Stage One






“For every wrong out there comes a right—eventually. Me, I’d rather be on the side of the forces that make those balances happen, and when we get a little extra help now and then, who am I to argue about it? Maybe that’s where the Candy Shop comes in if such a group exists.”

 

--Edgar A. Domenech, Deputy Director
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
U.S. Department of Justice

 

 

 

The hotel pool was small, but cute; lined with genuine Mexican tiles of yellow and blue flowers, an oval set in concrete, complete with ancient diving board and striped umbrella tables set around it. Brass had opted out of sitting in the tattered plastic weave lounge chairs and was at one of the tables, his battered copy of Foundation’s End propped open with a half-empty beer.

 

In the water, Ellie was swimming laps, her long even strokes a credit to years of competition in the Crawl. She wore a bikini of rich purple, with little sunflowers on it and Brass thought it was too small but knew better than to say so. She reached the side under the diving board and did a neat flip turn, gliding out again through the water back in the direction she’d come from. Across from Brass, a grizzly-faced man in denim cutoffs and a stained Hawaiian shirt was openly ogling Ellie.

 

 He sighed, and sipped his beer—the fourth, by count of the bottles on the table—and looked at Brass with a salacious smirk. “She’s almost too old for me, if you know whudda I mean.”

 

Brass nodded, not willing to say anything. Willie Fasseman was not only a convicted wife beater, but also a sleazy connoisseur of underage girls. His felony sheet dutifully documented his crimes of the last two decades, and the seriousness of the charges rose along the timeline like a drawbridge. Unfortunately, the last time he’d been up on charges there had been a mistrial, and despite the fact that nearly 98 percent of the evidence gave him motive, opportunity and location for the lurid rape murders of Becky Hartmann and Stacie Suzuki here he was, guzzling beer in the quiet afternoon, ogling yet another young girl.

 

“I’m not no pervert, but when they’re all young and fresh, like peaches just gettn’ ripe--ooooh that makes the old cannon salute, ya know?”

 

“So you say,” Brass murmured with a mildness he didn’t feel. He turned his attention back to his book, adding softly, “I’m not her type, anyway. I don’t like swimming much.”

 

“Zat a fact?” Willie muttered, his attention on Ellie once more. “Mebbe I should go introduce myself to a hot little number like that.”

 

Brass managed a little distracted nod, focusing on Asimov’s prose once more as Willie stretched and made a show of stripping off his shirt. His tattoos looked smudged against his middle-aged skin, homemade ones from prison. Brass noted the roll of gut on the man, and his paint-spattered hands with their dirty nails.

 

He thought of Susan Hartmann, sitting in Miss Lollipop’s office, her empty eyes and defeated shoulders saying more than any words ever could.

 

“Hey handsome!” Ellie called cheerily. Willie Fasseman sauntered over quickly.

 

“Hey yourself. That water cold enough for ya?”

 

“It’s not bad,” Ellie trod water, smiling up at the man. Brass fought the clench of his teeth, and kept his eyes on his book. Ellie said something that made Fasseman laugh, and the intimate sound of their conversation grated on his nerves. He drew in a breath and glanced over out of habit more than concern. Ellie was swimming out towards the diving board, her head above water.

 

Fasseman was loping over to it, bragging to her. “I’ll show you my backflip if you want. Hell, I’ll show you anything you wanna see, honey.”

 

“I don’t think you can do a backflip. You’re too muscled,” Ellie cooed, treading water just off to the side of the board’s end, her smile taunting. Fasseman grinned at her, and stepped up the three aluminum rungs. The board itself was fairly old; a fiberglass springboard with a coating of grit painted down on the surface to cut down on slippage. Fasseman strutted down to the end of it and leered down at Ellie, widening his stance so she could see him in all his paunchy glory. She gave an appreciative sigh.

 

“Nice—now let’s see that backside—I mean backflip, Stud!”

