/ Language: English / Genre:thriller, / Series: Jack Baddalach

Saguaro Riptide

Norman Partridge


Norman Partridge

Saguaro Riptide

PART ONE

The swell rises

ONE

When the women busted into the bathroom, Vincent Komoko knew that it was going to be nothing but bad from here on out because there was only one of him and there were two of them and both of them were wearing badges.

The sheriff slammed the bathroom door, cutting off the howling desert wind. The room was suddenly quiet, but her voice wasn’t. She asked Vince what he’d done with his gun.

“I lost it,” Vince said, his voice kind of sheepish. “Out there … in the storm.”

The sheriff nodded, and the deputy stepped over the prone figure of Elvis Presley and chopped the top of Vince’s right wrist with some weird kind of nightstick that had a handle on it. Vince’s hand went numb for an instant, and in that instant the cellular phone he’d been holding clattered to the floor.

The deputy eyed the phone like it was a big plastic cockroach that might scuttle for cover if she so much as blinked.

But she didn’t blink, and the phone didn’t move.

“Who were you talking to?” she asked.

“911.” Vince pointed at the hulking figure curled in a fetal position near the toilet. “Elvis isn’t doing too good.”

The deputy’s eyes narrowed, but Vince kept his eyes on that weird nightstick in her right hand. It was close to two feet long. The handle sprouted about six inches from one end of the thing. The stick itself shielded the length of the deputy’s forearm-one end lay flat against her elbow, the other extended a couple inches past her scarred knuckles.

That was the end that dug into Vince’s solar plexus and knocked him against the wall.

“I don’t want to have to ask you again,” the deputy said.

Vince sucked a shallow breath around the pain, nodding at Elvis. “If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself. Feel his goddamn forehead. Elvis is colder than the abominable snowman’s ass. We’ve gotta do something. There isn’t much time left.”

“Listen, asshole. My patience is wearing real thin-”

“Wait a second,” the sheriff interrupted. “Let’s check this out.”

A look crossed the deputy’s face. One of those oh great, now I’ve got a Looney Tunes double-feature to deal with looks.

The sheriff bent low and touched Elvis’s forehead, which was as white as chalk.

“See what I mean?” Vince said. “The King’s in bad shape.”

The sheriff nodded, straightening.

“I mean, we’ve gotta get some help.”

“I want you to watch this very carefully.” The sheriff grinned at Vince, then winked at the deputy.

The deputy pivoted fast, nightstick handle whispering against her callused palm, and the long end of the stick whipped around in an arc of murderous intensity, and the head of Elvis Presley exploded.

Elvis shrapnel rained down on Vince’s expensive Bally loafers. The sheriff stepped toward him, one snakeskin Nocona cowboy boot crushing what had once been the King’s sneering upper lip.

‘The stick’s called a tonfa,” she explained. “As you can see, it’s hell on plaster statues. But believe me, you put it up against flesh and blood, that’s pretty dramatic, too.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Good.” The sheriff closed in on Vince, her right boot powdering Elvis’s nose. “Now, we’ll forget all about your telephone call. Hell, we’ll forget about everything as long as you answer one little question for us: where is the money, Mr. Komoko?”

Jesus, Vince thought, She even knows my name! This bitch must know goddamn everything! That simple realization rattled him but good, but he tried not to show it. Instead he tried to play it Steve McQueen cool, saying, “Well … I won’t tell you where the money is, but I’ll tell you where it isn’t, and it isn’t here.”

“You mean you hid it?”

“Hey, wait a minute. . you said I only had to answer one question.”

The sheriff tossed her long blond braid over one shoulder in a way that might have been kind of alluring under other circumstances. “So I changed my mind. That’s a woman’s prerogative, as my momma always says. Right now I have all kinds of questions. You answer them and maybe I’m happy. . maybe we can work something out. You don’t answer them-”

Another nod. The tonfa lashed out like the Terminator of the hardwood set and crushed Elvis’s pelvis.

The sheriff seemed pleased with the damage. “Let’s put it this way: you don’t want to get me all shook up, Mr. Komoko.”

“I can see that.”

“So. . where’s the money?”

Vince sighed. It was a simple enough question, and it had a simple enough answer, and deep in his gut Vince had known that it was a question that would be asked as soon as he’d heard a siren blasting in the desert.

He’d stepped outside to investigate the sound. Squinting in the wind. And even though dust was blowing everywhere and everything looked kind of gray and his eyesight wasn’t the best, he’d spotted the Jeep with a cherry on top on the dirt road out by the highway.

Only a half mile away.

Vince figured that Jeep spelled vamoose. But it hadn’t worked out that way. The sheriff and the deputy had seen to that. One of them wasn’t much of a driver-and that was an understatement. But it was also an understatement to say that one of them was a hell of a shot. Hell, maybe both of them were. They’d have to be a couple of stone-cold Annie Oakleys to damn near punch his ticket in the middle of a howling sandstorm.

And that was exactly what had happened.

But that was then, and this was now, and maybe now was still open for debate. Vince considered telling the sheriff where he’d stashed the cash while a hot whipcord of pain knotted the divot in his chest that had been excavated by the deputy’s tonka … or tonfa … or whatever you called the damned thing. He wondered how much begging it would take to keep from ending up on the floor of the bathroom as a busted-up twin to Elvis should he decide to sing like the King.

He’d only have to give up two million bucks.

The guys in Vegas would understand.

Sure they would.

Vince discarded that scenario pretty quickly. The guys in Vegas would not understand. More specifically, the guys in Vegas would feed him his own balls if he lost their money.

Better to try talking his way out of trouble with these two.

Vince realized that he was far from the top of his game, but he still believed his reasoning abilities were above average, his grasp of logic still Visegrip-tight. And, under more agreeable circumstances, Vince might have been right. Though he was certainly capable of self-delusion, truth be told he wasn’t a stupid guy.

But right now he was pretty tired. And whether he wanted to admit it or not his game was teetering on the edge, ready to take a one-way plunge into that biggest of all tanks. It turned out that walking into a set-up actually made him kind of nervous, and even a player of Vince’s limited experience knew that anxiety could drain the baddest bunny’s Duracells. Besides that, the windstorm had pretty much whipped him like a Jolly Roger’s mainsail. His skin was raw, as if he’d shaved every exposed inch with the dullest of razors. Ditto his lips, and he didn’t have a Chapstick in his pocket. And his eyes. . Jesus, every time he blinked, it was pure murder. Overall he felt like a peeled banana that had been rolled in ground glass.

But the deputy wasn’t moving and the sheriff wasn’t telling her to move, and Vince figured that he still had some time. Not a lot, but some. Under other circumstances it might have been enough time to reach a solution he might find amenable. But under the prevailing circumstances it was simply enough time for regret to take a hand.

So it didn’t really matter if the cause of Vince’s fatigue was job-related anxiety or minor dermatological distress or the mental impact of the deputy’s martial arts demonstration. What mattered was that his shields were definitely down.

Tonight Vincent Komoko had nowhere to hide.

In a matter of seconds he found himself belly to belly with the awful truth of it, the part that really ate at him but good-here he was, more alone than any man should ever be, in a big empty house in the desert with two women who saw him as nothing more than a means to an end. The only person on God’s green who might still care enough to help him was a thousand miles away, and she wasn’t even home. Or if she was home, she was hiding behind her answering machine again. And if that were the case, Vince knew that she was doing the right thing, because he’d cut out on her as quick and cold as plaster Elvis, leaving her all alone without so much as a chorus of “Suspicious Minds.”

For the first time, Vince realized what a shitty thing that was to do. Because for the first time he knew how it felt to be truly alone. . and to be the last one to know about it.

And that was when Vincent Komoko realized-also for the very first time-that while he was more than familiar with all the right questions, he really didn’t have any answers at all.

But he still had a gun-he’d lied about losing it in the sandstorm. A.45 automatic lay flat against his backbone, jammed under his belt.

He went for it.

The sheriff was faster. She spun around, her right shoulder suddenly occupying the space that had been filled by her left only a split second before. Her long blond braid whipped out as she whirled, making Vince blink at just the wrong moment, and that eye blink slowed him down just enough so that the heel of her right cowboy boot cracked against his right temple before he had a firm hold on the pistol, and it slipped out of his hand just the way the cellular phone did, but that didn’t really matter because her foot was coming back from the other direction and she was smiling now, really getting her hip into it this time, and as the heel of her Nocona boot struck his jaw the room was filled with a sound that was as brittle and awful as the long misplaced echo of tonfa cracking the plaster skull of the king of rock ’n’ roll.

PART TWO

The Breakers Roll

ONE

High noon on the Las Vegas strip.

Cannonade rattled a hundred-plus plateglass windows.

Freddy Gemignani stood before one of those rattling windows, staring out at Las Vegas from his penthouse suite on the twenty-sixth floor of the Casbah Hotel amp; Casino. On the other side of the Strip a British frigate was battling a pirate ship in the gigantic moat which fronted the immediate competition, an animatronically enhanced casino that was currently putting a world-class financial hurt on the operation Freddy had established back in ’59 with a little help from the Teamster’s Union pension fund.

"Thar she fuckin’ blows,” Freddy G said, turning toward a man who was sitting alone on the expansive sofa which ran the length of the window.

The man was on the wrong side of thirty but the right side of thirty-five. Not that he was the kind of guy who was bothered by age. He didn’t think that way. His belly was flat, and his sandy brown hair was his own, and most days he rolled out of bed without making any of the horrible hacking sounds his old man had made after he hit thrty. That wasn’t so surprising-after all, the man had never developed his father’s three-pack-a-day habit-but the fact that he could still wear jeans and a T-shirt and cowboy boots without looking like a Hollywood poseur or a redneck or a guy who should be parking cars somewhere was.

His name was Jack Baddalach. And he didn’t bother to acknowledge Freddy G’s comment, because he knew that the casino boss wasn’t even warmed up yet.

“Christ on a cross. Jack,” Freddy said. “This salty-dog shit is driving me nuts. I mean, you’ve heard the old stories about me-even the government boys say I’ve mellowed since the fifties. Most things I can take with a modicum of good grace. But losing money to a Mickey-fucking-Mouse abortion of a casino with a couple of dolled-up rowboats out front isn’t one of them.”

Jack nodded. Perhaps he was agreeing that losing money was a bad thing, or that Freddy G had in fact mellowed since the glory days of the pink Cadillac and the platinum-blond starlet, or that protracted exposure to salty-dog shit would undoubtedly drive one nuts. Or it might have been that his unspoken affirmation simply conceded the point that Jesus Christ, indeed, had died on a cross.

Not that any of it mattered. Not really. What mattered was that (1) Jack Baddalach had heard slight variations on this particular theme a dozen times or more, and (2) he thought enough of Freddy G to suffer another rerun without complaint.

So Freddy G continued. “In the old days a guy would decide where he’d drop his load based on the essentials-which joint had the cocktail waitresses with the best tits, and which joint dressed those gals in outfits that would show off those tits to the best advantage, and which joint had one of those gals waiting for you up in your room sans outfit once you’d dropped your greenbacks. Sure, that wasn’t the whole deal-it’d be okay if you could get a decent meal cheap, or hear Frankie Laine in the big room if you felt like tearing yourself away from the tables. Maybe even shake hands with Joe Louis in the lobby or something, get in a round of golf with him if you were a high roller.”

Freddy shrugged. “Oh, maybe you had to gild up the lily just a little bit, even then. Maybe you built a sixty-foot concrete sheik straddling the parking lot or something. That I could live with. But now. Jesus. Vegas is a different place. Pirate ships lobbing invisible cannonballs at Her Majesty’s Navy, right on the Strip.

“They call ’em megaresorts. Guys running around town, talking about their visions. Pirate ships, giant guitars, pyramids and castles-I could give a shit. These guys wouldn’t know vision if it bit them in the ass.”

Freddie shook his head. “But that’s what we’ve come to these days. Guys bringing the wife and kids to town in the family wagon, like they were going to goddamn Disneyland or something.” He sighed. “And you want to know the worst of it, Jack? The most disgusting part of the whole deal?”

Jack didn’t say anything, but he tilted his head slightly. His eyebrows did a little peekaboo act above the rims of his very dark sunglasses.

For Freddy G, the response was sufficiently encouraging. “I’ll tell you the worst of it, boy. The goddamn fairies don’t even care if they even get laid anymore. All of them are scared of AIDS. The shmoes come all the way to Vegas, and they ride goddamn roller coasters, and they slide their fat asses down water slides, and they sleep with their wives. Christ! They bring their wives to goddamn conventions in goddamn Vegas!” Freddy laughed. “Wife’s got her husband’s balls in a jar back home. Keeps ’em in the laundry room on a high shelf. The shmoes, they don’t even ask to take ’em down anymore, ’cause the wife is always reminding ’em. You remember what happened the last time I let you have ’em. You watched ESPN for twenty hours straight, ate red meat, farted all night and practically asphyxiated me. I saw a talk show told all about it the other day-Guys who keep their balls in a jar and the women who love them. Can you believe it, boy?”

Of course Jack didn’t believe it. He knew well enough that Freddy couldn’t make the least little point without about a half mile of exaggeration. Even so, the simple truth was that Jack had a whole lot of trouble believing even the slightest tidbit of information gleaned from the CBS Evening News, let alone a bubbleheaded talk show, but he didn’t want to take that particular detour on the conversational highway. So he simply sighed and shrugged, staying the course, casually reaching for the beer that waited on the glass cocktail table before him. The bottle was glacier-cold, but Jack didn’t lift it to his lips. Instead he held it in his left hand and rolled it back and forth across the aching knuckles of his right.

For Freddy G, just the fact that Jack had touched the bottle was a cue of more than sufficient proportion. The casino boss reached for a Bloody Mary that waited on the bar. He took a healthy swallow, then gobbled the celery stick, chewing loudly.

One more time, the roar of cannonade rose from the Strip.

One more time, the windows in Freddy’s suite rattled.

So did Freddy.

“Hear that. Jack? Night and fucking day, I hear it. I got the whole show memorized.” He waved his drink in the direction of the window. “Next thing, the captain of the British frigate is gonna start bellowing in that phony Charles Laughton voice of his. The limey bastard’s gonna go down with his ship, gonna sink to the bottom of briny Vegas. Gonna throw in the towel to a bunch of candy-ass pirates, every one of them a ringer for that Fabio asshole. Pumped up on steroids like a bunch of prize Herefords. Waxed chests. Hair like Gorgeous George. And dicks the size of sardines, believe you me.”

Jack fought it, but he knew he couldn’t win. His poker face collapsed in a wide grin.

Freddy finished off his celery, smiling slyly. “Shiver me pectorals and pass that blow-dryer, you old sea dog,” he lisped, his Liberace imitation dead-on as always. “Never knew they had Miz Clairol on the Spanish Main, didja, Matey?”

Jack laughed at that last one and was surprised to find that laughing felt good. “Someday you’re going to get into trouble with that shit, Freddy. These days you’re politically incorrect.”

“Christ on a cross, Baddalach. Liberace himself used to laugh at that one.”

“Yeah, well. That was the fifties. You weren’t so mellow then, remember? You had a temper.” Baddalach shook his head. “You weren’t any funnier back then, you were just scarier.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning I’d laugh like a fucking hyena if the alternative was taking a high dive off of Hoover Dam.”

