“The original sin is to limit the Is. Don’t.”
“If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand that fictional characters are sometimes more real than people with bodies and heartbeats.”
“The original sin is to limit the Is. Don’t.”
“If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand that fictional characters are sometimes more real than people with bodies and heartbeats.”
“Mornin’, sunshine.” Rip set a cup of coffee in front of me. Through the kitchen window I could see morning sun turning the Eastern horizon a pale yellow. “The Cessna’s ready when you are.”
“You,” Rip said. “Unless you forgot how to fly something don’t strap to your ass and fly itself.”
He knew what I had flown and could fly. My assumption was that he wanted to be a passenger without flight instructor angst. I’d wanted a flyover of Kerrigan, by myself, since I’d gotten into this alone, but Rip had assured me without the master plan for the robbery all we could do was recon, and his Cessna was side by side seating with better passenger vision. It was faster, had better altitude and if we happened to be seen no one would recognize us. I thought that an unusual comment. As far as I knew no one involved with this slowly emptying clown car of a bank robbery was in Kerrigan yet and in the high plains of the Texas panhandle who’s paying attention to a dot in the sky?
“We don’t know that now, do we. Who’s payin’ attention?” Rip dropped a spy size GPS tracking disc the size of a dime on the table. “Found this in your Cub last night. You fly us out over New Mexico, an I’ll drop this near Roswell. When they go to look, you’re not there,” he shook a little with a silent laugh, “they’ll figure you for an alien abduction.”
“I wonder how many people are tuned in to the Travels with Comparo channel.” I picked it up, flipped it like a coin, Rip intercepted it on the way down.
“Few too many, be my bet.”
According to printouts and aerial charts, Kerrigan County was crisscrossed with improved, two-lane roads identified by letters like N, O, T, and a few numbered Texas Farm to Market roads. The population density and improved structures said no one should ever be on those roads except for the occasional cattle hauler, dairy truck or some farm and ranch machinery. But real traffic, as defined by the most minor of metropolitan areas, should be nonexistent.
Kerrigan the town was two streets wide. Four or five blocks if you counted a handful of houses scattered haphazardly off the town center. A bank, a bar, the county courthouse, a one-block stretch of commercial buildings that looked straight out of the 1920s. Not even a grain elevator. Those, like the nearest towns of consequence, the ones with a stoplight and coffee shop, were twenty-five miles in any direction. The Oklahoma border slightly over the same distance in two directions. What most people needed to know about Kerrigan was on Google. That is, unless you were the getaway pilot for a bank robbery.
I dropped down over road T about a mile out of Kerrigan and flew ten feet off the ground for another mile.
“You lose something?” Rip was checking wingspan against tree line. “Lookin’ for loose change?”
“Looking to not drop one of your gear in a pothole.”
“Nice of you, but –”
I pulled the Cessna as close to vertical as it would go and banked hard as I could without pulling it apart, recovered my mile, flew at the pavement slow and low, cut power, lifted the nose, stalled and dropped soft, hit the brakes on the edge of nosing over and cut the landing distance well under the published 790 ft.
“Fuck me runnin’, you aren’t ever gonna grow up.” Rip let his breath go in a long whistle. “I teach you to fly like that?”
“Somebody had to.” I throttled up, ran us down the road and cleared an oncoming old green pickup full of hay bales by fifteen feet. The look on the driver’s face said he had a tale to tell no one was going to believe.
“Now where we goin, hot shot?”
Rip didn’t ask why, pulled out a pair of binoculars. “Reckon we can see who’s parked where?”
“I reckon.” I couldn’t see Moreno in a minus four-star motel with the rest of the convicts. She’d need some space keeping up appearances as the Queen of the Kerrigan bank heist with fiancé in tow, but I couldn’t go to fiancé in my head yet. “We should have asked Flyer if Moreno had rented a car somewhere.”
“Black Camry.” Rip trained the binoculars out of his window. “Budget. Amarillo.”
“Surprised they’d rent her another one.”
“Last one was a Fiat, remember? Doubt they considered that much of a loss.”
I offered to drop to five hundred feet, there not being any fifty story high-rises in Shamrock. Rip said to stay off the radio with the regional airport, he could see fine from 2,500. I saw the 30-160 on the side of his binoculars. More like a long-range microscope.
He found the van first in a motel parking lot on 12th St, Old Route 66. Across the road from an abandoned red brick motel or restaurant. There was a dirty mid-2000s black Escalade parked outside a rundown doublewide behind the red brick building. Across a gravel and weed parking lot to the east was a rusty roofed machine shop with drilling rig parts stacked in the lot along with randomly parked rusty stock trailers and a big fifth-wheel travel trailer that appeared new among all the dust and rust. The road was two lanes both ways with a center turn lane. One stoplight, a few too many power lines crossing the road. I wouldn’t want to do it at night. I wondered why I even thought about it, but I was always looking for a safe place to ditch. Learn to fly suspect aircraft with Rip Foster and that sort of thing becomes ingrained.
Rip found the dirty maroon Lincoln and a shiny black Camry three blocks east and a block north at the Holiday Inn Express. I could see Moreno in one of their TV commercials, all smiles surrounded by bags of cash saying, “Well, I wasn’t a bank robber, but last night I stayed at Holiday Inn Express.” If she and Tavius didn’t know each other he was running a hell of a risk with proximity. I started to steam up thinking maybe she was too busy with her fiancé to notice. Rip read my mind.
“Three rooms at the Holiday Inn. Birch, Moreno, and Salsbury. Our lawn jockey was the first one to the party, a day early.”
“How do you know all this?”
He showed me his iPhone that had been recording the binoculars. “It’s called a phone. You might turn yours on occasionally.”
“I was trying to stay off the radar.”
“We know how well that turned out. Keep your phone off a little longer, take us to Roswell. It’s time for the handlers to lose you completely for a while.”
“Somethin’ in here is bound to suit you.” Rip pushed the door open on one of his outbuildings. We stood in the doorway, and I took inventory. An engine hanging from a portable hoist between an unidentifiable frame on jack stands and a hoodless orange Camaro. An engineless Harley on a bike lift. Several electric Vespa style scooters in pieces, the whole place accessorized in assorted junk. Lots of it. To the right were several of what appeared to be complete cars and motorcycles, a couple hiding under dust covers. Wind whipped our legs and Rip looked at the sky. “The knucklehead is a bad choice, considerin’.”
The knucklehead was a bad choice regardless. Chrome everywhere, pale orange base for a white lace overlay I was told were spiderwebs. I called lady biker doily on it and got no argument. No belt guard for the pants and leg eater. And it issued dragon farts at idle. The perfect ride for discretion.
“This’n runs.” He lifted the corner of a dust cover revealing the front end of a restored, bright red 1970 Plymouth Road Runner. “Fact it hauls ass.”
“I’ll remember that next time I need a speeding ticket. What else have you got?”
“If you’re gonna be that way there’s a ‘95 Ram out back with bad paint and a new hemi.”
“Don’t be a smart ass. You plan on settin’ up in the McDonald’s parking lot, keep an eye on the love nest?”
“Don’t know yet. I also need to borrow –”
“You check your U-Store It in Addison when you were there? No, or you’d know your Browning is here and you don’t need to borrow nothin’.” He slid the door closed, locked the padlock. We walked to the smaller climate-controlled hangar that he unlocked with his phone. The plane I expected to see was gone.
“Where’s the Beech?”
“That’s what I asked the gal when I opened your storage unit.” He flipped the latch on a small, corrugated fiberglass box, about half the size of a Load n Go forklift storage container. “Ain’t much here, but it’s what was left after Christine cleaned you out. Why I canceled that air-conditioned garage. Saw no sense in you payin’ for air.” There was an envelope on the first box. I picked it up, felt like cash. “Pro-rated refund,” he said.
“Should have kept it for your trouble.”
“No trouble, I was down there with a box truck swappin’ out parts. You feel like telling’ me what happened? After what happened, happened?”
“She called about six months after her people cancelled the future, asked about the furniture. I mailed her a key, didn’t expect to see any of it again.”
