A James Gaffney Crime Thriller
I get paid large sums of money to kill children.
I'll let that horrific sentence sink in before I tell you what I really do for a living.
More specifically, I move children from horrific situations with parents, guardians, and wicked people and place them with someone who will watch over them. Take care of them. Not want them dead.
How and why do I do this? We'll get back to the nitty gritty in a bit. For now...
"How much money to kill my daughter?"
I frowned and stared at the man. Without an answer, I walked to his office desk and sat down in the guest chair, and motioned for him to join me. I put my satchel on the floor within easy reach.
He took his time, trying to seem casual, walking around his desk and dropping into his chair.
I notice things.
A picture of his daughter was on the filing cabinet to my right. His hands were shaking and he couldn't make eye contact. He was sweating despite the air turned down low, and when I'd first walked into his office, I noticed his secretary was not at her desk.
John Caruso was one of the big shot lawyers in Philadelphia, but I would be stupid not to do my job and figure out the background of a potential client before we met. This guy had a couple of red flags and I was going to have my due diligence with John before we went any further.
I chuckled without humor and sat up in the chair. "If I'm not mistaken, you just asked me how much to kill your daughter?"
He nodded, his hands on the desk. When he moved his right hand to his phone on the desk he stopped, his hand shaking.
John was wearing a dress shirt. It most likely cost as much as my entire wardrobe. Especially what I was wearing. He was sweating so badly I could see his chest hair through it.
Me? I was calm and casual.
In the movies, the killer is always dressed smartly. Expensive Italian suits. Diamond-studded watch. Shoes like butter and worth the cost of a Porsche.
I was wearing a pair of jeans I'd bought at Wal-Mart, a black t-shirt that came in a pack of three, and boat shoes. Very comfortable, but not butter-comfortable. The most expensive thing I wore was the gold chain and cross around my neck, a gift from my deceased mother.
The pen on this guy's desk cost more than everything I had on even if you added in the cash from my wallet. I was sure his phone had every app imaginable to mankind and he didn't worry about his monthly bill.
"Don't play with me, Mister Aaron. You know exactly why you're here," John said. He sat up and his hands stopped shaking.
I knew the look on his face. He thought he had me. This little weasel thought he was back in control.
I turned my head and looked around the room. When I turned back to him he looked confused.
"I need water. Is there any way, before we begin the transaction that will change your life, you can get me a glass of water?" I asked.
"Uh... sure. I have bottled water."
I smiled and tried to fake warmth for this snake. "Actually, a tall glass of water is better. I don't even need it cold. I just need a lot of water." I touched my lips. "I get very thirsty doing this. You understand, right?"
"I have tap water," he said.
John nodded and went out of the office and into his bathroom.
I scooped up his phone and sliced my finger across it, unlocking it quickly. These big shots were all the same: they'd spend thousands of dollars on home security but set their passwords to their computers so an eight year old could crack it, and never put anything safety-wise on their cell phone. I wasn’t tech-savvy at all, but I’d paid a lot of money to learn the tricks I needed to learn over the years. I knew enough to keep me from getting backed into a corner or caught doing something stupid.
I found what I was looking for but didn't bother doing anything with it. I knew the score now.
John returned with the water and I sat up. I'd put his phone back but made sure it was moved half a foot to the right, away from him.
He noticed it right away and looked like he was about to run.
I put a finger to my lips and stood, taking the glass of water and taking a sip.
John didn't move.
The side of his mouth twitched when I picked up his cell phone.
"I think we got off to a bad start, Mister Caruso. You mistook me for someone else. Someone bad. I was contacted by a friend of a friend of a friend. This is how this happens and gets me in your office," I said. I sat back down and put the phone next to my glass of water.
I motioned for him to sit and I picked up my satchel from the floor on my side, keeping eye contact with the lawyer so he didn't bolt.
"I am selling this and I was told you had money for the purchase," I said and produced a 1973 Topps Mike Schmidt rookie baseball card, sealed and graded Gem Mint. Perfect 10. "You won't find this card in a better quality than this. Make me an offer I can't refuse."
John looked confused as he stared at the baseball card in my hand.
"I didn't invite you to my office to buy a damn baseball card," he said.
