Venetian Springs: Chapter 10

“Toby, you little putz,” Jim said aloud. It was a bit spooky, talking to a dead man like this; but Jim felt compelled. “Look at what you made me do. You’ve gotten the both of us into a helluva fix, haven’t you?”

He should have known that Toby Gates would be nothing but trouble. The little albino couldn’t do anything right.

Jim stood up. There was nothing more to be done here. In fact, he had stayed here much too long as it was. 

Then he happened to look through the front door window on the driver’ side of Toby Gates’s Honda. 

There was a blue gym bag on the front seat. It appeared to be full of something.

He remembered, suddenly, what he had come here for in the first place: to purchase heroin, so that he could cut it, break it down into smaller portions, and resell it. 

As things stood, he still didn’t have any heroin.

He opened the door of the Honda, exercising care not to step on either of Toby’s legs.

He leaned into the car. He unzipped the gym bag. 

What he saw shocked him almost as much as what had just happened between him and Toby.  

The gym bag was filled with bound stacks of bills. He saw the face of Benjamin Franklin atop several of the stacks. 

He unzipped the bag further. 

He saw a cellophane package of heroin. Probably a half kilo or a full kilo.

And to think that he had come here today to purchase just ten grams. 

Now, Jim realized, he had a choice to make. 

This was a crime scene. Eventually, the police would be summoned here. They would find the gym bag, and they would confiscate it. 

And besides, he knew that he didn’t really want to leave all that money, and as much as a full kilo of heroin, in a dead man’s car. 

On the other hand, though, the contents of that gym bag were Tony Mendoza’s property. A low-level courier like Toby Gates would never possess that much wealth in money and drugs. 

To take the property of Tony Mendoza—after killing one of his men—was no small matter.

But to leave the gym bag here was to leave it to the police.

Jim zipped the gym bag closed. He lifted it off the seat, and pushed the door of the Honda shut behind him.

He took one last look at Toby. 

“You shouldn’t have messed with me, Toby,” he said. “I didn’t want things to go down this way, but you had to push me. This is all on you, bud.”

Before he went, Jim stopped to pick up the envelope containing the money he had prepared for Toby—enough to buy ten grams of heroin.

Chapter 11

Table of contents

About ‘The Cairo Deception’

An American treasure hunter must rescue the woman he loves from Nazi agents. 

But will he fall prey to the Gestapo first himself?

The year is 1938. Jack McCallum is a young American treasure hunter in Cairo, Egypt. He’s just found the Garnet of Hatshepsut—a gemstone that is supposedly worth a fortune.

But Jack has problems: His best friend is an undercover Nazi agent. So is one of the women he has just met. And yet another woman in his life is a fugitive of the Nazis.

And as if things couldn’t get any worse….a vicious Cairo gangster wants to steal Jack’s gemstone.

The Cairo Deception is an online novel for fans of Ken Follett and Frederick Forsyth.

Vist the table of contents, or go directly to Chapter 1

Web fiction updates: 12/5/2019

Some of you have been following Venetian Springs, and I appreciate the emails.

I’ve just posted Chapter 9.

The serial will continue. I am posting the chapters as I write the story, but I have it all mapped out.

Venetian Springs is a web crime serial for fans of Michael Connelly, James Patterson, and David Baldacci.

Most of the action takes place in a casino. To read about the story click here, or go to the table of contents.

Venetian Springs: Chapter 9

Toby slid down the side of his Honda. He left a trail of blood as he fell. 

Jim stepped back from the car and from Toby. All thoughts of the heroin purchase were now forgotten. Jim was no ballistics expert, but he had some idea of what two 9mm slugs would do to the human body. Toby probably wasn’t going to get up from this. 

And sure enough, Toby appeared to be dead as he hit the pavement. His body came to rest in a supine position, his mouth open.

Dark blood was already soaking the front of his coat.

I must have hit his heart, Jim thought. Or one of the major arteries. That would do it, wouldn’t it?

My God. What have I done?

Jim’s next, immediate thought was that he was in a lot of trouble. The two shots. Someone would have heard them.

He turned around and looked in the direction of the truck stop’s front parking lot. He expected to see a mob of vigilantes gathering. At the very least, some of them would have their cell phones out, calling the police.

But there was no gathering crowd. No one was even looking in his direction. 

From where he stood, Jim could see the long wall of one side of the truck stop complex, and a single island of gas and diesel pumps. He could see a few people milling about, but they were busy filling their vehicles. They weren’t looking in his direction.

Then he remembered the inherent isolation of the back parking lot. And as for the two gunshots: Well, the interstate was just up the hill. If anyone had heard the two shots from the Glock 19, they would have assumed them to be the sounds of a big rig backfiring. 

A sound you heard all the time near the interstate.  

Jim turned his attention back to Toby’s body. Toby wasn’t making any sounds or movement. He was just lying there, looking up silently into the grey sky. Jim was shocked at the way this had all shaken out, and more than a little panicked. 

He was still most surprised, though, that Toby Gates had actually been preparing to draw a gun on him. He almost couldn’t believe it, in fact. 

He felt a sudden need to see the gun. 

Dammit, Toby, Jim thought. Why did you have to go and pull something like this?

The front of Toby’s jacket was rapidly soaking with blood, but Jim was pretty sure he could open the zipper without getting blood on his hands. 

The figurative significance of this concern was not lost on him. He already had blood on his hands. But he had had a good reason: Toby had been about to shoot him.

He’d had no choice. 

Wait, Jim thought. The police would be taking fingerprints of the crime scene. And as an ex-felon, Jim’s prints were definitely in the various law enforcement databases. 

He remembered that he had a pair of thin leather gloves in the side pockets of his jacket. He pulled out the gloves and put them on. Then he knelt down.

A little chill ran through him, and it wasn’t just the chilly weather.  Even though Jim had been a criminal for years, he had never been this close to a dead body, outside of a funeral service. 