 

Guffawing, Fasseman adjusted himself and turned around on the board, orienting himself right at the edge. As he shifted his big pale feet, Ellie dunked down. She pushed herself up off the bottom of the pool and rose up like a rocket, reaching for Fasseman’s ankles when she broke the surface, and yanking them hard off the end of the diving board.

 

Fasseman lurched forward, his face smacking hard on the fiberglass with a rattling meaty ‘splat’. He tumbled off the end of the board into the water, blood spraying from his nose. Ellie looped her long thighs around his neck and reached up to grip the diving board, using it to brace herself. Under the water, Fasseman struggled, but Ellie’s firm grip around his throat tightened—not enough to leave marks, but certainly to keep him under the water.

 

She held him below the surface, her fingers gripping the sides of the diving board to stabilize herself, and after four minutes a last rush of pink-tinged bubbles rose to the surface around her. Ellie loosened her legs and dogpaddled away, reaching the edge of the pool closest to Brass.

 

He was already there, helping her out, checking her over. Ellie shook a little, both from cold and shock. Brass wrapped a towel around her snugly, and pulled her into a hug, murmuring softly against her wet hair. “How you doing, Honey?”

 

“I . . . I might be sick—“ she confessed, and Brass nodded. Carefully he steered her towards the trash can near the gate. Soothingly he rubbed her back while she leaned over and retched into the plastic-lined can, murmuring a few words of comfort to her.

 

“Hands-on is hard, yeah I know, but I’m proud of you for tackling it this way, kid—it won’t bring Becky or Stacie or any of the others back, but the people who loved them can rest a hell of a lot easier now.”

 

Ellie rose up, wiping her mouth with her forearm, her eyes watery but determined. She nodded to her father, and took a deep shuddery breath. “Yeah, I know that.” Then she sobbed. “Daddy—“

 

Brass hugged her again, feeling a surge of pride and pain as Ellie clung to him, her shaking subsiding after long quiet minutes. Eventually he handed her the room key and spoke softly. “I’m going to call 911. You go take a shower and rest a while; watch TV or something. I’ll bring us some Chinese and we’ll get an early start in the morning. Okay?”

 

Ellie nodded, and glanced over his shoulder at the pool. Fasseman’s body was beginning to rise, floating under the diving board. She straightened her shoulders.

 

“Does it . . . does it get easier, the more you do it?” she asked her father timidly. Brass shook his head slowly, his eyes stern.

 

“No. And it shouldn’t. The day it does is the day I quit the Shop and pray for my own soul, Ellie honey.”

 

He watched her go up, and then carefully scooped out the trash bag. Moving swiftly, Brass relined the trashcan and carried the original trash out to his car, stowing in the trunk. He threw three of Fasseman’s beers into the garbage, leaving one on the table, then called 911 on his cell phone.

 

In a low voice he reported, “Some guy floating in the Desert Oasis pool out by Route Forty.”

 

* * *

 

He let himself in quietly as he carried the cutoff cardboard box into the room. Ellie was there; curled up on one of the beds, sound asleep as CNN droned on from the TV. Brass set the box down on the dresser and sighed, adding the car keys and receipt as well. A few strobing lights on the curtains told him that at least one police cruiser was down in the parking lot, and he was pretty sure they’d be getting a knock at the door in the next twenty minutes.

 

Brass glanced over at the sleeping girl, noting the graceful curve of her back through her sweater, and a pang resonated through his chest as he did so. Blinking, the wave of memory washed over him, the little connected moments passing through his thoughts once more . . .

 

Ellie at eight, small and serious:

 

“Daddy, why don’t you love Mommy any more?”

 

“I do love her baby—it’s just right now . . . well, I’m not the man she married. I’m different, and that makes it hard for us to love each other. And I’m trying to change back, but it’s tougher than I thought. You know how my job takes it out on all of us.”

 

“Being a cop, yeah. It scares me, daddy.”

 

“Sometimes it scares me too, Ellie.”

