Short Story: My Brother's Son

            "Uncle Adam, I need to see you right away. Can you come up to Monterey?  I'm in some real trouble here. I'm sorry to involve you, but there's no one else I can trust."

"What's happened this time? Some girl's boyfriend beat you up? You owe money? Loan sharks? What?”

"No, nothing like that.  Listen, I can't talk about it now, they'll be back soon. They can't know that I called you. These are some really bad dudes."

"They who? What dudes?"

"Can't talk now - can you just help me...please?  I promise I'll explain everything when you get here. You're my only hope of getting out of this!"

"You know I made your Dad a promise. Where can I find you?"

"When you get to town call me and ask for Louie. If I say "there's no Louie here" then you can meet me at the pub at Broad and Station in an hour. If I'm going to need more time to get away, I'll say "no hablan espaƱol". Hey, I've got to go, someone’s coming. Please hurry...and Uncle Adam...thank you."

It was one of those gorgeous afternoons just made for a long drive up the coast. The warm sun made the ocean sparkle like a sea of diamonds, but Adam barely noticed as he sped northward, his mind racing as fast as his bike. As Adam replayed the conversation in his head, he wondered what Josh had gotten himself into. 

He could sense the fear in Josh's voice. This phone call reeked of life or death, and he had to be in top form. As a former Marine, he had stayed in shape, and could take on men half his age. He practiced at the range every week, so he was still deadly accurate, but he hoped it wouldn't come down to that. Still he must be prepared for whatever was about to befall them. This is not a game, and the stakes are high.  Josh is depending on him.

For many years, Adam lived the ultimate bachelor's life.  He retired from the Marine Corp. at the age of 38 with 20 years of service.  He had all the benefits, medical insurance and a lifetime pension, and was already ten years into his second career as a civilian strategic consultant to the military.  His home was a modest, but well-maintained, two-story contemporary just outside of San Francisco.  He'd never married, preferring to weave his own brand of magic upon as many of the delectable California beauties as possible.  It was a good life, he enjoyed his work, his free time was his own, and he answered to no one but himself.
That was until tragedy struck, and his older brother was killed during a motorcycle trip up the coast with his son, Josh.  The police investigated his death, and it was deemed to be an accident.  His brother left him the motorcycle, and although Adam is much more comfortable in his SUV, he takes it for a spin every now and then in memory of his brother.  Some years before, his brother had extracted a promise from Adam that if anything ever happened to him he would look after Josh.  Adam had agreed, though wondering if a confirmed bachelor was exactly what a teenage boy needed as a role model, but felt confident that it was a promise he'd never have to fulfill.  "I can't think of anyone better" confided his brother one night.  "You were a marine.  You have discipline, strength and common sense.  I'm proud of you and glad to be your brother."

As Adam rolled into town the evening sky was clear, and there was a chill moving in from the ocean.  He found a passable roadside motel just down from the pub and checked in.  For some reason he decided it was best to pay cash, and not leave a paper trail...just in case.  He took his belongings into the room and glanced around.  Shabby chic to say the least, but it was serviceable.  After all he wasn't here for entertainment.  Nope, he had just one purpose, and that was to get his nephew out of trouble.  He sat down in the well-worn chair and pulled out his .45 to make sure it was ready to go if needed.  He still didn't know what he was facing, and it was time to call Josh to set up their meeting.

"Hey, can I talk to Louie?"

"Uh, Louie?  Sorry man, there's no Louie here."

"Oh, sorry to bother you."  Adam hangs up; the meeting is on.

He stripped off his dusty riding clothes and grabbed a quick shower.  "I hope the food's good at this pub" he muttered.  It was a long drive and he hadn't eaten in hours.  "Might as well kill two birds, and eat while we talk."

With about 15 minutes of his hour left, Adam started out down the sidewalk. There was no reason to take the bike for just a few blocks.  Besides, his haunches were tired from all that riding.  He sorely wished his SUV hadn't been in the shop when he got Josh's call.  As he approached the pub, he looked at the surroundings, no alleys or protective hiding places, that's good.  He walked through the door...PUSH it said.  A bell clanged against the door, alerting the waitress that a customer had entered. 

