Friday, February 12, 2016

Shroud of Lies - Chapter 2

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Chapter 2 Setting Things Right
(Felix Watson – Kansas City, MO)
With Fernando in my corner, I had the supply chain I needed:  good quality, better pricing than I could get locally, and reliable deliveries.  Although he agreed to supply me the same way he had Johnny, Fernando gave me one caveat after I had returned to Kansas City:  he wanted one of his men involved in my operation.  My first inclination was to resist, but I realized it was a blessing in disguise – anyone who questioned my legitimacy would have a Mexican drug lord to deal with. 
Let Mark Brewer think he had gotten the better of me – he’d find out soon enough who was really calling the shots around this town.  Glancing at the clock every thirty seconds for the last hour and a half hadn’t made time move any faster.  Every detail was perfect for Esteban’s arrival:  the entire second floor of Corozzo’s Bistro was empty, except for me and the two hired men I used for personal security.  I had written a business plan which was worthy of an investor’s review.  I had even hired a valet to be on standby on the curb waiting for Esteban’s arrival.  First impressions were everything in this business.   
Heavy steps echoed off of the wooden stairs leading to where I waited on the second floor.  I scrambled to my feet, even though no one downstairs had notified me of my guest’s arrival.  Idiots – no one could follow simple instructions anymore.  I stood to welcome Esteban; he came into view as he climbed – my fight or flight reflex begged me to move toward the window. 
Esteban wore wire-rimmed mirrored sunglasses, his long dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail – the man didn’t have a neck.  Severe acne scars pocked his face on both cheeks.  A chest the width of a refrigerator protruded from a shin-length black leather duster, which he wore despite the stifling heat outside.  He looked to be average height, around 5’ 10”.  His mouth was turned down in an angry scowl.  When his dusty cowboy boots reached the top of the landing, I stood frozen in place.
He took in the empty room without removing his sunglasses.  No easy feat for a neckless man; instead of turning his head, his body pivoted as he scanned the second floor.  My two bodyguards were on their feet, but neither went an inch in Esteban’s direction: both looked like they were ready to wet themselves.  After Esteban was satisfied that there were no surprises in store for him, he reached up and slowly removed his sunglasses.  “You Felix.”
It wasn’t a question.  Or if it were, it didn’t sound like one.  I stammered, “Ye. . .I’m, Yes,”  Forcing my feet to move, I took three giant strides toward him and tripped on the carpet runner leading toward the stairs.  Righting myself, feeling the heat of embarrassment, I held out my hand, “I’m Felix.  You must be Esteban.  Welcome to Kansas City.  I hope your trip was uneventful.”
He took in my appearance with disdain.  Esteban’s eyes were so dark it was difficult to tell the difference between his iris and pupil.  My leather shoes were freshly shined, the creases on my pants could have split wood, and there was enough starch in my shirt to hold me erect if I wanted to nap.  By the time his eyes reached mine, they were dark narrow slits.  A lump formed in my throat – I swallowed hard trying to force it down.  The pitch of my voice was an octave higher than normal when I asked, “Can I get you a drink?”
His upper lip drew up, baring a few of his front teeth, as he answered, “Whiskey.” 
I glanced toward Reggie, wordlessly telling him to retrieve a drink.  His voice, too, lacked the baritone it normally had when he asked, “Um, ice?”
Esteban didn’t answer with words, instead glaring at Reggie who sprinted down the steps toward the bar on the first floor.  Esteban said nothing, and the longer he stood, the less I liked the idea of this man involved in my operation.  How could I broach that with Fernando?  What would Esteban do if I asked Fernando to call for his return? 
As if practicing for an Olympic sprint, Reggie ran back up the stairs with two glasses and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.  One glass was empty, the second was full of ice – he awkwardly held out everything to Esteban.  Again, no words, but Esteban nodded toward the table where I had been sitting before he arrived.  Reggie placed the bottle and both glasses on the table, then pulled the chair out like a seasoned maître d’.
Esteban stomped over to the chair, but pulled the chair free of Reggie’s grasp before sitting down.  I took the seat directly across the table from Esteban.  He filled the glass without any ice in it, drained it, then poured another glass.  “Fernando says you need mi ayuda.”
My Spanish was poor at best, but I remembered ayuda.  “Your help?  Uh, sure.”  I glanced at Reggie who was doing his best to blend into the wall behind him.  Struggling to keep the lump down, I cleared my throat, “I would never turn down help from Fernando.”
Esteban emptied his glass a second time, then leaned back in his chair, his legs spread so far apart that a hybrid car could have parked between them.  “Tell me abou’ dis Mark Brewer.”
