Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Gary Ponzo and reprinted here with his permission.
There was a time when Nick Bracco would walk down Gold Street late at night and young vandals would scatter. The law was present and the guilty took cover. West Baltimore was alive with crime, but Gold Street remained quarantined, reserved for the dirtiest of the dirty. That’s how Nick remembered it anyway. Before he left for the Bureau to fight terrorists. Now, the narrow corridor of row houses felt closer to him and the slender strip of buckled sidewalk echoed his footsteps like a sentry announcing his presence. It wasn’t his turf anymore. He was a foreigner.
Nick scrutinized the landscape and searched for something out of place. The battered cars seemed right, the graffiti, even the shadows seemed to darken the proper corners. But something was missing. There were no lookouts on the concrete stairwells. The ubiquitous bass line of hip-hop was absent. The stillness reminded him of jungle birds falling silent in the prelude to danger. The only comfort came from the matching footsteps beside him. As usual, Matt McColm was by his side. They’d been partners for ten years and were approaching the point of finishing each other’s sentences.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Matt said.
“Did I mention that I don’t have a good feeling about this?”
“Uh, huh.” Matt tightened his collar against the autumn chill and worked a piece of gum with his jaw. “That’s your theme song.”
“Really? Don’t you ever get a bad feeling about a call?”
“All the time.”
“How come you never tell me?”
“I’m going to feed the flames of paranoia?”
They walked a little further in silence. It got darker with every step. The number of working streetlights dwindled.
“Did you just call me paranoid?” Nick said.
Matt looked straight ahead as he walked; his casual demeanor caused him to appear aloof, but Nick knew better. Even at half-mast, Matt’s eyes were alert and aware.
“Maybe paranoid is too strong of a word,” Matt said.
“I would hope so.”
“More like Mother-henish.”
“That’s better,” Nick said. “By the way, did you eat your broccoli tonight?”
They strode further; low-lying clouds gave the night a claustrophobic feel.
“This guy asked for you specifically?” Matt said.
“That bother you a little?” Matt asked.
“No,” Nick said. “That bothers me a lot.”
Up ahead, a parked car jostled. They both stopped. Neither of them spoke. They split up. By the book. Years of working together coming into play. Matt crouched and crept into the street. Nick stayed on the sidewalk and gave the car a wide berth. In seconds Matt became invisible. The car maintained a spastic rhythm. It was subtle, but Nick understood the familiar motion even before he flashed his penlight into the back seat and saw a pair of young eyes pop up through the grimy window. They were wide open and reacted like a jewel thief caught with a handful of pearls. The kid’s hair was disheveled and his shirt was half-off. His panting breath caused the inside of the window to fog up. He wasn’t alone. A pair of bare legs straddled his torso.
From the other side of the vehicle, Matt emerged from the shadows and charged the car with his pistol out front. He was just a few yards away when Nick held up his hand and said, “No.”
Matt stopped dead. He must’ve seen the grin on Nick’s face and realized the situation. He slowly holstered his Glock and took time to catch his breath.
Nick heard the kid’s voice through the closed window. “I ain’t doing nuthin’, man.”
Nick clicked off his penlight and slipped it back into his jacket. He smiled. “It may be nothing, but you sure worked up a sweat doing it.”
When Matt fell back into step next to his partner, Nick said, “You seemed a little . . . uh, paranoid?”
Matt returned to nonchalant mode. “Kids that young shouldn’t be doing the nasty out in the street.”
“Consider their role models,” Nick said. “You can’t change the tide with an oar.”
“Pardon me, Professor Bracco. Who said that one-Nietzsche?”
“I just made it up.”
“It sounded like it.”
They slowed their pace until Nick stopped in front of an old brick building with a worn, green awning above the entrance. Nick gestured down a dark flight of stairs where a giant steel door stood menacingly secure. “There it is.”
Matt nodded. “You bring me to all the best spots.”
When he was certain of their solitude, Nick descended the stairs. Matt followed, keeping an eye on their rear. In the darkness, Nick barely made out Matt’s silhouette.
“Listen,” Nick said, “it’ll be easier if we don’t have to use our creds, but let’s see how it goes. I don’t want to say any more than I have to, and you say nothing at all. Just be the silent brute that you are. Capisce?”
“If we get lucky, I’ll see a familiar face.” Nick raised his fist, hovered it in front of the door, then stopped to sniff the air. “You wearing aftershave?”
“You have a date after this?”
“Who makes a date with you at midnight?”
“She’s a waitress. She doesn’t get off until then.”
In the murky darkness, Nick sighed. He turned to face the door and, just like a thousand times before, he said, “Ready?”
He couldn’t see the response, but he heard Matt unfasten the flap to his holster. Matt was ready.
Nick used his wedding band hand to pound on the metal door. He shifted his weight as they waited. Nick heard Matt chewing his gum.
