“Bozo”

Rip shook me awake, waved coffee under my nose. I sat up in the wicker patio love seat, rubbed my eyes, heard the question I’d been asked a number of times bang around in my head.

“She took off, Paro. Back up to Shamrock and those convicts.” Rip pushed the coffee within an inch of my nose. “You sure have trouble hangin’ on to women.”

“I thought you took…Drove…” I had to take the scalding coffee from him or risk burning my nose.

“I took the old truck with the steel bed liner and cam locks. She’s got the new one.”

“You’re fucking…” Shit, the cup was hot. “You know how many…”

“Fuckin’ crazy? I been told. An it seems you’re to blame for the girl’s run a stolen vehicles. Christ, Paro, you’re a mess. Shake it off, go clean up. Margarita’s volunteered to give up house cleanin’ this mornin’ to run us off a coupla batches of steak n eggs.”

“Margarita? Who…The money! Did it survive the –”

“Would I be here if it hadn’t?” He smacked my shoulder, hot coffee sloshed in my lap and got me off the patio pulling the cargos away from my privates with both hands.

***

“Margarita drives down from Lelia Lake every coupla weeks,” Rip rotated his fork around like a radar dish. “Helps clean up. Dusts, organizes the office, helps me swap out sheets an the like. First time she was here it took me a week to find the damn TV remote. Since then we come to an agreement on that one.” Rip pointed at my empty save for the gnawed t-bone plate. “When was the last time you ate?”

“Last evening. Your hot wings.” I poured myself another half cup of coffee that could pave a driveway or seal a roof.  “Feels like a week.”

“Busy night, watchin’ those two fellas shoot one ‘nother. A story –” He waited for Margarita, a pleasant, bony, hair in a bun woman wearing 80s glasses as big around as saucers to clear the table, set the plates in the sink. She left the kitchen, a vacuum cleaner started up down the hall.

“As I was sayin’, a story I ain’t buyin’ that they took your favorite piece and shot each other. There’s nothin’ about that gun comes back to you, or me. We clean and load with cotton gloves, the gun itself came from a dyin’ Englishman halfway around the world. Why the tap dance?”

“They start pulling your fingernails out you don’t know anything?”

“Bullshit.”

“Talking myself into believing it so I can lie telling it that way and not blink?”

“Sold. The two renta-a-soldiers, you figure them to be the end of that?”

“Best guess. Probably an eight-man rifle squad, didn’t domesticate, went freelance. Lost six in Shamrock, squad boss had to be on that first casualty list.”

“The two strays not the sharpest knives in the drawer?”

“Armed, primed for confrontation. Jumpy. Like a pair of crackheads poppin’ a 7-11. Squad leader would’ve called a play, even for me.”

“Sure they’re ex-employees of Uncle Sam, not current?”

“I saw the payroll kids last night, too, remember? Big difference.”

“Mmm. Need to see the money?”

“No.”

“Good. ‘Cause it’s buried.”

“I like the sound of buried treasure. Makes me feel like a pirate.”

“Not shovel buried, son. ‘Dozer buried. The girl had me pull three million, said you’d know why. I buried thirteen-three, kept out twenty-seven thou. It’s in the safe.”

In my head I did all the math I could stand for year. “That works out to an oddball start number.”

“People skimmin’ along the way. The chiropractor had to have pulled a stash, plus you toppin’ him off. Drivers, security, entourage, all hooker an dope partyin’ in the vans. Envelopes home. That’d work out to an even start around eighteen-five unless somebody got greedy.”

It was my turn to say “Mmm…”

I knew Moreno wanted the three million on hand to keep the convicts happy. With her and me since there was no longer anything on the way to Kerrigan for them to help rob. I hoped she hadn’t called off tomorrow’s roadblock or said something stupid about where the money was. Didn’t seem like her to do that, but “like her” was still a fuzzy picture. The “Love” girl who could play a lot of parts, too convincingly.

“In that movie a yours,” Rip said, like he’d been reading my mind, “noticed Cary Grant’s suit coat didn’t have a vent.”

“What?”

“No vent. Like a Zoot suit. Eye-talian, they call it.”

“Not a Zoot, or ‘Eye-talian.’ It was a ventless three roll two. He also wore same-as-suit ties and brown or oxblood shoes with gray. The man was a real Sartorialist, ahead of his time.”

“Meanin’?”

“Fashionista. Metrosexual. Sharp dressed man.”

“You ever got a decent haircut I’d say you’d been readin’ GQ at the barbershop.”

“Back in the run-up to not marrying Christine, I learned more about men’s clothes than I ever wanted to know.”

“That why these days you look like a sack fulla doorknobs most times?”

“Among other reasons. Like five grand for a pre-motheaten sweater.”

“You don’t have to do vagabond. Recall the few times you ever wore a suit you looked good in it. And a uniform.”

The vacuum stopped. I pushed my chair away from the table.

“Like the times you got married and that duster from Nebraska’s funeral? Thanks, Mom. Been there, done that.”

“An you ain’t changed t-shirts since.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “You know your problem, Paro? You’re tryin’ to sort the good guys from the bad guys into two neat piles.”

“Do I smell an inbound sermon?”

“Nope. Never hurts to give both sides some leeway is all.” He arched his hand over his coffee cup, twisted it with his fingertips in a slow circle. “It’s not Cary Grant or the Lawn Jockey. Or the high dollar Scotch man or even the convicts. It’s the girl still has you bothered. You think she’s bidin’ her time, waitin’ to see who’s left standin’?”

“Could be.”

“You think she’s dangerous?”

“No more than the other vipers in the Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery pit.”

“An it could be you just want her to be wrong.” Rip sat in a very still, noncommital quiet for a few before he pushed his chair back. “Well, your problem, not mine.” He stood, hitched his belt up. “The girl’s money’s locked in the bed a the Ram, vehicle hangar. You know where the weapons are.”

***

Moreno had called, for some reason I didn’t hear it and it went to voice mail. The message was crap connection scratchy and I’d had to rewind it three times to nail down the address on Route 66/12th Street in Shamrock’s dead “Old 66” business strip. I knew the meeting place had to be the convicts’ idea, not hers.

I got to Shamrock early, parked two blocks away down the side of a freshly painted, locked-up NAPA auto parts store with waist-high weeds under the sign. I stayed off the road, used overgrown back lots behind empty buildings for cover. I was leading with the stainless-steel Walther I’d picked out of Rip’s gun safe, racked and chambered, safety off when I walked the cracked concrete studded with grimy weeds drive and around to the front of the free-standing once upon a flea market, record store, vegetable stand, and mechanic’s garage. I stopped at the edge of a large window where nearly invisible weather faded, childishly executed paintings of appliances – washing machines, sewing machines, and typewriters – now lived against a closed, dust-caked Venetian blind backdrop. On the door, sun-faded posters for concerts in Amarillo, Oklahoma, Colorado. A festival out by Canadian where a long list of old-time honky-tonkers offered to make a weekend of it four years ago. The inside of the door covered in yellowed newspaper pages held in place by equally yellowed masking tape.

I tried the door, easy. Locked. I didn’t like anything about this whole setup, kept walking, turned down the east side of the store and froze. A bulky guy in the weeds about halfway down the side, his back and long gray ponytail to me, was working a crowbar on the side door. I backtracked, flattened myself against the front wall between the windows and old garage door. Less than a minute later I heard the front door unlock from the inside.

Shit. My hands started to sweat.

The door opened, followed immediately by a giant white ball of WHOOMPH that blew Bulky Man out the door and into the street. Glass and Venetian blinds flew by me, a second or two passed before bricks pushed on my back, shoved me off the sidewalk and out into the street with him. I laid that way until I got my breath back, shrugged off some bricks and rolled onto my left shoulder. I brought the gun up, checked Ponytail Man and dropped my arm back down. I’d seen my share of blast casualties, and they all had the same look. Something once human reduced to a bloody, impossibly positioned rag doll. A splintered chunk of two-by-four had impaled Bulky Man between his shoulder blades and now held his upper body a foot off the ground. It gave him the look of demonstrating effortless yoga. I hadn’t noticed Rip’s truck roll up, or Tavius get out.

“Damn, Paro.” He squatted down in front of me. “You aren’t bleeding much. You whole?”

I moved up to hands and knees, careful to avoid the glass shards, shook my legs out one at a time.

“I’ll live.”

“Good.” He stood, caught the back of my upper arm with a steel fingered grip, lifted me out of the bricks. “One of these days tryin’ to kill you is gonna take.”

***

The nicks and scrapes burned when I washed the sandy blast and street debris off my face in the McDonald’s restroom across the street from Moreno’s Holiday Inn. Tavius watched, his booted foot against the door while he told me for the tenth time what a lucky fuck I was, how it was a hell of a little wall that saved me.

“Nothin’ to do with the bricks, Tave. Dynamite.”

“For a fact?”

“White, and I could smell it.”

“In your current condition,” Tavius cocked an eyebrow, “my well-dressed Lawn Jockey self could run with a line like that.”

“What I mean, it was an uncontrolled blast. Dynamite out-pressure is like fire. It hauls ass to the easiest exit.”

“You learn that watching the science channel?”

“Jesus, fuckhead. Listen. The wall came off as one piece, in slo-mo, behind the blast. From residual pressure and structural failure. It was a Jim Bob bomb, not a focused C4 job.”

“So?”

