Benjamin Stern drove his Subaru into town and parked in front of the Wagon Wheel Saloon on Main Street. He turned off the engine and waited with the windows up. A winter front had dropped the evening air temperature down to bone-chilling cold. The street was dimly lit. Stern remained still and kept his foot off the brake pedal, hoping not to give himself away as he sat in his car. Through his rearview mirror, he watched the front door of a run-down gray Victorian mansion across the street. It was divided into apartments. Unit C, on the second floor, was the residence of Miss Wendy White, the waitress at Perks and the key witness who had placed Monte Turcot at the Kevin Sniggs murder scene. Stern scanned the second floor windows for any signs of activity, but the curtains were drawn and it was dark inside. He remained in his car, alternating between checking the apartment windows and watching the sparse foot traffic for Miss White or anyone who he might not want to know that he was there.
A few minutes passed before a sheriff’s cruiser appeared and parked across the street in front of the Victorian. Stern hunkered down even lower in his seat and adjusted the mirror so that he could watch. A deputy exited the vehicle and went to the front door, pushed the buzzer, and stepped in. After about five minutes, he emerged alone and got back into his cruiser. Seconds later, Stern’s phone rang.
“Hello?” he answered.
“This is Deputy Kennesaw from CCSD calling. May I speak to Mr. Stern?”
“Speaking. So, was Miss White home?”
“No. No one was there.”
“What should we do?” Stern asked.
“I can come back and check later, I suppose.”
“Can’t you just go in? You know, call it a welfare check or something?”
“You should know better than that, Mr. Stern.”
“Look, she’s already missed an interview. It’s crucial that I speak with her before the trial.”
“I can’t just go into her home, Mr. Stern. Not without a court order.”
“What if she’s injured or incapacitated or something?”
“No one’s reported anything,” Kennesaw explained.
“She has a toddler. What about the child’s safety?”
“No one’s reported anything.”
“But she hasn’t been at work.”
“Missing work is not cause to enter her residence. No one has reported her missing. No one’s reported an unattended child, either.”
“Then where do you think she is?” Stern asked.
“You want my honest opinion?”
” No. I want you to lie to me. Of course.”
“Off the record…” Kennesaw added, “maybe she left town.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Threats. Abuse. Pressure?”
“Because of the case?”
“Who knows? Maybe. There are a lot of people in this county who think your client is a hero. To them, he’s the victim in all this. They think these charges are trumped up – that their hero could never do what he is accused of. Some of them probably don’t think too kindly of a local who’ll be testifying against their hero, especially on behalf of the DEA.”
“So, what is the sheriff’s department doing about that?”
“We don’t have any complaint, Mr. Stern. There’s nothing to investigate; it’s just my best guess. Maybe she got a nasty phone call or a threatening note left on her windshield and decided to take off and stay with friends or relatives.”
“But you called them, didn’t you?”
“Mr. Stern, it’s not so far-fetched to think her family would cover for her, is it?”
“So what’s Chalmers going to do about it? She’s a huge part of his case.”
“I’m sure he will put someone onto her trail. She’ll turn up. If not, it would seem to me that it would be in your favor.”
“Not if she turns up for trial at the last minute and I never get the chance to interview her. How do I cross examine effectively?”
“Maybe you’d get a mistrial, then.”
“That’s not a not guilty.”
“It’s better for your client than a guilty.”
“Still, I don’t like it. I don’t like wild cards like this.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Stern, but I will make some more calls. I’m sure she’ll turn up soon.”
“Okay. Thank you, Deputy.”
Stern waited, hunkered down in his seat until Kennesaw drove off, before exiting his car. He stood on the curb for a moment, then walked over to the Victorian and buzzed in. A shaggy man in his mid-twenties answered the door.
“Hello, my name is Benjamin Stern,” he announced. “Do you by chance know a Miss Wendy White? She lives with her child in Unit C.”
“Yeah, bro,” answered the man. “What do you want with her?”
“When’s the last time you saw her?”
“I can’t say.”
“You can’t say, or you won’t say?”
“What difference does it make, bro?”
Stern grinned. “You’re a good neighbor. I understand. But can you do me a favor?”
“If you see her or know how to get something to her, can you see that she gets this card?” Stern drew a pen and business card from his pocket and scribbled a quick note on the back. “I’m the public defender representing Monte Turcot. Please tell her to call me. It’s all on the card.”
“Yeah, I can do that.”
“Thank you. So, do you snowboard?”
The door slammed in Stern’s face. Without hesitation, he turned, crossed Main Street, and went into the Wagon Wheel Saloon, all the way to the booth at the very back. He ordered a Manhattan and browsed his smartphone while he sipped at the drink.
“The sheriff is worthless,” came a voice from the bar.
Stern looked up, wondering if someone was speaking to him directly, but instead found two men seated on barstools, conversing loudly with pints in their hands.
“He ain’t doing nothing about it,” continued the first man. “Those feds run the town now.”
“They ought to make Frenchie come out of retirement,” said the other. “He’d straighten things out real quick. He’d run them feds outta here.”
“No doubt about it.”
The front door to the bar opened and a burly fellow stepped in from the bitter evening. Stern watched as he strode past the bar and the other booths, drawing closer and closer with a stiff, lumbering gait. He wore a black stocking cap and a brown canvas jacket, and his footfalls clumped on the creaky wood planks of the saloon floor. Closer. The man’s face bore a gray goatee, and he seemed to be missing his neck. Despite his size and sound, the other patrons ignored him, too busy drinking and carrying on about sheriffs and feds.
Stern watched in surprise as the newcomer stopped and slid into the seat across from him in his booth. He was sixtyish, with the face of a pugilist, a hard drinker, or perhaps both. His nose was broad and flat, while one of his eyes drooped a bit. His complexion was wrinkled, and had the texture and color of bulk cardboard. He breathed through his mouth, exposing two silver-capped incisors that reflected the bluish fluorescent lights of the saloon.
