The countdown is on now! We’re 26 days away from the Crime Cafe crowdfunding campaign launch!
And with that in mind, I want to give you a peek at what I’m asking you to support.
Among the many great crime fiction stories to be included in the Crime Cafe Nine Book Set is Russian Roulette by Austin Camacho. Here’s the prologue from the book.
– Tuesday –
Eddie Miller was just a poor working stiff. He’d tell you so himself if you asked him. Lord knows he wasn’t looking for any trouble. He never was. But trouble was about to find him. And as usual, it would find him when his hands were full.
Eddie lumbered out into the Safeway parking lot carrying a half dozen plastic bags, three dangling from the fingers of each hand. He could only imagine how silly he looked in his work pants, work boots, and flannel shirt, the bald front half of his head reflecting the afternoon sun like a polished pink bowling ball, and the blue plastic pods growing down out of his fingers. How could anyone look at him and see a threat?
And yet, a good ten yards from his aging red Camaro, he saw three men stalking toward him as if he were the devil himself. He recognized these men. They were dressed like he was, but just like most of the guys on the construction site, they were all wider than he was. And their hands were empty.
The three bruisers stood in an arc between Eddie and his car. The blond dude “crossed his huge arms across his chest. The taller bald guy hooked his thumbs into his belt loops. Eddie stopped, but while he was trying to decide whether he should put the bags down, the black guy in the middle stepped forward so close that Eddie could smell the cigarette smoke that his shirt had absorbed in some bar the night before. He looked like Mike Tyson but he had Wesley Snipes’ voice.
“You don’t really think they’re going to let you kill the project, do you?”
Eddie stood his ground and stared up into the black guy’s dark eyes. He was a little scared but, hell, he’d taken an ass whooping before and if he had one coming he’d handle it.
“Look I hate the thought that I might be taking food out of anybody’s kids’ mouth, but damn it, they’re using substandard materials. I been doing this too long to just be quiet while they pour concrete that ain’t going to last. Louie here saw the same thing as me.”
The black dude looked to his left at the blond. “Yeah, but Louie’s keeping his mouth shut. Now, you convince me you’re going to keep your mouth shut, this don’t got to get ugly.”
Eddie nodded. He knew where this was going. A cool breeze, or maybe something else, sent a chill down his back. He unlocked his knees and lowered just enough to place his grocery bags on the tarmac. When he stood erect again, he pushed his chest forward as far as he could and locked eyes with the obvious leader of the group. The energy passing between them forced the rest of the world out.
“You know I can’t do that.”
Silence enveloped them as the black guy tried to stare Eddie down. After six long seconds, the slam of a car door drew Eddie’s attention. He hadn’t even noticed the black Volvo drive into the parking lot and roll into a space just six cars from his.
The newcomer walked toward Eddie like an old friend. He was African American but no more than six feet tall and smaller than any of the guys crowding Eddie. He wore his black suit like it was his working clothes. Expensive sunglasses hid his eyes. He looked first at Eddie, then turned to the bigger black guy and held out his right hand. That was when Eddie noticed the black driving gloves.
“Hannibal Jones,” the newcomer said. “And you are?”
“I’m Mack,” the black guy said, ignoring Hannibal’s hand, “and this is a private conversation. Get gone.”
“Sorry, no can do,” Hannibal said, tugging on the ends of his gloves to tighten them on his hands. “Eddie here, he’s got places to be.”
Mack turned to Eddie. “You think this little clown can protect you?”
Hannibal stepped between the men, putting his face very close to Mack’s, and his voice dropped into a deeper register. “Don’t talk to him. Talk to me. The law affords whistle blowers a certain amount of protection. I’m part of Eddie’s protection. Now, make it a nicer day for all of us and just walk away.”
Mack grinned, flashing big yellow teeth. “You really do want us to kick your ass, don’t you? I won’t even get warmed up on you.”
Something about Hannibal’s demeanor made Eddie think maybe Mack had it wrong. He took a step back, not to avoid conflict but to give the new fellow room to move if things got hectic. He sure looked relaxed, even as Mack balled his hands into fists and the other two guys slipped farther to the sides. They were grinning, just like schoolboys do when they see a fight coming. Hannibal just seemed to take it all in.
“They ain’t paying you enough for this kind of grief, dog,” Hannibal said. “Can’t we talk about this?”
“You arrogant asshole,” Mack said, squaring his shoulders. “I think you just earned yourself a beat down.”
Mack, who had shifted his feet into a boxer’s stance when Hannibal arrived, looked as if he intended to brush this problem aside so he could get back to Eddie. His right fist started its journey forward, straight from the shoulder, but it hadn’t gotten far before Hannibal’s left hand snapped out. Eddie didn’t actually see the blow, but he could tell it wasn’t Hannibal’s fist but just the web between his thumb and first finger that hit Mack. It looked like his hand had barely touched Mack’s throat, but it seemed like that was enough. Mack gurgled and his hands went to his throat. His knees buckled but before they hit the ground, Hannibal turned to Louis.
“Do we have to make a scene here?” Hannibal asked. “Or can we be grown-ups about this?”
