Baylor Roman sat low in the seat and stretched back. The handlebar grips were wearing through his gloves again, which pissed him off. He velcroed off the gloves and rubbed the calluses on the palms of his hands near his thumbs. Baylor looked to the crosswalk on his left, saw the do-not-walk sign counting down and quickly strapped his gloves back on, knowing the light was going to turn yellow in five seconds, four seconds, three, two… He cranked the pedals hard and by the time he was at the other side of the intersection, he was blowing past a double-parked car at a fair clip. Baylor Roman was a courier, finished with his deliveries for the day, on his way back to the office at the heart of downtown, off 17th Street, not at all far from the White House. There was no one faster than a courier with nothing left to deliver.
The office, which was just a dispatch room, was mostly empty. It was getting late in the afternoon and most of the other riders were either out on their last calls or headed home. Baylor Roman used a delivery entrance in an alley and came up a freight elevator to the fourth floor of a nondescript building. The office was a ghost town, just how he liked it. Leave his delivery signature sheet on the table, grab what he needed, sign out, and head home.
He locked the Scott Scale 50, a racing-grade mountain bike he’d tricked out to run lighter and faster and take the turns tighter in the city, to a dilapidated bike rack in the corner, and sat in an empty cubicle. Fontaine, another bike messenger for the company, had come through for him in spades. The photographs were in a thin paper bag, and had a little more heft than he thought they might. There must have been more than he expected. He shook the bag, it slipped a bit in his riding gloves, and four, maybe five of the pictures fell out. Baylor looked around the empty office quickly, let his eyes rest on his beloved bike, and then down at the photographs.
“Fuck!” He hissed. He bent down to pick them up. From just a glance, he could tell they were going to be real doozies.
“Sinner!” The sudden, shrill voice from behind him was startling and his face flushed beet-red. Baylor bit his lower lip, and choked back a curse. It was one of the dispatchers – and one of the worst – the woman who sat less than four feet away at the next cubicle, Lorrie Beth Hammond. Jesus, he thought, I nearly pissed myself.
“What on Earth do you mean, Lorrie Beth?” Baylor’s Arkansas accent melted his words like butter on bread, lent them a quality of sincerity that was as false as the day is long. He quickly scooped the Polariods and clutched them to his chest. Baylor tried to remember why Lorrie Beth was here – he didn’t remember taking any dispatch calls from Lorrie Beth all day.
“You’re not supposed to be looking at those sinfully dirty pictures. I saw your blasphemous, evil pornography,” she said it ‘porno-GRAPH-ee,’ “And your pornographies are all immoral.” The last word emphasized for maximum impact. “It’s in the Bible.”
Baylor couldn’t recall the passage in the Bible that prohibited him from viewing the specific images that had caught his eye, but he was damn sure he was clutching some sin to his chest. He turned to look at Lorrie Beth, whom he could tell already was preparing a sermon. It wouldn’t be the first time. The first time, Lorrie Beth went on for a good forty minutes on the virtues of chastity, something about Soddomites and finally referencing the approximate temperature in Hell, Celsius as well as Fahrenheit. Baylor took the opportunity to send one eye down to the floor just to make sure he hadn’t left one there by mistake. Now that would have been a sin.
“Lorrie Beth, I’ve just got this one last package I’ve got to...” Baylor was concocting a plan on the fly, but it was hard looking at Lorrie Beth. She was sad in so many ways. She wasn’t even very good at her job. In fact, Baylor had lost count how many addresses she’d screwed him on, how many pick-ups she just forgot to call in. It happened all the time, it happened to him, to Fontaine, to all of them. Bitching about Lorrie Beth – her God talk, her unfortunate looks, her poor social skills generally, her crappy job performance – it was practically a job function with the bike couriers. Baylor tried to hide his flinch as he looked at her. Damn, she was hard to look at. Brown, mousy hair pulled back in a tight bun, a mole on her cheek with the hairs growing out of it, and everyone’s favorite – the golden cross, which hung constantly and heavy between the massive chasm of her considerable bosom. Blasphemy if I ever saw it, Baylor thought.
“Baylor, I saw your dirty, filthy pictures. And I’m telling Mr. Jennings.” Mr. Jennings was perhaps Lorrie Beth’s only fan in the office, or at least he put up with her. The couriers suspected they were somehow related, that her working there had been some sort of familial payoff, some sort of kinfolk deal gone horribly wrong. She had to be a cousin, a niece, something. No one could think of any other reason for Jennings to keep her around. “But worse,” you could tell she liked this part best, “you’re going to go… to hell!” She pointed a bloated finger, nearly touching his nose.
Baylor took a deep breath and prepared himself for another special performance, as he’d had to do many times before. A bit of him wished that someone could be there to videotape it. He was good. Really good. He often felt he deserved an award of some sort. But no one else was ever around, not even Fontaine. Fontaine would’ve loved it.
