Nice Legs

I reached over, put two muddy fingers on Moreno’s throat looking for a pulse. She started to writhe and buck in the mud like she was possessed, screamed, “Mmmmmmm, MMMMMMMPHHHHH!” through the gag. I could only guess what that meant, but I’d bet I was close.

“Hey Cav, whoa. It’s me.”

“Mmmphh?”

I pulled the rope from around her neck. Whoever tied it had done so for effect, not damage. If I hadn’t blown up the beam her weight would have pulled the knot out, the “noose” itself almost loose enough to slide off. Had they not tied her hands behind her she could have tossed it. Maybe he was an amateur. Maybe they wanted me to think that. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to get close enough to find out.

I tossed the rope aside. There was something comforting about her being gagged, at least temporarily, so I lifted her head, untied the blindfold first. Her eyes flipped open, wide and angry. I lifted her up to sitting, untied her hands and the second they were loose they flew to her mouth, then behind her head. She fought with the knot, still “mmphing” emphatically until it was untied, spit it out and tried to yell at me. All that came out was patoo, puh-paw-puh-thooo dry mouth gag sputter like she’d licked a long-haired cat.

If looks could kill, I was a dead man sitting in the mud. Out of nowhere the dry, croaking profanity in two languages stopped, she grabbed the front of my shirt with both hands and stuck her tongue down my throat, let go of my shirt, grabbed the sides of my head and I wasn’t sure if I was being kissed or if she was trying to eat my face. She let go of that experience, threw her arms around my shoulders and started to cry. Huge, big heaves followed by deep nasal and throat snorks and honks. I fell back off my squat and against the stall, held her like that, thunder shaking the debris lean-to until her heaves and snorks abated into declining sobs that tapered off and ended in deep breathing, her chest pushing against mine until her head finally relaxed into my shoulder.

“Am I really,” snork, “not worth it?”

“I was trying to smoke him out.”

“That’s not,” she snuffled, honked, “an answer.”

“No…”

“What then?”

“Ask me after I see the boots you’re going to buy me.”

She smacked my chest open-handed. “You…you’re filthy. And mean. And you stink.” She felt the mud in her own hair, looked down at the angle of her leg over mine. “I can’t tell where I stop, and you start.” She snorked again, wiped her eyes with the knuckles of her index fingers.

“I can.”

“Don’t be a pig, Com… Dios Mio, what am I saying?” She dropped her head back in the crook of my arm, laughed loud and hard through different tears. “We are the pigs, both of us.” She pushed on my chest this time without the swat. “You more than I.”

She raised off me, tried to stand, hit her head on the lean-to slats, fell back into the mud immediately.

“Don’t laugh at me, Paro.” She rubbed her head with a muddy hand. “I’m not…”

“In the mood? Join the club.” I got myself into a squat and shouldered the slats. There wasn’t a lot of weight, but I seemed to be moving a big chunk of no-longer-a-barn real estate. I realized it hadn’t been raining on us because we were under a good-sized piece of the corrugated roofing and that was what I’d been trying to move.

I pushed up again, got nowhere. “Forget it.” I lowered my load. “Help me pull this junk out of where a gate should be.” We pulled broken wooden slats into the lean-to until we were almost out of room. “Can you get through there?”

Si. If I get stuck, push me?”

I winked.

“Pig.”

She wormed her way across the pile of wet wood, disappeared. About the time I started to think she’d disappeared with the poor excuse for a hangman pistolero the top layer of remaining slats and debris in the opening began to slide out and away. When there was room, unlike Cav, I went through on my back. I was clear and could see the sky, full of low, silver and black clouds, moonlight, the storm lighting up the sky to the south. Light rain fell on my face. I crunched myself up to sitting. No Moreno. That woman, I was going to strangle her myself.

“Paro?” I found her rummaging in the debris where the middle of the barn used to be. “Do you have a flashlight?”

I did. A small, twin cell AAA LED job that did an admirable job of lighting up a couple of square feet like daylight. If it still worked. I hadn’t used it earlier not wanting to make a target of myself. I dug it out of my front pocket, pushed the button, swept the beam between Cav and me, made my way across a makeshift bridge of debris over mud.

“What’d you lose?”

“My shoes.”

“Are you crazy? There’s no way –”

She ripped the flashlight out of my hand. “Where was I, when I fell?”

I judged the gate hole in the stall to where she stood. “Maybe two feet to my right, and you’re too far past the middle.” For the first time, ever, she listened.

“Paro? Ola? You could help.”

That was my second request for help tonight. I couldn’t hand this one off to an ambulance. “What’s so important about your shoes? Made out of gold?”

“We can play twenty questions later. Right now,” she shined the light in my eyes, “shut up. And help. Por favor?”

It didn’t take us long, and I still didn’t see the point. A pair of muddy who knew what color originally shapeless flats. No gold. No way she was wearing them. She didn’t even try. Instead, she stuffed them in my back jeans pockets.

“That’s one way to keep your feet in my ass. Flashlight?” I held out my hand, she obliged. I needed to find Rip’s shotgun and slicker. Both were easier to find than the shoes. The slicker obvious in its yellowness under a few boards back where I’d dropped it, the shotgun not six feet in a straight line from Moreno’s shoes. She stayed put on a small piece of corrugated roofing while I collected.

“A gentleman would carry a lady through this basura peligrosa.”

“A lady wouldn’t have gotten herself into dangerous garbage like this in the first place.”

Estos es Verdad.” She kissed me again, looked me in the eye. “Thank you.”

“Any time you get, uh, hung up?” I did the thumb and little finger phone move to the side of my head.

“You’re impossible. But I love you anyway.” Her hair had gone straggly in the light rain left behind from the squall line, she tossed it in a way that would have been coquettish minus the mudslinging.

***

“No, ladies first. And I need your clothes.”

“But…”

“Clothes, Moreno. Now.”

She peeled out of her wet clothes, covered up her top half with bent arms, made noises about being cold. I told her the shower would warm her up.

“But I thought…”

“I’m taking our clothes down to the laundry room, or housekeeping or somewhere, and washing them.”

“Naked?”

“I was going to borrow your robe.”

“My robe?” She stood, knees together and slightly bent, her arms folded in a dead man’s cross over her breasts, one eyebrow raised. “Where is my phone? I demand a picture.”

It must have been the look on my face that hustled her into the bathroom, the door closing behind her with medium velocity. I think her original intent was a shower duet, but she hadn’t sung her solo for me yet. When I heard the shower I pulled off my dripping clothes, slipped into a slippery, silky, knee-length on her, mid-thigh on me Oriental flower print robe and sat on the bed with her shoes.

No female salvages rain and mud ruined shoes unless they were major status symbols, and these weren’t Italian, or even fake Italian, but were named after two women, Carly and somebody. Why these shoes? I pulled and separated what I could, almost ripped the little short heel off one. Under the insole of the second one, near the toe, I found a laminated strip of paper the size of an average band-aid. There seemed to be a lot of information on it in tiny print. I flipped to macro on my phone for close-ups, shot both sides, slipped it back under the insole. I squeezed everything back together and put her wet shoes back on the bathroom vanity where I’d found them.

