Oreo

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

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

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

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

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

“That bitch is cocked.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. But I feel your pain. Muller?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“That it is.”

“Good for you. Muller didn’t know.”

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

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

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

“Orange County? Had me fooled.”

“I think that’s her job.”

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

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

“You’re saying you don’t know?”

“I am.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paro?”

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

“With… them?”

I flipped open the boxy case of handguns, pulled it to the edge of the bed. She stepped up on the tire, leaned over, picked up a few, dropped them back, finally settled on a small Ruger 9mm. She checked the clip, popped it back in, slipped it in the waistband of her shorts, behind her back.

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

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

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

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

Madre de Dios

***

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

“Lucky.”

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

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

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

“The old fucker…”

“Rip?”

“That one. First blockade in Oklahoma. He shows middle of the night with a road crew. Flatbed, lifting arm. Dropped some Jersey Barriers like here, told me to beat it. I took a three-hour nap, thought I might be useful, here I come. I’d cleared the Braums dairy, two bikes fly out from the side of the road.” He glared down at me while I used a piece of broken drip irrigation pipe to tighten the improvised tourniquet. “Goddam, Paro, you are some kind of sadistic motherfucker.”

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

“Plan?”

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

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

***

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

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

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

“I’m wonderin’ why here?”

“Plannin’ to meet somebody? Could be some somebodies was waitin’ on him an us. That van we saw to the other side when we come rollin’ up needs checkin’ out.” He spit, shouldered his rifle. “Nigger’s good as dead or he’d a let us know he weren’t.” They both snickered, backed away together until they were on the far side of the road roller.

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

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

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

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

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

Caliche

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

“What?”

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

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

“In the hangar… Dogs…”

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

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

“Paro?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cops, or Sheriff or–”

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

“But I have two, three hours–”

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

“What’s the big damn hurry?”

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

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

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

“What if they find the bodies, or—”

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

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

***

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

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

Bullshit.

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

“Engagement.”

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

“I had to get out before el lechero.”

“The milkman?”

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

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

“Forget it. ETA?”

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

“They let you shoot?”

“No.”

“You in Rip’s truck?”

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

“Alone?”

“No.”

“Shit. You have the money?”

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

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

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

Geraldine?

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Can you see where?”

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

“Why –”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Left sider bark laughed. “Gerald Ng.”

“Geraldine? Who the fuck is Geraldine?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I lied.”

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

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

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

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

One of them gurgled, “Now what?”

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sex, Liquor and a Jack Taco

“For the last time, Paro, mañana!”

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

“C’mon, Moreno –”

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

Suficiente! Consíguelo?” She slammed another drawer.

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

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

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

“Home? Mañana?”

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

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

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

“A Sat tower what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There. I’d said it.

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

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

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

“Yeah. I ‘si.’”

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

“Tell me somethin’ good, Paro.”

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

“You apologizin’ for her?”

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

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

“I look telepathic?”

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

I must have looked confused, if not telepathic.

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

“Rip? The sheriff? Kerrigan?”

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

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

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

“In Canadian?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madre de Dios…

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

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

Mañana

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

“Where’s Moreno?”

“You people need a new question.”

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

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

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

Rip’s keys. That a real question?”

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

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

“Cute, like the robe. Again?”

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

SAMS? Where the fuck they get those?”

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

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

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

“Explosive ordnance? Mortars? Rockets?”

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

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

“Imagine so.”

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

“Kansas?”

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

“You say that to anyone?”

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

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

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

“Happy?”

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

“You don’t know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That makes two of us.”

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

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

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

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

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

Madre de Dios…

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“I hope I never hear you repeat that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you say your cooking?”

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

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

“There wasn’t an answer in that.”

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

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

“You would expect this?”

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

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

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

Mañana.

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

Mañana, Cav. We’ll talk mañana.”

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

“Who’d you shoot with my gun?”

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

A Good Sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.” It was quiet.

“Who peezed in yor Pawstuh Tawsties, Pilot?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You unlock already?”

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

“I uh, I uh…I…”

What I thought. “Open it.”

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

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

“All High Impact?”

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

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

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

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

“How many?”

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

Fuck. Me.

“How do I lock this thing?”

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

“Or?”

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

“Hang with me while I try this.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tres Amigos, solamente?”

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

“You need my keys, too, Cav?”

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

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

 

Photo (edited) Credit – Chuck Norris in Delta Force

“Bozo”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Bullshit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm. Need to see the money?”

“No.”

“Good. ‘Cause it’s buried.”

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

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

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

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

It was my turn to say “Mmm…”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Meanin’?”

“Fashionista. Metrosexual. Sharp dressed man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I smell an inbound sermon?”

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

“Could be.”

“You think she’s dangerous?”

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

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

***

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

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

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

Shit. My hands started to sweat.

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

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

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

“I’ll live.”

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

***

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

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

“For a fact?”

“White, and I could smell it.”

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

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

“You learn that watching the science channel?”

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

“So?”

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

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

“It was from her number.”

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

“What the hell are you sayin’?”

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

“The phone call or the bomb?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“You still on about that?”

Yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m still mad.”