Grieves smirked and came around to face me.  “It’s a nice little operation.  You can blame all this on your hobo informant, Jon.  He unraveled the ramblings of that idiot there and worked out what we were doing then told you.”

“You know what’s tragic about all this?  He never told me.  I didn’t pick up his call.  I was too busy with my own crap. You exposed yourself for nothing.” 

Grieves shrugged.  “It doesn’t much matter.  You're a means to an end.”

“You're right, it doesn’t matter.  At the end of the day, you’re a dirty cop.”

“Says Mr. Cleaner-than-Clean.”

“I’m a shitty cop, but I ain’t dirty, Grieves.”

“You know what, Larry?  You’re too narrow-minded.  You don’t see the big picture.”  Grieves swung his arm wide.  “This isn’t about being dirty.  This is about keeping this city’s streets safe.”

I shook my head.  The lies we tell ourselves to avoid the guilt.  I knew the feeling all too well. 

“Everybody wants us to eradicate crime.  It’ll never happen.  The best we can do is keep it to a minimum and that won’t happen by just busting the criminal element.  We have to work with those we’ll never get to bust.  The drug trade is an unstoppable virus and anyone who thinks they’ll end it is a fool.  The DEA will piss away billions of dollars in the attempt and fail.”

“Selling yourself out changes that?”

“No, the Echeverri Cartel has sold itself to me.  I give them safe harbor in San Francisco.  I let them manufacture, turn a blind eye to distribution and eliminate their competition, thereby reducing drug related crime.  I provide them with locales to operate out of and ensure SFPD leaves them alone.  Control the flow of drugs and you control the crime rate.  That’s the kind of alternative policing that is going to make me Chief of Police one day.”

I didn’t know why Grieves was telling me all this.  He was about to put a bullet in my head.  It shouldn’t have mattered to Grieves that I knew, but it did.  Deep down, he was still a cop and maybe he needed someone to understand.  The cartel didn’t give two shits about his plans.  I would.  He wanted me to understand he was attempting to make the world a better place.  It was there in his pleading tone and the desperation in his eyes.  He was screwing me over for the greater good.  It didn’t make me feel any better.

“You being a drug cartel’s lackey won't make you Chief.”

“No, not alone, but you will.”

“What?”

“My crime figures are good, but I need a breakout case that'll put me on the fast track and bringing down a dirty cop will do that.  You fit the bill.  Everyone knows about your painkiller addiction.  They're expecting you to slip up sooner or later.  I decided it should be sooner.” 

“So you set me up.”

“I have to admit it wasn’t supposed to be so messy.”

I looked at the last few days from a different angle.  I pointed at Cuban Heels.  “You stole back the Rohypnol, but at the same time, you put back my car keys.”

“Guilty as charged.”

“You parked my car in front of a hydrant with the hope the car would get towed and the murder weapon found.  But I got lucky by catching a cop willing to cut me some slack.”

Grieves flicked a nod at Cuban Heels.  “He should have put the knife on the backseat and not in the trunk.”

“You’re a son of a bitch,” I said to Grieves.  “You didn’t come by my place that night to chat about the case, you came over to get me to open the trunk.  What easier way than to puncture my tire?”

“I swear you have more lives that a cat, Hayes,” Grieves said.  “What did you do with the knife?  Ditch it?”

“I booked it in as evidence under a non-related case.”

“Now who’s a son of a bitch?”

It came down to the big question.  “Who killed Jon—you or dumb and dumber here?”

“I thought that was why I didn’t find the knife.  You killed Jon.  Don’t you remember?”