“So? Who set it? Not the Roosky convict, he thinks he’s a fucking artist. Who was the big ponytail guy? Who had Moreno send me there?”

“Too many questions, grasshopper. The last one I have half an answer for. I didn’t like what I heard on the intercept of that message. The rhythm felt wrong. I had it run and it was a splice job, like I thought. Someone must have hours of that woman talking.”

“It was from her number.”

“You telling me you never get robocalls, look like they’re from a real number?” He scowled at the loud, insistent knock on the door.

“What the hell are you sayin’?”

“Saying third graders know ways to send a call looks and sounds legitimate. Saying she didn’t call you, so don’t go off on her when you get over there. Saying further don’t say shit to her about it.”

“The phone call or the bomb?”

“Brother, you a tore up, dusty, dirty Goodwill refugee walking.” He moved his foot and let in a round, pink-faced man wearing a loud yellow golf shirt. “No way you avoid the bomb.”

Pink Face man eyed us, laughed. “Hey, y’know that’s what I just told my wife,”

“Yeah? Then she told you how it really was,” Tavius showed a lot of teeth. “How you’d best take your act on over to McDonald’s, leave her and the motel room shitter out of it?”

“Exactly what she did. Been married awhile yourself, huh?”

***

Again?” Moreno would make some kid a good Mother. She had the fists on hips thing down. “He has my truck?”

Rip’s truck, Cav. Consensus from the convicts to the CIA is that given a vehicle, you get flighty and unpredictable.”

ME? You’re no one to talk! You take off in the middle of the night in your…your fucked-up baby airplane with your fucked-up Mars lander box inside to re-rob our bank. Ni una palabra! Not one single word to me, your partner.”

“You still on about that?”

Yes!”

“Your English takes over when you’re mad.”

“Okay. Si! Si, si, si! You like better the Spanish me? Maybe I make some little sexy sing-song in it? Oh Paro, quiero amarte demasiado buena…” She leaned into me, and I swear she purred. I backed up a step.

You.” I put my hands on her shoulders. “I’d like you to ‘love me too good.’ If I knew who the hell you were.”

She pumped her shoulders, left, right, left, right, almost a dance move to dump my hands, backed up as well. She folded her arms and fumed, her eyes like shiny, hot obsidian.

“I brought your convict money,” I thought I was being slick, changing the subject.

“You are so hopelessly transparent.” She whipped her phone up off the table from in front of the Holiday Inn’s TV, stuck it in my face. I took it, held it back out so I could see. It was a text from “unknown” with a picture of an older custom Ford van too similar to the one I set on fire in Kansas to be a coincidence. How many of those damn things were out there? I made Woody as the guy in aviator shades behind the wheel, four exact copies of the dead Bulky Man on big motorcycles, two on each side.

I want my money. BITCH. Tell the pilot we’re coming. BITCH. For both of you. BITCH

“So much for you winnin’ the Kerrigan Bank Robbery Miss Popularity Contest.” I handed her the phone. “Guess we still need the convicts and their grenade launcher.”

“I guess,” she reached up, brushed sandy mortar dust out of my hair while she built a thoughtful, wicked smile, finger-thumped the top of my head, hard. “Bozo.

“Ow.” I squinted through watery eyes, rubbed the thump. “What happened to pendejo?”

“I’m still mad.”

Deanna – With Two Ns

Roosevelt Junior High, February 11th, 1972

Everyone at Roosevelt Jr. High had been “encouraged” to bring their Valentine’s cards to exchange in homeroom on the Friday before Valentine’s Day because the Pep Club dance was set for Friday evening. Jackson was quietly celebrating the usual embarassment of his Friday laundry bag duty for coach Stephens. The blue bag would get him out of all the card swapping and conversation fumbling. He wouldn’t have to participate or watch guys with their “special for you” Valentine’s cards stand in line and wait to clear on the Hot Girl, Deanna Collings. Word was she’d already dropped on Matt for the dance so she was, as his mom said, “just being polite” letting those guys wait in line to hand off their dollar-fifty Hallmark’s for a poised “Thank you so-o much!” Accompanied by a chance to dream for a split second about being the lip gloss that rubbed off on her teeth.

Jackson’s “date” to the dance was already set with Mary, his across the street neighbor who’d found a way to use him to get to every party since sixth grade by enlisting both their mothers in a charade of “If Jax would only ask me…”  His mother would send him to ask and she’d say yes and go call whoever it was that might not be as convenient or mom sellable to meet her. Sitting next to Mary in the backseat of his Mom’s Oldsmobile was like sitting next to a cement garden statue in white gloves and Mary Janes. Once at the dance, like every time he’d gone to a party with her since sixth grade, she dumped him immediately to go make out with somebody else. He studied the dance floor, the band’s gear, the clutching, blushing or just dance crazy couples until he’d seen enough to describe it in detail to his mother. He turned, climbed high enough up in the gym bleachers to be out of the band’s strobe light, but not far enough into the darkened upper tier to bother the making-out instead of dancing couples, and sat by himself.

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

“Hey, Jax.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why aren’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

He leaned the door open slow, caught himself before he kicked someone in the back.  Alone, on the old, cold concrete steps of Roosevelt Junior High sat Deanna Collings. Jesus!

“Hey, um…Collings.” He had the urge to pee, but found his nerve. “What’re you doing out here?”

“Waiting for my brother. He’s coming to get me.” She shivered, shoved her hands further up the sleeves of her sweater.

“Are you cold?” Shit. Way to go, Captain Obvious.

“A little, I guess.”

“Here.” He draped his jacket over her shoulders. Now he was cold. They never mentioned that when guys handed off their jackets in the movies.

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

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

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

“Were what? Were what, Jackson?” Her face full of defiance. “Huh? What were we?”

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

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

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

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

“No.” She wiped her eyes, blew her nose, balled up the napkin and put it back in his jacket pocket. “Well, okay. If it’s about him and it’s funny.” She pulled out the half a dry chocolate chip cookie and took a bite and looked at him. He’d never really looked at her eyes before, but…

“When his sister dyed his hair with the blonde streaks she screwed it all up, you know, some of his hair and the lift up sideburns are like invisible. He colors them back on, and up the side. He tried a magic marker but got squiggles on his face he had to wash off with paint thinner. Now he does it every day with some kind of makeup pencil.”

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

“Not really.”

“Tell me why?”

“Well, you know, I hate to talk sh –”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

“Because it’s dirty?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this him, little sister?”

“Him?” She glanced at Jackson again. “Oh, no. Jax just waited with me. So I wasn’t outside alone.”

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

“Uh…yeah.”

“Think you could kick his ass for me?”

“Yeah, probably.”

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

DeeDee?

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

“What’s with the big red envelope, man?” Kirk and three other guys surrounded him at his locker. “Crushing out on Collings?”

“I had to.” Jackson banged his locker door closed in the hall on his side of the gym. “I missed Stephens’ ‘Valentine’s for everyone’ announcement. She told me —”

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

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

***

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

“The card, sweetheart?” Mom Collings held out her hand. “May I see it?”

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

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

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

“Deanna? The card. Now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, mom. Really.”

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

I Worry as I Please

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

“PD 1 to PD 3”

“Copy PD 1. What’s your location?”

“Southeast of Perryton.”

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

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

“Chopper?”

“Probably. You copy that, PD 3?”

“Roger that. PD 3. Out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madre de Dios…

I pulled the handle.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Déjame ir, sucio cabrón!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t –”

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

“It wasn’t ever going to get here.”

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

“You through?”

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

“Anything?”

“Filtered water. The tap is disgusting.”

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

She eyed the bottle, turned it in her hand.

“That makes it Spring Water?”

“You pissed off at everybody, Cav?”

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

“I know it sounds stupid, but –”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

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

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

“Why aren’t you with Tavius?”

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

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

Cuéntamelo. Todo!”

All of it?”

ALL of it.”

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

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

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

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

“Unless you know it’s a replacement.”

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

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

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

“Pity. And maybe a shot of stupid.”

“A double shot, if not a triple.”

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

“Don’t worry about it.”

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

“That’s a first?”

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

“Those cups never worked. Good popcorn?”

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

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

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

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

“Where is the money now, Paro?”

“Rip has it if it survived our lander.”

“He is trustworthy?”

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

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

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

Crossroads

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

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

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

“But the GPS was just on the money –”

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

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

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

“Shit…Rednecks and Alligators and more spics.”

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

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

“This’ll do.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’d be right.”

“Where’d you soldier, airman?”

“Around.”

“You gonna finish it?”

“Seen a lot worse salvaged.”

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

“His van.”

“Waste him?”

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

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

“Granted as slow.”

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

“Balletic.”

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

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

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

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

“I lost a beauty contest.”

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

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

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

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

He shifted his weight around, set his feet.

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

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

“I win?”

“It wouldn’t matter.”

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

“Try me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Feels Like Pantyhose

Flying over Kansas at night is a handful of small diamonds scattered on black velvet. I’ve said before that the world is a peaceful place with a little distance, a wider perspective that takes the grimy dailiness out of your face. I’d been searching for perspective, insight, that “little voice” and had gotten my bell rung by an offhand comment in the middle of Rip riffing an Americana allegory over buffalo wings. Someone that wasn’t me was supposed to end up with the money and the girl. Well, maybe she wasn’t ever in the equation. I was a convenient distraction with a convenient skill. An ignorant, disposable pawn who had shown one of the chess masters his game plan. I’d felt like a first-class sucker. In the beginning, I hadn’t cared who won, so long as I got to play. Now I was deep in it and needed to play for keeps or I’d never get out in one piece. Much less with the money. Or the girl.

