The Ultimate Collateral:
A Story of Mystery and Revenge
By Jim Sells
My name’s H W Grady. I’m a PI in Atlanta. After a few years of military service to avoid jail, I got a degree and became a cop. That was okay until I had a falling out with a supervisor. I went to another department as a detective. Then I met the daughter of rich man. We married and I took a job with him. The marriage ended. She kept our son and daddy kept the job. I opened my one-man PI shop.
I was driving my Mercedes to meet a client. The car and suit were for show. The appearance appealed to higher-class clients. That drove me to work harder to meet the cost. It worked for me. Or maybe I just liked living that life style.
I pulled into a strip mall. A grocery store was the anchor to a variety of service stores for hair, nails, etc. There was also one of the older and better Mexican restaurants in town. The name translated roughly to The Spider’s Web. The place had been there when I was still a cop. When I asked why The Spider’s Web, Carlos, the founder, told me he was so poor as a kid that the only pet he could have was a spider that had built a web in the corner of the room he shared with four brothers. Carlos had come here with nothing. He’d gained money, respect and a heart attack at forty-eight.
Maria, his widow, ran the place with the same love and care as he. She had asked me to come.
“Mr. Grady. It is a pleasure to see you in our humble eating place,” said Maria, pulling me down to kiss my cheek. “You are thin. You must eat!”
I’m not tall, but I towered over her. Maria propelled me to a smaller dining room.
“I’m sorry you don’t eat in the main room, but for this I think private talk is best.”
A Mexican beer magically appeared on the table. Tortilla chips with salsa, con queso, and guacamole and then fajitas appeared. Assured that I was well fed, Maria sat down with me.
“Now that you have stuffed me with the wonderful food, what can I do you?”
“You know Miguel, my oldest, yes?”
I nodded. I knew him from my cop days through his connections to gangs and drugs.
“You know my Connie – Consuela – yes?”
I knew her slightly from the restaurant.
“She will finish high school early. Straight honor roll – 1400 on her SAT. She will go to college thanks to her work and her father’s foresight. He left us well provided for. Both could have gone to college, but Miguel chose not to and thanks to his actions, her future is in danger.
I started to ask, but she raised her hand and said, “Miguel will tell you himself.”
Then to an older waiter she said, “Juan bring Miguel please”
A few awkward moments passed. Maria stared at her hands folded in front of her. I listened to my stomach growl as it began the monumental feat of digesting the feast.
Miguel was about 5’5” and maybe twenty. He wore loose jeans, a long tee, sneakers, and a colorful dew rag. He also wore the sullen expression common to many youths when dealing with anyone over thirty. I’d lost mine at eighteen under the tender tutorage of a drill sergeant.
“Take that thing from you head,” commanded Maria.
“They’re my colors,” replied Miguel in a voice that was intended to be authoritative but succeeded in sounding whiny instead.
“Take it off before I do,” said Juan.
“If you weren’t old, I’d show you a thing or two.”
Although he glared at Juan, he complied. Something told me Juan had once been something other than a waiter.
“Tell Mr. Grady what disgrace you have brought upon your family.”
“You bring me here like a child. I am now the head of the family. Then you discuss family business in front of this gringo?”
Maria rose from the chair and strode to Miguel. The slap sounded as loud as a gunshot. I believe if it hadn’t been so sudden that he might have struck her back. Instead he stood in shock.
“He was a police officer and now he helps people. Tell Him!”
Avoiding my eyes, Miguel told how he rose in a street gang and eventually was put in charge of half-a-dozen street dealers. He had no taste for drugs, but his weakness was young women. He’d traded favors with them for drugs. When he couldn’t meet the cost, he blamed shortages on the dealers. The gang found out and demanded the money. When he couldn’t pay, they had taken his sister as collateral – the ultimate collateral.
“Call the police,” I said.
“He is my son, he could go to prison.”
“Connie could die if you don’t.”
“She could if I do,” said Maria. “Will you help us?”
