Tuesdays were days to sleep in, which was especially welcome since Craggs had mandated that Burke post thirty Monday Night Football gifs per game. And so it was strange that the phone should ring so early, but Tim Burke answered anyway. Call me anytime, he told only a few people. What was I thinking?
“Hello?” Burke coughed, “This is Timothy Burke. Who is this?” He checked the clock: 9:53 AM. On a Tuesday. His day to sleep in. Oh hell, oh no …
“Tim? It’s Tommy.” Craggs said, apologetically. “Sorry to wake you. Can we talk?”
Coupled with the ungodly hour, Craggs’ tone shot Burke upright. “Yeah, Tommy,” Burke gasped, rubbing sleep from his eyes, “What’s going on?”
“Well, it’s complicated, Tim,” Craggs lamented, “Matt McCarthy was stabbed here last night and—”
Burke didn’t hear the rest. Fuck me, he deflated, this is it. He’s cashing his check. I should have never told him about that goddamn—
“Tim? Are you there?” Craggs was saying. “Matt’s dead. Someone stuck him, you know? Like serious, trained shit.”
Tim inhaled then exhaled. Carefully, he slipped out of bed, checked his wife—still asleep, thank God—and walked to the kitchen. “That’s heavy, Tommy. What the hell happened?”
“Hard to say right now,” Craggs frowned through the phone, “Scalpel is surgical steel, a single, lethal incision. But the spunk. It’s fucking weird, man. Like I said, it seems like the guy—or whoever hired him—figured we wouldn’t go to the cops first thing. Like he’s taunting us with this shit. DNA is all over McCarthy’s head and we’re fucking stuck.”
Burke blinked through the thought of substances stuck in Dr. Matt’s hair, found a coffee filter, and paused. “So how do I factor in?”
Craggs was silent for a time. Just fucking say it, asshole, Burke slammed the Coffee Mate shut, you’re calling in that favor you promised you’d never call in.
“I’m wondering if you could phone your guy,” the editor finally sighed. He seemed desperate, tired, out of options. “We need to get out in front of this.”
Burke had never heard Craggs like this. Even his hesitance and exasperation at the Te’o scoop paled in comparison to his voice today. And, to be sure, Craggs had never mentioned Tim’s guy. Ever. Burke had thrown it out one night, half in jest, over fingers of Jameson, and never mentioned it again. How the hell did Craggs remember that shit? Tim kicked himself.
“Jesus, Tommy,” Burke slouched, “Even I’ve never talked to the guy. Like I told you, Maddon gave me that number after like eight Fireballs one night. He seemed serious enough, yeah, but come on, who openly admits to knowing a hatchet-man these days? Much less Joe fucking Maddon?”
“Fireballs?” Craggs asked, “Nevermind. I talked to Joe a couple minutes ago, and he could—and I quote—‘neither confirm nor deny ever giving you that phone number.’ He likes us, Tim. He wants to help, see? What’s the harm, anyway? If it’s a flop, big deal, no traces back to you, to me, to us. We have ways of scrubbing these things. But if it’s not a flop …” Craggs trailed off.
Burke was silent on his end. This is happening too fast. Why would Maddon be so coy with Craggs? He’s a legit guy, to be sure, but takes next to nothing seriously. Isn’t shit like this above my pay grade? …
“So? What’re you thinking, Tim?” Craggs again, pleading.
Burke closed his eyes and shook his head. “Alright, Tommy. If it’s that serious. Give me the high points and I’ll pass ‘em along.” He fished a pen from a drawer.
Craggs gave a synopsis of the morning’s events. “And Tim,” Craggs finished, “there was note crammed in Matt’s mouth.”
“Let’s have it,” Burke sighed. Christ I’m tired.
“O AN HE DED,” Craggs enunciated.
Tim was quiet, confused. “Will you spell that?” he asked.
Craggs spelled it slowly.
“Strange,” Burke said, “think it’s some kind of code?”
“That’s what Reuben’s saying,” Craggs conceded. “But he’s pretty well stumped on what it means.”
Burke cleared his throat and grunted. “Alright. I’ll see what I can do, Tommy.”
“Thanks, Tim. Let me know and all that.” Craggs clicked off.
Burke set his mobile on the counter and stared at it. His coffee was brewed, but he didn’t make a move for the pot. Alright, he steadied himself, just get it over with. Tim walked to his office, which thrummed with monitors, TV screens, and PC towers. He went to the closet and knelt before a small, fire-proof safe. This was only the second time he had opened it; the first time had been to deposit its meager contents: a small burner cell-phone, like those bought at any corner Radio Shack, and a prearranged script that Burke was to follow to the letter. Anything not written on that scrap of paper would botch the whole thing.
What the hell am I doing, Tim whispered, This is madness.
Burke shook himself into focus and flipped open the phone. He dialed the only programmed number and held his breath.
A tingy, metallic voice answered on the first tone. “State your name,” it droned.
“Benzo,” Tim replied dutifully.
“State your location.”
There was a series of clicks. Burke’s pulse quickened, his heartbeat a tympani in his ears.
“Never thought I’d hear from you, Tim Burke,” a man’s voice suddenly spoke, friendly, cordial. It was off-putting.
“I … uh … I’m sorry. Is this Ray?” Tim stammered.
“It is,” the man said, strangely upbeat, “What can I do for you? Any friend of Joe’s is a friend of mine.”
Tim would have to process the absurdity of this conversation later. Right now he needed to work. “Tommy Craggs respectfully seeks an audience with you in New York. Do you know Tommy?” Burke asked dumbly.
“Yes, I know him well,” Ray said. “I can leave this afternoon.”
“That’d be great!” Tim crowed, “I’ve got some information here you might—” There was a sharp click on the other end. Ray had hung up. Just like that, Tim was amazed, what the fuck was Joe Maddon in to?
“Baby?” His wife called from the doorway, naked, sleepy, and soft. “You alright?”
“Yeah, hun.” Burke forced a smile. “Was about to make breakfast. You want bacon?”