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Authors: Tod Goldberg

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BOOK: The Bad Beat
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“They don’t know they are most of the time,” Sam said. “Nate said the guy franchises. So you think you’re betting with Frankie Four Fingers, but he’s actually kicking upstairs to Big Lumpy. And the only time you find out is when you’re really late and then, you know, you’re probably not in a position to complain too loudly.”

Which meant that Nate had been really late at some point, since I couldn’t imagine he’d learned any of this information through dogged investigation. It also meant that a good many of the people Brent had already paid off could be working under Big Lumpy, too. If Henry Grayson was dumb enough to bet directly with Big Lumpy, it was likely a choice of last resort.

“Savvy,” I said. And it really was. “Well, then, we’ll just have to appeal to his good side.”

“I don’t think he has a good side,” Sam said.

“Well,” I said, “he hasn’t met us yet.”

“That’s my concern,” Sam said. “If he’s NSA, what are the odds he still does some contract work with them? The guy is an expert on game theory warfare and has no moral center. That seems to me like two traits the NSA likes to have near for special projects. Mikey, there’s a good chance he already knows you.”

“Which is why I have the perfect covers for us,” I said. “You’re going to be an ex–Navy SEAL named Sam Axe and I’m going to be a spy named Michael Westen.”

“Play it straight?”

“Yep,” I said.

“I don’t know if I know how to play it straight,” Sam said.

“Have another beer,” I said.

“What about me?” Brent said. I’d nearly forgotten he was in the room. Once he’d stopped making whining noises, he was actually very quiet.

“You’re going to stay here,” I said. “Fiona will be back in a couple of hours.” Provided she hasn’t had to shoot a bunch of members of the Russian Mafia on your behalf, I thought, though I decided not to mention that detail out loud.

“You don’t have any food here,” he said. “And you don’t have cable, either. And Fiona is mean.”

“The kid’s got a point there, Mike,” Sam said. “Fiona is mean.”

“I haven’t eaten in like forever,” Brent said. “You’re basically starving me to death here. You know, yogurt isn’t even considered food? It’s not. It’s a culture.”

While Brent droned on about the toil of his life, I did the one thing I really didn’t want to do: I called my mother, Madeline.

“Ma,” I said, “you have any plans this afternoon?”

“Are you in some kind of trouble?” my mother asked.

“Of course not,” I said.

“Because I got a call from your brother a few minutes ago and he sounded very worried,” she said. “He didn’t say you were in trouble, but I felt like he was holding that back from me.”

“You didn’t agree to send him any money, did you?”

“I told him I would,” she said. “He has no blood family out there, Michael. I told him I’d send him money to get a new shirt. He still needs his mother, unlike some people.”

“I do need you, Ma,” I said. “That’s why I’m calling.” Brent had now engaged Sam in a conversation that, as best as I could tell, involved other food groups that were not, technically, foods. They’d moved on to the legitimacy of salads. “I have a young man I’m . . .
mentoring
. . . and I was wondering if I might drop him off at your place for a few hours.”

“Mentoring?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Like a big brother–type thing.”

“Really, Michael?”

“No,” I said. It was just easier to be honest. “I’m actually protecting him from some Russian gangsters, every bookie in the city and Fiona.”

“Oh, I see,” she said.

“And he hasn’t had a home-cooked meal since his mother died,” I added.

“When did that happen?”

“Years ago,” I said.

“Oh, I see,” she said. “You’re not just saying that, are you, Michael?”

“Not this time, Ma, no,” I said.

“Do you think he likes tuna casserole?”

My mother’s tuna casserole was notorious for having a consistency somewhere between plaster and the substance that BP used to stop the oil leak in the Gulf.

“I’m sure he does.”

“Then bring him by,” she said.

“Thanks, Ma. I really appreciate it,” I said.

“And, Michael,” she said, “will you pick me up some more shells for my shotgun?”

6

No spy likes to go into a meeting with an unknown adversary—if you don’t have an idea how a person will react in a given situation, it’s difficult to plan your own diversionary tactics. The nice part about working for a huge government agency is that there is always someone you can call in the middle of the night who can provide you with key bits of information. When meeting with an Afghan warlord, for instance, it’s nice to know ahead of time if he has a child you can threaten, or maybe a relative living in the United States that you can abduct beforehand and accuse of being a terrorist, or even if the warlord happens to have a particular unseemly fetish you can exploit. No matter who you are, when someone presents your fetishes to you, it’s more than a little embarrassing.

