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The Stopper

By James Bergstad




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Early Sunday Morning
Of all the public toilets I've used over the years, airport toilets are number one on the filth parade.  I don't know what it is about an airport but people just seem to be more, I don't know --- scuzzy?  Or maybe it's the hurry up atmosphere that makes men, I don't know about women, I don't visit their facilities, act like first class, low class slobs.
 I'd just gotten off a red eye from Chicago, looking for thirty-one hours of lost sleep, barely maintaining a full bladder and strangling a short temper.  At 3:30 in the AM, SFO was down to a trickle, a gift from the Gods; I was grateful.
 On my way to baggage I found a latrine and was in the process of finishing off an extremely satisfying piss when I heard the click, clack, click of luggage wheels being pulled across the tile floor.  Over my shoulder I saw a man my age, maybe a little older, disappearing behind the partition separating the urinals from the stalls. I was dead tired, but years of training can't be denied.  In a quick glance I saw expensive loafers with tassels, a rumpled silk suit, probably Italian, an obscenely large diamond pinkie ring, and a strange looking travel bag. A Platinum Rolex pushed at the French cuff of his left arm.  The clacking noise stopped, followed by the squeak of a stall door. 
I shook off and was zipping up when two kids slouched through the door.  They didn't throw me a look, but these two were definitely trouble.  Mr. Silk Suit, Pinky Ring Rolex was in deep shit, none of which would be his own.  The kids exchanged a street smirk, then started a slow stroll in the old man's direction.  I muttered a quiet "son-of-a-bitch," grabbed my attachй, collapsible umbrella, and hoped I might be wrong -- I damn well knew I wasn't.
The kid with dreadlocks didn't look like much; he was small, maybe six foot, six one.  He wore street gangsta' baggies, but the loose clothes only emphasized his skinny frame.  His buddy was a different story.  He patronized the same tailor, but the similarity ended there.  This guy was about an inch taller than me, six, six; maybe six, six and a half and his baggies couldn't hide the three hundred or better pounds he was packing.
He was Samoan, or if you're into political correctness, Pacific Islander.  I guess that covers Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, and Bali, if real people really give a shit. The boy was big --- If trouble started, I'd have to end it quick, no Mr. Nice Guy.

 I heard the crash of a stall door, a terrified shout, and the unmistakable smack of human flesh being hit.

 "Git the ring, Shank, git the fuckin' ring, man."
I stepped around the partition, but the Samoan's back blocked any observation of the festivities.  Then like a jack-in-the-box, the little guy, I'm guessin' Shank, jumped into view holding the Platinum Rolex in the air.
 "Yo' git the ring, Sammo -- Yo' see this mutha' fucka'? -- This a Roll-ee-X, man.  This mutha' fucka' take care our smoke for a long time, Sam-ee-oh."
Shank's eyes were glued to the watch, and he turned it to catch the light.  The kid was wired, probably crack, maybe black tar.  Add the robbery induced adrenalin rush; his dreadlocks did the bounce while he twitched and bopped to a rhythm only he could hear.
He tapped the air with what looked like a bundle of three or four concrete reinforcing rods about two feet in length, wrapped in black electrical tape.  Not a bad beater if your victim's layin' round lookin' to be beat.  If your victim's not a masochist, however, the weapon's heavy, not good for quick work.
The Samoan forced his bulk into the stall.  A brittle pop, probably the old man's pinky finger breaking, was followed by a weak cry --- Then little dreadlocks saw me.
 "Yo, Sammo, we gots us 'nother one."
 The Rolex disappeared in the voluminous folds of Shank's pants.  Stepping forward, he reached across his body, nudging Sammo's huge ass with the rebar.
 "Hurry up, man, maybe this old guy got some cash for us."
Shank looked me over, legs wide, the rebar club now resting on his shoulder.  Two thoughts crossed my mind; with his dreadlocks and oversized clothes he reminded me of the stick-figure scarecrows I'd seen on a train ride through the farmlands of Iowa; May of 1950, I think.  Secondly I wondered how this kid survived.  Long hair and big clothes are great things to get hold of, and usually if I get a' hold, I'll hurt all your body parts --- Real bad.
Pinky Ring / Rolex was trying to fight back.  Sammo, limited by the confines of the toilet stall was having a tough time; the unit shook and creaked.  I heard the wet snap of a slap and the old man screamed.
"Gino, Gino, --- wha' the fuck are ya'?  Get this fat piece a shit offa' me."