***

The guy behind the desk at the Holiday Inn Express took pity on me or wanted me out of his lobby in a hurry. The muddy, dripping ball of clothes, the robe, maybe the Browning stuck in the tie of Moreno’s robe because he immediately took me to the housekeeping laundry room, said “Go for it,” and hustled back to the desk. I threw everything in a nice sized normal washing machine, not the industrial jumbo job and straightened up when from behind me I heard,

“Nice legs.”

“You know, Tavius, I’m tired of meeting people from The Company in laundry rooms.” I had a business grip on the Browning. “And I don’t want to shoot anybody right now.”

“You pull that thing, the robe flies open, the vison of your manhood the last thing I see before the gun goes off? Fuck that, we’re on the same side.”

I turned around, slowly. His face was a maze of small butterfly and laceration closure bandages, he was wearing a new truck stop souvenir t-shirt with Shamrock, Texas in an arc over a leprechaun. ”Nice shirt. What happened to you?”

“Tried to eat a windshield, the shirt is tourist camo. You up to helpin’ a brother out?”

“Like those diapers for grownups. Dee—”

“Pends. Funny, but not original. Look, I need Moreno’s rental so I can get on. Wait a day to report it. I’d ask you for the truck, but that crazy old motherfucker’d come try to find it.”

“And probably kill you. She just lost one rental, Tave. Down to you.”

“That was on you and the convicts. I made it a legit boost and burn with the drop.”

“Damn, man…” If Tavius, my original and primary contact in this circus needed a ride to stay in a game that might cartwheel without whatever part of it he was playing… “Your ride?”

“Fucked it all up running the gunners after your ass off the road.”

So there was that…I gave it time to look like I’d thought about it, tightened the belt on the robe. “You’d better hope she’s still in the shower.”

***

“My car? Ha sido robado? Again? Ayyyyi…” She started to swear in Spanish.

“Cav? Can the exotic bi-lingual babe thing. You’re from Orange County.”

“Paro, you are such a shit! We spoke three languages in my home. English, Spanish and my father spoke German. Sometimes.” She rubbed her hair with a towel, made faces at me in the mirror.

“There were three at my house, too, only it was English, Spanish and Drunk.” We stared at each other. She was trying to build steam. “He needed your car, Cav. Simple and done.”

“And you?” She spun around, threw the towel in my face. “You just give it to him, here’s the stupid girl’s car, ‘it’s cool, I’m fucking her, she won’t care’? The car, it’s like me? Simple and done?”

“You know better than that.”

“No, I don’t know better than that because I don’t feel better than that. Who is he, this Tavius of yours? Why do you let him steal my car?”

“He was my debrief ‘here’s how you’re going to behave’ Company man after Columbia. He’s the one…” I choked on it, but it was already on the way out, might as well run with it. “He’s the one, before all this started, who told me whatever you asked me to do, say yes.”

Her eyes expanded way beyond normal, she scanned the vanity for something else to throw at me. “And should I ask you to make love with me, something I know now repulsed you, you should also say yes? Yes? So later you can treat me like some, some pushover whore and give away my car? To some, some –”

“Technically it’s not your car.”

“Paro, goddammit, that’s not the point. Don’t you see?”

“What I see is someone who looks a lot better in your robe than I did who needs to sit on the bed with me and tell me about this cluster fuck of a bank heist. All of it. Until it makes sense to both of us. Or at least to me.”

“You don’t care what I say, so you, you should just…”

“Yes I do care, or you’d be dead in the mud or off with whoever made it look like you were in trouble when you weren’t and I wouldn’t be out a decent pair of handmade Lucchese’s.”

She tried to slap me, I caught her hand, she started crying again. I listened for a while to her ramble about how I was an asshole but a hero and a sexist pig and didn’t understand anything and how could I be like that when she loved me until she wound down hugging a pillow. I tucked her into the bed and went to get our clothes out of the dryer. No Browning, no silky robe, just an oversized towel. Anybody wanted to kill me on this run, fine. I’d die as confused and stupid and damn near as naked as the day I was born.

***

I woke up on top of the bed in my underwear and t-shirt, the bottom of the bedspread over my feet. I reached over, no Moreno. But I smelled coffee. She bumped me with her hip.

“Scoot, asshole.”

I scooted, she sat, opened a McDonald’s bag and pulled out a couple of Egg McMuffins. I looked over and there were two large coffees on the connected-to-the-bed nightstands. She bent over, kissed my forehead.

“I’m sorry, Paro. I don’t…I didn’t think…Never mind.” She put on an act of collecting herself. “I don’t know what you like for breakfast except in the trailer you made us eggs, and bacon…”

I thought she might start the crying thing again, but she stood, walked to the bathroom counter and brought back her right shoe, lifting the insole on the way. I sat up, she sat beside me, handed me the laminated strip of paper.

“If…If I die, Paro, or they kill me, or…or Woody tries again…” Her face was slightly contorted with a look of finality, defeat. “This is all of it. Everything.  From now on I do it like I planned with my convicts. And if you…You can do what you want.” The red eyes came back. “I lied to everybody, okay? But if they knew I knew, then they’d think I told you, and then… I didn’t want you hurt, Paro, and…You’re kind of…You’re…” She turned away. “Shit, Paro.”

“You’re more than kind of important to me, too.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “So it was Woody in the barn?” She nodded, put her hand on top of mine, stared at the floor. “Was he serious?” Another nod. “He didn’t have the balls to hurt you himself. He hoped his crew would get rid of both of us for him. Hey,” I turned her chin toward me. “The guy I let steal your car? If it wasn’t for him, Woody’s plan would’ve worked.” I reached back, grabbed a coffee, handed it to her.

“And that’s supposed to make it all okay?”

“No, but you and I? We’re still on.” I tapped her coffee with mine, could see the question in her eyes. “And so’s the Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery.”

She leaned into me, I wrapped my arm around her shoulder, and we sat like that for a while. No real harm, no real foul. Egg McMuffins taste the same cold as they do hot.

 

Have a Nice Night

I wasn’t going to let whoever he was shoot me in the back. I whipped around and…No one. Six feet away, on his back, I spotted the moaning man. I kept the Browning pointed at his center, walked up to yet another new face from the Kerrigan Bank Robbery clown car. I saw his weapon, a 9mm with a huge clip, next to his out stretched right hand. I put a boot on his wrist, picked it up. He wasn’t bleeding, but he was gurgling, moaning, whimpering.

“What…the hell,” he coughed, “is in…that thing?”

“A friend makes them. Like a Hornady Critical Defense, with a lighter powder load. Think air marshall.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want it to go through you, I want it to knock your ass down and leave a hole like a bowling ball going in. And a Mac truck if it exits.”

“Well…they work…”

“Must be a hell of a vest you have on,” I said. “Again. Who are you, what do you want?”

“Moreno…”

“Everybody wants fucking Moreno. Why?”

“Not…Can’t…”

I knelt down, put a knee on the holes in his shirt. He tried to scream, gurgled instead. “Two rounds. Vest impact probably broke a couple of ribs.”

“Prob…lee more….Motherfu—”

I put the knee down again

“Awright! Fuck me …Woody…Woody!”

“Moreno’s fiancé? What does he have to do with this?”