“Go ahead, Jack. Rain on my fucking parade. Kick me when I’m fucking down.”

The smile stayed put on Jack’s face. “Not when I can sink your fucking battleship.”

Two Bloody Marys later, Freddy G settled down to business.

“So,” he said. “Take off the cheaters. Let Papa see.”

Jack sighed but did as he was told, folding his sunglasses and setting them on the table.

“Christ on a cross, will you look at that. Are those your eyelids, boy, or did you get kidnapped by a mob of little old ladies who tried to make a patchwork quilt out of your face?”

“C’mon, Freddy. Give me a break. It’s not that bad. The stitches come out next Tuesday.”

“Your skin’s getting too old for this shit.”

“It was those damn Reyes gloves. Everybody in the business knows they can turn a guy who punches like Twiggy into Jack the Ripper. I swear they’ve got razor blades in ’em. It would have been a different story if the commission would have gone for Everlast. But no. What Sugar Ray Sattler wants, Sugar Ray Sattler gets. Jesus. The guy’s had two title defenses. I had five. And half of mine were in the other guy’s backyard.”

“Yeah, it’s a long, sad story. If you would’ve had those Everlasts, things would have been different.” Freddy shook his gray head. “Face it. Jack. It wasn’t your night. If someone had amputated Sattler’s right hand, you still would have ended up on your butt.”

Jack grinned. “Show a little mercy, huh? Remember, Freddy, I’m in pain. And the truth definitely hurts.”

“How’s the nose?”

“Well, the left nostril kicked in yesterday. That was a relief-all that mouth-breathing was making me feel like an extra from Deliverance. I’m hoping the right will get embarrassed and join in tomorrow.”

“Like hell. You couldn’t breathe through the right side before Sattler kicked your butt. You’ve got a deviated septum, Jack. You ought to get it fixed.”

“Look, I’m not going to pay anyone to break my nose. Some guy gets a free shot at me, I’m the one who’s going to get paid. Especially if he gets to use a hammer.”

Freddy laughed. “Is that a miserable excuse for a segue, my boy?”

“Well, the commission’s still holding up my purse. And I’m sitting on my wallet, Pops. And it sure ain’t causing me any back problems at the present moment.”

Freddy moved behind the bar and freshened his Bloody Mary. Jack rolled the beer bottle back and forth across his aching knuckles. Two weeks since the fight, and it was still murder making a fist. Just a couple years ago he could have sat down at a piano and played a fucking concerto a few days after a twelve-rounder. If he’d happened to know how to play the piano, that is. But these days. . well, these days it seemed his hands always hurt.

Jack gripped the bottle. Hard. Trying to keep it light was turning out to be a much taller order than he’d expected. And there was a good reason for that. Deep down, Jack realized the hidden purpose of this meeting.

Freddy was calling him on the carpet.

Shit. Even Ray Charles could see that.

Jack Baddalach could feel it in his bones. This was going to be the big kiss-off.

The road he’d traveled with Freddy G had been a long one. He’d had most of his fights at the Casbah. Jesus, he’d made his professional debut in the stadium/parking lot behind the casino back in ’78. He’d won his title in the same ring in ’86. But it had been quite a few years since anyone had strapped a belt around his belly, and now that he’d battled a young lion and come out looking like roadkill. . Well, he’d promised himself that the fight with Sugar Ray Sattler would be his last hurrah-win, lose, or draw. It had been easy, saying that before the fight, believing he could walk away from it all.

Winning would have made it easy. If it hadn’t made him hungry all over again, of course. And a draw he could have lived with. But losing. .

And there was no question that he’d lost. Badly. The ref had counted ten over him. And if it wasn’t bad enough getting KO’d by some candyass nicknamed Sugar, there was the humiliation that came after that.

Jack didn’t remember it, not really. But thanks to the magic of videotape, he’d seen it a dozen times. Sattler’s asshole promoter, he of the electric hair and audiophile-quality bullshit, had jumped in Jack Baddalach’s bloody face after the fight, barking, telling Jack that he was nothing but a washed-up pug. He opined that Jack Baddalach was an embarrassment to the pugilistic brotherhood, nothing less than a fraud. Him, a guy who’d never laced on a pair of gloves in his life, an ex-numbers runner with a big mouth. And when Jack shoved the promoter, the guy started in on Jack’s skin tone, saying that Jack’s complexion was the only reason he’d made the connection with a class act like Sugar Ray Sattler.

In light of the words that followed, that comment was actually polite. Quaint, in its own way, like calling Jack a great white hope.

The barrage that crossed the pay-per-view airwaves that evening was rattler-mean and gutter-nasty. Even though Jack didn’t remember any of it, he saw what was coming when he watched the tape. First he sighed. Then he shook his head. His lip twisted into a disgusted smirk. And all the while, the promoter kept on yapping.

Once more, the word complexion reared its ugly head. As the promoter spat the second syllable, Jack launched the best left hook of his career. It landed flush, and the promoter bit off the final syllable and a quarter-inch of overworked tongue. Going down, he looked like a side of beef that happened to be wearing a tuxedo.

“You need some dough. Jack?” Freddy asked.

“Naw. You already did enough, Pops. Hell, you could have bought your own pirate ship with the money you put up for my bail.” He shrugged. “And you know me, I don’t live all that big.”

“Yeah. But these days even that costs money.” Freddy G sat down next to Jack. “Don’t worry about it, kid. The guy won’t press charges. He’ll just play it for publicity. With his record, he doesn’t want any part of you in a court of law.”

“Yeah. . well. . we’ll see about that.”

“I gotta tell you, Jack: you impressed me the other night. Flattening the guy the way you did. It was something to see.”

“C’mon. It wasn’t much. I mean, I already had the gloves on. I sure didn’t do much to Sattler with ’em. Seemed a shame to call it a night without cleaning someone’s clock.

“Naw. I ain’t talkin’ about the punches. I’m talkin’ about the trouble.”

“Trouble?”

“Yeah. You got a talent for it, Jack. I can see that now. How you’re handling this whole mess. Like it doesn’t faze you. I never knew you were built that way. Christ, you’re a born pro.” He sipped his Bloody Mary. “You know me, Jack. I like to cut to the chase. Bottom line is this-I think you’ve come to the end of one road, and I’d like to help you get started on another.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed. “I need it a little plainer than that, Freddy. I came here expecting the big kiss-off. You know: you’ve seen your day, kid. It’s time to hang ’em up. Maybe we’ll get you a job playing golf with the shmoes."

“That ain’t what this is.”

‘Then what is it?”

“You said you want it plain. Okay. I’ll make it plain.” Freddy drained the Bloody Mary but didn’t go after another. “Got a guy been working for me the last six months. Name of Vince Komoko. Vince, he’s a go-getter. Some of the boys met him out in Hollywood last year-guy was actually some kind of war hero who rode the fast track to celebrityland. Went to work for us out there, made some moves smoother than Ex-Lax. Lately he’s been running the vig for us. That’s the money we skim off the top-”

“C’mon, Freddy. I’ve been around this town a few years, you know?”

“Okay. Well, he’s running the vig, Vince is. Where it comes from, you don’t want to know. Where it goes, you don’t need to know. All you need to know is that in between it’s supposed to detour through a bank in Dallas, and Vince gets it from here to there in a car. Vince was supposed to show up in Dallas two days ago, and he never made it.”

“So somewhere between here. . and there. .”

“You’re getting the picture.”

“What kind of money are we talking about?”

The big man swore. “Close to two mil in hundred dollar bills.”

“Shit.”

“That’s a fucking understatement.” Freddy sucked a deep breath. “Now, here’s my proposition. You seem to have some free time on your hands. You have a pretty decent head on your shoulders-”

Jack waved him off. “You’ve got plenty of guys working for you, Freddy.”

“But they ain’t you." Freddy threw up his hands. “They ain’t smart like you. They’re not the kind of guys got the stones to get in the ring with a hotshot like Sugar Ray Sattler, and they sure ain’t got the stones to punch out a millionaire boxing promoter. They’re guys just like Vince Komoko. . and he’s the guy caused me this problem in the first place. Christ on a cross, if my guys found out how much those pirates are making across the street, they’d be first in line when Captain Kidd gets waterlogged and takes early retirement. I don’t need a guy like that. What I’m looking for is a little thing called loyalty.”

“Dogs are loyal, Freddy.”

“Dogs don’t make what you’ll be making.”

“Which is?”

“I figure fifteen percent is an appropriate finder’s fee.”

“You give a waiter fifteen percent, Pops.”

The big man laughed. “Make it twenty.”

“Off the top of my head that sounds pretty good.”

“You get out your calculator when you get home,” Freddy said. “It’ll sound a whole lot better.”

Jack set his beer on the table. The bottle was still full, still cold, but he didn’t need it anymore. Somehow, his knuckles felt a whole hell of a lot better.

“So,” he said, “how’s the Casbah’s health plan, boss?”

“You ain’t gonna need one,” Freddy said. “You’re gonna make out fine.”

An envelope changed hands.

“What’s this?” Jack asked.

“The key to a pirate’s treasure trove,” Freddy said, and then he laughed.

TWO

Baddalach waited at a traffic light on the corner of Casbah Avenue and the Strip, his ’76 Toyota Celica vibrating like a cymbal in a strip club, aka overtime.

These days the Strip practically stretched all the way to the desert hamlet of Baker, California. Baker was famous as home of the world’s tallest thermometer, which was sometimes known to hit the 120-degree mark. Jack didn’t know how accurate the amazing colossal thermometer was. Skeptic that he was, he wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it was the world’s least accurate, a scam to drag sun-roasted tourists into town for a couple of cold brewskis.

But Baddalach knew better than that-the “least accurate” part of the equation, anyway-for he actually owned the world’s least accurate thermometer. Well, thermostat, anyway, but Jack wasn’t one to quibble when it came to definitions, especially definitions of the automotive variety.

The thermostat in question was part of Jack’s Toyota, and at present he was staring down the gauge that tracked its efficiency with such murderous intensity that he might have been mistaken for Mike Tyson himself.

But staring didn’t seem to intimidate the gauge. The Celica’s radiator needle edged toward the danger zone.

Sweat beaded on Baddalach’s upper lip.

The needle clipped the red sliver at the high end of the gauge.

Menacingly, a red light ignited on the dashboard.

At the same moment, the traffic light flashed to the cool, unreal green of a suburban lawn. Baddalach dug out while the digging was good. He shut down a coughing Pinto and cut in front of a VW bus that looked like it had survived the summer of love, the days of disco, the era of voodoo economics, and was still holding tough in the days of corporate downsizing.

Such a maneuver was quite an accomplishment on the Toyota’s part. Making it gave Baddalach an undeserved sense of confidence. Or maybe it was the vision of Freddy G’s twenty percent dancing in his head. Whatever the cause, Baddalach’s adrenaline had risen to Mario Andretti levels, and he took the corner of West Dunes Road like a man who wasn’t riding on retreads.

Baddalach hit the freeway. Fourth gear kicked in with only the slightest grinding sound. The clutch slip-slided just a little as Jack made fifth. Once secure, he wasn’t downshifting for anyone.

Fifty-five mph. The engine started knocking. Jack sang a snatch of “I Hear You Knocking But You Can’t Come In” and headed for North Vegas, which had once been nothing more than the first step into the biggest sandbox this side of the Sahara. Currently it was one big housing tract on top of the biggest sandbox this side of the Sahara. Baddalach wasn’t surprised that one of Freddy G’s flunkies would live there. As far as Jack Baddalach was concerned you’d have to be an idiot to scam Freddy G, and only an idiot would live in the suburban wasteland called North Vegas.

For one thing, the place had to be the air-conditioning capital of the world. Jack had read that many thoughtful residents went so far as to provide air-conditioned dog houses for their pets. On an afternoon like this one-a real sidewalk egg-frier- Jack figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to learn to fetch and roll over if those skills could get him belly to belly with a chilly Airtemp, don’t spare the Freon. .

Jack eyed the A/C button on the dashboard, barely resisting the temptation to press it. He didn’t want to push the engine any harder than he had to.

He settled for the fan instead. Notched that sucker to the max. The hot air that blasted from the vents sent a collection of white tabs torn from the lids of fast-food coffee cups dancing across worn floor mats. The shards of white plastic kind of looked like big snowflakes. Jack sucked a deep breath, inhaling the wintery scent of the pine tree air freshener that dangled from the rearview mirror, but he didn’t feel any cooler.

Maybe singing would help. A chorus of “Jingle Bell Rock” or something.

Jack resisted the temptation. The off-ramp he wanted was just ahead. Reluctantly, he geared down. Reluctantly, the Celica cooperated, taking the ramp without complaint. Jack was just about to double-check the directions Freddy G had scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin smeared with Bloody Mary mix when he noticed a garage on the corner.

A new thermostat, how much could it cost?

Hell, how much could a new radiator cost?

A new clutch? Tires? Maybe a rebuilt tranny?

Baddalach didn’t know. He only knew that however much it was, it wouldn’t put much of a dent in Freddy G’s twenty percent.

The service manager’s name was Pablo, and Pablo could write up one hell of a work order. Took him two forms to prep Jack’s rice rocket. He even had to stop and sharpen his pencil.

It didn’t matter to Jack. He was feeling pretty good. Finally, it looked like he was going to make some dinero that would be his and his alone.

That was one thing that always annoyed him-everybody assumed that boxers were rich. Sure, some of them were rich. Filthy rich. The Tysons, the Foremans, the Leonards, the Haglers, the De La Hoyas. But guys like that came few and far between. The truth was that most fighters-even the ones who had once been world champions-were left out in the cold once they retired. At the end of the trail they were no better off than guys who had toiled in steel mills with bad pension plans.

The economics were actually pretty brutal. The championship purses announced in the media might sound good, but some promoters were financial butchers who’d cut them down to size before paying off, blaming their losses on weak pay-per-view or any number of dodges that were difficult to track. And even under the best circumstances, a fighter’s cut dwindled considerably after the payoff.

It worked this way-first, of course, came the tax man. Then the fighter’s manager took a big cut. Next came training camp expenses. Sparring partners had to be paid. Cornermen too-a name trainer like Georgie Benton or Emanuel Stewart didn’t come cheap. And neither did a decent cutman, of which there were maybe five in the entire business. And if a fighter was young and impressionable and stupid enough to take on an entourage. . well, the human leeches who hung around the fight game knew how to make boxers bleed green, and there wasn’t a cutman alive who could staunch that kind of wound.

Fortunately, Baddalach had never gone that route. Sure, he’d had a good time or two, but for the most part he’d watched his money. But the sad truth of the matter was that the Sattler fight had provided his first decent purse since losing his title four years before, and those four years had pretty thoroughly tapped out his savings account.

Jack shook his head. It didn’t matter. Now, with this new setup. . Well, things were going to be good again. Tracking down some guy. Some Hollywood guy. How hard could it be?

Pablo finished scribbling and passed the work order to Jack. “Fill out your name and address and we’re in business, amigo.” Jack did as asked, then returned Pablo’s clipboard.

The service manager stared at the name. ‘Thought that was you behind those shades.” He shook his head. “Jack ‘Battle-ax’ Baddalach.”

“Never much cared for that nickname.” Jack grinned. “I always thought there was kind of an uncomfortable Nordic-Viking-KKK ring to it.”

“Oh yeah? Why didn’t you change it?”

