While departing Loch Lomond, we made a show of gaiety for the benefit of the observer in the sedan. I couldn’t make out much more than an outline of his form from where we were but it was too large to be Yuri. He must have wanted us to know we were being watched and my thinking was that he could be with Ryan. That he could be another one of Smerdyakov’s thugs was an alternative I didn’t wish to entertain but had to accept. Regardless, I wanted friend or foe to believe we’d all be staying on the same boat after we set off. Casey insisted we cruise slow enough to arrive under the cover of darkness. At least then, once we split up at the Benicia marina, we had a chance at not being seen. It wasn’t such a bad idea, though the docks would most likely be lit up.
Casey was happier than I ever saw him over the years.
“We trained here… Brown Water Navy, Crash, I know these sloughs as well you do, ya know. Some places here are more like the Mekong than the Mekong.”
It was more than the river, the delta and the sloughs, that made him so damned blissed out … it had to be Anna too. I hoped she wasn’t playing him. It’s a survival reflex for girls in the sex-trade. She could be doing that without knowing. A lonesome man doesn’t know or care that he’s nothing more than a mark to her. If she’s too good at it, she might feel great affection. It isn’t an occupational hazard to believe her own cover but it is one to believe she also cares and forgets her purpose. My problem was to figure out what that purpose must be.
Anna, Gabe, Larry and I, lounged aft among the lobster traps, and enjoyed the sunset’s crimson sky past Vallejo. A storm was on its way. No one having any experience at sea believes the rhyme, “A red sky at night is a sailors’ delight.” It rarely is. Once upriver, and away from the lights of the ever-growing Bay Area’s suburban sprawl, I knew we would be shrouded in curtains of rain and the dim shades of night. That’s good for cover but not so hot for amateurs navigating the river’s twists and eddies of currents.
We had the luxury, however, of three experienced river pilots. Casey knew the delta as well as I did but, because our knowledge was based on distant memory, it was decided, Gabe knew it best and would take charge of the boat after Benicia. He was best suited to throw off anyone trying to tail us. It could help too that Larry and I would jump off at the marina and ride the Harley up the other side of the river to join up with them later.
I throttled down as we entered the harbor. It was quiet after dusk among the forest of masts and no one was moving around. The ambient light from a hundred sources on land and sea bounced off the bottom bellies of a thickening cloud-cover.
Gabe asked, “You remember the shed?” He handed me a set of keys before we tied-up to the fueling dock.
“Still there? I would’ve thought the termites took over the lease by now.”
Distracted by the sedan waiting for us at the top of the boat launch, he ignored my dig. saying, “That’s the same car.”
That our shadower would be waiting for us when we arrived at Benicia hadn’t been one of my calculations. It was about a forty-five-minute drive for him, depending on the traffic, and a short cruise of sixteen miles for us from Loch Lomond… about the same amount of time.
“Maybe, Gabe. Too dark to tell for sure,” I tried not to show any sign of panic.
Gabe had the stature, and authority, of a wise Grandpa, but now he wanted me to take charge. He pled, “We should get out of here now. Forget the Harley. What do you think?”
All those years of avoiding responsibility had been dropping away since Santa Cruz Island. It was best for all of us to stay calm. I assured him and the rest, “I don’t know. But I have a feeling, we’re okay.”
Gabe wasn’t buying my optimism. Shaken, he asked, “What if it’s not okay?”
I tried a stoic retort, “The handmaiden of fear is doubt, old man. Look at Anna in there.”
We had been watching Anna inside the cabin, indifferent but not oblivious, to our danger. She’d been cleaning one of the AKs and then busied herself with makeup as though we were on our way to the yacht club soiree. She came out on deck to join us, stopping long enough to remark, “You know, Gabe, Spartans polished their armor and greased-up with olive oil before their last stand. They had to die pretty, you see. If it’s not okay, I’m ready.”
Casey passed the nozzle and hose from the pump over to Anna shouting, “Self-serve… No one’s here!”
Gabe yelled back, “No, Casey, we have enough. Get back on board, we’re out of Dodge.”
I took comfort feeling the Browning in its holster under arm, “Go ahead, Casey, and top her off. We have to take our chances, Gabe. Sometimes, for the mouse, running isn’t the right choice. That cat might have something for me.”
It didn’t take long for them to top off the tank. Larry tagged along with me like a lost puppy that had found a new master as I stepped out onto the dock. We were half-way up the launch-ramp by the time Anna threw the lines from the cleats and leapt, agile as an antelope, back on deck. Gabe shouted for the benefit of anyone within earshot, “See you guys in Sausalito. Have us a crawdad fest!”
