Betryal in Blue
I hate airplanes. Even these first-class seats are too small and too close together. I should take the train for trips to cities this close to Chicago. At least then I could get up and walk to a real chair at a real table and eat real food.
“How much longer?” Anthony Garmel asked the stewardess in a tone of voice that reflected only a small part of his negative feelings for his mode of transport.
“Not long, sir. We should be beginning our descent momentarily.”
Garmel sighed as the shapely female returned to the galley. Not long. That could be another half an hour. I’m glad the taxiing time from the runway to the gate at Lambert isn’t nearly as long as O’Hare.
A jab in his rib by the seat partner to his right brought his attention back from the swiveling hips of the stewardess.
“How’s the view?” the female voice of that passenger inquired. Just a little reminder that you’re not traveling alone.
“Not as good as this one,” was Garmel’s slick recovery. He patted the leg of Jana, his traveling secretary—and sometime paramour. “And those aren’t just empty words.”
She smiled an enigmatic smile and turned to look out the window.
He looked at the Estate Rolex Daytona Cosmograph that adorned his left wrist. With three dials and two push buttons, the bulky timepiece was more show than go for the drug lord. He hadn’t pushed either of the buttons since the day he’d picked up the watch at the high-end jewelry store in downtown Chicago. As he rotated his wrist and admired the reflected light coming off the synthetic sapphire crystal, he knew those around him were covetous of his $25,000 adornment.
I don’t know why I have to do this. Yeah, I do know. This shipment is critical to monopolizing the California market. What we’re changing out in St. Louis today gives me a big one-up on the police. I should have appointed a new leadership team in St. Louis. Not that I don’t trust the man-mountain I’m meeting. What is his name? I’ll think of it later. But, he’s a slash and burn associate. I need to get a finesse player on the team. Make a mental note . . .
Garmel sighed again. The passenger in 2B gave him a raised-eyebrow look. He shrugged in response. Resigned to his situation, he reclined his seat and closed his eyes.
Once on the ground, Garmel gave a cursory wave to the man he knew was his driver. The driver stood in a common area between gates in the terminal and, much to Garmel’s satisfaction, blended into the crowd. He didn’t know the man’s name—and didn’t care.
“Jana, you grab a cab and check into the hotel. I’ve got to check out where we’ll be working, then I’ll join you.”
Jana nodded. She was used to being dismissed. She walked out of the gate area without looking left or right.
Garmel joined his driver. The two men walked to the livery section of the terminal’s passenger pickup area. When they arrived at the correct Lincoln limousine, the driver opened the back door. Garmel climbed in and slid across the back seat. Instinct took over. He reached for a bottle of wine and a glass.
“I have the address of one of our properties in the industrial district as your drop point, Mr. Garmel. Is that correct?” the driver asked.
“Sounds like what I remember. Let’s just get there, quickly.”
“Of course, Mr. Garmel.”
The ride was smooth, quiet, and swift. Although the neighborhood was less than desirable, the self-appointed executive was glad he’d be out and about soon. Freedom!
In spite of his bubble of euphoria, Garmel merely nodded to his driver as he stepped out the back door of his limo into the already warm St. Louis morning. The sun played hide and seek behind the cumulus clouds. They were all that remained of the fast-moving, low-pressure system that was on its way out of town, leaving behind a hangover of humidity that brought beads of sweat to his upper lip.
He walked up the sidewalk towards the door to the remodeled industrial suite that the St. Louis branch of his drug syndicate called home. Garmel was glad he’d had the foresight of bringing a second shirt with him. He could already feel the trailblazing drops of sweat traveling down the sides of his trim body.
As he reached the suite, before he could knock, the door swung open. A bear of a man stepped aside, allowing his boss full access to the doorway.
“Gene, right?” Garmel asked as he passed the man-mountain.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Garmel,” rumbled from the depths of the greeter’s chest. “Gene Marcotti.”
Copper! This whole room smells like copper. There has to be blood somewhere, shot through the boss’s mind. A cursory glance around the room explained the odor. Ten pairs of handcuffs were secured to rods in one wall. Each hung with one cuff open.
At least they cleaned up enough so there aren’t blood puddles below the cuffs. Garmel dismissed the thought and asked, “What do you call this place?”
“The Confessional, Mr. Garmel.”
“What happens if someone’s reluctant to confess?”
“We’ve anticipated that. Let’s just say that only happens once to a customer.” Gene gestured to a drain in the concrete floor.
Garmel reflexively made the sign of the cross at those words. Although he held control over all branches of the drug trafficking syndicate from Chicago to New Orleans, he was devoted to the outward evidence of his religious affiliation.
