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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Fatal Assignment

Loretta Eidson


            Two punks emerged from an alley blocking her on the sidewalk. The waistlines of their jeans hung loose on their hips. One wore a white cap turned backward and an oversized green coat. The other had a red and white bandana tied around his head and wore a gold earring. He spit on the sidewalk using the gaping hole from his missing front tooth. They both fit the description of Memphis thugs with a record.
            “Hey yo pretty mama, where ya going with them hot drinks?” The guy with the missing tooth reached for the coffee carrier. “Sho will warm us up.”
            Special Agent Angie Drummonds turned it away from his reach only to face the taller one with the green coat. “Sorry guys, these are taken.”
            Green coat leaned into her face. His body odor mixed with sour breath was deadly. “And we’re doin’ the takin’.”
            She squared her shoulders back and clenched her jaw in anticipation of an attack. Her self-defense training at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms served her well.
            Green coat jerked the coffee carrier from her, while missing tooth pulled the sack from her grip.
            Take that kind of crap from these punks, no. A firm swift kick to the groin sent green coat to the ground. She spun, catching the coffee while pulling her weapon. Missing tooth threw the sack at her feet and tossed his hands in the air. 
            “Back off. I won’t be so nice next time.”
            “We’s cool.” Green coat moaned as he stood. Continuing to hold their hands up, they inched backward. “We’s just foolin’ with ya.” When they reached the broken concrete of the alley entrance they ran and disappeared around the back corner of the downtown liquor store.
            Angie slid her pistol back into her purse. A small crowd of tourists wearing matching Elvis t-shirts cheered her as they dispersed. Smiling, she scooped the sack off the ground.
            Drawing attention wasn’t her idea of being inconspicuous. Let some punks get the best of her? Not after that attack in Chicago.  Heading straight to the stake-out van would have to wait until the crowd was gone. She leaned against the liquor store’s brick wall until everyone was gone. New faces strolled past without a glance in her direction. It was safe to continue her journey.
            Raymond’s Electrical Service van with Mechanical Engineers written in yellow under the title was parked at the curb. Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Billy Decker had cleverly disguised his mobile undercover surveillance office. She approached the rear door of the van and lightly tapped as Decker instructed when she called about getting in on more of the action. He eased it open.
            Decker looked younger than she’d expected, but her coworkers at the hotel warned her not to challenge his genius IQ. Baggy blue jeans, plaid flannel shirt, and Nike tennis shoes allowed him to blend in on the streets.
            Her eyebrows lifted. “Agent Decker.”
            “Agent Drummonds. Saw you walk up.” He pointed at the short circuit camera. “Thought you’d never get here.” He shuffled papers and trash, clearing the extra chair.
            “Just call me Angie. Sorry about the time. I had a slight delay. Two young thugs thought the coffee was for them.” She climbed inside the van and stepped over the piles of trash at the foot of both seats.
            Decker pushed the lock on the van door. “Just now? Which way did they go? Would you recognize them in a line-up?”
            “Forget it. I handled the situation. Here, we still have breakfast.”
            “From now on call me Handyman. I’ll come up with a name for you when I decide if you’re a fit for this job.” He opened the sack and smelled the delicious aroma. “I’m starved, thanks.”
            She pressed her lips together. Working her way out of that desk job and finagling her way to a surveillance position put her another step closer to working the streets again. Aiding an undercover agent posing as a homeless man sounded intriguing and dangerous. Flirting with death didn’t bother her. She had nothing and no one to live for.
            She held one of the pastries in the air. “These were the last ones. And I’m flexible. I think you’ll find I can fit into any job you have.”
