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Submitted Date 08/06/2020
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Part 3

As Beatrice became more familiar with Rick Stephans's routine, she began to doubt her theory that he was involved in shifting stolen merchandise. Of all the places he frequented, only one was populated by an abundance of shipping trucks. They were there now, at the river docks, amid rows and rows of large, rectangular sea containers stacked three high in the dirt yard. It was easy for her to hide her car between them. The sounds of gulls and machinery drowned out her footsteps and the camera's shutter as she snapped a series of photos featuring Rick meeting with a red-faced man. They were standing in front of a white van, deep in serious discussion. The other man was a few inches shorter than Rick was and much wider. It wasn't that the man was fat, but he had the broad, stout build of someone who spent their time lifting heavy cargo. Beatrice couldn't tell if he was sunburned or just naturally ruddy.

About twenty minutes into their conversation, a semi trailer's beep cut through the dialog. It backed up to meet the back of the white van and stopped. Rick and his ruddy companion met a third man who descended from the truck. They exchanged a few brief words before looking around the yard suspiciously. Beatrice ducked behind an orange container and listened intently. Hopefully, they hadn't found her parking spot. She heard the back of the trailer being opened up and carefully peeked back around.

Unless she were a misogynistic dirtbag, she wouldn't exactly refer to what was in the truck as "merchandise." As she watched, a series of young women, most of whom looked Asian, were herded out of the truck, across the three feet of space between the vehicles, and into the back of the unmarked van. Her first impulse was to run out and pull the gags from their mouths, cut the zip ties around their wrists. But, what chance did she stand against three men, probably armed, and whoever else might be nearby? Instead, she raised her camera again and furiously worked the shutter.

When the van pulled away, Beatrice made her way back to her car and left the docks. She drove from there straight to the police station. When she walked in, she heard the customary jeers from the officers. They had never taken kindly to a woman showing them up case after case, especially since they considered her an amateur sleuth. She reminded them that she was fully licensed with paying clientele, to no avail. When she'd made her way up to the counter, she asked to see Detective Matthews. The attending officer told her Matthews was unavailable.

"Then why, pray tell, is his car still in the lot?"

"He rode with another detective, if it's any of your business."

"Bullshit. You don't have another detective."

"Okay, so it was the Chief. Now, run along little girl and play with your camera."

She called him several choice expletives. He warned her that if she didn't calm down, he'd have to subdue her. This elicited another string of profanity, intermingled with a reminder to him of her rights. It was in the midst of this diatribe that a tired-looking man with dark hair and a black tie emerged from behind an office door. His hair was sticking up in the back like he'd just gotten out of bed.

"Ah, Bartlet, I thought I heard your dulcet tones." He nodded toward the desk officer, "Let her pass, Durkins, I'll deal with this one."

She stuck her tongue out at Durkins as he lifted a hinged section of the countertop to let her pass. He gave her a grunt in return. She followed Matthews into his office and he shut the door behind them.

"Have you ever thought about hiring humans instead of trolls, Matthews?" Beatrice asked sarcastically.

He ignored her and sat with a sigh into a worn leather office chair behind the desk. He gestured toward a cheap plastic chair across the desk and asked her if she wanted coffee. She considered for a moment, but then remembered the quality of the station's coffee supply and declined.

"So what's got you in a tizzy today, Bartlet?"

She sat down on the chair he'd indicated.

"Rick Stephens. Ring any bells?"

"Could be. What's he got to do with you?"

"He's trafficking women. I have evidence," she brandished her camera at him. "My client, his wife, hired me to see who's following him. I went to the courthouse. A great big chunk of files are missing between Stenwick and Sullivan. Your doing by any chance?"

"If I knew anything about an ongoing investigation, I couldn't very well tell you, Bartlet. You know the rules."

"He's. Trafficking. People, Matthews. Does that mean anything to you? I thought this was the sort of thing the police department is supposed to handle, or do I need to go talk to the FBI?"

"That depends on where the people in question are coming from. If these people are being trafficked, say, from Indonesia, then yes, it might be a federal case. And if it were a federal case, our department would cooperate with any undercover operations that might be ongoing. It's the kind of thing I'd stay out of, if I were you. Just tell the wife you couldn't find anything and walk away."

Beatrice stared at him. So, that's what was going on. She'd somehow stepped right in the middle of something much bigger than a suspicious wife and a faithless husband. It was a little off par with her usual cases, but she wasn't about to let it go.

