Lonesome Doves

“Knew this man, Don Melchor, lived up north a Amarillo a ways, not all that far from this bank we’re robbin’.” Rip pushed his chair back, a chair in what I thought was a small museum without lights but turned out to be his dining room when the lights came up. “His second wife was friends with my second wife. Both lasted ‘bout the same, both come to the party with a zoo. Dogs, cats, ‘coons. Mean little fuckers, ‘coons are. Strays, wounded whatevers, all kindsa wildlife.” He reached for a wing from another surprise, a large modern porcelain-resting-on-stainless two-cans-of-Sterno fired warming tray on top of a modernish sidebar that looked familiar. It dawned on me that Rip was right in there with my ex-bride to be Christine when he’d cleaned out my storage locker. And left me an envelope filled with more guilt cash than pro-rated refund.

“Well, Don, I forget his wife’s name now, her trousseau menagerie included doves. Don had a covered patio, so the doves took up residence out there. Now they’re hearty little birds and they breed almost like rabbits an pretty soon Don had built up a good-sized coop on that patio a his. But about eighteen months in with Don, livin’ on the edge of civilization like he did with no fence an all, attrition had practically eradicated her four-legged wildlife collection.”

“Mmmph…” Moreno said through a buffalo wing, held up a sauce-covered index finger to hit Rip’s pause button. “How? I mean, what happened to her pets?”

“Bobcats, coyotes, wild dogs… Seemed like ever few weeks there for a while she’d let three out an only two’d come back. Coulda been any number of predators.”

“But,” she looked down, found her napkin, started working it. “Why did she have to let them go like that, not on a leash or something?”

“You have to understand. Don would get to sneezin’ over dog an cat fur an just open the door. ‘Sides a leash in hungry coyote country makes you desert.”

“That sounds so cruel.”

“That’s the convict run wilderness park manager talking,” I said. “Natural order of things. People let Fluffy out in the unmanicured world and there’s a high probability she won’t come home.”

“They should have kept them inside. Until they could be properly supervised.”

She said that and the room went gray. According to television and the movies, a ‘Eureka!’ moment is generally accompanied by a huge, celestial choir drenched in the reverb of eternity. My accompaniment is an aluminum bat on a steel girder in an empty underground parking garage. It echoed around in my head and as it died out the room slowly came back in color. Goddammit. God fucking dammit. When did I become the deaf, dumb and blind kid? I tried to shake it off, but I was trapped in the mental limbo of physically present out-of-body observer. No one seemed to notice, and Rip stepped right back into his rustic allegory.

“Eighteen months or so Don’s wife packed up what was left of her critters an took off to somewhere with a man dumber than she was. I say that because he had to be, you know, to think a family farm was viable without livin’ like an Amish. I think that farmer sweet talked Don’s wife into comin’ along to the farm, selling it like a petting zoo, when what he needed was somebody to coral his kids and do housework since his last wife had got sick of him and the farm an the dirty kids an all of it an skipped out herself.”

“On her children?” She looked at me, I tried not appear as vacant as I felt. “When I have children…” she kicked my shin under the table. “What do you think, Paro?”

“About?”

Children.”

“Oh. I dunno. My sister has a couple. They seem like nice kids. I think there’re times she’d like to toss ‘em out the back door and see how long they’d last, like this Don guy did with his wife’s home pet store.” Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Rip didn’t let it hang too long.

“She left the birds, though, an that’s –”

“I want to go back to the children.” Moreno was using a wing like a pointer in one of her animated hand show moves, aimed directly at me, rotating it around.

“She didn’t skip out on but one of her own.” Rip said. “The farmer’d get a wife, a kid or two out of her and then the wife’d jet. Don’s wife was like number four or five. I wasn’t like any one poor woman endured it for very long.”

“God…Where do these people come from?”

“Why don’t you let Rip finish this before it’s next Tuesday? ‘Cause it will be if –”

“Paro,” her eyes were small dark dots in thin slits under fused eyebrows. “Shut up.” She emphasized it with a forceful wing jab in my direction.

“Y’all gonna do advance family planning or you gonna let me finish?” Moreno shot me a look, shrugged, went back to her surprisingly un-dainty approach to buffalo wing eating. I went back to pushing the potatoes around my plate with a fork.

“Thank you.” Rip hit his expensive lemonade pretty hard. “Now, where the hell…Oh yeah. Don’s wife cuts her a trail to the farmer’s, leaves the doves behind. Don didn’t mind, in fact said he’d grown kinda fond of ‘em. Gentle birds, not too noisy or bite your finger mean. Said he could sit on the patio, drink whiskey, talk to ‘em all night an they’d coo back at him an unless it was freeze your stones cold they could take whatever the weather threw at ‘em. After a coupla years, though, Don gets a job down in Houston. This was maybe…Twenty years ago?” Rip did some mental math about ex-wives and timing.