“When I turned pro, they wouldn’t print the word Badass in Sports Illustrated.”

Pablo nodded. “I see your point. These days marketing is everything.”

“You got that right.”

“Well, she’ll be ready to roll manana, buddy. Me and my boys, we work all night.”

Jack thanked him, and they shook hands. “Maybe you can help me with one other thing-I’m crashing out at a friend’s tonight. He lives in this neighborhood. You know where Rancho Rojo Lane is?”

“Sure thing. Three blocks up, turn toward the Pacific ocean, one block over. Can’t miss it.”

‘Thanks.”

“De nada.” Pablo smiled. “Fact is, I should be thanking you.”

“Why’s that?”

“A couple weeks ago I had five hundred bucks in my pocket and didn’t know what to do with it. So I put it on Sattler’s black ass. . even got odds.”

“Smart man.”

Pablo shrugged. “You want to know the funny part?”

“Sure.”

“If you would have come in here a couple of weeks ago, I would have bet a thousand.”

“Why’s that?”

Pablo grinned. “Amigo, you look a lot bigger on television.”

A huge saguaro cactus stood guard in the front yard at 1333 Rancho Rojo Lane, surrounded by a dozen senors intent on serious siestas.

The gentlemen were uniformly hunkered down-legs covered by colorful serapes, arms folded over their knees. Their chins rested on their arms, and on their heads they wore sombreros of the mucho grande variety.

Plaster sombreros on plaster cabezas.

Jack shook his head. Sure, he’d come across the Southwest’s peculiar version of the lawn jockey before, but never had he confronted such an impressive assemblage as the one that occupied Vince Komoko’s front yard.

Jack moved forward. His boots crunched over the speckled gravel that stood in for a lawn, but not a single plaster sombrero bobbed in acknowledgment of his presence.

Jack glanced at the giant saguaro as he passed by, noting with some measure of irony that it was concrete, as phony as the sleeping senors. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would buy a concrete cactus. It wasn’t like the real thing would inflate the ol’ water bill or anything.

He rang the doorbell. The merry strains of “La Cucharacha” echoed through Casa Komoko, but no one answered the door.

Baddalach used Freddy G’s key.

He opened the door.

He entered Vince Komoko’s house.

THREE

Jack opened Vince Komoko’s refrigerator.

First impression? Vince Komoko had to be a midget. What else could explain the expansive assortment of airline-size liquor bottles, Lilliputian condiment bottles, and tiny Cheese ’n’ Crackers packets stored in the big Westinghouse?

Jack took a miniature bottle of vodka from the fridge. He rolled it between his hands, which had started to ache again. The vodka didn’t do the trick the way a beer would, but he had to think this through.

He clutched the bottle in his right hand and opened a few of the kitchen cupboards with his left. More food for midgets. Little bags of peanuts and potato chips, and a coffeemaker that looked like it could brew maybe half a cup, tops. The latter item was particularly surprising, given the fact that Komoko was also the owner of an impressive collection of coffee cups which bore the insignias of restaurants, gas stations, and motels throughout the Southwest.

Jack helped himself to some peanuts. One package wasn’t enough. Neither was two. He cut himself off at four-anymore and he’d feel like he should be earning some frequent flier mileage or something.

What had Freddy G said about Vince Komoko’s house? That it was a pirate’s treasure trove?

Jack exited the kitchen and searched the rest of the house.

Conclusion? If Vince Komoko was a pirate, he was definitely out of the Captain Crunch school.

Hanging in the bathroom were towels from motels in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The shower curtain was from a joint in Tucson. The bath mat was from Dallas. The stampsized slivers of soap had been lifted from Motel 6. Tiny containers of designer shampoo and conditioner circled the tub. Without a doubt, that stuff came from joints that rated four stars in the Triple-A tour books.

Jack opened the cupboard under the sink. The space was stacked solid-miniature Kleenex boxes, rolls of one-ply toilet paper guaranteed to snag on a hairy man’s ass, even a couple of bottles of industrial strength Pine-Sol with PROPERTY OF ROADRUNNER MOTEL/GALLUP, NM scrawled on the side in magic marker.

Jack checked out the bedroom. The bed looked like it had been made by a guy who had spent some serious time in the military-spread folded just so, sheets and blankets tucked in tight. But, then, Freddy had said that Komoko was some kind of war hero, so that fit.

The only thing about the bed that didn’t scream GI was the little mint on the pillow. Red letters on the silver wrapper told Jack that the mint had been stolen from Freddy G’s own Casbah.

The bedspread was from a Best Western in Albuquerque, as were the pillowcases. The TV above the dresser had once been bolted to the wall of The Big Texan Motel in Amarillo. The lamps-a pair of avocado beauties that practically screamed 1973-were refugees from a Sheraton in Wichita Falls.

Jack sat on the bed. It was hard as a rock; had to have been from a motel, too. He glanced at the nightstand and was not a bit surprised to see a little metal box that made him suddenly nostalgic.

MAGIC FINGERS!

ENJOY AN “ELECTRO-MASSAGE”

ON OUR VIBRATING MATTRESS!

LET THE GENIE’S FINGERS TAKE OUT THE KINKS!

25 FOR? HOUR

Jack had a quarter in his pocket.

He dropped it in the slot. Pulled off his boots. Settled back.

When the machine kicked off a half hour later, he had everything figured out.

He put on his boots and walked back to Pablo’s garage.

“I need maps for Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas,” Jack said.

Pablo shook his head. “No, you don’t.”

“Huh?”

Pablo laughed, shooting his thumb over his shoulder at Jack’s Celica. The hood was up and two guys were under it. “You ain’t gonna make Texas in that thing. Not unless you leave it with me for a week.”

“You’re probably right. But it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead.”

Pablo handed over the maps. Jack started for the door.

“Hey, amigo,” Pablo said.

“Yeah?”

“You sure you want to pour all that money into your car? I could probably fix you up with something used that’s pretty nice, give you more bang for your buck.”

“No way. That Celica, it’s going to be a classic. The Ford Mustang, that’s the classic from the sixties. A couple more years, the Toyota Celica’s gonna be the Mustang of the seventies.”

Pablo thought that one over. Finally, he said, “You know what?”

“What?”

“You gotta stop taking punches to the head, amigo.”

Maps in hand. Jack returned to Komoko’s house. He found a stash of emergency sewing kits from the Dallas Westin in a drawer in the bedroom, and he used the needles to pin the road maps to the living room wall.

Then he sorted through all Komoko’s junk-the ashtrays and coffee cups and bath towels and miniature bars of soap and anything else he could find-spearing the cities on the map that the stuff had come from.

When Jack was finished, a couple dozen needles marked Komoko’s trail. It looked as if Vince had traveled the expected route-93 out of Vegas to Interstate 40, then 40 straight across Arizona and New Mexico and a good piece of Texas, finally cutting south toward Dallas on smaller highways. With one exception, Vince Komoko’s pirate booty had been appropriated from unsuspecting businesses along this route.

And that one exception didn’t make any sense, because it was a flyspeck town way to hell and gone in southern Arizona, a place with the unlikely name of Pipeline Beach.

Jack picked up an ashtray that he’d found in the bedroom, thinking maybe he’d read it wrong the first time. But there was no mistaking the words stenciled on the smoky green glass-

Surf’s up at

THE SAGUARO RIPTIDE MOTEL

Pipeline Beach, Arizona

Jack thought it over. Maybe Vince had taken a pleasure trip down south. Maybe. But for some reason, he didn’t think so.

So he thought about Vince Komoko, motel pirate, motor lodge Blackbeard. A guy like that. . Christ, talk about your small potatoes. What was Komoko doing heisting Freddy G? Ripping off two mil from the mob was a hell of a long way from stealing a TV set or a midget-sized coffeemaker or a handful of pillow mints.

You didn’t make that kind of jump unless someone pushed you.

Jack stared at the ashtray.

He wondered if Vince Komoko had any friends in Pipeline Beach.

He wondered if Vince saved his phone bills.

The woman picked up on the third ring. “You got me,” she said.

“Hey, that’s great,” Jack said. “But it’s Vince I need to talk to.”

The woman was a couple hundred miles away, but Jack could feel her jump. “Uh. .” she said. “You. . you must have the wrong number.”

“No I don’t. You know Vince. Vince Komoko? Calls you all the time? You guys get together at the Saguaro Riptide, have some real laughs. Vince told me all about it.”

“Uh. . well. .”

“Sure, you know Vince. I’m his buddy. I’m supposed to meet him down there. Why don’t you give me your address and I’ll drive on down from Vegas. I’ve got something for Vince. Something he forgot-”

“No,” she said. “You’re wrong. I don’t know any Vince. And don’t come near me.”

She hung up.

Jack dialed Freddy G’s private number. Freddy’s niece picked up-at least she said she was Freddy’s niece. Her tone of voice said something else entirely.

A second later, Freddy came on the line. “Jack, how you makin’ out?”

“Good. Look, I’m gonna need to make a drive down to Arizona. Little town called Pipeline Beach.”

“Never heard of it.”

“That makes two of us. But I think our friend Vince has.”

“That’s good enough for me.”

“The thing is, my car’s in the shop. I probably can’t get started until tomorrow.”

“Forget that.” Freddy chuckled. “You get a cab and get your ass out to McCarran. Catch a plane. You need Tucson or Phoenix?”

"Tucson.”

“Okay then. The tickets will be waiting for you. We’ll make reservations for tonight at a motel in Tucson, and tomorrow you can drive down to Pipeline Beach.”

“Sounds good. But I’m kind of tapped out right now, what with the boxing commission holding up my purse and all-”

“Forget about that,” Freddy interrupted. “Soon as I get off the phone with you. I’ll call the Casbah manager and have him fix you up with some corporate plastic.”

“Hey, that’s great news.”

“Glad to oblige. ’Cause right now, you could use some great news.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the word on the street is that your pal the promoter dropped the assault charges.”

“Hey, that is great news!”

“Wrong-o, Jack.” Freddy sighed. “I’m afraid your tongue-tied pal has called in the Muslims.”

“Christ on a cross,” Jack said.

FOUR

The man in the african hat stood in the desert, waiting, surrounded by towering sandstone monuments the color of blood. The sky, too, was bloody, but the blood in the sky was drying, cottonlike clouds daubing the wound, the hot wind smearing clotting rivulets across a canvas the color of gutted salmon. But the man who waited in the desert realized that these colors-and, in fact, his impression of same-were impermanence personified. Soon other colors would come, triggering other impressions. Perhaps the wound would begin to heal. Perhaps a rusty brown horizon would scab the injured flesh of the heavens. Or perhaps the sunset would fade gently, less violently, to the color of an insignificant bruise-a magnificent, plum-ripened purple.

And then would come the night. The night was black, the same color as the man in the African hat. And, like the man, the night was a single color through and through, never giving way to another.

The coming of night was what the man in the African hat was waiting for. In truth, he did not mind waiting. Patience was one of many virtues he had forced upon himself long ago.

So he stood in the desert, and he waited among the sandstone towers. His Saturn automobile was parked twenty feet away, but he did not move toward it or seek an alternate shelter. Not even when the wind kicked up, powdering his black suit with fine red dust. Instead he stood near a lone pay phone which hung on a pole that a man with a whimsical turn of mind might have viewed as some form of mechanical cactus.

But the man who waited in the desert did not possess a whimsical turn of mind. It was his belief that laughter was an incalculable weakness. Even the slightest hint of a smile was unmasculine, in his opinion. When he looked at the phone, he saw it first as an instrument which facilitated communication.

Secondly, he saw it as a weapon. Telephone cords made dependable garrotes. With one, an adversary could be strangled in well under a minute.

The man’s left hand moved from his side, reflexively reaching to loosen his black bow tie, but this movement was terminated as soon as the man’s brain recognized it for what it was.

There was no place in his body for even a millimeter of unease. Of this the man was certain.

The offending hand became a fist. The man flexed it. Knuckles popped like dull firecrackers. His grip tightened, neatly trimmed fingernails digging trenches in callused palms. The muscles in his forearm danced, as did his well-developed triceps, and he waited for the telephone to ring, and he continued to flex his fist and the muscles which connected it to his torso.

The phone would most probably not ring for another hour. The man in the African hat had arrived at this place early because he would no more be late for an appointment than he would be anxious about arriving early for same. He always allowed adequate time for the incalculable interruptions of everyday life-flat tires, traffic cops, automotive collisions- though he was a careful man, and, as such, he was seldom troubled by incidents of this nature.

But the man in the African hat did not mind waiting in a place like this. This particular section of desert was the only area close to Las Vegas where the man felt comfortable. He truly enjoyed standing among the bloody sandstone monuments beneath a wounded sky. In this place a peaceful ease charged his soul, the same way pumping blood charges a flexing muscle.

The name of this place was the Valley of Fire. The man in the African hat liked that, as well. Names were very important to him. He felt that they should be chosen with great care.

Strange, in fact, to consider that most names were selected without an ounce of that particular commodity. The man in the African hat had been born with one name-Woody Jefferson-a name chosen by a father who was enamored of heroin, a name the man had been forced to wear for twenty long years. But it had been the wrong name-a name born of junkie imagination-and so the man had discarded it many years ago in a New Jersey prison.

Only when he found his true name did he truly find himself.

That name was Woodrow Saad Muhammad.

The man wore it proudly. His name was a gift from Allah, and it was sacred. He treated it with reverence. He expected others to do the same.

For example, he never allowed anyone to call him Woody.

In his mind, that familiarity was a particularly vile abomination.

Woodrow was a man.

Woody was an erect penis.

The last two men who had dared to call him Woody were dead.

Rahway was the name of the New Jersey prison where Woodrow lost five years of his life. He recognized now that he had deserved to spend time in such a place. He certainly was not proud of the crimes he had committed as a callow youth.

Those crimes belonged to Woody Jefferson, the terror of Camden, New Jersey, a boy who had not minded in the least if his name was twin to an unfortunate bit of slang. Moreover, that boy had actually preferred to be called Woody.

But Woody Jefferson was an ignorant youth, with ignorant ways. A second conviction for armed robbery earned him a stretch in Rahway, but robbery was actually the least of his crimes. Before the age of eighteen. Woody had murdered two men, one woman, three dogs, and an evangelist.

Woodrow thought that Woody had been a fool. The murders were a good example-each one had been committed in the heat of passion. Woody hadn’t earned a single cent from any of them.

Things changed for him in prison. He discovered the Muslim faith and the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Soon after, he became a member of the greatest nation on the face of the earth-the Nation of Islam. He became a man, truly, taking the teachings of Islam to heart.

Earth is spacious and a man can accomplish what he will.

Woodrow drew great strength from these few words. And through the Messenger, he discovered the words of others which helped him on his way.

One of these was Elijah Muhammad’s own instructor. Master Wallace Fard. It was Master Fard who first related the tale of Mr. Yacub, the black mad scientist who had created the white devil race. Woodrow realized that Master Fard was a bit of a mystic, but he did not doubt the Master’s word. An unceasing wellspring of inner faith allowed him to believe.

His belief was especially strong when he stood in the desert and black blankets of night pulled tight around the chins of the bloody sandstone monuments that surrounded him.

As now.

Woodrow looked to the sky. The stars seemed especially bright this evening. His eyes scanned the heavens, and he remembered a line from an old science fiction film he had seen as a boy.

People of earth, look to your skies for a warning. . People of earth, look to your skies for a warning.

