Read Red Stripes Online

Authors: Matt Hilton

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Action & Adventure, #Suspense

Red Stripes

 

RED STRIPES

A Joe Hunter Story

MATT HILTON

RED STRIPES

A JOE HUNTER SHORT STORY

T
hree blocks south of where Rington Investigations boasts an office, there’s a small coffee shop that’s my favorite in all of Tampa, Florida. Like the small unit that houses Rington Investigations, the coffee shop is situated about midway along a strip mall, wedged between a Walgreens pharmacy and a family-owned convenience store. But unlike the office, which its owner, Jared Rington, keeps as sterile and minimalistic as a surgical room, the coffee shop is homely and comfortable, boasting bamboo chairs and tables, and thick, soft cushions to relax into. The seating area spills out of the small shop onto the sidewalk and that’s where I like to sit and watch the flow of pedestrians. Unlike many of the other coffee spots in the neighborhood, which dole out supersized waxed-paper cups of colored water that only masquerade as coffee, there you can get the real thing, and in genuine china cups if you so desire.

I was sitting outside the shop, having ordered a freshly ground Blue Mountain blend, enjoying the warmth of the late-September afternoon sun on my face while the aroma of roasting beans wafted over me.

I was enjoying some downtime. I’d just come off a boring surveillance job involving staff dishonesty at a distribution hub on the north side of the city. Basically, the shipping manifests were showing a disparity with what was shelved in the warehouse and the company directors had called in some outside help to discover where their goods were disappearing. Myself, Raul Velasquez and Jim McTeer—the sum total of Rink’s employees—and I alternated stakeouts until we got the evidence on a night-shift foreman and a security guard that were in cahoots with a friend with a van. The three of them had been filmed packing the van with boxed computers, televisions and even a riding lawn mower. I wasn’t in on the sting—it was change-over time between Velasquez and McTeer when the van was backed into the depot under cover of darkness and the pilfering took place. But I was happy to allow the boys the glory of the capture, and was pleased I could go back to sleeping at a reasonable hour. Rink was the breadth of a continent away, visiting his mom, Yukiko, in San Francisco, so I was able to set my own hours. It wasn’t a case of the mouse playing while the cat was away, I’m a partner in the business than a straight employee, and can come and go at will. My expertise wasn’t generally in the bread-and-butter work of a modern PI firm, but there’d been little requirement for my skill set in the best part of a month. Stepping in to assist Velasquez and McTeer was my decision, because I needed to be doing
something
. Even boring stakeouts are better than nothing when you get as fidgety for action as I do.

Earlier I’d sent the boys home early and shut down the office for the day. Jim McTeer invited me to a barbecue he was hosting for some of his old cop buddies, but I’d politely declined. I’d nothing against cops, but some of them didn’t extend the same conviviality in my direction. Velasquez said I was welcome to join him and his nephew, Rorion, for an ice-hockey match at St. Pete Times Forum, but I’d also declined his offer. Ice hockey. Florida. The two paired together just didn’t make sense. But it wasn’t my miscomprehension of a game that was—to me—largely organized violence on ice that put me off. Not long ago, a hired killer had taken potshots from the roof of the Forum, killing two police detectives I was speaking with, and placing me in a real awkward situation. I still sneered in disgust every time I was in the vicinity of the stadium and recalled the crimes Luke Rickard tried to frame me for. All I was in the mood for was a half hour or so without any nasty recollections to spoil my mood, kicking back, and slaking my thirst for a decent brew. Having rolled down the shutters and locking them tight, I’d left the RI office, driving the three blocks and parking on the street opposite the coffee shop. I had to feed a meter, but I was happy to do so. When you intend paying for Blue Mountain, undoubtedly the king of coffee and with a price tag to match, you didn’t quibble over a handful of quarters.

The barista was a middle-aged woman with a French accent. She was slim, with dark hair, dark eyes, perhaps a tad too large in the nose and lips to be described as beautiful, but good-looking all the same. I wasn’t sure if she was from France, Europe, if she was French Canadian, or from some other French-speaking country. Our conversations had been pleasant and polite to date, but hadn’t gone beyond the small talk associated with the ordering and imbibing of the best coffee in the city, perhaps the country. I knew her name from the badge she wore pinned to her blouse: Jolie. I hadn’t realized she’d learned my name until she delivered my drink and placed it down before me.

