Call me Rip.
It’s not my real name, but it’s the only one you’re ever going to get from me. I work with a woman called Wilma, which is not her real name either.
Wilma and I are from the Detroit area. She grew up in Bloomington Hills and I come from Flint. In fact, I lived just around the corner from Michael Moore when I was growing up. For those of you who don’t know, he’s that guy who makes political films. While I don’t like his politics, his movies are fun, especially the one about guns.
The Motor City has always been a tough place. If you know what’s good for you, don’t go off the beaten track. That would be like sticking your hand in a viper’s nest and feeling around.
Most of Detroit’s nastiness is directed inward. Crime here is mostly stupid stuff – dope deals that go bad, gangbangers who dis each other, grudges that simmer, and drunken rages. Eventually the guns come out, the bullets fly, and the victims go down.
And there’s plenty of room for all at the Wayne County Morgue.
Well, maybe not.
A couple of years ago things reached a crisis level when unclaimed corpses literally began to stack up there. Hit hard by the recession, people couldn’t afford to bury their loved ones. The morgue had body piled on top of body until they got it straightened out.
That’s the way it’s been going in Detroit for quite a while now. Fortunately, most tourists never get to see that side of our glorious city. They visit the Art Institute, have lousy souvlaki in Greektown, and then watch the Lions blow it in the fourth quarter at Ford Field. Afterward, they jump on the Lodge or the Fisher and head back to the safety of their hotels in the suburbs.
I was double-parked on Lafayette waiting for Wilma to return. She had offered to get us dogs at American Coney Island before we headed up to the ferry in Ludington. It was six hours before the boat sailed so we had plenty of time. Once we got to Wisconsin, there would be another four hours of driving until we reached our destination – Iron City, Minnesota.
I was hungry. To distract myself, I ticked off time and tried to figure out just when we would arrive: Four hours to Ludington, three more sailing across to Manitowoc on the Wisconsin side – lose an hour for Central Time – and then four more hours driving through Wisconsin into Minnesota. That’s eleven in total, and then if I subtract the lost hour in the time zone change, we should get there at …
I got lost somewhere in the middle of my calculations. Math was never my strong suit.
Wilma came out empty-handed and jumped behind the wheel. She was silent until we were on I-96 heading toward Lansing.
I finally worked up the courage to ask, “Where’s my lunch?”
She slid her right hand into her handbag. This was not a good sign. There were two automatics inside; each nestled in its own custom pouch.
“Didn’t feel right,” she muttered.
We’d been partners for fifteen years, so I was used to Wilma’s feelings about things. Actually, they verged on the outright paranoiac at times. Still, I trusted her and, more importantly, I trusted her feelings.
I call it her spidey sense, and it’s helped us avoid some really unpleasant situations in the past.
I don’t get weird sensations about things myself, which means I would occasionally stroll into a dangerous situation. Luckily, Wilma has been there to watch my back, and to stop bad things from happening to me.
“I’m hungry,” I complained.
“We’ll stop at the next Wendy’s then.”
“I had my heart set on a Coney Island.”
“Stop whining. You’d just make a mess of my upholstery with your hot dog anyway.”
She was right of course. I would drip chili all over the seat, and Wilma liked to keep her car immaculate.
Wilma didn’t like to drive all that much at the best of times, and got particularly testy on long road trips. Normally we’d take my car, a big bitching piece of Dodge muscle, but this time we had no choice. It was in the shop after its passenger door got torn off.
She kept looking in the side mirror, which made me nervous. Her spidey sense was definitely tingling. Of course, it might just have been restlessness. She hadn’t shot anyone in over a month; maybe she was feeling edgy.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t killed anyone in almost six months. Another reason I was happy the Iron City job came along when it did.
We were going to Iron City to fuck someone up good – and get paid for it.
I tried to lighten Wilma’s mood. “You see Antiques Roadshow last night?”
She shook her head and continued to look in the side mirror. “Storage Wars. A stack of stuff fell over and almost crushed Barry.” She chuckled at the memory.
Wilma is a high-functioning psychopath – well actually, we both are – and she gets off on the misery of others. She can’t help it; it’s her inherent lack of empathy. I share a similar deficit of feeling. It makes us ideal partners in our chosen occupation.
We kill people for profit.
Need to get rid of someone? We’ll do it for you in a professional manner, and at a reasonable price. We don’t care why you want the person dead, or whether or not the target is a saint or a rat bastard. It really doesn’t make any difference to us.
If you have the money, we’re happy to help.
We like to get in there and get the job done fast. I’ve heard about guys who spend days stalking their prey, getting to know their every move. They wait for the perfect opportunity. To us, time is money. Point us at the victim, and we’ll go in with guns blazing.
Best of all, we charge affordable rates. If you can carry a mortgage in a good middle-class neighborhood, you can afford our services. You just need to know someone who has used us in the past. We aren’t in the Yellow Pages, and we don’t advertise on Craig’s List. We’re strictly a referral business.