“May God have mercy,” he mumbled when he concluded his demonstration of piety.
“I didn’t catch that,” said the greeter.
Garmel had seen Gene on previous visits. He was what the locals called a lieutenant. Even with his limited experience with the burly syndicate member, he knew the man was a dedicated employee.
“It was nothing. I was just talking to myself.”
“I think that could be dangerous, sir. Think what might happen if you were to talk in your sleep.”
“You ready to see the copies?” Garmel asked, ignoring the underling’s cautionary statement and carefully sliding a stack of papers out of the envelope he carried. He placed the stack on the glass-covered top of one of the few flat surfaces in the room.
The syndicate boss motioned to Gene and stepped back from the table.
“Mind if I glove up?” the big man asked as he pulled two massive latex gloves from his jacket pocket. “I thought I might be asked to check the forgeries, so I came prepared.”
“Good idea,” Garmel said. Gene’s got more brains than I gave him credit for.
After a bit of a challenge in pulling the reluctant gloves over meaty fingers, the underling carefully lifted the papers and began his inspection.
Garmel watched the man he’d inherited as part of his takeover of the St. Louis branch. While he didn’t particularly care for his tendency to speak his mind, the man was an asset. But, he was huge and hairy.
“Take more than a look. I tell you, these are good—real good.”
“I suspected as much, sir. The price we paid for them was steep.”
“What stands out to you?” Garmel asked after the man had stopped surveying and begun scrutinizing the pages.
“Same paper. Same typewriter element style. Even the edges of the pages are beat up a little so they look like they’ve aged as the rest of a file would have,” he reported. “These should fool anyone who’s not looking for forgeries.”
“I am certain that they’ll fool any jerkwater cop in California who checks them out,” Garmel declared with confidence. He knew that someone in the Manzanita Police Department would read the entire file from which the pages he had before him had been first copied, and then reproduced as originals—with modifications. He took the papers back and, as he turned to put them down on the large oak desk behind him, added, “I’ll stake my life on that.”
“You know, we may be doing just that,” Gene muttered.
“What did you say?
“It wasn’t important. But, I was wondering about the delivery guy? These perfect forgeries of yours are of no value unless the courier’s in our pocket.”
“There’s no problem there,” the boss assured him. “His son has leukemia. He needs money for medical bills.”
“A sick kid?” The big man’s face morphed into a malicious grin at the thought of the deliveryman’s misfortune. It wasn’t much, but the grin was enough for Garmel to realize that the man before him was most likely in charge of all confessions held in the room.
“Sick kids are great for insurance.” Marcotti concluded by licking his lips.
Garmel glared at the hairy giant, but Gene was too busy visualizing some nefarious act to notice.
It wasn’t that he was sympathetic to the plight of others, especially others that could be used by him. However, gloating like this man did only perpetuated the traditional myth of the brainless, classless Mafia-type. And Anthony Garmel considered himself anything but stereotypical.
The clandestine drug lord always dressed impeccably. Casual linen slacks and expensive silk shirts were his preferences. A mullet, a not-so-subtle tribute to Bono, topped him off. Overall, Anthony—never Tony—Garmel, formerly Garmelli, looked like a model for an exclusive men’s shop. It was an image he worked to maintain.
He wasn’t sorry for the things he did, but he disliked it when others spoke of him as a criminal. He preferred the title businessman. To Anthony Garmel, distributing drugs was no more than a business, a profitable business.
“We have to swap out the forgeries before the package arrives.” Here, Garmel paused and checked the address on the envelope. “Arrives in Manzanita, California, wherever that is.”
“Why do we need leverage on a cop that far out west?”
“We might not. Brewster seems to have things under control. But this file’s for a cop that started in Indiana and just left St. Louis. These pages go in his St. Louis file.”
“Seems like you’ve got all bases covered, sir.”
“I’m confident we do, for all I’ve gone over so far. But, we also have an exact replica of the envelope that the originals are in,” Anthony hefted a large, padded manila envelope. “And I have every brand of tape, glue, staple, or fastener produced in America. Once we open the original envelope and insert our pages of enhanced information, we’ll seal this envelope exactly like the one picked up at the 9th Precinct.”
“When’s the exchange going down?”
“Tomorrow morning. The delivery truck picks up the envelope from Precinct Headquarters on—” Garmel pulled a folded paper from his shirt pocket, unfolded it, and read what was written on it. “The pickup’s on Juniper Avenue at nine o’clock. We intercept the truck six blocks later at the light on 48th Street. We bring the envelope here and switch out the papers. We send our envelope to an unscheduled pickup point where it’s returned to the delivery truck. Next stop is the airport where the delivery man drops it off.”