“Yessir, twenty years now. Goin’ on twenty-one. Don heads down to the coast, rents out his house, but the rent people have stupid, destructive kids, or so they said. Kids and the doves are a no go so Don loads up the coop an gives ’em to another fella, Ben somebody. Ol’ Ben keeps ‘em for maybe six, seven years an one day he keels over. Don calls me an I go up there for him, tryin’ to relocate his birds, an I find a nice, youngish widow name of Alice says she’ll take ‘em to keep her company. She finds another man an ends up givin’ ‘em to her daughter who hangs on to ‘em for a few years. Daughter gives ‘em to a preacher who gets run outta town after one too many late-night choir practices with bored wives an the doves get passed around a few more times.” Rip reloaded his and Moreno’s expensive lemonades, I shook my head no.

“Well now, Don retires not long back an heads home. Spends some money and some time on getting’ his house right after all them rental years an after a few days settlin’ in, damned if he don’t wake up one mornin’ an the doves are back on his patio. No note, nothin’, just there they are. Twenty years a bein’ passed around, travelin’ all over hell an gone up there in the panhandle an overnight Don an them doves are back together like nothin’ ever happened.

***

Cav must’ve been hungry because she did some damage to Rip’s frozen junk food feast, helped load the dishwasher and had a few too many expensive lemonades. A good thing that kept her from asking the ‘what the fuck was that old fart talking about’ question in a stage whisper too many times. Also a good thing because I walked her back to the tart’s palace without any conversation about children, or any coherent conversation at all. She stepped through the door, gave me a big, wet, puckered up lip on lip kiss. I caught her on the way down, dragged her to the bed, dropped her on it, swung her feet up, pulled her shoes, and killed the light on my way out.

***

I drifted onto Rip’s patio, handed him an unbanded Mareva, lit us up. He puffed it, held it out for inspection.

“Damn good little corona. Cuban. Where the hell you get these?”

“Sugarland.”

“Gina?”

“She lets on. I think she’s got a private tour Gulfstream jockey on the line thinkin’ he’ll get lucky if he keeps her in cigars.”

“Cigars for her real men friends like you?” He snorted, blew a smoke ring.

“She’s got a boyfriend.”

“Get out.”

“Yep. She went off on thinkin’ he’d given her a fever blister bangin’ her on a plastic mattress laid out in the sun on some fiberglass fisherman’s yacht all weekend. Turned out to be a wax job zit.”

“Some things never change. You meet him?”

“One time, before they were a thing. Roger. King Air by the hour.”

“Nailhead? Fucker about your size, twenty years older, flat top that’d bounce a 5-pound sledge, don’t know how to tie his boots?”

“Know him?”

“Know ‘em both.” He blew another smoke ring. “Know now they’ll both fuck anything can fog a mirror.”

“Which one were you unsure about?”

“Never you mind. What’re you doin’ out here an not in there where you belong?”

“Long story. You ever see that Hitchcock flic, North by Northwest?”

“Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint. What a looker. Seems like I met the fella flew that biplane somewhere. Why?”

“It’s in there. You call somebody in the FAA’s backend for me like I asked?”

“Your licenses have been continuously active since your first one. Your insurance was full-paid annual back in November. Nobody canceled your tickets.”

I pulled my real phone out of my cargo shorts, fired it up, tapped a favorite.

“You think that’s wise?”

“Shit, Rip. This show was sold out before it opened.” I held up my hand to slow Rip down. “Tavie, my man! Yeah. Come and get her. No…Fuck that, I have things to do. You’re an hour, maybe a lot less. Bring her phone, turn it on, take her back to the convicts…Hell yes, we’re still on.” I tapped the adios button.

“Short an sweet. Where’re you off to this time a night?”

“I have a bank to rob, remember?”

“That’s what’s been eatin’ you since halfway through dinner? Hitchcock and the fuckin’ bank? Hell, boy, we have two days –”

“We don’t have two days, Rip. Bank’s been robbed already. I need to go re-rob it, get some shit straight in my head.”

“What do I tell the girl? An the lawn jockey when he shows?”

Todo es perfecto and I’m out doing canyon recon or some bullshit. Whatever you sell, make sure it sticks. I’m a one-man army and I don’t need my surprise factor compromised.” I tossed him my phone. “You need to cut that lawn jockey shit, Rip. Think it hurts his feelings.”

“Sensitive, is he? Tough-ski shit-ski. He’s lucky I just fuck with him and didn’t take his goddam arm off with the shotgun.” He dropped my phone in the empty lawn chair next to him. “Go re-rob our bank. I’ll dig up that Hitch and see what the hell’s got into you.”

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #25

Narfling the Garthok

Ever noticed how most all the ‘net writing advice on offer is generally useless, soft focused if focused at all, shotgun style generic and a good bit of it pay to play and how most of that isn’t much better than the free stuff? There was a key word in that sentence. If you missed it, I’ll be back.