I picked up his phone with my free hand.
"Then I'm sorry for wasting your time. I really thought I was here to sell you a Schmidt rookie. I figured since we're in Philadelphia and you're obviously a hometown fan, it made sense to me. My bad. I'll be on my way," I said and stood, dropping his phone into the glass of water.
John panicked and tried to grab the glass but I pulled it away. I wanted to make sure it stayed in as long as possible. Not that it would do anything other than destroy his expensive phone. It was my own personal screw you to this jerk, who thought he was smarter than I was.
I yanked the phone out and spun it across the room, where it smashed against the wall.
"Oh no, I am so sorry. I will buy you a new phone. Is it broken?" I asked, running to it and accidentally stepping on the screen. It cracked. They didn't make them like they used to, right?
I could see he was getting pissed and about to say something really stupid. I turned, grabbed his arm, and pulled him to me. When I stared into his eyes he stopped and anger was replaced by fear.
"You got your wires crossed. I sell baseball cards. That's it. I don't know what you're talking about. You want to kill your daughter? I should go to the police, you sick bastard. Anyone who tries to pay someone to have someone killed, especially a child, deserves to die themselves. I hope, someday, you get what you deserve," I said and pushed him away.
I grabbed my satchel and walked out of his office, slamming the door behind me.
My instincts had saved me again but I was far from in the clear. I knew what was going to happen now.
As soon as I got outside there were lights in my eyes, armed police officers and men in black suits, and I was tossed to the pavement. It wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last, either.
They searched me, the FBI agent taking the lead disappointed I didn't have a weapon on me. I knew better. I didn't even carry a pair of tweezers.
I was put into the back of a squad car without a word and driven away. I didn't bother telling anyone they'd forgotten to read me my rights. They knew exactly what they were doing.
I'd been in this spot before. A lot worse, in fact. They had nothing on me and I wasn't going to slip like you saw in bad TV and movies. Not happening.
I enjoyed the ride. I'd flown into Philly so quickly I hadn't had a chance to see the city. Now, I watched it from the back of a police car.
It was Reggie Keane again.
Twenty years ago, when I'd first come onto his radar, he was a detective in the NYPD. He'd only been in a few years and was looking to make a name for himself. Since he'd almost nailed me in Spanish Harlem in 1996, he'd had an unhealthy obsession.
I called him Captain Ahab, which drove him nuts. I was his Moby Dick.
Agent Keane spread his stack of files on the table between us, not making eye contact just yet. It was always the same move from him: he'd try to disarm me with a lame look.
As soon as he looked up, going for his best DeNiro, I winked at him. He was flustered, as usual.
“Is there a reason I’m here, with you, again?” I asked. I leaned back in the chair and nodded at the two Philly cops standing near the door. “Am I a threat to you, Reggie? I don’t even carry a weapon. You know all of this.”
I was sure half a dozen FBI cronies were on the other side of the glass, taking notes. I knew most of them by face if not by name after all this time.
I was getting too old for this game, though. Keane was getting desperate. He was probably getting close to retirement age and needed to close the books on me before he got his pension, gold watch and was put out to pasture.
“I have a few questions to ask you,” Reggie said.
“Sure, go ahead. I have a plane to catch in an hour, but I’ll try to help in any way I can,” I said. I didn’t have a plane to catch. I gave him the line every meeting so he could bust my chops for two hours and feel like he’d accomplished something as insignificant as having me miss a plane back to wherever he thought I was going.
After this distraction, I was headed up the road to Manhattan to a sports card show. If he’d done even a bit of homework he would’ve known it.
Keane smiled. So predictable. “I think you’re going to miss your flight… where are you headed now? I have sightings of you in Chicago, San Diego, Atlanta, Boston and Dallas in the last year.”
He didn’t mention Jacksonville or Newark, but he’d made my home in Chicago since our last talk. I’d make a note to have Marisa clear and sell it before the end of the year. What a shame. I was starting to like the summers in Chi-town.