“Oh, Lorrie Beth,” he squinted his eyes, hard, working to force a tear. Please, he thought, just one tear. Like the commercial of that Indian looking at all the trash. “I need help. I’m a sinner, Lorrie Beth. A sinner! I need redemption. I need it SO BAD!” He was almost yelling now, and Lorrie Beth took a step back, stunned, looking around. “Lord, I beseech you, deliver me from this horrible, awful, agonizing, terrible sin!” He worried for a split second that he’d overdone it with ‘beseech’ and the four adjectives describing sin. Three probably would’ve worked. Besides, Lorrie Beth was not exactly an English major. “Won’t you pray for me, Lorrie Beth?” Finally the dam broke and tears streaked down his face, and he looked up at her with big, pleading eyes. He ran a hand through his dark hair, greasy from riding around all day, and began to shake, crying like the day he was born.
“Oh, sweet child, sweet lamb.” Bingo. The effort had paid off, again. Lorrie Beth was now standing directly over the quivering Baylor Roman, still on his knees from picking up the pictures, and she grabbed his head and thrust it towards her massive bosom. Baylor continued to weep uncontrollably, his sobs now muffled by the flesh of her large chest. “The Good Lord will take you in to his loving arms, as I have, and forgive your disgusting sins, the very worst sins, the sins of the flesh.” Baylor could feel the fleshy pictures in his brown bag. “Will you take the Lord in to your heart and accept him as your savior, here and now?”
No. At least not with this bag of dirty pictures in his arms.
“Yes, Lorrie Beth, yes. Will you pray with me? Will you help me pray, so that I can see the light? Will you pray?” Baylor had managed to pull away from Lorrie Beth enough to get that much out. He knew that she’d never prayed a prayer she didn’t like. Once, during the annual office holiday party, Mr. Jennings made the grave error of asking Lorrie Beth to bless the lunch they’d had brought in from the Chinese place downstairs. It took her a good twenty minutes. She thanked the baby Jesus, the good Lord Jesus, the Holy Ghost, the Virgin Mary, and a fair number of the Sainted for the food, the fruit punch, even the utensils, and just about everything else she could conjure. She also spent a fair amount of time condemning the unsaved, which was most everyone in the room, and went in to excruciating detail on the painful miseries of hell. Old Mr. Wilkinson, the office accountant, nearly fainted from keeping his head bowed for so long. When Lorrie Beth finally said ‘Amen,’ never had so many people in one place been so truly thankful.
“Of course,” she said, whispering, falling to her knees right there with Baylor. As Lorrie Beth closed her eyes and clasped her chubby hands in front of her, Baylor silently counted to four-Mississippi, then clapped his hands in front of his face and yelled, far too loudly, “Amen!” cutting off Lorrie Beth just as she was getting started in on the Lord, the Apostles, and several others. This startled Lorrie Beth and, wide-eyed, she nearly fell over backwards. Baylor worked desperately not to laugh right at her, instead reaching out and grabbing her considerable shoulder.
“Lorrie Beth,” he sniffled, “thank you. Thanks you so much.” He whispered, eyes brimming.
“But…” she was stuck, but didn’t want to not acknowledge the compliment. “Sweetheart, thank the Lord. He will cleanse your soul of the evils of pornography.” Porno-GRAPH-ee. Her smile was perfectly innocent, and Baylor wondered how people could be so gullible.
Without offering to help her up – and she certainly needed it – Baylor stood and turned to leave, glancing to the floor one last time, just in case he’d left one of the photos behind. Lorrie Beth had, apparently, completely forgotten about the filthy pictures in the heat of the God moment.
“Okay, well, I’ll see you tomorrow, Lorrie Beth. And,” he turned and looked down at her, oozing mock sincerity, “thank you again.”
Lorrie Beth, still on her knees, said, eyes fluttering, “Bless you, child.” But Baylor was already walking past her towards his bike. He didn’t know how many more times he could pull that routine with her, the instantaneous born-again act. Lorrie Beth had caught Baylor with materials of an explicit and graphic nature five times now. And every time she’d given him the full-scale fire-and-brimstone routine – today’s bit was easy in comparison to some of them. Each time he’d momentarily find God, credit Lorrie Beth, and get on with his life. The next day, Lorrie Beth would inevitably invite him to her church and he would have to come up with some elaborate excuse as to why he couldn’t go until the whole episode had finally been forgotten. Lorrie Beth had a very short attention span as well.
Baylor signed out on a clipboard strung up on the wall, unlocked the bike, and headed for the elevators down to the rear exit in the alley. He had stuffed the paper bag in his courier pack. He couldn’t wait to get down to the alley. Baylor had to see these shots for themselves. If they were as good as he thought they might be, it would be money in the bank.