Nick said, “Midnight, huh?”
A rectangular peephole slid open allowing just enough light through to see a dark face peering out. The face was so large the opening supported only enough room for one of his eyes.
“Yeah?” the man grunted.
Nick leaned close to the opening so the man could see his face. The opening quickly slid shut.
They stood in the silence while Nick thought of his next move.
“He seems like a nice fellow,” Matt said.
The clang of locks unbolting was followed by the door squeaking open. It reminded Nick of an old horror movie.
The large black man wore a large black shirt that hung over his jeans and covered enough space to hide a rocket launcher. The man ignored Nick and gave Matt the once over.
Matt gave him the stone cold glare of a pissed-off FBI agent. No one did it better.
Then the man turned his attention to Nick. His head was round and clean-shaven. His expressionless face seemed to be set in cement.
Nick spread open his hands and raised his eyebrows. “Well?”
The man’s face slowly softened, then worked its way into a full out smile. “Where the fuck you been, Bracco?” He engulfed Nick into a giant bear hug, momentarily lifting him off of his feet.
Nick patted the beast a couple of times on the back and slid down to face him. “I can’t believe you still work here.” He gestured to Matt, “This here is Matt McColm. Matt, this is Truth.”
Truth nodded to Matt, then slapped Nick on the shoulder. “Last time I saw you, you were still with the Western.”
“It’s been a decade.”
“Wow, seems like just yesterday you’d come in and drag Woody to G.A. meetings.”
Nick grinned. He looked over the big man’s shoulder to the solid green door that Truth guarded. Beyond the fireproof frame was a large, unfinished basement filled with poker tables. This time of night the tables would be surrounded by chiropractors, strippers, tax accountants, firefighters and probably even a couple of cops from Nick’s old beat. A mixture of cigar and cigarette smoke would be lingering just below the fluorescents.
“How’s the crowd?” Nick asked.
“Not too bad. You want a seat?”
Nick shook his head. “I’d scare them all off. You know I’m with the feds now?”
Truth frowned. “You don’t come around for ten years and the first thing you think to do is insult me?”
Nick stood silent and waited.
“We may be compulsive gamblers,” Truth explained, “but we’re not illiterates. I read the story. Local boy makes good.”
Nick held up a hand. “Hold on. Don’t believe everything you read in the rags.”
“Since when is Newsweek a rag?”
Nick shrugged. “Sometimes the legend exceeds the facts.”
Truth waved a thick finger back and forth between the two agents. “He’s the partner. They called you two the Dynamic Duo or the A-Team or some shit.”
Nick said nothing.
Truth snapped his large fingers. “Dream Team. That’s it. I knew it was something like that. You two dug up some kind of terrorist cell planning to waste the Washington Monument. Isn’t that right?”
He pointed to Nick. “According to the article, you the brains and he’s the muscle.”
Matt stood stone-faced.
“The way you say it,” Nick said. “It makes my partner here sound like a bimbo with large biceps. Look at him. Does he look like he pumps iron?”
Truth examined Matt’s long, thin frame and shook his head. “Nope. So he must be good with a 9.”
“Precisely. He’s the FBI’s sharp-shooting champ three years running.”
Truth smiled. “You two aren’t here to raid the place, I know that much. They wouldn’t send that much talent for this old joint.”
“Come on, Truth.” Nick said. “This is a landmark. My father used to play here. I’d rather see it turned into a museum first.”
Truth’s smile transformed into something approaching concern. “And you’re not here to play poker either?”
Nick shook his head.
“Then it must be business.”
Nick stood motionless and let the big man put it all together.
Truth looked at Nick, but nodded toward Matt. “You wouldn’t bring the cowboy unless you felt a need for backup. Something I should know?”
Nick thought about how much he should tell him. He trusted Truth as much as any civilian.
“I’m not sure,” Nick said. “I need to see Ray Seville. Is he still playing?”
“Seville? Yeah, he’s back there making his usual donations. What do you want with a weasel like him?”
“He called the field office and left a message for me to meet him here.”
Truth smiled. “The snitch strikes again.”
“Maybe,” Nick said.
Matt cleared his throat in a forced fashion.
“Oh, yeah,” Nick said. “Matt’s in a bit of a hurry. He’s got a date tonight.”
Truth engaged Matt’s hardened face again, only this time Matt threw in a wink.
Truth smiled and held out his hand, “All right then, gents. Hand them over and I’ll get Ray for you.”
Matt glared at his partner. “You can’t be serious?”
Truth didn’t budge. His palm remained open while his fingertips flexed impatiently.
“Truth,” Nick said. “Is that really necessary?”
