“A Fucking Nixon”

Meyers pulled the viewing room doors closed, motioned for Huntley and Rifat to follow. After several wrong turns Meyers found the kitchen, grabbed a neatly folded towel off the counter and opened the under-sink cabinet. He pulled out a pair of yellow latex dishwashing gloves, put them on. He tossed the towel to Huntley, who eyed it suspiciously.

“Now what?”

“Now I reload their guns, empty them into the muddy corral and put them back where I found them.”

“Be easier to bring the guns inside.”

“Are you volunteering to clean them?”

“Shit…” It came out mostly as air when Huntley sighed and draped the towel over his shoulder. “You’ll want these, then.” He reached in his pocket, pulled out the two rounds wrapped in Wichtikl’s silk pocket square. He caught Meyer’s look. “Seriously? Like anybody believed they were gonna make it to the stable?”

“Glad you told me before I fucked around out there looking for them. Use the towel,” he turned his head, taking in the room. “Open every drawer, every cabinet until you find some more gloves. Put ‘em on and keep opening.”

“What are we lookin’ for?”

“Anything that looks like it doesn’t belong. Pull it, put it on the counter.”

“And then?” Huntley checked in with Rifat.

“I’ll be back before you’re done in here.” Meyers flexed the fit of his gloves, kicked off his shoes and stuck his feet in a pair of black, knee-high rain boots he’d collected from inside a mud bench by the back door. “There were files in the safe with initials that weren’t mine and more money than the forty-seven large Cavelli got when he rolled me. Wichtikl was a fucking Nixon. We need to find his hardware.”

***

“What,” Rifat leaned up and away from the counter, “is a ‘fucking Nixon’?”

“Some President,” Huntley closed another drawer. “The only reason I know is I was at a Taco Bell one night, they had a framed newspaper article on the wall, and the headline was ‘President Loves Tacos’ or some shit like that, and there was a picture of this ugly goofball at a Taco Bell in Yorba Linda. Or maybe Clemente.”

“We’re looking for tacos?”

“Maybe. Knowing Meyers, though, there’s more to it than tacos. I’ll ask and then he’ll say ‘Didn’t they teach you any history in school?’”

“You’ve heard this before?”

“Yeah, about other things when I come up short, and I always tell him I was busy checking out Melinda Gonzales’ bra that day. ‘Cause she wore sleeveless tank tops with arm holes big as a Schwarzenegger workout wife beater and looking at her bras beat the hell outta whatever the teachers were grindin’ out.”

“I had to leave the room last night when Sunny, uh, Miss Sutton, was explaining bras to my mother.”

“Okay… Sunny. That’s your girlfriend?”

“I think.”

“Explaining bras to your mother?”

“It is a long story. Aha!” Rifat turned from the pantry, a can of Hormel tamales in his cotton gloved hand. “Do you think this is important?”

“Only if we need to prove that rich don’t mean smart.”

***

Meyers squatted beside the bodies, rain dripped from the hood of his borrowed raincoat, the tip of his nose. Wichtikl and Archie weren’t hamburger, but they were torn up. He flashed to bagging land mine victims’ parts. Not the same. These were crushed, perforated, broken. Pieces ripped out and carried off by an animal with steel teeth. The mine victims… They were parts. A nose here, a finger there… He found Wichtikl’s gun inside his suit coat, Archie’s where his intestines oozed out around it like fresh rope sausage.

He loaded their guns while he walked to the stable where he picked up a saddle blanket, held it over his hand and emptied the clip of Wichtikl’s 25 and the cylinder of Archie’s 357 into the quagmire of the corral, the muffled shots lost in the wind and thunder.

***

“A ‘fucking Nixon’ is someone who bugs themselves. Nixon bugged his own office when he was President, recorded everything,” Meyers said, feeling the walls inside a closet in the receiving room.

“Fascinating,” Huntley rolled his eyes for Rifat.

“Wick, as a ‘fucking Nixon’, had to have this room wired. Like Nixon’s office. We need to find the capture hardware.”

“You mean this?” Huntley spun the coat and umbrella rack just inside the big receiving room doors, exposing a cabinet stacked full of what looked like ancient broadcast tape cart machines. Instead of tape cartridges, they’d been modified to hold gray epoxy blocks the approximate size of the original carts.

“That explains what I found in the safe.” Meyers brought the trash bag he’d loaded with the safe’s contents. “Bag all the carts, then take the boots and your raincoat I left outside the viewing room and go get your car. Use the paved roads to come back. Stop before you get on the gravel drive and honk.”

“What are you gonna do besides stay dry?”

“Dry mop the floors, erase any sign of us being here. And look for his real hardware stash. That was too easy.”

***

Huntley rolled into Rifat’s garage, killed the Rover’s engine. Rifat stretched out of the cramped backseat, pipe wrench in hand. Meyers got out holding the collected manila envelopes from Wichtikl’s safe, dumped their contents on Rifat’s work bench. He stacked the money by denomination, mostly hundreds, and from that he counted out forty-seven thousand dollars, pushed the pile toward Rifat, who stared at it. Sunny stuck her head out the back door of his mother’s shop, hobbled out a few feet on crutches. She stopped, arms bent at the elbows, palms up mirroring the question mark on her face.

“Mr. Meyers,” Rifat stammered, “I… I’m… confused. This money,” his face and body language a casserole of torments, “this money has been nothing but trouble. Innocent people have died over this money. My brother is dead because of this money. You could have been dead trying to find it. If not for you, today, we could all be dead. What good can come of it?”

“If you’re asking me what I think,” Meyers tilted his head slightly in Sunny’s direction, “it’s your job to make something good come of it.” He eye locked Rifat. “Everything, everyone involved in this mess wouldn’t have taken such a hard road to end up with you if you didn’t look like hope.” He glanced back at Sunny, scooped the leftover denomination piles into different envelopes, climbed in the Rover. Huntley cranked the starter, backed out into the rain. They waited for the tall door to close.

“Where to now?”

“The Catalina Flyer.”

“You gotta be shittin’ me,” Huntley pushed the clutch back in, rain sheeting the windshield against the useless wipers. “You wanna go to Catalina in this weather?”

“No. But you do.” He put Marcia DeMilnes 25 automatic in the glove box. “About halfway to Catalina, step out and drop that pistol over the side.”

“That big house is a puzzle nobody’ll put together, Mr. Meyers. What’s one more gun?”

“One more gun, one more person they start looking for. Dead man’s wife is where they’d start.”

“Why you didn’t shoot anybody with your gun.” Huntley thought his way through it. “If your gun wasn’t there, neither were you?”

“You’re catching on.” Meyers peeled off twenty one-hundred-dollar bills, reached over, stuffed them in Huntley’s shirt pocket. “Eat something right at Bluewater or the Trap. Try to stay dry.”

“Holy shit…” Huntley’s eyes dropped to his pocket before returning to the street. “That’s two grand. Man, I’d have done today for two hundred.”

“You could have gotten shot today, Huntley. Starting with the landscapers.”

“Mexicans are usually slow to kill their own outside of a gang thing. And hell,” he broke a big I-know-a-Hollywood-dentist smile, “I build possibly gettin’ shot into your rate.”

Aerated

Benoît slipped through the double doors, top hat in the crook of his left arm, a long-barreled Ruger target pistol in his right hand. He didn’t bother to close the doors. He stepped from behind Meyers, startling Dr. DeMilnes who popped off two quick, wild shots, fainted and keeled over. Wick’s and Benoît’s response shots went where the Doctor had been standing and burrowed harmlessly into different volumes of a gilded “Literary Classics” book collection.

Benoît stuck the long-nosed Ruger in Meyers’ side, saying, “I’ll take the 357.”

Archie snort laughed, “Where the fuck you gonna put it, freak?”

“You’re right.” Benoît tossed the chrome cannon towards a corner, shot Archie in the left foot.

Da FUCK! You crazy or somethin you freak ass motherfucker? What the fuck you doin? Shit fuckin hurts, man, know what I’m sayin? Goddam…”

“You don’t shut it,” Benoît honked, repositioning the Ruger, “I’ll ruin the other half of a good pair of boots.”

Archie yelped, turned, hopped away on his good foot, squeezing his bad one with both hands. By the third hop his balance failed, and he twirled down in a slow-motion caricature of an ice skater going to a sit spin, stopped when his ass met the floor. Archie moaned. Rain spit intermittently against the tall windows. Outside, trees swayed, thunder rumbled.

Wichtikl snapped back from the shock of firing his gun, turned it Meyers’ direction, Benoît shot him in the right shoulder at the same time Marcia shot her prone husband in the heart, turned her pistol and shot Benoît in the right chest. He spluttered blood, looked up quizzically at Meyers. “Cavelli’s dead…” he wheeze-honked, grabbed Meyers’ jacket. “I wouldn’t a got paid so her… Her an the Doc… They were off the hook…” His hat fell from the crook of his arm, he handed Meyers his gun, sank to his knees, splutter croaked “Finish my business for me will ya…”  and fell on his face.

Archie dove for his gun, Wichtikl bent to pick his off the table, Meyers barked “Enough!” and put three quick shots from Benoît’s Ruger into the lamp beside Marcia, the desk in front of Wichtikl and the handle of Archie’s 357 that sent it skittering to a stop against the baseboard.

