The Blind Pool by Paul McHugh

Synopsis: The nation is being invaded. One giveaway is a simple tattoo on a thug’s middle finger. That clue proves strong enough to direct military vets and investigative partners Dan and Carl to the heart of a global conspiracy. Carl is an undercover FBI agent; his friend Dan operates on the law’s shadier side. Neither have seen a crime ring as malevolent as the Blind Pool, designed to exploit the talents of nefarious felons held in prisons around the world. This conspiracy recognizes its members via a tattoo on the hand, plus an embedded microbead. Its overlord, Leonid Andreyev, a rogue Russian oligarch, controls billions in laundered cash through his off-the-books enterprises. Andreyev’s point of attack on the U.S. is a prison in Texas, run by its sadistic owner, Mark Nader. As Carl and Dan unravel a murderous puzzle, their lovers, Melanie and Linda, also get sucked into that dark maelstrom. As their joint peril rises, safety lies only in bonds of trust between these four friends. However, once snared by strong undercurrents of The Blind Pool, they discover such links can either be bolstered… or betrayed.

Chapter One

No price is too great for the scalp of the enemy king.

Alexander Koblentz, chessmaster


Florida’s Overseas Highway is a gray band linking isles of the Keys via bridges that arch over channels of turquoise water. On this day, as Highway 1 leaps across a channel to connect Boca Chica with Key West, it bears glittering rows of stalled automobiles. A few cars display geysers spurting up from radiators while drivers jig around their front bumpers, ineffectually waving rags.

“Just ‘nother day in paradise,” drawls Dan Cowell. He drapes an arm out the window of his own car – a vintage red Miata – and flicks open a button on his rayon shirt with his other hand.

“We not movin’, okay, not a centimeter, even!” his companion, Linda Parker, marvels. “And so-o long.”

“We’re near peak of tourist season,” Dan says. “Add a holiday. Stir in a traffic accident. There’s your recipe for happiness, beyb.”

Dan says the word “babe” using a long and strong vowel, in the Caribbean Creole argot. Saying it this way is part of their code of intimacy.

She peers out from her side of the car at the blue waters that ripple beneath the highway bridge. Tiny wavelets fling back sparks of sunlight.

“We are not so high up,” she says. “Let us jump into water, make a swim ‘round to our place. Serious!”

Dan smiles. Linda is a young, strong Moskita Indian woman, raised on an island off the coast of Honduras. She’s fully able to act on her suggestion.

“Might’s well. Our highway seems ‘bout done being a street.” He gives a languid shrug. “Guess we’re in a park-and-lock lot now…”

Bass vibrations telegraph an approach of powerful machinery. Dan checks his mirrors and sees two lines of big motorcycles bearing down on them from the east. One line seeks to thread the gap between the lanes of stopped cars, the other rumbles along the bridge’s narrow shoulder.

“Shit. Crank up your window.” Dan gestures with his thumb. “We’re about to get hammered by noise.”

Large bikes leading the pack are fattened by saddlebags and chromium crash bars. A massive Honda Gold Wing FGB touring machine roars by on the right, while a purple Harley CVO Road King thumps past on their left. Dan sees that the rider on the Harley is as bulky as his bike. Thick shoulders thrust out through armholes of a black leather vest to strain the long sleeves of a white T-shirt. Curve of his belly and chest bulge over the motorcycle’s gas tank. His neck seems wider than the Nazi-style helmet on his head.

“Ah-ha,” Linda says. “Here now is American motorcycle gang, jus’ like your movies, right?”

“No!” Dan speaks loudly to be heard. “Only wannabes! Don’t have on cuts, patches, or colors. Plus, real gangbangers straddle Harleys. Wouldn’t be caught dead on anything else. I only see one. They’re wusses.”

A few cars beyond the Miata, the motorcycles try to squeeze by a broad Cadillac sedan. The Honda rider can’t make it on the right, so he stops and insistently beeps his horn. The Caddy driver tries to swing a yard to his left, almost hits the Harley. That rider lifts a foot and boots off the car’s side mirror. The sedan backs up and makes a panicked lurch to the right, just in time to smack into a sleeker machine trying to follow the Honda – knocking the bike and its rider into the guardrail with a boom and a screech of metal.

Motorcycles dip over their front wheels as they brake to a halt. Riders swing legs off over the seats, lean their motorcycles on kickstands. The engines keep running. The Harley rider loosens his helmet and strides back to the motorcycle behind his – a BMW GTL with so many antennas sprouting from a case bolted onto its rear luggage rack, it looks like a highway patrol vehicle.

Dan now sees the big rider wears over his nose and mouth a bandanna printed with the naked cheekbones and jaw of a skull. He points at the BMW rider, who hits switches mounted on his handlebars. The Harley guy nods, stomps over to the Caddy. He yanks his helmet off a shaven head. He punches it into the driver’s side window, bashing the glass into a spray of green crumbs. Through a succession of other windshields in front of him, Dan sees a dim pair of white-haired people who cower on the Caddy’s front seat.

“Oh fuck,” he says. “Now that just ain’t right.”

He plucks a cell phone from the pocket of his shirt and passes it to Linda. “Dial up 911, beyb? Tell ‘em what’s goin’ on out there.”

He yanks open the door and exits his car. He walks toward the Caddy through a haze of percussion that beats from the tailpipes of idling motorcycles. He sees the big Harley guy lean into the sedan’s busted window and start yelling. Dan walks faster. Other riders smirk as they slouch out of his path.

