Rain was coming down in sheets that made everything further out than a few feet run together into vague, looming blobs. It collected on the brick walks of the Dayspring campus and gathered into fast moving runnels wherever a slope led downhill even in the slightest.
From the porch of Hathaway House, the world was an ice blue moving curtain with only the hedges planted along the railing visible beyond the rain eschewing protection of the roof. The rain was coming straight down, barely spattering through the three open walls.
Two dark shapes suddenly loomed out of the obscuring rain and in a few steps resolved into young men carrying umbrellas. They surged over the threshold between the deluge and the dry haven and stood a moment shaking themselves and their umbrellas dry.
Vincent Liedecker glared out at the downpour as if he resented it for daring to get him wet. “You know another reason I’m gonna be glad to tour the Mid-East?” He asked rhetorically, “It’s dry.”
“You’ll miss this water when you get over there.” Callahan scowled, “All the water they got, it’s all being tilled into the ground. My Ecology professor’s one of the guys that designed the system.”
“Then I’ll drink wine the whole time.” Liedecker shrugged.
Callahan have him a sidelong leer. “You think Izzy is gonna drink nothing but wine the whole time too?” He cackled, “So that’s the plan; you’ve got to get her drunk.”
“You’re hilarious, you know?” Liedecker replied dryly. He pushed the door open and led the way in. “One; who said I even wanted to take her? And two… she hates being called Izzy.”
“She said no then. I warned you: older women are trouble, especially those that have a hand in how you get graded. I wouldn’t count on passing that robotics course.” Callahan followed, shaking his head.
“Would you lay off, Callahan?” Liedecker sounded irritated as he opted to take the stairs up rather than the elevator. All the better to teach his out of shape friend a lesson about teasing people more fit than he. “I haven’t asked.”
Callahan barked out a laugh at that pronouncement. “You have to be kidding me. My friend Vince; the same Vince Liedecker, king of everything suave and smooth who acts like nothing gets to him, is nervous asking a woman out?”
“Watch it, Callahan.” Liedecker’s tone was hard like a solid block of ice, “Ain’t a woman alive holds any fear for me. I was going to ask at the party. You remember, right? The party a certain Roland Burke was supposed to pick her up and bring her too.”
He tried to sound angry, but he knew Burke too well for that. The man was dependable as gravity and if he failed to come through, there was a reason. Likely, it was the same reason Liedecker hadn’t seen him on campus for the past three days.
“You talk to Burke since then?” He asked Callahan, keeping his expression neutral.
Callahan sobered instantly. He’d been concerned too. “No. You?”
Liedecker shook his head. “Not hide or hair. I’m almost certain he hasn’t left his room.” As it happened, they had reached the third landing, Burke’s floor. “I think three days is long enough for a man to stew, don’t you?”
“You think so?” Callahan asked. “If he wants to be left alone, maybe we should just do it.”
“Like hell.” Liedecker was already pushing open the door to the hall. “What kind of use are we if we just stand around and let the man sit and wallow?” He strode confidently down the hall to Burke’s room. Without preamble, he knocked on the door with the handle of his umbrella. No answer.
“Maybe he went home.” Suggested Callahan.
“Bullshit. I can hear him moving in there. You got his spare key?”
Callahan hesitated before nodding. “Yeah, on my ring here. But do you really thing we should—“ The moment he held up the keyring, Liedecker snatched them away.
“If we don’t, Joe, who will?” With that, he unlocked the door and flung it open to bang against the stop.
It was dark inside, the only light being that which managed to suffuse through the pouring rain outside and through the window. Empty microwave meal cartons and noodle cups were stacked on the lone desk and the entire place had a dank, unwashed smell to it.
On the bed in to corner lay Roland Burke. Even in the dim, he looked pale and drawn thin. Three days trimmed, his beard was thick and slovenly and his face was blotchy and swollen.
Liedecker didn’t pay any heed to any of it. With the hook of his umbrella, he turned on the ceiling light, flooding the room with brilliance. “Time to get up, Burke.” He used the umbrella again to keep his friend from shielding his eyes against the light. Now it was clear that the big man had been crying. “Three days out of action is enough. We’re going to Trio’s.”
Burke shook off the umbrella. “’not going anywhere, Vince.” He drawled.
“Beg to differ.” Liedecker insisted. “You may be a big bastard, but there’s two of us and one of you, and you’re the worst scrapper of the three.” He substituted the umbrella’s hook for his own, firm hand. “Come on.”
“No. Vince.” Burke shook the offending hand away, his voice heavy. “You don’t… go away.”
“I know you weren’t about to say I don’t understand.” Liedecker scowled. “I like to think we’re above teenage girl bullshit like that, Burke. Even Callahan.” The other man glowered at him, causing him to smirk.
Burke set up, shaking his head. “No, Vince. This is beyond that. I’ve done something… I’m into something and I don’t know how to get out. I can’t undo it. This isn’t the kind of thing you joke about.”
The room saw suddenly very quiet as Liedecker studied his friend’s face and then glanced back at Callahan. The engineering student could only shrug helplessly; he was just as in the dark as his friend.
At length, Liedecker came upon a course of action. He took a cleansing breath and inclined his head to Callahan. “Close the door, Joe.”
