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Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards Crime Winner: “A Special Agent”

“A Special Agent” by Steven Briggs, is the First Place winning story in the crime category for the Eleventh Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Twelfth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.

In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Briggs’s winning entry.

A Special Agent

By Steven Briggs

I was staring at the wall above the urinal, thinking about where to have dinner when I heard the door creak behind me. I resisted the urge to look, minding my own business, because that’s what you do at a urinal. I heard steps approaching and then - a hard slap on my back. I barely managed to stay in my own lane, so to speak.

“Duke! What are you doin’ here at HQ?” It was Lenny Anderson, another Special Agent. Lenny and I worked together for a few years in New Orleans, back before Katrina. He held his hand out to shake. I looked at him, then at my own occupied hands. “Right,” he said, like my refusal to shake wasn’t personal.

He sidled up next to me. “So what are you doin’ here? You piss somebody off?” He laughed. “Hey, what are you doin’ tonight? You remember Shari, don’t you? That sweet thang in our academy class? She and I are having drinks in a few, why don’t you join us?”

Lenny had asked me seven questions, and not paused for an answer. The truth was, I was surprised by his friendliness. The last time I saw him was at my going away party in New Orleans and blood was streaming down over his face paint.

He had invited himself to be the entertainment, which didn’t really fit the occasion - a clown riding a miniature unicycle around a bunch of federal cops in a bar on Decatur Street. I never liked clowns, but okay, I could live with that. And then he honked his horn and squeezed my old girlfriend’s breast. My frosty beer mug found its way into the bridge of his nose and the next thing I know, a couple other agents are holding him back while I gather up my coat to leave. But first, I tossed the remaining beer in his face and said, “You write the report.” Fairly witty I thought - at least the other agents laughed. In our agency we had to write reports for everything, even off-duty bar fights, and it was the worst part of the job. Of course the result of that report was me getting 10 days off. Maybe I should have written it myself.

Anyway, I walked to the sink and washed my hands, trying to think of a way out. But that Shari – maybe it was just my imagination but I thought there was a little chemistry between us back when we were at Quantico. Well, if Lenny could forget about things, so could I. And while I never really liked him, there was a cloud of excitement wherever he went. It would be better than sitting in a hotel watching Sports Center.

For the last two years I had been working out of the Anchorage office, probably punishment for breaking Lenny’s nose, but no one would ever admit that. I was in the Walmart parking lot doing a simple buy-bust operation - $900 for a quarter kilo of coke and then we take off the dealer. But things went bad as they often do in the drug world and my snitch goes crazy, climbs in the bad guy’s jacked-up F-150 who tries to back over me. I jumped out of the way but pulled my hamstring in the process, so they put me on light duty for a month and sent me to Headquarters, just outside of D.C. They gave me a nothing job - analyze agent misconduct reports for national trends. There was probably a guy just like me a few years ago sitting in a cubicle and reading about a clown fight in New Orleans. So far, the reports I read hadn’t been as entertaining. In fact I was bored out of my mind, so as Lenny joined me at the sink, I said, “Shari, huh?”

“Great,” he said. “I’m picking her up at her apartment.” I went back to my cubicle to get my wallet. I thought about leaving my gun in the office safe, but no, with Lenny along, anything could happen. We took the elevator down to the secure parking garage and got in his Crown Victoria, heading across the bridge toward Shari’s apartment, a few blocks from the Capitol building. Neither of us mentioned our last meeting.

I wasn’t familiar with D.C., and being so close to the Capitol, I figured the neighborhood would be upscale - restaurants full of lobbyists in $5,000 suits. But as we circled for a parking spot, I saw the dress was a little more casual. Baggy jeans hanging below the butt was the norm. Lenny said, “I told her this wasn’t a date, just, you know, friends. But if you could help me out, I’d appreciate it.” Like I owed him or something.

He found a spot in front of this brownstone half a block from Shari’s apartment building and pulled out his cell phone. “Shari? Guess what?” Then silence as he listened. He was fidgeting with his keys. “Alright, I understand. That’s too bad. But listen, I got Duke here, remember him from the academy? Jimmy Dukoning? Yeah, he’s here with me.” More fidgeting with his keys. “Ok that’s great, we’ll . . . .” He gave a little nervous laugh and then hung up. “She’ll be down in about five. But remember, she’s mine. You help me out.”

Well, we’ll see about that.

Meanwhile, it was going to be a long five minutes. The street light down the block came on as the dusk was giving way to night. The neighborhood wasn’t as bad as I first thought. The graffiti was tasteful, in subdued colors. There were townhomes and a few apartment buildings and there was a teriyaki place across the street to our left. Right next to it was a mom and pop grocery store. Behind us on our side of the street was a bar named “The Alibi,” with a six foot chainsaw-carved bear in the window, next to a neon Carlsberg Beer sign. It looked like something I would see back in Alaska.

