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Gary Earl Ross: A Spider Among the Flies

99_ym_spideramongflies_kduncan.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan 2023

A Spider Among the Flies

by

Gary Earl Ross

 

“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.

Taking 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.

The 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.”

Lester 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, amused.

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.

 “You 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.”

Lester said nothing.

 “I’m 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.”

“My 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.”

“Since 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?”

Meadowbrook’s 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?”

“Because I can.”

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…”

“All right.”

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.

“When 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.”

_______

The 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 one week.”

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.

Before 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 in diameter.

“The fuck?” Short said.

“Sit,” Lester said, setting the bag on the counter and gesturing toward the nearest chair.

“Look, if you want money…”

“Sit. 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.”

“So 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?”

“Three!” 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.”

Short 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.”

Short 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.”

Lester 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.

Then 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 3 minutes.

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.

As he 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.

_______

“You’re 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?””

“He’s 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.

“You said your people could provide anything.”

When 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.”

Producing 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…

Even 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.

The 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.

In 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.

“Happy 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.”

Gasping 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.

“Are 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 I needed.”

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 RisingBeneath the Ice and Other StoriesShadows 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.



www.garyearlross.net



Kevin D. Duncan was born 1958 in Alton, Illinois where he still resides. He has degrees in Political Science, Classics, and Art & Design. He has been freelancing illustration and cartoons for over 25 years. He has done editorial cartoons and editorial illustration for local and regional newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His award-winning work has appeared in numerous small press zines, e-zines, and he has illustrated a few books. 

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2023