In Danger of Judgment
Saturday, May 16, 1987
I Love Lucy was wrapping up, which meant that in half an hour Frank could drive by the house.
When they gave him the assignment, Thornton and Arthur had cast it as a vacation, a reward for a job well done. He didn’t doubt their sincerity, but he’d rather have been back at the mansion with the guys. It would have been easier to swallow if they’d given him some idea of why he was doing it, but as usual they didn’t tell him jack. That was the thing about working for Thornton—he told you what you needed to know and nothing more.
Not that he was complaining. No, sir, because working for Professor Thornton was the best job a fighting man could have. He just never expected he’d have a soft assignment like this one when it all began two years ago.
* * *
On the night two years ago when his life changed, Frank sat in a roadhouse bar five miles outside Fayetteville, North Carolina, the home of Fort Bragg. There was a joint just like it near every military base he’d ever been stationed at—a place where the liquor was cheap, the hookers were passable, and people left you alone if you wanted to be left alone. And on this particular night Frank did want to be left alone, because he was pondering a topic he’d considered only once before: what he was going to do with his life.
The only other time Frank had thought about his future was when he was a high school senior, and he’d been just as clueless then as he was now. He’d been a good student but not a scholar, a decent second baseman on his high school baseball team, but not good enough to attract attention from scouts. College held no attraction for him, and there wasn’t anything in particular he wanted to do. He’d been perfect fodder for the Army recruiter who promised him three hots and a cot and told him the Army would teach him a skill. And over the next eight years, the Army did indeed teach him some skills, though they were skills without much demand in the outside world.
Frank enjoyed military life and had figured on being a lifer, but then the Army notified him it wasn’t renewing his enlistment contract. There was some form language blaming force structure reductions and noting he’d get an honorable discharge and all of his veteran’s benefits, but to Frank it meant only one thing: in four months he’d be a civilian.
Now, as Frank sat at the bar nursing a bourbon, he was forced to contemplate his future again. Who would pay him to do what he was good at? He had a vague notion of being a cop or a security guard, but that was far as he’d gotten.
There was, of course, the plum job: being a contractor. Anyone who’d spent time in special operations had heard the stories. Mercenaries got good pay, good women, and good action, which, after all, were the only three things a man needed. And the pinnacle of all mercenary jobs was working for the legendary Professor Thornton, supposedly a drug baron who gave you the best pay, the best women, and the best action.
He never really knew if such stories were true. Lots of bullshit was exchanged among military men, and Frank had been around long enough to develop a healthy skepticism of such tales. He’d assigned it to a mental file that had grown thick over the years—a story that probably wasn’t true, but was so attractive he held out some hope it was.
He was halfway through his second drink when the door opened and a man walked in. The man had buzz-cut steel-gray hair and looked like he’d been born to be a soldier. He was dressed plainly, in jeans and a T-shirt, but he wore his character like a uniform. Frank had known many such men, and he pegged the guy instantly: an ex-NCO who had seen and done everything there was to see and do, and had not been particularly impressed by any of it.
The man had silver-blue eyes that even in the dim light shone like mirrors, and he paused just long enough to scan the entire bar. It didn’t look deliberate; it looked natural, as though he did it every time he entered a room. He didn’t look happy or sad or bored or excited or curious. He just looked ready.
He looked like he had never been afraid of anything in his life.
He sat down next to Frank.
“What are you drinking?” the man asked.
“I don’t drink with people I don’t know.”
“My name is Arthur, and I work for Robert Thornton.”
Three thoughts raced through Frank’s mind.
Don’t fuck this up.
For a moment he stared nonchalantly at the remaining well whiskey in his glass, then downed it and rapped the glass back on the bar. “Double Jack Daniels and water,” he said.
Arthur ordered tonic water. Their drinks came, and they sat down at a table in the farthest corner of the room.
“Francisco Velez,” Arthur said, “Sergeant First Class, United States Army, Seventh Special Forces Group. You were born in Los Angeles and joined the Army right out of high school. You’ve been in for eight years and you’re going to be discharged in four months. You’re the assistant operations and intelligence sergeant on your A-team, and you’re fluent in Spanish.”
“So you’ve read my file. So what?”
“Your file doesn’t mention what you did in ’84, in Chalatenango province in El Salvador.”
“That’s classified information.”
“You bet it is,” Arthur said with a laugh. “If it wasn’t, you’d be staring at a wall in Leavenworth right now, instead of sitting here, sipping on a Jack black.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is, we know a lot that’s not in your file. Have you thought about what you’re going to do after your discharge?”
“I’ve got some irons in the fire.”
“Do any of those irons pay eighty thousand dollars a year and come with room and board and all the women you care to have?”
“Okay,” Frank said, “you’ve got my attention. What could I possibly do to deserve all that?”
“You have certain skills, Frank. They’re skills that don’t translate well to the civilian world, but in our business they’re very valuable.”
“And what business is that?”
“Heroin,” Arthur said. “The biggest, most integrated heroin enterprise in the world. We are the almighty General Motors of heroin. Does that bother you?”
“I can’t say that it does.”
“Can you still kill on command?”
“I’ve done it before. I s’pose I could do it again.”
Arthur smiled approvingly. “Here’s how it works. You’ll get an unmarked envelope in the mail. It’ll have three thousand dollars in cash and an airline ticket from DC to Bangkok, departing two weeks after your discharge. Use the time to get the Army out of your system, but keep yourself in shape.”
“We pick you up at the airport and take you to our compound. You get three days to get over your jet lag, and then we put you through three days of tests.”
“What kinds of tests?”
“I can’t be specific, because we don’t want you to be prepared. All I can say is that some will be physical and some will be psychological.”
“We give you another three thousand dollars and drop you off in Bangkok for a few days while we evaluate your scores. You can have a very good time in Bangkok, Thailand, with three thousand dollars in American cash money. All we ask is that you don’t draw attention to yourself. Then we come get you and tell you how you did.”
“That’s it?” Frank asked.
“That’s it,” Arthur said. “Any questions?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a question. What’s to stop me from going to the cops with what you just told me?”
“The certain knowledge that no matter what you do and no matter where you go, we will hunt you down and kill you.”
“Fair enough,” Frank said.
The envelope arrived a few days later, and four months after that, Frank was discharged. He spent some of the money on hookers, but saved the rest. He laid off the booze, limited himself to smoking weed just once a day, and did his PT religiously. Frank knew he’d never again get a shot at something this good.
© David Rabin