Spider Among the Flies
“No, Mr. Black. I expect you to kill.”
Dressed in a thin leather jacket and a summer-weight
Greek fisherman’s cap, Lester Tolliver neither flinched nor tensed. Seated across
from Mathias Meadowbrook, he kept his dark brown face impassive and took split-second stock
of his situation—standing to the left the burly bodyguard who’d brought him
up in a key-controlled elevator, the two bruisers in the outer office flanking the closed
door, the panoramic view of Los Angeles through the plate glass window behind Meadowbrook’s
desk. If forced, Lester was confident he could draw the 9mm under his left armpit and put
one or two in the bodyguard’s face and another one or two in each of the men who
burst through the door. That would leave him four to six rounds to force Meadowbrook into
the outer office and private elevator. There would be no time to collect brass or
retrieve bullets, which is why he always loaded his weapons wearing nitrile gloves he kept
in his jacket pockets. Even without fingerprints, abandoned shells meant both the 9mm and
Meadowbrook would have to disappear as soon as possible.
a billionaire and killing his security team was not why he
was in this particular corner office today. A previous job had led him to Meadowbrook for
a future job. Early in the interview, preferring to work alone, Lester had asked if he
was expected to be part of a routine security crew. The answer came as a soft surprise.
tan billionaire’s smile revealed gleaming teeth. “I have the
best techs in the world,” he said. “I know all about you, Mr. Black—or should I
say Mr. Tolliver? Your talents, your fearlessness. Your devotion to the late Lorenzo Quick.
The inability of any police agencies to make a single charge stick, ever. Remarkable. I
even know you are sometimes called the Spider.”
At last tense, at the mention of both his
real name and his street name from the other side of the country, Lester said, “Then
you know, sir, the Spider has retired. He no longer enforces another man’s decisions
or eliminates his problems.”
Meadowbrook leaned forward. “Mr. Cavendish
led me to believe you were still available as an independent contractor.”
forced his tension out with a sigh and clasped his hands
under his chin. “Mr. Meadowbrook, you are the wealthiest man I’ve ever met. You
certainly have the neatest desk. That suggests you’re accustomed to having people
do everything for you. That kind of privilege
tends to spoil a man.”
“Really?” Meadowbrook said,
The bodyguard—ex-military, short blond hair,
a hip bulge beneath his dark blazer—shifted from one foot to the other, which made
Lester unclasp his hands.
are unguarded in your speech,” Lester continued. “You blurt out things that
may be self-incriminatory or signal a conspiracy. How do I know this office isn’t
wired or your man isn’t a plant?” He paused to flash the bodyguard a thin smile
that went unreturned. “Sir, you can’t be surprised I’m extremely cautious
in my dealings with others.”
“I too am careful,” Meadowbrook
said. “I pay taxes without complaint and give my employees a generous living wage.
I hire more people than I need, donate large sums to charity, and keep my businesses compliant
with all laws. I’ve never been investigated for anything. But I need to speak freely
somewhere. This office is soundproof and swept for bugs regularly.”
not like Musk or Bezos, building rockets, busting unions, strutting across TV screens.
I’m not like Gates, using philanthropy and a nerd mask to hide my lust. Had the same
wife for thirty years and still can’t wait to get her alone at night.” He shrugged.
“Like many powerful CEOs who get exactly what they want, I am a sociopath—as I
suspect you are. But I am a sociopath with good intentions.”
Lester bit back a smile. He recalled the
two women and the man who’d made him laugh when they called him a sociopath and the
two men he’d killed for doing so. “Most such people don’t enjoy a reputation
for trying to make the world a better place.”
success means keeping the lowest profile possible,” Meadowbrook
explained. “So forgive me if my frank speech makes you uncomfortable.” He looked
at the bodyguard. “As for Shelby, he’s the only one who knows who you are and
why you’re here. He’s been with me over fifteen years. I pay him well and trust
him with my secrets and my life—so much so that, as a gesture of good faith, I did
not require him to disarm you when your sidearm tripped our metal detector.”
today is the first time I’ve laid eyes on him, I cannot
trust him with my life. But I do appreciate
your…gesture.” Lester said nothing of the carbon fiber knife strapped to his
right ankle. “Have you any idea how unsettling it is to have a Time
Person of the Year say he wants you to kill?”
smile returned. “If we are being surveilled
right now, I’ll crash and burn right alongside you.” He drew in a deep breath.
“What I’m proposing is strategic eliminations for the common good, not the
removal of competitors or the silencing of whistleblowers or mistresses. Or whatever you
did to make Cavendish refer you to me. Petty personal actions don’t permit me to
reshape the world to my liking.”
