Chapter 1 Prologue: ON A PALE HORSE

It was a beautiful calm fall morning in Sausalito California as William Danforth walked down the dock to his thirty-seven foot Sea Ray Motor boat named the Mickey Finn. The few people he encountered gave him a nod then stepped aside, for he was an imposing figure. He was in his middle fifties, stood a little over six feet tall, and was in the kind of shape that made people assume he was some kind of former professional athlete. He was athletic all right, but the games he played didn’t take place on a field or in a gymnasium—they took place in the real world, and survival was the only way to determine the winner.

     He reached his boat, climbed into the cockpit, and unlocked the hatch and headed down below. There, he turned on the power then grabbed the ignition keys and his trusty fishing pole and headed back up into the cockpit. He put the pole into its built-in stainless steel holder then returned to the helm and started the two MerCrusier engines. After letting them warm up for a couple minutes, he went around and untied the bow and stern lines, then returned to the helm, put it in reverse, and backed slowly out of his slip. Once clear he turned the helm hard to starboard and gave it a little throttle, and the long sleek bow swung around, and he headed for the channel. There, he turned right and proceeded to make his way to the nearby fuel dock. His tanks weren’t empty, but he made it a habit to always fill them before leaving port. He arrived to find the fuel dock mostly empty, and the only other customer was a man on a twenty-seven foot fishing boat tied up on the opposite side. William expertly brought his boat in, and the attendant came over and tied off the lines.

     “Morning,” William said, cheerfully.

     “Morning. It’s supposed to be in the middle sixties and almost no wind, so you couldn’t have picked a better day to get out for a little fishing,” the attendant said, having seen William’s fishing pole.

     “Yeah, so let’s hope they’re biting.”

     At that point, the customer in the other boat joined the conversation, because Fisherman, whether they worked the commercial boats, or piloted a ten foot dingy, all liked to talk about fishing.

     “Hey, if you’re interested in salmon, I hear that they’ve been catching some beauties just off Stinson.”

     William smiled as he considered how to respond, as he was in truth not actually out looking for fish today.

     “Thanks, good to know,” he said.

     At that point, William stepped up onto the dock and set about unscrewing the fuel tank lid then popped in the nozzle and clicked it all the way to the highest setting. It only took a minute before the tank was topped off, and William paid with a credit card then started up his boat. The attendant untied his lines, then William backed away from the dock and used the twin engines to spin the boat around a hundred and eighty degrees before heading out to the channel.

     Had this been a normal day, he would have gone to the right towards the bay, but, today, he made a left and followed the channel farther into Richardson Bay. As he cruised slowly along he turned his gaze off in the direction of the smug communities of Tiburon and Belvedere, but his actual interest lay much closer—namely in the odd collection of anchored out vessels that littered this stretch of water. Some were the well-kept yachts of people looking for an affordable anchorage, while most were junks inhabited by people living off the grid, some of whom were cooking and dealing meth. While William had a nice home up on the hill and a fine pedigree that included having graduated with honors from Dartmouth College, he preferred it out here, for he was a man who lived in the shadows and thrived in the dark underbelly of society. To that end he forsook a career on Wall Street and instead joined the Army, and it wasn’t long before his skills and intelligence got him noticed by the CIA, who wisely placed him in their Special Activities Division. He would excel and become one of their best and brightest, though his ruthlessness and ambition would eventually lead him to become one of the founding members a rather unscrupulous organization. Of course, his entrepreneurial spirit would also inspire him to pursue a number of side projects—one of which was operating a meth lab out here on the water. William, not surprisingly, had always been a fan of John Milton’s work and modeled his life on the principle that it is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, and, out here, William was the man in charge.

     Today, however, he wasn’t concerned with the lab but rather with the latest plans of the organization, and, oddly, those plans centered around Mr. Pickles, an obese feline who weighed a whopping thirty-eight pounds. Mr. Pickles, however, in spite of being morbidly obese and fairly sedentary, had managed to get himself into a lot of mischief, and all of it had caused William a lot of grief. It started when the little behemoth was inadvertently lost for a full year, and William searched high and low and had all but lost hope, when an incredible stroke of luck brought Pickles back into his life. With his plans for the tubby tabby back on the table, the little fucker was abruptly lost yet again when some local private investigator snatched him from William’s floating meth lab. Apparently, he had been hired to find Pickles by his new owner, a woman name Joyce Kransky who lived on the second houseboat from the end on the South Forty Pier. Today, he was going to get his fucking cat back once and for all.

