Matchup, p.25
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       MatchUp, p.25
 

           Lee Child

  walked to the side of the car and opened the door and glove box. A stack of cash held with a rubber band fell out. The cop eyeballed the cash but didn’t say a word this time.

  “I can explain,” Jeffrey said, the same three words he had heard from every criminal he’d ever arrested. “Please let me explain.”

  “Shut up until I ask you a question.”

  The chief bent down to search the car. His old knees popped, and he groaned as he pulled jeans from the floorboard of the backseat. He tossed them onto the ground, then a newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

  The chief looked at Jeffrey. “Cleveland, huh?”

  All he could do was shake his head as the chief reached back into the car. The older guy groaned again as he bent his knees deeper to yank something out from underneath the seat. The cop grinned when he showed his prize.

  A greasy brown paper bag.

  The logo on front read “Duke’s Grill.”

  The chief squinted at the receipt stapled to the bag. “Says here that six days ago, you were in East Cleveland on Eddy Road at 3:42 in the p.m.” He nodded at Paulson. “Stretch, put the cuffs on this scumbag.”

  Like most cops, Jeffrey had a terror of being handcuffed. He worked to keep the quiver out of his voice. “That’s not necessary. I’ll cooperate fully.”

  “Shut up, you Yankee fucker.”

  Paulson walked toward Jeffrey, struggling to unsnap the handcuffs from his utility belt, but the belt kept shifting. The buckle was pulled to the last hole, but it was still loose because his hips were basically like a woman’s.

  “Gimme your hand.”

  Jeffrey didn’t move.

  Paulson wrenched Jeffrey’s left hand off his head and twisted it around. Technically, the officer should’ve grabbed the right hand, and he should’ve cuffed it first, but teaching time was over. They were really going to push this? Arrest him for being some coke-dealing killer from fucking Cleveland?

  Cleveland?

  Motherfucker.

  “Hang on, there was a black guy in the—”

  “This ain’t Ohio, buddy.”

  The chief nodded for Paulson to ratchet down the cuffs tight to the wrists.

  “You can’t just grab your nuts and blame the black guy.”

  CLEVELAND, OHIO

  9:27 A.M.

  THE DEA ARRIVED WITH PLANE tickets to Georgia on the first day Joe Pritchard had with his new partner, a kid named Lincoln Perry.

  You were supposed to get to know your partners by working with them, but Joe had actually been watching Perry for a week, and not feeling optimistic about the pairing. Every night, Perry went drinking alone at a bar on Clark Avenue called the Hideaway. He was drinking alone because two weeks earlier he’d busted his childhood buddy, a guy named Ed Gradduk, on cocaine-dealing charges on the very streets where the two had grown up more like brothers than friends. To say that Perry was now persona non grata in his old neighborhood was an understatement. Given the chance to choose badge or buddy, he hadn’t hesitated.

  Thus the promotion.

  Joe had heard the story and was impressed by it, but as he sat running surveillance on his own partner-to-be, watching Perry sip beer and stare into the middle distance as if unaware of the building rage his presence was creating in the bar, he was worried. Coming back down there, insisting on sitting down in the lion’s den, was baiting trouble, and for what?

  So on Friday morning he had a plan for the day, and the plan was his “no cowboys” lecture. Then the DEA showed up and told him he was packing Perry along to Georgia, cowboy or not, to try to find Antonio Childers.

  Antonio Childers was a viral plague of Cleveland’s crime scene, an east-side banger who’d spread his empire wide, pushing across town. He sold everything he could, from stolen cars to physical enforcement, but lately he’d made his name on Colombian cocaine. He was a suspect in more than a dozen murders in the past two years alone.

  He’d also been missing for nearly a month.

  For a week, maybe ten days, investigators had entertained the hopeful notion that he was dead and his body would turn up in the trunk of a car on Eddy Road, or maybe wash up in the Flats of the Cuyahoga River, or the Lake Erie breakwater. Joe hadn’t shared that enthusiasm. None of his informants gave the slightest indication that there had been a power shift, or a power vacuum. The system purred on, and Antonio Childers remained at the wheel.

  From where, though?

  They’d heard a lot of rumors. Georgia wasn’t in the mix. But here were two DEA agents with plane tickets. One of them was a stocky white guy with a crew cut who chewed Nicorette for the entire briefing, popping in fresh pieces but never removing the old ones, so that by the end of things he was working on a damn golf ball in the corner of his jaw. He didn’t say much, but he nodded a lot and occasionally made a finger-gun pointing gesture when he agreed with something. The other was a tall woman named Luisa who had packed the brains while her partner packed his gum.

