Story Excerpt

Game

by Twist Phelan
 

Game_Jason-C-Eckhardt
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt

On what passed for a clear morning in Los Angeles, Finn Teller veered off the sidewalk into an alley. The entrance to the coffee shop was unencouraging. Cracked asphalt led to a thick wooden door with a hand-painted sign over it that read CAFÉ. It wasn’t artistic lettering, like you saw on boutiques that spelled shop with an extra pe at the end. It was bad graffiti, a scrawl of red on a scrap of raw board.

Finn didn’t care. It was the only place within two blocks of the office serving strong coffee sans employees whose upbeat, tightly scripted manner stemmed from an awareness of cameras angled toward the service counter.

She pushed open the door. There were no windows, and several of the overhead fixtures were out, making the light dim and occasional. Patrons, all male, either leaned against the bar or hunched over one of the scarred wooden tables. Several glanced up, pausing in their conversations, to see what the world had brought in. Short, squat men with Hispanic features showing indifference, superiority, and—a few—hostility. The smell of grease and hair oil hung in the air.

Finn paused on the threshold. Today a familiar face was missing. The one that always looked up interested, making Finn feel welcome.

She approached the cashier behind the register at the end of the bar.

“¿Dónde está Eduardo?”

“Se ha ido.”

Finn was surprised. “¿Dónde?”

The cashier shrugged, but his eyes veered toward the rear of the café, where another wooden door, closed, was cut into the wall.

“Un café con leche, por favor,” Finn said. “To go.” She lowered her voice. “Seriously, where did he go?”

“Mexico,” the cashier said, the whir of the coffee grinder almost swallowing the word.

Finn frowned. “¿Por qué?”

She’d gotten to know Eduardo a bit during the three weeks she’d been on assignment in L.A. During her morning coffee run, the teenager entertained her with his cheery good humor. He’d shared his favorite spot for fish tacos and she’d become addicted to the grilled shrimp and chunky tomato-and-pepper salsa dolloped onto freshly patted tortillas. She liked his politeness to the mostly surly customers, and his interest in astronomy. She’d given him copies of Sagan’s Cosmos and Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. More than once she’d asked him about his plans after high school. He’d smiled and told her Café was the right spot for him. “No college for me,” he’d said.

The cashier loaded the ground coffee into the coffee maker. Thirty seconds later, a small amount of very strong espresso was dribbling into a large paper cup.

“He didn’t say anything to me about going to Mexico,” Finn said as the cashier topped the drink with a shot of hot, frothy milk. She never drank decaf. Why drink coffee if not for the caffeine? And decaf never tasted any good.

“La migra.” The cashier used silver tongs to pick up a churro—a stick of lightly fried dough dusted with sugar—from where it rested with others on a metal rack and dropped it into a paper sack.

Finn was stunned. “He got picked up by Immigration? Are you sure?”

The cashier gave a brief nod as he pushed the cup and sack toward her. “Three dollars twenty.”

Finn opened her wallet and took out five bills. She laid them beside her coffee. The cashier tried to pick up the money, but Finn kept it pinned to the bar with her fingertips. His eyes narrowed in annoyance, then widened when he saw the fifth bill beside the four singles was a fifty.

“Tell me what happened,” Finn said.

After another glance at the door at the rear of the café, the cashier said, “I take a break in five minutes. Behind the laundromat at the end of the block.”

Finn left the singles and palmed the fifty. “See you there.” She took her coffee, ignored the churro, and headed for the door.

 

The cashier leaned against the rear wall of the laundromat, smoking. Finn resisted the urge to bum a cigaret off him. Instead, she said, “Tell me what happened.”

“You got the fifty?”

Finn held up the bill. The cashier reached for it, but Finn pulled it away. “Not until you tell me why Eduardo was picked up.”

“He pissed off el jefe.” The boss.

“How?”

“He has to pay protection to Los Lobos.”

