Put a Bow On It

I’d been through the shoot-out at the Texian with Cav over microwaved McMuffins and coffee. She wondered how her convicts had fared. They had something that would flip and cook a full-sized SUV, so I didn’t share her concern. I wondered why there weren’t dozens of local, county and state cops crawling all over Shamrock. Along with that I had too many loose ends.

For one, according to Cav, Woody had used her burn phone to text me from the barn so I’d be sure to get on my white horse and ride her way. We didn’t see his body in the rubble and I hadn’t seen a vehicle, but it was dark and raining and I’d almost missed the barn, so it could have been anywhere. I’d tried to call and text the number and got no response. I figured it was toast or buried in the mud. Woody could’ve ducked out before the collapse and been waiting on his ‘uh-oh surprise, we’re dead’ crew to Uber him back but I doubted that scenario. She wouldn’t speculate and was non-committal on her feelings along those lines, something I parked for later because I’d be a little chafed if my partner had tried to hang me. Along with how he’d gotten her out there that was also a non-topic of conversation.

For another, Cav’s real phone had been conveniently confiscated by the self-appointed Alpha Convict Usman over what she’d called his “trust issues.” Which were Woody. And me. It was time to revisit O’Doul’s Texian, take the convict’s collective temperature in person.

I quit pacing, tossed our McMuffin wrappers, combined our coffees in one cup and stuck it in the microwave, made getting ready to go noises while Cav messed with her hair and tried to put on her tough girl’s face. After a day and night of having her toughness shaken to its core, it was taking her a while. She climbed out of the mirror and into herself. I wished I could do that and look a tenth as good.

“Ready?”

“No. But I have to be because you are.” She checked herself again, this side, that side. “I think you shrunk my jeans.”

“I think you finally ate something.”

“You’re not as clever as you think, Comparo.”

I wasn’t trying to be clever, I just said…right, I know. I shrunk her jeans.

“When we get there I’ll spin the convicts a story about last night. To keep me out of it, make it look worse for you. I still don’t have a picture of the barn and shootout I believe, and I need to hear their side of it. Whatever I come up with, go along.”

Si. You’re certain?” She’d brought back bilingual babe. I started to say something but she hooked my arm on the way to the door and her proximity effect on me kicked in. “You don’t object?”

“You’re not going alone. Even if I’d let you, you don’t have a car.”

“I don’t take –”

“Orders very well. I know. How about, Ms. Moreno, it would be my pleasure to accompany you as you are currently without transportation. And –”

“And besides,” she dropped her voice a husky octave, “I don’t trust those motherfuckers.” She smiled for the first time since I’d picked her up out of the mud. “I know you, too. Our coffee?”

Shit. Proximity effect. I did a quick humble fool walk back to the microwave. She was halfway down the stairs when I closed the door.

***

I sat at the edge of the Texian parking lot with her, surveyed the scene in daylight. All that was left of the blown-up SUV was a greasy spot in the middle of Route 66. No crime scene tape. The splintered bullet holes in the aging plywood of the dead restaurant across the street, chips in the bricks, dead body locations, none were circled or numbered or outlined with CSI spray paint. The bullet-riddled black government Suburban was gone. It was business as usual at the steel reclamation business, forklifts going back and forth, sparks flying from welders and cutters in their muddy boots operating out of muddy dinged up dually pickups in the muddy work yard. If mud were a natural resource, Shamrock after a decent rain was the production epicenter.

All the windows across the back of the Texian were covered in new plywood except for two near the west end where the hot breeze blew the curtains around in the holes where windows had been. The pewter Dodge Caravan, the only other vehicle in the lot, sat facing the east wing of the Texian. It was intact, no visible bullet holes. I checked the lot again and knew why. The convicts had used a bullet dented rust and green remodel dumpster for a shield. Moreno’s convicts had some tactical skills, I’d give them that. And an arsenal I needed to understand.

I idled up next to the van and we climbed out. Cav knocked, identified herself. A hand reached out, grabbed her, pulled her inside and the door swung hard toward shut. I stuck my foot, clad in a new truck stop Chinese desert hiking shoe between the door and the jamb. It hurt. I’d had it, gave the door an all-I-had shoulder, heard someone or something bounce off the door into a wall, and stepped inside.

Usman had Moreno by the front of her shirt with one hand, an open-hand slap cocked in the other.

“What the fuck, pi –” I slammed my fist into the side of the one called Dawson’s head to keep him from hitting me with something long, black and heavy, kicked the door closed behind me and stuck my Browning in Usman the short Ukrainian gun runner’s nose.

“Let her go. Now, or I paint the room with what’s inside your head.”

He let her go. Muller, the tall one with crazy eyes and friend of the dead guy in my old squat hangar had a .45 in his hand, pointed loosely between me and a talk show full of cackling women on TV.

“Got us da standoff,” Usman said.

“That goofy fuck couldn’t sight on me if he knew which eye to use. Even if he could, you’re dead, regardless. Cav, take the gun from our friend Muller before he shoots the television and I kill this asshole for fun.”

“You’re the dead man. Soon,” Muller said, but he let Cav take the .45. “I wooden shoot the TV. We like this show.”

“That explains a lot.” I shot the TV, the mushroom load exploded it, everyone jumped. The Browning was still smoking when it went back in Usman’s nose. The room got so quiet you could hear the eighteen-wheelers on I-40 almost a mile away.

Dawson sat on the floor where he’d fallen, leaned up against the wall. “Fuck a coupla fuckin’ ducks, pilot,” he rubbed his temple. “We had you as another pretty boy sniffin’ her up, not a full-on pyscho.”

“I go full psycho, you’ll know.” I patted Usman down, pulled a lady’s purse-sized Ruger .380 out of the front pocket of his painter’s pants, tossed it in the exposed toilet.

“Moreno’s fiancé tried to hang her last night,” I left the gun in Usman’s nose, checked in with the other two. “In an old barn that got blown up by lightning before he could finish the job. You, dickweed motherfucker,” I pushed Usman onto the bed with the Browning, “Why’d you take her phone away? No phone, stuck out in the boonies with a failed murderer, no help. Some farmer’s kid and his date had to pick her up off the side of the road where she was walking barefoot in a monsoon. Because you’re a hopeless, horny, paranoid fuckin’ idiot? And while she was out there trying not to get killed her fucking car got stolen. Anybody in this room full of prime suspects wanna tell me what you fuckers were doing while that shit was going down?” I moved the Browning a couple of inches and blew a hole in the pillow next to Usman’s head, looked around the room through the floating foam dust. “Full psycho is next. Anybody? Dawson?”

“Fuck, man. Chill…” He rubbed his head again. “Last night, outside, in the road. Look…It was rainin’…There was two Nissans, like alla sudden outta nowhere, droppin’ AK rounds like a Dee-troit drive-by. We smoked the one shootin’ our way with the grenade launcher an –”

“Whoa. You have a grenade launcher?”

“Yeah, in the van out there.”

He said it like ‘grenade launcher’ was a standard accessory in Dodge Minivans. Jesus. “And?”

“Well, like I was sayin’ we popped the one shootin’ at us, an the Nissan with the other shooters, they boogied. An, uh…” He was still rubbing the side of his head. “I was thinkin’ it was all done you know, out there on the highway an all, an then I seen some dude in a slicker walkin’ around, couldn’t make him out, he shot another dude who come up behind him, then, uh, like in a short few a ambulance come. This must be a one ambulance town ‘cause it took up the man in the road an somebody from that ol’ building across the way. Maybe ‘nother half hour I guess, an another coupla more showed up, but it was only to haul off them bodies from the road out there.”

“The cops?”

“Now there’s where it got all hinky.”

“Hinky?”

“You know, outta line, not right. Fucked up, kinda.” He looked at his two partners for back up. “No cops, pilot. None. Not a fuckin’ one. A Messakin County Mountie in a sprayed-on uniform and a trash bag over his Smoky Bear hat, he come up behind the ambulance, but right behind him, no more’n a minute, was like three big ol’ slick, black Suburbans. The HiPo come up then, two of ‘em, but all the regulars got sent packin’ by some windbreaker and badge types from the Suburbans. Then, lessee…Uh, a wrecker come from somewhere. Pampa I think was on the door, an they winched up the Nissan we baked an they was gone. The Suburban windbreaker boys was walkin’ around with flashlights, pickin’ up shit. But nobody come over here. No-body. Askin’ nobody here ‘bout nothin’. Hinky, I’m tellin’ ya.”

Not so hinky, considering what type, and how many people wanted the damn Kerrigan bank robbed for a myriad of unknown reasons.

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” I swung the Browning around the room like a pointer, “but I’m still on for whatever Moreno wants me to do. Whenever she decides to tell me what and when to do it. You,” I put the Browning back in Usman’s face, “give her back her fucking phone so she can do that. When you fuckers finally put your puzzle pieces together and figure out how to rob the chicken shit Kerrigan bank?” I lowered the Browning, made eye contact with Cav. “Call me.”

***

“I don’t wanna say anything that would insult the lady,” Rip tipped up his beer. “You seem to be smitten and she’s got her some big brass woman cajones, but seriously?”

“She’s a born whale saving tree hugger. And she doesn’t need the money for herself. So yeah. Convict halfway house meets exotic animal rescue park.” The muddy shotgun and my Browning were broken down between us on a homemade 2×4 and plywood table in Rip’s work shed, accompanied by a pile of rags, gun oil and a pair of vanishing Modelo Darks.

“She never heard that there’s no honor among thieves? No offense, but including herself?” Rip set the beer down, picked up a rag. “Truly figures that posse of losers to be the altruistic Merry Men to her Robin Hood?”

“I think she got into it that way. I also think she bought into Woody being Mr. Helpful. Now the reception’s better she has a clearer picture. I might even be in doubt.”

“Savin’ her life makes you iffy?”