Woodrow took a deep breath and held it, thinking, If the fools only knew.

Woodrow knew what waited above, in the heavens, because he had studied the teachings of Master Wallace Fard.

Far above the bloodstained towers of compacted sand, somewhere out there in the black silence of space, was a space platform one-half mile wide, designed by Allah himself and built by Master Fard. Known as the Mother of All Planes, it was armed with bombs that would be dropped a mile deep into the earth when Armageddon came. The platform was capable of speeds up to 18,000 miles per hour, but it could stop on a speck of cosmic dust.

Such was its magnificence.

Such was the genius of Allah.

Aboard were a crew of men who never smiled. They traveled the universe-passing over earth twice a week- waiting for the moment when mankind’s guilt reached the ultimate crescendo.

That was when the bombs would rain down. It was written that 154,000 Muslims would survive the explosions. They would be warned of the coming holocaust eight to ten days before the bombs were launched. The men who did not smile would drop pamphlets written in Arabic from the platform, instructing the faithful where to find safe haven from the bombs.

The story fascinated Woodrow from the first time he heard it. On the strength of it, he learned to read Arabic in prison, so that he could decipher the warning of the men who did not smile when it came. It was one of many self-improvement projects he undertook and mastered. As the old cons said, He didn’t serve his time; he made his time serve him.

And now he watched the sky. He had never seen the Mother of All Planes, but that simple fact did not prevent him looking for it.

Tonight the heavens seemed dead. No comets appeared. No meteor showers rained down from on high. Not even a falling star.

And no space platform. Not tonight.

Still, Woodrow looked to the sky for a warning, patience his watchword.

He searched for a great light moving through the sky.

Or a pamphlet written in Arabic, drifting through the cold silence of space, born to earth by a warm desert breeze.

Woodrow Saad Muhammad knew that he would not have to reach for the pamphlet when it came. It would tumble, ever so gently, into his waiting fingers.

Woodrow was certain of this, for he understood the men on Master Fard’s platform, the men who never smiled.

And he knew that those men understood him, as well.

Three minutes past the appointed time, the phone rang.

Woodrow lifted the receiver. “Yes?”

“Ith thith Wood-woe?"

Woodrow hesitated for a moment. Then he remembered the injury suffered by the man to whom he was speaking. The explanation was obvious-losing a quarter-inch of tongue would certainly impair one’s speech.

“Wood-woe?" the boxing promoter repeated. “You heaw me?”

“Yes.”

“I would wike you to go ahead. The thon-of-a bitthis' name ith Baddawack.”

“I’m familiar with the man.”

“Wemember thith, Wood-woe-make the bathtard thuffer."

“It will be done.”

Woodrow cradled the receiver.

He was annoyed to find that a smile had crossed his face.

A smile not unlike the one once worn by Woody Jefferson.

Woodrow slapped himself, very hard, and only once.

And then he wasn’t smiling anymore.

PART THREE

Surf's Up

ONE

When Jack awoke the next morning, he couldn’t quite remember where he was. He knew he was in a motel room in Tucson and that the coroner’s slab of a bed he’d slept on had made him dream about Magic Fingers machines, but he decided pretty directly that he really didn’t need to know a hell of a lot beyond that because he wasn’t long for this bed, this motel, or Tucson itself.

He opened the little refrigerator by the TV, pawing through the expensive goods therein until he found a beer. He rolled the bottle back and forth between his hands until his knuckles loosened up.

When he returned the beer to the fridge, he noticed that the message light was flashing on the telephone. Deciphering the instructions printed on the face of the phone was kind of like getting through something by Camus, but Jack managed to figure it out. He punched three digits and was connected with the front desk. A woman with an impossibly pleasant voice informed him that a FedEx Letter had arrived from Vegas. Jack said send it up.

Minutes later, the bellman arrived with an envelope. This he gave to Jack, and then he hovered. Jack handed over a dollar and closed the door before the guy had a chance to ask for his autograph or tell him that he looked bigger on television.

He sat down on the concrete bed and tore open the envelope.

A little hunk of plastic fell out.

Corporate plastic.

Jack hadn’t had time to pack before leaving Vegas. He bought the essentials in the hotel gift shop. A disposable razor, some shaving cream, a toothbrush, and toothpaste. Old Spice was the only pit-stick available. Jack knew that it would make him smell like someone’s grandpa, but it was better than nothing.

A couple of things he couldn’t find. He asked the little blue-rinsed lady behind the counter if she stocked jockey shorts and socks, and she informed him that she did not in a tone that made him feel like he’d better run right out and perform an act of contrition or something.

He needed a clean shirt, too, and he could see without asking that the little lady stocked a somewhat limited assortment. The shirts on display were silk, kind of classy. The material anyway. As for patterns, Jack had his choice of horseshoes, bucking broncos, mesas, or cacti. He chose the latter, figuring that subliminally it would make him seem more intimidating once he caught up with Vince Komoko.

If he caught up with Vince Komoko.

If Vince Komoko was still alive.

And if Vince Komoko could be intimidated by a guy whose face had quite recently looked like several pounds of raw hamburger.

Jack shook his head. Those and many more ifs were out there in front of him somewhere, but there was no sense thinking about them right now.

He piled the merchandise on the counter. The blue-rinsed lady sniffed over said merchandise as she rang it up.

At the last moment Jack noticed a pair of tweezers on a little display rack and added them to the pile.

He glanced at the price tag. Eight ninety-five for a pair of fucking tweezers.

Jesus, that was crazy.

Jack handed over his corporate plastic.

Back in the room. Jack checked his shorts and was heartened to find that they were free of skid marks. Then he got cleaned up, after which he dressed and stowed everything except the tweezers in one of the plastic bags that the motel provided for wet swimming trunks. Not the most elegant luggage. But, then again. Jack was a guy going off to face the world in dirty underwear and soiled socks.

In the mellow glow of the bathroom light, the Elephant Man could have convinced himself that he was Brad Pitt’s twin brother. Translation: the light was unsuitable for Jack’s purposes. He unplugged the nightstand lamp, removed the shade, and plugged it in next to the bathroom mirror. He still felt like he was in a cave, but there wasn’t much else he could do about it.

Jack looked himself over. His face was pretty much free of swelling, and the bruises had faded. But there were those goddamn stitches, jutting under his eyebrows like the thick hairs on a sewer rat’s tail.

Jack’s fingers traveled his forehead, kind of sneaking up on his eyebrows. Then they blitzkrieged, squeezing the stitched flesh tentatively at first, and then not so gently.

Nothing busted open. The new scar tissue held tough.

Jack chuckled. “And Freddy G said your skin was shot. Said you were all washed up. You’re in your prime, laddie. They’ll need a silver bullet to stop you.”

He grabbed the tweezers and went to work.

That was when Jack remembered that he’d left Frankenstein all alone in his condo back in Vegas.

Damn. More unfinished business. He’d have to find someone to feed the monster while he was gone.

TWO

Johnny Da Nang liked all kinds of people, but he especially liked big blonds who could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.

He had one of ’em right now. Down there between his legs, every bit of her mojo workin’ over every inch of his. Johnny leaned back in the Corvette bucket that fit all five foot flat of him like a glove. He stared across the parking lot, through the palm trees, at the rising sun beyond the Luxor pyramid. Sly Stone let loose a screech on the ’vette’s primo sound system. Johnny matched it and the blond’s beaucoup backside shimmied in delight.

Viva Las Vegas. Can you dig it?

Johnny certainly could. He and the blond had left the Casbah Hotel amp; Casino just past six in the a.m. Johnny’s band had a gig there playing soul sounds from the sixties and seventies, which in Johnny Da Nang’s opinion just happened to be the finest sounds on the planet. Well, if you excluded The Fifth Dimension. There was way too much vanilla in that band’s sound for Johnny’s taste, thank you very much.

Johnny was the lead singer and hence the busiest fuck in the group. Damn but the women seemed to go for a Vietnamese boy who could sound like Al Green one minute and Smokey Robinson the next.

Even if he was five foot flat.

In dollars it wasn’t the greatest gig. No cakewalk either- one set after a fuckin’ ’nother, maybe a ten-minute break in between if he was lucky, just time enough for a thimble-sized Stoli over ice at the bar, then back at it, singin’ “ABC” and moonwalkin’ like Michael when he used to be black. Sure it was a tough gig. But a band had to start somewhere, didn’t it?

Johnny Da Nang and the Napalms were starting in the land of the five-dollar slot. The Napalms were Johnny’s brothers and there were four of them, all older than Johnny. Together they worked a small room with a two-drink minimum, and they put the butts in the buckets. Hired ostensibly to lubricate the plentiful but notoriously penny-ante Asian gamblers from LA, Johnny and his boys also drew a sizable crowd of brothers who’d survived the bottomside of the ’Nam experience and wanted to get all nostalgic about their last R amp;R in Saigon. Wow, they’d get drunk and collar Johnny at the bar while he was sucking down a Stoli, buy him drinks he could have gotten for free and tell him how much they missed that mama-san who gave them their very first case of the clap.

Roger that. Show business surely had its downside. Johnny had heard it all before, but he always listened because. . wow, you never knew, you know? Maybe one of the brothers would turn out to be Quincy Jones’s cousin or something, and Johnny and his boys would put the move to the groove, end up with Quincy as their producer, tunes in heavy rotation on MTV, the whole enchilada.

Hey, it could happen, couldn’t it?

Still, it took some serious patience to listen to the brothers go on about the ’Nam. Hey, Johnny had been born in Saigon. And he had to admit that the brothers weren’t really his favorite people, because he’d spent most of his youth in South Central LA, and a good bit of that time he’d been the designated neighborhood punching bag. Johnny much preferred spending time with blonds. The big ones. The ones with two-seat buckets and mouths that put the baddest Dirt Devil to shame.

Hey, it wasn’t that he was racist or sexist. It was just his own personal voice of experience talking. And that voice said, Johnny, not one blond-no matter how big-has ever beat you up.

Can you dig it?

Johnny could and currently was. He and the blond had been heading for his condo, but she just couldn’t seem to wait and neither could he. Wow, it happened every time he closed the show with “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” The way Johnny dug down into that one, the ladies just ate it up. Nail it, not a dry pair of panties in the house. Outta sight and all right.

He’d sure ’nough come a long, long way from South Central. Wow, he could remember his first days in America, six years old in a schoolhouse full of black faces, trying to string those damn vowels and consonants together in the right way so he’d sound like everyone else. No one at home to help him because his old man, an ARVN colonel, was trying to put the muscle to the hustle on the streets of LA and didn’t give a damn how anyone talked.

When it came to conversation, the colonel was concerned with only two things-volume and intensity.

Johnny had to hand it to the old man. The colonel had left Saigon with his family and an entire division’s monthly payroll. He’d used the money to buy several neighborhood markets in South Central and put a kickass corps of transplanted Montagnard scouts in charge.

He made a half-assed living doing that. With the invention of the VCR the colonel moved into the electronics business, renting players and TV sets by the month. By that time he’d done some recruiting of his own “in country,” appreciating the fact that he was drawing on the native population of South Central the same way the Americans had drawn on the South Vietnamese. Most of the guys he hired were at loose ends since coming home to the ’hood-they needed that military discipline in their lives, and the colonel gave it to them.

The colonel forged an elite corps of repo men from former badasses who’d done tours as LURPs and worse in ’Nam. Get behind on your payments to the colonel, those bastards showed no mercy. They’d repossess the TV, the VCR, and take any damn thing that wasn’t nailed down to sweeten the pot. You complain, suddenly your dog’s dead and the repo men are out back cookin’ it up on the barbecue. You call your brother in the Crips, your cousin in the Bloods, suddenly you’ve got a telephone cord wrapped around your neck and that percussive sound you hear is fists rat-tat-tatting on your face while your white and pearlies rain down on the floor.

Yeah. Colonel Da Nang was one bad-mother-shut-your-mouth. Isaac Hayes would have said so himself.

It was funny how the whole music thing happened. One day Alonzo the LURP-a big bald Earnie Shavers lookin’ bro who’d lost an ear to some honkies at Fort Bragg but hadn’t received one scratch in ’Nam-anyway, Alonzo goes after a cokehead musician who’s three months behind on a big-screen TV. Turns out that the cokehead had shot out the TV, which didn’t make Alonzo very happy. So to smooth things out the cokehead offers Alonzo his guitar. Pretty good for openers, but Alonzo, he’s a born negotiator.

That night Alonzo shows up on the colonel’s doorstep with a truckload of amps and guitars and drums. The colonel says. We sell this stuff easy. But Johnny’s mama, she says. We keep it. Why the fuck we do that? the Colonel wants to know. You got five sons, his wife says. Jackson Five make big money.

So, in the tradition of Joe Jackson (the psycho paterfamilias of the Jackson clan). Colonel Da Nang locked his boys in the garage until they could play. Well, that wasn’t exactly right. He did let them out to eat and piss and shit, but that was about it. And while they hadn’t gotten anywhere close to that Jackson Five money in the seven years they’d been playing professionally, they were doing all right for a pack of twenty-somethings. Living in Vegas. . making good money. . gauging what exactly was what on life’s experience-o-meter, if you wanted to get philosophical about it.

And they were making music, too. You could bet your last money it’d be a stone gas honey, and it was. The music was the heart of it as far as Johnny was concerned. Because when push came to shove Johnny didn’t really care about the money. Only the colonel cared about that. Johnny cared about The Temptations and The Four Tops and Otis Redding and Little Milton. He didn’t want to end up like the old man, owning a repo man empire and telling stories about how his troops had busted the kneecaps of half the Lakers’ retired players and shit like that. Who needed it?

All Johnny needed was his music and a big blond now and then.

And friends. Friends were good. You helped them and they helped you and you never had to beat anyone up or break any arms to get what you wanted. Hell, the more people you knew, the more people who’d buy your CD when you finally got a recording contract. And Johnny Da Nang knew a hell of a lot of people. He had made good friends in Vegas. He knew most of the tenants in the condo complex where he lived. Some of them were crooks, sure, but what the hell. Johnny’s old man was a crook. And there wasn’t any law against crooks buying CDs or concert tickets. Johnny didn’t walk around with his nose in the air. He was a people person. Wow, what was the use of being alone?

Johnny leaned back and settled in, enjoying life, celebrating the fact that he was hardly ever alone. He watched the morning sun tip the point of the Luxor pyramid. Ran his fingers through the big blond’s long hair, let his hands settle down around that big caboose and gave it a good squeeze.

“Un-guh,” said the blond.

“Baby,” Johnny said, “I second that emotion.”

Afterward the only classy thing to do was buy the blonde breakfast at the Luxor. Most guys wouldn’t bother with that, especially when they found out that the blonde was in town for a three-day dental hygienists’ convention and had a flight out later in the afternoon. But Johnny didn’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially when that anyone was a blond who gave good head. Besides, his oldest brother’s girlfriend was a waitress at the Luxor. If she was on duty (which she was), Johnny wouldn’t even see the bill.

Hey. That’s what friends were for, right?

So they were eating lox and bagels in Cleopatra’s Barge, which was a little restaurant next to a faux Nile, and Johnny was sure that the whole experience made the blond feel very continental because she was from Iowa and Johnny figured that, forget the Nile, lox and bagels were probably a pretty rare commodity in the land of Ma amp; Pa Corncob. But he didn’t say anything about it because he wasn’t sure about the blond’s sense of humor and didn’t want her to get the idea that he was being mean.

