The force generated by Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Joseph Gaye slamming the cheap plastic phone onto its cradle cracked both the casing of the unit and the glass desk’s covering under it. The condition of the unit (and his now throbbing sprained hand) was secondary to his more immediate concern of going to jail for the next ten to twelve years. And his almost certain loss of pension for the twenty-eight years of service (twenty-one year’s active duty US Air Force and seven years civil service as a Base Transition Coordinator for three closed bases) to an organization—and country—he felt owed him. But the absolute worst part of this entire scenario was the blow felt to his overabundant ego. He was busted. Big time.
Absentmindedly massaging his almost broken hand, Joseph paced the small confines of his home office and tried to clear the rising clutter of panic that descended on him. The contents of the phone call echoed through his mind with frightening clarity.
“Joe, that son of a bitch Harper turned on us…”
“Mike, calm down. What…”
“Fuck that calm shit, nigger, he has all the records—names, transactions…Motherfucker, you brought him the fuck in! This shit’s your fault… “
“Now hold on, Mike…”
“HOLD ON? “Joseph snatched the phone away from his ear as his business partner of twelve years screamed obscenities at the top of his lungs. Carefully returning the phone to his ear a moment later, he could hear that the man was still ranting.
“…accounts are frozen. All of them, even the credit cards…”
Mike’s sudden silence was almost as disconcerting as his screaming had been moments before. The low hiss of static on the line lasted all of a minute before Mike Bennigan‘s voice, devoid of any emotion save for hate, spoke to Joseph Gaye for the last time in this life.
“I ain’t goin’ down alone, bitch, you comin’ with me.”
That’s when Gaye had destroyed the phone.
The cause of Gaye’s trouble was a very illegal import operation he, Mike Bennigan, and Neal Harper (all retired Air Force officers who had worked primarily in Supply/Shipping and Receiving squadrons) had been running for over thirteen years. Using their military connections and benefiting from their parcels going unchecked by Customs while hidden amidst military cargo returning from overseas, the group had, over the last decade, moved almost a two million dollars of illicit cargo into the United States from all parts of the world—most of it being artifacts illegal to transport out of their native country. If it would command a high dollar, they were the men to get it to the States. And Harper was their connection, the man who knew people. He was the one (most of the time) who could unload their contraband once it got into the country. The man who also had a weakness for the horse track and backroom poker games. The same bitch that was, per Bennigan, talking to the wrong people. That thought broke Joseph’s pacing about the small room. Exiting the home office, he walked first to the kitchen. He wet a dishtowel with hot water, wrung out the excess, and wrapped the cloth around his wounded hand, then moved quickly to the back-master bedroom. He opened a small black two drawer file cabinet in the rear of the walk-in closet and pushed aside old records and family paper work until he came to the folder titled “Banking.” Joseph took the manila envelope thick with receipts from the cardboard hanging file and opened it, dumping the contents onto the made-up California-king size bed in the center of the room. Shifting papers aside with both hands, the stack of documents began falling to the floor as his hands moved quicker. The last papers fell to the floor when Joseph stood up, confusion now mixing with the fear already showing across his face. Both checkbooks—the savings and mutual fund accounts that he shared with his wife Diane—were gone. Grabbing the nearest document from one of the piles near the bed, he crossed the room to the phone on his wife’s side of the bed. He dialed the bank telephone number that was printed on the statement and followed the recorded prompts to connect to an account representative. He quickly gave her the account information.
“How can I help you, Mister Gaye?”
“I need all the cash from our accounts,” he demanded as he checked the statement in his hand. “I’ll stop by to pick it up.”
“Yes, sir. Let me check your information, Mister Gaye. I’ll have to put you on hold for a moment, alright?”
“Yes, yes, fine…” As the vacated line hissed, Joseph’s mind ran a mile a minute.
Florida. I can hold up there with that bitch I met last year in Jersey; give me a chance to figure out what’s next.
He was still in the midst of his itinerary when the representative came back online.
“I’m…sorry about the wait, Mister Gaye. Could you please give me your account numbers again?”
Impatience edged his voice as he complied.