Not taking his eyes off Liedecker or Burke, he did as told, carefully closing the door so it didn’t make more sound than the catch clicking. He stayed by it like a sentry, something that earned him a nod of approval from Liedecker.
“Alright, Roland.” It was a rare thing for him to call his friends by their given names, Burke far less so than Callahan. Whether it was an odd kind of formality instilled in him from his father, or simply another offshoot of his personality, the other two didn’t know. But this time it was different. His tone was serious and solemn instead of smooth and controlled. “There’s just the three of us here. Unless I don’t know you half as good as I think, we’re just about the only two people a body like you would talk to about whatever this is.”
Burke shook his head. “I can’t, Vince. I can’t get the two of you in on this. Shit, I’m going to jail or worse myself.”
If anything, this only hardened Liedecker’s tone. “God damn it, Burke, spit it out. I don’t like this cryptic shit and you and I both know I’m not going to back off this. You hear me right now; I’m in this and I’m going to find out. All the say you’ve got is if that takes minutes or days. Got me?”
To his shock, the big man started to shake. His face reddened and he struggled to hold back tears. After a long, awkward moment, he started to explain himself in halting, croaking speech. “It was my work. I didn’t know when I started, but my boss… he’s a man named Wosniak; some kind of crime boss. He’s old school, like the movies, Vince.”
Liedecker managed to appear unsurprised by this news. It wouldn’t do to fly off the handle at this point and spook Burke before he had all the information he needed. His father had instilled the value of knowing the complete picture before acting since his days of junior high football. “Go on.” He instructed, shooting a warning glance at Callahan when he heard him start to ask a question.
Burke doubled over on the bed, clutching his face in his hands as he drew in a few great, sobbing breaths to steady himself. “Friday, I got a call. It was right before I was going to head out for your party. All they said was to wait with the engine and everything off on some street down in Mara 19 territory with a GPS beacon on.”
A picture of what happened started to form in Liedecker’s mind, but he didn’t interrupt.
“After a long time, some guy came.” Burke’s speech sped up with the memory of fear. “Some kind of deal broke down and the Maras were shooting at them. They told me to drive…” He looked up, his eyes haunted and far away as he visualized what came next.
“I wanted to get out of there. I floored it and…and someone—maybe it was one of them—stepped out in the road. Then someone shot the car and… and…” He squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t want to see that image anymore, but when he closed his eyes, it was all he saw. “I ain’t a brave man, Vince. People think it ’cause I’m a big guy, but I’m not. I just wanted to get away.”
Liedecker didn’t need to hear anymore. Neither did Callahan, as evidenced by the murmured “Christ.” that came from the vicinity of the door. He himself only nodded, lapsing the room into another long period of near silence as all three of them tried to think of some way to respond to the idea that Burke may have killed a man.
With cold logic, he dissected the situation, turning it over and over in his mind, looking for what he needed to know on top of what he already knew. Unfortunately, the former vastly outstripped the later and there was only one way he knew of to learn what he needed.
“Ain’t nobody gonna say you’re not brave for wanting to live.” He stated as he came to his conclusions. “Dying for nothing when you can choose not to ain’t brave, it’s called being a damn fool, Burke. Knowing that you’re not bulletproof is just having some damn common sense in your head.”
“That doesn’t change what happened.” Burke replied darkly.
“No, it doesn’t.” Liedecker was quick to shoot back. “And you can’t change that. I can’t judge what happened there, but I do know that you’ve got to get out of this thing.”
“I can’t, Vince. Wosniak told me there’s a war on now; they need all the loyal guys they can get and there’s a bullet in it for anyone that’s not one of ’em.” Burke shifted uncomfortably. “I’m stuck. Either way, I’m gonna die; the Maras and the Wild Men have all the guns coming into the damn city.”
The sentence cinched Liedecker’s resolve that his plan would work. “You’re not gonna die Burke.” He straightened up and adjusted his coat. Offhand, he patted his pockets for his cigarettes and slipped the pack into his hand. As he lit up, he took a casual stroll around the room, nodding to the definitely paler than usual Callahan. “When do you meet with his Wosniak fella again?”
Burke’s brow furrowed in confusion. “I’ve got to pick him up from a meeting tonight. Why?”
Callahan saw the direction this was going immediately. “Are you out of your mind?” He demanded of his friend. “We’re trying to get Burke out, not you in. You’re likely to get both of you killed.”
Liedecker shook his head and puffed away for a few moments. “Out of my mind like Rommel. This is tactic—this is business. If Burke is right, there’re things this Wosniak needs more than man power; things he’ll be willing to trade for a driver.”
By now, even Burke had an idea of what Liedecker had in mind. “I can’t ask you to do this for me, Vince…”
Liedecker gave him a steely look. “You’re not asking me, Burke; I’m telling you. My daddy taught me damn near everything I know and one of those things is that you don’t turn your back on your friends.” He swept his gaze over both of them. “And expect nothing less in return.”
He ashed the cigarette in the trashcan. “Now if I’m right and Wosniak is desperate, there’s not going to be much of a price to pay at all. Hell, this could be said and done by the weekend.” He spared a glower through the window to the falling rain. “’course, I’m going to have to go back out in that to break a date now. So you owe me, Burke.” Without another word, he sauntered past Callahan and out the door.
To Be Continued…