......The minivan's window exploded into a million safe little fragments. God bless whoever invented safety glass. No alarm. I reached in carefully and unlocked the rear door to the minivan. The suitcase lay there, uncovered and unprotected. I looked around. No cops or security patrols. I climbed into the van to check the case's contents.
......Talk about stupid. This guy had left about ten grand in twenties inside. If I could get in and grab the cash this easy, what would stop a real thief?
......I snapped the case shut and locked it in the trunk of my car. Then I snagged my digital camera from the front passenger seat and glanced at the copy of my contract with Glenda Russman, authorizing me to break into the van. Under that was a copy of the court order against her husband. I got out and headed toward the riverboat.
......A Lincoln Navigator with Ohio plates sat, near the shuttle bus shelter. I'd seen a few Navigators already, and about half of them had Ohio plates. This one, however, said Cuyahoga County. Tourists?
......But tourists wouldn't tint their windows darker than the president's limousine. On the other hand, ......Wwiseguys, especially Russian wiseguys, favored Fords and Lincoln SUV's. then again, so did every celebrity, politician, and business mogul in Cleveland. Any one of them was likely to make the hike down here for a little gambling. I brushed aside suspicion and settled on extreme caution. I headed toward the casino.
......He was there all right. Gary Russman, aged thirty-nine, stood at the blackjack table raking in chips. He looked like an accountant, which he was, tall, thin, with a widow's peak of fine sandy hair. He laughed and smiled as two middle-aged women draped themselves on either side of him. Too bad I had to leave my camera outside the casino. Glenda Russman might find her husband's companions interesting.
......A guy in a dark suit and shades stood away from the table scowling at Russman. His blazer bore the casino's emblem on the breast pocket. Security, and not very discreet. I strolled over to him and showed him my P.I. ticket.
......Nick Kepler, I said. We seem to be watching the same man.
......The casino man handed me back my license. Normally, I wouldn't care, but this guy's had supernatural luck at blackjack.
......Card counting? I asked.
......The man nodded.
......I saw him over in Rising Sun, I said. Sat at the poker table there until they changed dealers. Actually got caught in Vevay. Rising Sun and Vevay, a pair of forgotten Ohio River ports, existed solely to support the gambling boats.
......The man turned to me. Art Wilson, chief of security. You drove all the way from Cleveland to catch this man?
......I shook my head. Sault Ste. Marie. He left a phony paper trail leading to the Indian casinos up there. If a P.I. from Evanston hadn't e-mailed me, I'd have never known he was down here.
......Was he looking for him, too?
......She was too busy losing money at the Evanston boat. I watched Russman. He stood on sixteen this time and won. That took balls. Or a good card-counting system. I bet on the latter.
......She ranted about it on this Internet discussion group for P.I.'s. When I asked for a description, she served him up to me on a silver platter.
......Wilson grunted something that sounded like agreement. Who is he?
......Gary Russman of Brecksville, Ohio. Works for some law firm loaded with tax attorneys.
......And you're looking for him because...
......He not only cleaned out four casinos in this state, but his kids' educational Roth funds, an annuity he bought for his wife, one of their joint mutual funds, and quite possibly a lackey for the Russian mob.
......Wilson raised an eyebrow at that last one. "Them guys don't fuck around."
......I nodded, and fished out a photocopy of the court order. I'm really just here for the cash, but Mrs. Russman wants pictures if I can get them.
......Get me a court order, and I'll send her lawyer some security photos.
......I'll do better. I left my camera on the dock with the front desk. Just give me fifteen minutes before you kick him out.
......Wilson turned his attention back to Russman. A grin slowly spread across his face. You do know we don't allow photography on the dock, either.
......He looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes starting now, Kepler.
......Fifteen minutes later, I'd snapped several photos of Gary Russman coming off the boat, flanked by two beefy uniformed guards. When one of them scowled my way I decided I should really be shooting the lovely fall foliage across the river in Kentucky. My secretary would love it, and it made me look like a tourist.
