BY: PATRICK ASHTRE
Once a sought after structural engineer and manager of complex construction sites across the country, Tommy Luck is now nothing more than an unemployed drunk. His lifestyle is simple—drink himself into a stupor each night and run each morning to minimize the effects of the daily hangovers. Having spent all the money he earned delivering a package to Bangkok the year before, Tommy is now short on cash and willing to do just about anything to rectify his current financial woes. Receiving a one sentence note and post office box key with a promise of a large payoff, Tommy once again finds himself entangled in a complex web of murder and deceit. Implicated in a murder of a CIA agent, Tommy works to uncover the truth. He finds that no one seems to be who they say, and the only thing he is able to control, as he peels back the layers of betrayal surrounding his situation, is his relentless schedule of drinking and running.Once a sought after structural engineer and manager of complex construction sites across the country, Tommy Luck is now nothing more than an unemployed drunk. His lifestyle is simple—drink himself into a stupor each night and run each morning to minimize the effects of the daily hangovers. Having spent all the money he earned delivering a package to Bangkok the year before, Tommy is now short on cash and willing to do just about anything to rectify his current financial woes. Receiving a one sentence note and post office box key with a promise of a large payoff, Tommy once again finds himself entangled in a complex web of murder and deceit. Implicated in a murder of a CIA agent, Tommy works to uncover the truth. He finds that no one seems to be who they say, and the only thing he is able to control, as he peels back the layers of betrayal surrounding his situation, is his relentless schedule of drinking and running.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Tommy’s Troubles by Patrick Ashtre, Tommy Luck is again in trouble with the NSA. The computer virus that Tommy delivered to Bangkok the year before for the NSA Inspector General is back on the market again, and everyone seems to think Tommy has it. But he doesn’t. Not that telling that to the thugs trying to steal it does him any good. Kidnapped, beaten, tortured, and framed for murder, Tommy decides it is time to fight back. But who can he trust? The man he suspects of being behind his troubles is supposed to be dead, and no one else is who they seem to be. As Tommy searches for the truth, he discovers that, once again, he is just a pawn in someone else’s deadly game.
Well written, fast paced, and filled with twists and turns that will surprise and intrigue you, this one will keep you turning pages from beginning to end.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Tommy’s Troubles by Patrick Ashtre is the second book in his Tommy Luck series. A former structural engineer, and now an unemployed drunk, Tommy Luck will do just about anything for money. Just about. He does have lines he won’t cross. The year before he took a job for the NSA, delivering a package to Bangkok, and nearly got himself killed in the process. Now the computer virus that was in the package he delivered is up for sale, or at least a copy of it is. Since Tommy was the last person to have possession of the virus before it was handed off to the buyer, everyone assumes that Tommy made a copy and is now trying to sell it. Tommy knows nothing about the virus until he gets an envelope with $10,000 in it. Desperate for money, Tommy keeps it, even though he knows it will come back to bite him in the ass later. And sure enough, the money has barely been received before Tommy is suspected in the murder of a CIA agent, and thugs of various sorts are trashing his house, kidnapping him, and beating and torturing him for information that he doesn’t have. On top of that, beautiful women are throwing themselves at him. Even though he’s a drunk, Tommy’s no fool. He knows things are not right, and he is determined to get to the bottom of it before he ends up in jail—or, worse, dead.
With an exceptionally likeable and clever main character, a solid plot filled with intrigue and suspense, and lots of fast-paced action, Tommy’s Troubles will keep you glued to your seat, turning pages all the way through.
East Falls Church, Arlington, Virginia, April 24, 2016:
The light was beginning to fade along Washington Boulevard as Danny drove his white Chevrolet Impala into the Westover shopping area. Tall ornate green lampposts began coming on in random order, illuminating the darkening streets in a yellowish hue. A spattering of car and truck headlights added to the glow, fighting off the growing gloominess. It was an unusually cool April evening by Arlington standards. A fine mist of rain fell, moistening the streets and sidewalks, the warm pavement turning the dampness into a low rising fog. People dressed in an assortment of pricy brightly colored windbreakers and sweaters wandered amongst the buildings holding the few businesses that populated the shopping area. As he made a right turn into the Seven-Eleven parking lot, a green Christmas tree shape air-freshener hanging from the rearview mirror bounced when the tires glided over the slightly elevated entry. Pulling the car into a space next to a large brown trash dumpster, Danny turned the ignition off and leaned back in the Impala’s driver seat, letting out a long sigh.
“Another long night,” he muttered to no one but himself, thinking about the proposition of the surveillance job before him.
