Carol Starkey

     "Tell me about the thumb. I know what you told me on the phone, but tell, me everything now."
     Starkey inhaled half an inch of cigarette, then flicked ash on the floor, not bothering with the ashtray. She did that every time she was annoyed with being here, which was always.
     "Please use the ashtray, Carol."
     "I missed."
     "You didnít miss."
     Detective-2 Carol Starkey took another deep pull on the cigarette and crushed it out. When she first started seeing this therapist, Dana Williams wouldnít let her smoke during session. That was three years and four therapists ago. In the time Starkey was working her way through the second and third therapists, Dana had gone back to the smokes herself, and now didnít mind. Sometimes they both smoked and the goddamned room clouded up like the Imperial Valley capped by an inversion layer.
     Starkey shrugged.
     "No, I guess I didnít miss. Iím just pissed off, is all. Itís been three years, and here I am back where I started."
     "With me."
     "Yeah. Like in three years I shouldnít be over this shit."
     "So tell me what happened, Carol. Tell me about the little girlís thumb."
     Starkey fired up another cigarette, then settled back to recall the little girlís thumb. Starkey was down to three packs a day. The progress should have made her feel better, but didnít.
     "It was Fourth of July. This idiot down in Venice decides to make his own fireworks and give them away to the neighbors. A little girl ends up losing the thumb and index finger on her right hand, so we get the call from the emergency room."
     "Who is Ďweí?"
     "Me and my partner that day, Beth Marzik."
     "Another woman?"
     "Yeah. Thereís two of us in CCS."
     "By the time we get down there, the familyís gone home, so we go to the house. The fatherís crying, saying how they found the finger, but not the thumb, and then he shows us these homemade firecrackers that are so damned big sheís lucky she didnít lose the hand."
     "He made them?"
     "No, a guy in the neighborhood made them, but the father wonít tell us. He says the man didnít mean any harm. I say, your daughter has been maimed, sir, other children are at risk, sir, but the guy wonít cop. I ask the mother, but the guy says something in Spanish, and now she wonít talk, either."
     "Why wonít they tell you?"
     "People are assholes."
     The world according to Carol Starkey, Detective-2 with LAPDís Criminal Conspiracy Section. Dana made a note of that in a leather-bound notebook, an act which Starkey never liked. The notes gave physical substance to her words, leaving Starkey feeling vulnerable because she thought of the notes as evidence. Starkey had more of the cigarette, then shrugged and went on with it.
     "These bombs are six inches long, right? We callím Mexican Dynamite. So many of these things are going off, it sounds like the academy pistol range, so Marzik and I start a door-to-door. But the neighbors are just like the father--no oneís telling us anything, and Iím getting madder and madder. Marzik and I are walking back to the car when I look down and thereís the thumb. I just looked down and there it was, this beautiful little thumb, so I scooped it up and brought it back to the family."
     "On the phone, you told me you tried to make the father eat it."
     "I grabbed his collar and pushed it into his mouth. I did that."
     Dana shifted in her chair, Starkey reading from her body language that she was uncomfortable with the image. Starkey couldnít blame her.
     "Itís easy to understand why the family filed a complaint."
     Starkey finished the cigarette and crushed it out.
     "The family didnít complain."
     "Then why--?"
     "Marzik. I guess I scared Marzik. She had a talk with my lieutenant, and Kelso threatened to send me to the bank for an evaluation."
     LAPD maintained its Behavorial Sciences Unit in the Far East Bank building on Broadway, in Chinatown. Most officers lived in abject fear of being ordered to the bank, correctly believing that it called into question their stability, and ended any hope of career advancement. They had an expression for it: Overdrawn on the career account.
     "If I go to the bank, theyíll never let me back on the bomb squad."
     "And you keep asking to go back?"
     "Itís all Iíve wanted since I got out of the hospital."
     Irritated now, Starkey stood and lit another cigarette. Dana studied her, which Starkey also didnít like. It made her feel watched, as if Dana was waiting for her to do or say something more that she could write down. It was a valid interview technique which Starkey used herself. If you said nothing, people felt compelled to fill the silence.
     "The job is all I have left, damnit."
     Starkey blurted it, regretting the defensive edge in her voice, and felt even more embarrassed when Dana again scribbled a note.