According to Moreno’s magical laminated strip the cash departed Minneapolis yesterday, bound for Kerrigan, in a six-year-old Ford custom camper van with legitimate plates and a two-motorcycle escort. Motorcycles that probably looked like weekend warriors, not gangstas. The van was on a loose southwesterly route that used county roads and bypassed any town of consequence. Every stop along the way was timed, had a specific time window to complete refueling, food and call of nature breaks. There were three scheduled misdirects where during a pit stop the money would shift vans, the newly empty money van going one way, the new money van carrying on to Kerrigan. The second redirect had taken place just over two hours ago in the parking lot of a popular with touring bikers barbecue joint off Mitchell County Road 14 in Beloit, Kansas.

Three hours and fifteen minutes southwest of Beloit, traveling within posted speed limits, is the tiny town of Mullinville, Kansas. One of those places where the City Council comprises half the sober, literate adult population. Mullinville is known to rural road-trippers as home to M.T. Liggett’s whimsical, often caustic scrap metal sculptures of political figures, all visible along his fence lines at the corner of Elm and Washington on the western edge of town. On the southern end of Mullinville, US 54 crosses Kiowa County Road 12. That’s where CR12 stops being Main Street and becomes 10th Avenue. On the southeast corner of that intersection there’s a gas station, truck stop, and café surrounded by acres of flat nothing where any obstacles to landing a Cessna, like power lines, are out on the right of way close to pavement and easily avoidable.

A single-engine plane landing in an empty field and taxiing up to the edge of a truck stop across the road from a grain elevator in agri-land isn’t something so out of the ordinary in summer as to create an incident. In daylight it might draw some curious gawkers, out of school for the summer kids, the usual “where ya from, where ya headed” questions. At night? A few truckers peered out of their sleepers, figured me for a crop duster, dropped their curtains, and went back to whatever they were doing.

I stretched my legs around the backlot one time, stopped in the attached convenience store and bought a box of plastic 13-gallon trash bags, walked back, put them in the Cessna. I strolled up front under the glaring mercury vapor lights of the gas pump islands and took up residence in a window booth at the café with a panoramic view of the intersection. I got comfortable, fanned through the tabletop jukebox offerings and discovered an entire flip page devoted to versions of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Doc Severinsen, Boston Pops, the Ventures, an 80’s electric guitarist and hair farmer named Ronson and a handful of this and that Lawrence Welkish ‘orchestras.’

The waitress shuffled up, a tall, thin, older woman with lots of wavy, freshly rolled salt and pepper hair, crooked, bright red lips wrapped around large coffee-stained teeth. Her feet were bigger than mine. I pointed to the flip page full of Slaughter.

“Somebody loves this song or has a sick sense of humor.”

“You must be the airplane.” She popped her gum. “Smartest man in the room, you ask me.”

“How’s that?” I wasn’t feeling particularly bright, much less like the sharpest crayon in the box.

“You’re not driving.” She pulled an order pad out of her apron with one hand and a pen from over her ear with the other, both in fluid slow motion. “Two, three times a year somebody, or several somebodys, gets themselves killed at this intersection. County cops and meat wagons get a kick out of hearing it played on the outside speakers while they clean up.”

Welcome to lack of entertainment land. “You have a favorite?”

“Partial to the Ventures. Long time ago I taught aerobics and surfing, both. On the beach in San Diego. A bored sailor’s wife teaching bored sailor’s wives and I used to stack up Ventures records for background.” She squinted at me. “Long ago being way before you were born.” She wagged the eraser end of the pencil at the table-top jukebox. “You want coffee and food you can trust not to make you a food poisoning statistic don’t play the one in there by that Murphy character.”

“Bad?”

Bad? Sounds like disco and that rap nonsense havin’ butt sex in a big, echoey bus station bathroom.” I wanted to ask her how she knew what that sounded like, thought better of it.

“I’ll save a quarter and skip that one.”

“Like I said. Smart.” She poised the pen over her pad, raised an eyebrow.

“Coffee, black. I’ll tip like I ate.”

She returned the pad and pen to their respective places in slo-mo. “Leave a five under the cup when you’re done, hon. I’ll be sure to put you in my will.” She smiled a crooked smile that said she meant it. About the tip and Murphy, not the will.

I scanned the highway, felt the cold weight of the Browning in my pocket. The Ventures kicked in, surfing through “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” my coffee landed, and headlights appeared up north beyond the grain elevator, headed south on CR12.

I heard Cav’s whispered voice in my head. ‘Madre de Dios.’ Why, Moreno? Why…

***

The headlights belonged to a muddy dump truck that blew through the north-south stop sign without slowing down and I understood the abundance of Slaughters at that intersection. It turned out I didn’t have to wait very long before the van I was looking for pulled up at the pumps. Woody Birch swung down, running his mouth, earbud wires disappeared into a pocket of his slacks. He left the door open, thank you, walked around to fill the tank. From inside the van I heard the cap click, the cover drop shut and held my breath. I waited for him to climb into the driver’s seat before I bent his head toward the door that was still open with the business end of the Browning.

“Hey, Woody. Shut the door.” The door slammed, he squirmed, tried to find me in one of the mirrors. I pushed harder on the bone behind his ear. “What happened to the double-knit look?”

“That was urban camo, man. This is Greg Norman. Golf gear, if you –” I reached my forearm across his throat.

“Shirt feels like pantyhose, Woody. Remember those? All the rage for old school bank robbers.” I let go of his neck, grabbed a handful of slick nylon shirt, pulled it up over his face and the top of his head. “You pay at the pump?”

“‘Course. Whatayou want, Comparo? How much?”

“All of it. Your girlfriend wants to build a convict halfway house masquerading as a wildlife park, and here you are, being a first-class asshole fucking her out of it.” He relaxed. Not much, but enough I knew he was listening. I slipped the phone out of his pocket, popped the headphones, set it on the engine cowl.

“This is like your White Knight moment or what? Bad boy stylin’ for Queenie? Mucho luck with that.” He shook his head under the shirt. “I can’t be-lieve you’d actually give that arrogant bitch any of it. I mean like fuck you, and that, Comparo. I’m not buyin’. What part of the alphabet soup club do you really belong to? Who do you need bought off for your retirement island?”

“No island. I’m an unaffiliated free agent.”

“Dude, nobody in this game is an Indie.”

“You are, so am I. Birds of a feather, you and me.”

“In like some Tarantino nightmare. How’d you find me?”

“The code wasn’t just how the money was supposed to travel. It was how you planned to rob it on the way. Woody the moisture-wicking golf shirt clad Highwayman. Let me guess, your private sector security killed the biker escorts somewhere around the barbecue joint, tossed them in the van with the GPS. Between there and Kerrigan the van and the bikers and the GPS go off a cliff. Or get roasted on the side of a long stretch of nowhere. The gangstas won’t bother to look, cost of doin’ business. Not long after, the CIA plants blame on the street, and the bodies start stacking up.”

“Like that for me, to a point. I don’t know, about the government’s agenda or any of that. They cut me loose when the old letch accountant gave Queenie the strip.”

“The strip you modified between the old letch’s dead hands and Moreno. You kept a copy to show your soldiers of fortune, so they’d work on contingency. You kill the accountant to move this along?”

“The letch? No, I…” He gagged, I thought he might puke. “They…His head was all like…Fuck, dude.”

“Forget it. The old man’s dead, you sold the Roosky firestarter to Moreno as the accountant. Both letches, no different behaviors to explain. How much is in here?”

“Sixteen and change.”

“Better than twelve, less than twenty.” I played a hunch. “Where’d you stash the hole money in case you had to abort?”

“C’mon, man, I was driving off into the sunset. I paid off the security dudes in Beloit so they’d like dispose of the, of the…”

“Bodies, Woody. Your dead bodies. What’d they get for that?”

“Two. It was a one mill contract at first, but they were like big-time assed over Shamrock, getting caught in a three-way, losing their people and gear. That spic bitch…We…They weren’t expecting to get blown off the road with some terminator rocket gun. She was supposed to give me a heads up about shit like that. The big guy who chain-smoked said if I’d give them two, they’d be ‘honorable,’ dispose of the van and the bikers and the bikes, forget they ever heard of me…Honorable. They fucking saluted me when they drove off after they’d squeezed me.”

“And you believed them? Fuck, Woody, be glad they didn’t drop you where you stood and grabbed it all right then. Why did Wriggler say they were bikers?”

“I told him that. They were all tatted up and he’s an idiot. He was my big mistake with you and the bitch. The security dudes said they’d mow down whatever got in my way. You were supposed to stay alive, to keep her happy, part of my government deal. Wrig was a friend with nothing to do, wanted some edge time. I put him on you because he wouldn’t kill you, or the bitch, or anybody for that matter. All he had to do was carry a gun and talk like a TV detective, get you out of the game. Simple, right? What a fucking massive fail that was because here you are. Dude, look, all I wanted was the money and that stupid bitch to like get it, y’know? Without pissing anybody off.”

“You don’t deal with seriously dangerous people much, do you, Woody.”

“No. I…I’d never seen a dead body until…” He gagged again.

“But it was you in the barn? Took her out of harm’s way before Shamrock went up? Changed your mind, the mercenaries were on their way out there to bat clean up after Shamrock went sour?” I thought he might be crying under the shirt.