“I’m not sure it was Woody in the barn, said so, she went silent. Told her about Tavius volunteering me and something about how maybe she oversold this deal to me on the front end being so friendly when she didn’t have to be. That all made her feel worse than a whore, how could I think like that, men are so stupid, she loves me…And this,” I handed the laminated strip across the table. “She’s either got a hell of a memory for detail, another copy, or she’s still counting on Woody some way.”

“Shit, Paro.” He picked up his reading glasses from the tabletop, sighted down his nose, tried to get the strip in focus. “Fuck, still can’t see a goddam thing.” He reached for the remote, switched the TV from the NFL channel to the casting input, shot the strip with his phone like I’d done and there it was, 65 inches wide.

“Timetable. Not ’tall what I expected.”

“Me, either.”

“You tellin’ me you could read this?”

“I shot it just like you, before she gave it to me.”

“You’ve always been a sneaky little fuck. Tell me again about the land and the convicts and this chiro, his plans for sweat equity, government subsidies, all the money angles.”

“We can do that later over your crock pot chili. I want you to read that, tell me if you see what I did, and come to think what I’m thinking.”

He ran a cleaning swatch through one barrel of the sawed-off like it was second nature while he read over the strip on TV. He flipped back and forth between the two sides with one hand, ran a swatch down the other barrel of the shotgun. “I’ll be a son of a bitch…” He looked at me over his glasses. “This is why none of them want her out of their sight, why all their plans are post robbery. Why you’ve been feeling politely disposable when you’ve done your thing for ‘em. Because none of ‘em but the woman know jack shit.”

“Fact.”

“Son. Of. A. Bitch. The Cali chiropractor, the Army lawn jockey, the helicopter Company man, the convicts. Even the woman. They’re all fucked if we pull this off. You’d leave her out in the cold?” He nodded toward the TV. “After giving you the treasure map?”

“She’s not stupid. Since she’s lost faith in her crusaders I know she’s running her options while we sit here. We should bring her along, or some way she’ll try to beat us to it, or out of it.”

“Or maybe, God help her, she actually does love your cynical ass, knows you’re not stupid either. Maybe she hopes you aren’t a huge disappointment and’ll man up for her dream,” he passed the laminated strip back. “What more you want her to do, Comparo? Put a fuckin’ bow on it, ask you to the prom?”

Nice Legs

I reached over, put two muddy fingers on Moreno’s throat looking for a pulse. She started to writhe and buck in the mud like she was possessed, screamed, “Mmmmmmm, MMMMMMMPHHHHH!” through the gag. I could only guess what that meant, but I’d bet I was close.

“Hey Cav, whoa. It’s me.”

“Mmmphh?”

I pulled the rope from around her neck. Whoever tied it had done so for effect, not damage. If I hadn’t blown up the beam her weight would have pulled the knot out, the “noose” itself almost loose enough to slide off. Had they not tied her hands behind her she could have tossed it. Maybe he was an amateur. Maybe they wanted me to think that. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to get close enough to find out.

I tossed the rope aside. There was something comforting about her being gagged, at least temporarily, so I lifted her head, untied the blindfold first. Her eyes flipped open, wide and angry. I lifted her up to sitting, untied her hands and the second they were loose they flew to her mouth, then behind her head. She fought with the knot, still “mmphing” emphatically until it was untied, spit it out and tried to yell at me. All that came out was patoo, puh-paw-puh-thooo dry mouth gag sputter like she’d licked a long-haired cat.

If looks could kill, I was a dead man sitting in the mud. Out of nowhere the dry, croaking profanity in two languages stopped, she grabbed the front of my shirt with both hands and stuck her tongue down my throat, let go of my shirt, grabbed the sides of my head and I wasn’t sure if I was being kissed or if she was trying to eat my face. She let go of that experience, threw her arms around my shoulders and started to cry. Huge, big heaves followed by deep nasal and throat snorks and honks. I fell back off my squat and against the stall, held her like that, thunder shaking the debris lean-to until her heaves and snorks abated into declining sobs that tapered off and ended in deep breathing, her chest pushing against mine until her head finally relaxed into my shoulder.

“Am I really,” snork, “not worth it?”

“I was trying to smoke him out.”

“That’s not,” she snuffled, honked, “an answer.”

“No…”

“What then?”

“Ask me after I see the boots you’re going to buy me.”

She smacked my chest open-handed. “You…you’re filthy. And mean. And you stink.” She felt the mud in her own hair, looked down at the angle of her leg over mine. “I can’t tell where I stop, and you start.” She snorked again, wiped her eyes with the knuckles of her index fingers.

“I can.”

“Don’t be a pig, Com… Dios Mio, what am I saying?” She dropped her head back in the crook of my arm, laughed loud and hard through different tears. “We are the pigs, both of us.” She pushed on my chest this time without the swat. “You more than I.”

She raised off me, tried to stand, hit her head on the lean-to slats, fell back into the mud immediately.

“Don’t laugh at me, Paro.” She rubbed her head with a muddy hand. “I’m not…”

“In the mood? Join the club.” I got myself into a squat and shouldered the slats. There wasn’t a lot of weight, but I seemed to be moving a big chunk of no-longer-a-barn real estate. I realized it hadn’t been raining on us because we were under a good-sized piece of the corrugated roofing and that was what I’d been trying to move.

I pushed up again, got nowhere. “Forget it.” I lowered my load. “Help me pull this junk out of where a gate should be.” We pulled broken wooden slats into the lean-to until we were almost out of room. “Can you get through there?”

Si. If I get stuck, push me?”

I winked.

“Pig.”

She wormed her way across the pile of wet wood, disappeared. About the time I started to think she’d disappeared with the poor excuse for a hangman pistolero the top layer of remaining slats and debris in the opening began to slide out and away. When there was room, unlike Cav, I went through on my back. I was clear and could see the sky, full of low, silver and black clouds, moonlight, the storm lighting up the sky to the south. Light rain fell on my face. I crunched myself up to sitting. No Moreno. That woman, I was going to strangle her myself.

“Paro?” I found her rummaging in the debris where the middle of the barn used to be. “Do you have a flashlight?”

I did. A small, twin cell AAA LED job that did an admirable job of lighting up a couple of square feet like daylight. If it still worked. I hadn’t used it earlier not wanting to make a target of myself. I dug it out of my front pocket, pushed the button, swept the beam between Cav and me, made my way across a makeshift bridge of debris over mud.

“What’d you lose?”

“My shoes.”

“Are you crazy? There’s no way –”

She ripped the flashlight out of my hand. “Where was I, when I fell?”

I judged the gate hole in the stall to where she stood. “Maybe two feet to my right, and you’re too far past the middle.” For the first time, ever, she listened.

“Paro? Ola? You could help.”

That was my second request for help tonight. I couldn’t hand this one off to an ambulance. “What’s so important about your shoes? Made out of gold?”

“We can play twenty questions later. Right now,” she shined the light in my eyes, “shut up. And help. Por favor?”

It didn’t take us long, and I still didn’t see the point. A pair of muddy who knew what color originally shapeless flats. No gold. No way she was wearing them. She didn’t even try. Instead, she stuffed them in my back jeans pockets.

“That’s one way to keep your feet in my ass. Flashlight?” I held out my hand, she obliged. I needed to find Rip’s shotgun and slicker. Both were easier to find than the shoes. The slicker obvious in its yellowness under a few boards back where I’d dropped it, the shotgun not six feet in a straight line from Moreno’s shoes. She stayed put on a small piece of corrugated roofing while I collected.

“A gentleman would carry a lady through this basura peligrosa.”

“A lady wouldn’t have gotten herself into dangerous garbage like this in the first place.”

Estos es Verdad.” She kissed me again, looked me in the eye. “Thank you.”

“Any time you get, uh, hung up?” I did the thumb and little finger phone move to the side of my head.

“You’re impossible. But I love you anyway.” Her hair had gone straggly in the light rain left behind from the squall line, she tossed it in a way that would have been coquettish minus the mudslinging.

***

“No, ladies first. And I need your clothes.”

“But…”

“Clothes, Moreno. Now.”

She peeled out of her wet clothes, covered up her top half with bent arms, made noises about being cold. I told her the shower would warm her up.

“But I thought…”

“I’m taking our clothes down to the laundry room, or housekeeping or somewhere, and washing them.”

“Naked?”

“I was going to borrow your robe.”

“My robe?” She stood, knees together and slightly bent, her arms folded in a dead man’s cross over her breasts, one eyebrow raised. “Where is my phone? I demand a picture.”

It must have been the look on my face that hustled her into the bathroom, the door closing behind her with medium velocity. I think her original intent was a shower duet, but she hadn’t sung her solo for me yet. When I heard the shower I pulled off my dripping clothes, slipped into a slippery, silky, knee-length on her, mid-thigh on me Oriental flower print robe and sat on the bed with her shoes.

No female salvages rain and mud ruined shoes unless they were major status symbols, and these weren’t Italian, or even fake Italian, but were named after two women, Carly and somebody. Why these shoes? I pulled and separated what I could, almost ripped the little short heel off one. Under the insole of the second one, near the toe, I found a laminated strip of paper the size of an average band-aid. There seemed to be a lot of information on it in tiny print. I flipped to macro on my phone for close-ups, shot both sides, slipped it back under the insole. I squeezed everything back together and put her wet shoes back on the bathroom vanity where I’d found them.

***

The guy behind the desk at the Holiday Inn Express took pity on me or wanted me out of his lobby in a hurry. The muddy, dripping ball of clothes, the robe, maybe the Browning stuck in the tie of Moreno’s robe because he immediately took me to the housekeeping laundry room, said “Go for it,” and hustled back to the desk. I threw everything in a nice sized normal washing machine, not the industrial jumbo job and straightened up when from behind me I heard,

“Nice legs.”

“You know, Tavius, I’m tired of meeting people from The Company in laundry rooms.” I had a business grip on the Browning. “And I don’t want to shoot anybody right now.”

“You pull that thing, the robe flies open, the vison of your manhood the last thing I see before the gun goes off? Fuck that, we’re on the same side.”