Because you never knew, you know? Maybe someday he and the boys would be touring, end up in Iowa. He’d look up the blond. They’d spend the afternoon together, laugh about those lox and bagels and that wild, impulsive morning in Las Vegas. She’d tell him that she’d bought all his CDs, too. Talked all her friends into buying concert tickets when she heard Johnny Da Nang and the Napalms were playing the Corncob Dome.

Hey, it could happen, couldn’t it?

Sure it could.

“Before I forget,” Johnny said, pushing a napkin her way. “How about you write down your address and phone number for me?”

She looked a little surprised. “Are you planning a trip to Sioux City?”

“Not right now,” Johnny said. “But you never know, y’know?”

There were downsides to having lots of friends, of course. Like when Johnny got home. Seventeen messages on the answering machine.

He opened his filing cabinet and tucked the blonde’s napkin into the folder labeled IOWA.

The phone rang. He snatched it up. “It ain’t Memorex,” he said.

“Johnny.” It was a guy on the other end, but Johnny didn’t recognize the voice until the caller clued him in. “It’s Jack. . Jack Baddalach.”

Baddalach lived on the other side of the complex. Johnny knew him from the pool. The guy was always down there reading paperbacks that were about thirty years old. Seemed like he always had a couple of bruises or a black eye, but that was because he was a boxer. Actually, he had a pretty friendly disposition for a guy who beat the shit out of people for a living. And he was always ready to share a bottle of beer from his ice chest. Besides that, he’d been on TV. He knew people at HBO, suits who handled pay-per-view, too. Johnny considered him a good contact, someone he could consult about matters of fame when such matters became an issue.

So Johnny said, “Jack, how you doin’, buddy?” as if he didn’t have seventeen messages on his answering machine. He always liked everyone to feel real special when he talked to them, and notching up the old enthusiasm meter didn’t really do any harm, did it?

“I’m doing okay, Johnny. Hey, I got a favor to ask you.”

“Shoot.”

“Well, I’ve gotta go out of town for a few days. In fact. I’m already gone.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. Mostly. I mean, the whole thing with the promoter is still pretty wacky, but everything else is pretty much cool.”

“Where are you going?”

“Town called Pipeline Beach.”

“Oh,” Johnny said, because he didn’t have a clue.

“Anyway …” Jack paused because he was getting to the meat of it. “I was wondering if you could feed Frankenstein.”

A chill traveled Johnny’s spine. Friendship was one thing, and greasing potentially good contacts was quite another, but this-

“Johnny? You still there?”

“Yeah, Jack. . Hey, it’s not gonna be like the last time, is it? I don’t have to yank out any stitches or anything, do I?”

“Honest, Johnny. Frankie’s all healed up. You can’t even see the scars anymore.”

“Okay, but-”

“Great,” Baddalach said. “Thanks a bunch, buddy. You’ve still got the key from last time, right?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Get my mail too?”

“Sure.”

“Great. Hey, I guess I’d better go-”

“Wait a minute. Where can I get a hold of you? In case there’s an emergency or something?”

“Hold on,” Baddalach said. “I got an ashtray here from the place I’ll be staying. It’s called the Saguaro Riptide Motel. You got a pencil? I’ll give you the phone number.”

“You’re telling me you picked your motel from an ashtray?”

“It's a long story, Johnny.”

“Most people use a travel agent.”

Baddalach laughed at that one, and Johnny felt a little better. Then the boxer gave him the specifics, and he scrawled a phone number on a note pad, along with Jack’s name and the name of the motel.

They said their good-byes. Johnny cradled the receiver, dug through a drawer that contained spare keys for nearly half the condos in the complex until he found the key to the boxer’s pad.

Johnny stared at the key.

Wow. Frankenstein.

One of these days Jack Baddalach was going to be buying a whole shitload of Johnny Da Nang and the Napalms CDs.

THREE

JACK CHECKED OUT OF THE MOTEL. The front desk arranged a rental car, and someone brought it around. Jack wondered if he could use his corporate plastic for tips, but it seemed like that might get kind of complicated. Still, he was feeling kind of generous-he traded the kid two bucks for the keys.

The rental was a Range Rover. It didn’t make any of the noises Jack’s Celica made, and the plastic interior smelled like a brand new rubber duck that had just paddled off the production line, and the dash was lined with a mystifying array of gauges that Jack blissfully ignored.

He stopped off and grabbed a couple Sourdough Breakfast Sandwiches and two large coffees at the local Jack in the Box restaurant. Figured he might as well have a couple hash browns, too. Breakfast of champions, as far as Jack Baddalach was concerned. Then he hit the highway, taking 10 east.

Pedal to the metal. The Rover moved, all right, and the gauges hung firm. Nothing smoked and nothing rattled.

Jack ate and drove. Along the way he saw plenty of sand, plenty of saguaro cacti.

He took a cutoff and headed south. Saw more of the same. Looked for something mellow on the radio, but all he could find was Johnny Rivers singing “Secret Agent Man” on an oldies station out of Tucson.

Jack turned off the radio just as Johnny got to the part about dying in a Bombay alley.

He started to feel a little uncomfortable.

Mostly, he wished he hadn’t had that second cup of coffee. He pulled over and pissed behind a towering cactus, wondering what the blue-rinsed lady at the motel gift shop would make of that.

About thirty minutes later, he hit Pipeline Beach.

First impression? Plenty of beach, all right.

The first store Jack spotted was actually called the Pipeline Beach Five-and-Dime. He pulled into the parking lot thinking, Welcome to Mayberry West, champ.

That assessment wasn’t far off the mark. As Jack entered the store, he came face to face with a portly man who hovered over the shopping carts. The guy’s ID badge said:

OF COURSE YOU CAN ASK ME!

JERRY CALDWELL

MANAGER

Caldwell grinned. “Help you find anything?”

“I’ll make out,” Jack said.

The guy didn’t give up so easily. “Get you a cart?”

“Nope.”

The fat man seemed to deflate, but his smile hung tough. Jack figured Jerry Caldwell had probably been to a sales seminar that emphasized cheeriness or something. Either that, or there was an empty pod under his bed a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Jack moved down the aisles, searching for socks and underwear. There was only one other customer in the store, and Jack felt like he was on display. Especially when he glanced back at Jerry Caldwell. The manager stood whispering to the lone clerk-a geriatric desert rat dripping turquoise-and-silver jewelry. Caldwell didn’t take his eyes off of Jack. His piggy lips held onto that sales seminar grin like it was a pet snake that had taken up residence on his face.

The menswear section amounted to half an aisle. Mostly, the selection consisted of T-shirts featuring slogans that might seem witty after the third six-pack of Bud. Jack avoided these. Instead, he grabbed a 3-pack of white T-shirts. To this he added a three-pack of jockey shorts and a four-pack of white athletic socks.

You never could come out even in such matters. Jack figured some corporate jockey had conducted a marketing survey, figured out just how many shirts and jockeys and socks to put in a pack so people would buy two instead of one. Jack was tempted to take an extra pack of each, but he didn’t like the idea of some marketing exec getting one up on him. Hopefully three days would cover it. Maybe he’d get lucky-find Komoko right off, today, and get out of town tomorrow.

Yeah. Maybe not.

You’re getting just a little bit ahead of yourself, son.

The liquor case stood against the back wall. Jack grabbed a six-pack of Molson. He was headed for the check-stand when he took a deep breath and caught that sour, limey Old Spice scent.

One more detour. Jack went in search of the pit-stick aisle.

The store’s other customer was there, too. He guessed that she was in her late twenties, and though she was definitely on the small side, she wasn’t what you’d call delicate. At least that was the impression Jack got, but he realized that the desert-fatigue pants and combat boots the woman was wearing might have had something to do with that. As did the Ray Charles-dark sunglasses that hid her eyes, and the black T-shirt that hugged her body just a little too tightly-DEATH FROM ABOVE, it said, over the leering face of a skull.

She reached for a stick of unscented deodorant, and Jack did the same. He glanced at her basket and saw that she was buying some of the same things he’d purchased in Tucson-a toothbrush and toothpaste, to which she’d added a few feminine items including some lipstick. She caught him looking and reciprocated, checking out the items he was buying, and though he couldn’t see her eyes behind the glasses, he noticed that her eyebrows made a curious little trip from the top of her shades to the bottom of the dark auburn bangs that covered her forehead like a curtain.

She smiled wryly, nodding toward Jerry Caldwell. “Real helpful, isn’t he?”

“You got that right.”

They stood like that for a second, as if they were both waiting for more. Then she kind of shrugged, turning away, and Jack did the same.

The geriatric checkout girl was waiting for him, her wrists weighed down with enough turquoise-and-silver bracelets to keep the Navajo nation in groceries for a month.

Jerry Caldwell was waiting, too. “Find everything okay, Mr. Baddalach?”

“Sure,” Jack said, and then he came up short, instantly realizing that he’d made a mistake.

The snaky smile coiled on Jerry’s fat face, ready to strike. Jack hated himself. He should have seen the whole thing coming, because Caldwell had a pen in one hand and a stack of magazines in the other.

Sports III from the previous week. The manager had probably been ready to toss them when Jack came waltzing in, but now he figured he’d found a way to turn garbage into profit.

Jack stared down at the cover photo. His own face, puffed and purple, blood oozing from steak tartare gashes over both eyes.

The cover blurb: BATTLE-AXED.

“How about some autographs?” Caldwell’s lips didn’t move, just stuck with the grin.

“You should have been a ventriloquist.”

“Huh?”

Jack sighed, staring at the magazine covers. “Look. . that wasn’t my proudest moment. Hope you don’t mind if I pass.”

Caldwell’s smile faltered, but then it took on a conspiratorial twist. He set one hand on the three-pack of jockey shorts. “Maybe we could work something out?”

Jack glared at him.

“Oh, nothing untoward,” the manager explained with a chuckle. “A trade, I mean.”

Explanation aside. Jack wished the guy would take his hand off the jockey shorts. He didn’t especially want to think of Jerry Caldwell’s plump little fingers when he slid into them.

Temper, temper, he warned himself, working up a sales manager grin of his own. “I know what the deal is,” he said. “You get me to sign these magazines, you’re gonna go out and sell them for ten, fifteen bucks each.” He shook his head. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think anyone should pay that much to look at my beat-to-shit face.”

The geriatric checkout girl gasped. Her jewelry tinkled unpleasantly.

Jack blushed. “Sorry, ma’am.” He pushed the underwear and the pit-stick and the beer and the rest of the stuff her way.

What the hell. He reached for the magazines and pushed those her way, too.

“Ring me up,” he said.

He reached for his corporate plastic.

Jack exited the store and dropped the magazines into a garbage can near the door. He figured that his behavior hadn’t been covered in any management seminar Jerry Caldwell had ever attended, because he’d left the little fat man speechless.

Chuckling, he climbed into the Range Rover. He set the six-pack on the passenger seat and tossed his other purchases into the back. Then he keyed the ignition and dropped the stick into gear.

That was when he looked up and saw Caldwell digging through the garbage.

Jack was out of the Range Rover in a second.

He slammed the door.

He didn’t see the sheriff’s Jeep Cherokee pulling in behind him.

Jack’s voice had more than a little edge to it. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Caldwell whirled, clutching the magazines to his chest. His reptilian smile had slithered south in a big way, and he stuttered, and he started to shake.

Jack nodded toward the garbage can. “Put them back.”

“N-no,” the manager said, and then his eyeballs did a wild cha-cha-cha as if he were searching the air in front of him, hoping to spot the word floating there so he could grab it and shove it back into his mouth.

“Is there a problem, Jerry?”

Jack stopped dead in his tracks. The voice that had come from behind held an unmistakable air of authority. One look at Jerry Caldwell confirmed his suspicion, because Jerry was grinning like Francis the Talking Mule.

Jack turned. Two women stood between him and a Jeep Cherokee. The driver’s side of the Jeep was kind of bashed up, the paint scratched, but the sheriff’s department insignia on the door was still plainly visible.

Jack eyed the women. Call it male intuition, but he was sure he knew which one had spoken.

First impression? She was tall, and her blond hair was pulled tight against her skull, ending in a long braid that she wore over one shoulder. Maybe under other circumstances the hairstyle might not have appeared so severe, but the standard cop-issue mirrored sunglasses she wore tilted the scales in that direction.

Her polished badge flashed in the morning light. The effect was kind of hypnotic. Jack squinted behind his sunglasses. Then he noticed a pencil sticking out of the pocket flap on one side of the badge, and the spell was broken-the words SAGUARO RIPTIDE MOTEL were stenciled just below the eraser.

The same name that was stenciled on the ashtray at Vince Komoko’s house. Jack took a deep breath. This was the place, all right.

“I don’t like to be stared at, Mister. .?”

“Baddalach.”

The woman with the braid almost smiled. “I’ve heard the name.”

“And yours is?”

Her lips quivered, but just for an instant. When she spoke, her voice had dipped into a lower range. “Wyetta Earp.”

“Wyetta. . Earp?"

Instantly, Jack realized that it was the wrong thing to say and the wrong way to say it, because the sheriff’s backbone turned to iron.

“You can call me Sheriff.”

“Look,” Jack began, “I don’t want any trouble. And I’ve got a receipt for the magazines.”

Jerry Caldwell put in his two cents worth. “He threatened me, Wyetta!”

“No I didn’t. Here’s how it was … the guy wanted my autograph. I didn’t want to give it to him. I bought the magazines, though, and I threw them in the garbage can. Then he went and fished them out.”

Jack glanced past the sheriff. The woman in the black T-shirt was standing next to a battered Dodge Dakota, trying to decide whether to take off or stick around and enjoy the show.

“I own the garbage can!” Caldwell said. “So anything in it is mine!”

Jack ignored him. “I bought the magazines.”

The woman in the black T-shirt joined the fray. “He’s telling the truth. I was behind him in the checkout line. I saw him buy the magazines. I saw the whole thing.”

The sheriff glanced at the deputy. They traded imperceptible grins. “Gosh,” the sheriff said. “This is all really complicated. I don’t know if us girls can figure it out. . but I guess we’ll just have to do our darndest.”

She nodded at the deputy, who moved to the dented Jeep Cherokee with Jerry Caldwell in tow. The woman in the black T-shirt tagged along.

After a long moment. Jack said, “Nice day.”

“Just another day in paradise,” the sheriff said.

“So what’s the deal?”

“We’ll wait and see.”

Jack glanced at the Cherokee. The deputy was on the radio. Jerry Caldwell was gabbing in her ear, as was the woman in the black T-shirt, and the deputy was busy trying to wave them off and talk at the same time.

“I saw your last fight,” the sheriff said.

“Yeah? I wish I could have seen it. But my eyes were pretty busted up.”

“You never should have tangled with Sattler. You didn’t have a chance.”

Jack snorted. “Oh?”

Wyetta Earp smiled. “Yeah. You’re a natural middleweight, Mr. Baddalach. Sattler’s a cruiserweight who can sweat down to light heavyweight if he puts his mind to it, and you were stupid enough to meet him at 175. You shouldn’t have been carrying those extra fifteen pounds. Now, if you’d stop eating cheeseburgers and trim down, you might at least look good losing. Do some roadwork, you might even stand a chance with one of those young guns. You’ve still got a halfway decent left hook.”