“Yeah…fuck. I tried, man, all afternoon. She wouldn’t listen. Stayed all feel-think locked down on that totally defective convict animal farm plan. I told her, for a fine brown-eyed girl you need to like wake the fuck up ‘cause your head’s so far up your ass when you talk you repeat yourself. There’s twelve, cash, as a given. We work out the flash drive and it’s drink-thirty in our own private Margaritaville forever. She laughed, told me to dream on. So, like I’d had it with her, being a fucking Barbie an all, but I couldn’t just, you know…myself.”

“Couldn’t kill her, even after your pitch and your charm fell short?”

“No way, man. I’m not a…Anyway, that bitch had her vag sewn up by somebody. She was impossible.” I was about tired of him throwing bitch all over Moreno, but I had to admit I was feeling a little better.

“Drive around back.”

“I can’t see with my shirt over –”

“I’ll talk you through it.” I put on an officious female GPS whine. “In fifty feet turn left…Do I need to say something corny like ‘don’t do anything stupid’ or is the gun against your head enough?”

He shivered, made a small choking noise. I didn’t know if he was about to pee himself for fear of being shot, or barf at the recollection of second-hand dead bodies to his credit or cry about the money. He sighed, felt around the steering column, and started the van.

I half expected him to do something stupid. Slam the trans with his foot through the firewall, make the turn and floor it into a parked truck. But he followed directions well, even when we rolled off the asphalt into the field and he freaked, started screaming about not dying in a Kansas drainage ditch. I told him to stop, the van and the screaming, pulled his shirt down when he complied. He maneuvered back and forth a couple of times, parked door to door, van to Cessna. I followed him out and in the Cheshire Cat sliver of moonlight we broke the pallet of cash down into the more manageable trash bags.

Lonesome Doves

“Knew this man, Don Melchor, lived up north a Amarillo a ways, not all that far from this bank we’re robbin’.” Rip pushed his chair back, a chair in what I thought was a small museum without lights but turned out to be his dining room when the lights came up. “His second wife was friends with my second wife. Both lasted ‘bout the same, both come to the party with a zoo. Dogs, cats, ‘coons. Mean little fuckers, ‘coons are. Strays, wounded whatevers, all kindsa wildlife.” He reached for a wing from another surprise, a large modern porcelain-resting-on-stainless two-cans-of-Sterno fired warming tray on top of a modernish sidebar that looked familiar. It dawned on me that Rip was right in there with my ex-bride to be Christine when he’d cleaned out my storage locker. And left me an envelope filled with more guilt cash than pro-rated refund.

“Well, Don, I forget his wife’s name now, her trousseau menagerie included doves. Don had a covered patio, so the doves took up residence out there. Now they’re hearty little birds and they breed almost like rabbits an pretty soon Don had built up a good-sized coop on that patio a his. But about eighteen months in with Don, livin’ on the edge of civilization like he did with no fence an all, attrition had practically eradicated her four-legged wildlife collection.”

“Mmmph…” Moreno said through a buffalo wing, held up a sauce-covered index finger to hit Rip’s pause button. “How? I mean, what happened to her pets?”

“Bobcats, coyotes, wild dogs… Seemed like ever few weeks there for a while she’d let three out an only two’d come back. Coulda been any number of predators.”

“But,” she looked down, found her napkin, started working it. “Why did she have to let them go like that, not on a leash or something?”

“You have to understand. Don would get to sneezin’ over dog an cat fur an just open the door. ‘Sides a leash in hungry coyote country makes you desert.”

“That sounds so cruel.”

“That’s the convict run wilderness park manager talking,” I said. “Natural order of things. People let Fluffy out in the unmanicured world and there’s a high probability she won’t come home.”

“They should have kept them inside. Until they could be properly supervised.”

She said that and the room went gray. According to television and the movies, a ‘Eureka!’ moment is generally accompanied by a huge, celestial choir drenched in the reverb of eternity. My accompaniment is an aluminum bat on a steel girder in an empty underground parking garage. It echoed around in my head and as it died out the room slowly came back in color. Goddammit. God fucking dammit. When did I become the deaf, dumb and blind kid? I tried to shake it off, but I was trapped in the mental limbo of physically present out-of-body observer. No one seemed to notice, and Rip stepped right back into his rustic allegory.

“Eighteen months or so Don’s wife packed up what was left of her critters an took off to somewhere with a man dumber than she was. I say that because he had to be, you know, to think a family farm was viable without livin’ like an Amish. I think that farmer sweet talked Don’s wife into comin’ along to the farm, selling it like a petting zoo, when what he needed was somebody to coral his kids and do housework since his last wife had got sick of him and the farm an the dirty kids an all of it an skipped out herself.”

“On her children?” She looked at me, I tried not appear as vacant as I felt. “When I have children…” she kicked my shin under the table. “What do you think, Paro?”

“About?”

Children.”

“Oh. I dunno. My sister has a couple. They seem like nice kids. I think there’re times she’d like to toss ‘em out the back door and see how long they’d last, like this Don guy did with his wife’s home pet store.” Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Rip didn’t let it hang too long.

“She left the birds, though, an that’s –”

“I want to go back to the children.” Moreno was using a wing like a pointer in one of her animated hand show moves, aimed directly at me, rotating it around.

“She didn’t skip out on but one of her own.” Rip said. “The farmer’d get a wife, a kid or two out of her and then the wife’d jet. Don’s wife was like number four or five. I wasn’t like any one poor woman endured it for very long.”

“God…Where do these people come from?”

“Why don’t you let Rip finish this before it’s next Tuesday? ‘Cause it will be if –”

“Paro,” her eyes were small dark dots in thin slits under fused eyebrows. “Shut up.” She emphasized it with a forceful wing jab in my direction.

“Y’all gonna do advance family planning or you gonna let me finish?” Moreno shot me a look, shrugged, went back to her surprisingly un-dainty approach to buffalo wing eating. I went back to pushing the potatoes around my plate with a fork.

“Thank you.” Rip hit his expensive lemonade pretty hard. “Now, where the hell…Oh yeah. Don’s wife cuts her a trail to the farmer’s, leaves the doves behind. Don didn’t mind, in fact said he’d grown kinda fond of ‘em. Gentle birds, not too noisy or bite your finger mean. Said he could sit on the patio, drink whiskey, talk to ‘em all night an they’d coo back at him an unless it was freeze your stones cold they could take whatever the weather threw at ‘em. After a coupla years, though, Don gets a job down in Houston. This was maybe…Twenty years ago?” Rip did some mental math about ex-wives and timing.

“Yessir, twenty years now. Goin’ on twenty-one. Don heads down to the coast, rents out his house, but the rent people have stupid, destructive kids, or so they said. Kids and the doves are a no go so Don loads up the coop an gives ’em to another fella, Ben somebody. Ol’ Ben keeps ‘em for maybe six, seven years an one day he keels over. Don calls me an I go up there for him, tryin’ to relocate his birds, an I find a nice, youngish widow name of Alice says she’ll take ‘em to keep her company. She finds another man an ends up givin’ ‘em to her daughter who hangs on to ‘em for a few years. Daughter gives ‘em to a preacher who gets run outta town after one too many late-night choir practices with bored wives an the doves get passed around a few more times.” Rip reloaded his and Moreno’s expensive lemonades, I shook my head no.

“Well now, Don retires not long back an heads home. Spends some money and some time on getting’ his house right after all them rental years an after a few days settlin’ in, damned if he don’t wake up one mornin’ an the doves are back on his patio. No note, nothin’, just there they are. Twenty years a bein’ passed around, travelin’ all over hell an gone up there in the panhandle an overnight Don an them doves are back together like nothin’ ever happened.

***

Cav must’ve been hungry because she did some damage to Rip’s frozen junk food feast, helped load the dishwasher and had a few too many expensive lemonades. A good thing that kept her from asking the ‘what the fuck was that old fart talking about’ question in a stage whisper too many times. Also a good thing because I walked her back to the tart’s palace without any conversation about children, or any coherent conversation at all. She stepped through the door, gave me a big, wet, puckered up lip on lip kiss. I caught her on the way down, dragged her to the bed, dropped her on it, swung her feet up, pulled her shoes, and killed the light on my way out.

***

I drifted onto Rip’s patio, handed him an unbanded Mareva, lit us up. He puffed it, held it out for inspection.

“Damn good little corona. Cuban. Where the hell you get these?”

“Sugarland.”

“Gina?”

“She lets on. I think she’s got a private tour Gulfstream jockey on the line thinkin’ he’ll get lucky if he keeps her in cigars.”

“Cigars for her real men friends like you?” He snorted, blew a smoke ring.

“She’s got a boyfriend.”

“Get out.”

“Yep. She went off on thinkin’ he’d given her a fever blister bangin’ her on a plastic mattress laid out in the sun on some fiberglass fisherman’s yacht all weekend. Turned out to be a wax job zit.”

“Some things never change. You meet him?”

“One time, before they were a thing. Roger. King Air by the hour.”

“Nailhead? Fucker about your size, twenty years older, flat top that’d bounce a 5-pound sledge, don’t know how to tie his boots?”

“Know him?”

“Know ‘em both.” He blew another smoke ring. “Know now they’ll both fuck anything can fog a mirror.”

“Which one were you unsure about?”

“Never you mind. What’re you doin’ out here an not in there where you belong?”