The Iron City job came from one of our satisfied customers, Brett Maverick. Of course that isn’t his real name. We use non de plumes.
Since a lot of our clients tend to be boomers, they prefer code names inspired by 60s and 70s television shows. In the past we’ve done business with Joe Mannix, Perry Mason, Matt Dillon, and a few less well-known names anyone born after 1972 would have to look up on Wikipedia.
Brett called and asked if I would meet with Barney Rubble. Brett vouched for him, so I agreed. He arranged for Barney to meet me in the bar of the Marriott at the Renaissance Center.
I was sitting by the window watching a freighter go under the Ambassador Bridge. This is the most nerve-racking part of the business, a face-to-face meeting with a total stranger to discuss murder. It’s a real test of faith. There’s always a faint chance the guy might be wired up to broadcast to the FBI.
Barney was easy to spot as he waddled into the bar from the hotel’s lobby. His eyes darted around to make sure he wasn’t being followed. Guess he hadn’t been reading the local papers over the last ten or fifteen years. The Detroit Police Department barely had the budget to catch speeders, let alone slobs like him.
One look at Barney – balding, overweight, mid-fifties – told me he was the real thing. I pegged him as either an impatient heir or a cuckolded hubby. These are our two main food groups.
Just like Wilma has a feeling for impending danger, I have a good sense of character. Barney looked suitably uncomfortable.
He made a beeline for my table sat down across from me. “Rip Hunter?” he asked.
You probably don’t remember a television character named Rip Hunter. That’s because there wasn’t one. My name came from an early 60s comic book – Rip Hunter ... Time Master.
My old man collected comics. He didn’t drink or smoke like the other kid’s fathers did. Instead, he spent all his cash, and most of his time, collecting comic books. They were sealed in plastic bags, and stored in special boxes. He had thousands of them locked up in his closet.
He spent a lot more time with his comics than he ever did with me. To compensate for his lack of attention, he promised that his collection would be “all mine” one day. When he finally died, he made good on his promise.
After the funeral, I went home and lugged all those boxes out to the backyard. We had an oil drum there where we burned the garden waste. His comics made one hell of a blaze.
Yeah, I know, I can hear you superhero fans grinding your teeth.
Fond memories …
Oh well, back to Barney.
I did not offer to shake his hand.
A waiter appeared – the Marriott has a very efficient serving staff – and Barney ordered a diet Sprite with no ice.
I sized up him while he drank. He was a slob, dressed in a wrinkled off-the-rack suit. His comb-over was so bad it made Donald Trump look like Fabio. I could tell he was working up the courage to get around to business. He seemed to be reluctant to broach the subject of murder.
I decided to hurry him along. “So?” I asked impatiently.
“A guy who knows a guy told me that you could help me out,” he said, and glanced around.
Christ, I always hate when people talk like they’re in the Sopranos. I mean who the hell do they think I am – a gangster?
“You need someone killed,” I said in my quiet, no-shit voice.
He nodded. “My uncle, but more importantly, I need something of his.”
“What? Like an ear or a finger? Sorry, I don’t do souvenirs.”
“No, nothing like that. I need a book.”
“Sure, I’ll pick you up the latest Harry Potter at Barnes and Noble.”
“It’s one of his books. A first edition of Moby Dick.”
I leaned in. “So it has to look like a robbery?”
“That’s right. The book is worth a fortune.”
“I know. I watch the Antiques Roadshow. Why don’t you just hire a thief?”
“Because my uncle is a cheap, lying prick.”
Ah, the loving relative. Barney had that distinct whiff of desperation. He was the uneasy heir, terrified that he would be cut from the will. His uncle might decide to leave everything to his cats instead of his nephew.
Barney slid an envelope across the table.
“Here’s ten to get you started.”
I didn’t touch the envelope. “I don’t get out of bed in the morning for less than half down, which is twenty five thousand.” I looked at him severely. “You’re fifteen thousand short. Didn’t Brett explain our payment policy?”
“He did, but I don’t have the full twenty five right now. Once I have the book, I’ll clear at least sixty and pay you the rest of your fee. I’ll even tack on an extra five if you carry me.” His voice slid up to an annoying whine which made me grind my teeth.
Money is one thing Wilma and I have never been flexible on. It’s too easy to get stiffed, and I hate tracking down deadbeat clients to make them dead. It increases the risk. But we hadn’t worked in a couple of months, and things were starting to get a little tight. I thought about my mortgage payment. The extra five was just the right amount of incentive.
Against my better judgment, I picked up the envelope and put it into my breast pocket. “Okay, but I’m holding the book. When you sell it, I go along.”
“No problem,” he said with a sigh of relief.
In my experience, when someone tells you it’s “no problem”, a problem is just what you’re going to have. And it will probably be a big one.
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