“I’m sorry, sir, our computers are slow today. I’ll have to put you on hold again for just a moment longer.”
Before Joseph could launch a protest, the line went dead again. Almost immediately, it was picked up on the other end. A man began to speak as soon as the connection was made.
“Mister Gaye? Are you there?”
“Yeah—yes. Who is this? When can I pick up my money?”
“Mister Gaye, I’m Paul Betty. I’m the branch manager here. I thank you for your patience. I ask you to bear with me just a bit more. I know you’ve already done this, but could you please give me your account numbers one more time?”
Fear and anger blossomed in Joseph as he almost shouted into the mouthpiece.
“…Uh…thank you, Mister Gaye. Um…do you have any other accounts with us?”
“No. What’s the problem? When can I get my money?”
“Sir…Mister Gaye, those accounts, both of them…sir, they were closed out an hour ago…by your wife.”
Joseph screamed as he broke his second phone of the day.
* * *
“Thank you, Missus Gaye. We’re sorry to lose your business.”
Diane Gaye, her eyes bright and face positively radiating goodwill as she gazed at the cashier’s check she held in both hands—made out to her for one hundred sixty-two thousand, four hundred dollars and change.
One hundred sixty-three thousand dollars, she thought, my ticket to freedom.
Almost bounding out of the bank manager’s cubicle, the petite woman dressed in a pale, burgundy short sleeve cotton tee and form fitting Levi’s that encompassed a body that a woman half her forty-five years would die for practically floated from the building to her car, a late model burgundy Toyota Corolla.
Diane Gaye turned on the radio after she started the car and giggled like a schoolgirl. Along with the savings she had squirreled away (the account was unknown to everyone but Laura), she had close to two hundred thousand dollars for her new life. Tuning the radio to the college jazz station, Diane hummed along with Candy Dulfer as she weaved through the midmorning traffic on Speedway Boulevard. She stopped at an Osco Drug on the corner of Speedway and Wilmot and browsed the greeting card section until she found the card she wanted for her daughter. After paying for it, Diane enclosed a letter she’d written days before and dropped the stamped envelope into the mailbox directly in front of the store.
She was, finally, leaving Joseph. After twenty-four years of his rages, belittling sermons, and slaps, it was well past time for her to go. The one and only good thing to come out of their more than two-decade union was Laura, who had unknowingly aided Diane in this decision. It took watching her only child graduate from ASU almost three years ago with one of her classmates pushing Laura’s wheelchair to break the spell Joseph had had on her since the day they had met. That had been twenty-six years ago in the hallway in front of her locker at East Orange High School in East Orange, New Jersey.
She came to a halt at the stoplight on the corner of Wilmot Avenue and 5th Street and gently fingered the thick waves of her shoulder length dark copper tresses as she watched traffic cross the intersection in front of her. Summer had barely begun, and the heat was already frying her hair. She pulled a foot-long section of hair in front of her face and looked at the sun-lightened strands. Diane dropped the mass of hair as the light changed and she laughed out loud.
Maybe I should grow dreads like Laura, she thought, and then Laura could introduce me to everyone as her sister.
Joseph had been her first (and only) boyfriend. And almost from the beginning treated her like chattel. In high school she was enthralled by his physical presence (at 6’8”, he was almost a foot and a half taller than her) and his dedication to getting the hell out of the ghetto they both lived in. Neither of their families were prizes: his father beat Joseph until he was too big to hit and then left for God knows where. Joseph’s dad left behind an alcoholic wife who, when she wasn’t getting fired from some cashier’s job for stealing, was sleeping with whoever would leave a case of beer or a couple bottles of booze. Diane’s family wasn’t much better. Her father was there, primarily to make certain he was the only one sleeping with Diane and her two younger sisters. Her mother was a shadow that drifted no farther than the cloud of depression that hung over her allowed. In the fifteen years Diane had lived under her roof, she couldn’t remember ever once seeing her mother smile. She and Joseph had escaped their captivity together. His mother brought home one bum too many who tried to play Daddy and discipline Joseph—with a tire iron. Joseph took it away from him and broke the bum’s arm and knee with it. He then packed what little he owned, took fifty dollars off his mother’s dresser, and left before she got back from taking her soon-to-be second husband to the emergency room. Joseph kept two or three part-time jobs after school that paid enough for the two-room flat off Oraton Parkway and North Grove Street, about four blocks from Diane’s house. He’d asked her to move in a week after he’d gotten the place—and she did. She figured it was better than waiting for her turn at bat with Daddy. The day she left in the spring of 1974 was the last time she had seen her family. Two months after she cleared out, her father moved the family down South somewhere.