We are offered opinion. Often based on what I call “bullshit factology.” You know, where self-styled marketers and editors and writing coaches have percentages for everything. Dialog vs Narrative, Action vs Head Time, Violent Action vs Character Moralizing, per page reader economy and why do we need to see this through the character or show, don’t tell. Notice those last two are in direct contradiction. Not so long ago I got both suggestions from the same editor, in the same chapter! Don’t open a scene with weather, open a scene with weather for tone. Lead the reader, let the reader decide. Don’t preach but – what is your character’s motivation (preaching being the easy way out). Don’t moralize but humanize your characters, what are they feeling? Let the reader decide what they’re feeling…

See what I mean? All of those conflicting suggestions are backed up with “bullshit factology” claims. Be they in marketing numbers and percentages of books sold in a given format in a given genre or by examples of “successful” authors. Like politicians, always using an example that serves the seller’s point. A bunch of snake oil salespeople with “proven formulas for your success” are teaching people to write and publish, treading on the writer’s dreams with their “voice of experience” and allowing them to publish poorly written crap that sells to a dozen relatives, everyone in their writing group and a few unsuspecting strangers who are all too polite to say it sucks.

Well, they don’t suck. Stories don’t suck, skills just need to be addressed before cover reveals and interviews oh my golly gosh I wrote a book full of dystopian gibberish. With a cool cover.

I bring this up because I have recently been Narfling my writer’s Garthok. To do so successfully I returned to the tomes of real teachers, real editors, real rhetoricians. They ask the hard questions and show real-world examples without saying “this is the gospel according to me. Adjust and use to taste.” Am I the only one who wants those hard questions, and their answers?

I don’t like sports analogies but here I go – The quarterback, the guy running the huddle on the football field? I had that job in my distant youth and I can tell you he does not bend over in there and say, “Okay, you big guys block and you three speedsters go out there and run around and I’ll throw the ball to somebody.” Except Patrick Mahomes, and he only does that when the pocket collapses. Without skills honed by practice into second nature intuition and instinct, he’d be getting knocked on his ass in the backfield all Sunday afternoon by people three times his size, not going to the Super Bowl. The point. A play is called based on a number of factors presented by the defense and then recognizing the skills needed to be productive in the moment. Like writing, or any art.

Oh yeah, the keyword back there? Generic. One size fits all. ‘Splaining, usually their take on the formulas. Bull. Shit. Everything has to drive the story. Reader economy. Mandatory story arc. I could repeat the first paragraph but I won’t.

Where is the story in all that? All the way back to the Ancient Greeks and the canons of rhetoric (which are rarely discussed by the Indie writerly) we come to the hard questions – What is our story? Who is our audience? What is our style? No, not the formulas, our personal style. Our voice. And, like any professional speaker, do we have the skills to tell our story to our audience? Do we even know how to check for that? If any of our answers are in the vicinity of “I wanna be (insert author here)” and we want to write more Hogwarts or conspiracy theory spy novels or (insert genre here) just like the person who wrote them in the first place then stop, right here, because we need to decide who we are and find the skills to express ourselves.

Do we know how to ramp our work up or down for the project at hand? Classic example, and I have used her before. PD James can take two to four pages to describe a freaking kitchen. Longer for a garden. Half a book could be given over to describing a country house, interspersed with the story. But – I got a collection of her short stories as a gift. And man, you can see her taking an author’s axe to all that atmosphere and boiling it down to four or five words. She’s as good a sketch artist as she is in the mural painting business. She admits in the forward that it takes a concentrated effort to get there. Knowing what we need to do is a skill. Knowing how to do it is also a skill. James didn’t change her voice, she adapted her voice and style to fit the confines of the product. And that doesn’t come from generic formula bullshit factology. It comes from knowing the basics, and ourselves, well enough to tell our story, our way, in a given format.

Another one, and this is hilarious, Dashiell Hammett short stories? A Hammett novel minus everything but the violence. Wham bam boom, almost non stop shoot ’em ups.

My point(s) in all this, besides bad, muddle through it generic advice is winning over learning the basic skill sets is this – Story first. Content first. Voice first. Our chosen audience will tell us, sans bullshit factology, what they like. PD James sold a lot of books where for pages at a time the story was up on blocks and not driven anywhere, but readers were presented with an atmosphere. Personally, I can do without so much of that, but knowing it is a viable (and oft used) stylistic tool is one more thing in the toolbox.

We have arrived at that – The Toolbox. And my latest Narfling the Garthok. I am writing a first-person caper with too many players, on purpose. To see if I can do it without the classic info dumps inherent in first person because one can’t see what else is going on, how others are behaving. Everyone complains about them, the info dumps, everyone points out a “great author” who didn’t use them and again I say Bull. Shit. Hammett, Chandler down through the ages of Parker and MacDonald and Connelly et al, they all end up in someone’s house, or a restaurant, or a police station or an alley where “somebody” spills the beans on the layout and the players. Christie did it by assembling everyone in a room and ‘splaining away the MacGuffins and red herrings. Barnaby or Morse have their eureka moments, after 400 pages, and they decide it was the meek, glasses-wearing nephew who killed everyone. No. Not going there, either. This is a caper, and unlike so many who try lately, I refuse to have the gaping plot holes, to have someone say later, well, what happened to the Cadillac and the body? Where side characters are who we meet on the way through the adventure, not unlike a PD James kitchen or a well-drawn MacDonald character thrown in Travis McGee’s way. No lengthy moralizing, no is this good or bad, who is evil, what is evil. Is just is. Elmore Leonard excelled at it in things like The Switch. Only that was third person. First-person is a bitch without the dumps, but I know it can be done. I’m trying to do it the way I suggest we all write – without accepting the generic advice – and telling our stories, our way, to very best of our ability. Raise your personal bar. Narfle the Garthok.

