Rip shook me awake, waved coffee under my nose. I sat up in the wicker patio love seat, rubbed my eyes, heard the question I’d been asked a number of times bang around in my head.
“She took off, Paro. Back up to Shamrock and those convicts.” Rip pushed the coffee within an inch of my nose. “You sure have trouble hangin’ on to women.”
“I thought you took…Drove…” I had to take the scalding coffee from him or risk burning my nose.
“I took the old truck with the steel bed liner and cam locks. She’s got the new one.”
“You’re fucking…” Shit, the cup was hot. “You know how many…”
“Fuckin’ crazy? I been told. An it seems you’re to blame for the girl’s run a stolen vehicles. Christ, Paro, you’re a mess. Shake it off, go clean up. Margarita’s volunteered to give up house cleanin’ this mornin’ to run us off a coupla batches of steak n eggs.”
“Margarita? Who…The money! Did it survive the –”
“Would I be here if it hadn’t?” He smacked my shoulder, hot coffee sloshed in my lap and got me off the patio pulling the cargos away from my privates with both hands.
“Margarita drives down from Lelia Lake every coupla weeks,” Rip rotated his fork around like a radar dish. “Helps clean up. Dusts, organizes the office, helps me swap out sheets an the like. First time she was here it took me a week to find the damn TV remote. Since then we come to an agreement on that one.” Rip pointed at my empty save for the gnawed t-bone plate. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Last evening. Your hot wings.” I poured myself another half cup of coffee that could pave a driveway or seal a roof. “Feels like a week.”
“Busy night, watchin’ those two fellas shoot one ‘nother. A story –” He waited for Margarita, a pleasant, bony, hair in a bun woman wearing 80s glasses as big around as saucers to clear the table, set the plates in the sink. She left the kitchen, a vacuum cleaner started up down the hall.
“As I was sayin’, a story I ain’t buyin’ that they took your favorite piece and shot each other. There’s nothin’ about that gun comes back to you, or me. We clean and load with cotton gloves, the gun itself came from a dyin’ Englishman halfway around the world. Why the tap dance?”
“They start pulling your fingernails out you don’t know anything?”
“Talking myself into believing it so I can lie telling it that way and not blink?”
“Sold. The two renta-a-soldiers, you figure them to be the end of that?”
“Best guess. Probably an eight-man rifle squad, didn’t domesticate, went freelance. Lost six in Shamrock, squad boss had to be on that first casualty list.”
“The two strays not the sharpest knives in the drawer?”
“Armed, primed for confrontation. Jumpy. Like a pair of crackheads poppin’ a 7-11. Squad leader would’ve called a play, even for me.”
“Sure they’re ex-employees of Uncle Sam, not current?”
“I saw the payroll kids last night, too, remember? Big difference.”
“Mmm. Need to see the money?”
“Good. ‘Cause it’s buried.”
“I like the sound of buried treasure. Makes me feel like a pirate.”
“Not shovel buried, son. ‘Dozer buried. The girl had me pull three million, said you’d know why. I buried thirteen-three, kept out twenty-seven thou. It’s in the safe.”
In my head I did all the math I could stand for year. “That works out to an oddball start number.”
“People skimmin’ along the way. The chiropractor had to have pulled a stash, plus you toppin’ him off. Drivers, security, entourage, all hooker an dope partyin’ in the vans. Envelopes home. That’d work out to an even start around eighteen-five unless somebody got greedy.”
It was my turn to say “Mmm…”
I knew Moreno wanted the three million on hand to keep the convicts happy. With her and me since there was no longer anything on the way to Kerrigan for them to help rob. I hoped she hadn’t called off tomorrow’s roadblock or said something stupid about where the money was. Didn’t seem like her to do that, but “like her” was still a fuzzy picture. The “Love” girl who could play a lot of parts, too convincingly.
“In that movie a yours,” Rip said, like he’d been reading my mind, “noticed Cary Grant’s suit coat didn’t have a vent.”
“No vent. Like a Zoot suit. Eye-talian, they call it.”
“Not a Zoot, or ‘Eye-talian.’ It was a ventless three roll two. He also wore same-as-suit ties and brown or oxblood shoes with gray. The man was a real Sartorialist, ahead of his time.”