“It will be difficult.”
“We can pay you well. He won’t need his college money.”
“It’s not just that. This will have to be handled so that they don’t know you were behind it. We will have to have to make them think it was someone they are afraid to retaliate against.”
“You know such people?” she asked.
I nodded and pulled out my cell. I knew one that had a personal score with this gang. I dialed and a man without any noticeable accent answered the phone.
“This is Grady.”
“Ah, you are worried about earning the $5000 you owe me.”
Recently, we had been involved in the case of a drug dealing college professor. Tuan is a major player in the Atlanta drug market. He is the son of a Vietnamese Army Officer and uses dad’s old connections in Asia. I hadn’t exactly done what he’d wanted before, but he didn’t seem too upset – go figure.
“No, I thought we were square. I’ve got something that might interest you – if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty.”
“One hour. I’ll pick you up at your office.”
The line went dead.
“Here is one week’s fee,” said Maria, placing cash in front of me.
Before I could answer, she said, “I know others who you have helped. I know what you charge. There will be no argument. I could find hard men to do this, but something tells me you understand Miguel better than most – maybe even me.”
I nodded and thought back to my wayward youth including a wise judge who had given me a choice between the Army and jail.
“You will go with him and do not return without Connie,” said Maria to Miguel.
He and I walked out together.
“That’s a tough woman,” I said as we rode.
“You got that right.”
We drove to my office and sat in the car until Tuan arrived. I locked my guns in the trunk. Exactly one hour after we had talked a Mercedes sedan pulled in. It probably cost 200k more than my CLK. An underling called Duc stepped out and frisked us. He relieved Miguel of a wicked looking gravity knife. We climbed into the ample backseat.
When we were moving, Tuan said, “You spend so much time in my world, you should come to work for me.”
“Too dangerous. What happened to the Lamborghini? “
“Moving up in the world. Besides, some guys sent by a competitor filled it full of holes. So it is better that I travel with my entourage.”
“You trade a 225k car and get a bigger one, DEA and IRS notice.”
“Notice? They virtually camp on my lawn already. Now what is it that you have for me?”
“I heard that some local Mexican players took a run at you. How’d you like to even the score?”
I gave him a bare bones account including that it was the same gang that had tried to kill him. His face darkened at the mention of the kidnapping.
“We live the life,” he said. “But family should be left alone. What is it you want?”
“We go in and get her,” I said, indicating Miguel and me. “You take credit so there’s no retaliation against her family.”
“Why don’t my boys go in and you don’t worry about retaliation. There won’t be anyone left to retaliate.”
“Too messy. The girl might not make it out.”
“So what’s your solution?”
“Maybe send two guys with us. We all wear masks and gloves. They can talk Vietnamese. We keep out mouths shut.”
“Why not do it myself? What do I need you two for?”
“Miguel knows the key players. I can hold my own.”
“It can get messy. You willing to put a few down?”
“If it can’t be avoided.”
“You know where they’re holding her?” he asked Miguel.
“No, but I know some of ones who will. Grab one and make him talk.”
“Not bad. Duc, round up a car - nothing too flashy. You and the kid bring back someone. You know to where. Find out where they’re holding the girl.”
“What you want to do with him when we’re through?”
“Make it look like he OD’ed.”
The driver dropped Duc and Miguel off.
“What about you and I?” I asked.
“I’m going to dinner. I know a good steak place.”
“Steak? I thought noodles.”
“I got sick of noodles growing up. I want steak and a bottle of wine.”
The driver knew where. He parked in front of popular restaurant. A meter maid walked away without ticketing the car. The three of us went inside. The hostess seated Tuan and I at one table and the driver where he had clear view.
The food was excellent. As we finished, his cell rang. There was a brief exchange in Vietnamese.
“They got the intel. The gang is getting some heat from a drug task force and talking about killing the girl. They have her stashed at a marijuana house. Miguel knows it. Duc had a tough time getting Miguel under control. You sure you want to take him?”
