Monday, January 21, 2019

Desert Justice, fiction by Tom Barlow

Jacqueline Kyser, the attorney, and Carter Reed, the litigant, were cruising down Grandview Avenue in Pittsburgh via Google Earth, prospecting for their next victim. Outside, December snow spat against the window of Jacki's office in downtown Philadelphia, but the pictures of Pittsburgh on the computer screen had been taken during the summer. The contrast made Carter feel even colder, right down to the legs that he left back in Iraq.

"There," Jacki said, pointing the cursor at the Anthracite Steakhouse, in an old strip of brick two-stories hanging on the bank overlooking the Ohio River. She zoomed in. "No ramp, and the sidewalk outside has a bad case of frost heave. Architectural barriers. Should be good for five grand."

"It's your call."

"It's your name on the lawsuit," Jacki said, tapping her finger on the desk. "I want you to be comfortable with it."

Carter thought for a moment. The more drive-by suits they filed, the less comfortable he was with the whole process. Sure, Jacki had put a hundred thousand dollars in his pocket over the last year, the short end of the 40/60 split, but he couldn't help but wonder if he was doing a disservice to other disabled vets, making a mockery of the American with Disabilities Act. He had been an idealist, back when he first donned a uniform, but that had gone hollow since his injury and the discovery that his family and his countrymen didn't give a shit about him anymore. Now he had little to live for except the nuisance suit scam and his girlfriend.

Still, what would Ashley say if the gravy train suddenly came to a stop? She had her heart set on Jamaica this February. "Let's go for it," he said.

Jacki continued panning down the street, seeking other victims. She discounted an antiques shop, a nail boutique, a hair salon, and the Aquarius Coffee House as too poor to sue. To his surprise, she stopped at a strip club on the opposite side of the street, Cooters, a large one-story wood-frame building painted genital pink. "Have you ever been in one of these places?"

"Not since I hooked up with Ashley," Carter said, remembering with embarrassment his last lap dance, before Iraq, when he still had a lap. Before he'd learned how some clubs treated their women.

He was a little uncomfortable talking about sex with Jacki, who, three years after her divorce, gave no signs she had any interest in the subject. Not that he was attracted to her. There was something mannish about her face, perhaps because it was framed with hair that hung straight and limp, something most women would have addressed with a better cut or set. Her oversized glasses, with thick tangerine frames, did nothing to soften her indelicate appearance. She even walked with a heft that most women would find embarrassing.

"I was in one last week for the first time," she said, "on the south side–the Goose and Gander. Intended as verbs, I think." She caught his raised eyebrows. "Bridal shower, and the bride was worried about where the bachelor party was going to end up. Anyway, they were advertising private dances, which took place in a room backstage. At the top of a set of stairs." She rocked back in her office chair. "They seem to do a brisk business, lots of cash passing hands. Why should someone disabled be denied that opportunity just because the owner is too cheap to install a ramp?"

Carter shook his head. "You want to sue them because a cripple can't get his rocks off there?"

"I don't think we'll phrase the suit quite that way. But yes, you have the gist of the filing."

"As long as I don't have to research it firsthand. It's too sleazy for me."

"Gee, aren't you the sensitive guy. No worries, Tom Babbage was an investigator for the law firm I worked for before I went out on my own. He'd be delighted to check it out for us."

"You're going to buy him a lap dance?"

"My accountant is going to freak when he sees that business deduction," she said with a faint smile.


Ashley picked him up outside Jacki's office as planned, at 5 p.m. While he could drive the van, equipped with hand controls, it was so much easier for her to escort him. Once he was safely inside, his chair wheels locked to the floor, she took off for their new apartment in downtown Philly, in the 1919 Market building near the Mütter Museum.

"I hope your day was better than mine," she said. "The STD clinic nurse called off and I had to fill in. I've seen enough oozing dicks for a lifetime."

"Funny you should bring that up," he said, and told her about the lawsuit against Cooters they were about to file.

"Just as long as they don't pay you off in sex," she said. "On another subject, I had a chance at lunch to price out our vacation. That all-inclusive resort will cost us around three grand, not including air fare. It's supposedly full access. They even have a cement ramp that goes down through the beach to the ocean. I need your credit card to make the reservations."

He was profoundly sick of dealing with ice and snow already and had yet to buy the woman a Christmas present. And she deserved something nice; beyond the deep affection he felt for her, for a guy with no legs she was a godsend. He pulled out his wallet, grabbed his Visa card and handed it forward to her.

"Thanks, Sweetie," she said.

"Put a bow on the reservations and put it under the tree," he said.

She stuck out her lower lip. "I was hoping for something sparkly."