But when you’re working alone, without all of the resources of spy planes and moles and years and years of surveillance, and are relying only on secondary information from an unreliable source—in this case, my brother, Nate—you need to work on instinct, which is what Sam and I had to do.

“They don’t make dive bars like they used to,” Sam said. We’d arrived early to the meet-up at the Hair of the Dog Saloon in hopes of catching a glimpse of Big Lumpy, but instead had spent the better part of thirty minutes watching young women drinking coffee.

The Hair of the Dog Saloon sounds like one of those places decent people avoid unless they’re looking for someone to hire for a contract killing. But like all things these days, nothing is as it seems.

Instead of being a dark bar located in the shadow of that old abandoned warehouse or just across from the decrepit docks that were left to rot away when the new docks were built a few miles south, or whatever other cliché might apply, the Hair of the Dog was actually tucked into the sun-dappled center of a new outdoor shopping center near the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables called the Shoppes at Mariposa Circle.

On one side of the Hair of the Dog was, of course, a Starbucks. On the other side was a Panera. There was also a clothing store called Blonde across the palazzo from the Hair of the Dog which featured clothing that could fit only on mannequins and that only mannequins would dare wear. Palm trees with overgrown fronds, presumably for shade and not for the Norwegian roof rats who liked to live among them, were placed decoratively every few feet along the inlaid-brick walkways surrounding the other shops, while young women, apparently in the midst of a nudity competition, sat on dark wood benches chatting on their cell phones and practicing looks of general disinterest. Other shops—or, as the shopping center thought of them, shoppes—extended outward from the center cluster in spokes of shaded walkways. Logistically, it was a perfect place to meet someone you might want to abduct or kill, since there were ten different offshoots from the center island, thus making surveillance a nightmare.

The Hair of the Dog had a large outdoor seating area, where patrons sat drinking beer and watching one another or one of the fifteen flat-screen televisions running ESPN. A banner stretched across the front of the bar read SHOTS AND BEER. RED MEAT. THAT’S IT. Charming.

“Most dive bars don’t open up with the intent of being a dive,” I said. “I think that’s the difference.”

Sam picked up the binoculars from between us and trained them on something in the distance. “What I like about this place,” he said, “is that it’s not trying too hard. Tough guys like to go to a place with a lot of flat-screen televisions. Known fact.”

“And the smell of freshly baked bread wafting over from Panera is probably nice, too,” I said.

“Cuts down on that meth rank,” Sam said. “What I don’t get, Mikey, is how the girls on the patio don’t all get chest colds.”

“It’s ninety degrees outside, Sam.”

“Still,” he said. “Whooping cough is going around. I should warn each of them personally.”

“You looking at the girls, Sam, or do you have something else of interest on the other side of the binoculars?”

“Both,” he said. “I think I’ve got our guy.” He handed me the binoculars. “Look at two o’clock. Just to the right of the Apple Store. Down the second spoke. White shirt. Big floppy white hat.”

I looked where Sam told me and saw a man wearing a white shirt and a big floppy white hat sitting on a bench . . . staring back at me through binoculars, too. “I think we’re made,” I said. I waved and White Shirt waved back.

“Think so?”

“You said he was an expert in game theory warfare,” I said. “You weren’t kidding.”

“He probably thought the kid would bring cops,” Sam said. “Statistically speaking, the odds favored him bringing someone, right?”

“Let’s go tell him we’re someone, then,” I said. “Ease his mind.”

We got out of my Charger and walked across the parking lot toward Big Lumpy, but he didn’t bother to get up and meet us. Either he had guys getting ready to grab us and throw us into the back of a van or he was just rude.

My bet was that he didn’t care much for etiquette. NSA guys tend to think the world revolves around them, perhaps because they tell themselves that every day at work as they issue warnings and edicts about national security. But it was always men like me who ended up doing the dirty work.