“Hey,” Lenny said, “look at that.” I spun forward. Directly in front of us, maybe thirty feet, a light-skinned guy with corn rows was leaning in the passenger window of a rusted out white Caddy. He wore shorts and flip flops and reached in his pocket, then handed something inside. He turned around and spat on the sidewalk behind him and then leaned into the Caddy again, receiving something back. He put it in his pocket, then he looked around as if there might be cops watching.

“Look around before you do the deal, dummy,” Lenny said. I nodded and laughed. Then he said, “Let’s go have some fun.” He was out the door, moving toward the Caddy before I could say boo, or even something smart like, we’re off duty or, we’re federal agents and we only work big cases not dime bags.

It isn’t a cloud of excitement that followed Lenny. He made his own cloud. I opened the door and started after him since for tonight anyway, we were partners. The kid in the shorts was around the corner and gone, but he wasn’t part of Lenny’s plan. I was ten steps behind when he got to the Caddy and I heard him ask the dealer what he’s got.

“Shake, man, that’s all.” There was an accent, part Spanish, part attitude.

Lenny said, “That won’t do, I need some Charlie. We’re partying.” He turns and points at me. Lenny was one of those guys whose fashion sense froze at a certain point in time. For him, it was the Miami Vice era with pastels and gold chains. He looked like he was a regular rider on the cocaine train with his white linen shirt un-tucked to hide the small gun on his hip. His collar was open a few buttons so the gold around his neck could breathe.

Getting closer to the dude in the Caddy, I could see he was maybe part Puerto Rican or Mexican, and he wore a turtleneck of tattoos under his wife-beater. He was short, but had big arms, like he would stand in front of the bedroom mirror in his mom’s house doing curls. He looked over Lenny’s shoulder at me and then back at Lenny. “I got a gram.”

“That’s not enough,” Lenny said. We got a bunch of ladies comin’. How much you got, total?”

“’Bout half ounce.”

“Let me see it,” Lenny said. I was looking around the neighborhood - mostly for cops, the local kind. If they happened by, we’d have some explaining to do, and probably a report to write. But I was also worried about the dude’s friends.

He was cool, I’ll give him that, taking a full five seconds to size us both up. Why he didn’t drive away, I’ll never know. I looked like a fed who just got off work – short hair, khakis and a button down. But he looked at me again and then made up his mind, maybe thinking clean cut guys like coke too. He reached between his legs pulling out a sandwich bag filled with white powder. He held it up and then Lenny reached in the Caddy and snatched it.

That wasn’t how business was done, and the dude made a strange sound, like he was trying to yell but had swallowed his gum and was choking. Eventually the passenger door flew open and he came out toward Lenny who had backed up onto the sidewalk, both hands up, signaling this wasn’t a rip. The dude was yelling now, but he had slowed his advance.

“Chill,” Lenny said. With one hand holding up the bag, the other reaching into his pocket like he was going for his wallet. “Just tell me how much.”

The dude was looking around the neighborhood, maybe nervous about someone seeing this guy holding a bag of white powder in public. “Two G,” he said, his hand out for the money, still looking around.

And then Lenny said, “That’s too much.” He looked over at me with a smile that said, watch this. He turned the bag upside down and shook the white powder out in a pile on the sidewalk. With his light brown Italian loafers he spread the coke around and then turned back to me and winked. He pulled his badge out and held it up. “Now get the hell out of here, dumbshit. I don’t have time to arrest you tonight.”

Lenny turned his back on the dude and stepped toward me, expecting it to end right there. But the dude let out a loud horse whistle and waived his hand, like he was calling in the cavalry. “Two grand,” he said, taking a couple steps towards Lenny, who was now standing next to me.

For his next act of brilliance, Lenny pulled his little Smith and Wesson and pointed it. “Yeah, what are you gonna do?” with an attitude like he was a Yankee fan or something. The dude cocked his head to the side a little and smiled. He knew what Lenny didn’t - you don’t pull a gun unless you’re gonna use it.

“You going nowhere ‘til I get me two grand.” Four or five guys had materialized out of nowhere and were walking toward us. Baggy jeans and t-shirts, they didn’t look like D.C. police.

Lenny and I ended up back to back since I wasn’t running anywhere, with my bad hammy and all. Anyway, that’s not what federal agents do, even when their partner is a bonehead. More kept coming and the welcome committee swelled to eight or ten, including a couple women. I got a look at them all as Lenny and I slowly rotated against the crowd. It was tough to tell whether they just came to watch, or participate.

The dude, almost serene now, gestured to the crowd, “We’ll let you go, when you give me my money.” He was enjoying being the center of attention. He backhanded one of his homeys in the shoulder and laughed. “Or you can give me the keys to your cop car.”