     William continued along the channel until he passed Clipper Yacht harbor, then made a hard left turn and decided to drop anchor about a hundred yards off the South Forty Pier. With the boat secure, he turned off the engines then pulled out his pole and, without baiting the hook, cast the line off into the water. It plopped down, and he placed the rod in its holder then picked up his binoculars and set about surveilling his subject. He quickly found the houseboat in question then spied Mr Pickles sitting just inside on the sill of one of the living room windows. The little chubbin was casually gazing at the birds perched on the nearby railing of the deck, and William suspected Mr. Pickles was probably imagining a time in his youth when he might have considered trying to catch such enticing targets. As it stood now, all the little porker could do was stare longingly and hold one of his chubby paws against the glass. After a moment, Pickles appeared to get bored and abruptly stood up and dropped out of view.

William put down the binoculars then pulled out his phone, dialed a number, and, three rings later, heard a man with a Chinese accent answer.

     “Hello, Mr. Danforth, do you have eyes on the prize?” the man asked.

     “The cat’s there. It’s a go,” William said.

     “Good, then we can finally conclude our business.”

     “Yeah, so don’t fuck it up.”

     William waited for nearly fifteen minutes before he saw the black BMW M5 pull into the marina’s parking lot. A short time later, three Chinese men stepped out of it and began making their way down the dock. Tourists were fairly common on the South Forty Pier, so no one paid any mind to the three imposing looking men as they made there way out to the houseboat in question. They knocked on the door, and, a moment later, a woman appeared, and a few words were exchanged before the men abruptly forced their way into her home. This was it. Two years of planning and an entire year of setbacks, and it was all finally coming together. His deal would soon be concluded, and he and his organization would initially bring in a hundred and twenty million dollars, though there would be a lot more to follow. William sat back and couldn’t help but smile as he contemplated all the things he would buy with his percentage.

     “Goodbye and good riddance, Mr. Pickles,” he said, aloud, as he waited for the cat-napping to be completed.

Chapter 2: THE WON-TON CAT

It always comes down to timing, and it doesn’t matter if you’re hitting back a line drive at Wimbledon, or shooting the winning three pointer at the buzzer in the NBA finals. Timing was the crucial element of action that determined the difference between greatness and mediocrity—and my timing at the moment consisted of three things: my coffee, my book, and my toilet. These three variables would make or break the perfection of the next five or more minutes and, in turn, the day ahead. I took a sip of coffee, the great caffeinated elixir of the heavens, and set my eyes to the story on the page and instantly escaped to my own private universe. I was in the opening salvo of a perfect morning dump, and nothing on God’s green earth was going to screw this up.

     I was home from a great world adventure and had very little to fill my time except life’s most usual and mundane of activities. Of course, that statement would have been a little different a couple weeks ago and included a beautiful woman named Estelle. Unfortunately, she had just moved to Los Angeles to finish graduate school at UCLA. She had applied to three Archaeology PhD programs and, of course, had been accepted to the one that was farthest away. It couldn’t have been worse timing, as she was the closest thing to a long-term girlfriend that I had managed in recent months, and our relationship had been rapidly moving into the very serious category. Now, we were officially doing the long distance thing, and it was only a matter of time before some Southern California beach stud and part time actor invaded her vagina. Oh well—back to my dump.

The three minute mark came and went as I turned my fifteenth page, relishing every precious moment of peaceful abandon, and it looked as though the first morning of my third month home would indeed start with all the signs of a perfect day. Everything changed, however, on page twenty-four when I heard a commotion outside. At first, it sounded like nothing more than a heated conversation, but then I heard my neighbor Joyce scream. What the hell? This was Marin County for fuck’s sake and was a place where crime was generally something that we experienced only through the news. I flushed, washed my hands, then headed out of the bathroom.

     I left my houseboat and walked out to the main dock, curious what might be disturbing the peace in my usually quiet little corner of Sausalito. My neighbor Joyce’s houseboat resided one space over, and, as far as I could see, all appeared to be quiet. I wondered, if perhaps, I had overheard a television show on her brand new surround sound system. I knocked on her door but got no response. I knocked again and was about to leave when I heard her cry out.


     “Joyce?” I yelled back.

     No response. Shit. I tried the door, found it unlocked, and ventured inside.

     “Joyce!” I yelled again.

     “Tag! Back here,” she said, before I heard a loud thud followed by shuffling feet.

     I raced through her place and made my way to the back bedroom, where I found Joyce being held down by two Asian men while a third was trying to coax Mr. Pickles, her thirty-eight pound house cat, out of a crawl space in her closet. The two men holding Joyce had the tougher job, however, as she was a feisty sixty-five year old who stayed fairly active in spite of her prolific baking habit. The third man, in theory, had the easy job. How difficult could it be to get a hold of a thirty-eight pound house cat? An intelligent person would have simply used food—clearly the little critter’s Achilles Heel. This joker, however, was using an umbrella and obviously didn’t understand the subtle psychology of obese felines.