“That shit was forty grand worth of expensive. She pay you back?”
“No. I ordered it, it was custom built for that condo. What am I gonna do, Rip, be an asshole like the rest of them? Keep it out of spite with no use for it?”
“Like money’s her real problem. Looked like she got some of your mother’s things when she was in there.”
“Good. They deserve each other. Where’s my gun locker?”
I had no sooner pulled around the McDonalds drive thru in Shamrock than I got a text from Cav.
War Paro! Where are you?
It was starting to rain. Big, fat drops that sounded like rocks hitting the windshield. I looked up in time to see Tavius screech out of the Holiday Inn, two-wheel it at the corner. I tossed my coffee, choked down a chicken nugget and fishtailed out of McDonalds after him. That’s a lie. I hit that hemi with no weight in the rear end and did two three-sixties in the middle of Main Street before I got control.
Tavius slid into the gravel parking lot across from O’Doul’s Texian Lodge where the convicts were staying, opened his door and rolled across the ground behind an old galvanized stock tank, his pretty .380 replaced with a .45. I blazed past like I wasn’t interested in two SUVs parked in the middle of Route 66 firing automatic weapons at the motel on one side and the old Escalade that had moved up from the double-wide on the other. I spun a one-eighty in the first intersection past the action, killed my lights.
Whose side was I on? Who the fuck were the automatic weapons people in the middle of the street? What sort of cannon did I hear boom from the motel? The two guys behind the Escalade waited for a let-up in the rain of small arms fire and took off the ten feet to the door of the abandoned brick building. One of them made it, the other fell behind the brick planter on the small porch and didn’t raise up to return fire.
The SUV closest to the motel in the middle of 66 exploded in a ball of fire, rolled on its side. It started to rain like it meant it, the water not making a dent in the burning SUV. I heard sirens start to wail from a ways off. The remaining automatic weapons people blew past me in their bullet-riddled SUV, close enough for me to see blood all over the back drivers side glass and two ski-masked hombres in the front seat cradling assault rifles who paid no attention to me at all. My phone went off again.
Where are you? Road N. 2.7 miles FM86. All night here if I have to. Hurry!
Moreno claimed she was 2 miles out of town, claimed to have all night. I hoped she was dry. Then again, maybe she was wet and miserable. I smiled, idled back towards the scene, now strangely quiet save for ammunition going off sporadically in the burning SUV. I parked out of the rain under the canopy of an empty, dead, whitewashed cinderblock gas station with graffitied up plywood windows, on a diagonal across the highway from the motel.
I stepped out, shrugged into Rip’s rain slicker, chambered a round in the Browning and set off to recon the shootout at the Texian. I checked the burning SUV from a distance. Three dead or wounded in the street, maybe more in the burning hulk. What a fucking mess Moreno’s little bank robbery had turned into. I started for the abandoned restaurant where the Escalade men had gone, heard footsteps behind me, felt a gun in my back.
“Been waitin’ on you, flyboy.”
I wrapped my arm around my chest, gun under my left arm and pulled the Browning’s trigger. Twice. Waited to feel the shot in my back I knew was coming.
There was no standoff. When a situation comes down to Mastiff-Rottweiler mixes having your man parts for dinner and a semi-amicable surrender to future business partners who’ve had the opportunity to blow you in half with a shotgun or unleash the hounds and haven’t, surrender becomes a viable option. Muller and Usman walked to the filing cabinet, set their handguns on top.
“You, too.” Rip directed Double Knit by pointing the sawed-off. Double knit released the arm he had around Cav, flipped back his grey and black houndstooth double knit sport coat, showed Rip the gun in his waistband. He looked more uncomfortable than gun savvy. He started the filing cabinet walk and Moreno ripped the gun out of his pants and
Dogs were in the room.
Rip barked “Kill!”
The dogs sat.
The sound of the shot in the small room died away.
The gun Cav yanked had gone off through the fly of Double Knit’s pants and into the floor. He was a statue. Bent partially forward, arms out to his side, butt stuck out like he’d poured hot coffee in his lap, staring down at the smoking hole in his fly. He looked ill. Unlike Double Knit, Cav was no virgin to firearms, but she wasn’t a killer. Now that she had the gun out in one of those television ‘don’t anybody move’ moments she was unsure where to aim it. Rip lit another cigarette.
“Gun in your britches with the safety off is an easier way to fuck up your business than the dogs, son. You three fellas step to the door, mind the dogs. Let’s hear what the lady has to say.”
“I…” she glanced at Rip, landed on me. “Paro? Lo siento? It has to be this way. Until…Until we all know. And then you’ll know, and then…Tu entenderás, lo prometo. Comprende?”
“You’re sorry, and I’ll understand, you promise? Understand what, Cav? When?”
“I told you. When I know, you’ll know. Paro, you know…just…por favor?” There might have been a thousand things in her expression. I only looked for one. I didn’t know if I’d found it or wished it. I wanted to say Whatever, Cav. Fuck it. I didn’t.
Rip was still in the game, though, saying “I won’t kill a good-looking woman with brass balls for no other reason than the comp’ny she keeps. No, now stand still, the lot of you. Not killin’ her don’t mean you jokers get your weapons back. Y’all and the lady take a walk backwards to that van where I know there’s more guns than you brought in with you. While you’re walkin’ consider all the kindsa shit could go wrong with your leaving healthy if I see one.” He turned his back on them, ashed his cigarette, flipped a switch on the side of his desk that lit up the front with floodlights. “Remember there’s always the dogs can’t a one a you outrun.”
Tavius sat in one of Rip’s office guest chairs, a stackable, gray metal and hard cushion affair, rubbed his wrists from the handcuffing. Rip handed him the wallet he’d taken earlier, along with the .380 and clip.
“I’m extending you military courtesy, son, returning your weapon. I apologize for hooking you up out front like a lawn jockey. I know you’re pissed but it wasn’t meant as an insult, it was what I had to work with. Don’t care who it’d a been or what color, I’d done the same. We clear on that? I don’t need any racist bullshit from someone oughta know we’re all the same color in a foxhole.”
Tave checked Rip’s eyes, let whatever was on his mind go for now. “I could have been some help. None of them are stable,” he glared at me, “including Moreno.”
“Mighta been,” Rip said. “But we know you’re a liar and like to throw your weight around, intimidate people. Not my style.”
“The fuck it’s not. What do you call the dogs and all the goddamm shotguns?”
“Negotiating accessories. Take your wallet and that pretty gun, make the hour drive to Amarillo. Find a hospital, get that buckshot looked after. If flashin’ all them fancy IDs don’t shut ‘em up an they need a witness for a gunshot accident, have ‘em call me.”
Rip flooded the hangar with light and we went back to work mounting the Cub’s tires.
“Goddam, Paro. Stop thinkin’ so loud I can hear it. Spit it out.”
“I’m trying to figure Tavius. He doesn’t make sense. I thought he was hooked up to Moreno some way, but I didn’t see it.”
“He wants what she wants. The money.”
“Okay, then what does she want the money for? Or him?”
“Couldn’t say about her. He’s a greedy bastard who wants to live the high life football would have afforded him, he hadn’t fucked up his knee.”
“He’s West Point.”
“Don’t matter. He’s as career military as either of us. Couldn’t give a flyin’ fuck about anybody but himself. He wants the money she’s out to get, so he’s stuck to her ass like cheap gas station toilet paper.”
“I heard that as like a size too small thong.”
He laughed, stopped ratcheting, listened. “Paro, I don’t see you for six, seven months and you show up with a passel of new an interesting friends.”
I’d heard it, too. “Copter?”
“Lakota. A new one. Somebody important enough to have pull and no use for artillery. Or the Lincoln driver got lost and called in Medevac. I’ll turn on another light.”
Secret Agent Man, last seen walking toward a diner in Dallas, stepped out of the black, lights flashing Lakota UH 72a helicopter into the floodlight’s circle. He took a leisurely stroll in our direction while the helicopter wound down, lights still flashing in the gathering dusk. I’ve always wanted to say that, even though I haven’t the slightest idea what the hell Dusk might be gathering.