“He needs to take part in straightening out the mess.”
“Now you’re playing psychologist.”
He pulled out his cell again. After another exchange, he hung up.
“I got a guy
flying in from LA. He’ll be here at eleven. You go two hours later.”
That gave five hours to kill. We went to a local club. The driver disappeared. I noticed a couple of Vietnamese scattered around the room. Tuan was well guarded. I sipped bottled water and killed time. I’d been in battle and served high-risk warrants. Waiting is never easy. Three hours passed and the driver reappeared. Tuan got up without paying a check and we walked out.
The Mercedes had been replaced with a plain sedan. The windows were tinted dark enough I couldn’t see the interior. The driver took the wheel. Another Asian occupied the front.
“Your uncle sends his regards,” said the newcomer.
“Please send mine in return, Ho,” replied Tuan.
The sedan rumbled to life. The growl from beneath the hood was testament to its worthiness as was the tight suspension when we rounded curves. He drove to a residential area and into the drive of a non-descript house. We unloaded and filed inside where the Duc waited.
The house was empty save some cardboard boxes. Inside were sweatshirts, pants, gloves, ski masks, and bullet resistant vests – all a dull black color. We changed without speaking. Tuan walked around with a bag.
“Put ID, wallets, watches, rings inside – I’ll get them back after. No use leaving clues for the police.”
We complied. Tuan gave us each a fake ID and a commando knife with sheath. Lastly we were issued weapons. Miguel and I received a loaded .40 caliber. I racked a round into the chamber. The Vietnamese got a sidearm and an Uzi machine pistol each.
“Well, this where I wish you good luck,” said Tuan.
Tuan and Duc gathered up the boxes – now with our own clothes – and left.
“Let’s go,” said the driver.
We filed out to the car. We drove to another residential neighborhood. I doubted the neighbors suspected there was a house converted to grow marijuana with a hostage there. The driver stopped across the street and two doors down from the address. We donned our masks.
“You sure you got the right address?” I asked.
“The guy would have done anything to make us stop,” replied Miguel.
“Good question though,” said Ho. “You work your way around back and make sure.”
I got out and looked around. The house on each side of the address had ‘For Sale’ signs. I walked down the side of one away from our target. I came to a fenced yard. The house was still dark and I didn’t find any evidence of a dog. I entered and jumped the fence to the target house.
I saw basement windows covered with paper. Through a gap I could make out rows of marijuana plants and a young girl tied to chair – Connie.
I heard a commotion from the front. I arrived in time to see Ho bring the commando knife across a lookout’s throat. Blood gushed, but not for long. Then the front door was smashed and they entered. They had sent me around back so I wouldn’t interfere with their methods.
I followed. Two gangbangers rounded a corner. They had machine pistols too. The Vietnamese were faster and the air filled with smoke as the bangers went down. I had the automatic out as I slipped past. Miguel followed. An exchange of gunfire came from another room. More bodies went down.
In the kitchen I opened the basement door and peered down. Light and the odor of the marijuana plants filtered up. All was quiet below. We descended. I could see the plants, I could see the girl, I could see the banger holding a gun to her head.
I stopped. He held the gun steady. Miguel stepped forward. A rapid-fire exchange of Spanish followed. Then the gun turned to Miguel. I fired. The banger went down. So did Miguel. Connie screamed. Neither the banger nor Miguel would move again. I cut Connie loose and carried her to keep her from her brother’s body.
I got back to car as the Vietnamese brought packages and threw them in the trunk. Police sirens wailed in the distance. We drove away calming before they arrived.
When I returned Connie, Maria kissed and patted my cheek. She seemed to already know about Miguel’s last moment of redemption. Maybe the whole thing had ended for the best.
A couple of days later, Tuan stopped by my office. He dropped a band of cash on my desk.
“Working with you is profitable. Stay in touch,” he said and left.
I thought about returning the money. Instead, I got my coat and headed home. I could afford to take some time off.