“I am a legitimate businessman. I pay my taxes. I vote. I try to buy U.S. goods when possible. I recycle, too. If you’re trying to shake me down in front of the Philly cops or your buddies in the FBI listening in, forget it.” I smiled and leaned forward. “I told you the last time you tried to get a bribe out of me, and I’ll tell you again: I’m doing nothing wrong, and there are real bad guys out in the world you need to concentrate on. Stop asking me for money. You might need a new job if you can’t seem to get your mortgage paid on time.”
Keane was getting hot and I was enjoying this, but I knew I needed to pull back. It was on the tip of my tongue to mention his cheating wife and the divorce papers signed a few days ago. I knew I was nothing more than a distraction right now. I felt sorry for Reggie, too. He wasn’t a bad guy. He was doing his job and he did it quite well. He’d risen in the FBI ranks like a bullet (pun intended) but I was the obstacle keeping him from the big time.
“I know exactly why you’re in Philadelphia,” Keane said.
“I thought I was selling a Mike Schmidt rookie card.” I turned to the two cops. “You guys get to go to Phillies games? I imagine with how bad the team is they let you in for free, right?”
Both cops tried their best not to snicker.
Keane opened a folder he’d had his hands on as if it would make for a dramatic move and I’d tremble in my seat.
He pulled the top page from it and smiled. “You know what this is?”
“All the cases you never solved because you’re too busy with me?”
“No,” Keane said and his voice cracked. I had him. “This is a thread we pulled off a message board three days ago. Mr. Caruso was talking to a Mr. Aaron, who set terms to kill his daughter at quarter of a million dollars. Does this ring a bell?”
“I know who Caruso is. The lawyer who flaked out when he saw how gem mint the Schmidt card was. I have no idea who Aaron is. Maybe another lawyer in his firm?”
I made a mental note to have Marisa wipe the message board clean. It was no longer safe. If Keane was smart he wouldn’t have tipped his hand he had finally cracked the outdated means of communication between me and the evil in the world.
At the halfway point between forty and fifty, I wasn’t tech savvy. I despised computers and only had a cell phone because I needed it for my life. It was an online world we lived in.
Back in the last part of the previous century I thought I had a firm grasp on technology. As I got older and the computers got smaller and smarter, I got lost. It was the same with music and TV and everything else. I freely admitted it. Marisa, who was still technically a teenager, spent most of her day wired on coffee and wired to the internet, making my job that much easier.
I needed to give the kid a raise.
“I’m not sure what you’re insinuating. Should I get a lawyer?” I asked, knowing as soon as you mention a lawyer, the Feds and cops shut up.
Keane grinned. “I know a good lawyer. John Caruso. You just met him. He wants his daughter dead. Remember?”
Ahh. This wasn’t a sting to catch me specifically. They’d been watching this idiot as he tried unsuccessfully to get his daughter killed. It probably hadn’t been a trap until Keane got his mitts on the operation. He’d swooped in when he thought he’d finally get me. Instead of Caruso hiring a couple of undercover cops, who would simply arrest him, Keane had wired him for sound and given him a deal: help the FBI and they’d help you.
“Killing kids is a horrible thing. Hiring someone to do it is even worse,” I said.
“How do you mean?” Keane asked, flipping through the papers in the folder.
“If you want someone dead, especially a family member, step up and do it yourself. You’re an asshole for wanting to have someone dead to begin with, but your own kid? And you don’t have the balls to do it yourself? I don’t know what I just walked into in that law office but if you need me as a witness I’d be happy to help the FBI. He asked me point-blank if I wanted to kill his daughter for him. I thought I misunderstood,” I said.
Keane stood and closed his file without showing me another page and more of his weak hand. He aimed a finger in my direction and I grinned when both cops took a step forward. This wasn’t practiced or planned. Keane was going off-script and I’d gotten under his skin. Again.
“Don’t think for a second you’re fooling anyone. I know all of your aliases: Jones, Smoltz, Cox, Murphy, Spahn, Maddux, Niekro, Maddux, Glavine, Robinson and now Aaron. I don’t know if they’re random names or what, but I’m going to find out and take you down,” Keane said.
“Uh, sir…” one of the police officers, a guy in his late twenties, put up his hand like he was in school. When Keane didn’t bother asking him why he was interrupting but looked at the man, he got the hint to keep talking. “I know all those names. Baseball names, sir. If I’m not mistaken, they all played for the Atlanta Braves.”