Stepping out of the car and locking its doors with the small black electronic device attached to his key ring elicited a loud chirp that echoed across the otherwise silent parking lot. Walking toward Washington Boulevard, he decided to buy a cup of coffee at the Seven-Eleven even though he knew there was a boutique shop just across the street. He had always preferred Seven-Eleven’s regular blend to those of Starbucks or the other high-end coffee vendors. It was not as bitter as the other brands. An overweight woman with greasy black hair, dressed in dirty pink tights and an oversized black sweater, sitting on a short brick retaining wall next to the store’s entrance, begged for his spare change. Stopping next to the woman, Danny reached into his pocket and pulled out just under a dollar in dimes, nickels, and pennies, saving the quarters for himself. A sour smell wafted the air around the woman, and Danny wondered where she was living. Maybe one of the many pedestrian underpasses along Interstate 66, not two blocks from Westover. Her pleading eyes gleamed with delight at his generosity as the coins tumbled into her outstretched hand.
Opening the red-and-green-striped convenience store doors, he was met with a warm draft that smelled of brewing coffee and fresh donuts. A young Middle-Eastern woman in a red and black Seven-Eleven shirt, that looked more like a bowling outfit than that of a convenience store uniform, greeted him with a wave and smile. To Danny, she looked Pakistani. They seemed to manage all the Seven-Elevens in North Arlington. Immediately realizing that his assessment of her nationality was prejudice, he tried to imagine her from some other country—and failed.
He returned the clerk’s greeting with a smiling nod, making his way to the rear of the store and the brewing pots, the source of the pleasant aroma of simmering coffee. He poured the hot black liquid into a tall paper cup he had pulled from the dispenser. It burned his hand through the container’s thin walls when he picked it up.
Carrying the hot coffee in his right hand, he walked back to the front of the store and stepped up next to the newspaper rack where a slender middle-aged man with wavy brown hair, wearing faded blue jeans and a Hawaiian shirt under a dark blue button-up sweater, was perusing a copy of the Washington Post. The odd sense of fashion would have made the man seem homeless, if not for the cleanliness of his attire. Smelling of alcohol, the man wobbled slightly, surprising Danny. A drunk in this upper-middle-class neighborhood was an unusual sight. Maybe he was homeless, after all.
He reached out for a Post with his left hand. Its center pages fell on the floor as he pulled it from the rack. With the newspaper’s contents spilled out between the two men, the drunken man hesitantly stooped down and helped him pick up the scattered paper.
“Thanks,” Danny said, looking into the man’s deep blue eyes.
Without making eye contact or uttering a word, the drunken man halfheartedly attempted to straighten the paper before handing Danny the portion he was holding.
Paying the bowling outfit-clad Middle-Eastern woman for his merchandise, once again failing to imagine her from any country other than Pakistan, Danny walked out of the Seven-Eleven and past the greasy-haired female beggar. Crossing Washington Boulevard, he wandered down the opposite sidewalk, passing the boutique coffee shop he had seen on previous visits and then a dry cleaner. Walking across a long narrow parking lot, crowded with cars, standing between the boulevard and a short strip mall of green gable-roof trimmed businesses, Danny began looking for his co-worker.
He saw Devin, sitting in a sandwich shop with large windows facing out onto Washington Boulevard and the post office across the street. Still holding the steaming cup of coffee, with the Washington Post wedged under his arm, Danny entered the café, passing the hostess while silently pointing to his partner when asked if he wanted a table. He maneuvered between several small tables and a long wooden bar, teeming with patrons, the smell of fresh bread and grilled chicken now competing with the aroma of the coffee in his hand. Sitting down across from Devin, Danny set his coffee and Washington Post on the table.
“You ready to get out of here?” Danny asked.
Devin’s eyes flashed an immediate look of relief. “Yeah, I think the waitress wants to kill me for staying at this table too long.”
“I don’t blame her. Think of all the business she lost with you hogging up a prime spot for several hours. I think I’ll take a seat at one of those outside tables next door,” Danny replied, pointing out the window to a wooden deck topped with white plastic tables and colorful umbrellas at one end of the parking lot.
Nodding to the Seven-Eleven cup in Danny’s hand, Devin chuckled. “She’s probably not too happy you brought in your own cup of coffee. More lost revenue.”
“Anybody tampering with our box?”
“No one even came near the damn thing. I’m not sure why there’s so much interest in an advertisement offering a previously used computer virus.”
“I don’t know, but the boss picked up on it right away when the information came in from the National Security Agency as low priority intelligence. The NSA caught it but didn’t see too much significance,” Danny explained as he sipped at his coffee, steam rising from its rim across his face. “I’m not sure why it got the boss in such a twitter or how he convinced the director to give this so much attention. For us to get authorization to work a domestic issue takes a lot of clout, and we’re working a domestic issue.”