Sammo's head and shoulders appeared above the top of the stall, he had the old man by his lapels.  He very deliberately administered a head butt the old boy went limp, and Sammo let him drop.
 Shank smiled one front tooth was gold, the other badly chipped.
 "What you say, Gino?  You Gino.  Right old man?  You gonna' save yo' frien' Ginoman?"
The kid waved the rebar club in front of him and began to swagger forward.  If I hadn't been so tired --- If they'd only been screwing with me I might have found this dummy's act comical.  Instead the icy cold feel of what I used to call my "maim mode" settled over me --- I decided to hurt this asshole.
He advanced.  I let my eyes grow large and my mouth form a little O of fright.  This pleased little dreadlocks, and he moved toward me a mite faster, looking forward to the bashing he planned to give out. I took a couple of unsteady steps back, letting my eyes dart back and forth.  My show of fear had the desired effect Shank's eyes became slits.  His face took on a vicious, predatory cast.  Pointing his makeshift club like a sword, he rushed me. 
I stepped forward raising my attachй case, deflecting the club to my left.  Twisting my body I drove my right elbow into his chest just below the sternum.  To Shank's surprise his breath was gone, his diaphragm momentarily paralyzed.  He dropped the rebar and for a split second I saw the terror in his eyes; the realization he'd made a terrible mistake.
I didn't hesitate.  Dropping my case, I bunched his shirt in my left fist jerking him toward me as I drove my right fist, still gripping my collapsible umbrella, up under his chin.  I heard the subtle crunch of his neck vertebrae and his body went instantly slack --- I let it settle to the floor.
Picking up my attachй case, I looked for the Samoan.  Sammo had apparently finished with the old man he stood resting one big arm on top of the stall door, staring hard at his partners body scattered at my feet.  I had no idea how much he'd seen, so I took a couple of steps back and shrugged my shoulders.
 "I gonna' fuck you up, man"
The Samoan's voice was soft --- Quiet. Sammo pushed away from the stall, reaching behind his back. If he were going for a gun, things would happen very fast, but it was a knife, a big Bowie type thing you see while channel surfing at one o'clock in the morning.  He held it in his right hand, low and a little to the side, cutting edge up.  He'd definitely seen too many Rambo flicks. 
I backed away, giving myself plenty of room to maneuver.  It looked like I might need it.  Sammo was coming slow, his eyes taking in every move I made.  He was smart, a lot smarter than little dreadlocks; but sometimes a guy can be too smart.
As he cleared Shank's body, I moved forward, betting he'd seen most of the skirmish between his partner and me.  As I moved in, I swung the attachй case in a low arc toward his knife hand.  He'd seen me use the case to block Shank's club, and he brought his knife hand up.  At the same time he reached across his body, swatting the case away with his left hand.  That opened his left side and I moved in quickly.
My collapsible umbrella has a chrome tip about two inches long, its diameter about the size of a cocktail straw.  When Sammo crossed his body with his left arm, I came over the top, pushing that little chrome tip downward into his left eye.  His scream ripped the air as his big hand slapped my attachй against the partition.
I jerked my umbrella free and a stream of blood began to squirt from the eye, but Sammo hung on to the knife, clamping his free hand over the wound.  The kid had balls; I'd give him that.   
He broke out in a heavy sweat his big yellow teeth clenched tightly against the pain.  He looked like he was ready to resume the fight --- I just didn't have the time. I made a pivot placing a solid kick where I figured his knee joint should be and guessed right.  The knife clattered on the tile floor, he went down curling into a fetal position, growling like a wounded bear.
 I'd made a real mess, opened myself to a hassle with the local cops, all because a guy my age was too stupid to put his Rolex and pinky ring in his pocket.  No question about it, I was overly tired.  
 I didn't have to check Shank's carotid to know he was dead.  Sammo's knee joint had a new angle of articulation.  I'd not only misjudged the force of the blow to Shank's neck, but the knee kick as well. Sammo was leaking blood all over the tile, and the growl he started out with was turning into an irritating wail --- Sammo needed some rest and so did I.  Taking an extra second for calculation I administered a minimum impact kick to the side of his head --- The Samoan went to sleep. 
I checked on the old man.  He was breathing ok, so I tapped him awake, gathered my things, and went home to bed.
Late Sunday Morning
I woke, for the second time, a little before noon.  Again the call of nature pulled me from the sleep I was trying to reclaim from Chicago.  Standing over the commode, I decided to wake up and stay up; that's when the 'weak' feeling started in my toes and worked its way up to my eyebrows.  My knees turned to water and I leaned forward placing my palm on the wall before I fell face first onto the toilet tank.  Nausea swept through my stomach and lower bowel like a summer fog sweeping through the Golden Gate.  Thankfully I'd almost finished my business and didn't spray the bathroom floor with last night's airline cocktails.