"Hi there, have a seat anywhere you like.  I'll be with you shortly".

Adam thanked her and found a table where he could sit with his back to the wall and have a good view of the door.  He might live the fancy free bachelor's life at home, but this was not his town and his experience as a marine came back to him in full force; his senses heightened at the possibility of unseen danger...danger for him and his nephew. 

The waitress, a woman in her mid-thirties, walked up to Adam's table.  With a friendly smile, she said "My name's Tess.  What can I get for you this evening?"

"I'm meeting my...uh...a friend.  Would you bring a couple of sodas, please?"  Adam would have liked very much to have a beer or two after this mad dash up the Coast, but considering the circumstances, he figured that wasn't such a good idea.

A few minutes later Josh walked through the door, clanging the bell.  Adam nearly didn't recognize him.  His hair was down around his collar, and a scruffy beard and ball cap quite disguised the young man Adam was expecting.

Josh pulled up a chair.  "Hi, thanks for coming.  I'm sorry I had to call you up here, but when I got things figured out, at least sort of figured out, I realized that there was more than I could deal with alone." 

"How about let's order some dinner, and you can tell me what's going on."  As if on cue Adam's stomach growled loudly.  "I'm starved, and I'll think better with something to eat."

Tess reappeared with their sodas and two menus.  "I'll be back in a few minutes", as she whisked away to another table.  It seemed she was the only one working the floor, and was running around in a frenzy.  She was back shortly, and Adam ordered two burger plates with the works. "I'm guessing you still like burgers," he said with a grin.  As Josh looked at Adam, he could see his dad in Adam's eyes.  How did things ever get so screwed up, he wondered sadly.

While they waited for their food, Adam and Josh caught up on some family stuff.  Josh's mom was well, but working way too hard.  She was now the night manager at some ladies apparel distribution center.  Josh worried about her working the late shift, but it is what she had chosen to do after Josh's dad was killed.  There was insurance money, but she wanted something to do to fill the hours, and the nights were the hardest to be alone.  Their food arrived, and as they ate, Josh began to tell his story...

"When Dad and I took the trip up the Coast, we were out for the time of our lives" Josh said wistfully.  "It was just the two of us with the bike and the open road.  We were bonding as men, really getting to know each other as friends instead of just father and son.  It was fantastic". 
"It was day three of our trip, and we came into Monterey late one afternoon.  After sitting for hours along the beach, we found a cheap motel." 

"He was always the frugal one," Adam remarked. 

"Hey, we were practically camping, so nothing fancy, just a clean room with a shower and a couple beds.  There wasn't even a phone in the room, the paint was peeling and the carpet was ratty, but we didn't care." 

"It was past midnight when I heard voices coming from the room next door.  I didn't think much about it.  I figured it was a romantic rendezvous, or just a bunch of kids looking for a place to drink.  I never considered it was a drug deal going down.  I tried to go back to sleep, hoping things would quiet down, and come morning we would just leave like we were never there.  That's when I heard the shots, people running, glass breaking.  By this time Dad was awake, and we braced near the door, ready to take down anyone who tried to come through the door before they had a chance to react."  Adam winced at the idea of his brother and nephew taking down a bunch of thugs.

"Unfortunately in real time things don't always happen the way you anticipate.  You know that, and so what happened next was a blur.  There were shots being fired from the parking lot into the room next door.  A glance out the window showed guys in black jackets with hoods running toward the rooms, and one was carrying a sawed off shotgun.  He started blasting through the doors of each room.  Dad pushed me down, and I slid behind the bed, across shards of wood from the shattered door."  Josh's voice was raspy with emotion.  He took a swallow of his soda, and continued.

“The shots stopped, and we wondered what was happening?  Where were the cops?  Dad crawled to the window, and as he raised his head another shot was fired, just missing him." 

“ I guess you've heard most of this, but I need to lay it all out from the beginning to help think things through." 