......Suspicions averted, I pocketed the camera and headed out the door to wait for the shuttle back to the parking lot. Russman waited, too, under armed guard. When the shuttle arrived, one of the guards jumped aboard and spoke to the driver. The other guard herded Russman onto the bus and made him sit behind the driver. The rest of us began to board, and we made it back to the overflow lot in ten minutes.
......The Navigator was still parked near the pickup shelter, ostensibly empty. I glanced around, looking for anyone suspicious. Other than an overweight middle-aged woman in a muumuu and a sad-looking man in a Seattle Pilots baseball jersey, no one stood out. I got off the shuttle and headed back to my car. Only after the bus left did I realize the guy in the Pilots jersey had classic Slavic cheekbones, like my grandfather and mother. But his features didn't say Polish to me. My mother's family was Polish. I thought more Russian, though what Russian would even know the Seattle Pilots even existed?
......My God, I had Russians on the brain. The Navigator had me seeing Russian thugs around every corner. I shrugged off such thoughts. Russman was heading toward his van. I headed for my car.
......Call it curiosity. Call it perverse gloating. Whatever the reason, I had to make a swing by Russman to catch his reaction to losing the money. I had no sympathy for the man. The suitcase held - at best -- a fraction of what he'd stolen from his wife and kids. Still, I'd watched him for a day and a half now, pissing it away, chasing him almost into Canada. He'd sat at those card tables in Vevay and Rising Sun with a smug expression that invited a fist to the teeth. Part of me wanted to see that smirk wiped off his face.
......Evidently, the guy in the Pilots jersey wanted to wipe more than the smile off his face. When I pulled around the end of the row I saw a tall aging biker holding Russman's arms behind his back while the guy in the Pilots jersey went to work on him. The blows connected with Russman's nose, chest, and gut. He screamed. The biker nodded and said something and Pilots stopped. He turned to face my car as I slowly rolled toward them.
......They couldn't miss my front plate. Like the one on the Navigator and on Russman's van, Cuyahoga was stretched across the bottom. I reached into the glove box and took out my Browning, the gun I'd carried when I was a suburban cop. The biker didn't have any unusual bulges under his jacket but Pilots might have had a gun under his jersey, maybe in a holster in the back. He held his hands out as he saw me approach.
......I stopped and rolled the window down, casually holding the gun over the edge with my left hand. God help me if I had to shoot. Good evening, gentlemen. Is there a problem?
......Pilots turned around. This does not concern you, he said in a Russian accent. Go away.
......I raised the gun and fired it into the air, angling toward the empty field behind the parking lot. Mr. Browning here says I'm concerned. I glanced at the biker. Let him go, or I drill your bowling league captain here.
......In the distance, I heard a police siren. Pilots and the biker looked at each other. The biker relaxed his grip on Russman.
......I reached over in my seat and waved the court order at them. Bounty hunter. Mr. Russman seems to have forgotten his court date back in Cleveland. I motioned for Russman to get in the car. Come along, Mr. Russman. Do this peacefully, and Judge Mankewicz might let you keep your bail money.
......Russman's eyes darted between me and Pilots. He took a few tentative steps toward my car and stopped short when he saw my gun. I cocked my head toward the passenger side.
......My suitcase, he said.
......Let's go. Mankie's got a full docket and a blocked bowel. I promised to have your ass downtown by eight tomorrow morning. I waved the gun at Pilots. Unless you'd like your two new friends to drive you. You boys know where the Justice Center is?
......Pilots just stared at me.
......Sure you do. You've probably been there more than I have. The sirens grew louder as Russman jumped in the passenger seat. You boys have a nice night now. Oh, and those cops? I think they just pulled into the lot. I winked at them and put the car in drive.
......We passed a Lawrenceburg Police cruiser on our way out of the lot. Russman looked ready to wet his pants. I stared ahead and turned left onto US 50. Fifteen minutes later, we'd crossed the Ohio border on I-275, skirting the northern edge of the Cincinnati metroplex.
......Who are you? said Russman when he finally stopped hyperventilating.
......I made my way around a sluggish semi as the highway merged with I-74 out of Indianapolis. I work for your wife. She got concerned when you took off. By the way, leaving brochures and fake reservations for Sault Ste. Marie. That was a nice touch.
......Russman smiled and relaxed. So she did worry about me.