“Gosh.” Jack laughed. “You must read Ring Magazine or something.”

“I get around, Mr. Baddalach. You might be surprised.”

Jack thought about that for a second. Deep down, he knew things were spinning away, heading somewhere he didn’t want them to go. Another second and they’d be dropping their flies, seeing whose dick was bigger.

If Wyetta Earp had had a dick, that is.

Jesus, this was dangerous. Jack knew it. But he couldn’t help himself. He felt like he was headed for a quick ten-count, and it was time to go for the long shot, the sweeping left hook that came from the canvas.

His mouth slipped open, and the few words that came out were spoken with casual ease. “So, you know quite a bit. I’m wondering if you know about a guy named Vincent Komoko?”

The sheriff tried to dodge the bullet. She failed, jerking in her snakeskin boots as if someone had pounded her iron backbone with a sledgehammer.

She opened her mouth, but the deputy returned before any words came out. “Range Rover’s a rental out of Tucson,” the deputy said. “No wants, no warrants.”

The sheriff nodded. “Anything else?”

“Yeah. The dispatcher wasn’t sure, but she thought the newspaper said that our friend here was out on bail in Nevada. And I think I read the same thing.”

Grinning, Wyetta Earp turned to Jack. “That’s right. I almost forgot. You beat up a poor defenseless boxing promoter, you naughty boy. And you’re a pro. Your fists are considered lethal weapons. That makes it felony assault. Whatever are you doing in our fair state of Arizona? You wouldn’t be jumping bail, would you?”

Jack said, “I suppose it wouldn’t help if I told you that the guy dropped the charges.”

“I don’t know. We have to be careful. We just can’t go running around half-cocked." Wyetta shrugged. “We’ll just have to make some phone calls, won’t we?”

Jack figured there wasn’t anything else to say.

The sheriff reached for her handcuffs.

Jack held out his hands.

Knuckle to nail, they ached like hell.

FOUR

Man alive, did this guy burn her up, him with his little appraising squint the first time he glimpsed the badge pinned to her chest, his eyes ping-ponging between the polished star and her breasts like she was some fantastic wet dream with a gun and a pair of shiny handcuffs who couldn’t wait to check out his long hard nightstick. Nothing scorched her worse than that kind of look, especially from a guy dressed in cactus-patterned turista wear. She was the law in this town, goddamnit, not some goddamn trophy. No jerk who reeked of Old Spice was going to mount her pelt on the wall of his goddamn game room. No fucking way.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Uh-uh. Not by a long shot. The worst of it was when the guy said her name, the way it slipped through his lips, practically drooling sarcasm.

Wyetta. . Earp?

Not that she wasn’t used to that kind of reaction. She’d taken plenty of grief over her name ever since she was knee-high. Being a girl and being named after Wyatt Earp was a fate that notched pretty high on the adolescent misery scale, as bad as being the boy named Sue that Johnny Cash had sung about back in the sixties. She’d spent a good part of her youth hating her name and the drunken highway patrolman father who’d given it to her. She’d wanted to change it a million times, and as a girl she’d sworn she’d do just that as soon as she turned eighteen.

But names were funny things. They could turn you into someone you never thought you’d be. That was how it had been for her. On her sixteenth birthday it had dawned on her, a crystal-clear vision of the person she wanted to become. That was the day she decided to make her given name work for her, to become all the things that it stood for. She’d felt kind of like a superhero then, as if she’d discovered a Wonder Woman costume hanging in her closet, a costume that had always been there-waiting and invisible-until she was ready to see it.

But this pug in her lock-up. . Wyetta flipped her braid over her left shoulder. The way he said her name, that little grin tickling the corners of his mouth while the remnants of his scarred-up eyebrows arched above his sunglasses like a goddamn bascule bridge.

She wasn’t going to forget that look anytime soon. No way, Jose.

And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d asked her about Komoko, asked her straight out, his voice completely devoid of respect, like she was a goddamn secretary who was supposed to bow and scrape and give him a goddamn cup of coffee along with his answer.

Man alive, she’d wanted to bash him then. She could see it. A roundhouse kick clipping the point of his chin. Or a kick to the balls, her Nocona boot digging in hard, his eyes crossing up, face going white, precious little cojones cracking like walnuts.

A little voice in her head warned her it might not be so easy, that this was a man who went toe-to-toe for a living, but she shook it off. Professional boxer, hell. She didn’t care anything about that. She’d seen the pug’s fight with Sugar Ray Sattler. Baddalach cut and bled worse than a hemophiliac, plus he was slower than the Mummy. He dragged his right foot around the ring like it was stuck in a bucket of horseshit. He couldn’t do anything with a mover like Sugar Ray Sattler.

And that was pitiful, because Wyetta Earp owned moves that would make Sugar Ray Sattler break out in a cold, cold sweat. She had the paper and pot metal to prove it. Mounted on the wall directly in front of her were a dozen framed certificates signed by a half-dozen senseis, and a glass case filled with martial arts tournament trophies stood on the wall to her left.

She’d signed up for Tae Kwon Do lessons at sixteen, the day after she decided to make her given name work for her. It was her first step on the road to becoming a superhero, and she’d taken her lumps without complaint at a dojo above a Korean market in Tucson.

Three years later she earned her first black belt. A month after that she broke her father’s jaw with a roundhouse kick when he took after her mother one time too many. Two more months and she booted the son of a bitch out of their house for good.

Now her mom lived in one of the mobile home parks in Pipeline Beach, happy as a clam, and she never even mentioned that her ex-husband had used her for a punching bag for twenty long years. Nope. All Mama Earp talked about was how proud she was of her only child.

You could read something into that, sure. But as far as Wyetta was concerned, you could leave all that bullshit about self-actualization in the psych texts, thank you very much, because she had done it the old-fashioned way, with hard work and lots of lumps and plenty of flying by the seat of her pants. And in the end she had become everything she’d set out to be-a sheriff and a hardcase of the first stripe, just like the man she’d decided to emulate so long ago.

She stared at the framed tintype on her desk. Wyatt Earp stared back at her. His sepia eyes were hard. You couldn’t see his lips at all because they were hidden by a moustache, but Wyetta was sure that they formed a firm, unsmiling line.

Wyetta pulled open the center drawer of her desk and withdrew what looked like a wooden valentine-a flat piece of cedar that sprouted three stubby legs on the bottom. Then she lifted the blotter from the top of the desk and set it aside.

Below was a Ouija board.

Wyetta had purchased the board in Los Angeles. A prominent antique dealer had staked his reputation on its authenticity, but she’d had it verified by a recognized Earpana expert before laying down her long green. So there was no doubt in her mind that the Ouija board had once been the property of Josie Marcus, just as there was no doubt in her mind that Josie Marcus had been Wyatt Earp’s wife.

Wyetta set the heart-shaped planchette on the board. Doing that always gave her a chill, because she knew Wyatt must have done the same thing a century before. Her fingers hovering over the wooden heart, light and ready. At the same time, she stared at the iron picture frame on her desk and found and held Wyatt Earp’s sepia gaze.

“Does Baddalach know anything?” she asked.

The cedar heart hesitated. Wyetta’s heart skipped a beat.

Three cedar legs scraped across the board as the planchette darted to the corner marked YES.

“Is he going to give me any trouble?”

Wyetta held her breath. The heart drifted to the center of the board. She exhaled in relief. . until it pulled back.

To the same spot, the spot marked YES.

Her anger rose. Words spilled out of her mouth in a rush, and when she bit them off the taste of lipstick was bitter on her tongue.

“What kind of man is he?” was the question she asked.

The heart moved surely, quickly, picking out one letter after another.

B. . A. . D. .

. . A. .

. . S

. . S

The muscles in Wyetta’s shoulders knotted. Her arms tensed, and the cedar heart bolted forward and escaped her fingers, clattering against the photo of Wyatt Earp, knocking it to the floor.

Glass shattered. Wyetta stared at the Ouija board, shaking as if she’d taken a mean left hook to the temple.

A knock on the office door brought her around.

The words came automatically. “It’s open.”

Deputy Holloway entered the office. “Vegas PD just returned my call.”

“And?”

“Baddalach’s telling the truth-the promoter dropped the charges last night.”

Wyetta nodded.

Deputy Holloway watched her, pretending that she didn’t see the Ouija board on the sheriff’s desk or the tintype in the iron frame with glass busted out of it that lay on the floor next to a faded cedar heart. It was better not to speak of these things. This the deputy had learned through long, hard experience.

Instead, the deputy asked the obvious question. “What do you want me to do with him?”

Wyetta swiveled her chair, turning away from the door, away from the deputy. She stared at her trophy case, at the framed certificates papering the wall. Wyatt was wrong about this one. He had to be. Because Wyetta was a badass herself, a certified badass with trophies and sheepskins aplenty.

“Sheriff?”

“Let the pug go. Deputy,” Wyetta said.

She smiled when she said it.

FIVE

In a way, Jack hated to leave the jailhouse so soon. There was a real interesting water stain on the ceiling of his cell and he hadn’t had enough time to decide if it looked more like a thundercloud hijacked from Heaven by disgruntled angels or the Monster from the Id from Forbidden Planet.

He worked up a good sweat walking back to the five-and-dime. Thankfully, the Range Rover was still sitting in the parking lot. At least Jerry Caldwell hadn’t had his car towed.

Jack notched the air-conditioner to MAX and headed for the highway. He’d put a mile between himself and Pipeline Beach when he spotted the billboard:

Surf’s up at

THE SAGUARO RIPTIDE MOTEL

Cable TV * Air-Conditioning

Swimming Pool

Surf guitar nightly

THIRD LEFT OR YOU’VE MISSED IT, AMIGOS AND AMIGETTES

Someone had made an attempt to paint over the second-to-last line, but it was still visible. Jack didn’t care about that, though. He only cared about the name of the joint. The Saguaro Riptide-the same name stenciled on the ashtray he’d found at Vince Komoko’s place.

The same name on the pencil he’d seen in Wyetta Earp’s pocket.

It could be nothing more than a coincidence. Pipeline Beach was a small town. Or it could be that Wyetta Earp had been sniffing around the motel, looking for Komoko.

And maybe, just maybe, there was something more to it than that.

Jack knew he was getting ahead of himself. He passed a dirt road that lead to a cemetery, an old-time boot hill with leaning tombstones and strangely stationary tumbleweeds.

Jack found himself wondering how many pistoleros Wyetta had put there with her blazing six-gun. He smirked at the notion. Not that he was sexist or anything. But, Jesus, if ever a woman thought that the sun rose and set out of the crack of her ass, it was Wyetta Earp.

The cemetery blurred past on the left, only to be replaced by more desert, more saguaros, more tumbleweeds. Jack notched another mile on the odometer before he came to the second left, which lead to a junkyard. He slowed down a bit, because the next turn would be for the Saguaro Riptide.

The third left was almost on top of the second. A narrow road lined with tall neon tombstones cut a jagged trail to the east.

Jack made the turn, peering at the bizarre roadside display from behind his sunglasses as he slowed his speed. Instantly, he realized that he’d been wrong. The objects he’d mistaken for tombstones were actually surfboards. A couple dozen of the things had been planted along the road, one every ten feet.

Still, Jack couldn’t quite discard his first impression. The notion of neon tombstones sent a chill up his spine. And that was funny, because the real graveyard hadn’t bothered him at all.

He didn’t figure that Vince Komoko was hanging out on that dusty boot hill, though. And he was certain that Vince had been known to hang out at the Riptide.

The road wasn’t dirt, but it was pretty beat up nonetheless. Jack dodged potholes, taking it slow. Then the surfboards were behind him. The motel lay up ahead. Not a bad-looking joint, but definitely a creation of the cinder-block sixties.

There were plenty of parking spaces. Jack pulled to a stop in front of the office.

He got out of the car, stretched, and walked inside.

The woman behind the counter was older than Jack, but that didn’t matter because she was a dusky brunette of the barefoot variety. That was a definite point in her favor, as was the fact that she wore jeans and a T-shirt, the added bonus being that the outfit looked good and simple and right on her. Her skin was the color of polished mahogany and her eyes were blue. Her nose was twisted just a little bit. Jack wondered what she’d done to get it broken, and why she’d never bothered to get it fixed.

He couldn’t ask her that, though. Not right off. But the tombstone surfboards were still on his mind, so he asked, “What’s with the surfboards, anyway? Are you expecting California and Nevada to sink into the Pacific?”

“I wish, ’cause that’s the only way I’ll see a wave again, brudda.” She smiled. “Those boards are mine, but planting them. . that was my husband’s idea. His name was Dale Dayton. Maybe you’ve heard of him?”

Jack shrugged. “Sorry. Can’t say as I have.”

She pointed at a series of framed album covers hanging on the wall behind her. Mostly shots of surfers and hot rods and women wearing bikinis. “Dale had a couple hit records way back when. Dale Dayton and the Daytonas. Surf music.”

“Like the Beach Boys?”

“Nope. Dale didn’t sing. Just played the guitar.”

“Hey, I’d probably know his stuff if I heard it. But I’m not a wizard when it comes to remembering the names of songs.”

“Well … it was a long time ago.” She held out a hand. “Sandy Kapalua-Dayton. Part Hawaiian, part Navajo, with enough Irish thrown in to make me surly in the morning. Women’s National Surfing Champion, 1965-67, and winner of the Pipeline Invitational five years running.”

“Jack Baddalach. I’m retired, too. At least, I think I am.”

“I know.” She winked at him. “I saw the fight.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. You look a lot bigger on television, Mr. Baddalach.”

“That’s what people tell me.” Jack took out his wallet, handed over his brand new corporate credit card. “Nothing fancy.”

“That’s about all we’ve got, so you’re in luck.” She grabbed a registration form from a little box on the counter and started filling it out.

“So, how’d you end up in Arizona?” Jack asked.

“Retirement plan. When the surf craze died out, me and Dale figured we’d pull up stakes in LA and buy ourselves a hunk of the desert. You know what they say, build a better tourist trap and the world will beat a path to your door. We had big dreams-a surfin’ oasis in the middle of the big lonesome. And I mean lonesome; in ’68 there wasn’t anything else around here but Gila monsters and rattlesnakes.

“Of course, a couple of mobile home barons moved in about ten years ago and threw up instant retirement villages, changing everything. Now we’ve even got bus service to Tucson and our own public library. But Dale and me, we built this town. We named it, opened up the first motel, the first coffee shop, and the first gas station. We wanted to buy ourselves one of those wave machines, the kind they’ve got at that fake beach up in Phoenix, but we never came up with the cash to build ourselves a miniature Pacific.”

“Too bad.”

She smiled. “Don’t get out the violins just yet, Mr. Baddalach. We did all right. . and maybe we could have done a whole lot better. But my heart kind of went out of it when Dale died. I sold the coffee shop and the gas station and-”

The sound of a barking dog severed the woman’s words. She swore and poked her head through the window behind her. From his vantage point Jack caught sight of a chain-link fence and what looked like a junkyard beyond.

“Dale!” the woman yelled. “You want any dinner, you’d better shut up. . and I mean now!”

Jack spotted a black and tan pit bull in midleap. The animal slammed against the chain-link fence, then came back for more, launching itself from the battered hood of a junked Barracuda.

“Dale! You coconut brain! Knock it off!”