I was overwhelmed with tiredness, and then suddenly filled with a malaise I hadn't experienced before.  I shuffled my way back to the bedroom and collapsed on the edge of the bed.  I realized my body was talking to me in a new way, warning me to take its signals seriously.  For the first time I thought I might actually have a problem. In the past I'd found it easy to dismiss these occasional bouts of 'weakness' because they passed so quickly.  This morning I couldn't envision getting off the bed much less doing my morning stretch and workout. 
Another wave of nausea crept through me and I shuddered.  I longed for the bottle of Maalox I kept in the refrigerator, but the kitchen seemed too far away.  My 400 square foot apartment looked more like Moscone Center this morning. 
My little piece of San Francisco is only two rooms; a bedroom, with a little alcove housing a commode, sink and phone booth shower.  The combination kitchen - sitting room is big enough to allow a small banquette, fridge, two burner stove, and sink.  My television, sofa table, and recliner are crammed in the only corner left.
My stubborn nature finally kicked in and I managed to pull on my sweats.  I felt shaky on my way to the kitchen, the symptoms staying with me much longer than usual.  I realized the time for machismo had passed, I would make contact this afternoon and arrange for a medicine man.  One nice thing about working for a Black Ops Agency of the Federal Government, someone always answers the phone.  My Agency is a little more convoluted in method than some, but, what the hell. 
By the time I started coffee the 'weakness' was gone, only the effects of my long plane ride remained.  I turned on the TV, channel surfing until I heard the word "airport."  I flipped back just as the news anchor was introducing the remote reporter. 
 "From SFO, Cindi Chin is standing by --- Cindi?"
"Thank you, Derek.  I'm standing outside the Main Terminal for incoming domestic flights.
At 4:15 this morning three males were found in a men's restroom located near the baggage area.  One of the gentlemen, sixty-five-year-old Joseph Campisi, a Chicago art dealer, is in fair condition with a slight concussion and a broken finger.  Of the two remaining men one is dead, the other in critical condition.  Police theorize Mr. Campisi may have been the victim of a mugging.  Both the dead man and his suspected partner are known gang members with long criminal backgrounds.  We have with us Mr. Giovanni Salease, Mr. Campisi's Secretary and Personal Assistant --- Mr. Salease, can you describe the events of the last few hours?"
 "I'll be happy to tell you as much as I know, Cindi --- Mr. Campisi and I arrived at 3:05 this morning from Chicago.  Mr. Campisi is the largest art importer in the Midwest and we visit The Bay Area several times a year.  While I collected our luggage, Mr. Campisi went to the men's room.  Fifteen minutes later, when he hadn't returned, I became alarmed.  Our driver took charge of the luggage, and I went in search of Mr. Campisi.  In the men's room I found the two young men; both seemed to be dead.  Mr. Campisi was lying on the floor of the last stall in a semi-conscious state."
Our gal Cindi Chin interrupted.
 "The Police have told us they suspect a mugging gone bad.  Do you concur with that theory, Mr. Salease?"
 Mr. Salease gave Cindi an incredulous look that even got a chuckle out of me.
 "Mr. Campisi was undoubtedly a victim of an attempted mugging.  Icertainly wouldn't characterize it as "gone bad. It seems to me it went very well for Mr. Campisi.  His presentation case, containing extremely valuable objects de art, was untouched, and the Police have recovered his watch and ring.  We believe several people came to our aid this morning; Mr. Campisi was able to tell me that much.  We are extremely grateful to these Good Samaritans, and if I may --- Gentlemen, if you can hear my voice, we would like to express our gratitude.  We can be reached at the Mark Hopkins --- The front desk will put you through immediately.  Please call.  Thank you, Cindi."
Cindi Chin's face registered surprise, and she reached for the Salease guy's arm as he turned to walk away.
 "Are the Police aware others were involved in these tragic events, Mr. Salease?  Vigilantes perhaps?  Are the Police pursuing a vigilante scenario?"
Salease looked into the camera, smiled, mouthed the word, CALL, then gave the camera a wave and left.
Cindi Chin began to babble about new developments --- I smiled.
 Joseph Campisi, Midwest art dealer --- I hadn't recognized the little man with the pinky ring and Rolex, I was really slipping.  I'd just finished putting two of his "Chicago business associates" down; like their boss, they didn't listen to reason.  I flipped a salute to the svelte Mr. Salease and changed channels.