The cop looked at me, expecting me to answer.
“Not only are they all Braves, but I believe they are all players that had their numbers retired by the great franchise,” I said. I looked at Keane and grinned. “I grew up in Atlanta, which I’m sure you knew. A simple Google search of the names would’ve gotten you this far.”
Keane smiled. “I got you.”
“I fail to see how me knowing about my favorite team makes me a criminal. If knowing sports is a crime, I’m guessing the cop here should go to prison for figuring out a bunch of names.” I stood up. “Unless you’re arresting me for something, I need to catch a flight. I’m not staying for coffee. If you ask me another question I’m going to lawyer up and not say another word.”
“I know your name is James Gaffney. Your home address is listed in Atlanta. You do pay all your taxes on time and your side business of sports cards is rather lucrative. Hell, if you went legit and stuck to selling baseball cards you’d be a rich man,” Keane said.
“I am a rich man because I sell baseball cards and nothing else,” I said.
“Why have you killed all of these children?” Keane asked, dumping his folder on the table. Pictures of crime scenes spilled to the floor, but not one of them contained an actual body.
Like I said, I help these kids.
“I need to see my lawyer,” I said and sat down. “I also need a cup of horrible Philadelphia coffee. Any chance Geno’s is still open for a cheese steak sandwich?”
Marisa met me at the sports card show while I was setting up. She was nineteen but looked much older, and already I was getting annoyed at the old men setting up their displays around me and eyeing her like a piece of meat.
I knew she could take care of herself, though. She’d been in and out of foster care since running away from the first family I helped put her with.
She often asked who her real parents were, knowing I’d never tell or leave a paper trail for her to find. It didn’t work like that.
Right now she was pissed at me.
“I’m seriously going to do the setup without you from now on. Give you an address and a target and tell you to get it done. You’re taking risks you don’t need to take, old man,” Marisa said.
We had our philosophical differences over the way I handled my business. I learned to do it in person, to meet the man or woman who wanted to kill a child and commit them to memory. Someday I’d do something about each and every one of them.
Marisa was new school, where you did it all anonymously online. You couldn’t be traced and the only way you got caught was by physically doing the dirty deed and something going wrong. Her argument was valid: why take so many risks when you no longer had to? But I’d been doing this long enough to know I had to do it this way for my own moral compass, as skewed as it was. I wanted to see these people in person, or at least as close as they’d let me. Someone responsible for these supposed deaths was going to be etched in my mind forever.
I knew if I ever decided to hang it up and pass along the knowledge and business to anyone it would be Marisa, and I knew she’d make quite a few drastic changes.
Hell, I reminded myself about all the changes I’d made as a cocky twenty-something in the 1990’s. I’d updated the 1960’s mentality for this work, and Marisa would update it to the 2020’s. Every thirty years or so there’d be an improvement or two. As long as we saved children, who cared?
“I saw your buddy, Keane, outside. I had no idea he was such a memorabilia collector,” Marisa said and helped me to put my table together. She was way more organized than I’d ever be. She kept begging me to let her inventory everything I owned but I wanted it to be a pleasant mystery. I still remembered opening packs of baseball cards in the mid-1970’s and searching for the handful of cards I needed to make the complete set or add to my growing Atlanta Braves collection.
“He surprises me at times. I know he didn’t follow me, and after I stopped his interrogation last night and asked for a lawyer, he let me go within an hour. A new record,” I said. “Is he getting better in his old age?”
“He got lucky. What’s the stupid saying you always use? Sometimes even a blind horse can find water?” Marisa smirked. Her long blonde hair was up in a ponytail and she wore no makeup, but she was still attractive. Don’t get me wrong, I was no pervert. I was more than twice her age and she truly felt like my daughter. But I needed to protect her from a room filled with dudes who would hit on her. I could only imagine what would happen if she went to a nerd convention.
“He knows about Chicago and how to get in touch with me now, too,” I said.
“I have Irwin selling the Chicago place this week. You might lose a few bucks but it will be a loose thread neatly tied up. I’ve destroyed the server for the message board and will start up a Facebook page for it soon,” Marisa said.
“You’re going to post on the biggest social media outlet I’ll take your money and kill your kid?” I asked. “That makes no sense.”