He unzipped the front of Toby’s jacket. He would just take a quick look at the gun. He would see the gun Toby had been about to draw on him, and then he would get out of here. Posthaste. 

He rifled through Toby’s jacket. He expected to find the gun inside one of the top inner pockets. That was where Toby had been reaching, after all.

But there was a problem: He couldn’t feel any shape resembling a gun.

This didn’t make sense. A gun shouldn’t be too difficult to find, after all.

But Toby didn’t seem to have a gun.

Jim knew that he needed to leave. He might not have attracted any immediate attention, but this was still a crime scene. 

Then, finally, he found something hard inside one of the top inner pockets of Toby’s jacket.

The gun? No—it wasn’t a gun. Rather, it was a cylindrical aerosol canister. 

Jim pulled the canister out of the pocket and free from Toby’s body. He expected to discover that it contained Mace or some other variety of pepper spray. 

The label on the canister read, “Generic Albuterol”.

Jim was no pharmacist. But he happened to know what albuterol was. Albuterol was asthma medicine.

During his growing up years, Jim had spent more time than he’d wanted to with his mother’s older brother, his Uncle Fred. Uncle Fred had been an asthmatic.

Uncle Fred had been as mean as the day was long. When he was struck by an acute asthma attack, though, his face would turn red, and he’d be suddenly unable to speak or breathe.

Kind of like Toby here, just a minute or two ago.

Uncle Fred would then inhale a puff of gas from one of the canisters that were always on his person.

The canisters contained albuterol. He clearly remembered that. There could be no mistake. 

Jim tucked Toby’s albuterol back inside his jacket, exercising care to avoid the blood that now soaked much of his chest area.

So Toby Gates was an asthmatic, too. Just like Uncle Fred.

Which meant that Toby hadn’t been reaching for a piece. Toby didn’t even appear to be armed, in fact. He’d been reaching for his asthma medicine. 

Which meant that Jim’s first honest-to-goodness gunfight hadn’t been a gunfight at all.

He’d shot and killed an unarmed man.

Chapter 10

Table of contents

Venetian Springs: Chapter 8

Toby leaned back against the side of his car as Jim approached. He wasn’t going to give an inch, wasn’t going to meet Jim halfway. That was his manner.

The little putz, Jim thought.

Toby Gates was short and on the pudgy side. His flaxen hair was almost white, like an albino. Jim often thought that Toby would literally fry if exposed to direct  sunlight, like a chubby vampire.

When Jim got close, Toby delivered one of his favorite jabs.

“Hey, old man. Movin’ a little slow this morning, aren’t you?”

“Toby, I’ve got twenty-five years on you, and I could still outrun you, out-lift you, and kick your ass. So why don’t you just keep your comments to yourself today, huh?

“Whoa,” Toby said. “Looks like someone didn’t get their bran flakes and Geritol this morning.”

“Just keep pushing it, Toby.”

Jim took a quick look around and over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching them. The front parking lot of the truck stop was behind them. There were plenty of big commercial rigs, but also smaller vehicles whose drivers stopped at the truck stop for fuel, drinks, and snacks. There was both a Subway and a McDonalds attached to the truck stop. 

But none of these transient people was likely to pay attention to two men meeting briefly in the back parking lot. That was the advantage of this location. 

The interstate ran beside the truck stop, but it lay atop a steep slope, and set back from the crest of the incline. A trucker in one of the big rigs might be able to see them. All the drivers in pickup trucks and passenger cars wouldn’t see them without some real neck contortions. And all those vehicles were whizzing by at around 70 m.p.h.

Jim had the money for the heroin all counted out in advance, and tucked inside an envelope that was folded in half once. 

The usual procedure was for him to palm the envelope and make as if shaking hands with Toby. Toby would take the envelope and pocket it. Then Toby would hand him a small package containing ten grams of heroin. 

Still leaning against his car, Toby held out his hand to shake. He took the envelope. But instead of pocketing the money and handing over the heroin, he held the envelope in his palm and said:

“How much money is that?”

Jim restrained a sudden, almost irrepressible urge to grab Toby by the collar of his windbreaker and slam him against the Honda. What was he trying to pull? Did he want them to get caught?

“What do you mean: ‘How much money is that?’ You know damned well how much money it is. The same as always: enough for ten grams. Come on. The weather sucks today, with this sleet, and I want to get going.”

“Ah,” Toby said, “‘enough for ten grams’. you must be unaware of the new policy.”

New policy? What the hell are you talking about?”

“The new policy is: There’s a new minimum: twenty grams.”

“Twenty grams?”

“That’s right, old-timer. You want wholesale prices, you buy wholesale quantities.”

Jim was so flustered at the moment that he overlooked Toby’s use of the appellation, “old-timer”. 

“And when did this go down?”

Toby shrugged. I don’t know, exactly. But I know it’s the new policy.”

“Does Ice know about this?”

“Of course Ice knows about it,” Toby said. 

Ice was Toby’s immediate superior. Although the whole network was ultimately headed by Tony Mendoza, there were various hierarchical layers in between, even at the local level.

“Ice knows about this,” Jim repeated. “That’s what you’re saying?”

“That’s what I said. And the policy applies to everyone. Across the board.”

Jim was highly doubtful of that. Toby loved nothing better than yanking Jim’s chain, and it wouldn’t be beyond him to make up a fish story in order to do so.

If he had known in advance, he could have purchased twenty grams today. It wasn’t that big of a deal, really. 

But he didn’t have enough money on him to purchase twenty grams. He would have to go home, and get into his cash reserves. 

Toby wouldn’t wait for him, of course. So he would be without supply, until this little flaxen-haired putz deigned to meet with him again. 

And he was almost certain that Toby was lying. He had caught Toby in lies in the past.

Then Jim felt his temper snap, like a tiger being let out of a cage. 

No, he thought, that isn’t going to happen. I’m sick of being jerked around. If Tony Mendoza were here, jerking me around, maybe I would take that. Maybe I’d have no choice. But I’m not going to take it from Toby Gates. 

