Vicki was a happy girl when she trotted over to my house Sunday about noon. We had time to compare notes about our evenings, although her smile was bigger than mine.
The heat and humidity had done a number on the dog shit, and we were breathing out of our mouths as we loaded it into the briefcase – what a waste! It was an expensive Samsonite with all kinds of compartments. We put it in my trunk and celebrated on the deck with a glass of wine and Healthy Choice frozen meals. Both of us had decided to renew our vows to keep trim.
I packed the knap sack and placed it at the appointed spot in the backyard, we retrieved our guns, and headed for the park about four o’clock.
I was right. The place was pretty crowded on a Sunday afternoon. A birthday party was in full progress at the first pavilion, and Vicki and I tried to appear nonchalant as we walked around. Couples strolled, rode bikes, people threw Frisbees, and Choco was tugging at his leash to play with other dogs he just knew would be friendly. We were scanning the park for anyone who looked out of place – what does a thug look like on a warm Sunday in the park?
“I need a cigarette,” Vicki was pulling her pack and lighter out of her pocket. “Can people still smoke in the park or have the smoking police managed to ban it here too?”
“I didn’t see any sign, so guess it’s okay,” I pulled one out too. I started smoking in college and refused to give it up. In my rebellious moments, I smoked in public, just to see the distaste on other people’s faces. I particularly liked smoking at the airport, in the designated glass cages, so that parents could point out the “endangered species” to their children as they walked by. I suppose I would be worried about it if my gene pool were not so good. My grandmother smoked a pack of Lucky Strikes every day of her life until she went into the nursing home. She died after three months, at age one hundred three, and my mother always insisted it was because they took her cigarettes away from her. My mom is eighty-two and holding up the family tradition quite well, although her smokes are filtered. She smokes one of those generic brands, containing God knows what, because the others are just too expensive. All of us have been taught to engage in “no-hands” puffing, so that both hands are free to engage in productive work while we sin.
The park was pretty great in the spring – everything green and manicured. We meandered over toward the edge of the woods by the first pavilion, so that we could scope out potential hiding places for the evening. I nudged Choco into the woods, so that our surveillance would look normal, and we walked up and down the area, looking for that perfect spot. There was none, but we did find an area that would hide us behind some tall shrubs of unnamed variety but allow a view of the trash can through its branches. On either side were huge trees. If they truly did make the pick-up after dark, it would be difficult to see much detail unless the tall security light on the other side of the pavilion happened to provide enough light.
By five o’clock, the birthday party was packing up and dumping trash into our container – please, don’t let them fill it all the way up! Others began to leave, and the place was thinning out fast. Finally, the last of the partiers left, and we were able to retrieve the briefcase from the trunk. It was really ripe now – I could just imagine how soon the flies would be all over it! We set it in the trash can, ran back to the car and took off.
Back home, we did as planned, parked in the driveway and went in the front door. Turning on several lights and the TV, to give the impression of habitation, we locked the doors, headed out the back door, deposited Choco in Vicki’s house via her back door, and headed into the woods, picking up the knapsack on the way. Our guns neatly tucked into deep pockets, we felt just like Girl Scouts.
“First thing we do when we get there,” I said, “is to put repellant on. I have a date tomorrow night, and I’m not going to be full of chigger and mosquito bites!” We had dressed for this party in jeans and short-sleeved t-shirts but had smartly tied sweatshirts over our shoulders for the inevitable chill that still came every evening. That should put a damper on the bugs’ fun too. We walked along the creek that ran through the woods all the way to Marine Ave. With so much rain, it was pretty full, and when it got this way, all sorts of critters drank from it. I didn’t remind Vicki of this, because she hated anything other than fish in tanks and birds in cages, except for Choco. I had seen deer, red fox and wild turkeys down here a lot and was hoping that no developer would ever decide to build on the other side – it would destroy their habitat. Once in a while, we even got deer in our yards – testament to the encroachment of civilization into their world – and at least a few times each year, someone hit a deer out on busy Olive Boulevard. They just had nowhere to go anymore.