“He…I…that was his…we’re his…crew…”

“The sitting ducks in the middle of 66 were Woody’s?”

“Yesss…goddammit…” he moaned. “Get off, will ya?” I let him breathe. “He’s not her…that’s all…front…”

“Nice to know. So what’s your gig?”

“His pilot…Woody’s…Used to be pilot…”

“Why does Woody need a pilot and a crew?” I heard the sirens, knew I needed to blow before I turned into an all-night witness.

“His idea…no convicts…pros…”

“Some pros. Woody’s got the whole program, or what?”

“They both have…The professor…sent it…”

“The dead one?”

“There’s another one?” He tried to roll to his right, gave it up, looked at me with fear and pleading in his eyes. “Help…me?”

“I’m not out to kill anybody.” I glanced over my shoulder. Fucking sirens. “Help is on the way.”

I ejected the round in the chamber of his nine, tossed it out of reach. The breather the rain had taken was over and it had come back with a vengeance. I climbed into the Ram, no headlights, eased around the back of the ghost gas station and then out onto old 66, lights on. Two blocks to the east the Sheriff stopped me. I rolled down my window, the wipers on high throwing water in the cop’s face. I dialed up some country boy for him.

“What the hayell happened back there?”

“You see anything?” He was a muscled up Hispanic kid, holding down his own best County Mountie poker face, despite the water being thrown in it.

“Nuh-uhhh…” I drawled. “I come up 83, hung a right on 66, lookin’ for gas, and a taco place I thought used to be there.”

“That place is closed. You stop at the Phillips another two blocks east, the tacos’ll give you gas. So you saw nothin’ on the way in? Nobody comin’, nobody headed outta town?”

“Nuh-uh. Nothin’ but that car on its side back there in the road. Some kinda rollover wreck from the rain, I reckoned.  Didn’t bother to stop ’cause I seen the ambulance comin’.”

I killed my wipers when he asked for my license and insurance. I handed them over, told him the truck belonged to my boss, papers were in the glovebox. He checked the inspection sticker, told me never mind, handed everything back and said have a nice night. I started to say “That would be a nice change” but left it, said, “You too, officer.”

I headed east a few blocks, past the Phillips with the dangerous Taqueria, turned north on Main, hooked a right on road N that would take me the nearly three miles to Moreno. While the wipers fought the rain I tried to get my head around not one but two bank robbery teams, one shot all to hell and the pilot out of commission, at least one dead undercover government man, no sign of Tavius after the stock tank, and who knows what damage to the convicts in the Texian. Add two purported CIA agents, half a story from Moreno and the headlights that had been stuck to me like bug guts on a Gulf Coast windshield since I was on Main Street that were now closing in and the nice night I’d been told to have was going south in a hurry.

***

There was no way to make better than twenty miles an hour in the rain, tops, so outrunning anyone on a ponding strip of two-lane blacktop in Texas at night in an unweighted pickup with too much torque wasn’t an option. Neither was running without lights. They were thirty yards behind me and closing, no gunshots yet. I rolled my window down, rested the sawed-off Rip sent along on the door sill thinking I’d poke it out angled back and blow out their windshield when they started to overtake me. I glanced in the mirror, watched as they suddenly veered left off the highway, hung their wheels in the mud and their tumbling lights told me they’d rolled a couple of times. I hit the brakes, pulled off on the shoulder and ran back in the dark, my Browning hand up in the slicker.

It was the shot-up, bloodied-up SUV that had hauled ass from the Texian shootout, upside down, the top almost flat in front. The driver was cut in half, half in and half out of the driver’s side window, the passenger was twenty feet back up the road. Nothing human contorted that way was alive. I trotted up, studied him long enough to find a few of his pockets, went fishing for his wallet, stuck it in the pocket of the slicker.

Back at the SUV I noticed an assault rifle clone visible from the rear passenger side. I reached in for it and saw what had bloodied the back glass when they’d passed me in town, gagged. I’ve been in a war zone, volunteered for medevac duty on heavy casualty days. Nothing prepares you for looking on a face chewed away by automatic weapons fire attached to a smashed body. I straightened, choked back the bile that crept up, checked the clip in the rifle, empty and useless, and dropped them. In the limited vision afforded by the rain and night, I saw no other lights, heard no sound but the incessant pounding of the rain and approaching thunder. I shivered and the headlights on the SUV winked out. I took that as a sign and beat it back to the truck.

***

According to the Ram’s odometer, I was exactly 2.7 miles from where N crossed FM86 and as far as I could tell there was nothing. Nowhere for Moreno to be. No place to hide. No shelter. I felt sold out and lucky over the SUV that failed, shivered against the wet cold again. I started to back the truck out, turn around when at the edge of my headlight swing, maybe twenty yards off the road, was one of those ubiquitous old, ‘dead dreams live here’ overgrown, wooden plank stock barns. I killed the lights, decided not to risk getting the truck stuck going off-road in what I couldn’t see, grabbed the sawed-off and stuck the Browning in my belt. I was about full tilt tired of Moreno and her bank robber games, but climbed out into the rain again, if only for the opportunity to tell the lying bitch what was on my mind.

Halfway to the barn I took a turn to my left, approached in a wide arc to the corner furthest from the road. The mud sucked at my heels, my boots squished. Sounds I hoped were drowned out by the rain, rising wind, thunder and approaching light show. I made it to the far corner of the barn, leaned in before the first close bolt of lightning lit up the night. Nothing fucks with your night vision like lightning. Everything goes positive back to negative in a second, the bright flash turning golden into orange into deep violet, leaving you blind and vulnerable until the night reappeared. I stepped into the barn between some missing slats, immediately shed the slicker. I hated to, but it was cumbersome, possibly noisy and easily seen in the dark, worse in a lightning flash. Furry things scattered over my feet and away when I dropped it. Barns and the things that lived in them were my least favorite part of the rural experience.

I kept my head below the wall of a horse or milking stall, raised my voice. “Moreno? We need to talk.”

A handgun barked from somewhere, the bullet thudded into the back wall of the stall I was in. Okay, maybe we won’t talk.

I crouched, poised to scan the barn with the next lightning flash. When it came, halfway through my scan I saw Moreno in the middle of the barn, standing on an upturned slat box. The kind built with staples and wire and thin, flimsy wood. That the countryfied real estate flippers make replicas of and sell for $120 in their rustic furniture shops. The next lightning flash told the rest of the story. There was a rope around Moreno’s neck, hung from a beam that ran side to side across the barn. The rain had turned the gray wood black, and for a second I doubted it would hold her if the crate were gone. I started to take a step, my boots…Goddammit…They squished in the muck like a wet elephant fart. I rolled on my heels into the stall wall before the handgun barked again, the bullet low and in the mud, but too close to where I’d been for comfort.

I thought this should be the place where the bad guy talked to John Wayne, told him how he was going to die, so John could reload and figure his adversary’s location. No such luck. To get a read on a muzzle flash I’d have to stand and the way this night was going the lightning would flash and I’d be part of the carcass count.