“I think what the boss said was that it might appear to be a domestic issue, but due to the likelihood that it’s the same computer virus the CIA and NSA used against a foreign target last year, it falls under our purview. Thankfully the advertisement for the virus was in the Economist Journal. At least we know that the potential clientele will be well educated.” Devin punctuated his comment with a short laugh while waving to the waitress for his bill. “Liberal but well educated.”
“Maybe the clientele, but not the seller. Think about it, the seller puts an advertisement into the Washington Post about a used computer virus that made its debut in Thailand last year and uses an antiquated code to direct potential buyers to the Economist Journal. In the Economist the seller places the name of a post office and a box number. A child could have followed that trail. That’s probably why the NSA marked it as low priority. They realized that the seller has to be an idiot,” Danny replied as the scowling waitress, dressed in blue jeans and a yellow T-shirt depicting a sleeping dog with some catchy phrase about canines, showed up carrying Devin’s check. “Idiots are rarely dangerous.”
“You never know. We know an envelope containing a lot of money was placed in the box two days ago. The seller might have some other way to retrieve his or her mail other than just walking in and opening up the post office box. The seller could surprise you.”
“Yeah, and we know the envelope is still there, and that means another long night for me. And if he gets a hold of that envelope without us noticing, then the seller may be clever, but the boss will be furious.”
“It could be a she,” Devin commented absently, pulling a black leather wallet from his khaki trousers.
After a brief rundown on what had happened during previous shift, the two men pushed their chairs out from the table, and Devin handed the waitress some cash. Even with a fairly robust tip, the waitress accepted payment without a smile, and the two partners walked out of the restaurant, separating on the sidewalk out front with a simple nod.
Stepping up on a wooden deck belonging to a small Thai restaurant next door to the sandwich shop, Danny found a seat at one of the round plastic tables. Ordering a green curry from the waiter, he began watching the Westover Post Office. With an overhead red and white umbrella shielding him from the misty rain, he opened his Washington Post and began reading the sports section, glancing up every few seconds to keep tabs on the post office box.
As the last evidence of the sun dipped below the horizon, the temperature began dropping, and Danny found himself sitting alone, all the other customers seeking warmth inside. Streetlights and a light over the post office illuminated its entrance, and the lights inside brightly displayed the interior, allowing him a good oblique view of the box he was keeping watch through the tall floor-to-ceiling windows.
With his coffee long gone, and a continuous flow of cars moving along the boulevard, Danny waited patiently, reading the newspaper and nibbling at the curry. Not really caring for spicy food, Danny picked at the thick green liquid, pulling out small bits of chicken while trying to avoid the dark red chilies. He pulled a thin napkin from a plastic dispensing box and dappled the edges of his lips in a failed attempt to stifle the spicy heat building up at the corners of his mouth.
Noticing a man sitting in the Thai restaurant behind him, Danny thought he seemed to be paying a significant amount of attention to the activity in the parking lot and Washington Boulevard. With dark bushy hair and beady eyes, dressed in a white shirt, dark green pants, and a matching dark green jacket draped over the back of his chair, the man looked as if he could have been a fashion model for a Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong wardrobe line, except he was missing the little green cap with its red star. Sitting next to the restaurant’s large front window, the beady-eyed man had been peering outside for as long as Danny had been at the table. Each time Danny would turn and glance in his direction, the beady-eyed man would shift his attention and act as if he was immersed in eating a plate of food sitting on the table in front of him. While it seemed a bit unusual, Danny didn’t give it much thought, as the beady-eyed man could have been simply wondering why a man was sitting by himself on the outside deck on such a cool, damp night. Danny would have wondered the same thing, and he considered moving to a less conspicuous spot.
A short time later Danny saw the blue-eyed drunk, who had helped him pick up his newspaper in the Seven-Eleven, walk up the ramp toward the entrance to the post office. Pulling a small monocular device from the pocket of his brown jacket, Danny peered at the drunken man approaching the entrance and noted in the bright lights over the post office’s entrance a thin scar running from the edge of his lip to the corner of his jaw. He hadn’t noticed the scar in the Seven-Eleven, attributing his oversight to the angle at which he had seen the drunken man earlier. He immediately discounted the drunken man being involved with his surveillance job, knowing that no seller of such allegedly valuable illicit computer virus would ever hang-out at a Seven-Eleven in the vicinity of his drop site for an extended period before making a pick-up. Not to mention come to the drop site drunk. On the other hand, he and Devin had already joked about how the seller might be an idiot. Maybe he was a drunken idiot?
