by W.E.B. Griffin


[ ONE ]

At just about the time the last of the unmarked Ford Crown Victorias was leaving the Peebles Estate—somewhere around 1:15 a.m.—Homer C. Daniels, a six-foot-one-inch, 205 pound, thirty-six-year-old Caucasian male, who once had been a paratrooper and still wore his light brown hair clipped close to his skull, was standing in the shadow of a tree in the 600 Block of Independence Street in Northeast Philadelphia, in the area known as East Oak Lane.

He was looking up at the second story windows on the right side of what had been built as a single family home—not quite large enough to be called a mansion—not quite a century before. It had been empty for a while after World War II, and then had been converted to a “multi-family dwelling” with two apartments on the ground floor, two on the second, and a third in what had been the servant’s quarters on the third.

Daniels, who was wearing a black coverall, thought of himself as a businessman, rather than a truck driver, although, in each of the past several years, he had driven a Peterbilt eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer rig 150,000 miles all over the country.

For one thing, he was a partner in Las Vegas Classic Motor Cars, Inc., the company that owned the Peterbilt. And he almost always had the same partner’s interest in the truck’s cargo, and sometimes he owned all of the cargo.

Las Vegas Classic Motor Cars, Inc., as the name implied, dealt with what they referred to as the “Grand Marques” of automobiles, ranging from the “vintage”—such as Duesenbergs, and Pierce-Arrows, no longer manufactured—to the “contemporary”—such as Ferrari, the larger Mercedes-Benz, and Rolls-Royce.

As a general rule of thumb, if an automobile was worth less than $75,000, Las Vegas Classic Motor Cars, Inc., was not interested. A boat tailed Dusey, in Grand Concourse condition and worth, say, $1,250,000 had the opposite effect.

They bought and sold some cars themselves, and accepted some cars on consignment. Often they would buy a “decent” classic, and spend up to $100,000 rebuilding it from the frame up to Grand Concourse condition before offering it for sale. They also provided “frame up” restoration for owners of classic cars, and had earned an international reputation for the quality of their work.

Cars of this sort were genuine works of art, and as one would not entrust a Rodin sculpture or an Andy Warhol painting of a tomato can to the Acme Trucking Company, or even the United Parcel Service, one could not move, for example, a Grand Concourse condition 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL “Gull Wing” coupe worth $275,000 to or from Las Vegas without taking the appropriate precautions.

Dragging such a motorcar along behind a car or truck on one of the clever devices available from U-Haul was obviously out of the question. So was loading such a vehicle on a flat bed trailer, chaining it in place and covering it with a tarpaulin.

The solution was to ship such a vehicle within a trailer, and for a while, Las Vegas Classic Motor Cars, Inc., had done just that. Then it had occurred to the partners that contracting for the transport, “direct, sole cargo” of vehicles, was costing them a lot of money. They crunched the numbers, and concluded the expense of buying and operating their own truck was justified.

They bought the Peterbilt, had a trailer specially modified—essentially the installation padding and means to hold the vehicles immobile while being transported—and hired a professional truck driver.

That had proved to be a disaster. The driver had hit something—he said—on the road, causing him to lose control, go into a ditch, and turn over. The devices installed to keep the 1939 Packard 230 Le Baron bodied convertible in place had not been strong enough to hold the massive car in place when the trailer turned over, and massive damage had resulted.

The partners had suspected that what really happened was that the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel while trying to “make miles.” The insurance company had similar suspicions, and although they had—finally—paid up, they had immediately informed the partners that their rates in the future would regrettably have to be raised significantly.

That was when the idea of Homer driving the rig had come up. For one thing, Homer had been an over-the-road tractor-trailer driver immediately after leaving the service. For another, Homer and his wife had finally had enough of each other, and it wouldn’t be much of a hardship for him to spend a week or ten days away from Vegas.

And other benefits came to mind. If there was a motor vehicle in St. Louis, say, of interest to Las Vegas Classic Motor Cars, Inc., and Homer was there—or near there—with the truck, he could both have a good look at it—without the cost of an airplane ticket to get there and back—make a recommendation to the partners, and if they decided to make the deal, just load the new acquisition on the truck right then and there.

And then there was the restoration business. Homer could look at a car someone wanted to have Las Vegas Classic Motor Cars, Inc., restore, quote the owner a price, and if a deal was struck, just load the car right then and there and haul it back to Vegas.

The original trailer, of course, was shot. They bought another, and really customized it. The new trailer was heated and air-conditioned, and would hold three cars instead of two—five, if they were all Porsches, which happened several times. In addition, cabinets were built for tools, and there was what looked very much like an old-timey railroad sleeper compartment, which held a toilet, a bed, a shower, a tiny desk for Homer’s computer, and a closet for Homer’s clothes.