The pit bull yipped as Sandy turned away. The yipping turned into a growl but she ignored the sound, returning her attention to the registration form. Finally the dog settled on an anguished whimper that seemed both pitiful and practiced.

Jack couldn’t help himself. “You named your dog after your, uh. . ” He searched for the right words. “After your deceased husband?”

Sandy laughed. “Look, brudda, you want my life story or you want a room?”

“Just curious.”

She sighed, thinking it over, then gave in. “It’s like this. Two days after Dale died, a pregnant pit bull bitch got hit out on the highway. Gave birth to a litter in a ditch on the side of the road. This one was the only pup that lived.”

“So you think it’s some kind of reincarnation thing? That’s why you named the dog after you husband?”

“No. Not exactly.” She looked as if she were doing her best to hide a rather sizable smile. “It’s just that Dale is the only name he’ll answer to, and he chases his butt like a pup every time I pop one of Dale’s tapes into my boom box.”

“Gotcha,” Jack said, but he raised his eyebrows when he said it.

“You like upstairs?”

“Huh?”

“Your room. Is upstairs okay?”

“Sure, upstairs is fine. But I’ve got one more question.”

“Shit, brudda. I’ve slept with guys without talking this much.”

“Me too … I mean. I’ve slept with girls, not guys.”

It was an old joke, but Sandy laughed anyway. “Okay. Shoot. But make it fast, okay? Dale won’t wait forever.”

Jack hesitated. He wondered if he should ask the question at all. His gut told him that Sandy Kapalua-Dayton was okay. And his brain told him the same thing, because he sure couldn’t imagine this easygoing woman being great buds with a cop, especially a hardcase like Wyetta Earp.

So Jack threw caution to the wind and asked, “You ever heard of a guy named Vince Komoko?”

“Yeah,” Sandy replied, her voice matter-of-fact.

“You know him?”

“No.” She looked Jack dead in the eye. “How long will you be staying?”

“I’m not sure … I mean, it’s kind of up in the air. .”

Sandy smiled as if he’d said exactly what she wanted to hear.

“Well, I’ve got your credit card number. Maybe I’ll leave your account open, just in case you need to make any phone calls or anything. We can settle up when you check out.”

‘That sounds good. But about this guy Komoko-”

Sandy passed the registration form to Jack, along with a pen. “Fill in your home address and the make, model, and license of your car. You can leave the form on the counter when you’re done.” She handed over Jack’s corporate plastic along with a key that was attached to a plastic slab shaped like a surfboard. “Room 22. . top of the stairs and hang a left.”

Jack started writing. “So. This Komoko character-” Sandy grabbed a can opener from the counter. “Maybe you should ask that sweet young hoale out by the pool. She checked in yesterday, and the first thing she did was ask me about Komoko.”

Jack glanced over his shoulder. Through the office window, he saw the woman from the five-and-dime, the one who’d stood up for him. She was sitting on a chaise longue by the swimming pool. Only now she’d lost the black T-shirt and fatigue pants, and her combat boots were tucked under the lounge. She wore a black bikini and she was smearing sunscreen on her belly, her hand moving in slow, lazy circles-

“Down, boy,” Sandy said. “Don’t drool on my carpet.”

“What can you tell me about her?”

“Nothing. Except her name is Kate Benteen, and she’s from some shitsplat called Grizzly Gulch, Montana. And she makes me kind of sick, of course.”

“Why’s that?”

“Just look at her. I mean, how many women can pull off that look? A black bikini and combat boots. Gidget Goes Ballistic." Sandy shook her head. “That little girl makes me pine for my misspent youth, is what she does.”

“Yeah, but-”

“We’ll catch that wave another day, Mr. Baddalach.”

“Okay. You’ve got a date. When can we-”

“Don’t make any promises you can’t keep.” Sandy pointed at Kate Benteen. “See how you feel after your private incursion with Ms. Rambette out there. You end up getting down in the trenches, that’s fine. Don’t worry about putting the big hurt to my little ol’ heart, because I’m a strong believer in first impressions. And while you seem like you’d be a fun guy once we got past all the woe is me I’m a washed up pug stuff, I figure you’re just a turista here in Pipeline Beach, and I hate good-byes almost more than anything. It looks like I’m here for the long haul, and I don’t see a guy like you hanging around fixing air-conditioners and ice machines, warning little brats that the water’s gonna turn orange if they pee in the pool.” She sucked a deep breath. “So here’s the big picture according to Sandy Kapalua-Dayton-maybe we’ll have us some fun and maybe we won’t. All I know is right now I’ve got to feed my dog.”

“But-”

Sandy shrugged. “Amigo, it’s just like Doris Day said, ‘Que sera, sera.’”

Jack wanted to say that maybe it wasn’t that way at all, not in the big picture according to Jack Baddalach. But by the time his mouth kicked into gear Sandy Kapalua-Dayton had already stepped through the back door.

She headed toward the junkyard with a can of Alpo in one hand and a can opener in the other.

Jack had never heard anyone swear in Hawaiian.

But he was sure he was hearing it now.

SIX

Woodrow’s blood was much darker than sandstone, and it flowed like the night itself.

He stared down at his left hand. Both of them. He blinked furiously. Each blink sent an angry jolt of pain through his skull, as if his eyelids were made of iron. But blinking did no good.

The illusion persisted. Two left hands. Both of them bleeding.

His stomach churned. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He’d cracked his head. That was all. In a moment, the dizziness would pass. And when he opened his eyes he would only have one left hand.

But it would be bleeding.

He couldn’t delay.

He had to do something about that.

He opened his eyes.

Thankfully, he only had one left hand.

He wasn’t going to worry that it seemed to have three extra fingers.

Woodrow turned on the tap in the kitchen sink. A stream of cold water rinsed the blood from his hand and stirred a brittle ache in his palm that made him momentarily sympathetic to the sufferings of Jesus Christ.

Momentarily was the key word here, for Woodrow’s sympathy was generally fleeting when it came to the suffering of others, especially the sufferings of Christian martyrs.

Simply put, he had his own problems. He examined his hand, turning it this way and that. His vision sharpened, and the illusory additional digits faded away.

Back to five fingers. His head continued to throb, but that pain was nothing compared to the agony of his hand. Four angry puncture wounds puckered his flesh. Two on the back of his hand, roughly along the ridge of tendon behind his first knuckle. Two on his palm, piercing his lifeline. However, the latter bit of irony did not distress Woodrow any more than the wounds themselves. They were simply part of the job, a result of the ever present element of risk engendered by same.

But blood had spattered the cuff of his left shirtsleeve. That simple fact distressed Woodrow. His shirts were expensive. Tailored specifically for his frame, as were all his clothes. Loose enough to allow the athletic mobility often required by his profession, but tight enough to create an aura of fitness and, by extension, professional competency.

Woodrow did not enjoy shopping for clothes. Therefore, he was as meticulous about maintaining his wardrobe as he was about maintaining his weight, which never crept above 175 pounds.

As a result Woodrow ate a lot of salads. Quite often he was hungry, especially when he was in the presence of food. . say, in a supermarket or a restaurant. But at present he was not hungry at all.

His stomach churned again. Just thinking about food had been a mistake. He closed his iron eyelids and fought off the pain, concentrating on the cool rush of tap water.

Minutes passed. He felt a little better. Good enough to open his eyes. He turned off the tap. Immediately, four thin streams of blood pulsed from his wounds. Soon scarlet droplets pattered against the stainless steel basin.

Woodrow watched a pattern take shape as if he were back in the prison psychiatrist’s office at Rahway examining a Rorschach test.

One Rorschach test. . then two. . two strange creatures in the sink. Tarantulas covered with blood, their hairy legs scrabbling over stainless steel. .

No. He closed his eyes. He would not see these things. God, if he actually had a concussion … if he passed out here, in Jack Baddalach’s condominium. .

Those thoughts were negative. Woodrow erased them from his consciousness. He drew a deep breath and held it, searching for the oasis of peace that Allah nurtured within his soul.

A moment later he exhaled and opened his eyes, assuring himself that he was once again in control. A neatly folded dish towel with a wagon wheel and cacti pattern hung over the refrigerator door handle. Woodrow wrapped it around his wounded hand.

At the same moment the front door of Baddalach’s condominium swung open.

Woodrow reached inside his coat. The fingers of his right hand closed around a Colt.45 Double Eagle Combat Commander nestled in a polished black leather shoulder holster.

Johnny Da Nang entered Jack Baddalach’s condo and closed the door behind him.

Almost immediately, he wished he hadn’t done that.

Because there was a broken lamp on the living room floor, and the coffee table had been busted in two. Frankenstein was lying there amidst the rubble, drooling blood, thick bands of duct tape encircling his legs, his poor battered head practically mummified in the stuff.

Johnny blinked. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a slight movement in the kitchen.

He started to turn.

“Don’t do that,” someone said.

Johnny’s well-cultivated South Central LA street instinct informed him that this was the kind of voice that meant business. A voice that sounded polite on the surface, but a voice that might as well have screamed Don’t fuck with me, slope because underneath the clean polish was a history of mean and dirty streets.

“Come here,” the voice ordered.

Johnny did as he was told, hands held before him, the left one empty and Baddalach’s key in the right. He wanted to be sure the guy saw that. Just like he wanted the guy to notice that he was taking things nice and easy and slow. Smiling, too, like what could possibly be the problem?

Bits of broken lamp crunched beneath the heels of Johnny’s James Brown-style cockroach killers. He stepped over the mummified dog, and Frankenstein whined a little, and the singer in Johnny detected a tremulous vibrato of pity in the plaintive sound. Like the mutt with the monster’s name was saying, Don’t mess with this guy Johnny, not for all the Kibbles ’n ’ Bits on the planet.

That was when the guy stepped out of the kitchen nook, into the living room. Johnny noticed the gun first-a fistful of polished steel that made a real impression. Then he noticed what was in the guy’s other hand-a dish towel, well on its way to being drenched in blood. Frankenstein must have put up a fight, not that you could tell anything from the guy’s expression-George Foreman staredown, circa 1975, just before he bounced Smokin’ Joe Frazier all over the ring.

Johnny checked out the guy. For a second he almost laughed, because the brother was decked out in a black sharkskin suit that made him look like one of the Blues Brothers imitators over at the Imperial Palace.

Then Johnny noticed the little black bow tie.

The African hat.

Shit. This mother was a Black Muslim.

And right off Johnny could tell that he was a point yourself toward Mecca and pray five times a day kind of Muslim, because even though he had the solid drop on Johnny he stuck with the staredown, didn’t even crack a grin. Just stood there, stoney, serious as prostate cancer.

So Johnny grinned for him. “Hey, bro. How they hangin’?”

“Right now they are hanging heavy.” The man aimed his pistol at Johnny’s face. “And I am not your brother.”

It had been bad enough, the dog attacking him when he first gained entrance to Baddalach’s condominium. The animal had waited until he moved into the living room, springing as Woodrow turned, slamming against his chest and knocking him back into the entry hall.

Where he had slipped on slick tile and cracked his head on same. He had passed out for an instant, but only for an instant, because when that instant passed a thunderbolt of fresh pain brought him fully conscious. Teeth ripping at his hand, jaws grinding, holding firm even when Woodrow wrestled with the animal, smashing it through a lamp and a coffee table, finally cracking its head on the tiled floor in the kitchen until the canine was unconscious.

Still, Woodrow had felt no real animosity for the beast. It was only doing its job-protecting its master’s hearth and home. This Woodrow could admire. So he had bound the dog with a roll of duct tape he found in the kitchen drawer.

Had Baddalach returned to the condominium at that moment, Woodrow would have executed him without pause. Had a woman entered-say, a girlfriend-Woodrow would have held his gun to the dog’s head, threatened its life. Certainly, this would have garnered specific information concerning Baddalach’s whereabouts, because women were notoriously softhearted when it came to dogs or any other dewy-eyed quadrupeds. Once Woodrow had obtained the information he was after, he would have executed the girlfriend and dropped the dog at a veterinarian on his way to kill Baddalach.

Those would have been his options had he confronted Baddalach or Baddalach’s girlfriend. But the Vietnamese kid was something else entirely.

The Vietnamese kid distressed Woodrow. The kid was talking. . talking. . talking. He wouldn’t shut up.

“Look, let’s cut to it, okay?” the kid was saying. “I grew up in South Central. I’m not stupid. I know what you’re after. You want Baddalach, right? The promoter who got his tongue amputated sent you to kill him.”

Woodrow’s head began to throb anew. He wanted to tell the kid that he didn’t have to shout.

But the kid took the initiative. He held up his hands, eyes on Woodrow to show that everything was hunky-dory. Then he slowly dipped the fingers of his right hand into his shirt pocket and fished out a slip of paper.

“I’ll make it easy,” the kid said.

Woodrow dropped the dish towel and took the slip of paper in his bloody grasp. The letters seemed to swim across the page, bleeding before his eyes, but he marshaled his resolve and forced his eyes to focus on the note.

Baddalach’s name was at the top. Beneath was the name of a motel and an Arizona phone number. Woodrow’s mind had barely processed the information when he realized the kid was talking again.

And he had moved. He was at the dog’s side, loosening the duct tape.

“Don’t do that,” Woodrow said, aiming the Combat Commander at the Vietnamese kid’s face.

“Remember what I told you.” The kid’s voice was firm. “I grew up in South Central. I’ve had guns pointed at my face before.”

“Not by me you haven’t.”

The kid shrugged. “I figure if you’re gonna kill me, you’ll kill me whatever I do. And its not like I’m planning to sic the dog on you-I figure he’s learned his lesson, anyway. But if it’ll make you happy, I won’t take the tape off Frankenstein’s legs. I gotta get it off his muzzle, though-I think you broke the mutt’s nose, and I don’t want him to suffocate.”

Woodrow didn’t say anything. He jammed the slip of paper into his pocket. There was a taffy-pulling machine locked inside his skull, working on his brain. His shirt was stained with blood. His left hand was dribbling blood onto the carpet. The pistol suddenly seemed very heavy in his right.

Woodrow slipped the Combat Commander into his shoulder holster. He was getting tired of aiming it at the Vietnamese kid, anyway. And the dog was whining, its dewy puppy eyes pinballing in terror at the sight of Woodrow.

“I’ll tell you the truth,” the kid said. “If you let me live, the first thing I’m going to do is call Jack Baddalach and tell him you’re looking for him. But let me warn you-you go after Baddalach, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”

“I’m sure you’ll tell me.”

“Uh-huh.” The sarcasm sailed over the kid’s head like a Stealth Fighter. “I’ll tell you all right.”

The kid looked Woodrow straight in the eye. “I’m a people person,” he said. “They fascinate me. I study ’em, the way some scientists study gorillas in the Congo, stuff like that.”

Gently, the kid tugged the tape off the dog’s muzzle. “People are just like animals. They’ve got behavior patterns. Baddalach’s got ’em. Take this dog, for instance. There’s a reason he named it Frankenstein. You got time to hear the story?”

Woodrow felt a little woozy. Now the kid was asking him questions, taking things for granted. Like his survival. Woodrow wondered if he should reach for his pistol, or at least hit the kid-who wasn’t much bigger than a Munchkin-give him a little negative reinforcement and take control of the situation. Perhaps it was the loss of blood, or the taffy-pulling machine working on his brain, but Woodrow couldn’t decide-

“I’ll take that as a yes,” the kid said. “See, Baddalach goes down to the gym one day. There’s a new guy hanging around, a cutman who’s looking for work. No one’s ever heard of him, so no one’s going to give him any business.