The silence hung heavy and still. After a moment Rifat stepped over, grabbed Archie by the belt and dragged him back, deposited him close to the face-down midget, who still emitted an occasional wet wheeze. Meyers nodded approval.

“I need a word with Mrs. DeMilnes. If Archie or Wick move much, rearrange their faces with the wrench.”

“What about him?” Rifat pointed to Benoît.

“If he moves very much, name a religion after him.”

Meyers walked across the room and Marcia offered no resistance to him collecting her pistol. “Where’d you get this?”

“A used appliance, record store and gas station outside Victoria, Texas. I was seventeen. The man had one of those crates… with peaches on it…” she stared at the hole in her husband’s chest. “The kind they sold at record stores to put albums in. It was full of guns. My boyfriend said, ‘pick one’.”

He shifted off saying, So it was a long time ago, opting instead for “Did you sign anything? Does anyone, friends, family, anyone, know you have it?”

“No.”

“Your husband’s gun?”

“It’s legal. Registered.” She looked up into his face. “Upstanding citizens, you know. Licenses for everything…”

He picked up her ejected shell casings, pocketed them. “Are your prints on anything incriminating here? The oxy bags… anything? Could any of it get traced back to you?”

“No…”

He pressed the muzzle of Benoît’s Ruger over the hole in Dr. DeMilnes’ chest, pulled the trigger. She jumped with her husband’s body.

“Go home. The way you came. When you get there, hose the mud off the little four-wheeler and leave it in the rain. Take a shower, wash your clothes. Wait till someone tells you your husband is dead. When they do, flip out. Take some valium, make yourself incapable of talking to anyone. When all this drug shit with him and Wichtikl breaks?” He pointed at Dr. DeMilnes’ carcass with the Ruger. “You’re as surprised as everyone else. Got it?”

“Okay. I…” She looked from her husband to Benoît, “I thought he was going to kill me…” back to her husband. “And thought he’d already paid for it…” back to Meyers. “What was I supposed to do?”

He let that one go.

“What about them?” She side armed a listless wave at the remaining players.

“Go home, Marcia.” He glanced out the window. “Before the rain gets serious.”

***

Meyers raised the Ruger to Wichtikl’s temple. “New gun, same message. Open the fucking safe.”

“I could say no. You’re going to kill us, regardless.”

“I’m not going to kill anyone, but you’ll wish I had if the safe isn’t open by the time I count to three. One…” He flattened Wicktikl’s hand against the tabletop, pressed the Ruger at the base of his right middle finger. “Two…”

“Boss?” Huntley stood in the doorway; his oversize dark green hooded rain poncho dripped into small puddles by his sock feet. “Rain’s hardly started and that back road’s already bad.” He took in the Doc, Benoît, the blood on Wichtikl’s suit, Archie’s bloody foot and hands. “Did I miss the party?”

“Happy accidents, mostly. This is intentional.” He pressed down on Wichtikl’s hand. “Thhh—” Wichtikl yanked his hand from under the Ruger’s muzzle, turned, hit a spot on the wall in the middle of a frame molding square with the heel of his fist. The square sprung open, revealing a wall safe.

“I’ll give you the damn combination…” Blood from Wichtikl’s shoulder ran down inside his suit coat, staining the sleeve before it dripped from his hand. He slumped, Meyers toed the desk chair toward him, pulled Wichtikl’s silk pocket square as he landed. “Sixteen…” Meyers used the pocket square between his fingers and the dial. Wichtikl murmured “Forty-five, thirty-seven—”

“Slow down.”

“Twenty… Six.”

The safe swung open. Meyers used the silk square to empty it, dealt the contents out on the table.

“You have what you want…” Wichtikl, shocky, despondent. “You said you wouldn’t kill us…”

“I’m a man of my word.” He wrapped the silk around Wichtikl’s 25. “In fact, as soon as I empty and wipe down your guns, you can have them back. My associate will take one bullet for each to the first prep stable out back. First one there wins. Huntley,” Meyers handed off the two rounds wrapped in the silk square.

“Damn. That’s gotta be fifty yards, and it’s a real turd floater out there now.”

“You afraid they won’t make it?”

“Fuck them,” he pulled his shoes out from under the poncho. “It’s these I’m worried about.”

***

“Not no way this be fuckin fair, know what I’m sayin. That freak ass Ben-wah motherfucker shot my foot. What kind a name is that, you know, Ben-fuckin wah? I can’t run no fifty fuckin yards, you know, my foot fucked up thisaway.”

“Wick’s lost a lot of blood. You want me to shoot you in the shoulder, even it up?”

“Fuck that an you an all this shit, motherfucker. I see my money on the table, you know. You sayin I gotta run fifty yards and kill Wicky, you know, an run back with a shot to fuck foot just to get my money? Then for sure, know what I’m sayin, I be back for it an I’ll kill you an everbody in this fuckin room, you know, bare fuckin handed if I have to.”

“So there’s no misunderstanding, Archie. Even if you make it back alive, none of that money will be waiting for you.”

“The fuck you sayin?”

“I believe he’s saying,” Wichtikl spoke in short, ground out bursts, “that he expects me… to win our race to the stables… kill you and bleed out… in the horseshit. Leaving this mess…” his eyes drifted to Dr. DeMilnes, over to Benoît the midget hit man. “For the police… to make up a story… from the pieces.”

“Well told,” Meyers said. “Huntley’s back. Car keys on the table, gentlemen. Here’s your guns. Let’s make our way to the back door.”

***

Archie leaned on Rifat, Wichtikl on Meyers, Huntley opened the conservatory doors.

Archie and Wichtikl let go of their support, leaned on opposite door jambs.

“Aren’t you going to fire a starting shot?”

“Too cliché, Wick. Like saying ‘May the best man win’ to you two clowns. Get ready…” Lightning exploded, lit up the field behind the house. “GO!”


Archie limped off at a decent pace. Wichtikl struggled, caught his balance, and headed straight for the lawn tractor. He made it to the tractor, his right side gone limp. He tried to swing up twice with his left arm, made it on the third try.

Archie looked over his shoulder through the sheeting rain, stopped, put Wichtikl’s move together and, dragging his left leg with his left hand, set up an intercept route. Black smoke belched from the tractor’s exhaust, and it lurched forward, the weighted aerator chewing up the field in the tractor’s wake. Archie discovered his intercept route was a fail halfway to the tractor and started a strange one-legged sideways hop, getting his free right arm into it like an upright sidestroke, pulling himself through the rain parallel to what he imagined the tractor’s path would be.

Wichtikl swung the wheel left-handed, headed for Archie, who kept adjusting his sidestroke hop to stay inside the tractor’s turning radius. Wichtikl kept the wheel cranked, Archie got closer and closer until he managed a one-legged leap, caught the wheel with his right hand, got pulled along dragging his legs until he pulled himself up, ripped the wet wheel loose from Wichtikl who flailed away with his good arm at Archie’s head, the tractor continuing its hard right circle under Archie’s weight.

Wichtikl relinquished the wheel altogether, leaned back in the tractor’s saddle and planted his right foot in Archie’s face. Archie, blood spurting from his nose, wrapped the foot in his armpit, wrenched it with his body weight to an ungodly angle, grabbed Wichtikl’s pants leg to claw his way onto the tractor.

Wichtikl stood, his pants slid down to the cockpit floor with Archie. He reached under the seat, came up with a short piece of chain swinging it wildly at Archie’s head. Archie launched himself between chain lashes, bloody head-butted Wichtikl in the groin, staggered him backward. Wichtikl lost the chain and with a desperate grasp from his good hand grabbed a fistful of Archie’s baby fro, dragging Archie with him over the back of the tractor.

If there were screams the storm drowned them out. The tractor slowed to a crawl, meandered across the field eventually coming to rest against a horse jump obstacle where it began to bury its slowly churning rear wheels in the rain softened ground.

In a Heartbeat

Meyers stepped into Wichtikl’s high-ceilinged receiving room, closed the left door, walked to the right door and closed it before he turned around to face the room and the muzzles of four handguns. Wichtikl and both DeMilnes held small, shiny, nearly identical twenty-five autos. Archie had his nickel-plated cannon. Rifat, furthest to Meyers’ right, held the pipe wrench in his right hand, cradled the wrench’s jaws in his left. Everyone looked surprised. All but Archie bore varying degrees of fear in their expression.

Other than the palpable tension that accompanies xenophobia, there was a marked lack of character in the room. As if furnished with a blank check and a designer’s catalogue. Well placed, expensive, colorless furnishings, their beigeness highlighted with small, gaudy embroidered silk throw pillows reclaimed from a Hollywood Chinatown whorehouse set. The garniture limited to a vase here and there and several foot tall bronze whisps of smoke statues, an arrangement of books that appeared glued together, placed for visual balance, not to be disturbed or read. A large, framed painting of the British fox hunt ilk dominated the wall behind a drawer-less desk that resembled a dining table more than a place where thought or work took place. Meyers thought of Marcia DeMilnes’ study, a room she wore like a second skin. Contrasted it to this room that, regardless of population, would still feel lifeless.