“Fashionista. Metrosexual. Sharp dressed man.”
“You ever got a decent haircut I’d say you’d been readin’ GQ at the barbershop.”
“Back in the run-up to not marrying Christine, I learned more about men’s clothes than I ever wanted to know.”
“That why these days you look like a sack fulla doorknobs most times?”
“Among other reasons. Like five grand for a pre-motheaten sweater.”
“You don’t have to do vagabond. Recall the few times you ever wore a suit you looked good in it. And a uniform.”
The vacuum stopped. I pushed my chair away from the table.
“Like the times you got married and that duster from Nebraska’s funeral? Thanks, Mom. Been there, done that.”
“An you ain’t changed t-shirts since.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “You know your problem, Paro? You’re tryin’ to sort the good guys from the bad guys into two neat piles.”
“Do I smell an inbound sermon?”
“Nope. Never hurts to give both sides some leeway is all.” He arched his hand over his coffee cup, twisted it with his fingertips in a slow circle. “It’s not Cary Grant or the Lawn Jockey. Or the high dollar Scotch man or even the convicts. It’s the girl still has you bothered. You think she’s bidin’ her time, waitin’ to see who’s left standin’?”
“You think she’s dangerous?”
“No more than the other vipers in the Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery pit.”
“An it could be you just want her to be wrong.” Rip sat in a very still, noncommital quiet for a few before he pushed his chair back. “Well, your problem, not mine.” He stood, hitched his belt up. “The girl’s money’s locked in the bed a the Ram, vehicle hangar. You know where the weapons are.”
Moreno had called, for some reason I didn’t hear it and it went to voice mail. The message was crap connection scratchy and I’d had to rewind it three times to nail down the address on Route 66/12th Street in Shamrock’s dead “Old 66” business strip. I knew the meeting place had to be the convicts’ idea, not hers.
I got to Shamrock early, parked two blocks away down the side of a freshly painted, locked-up NAPA auto parts store with waist-high weeds under the sign. I stayed off the road, used overgrown back lots behind empty buildings for cover. I was leading with the stainless-steel Walther I’d picked out of Rip’s gun safe, racked and chambered, safety off when I walked the cracked concrete studded with grimy weeds drive and around to the front of the free-standing once upon a flea market, record store, vegetable stand, and mechanic’s garage. I stopped at the edge of a large window where nearly invisible weather faded, childishly executed paintings of appliances – washing machines, sewing machines, and typewriters – now lived against a closed, dust-caked Venetian blind backdrop. On the door, sun-faded posters for concerts in Amarillo, Oklahoma, Colorado. A festival out by Canadian where a long list of old-time honky-tonkers offered to make a weekend of it four years ago. The inside of the door covered in yellowed newspaper pages held in place by equally yellowed masking tape.
I tried the door, easy. Locked. I didn’t like anything about this whole setup, kept walking, turned down the east side of the store and froze. A bulky guy in the weeds about halfway down the side, his back and long gray ponytail to me, was working a crowbar on the side door. I backtracked, flattened myself against the front wall between the windows and old garage door. Less than a minute later I heard the front door unlock from the inside.
Shit. My hands started to sweat.
The door opened, followed immediately by a giant white ball of WHOOMPH that blew Bulky Man out the door and into the street. Glass and Venetian blinds flew by me, a second or two passed before bricks pushed on my back, shoved me off the sidewalk and out into the street with him. I laid that way until I got my breath back, shrugged off some bricks and rolled onto my left shoulder. I brought the gun up, checked Ponytail Man and dropped my arm back down. I’d seen my share of blast casualties, and they all had the same look. Something once human reduced to a bloody, impossibly positioned rag doll. A splintered chunk of two-by-four had impaled Bulky Man between his shoulder blades and now held his upper body a foot off the ground. It gave him the look of demonstrating effortless yoga. I hadn’t noticed Rip’s truck roll up, or Tavius get out.
“Damn, Paro.” He squatted down in front of me. “You aren’t bleeding much. You whole?”
I moved up to hands and knees, careful to avoid the glass shards, shook my legs out one at a time.
“Good.” He stood, caught the back of my upper arm with a steel fingered grip, lifted me out of the bricks. “One of these days tryin’ to kill you is gonna take.”
