The Undisputed Champions of Texas, Part 32

Joyce Ng was an avid runner who got in at least five miles every morning before she went to work.  She liked to joke that she had taken up running to put as much distance as possible between her and her parents’ unbridled disappointment.

That wisecrack was far more truth than fiction.  Joyce’s earliest memory was of her parents declaring that one of their children was going to become a doctor.

Joyce had always assumed that this burden would fall upon her older brother, but then he blew up her future when he quit high school to join a band.  Even though he went on to two Grammy Awards, played in front of packed stadiums on every continent, and was known to music fans all over the world, he was considered nothing more than a high school dropout in his parents’ eyes.

“There is no such thing as Dr. Rock and Roll!” Mrs. Ng liked to remind her son whenever she had the opportunity.  Sometimes, she found that chance via random texts in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep.  She had even once sent such a message while he was in the middle of a live performance on the MTV Video Music Awards.

Long before her brother had become a household name and minor rock legend, Joyce had felt the pressure of her parents’ expectations crushing her tiny frame.  She hated science, despised school, and refused to take on all those extra years of higher education just so her parents could boast to their friends that they had raised a doctor.

fiction, mystery, crime, Modern PhilosopherSo whenever her parents started talking about medical school, Joyce would lace up her sneakers and go for a run.  She hadn’t even enjoyed the activity at first, but she knew her parents would never chase after her, so it was the best way to avoid them and their incessant nagging.

After all, she couldn’t play a guitar or even read music.  It was either run or be guilted and shamed into a life as a doctor.

Running quickly became a daily routine.  One day, an unexpected rainstorm had interrupted Joyce during her sixth mile of escaping from ridiculous expectations.  The library was the nearest place that offered shelter, so she ducked inside to wait out the downpour.

The irony of seeking sanctuary in a place where she could study until she had impressive initials after her name wasn’t lost on Joyce, but she had no intention of picking up a book.  All she wanted was to sit someplace quiet and dry until the storm passed.

As luck would have it, someone had left a book on the closest table.  Joyce glanced at the cover, was intrigued by the familiar title, and decided it wouldn’t kill her to give it a closer look.  The fact that it wasn’t a text book or medical journal played a major part in that decision.

She’d never heard of Dashiell Hammett, let alone read anything by him.  She had, however, flipped past The Maltese Falcon on cable a few times.

Since the rain showed no sign of letting up, she decided to start reading.

The librarian eventually had to explain to Joyce that while she enjoyed seeing someone so heavily engrossed in a book, it was already fifteen minutes past closing and she really wanted to go home.

Joyce had no concept of how much time had passed since she’d entered the library.  All she knew was that she was about a third of the way through the book and didn’t want to put it down.

Only after the librarian had promised to hold the book until she could return the next day with her library card to check it out, did Joyce agree to leave.

Joyce’s life had changed that day.  Instead of wondering how she was going to avoid becoming a doctor, she now knew that she wanted to become a detective.

She was going to be the female Sam Spade, and took it as a sign from the Fates that Humphrey Bogart, the actor who played him in the famous film adaptation, was almost as short as she was.

She also had a gut feeling that Bogie’s parents had never tried to force him into medicine.

What Joyce loved the most about this plan, though, was that she knew her parents would hate it.

To this day, she kept a tattered, dog eared copy of The Maltese Falcon on her desk and will often read it aloud to suspects to disorient them during interrogations.

One year for Christmas, her brother gave her a replica of the famous falcon statue from the film.  Joyce displayed it proudly on her mantel, and her mother shot icy glares at the black bird every time she visited her daughter the detective.

crime, mystery, Modern PhilosopherDetective Ng’s promotion to the head of the Gangs Division had come with an office.  It was about half the size of Captain Hamel’s, but at least it afforded her some privacy.

Since the change at the top had been so recent, Joyce had yet to move most of her belongings into her new digs.  Her predecessor had been unceremoniously booted from the space, with his things hurriedly boxed up and sent off after him.

One of the few items that had made the journey from her old desk to her new office at this point was her beloved copy of The Maltese Falcon.  The ancient paperback was the only book on the shelf against the far wall.

Agent Vlak and Wally had dragged chairs into the office from the bullpen so they could sit for their meeting.  Ng was behind the mighty desk that dominated the cramped room and made her look even smaller than she actually was.