......No, she worried about how to make the mortgage and put the kids through college. Said she would have paid me extra to shoot you, but I said I'd need a much better reason." I patted where my gun sat in its shoulder rig. "Don't give me one."
......He slumped into his seat and said nothing.
......The northern suburbs of Cincinnati slid by. Colrain Township. Forest Park. Springdale. Traffic bunched up as the freeway crossed I-75. I half-considered taking 75 into Dayton to throw off the Russian and his biker buddy. But that would extend the return trip to Cleveland by an hour and a half. It'd take me half an hour just to reach the exit that would take me to Cleveland.
......So instead I exited onto I-71 North in a speed trap known as Blue Ash, merging into late night traffic headed north out of Kentucky and points south. We drifted into a wonderland of suburban sprawl and franchise eateries and motels.
......So who do you owe? I said. And how much?
......Russman actually smiled in the dark. It's not so much what I owe as what I did. And to who. Funny, but the casinos didn't seem to be as upset.
......Of course not, I said. They let you win long enough to draw more suckers to the table. Then you leave maybe half an hour before they decide the house has lost enough. Free advertising for them, and they simply blacklist you when you leave.
......Really? They let me in all five casinos in Indiana.
......You started on Friday in Evantson.
......You were there?
......A friend of mine saw you. Wasn't happy you cleaned out her boyfriend.
......I didn't. I did see you get quietly escorted off the boat in Vevay.
......The laughter stopped.
......I took a stab at his problem, knowing only one card runner in Northeast Ohio who could afford that much muscle. What'd you do to Kilroy Loggins?
......He gave me the laugh again. Same thing he did to me. He cheated me out of a grand one night at one of his poker games. You know the ones he runs on the Westside? Some bar's basement in Ohio City, off Lorain. Always has a couple of cops sit in so they look the other way.
......I'd heard of that angle. Actually did it a few times when I served on the Brunswick force. Like me, they probably thought it was harmless. Then again, what Cleveland cop hadn't heard the rumor Kilroy Loggins once fed a guy to his pit bull? What was it? Texas Hold 'em? Five card stud? What?
......Whatever the dealer called. And I figured out how to catch Kilroy cheating me. Not only that, I figured out how to turn it on him.
......Good for you. You do know he's tight with the Russians these days?
......He turned pale, visible even in the dim light. I do now.
......So you ran to get away from Kilroy. You know he'll just sic the Russians on your family to get to you.
......Russman laughed again, but this time it sounded hollow. Yeah, but I still had to try my system on the casinos. Worked, didn't it?
......You'll be kicked out of every casino in America and Canada once those Indiana boats start talking.
......He reached over and grabbed my arm. If you take me back to my van, I can show you how well I did.
......The last of the suburbs faded away. Only the occasional gas station or all-night diner offered any light beyond the orange sodium lamps mounted in the median. Soon, those would disappear between exits and rest stops.
......Let me think about it, I said. I have to call my secretary.
......Russman looked at the radio clock. It said 9:26. You'd call your secretary this late on a Sunday night?
......I didn't answer him. Just shoved a tape into the deck, Deep Purple's Come Taste the Band. Bolin's wailing guitar blared from the speakers and silenced Russman. If that hadn't ended the conversation, David Coverdale's amphetamine-powered voice would have.
......I made the mandatory pit stop in Washington Courthouse, a small town whose main source of support came from the interchange between I-71 and US 35. The exit boasted a truckstop, an outlet mall, and a dirty bookstore. I needed gas, a restroom, and some cheap franchise food. I honestly didn't care what Russman wanted.
......I gassed up while Russman went in to relieve himself. A chill in the air cut through me, and I zipped up my jacket. Looking around, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Semis lumbered through the lot. Through the diner windows I could see truckers shoveling food in their mouths. Fall was turning to winter too soon.
......I went inside the store to use the john, passing Russman as he came out.
......Can I call my wife? he said.
......I don't think that's such a good idea, I said.
......Come on. Gimme your cell phone. It's off-peak hours.
......I jerked my thumb toward the restaurant. Use the pay phone. Call collect. Free for you, cheap for them. I made my way to the john. On the way out, I ducked into the restaurant and called Glenda Russman.