“Long story. You ever see that Hitchcock flic, North by Northwest?”

“Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint. What a looker. Seems like I met the fella flew that biplane somewhere. Why?”

“It’s in there. You call somebody in the FAA’s backend for me like I asked?”

“Your licenses have been continuously active since your first one. Your insurance was full-paid annual back in November. Nobody canceled your tickets.”

I pulled my real phone out of my cargo shorts, fired it up, tapped a favorite.

“You think that’s wise?”

“Shit, Rip. This show was sold out before it opened.” I held up my hand to slow Rip down. “Tavie, my man! Yeah. Come and get her. No…Fuck that, I have things to do. You’re an hour, maybe a lot less. Bring her phone, turn it on, take her back to the convicts…Hell yes, we’re still on.” I tapped the adios button.

“Short an sweet. Where’re you off to this time a night?”

“I have a bank to rob, remember?”

“That’s what’s been eatin’ you since halfway through dinner? Hitchcock and the fuckin’ bank? Hell, boy, we have two days –”

“We don’t have two days, Rip. Bank’s been robbed already. I need to go re-rob it, get some shit straight in my head.”

“What do I tell the girl? An the lawn jockey when he shows?”

Todo es perfecto and I’m out doing canyon recon or some bullshit. Whatever you sell, make sure it sticks. I’m a one-man army and I don’t need my surprise factor compromised.” I tossed him my phone. “You need to cut that lawn jockey shit, Rip. Think it hurts his feelings.”

“Sensitive, is he? Tough-ski shit-ski. He’s lucky I just fuck with him and didn’t take his goddam arm off with the shotgun.” He dropped my phone in the empty lawn chair next to him. “Go re-rob our bank. I’ll dig up that Hitch and see what the hell’s got into you.”

Tart’s Palace

I’d explained to Moreno how the “math” she didn’t understand on one side of the little laminated strip told the story, in equations, of the tracking number for a flash drive that contained the information for obtaining and redepositing approximately sixty-four million dollars in specific offshore accounts. I didn’t tell her the “math”, properly executed, would reveal those account numbers and the password to the flash drive where the real treasure map resided. I did tell her how the side she thought she understood but didn’t was more than a delivery date of cash to the Kerrigan State Bank but the route it would take, times, checkpoints and two redirects.

“When you and your friend discovered these things, were you tempted, Paro? To go about this plan of yours without me?”

“No.” It wasn’t a lie. Temptation is one of those things we ask the Lord not to lead us into when temptation is so pervasive that whichever way the Lord sees fit to turn our heads temptation remains a line of sight proposition. Realizing that, the sinner’s rationalization then becomes a matter of succumbing to temptation of choice. I could have a lot more fun with whatever money I realized out of this deal with Moreno than without her. Whatever it was about her proximity effect on me was inexplicable, addictive, possibly foolish, even dangerous. I didn’t care.

“Why should I believe you, Paro? When, as you say, everyone involved is ‘out for theirs’?”

“It would be impossible without you.” That was true, too. If she stepped up, we’d nail it. If not, or if she got tempted, we’d be dead. At least broke, and minus one or two planes. Dead would make me worse off than when I got into this. Broke, maybe minus a plane, I could handle. Dead, though? None of it would matter. The girl, the money, the restored Stearman biplane and a new, bright red Jeep pickup? *Poof*

“And you have the same trust for me as you are asking me to have for you?”

“Yes.” I hoped it didn’t sound as feeble as it felt getting past my teeth. Trust is one of those things like temptation. More layers than a fresh Rio Grande Valley onion and at least as many ways to make you cry. Or break your heart.

“I see.” She paused, probably doing the same mental gymnastics I’d been doing only on that higher female level, drew herself erect on the stool. “Do you have beer? Cold beer?”

Every hanger and workshop at Rip’s had a beer fridge, and I walked to the one on the front wall. “Dark, yellow, or light?”

“Do you still love me, Paro?”

“It’s beer, Cav.” I busted a bad spin dance move, threw my head back and howled, “What’s love got to do, got to do with it?”

It’s good to laugh when five days away might be the day after they bag what’s left of you for the coroner.

***

“And this?” Moreno held up the female Postal Service uniform with her non-beer hand.

“All yours.”

She set her beer down, pulled the shirt to her chest, made a face of medium dissatisfaction. “There is no one else who can act the part of cartero mujer?”

“Ever worn a wingsuit?”

Wing suit?”

“Can you parasail?”

“Para, what?”

“Thought not. That’s why you’re the mail lady.”

“Paro, I’m not…Explícamelo por favor?”

I explained by showing her a couple of YouTube videos that canyon carving wingsuit crazies had shot with fore and aft Go Pro cams. Videos that not only included skimming and cliff diving but the parasail ‘chute pop and landing. While the videos ran I outlined my plan for leading the bank robbery posse into a box canyon and getting out alive while they looked for pieces of me and the cash embedded in the side of a cliff.

Madre de Dios, Paro.” When she stopped staring at the screen she shifted her gaze to one of  Rip’s custom Cessna cargo containers with the orange ripstop bags set on top and then to me. “You are willing to crash your airplane for me?”

“Mine or Rip’s. If we make it out with twelve million dollars, you’ll have to buy us new ones.”

“And you are expecting this, ‘posse,’ of everyone? The helicopter CIA debriefing man from Columbia, Woody and the piratas de motos, the black man who steals my cars, all ‘hot on your tail’?”

“Don’t forget your overly armed convicts.”

 “Madre de Dios…” That time it came out under her breath. She took a moment to stare at the backs of her hands, fingers wide. “Okay, John Wayne junior…” She looked at me, her hard-eyed gaze set in palpable determination. “We will do it your way.”

***

The afternoon dragged on. Hot. Humid. Sticky. Moreno had swapped the decent clothes I’d kidnapped her in for a t-shirt she attacked with a pair of scissors and turned into a sleeveless tie-in-front halter top and a cinched up pair of Rip’s boxers. I’d gone the boxers and t-shirt route myself. A pair of sweaty, unisex fashionistas working diligently on a project that might be an exercise in futility.

We had carefully, and I stress carefully unpacked the last of four rectangular, self-inflating life rafts to attach to the Cessna cargo bin when we heard Rip make his approach. We unrolled the raft, set it down, handling it like a Faberge egg.

Moreno picked up her drill and again used the corrugated cardboard template to drill holes in the aluminum support plate while I used an exact copy to drill into the cargo container. With the raft in place, we punctured the bottom of it using the support plate for a guide. That’s where we were when Rip taxied the Cessna right up to its hanger door before he killed the engine and climbed down, a red and white Coleman cooler in one hand. He took a few steps into the hanger, stopped.

“I dunno what’s lookin’ more ridiculous here. You two, or that Frankenstein afterbirth of moon lander bubble wrap you’re makin’ outta my cargo container.”

“Mars Rover lander,” Moreno corrected him. “Or so he keeps saying.” She set her drill down, wristed sweat off her forehead that had escaped from her soaked through bandana. “I say –”

“He’s out of his fuckin’ mind is what I say.  How do you say that in Spanish?”

“Please. Don’t tell him,” I said.

Estas jodidamente loco. As a rule I don’t curse in Spanish,” Moreno wiped her forehead again. “But that should be close enough.”

“No,” I set my drill down next to hers. “That’s ‘you’re fucking crazy,’ not –”

“I should think,” she winked at Rip, “es lo mismo.”

“It is the same, my dear lady. Perfecto, in fact,” Rip winked back. “Just like these babies.” He reached into the cooler and pulled out two Sam’s size bags of frozen, boneless buffalo wings. “Who’s hungry?”

***

Like the beer fridges, Rip’s half a dozen hangers and one outbuilding had minimalist guest quarters for the itinerant pilots who needed gas and a place to crash while they waited, like I’d done in the Valley, to pick up weekend hunters, survivalists and nature nuts. Minimalist as far as the several I’d seen, anyway. When Moreno asked if there was a place to clean up I was afraid she’d balk at the campground amenities on offer. Rip took a key off the wall inside the back door of the office/house and walked her to the posh climate-controlled hanger where the spotless ’39 Beech 17 Staggerwing I’d learned to fly in belonged. A hanger I’d often joked was more of an airplane boudoir than a hanger. Hear this. The posh hanger had nothing on the tart’s palace suite tucked under the loft. Cav took the key from Rip after he’d opened the room and kicked on the air conditioner.

“All this, a post lady uniform and boneless wings of buffalos…” She gave Rip a peck on the cheek. “Not many girls can say that when it isn’t Valentine’s or their birthday.”

“There’s a little gold bag a Ghirardelli caramel chocolate things in that little fridge there, and some wine, an a coupla bathrobes…in the arm-war…” I’d never seen Rip either effusive or red-faced embarrassed before, but there they were.

“How thoughtful.” She stood, back to us and, like a little girl who’d just seen Cinderella’s bedroom, she sighed, let her shoulders drop. “No flowers?”

She might as well have cut him in half with a rusty sword. He started to say something apologetic. I’d heard the smile in her voice and elbowed him before he could get it out and make a bigger fool of himself.

“Mr. Taylor, how long does it take to cook the wings of buffalos?”

“They’re not exactly wings of –” I elbowed him again. “Oh, right. Uh…Well…There’s the microwave way. That’s pretty quick if you’re in a hurry. And the air fryer is maybe what, twelve minutes I guess?” He scratched his gray stubbly chin for a few seconds, and his eyebrows came up a little. “But in the oven now, low and slow, the way they’re best? I’d say twenty to twenty-five, at least. Wouldn’t you, Paro? After the oven’s hot, a course?”