“Pilot says to thank you for the light, Colonel Foster.” He put out his hand. Rip took it. “And you, Captain Riordan. Feeling better?”
“Yes and no.” What the hell, I hadn’t been a Captain for six years and he’d drugged me, but I shook his hand.
“What are you gentleman drinking this evening? If you aren’t,” he produced a bottle of 21-year-old Glenfiddich, “maybe you’d like to join me?”
Rip had a cabinet full of motel tumblers, put three on the round table in his kitchen and pulled the icemaker drawer out of his fridge, emptied it in a small cooler saying, “This is your party, Comp’ny man.”
“Brad.” He twisted the Scotch open while Rip dipped the tumblers in the ice. “Everyone calls me Flyer.” He poured when the tumblers landed.
“You a pilot, track star?”
We let that ride, sipped his Scotch in quiet until he pulled out his phone. “Mind?”
Rip and I looked at each other. “Music,” Flyer said, “not a recorder.”
“You hit Bluetooth in that thing, find JBL. Only rule is no oompah accordion music.”
“Understood. I have two rules myself.” He set his phone down and tasteful ambient with a jazz flavor floated off Rip’s counter. “No radio rock, no bubble gum.” We sipped some more and waited. When glass two got poured Flyer produced a large, flat envelope from his windbreaker.
“Here’s where we are gentlemen. You obviously fared well with Princess Moreno, Usman and the rest.” He didn’t mention Tavius, but he had to know. I left it alone, but it was killing me.
“These are the players.” He fanned out some 5×7 prints, dealt a couple to the side, started there. “These two are already dead.” One was Third Eye horseapple nose, the other an average looking, balding man of indeterminate middle-ish age. “This one,” he tapped Muller’s picture, “he’ll be dead soon, if not already.”
“Moreno said –”
“Yes, I know, Paro. The information is all split up. I’ll believe that when pigs fly somewhere besides a Pink Floyd concert.” He tapped the Double Knit man, who was wearing far better clothes in the picture than what we’d seen. “He doesn’t know anything, so he’s expendable, like you. But not until the job’s done. Usman, and Dawson, the one who stayed in Shamrock, will try to kill each other after the bank’s robbed.”
I spun not so Double Knit’s picture. “This guy, me. We’re expendable but not till later. Why?”
“Usman thinks he’s the alpha in this game. He wants the money, and he wants Moreno. You and this man are…Important to her. Or he needs to think you are, so he can’t risk killing either of you. Yet.” He took a drink, poured a splash of another. It was his turn to finger not so Double Knit.
“A chiropractor. Stephen ‘Woody’ Birch. His real name, I checked. Mr. California. Vitamins and exercise, snake oil lotions and teas and alignment is the path to enlightenment and insurance fraud. Mostly Medicare. He did a plea deal, kept his license, paid back most of the debt by returning what he hadn’t spent and mortgaging everything else, twice. He still did about a year of Federal time. In fact, all these cons are Federal. Woody overheard them talking at Terminal Island about the wet dream bank job, pulled them together when Moreno said she needed some real money. He’s got no skin in this deal except the introductions, and he shouldn’t be here but he’s in love.”
“So how does this job net him anything?”
“Okay, Comparo. Good news, bad news on the Moreno front. He’s her fiancé. Was her fiancé until she found out about you not being dead. She strung him along to keep the convict pool in order until she located you. He’s working the other side of the same street, stringing her along till she’s got the money. As long as Usman doesn’t know Woody and Moreno are done, and that you’re no more than a friend who can fly, he keeps his hat on. The torch job was a warning, not revenge. If any of them had known about you and Moreno in San Antonio, or the trailer, there would be more bodies stacked up, yours among them.” He eyed his splash of a drink, downed it, continued.
“For now, Usman is on hold. Woody thinks she’s still going to bail him out, so he won’t do anything stupid. And if we can get you to abandon the White Knight routine and focus on your job everything stays on track. Until the bank is robbed. After that, all bets are off.”
Great. Something to look forward to. A well-armed cluster fuck shoot ‘em up with psychopaths.
“And what’s your job?” I asked because it had started to sound like Days of Our Lives robs a bank with no set end game save the cluster fuck shoot out.
“My job,” he hoisted his glass, we all clinked, “is to take 32 million dollars out of a gang coalition’s operating fund any way I can without stealing it myself. Maybe point some fingers on the street, start a power war and let some big-city bad men kill each other.”
I shook the ice in my tumbler. “You aren’t worried about collateral damage?”
“Civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time is the six o’clock news, regardless. And it’s a lot less expensive, casualty wise, than a lot of civilians damaged by that 32 million. Even if it is just a drop in the bucket.”
Such is war. The Company, or whoever this guy worked for, would never say who the real enemy was, or the real target. Or the real goal. In my time I got briefed, given coordinates, sometimes not until I was in the air, never knew who I was dropping bombs on. I was told they were sanctioned targets of military value to the enemy. I still had nightmares about blowing up some woman innocently hanging her sheets out to dry when a bomb smarter than all of us decided she was dangerous.
Rip poured himself another. “The West Point slick leadin’ the pack in here today. What’s his game?”
“The same as everyone else’s. This project has been his baby for over two years, waiting on a trigger. Moreno and the convicts decide to rob the bank, game on. Things are happening that don’t make sense, but if you look it at the wrong way, they make perfect sense.”
“Rambo gone rogue in a fancy sweatsuit?”
“He’s my problem, Colonel Foster. However, had you killed him outright this afternoon he’d be off my plate and this would be fifty-year-old Scotch. But you didn’t, so he and his evolving plans remain my problem.”
That was all Flyer had to say about Days of Our Lives robs the Kerrigan State Bank. He picked up his phone, complimented Rip on his speaker. He said goodnight, shook our hands and reminded me to stay in touch when I heard something. The Lakota wound up and he saluted us casually before climbing aboard.
Rip watched the helicopter lift and haul ass west, its lights winking out in the distance. “Nice fella. For a comp’ny man.”
“He left us a little over half a bottle of two-hundred-dollar Scotch.”
“Yep. A real nice fella, that one.” He turned, headed back to the main building. “But then I’ve heard people say the same about Rattlesnakes.”
I flew over the long hangar with Rip Foster’s Stick It Flight Training painted on top, checked his windsock, and banked easy into a light southwest wind toward the big pond fifteen miles in any direction from a paved road or population of any kind. Rip was a late-in-the-game Viet Nam vet who’d helped evacuate Saigon and didn’t have a politically correct bone in his body. His threshold for bullshit was “lower than snake shit in a wagon rut” unless it was him doing the bullshitting.
I’d just turned fourteen when I told my parents I was going south to Texas and work a combine crew north for the summer, all the way to Wisconsin, make a butt load of money. It was a complete load of crap, but they bought it, happy they only had to deal with my older sister, each other and alcohol that summer. I didn’t give a damn about money or combines, I wanted to fly a bi-plane crop-duster. I was willing to eat SPAM, wash planes, wax propellers, whatever was involved including making a huge pain in the ass of myself until someone working the combine trail crop-dusters took me up.
I soon discovered no one wanted anything to do with me. “A little too short in the britches, arncha?” “Probly a virgin, arncha?” “Betcha can’t even drive, can ya?” All true. But I’d worn out Huckleberry Finn and The Reivers and I wasn’t a quitter. After six weeks I was having trouble keeping the quitter at bay when Rip Foster walked up to me, pulled on his gloves, eyed me like a small dog that might pee unexpectedly.
“If you’re the kid givin’ ever’body a case a ass over wantin’ to fly, come on.”
Rip relinquished the go-kart steering wheels of a Beechcraft 17 to me headed west somewhere over Kansas, and then promptly went to sleep. Just before he found nap-thirty he’d done a cursory run-down of the important gauges, nose up, nose down, just hang on, it flies itself.
