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Authors: Scott Sigler

Pandemic (7 page)

BOOK: Pandemic
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“Goddamit, Brockman,” Cooper said. “How many times do we have to go through this?”

There was no information on the check stub, of course — Jeff never bothered to do that. Maybe this would be one of the lucky times when he hadn’t spent that much, when he actually came back with a receipt, when his impulse purchase wouldn’t make their account overdrawn. Again.

Cooper rested his elbows on the messy desk, his face in his hands. The dented, rust-speckled metal desk took up most of the small, cinder-block office. The “Steelcase Dreadnaught,” as Jeff called it. It weighed some 250 pounds. Cooper could barely budge the thing; Jeff had once picked it up by himself, held it over his head just to prove that he could. The desk had been here when they’d bought the building and would probably be there when they sold it.

Which, if they didn’t get a client soon, would be within weeks.

Their building bordered the St. Joseph’s River, but the office’s only window didn’t offer that view. Instead, it looked out onto a bare concrete floor. The place had been a construction company garage once; maybe the window was where the foreman watched his people toil away, loudly growling
get back to work!
every time someone slacked off. The tall, deep shelves lining the walls were filled with diving gear (some functioning, most not), welding rigs, heavy-duty tools and other equipment. He and Jeff hadn’t used some of the pieces in years, but in the underwater construction business you never got rid of something that was already paid for. Never knew when you might need it.

In the middle of the shop floor sat Jeff’s pet project: an old, sixteen-foot
racing scow that he had been meaning to fix up for the last five years. The boat, of course, had been purchased with one of the mystery checks. That check had bounced. Jeff still got the scow, though. Since the day they’d met in the third grade, the man could talk Cooper into damn near anything.

Jeff had put in all of eight or nine hours on the scow before he got bored with it, moved on to the next shiny object. But not a day went by when he didn’t talk about making it pristine, selling it for a huge profit. Jeff loved the thing. Cooper wondered if someone would buy it as-is. Maybe it could bring in enough to make that month’s payment on JBS’s only ship, the
Mary Ellen Moffett
.

Maybe, if anyone was buying. In this economy, no one was.

Through the window, he saw the building’s front door open. Jeff Brockman walked in, carrying a blue SCUBA tank under his left arm. A few brown, windblown leaves came in with him, one sticking to his heavy, shoulder-length hair of the same color. From his right hand dangled an overstuffed white plastic bag — take-out food.

Cooper forced himself to stay calm. A new tank? Maybe Jeff had found it. Maybe he hadn’t spent money they didn’t have on equipment they didn’t need.

Yeah, and maybe Cooper would suddenly find out he was a long-lost relative of Hugh Hefner and had just inherited the Playboy Mansion.

Jeff Brockman strode into the tiny office, blazing a smile that said
I totally hooked us up!

“My man,” he said. “Wait till you hear the deal I just scored.”

Cooper pointed to the open checkbook. “A deal you paid for with that?”

Jeff looked at the checkbook, drew in an apologetic hiss.

“Oh, right,” he said. “Sorry, dude. I know, I know, you told me a hundred times. I’ll fill in the stub thing right now.” He looked around for space on his desk to set the food. “The receipt’s in my pocket. I think. Or maybe I left it at the dive shop.”

Cooper stared, amazed. Jeff moved a stack of bills aside, cleared a space to set down the bag. Through the strained plastic, Cooper counted five containers — had to be enough food there to feed a half-dozen grown men. And the odor … Italian. Fuck if it didn’t smell delicious.

“It’s not about the stub,” Cooper said. “Well, yeah, it’s about that, too, but,
dude
, we don’t need a new tank!”

Jeff looked the part of rugged entrepreneur: the hair, the two-day stubble, the wide shoulders, and the blue eyes that made meeting girls at the bar so easy he didn’t even have to try.

He smiled. “Coop, buddy, I got a
great deal
. We’ll need to replace my tank in a couple of years anyway, so I actually
saved
us money.”

Cooper stood up, slapped his desk hard enough that the thick metal
thoomed
like a cheap gong.

“You don’t
save
money by
spending
it, Brock!”