Outside of the drab, gray building Baylor took a deep breath of the fall air. It was a wet day, overcast and particularly humid. Cool breezes offering an early hint of winter passed between the tall buildings of downtown. People passed by at a brisk pace twenty five yards in front of him, past the entrance of the alley, heads down towards the Metro or the bus stop or to their garage on the slick sidewalk, halfway watching their step as they went. The traffic, line after line of cars, rolled down 17th Street, the sound of wet asphalt hissing underneath the tires. Baylor stood for a moment in front of his building and absorbed it all, listening to the sounds, smelling the fall air, allowing his senses to react to everything around him. There was no one else around, not in the alley, anyway.
Baylor pulled the paper bag out and opened it up. Oh, sweet Jesus. They were perfect. Perfect. There were easily twenty, maybe two-dozen Polaroids, all in perfect focus. The woman in each one was stunning, amazing. Baylor couldn’t stop staring at her. She was average in terms of height, maybe a little petite. An Asian girl, and she looked younger than she probably was. The make-up was done perfectly, red lipstick but nothing overdone at all. She had very large breasts – not the smaller breasts associated with Asian women typically, but nice, full tits with dark nipples. Her breasts were perfectly smooth and rounded, not even surgically enhanced. In fact, that’s what kept Baylor’s eye, picture after picture – her naturalness. Her skin seemed perfectly smooth, her beauty seemed real, not fake like so many of the LA porn stars who are all plastic and filling and Botox. This girl, named Lynne, Baylor happened to know, looked amazing. If he saw her later, he’d make a special point to compliment her. Lynne was sweet – she’d appreciate that.
The man in the picture was another story. He looked happy – and considering the things Lynne was doing to him, he should’ve been. Other than that, he was an unfortunate character. Bald mostly, except for the ring of too-long hair in the very back of his head that stuck out on either side and made him look not a little bit unlike Bozo the Clown. That’s how Baylor thought of him, which was unfortunate for Lynne. Bozo had one of those crazy wide grins in every picture, and his teeth were yellow and crooked. Bozo was working on transitioning his beer gut in to full blown tub of lard. Little hairs ringed his bellybutton, and that was it. He was working on a pretty serious set of tits of his own, though not nearly as nice as Lynne’s. Baylor couldn’t help it and found himself looking at the man’s penis. About average, was the description that entered Baylor’s mind, followed immediately by a ten-year-old version of his voice saying, How would you know? Ha! In fact, the guy was respectable enough down there to impress Lynne. Baylor flipped to the last photo and nearly dropped it from laughing out loud. In was Lynne, in the leather bustier that revealed her breasts, black high heels, and nothing else, hair done back in a slick, long ponytail. The man, Bozo, was standing up, looking almost directly at the camera, that creepy smile on his face, oblivious through the fog of his orgasmic experience. But it was the look on Lynne’s face that cracked him up, in fact, made him nearly explode with laughter. She had one eyebrow arched just so, her head nodded to the right just a little bit, and the slightest of smiles. Lynne’s eyes did all the talking, had that perfect sparkle of a smile within. Her left hand was cupping his balls, and the base of his penis, as if presenting it for inspection, and her look, in as perfect a way as could be caught on camera said, Well, now, lookey here! Isn’t this something, Baylor Roman? In fact, after counting the photos again – two-dozen and one – he decided that this was Lynne’s little gift to him. He put it in his jacket pocket next to another, much more serious, much more sinister photograph, as a keepsake.
He put the rest of the pictures away, got on the bike and pushed out, just a slow ratchet towards the far end of the alley, closer to K Street. Traffic seemed especially noisy, and the people a little thicker than they had been, even just the week before. The city was preparing for the Millennium celebration, still a few months away. He sighed and pedaled down through to the street.
At first Baylor had loved the city life, the action, the bustle of crowds. And riding a bike through D.C. was like getting a free ride at Disney World every day, and getting paid for it. There was ample entertainment in Washington, and he truly enjoyed it, drank it all in and assimilated himself as a part of it, as though the lifestyle itself were a living thing. He felt whole, a contributing member of the collective. Now the whole damn place was just loud, overbearing. And they were going to celebrate it with the year 2000. It was time to get out, and recent circumstances were conspiring to give him a great reason to do just that.
Baylor had been feeling this way for about a year now, and occasionally tried to reexamine his emotions. The answer was always came back the same: time for a change. He turned the bike back down 18th Street and let a couple of hard turns and a quick shift of the gear carry him more than half a block.
By the time he’d gone the three and a half blocks to his destination, it was misting tiny drops, and the sky was beginning to go dark. He noticed the tires on the bike kicking up a little moisture from the street. Rain always depressed him in Washington, and not just because being a bike messenger was hard when it rained, which it was. The days were getting shorter now, and this made him sad as well. He stood at his corner and waited for his contact: a sixteen year-old punk of a kid. A high school student, a boy from St. Albans, the premiere snot-nose brat school of Washington, D.C. Senators kids, President’s kids. Congressmen and Ambassadors. Rich lawyers. All of them sent their pretentious little children to St. Albans.