I turned around, slowly. His face was a maze of small butterfly and laceration closure bandages, he was wearing a new truck stop souvenir t-shirt with Shamrock, Texas in an arc over a leprechaun. ”Nice shirt. What happened to you?”

“Tried to eat a windshield, the shirt is tourist camo. You up to helpin’ a brother out?”

“Like those diapers for grownups. Dee—”

“Pends. Funny, but not original. Look, I need Moreno’s rental so I can get on. Wait a day to report it. I’d ask you for the truck, but that crazy old motherfucker’d come try to find it.”

“And probably kill you. She just lost one rental, Tave. Down to you.”

“That was on you and the convicts. I made it a legit boost and burn with the drop.”

“Damn, man…” If Tavius, my original and primary contact in this circus needed a ride to stay in a game that might cartwheel without whatever part of it he was playing… “Your ride?”

“Fucked it all up running the gunners after your ass off the road.”

So there was that…I gave it time to look like I’d thought about it, tightened the belt on the robe. “You’d better hope she’s still in the shower.”

***

“My car? Ha sido robado? Again? Ayyyyi…” She started to swear in Spanish.

“Cav? Can the exotic bi-lingual babe thing. You’re from Orange County.”

“Paro, you are such a shit! We spoke three languages in my home. English, Spanish and my father spoke German. Sometimes.” She rubbed her hair with a towel, made faces at me in the mirror.

“There were three at my house, too, only it was English, Spanish and Drunk.” We stared at each other. She was trying to build steam. “He needed your car, Cav. Simple and done.”

“And you?” She spun around, threw the towel in my face. “You just give it to him, here’s the stupid girl’s car, ‘it’s cool, I’m fucking her, she won’t care’? The car, it’s like me? Simple and done?”

“You know better than that.”

“No, I don’t know better than that because I don’t feel better than that. Who is he, this Tavius of yours? Why do you let him steal my car?”

“He was my debrief ‘here’s how you’re going to behave’ Company man after Columbia. He’s the one…” I choked on it, but it was already on the way out, might as well run with it. “He’s the one, before all this started, who told me whatever you asked me to do, say yes.”

Her eyes expanded way beyond normal, she scanned the vanity for something else to throw at me. “And should I ask you to make love with me, something I know now repulsed you, you should also say yes? Yes? So later you can treat me like some, some pushover whore and give away my car? To some, some –”

“Technically it’s not your car.”

“Paro, goddammit, that’s not the point. Don’t you see?”

“What I see is someone who looks a lot better in your robe than I did who needs to sit on the bed with me and tell me about this cluster fuck of a bank heist. All of it. Until it makes sense to both of us. Or at least to me.”

“You don’t care what I say, so you, you should just…”

“Yes I do care, or you’d be dead in the mud or off with whoever made it look like you were in trouble when you weren’t and I wouldn’t be out a decent pair of handmade Lucchese’s.”

She tried to slap me, I caught her hand, she started crying again. I listened for a while to her ramble about how I was an asshole but a hero and a sexist pig and didn’t understand anything and how could I be like that when she loved me until she wound down hugging a pillow. I tucked her into the bed and went to get our clothes out of the dryer. No Browning, no silky robe, just an oversized towel. Anybody wanted to kill me on this run, fine. I’d die as confused and stupid and damn near as naked as the day I was born.

***

I woke up on top of the bed in my underwear and t-shirt, the bottom of the bedspread over my feet. I reached over, no Moreno. But I smelled coffee. She bumped me with her hip.

“Scoot, asshole.”

I scooted, she sat, opened a McDonald’s bag and pulled out a couple of Egg McMuffins. I looked over and there were two large coffees on the connected-to-the-bed nightstands. She bent over, kissed my forehead.

“I’m sorry, Paro. I don’t…I didn’t think…Never mind.” She put on an act of collecting herself. “I don’t know what you like for breakfast except in the trailer you made us eggs, and bacon…”

I thought she might start the crying thing again, but she stood, walked to the bathroom counter and brought back her right shoe, lifting the insole on the way. I sat up, she sat beside me, handed me the laminated strip of paper.

“If…If I die, Paro, or they kill me, or…or Woody tries again…” Her face was slightly contorted with a look of finality, defeat. “This is all of it. Everything.  From now on I do it like I planned with my convicts. And if you…You can do what you want.” The red eyes came back. “I lied to everybody, okay? But if they knew I knew, then they’d think I told you, and then… I didn’t want you hurt, Paro, and…You’re kind of…You’re…” She turned away. “Shit, Paro.”

“You’re more than kind of important to me, too.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “So it was Woody in the barn?” She nodded, put her hand on top of mine, stared at the floor. “Was he serious?” Another nod. “He didn’t have the balls to hurt you himself. He hoped his crew would get rid of both of us for him. Hey,” I turned her chin toward me. “The guy I let steal your car? If it wasn’t for him, Woody’s plan would’ve worked.” I reached back, grabbed a coffee, handed it to her.

“And that’s supposed to make it all okay?”

“No, but you and I? We’re still on.” I tapped her coffee with mine, could see the question in her eyes. “And so’s the Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery.”

She leaned into me, I wrapped my arm around her shoulder, and we sat like that for a while. No real harm, no real foul. Egg McMuffins taste the same cold as they do hot.

 

Have a Nice Night

I wasn’t going to let whoever he was shoot me in the back. I whipped around and…No one. Six feet away, on his back, I spotted the moaning man. I kept the Browning pointed at his center, walked up to yet another new face from the Kerrigan Bank Robbery clown car. I saw his weapon, a 9mm with a huge clip, next to his out stretched right hand. I put a boot on his wrist, picked it up. He wasn’t bleeding, but he was gurgling, moaning, whimpering.

“What…the hell,” he coughed, “is in…that thing?”

“A friend makes them. Like a Hornady Critical Defense, with a lighter powder load. Think air marshall.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want it to go through you, I want it to knock your ass down and leave a hole like a bowling ball going in. And a Mac truck if it exits.”

“Well…they work…”

“Must be a hell of a vest you have on,” I said. “Again. Who are you, what do you want?”

“Moreno…”

“Everybody wants fucking Moreno. Why?”

“Not…Can’t…”

I knelt down, put a knee on the holes in his shirt. He tried to scream, gurgled instead. “Two rounds. Vest impact probably broke a couple of ribs.”

“Prob…lee more….Motherfu—”

I put the knee down again

“Awright! Fuck me …Woody…Woody!”

“Moreno’s fiancé? What does he have to do with this?”

“He…I…that was his…we’re his…crew…”

“The sitting ducks in the middle of 66 were Woody’s?”

“Yesss…goddammit…” he moaned. “Get off, will ya?” I let him breathe. “He’s not her…that’s all…front…”

“Nice to know. So what’s your gig?”

“His pilot…Woody’s…Used to be pilot…”

“Why does Woody need a pilot and a crew?” I heard the sirens, knew I needed to blow before I turned into an all-night witness.

“His idea…no convicts…pros…”

“Some pros. Woody’s got the whole program, or what?”

“They both have…The professor…sent it…”

“The dead one?”

“There’s another one?” He tried to roll to his right, gave it up, looked at me with fear and pleading in his eyes. “Help…me?”

“I’m not out to kill anybody.” I glanced over my shoulder. Fucking sirens. “Help is on the way.”

I ejected the round in the chamber of his nine, tossed it out of reach. The breather the rain had taken was over and it had come back with a vengeance. I climbed into the Ram, no headlights, eased around the back of the ghost gas station and then out onto old 66, lights on. Two blocks to the east the Sheriff stopped me. I rolled down my window, the wipers on high throwing water in the cop’s face. I dialed up some country boy for him.

“What the hayell happened back there?”

“You see anything?” He was a muscled up Hispanic kid, holding down his own best County Mountie poker face, despite the water being thrown in it.

“Nuh-uhhh…” I drawled. “I come up 83, hung a right on 66, lookin’ for gas, and a taco place I thought used to be there.”

“That place is closed. You stop at the Phillips another two blocks east, the tacos’ll give you gas. So you saw nothin’ on the way in? Nobody comin’, nobody headed outta town?”

“Nuh-uh. Nothin’ but that car on its side back there in the road. Some kinda rollover wreck from the rain, I reckoned.  Didn’t bother to stop ’cause I seen the ambulance comin’.”

I killed my wipers when he asked for my license and insurance. I handed them over, told him the truck belonged to my boss, papers were in the glovebox. He checked the inspection sticker, told me never mind, handed everything back and said have a nice night. I started to say “That would be a nice change” but left it, said, “You too, officer.”

I headed east a few blocks, past the Phillips with the dangerous Taqueria, turned north on Main, hooked a right on road N that would take me the nearly three miles to Moreno. While the wipers fought the rain I tried to get my head around not one but two bank robbery teams, one shot all to hell and the pilot out of commission, at least one dead undercover government man, no sign of Tavius after the stock tank, and who knows what damage to the convicts in the Texian. Add two purported CIA agents, half a story from Moreno and the headlights that had been stuck to me like bug guts on a Gulf Coast windshield since I was on Main Street that were now closing in and the nice night I’d been told to have was going south in a hurry.

***

There was no way to make better than twenty miles an hour in the rain, tops, so outrunning anyone on a ponding strip of two-lane blacktop in Texas at night in an unweighted pickup with too much torque wasn’t an option. Neither was running without lights. They were thirty yards behind me and closing, no gunshots yet. I rolled my window down, rested the sawed-off Rip sent along on the door sill thinking I’d poke it out angled back and blow out their windshield when they started to overtake me. I glanced in the mirror, watched as they suddenly veered left off the highway, hung their wheels in the mud and their tumbling lights told me they’d rolled a couple of times. I hit the brakes, pulled off on the shoulder and ran back in the dark, my Browning hand up in the slicker.

It was the shot-up, bloodied-up SUV that had hauled ass from the Texian shootout, upside down, the top almost flat in front. The driver was cut in half, half in and half out of the driver’s side window, the passenger was twenty feet back up the road. Nothing human contorted that way was alive. I trotted up, studied him long enough to find a few of his pockets, went fishing for his wallet, stuck it in the pocket of the slicker.