“This desk has got to go,” she said before he decided to walk around it and sit on the front to face her guests.  Her feet dangled a few inches above the carpet.

“How did everyone sleep?” Vlak asked.  “The bed in my hotel was surprisingly comfortable.

“You’re one of those annoying morning people,” Wally observed.

Vlak shot him a smile and took a long sip of his expensive coffee.

“I slept like hell, so I got up early to run,” Ng answered.

“How far did you go this morning?” Wally asked and then discreetly glanced at Vlak to gauge his reaction to her response.

“Twelve miles,” she replied and reached for her smoothie.

Wally was rewarded for his efforts when the FBI agent nearly spit out his coffee.

“You ran twelve miles?  Voluntarily?”

Ng flashed a grin.  “That’s what happens when insomnia takes control because I can’t figure out how to tackle a case.  I run from disappointment, disapproval, and failure.  Then I hope that the sweat and increased heart rate gets my mind to a place where it can actually be productive.”

Wally, who had come to the meeting without a beverage because Bruno disapproved of anything that might distract the thought process, decided to contribute something useful.

“I tracked down the owner of the warehouse.  He claimed to have no knowledge of it being used by anyone.  As far as he knew, the place was empty.”

Vlak immediately had a question.  “Do you believe him?”

“Yeah,” Wally replied.  “It fits for that part of town.  It’s mostly abandoned.  Probably why our squatters chose to make it their home base.”

“So we’re back at square one,” Ng sighed.

“I did some research on my way here,” Vlak volunteered.  “It appears most of the gang activity in this area is controlled by a group called the Heathens.”

“Googling while driving isn’t very safe,” Wally snickered.  “And we like to refer to the Heathens as a fraternal order of dirt bags, rather than as a gang.”

Ng grinned as she picked up on Bruno’s influence on that remark.

“It wasn’t them, though,” Ng took over the narrative.  “They are the one group my predecessor obsessed over, so we would have been aware if they’d branched out to that sort of thing.”

Vlak nodded.  He was the new guy in town, so he had to trust the experts.

“It’s a shame it wasn’t them because Detective Bruno has a great relationship with their leader,” Wally pointed out sarcastically.  “In fact, the guy owes him a favor.  Not that he would have let Bruno cash it in to rat out his own guys, but I’m sure some kind of arrangement could have been made between such honorable men.”

“Why does the leader of the largest gang in your city owe your partner a favor?” Vlak asked with great interest.

Wally had to force back a smile upon hearing Bruno referred to as his partner.

“In tying up the loose ends of one of our previous cases, Detective Bruno returned something of great value that the guy had lost,” Wally explained.  “Now that I think about it, Champ was the one who actually found the item.  Bruno just returned it on his behalf…”

Vlak raised an eyebrow.  “Your friend Champ?  He’s one of the confidential informants in this case, correct?  The old guy who looks like he took one too many anvils to the nose?”

Wally nodded.  “It was punches, not anvils, but yes.”

Ng didn’t like where she thought Vlak’s mind was headed, so she tried to steer him down another path.

“It’s not the Heathens,” she reiterated.  “That’s a dead end.”

Vlak clearly had more questions to ask, but sensed her disapproval and didn’t want to get on her bad side this early in the investigation.

“Can you at least be honest and admit that the three informants you have stashed in the safe house are your friends?” he asked.  “You can trust me.  I’m not going to change the way I approach things, but it’s offensive if you think I haven’t figured that out yet.”

“I have no problem with your caring about these people.  In fact, I prefer it because it means you’re going to go above and beyond to work this case, and we might just get a group of dangerous domestic terrorists off the street as a result.”

Wally said nothing.  He was smart enough to defer to his superior on this.

“Fine,” Ng conceded.  “Just don’t ever try to use that against us.”

“Come on, detective.  I thought we had an understanding.”

Wally snickered.  “You’re an FBI agent.  Your kind is infamous for using every trick in the book.  And it’s offensive if you think I haven’t figured it out yet.”

Ng chuckled.

“What that supposed to be my voice?” Vlak asked.  “Not a very flattering imitation.”

“Flattery was never my intention,” Wally quipped.

Ng shook her head.  “I think you’re playing nice, but if you’re not, settle down.  We’ve agreed that there would be no jurisdictional dick swinging here.”