“Why do you want to reshape the world?”
Neither man said anything for a time. Lester was
beginning to like Meadowbrook but was still wary enough to suspect an intricate trap. “Cavendish,”
he said. “Your second mention of that name. I never speak of clients or accept referrals
outside my methods of communication.”
“I assure you, he followed all your
labyrinthine procedures, which is how you came to be here.” Meadowbrook offered a
mock grimace and shudder. “So cloak and dagger.”
Lester ignored the
dismissive stab at humor. “Also, I never discuss my work with a third party present.”
He nodded at Shelby. “One of us will leave in thirty seconds.”
“I can have Mr. Shelby step outside,
but only if you give him your gun…”
Meadowbrook seemed pleased at the lack of hesitation
but looked at his laptop screen. “And whatever carbon fiber or ceramic thingie on
your right leg disturbed my EM field.”
Now Lester’s mouth fell open but closed
almost instantly. The gold pen set on the desk meant he still had an additional option—if
he needed one in the next few minutes. He doubted he would.
I said the best techs in the world, I wasn’t exaggerating,”
Meadowbrook said as the Spider handed over his 9mm and his tactical knife. “Without
ever meeting you, they can provide you with any documents you need for travel, limitless
credit, new identities, things otherwise impossible to get.” His smile widened and
his teeth looked sharper. “So, let’s see whether a bad man who wants to do
good and a bad man who wants to get paid can reach a mutually satisfying arrangement.”
first target was an internet scammer based in Minneapolis who
preyed exclusively upon the elderly. Gordon Short’s scams funneled money directly
into both active bank accounts and investment funds Meadowbrook’s techs could drain
once he was dead. “I find his lifestyle offensive,” the billionaire said. “Study
his file, then study him. Tell me whatever you need to remove him from the game. You have
After a day reviewing documents, Lester flew to Minneapolis
on Sunday. Wearing various coats, hats, and scarves to change his look, he spent Monday
and Tuesday exploring the neighborhood around the repurposed downtown factory where his
target lived. Having lived in Buffalo most of his life, he had no trouble negotiating snow
and ice during his surveillance. Thanks to remote pairings carried out by Meadowbrook’s
techs, he listened to Short’s phone calls through an earpiece. The scammer spent
half his day on a dozen burners, his remarkably flexible voice different for each scam—sometimes
a young man reaching out to a trusting grandparent for bail or legal fees, sometimes a
gruff IRS agent who instructed a nervous taxpayer how to settle debt with an electronic
funds transfer, sometimes even a bubbly woman who informed a lottery winner of the need
to establish a special thousand-dollar bank account for the deposit of the windfall. Almost
never leaving his sixth-floor loft, he ordered in everything he needed—groceries,
clothes, furnishings, electronics, sex—and arranged pick-ups for whatever he discarded.
A comparison of call logs and bank records showed Short left his apartment to use the ATM
on the first floor only on Fridays when he booked time with one of the four prostitutes
he saw each month.
On Thursday, when Lester stepped inside
the building for the first time, he knew the location of every outdoor CCTV camera in the
area. Now he noted every internal camera on the first floor. Needing a keycard to access
higher floors, he carried a portable data skimmer and gathered information from people
he passed. Back in his hotel, he downloaded that day’s skimmer files into a laptop.
Then he used an AlphaCard magnetic ID printer to produce a dozen keycards, certain at least
one would take him above street level. Returning when occupants might be coming home from
evening meals or other activities, he rode up to the sixth floor, noting the video bubbles
in the elevator and corridors, as well as the EXIT stairwells.
he went to sleep that night, he considered methods he could
use to delete Gordon Short in the next two days. A quiet hit when he came down
to the ATM was too risky. A saxitoxin spray to the face or a stealth injection during an
accidental collision would be caught by security cameras. Poisons that gave Short time
to return to his unit would guarantee an autopsy and discovery of the puncture wound. Waiting
to follow the hooker inside meant two autopsies when Lester preferred none. Getting inside
the loft earlier was the only way to go.
Late Friday morning Lester overheard Short
place a lunch order, which he canceled after the scammer clicked off. Wearing thin driving
gloves and a hooded sweatshirt under a high-collared coat, he entered the building
with a bag labeled Mercury Meals. He spoke to Short over the intercom and got a one-time
code that would take him to six. Keeping his head down, he eased into a crowded elevator
and swiped a keycard instead of entering the code. He exited the elevator on six and knocked
on Short’s door.