Back at the SUV I noticed an assault rifle clone visible from the rear passenger side. I reached in for it and saw what had bloodied the back glass when they’d passed me in town, gagged. I’ve been in a war zone, volunteered for medevac duty on heavy casualty days. Nothing prepares you for looking on a face chewed away by automatic weapons fire attached to a smashed body. I straightened, choked back the bile that crept up, checked the clip in the rifle, empty and useless, and dropped them. In the limited vision afforded by the rain and night, I saw no other lights, heard no sound but the incessant pounding of the rain and approaching thunder. I shivered and the headlights on the SUV winked out. I took that as a sign and beat it back to the truck.

***

According to the Ram’s odometer, I was exactly 2.7 miles from where N crossed FM86 and as far as I could tell there was nothing. Nowhere for Moreno to be. No place to hide. No shelter. I felt sold out and lucky over the SUV that failed, shivered against the wet cold again. I started to back the truck out, turn around when at the edge of my headlight swing, maybe twenty yards off the road, was one of those ubiquitous old, ‘dead dreams live here’ overgrown, wooden plank stock barns. I killed the lights, decided not to risk getting the truck stuck going off-road in what I couldn’t see, grabbed the sawed-off and stuck the Browning in my belt. I was about full tilt tired of Moreno and her bank robber games, but climbed out into the rain again, if only for the opportunity to tell the lying bitch what was on my mind.

Halfway to the barn I took a turn to my left, approached in a wide arc to the corner furthest from the road. The mud sucked at my heels, my boots squished. Sounds I hoped were drowned out by the rain, rising wind, thunder and approaching light show. I made it to the far corner of the barn, leaned in before the first close bolt of lightning lit up the night. Nothing fucks with your night vision like lightning. Everything goes positive back to negative in a second, the bright flash turning golden into orange into deep violet, leaving you blind and vulnerable until the night reappeared. I stepped into the barn between some missing slats, immediately shed the slicker. I hated to, but it was cumbersome, possibly noisy and easily seen in the dark, worse in a lightning flash. Furry things scattered over my feet and away when I dropped it. Barns and the things that lived in them were my least favorite part of the rural experience.

I kept my head below the wall of a horse or milking stall, raised my voice. “Moreno? We need to talk.”

A handgun barked from somewhere, the bullet thudded into the back wall of the stall I was in. Okay, maybe we won’t talk.

I crouched, poised to scan the barn with the next lightning flash. When it came, halfway through my scan I saw Moreno in the middle of the barn, standing on an upturned slat box. The kind built with staples and wire and thin, flimsy wood. That the countryfied real estate flippers make replicas of and sell for $120 in their rustic furniture shops. The next lightning flash told the rest of the story. There was a rope around Moreno’s neck, hung from a beam that ran side to side across the barn. The rain had turned the gray wood black, and for a second I doubted it would hold her if the crate were gone. I started to take a step, my boots…Goddammit…They squished in the muck like a wet elephant fart. I rolled on my heels into the stall wall before the handgun barked again, the bullet low and in the mud, but too close to where I’d been for comfort.

I thought this should be the place where the bad guy talked to John Wayne, told him how he was going to die, so John could reload and figure his adversary’s location. No such luck. To get a read on a muzzle flash I’d have to stand and the way this night was going the lightning would flash and I’d be part of the carcass count.

I kicked my boots off with my heels, swung one and took out a plank in the stall and this time I saw his muzzle flash. Not quite a diagonal across the barn. With the lightning and his muzzle flash fresh in both our eyes I lunged out of the stall and rolled across the muddy ground, the sawed-off tucked into my chest. This must be what pigs feel like. I thought about asking whoever it was if she was worth it. One of us dead, both of us pigsty filthy. I tried it.

“She’s not worth it, brother.” The muzzle flashed toward where I’d been.

“Then what’re you doing here?”

Good fucking question. “Lapse of reason?”

“Shut up, pilot.” The handgun barked twice into my old corner. Shut up was a plan I could live with.

I wanted to see him in the lightning that had become increasingly frequent, the thunder right behind it shaking the barn, the ground. I scooted on my butt, my back hugging the outside of the stalls but he stayed hidden no more than forty feet away. If I could make it to the big gap in the middle in front of Moreno, maybe I could throw myself over the stall he was in, or…Right. Fuck it. Rambo had the night off, there were no good ideas

Lightning exploded so close I could smell it, smell the air burn, felt like I was in the spotlight of a circus ring, but the muzzle blast still pointed to where I’d come in. Whoever it was, they weren’t looking, they were holding their ground, waiting for me to rush them or pull a white knight rescue on the damsel in distress, exposing myself in the process. Not a bad idea on their part, since I’d considered both of those but found them high on stupidity and machismo, low on survivability.

I kept up the pig-on-his-ass scooting until I’d reached the gap in the stalls, Moreno straight in front of me. Her hands were tied behind her with something white, like a napkin or a handkerchief. She was gagged and blindfolded with the same material. I felt around, found a chunk of something metallic and heavy, threw it across the barn. This time the muzzle flash followed the noise. The good news was that I was still across the barn as far as they were concerned. The bad news…I still didn’t have a viable plan.

I studied the barn from the comfort of moldy hay and wet pellet feed during the next two lightning explosions. Ringing the barn was a storage loft, maybe 8 feet off the ground, four feet wide. Its support poles had collapsed in places leaving the ledge to droop, its weight pulling in on the outer walls. I was still curious if the beam would really hold her when whoever was two stalls away got impatient and answered that for me. He yanked on something, rope, wire maybe, and the crate fell into the mud. Moreno dropped. I lifted the shotgun, fired once into the beam where the rope was tied off, pumped it, fired again. The beam split, Moreno fell into the mud next to the crate, knees first, then onto her side. The two pieces of beam swung down, one crashed into a stall on the far side, the other missed me by a foot, knocked a hole in the wall behind me, wrenched itself from the frame. It stood upright for a long few seconds and fell inward, landing inches from Moreno.

I pumped another round and blew out the wet, rotting ledge support in the corner closest to the hidden handgun man and felt more than saw the barn start to twist in on itself. One way or another we were dead, so I crouched in a wet sock-footed pig-muddy run to Moreno, scooped her up, ran on, fell into a stall. The pistol, directly across from me now, barked once, twice, and again while the barn collapsed. I rolled on top of Moreno and waited for the dying barn to bury us.

The slow, grinding deluge of collapsing debris was mostly broken by the stall I’d landed in. When the creaks and groans and crashing eased back down into the sounds of rain and thunder, I opened my eyes, found myself in a lean-to made of barn siding, wet vines, mud, and the short stall wall. I listened for the handgun to start up again, waited for someone to rip the fallen slats up, rake us with bullets.

Nothing but more rain and thunder.

After a short forever I rolled off Moreno, embarrassed that after risking at least one of our lives dragging her from one patch of mud to another I hadn’t even bothered to check to see if she was alive.

 

 

 

Shootout at the Texian Lodge

“Mornin’, sunshine.” Rip set a cup of coffee in front of me. Through the kitchen window I could see morning sun turning the Eastern horizon a pale yellow. “The Cessna’s ready when you are.”

“Who’s driving?”

“You,” Rip said. “Unless you forgot how to fly something don’t strap to your ass and fly itself.”

He knew what I had flown and could fly. My assumption was that he wanted to be a passenger without flight instructor angst. I’d wanted a flyover of Kerrigan, by myself, since I’d gotten into this alone, but Rip had assured me without the master plan for the robbery all we could do was recon, and his Cessna was side by side seating with better passenger vision. It was faster, had better altitude and if we happened to be seen no one would recognize us. I thought that an unusual comment. As far as I knew no one involved with this slowly emptying clown car of a bank robbery was in Kerrigan yet and in the high plains of the Texas panhandle who’s paying attention to a dot in the sky?

“We don’t know that now, do we. Who’s payin’ attention?” Rip dropped a spy size GPS tracking disc the size of a dime on the table. “Found this in your Cub last night. You fly us out over New Mexico, an I’ll drop this near Roswell. When they go to look, you’re not there,” he shook a little with a silent laugh, “they’ll figure you for an alien abduction.”

“I wonder how many people are tuned in to the Travels with Comparo channel.” I picked it up, flipped it like a coin, Rip intercepted it on the way down.

“Few too many, be my bet.”

***

According to printouts and aerial charts, Kerrigan County was crisscrossed with improved, two-lane roads identified by letters like N, O, T, and a few numbered Texas Farm to Market roads. The population density and improved structures said no one should ever be on those roads except for the occasional cattle hauler, dairy truck or some farm and ranch machinery. But real traffic, as defined by the most minor of metropolitan areas, should be nonexistent.

Kerrigan the town was two streets wide. Four or five blocks if you counted a handful of houses scattered haphazardly off the town center. A bank, a bar, the county courthouse, a one-block stretch of commercial buildings that looked straight out of the 1920s. Not even a grain elevator. Those, like the nearest towns of consequence, the ones with a stoplight and coffee shop, were twenty-five miles in any direction. The Oklahoma border slightly over the same distance in two directions. What most people needed to know about Kerrigan was on Google. That is, unless you were the getaway pilot for a bank robbery.

I dropped down over road T about a mile out of Kerrigan and flew ten feet off the ground for another mile.

“You lose something?” Rip was checking wingspan against tree line. “Lookin’ for loose change?”

“Looking to not drop one of your gear in a pothole.”

“Nice of you, but –”

I pulled the Cessna as close to vertical as it would go and banked hard as I could without pulling it apart, recovered my mile, flew at the pavement slow and low, cut power,  lifted the nose, stalled and dropped soft, hit the brakes on the edge of nosing over and cut the landing distance well under the published 790 ft.

“Fuck me runnin’, you aren’t ever gonna grow up.” Rip let his breath go in a long whistle. “I teach you to fly like that?”

