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The rats shifted in unison from one side of the steel cage to the other, making it difficult to carry. They rushed back and forth, clawing each other and smashing violently into the opposite side. Rodents were not the smartest animals on the planet, that was a given. That was what made it so easy to catch such a large quantity on short notice. It wasnít that they completely lacked any sense at all. But for the most part, you could depend on their general lack of intelligence. When panicked, they would follow each other blindly, no single one of them actually aware it was leading another. Unlike bees or ants, who swarm to protect their leader in times of trouble, rats had no leaders and reacted only on the most basic instinct of survival when danger presented itself. It made for a chaotic scene every time one of them was spooked. But, as far as partners in crime go, the price was right; free. And brains were not a requirement on this job. Not for them anyway.
The smell of urban decay filled the air and only a small amount of light came from the glowing nearby city. There had been one functional street light nearby, but he had shot the bulb out a few days ago with a silenced nine millimeter. He knew it wouldnít be repaired yet. That would take weeks worth of paperwork and city procrastination to accomplish. In fact, he doubted that anyone had even noticed. Gun shots were not uncommon here and this section of the city was more or less ignored unless the problem was life threatening.
So he walked unseen, softly and confidently through the darkness he had helped create. The cityís music of sirens and subways was more than enough noise to muffle the clanking of the large metal cage that he carried with him.
Resisting the temptation to look over his shoulder, he eased his way into the alley and walked back to the buildingís side entrance. With a simple pick and file, the old door opened easily. As easy as most doors that led to buildings no one cared about. In any case, there would be no signs of a forced entry and thatís what was important. He could have arranged to get the key, he supposed, but he preferred as little contact with people as possible. And there werenít many locks that it wasnít just as easy to pick anyway. So he had refused to even learn the building owners name. His requirements for a job like this were simple. An address and a date. Simplicity had become his trademark of sorts, and his boss appreciated it. A Cole Williamís job was as clean as they come. It was rare that his work wasnít quickly labeled as Ďaccidentalí by city authorities or processed as valid by insurance companies. It was a well-earned reputation and had gotten plenty of work sent his way over the past couple of years. His work was so steady that he had quit his job on the road construction crew a few months back. And with this type of work his sole source of income, he took even more care than before to do it well.
Cole took a quick glance down the alley and moved through the door. He set the cage on the worn wooden floor and pulled off the towel that covered the rodent's pen. There were over fifty of the creatures stuffed on top of each other. It was completely dark and they struggled to rely on their acute sense of smell to case their new surroundings. It wouldnít matter for much longer. Not for them anyway. He lifted the cage and slid the folded towel underneath, setting it quietly back into place.
He moved quickly through the buildingís small, adjacent rooms, a thin, silver penlight in his mouth serving as a spotlight to guide him. He repeated the trip through the upstairs rooms, placing newspapers and dusty cloths, just lightly soaked in kerosene, in strategic places to help the fire move along. The building was so old and it probably wouldnít need the extra kindling, but he was thorough. When he was fairly certain that he had set up for total burn, he returned to the cage on the first floor and checked his watch. He was happy to see that he was right on schedule. He was tired and looked forward to getting to bed on time.
The light beam illuminated the staging area where he had set up. The bouncing eyes of his caged accomplices reflected hundreds of frightened gold orbs back at him. He reached for the five gallon drum of kerosene and twisted the steel cap off with gloved fingers. He certainly wasnít a man who enjoyed torturing small animals, but he didnít spend a lot of time feeling guilty over it either. It was a brilliant way to bring a building down, even if he did say so himself. Virtually undetectable. So many start points, no sensible origin. The arson inspector had no place to begin. So a little sacrifice on the part of some rodents was acceptable to him, and he had grown accustomed to the procedure.
They jumped and clawed over each other as the cold kerosene rained down over them, drenching their fur and irritating their skin. Some cried and yelped as the liquid burned their eyes and mouths. They were obviously confused and frightened by the evening's events and their noises sounded like the chatter of a frightened crowd. It was about to get much worse for them, but how could they know that? Cole poured carefully until the can was empty, ensuring that the towel he had laid underneath the cage soaked up the excess fuel.