Louie looked at Eddie, at his bald partner, at Mack, and then back at Hannibal. He seemed to go through some kind of decision-making process that ended with him stepping behind Mack and grabbing one of his arms. Bald guy got the idea, took the other arm, and helped Mack to his feet. The three moved off toward a pickup truck on the other side of the parking lot. As they shuffled between the vehicles, they passed a young Latin woman who was stepping out of the passenger side of the black Volvo. She ignored them, stepping with care on spiked heels toward the man in black. When she reached him, she blessed him with a smile that made Eddie wish he went to work in a suit too.
“Well, that didn’t take very long,” she said.
“I guess it doesn’t always have to be the hard way,” Hannibal answered, returning her smile. She nodded, and then turned to Eddie. The smile she gave him was not quite as warm, but he appreciated it just the same.
“It looks as if we found you just in time, Mr. Miller,” she said.
“Them fellows wasn’t going to bother me much, Miss Santiago,” Eddie said. “I told you my story and I’m sticking to it. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“You are my worry until you take the stand, Mr. Miller,” Cindy Santiago said. “The plaintiffs in this class action owe you a great deal, including safety, for stepping up. This man will help you stay safe. Eddie Miller, this is Hannibal Jones.”
Eddie gave Hannibal’s gloved right hand a firm shake. “Ain’t you the fellow they call the Troubleshooter? Glad to know you.”
“Mr. Jones is under contract to our firm to maintain your security,” Cindy said, her shoulder-length brunette locks tossing. “He’s a trusted agent for us.”
Eddie nodded, but he could see that Hannibal was a good deal more to her than a trusted agent. He looked at the other man, average height and on the slender side, wearing a conservative suit, and driving a boring car. He just couldn’t see what made him so special. But then, he also couldn’t see the sense of power and control he had felt a few minutes earlier when Hannibal shooed away three brawlers with one quick move and the tone of his voice.
Cindy turned back to Hannibal, a twinkle in her fawn brown eyes. “Don’t forget now, after Mr. Miller testifies tomorrow, you’re coming with me to look at that house in Crestwood.”
“Right now, why don’t I help Mr. Miller get these bags to his car?” Hannibal said, turning to Eddie. “Then Ms. Santiago and I will follow you home. I want to go over some basic security measures with you.”
Hannibal stooped to gather half the plastic bags in his hands but Eddie hesitated, watching Cindy’s hips as she swished away toward the Volvo. J-Lo with brains, he thought, a woman who made even a navy blue power suit look seductive.
“You are one lucky son of a bitch,” he said, grinning as he scooped up the rest of the bags.
Hannibal wasn’t feeling very lucky as he pulled into his unofficial parking space across the street from his apartment in Southeast DC. It was ten o’clock by then and he was worn out. Darkness hung over his neighborhood like a warm blanket, except for the cold pool of light from the streetlamp he parked under. He got out of his car feeling as if someone had strapped weights to his shoulders.
Many of his neighbors had their windows open despite the late autumn cool, and he was pulling in snippets from three different television shows. A deep breath told him that someone was enjoying their show with overbuttered popcorn. Somehow, the sounds and smells of families relaxing in front of their TV sets had a sedative effect on him. The steps up to his stoop looked a lot steeper than usual as he trudged toward them. At the top he pushed through the common door of his building, pulling off his Oakleys and sliding them into his suit jacket pocket.
His work with Eddie Miller was not what had fatigued him. Miller lived in a sixth-floor apartment in Bethesda, just north of and indistinguishable from the District. Hannibal had verified that Miller’s doors and windows were secure, instructed him to keep his blinds closed, and made sure Eddie had Hannibal’s phone number beside the telephone. He was certain Miller would be fine until morning, when Hannibal would pick him up to go to the courthouse.
It was the conversation with his woman that had drained Hannibal. Cindy had received a block of stock as part of her law firm’s public offering. The stock had exploded and overnight, she was wealthy. She didn’t seem to notice that Hannibal, a working stiff private investigator, was not comfortable with the dramatic difference in their economic levels. Now she wanted him to help her pick out a million-dollar home.
Meanwhile, Hannibal felt at home in his low-end apartment building in a five-room railroad flat. He was part of a real neighborhood and didn’t think he would desert his neighbors even if he won the lottery. He sighed and shook his head.
If he had any sense, he would be heading into his apartment, but he needed to record his hours and expenses for the day and that meant getting into his office on the other side of the hall. As he unlocked his office door his foggy mind was busy berating him for not proposing to Cindy as he had planned to do, just before he learned of her windfall.
He had gotten as far as buying a ring. He had chosen the words he would say. But by the time he had gathered his nerve she was thrilled by the news of her sudden wealth. At the time it seemed that news would overshadow a proposal. Besides, what did a rich woman need with a husband? And, what did he really have to offer her?
Now he was telling himself that the money didn’t matter, that she respected him for who he was and what he did, not for what he had.
That is why he was all the way into the room before he realized that he was not alone. A man sitting at his desk was pointing a pistol at him.
“Close the door behind you,” said the man in a thick, Eurasian accent.
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