Mañana

I answered the knock on the Holiday Inn door in Cav’s robe, got a cursory glance from Tavius as he pushed past me into the room.

“Where’s Moreno?”

“You people need a new question.”

“I don’t have time for your shit. Moreno. Has she flown?”

“Depends on where she had to go for food that doesn’t come in a yellow paper wrapper.”

“That might take her days. For future reference, the better choices from over there come in cardboard boxes.” He paced, looked around, opened the bathroom door, hit the light, checked inside. “White truck’s gone. She must have found her keys?”

Rip’s keys. That a real question?”

“This is.” He kept up the pacing, tapping his thigh with his index finger. “What’s in the convict’s van?”

“Figured you’d already run Usman’s credit card receipts or used some superspy Xray vision glasses on the van.”

“Cute, like the robe. Again?”

I told him about the grenade launcher and SAMS. Crazy people in possession of surface-to-air missiles are good attention getters.

SAMS? Where the fuck they get those?”

“Our surface-to-air buyback fail after Russia walked Allfuckedupistan?”

“You aren’t running for office here, Comparo.”

“Standard automatic assault rifles, frag loaded anti-personnel shotguns. I know there’s more than what I saw and what Usman claimed.”

“Explosive ordnance? Mortars? Rockets?”

“Only what I saw.” I left out the RPG7 rocket launcher because I didn’t actually see it. “One of them was big on Chuck Norris’ dirt bike that shot rockets out its ass. Maybe they have one broken down in the other flight cases.” I rubbed some of Cav’s eucalyptus lotion on my scraped knees.

“She got the shave gel to go with that?”

“Imagine so.”

“Use some, you gonna keep wearing her robe.” He paced back and forth in front of a silent baseball game on TV, tapped his fingers on the top as he went by. “After Kansas, the original cash-money hijack is off. She has no reason to stay. You see my concern for her and keys to a vehicle?”

“Kansas?”

“Kansas, Paro. That wire report from up there? Shit reads like a cheap paperback crime novel full of dead bad guys in bum fuck. Ends up all over law enforcement com channels. Me?” He leaned over in my face. “I say the key to unlocking that entire shituation is the missing pilot.”

“You say that to anyone?”

“Nobody cares.” He stood up, resumed the pacing. “Cops everywhere laughing about free money, five self-closing homicides. It reeks of being staged by someone who knew how to make it fly. Leaving the rent-a-soldier’s money was the touch that sold it.”

“Greed is a deadly sin. Will you sit down?”

He checked his watch, spun a chair from the round table, sat in reverse, arms folded across the back.

“Happy?”

“I got what was left of the money, sixteen and change. Moreno set three of that aside for the convicts as a farewell present since their part of the robbery was off. She decided we still needed them after she got a text from Woody sayin’ he’s on the way, drivin’ a van like one of the money vans, with four motorcycle escorts. Unless that was one of his that ate it for me earlier today out on 66. Then there’s only three, and they’re already here.”

“You don’t know?”

“Goddamn it, Tave, you’re the spy. You come in here askin’ me where’s Moreno, where’s Woody? I have no fucking idea, but by tomorrow afternoon’s mail delivery guaranteed they’ll all be in Kerrigan with the rest of the party.”

“This is not good news, Paro. I need to hear you have a plan.”

“I’m thinking, you know, instead of going to look for any of them I should do this like an old Western. Any road into Kerrigan, I put curious locals on the rooftops. When somebody spots inbound bad guys, they signal a little barefoot, bowl haircut Mexican kid. He’s wearing one of those karate outfits that make him look paisano, and he runs as fast as his little kid legs will go to wake up the kindly old padre and ring the church bell. Except there’s not a church with a bell tower in Kerrigan.”

“That’s the only problem you have with that?”

“It’s a small town. There may not be a Mexican kid with a bad haircut and a karate outfit.” I waited for that to land, for him to look at me. “Somebody, who went to West Point and worked for our government, could download SAT intelligence for me.” I let that weigh in, too. “Because without it, I’m tellin’ you now the whole five-ring circus plays Main Street Kerrigan.”

He pursed his lips, rubbed them slowly, thumb and forefinger, corners to center several times.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, already somewhere else in his head. He stood, spun the chair back under the table, pulled the curtain and surveyed the parking lot. “Paro, when I hear that smartass shit from you instead of some straight-up shit I can use?” He checked his back holster, tightened the tuck of his tailored dress shirt on the way to the door. “I regret ever signing you on.”

“That makes two of us.”

I’d have to tell him again, sometime when he was listening. My smart-ass shit had been and still was the only thing I had over the spreadsheet for casualties, collateral damage, contingency CYA plan sound-bite desk jockey assholes. One thing I’d learned in Allfuckedupistan working with bureaucratic spies was that without people around them who could improvise, they could and would fuck up a crowbar.

The door closed behind him. I took a couple of long strides to the window, pulled back the curtain to see what Tave was driving, but he’d vanished. The only other car in the lot aside from my Ram was an older, green with peeling paint sealer Honda Civic hatchback sitting sideways in the lot. The driver looked straight me, raised a long handgun with a suppressor on it in my direction. I fell over a chair and on my ass when I backed away. A bullet came through the window, tore a hole in the curtain, thudded against the wall over the bed. I heard tires screech, the quick pop, pop of an unsuppressed handgun. A small car revved up for a few seconds, followed by the boom-crunch of a no brakes applied car crash.

I eased up on the side of the window, pushed the curtain back to see the hatchback turned into a steaming, over-sized green accordion embedded in the cinder block wall of the feed store across 13th Street.  Alarms. Sirens. People were running from the feed store, the hotel, from across Main. They all ducked, covered their heads in a unison dance move when the Honda exploded, showering them, 13th Street and the Holiday Inn parking lot in old Honda and assassin pieces. The cloud of white dynamite smoke drifted west, dissipating slowly as it rose in the afternoon heat.

I’d played dodgeball with the Reaper twice in one day, and it wasn’t even dark yet. Been too close to two dynamite explosions and seen enough illegal weapons to take Cuba at siesta time. Moreno was gone. With my keys and my clothes and my gun, maybe three million dollars, and as I looked around and couldn’t find it, my wallet and ID. Maybe she had hit the afterburners. Mr. Mysterious had vanished spy style. And, how special, in no time at all there’d be cops at the door to interview me, in Moreno’s robe, about did I know why a pisolero put a bullet hole in the window of a room where I wasn’t a registered guest moments before someone shot him and he and his car exploded all over the side of a feed store.

I cinched the satiny robe, and just for the security of having something on under it I wished that Moreno’s undies fit me. I held up a pair…What the hell was I thinking? Sirens wound down in the Holiday Inn parking lot, doors slammed, radios crackled, firefighters barked at each other.

Madre de Dios…

 ***

The lone, cheap-suit-for-special-occasions Shamrock detective arrived and immediately hit on all the extreme kink theories a Presbyterian Deacon with a badge could pull from the headlines of every perverse behavior Daily Mail article ever forwarded to him. I’ll give him this. I had prepared for some boredom-central bombastic cop theater, but he’d questioned me in an offhand, good ol’ boy manner even though his material was on the kink far side. I could also see him rethink his questions before he started up again. Doing all he could to reorder a scene with very little evidence into an imagination fueled kink fest he could sell himself or entertaining enough to sell to his superiors. Or The Daily Mail. By his third revision, the exploding Honda was no longer a player. In fact, contrary to witness reports, he decided to drop the Honda shooter altogether. “Too much confusion. The Honda driver, too. Heard shots, drove into a wall and the car blew up.”