Truth looked at Matt this time. In a tone that denoted overuse, he said, “A long time ago there was a shootout in the parlor. A couple of drunks got carried away during a tight hand. The drunks were Baltimore PD. Fortunately, they were more drunk than cops that night and neither one got hurt too bad. When one of their fellow officers was called to the scene, he came down hard. Even though the two drunk cops were his senior, he was someone everyone respected and they obeyed his commands. Back then he made a rule: if Lloyd’s was going to stay open it had to be firearm free. No exceptions. The Mayor, the Governor. No one.”
Truth took his time to look back at Nick. “Do you remember who that cop was?”
Nick nodded, reluctantly. “Me.”
“Bingo,” Truth smiled.
Nick fished the 9MM from his holster and handed it to Truth. He looked at Matt and said, “Sorry, I forgot.”
Truth took Nick’s gun and shoved it into the abyss under his oversized tee shirt. He looked at Matt and kept his hand out. “It’s only out of respect that I don’t pat you down,” Truth said. “I trust Nick.”
Matt moaned while removing his Glock. “Forgot, my ass.”
“Relax, Truth has our back until we’re done here. Right Truth?”
“Fifteen years,” Truth said. “No one’s got by me yet.” He gestured for them to follow and he stopped after only a few steps. He pointed to an open door and said, “Wait in there and I’ll get him for you.”
Before entering the room, they watched Truth walk down the hall and open the green door. As he pulled the door shut behind him, a burst of cigar smoke escaped along the ceiling and crept toward the front door. Nick followed Matt into the small sitting room and remained standing. Matt eased onto a dingy green sofa, rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together.
The room was a windowless twelve by twelve with two corduroy sofas facing each other. Between the sofas was a carved up oak coffee table that wobbled without ever being touched. The only light came from a pair of bare fluorescent bulbs that hung from a cracked ceiling.
“I’m just glad you didn’t agree to wear a blindfold,” Matt said. “We would have missed this beautiful decor.”
“Calm down,” Nick said. “I wouldn’t want you to be uptight for Valerie.”
Nick paced while Matt tapped his fingertips.
Nick heard the green door open. Truth was followed by a wiry man with deep pockets under his eyes. He wore a baseball cap with the brim twisted to the side.
Nick gestured for him to sit down.
Truth said, “I’ll be right outside if you need me,” then pulled the door shut behind him.
Ray Seville sank into the couch across from Matt and pulled a mangled pack of cigarettes from his jeans pocket. He flipped open a pack of matches and flicked one against the striker. He sucked the cigarette to life, then shook the match and pointed the extinguished stick at Matt. “Who’s he?”
“He’s my partner,” Nick said.
“I thought I left a message for you to come alone.”
“He’s my partner. He goes where I go.”
“Yeah, well, how do I know I can trust him?”
“How do you know you can trust me?”
Seville managed a meager grin. “Aw, come on. Me and you, we have history.”
“History?” Nick said. “I arrested you half a dozen times working Gold Street.”
Seville waved the back of his hand. “Yeah, but you was always straight with me. A lot of other cops were pure bullshit. Tell me one thing, then come at me from a different angle two minutes later.”
Nick sighed. “Listen, Ray, I’m not with the Western anymore. You want to roll over on one of your buddies, I’ll call a shoe and get him to meet you somewhere safe. Not down here in the basement of Lloyd’s poker house.”
Seville took another drag of his cigarette and looked past Nick at Matt still leaning forward, elbows on his knees, “What’s his problem?”
“I told you, he’s my partner.”
“Doesn’t he know how to speak?”
“He’s just here to intimidate.”
“Intimidate? Intimidate who?”
The guy was a pure idiot. Nick wondered how Ray survived among the predators that prowled West Baltimore on a nightly basis. Nick glanced at his watch and said, “Ray, where are we going here?”
Seville stared at the hardwood floor while the flimsy ash danced between his feet. “A couple of weeks ago I get a call from this guy asking me for a phony drivers license.”
“How did he know to call you?” Nick asked.
“I dunno. Maybe somebody told him. Stop being a cop for a second and listen.”
Nick folded his arms.
“Well, anyway, I meet him and get the info he wants me to use on the license. I usually ask some questions to see what I’m getting myself into, but this guy cuts me off before I can even start. I never been eye-fucked like that before.”
Seville took another drag of his cigarette and pointed to Matt. “Is he like your trained monkey or what?”
Nick stretched out his arm and held Matt back as he came out of his seat, then he admonished Ray with a stare that forced his attention back to the floorboards.
Ray’s cigarette slowly shrank between his index and middle finger. “Shit, the guy was talking to me like I was a moron, telling me over and over where to make the drop. How long to wait. I look like I just fell off the turnip truck?”
Nick let that one go.
“He asked me everything under the sun, except if I know how to make a good dupe. I mean shit, the guy didn’t even haggle with my rate.” Ray dropped the ciga