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A beautiful day, perfect in every way. The radio said there were workers' rallies, parades, people making their annual claim on their rights. But spring was in the air. Case wondered how aggrieved people really can be in the spring. Besides, he always figured the only meaningful right of a worker was the right to leave his job. All those other things -- pay, safety, benefits -- were negotiating points, elements in the competition for labor.
He parked in his new slot. A man at the mailboxes, built like a weightlifter, nodded politely. He didn't smile.
Well, Case thought, here we go.
Case enjoyed his first day of work. He met a few people, flirted, made shit up about his life. He kept it simple, in case anyone bothered to remember.
His new boss seemed uncomfortable. Handed him a list of documents to update: Slow-selling stuff with components that were upgraded only because they'd gone obsolete. Brainless work with a due date at least twice as far away as needed. He was happy with it.
When he got home, a young family was playing in the parking lot. The man wore a tight white t-shirt and watched him drive by.
Case remembered to smile and felt his early-morning face cracking. The lady was inordinately cheerful.
"Plain old-fashioned," he said. "Large coffee black."
"You fine toda-ay?" she asked as she gathered his order. He placed her accent with the help of a wall poster of Angkor Wat.
"Yeah, everything's great."
"Go-o-oo'," she said, and handed him over to the cashier. Her son, perhaps, also inordinately friendly, but with less accent.
He took a table facing the windows and watched the sidewalks in both directions. No one, not even a dog walker.
So far so good.
He left early and drove home in the heat. Just one of those days, he told himself. One of those days.
One of those days when driving full speed into a brick wall was a mighty attractive option. Or jumping the guardrail. But no. Despite his conviction of becoming a failure, he wanted to avoid a pathetic legacy of self-destruction.
And there was still a path back to life, albeit an increasingly narrow one. The question was, could he hold to it?
Case thought not, but today wasn't the day to decide. It was just one of those days.
Sun slanted in, bounced off the tables, hit the far wall. Sometimes sunrise was a warm and friendly thing, but today it was harsh and threatening, a torch in an angry fist.
Case's usual spot had a woman in it, blonde, nice shape, about his age. He sat down.
"May I? Usual place."
She shrugged. "Why not."
"You look pissed."
"Car was trashed last night."
She thumbed over her shoulder across the road. There was a lower rent apartment complex down there.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Goddam gangsters."
"They need to be hanged."
He was starting to like her.
When Case left in the morning, the new manager was bent uncertainly over the security gate motor box. Her pink pants suit contrasted with her work gloves and she held a wrench awkwardly. Mechanic was apparently not in the job description.
When he came home late that night the gate was still open. Not a good sign.
He parked under the watchful eye of a tough-looking group of men. He recognized some. One of them held a small child. They spoke Russian in low tones.
He took his tools out of his truck and locked it before going in.
In threes, things pile up in.
The security gate was broken. No problems from that, but it was a worry.
Just before lunch, some limp-dick engineer had come by and critiqued his work. Case sent him away with a Soledad look.
Now he almost missed his exit and swerved over. Bitch honked but he didn't care about that. What he cared about was the catch in the steering when he yanked the wheel. No harm, but it was a warning. The truck was getting old and was going to fuck with him some day.
Just one of those days.
"What's going on, Case?"
Jim's forearm lay across his desk like a fat loaf of sourdough bread. At the end were a bunch of stubby fingers gripping a mechanical pencil.
"Not much," Case said. "Got the two module specs updated."
"Good. I mean with Tony."
"Tony? Nothin'. Why?"
"He said you barked at him."
That stinking weasel. What a pussy, running to the boss. Case pursed his lips and shook his head.
"No," he said, "no, I don't think so. When?"
"Yesterday. But he's kind of sensitive, maybe he was exaggerating."
Case felt the warning in his neck hairs.
Case left the bar at ten. He'd nursed two beers long enough to watch a group of toughs bowl an entire game. Their girlfriends wore spaghetti straps and their camisoles quivered nicely.
About halfway through one of the boys had come up to him and asked if he was enjoying their game, but he just shrugged and gave the look. He was left alone after that.
Back home, the gate was open again. The fix had lasted, what, two days.
The box looked jimmied. He wasn't impressed with their repair guy.
The Russians who were out didn't look impressed either.
The man pulling clothes out of the dryer was built like a mountain range. He moved deliberately, placing shirts and towels into a small basket as if they were bricks. He turned when Case came in to the laundry and stared.
"Hey," said Case and opened a washing machine.
"How's it goingk," the man said with closed Slavic vowels.
"Fine. What's with the gate?"
"Oh, don't worry. We take care of it."
"What do you mean? You fixed it?"
The man laughed like an avalanche.
"No, no," he said. "Gate don't matter. All is fine."
As he left, he winked.
She was at coffee again.
"How's the car?"
She stared at him. "How'd you know?"
"You didn't know?"
Her look had an odd suspicion to it.
She looked at him with a strange bemusement, then nodded.
