A DEACON BISHOP NOVEL
A Deacon Bishop Novel
Copyright 2008 by Michael Paulson, all rights reserved. No portion of
this novel may be duplicated, transmitted, or stored in any form without the
express written permission of the publisher.
Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this
copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including
infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is
punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are
fictitious or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is
I stopped at a rest area on my way back from McAllen, Texas. It was nearly midnight. I had a complaining bladder due to what an optimistic waitress had described as coffee an hour before. Had I known the trouble a potty-break would bring I would have skipped its promised relief, and pissed my pants. As it was, I came out of the restroom to find her waiting beside the Buick.
"I need your help," she pleaded.
She was under thirty, tall and slender. Just the type a dirty old man like me prefers. "Are we talking love or money? The pixie in me hopes for the former."
I took a pack of cigarettes from my pocket and sloughed one out. She grabbed it before I could stuff it in my mouth. That's when I noticed her hands were shaking like church bells on a Sunday morning. I took out another smoke and gripped it between my lips, then put the pack away, brought out the Zippo and gave each cigarette some fire.
"I must get to Austin." She blew smoke toward the stars. "My car broke down." She paused a beat, giving the wrinkles in my suit a brief scan. "I don't have any money."
From the I-35 Freeway came the sound of humming tires. In the distance I saw approaching headlights. The woman's head twisted on her neck to look in the same direction. Then she grabbed my free hand and pressed it against one of her breasts.
"Please?" she begged, her eyes pulling tight at the corners, with fear. "I'll do anything you want--anything."
I liked the sound of the offer. I also enjoyed the feel of firm flesh beneath fingertips. I didn't trust it, though. Young women rarely bed old men unless cash is in the offing. Reluctantly, I pulled my hand from its heart-thumping perch.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Helen. Helen Martinis. Please help me?"
Helen was not what I would consider pretty. But she had a good face. Her hair cuddled into a bun at the back of her head, like an overripe apple. Her eyes were wide-set below a high forehead. Her mouth was full-lipped above a squarish chin. Below her slender neck, was a nice clean wrapping of blue denim--shirt and pants. The belt buckle on her jeans looked to be silver. There were reddish boots on her feet. Under the sulfurous lights dotting the rest area she looked like a kid scared white-faced, by the boogeyman; a kid without purse, or pocketbook.
"If you're running from your pimp," I warned, "don't count on me for financing. I'm so cheap I squeak."
"I just need a ride!"
"Who's after you?"
Helen glanced at the approaching headlights, moved close and wrapped her arms about my waist. "Anything you want. Just name it."
If the terror in Helen's face was genuine, someone with a bad case of nasty was after her.
The hum of the approaching tires dropped in tenor as the car slowed to enter the rest area and Helen stiffened.
I gave her a nod.
She let go of me and we climbed into the Buick. Fifteen seconds later we were heading back onto I-35 as fast as I could make the tired V-8 move. Helen sat in the front seat staring out the rear window as if expecting to see demons.
"I asked you a question." I glanced between the road and my passenger. "You got your ride. An honest answer is the price."
When the lights from the rest area disappeared from the rearview mirror and nothing with headlights followed, Helen twisted in the seat, let go a relieved sigh and leaned back.
"Nobody's after me," she murmured; her tongue snaked dryly over her lips. "I'm a little on edge."
"Where's your handbag?"
She glanced down as if expecting to see it, then took a deep drag on the cigarette. "I don't carry one."
"I must be Mother Teresa." I eased up on the throttle. "Helen, you're so scared your ribs are rattling. Somebody's after you. Somebody who's got the handbag you don't carry. If there's trouble coming from your quarter, I have a right to know."
She snuffed out her smoke in the Buick's ashtray. "You've got nothing to worry about."
"When I hear 'nothing to worry about,' I think the opposite. Are the police after you? Did you escape from San Antonio's holding-tank?"
"Of course not."
"That leaves bad people with guns that go bang in the night."
She tossed another glance out the rear window. "If driving me is a problem pull over, and let me out."
My lips curled back in a grin. If the quake in her voice was an indicator, Helen was bluffing. Still, she had guts. That made her more interesting.
"Okay. You've got no problems. I've got nothing to worry about. And the sun might rise in the morning. Where in Austin are you headed?"
"Anyplace with people."
"By the time we arrive night will be fading to dawn."