Crossing Marine Avenue, we entered a much thicker part of the woods, and it became difficult to maneuver. Deciding that I didn’t want scratches all over me either, I opted for BO and put the sweatshirt on. We tramped up the hill, both of us pretty winded by the time we reached the top. We then had to veer left to get down to the first pavilion and our spot. The sound of loud rustling from the rear froze us in place. In silence we stared wide-eyed at each other and then looked in the direction of the noise. Nothing. Shit. We were being followed. Trying to remember what I had seen on TV in these situations, I motioned for Vicki to go to one side and I went to the other, so that we were facing each other with about a fifteen-foot span between us, hidden a bit by the growth. When the pursuer got to that point, he would find guns pointed at him from either side. We pulled our guns and waited. Nothing. I could not hold the gun steady and was sure Vicki was shaking just as badly. Sweat was pouring down my face and back, and I was beginning to itch all over. Still no sound, and I was just beginning to think it was only an animal when we heard it again. Trying to steady my arm, I flipped the safety off the gun, one of the few things I remembered from the class, and extended my arm, gun pointing down, so that I could raise my arm quickly, as soon as I saw the enemy. Vicki followed suit.
The noises got louder and closer – and I was now shaking all over, dropping to my knees so that I wouldn’t pass out. Vicki was still standing but looked to be totally frozen and zoned out. Guess the real thing was a lot different than in gun class. I was as close to total panic as I’ve ever been. Then, out of the shrubs poked the head of the most beautiful buck I had ever seen. Never had I been this close to a deer before – he was literally three feet away from me, those big brown eyes just staring. I sat down on the ground in relief. That noise startled him and off he ran. Vicki and I looked at each other and burst into laughter, while I reminded her to put the safety back on. She laughed harder, telling me that she had forgotten to take it off in the first place. We were real pros, I could tell.
We found our spot and settled down on the blanket, rubbing ourselves with repellant.
“O.K., so here’s the plan. We won’t try to be heroes. I just want to try to get a good look at the guy or guys. They are here to kill me, and I’m not giving them any opportunity – remember, I have this date Monday night.” I was trying to be light, but inside I was a wreck. To think I had ever gotten into this situation was just ludicrous!
“Don’t worry, Jill, I’m not about to make any moves – especially since I probably have a good thirty years left. If nothing else, I’d like to see Jennifer’s future.”
The sun was dipping, and the trees began to cast dark shadows across the park. We could see the park rangers driving by in their cars. The park closes at dusk, and the entrance gate locked, so I suspected our guys would be on foot, but from which direction I hadn’t a clue. Vicki and I passed the time whispering, and our sweatshirts began to feel good as the chill set in. The lights finally came on, and I was able to see the trash can pretty clearly.
We waited and waited some more. I checked my watch at 9 – still no sign.
Then we heard them – muffled conversation, ever so soft, but obviously human. They were off to our left, how far I had no idea. Grabbing a handful of landscape rocks I had put in the knapsack, I hurled them at the trashcan – some of them should hit. Bingo! A bunch did, and immediately, the muffled conversation stopped and I heard rustling. How come we hadn’t heard them before? Lying on my stomach, I shimmied through the shrubs to get a better view. Fortunately, the noise was minimal. I drew my gun as I shimmied just a bit further up, and could just barely see the edge of the woods, meeting the grass where Frisbee playing had occurred just a few hours earlier. A figure knelt down with gun aimed toward the pavilion. Where was the other guy? There were at least two of them, I knew. If the guy with the gun would just move up a bit more, the light would shine on his face and I could get a look. But he just knelt there. From behind, I heard a sharp cry and turned to see Vicki in the arms of a big dude, his hand clamped over her mouth. He was dragging her off to the left, and she was putting up a good fight, kicking and flailing her one free arm. There was no choice for me. I ran full force at the two of them, hoping to knock them down and, in the tangle, free Vicki and get in a few good licks or a shot at the bad guy. All three of us went down in a tumble, Vicki was out of his grasp, and I landed right on top of him – perfect. I rammed two fingers right into his eyes and tried to roll off. The other thug was on me instantly, but now it was two against one, as Vicki was back with her gun. Shoving it into his ass, she said, “I don’t know where the bullet will come out, but you probably don’t want to chance it. Now roll off my friend, you fucker!” Wow! Vicki could be really convincing! The jerk rolled off me, and I got up off of the groaning goon. Neither now had a gun, so I could only assume they had been lost in the scuffle. Vicki had hers though, and that was good enough! Mine, I couldn’t find at first, but then I saw it glinting right next to the goon who was still holding his eyes. He was groping for his with one hand, a hand I stomped on good and hard as I leaned over to pick up my gun, along with his. His was nicer, because it had a silencer, I noticed. “Pretty little thing,” I thought.