A single touch from his prized ĎPhiladelphia Eaglesí lighter ignited the furry victims in a brilliant burst of orange and white flames. Cole jerked his head back to avoid being singed by the initial eruption. The clock in his mind began ticking now. He quickly popped the cage door open and sprung the rats loose. The stink of burning flesh was instantly overpowering and he held his breath as best he could. A few vermin remained and ran in tight circles inside the pen, leaping vainly against the steel mesh in agony. He assisted their escape by carefully reaching in and tilting the cage upwards until each one had found the opening and moved off to do their work. A high pitched animal scream filled the building as little balls of flame rocketed off in every direction.
To lend a hand to the newborn fire, he touched some curtains that hung behind the boarded windows with his lighter. Time was running short and he moved urgently but calmly to collect his things. He picked the cage from off the burning towel, kicking the flaming cloth across the floor against a wall. The metal crate folded flat by simply twisting a few hinges and he gripped it tightly in one hand. The fires helped illuminate the room now and he had no trouble navigating back to the door.
By the time he reached there, several small fires had begun taking shape and the heat in the room was noticeably higher. The rats only now began to die off, but the bodies would burn for a few minutes. Their screeching was slowly being replaced by the dry crackling of burning wood. He took one last look as the fire matured and began to crave a bigger life for itself. He was satisfied and exited to the street.
His pace was fast, but not alarming as he took long strides down to the corner. He piled his supplies into the hatch back and climbed into his Ford Escort. He turned the keys and gave the small engine ample time to warm up. Pushing the manual transmission into first gear, he drove west a few blocks towards the city and looked on from a distance until the first signs of blaze broke from the downstairs windows. The flames stretched out like frantic orange fingers squeezing the life from the old building. He quickly punched out a number on his cell phone and brought it to his ear.
The phone was answered on the first ring.
"That you Cole?"
Cole closed his eyes and grimaced. "God damn! Will you shut up?"
"Awww jeez. Iím sorry man. No names."
"Make the calls."
"You got it man."
He punched the call end button angrily and tossed the phone onto the seat next to him.
"Damn idiot," he said out loud as he pulled away.
The old man, Daniel Roth, always asked that someone from the family be involved in the bigger jobs. The idea was that they would keep an eye out and return to him with a trusted report. It was a leftover habit from the old days, when family meant something. Cole liked to work alone and he was sure he could protest the practice successfully if he really wanted. Roth liked him and respected his judgment. But Cole didnít like to argue with the man who paid the bills. So he always found a little something for the guys Roth gave him. Something that didnít involve much thought or interaction. But he usually found them unprofessional and working with them was often frustrating.
Within an hour, he was at his apartment building in South Jersey. A direct route home would have taken only fifteen minutes in the early morning traffic hour. But after a job he liked to speed off in the opposite direction and fill his car with gas. The receipt, complete with date and time, would make a nice alibi if ever needed. It wouldnít get him off the hook automatically, of course. But it might help cloud the prosecutionís time line and create reasonable doubt. Hopefully he would never need it, but he was a cautious man and played every angle.
As he walked to the front door, his neighbor from upstairs greeted him.
Cole wasnít in the mood for a lot of chat.
He looked down at the filthy sidewalk and tried to stroll past her.
"You're always in such a hurry Cole. Whatíre you doing out so early?"
Her smile was needy and her brown eyes were nervous. She was a few years older than he was, but a hard life had aged her appearance more than her years. A long, thin nose centered in wrinkles and dark circles somewhat gave her the appearance of a cartoon witch. She combated this look with a heavy dose of skillfully applied make-up and designer glasses. Still an all, she had kept her figure together pretty well and her long brown hair was always nicely done. If she didnít live in the building, Cole might have considered having her stay over on the occasion. But he didnít need that kind of trouble so close to home.
Cole just gave his standard answer, "I was working."