Adam could feel the emotional strain and nodded for Josh to continue.

"After spending hours talking to the cops, answering endless questions about where we were from, why we were at that hotel, and did we have any further business in the area, they decided we were harmless and released us.  It was highly suggested that we leave town as soon as we could get our gear packed up.  After nearly being gunned down, and then grilled by the cops, we were more than happy to oblige."

"What happened next just blows my mind that the cops thought it was an accident, especially knowing we were at the motel the night before.  We had packed the bike and drove to a diner at the edge of town to get a bite to eat before hitting the road.  Believe me, we were so ready to get home, and our hearts were pounding as we walked into the diner.  Things seemed normal enough, no guys with black hoods, or anything suspicious.  We ate our breakfast, paid the bill, over tipped the cute waitress and headed out.  Still everything looked all right.” 

“We drove through a wooded rural area toward the Coastal Highway, and I got a bad feeling when I saw a black SUV parked just off the road.  There was no activity around it, and I was feeling pretty spooked by then.  Dad had told me I could drive until we got to the Highway, and now I didn't know what to do.  Sensing my hesitation, Dad yelled "GO", so I gunned it.  Out of nowhere came this bang audible over the roar of the sounded like a firecracker or a backfire.  I felt Dad twitch, but I thought he was just nervous with me driving like a madman.  It took a couple minutes to get out of the area and realize what had happened.  "Hold on Dad," I shouted. We had just reached the Highway, and I grabbed his cell phone and called 911..."I have an Dad's just been shot...Coastal Highway at the second exit.  Please hurry." 

Reliving that ride left Josh emotionally drained and feeling the pain as if it were happening all over again.  He pulled himself together and continued.

"The paramedics were there within minutes, and worked with him for over an hour, but in the end there was nothing they could do.  Those thugs killed my Dad.  The police strutted around and carried out a half-hearted investigation, saying it was probably a hunting accident.  A hunting accident?  Can you believe that?" he growled, his outrage clearly etched on his face.

“They searched the area and didn't find anyone.  Of course they didn't find anyone.  These guys are smart and don't screw around.  The case is still open, but no one is working it...It's what they call a cold case.  Now you know everything that happened...until six months ago."
"OK", said Adam finally, "now I've got all the details, but that still doesn't explain what you're doing here."

"This is where it gets complicated.  In order to find out exactly who murdered Dad, I figured I had to come up here, you know, to blend in and live like I belong with them." 
"Them who?" Adam demanded.

"The Skulls.  They're a local gang into drugs, guns, prostitution.  You name it, they're into it."

"The good news is that none of them really got a look at us, but I think they didn't want to take the chance that we could identify them.  I don't even know if they realized they hit Dad, if they intended to, or were just scaring us out of town.  Which they did a pretty good job of, but killed Dad in the process.  Now I know who they are, what they are into, and how to get them.  It's just a matter of time, but I need your help, and if they find out who we are, we're as good as dead.  They don't hesitate to whack people."

"And...there's more" said Josh quietly.  "There is a rival gang call the Slashers.  Dad and I may have been caught in the middle of a gang shootout at the motel that night."

“Just how did you come by all this knowledge?" queried Adam.

"I joined them", replied Josh quietly.  “After graduation, I started looking into the case, questioning the officers who took statements, reading newspaper articles, obits, whatever I could find.  I even talked to the D.A.  No one had anything new to offer."

"So about six months ago, I moved up here, and got a minimum wage job - that's why you haven't heard from me lately”. 

"I was wondering about that" said Adam, "but I figured it was a girl."

"Unfortunately no," Josh flashed a wicked grin, reminding Adam of his brother.

"I wanted to look like I was really hard up for money, which I pretty much am.  I had to find a way to penetrate their operation.  You know it's not easy getting in with these guys either.  It's not like you can just walk up and ask for an interview.  You start poking around and get noticed.  If they think you're Skull material, then they give you a test. The test was that they kicked my butt.  I didn't back down and I didn't go to the cops.  I was in."

            "What about your mother?  Does she know what's going on? And why didn't you call me first - I thought we were closer than that?”

