“It’s a bad one”, Sergeant Koziolecki said; the flushed look on his face showed that he wasn’t exaggerating.
“Whadda we got?” I clipped my badge to my belt as we walked through the abandoned warehouse in the Saint Paul Warehouse District, ducking under the yellow “crime scene” tape.
“Four vics; two hispanic males, early twenties; one black male, late twenties; one caucasian female, late teens-early twenties. Gunned down execution style” Koziolecki recited from fresh memory.
We rounded a dirty, ratty corner to what had been the lobby of a shipping dock, and saw the CSI crew going over the scene. Four bodies were lined up, face-down, by a grafitti-clogged block wall. “No kidding”.
“A bullet to the back of each head” Koziolecki read off the notes, pushing his readers up to the bridge of his nose. The acrid smell of fresh blood was fading as we stood there, replaced by the smell of death. Death and…I thought for a moment, not quite placing it.
“Killer or killers left a calling card”, Koziolecki continued. “May I?” he asked the CSI guy, who nodded as he dusted, fruitlessly, for prints. Koziolecki gently rolled the body of a girl – late teens, with tattooed arms and hair that’d been multicolored even before getting sprayed with her own and her friends’ blood and brains, who looked like a tank grrl or roller-derby chick.
Former roller derby chick.
And she had something in her mouth.
I took a pen, and prodded at it for a moment. “Burger?” Koziolecky asked.
“Big Mac”. Damn.
“Same guys as last week?”
“Yep”, I said, letting the girl roll back over.
“Same in all four” Koziolecky grunted. “The Canadians again?”
“I’ll guess so”.
“Hey, Mitch”. I turned to see my partner, Angela O’Hara, walking into the room. Short, thin with long curly auburn hair, dressed in a leather biker jacket and black jeans, “Angie”, of Irish-Italian descent and a fourth-generation Saint Paul cop, had left a celebration for her fifth year on the Health Crimes squad when she got the call.
“Hey, Ang. Looks like the Canadians again”.
“Crap”. She fished an Nicorette from her jacket pocket, unwrapped it quickly, and popped it into her mouth.
“Yeah. It’s gonna be a long night”.
And it was. After CSI got done with the scene, Angie and I and Koziolecki, who was leading the case for Homicide, along with partner Eboka Warsame, a tough-as-nails second-generation Eritrean who’d just moved up from Street Crimes, went over the scene like Madonna looking for paparazzi. They left after two hours; Angie and I were packing up to go, too. Other than 9mm shell casings and gore, there was nothing. Not even forensics.
Until I flipped through the wallet of decedent Hernando Gutierrez, Age 24 of Bloomington. He had a coupon for 2 for 1 Slim Jims from a BP station in Cavalier, North Dakota.
“Yeah?”, she responded, sounding tired as she popped a Nicorette into her mouth.
“What’s a homeboy from Bloomington doing buying Slim Jims from a gas station along the Canadian border?”
“Besides flirting with breaking the law?”
“I don’t think he was too worried about that…”
“Any leads? Please, dear God, say yes. The Chief is crawling up my ass on this”.
Deputy Chief Ian Wilson, a prim, dapper man in an Italian suit, paced nervously at the front of the room. With hair like a TV newscaster, Wilson had known political ambitions, and he pictured their evaporation at the beginning of every case – which was a bad thing, coming from the head of the Task Force.
Koziolecky shook his head.
“Dammit!” Wilson enunciated through gritted teeth. “The chief’s got my balls in a sling!”
“No, boss, I think it’s more like he’s got your giblets in a strainer”, O’Hara quipped as she popped a Nicorette.
“Watch it!” Wilson growled.
“Well, now, Boss, I think we got one thing. I checked out that coupon for “Eddie’s Edge of America” joint in Cavalier – which is up on the Canadian border”, I added, taking a sip from my fourth coffee of the morning. “I talked to a friend of mine on the Federal HealthCrimes task force. “Eddie” Tortenson has got ties with the Russian and Canadian mobs going back to the seventies. He was smuggling full-power Pop Rocks back when I was still in high school and Angie here was a twinkle in one of her “uncles'” eyes”, I said, flipping her a jocular glance. She flipped me a finger on one hand as she popped another Nicorette. “Anyway – I think that’s the key to the whole thing”.