Doc was puzzled, “Crawdads? Sausalito? Thought we were going to go to…”
“Doc, it’s a ruse. Don’t mean nothin’. There’s clams but ain’t no crawdads in Sausalito.”
We stood silent listening to the grumble of the Dinky Dao fading beyond the breakwater. The gravel crunching underfoot on the concrete ramp was a conspicuous herald of our arrival to the shed in the still of the evening. The sedan, parked at the top next to the shed, looked empty as we approached. I saw that the hasp had been pried off its sliding barn-door. It was left open a crack. I took the Browning out of its holster and held it two-handed at-ready. Doc and I glanced at each other…. curiosity in my eyes and fear in his.
I gave him a shove ahead of me with a forearm. He whispered, “What are you doing Crash, someone’s in there!”
“Larry, it’s too late to whisper. Go ahead and open the damned door.” I gave him another nudge. If anyone was going to get shot, it wouldn’t be me, “Open it!”
He slid the door.
We were greeted by the musty smell of the old shed and decades of oil permeating the packed dirt floor. A man’s familiar voice from a stool at the workbench next a covered bike called out from the gloom, “Holster your piece, Crash. You won’t need it, yet.” The large dark figure pulled the cord on the bare bulb above Gabe’s well-ordered work bench. On the wall above it; every wrench, screwdriver and hammer had its place in outline on the pegboard.
I had no problem recognizing the man, though he’d aged… suit and tie replaced the Hawaiian shirt … silver butch-cut on top of a mask of a face … it was Danang with Ryan… Camp Perry… Langley… a shadowy legend, Harold Baker. I thought he must be in his 70’s by then, the six-foot-five, broad shoulders, an imposing figure of a man, a threatening force to recon with, “Hey, Bird Dog?”
I holstered the piece.
I let the adrenaline rush settle before I asked, “You made a show of yourself back there. Since we’re all alive, do you mind telling us what this is all about?”
Larry stood, frozen at the door.
“Shit or get off the pot, Doc.” Relieving the tension, I laughed, “C’mon in, take a stool at the bench. This guy’s a friend.”
Harold Baker had always been matter of fact, “I wasn’t the only one watching you at Loch Lomond.”
“Thought as much. When you didn’t get out of the car back there you had me wondering.”
“Enough of that. I’ll get to the point, Ryan called me… he found out you’re in deeper than you can handle alone.”
I slipped the cover off the Hog while he talked and swung a leg over the Harley’s seat, idly twisting the throttle, “Yeh, Larry here got into some nasty shit. How about that Larry? You had quite a party for a while, huh?”
Bird Dog put a hand on Doc’s shoulder like he was calming a frightened dog, “That’s not the half of it. As evil as those pricks are, they wouldn’t normally touch snuff films.”
Larry whined, “I didn’t like them either. They made me do them.”
Impatient with his excuses, any compassion I had for him waned at being reminded what his game was. I checked his denial, “You didn’t like them at first?”
Bird Dog wasn’t interested in our discussion, “I’ve got something in the car for you, Crash. You haven’t told him the whole truth, have you Doctor Spawn? Tell all of it while I step out.”
It pissed me off that I hadn’t gotten the whole truth out of Larry on the boat. That he was a murderer was one thing but that he enjoyed it, and was still lying about it, blotted out whatever drug induced empathy I still had for the creep. I jerked him by the collar off his stool and tossed him against the workbench, “Whatever you say, Doc… What’s worse than getting your rocks off killing chicks?”
“Let me finish, goddamn it!” He pled. Backing away he snatched an oversized crescent wrench off the peg-board, “It was transplants. Organ transplants!”
“Fuck you, Doc!” I lunged, twisting the wrench from his hand and slamming him against the shed’s fragile wall, “You made money off it too!”
Larry held his wrist, “Auch! You broke it!”
Bird Dog came back with a small plastic gun case, about ten by twenty. “Calm down everyone. I wanted to slap the shit out of him too but Larry didn’t have anything to do with that part.”
“Sure, he did.”
Larry whimpered, “No, Crash, I thought they were all just acting.”
“Yes, he’s not lying. Larry just supplied the product in his fun dungeon. By the time Yuri was done, fresh organs were in a cooler and on the next flight out of town.”
“You’d have to have a real doctor, a surgeon, to do that, right? I mean, I wouldn’t want to fuck with the Russian Mob. Say, if you cut out a wrong gizzard, for one. Who was the surgeon?”
“Larry can tell you. The Russians can be very persuasive, Crash. Isn’t that right Professor?”
Larry nodded, “It doesn’t matter now, we buried him a year ago.”