“Somebody had to.”  I throttled up, ran us down the road and cleared an oncoming old green pickup full of hay bales by fifteen feet. The look on the driver’s face said he had a tale to tell no one was going to believe.

“Now where we goin, hot shot?”

“Shamrock.”

Rip didn’t ask why, pulled out a pair of binoculars. “Reckon we can see who’s parked where?”

“I reckon.” I couldn’t see Moreno in a minus four-star motel with the rest of the convicts. She’d need some space keeping up appearances as the Queen of the Kerrigan bank heist with fiancé in tow, but I couldn’t go to fiancé in my head yet. “We should have asked Flyer if Moreno had rented a car somewhere.”

“Black Camry.” Rip trained the binoculars out of his window. “Budget. Amarillo.”

“Surprised they’d rent her another one.”

“Last one was a Fiat, remember? Doubt they considered that much of a loss.”

***

I offered to drop to five hundred feet, there not being any fifty story high-rises in Shamrock. Rip said to stay off the radio with the regional airport, he could see fine from 2,500. I saw the 30-160 on the side of his binoculars. More like a long-range microscope.

He found the van first in a motel parking lot on 12th St, Old Route 66. Across the road from an abandoned red brick motel or restaurant. There was a dirty mid-2000s black Escalade parked outside a rundown doublewide behind the red brick building. Across a gravel and weed parking lot to the east was a rusty roofed machine shop with drilling rig parts stacked in the lot along with randomly parked rusty stock trailers and a big fifth-wheel travel trailer that appeared new among all the dust and rust. The road was two lanes both ways with a center turn lane. One stoplight, a few too many power lines crossing the road. I wouldn’t want to do it at night. I wondered why I even thought about it, but I was always looking for a safe place to ditch. Learn to fly suspect aircraft with Rip Foster and that sort of thing becomes ingrained.

Rip found the dirty maroon Lincoln and a shiny black Camry three blocks east and a block north at the Holiday Inn Express. I could see Moreno in one of their TV commercials, all smiles surrounded by bags of cash saying, “Well, I wasn’t a bank robber, but last night I stayed at Holiday Inn Express.” If she and Tavius didn’t know each other he was running a hell of a risk with proximity. I started to steam up thinking maybe she was too busy with her fiancé to notice. Rip read my mind.

“Three rooms at the Holiday Inn. Birch, Moreno, and Salsbury. Our lawn jockey was the first one to the party, a day early.”

“How do you know all this?”

He showed me his iPhone that had been recording the binoculars. “It’s called a phone. You might turn yours on occasionally.”

“I was trying to stay off the radar.”

“We know how well that turned out. Keep your phone off a little longer, take us to Roswell. It’s time for the handlers to lose you completely for a while.”

***

“Somethin’ in here is bound to suit you.” Rip pushed the door open on one of his outbuildings. We stood in the doorway, and I took inventory. An engine hanging from a portable hoist between an unidentifiable frame on jack stands and a hoodless orange Camaro. An engineless Harley on a bike lift. Several electric Vespa style scooters in pieces, the whole place accessorized in assorted junk. Lots of it. To the right were several of what appeared to be complete cars and motorcycles, a couple hiding under dust covers. Wind whipped our legs and Rip looked at the sky. “The knucklehead is a bad choice, considerin’.”

The knucklehead was a bad choice regardless. Chrome everywhere, pale orange base for a white lace overlay I was told were spiderwebs. I called lady biker doily on it and got no argument. No belt guard for the pants and leg eater. And it issued dragon farts at idle. The perfect ride for discretion.

“This’n runs.” He lifted the corner of a dust cover revealing the front end of a restored, bright red 1970 Plymouth Road Runner. “Fact it hauls ass.”

“I’ll remember that next time I need a speeding ticket. What else have you got?”

“If you’re gonna be that way there’s a ‘95 Ram out back with bad paint and a new hemi.”

“Gun rack?”

“Don’t be a smart ass. You plan on settin’ up in the McDonald’s parking lot, keep an eye on the love nest?”

“Don’t know yet. I also need to borrow –”

“You check your U-Store It in Addison when you were there? No, or you’d know your Browning is here and you don’t need to borrow nothin’.” He slid the door closed, locked the padlock. We walked to the smaller climate-controlled hangar that he unlocked with his phone. The plane I expected to see was gone.

“Where’s the Beech?”

“That’s what I asked the gal when I opened your storage unit.” He flipped the latch on a small, corrugated fiberglass box, about half the size of a Load n Go forklift storage container. “Ain’t much here, but it’s what was left after Christine cleaned you out. Why I canceled that air-conditioned garage. Saw no sense in you payin’ for air.” There was an envelope on the first box. I picked it up, felt like cash. “Pro-rated refund,” he said.

“Should have kept it for your trouble.”

“No trouble, I was down there with a box truck swappin’ out parts. You feel like telling’ me what happened? After what happened, happened?”

“She called about six months after her people cancelled the future, asked about the furniture. I mailed her a key, didn’t expect to see any of it again.”

“That shit was forty grand worth of expensive. She pay you back?”

“No. I ordered it, it was custom built for that condo. What am I gonna do, Rip, be an asshole like the rest of them? Keep it out of spite with no use for it?”

“Like money’s her real problem. Looked like she got some of your mother’s things when she was in there.”

“Good. They deserve each other. Where’s my gun locker?”

***

I had no sooner pulled around the McDonalds drive thru in Shamrock than I got a text from Cav.

            War Paro! Where are you?

It was starting to rain. Big, fat drops that sounded like rocks hitting the windshield. I looked up in time to see Tavius screech out of the Holiday Inn, two-wheel it at the corner. I tossed my coffee, choked down a chicken nugget and fishtailed out of McDonalds after him. That’s a lie. I hit that hemi with no weight in the rear end and did two three-sixties in the middle of Main Street before I got control.

Tavius slid into the gravel parking lot across from O’Doul’s Texian Lodge where the convicts were staying, opened his door and rolled across the ground behind an old galvanized stock tank, his pretty .380 replaced with a .45. I blazed past like I wasn’t interested in two SUVs parked in the middle of Route 66 firing automatic weapons at the motel on one side and the old Escalade that had moved up from the double-wide on the other. I spun a one-eighty in the first intersection past the action, killed my lights.

Whose side was I on? Who the fuck were the automatic weapons people in the middle of the street? What sort of cannon did I hear boom from the motel? The two guys behind the Escalade waited for a let-up in the rain of small arms fire and took off the ten feet to the door of the abandoned brick building. One of them made it, the other fell behind the brick planter on the small porch and didn’t raise up to return fire.

The SUV closest to the motel in the middle of 66 exploded in a ball of fire, rolled on its side. It started to rain like it meant it, the water not making a dent in the burning SUV. I heard sirens start to wail from a ways off. The remaining automatic weapons people blew past me in their bullet-riddled SUV, close enough for me to see blood all over the back drivers side glass and two ski-masked hombres in the front seat cradling assault rifles who paid no attention to me at all. My phone went off again.

Where are you? Road N. 2.7 miles FM86. All night here if I have to. Hurry!

Moreno claimed she was 2 miles out of town, claimed to have all night. I hoped she was dry. Then again, maybe she was wet and miserable. I smiled, idled back towards the scene, now strangely quiet save for ammunition going off sporadically in the burning SUV. I parked out of the rain under the canopy of an empty, dead, whitewashed cinderblock gas station with graffitied up plywood windows, on a diagonal across the highway from the motel.

I stepped out, shrugged into Rip’s rain slicker, chambered a round in the Browning and set off to recon the shootout at the Texian. I checked the burning SUV from a distance. Three dead or wounded in the street, maybe more in the burning hulk. What a fucking mess Moreno’s little bank robbery had turned into. I started for the abandoned restaurant where the Escalade men had gone, heard footsteps behind me, felt a gun in my back.

“Been waitin’ on you, flyboy.”

I wrapped my arm around my chest, gun under my left arm and pulled the Browning’s trigger. Twice. Waited to feel the shot in my back I knew was coming.

Rattlesnakes

There was no standoff. When a situation comes down to Mastiff-Rottweiler mixes having your man parts for dinner and a semi-amicable surrender to future business partners who’ve had the opportunity to blow you in half with a shotgun or unleash the hounds and haven’t, surrender becomes a viable option. Muller and Usman walked to the filing cabinet, set their handguns on top.

“You, too.” Rip directed Double Knit by pointing the sawed-off. Double knit released the arm he had around Cav, flipped back his grey and black houndstooth double knit sport coat, showed Rip the gun in his waistband. He looked more uncomfortable than gun savvy. He started the filing cabinet walk and Moreno ripped the gun out of his pants and

BAM!

Dogs were in the room.

Rip barked “Kill!”

The dogs sat.

The sound of the shot in the small room died away.

The gun Cav yanked had gone off through the fly of Double Knit’s pants and into the floor. He was a statue. Bent partially forward, arms out to his side, butt stuck out like he’d poured hot coffee in his lap, staring down at the smoking hole in his fly. He looked ill. Unlike Double Knit, Cav was no virgin to firearms, but she wasn’t a killer. Now that she had the gun out in one of those television ‘don’t anybody move’ moments she was unsure where to aim it. Rip lit another cigarette.

“Gun in your britches with the safety off is an easier way to fuck up your business than the dogs, son. You three fellas step to the door, mind the dogs. Let’s hear what the lady has to say.”

“I…” she glanced at Rip, landed on me. “Paro? Lo siento? It has to be this way. Until…Until we all know. And then you’ll know, and then…Tu entenderás, lo prometo. Comprende?”

“You’re sorry, and I’ll understand, you promise? Understand what, Cav? When?”

“I told you. When I know, you’ll know. Paro, you know…just…por favor?” There might have been a thousand things in her expression. I only looked for one. I didn’t know if I’d found it or wished it. I wanted to say Whatever, Cav. Fuck it. I didn’t.