“Oh at least.” I lowered my head to shield the snort l laugh I was choking on. “Maybe thirty.”

“Oven.” She turned, pushed us both gently out of the doorway. “And one hour, at least, before you even think about turning it on. Por favor.

***

I’d pulled some Jockeys, wrinkled cargo shorts and a Van Halen t-shirt that had seen better days out of the backpack I kept in the Cub before I soaped up and turned this way and that about a dozen times in one of Rip’s lesser plastic shower pan/plastic curtain outfitted bed and no breakfast cells. I dressed, shot some convenient, wisely placed Lysol into a pair of heavy-duty pre-distressed Margaritaville logo flip flops left behind by a former occupant, and stepped into them. They were a half size too big but not all that bad. Except for the creepy vibe that comes with wearing someone else’s shoes. The second I crossed the threshold of the back door into Rip’s kitchen I kicked them off. He looked up at the noise, as did two of his dogs.

“Just me,” I said, and the dogs went back to being indoor lazy on a hot Texas late afternoon, Rip went back to doing something in the sink that required a paring knife. I loaded a large glass, green cactuses decorating the sides, with ice cubes, poured in a shot of Flyer the CIA man’s expensive scotch, filled the rest with lemonade and sat down at the table.

“Waste a good scotch, drinkin’ it that way.”

“Maybe.”

“Waste of a good woman too, there in the hangar.” Rip loaded the basket of his industrial air fryer the size of a watercooler with fresh potato wedges covered in some mixture of herbs and bacon crumbles, wiped his hands on what looked like a new dishtowel. “Notice she didn’t invite you to stay.”

“Propriety. You bein’ all den motherly and all with chocolates and wine and bathrobes.” I recalled the girliness of the room, spun the ice in my glass. “Anyway, I read somewhere, maybe in my sister’s kid’s bathroom, that even Princesses can bathe themselves.”

“Bullshit.”

“Bless you.”

“I didn’t sneeze, I said…Fuck you, Paro. What’d you do, ‘sides being you, to piss her off?”

“Nothin’. Changed her mind is all.”

“About?”

“About how her bank robbery needs to go. She’s not mad, she’s thinking. What? You thought I –”

“Don’t get testy. You can be a real prick when you set your mind to it. Maybe you got too high an mighty ‘splainin’ yourself as being the boy genius you’re not. And makin’ her work that fucking life raft bubble wrap like it’ll protect the money…my ass. Listenin’ to you spew that shit less than once would test the patience of a rock. Still has to be the dumbest, most absurd –”

“You’ll both thank me when you’re spending the money. You drop off our San Jose hacker, put him on the bus?”

“I did. He’s a whiny little shit.”

“What does he know?”

“Shit for nothin’.”

“You asked?”

“I did.”

I few scenes from Allfuckedupistan flashed on the big screen in my head. “You had his full attention when you asked?”

“Fuck me, Paro. The man has broken ribs. Way I was askin’, he’d a burned his gramma if I’d a told him I had a use for the ashes.”

“And you called me a real prick.”

“I said you could be a real prick.” Rip picked up the cactus glass, drank half my expensive lemonade. “But what you wanted to know by way of casual conversation ‘stead of interrogation, about Woody an the Feds an Woody’s joke of a prison sentence and the gang accountant an all that? Well, it fit together, timing-wise, just like you thought. I was convinced you were lookin’ at OJ’s glove with all that.”

“Me, too.” Moreno stepped through the back door, made the room smell a lot better. The floor dogs raised their heads and two more followed her in and dropped in heaps beside their buds.

I cloaked my surprise at seeing her with a clever observation.

“You’re early.”

“You’re remarkably perceptive for someone wearing a worn-out sexist stoner party band’s t-shirt.”

She’d found a pale yellow with a white floral design summer dress in Rip’s Cinderella room. It might have been, like my sandals, a half size too big, but it was…She was…I needed to stay on task.

“What happened to the girl who would’ve said ‘yo, tambien’?”

“She’s too tired and hungry to come out and play.” She sat in the chair opposite me, squeezed my hand, let go and sniffed my glass. “Yes, I would love a hard lemonade, thank you for asking. And I would like the truth. As it stands between us.” She turned to Rip. “All of us.” I handed her an expensive lemonade, which she took without taking her eyes off Rip.

“Well, Miz Moreno,” he put a second cookie sheet loaded with boneless buffalo wings in the oven, wiped his hands again on the new dish towel. “That would be Paro’s bailiwick. He’s the one who put two-thirds of this Kerrigan bank robbery shindig a yours together.”

“I have heard more than enough from Paro for one day. The truth I want you to tell us, Mr. Taylor,” she sipped her drink, batted her eyelashes, watched him go weak. “Is the story of a Princess’s bedroom in the middle of this God-forsaken nowhere.”

Pick One. Let It Play

“Collect Moreno. Get your shit together. Pick one. Let it play.”

That’s what Tavius had said before he hung up. Why I’d called him out of the growing list of Kerrigan Bank Robbery clown car occupants was a question I couldn’t answer. Rip would have called it The X Factor. I sure as hell hadn’t thought of it myself, nor was I arrogant enough to believe I had somehow deduced, from all available intel, that Tavius was the one. I had the lady agent’s phone in my hand, and I’d dialed Tavius. No thought, no premonition, it was simply there, Ouija board style. I think in the back of my mind I needed someone to trust. I wanted it to be the girl who said she loved me. I’d opted for Tavius. Call the X factor cynical on my behalf.

“Collect Moreno. Get your shit together. Pick one. Let it play,” kept looping in my head. Okay, I would. Collect Moreno, pick one and let it play, anyway. ‘Shit together’ has always evaded me.

***

The flattened barn outside of Shamrock where I still wasn’t sure Moreno had been in real danger from anything but the weather was where I’d told Tavius I’d meet him. If he’d provide Moreno for collection. On my flyover of the meeting site, the barn was nothing but a pile of old, weathered gray wood in an overgrown field, not the potential oversize coffin I’d imagined it becoming a couple of nights back. Any number of things from dangerous rapids, enemy military convoys, large carnivores and rush hour gridlock were all made less dangerous, somehow more understandable when viewed from a broader perspective. Right about now I needed a broader perspective on The Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery because looking at it head-on was like watching the universe expand. The time had come to corner Moreno, put a box around her pinballing through this thing and get a straight story, if I had to duct tape and kidnap her. You can put why I thought Moreno was a panacea for my confusion right in there with dialing Tavius. X Factor.

I wagged the Cub’s wings on the flyover, saw Tavius and Moreno get out of a white Charger parked lengthways across the road to block non-existent rural traffic for my landing. I circled back around, met the asphalt like a feather, taxied within thirty feet of them, and killed the Cub’s engine. Tavius left the Charger sideways in the road, walked toward me positioned beside and slightly behind Moreno. I was certain he had his G-Man issue Glock in the hand behind his back. I hoped it was for use in the event of an interruption, not for me or his special delivery. For her part Moreno stared at the ground, arms crossed, legs stiff. An attractive, visibly unhappy bundle of pissed-off body language. I stepped out of the Cub, made a show of holding up the remainder of the duct tape I’d used in Amarillo.

“You won’t need that.” Tavius stopped, let Cav keep coming. “She seemed glad to hear it was you that wanted her. At first. But she’s not talkin’. Least to me.”

“You…” She turned back to face him. “You are a kidnapper and…Thief! Why should I speak to you? To ask why I am here?” She poked her index finger into her breastbone. “To ask better where is the car you borrowed? My car? I –” She tapped herself with the finger a couple of times. “I will never be able to rent another car. Never. For the rest of my life. And you…” she wheeled around, sent the pointed finger my way. I could feel her eyes burning through the sunglasses. “You have ruined everything. Just…Don’t. Say. Anything. Nada!” She took a few more steps and stopped under the right wing of the Cub, tugged on the door.

“Your connection to both those cars has been scrubbed,” Tavius said. “You’re so golden at Budget, got so many free rewards points you could rent a damn Bentley for thirty bucks a day if they had one.” Tavius’ voice was loaded with ironic humor. “Even if the first one you lost was on you.”

“No.” She pointed at me. “On him. But of course I should know todo es possible, no? Because you are the man.” She burned through the shades at me again. “Perdóneme. The men. And I? I am just the silly woman. Who follows the rules.” She stormed her way into the back seat of the Cub muttering in Spanish about arrogant assholes. If attitude had weight, we’d never get off the ground. Tavius turned his attention to me after Moreno’s behind disappeared inside.

“You think there’re rules for bank robbery, Paro?”

“Depends on who’s playing Robin Hood and who’s getting burned.”

“Stealing dope money from bikers to help ex-cons as a victimless crime? I’ll run that one by Westlaw. What’d you do with Agent Higgins’ personal phone?”

“Set it on top of her car?”

“Don’t fuck with me. I have a game to play, same as you.”

“Dropped it in a cup of Dr. Pepper and let it stew for a while before I threw it out over rocks from about 3,000 feet.”

“That’s better.”

“Better for her. If Flyer’s troops had popped it during her rescue? All her leather thong strap-on pics in a half dozen ‘either-or’ dating apps would have been up for grabs.”

“Checked ‘em out, didja?”