“Hide in plain sight. Remember that gem of a saying you used to hit me with all the time when you caught me trying to run away? We’re still mostly word of mouth for rich depraved people who know what to look for online when they want to do something vile. Unfortunately, returning customers have now moved up to about twenty percent of our clientele. I guess once you’ve paid to have your kid killed, you want to kill them all,” Marisa said.
“I hope Keane doesn’t make a scene. It’ll be bad for business.” These big card shows would attract a ton of buyers as well as guys trying to unload a few things, but today I was in the mood to sell as much product as possible and fly out without having to worry about packing any of it.
The money didn’t matter to me. It hadn’t in a long time. This was more of a hobby than a way to pay the bills. Unfortunately, sick bastards who wanted me to harm their children paid for the multiple houses and my own card collections.
I was born in 1969 and became an Atlanta Braves fan at seven years old. I’ve been on the lookout for gem mint 1969 Topps cards and anything Braves I can get my hands on. Everything else gets sold.
I owned over a million non-baseball cards, stored in two warehouses, one on either side of the country: football, hockey, basketball, and miscellaneous stuff. I’d gladly trade it for every ’69 Topps and/or Braves card in the world, although it was fun to build the sets one card at a time.
Marisa casually nodded her chin past me and I looked and caught the eye of the redhead setting up at the table next to me. She was pretty. About my age. Definitely staring at me. I’d seen her before at a few shows and I turned back to Marisa and told her to stop.
“Stop what?” she asked, trying to sound innocent and failing. “This is the third show in a row she set up next to or near you. It’s not a coincidence. The last time she tried to talk to you and you blew her off.”
“No way.” I remembered, and she and I talked business for awhile. Her husband had died and left her with his collection, which she’d managed to build and begin selling at shows. She had some nice cards and I made a mental note to check out her Braves and 1969 offerings.
“Go talk to her. Ask a few questions. Live a little,” Marisa said.
“I’m busy. This is work.” I glanced over and the redhead smiled at me again as she continued to set up for the show.
I focused on the job at hand. I needed to concentrate on this card show and my near miss with Keane and why he was here today. I bumped into Marisa, who was trying to set a speed record for setting up my tables.
Marisa seemed antsy today.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she lied. I could always tell like she could with me, when something was bothering the other.
“Out with it.”
Marisa stopped moving product onto the table and smiled. “I had a date last night. It went great. He wanted to see me again right away but I told him I had work and would be out of town.”
“First date?” I asked, trying not to act like a father but failing as bad thoughts raced through my head about this guy. “How old is he? Where did you meet?”
Marisa laughed. “Yes, our first face to face date. He’s a couple of years older than me. Very mature. We met on a hacker message board about six months ago.” She grinned. “He was a perfect gentleman.”
“Good,” I said.
“As for me… well…”
“Not funny,” I said.
When we were done Marisa asked if I’d eaten. I hadn’t. Despite really wanting an authentic cheese steak from Philly last night, I’d gone to McDonalds and crashed. This morning breakfast consisted of two cups of coffee made in my hotel room.
“I’m going to get you something delicious,” Marisa said.
“Your idea of delicious is not even close to mine. I want meat.”
“Meat is murder,” Marisa said. Before I could finish she smiled. “Tasty, tasty murder. I know you too well.”
“You can’t throw my own lines back at me. Not fair. Seriously, I don’t want a salad or tofu or anything natural. I want a greasy burger and some fries. I’ll eat better when I get home,” I said. She knew it was a lie and so did I. It was the game we played.
Marisa stared at my growing belly and sighed. “How old are you again?”
I shook my head and took out two twenty dollar bills from my pocket. “Here. Use this. I need some small bills.”
“You do remember we’re in New York City, right? What do you think I can buy with this?”
True. I handed her two hundred dollar bills. “Break these. I want the change back, and the two twenties.”
“What twenties?” Marisa asked with a smile. I paid her quite well but she still treated me like I was her dad and made out of money. While I preferred to wear shorts and faded t-shirts, she wanted the nicer things in life. I wanted to eat greasy burgers and pass out watching the game.
Before we go any further, there are a couple of points I need to clear up.