“I like it”, Koziolecky added, looking distracted and a little withdrawn, not that Koziolecky was ever a ball to be around. This was the ninth health-crime related murder on his plate this year, and it was taking its toll. Ed was a good cop; as bad as it bothered him that he needed help from Healthcrimes to clear his cases, it hurt him worse that they were open at all. These were the kind of crimes that’d keep a good cop up at night.
“So what are you gonna do about it?” Wilson asked a little too loudly.
“I’m gonna suggest Ang and I go up to Cavalier and cut a deal”. I looked at Angie, looking frazzled in her U of M sweatshirt and capris, popping another Nicorette.
“I like it”, she muttered.
“Dammit, Berg…” Wilson spat out, as he usually did. Then he paused, looked away as if in thought, and turned back to me. “OK. But you do this by the book, or I’ll…”
“…you’ll have my ass. Got it, Boss. Oh, one other thing. I’m gonna need the Lamborghini”.
“What? You think Angie and I aren’t gonna stand out driving up there in a maroon Crown Victoria?”
Wilson sputtered. “Dammit!” His head shook for a moment. Then he grew calm. “OK. But by the book! You hear me?”
“Loud and clear”. I got up and motioned to O’Hara, who stood up, popped a Nicorette, and followed me from the room.
“Hey, Ang? One stop to make before we head north”.
“Two”, she grunted. “I need to stop at WalMart for more gum”.
O’Hara and I squealed down Highway 10in the Lambo – a property forfeiture seizure from some mortgage-company exec who’d been busted selling sliders to elementary school kids – with Angie’s portable Police Light flashing on top. Cars swerved abruptly out of our way, all the way out to the Saint Cloud State Penitentiary. We checked our guns at the gate, and went into the interview room. We waited for a moment, until a guard brought Kwame Nelson into the room. Nelson sauntered to the chair on his side of the table with his lawyer, and sat.
“What you want?”
“I need a name, Nelson”.
“Why should I give you a name? You put me here!”
He was right. Working undercover, I’d worked my way up his chain of dealers and lieutenants, and busted him with two semis full of two-liter bottles of Mexican Coke – the kind with the extra-potent sugarcane sweetener, known on the street as “Mexican Coke”. He’d gone down hard – partly from the smuggling, partly from the six turf murders tied to him, and partly from the conspiracy to kill the federal judge who tried his case. He was in jail for life to three lives, with parole in life for good behavior.
“We get get you medium security”, I said. “Privileges. Maybe even a few years of good time counted up”.
Nelson nodded, chewed the idea around his head for a bit.
“OK. There’s a guy in Grand Forks, Pete Laschkowitz. He used to be a lieutenant of Grace Holmby. Then he killed her, ran her family out, and took over the turf and the connection with the Mexicans and the Vietnamese. Word has it he’s been trying to muscle out everyone else on the Burger Route”.
He had me at Holmby. The plump, middle-aged former grade-school curriculum developer from Fargo had built herself quite an empire up on the Northern Plains, smuggling Coke from Mexico, Cheetos from Canada, and burgers and mayonnaise from Ukraine. Her ruthlessness was legendary. Dozens dead all over North America and Mexico. For someone to off her, he’d have to have cojones of titanium.
“Mitch”, Angie whispered. “Remember the pics when they found Holmby?”
I wracked my brain…and then it hit me.
She had a Big Mac stuck in her mouth.
I stood up. “I’ll talk to the DA”, I said, as Nelson’s lawyer looked on approvingly.
Angie and I walked out. “Damn”, she said, popping another Nicorette.
“No kidding. This just got a lot more interesting”.
