When anyone in the Detroit underworld hears the names Joe Service and Helen Sedlacek, they know lots of trouble—and bullet-riddled bodies—are sure to follow.
That’s why Joe and Helen are perfect recruits for the Lucani—a group of rogue operatives, covert intelligence, and cold-blooded killers who bypass all those pesky laws and government red tape to get the dirtiest jobs done.
For their first assignment, Joe and Helen are back in beautiful Butte, Montana, searching for Franko, a Lucani agent who supposedly vanished while on an overseas drug-busting mission. But what starts as a simple manhunt quickly spins out of control, with backstabbing, betrayal, and bloodshed all over.
Luckily for Joe and Helen, that’s just another day at the office . . .
“Great fun . . . there is plenty of action, low-key black humor, and Jackson’s perfect ear for the nuances of criminal speech.” —Chicago Tribune
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A Babe in the Woods
The first time Franko saw her she was walking around Tsamet, clicking snapshots of the minaret like any American or German tourist. She was tall and attractive in a curious mixture of exotic and wholesome. She had her hair pulled back, and the baseball cap she wore had a little opening that allowed her hair to billow out in a brownish-red ball. It reminded him of the hole in the pants of a cartoon character, through which Brer Fox's tail waved.
She wore faux expedition gear, lots of khaki with many snaps and epaulets and pockets. She left the top buttons undone on the shirt, revealing a formidable cleavage. The pants were relaxed fit, but the seat was well filled out.
When he got back to his crofter's cottage, up on Daliljaj's farm, he made a couple of quick pencil sketches of her. They weren't quite right — he hadn't gotten the nose or the eyes — but the wide mouth and full lips were okay. Later he had a chance to correct these sketches and ink them in.
He saw her a couple more times in town, or near it, in the next week or so. In the meantime, he went fishing, as usual. It was handy for making his connections with the smugglers. The farmers hereabouts were used to seeing him walking in the fields, or the woods, along the streams, usually after parking his battered old Subaru Outback near a little stone bridge. He would have his knapsack with his sketchbook and lunch in it, binoculars for bird-watching, his creel, and his fishing vest and would carry his rod. And soon he would be casting into the stream, wandering across the fields, climbing fences, stalking trout, birdwatching, sketching. "The Naturalist," they called him.
Under the bridge he would find the goods that had been left for him. They would go into the creel, or the backpack. Later, usually far upstream, where the stream ran through the wooded glades, he would encounter the young fellows to whom he passed the goods, with their instructions for delivery. Then he would go on.
He caught many trout. Very few people fished for trout in these parts. He was fascinated by these fish. They were small and easy to catch. He tied his own flies streamside, based on the insects he observed, using a handy portable device. And he would sketch the little trout. Some of them were an undescribed species, or at least a subspecies, that he couldn't find in the taxonomic records. They had greenish flanks with unusual vermiform markings on their backs. Most of them he released, but he always kept a few to give to his landlord, Daliljaj. He drew meticulous pictures of their guts, their organs, the insects they were dining on. He measured them carefully, and weighed them with a little hand-held instrument.
He sketched everything on his almost daily fishing hikes: the views of the mountains, the houses, the farmers, the farmers' kids, the bridges, the haystacks, the stiles that got one over the rough stone fences — each farmer built different kinds of bridges, stacked his hay differently, had his own idea of a proper stile. But mostly he sketched wildlife: birds, marmots, foxes, the rare badger snuffling through a field, and especially the fish.
One day he was sketching a small trout and he'd brought along some watercolors, to try to capture the vividness of the green flanks, the red and blue flecks, before the color faded, as it did too quickly. He was in a little sunny clearing in the woods, barely a foot from the pebble-bottomed stream where he'd caught this fish — sitting on a crude bridge over it, in fact.
This was a bridge he'd sketched before: just some roughly hewn logs thrown across the stream and planks nailed to it. But the farmer who used it to get from one meadow to another had made a rough railing with extra logs, perhaps to make sure that his reckless sons didn't drive the tractor into the creek, and had planed off a place to sit.
The stream skirted the edge of the woods. It was only knee-deep in most places, but there were chest-deep pools, one close by, where he had caught the trout. Small, colorful stones lined the stream.
He was concentrating and didn't see the woman until she stepped onto the bridge. It was the American woman, whom by now he had learned was a representative of the American foreign-aid agency.
"Hi," she said, and sat on the opposite railing to watch while he quickly finished the sketch and made some daubs of color in the proper spots, as a guide for later.
Franko set the book aside with the pages open to dry and said, "Hello."
"Can I see?" she asked, coming across to reach for the book.
He let her have it. "That paint is still a little wet," he said. He was gratified to see that she handled the book carefully, holding the freshly painted page open and merely glancing back at other pages. Up close, he saw that she was at least partly African-American, but her skin was very pale, like old ivory, and she had freckles. Her eyes were brown, with gold flecks.
"Is this me?" she said, finding an earlier sketch. "Do I really look like that? What a big butt you think I have!" She turned her rear toward him, mockingly. She was wearing khakis, as usual.