“It couldn’t possibly be this easy,” Danny muttered to himself, watching the drunken man move along the rows of silver post office boxes, their little glass windows twinkling against the bright interior lights.
But it was that easy. In the brightly lit post office, the drunken man stepped up to the long bank of postal boxes that Danny had been keeping watch over. Peering through the small monocular device, Danny watched as the drunken man inserted a key and opened up the small door of the postal box. Danny looked on as the drunk withdrew the manila envelope.
Waving down his waiter, Danny asked for his bill before slipping his cell phone from his belt, its thick clip pulling at his waist before finally releasing. Selecting a number from his speed dial list, he made a call.
A low, solemn voice answered, “What’ve you got?”
“The package just got picked up.” Danny tried not to sound excited.
“Anyone we know?”
“No, some drunk with blue eyes and brown wavy hair. Thin, maybe five foot ten or eleven, he’s got a scar on his face, edge of his lip to the corner of his jaw. I ran into him in the local Seven-Eleven about an hour ago,” Danny said as the waiter showed up with his bill. “He’s been hanging around Westover for quite some time.”
“Which side of his face is the scar?”
“Right,” Danny answered, wondering why that was important.
“That’s unusual. Follow him. Let me know where he goes. It shouldn’t be too difficult to keep track of a drunk,” the somber voice directed before disconnecting the call.
As the drunken man began walking back down the ramp leading from the post office, holding the manila envelope loosely in his right hand, Danny stood up and glanced at his tab, dropping a twenty dollar bill on the table and pocketing the receipt. Remaining on the opposite side of the street with his newspaper tucked under his arm, Danny followed the drunken man as he turned west and began walking along the Washington Boulevard sidewalk. Walking up a hill past the neighborhood library, the Westover shops quickly gave way to colonial homes and tall old growth trees as the rain became slightly more resolute. Overhead streetlights shone through tree limbs, creating a shadowy mosaic pattern on the dark wet sidewalk and the lights from the passing cars scattered in the low fog standing over the street. The night air was cold and wet, and Danny shivered in his dampening clothes. He heard several dogs bark in the distance as he walked along the dark sidewalk, then a cat shrieked close by. Between the drunken man’s dark blue sweater mixing into the shadows and the blinding headlights from cars moving along Washington Boulevard, Danny began to have a difficult time keeping his track of his quarry.
With the storm becoming even more intense, Danny picked up his pace and began to worry that he might lose the drunken man. The drunk made a right turn onto North Nottingham Street and disappeared from Danny’s view. Having to wait for several cars to pass before jogging across the boulevard, when Danny finally turned onto to Nottingham Street the drunken man was nowhere in sight.
Danny jogged north along the street, hoping to reestablish contact with the drunk. The cascading rain stung his eyes and soaked his clothes. A strobe-like flash of lightning, followed by a deafening boom, told him the storm would be getting worse. Finally giving up when he could see the lights from cars and trucks, through torrents of rain, moving along Lee Highway several blocks in the distance, Danny stopped, his shoulders drooping in defeat.
“Crap!” he cursed, standing under an enormous oak surrounded by four smaller pine trees.
Absently kicking at the water running down the sidewalk, Danny wiped the rain from his face and pondered what to do next. He knew that his boss would be livid at his failure to keep track of the drunken man and the manila envelope filled with cash.
“I am so screwed.”
Startled by another bolt of lightning and thunderous clap, Danny placed his Washington Post over the top his head in a feeble attempt to stay dry. With his chin on his chest, he tried to think what his next move should be when a sharp blow struck the back of his head, knocking him to his knees. Arms dangling at his sides and the Washington Post now a pile on the sidewalk before him, his vision tunneled, and his ears sang a piercing ring. Wavering on his knees through a blunt-trauma haze, he could smell a mixture of oily grime from the street and fresh pine needles from the trees surrounding the overhead oak. A second blow, as he blindly reached for his nine millimeter Berretta, sent him onto his hands and knees. The weapon fell from its holster and clattered on top of the pile of wet newspaper. Water coursed down the sidewalk and across his extended fingers. In his blurred vision, he could see blood mixing with the fast-moving water as it dripped from his head. Danny was barely hanging onto consciousness. Fumbling beneath himself with his right hand, once again reaching to retrieve the handgun that he knew lay someplace on the sidewalk below, he was met with yet another sharp blow to the side of the head, knocking him to his side. Danny’s last recollection was his head viciously striking the sidewalk.