Rip was still in the game, though, saying “I won’t kill a good-looking woman with brass balls for no other reason than the comp’ny she keeps. No, now stand still, the lot of you. Not killin’ her don’t mean you jokers get your weapons back. Y’all and the lady take a walk backwards to that van where I know there’s more guns than you brought in with you. While you’re walkin’ consider all the kindsa shit could go wrong with your leaving healthy if I see one.” He turned his back on them, ashed his cigarette, flipped a switch on the side of his desk that lit up the front with floodlights. “Remember there’s always the dogs can’t a one a you outrun.”

***

Tavius sat in one of Rip’s office guest chairs, a stackable, gray metal and hard cushion affair, rubbed his wrists from the handcuffing. Rip handed him the wallet he’d taken earlier, along with the .380 and clip.

“I’m extending you military courtesy, son, returning your weapon. I apologize for hooking you up out front like a lawn jockey. I know you’re pissed but it wasn’t meant as an insult, it was what I had to work with. Don’t care who it’d a been or what color, I’d done the same. We clear on that? I don’t need any racist bullshit from someone oughta know we’re all the same color in a foxhole.”

Tave checked Rip’s eyes, let whatever was on his mind go for now. “I could have been some help. None of them are stable,” he glared at me, “including Moreno.”

“Mighta been,” Rip said. “But we know you’re a liar and like to throw your weight around, intimidate people. Not my style.”

“The fuck it’s not. What do you call the dogs and all the goddamm shotguns?”

“Negotiating accessories. Take your wallet and that pretty gun, make the hour drive to Amarillo. Find a hospital, get that buckshot looked after. If flashin’ all them fancy IDs don’t shut ‘em up an they need a witness for a gunshot accident, have ‘em call me.”

***

Rip flooded the hangar with light and we went back to work mounting the Cub’s tires.

“Goddam, Paro. Stop thinkin’ so loud I can hear it. Spit it out.”

“I’m trying to figure Tavius. He doesn’t make sense. I thought he was hooked up to Moreno some way, but I didn’t see it.”

“He wants what she wants. The money.”

“Okay, then what does she want the money for? Or him?”

“Couldn’t say about her. He’s a greedy bastard who wants to live the high life football would have afforded him, he hadn’t fucked up his knee.”

“He’s West Point.”

“Don’t matter. He’s as career military as either of us. Couldn’t give a flyin’ fuck about anybody but himself. He wants the money she’s out to get, so he’s stuck to her ass like cheap gas station toilet paper.”

“I heard that as like a size too small thong.”

He laughed, stopped ratcheting, listened. “Paro, I don’t see you for six, seven months and you show up with a passel of new an interesting friends.”

I’d heard it, too. “Copter?”

“Lakota. A new one. Somebody important enough to have pull and no use for artillery. Or the Lincoln driver got lost and called in Medevac. I’ll turn on another light.”

***

Secret Agent Man, last seen walking toward a diner in Dallas, stepped out of the black, lights flashing Lakota UH 72a helicopter into the floodlight’s circle. He took a leisurely stroll in our direction while the helicopter wound down, lights still flashing in the gathering dusk. I’ve always wanted to say that, even though I haven’t the slightest idea what the hell Dusk might be gathering.

“Pilot says to thank you for the light, Colonel Foster.” He put out his hand. Rip took it. “And you, Captain Riordan. Feeling better?”

“Yes and no.” What the hell, I hadn’t been a Captain for six years and he’d drugged me, but I shook his hand.

“What are you gentleman drinking this evening? If you aren’t,” he produced a bottle of 21-year-old Glenfiddich, “maybe you’d like to join me?”

***

Rip had a cabinet full of motel tumblers, put three on the round table in his kitchen and pulled the icemaker drawer out of his fridge, emptied it in a small cooler saying, “This is your party, Comp’ny man.”

“Brad.” He twisted the Scotch open while Rip dipped the tumblers in the ice. “Everyone calls me Flyer.” He poured when the tumblers landed.

“You a pilot, track star?”

“Neither.”

We let that ride, sipped his Scotch in quiet until he pulled out his phone. “Mind?”

Rip and I looked at each other. “Music,” Flyer said, “not a recorder.”

“You hit Bluetooth in that thing, find JBL. Only rule is no oompah accordion music.”

“Understood. I have two rules myself.” He set his phone down and tasteful ambient with a jazz flavor floated off Rip’s counter. “No radio rock, no bubble gum.” We sipped some more and waited. When glass two got poured Flyer produced a large, flat envelope from his windbreaker.

“Here’s where we are gentlemen. You obviously fared well with Princess Moreno, Usman and the rest.” He didn’t mention Tavius, but he had to know. I left it alone, but it was killing me.

“These are the players.” He fanned out some 5×7 prints, dealt a couple to the side, started there. “These two are already dead.” One was Third Eye horseapple nose, the other an average looking, balding man of indeterminate middle-ish age. “This one,” he tapped Muller’s picture, “he’ll be dead soon, if not already.”

“Moreno said –”

“Yes, I know, Paro. The information is all split up. I’ll believe that when pigs fly somewhere besides a Pink Floyd concert.” He tapped the Double Knit man, who was wearing far better clothes in the picture than what we’d seen. “He doesn’t know anything, so he’s expendable, like you. But not until the job’s done. Usman, and Dawson, the one who stayed in Shamrock, will try to kill each other after the bank’s robbed.”

I spun not so Double Knit’s picture. “This guy, me. We’re expendable but not till later. Why?”

“Usman thinks he’s the alpha in this game. He wants the money, and he wants Moreno. You and this man are…Important to her. Or he needs to think you are, so he can’t risk killing either of you. Yet.” He took a drink, poured a splash of another. It was his turn to finger not so Double Knit.

“A chiropractor. Stephen ‘Woody’ Birch. His real name, I checked. Mr. California. Vitamins and exercise, snake oil lotions and teas and alignment is the path to enlightenment and insurance fraud. Mostly Medicare. He did a plea deal, kept his license, paid back most of the debt by returning what he hadn’t spent and mortgaging everything else, twice. He still did about a year of Federal time. In fact, all these cons are Federal. Woody overheard them talking at Terminal Island about the wet dream bank job, pulled them together when Moreno said she needed some real money. He’s got no skin in this deal except the introductions, and he shouldn’t be here but he’s in love.”

“So how does this job net him anything?”

“Okay, Comparo. Good news, bad news on the Moreno front. He’s her fiancé. Was her fiancé until she found out about you not being dead. She strung him along to keep the convict pool in order until she located you. He’s working the other side of the same street, stringing her along till she’s got the money. As long as Usman doesn’t know Woody and Moreno are done, and that you’re no more than a friend who can fly, he keeps his hat on. The torch job was a warning, not revenge. If any of them had known about you and Moreno in San Antonio, or the trailer, there would be more bodies stacked up, yours among them.” He eyed his splash of a drink, downed it, continued.

“For now, Usman is on hold. Woody thinks she’s still going to bail him out, so he won’t do anything stupid. And if we can get you to abandon the White Knight routine and focus on your job everything stays on track. Until the bank is robbed. After that, all bets are off.”

Great. Something to look forward to. A well-armed cluster fuck shoot ‘em up with psychopaths.

“And what’s your job?” I asked because it had started to sound like Days of Our Lives robs a bank with no set end game save the cluster fuck shoot out.

“My job,” he hoisted his glass, we all clinked, “is to take 32 million dollars out of a gang coalition’s operating fund any way I can without stealing it myself. Maybe point some fingers on the street, start a power war and let some big-city bad men kill each other.”

I shook the ice in my tumbler. “You aren’t worried about collateral damage?”

“Civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time is the six o’clock news, regardless. And it’s a lot less expensive, casualty wise, than a lot of civilians damaged by that 32 million. Even if it is just a drop in the bucket.”

Such is war. The Company, or whoever this guy worked for, would never say who the real enemy was, or the real target. Or the real goal. In my time I got briefed, given coordinates, sometimes not until I was in the air, never knew who I was dropping bombs on. I was told they were sanctioned targets of military value to the enemy. I still had nightmares about blowing up some woman innocently hanging her sheets out to dry when a bomb smarter than all of us decided she was dangerous.

Rip poured himself another. “The West Point slick leadin’ the pack in here today. What’s his game?”

“The same as everyone else’s. This project has been his baby for over two years, waiting on a trigger. Moreno and the convicts decide to rob the bank, game on. Things are happening that don’t make sense, but if you look it at the wrong way, they make perfect sense.”

“Rambo gone rogue in a fancy sweatsuit?”

“He’s my problem, Colonel Foster. However, had you killed him outright this afternoon he’d be off my plate and this would be fifty-year-old Scotch. But you didn’t, so he and his evolving plans remain my problem.”

That was all Flyer had to say about Days of Our Lives robs the Kerrigan State Bank. He picked up his phone, complimented Rip on his speaker. He said goodnight, shook our hands and reminded me to stay in touch when I heard something. The Lakota wound up and he saluted us casually before climbing aboard.

Rip watched the helicopter lift and haul ass west, its lights winking out in the distance. “Nice fella. For a comp’ny man.”

“He left us a little over half a bottle of two-hundred-dollar Scotch.”

“Yep. A real nice fella, that one.” He turned, headed back to the main building. “But then I’ve heard people say the same about Rattlesnakes.”

Out Dogged

I flew over the long hangar with Rip Foster’s Stick It Flight Training painted on top, checked his windsock, and banked easy into a light southwest wind toward the big pond fifteen miles in any direction from a paved road or population of any kind. Rip was a late-in-the-game Viet Nam vet who’d helped evacuate Saigon and didn’t have a politically correct bone in his body. His threshold for bullshit was “lower than snake shit in a wagon rut” unless it was him doing the bullshitting.

I’d just turned fourteen when I told my parents I was going south to Texas and work a combine crew north for the summer, all the way to Wisconsin, make a butt load of money. It was a complete load of crap, but they bought it, happy they only had to deal with my older sister, each other and alcohol that summer. I didn’t give a damn about money or combines, I wanted to fly a bi-plane crop-duster. I was willing to eat SPAM, wash planes, wax propellers, whatever was involved including making a huge pain in the ass of myself until someone working the combine trail crop-dusters took me up.

