Flying over Kansas at night is a handful of small diamonds scattered on black velvet. I’ve said before that the world is a peaceful place with a little distance, a wider perspective that takes the grimy dailiness out of your face. I’d been searching for perspective, insight, that “little voice” and had gotten my bell rung by an offhand comment in the middle of Rip riffing an Americana allegory over buffalo wings. Someone that wasn’t me was supposed to end up with the money and the girl. Well, maybe she wasn’t ever in the equation. I was a convenient distraction with a convenient skill. An ignorant, disposable pawn who had shown one of the chess masters his game plan. I’d felt like a first-class sucker. In the beginning, I hadn’t cared who won, so long as I got to play. Now I was deep in it and needed to play for keeps or I’d never get out in one piece. Much less with the money. Or the girl.
According to Moreno’s magical laminated strip the cash departed Minneapolis yesterday, bound for Kerrigan, in a six-year-old Ford custom camper van with legitimate plates and a two-motorcycle escort. Motorcycles that probably looked like weekend warriors, not gangstas. The van was on a loose southwesterly route that used county roads and bypassed any town of consequence. Every stop along the way was timed, had a specific time window to complete refueling, food and call of nature breaks. There were three scheduled misdirects where during a pit stop the money would shift vans, the newly empty money van going one way, the new money van carrying on to Kerrigan. The second redirect had taken place just over two hours ago in the parking lot of a popular with touring bikers barbecue joint off Mitchell County Road 14 in Beloit, Kansas.
Three hours and fifteen minutes southwest of Beloit, traveling within posted speed limits, is the tiny town of Mullinville, Kansas. One of those places where the City Council comprises half the sober, literate adult population. Mullinville is known to rural road-trippers as home to M.T. Liggett’s whimsical, often caustic scrap metal sculptures of political figures, all visible along his fence lines at the corner of Elm and Washington on the western edge of town. On the southern end of Mullinville, US 54 crosses Kiowa County Road 12. That’s where CR12 stops being Main Street and becomes 10th Avenue. On the southeast corner of that intersection there’s a gas station, truck stop, and café surrounded by acres of flat nothing where any obstacles to landing a Cessna, like power lines, are out on the right of way close to pavement and easily avoidable.
A single-engine plane landing in an empty field and taxiing up to the edge of a truck stop across the road from a grain elevator in agri-land isn’t something so out of the ordinary in summer as to create an incident. In daylight it might draw some curious gawkers, out of school for the summer kids, the usual “where ya from, where ya headed” questions. At night? A few truckers peered out of their sleepers, figured me for a crop duster, dropped their curtains, and went back to whatever they were doing.
I stretched my legs around the backlot one time, stopped in the attached convenience store and bought a box of plastic 13-gallon trash bags, walked back, put them in the Cessna. I strolled up front under the glaring mercury vapor lights of the gas pump islands and took up residence in a window booth at the café with a panoramic view of the intersection. I got comfortable, fanned through the tabletop jukebox offerings and discovered an entire flip page devoted to versions of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Doc Severinsen, Boston Pops, the Ventures, an 80’s electric guitarist and hair farmer named Ronson and a handful of this and that Lawrence Welkish ‘orchestras.’
The waitress shuffled up, a tall, thin, older woman with lots of wavy, freshly rolled salt and pepper hair, crooked, bright red lips wrapped around large coffee-stained teeth. Her feet were bigger than mine. I pointed to the flip page full of Slaughter.
“Somebody loves this song or has a sick sense of humor.”
“You must be the airplane.” She popped her gum. “Smartest man in the room, you ask me.”
“How’s that?” I wasn’t feeling particularly bright, much less like the sharpest crayon in the box.
“You’re not driving.” She pulled an order pad out of her apron with one hand and a pen from over her ear with the other, both in fluid slow motion. “Two, three times a year somebody, or several somebodys, gets themselves killed at this intersection. County cops and meat wagons get a kick out of hearing it played on the outside speakers while they clean up.”