“How can you be sure that the plane won’t leave without our package?”
“I have it on good authority that the gyroscope on that plane needs repairs that will not be completed until this is on board.” He displayed the padded manila envelope.
“I’m not an expert on gyroscopes, but I know that all this work is of no value to Mr. Brewster and the others out on the coast if something happens and that envelope isn’t delivered.”
“Don’t worry,” Garmel patted his colleague on his broad shoulders. He slid the papers back into the envelope. “Nothing’s going to go wrong.”
* * *
Weyland Krebs pulled his Security Express van to the curb outside the brick façade of the St. Louis Police Department’s 9th Precinct Headquarters building. The place was alive with activity. He was glad that most of his downtown stops had designated parking spaces for deliveries right in front. Businesses that lacked those spaces destroyed his company-imposed timeline and extended his workday without extending his compensation.
He sat in the driver’s seat staring at the door to the building he was about to enter. He liked his job, but he hated what he was doing today. His head throbbed. He’d gone through four extra-strength headache pills in three hours, but his head still felt like he’d squeezed it in a vise. He dumped another tablet into his hand, tossed it into his mouth, and swallowed it with the last swig from his cup of now cold coffee.
He inhaled deeply. As he finished his exhale, his resolve solidified. He opened the door of the van and slid out.
He smiled and nodded at each police officer he passed. The last thing he needed was some cop remembering him because he’d looked preoccupied or uptight.
As the glass door swung shut behind him, Krebs shot a quick look at his watch. He could spare only five minutes or the whole plan was in jeopardy. Once again he offered silent thanks for the designated parking space.
“Anything for me today, Charlie?” the driver asked the 9th Precinct Headquarters Desk Sergeant.
“Hey, Weyland. How goes it?”
“You sure? You don’t look so hot.”
“Headache. Probably sinuses acting up.” He rubbed his right temple with two fingers in a circular motion.
“You’re not contagious, are you?”
“Naw, nothing like that. So you got something for me or not?”
“Well, there’s this.” The Sergeant handed a padded manila envelope down from his raised desk.
Krebs took the package and feigned an entry in his log. The envelope was what he was getting paid under the table by Anthony Garmel to deliver—after whatever side trip the man had planned for it.
“You sure that’s all?” he asked. Say no. Oh, please say no. Another package will foul up my log.
“Yep. Nothing but that one lonely envelope,” the Sergeant answered. He wiped his brow with a large handkerchief. “Not that I’d mind going where it’s headed.”
“Where’s that?” Krebs asked as his heart rate slowed with the news of only a single item to account for in his log. The question indicated good manners on his part; however, the tone of the delivery of that question suggested a lack of interest in the Sergeant’s answer.
This was not the first time Anthony Garmel had swooped in from out of town and told him what to do to earn the money he needed to pay for his leukemic son’s treatments. But, it would be only two more months until he would be eligible for Security Express’s medical coverage. Then he would stop taking the money from Garmel—forever.
A sharp pain shot through the deliveryman’s head as burst of light flashed like fireworks inside his brain. Dear God, don’t let it be a migraine, he prayed silently. Two months and I won’t have to worry about getting caught while doing an illegal parcel exchange. My headaches will be things of the past.
“I figured you guys always checked out where the stuff you picked up was going.”
“Sometimes,” Krebs admitted with a weak smile, which was the best he could muster through his headache. “Today my route’s so tight that I’ve got to keep moving.”
“Too bad,” the Sergeant commiserated. “That baby’s going to Manzanita, Cal-i-forn-i-a.”
“Sounds like a pretty nice place to visit.”
“Anyplace without humidity sounds like a pretty nice place to me, and I’ve heard California is one of those places.”
“Yeah. No humidity does sound inviting,” Krebs said with a hint of envy in his voice.
“Inviting is just the word.” The Sergeant closed his eyes as he visualized a semi-arid environment filled with palm trees and cactus.
“Hey, Sarge, wake up,” Krebs called jokingly. He looked at his watch. “Whoa, I gotta get going.”
“So long,” the Desk Sergeant called with a languorous wave. His eyes remained shut long after the courier waved his goodbye.
* * *
At the stoplight on the corner of Juniper Avenue and 48th Street, a white pickup truck with Hal’s Handyman Service printed on the doors pulled up behind a Security Express van that had stalled in the right-hand lane.
“Need a hand, buddy?” the driver of the pickup called as he walked up to the driver’s window.
