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Short story: ‘Shorty and the Briefcase’ by Lee Child

Twenty superb new crime stories have been specially commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of CrimeFest, which takes place in Bristol from 17-20 May.

A star‐studded international group of authors, including Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Ian Rankin and Sophie Hannah, have come together in crime writing harmony to provide a killer cocktail for noir fans; salutary tales of gangster etiquette and pitfalls, clever takes on the locked‐room genre, chilling wrong‐footers from the deceptively peaceful suburbs, intriguing accounts of tables being turned on hapless private eyes and delicious slices of jet black nordic noir.

Fancy a taste of this brilliant new collection? Read on for Lee Child’s contribution, ‘Shorty and the Briefcase’…

‘Shorty and the Briefcase’
Lee Child

Shorty Malone’s legendary week began on Monday, when he got shot in the leg, just barely, in a sanitation department maintenance facility. His squad went in the front door, and another went in the back door, with a vague plan to outflank a guy they knew was concealed somewhere among the parked garbage trucks. Then someone started shooting, and within a split second everyone was shooting. The official report said ninety police rounds were fired that day. No one was killed, not even the concealed guy. The only casualty was Shorty, from an unlucky ricochet. Later reconstructions showed a fellow officer had fired, and his round had taken a gentle deflection off the sidewall of a tire, and then a violent deflection off the chassis rail of a different truck. After that it was badly misshapen and had spent most of its energy. It hit Shorty on the shin bone no worse than a smack with a ball-peen hammer. It broke the skin and cracked the bone. Shorty was immediately hospitalized.
        After that it was awkward. It was hard to work up much enthusiasm. Shorty had been in the detective division about a year, so he wasn’t a brave rookie anymore, but he wasn’t yet a grizzled veteran hero either. He was a nobody. Plus it was technically blue-on-blue. There was even some doubt about whether the concealed guy actually had a gun at all. Plus a rumor it was the wrong guy anyway. Maybe his brother. So the overall feeling was the whole affair would be better forgotten. Which was tough on Shorty. Normally a shot cop would be treated with maximum reverence. Normally Shorty would have been rolling around like a pig in shit. Half a dozen hopeful lowlifes would have started up collections on the internet. Shorty could have been looking at a decent chunk of change. Maybe even college-fund decent.
        But he was ignored. On Tuesday we were all reassigned to new duties. Part of forgetting. Sure, way back in history some mistakes might have been made. But that was then. We’ve moved on. Now we’re making progress. We all started learning the new stuff, and as a result no one went to visit Shorty in the hospital anymore, except his pal Celia Sandstrom, who was another one-year nobody, except better to look at, unless she was wearing her Kevlar vest. Evidently she stopped by the hospital frequently, and evidently she kept old Shorty up to date on what was going on. And what wasn’t.
        We were assigned to Narcotics, as part of their own forgetting. All kinds of previous strategies had come to nothing. It was time to wall them off. Time to move on. Like we had. So that if someone ever mentioned a prior embarrassment, we could all wrinkle our noses and say, What, that old thing? Like your girlfriend, when you tell her she looked good in her sweater yesterday. So their department was starting over too, the same way ours had, and they swapped us in for their big new redemptive idea, which was to stop following the coke, and start following the money. Which needed manpower. Narcotics was a cash business. Cash was like a river. They wanted to see where it flowed. And how. Some parts they knew. Some parts they didn’t understand. They wanted us out there, watching.
        Specifically they wanted us watching a guy delivering a briefcase from Jersey. He made the trip usually two times a week. The assumption was the briefcase was packed with paper money. A wholesale payment, maybe, or a share of the profits. One level of the pyramid scheme kicking up to the next. They said a regular briefcase could hold a million dollars. They said it was a physical transfer because money wasn’t electronic until it was in a bank. Which cash wasn’t yet. They said there was a clue in the name. They said our job was to evaluate the chances of witnessing a hand-to-hand exchange. Which would be two for the price of one. Plus disruption of a vital link in the chain. It was exciting work. No wonder everyone forgot about Shorty. Except Celia. She must have described the mission, the very same day. Because that must have been about when Shorty started thinking.

