Locked (Crime)

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Duke stared into the eyes of the man in the chair. The man didn’t stare back.

For all the life in them, the brown eyes could have belonged to a doll. Duke clapped his hands sharply before the man, trying to captivate some spark of interest. There was no reaction.

“Dammit.”

Duke slumped back in his chair, ran a hand across his face.

Smells of sweat, and mildew and blood fill his nostrils as he took a long frustrated breath. The dim fluorescent bulb overhead flickered annoyingly. It matched the rest of the room: cheap, run down, and nearly used up.

Just like the rest of the night.

He stared at the chipped kitchen tabletop for a minute, at his hands on it. Dried blood was crusted under his nails and in the wrinkles in his knuckles. More of it was smeared brown across the crumpled paper beneath them.

“Anything?” Red asked as he stepped through the darkened doorway behind the mean seated across from Duke.

Duke shook his head.

Red licked his lips nervously, crossed to the window over the sink, and peered between sagging mini-blinds. Yellow orange firelight from the cars burning in the street ran in thin bars across his blunt features.

One side of Duke’s face still felt the sting of those flames. His ears still rang from the gunshots.

“We’re running out of time,” Red said, still staring into the burning night. One hand rested at his waist where a .45 was shoved.

And in more ways than one. The funeral started in eight hours. All the intel said that’s where the hit would take place. But from who?

Only one man knew the answer and he wasn’t talking.

Red shoved away from the window, turned to the small fridge in the corner. Harsh light from inside illuminated his crumpled dress shirt, the crimson smears across it. He grunted and withdrew a beer. The label read Atomic Ale. The apartment’s owner had decent taste for living in a dump.

Red popped the cap and took a slug from the bottle as he leaned back against the sink.

“How many more tries we got?” he asked.

Duke tossed up a hand despondently.

“Only he knows,” he said gesturing with the same hand to a dark corner of the room. A pair of worn wingtips belonging to one formerly Gordon Fritz extended into the pale flickering light. A pool of blood spread across the peaks and canyons of the ruined floor beneath them.

Some of the blood on Duke’s hands was Gordon’s, some was not. They hadn’t been able to save him. It was hard when you took twenty to the chest.

“Damn feds,” Duke cursed.

The convoy had been two blocks away when the ambush struck. Two damn blocks. Duke and the others had rushed to the scene guns blazing, and sent the D.C. punks scurrying, but it had been too late. The courier’s cerebral crypto had done it’s job, locked the man down tight, ala vegetable city. Even worse, Gordon had gone down as he tried to reach the courier’s SUV. And he was the only one who knew the code to get the answer they needed.

Sure, he hadn’t died right away. They’d tried to get the pass phrase as they drug him into the apartment, as they tried to save him. But this wasn’t like the movies where the dying breath gives up the vital clue. His last breath had been a bloody, choking, gurgle.

The only things Duke had made out were, “Deceit,” and that sounded like a curse against the damn Feds, and, “Something something trees.”

He could only hope that was part of the clue he needed. Fritz had been into botany or something like that, so it fit, but the lines scribbled and scratched out across the scrap of stained paper documented his attempts and failures. A half dozen types of trees crossed out like he’d chopped them down.

“What was that tat he had on his chest?” Red asked. “It was some sort of tree I think.”

Of course it would be on the chest. The only thing tattooed there now was a painful death.

“A maple? Something Japanese?” Duke asked.

“No, it was from a story. Something to do with a toad.”

Duke’s temples throbbed. He didn’t have time for damn riddles, but he tried to focus, to bring back every scrap of a sentence Fritz had uttered over the years.

There had been something. As they walked past a bookstore two years ago, a display in the window. ‘Classics were back,’ in big red letters.

“The Wind in the Willows?”

“Bingo,” Red said, “Gordo loved that one.” He raised his beer in salute and took another swallow.

“You sure?” Duke didn’t see it, not from hard nosed Fritz.

“Damn skippy.”

Duke looked at the courier, looked at Red. If they exceeded the failure limit, the man’s security measures might eliminate the data permanently.

In the distance he heard a siren, then another.

“Seventh time's a charm,” Red said.

Duke breathed deep.

“Authorize access: weeping willow,” he said.

A small twitch ran through the man’s features. He blinked, looked up, eyes now clear and focused.

“About time,” Red said, finishing the the beer and dropping the bottle in the sink.

“The name?” Duke asked. “What’s the traitor’s name?”

The courier peered at Duke for a moment, opened his mouth, then paused, his face suddenly confused. He tilted his head to one side as if trying to hear something.

His eyes popped like balloons filled with blood. Duke leapt back with a curse as crimson droplets splattered across the tabletop.

The courier slumped forward in the chair. His head now hung soft and disfigured as if it were made of clay that had spun off a potter’s wheel. Yellow fumes wafted from his gaping mouth. A harsh chemical smell like burned brimstone filled Duke’s nose.

“Maybe it was a rabbit and not a toad” Red said.

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