Two hours later, we pulled up in front of Eddie’s End of America, a convenience store about a mile south of the Canadian border. Angie popped a Nicorette, I grabbed the silver steel briefcase, and we walked in.
I scanned the patrons. None of them looked like “Locals” as I remembered them from growing up the the area. Steely-eyed, hard-looking men whose cold eyes shone of death, they watched us carefully.
I found Pete Laschkowitz. Fiftysomething, with thin hair and a gray beard, he glowered from a stool in the corner, munching on a bag of pork rinds.
“I’m looking for some product. Lots of it”.
“What makes you think we have product?” Laschkowitz grunted, eyeing me up.
“I have a feeling”, I said, enigmatically.
“You do, huh?”
“I do”. Angie rustled in the background behind me, chewing a fresh piece of Nicorette.
“How do I know you’re not a cop?”, Laschkowitz said, standing up, reaching menacingly under his quilted parka.
“Because would a cop have these?”, I said, putting the briefcase on the table, opening it slowly as the men looked on, their suspicions turning to amazement.
The tops of six buns were visible over the edge of the case. The smell of grilled beef and onions wafted through the room.
“Whoppers?” Laschkowitz asked, momentarily dropping his guard. Time to set the hook.
“Eff Whoppers”, I snorted derisively. “Wendy’s triples”.
The men were silent.
Laschkowitz recovered. “You could still be a cop”.
“Would a cop do this?” I asked, picking up a triple and taking a long, lascivious bite, my teeth lancing through bread, onions, tomatoes and beef, the tallow giving me that momentary, oh-so-familiar high…
Laschkowitz was caught off guard. “Er…maybe?”
“Would a cop do this?” I grabbed another triple – there were a half-dozen in the case – and handed it to him. The beef smell wafted across the room, enchanting the other men, who wallowed in saliva and lust as Laschkowitz took it, sniffed it, and took a bite.
He chewed, blissfully checking out of the world for a moment. Hook is in.
“Maybe. Maybe you’re a dirty cop”, he repeated, sounding as if he wished to convince himself.
“Nah. A cop’d never do this,” I said, taking out a plastic knife and cutting up the triples, handing them out to the other gunmen.
“Mmmmm”, Laschkowitz muttered. “Let’s do business”, he grinned blissfully.
It was after dark. We cruised down a back road, heading to the rendezvous. Laschkowitz had told us there was a plane flying up from Mexico, and sellers coming down from Winnipeg, and we’d all meet in a disused farm field about a mile south of the Canadian border to transact the deal. I had a suitcase full of $20 bills from the property room; the reassuring bulk of my SIG P220 pressed against the small of my back as we sped through the dusk.
“Angie, something just doesn’t add up”.
“I know”, she said popping a Nicorette and drinking a Red Bull. “There’s just no way Laschkowitz is the brains behind this thing”.
“Yep. There’s someone else. Somewhere. Someplace up the food chain”, I mused, popping a Red Bull of my own as I steered with my knees.
We got to the rendezvous – a wide, flat field, set off by shelter-belts a mile away on each side. A pair of F250s and a semi with a box trailer parked on the north, roadward side. Laschkowitz and six of his henchmen stood around in the dark, smoking cigarettes and drinking Mexican Coke. Amateurs.
We pulled up behind them, made our introductions, and waited. But not for long; the thrum of an aircraft circling above turned into the scree of a DC6 cargo plane coming in for a landing. The pilot set down on the dry, flat field, and taxied over. A crewman kicked open the cargo door, and four of Laschkowitz’ men ran to start helping the crew unload.
It was quite a stash – Twinkies, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Altoids, Strawberry Shortcake Rolls, String Cheese, Krispy Kremes, Mexican Coke, Jolt Cola – enough to keep the Warcraft parties and software shops of the Twin Cities, Fargo and Madison running for weeks. I figured in my head the stuff was going to be worth millions on the street.
But would any of these guys be behind nine murders in the Twin Cities?
