Company Orders

Company Orders

Chapter One

Company Orders by David WalkerMid-July. Only four in the morning and already eighty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, humidity maybe ninety. The man they called Otoe—he was one-quarter Native American—cut the lights on the ancient Ford Bronco and turned where the sign said Avenida del Convento.

"'Avenue,' my ass," he said, easing the stolen, mud-caked Bronco forward through near-total darkness. The A/C was out and his clothes—5.11 tactical pants and loose-fitting sport shirt—were soaked through. "More like a goddamn alley. We meet some vehicle coming the other way, Tree, we're screwed."

"I figure the door to be twenty yards up," his buddy said, "on the right." He was tall and lean and hard—thus the name 'Tree' he'd picked up in the SEALs—with skin the color of black coffee. "And there won't be any vehicles. It's all taken care of. A pre-paid package."

"I know. I'm just saying..."

"Just flappin' your lips, like usual, 'fore the fun starts."

"Shouldn't be any fun," Otoe said. "Not if it's 'all taken care of.'" He leaned forward, peering through the windshield. "Jesus, gimme some light here."

Tree slipped the night ops torch from a low pocket in his cargo pants and held it out the window, throwing a thin beam of light ahead of them along the wall that lined the street on their right. "There!" he said.

They parked and walked to the door of what everyone still called "the Convent," though no nun had stepped inside for over a hundred years. They were each packing maybe fifteen pounds of weaponry and gear, but they were large men and their clothing hid it well. Tree knocked, using a pre-arranged pattern, and the wood plank door was pulled open by a short, skinny, dark-skinned man in a blue uniform. They stepped inside.

The uniform was too big for the little man, and the old .357 Magnum on his hip seemed oversized, too. He looked up at the two gringos towering over him and said nothing, just handed Tree a ring with two keys on it and pointed to their left.

"Pasaporte," Otoe said, and the guard gave it to him. He glanced at it, then showed it to Tree. "Gracias, little amigo," Otoe said, and he and Tree turned and headed down the hallway.

The floor was unvarnished wood and the walls concrete, painted a faded green and blotched with dark stains here and there on both sides, mostly around head level. Blood. Or brains, maybe. The only light came from one low-watt bulb behind a wire screen in the twelve-foot ceiling. Enough to see the big dark cockroaches that darted around on the walls and the floor.

About fifteen feet down, the corridor ended at a locked, windowless door. Tree looked at the lock, then the keys. He tried the smaller of the two keys. It worked.

"Genius," Otoe said, and then squashed a two-inch-long centipede against the wall with his palm and wiped the gooey remains off on his pants.

Tree pulled open the door and they stepped through. The stench was overpowering—sweat, urine, feces; vomit, too, and dead animal, maybe a rat. The wall on their left, the one running along the street, continued on, with two small windows up near the ceiling. On the right, though, the walkway was lined with iron bars. Behind the bars the space opened up into a single concrete-floored cell, maybe twenty-by-twenty, with cots bolted to the walls and a stainless steel toilet smack in the middle of the floor. A pit toilet—no plumbing in this cell.

Again the only light came from a dim, bare bulb in the ceiling above the walkway, and the closely set bars kept much of the cell in shadows. There was enough light, though, to see lots more roaches, and to see maybe fifteen men crammed in there, all in dirty white pants and shirts. Most were lying down, about half on the cots and half on the shiny, damp floor. Heads turned and dark eyes stared at the intruders, but no one said anything.

"Jesus!" Otoe murmured. "You can taste shit in here, like it's floatin' in the air. This where they keep the guy?"

"This here's a holding tank. I understand he's usually deeper inside." Tree held up the larger of the keys. "Let's get to it," he said, and unlocked the barred gate and pulled it open.

Both men stepped into the wide opening to the cell.

"Hey! Listen up!" Otoe yelled. "Atienda, atienda!"

Some of the prisoners sat up, and a few even got to their feet. Many growled protests in Spanish. No one, however, moved any closer to Tree and Otoe, because Otoe, crouched in a shooter's stance, was sweeping the area in front of them with a .45 caliber semiautomatic, a Heckler & Koch MK23, looking all the more threatening with a suppressor attached.

"We want the American!" he yelled. "El Americano!"