"Kid came up to me. Scared. I almost felt sorry for him but he apologized, seriously apologized, handed me an envelope, and ran away. The envelope had two thousand dollars in it."
"Yeah. Enough to fix my car anyway."
They looked at each other awhile.
"So you had nothing to do with it," she said.
Jim's office was near the coffee room. Case passed on his way for a refresh and met eyes with Tony. Tony looked upset.
As he poured, he heard the office door close.
Weasel's griping about me, Case thought. Well, fuck 'im.
Later, he walked into Tony's cube "by accident", just to push buttons. Tony looked up. Beyond him, he saw his own work on the screen.
"What?" Tony said.
"What back," said Case, indicating the screen.
"I'm filtering," said Tony. "Jim's orders. Got a problem?"
"No, fuck, I don't care. Looks good. Keep it up."
Case walked away, feeling confused.
Case awoke to the fading echo of a shout. Fully alert, he lay in bed staring at the blinds. After a tense minute he heard low voices, some hard to place impacts, then silence. It was three in the morning.
He looked out the window. Nothing but parked cars.
At sunrise he walked out to see a woman sweeping bright pebbles of auto glass.
At the coffee shop, Sarah stared at him. "What's going on?"
She said, "They found some kid in the dumpster this morning."
"Maybe you're getting your wish?" he said while sitting.
She didn't smile.
As Jim sat heavily, Case noticed a beautiful woman living in a frame on the desk. But he stayed on topic.
"You have Tony checking my work. What do you want me to do differently?"
"Nothing. I'm sorry, but how things are ..."
"Not sure I--"
"He's like the branch trailing your footsteps." Jim looked surprised at Case's lack of understanding.
Case nodded. He was beginning to understand.
He indicated the frame.
"Wife," said Jim. He almost looked pleased. "Svetlana."
"Wow. She can't be thirty."
"Thirty three. And not," said Jim, "one of those Russian brides. Friend of my cousin."
"Don't know anything about it, huh?"
Sarah's challenge contrasted with how prettily she'd dressed this morning.
"No," said Case. "Things are kind of weird, though, I'll admit."
"It's like a little war going on."
She stared at him.
"Your Russian mafia? My street gang?"
Case's turn to stare. She was pretty smart. He liked her even more.
"My-- he began, but stopped. He had been told where to work, where to live, and not to worry. It all made sense.
Now he didn't know how much he should verify for her.
He shrugged. "Well, I don't really know."
The bottles mocked him, dancing on their little shelves, but he knew better than to fight them. He ignored them, threw back his third and final drink, and left.
The air was unseasonably cold, reminding him how so many people have it worse. Jackson, for example, whom he'd found shivering in his sleep under cardboard in a park. Case had left the poor stupid bastard a small bottle of breakfast whiskey.
The memory calmed him down but it did not cheer him up. This crazy gig was going to have to end. Somehow it was rapidly falling off of plan.
Five o'clock. He could leave, and not a moment too soon. The job was starting in on his sanity. The details he was being paid to preserve were conflating dangerously with the details of the job.
Case wrote "Hire a writer who speaks English" in a large red font, saved the doc, and double-stepped down the stairs. He needed a drink. He knew the last thing he needed was a drink.
Two black sedans hurried out of the apartment complex as he arrived. He swerved towards them angrily. One of them sped off. The other pulled to the curb.
He stared out the window at the morning traffic, saw a familiar movement, and calmed his face. In the corner of his eye he had seen Sarah hesitate, and instinctively erased the ugly expression that had taken over.
"Morning, you," she said. He grunted.
"Sleep poorly?" she added cheerfully.
He nodded. It had been years since he'd slept with a loaded assault rifle under his bed, and he didn't like it.
"Up late doing laundry."
"Mm. Cleaning things up."
He looked at her. She looked at him without expression. They looked at each other a long time.
Now he knew.
The scary thing was they didn't really know.
An almost iconic mobster had invited him into the car for a discussion. It was so absurdly cinematic Case couldn't wipe the smirk off his face: Slick hair, mirror shades, never a smile. He saw through the act and wondered: What are these guys afraid of?
Even so, the guy had said they weren't certain if "recent events" were simply territorial, or revolved specifically around him. Sleep with a gun, he had said.
Yeah, right. Like that will matter. What an amateur.
But he went along, wondering what Sarah planned to do.
Suddenly he was awake, staring at the ceiling. The echo of a gunshot faded out into the boulevards, then came crawling back with memories of distant boulevards in distant cities until he banished it with a curse and got up to look outside. He left his gun under the bed -- wasn't his idea to go around looking like a combatant.
Out the door silently, back around the laundry room. A car idled. A large man shoved something out of his way to sit behind the wheel, slowly drove off. A black sedan followed.
Another man saw him, smiled, and shrugged.
Case missed the lock three times before getting the key to fit. Turned, locked. Carried his bicycle overhead down the stairs. At the mailboxes a stolid looking man in a blue polo shirt and navy blazer watched him pedal away. In the windows of the donut shop two more men sitting at a table seemed to watch him also.