"Want to get some breakfast? My treat."
Cole looked as if he were considering, though he really wasnít. "I donít think so. Iím really beat. Iím gonna get some sleep."
"How about dinner tonight?"
"Stop by later. Weíll see whatís up."
She smiled, happy he had left the opportunity open. "Iíll stop by later tonight."
"Okay. Iíll see you later."
He felt sorry for Linda a bit, and really couldnít blame her for pursuing him the way she did. She was passed around and then over by all the losers in the neighborhood, none of whom respected her or treated her even halfway decently. On two separate occasions he had scuffled with guys who had gotten physical with her and removed them from the building. Cole tried to be friendly to her, and even helped her with the occasional apartment maintenance problem without expecting any Ďfavorsí in return. Compared to the other guys in her life, Cole must have looked like a knight in shining armor. He wished he could explain to her that he wasnít. He wished he could tell her that he was no prize and that she could do better than him. But he would never get that close. So he humored her when he could, hoping it might prove that she was likable enough to wait for a man who would treat her right.
He pushed the glass door of the ten story brick building open and spotted another neighbor standing at the mailboxes. He would check his later, just to avoid the chance of a conversation. He slumped his way up the winding stairwell and realized he was more tired than he thought. It was mornings like this that he was thankful he had moved from the eighth floor to the second when the landlord had offered him the chance last year. The old elevators were too slow to wait for, and it was a much easier climb since he moved down. And as it turned out, the apartment was a little nicer too. Not that it was any palace, but in a building like this, you took any improvement when you could get it.
He twisted the key, sliding the deadbolt away from the latch and pushed the door open. It was a small, two room, one bath apartment with a window view of the main road. He always maintained to anyone who asked that it was plenty of space for him. But he knew that it could feel quite cramped when he was there for a long stretch of time. It was your basic no-frills accommodations. The paint on the thin walls was a dull white, dulling more with age every day. No trim borders or designs. Not even a picture to break the monotony.
The bathroom, immediately on the left, was his first stop. Hours of sitting in the car and sipping spring water, waiting for the moment to begin his work had caught up with his bladder. A stand-up shower stood beside the toilet on one side, a waist high sink hung precariously from rusted bolts on the other.
He relieved himself and then stared into the mirror as he washed his hands. The mirror was coated with film from hundreds of hot showers without a cleaning, but he could still see clearly. The age was showing more and more on him these days and it made him reflect on where the time had gone. Some wrinkles and dark patches had become permanent fixtures at the base of his eyes and his grizzled facial hair had begun sprouting the occasional gray whisker. People still usually guessed him as younger than his actual thirty year age though. He was even occasionally asked to show ID at bars. Perhaps it was the gleam from his bright hazel eyes, or the athletic look of his squared off chin and close cut brown hair. Or maybe it was his trim and muscled physique that he struggled to hold onto through continuous exercise. It didnít matter how the illusion was created. He could see through it. The signs were clearly there that time was running alongside him.
Next stop was the refrigerator in the open kitchen. Separated from the living room by only a small counter, the kitchen floor could be spanned with one giant step. He looked through the small appliance and spotted the partial cheesesteak sandwich that remained wrapped in foil there. He didnít debate long and decided he would stuff it down before retiring. He grabbed a plastic plate and moved to the living room, flopping onto the old sofa and pushing his black sneakers off with his feet.
His furniture was nice, if not terribly fashionable. And his prize possession was a twenty-seven inch television he had bought last year with the cash from a small shake down job. It sat centered on a cheap, imitation wood stand against the far wall, away from the glare of the windows.
He dug out the remote from between the seat cushions and flipped on the early news. He tolerated the top national stories as he poured some Tabasco over the cold sandwich. Most news didnít interest him much. He found it had very little effect on his day to day life. And over the years so much of the Ďlegitimateí news had become indistinguishable from the tabloid rags he would see at the market. He didnít figure it was worth his time. ESPN gave him all the sports news he could handle, and that was all he really cared about.