“No, Toby. I have another idea: I say you’re going to sell me ten grams. Today. Right now. If the new minimum is twenty grams, then we can do it that way next time. But today you’re going to sell me the usual amount. It isn’t fair to change the minimum amount without telling me in advance. That’s bullshit, in fact.”

Jim stepped closer, towering over the younger man. He raised both hands slightly, as if readying himself to give Toby a shove.

Suddenly, Toby’s face turned bright red. Toby was seized by what was obviously a fit of great consternation. 

He had really gotten under the little putz’s skin, apparently. 

In fact, Toby was downright speechless. He started to speak, but he was unable. 

Enough of this, Jim thought. This shouldn’t be so complicated.

“Just give me the ten grams, Toby, and take my money. Then you can go home and play video games, or beat off to Internet porn all day, or whatever it is you do.”

But Toby’s face turned yet another, deeper shade of red. He sputtered out something that Jim couldn’t understand. 

Toby let the envelope filled with Jim’s money fall to the ground.

What happened next happened very quickly. Jim would later reflect that it happened too fast for him to even begin to think about the consequences at the time.

Toby reached inside his coat. In the context of a heated argument over a heroin deal, that could only mean one thing.

Toby was about to draw a weapon on him.

Jim had never been in an honest-to-goodness gunfight. During his time at Lebanon, however, he had talked to several men who had had that experience, and who had lived to tell about it.

They all said the same thing: When guns are drawn with an intent to shoot, the man who acts decisively is the man who walks away. The man who hesitates is the man who doesn’t walk away.

Toby’s hand was still inside his coat when Jim pulled out the Glock 19. 

Toby saw the gun, and his eyes went wide. His face still bright red, he sputtered out something, which Jim still couldn’t understand. 

And Jim shot Toby twice in the chest.

Chapter 9

Table of contents

Venetian Springs: Chapter 7

Three hundred miles southeast of Chicago, and one hundred miles southeast of Indianapolis, fifty year-old Jim Garrett sat behind the wheel of his maroon 1981 Monte Carlo.

The car was parked in the rear parking lot of a truck stop on I-75, just south of Cincinnati, right over the Ohio River and the Kentucky border.

It was a chilly day in Cincinnati with sleet. The sleet clouded the windshield of the Monte Carlo, but Jim sat there with the engine turned off. Sometimes the engine light came on when the car idled for too long 

On the seat beside Jim was a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol. 

Jim Garrett was unusually fit for a man of fifty. While in prison he had acquired the habit of lifting weights. There was little to do in prison but pump iron.  

Jim was tall and lean. He had long, salt-and-pepper hair, and a thick horseshoe mustache. He also had a natural tan. His mother—long dead—had often told him that there was some Cherokee in the family tree, but Jim was suspicious of this claim.

Jim gripped the steering wheel of the Monte Carlo anxiously. He looked at the tattoos on his fingers, also acquired in prison. 

He was always a little anxious when he was about to buy heroin. He and his supplier took precautions. More than once, though, Jim had learned the hard way that the law is often one step ahead of you. 

He didn’t want to go back to prison again. He would use the Glock 19 before he would let any officer of the law put handcuffs on him.

He was sure of that. 

But that was hypothetical—at least for now. What was real at the moment was that Jim Garrett was a heroin dealer, and he wasn’t making much money at it.

Jim Garrett sometimes reflected that he was living proof of the old adage, crime doesn’t pay. In his youth he had believed—for no good reason—that it was his destiny to be the lead man in a heavy metal band. He had even tried this out, going for a few auditions, but they laughed him away when they found out that he couldn’t play any instruments, and he couldn’t really sing, either.

Then, almost at random, he had turned to a life of crime. Small-time stuff at first, none of it ever going anywhere. He was arrested a few times, but nothing ever stuck.

Six years ago they had busted him on a burglary charge. That stuck. He spent almost three years in Ohio’s Lebanon Correctional Institution.

For the past two years Jim had been out of prison. He was trying his hand at something new—dealing heroin. 

For years he had been hearing about how much money there was in narcotics. So he had decided to jump in and get his share. He had been disappointed almost from the very start.

There were people making money in the drug trade, surely, but not this far down the supply chain. By the time the heroin reached Jim, various middlemen along the way had already taken their cuts, jacking up the price to the point where the margin was extremely small.

Jim had read somewhere that the average street-level dealer is a twenty-one year-old man who lives with his mother. Jim was more than twice that age. His mother was long gone, but he was barely getting by.

A hell of a place for a man to find himself, at midlife.

He thought about the man he was about to meet: Toby Gates. Toby was a young guy, a low man on the totem pole of the network headed by Tony Mendoza. Toby Gates was nothing, really. But Toby used his association with the LA gangster as an excuse to lord it over Jim at every opportunity. 

Jim bristled at the thought of treating with Toby again. 

As if summoned by Jim’s thoughts, Toby’s car—a blue Honda—appeared on the access road that ran beside the interstate. 

Let’s just get this over with, Jim thought.

He looked at the Glock on the seat beside him. He could leave it in the car. It wasn’t necessary. Toby was annoying, but he had never been aggressive. 

Then he thought again: You didn’t go unarmed to a meeting with a member of Tony Mendoza’s organization—even a low-level putz like Toby Gates.

Jim picked the gun off the seat, tucked it inside his jacket, and stepped out of the Monte Carlo. 

Chapter 8

Table of contents

Venetian Springs: Chapter 6

Ralph began by grilling Vic about Alina Wells. He, too, had heard about her death from sources in the Chicago P.D.

“I understand exactly what you’re trying to do,” Ralph said. “You’re trying to get the big score. There’s a lot more glory to be had in taking down a continental drug baron than there is in taking down dozens of smalltime dealers. I get it. But sometimes our work involves dismantling networks piece by painstaking piece. You need to learn that.”

“What are you saying, Ralph?”

But he already knew what Ralph was saying—or at least he had a very good idea.