With the truth written out of his theory, he concentrated on me in a too-small satiny woman’s robe, the missing woman who was the registered guest, our supposed spouses, pimps, love children, relatives, the Armed Ladies Morality Watch… all of whom offended enough by our behavior to end our sordid affair with gunfire.

An hour and a half into it Cav had burst into the room with a breathless, wide-eyed “Dios mio, Comparo! Que pasó?” and shoved a bundle of dryer-warm clothes and a grocery bag of hot food containers into the detective’s chest just when he’d decided to cuff me.

I thought she’d almost overplayed the pretty ‘no comprendo, no entiendo’ Mexican girl card, especially after the detective had studied her California Driver’s License for a good ten minutes. A license with a ‘Licensed Since’ date that looked to me, from a distance, to be sixteen years ago. However, that information meant nothing to the cop because he never questioned why her English language skills weren’t slightly more advanced. But, for reasons known only to him, he took it to mean that she wasn’t a prostitute.

For my part, I played the broken Spanglish guy, capable of just enough Spanish to order in a restaurant like a native or get laid. I joked with him about that, winked, raised my eyebrows, nodded toward Cav while he went through my wallet that he’d found in Cav’s purse. He shuffled my veteran’s cards, FAA licenses. He made a few calls, motioned to my clothes during one of them, so I hit the head and changed.

When I’d dressed, he made the ‘assumed’ joke several times while he apologized for going off the deep end with me and the robe, and yeah, he’d tried on yoga pants one time just to see why women lived in them. I almost told him how, for a split second, I’d thought about Cav’s undies but we’d put all that to bed with a random bullet theory that had to do with an argument between the green Honda and person or persons unknown.

I held the door open, again, for the detective who couldn’t make up his mind to leave. He was long done with the bullet hole but not with Cav and his imagination. I kept good-nighting him, thanking him, nudging him out with the door while he repeatedly found one more question for ‘Is it Miss, or Missus?’ Moreno. I wasn’t sure if he was looking for part-time companionship or a way to sell her to his wife as their new housekeeper. She continued not to understand him. He sighed with finality, gave up. I locked the door.

***

Cav started to unload styrofoam boxes from the brown grocery bag, stopped, leaned on the table with her fingertips, cocked her head. “Like all the Mexican hookers in California ride the bus, or what?”

“How you decide whether to take a Mexican girl home to meet Momma or not is if she can parallel park.”

“I hope I never hear you repeat that.”

I popped the top off a round container, stuck my little finger in for a taste while I thought through the Moreno conversation I needed to have.

“Twice today somebody has tried to fucking kill me. Three times if you count the boobytrapped convict van. Where the hell were all your alphabet soup spook friends for that, huh? No, better…where the hell were you for most of it?”

She smacked my hand, took the container, gave me a fork and a spoon from a real set of silverware.

Tu problemo, Paro? You don’t like my cooking?”

Every other time something shitty has gone down, one set or the other of your spy buddies is hustling the locals away. Today? I was stuck here in your fucking bathrobe talking to a one-man pervert lynch mob. No backup, no federal intervention, none of that. You’re gone for four hours –”

“Did you say your cooking?”

Si. The housekeeper here, we’re new best friends. I was sick of what I’ve been eating, asked could I borrow her kitchen. She’s young and said as long as I let her watch.”

“That sounds like what the detective wanted to ask us.”

“There wasn’t an answer in that.”

I took another spoonful of the most incredible black bean soup I’d ever tasted, closed my eyes, waited for the heat to sneak up.

“If you cooked this,” I tried to look thoughtful, spoon in my soup cup, “where does the proposal line start?”

“You would expect this?”

“I’d expect you to tell me why you took my keys, my gun, my wallet and left me here like all kinds of sitting duck.”

“I’m a professional woman, Paro. This is comida especial, not a daily.” As if she could read my mind she added, “You’re shiny Walther is back in that place under the floorboard. I didn’t have time to clean it.” She popped the enchilada box open and the room filled with intoxicating aromas that I hadn’t been exposed to since I was a kid at my aunt’s house.

“So if it’s not the food, what’s your problem?”

Mañana.

“Is that a bullshit blow-off mañana, Paro, or…?”

Mañana, Cav. We’ll talk mañana.”

“A sort of blow off mañana, then. That’s doable.”

“Who’d you shoot with my gun?”

“Some pendejo in a green Honda.” She hit the enigmatic smile behind a forkful of smoked chicken enchilada. “Mañana?”

A Good Sign

“Then, last minute, he sees the sun or somethin’ flash on the wire, you know,” Muller, the tall convict with crazy eyes slapped his thigh, laughed like a hyena, “an then he puts the bike down inna skid, under it, the wire, Arnie does, you know, and comes up blastin’ these fuckers –”

“Van Damme,” Dawson said. “That was Van Damme. Not Schwarzenegger.”

“I tink,” Usman backhanded Dawson’s upper arm, “was Chock Nordis maybe?”

“Norris?” Muller hit hyena again. “That old pussy? If it wasn’t Arnie it was Segal. You ever seen that fucker’s feet, Segal? Goddam, man, you know, I was standin’ next to him in L.A one time, at the airport, and he was wearin’ some kinda chukka boots,” Muller held his hands about two feet apart. “Man, they were like suede fuckin’ snowshoes!”

“You’re making that shit up, Muller,” Dawson, sitting in the middle, wasn’t having it. “You and Segal ever in the same state. Besides, Segal, he went under a trailer, or a truck. Like in an alley, he was shooting at somebody, or they were shooting at him…Or…Fuck…was that Van Damme?”

“Now you’re makin’ shit up, man, not me.” Muller’s hyena fell short when he coughed, waved the Marlboro he was smoking, some teacher trying to keep everyone’s attention. “’Sides, dumb motherfucker, LAX, and Terminal Island are in the same fuckin’ county.” He coughed again, reached across to shoulder punch Usman, “And, Norris, you know, he was always blowin’ up renegade gooks and shit off in a jungle somewhere with palm trees, not on motorcycles.”

Delta Force, ‘dumb motherfucker.’” Dawson had his finger damn near in Muller’s good eye, “Norris had a dirt bike shot rockets out its ass the same way you’re talking out yours.”

They laughed like they were the convict version of Hollywood Squares, sitting lined up on the end of the bed across from Moreno who was trapped on the chipped Formica suitcase storage wing of the TV stand-dresser. She sat, right leg over left, forearms crossed on her knee, impassive, unlike me, to their bullshit barrage.

Moreno had told me on the way over not to piss them off, not to shoot at anyone. And shaken by the picture of the resurrected Woody, the biker at the bomb site and the bomb, she didn’t want to tell them about the money I’d brought. Much less give it to them. She’d said we needed what they had in the van, for whatever might go down tomorrow. Like we knew what, aside from her playing Post Office to snag the sixty-four-million-dollar flash drive, was going down tomorrow.