Welcome to lack of entertainment land. “You have a favorite?”
“Partial to the Ventures. Long time ago I taught aerobics and surfing, both. On the beach in San Diego. A bored sailor’s wife teaching bored sailor’s wives and I used to stack up Ventures records for background.” She squinted at me. “Long ago being way before you were born.” She wagged the eraser end of the pencil at the table-top jukebox. “You want coffee and food you can trust not to make you a food poisoning statistic don’t play the one in there by that Murphy character.”
“Bad? Sounds like disco and that rap nonsense havin’ butt sex in a big, echoey bus station bathroom.” I wanted to ask her how she knew what that sounded like, thought better of it.
“I’ll save a quarter and skip that one.”
“Like I said. Smart.” She poised the pen over her pad, raised an eyebrow.
“Coffee, black. I’ll tip like I ate.”
She returned the pad and pen to their respective places in slo-mo. “Leave a five under the cup when you’re done, hon. I’ll be sure to put you in my will.” She smiled a crooked smile that said she meant it. About the tip and Murphy, not the will.
I scanned the highway, felt the cold weight of the Browning in my pocket. The Ventures kicked in, surfing through “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” my coffee landed, and headlights appeared up north beyond the grain elevator, headed south on CR12.
I heard Cav’s whispered voice in my head. ‘Madre de Dios.’ Why, Moreno? Why…
The headlights belonged to a muddy dump truck that blew through the north-south stop sign without slowing down and I understood the abundance of Slaughters at that intersection. It turned out I didn’t have to wait very long before the van I was looking for pulled up at the pumps. Woody Birch swung down, running his mouth, earbud wires disappeared into a pocket of his slacks. He left the door open, thank you, walked around to fill the tank. From inside the van I heard the cap click, the cover drop shut and held my breath. I waited for him to climb into the driver’s seat before I bent his head toward the door that was still open with the business end of the Browning.
“Hey, Woody. Shut the door.” The door slammed, he squirmed, tried to find me in one of the mirrors. I pushed harder on the bone behind his ear. “What happened to the double-knit look?”
“That was urban camo, man. This is Greg Norman. Golf gear, if you –” I reached my forearm across his throat.
“Shirt feels like pantyhose, Woody. Remember those? All the rage for old school bank robbers.” I let go of his neck, grabbed a handful of slick nylon shirt, pulled it up over his face and the top of his head. “You pay at the pump?”
“‘Course. Whatayou want, Comparo? How much?”
“All of it. Your girlfriend wants to build a convict halfway house masquerading as a wildlife park, and here you are, being a first-class asshole fucking her out of it.” He relaxed. Not much, but enough I knew he was listening. I slipped the phone out of his pocket, popped the headphones, set it on the engine cowl.
“This is like your White Knight moment or what? Bad boy stylin’ for Queenie? Mucho luck with that.” He shook his head under the shirt. “I can’t be-lieve you’d actually give that arrogant bitch any of it. I mean like fuck you, and that, Comparo. I’m not buyin’. What part of the alphabet soup club do you really belong to? Who do you need bought off for your retirement island?”
“No island. I’m an unaffiliated free agent.”
“Dude, nobody in this game is an Indie.”
“You are, so am I. Birds of a feather, you and me.”
“In like some Tarantino nightmare. How’d you find me?”
“The code wasn’t just how the money was supposed to travel. It was how you planned to rob it on the way. Woody the moisture-wicking golf shirt clad Highwayman. Let me guess, your private sector security killed the biker escorts somewhere around the barbecue joint, tossed them in the van with the GPS. Between there and Kerrigan the van and the bikers and the GPS go off a cliff. Or get roasted on the side of a long stretch of nowhere. The gangstas won’t bother to look, cost of doin’ business. Not long after, the CIA plants blame on the street, and the bodies start stacking up.”
“Like that for me, to a point. I don’t know, about the government’s agenda or any of that. They cut me loose when the old letch accountant gave Queenie the strip.”