I kicked my boots off with my heels, swung one and took out a plank in the stall and this time I saw his muzzle flash. Not quite a diagonal across the barn. With the lightning and his muzzle flash fresh in both our eyes I lunged out of the stall and rolled across the muddy ground, the sawed-off tucked into my chest. This must be what pigs feel like. I thought about asking whoever it was if she was worth it. One of us dead, both of us pigsty filthy. I tried it.

“She’s not worth it, brother.” The muzzle flashed toward where I’d been.

“Then what’re you doing here?”

Good fucking question. “Lapse of reason?”

“Shut up, pilot.” The handgun barked twice into my old corner. Shut up was a plan I could live with.

I wanted to see him in the lightning that had become increasingly frequent, the thunder right behind it shaking the barn, the ground. I scooted on my butt, my back hugging the outside of the stalls but he stayed hidden no more than forty feet away. If I could make it to the big gap in the middle in front of Moreno, maybe I could throw myself over the stall he was in, or…Right. Fuck it. Rambo had the night off, there were no good ideas

Lightning exploded so close I could smell it, smell the air burn, felt like I was in the spotlight of a circus ring, but the muzzle blast still pointed to where I’d come in. Whoever it was, they weren’t looking, they were holding their ground, waiting for me to rush them or pull a white knight rescue on the damsel in distress, exposing myself in the process. Not a bad idea on their part, since I’d considered both of those but found them high on stupidity and machismo, low on survivability.

I kept up the pig-on-his-ass scooting until I’d reached the gap in the stalls, Moreno straight in front of me. Her hands were tied behind her with something white, like a napkin or a handkerchief. She was gagged and blindfolded with the same material. I felt around, found a chunk of something metallic and heavy, threw it across the barn. This time the muzzle flash followed the noise. The good news was that I was still across the barn as far as they were concerned. The bad news…I still didn’t have a viable plan.

I studied the barn from the comfort of moldy hay and wet pellet feed during the next two lightning explosions. Ringing the barn was a storage loft, maybe 8 feet off the ground, four feet wide. Its support poles had collapsed in places leaving the ledge to droop, its weight pulling in on the outer walls. I was still curious if the beam would really hold her when whoever was two stalls away got impatient and answered that for me. He yanked on something, rope, wire maybe, and the crate fell into the mud. Moreno dropped. I lifted the shotgun, fired once into the beam where the rope was tied off, pumped it, fired again. The beam split, Moreno fell into the mud next to the crate, knees first, then onto her side. The two pieces of beam swung down, one crashed into a stall on the far side, the other missed me by a foot, knocked a hole in the wall behind me, wrenched itself from the frame. It stood upright for a long few seconds and fell inward, landing inches from Moreno.

I pumped another round and blew out the wet, rotting ledge support in the corner closest to the hidden handgun man and felt more than saw the barn start to twist in on itself. One way or another we were dead, so I crouched in a wet sock-footed pig-muddy run to Moreno, scooped her up, ran on, fell into a stall. The pistol, directly across from me now, barked once, twice, and again while the barn collapsed. I rolled on top of Moreno and waited for the dying barn to bury us.

The slow, grinding deluge of collapsing debris was mostly broken by the stall I’d landed in. When the creaks and groans and crashing eased back down into the sounds of rain and thunder, I opened my eyes, found myself in a lean-to made of barn siding, wet vines, mud, and the short stall wall. I listened for the handgun to start up again, waited for someone to rip the fallen slats up, rake us with bullets.

Nothing but more rain and thunder.

After a short forever I rolled off Moreno, embarrassed that after risking at least one of our lives dragging her from one patch of mud to another I hadn’t even bothered to check to see if she was alive.

 

 

 

You Kiss Like You Dance

I probably have many “better” short stories, but when it’s for fun I like to give Logan and Jackson some air. This one is for Stevie Turner’s October Short Story contest. Which, as long as it’s under 2k and not too far removed from tasteful (like me), send one.

After four days of hell in the “dressed up party dance” class, where he’d had to repeatedly pay a fine to his full-on “how stupid and clumsy can one human being be” partner every time he stepped on her feet or pinched her or twirled her wrist the wrong way, Jackson needed someplace to Zen. So he went to the one o’clock Saturday open class because when he was the idiot novice in ballet class he had to take everything else in his brain out of gear and just be there.

When class finished he assumed his sweat-drenched, bent over, hands on his thighs posture. His thighs had stopped shaking after the second week and that had been a relief. He kept telling himself one more week, just one more week of this humiliation and he was done. And there they were, ballet feet, interrupting his view of the polished wood floor. He recognized the beat-up toe shoes, one with two strips of kinesiology tape creeping out and around an ankle.

“Hey, Logan.”

“It’s Logan, Jax. Logan Bevan, um…Logan Nicole Bevan-Burns?”

“I’m not mad at you, and I’m definitely not your mom, Logan Nicole. You need help with something? I’ve got lots of —”

“No.” She pushed a greeting card envelope under his bent over nose. “Happy birthday!”

He looked up, watched her embarrassed blush go all the way to ten.
“No shit?” He raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t count if you don’t sing.” He watched her crumple a little. “Just kidding, Logan. Thanks.”

The card had a cartoon of a lady in a produce section holding a melon of some kind, her nose wrinkled.

“My mom said if I wasn’t sure how old something was,
I should sniff it or squeeze it”

He opened it, the cartoon lady still had the melon and also a devil smile.

“Consider yourself sniffed and squeezed.”
Happy birthday, Jackson. Thanks! Logan.

She had started to write ‘Love, Logan’ and caught it, he saw the combo v and g.

“Twenty-three, Logan. Love you, too.”

“I totally dorked that, didn’t I? I should have just said it. Like humongous duh me. Twenty-three? That is so okay. I’ll be twenty-two in September. Last September. I am twenty-two. Shit. Oh-ohhh, I shouldn’t swear, you’ll think I’m one of those girls.”

“What kind of girls? First, you’re another dancer with a guy’s name. Second, you’re another rehabbing real ballerina. From where, New York by way of Seattle? Third, you just gave me a really —”

“Clever.” She poked the card with her finger. “The man at the store? I told him I was totally clueless how old you were, and like I can’t just ask you, right? He said this, that, was a clever card. Clever, like smart. So I bought it. And it is. Clever. I’m not sometimes, right, because I just dance. You told me twenty-three because the card made you. I can’t really squeeze you or sniff you. Well, I could, but you’d be all like what is this ditzy spaz doing, right? Not like I wouldn’t like to squeeze you. I didn’t think you were really old, but, you know, you shaved that beard thing and that was like a major relief and…And, like for real not after class, that would be so seriously ick. I mean me, too, not just…Oh-ohhh, shit.” She turned a little, rubbed her nose with her finger. “Shit. I’m doing it, I know I am. Logan, you are totally wasting out. Stop. Shit.

“You a little nervous about something, Logan?”

“Yes, way. Kenny? She like took over with you. She takes over class all the time like queen bitch, you know? She’s gone, I think. For a while, anyway. Like thank God for another Nutcracker and an oops, preggo Snow Queen, right? We’re different, you know, Kenny and I, but um, we dance a lot alike, but not. We get off the ground the same. She’s more,” she angled her arms, robot Egyptian style. “Mechanical? Um…No. Not technique-wise, what I mean is she dances so like a gymnast sometimes, you know, all boing, boing and everything, so she completely gets all those snotty, techie choreographers with their mega urbano thing.” She rubbed her nose again while she thought. “I’m, I do the, um, she’s a…I’m more of a girl. That’s what I mean. And I get the, well, like I’m a prettier dancer, in a dancer way. Not that I’m prettier, that would be so like a total ego bitch thing to say, but I, well —”

“Logan?”

