Payment in Full
They sat in the quiet darkness.
They sat in a car, one arm each lying across their respective cold metal of doors with the windows rolled down to let in the quiet, but hot, summer night. In the night the cicadas buzzed softly. Somewhere down the street a dog half-heartedly growled at something moving in the night. Off in the distance, every now and then, the faint flash of lightning.
The night’s soft breeze gently drifted across their faces like the touch of a whimsical lover. Irregular and amazingly hot. Yet . . . somehow . . . soothing to the touch.
Neither one spoke. In silence they set like menacing monoliths hidden in the darkness. Eyes unblinking as they watched the quiet tragedy unfolding before them. Opposite them was a small frame house settled far back in a verdant green yard. A house which had a yard filled with bicycles and toys and a numerous assortment of baseballs, basketballs and footballs lying about in the deep grass.
The front door of the little box house was wide open. Bright yellow light from the interior spilled out into the night and splashed across the stone porch and sidewalk directly in front of it. Like a bucket of paint spilling across a black canvas. On the sidewalk where the light rolled across the cement, two pairs of shoes and the cuffs of two sets of pressed slacks were illuminated starkly. Rising up out of the light the black on black images of two men standing in the dark. Waiting. Waiting patiently. Unhurried and unconcerned.
One of the dark shadows reached inside his suit coat and pulled out something. A second later both men sitting in the car saw the bright flame of a lighter pop into existence, flair for a second, and then disappear into a coat pocket, leaving behind the red point of a glowing cigarette burning brightly from between the lips of one of them.
On the porch a man and a woman stood enfolded in each other’s arms. The portly man standing half in light and half in shade. His wife bathed in the warmth of the yellow light. Both husband and wife stood embracing each other for some moments before, reluctantly, they separated from each other and stepped back.
That’s when the kids flooding into the door and threw arms around the legs and waist of their father. Three of them. Two boys and a girl. Even in the quiet of the night from across the street the two heard the crying. The sound of pain. Of disillusion. Of loss. Of fear. The fear of possibly never seeing their father again.
One of the boys used the back of his sleeve to wipe the tears from his eyes as he stepped back and turned toward his sister. She the littlest of the lot. She with the golden curls. She with spindly thin legs encased in massive metal braces. Reaching out with a hand to support her the brother helped his sister maneuver closer to her father. The portly man bent down to one knee and turned toward his daughter. As he did, the tiny thing let go of the cane she had gripped in one hand and let it clang to the floor before throwing arms around her father’s neck.
In the darkness beside him he heard the dark shadow sitting behind the car’s small steering wheel clear his voice softly before he spoke.
“That’s the reason I called and asked for your help,” the voice drifted to his ears quietly . . . yet holding a hesitant . . . odd . . . note in it. “The oldest kid is twelve. The youngest, the girl there, is nine. Nine years old and crippled. Crippled for life.”
Just one word. Just a barely audible whisper in the darkness. Yet somehow . . . somehow . . . creating a tingling sensation up and down the spine of the man sitting behind the steering wheel.
“Car accident six months ago. Coming home from church. A cement truck came out of nowhere and rammed into the passenger side of their car. Everyone came out alive badly bruised. But the girl. She . . . (ahem!) . . . she came out the worst. Three spinal discs exploded in her back. Bone splinters drove into the spinal column. Inoperable. Prognosis not good. She may be in a wheelchair in a year. Forever.”
The unblinking eyes of the man sitting on the passenger side of the car returned back to peer at the huddled family on the porch. For a moment he watched in silence. Watched the father hug and kiss the foreheads of each of children. Watched the children, each crying inconsolably, looking down at their feet and nodding their heads in response to whatever their father was saying to them.
“Why is he going to jail?” he finally whispered.
“He’s been framed. Ten million in untraceable bonds have disappeared out of a safe in the accounting firm he used to work at. The evidence is pretty damn conclusive. It looks like he stole them. Stole them and then, somehow, got them out of the country before anyone suspected anything amiss.”
“Who framed him?”
Again. That voice. More of a whisper. Actually, not even a whisper. More of a thought suddenly popping up in your head! Like telepathy. Freaking telepathy!