  “The coke Antonio is moving has come through Atlanta for about nine months,” she explained. She held a folder in her hands but kept it closed. “He’s one of four, maybe five players working off the same supply. But they always transported it to him. When that stopped, he decided to head south himself.”

  “Why’d it stop?”

  “We think they got a little uneasy about surveillance.”

  “That would be DEA surveillance?”

  She nodded.

  Joe thought this made sense. Antonio was not the type of guy who’d give up on a good thing when he found it. He’d be more inclined to go down and sort it out. If you stayed untouchable in your own neighborhood long enough, you could begin to think the same rules would apply elsewhere.

  “You’ve known this for a while,” Lincoln Perry said.

  They nodded.

  “You also know we’ve been looking for him for a while. Yet you didn’t think it was worth sharing?”

  “Let her finish,” Joe said, but he didn’t disagree with the kid. Still, feds were feds. He’d spent too many hours in too many meetings like this to want to debate what they should have shared and when.

  All he wanted was Antonio Childers.

  “Where is he?”

  “He was in Atlanta,” she said. “Blew out of town three days ago and our team down there figured he was northbound. They were partially right. He went north, but not far. Ended up in a small town up the mountains a couple hours northwest of the city. Best guess is he was waiting on a courier, or he was testing his back trail to see whether he was being followed. We’re not sure.”

  “But he’s still there?”

  “Possibly.”

  That didn’t sound encouraging.

  “His car is there. This morning, local police found that for us. With a few bricks of cocaine, some cash, a half-dozen semiautomatic handguns, and . . .” She paused and opened the folder for the first time. “One Nora Simpson, now deceased, of Helen, Georgia.”

  She passed them a photo. It had come through on a fax and the image quality was grainy but you didn’t need any better clarity to see the gunshot wound to the stomach.

  “This happened this morning, or the car was found this morning?” Joe asked. “Or both?”

  The crew-cut guy made the finger-gun gesture.

  Joe figured that meant it was both.

  “So you think our boy Antonio did the shooting, but now he’s missing,” Perry said.

  Luisa nodded.

  “Then the locals are also looking for him,” Perry said. “Yet you want us to go to Georgia. With a warrant for a lesser charge. Explain that?”

  Joe explained it for her. “They don’t want him jailed in Georgia. Not yet, at least.”

  Crew Cut gave him the finger-gun again.

  More points for the home team.

  “We’ve got questions about the local police,” Luisa said. “Not only that, but we have another officer in custody for the situation. A Detective Jeffrey Tolliver of Birmingham, Alabama. Origin
ally from a little town called Sylacauga. Played football for Auburn. His lieutenant hates him, but he has a good reputation for the most part. A sheriff named Clayton Hollister speaks highly of him, too. Doesn’t seem likely he was running cocaine with Antonio Childers.”

  “So what was he doing in Georgia with the dead woman?”

  “Before she was a dead woman, she was a live woman with a hotel room,” Luisa said. “It seems that even Mr. Tolliver’s staunchest defenders will admit that he has a proclivity for finding his way into hotel rooms with women who may be, um, recent acquaintances.”

  “Happens to the best of us,” Perry said, and Joe gave him a warning look.

  “Listen,” Luisa said, “what we need is to get Antonio Childers in custody in a hurry, but also in the right cell. We’re giving the lead you’ve been looking for. Hell, we’re even giving you plane tickets for the cause.”

  “Why so important that it’s Ohio?” Joe asked.

  She chose her words carefully. “Because we believe he has friends in Georgia who are a lot more important to us than he is, and we don’t want them to get early chances with him.”

  “Police?” Joe asked. “You think your supplier involves police?”

  If there was anything he loathed more than the Antonio Childerses of the world, it was a cop who’d help them.

  “We just want him in Ohio,” Luisa said without elaborating, but it was all she needed to say.

  “So do we,” Joe said. “Let’s get to Georgia. How far is the drive from Atlanta to this town, Helen?”

  “About two hours, usually. But there’s snow coming in. Might slow things down.”

  “Hell,” Joe said, “this is Cleveland. There’s always snow coming in. We’ll be fine.”

  He’d remember that statement often in the hours to come.

  They flew direct to Atlanta and were in a rental car and northbound on I-85 by 2 p.m. There had been no four-wheel drives available at the rental counter; everyone was scared of the storm that hadn’t arrived yet. There was no snow, and the temperature was near 50. Which wouldn’t have been a poor Memorial Day in Cleveland.

  But the air promised that was changing.

  Changing to what nobody seemed to know, although everybody agreed it was going to be a mess.

