by Gary Phillips and Richard Brewer
O’Conner crossed his arms before his face as the blast from the shotgun knocked him down.
Less than two weeks before, he’d gotten a cup of coffee from the ink-laden barista with the pierced lip and boxer’s biceps. At the setup on the side where various types of sugar and dairy were located, he poured some half and half in his cup. As he stirred his unsweetened coffee, he scanned the people in the national chain coffee emporium. He didn’t used to frequent such places, coffee was coffee, for Christ’s sake, and he didn’t see any reason to spend five dollars for his caffeine fix. But as of late, he’d found himself in them more often given Gwen Gardner’s addiction to her premium lattes.
He almost smiled at the notion of how domesticated he’d become. Or rather, how he presented the illusion of domestication. Though it was true he was less inclined to take on jobs these days. His lady Gwen had inherited several Fix & Go auto body shops in Southern California from her deceased father. An enterprising type, Papa Gardner had opened the first one in Gardena in So Cal’s South Bay in the mid ’80s. O’Conner, something of an enterprising type himself, had amassed a decent amount of money from his various scores over the years. Cash he’d squirreled away in numerous locales; buried under a couple of snow birds’ vacation homes in Lake Tahoe, a storage locker in Palmdale, and a long non-working oil field of rusting automated pumpers in El Segundo among his hidey holes.
He’d gathered a percentage of these funds, laundered them through the Financier, and invested the clean monies in Gw- en’s shops. Coordinating with her, he helped oversee the operations, with a closer attention to detail than she had before the two lived together. The result of their collaboration was a significant increase in the quarterly bottom line. That, along with his infusion of money, allowed the company to open a new outlet in Culver City with another one coming to the West Adams area of Los Angeles early the next year.
As the auto body shops were not the only legit and underground businesses he’d invested in, O’Conner had income and comfort and a good woman to share it with. What he didn’t have was the rush. He didn’t have the heightened edge to his senses that planning and pulling off a heist brought. And he missed it.
“Better than sex?” Gardner had teased him yesterday, her hand and head tenderly on his chest as they lay in bed.
“A close second,” he’d breathed. Then they made love again. “A distant second,” he amended hoarsely, losing himself in their ardor.
O’Conner allowed a brief smile to alter his placid face at that tactile memory. He sat at a small table toward the rear of the shop, sipping his coffee. Nearby were two women in their twenties laughing and muttering as they both looked at something on a smartphone screen. Cats, he considered, it’s always cat videos.
The man he was here to meet came through the front door. He nodded at O’Conner and walked to the cold case next to the order counter. The Financier extracted a plastic square bottle of a viscous green liquid and paid for his choice. He came over to O’Conner.
“It’s been a while,” the newcomer said, sitting opposite. He wore a sport coat and pressed slacks in contrast to O’Conner’s dark windbreaker, grey t-shirt underneath, and washed black jeans.
“You reached out.”
“And you answered,” said the man. “I wasn’t sure you’d be interested.”
“Yes, you were.”
Though semi-retired, or whatever the term for his current self-imposed status, O’Conner still used the old methods when someone wanted to contact him. In an era where smart TVs could spy on you, the physical drop was as reliable now as when first developed by the Culper Ring during the Revolutionary War, he reasoned.
O’Conner maintained a mailbox under a false name in a shipping store twelve miles from Hemet, California where he and Gardner lived in a suburban housing complex. He varied his route to the box, but once a week would make the trip to see if there was mail. Few knew of its address and he’d been curious when he’d read the terse message from the man sitting across from him. Then, once read, and as was his practice, he burned the sheet with the five sentences on it along with the envelope. He then flushed the ashes down the toilet and made a call from one of his SMS encrypted phones at an appointed time to the number of a similar device that was answered by
the other man. The phones were designed not to record messages which could be retrieved by law enforcement. O’Conner and only a few others knew the actual name of this man. To most of the criminal world in which he operated he was only known as the Financier.
Toned and fit, the Financier, with his short, sandy-colored hair and angular face, was in his mid-fifties, maybe eight years older than O’Conner. He showed even white teeth as he undid the plastic strip securing the cap of his concoction, a kale and acacia berry smoothie, the label indicated. He shook the bottle briefly. “I figured there was only so much of civilian life you could stand. Thought it might be time for a break in the routine, as it were.”
“In Texas,” O’Conner said.
“An eighteen-thousand-acre cattle ranch outside of Fort Worth called the Crystal Q.” He drank some of his smoothie, dabbing at the corner of his mouth with a finger when he set the bottle down.
“Clovis Harrington is the owner of the ranch. More importantly, he is the head of the North Texas Citizens Improvement League.”
“And they would be?”
“The League is a major fixture all across the Lone Star State. Several of its members, if not exactly in the inner circle of Bush, that is W, were in the immediate outer orbit. Truth be told, a few of them were hoping for a different outcome to the presidential election, but whichever way things went, red or blue, capitalism is capitalism and they knew they would have a seat at the big kid’s table.”
“Still, I would think it’s a bigger one now given who’s in office.”
The Financier regarded his health product, as if debating whether he’d done enough penance for today and would have an order of french fries for lunch. “That is true, and their good ol’ boy ex-governor is a cabinet secretary, but our mercurial president and the ones who have his ear whisper dire things about the League, and not without good reason.”
“They have ties to the teabaggers,” O’Conner gleaned.
The Financier nodded. “Or whatever they are calling themselves these days. But that gets me to this: Harrington’s group knows that no matter how much they prop up the bogeyman of voter fraud to justify their questionable ID laws and help configure districts to ensure the white vote, the brown factor looms just over the horizon—despite the current immigration policies. To combat the dark flood takes an excrement load of ready cash.”
O’Conner had more of his coffee and declared, “They’ve got a slush fund.”
“And they’ve beefed it up with an eye toward the mid-terms and the future. They’ve always bribed judges, water commissioners, and the like. But if the Latino tide is coming, odds are that no matter how committed to La Causa any future school board, city council member, or mayor might be, one does have to pay for those damn braces the kids need.”
“Or have boats to buy,” O’Conner observed dryly.
“Or sex scandals to quiet.” The Financier finished his health drink. “For every three or four torch bearers, there will always be the greedy ones with a hand out and an eye to turn.”
In their arena, notions like altruism were alien concepts. O’Conner noted that the two women had left and a trendy type with a beard, hair knot, and skinny jeans had sat down in their place. He got busy on his laptop after he’d slipped on
his noise cancelling headphones. O’Conner imagined he was listening to the best inspirational hits of that tall, big-toothed Tony Robbins, or something on how to start your own artisan cheese and toast shop.
“So, what are we looking at?” said O’Conner.
“The League members have recently levied a tax internally, and my estimate is there’s some seven million in untraceable money being housed in a vault in the wine cellar at the Harrington spread.”
“How do you know this?”
The Financer looked back at him with the slightest of smiles.
“You have a source,” said O’Conner. He’d already come to this conclusion, he only wanted confirmation. “Close?”
“Close as silk sheets.”
Momentarily, O’Conner’s eyes focused elsewhere as he examined various parameters of the potential job. “How much does your inside man want of this bounty?”
“Inside man and woman. He wanted two million but I told him as the crew would be handling the heavy lifting, he would have to settle for six hundred grand…for the both of them.”
Crossing his arms, O’Conner sat back. “And what’s the complication?”
The Financier managed a wry smile. “Seems there always is one, doesn’t it?”
O’Conner didn’t respond, waiting.
The Financier added, “The info comes from the wife’s side piece. But he doesn’t really have much of anything to do with this, it’s really she who is the source.”
“What’s the boy toy’s name?”