“Like I am so sorry. I haven’t done it yet, have I?”

“I don’t know. You are a pretty dancer. She explodes into things, you bloom into them. Different girls, painting the same picture with different brushes, playing the same song with different instruments. What haven’t you done?”

The brushes had her thinking, so much so that she was painting the air with an invisible brush in her right hand, a couple of quick strokes, a couple of softer ones.

“That is so totally awesome a way to think about that! Flick, flick and swoo-oop.” She let her imaginary paintings hang in the air, admired them. Snapped herself back.

“So, um, Jackson, Jax, sorry, will you, like, um, go out to dinner with me? For your birthday? Like, you know, thanks for all the help and taping my foot and your birthday and everything dinner…No, that’s like all so monumentally a lie. Because I want us to is why.”

“When would you  –”

“Today? No. Like tonight, I mean? I need a shower yesterday. Whew. I am like sweat-ee ick. And my legs are hairy to the max,” she rolled her eyes. “It must have been days, right? Like I forget because until my tights snag or something or I have a date, right, like that ever happens. I shouldn’t have told you that, but it just like comes out. Girls do that, shave their legs, so it’s okay. It’s not like a secret, you know, that I shave them because you don’t think they don’t magically not get hairy or anything ‘cause we’re girls. Do you? Cause I knew this guy, and —”

“No, I… Jesus, Logan. Yes. I’ll go. I’m yours. Nobody has done anything for my birthday since I was nineteen.”

“Get out! No-oh way! We all knew it was your birthday. Because Madam dance Nazi? She told us two days ago but like no one brought a cake. She wanted us to do something for you, you know because you’ve been like really nice to all of us. But no cake. So, um, we totally kicked you to the curb on your birthday. I wanted to ask you before, you know when Kenny was all Queenie and everything. But she was like so possessive. But, um, you always helped me. ‘Specially after I boiled over on my tape that day and everybody said I was a total crybaby diva bitch and you said like no, I wasn’t, I just had bad advice about tape from somebody. And you like fixed my whole foot and pointe shoe drama with two pieces of tape, and —”

“Logan, even with Kenny here, all you had to do was ask.”

“No way, Hose-A. We knew Kenny would get all that way she gets and like Gack, you know? Who wants to deal with her going total postal bitch, right? Well, like Erica got all Wonder Woman that day right in front of her and asked you to hold her ankle for-ever while you walked her around en pointe. She said you checked her out deep and you didn’t miss a thing and…There I go. Shit. Sorr-eee.”

“Logan, stop apologizing and tell me how we do this tonight?”

“I have a place picked out, to like eat, but um, it’s your birthday, so like am I driving ’cause I asked?” She got flustered, stalled briefly. “I don’t know where you live.”

“Off Broadway, in Long Beach, but I’ll drive. Give me your address and phone number and clue me with a time?”

She put her hand out for him to hold, pulled up her non-taped foot, untied her pointe shoe and pulled out a sweat softened card. “I live with Lyle, she’s in modern and still at SoCal and Erica. We have a three-bedroom not far at all. I wrote it down already, you know, like in case you weren’t like old or weird and said yes. I made a reservation for seven forty-five, that’s all they had, and like it’s so small but way on some list or something. It’s about thirty minutes, maybe?”

“Seven? It can’t be a suit place.”

“No, no. Not jeans is all, and like this year gear is best. I have a way hot new dress. It’s too short. I, um, bought it in case you said yes. It’s really not too short. Yes, it is. I have others, they aren’t new, but I could wear one, you know, if…The new one is fuh-un. I was worried, you know, like about how short it is? And then you see me in tights and they’re like ‘here’s my butt’ all the time.” She pulled on her leotard. “No place to hide in here. They tell us that when we’re young so we get over being self-conscious. But you’re a guy, you know, not a dancer, but a street guy, so it’s different. Or is it?”

“Logan? Wear it. If they don’t like it we’ll go somewhere else. You and I. Your apartment at seven. I’ll be cleaned up.” He leaned into a backstretch before he straightened, threw his sweatshirt around his neck.  “Thanks, Logan. Seriously.”

She tried to get right up in front of him, like an awkward dance partner, tried an even more awkward kiss and missed it. She went to ten on the embarrassed scale again, looked at her feet, popped the sides of her thighs with her palms.

Uhh! Brett said, well, if I could get all the way through and you like said ‘yes’ then I was supposed to kiss you and say ‘Happy Birthday’ and everything and tell them I had a real date and —”

He caught her hand before she could walk away embarrassed, twisted her wrist lightly, just enough, and there she was. Boobs and banana.

“Wha — Oh!”

He kissed her, let her get used to it, leaned into it a little with his hand still holding hers at the small of her back and she warmed way up.

“You kiss like you dance.”

“You don’t!” Her face lit up like she’d just won the lottery. “Like thank God, right?”

 

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #23

On Fiction

1

“The original sin is to limit the Is. Don’t.”
― Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

2

“If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand that fictional characters are sometimes more real than people with bodies and heartbeats.”
― Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

 

 

Shootout at the Texian Lodge

“Mornin’, sunshine.” Rip set a cup of coffee in front of me. Through the kitchen window I could see morning sun turning the Eastern horizon a pale yellow. “The Cessna’s ready when you are.”

“Who’s driving?”

“You,” Rip said. “Unless you forgot how to fly something don’t strap to your ass and fly itself.”

He knew what I had flown and could fly. My assumption was that he wanted to be a passenger without flight instructor angst. I’d wanted a flyover of Kerrigan, by myself, since I’d gotten into this alone, but Rip had assured me without the master plan for the robbery all we could do was recon, and his Cessna was side by side seating with better passenger vision. It was faster, had better altitude and if we happened to be seen no one would recognize us. I thought that an unusual comment. As far as I knew no one involved with this slowly emptying clown car of a bank robbery was in Kerrigan yet and in the high plains of the Texas panhandle who’s paying attention to a dot in the sky?

“We don’t know that now, do we. Who’s payin’ attention?” Rip dropped a spy size GPS tracking disc the size of a dime on the table. “Found this in your Cub last night. You fly us out over New Mexico, an I’ll drop this near Roswell. When they go to look, you’re not there,” he shook a little with a silent laugh, “they’ll figure you for an alien abduction.”

“I wonder how many people are tuned in to the Travels with Comparo channel.” I picked it up, flipped it like a coin, Rip intercepted it on the way down.

“Few too many, be my bet.”

***

According to printouts and aerial charts, Kerrigan County was crisscrossed with improved, two-lane roads identified by letters like N, O, T, and a few numbered Texas Farm to Market roads. The population density and improved structures said no one should ever be on those roads except for the occasional cattle hauler, dairy truck or some farm and ranch machinery. But real traffic, as defined by the most minor of metropolitan areas, should be nonexistent.