"Do you want these photos, or not?" she demanded.

"That would be nice of you, Bartlet. We can add them to our little scrapbook. But, that's all we need from you, understand?"

She simply stared at him some more. He got up to show her out. She stood from the stool and walked out the door, hoisting the camera strap back over her head. Ignoring the mumbled comments from Durkins and the other officers, she strode out of the building. She was fuming and mildly embarrassed by her chat with Detective Matthews. As she headed closer to the gritty side of town, she decided that she was in the mood for a drink. With the ratty sweatshirt and torn jeans she'd worn down to the docks, she wouldn't look out of place drinking with the locals.

A couple of traffic lights later, she passed the place she was looking for, took three right-hand turns, and parked under a burned-out street lamp. She set the leather camera case carefully on the passenger side floor and tossed a few used tissues and a hamburger wrapper over it, so it was disguised as garbage. Gravel crunched under her sturdy workboots as she stepped out into the street and crossed over to the storefront side of the road. This time, there were no cars in the alley.

The creak of old hinges announced her arrival in Gillespie's. A thick cloud of cigar smoke hovered near the ceiling and recorded jazz music issued from hidden speakers in the walls. The place was dimly lit by a series of ceiling fixtures that looked like they'd lept out of the 1940s. The imitation leather booths were cracked and peeling and some of the tables had cardboard coasters wedged under their legs to keep them from wobbling.

She peered quickly around the room before taking a stool at the bar. An older gentleman with the white hair of an octogenarian and the posture of a man half his age took a napkin from behind the bar and set it down in front of Beatrice. He looked at her expectantly. There was no chalkboard with drink specials or vinyl bound menus to look at. She ordered a stout Irish beer. Without speaking, he picked up a glass, walked to a tap, and poured her beverage. He walked back and set it down on top of the napkin. Then, he turned and walked off.

"He's not the talkative sort," she heard a man's voice say from the shadows in a corner.

As he sauntered across the flimsy, stained carpet into the nearest pool of light, it illuminated him little by little, starting with his boots. Then, it traveled up his dingy work pants and revealed the hem of a maroon leather jacket. She expected the bushy mustache and sunken eyes, even before they were revealed.

"Seems like you are," she replied.

"Depends on the company. Mind if I sit?" he asked her, indicating the empty stool next to her.

She had the feeling he would sit there anyway.

"Go right ahead."

The man sat down. The stool gave a faint creak in protest. He looked over at the bartender and gave him a curt nod. The older man filled a glass with ice and pulled a bottle of Kentucky whiskey from the well. Beatrice could see he still had the gun tucked into his pants.

"Aren't you afraid you're going to blow your ass off with that thing?" she said.

"Better than someone else blowing my ass off, wouldn't you say?"

"I wouldn't say much about your ass, quite frankly."

"Easy now. Just being friendly."

"Don't get too friendly and we'll be just fine." She wondered if he knew she was tailing Stephans or if he was just shooting the breeze.

He adjusted his stocking cap. She took a sip of her stout. It was probably the most perfect pour she'd ever seen. She licked the foam from her upper lip and peered out of the corner of her eye at the mustachioed man. He was younger than she'd first guessed. From this distance, he looked tired and strung out, but no older than his late 30's. She didn't think there was any hair under that hat, but she didn't ask. Ice rattled in the glass the bartender set down in front of him. She could smell the rich amber liquid.

"So, what brings you to this fine establishment?" he continued.

"Just drowning my sorrows," Beatrice said before taking another sip of her beer.

He opened his mouth to reply, but just then, the back door of Gillespie's slammed open with a bang. He and Beatrice focused their attention toward the sound issuing from the other side of the wall that separated the bar from the back room. The bartender set down the glass he was cleaning, wiped his hands on his apron, and disappeared behind a swinging door. A few minutes later, they heard shouting. The words were indistinct, but it was clearly a single man's voice. Whoever he was shouting at was keeping their voice low.

Beatrice wanted to try and sneak a peek through the swinging door's square window, but not with Mr. Maroon Jacket watching her. She tried to seem more absorbed in her drink than anything else, but she was listening intently. Next to her, the man was not disguising his interest. She picked up her glass to drain the last of it and took advantage of the change in perspective to get a better look around. There was another set of doors adjacent to the bar marked with the stick figure symbols for male and female.

