“You know if you sign off on this, Dom, we both win.”
“God knows I love a win-win scenario. Take this steak and baked potato…” Harden used his knife to push back the steamed vegetable medley that was encroaching on his steak, shot Merton a look. “If they’d just leave the peripheral shit that don’t matter in the kitchen.”
“See, there’s the wise ass thing that never goes away. Tthat’s why you’re so good at gettin’ their attention. Competent and irreverent, that’s why they buy in.” Merton dunked his forkful of snapper in a ceramic thimble of melted butter. “I knew Reed would work for you, and Monica Perez before him, because,” he washed the fish down with iced tea, “you flex, but don’t fall over bendin’ either way tryin’ to save face or kiss ass. Your own or anyone else’s. If there’s anyone out there can whittle down the chip on Cotton’s shoulder without losin’ her, it’s you.”
“You don’t want to lose her, but you want her out from under your feet?”
“She has leadership potential in spades,” Merton pushed his tea glass to the edge of the table, “but where she is, in the middle of crime solving by committee? Jesus… I get blind copied on more friggin’ emails…” He nodded at the kid who reloaded his tea, adopted a whiny tone. “Cotton got in my shit. Cotton went around me. Cotton went over my head. Cotton didn’t wait for forensics. Cotton didn’t say mother may I. Cotton called a meeting when she knew my kid was sick…”
“All true, no doubt.”
“All of it, to the gazillionth power. Every. Day. She wants to get shit done, gets impatient waitin’ for information she thinks should already be up on the board and more impatient with the people responsible for it not bein’ there. She sees them sittin’ around, drinkin’ diet Coke and shootin’ the shit, pisses her off and she rattles everyone’s cage. And that’s good, actually. But it’s to the point with her that whatever division she’s in, they spend more time bustin’ on her and tryin’ to get her outta their shorts than doin’ their damn jobs. If I promote her, which is what I should do, there’ll be open rebellion.”
“Particularly ammong the older, politically savvy retired-in-place crowd who can bring years of favor-bought contacts worth of pressure to bear.”
“Exactly. Look, I’ll lay it out simple. We handle the central metro, and the state’s southeast quad out of the central office. The other three quads have local offices. Seems like I’m always sending people down here on some crime bustin’ mission and they’re not in tune, don’t know the players so it takes too long to get them up to speed, get the jurisdictions to cooperate. I’ll send Cotton in ‘cause I need shit to happen quick and everybody’s back gets stiff because she’s a pushy hard ass and an outsider. But…” he took a long look out the window, “if I put her as boots on the ground, down here, as the first State call in the area… And since she’s comin’ out of your office I’ll get better response time, intel and cooperation. She’s a local fixture, not this tall, Tasmanian She-Devil import. And for that, you, old friend, get an extra full-time cop around if you need one. It’s win-win because neither one of us wants to appropriate extra budget dollars or make a lot of noise to get what needs doin’ done. Not to mention you, as Cotton’s local oversight, will cut me a lot of slack with the other jurisdictions.”
“What you’re thinkin’ is,” Harden pulled his hands back, let the tea kid take his plate, “they’ll figure if ol’ Harden’s gettin’ results with hard-nosed reject cops, ’cause somehow we’re just one big happy, family there just might be somethin’ they’re missin’? They call me, I grease ‘em for you while Cotton’s in route?”
“I don’t have a problem. What’s she gonna have to say, though?”
“Well, see… I’m sure she’ll see it as a career buster instead of a career maker, because I’ll be taking her out of the in-house game. A game that, at the moment, she can’t see she doesn’t need to win, or even play. That’s where I was was kinda hopin’ you’d step up and explain to her the benefits of how a lone wolf can be a team player without losin’ face.”
“Much more a you doin’ me favors and I’ll need to find a bigger grease gun.” He shot a glance at the dessert cart. “Bash is by himself, no tellin’ what he’s gettin’ up to…”
“He’s trained to do a job, Dom. Besides, what the hell can he get into on a sunny afternoon in bumfuck that he can’t handle?”
“Since you put it that way,” Harden used a look to flag the tea kid who ambled over. “A slice a that chocolate cream pie, please. And a coffee refill.”
Bash eased around the door of the shack for his first encounter with Altus Murphy. A thin, shoulder-less man, round wire-rim glasses, a stringy comb-over on a shiny dome, rosacea red cheeks, standing by a seven-foot-tall olive drab army salvage electronics rack full of gear. The pistol in Altus’ hand an antique semi-automatic Mauser. Just inside the doorway to his left, Aiden, his back to Bash, held out a tiny, shiny Saturday night special, most likely his mother’s. The way he was holding it, if he pulled the trigger, he’d blow the end of his finger off.
“Put the guns down. Now.” Bash kept his Browning at forty-five degrees down. “Now!”
“It’s his fault,” Tears streamed from Aiden’s red eyes. “He made me kill dad.”
“Goddammit, Aiden, you didn’t kill your dad. I’m here to find out if Altus meant for it to happen. Drop. Your weapons. NOW!”
Altus flinched at Bash’s barked command.
BAM, he put a round in the floor at Aiden’s feet.
Bash thought of Aiden overreacting and losing his finger until he heard the clomp, clomp of the walker stop behind him.
“If you don’t kill him, sonny,” Murphy’s mother screeched, “I will. A bigger disappointment has no woman ever knowed,” she crowed, “‘cept for them as knowed his father.”
Bash turned, looked over his left shoulder, and Altus Murphy’s bent mother had both bony hands around the grip of another antique firearm. This one a huge, wild west revolver.
“Get outta my way, whoever you are,” she cawed. “I’m done a waitin’.” Aiden turned, opening up a lane into the shack.
Something in the rack beside Altus shorted out, spewed a fountain of sparks. Altus flinched again.
BAM. Another Mauser round into the floor kicking up dust at Bash’s feet.
From Aiden, “Aw shit, she’s goin’ down…”
Bash turned away from Altus, followed Aiden’s gaze just in time to see the old lady, knocked off balance by the big revolver’s recoil, stumble back two baby steps and fall on her back.
A neon sign from a closed RadioShack stuck on the wall of the shed exploded.
“ENOUGH!” Bash grabbed the revolver by the barrel with his left hand, tossed it aside, ripped the shiny baby automatic out of Aiden’s hand, swung his Browning to bear on Altus Murphy’s chest. “Give me the goddam gun, Altus. I’m runnin’ real low on patience.”