            “I’m counting on it. I’ve given opportunities to agents before, but they’ve opted out or didn’t measure up. A few hours in this stuffy van and you may reconsider your desire to leave the surveillance assignment at the hotel.”
            Not a chance. Sitting in that stifling hotel room with two chain-smoking agents was certain slow death. She’d rather die on the streets working a real job than wither away from second hand smoke.
            Decker took a big bite. A piece of icing fell to the floor. “I just figured you’d get cramped in here. Most people are a little claustrophobic and can’t handle small spaces.”
            “So, did anyone read the recommendations the Chicago office sent about my undercover experience?” She snapped. After all she’d been through for the Bureau. The least they could do was acknowledge her skills. “If so, you’d know I can handle just about anything.”
            Handyman’s eyebrows lifted. “Do I sense an attitude?” He sipped his hot coffee.
            Her shoulders tensed. “Maybe, but I hope to prove my record stands true.”
            “I’ve seen your file. I was in Gallagher’s office when FedEx made the delivery.                  “Deputy Director Myron Gallagher? It wasn’t sent to him.”
            He waved her off. “Receptionist mistake. He threw it to me. Told me to find you a desk job. He—”
            “Find me a desk job—?” What an arrogant jerk. 
            “Hold on. You should thank me.” He licked the sugar glaze from his fingers. “Once surveillance was underway on all those vagrant murders, I pulled you from the main office to assist with the investigation from the hotel.”   
            She shuffled in her seat. “My apologies, I’m jumping to conclusions.” She stared at the floor before cutting her eyes toward him. “I really appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me.”
            He focused on the screens. “Our surveillance is on Special Agent Alan Richards, undercover as Brogan. He’s been on the streets for several weeks. His cat hole, or his claimed living space among the homeless, is here in this alley. He switches from the cardboard box to the dumpster depending on the weather.”
            She glanced around. “This is just a clip. Where’s the live feed?”
            “We have duel monitors. One over here, and another on your end. This van is equipped for a team of two. Makes scrutinizing outside activity easier when we have more than one set of eyes.”
            The screen revealed a view of store fronts, a homeless man digging through trash, the side of a whisky bottle, and a view of broken glass on the sidewalk.
            “He’s been scouting the streets all day.” Handyman bit into the second scone.
            “What’s his assignment?”
            “Uncover an illegal weapons ring and the cartel behind it.”
            She focused on the screen. “Has he connected yet?”
            “Nothing confirmed, but he’s made a few contacts. Most of them homeless.”
            He explained each screen and all the mechanics, most of it she already knew. The day passed quicker than she’d wanted. If only she could stay to assist Decker permanently. Would Gallagher grant final approval for a departmental shift?
            Decker’s cell rang. “Yes sir. I’m certain. You know I’m good for it. Got it.” He slipped the iPhone into his shirt pocket. “Well, looks like you’re in.”
            Her eyes widened. “What? How?”
            “I always keep my word. You’re more than qualified to assist in this case, but I had to go through the proper channels to get you here. Gallagher gave the green light.”
            “Thanks.” She let out a slow breath and touched her side. Recovering from that near fatal stabbing on her previous assignment in Chicago took longer than she’d intended. Why didn’t God let her die in that alley? Two years had passed, but the humiliating comments from her cheating ex-husband still haunted her. She was weak and she’d never be good enough to merit a promotion in the bureau. Just because he excelled as an agent didn’t give him the right to belittle her in front of their co-workers. She was determined to prove him wrong…and herself.
            She paused. “When the time is right and you decide I’m ready, I don’t care if you send me out to investigate vagrant murders or team me up with Brogan. I’m prepared to face the dangers of living on the streets.” Fear crept up her spine as those words rolled from her lips. She had to do this.