I soon discovered no one wanted anything to do with me. “A little too short in the britches, arncha?”  “Probly a virgin, arncha?”  “Betcha can’t even drive, can ya?” All true. But I’d worn out Huckleberry Finn and The Reivers and I wasn’t a quitter. After six weeks I was having trouble keeping the quitter at bay when Rip Foster walked up to me, pulled on his gloves, eyed me like a small dog that might pee unexpectedly.

“If you’re the kid givin’ ever’body a case a ass over wantin’ to fly, come on.”

Rip relinquished the go-kart steering wheels of a Beechcraft 17 to me headed west somewhere over Kansas, and then promptly went to sleep. Just before he found nap-thirty he’d done a cursory run-down of the important gauges, nose up, nose down, just hang on, it flies itself.

Bullshit.

I was losing about 500 feet a minute over flat terrain, with Colorado looming on the distant horizon. I pulled up on the wheel and got a couple of thousand feet back punishing the Beech. I pushed down, same effect looking at the ground. I went through the roller coaster until I was seasick and scared shitless. I got it leveled out around two thousand feet for a while, but it still wanted to go up or down and scoot sideways and damn sure wasn’t flying itself. Rip woke up after forty minutes of me living on panic and adrenaline, walked me through a bank around back east and after forty more minutes of full-on ‘this is an airplane’, my very first landing. I remember saying something stupid like “Man, that was cool!” I vividly remember his response.

“No, son. It was suicidal.” But he lit a cigarette, thumped my shoulder saying, “See you at five tomorrow. In the morning. Find some decent sunglasses between now and then.”

He taught me how to fly over weekends and summers for the next three years. By making me fly anything we could find with an engine that would get off the ground. Rip once lit a couple of books of matches, waved them in front of my face and shouted “Fire! May Day! Fire in the cockpit!” when I was trying to land in deep dusk with no lights. We bounced to a stop just short of a river and he said, “It’s not always happy hour. You gotta keep your shit straight, fly through it.” A lesson that came in handy in a burning plane over Columbia. He also taught me the value of shotguns as he saw them. Any length, any gauge. He had them everywhere, always one within reach.

***

We’d pushed the Cub into one of his hangars where he was helping me pull the floats off so that I could replace them with the 26-inch tires that would land me anywhere except water. Like down the street from a middle-of-nowhere bank.

He listened and wrenched without interruption while I ran down my situation. When I finished he continued to wrench on the float struts in silence before he set his ratchet down.

“So, Bo Diddly, tell me. Who do you trust?”

Whoooo do you luh-uve. “I don’t know.”

“Well, we’ll think on it some more. What I do know is it’s hot as hell in this hangar. And pontoons, god almighty, plus a certain fool I know who uses them are the only reasons I don’t ‘doze that pond. Stinks when it has water in it.”

“Never seen it dry.”

“Never has been. Stinks all the damn time.”

I was wondering if I should thank him for the stinky pond while we dropped the floats and carried them out of the way but that thought was interrupted when Rip’s phone made windchime noises. He picked up a rag, dried the sweat off his hands, pulled the phone from his front jeans pocket.

“Comp’ny comin’. Two miles out.” He whistled through his fingers, two short chirps and one long. He checked the phone, handed it to me. “You know a black fella, drives a dirty maroon Lincoln?”

***

“I asked your lady friend in Sugarland,” Tavius said. “You don’t call, don’t answer your damn phone. I’ve been driving all fucking day. Where’s Moreno?”

“I turned my phone off. Moreno, I couldn’t say.” The fucker was lying, selling it like nobody could do math. I’d left Houston with Moreno at 10 AM. Addison by 12:30. Moreno and Secret Agent Man had eaten up another hour. Not quite three hours to Rip’s in a straight line at 105, a trip that was right at five hours by car because I’d driven it before. It was now almost 5:30 PM. Tavius’s total drive time would have been nine hours if he’d refueled without stopping and the freeways had been accident and construction free. No way he was here from Sugarland. But he could have driven from Shamrock in the hour I’d been on the ground. It stunk worse than Rip’s pond.

“Son,” Rip looked up from his desk at Tavius standing by the open door,  “we all know you’re lyin’. Why’nt you tell Comparo where the body’s at, what you’ve done with the knife and what your stake in all this is ‘cause spray paintin’ us with your brand a bullshit ain’t gonna fly.”

“Look, old man, I asked him a simple question.” Tavius’s hand was on its way to his back. A sawed-off 12 gauge swung up from the side of Rip’s chair and blew a hole in the sheetrock next to Tavius, his slick matte nickel .380 stalled at his side, still pointed down. Rip always said a shotgun in close quarters froze time.

“Don’t be cute, son, or you’ll end up like the meth heads show up out here time to time thinkin’ I have somethin’ worth stealin’. Paro, relieve the man of his weapon and his predicament.”

Blood flecks were showing on Tavius’s left arm, the one closest to the blast. There was no hole in the wall, just wasted sheetrock on top of concrete.

“Paro, how long you figure on the van fulla convicts?”

“Maybe an hour.”

“Dandy. Our friend here oughta be done with the sheetrock patch by then.”

***

Tavius was on one knee, a bucket of premix wall compound next to him, an eight-inch putty knife in his right hand. The left sleeve of his silky rayon hoodie was missing and he had half-a-dozen Band-Aids on his arm. Rip was sitting on his desk, shotgun in hand, supervising.

“Now when you’re done an outta here, son, you get yourself to an emergency room or a vet. Somebody knows how to fix huntin’ accidents and pull buckshot. Leave ‘em in there and that lead’ll start a blood infection, kill you as sure as you’d taken a direct hit.”

Tavius tried to be cool, wiped the putty knife on the edge of the bucket, checked his work. “What kind of wall is this?”

“Poured concrete, four inches thick. The galvanized outside helps keep the heat down and has an authentic look to it. The sheetrock is for folks who think it looks finished that way.”

I could see Tavius wanted to ask arrogant survivalist nut case questions, but Rip had kept a shotgun on him the entire time, even when he’d handed me the first one to reload the spent shell. I’d wanted to ask Tave a bucket of questions myself,  but Rip wanted his wall fixed without conversation. I heard the wind chimes again.

“More comp’ny, Comparo. Hook our friend up to the reins rings in front where I can see him.”

“This is going to go down bad for you, old man.” Tavius wasn’t happy about being hooked up like a yard ornament.

“Could be. But it’s my shotgun and my party. I’ll cut you loose when we’ve had our second little get together and you’ll be free to tell whoever you want what happened here. Like you said,” Rip slid off the desk to upright. “I’m an old man and I can’t party like I used to. But you just go along with us an I think we can get through this one without needin’ to kill you.”

I led Tavius out in hands-behind-his-back cuffs, ran the short length of chain between his wrists and through the steel ring embedded in a concrete post.

“Paro, you can’t be doing this. We had a deal.”

“We still do. I’m still Moreno’s pilot. You shouldn’t have tried to pull on Rip, that’s all.”

“It was just to get him to shut up so we could take a walk, talk about Moreno, work this out.” He heard the padlock click, shook his wrists “Motherfucker’s crazy.”

“Maybe.” I shook the lock and the cuffs to be sure. “But he’s got the shotguns.”

***

Moreno was the first one out of the van and led a crew of three to the door, none of them acknowledged or spoke to Tavius. This time they were greeted with the shotgun out. Left to right inside it was Cav, Mr. Doubleknit, Muller the crazy-eyed driver from Corpus and a short man wearing a tweed beret and painters coveralls tucked into black combat boots. I figured him as the import Slovak Firestarter named Usman. He was the first to speak.

“You da pilot?”

“No,” Rip tipped his head slightly in my direction. Usman turned toward me.

“You not get da message, not get too fancy, not think too much? Huh?”

“If you’re talking about the campfire down south, I got that message. Pissed me off.” I lowered my shotgun to his chest height. “But before you and I work that out I want someone to tell me what the fuck is going on.”

Rip rested the butt of his sawed-off on his thigh, pointed at the middle of the crew. “Otherwise we waste the three of you and rob the bank with the woman.”

“You can’t do that,” Moreno said. “We only know a part, each of us. No puedo hacerlo solo,” She looked at me like I could help. “Paro?”

“No honor among thieves?” Rip popped a brief ironic smile. “Imagine my surprise.”

Muller and Usman drew handguns, Rip ignored them, didn’t kill anyone, but he whistled.

“You, you can’t kill us all,” Muller stammered. “You already killed Dwight.” Dwight must have been Third Eye horseapple nose. “We kill both of you, I say we’re even.”

“An I say you’re dead either way.” Rip pointed at the door with his sawed-off. “Turn around, have a look. I’d go easy, I were you.” Behind them, in the wide doorway, were five of the meanest looking junkyard dogs I’d ever seen. Rip lit a cigarette, started talking.

“State troopers, they got dope dogs in their patrol cars these days. For stoppin’ people comin’ outta Colorado might have some pot. Now I was comin’ back, I guess, oh, ‘round April maybe. I’d been huntin’ for a week or so up there an had my dogs in the cab with me. I was probably speedin’ a little, up in the panhandle an believe it or not I fit a profile. Geezers who mighta been hippies, thirty somethins in expensive cars an kids with stupid haircuts in rice rockets.  Anyway, this trooper fella, he lights me up, I pull over an he parks up in front of me, gets his dog outta the back. They train those dogs, you know, and they’re smart as hell. Really smart fuckin’ dogs.” He blew a smoke ring, watched it.

