Ripples in the water were the only way Tom knew he was moving. The men had insisted on blindfolding him before sitting him in the canoe. Some would balk at this treatment, but not Tom Gerber, investigative journalist. He’d been working this story for two years now, and tonight was going to end it, one way or another.
It started, like all of Tom’s ideas of late, in a bottle. He’d been drunk out of his gourd, dreading another day on the White House beat. If he had to attend another press conference, he was going to come home and shove his head in the oven until it was a nice golden brown.
A Pulitzer is great in your twenties, but Tom’s had come late, after years of chasing stories in Chicago. He’d covered it all, moving up to the crime beats, where every day was a fight against shrinking reader numbers and his fellow story hunters, who were getting younger everyday.
Then came Johnny Bash A former shot caller for the El Rukns, he’d branched out on his own after they’d gone down for selling weapons to Libya. Tom had been lucky enough to wander into court on the day Johnny’s old lady had decided she’d had enough. She had a box full of receipts, video tapes and audio. She’d considered handing it to the Feds, but Johnny was sleeping with her sister. She wanted big humiliation.
Tom had spent weeks tearing through the material, not only exposing Johnny, but the four city council members Johnny had been using to launder drug money through their campaigns. Tom’s first inkling he might have ticked the wrong people off came when his car was burned to the tires. The second was when Johnny’s lady was found in nine separate trash bags along the Magnificent Mile. Tom had taken the Washington job, which was safe and cushy, but boring as hell.
There he’d been, cruising, the back alleys of the nets, old message boards filled with the most hateful and vile garbage known to man. He kept hoping he’d find a lead, something, anything, to give him a reason to not go into work tomorrow. A book sized story, one to get him on talk shows, and back into the game.
QuestionableStories.com was full of things like Elvis sightings, Bigfoot erotica, and UFO videos so bad they made Fox News seem rational. He’d been on his third Jack and Coke when he’d spotted a name that made his nose twitch:Gary Bruger.
Gary Bruger had only been famous after he was gone. A suburban father of two, he’d simply vanished from his home. His car was there, along with his wallet. It’d been assumed at first that he’d simply gone walking and was lying in a ditch, until it was revealed the city D.A. Had been prepping to indict him for real estate fraud.
It had been a hot story for a good week, even making the networks. Today, it would have lasted four second on the crawl on the bottom. Search parties were sent out, helicopters enlisted. None of which had any effect. He’d simply vanished, first from his house,then from most memories.
But here was the name again, this time with someone calling themselves Mason33 Michigan. Mason was saying that Greg was in his local Lodge there in Michigan, and was confessing to a bunch of misdeed at meetings. Discussing who he’d paid off and such. Tom was hooked, and had used two minutes to take a leave of absence, book a flight to Midland, Michigan, and try and contact the mysterious Mason add Greg Bruger.
His flight had been terrifying, a puddle jumper older than himself. He’d used some of the scarier moments to think of how he was going to find either of these folks. The hotel was not much better,r but at least it had WI-fi all the way down to the Denny’s on the first floor. He’d left message after message when Mason33 had agreed to a meet.
Tom had parked his rental in a forest preserve picnic area when the men had approached him. They were lodge brothers of Mason33, they said. One was large,built like a lineman while the other scarier one, was wiry and small, full of menace. Against his growing sense of unease, he’d let the men lead him to Mason33.
He’d not objected to the blindfold, but the cuffs made him nervous. And so here he was watching the water rippling while they paddled him deeper into the forest.
After 45 minutes, they’d pulled up to a dock,then pulled Tom out of the boat. He’d been walked blindfolded up a hill,then through a couple of doors. He’d begun to wonder what this was all really about.,when the blindfold was pulled off.
He was in a hunting lodge, all polished wood and rough hewn stone. A group of seven men were sitting in front of the fire, each silently sipping on something from a cup or reading a book. They now looked at him.
They were varied in age, from pot bellied, balding late 30’s to some regal and ancient fellows. All they really seemed to have in common was the look of sheer coldness in their eyes. They all regarded him as an insect, or something on their shoe. Trussed up and tied to a coffee table between he men was Gary Bruger.
One of them came over and sneered at Tom. “The great Tom Gerber. I should have had you killed last year when you cost me money.”
“Shut your hole, fool.” This came from the oldest one, a man in his eighties , thin, almost skeletal. “This is not about your foolishness. You screwed up, trusting that gang banger.”
The old man came over, and shook Tom’s hand. “Hello, Tom. Need a glass of water or something stronger?” His tone was jovial, but Tom could feel eyes upon him from the others.
“No,thank you.” The man led Tom over to couch, gesturing for Tom to sit.
“I’m sure you have questions, but I’m not answering any. Here’s the deal. Your story on Johnny cost us money. Who we are is not important, but know that each of us could buy the city of Chicago, if we wanted to.”
The man coughed, then continued on. “We’d been unaware of your life until your story broke. We looked at it with little concern, until we noticed you were moving up the food chain of the matter. Since we’re the highest on that chain, we needed to act.”
Tom felt a gun muzzle on the back of his neck, then. “My personal vote was to pop you and leave you in Volo Bog, but I got outvoted once the fossil here started in.” Tom turned, unbelieving, seeing his editor from the paper.
Tom started sweating, knowing full well he was facing his last moments on earth. The laugh in front of him snapped him back to reality.
“You have to excuse his manners. Being this requires a lot of aggression, and it shows sometimes in the young ones.”
“So here’s what’s going to happen. Either you come to work for us, back on the beat. Except if we call, you look into who we tell you to, or you lift up who we say to.”
“Or we can kill your entire family and make you watch them suffer. Your sister’s in Tuscon, right?” The old guy was smiling, but it wasn’t even within light years of his eyes.
Tom’s knees shook. He’d been threatened, but never like this. He always trusted his gut on this, and today was not a day to fail him.
“What do I have to do?”
His old editor came around and handed Tom the gun,then pointed to Gary, still on the table.
His eyes were wide as Tom came closer with the pistol. Garry’s eyes were running,hot tears begging him to not do this.
Tom thought a second, about the rippling water he’d seen on the way up here. Every wave had been gone, the water so still. That was how time was going now, then Tom pulled the trigger.
Tom was blindfolded again,the water rippling as they paddled him back to life. He’d have his old job back, and he could fight the good fight, as long as he understood who not to fight. He’d be a farce.
He looked down again at the water rushing by as they headed for shore. All those ripples, made by the boat, bigger than anything else. He was a ripple, he knew then. He’d just been paddled past. With a sob, Tom launched himself at those ripples, the smallness of his life killing him as sure as the old man’s bullet would have.