He took his eyes off the guns long enough to witness a bolt of lightning some distance off the coast silently rip the blue-gray sky apart. He silently counted seconds waiting for the thunder. After twenty without a rumble, he quit, returned his gaze to the sparkling guns. These people. Their chrome weapons fashion accessories worn to dress up their anger and fear. None of them with any sense. Or skill. How the hell had any of them planned to leave this dead room alive? Should he bother to explain their predicaments to them, the old rock in a still, but seething-just-below-the-surface-pond maneuver, and see what happened? Or grab someone’s gun and kill them all? Because if he didn’t, a midget in a top hat on the other side of the doors would clean up any leftover breathers. There were things he needed to know first. Then they could kill each other with no assistance from him or the midget hit man.

“You walk in here like you ain’t, you know, a fuckin dead man?” Archie stabbed the air with his gun.

“Archie, in standoffs like we have here, the first person to shoot, regardless of who they shoot, gets shot by everyone else.” Meyers made eye contact around the room. “So you can all put your guns away, or down, or point them at each other because, as you can see, I’m empty handed.” He raised his chin to Wichtikl, who’d moved behind the dining table desk. “I met your gardeners on the way in.”

That seemed to ease Wichtikl, his gun moved from Meyers to Archie, Archie’s to Wichtikl. Dr. DeMilnes, to Meyers’ near left, was the most uncomfortable person with a gun Meyers had ever seen and he kept it frozen, aimed nowhere in particular. Which made him the most dangerous. Furthest to Meyers left, Marcia, tense as a statue, kept her gun level with her elbow, now on Archie, but ready to swing wherever her scanning eyes landed on a perceived threat or an outlet for her anger.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, people,” Meyers coughed lightly into his fist, “but all the ways any of you thought this was going to play are out the window.” His words met with stares.

“Come, Meyers,” Wichtikl, with an air of superiority saying, “If you think there is an identifiable agenda in this carnival, please. Enlighten us all.”

“Before Cavelli got the money for you, your first plan was for me to pad this meeting. You kill Marcia before she kills you, I kill Archie for you, Rifat too if he tags along. You keep ten grand worth of oxy, use the recordings in your safe to blackmail me into telling whatever home invasion story you come up with because you’re stupid enough to believe I wouldn’t cut your fingers off, a knuckle at a time if I had to, until I got the combination to your safe.”

“Very good. How is it you know the contents of my safe?”

“I talked to Cavelli this morning.” Thunder rumbled far away, echoed off the mountains.

“Mr. Cavelli has a big mouth.”

Had a big mouth.” Meyers checked his watch. “Cavelli is turning into dried baloney in the Nevada desert by now. Word got back to the people keeping him alive that Cavelli was freelancing. Burglary. Mugging. Bug planting. Collecting bids for domestic hits…” He turned to Dr. DeMilnes. “That’s what pissed them off. Cops know Cavelli is connected and the mob doesn’t deal in domestic disputes. Because amateurs like you looking to get their spouse or business partner whacked always make very stupid, very public mistakes. Right now, I don’t know if you’re here to stop what you set in motion, or make sure it’s handled, but the midget in the top hat out there is your wife’s button man.”

The slide went back on Marcia’s pistol, latched forward with a small, bright ‘chink’ like a piece of chunky jewelry.

“And you,” he locked on to Marcia. “You had it in mind for me to kill Wichtikl for you as soon as you were sure he had your dog stolen. Him dead, oxy scattered around… Another bored rich man playing a dangerous game with bad people. Certain that with a fat enough check in my pocket I’d sign off on it and walk away. It’s irrelevant now because your bigger problem is the blue Lotus in the driveway that says your husband thinks he’s already off the leash and allowance you keep him on. I don’t know if you have it in you to kill him and Wichtikl, but they both have it coming.”

“Say we ease up,” Archie waved his massive gun in an arc, “you know, on all you white people killin each other over dogs an allowances an other shit I don’t give a fuck about, know what I’m sayin, an somebody, you know, get me my fuckin money. Or, I kill all you motherfuckers with your pussy ass little guns, know what I’m sayin, so none a you gotta worry about who kills who, an me and my sand nigger be on our way with the forty-seven K.” Lightning flashed, closer.

“First he opens the safe,” Meyers moved toward Wichtikl, “or none of us gets what we want.”

“I could kill you now, Meyers.” Wichtikl said, raising his pistol.

“Like I said. Shoot me, everybody shoots you. At that point what’s in the safe only matters to a cop, a friend of mine and Archie. But the truth is I’m your only way out of this room alive. In fact,” He turned his head, clocking each of them, “I’m the only way any of you get out of here alive.”

Wichtikl laughed short and shallow. “I fail to see how that’s even remotely—”

“The DeMilnes are both on the midget’s list. Marcia on the Doc’s order, the Doc for booking it with Cavelli in front of witnesses. You and Archie were already walking dead. Archie makes too much noise in the street, you hired him. Even without that monkey on your back you’re being investigated by half a dozen government agencies. You’re a serious liability, Wick, and I’m all there is between you and your headstone. Open the safe.”

“Wait…” Archie’s voice now into angry female range. “You be callin’ me a fuckin monkey?”

“Metaphorically, yes.”

“Motherfucker, say goodbye, know what I’m sayin? You been nothin but—”

Meyers took a step, slapped Archie’s hand, caught the .357. “You aren’t killing anyone. Yet.”

“God dammit.” Archie stared in disbelief at his empty hand.Coulda shot you you walked in the fuckin door,” his voice still elevated, turned to Wichtikl. “You said no. The fuckin dee-teck-tive, the Messkins took his bullets, let him talk his shit, you know, we kill him later. Mother fucker…”

“Do I need to remind you it’s your gun he’s holding?” Wichtikl raised his pistol a little more.

“I wouldn’t.” Meyers had the .357 lined up on Wichtikl’s forehead. Archie moved slightly. “Don’t,” Meyers said without looking. “I blow Wicky’s arm off, get the combination any way I have to, then blow your foot apart with your own gun and you both stop being my problem. I leave you two to the midget and walk.”

“You be lettin that, you know, fuckin freaky ass midget motherfucker kill me?”

“In a heartbeat.” He pulled the hammer back on the .357. “Open the safe, Wichtikl.”

Enjoy

Huntley drove the rutted dirt track atop a ridge in the Santa Monica mountains until he found a tractor track leading from the back of Wichtikl’s horse ranch to the stables. Past the stables, the path became a well-maintained gravel road slightly wider than the Rover. Glaring by their omission from the thirty-acre horse ranch with stables and training courses was horses.

 Wichtikl’s two landscapers blocked the gravel road with their golf cart fifty feet from the main house. One had his right hand on top of a knife in a sheath, parked at a gunfighter’s cross draw angle. The other held a polished, freshly sharpened four prong spading fork. Parked in the grass ten yards to the right of the gravel path was a yard tractor hooked to a forty-eight-inch-wide aerator with eight sets of four prong spikes. Someone had strapped concrete blocks to the top of the aerator.

Huntley acknowledged the tractor with a slight nod. “What’s with the blocks on that thing?”

“Ground must be hard,” Meyers said. “Or the yard needs to do some deep breathing.”

“Looks like some kind of torture machine.”

“Torture and farm maintenance share several tools.” Adding under his breath, “Grab your gun. It’s showtime.”

“This is all improvised with you, right?”

“You need a plan?”

“Wouldn’t hurt.”

“If I guess wrong, shoot whoever you have to, drive through the golf cart and haul ass. Otherwise, don’t take your eyes off them and make sure they see your gun when you walk over and check for keys in the tractor.” Meyers slipped out the passenger side of the Rover saying, “Good afternoon, gentlemen.”

“You must be Meyers.” Knife Landscaper wagged his index finger. “We hear you have many tricks,” the big Bowie knife flashed in the sun. “We need your gun, amigo.”

“That won’t happen in your lifetime.”

“Theez close?” The knife came within a foot of Meyers’ face. “I cut you before you touch your gun. With two fingers you get it, eh? Por fav—”

Meyers hand shot out, grabbed Knife Landscaper’s wrist, spun him to face the opposite direction. Landscaper’s arm was on fire with pain, his knife on his Adam’s apple and his friend’s helpless expression staring back at him.

“I was saying this morning how sick I am of fucking amateurs. Pull a weapon, amigo,” he clamped down harder on the bent arm, “don’t talk. Use it or put it away. Never get it close enough for someone to take it away and feed it to you. You hear that, Huntley?”

“Yes sir.”

“Now, paisajista, who’s here?”

“Yo no hablo so good Eng—”

The knife drew blood.

“Okayokayokay… the black one, ee comes in the beeg car. Meester Wicky, he say these times, let eem keep eez gun.” Landscaper licked his lips. “The man with eem? No gun, pero un chingando grande wrench.”

“Who else?”

“Miz Marcia, she come in the leetle truck.” Meyers had seen the camo ATV with a small bed on the back parked at the edge of the scrub brush line.

“How? From the back, like us?”

“No, senor… there is a way… Through the brush. Her husband, he come later, by the road. In a leetle car I never seen before.”

“Guns?”

“Meester Wicky, he no say nothing about no guns for Miz Marcia.”

“The husband?”

“Nothing about no gun. But the husband? I theenk he is a surprise.”

“But you needed my gun?”

Si. Only to remove your bullets. Then you get eet back.”

“Mmm… That’s it?”