I was losing about 500 feet a minute over flat terrain, with Colorado looming on the distant horizon. I pulled up on the wheel and got a couple of thousand feet back punishing the Beech. I pushed down, same effect looking at the ground. I went through the roller coaster until I was seasick and scared shitless. I got it leveled out around two thousand feet for a while, but it still wanted to go up or down and scoot sideways and damn sure wasn’t flying itself. Rip woke up after forty minutes of me living on panic and adrenaline, walked me through a bank around back east and after forty more minutes of full-on ‘this is an airplane’, my very first landing. I remember saying something stupid like “Man, that was cool!” I vividly remember his response.
“No, son. It was suicidal.” But he lit a cigarette, thumped my shoulder saying, “See you at five tomorrow. In the morning. Find some decent sunglasses between now and then.”
He taught me how to fly over weekends and summers for the next three years. By making me fly anything we could find with an engine that would get off the ground. Rip once lit a couple of books of matches, waved them in front of my face and shouted “Fire! May Day! Fire in the cockpit!” when I was trying to land in deep dusk with no lights. We bounced to a stop just short of a river and he said, “It’s not always happy hour. You gotta keep your shit straight, fly through it.” A lesson that came in handy in a burning plane over Columbia. He also taught me the value of shotguns as he saw them. Any length, any gauge. He had them everywhere, always one within reach.
We’d pushed the Cub into one of his hangars where he was helping me pull the floats off so that I could replace them with the 26-inch tires that would land me anywhere except water. Like down the street from a middle-of-nowhere bank.
He listened and wrenched without interruption while I ran down my situation. When I finished he continued to wrench on the float struts in silence before he set his ratchet down.
“So, Bo Diddly, tell me. Who do you trust?”
Whoooo do you luh-uve. “I don’t know.”
“Well, we’ll think on it some more. What I do know is it’s hot as hell in this hangar. And pontoons, god almighty, plus a certain fool I know who uses them are the only reasons I don’t ‘doze that pond. Stinks when it has water in it.”
“Never seen it dry.”
“Never has been. Stinks all the damn time.”
I was wondering if I should thank him for the stinky pond while we dropped the floats and carried them out of the way but that thought was interrupted when Rip’s phone made windchime noises. He picked up a rag, dried the sweat off his hands, pulled the phone from his front jeans pocket.
“Comp’ny comin’. Two miles out.” He whistled through his fingers, two short chirps and one long. He checked the phone, handed it to me. “You know a black fella, drives a dirty maroon Lincoln?”
“I asked your lady friend in Sugarland,” Tavius said. “You don’t call, don’t answer your damn phone. I’ve been driving all fucking day. Where’s Moreno?”
“I turned my phone off. Moreno, I couldn’t say.” The fucker was lying, selling it like nobody could do math. I’d left Houston with Moreno at 10 AM. Addison by 12:30. Moreno and Secret Agent Man had eaten up another hour. Not quite three hours to Rip’s in a straight line at 105, a trip that was right at five hours by car because I’d driven it before. It was now almost 5:30 PM. Tavius’s total drive time would have been nine hours if he’d refueled without stopping and the freeways had been accident and construction free. No way he was here from Sugarland. But he could have driven from Shamrock in the hour I’d been on the ground. It stunk worse than Rip’s pond.
“Son,” Rip looked up from his desk at Tavius standing by the open door, “we all know you’re lyin’. Why’nt you tell Comparo where the body’s at, what you’ve done with the knife and what your stake in all this is ‘cause spray paintin’ us with your brand a bullshit ain’t gonna fly.”
“Look, old man, I asked him a simple question.” Tavius’s hand was on its way to his back. A sawed-off 12 gauge swung up from the side of Rip’s chair and blew a hole in the sheetrock next to Tavius, his slick matte nickel .380 stalled at his side, still pointed down. Rip always said a shotgun in close quarters froze time.
“Don’t be cute, son, or you’ll end up like the meth heads show up out here time to time thinkin’ I have somethin’ worth stealin’. Paro, relieve the man of his weapon and his predicament.”
Blood flecks were showing on Tavius’s left arm, the one closest to the blast. There was no hole in the wall, just wasted sheetrock on top of concrete.
“Paro, how long you figure on the van fulla convicts?”
“Maybe an hour.”
“Dandy. Our friend here oughta be done with the sheetrock patch by then.”
Tavius was on one knee, a bucket of premix wall compound next to him, an eight-inch putty knife in his right hand. The left sleeve of his silky rayon hoodie was missing and he had half-a-dozen Band-Aids on his arm. Rip was sitting on his desk, shotgun in hand, supervising.
“Now when you’re done an outta here, son, you get yourself to an emergency room or a vet. Somebody knows how to fix huntin’ accidents and pull buckshot. Leave ‘em in there and that lead’ll start a blood infection, kill you as sure as you’d taken a direct hit.”
Tavius tried to be cool, wiped the putty knife on the edge of the bucket, checked his work. “What kind of wall is this?”
“Poured concrete, four inches thick. The galvanized outside helps keep the heat down and has an authentic look to it. The sheetrock is for folks who think it looks finished that way.”
I could see Tavius wanted to ask arrogant survivalist nut case questions, but Rip had kept a shotgun on him the entire time, even when he’d handed me the first one to reload the spent shell. I’d wanted to ask Tave a bucket of questions myself, but Rip wanted his wall fixed without conversation. I heard the wind chimes again.
“More comp’ny, Comparo. Hook our friend up to the reins rings in front where I can see him.”
“This is going to go down bad for you, old man.” Tavius wasn’t happy about being hooked up like a yard ornament.
“Could be. But it’s my shotgun and my party. I’ll cut you loose when we’ve had our second little get together and you’ll be free to tell whoever you want what happened here. Like you said,” Rip slid off the desk to upright. “I’m an old man and I can’t party like I used to. But you just go along with us an I think we can get through this one without needin’ to kill you.”
I led Tavius out in hands-behind-his-back cuffs, ran the short length of chain between his wrists and through the steel ring embedded in a concrete post.
“Paro, you can’t be doing this. We had a deal.”
“We still do. I’m still Moreno’s pilot. You shouldn’t have tried to pull on Rip, that’s all.”
“It was just to get him to shut up so we could take a walk, talk about Moreno, work this out.” He heard the padlock click, shook his wrists “Motherfucker’s crazy.”
“Maybe.” I shook the lock and the cuffs to be sure. “But he’s got the shotguns.”
Moreno was the first one out of the van and led a crew of three to the door, none of them acknowledged or spoke to Tavius. This time they were greeted with the shotgun out. Left to right inside it was Cav, Mr. Doubleknit, Muller the crazy-eyed driver from Corpus and a short man wearing a tweed beret and painters coveralls tucked into black combat boots. I figured him as the import Slovak Firestarter named Usman. He was the first to speak.
“You da pilot?”
“No,” Rip tipped his head slightly in my direction. Usman turned toward me.
“You not get da message, not get too fancy, not think too much? Huh?”
“If you’re talking about the campfire down south, I got that message. Pissed me off.” I lowered my shotgun to his chest height. “But before you and I work that out I want someone to tell me what the fuck is going on.”
Rip rested the butt of his sawed-off on his thigh, pointed at the middle of the crew. “Otherwise we waste the three of you and rob the bank with the woman.”
“You can’t do that,” Moreno said. “We only know a part, each of us. No puedo hacerlo solo,” She looked at me like I could help. “Paro?”
“No honor among thieves?” Rip popped a brief ironic smile. “Imagine my surprise.”
Muller and Usman drew handguns, Rip ignored them, didn’t kill anyone, but he whistled.
“You, you can’t kill us all,” Muller stammered. “You already killed Dwight.” Dwight must have been Third Eye horseapple nose. “We kill both of you, I say we’re even.”
“An I say you’re dead either way.” Rip pointed at the door with his sawed-off. “Turn around, have a look. I’d go easy, I were you.” Behind them, in the wide doorway, were five of the meanest looking junkyard dogs I’d ever seen. Rip lit a cigarette, started talking.