“I’m saying that you screwed the pooch, Vic. That’s what I’m saying.” 

Ralph waited a few beats for Vic to react. When Vic remained silent, he went on. 

“No, Tony Mendoza didn’t personally murder your CI. Someone at the street level in his organization did. Obviously. And had you taken down that person weeks ago, Alina Wells might still be alive. Also, as an added bonus, there’d be one less drug dealer on the streets of Chicago.”

Vic felt his frustration rising, but he held it in check. They’d had this conversation before. Nevertheless, he did feel compelled to present his side of the argument—again. 

“If I—if we—take out Tony Mendoza, then we take away a double-digit percentage of the heroin supply for the Midwest. That could be a pretty big thing.”

“For a while,” Ralph countered. “The Sinaloa Cartel is a very resourceful outfit. They’ll find another Tony Mendoza in a matter of weeks, if not days.”

Vic had no ready answer for that. Moments like this  forced Vic to wonder if he wasn’t giving in to his own vanities. 

His pursuit of Tony Mendoza had become personal. A certain degree of that was inevitable in law enforcement, but if you took that impulse too far, it could cloud your judgement.

“I want you to refocus,” Ralph said. “Concentrate on wrapping up the local dealers. Let the LA office focus on Tony Mendoza. If we bust him anywhere, we’re going to get him in LA. That’s where he spends most of his time, after all.”

“I’m working with another CI,” Vic said. “She’s going to get me an inside contact in Tony Mendoza’s organization. At the upper levels. Then we can take the whole network down.”

Ralph was obviously not impressed. After all, Vic had made this promise before.

“You have another week,” he said. “Then you shift your strategy: to reeling in the Chicagoland dealers.”

Chapter 7

Table of contents

Venetian Springs: Chapter 5

On his way back to his office, Vic sent a text message to Rosita Cruz. He told her only that he had an urgent need to see her.

He sent the message using a texting app, which would not be traceable to his DEA phone. Rosita was involved in various illicit acts of commerce to support her habit, just as Alina Wells had been. It would not be unusual for her to get such a message from an unidentified, apparently male, contact. 

Vic’s office was located on the tenth floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building in the Downtown Chicago Loop. He shared an office space with two dozen other DEA agents. There was nothing to complain about here, though; his desk afforded him a view of Lake Michigan. 

When he reached his desk, Vic was still reeling from the news about Alina Wells, the sight of her body in the alleyway. 

He couldn’t yet prove it, but he knew that Tony Mendoza was behind her death. This was not the first time that a confidential informant associated with Tony Mendoza had conveniently died. 

 Vic had been tracking the Los Angeles-based drug kingpin for the past year. Tony Mendoza and his organization controlled a sizable portion of the heroin that found its way to Chicago, and from there to more than a dozen other cities in the Midwest, including Indianapolis, Detroit, and Cincinnati. 

Mendoza had ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the brutal syndicates that controlled the narcotics trade in Mexico. But the domestic drug market within Mexico wasn’t worth that much. El Norte was where the real action was. The Mexican cartels all existed to serve the U.S. market, which was many times wealthier, and many times hungrier for illicit drugs. 

And so it was with Tony Mendoza. He divided his time between California and various points in Mexico. He had an alibi for all those trips, of course: His parents had both been born in Mexico, and he had many ties south of the border. 

DEA agents in Los Angeles, in coordination with officers of the LAPD, had acquired warrants, and carried out at least two searches of Mendoza’s Bel Air residence in recent years. They had found nothing. Tony Mendoza was smart enough to isolate himself from the actual merchandise and violence of the drug trade. 

Likewise, the Chicago branch of the DEA and the Chicago PD had busted plenty of street-level dealers who ultimately got their heroin from Tony Mendoza. But none of these arrests had served to build a case against the California drug baron. None of the street-level dealers had even been in the same room as Tony Mendoza. Their heroin supplies came through a complex network of middlemen. 

Vic needed to land someone high enough in the organization to have a direct, provable connection to Tony Mendoza. 

He had thought that Alina might get him closer to such a person. But now Alina was dead, and he was back to square one. 

Vic’s desk phone buzzed. He picked it up. 

“Vic. Ah, I see you’re back in the office.”

Ralph Morris—his new boss. Morris had been transferred to Chicago from Washington only two months ago. He and Vic were already locking horns—over a variety of things, but especially Tony Mendoza. 

“What can I do for you, Ralph?”

“Could you come into my office, Vic?”

“I’ll be right in,” Vic said, terminating the call. 

He stood up from his desk. It was shaping up to be a very bad day, indeed. 

Chapter 6

Table of contents

Venetian Springs: Chapter 4

One hundred and eighty miles north of Indianapolis, in an alley on the South Side of Chicago, Vic Torino knelt over the body of Alina Wells. 

The young woman had been dead for about eight hours, based on the information that law enforcement had so far. 

Beside Vic was Sgt. Dennis Haskel, of the Chicago Police Department. Haskel was also kneeling over the body. 

The alley was blocked off by two squad cars of the CPD, and two uniformed officers. 

“I knew she was your CI,” Sgt. Haskel said, “which is why I called you.” 

Vic nodded without replying. Alina Wells had indeed been working for Vic as a CI, or confidential informant. She had been helping him gain an inside hold on Tony Mendoza’s criminal organization. But that was all over now.

Vic had seen many corpses; but when you had known the person, it was different. Alina Wells’s body was clad in a pair of faded, ratty jeans, and a shirt with red and white horizontal stripes. Both of her feet were bare. Her clothes were soaked by the previous night’s heavy rain. 

Vic couldn’t help wondering about Alina’s final moments…And to think that she had been talking about turning her life around, the last time Vic had met with her.

Alina’s face, preternaturally pale with death, was framed by the helmet of her blonde hair, also rain-soaked. Alina Wells had been twenty-four years old, though her heroin habit had made her look considerably older…even while she was still alive.

