While boarding the Dinky Dao at Loch Lomond, we made a show of gaiety for the benefit of the man in the sedan. I couldn’t make out much more than an outline of his form 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 was with Ryan. The alternative was that he was one I didn’t wish to entertain. Could be another Smerdyakov’s thugs. I wanted whoever it was to believe we’d all be leaving on the same boat as we set off for Benicia. We had plenty in our tanks but I hoped we had time before the pumps closed. Casey insisted we cruise slow enough to get there under the cover of darkness. It wasn’t such a bad idea.
Casey was happier than I ever saw him over the years. “We trained here… Brown Water Navy… I know these sloughs as well you do, ya know. Some places are more like the Mekong than the Mekong.” It was the river, the delta, the sloughs… it had to be Anna too. I would never have thought this would happen for him if she wasn’t playing him. She could be doing that without knowing. It’s a survival reflex for girls in the sex-trade. A man doesn’t know he’s being played if the girl is skilled at it. If she is too good at it, she might not even know. It’s an occupational hazard.
I lounged aft with Anna and Larry among the lobster traps, and enjoyed the sunset’s crimson sky past Vallejo and Carquinez Strait. 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.” Once upriver, and away from the lights of the Bay Area’s ever growing suburban sprawl, we would be shrouded in curtains of rain and the dim light of night. That’s good for cover but not so hot for amateurs navigating the river’s twists and eddies of currents. It was decided, Gabe knew the delta better than Casey or me and would pilot the boat after Benicia. We would throw off anyone tailing us by splitting up. Larry and I would 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 handed me a set of keys before we tied-up to the fueling dock. He asked, “You remember the shed?”
“Still there? I would’ve thought the termites took over the lease by now.”
He ignored my dig. His gaze was on the sedan waiting for us at the top of the boat launch, saying, “That’s the same car.”
That our monitor 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 busying herself with makeup as though we were on our way to the yacht club soiree. She came out on deck to join Casey stopping long enough to tell Gabe, “You know, 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 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 only sound then was gravel crunching underfoot to the shed. The sedan, parked at the top next to the shed, looked empty as we approached. I saw that the hasp had been pried off the shed’s 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 concrete 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 light 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. He held out a hand and his grip made mine feel like a child’s hand. I was grateful he put only enough pressure to hold my hand firmly because he could have broken all my knuckles with a mere squeeze.
The adrenaline settled as 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 at the door, relieved I laughed, “Shit or get off the pot, Doc. 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, I countered, “You didn’t like them at first?”
“No, not even later. Really. I have a wife you know.”
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, 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 and taking a defensive stance, he snatched an oversized crescent wrench off the peg-board, “It was transplants. Organ transplants!”
“Fuck you, Doc!” I slapped the wrench from his hand. “Don’t even tell me you were only in it for the money.”
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.”
“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 gizzard wrong, 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.”
I asked while opening the case, “How did he die?” as though it mattered. A machine pistol complete with a fold-out stock, night vision scope, and silencer, were tucked in the cutout foam. They must be a dime a dozen on the black market.
“Russians like to use Ricin…” Harry explained, “Takes less that you can put on the head of a pin… heart failure. Doctor Sochenski wasn’t one of Larry’s pervs but they held his daughter hostage as insurance. She disappeared… they never found her body.”
The realization of how far Doc’s little game had gone sank in. “I didn’t know,” he moaned, “She was only six-years-old!”
“You could have found out if you cared, Larry… like the others. They were all someone’s six-year-old daughters, once,” I said, while checking-out the weapon. By this time, I knew exactly what I was doing with Larry. 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.
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 in its case on the table between us.
Bird Dog took the case, put it in the saddlebag of the Harley, “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 Gabe’s camper at Prospect Slough. You remember where he keeps it?”
“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. Ryan or I will contact you. Turn it on at the top of each hour… no more than five minutes. If you don’t hear from us, try every half hour. 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 to 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 can’t do this much longer. 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.” His heavyweight boxer’s fist shook the table as his words hammered a deliberate affirmation, “Smerdyakov doesn’t deserve to die of old-age.”
“And you should be playing shuffleboard in Florida, old man.”
The Bird Dog wasn’t done recruiting me, “It’s never over you and me, Craszhinski. We’re the damned. If there wasn’t a war somewhere, we’d go start one.”
I must have said the same kind of things a thousand times from a hundred bar stools. “You don’t have to recruit me. Like it or not, I’m already into it up to my ass.”
Larry had been quiet but, slipping into the standard buttery tone of a funeral director, he must have thought we needed to be comforted, “You know, from Saint Francis, to Mohammed, they were all warriors that turned inside.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, “What? Larry, is that you?”
“Hey, I’m a preacher, remember, I read about these things.” Larry was proud, like he was sitting at the adult’s table.
I teased him, “You think Bird Dog’s a saint?”
Harry Baker the man, not the legendary Bird Dog, nudged me, “Can you trust a saint that hasn’t had blood on his hands?”
I stood on the kick-starter peddle, the old pan-head coughed, and grumbled from the pipes as I patted the sissy seat behind, shouting over the revving roar, “Climb on Larry, we’re goin’ for a ride.”