He didn't respond, aware that she was hinting at an engagement ring. But the current scam couldn't last forever, and he didn't want to end up like his bum of a father, living off the woman he had come to despise simply because he needed her so badly.


Jacki called him a week later to tell him she had the paperwork for the lawsuit against Cooters ready for his signature. And a lot more. Tom Babbage had discovered that the owner was a Vic Orlov of Philadelphia, who apparently owned a string of such clubs along U.S. 76 from the Ohio River to the Delaware. His Eros Enterprises corporate office was less than a mile from Jacki's place, adjacent to one of his clubs, Jiggles. She'd dispatched Babbage to check out each club, and he'd reported the same kind of violations in all but one.

"You think this is your chance?" Carter said. Jacki had told him weeks earlier she was looking for a big score. She owed alimony and child support to her ex, and they'd just discovered the kid, Angelina, had a heart condition that required surgery.

"We hit a big corporation, they'll bury us in legal proceedings. This guy's about the right size to be able to come up with the cash to pay the suit without stonewalling us in court."

"He could be mobbed up."

Jacki picked at a broken fingernail. "You're thinking of the old days. Today these guys are businessmen with angel investors and spreadsheets."

Carter often thought Jacki overestimated the appeal of her settlement offers, but they'd never gone to court yet, so he had to trust her on this one.


Carter was preparing to leave for the Iraq Vet's group that met at St. Francis Church every Wednesday evening to talk about their experiences in the service, which occasionally triggered the PTSD that ran through the group like a sniper's bullet, when his best friend Ryan Apple phoned. He invited Carter to join him at The Patriot tavern a few blocks away instead, where Ryan hung out virtually every night.

They usually spent part of the night arguing over who would pick up the tab, since Ryan was convinced Carter had saved his life by absorbing the brunt of the blow from an IED wired to a woman in a burka. She had been waiting for them to pass in a street market in Ramadi before she blew herself up. Carter refused to take credit for what had been simply blind luck. He only regretted not taking enough of the shrapnel embedded in the bomb to keep it from blowing off Ryan's scalp and half his face. He hadn't seen his friend without the Phillies ball cap jammed low on his head and his shirt collar turned up since the bandages came off a year earlier.

Ryan had staked out a seat at one of the few low tables so they didn't have to look up and down at one another. "You got a head start on me?" Carter said.

Ryan pointed to the three empties on the table and shrugged.

"You get any work this week?" Carter said. Ryan worked framing houses as a day laborer when his hangover would allow it.

"There's this charity over on the south side teaching immigrants rough-in work," Ryan said between swallows. "Now there's about a million Puerto Ricans waiting outside Home Depot in the morning every day. The contractors won't even make eye contact with an Anglo."

"So what you going to do?" Carter was concerned; he'd talked his friend out of eating his gun once already since they were discharged.

"Mom and Dad said I could move back in with them, but why the fuck would I want to live in Wheeling again? There aren't any jobs within a hundred miles, unless you want to mine coal. Since we got back, I can't handle tight spaces."

"You're good with your hands, man. A guy who can defuse bombs ought to be able to find some kind of sit-down job."

"Remember when they showed us that bomb-unit robot prototype? You got a robot to defuse a bomb, there's no reason you can't get a robot to do your sit-down job. Shit, my last surgeon was a robot. How about you? You still filing lawsuits?"

Carter told him about the suit against Orlov and the strip clubs. It brought a big, albeit lopsided, smile to Ryan's face. "Shit. Maybe you'll end up owning one of the clubs. Wouldn't that be cool?"

"I knew this girl in high school, Penny Manos," Carter said, "got herself a job in a strip club in Baltimore. The last time I ran into her, shortly before I was deployed, she had a dope habit, an STD, two black eyes and a baby she didn't know who the father was. Social Services was trying to take it away from her."

He was reluctant to confess that Penny was his half-sister, now walking the streets of L.A. and out of contact for the past three years. As a teen, he'd stood by as their father tried to beat the rebellion out of her, and he still carried that unpaid debt with him.


Luckily Ashley was in the middle of one of her twelve-hour shifts at the hospital a week later when the buzzer from the lobby of his apartment building went off.

"Who's there?" he said.

"I have a message from Vic Orlov," came the reply in the voice of a young woman.

Carter was about to take his afternoon pain meds, and that need momentarily fought with curiosity. The latter won. Carter allowed her to enter the building. While she was on her way up, however, he retrieved his military pistol, a Sig Sauer M18, from the bedside stand.

When she knocked, he chambered a round before cracking the door open a few inches to check her out. The young woman was tall, willowy, with hair the color of rain on a black Cadillac and a face any soldier would be proud to carry in his wallet. She was wearing a sable fur coat that ended at her ankles and a smile that reflected the winter sun.