Lenny goes, “I gave you your chance. Now you are under arrest.” This brought more laughter. “Lay down on the ground and put your hands behind your head.” Howling.

It was a Mexican standoff, or perhaps Puerto Rican. Maybe we should start moving toward our car, I thought. I was formulating a plan when the dude took a step towards Lenny. The others moved in. The circle was tighter now. Getting to our car would be difficult. For the first time, I thought about going for my gun.

Then the dude took another step. No one was laughing now as the others followed suit. “That’s a lot of gold around your neck,” the dude said. “Let me have it.” He held his hand out. “Or maybe I’ll take it.” They were too close now. They’d be on me before I could get my gun. There was no way this was going to end well.

In my mind, I had picked out the biggest guy. He was wearing flip flops so a kick to the nuts, then stomp on his foot, I could take him out quick. Maybe the others would back down.

I shifted my weight onto my bad leg to make the kick when suddenly, the big guy bent over laughing, holding his hand over his mouth like he’s embarrassed for someone, looking around at the others in the circle to see their reaction.

Lenny! I turned and saw what the mob saw. Lenny had holstered his gun and had his arms straight down at his side. He was bouncing up and down in an Irish step dance like he was Michael Flatley, one knee coming up, the foot crossing over the other knee, then back down.

Looking past Lenny, the dude had a bemused look on his face, holding his arms out to keep the crowd from rushing us, not that he needed to.

Still hopping, Lenny looked over his shoulder and whispered, “Give me your gun.” “What?”

“Give me your gun,” louder this time.

I lifted my pant leg, slowly, revealing the ankle holster just as Lenny’s dance came to a stop. He said, “You really want to see something?” He exuded complete confidence at that moment, Lenny the ringmaster.

Not me. Holding the gun butt between two fingers, showing I wasn’t a threat, I carefully handed it over to Lenny. Then I moved back and into the crowd, not sure what was coming as he cleared his throat.

“Ahem. Do not be alarmed,” he said. “And do not try this at home. I am a trained professional.” Then he started spinning the guns like he was an old Wild West movie star. First the right, then the left. Then both at the same time. Then he tossed the gun in his right hand up in the air over his shoulder. The crowd and I both stepped back, a little nervous and giving him room. He spun around and caught it, a big grin on his face.

“Oooh,” a heavy set woman next to me said like she was watching a magic show. Next, Lenny started juggling the two guns with one hand. I looked past him at the dude who now was laughing, hanging on to the shoulder of his homey. I took another step back, a little behind the crowd now. Except for being unarmed, I was in a much better position.

And then off to my side I heard a voice yell, “Lenny?” It was a female voice. Lenny turned his head and I watched it all as if in slow motion. The gun, my gun, at the apex of its toss, slowly falling, his hand lunging for it but missing, the gun falling to the concrete sidewalk, striking the ground and bouncing up a few inches, then falling again and striking the ground a second time when it discharges, a loud report echoing off the neighborhood buildings. We all looked around stunned, our ears ringing, checking to see if anyone was hit.

“Police! Everyone on the ground, now!” The female voice again. Of course no one got on the ground. They all took off running except Lenny and me. The heavy woman bowled into me and I stumbled backward. I tried to catch myself but my bad leg gave way and I fell to the ground.

Shari was running toward us now. The crowd was gone and Shari stood there with one hand on her hip, high heels and jeans, adrenaline flushing her cheeks, gun out. She looked good. “Lenny! What are you doing?” She shouted.

Lenny shrugged and put his own gun back in its holster. “Showing off I guess.” He gave me a look like I wasn’t to say anything.

She shook her head at him, as if he were a clown. Then she looked at me. “Duke!” She said it with some excitement. “Are you alright?”

“I think so.” I held my hand out and she helped me up. Then she gave me a big hug. She smelled nice.

I gave her an extra squeeze, looking over her shoulder at Lenny, who was glaring at me. I winked. That’s right buddy, you lost.

He started toward me, his own gun in hand, the barrel haphazardly pointing our direction. Shari and I broke apart, not liking the look in his eyes. But she didn’t completely let go, putting her arm around my waist, squaring up with me to face Lenny. He stopped, looking back and forth between us, the meaning sinking in. He holstered his gun and stepped up, putting his face to mine. “You write the report,” he said. He held my eyes for an extra moment, letting me know he remembered.

Then he turned and walked to his Crown Victoria, kicking my gun into the street. “Let him go,” she said, as if I was thinking of going after him. “We’ll take my car.”

I retrieved my gun as Lenny pulled away from the curb, tires squealing. We started up the sidewalk, but stopped in front of the Alibi. There was a spider web crack in the window with a hole in the middle. Shari put her pinky in the hole and I could see where it pointed - the big wooden bear had taken a slug in the chest.

Yeah, I’d write the report this time. And it was going to be good.

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