Baylor stood, hand balancing his bike by the seat, flicking the gears and pulling the brakes. He ratcheted the pedals back a full revolution. He wasn’t in any hurry to do what he was about to do, and so he was patient, waiting under the awning of a deli that had closed at four o’clock. He was trying to stay out of the way and out of the line of sight of crowds crossing the street. In a sort of halfhearted way, Baylor hoped that Sam wouldn’t show up. The kid had said his name was Sam, and at first Baylor thought it was bullshit, but it turned out to be right. Baylor and Sam had met almost at random in front of a liquor store less than a block away about a year before. Sam had approached Baylor, and Baylor said, sure, he’d buy the kid a bottle of gin. Things escalated from there. There was more liquor to be bought, sure, but there was gambling, too, and even some trafficking in porn and cigarettes. Not a pack of smokes and a girly magazine, no. Sam got so much from Baylor, he could only figure the kid had a little distribution outfit of his own at St. Albans. It was business and like any business there was a bottom line, and that’s what Baylor cared about: the money. And no matter what, the kid always had enough money.
Sam showed up about a minute later looking like a strange cross between sheepish and remarkably tough for a kid. Baylor felt nothing but sympathy noting the enormous pimple on the young man’s chin. He always wondered how Sam had gotten in to this – he wasn’t a bad kid, really.
Well, maybe he was.
As Sam walked up, Baylor slid one of the pictures out of the bag and waved it back and forth.
“Shit, man! You got it!” Sam said, far too loudly. “It’s really him! Fuck, let me see it.”
“Woah, woah! You know the drill, kid.” Baylor held the picture back, Sam standing just in front of him, the bike in between. People on the sidewalk ignored them. People on the sidewalk ignored everybody. “Remember our deal? We had a deal, me and you, kid.”
Sam hated it when Baylor called him kid.
“Fine,” all teen attitude and pissiness. Sam looked around, quickly, and pulled a giant wad of bills out of his jacket pocket, the side with the crest on it. He started to hand it to Baylor, then pulled it back. “Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t get a good look. Is that really him? I want to make sure. Show me one more again. Show me.” Sam was a little shit, but he wasn’t stupid.
“Okay. Alright.” Baylor had to respect the kid for being smart about it. “Here.” He pulled one out of the bag at random – a good one. Bozo was lying on his back and Lynne was riding him like a cowgirl, her hands pressed against his big gut. Bozo had one hand on her right breast, squeezing it like a melon, and was actually giving the camera a thumbs-up with the other. He still had that weird, yellow-tooth smile. Baylor handed it to the kid.
“Holy fucking shit! I mean, fuck, dude! It’s really him! It’s really Mr. Spangler! Shit! I cannot believe you got these, man. And look at that bitch! She’s so fucking hot! Oh my God! That Chinese bitch is so fucking hot, and she’s fucking Mr. Spangler! How the fuck did you fucking get these… Ah… I mean… Oh, shit,” Sam seemed to stop short, catch himself.
“Oooh!” Baylor snatched the photo out of Sam’s hands with lightening speed, reflexes developed from biking through the fast DC traffic. “Remember, Sam? Remember what I said was the one part of this deal? Remember?”
Sam mumbled, “Uh-huh.” He’d gone ghost-white.
“I said no asking how the fuck I got these. Remember?” Baylor was asking in as condescending a voice as he could. Hell, he thought, Maybe I’ll just take these back, call the deal off.
“Right. Yeah. I remember… Look…” Sam was getting flustered.
“Also, that woman is not a ‘bitch’.” Baylor did the air quotes when he said ‘bitch’ for effect. “Don’t you call her that, ever. She’s not a bitch. She’s a lady. And that lady makes more goddam money fucking people like Mr. Spangler in a month that your father does whoring himself to Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Shitburger, Attorneys At Law all goddam year.”
This left Sam trembling, speechless.
“Now,” Baylor continued. “We agree that this is Mr. Spangler, having sex with this nice lady. Please say that.”
“Wh… what?” Sam looked confused now.
“Say it. Say ‘That’s Mr. Spangler, the headmaster or whatever the fuck he is, having sex with that nice lady.’ Say those words.”
“Th… That is… umm…”
“’That is Mr. Spangler…’”
“That… That is Mr. Spangler, the fuck… whatever… he fucks… fucking principal or whatev…”
“Jesus, just say it, Sam!” Baylor was growing impatient messing with the kid.
“That’s Mr. Spangler and he’s the principal, umm, headmaster at… oh, fuck…” Sam was rushing through it, trying too hard, tripping himself up. Baylor nodded along in mock encouragement. “And he’s having nice sex with the nice, with that very, um, nice, nice lady. She seems nice.” The last part done impromptu by Sam in hopes of getting back in to Baylor’s good graces.
“Good work, Sammy,” Baylor said, knowing the kid hated being called ‘Sammy’ as much as he hated being called ‘kid’. “Now. Tell me again what our deal was?”