The nicks and scrapes burned when I washed the sandy blast and street debris off my face in the McDonald’s restroom across the street from Moreno’s Holiday Inn. Tavius watched, his booted foot against the door while he told me for the tenth time what a lucky fuck I was, how it was a hell of a little wall that saved me.
“Nothin’ to do with the bricks, Tave. Dynamite.”
“For a fact?”
“White, and I could smell it.”
“In your current condition,” Tavius cocked an eyebrow, “my well-dressed Lawn Jockey self could run with a line like that.”
“What I mean, it was an uncontrolled blast. Dynamite out-pressure is like fire. It hauls ass to the easiest exit.”
“You learn that watching the science channel?”
“Jesus, fuckhead. Listen. The wall came off as one piece, in slo-mo, behind the blast. From residual pressure and structural failure. It was a Jim Bob bomb, not a focused C4 job.”
“So? Who set it? Not the Roosky convict, he thinks he’s a fucking artist. Who was the big ponytail guy? Who had Moreno send me there?”
“Too many questions, grasshopper. The last one I have half an answer for. I didn’t like what I heard on the intercept of that message. The rhythm felt wrong. I had it run and it was a splice job, like I thought. Someone must have hours of that woman talking.”
“It was from her number.”
“You telling me you never get robocalls, look like they’re from a real number?” He scowled at the loud, insistent knock on the door.
“What the hell are you sayin’?”
“Saying third graders know ways to send a call looks and sounds legitimate. Saying she didn’t call you, so don’t go off on her when you get over there. Saying further don’t say shit to her about it.”
“The phone call or the bomb?”
“Brother, you a tore up, dusty, dirty Goodwill refugee walking.” He moved his foot and let in a round, pink-faced man wearing a loud yellow golf shirt. “No way you avoid the bomb.”
Pink Face man eyed us, laughed. “Hey, y’know that’s what I just told my wife,”
“Yeah? Then she told you how it really was,” Tavius showed a lot of teeth. “How you’d best take your act on over to McDonald’s, leave her and the motel room shitter out of it?”
“Exactly what she did. Been married awhile yourself, huh?”
“Again?” Moreno would make some kid a good Mother. She had the fists on hips thing down. “He has my truck?”
“Rip’s truck, Cav. Consensus from the convicts to the CIA is that given a vehicle, you get flighty and unpredictable.”
“ME? You’re no one to talk! You take off in the middle of the night in your…your fucked-up baby airplane with your fucked-up Mars lander box inside to re-rob our bank. Ni una palabra! Not one single word to me, your partner.”
“You still on about that?”
“Your English takes over when you’re mad.”
“Okay. Si! Si, si, si! You like better the Spanish me? Maybe I make some little sexy sing-song in it? Oh Paro, quiero amarte demasiado buena…” She leaned into me, and I swear she purred. I backed up a step.
“You.” I put my hands on her shoulders. “I’d like you to ‘love me too good.’ If I knew who the hell you were.”
She pumped her shoulders, left, right, left, right, almost a dance move to dump my hands, backed up as well. She folded her arms and fumed, her eyes like shiny, hot obsidian.
“I brought your convict money,” I thought I was being slick, changing the subject.
“You are so hopelessly transparent.” She whipped her phone up off the table from in front of the Holiday Inn’s TV, stuck it in my face. I took it, held it back out so I could see. It was a text from “unknown” with a picture of an older custom Ford van too similar to the one I set on fire in Kansas to be a coincidence. How many of those damn things were out there? I made Woody as the guy in aviator shades behind the wheel, four exact copies of the dead Bulky Man on big motorcycles, two on each side.
I want my money. BITCH. Tell the pilot we’re coming. BITCH. For both of you. BITCH
“So much for you winnin’ the Kerrigan Bank Robbery Miss Popularity Contest.” I handed her the phone. “Guess we still need the convicts and their grenade launcher.”
“I guess,” she reached up, brushed sandy mortar dust out of my hair while she built a thoughtful, wicked smile, finger-thumped the top of my head, hard. “Bozo.”
“Ow.” I squinted through watery eyes, rubbed the thump. “What happened to pendejo?”
“I’m still mad.”