Finn recognized the name of one of L.A.’s oldest street gangs. One of its low-level members had given her good intel for a case she was working a few years back. In return, she’d helped the young man enlist in the U.S. Navy, rounding up letters of recommendation from teachers and a local cop—in addition to writing her own—to obtain a waiver for his arson conviction as a juvenile. Last she heard, Tito was stationed at the naval base in San Diego.

“I’m not following,” Finn said. “What does that have to do with calling Immigration?”

The cashier flicked his butt onto the concrete and stepped on it with a ragged Nike. “Sometimes el jefe comes up short on the payment. When that happens, he stiffs everyone to make up the difference.”

“But that’s illegal. You can file a wage claim.”

“Not if you’re a Dreamer.”

“Eduardo is undocumented?” Dream-ers was the term coined for illegal immigrants who entered the United States before their sixteenth birthday. Laws that would pave the way for them to obtain conditional and ultimately permanent residency had been introduced but never passed. Now Finn understood why Eduardo said college wasn’t in the cards.

“We all are. That’s why el jefe hires mojados. He knows we won’t say nada to nobody when he shorts our pay. If somebody causes trouble, he calls la migra and they pick him up.”

Finn was outraged. And pissed. “That’s not right!”

The man sneered. “So? It’s legal.” He glanced at his phone. “I gotta get back.”

Finn took a business card from her pocket and handed it over with the fifty. “If you see or hear from Eduardo, would you tell him to call me?”

“Yeah, sure.” The man stuffed the card and the bill into his pocket and ambled away.

Finn stayed, chewing on her lower lip. After a moment, she took out her phone, scrolled through her contacts, and hit the number she wanted.

“Tito? It’s Finn.” She started walking toward the main street. “Yeah, long time. Listen, I have a favor to ask.”

 

The offices projected respectability, with the plush oriental rug over marble floor in the elevator lobby leading to a glossy wooden door. On the wall adjacent to it was a small brass plaque. The engraved letters discreetly announced: STRATEGIC INFORMATION ASSOCIATES.

By design, the company’s name was not very forthcoming. Strategic, of course, referred to plans serving a particular purpose or advantage. But information was less illuminating. Just what sort of information was the company dealing in? Advertising? Accounting? Management consulting?

For a select, well-heeled set scattered across the globe, no further explanation was necessary. SIA was a major player in a burgeoning industry that linked refugees from the world of government espionage to the decision makers who ran multinational corporations and, from time to time, political regimes. In their previous lives, many of SIA’s employees, trained and nurtured by national secret-intelligence services, had been in the shadowy business of unearthing secrets in the name of national interest. Now they performed more or less the same function, only they’d transferred their allegiance to the self-interests of their well-paying clients.

Finn pressed her hand against the reader under the brass plaque and the door clicked open.

“Mr. McAuliffe would like to speak with you,” the receptionist told her.

“Thanks.”

Finn veered left and walked to the open door at the end of the hallway. She knocked on the frame. “You looking for me?”

John McAuliffe glanced up from his computer screen. He was handsome but not excessively so, with craggy features and a gray mane that was impressive for a man on the far side of fifty. He wore a buttoned white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He reminded Finn of the fathers she’d seen on TV growing up, cardigan-wearing scotch drinkers who sat in living rooms, interrogating their daughters’ young suitors about their college plans and the provenance of their parents.

She liked McAuliffe because she felt she understood him, and because he made her nostalgic not just for her childhood but for a time when every father, even hers, seemed to have answers that explained the world. It was an engine of McAuliffe’s charisma, one she’d seen work on clients time after time. He spoke with tremendous confidence and certainty, as if he’d seen and understood and known everything from the beginning.

McAuliffe pushed his keyboard aside. “Come in. I have a new assignment for you.”

Finn plopped down in one of the guest chairs. “No can do. I’m buried on this piracy case. Looks like I might have to go to China after all.”