“Alright,” Sam seemed exhausted now, drained. “The deal is that if you can show me pictures of Mr. Spangler doing it with a whor… um, lady, I guess, then I’d have to give you a thousand for the bike.” Sam had always loved Baylor’s bike. “If you couldn’t, by today, then I’d only have to give you five hundred for it. For the bike. Anyway, I don’t know how you did it and I don’t give a shit,” getting a little confidence back, “here’s a thousand dollars. Gimme the pictures. And give me my bike.” Sam shoved the wad of bills towards Baylor.
“Good,” Baylor looked at the messy bills, figured it looked enough like a thousand that it probably was and in that moment realized that Sam hand yanked the weight of the bike towards himself, grabbing the seat and kicking the pedals back. Baylor instantly regretted ever setting up the deal. Mostly because, in that instant, Baylor decided Sam was a little shit, not worthy of one of the finest bikes in the world, much less remarkably incriminating photographs of his school principal, that would by morning inevitably be distributed through every classroom in St. Albans. Poor Bozo, poor Mr. Spangler. He’d be out of a job by the end of the day.
Baylor handed the photos over to the kid and Sam grabbed them, clearly unsure of what to appreciate more: a kick-ass courier bike or hard-core porn. Baylor decided, in that two seconds in which Sam was struggling with the conundrum of what to enjoy first, that if the kid turned his attention to the bike that’d be it, he’d just walk away. But if it was the dirty pictures, well, that’d be a character flaw, now wouldn’t it? And he’d be forced to teach young Sam a hard lesson.
There were plenty of options. Likely what he’d do is have Fontaine deliver a similar bag to Sam’s mother who worked as an event planner out of their upscale house on Foxhall Road in an especially swanky part of Georgetown. The bag would contain pictures of Sam’s dad who did in fact work for a very big, very conservative law firm. Only Sam’s dad wouldn’t be having sex with Lynne, or anyone like Lynne. Unfortunately for Sam’s dad, and especially Sam’s mom, he liked to have sex with the more masculine of the species. Baylor had the pictures – these in secret, as Sam’s dad was a little bit more shy than poor Mr. Spangler – taken for a bit of insurance. Sam’s dad, doing some pretty intimate things with a handsome younger man named Stevie Ray. Sam’s mother would, of course, be crushed. Maybe even more crushed than Sam’s dad finding out about her slight addiction to cocaine. Anyway, if the kid didn’t make the right choice now, it was going to be one hell of a Christmas at Sam’s house this year.
The pressure was killing Baylor. Sam was stuck, looking back from the bike to the bag – bike, bag, bike, bag, bike, bag – a sort of goofy, Mr. Spangler-like grin across his face. Baylor remained motionless, waiting for the kid to make his choice. And then, just when Sam was about to renew Baylor’s faith in humanity and swing a leg over the bike (which was too tall for him, anyway), he broke down and reached his hand into the bag, carelessly pulling out picture after picture. He started giggling, guffawing to himself as he flipped through them.
Damn, thought Baylor, I hope you’ve got friends you can stay with, ‘cause it’s gonna get real ugly around your place, real fast.
“Alright, kid!” Baylor said, slapping the kid on the shoulder as he walked past.
“Yeah, right, see ya’ ‘round, man,” Sam was lost in a world of porn. Baylor could hear him mumbling to himself, “Oh, holy shit, I can’t believe they took a picture of that! Look at that! Oh my God! That’s totally his…”
Baylor Roman left Sam standing under the awning with his new bike and porn. When he got out of earshot, he called Fontaine on his cellphone and quickly related the Lorrie Beth story to great, thunderous laughter, gave him the address of Sam’s parents in Georgetown and told him what to do. Fontaine said, No problem, and Baylor said, Thanks, and hung up. Baylor Roman knew he’d never see Sam again and didn’t particularly care. Whatever, the occasional deal with Sam was small time – smaller than small time. Mostly it was stuff he did as a lark. Compared to Baylor’s other enterprises, which was primarily that of bookie, it was nothing. In the time he’d lived in D.C., Baylor had amassed a fair profit as a bookmaker for any given sport, usually football. He had more than two-dozen regular sports clients. But this was Washington, D.C., and except for the Redskins fanatics, the real sport was politics – and it was a blood sport. Politics was made for gambling, too. There were election outcomes – Baylor had made a fortune on the 1998 midterms the year before – but there were also Supreme Court decisions, even Congressional Committee vote outcomes to lay odds on. It was a fantastic racket, and with political tip-sheets and insider publications flooding the Beltway, everyone thought they had the inside scoop. It rarely worked out that way, and as it always is with gambling, the house usually wins. Baylor was a house that collected often.
Being a courier in the city was perfect cover for running numbers. He got around fast, and covered a wide variety of clientele. On foot now, he approached the small hot dog stand on the corner of 17th Street, run by a Pakistani who had become a regular of his.
“Amin,” he smiled and waved, ducking his head past the small metal awning in front of the mobile stand. It felt weird to be walking through the city. He hated it. “How are you?”
