Tart’s Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you still love me, Paro?”

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

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

***

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

“All yours.”

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

“Ever worn a wingsuit?”

Wing suit?”

“Can you parasail?”

“Para, what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t forget your overly armed convicts.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t tell him,” I said.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh at least.” I lowered my head to shield the building grin. “Maybe thirty.”

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

***

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

“Bullshit.”

“Bless you.”

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

“Nothin’. Changed her mind is all.”

“About?”

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

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

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

“I did. Whiny little shit that he is.”

“What does he know?”

“Nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.”

“You asked?”

“I did.”

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

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

“And you called me a real prick.”

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

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

I cloaked my surprise at seeing her with a real slick Sherlock quality line.

“You’re early.”

She’d found a pale yellow summer dress in Rip’s Cinderella room. It might have been, like my sandals, a half size too big, but it was…She was…I needed to stay on task. “What happened to the girl who would’ve said ‘yo, tambien’?”

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

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

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

Pick One. Let It Play

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Set it on top of her car?”

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

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

“That’s better.”

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

“Checked ‘em out, didja?”

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

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

“Works for me.”

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

***

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

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

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

“They are common criminals, Cav.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Woody said?”

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

“And he knows this how?”

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

“Wild animal refuge as convict halfway house?”

“If you must be boorish and blunt.”

Who is the Accountant?”

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

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

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

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

“Hmmmphhh.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #24

Favorite Conversations

From: William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes

“Well, it is a kind of sterility — Words,” Fairchild admitted. “You begin to substitute words for things and deeds, like the withered cuckold husband that took the Decameron to bed with him every night, and pretty soon the thing or the deed becomes just a kind of shadow of a certain sound you make by shaping your mouth a certain way. But you have a confusion, too. I don’t claim that words have life in themselves. But words brought into a happy conjunction produce something that lives, just as soil and climate and an acorn in proper conjunction will produce a tree. Words are like acorns, you know. Every one of ’em won’t make a tree, but if you just have enough of ’em, you’re bound to get a tree sooner or later.”

“If you just talk long enough, you’re bound to say the right thing someday. Is that what you mean?” the Semitic man asked.

“Let me show you what I mean.” Fairchild reached again for the book.

“For heaven’s sake,” the other exclaimed, “let us have this one drink in peace. We’ll admit your contention, if that’s what you want. Isn’t that what you say, Major?”

“No, really,” Major Ayers protested, “I enjoyed the book. Though I rather lost the habit of reading at Sa — ”

“I like the book myself,” Mark Frost said. “My only criticism is that it got published.”

“You can’t avoid that,” Fairchild told him. “It’s inevitable; it happens to everyone who will take the risk of writing down a thousand coherent consecutive words.”

“And sooner than that,” the Semitic man added, “if you’ve murdered your husband or won a golf championship.”

“Yes,” Fairchild agreed. “Cold print. Your stuff looks so different in cold print. It lends a kind of impersonal authority even to stupidity.”

“That’s backward,” the other said. “Stupidity lends a kind of impersonal authority even to cold print.”

Fairchild stared at him. “Say, what did you just tell me about contradicting myself ?”

“I can afford to,” the other answered. “I never authenticate mine.” He drained his glass. “But as for art and artists, I prefer artists: I don’t even object to paying my pro-rata to feed them, so long as I am not compelled to listen to them.”

“It seems to me,” Fairchild rejoined, “that you spend a lot of time listening to them, for a man who professes to dislike it and who don’t have to.”

“That’s because I’d have to listen to somebody — artist or shoe clerk. And the artist is more entertaining because he knows less about what he is trying to do. . . And besides, I talk a little, myself.”

 

There are several of my favorite lines about writing and writers, “artists” in general, in this work from 1927. Quotes more applicable to today’s explosion of stylistic and “voice” sausage in the cavalcade of self-published casseroles that almost read like writing. A number of conversations in this work are textbook examples of how characters can have opinions and preach for the author’s POV without “preaching.” We get Faulkner’s take on artists, art groupies and pinball relationships wrapped up in a novel, not standing in front of his soapbox.

Aside – God knows I love to see Grammarly telling me how to correct (sterilize) Faulkner. 

 

Welcome To The Party

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

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

Which was the plan I needed to see as reality.

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

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

Nobody answered.

I knocked again.

Nada.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They wouldn’t.”

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

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

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

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

“The panhandle has an elusive charm.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Like out of the chair, or…”

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

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

***

“Tell me about Woody.”

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

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

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

“Accountant?”

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

“Hard currency?”

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

“Woody knows all this?”

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

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

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

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

“What do you think?”

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

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

***

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

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

“Chivalry could get you killed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Turn around, come back.”

“Where you’ll be…”

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

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

“My problem.”

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

“She doesn’t know it’s a hijack.”

“Yet.”

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

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

Put a Bow On It

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

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

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

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

“Ready?”

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

“I think you finally ate something.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t take –”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got us da standoff,” Usman said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa. You have a grenade launcher?”

“Yeah, in the van out there.”

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

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

“The cops?”

“Now there’s where it got all hinky.”

“Hinky?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Savin’ her life makes you iffy?”

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

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

“Timetable. Not ’tall what I expected.”

“Me, either.”

“You tellin’ me you could read this?”

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

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

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

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

“Fact.”

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

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

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

Nice Legs

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

“Hey Cav, whoa. It’s me.”

“Mmmphh?”

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

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

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

“Am I really,” snork, “not worth it?”

“I was trying to smoke him out.”

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

“No…”

“What then?”

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

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

“I can.”

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

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

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

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

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

Si. If I get stuck, push me?”

I winked.

“Pig.”

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

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

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

“What’d you lose?”

“My shoes.”

“Are you crazy? There’s no way –”

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

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

“Paro? Ola? You could help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“But…”

“Clothes, Moreno. Now.”

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

“But I thought…”

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

“Naked?”

“I was going to borrow your robe.”

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

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

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

***

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

“Nice legs.”

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

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

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

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

“Like those diapers for grownups. Dee—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“You know better than that.”

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

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

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

“Technically it’s not your car.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Scoot, asshole.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Have a Nice Night

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

“Well…they work…”

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

“Moreno…”

“Everybody wants fucking Moreno. Why?”

“Not…Can’t…”

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

“Prob…lee more….Motherfu—”

I put the knee down again

“Awright! Fuck me …Woody…Woody!”

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

“He…I…that was his…we’re his…crew…”

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

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

“Nice to know. So what’s your gig?”

“His pilot…Woody’s…Used to be pilot…”

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

“His idea…no convicts…pros…”

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

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

“The dead one?”

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

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

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

“What the hayell happened back there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what’re you doing here?”

Good fucking question. “Lapse of reason?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing but more rain and thunder.

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