Several heads turned toward the right rear corner of the cell. When whoever was back there in the shadows didn't move, Tree took the torch from his pocket, widened the beam, and shone it on two men. One sat on his rear, his head slumped between his knees, his long greasy hair hanging down. The other, a much larger man, crouched beside him. The larger man was Mexican, with thick black hair slicked back from his forehead. He had his hand on the smaller man's shoulder, and wore on his face the ugly scowl of a professional prisoner—made even more threatening because his left eye was just a slit looking out from a lump of swollen, purple-and-red-mottled skin.

"So whatcha think, Tree? See anyone else in this sty that looks like our man?"

"Nope."

"You!" Otoe called. "Sitting in the corner. Look up!"

The head started to rise, but the larger man quickly pushed it back down. "You don't do nothing with this one, gringo," he said. "This one, he is under my protection."

"Really?" Otoe fired just one shot, the suppressor keeping the pop to about that of a .22 caliber pistol, and splinters of stone flew out of the wall near the big Mexican's head. "That change your mind, amigo?"

The Mexican stared back, showing no fear, but then smiled and took his hand off the other's head.

The sitting man looked up, and wiped his hair out of his eyes. His pale, thin face showed no sign of a beard. He was very young. Upper teens, maybe.

"That's him," Otoe said.

"C'mon up here, son," Tree drawled. "We're goin' for a walk."

"No, I...I can't." The boy's voice was thin and weak, and he was obviously terrified. "When I come back he'll...he'll be mad." He nodded sideways, toward the man beside him.

"Well, then, y'all both come up here. We'll all go for a walk together."

"Good idea," Otoe said. "You come up here too, amigo."

The man made no move to comply and Otoe fired again, almost as though without meaning to. More chips flew out from the wall beside the Mexican, but closer this time. He stood up. He was about the same height as the two Americans, but stockier than either of them. Fat, actually.

No one else moved, but the young American stood up and then he and the Mexican came slowly forward. When Otoe finally raised his hand to stop them they were maybe a yard away. The young man in front of Otoe, the Mexican in front of Tree.

"Who is this gentleman, son?" Tree asked. "He really your protector?"

The boy was trembling. "He...that's what he said."

"Well, now...that ain't what I asked, is it? What's he done...to protect you?"

"He...I guess...he kept the other men away from me. I mean...earlier tonight."

"You know him before you were put in this here cell tonight?"

"No. He was already here. They all were. Most of them are being transferred here from some other prison, I think."

"But the two of you got to be friends?"

"No." That came out louder. "No, he's not my friend. He...he..." his voice trailed off.

"This dude ain't really been protecting you, has he, son?" Tree's voice was very gentle.

"No, he...I fought...tried to stop him, but he..." The young man was shaking so hard now that even his head was moving.

The Mexican leaned forward then, as though to do or say something, but a slight wave of Otoe's HK stopped him cold.

"Tell me, son. You tell ol' Tree what this sumbitch done to you."

"He...he raped me."

"Well, damn," Tree said. "That ain't the kinda thing a 'protector' does, is it? A 'protector' should—"

"We got business here," Otoe interrupted. "What's done is done." He stepped to his left and gestured with his head, and the young man went past him and stood just outside the cell.

The Mexican shrugged and gave a sly grin. "You two, you are professionals, yes? You understand, I think." He pointed to his swollen eye. "This muchacho, he is a fighter. I like that. You know how it is."

"Yeah, we know," Otoe said. "These things happen."

"They do happen," Tree agreed, and he suddenly shot his left hand up high in the air over his head.

The Mexican couldn't help but look up, which is when the knife in Tree's right hand—how it got there, who could say?—slashed through the air...from right to left...across the man's throat.

Just one cut, and then Tree leaned in and wiped the blade—one side serrated, the other razor sharp—on the man's own shirt, and folded the knife and put it away again.

Otoe and Tree backed out of the cell as the dying man dropped slowly to his knees, his mouth wide open, clutching his throat as though he could hold the blood inside.

Tree locked the cell closed behind them. "You see, son?" he said, taking the young American by the arm and guiding him away. "That's the kinda thing a 'protector' does."

 

Chapter Two

On the morning he knew he would have to lie once again to his friend, Father Paul Clark said the six-thirty mass. It was Monday and weekday masses, even at Holy Name Cathedral, were rather perfunctory events, so by five after seven he was back in the sacristy, removing his vestments. Hank Manion had been the altar server, and Paul barely had the alb slipped up over his head and off when Hank grabbed it out of his hands.