“Looks like it,” Weyland Krebs admitted. “You know trucks?”
“Enough to keep mine in top shape,” he said with a head nod toward his truck.
“I’ve got some tools in the back,” Krebs offered. The pickup driver’s answer to the question about knowing trucks had been the correct one. He was thankful for that small favor. He rummaged around in the back of his van until he found the oversized tool pouch provided by the company.
He took a deep breath, reached up to a shelf for the padded manila envelope, and stuffed it inside the pouch.
“Hope you don’t mind,” the pickup driver said. “I got my tools out of my truck.”
“No problem,” was Krebs’ relieved reply. This guy’s following the routine exactly. He sat his tool pouch beside the stranger’s toolbox.
“Hand me a flat blade screwdriver, will ya’?” the pickup driver called from under the short hood of the van. “The yellow-handled one.”
Krebs complied and then rubbed both temples simultaneously.
“This one’s too long,” the handyman/mechanic complained. “Could you get the one with the yellow and black handle?”
“Sure thing.” Krebs’ hands were sweating as he reached not into the toolbox but into his pouch and removed the padded manila envelope. He slid it into the toolbox of the pickup driver. When his hand emerged from the toolbox, the envelope was gone and he held a screwdriver in its place.
“Here you go,” Krebs said.
The handyman took the offered tool and disappeared under the hood again. “Give it a try now,” he called less than a minute later.
With his head now pounding harder than ever, Krebs climbed into the van and turned the engine over. The motor roared to life.
“Thanks,” he called.
“No problem,” the handyman called back as he slammed the hood of the van. “Here you go,” he picked up both sets of tools and handed the tool pouch through the window to Krebs.
“Thanks again,” Krebs said to the back of the man as he headed toward his pickup. The good Samaritan dismissed him with a perfunctory hand gesture.
Krebs took a deep breath and exhaled slowly as he pulled into traffic. That was one more obligation he could cross off the list.
* * *
It was early afternoon, and Anthony Garmel was back at The Confessional. Final delivery of the packet to the suite had been by a man in a white sports car. That man had picked it up from a young lady in a cab who had plucked it from a trash bin where the handyman in the white pickup had deposited it. Time was now an enemy.
On this visit, Garmel focused on the task at hand. He didn’t notice the copper smell that hung in the air, a fragrant reminder of the room’s primary purpose.
His latex-gloved hands removed layers of tape from the back flap of the manila envelope. The tip of his tongue protruded from between his teeth, a sign of his intense concentration.
He finished peeling back the fourth and last strip of tape. He wiped his brow and spoke to Jana who wrote down his words verbatim as she had for each preceding step in the process.
“The fourth layer overlaps the flap edge by…” he used a ruler to measure the amount of overlap and reported, “Half an inch. Metal brad is folded under the flap not poking through the hole in the flap. The flap is glued only at the center.”
With the envelope open, Garmel’s gloved hands removed the contents. After substituting his forged pages for their originals in the same locations in the files, he listened while Jana read aloud in reverse the descriptions she had noted concerning the seal on the envelope. He duplicated the layers of tape exactly on his replacement envelope.
A forger brought in by the St. Louis branch reproduced the address from the first envelope. Garmel held the package aloft. After careful scrutiny, he came to a conclusion.
“Only the police officer in the 9th Precinct who stuffed the original envelope might be able to detect the switch.”
The bearish Gene who ran The Confessional, and who was always ready to help the big boss, leaned over and stared hard at the envelope.
“It’s very good. I think that even a policeman with forensics training might miss this one. You think they have forensics cops in California?”
“Who’s the first courier?” Garmel asked Jana, ignoring the frivolous question. This guy needs to think every time before he talks. He’s as high up the org chart as he belongs was his final mental analysis of the giant.
Jana pointed in the direction of a fidgeting young man in jeans and t-shirt who’d raised a hand in answer to the boss’s question about the courier.
“Put your hand down,” Garmel ordered. “You know where the drop is?”
“Get going,” Garmel directed as he handed over the envelope. “And, remember, this package is worth a whole lot more than you are.”
The young man shivered, nodded his assent, and fled.
The forgery changed hands three more times on its route back to the Security Express van. A tan, long-legged blonde in tight, white short-shorts, who knew only that she was doing her roommate’s boyfriend a favor, delivered the duplicate envelope to Krebs. The driver logged in the parcel in the time slot he’d left open when he’d picked up the original envelope at the police station.
Not coincidentally, the mechanic installing a new gyroscope in the Security Express jet scheduled for the LAX run finished his repair seconds after all California-bound parcels from Kreb’s van were hustled into the hanger.