The man who answered weighed close to three
hundred pounds and had a pale face with fleshy, stubbly cheeks. Instead of passing the
food into the outstretched hand, Lester held his 9mm beside the bag, out of view of the
corridor camera but where Short would have to see it. Eyes wide, Short stepped back. Lester
stepped inside, closing the door behind him. He took in the loft in a glance: hardwood
floors, white brick walls, tall windows, stainless steel appliances, near the entrance,
sparse furniture, a king-sized bed in one corner, a pool table, several arcade-style video
game units, three humming computer stations, and a flat screen TV about a hundred inches
“The fuck?” Short said.
Lester said, setting the bag on the counter and gesturing
toward the nearest chair.
“Look, if you want money…”
I won’t repeat myself.”
As soon as Short sat, Lester moved to the
alcove beside the door, where floor plans indicated the breaker box was located. Gun still
leveled at Short, he flipped both switches, shutting off the lights and computers. Afternoon
sunlight pouring through tall windows was all he needed.
“I don’t have a lot of cash,”
Short said. “But I can give you my ATM card.”
the video record will show my face?” Lester raised the gun
higher. “How stupid do you think I am?”
Short lifted his hands and turned his face
aside. “I don’t know you, dude! All I know is you got a gun, which makes you
Einstein to me.”
Lester looked about his immediate surroundings
and noticed a small black square beside the knife block on the kitchenette counter. It
was pointed right at the door, which meant his entry had been recorded, to a phone or computer
or both. “How many surveillance cameras are hidden in here?”
“Just one, over the bed…”
“You think I didn’t see the
one on the counter? I wouldn’t have thought you were that stupid.” He pointed
the gun at Short’s forehead. “How many and what are they linked to?”
Short said. “Above the bed, by the TV, and facing the
door. The computer cameras are all covered…because of my work. The others all synched
to my phone, with the bed cam connected to a digital video recorder.”
“So you can watch yourself.”
Lester sucked his teeth and shook his head. “Take out your phone.”
took an iPhone from his shirt pocket and tapped in his PIN.
When he tried to hand the phone over, Lester took hold of his wrist and made him hold a
finger against the screen. The icons flickered.
“I’m here for your hard drives,”
he said. “We can both get out of this alive if I watch you delete your camera and
recording apps, all of them. Nod if you understand.”
nodded and began deleting. When he was done, he held up the
phone so Lester could see. “Are you gonna bust up my computers?”
Lester set the phone on the counter. “I’m
not here to interfere with your livelihood. I just want the hard drives, because you pissed
off the wrong person. You can get more. Move to your recliner, right in front of the
TV, so I can watch you while I get them out.”
When Short was seated again, Lester produced
a small red ball inside a sandwich bag. “You know what a ball gag is, don’t
you? This is kind of like that. It’ll keep you from crying out while I do what I
have to do. Another fifteen minutes and I’ll be out of your life.”
pocketed his gun and jammed the rubber ball down Short’s throat.
He squeezed or swept away the fingers the man attempted to put in his mouth. When he tried
to stand, Lester hooked a foot behind his and gently pushed him back into the chair. As
Short twitched and struggled, Lester continued to use his weight against him, nudging him
down, batting away flailing arms. He was confident he was leaving no bruises.
it was over.
Using long tongs from a kitchen drawer, Lester extracted
the ball, returned it to its bag, and put it back in his coat pocket. Forking, chopping,
and smashing the steak sub from the Mercury Meals bag to look as if it had been half-chewed,
he spooned chunks of food into the dead man’s throat and packed them tight. The rest
of the sub he left next to an open water bottle on the TV stand by the chair. After wiping
the utensils with a dishtowel and returning them to the drawer, he found the second and
third spycams and verified duct tape was over the computer cameras. After flipping the
breaker switches, he turned on the TV and left. On the way to his hotel, he used his burner
to text Meadowbrook: Access code 746783323. Expires
By the time Lester went to the airport on
Saturday, everything he’d worn or used for the hit was in a different public trash
receptacle. The news still had not reported discovery of Short's body. No matter. Whenever
he was found, his eyes would have the petechiae that accompanied suffocation. But before
the first incision, an intact hyoid, a lack of ligature marks on the neck, and a mouth
full of poorly chewed food in a morbidly obese man would suggest aspiration
pneumonia, or choking, as the cause of death.
waited to board, wondering what it meant that he felt an odd
satisfaction Short would never separate another grandmother from her life savings, he noticed
Shelby, Meadowbrook’s bodyguard, seated on a barstool some distance away.
still in a probationary period,” Meadowbrook said. “If
something goes wrong…”
“He’s there to make sure I don’t
talk if I’m taken into custody,” Lester said. “And to sacrifice himself
if he’s caught. Why not just use him for your wet work?””
not the artist you are.” Meadowbrook smiled. “If you’re still
in my employ, your next job is in a warmer climate.” He slid a file across the desk.