“Where was I? Oh, yeah, the dope dog. This trooper, he walks up, asks do I mind if his dog searches my truck for drugs. I roll the back winda down and it fills up with these dogs here and I say I don’t mind, but you should ask my dogs how they feel about it. Well the really smart dope dog, a big ol’ Golden Retriever, he looks up at the winda and says ‘woof’, more like a dog howdy than some badass bark, an trots his fluffy tail back to the K9 car. The trooper looks at me, an the dogs an back at his dog that’s opened his own door and hopped back inside the cruiser. He thinks for a few an then he says ‘Have a nice afternoon. Slow it down’.”

“For God’s sake, what the hell is your point?” Double Knit had a radio announcer voice that belied his lack of fashion sense. And he had his arm around Cav’s waist.

“Those dogs there,” Rip nodded out the door, “they hear gunfire in this room, and they go straight for the crotch. No matter who’s dead your luggage is gone, y’all bleed to death worryin’ about how you and pussy are done forever. Sorry ma’am.” He blew another smoke ring, watched the facial contortions from everyone but Cav. “My point is, son, see that trooper, he knew I had him out dogged.” He smashed the cigarette out in an upside-down piston head sitting on his desk. “A revelation you fellas should be comin’ to long about now. You can set your weapons on the file cabinet there or I can let go a round and y’all can kiss your balls goodbye.” He cradled the shotgun in the crook of his arm, finger on the triggers. “Frankly, I don’t give a damn one way or the other.”

Chocolate Cigars

Something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I didn’t think love had anything to do with it. Moreno’s question had everything to do with it. What she’d asked me, what she needed, was somebody to trust. Since neither of us seemed to know who that might be, her Plan B, by urgent necessity or design, had been to play the love card. I found it an unusual call based on her history. Her Columbian mission ‘boyfriend’ loved her until he got love, jealousy, humiliation and betrayal over something that only existed in his head all mixed up. Just before he and I thought he’d put two 9mm rounds in her chest. I took his gun away and killed him for that. Looking back, I could honestly say that I did it more out of anger for his killing an attractive woman I might have had sex with again than any higher moral calling like love. Sex and love. With all their unfathomable, unpredictable ramifications and Cavanuagh Moreno was counting on one or both of them. And me.

I was working on all that when a young guy rolled up in a new, white Chevy pickup. From the logo on the door I knew he was there to sell me his brand of expensive covered airplane parking and gas, hustle me off to his boss’s corp jet hanger. ‘Complimentary’ wine, crackers, cheese, fruit and cold salmon dip that would magically show up tacked on to my ‘overnight flat rate’. I made a spontaneous decision while the truck’s window went down. When it was down the kid stuck his head out.

“Hey, man. I’m Jason. With –”

“Fuck that, Jason,” I opened his door. “I need to borrow your truck. And the hat.”

“Caps are swag if you park –”

“We’ve done that. Out. Now.”

“Man, you can’t steal the –”

“I said borrow. You have my plane, I have your truck. I don’t bring it back, who wins?” I grabbed the sleeve of his spotless white coveralls and pulled. He stumbled out, I climbed in, snatched his hat on the way. “Take a break, Jason. Call your girlfriend, play with your phone or your dick or something for an hour. I’ll be back.”

“Dude! What do I tell –”

“What you always tell them when you’ve been out fuckin’ off.” I slammed the truck into gear, hauled ass around the hangars in a failed attempt to beat Uber to Moreno. She’d better be at the other airport or we’d have to toss the whole love conversation and have a serious discussion about reality.

***

Sitting stationary in the “hi honey, bye honey” traffic circle at an airport is a lot easier in a clean, new truck with a corporate jet and FOB services logo on the door and a security pass in the clear pouch stuck on the window. With the flashers on I was extended un-spoken professional courtesy by the “keep it moving” Security that had walked past five times and nodded. I returned the nods, pointed to an imaginary watch on my wrist and offered them a working man’s ‘who the hell knows’ shrug while I kept an eye on my subject. Which was easy because Moreno stood unmoving in the same spot on the sidewalk, convict burn phone in one hand, rolling suitcase handle in the other for at least ten minutes while all the variations of hi honey and bye honey vacationers, families, business travelers and sun burned college kids in wrinkled cargo shorts, hiking boots and T-shirts from far away places swarmed around her. Before I arrived Moreno’s heels had turned into sandals and the silky tank into a long-tailed, high collared, loose, three-quarter sleeve madras thing. I called her from my latest burner.

“Bueno? Who is this?”

“Who’s meeting you?”

“Paro?” She looked around, slowly, like a human radar dish. “How did you get this number?”

“Took a picture when you walked off to make a call in Sugarland. Blew it up.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Okay, I checked when you set it on Gina’s counter.”

“Why?”

“Yes was yes. Who’s picking you up?”

“You’re very sweet, but this isn’t the –”

“Who?”

“The accountant. He’s…I don’t want to be alone in the car with him.” She was still trying to pick me out of the crowd. “Paro, please. Hang up.”

“Give me his number.”

“Paro –”

“Cav!”

I hung up, punched the number she’d rattled off at high speed in Spanish into my burner and saved it. A few minutes later the last thing I expected, and from her face, the last thing Moreno expected as well, was some guy who shopped business casual at Goodwill who’d walked up behind her with a rolling suitcase of his own and started talking. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they argued at low volume and you could have cut the mutual animosity with a knife.

They were chewing at each other like that when a reasonably new, pewter gray Dodge Caravan with blackout tint signaled its way through three lanes of ‘hi honey bye honey’ to the curb in front of Cav and Mr. Best Dressed 1974. He grabbed Cav’s elbow and ushered her none too gently toward the van. I made the call. Best Dressed didn’t answer, I hoped it was the van driver.

“Rondy.” Some kind of accent. Slavic?

“Tell your friend to ease up on the lady or he’s dead before he gets to the van.”

“Whodafuck?”

“Your pilot. You have,” I made a guess of distance by ground, “just under five hours to meet me at Stick It Flight School in Donley County.”

“Where da –”

“Short detour on your way to Shamrock. You can find it. You’d better find it.”

“The boss,” Rondy sounded antsy, less badass. “She not even know about Shamrock. How –”

“Magic. I’ve dropped bombs on the Taliban and grenades on a cartel coke convoy. You ass wipes are fish in a barrel. Five hours, fuck stick, or I take her away from what’s left of you and we do this job ourselves.” I clicked off the call.

Shit. Now what? I started to pull out behind them when my passenger door opened and Secret Agent Man from Sugarland hopped in.

“Don’t stare,” he flipped his hand like he was shooing a fly. “Drive.” We followed the van toward the airport exit, two cars between us.

“You actually have a weapon on you, Comparo? Leftover grenades?”

“No.”

“You watch a lot of old Cagney movies as a kid?”

“Yeah. And The Untouchables midnight reruns in college.”

“Stoned, no doubt. I know I was. You working a plan?”

“No.”

“It shows. You were supposed to call me.”

“This whole, situation, whatever, was, is…”

“Extemporaneous is the word you’re looking for.” I glanced over and he had a faint smile working. “I told you to stay in bed today. Any thoughts on the double-knit walk up?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing.”

“A UFO then. Facial Rec and security video from the gates are on it, we’ll know in about ten minutes.”

“Is Cav safe?” Her love bit was working, I could hear it in my voice. “She said she didn’t like being alone with the accountant.”

“I wouldn’t like it either. The accountant has been dead for eight months.”

“Then who’s driving the van?”

“Rannindy Usman. An import. Bombmaker, arsonist, small-time domestic arms dealer. We’re coming to the light. If they can use Google Maps they’ll turn right for the interstate. You should get over and turn left, drop me at the QT.”

I did as directed, pulled up beside a Frito Lay truck in the QT lot. He tapped my shoulder, made sure I was listening. “Return this vehicle, immediately, before it’s a mess I’ll have to clean up. Then get that powered kite of yours in the air ASAP.”

“You aren’t coming?”

“With Shamrock out of the bag I need to wake up my surveillance from their donut and coffee in the boondocks stupor. And I’m waiting on intel for double knit. You need to forget all of this, go back to being their attitude riddled and now lovesick pilot and kick it to Stick It.”

“Poetry?”

“Everyone needs a hobby.” He swung out of the cab, held the door. “Usman’s an asshole and likes to prove it. I’d prepare for unpleasant company. With considerably more going for you than your Cagney gangsta rap.”

Secret Agent Bard was walking off toward the Mockingbird Diner, cleaning his sunglasses, when I pulled out into traffic. I broke every traffic law in the book getting out of the middle of suburban Dallas, arrived at my destination in Addison with Lady Luck shining on me. Jason was still off somewhere with his phone or his pecker and no police or airport security types were waiting for me. I started to keep Jason’s hat as a souvenir, but it smelled like young guy man-whore hair products so I propped it on the dash in front of the steering wheel. He’d think I was a gent.

When the Cub was running and ready, I contacted the tower and told them my wife was having a baby in Wichita Falls. They offered their congratulations, said I owed them some chocolate cigars and cleared me immediately. I wanted to ask how they kept those lit but passed.

***

Once again from east to west, I watched the planet go from green to brown below me, five hundred miles north. This time with no beautiful danger onboard, only my thoughts. They were more than enough. A new player had shown up, one that Moreno knew and no one else was aware of. A maybe government agent knew every move I made, regardless of my GPS and the phones I thought he knew about being off. Tavius was supposedly a government agent, and he knew just about as much as the other one, if not more. Because Tave didn’t ask many questions except about Moreno. But he’d gone silent after the body removal. Someone Moreno called ‘the accountant’ wasn’t dead, but the original one was. Did she know about that? Did she know the van driver she called an accountant was really a fire starter? Had she known that when her rental car and most of my Earthly possessions turned to ash?

I had started to feel played. And that pissed me off on several fronts, Cavanaugh Moreno chief among them. Sex? Love? Was that just to keep me reliable? Committed? I needed to keep my big head on and start thinking with it, let the love and bank robbery money chips fall where they may. I’d a lot rather come out of this thing broke, alive and flying, than end up dead in the middle of nowhere fighting one too many of a good-looking woman’s windmills while I labored under the delusion that she wasn’t yanking my chain about the big L.