“A meedgit. Eez got un sombrero de copa an theenks eez sheet doan stink.”

“All the players plus a surprise husband and a midget in a top hat. Sounds like a real party.” Meyers released the landscaper’s arm to drop loosely by the man’s side. Meyers threw the knife overhand whizzing inches from Spading Fork and embedding nearly to the hilt in the seat back of the golf cart.

“My arm, senor?” Landscaper’s face warped with pain. “What deed you –”

Meyers grabbed the man’s wrist, yanked out and up. Landscaper yelped at the pop, rubbed his shoulder, swore in Spanish.

“You and your friend,” Meyers jerked a thumb at Spading Fork, “take a break for an hour or so. Drive down the hill, get some ice and aspirin. Come back early? My driver will shoot you on sight. Comprende?”

Huntley and Meyers watched Knife and Spading Fork quick step away in their never tied work boots. When they got to their pickup, Spading Fork had to dig the keys out of Knife’s pocket before they climbed in and threw up a momentary burst of blue fog, rattled out onto Wichtikl’s formal drive and rolled away.

Huntley walked from the tractor to Meyers’ side. “Now what?”

“Are the keys in the tractor?”

“Key switch is long gone. Whole thing’s hard wired to the start button. Why?”

“Any and all escape possibilities.”

“No offense, but we ain’t outrunnin nobody in that tractor.”

“If we’re all that’s left, it doesn’t matter. Back the Rover out. Don’t turn around on the grass. Take the back road to the other property, pull up in back by the garage. Break off a scrub tree and drag it behind you when you walk back.”

“I’m more a driver than a walker.” Huntley held up a foot encased in a polished, pointy toed wingtip.

“Jesus, kid, it’s half a mile. Besides, I know a lady. She finishes with your shoes you’ll be able to shave in them. On me.”

“She anything like your nurse?”

“Younger.”

“Sold.” Huntley situated himself behind the Rover’s steering wheel, dropped it in reverse. He turned to look out the back, smiling, remembering the ‘nurse’ where Meyers had taken him for a bullet graze.

***

The middle twenty yards across the back of Wichtikl’s mansion comprised a ‘viewing room’ wall made of eight-foot-tall casement windows with another two feet of transoms tacked on. In the middle of those a double door identical in design to the windows, except for handles, opened inward off a large, stamped concrete patio strewn with various sized cushionless metal furniture frames and rotting, rolled up umbrellas. Meyers opened the door without issue.

Inside the viewing room, what looked like at least a forty-piece sectional sofa, a few wingback chairs and a grand piano were covered in white sheets and scattered without design. Several pieces of sectional had been uncovered and shoved into a pair of small crescents close to a long, fireless fireplace. The room smelled of disuse and cigar.

A black satin top hat poked above the cushions in the center of the crescent on Meyers’ right. He made his way to the opposite crescent.

“Take a load off,” Top hat, his voice honky, like a duck call crossed with a kazoo, motioned with a long cigar toward the crescent behind Meyers.

“Love to, but I have business.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Top hat honked. “Everybody’s got business. You’re late ahready, so siddown a minute, I’ll tell you mine.”

“No need. I can read.” Meyers eyed the overdressed “meedgit”, checked the clock above the fireplace, eased down onto a chunk of sectional. “But you’re right, I’m already late. What’s your stake, Benoît? It can’t be me, or one of us would be dead by now.”

“You know me.” Benoît exhaled smoke, checked his cigar. “That saves time. I usually don’t introduce myself. Not a real need in my line. But when I do… I’m at a loss. What do I say? Benoît, the naughty midget Poirot? Tatto the hit man?” He ashed his cigar in an empty vase stuck between the cushions next to him. “You said you could read?”

“You’re here on a job. You see a circus coming together, act like a house man, ask a few questions, wait out here knowing I won’t use the front door. Unless you’re here till all the bodies drop so you can walk with the money.”

“I take nothing that isn’t mine except a life that someone has decided needs to end. Burglary, the concepts of ‘home invasion’ and ‘heist’ are crude, classless acts. Which brings me to – What’s your idea for the tractor?”

“Escape possibilities.”

“Bullshit.” Benoît leaned forward, jabbing the air with his cigar. “Y’know what I think? Body hash. You’re here on a personal and maybe you’ll have to clean up the mess if the citizens make a cluster fuck outta killing each other. Who shot who when with what is hard to figure with the bodies turned inta soup bones.”

“Are we done?”

“Sure, Meyers. Go to work.” Benoît leaned back in the cushions, pointed at Meyers, the cigar between his fingers. “I’ll make it worth your while if everyone that’s supposed to say goodnight does it without me tucking them in.”

Meyers stood, tipped an invisible hat. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“You have my every confidence.” The cigar pointed toward the foyer. “They’re all in the receiving room. Out there, to the right.” He tilted his head back, blew a smoke ring. “Enjoy.”

***

Shit… I should’ve just shot him and gotten it over with… Well, Meyers stretched his neck back, shrugged, rolled his shoulders, it makes sense now. In a Simple Simon gets to play Agatha Christie way. Except every damn one of these people is guilty… He could see through the grand staircase balusters that the receiving room was wide open. No time like the present…

What the Hell Am I Saying

The Bishop slowly nursed two fingers of Meyers’ expensive scotch and smoked an illegal Cuban cigar he’d found sitting next to the bottle while Meyers snored in the bedroom. He made a few calls, found the Circle Room at the top of the Deuxième Maison Hotel still had eight tables going at one AM. On one hand he wanted to go. On the other he thought Meyers could use an extra set of eyes. He decided to put Meyers’ pocket gun, a Walther like the Bishop’s own, in Meyers’ hand, moved an end table with a large glass vase where anyone opening the door without squeezing in would knock it over, let himself out.

***

The yellow-orange glow from at least thirty identical cylindrical stained glass table lamps dimmed further by a smoky haze and the uncomfortable warmth of the Maison’s Circle Room resembled, if there could be such a thing, a claustrophobic tropical sunset. There was more than some truth to the proverb that Hollywood leaked out into all aspects of Los Angeles. Bishop checked in, walked the tables. The mainstays of these games remained out-of-state conventioneers and a handful of regulars.

He stayed shadow bound until he stopped behind a table of sweating athletic footwear reps, and two familiar faces. One of two was boisterous, had had too much to drink, and flashed a small roll of hundreds when he did business with the chip hostess. He was losing, didn’t seem to mind as talking appeared to be his reason for staying. Finally, a large, gone soft athlete with sweat stains on his vest said, “Look here, big shot. If you’re gonna talk, walk. Or for fuck’s sake shut the hell up and play.” The tall, thin gambler decided to cut his losses and excused himself demonstrably, with drunk clumsiness and muttered profanity. He tried it on with a hostess on his way out, waving a hundred in her face. Bishop had to intercept a bouncer by putting a palm in the man’s chest, the bouncer deciding it was a good night not to question Bishop’s icy eyed interference.

***

“Don’t you have a home?” Meyers scratched his upper arm under the shapeless t-shirt, poured himself a cup of steaming, strong enough to wake the dead coffee. “I thought you were playing cards.”

“I didn’t like the lay of the tables,” Bishop said. “Amateurs, mostly. And women.”

“I wasn’t aware you had a problem taking money from either.”

“After the scotch and cigar, and the way you sounded last night, I felt obligated to take your temperature this morning.” He held out his cup. “Thoughts on the coffee?”

“Strong. Smooth. Probably expensive. I didn’t have to make it, so I couldn’t bitch if it was dishwater.”

“I get it from a South American bodega. The woman blushes the entire time she’s grinding it.”

“That line was loaded…” Meyers stretched, hitched up his sleep pants. “But I’ll leave it alone.”

“Good. You’re awake. We need to talk.” Bishop repeated his trip to the Circle Room, down to following the loud drunk outside. “Then I stuck my gun in his ear to get his attention and got the story of what happened to you while I was off sweating the black wannabe.”

“I knew it was Cavelli,” Meyers said. “Right before the lights went out, I caught a whiff of that lime infused sewer gas he calls cologne. The lot man describing the Legionnaire’s hat sealed it. Why isn’t Cavelli dead?”

“The mob has a rule. Unless he tries to stiff them, he lives till he pays his debt. You know who he was working for?”

“Wichtikl was my first guess. He’s got the electronics connections to bug my office.”

“Wichtikl it was. I told Cavelli if he wanted to see the sunrise he should go to Vegas, blow his roll, and stay off the phone for a few days.” He locked eyes with Meyers. “A bug is not good news.”

“If Wichtikl has anything, he won’t have it long. If he farmed it, you get to kill whoever brings us the blackmail attempt.”

“Gladly. One more thing. Before Cavelli walked, he was playing next to Dr. DeMilnes. As in Mr. Marcia DeMilnes. How do you take that?”

Meyers stared into his coffee cup for a few beats before he set it down. “If I don’t come back from Wichtikl’s, kill all of them.”

“Including the DeMilnes woman?”

“Including her. Send the bill to her husband, or kill him, too. I’ve been set up six ways from Sunday on this case by a bucket of fucking amateurs.” He finished his coffee, stood. “I need a shower.” He pulled off the T-shirt, walked toward the bathroom saying, “If there is a We’ll Miss You Meyers massacre, leave Sunny and her beau out of it.”