 Joe Campisi dealt in art all right --- Pornography, prostitution, stolen cigarettes, and petroleum products. The cigarettes, gasoline and jet fuel his organization adeptly acquired got the attention of several Federal Agencies, ATF, FBI, and IRS for starters. Although investigators failed to produce prosecutorial results, it was learned that tax-exempt cigarettes, gasoline, and jet fuel were disappearing by the truckloads from various military bases throughout the Midwest. Procurement officers were believed to be buying back the very products stolen, with the exception of the jet fuel.  That product was bringing top dollar at O'Hare International, Denver, and Atlanta airports.
The National Security Agency became interested in Mr. Campisi's business because of the potential for damage to the security of the military, especially after the disaster of 9/11.  But the NSA is not experienced or equipped to deal with domestic hoodlums.  They in turn looked to the CIA --- That's all they could do --- Look.
The CIA, according to its charter, is forbidden to dabble in domestic affairs.  Add to that its emasculation by Congress, its budget cuts and overall 'shit upon', fall from grace with the Executive Branch over the past eight years, and no one was surprised to hear the Director say, "Thanks, but no comprende."
My employers, designation The Grange, had already been approached, tentatively of course. We are the last of the last resort, a government function known only to the President, and one or two other Executive Branch mucky mucks. 

 The unit was formed by Ulysses S. Grant and given a mandate to keep all manner of scandal or threat under control.  He dubbed it The Grange, after an organization formed in 1867 by a group of farmers; their goal to protect the market value of their crops and their dignity.  Grange men were hard men who made an even harder living, Grant liked the concept and thought the name fit his purpose. 

The few men recruited by Grant's brain-trust were equally hard men and they made life painful for those who threatened the administration, its friends, or the government itself.  Over the years our happy family has been defined and redefined, molded, polished and hidden from the public in plain sight.  Our little group is actually listed in one of the White House Directories under Managerial Ops, including extension number.  Although I've never tried it I'm told the phone mail menu is so convoluted no one reaching the extension has stayed on the line long enough to receive all the directions recorded.
The Grange keeps several guys like me, old but capable, operationally operational.  Think about it.  Who'd believe a sixty-four-year-old man took out two bad-assed street gangsta's --- Not me.
On a local PBS station I found Bob Ross whispering softly to his audience while painting a landscape.  With a grunt of satisfaction I poured a bowl of Wheaties, added Equal, Non-fat milk, and allowed Bob and The Breakfast of Champions to sooth my troubles away.
Sunday Afternoon
I cleaned my utilitarian digs while watching the Forty Niner game.  They were improving; they didn't fall apart until the fourth quarter this time.  My apartment hides itself above the Flower Mart at Sixth and Brannan Streets.  The area's mainly commercial / industrial, but borders the 'South of Market Waterfront' and 'Embarcadero District;' sections of San Francisco replete with tourist attractions, boat rides and excellent restaurants.  The recently completed Giants Stadium is the newest addition to my neighborhood.  This wonderful facility allows me to savor the roar of the crowd and stimulating organ music on crisp summer nights.
Finished with my impromptu spit and polish routine and still restless I decided on a stroll uptown.  The late afternoon was turning cold as the fog began to wrap the City in its wet blanket.  The streets, free of the usual traffic, lay quiet.  I imagined them forgiving me along with the homeless, sprawled in doorways here and there, for our transgressions on the rare tranquility.
I turned the corner at Third and Bryant and there she was --- Fat Sally's. The hot pink and lime green neon sign hummed softy in the damp, misty air.  The old joint looked good after Chicago, and all the shit I'd managed to live through on that job.
 Sandwiched between a machine shop and Moon Loo's Chinese Takeout, the building had survived the 1906 Earthquake; saw use as a livery stable, whorehouse, and everything you might imagine in-between. I'd found Fat Sally's the same day I found and signed the lease on my apartment.  That had been a little more than two years ago --- It seemed more like two weeks.   That night I took a stroll around my new neighborhood.  I don't like strange places.  I'm in the habit of knowing my way around in the event I have to improvise.  The little dump just looked like my kind of place.  It reminded me of the farmhouse I once called home.  A building pieced together with whatever came to! hand, brick, rock, clapboard, and tin sheeting.  A dilapidated joint, frequently patched, sometimes painted, and looking mostly like hell, but strong, somehow permanent.  My first time through the door I locked eyes with the guy behind the bar.  He was working on a stack of ash trays, cleaning the crud caked on the little glass receptacles.  Finally, by mutual consent, we nodded to each other.  It was just like coming home --- No bullshit, just acceptance.  I picked out a stool in the corner at the shadowed end of the bar.  It gave me a wall for my back and the opportunity to see those coming into the bar before they saw me.  The man slapped a bar napkin down in front of me and waited.