"Hi," she said. "Are you Carter Reed?"

"That's me," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"Actually, it's the other way around," she said and opened her coat. Underneath, she wore not a stitch, and what the coat had concealed was magnificent. "The owner of the clubs you're suing sent me and told me to ask you what I could do for you. Anything you like. Anything. You going to let me in?"

When he first hooked up with Ashley, he'd thought she was about as good a catch as he was likely to find given his condition. She was loyal and not stupid and diligent enough to hold a job, but one thing she wasn't was sensual, not like this woman.

"Orlov sent you? What's the catch?" he said, rolling back to allow her to enter.

She stepped inside, leaned over and ran a nail up the zipper of his slacks. "He wants you to understand that he can be a nice guy, or he can be a not so nice guy. I represent the nice part. Now, why don't you show me where the bedroom is?"

Carter struggled mightily with the knowledge that many, if not most, hookers were in the trade against their will, enslaved by dope or threats of violence, like his half-sister. But there was a hunger in him, too, as though making love to such a stunning woman might fool him into believing, if just for the moment, that he was not half a man.

Her last words when she left an hour later, addressed to him as he lay spent on his bed, was, "Vic said this is your only carrot. Next time it's the stick. You really won't like the stick." She blew him an air kiss as she donned her coat and left.

He watched her from the bedroom window as she exited the building and got into the back seat of a Lincoln waiting at the curb, already cursing himself for his weakness.


He and Jacki were due to meet the next morning to review the steps taken and plan those to come. The more Carter knew her, the more he respected her ability to read him, so he didn't even try to pretend the episode with Orlov's messenger hadn't happened. He expected her to dress him down severely, which he probably deserved, but instead she just shook her head, a look of equal parts compassion and disappointment on her face.

"I can't begin to understand what it must be like for you, dealing with your injuries. So I won't criticize. But I do wish you'd keep it in your pants from now on. OK?"

"You're not worried about her threat?" Carter said.

"I'm not happy about it, but we don't really have any choice in the matter now." She dug through the file on the Cooters lawsuit and handed him a business card for a Kayla Evans, investigator with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office.

"Who's this?" he said.

"Interesting visit I had yesterday, at her instigation. It seems that the AG's office is hot to bust Orlov for procuring girls from Central America against their will and forcing them into the sex trade."

"Holy shit. That's awful. But what's that got to do with ADA lawsuits?" He tried to remember the expression on the face of the woman who had visited him. She had not appeared to be conflicted about her actions, but maybe she was just a good actor. Maybe she was just as exploited as the girls hawking blow jobs on the street corner. The shame he had been carrying came out in a blush.

Jacki didn't seem to notice. "They've been watching his cash flow, and he's very careful about covering up his illicit income. But if he has to come up with half a mill, they think he'll have to dip into his under-the-table cash to pay it off, and that's when they'll pounce."

"Still, what's to stop us from dropping the case? I don't like being threatened."

Jacki slumped in her chair. "She was pretty clear with me that my license to practice in Pennsylvania would be painstakingly reviewed if I didn't play along; they don't like attorneys who live on nuisance lawsuits, as a rule. Even if I'm clean, they could damage my reputation just by calling me into question."

"They play hardball in Philly, huh?"

"Look, I know I don't have anything to hang over your head, but I'm begging you stay with me." She bit her lower lip.

The army had drilled into his head the idea of the team, how you didn't abandon your buddy just because the bullets were flying, and some residual part of that training still guided his thinking. He couldn't walk away from Jacki now, not after all she had done for him. "I'm in."

"Good. I'm more eager than ever to press ahead after the stunt Orlov tried with you."

"It wasn't exactly waterboarding," he said.


Orlov waited for less than a week to demonstrate his stick. Carter and Ashley had just exited the elevator in the underground garage, intending to head to Vista Peru for dinner, when a tall ski-masked figure dressed in jeans and a leather jacket loitering next to the elevator door intercepted them. He said, "Orlov told you to drop the lawsuits, asshole," as he stepped around Carter, flicking open an expandable baton, and swung viciously at Ashley's left leg. Carter heard the snap as a bone in her lower leg broke. She shrieked and fell to the cement. Furious at his helplessness, Carter attempted to whip his wheelchair around and take the man's legs out from under him, but instead their assailant grabbed the handles of his wheelchair and gave him a shove, sending him careening down the slight grade to the parking area. Carter managed to stop himself and turn just in time to see the man calmly swing again, breaking her other leg.

Carter could only watch, defenseless, as the man jogged out of the garage into the darkness, Ashley's screams in his wake.