“They’re not involved?”

“Hell yes, they’re involved. But I’m a romantic.”

***

“You believe that shit? Motherfuckin dee-tective don’t let me outta the crib til ten somethin. You know how hard it be to find some brothers detail my car that late that ain’t a chop shop in fuckin Compton? I hadda find some Meskins, know what I’m sayin, an I couldn’t leave it an get no sleep cause those motherfuckers, you know, I shut my eyes, I never be seein my ride again.”

Rifat stood back from the gleaming Lincoln that sat in his warehouse, tried to hide his indifference, offering, “The smell is gone. The first one, I mean. Are you certain you like the new one better?”

“Not the point, Raghead. Point is none a that exploded fat bitch be stuck to my ride no more.”

“Or any of your yesterday’s breakfast. What happened to your face?”

“Some shit that dee-tective threw my way. You not hear what I been sayin to you?”

“Not really… What does the detective you think was following Arias have to do with you staying inside your ‘crib’?” Rifat thinking ‘crib’ the best word to call where Archie should stay.

“Motherfucker tricked me, know what I’m sayin, got my number, sayin, you know, he knew where my money be at but I hadda go sit by the phone, you know, till he called, like I got nothin better goin on than be his bitch.”

“You stayed home because he told you to?”

“He sent some psycho motherfucker behind me, you unnerstand, sayin, you know, how the psycho would kill me if I tried to leave the crib.”

“And your face is what happened when the psycho reminded you to stay home?” Rifat turned away, faced his workbench, suppressed the urge to laugh.

“You fuckin with me, Rifat?”

“No, Archie, but you must see the humor in you calling another man with no inhibitions about using his gun a psycho.” He modified his tone before sarcasm got too far out in front and said “What did the dee-tective say when he called?”

“He said we meet up at Wicky’s, 2:30 in the PM too-day, you know, an I get my money. Same goddam thing Wicky-tickle say, know what I’m sayin, only Wicky call it in three fuckin hours sooner. Both of ‘em callin, you know, ‘bout my money?” Archie patted his .357. “Niggers both know I ain’t playin.”

“Sounds like they know something,” Rifat grabbed his pipe wrench, turned, let himself down into the Lincoln’s passenger seat that smelled like vinegar and lavender got in a fight with puke, the match contentious, the winner undetermined. “If I were you, Archie, I’d take your car back to the detail shop and ask for a refund.”

“Said I found some Meskins, know what I’m sayin. Din’t say I paid nobody.”

***

Huntley Bryston, on call chauffer to hotels, motels, no-tells, studios, the famous, the infamous and one private eye rolled up in Meyers’ parking garage at one PM on the dot driving a faded red, old, boxy, four-wheel drive Rover. He climbed out, unfolded a map, laid it on the fender. “Here’s what you were asking about, Mr. Meyers.” He traced his finger along a faint pencil line in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“How’d you find out about this?”

“I have clients up there. One of them showed me. She called it the ‘back door man’ alley. I was, uh… taking her home. After…”

“No need to break a confidence.”

“No sir, nothing like that. She was, um, changing clothes, in the back of my big car, see, cause she needed to look like she’d been riding… Well,” a sheepish grin got out, “If you ask me, she had been riding, but at a No-Tell off the One in Las Tunas—”

“That’s the second line today I’m going to leave alone. Go ahead.”

“She put on some riding clothes, you know, with the funny pants, and showed me this double-rutter that runs along the backside of those places above the Getty. It’s how to get to the stables and garages without going in the front door. Most people, even the ones live up there, don’t know about it.”

“And she couldn’t go in the front door?”

“Not since she was supposed to be out riding. Horseback riding. And taking a fall. Why she was walking in from the back side.” The grin was out for an instant before a frown took over. “Then she gave me fifty dollars and told me to slap the shit out of her.”

“You obliged?”

“Listen, I didn’t get no kick out of slappin the lady, but fifty bucks is fifty bucks. Plus, she said if I didn’t, she’d scream rape so loud they’d hear it in Van Nuys, and I believed her. So I slapped her. Twice. Cause she asked for another even after she had a bloody nose from the first. Then she bent over and rubbed dirt all over her face and shirt, rolled around in the road some, got up and told me to get lost.”

“If I ever get out of the detective business maybe I’ll turn chauffeur.”

“You’ll meet a lot of interesting people.”

“Sounds like it.” Meyers tapped the map. “This road goes behind the two addresses I gave you?”

“Behind the one with all the land. The other you could hike it easy enough. See,” Huntley dragged his finger again, “by the street-sign roads up there that’s, three, four twisty miles from one to the other. This way, it’s less than half a mile.”

“Got your baby shotgun in the glovebox?”

“Yeah…” Huntley folded the map, looked up, furrowed his eyebrows. “But Jesus Christ on a crutch, Mr. Meyers. We gonna get shot at?” He looked at Meyers, tossed the map in the Rover and answered himself with “What the hell am I saying…”

Until I Shot Him

Meyers knew it was a longshot, but like they say in Hollywood, ‘It ain’t much, but it’s all the film you’ve got…’ He pulled on his coveralls,picked up a rolled oilcloth with a small assortment of tools, stuffed it in his back pocket, and closed his trunk. He showed ID to the bored lot attendant, who made a slow-motion epic of repeatedly checking a clipboard and the ID before he offered another clipboard and mumbled, “Sign.”

Meyers put his ID back in an inside pocket, took a step, got another clipboard thrust in his path. “This one says y’ain’t in here removin’ nothin could be evee-dence or stealin’ no valuable parts off vee-hickles.”

“You mean,” Meyers signed the form, “I can’t put that green Ferrari’s transmission in my pocket and walk out?”

“Funny don’t get you no favors from me. You got,” he checked the ubiquitous civic building round wall clock, “forty-two minutes. Seven-thirty I lock up and unhook the dogs. They got less sense a humor than me.” Meyers thought that might be impossible but destroyed the attendant’s granite façade by giving him a wink.

He studied the blurry copy of the lot map the attendant gave him, noting as he passed the parking space numbers that every conceivable kind of wrecked, shot up and confiscated wheeled transportation device from Maseratis to golf carts and an electric wheelchair were parked between the yellow lines. The van sat, listing severely to the driver’s side, between an accordioned Buick and a sheared nearly in half lengthwise plumbing truck. The now dead photographer had left the rear doors of the van open and animal control had, as everyone who did business with the lot demanded, removed the dog carcasses. Still far from pleasant, it was at least tolerable. The driver’s side door, jacked open after the wrecker had righted the van, hung at an odd angle with dried pieces of Arias’ bloody scalp stuck to the metal door panel. Meyers grabbed the driver’s seat, pulled, and it fell out at his feet. The passenger seat tumbled into its place and fell out on its own.

Depending on the money’s packaging, and the denominations of the bills, he could look for anything from a money brick to a briefcase. His experience told him streeters like Archie would want used bills, no bigger than a hundred. They only used attention calling thousand-dollar bills as props to snort blow or impress a stripper, which put a thin envelope of large out of the question. But to be sure, Meyers reached under the cockeyed dash and ripped the ductwork from where it attached to the thin dash vents. Nothing fell from the top, or when he shook out the ductwork. He doubted the passenger had any idea about the money, but he ripped that side loose with no luck, tossed it in the back.

The van had a bump in the middle of the firewall that protruded into the cabin instead of a full engine cowl. Two vents poked out from either side of the bump at floor level, both with broken covers. He worked those loose, discovered they connected to nothing but the outside world. He tested the floor with his feet. Nothing was loose, nor were the wiring runner covers. He kicked the bottom of the doorjamb. Nothing.

He leaned on the jamb, imagining himself in Arias’ place. Was he hiding the money, or not knowing the seat would let go and he’d break his neck, trying to retrieve it? The obvious choice was the door. There were no cosmetic panels, the sheet metal and all its cutouts exposed. The door had been split with a jack on the latch side, the window shattered, its mechanisms bent, the door almost flat in places. Meyers stuck a gloved hand down as far as he could inside the window access cutout, came up with pieces of safety glass. The same with the other two cutouts. Running out of time and options, he closed his eyes and replayed the crash. Arias dropped from view at the sight of Meyers’ gun as he’d started shooting. Meyers remembered raking the windshield left to right, right to left, and as the van rolled up on its side, he’d probably put half his rounds in the radiator, block and firewall. Where the hell was Arias? And why did a fucked up van have a semi-decent radio duct taped into the dash…

The money couldn’t have been in the radio hole, or it would’ve dropped when the dash came loose in the roll. Meyers followed the line of the collapsed dash with his eyes and hands, past the steering column, the no duct work air vents, and stopped. He couldn’t see the piece of interior quarter panel or the parking brake. From his seat on the floor, he put one foot on the door jamb, a shoulder under the dash and pushed revealing a side panel with a cutout for a speaker. A speaker too large for the hole hung suspended by a single long, thin machine bolt. He swung the speaker to the side, reached in the back of the fender well, groped around. He was in up to the middle of his bicep when something he touched moved. He got his hand around it and brought out a plastic wrapped, vacuum sealed brick of bills. He checked his watch. Three minutes to spare before open mic auditions for the junk yard dogs. He sat back on the door jam and the lights went out.