Vic drew one palm over the top of his bare head, wiping away a sheen of cold rain droplets. The previous night, a Canadian front had descended on Chicago from Lake Michigan, bringing in the chilling rain and near freezing temperatures. 

So much for springtime, Vic thought. The rain was only now tapering off to a spittle. Vic was an Arizona native, and he often swore that he would never get used to the weather in Chicago. 

“Thanks,” Vic finally said to Sgt. Haskel, “for the phone call.”

Vic Torino was a twenty-year veteran agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. People often said that Vic was built like a fireplug. He had a swarthy complexion, an immaculately shaved head, and a thick black mustache. 

Vic looked down into Alina’s lifeless face. He wasn’t responsible for her death—not directly, at least—but her involvement with him might have been a contributing factor.

“She probably OD’d,” Haskel speculated, without much emotion. Haskel, like Vic, was a longtime veteran of law enforcement. He had seen his share of bodies in alleyways, no doubt. 

“She probably did OD,” Vic agreed. “But I think she had some help.”

Sgt. Haskel shrugged. “We’ll see what the coroner says.”

Vic stood up. There was nothing more he could do for Alina now (as if he had ever really done anything for her, he thought).  Alina would leave the alley in a van of the Cook County Medical Examiner. There would be no ambulance, of course. 

He thanked Sgt. Haskel again, and made his way out of the alley. The CPD would handle the crime scene from here. 

Vic had to contact his other confidential informant—Rosita Cruz. She was the only one he had left now.

Before he departed, he took one last look at Alina Wells’s lifeless body, and silently swore revenge on Tony Mendoza.

Chapter 5

Table of contents

Venetian Springs: Chapter 3

Mark didn’t use the peephole, though—even though he figured that Gina was probably right.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon. Children were still arriving home from school for the day.

If we have to be afraid under those circumstances, Mark thought, then what’s the point of having a house?

He pulled the front door open. The person on the front porch wasn’t exactly threatening, but he was nothing Mark would have expected, either. 

He was about the same age as Mark and Gina—probably in his mid- to late twenties. He had a mop of reddish blond hair, and a scraggly beard of the same color. 

He wore a rumbled blue blazer over his lanky frame. Mark saw threads dangling from the cuffs. 

His trousers—a shade of blue that didn’t match the blazer—were too long. 

Mark glanced down at the man’s feet: He was wearing mud-stained tennis shoes that had once been white. 

“How can I help you?” Mark asked. 

The stranger flashed Mark a smile, revealing several gaps where there should have been teeth. Mark was immediately reminded of documentaries he had seen about drug addicts, how narcotics destroyed their teeth.

“No,” the stranger said. “The question is: How can I help you? Joe Johnson’s the name, and credit counseling’s my game!”

Mark was on edge now.

Only a few minutes ago, he and Gina had been discussing their household budget. Then the sounds at the back door. 

And then this guy shows up, claiming to be a credit counselor.

But nothing about him added up. Mark might be a high school history teacher, but he had had his share of interaction with professionals in the finance industry: banking officers, loan agents, and the like.

None of them were anything like this Joe Johnson.

Then there was the fact that Joe Johnson sounded suspiciously like a made-up name.

“Were you at my back door just now?” Mark asked, getting right to the point. 

“Me?” Joe Johnson said, pointing a finger at his sparrow chest.

“You’re the only one on my porch right now.”

“Absolutely not,” Joe Johnson said, shaking his head. 

Mark didn’t entirely believe him. But there was no way to prove the matter, one way or the other. 

“Okay,” Mark said—though it wasn’t okay. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m a personal credit counselor!” the odd-looking man said. 

Mark listened to about a minute of the spiel. None of it made sense, really. 

A personal credit counselor? Seriously? This guy?

Whoever this Joe Johnson really was, whatever his game was, there was no way Mark was going to let him within a stone’s throw of his and Gina’s finances. 

“I’m sorry,” Mark said, interrupting him, “but I’m really not interested.”

Mark had expected that that would be the end of the matter. Like Gina—he was no milquetoast. In high school, about a decade earlier, Mark had played both football and baseball. He’d been in his share of fisticuffs. Few men tried to bully him. 

And he could have knocked this Joe Johnson off the porch without even trying, had he been so inclined.

But Joe Johnson, for his part, wasn’t quite ready to call it a day.

“If I could just come inside,” he said, “and talk to you and the missus.”

Now Mark’s hackles went up again—just when he had been ready to dismiss Joe Johnson as a harmless flake. 

“I didn’t say anything about a wife,” Mark said. “And no, you can’t come inside.” Mark’s tone wasn’t exactly hostile, but he was done playing nice.

Joe Johnson seemed flustered again. “A guy living in a house like this,” he stammered, “in this neighborhood…I figured you’d be married.”

Mark considered that. Possible. But he was done with this discussion, nevertheless. 

“Thanks anyway. But I’m not interested.”

“Could I at least get you to take a card?”

Mark didn’t want a business card from this man. But Joe Johnson was already reaching into the front pocket of his rumpled blazer. 

Anything to get rid of him at this point, Mark thought. 

“Okay. I’ll take one of your cards.”

Mark reached out and took the proffered business card.

Then Joe Johnson spun on his heels, and walked away.

Mark watched him depart. He couldn’t help it. There was so much about the man in the shabby blue blazer and soiled tennis shoes that didn’t add up.

Joe Johnson made quick steps up their walkway to the main sidewalk, where he made a sharp right turn.

Then he kept walking. He didn’t turn at the house next door, nor the house after that, either. 

Yet another thing that didn’t add up. If Joe Johnson was working door-to-door, then he would have stopped at at least one of those other houses.

But Joe Johnson wasn’t doing that.

He just kept walking. His pace seemed to accelerate the farther away he got, in fact.

So the door-to-door man wasn’t an actual door-to-door man. Joe Johnson—or whoever he was—had come into the neighborhood for one purpose: to call on Mark and Gina Baxter.

Most unusual.