"Thanks," Paul said, resisting the urge to snatch the alb back. "But you don't have to—"

"Hey, it's the least I can do, Father." Hank held the long white robe by the shoulders and gave it a shake to get the sleeves straightened out, then hung it with great care—no, with reverence—in the alb closet. "By the way, that woman you told me about...from your parish...did she ever get a lawyer?"

"Oh...well...I misspoke. She wasn't from the parish." Paul slipped on a black windbreaker. "But she asked for help, and I...I told her about your recommendations and, actually, I never saw her again." He knelt to re-tie his shoe...and to hide his anxiety.

"People are funny, aren't they?" Hank was at the little sink now, rinsing out the wine cruet. "Anyway, I'll finish up here, Father. You go say your prayers."

"Um...right." Paul grabbed his gym bag from the top of the vestment case, and left the sacristy.

Out in the body of the church he knelt down at the end of the second pew on the far left. Priests were supposed to be men of prayer, and no one could say he didn't try, these days more than ever. In fact, every day before mass he spent thirty minutes trying, minutes that produced no more peace or consolation—or anything close—than the ten or fifteen he usually spent after mass. Like today. Kneeling in the usual spot. Getting the usual result. A sense of God's presence was hard to come by, given the million other things churning through his mind.

Leading today's post-mass parade of distractions was the devout, if sometimes irritating, Hank Manion. Certainly no "altar boy," Hank was fifty-something and had been serving mass at the cathedral—whenever he was in town—since before Paul came on the scene. He was an international trade consultant, the head of his own firm, and he lived in a huge condo near the top of the Hancock building. That was one of his homes, anyway. Paul had been to cocktail parties there a few times, and loved the panoramic view of the lakefront, and the quiet, elegant ambience.

There were things about Hank, though, that annoyed Paul. One was his old-fashioned, condescending respect for priests. It's the least I can do, Father. Another was the unconscious arrogance with which he ordered people around. You go say your prayers. Still, the guy was both hugely successful and obviously devoted to the church. And most importantly, he was the only one who'd actually done something, a few months ago, when Paul had been flailing around, reaching out for help.

Paul preferred not to talk about that now. Not with Hank. Not with anyone.

* * *

He closed his eyes and gave it his best shot, but even after he got Hank Manion offstage, his so-called "prayers" consisted of his mind wandering like a puppy from one distraction to another—mostly from this worry, to that guilt, to this fear. By the time ten minutes had passed he was deep into the really heavy stuff...and was glad it was time to go.

He took his gym bag and walked down the long side aisle to the rear of the cathedral, toward the vestibule and the main doors that opened onto State Street. On the way he passed maybe twenty people kneeling or sitting in different pews. Most saw him coming and nodded and smiled as he passed. None of them knew him personally, but he was a priest, right? So he was someone they were sure they knew a lot about.

They were right, of course, about him being a priest. Not in a parish any longer, but at the archdiocesan headquarters, formerly called the "Chancery Office," now the "Office of Pastoral Care." That sounded more people-friendly. Although he often insisted he was "just a guy with a desk job," in fact he was Vice-Chancellor of the archdiocese, a rising star in whom the cardinal expressed great confidence. On his way to being a bishop himself one day. Something he'd never dreamed of when he was ordained a priest...but something he'd eventually come to desire, to work for. But now? Now he wasn't as sure about anything as he used to be.

There were so many things these people didn't know about him as they nodded and smiled. They didn't know he lacked what they assumed all priests had: a sense of peace that came from a God he felt close to. They didn't know that, although he'd never intended to separate himself from God, his world had taken a sudden turn that left him with the sense that God was far away. They didn't know that he had a past that had recently re-appeared...carrying with it issues he'd never even dreamed of, but now had to be dealt with. And all that was only the beginning of what the people in the pews didn't know about Father Paul Clark.

* * *

He passed through the vestibule and out the tall cathedral doors into a cold, dismal, September morning, with a misty rain that seemed to just hang in the air, rather than fall to the ground. He walked over to Jimmy Grogan, the burnt-out police officer who kept watch over the cathedral entrance. Most people avoided Grogan. Talking to him was a downer. But Paul always tried. "Hey, you're looking good, Jimmy. How you doing?"

"Still above ground, Father. But that's about it. I hate rotten days like this. First this damn rain. Then I get that creep, the Monk, moochin' around. Botherin' people when they're comin' to church. Wish the sonova...sorry...wish he'd finish drinking himself to death. If you run into him, don't you give him a dime. That's just encouragin' the bum, and—"

"Got it," Paul said, and hurried down the wet stone steps.