***

Meyers bubbled, swore, shook his head, reached out and grabbed a handful of shirt.

“Easy, Mister.” A rough hand wrapped around Meyer’s wrist, and he eased his grip on the shirt, wiped his face and eyes with his coverall sleeve enough to recognize the lot attendant.

“What happened?”

“Same as happened to me.” He offered Meyers a hand to sit up. “Cold coffee’s all I had. I get my water from across the way there at the maintenance garage an they’re shut up for the night.”

“I’ll live,” he rubbed his eyes again. “At least you didn’t piss on me. What time is it?”

“Comin up on nine.”

“You see who slugged us?”

“Tall. Skinny. Had on one a them desert hats with the long bill and a back flap on it. Kept lookin at the ground. I thought it was shifty, bein so close to lock up time. But I went for the clipboard, doin my job, got thumped. Here I am.”

“He show you any paper?”

“Hadn’t got that far.”

“Say anything?”

“Said he needed his glasses. Pointed to a Benz in the front row. Had a frog in his throat, could hardly hear him. All I remember.”

Meyers touched the back of his head, his hand came back bloodless. “Shit…”

“That’s what I was thinkin.” The lot man pushed his cap back with his wrist. “What you said, about pissin? Somethin that happened?”

“Once.”

“The fella done it. He think it was funny?”

“Until I shot him.”

“That’s good to know.” He offered Meyers a sardonic smile and a hand up out of the van. “Case you come back I’ll know not to throw the pot out till you’re gone.”

***

The elevator in Meyers office building shut down at nine and it was close to ten. He trudged up four flights, opened the stairwell door, spotted Rifat halfway down the hall leaning against the wall.

“Rifat…” Meyers hissed, motioned for him.

Rifat stood in a series of angular bends not unlike an awakened marionette and made his way to the stairwell, squinting into the semi-darkness. “What happened to you?”

“Coffee facial. It’s supposed to be good for my complexion. How long have you been here?”

“Not long. The nurses asked me to leave Sunny’s room at nine. I went home… The reason I’m here… Archie called.”

“He wants you to go to Wichtikl’s with him tomorrow afternoon around 2:30.”

“How do you—”

“I’m a detective. I want you to go with him. And take your pipe wrench.”

***

Meyers drove home, ran his bug finder wand, found one in his table lamp, dropped it in the garbage disposal before he showered and iced the back of his head. It wasn’t much of a blow. Issued with minimal force and precision by someone who wanted a man out but not hemorrhaging, dead or concussed because they had a use for him. He shouldered his towel, called the Bishop. He learned Archie had received a call at 7:40, made a call every ten minutes until 9:15 when he finally spoke to someone, but didn’t stop pacing. At 9:30 Archie peeked out his door and the Bishop put a silenced round close enough to splinter Archie’s face.

“I’ll call him. Cut yourself loose, go play poker.”

“The money?”

“Had it just long enough to lose it.”

“Must’ve felt good to be right. Know where it went?”

“Yeah.”

“Get to shoot somebody to get it back?”

“Good possibility.”

“Lucky you. My game doesn’t start till one. You still have any of that good Scotch?”

“I won’t be awake to drink it with you.”

“No offense, but that’s the best news I’ve had in a week.”

Take the Pipe Wrench Home

12:45 PM

Meyers played the phone message from Wichtikl again. The Bishop drew a thin line with his lips.

“That’s your plan, Meyers? I can almost see it if everyone lines up. You could get into that wild card weapons-in-amateur’s-hands situation dealing with the idle rich. And where’s the money come from? Is that a briefcase full of newspaper smoke screen?”

“Purcell will be here about five, looking for input to feed the media on the deplorable our-city-is-outraged gang shootout on Carson this afternoon. The Tahoe will turn up stolen and I’ll describe it for him as being full of beanie and bandana bangers with some random tat descriptions for filler. In return, I’ll ask Purcell to run interference on the impound lot for me. The money’s somewhere in that van.”

“Instinct? Intuition? Wishful thinking?”

“The driver was under the dash for a reason when the van went over.”

“And them hiding the money’s the only plausible reason for you to bang out seventeen and only manage to shoot a homeless drunk in the foot?”

***

1:05 PM

Rifat stood in the doorway to Meyers’ office, pipe wrench hanging from the hand at his side. Meyers, arms folded on his desk, raised his chin.

“Afternoon. What can I do for you and your wrench?”

“I, uh, have a question?” Rifat stepped through the door, caught sight of Bishop languishing in an easy chair, ignored him.

“Am I supposed to guess what it is?”

“No. No, sorry…”

“You were about to be a tough guy and it got away from you. I can see that.” Meyers unfolded his arms that had concealed the shotgun. Rifat barfed in his mouth, gagged it back, barely felt the tug on his pocket.

“Rifat Skroteem,” the Bishop said, tossing the wallet on Meyers’ desk. “Someone we should know?”

“I almost met his brother. And I’m told he’s been buying flowers for Sunny Sutton.”

“A die-hard romantic and the last time-warp flower child.” The Bishop dropped back into his chair. “It’s about time.”

“Mr. Skroteem,” Meyers gave a small wave to the wrench. “Why don’t you set the wrench down, pull up a chair and tell us your story?”

Rifat sized up the room as at once amenable and deadly, leaned slightly and let the wrench drop. He settled on one of Meyer’s chairs in gangly discomfort, crossing one leg over the other at the knee, his back tilted slightly forward but perfectly straight.

“I… I don’t know where to start…” he faltered. “You see, my brother, and his partner… They were in business… An illegal business…

“Let me guess. Stealing pedigreed dogs?”

“Yes. How… How did you know?”

“I was looking for your brother before I knew it was him I needed to find. He also happened to be driving a van loaded with dead, bloated carcasses that I later found out belonged to pedigreed dogs. With angry owners. Go on.”

“My brother, Arias, is dead. You know that, but… there’s money missing. Archie is getting, and I need—”

“Archie?”

“My brother’s partner. He thinks you stole forty-seven thousand dollars from my brother, before you killed him. But I know you didn’t kill him. He tried to kill you and, and Miss Sutton, and—”

“And you’re in the middle of it by default because of your brother.” Meyers looked around Rifat to the Bishop. “Forty-seven k. That’s the figure yellow jacket and red boots dropped.”

“So you said. That makes ‘Archie’ prime for your murder by three-five-seven mystery man. He is someone we need to know.”

Meyers checked his watch, took his gaze back to Rifat. “Finish it?”

“I came to ask, do you have my brother’s, or Archie’s money? Because if you don’t, he’ll kill you, Archie will, and then he will go after Sunny…” he looked longingly at the pipe wrench. “And I can’t let him do that.”

“Of course you can’t. Try this on, Rifat. You came here to soften me up with the wrench because you’re a tough guy. I tell you where the money is, you’re a hero. Until Archie kills you and me because he wants it all. If I don’t know where the money is, Archie kills me for sport. All you want out of this mess is happily ever after with Sunny. When I’m dead and he’s not looking, you bash Archie’s head in to stop him going after Sunny, and the hell with your brother’s forty-seven grand. That about the all the ways this is playing in your head?”

“Yes.”

“But you’re not a tough guy.”

“No.” His face clouded. “But Archie… If I had to, I could…”

“I believe you could kill him if he threatened her. But you don’t need to live with that hanging over whatever relationship you’d like to have with Sunny.”

“No. She wouldn’t…”

“You’re right. She wouldn’t. As for Archie and your brother, I’ll go out on a limb here and assume they worked for a man named Wichtikl?”

“Yes. How do you know these things?”

“I keep telling people I’m a detective. You’ve met Wichtikl?”

“We… Yes. I answered the phone for my brother a few times. After Arias, and the money missing, Archie took me to Mr. Wichtikl’s house. We were there to demand the money. Mr. Wichtikl said he’d given it to Arias and had a receipt. But… He could have said anything because Archie… The landscapers took his gun and his bullets away before we went in.”

“Wichtikl told Archie to take a hike, and Archie’s negotiating skills being dependent on that gun means he left empty-handed. Do you consider Wichtikl dangerous?”

“Not himself. I think he would not hesitate to hire someone if he needed violence done on his behalf.”

“Mmm. Has Archie said anything about going back?”

“Yes. If you, and, and Sunny don’t have it, the money, then yes. But—”

“Archie won’t live long enough to ask Sunny if you have anything to say about it.”

“Yes…” his eyes went to the wrench again.

An empty church like quiet hung in the room. Meyers and the Bishop waited, Rifat tapped his fingertips together.

“Mr. Meyers, I came here to ask if you have the money. You say you do not and it’s obvious I’m not going to beat a different answer out of you. Archie, though… Archie went to a one-hour dry cleaners, but he will be here. Soon. And we… I must prepare for what is next. Now—”

“Here’s what’s next, Rifat. Take the pipe wrench home. Order you and Sunny some Thai from Phat Wong’s off Sunset, take it up and eat dinner with her.”

Rifat’s shoulders relaxed, his eyes brightened. “She has complained about the hospital food, and I would like to see her… But,” he worried his hands. “I don’t know what she would prefer to eat from such a place and to ask would ruin the surprise… And there’s still Archie…”

“Tell Wong’s you need the Sunset Sutton special. Order something different for yourself unless you have a fireproof digestive system.” Meyers stood, appeared beside him, offered the wrench and wallet. “You take care of Sunny. I’ll take care of Archie.”