“So, he must have known they’d kill him. Why would he go along unless he was a sick fuck too?” I asked while opening the case, as though the whole goddamned universe cared.
“Larry isn’t telling you the whole story now either. Doctor Sochenski wasn’t one of Larry’s pervs but they held his daughter hostage as insurance. They both disappeared into a lime pit… they’ve never found their bodies.”
Doc moaned, like he’d just realized how far his little game had gone, “I didn’t know…. Really. She was only six-years-old!”
My contempt at this performance set in, “You could have found out if you cared, Larry… like the others. They were all someone’s six-year-old daughters, once,”
I was familiar with the weapon tucked in the cutout foam… French used them… a Bullpup they call ‘em; because they’re a short, but fully automatic and accurate rifle, complete with a fold-out stock, night vision scope, and silencer. All of that. I must admit… damned near had an erection looking at it, “Shit, these are hard to come by.”
I unfolded the stock, took aim at an imaginary target, swung the muzzle to Larry’s face… he shrunk back knowing I would kill him. But my finger wouldn’t… couldn’t… squeeze that fraction of the trigger’s pull between murder and his humanity. I lowered the muzzle, folded up the stock and set it on the table between us.
By this time, I knew exactly what I was doing with him. The effects of LSD are pretty much out of one’s system within twenty-four hours but the psychological effects are long term… especially after a first trip and an overload of paranoia and self-realization exposed all at once. It could drive him to suicide, and, now that my work was done with him, it didn’t matter to me if I sped up the process. Except for a trace of empathy, I might be able to lead myself out of the moral malaise we’d been swimming in but I didn’t know how to do that for both of us. I wasn’t doing so well with it myself, really. The whole affair, since leaving the sanctuary of Anna’s place… the blood… the killing… the low value on life… disgust for us both arose from the gut and stuck in my throat.
Bird Dog closed the case, took off the bench, and put it in the saddlebag of the Harley, “There’s extra clips in there too. I don’t give a damn one way of another if this Yuppie lives. We’re done with him. But you, Craszhinski, have got to get your ass out to Prospect Slough. You remember where Gabe always keeps his trailer?”
“I know. We already discussed it.”
Bird Dog had his pitch, “Good, stay there. Under the seat at the table’s a CB. Don’t call out. Wait and listen. Ryan, or I, will contact you. Otherwise, save it for a real emergency.”
“I know the drill. So, Ryan’s within range. Where?”
He handed me a card. It read, The Island Mansion. “You’re back in the game. You know that much, don’t you?”
“I know I’m dealing with a legion of demons besides all this,” I nodded towards Larry, smiling.
“See, Crash. You know what I mean?” The Bird Dog’s mask saddened. It was as though he was remembering a dream… a vivid one. I never heard him talk like this, or, this much, “Ryan called me because of you and Anna. Smerdyakov… I know him from Madrid… he must be in his eighties by now. I trained Anna and now you’re almost ready. Ryan’s on the job too.” Face set like stone, his heavyweight boxer’s fist shook the table. He hammered home a deliberate affirmation, “I’m almost done but Smerdyakov doesn’t deserve to die of old-age.”
“And I don’t think you’re ready for shuffleboards in Florida either, old man.”
The Bird Dog wasn’t done recruiting me, “It’s never over you and me, Craszhinski. With Glasnost, the USSR is falling apart. Smerdyakov has no rules. A devil far worse than the KGB has been unleashed from Moscow. In a few years, a monster like him will be president of Russia.”
I must have predicted from the bar stool the same kind of things a thousand times. Glasnost, Perestroika, a power vacuum filled by the Russian mob… “You don’t have to recruit me. Like it or not, Anna has me in this up to my ass.”
Larry had been quiet but he must have thought we needed to be comforted and, falling back onto the melodious intonation of a funeral director, he reassured us, “You know, from Saint Francis, to Mohammed, they were all warriors. They turned to God… to a Higher Power.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, “Sweet Jesus, Larry, is that you?”
Larry was proud, like he was finally sitting at the adult’s table. “Hey, remember, I’m a Reverend and, to administer to the flock, I’ve read about all the saints. It was my job.”
I chaffed, “You think Bird Dog’s a saint? If there wasn’t a war somewhere, he’d go start one.”
Harry Baker, the man, not the legendary Bird Dog, cracked a smile and nudged me, “Larry’s right. We’re the damned and wouldn’t trust a saint that hasn’t had blood on his hands.”
I stood on the starter peddle, the old pan-head coughed and grumbled from the pipes first kick. I patted the sissy seat behind, revving, and shouting over the rumble, “Climb on Larry, we’re goin’ for a ride.”