“Mister Baylor!” Amin waved a set of metal tongs excitedly, splashing bits of over-cooked hot dog grease against the inside of the cart. “I am very hopeful for this weekend, my friend.”
“So am I.”
“Do you have any suggestions for a poor vendor?” Baylor, unlike most thug bookies, treated his clients with respect and an abundance of Southern hospitality. He often advised them on picks and plays, helping maximize their winnings. They never held it against him when they lost. Amin had his lunch eaten betting against the Republicans in the Kentucky Senate Race and for the Democrat in the Illinois Senate race the year before. And he was a perennial Redskins fan, losing big with them often.
“I’ve heard good things about the fourth race, Amin. That’s all I can say.”
“Then I will play it, my friend.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Baylor waved to him and walked away, leaving Amin to tend to his overcooked delicacies. He had always liked Amin, could always count on him for at a few hundred dollars a month. This weekend though, he knew would be different. The horse races were coming to town.
Baylor stood at the street corner waiting for the light to change. Oncoming was another perfect example of why he tired of city life – selfish, self-involved people, not paying attention. A young woman he’d seen before, well-dressed, attractive, was trying to cross the street before the light had changed, taking her life in her hands. She had made it about half-way across, shuffling her heels against the slick road, oncoming traffic speeding towards her without the slightest hint of slowing down at all. Baylor thought she was an idiot for trying. Fifteen more seconds, and she’d have the road to herself to cross, free and clear. Everyone more important than the last person, everyone trying to get somewhere.
She was just in front of the left-turn lane when it happened. Her heel slipped on the road, and she performed that inelegant maneuver that everyone has done when they nearly fall but don’t. Her arms flailed, and she gasped loudly, twisting her body in an odd way. Baylor could see it coming. An impatient yellow cab, not willing to wait behind the other slower moving traffic going straight or turning right shifted hard into the left turn lane and gunned it. Baylor was in to the street before anyone else could even see him. There were plenty of other people, staring blindly, waiting for the walk signal, on either side of the road. Baylor grabbed the young woman and pulled her close just as the yellow cab sped by, laying on the horn, the driver screaming curses as he sped away.
For a moment, Baylor looked at her, this young woman in his arms. She was frightened, shaking and her eyes were dilated. She’d gone even more pale than she already was.
“Better watch it.” He held her arm as she seemed to regain her composure. Without so much as a smile, a thank you or anything else, the young woman readjusted her purse on her shoulder and shuffled off, double time.
Baylor just hated that.
By now the light had changed in his favor and he walked on towards his destination, a bar just two blocks away. It took him less than five minutes to get there. And when he did he was disappointed in his adopted city yet again. Crowded – just around six o’clock and it was nearly packed. I thought this was supposed to be a working town, he thought to himself. Endless names and faces flashed through his head, people who had bemoaned the harsh work ethic of Washington, D.C. It was so obviously a load of horseshit. If everyone worked so hard, why were they out drinking at six? He grumbled as he entered the establishment and, with a bit of divine luck, found the last seat at the bar. Baylor worked to get the attention of Andy, the bartender and one of his betting clients.
“Hey, Andy,” he shouted above the din, “beer.” Andy smiled and made his way down to Baylor’s end of the bar. He wiped his hand on a white rag dangling from his belt, and they shook hands.
“Baylor, what’s up, man?”
“I’m thirsty, that’s what.”
“Beer it is.” Andy was a nice guy, one of Baylor’s favorites among his clients. Always upfront with the money, never whined when he lost big. And they all lost big, eventually.
“You know what? I’m meeting a guy who’s buying here later. Make it a whiskey on the rocks.”
“You got it.” Andy took a few steps back and reached for a bottle of Jim Beam.
“Have you seen Laverty?” Baylor asked Andy as he scooped ice into the glass and expertly filled it with a double’s worth of liquor.
“The investment banker, or whatever he is?” Laverty, another of Baylor’s clients.
“No, not recently. I bet he comes in tomorrow for lunch, though. Big weekend, and all. You hear anything on it?” Andy set the drink in front of Baylor and leaned forward on the bar as he instinctively pulled a lighter out of his pocket.
“No, not much. Lot of people looking at something in the fourth race. But that’s just the buzz. Nothing specific this time around.” He took a sip of whiskey and put a Winston in his mouth. “You got some business for me this time?” Baylor remembered that Andy politely declined to play the horses last year. He didn’t hold it against the bartender at the time, as he knew Andy to be more of a baseball guy – that, and he thought he had some kind of line on House Appropriations Committee actions. But then a friend of a friend had mentioned just how much a good bartender can make in one night, and Baylor thought the guy had wasted an opportunity he could afford.
“Yeah, I think so,” Andy smiled and looked down. Someone called for him at the other end of the bar, and he strode over, looking back. “You’ll be here at lunch?”
“Sure will.” Baylor hunched down into his drink and let Andy get back to work. That was good news – more off the top for Baylor.
Ritchie Torres finally came through the door with a flourish and a dramatic wave of his dark hair. Baylor caught his eye and motioned him over to the bar.