Vlak and Wally both laughed at the choice of words, but Ng had made her point.

“What about organized crime?” Vlak asked.  “Gun running is something they dabble in.”

Ng shook her head.  “Not really much of a presence here.”

“Except for Frankie Napkins, of course,” Wally volunteered.  “And that bastard Irish Tony, who tried to kill me and gave me this limp as an eternal reminder of him.  But he’s in jail now.”

“You know someone named Frankie Napkins?” Vlak needed more information.

“Yeah, he’s a retired New York mobster who moved here after he got paroled and inherited a house in our fine city,” Wally explained.  “Then he got bored and almost enticed Tex into a life of crime until Detective Bruno scared him straight.”

Another raised eyebrow from Vlak.  “Isn’t Tex another of your friends in the safe house?  And he has a tie to organized crime?  Just like Champ has a tie to the Heathens?”

Detective Ng hopped down off her desk.  “Okay, Agent Vlak, let me remind you once again that our three confidential informants have no connection whatsoever to the people who were running guns or to the terrorist group to whom you believe they were being sold.”

“So many coincidences are hard to ignore,” Vlak grinned as he played devil’s advocate.

Ng smiled.  “In a small city like this, such things are bound to happen.”

“This city isn’t as small as you’re trying to make it sound,” Vlak countered.

It was all very playful, but there were certainly some tense undertones.  Thankfully, the tension was interrupted by the ringing of Wally’s phone.

“It’s the hospital,” he informed them as he looked at the display and stood up to take the call.

While Wally walked off to talk on the phone, Vlak glanced around the office until his eyes settled on the only book on the shelf.

“You’re a fan of The Maltese Falcon?” he asked.

“That’s the stuff dreams are made of,” she replied with a slight grin.

Wally sat back down before Ng could go full Sam Spade.  “The doctor said Champ is cleared for discharge.  The nurse said it was more like Champ insisted on it, and the doc reluctantly agreed.  I’m thinking we should reunite our terrible trio, and I might have an idea about a next move.”

Ng shrugged.  “Better than any idea I have at the moment.”

“Really?” Vlak questioned.  “After twelve miles you didn’t come up with anything?”

“My brain only really gets cooking after mile fifteen,” she replied with a smile and a wink.

Vlak wasn’t sure what to make of that comment, but he really didn’t care.  He was eager to finally have a chance to question the witnesses and see if they could bring him any closer to his elusive white whale.

He also wondered if maybe he didn’t mind if this case dragged out a little because there was something about this city and these people he was working with that made him feel welcome in a way he had never experienced since joining the FBI.


About Austin

Native New Yorker who's fled to the quiet life in Maine. I write movies, root for the Yankees, and shovel lots of snow.
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7 Responses to The Undisputed Champions of Texas, Part 32

  1. Wow, this is interesting!

  2. kristianw84 says:

    I read your caption on Facebook before I read the post, and I was excited as soon as I saw homage was made to a Bogart classic!! I knew it had to be The Maltese Falcon! I’ve always wanted a replica statue. Lately, I’ve been considering sculpting one out of clay.

    I see Wally’s confidence growing in this story. I love his wiseass remarks to Vlak! 🤣

    “Jurisdictional dick swinging” had me falling off my chair in laughter! 🤣🤣 Perfect! I applaud your ability to write such strong characters!

    Still very much love this story, Austin!

    • Austin says:

      Thanks. Joyce seems like a mini Sam Spade to me. She’s very intense and cool.

      I think Wally’s confidence grows when he is out of Bruno’s shadow. He’s so worried about impressing his mentor that he doesn’t assert himself.

      The Maltese Falcon is a great book and an awesome flick…

  3. beth says:

    your characters are really growing!

    • Austin says:

      Thanks. I purposely kept the back stories vague in the first two stories because Bruno’s mysterious background is a key to the ongoing story.

      It’s been fun to take the focus off him and do a deep dive on those around him.

  4. markbialczak says:

    Love the insight into Ng, Austin! And Vlak seems like he’s going to step into it FBI-style somehow, despite some good intentions …

    • Austin says:

      It’s been fun sharing the pasts o the characters. Everyone has so many secrets! I’m thinking Ng’s celebrity brother will pop up down the road in another case.

      Very good insight about Vlak. I believe his intentions are good, but he won’t be able to help himself if he thinks it will further his career…

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