Kerrigan the town was two streets wide. Four or five blocks if you counted a handful of houses scattered haphazardly off the town center. A bank, a bar, the county courthouse, a one-block stretch of commercial buildings that looked straight out of the 1920s. Not even a grain elevator. Those, like the nearest towns of consequence, the ones with a stoplight and coffee shop, were twenty-five miles in any direction. The Oklahoma border slightly over the same distance in two directions. What most people needed to know about Kerrigan was on Google. That is, unless you were the getaway pilot for a bank robbery.

I dropped down over road T about a mile out of Kerrigan and flew ten feet off the ground for another mile.

“You lose something?” Rip was checking wingspan against tree line. “Lookin’ for loose change?”

“Looking to not drop one of your gear in a pothole.”

“Nice of you, but –”

I pulled the Cessna as close to vertical as it would go and banked hard as I could without pulling it apart, recovered my mile, flew at the pavement slow and low, cut power,  lifted the nose, stalled and dropped soft, hit the brakes on the edge of nosing over and cut the landing distance well under the published 790 ft.

“Fuck me runnin’, you aren’t ever gonna grow up.” Rip let his breath go in a long whistle. “I teach you to fly like that?”

“Somebody had to.”  I throttled up, ran us down the road and cleared an oncoming old green pickup full of hay bales by fifteen feet. The look on the driver’s face said he had a tale to tell no one was going to believe.

“Now where we goin, hot shot?”

“Shamrock.”

Rip didn’t ask why, pulled out a pair of binoculars. “Reckon we can see who’s parked where?”

“I reckon.” I couldn’t see Moreno in a minus four-star motel with the rest of the convicts. She’d need some space keeping up appearances as the Queen of the Kerrigan bank heist with fiancé in tow, but I couldn’t go to fiancé in my head yet. “We should have asked Flyer if Moreno had rented a car somewhere.”

“Black Camry.” Rip trained the binoculars out of his window. “Budget. Amarillo.”

“Surprised they’d rent her another one.”

“Last one was a Fiat, remember? Doubt they considered that much of a loss.”

***

I offered to drop to five hundred feet, there not being any fifty story high-rises in Shamrock. Rip said to stay off the radio with the regional airport, he could see fine from 2,500. I saw the 30-160 on the side of his binoculars. More like a long-range microscope.

He found the van first in a motel parking lot on 12th St, Old Route 66. Across the road from an abandoned red brick motel or restaurant. There was a dirty mid-2000s black Escalade parked outside a rundown doublewide behind the red brick building. Across a gravel and weed parking lot to the east was a rusty roofed machine shop with drilling rig parts stacked in the lot along with randomly parked rusty stock trailers and a big fifth-wheel travel trailer that appeared new among all the dust and rust. The road was two lanes both ways with a center turn lane. One stoplight, a few too many power lines crossing the road. I wouldn’t want to do it at night. I wondered why I even thought about it, but I was always looking for a safe place to ditch. Learn to fly suspect aircraft with Rip Foster and that sort of thing becomes ingrained.

Rip found the dirty maroon Lincoln and a shiny black Camry three blocks east and a block north at the Holiday Inn Express. I could see Moreno in one of their TV commercials, all smiles surrounded by bags of cash saying, “Well, I wasn’t a bank robber, but last night I stayed at Holiday Inn Express.” If she and Tavius didn’t know each other he was running a hell of a risk with proximity. I started to steam up thinking maybe she was too busy with her fiancé to notice. Rip read my mind.

“Three rooms at the Holiday Inn. Birch, Moreno, and Salsbury. Our lawn jockey was the first one to the party, a day early.”

“How do you know all this?”

He showed me his iPhone that had been recording the binoculars. “It’s called a phone. You might turn yours on occasionally.”

“I was trying to stay off the radar.”

“We know how well that turned out. Keep your phone off a little longer, take us to Roswell. It’s time for the handlers to lose you completely for a while.”

***

“Somethin’ in here is bound to suit you.” Rip pushed the door open on one of his outbuildings. We stood in the doorway, and I took inventory. An engine hanging from a portable hoist between an unidentifiable frame on jack stands and a hoodless orange Camaro. An engineless Harley on a bike lift. Several electric Vespa style scooters in pieces, the whole place accessorized in assorted junk. Lots of it. To the right were several of what appeared to be complete cars and motorcycles, a couple hiding under dust covers. Wind whipped our legs and Rip looked at the sky. “The knucklehead is a bad choice, considerin’.”

The knucklehead was a bad choice regardless. Chrome everywhere, pale orange base for a white lace overlay I was told were spiderwebs. I called lady biker doily on it and got no argument. No belt guard for the pants and leg eater. And it issued dragon farts at idle. The perfect ride for discretion.

“This’n runs.” He lifted the corner of a dust cover revealing the front end of a restored, bright red 1970 Plymouth Road Runner. “Fact it hauls ass.”

“I’ll remember that next time I need a speeding ticket. What else have you got?”

“If you’re gonna be that way there’s a ‘95 Ram out back with bad paint and a new hemi.”

“Gun rack?”

“Don’t be a smart ass. You plan on settin’ up in the McDonald’s parking lot, keep an eye on the love nest?”

“Don’t know yet. I also need to borrow –”

“You check your U-Store It in Addison when you were there? No, or you’d know your Browning is here and you don’t need to borrow nothin’.” He slid the door closed, locked the padlock. We walked to the smaller climate-controlled hangar that he unlocked with his phone. The plane I expected to see was gone.

“Where’s the Beech?”

“That’s what I asked the gal when I opened your storage unit.” He flipped the latch on a small, corrugated fiberglass box, about half the size of a Load n Go forklift storage container. “Ain’t much here, but it’s what was left after Christine cleaned you out. Why I canceled that air-conditioned garage. Saw no sense in you payin’ for air.” There was an envelope on the first box. I picked it up, felt like cash. “Pro-rated refund,” he said.

“Should have kept it for your trouble.”

“No trouble, I was down there with a box truck swappin’ out parts. You feel like telling’ me what happened? After what happened, happened?”

“She called about six months after her people cancelled the future, asked about the furniture. I mailed her a key, didn’t expect to see any of it again.”

“That shit was forty grand worth of expensive. She pay you back?”

“No. I ordered it, it was custom built for that condo. What am I gonna do, Rip, be an asshole like the rest of them? Keep it out of spite with no use for it?”

“Like money’s her real problem. Looked like she got some of your mother’s things when she was in there.”

“Good. They deserve each other. Where’s my gun locker?”

***

I had no sooner pulled around the McDonalds drive thru in Shamrock than I got a text from Cav.

            War Paro! Where are you?

It was starting to rain. Big, fat drops that sounded like rocks hitting the windshield. I looked up in time to see Tavius screech out of the Holiday Inn, two-wheel it at the corner. I tossed my coffee, choked down a chicken nugget and fishtailed out of McDonalds after him. That’s a lie. I hit that hemi with no weight in the rear end and did two three-sixties in the middle of Main Street before I got control.