One of the big movie studios thought someone in-house had pirated their latest blockbuster, set for release in a month. The studio had hired SIA to investigate and McAuliffe assigned Finn.

“You can handle this one before you leave. And it’s a great gig—vetting security for the World Cup this weekend.”

“I thought Croom in Anti-Terror was on that.”

“He is. This is something more . . . focused.”

Finn knew that tone. He was soft-pedaling something she wasn’t going to like. “Focused?”

“Protecting player gear in the locker room.”

Finn laughed. “You’re kidding.”

“Not at all.”

Finn grimaced. “No way.”

“Why not? You get to go to the world’s most popular sporting event. These guys are superstars. I’d do it myself if I could. Maybe get an autograph.”

“I’m not guarding dirty underwear. I don’t care who it belongs to.”

“It’s not dirty underwear. It’s accoutrements of heroes. A jersey worn by a star during a World Cup final can be worth a million dollars.”

“The answer is still no.”

“Fine,” McAuliffe said. “Another op will jump at it. And you’re doing TYDWD.”

“TYD—what?”

“Take Your Daughter to Work Day. It’s today. And you’re talking to the girls. Now that I think about it, you’ll be perfect.”

“Why? Because I don’t like kids? Or because I don’t have a daughter?”

“All you have to do is tell them what your typical day is like.”

Finn gave her boss a look. “Seriously? You want me to tell them the truth?”

“Of course not. These girls’ parents work here. I don’t want you to terrify them.”

“I’ll make sure we sing “Kumbaya” at the end.” Finn pushed herself out of the chair. “When is this get-together around the campfire?”

McAuliffe clicked his computer back to life. “They’re waiting for you in the conference room.”

 

The four girls were in their early to mid teens. A curly-haired blonde wearing a bomber jacket over a belted dress and ankle boots glanced up from her phone when Finn walked in. The others stayed glued to their screens.

“Hey,” Finn said.

No response.

“I’ve shot two people, but they didn’t die.”

Phones forgotten, the girls all stared at Finn. Bomber Jacket’s mouth was a small O.

“Is that true?” The speaker was a lanky brunette in a Coachella T-shirt.

“Of course not,” Finn said. It’s more like seven. And one is definitely dead. “I’m a corporate spy. We lie for a living. Anyway, I’m supposed to talk to you about my job. What do you want to know?”

A blocky girl leaned back in her chair with her arms crossed. “Do you have a cool car?”

“No. You want to blend in, not stand out.” Finn fingered the Porsche key chain in her pocket. “I drive the speed limit so no one notices me.”

“Ever been in a car chase?” Blocky Girl.

Finn flashed back to six months earlier in Ireland. Jacked car, automatic weapons, a J-turn that ended in a plunge over a cliff. “Sorry, nope.”

Bomber Jacket asked, “Do you have any cool spy gear?”

Finn shook her head. “That stuff’s only in the movies.” And Dickey’s lab, where SIA’s resident tech genius—wooed away from the NSA’s gadget team by McAuliffe—worked on his creations.

“Do you have sex with people to find out their secrets?” said the fourth girl. She was curvy, with eyes made up as though she were the After in a smoky-eye tutorial on YouTube. Bomber Jacket snickered.

“No!” Finn said. At least not since I met Luc. “Mostly I just watch people.”

“What do you watch for?” Smoky Eyes.

“Depends on the job.” Someone who’s selling company secrets. Or the bagman on a ransom drop. Sometimes I’m looking for the chance to steal a competitor’s prototype. “It’s usually pretty basic stuff—where someone goes for lunch, who he hangs with.”

Lanky Brunette made a face. “Sounds boring.”

“It is. Speaking of which, I have paperwork to do.” I owe McAuliffe a write-up on my last job, including an explanation of how I switched real diamonds for fake ones under the sultan’s nose and got his underage mistress back home to Belarus. “You girls have a good day.”

Absorbed again in their phones, no one looked up when Finn walked out.