 

Ellie at fifteen, frustrated and probing, too smart sometimes:

 

“Dad, I don’t understand. You don’t work for the department anymore but you still carry a gun. You go off in uniform sometimes and plainclothes at other times, and take these trips to weird places and now you want the two of us to move halfway across the country to Las Vegas? “

 

“It’s . . . closer to the central office. And you know I’m a private detective—that’s not so weird.”

 

“No. You’re a lot happier than you were a few years ago, but I worry about you. There have been shootings at some of the places you’ve taken trips to, and I don’t want you to get shot, Dad.”

 

“Ah so that’s it. Well I can’t promise you I’ll never get shot—big country, too many guns as it is—but you’re going to have to trust me that I’m doing  . . . a good job. I get to be with you, I get to make a difference to people who didn’t get a fair shake from the courts or the Justice system . . . come on, Ellie, it’s not a bad life, is it?”

 

“I just want you to be safe, Dad.”

 

Ellie at nineteen, finally hearing the truth, her eyes bright, her expression serious:

 

“Oh God! So . . .  you’re a vigilante. Taking justice into your own hands . . . Dad, how many years have you been DOING this?”

 

“About six years now.”

 

“You LIKE it?”

 

“No, not always. But I can live with that. It’s the sense of . . . rightness lets me sleep at night, sweetheart. I know there are hundreds of good cops out there all over the world, hard-working Joes who struggle to put the scum behind bars. They work with the system and most of the time the whole justice machinery works just fine. But there are cracks in it, Ellie. And some of the rapists and murderers and monsters make it through those cracks, so that’s where I come in. I take out the ones who should never have gotten away, and it’s a big damned responsibility.  I never take on a case unless it’s been checked and verified and I know that what I’m doing is right.”

 

“You . . .  kill . . . bad guys.”

 

“Yeah. I kill bad guys. I kill them faster and more painlessly than they ever killed their own victims. A lot of times I make it look like an accident. Sometimes I don’t—when a point needs to be made once in a while, you know? And it’s not easy or any sort of a thrill for me, Ellie. I’m not in it to get off on the power of life and death. I do this because there are victims and families and cops and judges and citizens who can’t do it, but know it NEEDS to be done.”

 

“So you’re a hit man for the public, the avenging arm of thwarted justice? Oh my GOD Dad, I don’t know what to say! It’s  . . .  dangerous, it’s wrong and it’s right and I can’t believe you’re telling me all this NOW!”

 

Dayton Kroeger.”

 

“Day—oh Jesus. That serial killer that hacked up Girl Scouts? Oh God—Dad?"

 

“Dayton Kroeger, who slipped between the cracks because the security at a mental hospital wasn’t nearly good enough to hold a murdering sociopath with enough time to plan an escape. A remorseless killer who killed again in the first twelve hours he was on the run. I shot him while he was being escorted up the back steps of the courthouse.”

 

“You—that was on the news! They never found the shooter—Dad . . . “

 

Me. Didn’t want any glory, Ellie. I wanted those parents to be able to sleep in peace for the first time in years. I don’t expect you to understand all of it honey, but this is the way it is. You’re not little anymore, but you’re still my girl, and you deserve to know. I’ve got a will and a trust fund going for you in case anything happens to me.”

 

Ellie at twenty, numb in the weeks after Matt’s funeral, her voice low and tinged with an ongoing pain.

 

“So this is what it’s like.”

 

“Sweetheart—“

 

“He’s gone. Dead and made into some blurb on page five in the city news and every night I can see him but nobody else even gives a DAMN that he’s dead.”

 

“Ellie, that’s not fair—“

 

“Exactly, Dad. It’s not fair. And for the first time I understand exactly why you do what you do. Now it makes sense in a way I never thought I’d get. My Matt’s dead, and out there is some—some brutal, uncaring THUG walking around breathing his air and taking his space! Somebody who drove away to leave Matt bleeding and crawling on the highway! Somebody without the Goddamn conscience to admit they fucked up, and now think they’ll get away with it! It makes me crazy!!”