Coming to, he was laying some ten yards from the sidewalk with his back against the oak tree looking up at a hazy outline of a face. Deep in the shadows, small shrubs and plants surrounded him, and he could feel the prickly ends of what felt like a bed of pine needles beneath his hands as the storm continued to rage. A small wooden clapboard house stood dark and silent to one side. Danny imagined it to be red, but it appeared gray in the darkness. Competing with the scent of pine needles and damp earth, he could smell what seemed to be a pungent aftershave. He could see his assailant looking down, dark eyes seeming to be jiggling on a hovering white face. Everything seemed to be in shades of gray.
The figure above him had a dark shirt or jacket on that mixed into the shadows beneath the trees, but in the darkness, Danny couldn’t make out the color. His assailant’s face seemed as if it were a floating decapitated spirit, only inches above his.
“Who are you?” the hovering face asked hoarsely.
“Just out for a walk,” Danny mumbled. Looking up through a haze of semi-consciousness, he shifted his foggy vision from the floating spirit to a dark shadow, whose outline appeared to be a revolver in his assailant’s hand, and then back again to the face looming above him. Wet and cold, with a tremendous headache, Danny’s normally calm disposition began to waver as he shivered in the darkness. There was something in that shadowy face that terrified him.
“Who do you work for?”
“I’m just out for a walk,” Danny said again, rubbing his eyes in an attempt to clear his vision. He could feel water streaming off the end of his nose. Trying to sit up, pressing his palms into the bed of pine needles beneath him, he felt his arms give out. They were weak from fear-stimulated fatigue.
“Bullshit,” the face hissed.
Taking a step back, his assailant kicked Danny in the left cheek, slamming his head back into the trunk of the oak tree, muddling his vision yet again. Feeling something oozing from his mouth, Danny absently wiped his face with his left arm.
His assailant jammed the muzzle of the revolver under Danny’s nose, growling, “You have one minute to tell me who you are and what agency you work for.”
The revolver painfully gouged Danny’s nose and felt cold on his skin. On the verge of panic, he began thinking about his wife and young daughter. He wanted to go home and hug them. He wanted to be as far away from this place and this man as possible.
“The Central Intelligence Agency. I work for the CIA,” Danny confessed, hoping his assailant understood the implications of harming a federal agent. “My name is Daniel.”
The floating face hissed again, “Bullshit. What’s the CIA doing working an operation in Virginia?”
“Special permission. We have special permission. What we’re working on has international consequences.”
“Who do you work for?”
“I told you, the CIA,” Danny muttered, pushing himself back against the tree. Pressing his palms into the bed of pine needles, he wanted to push his entire body through the tree trunk to get away from this man. There was something outwardly wicked and immoral in his assailant’s eyes and facial expression. Danny had never been as frightened as he was at that moment.
Placing his mouth next to Danny’s ear, the suspended face growled, “You don’t understand. I want to know who at the CIA you work for? I want a name.”
Danny could smell alcohol on the man’s breath mixing with the pungent aftershave. Rain pounded at an already saturated ground around the tree. Another bright flash and loud clap seemed to shake more water from the surrounding foliage, creating small pools around his hands pressed into the bed of pine needles. At that moment, Danny caught a glimpse of the face. He saw cold, emotionless eyes and unremorseful expression looking down. Danny suddenly realized that the man standing above him had already decided how the evening was going to play out.
“Sid—my boss’s is name is Sid.” Danny’s voice trembled as he reached out with open palms. Rainwater ran down his fingers and dripped from his outstretched hands. “I work at the Special Investigations Branch. Sid runs the branch.”
“Have you already called Sid and told him who you were following?”
“Yes, I gave him a description,” Danny whimpered. “I don’t know his name.”
“Pictures? Did you take any pictures?”
“No, I was just supposed to follow.”
Without saying another word, the hovering face stepped away. Danny could hear the distinctive metallic click as the weapon’s hammer was pulled back. While he could not clearly see his assailant’s face in the shadows, Danny recalled the cold, emotionless eyes and a mouth with a hint of a smile at its edges that he had momentarily seen not one minute earlier.
The floating face pointed the revolver down at Danny. “Wrong answer.”
“Wait! It’s the truth!” Danny pleaded, shielding his face with his hands. “I’m not lying! I work for Sid at the CIA! I called and gave him a description of the man who picked up the envelope. I didn’t take any pictures.”
“I know Sid, and that may be the right answer for me, but that’s still the wrong answer for you.”
The last thing Danny saw was a bright white flash of light. The last thing Danny felt was a lead slug ripping through his outstretched right hand and smashing into the flesh and bone just below his left eye. He never heard the loud crack of the weapon being fired that echoed across the North Arlington neighborhood.
© 2018 by Patrick Ashtre