* * *

The guy with the briefcase was an older gentleman. A person of substance. Somehow powdered and expensive. A very senior figure. His very presence a mark of deep respect. With a million bucks in his hand. The briefcase was metal. Some fancy brand. He carried it along the sidewalk, plain as day, all the way to an old-style office building door. He carried it inside. Ten minutes later he came out without it. We saw him do it exactly the same way the report said he always did it.
        The office building had a narrow lobby with security. The directory showed twenty tenants. All bland names. A lot of import and export. No doubt a well-developed grapevine. All kinds of early warning systems. No point in asking questions. We wrote it up and sent it in. Our new bosses didn’t like it. They pushed back.
        They said, ‘We need to know which office suite.’
        We said, ‘We can’t get past the desk.’
        ‘Pose as maintenance.’
        ‘They don’t do maintenance.’
        ‘Then use your badge.’
        ‘The bad guys would be down the fire escape before the elevator door even opened for us in the lobby. Probably the security guy controls it with a foot pedal.’
        ‘Give him a hundred bucks.’
        ‘The bad guys give him five.’
        ‘Are you proposing to do any work at all?’
        We said, ‘First day, boss. We’re looking for leadership.’
        Afterward Celia said Shorty figured we were missing something. He didn’t know what. He was on his back with his leg up in traction. Not medically necessary, but the union thought it would make for a better photograph in the newspaper. Shorty was fretting about us, Celia said. He was missing us.
        ‘Shorty who?’ we said.