Mark looked down at the business card in his hand. It was printed on plain white card stock:

Joe Johnson

Credit Counselor

There was a telephone number, which—Mark would have been willing to bet—connected to an over-the-counter burner phone. Also a Yahoo email address.

No company name. No website. No logo.

It simply didn’t add up. None of it.

When Mark walked back into the kitchen, he found Gina sitting at the table. She was looking at the legal pad, the numbers that governed their lives and future.

“Who was that?” Gina asked. 

“No one.”

She made a face. “Come on. It was someone.”

Mark crumpled up the business card and tossed it into the trash container beside the refrigerator.

“Just a salesman,” he said. “I got rid of him. Anyway, let’s get back to the budget.”

Chapter 4

Table of contents

Venetian Springs: Chapter 2

It was the sound of someone rattling the back door. Exactly what Gina had said, more or less. 

Mark stood up. Gina started to stand, too.

“Where are you going?” they both asked, more or less simultaneously. 

“I’m going to check the back door, of course,” Mark said. 

“I’m going with you!”

Mark had a sudden mental image: an intruder—a real one, this time—pointing the muzzle of a gun in his wife’s face.

He didn’t want to go there. 

“No. You stay here. I’ll take care of this.”

He exited the kitchen and entered the back hallway before Gina could offer further protest.

Speaking of guns, Mark didn’t own any. 

Not that he had any principled objection to them. Indiana, after all, was a Second Amendment state. 

Mark had grown up in Merrillville, in the northwest corner of the Hoosier State. Merrillville was within the orbit of the progressive-minded, gun-controlling megalopolis of Chicago. But both Mark’s father and his grandfather had been outdoor sportsmen. By the time he was twelve years old, Mark had been comfortable handling firearms.

Mark and Gina had purchased their first home in an inner-city neighborhood. Though most of their neighbors were decent, working-class people, the neighborhood was far from perfect. There were predatory elements. It wasn’t uncommon to hear sirens on a Friday night. Just a few weeks ago, the Indianapolis police had broken up a drug den not three blocks away. 

Once or twice Mark had toyed with the idea of buying a gun. It would have been easy. No state official in Indiana would deny a gun permit to a school teacher with a spotless record. 

In the end, though, he had judged a gun to be an unnecessary expenditure, given their financial state. Moreover, he’d never really believed that he needed one.

Until now.

The back hallway was flooded with the sunlight of a late March afternoon. The back door was a plain wooden door with a four-pane window. 

Mark could see no man-size shadow lurking in the window, but who knew what might be outside?

He strode forward and grabbed the knob, twisted it, and pulled the door open.

As he stepped out into the cool sunshine, he tensed his muscles for a fight. He stood on the back stoop, and looked to his right and then to his left.

No one there. 

The spring-loaded back door slammed shut behind him. From a few blocks away, he heard the air brakes of a school bus. 

They had a small back yard, and there were not many places to hide. There were two maple trees, but their trunks were not thick enough to conceal an adult. There was a large bush that had only begun to bud. Mark could look right through it. 

No one there.

At the very back of the yard, there was a high wooden fence. It belonged to the property behind them.

Could someone have rattled their back door, and then run across the yard and climbed over the fence?

Only if the prowler happened to be a very fit U.S. Navy SEAL, Mark figured. And even a SEAL would be challenged by that fence.

He had undoubtedly heard something. Both of them had. But the evidence was right here—or rather, it wasn’t here. Mark had no choice but to conclude that there was no one in their back yard.

After giving the yard a final look (there was not much to look at), Mark turned and opened the back door, to go back inside.

And he saw Gina, standing there with a butcher’s knife. 

Gina was holding the knife aloft, as if preparing to meet an attacker.

“What are you doing?” Mark asked, indicating the knife. He stepped inside the house, exercising care to stay away from the tip of the blade. He recognized the knife from one of the drawers in their kitchen. 

“I wanted you to have backup.” 

Mark involuntarily smiled. His wife was no milquetoast.

“What did you find?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“Really?”

“Really,” he said. “I checked. There’s no one back there.”

“But we both heard a sound at the back door.”

“We did,” Mark allowed. He had been thinking about that. “Sounds carry inside the city. All these houses. The echoes bounce around. While I was out there, I heard a school bus jam on the brakes a few streets over. It sounded like it was right on top of me.”

“But there was no one out there?”

“No. Say, could you put that knife down?”

She relaxed, and lowered the knife.  

Mark wasn’t completely satisfied with his own explanation, about the sounds carrying. But it was time to put this talk about prowlers aside. They needed to get back to those two columns of numbers on the legal pad.

“Anyway,” he said, “let’s resume our discussion of the budget.”

“What about—”

Then the doorbell rang. At the front of the house. 

“I’ll get it,” Gina said.

“And you’ll scare the hell out of the Girl Scouts—or whoever it is—with that knife. I’ll get the door. Wait for me in the kitchen, okay?”

With visible reluctance, she relented. 

“Be sure to look through the peephole before you open the door,” she called after him. 

Chapter 3

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Venetian Springs: Chapter 1

Mark Baxter was determined that he and his wife, Gina, were going to crack the nut of their household budget.

Laid out on the kitchen table before them were a pile of bills, a desktop calculator, and a yellow legal pad.

Mark had drawn a line down the center of the top sheet of the legal pad, dividing it into two vertical columns. In the lefthand column, he had tallied up their monthly take-home pay. They were both second-year teachers at Ambrose E. Burnside High School, a school in the Indianapolis Public Schools district.

In the righthand column he had listed their expenses: mortgage payments on the house, their college loans, groceries, utilities, and everything else.

The total on the left was only slightly larger than the total on the right.

That was a problem.

Gina, moreover, wasn’t paying attention. That was another problem. Her brown eyes kept darting to the open doorway between the kitchen and the rear hallway. She was twirling a length of chestnut brown hair between two fingers.