She headed for the cubicle she’d been assigned for the duration of her assignment. SIA had offices around the globe. As a field agent, Finn worked out of them when the need arose. McAuliffe did too. Usually he was in their D.C. or New York bureau.

Her phone rang as she sat down at her desk. McAuliffe. She hit the green phone icon.

“Just finished with the girls,” she said.

“How’d it go?”

“Bored them to death.”

She heard a small chuckle. “Good. Let me know if you end up going to China. I need the sultan paperwork before you leave.”

“Yes, boss.” Finn disconnected and reached for the sultan’s file. She was two paragraphs into her report when there was a knock on her cubicle wall. She looked up to see Smoky Eyes.

“Yes?” Finn said with a frown. Outsiders, including kids of employees, weren’t allowed to roam unsupervised in SIA offices.

The girl twisted her fingers together as though she were knitting. “I . . . I’m looking for—”

“Bathroom? I’ll get someone to escort you.” Finn reached for the phone, impatient to finish her report.

“I want to hire you.” The words came out in a rush.

Finn sat back in her chair and regarded the girl. “What’s your name?”

“Amantha.”

“Your mom or dad works here, right?”

“My mom, Cecelia. She’s on the janitor crew.” There was a flicker of defiance in her eyes. “I came by myself today.”

“Okay. So, why do you want to hire me?”

“I need to find my dad.” The flicker again. “I can pay you.”

“Before we get to that, why don’t you tell me what you want me to do,” Finn said.

“Talk to my dad.”

“And you can’t because—”

“He doesn’t know who I am.”

“Let’s go someplace and talk.” Finn stood. “You like coffee?”

 

They sat at a corner table in Café. Amantha pushed her Coke around the tabletop, leaving wet trails on the scarred wood, while Finn sipped an espresso so unrelenting it swallowed milk Bermuda Triangle­–style no matter how much she poured.

“So what’s the story?” Finn said when the Coke started its third circuit.

Amantha released the glass. “My dad’s a fútbol player,” she said, using the Spanish word for soccer. “He and my mom met, well, nineteen years ago. He was in L.A. for an exhibition game. It was right before he got famous.”

“Famous?”

Amantha looked at Finn. The smoky makeup around her gold-brown eyes had the odd effect of making her look younger, not older. A little girl playing with Mommy’s cosmetics.

“My dad’s Jandro Cruz.”

Even soccer-oblivious Finn knew who the biggest star in the world’s most popular sport was. Usually referred to by only his first name or El Rey—The King—he’d been on a tear the past year, leading his pro club in Spain to the Champions League and European Championship titles while upping his career-goal total to the mid 600s. And his national team—Brazil—was the favorite to win this year’s World Cup.

El Rey was a fiend online as well as on the field. His social-media posts generated a billion dollars of revenue every year for his sponsors.

“Were he and your mom together long?”

Amanda shook her head. “Just one night.” The Coke began another lap around the table. “He raped her.”

Finn took Amantha’s hands in hers. “I’m so sorry.”

Amanda pulled free. “Don’t be. My mom and I are just fine.” She bit her lower lip. “At least until now.”

Finn sat back and said nothing.

“My mom reported it. But the police couldn’t do anything because he was already back in Brazil. And then he signed that big contract and, well, the prosecutor told my mom even though he filed the papers, there was no way they were going to extradite him.”

Finn wasn’t surprised. Two decades ago the economy—and with it, the current government—in Jandro’s home country had been cratering. The powers that be weren’t about to ship out their citizens’ one ray of hope and distraction, especially for something like a rape charge.

“Why are you trying to talk to him now?”

“Because he’s here, in L.A. It’s the first time he’s come back to the United States since . . . since he was with my mom.”

Finn knew the U.S. had replaced Russia as the World Cup host country due to a doping scandal, and the final was scheduled for Los Angeles that weekend.