Jeff’s good humor faded away. His expression hardened. They hung out together all day, most every day, and that familiarity made Cooper forget that Jeff had thirty pounds and four inches on him, made him forget that Jeff carried layers of muscle built over a lifetime of construction and demolition jobs, made him not really see the little, faded scars on Jeff’s face collected from the fights of his youth. That expression, though, made Cooper remember those things all too well.

“Coop, I own half of this company. I think I can take a little money to treat us once in a while, bro. I don’t need permission to write a check.”

“No, what you do need is enough
money in the checking account
to
cover the check
. I can’t believe you’d be so stupid.”

Jeff nodded. “Stupid, huh? Was I
stupid
when I convinced my brother to get you into that medical trial? Was I
stupid
when I somehow kept this business going while you were in the hospital for
six months
? Maybe it was just a miracle we didn’t go out of business, maybe it wasn’t because I worked two goddamn jobs to keep us afloat so you could get your goddamn life back.”

Cooper’s face flushed. He looked away.

It was almost hard to remember what the lupus did to him: the fatigue, the swollen joints, the chest pain … all of it had threatened not only his ability to work, but his life as well. Jeff had stood by him. Jeff had called in all the favors he had with his brother, a doctor in Grand Rapids, to get Cooper into an experimental gene-therapy trial. The trial had
worked
. Most of Cooper’s symptoms were gone. As long as he went in every three months for booster injections, the doctors told him the symptoms would
always
be gone.

Still, the past was the past, and if they didn’t do things right, there wouldn’t be a future.

“Come on, man,” Cooper said. “You know I’m grateful for that, but it doesn’t help our business right now.”

Jeff reached up, flipped his hair back. “Saving your life doesn’t help our business? You ever saved
my
life?”

Oh, now it was Jeff who wanted to forget how things had been? He wasn’t the only one who could lay a guilt trip.

“Brock, my family is the only reason you
have
a life, bro.”

As soon as Cooper said the words, he wanted to
un
say them. There were some places friends just didn’t go, no matter how mad they got.

Jeff and his brother had come from a broken home. When their father finally left them and their alcoholic mother, the boys had little guidance and even less help. Jeff’s brother had been sixteen; he’d been old enough to make his own way, to attack life and take what he wanted. Jeff, however, had been ten years old — he’d been lost. Cooper’s mom had all but adopted him, given Jeff love, support and discipline when his birth mother provided none of the above. Jeff had spent at least half his high school years sleeping at Cooper’s place. To say the two of them had grown up together was more than just a figure of speech.

Cooper felt like an asshole. He could tell Jeff felt the same way. They’d both gone too far.

Jeff sighed. “Hungry?”

He opened the bag of food, offered Cooper a Styrofoam container.

One sniff told Cooper what it was. “Roma’s green tomato parmesan?”

Jeff raised his eyebrows twice in rapid succession. “Who’s your friend?” he said. “Who’s your buddy? I am, aren’t I?”

Cooper laughed. He couldn’t help it.

“Just because you’ve got a dead-on impression of Bill Murray from
Stripes
doesn’t mean we’re not broke.”

“Broke, schmoke,” Jeff said. “Something will come up. You gotta think on the bright —”

From Jeff’s pocket, his cell phone rang: the three-chord-crunch opening of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”

He answered. “JBS Salvage, we got the skills if you got the bills. This is Jeff himself speaking.” He listened for a few seconds. “You’re right outside? Sure, come on in.”

Jeff slid the phone back into his pocket and smiled at Cooper. “See? God provides, my son. A potential customer is coming in to talk to us.”

They walked onto the shop floor just as the main door opened. In came
a skinny Asian kid. Early twenties, maybe. All of five-foot-eight, with shiny black hair that hung heavy almost to his eyes. His dark blue hoodie had
BERKELEY
on the chest in block yellow letters. A gray computer bag hung over his left shoulder. From the way the strap dug into the sweatshirt, it looked like he was carrying a lot more than just a computer.

Jeff and Cooper walked around the racing scow to meet the man.

“Hi there,” Jeff said. “Can we help you?”

The kid smiled uncomfortably. “Uh, yes. Are you Mister Brockman?”

Cooper had expected to hear an accent, Chinese or Korean, Japanese maybe, but not a trace.

Jeff flashed his trademark grin. “Depends on who’s asking,” he said. “If you’re a bill collector, my name is Hugo Chavez.”