I hardly knew where to begin.  Mark had been a thorn in my side for years.  Is that why Fernando had insisted on sending Esteban here?  To get rid of Mark?  Nothing would make me happier.  “When Johnny was alive, there were five of us calling shots in his organization:  Johnny, Oscar, Spencer, Jorge, and me.  The five of us ran every aspect of his businesses, well, at least the ones that he didn’t pay taxes on.”
“Mark wasn’t involved until just before Johnny and Oscar were killed.”  I didn’t know what Fernando had told him, so I explained, “Johnny was in charge.  Oscar worked cleanup and muscle.  Spencer handled prostitution.  Jorge ran numbers and oversaw the bookies.  Cartel operations were mine.”
Esteban’s right eyebrow twitched when I said the word “cartel.”  I corrected, “I mean pharmaceuticals.  Meth, primarily, Johnny wasn’t a fan of cocaine and said any kid with a UV light could grow their own pot.”  I tried to chuckle, but it came out as a freaky sounding cackle.  Esteban failed to see the humor. 
Clearing my throat again, “Mark Brewer had been a punk kid stealing cars before Jorge offered him a job as a low level guy moving money for bookies.  The kid was someone Jorge liked, so when I needed a lackey to run drugs from different dealerships in the Midwest, Mark was on the short list.  He fit the bill:  no criminal record, decent references, good work ethic.  Mark was supposed to work for me, but Johnny took an interest in the kid.  Instead of reporting to me like every other guy before him had, Mark believed that he worked directly for Johnny.”
Esteban accused, “You could no’ control your own employee?”
His accusation normally would have prickled me, but in this situation, I couldn’t afford for Esteban to think I was a hothead or weak.  No doubt he would report any concerns he had directly to Fernando.  “I could control Mark just fine.  There was just a miscommunication in the beginning about who he worked for.  I took it up with Johnny.  Johnny told Mark that he was my underling.” 
Esteban’s hand rubbed the stubble on his chin.  I felt like a rodent just before a snake’s strike.  My voice sped up nervously, “Everything drug-related was mine.  I never trusted Mark.  I could smell the police stench on him from the first time I met him.  Every chance I got, I told Johnny that Mark was a police plant – he never took me seriously.”
La policia?  Un infiltrado?”  I now had Esteban’s full attention.
“Yeah.  I bet Johnny wishes he had taken my warning more seriously now.  Mark may not have fired the bullets, but he is responsible for getting Johnny and Oscar killed.  Ask anybody.  The whole town knows it was Mark who got them both murdered.”
“Johnny knew Mark was working for la policia and he did nothing?  Eso es loco.”   
“I didn’t have any proof back then.  Instead, Johnny moved Mark out from under me and put him on his estate running his personal security team.”
Incredulously, Esteban asked, “To his estate?”
It didn’t make sense to me then, and made even less sense to me now.  Esteban’s suspicion was suffocating.  I had to make him believe.  “I know.  I thought it was crazy, too.  But I think Johnny moved him there so he could keep a closer eye on him.  I was sure it was only a matter of time before Mark would slip up and the smug bastard would get what was coming to him.”
“Go on.”
  I shook my head.  “He never did.  I hired a driver to replace Mark.  The kid got himself killed on a routine delivery in Sioux Falls.  Johnny pulled Mark off of his security detail and sent him back to his old job moving drugs from the dealerships.”
Esteban’s head turned in an unnatural stare, “You said he was moved to security for Johnny to keep a closer eye on him.  Why move him back to drugs?”
“I don’t know.  When Mark transitioned off of security, he started showing up at leadership meetings with the five of us.  Mark began to encroach on my drug operations while I was promoted to be the General Manager of the car dealership.”  It had been a coup.  Nothing could have been further from a promotion, but I’d keep that tidbit of information to myself.  “No matter how many times I reminded Johnny that Mark couldn’t be trusted, he ignored me.  Who’s laughing now?” 
“You told Fernando that you did no’ work for Mark.  That was a lie.”
“No!  I was in charge.  It was me!  After Johnny and Oscar’s murders, Mark self-appointed himself to take Johnny’s place.  Mark knew I would never support him, so to make sure there was no resistance, he promoted people up into leadership who didn’t belong.”
Esteban raised a crooked finger at me, “You allow’ this to happen.”
It was an accusation, not a question.  I couldn’t afford for word to get back to Fernando that I had been less than truthful.  “Oscar had been Johnny’s right hand.  Liam had worked for Oscar for a long time, when Oscar was killed Mark moved Liam up to the leadership circle.  Mark’s decision to promote Liam was out of line.  He may have been someone Oscar trusted, but that didn’t mean Liam had a voice the same as Oscar’s in our circle.  Oscar’s body wasn’t even cold when Liam was promoted.  Mark didn’t even ask me before he made the change.”