     "So you told Lieutenant Kelso that you would seek help on your own?"
     "Jesus, no. I kissed his ass to get out of it. I know I have a problem, Dana, but Iíll get help in a way that doesnít fuck my career."
     "Because of the thumb?"
     Starkey stared at Dana Williams with the same flat eyes she would use on Internal Affairs.
     "Because Iím falling apart."
     Dana sighed, and a warmth came to her eyes that infuriated Starkey because she resented having to be here, and having to reveal herself in ways that made her feel vulnerable and weak. Carol Starkey did not do Ďweakí well, and never had.
     "Carol, if you came back because you want me to fix you as if you were broken, I canít do that. Therapy isnít the same as setting a bone. It takes time."
     "Itís been three years. I should be over this by now."
     "Thereís no Ďshouldí here, Carol. Consider what happened to you. Consider what you survived."
     "Iíve had enough with considering it. Iíve considered it for three fucking years."
     A sharp pain began behind her eyes. Just from considering it.
     "Why do you think you keep changing therapists, Carol?"
     Starkey shook her head, then lied.
     "I donít know."
     "Are you still drinking?"
     "I havenít had a drink in over a year."
     "Howís your sleep?"
     "A couple of hours, then Iím wide awake."
     "Is it the dream?"
     Carol felt herself go cold.
     "Anxiety attacks?"
     Starkey was wondering how to answer when the pager clipped to her waist vibrated. She recognized the number as Kelsoís cell phone, followed by 911, the code the detectives in the Criminal Conspiracy Section used when they wanted an immediate response.
     "Shit, Dana. Iíve gotta get this."
     "Would you like me to leave?"
     "No. No, Iíll just step out."
     Starkey took her purse out into the waiting room where a middle-aged woman seated on the couch briefly met her eyes, then averted her face.
     The woman nodded without looking.
     Starkey dug through her purse for her cell phone, then punched the speed dial to return Kelsoís page. She could tell he was in his car when he answered.
     "Itís me, Lieutenant. Whatís up?"
     "Where are you?"
     Starkey stared at the woman.
     "I was looking for shoes."
     "I didnít ask what you were doing, Starkey. I asked where you were."
     She felt the flush of anger when he said it, and shame that she even gave a damn what he thought.
     "The west side."
     "All right. The bomb squad had a call-out, and, um, Iím on my way there now. Carol, we lost Charlie Riggio. He was killed at the scene."
     Starkeyís fingers went cold. Her scalp tingled. It was called Ďgoing core.í The bodyís way of protecting itself by drawing the blood inward to minimize bleeding. A response left over from our animal pasts when the threat would involve talons and fangs and something that wanted to rip you apart. In Starkeyís world, the threat often still did.
     She turned away and lowered her voice so that the woman couldnít hear.
     "Sorry, Lieutenant. Was it a bomb? Was it a device that went off?"
     "I donít know the details yet, but, yes, there was an explosion."
     Sweat leaked from her skin, and her stomach clenched. Uncontrolled explosions were rare. A bomb squad officer dying on the job was even more rare. The last time it had happened was three years ago.
     "Anyway, Iím on my way there now. Ah, Starkey, I could put someone else on this, if youíd rather I did that."
     "Iím up in the rotation, Lieutenant. Itís my case."
     "All right. I wanted to offer."
     He gave her the location, then broke the connection. The woman on the couch was watching her as if she could read Starkeyís pain. Starkey saw herself in the waiting-room mirror, abruptly white beneath her tan. She felt herself breathing. Shallow, fast breaths.
     Starkey put her phone away, then went back to tell Dana that she would have to end their session early.
     "Weíve got a call-out, so I have to go. Ah, listen, I donít want you to turn in any of this to the insurance, okay? Iíll pay out of my own pocket, like before."
     "No one can get access to your insurance records, Carol. Not without your permission. You truly donít need to spend the money."
     "Iíd rather pay."
     As Starkey wrote the check, Dana said, "You didnít finish the story. Did you catch the man who made the firecrackers?"
     "The little girlís mother took us to a garage two blocks away where we found him with eight hundred pounds of smokeless gunpowder. Eight hundred pounds, and the whole place is reeking of gasoline because you know what this guy does for a living? Heís a gardener. If that place had gone up, it wouldíve taken out the whole goddamned block."