Seeing a Dairy Queen ice cream shop coming up on her right, Diane, on impulse, clicked her turn signal on and worked her way over. A minute later she was driving up to the window of the nearly deserted store.
“A medium vanilla cone with sprinkles, please.”
The ferocious freckled face girl that handed the cone to her smiled a mile-wide buck toothed grin when Diane told her to keep the change from the twenty-dollar bill she had given her. Turning the air up to high, Diane sat in the idling car in the small parking lot and enjoyed the cold air and frozen treat while she listened to her thoughts. Their relationship hadn’t started its slow downward spin until their second year in college at Rutgers’s University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. They had lived hand to mouth, Pell Grant to student loan to shitty job through most of school. She had gone to school all day, studying to be an accountant, and had worked most afternoons and two evenings a week at the Student Center on the Main Campus. All of this and had kept their third floor walkup near the town’s excuse for a downtown spotless. Joseph had taken a full course load of English and Literature classes while picking up any job he could, mostly security or janitorial work. That while selling nickel bags of dope to keep their piece of shit car running. Two months before they were to graduate and even though she was on the pill, Diane had found out she was pregnant with Laura. It took her two weeks to get up the nerve to tell Joseph, who had told her time and again that he didn’t want kids but never took the time to put on a rubber when they made love. When she told him over dinner, he was high on pills and pot. That was probably why the beating was so short. He disappeared for two days, then showed up with flowers and candy for her and said he was sorry. She forgave all, blaming his worsening mood on the stress of finals and their upcoming graduation. Joseph hadn’t received nearly as many jobs offers as most of his classmates, and it showed in his foul moods. It would have helped greatly if he hadn’t argued with his interviewers at the few jobs fairs he had attended. Being high when he got to them got him a hasty smile and a “We’ll call you.” With no good job prospects after graduation, Joseph had immediately joined the Air Force as an Officer Trainee. They’d gotten married the day before he’d left for Basic Training in San Antonio, Texas. Diane, who had graduated near the middle of her class, was immediately picked up by a small engineering firm that worked out of the Prudential Building in downtown Newark. The nine months Joseph was away at Basic Training and Officer’s Training school, now that she looked back at it, was the best time of their marriage. That’s also when the pattern that would follow her through the next two plus decades had begun. When he would return from wherever (in the twenty years of his military career, Joseph was gone easily half that), he would be more sullen, more distant. He constantly complained that others, all of them less qualified and boot lickers, were getting plum assignments and faster promotions while he worked his ass off for nothing.
It didn’t help that she was happy in her job and was moving slowly forward, having in her first two years been promoted to supervisor of her section. She had quickly learned to not talk to Joseph about her work. In the fifth year of their marriage he had demanded that she and Laura join him at Howard Air Force Base in Panama City, Panama Canal Zone. For the only time in their marriage, Diane had tried to change his mind. He wouldn’t budge. After a month of her pleading, then arguing on the phone, he had come home on leave for two weeks. On the third day of the second week he’d lost it, beating her in front of a screaming Laura (she had just turned five) and throwing his wedding band on the floor on his way out the door. She didn’t hear from him for four months. When he had called, loneliness (and Laura’s constant questions about her father) had weakened her to the point of taking him back. She was in Panama City within the week.
Diane clicked the right turn signal and guided the car to the entrance of Rolling Heights Estates, a grand name for a not-so-great small community of active and retired military personnel. Seeing the cutback Southwestern landscape (green painted rocks and hard-packed dirt) and the dusty sidewalks brought a sudden feeling of dread as she drove down the street. She had wasted five years of her life here and was not giving this place any more of her time. Pulling up to their small-town house, she drove into the open carport and, opening the car door, left the car running in neutral with the parking brake on.