“Read it and tell me what you need.”
Within an hour, Lester was back with his
request, which made Meadowbrook laugh out loud.
said your people could provide anything.”
he landed at the Daytona airport, Lester noticed Shelby had
arrived ahead of him on another airline. Now, in shorts and a ball cap, he sat reading
a magazine across the terminal from the car rental counter.
The next day Lester took his rental to a
storage facility in Deland and waited several doors away from the unit Meadowbrook’s
people had located. The box outside the unit’s entrance indicated the delivery he’d
requested had already been made. Within an hour, a panel truck pulled up to the door and
a heavyset, straw-haired woman climbed out. She inspected the box, then opened the door
and took it inside. Before she could pull down the door, Lester was there, stepping
inside after her.
“Mrs. Coventry, I’d like to buy something.”
a Smith and Wesson .38 more quickly than he would have
imagined, she rasped, “I don’t know you. I don’t do business with people I
don’t know. Now get outta here before I call the police!”
“To a storage unit full of property
stolen by the King and Queen of porch pirates?” Lester smiled. “I don’t
think so. I’m prepared to pay one hundred thousand cash for the contents of that
box you pulled inside. If you decide it’s worth more, I can go up another twenty
or so.” He held out his hands to show he was unarmed. “You’ll understand
once you see it.”
Gun still trained on him, she took out a
box cutter, thumbed the blade into up, and slit open the top. She reached inside…
before she screamed, Lester was outside the unit, lowering the
door, and holding it in place with the lock’s shank but not clicking the lock shut.
She screamed again, and he heard a shot, a second shot. Finally, nothing. After detecting
no movement for five minutes, he raised the door just enough to kick the lock inside.
next morning, the news reported first responders to Jake
Coventry’s frantic 911 call the previous evening could not revive his wife. But they
all saw the snake that had struck her when she opened a package her husband couldn’t
remember stealing. Police shot the snake dead and arrested Coventry for possession of stolen
property. Print and broadcast journalists pointed out the black mamba wasn’t native
to the area and wondered if the Floridian hunger for exotic animals was ballooning beyond
the abandoned pythons that ended up growing to monstrous size in the Everglades.
different clothes and a straw fedora, Shelby was at the airport
when Lester boarded his flight.
“Glad to be back?” Meadowbrook
asked, late afternoon sun in the window behind him.
my accounts are getting healthier,” Lester said. “And
getting used to Shelby’s shadow act.”
“You won’t see him next time.
This one’s right here in LA.”
A week later, in the sunken living room
of a Beverly Hills home whose security system was off, Lester stood over the dying, overweight
body of a corporate executive in his late fifties. Alexander Cavendish’s face had
begun its anoxia transition to purple.
“Never tell a man like me to go to
the bar and pour himself a drink—and bring you what he’s having. But you’re
used to giving orders, aren’t you? It never occurs to you someone you paid, someone
like me, could drop something into your bourbon.” Having already snapped on nitrile
gloves to wipe the glasses and bottle and return them to their respective shelves under
the bar, Lester knelt beside him. “What you ingested goes undetected without a specific,
very expensive test. Medical examiners are
reluctant to use up their limited public finds when a more reasonable cause of death is
apparent.” Lester patted Cavendish’s darkening cheek. “Whether from infarction
or choking on vomit, your death will appear to be a heart attack.”
as his throat continued to close and the fist in his chest
grew harder and larger, Cavendish managed to whisper, “Why?”
“The women. The two I handled and
the four who came forward after you paid them off. One
of your board members doesn’t want to be held responsible for your rapes.”
Cavendish’s lips pressed together and he made
an mmm sound but could no longer speak.
you trying to say Meadowbrook?” Lester sighed. “Yes. I know,
you paid me to kill him. You also said there was no rush, to take all the time
The Spider stood and smoothed his slacks. He was confident that
when he figured out Meadowbrook’s real
game, instinct would tell him when and how to take out Shelby and then the
billionaire. He looked down at Cavendish one last time. “So there’s no need to
worry. I always honor my contracts.”
Gary Earl Ross is the author of Blackbird
Rising; Beneath the Ice and Other Stories; Shadows and
Mirrors: Four African-American Suspense Plays (including the Edgar Award
-winning Matter of Intent); and the Nickel
City mysteries with Buffalo PI Gideon Rimes.