When we reached the Hair of the Dog, Big Lumpy finally got up from the bench and made his way over. Sandy blond hair poked out of the bottom of his white hat and I could see that although he’d graduated from college at a young age, the years hadn’t been a friend to him—he had deep lines around his eyes and mouth and red splotches on his nose and cheeks. But as he got closer to me, I realized that those lines and splotches weren’t the weight of time: He had skin cancer. Or was healing from it. For a guy who was supposedly the meanest, most violent man alive, he didn’t look like much.

“You’re early,” Big Lumpy said as a way of introduction. “Where’s the kid? A safe house in Phoenix or something?”

“Something,” I said.

A hostess wearing a name tag that said SANDY! on it greeted us and asked us where we’d like to sit. Another new invention: a dive bar with a perky hostess. “Outside is fine,” Big Lumpy said. “I already have cancer, after all. What’s the worst that could happen?” When the hostess didn’t respond, because she probably hadn’t been prepped for that sort of response in her extensive job training, Big Lumpy turned to me and said, “Unless you two plan to have me shot. You don’t plan to have me shot, do you?”

“Not in broad daylight,” I said.

“Then I’ll be sure we’re out of here by sundown,” he said.

Sandy! showed us to a table on the patio and explained that although the sign said shots and beers only, they did have a few wines to choose from and that a selection of artisan pizzas, as well as chicken sandwiches, was available for lunch alongside the regular menu of red meat. When Sandy! finally left us alone, Big Lumpy let out an exasperated grunt. “She’s not right for this place,” he said.

“She seems too happy,” Sam said. “And not enough tattoos.”

“I’m not as involved as I should be in the day-today operations, clearly,” Big Lumpy said. “Her name tag is ridiculous. That will be addressed.”

“You own this place?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “And the land beneath your feet, too.”

“The bookie business must be very lucrative,” Sam said.

“Let’s not be foolish,” Big Lumpy said. “I wouldn’t dare try to launder my illegal money in property. It’s much easier to buy things with my legitimate earnings. That way no sneaky government agency will try to seize it on an ill-founded whim.”

“I know something about that,” I said.

A waiter came and dropped off waters then and Big Lumpy ordered a bucket of beer for the table to share, along with a dozen limes. Just three buddies having a Sunday afternoon man date at a faux dive bar. Maybe later, we’d go to a strip club and tell each other Chuck Norris jokes. As it was, we’d been sitting with one another for ten minutes and Big Lumpy still hadn’t bothered to ask who we were, which troubled me. It meant either he wasn’t concerned or he already knew. Or both.

“Now, then,” Big Lumpy said, perfectly gracious.

“Where’s my money?”

“You’re not getting any more money,” I said.

“No?” he said.

“Not from Brent Grayson, no,” I said. “Besides, what’s fifteen thousand dollars to a man like you?”

“Same as it is to any businessman who has outstanding debts from his clients. I’m sure you can understand that.”

“It’s not his debt,” I said.

“Do you really think the boy doesn’t know where his father is? He’s been paying off his debts all over the city. You tell me how a college student has the capital to do that.”

“You know of Yuri Drubich?” I asked.

Big Lumpy raised his eyebrows in actual surprise. As best as I could tell, it was his first uncalculated move of the day. He took off his white hat and set it down on the table. His blond hair was thin and nearly translucent and I noticed for the first time that he had only mere wisps for eyebrows. I thought he was either still in chemo or was only a month or so out of it.

“That’s deep water,” he said.

“Deeper than he can swim in, I assure you,” I said.

“I read in the paper this morning that someone blew up Henry Grayson’s office,” he said. “That sounded a bit more extreme than the usual loan sharking and debt collection that goes on in this town.”

“They used a laser-guided shoulder-mounted rocket launcher,” Sam said.

“Really,” Big Lumpy said. “Overkill, don’t you think?”

“I dunno,” Sam said. “I heard about a gentleman in town who cuts off people’s eyelids when they don’t pay their gambling losses.”

Big Lumpy tried to hide a smile, but then just let go and began to laugh. He said, “Don’t believe everything you hear.” Our waiter brought us the bucket of beer, though Big Lumpy didn’t take one. “Please, help yourselves,” he said, and when Sam reached in and grabbed a Corona, he said, “Mr. Axe, don’t be shy. Take two.”

BOOK: The Bad Beat
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