“The head of the accounting firm. A guy by the name of Ernest Wilson. The ten million was payment. Payment in full for slipping classified documents out of Washington and into the hands of the Chinese.”
“The head of an accounting firm is a spy?”
“Turns out ole’ Ernest is a damn good one,” the balding, rumpled man sitting in the darkness in the front seat of a Ford Taurus said quietly. “His firm does a lot of work independently auditing government contracts. Especially defense contracts. It’s perfect cover. No one suspects a thing.”
“But you do,” whispered the reply. “How?”
“The people I work for have been asking some interesting questions lately. About how the Chinese are catching up so quickly in defensive technologies. I was asked to look into it. Finding Earnest was an accident. A fortuitous accident.”
“So call the FBI and have him arrested. Wouldn’t that clear the name of the guy over there?”
“No proof, Smitty. Not a damn thing to link Ernest to the Chinese. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve got contacts in the FBI and Homeland Security. No one can find anything suspicious. Apparently the guy is bullet proof.”
Across the street the father of three stood up with some difficulty, looked at his wife and reached out with a hesitant hand to wipe a tear off her cheek. And then he turned around and stepped down off the porch and allowed the two waiting police detectives to grab him by his arms and lead him to the back seat of an unmarked car.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“Find a way to bring Ernest Wilson to justice. And in the process, clear the name of the poor bastard over there. Do it quickly, Smitty. If this guy goes to court they’ll convict him and throw his ass in prison. For fifty years or more on espionage charges. His family will never see him again. His daughter . . . the boys . . . will grow up . . . (ahem!).”
“Okay,” the soft whisper drifted across the front seat of the car. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Same agreement on your payment. We’ll . . .”
“Let’s talk payment after the problem is fixed.”
The car moved suddenly. Unexpected. And then the explosive sound of a car door slamming shut violently. Twisting a head violently to his right the lone man behind the wheel stared at the empty seat of the car before twisting around to stare into the night through the car’s back window to see a departing Smitty. There was only blackness.
The sonofabitch was a ghost. A freaking ghost.
Two days later Ernest Wilson was confronted with his first inexplicable crisis. One of his firm’s younger accounts ran across the open floor of his office filled with young accounts, gripping a piece of paper in his hands and looking as if he had swallowed something which was making him violently sick. In such a rush the young man bounced off the edge of a desk, smacked into an account sitting in his chair, causing the man sitting in the chair to lurch forward onto the computer screen in front of him violently.
By time the young man got to Ernest Wilson’s office door everyone in the open office was staring at the young man as if he had suddenly gone berserk.
“Sir! Sir! You’ve got to see this. You’ve got to see this!”
“Fletcher! What the hell is wrong with you?” Ernest Wilson barked angrily, slamming the phone he had been holding to his ear down viciously and reaching up with the other hand to snap a crumpled piece of paper out of the young man’s shaking hands.
Glancing down at the paper he read the one word beneath an email address . . . and almost rolled out of his chair in a dead faint. Color drained from his face. Anger at the young Fletcher flushed out his system almost spontaneously. Replaced with a veil of unimaginable terror and horror.
The email address was the address he used to transfer funds to a bank in the Cayman islands. Like . . . say . . . transferring ten million dollars. Under the email address were Chinese characters. This set of Chinese characters:
“Fletcher . . .”
Somehow he found the strength to come out of his office chair and stand up. Somehow he found strength to speak. He felt terrible. His mouth was dry and his heart . . . his heart felt like it was going to burst out of his chest! But he couldn’t take his eyes off the paper. His very being was hypnotically glued to that single set of Mandarin symbols.
“Fletcher . . . . I . . . I’ve got to go home. A . . . a sudden emergency. Yes . . . that’s it. A sudden emergency!”
And Ernest Wilson ran. Ran knowing he was running for his life.
He knew this time would eventually come. Knew that sooner or later he would have to flee. Knew the Americans might possibly realize what had been happening under their very noses for the last two decades. But how? How had they found out so suddenly? So unexpectedly?
Forget about how. Questions right now were counter productive. It was time to move on.