     "My lord."
     Starkey handed over the check, then said her good-byes and started for the door. She stopped with her hand on the knob because she remembered something sheíd been wondering about, and had intended to ask Dana.
     "Thereís something about that guy Iíve been wondering about. Maybe you can shed some light."
     "In what way?"
     "This guy we arrested, he tells us heís been building fireworks his whole life. You know how we know itís true? Heís only got three fingers on his left hand, and two on his right. Heís blown them off one by one."
     Dana turned pale.
     "Iíve arrested a dozen guys like that. We call them chronics. Why do they do that, Dana? What do you say about people like that who keep going back to the bombs?"
     Now Dana took out a cigarette of her own and struck it. She blew out a fog of smoke and stared at Starkey before answering.
     "I think they want to destroy themselves."
     Starkey nodded.
     "Iíll call you to reschedule, Dana. Thanks."
     Starkey went out to her car, keeping her head down as she passed the woman in the waiting room. She slid behind the wheel, but didnít start the engine. Instead, she opened her briefcase, and took out a slim silver flask of gin. She took a long drink, then opened the door, and threw up in the parking lot.
     When she finished heaving, she put away the gin and ate a Tagamet.
     Then, doing her best to get a grip on herself, Carol Starkey drove across town to a place exactly like the one where she had died.

Mr. Red

     John Michael Fowles leaned back on the bench across from the school, enjoying the sun, and wondering if he had made the FBIís Ten Most Wanted List. Not an easy thing to do when they didnít know who you were, but heíd been leaving clues. He thought he might stop in a Kinkoís later, or maybe the library, and use one of their computers to check the FBIís web page for the standings.
     The sun made him smile. He raised his face to it, letting the warmth soak into him, letting its radiation brown his skin, marvelling at the enormity of its exploding gases. Thatís the way he liked to think of it: One great monstrous explosion so large and bright that it could be seen from ninety-three million miles away, fueled so infinitely that it would take billions of years to consume itself, so fucking cool that the very fact of it spawned life here on this planet, and would eventually consume that life when it gave a last flickering gasp and blew itself out billions of years from now.
     John thought it would be seriously cool to build a bomb that big and set the sucker off. How cool it would be to see those first few nanoseconds of its birth. Way cool.
     Thinking about it, John felt a hardening in his groin of a kind that had never been inspired by any living thing.
     The voice said, "Are you Mr. Red?"
     John opened his eyes. Even with his sunglasses, he had to shield his eyes. John flashed the big white teeth.
     "I be him. Are you Mr. Karpov?"
     Making like a Florida cracker talking street, even though John was neither from Florida, nor a cracker, nor the street. He enjoyed the misdirection.
     Karpov was an overweight man in his fifties, with a heavily lined face and graying widowís peak. A Russian emigrant of dubious legality with several businesses in the area. He was clearly nervous, which John expected and somewhat enjoyed. Wilhelm Karpov was a criminal.
     John scooted to the side and patted the bench.
     "Here. Sit. Weíll talk."
     Karpov dropped like a stone onto the bench. He clutched a nylon bag with both hands the way an older woman would hold a purse. In front, for protection.
     Karpov said, "Thank you for doing this, sir. I have these awful problems that must be dealt with. These terrible enemies."
     John put his hand on the bag, gently trying to pry it away.
     "I know all about your problems, Mr. Karpov. We donít need to say another word aboutím."
     "Yes. Yes, well, thank you for agreeing to do this. Thank you."
     "You donít have to thank me, Mr. Karpov, you surely donít."
     John would have never first spoken to the man, let alone agreed to do what he was about to do and meet Karpov like this if he had not thoroughly researched Wilhelm Karpov. Johnís business was by referral only, and John had spoken with those who had referred him. Those men had in fact asked Johnís permission to even suggest his name to Karpov, and were in a position to assure Karpovís character. John was big on character. He was big on secrecy, and covering oneís ass. Which is why these people did not know him by his real name, or know anything about him at all except for his trade. Through them, John knew the complete details of Karpovís problem, what would be required, and had already decided that he would take the job before their first contact.
     That was how you stayed on the Most Wanted List, and out of prison.
     "Leave go of the bag, Mr. Karpov."
     Karpov abruptly let go of the bag as if it were stinging him.