Tart’s Palace

I’d explained to Moreno how the “math” she didn’t understand on one side of the little laminated strip told the story, in equations, of the tracking number for a flash drive that contained the information for obtaining and redepositing approximately sixty-four million dollars in specific offshore accounts. I didn’t tell her the “math”, properly executed, would reveal those account numbers and the password to the flash drive where the real treasure map resided. I did tell her how the side she thought she understood but didn’t was more than a delivery date of cash to the Kerrigan State Bank but the route it would take, times, checkpoints and two redirects.

“When you and your friend discovered these things, were you tempted, Paro? To go about this plan of yours without me?”

“No.” It wasn’t a lie. Temptation is one of those things we ask the Lord not to lead us into when temptation is so pervasive that whichever way the Lord sees fit to turn our heads temptation remains a line of sight proposition. Realizing that, the sinner’s rationalization then becomes a matter of succumbing to temptation of choice. I could have a lot more fun with whatever money I realized out of this deal with Moreno than without her. Whatever it was about her proximity effect on me was inexplicable, addictive, possibly foolish, even dangerous. I didn’t care.

“Why should I believe you, Paro? When, as you say, everyone involved is ‘out for theirs’?”

“It would be impossible without you.” That was true, too. If she stepped up, we’d nail it. If not, or if she got tempted, we’d be dead. At least broke, and minus one or two planes. Dead would make me worse off than when I got into this. Broke, maybe minus a plane, I could handle. Dead, though? None of it would matter. The girl, the money, the restored Stearman biplane and a new, bright red Jeep pickup? *Poof*

“And you have the same trust for me as you are asking me to have for you?”

“Yes.” I hoped it didn’t sound as feeble as it felt getting past my teeth. Trust is one of those things like temptation. More layers than a fresh Rio Grande Valley onion and at least as many ways to make you cry. Or break your heart.

“I see.” She paused, probably doing the same mental gymnastics I’d been doing only on that higher female level, drew herself erect on the stool. “Do you have beer? Cold beer?”

Every hanger and workshop at Rip’s had a beer fridge, and I walked to the one on the front wall. “Dark, yellow, or light?”

“Do you still love me, Paro?”

“It’s beer, Cav.” I busted a bad spin dance move, threw my head back and howled, “What’s love got to do, got to do with it?”

It’s good to laugh when five days away might be the day after they bag what’s left of you for the coroner.

***

“And this?” Moreno held up the female Postal Service uniform with her non-beer hand.

“All yours.”

She set her beer down, pulled the shirt to her chest, made a face of medium dissatisfaction. “There is no one else who can act the part of cartero mujer?”

“Ever worn a wingsuit?”

Wing suit?”

“Can you parasail?”

“Para, what?”

“Thought not. That’s why you’re the mail lady.”

“Paro, I’m not…Explícamelo por favor?”

I explained by showing her a couple of YouTube videos that canyon carving wingsuit crazies had shot with fore and aft Go Pro cams. Videos that not only included skimming and cliff diving but the parasail ‘chute pop and landing. While the videos ran I outlined my plan for leading the bank robbery posse into a box canyon and getting out alive while they looked for pieces of me and the cash embedded in the side of a cliff.

Madre de Dios, Paro.” When she stopped staring at the screen she shifted her gaze to one of  Rip’s custom Cessna cargo containers with the orange ripstop bags set on top and then to me. “You are willing to crash your airplane for me?”

“Mine or Rip’s. If we make it out with twelve million dollars, you’ll have to buy us new ones.”

“And you are expecting this, ‘posse,’ of everyone? The helicopter CIA debriefing man from Columbia, Woody and the piratas de motos, the black man who steals my cars, all ‘hot on your tail’?”

“Don’t forget your overly armed convicts.”

 “Madre de Dios…” That time it came out under her breath. She took a moment to stare at the backs of her hands, fingers wide. “Okay, John Wayne junior…” She looked at me, her hard-eyed gaze set in palpable determination. “We will do it your way.”

***

The afternoon dragged on. Hot. Humid. Sticky. Moreno had swapped the decent clothes I’d kidnapped her in for a t-shirt she attacked with a pair of scissors and turned into a sleeveless tie-in-front halter top and a cinched up pair of Rip’s boxers. I’d gone the boxers and t-shirt route myself. A pair of sweaty, unisex fashionistas working diligently on a project that might be an exercise in futility.