Morally I do nothing wrong. No, I’m not a saint by any stretch. In my personal life I might’ve stolen a candy bar when I was a kid or lied to people or done typical kid stuff. I grew up in a bad part of Atlanta, where you did what you had to do. In my personal life I’d done worse things but that’s for another time.
I’m talking about my job. The job where bad people pay me to do one of the worst things imaginable, and they don’t care. I often wonder what it takes to set something like this in motion in their heads, but I don’t want to stare too closely into this abyss.
Knowing I’m taking their money and saving the intended target is worth it to me. Marisa once asked, years ago, why I didn’t take the money, save the child and then call in an anonymous tip or go back and kill the parent. It would be easy enough to do.
But I can’t, because if word got out one of the jobs I was tasked with went south, I’d lose future clients and future children being saved. Simple as that.
Don’t get me wrong… the money is good. Really good. Money isn’t the only thing in this lifetime, though, is it?
I didn’t realize he was talking to me at first, deep in my thoughts and setting up displays for my cards. When I turned I sighed. It was Agent Keane again.
“I’ve often wondered if James was your real name. I guess I have my answer,” Keane said.
“Funny, it says James on my birth certificate.” Of course, it was a fake like everything else. There was no way Keane or anyone else was getting close to the real me. The old me, the life I grew up in and my family and name, are all gone now. Scattered on the wind like ashes, as the saying goes. I keep looking ahead.
“I’m going to find out what you’re really doing one of these days,” Keane said, staring at me with his hands in his pockets. He was staring and watching me set up my displays.
“What I’m really doing is earning an honest buck selling sports cards to guys who are trying to stay young or remember a better, simpler time in their lives,” I said.
“I guess that’s what it is for you: a connection to something you lost or never had?” Keane was grinning now. He thought he had me for some reason.
“Everyone collects something. Cards. Comic books. Matches. Stamps.” I glanced at Keane to make sure he was still staring at me. “Drunk driving arrests. Ex-wives.”
If Keane had been drinking anything he would’ve spit it out by the look on his face. I’d been saving that information for awhile and planned to use it when I was in a jam, but it was worth it. He had no idea I’d done my homework. He’d never done his.
“I hope you have all of your tax papers and licenses on you,” Keane said.
“Actually, I do. I always check in with the people running the event to make sure they know everything is good. The two cops near the door behind me already know I’m legit, too. If you think you’re going to bust my chops by making a scene I’d think twice about it.” I smiled. “Up until this point you and I have done this dance on the up and up, haven’t we? No cheap shots. No false arrests. No tossing cars and bothering friends and family. This is a professional and courteous relationship we have, Reggie.”
“You’re the one who brought up a DUI and ex-wives,” Keane said.
“Ex-wives? You got more than one?” I asked, knowing he had two. Valerie was the first wife. They’d married early and it only lasted a year before she cheated with a guy Keane worked with. Sloppy divorce. She remarried and had two kids. Second wife, Linda, worked in D.C. for a senator and the affair was almost front page news, except there was a big payoff of quite a few people to keep it under the rug. I didn’t think Keane had taken a bag of cash to shut up and sign the divorce papers, which was why his bank account was often in the red right before payday. Linda still worked for the cheating bastard senator.
“I think I underestimated you,” Keane said.
And there it was. The light bulb had come on in his head and he was staring at me. I’d messed up. Arrogance was always my worst enemy. I’d ruffled his feathers and now he was pissed. He’d not make many more mistakes from this moment on, and Keane would do everything in his power to nail me. I’d made it personal and I felt like an idiot.
Marisa was back with a bag already crusted with grease. Delicious.
“If you’ll excuse me, Agent Keane, I have to eat before the crowds get too unmanageable. Can I interest you in a Joe Namath rookie? I only have two and they’ll go quickly in Manhattan.”
Keane shook his head and looked at the greasy bag of food.
“You want some fries?” Marisa asked.
“I want to know where you went. I’m starving,” Keane said.
While Marisa played nice and gave him directions I went back behind my tables. I needed to finish setting up and getting my stock into position. I was always paranoid someone would come by and not see what they were looking for and move on to the next guy and drop big money. I wanted everything out and in order so I could sell it.