"I told Mom I needed to take some time after graduation and sort some stuff out.  She wasn't thrilled with the idea, and she would totally freak if she knew what I'm really doing.  However, she respected my wishes not to tell anyone where I was, and to just say I was still dealing with Dad's death and needed some time alone.  And yes, we are close, which is exactly why I didn't tell you. If I had, would you have let me come alone?”  Adam stared at him, and Josh said "I didn't think so. I had to fit in."

"Anyway, it appears that the gangs' presence "influences" the police, for lack of a better way of saying it.  I think that may be why it was deemed to be an accident.  I'm not saying the police are compromised, but without enough evidence, they didn't want to press it and end up with a gang war.  It was easier to call it an accident."

Adam reflected on "I had to fit in".  "Josh, you haven't..." 

"No, I'm not doing drugs, or anything really illegal...yet."  I flush the drugs, and just pretend I'm using."

"Yeah, I like that really and yet part", interjected Adam sarcastically. 

"Well, it got me accepted – for now,” Josh continued, “however, I feel like I am running on borrowed time here, and sooner or later something is going to give me away - hence the meeting arrangement signals.  I've had to live and breathe their lifestyle to make them think I'm one of them.  I saw how you looked at me when I walked in," Josh stated wryly.  "You barely recognized me - I know, but don't worry, I'm the same old Josh, with an eye for the ladies and the fast cars, just tougher and more street smart now."

"OK," said Adam slowly, "what do we need to do to fix this mess?  Do you have a plan or is that where I come in?  After all, I am a strategist."

At an abandoned warehouse the gang uses as their headquarters, Shane, the self-appointed gang leader, calls out to Josh, "Hey where you been?  You were supposed to be with Frankie here doing recon on the Slashers."  Shane was one rough looking dude, with a skull tattooed on his right arm and his greasy hair pulled back and tied.  He wore a black leather jacket with a skull emblazoned on the back and steel-toed boots.

"Ya know they been getting all up in our business.  There's also that DEA agent sniffing around again.  D'you know anything about that, huh, Josh?"

"Nah man, why'd you think I'd know anything about that, seeing as I ain't exactly a citizen in good standing these days.  They're about to kick my butt outta the hardware store.  They say I ain't got the image they're looking for, and maybe I should be looking for another job.  Maybe I'll just quit that stinking job and hang with you guys.  Yeah, that's the life...women, booze, drugs, money..." 

“Well, Frankie's gal said she and her sister saw you yesterday.  You was with some old guy who seemed kinda uptight about something?  Said it just didn't look right, and since you's new around here and all, she thought I'd wanna know.  Who was he?  You got something going on behind my back?"
"No way, like I said I'm just here for the good times," Josh replied confidently.  He was hoping that confidence was conveyed, because he wasn’t feeling too good about the turn things were taking.  He was glad he had Adam to back him up.  "That was just some guy who said he thought I looked down on my luck, and would I like something to eat.  I mighta made him nervous, though, and maybe he was thinking twice about his offer.  I doubt I'll ever see him again."

"That better be the truth" growled Shane, "because if I find out you's in cahoots with this guy, or if I catch the law nosing around here, losing your crappy hardware job will be the least of your worries.  D'you hear me, boy?"

"No worries man, I'm cool."

It was 10 a.m. the next morning when Josh’s cell phone rang.  When he groggily answered, it was Shane bellowing on the other end “Get your butt over here.  Me and Frankie gotta meet some dudes this morning, and I need you to keep an eye on the place.  Just remember, no snooping and no visitors.  Just sit on things till we get back.  No funny business - got it?”

Josh hangs up and immediately dials Adam.  “I’ve been called to the “office” for guard duty - Walker and Brackston.  No one will be there; meet me in 20.  Call for Louie when you get there, so I can tell you if it’s clear.  You never know with these guys.”