“Where have you been?” He wasn’t serious, just yanking Ritchie’s chain a bit. He enjoyed the ritual of giving Ritchie shit.
“Sorry,” Ritchie said, not sounding at all like he meant it. “How are you?”
“Good, good,” he took a drag on his cigarette. “I’m good. You?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” and still not sounding like he meant a word of it. In fact, it sounded like someone had put Ritchie’s nuts in a vise and twisted it.
“You need a drink,” Baylor said, motioning to Andy. “Get this man a martini. Please. Before he starts crying.” Andy smiled and turned back with a thumbs up to Baylor. Ritchie sighed.
“You’re very funny.”
Baylor didn’t feel the least bit sorry for Ritchie Torres and noted the immaculately tailored Brooks Brothers suit and impeccable tie. In fact, not once, not ever did Baylor Roman feel sympathy of any kind for Ritchie Torres. They had met when Baylor first came to town a number of years ago after his uncles encouraged him to come to Washington. Baylor had worked some messenger jobs on Capitol Hill, and a few specifically for the same House Committee that Ritchie had worked for. They’d struck up a conversation while Baylor waited on his pick-ups. Normally a man as smug and self-righteous as Ritchie Torres wouldn’t have associated with a bike messenger, for God’s sake, but Baylor struck him as different, smart. Ritchie liked him, and saw how a man who knew the city at street level, and at high speeds, could be useful. No one ever questioned bike couriers. In fact, no one ever stopped and asked them their business, what they were doing there. The bike helmet (that some of them wore), the big bag, the shorts, or the spandex, or the tattoos, or whatever the look, it was just a universal look. Everyone knows the couriers. And nobody ever stopped them. Being a bike messenger, Ritchie knew, meant an all-access pass all over town. Probably the only place Baylor Roman couldn’t get in was the White House.
For Baylor’s part, Ritchie had referred several reliable clients to the company he worked for, and never seemed to let him forget it. Still, when the company called and asked for Baylor, it didn’t go unnoticed by the boss, Mr. Jennings. For doing that, though, every once and again Ritchie called in a favor, especially around the time of special events, such as the upcoming horse races. Baylor figured this was the purpose of Ritchie’s social call. It wasn’t out of bounds for him to ferry mysterious, hefty packages across town, usually to the custody of fellows just like him – probably another courier – or messenger an arcane and cryptic code to someone else. Baylor was under no illusions, and he found it amusing, funny really, a lark. And he certainly didn’t mind the under-the-table gratuity Ritchie provided Baylor for each favor, such as it was. But this, too, Baylor had grown tired of, or grown out of it. Or both.
“So, do you want to hear what the deal is or not?” Ritchie smiled and took a sip of the fresh drink Andy had placed in front of him.
“Are we talking about weekend plans?” Baylor motioned his eyes towards Andy, who was already making his way to the back of the bar again to refill another order for a round of beers.
“Then we should go somewhere else.” Baylor was less concerned about Andy hearing any dirt on the weekend races than his words allowed. He believed that if Ritchie was this anxious to get down to business, it had to be serious, and he suspected he might at least get a free meal out of it. Ritchie always paid.
“Fine. Let’s go to Lem’s. We can talk there.” He gulped at his martini.
Pay dirt – Baylor loved Lem’s, and silently congratulated himself, vowing to order the most expensive steak on the menu. Baylor slugged back the rest of his whiskey and made a gratuitous move for his wallet.
“Keep your money. It’s on me.” Ritchie was already folding out twenties for the drinks and laying the cash on the table.
As they walked out Baylor fished in his pocket for another cigarette.
“Mind if I have one of those?” Ritchie looked at Baylor with that desperate hope and expectation in his eyes that all reformed smokers get when they’re beginning a night of bumming smokes, about to fall off the wagon, hard.
“Thought you quit,” Baylor glanced at him as he tapped out another one and handed it over.
“I did. It’s been a rough week.” They stood in the doorway of the bar, Ritchie looking at Baylor with expectation and maybe a little impatience.
“I need a light.” Baylor said sheepishly. Ritchie sighed and pulled out a pack of restaurant matches, courtesy of Lem’s, of course.
Their cab ride took less than fifteen minutes and Baylor told a disinterested Ritchie Torres his story of the lady nearly getting hit by the cab. He thought it was interesting that Ritchie didn’t even ask about his bike. Sam’s bike now.
Lem’s seemed crowded for a Wednesday night as Mr. Vesta escorted the two to a table in the back. Ritchie and Kurkel’s usual was taken by a Senator and some lobbyists.
Baylor sat back in his seat at a booth and looked up, now at Mr. Vesta’s son. He ordered another whiskey and Ritchie ordered another martini, the exact same way. Baylor sat his pack of smokes on the table to see if Ritchie would take one, and without asking, he did. He’s nervous, thought Baylor. He waited patiently for Ritchie to begin. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Here’s the thing,” Ritchie took a deep drag. “You’re going to the races this weekend, out in Virginia, right?”