     “What the fuck is going on here?” I asked.

     The guy trying to get at Mr. Pickles turned to face me and suddenly pulled out a Sig Sauer P229 Pistol and pointed it at my head.

     “Get lost, asshole,” he said, in accented English.

     I assumed a relaxed posture and held up my open hands in a placating gesture, as it was far too early in the day to get shot in the face.

     “Look, I don’t want any trouble,” I said.

     “Then leave,” he sneered.

     I pointed at Mr. Pickles.

     “Hey—there he goes!” I said.

     The guy turned his attention back to the cat, but my words were only a ruse, as Pickles hadn’t actually moved an inch. It was a simple deception meant to create an opening and divert guy number three’s attention, and it allowed me to close the distance and take hold of the gun. There were many ways to disarm an assailant, but the most important factor in this instance came down to collateral damage. Who around me might potentially get shot during a struggle? It wasn’t all that hard to take a gun, but if you had friends or loved ones nearby, it was quite a bit more complicated. At the moment, I had Joyce and Pickles spread out in two directions, so I took the gun straight up using both of my hands to quickly twist it into his center in a tight circle. It painfully strained guy number three’s wrist joint and trigger finger, and caused him to cry out and let go, thereby giving me complete control of the weapon. I front kicked him hard in the stomach and sent him crashing backward against the wall then pointed the pistol at his face.

     “Let her go, assholes, or yella’ Cinderella here gets one in the teeth,” I said.

     The two men released Joyce while the third guy, still cradling his midsection after my kick, shuffled closer to his friends. Once reunited, all three started moving backward towards the door.

     “Hold up there, boys. Joyce, call the police.”

     The men turned and bolted out into the hallway. I followed and managed to stay only a couple of steps behind them as they continued out onto the pier, where they practically ran down one of my fellow neighbors and her daughter. I took my time to get around the friendlies, and the bad guys managed to gain a pretty sizable lead, which they used to reach the parking lot and get into an idling black BMW M5. It started to pull away, and, as I made a mad dash to catch up, the back window rolled down and out came a gun. I dove to the ground behind a parked car just as shots started ringing out and whizzing through the air above my head. I popped up a moment later and took aim at the vehicle as it raced away but decided it was too risky to return fire with so many people milling around. Instead, I focused on the license plate. Unfortunately, it didn’t have one, and where the plate would have been there was a placard for the place it was purchased. In gray letters were the words Bay Elite Motors along with a telephone number that started with a 415 area code. That meant that the pricks bought the car either in Marin or San Francisco. It wasn’t a lot, but it was a start, and with nothing more to do in the parking lot, I turned and headed back down the dock. Along the way, I noticed a guy in a decent sized power boat fishing in a notoriously shallow area where a lot of rookie boaters ended up running aground. I thought about trying to warn him, but I figured it was more important to check on Joyce and Mr. Pickles.

     I entered her houseboat to find her in her kitchen, where she had a fairly traumatized looking Mr. Pickles sitting on her lap. Her cheeks were wet with tears, and her hands were shaking so hard that she was unable to dial her phone. I took over phone duty and relayed all the information to the 911 operator, as I wanted to make sure that the police knew that the intruders were armed and had left the area in a black BMW M5. The operator told me to stay on the line until the police arrived, which ended up taking about two more minutes and was actually pretty quick considering that they had come from their police station on the other side of town. The first officer through the door was a guy I knew named Jack Chin. He was thirty-five, Chinese, and a fourth generation San Franciscan, whose unofficial favorite pastime was taking me into the deep recesses of Chinatown for what he called real dim sum. Jack saw me and relaxed and holstered his pistol.

     “I should have known you’d have something to do with this, Finn,” he said, smiling.

     “I’m just a good neighbor this time.”

     Next through the door came the sergeant, a pretty brunette named Jill Reynolds who I also knew, although not quite as well. They often worked together, and I liked to refer to them as Jack and Jill, though I’m doubtful if they ever went up a hill to fetch anything, much less a pale of water.

     “Another sordid divorce case?” she asked.

     “Nope—just an attempted cat-napping of Mr. Pickles here,” I said.

     “I see.”