“Care to join me?” Stern asked sarcastically.
“You can call me Falco,” the burly man answered with a resonate growl.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Falco,” Stern replied. “I’m–”
“I know who you are,” Falco interrupted.
“Well then, what can I do for you?”
“We need to talk.”
“Talk about what?” Stern asked. “My salvation? I must admit, you don’t look like your typical Jehovah’s Witness.”
Falco remained expressionless. “I’m here to talk business with you.”
“You must have been following me. How else would you know I came in here?”
“Paranoid?” Falco asked.
“Who are you? Who do you work for? Do you work for Chalmers?”
“Who I work for is not your business.”
“So what do you want?” Stern asked.
“Do you know the whereabouts of Wendy White?”
“Funny, I was just wondering that, myself.”
“It looked like you were visiting her.”
“So, I’m not paranoid,” Stern said. “I need to interview her before the trial, but she’s gone AWOL.”
“If you discover her whereabouts, I assume you’ll do the right thing?”
Falco grunted. “Notify the proper authorities.”
“If I knew where she was, I’d conduct my interview, with the DA’s awareness, of course.”
“You think I work for the DA?” Falco smirked.
“Miss White will be found. She’ll testify.”
“I’m sure she will. Is that the business you came to talk about?” Stern asked, finishing his drink.
“Well, please go ahead, then.”
“I’m supposed to tell you that you’re in no imminent danger,” Falco said, his only expression being a further drooping of his eyelid.
“I’m in no imminent danger? What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“It means what it means.”
“Hey there, fellas.” Tommyknocker the bartender materialized at the booth. “What’ll ya have?”
“I think I’d like to close out my tab,” Stern said as he reached into his pocket. “This conversation is making me uncomfortable.”
“And you?” Tommyknocker asked Falco.
“Ice water with lemon.”
“Here,” Stern said. While digging around for his wallet, he deftly activated the record function on his smartphone. It was a sleight-of-hand trick that he was well-practiced at, having surreptitiously recorded every significant conversation he’d had over the past ten years. “Hold on. I can’t find my wallet.” He reached into his other pocket and produced it, then took out his credit card and handed it to the bartender. Once Tommyknocker had left with the card, Stern turned back to Falco. “So, you ambushed me here to tell me that I’m not in imminent danger? Please explain.”
“I want to talk to you about the trial,” Falco said, glaring at him.
“You want to talk about the trial?” Stern looked puzzled. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“You’re a young man, what, thirty years old? You’ve got a bright future. This trial could open some doors for you.”
“So long as I win or give a good show,” replied Stern. “But your DA is probably going to clean my clock.”
Falco grunted in a manner evoking laughter. “Yes, that’s true. He’ll probably clean your clock. But you just need to make sure that things go as expected.”
“Go as expected?”
“Don’t be coy.”
“What exactly are you saying?”
“Turcot is not going to walk. He’s going to prison, and he’s going to be executed by lethal injection. That’s what’s going to happen.”
“I suppose there’s a chance of that.”
“There needs to be a 100% chance of that,” Falco growled.
“100%?” Stern asked, looking surprised.
” One hundred percent,” he reiterated.
“I’m not sure what you’re implying.”
“You’re a smart boy, Stern. You know exactly what I’m implying.”
“Are you suggesting I throw the case?”
“I’m telling you that Turcot’s conviction is expected.”
Stern leaned back in his seat, thoroughly perplexed.
“Are you confused?” Falco asked.
“Actually, yes I am,” said Stern. “I am confused.”
“What about? It’s pretty simple.”
“I’m confused about why you’re here. At first you said you wanted to talk business. You know, business. When do we get to the business part? Where’s the quid pro quo?”
“What’s your offer?”
“You come here and tell me you want to talk business, but you haven’t talked any business yet.” Stern shrugged. “You can’t seriously expect me to throw a case without some sort of remuneration.”
“Hello? Is anyone home?” Stern said mockingly. “What are you offering me?”
“Why would we offer you anything to lose a case you’re going to lose anyway?” Falco replied.
“Then why are you here?” asked Stern in a snide tone. “Why are you here, threatening me with imminent danger if you’re so sure you’re going to win?”
“My people don’t want any loose ends.”
“So let’s talk business, then. Make me an offer. Make me an offer and I’ll get you the 100% guaranteed victory your people are expecting. No loose ends.”
Falco sighed. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“Of course it does.”
Tommyknocker returned and set Stern’s slip on the table, along with his card. The two men waited until he had gone, then continued.
“There will be many powerful people who will be displeased if Turcot escapes justice,” said Falco. “If Turcot gets off, they’ll look weak. It’ll undermine their legitimacy. It’ll damage their prestige.”
Stern scoffed. “Why would I care one whit about anyone’s prestige?”
“Because it’s difficult to achieve anything with powerful enemies standing in the way.”
“A man is defined by the power of his enemies.”
“A man is defined lots of different ways, but he survives by his good sense. He isn’t likely to last long without it.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Stern said. “I’m going to write down a number here on the back of this slip.” He pondered for a moment, then scratched a number out, folded the receipt over, and slid it towards Falco. Falco took it, looked it over, and rolled his eyes. “You take that number back to your people. You tell them that’s what a 100% guarantee will cost them. If they deliver that, I’ll make sure it happens. It shouldn’t be a problem. I hear they have infinite resources.”
“Conviction. Murder one.”
“Guaranteed. 100%,” Stern assured.
“I can see what they say.”
“Oh, and I want the money up front. No later than three weeks before the trial starts.”
Stern smiled confidently. “Then tell your people to consider this loose end untied.”