“Do you want him to go to jail? I’m afraid the statute of limitations has probably expired,” she said.

“No. I want him to help my mom. We don’t have a lot of money and she’s got cancer. It’s a weird kind. There’s a treatment they do in France that’s cured some people, but it costs a lot and Medicaid won’t cover it.” She raised her chin. “I just got accepted to Stanford. I told my mom I could wait a year to go, stay here and take care of her. She won’t let me.” Amantha’s eyes shimmered in the low light with unshed tears. “She says it would be pointless. If she doesn’t go to France and get the treatment, she’ll be dead in a year.”

“Have you tried to contact him?”

“I sent him an e-mail, but he never answered. I tried to call him in South America, but I couldn’t get his number. When I heard he was coming here to play, I thought I’d finally have a chance. I called the hotel where the team is staying. I lied and said I was with one of the TV stations and got through to his assistant. I told him who I really am, who my mom is. He called back yesterday and told me Jandro says he isn’t my dad and if I didn’t leave him alone, he’d call the police.”

“Amantha, I have to ask this. Are you sure?”

“Sure what? That I want to ask him for money? Yes! He’s got hundreds of millions. Hundreds. All I want is enough to pay for my mom to go to France and get the treatment. That’s it.” She folded her arms. “This isn’t about child support, or paying for school. It’s about my mom.”

“That isn’t what I meant.” Now it was Finn’s turn to push her cup and saucer across the table. “Are you sure he’s your dad?”

“Yes. My mom was a virgin when he . . . assaulted her. She never got married. She’s never been with anyone else.” The teen took out her phone, swiped across the screen a few times, then held it up. “Look. How can you say we’re not related?”

Finn studied the photo of the fútbol superstar, then looked at the girl across from her. The crooked cleft in the chin, the upward tilt of the eyes, the low hairline. It wasn’t DNA-test results, but it was good enough for Finn.

She gave Amantha back her phone. “What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to talk to him, explain why my mom needs money.”

“I don’t see how I can even get near him. Not this weekend.”

The tears that had been threatening for so long finally spilled. “People who work here know about you. My mom told me some of the stuff you’ve done. I thought you were some hotshot spy. You’re just a big fake.”

She stood, banging a hip against the table. Finn’s cold coffee sloshed over the rim of her cup.

“Thanks for nothing,” Amantha said, the acid in her tone corrosive enough to dissolve metal.

She slung her purse over her shoulder. A flash of light from the open door a moment later and she was gone.

Finn drummed her fingers against the wood. She knew how Amantha felt. Finn’s father had disappeared from her life when she was about Amantha’s age. Finn’s little sister’s anger toward him, if she’d ever been angry, had bent down over time. Finn’s fury still stood up straight, bristling, every day spiky.

She took out her phone and hit the first entry under Favorites.

“McAuliffe? Have you given anyone else the dirty-underwear gig?”

 

Finn spent the morning with Jason Croom, the head of SIA’s Anti-Terror unit, going over his security plan for the arena. Metal detectors, cameras everywhere, even snipers in the rafters.

“All this for a soccer game?” she said when Croom ended the tour near one of the players’ locker rooms.

“Not a soccer game,” Croom said. “The soccer game. The World Cup is the most watched event on earth. These players are like gods to hundreds of millions of people.”

“And I’m here because people want to steal these gods’ sweaty jockstraps?”

Croom laughed. “You bet. People are infatuated with sports memorabilia. A Tom Brady jersey was stolen from supposedly one of the most secure sporting events in the world outside the Olympics—a Super Bowl locker room. It was taken by a tabloid journalist who’s a football nut. He used expired press credentials, walked in on the heels of a coach, picked up the jersey, stuffed it in his briefcase, and walked out. When they tracked him down, the cops discovered he had another Brady jersey, from the Super Bowl two years earlier. The guy had stolen it the same way. When the cops asked him why he took them, he said it was to feel closer to the game.”