“Couple. Like a Chinese buffet. Enough is too much.”

“So wrong, on so many levels.” He lifted his shoulder, must have holstered the Glock because his hand came out empty to scratch his chin. While he thought he popped his cap, forearmed some sweat off his forehead, blinked a couple of times. “Okay. So you left her phone on top of her car. Some opportunistic Amarillo native musta stole it ‘cause it wasn’t there when Flyer’s crew showed to cut her out of your tape job. She’s doin’ bad head time, climbs up all their asses hasslin’ them, waitin’ on one of them to spill her taco in a tall hat shit all over the ‘net.”

“Works for me.”

“Distraction, distrust, low morale in Flyer’s ranks…You’re not a nice man, Paro. Get outta here.” He did something I hate, the index finger gun and a small ‘there ya go’ nod before he turned, sauntered back to his ride. He needed out of that too tight Shamrock T-shirt. I didn’t mention it. Maybe he had a thing for leprechauns. After agent Higgins’ phone there was no telling what might blow up these government type’s skirts.

***

It took Cav about fifteen seconds after we were off the ground to fill my headphones with angry Spanglish. Which she tagged with, “You’re not listening.”

“Hook your harness. It’ll improve my hearing.”

“And if not, what? You kick me out? Give my car away again? Beat up and threaten and shoot at my team like they were…were common criminals?”

“They are common criminals, Cav.”

“No, they aren’t. They’re…” She popped off her shoulder harness completely, leaned forward, kissed me on the cheek. “Yes, they are. But they are my common criminals. They are what I have. They saw what I wanted for them, the opportunity, and offered –”

“To help you lift a pallet loaded with millions in cash? Hell yeah, they did.” I turned enough so that our eyes connected through our sunglasses. “So did I.”

Si! I know! So not for the piece of my ass or the money? Because you are above such things?”

“I’m flying again. Legally. The rest of it, this, us, sort of…” Damn. I needed to be building a Mars Lander Style bubble wrap pod for that cash, not explaining myself. “I can’t look you in the eye and fly. Hook your harness.”

She muttered some more but sat back and hooked up. I wondered what was on her mind that painted her face with various shades of forlorn, morose, and resigned tinged with anxiety. I thought about the Mona Lisa. I’d bet the guy had most of her face down in that Botox calmness and waited for the smile. Wondered what he said to get it. Wondered if they’d been in love, and if it was as awkward then as it was now.

***

Timing is everything. The FedEx driver was practicing her long-distance stacking technique tossing my boxes in front of Rip’s “office” when Moreno and I touched down. Think “the boonies” and “middle of nowhere” really are the boonies and nowhere? Order something expensive, next day air from your phone, use a valid credit card for delivery to “Boondocks USA.” Bam. They’ll find you.

Moreno and I loaded the boxes in a small wagon hooked up to a quad cycle and trundled them to the hanger where Rip parked the Cessna when it was home, unloaded them around another of Rip’s DIY work tables. We went to work slicing the boxes open. When we’d finished there was no disguising her disdain.

“Big, heavy nylon bags and a woman’s mailman costume? This is how you propose to move the money?”

“Sit.” I spun a folding metal chair her way, grabbed one for myself.

“Now you give me orders? You have become surly in –”

“What, exactly, do you know about this?” I handed her two full-page enlargements of the laminated strip she’d given me.

She studied one side, the side with the clues, made aface and set it on the table. “Here.” She turned the sheet she’d kept toward me, her finger on ‘12MM.’ “Below there are the question marks and parentheses. They look like algebra or…Something. After that…this,” she turned the sheet back to check it, found the ‘20MM’ and showed it to me. “Woody said…” She stopped, but I needed to hear it.

“Woody said?”

“Yes…That at least twelve million dollars was guaranteed and not to worry about the rest. Maybe it would be there, maybe not.”

“And he knows this how?”

“He was in prison with the Accountant. He brought him to me. He said I should flirt with him, the Accountant, and he would provide me with a way to fund my project.”

“Wild animal refuge as convict halfway house?”

“If you must be boorish and blunt.”

Who is the Accountant?”

“You hit him and shot his pillow! He is muy infeliz and believes you dangerous and loco. So much so he demanded we kill you and make another plan. And then that…Person dragged me from the room and –”

“Tavius walked into the convict’s room and pulled you out?”

Si! Your friend who commands you to sleep with me and give him my car obviously has fear of no one.”

“For the record, again, he told me to do whatever you asked.”

“Hmmmphhh.”

Shit. Woody had sold a lot of variations on the Accountant theme. He’d told the Wriggler a different version than he’d played for Moreno. Flyer, the CIA man, had told me another. It all stunk. But it was starting to make sense.

“The real Accountant is dead, Cav. Woody saw to that in prison. Your Accountant started his criminal life when he was sixteen back in the late Nineties collecting all the Soviet weaponry from both sides of a kill in Bosnia, or he’d steal them outright. When he had enough stashed to make the risk worthwhile, he’d float them across the Adriatic to Italy, stockpile them in an abandoned warehouse. When he’d made enough trips to fill a small container, he made a call. Money changed hands, the weapons made it unobstructed through Italy and ferried on into Africa. The CIA has had him on their radar for years as a well armed whack job. Woody pimped him to you with the real Accountant’s plan because he’s a dangerous, cold-blooded psychopath with access to grenade launchers. Somehow Woody hooking him up with you set off…” I showed her the side of the money sheet that looked like one long equation. “Have you worked out this side of the sheet?”

“No.” She waved a hand dismissively. “More of the math I don’t understand.” She still had the sheet I’d given her, showed it to me like I’d missed it the first time. “We have the date for the money to arrive at the bank. See? What more do we need?”

I had to sit on that one for a minute. What started to emerge from the fog was that Woody was the only person aside from Rip and me who had the little laminated strip figured. And he’d made dead-men-walking decoys out of Moreno and the convicts with the simple lump sum cash bit. Brad the Flyer, CIA man, knew the strip’s value but didn’t have it in hand to provide him with the treasure map to the big score. I was sure if he knew who had possession of the Accountant’s info he’d drop them in a second to get his hands on it. But he didn’t know who, exactly, or even if it was split up which was why he stuck to Moreno like a flea on a fat lady and was burning budget and resources keeping tabs on everyone else involved. The convicts saw a ‘taking candy away from a babe’ twelve-million-dollar pop. Tavius seemed disinterested in anything other than keeping at least the pretense afloat of Moreno and I robbing the Kerrigan State Bank. With all that out in the open, I’d started to see Moreno and me as the disposable distractions in a hot money game. A game bigger than a simple Bonnie and Clyde with an airplane rob a small-town bank. I dropped my cynic momentarily, took her hand.

“If you really don’t know, we need a lot more. A whole fuck of a lot more and a bucket of luck to go with it.” I made sure we had solid eye contact. “But if you’re jacking me, Moreno, or believe it’ll play the way you think? Throw dirt on us now ‘cause we’re both as good as dead.”

 

 

Welcome To The Party

After Rip and I had decoded the laminated strip as a timetable instead of simple numbers made to look like money headed for a boondocks bank, had a few more beers and eaten too much habanero infused chili I’d headed for bed. I gobbled some Rolaids and stretched out, stared at the ceiling, tossed, looked out the window, paced. My head full of how my anger fueled improvisation with the convicts at the Texian had netted me about half of what I’d wanted from that encounter. I knew I could lay some of my anger off as misdirected steam that belonged squarely on Ms. Cavanaugh Moreno’s shoulders for her tap dancing around Woody and the barn, and I wasn’t happy with myself about that, either. Even though she had given me the key to the whole enchilada I wondered – did she hope, as Rip suggested, that I was smart enough to figure it out, or simple enough to take it at face value and let it send me on a wild goose chase? It all came down to the straight up fact that I had three days before Moreno called in the Kerrigan bank robbery. Four days to the event.

That left me two and a half days to formulate a better plan than I knew she’d hatched with the convicts while I wasn’t sleeping. No doubt a real Bonnie and Clyde style bank heist that involved a grenade launcher and other forms of robust firearm foreplay in a sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere. The grand finale would be my dropping out of the sky on a country road to swoop up the cash and the girl and fly off into the sunset while the convicts hauled ass to a rendezvous point, the location I wouldn’t know until I was back in the air. All directed by Ms. Moreno. Wise on their part because if I knew the rendezvous point in advance I’d pack it with both factions of government agents looking for their cut. Of nothing, as the cash and the girl and I would be elsewhere, the convicts and CIA spooks would get it on Wild West gunfight style and kill each other.

Which was the plan I needed to see as reality.

All that was missing was a happy ending where colored smoke trailed from my wingtips over an open NFL stadium. Moreno could parachute in, with more colored smoke trailing from her jump boots while I scattered a hundred grand worth of Benjamins over the crowd. Crazy? Hey, a hundred grand is pocket change from sixty-four million.

When I was tired of that scene playing out I faced up to the questions I needed answered to get to that sixty-four million from the twelve to twenty number most of the players said was up for grabs. Except for Brad the Flyer CIA hotshot with his own helicopter, and that bothered me. I got up, dressed, gassed Rip’s pickup, and drove away from the sunrise to far west Amarillo looking for answers. So far west Amarillo that two more miles of I-40 and I’d have been knocking at Cadillac Ranch instead of room 209 at the Extended Stay.

Nobody answered.

I knocked again.

Nada.

I banged on the door, hard. “Mike? C’mon man, open up.”