When Homer was trying to make a deal for, say, a 1940 Buick Limited Spares-in-the-fenders Convertible Touring Sedan worth, say, 150 Large, he should look like a businessman, not a truck driver. And if he was going coast-to-coast—for that matter, anywhere overnight—and needed some sleep, he could just pull into a truck stop, go in the back, get a couple of hours of shuteye, and then get back on the road without the hassle of having to find a motel where he could park the rig, and then pay fifty, sixty bucks—sometimes more—for just using the bed for a couple of hours.

The whole arrangement—traveling all over the country included—had proven ideal for Homer’s hobby, which was to find some young bitch who looked like the bitch he had wasted ten years of his life on, who lived by herself, and then being very careful about it, when everything fell into place, get into her apartment, scare the living shit out of her—a man in a black ski mask waving a Jim Bowie replica knife with a polished shiny twelve-inch blade in her face did that very nicely—cut her clothes off with the knife, tie her to her bed, and take before-during-and-after slipping the salami to her pictures with his digital camera.

This was the fourth time Homer had stood in the shadow of a tree looking up at the apartment of Miss Cheryl Anne Williamson, who at twenty-three looked very much like Mrs. Bonnie Dawson Daniels had looked when she was that age. That is to say, she was tall, slender, blonde, had very fair skin, and even, Homer thought, that deceptive look of sweetness and innocence that Bonnie had.

Deceptive because Bonnie the Bitch was anything but sweet and innocent.

The first time Homer had stood in the shadow of the tree, he had followed Cheryl home from the Harrison Lounge where he had seen her cock-teasing the guys at the bar. It had been immediately apparent to Homer that Cheryl had not gone to the bar to maybe meet somebody she could get to know really well, maybe even some day marry, much less to get laid.

She had gone to the bar to cock-tease some dummy, get him all worked up, and then let him know she wasn’t at all interested in fucking him. What she got her kicks from—just like Bonny the Bitch—was humiliating some poor bastard, letting him know he wasn’t good enough for her.

The first night when Cheryl had left the Harrison Lounge, he had followed her home. That time he was driving a year-old Cadillac DeVille, used as a loaner by Willow Grove Automotive, where he had parked the rig. Las Vegas Classic Motor Cars did a lot of business with Willow Grove—on that trip, he had dropped off two Porsches from California, and would leave with a really nice Rolls-Royce—and the guy that ran it always loaned him a car overnight when he was in town.

That first time, Homer had watched her park her Chrysler Sebring, watched as she entered the apartment building, and then stood in the shadow of the tree until lights went on in a second floor apartment. Then he went to the Sebring—Homer had once spent six months working for Las Vegas Towing and Repossession, and getting into the Sebring was no problem—and got Cheryl’s name, address, and phone and social security numbers from documents in her glove compartment.

Then he got back in the DeVille and went back to Willow Grove Automotive, parked the DeVille, gave the keys to the security guy, went to the rig, made sure the current had been plugged in, and then went to the compartment in the trailer, locking it from the inside.

He took off all his clothes and sat down in front of the computer, turned it on, took one of the good CDs from its hiding place, slipped it in the drive, looked at the index, thought a moment, and then decided St. Louis was what he wanted, transferred the Folder STL to the computer, decrypted it, then ran Photo-Eaze, which allowed him to run a slide show of the digital images in STL.

The girl in St. Louis—Karen—didn’t look as much like Bonny the Bitch as the one tonight did, but he’d had his good times with her. As the slide show ran, he dropped his hand to his groin and played with himself. He ran the slide again—there were twelve pictures—and then pushed HOLD on number eleven, which showed Karen tied to the bed immediately after he’d slipped her the salami. He’d really shown her she wasn’t as high and mighty as she thought. She looked soiled and humiliated.

It’ll really be great to get this new one, this Cheryl, like that!

That thought had been so exciting that he ejaculated before he intended to.

Couldn’t be helped. Goddamn, this Cheryl’s really going to be a good one!

He cleaned himself up with Kleenex, then took the CD from the drive and put it back in the hiding place, erased Folder STL from the hard drive, and then started the U.S. Government Approved Slack Wipe Program. That would run for a couple of hours. What the program did was overwrite and overwrite and overwrite again the slack space on the hard drive, so there would be no chance of anybody ever being able to recover the images of Karen he had just looked at.

Then he took a shower and went to bed.

At seven the next morning, he got behind the wheel of the Peterbilt, got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and headed West. There was a guy in Grosse Pointe, Michigan who collected Rollses, and there was a good chance he’d be interested in some kind of a deal with the one now in the rig.

Three weeks, more or less, later Homer had again stood in the shadow of the tree outside Cheryl Williamson’s apartment. He had gone to the Harrison Lounge in hopes of seeing her there, and when she hadn’t shown, he’d gone to the apartment complex.

By then, primarily because of a credit check he had run on her, he knew a good deal about her. He knew where she worked for one thing, and where she had gone to school, and that she had never been married, and that she owed fifteen payments of $139.50 on the Chrysler Sebring, and thirty-three payments of $105.05 on the furniture in her apartment.

The lights were on in her apartment, which meant that she was there, and that he could probably take the coveralls and facemask and Jim Bowie knife from his briefcase, and get the job done. It was a temptation. He’d thought of her a lot.

