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Inside Los Angeles, 1968
The van coasted to a stop just outside the parking lot of a grocery store, an Alpha Beta with that stupid cowboy Alphy out front.
Jack would take it. There should be a payphone in the parking lot, and he found the ashtray in the van filled with coins.
He grabbed a few, and stepped out of the van, spotting his objective at the opposite corner of the lot. He closed the door to the booth, dropped a dime in the phone to get things started, and dialed an L.A. number from memory.
A voice picked up on the third ring.
“Identification,” the female voice requested blandly. It sounded like the same voice that answered when you dialed the operator for the time or received a collect call.
“Approved, please hold.”
No music filled the wait, only silence. Then a gruff voice answered.
“Alpha Beta, uh—” Jack hesitated and looked around. “Sunset.”
“Cleanup and transportation.”
Jack hung up and made his way back into the van. The grocery store was closed, and he imagined it would be a few hours before it opened.
His stomach growled, but he commanded it to be patient. Time would get him out of this mess, and he could enjoy a good breakfast at Nick’s Cafe downtown. He could almost taste the ham and eggs.
Since he had time to wait, he looked around the interior of the van, first opening the glove box where he found what appeared to be legitimate insurance and registration cards.
Shining a light into the cargo area revealed it to be mostly empty, but there was a crumpled blanket on one side. Curious, he climbed between the two front seats into the back and moved it aside, revealing a clear plastic bag.
Inside, he saw a couple things. First, there was a ring, an older style ring, the kind used to seal documents with wax.
A signet ring, he thought. It looked like gold, and it might be valuable.
In addition, there were two decks of cards. Jack opened the bag and pulled the items out, placing them on the floor of the van. He picked up the ring first, trying in on for size. Oddly, it fit. He slipped it off his finger and into his pocket.
Then he looked at the decks of cards. One was brand new, in the wrapper. He set that one aside. The other had been opened, and he slid the cards out into one hand, then flipped them over.
They were all Aces of Spades.
Quickly, he did a count, and as he did, he saw there were actually 54 cards in the box, and the deck included two jokers mixed in with the Aces.
This was one of the special decks sent to the soldiers in ‘Nam by Bicycle Card Company. Jack had more than one of his own, and he’d used one of those cards earlier tonight. But why would Gary keep this one, and why the Jokers?
Jack studied the back of the cards, but saw no markings, nothing that would distinguish one from the other or this deck from the one he possessed.
There had to be something unique about them, though. He slipped both decks back into the clear bag and put it in his pocket next to the ring.
He heard a tapping on the driver’s window and moved back up to the front seat to see a police car parked in front of the van, and an officer staring through the window.
He cranked it down.
“Hey yourself. What are you doing here?”
“Sorry. I ran out of gas. I’m just waiting for a friend. I thought you were him as a matter of fact.”
“I see. This van yours?”
“It belongs to a friend.”
“License and registration please.”
“Officer, listen. I’m just waiting—”
“You have any idea where you are, son?”
“We get all kind in this parking lot at night, but nobody is ever up to any good or just waiting for someone.”
“But I can show you. I really am out of gas.”
“Again, license and registration.”
The officer looked serious. His badge reflected nearby streetlights, his uniform was stiffly pressed, and even the bill of his hat gleamed. Jack could see that while he looked calm, his hand rested on the butt of his service weapon.
He sighed. “I’m just going to reach for my wallet,” he said.
The cop watched him carefully. Jack slid it out of his pocket, and pulled out his driver’s license and his military I.D. “Here you go.”
He moved to hand it over and the officer’s demeanor cracked. He started laughing.
Unsure what to do, Jack joined him.
The initial laughter descended into an all-out laughing fit on the part of the officer, and pretty soon Jack had stopped. He just stared.
The officer seemed to calm, and then looked at him and busted up again.
Jack sat calmly. When the second fit subsided, he asked, “So, what are we laughing at?”
“Oh my God, you should see your face,” the officer said. “You thought you were in real trouble, didn’t you?”
“Officer, I thought—”
“Jesus, Seven of Spades. Aren’t you the serious one? I’m your help. I was just fuckin’ with you.”
Jack moved quickly, opening the door hard, intending to strike the man with it and teach him a lesson.
But the laughter stopped, and the officer danced out of the way, Jack found himself looking right down the barrel of the man’s pistol before he knew what happened.
“Don’t mistake my levity for incompetence. This was partly a test, Jack, and you passed. Good job, except that next time just hand over the documents right way. Less suspicious.”
“You’re really a cop?”
“Do you think the military is the only place Solitaire has people?”
“What’s your name?”
“Need to know, Jack. You don’t want to know stuff you don’t need to know.”
“What’s the deal with the van?”
“It really is out of gas. There is a bullet lodged in the back door, inside of the driver’s side.”
“Where did it come from?”
“My target, who fired at me before I eliminated the threat?”
“Who was your target?”
“Need to know, officer.”
“Well done. And your car is?”