He sank his teeth into the cheesesteak like a man who hadnít eaten for days. It was enough to keep him occupied while waiting for his story to get its thirty seconds. Finally, the graphics behind the newscaster alerted him that he was on deck.
"Letís go now to our Julie Foster in South Philly with breaking news."
The handsome anchor man struggled vainly to look as of he wasnít reading from cue cards. The scene switched to a young woman standing directly in front of the building Cole was at just over an hour ago. She was an attractive blond woman who struggled to keep her appearance together amidst the frenzy of activity.
"Thank you Jim. Iím here at the scene where a three alarm fire is still smoldering in downtown Philadelphia this morning. Police have woken nearby neighbors and evacuated them as a precaution, even though the blaze is currently contained at a single abandoned store. If you can see behind me, the storeís owner is on the scene and is very distraught at the site of his property burning to the ground while he stands helpless."
Cole frowned and shook his head, watching the camera focus on a man tossing his arms in the air and pleading with fire fighters to save the building.
"Guyís overacting," Cole thought. "Shouldnít have even shown up. Too risky. Might say the wrong thing."
But it really didnít much matter to him. His job was done and that guy had no idea who he was. He had made a deal with Roth and he was Rothís problem now. Cole didnít make the deals, he just did the job. And from the appearance of the still smoking building on the television, he had done his part very well.
The woman reporter continued her story.
"Station Eleven Fire Captain Brad Dellio said his crew could have responded faster, but a poorly timed crank call had his engines moving in the wrong direction and he was forced to call another station a bit further away for backup."
Cole watched with some interest as the station switched to a pre-taped clip of the Captain, sweating underneath his blackened yellow fire hat, a microphone being poked into his face.
"Ya got your kids and knuckleheads everywhere, but they donít realize the impact a crank call can have. Seconds are precious in fire fighting. They think itís just a big joke, but someday it may be their house that burns while we chase a phony fire."
Cole began thinking that his crank call trick may be too overexposed now, thanks to this report. The fire stations would have never caught on. They donít talk to each other enough and crank calls were a common occurrence. But now some sharp investigator might make the connection. Perhaps he would need to tuck that move away for a while, not use it for a year or two.
"Too bad," he thought, "it was a good one."
A surprising phone call disrupted his debate.
He swallowed some sandwich before picking up.
"Hey Cole. Itís Tucker. The old man wanted me to stop by and pay you for the job tonight."
Cole wrinkled his brow in confusion, "Who is this? Tucker?"
Coleís eyes sharpened and he spoke slowly and clearly, "Listen you idiot, if you mention my name on the phone again Iím gonna snap your neck."
"Iím sorry dude. Iím really sorry. My Uncle wanted me to stop by. Business."
Cole was confused, "What are you talking about? Iíll see him later. At the end of the week like always."
Tuckerís voice was anxious. "No, man. Heís got a big job. Big. Itís for you. He wants me to pay you and fill you in. Iíll stop by your place."
"Since when are you assigning work?"
"Itís cool man. The old man told me to come by."
Cole was not in the mood. "I wanna get some sleep."
"Iím real close by."
Cole disliked communicating via phone. "All right man. Hurry up. And donít call me here again. I donít want you calling me."
"Okay. Iíll be right over."
Tucker must have been less than a block away, because he was knocking at the door in less than five minutes. Cole hustled him in quickly, closing the door behind him and peering out the window into the street.
"This better be legit, Tucker. And good. If I find out this didnít come from Roth Iím going make you wish you and I had never met. So Iíll give you one chance to back out now before you get me involved in some scheme of yours."
The manís eyes pleaded for belief, "No man. This is from him, I swear."
Cole looked at him sharply. "And I donít like anybody coming here. How did you get my address?"
"My Uncle knew it. You know he knows everything. Strictly old manís orders Cole. Just doing what the boss tells me." His fat face was flush and pouring sweat and he eased himself back onto the sofa.