I’d played along, followed orders and listened to their convicts making action movie scene casserole shit for at least twenty minutes because I’d lost it on them last time and had failed to inventory their arsenal. But damn, my ears hurt, my face burned, my back ached. I had sandy mortar funk in my hair, down my pants. I itched all over, my knees and palms were scraped and I’d had enough. I walked into the dingy linoleum and mold bathroom, picked up the can of Hawaiian Memories air spray, flipped it end over end, baton-style, got between the convicts and Moreno and aerated the end of the bed. The spray, settled, mingled with the funk of BO, zoo breath and locker room laundry. Instead of helping, I’d managed to make the small room at the Texian smell like Godzilla had dropped a deuce in the Hilton Waikiki lobby.

All the action figure hot dogs have pulled that sideways bike and sparks stunt.” I hit the spray again. “For the last time, we aren’t stringing wire across the road. We aren’t parking a fucking semi across the road. No one is putting their fucking bike down sideways and coming out the other side of anything, to blast anything. Who can tell me why?”

In unison, they mumbled, “Because they aren’t getting that close.”

“Thank you.” It was quiet.

“Who peezed in yor Pawstuh Tawsties, Pilot?”

“Maybe you,” I grabbed the front of Usman’s grimy blue shirt, against Moreno’s orders to be nice.

“Now you tink maybe we can talk da showp?” He snickered. “Da news gurl wit da tits, her face doan move? She say all da sirens go right past us to a gas explosion. Nashural gas, Pilot.” He checked in with his playmates. “You say to us maybe you fart up too much in dat olt buildink?” They all hyenaed.

“It wasn’t gas, asshole. It was dynamite.”

“Oh no, Pilot!” He made a big-eyed, round mouthed hands-to-cheeks clown face. “Not dyndamite!” More laughter. “Dyndamite iz for chilldaren, eh?” He checked his partners again. “Chock Nordis maybe even.” He pulled up the corners of his eyes “Ah so, you bro up machine gun trower! Dis time I krill you, Chocky Norree!”

God help me. I let him go, looked around the room. “Forget it, Cav. I couldn’t give two shits and a nickel if this room full of comedians were are all dead this time tomorrow.” She gave me an almost imperceptible nod, handed me the keys she’d picked up from the nightstand when we arrived. I walked out. The hyena roar crescendoed behind me.

I unlocked the van, thought about Rip’s electrocution anti-theft scheme, the brick wall pushing me into Route 66, went back in, dragged Usman out. “Open it.”

“You unlock already?”

I nodded. His face went whiter than a Clorox commercial sweat sock, his eyes said cornered rabbit.

“I uh, I uh…I…”

What I thought. “Open it.”

“Yah…Yah, I do dat. Quick, maybe.” He tensed up, wiped his hands and reached up under the front fender well. There was a series of beeps, followed by one longer beep. He relaxed by half, exhaled. He turned back to me, sweat staining his pits and the front of his shirt. “Nex time do da codes first, den da door, hokay? Sheet gawdamighty jeezis da fockin’ christ, Pilot…da way you do it, maybe we all go up to da big bye-bye…” He clicked the handle, pushed the sliding van door open.

To the casual observer, the convicts could be a band transporting music gear in the half dozen Gator ABS cases where the middle row of seats should have been. I flipped the latches on the closest large one. Jesus…an M32 six-round 40mm grenade launcher and a twenty-four round ordnance belt. I flipped a pouch open.

“All High Impact?”

“Yah. Who da fock robes bank wit flares?” He picked up the grenade launcher. It looked a lot larger in his hands than it did in Schwarzenegger’s.

“Five loaded. Not so big bang like Hollyvood Arnie’s,” he slapped my back. “Do da yawb, dey do, dough.”

Do-da-do-daday…I popped open the next larger case, resisted the urge to drop my head.

“Doan like doze so mooch maybe?” He didn’t laugh, made a nasty sort of wheeze through his nose.

“How many?”

“Two. One for dem. One maybe for you,” he hooked his thumbs, made a bird out of his hands, flapped them upward, “Boom!” and flipped them apart. “You tink twize maybe to fly wit da money now, eh?” He latched the surface-to-air missile case, slapped my back again, waved off the other cases. “Dat one dare iss RPG 7. Some ARs, AKs maybe, two riot guns…Hey, why dey called dat way? Dey da riot to shot somebodies wit!” He mimed a waist-high shotgun blast, “Boom!” his face expanded in happy. “Ka-splooey!”

Fuck. Me.

“How do I lock this thing?”

First da code, Pilot. Two buttons, over da tire. Lock, unlock, same tink. Left, right, left, left, right. Den da door. Den da keys, turty seconds.”

“Or?”

“Or Boom, Pilot. BOOM!” He started to walk off, I grabbed his arm, hauled him back.

“Hang with me while I try this.”

“Sure ting. Left, left, right, left, right.”

Asshole. I reached under the wheel well, got the beeps. He grinned. I’d never wanted to introduce someone’s face to parking lot asphalt more in my entire life.

***

“Looks like Tavius brought your ride back.” I pulled up next to Rip’s new pickup in the Holiday Inn lot, leaned my arms and forehead on the steering wheel.

Gracias, Paro.” She squeezed my forearm. For not losing your temper with them. I know it was difficult.”

“I see that Usman fucker, I lose my temper. Men like him’re the reason so many…”

“I said I know. Columbia was the same, si? One more day, Paro. It will, as you say, ‘play out.’ They’ll help us, they’ll get their money, be off with the wind and we’ll never see them again.”

“You don’t trust them to stick around, help build the convict run wildlife park?”

“No.” She checked out Rip’s truck. “No more than I trust your amigo Tavius. Perhaps he is upstairs, waiting for us? No…He is too much the Señor Misterioso who sneaks his way to you when I am gone.” She squeezed my arm again, smiled. “Come upstairs, Paro. Take a shower. I’ll put your clothes in the laundry on the way to get us some food that’s not McDonalds.”

“Does this mean you’re not mad anymore?”

“It means you’re a filthy mess and I’m hungry, Pendejo.”

Pendejo was a good sign. “I still have three million dollars locked in the bed of this truck.”

“Three people only know that. You, Señor Taylor, me.”

Tres Amigos, solamente?”

Tres amigos, amor.” She killed the old Ram, grabbed the keys, leaned over, and kissed me on the lips, quick.

“You need my keys, too, Cav?”

“I’ll need something to drive in the event I’m mistaken and your Señor Misterioso is waiting.” She glanced over her shoulder on the way out, smiled again. “Don’t worry if I have to take your truck. I have my own money.”

I wanted to hate her. I wanted to confront her. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to ask her what the hell her game was. I wanted to ask did she know about the exploding van. I wanted her not to smile like that last one. At least not for anyone but me.

 

Photo (edited) Credit – Chuck Norris in Delta Force

“Bozo”

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?”

“Bullshit.”

“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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.”

“Meanin’?”

“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’?”

“Could be.”

“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.

“I’ll live.”

“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?”

“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?”

Yes!”

“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.”