 "A double Aquavit, neat, with a Munkholm back please."
 Hands flat on the bar he stared at me for almost a minute then turned and went to the back bar.  When he returned he placed a bucket glass on the napkin and filled it to the brim with Stolichnaya. Next to the glass he placed a sweating Budweiser Long Neck then introduced himself as Dallas Houston saying he didn't want it spread around, but he owned the joint. 
 "You wanna' tell me your name before I burst your bubble and tell you this ain't Denmark?"
 He was much smaller than me, but every bit as feisty, and later I learned he was an East Coast boy like myself.
"I was hopin' for Norway, but what the hell.  Bruce.  Or Bru.  Both work."
 That night I had two things to celebrate: My new apartment and my new home.  I celebrated both in a moderate manner, then in my well-oiled wisdom, decided I had a third milestone to commemorate --- It was time to turn in my papers; tell The Grange to take a permanent hike. 
My liaison that evening was Toots.  Toots didn't like his nickname, but  didn't have much to say about it.  POTUS thought he looked like Toots Shore, a long ago Hollywood restaurateur --- End of story.  I think I got a sentence or two out before Toots cut me off.
 " You drunk, Bruski?"
 The fact that I'd put away a little Russian vodka followed by an equally small amount of Polish vodka had no bearing on my becoming defensive.
"The fuck you jabberin' 'bout Tootsie?  A man can't res-sig-nate from this shit hole without takin' a ration from you?"
I heard Toots laugh and realized I was not in a condition to discuss retirement.  Toots being Toots knew it before I did.
"Sorry Bruski, I should know better.  But why don't you get a good night's sleep and call us tomorrow.  Famous comes on at five thirty our time.  You can give her your RESIGNATION and I'm sure the Boss will approve it.  Ok?"
 Toots hung up before I could embarrass myself further. The following morning, sick but sober, I changed my tactics but not my mind.  Famous answered with her throaty, sexy, little girl voice.
 "Operator two-two.  How can I help you?"
"SFO, Famous.  Much as I love talkin' to you don't interrupt.  My papers are IN --- Effective today.  Tell the Boss, darlin'.  Bye."
I hated to hang up on Famous, she was always fun, ready with a good comeback.  She claimed she was cursed because she sounded exactly like the late Marilyn Monroe.  Hearing her voice for the first time POTUS tried to stick her with a Marilyn or MM nickname.  According to Grange legend she told POTUS she would have none of it.  And, if he insisted, she would resign immediately. She advised the President of The United States that if she were destined to be famous she would do it on her own, not by using the name of a ghost.  From that day to this she was Famous --- Accomplished on her own.
That night my phone rang twice.  I didn't answer.  The next day, Saturday, I left the apartment early determined to find a good diner in the neighborhood.  After a day of hangover my body was ready for some good old greasy food. I was two blocks into my diner recon when I spotted the tag --- Two Blocks.  I was definitely losing my touch --- Getting old --- Retirement was the right decision. 
One was a little behind me on the opposite side of the street.  The second was in front of me about a half a block.  Number Two was being approached by panhandlers, one after another.  Instead of ignoring them he passed out change like a Reno slot machine.  Incredible.  Dumbo tactics.  I made a mental note to talk to his supervisor.  They were bringing in too many young guys.  No common sense.  No feel for the territory.  Two indicated three.  Number Three would be directly behind me, but not too close, based on the positions of the other two. 
What I needed was a little privacy, a side street, an abandon building or an alley.  The Grange was not amenable to my retirement plans I guessed --- There was going to be a discussion.
The tag in front was hanging on the corner as I approached, another sign he was still wet behind the ears.  Just before I reached the intersection there was a narrow alley on my right.  San Francisco is full of these little alleyways; they twist and turn all through the city.  Some are so narrow they only allow foot traffic.  In these warrens some of the best restaurants in the City find a home. 