 

“They’ll catch the guy, Ellie. The crime lab in this city is the second best in the country.”

 

“If they had anything, they would have done it by now. Don’t bullshit me, Dad. I’m not naïve; I’ve studied enough Criminal Justice to know Matt’s case gets colder with every passing day, and in the scheme of things a hit and run is small potatoes in this city. Nobody cares. Nobody cares about those of us left behind.”

 

“Ellie, that’s not true.”

 

“It is, and I see it now. You’re right, Dad. You’re the little secret cog that nobody sees, but the one that can make the whole clock move. And you know what? I respect that. Hell, I even envy that right now. It’s not about revenge, or power or a miscarriage of justice . . . it’s about putting a little piece right. You do the needed thing, you fill the hole and stop the evil gushing out and that’s what I want to do too. Because I don’t ever want anyone to feel this--helpless. The way I’ll feel about Matt forever.”

 

Brass closed his eyes. The knock on the door was soft, and he moved to answer it, a carton of cashew chicken in his hands. The uniformed officer glanced apologetically at him, and beyond, at Ellie stirring on the bed.

 

“Excuse me Sir; Ma’am. I hate to disturb you, but I need to ask you both a few questions?”

 

***   ***   ***

 

Grissom watched Miss Chocolate’s hands, sliding gently and soothingly down the furry spine of Porthos. The heavyset cat purred in a low lawnmower hum, arching against her hands and generally making an adoring nuisance of himself. Miss Chocolate kept stroking, neither too fast nor too slow; just enough to bring the maximum sound from the chubby tabby.

 

“He sounds like an Evinrude,” she commented playfully. Grissom set the file down and stared at the cat, hoping that the flicker of envy didn’t show.

 

“He’s fond of you, just as Aramis is. Once you win over Athos, you’ll have the set.”

 

“What about D’Artagnan?” Miss Chocolate asked, arching an eyebrow. They sat in the workroom below the Book Hive, looking over a few recommended cases from Miss Lollipop and sipping Twenty Blue Devils. Grissom sighed.

 

“He has yet to arrive from Gascony, so to speak; there were only three kittens in the litter I found.”

 

“Ah. So Milady DeWinter didn’t do him in.” Giving the cat a last pat, Miss Chocolate settled into one of the chairs at the big worktable. Porthos flicked his tail.

 

Grissom nodded, and turned his attention back to the file he held. “Not yet. So--are you going to be helping Jelly Bean with his scheme against the infamous Uncle Chip?”

 

Miss Chocolate gave a sigh and nodded. “I owe him, and it could be . . . fun.”

 

“It could be a complete disaster,” Grissom countered, but in a gentle tone. Porthos sauntered over to him and gave a hopeful ‘mrrrow?’ of inquiry. With a sigh, Grissom let the cat settle into his lap, and pretended to be annoyed about it.

 

“That’s possible too, although the Bean is pretty creative at times.”

 

Grissom looked over the top of his file. “Flamboyance has its place,” he agreed mildly. “And speaking of places, have you found one yourself yet?”

 

Miss Chocolate smiled deeply, her dimples showing. “There’s a slip at a little private marina between the Lake Mead one and the Las Vegas one. Fifteen other boats, and only about six of them have full-time residents, so I’ll have some privacy too. The rent is reasonable, even with electrical hookup and water, and they’ve taken my deposit, so things are looking up.”

 

Grissom smiled, pleased for her good fortune, and absently stroked Porthos. “That IS a positive, although . . . “

 

“Although?” she prompted, but from her tone he knew she suspected the question that was coming. Grissom asked it anyway.

 

“Although I honestly have to wonder why you’d pay to move a thirty-foot yacht when you could sell it and buy one here,” he finished lightly. “It’s got to be prohibitively expensive.”