Esteban lowered his finger; his eyes narrowed, and he annunciated every word, “You told Fernando that you were Johnny’s right hand.  You lied to Fernando.”
“For drugs!  I was his right hand for drugs.  Oscar worked clean-up.”  Either he didn’t believe me, or if he did believe me, my words had just convinced him that I really hadn’t been in charge of anything.  I chastised myself for the slip.  Before he could accuse me of misleading Fernando, I explained, “Jorge ran numbers.  He had been in Johnny’s leadership circle for years.  I didn’t trust him, though.  Jorge was the reason that Mark was promoted as quickly as he was.  No one gets on that type of fast track.  Jorge had pulled strings for Mark with Johnny – that put Jorge on my watch-list, too.”
Esteban eased back in his chair.  The more comfortable he became, the faster words spewed out of me.  “Spencer worked prostitution.  He and I didn’t have much interaction.  Spencer was one of the few in the leadership circle who Mark couldn’t manipulate.  Spencer had serious reservations about Mark taking over and calling shots.  Neither one of us was given the opportunity to say a word.  He left Jorge and Spencer in place, but promoted Liam and Kerry because he needed others who would follow him blindly.  Promoting two new people right after the murders threw off the balance of power.  That was the only reason Mark was able to make the changes he did.  After Mark put himself in charge, he dismantled the whole organization.”
Esteban reiterated his earlier accusation.  “And you le’ it happen.”
My mouth was dry.  I hadn’t let anything happen.  Esteban was getting the whole situation wrong.  “Mark was working with the cops!  Probably the FBI and DEA, too.”    
Esteban poured more liquor in his glass.  He held it, spinning the amber liquid in a circle, his eyes focused on the little twister of whiskey he held rather than on me. 
I thought back to when everything had happened:  Jorge was a little too eager to do whatever Mark wanted.  I learned later that he, too, had a hidden agenda.  Jorge didn’t mind shutting down Johnny’s organization because he wanted to strike out on his own.  Mark paid him back for his loyalty by letting Jorge keep his office in Johnny’s Casino:  most of the bookies in town didn’t know that Jorge was running his own numbers. 
Esteban drained his third glass.  His silence made my unease morph into fright.  “Mark Brewer gave everyone an envelope full of money and called it severance from Johnny Corozzo.  It was his way of clearing his conscience for murdering Johnny.  Most of the ingrates took the money and ran.  It wasn’t Mark’s money to give away.  He was one guy in Johnny’s circle – no one put him in charge.  The three of us who remained should have had a say in how the organization kept going instead of him sneaking around corners and deciding the whole thing was over.”
“Mark gave you money?” 
“I took my envelope just like the others had, but I vowed not to let everything we worked for go down the drain.”  The business plan I had so carefully assembled sat in front of me, I pushed the papers toward him, but Esteban did little more than glance at the paper.  “I purchased an auto parts store, trying to replicate the same system Johnny and Fernando had.  The engines bound for US dealerships could just as easily be sent to an auto parts store.”
Esteban nodded.  “Fernando does no’ believe you are the right man for the job.”
“I am!  I’ve got everything set up.  I’m ready to start taking deliveries.”
“I do no’ think you are the right man.”
“I am.  I swear I am.  Let me just show you what I’ve done.”  I shoved the papers at him so fast, they nearly slid onto the floor.  “If you’ll look here. . .”
Esteban cut me off, “And if Mark finds out what you’re doing?”
“Screw Mark.  He didn’t catch wind of Fernando’s first shipment – no one did.”
“No.”  His answer hung in the air like a bird caught in a cross wind.  “No more drugs until you prove Mark won’t be a problem.”
“How do I do that?”  Mark was still in the city but had set up some sort of shelter for runaways.  Mark wouldn’t try to insert himself in anything I was doing.  Mark spilled everything he knew about the operation to the DEA then walked away.  Attempting to replicate what Johnny had done with the dealerships would be too easy for them to find and would be a quick ticket to prison.  The auto parts store was the perfect substitute.    
“Fe-lix,” he dragged out my name, “I do no’ care what you do.  No more drugs until Mark Brewer is out.”  Esteban stood, his hand still holding the whiskey glass.  “Fernando sent you the first shipment, but that is it until Mark is no’ a problem.  Fernando is patient, but don’t take too long.”  He set the glass down hard on the table.  The sound echoed off of the walls. 
Esteban straightened his leather duster, slid his sunglasses over his eyes, and put his back to me.  I watched him as he disappeared down the stairs.  Reggie and Brian looked visibly relieved when Esteban was out of sight.  Some security they turned out to be.