Deanna – With Two Ns

Roosevelt Junior High, February 11th, 1972

Everyone at Roosevelt Jr. High had been “encouraged” to bring their Valentine’s cards to exchange in homeroom on the Friday before Valentine’s Day because the Pep Club dance was set for Friday evening. Jackson wanted to jump in the air, kick his heels up like a cheerleader and shout something stupid because his Friday laundry bag duty for coach Stephens would get him out of homeroom and all the card swapping. He wouldn’t have to watch guys with their “special for you” Valentine’s cards stand in line and wait to clear on the Hot Girl. Who, unlike him, was a for real cheerleader that wasn’t known for shouting, or even saying anything stupid. Word was she’d already dropped on Matt for the dance so she was, as his mom said, “just being polite.” Yeah, Mom. Politely letting those guys wait in line to hand off their dollar-fifty Hallmark’s for a “Thank you so-o much!” and a chance to dream for a split second about being the lip gloss that rubbed off on her teeth.

Jackson’s “date” to the dance was already set with Mary, his across the street neighbor. The “date” pre-arranged by both their mothers, even though he’d had to ask and she’d had to say “yes.” Sitting next to her in the backseat of his Mom’s Oldsmobile was like sitting next to a cement garden statue. And once at the dance, like every girl he’d gone to a party with since sixth grade, she dumped him immediately on arrival to go make out with somebody else. He climbed high enough up in the gym bleachers to be out of the band’s strobe light, but not far enough into the darkened upper tier to bother the making-out instead of dancing couples, and sat by himself.

A blonde girl with a figure like a tongue depressor stepped down onto his row, sat far enough away to look disinterested for ninety seconds before she scooted over.

“Hey, Jax.”

“Hey, Ellen.” He couldn’t miss the snuffle in her voice. “Where’s, uh…Whatsis —”

“Jim. Cooke.” She pointed her thumb over her shoulder toward the slurp and slobber zone. “Jim. Horndog. Cooke.”

“Sorry.” He checked her puffy eyes, red nose.

“What is it, Jax?” She blew her nose on a Kleenex she stuffed into a small silver patent purse she snapped shut with a flourish and some force. “What do you guys want?”

“A lot of guys just want to make out.”

“Why aren’t you?”

“Making out is cool, I guess.” He wished he was, or even had the option. “But sitting by a girl, just talking to her, that’s okay too. You can’t make out forever.” He hoped she didn’t call bullshit on home for being a guy who hardly made out at all and didn’t know what to say to a girl, ever. He did love to look at girls, though. How they wore their hair, how their dresses fit, girls with freckles and suntans, girls without either one. Girls with sideburns kind of creeped him out, but mostly all girls were fine with him. Sometimes he’d follow a girl with the right perfume down the hall past where he was supposed to go.

A tall girl wearing coke bottle glasses, white gloves and a new, “you’ll grow into it” blue shift with pleats materialized on his left side. “Have you two seen Deanna anywhere?”

“I’d kinda have to be looking for her, huh Alice?” Jesus. Yeah, he’d seen the Hot Girl, earlier. Hard to miss the pink sweater, but —

“Don’t be a snot, Jax. Matt was asking ’cause he, uh, lost her.” Alice pointed discretely at the makeout section. “He’s up there, but she’s not. I know ‘cause I just…uh…Had to leave.” She sat, knees wide and unladylike, dropped her gloved hands into the fold of her skirt and sighed. “I swear to God, Jim Cooke is the horniest guy in this school. I mean the tongue is one thing, but…”

Ellen honked a big snuffle, Jackson thought he’d be better off out the middle of whatever was coming. He rattled down out of the bleachers past a few more kindred lost and lonely, thought how only a supreme loser could misplace the Hot Girl. He hit the gym floor, scanned the room and couldn’t spot a chaperon anywhere on the dance floor or posted at the doors. He knew it was now or never bail time, seized the moment, slipped behind the band and through the un-monitored cafeteria kitchen doors. He crossed through the cafeteria and eased out, his heels echoing against the metal lockers and marble floors that lined the dark and empty hallways of Roosevelt. He let go of the breath he’d been holding when he’d stepped down the half flight of stairs and grabbed the south exit door’s cold brass arm.

He leaned the door open slow, almost kicked her in the back. Jesus! It was The Hot Girl! Deanna Collings, sitting all alone, on the old, cold concrete steps of Roosevelt Junior High. He had the urge to pee, but found his nerve and sat down next to her.

“Hey, um…Collings. What’re you doing out here?”

“Waiting for my brother to come get me.”

“Aren’t you cold?”

“A little, I guess.”

“Here.” He draped his jacket over her shoulders. Now he was cold. They never mentioned that in the movies.

“Thank you.” She snuggled into his jacket and stopped shivering. After he’d seen her rescued by his jacket, it could have been thirty below and he wouldn’t have cared.

“You got it nice and warm, too.” She looked over her shoulder in his direction, had the telltale puffy eyes like the other dumped girls. Only an idiot would dump the Hot Girl.

“I heard Matt was looking for you. I thought you guys were —”

“Were what? Were what, Jackson? Huh? What were we?”

“I, uh…dunno…” Wow. She was pissed at Matt and she remembered his name. “Having a good time? Maybe?”

“No! Not a good time. At all. At first, I guess, but then he got, well, he got…” She stopped looking at him, glared straight ahead. “Never mind. I should have stayed home, that’s all. I just need to go home.”

He knew he wasn’t supposed to say “that sucks” to the Hot Girl, or insult her by saying he thought Matt was a serious wuss poser with his Summer Blonde hair and surfer’s cross he had to keep tucked away or a teacher would yank it, so they sat in silence for a while. She was drawing invisible somethings with her fingers on the concrete by her feet when she snuffled pretty big. He knew it was a leftover from how crying sometimes got your nose all into it. He tried to find something sympathetic to say, thought about telling her how his dad had called his little brother a “screaming snot machine” when he cried, pulled it at the last second and went to the bank of manners his mother had hammered into him.

“There’s one of the Pep Club napkins, you know, from the snacks and stuff table, in my jacket pocket. Half a cookie, too. If you want. Can I tell you something funny? About Matt?”

“No.” She wiped her eyes, blew her nose, balled up the napkin and put it back in his jacket pocket. “Well, okay.” She pulled out the half a dry chocolate chip cookie and took a bite.

“When his sister dyed his hair with the blonde streaks she messed it all up, you know, some of his hair and lift up sideburns are like invisible. He draws them back on, and up the side. With some kind of makeup pencil.”

Eyebrow pencil. I know. Some came off on my hand when I slapped him.” She laughed a little through the cookie. “You don’t like him, do you?”

“Not really.”

“Tell me why?”

“Well, you know, I hate to talk sh –”

“Please?” Girls could load words with so much stuff.

“Okay. He’s a fake. I mean, I know girls think he’s cute and everything but you’re a beach boy surfer or you’re not. And he’s not. Not in Oklahoma in winter, anyway. It’s just kinda stupid, I think. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. My mom told me not to go. With him, I mean.” She looked at the remaining cookie, put it in the pocket with the used napkin. “Anyway, some guys in my homeroom didn’t ask me or even give me a Valentine. I thought you had to in homeroom.”

“I didn’t know that, about homeroom Valentine’s cards. Is that still true?”

“Yes, always. Didn’t Mr. Stephens tell you?”

“Maybe, but I might have been across the street. I’m not there all the time on Wednesday and Friday. I take his laundry to the cleaners.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s dirty?”

“No, I mean, out of all the guys over there, how come you get to leave?”

“He told me he knew I was smart enough to handle it and I wasn’t so stupid I’d forget to come back.” Why did looking at her in his jacket and telling her a story make him feel so strange? “Anyway, ‘cause of that he kept me in gym homeroom for both years. Sort of like I flunked homeroom.”

“That’s silly, Jackson. You can’t flunk homeroom.”

“I could be in a regular homeroom, one with girls if I hadn’t flunked.”

“You didn’t flunk and there are girls in your homeroom. But you have to walk across the gym to talk to them and you’re supposed to give them a Valentine.”

“I didn’t know. So I owe you one, I guess. A Valentine, I mean.”

“I guess, huh?” She gave him a smile that seemed to confuse her face for a second. “Deanna, with two Ns. Here’s my brother.” She stood, retrieved the last of the cookie, shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to him. “Thank you for the cookie, and sitting with me, Jax. Really. I…Didn’t like it out here, by myself.”

“Thanks for, um, letting me. You know, sit. Sorry. ‘Bout Matt. And everything.” He was so glad she hadn’t stayed home and Matt was a loser he wanted to scream. A car rumbled up directly in front of them, blinding him with the headlights. Her brother unwound from the car like a bear from a cave.

“Is this him, little sister?”

“No, Jax just waited with me. So I wasn’t outside alone.”

“Yeah?” Jackson’s hand disappeared when her brother shook it. “You know the guy that did whatever, pissed her off?”

“Uh…Matt?”

“Think you could kick his ass for me?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Give it some thought, man. You did the right thing, hangin’ with DeeDee.”

Stop it, Doug! DeeDee? Really? Goddaa —” Her door closed with a BAM.

Her brother laughed. “Awww sorry DeeDee, I forgot –” His door slammed, the car backed away with a roar, the tires screeched, threw up burnt rubber smoke.

She’d slapped Matt, huh? Wow. Wonder what he did? Jackson knew he’d never get close enough to get in that kind of trouble with the Hot Girl, but his jacket sure smelled good. Wait till he told his parents what a gentleman he’d…Shit! Valentine’s was Monday! And he had to find Deanna with the double ‘n’ a card. Where was he supposed to get a Hot Girl Valentine card that didn’t come in a package with thirty other ones?

***

Saturday morning Jackson upended the paper delivery bag on his bike, brushed out all the funk inside, and pedaled off with enough lead time to make the twenty-four block ride to the mall when the stores opened. He guessed nobody knew about the bookstore because they had tons of righteous Valentine’s cards.

Some were what his mom would call sexist smut, so he stayed away from them. Well, he looked, because boobs were boobs, even cartoon boobs, but he didn’t buy one. He did find a funny one he was sure nobody had gotten double N Deanna. On the front was a black and white picture of a Gerber-ish baby, its face all screwed up with a finger way up in its nose. It was two bucks. He figured because of the book store and the mall and everything, but he bought it.

***

Valentine’s Monday morning Jackson stood up as tall as he could with the extra boost afforded by his cowboy boots and waded through the before school huddle around Deanna Collings. He handed her his card, along with an apology for forgetting in the first place, and instead of a canned smile and “Thank you so-o much!” he got a flustered “For me? Really?” and another one of those smiles that seemed to confuse her face. He also got glared out by her entourage.

He banged his locker door closed back in the hall on his side of the gym, turned, ran into his friend Kirk and three other guys who surrounded him.

“What’s with the big red envelope, man? Crushing out on Collings?”

“C’mon, I had to. I missed Stephens’ ‘Valentine’s for everyone’ announcement. She told me —”

“That never happened. Stephens giving a crap about Valentine’s cards or Collings telling you anything. You’re hopeless, man.” They shoulder punched him, shoved him toward the gym door. “Lying so you can be another Collings Fan Club dork? You’re pathetic.”

Jackson cast a furtive glance across the gym where Deanna with two N’s was surrounded by girls. They were all laughing, a few looked over, checked him out. Dork? Maybe so. But unlike every other guy at Roosevelt, he’d talked to her, alone. No crowd, all by herself. She’d snotted up his napkin, eaten his cookie, even told him how to spell her name like he was the one person at Roosevelt who didn’t know. And his jacket still smelled like her. He shoulder punched back. They could all fuck off. He’d earned his Valentine card moment with the Hot Girl.

***

Jean Collings the Biologist was the guest of honor somewhere she hadn’t been since her son had gone on to high school. In the Roosevelt Junior High Principal’s office where she was presented with her usually compliant, rule-abiding honor student, cheerleader and class president turned angry and defiant daughter who refused to give up a “note” she was accused of passing in homeroom. Along with a Girls’ Gym teacher who should wear looser sweats that weren’t almost high-water capris, and fat old Mr. Greer who remembered her well from Doug Collings’ glory days at Roosevelt.

Mom Collings held out her hand.

“The card, sweetheart? May I see it?”

“NO. It’s mine, and, and, nobody else’s.” Deanna clutched the card to her chest with both hands.

“You showed it to the girls in homeroom and started a ‘disruption’ with it. That’s why I’m —”

“It’s funny. That’s why we were laughing.” She tightened her grip on the card. “And nobody else got one like it. At all.”

“Deanna? The card. Now.”

Mom Collings opened the envelope, made a small face about the baby with the finger buried in its nose.

I Sure Had to Work
She flipped it open
To Pick a Winner Like You!
Be My Valentine?
Happy V Day, Two N’s DeaNNa – J

Jean Collings laughed out loud, looked at the gym teacher and the principal with some serious adult stink eye. “This is why I’m here?” She held the card up, wedged between her fingers. “This? No M-80s in the trash cans or toilets? No math teacher’s upside-down Volkswagen? Just this?”

“The issue I believe, Mrs. Collings, is insubordination. Your daughter refused to show the, um, ‘note,’ to Miss Riordan.”

“This is not a note, Walter. This is a Valentine’s card. In a large, red envelope, addressed to my daughter on what I believe is Valentine’s Day. Where is the problem? Miss Riordan?”

“They were all almost out of control giggling and laughing and I am charged with their physical and moral safety, Mrs. Collings. Deanna is a class officer and a role model. I felt I should intervene.”

“That’s nothing but a large bucket of double talk that allowed you to use the ‘passing a note’ rule as an excuse to get my daughter in here. So you could read her dangerous and immoral Valentine’s card? A card that did nothing but make a group of young girls laugh?” Her glare bounced between the other two adults. “I am less than pleased with both of you. This card is my daughter’s business. I have read it, approve of it and, as she has said and I agree, it is none of your business. The young man on the bench outside, who is sitting there I assume because he is the one who gave this card to my daughter? He should go back to class as well. Don’t you agree?” She waited a few seconds short of getting an answer. “Good. We’re done here.” She banged the door of Walter Greer’s office closed hard enough to rattle the mottled green glass with his name stenciled on it.

“Sorry, mom. Really.”

Mom Collings laughed, pulled her daughter close in a one-armed hug. “Don’t be ridiculous, Deanna. They should be sorry. I’d like to know where he got the card, though. I haven’t bought your father one yet.”

I Worry as I Please

I turned due south fifteen miles east of Liberal, Kansas, cleared the Oklahoma panhandle and picked up lights at 3 o’clock, two miles out, 150 feet low. They weren’t closing, they didn’t go away. I flipped the radio to shortwave, phoned home.

“PD 1 to PD 3”

“Copy PD 1. What’s your location?”

“Southeast of Perryton.”

“PD 1, the coordinates are in front of you.”

“Good for them. I have a shadow, 3 o’clock, two miles.”

“Chopper?”

“Probably. You copy that, PD 3?”

“Roger that. PD 3. Out.”

I clicked off the radio. Rip was sharp enough to skip the sermons about Palo Duro at night. Hopefully sharp enough to drive most of the way without lights to avoid picking up his own shadow.

PD 3 was the second most dangerous of the four routes we’d plotted through the Palo Duro Canyon to a drop point. In daylight. It wasn’t daylight and this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. I glanced out the window at my shadow. Whoever you are. I hope you can fly that thing or know when an order starts to look like suicide…

 I backed off airspeed to give Rip the hour drive time he needed. The shadow closed to within a mile and we flew formation that way for an hour. A third of the way from the southern end of Palo Duro Canyon I ran the Cessna up to 120, dropped to 50 feet off the ground, killed the lights. That got the shadow’s attention and they pulled up on my tail.

This was the touristy part of the canyon. Great views, steep cliffs, wide canyon floor. I took it low and fast across the top of Castle Mesa, cleared the edge, pushed the nose down and dropped like a rock, pulled the nose up 30 feet off the canyon floor and ramped back up to 120, skirting the canyon floor and walls, scrub brush so close I could almost feel it grab at the landing gear.

My shadow had stopped at the edge of Castle Mesa, like a horse afraid of a jump. The pilot must have lost an argument and was behind me again, trying to stay centered in the canyon and higher, but not high enough. Smart money would have put them way up and over in a wait and see, let their electronics track me but they were as close to on my ass as fear would let them, catching up in spurts only to lose me again. That told me they weren’t outfitted for air to air or air to ground weapons or any radar other than weather and nav. That was the best news I’d had all night.

The canyon was a straight northwest shot if you knew where the walls, interior mesas and outcroppings were, except for a quick left-right dogleg by Brushy Draw. I twisted sideways and over, took the bend in a roll. The helicopter saw the dogleg coming, gained altitude at the expense of speed or face into the cliff. They were back a few miles later when the canyon valley made sense again. I banked hard left into a wide gulch, followed its rise, nosed up and out of the canyon. My electronics told me that my shadow had flown past and reversed back to the gulch. If they went in, they weren’t coming out. It appeared they were debating, again, and remained stationary.

I took advantage of being out of their line of sight and flew north at 140, slowed, dropped down into another, wider gulch and shot out into Flat Canyon, banked hard left. My shadow had stayed in the canyon drifting north, assuming my business waited somewhere on the canyon floor. They caught up and stuck to me until the easy part went away at Nameless Draw and the old canyon riverbed turned into a narrow snake run of hard banks left, right, left, then right again. I lost them at that point, which was the only part of this evening that had worked according to plan. Without a rehearsal, no one was following that run at speed. After the last hard right, I pulled the Cessna into as steep a climb as it could handle, cleared the mesa, nosedived back over, located the large, brackish pond covered in green slime off Thomas Draw, dropped power to near stall, reached up, put my hand on the cargo release and held my breath.

Too many things could go wrong in the next five seconds. The cargo container would drop, the static line would pop the gas canisters, they’d inflate the life rafts. The static line wouldn’t break free, the plane would drop like I’d tossed out an anchor. Rip’s custom cargo doors on the floor of the fuselage wouldn’t fall shut and I’d be flying a big wind scoop too slow to pull out and keep flying and too low to use the Cessna’s safety parachute. The rafts wouldn’t inflate, the cargo container would explode on impact littering the area with hundred-dollar bills…

Madre de Dios…

I pulled the handle.

The Cessna jumped, bucked, the nose went up. The cargo doors dropped and held. I didn’t have time for the rest of it, that was Rip’s job. I was up past the mesa and climbing in a slow, easterly bank and wiping the sweat out of my eyes when my shadow, who’d never made it past the second bend, bubbled up out of the canyon to follow me to Rip’s.

***

The Lakota pilot waited for me to turn on the big outdoor lights after I’d landed, and set down almost exactly where they’d landed before. This time Flyer the CIA man wasn’t with them. Three armed to the teeth rifle squad troops trotted from the back. The first one offered his field pack ID, held up in a gloved hand for me to read. Damn he was young. And smelled cleaner than any foot soldier I’d served around.

“Run short on Sergeants tonight, Corporal…?” His name had more consonants than a Russian phone book. “Don’t make me say that without help, soldier.”

“No, sir. Prizz-bull, sir. Our orders are to search your aircraft and surrounding premises.”

I turned sideways, swept my hand in the direction of the Cessna and hangers. “Corporal Pryzbyl, make yourself at home.”

“Thank you, sir,” came awkward and slow. The corporal must have expected resistance. He signaled his two compatriots, sent them off to either side.

I went to the kitchen, switched on the lights, calmed the dogs. I should’ve let them out to put some combat duty shit in the recruits’ drawers, but they might have freaked and shot the dogs. I knew Rip had at least one sermon waiting for me when he arrived, I didn’t need another.

The kitchen door slammed open. Moreno’s hair was the mess of sleep, her clothes were what she had on when I’d dropped her on the bed. She shoved the soldier behind her in the chest with both hands.

“Déjame ir, sucio cabrón!”

The soldier looked at me, hope and fear in his eyes. “Sir? We found her in –”

She shoved again, and for all his combat gear I knew Moreno scared him more than any enemy he’d been shown movies of.

“Thank you soldier. She’s unexpected, but not unwelcome.”

“Not unwelcomeYOU!” She reached in the dish drainer, grabbed a cactus tumbler and threw it at me. Good aim, but I caught it. Through the screen door I saw the soldier hauling ass back to his search duty, most likely praying there were no more Cavanaugh Morenos lurking anywhere.

“Calling a soldier in full combat costume a filthy asshole is a risky proposition, even for you.”

“You! You wish to talk assholes? With me? You think you are so clever. Your sneaky lemonades. So you might have your way with me?” She spit in the sink.

“I didn’t –”

“You did! Your way to get rid of me while you go off, off to…Rip said you went to rob the bank! Two and a half days early! He told me you say the bank has already been robbed! How? The money, it’s not even here.”

“It wasn’t ever going to get here.”

“So you said, but in two days’ time more! You, Comparo. And Senor Rip. And me,” she poked herself in the chest, “Cavanaugh Moreno. We would rob the van. Together. As a team!”

“You through?”

“No.” She dropped in a chair at the kitchen table. I opened the fridge.

“Anything?”

“Filtered water. The tap is disgusting.”

I tossed her an Ozarka bottle. “Fort Worth tap water.” She made a ‘that’s disgusting’ face. “Reverse osmosis filtered.”

She eyed the bottle, turned it in her hand.

“That makes it Spring Water?”

“You pissed off at everybody, Cav?”

She chugged most of the bottle, set it on the table.. “You. Only.” She leaned back in the chair, both fists propped on the table, stared at me through the slits her eyes became when she was angry. “Did you do it? Re-rob our bank?” She smacked her forehead with the heel of her palm, “Re-rob! Dios que suena estupido.”

“I know it sounds stupid, but –”

“Sir?” The leader of the partial rifle squad stood outside the door. “Sir, we need to search this building.”

I made another welcoming gesture. “Don’t break anything, the old guy who owns this place has lots of friends. Give him an excuse to get a hard-on and you soldiers will be doing combat duty someplace way nastier than Texas.”

“Yes, sir. Sir?” He hadn’t moved. “The dogs, sir?”

I’d tuned out the rumbled growls of the dogs, but I read the corporal’s mind and led them off the to a bedroom, closed the door. The proper command and it would splinter. “They’re in the back bedroom. Let me know when you need in there.”

The corporal turned and with a jerk of his thumb sent one of his underlings to search the house. I heard drawers and closets open and close as he worked his way through. He stopped at the dog room.

“Sir?”

I went back, sent him to the kitchen, herded the dogs into a bathroom, returned to the kitchen, gave an “all clear.” He was back in three minutes. He talked in low tones with the other two for maybe thirty seconds. They broke their three-man huddle, the young leader stepped up to the door again.

“Sir, thank you for your cooperation.” He touched his helmet in a one finger salute. “Ma’am, sorry to wake you.”

We waited for the helicopter to do a brief preflight, wind up, lift off and fly east until it was no more than a rowdy locust in the distance.

“The bank. Paro? The bank, which was not yet a bank, but a van. A van in Kansas?”

“Why aren’t you with Tavius?”

“I refuse, that’s why.” She shook her head for effect, as if to clear it. “The bank? The van I mean.”

“Yes, I re-robbed the bank. Van.” I had to laugh. Tension release, the stupid way it sounded. She laughed with me. We collected, sat for a moment in silence.

Cuéntamelo. Todo!”

All of it?”

ALL of it.”

By the time I’d finished the Mullinville Cenex truck stop saga she was sitting on my lap in the patio loveseat, a plastic wicker number with thick, dusty cushions.

Madre de Dios…” she said, her head resting on my left shoulder.

“That’s what I said. In fact, I think you’ve infected me with it. It’s become my go-to for ‘holy shit’ and ‘muhhh-ther fuhhh –’”

“Good. It is a nicer way I think, to say the same.”

“Unless you know it’s a replacement.”

“Then it becomes an inside joke. Like re-robbing a bank. That’s not even a bank.”

“Think of it like refried beans. Miss it the first time –”

She swatted my ribs. “I missed nothing. I didn’t know.” She rubbed where she’d swatted me. “Why, en el nombre de Dios, did you give Woody money and let him go?”

“Pity. And maybe a shot of stupid.”

“A double shot, if not a triple.”

We sat in silence again. I thought she’d fallen asleep when she whispered, “Why the old movie?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I worry as I please. Senor Rip discovered the film, but had not started to watch when I, when they woke me up. I told them I was going nowhere and that you were cutting us all out of…of…” She let that trail off. “But you came back.” She squeezed me, yawned, arched her back like cat, made fists at the end of her outstretched arms, let them go. “The three of us came in here to watch together. We made popcorn. And I melted butter in the microwave.”

“That’s a first?”

Si! I was taught low and slow, on the stove, or to use the little plastic cup on top of the popcorn maker.”

“Those cups never worked. Good popcorn?”

Perfecto. Terribly greasy, just like the movies.” She eased her shoulder under my arm. “Rip teases your black friend, but they are two of a kind, I think. Men like you, without regard for El Jefe.”

“Tavius is CIA. Possibly still active Army Intelligence.”

“That’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one…”

I considered all the oxymorons in what I’d said. She snuggled back into my shoulder.

“Where is the money now, Paro?”

“Rip has it if it survived our lander.”

“He is trustworthy?”

“I’m not sure anyone is when there’s sixteen million cash involved.”

“You have been…so far…” She yawned again. “In your old movie? Rip thinks it is one of the men you are speaking about. I think it is about the girl.”

I let that go and she was asleep in minutes. I watched the stars, the lights of a lone aircraft with enough altitude to pass soundlessly through the night sky, thought to myself all this crazy shit – the whole bank robbery setup, combat soldiers on domestic CIA duty, long nights, near-death experiences…They’re always about the girl, aren’t they?

Crossroads

It took less than ten minutes to hustle through the van-to-plane cash transfer. When we’d finished Woody sat on the floor in the open side door of the van, leaned forward elbows to knees in despair pose, wiped his face with his hands up inside the expensive pantyhose golf shirt.

“We got the bitch’s money loaded for her. What am I supposed to do now?”

“You and I’ll take the van about a mile down the road and torch it so it doesn’t become your tomb. My guess is more than one faction of this farce is tracking it wondering ‘what the fuck?’ since the money GPS and the escorts are off course by now.”

“But the GPS was just on the money –”

“Yeah, and every vehicle that played any role in its shipment. You told Moreno to wake up, pull her head out. It’s time you realized you’re in way over the head stuffed up your ass and you don’t get it, Woody. Nobody, particularly an organization that deals in big money, will ship that big money without a dozen ways to track it. Trust me. You keep driving this van, somebody will find you and you’re dead by day after tomorrow at the latest.”

I counted out ten ten-thousand wrapper-bound stacks of hundreds from one of the bags in the Cessna, dropped them in a fresh trash bag, and set it on the van’s engine cowl.

“The van goes up, you take a walk with that. Find a bus station, travel light and far. Florida would be a good place to find the new you.”

“Shit…Rednecks and Alligators and more spics.”

Cubanos, amigo. Need to watch your mouth. Never know who’s listening.”

“I forgot. You’re another Oreo light.” He stood, shook it off with a whole-body twitch, crawled through the van into the driver’s seat. I closed the door, took up residence behind him. We turned south onto CR12, and after about a mile when we were surrounded by darkness and empty fields I tapped him behind the ear with the Browning.

“This’ll do.”

He slammed on the brakes so hard I thought both of us would go through the windshield. I spun out from behind the driver’s seat, caught my balance on the engine cowl, slammed the shift lever into park to stop the van from rolling. Woody had grabbed his trash bag of cash, thrown his door open and scrambled out. He fell in the middle of the road, rolled twice, came up running. For a split second I considered shooting him. But I saw a rabbit in my sights, lifted the Browning and let him run off into the Kansas night. He wasn’t dangerous without help. His phone was on the floor next to the emergency brake and without it, he couldn’t fuck me up in the Kerrigan mess until he found one, and I doubted he would, even then. For a guy like Woody, this was a Tarantino nightmare. All he wanted was for it to stop. Until his feet started to hurt and he realized his luck had held one more time, and there was still a flash drive worth sixty-four million dollars in the Postal Service ether headed for the Kerrigan State Bank. Dammit. I should’ve shot him.

I pulled the van over into a shallow culvert, melted a couple of leftover trash bags onto the nylon fabric weave seats, let it drip onto the carpet and spread before I started the hike back to the Cenex station and Rip’s sixteen-million-dollar Cessna.

***

With all the money vans out of the picture I needed to find a van and a driver, in less than forty-eight hours, to drive to the Kerrigan State Bank like it was loaded with cash. Or I’d have to rewrite the day of the robbery in Kerrigan script. I worked on that while I walked up the very slight incline toward the gas station. From well outside the station’s light halo I spotted a Honda Goldwing sitting at a gas pump in front of a Ford van. The van remarkably similar to the one I’d set on fire a few minutes earlier. My guess about Woody’s life span, had he stayed in the van, had been overly optimistic.

I opted for discretion until I knew what was up, backtracked further from the light, circled east through the field and approached the line of sleeping, idling trucks at an angle from the rear. I squatted down under the first trailer and took a few minutes to identify objects and their shadows. About the time I’d decided I was happy with the backlot of Cenex presentation I saw the bottom halves of two men walk past the far end of the truck line, seven trucks away. One of them flicked a lit butt under the last trailer, the sparks flying, bouncing, dying. The legs kept going, past the trucks and the shrub line to where the Cessna was parked. I duck walked to the end of the trailer to get a better look.

Even from a distance, I could tell what they were. Bulked up men in black t-shirts, black cargos, black boots. Ex ‘combat engineers’ too battle and steroid fried to pass a cop or Jim Bob’s Security Company psych exam. Killing machines designed and built by the government. A government that, having removed their purpose for one expediency or another, no longer had use for them. They’d become Private Sector Security, a catch-all euphemism for Mercenaries. Rent-a-Soldiers. Poor Woody. He’d probably found them in the back of a random gun porn mag, figured them for altruistic champions of avaricious weasels. The A-Team maybe, or if he was lucky, Charlie’s Angels.

The ‘Honorable’ PSS at hand no doubt put their own tracking device on Woody’s van and were taking their time to let him get comfortable before they isolated him, whacked him and made off with a sixteen-million-dollar profit. Their tracking device had stalled and gone off-line nearby, no Woody to be found. The glowing, otherwise ignored ball of orange in the distance plus the presence of an airplane piqued their curiosity.

I thought about waiting the mercenaries out, but I had things to do and no idea of their agenda and didn’t want to meet whoever might be following them. I scooted out from under the first truck, walked the front of the truck line until I could duck down between the last two trucks and do more squat recon under the last trailer. The ‘security guard’s’ backs were to me, the bigger one on my right lit a fresh cigarette. I studied them for a minute, measured them against my experience before I stepped out as soundlessly as possible, Browning leveled between them. The big one reached for the door handle of the Cessna —

“Evenin’ soldiers.” They didn’t startle, the big one froze, the smaller one started to turn “Nuh-uh, soldier. Maintain for’ard face. That’s good. My sidearm is six inches from the base of your necks.” I knew the fidgety non-smoker on the left would bite. He spun with a short, wide, wrist sheath combat knife in his right hand. He would have cut my head off had I been where I was supposed to be. He twisted past the center of missing contact with me, planted his foot in perfect right face profile. I squeezed off a round and his nose disappeared in a dark mist. The shot a little pop sound in the dark emptiness of the field. The other one lifted a SIG combat handgun from a left thigh holster, kept his position, gun arm down at his side. His partner was making Gak, Gaa-aak and coughing blood while he stared at his bloody palms.

From the big one came “You call it that way?” When I didn’t answer he said, “I’d say you wanted it in his ear and the balance move fucked you up.”

“You’d be right.”

“Where’d you soldier, airman?”

“Around.”

“You gonna finish it?”

“Seen a lot worse salvaged.”

He shook his head very slightly, flashed his SIG up and put a round in his partner’s forehead. Another little pop in the field. He did it so quickly that if he’d wanted me, I might not have gotten off a shot. The dead man standing stumbled to his left and fell, face first, ankle over ankle, rolled onto his side. The SIG went back in its holster. Its owner pointed at the orange glow to the south. “Chiropractor?”

“His van.”

“Waste him?”

“The money’s earmarked. Like you, he got greedy. Unlike you he’s not dangerous. I gave him a hundred grand, told him to take a walk.”

“The world is going soft on me. Permission to about-face?”

“Granted as slow.”

He performed the most perfect toe-to-heel ball of foot dead slow about-face…It should’ve been in a training video.

“Balletic.”

His lips formed a very small, very tight, very brief smile. “Smoke?” He slowly reached for his t-shirt pocket with two fingers of his gun hand. I gave him that. He pulled out a crumpled pack of Camels, disposable lighter stuck in the cellophane.

“Could have been a detonator, airman. Another softie.”

“Not a hot zone, you haven’t had time to set a device. If you’d pulled the handle on that plane without the fob in my pocket it would’ve cooked your heart. Consider us even in the tip department.”

He took time to think that one over. “Airmen are lifers. What happened?”

“I lost a beauty contest.”

“Sorry to hear that. Your battle plan to offer me a hundred k? I won’t take it.”

“I wouldn’t insult you.” I waited, let the air get thick. “You’re one man against the bikers who’ll come looking, time for you to hit the road.”

“We’re not civilians, airman, we stripped their machines. They’ll end up scratching their nuts at a dumpster out behind that shithole barbeque pit where we left them three bodies and their civvy spy shit.”

“Good news for everyone, then. We’re done when you load your partner in the van, drive away with two million you don’t have to split with anybody.”

He shifted his weight around, set his feet.

“What if this goes wild west, airman? You win, what happens?”

“I put you and your partner in the van, park you back out front, turn the pumps into roman candles.”

“I win?”

“It wouldn’t matter.”

His snort morphed into a derisive smile. “You’d do that? Scorch this little patch of Americana crossroads for no money and a lost cause?”

“Try me.”

He thought it over for what felt like a thirty-second hour.

“Not tonight.” He lit a cigarette, bent down, grabbed his partner with both hands, threw him over his right shoulder like a sack of fertilizer, and walked past me. I turned, waited for what I knew was coming when he felt he was beyond my ‘airman gone soft’ accuracy range. I kept him sighted, dead center. Up, down, either side. I couldn’t lose him.

He was about forty feet away when a firetruck screamed past on CR12 headed for Woody’s van. The soldier pulled his SIG and twisted, dropping his right shoulder to dump his partner. He should have tried it wild west style when he had the opportunity, facing me and unencumbered. He might have beat me, even with my weapon out and on him. Or we might both be dead. The way he’d called it my first shot broke his left shoulder sending his shot wild, my second one went in the center of his chest when he tried to straighten. I waited while he collapsed on his back, knees bent to the side. He made a feeble attempt to reach the SIG with his good arm, heaved twice, coughed a blood geyser, and settled into a greasy spot in the dirt behind the sleeping trucks.

I walked around the bodies, slow and cautious, considered my next move. When I was combat green working ‘short some personnel’ volunteer evac duty scooping bodies from both sides off the sand, looking for a way to rationalize what I was doing, where I was, how I felt when there was nothing left to vomit a multi-theater combat commander pulled me aside. He said, in a gravelly, war-weary voice, “There are no poetic ways or places to die, Lieutenant. Dead is dead. The dead don’t give a damn and neither should you. Get over it. Load ‘em up. Move on.”

I stopped the walk around. With a touch of staging the way it laid told a tidy story. I wiped my Browning, put it in the first one I’d shot’s hand, squeezed off a dead-hand shot muffled by a dead leg into the chain-smoking quick draw wannabe. Two dead mercenaries who would test positive for gunshot residue, in a field behind a rural truck stop. A van out front where the cops would find two million in cash, the mercenaries prints everywhere. They’d argued, gotten wound up. Pow. Kiowa County gets a cash windfall, a new van with a bonus motorcycle and something to talk about besides Liggett’s sculptures.

Flying back around headed west southwest I wondered if ‘that Murphy character’s’ version would make the rotation when the County Mounties and meat wagoneers arrived to clean up their latest “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”

 

 

Feels Like Pantyhose

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?”

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.