            Going undercover meant living in a cardboard box next to a dumpster.  Brogan hadn’t counted on sharing space with rats or the stench of rotten seafood, but he’d endure whatever he had to for Karin. God rest her soul.
            Evening couldn’t come soon enough after standing in the alley all afternoon with his new homeless friends. Cooler weather and the threat of thunderstorms persuaded him to take shelter in the dumpster, so he shuffled trash bags and pounded empty boxes to make a comfortable resting place. The ache to see his children and tuck them into bed troubled him.
            Footsteps and heavy breathing jerked him awake, causing him to knock his ball cap sideways and skewing the camera hidden inside. Flashes from the corner Budweiser sign and pool hall filtered through rugged edges of the dumpster as thunder rolled.
            A muffled thud sounded like a weapon with a silencer. Brogan peeked through one of the rusty cracks running like spider veins from the upper corner. A police officer pointed his gun at a man holding his chest. Blood streamed over his fingers soaking his light colored shirt. Brogan reached for his Glock which was strapped firmly in his ankle holster.
            “Just hold on, let’s talk about this.” The man backed away holding his stomach. His hand shook as he pulled a 9 mm from behind his back and fired, hitting the policeman in the side.
             Another muffled thud sounded from the policeman’s weapon. The man collapsed to the ground. Brogan’s adrenaline peaked. If only he hadn’t slept in the dumpster. His box would have given him more leverage to intervene. The police officer held his side, leaned over, and shot the man again.
            Brogan swallowed hard. Police didn’t use silencers. He popped his gun loose and shifted inside the dumpster causing a box to crumple under his foot. Brogan caught a glimpse of the officer’s face when he spun and shot at Brogan’s empty box beside the dumpster.
            Brogan ducked.
            The man ran from the alley still holding his side.
            Brogan jumped from the dumpster in pursuit. He rounded the corner of the alley just as the passenger door of a dark Mustang slammed shut and sped away.
            No license plate.
            Blood splatters painted a short trail leading out of the alley. He needed to get a sample, but first, to check on the fallen man.  
            The lifeless body lay awkwardly over trash bags and broken whisky bottles. Brogan listened for movement. He dodged the blood to avoid contaminating the crime scene. Glass was strewn throughout the alley. He examined the body for a pulse before searching for identification.
            Grief crept up his spine, dredging painful memories.
            Inside the man’s sports jacket laid a slim leather wallet. He pulled a crumpled napkin from his pocket and covered his fingers, then carefully removed the wallet. An ATF Badge revealed this guy was with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Brogan’s nostrils flared.
            Special Agent Drew Conner. He was one of us.
            He placed the wallet back in the agent’s pocket. Lightning flashed as it began to rain. Brogan scrambled to find the least contaminated piece of clothing he owned. The inside of his pants pocket had to suffice. He ripped it out and carefully dabbed at the blood before the evidence was destroyed.
             Shivering from the rain, he rushed back to the dumpster and pulled the mini-earphones and CD player from his jacket pocket. A secure frequency switch was imbedded inside the battery compartment so he could communicate with the surveillance team. 
            Rain pelted the metal dumpster while the wind whistled through the alley. It was hard enough for Brogan to plug earphones into his radio with his big hands, but trying to hurry with cold hands caused him to drop them among the trash.
            No. Where are they?
            The tip of his finger touched the earphones.
            “Handyman, this is River Rat.” He wasn’t sure what time it was but guessed around three in the morning because of the sweet aroma of doughnuts baking from the pastry shop half a block away.       
            “Go ahead River Rat.”
            “Switch to discreet Sierra 3.” Brogan stared at the alley entrance for the suspect to return
            “Switching now. Handyman on Sierra 3. What’s up?”
            “We have an ATF badge down in front of River Rat Hole.”
            Did the signal drop?
            Brogan tried again. “Copy?”
            “I’ll get the duty chief and send uniforms out to set up the crime scene. Need a report ASAP. We’ll connect at 0600 at the rendezvous point.”
            “I need a plastic bag for evidence. Looked like a dirty cop.”
            “Careful what you say. Make yourself scarce.”
            Brogan rubbed his hands together to warm them. It was imperative for him to vacate the alley regardless of the storm. Searching for an illegal weapons ring lost its intrigue weeks ago, but promising his wife just moments before she died that he’d find her killer was all he could think about. He had to finish the job. He had to fulfill his promise.
            The pouring rain and occasional thunder enhanced the eerie darkness of death in the alley. He hated leaving the agent in the elements, but covering him would only let investigators know someone other than the killer had been there. He slid over the side of the dumpster. Wet trash flattened under his foot. He ran to the back of the alley where a loose board in the old wooden fence allowed a quick getaway.
            Shadows cast by blinking signs projected suspicions of intruders. He turned to see if he was being followed. He was no longer just searching for members of an illegal weapons ring. Now he was looking for a badged killer. If only he was in the warmth of his home with his children, Regina and Joey.
            Brogan checked the streets for movement before slipping into an alley. Jackson, one of his homeless friends, was asleep on the covered backdoor step of Raymond’s Bar & Grill. A familiar face. He still gripped the brown bagged whisky bottle he’d carried earlier in the day. Jackson’s weathered skin spoke of hard times while his deep set eyes windowed defeat when he was awake.  Wiry, gray streaks swirled through his curly hair adding a touch of character.