In a charade of normality, Diane had left the house to report to her job at the Base Exchange before Joseph’s standing tee time on base. She called in sick while at the bank. There was no way she would have come home if she thought he would be there. She left the car door open and walked to the front door with a slight smile touching her lips. Diane needed to get her daughter’s framed degrees (both were given to Diane as a present from Laura) and she was gone. Opening the front door, she reached inside the thin purse she carried and took out a sealed and folded blue business size envelope. The smile widened into a grin as she tossed the paper to the floor while making a beeline to the far wall of the living room…
* * *
Joseph watched his wife enter their home from his vantage point at the far end of the block. His truck, a dented older Ford pick-up, was partially obscured behind a five-foot hedgerow of oleanders. He had a clear line of sight through a hole he had made in the foliage and watched her drive up and bolt out of the car through a set of binoculars. He put the glasses down andswore aloud as he ran around the front of the truck and jumped in. Joseph started the truck and pulled out from behind the hedgerow. He quickly covered the short distance to his house and pulled up behind her car in the driveway. Sweat soaked his shirt and made it stick to his back as he slowly and quietly closed the door to his truck. (Truth be known, he had been sitting at the end of the block for less than forty minutes, hoping against hope for a break like this.) After looking up the deserted streets of the neighborhood in both directions, Joseph reached through the driver’s side window of his truck, pushed aside the morning copy of the Tucson Citizen newspaper that lay on the front seat, and uncovered a cobalt blue Star Model BM 9mm pistol. He pushed it into the waistband of his jeans and covered it with his pulled-out shirt as he quickly walked up the walk. Turning the doorknob, he pushed in the open-door in. Whatever he needed to do, he knew he had to hurry. His flight for Jacksonville, Florida, left from Tucson International Airport in an hour twenty minutes…
* * *
The closer Laura got to her parents’ house, the heavier the pall of dread surrounding her since she’d exited the highway became. Traveling the length of 22nd Street to her right turn onto Alvernon Way was a test in growing apprehension. Two blocks from their home, Laura ran a red light directly in front of a Tucson Police cruiser. She didn’t even notice the vehicle, its blue and red lights flashing, until the harsh sound of its sirens broke through her cloud of fear. Seeing the blue and white two car lengths behind her, she floored the accelerator and skidded around the corner onto the street her parents lived. The cop cars (there were two now) followed close behind her with their sirens screeching. Full panic set in when Laura saw her mother’s car in the carport—driver’s door open. As she slammed on the brakes, the Volkswagen Beetle jumped the shallow curb and slid to a halt against the back bumper of her father’s truck. Laura was out of the car before it even stopped. Even after she scrambled over the hood of the police car that tried to cut her off, Laura managed to sprint halfway up the walk before she was tackled by one of the cops, a stocky red-haired woman almost as tall as she. Twisting upright, Laura slammed an open palm deep into the lower right side of the woman’s neck, forcing the now gasping woman to release her.
“Halt! Put your hands up!”
The second cop, gun drawn, pointed the pistol at Laura’s head from less than nine feet away as his partner struggled to stand up. His head moved in quick jerks between Laura, sitting on the red dirt of the lawn, and the staggering female cop. When his felled partner made it to her feet, he snapped his eyes back to Laura.
“Face down! Move…”
The distinct report of a gunshot stopped the officer in mid-command. By the time he’d recovered, Laura had launched herself toward the front door and hit it with an adrenalin-powered dead run. The wooden door splintered under Laura’s rush even as the effort of the blow separated her shoulder. Through the shower of wood Laura fell to the floor of the front room, rolled to her feet, and froze. Directly in front of Laura was her mother with her head at an impossible angle, lying against the leg of the wrought iron coffee table near the center of the living room.
Slammed to the floor from behind, Laura screamed in pain as her damaged arm was twisted behind her and handcuffs secured in place. Her struggles stopped a split second before she was pepper sprayed by the same officer she had hit earlier. That’s when, with her last moment of clear vision, she saw the twitching body of her father, blood streaming out of a gushing hole in the side of his neck…