The kid stared, blinked. “Chavez?” He shook his head. “Oh, no, I’m not a bill collector. My name is Steve Stanton. I want to hire your boat.”

Jeff looked at Cooper. Cooper knew what his partner was thinking — this kid certainly wasn’t the type who worked in the marine construction and salvage industry. Cooper shrugged.

Jeff offered his hand. “Jeff Brockman.” The kid shook the hand, winced a little at Jeff’s overzealous grip.

“Ah, sorry,” Jeff said. “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength, know what I mean? This is my partner, Cooper Mitchell.”

“Nice to meet you,” Cooper said, shaking the kid’s hand. “What kind of work do you need?”

Stanton adjusted his computer bag. It was so heavy he had to lean to the side a little to balance himself.

“My boss is looking for Northwest Airlines Flight 2501.”

Cooper felt a spark of excitement, of hope — if this kid was some kind of treasure hunter, he might have money for the job. No one was going to find Flight 2501, but that didn’t matter if he could write a check that wouldn’t bounce.

“It went down in 1950 over Lake Michigan,” Stanton said. “It was a DC-4, flying from New York to Minneapolis, had to—”

“Reroute due to weather,” Jeff finished. “We’re familiar. Fifty-eight people died, worst crash in American history at the time, blah-blah-blah, and so on and so forth. It’s the Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes. No one has found the wreckage.”

Steve looked surprised that Jeff knew about the disaster. If this kid thought he’d discovered something unique, he didn’t know a damn thing about the Lakes culture.

“No, no one found the wreckage,” he said. “Or the bodies.”

Jeff smiled and looked to the ceiling. This wasn’t his overeager
whatever it takes to win your business
smile, but rather his
I smell bullshit and you’re wasting my time
smile. Cooper wanted to strangle his friend:
just play along, you idiot
.

“Got news for you,” Jeff said. “After all this time, there ain’t gonna
be
no bodies.”

Steve Stanton laughed, the sound short and choppy, overly loud. “That’s the point,” he said. “That’s why the insurance companies never paid out to the families of the crash victims, because no bodies were found.”

This was a play for insurance money?

Cooper’s hope sparked higher. “You don’t look like a lawyer, Mister Stanton.”

“I’m not, but my boss is,” Steve said. “He’s gathered a bunch of descendants together and is ready to file a
huge
lawsuit on their behalf. All kinds of compound interest and stuff, it’s gonna be
mad
stacks.”

Mad stacks? Cooper looked at Jeff. Jeff shrugged: he didn’t know what it meant either.

“Money,” the kid said. “A
lot
of money.”

That
Cooper understood.

“But Northwest isn’t even around anymore.”

Steve nodded. “No. Delta is, though. They bought out Northwest, and they’ve got deep pockets.”

Jeff ran his fingers through his hair, lifted it, let the heavy strands drop down a few at a time.

“People have been looking for 2501 for decades,” he said. “
Experts
, people who make me look like I know nothing, and trust me, buddy, I know a
lot
. Besides … if it’s in the deep water, like below three hundred feet, we just don’t have the equipment for that.”

Cooper felt a pain in his jaw — he was grinding his teeth together. Couldn’t Jeff just be a
little
dishonest for once?

Steve Stanton smiled. “I don’t need you to find it, or go down and get it.
I’m an engineer. I designed a remotely operated vehicle that can cover a lot of ground faster and better than anything that came before it. You guys take me out for a few days, maybe a week, we let the ROV survey the bottom for a few days, see if we get lucky and make my boss happy.”

Jeff sighed, crossed his arms. He tilted his head a little to the right, an expression Cooper knew all too well. Jeff was about to show Stanton the door. Cooper had to do something, fast, something that would change Jeff’s mind.

“It would be expensive,” Cooper said. “Jeff’s well-known reputation as a navigator, his expert knowledge of the lake, and the weather is going to be a factor, of course, and—”

Steve Stanton reached into his sweatshirt pocket, pulled out a neat, bank-bound bundle of hundred-dollar bills. He held it up.

“Will this get us started?”

Cooper stared at it. So did Jeff.
That
certainly wasn’t going to bounce. The bills smelled new. They smelled even better than the green tomato parmesan. That bundle alone would make the payment on the
Mary Ellen
and catch them up on three months of back utilities.

BOOK: Pandemic
5.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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