......It's Kepler, I said when she answered. I found him and the money.
......She pelted me with questions, which I assured her I'd answer when I got back to town. I'm about forty miles south of Columbus. What do you want me to do with your husband?
......I had to hold the phone away from my ear for the answer. Don't worry. I'll think of something. Meet me at my office tomorrow around noon. Bring your lawyer, and we'll verify what I've brought back.
......Outside, a Lincoln Navigator with a Cuyahoga County sticker sat at the pumps. I hadn't caught the number on the one in Lawrenceburg, but this one also had illegally dark windows and sure enough, my old pal the biker was hovering near my car, peering through the windows. He held a tire iron at his side.
......Russman was nowhere in sight. I reached around back, took out the Browning, and held the gun close to my leg. Stepping behind the Navigator, so I could keep an eye on the biker as well, I smashed the butt of the pistol into the taillight, then banged on the driver's door.
......Muffled voices came from within. After checking for police, I tapped the window with my gun barrel.
......The voices inside went silent.
......Open up, I said, or I'll smash the window.
......Somebody started to open a door, which slammed shut just as quickly. I flipped the gun in my hand and smashed the window. I'd be picking out those little safety glass globules from my jacket for weeks. Pilots sat inside in the passenger seat, holding his own weapon on Russman, in the back seat with duct tape across his mouth. I opened the driver's side door and leaned in, putting my gun in Pilots' face.
......I don't care what you do with him, I said. His wife doesn't want him back. I flicked off the safety on the Browning. But your biker buddy backs away from my car, or I put one through your skull. Got it?
......Pilots lowered his gun then started to bring it up at me.
......I waved my gun. Unless you carry one in the chamber you better drop the gun and call off your dog. Now.
......Pilots put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Jackson! he shouted. Leave it! We've got Russman!
......What about the money? Didn't Loggins say... Jackson's twangy voice, thick with a Kentucky accent, drifted off when he caught sight of me. Oh, man. Where the fuck did he come from?
......Never mind that! We're leaving.
......Drop the tire iron now, I said.
......He dropped the iron. Slowly, I moved away from the Navigator and put the gun to my side again.
......Two things, I said to Pilots. First, nobody gives a goddamn what you do to him. I raised the barrel of my gun at Russman. Hell, if this wasn't registered, I'd shoot him myself. The gun went back to my side.
......What's the second thing? said Pilots.
......Anything happens to Glenda Russman or her family, and Kilroy dies. He won't know where, when, or how. It'll just happen.
......You threatening us?
......My friends are, friends looking for an excuse to solve their nagging Kilroy Loggins problem.
......And the money?
......You have the man who stole it from you. I suggest you cut your losses and do whatever it is you do with losers like him. I backed away from the truck, making sure Jackson saw the pistol as I passed. Pleasure doing business with you.
......Go to hell, said Jackson.
......I got in my car and drove off, putting my gun on the passenger seat. The Navigator started to follow. I smiled as the Fayette County Sheriff's cruiser pulled into the lot behind it. Lady Luck couldn't have smiled on me more if I had Russman's system to cheat the riverboats. By all rights, the Navigator should have followed me until some bored rural cop pulled him over for a busted taillight along a secondary highway, but this was even better. The sheriff's cruiser lit up like Christmas..
......I pulled across the road and watched from the McDonald's. When the State Patrol joined the party, I knew the Indiana warrant on Russman had gone through. Time to go home.
......The police would probably be waiting for me when I got home. That would be fine. Unlike Russman or his friends in the Navigator, I had nothing to hide.
......Or at least not by the time I got home. I was planning on making a pitstop first. I had a present for Mrs. Russman in my trunk.
Copyright © 2008 by J. Winter.
J Winter allegedly published his first novel in 2005. He is a writer, comedian, web designer, insurance company drone, and formerly a skinny little boy from Cleveland, Ohio. An occasional contributor to January, his short stories and articles have appeared in Crimespree, Plots With Guns, Thug Lit, Spinetingler and Pulp Pusher. He lives in Cincinnati where he enjoys Bass Ale, Reds' baseball, and weird chili.
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