Tavius slid into the gravel parking lot across from O’Doul’s Texian Lodge where the convicts were staying, opened his door and rolled across the ground behind an old galvanized stock tank, his pretty .380 replaced with a .45. I blazed past like I wasn’t interested in two SUVs parked in the middle of Route 66 firing automatic weapons at the motel on one side and the old Escalade that had moved up from the double-wide on the other. I spun a one-eighty in the first intersection past the action, killed my lights.

Whose side was I on? Who the fuck were the automatic weapons people in the middle of the street? What sort of cannon did I hear boom from the motel? The two guys behind the Escalade waited for a let-up in the rain of small arms fire and took off the ten feet to the door of the abandoned brick building. One of them made it, the other fell behind the brick planter on the small porch and didn’t raise up to return fire.

The SUV closest to the motel in the middle of 66 exploded in a ball of fire, rolled on its side. It started to rain like it meant it, the water not making a dent in the burning SUV. I heard sirens start to wail from a ways off. The remaining automatic weapons people blew past me in their bullet-riddled SUV, close enough for me to see blood all over the back drivers side glass and two ski-masked hombres in the front seat cradling assault rifles who paid no attention to me at all. My phone went off again.

Where are you? Road N. 2.7 miles FM86. All night here if I have to. Hurry!

Moreno claimed she was 2 miles out of town, claimed to have all night. I hoped she was dry. Then again, maybe she was wet and miserable. I smiled, idled back towards the scene, now strangely quiet save for ammunition going off sporadically in the burning SUV. I parked out of the rain under the canopy of an empty, dead, whitewashed cinderblock gas station with graffitied up plywood windows, on a diagonal across the highway from the motel.

I stepped out, shrugged into Rip’s rain slicker, chambered a round in the Browning and set off to recon the shootout at the Texian. I checked the burning SUV from a distance. Three dead or wounded in the street, maybe more in the burning hulk. What a fucking mess Moreno’s little bank robbery had turned into. I started for the abandoned restaurant where the Escalade men had gone, heard footsteps behind me, felt a gun in my back.

“Been waitin’ on you, flyboy.”

I wrapped my arm around my chest, gun under my left arm and pulled the Browning’s trigger. Twice. Waited to feel the shot in my back I knew was coming.

Never Land

Tell me where dreams go to die
Make mysticism into physics
Do it for me now
Life has taught me well
Wishes hit the shitter
As time ill-spent hanging out
With the Second Guess triplets
Woulda Shoulda Coulda
But tell me, where do dreams go when they die

Hope hangs from an altar
Surrounded by prayers for understanding
Broken promises
Broken lives
Broken anything, broken everything
Dreams haven’t got a prayer there
Is the hell of never understanding never
Where dreams go when they die

Why is ‘never’ so infinitely finite
How did love become
Too small a word
What happens to dreams
When they die
Are they washed away
In tears that we cry
Stashed away
In words used to deny
The real Elephants in the room
What happens to dreams when they die

When I was young
A barber showed me
Static electricity
Made my hair stand on end
He made the static disappear
From a comb
With running water
Where did it go?
Down the drain?
Up the spout?
Out by Jupiter?
Energy is never gone, he said
So if that’s true, tell me
Where do dreams go when they die

 

 

Rattlesnakes

There was no standoff. When a situation comes down to Mastiff-Rottweiler mixes having your man parts for dinner and a semi-amicable surrender to future business partners who’ve had the opportunity to blow you in half with a shotgun or unleash the hounds and haven’t, surrender becomes a viable option. Muller and Usman walked to the filing cabinet, set their handguns on top.

“You, too.” Rip directed Double Knit by pointing the sawed-off. Double knit released the arm he had around Cav, flipped back his grey and black houndstooth double knit sport coat, showed Rip the gun in his waistband. He looked more uncomfortable than gun savvy. He started the filing cabinet walk and Moreno ripped the gun out of his pants and

BAM!

Dogs were in the room.

Rip barked “Kill!”

The dogs sat.

The sound of the shot in the small room died away.

The gun Cav yanked had gone off through the fly of Double Knit’s pants and into the floor. He was a statue. Bent partially forward, arms out to his side, butt stuck out like he’d poured hot coffee in his lap, staring down at the smoking hole in his fly. He looked ill. Unlike Double Knit, Cav was no virgin to firearms, but she wasn’t a killer. Now that she had the gun out in one of those television ‘don’t anybody move’ moments she was unsure where to aim it. Rip lit another cigarette.

“Gun in your britches with the safety off is an easier way to fuck up your business than the dogs, son. You three fellas step to the door, mind the dogs. Let’s hear what the lady has to say.”

“I…” she glanced at Rip, landed on me. “Paro? Lo siento? It has to be this way. Until…Until we all know. And then you’ll know, and then…Tu entenderás, lo prometo. Comprende?”

“You’re sorry, and I’ll understand, you promise? Understand what, Cav? When?”

“I told you. When I know, you’ll know. Paro, you know…just…por favor?” There might have been a thousand things in her expression. I only looked for one. I didn’t know if I’d found it or wished it. I wanted to say Whatever, Cav. Fuck it. I didn’t.

Rip was still in the game, though, saying “I won’t kill a good-looking woman with brass balls for no other reason than the comp’ny she keeps. No, now stand still, the lot of you. Not killin’ her don’t mean you jokers get your weapons back. Y’all and the lady take a walk backwards to that van where I know there’s more guns than you brought in with you. While you’re walkin’ consider all the kindsa shit could go wrong with your leaving healthy if I see one.” He turned his back on them, ashed his cigarette, flipped a switch on the side of his desk that lit up the front with floodlights. “Remember there’s always the dogs can’t a one a you outrun.”

***

Tavius sat in one of Rip’s office guest chairs, a stackable, gray metal and hard cushion affair, rubbed his wrists from the handcuffing. Rip handed him the wallet he’d taken earlier, along with the .380 and clip.

“I’m extending you military courtesy, son, returning your weapon. I apologize for hooking you up out front like a lawn jockey. I know you’re pissed but it wasn’t meant as an insult, it was what I had to work with. Don’t care who it’d a been or what color, I’d done the same. We clear on that? I don’t need any racist bullshit from someone oughta know we’re all the same color in a foxhole.”

Tave checked Rip’s eyes, let whatever was on his mind go for now. “I could have been some help. None of them are stable,” he glared at me, “including Moreno.”

“Mighta been,” Rip said. “But we know you’re a liar and like to throw your weight around, intimidate people. Not my style.”

“The fuck it’s not. What do you call the dogs and all the goddamm shotguns?”

“Negotiating accessories. Take your wallet and that pretty gun, make the hour drive to Amarillo. Find a hospital, get that buckshot looked after. If flashin’ all them fancy IDs don’t shut ‘em up an they need a witness for a gunshot accident, have ‘em call me.”

***

Rip flooded the hangar with light and we went back to work mounting the Cub’s tires.

“Goddam, Paro. Stop thinkin’ so loud I can hear it. Spit it out.”

“I’m trying to figure Tavius. He doesn’t make sense. I thought he was hooked up to Moreno some way, but I didn’t see it.”

“He wants what she wants. The money.”

“Okay, then what does she want the money for? Or him?”

“Couldn’t say about her. He’s a greedy bastard who wants to live the high life football would have afforded him, he hadn’t fucked up his knee.”