A muffled, “I’m comin’…” made it through the door. Michael Wiggle, known by his web avatar as “The Wriggler,” the guy who’d stuck a gun in my back and claimed to be Woody’s pilot, opened the door. Saw me, tried to slam it. I was beyond tired of being greeted this way. I stopped the weak slam with an open hand.

“If you’re here to shoot me again,” he mumbled, turned back into the room, “Fuckin’ kill me this time. Please.” He used the backs of a couple of table chairs to get himself to the comfy chair, took an eternity lowering into it. “How’d you find me?”

“I have a friend who likes to work his phone like an old TV private eye.” The room reeked of weed and air freshener, like a dead skunk in a bus station restroom. I pulled one of the table chairs close, spun it around, sat in it backward, facing him. “You paid your deductible at the ER with a Master Card. Insurance through an IT company in San Jose.”

I inventoried the room while I waited for a response. Clean. A plastic fast-food salad orb stuffed with used accessories was in the trash by the table, an open suitcase on the stand. Not bad for a guy who could hardly walk. I’d felt the same about the second-floor room. He stared, said nothing, I carried on with a recitation of his Wiki.

“You were top of your class in math. Masters in computer something or other. Another in EE. You belong to a spelunking club and a national coed cliff climbing group. All good things, but the FAA and the military have never heard of you.”

“They wouldn’t.”

“Mike, I don’t know who, or what else you know, besides how to go to school and put way too much trust in women with your ass hanging off a cliff in a sling, but I do know you’re not a pilot. We need to start over. You need to participate.”

“Sure. Start over…” He managed a weak glare. “You can shoot me. Again. Leave me in the rain for the Government boys. Again. So they can play proctologist on every aspect my life while a clumsy ass ER intern fucks me up worse trying to fit me with a busted rib corset. Again.” He gulped from a two-liter Dr. Pepper bottle. “Tell your Rockford clone how much I’d like that. Not.”

I started to say don’t stick guns in people’s backs and it wouldn’t suck so much to be you. I let it go. Just like me, he was in way over his head. “How long you plan on being here?”

“Doc said he’d like me to stay put a couple weeks, maybe more. I don’t think I can take this shit hole for that long.”

“The panhandle has an elusive charm.”

Massively elusive. Colorado at least has kush and mountains.”

“Just like home. You missing the fires, mudslides? The earthquakes?”

“Every party needs a pooper…” He gulped from the Dr. Pepper bottle again. “Say we start over. What do I get out of it?”

“They have a WalMart here. I’ll keep you in Dr. Pepper and cold grilled chicken salads.”

“That’s better than the CIA offered. What I’d like is a ride home and some wicked flower. I’d kick the pharma-dope faster. Can you move me?”

“Like out of the chair, or…”

“I’m not an invalid. Like ‘get me the fuck out of here’ move. Get me home.

I had to give that some thought. If the Company had paid him a visit they were watching, probably had the room wired and his phone cloned. “How about we make that WalMart run now. Together.” I took his phone away from him with a finger to my lips, set it back on the tv stand. He was a quick study, didn’t say another word until we were in the truck.

***

“Tell me about Woody.”

“You watch the potholes,” he said through clenched teeth. “I’ll talk.”

Talk he did. He and Woody went back to middle school. Woody’d always been looking for the big bucks, a big score, easy money. Mike had niggled Woody’s books, hacked a local med records office, and a regional tax center for him as well, or the crooked chiro would have gone down for a lot longer. Mike figured Woody to have two-and-half million stashed somewhere. Mortgaging himself to the hilt was Woody’s façade of compliance for being a naughty chiropractor. I asked about Woody’s arrangement with Moreno and got the same story Flyer the CIA man had told me, with more detail.

“Moreno was working inmate re-socializing in the Five corridor, pitching her convict halfway park to anyone who’d listen. Woody wormed his way into her deal with his holistic care bullshit and first-hand experience as an inmate, layer caked.  He knew the Accountant was in pre-release, brought him to the outdoorsy program Moreno was running as the pitch-in-action for the real thing, and he signed up to shovel giraffe shit. Don’t ask. He was a pervy letch, and being around her jacked his heart rate. He knew he was walking with a morgue toe-tag and wanted to fuck the guys who were out to snuff him as bad as he wanted to fuck her. What better way to fuck them than by proxy through her? Watch the road, dammit…”

“Accountant?”

“I’m the one hurt, and you can’t keep up? Why was he in prison? Drug gangs, bro. Idiots who’ll pop a cap on each other for nothing but being ugly in public. There’s hard currency everywhere in their operations. But the top end of that hierarchy knows they all have to bleach the money somehow, and there’s not enough art and frame shops or dry cleaners or nail salons or chiropractors or corner emergency rooms in the Western Hemisphere to wash it all, so they pool. Hard goes to the islands or Russia, somewhere they’ll roll it for better than 70 cents on the dollar. They bounce it around the planet a few times on paper, flush the hard currency out to foreign currency exchange kiosks, oil sheiks. That was the Accountant’s gig. But any Wall Street MBA Financial Engineer can set it up with offshores, distributive accounts…”

“Hard currency?”

“Cash. Greenback dollahs, man. Most expensive to get rid of, and the Bangers know that. They can mule it across borders, but that’s high risk. Most of it, though, has been through the laundry list of their cleaning franchises.” He held up his thumb and finger about an inch apart. “You could put untold millions of that money on a flash drive. It’s the leftover green that’s an issue.”

“Woody knows all this?”

“He thinks he does. He was a small-time laundromat for some gang bangers. Fucked it all up when he got the Feds’ attention with his Medicare scams. If it weren’t for me hiding that shit for him, actually for them, he’d be as dead as the Accountant.”

Shit. There it was, right in front of me. “You are a pilot. Not a real pilot, you’re Woody’s computer pilot. With a flight plan that untangles the money.”

“Duh…Welcome to the party. Real pilot.”

“You want out of this mess, go home, get right around friends?”

“What do you think?”

“That can be arranged. If you can arrange to be around to Wriggle the flash drive.”

“At least you worked that out. I’m in.” He grimaced, glanced over. “We still have to go to WalMart?”

***

After I’d bought a new outfit and changed into it in the men’s room I walked out and down, two rows away from the white, four-door low end of the Jaguar family sedan parked toward the back of the lot where the driver had a visual on both of the WalMart doors. I worked my way over to it. Junior G man was absently holding his phone, chewing gum while he waited for me, in my old clothes, to exit. I opened the passenger side door of the Jag, dropped in.

“Surprised to see me?” I had the fat-and-slow loaded .45 leveled across my thighs. ‘He’ wasn’t half as surprised as I was. Junior G man was a woman with short hair. I took the phone, poked the car’s kill switch. “Weapon, keys, Dick Tracy radio, cuffs. One hand, one at a time.” I could see the Quantico trained gears turning. “I’d hate to hit a lady. Shooting one might be worse.”

“Chivalry could get you killed.”

“We can hope it’s not today. Weapon first?” She complied, I dropped her gear on the passenger side floor except for the cuffs.

“You’re committing assault on a Federal Agent, Clyde. I’ll be able to pile hate crime or Me Too and a buttload of other shit on you. You should stop and think.”

“Stop and think is a two-way street, lady. You’re with Tavius or Brad the Flyer, which means that just like me you’re working without a net.”

“Tavius has gone Rambo. Brad, Flyer, is trying to save the Company the embarrassment of you and Tavius and that woman who has all of you stepping on your –” Mike opened the driver’s side back door. I handed him my gun, took the WalMart bag of goodies he’d brought, spun off about a yard of duct tape, wrapped it around her head three times at mouth level.

“I’d like to believe you,” I checked the tape. Tight, but she could breathe through her nose without any issues. “Can’t quite get there from here, though. There’s at least sixty-four million on the road to Kerrigan. Maybe another twelve to twenty in cash. Your man Flyer said it was thirty-two, Tavius hasn’t said. The convicts pulled twenty mil out of their ass or as bait from Moreno, or the dead insider, maybe even the missing chiropractor.”  I hooked up her right wrist to her left ankle with the cuffs, taped her legs together just above the knee and taped her to the bucket seat. “One, or all of you, are lying. So you can see my crisis of faith in what any of you have to say.”

I left all of her company communication gadgets in the car, took her personal cell. Her eyes got wide when I climbed out. “I’ll give it back. I need to make a few calls first.” I bent back into the car. “You have kids?” She shook her head. “Then it’s not a problem if I keep it a while.”

***

In under an hour I was standing in the dusty prop wash on Rip’s landing strip while I loaded the Wriggler and his suitcase into Rip’s Cessna.

“I toss his ass in Tucumcari so he can catch a bus to ABQ and fly home. Then what, amigo?”

“Turn around, come back.”

“Where you’ll be…”

“Making a life vest for twelve to twenty million dollars.”

“You’re out of your fucking mind with that.”

“My problem.”

Our problem if it’s a fail. What if your woman don’t cotton to bein’ hijacked?”

“She doesn’t know it’s a hijack.”

“Yet.”

“Again, my problem.” I cinched Mike’s harness, closed the cabin door, gave Rip a thumb’s up, and backed away. I watched the Cessna gather speed before it broke free of its shadow and climbed into a soft northwest bank.

I buckled into my Cub, hit the starter. With any luck, I’d have Moreno before noon. Luckier and I wouldn’t have to use the leftover duct tape.

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?”