She set her glass back down on its napkin and headed for the women's restroom. Her companion paid no attention to her departure. He was still looking in the direction of the swinging door the bartender had left through. Once inside the restroom, hidden in one of the cubicles, she could hear what was going on behind the bar very clearly.

The quieter man's voice was saying, "I told you not to bring them here. If you want to meet your friends in my bar, fine, but don't bring your dirty business through my doors."

"You wouldn't have a bar if it wasn't for my dirty business, old man," the other man shouted. "This one's never turned a profit for me anyway," he continued. "She's going to be your guest for a while until I get some things in order, and you're going to keep an eye on her for me."

Beatrice could hear a faint whimper. It was vaguely familiar.

Then she heard the same man shout, "shut up!" followed by the sound of flesh impacting flesh. There was a clatter like something breaking and then a heavy sob.

"Just leave her alone, Rick. I'll watch her like you said. You go do what you need to do and leave her with me" came the quiet voice again.

There was a gurgling sound and a woman screamed. Beatrice stopped listening and exited the restroom as fast as her legs would carry her. The barstools were empty. A half glass of whiskey sat sweating on the bar top. She caught sight of the back of a maroon jacket as it disappeared behind the swinging door. She rounded the bar herself and followed suit.

She stopped in her tracks just inside the door. It swished noisily back and forth behind her. Rick Stephans was frozen in place with one hand in the air and the other tangled in his wife's blonde hair. The bartender was likewise frozen with both of his hands in the air. His neck and face were flushed and he seemed out of breath. The maroon jacketed man was standing, gun drawn and pointed at Rick. The woman, Alice Stephans, had a black eye and a split lip. She looked at Beatrice, tears streaming down her face, but said nothing.

"Call the cops," Mr. Mustache told her over his shoulder.

"Sure thing," she said.

It seemed like a long time before they heard police sirens. Rick didn't move from his frozen position by the wall but loosened his grip on Alice's hair. She slumped to the floor, no longer crying but looking no less afraid. The bartender had lowered his hands slowly but remained glued to the spot. There was a commotion from the bar side of the wall. Simultaneously, armed officers entered from the swinging door and the back door. Beatrice used this opportunity to extricate herself from the scene. She edged slowly out of the room and toward the front door of Gillespie's. Before she could slip completely away, an agent with dark sunglasses stopped her. She gave him her identification and he let her go with the promise that she'd be available for questioning later.

When she shut off her engine outside the Bartlet & Bridge sign, she noticed the lights were still on. It was nearly 1:00 am. Letting herself into the locked office with her key, she saw Andrew still sitting at his desk, typing away.

"You're here late," Beatrice said.

"So are you. You look a little worse for wear too. Rough night?"

She sat with a thump at her own desk and put her head on her arms. After a few deep breaths, she started to recount her day to him.

As she finished up the story, she concluded by saying, "...and so it looks like Alice tipped off the cops anonymously and when she thought they weren't doing anything about it, she came in here to get me involved. The guy following her turned out to be FBI, undercover, and here I come, tromping through the whole thing. I don't know what Gillespie's had to do with it, other than being a great dive bar."

"Stephans and Sloan - the bar owner - were partners, once upon a time," said Andrew.

Beatrice looked up. "What did you just say?"

He started to repeat himself, but she cut him off. "Yeah, yeah, I know what you said, but how'd you know that and why are you just now being free with the information?"

Andrew lifted an envelope off his desk. "Matthews was here. He dropped off a few copies from the Stephans file. The man needs to learn how to use a copy machine, by the way. These are the worst copies…"

"Stop teasing, Andrew," Beatrice warned him.

"Okay, okay. Sloan and Stephans used to be partners - not Rick Stephans, but his father, Maxwell. Sounds like Sloan thought he owed the son a favor."

"What happened to Maxwell?"

"Shot at the bar about ten years back. That's when all the gambling and roughhousing stopped around there. After about a year closed, the bar reopened and it's been pretty quiet until tonight, it seems."

Beatrice dropped her head back on her desk. In a muffled voice, she said, "God, I've been doing this too long."

She sat suddenly upright. "Too long!" she said.

Andrew raised one eyebrow at her quizzically. She woke up her computer and waited for the login screen. When it flashed its impatient cursor, she typed, T00Long1! The screen refreshed and she was finally, gratefully, given access to her account.

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