She looked over at me, her eyes going cold and her jaw muscles rippling. "If you want sex, pull off to a dark spot."
Her harsh voice wiped the grin from my puss. "I was thinking along the lines of breakfast."
Her stare took a sheepish drop to her lap.
From the corner of my eye I saw Helen drag her palms across her face. When they fell away, her mouth opened. She started to say something. But her lips sealed off the words. In silence, Helen turned and stared out of the side window, at the passing black blur.
I was tempted to make another start, but I decided to wait. If Helen needed help once we reached Austin, she could ask. Maybe I would get my question answered. Maybe I would not.
Fast following headlights appeared in the rearview mirror. As they drew close the high-beams flicked on, flooding the Buick's interior with a bluish glow. Helen slouched as if trying to become invisible.
The car lowered its beams and flew past.
Instantly, she jerked upright and tilted toward the windshield; staring after it, as if the receding red Dodge belonged to a long lost friend--or a terrifying enemy.
It continued onward catching the next off-ramp a quarter of a mile ahead, its taillights quickly disappearing below a rise. I made a mental note of the plate number.
"It must be them."
"Friend or foe?" I asked.
Helen bent over, covering her eyes with her hands. "Please, hurry!"
Five miles further on, we passed a dark sedan parked on the shoulder.
Seconds later my rearview mirror trapped its headlights pulling onto the Freeway. The vehicle quickly accelerated; taking up a tailing position about thirty yards, behind. I snuffed out my cigarette in the ashtray, and my palms went wet on the steering wheel.
"Company," I warned. "It's the sedan we passed."
Helen twisted to look out the rear window. "Who's in it? A big guy? Blond hair?"
"Too dark. Now would be a good time to fill me in on those worries I don't have. In particular, about the big blond who might be in the car tailing us."
She twisted back to face forward, crouching low, her arms wrapped around her middle, as if her stomach ached.
The sounds she made were like mewings coming from a frightened kitten.
"It's time for straight talk, Helen."
Red and blue lights suddenly flashed from behind the tailing sedan's grill. The colors danced inside the Buick like fluorescent gumballs.
Helen let go a sobbing curse.
"Police cruiser," I muttered, taking my foot from the accelerator.
Her chest heaved, making one terrified gasp after another. "Don't stop! Dear God, don't stop!"
I touched the brakes lightly, casually slowing the Buick until I could nose it onto an off-ramp. At a stop sign I parked and rolled down the side window.
The sedan stopped directly behind me, turning on its spotlight to illuminate the Buick's interior.
In the side mirrors I spotted two uniformed men climbing out of the sedan.
The passenger remained behind the rider's door, poised to shoot. The driver approached me, one of his hands casually riding the butt of his pistol.
I draped my wrists over top of the steering wheel to keep my hands in view, and waited.
"Going a little fast weren't you?" the uniform asked.
"Not according to my speedometer."
He squatted to peer inside the car, his eyes on my passenger. "Driver's license and proof of insurance." His stare remained upon Helen.
I leaned across her, opened the glove box, and took out the Buick's insurance card. Then I dragged out my wallet and removed my driving license from behind its clear, plastic covering. I handed him both documents. He stood erect, examining each. Then without a word he returned to the cruiser, and climbed inside.
"He's not a cop."
"I know his uniform isn't much to brag about," I said, "but it has that certain air of legitimacy."
She tilted toward me, her voice frantic. "He works for them!"
"Who's 'them'?" I asked.
She gulped as if trying to avoid revisiting her stomach-contents. "The Portellos."
I have never been one for prayers. But I said one. Trouble from the Portello Crime-Family was like acid dripping into a fresh wound: there was no escaping the pain.
"You should have told me right away."
She gave me a surprised look. "You know them?"
I nodded. "Dom and Sal go way back with me--none of it pleasant. How do you fit into their fun and games?"
One hand went to her throat, her fingers coiling to grasp something. "Dominic has the key."
"I meant to say, I'm an agent with the F.B.I. Somebody blew my cover."
My stomach knotted as if I had been kicked. The Portellos would leave no witnesses to a Fed's murder. "Did you make your case?"
"Does anybody from your side know you're in trouble?"
"Do you know who recognized you?"
Her hands went to her eyes and she wiped her cheeks. "Jacob Tandem."
The nausea spread like a sickness until I felt stomach acid gurgling in my larynx. Jacob Tandem was the alias used by an infamous Chicago mobster.