Gina had been distracted of late—and not just because of their perilous household finances. Mark knew part of the reason for her distraction; but he suspected that there was also something that she was keeping from him.

Why would Gina be looking toward the rear hallway?

The rear hallway of the house terminated at the back door. Gina was probably thinking about the intruder again.

Mark didn’t believe in the intruder, and Gina did.

That was yet another problem.

In recent weeks, Gina had become convinced that someone was entering their house during the daytime hours, when they were both teaching classes at the high school.

She claimed to notice that some items in the house were slightly awry, as if an outsider had been rifling through them. Closet and cupboard doors were left ajar at unfamiliar angles.

Or so Gina had claimed.

Mark had taken his wife’s concerns seriously—at first. He checked all exterior doors and windows for any sign of a break-in or tampering.

And he had found nothing.

Mark also pointed out that the supposed burglar had not taken any of their few possessions that were actually worth stealing: the laptop they used jointly, the antique brooch that Gina had inherited from her Grandma Tortelli, etc.

Even the cigar box, the most obvious target for a thief, had been left intact. This was the old Dutch Masters box that they kept atop the dresser in their bedroom. It always contained between fifty and a hundred dollars of emergency cash.

Any self-respecting thief would have taken the cigar box, Mark observed.

But the thief had not taken the cigar box, nor anything else—so far as either of them could ascertain.

Mark therefore concluded that there was no thief, no intruder.

“Earth to Gina,” Mark said. He waved his hand from side to side in the air, as if trying to rouse her from a trance.

“I heard something,” Gina said. “At the back door.”

“Oh, no. Don’t tell me that one of the problem students at Burnside has followed us home again.”

She didn’t laugh at the obvious joke. She flinched, in fact.

Mark wondered: Was one of the students at the high school in fact bothering her? Was that her problem?

“I’m telling you, Mark, I heard something back there.”

The damn intruder again. Mark rarely spoke a cross word to Gina, but he was getting fed up with talk about the nonexistent burglar. Whatever else was going on, there was no evidence that anyone had been inside their house.

“Gina,” he said gently, “I don’t think—”

And then Mark heard it, too.

Chapter 2

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“I Know George Washington”: about the story

A college student takes a summer job in a very unusual company in rural Virginia. 

What’s unusual about the company? Everyone insists that George Washington—the George Washington—is the founder and owner of the firm. 

Moreover, the great man himself will make an appearance before the end of the summer.

That’s the setup for the story, “I Know George Washington”.  

This is one of those stories that came to me in a dream (as so many of them do). 

Or, I should say, the basic idea came to me in a dream—not the complete story. 

After getting the initial seed of the idea, I spent some time fitting it into a narrative. The result is not quite a horror story, but something that might be called psychological suspense, in the spirit of the old Alfred Hitchcock movies like Rear Window and Vertigo. (I am a big fan of Hitchcock, and his technique of playing with the protagonist’s—and the audience’s—hold on reality.)

I’m presently posting snippets of “I Know George Washington” on Edward Trimnell Books.

I Know George Washington: Part 6

Tucker was aware that he was standing on a wooden platform. A scaffold, actually. The scaffold had been erected in the middle of a clearing, within a fog-drenched forest.

There was a distinct chill in the air. The smell of gunpowder. 

Tucker’s hands were bound behind his back.

A rope—a noose, to be precise—was tied taut around his neck. Not quite choking him. He could feel the itchy fibers of the rope. The rope’s hardness.

He looked down and got yet another surprise. He wasn’t wearing any clothes that he would recognize as his own. He was clad in white breaches, and black riding boots. 

He was wearing some kind of a jacket that was heavy and woolen. 

From somewhere back in the foggy woods, a crow cawed. 

Then Tucker heard a slow, rhythmic drumbeat. On one side of the scaffold, a row of soldiers became visible, half-shrouded by the fog. They wore tricorn hats. About half of them were standing at attention, with muskets at the ready. The other half, bearing drums, were the sources of the beats.

Closer to the scaffold, an older male voice said Tucker’s full name. Tucker looked down, and saw a portly man in a blue uniform, standing beside the platform. He wore a tricorn hat, too, and a powdered wig.

The stranger raised his hand, and the drumbeats stopped. Then he unfurled an old-fashioned scroll. He read aloud from the document, in a strange accent that was not quite contemporary American, but not quite British, either. 

“By order of his Excellency, General George Washington, you have been charged with high treason. You have been sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. May the Almighty have mercy on your soul.”

“No!” Tucker cried out. “I didn’t do anything!”

Tucker heard the slow clopping of an approaching horse. He looked in the direction of the clops, and saw a horse and rider approach out of the darkness.

George Washington sat atop a black horse. The general  wore his military uniform, complete with gold epaulets. He stared directly at Tucker, his face hard and implacable. But that wasn’t all.

Washington’s skin was as white as his powdered wig. He looked skeletal inside his uniform. Because he wasn’t much more than that—a skeleton.

Washington’s eyes were two solid black circles. 

“Tucker,” someone else said. 

Tucker looked down, and Joel was standing at the nearest corner of the scaffold, not far from the man with the scroll.

“You see, Tucker,” he said. “I told you that you would have a chance to meet George Washington before the end of the summer. Well, now you’re meeting him—”

Tucker awoke in the darkness of his bedroom, breathing hard. He occasionally had dreams that he remembered upon waking, but it had been some time since he had had a nightmare as vivid as this. 

A few more weeks, he thought, until he reported to George Washington Investments to begin his co-op job. He hoped that the strange events of today, and that horrible dream had been nothing but jitters, brought on by his anxiety over his employment situation.

But he feared otherwise.

End of excerpt

 

I Know George Washington: Part 3

What the hell?

Tucker was feeling the slightest tinge of annoyance now. He knew that the names of the Founding Fathers were public domain, and more than one company had used them over the years. There were Ben Franklin five and dime stores in many American small towns, and the John Hancock Life Insurance Company. Tucker supposed that more than a few companies had taken the name of George Washington, too. 