***

2:20 PM

Meyers office door rattled, he racked the shotgun for effect, the Bishop remained in his chair, pushed the door stop away with a slightly warped, tipless pool cue. “It’s open.”

Archie banged in, puffed up. “We got business, know what I’m sayin?”

“No, I don’t. What’d you get on your pretty yellow jacket?”

“You musta seen it comin. Fat Meskin bitch an a goddam bomb or some shit. Blew her fuckin shit all over me. Martinizing fools couldn’t get it out, you know, an I ain’t got time give ‘em a fuckin do-over. I told the motherfucker, Martinizing ain’t no real fuckin dry cleaners anyway, you know, that’s why it only takes a hour, know what I’m sayin. An I don’t pay for shit ain’t done right.”

“So you walked the dry-cleaning tab. You really must need that money you think I have.”

“Now see, an that’s the thing, you know, cause if you ain’t got it, after I kill you, I may have to kill my wingman to get to it, know what I’m sayin?”

“Well, first you’ll have to kill me.” Meyers leaned the shotgun against the desk, interlocked his fingers, leaned forward in concerned banker pose. “I might have a plan to get you your money. But It’ll have to wait till tomorrow.”

“Fuck you say,” Archie pulled his jacket open, reached for his gun and saw an instant’s worth of Meyers’ Glock’s muzzle before the Bishop’s Walther pressed his chin up. “How da fuck both you motherfuckers do that shit?”

“The problem with amateur sociopaths like you, Archie,” Meyers said, “is you run on bullshit and a big gun and never consider a potential victim might be more lethal than you are. Bangers, street punks looking to get ahead, unarmed photographers, harmless old men… They’re one thing. We’re another.”

“I see that,” he tried to raise his head away from the Walther, failed. “But I ain’t killed nobody, know what I’m sayin? Not no punks or no pho-tog-raphers or old men or nobody. I just want my, you know, money, motherfuckers. That’s all.”

Meyers pulled an index card and a pencil from a drawer. “Phone number.”

“An then what?”

“Go sit by the phone the number belongs to till it rings. Go anywhere, miss my call, you’re fucked.”

“What if you don’t call, say, soon like, you know, an I get hungry or some shit?”

“Order a pizza. Leave the house before I call, and my associate will paint your door with your brains.” He yanked Archie’s .357, opened the cylinder, ejected the shells into his palm. “These aren’t cheap,” he pointed the gun at his hand. “At the rate I hear you’re losing ammunition you’ll need that forty-seven K just to keep this thing loaded.” He jammed the gun back into Archie’s waistband. “Beat it.”

A Deadly Gold Lamé

Meyers tightened his left hand on the shotgun’s grip, finger inside the trigger guard. The Five Block Cherries Hefe swaddled in gold lamé waddled through the front door of Sunny’s shop. She resembled a life-size Christmas Hershey’s kiss. With feet.

“You’re early.” Meyers said, offering her a nod of acknowledgement.

“Bitches eyes on dis since da bitches clean up some messy white muthafucka shit from he shot up mah bitches. Yo bitch ass be livin’ here, uh whah?”

“Let’s drop the bitch shit, Hefe. This won’t take long if you stop streetin’ and we get to it.” He shifted the shotgun so she could see down the barrel. “Sit. Tell your friends to wait outside. All of them.”

“You cap me muthafukah mah bitches swarm down a fuckin plague yo muthafuckin bitch ass mutha—”

BOOM – Meyers blew the folding chair away, Hefe’s heavy lidded eyes opened wide.

“I told you I’m not listening to that shit.”

Two of the posse on the sidewalk who’d pulled handguns flew into the front windows, shocked looks on their faces. They slid down, streaked the windows with blood. Hefe looked over her shoulder, held up her hand, looked back at Meyers.

“Da fuck?”

“See the little red dot on the palm of my hand?”

“Um,” she grunted.

“Now it’s on the back of your head. They pull, they drop. Next time your posse gets stupid you drop first.”

Archie worked his way through the women on the sidewalk who were more concerned with their downed members than him. He stepped in the door, reached for his .357. Like Hefe, he found himself looking down the barrel of Meyers’ shotgun.

“Mine’s already out, friend. What’s on your mind?”

“Da fuck now, bitch?” Hefe, furrowed brow to Meyers, thumb over her shoulder. “Dis yo bitch ass nigga?”

“I’ve never seen the man before. Maybe you shouldn’t insult him, though. He could be a lingerie salesman.”

“Bitch ain’t sellin shit.” She turned on Archie. “Da fuck’s up, nigga?”

“Da fuck s’up, bitch, be that dee-tek-tiv motherfucker, know what I’m sayin, he owes me forty-seven thou—”

Through the front window Meyers saw the row of muzzles pointing out of the black Tahoe. He hit the ground behind the counter and started moving. Automatic weapons fire chewed up the front of the store and the gaggle of Five Block Cherries. Hefe reached for the gun in Archie’s waistband. A grenade flew through the shattered front windows, thudded on the floor and rolled.

Archie knocked Hefe off her feet with a roundhouse right, his gun clattered on the floor. He threw himself to the side, took two racks of lingerie with him. Hefe flapped and rocked in the door’s direction like a fat sea lion, her blousy gold lamé wrapper dragging along the grenade she was trying to escape. Meyers crawled into the restroom, shot up the ladder into the attic, put his hand on the first iron railing to the rooftop when a muffled FOOMPH shook the building.

Archie untangled from the lingerie, used it to wipe Hefe’s guts off his hands and face. He stood, wobbly, crunched his way over broken glass to pick up his Hefe-splattered gun, slipped, fell on the body mass puddle between the legs and head that had been Hefe. He rolled up vomiting, ran out the door, down the block to where Rifat sat waiting in the driver’s seat of the Lincoln. Archie yanked the passenger door open, Rifat lurched the Lincoln into drive, Archie tried to puke out the window that wasn’t rolled down, screamed “FUUUUUCK!

“Where to?”

“A CAR WASH, you stupid raghead motherfucker…” Rifat couldn’t tell if Archie was blubbering or choking or gurgling more vomit, but he stunk so Rifat rolled down both windows, the passenger side squeegeeing barf down the door panel, onto Archie’s leg.

Archie squealed “Goddammit,” pulled the .357 out of his lap, pointed it at Rifat and it squirted out of his hand like a wet bar of soap.

NVDT Random – Another Book Review

Flat Crazy

Ben Rehder

4.7 Stars

4.7? Published by the mainstream. There were a few editorial brain farts. And it could have stood a touch of dialogue editing, at least for a native Texan speaker. Fixing those would have really sealed this one. Told in an often funny “Holy shit” omni third person that puts you in the scene with the scene maker is exceptionally well done. Some leading narrative and ‘splainin could go away, but in this form it seems to be a required component. Also, this is not a book report, or a plot summary, or any of that. Simply my impressions of construct and how the book worked as a whole.

The story goes that someone gave Ben Rehder a Carl Hiaasen book. After reading it, he supposedly said, “I can do that.” And he can. (Did). I’m not sure if he went through an early Hiaasen and built a template, but he nailed the format. Many authors have used successful formats where they fill in the chunks with their own story. Hiaasen’s same narrative style is present as well, with a Texas accent. All the way to the same “comes down to it” moment for the protagonists and an epilogue for the bit players. Like Hiaasen, the interjections of the bit players have something marginal to do with the story, but are there more for levity until needed to perform some plot sealing function. How boring would a procedural about murder and hunting ethics be without a first class cast of well-written stereotypes? Well written being the key. Keeping the lid on some of these people must’ve taken a lot of effort.

The key players – A not too serious ex-convict hunting guide in a trailer in Central Texas isn’t unusual. One who keeps unintentionally killing or maiming people to cover up his deer trophy con job makes for a stellar stereotype. As does the telling of his not-all-here brother, damaged by a high voltage shock. A Marlboro Man Game Warden and a Sheriff named Garza is nothing unique to the Hill Country, either, but they are played well. The best thing about this book, to me, was Rehder’s true-to-life (mis)behaviors and reactions from the entire cast. Even when they were outside, they fit like a jigsaw puzzle.

Plot Lines – One involves the “oops” murder of a deer hunter who realizes he’s been scammed by his guide and the guide’s continual fuck ups trying to cover it up. The second comes from a Mexican day laborer taking an emergency dump in the woods who claims to have seen a Chupacabra – a mythical Mexican/South American version of Big Foot. This sighting causes the “wetback” to run pants down screaming out of the woods and into the path of a truck. When the body count escalates and the media feeding frenzy takes over is it murder or the Chupacabra?

Warning. You might need a program to keep up with the cast, just like with Hiaasen. Are there superfluous people and encounters? Possibly. But that’s all tapestry. I’m still wondering why we needed the Chinese midget porn stars and their producer. In the end, the fake antlers that started one of the two parallel plot lines are at last recovered through them.

Rehder breaks every rule we’ve been hammered with for “modern” writing. He opens with a passive verb. The entire book is shot through with narrative leading, character opinions and a conversational style. Again, shades of Hiaasen. One minor complaint from me would be honest to God Texan speak requires timing interrupters. Doing Texan verbatim without them made the dialogue in places seem unnatural, even if it was note perfect.