“You are Joe Hunter, yes?” She pronounced my first name ‘Show,’ and rolled the second syllable of my last name across her tongue. I found the sound of her voice endearing.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I replied. “Although I’ve never heard my name spoken quite as sweetly before.”

“I know you,” she said, apparently used to the compliments her accent gained her and beyond acknowledging them with more than the quirk of one corner of her mouth. “You have been a good customer. But I was not sure of your name until today.”

I felt that little stir in the gut that meant that bad news was coming. “Oh, and how did that come about?”

“There was a man in here asking about you. He described you, said you were probably from England, and that someone told him you could be regularly found at my café.” She paused to aim a hooded look back up the street. I guessed her gaze was set three blocks down. “You work for Mister Rington, no?”

I didn’t have to nod. She already knew. “This man, he said he would look for you there again, but when he’s been by your office no one is there.”

“Been a busy time for us,” I said, noncommittally. Steam wafted toward me from my drink. The aroma was glorious. I let the coffee stand. “This man told you my name?”

“Not him. He only described you. I get many English tourists in my café but he described only you.”

I wondered what she meant by that. I’m not exactly distinctive. I stand a tad under six feet, so am not overly tall, have an athletic build, but then so have many, and wear my brown hair in an easy-to-handle short style. Some people have described my eye-coloring as memorable, a kind of blue-green edged in brown, but I think they’re referring more to the look of my eyes when the cold gleam of battle’s in them: it’s not a look I generally have when relaxing with a cup of Blue Mountain in Jolie’s establishment.

Jolie could read my confusion. She reached across unashamedly and rolled up the right sleeve of my T-shirt. She patted the tattoo on my bicep. “Only you wear this design.”

She was only partly correct. Rink also bore the same tattoo, but I guessed she hadn’t seen him with bared arms, and there was little to confuse me with my big Asian-American friend. Rink is distinctive. He stands half a head taller than me, is built like a pro wrestler, and the epicanthic folds of his heritage give him almond-shaped eyes. Plus he tends to wear gaudy colors, brightly patterned Hawaiian shirts and board shorts being his favorites when in casual mode.

To be fair, I couldn’t ever recall displaying my tats in Jolie’s place, but there was always the possibility she’d glanced over while I rubbed at an itch on my shoulder or something and inadvertently gave her a flash. To most the tattoo would mean little. Three intersecting arrows on a shield; weighing scales upholding a crescent on one side and an oval on the other. The symbols were stylized devil’s horns and a halo, signifying the balancing of evil against good. The tattoos were adopted by all the men and women in our tactical team as a reminder of our days with Arrowsake. There were very few of us left alive these days.

“This man described my tattoo to you?”

“Yes. I had the impression he’d had a very good look at yours.”

The stirring in my gut became a flutter as a trickle of adrenaline went through me.

Recently somebody did get an eyeful of my tattoo. The sharp edge of my right forearm was wedged tightly against his throat at the time while I rammed a machete into his guts and pinned him to a doorjamb. Unless there was something about that zombie folklore from the West Indies, I doubted that Hector Latore Wallace—whose name I only learned weeks after his death—was wandering around Tampa asking questions about me. Then again, there’d been another who’d quickly fled the scene after his leader was killed, and who might have got a good look at my ink.

“This man,” I asked, already suspecting the answer, “was he a black man?”

“Yes, but with skin more the color of
café au lait
, and the hair was like that reggae singer . . . you know . . . Bob Marley?” Marley rhymed with
au lait
the way in which she intoned the name.

“Dreadlocks,” I confirmed.

Jolie nodded in agreement. “You know this man?”

“I know his type,” I said.

In truth, I’d had a few run-ins with guys who favored the Rastafarian look. A few years ago, back in Manchester, England, I’d bumped heads with some of the Yardie Posse—Jamaican gangsters—who sported dreads and wouldn’t think twice before sticking a knife in your heart. But then, more recent than that, there was Hector and his Rude Boy crew.

Perhaps ordering Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee had been a portent of things to come. I thought I was done with what had happened down in the Caribbean a few weeks earlier, but it seemed Jamaica wasn’t yet done with me.

“I didn’t tell him your name, I only confirmed it from a friend after this man asked me about you. But, Joe”—she cast a nervous glance across the street to where my Audi A8 was parked—“I think he will return asking about you again.”

I picked up my mug of coffee and held it out to her.

“Can you make this to go, Jolie?”