A forty-eight foot semi rumbled by blocking my actions from the tag across the street.  At the same time a transvestite boppin' his/her ass across the intersection caught the eye of the guy on the corner and that's all I needed. I moved quickly into the narrow mouth of the alley and after a few steps found another lane angling off to the left. A couple more turns and I found myself in a passageway bordered on both sides by a corrugated tin fence rusted and corroded with age.  The smell of old oil and grease was heavy in the air.  Something big pushed against the other side of the fence making it bulge and almost touch my leg.  There was a wet sounding snuffle and snort and the bulge pushed a little further toward me.  I was apparently in the middle of someone's salvage yard and the guard dog was either hungry, curious, or mean --- I wasn't counting on hungry or curious. 
Fifty-five gallon drums, some empty, some full of whatever were stacked three high on both sides of the narrow lane.  When pressed, and out of time, you make do --- Improvise.  I chose the side of the lane away from monster dog and ducked behind a pile of drums.  I worked my way back to the intersection of the two alleyways making myself a little path between the corrugated fence and a conglomeration of rotting metal drums, useless car frames and old city dumpsters.  At the corner I crouched between a couple of the foul smelling garbage containers and waited.
Five minutes passed with nothing but the random sounds of the city around me.  Then I heard a sound that didn't belong.  The raspy crunch of alley grit being ground into asphalt paving.  Someone was wearing leather soled shoes.  It had to be the kid from the corner.  I smiled wondering who this dummy was related to; he was entirely too stupid to be a professional.
The giveaway sound was followed by a different kind of silence; they were waiting for a reaction from me. 
A few more minutes went by before the first member of the team passed in front of my hiding place.  He was silent, like a ghost.  Had I been looking anyplace but through a gap between dumpsters I'd have missed him.  A thump, snort, and low growl from across the lane announced the second member of the team.  Thirty seconds and another faint scrape of leather on fine grains of sand told me the dummy from the corner was bringing up the rear.  Now was as good a time as any.  I quickly duck walked around the backside of the dumpster and stood up.  They had the alleyway covered; I'd give 'em that. Left, right and center they moved slowly forward intent on the huge piles of junk marking the sides and end of the lane.  Leather sole was only a few steps in front of me.  I moved up behind him reached around and pinched his throat just below the jawline.  At the same time I delivered a stiff fingered blow to the left of his right k! idney.  Depending on the force, this punch could incapacitate for up to 30 minutes.  The kid dropped to his knees without a sound, his arms hanging uselessly at his sides.  I eased up my grip on his larynx and he made a soft gurgling sound.  The point man, about ten yards ahead stopped in his tracks.  The guy on my right did the same.  Neither man turned to look, but the point man slowly raised his arms out to his side, spreading his fingers so I could see his hands were empty.  The guy on the right followed suit.  Well trained.  I could respect that. 
I'd recognized the point man as soon as I stepped into the alley he and I having administered, and been the recipients of, several excellent ass-kickings over the years.  The fact we were both still alive gave us the bragging rights.  I kept my voice soft and respectful.
 "Hello Cissy --- You checkin' out the neighborhood for a vacation pad maybe?"
Cecil Crowe shrugged his shoulders and waggled his hands.
 " I see our friend on the right is following your lead, is he up for the game or do I have to worry about him?"
 Cecil dropped his arms and kind of deflated.
"He's a good man, Bru.  He's read some of your file so he's got an idea.  I didn't fill him in, otherwise he'd be standin' in a puddle about now."
"Can the bullshit, Cissy.  What the fuck's going on?"
 "Just statin' the case, Bru.  Ok I turn around?"
 He didn't wait for my permission, but slowly turned to his right side, nodding to his buddy who let his hands drop and his shoulders slump. 
Cecil Crowe hadn't changed much.  He'd just turned sixty not long ago and still looked early forties.  He stood about three inches shorter than me but out - weighed me by a good thirty pounds.  He was a square man, all straight lines, and right angles, a giant fireplug of a guy.  He reminded me of a man I'd learned to love and respect growing up in South Carolina.  He indicated the kid on the ground.
 "How bad?"
 "Sore throat and a little hitch in his side for a day or two --- nothin' serious."
 I saw a flicker in Cissy's eyes and in the same moment sensed a change in the flow of air around me.  I can't explain my sensitivity it's just been there, part of me for as long as I can remember.  I ducked to my left and tried to go into a low spin, but I was too late.  I was hit hard, but because I was moving downward the blow caught me at my armpit instead of the kidney area.  It was enough to knock me off balance and before I could recover something exploded behind my right ear.  I didn't lose consciousness completely.  I felt them grab me under the arms and drag me.  I tried to get my feet going, but I just couldn't make them work.