My takeaway from this book was a fun, who knew who the hell was going to end up where read, like a good early Hiaasen. Great characters, great reactions, what could have been slapstick was right on the money, not over or underdone. You can read the blurbs on Amazon.

Will I read more Rehder? Certainly. Particularly since I only made it about a chapter and a half through one of Anne Hillerman’s New Mexico Navajo books. That’s a whole other topic.

Now, for some musings on the muse. Flat Crazy was published in 2004. I left Austin in 2002. Fast forward to 2015 when I decided to write again before my sell-by date was at hand. Prior to the last couple weeks, I’d never seen this book before, or heard of the author. However, Rehder has a character, a Nightly Pulp News show anchor. Female, attractive, etc. named Rita Villareal that is so similar to one of my own as to be creepy. Beyond that, there are many other crossover type castings and scenes. Caliche roads and driveways. One stoplight towns. Helicopters landing in backyards, gum chewing gold diggers, transparent liars… I wonder, did they hitch a ride when I left Austin, or is there a commonality of experience that falls into these tales?

Pots of Gold

Marcia set her cold lemonade on the patio table, lifted her sunglasses. “What do you want, Wicky?”

“I need the kind of help I can only get from you.”

“Smarmy prick.” She sipped the lemonade, set the glass down. “You’re already here. Let go of the short version and leave.”

“I have a problem that might not go away. If it doesn’t, I’ll need to raise some off-the-books cash.”

“I’m not giving you any money, Stafford. Goodbye.”

“Hear me out, Marcia. I’m reasonably certain I could buy this problem off. At least temporarily.”

“How do you propose to do that without money?”

“Product. Your product. I know you’d hate for your little pill lab there in Kentucky, or wherever…”

“Are you trying to leverage me, Stafford? You should know by now that’s impossible. Particularly for someone like you. You have a few semi-dangerous friends a continent away. The government is up your ass for assets you kept in your homeland and failed to report for thirty years.” She studied her lemonade, slowly turning the glass on its coaster. “There’s the insider trading investigation and the IRS for writing off huge donations you used as blinds for illegal personal gain. If you so much as squeak to the feds, the bad boys will find out. If you squeak to the bad boys, the feds will find out. If you try to involve me and think I’m unable to deter either of them, you’re insane. I own a profitable business. One of many involved in a multitude of humanitarian activities. Attempting to throw your neighbors under the bus looking for any possible way to avoid being dead or somebody’s bitch and you’ll come off as the smarmy ex-pat prick you are.”

“Sorry. Wrong approach, old dear.” He pulled up a chair. “You see, I closed this transaction once, but there was an unexpected… unpleasantness with the courier leaving that money still unaccounted for.”

“Lost, I suppose, in the unexpected unpleasantness?”

“That hasn’t been determined. The worst part, beyond the financial loss, is the unfortunate courier’s partner is… Unpredictable. And homicidally violent. And impatient.”

“Let me see if I understand this, Wicky.” She sipped the lemonade, looked off into the distance. “As it stands now you only need enough to stall the problem. Show him the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak. He makes his profit inquiries and returns ready to talk, not kill.”

“Exactly.”

“And what will you do when he does return, Wicky?” She set the glass on its coaster, brought her eyes back. “Kill him first?”

“A crude solution. But it has crossed my mind. I’d much rather pay your price for, um, certain material, and let him recover what he thinks is his due at the street rate. If he does the math, even at the low end, in his world it will look he hit the lottery.”

“A simple plan if everyone involved stays compliant, which is by no means guaranteed. Tell me, why would I even consider doing this for you?”

“If you don’t, and I can’t provide him with some momentary diversion, he might kill me.”

“There are those who would consider that more of a gift than a loss. How large of a money pit have you managed to dig for yourself?”

“Forty-seven thousand.”

“With a street thug? How on Earth—”

“That’s not important. What is important is not ending up dead and not paying that sum twice.”

“And you have no other way of recovering the loss?” She lifted her glass, peered over the top.

“If I had the time, Marcia, or knew where to start, possibly. I’d rather deal him away and owe you a more manageable sum that would look like a business transaction than—”

“Yes. Yes. Yes.” The glass hit the coaster with some force. “Dammit, Wicky. You should’ve expected shit like this and been prepared for it. It’s what happens when you do business with thugs. Write this down.” She lifted the corner of a tray that held down paper napkins, pushed one his way. He took it, clicked a pen from his sports coat pocket. She called out a series of numbers, he furrowed his brow.

“Whose number is this?”

“His name is Meyers. He’s really quite competent. Good at finding things. And finding out about things. In a reasonable time frame. Explain your problem to him. Odds are he can find your money, or where it went.” She caught the panic creeping into his face. “In the meantime, I’ll send over a care package to assuage your homicidal problem. Explaining simple math and staying alive is on you.”

***

“Where you been at this time, Rye-fat my Bed-o-win bro?” He reached out flipped Rifat’s collar. “Out buyin’ shirts when we got business on?”

“It’s Awrfat. Almost sounds like ‘you’re fat’ if you say it fast. Or you can roll the R. Rrrawfat. ‘I been at’ picking up the death certificate, final report and Arias’ things from the coroner. The detective didn’t kill him, Archie. That piece of shit rolling wreck van you unloaded on me did. Aht!” He held up his hand. “Before you ask, they didn’t have our forty-seven thousand dollars in a plastic bag. They had this.” He tossed Arias’ wallet, Tissot watch, seventy-three cents in change and an itemized list of everything Arias had on him. From his pocket Rifat produced several receipts and Arias’ debit card. “Arias hadn’t banked it, either. I got three hundred dollars for some things I needed. His balance is on the transaction slip.”

Archie shuffled through the receipts. “A fuckin shirt. Forty-three dollah cologne? Flowers? What the fuck you need with a shirt, cologne an flowers? Arias dead an don’t give a shit.”

“I went to see a lady who deserves them.”

“Ain’t no woman an her fuckin sister both deserve flowers an shit. They give up what they got cause we deserve it, you know. An Arias’ dead ass only got twelve-hunnert an change in the bank?” He smacked the ATM transaction sheet on the workbench. “What the fuck he do with all his money?”

“What the fuck you do with yours?”

“Man’s gotta live, know what I’m sayin?” He checked the cylinder on the chrome .357, snapped it shut, pointed it at Rifat. “Bang, motherfucker. Know what I’m sayin?” He stuck the pistol back in his waistband. “We gonna find that fuckin money we gotta kill half a L.A. What the fuck you doin w’the big ass goddam pipe wrench?”

“I don’t have a gun.”

“I like that thinkin, know what I’m sayin. Too much gun too quick be like that sick motherfucker I popped that roasted people an dogs. So maybe you fuck the motherfucker up w’that, bust some bones, you know, till he let go a where the pot a gold be at.” He whipped the gun out of his waistband in a not-so-quick draw. “Then I’ll kill him. Clean, you know. Bang.” The gun went back in the waistband, Archie slipped in behind the wheel.

“What if he doesn’t know where the ‘pot a gold is at’?”

“We fuck the motherfucker up an he still don’t know?” Archie showed some teeth. “We kill him anyway. Like a nuisance, know what I’m sayin. He don’t know, next stop be the ho. Let’s ride, Sand Nigger Robin.”

Rifat dropped into Archie’s Lincoln, the eighteen-inch pipe wrench on his thigh. “Ready when you are, Nigger Batman.”

***

Bitch. Wichtikl drummed absently on his steering wheel, driving the winding cliff-side road above the Pacific by rote. He needed to know how large a care package. How soon was she sending it over? She’d dismissed him like one of his wetback landscapers after offering him this Meyers character. Who the fuck? And what was she doing with his number? More important, what had she hired him to find, or find out that she knew how good he was? Goddammit.

He started to wad up the napkin and throw it out the window. Hold on. Maybe this Meyers was stupid enough to get between him and Archie. That would be good. Get Archie and this Meyers guy together… It was all about timing now. Get the package from Marcia, get this Meyers, see if he was a tough guy or a divorce peeper, get Archie… but when? All down to that fucking arrogant, controlling Marcia Hobbs DeMilnes. Bitch. Bitch, bitch, bitch. Why was it people like her thought it was fun to put people like him between a rock and a hard place? Smirking. Like they held some higher moral ground. Fucking. Bitch. He’d allowed the situation to trap him. Waiting on her on one side, for Archie on the other while some unknown fuckwad was out there pissing through the forty-seven k Arias had on him when he croaked.

He rehearsed a dozen lines for the Meyers character, landed on simple truth for expediency. Look, Mr. Meyers, I paid a homicidal maniac and his partner to obtain something for a client. Partner got in an accident, the money disappeared and the homicidal maniac wants his missing cut. Think you could find the money, and barring that, are you any good with a gun? Maybe just get him to the house. Maybe with a third party around Archie would stay cool long enough to hear the deal. Put some pharm quality oxy in his hands, say to him ‘do the fucking math’. If he could. Archie wasn’t stupid. Maybe he was. Criminally insane, for sure. Stupid was a maybe. What about… Meyers. Marcia. Archie. An all-players meet and greet. How sweet would life be if they all took care of each other, and the wetbacks took care of the mess?