“The strip you modified between the old letch’s dead hands and Moreno. You kept a copy to show your soldiers of fortune, so they’d work on contingency. You kill the accountant to move this along?”
“The letch? No, I…” He gagged, I thought he might puke. “They…His head was all like…Fuck, dude.”
“Forget it. The old man’s dead, you sold the Roosky firestarter to Moreno as the accountant. Both letches, no different behaviors to explain. How much is in here?”
“Sixteen and change.”
“Better than twelve, less than twenty.” I played a hunch. “Where’d you stash the hole money in case you had to abort?”
“C’mon, man, I was driving off into the sunset. I paid off the security dudes in Beloit so they’d like dispose of the, of the…”
“Bodies, Woody. Your dead bodies. What’d they get for that?”
“Two. It was a one mill contract at first, but they were like big-time assed over Shamrock, getting caught in a three-way, losing their people and gear. That spic bitch…We…They weren’t expecting to get blown off the road with some terminator rocket gun. She was supposed to give me a heads up about shit like that. The big guy who chain-smoked said if I’d give them two, they’d be ‘honorable,’ dispose of the van and the bikers and the bikes, forget they ever heard of me…Honorable. They fucking saluted me when they drove off after they’d squeezed me.”
“And you believed them? Fuck, Woody, be glad they didn’t drop you where you stood and grabbed it all right then. Why did Wriggler say they were bikers?”
“I told him that. They were all tatted up and he’s an idiot. He was my big mistake with you and the bitch. The security dudes said they’d mow down whatever got in my way. You were supposed to stay alive, to keep her happy, part of my government deal. Wrig was a friend with nothing to do, wanted some edge time. I put him on you because he wouldn’t kill you, or the bitch, or anybody for that matter. All he had to do was carry a gun and talk like a TV detective, get you out of the game. Simple, right? What a fucking massive fail that was because here you are. Dude, look, all I wanted was the money and that stupid bitch to like get it, y’know? Without pissing anybody off.”
“You don’t deal with seriously dangerous people much, do you, Woody.”
“No. I…I’d never seen a dead body until…” He gagged again.
“But it was you in the barn? Took her out of harm’s way before Shamrock went up? Changed your mind, the mercenaries were on their way out there to bat clean up after Shamrock went sour?” I thought he might be crying under the shirt.
“Yeah…fuck. I tried, man, all afternoon. She wouldn’t listen. Stayed all feel-think locked down on that totally defective convict animal farm plan. I told her, for a fine brown-eyed girl you need to like wake the fuck up ‘cause your head’s so far up your ass when you talk you repeat yourself. There’s twelve, cash, as a given. We work out the flash drive and it’s drink-thirty in our own private Margaritaville forever. She laughed, told me to dream on. So, like I’d had it with her, being a fucking Barbie an all, but I couldn’t just, you know…myself.”
“Couldn’t kill her, even after your pitch and your charm fell short?”
“No way, man. I’m not a…Anyway, that bitch had her vag sewn up by somebody. She was impossible.” I was about tired of him throwing bitch all over Moreno, but I had to admit I was feeling a little better.
“Drive around back.”
“I can’t see with my shirt over –”
“I’ll talk you through it.” I put on an officious female GPS whine. “In fifty feet turn left…Do I need to say something corny like ‘don’t do anything stupid’ or is the gun against your head enough?”
He shivered, made a small choking noise. I didn’t know if he was about to pee himself for fear of being shot, or barf at the recollection of second-hand dead bodies to his credit or cry about the money. He sighed, felt around the steering column, and started the van.
I half expected him to do something stupid. Slam the trans with his foot through the firewall, make the turn and floor it into a parked truck. But he followed directions well, even when we rolled off the asphalt into the field and he freaked, started screaming about not dying in a Kansas drainage ditch. I told him to stop, the van and the screaming, pulled his shirt down when he complied. He maneuvered back and forth a couple of times, parked door to door, van to Cessna. I followed him out and in the Cheshire Cat sliver of moonlight we broke the pallet of cash down into the more manageable trash bags.