We each held a “prisoner” at gunpoint, but then had no idea what to do with them. This part I hadn’t planned. While Vicki held her captive at bay, I stuck my pistol to the head of bad eyes and said, “Get up – we’re taking a walk.” He could hardly stumble to his feet but did so, holding one hand over his face. I wanted to get them away from the one missing gun as quickly as possible, so we marched them out of the woods and over to the trash can.
“Now, we can’t have the two of you following us out of this park, can we? How can we possibly guarantee that you won’t do that? Vicki, got any ideas?”
“I say we waste them right here and now. Their gene pools definitely need to be drained – unless, of course, they want to tell us who sent them.”
“That will never happen, because they probably don’t even know – these are two little punks, paid to do a job, isn’t that right guys?” With that, I took the silenced gun and shot each one in the foot. I had a twinge of horror that I was capable of shooting another person, but then, they were going to kill my best friend and me, and this seemed like a minor payback. They both fell to the ground immediately. “Now, I would suggest that you take a piece of your clothing and tie it tightly around your wounds, so you don’t lose too much blood. And when you talk with your employers again, tell them this. One more attempt to do anything to me, my friend here, or our property, and the whistle gets blown. I have it all figured out, you tell them, and the entire story has been sent to three individuals who shall remain nameless. One call from me, or my injury or death, and those three individuals turn the stories over to police and newspapers here and on the west coast. You tell them I want money – lots of it – and I’ll let them know how and when. They need to lay low until they’re ready to deal, then they can call me. But, one more incident, and the whole thing goes public. Capice??” (Italian words were appropriate, I thought). Writhing in pain, they managed to nod.
I reached into the trashcan and retrieved the briefcase, throwing it down beside them. “This is symbolic – be sure you deliver it to your bosses.” While Vicki held the gun on them, I bent down and searched for identification or cell phones, but found nothing. With that, Vicki and I calmly walked back into the woods.
As soon as we reached the knapsack, I dug out the flashlight, and we began to look for the other missing gun. I didn’t want to leave it there – if the goons didn’t find it, some kid might. It finally showed itself, nestled next to a large tree, and I grabbed it. We lit out of there, running and stumbling our way down the hill to Marine. We stopped at the edge and saw no cars, so tore across the street and followed the creek home. Gasping for breath, exhausted, and finally out of adrenalin, we collapsed at the edge of my backyard and lay silent for a long time.
“Jesus, Vicki, this is getting to be too much for us. We’ve got to get someone else involved, but I just don’t know who yet – maybe the FBI.”
“Just get me into the safety of a house – I can’t think about it now.” was all she could say.
“I’m sorry I got you into this,” I said, as we walked up toward my back door. “I really put us in danger with the stupid idea that I could ever be an investigative reporter. Actually, the engagement and wedding page is looking pretty attractive right about now.”
I unlocked the back door, and beheld a total disaster. While we were jaunting in the woods with the small-time thugs, bigger-time thugs were ransacking my house again. This time, they had taken my computer tower and, for good measure, had smashed my monitor – what jerks! How could they possibly think I would leave stuff on my hard drive for them to find? Tomorrow I was getting an alarm system for sure! Vicki went over to retrieve Choco from her house, and I slowly began to pick up the big items which had been dumped or overturned. The kitchen and breakfast room were intact, so I got out a large bottle of wine and two glasses. Choco bounded into the house ahead of Vicki, I let him out into the backyard, and we sat at the table, looking dirty and disheveled, as we pondered what to do.
“Look, Vicki, I can call the FBI tomorrow – this collusion involves interstate commerce, so they can get involved. It’s just that all we really have right now is suspicion – no property has actually changed hands yet. And I’m thinking this Steinman guy, you know the fella Hollman was defending for the real estate shenanigans – he may be under the protection of the FBI right now. Remember, he supposedly was blowing the whistle on a bunch of people. I am wondering if we and the FBI are going down the same path.”
“Let’s not think about it tonight, Jill. I’m ready for a long bath and bed. Let’s talk about it tomorrow. One thing, though – I don’t want to give up this thing – we’re making headway, and I’m feeling useful again. I’m in this with you girlfriend.”
“O.K., my friend. I don’t think they’re going to make any other moves right now – they may not totally believe my story about sending stuff to other people, but they can’t take the chance. They’ll have to meet and confer on this one.”