“He’s West Point.”

“Don’t matter. He’s as career military as either of us. Couldn’t give a flyin’ fuck about anybody but himself. He wants the money she’s out to get, so he’s stuck to her ass like cheap gas station toilet paper.”

“I heard that as like a size too small thong.”

He laughed, stopped ratcheting, listened. “Paro, I don’t see you for six, seven months and you show up with a passel of new an interesting friends.”

I’d heard it, too. “Copter?”

“Lakota. A new one. Somebody important enough to have pull and no use for artillery. Or the Lincoln driver got lost and called in Medevac. I’ll turn on another light.”

***

Secret Agent Man, last seen walking toward a diner in Dallas, stepped out of the black, lights flashing Lakota UH 72a helicopter into the floodlight’s circle. He took a leisurely stroll in our direction while the helicopter wound down, lights still flashing in the gathering dusk. I’ve always wanted to say that, even though I haven’t the slightest idea what the hell Dusk might be gathering.

“Pilot says to thank you for the light, Colonel Foster.” He put out his hand. Rip took it. “And you, Captain Riordan. Feeling better?”

“Yes and no.” What the hell, I hadn’t been a Captain for six years and he’d drugged me, but I shook his hand.

“What are you gentleman drinking this evening? If you aren’t,” he produced a bottle of 21-year-old Glenfiddich, “maybe you’d like to join me?”

***

Rip had a cabinet full of motel tumblers, put three on the round table in his kitchen and pulled the icemaker drawer out of his fridge, emptied it in a small cooler saying, “This is your party, Comp’ny man.”

“Brad.” He twisted the Scotch open while Rip dipped the tumblers in the ice. “Everyone calls me Flyer.” He poured when the tumblers landed.

“You a pilot, track star?”

“Neither.”

We let that ride, sipped his Scotch in quiet until he pulled out his phone. “Mind?”

Rip and I looked at each other. “Music,” Flyer said, “not a recorder.”

“You hit Bluetooth in that thing, find JBL. Only rule is no oompah accordion music.”

“Understood. I have two rules myself.” He set his phone down and tasteful ambient with a jazz flavor floated off Rip’s counter. “No radio rock, no bubble gum.” We sipped some more and waited. When glass two got poured Flyer produced a large, flat envelope from his windbreaker.

“Here’s where we are gentlemen. You obviously fared well with Princess Moreno, Usman and the rest.” He didn’t mention Tavius, but he had to know. I left it alone, but it was killing me.

“These are the players.” He fanned out some 5×7 prints, dealt a couple to the side, started there. “These two are already dead.” One was Third Eye horseapple nose, the other an average looking, balding man of indeterminate middle-ish age. “This one,” he tapped Muller’s picture, “he’ll be dead soon, if not already.”

“Moreno said –”

“Yes, I know, Paro. The information is all split up. I’ll believe that when pigs fly somewhere besides a Pink Floyd concert.” He tapped the Double Knit man, who was wearing far better clothes in the picture than what we’d seen. “He doesn’t know anything, so he’s expendable, like you. But not until the job’s done. Usman, and Dawson, the one who stayed in Shamrock, will try to kill each other after the bank’s robbed.”

I spun not so Double Knit’s picture. “This guy, me. We’re expendable but not till later. Why?”

“Usman thinks he’s the alpha in this game. He wants the money, and he wants Moreno. You and this man are…Important to her. Or he needs to think you are, so he can’t risk killing either of you. Yet.” He took a drink, poured a splash of another. It was his turn to finger not so Double Knit.

“A chiropractor. Stephen ‘Woody’ Birch. His real name, I checked. Mr. California. Vitamins and exercise, snake oil lotions and teas and alignment is the path to enlightenment and insurance fraud. Mostly Medicare. He did a plea deal, kept his license, paid back most of the debt by returning what he hadn’t spent and mortgaging everything else, twice. He still did about a year of Federal time. In fact, all these cons are Federal. Woody overheard them talking at Terminal Island about the wet dream bank job, pulled them together when Moreno said she needed some real money. He’s got no skin in this deal except the introductions, and he shouldn’t be here but he’s in love.”

“So how does this job net him anything?”

“Okay, Comparo. Good news, bad news on the Moreno front. He’s her fiancé. Was her fiancé until she found out about you not being dead. She strung him along to keep the convict pool in order until she located you. He’s working the other side of the same street, stringing her along till she’s got the money. As long as Usman doesn’t know Woody and Moreno are done, and that you’re no more than a friend who can fly, he keeps his hat on. The torch job was a warning, not revenge. If any of them had known about you and Moreno in San Antonio, or the trailer, there would be more bodies stacked up, yours among them.” He eyed his splash of a drink, downed it, continued.

“For now, Usman is on hold. Woody thinks she’s still going to bail him out, so he won’t do anything stupid. And if we can get you to abandon the White Knight routine and focus on your job everything stays on track. Until the bank is robbed. After that, all bets are off.”

Great. Something to look forward to. A well-armed cluster fuck shoot ‘em up with psychopaths.

“And what’s your job?” I asked because it had started to sound like Days of Our Lives robs a bank with no set end game save the cluster fuck shoot out.

“My job,” he hoisted his glass, we all clinked, “is to take 32 million dollars out of a gang coalition’s operating fund any way I can without stealing it myself. Maybe point some fingers on the street, start a power war and let some big-city bad men kill each other.”

I shook the ice in my tumbler. “You aren’t worried about collateral damage?”

“Civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time is the six o’clock news, regardless. And it’s a lot less expensive, casualty wise, than a lot of civilians damaged by that 32 million. Even if it is just a drop in the bucket.”

Such is war. The Company, or whoever this guy worked for, would never say who the real enemy was, or the real target. Or the real goal. In my time I got briefed, given coordinates, sometimes not until I was in the air, never knew who I was dropping bombs on. I was told they were sanctioned targets of military value to the enemy. I still had nightmares about blowing up some woman innocently hanging her sheets out to dry when a bomb smarter than all of us decided she was dangerous.

Rip poured himself another. “The West Point slick leadin’ the pack in here today. What’s his game?”

“The same as everyone else’s. This project has been his baby for over two years, waiting on a trigger. Moreno and the convicts decide to rob the bank, game on. Things are happening that don’t make sense, but if you look it at the wrong way, they make perfect sense.”

“Rambo gone rogue in a fancy sweatsuit?”

“He’s my problem, Colonel Foster. However, had you killed him outright this afternoon he’d be off my plate and this would be fifty-year-old Scotch. But you didn’t, so he and his evolving plans remain my problem.”

That was all Flyer had to say about Days of Our Lives robs the Kerrigan State Bank. He picked up his phone, complimented Rip on his speaker. He said goodnight, shook our hands and reminded me to stay in touch when I heard something. The Lakota wound up and he saluted us casually before climbing aboard.

Rip watched the helicopter lift and haul ass west, its lights winking out in the distance. “Nice fella. For a comp’ny man.”

“He left us a little over half a bottle of two-hundred-dollar Scotch.”

“Yep. A real nice fella, that one.” He turned, headed back to the main building. “But then I’ve heard people say the same about Rattlesnakes.”