Hard Freeze

Simmons Dan

CHAPTER ONE

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Joe Kurtz knew that someday he would lose focus, that his attention would wander at a crucial minute, that instincts honed in almost twelve years of cell-block survival would fail him, and on that day he would die a violent death.

Not today.

He noticed the old Pontiac Firebird turning behind him and parking at the far side of the lot when he pulled into Ted's Hot Dogs on Sheridan, and when he stepped out, he noticed three men staying in their car as the Pontiac's engine idled. The Firebird's windshield wipers moved the falling snow aside in two black arcs, but Kurtz could see the three men's heads outlined by the lights behind them. It was not yet 6:00 p.m., but full night had fallen in that dark, cold, claustrophobic way that only Buffalo, New York, in February could offer.

Kurtz scooped three rolls of quarters out of the console of his old Volvo, slipped them into the pocket of his peacoat and went into Ted's Hot Dogs. He ordered two dogs with everything except hot sauce, an order of onion rings, and a black coffee, all the while standing where he could watch the Firebird from the corner of his eye. Three men got out, talked for a minute in the falling snow and then dispersed, none of them coming into the brightly lighted restaurant.

Kurtz carried his tray of food to the seating area around behind the long counter of charcoal burners and drink machines and found a booth away from the windows where he could still see out and was in line of sight of all the doors.

It was the Three Stooges.

Kurtz had glimpsed them long enough to make a positive identification. He knew the Stooges' real names but it didn't matter—during the years he had been in Attica with them, everyone had known them only as the Three Stooges. White men, in their thirties, not related except via some sexual ménage à trois that Kurtz didn't want to think about, the Stooges were dirt stupid but crafty in their mean and lethal way. The Stooges had made a career of exercise-yard shank jobs, taking orders from those who couldn't get at their targets for whatever reason and contracting their hits out for pay as low as a few dozen cartons of cigarettes. They were equal-opportunity killers: shanking a black for the Aryan Brotherhood one week, killing a white boy for a black gang the next.

So now Kurtz was out of stir and the Stooges were out of stir and it was his turn to die.

Kurtz ate his hot dogs and considered the problem. First, he had to find out who had ordered the contract on him.

No, scratch that. First he had to deal with the Three Stooges, but in a way that allowed him to find out who had put the contract out. He ate slowly and looked at the logistics of the matter. They weren't promising. Either through blind luck or good intelligence—and Kurtz did not believe in luck—the Stooges had made their move at the only time when Kurtz was not armed. He was on his way home from a visit to his parole officer, and he'd decided that even the Volvo wasn't a good place to hide a weapon. His PO was a tough-assed lady.

So the Stooges had him without a firearm and their specialty was execution in a public place. Kurtz looked around. There were only half a dozen other people sitting in the booths—two old-timers sitting silent and apart, and an exhausted-looking mother with three loud, preschool-age boys. One of the boys looked over at Kurtz and gave him the finger. The mother ate her french fries and pretended not to notice.

Kurtz looked around again. The two front doors opened onto the Sheridan Drive side of the restaurant to the south. Doors on the east and west sides of the brightly lighted dining area opened onto the parking lots. The north wall was empty except for the entrance to the two rest rooms.

If the Stooges came in and started blazing away, Kurtz did not have much recourse except to grab one or more of the civilians to use as a shield and try to get out one of the doors. The drifts were deep out there and it was dark away from the restaurant lights.

Not much of a plan, Joe. Kurtz ate his second hot dog and sipped his Coke. The odds were that the Stooges would wait outside for him to emerge—not sure if he had seen them—and gun him down in the parking lot. The Stooges weren't afraid of spectators, but this wasn't the exercise yard at Attica; if they came inside to kill him, they'd have to shoot all the witnesses—diners and workers behind the counter included. It seemed excessive even for the Attica Three Stooges.

The oldest of the three boys two booths over tossed a ketchup-covered french fry at Kurtz. Kurtz smiled and looked at the happy family, wondering whether two of those kids, held high, would offer enough bone and body mass to stop whatever caliber slugs the Stooges would be firing. Probably not.

Too bad. Kurtz lifted one foot at a time onto the seat of the booth, removed his shoes and slid off his socks, balling one inside the other. One of the boys in the nearby boom pointed at Kurtz and started babbling excitedly to his mother, but by the time the sallow-faced woman looked his way, he'd tied the second shoe and was finishing his onion rings. The air felt chilly without socks on.



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