     John laughed, taking the bag into his own lap.
     "You donít have to be nervous, Mr. Karpov. Youíre among friends here, believe you me. It donít get no friendlier than what Iím feeling for you right now. You know how friendly it gets?"
     Karpov just stared at him, incomprehending.
     "I think weíre such good friends, me and you, that Iím not even gonna look in this bag until later. Thatís how such good friends we are. Weíre so fuckiní tight, you and me, that I know there is EXACTLY the right amount of cash in here, and Iím willing to bet your life on it. Howís that for friendly?"
     Karpovís eyes bulged large, and he swallowed.
     "It is all there. It is exactly what you said in fifties and twenties. Please count it now. Please count it so that you are satisfied."
     John shook his head and dropped the sack onto the bench opposite Karpov.
     "Nope. Weíll just let this little scenario play out the way it will and hope you didnít count wrong."
     Karpov reached across him for the sack.
     John laughed and pushed Karpov back.
     "Donít you worry about it, Mr. Karpov. Iím just funniní with you."
     Funniní. Like he was an idiot as well as a cracker.
     "Here. I want to show you something."
     He took a small tube from his pocket and held it out. It used to be a dime-store flashlight, the kind with a push-button switch in the end opposite the bulb. It wasnít a flashlight anymore
     "Go ahead and take it. The damned thing wonít bite."
     Karpov took it.
     "What is this?"
     John tipped his head toward the schoolyard across the street. It was lunch. The kids were running around, playing in the few minutes before they would have to troop back into class.
     "Lookit those kids over there. I been watchiním. Pretty little girls and boys. Man, look at how theyíre just running around, got all the energy in the world, all that free spirit and potential. Youíre that age, I guess everythingís still possible, ainít it? Lookit that little boy in the blue shirt. Over there to the right, Karpov, jesus, right there. Good lookiní little fella, blond, freckles. Christ, bet the little sonofabitch could grow up fuckiní all the cheerleaders he wants, then be the goddamned president to boot. Shit like that canít happen over there where youíre from, can it? But here, man, this is the fuckiní U.S. of A, and you can do any goddamned thing you want until they start telliní you that you canít."
     Karpov was staring at him, the tube in his hand forgotten.
     "Right now, anything in that childís head is possible, and itíll stay possible Ďtil that fuckiní cheerleader calls him a pizzaface and her retarded fullback boyfriend beats the shit out of him for talking to his girl. Right now that boy is happy, Mr. Karpov, just look at how happy, but all that is gonna end just as soon as he realizes all those hopes and dreams he has ainít never gonna work."
     John slowly let his eyes drift to the tube.
     "You could save that poor child all that grief, Mr. Karpov. Somewhere very close to us there is a device. I have built that device, and placed it carefully, and you now control it."
     Karpov looked at the tube, and swallowed. His expression was as milky as if heíd held a rattlesnake.
     "If you press that little silver button, maybe you can save that child the pain heís gonna face. Iím not sayiní the device is over there in that school, but Iím sayiní maybe. Maybe that whole fuckiní playground would erupt in a beautiful red firestorm. Maybe those babies would be hit so hard by the shockwave that all their shoes would just be left scattered on the ground, and the clothes and skin would scorch right off their bones. I ainít sayiní that, but there it is right there in that silver button. You can end that boyís pain. You have the power. You can turn the world to hell, you want, because you have the power right there in that little button. I have created it, and now Iíve given it to you. You. Right there in your hand."
     Karpov stood and thrust the tube at John.
     "I want no part of this. Take it. Take it. I cannot do that."
     John slowly took the tube. He fingered the silver button.
     "When I do what you want me to do, Mr. Karpov, people are gonna die. Whatís the fuckiní difference?"
     "The money is all there. Every dollar. All of it."
     Karpov walked away without another word. He crossed the street, walking so fast that his strides became a kind of hop, as if he expected the world around him to turn to flame.
     John dropped the tube into the nylon bag with the money.
     They never seemed to appreciate the gift he offered.
     John settled back again, stretched his arms along the backrest to enjoy the sun and the sounds of the children playing. It was a beautiful day, and would grow even more beautiful when a second sun had risen.
     After a while he got up and walked away to check the Most Wanted list.
     Last week he wasnít on it.
     This week he hoped to be.

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