"It's just a quick sketch," he said. "Here, let me fix it."
"Oh no, you're right," she said, smiling. "I do have a big butt."
"Not at all," he said.
"Some men are crazy for big butts," she said. "Ah, here's that Romeo kid. He's very handsome. What eyes! Oh ho, and here's a buxom lass. What's that line of Walton's, about the trout in the milk?"
"It's Thoreau," he said. "'Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.'" "Is that from Walden? Maybe that's how I got it wrong."
"I think it's from the Journal," he said.
"Well, this picture is a trout in the milk," she said. She showed him the picture, which he knew well. It was of a farm girl named Fedima — Daliljaj's daughter, in fact — and she was nude from the waist up. She was washing her upper body by a stream. "You don't want this to fall into the hands of the farmer."
He looked rueful. "It was quite an innocent occasion, I swear. I just happened to see her. I couldn't resist the sketch — when I got home."
"I'll bet," the woman said. She handed the book back. "So, what are you doing up here, spying on farm girls?"
"I'm not usually that lucky," he said, setting the book down beside him on the railing seat. He bent down to wrap the fish in ferns and started to place it in his creel. Instead, he said, "Would you like a fish?"
"My best offer of the day," the woman said. "But no thank you. It's way too circumstantial. Well, what are you doing?"
"I'm fishing," he said.
"Is that why you meet the young men in the woods?" she said. "You're not gay, are you?"
"I didn't think so, with your eye for farm girls. I was just trying to get under your skin."
She was quite close, propped on one knee on the seat to look over his shoulder at the picture of the trout again. He was uncomfortable, but he didn't want to move away.
"Would you like to sketch me?" she said.
"I'd love to." He picked up the sketchbook. "This picture is dry," he said, leafing over to a fresh page.
She sat down across the way. "Maybe you can get the nose right," she said.
He began a preliminary line with a pencil. In a moment of daring, he said, "Or the butt."
The woman laughed. "You're asking to see my butt?"
"Just joking," he said.
"I don't mind," she said. She stood up and began to unbuckle her belt, then looked about, cautiously. "Perhaps not here. There's always someone around that you don't notice until too late, isn't there?"
But there was no sign of anyone. They were alone on the little bridge. A copse of willow trees blocked the meadow to the west, and the little dirt road, after crossing the bridge, disappeared into a thicket to the east.
The woman stepped down from the bridge and wandered along it. He hastily assembled his gear and followed. She came to an old stone wall, now generally fallen down. Here she stopped, glanced around, and swiftly removed her boots, her pants, and her shirt. She wore no underwear. It was all he could do not to gasp. She had a fine, full-figured body.
"How's this?" she said, sitting in the sun on some moss. She leaned back gingerly against the rough wall, stretched her arms along the stones, and languorously extended her legs. She spread them well apart, one knee drawn up, assuming a frankly wanton posture.
The sexiness of the pose was enhanced and mocked by the fact that she hadn't removed her baseball cap. He sketched very rapidly, eager to capture her careless sensuality. He was also fighting to suppress an uncomfortable erection. His problem was not unobserved by his model.
"Should we do something about that?" she said, with a sly smile.
He sketched the smile. It was perfect. "Do you think that would be a good idea?"
"Too late," she said, rising to her feet abruptly. She nodded toward the bridge, not so very distant. A tractor could be heard approaching. "What did I tell you?" She sighed and stooped to gather her clothes. Before she stepped into the shelter of the trees to dress, she looked over her shoulder and said, "How's the butt? Too big?"
He stood and stared after her, unable to think of a suitable reply. Should he go into the woods with her? Was this an invitation? But no, she was dressing rapidly.
"Ciao," she said, and disappeared just as the tractor issued out of the copse of willows and started onto the bridge.
Franko glared at the tractor with real loathing. The man on it did not see him. He was turned on the seat, his back to Franko, to make sure that the old and decrepit wagon that dragged behind, loaded with fire logs, tracked properly. He was quickly over the bridge and out of sight.
Franko looked back into the woods, hopefully. The woman was gone, of course.
It had become a habit of Franko's to take his morning coffee in the yard, literally the barnyard of his landlord, Vornuto Daliljaj. This was not as unappetizing as it might seem. It had been a long time since the barnyard had been used by animals, although a faint and not unpleasant aroma was still detectable. It was a large, open ground nominally enclosed with a dilapidated wooden fence as well as the battered walls of some sheds, the old barn, and the cottage. It was a staging area for farm implements, but it had an aspect of privacy. One might almost describe it as a kind of bucolic plaza, populated by a few strolling, garrulous chickens and the silent, prowling cat.
The east wall of the old stone cottage Franko occupied also served as part of the enclosure. In fact, if one looked closely one could see where an overlarge doorway or opening in this wall had been reduced with later stonework, not quite in the style of the original, less crude and using a finer mortar. A conventional door was mounted in the newer opening.