"Jacob Tandem aka Agosto De Credico?" I choked.
"The bastard's in Texas?"
"I'm not playing games with you, Mister."
I squirmed in the seat wishing I could run. "Didn't your mother tell you that keeping secrets is a sin? Whether those fake cops are owned by the Portellos or Tandem's mob, you and I will soon be getting our wings--you, anyway. I'm scheduled for that hot, little out-of-the-way spot where horns and a tail are in fashion. What in hell kind of an investigation are you working on that involves two crime families that operate a thousand miles apart?"
"I can't tell you anything."
"I'll probably take that little bit of reassurance to my grave."
I took another look into the side mirror. The sedan's driver was speaking on a cellular phone.
She glanced behind. "He's coming back. Please! Get us out of here."
"There are two of them. They'd both shoot as we drove off."
I reached inside my coat and jerked out the Mauser and stuffed it beneath my right hip. The uniform took his time coming back. In one hand, he held my documents. The other firmly gripped the butt of his holstered pistol. I let my eyes dart to the other side-mirror. The sedan's passenger-door was closed. The second man was inside the cruiser fumbling to release the scattergun mounted to the dash.
The driver squatted beside my door to look at Helen. "Who is she, Mr. Bishop?"
"Fiancée," I lied. "Which means she's taken, pal."
He returned my driving license and insurance card. "I won't cite you this time. But watch your speed in the future. You were in a construction zone."
He was lying. "I'll be more careful, officer."
He turned and headed back to the sedan. I put the Buick into gear and barreled up the next ramp back onto I-35, the sedan following at a distance.
I set the cruise-control to sixty and shoved the Mauser back into its holster. Something didn't ring true. If he wanted to get Helen alone, all he had to do was detain me for questioning--I was always suspected in something. Once separated from me, Helen would have made an easy target. What bothered me most was the case of nerves the cruiser's passenger got after the driver returned with my documents. My reputation was far from sterling. However none of its damage came from armed interaction between me, and members of law-enforcement. A Highway Patrolman should not have been frightened enough to grab the scattergun.
"You worried for nothing." I hoped to get Helen talking.
"Only the dead don't worry."
I took out my cell-phone and handed it to her. "Call your people. Let them know you're in trouble. I'll deliver you any place they specify."
She snatched the phone from my hand and punched numbers. Seconds later she spoke in a muffled voice. The conversation was short and emotional, with curses and pleas on her end. For a Federal Agent, Helen was a bundle of nerves.
When she handed the phone back, Helen gave me a weak smile.
"Good news?" I asked.
She said, "There's a café just off exit 311. It's called Pedro's."
"I know the place. They serve-up a pretty good stack of hot-cakes."
"You can drop me there."
"Okay. We can eat while waiting for your people."
Helen gave me a worried look. "It's safer if you keep going--for you, I mean."
In the space of one emotional phone call, she had gone from terrified bobbysoxer to concerned law-officer. Something was rotten in her part of Norway, and it had nothing to do with the Nokkelost.
I glanced in the rearview mirror. No headlights. "Those cops must've found someone else to nudge. But the driver seemed to know you. Somebody you've worked with, before?"
"All I know is he's not on the straight."
I eased back in the seat, giving the kinks in my legs a stretch. "Next exit is Pedro's," I said, offering her a plastic grin. "Feeling better?"
Helen started to say something, but the words never came out. Something red and running without its headlights pulled alongside. I glanced over to see the other vehicle's right front fender line up with the Buick's left. A split second later I heard the screech of rubber on pavement, followed by the shriek of tearing sheet metal.
The Buick lurched onto the shoulder. I jerked the wheel trying to regain control, but the other car rammed, again.
This time there was nothing I could do but hang on, and hope. The Buick went airborne after smashing through a bridge-railing.
Helen let go a scream.
I uttered a low-level exaltation.
Gravity has a grim way with all things. What leaves the ground must return. According to Father Drapula, even angels find a safe perch upon which to rest, and reflect--something each of us should in times of trouble. Unfortunately, I was no angel and there was not a single perch in sight. I held my breath as the Buick toppled.
Luckily, depending upon one's viewpoint, it was a short flight. No food or beverage served. No flaps to drop. No seats to put in their locked, upright position. There were only the constant vocalizations of the passenger for entertainment.
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