We had carefully, and I stress carefully unpacked the last of four rectangular, self-inflating life rafts to attach to the Cessna cargo bin when we heard Rip make his approach. We unrolled the raft, set it down, handling it like a Faberge egg.

Moreno picked up her drill and again used the corrugated cardboard template to drill holes in the aluminum support plate while I used an exact copy to drill into the cargo container. With the raft in place, we punctured the bottom of it using the support plate for a guide. That’s where we were when Rip taxied the Cessna right up to its hanger door before he killed the engine and climbed down, a red and white Coleman cooler in one hand. He took a few steps into the hanger, stopped.

“I dunno what’s lookin’ more ridiculous here. You two, or that Frankenstein afterbirth of moon lander bubble wrap you’re makin’ outta my cargo container.”

“Mars Rover lander,” Moreno corrected him. “Or so he keeps saying.” She set her drill down, wristed sweat off her forehead that had escaped from her soaked through bandana. “I say –”

“He’s out of his fuckin’ mind is what I say.  How do you say that in Spanish?”

“Please. Don’t tell him,” I said.

Estas jodidamente loco. As a rule I don’t curse in Spanish,” Moreno wiped her forehead again. “But that should be close enough.”

“No,” I set my drill down next to hers. “That’s ‘you’re fucking crazy,’ not –”

“I should think,” she winked at Rip, “es lo mismo.”

“It is the same, my dear lady. Perfecto, in fact,” Rip winked back. “Just like these babies.” He reached into the cooler and pulled out two Sam’s size bags of frozen, boneless buffalo wings. “Who’s hungry?”

***

Like the beer fridges, Rip’s half a dozen hangers and one outbuilding had minimalist guest quarters for the itinerant pilots who needed gas and a place to crash while they waited, like I’d done in the Valley, to pick up weekend hunters, survivalists and nature nuts. Minimalist as far as the several I’d seen, anyway. When Moreno asked if there was a place to clean up I was afraid she’d balk at the campground amenities on offer. Rip took a key off the wall inside the back door of the office/house and walked her to the posh climate-controlled hanger where the spotless ’39 Beech 17 Staggerwing I’d learned to fly in belonged. A hanger I’d often joked was more of an airplane boudoir than a hanger. Hear this. The posh hanger had nothing on the tart’s palace suite tucked under the loft. Cav took the key from Rip after he’d opened the room and kicked on the air conditioner.

“All this, a post lady uniform and boneless wings of buffalos…” She gave Rip a peck on the cheek. “Not many girls can say that when it isn’t Valentine’s or their birthday.”

“There’s a little gold bag a Ghirardelli caramel chocolate things in that little fridge there, and some wine, an a coupla bathrobes…in the arm-war…” I’d never seen Rip either effusive or red-faced embarrassed before, but there they were.

“How thoughtful.” She stood, back to us and, like a little girl who’d just seen Cinderella’s bedroom, she sighed, let her shoulders drop. “No flowers?”

She might as well have cut him in half with a rusty sword. He started to say something apologetic. I’d heard the smile in her voice and elbowed him before he could get it out and make a bigger fool of himself.

“Mr. Taylor, how long does it take to cook the wings of buffalos?”

“They’re not exactly wings of –” I elbowed him again. “Oh, right. Uh…Well…There’s the microwave way. That’s pretty quick if you’re in a hurry. And the air fryer is maybe what, twelve minutes I guess?” He scratched his gray stubbly chin for a few seconds, and his eyebrows came up a little. “But in the oven now, low and slow, the way they’re best? I’d say twenty to twenty-five, at least. Wouldn’t you, Paro? After the oven’s hot, a course?”

“Oh at least.” I lowered my head to shield the snort l laugh I was choking on. “Maybe thirty.”

“Oven.” She turned, pushed us both gently out of the doorway. “And one hour, at least, before you even think about turning it on. Por favor.

***

I’d pulled some Jockeys, wrinkled cargo shorts and a Van Halen t-shirt that had seen better days out of the backpack I kept in the Cub before I soaped up and turned this way and that about a dozen times in one of Rip’s lesser plastic shower pan/plastic curtain outfitted bed and no breakfast cells. I dressed, shot some convenient, wisely placed Lysol into a pair of heavy-duty pre-distressed Margaritaville logo flip flops left behind by a former occupant, and stepped into them. They were a half size too big but not all that bad. Except for the creepy vibe that comes with wearing someone else’s shoes. The second I crossed the threshold of the back door into Rip’s kitchen I kicked them off. He looked up at the noise, as did two of his dogs.

“Just me,” I said, and the dogs went back to being indoor lazy on a hot Texas late afternoon, Rip went back to doing something in the sink that required a paring knife. I loaded a large glass, green cactuses decorating the sides, with ice cubes, poured in a shot of Flyer the CIA man’s expensive scotch, filled the rest with lemonade and sat down at the table.

“Waste a good scotch, drinkin’ it that way.”

“Maybe.”