 

Miss Chocolate shook her head gently. “I could never sell the Boston Bohemian, Mr. Peppermint. He’s been my good luck charm ever since I got him, first in his namesake city and then in San Francisco. I’ve lived onboard that yacht for the last six years and I’m not about to change now.”

 

Grissom cocked his head, catching the contented tone in her voice, and wishing faintly that he was the reason for it instead of a boat. In the past month he’d agreed to follow Miss Lollipop’s directive and keep an eye on both Jelly Bean and Miss Chocolate, which meant he spent more time with both of them, not always in a professional setting.

 

He’d taken Jelly Bean to a baseball game to watch him practice his art as much as see the 51s. The Bean never kept anything he lifted, cheerfully turning in the wallets to the security office and to various stadium guards along the bleachers while chatting all the while about various schemes to discredit Chip Harrington, the local used car tycoon. The afternoon had been unexpectedly . . . fun.

 

Miss Chocolate in turn had asked him, shyly, for help in moving. The logistics of having a yacht shipped overland from San Francisco to Las Vegas Grissom had left to her, and turned to handling the paperwork needed to change her residency and get her the needed permits and licenses. Mr. Marshmallow had been willing to help, and between them Miss Chocolate was well on her way to becoming a citizen of Las Vegas proper.

 

The Candy Shop was all about circumventing the bureaucracy, Grissom decided, nearly missing Miss Chocolate’s next words to him.

 

“ . . . And so I was wondering if you’d mind being there when he’s launched in. He’s due tomorrow, and I’d be happy to um, bribe you with dinner . . . “ her words trailed off and she didn’t look at him; Grissom felt breathlessness in his chest that was both very good and slightly scary. He blinked and stroked the cat in his lap once more, a little stunned.

 

“I don’t. . . ” Grissom murmured, and felt the rush of blood to his cheeks, “ . . . need a bribe. All part of the job.”

 

He glanced up in time to see some of the gentle sweetness of her smile fade, and the squeeze in his chest intensified. He cleared his throat, but Miss Chocolate gave a slow nod and reached for her purse, rising to her feet quickly.

 

 Grissom spoke again, the words leaving before he gave them any thought. “But celebrating a boat launching IS a momentous occasion. I’ll bring the champagne.”

 

That caught her by surprise, and she blinked, wide-eyed at him, her mouth curving up again. “Oh really?”

 

“Absolutely. A bottle of the best Baroni for the Boston Bohemian. I’ll put it on my shopping list,” Grissom assured her gravely, and the full glow of her expression was enough to make him smile in return.

 

 * * *

 

Jawbreaker gently patted the steering wheel of his Ford pickup, smiling broadly under his baseball cap and sunglasses. One car ahead of him at the gas station he saw Licorice, his Rasta braids tucked up in a hairnet, lazily idling his Camaro, the stereo blasting  loudly enough to deafen anyone within fifteen feet and keep a rumble in the still, dry air.

 

And between them, looking tense, annoyed and impatient sat Mr. E.

 

Grinning, Jawbreaker watched as the Camaro blocked off Mr. E’s SUV, keeping it from pulling away from the pumps. For a long couple of moments he saw Mr. E debate with himself about moving, and then check his watch. That apparently decided it, and he climbed out, moving gingerly towards the driver side door of the Camaro.

 

Time to swing into action. Jawbreaker carefully fished out the little baggie and tucked it into his jeans pocket, then climbed out of his truck and headed into the Mini Mart. He bought a Pepsi and a bag of pork rinds, and by the time he stepped out, the argument was in full swing, right on schedule.

 

“Listen to me, Baldie, I’m not DONE pumping, and I’m not stopping just so you can pull your whack, fake-ass chariot out and get back to your McMansion, dig?” came Licorice’s menacing rumble.

 

“Look I don’t want any trouble, but I have an appointment and what I’m asking is perfectly reasonable,” Mr. E replied, looking petulant and a little scared. Jawbreaker waved his Pepsi and interrupted them.