He drove his Mercedes fast through Washington traffic. Heading toward Baltimore. He had emergency funds tucked away in a nondescript small bank deposit box. Money, passports, documents. Everything he needed to start a new life far, far away from the United States. In thirty-six hours he would be on the other side of the world. Tucked away nice and safe in a small bungalow just outside Taipei. He grinned. It had been a good run working for the Chinese. But now it was over. Retirement beckoned.
He was unprepared when the Jaguar sedan appeared in the corner of his eye, suddenly materializing up and out of the opening to a country road, a curtain of dust indicating the driver was driving too fast. Far too fast. The Jag didn’t attempt to stop. With an ear splitting crash of ripping metal and shattering glass the Jaguar plowed into the front left fender of his Mercedes. Both cars, tires screeching in loud protests, moved laterally across the back roads two lane highway and came to a sudden halt half curled around a massive tree.
Pushing himself away from the steering wheel, blinking through the blood from a cut on his forehead just above his left eye, he became aware someone was walking toward his side of the car. Through his blurred vision he saw the small, compact man in a thousand dollar tailored suit of summer cotton, gripped in one hand a Chinese made QSZ-9 nine millimeter pistol. In his other hand he gripped a sheaf of papers.
Through the pain of a throbbing headache and with eyes unwilling to focus properly he watched the small man step up to his car and pause before lifting the pistol up and squeezing off two quick shots.
He screamed in pain as both slugs tore through each kneecap. Vaguely he was aware the man tossing the sheaf of papers into the back seat of the Mercedes before turning back to walk back to the Jag. Gritting his teeth, sobbing in pain, blood leaking profusely from both wounds, he watched the small man walk unhurried back to the Jag and open the driver’s side door. With one free hand he pulled a limp but bloody form out of the front seat of the car and tossed him down onto the asphalt of the highway. Bending down to one knee the small man took the QSZ-9 and stuffed into the hands of . . . from what it looked like from his vantage point . . . his Chinese handler!
The dark eyed, dark haired man walked back to the Mercedes. From out of the sunlight Ernest blinked and tried to stare up at the man. But the man stood with the sun directly behind him.
“You’ve got only one chance to survive, Ernest. Your employer knows you’ve killed your handler. They’ve been informed your bank accounts in the Caymans have been cleaned out and you’re heading to Taipi. I’m sure a hit team is already searching for you. In the back seat of your car are a number of documents your handler was gracious enough . . . well, not so graciously actually . . . shared with me linking you to him. I suggest, if you want to live, to confess to the first cop who shows up and get your ass into Federal custody. And oh . . . by the way. That ten million you earned the other day? It’s been transferred. It’s in a safe place for the family of the patsy you framed the other day. I’m sure they would say ‘thank you’ for your generosity.”
Before blacking out Ernest picked up two sounds audibly. The first was steps walking away. The second, in the distance, the unmistakable sounds of approaching sirens.
Two days later . . . in the darkness of a silent car parked against a curb of a quiet residential neighborhood, two dark shadows sat in silence. Both dark forms eyed an unmarked car coming to a stop in the driveway of a small house set deep in a verdant green lawn. Doors open on the unmarked car. Two big looking police detectives rolled out of the front seats. A slightly pudgy, nondescript little account rolled out of the back. All three had big, wide grins on their faces.
The front door of the house exploded open with a bang. Light from the interior flooded out onto the lawn. Two young boys, followed by a woman and a little girl hobbling on a cane, emerged from the house. The boys shot like arrows off the porch and raced across the line to dive into the arms of their father. The portly little accountant squeezed the boys together closer to him for a moment or two and then got up hurried and ran toward his wife and little girl.
Standing by the car the two detectives watched beaming in delight. And maybe with a tear or two sliding down hard, rugged cheeks.
“You did it, Smitty. You did it. How, I don’t know. And truthfully don’t want to know,” the man sitting behind the car’s steering wheel said quietly. Incredulously.
The dark man sitting in the passenger seat said nothing. Said nothing but kept dark eyes on the joyful reunion of a family.
“Listen, your payment . . . “
“Forget the payment,” the hiss of a voice in the darkness drifted across the car. “This one was on me.”
The car rocked unexpected. The passenger side door slammed shut loudly. Glancing to his right he saw nothing but
an empty seat. Glancing up into the rear view mirror he saw nothing. Only the dark envelope of a black night.
Like a freaking ghost.