“Waste of a good woman too, there in the hangar.” Rip loaded the basket of his industrial air fryer the size of a watercooler with fresh potato wedges covered in some mixture of herbs and bacon crumbles, wiped his hands on what looked like a new dishtowel. “Notice she didn’t invite you to stay.”

“Propriety. You bein’ all den motherly and all with chocolates and wine and bathrobes.” I recalled the girliness of the room, spun the ice in my glass. “Anyway, I read somewhere, maybe in my sister’s kid’s bathroom, that even Princesses can bathe themselves.”

“Bullshit.”

“Bless you.”

“I didn’t sneeze, I said…Fuck you, Paro. What’d you do, ‘sides being you, to piss her off?”

“Nothin’. Changed her mind is all.”

“About?”

“About how her bank robbery needs to go. She’s not mad, she’s thinking. What? You thought I –”

“Don’t get testy. You can be a real prick when you set your mind to it. Maybe you got too high an mighty ‘splainin’ yourself as being the boy genius you’re not. And makin’ her work that fucking life raft bubble wrap like it’ll protect the money…my ass. Listenin’ to you spew that shit less than once would test the patience of a rock. Still has to be the dumbest, most absurd –”

“You’ll both thank me when you’re spending the money. You drop off our San Jose hacker, put him on the bus?”

“I did. He’s a whiny little shit.”

“What does he know?”

“Shit for nothin’.”

“You asked?”

“I did.”

I few scenes from Allfuckedupistan flashed on the big screen in my head. “You had his full attention when you asked?”

“Fuck me, Paro. The man has broken ribs. Way I was askin’, he’d a burned his gramma if I’d a told him I had a use for the ashes.”

“And you called me a real prick.”

“I said you could be a real prick.” Rip picked up the cactus glass, drank half my expensive lemonade. “But what you wanted to know by way of casual conversation ‘stead of interrogation, about Woody an the Feds an Woody’s joke of a prison sentence and the gang accountant an all that? Well, it fit together, timing-wise, just like you thought. I was convinced you were lookin’ at OJ’s glove with all that.”

“Me, too.” Moreno stepped through the back door, made the room smell a lot better. The floor dogs raised their heads and two more followed her in and dropped in heaps beside their buds.

I cloaked my surprise at seeing her with a clever observation.

“You’re early.”

“You’re remarkably perceptive for someone wearing a worn-out sexist stoner party band’s t-shirt.”

She’d found a pale yellow with a white floral design summer dress in Rip’s Cinderella room. It might have been, like my sandals, a half size too big, but it was…She was…I needed to stay on task.

“What happened to the girl who would’ve said ‘yo, tambien’?”

“She’s too tired and hungry to come out and play.” She sat in the chair opposite me, squeezed my hand, let go and sniffed my glass. “Yes, I would love a hard lemonade, thank you for asking. And I would like the truth. As it stands between us.” She turned to Rip. “All of us.” I handed her an expensive lemonade, which she took without taking her eyes off Rip.

“Well, Miz Moreno,” he put a second cookie sheet loaded with boneless buffalo wings in the oven, wiped his hands again on the new dish towel. “That would be Paro’s bailiwick. He’s the one who put two-thirds of this Kerrigan bank robbery shindig a yours together.”

“I have heard more than enough from Paro for one day. The truth I want you to tell us, Mr. Taylor,” she sipped her drink, batted her eyelashes, watched him go weak. “Is the story of a Princess’s bedroom in the middle of this God-forsaken nowhere.”

Pick One. Let It Play

“Collect Moreno. Get your shit together. Pick one. Let it play.”

That’s what Tavius had said before he hung up. Why I’d called him out of the growing list of Kerrigan Bank Robbery clown car occupants was a question I couldn’t answer. Rip would have called it The X Factor. I sure as hell hadn’t thought of it myself, nor was I arrogant enough to believe I had somehow deduced, from all available intel, that Tavius was the one. I had the lady agent’s phone in my hand, and I’d dialed Tavius. No thought, no premonition, it was simply there, Ouija board style. I think in the back of my mind I needed someone to trust. I wanted it to be the girl who said she loved me. I’d opted for Tavius. Call the X factor cynical on my behalf.

“Collect Moreno. Get your shit together. Pick one. Let it play,” kept looping in my head. Okay, I would. Collect Moreno, pick one and let it play, anyway. ‘Shit together’ has always evaded me.

***

The flattened barn outside of Shamrock where I still wasn’t sure Moreno had been in real danger from anything but the weather was where I’d told Tavius I’d meet him. If he’d provide Moreno for collection. On my flyover of the meeting site, the barn was nothing but a pile of old, weathered gray wood in an overgrown field, not the potential oversize coffin I’d imagined it becoming a couple of nights back. Any number of things from dangerous rapids, enemy military convoys, large carnivores and rush hour gridlock were all made less dangerous, somehow more understandable when viewed from a broader perspective. Right about now I needed a broader perspective on The Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery because looking at it head-on was like watching the universe expand. The time had come to corner Moreno, put a box around her pinballing through this thing and get a straight story, if I had to duct tape and kidnap her. You can put why I thought Moreno was a panacea for my confusion right in there with dialing Tavius. X Factor.