“A sliver of the True Cross,” Finn said.

“Exactly. It’s hard to say what the stuff is worth—it rarely changes hands. I mean, you can’t exactly put Brady’s jersey on eBay. But to the right buyer—and there are a lot of them—it would have fetched seven figures, easy.” Croom laughed. “I don’t think you’d get nearly that much for his jockstrap.”

“Gee, I’m surprised.”

“It’s not for the reason you think. Jerseys, shorts, and shoes are more easily authenticated. They’re marked with serial numbers, watermarked, and chipped.”

“Tagged electronically?”

Croom nodded. “Now it’s done for all the important matches. Protection against swindlers and thieves. Some people alter jerseys worn by other players, changing the names and numbers to look like they were worn by one of the stars and then selling them. Some steal them outright, either to sell or to keep, like the tabloid journalist. Check the number and scan the chip, and it’ll tell you which player the jersey belonged to and what game he wore it in.”

Finn and Croom swiped their ID cards through a reader mounted on the wall and walked into the locker room. The carpeted, chandeliered, and wood-paneled space reminded Finn of a country-club lobby. Folding chairs were lined up facing a long banquet table. Taped-down extension cords and cables snaked across the floor.

“This is for the press conference afterwards,” Croom said. “The coaches and players come out after they’re showered and dressed.”

“What happened to those interviews where the player was just wearing a towel wrapped around his waist?”

Croom shook his head. “Not at the World Cup.”

“And they call this the world’s greatest sporting event.” Finn glanced up. Metal tracks striped the ceiling, with cameras attached every three feet like high-tech stalactites. “That’s a lot of eyes in the sky. Any blind spots?”

“There are a few suboptimal angles, but basically everything is covered. You’ll see when we check out the monitors in the viewing room. Let me show you the players’ space first.”

He led her to metal double doors on the far side of the chairs, where they swiped their ID cards again.

This room was more spartan. Concrete floor, fluorescent lighting, glass-fronted refrigerators full of energy drinks. A whiteboard covered the far wall, and in a corner a physical therapy/first-aid station had been set up, with two padded examination/ massage tables and a glass-fronted cabinet full of bandages and ointments.

Finn let her gaze rove the space.

“No cameras? Or are they hidden?”

“No cameras. Players don’t want a hacker posting nude photos of them on the Internet, and coaches are worried about their game plans being eavesdropped on. Shouldn’t be a problem for you, though. Only players, coaches, and team support staff were issued key cards for here. And we’ve swept every day for devices.”

Along the far wall was a row of wooden closet cubbies. Each contained two identical uniforms hanging from a single rod, a sports duffel underneath imprinted with the team logo, and several pairs of soccer shoes. Finn looked into one of the bags. Socks, shin guards, compression shorts, a jockstrap. A strip of plastic printed with a player’s last name was tacked above each cubby. Finn didn’t see the one she was looking for.

“Where’s Jando’s locker?”

“El Rey dines—and changes—alone,” Croom said.

He led her to a wooden wall three-quarters the height of the room that had been erected in a corner. Behind it on a rectangle of carpet was a La-Z-Boy-style recliner and a closet cubby that was twice as large as the others. Three uniforms hung inside, above half a dozen pairs of cleats. Across from the chair was a big-screen TV. Beside the chair was a refrigerator with a video-game controller on top.

Croom’s phone buzzed. He checked the screen.

“I gotta take this. Be right back. The reception’s lousy under all this concrete.”

After he was gone, Finn did a quick inspection of the space, checking under the chair, behind the TV. She looked inside the shoes and ran her hands over the jerseys and shorts. The electronic chip—a small, hard rectangle—was discernible in the waistband of the shorts and the jersey’s hem. She left the socks and underwear alone.

She opened the fridge. It had been stocked with energy drinks and champagne.

“If you want a drink, all you have to do is ask,” a voice said. . . .

 

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Copyright © 2018. Game by Twist Phelan