“Here comes our connection”, Laschkowitz muttered, pointing to a set of headlights bouncing down the road. A Hummer Hybrid squalled to a stop a few yards away from the rapidly-filling semis, and pointed its headlights at Laschkowitz and his men. I stayed prudently just out of the edge of the beam as the back door opened, and a silhouette, joined by several other men from the other side and back seat, got out.
Someone…familiar? The hair on the back of my neck stood up; something wasn’t right.
“Angie? Something’s wrong, here”
A portly figure in a blue raid jacket stepped into the headlight to meet Laschkowitz. Someone…vaguely…familiar to me…
“Hey”, said Laschkowitz.
“Hey”, said a gruff, tired-sounding man who I could see only in shadowy, puffy silhouette. The voice sounded…
“Meet my partner on the buy, Mr. Ron McDonald”, he said, pointing to me. I reached forward to shake the man’s hand – and we simultaneously recognized each other.
“Get him!” he bellowed, reaching under his raid jacket to grab a pistol. I drew my SIG and backpedalled, as the henchmen drew AKs and Ingram MACs. I fired two shots, dropping two of the henchmen, but saw another levelling his rifle at me. I threw myself to the ground, hearing the “crack” of the bullet sailing inches from my head. I rolled to my left, pausing long enough to drill the shooter who’d almost nailed me, twice between the eyes.
Angie drew her Desert Eagle and mowed through the guys on the truck as I searched for Kozielecki. And I saw him – hunkered over the hood of the Hummer, drawing a bead on my face withi his .38 Chief. I rolled, and felt a spray of dirt as the bullet plowed into the ground where I’d just been. I fired back, four times, missing high and away as Kozielecky ducked. I started to get up to close in, when another searing flash lit up the world to my left; it felt like I’d been hit on the left shoulder with a baseball bat as I recoiled to the right. Kostelecki’s bodyguard, who looked Samoan and turned a solid 300 pounds, had hit me with a 9mm slug from a Tec9 which, in the dark and from the business end, looked more like a Tec999. He was doing the end-zone happy dance as I reeled back; I pointed at him and fired back, over and over, as I back-pedalled, out of balance, until I saw him drop.
About the same time I did.
Kozielecki sauntered over. “You shoulda stayed in Saint Paul, Berg”, he said, dropping a speed-loader into his Colt. “You coulda just walked away”.
I gritted my teeth from the pain in my shoulder, watching him shuffle my way.
“And now you’re going to the big White Castle in the…”
A “Bang” rent the night. Kozielecky stopped, his eyes wide with surprise, stumbling a bit, as a fleck of blood gathered on his lip.
Angie fired again, making him stagger as the bullet tore into his abdomen. She fired once more, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again as Kozielecky slumped to the ground.
She reloaded. “Angie”, I groaned, as she racked the slide on her .41 Desert Eagle, and fired again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again at Kozielecki’s now lifeless corpse.
“Good timing, Ang…” I started to say, but stopped as she picked up an AK from a fallen henchman, slid a fresh magazine into the receiver, and squeezed the trigger; “Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang”; thirty shots rang out, the clinking of ejected brass echoing between the shots.
“OK, Ang…”, I started, as she dropped the magazine and loaded again. “Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang”, pumping thirty more rounds into Kozielecky.
“Out of Nicorette?” I asked.
“Gaaaaaaah!”, Angie screamed.
The cast itched as I sat in the dismal office at HQ. Wilson’s face, purple with rage, swam in my perception; I’d long since tuned him out.
“I said by the book!” he bellowed.
“I got the bust, Chief”, I muttered.
“”I said by the book!”
“Yeah, you said By The Book”, I said for perhaps the fifth time. “Tell you what…”, I said struggling to my feet with one hand, “put this in your book”. I reached into my pocket and tossed my badge onto his desk, and walked out.
Angie ran after me. “What are you going to do?” she said, popping a Nicorette.
“I dunno”, I muttered. “Maybe move to Costa Rica and open a Fried Slider stand”.
I walked out to the parking lot as the sun set in front of me.