            Jackson lost his wife and baby in a fire that consumed his home in Jackson, Mississippi, several years ago. That’s all anyone knew about him. He just called himself Jackson.
            Sirens blared. Brogan dug through the trash, retrieved an empty whisky bottle, then rushed over to the wall opposite Jackson and slumped to the ground. The roof’s overhang shielded him from the rain. He wiped his wet face and stared at the rain-soaked street.
            The murder’s silencer rang in his ears. Failure to assist the wounded agent wretched his gut. Exhaustion won the battle over adrenaline and guilt. He drifted off to sleep.
            It seemed only minutes had passed when something bumped his leg. Instinct was to jump up fighting, but Jackson’s southern voice squelched Brogan’s reflexes.       
            “Hey man, whatcha doing over here? Guess ya had a little too much juice last night.”
            “Is it morning already?”
            “Man, you done missed it all. Word has it some cop got knocked off last night.”
            Brogan sat up.  “Seriously? Where? Any idea who it was?”
            “Don’t  know nuthin, exceptin’ everybody’s a’feard. It’s crazy man, just crazy.”
            Brogan stretched and popped his knuckles. He hadn’t forgotten the water-soaked blood streaming down the alley and over the curb. “It’s not safe anymore, man. We’ve got to watch our backs.”
            “Yep, dat’s for sho. From what I heard it’s a good thang you done passed out before ya got to yur place cause they found that dude’s body right at the dumpster.”
            Brogan removed his cap and shook his head to loosen his matted hair, then slid his cap back on. “Aw, man, don’t tell me that. Guess I need to find another place to crash.”
            “Nope, me and my friends done talked it over. Killers don’t go back to the same spot. So, iffin’ dat’s true, your place is jest about one of the safest right now.”
            Brogan chuckled and slapped at his dirty clothes. “I think that’s supposed to be lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice. What time is it anyway?” Had he overslept and missed his connection?
            “Jest guessing about 5:30.”
            “Thanks, Jackson, see you around. I’m going to go check things out for myself.”
            Brogan hobbled down the street wishing he had a hot cup of coffee. The aroma of doughnuts returned making his stomach growl. His back was stiff from sleeping on the broken concrete. He moaned as he twisted his back and shoulders to loosen his muscles. The cool air sent chills over his body while his mind replayed the details of the murder in slow motion.
            Chimes from the Old Episcopal Church resonated, announcing the weekly sunrise service. The tune reminded him of wedding bells and how lonely life was without Karin. When the cold wind blowing across the river blasted his face, he hugged his old army jacket tighter around his neck. He glanced down the deserted street before crossing to the waterfront park mimicking the homeless by rummaging through each trash can.
            His designated rendezvous point was a park bench overlooking the water inlet fed by the Mississippi River. He salvaged a plastic trash bag to cover the wet park bench. Holding his empty whisky bottle, he stared across the water at Mud Island.
            The loud motor of an old pick-up interrupted the silence. A door slammed. The motor continued to rumble. He didn’t lift his head but knew someone was coming toward him.
            “Hey old man, you’re looking rather crusty this morning.” Handyman slapped Brogan on the head with a rolled up newspaper, then dropped the paper and a McDonald’s sack in his lap. “Brought you the morning paper. We made the headlines. Don’t know how it got there so quick.” He brushed small beads of water off the bench before sitting at the opposite end.
            Brogan glanced away. “Was Agent Drew Conner really one of our guys? I thought I knew everyone on the team.”
            “Yes. Gallagher is ticked. Conner was new to the team, and we have no clue what went down. The investigation is underway. Your report forms are in the newspaper. When I see you throw the paper and bottle in the trash, I’ll know you’re finished with them. I can’t hang with you man—you know the routine. Enjoy your biscuit.”
            Brogan placed his hand over his forehead, shielding his eyes from the rising sun. “Hey, keep me abreast of the situation.”
            “Do you have any idea who the shooter was? I didn’t get anything from your video cam.”
            “Aw, when I tried to peek through the crack in the dumpster, my cap was knocked sideways. It all happened so fast I didn’t have time to straighten it, but I caught a glimpse of his face. I’ll put the details in my report.”
            “Later, man.” Handyman walked away. The rumbling of the engine fell silent when he disappeared up the city streets.
            Brogan waited a couple of minutes before opening the newspaper. The headlines read ATF Agent Murdered, Assailant At Large. He skimmed the article. The body of ATF Special Agent Drew Conner was found early this morning in an alley in downtown Memphis. It is unknown at this time the extent of his involvement in an undisclosed investigation.
             Deputy Direction Myron Gallagher, who heads up the ATF Division in Memphis stated, “Agent Conner was an outstanding man. The Bureau has suffered a great loss, and his death comes as a shock.”
             Brogan opened the damp McDonald’s sack. The strong aroma of fresh coffee filled his nostrils. The wrapper protected the biscuit from becoming soggy. The warm sausage was a pleasant change from discarded doughnuts.
            The plastic bag, blank reports, and an ink pen were taped inside the newspaper. He pulled the evidence from his jacket pocket, initialed and dated it according to departmental procedures, and carefully placed it inside the plastic bag. He turned on the park bench, settling in to complete the lengthy report.
            His coffee had grown cold, but he gulped it anyway as he folded the newspaper, picked up his whisky bottle, and threw them in the trash.

            The swirling waters of the river stirred his thoughts. Could Conner have known about Brogan somehow? Was he trying to find him in the alley for help? If whoever killed Conner found out, would Brogan be a target next?


  1. Well done. Good voice. Lots goin' on.

  2. I want more... When can I expect it in stores?


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