“That’s right.” Baylor said, expressionless.
“I need you to take something out there. It’s a duffel bag. I need you to give that to someone at the races.”
“Are you hiring?”
“What?” Ritchie blinked, taken aback.
“Are you hiring?”
“No. Why?” Ritchie was lost.
“Because, for all the shit I do for you, I ought to just come and work for Neekelwender and Torres. Jesus, look at that suit, man. That’s some serious style…”
Ritchie cut him off. “Stop it. Look. This is a big deal. I know it’s beneath you, or whatever the fuck. I know it’s all clandestine and shit. All James Bond secret agent shit. I know you don’t like doing this stuff.”
“Then why do you keep asking me to do it?” Baylor was getting miffed, still a little depressed about his bike.
“Because I trust you. It’s about trust, Baylor. This can’t get fucked up. It absolutely can’t.”
Their drinks arrived and both men thanked Mr. Vesta.
“Oh,” Baylor grabbed his own cigarette and the matches off the table. “Oh, you trust me. That’s nice. It’s lovely. Can I get that on a bumper sticker? ‘Ritchie Torres Trusts Me!’ Can you get it printed on a shirt for me? Maybe embroidered on a pillow. Is it too much for skywriting, you think?”
“Oh, Christ. Stop it. You’re being ridiculous. And unfair.”
“You ever think about doing this yourself?” This elicited a laugh from Ritchie Torres, his first in some time.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Why is that stupid? Why? You wake up Saturday morning, get dressed, buy a ticket to the races and take your… What is it?”
“Two million dollars.” Ritchie whispered, then took a long sip of martini.
This stopped Baylor cold. He didn’t speak for a long time.
After several moments of silence between the two men, Baylor took a long pull from the cold martini and finally spoke.
“Holy fucking shit. What did you say?”
“You heard me.” Ritchie took a hard drag and blew out a billow of smoke next to Baylor’s face.
“Jesus.” Baylor took his own drag and looked thoughtful for a moment.
“Baylor, believe me. Please. I would much – much – prefer to do this myself. I really would. You have to believe that because it’s true. But I can’t. You know what kind of business my clients are in. It’s about degrees of separation. I need another degree of separation, here. So. Will you do this, or what?”
Baylor let the time go by between them, sipping his whiskey and smoking. Mr. Vesta came to take their order, and Baylor followed up on his promise to himself and ordered a medium well filet. Ritchie ordered the same and another round of drinks.
“Ritchie, we’ve never talked about this before, but…” Ritchie cut him off again.
“I don’t want to hear about it. No way. Forget it.”
“You don’t even know what I’m going to say.” Baylor was getting angry again.
“I do know what you’re going to say. Something about getting caught.” He lowered his voice. “Well, you’re not. So just forget it.”
“Listen to me. Just listen, just once.” Baylor leveled two fingers at Ritchie, between which was clenched his burning cigarette. “I’m telling you now because I never told you before. Think of it as a disclaimer. Ignore it if you want, but at your own risk.”
“Fine,” Ritchie sighed.
“I want you and Kurkel to know,” he sipped his drink, “that if anything happens. Anything…like that, then I will disavow all knowledge of you. All knowledge of your clients. Anything. That’s the way it is.”
“Well,” now he’d gotten Ritchie thinking. “Just, exactly, how will you do that? Hypothetically speaking.”
“Hypothetically speaking,” Baylor said, “I’ll lie. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll eat my own tongue to keep from talking. But Ritchie,” he’d gotten his attention again, “I will not go to prison. Do you understand that?”
“Baylor, I have to tell you, you’re making me nervous. What you’re saying is contradictory.”
“You think you’re the only one in the world that knows criminals?” This elicited a harsh ‘shh!’ from Ritchie. “Do you?” He whispered, sipping his drink. “I know plenty of bastards that, were something to happen, hypothetically, could get IDed by me and I’d never lose a night’s sleep.”
“That’s reassuring. Maybe I should do this myself…” Ritchie was truly having second thoughts, Baylor could see this.
“No, no. Christ, I’ll do it. I’ll do it, I’ll do it. Jesus, Ritchie. Stop, look. Nothing will happen. It’ll be fine. I just felt like I needed to tell you that. If something happens,” he held his drink in his right hand, “I’ll never mention you. Trust me, Ritchie.” Ritchie couldn’t have looked like he trusted Baylor Roman less.
Both men decided to let it go.
“Well, fine. I’m sure it won’t. This is very low-key, under the radar.”
“Isn’t it always?” Baylor felt the mood lighten, but barely.
The two men enjoyed their steak dinners and discussed compensation, with Baylor getting ten thousand dollars and a free meal to act as a courier for the cash. Ritchie promised to take him out again after the races, to Lem’s even, if he really wanted. If it all went well.
Chapter 3, Part II : : Click here
Coming Soon : : Just Another Day at the Races