"Whatever. Just donít come here again. If I want to meet you, Iíll tell you when and where. And you donít have to sit down Tucker. This is gonna take three minutes tops. The money. The job. And get out."
"Man, they wasnít kidding about you. Youíre not a real friendly son of a bitch."
"No. Iím not. You looking for a prom date or something?" His tone was flat and serious.
"I wanted to talk to you about the fire tonight." His eyes darted between Cole and the TV, now covering local sports.
Cole was becoming annoyed. "None of your fucking business. Iím not playing around here man. Tell me what you want and letís wrap this up. And Iím telling Roth you and I donít work together anymore. I donít give a shit if heís your Uncle or not. You treat this like itís some game."
"Címon man. Iím just doing my job. I called the fire departments and news crew like ya asked. Iím just supposed to get details for the old man.."
Cole squeezed his eyelids together. "Whatíre you talking about? The old man doesnít get details. He wouldnít even want them. What the hell are you up to? Looking for some tricks of the trade?"
The man shifted on the couch and was breathing heavily. "No man. No. But my Uncle wants to hear about the job. Ya know, like how you done it. What time you set it an all."
"Listen, all you need to tell him is that the job. . ." Cole paused his protest when it fell into place for him like a brick from a second story window. His angry expression melted for a moment into concern, his eyes widening in awareness. "Damn!"
He charged across the room and grabbed the fat man by the hair and shirt collar, pulling him to his feet and sending him flying into the wall across from them. The wall shook from the collision and Cole turned him around and pushed his left forearm up into his throat, ripping his shirt open with his right hand. He revealed a microphone and transmitter taped across Tuckerís pudgy belly.
"Who the fuck sent you, you fat piece of. . ."
The door burst open, crashing loudly against the wall.
Half a dozen officers in black riot gear filled the room all at once. Cole thought about dashing for the window, but quickly realized any escape attempt would be futile. He placed his hands on his head as he was pushed hard against the wall. His face flattened against the dry plaster and he winced from the pain of his arm being driven up his back.
A deep, calm voice spoke from behind him and the arresting officers, "We got enough, ya know? Stoolies donít come much dumber than Tucker, but we got enough. You said plenty. And heís copping on all the robberies too. We know you hit those dog kennels last summer. And we know you were involved in that carpet store in March. We got everything we need. Tucker is just the tip of the iceberg Weíll clean him up, put him in a suit. Heíll make a good enough witness. We got you Williams."
"I want to talk to my lawyer." Coleís tone was even and relaxed. This was a scenario he had played out in his mind before and he knew what he needed to do.
"I wouldnít be in such a hurry for that if I were you Williams. Maybe you can help yourself out. Youíre not the one we want. Weíre looking to put the whole operation out of business." The voice was grainy and tired from an eighteen hour stake out.
"Well you ainít me so donít waste my time or your time whoever you are."
"Iím Detective Sacca." He moved closer and Cole could smell the cigarettes on his breath and clothing.
"Well Detective Sacca, I want to talk to my lawyer. If I donít like what he says, Iíll find you."
The manís tone shifted to slightly annoyed, "This ainít letís make a deal and Iím not Bob Barker. I might not want to talk to you then, pal. I wanna hear something right now."
Cole kept his calm demeanor. "Bullshit. We both know itís the DA that pushes your buttons. And we both know that if I got something your interested in, a couple of days ainít gonna make any difference. Now Iím kinda tired and Iíd like to get some sleep. So if you donít mind. . ."
There was silence at first, no one sure how to respond to the cocky criminal. Then the reading of the rights began.
Within an hour of the arrest, Cole had already been stripped of his personal possessions and placed in a holding cell. He was seated on a thin cot, staring into the walls, his arms folded around his knees. The flimsy mattress was dirty and didnít offer much support, but he made himself as comfortable as he could. He had slept in worse after all. He passed the time imagining his hands around Tucker Rothís throat.
"So much for the Ďdepend on your familyí theory," he thought.