I wagged the Cub’s wings on the flyover, saw Tavius and Moreno get out of a white Charger parked lengthways across the road to block non-existent rural traffic for my landing. I circled back around, met the asphalt like a feather, taxied within thirty feet of them, and killed the Cub’s engine. Tavius left the Charger sideways in the road, walked toward me positioned beside and slightly behind Moreno. I was certain he had his G-Man issue Glock in the hand behind his back. I hoped it was for use in the event of an interruption, not for me or his special delivery. For her part Moreno stared at the ground, arms crossed, legs stiff. An attractive, visibly unhappy bundle of pissed-off body language. I stepped out of the Cub, made a show of holding up the remainder of the duct tape I’d used in Amarillo.

“You won’t need that.” Tavius stopped, let Cav keep coming. “She seemed glad to hear it was you that wanted her. At first. But she’s not talkin’. Least to me.”

“You…” She turned back to face him. “You are a kidnapper and…Thief! Why should I speak to you? To ask why I am here?” She poked her index finger into her breastbone. “To ask better where is the car you borrowed? My car? I –” She tapped herself with the finger a couple of times. “I will never be able to rent another car. Never. For the rest of my life. And you…” she wheeled around, sent the pointed finger my way. I could feel her eyes burning through the sunglasses. “You have ruined everything. Just…Don’t. Say. Anything. Nada!” She took a few more steps and stopped under the right wing of the Cub, tugged on the door.

“Your connection to both those cars has been scrubbed,” Tavius said. “You’re so golden at Budget, got so many free rewards points you could rent a damn Bentley for thirty bucks a day if they had one.” Tavius’ voice was loaded with ironic humor. “Even if the first one you lost was on you.”

“No.” She pointed at me. “On him. But of course I should know todo es possible, no? Because you are the man.” She burned through the shades at me again. “Perdóneme. The men. And I? I am just the silly woman. Who follows the rules.” She stormed her way into the back seat of the Cub muttering in Spanish about arrogant assholes. If attitude had weight, we’d never get off the ground. Tavius turned his attention to me after Moreno’s behind disappeared inside.

“You think there’re rules for bank robbery, Paro?”

“Depends on who’s playing Robin Hood and who’s getting burned.”

“Stealing dope money from bikers to help ex-cons as a victimless crime? I’ll run that one by Westlaw. What’d you do with Agent Higgins’ personal phone?”

“Set it on top of her car?”

“Don’t fuck with me. I have a game to play, same as you.”

“Dropped it in a cup of Dr. Pepper and let it stew for a while before I threw it out over rocks from about 3,000 feet.”

“That’s better.”

“Better for her. If Flyer’s troops had popped it during her rescue? All her leather thong strap-on pics in a half dozen ‘either-or’ dating apps would have been up for grabs.”

“Checked ‘em out, didja?”

“Couple. Like a Chinese buffet. Enough is too much.”

“So wrong, on so many levels.” He lifted his shoulder, must have holstered the Glock because his hand came out empty to scratch his chin. While he thought he popped his cap, forearmed some sweat off his forehead, blinked a couple of times. “Okay. So you left her phone on top of her car. Some opportunistic Amarillo native musta stole it ‘cause it wasn’t there when Flyer’s crew showed to cut her out of your tape job. She’s doin’ bad head time, climbs up all their asses hasslin’ them, waitin’ on one of them to spill her taco in a tall hat shit all over the ‘net.”

“Works for me.”

“Distraction, distrust, low morale in Flyer’s ranks…You’re not a nice man, Paro. Get outta here.” He did something I hate, the index finger gun and a small ‘there ya go’ nod before he turned, sauntered back to his ride. He needed out of that too tight Shamrock T-shirt. I didn’t mention it. Maybe he had a thing for leprechauns. After agent Higgins’ phone there was no telling what might blow up these government type’s skirts.

***

It took Cav about fifteen seconds after we were off the ground to fill my headphones with angry Spanglish. Which she tagged with, “You’re not listening.”

“Hook your harness. It’ll improve my hearing.”

“And if not, what? You kick me out? Give my car away again? Beat up and threaten and shoot at my team like they were…were common criminals?”

“They are common criminals, Cav.”

“No, they aren’t. They’re…” She popped off her shoulder harness completely, leaned forward, kissed me on the cheek. “Yes, they are. But they are my common criminals. They are what I have. They saw what I wanted for them, the opportunity, and offered –”

“To help you lift a pallet loaded with millions in cash? Hell yeah, they did.” I turned enough so that our eyes connected through our sunglasses. “So did I.”

Si! I know! So not for the piece of my ass or the money? Because you are above such things?”

“I’m flying again. Legally. The rest of it, this, us, sort of…” Damn. I needed to be building a Mars Lander Style bubble wrap pod for that cash, not explaining myself. “I can’t look you in the eye and fly. Hook your harness.”