“Hey, check it! This lame-o wants to bump chests with Tank!” one exclaims.

“That’s a show,” another says. “Guar-ran-teed.”

Dan hesitates for a second. Is he biting off more than he can chew, here? Then he sees that the old couple in the Caddy have slid all the way over to the passenger door where they cringe and stare, bug-eyed with fear, at the man haranguing them.

“Hey,” Dan says, closing in. “Quit that!”

The big man pulls back from the window. The skull-print cloth that had covered his mouth has fallen around this neck. Dan sees stubbly jowls, a broad nose, and intense, close-set eyes with irises so pale they seem nearly white. He never sees the arm swinging a fist up into his stomach. That mighty punch drives air from his lungs and sends him flying across the pavement to thump against the side of a minivan one lane over. He flops into a heap, and all his attention focuses on where his next breath might come from.

He hears a hoarse, faraway voice grind out, “Dammit, you ol’ farts just crunched a prime ride. Worth a hundred K! To make us whole, you’ll do what? Sell this joke of a car?”

Dan finds himself able to gasp in a pint of breath, another. He levers himself on an elbow, grips the door latch of the van, and pulls himself onto his feet. He sees the big man plus two other riders hoist the damaged motorcycle up into the air, then tumble it over the bridge’s railing. He only vaguely comprehends what he sees, since it makes no sense, and barely registers the sound of a distant splash.

The riders come around the Caddy, kicking at it, smashing the taillights and booting dents into its fenders. The big one has his Nazi Stahlhelm back atop his boulder of a head, and the skull-print bandana tugged again up over his nose. He sees Dan, and waves a hand.

“Hey bros, look!” he says. “Our citizen shook off his chin-check.”

He strides to Dan. He’s at least six-foot-eight, has to weigh more than 300 pounds. Pale eyes study Dan. He tilts his head. “Aw-w-w,” he croons. “Did I hurt lil’ punk’s feelings? Let’s hug it out.” Thick arms encompass Dan’s chest and upper back. He’s instantly crushed into the broad stiff plates of the giant’s vest – he realizes it actually is body armor – and into a miasma of leather and rancid sweat. His ribs creak from the remorseless force. He feels the man’s crotch gyrate obscenely against him.

“Feelin’ any better now?” he says. “I am! Wanna be my lil’ bitch? After I turn you out, we’ll pass you all ‘round.”

It sets off a bout of raucous laughter.

Dan squirms to escape, which makes the big rider shove him firmly back into the van and dry-hump his body. The others howl with glee. Dan twists hard and kicks the man in the lower leg with all his strength. His assailant merely grunts, and the white eyes narrow. He swings open his arms, cuffs Dan across the face as he falls, then snatches him with one hand by the nape of the neck and hoists him up so his feet barely drag on the pavement.

“Like it savage? Hey, me too! You won’t sit for a week.”

And suddenly, Linda is there.

“You! Let ‘im go! Now, I say!”

As she rushes in, the other riders try to haul her back. She swats their hands aside then leaps like a wildcat, going for the leader’s eyes with her nails. They grab her and yank her away. But the leader beckons.

“No. Lemme have her,” He says.

They propel her forward. The big man catches her by the back of her neck with his free hand. Dan and Linda gape at each other, beat with their fists at the hideous power of his grip, try to twist and kick themselves free.

“Hey,” he growls. “Your squeeze? Mud-bitch and her race betrayer! Hot for each other, huh? So… let’s see some licks.”

He brings them closer together. “Go kissy-kissy,” he says.

Linda jerks up her chin and spits a gob of saliva just past his face.

He scowls. Dan sees knuckles on the huge hand whiten, also notices a strange detail, the end of one middle finger is emblazoned with dark lines, a tattoo of a letter “Y,” that wavers like a rune. He feels his own body sway helplessly as the big man spreads his arms and pulls them apart… and then accelerates their faces directly at each other. Dan tries to duck, to turn or thrust out an elbow, to do anything that might soften the coming collision.

None of it reduces the impact. He smashes the heads of Dan and Linda together with a vicious crack, lets their limp bodies drop. As he steps over them, he wipes his sweaty palms on his vest. His crew laughs, applauds. His gaze wanders across windows of cars nearby. Occupants shrink away from windows in those vehicles, avert their eyes, desperate to avoid drawing his attention to themselves.

He gives a brief, amused snort.

“Let’s be smart,” the leader says. “Sanitize the crime scene.”

“Wha’chu like, Big T?” another rider asks.

“One-eight-seven these fish.” He gestures toward the bridge railing. “Put ‘em over.”

Through a dim red haze of lapsing consciousness, Dan feels his wrists and ankles seized by rough hands. A moment of weightlessness follows, next a hard smack of water against his upper back and shoulders. The tiny spot of awareness left to him takes in a progression of colors that swirl before his eyes – blue, green, indigo and back to blue again. He realizes that he’s underwater, and spinning.

Linda, Linda… he thinks, as he struggles to clear his mind, to make his limbs move. They must have thrown her in too! Got to… revive. Find her.

The big rider looks down at the channel. A double trail of bubbles rises from the dark, azure shapes of the sinking bodies.

“Yah, bros,” he says. “Done ‘bout the best we can, I reckon. Deek? Let ol’ Cranker warm your back, till we snatch another ride. High time for us to roll, ‘case John Law gets his ass in gear and tries to crash our party. Right?”