“Ah, such a waste,” she said, and placed a soft hand on my wrist to press the cup back down to its rightful place at her table.

“I wouldn’t have this man return here. I have a feeling he won’t be as amiable next time, especially now that he might demand to know more about me from you.”

“I would not tell him.” Her eyes flashed with Gallic spirit. “I know he is not a good man, and no good comes of him asking about you. But, it’s like I said earlier; you are a good customer and I also believe a good man.”

Her sentiment was well-meaning, but I doubted that the mystery Jamaican would see things the same way. Perhaps if Jolie had witnessed what went down in Jamaica a few weeks ago it might alter her perspective of me too.

T
hree lazy men were about to die and didn’t know it.

They were lazy because they had allowed their guard to slip, and it wasn’t something that any sentry should ever do. They were so lax in their security that they had broken formation, and had all come together in one place to smoke and to complain about the long, uneventful night. That had allowed me to slip in through a gap in their defenses and I was now within the inner cordon. Even when one of them bothered to check the approaches to the compound, he was looking in the wrong direction. To think that I had things too easy would be to make the same mistake that they had, so I had to stay on my game and not allow tardiness to slip in. Otherwise four lazy men would end up dead.

The guards were talking and griping in low throaty voices that still carried to my ears, but though I understood a spattering of languages, Jamaican patois wasn’t one of them. It would have made my job easier if they were conversing in English, but this was some sort of singsong banter, interspersed by regular affirmations of “Yea, man,” and knuckle bumps, even when the subject required complaint. The guards were all men in their late twenties, two of them tall and skinny, with prominent cheekbones, the other a short, stocky man. They all wore slacks and Doc Marten shoes, and a collared shirt hanging loose over the gun in belt. The heavy cloying heat didn’t affect them. It was as stifling at four in the morning as it would be later in the day. Sweat oozed from every pore on my body and my hair was glossy and stuck to my scalp. My clothing had taken on extra poundage, it was so damp. It was difficult finding a place where I could wipe the moisture from my palms, but I knew from experience that the inner sides of my elbows were about the driest on my entire frame. I scrubbed my palms on each elbow in turn, in order that I had a firm grip on the butt of my handgun. My gun, a SIG Sauer P226 Tactical, was one I’d collected from a safe box supplied by a contact on the island—not my personal weapon, but I’d cleaned, oiled and test-fired the gun and knew it to be serviceable. It had a slightly longer barrel than my usual piece, and came equipped with threads to attach a suppressor. The suppressor I’d attached would affect the accuracy, but at the range I was to the guards it wouldn’t make much difference.

Some might challenge my decision to kill the guards, seeing as they were hopeless at their jobs, but I couldn’t allow them to be there on my return. I required a clean escape route—not for myself per se but for the civilians I intended bringing out with me.

It was August, a few days after my birthday, but there in Jamaica it was the rainy season. When it rains there it
rains
. It comes down in torrents, an almost solid sheet, a deluge. The heavens opened just as I approached the men. The noise was tremendous, as the rain battered the tree canopy and sluiced through the branches to the earth. The timbre of the guards’ voices changed, more highly pitched now as they moved for cover beneath the fronds of an Indian rubber tree. I smiled. They were actually aiding my task, because it meant I’d have to drag them a lesser distance to concealment.

I shot two of them in the backs of their skulls before number three even realized they were under attack. He let out a wordless shout but it didn’t carry over the noise of the water thundering through the leaves. The last of them was the stocky man, and I saw that he wasn’t a natural with a firearm. Not that he wasn’t familiar with it, but that his reaction was to fight fist to fist, the way he had while growing up in the ghettos of Kingston town. He came at me with his arms coming up to grasp at my throat, with the intention of bearing me to the ground where he could pound the life out of me with his meaty fists. I shot him in the throat, and the round exited at the base of his skull. The battering rain didn’t allow for the spray of blood and skull fragments to remain aloft for long, but purged them from the air. The guy was dead, but still standing. I caught him around his burly chest with the crook of my left arm, took him backward and allowed his settling weight to take him through the nearest rubber tree branches and out of sight. Then I turned my attention on the other two and dragged them inside the cordon of low-hanging branches and roots that were nigh on impregnable a body length beyond the outer branches. I moved back on to the trail and looked for the men. I could see nothing of them even though I knew where to look. It was doubtful that anyone would come across them until daylight, if then.

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