Dodging back and forth among moving cars, ignoring the angry honking of horns, he made it across State Street to the parking lot. Time was short. On Mondays at eight o'clock he met his friend and fellow priest, Larry Landrew, at the University of Illinois campus, just west of the Loop.

When he got to his car, a ten-year-old Toyota Corolla, the man most people called "the Monk" was there, sliding a dirty towel around on the hood, rubbing the light rain in circles into the dust on the maroon finish. He was a greasy, smelly man, with a perpetual scared-rabbit look on his face, a face usually half-hidden in the shadow of the filthy hooded sweatshirt he wore, summer and winter.

Whether the Monk drank or not, he was always asking for "a little change for a sandwich." Instead, Paul usually gave him one of the McDonald's gift coupons he tried always to have with him. Maybe he was "just encouragin' the bum," not doing him any real good. Still, he never liked to pass the poor guy by, not given how secure and comfortable his own life was. Or...used to be.

Today, though, the Monk claimed he was washing the car—and he may have thought he actually was—so Paul gave him all the singles he had, four of them. "Good job," he said.

The Monk's jaw dropped open. He walked away counting the bills, and Paul felt a fleeting sense of accomplishment.

* * *

He got in the Corolla, started the engine, switched on the lights and the wipers, and headed out of the lot. For several years he'd been saving for a new car, but that wasn't to be—not for the foreseeable future—and he was glad he'd kept this one in good shape.

He was barely out on the street when his cell phone rang. He had to keep his eyes on the traffic, and by the time he'd managed to fumble the phone out of the gym bag on the seat beside him it had stopped ringing, apparently switching to voice mail mode.

He dropped the phone back into the bag, and it rang again. This time he grabbed it right away. "Hello?"

"It's me," she said. "Why didn't you answer? It sounds like you're in the car."

"I am." A Chicago city ordinance forbade talking on a handheld phone while driving, but he didn't dare raise that issue...not with Ann Swanson.

"So," she said, "did your friend agree to keep his mouth shut a little longer?"

"Look, it's barely seven-thirty. I'm on my way to see him right now."

"To play racquetball, right? U of I?"

"Ah...yes." It was handball, actually, not racquetball, that he and Larry played. A minor error on Ann's part, for sure, but something to hold onto. Even a small lapse in her knowledge kept alive the idea that she was human, that she didn't know everything. "We get the court for an hour."

"Enjoy yourself," she said. "And get me a few more days."

"How much—" A horn blared and he slammed on the brakes. His tires slid on the wet pavement, and he barely avoided rear-ending a taxi that came out of nowhere. "How much longer?" he tried again. "You told me you'd be out by today and have a cover story in place, so I could explain away what he saw."

"I need a few more days. 'Til Thursday. Shutting down an operation like this is...complicated. You haven't admitted anything, right?"

"No. I told him that as the cardinal's liaison with the clinic I'd know what was going on down there, and that he must be mistaken. I'm sure he believes me. I asked for time to look into it, and he agreed to wait until today, as a favor to me, before he goes public. I'll try, but I don't know that I can get three more days. To him it's a matter of principle."

"Yeah, right," Ann Swanson said. "Principle. That's great. People like him—and their damn 'principles'—they're the real enemy," she said. "If he's so convinced the government's involved in something, then why isn't he convinced it's for the good of his country? What ever happened to the 'principle' of patriotism?"

"I don't...like I told you, Larry's...anyway, I'll keep denying everything. I just need you to get out of there." Talking to this woman made him nervous. "I'm doing the best I—"

"Just get me to Thursday. Period. For your sake."

"For my sake? I lose either way. Once you're out of there I lose what you've been—"

"You'll get by. You might even be surprised. Hold up your end and...well...who knows how far up you might go? But if this gets out before I'm ready, it'll knock you right off that golden ladder."

"Ladder? I'm not sure I under—"

"Spare me," she said. "I know your ambitions, and I'm sure you do understand. So, my dear Father Clark, lie to your friend. But not to me." She hung up.

Paul dropped the phone in his gym bag and exhaled deeply. He'd counted on Ann and her people being gone by today, and their creating a good cover story for what Larry claimed he'd seen.

Then Paul could have gotten back to his other problems. Money, for one thing. Because, whatever Ann Swanson thought, he couldn't see how he'd possibly "get by" without what he'd been getting from her...not with Robert in the picture.

One thing at a time, though. Right now he had to convince Larry to hold off again...until Thursday.

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