As my senses returned I realized they'd dragged me to the end of the alley then into an area filled with high weeds and rotting appliance crates.  They propped me against the tin fence in a sitting position the smell of urine, old grease, and even older dog shit was overwhelming.
 A cold shaky feeling swept through my body and I broke out in a heavy sweat.  Nausea gripped my stomach with a knotted fist and my face must have told a pretty plain story; someone grabbed the back of my head turning my face down and to the side --- I tossed my cookies.
 "Jesus Christ, Cecil.  What the hell are you thinking?  Shit.  Look at my pants.  My shoes.  Somebody give me a fucking handkerchief."
Cissy released my head and I flopped back against the fence.  The rattling thump my head made on the tin set up a cacophony of barks, growls, and nervous whines on both sides of our position.  The racket blended well with the pounding going on in my head, a pickaxe pain over my right eye and then my left.  Right eye, left eye --- I threw up again, this time in my lap and between my legs.
 "Get 'im up.  Stand 'im up.  I haven't got all day.  I'm due back in Washington tonight and this matter must be settled."

 Knees popped and a big, hard hand with a handkerchief that smelled of Snuggle wiped my face and mouth.  Cissy put a flask to my lips and I felt the hot bite of a good brand of Russian Vodka spill into my mouth.  I rinsed thoroughly and spit into my lap.  The next offering I swallowed.

Cecil and his Wingman pulled me to my feet.  I was lightheaded and still nauseous, a bit worrisome as I'd been hit enough times to realize all my problems weren't caused by the blow to the head. The kid I'd taken out in the alley lay in the weeds a few feet beyond our happy group of conferees.  He'd started to move around a little; another ten minutes he'd be sitting up --- That was good.
 It dawned on my still addled brain that the man I now faced with my puke on his pants legs and shoes appeared to be a fourth member of the recovery team.  Very unusual.  The job of debriefing a miscreant like me was a one or two-man gig at best.  I was flattered with three, but a fourth in the party?  Not done.
With Cissy behind me kind of holding and propping me up at the same time I looked down on the Washington man and wondered how I'd allowed him to get close enough to deliver that first blow.  He was dressed like an undertaker sans the gardenia in the lapel.  A pearl gray fedora hid his face as he fastidiously worked at removing the last of my vomit from his left shoe. He finally finished housekeeping, dropped the handkerchief, and looked up at me.  He was Asian with something European mixed in, his eyes reminded me of Mr. Spock on the old Star Trek show.  I wondered about his ears, but couldn't see them because of the hat.  New or just cleaned and blocked --- Very natty.  He gave me a thin, cold smile.
"Well.  It's Bruce isn't it?  I think you prefer Bruski, correct?
I let go with a wonderfully long, loud burp.  It smelled strongly of vodka and vomit.  At the same time I managed to pass an equally satisfying amount of gas from the opposite end; it smelled nothing like vodka or vomit.
My face was made of stone even though Cissy squeezed my shoulder and coughed, then coughed again --- Cissy never coughs.
 "Close friends and associates I admire call me Bruce.  Bru --- Sometimes Bruski.  You are neither --- You may address me as SFO or Mr. Haldstad."
 The Washington man's face was extremely thin with high, prominent cheekbones.  His smile widened a tad and he took a step forward invading my space, his demeanor, and body language shouting intimidation. His problem was he was under six feet in height.  Though he appeared to be in excellent physical condition, his body in relation to his stature could only be described as average.  Add the fact he'd now be talking into my left breast pocket, and the scene took on comical overtones. 
 "Very well, SFO.  My name is Morra, you may call me Mr. Morra.  I work directly  for POTUS.  It is he who asked me to come here.  He who asked me to convince you to reconsider your retirement and continue your service for the remainder of his term --- Three more years."
Cissy felt my shoulder muscle bunch and took his hand away.  I shuffled back a step and Mr. Morra didn't follow. 
 "The Boss feels there may still be problems coming out of Chicago.  Perhaps New Jersey, for that matter.  He feels his sister's daughters are safer with you on board.  Personally, I can't imagine why he'd waste a moment on you.  Aside from being tall you certainly don't exude an air of confidence.  In fact, right now, you look extremely pathetic."
Mr. Morra cocked his head a little and brought his right hand up to adjust his hat.  Most of my weight was resting on my right foot so it was a simple matter to move my hand in a swift short arc as I transferred my weight to my left side.  The slap I delivered to Mr. Morra's face made a sharp cracking sound like the backfire of a car on a still night.  His immaculate pearl gray fedora flew from his head. As luck would have it, a stray puff of wind caught it just right and carried it over the tin fence.  Barks, growls, and snarls indicated Mr. Morra's hat was not welcome in monster dog's territory.  Mr. Morra didn't seem to care about his hat at the moment.  Crumpled on one knee, head hanging, a thin string of blood ran from his open mouth creating a small puddle in the dirt and weeds.  