“State troopers, they got dope dogs in their patrol cars these days. For stoppin’ people comin’ outta Colorado might have some pot. Now I was comin’ back, I guess, oh, ‘round April maybe. I’d been huntin’ for a week or so up there an had my dogs in the cab with me. I was probably speedin’ a little, up in the panhandle an believe it or not I fit a profile. Geezers who mighta been hippies, thirty somethins in expensive cars an kids with stupid haircuts in rice rockets. Anyway, this trooper fella, he lights me up, I pull over an he parks up in front of me, gets his dog outta the back. They train those dogs, you know, and they’re smart as hell. Really smart fuckin’ dogs.” He blew a smoke ring, watched it.
“Where was I? Oh, yeah, the dope dog. This trooper, he walks up, asks do I mind if his dog searches my truck for drugs. I roll the back winda down and it fills up with these dogs here and I say I don’t mind, but you should ask my dogs how they feel about it. Well the really smart dope dog, a big ol’ Golden Retriever, he looks up at the winda and says ‘woof’, more like a dog howdy than some badass bark, an trots his fluffy tail back to the K9 car. The trooper looks at me, an the dogs an back at his dog that’s opened his own door and hopped back inside the cruiser. He thinks for a few an then he says ‘Have a nice afternoon. Slow it down’.”
“For God’s sake, what the hell is your point?” Double Knit had a radio announcer voice that belied his lack of fashion sense. And he had his arm around Cav’s waist.
“Those dogs there,” Rip nodded out the door, “they hear gunfire in this room, and they go straight for the crotch. No matter who’s dead your luggage is gone, y’all bleed to death worryin’ about how you and pussy are done forever. Sorry ma’am.” He blew another smoke ring, watched the facial contortions from everyone but Cav. “My point is, son, see that trooper, he knew I had him out dogged.” He smashed the cigarette out in an upside-down piston head sitting on his desk. “A revelation you fellas should be comin’ to long about now. You can set your weapons on the file cabinet there or I can let go a round and y’all can kiss your balls goodbye.” He cradled the shotgun in the crook of his arm, finger on the triggers. “Frankly, I don’t give a damn one way or the other.”
Something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I didn’t think love had anything to do with it. Moreno’s question had everything to do with it. What she’d asked me, what she needed, was somebody to trust. Since neither of us seemed to know who that might be, her Plan B, by urgent necessity or design, had been to play the love card. I found it an unusual call based on her history. Her Columbian mission ‘boyfriend’ loved her until he got love, jealousy, humiliation and betrayal over something that only existed in his head all mixed up. Just before he and I thought he’d put two 9mm rounds in her chest. I took his gun away and killed him for that. Looking back, I could honestly say that I did it more out of anger for his killing an attractive woman I might have had sex with again than any higher moral calling like love. Sex and love. With all their unfathomable, unpredictable ramifications and Cavanuagh Moreno was counting on one or both of them. And me.
I was working on all that when a young guy rolled up in a new, white Chevy pickup. From the logo on the door I knew he was there to sell me his brand of expensive covered airplane parking and gas, hustle me off to his boss’s corp jet hanger. ‘Complimentary’ wine, crackers, cheese, fruit and cold salmon dip that would magically show up tacked on to my ‘overnight flat rate’. I made a spontaneous decision while the truck’s window went down. When it was down the kid stuck his head out.
“Hey, man. I’m Jason. With –”
“Fuck that, Jason,” I opened his door. “I need to borrow your truck. And the hat.”
“Caps are swag if you park –”
“We’ve done that. Out. Now.”
“Man, you can’t steal the –”
“I said borrow. You have my plane, I have your truck. I don’t bring it back, who wins?” I grabbed the sleeve of his spotless white coveralls and pulled. He stumbled out, I climbed in, snatched his hat on the way. “Take a break, Jason. Call your girlfriend, play with your phone or your dick or something for an hour. I’ll be back.”
“Dude! What do I tell –”
“What you always tell them when you’ve been out fuckin’ off.” I slammed the truck into gear, hauled ass around the hangars in a failed attempt to beat Uber to Moreno. She’d better be at the other airport or we’d have to toss the whole love conversation and have a serious discussion about reality.
Sitting stationary in the “hi honey, bye honey” traffic circle at an airport is a lot easier in a clean, new truck with a corporate jet and FOB services logo on the door and a security pass in the clear pouch stuck on the window. With the flashers on I was extended un-spoken professional courtesy by the “keep it moving” Security that had walked past five times and nodded. I returned the nods, pointed to an imaginary watch on my wrist and offered them a working man’s ‘who the hell knows’ shrug while I kept an eye on my subject. Which was easy because Moreno stood unmoving in the same spot on the sidewalk, convict burn phone in one hand, rolling suitcase handle in the other for at least ten minutes while all the variations of hi honey and bye honey vacationers, families, business travelers and sun burned college kids in wrinkled cargo shorts, hiking boots and T-shirts from far away places swarmed around her. Before I arrived Moreno’s heels had turned into sandals and the silky tank into a long-tailed, high collared, loose, three-quarter sleeve madras thing. I called her from my latest burner.
“Bueno? Who is this?”
“Who’s meeting you?”
“Paro?” She looked around, slowly, like a human radar dish. “How did you get this number?”
“Took a picture when you walked off to make a call in Sugarland. Blew it up.”
“Okay, I checked when you set it on Gina’s counter.”
“Yes was yes. Who’s picking you up?”
“You’re very sweet, but this isn’t the –”
“The accountant. He’s…I don’t want to be alone in the car with him.” She was still trying to pick me out of the crowd. “Paro, please. Hang up.”
“Give me his number.”
I hung up, punched the number she’d rattled off at high speed in Spanish into my burner and saved it. A few minutes later the last thing I expected, and from her face, the last thing Moreno expected as well, was some guy who shopped business casual at Goodwill who’d walked up behind her with a rolling suitcase of his own and started talking. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they argued at low volume and you could have cut the mutual animosity with a knife.
They were chewing at each other like that when a reasonably new, pewter gray Dodge Caravan with blackout tint signaled its way through three lanes of ‘hi honey bye honey’ to the curb in front of Cav and Mr. Best Dressed 1974. He grabbed Cav’s elbow and ushered her none too gently toward the van. I made the call. Best Dressed didn’t answer, I hoped it was the van driver.
“Rondy.” Some kind of accent. Slavic?
“Tell your friend to ease up on the lady or he’s dead before he gets to the van.”
“Your pilot. You have,” I made a guess of distance by ground, “just under five hours to meet me at Stick It Flight School in Donley County.”
“Where da –”
“Short detour on your way to Shamrock. You can find it. You’d better find it.”
“The boss,” Rondy sounded antsy, less badass. “She not even know about Shamrock. How –”
“Magic. I’ve dropped bombs on the Taliban and grenades on a cartel coke convoy. You ass wipes are fish in a barrel. Five hours, fuck stick, or I take her away from what’s left of you and we do this job ourselves.” I clicked off the call.
Shit. Now what? I started to pull out behind them when my passenger door opened and Secret Agent Man from Sugarland hopped in.
“Don’t stare,” he flipped his hand like he was shooing a fly. “Drive.” We followed the van toward the airport exit, two cars between us.
“You actually have a weapon on you, Comparo? Leftover grenades?”
“You watch a lot of old Cagney movies as a kid?”
“Yeah. And The Untouchables midnight reruns in college.”
“Stoned, no doubt. I know I was. You working a plan?”
“It shows. You were supposed to call me.”
“This whole, situation, whatever, was, is…”
“Extemporaneous is the word you’re looking for.” I glanced over and he had a faint smile working. “I told you to stay in bed today. Any thoughts on the double-knit walk up?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“A UFO then. Facial Rec and security video from the gates are on it, we’ll know in about ten minutes.”
“Is Cav safe?” Her love bit was working, I could hear it in my voice. “She said she didn’t like being alone with the accountant.”
“I wouldn’t like it either. The accountant has been dead for eight months.”
“Then who’s driving the van?”
“Rannindy Usman. An import. Bombmaker, arsonist, small-time domestic arms dealer. We’re coming to the light. If they can use Google Maps they’ll turn right for the interstate. You should get over and turn left, drop me at the QT.”