He pedaled, hard. Down the river and up again. Sweat dripped off him like forgotten troubles, like problems that stung in the moment but after some time just didn't matter anymore.
They were all still in place when he came home.
Sunday's sunny demeanor was attenuated by the presence of a police car in the parking lot. Case took his coffee upstairs and went in and sat outside on his small patio. The sun felt good. The police car needed watching. Fortunately, there was just the one.
In time, two officers came out of one of the other apartments, a woman following. She was smiling and laughing, a bit overmuch, Case thought. Her cheer seemed forced to him. The policemen were polite but did not return her joviality.
They drove away. The woman's smile vanished. She looked up at him scowling.
The sun finally broke through the clouds. Fresh green leaves wiggled on the trees, and the rising sun said good morning like a good friend rising from her pillows.
This didn't still Case's unease. Never a word from Sarah all weekend, and it wasn't like her to miss Monday morning coffee.
No response to his text. He sent several.
Work was interminable. Not that it mattered. Jim saw him in the break room.
"Home free, eh?"
They looked at each other, Case not comprehending, Jim with the look of a man in on the secret. He smiled and left.
"Can you keep up? Yer slippin'."
Case looked up from his laptop and over his glasses. Tony stood by the door, fresh coffee in hand. He was smiling, but Case knew a bullshit smile when he saw one.
He smiled pleasantly and in a mild tone said, "Tony, when this is over I'm going to find you and pull your head slowly off your neck."
They looked at each other awhile. Tony's smile was frozen. He attempted an I-get-it smirk, but his eyes danced around, and finally he left, his back stiff.
Case murmured, "Don't think I'm kidding."
It was a nice neighborhood, considering his cheap motel. Case walked around a few blocks. He finally gave up trying to reach Sarah. She wasn't answering.
A Buick with ugly stylish oversized wheels cruised by. It's occupants stared at him, expressionless. They looked a little out of place in this suburb, until Case realized the suburbs were changing.
Everything was changing.
Not long ago he was using his knowledge to mastermind a major scam on some Asian electronics suppliers. Now he lived under the protection of a junior-league Russian mafia. What the fuck?
He stopped at the coffee shop.
A fly crawled on the wall, aimless, stupid. Case threw his pen at it, missed. It circled around and came back. Crawled. Stupid.
Welcome to being me
He felt a presence behind him but ignored it. It was a large and stupid presence. It was there awhile, then went away, saying nothing.
Fuck you too, Jim.
The newspaper he had found outside the closed coffee shop lay untidily before him.
"Policewoman in coma."
Her academy portrait. Sarah.
His mind reran the midnight gun shot. A thug shoving something over to take the driver's seat.
Case stared at the numbers on his phone as they clicked over to five o'clock and ran through his inventory.
When no one was around, he'd quietly wiped every possible surface in his office he might have touched.
The break room and the men's room: Clean.
Couldn't do anything about security cameras, but he'd made a habit of avoiding giving them a good image, and there was just the one in the parking garage.
He'd assiduously completed his week' work early today, and acted confident and relaxed around Jim.
At home, the rifle, and a good dozen boxes of ammunition.
A fresh set of clouds blew in, darkening the world. Case sat quietly in his apartment, cruising online, drifting.
No news of Sarah.
He stared at Asian business news. The old target was doing well. His attempt to con a portion of their supply chain, hijack parts, sell them at discount and disappear rich had failed miserably. But in terms of legal recourse, he had hidden his identity very well.
It was the extra-legal recourse the Russians were shielding him from. What they weren't shielding him from was their ongoing little war with the gangs next door. Such amateurs.
About three thirty in the morning, Case was awakened by intruders efficiently and politely divesting him of his computer and cell phone. Now a big young Russian kid sat on his front stairs, drunk, bleeding from a gunshot wound, and quietly laughing.
"We don't care about you. We're just, you know, pushing up the price."
"How's that going?"
"Pretty good. We killed three of those knuckleheads over there tonight. Tomorrow, I think, we will make the deal."
He sat on the stairs like the Hoover Dam. Case knew as if he had been told directly that he wasn't going anywhere.
The door to the apartment across the way was open all morning. Through his peephole, Case saw a man in a chair, watching.
The door was closed at midday, when police cars and government-issue sedans arrived and barfed out uniforms and suits. They went about knocking on doors. He didn't answer. Neither did the one across the way.
Some of the apartment dwellers gave very excited accounts to the law of gunfire across the street.
In a few hours the officers were gone. Except for one federal-appearing agent who sat alone and watched his window a long time.
Case drank all night. Why the hell not. The law nearly had him. The Taiwanese knew where he was. A rough gang of mafiya were bartering between them.
Too late to wish he'd shopped around for better protection.
"The cop bitch you were fucking."
"Didn't know she was a cop."
"Don' care. She's dead."
A newspaper was shoved at him. Sure enough.
Later, he saw the agent, in intense conversation with some hard-looking Asian FOBs. A group of the Russians approached them. Hands went to belts.
Case cursed them all and walked down the stairs, firing.
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