I looked around the second floor.  Johnny had always operated out of Corozzo’s Bistro.  Most of the people on the crew knew that, but few other than me knew why.  The second floor of the bistro was a room which was electronically hardened.  Signals were nearly impenetrable.  No listening devices could get through the walls, which meant no electronic signals on computers or conversations could be captured.  I could build my own office the same way Johnny had used this one, but that would take months, and from what Esteban had said, I didn’t have that kind of time.
Since the bistro was now managed by a holding company appointed by Johnny’s estate, I couldn’t simply take the place over – that would be too obvious.  An idea came to me.  I walked downstairs, with Reggie and Brian falling in step behind me.  There was a small hallway just to the right of the kitchen: the first door on the left belonged to the general manager.  He hadn’t been replaced after Johnny’s death, so he remembered me.  He stood up from his desk when he saw me, “I trust your meeting went well?”
“It did, Antonio.  Thank you for the use of the second floor.”
“Always happy to help a friend of Johnny’s.”  He made a cross over his heart, “God rest his soul.”  He lifted his wrist to check the time on his watch, “Just in time for the dinner crowd.”
“I’ll be using the second floor for a while longer.  My office is going through. . . renovations.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Watson, I’ve got dinner reservations that have been made for months.  It was okay today, but I can’t afford to lose the table space upstairs.”
The table space?  Did he forget who he was talking to?  “No, those table are out of commission.  In fact, I want you to have all but one removed – leave the one that seats eight.  I’ll be using the second floor until the renovations of my office are complete.”
“Mr. Watson, you wanted to use it today and I said okay because you were a friend of Mr. Corozzo, but I need those tables.”
“I understand.  It would be a shame if anything bad happened upstairs that would cause you to close the whole place down.”  I looked at Reggie and Brian who were oblivious to what I was saying.  I cleared my throat, “Like a brawl upstairs that busted the place up.”  Neither of my men moved.  “Or tables being tossed down the stairs.”
Antonio was a slight man.  His hands nervously tucked behind his back as his eyes widened and his mouth gaped.  He knew exactly what I was insinuating even if the two imbeciles who worked for me didn’t.  “Mr. Watson, I don’t want any trouble.  I’m just a businessman running a bistro.”
“A bistro with a booked-up second floor,” I corrected.
   Antonio pulled his hands from behind his back and crossed his arms, “It’s not up to me.  If it were, I would be happy to help a friend of Mr. Corozzo, but I have to report sales every week now.  If I lose the upstairs, I can’t explain the loss in revenues.”
I nodded my agreement, “That is troublesome.  I’m sure the board of directors looks at your books frequently.” 
Antonio nodded earnestly, “Every week.”
“You know, Reggie over there used to be an arson investigator.  Did you know that?”
Antonio looked confused.  “It would be a shame if something were to happen in the bistro.  An accident of some kind.  Accidents happen all the time.”  I looked at Reggie, who was so clueless he might as well have said, “Uh, no, I wasn’t.”  I shot him a look telling him to remain silent.  “A fire, for example, in the kitchen could shut this place down for months.” 
Antonio stood a little straighter, “What are you saying?”
“Saying?  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  It just occurred to me that if you had a fire in the kitchen, an accidental fire, of course – it could be months without so much as a penny of revenues coming in.  Wouldn’t that be a shame?  How many employees do you have?  A fire would put every one of them out of work for months.”
Antonio shifted his weight from one foot then to the other, but made no comment.  “Did you know that the vast majority of arson cases are inside jobs?”  Antonio looked at Reggie, but said nothing.  “You see, if an accident were to occur and it wasn’t an accident, fire investigators are trained to look at employees first.  Why Reggie, didn’t you tell me that you once got a conviction with a manager who had cans of accelerant in his garage?”
Reggie finally understood what I was saying.  “Yes, sir.  That’s how we caught him.  Circumstantial evidence was enough to convict.  We didn’t need any hard evidence – he got manslaughter `cause one of the employees didn’t make it out.  Jury took five minutes to decide he was guilty.”
Kudos to Reggie for his improvisation.  I shook my head, “That is an awful shame.  Can you imagine?  I would hate for that type of an accident to happen here.  Something like that, well, losing a couple employees in a fire, the lost revenues from a fire, and the potential for the manager to be brought up on arson charges – that would be just dreadful.”
Antonio pulled at the collar of his shirt.  He nodded.  “Mr. Watson, you are welcome to use the second floor for as long as you need it.  I am sure I can rearrange our reservations.”
“That’s kind of you to offer, Antonio.  We’ll be back tomorrow morning.  Have all but one of the tables removed.  Oh, and I’ll need a bar stocked upstairs for our guests.  Make sure there is a case of Jack Daniel’s.”
He nodded. 
I had my supply chain set up.  I had a safe place to do business. I just needed to demonstrate to Fernando that I meant business.  Mark was in for a rude awakening:  either he’d find a new city to call home or I’d bury him.  Either option worked for me.

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