I did as directed, pulled up beside a Frito Lay truck in the QT lot. He tapped my shoulder, made sure I was listening. “Return this vehicle, immediately, before it’s a mess I’ll have to clean up. Then get that powered kite of yours in the air ASAP.”
“You aren’t coming?”
“With Shamrock out of the bag I need to wake up my surveillance from their donut and coffee in the boondocks stupor. And I’m waiting on intel for double knit. You need to forget all of this, go back to being their attitude riddled and now lovesick pilot and kick it to Stick It.”
“Everyone needs a hobby.” He swung out of the cab, held the door. “Usman’s an asshole and likes to prove it. I’d prepare for unpleasant company. With considerably more going for you than your Cagney gangsta rap.”
Secret Agent Bard was walking off toward the Mockingbird Diner, cleaning his sunglasses, when I pulled out into traffic. I broke every traffic law in the book getting out of the middle of suburban Dallas, arrived at my destination in Addison with Lady Luck shining on me. Jason was still off somewhere with his phone or his pecker and no police or airport security types were waiting for me. I started to keep Jason’s hat as a souvenir, but it smelled like young guy man-whore hair products so I propped it on the dash in front of the steering wheel. He’d think I was a gent.
When the Cub was running and ready, I contacted the tower and told them my wife was having a baby in Wichita Falls. They offered their congratulations, said I owed them some chocolate cigars and cleared me immediately. I wanted to ask how they kept those lit but passed.
Once again from east to west, I watched the planet go from green to brown below me, five hundred miles north. This time with no beautiful danger onboard, only my thoughts. They were more than enough. A new player had shown up, one that Moreno knew and no one else was aware of. A maybe government agent knew every move I made, regardless of my GPS and the phones I thought he knew about being off. Tavius was supposedly a government agent, and he knew just about as much as the other one, if not more. Because Tave didn’t ask many questions except about Moreno. But he’d gone silent after the body removal. Someone Moreno called ‘the accountant’ wasn’t dead, but the original one was. Did she know about that? Did she know the van driver she called an accountant was really a fire starter? Had she known that when her rental car and most of my Earthly possessions turned to ash?
I had started to feel played. And that pissed me off on several fronts, Cavanaugh Moreno chief among them. Sex? Love? Was that just to keep me reliable? Committed? I needed to keep my big head on and start thinking with it, let the love and bank robbery money chips fall where they may. I’d a lot rather come out of this thing broke, alive and flying, than end up dead in the middle of nowhere fighting one too many of a good-looking woman’s windmills while I labored under the delusion that she wasn’t yanking my chain about the big L.
According to a good many modern authors, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” changed how dialog drives story. Even new guys like David Levine and old hats like Nelson Demille. So if you can do this bit at 65% narrative, without travelogue and excessive tags, and keep the people personal I’d like to see it. Otherwise, save the lengthy bear chased the dog sled over the hill and through the woods for Jack London. My people talk because they can tell their stories better than I can.
Jackson’s old apartment, Long Beach, CA – late summer 1982
“There’s a long story about why I hate musicians, Jackson.”
Kaitlin Everson, the actress responsible for the lawsuits that roared like background noise on cheap tape through almost five months of his life stood on the other side of his small kitchen divider, nervously tapping her fingers on the tile top. She looked good. Dangerous. The perfect, swept up cascade of ringlets over dark waves, sprayed-on yellow capris and a snug, lacy sleeves to her elbows top. He stayed with his back against the counter on the opposite wall of his narrow kitchen, arms folded like a shield. As if it would help if she went full Tasmanian devil.
“I’ve heard some of them. Variations on a theme of the real one, probably. That’s why you’re here, Kait? To tell me a long story?”
“Alix didn’t call you?”
“She said ‘My love, the delightful Kaitlin has telephoned. Speak with her, s’il vous plaît?’ No one living has ignored Alix’s s’il vous plaît. So here you are. We could have gone neutral somewhere. Or was that the point, to stay out of public places?”
“No. I heard about this old apartment of yours. What happens here. How comfortable and real it is. The open windows, the sounds, the sweet monster dog. I heard you put eleven top-shelf L.A. women in here on Saturday mornings all summer and there was no trippy bullshit. I wanted to see it.” She stopped her fingers, took a surprise deep breath for someone usually cooler than a bucket of ice. “I sat with Randi Navarro and Cicily Warren at a Women in Broadcast lunch last week. They showed me their personal bio packs and they were the shit. The real shit. Custom color folders, custom cards, embossed calligraphy, perfect complementary colors, not overdone. Definitely not office supply print shop ready-to-wear. They said massive taste, and they would be the first ones out of any pile. I asked Randi where it came from and she said you were involved and that…That I should contact the French lawyer who untied our two-little-bitches-in-Hollywood knot, and you might let me in on who does their work.”
He got close to “Your little bitch in Hollywood knot” and let it slide. “Any of them could have sent you straight to the source. No one needed to send you to me like I clear who gets access to that talent. It doesn’t matter how you and I feel about each other, the point is that a talented person who has something to offer and could make a difference gets what they need to advance their career.” He turned, put the unopened beer he’d been about to drink back in the fridge. “If I had to be ape shit happy with everyone I worked with I’d be screwed. And so would you and so would everyone else in this town.”
“How do we feel about each other?”
“You carried the movie that made us both temporarily insane, and at long last, some money. You’re way too good looking and too talented and your bitch factor is too high for you to disappear. And you’re too smart not to care about something. So I’m down. Like I said, not that it matters what I think.”
She’d leaned both arms on the divider, he stepped up to the counter attached to the other side, thought for a second.
“Look, Kait, I was a green, dopey, shaggy flatland college boy with a deal that fell in my lap. You gave me that shit on your shoes look the day we met Shannon and I figured okay, fair enough. I’m not actress bait, drop it and get on down the road. I always wonder why girls who bail on me do it, but I get it. It’s happened so much my dude to dude failure excuse is that I’m an acquired taste.” They looked at each other for few, like a lion tamer and a lion, trying to figure out who was which.
“It wasn’t personal, Jax. Musicians were like a bad habit until I started getting real work.” She did that thing he thought was a universal girl move, averting her eyes to look at her fingers absently doodling on his tile-topped divider. “After I got the job on the soap and I put that part of me down, some of those guys did some really stupid, mean shit. I went off on one at the Whiskey one night and it got turned into ‘ex-groupie soap star goes off’ press. With pictures of me looking fucked up and mad as hell screaming about all their lying bullshit. I had to sue them all to stop it.”
“So suing musicians is just how you get through your day?”
She didn’t want to buy it. The humor in his voice, his eyes. “Randi warned me you’d find a way to get around me, no matter what I put up.”
“Randi warns every female that’s about to talk to me.”
“She should. And Cicily told me what you did to that piece of work pussy-bait lover boy of hers. I worked a laundromat-on-acid fabric softener spot with that rat fart when I first started, back in high school.”
“Whoa. No shit? The one where the girl pulls her clothes out of the dryer, a guy dumps his clothes all over to run help ‘cause she’s so cute and her clothes smell so good, everything goes all wiggly and BAM, they’re holding hands in a field somewhere?”
“You saw it?”
“Hell yeah. I can’t believe that was you and Gibson. That’s sad, because a lot of us guys wanted to be the dude in the laundromat. You probably started a whole humongous urban myth about picking up chicks with fabric softener, being way wet-dreamable in that almost see-through dress. In fact, I need to call a couple of people and tell them the ‘Smells like sunshine and happy’ chick filed a lawsuit to keep from going out with me.”
“You’re not supposed to be funny, Jax. Or nice. Or easy for me to be with, or work with. I emptied my humility piggy bank and rehearsed some deep southern fried Scarlett O’Hara damsel in distress for this.” She crossed her arms, grabbed her blouse with both hands in the center of her chest. “Oh puh-leeeeease, Mistuh Jay-uc-son, you just hay-uv tuh help poor little ol’ me.” She let go, relaxed her arms back onto the divider.
“That has to be the smallest humility piggy bank on the planet and the best Scarlett O’Hara I’ve seen since some guys explained cotillions to me when I was sixteen. You’re helped, Kaitlin. The only rule is don’t try to be smarter than the people who will help you. That about killed the control freak in Navarro, but if you like her package, that’s how it happens.”