Apparently Tucker had cut a deal to save himself some jail time on drug trafficking charges. He had given the police Coleís name as one of his Uncleís busiest associates and as such, caused that family a lot of trouble. Cole wondered if Tucker realized that his beloved Uncle was probably plotting to kill him at this very moment. In the world of organized crime, blood was thicker than water, but nothing was thicker than the hatred of a traitor. Tucker had dug his own grave and Cole wouldnít waste any tears when he heard of his inevitable murder. Tucker wasnít smart enough to disappear and it wouldnít be too long.
But he had his own problems now. A lawyer arrived shortly after he placed his phone call. The guard pulled the cage back and let the man inside.
He waited for the guard to exit the area and began to speak, "Hello Mr. Williams. Iím Steven Depalmo. Iím going to be your lawyer."
He was a big smiling man, round and out of shape. His oily black hair looked pasted onto his chubby head, and so did the mustache on the upper lip of his sweaty face. Apparently just walking from the car to the cell was considerable exercise for this guy. But his dark, pinstriped suit was well tailored and fine jewelry adorned his hand. His keychain was a Mercedes symbol.
"Not from the public defenders office I take it?"
He grinned. "No."
"Okay, Steven. Talk."
The man seemed to appreciate, if not expect, the straight to business approach.
"Weíll have an arraignment in the morning. Iíll try to get bail, though I find it unlikely. The DA is hot to get this one. Heíll pull some strings and come out firing. Heíll probably get bail denied on grounds that you could prove a valuable state witness in some unsolved homicides. And heís going to try to convince the judge that youíll run if you get a reasonable bail."
Cole was shocked, "Homicides? What the hell is that about?"
"He doesnít really have any homicide cases. Iím just guessing heíll say he does to keep you in. Iíve seen him use it before and judges go for it a lot. He hopes youíll crack if they can hold you here for a while. So chances are youíll be held until we go to trial."
Cole shook his head, "This isnít what I want to hear Steven. Now you got me sitting in here for four or five months until trial. Then what?"
"Iíll need to talk to the Prosecutor. I think I can get it bargained down to twelve to fifteen with a confession to another burglary. Just pick a small one from a few years back. Youíll be out in eight with good behavior if we get lucky."
"You fucking warm up to it, Stevie. I got options and you know it. Donít jerk me around. You got a message for me?"
The attorney swallowed hard and nodded. "Iím supposed to tell you that our mutual friend will be very grateful if this case goes to bed quietly. He likes you. Respects you. Without your cooperation, the DA doesnít have much."
"What about Tucker?"
The attorney smiled. He was obviously close to the daily operations of Rothís family.
"Tuckerís out on the street. He would have been better off behind bars but heís refusing police protection. Wouldnít worry about him. But our friend would be grateful if you do him this favor."
Cole shot an interested glance. "How grateful?"
"What did you have in mind?"
Cole peered back at the man, wondering how much would be too much. But his face revealed nothing. Cole began doing some quick math in his head, figuring what it would take to maintain his personal affairs for a lengthy jail stay.
He spoke slowly, so as not to be misunderstood. "I just did a job. The figure for that job, times ten, paid to an account number Iíll give you. I want the installments in equal bi-monthly payments, over the next three years. For that, Iíll be so quiet youíll forget Iím here. I wonít even use you, Iíll get a public defender. Itíll be like I never existed and nobody will be able to link us. I think thatís the least you guys can do. This wouldnít have even happened if he didnít force me to work with that idiot nephew of his."
The attorney took notes, his expression strictly business.
"Yes, it is a regrettable situation but we need to circle the wagons now. Iíll have an answer for you in less than half an hour."
Time passed quickly and the answer was a yes, which was no surprise to Cole, really. He was sure the attorney had the authority to approve the deal himself, but imagined he made Cole sit it out for dramatic effect.
Cole gave the lawyer the account number and watched him walk away for the last time. He knew they would honor it. And he would honor his agreement also. It made the most sense for all involved. Cole had taken care of his family, what there was of it.
Behind bars or not, that was all he had really wanted to do in the first place.