That was all fine and good, as a branding strategy. But Joel was taking the George Washington schtick a bit too far, wasn’t he?

Maybe this was a test of some kind. Tucker would find out. 

“Just to be clear,” Tucker said, “when you say, ‘the founder’, you aren’t talking about the actual founder of this brokerage house, right?”

“Of course I am,” Joel said. “I know George Washington. He’s quite an inspiring individual, let me tell you.”

You know George Washington? You’ve met him?”

“Why, yes. I’ve met him many times, in fact.”

Tucker held his growing annoyance in check, thinking about that prorated junior broker’s salary, and those applicable commissions. 

This man was pulling his leg, obviously, though the reason for that wasn’t yet clear.

But Tucker couldn’t let it go.

“You don’t mean the George Washington? President Washington? General Washington?”

“Oh,” Joel said. “Mr. Washington hasn’t officially held the title of president for quite some time. And as for the title of ‘general’—well, he does have a very distinguished military record, though he doesn’t like to talk about it.” 

Tucker tried to speak, but found himself at a complete loss for words. Then Joel added something else.

“You’ll have a chance to meet Mr. Washington for yourself, Tucker, before the end of the summer.”

Tucker had a sudden, unwanted image of Joel driving him to Mount Vernon, not far from here, and then taking him into the crypt of George Washington. He imagined Joel prying open Washington’s white marble sarcophagus, and—

Tucker pushed the images away. They were as ridiculous as they were macabre. 

But what else could Joel be saying?

“Well, then,” Joel said, stepping around Tucker, and back to his desk. “We’ll see you here on the first Monday in June—in just a few weeks—at eight a.m. Oh—would you like me to show you around the facilities here before you go?” He added this last as an obvious afterthought.

“Thanks,” Tucker said. “But I can see that you’re busy. And I’ll have plenty of time to see your facilities over the summer, right?”

That logic made sense to Joel, apparently. He was already seated behind his desk again. “I do have some important calls to return, now that you mention it. But I’m glad we were able to meet today, and come to an understanding.”

Understanding? Tucker was uncertain if Joel was referring to the summer co-op position, this George Washington nonsense, or perhaps both.

“I’ll let myself out,” Tucker said. “Thank you again, Mr. French. I appreciate—I appreciate everything. Thank you so much for the opportunity. As we’ve discussed, this is a rough year for students in the finance field.”

Joel gave Tucker a final, friendly wave, and reached for his desk phone. “No problem, Tucker. ‘How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.’ Now, take care, and we’ll see you again in just a few weeks.”

Tucker nodded goodbye but said no more. He had a feeling that Joel’s parting words were quoted; and he didn’t have to ask whom they were quoted from.

Part 4

Table of contents

I Know George Washington: Part 2

Psychological suspense from Edward Trimnell Books

Joel broke into a smile. “I do have some good news for you, though, Tucker. I’ve given your file a thorough perusal. Your grades are excellent. Your résumé is a little thin, which is to be expected for a person your age, but you’ve made the most of the time you’ve had. Your letters of recommendation are glowing. Unless something unexpected comes up on your background check or drug test—and I don’t expect that, of course—I believe that we can offer you the paid summer co-op position.”

“Thank you,” Tucker said, exhaling audibly. He felt suddenly light, a weight having lifted off his shoulders. He was going to be one of the lucky ones, after all. He wasn’t going to spend the summer flipping burgers.

“This is how it will work,” Joel went on. “For the length of the summer term, you’ll be paid at the prorated salary of a junior, first-year broker, with all the applicable commissions.”

Joel then proceeded to give Tucker some numbers, a rough estimate of how much money he could expect to make over the summer. 

“Will that be satisfactory?” Joel asked, when he had finished.

“More than satisfactory,” Tucker said, beaming. “I accept!” 

Joel smiled and nodded, genuinely happy with Tucker’s reaction. “I can’t promise you a job after graduation, Tucker; but I can tell you this: If your summer co-op term goes well, you’ll have a leg up on other new graduates, should you decide to apply for a regular, full-time position. We have a few new ones open up each year, typically. George Washington Investments is a small firm, as you’ve probably noticed. We have a very unique, informal corporate culture here. But it suits us well, I think you’ll find.”

“I’ve always thought that it would be rewarding to work in a small firm—where you can know all of your colleagues. I find that appealing!”

Tucker wondered if he had just laid it on a bit too thick there. Those last two sentences had been less than honest. Tucker would have much rather been sitting in the office of a big brokerage house in New York or Chicago right now. But none of those firms had summoned him for an in-person interview.

“That’s good to hear.” Joel stood, leaned across the desk, and offered Tucker his hand. “Welcome aboard, Tucker. Even if it turns out to be only for the summer, we look forward to you working with us.”

Tucker stood to shake hands with Joel. The older man was about Tucker’s height, but also about forty pounds heavier. His face had a pasty hue. Despite the warm Virginia climate, Joel probably didn’t get out in the sun much.

Then Joel stepped around the desk, and stood beside Tucker. 

And then things got weird again.

Joel put an avuncular hand on Tucker’s shoulder—an unthinkable intimacy in New York or Chicago, but things were different here. 

“You see that?” Joel said. Joel indicated yet another painting—this one on the wall beside them. This painting, too, was familiar to Tucker. It was a reproduction of Washington Crossing the Delaware

“I see it,” Tucker said.

“See Washington standing in the prow of the boat? See the men pushing the boat through the ice floes? We both know that is only an artist’s depiction. But something like that really happened. Washington and his men were on their way to sack the Hessian encampment at Trenton that night. It was Christmas Night, 1776.”

“Impressive,” Tucker said. He remembered what Joel had said about George Washington just a few minutes ago. How could he forget?

“As I told you, Tucker, we have our own unique culture here at George Washington Investments; and our founder is a key part of it. As he once said, ‘Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.’ The old man doesn’t get into the office much nowadays, but his words—and his deeds—continue to inspire us every day.”

Part 3

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