I turned, putting my back to the tin fence.  Cecil stood a few feet away.  Still --- His hands were shoved in his pants pockets; his way of telling me we were done.  Wingman didn't get the picture.  He began a slow circle to his left.  Cecil's voice was just above a whisper.
 Wingman straightened and looked at Cissy.  After a long second he put his hands in his pockets.
 "Another way to go, Bru, I'd of used it.  Morra's new.  He's a political.  I couldn't see this turn bad.  We Ok, Bru?"
I nodded and smiled.  Cissy smiled back.  Wingman frowned.  I must be getting uglier as I get older, I thought.
Cissy moved to Washington man's side bending to help him up.  He paused, and looked at me puzzled.
"It was two blocks, Bru.  Two fuckin' blocks.  You Ok?  Anything the Old Man oughtta' know?"  
That was a little better than two years ago.  I hadn't seen Cissy since.  I'd heard he was working solo now, Wingman having bought it in Mexico --- A Tijuana whorehouse no less. 
As for Mr. Morra, my little slap had broken his jaw, a breech of protocol on my part.  Under ordinary circumstances this could be a problem, pension wise.  At the very least I would've received a reprimand and Morra would've gone on medical leave. Morra, however, breeched a little protocol of his own.  Being new, and a political favor to one of the Presidents inner circle, he assumed he had more authority than he did.  He'd lied to Cissy and Wingman regarding the Presidents wishes and invited himself and his Administrative Assistant, leather sole, along to save the day,  so to speak.  Me, of course, being the day.  He was still a Presidential Assistant, but dealing mainly with the empting of shredder bins, as opposed to covert operations.  Mr. Morra was right about one thing.  Additional problems did develop in Chicago, problems involving people in Mr. Campisi's organization --- Small world. 
Famous passed me a little tidbit not long ago.  It seemed Mr. Morra was still having problems in the speech area, something to do with his jaw.  Warmed my heart I'll tell ya'.
A tap on the shoulder brought me back to the sidewalk in front of Fat Sally's.  A thin black face covered by a tightly curled, filthy beard looked out of a pile of greasy rags.  His eyes, bulging and bloodshot, had a yellow cast.  As his mouth worked to form words the eyes threatened to spit themselves from their sockets.
 "You gotta' couple bucks, man?  You hep' me out, huh?  Couple bucks?"
He was almost my height, but booze or drugs or both had long ago eaten his body away from the inside out.
"I gotta couple bucks, but not for you.  Keep moving."
He screwed up his face, his lips pulling back to expose black stubs that once were teeth. It was a face that probably worked well on the tourist trade along The Embarcadero and Fisherman's Wharf --- Down here it was just sad.
 "I cut chew, honky mutha' fucka'.  You bess' gib' it up, man.  I cut chew bad, mutha' fucka'." 
I leaned forward, he smelled of rotting meat and very old feces --- I smiled.
"You better move while you still can."
He backed off and shuffled around me muttering and calling me everything including a white man.  With a piece of dirty clothesline he pulled an old rusting metal wagon behind him.  On its side, in flaking yellow/white paint the words R di   Fl y r were barely visible.  In the tiny bed several cans and bottles rattled and rolled around as it bounced over the cracks in the sidewalk.
I pulled some folded bills from the rear pocket of my jeans, found a twenty, balled it, and threw it in the bed of the wagon.  He'd find it when he picked up another bottle or can.  There was no danger he'd buy food, but a bottle of booze, cheap and big, would help keep him warm through a couple of long cold nights on the street.
I don't know what it is about me.  People either hit me up or attempt to straighten me out.  The ones who hit me up are usually successful if I happen to be flush at the time.  The ones who try to straighten me out?  Most of the time they end up pretty straight themselves, on a slab, or at least on a hospital bed.  Two years ago The Grange people and I worked on our differences. Fortunately nobody was hurt real bad, and The Grange and I came to an uneasy understanding.  Tonight a homeless man and I resolved a minor problem and both came away with a modicum of success.  I enjoyed mine now; he'd discover his before too long I was sure.
I tend to be a little stubborn and mean at times.  My stubbornness is in my genes --- My meanness?  Let's just say I've had to deal with too many thoughtless, stupid people --- Too many times, and for too many years.


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