Lunch With a Killer
by Gary Clifton
“And the Court hereby sentences you to fifty years in custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons,” the black-robed judge decreed.
The prisoner turned to Flaherty in the first row outside the Bar. “You ain’t heard the last of Harry Bret Stern, you stupid jackass.”
Flaherty held the burly defendant’s gaze in silence.
“Well?” The just-convicted killer snarled.
“Too scared to talk, Harry.”
Flaherty turned to walk away. Nineteen years a fed, Flaherty, as part of the Justice Department’s Investigation of Organized Crime, had been the lead agent in convicting Stern of four murders for hire. A deadly, psychopathic, heroin-addicted contract killer, Stern was rumored to have more bodies on him that Jeffery Dahmer.
The U.S. District Court Judge who, in his robes, was indistinguishable from a thousand others, heard the exchange and quickly showed his disapproval. He banged his gavel on the bench. “Attention in the Court. Mr. Flaherty, the defendant and his counsel, report to my chambers immediately.”
In Flaherty’s world, an order from a Federal Judge was similar to a direction from the Pope to a parish priest.
In chambers, without the court reporter present, the Judge spoke quietly with venom dripping from his words. “Mr. Stern, I just heard that damned threat, and neither Mr. Flaherty nor this Court have to tolerate that sort of crap.”
Stern stammered, “Uh...”
The Judge said, “This Court hereby authorizes Mr. Flaherty to use deadly force in the event that Mr. Stern or his delegate appear on or about his property or his person or the person of any of his family.” Glaring at Stern, he added, “That, Mrs. Stern, means I’m authorizing him to shoot you on sight. Understand?”
The defense lawyer said, “Judge, I—”
“No comment is necessary, counsel, unless you don’t understand the English language any better than you seemed to during the trial.”
Stern said, “God, sorry.”
The Judge said, “Mr. Stern, I believe you should call on someone closer than God, because I don’t think he likes you any better than I do. Dismissed.”
* * *
Stern went to Leavenworth while Flaherty worked ten more years, pensioned out, and worked as Chief of Investigations for a major insurance company ten more years. Fully retired, he lived with his wife of many years on a small farm miles from the big city. Always in the back of his mind, he felt the isolation made the task of old enemies finding him harder to find than a normal city dweller.
A lifelong tinkerer, he was operating a table saw in a small shop out back when his cellular vibrated in a pocket.
“Wonderin’ how I got your cell number, tough guy?”
Flaherty, an introspective, rather quiet man, was not surprised to recognize the voice of Harry Bret Stern. In the twenty years since Stern’s conviction, Flaherty had grown old. His give-a-damn factor had waned, but his edge was intact.
“Damn, Harry, thought you’d never call. If I was concerned, you’d be needing the services of a funeral home director. You bust out?”
“Paroled out... last week. Hey, Flaherty, ease up. I want to thank you for the way you treated me. I was way the hell off-base when I threatened you back then. You hadn’t sent me up, I hadda couple of dealers who planned to have me killed.”
Flaherty sighed. “The company a man keeps, Harry. And I didn’t send you up. You did.”
“Look, Flaherty, I’m sincere as hell. Meet me for lunch and I’ll thank you in person.”
Flaherty, his sixth sense of survival instantly notching up, was not a man easily made afraid. Instinct blared, If this is a problem, address it now. “Name the place, Harry. You can buy.”
Surprise was evident in Stern’s voice. “Uh... Louie’s, Mexican food joint on 37th. Could you make it today by two o’clock?”
Flaherty glanced at his watch. He could brush off the dust and make it into the city by two. The urgency was possibly a warning to use caution, but he’d go anyway. If he let a low-rent plug like Stern bluff him, the problem would only increase, if it was in fact a hostile contact.
“For you, Harry, anything. I’ll see you in the entryway at two.”
Flaherty pulled his pickup into a spot near Louie’s door. He made it all the way through the reception area before he saw Stern. Thinning gray hair had done little to alter his appearance in twenty years.
Flaherty also made note of the two husky men, their bare, muscular arms coated with prison tattoos. Both easily identifiable to Flaherty as parolees. They stood nearby, giving him a dim-witted once-over. They were wearing western boots with blue jeans covering the tops. Flaherty assumed each had a pistol stuffed in his boot.
Stern bear-hugged Flaherty. Just as the veteran agent was devising a strategy to drag the .38 from his front pants pocket, Stern said, “I’m tellin’ you, dude, you didn’t stay on my ass long as you did to get me in the joint, I’d be history many years past.”
Flaherty extricated himself. “Who are your pals?” He gestured. Neither thug spoke.
“Friends, Flaherty. I always bragged what a good man you were. Ask ’em.”
Both men nodded.
Flaherty shook each man’s hand. One identified himself as Smith, the other as Bucky.
“We makin’ you uneasy, Mister Fed?” Smith asked.
“No, I already have cover in place.” He pointed to two clean-cut men having lunch at a nearby table. “Signal is for me to slap the left side of my head, and they kill all three of you... right here on the floor of Louie’s. Got two more behind you,” he head-gestured.
He laid his right hand on his right temple, and all three men tensed noticeably. Neither man at the table nearby moved. “Left side, boys.” Flaherty grinned. Still not quite certain of Stern’s intention, he said, “Let’s eat.”
During a pleasant meal, Stern told his story and repeatedly thanked Flaherty as his two heavies gradually loosened up. Despite having told Stern he would have to buy, Flaherty reached over, snatched the tab, and handed it with his Visa to the waiter.
He looked up at Stern, then his two heavies. “Enjoyed the company, gents. But don’t make the fatal mistake of assuming we’re friends.”
“That damned judge serious when he ordered you to shoot my ass back then?” Stern asked.
“Well, Harry, after you left that day in custody of the U.S. Marshals, I told him somebody, probably some of your bunch, firebombed my daughter’s Camaro in my rear driveway during the trial. He went sorta ballistic and said, ‘If I hadda known that, you coulda just shot the bastard in my chambers’.
“But what the hell, Harry, like you just said, comments made in anger pass in time. I won’t let the air outta you or your friends unless I see any of you again.”
“Hey, Flaherty, I didn’t...”
“I’m sure you didn’t, Harry. She used her insurance settlement to buy a nice upgrade. It’s all good.”
All three stared back in ex-con silence.
While they were passing out through the entryway, as if on cue, the two well-dressed men Flaherty had pointed out as agents walked by without making any eye contact.
“Your guys are damned smooth, Flaherty,” Stern, visibly nervous, watched the men walk out the front door.
Flaherty looked at Stern at length. “Yup.”
“How long you worked with them?”
“Never saw either one before, Harry.”
“How’d you get them set up so quick?”
“Haven’t you learned? We’re everywhere.”
Flaherty smiled as he strolled into the bright afternoon sunshine to his GMC. He felt the pressure of the .38 in his pocket as he squeezed into the cab.
The limited exposure had done nothing to convince him Stern’s motive for approaching him was either sincere or a set-up for retaliation. He strongly suspected the former, but no matter his intention, Stern had understood the message. Flaherty’s gut said he’d heard the last from his old adversary.
As he pulled into traffic, he wondered if the two strangers he’d pointed out inside would be pleased if they knew they’d been imaginary federal agents for the past hour.
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton