NVDT #44 – Characters

The Prompt – What are your favorite kind of characters to create? To read?

I don’t create characters. They show up. Unexpectedly, at inopportune moments, always with something to say. Even in this first-person thing I’ve almost completed that started as a clinical exercise. They write me into corners, change course, change their minds. Particularly in this one. Exerting any measure of control is a waste of time. I always say, “Let the story tell itself.” Which means let the characters tell it. And they will, even if they have to bump me from my chair to get on with it. Something that really surprised me with an exercise. I should have known better. I’ve tried exercises before, and they’ve always gotten away from me.

You have to understand. I wanted to write forever. I walked out of college because I refused to regurgitate the opinions of tweedy professors. “Hold on,” I said, “I did this as a freshman in high school. Where’s the good parts? Where’re the prompts? When do we write?” We didn’t. We wrote more book reports. So I walked.

When I first began writing again in 2016 after a long hiatus in the music biz, I sat down, started something, it sucked. After two or three days I sat in my chair, staring at the monitor, bummed. Woe is me. Then, as always happens to me, a doorbell goes off in my head. This time a girl named Deanna Collings appeared on my shoulder. “Yeah it pretty much does really suck,” she said, “and you know better. Writing is just like music. So erase all that junk and listen. I’m the story you want to tell. I’ll tell it, you write it.”

They ALL do that. If I struggle with their names they mope, stay quiet until I hear it. Then, BAM, they have a voice. They have production meetings without me, show up in my head. It’s all I can do to keep up.

What kind of characters do I like? Characters who talk and it’s believable. Who do believable things. Even if they do a few unbelievable things, that’s okay. Like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Or most Hitchock. Average person has to step into the breech.

What I don’t like is cliché characters unless they are well-drawn. Which is why I love Laura Levine’s fluffy Jaine Austen series. Jaine is a cliché of her own. Underemployed, frequently caught with dinner on her blouse, paint in her hair and wishing her pants fit. Yes, Laura’s screenwriter shows, she telegraphs some things. But her books are streamlined, a breeze to read and I never feel slimed or shorted or steamrollered, just out of breath and looking for chocolate with Jaine. Laura’s peripheral characters are better drawn than most stereotypes. Not just that you know a smarmy real estate agent, but you know this one. With no effort. Effortless characters, that’s what I like. John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard are rocket scientists that way.

I like to hang out with my characters, no matter what they do. I say never worry about your characters or your story, they’ll sort it for you. I’m curious to see how others work theirs. And because I’m still going to stick writing in here anyway, here’s one where I never saw any of this coming. You can read it if you wish.

From Bobby B.- Monterrey Mick’s Mad Mods

Bernie was laughing when she answered the knock on Bobby’s apartment door. Monterrey Mick pushed her and the door into the wall, lurched into the compact living room.

“Mick? What the — ”

“Shut up.” He reached across himself with his left hand, spun her, shoved her at the round kitchen table littered with wadded up Taco Mejor wrappers, her purse and several open file folders. Bobby and Creighton sat on the far side of the table with three opaque plastic champagne flutes and an open bottle of champagne.

Bernie recovered, shoved Mick’s shoulder. “Look, jerkwad, I get enough of your shit on the clock.” She started to shove him again, and he pushed her back.

“No, you look.” Mick pulled a ridiculously long-barreled, nickel-plated wild west revolver out of his jacket. He wavered for a few seconds, like the weight of the gun had altered his balance. “All of you look.” He leveled the TV gunslinger special on each of his targets, moved it back and forth between them. “Two million. That’s all I want. All I ever wanted. Two mill and I’m out of here, nobody gets hurt.”

“That line is beyond stale, even in Hollywood.” Creighton took a sip from one of the plastic glasses. “Christmas Eve, Mick. Money like that is three days away, best case. Besides, you’ll just blow it on hookers and coke and be done inside a year. If it doesn’t kill you, you’ll be homeless somewhere they have zero pity for broke Americans.”

“Fuck that, and you. I stay here and I’m a restaurant? I’m a fucking artist. I turn rusty iron into dreams and you fuckers want to put empty, painted shells of muscle cars in an over-sized gas station with my name on it? Where mom and dad and their greasy-fingered little screamers can eat designer burgers and cheesy fries while they watch junior college mechanics slap Bondo on some yokel’s Ranchero? That’s somehow better than killing myself with hookers and blow?”

Bernie shoved her hand into her purse, lifted it off the table, pointed it at Mick. “No you don’t, Mick. No, no, no. Not this time, buddy. I’ve waited five years for my chance out of bikinis and cutoffs and off the TNA wagon. No way do you screw this up for me.”

“What the hell, Bern,” Mick laughed. “You got a loaded tampon in there?”

Bernie shifted the purse a few degrees to her right, and it barked like a Chihuahua muffled in a fat lady’s arms. Just behind Mick and a little to his left, a framed starving artist print of rain-slicked streets in Paris dropped to the floor and shattered. Mick jumped and the cowboy gun boomed a shot into the floor. When Mick looked up Bernie’s purse had disappeared and she had a two-handed grip on a pink Ruger 380 pointed straight at his chest.

Mick checked Bobby and Creighton, couldn’t decide where to point the king-size cowboy pistol.

Creighton held up his hands. “We’re unarmed, there’s no money, so you two shoot each other or work it out before Santa and the pizza get here.”

“You don’t get it. None of you.” Mick looked like he was about to cry. “I just want the money. No restaurant, no more custom cars, no more TV show. No fucking grief. I want out the pile of shit my life’s turned into, and two mill isn’t too much to ask. I made people happy. I deserve it. If it’s a year-long funeral procession, I don’t care. Hear that? I. Don’t. Care. Two million doll—”

BAM, BAM, BAM, loud and sharp rattled Bobby’s front door.

“BOBBY B? FBI. WE NEED YOU TO OPEN THE DOOR.”

“Way too much fun now.” Bobby shook his head once, raised his voice. “It’s open.”

The door banged into the wall again. Two men stepped inside, one black, one white, both in jeans, t-shirts and blue windbreakers, their badges on lanyards around their necks. They spotted the pink Ruger and Mick’s long, shiny cowboy special, pulled their handguns and modern danced a slow, bowlegged cross step around the room. A tall man in dark slacks and a crisp white shirt with the cuffs rolled up walked through the middle of all the guns like they weren’t there, set a briefcase on the table in front of Bobby, and offered him a small, relaxed smile.

“Agent Hyland, Bobby.” He scooted the taco wrappers out of the way with the briefcase, dropped it to flat. “You have pizza on the way?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Perfect. I’m originally from outside Omaha. Bum Fuck USA. Out where they say boredom breeds excess? I thought we knew how to cut loose come Christmas time.” Briefcase man hooked his sunglasses on the lanyard that held his badge, looked around the room at all the players, the guns, the purse with a hole in it, the taco wrappers, the champagne bottle, the shattered bad art. “But I gotta hand it to you, Bobby,” Hyland nodded his approval. “You throw one helluva Christmas party.”

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Sidekick Poster Boy

From the air, Kerrigan had appeared more organized. A simple four by four grid of streets with a few dead-end driveways that streamed off the main outer boundaries to half a dozen houses, mobile homes, and outbuildings, the same way children draw sunrays. On the ground it was looser, the grid a collection of modest houses with a hundred-year age range parked randomly on large, marginally improved lots, their driveway entrances guarded by bulging black trash bags. Their landscaping composed of small gardens and almost lawns close to the main house, the lots strewn with rusted out grills missing legs, dead appliances, overturned ice chests usually dumped close to trailered, motorless boats that hadn’t seen water in at least a decade. Disintegrating cardboard boxes full of glass and cans and tattered linens, farm implements, headless lawnmowers, and dead vehicles slowing being overgrown. A chicken coop here and there, outbuildings in various shades of disrepair and quite a few large, cheerful, inquisitive dogs that stopped to sniff me, get their ears scratched and trot away while I made my way around the town’s perimeter from the far south end to beyond the Kerrigan State Bank on the northernmost edge.

I’d asked Rip after my first flyover recon why the bank sat so conveniently at the front of a large, empty lot and his answer was the man who originally built the bank a hundred years ago had cleared the land behind it and put in a competition level croquet court with extra room for observers and Roaring Twenties tailgating. The croquet court was now a well-kept grassy backyard, the only eyesore a rusting old pickup next to the bank. I’d already reached the conclusion that rusty old pickups were a yard art trend in Kerrigan.

I approached from the rear where a thick windbreak line of trees marked the bank’s rear property line and experienced firsthand how the tree line had expanded over the years. A hundred feet behind the tree line, a flat, dusty field grew into knee-high weeds and saplings that ramped up to taller trees covered in rope-like vines. Smaller trees fought for their own space and sunlight in the gaps. Close to the main old-growth tree line it got so dense I wanted a machete, but made do stomping a path close to the front of the tree line where I could crouch, unobserved, and watch the rear of the bank.

Everything about the rear of the bank was a visual of extremes. Set in the middle of the bank’s peeling clapboard siding was an incongruously severe steel door. On the right side of the lot, the unmarked CIA Lakota helicopter’s turbine whined at idle, rotor brake unlocked. On the other side of the lot, well away from the Lakota’s slowly turning rotor, was the biggest black Cadillac Escalade SUV ever made. Parked, like the Lakota, at a forty-five-degree angle to the bank’s rear corner. Two jumbo characters in black chauffeur outfits, necks, hands and glistening shaved heads covered in colorful designs stood in front of the Escalade. With their hands clasped in front around Uzis, a wired earbud in one ear, they could have been stained glass Secret Service save for the lunacy of their choice in firearms. I thought of the tattooed freak show May mentioned, smiled to myself, checked my Walther. Again.

For the second time in as many minutes, a dirty white dually Ram crawled by the front of the bank. Both times the colorful Jumbos talked to their lapels. After the second pass, the one closest to the street moved away, disappeared in front of the bank. The Ram rolled in again from the right side, took too long to cover the distance blocked by the bank. More than enough time passed for Security to have checked out the driver and had a “beat it” chat with whoever was driving. The Ram emerged slowly, rolled to the corner, turned left. A minute later it was in the field behind me, headed my way in no hurry. The Ram stopped at the edge of the brush, Usman climbed out, walked my way unscrewing a suppressor from a chrome forty-five, a loop of thin black wire dangling from his pocket. He dropped the suppressor in his other pocket, followed my crushed sapling path. He raised his chin slightly in greeting. I reciprocated.

“I got tinking,” he said. “Da Pilot’s some asshole, sure. But he trows my kinda party.” He palmed my shoulder, grinned, pulled the missing Jumbo security man’s radio and earpiece out of his pocket, handed it to me.

I took it. He answered my question before I could ask.

“Da suit wit da snake on his head? In da middle da street, hand up. I stop. He show me da Uzi, tell me get da fuck out, pick some different streets. I say I’m lost, yah, you get da fuck out da road, an fuck you. He open da door, ‘be glad ta fuck you up, weasel.’ I put da forty-five on his head. He start cussin’ dat pizzachit Uzi, I say Pop goes dis weasel, yah? Pop.”

“And here you are.”

“Yah. Here I am.” He raised the forty-five toward the bank. “An dare he is, under dat  bridge in da front.”

From the radio chatter, the dead man had been Cantrell. His outdoor partner asked if Cantrell had come inside since he’d been whining about the suit and the heat. Whoever was inside said, “No. The Boss told you both stay where you’re at. Whattaya worried about a goddam farmer for, anyway?” Back yard Jumbo got more blistering commentary when he asked to go look for his partner. He paced for a minute, ignored his orders, and walked around front.

I told Usman to arm up. ARs, the RPG, the missile launcher. Anybody but me or Moreno came out the back door? Take out the Escalade, level the fucking bank. I took off in a bent-over run for the helicopter. If Jumbo came around the corner of the bank before I made it, Usman was to use his discretion to eliminate him. I worried about that for a few seconds. Not that Usman wouldn’t cover me, but would he blow up half the town in the process.

I made it to the far side of the helicopter, stuck the Walther in the bored pilot’s side. “Stay cool soldier, stay off com.” I leaned in, checked the bay. Empty. “What’s your cargo, Captain?”

The helmet came off, the pilot shook out a dark ponytail. “Flyer. Plus two. Gaw-awd damn, it is you. With more hair. Sir. Major Riordan, sir.”

“Major’s been a while. They all inside, Captain,” I checked her sewn in ID, “LaSalle?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The Escalade?”

“One tall, tatted up disco refugee in a pea-green suit, plus two like the bookends over there. Even Steven.”

“Inside. They left you out here alone.” She clouded up, glanced down at the pistol strapped on her vest. “Ain’t skeered, Captain?”

“Yes, sir. I mean no, sir. I mean—”

“Go fuck yourself, sir? Good to know you have it under control, LaSalle, but your weapon needs to be where you can use it, not Velcroed to your vest.” I reached out left-handed, unhooked the SIG, set it in her lap. “One more time, I’m not a sir.”

“Yes, sir, you are. Flyer gave me your picture, told me to shoot you on sight so I looked you up. Major Riordan, the A-10 Maniac. They say you flew so low they picked Taliban pieces out of your fans.”

“That’s folklore. Why haven’t you shot me?”

“No way I shoot a pilot.” She glanced at the pistol in her lap and offered the faintest of smiles. “Commander Eisen said you knocked the side of a mountain down then wasted a convoy of leftover Russian trash to rescue a sharpshooter team.”

“Eisen was an old liar when I knew him. It was two sharpshooter teams and an eight-man squad. Only they rescued me. That’s the run got me fired.”  I noticed the remaining Jumbo security on his way back to the Cadillac, stepped into the chopper to keep my feet from being visible. “Can you do me a favor, Captain, and stay off com other than the mandatory yes sir no sir go fuck yourself sir?”

“Yes, sir. There’s no one on com but Flyer and his two suits. We’re off the grid, sir. So to speak. Flyer had another asset,” she paused, “but they went offline.”

“The Apache’s down.” I clocked her eyes. “Friends of yours?”

“Yes, sir.” Her eyes got bigger. “They’re not—”

“The Apache’s gone. The crew’s okay. Probably takin’ a long walk arguing about where’s the nearest farmhouse. Something those two should have been paying attention to before they blew up my plane. Deal on no com?” I lifted her helmet off the floor, handed it off. She held it in her lap on top of the pistol, momentarily lost in thought.

“Yes, sir.”

“When Jumbo over there turns his back, I’m headed around front to wait for the mail lady. Anyone besides your cargo, the mail lady or me pops out that back door, jack this thing up and get the hell gone. Deal again?”

“Yes sir. But sir—”

“Cargo, the mail lady or me. Otherwise, haul ass.”

“Yes sir. Sir, could that be considered a sexist remark?”

“Soldier, in uniform, from the back with a big stick in our hands? We’re all brothers.”

“Yes, sir. Go fuck yourself. Sir.”

I let her have that one because right then Jumbo turned his back, walked around the front of the Escalade facing away. I took off, ran to the side of the bank, hugged the wall until I was in front, next to the door. At least four armed, primed, and adversarial inside. Ng and Flyer were wild cards. I didn’t like it at all. I stuck the dead Jumbo’s earpiece in my ear.

“You’re shittin’ me. How the—”

“I dunno.” They were both working their secret agent whispers. “Just layin’ there, dog. Dead as a mother—”

“You didn’t hear nothin’?”

“Nothin’.”

“Shit, man… Dead how?”

“What I’m sayin’, dog. How the fuck do I know? He’s layin’ out front, half his head’s gone. You want me to text you a picture?”

“I have to tell the boss.”

“He’ll go ballistic, wanna start a fuckin’ war now. Wait till this plays. Maybe the spooks will slack his dance for us.”

“You’re thinking these smug government assholes will let us walk if Ng goes down, think again.”

“I’m not thinkin’, dog. I’m out here with the keys to an armored Escalade. It gets fucked up in there, fuck all of you, know what I… Mail truck, dog. This is it.”

***

Cavanaugh Moreno was playing herself in a USPS uniform and carrying a priority overnight Tyvek mailer. She walked straight to the door, didn’t look at me.

“I expected a disguise.”

“I am what I am,” she hissed. “This is my play.”

“Flyer the CIA man is in there. He knows you.”

“I know the situation.”

“Okay. I’m right behind you.”

“No, you’re not. You’ll fuck everything up if you go in now. You’re my ticket out, if I need one, not in.” She reached for the door handle, made eye contact with me. “Paro, for once just do what I tell you. No Rambo, no Superman. Don’t make targets out of either of us.”

“I thought we were robbing this bank. Together.”

We are. My way.” She grabbed the door handle, raised her voice. “United States Mail. Priority. Signature required.”

I sidled away from the door. Cool air escaped when she opened it. She stepped inside, closed it behind her. I had the Walther in a sweaty double grip, noticed my knuckles were white. I’d give her two minutes alone in there, then–

“Howdy, amigo.” I looked up, Rip Taylor was thirty feet away walking toward the bank, a 50 caliber Desert Eagle hanging in his right hand. He’d spoken to Backyard Jumbo, not me.

“Yo, old dog,” from Backyard Jumbo. “What’s your business?”

“You.” Rip’s gun flashed up in a quick arc up before it boomed. “Go on in, Paro. I have this.”

“I have a man,” shit, I lowered my voice, “out back.”

“We’ve met. I added myself to the list of who comes out before he levels it. I give you and the girl five minutes before I bring my issues to this table.”

“How will I know–”

“Trust me.”

Right. I tossed the first dead Jumbo’s radio next to him in the drainage ditch, stepped in front of the door, knocked, dropped to a crouch an instant before the door opened. A burst of automatic fire went off over my head, chest-high had I still been standing. I lunged into the Jumbo filling the door. He swung the Uzi at my head, caught my shoulder, my left arm went numb. I stayed down like I’d taken the headshot, slid the Walther into a pocket under cover of being dragged into the bank by my collar. I should have shot the whale but the only place Uzi’s are worth a damn is close confines, like a phone booth or this ancient bank, and I had no clue how many or where the others were. And Moreno was in there, somewhere, spinning ‘I’m Cavanaugh Moreno and it goes like this’. There’s an old saying about no matter how fucking crazy what you’re thinking about doing really is, you can always find someone to go along with you. That was me, sidekick poster boy.

 

 

NVDT #43 – Don’t Trip

The Prompt – What’s the most unusual experience you’ve ever had? Have you included it in one of your books?

HA!

The young woman who smelled like a sex, weed and alcohol all-nighter walked away down the terminal corridor, her phone in the hip pocket of skin-tight distressed jeans, unkempt ponytail a bouncing pendulum against a black, sprayed-on record company t-shirt.

“God she drives me nuts,” the guy on my right said. “Did you hear all that shit? What is she, twelve?”

“Marketing is full of star fuckers and picture leaners. She’ll wake up one day and hear the ‘hose bag with an Amex’ noises behind her and decide to turn pro.”

“Maybe. Or she’ll keep at it until she’s too old or fat to be cute and fuckable for AR and end up in inside sales. I need a beer.” He pushed himself out of the plastic airport bucket chair. “You?”

“No. But watch your step. The floor’s littered with all the names she dropped.”

“I just stole that one,” he said, kicking away imaginary obstacles. He turned, his foot sideways in a soccer pose. “Think I can hit the Burger King from here with Van Halen?”

***

The direct answer is yes and no. Not about Van Halen, but the prompt. I’ve mentioned before that I was in the music industry for 40 years. And everything that entailed. Everything. That’s a rich experiential tapestry, a deep well, a gold mine of… You get it. To explicitly recount the most unusual experiences would amount to telling tales out of school. By logical extension to use any of that material mandates the veil of fiction. However, my characters arrive with their own tales and I know better than to attempt control of the cosmic radio and do my best to stay out of their way with my nonsense.

In truth, we are the byproducts of our existence, and we occasionally, possibly subconsciously, populate our stories in familiar territory or with a peripheral character we might have known and forgotten.

But when I write? I keep at it like a reader to see how it ends because I don’t know, and I enjoy the ride.

For the sake of the prompt, I offer this from The Hot Girl III.

Since the ‘let’s share’ idea went over like a lead balloon, that’s all I’ve got this week.

 

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Pet Potato

The Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery continues –

“No white smoke,” I mused aloud, more for myself than Tavius.

“Smoke?” Tavius grunted, his eyes narrowed. “I asked did you have a helicopter plan, not–”

I dropped to my knees, pulled Tavius with me, pushed him over on his back. He growled something unintelligible, growled louder when I lifted his shoulder, drug his arm underneath. I tossed the weapons away down past our feet like we’d dropped them, stretched out, kept a leg bent at an angle that killed my knee. The helicopter was a mile or more off, traveling in a straight line east, sounded like they were following the road, low and slow. Recon and Target Acquisition mode.

“This is your plan, Paro? We get uncomfortable and wait for them to come kill us?”

“The plan is we’re dead. The more uncomfortable you look, the deader you look. And the ground is hotter than we are. A domestic crew running a company checklist that can’t make us with thermal imaging or movement will call us dead if we look dead. They might try to get us to jump. Part of the process. If they put anything down, I don’t care how close, don’t fucking move.”  I stared at the sky, remembered when I’d played dead in the blistering sand. Turned out what I thought would be the last sounds I’d ever hear was the ground squad and two snipers I’d cut loose from the Taliban.

Saw you eject, Hot Dog. Kinda low. Laughter. They try to send you a bill for the Hog, you tell ‘em send it to us.

The helicopter passed us, west to east, still a mile north, running the route of County Road N had it not hooked a hard right turn. They turned, headed our way running County Road O, the way Tavius and the pair of biker mercenaries had come. The chopper flew directly overhead, no more than fifteen feet off the ground. The twin-jet roar punished us, the rotor wash flattened the sorghum. The sorghum bounced back up when the chopper moved, hovered over the road roller, or maybe the blast site. I heard the tail rotor spin away and knew they faced us. We had their full attention, checking our thermal imprints, looking for movement. After a forever minute they gained altitude, drifted back north. The unmistakable hammer on an anvil sound of their 30mm cannon spitting out a dozen rounds rattled through the empty countryside, followed by half the rounds hitting nothing but dirt, then the Whoomppfff  that told me either Rip’s pickup or my Cub were no more. It was all I could do to stay down.

They washed over us again with more altitude, hammered out another dozen rounds within yards of us, waited for us to rise from the dead and run. We disappointed them. They continued to hover until, after enough delay to get further instruction, they flew off east, then north. Not so far that they were no longer part of the near-zero audio landscape, far enough that we were out of range.

“Smoke?” Tavius groaned.

“Yeah.” I’d had the epiphany. “Listen. The van went up. No white smoke. No white smoke, no dynamite. The dynamite yesterday wasn’t Usman. It wasn’t anyone inside.”

“Send him a card. Why’d the helicopter leave us alone?”

“Because we’re dead.” I stood up. “And not left completely alone. That was my plane just went up.”

“Your partners?”

“Too close to a gas well or they passed noncombatant scrutiny.”

“What they need an Apache for?”

They? That’s what I’ve been tryin’ to tell you. ‘They’ is you.”

“Now you’re fuckin’ with me just to be an asshole. My job, day one till now, is make sure you keep cooperating with Moreno. Hack your phones and your radio, follow you around, keep you both alive long enough to do whatever she’s supposed to do. I’m more’n half glad that goddam plane’s gone so I don’t have to listen to my handler bitch and call fool on me when you take off somewhere unannounced or she disappears. Nothing in my resource book about attack helicopters.”

“Your handler tell you about layin’ in a sorghum patch with a hole in your leg? How they set you up with a line of shit about the chiropractor and some rentabikers?”

Fuck no. Why would inside–”

“Lie to you, get you shot? Send an Apache to make sure you were gone or finish you,  blow up my plane and send pictures of all that shit home? Somebody up the food chain says lie to you, they lie to you.”

“You sayin’ the chiro’s not comin’?”

“Never was. You think that little shit and some armed bar rats rate an unmarked Apache?”

“Then who the—”

“Us, maybe.” I reached out, grabbed the M32 grenade launcher I’d tossed away. “More likely Ng’s posse.”

“Nobody but you’s said anything to me about Ng bein’ in this anywhere.” He eyed the grenade launcher. “What you plan on doin’ with that?”

“I plan to get even.” The Apache was on its way back, hammering out cannon rounds well over a mile away. I checked the M32, brushed it off.

Tavius rolled on his side. “You forget I been shot?”

The Apache swung down in a steep swing a quarter-mile away, faced away from us toward a slight rise in the road, hovered ten feet off the ground.

“They’re set up down there to close out whoever’s stupid enough to keep coming after the somos más badass deterrent strafe rounds we heard ‘em throw down a minute ago. They do their job,” I cradled the M32, “I’ll do mine.”

“Paro? You start talkin’ Spanish I get worried. What you mean ‘get even’?” I’d lowered to half squat, half standing, waded off through the Sorghum patch toward the helicopter. “What’d I ever do to you? Paro! Motherfucker, don’t you leave me here!”

***

Everybody’s a badass ‘till an Apache comes to town. I had a front-row seat to the Apache’s cannon making dog food out of a handful of pirates on motorcycles and a Ford custom van. Bodies and body parts flew from exploding motorcycles. The van collapsed in a ball of flames with the front end blown out from under it. Another round lit up the gas tank. The cannon hammering stopped, the Apache hovered, waited for any wounded to move, hammered out a few more rounds to be sure their mission kill score was a hundred percent. I knew the drill. The Apache would continue to hover, scanning the bodies for wounded to finish while one of the crew uploaded video, called in a cleanup crew, joked with com about how they’d smoked the ‘insurgents’. I fired two 40mm grenade rounds on top of each other into the tail rotor, didn’t wait to watch the gyro effect or the hard landing, but the power cut was obvious. Cocky assholes were about to find out Texas in the summer was a decent proving ground for wherever their next assignment landed them after losing an Apache to a supposed-to-be-dead man on a dirt road in the middle of domestic nowhere.

I jogged back, climbed up on the road roller, fired it up, shoved levers until it moved, crushed Tavius’s car. I shoved more levers, it reversed, pushed the concrete barriers aside the way a cowboy opens a saloon’s batwing doors. I dropped the key when I pulled it out trying to stop the thing. Never did manage to kill it. I grabbed the stainless Walther and clips on the way down, the roller ambled off through a field of high plains nothing at a quarter mile an hour.

Tavius had used the AR for a crutch to make it to the road. I pointed to the passenger seat of the Harley I’d started. He shook his head, loosened the tourniquet.

“I can ride.” He started the other Harley and made it to the pickup waiting in the road by my smoldering airplane.

“Somebody with a phone,” Dawson boomed, cop-like, while he helped me move Tavius to the back seat before Dawson took over the saddle. “Nearest hospital?”

“Shattuck. In Oklahoma,” Moreno said, phone in hand. “It’s–”

“Spent the night there one month,” Tavius shouted over the idling Harley, wrapped one arm around Dawson, pointed with the other. “Go.” The Harley roared off in the direction we’d come.

***

I sat in the open door of the pickup and chugged my second bottle of water. “Looks like the mail’s gonna be runnin’ late in Kerrigan today.”

Por qué? Are we not finished here?” Moreno, in my face, one hand on the door, one on the pillar. “You need last rites for your toy airplane?” She crossed herself. “Perhaps I should call a priest?”

“I need to think. Too many players, too much bullshit. The dynamite–”

“Think all you want, Paro, but not too much. Hora de ir a trabajar.” She let go of the truck, dropped her sunglasses on her nose, threw her left leg over the Harley I’d ridden, hit the starter and kicked dust all over Usman and me.

Usman rubbed his chin, consternation twisted his face. “What she say wit her barky bark words?”

“It’s time to go to work. Barky bark?” I fished another water out of the chest on the floor of the Ram.

“Yah. She talk dat shit, sound like dinky yap-yap dog I tink. Barky bark.” He tapped his fingers to his thumbs in a double hand puppet move to reinforce the yapping. “So what’s da what, Pilot? You shoot me now, leave me here?”

“You’re off the hook for the dynamite. Can’t kill you just because you’re not lovable.” I raised the truck bed cover, flipped cases open until I found the RPG. “We should have some fun before you drop me in Kerrigan.” I hefted the launcher. “You ever let one of these go?”

He shook his head no.

“It’s addictive.”

I drove us in closer to the grounded Apache, used a range finder scope to study the helicopter. Usman stood on the truck’s bed cover, wrestled with the launcher. I helped him get it stable on top of the cab before I unscrewed the detonator cover.

“Where dey now, Pilot?”

“Shufflin’ in the dust, workin’ on their story. Need ‘em to move away before you let that fly.”

Usman planted the RPG’s kick-up sight against his right eye. “Dey hear dis ting comin’, dey clear da fuck out.”

***

I’d told Usman he was free to do as he pleased after he dropped me in Kerrigan. He could abandon Rip’s truck somewhere after he knocked off a convenience store for some traveling cash or sell it to a chop shop or give it to some kid in the parking lot of an Arizona McDonalds. He looked sad when I hopped out on the edge of Kerrigan.

I took a few steps off the road, stopped, squatted on manicured grass in the shade of a giant pecan tree. I could smell fabric softener coming from the clothes hanging on a line a hundred feet to my left.

What a cluster. A relaxed morning, meet Woody and the biker mercenaries, let them blow themselves up with the van trap, pick off the stragglers. Forget that. With the entire crew now pissed off or dead, wounded or running off in different directions, no intel but what I could cobble together and no mission game plan in effect? I felt like the lone gunslinger in an old western movie where nothing moves but sweat. A lonely tumbleweed dances down an empty Main Street, bounces off a raised sidewalk, skips past shuttered storefronts, not a soul in sight.

I had an hour to wait for Moreno to deliver the mail at one o’clock. I don’t know what it is about tense situations that make you check your gun and your watch every two minutes, but it’s probably the same thing that made Michael Jackson grab his crotch a dozen times in a three-minute song. A need to make sure it’s still there, loaded, oiled, and ready when you need it. What I needed was some insight, some intel, some—

“Hey, Mister. You one a the helicopter people or a alien?”

Madre de Dios… I was so jumpy I almost shot her. Thirteen, fourteen, at most. Skinny legs in cutoffs almost to her knees. Worn, once-white Converses the size of snowshoes. A new, too big Metallica t-shirt with tour dates from the Seventies. No hat, dark bowl-cut hair. Darker eyes.

“Helicopter people?”

“The one parked over by the old bank. You hadn’t seen it?”

“I just got here.”

“Then you’re a alien.” Her eyes sparkled, lips tilted in an off-balance grin.

“I got here in a pickup.”

“Don’t matter.” The grin again. “What’s your name, Mister?”

“Paro. Comparo. You’re—”

“May. I shoulda been another April but Mom said April the Second was one April too many. We had a June already and since I was almost May she just rounded me up.” She held up three fingers. “April, May, an June.” The three fingers turned into an outstretched hand. We shook. “You some kind of Mexican, Mister Comparo?”

“Some kind.”

“Me, too.” She grinned straight up, showed some teeth. “Some kind. I ask, nobody can tell me exactly how much or when.”

“You worried about it?”

“No way.” She rubbed a copper arm. “I tan up good, turn Snow White in winter. Just curious is all.”

“Curious is good. Why’d you say I was an alien?”

“Ol’ Mathison, he ‘bout drove his truck through Miss Eggert’s house. Jumped out yellin’ ‘the world’s gettin’ blowed up east a town’.” She pulled a tin of Altoids from a pocket, offered. I held out my hand. She put one in the middle of my palm and pasted on that crooked grin again. “But Mathison finds any excuse he can to hit up Miss Eggert about aliens. Mom says it’s a wonder he gets anything done on his farm. June, my biggest big sister, she says he don’t have to work ‘cause he’s not farmin’ nothin’ but subsidies. I never ate one.” Her face devoid of emotion. “Have you?”

“Only when they’re in season.” I had to laugh. She joined me. “You seen anybody else around that doesn’t belong?”

“Like the NATO troops an the Chinese comin’ to take over? That’s who Flowers says made all that racket Mathison was goin’ on about. But Flowers, Mom says all that hair she hadn’t cut since 1970 an the stuff she used back then to bleach her brain, well… Flowers, she like had a pet potato for a couple years, went over to McDonalds in Shamrock one time to protest French Fries…” she gave me an are-you-getting-this look. “So she’s kinda, well, unreliable sometimes. But NATO, or Chinese, or it could be rainin’ sharks like on TV and Ol’ Mathison’d turn ‘em into aliens and drive up here ‘cause that’s Miss Eggert’s passion, aliens.”

“Whatta you think?”

“I think Flowers has forgotten all about NATO and the Chinese an is in her backyard dancin’ to invisible music, an Mathison is all about gettin’ himself some a Miss Eggert’s passion any way he can,” she snickered. “I don’t think you’re more helicopter people or the tattoo freak show that come in the big Cadillac looks like it’s from the mortuary. Or an alien, and you’re sure not a Chinese. Know what I really think?”

I cocked an eyebrow.

“You’re the reason the Sheriff told everybody to keep their heads down, go fishin’ or somethin’ but whatever, stay the heck away from the old bank today.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

NVDT #42 – Pilgrimages and Pugnuckling – Two-fer

The Prompt – Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage? If so, where and why?

Yes.

Physical: My daughter and I were guests when Dr. Wife received an invitation to stay at Exeter College, Oxford, all expenses paid, to present part of her dissertation Rhetorical Stance in William Morris (aka William Morris – Reluctant Rhetorician) at the William Morris Centennial. Inundated with Pre-Raphaelites for a week. Went to Kelmscott House or Manor, visited the graves. In London we went to the Tate. While the academics pontificated my daughter and I ran rooms of several other museums (I have an addiction to late Taylor) the rooms and gardens and the alleys of Oxford, walked in the footsteps of Dexter’s Inspector Morse, ate tiny, expensive deli sandwiches and ice cream on the High Street, got off the main drag and collected a pile of local punk band handbills and EP promo from a sympathetic CD/record shop owner. (Who took one look at obliging shaggy Dad and knee-high Doc Martens teenage daughter and saved himself a trip to the dumpster). Rode in a bus the width of the road (with a few academics of questionable hygiene) throughout Oxfordshire and the villages where Marple and Midsomer and Morse turn up all those bodies. I stood in front of a 900-year-old ivy-covered cornerstone where education was taking place while, where I live today, indigenous people were living a prehistoric lifestyle. Just like the rest of us are now.

The other pilgrimage: Occurs every time I drive down to Half Price Books World Headquarters on NW Highway east of Central Expressway. Mask and sanitizer at the ready I visited as long ago as yesterday. More books and music, holy moly. First editions, hardback classics, old original pulps, coffee table books out the wazoo. Self-help, textbooks, sheet music, religion, philosophy mystery, classic fiction… to quote James Brown, “Good Gawd j’awl!”

The real pilgrimage: Every time I open a book it’s a pilgrimage. Of style, substance, structure. I’m a content person. Which brings me to the real meat here. What do we learn from pilgrimages? I won’t dwell on the awful stuff. Here’s the other part of the two-fer I mentioned, garnered from opening a book.

Two-fer

Pugnuckling: When the right word is the wrong word. What do you do? Well, pugnucklers, you make one up.

I busted on Faulkner’s earliest works, drenched in adverbs and repetitive descriptions. But by The Reivers he’d hit his stride and turned the voices of the South into a raucous, racy, whimsical, colorful, sweet as a Magnolia blossom cacophony.

From William Faulkner’s The Reivers.

“It ain’t fair that it’s just women can make money pugnuckling while all a man can do is just try to snatch onto a little of it while it’s passing by.”

How smooth was that? I drop F-bombs like Tarantino or Chili Palmer. However, in my latest excursion, I have characters who have agreed to substitute Madre de Dios for motherfucker when used as a ‘shakin’ my head’ or ‘what else can go wrong’ sentiment.

Bonus. I say we kick the responses to these prompts up a notch. Not that I object to all the subsequent to response marketing hype because I skip the boring parts. I say we respond and offer a chapter, a scene, of something of ours that represents the prompt. Like this week. Who has a pilgrimage out there? Every book has somebody, going someplace, to learn something. Even if it’s a junkyard or a hotel or a library or a graveyard or a dive bar full of aliens and informants. This blog hop is a perfect venue and what a great way to learn something specific from each other. Did you have trouble? Why did character X go there? Did it work? No shit really, I’d gladly read chunks of WIPs or books instead of skipping the “And then I wrote the book/series that made the whole world sing” stuff. Save that for the market. What’s the ever-popular catchphrase, show, don’t tell?

So, I’ll drop one, fear of exposing mediocrity in check. Here’s a link to a pilgrimage bit.

PART OF OPEN LINK BLOG HOP

Rules:
1. Link your blog to this hop.
2. Notify your following that you are participating in this blog hop.
3. Promise to visit/leave a comment on all participants’ blogs.
4. Tweet/or share each person’s blog post. Use #OpenBook when tweeting.
5. Put a banner on your blog that you are participating.

Oreo

Dawson stepped down from the driver’s side of the van, Muller walked around to meet him laughing, ricocheting off the van. Muller joined in the overdone laughter, both of them finger-pointing about who cut the fart. They threw in a few distracting theatrical fore-and-aft bends with a lot of hand movement. I wasn’t buying.

“Hands where I can see ‘em, the fart act is spare. Muller, you can pull the party store contacts when the dust settles.” He frowned, went slope-shouldered hangdog.

Dawson beamed me a game show host smile. “Hey, pilot, you wake up alone or what?”

“Let’s cut the shit. Whoever you are, who the fuck you belong to?”

I waited what I felt appropriate for a ‘busted, gather thy bullshit’ stall, brought the pistol to bear sighted on Dawson’s forehead. He froze.

“That bitch is cocked.”

“Said one two-dollar whore about another. I asked a question.”

Muller, who had yet to say a word, shot Dawson a look. “We’re done.” Muller went on in a nasal monotone. “He’s Secret Service. I’m Treasury.”

“Good thing I didn’t shoot you both when you got out of the van.”

“Now that,” Dawson said, “would be a shit pile of paperwork for somebody. Care to know why?”

“Fuck that, Dawson,” Muller moaned. “He doesn’t care. He’s gonna kill us like he killed Wheeler, and then he’ll do the Polak and the woman when they get here and fly off into the sunset with Ng’s money.” The man sounded like Eeyore of the Treasury.

“I didn’t kill Wheeler. ‘The woman’ is who got me into this circus.” I raised my chin an inch in their direction. “Storytime.”

“I’ll go first.” It was Dawson’s turn to check Muller. “Don’t sweat it, Muller. His jacket said he only kills immediate threats or assholes that piss him off. I don’t think your fart routine pushed us over the edge.” Dawson turned back to me saying,

“For years somebody’s been flying money out of the country for Ng’s cartel. His loss rate is less than 1%. The average is forty, forty-five percent because we tag most of them at least once a year. A high percentage of that loss is down to inexperienced, disposable pilots.”

“Pictures of your crew on the news pulling cellophane-wrapped cash out of Laguna Madre a couple times a year with an upside-down plane in the background is job security?”

“Yeah,” Dawson rolled his neck, pulled on the t-shirt stuck to his chest. “But Ng, he’s got an honest to God pilot, if not an airforce, that’s invisible.”

“I see a lot of agencies in that, none Secret Service.”

“National security. Border politics have a room temperature flashpoint. Depending on the day, either side of the aisle can use the borders to bank political capital. Borders are nothing but lines on a map to Ng.” He was sweating like a dirt farmer. “It’s not front-page news, but it’s in too many agency and committee reports. Where I’m from Ng is an untouchable border running terrorist who’s beyond the daily finger-pointing. Everyone in Washington has the same intel, but no one can leverage it without setting their own pants on fire. And uncontrollable shit like Ng mocking the border, maybe leaking, maybe making headlines, makes everyone who wants to get re-elected nervous.” He knocked a drop of sweat from the tip of his nose with a knuckle, careful and obvious with his hands, looked me in the eye. “I know you understand me when I say I’ve got way bigger guns pointed at me than yours.”

I understood. In fact, that was the first hint of anything that sounded like bankable truth I’d heard.

“So, Pilot,” Dawson flashed the game how host smile again, “since we’re all hanging out here in the wind without a net in deniability fuckedville together, you wouldn’t want to lower your weapon, would you?”

“No. But I feel your pain. Muller?”

“More of the same,” he droned. “When we knew for sure Ng’s accountant was a dead man walking, we needed to be inside, see what he planned to do with the code and try to get our hands on it. I drew the short straw.” He sighed, slow and deep. “Then the Mexican split tail… We never saw her coming. She fucked everything up.”

Dawson snorted. “You should have left the chiropractor out of it.”

“That wasn’t me,” Muller flashed, suddenly alive. “Blame that on Wheeler or the fuckin’ Polak.” Muller caught his breath, held up his hand. “I can’t take another second of these goddamn things.” He bent, plucked out his contacts, flicked them off his fingers, stayed down a fraction too long, came up pulling the slide on a pocket-size automatic. I put a round through the center of his neck, right below his Adam’s apple. He gawked, shimmied from bottom to top, dropped like a bag of cement.

Everything went back to hot and still for a long minute.

“Now that,” Dawson wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, “was a hell of a shot. And you,” he pursed his lips, pushed the lump of Muller with his foot. “That was fucking stupid.”

***

Dawson helped me load Muller in the back of the van, pulled a couple of cold bottles of water from a styrofoam cooler before we shut the lift gate. We went back, sat on the barrier. Dawson took a deep pull on his water, wiped his lips.

“I never thought he was Treasury, or anything legit. The money the Mexican chick keeps waving under our noses is counterfeit.”

“That it is.”

“Good for you. Muller didn’t know.”

“You’d think a Treasury agent would’ve noticed. But it’s good counterfeit.”

“That it is,” he echoed, tapped my water bottle with his.

I chugged the entire contents of my water. “FYI, the ‘Mexican chick’ is from Orange County.”

“Orange County? Had me fooled.”

“I think that’s her job.”

“Jesus.” He chuckled, way back in his throat, drained his water. “Who’s she working for?”

“You ever see that Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest?”

“You’re saying you don’t know?”

“I am.”

“If it matters, she lights up a little when you’re in the picture. A tell like that around anyone more observant than this crew could get her killed.”

“For a year I thought it had.” I pointed my empty bottle at the van. “Is there more water in there?”

“Yeah,” Dawson slid off the barricade, turned, squinted at the sun. “We should get it now before Muller starts to cook.”

***

Dawson’s holstered weapon was on the van’s console. I picked it up, he grabbed the cooler, walked back and set it on the barrier. I handed him the holstered Smith and Wesson .40. A real cop gun. He looked sheepish.

“Got careless role-playing this one. Straight I work in a shoulder rig, but it’s too fucking hot to wear a jacket and none of the others were crazy to carry.”

“Shoulder holsters scream cop. So does this point forty. It can’t be issue, you’re supposed to be a con.”

“Usman’s got a small flight case full of supposedly clean handguns.”

“Moreno said you took target practice this morning. He any good?”

“Usman? Fuck no. All the finesse of a hand grenade.” He laughed, belted his holster on his left side, butt forward in a cross draw position. “But what he shoots, that’s all he needs. He hit a scrawny tree trunk at close to a hundred yards with that grenade launcher.”

“You?”

“Camp Lejeune. Quantico. Qualifying, nothing special. Not,” he nodded toward the van, “like your ‘lights out’ drop.”

“Plenty of downtime at Bagram. I spent it burning rounds with soldiers who knew how. Like you said, nothing special.”

“No bars or medals, maybe. But that was sharpshooter work.”

“Was it?” The dust trailing behind a white dually pickup signaled the not too distant arrival of Usman and Moreno. “What’s your story when they ask about Muller?”

“The truth, Pilot.” He checked his pistol for a chambered round, slid it back into his holster. “He got stupid, he got dead.”

***

“He’s dead?” Moreno raised one eyebrow, turned, pointed at the van. “In there?”

“Baking,” Dawson said. “We pulled the cooler before he got too ripe.”

Moreno’s eyebrow came down. “With the money? Paro, tell me you—”

“Nope, still in there. I have a plan for Woody’s crew. Dawson, put the key in the ignition.” I grabbed Usman by the back of his neck. “You, set the alarm.”

“I give you da code one time. You set it.”

“Fine. Climb in the back with Muller and I’ll give it a go.” I loosened my grip, he shrugged away.

“I should do it, I tink. Your fucking psycho memory maybe not so good.”

“You tink?” I raised the bedcover on the white pickup, started opening flight cases until I found the automatic rifles, grabbed one, pulled a grenade launcher out of its case and shouldered it. Moreno, the only one of us not sweating, her white capris and pale lavender sleeveless top still crisp, put her hand on my arm.

“Paro?”

“I’ll go sit in that field of red sorghum and wait. You take this truck back a half-mile down the road behind my Cub. Get off the road if you can. Look like you belong. Behind a gas well or something.

“With… them?”

“They haven’t bothered you up to now.”

Ahora es diferente.

“Not so different. Unless one of them has figured out who you really are.”

“Not a chance. But I would prefer to be armed.”

I flipped open the boxy case of handguns, pulled it to the edge of the bed.

“Insurance?”

Si.” She stepped up on the tire, leaned over, picked up a few, dropped them back, finally settled on a small Ruger 9mm. She checked the clip, popped it back in, slipped it in the waistband of her shorts, behind her back.

“Dawson’s Secret Service,” I offered. “Probably shoots like a cop.”

“I have seen. Clusters of three.” She smiled. “When the requirement is one, well-chosen.”

She walked to the driver’s side door, opened it, said, “I’m still driving.” She got no argument, climbed up, drove them around the van, and back down the road.

***

I had just gotten situated in the sorghum patch when Tavius’s maroon Lincoln, missing glass and full of bullet holes, skidded sideways and banged to a crunchy stop against the road roller. He stumbled out, one leg bloody, fell back against his car. I heard motorcycles stop down to idle not far away.

Madre de Dios

I cradled the AR in my right arm. With my left I half carried, half dragged Tavius back into the sorghum. I dropped him, ripped his left pants leg open. He had a through and through on the outside of his thigh. No veins, no bone.

“Lucky.”

“I’m shot, motherfucker.” He tilted his head back, clenched his teeth when I cinched a strip of his jeans around his upper thigh. “How lucky is that?”

I ripped his t-shirt down the front, rolled a thin strip, and plugged the hole.

“Not bleed to death lucky. I heard bikes. What happened?”

“The old fucker…”

“Rip?”

“That one. First blockade in Oklahoma. He shows around midnight in a flatbed with lift arm, a crew and some Jersey Barriers like what you got here. Told me no car sideways in the road, even a cop car would be any deterrent to what was coming. He had them drop barriers across 15, told me to beat it if I wanted to keep breathin’.”

“Wondered where he was off to last night. Looks like you didn’t beat it hard enough.”

“Funny. I drove down 283 to what passes for civilization out here, pulled into a Chevrolet dealer’s lot. Caught three hours of z’s before I turned up here.”

Stop moanin’ and keep talkin’.”

“I’d cleared the Braums dairy and two bikes fly out from either side the road.” He glared down at me while I used a piece of broken drip irrigation pipe to tighten the improvised tourniquet. “Goddam, Paro, you are some kind of sadistic motherfucker.”

“You’re not dying but we need to get you outta here.”

“Plan?”

“Unless you just fucked it up.” I handed him my bottle of water. He dumped it over his head, shook it off like a wet dog.

“Good to know a brother you can count on.”

***

Two skinny, sunburned bikers in unbuttoned, sleeves cut off flannel shirts over wife beaters, jeans and heavy boots rode up on full dress Harley road bikes. They stopped, dismounted, each shouldered an assault rifle and walked around Tavius’ car, poking the rifles through windows, popped the trunk. After a short eternity they started our direction, stopped at the edge of the road.

“It’s the nigger’s game we go in the patch after him. Fact he could have us sighted in rat now.”

The other one scuffed the ground with his boot. “He did he’d a been on us a-ready an we’d be bleedin’ with him.” He pointed his rifle at some blood on the white dust. “No vehicle, no way to get nowhere. He’s gonna die out here.”

“I’m wonderin’ why here?”

“Plannin’ to meet somebody? Could be some somebodies was waitin’ on him an us.”

We need to let ’em know this road’s blocked like the last one?”

“Naw. That van we saw to the other side when we come rollin’ up needs checkin’ out first.” He spit, shouldered his rifle. “Our nigger’s good as dead or he’d a let us know he weren’t.” They both snickered, backed away together until they were on the far side of the road roller.

Tavius tugged my sleeve. “A true brother would go shoot the one called me a nigger.”

“That would be both of them. No need.”

“You tellin’ me a card carryin’ Oreo can afford to endorse racism?”

I torqued the tourniquet on his thigh. He choked on a scream that would have vanished in the blast. The ground rolled us up like we were riding a wave, dropped us, smacked us on its way up to level as if the Jolly Green Giant had shaken the field like a dirty rug. We huddled, heads covered. It took a minute for the debris to stop falling. We uncovered to counterfeit bills overhead that floated and fluttered, a flock of flat, drunk birds. We stood up together, his arm around my shoulder.

“Fuck me, Oreo,” he gave me an iron man squeeze. “You did have a plan.” He lifted his head skyward at the sound of an approaching helicopter. “What you got in mind for that?”

Caliche

I raised my head off the bed, reached out and palmed the phone. Rip. Two minutes before the alarm would’ve gone off at 0600.

“What?”

“What? What sorta mess you leave me, Sleeping Beauty?”

“Oh… Shit. That.” I rolled up to sitting, dropped the phone on the bed, rubbed my eyes.

“In the hangar… Dogs…”

“At this rate I’ll wait for the movie. Pick up the goddam phone or put it on speaker.”

“Right…” One of those sounded like an excellent idea, but all I could do was rub my face and stare at the phone.

“Paro?”

“Yeah, yeah…” I picked up the phone, stuck it to my ear, leaned forward elbows to knees. “There were two of ‘em. They killed one of your dogs, enjoyed it too much. Got ‘em in the hangar… The other dogs…” I hadn’t heard him laugh out loud for a while.

“Didn’t leave ‘em in there all night, didja?”

“I let the dogs out after twenty minutes or so.”

“Good. The dogs’ll fuck with somebody till they’re dead, but they won’t eat ‘em. Guess we taste funny. Wish I’d been there.”

“Assholes would’ve never made it to the hangar.”

“If they’d a killed the dog before I killed them, though, think I’d a sent ‘em to their knees an let the dogs finish it, same as you. Only outdoors. Why is it you always gotta make a goddam mess?”

I didn’t have an answer for him, but I’d fumbled my way into the kitchen. “Where’re you hidin’ the loads for this Keurig?”

“You too lazy to make a real cup a coffee?”

I didn’t have an answer for that, either.

“They’re in the second drawer there, underneath. You know where the Bobcat’s parked?”

“The baby ‘dozer? Yeah. Jesus, is this Keurig plumbed for water?”

“Double filtered. Don’t fuck with it. Turn it on, stuff one of those plastic jobs in its mouth, push the button, drink it if you can stand it. I’ll get hold of somebody to clean up.”

“Cops, or Sheriff or–”

“Paro, need you to wake the fuck up, son. Nobody in any kinda uniform is on your side an you got work to do.”

“But I have two, three hours–”

“No, you don’t. Listen. Need you to make sure the Bobcat’ll start so I can send people out there to mop up. Then you an your puddle jumper need to be in the air an gone.”

“What’s the big damn hurry?”

“That unmarked UH-72 helicopter the CIA man with the high dollar scotch dropped by in? The one the polite, heavily armed uniformed children come lookin’ for the money in? It’s on its way again. No way you’re outrunnin’ it in your little Cub so you need to be at ten, twelve thousand feet going the other way now.”

“Whoever’s comin’ has radar. They can follow–”

“They don’t wanna follow you, Paro. They don’t want you in the air. Period. People like the dog killers disappear every day. You’re another likely if you don’t hit it damn quick.”

“What if they find the bodies, or—”

“Nobody in that chopper gives a damn about any dead bodies other’n yours. They see you’re gone? They’re gone. Stop askin’ questions. Git.”

The hurry and get out only to end up waiting at the convict and Moreno rendezvous point wasn’t the way I’d wanted to start the day, but Rip was right. A UH-72 in the air wasn’t cause for alarm. They weren’t designed as combat machines, but on the ground they could easily deliver eight combat troops loaded for bear. Or a Company hotshot with a crew of black balaclava-clad erasers looking to make someone disappear. Whatever the payload, if Rip’s heads-up call was on the money, I’d have been standing in the kitchen in my birthday suit, drinking another half cup of Keurig almost coffee when they arrived.

***

I walked through a hot shower, balled up the camo jumpsuit, stuck my feet in the flip-flops, and air-dried on the way to the Cub. I fished out my next-to-last pair of disposable boxer briefs from a bag under the seat, found some not too objectionable socks stuffed in my desert boots. I dressed, trotted down to the Bobcat front-loader, made sure it would start for the cleanup crew. On the way back I stopped at the old red Ram, grabbed the Walther PPK S along with a box of ammunition and two spare clips. I lifted the pickup bed cover, discovered the gym bag with three million dollars in it was missing. Moreno. She either needed it to bait the convicts into twenty-four more hours of service or fund her disappearance.

Either way, if I got to the best-case engagement rendezvous and found out I was playing solo I’d turn around and keep traveling.

Bullshit.

What a bucket of talk. I had far too many unanswered questions for everyone involved in this circus. It felt good, though, to say I could walk away from the Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery by brushing my hands together.

***

I’d climbed through 10,000 feet and trimmed out on a North-Northeast heading towards Lipscomb County Road N when I spotted the Lakota helicopter 3,000 feet below me, chugging along in the opposite direction. The helicopter didn’t turn around, didn’t raise me on the radio for an ID. Whoever they were, they had their order blinders on. Stay on course, one scenario, one outcome. I’d almost gotten killed doing that for the same breed of “intelligence community” people. They’d ‘purged’ me for making them look stupid, and here I was in the middle of their shit. Again. I didn’t have time for the who’s stupid now game. I knew without playing.

***

I flew over the engagement area, an intersection of secondary, unpaved roads in the eastern Texas panhandle. There were a few perfect, green circles of irrigated crops, the rest of the area was flat, high plains scrubby grassland dotted with oil and gas wells that stood out from the green and brown on bright white four hundred foot diameter Caliche pads.

I banked in from the west and County Road N presented as a seven-mile-long straight shot of more white Caliche. Utility poles, wires and fences on the side, nothing to fly over getting in or out. Landing on an unknown surface concerned me. Ground up and mixed with coarser chunks of itself Caliche forms a decent surface for unpaved rural roads in this part of the world but it’s not always smooth and the gravelly version wasn’t what I wanted to land on. The snow white color made it impossible to determine texture unless you were right up on it. But the fields of saw grass knots and waves of irregular sand mixed with solid Caliche outcroppings and gas wells on either side were worse.

I lined up low a mile west of where I wanted to drop, with over a mile in front of me after I hit. I floated in so low the Cub kicked up a sizeable dust cloud before I leveled out, cut the throttle back and held my breath for that instant before flying machine meets ground. The surface wasn’t glass, but it wasn’t heavy gravel. I taxied to the edge of the road, swung the tail around into the rough grass where I waited for the white dust cloud to settle before climbing down into a hot, no breeze middle of nowhere morning.

I’d left myself a decent walk. A half a mile on N before it turned right into another mile on 23 to the best-case engagement where 23 dead-ended into County Road O. I decides to cut across a scrubby pasture where I skirted a couple of gas wells and a Caliche gravel pit. A route that saved me time, a nose full of dust, drenched me in sweat and tried its damndest to twist my ankles. I got to the intersection, found two ten foot long thirty-two-inch high concrete barriers laid end to end across County Road O. Parked on the far side of the barriers and facing east sat a huge, white-dust-covered yellow and rust road roller. Its presence explained why my landing surface was better than expected. No one was driving around that road-width roller without driving into the drainage ditch, a solid wall of Caliche, or facing out into barbed wire. The barriers were a bonus.

***

I put one of the concrete barriers between me and the scorcher of morning Sun and sat facing west, feet flat, thighs to my chest. Thought about a cigarette. Not the first one that would make me feel like shit, but the pacifier effect of the subsequent ones. Without them I settled into edgy, fidgety, vigilant boredom. The boredom you feel waiting for the event you know is coming that will turbocharge your adrenaline production. The Moreno gift phone buzzed, startled me. I patted a few pockets until I found it, popped it out, tapped the red dot.

“Paro?” Moreno, her voice encapsulated in road noise.

“Shoot.”

“Perhaps there is the better choice of words? Donde?”

“Engagement.”

Gracias, amor, I didn’t think you cared. You’re early.”

“I had to get out before el lechero.”

“The milkman?”

“Figure of speech. What do you know about Gerald Ng?”

“Geral-deen? The Milkman? Estoy perdido, Paro, you confuse me. Make sense, por favor.”

“Forget it. ETA?”

“Twenty minutes, perhaps. We, um,” she faltered, “we also achieved the early start. The gentlemen wished to make shooting practice.”

“They let you shoot?”

“No.”

“You in Rip’s truck?”

Si. With the weapons, also. As you asked.”

“Alone?”

“No.”

“Shit. You have the money?”

No, pero el dinero debería llegar pronto.” She barked ‘okay’ to someone in the background. “It will be there, with you, very soon. In the van with Señores Muller and Dawson. Paro?” She hesitated, dropped “Ten cuidado mi amor, estos hombres no son quienes dicen…” at triple speed. I heard Usman tell her to shut up with the Spanish and the phone clicked off.

‘Be careful my love, the men are not who they say they are.’ Thanks, Cav, but I’d picked that up early on. Usman was the only legitimate badman. A B-grade thug at best and a minor player in the arms trade game. ‘Bax’ Wheeler, AKA Third Eye Horseapple Nose, had been Flyer the CIA hotshot’s plant. Maybe he was a con, but the little time I’d spent around him he smelled like a professional weasel, a career informant. Muller was playing damaged, threatening psychopath for reasons unknown. Not wearing the crazy eye contacts in the same eye every day had given him away. The other tallish one, Dawson, had a bogus convict sheet planted in the systems on his behalf in case anyone went looking. He was some brand of undercover or ex-cop with cop and service tats and million-dollar teeth. Not a forger, much less a con.

Judging by the dust rising on County Road N behind the ‘convict’s’ van, I didn’t have long to wait to find out. If they stopped and fucked with my plane instead of driving around it, I’d have to shoot first when they arrived. I vaulted over to the east side of the concrete barrier, checked the Walther for a chambered round. Out of curiosity, I climbed up on the road roller to see what cover it could offer. The key, attached to six inches of worn, braided leather the thickness of a shoelace, was in the ignition lock. Whoever owned the roller must’ve figured it was too slow to steal and too big to hide. I scrambled down, walked to the barricades, the Walther behind my back, safety off, finger on the trigger.

Geraldine?

Tave’s note had come from a handheld field printer, a device favored by ticket writing motorcycle cops and intelligence junkie spies.

Shit. Tavius was a closet ice cream junkie, and I needed to watch my back? Because the Dead Bodies in Shamrock weren’t known associates of anyone involved? Fuck. More wild cards.

I pulled the note between my index and middle fingers, curling it in the process. A few miles west of Tavius’s Braum’s Dairy the county roads went “improved,” but unpaved. It was also so flat we’d have nowhere to hide. The good news was Woody’s crew would kick up a dust cloud on the way in. The bad news was they might be able to use it for cover. Regardless of intel, recon and prep, combat scenarios were never ideal.

I called Moreno, gave her the ETA and Best Case engagement crossroads, and suggested the convicts should split up the weapons, maybe steal a vehicle to replace their van since everyone involved was at least vaguely aware of its contents. We went back and forth over everything because she was who she was, and that’s how she was. We agreed on a one-hour early recon on 23, just north of where it T’ed with O road.

***

I did take Cav’s earlier advice and ventured out to rummage around in my meager storage container leftovers for some clothes. Most of what I found were things I swore I’d never wear again. My airline pilot apprentice uniforms, some Uptown Barbie’s Ken outfits, a few pieces of designer workout gear to be worn but not sweated in. They’d do in a pinch. I kept digging, hit paydirt when I uncovered the “hunting attire” I’d been given on the pretense I would dress up like Duck Dynasty meets Rodeo Drive and go hunting with my once upon an almost wife’s menfolk. The “attire” was still in the REI bag. I didn’t hold with hunting for sport, except Taliban, which was why most of my wilderness drop hunters were survivalists. I had no room in the Cub for homeward bound trophies, and the rule was if they killed it, they ate it. Or left it for the buzzards. All they got to bring home for bragging rights were selfies with a carcass. To each their own.

The “hunting attire” proved to be no more than an expensive camo jumpsuit with a hundred Velcro closure pockets, including an infamous Velcro fly. The whole thing made from lightweight, ventilated moisture-wicking fabric. My desert boots were in the Cub. All I needed was a pair of socks and underwear I didn’t hate.

Every bruise, abrasion, puncture I’d suffered from the wall pushing me into the street let themselves be known when they met the stiff newness of the jumpsuit. It chafed and made noise when I moved. I walked back to the house in it, commando, in flip flops, turned the hose on over my head, soaked the suit and myself to the bone, sat down on a webbed patio chair to air dry.

***

I must have dozed off because I was dry when the unmistakable insect whine of dirt bikes snapped me awake. Call me suspicious, but after being shot at and two too close for comfort dynamite explosions earlier, I couldn’t think of one good reason for dirt bike riders in the middle of 900 square miles of nowhere. At 1:17 in the morning.

I trotted inside, through the kitchen, down the long dark hall, made the right at the end into almost total darkness, punched in the code to let me in the back door of the office that was the front of the house. Rip had a ten-inch kickstand tablet on the top of a corner file cabinet, the tablet’s sole purpose to monitor his security cameras. I touched the screen to wake it up, finger fanned through several pages of screens sectioned into quad views looking for the dirt bikes. Nothing. I flipped another, still nothing. I pulled out my phone, punched Rip’s number.

“C’mon,” I drummed my fingers on the file cabinet, “answer your goddam –”

“You got company, Paro.” I could hear heavy machinery in the background, a big diesel chugging.

“Can you see where?”

“Due south. Eight hundred yards, closin’ on foot. Night goggles are in the bottom desk drawer. The second switch calls the dogs to the work hangar. Meet ’em there.”

“Why –”

“Do it. There’s a Kalashnikov in that skinny broom closet by the fridge, grab it on your way out. Take it to ’em, Paro, don’t wait around inside and fuck up my house playin’ amateur night at the OK Corral.”

I suppose I’d hoped for a plan. Something besides, “Don’t fuck up my house.” He was right. Badmen who didn’t know, or care how far sound carried from their attack transport was amateur night. I flipped the second switch, as directed, grabbed the night goggles, and beat it back to the kitchen. Only Rip would have ultrasonic dog whistle transducers scattered around the property and a ten-round Russian semi-automatic shotgun in the kitchen closet. One of these days I’d have to ask him why, beyond his usual crackhead burglars response. My handful of shotgun was emerging from the cabinet along with that thought when I heard a single handgun Pop. It sounded like a quarter of a mile away. I put on the night visions, crawled out the back door onto the patio. I’d nailed the distance. One of the two biker-ish types, not so heavy as this morning’s DB, was pushing something with his foot. I tweaked the focus.

Madre de Dios…The motherfucker’d shot one of Rip’s dogs…

I took off running toward the work hangar, flip flops flapping, while the dirt bikers admired their dog killer’s handiwork. I heard three more Pops, different guns, punctuating each other while I edged around to the work hangar’s back door. I shushed the dogs who’d gathered, ushered them inside. I said, “Set,” heard them disappear into the depths of the hangar.

I rolled a mammoth tool chest into the middle of the hangar and parked it before I checked through the row of small windows on the big front hangar door. I saw the two laughing while they continued to pump rounds, Pop, Pop, Pop into the dead dog’s carcass. It made me sick, and it was all I could do not to raise the door and cut them in half with the shotgun.

When they started toward the house, I hit the exterior floodlights and engaged the front hangar door opener. They turned toward the hangar, determined, and erect. Another pair of wild west movie cowboys, from the same casting call as the mercs in Kansas, with far worse tailors. Likely far less skilled than the mercs, but equally dangerous in an undisciplined, unpredictable way. I took the opportunity, with their night eyes blown out by the mercury vapor floods to call them out from behind the tool chest.

“How many times you assholes gotta shoot a dog?”

“So the motherfucker owns it,” the one on my left walked my way and talked, “knows we aren’t here to fuck around.”

“Heard there might be a dog problem,” from the one on my right, drifting further right to get some distance from the other one. “Old an slow. Not much of a dog. Not much of a problem.”

“What kinda sick fuck sends sicker fucks out to shoot a man’s dog?”

Left sider bark laughed. “Gerald Ng.”

“Geraldine? Who the fuck is Geraldine?”

“Gerald. Ng.” They shot each other looks, laughed. “Not Geraldine. Man thinks you know somebody stole something belonged to him, landed a plane here.” 

“Ol’ Jerry. Always good for a laugh.” Who the hell was Jerry Ng? “Which one of you badasses shot the dog for Jerry?”

“That was me,” left sider said, “And it’s Gerald, motherfucker. He hates Jerry.”

“Jerry Motherfucker. I’ll remember that. He hire you ’cause you got that John Wayne walk down or you walkin’ pigeon-toed ’cause killin’ dogs makes your dick hard?”

They both let go of another wasted round, almost in unison. This time into the hangar instead of a dead dog.

“Hard to hit something’s not wagging its tail? Funny, I didn’t see you retards re-clip.”

They were inside of twenty yards. I flipped on the hangar work floods, and when left sider reached for his clip pouch, I dusted his feet with buckshot. Not a direct hit, close enough to catch some damaging pellets, even in boots. The shotgun auto chambered another round with a reassuring ka-chunk, and I buckshot dusted the one on my right.

“A little late to get smart, gentlemen. Step inside. Promise I’ll give you a better chance than you gave the dog.”

The one on the right held his hand up to shade his eyes from the lights, squat scrambled into the hangar. He tried to find me, fired wild once, twice. The slide on his pistol kicked back and stayed. The left-sider, Dog Shooter, blood staining the low end of his jeans, had stopped to shake his feet and call me names. He looked up, pissed off all over his face, started to raise his pistol. I shot just in front of his feet again.

“Don’t wanna kill you yet, Dog Shooter. You’re invited to a party.”

His pistol had stalled on the way up, his face screwed up against more buckshot in his toes. “I come in there, you pussy, ambushin’ motherfucker, the only party’s gonna be me fuckin’ your ass up. You gotta reload that son of a bitch sometime to kill us and when you do –”

“Shut up and get in here, Dog Shooter. I don’t have all night.”

I could see him think about his gun, what kind of shotgun did I have, was I bluffing. But he shuffled into the hangar, trailing blood streaks on the dusty concrete. When he was closer in it appeared I’d done more damage to his feet than I thought. What looked at first like boots turned out to be blood-soaked high-top Converses. Live and learn. At least he was still walking. I punched the remote and the hangar door wound down behind them.

Empty still had his eyes shielded. “Where the hell are you? You said you’d make it fair. Lemme reload. Then we’ll see –”

“I lied.”

I stepped out from behind the tool chest. They gawked for an instant at the clip on the 12 gauge. I anticipated Dog Shooter’s move, blew his gun hand off before he raised the pistol. He screamed, held up the stump, his eyes as wide as ping pong balls. Blood squirted over his head, showered back down on him.

“Better tie that off for him,” I pointed the shotgun at Empty, “or he’ll bleed to death before the party starts.”

Dog Shooter alternated his screams between AhhHEEEE and  Muh-ther-FUCKER,  stuck the squirting stump in his partner’s chest. “Your Belt, goddammit!” He screamed. “Gimme your goddam BELT! Nowwwwwww!

Empty tried to back away, ejected his dead clip to the floor, floated one hand behind him in search of a reload. Dog Shooter followed him, kept screaming, pushing the stump into Empty’s chest. Empty fell backward on top of his hand,  Dog Shooter landed on top of him. I heard Empty’s wrist snap from halfway across the hangar. They were both screaming now. At me, about me, why’d they shoot the fucking dog, fucking shotguns, each other, God, Geraldine…

One of them gurgled, “Now what?”

“Now?” I whistled. Two short, one long. I heard snarls, dog toenails clicking, scratching, skidding on concrete. I raised the shotgun, balanced it over my shoulder. I killed the lights at first sight of the dogs, set the remote on the tool chest. From outside, the muffled screams escalated for a moment before they faded away into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sex, Liquor and a Jack Taco

“For the last time, Paro, mañana!”

I’d leaned on Cav a dozen different ways attempting to excavate her exact role in the demise of the exploding Honda’s driver, and I’d gotten nowhere. I could hear in her voice that I’d reached the point, or rather she’d reached the point where it was a good thing the only nearby firearm, that I knew about anyway, was locked in my truck and that the heavy objects in the room, like lamps, were bolted down. With those comforting thoughts at hand I decided to shoot for a baker’s dozen.

“C’mon, Moreno –”

Comparo?!” She slammed the drawer she had open, gave me knife eyes. I hadn’t heard my name explode in that tone of voice since I was eight. After that my mother was too busy trying to keep my sister out of a whorehouse or a convent or a home for wayward girls and my father out of a bottle for her to get exasperated with me. In fact, by the time I was nine, I’d become so invisible I could have been on fire in the living room and it wouldn’t have mattered. But Moreno? Her voice, the eyes? She could have set me on fire.

Suficiente! Consíguelo?” She slammed another drawer.

“Enough. I get it.” I wasn’t sure she bought the sheepish shrug.

Bueno.” She slammed the closet door but didn’t come away empty-handed. She popped open a plastic bag the hotel had thoughtfully supplied for send-out dry-cleaning, in a town without a dry-cleaners, and we started to load it up with used napkins and the empty comida especial containers.

Mira, mi Amor,” she smacked my hand, stopped loading, one wrist reflexed to her hip. “Right now? If I told you everything, I would have to kill you. I might anyway if you don’t reach down in this bag, ahora mismo, and dig out the fork you just threw away.” A fork she mentioned in elaborate detail did not belong to her, or me, and if I wasn’t paying enough attention not to throw real eating utensils away, maybe I should stay home tomorrow.

“Home? Mañana?”

“Don’t be cute.” She pinched my cheek. “You should change clothes while you’re there.”

I reminded her that she’d turned my life into a country song about a guy who’d lost his trailer, his truck, his dog and everything else he owned. That the cargo shorts, t-shirt, and underwear she’d washed was it, except for the few remaining pairs of underwear I’d bought in Houston. Underwear I considered one-use disposable, not to be laundered and suffered through a second time. All that misery, I told her, for a woman who hardly let enough of herself show, or stood still long enough to cast a half-assed shadow.

Pobrecito. You still have your toy airplane, and me. And this.” She handed me another in the long line of burner phones we’d exchanged. However, it was the first from her. I tried not to make a face, failed. “Don’t be afraid to use it, Paro. It’s a hacked Sat with a tower chameleon.”

“A Sat tower what?”

Vamos, Comparo.” She ushered me to the door with the trash. “When your friend informs you of Woody’s intercept location, you will immediately inform me. Repita por favor?”

“When I know, you’ll know. But why? To bring the Convict Cavalry? I thought they were mine, and you had mail carrier duty.”

“Woody is morning business, even if we have to take our business to him.”

“There’s a joke in there, about morning wooo –”

“Save it for me. Forever, posiblemente. What I was going to say is that no one in Kerrigan expects their mail to arrive before one o’clock. Three if the regular went ‘feeshin’’ in the morning.” She furrowed her brows. “You do have eyes on Kerrigan?”

“No. That was your…I thought -” Hell, it didn’t matter what I’d thought. I could see her wanting to say something like ‘Shit, Paro, are you fucking stupid or what?’ I didn’t wait for it.

“The truth is I was supposed to take my mission directives from you, and so far all I’ve gotten, from you, are some romantic vagaries, texted invitations to ambushes, an introduction to the Convict Cavalry, an excellent meal and a Tom Clancy phone.” I held it up between our faces before pocketing it. “Everything to do with your mission has been brought to me not by you, but indirectly through a smarmy, greedy assed wild card chiropractor, a magical piece of laminated paper that might have come from a dead once-upon-a-time mob accountant, and a couple of alphabet soup agency types with God knows what agendas. All of them blowing their version of how it’s going to go up my ass. And all you can say when I ask is fucking mañana? We were supposed to rob a bank, Moreno. Mañana. That was it. I was supposed to fly that cash off into the sunset for you to build a wild animal rescue park-slash-halfway house for convicts. A few hours ago I found out that was complete bullshit, just like the Company’s starting a gang war with it was bullshit.”

We studied each other’s faces in a half and half Mexican standoff.

“Well, your bank’s already been robbed, Cav. The cash is stashed. Technically I’m done. But here I am, dynamite going off all around me in Shamrock fucking Texas, and I have this strange feeling that I haven’t even gotten started yet. This whole six-ways-from-Sunday, ‘sausage, sausage who’s got the sausage’ flyin’ blind with alphabet soup suits’ shit is exactly what got me marshaled out of the service. And how I lost my licenses to fly after the last time one of your ‘plans’ went tits up, or tits down, right before my eyes.”

There. I’d said it.

“Romantic vagaries?” She bit on her lower lip, slowly dragged it out from under her front teeth.

“Have I not made it clear…” She let go of the door, kissed me. I could still taste her homemade salsa verde on her lips. She grabbed a fistful of my shirt and locked on my eyes. “You are involved in ‘this shit’ with me, Comparo Riordan, for the very same reasons the militarys and the alphabet soups said to you adios,cabrone.” The hand not clutching my shirt was gesturing in, to out, to a finger in my chest, her chest, out again in rhythm with her words.

“When I discovered myself in deep water again, yes, I ask for you to assist me. You, exclusively. I trust you, Comparo. And you only. Why? In Columbia I was nothing to you but a skinny, dusty, mouthy, filthy haired woman in boy’s fatigues. You said as much to me, to my face, but you risked your life to save mine. You could have walked away, ass covered, and never looked back. Twice now you have done this much for me. And you feel you must ask why I shot a man pointing a gun at you? In all this demencia you are el hombre mas perfecto. For me, for this, for… She kissed me again, more of a lip brush, let go of my t-shirt, smoothed out the wrinkles.This,” she flipped her hand dismissively, frowned. “All of this…suits’ shit…is bigger…No. Was bigger than the accident of you and I. Now…Mañana, Paro. Por favor. Si?”

“Yeah. I ‘si.’”

I didn’t, but I had to say it because she was right. Whatever was going on had been around long before I stepped in it. Age hadn’t improved the smell any, though.

***

I tossed the dry-cleaner bag of trash in the dumpster, fired up the rumbling old Ram. I eased past the barricades and police tape that had been put in place to block off the parking lot from 13th street and the gaping hole in the feed store wall. There was a woman in a yellow reflective jumpsuit using a hitch dolly to trundle a United Rentals of Amarillo gas-powered work light around the scene. She was taking pictures of small Honda pieces, maybe even small assassin pieces, and bagging them. I waved when I drove by. She ignored me. Must have known she’d be spending the night in the Holiday Inn, and it was my fault. I flicked on my lights, rolled out onto Main, and turned south.

I’d eaten enough of Moreno’s TexMex, or CaliMex as she preferred to call it, for half a dozen lumberjacks. I was sated for the moment, and more concerned with dozing off at the wheel over the next 60 some miles than contemplating whatever mañana or my curiosity about all things Moreno might put up on the big screen in my head. Things like had I just eaten my condemned man’s last supper.

I switched on the radio before I was out of town. Imagine my surprise, Country Classics. It was Marty Robbins, and damned if he wasn’t singin’ about falling in love with a pretty senorita out in El Paso. I’d read somewhere the Grateful Dead covered “El Paso” over 400 times in their live shows. Wondered if Marty cared whether fields full of acidized Dead Heads had tripped to his song that many times. Marty was dead, had been for a while, so no. Wondered then if any of the Dead’s versions would clock in under five minutes for radio play. But they were the Dead, so no again. I cranked the volume on Marty. It was shaping up to be a long hour’s drive.

***

When I idled into the vehicle hangar. Rip was walking toward the Cessna, holding one glove while he pulled on the other. He stopped, waited for me. I stepped out of the truck, a few feet away I turned and armed the alarm then covered the ground to Rip.

“Tell me somethin’ good, Paro.”

“Moreno says she popped a random iceman with your stainless Walther.”

“You apologizin’ for her?”

“Nope. Thought you should know, in case it was new enough to have ballistic fingerprints.”

“Heard there wasn’t enough left of that fella to make a Jack in the Box taco. Wouldn’t worry, I was you. ‘Less a course you forget to clean it.” He tugged on his remaining glove, flexed his fingers. “I know about that ‘cause I talked to Sheriff Long this afternoon. Bein’ as he’s the County Mountie, an Kerrigan, chicken shit burg it may be, is still the county seat. An in light of all the nut cases and excessive weaponry floatin’ around I figured it was my duty to call an suggest that he might wanna take off fishin’ tomorrow. Know what he said?”

“I look telepathic?”

“Truth told you look like hell and smell like girly-man fabric softener. Anyway, Bob answered his phone standing in the Tarryall River there outside Lake George, Colorado, doin’ exactly what I was about to suggest. He’d even given the County admin folks tomorrow off, an left word that come mornin’ they should let any drunks out the basement.”

I must have looked confused, if not telepathic.

“The jail, all two cells of it, are in the basement of the Courthouse, Paro. Never been much serious crime up that way, mostly ‘cause their ain’t many people. But the Highway Patrol takes occasion to drop off drunks there. Not all drunks, just the obnoxious or vomitous varieties. Generally, they’ll just run the cheeful or passed out ones on into wherever their district is. Pampa, Borger, ‘Rillo. Run ‘em in and knock off early ‘cause they’re home. But out there ‘tween Pampa and the Oklahoma borders ain’t much they can do with a real pain in the ass drunk save drop ‘em in Kerrigan. That’s why ol’ Bob leaves a key out so the HiPo can drag ‘em down the outside steps there and throw their drunk asses in a cell. ‘Cept for the Trooper was stayin’ over to Canadian with that woman. He’d drop all his HiPo baggage in there, sometimes two, three to a cell. Fella was big on arrestin’ an thumpin’ on alleged dope dealers. Till he an the woman –”

“Rip? The sheriff? Kerrigan?”

“I’m gettin’ there.” He gave me a bushy eyebrow squint. “Who pissed in your boots, you’re in such a all-fired Goddam hurry? That girl kill a friend a yours gettin’ the gun dirty? No? Then lighten the fuck up, will ya? Jesus, all these damn phones an gadgets and shit these days are gettin’ everbody’s panties in a big-hurry twist.”

“That sermon’s dyin’ here, Pastor Taylor.”

“I can see that. Well, turns out the Trooper an the woman were runnin’ themselves a ‘Gentleman’s Retreat’ –”

“In Canadian?”

“Everybody needs to get laid. Sex an liquor, son. Folks’ll drive hours for either or both. Friend a mine, he’s one a those’ll drive three hours for decent Scotch. He was the Trooper an the woman’s landlord. He got a call from a neighbor a their’s one mornin’ sayin’ water was runnin’ outside onto the patio from under the back door. He goes over an finds the Trooper an the woman dead, along with three or four all kindsa fucked up teenage girls sittin’ around in their skivvies, smokin’ weed, oblivious to the sink overflowin’ and the bodies in the kitchen. Sheriff Bob had to come back from a vacation to deal with it. Y’know he needed to ID the Trooper with fingerprints since most a what used to be his head was stuck to the side a the fridge. Bob said the walls a that kitchen looked like a lasagna night food fight.”

Rip lifted and reset his Confederate Air Force cap, took a slow look around the cloudless night sky. We both took note of some distant, barely visible lightning, probably over eastern New Mexico. I hoped that was where it stayed.

“So…” Rip carried on, “Bob’s tellin’ me nowadays he takes a few more vacations than he used to, ever since a couple years ago when FedEx started droppin’ off envelopes ‘bout three times a year with ten grand cash in ‘em. Along with suggestions of a couple days comin’ up he might wanna take off. Says that money’s how he put security cameras in the Courthouse an rebuilt the gazebo in the square. Also how he hired that slew a Messicans to clean up the old amphitheater he uses for those yodellin’ folk singer weekends he puts on. An how he came to truck his patrol car over to Elk City where some relative’s kid put all those useless fuckin’ lights on it.”

The quiet hung in the steamy night for a few beats. I felt like I was waiting for an encore from a suddenly darkened stage before the lighters came out. I flicked an imaginary Bic.

“All that was you tellin’ me the Sheriff’s on one of those suggested vacations as we speak and not to worry about Kerrigan collaterals?”

“Roger that. ‘Cept be careful who you kill tomorrow. Bob hates gettin’ called home early from vacation.”

Madre de Dios…

“Whoa, Rip. Where the hell you off to…” I checked the time on my new burner, “at ten-thirty at night?”

“Meetin’ some folks from the highway department.” He backed away, offered me a loose salute. “Lawn Jockey dropped by, left a note on the kitchen table for ya.”

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?”