By the time the ambulance arrived, he'd had time to gather his wits enough to realize that the cops would be just as likely to investigate him as they would the attacker should he tell them the whole story. To his humiliation he chose instead to claim the attack was unprovoked, inexplicable. When Carter was done giving his statement, the cop poked her cap up so she could look him in the eye and said, "The guy never even asked for your wallet? Look, pal–you decide to can the bullshit and tell us what really happened, maybe we could do something for you. But this?" She held up the written report, tore off the top copy and gave it to him. "Might as well use it to light your Christmas candles."

As he wheeled away from the cop, he caught the eyes of Ashley, seated in the ambulance as they applied air casts to her legs. He could see in her glare that she rightly blamed him.

He followed the ambulance in his van. At the emergency room, he asked to be allowed to accompany Ashley into triage, but to his disappointment she told the nurses to keep him away. By the time she did permit him to join her, she was in long casts on both legs. A wheelchair had already been delivered to her room.

She met him with a scowl as he wheeled into her room. "How you doing?" he said, stopping just out of arm's length. "I'm going to hire a live-in nurse, while you recover."

"Fuck you," Ashley said. "My Dad's on the way. I'm moving home. I know this was your fault, all that shit about the strip clubs. It's bad enough I end up in a wheelchair like you; I'm not about to risk it ends up permanent."


On the way back to his apartment he phoned Jacki and clued her in to the attack. "You better watch out. You could be next."

There was a long pause before she responded. "Maybe we should just give it up. I can rebuild my reputation; nothing I've done is exactly illegal."

But the loss of his girlfriend had brought Carter to a new frame of mind. "Bullshit. If Orlov thought he was going to scare me off, he made a bad mistake. In Iraq every person I passed could have been a bomber. So now I'm supposed to be afraid of a guy with a stick? I say we up the lawsuit to two mill."

"If we change anything, the court date gets pushed back. Let's keep it as is and I'll ask Tom Babbage to provide a body guard for a little while."

"I don't need one."

"I meant for me. I know you're the hero type, doesn't need help."

"Well, I could use somebody to gas up my van, but yeah, you're right."


The first thing Carter did when he arrived home was grab his pistol, cursing himself for lacking the foresight to arm himself earlier. He was pissed that he had initially bought Jacki's assertion that Orlov wouldn't break the rules of polite society; he'd learned in Baghdad the veneer of civilization was no thicker than a skin graft.

There was a fury inside him that Ashley had helped contain, but he realized now it had simply been smoldering and was now reborn unchecked. It echoed all the way back to the sound of his father's fist to his sister's stomach, to the notion of brainwashed women in burkas wired with explosives. He spent the rest of the evening with a bottle of Jack Daniels lusting for revenge more visceral than a lawsuit.

At 1:00 a.m. he made a phone call to Ryan Apple.

"Yeah?" his friend said. Carter was pretty sure the slur in Ryan's voice was Yuengling, not sleepiness.

"Hey, buddy. You took apart a lot of bombs. You suppose you could build one?"


Carter came to his senses the next morning, writing off his request for a bomb as a drunken bit of stupidity. So Ryan surprised the hell out of him when he called back three days later to tell him he'd obtained the necessary materials. Carter hadn't known that there was in fact an active community of ex-soldiers, bomb squad guys, who brought their interest in explosives back with them, and who got together from time to time to blow shit up for the fun of it. He also didn't know that, with relatively little work, Ryan could come up with a chunk of Semtex and a fuse.

Carter jumped at the chance to pay Orlov back, and also possibly help the girls the man had enslaved. He described to Ryan what he needed the package to look like, and within another day, his doorbell rang. There stood a strangely sober Ryan holding a cardboard box.

Carter let him in, offered him a beer. He wondered when Ryan refused it.

Ryan set the box down gingerly on the kitchen counter and said, "This makes us even, OK? You saved my life, now I put mine on the line for you."

"Don't worry," Carter said. "Nobody will ever tie this back to you."

"I trust you, but I do want to know the plan."

When Carter laid it out for him, Ryan said, "How do you plan to get into the office without them knowing you'd been there?"

Carter reached into his pocket and pulled out a keyring with a dozen keys on it that he'd bought on eBay. Unlike regular door keys, these keys were all cut down such that the serrated edge was flat, except for a few small humps. "You ever use a bump key?"

"Don't tell me you know how to pick a lock."

"Not exactly. But with the right bump key, you can open most locks. All you need to do is put it in, pull it back out one click, put some rotational pressure on the key while you smack the end with a hammer. The pins in the lock jump up just long enough to open, and it doesn't leave a mark."