When Josh arrived at the warehouse, he saw a beat up old pickup parked across the street.  That normally would go unnoticed, but things were heating up between the Skulls and the Slashers and maybe this was a stakeout.  Wanting to play it safe, Josh went around to the back where he wouldn’t be seen entering the building.  About that time Adam called.  “Yeah, it's still clear.  Drive around to the back.  There’s some dude in a pickup across the street.  Might be one of the Slashers doing recon.”

Adam and Josh sit at a rickety old table where they can watch the street, a threadbare curtain hangs limply at the window obscuring them but not barring their view. 

"OK here’s the deal.  The Skulls have a buy going down tomorrow night at the old Jones place, a run down building a few blocks from here.  Yeah, funny there could some place grubbier and less desirable than this, right?  Anyway, I set up the buy for midnight with some guy who’s a middle man for someone else up the food chain.  Now I’m thinking if we can get into a position to see when it’s going down, we just call the police and anonymously report suspicious behavior.”

“Whoa.  Hold up a minute" Adam interrupted.  “Won’t they expect you to be there?”
“I’m just a lookout, which means I’m in the vicinity.  I call Shane or Frankie if I see cops in the area.  They trust me because I’ve saved their butts a couple of times.  However, I just set up the buys, I don’t participate.”

Josh looks at his watch.  “You should be getting out of here before they get back.  We’ve already been seen together once, and I had to fast talk my way out of that.  They don’t know who you are so I think we’re good.  They think I’m just here for the money and the women.  Ha!  Like I’ve seen much of that.  Anyway, I’ll call you when I get my orders."

It’s a dark, still night with not a breath of air stirring.  The kind of night where things can go horribly wrong in a split second.  The kind of night that changes lives…forever.

Josh arrives at the warehouse at 11:00, an hour before the deal is supposed to go down. Shane wanted him to check things out beforehand.  Nervous, Josh walks up the steps to the back door.  As he enters, he hears an ominous click.  He knows that sound, fears that sound, his breath catches in his throat.  “Who’s there?”  No one answers. “What do you want” he demands loudly. 
“Turn around” growls a voice he’s never heard.  “Sit down.”  Josh is shoved into a chair, his arms roughly twisted and tied behind his back, then his feet.

“Who are you?” asked Josh, hoping Adam wouldn’t walk into this.  They had made plans to meet at 11:30 in an alley across from the meeting place, with Adam calling for Louie as usual.  If Josh didn’t answer the call, Adam would come looking for him, and this would be where he’d start.

“None of your business, now shut up.  We’ll just sit here and pass the time until your buddies show up.”  This guy must be one of the Slashers, thought Josh.  He’ll get a surprise if he thinks they give a crap about me.  They’d sacrifice me in a heartbeat to save their own butts.  In the dim light Josh got a look at his captor, and his heart skipped a beat or three.  The guy was wearing a black hooded jacket.

The guy pulls out a pack of cigarettes.  “Wanna smoke, kid” he sneers?  “Might be your last.”
Josh shakes his head no. 

“Oh, I see.  You’re too good to have a smoke with me”, the man growled getting up in his face.  “When we’re done with you there won’t be enough left to feed the sharks."

He had said “we”.  This isn’t just about drugs anymore.  Gang war!  At that moment, Josh’s cell phone rang.  That would be Adam, and he had no way to warn him.  He could feel the sweat beginning to trickle down his back.

Adam waited, the phone rang and rang, and finally went to voice mail.  This is not good.  Checking his gun, extra ammo in his pocket, Adam pulled his hat down low, turned up his collar and started down the street toward the warehouse.

He reached the west side of the building, there was a faint light coming through a dirty window.  He saw Josh sitting in the chair where they had sat yesterday. 

Adam thought to himself…I can’t burst in shooting…I don’t know how many others are in there and that could get Josh killed, not to mention me.  He doesn’t seem to be hurt, so I’ve got some time to figure something out.

Meanwhile Shane and Frankie are two blocks away at the drug deal Josh had arranged.  As always, their cronies were in place as backup.