“Screw that stress. Let whoever it is clean up my press world and drop a quarter in my direction when it’s time to pick it up.” She tapped the counter again, caught herself, took another deep breath. “Okay, coming here is what about killed me. And that’s all there is? No ‘who’s on top now.’ No insincere apologies, no games? No pinch my left butt cheek until it’s purple?”
“That’s it. Well…”
She raised one eyebrow.
“Is that your hair?”
“For fuck’s…Yes it’s mine. It’s cut longer down the back so I can put the center curls in and it balances. If I don’t put the curls in I have to do all kinds of crap with clips or my hair looks like a horse’s ass from behind. Godammit, I see it. Don’t you even think it. What is it with everyone and my fucking hair?”
“Everybody says it’s a fall. That bass player you got so pissed off at had a curly fall just like your hair tied to his antenna and lime green crotchless panties taped to his back window. He said both of them belonged to you.”
“They weren’t mine. Not my hair, for damn sure not my panties. I mean give a girl some credit for taste. And that waste of air with all of his phony Kaitlin’s groupie swag taped to his car got his ass sued with the rest of them. I am not a groupie and never was and this is my hair. Once upon a time I liked to hit a fatty and dance and I liked to go out with band guys. Until a few years ago turning twenty-one and regular employment raised my IQ.”
“So you didn’t pull a train after the —”
“NO!” He thought her eyes might catch fire. “You can eat shit and fucking die, Jackson. You’re as bad as all the rest of them.” She spun, steamed for the door.
“That’s the Kaitlin I know.” He couldn’t hold the laugh. “Day-um, bitch. Chill. You hungry?”
She stopped at the door, turned halfway around. “You hillbilly asshole. I’m starving.” She did the index finger flip between them. “You? And me? Now?”
“Let’s go. I can hang with a hot actress, and we can bust each other’s chops a little longer. You forgot these.” He held out two business cards, tugged on her ringlets when she got close enough to take them. He laughed again, she yanked the cards with one hand, punched him on the shoulder, hard, with the other.
“Fuck you, you, you,” a laugh of her own got out. “You goofy, pickle dick hick.” She shook her hair, checked out Paula’s and Stacey’s Morisé Women’s Initiatives cards, dropped them in a clutch not much bigger than they were. “You’re driving. Because I like your old car and want to be seen riding in it. Since that is so incredibly shallow of me, I’ll buy. But only if you take us somewhere in Hollywood or Beverly.”
She looked up, caught him grinning. “And all that ‘I’m really just a cute, fun guy’ shit you’re working like it would make La Brea belch Elvis back? Buy it a coffin. If anyone asks? We still hate each other. Got it?”
Morisé – 1700 Oilman’s Bank Tower
“Kaitlin Everson?” Paula set the folder on top of everything on Stacey’s desk. “I missed the legal do-si-do, but I got the word upfront from Studley. Do we have right of refusal?”
“Alix said that we all underestimate the Director of Women’s Initiatives. That he has turned a negative into a positive and has now completed the process for which he has been in training.” She watched Paula’s face go question mark. “Yeah, me neither. Something about forgiveness and the big picture. Shannon has thinned Kaitlin’s bio to bullet points for me, and Kaitlin is ready for the initial preferences call. Which is you. They’ll shoot the interview in Zane’s green room, edit her aircheck, Jackson will smooth it out next door at Air Biscuit. It’s a genuine project.”
“Don’t you think it’s amazing how they do those interviews? It’s just two people in chairs in Tits’ small warehouse and it looks like someone’s badass living room or the Parthenon or some beach that’s too clean to be real.”
“What is more amazing, Paula, is that Alix threw him and Kaitlin together without an ambulance on standby and that you get away with calling Zane Rialta ‘Tits’.”
“Studley says Alix sent Kaitlin to him with a s’il vous plaît, and everybody out there calls Zane ‘Tits’. It’s like her unofficial celeb toe tag.”
“I’m not sure about the toe tag, but the s’il vous plaît explains this.” Stacey handed Paula a copy of True Star that had landed with the morning mail. “They’re a quarter page in the gossip section, on the patio at a burger place. Smiling. He must have had to send his soul out to the cleaners after.”
“The smile tells me the picture is doctored.” Paula pulled on the sides of her mouth with her index fingers and made a face before she opened the paper, shuffled through to the middle. “‘Heart Throb Actress Starring in Real-Life Romance!’ Who writes this used dog food?”
“People like us who don’t quite have total autonomy about what they publish?”
“Somewhere in that, I heard ‘We’re doing Kaitlin Everson, Paula. Get over it’.”
Anonymole has decided on a whiff of an idea from me that September is scene month. Not every day, but often, we should offer a short scene that stands alone and when you walk away you have a decent idea of what’s going on and might want to turn the page. This is number 8 or 9 or 10 of “Hukt awn seens werks fur mee!”
“Rise and shine, party boy.”
Gina? I rolled over, squinted at the sun coming through the open door. The fuzzy girl standing between me and the sun wasn’t Moreno.
“Sorry, mister sir, she say you stoled her truck and was gonna call police I doan let her in.”
“What the hell happened to you?” Gina yanked the bedspread I must have wrapped up in. “We had to bring the spare key to pick up the freakin’ truck this morning.”
“CIA…propo… porpo…” Her hair was more like hair now, and less like a Mad Max extra. “What happened to fresh fucked?”
“Please, honey. C I Ay? C U this.” She touched her lip. “He gave me this. Roger. Fucker. I’ve never had a fever blister in my life. Spend a weekend on that moldy, stinky piece of shit with vinyl mattresses he calls a boat and I get this.”
“Don’t poke on it. It looks more like a zit. Or a bite, or an ingrown hair. Fever blisters are crusty. That’s just a red bump.”
“Zit? Ingrown hair? I’m too old to break out and I pay good money to wax…” She walked over to the mirror, pushed her lip around with her finger. “I squeezed it earlier, like you do, you know? And it hurt like hell but…You think not, babe? I had a brow and facial yesterday…Seriously. You think maybe not on the fever blister?”
“I think seriously maybe probably not.” I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands. No shit halo effect. “Do I have gas?”
“I don’t know, honey. Not pullin’ your finger to find out. Get dressed, I’ll run you back to the field.”
“I need a burn phone. And a pay phone. And an iPhone charger.”
“Baby, you tried to find a pay phone lately?”
“No.” I pulled my clean cargos on over the new underwear, picked up my sock stuffed boots.
“Well, they’re gone. Pimps and dope dealers and other undesirables were making nuisances of themselves using them. They’ve been ordinanced and legislated out of almost everywhere.”
“So now the undesirables can buy burn phones and won’t be visible doing their pimping or dealing standing outside 7-11, or tied to a location? But still be nuisances to the general population?”
“Your tax dollars at work for you. Why do you need a burner, babe? This bank robber hottie of yours got a man? You got a girl doesn’t need to know about her?”
“Do I look fresh fucked to you?”
“Nope. Fresh fucked up, yes.” She laughed, handed me a brush out of her purse, handed the housekeeping girl a ten on her way out the door. I handed the same girl a Wal Mart bag with a twenty dollar burn phone and a prepaid timecard inside because I knew Secret Agent Man had run it before I came to.
Houskeeper checked the bag’s contents. “Are you two married. Or sum-ting?”
“No.” I raised my voice enough for Gina to hear me. “That’s my mother.”
“In your dreams, baby. And you can whistle through your butt for that trip to Wally World now. Will you get the freakin’ lead out? I need to go apologize to somebody about a zit with a mistaken identity and you’re draggin’ ass.”
I wanted to make another anchor joke, but like a lot of things this morning it just wasn’t there.
I broke the drug funk with an Egg McMuffin and two cups of Gina’s coffee, which I drank while she ran off in heels, spandex and a long-tailed, cleaners-crisp white shirt to square things with moldy vinyl mattress man. I figured unless he was dumber than a box of rocks, he’d accept her apology without making her work for it. Because that shit would blow up in his face. Like I knew the zit that wasn’t a fever blister had.