 

“Hey, I’m done pumping, so why don’t I just back up and let the dude out?” he offered cheerily, “No biggie to me.”

 

Licorice gave an insouciant shrug. “Whatever, Cowboy. Just don’t expect me to shut down before my tank’s filled.”

 

Turning to Mr. E, Jawbreaker managed a sunny smile at him. “Just a minute and I’ll back my truck up, okay?”

 

“That would be great.” Mr. E’s relief was almost palpable; he climbed back into his SUV and turned his attention to the rearview mirror, waiting. Jawbreaker crossed in front of his truck and behind the SUV, tossing his keys in the air. He dropped them, and bent down out of sight to pick them up, moving swiftly and slipping the baggie out of his pocket. He pulled the thick wad out of the baggie and slapped it under the SUV, wedging it firmly along the ridged bottom of the gas tank, then fished for the detonator, jamming it deep into the round pancake.

 

Jawbreaker rose up, keys in hand, grinning apologetically. Mr. E gave an impatient nod, waiting as the Ford pickup began to back up. When there was enough room, the SUV pulled out and Mr. E merged back into traffic, heading west along the Fifteen. Jawbreaker pulled up behind the Camaro and watched as Licorice came over to him, his expression still slightly fierce.

 

“Good to go?”

“Good to go. Meet you there.”

 

 

An hour later, the pickup and the Camaro were parked on a lonely road in the bluffs, overlooking an abandoned produce stand far below. Lying across one of the flat rocks, Jawbreaker refocused the lenses of the binoculars and grinned. “Looks like our man’s early for the meeting.”

“He’s totally retentive, Nick—you read his file. I’m surprised he doesn’t have that dumbass bodyguard of his with him too.” Licorice muttered, peering through his own binoculars.

 

“Metcalf, yeah. There’s a bozo waiting for his circus,” Jawbreaker agreed with a grin. Just then a long sleek powder blue Coupe de Ville came gliding down the highway, slowing as it approached the fruit stand. It pulled in and around the structure, and two men got out, looking around. Jawbreaker sighed.

 

“Hey Warrick, what’s the Spanish word for doofus?”

 

“I think it’s El Stokes,” he replied, making the other man growl a little.

 

“Fun-ee, pal. Who’s Ecklie meeting with down there?”

 

Licorice stared hard through the lenses. “Looks like Pinole Pablo and one of his goons . . . what do you know? I guess we DO have a border buyer.”

 

“Smuggling arms—that’s so unpatriotic,” Jawbreaker murmured.

 

“Good money though,” Licorice commented. “Since you feel so strongly about it, I think you ought to do the honors.”

 

“With pleasure.  Let me know when they go inside.”

 

A few moments later, Licorice nodded, and Jawbreaker grinned. He pulled out a lighter from the breast pocket of his shirt, and flicked the wheel; deep within the lighter the electric surge pulsed out in a wave that carried across the bluffs down to the waiting car below.

 

The C-4 planted under Conrad Ecklie’s SUV full of handguns stolen from the Evidence locker of the LVPD ignited in a glorious fireball of bright orange flame and sable smoke, the mingled colors rising up high into the desert air. The rumble rolled out, and high on the bluff, Jawbreaker and Licorice smiled matching grins of glee. Down below the frantic scramble of the three men took on Stooge-like movements.

 

“Man, it’s so sad to see a deal like that blow up in your face,” Licorice murmured with a straight face.

 

 Jawbreaker grinned toothily. “Yeah. Pinole Pablo won’t be too happy with this sorta bang for his buck. Think Ecklie’s ever gonna learn?”

 

Licorice shook his head, his braids swinging gently. “I hope not—it’s too much damned fun going Wiley Coyote on his ass. Come on—Miss Lollipop’s got us on something new this week.”

 

They climbed into their cars and drove off, leaving the rising column of smoke and the faint sounds of sirens in their wake.

 

                                                  Wheeling, Nevada 2                              

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