“Back a few miles at a turnout.”
“Were someone to find your car and then search the area what would they find?”
“At first glance, not much. But they might uncover a disturbed area with evidence of recent digging if they looked thoroughly.”
“I’ll make sure no one does. Okay, let’s go.” The officer gestured at the police car.
“You’ll ride in the back. I’ll take you back to your car, protect the scene, impound this van here, but get it scrapped. All you have to tell Solitaire is that the problem was handled, okay?”
The officer placed Jack in the back seat of the car, and they drove toward the turnout.
“Right there,” Jack said.
The officer pulled in next to his car, let him out, and the two shook hands.
“You’ll go far, Jack,” the officer said. “Have a good morning.”
Jack got into the driver’s seat. He put the cards and the ring in his own glove box and drove toward downtown toward Nick’s. The small seating area was crowded, and as soon as a spot opened up, Jack took it. He ordered what had become his usual: coffee, ham, and eggs.
Halfway through his meal, he saw a van that looked oddly familiar drive by. He shook his head. He thought they were going to scrap it.
Oh well. Need to know, and all that.
He finished eating, drained the last of his coffee, and rotated out so another customer could take his spot.
When he got to his car, he saw a serious looking man in a dark suit waiting beside it.
“Hi, Jack,” the man said.
“Hi. Do I know you?”
“Well, I’m kind of in a hurry.”
“Because you haven’t slept all night.”
“Perhaps. Can I help you?”
“What did you do with what you found in the van?”
“What are you talking about?”
“There was a clear bag under a blanket.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.” Jack put his hand on the roof of his car.
“Are you telling me there was no bag in the back of that van, under the blanket.”
“Nothing that I saw.” Jack didn’t know why he lied, but he felt like before he just handed the bag over to a stranger, even one who seemed to know him, he needed to know more about what he actually had in his possession.
“Shit. That is not good. Did Gary have anything on him?”
“Only a card.”
“Give it to me.”
“I have specific delivery instructions, so I can’t do that.”
“I’m not asking. That’s an order.”
“One I can’t follow without confirmation.”
The man threw his hands up in the air. “Goddam soldiers!”
Jack saw his chance and slammed his fist into his ribs.
The man doubled over, sucking in a breath through clenched teeth. Jack didn’t wait. His second punch struck the man in the side of the head, and his knee caught him in the temple as he fell sideways.
His would be assailant fell bonelessly to the sidewalk, and as casually as possible, Jack got into his car and drove away.
If that had been a Solitaire representative, he hadn’t identified himself properly.
So he wasn’t sorry.
When he got home, Jack parked in the garage and put the bag and its contents in a safe he had hidden there.
Then he went inside.
As he did, the phone on the wall rang, and he picked it up.
“Why did you go with the cop instead of waiting for help?” the voice said.
“The cop was the help,” Jack answered.
Jack thought about it. He’d gotten so wrapped in the banter, he hadn’t asked for verification.
“Yours?” he asked the voice.
“Verified,” Jack answered.
“What about the cop?”
“Come to think of it, no. I didn’t. My apologies. What about Nick’s?”
“What about it?”
“Did you send someone?”
“That means I appear to have encountered two imposters this morning.”
“Neither verified? Tell me about Nick’s.”
“A man asked me about the contents of the van, but it felt wrong.”
“And you did?”
“Neutralized him and cleared the area.”
“Good. You have the card?”
Jack hesitated. “Probably incomplete.”
Jack told the voice on the other end of the phone about finding the van, and the disposal issue.
“So the imposter has the van Gary drove?”
“Yes. The man at Nick’s asked me about the contents.”
“Was there anything unusual inside?”
“No,” Jack said. Two groups asking about the contents of the bag? Something in it might make great leverage someday, and he didn’t want to give it up until he knew what that might be.
“That means there is an item still missing. Thanks for your hard work, Jack. Get some rest. You deserve it.”
He hung up and turned to see his wife entering the kitchen. She headed toward the coffee pot, filling the percolator basket with grounds, the bottom with water, and then put it on the stove.
“Are you just getting home?” she asked as she performed the morning ritual.
“Yes,” he said. “Late night.”
“Your boots are dirty.”
He looked down. “Oh, sorry,” he said. “I’ll put them outside.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll get Jack, Jr. off to school. Do you want breakfast?”
“Sure,” he said. “I can sleep after that.”
“Are you going into the office later?”
“Not until tomorrow.”
“Good,” she said, came over, and kissed him on the cheek. “Go take a shower while I make the eggs. You’re not climbing into our clean sheets smelling like that.”
Jack did as he was told, passing his son’s room on the way down the hall, seeing him stretching and slowly waking. Jack waved, and the tiny hand waved back.
He would miss his family while he was in Vietnam for another tour, but Jack, Sr. looked forward to being back where the action was.
I hope you are enjoying reading this series as much as I am. You can the rest of this series on Amazon here! Stay tuned for another FREE story right here next week. I hope to see you then!