  The only thing they could find on the radio was dire news about the storm that was blowing up from Cuba and through Florida and what havoc it might wreak on Georgia overnight. That, and some goddamn song called “I Will Always Love You” that was the only thing more annoying than listening to meteorologists talk about barometric pressure shifts. They made it maybe twenty miles before Joe shut the radio off for good.

  Once they were outside the perimeter, traffic opened up and they made good time heading north, the city and suburbs falling away behind them and the rural mountains opening up ahead. A light, misting rain was falling, trying to turn to ice. Farms, trailers, and churches dominated the roadside. They angled northwest and climbed higher in the mountains, and a pickup truck with a lifted suspension and oversized terrain tires growled past them, its tailgate a mud-splattered collage of bumper stickers pledging allegiance to God, guns, and the Confederacy. Perry began to whistle the dueling banjos bit from Deliverance, but Joe thought about that forecast and wouldn’t have minded having the truck. Or anything that sat higher than the rented Chevy Malibu.

  The road curled up and over a ridge and then they descended into Helen and Joe pressed on the brake.

  The town was lined with Bavarian-style, multicolored chalets. Every home. Every business. He and Perry stared first at the town, then at each other.

  “I wasn’t paying attention,” Perry said. “Where’d we pass through the wormhole?”

  Joe drove slowly down the town’s main street, looking for the sheriff’s department. They passed a Wendy’s, which featured the same exterior as the rest of the place.

  Bavarian building code strictly enforced, apparently.

  “Okay,” Perry said, “so what’s the plan? Do I distract the Nazis while you escape with the Von Trapps, or do you want to do it the other way around?”

  “Maybe it’ll be easy,” Joe said. “Maybe every hour all these places pop open like cuckoo clocks and we just sit on the car and wait for Antonio to roll out onto a porch, fire his gun a few times, and get sucked back in until the next hour.”

  Perry pointed to the right. “There’s a sign for the PD. Turn on, um . . . Alpenrosen Strasse. No shit, Joe, that’s what it says.”

  “We gotta find some sauerkraut before we leave. God, I love good sauerkraut. If they don’t have that, this place is nothing but a fraud.”

  “Maybe at the Wendy’s?” Perry suggested, and Joe smiled.

  The kid was all right.

  Of course, Joe hadn’t seen him under pressure yet. And if Antonio Childers was still anywhere near this place, they might run into pressure sooner than later.

  They found the police located in a shared municipal office. They got out and walked through the rain to the building, and Joe noticed the temperature had dropped since their arrival in Atlanta. They were up higher now, and maybe that explained it, but, still, the air felt strange, and an uneasy wind blew the rain at them in gusts.

  Inside, a black woman in a police uniform sat alone behind her desk. If there was any other presence in the police department, they were well hidden. Joe introduced himself, showed his badge, and asked to see the chief.

  “He’s up in Cleveland,” she said, and he blinked at her, thinking for a moment that seemed like a definitively federal operation, sending Cleveland police to Georgia and Georgia police to Cleveland, before she added, “It’s not far, just fifteen minutes. That’s where the county sheriff is. And the jail.”

  “Cleveland, Georgia,” Joe said. “Got it. Right. Did they handle the Nora Simpson shooting this morning?”

  She seemed to puff up with righteous indignation. “No, they did not. That was our police department.”

  “My mistake. Which officer handled that scene?”

  “All of them.”

  Joe glanced at Perry, who looked back at him with a cocked eyebrow as he said, “How many would that be?”

  “Three,” she said.

  Joe considered that and said, “Nobody else has shown up? Feds, Georgia Bureau of Investigation?”

  “Nope.”

  He sincerely doubted that the DEA’s corruption concerns stemmed from a three-man department in a tourist-trap village, so if the GBI had been kept at bay this long, it suggested they were of interest.

  “Is there someone we could speak to who was at the scene this morning?”

  “Not right now. They all went up to Cleveland to talk to the sheriff. We got bigger problems ahead of us than this thing you all are so interested in, you know. There’s a storm coming, supposed to be the all-time record. There was a public safety meeting in Cleveland. I expect they’ll be back soon, though.”

  “In the meantime, who polices the town?” Perry asked.

  She gave him a stone-cold stare. “That would be me.”

  Joe figured she’d do a fair-enough job of it, too.

  “If you think they’ll be back here soon, we’ll hang out for a bit,” he said, thinking that this was actually a hell of an opportunity to ask some questions around town without having the local law breathing down their necks.

  God bless the blizzard.

  “Fine by me. They won’t be much longer, I’m sure.”

  “What happened to the guy you arrested, the cop from Alabama?”

  “Still got him in a holding cell. And as far as I’m concerned? He ought to stay there.”

 
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