She muttered some more but sat back and hooked up. I wondered what was on her mind that painted her face with various shades of forlorn, morose, and resigned tinged with anxiety. I thought about the Mona Lisa. I’d bet the guy had most of her face down in that Botox calmness and waited for the smile. Wondered what he said to get it. Wondered if they’d been in love, and if it was as awkward then as it was now.

***

Timing is everything. The FedEx driver was practicing her long-distance stacking technique tossing my boxes in front of Rip’s “office” when Moreno and I touched down. Think “the boonies” and “middle of nowhere” really are the boonies and nowhere? Order something expensive, next day air from your phone, use a valid credit card for delivery to “Boondocks USA.” Bam. They’ll find you.

Moreno and I loaded the boxes in a small wagon hooked up to a quad cycle and trundled them to the hanger where Rip parked the Cessna when it was home, unloaded them around another of Rip’s DIY work tables. We went to work slicing the boxes open. When we’d finished there was no disguising her disdain.

“Big, heavy nylon bags and a woman’s mailman costume? This is how you propose to move the money?”

“Sit.” I spun a folding metal chair her way, grabbed one for myself.

“Now you give me orders? You have become surly in –”

“What, exactly, do you know about this?” I handed her two full-page enlargements of the laminated strip she’d given me.

She studied one side, the side with the clues, made aface and set it on the table. “Here.” She turned the sheet she’d kept toward me, her finger on ‘12MM.’ “Below there are the question marks and parentheses. They look like algebra or…Something. After that…this,” she turned the sheet back to check it, found the ‘20MM’ and showed it to me. “Woody said…” She stopped, but I needed to hear it.

“Woody said?”

“Yes…That at least twelve million dollars was guaranteed and not to worry about the rest. Maybe it would be there, maybe not.”

“And he knows this how?”

“He was in prison with the Accountant. He brought him to me. He said I should flirt with him, the Accountant, and he would provide me with a way to fund my project.”

“Wild animal refuge as convict halfway house?”

“If you must be boorish and blunt.”

Who is the Accountant?”

“You hit him and shot his pillow! He is muy infeliz and believes you dangerous and loco. So much so he demanded we kill you and make another plan. And then that…Person dragged me from the room and –”

“Tavius walked into the convict’s room and pulled you out?”

Si! Your friend who commands you to sleep with me and give him my car obviously has fear of no one.”

“For the record, again, he told me to do whatever you asked.”

“Hmmmphhh.”

Shit. Woody had sold a lot of variations on the Accountant theme. He’d told the Wriggler a different version than he’d played for Moreno. Flyer, the CIA man, had told me another. It all stunk. But it was starting to make sense.

“The real Accountant is dead, Cav. Woody saw to that in prison. Your Accountant started his criminal life when he was sixteen back in the late Nineties collecting all the Soviet weaponry from both sides of a kill in Bosnia, or he’d steal them outright. When he had enough stashed to make the risk worthwhile, he’d float them across the Adriatic to Italy, stockpile them in an abandoned warehouse. When he’d made enough trips to fill a small container, he made a call. Money changed hands, the weapons made it unobstructed through Italy and ferried on into Africa. The CIA has had him on their radar for years as a well armed whack job. Woody pimped him to you with the real Accountant’s plan because he’s a dangerous, cold-blooded psychopath with access to grenade launchers. Somehow Woody hooking him up with you set off…” I showed her the side of the money sheet that looked like one long equation. “Have you worked out this side of the sheet?”

“No.” She waved a hand dismissively. “More of the math I don’t understand.” She still had the sheet I’d given her, showed it to me like I’d missed it the first time. “We have the date for the money to arrive at the bank. See? What more do we need?”

I had to sit on that one for a minute. What started to emerge from the fog was that Woody was the only person aside from Rip and me who had the little laminated strip figured. And he’d made dead-men-walking decoys out of Moreno and the convicts with the simple lump sum cash bit. Brad the Flyer, CIA man, knew the strip’s value but didn’t have it in hand to provide him with the treasure map to the big score. I was sure if he knew who had possession of the Accountant’s info he’d drop them in a second to get his hands on it. But he didn’t know who, exactly, or even if it was split up which was why he stuck to Moreno like a flea on a fat lady and was burning budget and resources keeping tabs on everyone else involved. The convicts saw a ‘taking candy away from a babe’ twelve-million-dollar pop. Tavius seemed disinterested in anything other than keeping at least the pretense afloat of Moreno and I robbing the Kerrigan State Bank. With all that out in the open, I’d started to see Moreno and me as the disposable distractions in a hot money game. A game bigger than a simple Bonnie and Clyde with an airplane rob a small-town bank. I dropped my cynic momentarily, took her hand.

“If you really don’t know, we need a lot more. A whole fuck of a lot more and a bucket of luck to go with it.” I made sure we had solid eye contact. “But if you’re jacking me, Moreno, or believe it’ll play the way you think? Throw dirt on us now ‘cause we’re both as good as dead.”