But it was also possible that she wasn’t alone in the apartment, and there was no sense taking any chances. All things come to he who waits. He had decided to wait.

It was a month after that that he stood for the third time in the shadow of the tree looking up at her apartment. This time, Cheryl had been in the Harrison Lounge, cock-teasing some poor slob who had no idea what a bitch she was, and when she’d left—alone, of course—he’d followed her home again. That night, he was sure, was going to be the night. He even went back to his car—this time a Plymouth Voyager loaner from Willow Grove, there being nothing better on the lot—and changed into the costume.

When the lights went out in Cheryl’s apartment, he decided he would wait five minutes before climbing the back stairs to her apartment. Thirty seconds later, Cheryl came out of the building, got in the Sebring and drove off.

There was no way of telling, of course, where the bitch was going. Or when—even if—she was coming back. If he continued to wait in the shadow of the tree, somebody might see him. And if he went back and waited in the Voyager, the cops might drive by and wonder what someone was doing sitting in a car at quarter to three in the morning.

When he got back to Willow Grove and the rig, he loaded DEN into the computer, and watched the sixteen pictures he’d taken three months before of an arrogant bitch named Delores in Denver. A not so arrogant bitch anymore, which was nice to look at and remember. But Delores was not nearly as pretty as Cheryl, and Delores didn’t look nearly as much like Bonny the Bitch as Cheryl did.

Tonight, Homer had the feeling everything was going to fall into place. Willow Grove Automotive had loaned him a dark gray DeVille—not the one he’d had before—and when he got to the Harrison, the minute he pulled into the parking lot, he saw Cheryl’s Sebring, and didn’t even have to go into the lounge.

He just sat in the DeVille and waited for her to come out. When she did, a guy came out after her, and they had a little argument in the doorway. The bitch was obviously telling the guy she’d been cock-teasing for the last hour, at least, that he had it wrong, that not only was she not that kind of girl, but even if she was, she wouldn’t give any to a jerk like him.

The guy went back in the Harrison Lounge, Cheryl got in her Sebring, and when she was out of sight, Homer started the DeVille. He knew where she lived and he didn’t even have to follow her. And when he got near Independence Street, he saw—on 67th Avenue, North—a dark place where he could park the DeVille where it wouldn’t attract attention, and where he could change into the costume without being seen.

And when he got to the tree and looked up at Cheryl’s apartment, the lights were on. He figured she had been there no more than four, five minutes at most.

The light came on a minute or so later in a little window he was sure was the bathroom, and he thought about what Cheryl would look like in the shower while he waited for it to go out.

Ten minutes later, it went out, and no more than a minute after that, so did the lights in her bedroom.

Homer checked the pockets of the coveralls to make sure he had the Jim Bowie replica knife, the camera, and the plastic thingamajigs he would use to tie her spread eagled on her bed.

As he pulled on a pair of disposable rubber gloves, Homer started to get a hard-on thinking about what he was going to do, and told himself to cool it. He didn’t want it to be over too soon.

Outside wooden stairs, with a narrow platform, had been added to the old building to provide a rear entrance to the second floor apartments.

He went up them quickly, putting his feet on the outside of each step. If you stepped in the middle, sometimes the stairs would squeak, and the last thing he wanted to do was to have some yapping dog hear him and start barking.

When he got to the platform, and her back door, he pulled the black ski mask from his pocket and pulled it over his head, and then took a close look at the door. There were actually two doors, an outer combination screen and winter door. The screen thing was in place.

He put the blade of the Jim Bowie replica in the crack between the screen and the frame, and carefully pried it open wide enough so that he could get his hand inside to unlatch it. Then he very carefully pulled it open. It came easy, without squeaking.

Once he had the screen door open, he made sure that the screen was back in place. He was pleased when he saw that he hadn’t even scratched the sonofabitch.

The inner door wasn’t much more trouble. There was a pretty good lock, but the construction was cheesy, and all it took to pop the lock was to force the blade of the Jim Bowie replica into the frame and lean on it a little.

Homer opened the door wide enough to get the blade inside and ran it up and down, checking for a chain or whatever, and when there was none, opened the door all the way, stepped into the kitchen, and then closed it behind him.

After a minute, there was enough light for him to see pretty good. He was glad he waited. There was a little table in the kitchen he probably would have bumped into.

This was the hairy part of the operation, making it from just being inside into the bedroom and to the bed itself without making any kind of racket.

Homer made his way slowly and carefully through the kitchen, into the living room, and then to a door he was pretty sure was the bedroom door. This sometimes was a problem; if there was a lock on the bedroom door and it had to be popped, it sometimes woke the bitches up.

No lock.

The door opened smoothly inward.

There was more light in the room, two of those go-to-the-bathroom little lights plugged into sockets near the floor.

Cheryl was in bed, lying on her stomach. She was wearing pajamas.



From FINAL JUSTICE — Book VIII in the best-selling BADGE OF HONOR series.
Published December 2003.