I used the computer in the business services closet to run a search on Cavanaugh Moreno while I waited for the coffee to kick in. I found a lot of hyphenated Cavanaugh-Morenos. Several articles about an ex Mrs. Francisco “Frank” Cavanaugh-Moreno and their big divorce settlement and a year later when she became Mrs. Cavanaugh-Wycliffe and moved into a sub-division with a Spanish name that meant Taste of the Sea, in an ‘affluent San Diego suburb’. Sounded more like a trendy restaurant or canned tuna than an affluent suburb to me, but I don’t have affluent suburb money so what did I know? Frank Moreno was an international banker and looked like an over the hill Latin Gigolo in an expensive suit and spent a lot of time shaking hands with blank-look-on-their-faces foreigners. The other Frank Moreno, misspelled from Morino, was a 70s guitarist who claimed to channel the ghost of Jimi Hendrix. Right. The 70s.
By page five I was tired of Morenos Morinos and Cavanaughs that had nothing to do with what I was looking for when my phone that rarely went off scared the shit out of me. Literally. On my way to the men’s “lounge” I checked the text.
Reminder that your RX is ready for pickup at Walgreens.
Call 832-555-3344 with questions.
Reply HELP for assistance, CANCEL to cancel.
I didn’t have any prescriptions ready for pickup. Or at all. After Secret Agent Man’s short trip to nowhere with a lingering twelve-hour hangover I sure as hell wasn’t going to go in blind somewhere to pick one up, either. Reverse lookup on the number took me to a me-too cell company, not a pharmacy, and the goddam door to the men’s “lounge” was locked. I knocked on the door next to it. No answer. In I went. Sorry, ladies.
“But Paro –”
“NO. Drop the car at Hobby, I’ll come get you. Throw the phone away.”
“Google is your friend. Then toss the phone.”
“I need this phone, Paro. Don’t tell me what to do.”
“Throw it away, Cav. I know my phone is on the big screen in the sky and you just sent your number to it.”
I hung up, looked at my second twenty-dollar burn phone in eighteen hours. I’d throw it out the window on the way to pick up Moreno at Hobby Airport. Because she had to turn her current rental in somewhere it looked like she could catch a flight out. So more people I hadn’t met yet could drug me, threaten me, ask me where the hell she was. She could buy us both new burners on the way back to Sugarland.
Gina handed off my iPhone that I’d intentionally left on and charging behind her desk at Sugarland, kept her eyes on Moreno pacing the FOB lounge. Cav was talking fast and quiet on her old burn phone she’d refused to toss. Gina leaned into me from the side and whispered “If I was a man? I’d rob as many freakin’ banks for her as she wanted.”
“Yeah. That’s the problem.”
“You callin’ what she’s got goin’ on a problem, babe? I should have her problems.”
“She’s a magnet for all the wrong people.”
“Better put yourself in that suitcase with the rest of them, honey. You’re gassed and good to go. Flight plan?” She waited. “Thought not.”
I’d gotten a quick hug in front of several Budget security cameras and since then Cav had said exactly five words. “Thank you,” and after climbing back in Gina’s truck from a Target stop on the way back to Sugarland “Here’s your phone.” I’d shut off my phone and glass instrumentation, checked my backup analog gauges. Airspeed, compass, altimeter, a tach and fuel gauge, all in a small flip-up cluster and was flyin’ a la crop-duster. A blip in the sky. The tower told me there was a decent southwesterly breeze full of moisture, no weather until Kansas. Gina had the tower insert me in front of a pair of Gulfstreams to “get the puddle jumper out of the way” and we were off.
Cav and I were still on that five-word-count for conversation when we crossed Interstate 35 between Temple and Waco. Averaging 96 MPH to keep the engine load down, that was over an hour of her periodically wringing her hands while staring out the window.
“Went looking for you on the internet.”
“No, you called. Saved me the trouble.”
She squeezed my shoulder from the rear seat. “Sorry. Who’d you find?”
I told her about the ex Mrs. and the banker and the church music director, kid rapper, Irish fisherman. Left out Jimi’s ghost guitarist.
“The ex. That’s Mamá.”
“Tu Padre Frank?”
She snorted. “Si. My father is Francisco.”
“So who are you?”
“I was christened Siobhan Maria Cavanaugh-Moreno. With my confirmation Patron Saint it’s…un bocado grande. By third grade I was tired of correcting Shovahn from See-o-ban.”
“Sounds like a deodorant.”
She laughed out loud. “I love you, Paro. Nothing is sacred. Someday I will tell you my thoughts on a world without need of another dark-haired Irish senorita with a Coppertone tan named Maria.”
“You just did.”
“I tell you everything, even when I try not to. I became Cavanaugh Moreno, no hyphens. I told my teachers, my parents, everyone.”
“But you never changed it, legally?”
“No. My mother said I needed all the guardian angels that would have me. I couldn’t risk pissing off St. Valentine or my Grandmothers by denying them further, could I?” She squeezed my shoulder again. “Paro, can you take me to Dallas?”
A destination at last. “No. Addison?”
“North Dallas. Restaurants, condos, an airport. You have to tell me why, Cav. The government guys drugged me last night. Everybody’s looking for you. And what the hell is the connection with the convicts? One of them is –”
“Dead. Si. I know.”
“Were you there?”
“No. I was in Houston. I got a call.”
“Okay.” I’d give her that one. “How the hell did you know your car needed to be stolen in San Antonio?”
“What are you saying?”
“Your Fiat, Moreno. You reported it stolen from San Antonio on the way to my trailer.”
“I never. I, they told me not to worry about going back for it, it was ‘handled’.”
“‘Handled’ along with my trailer and truck. Nothing but ashes, Cav. Talk to me.”
She swore on her grandmothers and her patron saint that she hadn’t reported the car stolen, didn’t know it had been torched along with my trailer and truck. She’d ridden all the way to Houston from San Antonio in that fucked up van with Muller. Who’d dumped her at an Embassy Suites to get her away from me and off everyone’s radar until the bank job was solid and I ‘understood how it was.’ Said he’d given her a grand in cash, taken her phone, told her no credit cards. A rule she’d broken to rent another car. “I don’t like being told what I can or can’t do.” Really?
She’d texted me as Walgreens from the burn phone Muller left with her hoping I’d get curious and call. So she could ask me to come get her when she’d gotten her marching orders to Dallas. And claimed to have no idea I was so close.
I didn’t like it either, being told what to do. But one of the convicts was meeting her in Dallas to take her “within range” of the Kerrigan job. Probably the dump motel Secret Agent Man knew about. The convict told her to fly Southwest and instead she’d called Comparo Airlines. Like I was going to land between the big boys in their 737s without telling anyone I was on the way.
“How do I tell them, how will they not know I was with you if I’m in this other place?”
I told her she could shuttle or Uber to Love Field, stand outside bag claim with her stewardess size bag and call whoever was meeting her. It was such a cluster they’d never know the difference.
“Okay. Where will you go?”
“I’ll tell you that when you tell me about the bank job. Until then? I’ll be ‘in range’.” I held up my latest dispoza phone. “Got the number?”
“Leave it on, por favor?” For the first time since a fleeting moment in Columbia she sounded like she’d rather be anywhere but in the middle of what she had started. That was all she said until I killed the engine in Addison, climbed out to help her down where she got inches from my face.
“Me amas o no?”
Did I love her or not? What the hell? “Yes.”
“Yes yes, or yes no?”
“Yes is yes.” Jesus. Why now? She tried a smile but it got lost on the way out. I didn’t think I’d ever seen anyone look quite so alone.
“Say a prayer for me, Paro.” I got a quick peck on the cheek. I caught her hand when she walked away. She turned. “Say another one, por favor. For us.”
Anonymole has decided on a whiff of an idea from me that September is scene month. Not every day, but often, we should offer a short scene that stands alone and when you walk away you have a decent idea of what’s going on and might want to turn the page. This is number 8 or 9 of “Hukt awn seens werks fur mee!”