Franko figured that animals used to be housed in the stone cottage. He wondered if it had been the bullpen, in fact, where a cow was introduced to the sire of her calves. Probably the entry had been reduced at the same time the wooden floor was installed, to create housing for farmhands, or another family. There was a definite air of the byre about the cottage. It also had a front door, which gave onto the area outside the barnyard.
Franko had found a weathered wooden bench that he set next to the barnyard door. The crude, unfaced stone wall behind the bench had been plastered with stucco in some long ago past, so that now it had a pleasant tawniness that took the morning sun very well, warm but not glaring. It was nice to sit on this bench and lean one's back against the warm stucco, particularly now, in this good fall weather when there was a hint of frost in the morning air.
From this bench Franko could look past the barn, the tackle shed now used to store tractor parts, a dilapidated jakes, and down the sectioned fields to the east, down the mountainside to where a minaret poked up above the treetops. Then one's eye rose to distant ridges, other farms half-hidden among the trees. There was often a wisp of mist rising out of the trees, mingling with smoke from chimneys, and generally, as one's eye approached the horizon, the air thickened and blurred into a grayish blue.
"Look away, look away ... Dixieland" were the words that came to his mind when he saw this. But it was hardly a southern landscape — almost exactly the same northern latitude as his native Montana, six or seven thousand miles to the west.
Franko sometimes brought out his notebook and sketched the view. He thought moments like these were made for smoking a pipe. But he had never taken up smoking. So he just gazed and thought, allowing himself to come fully awake.
Montana was also mountain country, but it was not much like this. These mountains were not as large as the mountains around Butte, not as clearly a part of a huge, distinct range. But maybe it only seemed so, he thought, because these valleys were smaller, not so grand and sweeping. The mountains here were rugged and precipitous, but somehow not such massive structures. And then, he thought, it could be that it was just lower here, with the Adriatic not more than eighty miles away, as the raven flew, beyond another mountain range at his back.
These thoughts were pleasantly dislodged by the appearance of the daughter of Daliljaj, very pretty and dark-eyed Fedima, who was only eighteen and looked remarkably elegant to Franko's mind in her head scarf, blue jeans, heavy sweater, and rubber Wellington boots. She was the crown of his morning pleasure.
She tramped across the old, rough, but well-flattened and sunbaked yard carrying his coffee in a little brass pot. She had ground the beans herself, he knew, in a tubular brass device with a handle on the top, and had poured the hot water over it to steep. It was very strong, but Franko had learned to like it. It was also too sweet, but he tolerated that as well.
It always happened, he noticed, that within a few moments of Fedima's appearance around the stone side of the old granary, another person could usually be seen — remote but not too far off, not so close as to require even a casual wave, ostensibly uninterested in the conjunction of Fedima and Franko. Often this person was old Daliljaj himself, though frequently it was his wife, or even one of Fedima's brothers. But there would be someone, just a black image on the perimeter of Franko's vision, a crow or raven, as it might be, attending to some useful but not evidently pressing business.
Today, it was old Daliljaj, repairing part of the fence that formed the other part of the entry. He was winding a length of baling twine from an old fence post to the gatepost. And at that moment, the world changed forever.
A large, brutal-looking man in a paramilitary uniform walked up to Daliljaj and kicked the gate free of his hands.
"That your fucking tractor out on the road, balija?" the fellow demanded loudly.
The old man gaped. Nobody, not even a Serbian cop, talked to the old man like that. The term balija was derisive and contemptuous, and hadn't been heard in these parts until quite recently. Certainly not up in this mountain village, where the Daliljajs had been farming for generations.
The cop didn't even have a real uniform, just some foolish camo outfit. Was he even an officer? What was his rank? Something about the oaf's grinning face made the farmer hesitate.
"What is the problem?" he said, careful not to address the policeman with disrespect but also not to honor him with a title like sergeant or lieutenant, which might not properly apply.
"The problem is that it's parked in the road," the cop said. He looked about the compound in a way that suggested he was taking inventory. He raised an eyebrow at the figure of Daliljaj's daughter, Fedima. Like a good Muslim woman, she immediately vanished into Franko's house, leaving behind the coffeepot sitting on the bench next to Franko. A moment later she exited from the other door and presumably went to the farmhouse, via a route shielded from the eyes of the men in the yard.
"Who are you?" the cop said to Franko, who stood up and approached the gate.
Franko was cautious. He'd heard about this fellow from Captain Dedorica, the police chief in Tsamet. He was called Bazok, and he was the informal leader of a handful of such men, sent down from Belgrade to "assist" the local police chief. Captain Dedorica's information had been sketchy. Franko had meant to press Dedorica about it, but he'd forgotten.
"I live here," he said.
Bazok nodded. "Oh yeah," he said. "You the one they call Franko? I want to talk to you." He turned to Daliljaj. "Move the tractor. You can't leave it on the road."
"Nobody ever complained before," Daliljaj said. "There is no traffic — it's not in the way."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Badger Games"
Copyright © 2002 Jon A. Jackson.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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