6

“It’s not going to work,” Konstantin Slovo muttered, then glanced around to see anyone had overheard him talking to himself. It was a dark, damp evening in Boston. He was seated at the back of the Chinatown Cafe, on the bench closest to the toilets and a staff exit to the alley. Sometimes it was locked with a chain and padlock in violation of fire regulations, but it wasn’t tonight. He had checked out of habit. He also knew, without having to think about it, that there were five people standing at the counter, two couples in booths, and a table occupied by a family talking to each other in a dialect that sounded as if they were shushing each other, a different kind of Chinese than the sharper commands barked by the counter staff. Outside, the rain had turned into wet snow, falling in fat, lazy flakes, and the shoes of the customers in line squeaked on the linoleum floor, punctuated by rapid-fire thwacks as the man behind the counter cut up a roasted duck or a slab of barbecued pork. Slovo processed all that on one channel while thinking through the problem, trying alternatives, weighing the options, all of them ending up in the same place.

Nowhere.

He felt it like a weigh in the center of his chest. He was the one who got her involved, the woman and her little boy. She didn’t trust men with badges. Neither did Slovo, though he used to wear one.

He emptied his cup of tepid tea. Beyond the glass case where red-glazed ducks hung on display, through the front window and its neon sign, he saw the man he was waiting for stride into view. Faron’s broad shape filled the front door as he set the bell over it jangling.

“Why you choose this place?” He squeezed into the booth across from Slovo. The legs of the table squealed as it shifted to accommodate his girth.

“It’s cheap. It’s good.”

“It’s in the ass end of Chinatown. There’s no place to park. That guy with the hatchet scares me.”

“Try the pork.” Slovo pushed his Styrofoam container toward his friend.

“Nah, I’m heading home for dinner in a minute. Don’t want to spoil my appetite. Don’t want to spoil my marriage, anyway. Say, you catch that story out of Chicago on the news? The missing kid?”

“Something about Danny Truscott? We caught it at Harrison. My outfit.”

“You worked on it?”

“Nope. I was on gangs, then. They put this kid in charge, a woman barely out of the academy. Headline news, but the investigation didn’t go anywhere.”

“She screwed it up, huh?”

Slovo shrugged. “There was a whole task force to screw it up. I only caught the tail end of the news. They found remains?”

“Just some effects. Clothing he wore when he went missing. They were in this artist dude’s room, along with piles of newspapers and shit.”

“What artist?”

“Some crazy old guy. A hoarder. After he died, the landlord found drawings of naked kids being tortured. They showed it on TV. Creepy stuff.”

“But the boy—”

“Still don’t know what happened to him, but it doesn’t look good. Father was on the television, talking about being strong and shit. Me, I’d punch out anybody put a camera in my face, time like that.” Faron was frowning at the roast pork as he talked.

“Go on,” Slovo said. “I can’t eat all this.”

His friend grunted and reached for a pair of wooden chopsticks, slipped them out of their paper wrapper and snapped them apart. “Shouldn’t be doing this. We’re eating healthy these days. Salad for dinner. Tofu.” He picked out a piece of barbeque, chewed it with his eyes closed, a look of rapture on his face. “Damn. So, how’d that meeting go yesterday?”

“Not good.”

“Too many cooks. That prick from HSI, what’s his name? I knew he’d be trouble.”

“It’s not just the feds. Maloney’s being an asshole. He keeps threatening separation. Cooperate, or we take your kid.”

“He’s just using every tool he’s got. I mean, this thing’s hanging by a thread. They only got the one witness. The others are too scared.”

“For good reason. We had a deal. Then some jackass from Homeland Security gets involved and suddenly everybody has to stake out their territory. These guys could walk.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.” Faron reached for another piece of pork, then stopped himself and put his chopsticks down, took a paper napkin and wiped his fingers carefully, removing the evidence with forensic care.

“What are you hearing?” Slovo asked him.

“Me? Nothing. I’m not in the inner circle anymore. Though the boss did call me in this morning to ask if I’d seen you.” Faron glanced at him. “Don’t worry. Nobody knows we’re having this little chat, so you can quit looking at the back door like somebody’s about to bust through it. Just figured you should know. They don’t like it when you miss meetings.”

“I showed up yesterday.”

“After two no-shows.”

“My phone hasn’t been working right.”

“You’re in the middle of a major investigation. One you kicked off.”

“I didn’t bring in the feds.”

“Yeah, well, they tend to invite themselves. And they don’t like it when you go off the radar, or so I been told by my boss, who suddenly doesn’t like me so much.”

“Shit. I know it’s a mess. I don’t want to jam you up, too.”

Faron pointed at the meat. “What do you think this is? Making me risk my health, tempting me to eat something that actually has flavor?” He used his crumpled napkin to scrub a spot on the table, then set it beside the accordioned wrapper from his chopsticks, lining them up neatly. “Listen, I don’t know what you’re thinking these days, what you got up your sleeve, and don’t tell me, ‘cause I don’t want to know. But whatever it is, it better be good. If this thing falls apart, the shit’s going to fall on you. Hard.”

The table groaned as Faron braced his palms against it and got up. “Time I went. Got my rabbit food to look forward to. Something vegan, whatever that is. Used to be we’d have pork chops, cornbread, braised ribs, sweet potatoes. Real food. One little heart attack, and my wife’s all over my ass.”

“It’s working. You haven’t had one since.”

“Haven’t had a decent meal, either. You watch out for yourself, Slovo.”

“Say hi to Lonnie for me.”

“Now, why would I do a fool thing like that? I haven’t seen you in ages.”

Faron walked away, reaching his hand back to shoot him with a finger gun. Slovo went back to his meal, working his way through rice and roast pork, not tasting any of it.

By the time all that was left in the Styrofoam container were a pile of crumpled napkins and bones he had figured out what he had to do. He just wasn’t sure how he was going to pull it off.

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In the Dark by Barbara Fister, 2020, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.