“Hey” called the prospective buyer, “you got the goods?”  “Yeah” called Frankie, “you got the dough?” Buyer nods.  “Bring it on over.”  As Frankie brought out the bag containing the dope, a couple dozen hooded thugs stepped out of the shadows.  “We got your man” hollered the leader, “and if you want him alive, you’ll give us the dope and the money, and get out.  We’re taking over this territory.”

“Says who?” bellowed Shane.  Shane was an expert in the art of bellowing.  “This is the Skulls turf, and if you try to take it, you’re dead men.  C’mon out men!”  Another few dozen men moved into the street.  What ensued was total mayhem, the Skulls on one side of the street, the Slashers on the other.  Shots rang out, machine guns blazed, glass shattered, and bodies fell.  Shane, crouched behind a car and, firing with abandon, scored a hit on the Slashers’ leader.  He fell and did not get up.  Those of the Slashers still standing fled.  Shane looked for Frankie.  “Hey Frankie.  Where are you?”  Silence.  “Frankie!”  He found Frankie lying beside a garbage can he’d been using for cover.  He was the Skulls only casualty.  They’d given the Slashers a beating they would not soon forget, and the Skulls turf was once again unchallenged.

By now Adam had determined that there was only one man in there with Josh, and now was the time to make his move.  He pulled his gun, stepped silently up to the door and slowly opened it.  He crept toward the room where his nephew was being held, coming up behind the man, sticking his gun into his ribs.  “Drop your gun, NOW!” 

Of course it wouldn’t end this easily, and the man twisted around and kicked Adam in the shin.  Adam grabbed at him with his free hand, reaching for the guy’s gun,  and knocked it out of his hand.  Now they struggled for Adam’s .45.  Still tied up, Josh watched in horror as the two men fought for control.  They staggered around the room, slamming into the sagging door frame.  Wood shattered and both men fell to the floor wrestling wildly, each trying to gain a hold on the other.  Adam barely felt the splinter from the shattered wood as it pierced his leg; his focus was on survival...his and Josh's.  On their feet again, Adam's fist connected with the Slasher's face, and as he wavered, Adam got a grasp on the gun and wrenched it away.  As the Slasher lunged, Adam fired and the gang member fell to the floor. 

Adam secured the weapons and freed Josh.  “Uncle Adam, I made a mistake, it wasn’t the Skulls who killed Dad.  It was the Slashers.  See, he’s wearing a black hoodie."  Adam stared at the fallen man.  "The men I saw at the hotel were wearing black hooded jackets.” 

Adam called the police to the warehouse, and explained to them the fallen gang member, and what supposedly went down a few blocks away.  The police went to the meeting site and found a half dozen bodies of the Slashers, and one Skull, Frankie.  Everyone who survived was long gone. 

Josh and Adam were interviewed for long hours by the police, who were trying to figure out who they were, and how they came to be involved in the gang war between Skulls and the Slashers.  Finally it was determined that Adam was justified in killing the man holding Josh, and no charges would be filed against him.

The officer in charge of the investigation said, "You are free to go, but it would be in your best interest to steer clear of this place.”  He turned to Josh, saying, "Young man, I am truly sorry for what happened to your father, and that it took your coming here to bring the truth to light.  It was a brave, but foolish, thing to do. You could have gotten yourself killed.  You're lucky to have had your uncle here.  My dad was a marine, so I know you're in good hands."

“Uncle Adam, thank you for saving my life.  I am so sorry I almost got you killed in the process" exclaimed Josh, who was physically and emotionally exhausted.

"Like I said, I made a promise to your Dad, and I am sure he would be proud of the way you handled yourself and finally solved his murder - with the exception of coming up here alone and almost joining him.  Now, are you ready to go home?"  As Josh climbed onto the bike, Adam grinned broadly, thinking they had both come a long way.  “Oh, by the way, you’re welcome.”

What few people knew was that Frankie was Shane's little brother, and Shane held Josh responsible for Frankie’s death.  He was the one who set up the meeting.  He was the guy the Slasher's were holding when they were pretending to make a buy. He was probably working with them all along.  “I’ll kill him” swore Shane.  “One day, I’ll kill him.” 

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