* * *

We came in Wednesday morning and as expected found the business with the fancy briefcase already going a little lukewarm. Expectations were being retrospectively downgraded. It was a solid piece of data, another brick in the all, as intended, nothing more.
        Then even before the coffee was made it went right back to the top of the agenda. New evidence came in, from a different direction, and it pointed to the same office building. To a specific tenant. They knew for sure the specific guy was sending money out. Now they wanted to square the circle. They wanted to see the same money going in. They wanted eyeballs inside the specific guy’s suite. They wanted eyewitness testimony, about the older gentleman maybe placing the briefcase on a table, and the other guy maybe spinning it around and clicking the latches with his thumbs. If we could get close enough to seize the actual cash, well, that would be the icing on the cake.
        Afterward Celia said, ‘Shorty says obviously that’s all impossible.’
        We said, ‘We don’t need the voice of doom drifting down a hospital corridor to tell us that. Of course it’s all impossible.’
        ‘So what should we do?’
        ‘Nothing. Maybe they’ll move us to Vice. Which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.’
        But the mention of Shorty recalled the previous mention, at the end of Tuesday, which no detective liked to hear, that we were missing something. No one said anything out loud, but I know we all surreptitiously and individually checked everything we could, from the beginning to the end, in the original files, from the handwritten notes.
        The guy drove from Jersey, just him alone at the wheel, no driver, in a nice but unspectacular car, through the Lincoln Tunnel, and south, to a parking garage in the West Twenties, which was the nearest to the old-style office building. A small man in a black vest and a bow tie parked his car, while he walked out with the briefcase and set out carrying it on his long march down the sidewalk. His journey invariably ended after a block and a half in the office building lobby, where he was nodded past the desk after respectful but not casual inspection. On every occasion he spent ten or so minutes inside, and on every occasion he came back out empty-handed. Those were the facts. That was what we knew.
        Celia pretended to have given the matter no thought at all, but later she said, ‘Shorty is sure there’s something wrong.’
        Which was not what we wanted to hear right then, because the stakes had just been raised even higher. A couple more puzzle pieces had fallen into place. Suddenly the folks upstairs realized they could take out the whole chain at once. It would be the bust of the year. Medals for sure. Votes for the mayor. The whole nine yards. But they needed it immaculate. Every link in the chain had to be rock-solid on the witness stand. Evidence was key.
        We argued we couldn’t get it. We said instead we should bust the guy on the sidewalk, before he got to the office building, with the money still in the briefcase. Because it was legally justified to assume he was heading for the specific guy in the unknown suite. Where else would he be going? It was as good as eyeballing a transfer. Really the same thing, at an earlier stage. A different snapshot. A previous frame from the same movie.
        Nothing was ever more persuasive than having no alternative, so they agreed. We waited in a ready room, for a call from Jersey. The local PD over there was watching the guy’s residence. Any occasion he drove out in the direction of the tunnel, they would let us know right away. Traffic was usually bad. We would get plenty of warning. No rush at all.
        But the call didn’t come. Not on Wednesday. Not on Thursday. It came on Friday. Some apple-cheeked trooper out in the burbs told us the guy was on the move in his nice but unspectacular car, and seemed to be heading for Manhattan. Celia was not in the room with us at that point. She came in a minute later and we told her about the call.
        She said, ‘Shorty says we’re thinking all wrong.’
        Which was not what we wanted to hear right then, because we were trying to get all pumped up, ahead of taking a guy down on the sidewalk. But she insisted. She said Shorty had been lying there, with plenty of time to think. We should listen. We were torn. On the one hand, Celia was in the squad. She might be a nobody, but she was ours. Shorty too. On the other hand, the bust of the year was at stake. Medals and votes. Not a thing to screw up by taking the initiative. No one wanted to be the guy who blew it.
        Celia said, ‘Do we really believe it’s legally persuasive, if we take him down on the street with a bag of cash?’
        ‘Kind of,’ we said. ‘Somewhat. Maybe. Good enough, probably.’
        ‘Would his lawyer be worried?’
        ‘A little bit. Maybe not slitting his wrists.’
        ‘But whatever, it’s a huge hassle, right?’ she said. ‘It’s a million bucks in cash. The IRS would get involved. Maybe the Treasury Department. Why take the risk? Why carry that briefcase so openly?’
        We said, ‘We know the cash is moving from A to B. We know the guy inside is receiving it. How else would he be getting it, except from our guy? No one else goes in and out. And people carry all kinds of things in this city. They carry briefcases full of diamonds, worth much more than this guy.’
        ‘Shorty thinks it’s a decoy. He thinks the case is always empty. They’re teasing us. They want us to take the guy down. They’re begging us. That’s their plan. They want us to open the case and find nothing inside. Shorty says we’ll look like fools. He says we’ll never get another warrant again. Judges will just laugh at us. We’ll have to leave those guys alone for years. That way they win.’
        We said, ‘One guy is paying the other guy money. We know that. That’s a real fact. Because it’s a chain. A lot of people are depending on us to do our part right. We need the evidence.’
        ‘We can get it,’ she said. ‘But not on the street. That’s not where it is. Shorty says you’re right, one guy is paying the other guy money. But not the way we think.’
        ‘Then how?’
        ‘In the parking garage. The guy leaves the cash in the trunk. Maybe in a supermarket bag. The parking attendant takes it out and puts it in the other guy’s car. Which is always there because that garage is convenient for the office building. The real handover is out of sight and out of mind. Everyone is distracted by the shiny briefcase.’
        No one spoke.
        Celia said, ‘Shorty says it’s a win-win for us. We can check the car real quick, as soon as the guy is out of it, and if after all there’s nothing in it, then we can always catch up to the guy in a couple of steps, and take him down anyway, like we’re supposed to. Shorty says we have nothing to lose.’
        The phone rang again. The Port Authority cops, at the Jersey mouth of the tunnel. The guy had just come through the E-Z Pass.
        We got going. We waited in the parking garage.
        Nothing to lose.

* * *

Shorty was right. The cash was in a yellow plastic grocery bag in the trunk of the guy’s car. As evidence it was as good as anyone else got, and better than most folks. It contributed mightily to the bust of the year. In front of Celia we felt inhibited about claiming all the credit for ourselves, so mostly we told the truth, and as a result the story got out quickly, about a hero cop shot in the leg on Monday, who then lay in his hospital bed and fought through the agony and by Friday had engineered one of his new department’s most spectacular successes, all through brainpower alone. He got a medal for his leg, and another for the parking garage, and then he was in the newspaper, which is what ultimately made him a legend. The union was right about the photograph. It helped a lot.

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    Dead Food is a damn good short story. Thanks for the chance to read it.

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