     She raised her eyebrow and gave me her usual skeptical look. I had come to know my local police fairly well over the last five years, which meant taking a fair degree of shit each and every time we crossed paths. Usually that was during training sessions where I taught close quarters self-defense and weapons training, but of course it also included the occasional ugly divorce case. Many an adulterous lover had wanted to kill me upon learning that I had uncovered his or her extramarital affair, so it stood to reason that the police would eventually become involved when things got ugly. I was, therefore, the Sausalito Police Department’s official comic relief, which was fine as long as it kept me from receiving either parking or traffic tickets.

     “Joyce, do you have any coffee or baked goods to offer these officers? It’s not the same now that the donut shop has closed.”

     Jokes about cops and their love of donuts were so cliché that they were no longer funny. Still, I delivered them, as they were a sore subject since Sausalito’s only donut shop was finally forced to close, leaving the police with no alternative other than the local convenience mart, whose donuts were not nearly as good or fresh. Some might have blamed the economy, the latest fad diet, or Marin’s health conscious elite, but ultimately it came down to Sausalito having the lamest local government of all time. The once bustling town that attracted the likes of Al Capone, Wilt Chamberlain, Jimmy Hendricks, and many other famous people was dying a slow morbid death from its own conservative nature and lack of vision. Businesses that might actually reinvigorate the local economy were turned away in droves, and everyone else was driven out by the ridiculous bureaucracy that governed everything from signage to business licenses. Thus, donuts too hit the road in hopes of finding greener pastures in one of the other municipalities of Marin County.

     “Donut joke. Very original,” Jill said.

     “So, if Joyce were to pull out a tray of freshly baked cinnamon rolls, you two wouldn’t be interested?”

     Joyce was a world-class baker, and anything that came out of her oven, whether it was chocolate chip cookies, cakes, or, in this case, cinnamon rolls, would be the best anyone ever tasted. She stood up, went to her oven and pulled out a tray of warm, delicious looking rolls. Of course, I already knew of their presence, as I had smelled their heavenly scent wafting through my window only fifteen minutes ago.

     “Damn you, Finn,” Jack said, grabbing a roll from the tray.

     Jill leaned down and inhaled the sumptuous smell then scowled at me as she also grabbed a roll.

     “You bastard. This’ll be another half hour at the gym tonight,” she said, as she took a bite.

Joyce put the tray on the table and poured Jack and Jill a cup of coffee, and they sipped and ate while I relayed everything I knew about the turbulent events of the morning.

     “So, Mrs. Cransky, any idea why they were interested in Mr. Pickles?”

     “None whatsoever.”

     “It really doesn’t make any sense. Who would want to kidnap an obese cat, least of all, at gunpoint?” Jill asked.

     “Three Chinese guys and a plus sized cat—you know what I’m thinking, Jack?” I asked.

     “Chinese food truck?” he responded with a smile.

     “Please don’t encourage him,” Jill said.

     “Now, Finn, are you sure they were Chinese? Because apparently we all look alike to you white devils,” Jack said.

     “About ninety percent sure, judging by what little I heard of their accents.”

     “That’s a start.”

     “I guess I should also tell you guys that this isn’t the first time Mr. Pickles has gotten into trouble. He disappeared about a three and a half months ago, and, two weeks later, I found the little fucker out on a meth lab in Richardson Bay.”

     “What the hell was he doing out there?” she asked.

     “Besides meth, probably speedballing tuna fish and Friskies.”

     “The mystery deepens,” Jack said.

     I heard a loud meow and looked down to see Mr. Pickles sitting at my feet, obviously waiting to be picked up. I reached down and struggled to help the little monster up onto my lap, and he immediately tried to get comfortable and stepped on my balls in the process. To make matters worse, I was mildly allergic to certain cats, but it seemed to make them love me all the more, and Pickles was no exception.

     “Our little tub of mystery,” I said, scratching the behemoth’s head.

     Jill leaned across and pet Mr. Pickles, and a subtle giggle escaped her lips as she ran her hand down the tubby tabby’s ample back.

     “You poor chubby little guy,” she said.

     “Oh, he’s not chubby, he’s just big boned,” Joyce responded.

     “Yeah, but those big bones are surrounded by a lot of flubber and fluff,” I added.

     “So, Mrs. Cransky, we already have an APB out on the BMW, and we’ll definitely continue pursuing this, but, in the meantime, I strongly suggest that you get Mr. Pickles microchipped if you haven’t already.”

     “Good idea. I’ve been meaning to do it anyway since Tag got him back for me.”

     Jack and Jill stood up, thanked Joyce for the roll and coffee, and exited, leaving me, Joyce, and Pickles alone.

     “Are you free to take us to the vet if I can get an appointment today?” Joyce asked.


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