"How the fuck did you learn to do that?"

"YouTube videos. I practiced on the door to my apartment."

At that point, Ryan said, "I'll take you up on that beer. It may be the last one we have together for a long time."


Carter was lucky enough to score a parking spot across the street from the offices of Eros Enterprises the next afternoon, which were in a brick one-story building with narrow fixed windows that had been replaced with glass blocks. From there he could watch people come and go. Twice during the afternoon, a portly man in a white shirt with sleeves too short for him exited Jiggles next door with a black bag and carried it to the office of Eros Enterprises. Carter assumed it was the cash take from the club, leading him to believe there was a safe in the office. He had no interest in the money but wondered if he might use it to cover up what he planned to do.

Promptly at 5:00 p.m., three people left the offices: Orlov, the woman who had seduced him, and a tall, broad-shouldered man who he recognized by his build and the way that he moved as the man who broke Ashley's legs. Orlov, last out, locked the door behind him. None of them had appeared to arm a security system. He guessed they didn't want the police called in case of a break-in, fearing what they might find.

Carter returned home and caught a few hours of on-again/off-again sleep before rising at 4:00 a.m. to return to Orlov's office. This time, he could park out front. He exited the van in the quiet of late night and wheeled up to the door, Ryan's package on his lap.

The door was solid wood with a heavy-duty lock. He had to try three bump keys before he found one that fit. Thirty seconds later he was inside.

He had been worried that the layout might not single out Orlov's desk, but to his relief the whole place was open space with one enclosed office at the back, surely belonging to the boss. Carter clamped a flashlight in his teeth as he wheeled the length of the office only to find that the door to Orlov's office was too narrow for his chair. Disgruntled, he lowered himself to the floor, and, shoving the package before him, propelled himself with both hands around the desk until he could, by rolling the desk chair back, access the desk well. He turned on the cell phone attached to the bomb that would serve as a trigger, which he planned to set off from his van once Orlov arrived at the office that morning. He tore off the paper covering the two-sided tape that would attach the bomb to the underside of the desk and pressed it in place. There was a heavy floor safe next to the desk, and he hoped the blast might open it, just to confuse the cops about his motive.

He was halfway back to his wheelchair, however, when he heard a key slide into the front-door lock. Shocked that anyone would be arriving so early in the morning, he turned off his flashlight and slid under the desk. From there he could peer out through a gap in the modesty panel. Two people had entered: Orlov, and the man who assaulted Ashley, who he assumed was the man's bodyguard. Both were holding pistols at the ready. Orlov said, "I don't care if the door was still locked. The silent alarm didn't go off on its own."

It only took Orlov a moment to spot Carter's wheelchair. "What the fuck is that doing here?" He stepped toward the office.

Having dwelt on death for the past two years with a kind of yearning, Carter was not surprised at how blithe he felt as his avenue of escape disappeared. This was his chance to stand for Penny and Ashley and any other women who had suffered on his watch. He slid his cell phone out of his pocket, punched in the number of the phone attached to the bomb, and held his thumb above 'send'.

Orlov entered the office and found Carter waiting, back against the safe. "Good morning," Carter said, facing the barrel of Orlov's pistol.

"Who the fuck are you, dead man?" Orlov said as the bodyguard came into the office to see who Orlov had the drop on.

"That's the guy filing the lawsuits," his bodyguard said.

Orlov smiled. "No shit? This is better than I expected. What the hell do you think you're doing, breaking in here? And in a wheelchair to boot?" He checked with his bodyguard to make sure he understood the humor in the situation. "I shoot you as an intruder now, the cops won't blink an eye."

"My drill sergeant spent most of basic trying to convince us that killing terrorists half a world away was going to make our country better," Carter said. "Turns out, the real enemy is much closer to home."

Orlov's eyes narrowed. "What? You think I'm a bad person? I'm just a businessman, pal, providing what the customers want. The cops can't touch me." He turned to his bodyguard for confirmation.

"One thing I learned in Iraq," Carter said. "Desert justice doesn't depend on a judge or a jury. There's nothing but explosives and suicide bombers willing to die for what they think is right."

Before Orlov could make sense of his words, Carter held up his cell phone and dropped his thumb on 'send'.

Tom Barlow is an Ohio writer. Other works of his may be found in anthologies including Best American Mystery Stories 2013, Dames and Sin and Plan B Omnibus and periodicals including Pulp Modern, Red Room, Heater, Plots With Guns, Mystery Weekly, Needle, Thuglit, Manslaughter Review, Switchblade and Tough (Yay!). His novel I'll Meet You Yesterday and crime short story collection Odds of Survival are available on Amazon.

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