“That doesn’t stop the guy, though. He says. Wait a minute. I got something that’ll change your mind. So he goes out to his car, comes back with a runty little bulldog pup. The dog’s face is shaved, and it’s crisscrossed with so many scars that it looks like a sadist has been playing connect-the-dots. The cutman leashes the dog to the ring post. The poor thing’s shaking on its runty little legs. Obviously, the butcher’s been using the dog to practice his technique.

“To a man, the gym rats are pretty quiet. The cutman is beaming. He lines up his Vaseline, his Q-tips, his avetine and thrombine and adrenaline chloride 1-1000. He opens a straight razor-the dog’s whining by now-and he says. Watch this.

“Baddalach moves in just that fast and takes the razor away from the cutman. Puts it to the guy’s throat. Walks him around the ring. Has a real quiet conversation that nobody else hears. When they’re done talking he slips the guy five bucks, slaps him on the back, all grins now, saying. Gee, Mister, I sure am glad you came in here today looking to sell your dog.”

All of a sudden, the kid shut up. Stared, like he was waiting for Woodrow to say something. But Woodrow couldn’t think of anything to say, and he had the uneasy feeling that the kid had planned it that way.

“So now you know what kind of guy Jack Baddalach is.” The kid pulled the last of the duct tape from the dog’s muzzle. “I’ll tell you this much-when he finds out what you did to his dog, he won’t be a happy camper.”

“Tell him.” The words spilled from Woodrow’s mouth automatically. “Do not omit a single detail. Inform Mr. Baddalach that I enjoyed every second.”

The kid smiled now, and it was a wide smile, self-assured. “Oh, I’ll tell him, all right. As soon as you leave.”

Woodrow straightened. Suddenly, it was the oddest thing. Like the kid was dismissing him. Like he was the one in charge of the situation. Woodrow had the gun, and he was the trained killer, but the kid was the one staring him down, making him sweat.

Woodrow hesitated, wondering what to do.

Then it hit him.

There was only one thing to do. The way things stood, he had to let the kid live. Because if he killed the kid he’d look like a punk, like he was afraid to let the kid warn Baddalach.

Woodrow’s head was really pounding now. Full boogie disco throb. The little runt had manipulated him. Woodrow knew it and the kid knew it, but no way Woodrow was going to let the kid know that he knew.

So Woodrow worked up his best tougher-than-Rahway voice and said, “You tell Jack Baddalach that he is a dead man.”

Then he whirled, full of purpose now. Slammed out the door, even though the noise was pure murder. Got in his Saturn and hit the road, and he didn’t give a damn if sometimes he saw one road and sometimes he saw two, just so long as both of those roads led to Pipeline Beach, Arizona.

SEVEN

Her combat boots were desert camouflage. Her bikini was black. And her skin was white. Pure white. White white. Bela Lugosi white. And it appeared she wanted it to stay that way, because her sunblock of choice was Coppertone 45.

Jack used his room key to unlock the gate to the pool area, but the woman didn’t bother to look his way. At least he thought she didn’t-though she faced him, he couldn’t see her eyes behind the same pair of shades she’d been wearing at the Pipeline Beach Five-and-Dime.

He glanced at the combat boots under the chaise longue as he approached her. The boots were pretty scuffed up- probably more than a fashion statement. The black DEATH FROM ABOVE T-shirt was balled up on one side of the boots. A couple of magazines lay half-covered by the shirt-Guns amp; Ammo and Cosmopolitan and Soldier of Fortune and something called Outre.

Jack pulled up a chaise of his own and sat down. “So,” he said, “what’s the deal with this Komoko character?”

A bemused little grin. “What is this, twenty questions?”

“Sure, we can do that.”

“Okay.” She stayed with the grin. “Anytime you’re ready, champ.”

“For starters, what’s your name?”

“Kate Benteen. But come on, champ. Next you’ll be asking for my astrological sign. Or my internet address. I know you can do better than that. Let’s try for some originality, okay?”

She turned his way, sitting up and leaning forward, like she couldn’t wait to hear his next question. She was a long way from being an Amazon a la Wyetta Earp, but she had long legs and Jack couldn’t help wondering-

“C’mon, champ. I know you’ve been in prison and all, but you were only locked up for five or six hours.”

“Sorry.” Jesus, he felt like a teenager, like he was about to blush.

Either she didn’t notice or she pretended not to notice. “So, give me another question, champ. And make it a good one. You know, devastate me with your wit. Like James Bond does it in the movies.”

“Okay.” He cleared his throat. “What’s with the boots? Fashion statement? A retro Nancy Sinatra kind of thing? Or are you one of those all-American terrorists?”

She shot a little gob of sunblock on those long legs of hers and the bottle made a little farting sound. For a second Jack thought maybe that was going to be her answer, but then she started rubbing and talking. “Yeah, well I guess these boots are made for walkin’. They got me through the Saudi, that’s for sure.”

‘The Saudi?”

“Operation Desert Storm. That glorious little one-hundred-hour war. You probably sat on your butt watching it on CNN. I sat on my butt right in the middle of it, only it lasted a hell of a lot longer than four days for me.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

She smiled, the main event this time, and it was some smile, her lips drawing back but not quite showing teeth. “Oh, I don’t think we have time to get into that one right now, champ. But if you really want an answer, make your way down to the Pipeline Beach Public Library and look up BENTEEN, KATE, in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. That’s Major Kate Benteen, United States Army. You’ll find a couple of personality profiles in People and Reader’s Digest. Hell, once upon a time I even made it into Vanity Fair."

Jack gave her a little nod, the one that came complete with a wrinkled brow to show how impressed he was. “So, are you on leave or something? Is Pipeline Beach your idea of a vacation spot. Major?”

“No and no. I’m retired. Well, that’s not quite right. I was dishonorably discharged. The top brass didn’t much like it when their little darlin’ shipped stateside and turned up in Playboy.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope.” She shrugged. ‘The ‘Girls of Desert Storm’ issue.”

“I must have missed that one.”

“You’re the only guy in America who did. The crazy part was that I didn’t even pose for the feature. I was the interview that month. But I have to admit I kind of got wrapped up in the whole fifteen-minute celebrity thing. I mean. I’d had a little taste of it before-I won a silver medal at the ’88 Olympics in Seoul-”

“Wait a minute. You were in the Olympics? Doing what?”

“Platform diving.” She didn’t miss a beat. “That was a while ago. I don’t miss it-chlorine is real hard on a girl’s hair. And I don’t really miss the military, either-it wasn’t like those good ol’ boys were ever going to invite me to be guest speaker at Tailhook.”

“So, what’s on the resume since then?”

“I rode out my fifteen minutes of fame. Even did a movie for Roger Corman. But Hollywood isn’t my style, and-”

Jack cut her down with a burst of sharp laughter. “Behind those shades, I bet your eyes are brown.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I never met anyone who was so full of shit in my whole life.” He leaned forward, whispering conspiratorially. “C’mon now. I’ll admit that you really had me going, and maybe I deserved it. But let’s drop the tall tales and get to it, okay? About this Komoko-”

“Uh-uh. I think you’ve used up all your questions, champ. Now it’s my turn.”

“Jesus. Listen, Kate. . your name is Kate, right?”

“You can call me Major Benteen.”

“Jesus.”

She leaned back, stretching out, turning her face toward the sun. “So, what kind of a lunch box did you have when you were a little kid?”

“Huh?”

“You know-those little metal boxes your mommy filled with bologna sandwiches and potato chips and Hostess Twinkles. Most of them featured really bad paintings of characters from TV shows.”

“Oh, yeah.” Jack tried to remember. “Mine had the guys from Wild Wild West.”

“Ah. . James West-the cowboy James Bond.”

“And Artemus Gordon, his loyal sidekick.”

Her lips formed a circle that was both appreciative and acquisitive. ‘That earns you some points, champ. You didn’t happen to save it, did you?”

“What?”

“The lunch box. Do you still have it?”

“No. . hell no, of course not.”

“Too bad. I’ve been meaning to get a new purse.”

Jack blew it off. “C’mon now, this is fun and all, but let’s cut to the chase-”

“Hold your horses, champ. Only nineteen questions to go, remember?”

“Oh, man.”

“Second question-bachelor number one, what’s your idea of an ideal first date?”

Jack curbed the temptation to swear. This was nutty. But if this woman knew something about Komoko, and he was pretty sure that she did-

“I’m waiting.”

Jesus, Jack thought. This is bar none the weirdest fucking job I’ve ever had.

“C’mon, champ.”

“Okay. Ideal first date.” Jack leaned in, furrowing his brow like he was really thinking about it even though she wasn’t looking at him at all. “First, we get a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken-”

“Original recipe, extra crispy, or rotisserie gold?”

“Oh, man. Give me those original seven herbs and spices and forget the rest of it, okay? And don’t interrupt me-”

“That wasn’t an interruption. That was a clarification.”

Jack cracked his knuckles. He could only put up with so much of this dancing around shit. He didn’t like it in conversation any more than he did in the ring, where some guys would juke around holding their dicks for a couple rounds before getting down to business. Baddalach didn’t have the patience for that. With him it was nothing but bad intentions from the first bell forward.

So he figured he’d try seriously sarcastic, which was probably the way the major liked it best if you judged by her questions.

Baddalach said, “That’s a lovely outfit you’re wearing today, Mrs. Cleaver. And those pearls of yours sure do have a way of catching the afternoon light, but how about you shut the fuck up and let me answer your questions?”

“Sure, Eddie.” Not missing a beat, this little hardcase. She squirted a line of sunblock across her belly, rubbed it in real low and real slow. “But don’t you think you’re being a little hard on the Beaver?”

Baddalach sighed. Some battles just weren’t worth fighting, not when there was no way of winning them.

She said, “Now, back to my original question-”

“Like I was saying: one bucket of original recipe, maybe a six-pack of something real cold to wash it down. Drive out of Vegas-that’s where I live-head for the Valley of Fire. Climb up on some sandstone and watch the sunset. If she doesn’t complain about the heat or the wind ruining her hair or sand in the chicken, she’s in like Flint.”

“You mean in like Flynn.”

“I mean James Coburn. That goofy spy movie. In Like Flint.”

“I know what you think you mean. In Like Flint. 20th Century-Fox, 1967. Sequel to Our Man Flint. But what you really mean is in like Errol Flynn. He of the rape trial and not-so-unwilling nubettes-Hollywood, 1942.”

“I don’t mean fucking Errol Flynn at all. That guy was a Nazi spy.”

“Wrong-o, champ.” One sharp little exhalation registering exasperation. One withering, haughty glance. “In any case, your allusion doesn’t fit your date’s gender. How could a woman be in like Flint?”

“All my allusions are non-gender specific, Major Benteen.”

“Good one.” She smiled. “You’ll get this witty repartee stuff down in no time, Mr. Bond.”

“Why thank you. Miss Moneypenny.”

“What about the second date?”

“A movie. She picks it. If the people in it don’t talk too much and if lots of things blow up, I’ll buy the popcorn and Junior Mints and even hold her hand. But if she picks a movie about a middle-aged English butler pining for the fields, it’s over. If she picks a movie about weeping old maids visiting foreign countries and pining for the fields in the company of foreign men, it’s over. Ditto for movies with Meryl Streep pining for the fields with a foreign accent. Or Oliver Stone movies. Or anything with subtitles.”

“What if it’s got subtitles, but it’s also got Toshiro Mifune carving up half the Tokogawa Shogunate?”

Baddalach laughed. “That ever happened, we’d go straight from the Cineplex to the mall, pick out curtains and place settings for two, is what we’d do.”

She actually laughed at that one. He couldn’t see her eyes, but he figured that they’d be a little different than they’d been just a minute before. Maybe a little gleam in them. Maybe-

She didn’t give him a chance to complete the thought. “Now let’s play picture-if-you-will. I’m visiting Jack Baddalach’s bachelor pad. I inspect the coffee table. What magazines do I see?”

“A TV Guide. Boxing Illustrated. Maybe a couple Weekly World News."

“You like to keep up with the Elvis sightings?”

“No, I’m more of an unexplained phenomenon kind of guy. You know-Titanic Survivors Found! Sasquatch Wins Winter Olympics! Mermaid Marries Captain of Russian Sub! That kind of thing.”

“So. . Weekly World News. No Wall Street Journal. No Barrons. No Money Magazine. Anybody ever tell you that you’re not a kid anymore, champ? Don’t you care about your future?”

“Sure, I’m gonna make some plans. Someday. But for now. .”

“What about CDs?”

“I just told you. I’m not much on investments-”

“Not certificates of deposit. Compact discs.”

“You mean, like music?”

“Yeah. . like music. What’s on the Jack Baddalach hit parade?”

Baddalach’s scarred eyebrows arched. “Well, first off, I don’t have a CD player. I do have a hi-fi, but it needs a new needle. I got it at a garage sale last year. Guy died who used to play vibes at the Sands back in the fifties and his daughter was selling off a bunch of his stuff. Anyway, I picked up the hi-fi and a pretty healthy stack of records, too. You know- romantic stuff. Just in case I ever run across a girl who picks movies where things blow up.”

“What kind of romantic stuff?”

“Stuff with vibes in it, mostly. Easy listening, Henry Mancini.”

She laughed.

“Lots of Dean Martin, too. Dean Martin French Style, Dino Latino, Dean “Tex” Martin Rides Again. Herb Alpert-I love “The Lonely Bull.” A couple Julie London albums for rainy days, but I don’t listen to those too much because they make me morose. I guess my favorite is this one by Robert Mitchum-Calypso is Like So. Old Bob can really sing. Anyway, that album always makes me feel like I’ve just been shanghaied to some exotic port of call where Jane Russell is waiting around the next corner, desperate for my help.”

“My my my. . visions of tiki lights and flaming hibachis are dancing in my head. You must have made the dead vibe player’s daughter’s day.”

“Fact is, I did. She was so happy she even tossed in a complimentary martini shaker. In fact, the word ecstatic was bandied about.”

That earned another laugh. Jack smiled. A couple more of those, and he’d be IN. . LIKE. . FLINT. She’d invite him up to her room, maybe grab a bite afterwards. She’d tell him everything, he’d catch up to Vince Komoko and-

“Hey, you’re not listening,” she said.

“Oh, sorry.”

“I asked what kind of car you own.”

Jack pointed across the lot. “Range Rover.”

“No. I didn’t ask what kind of car you rented. I want to know what kind of car you own."

Jack felt the blush creeping up on him again.

She waited him out.

“A Toyota,” he said finally.

She capped the sunblock.

“’76 Celica,” Jack explained. “The Mustang of the seventies.”

She stood up and looked at him like she was waiting for something important.

“Really,” Jack said.

“You’re being honest with me?”

“Yeah. Of course. Why would I lie?”

“Now there’s a question for you.”

“Hey, I’m not lying.”

“Uh-huh.” She tossed him the sunblock. “You’d better use some of this. You’re getting a little red.”

Now Jack knew that he was blushing. “Hey. Wait a second-”

“Look,” she said. “You expect me to believe that you’re the kind of guy who likes Kentucky Fried Chicken and cheap dates with sunsets and Japanese economy cars. The kind of guy who doesn’t even own a CD player. The kind of guy who’s never saved a dollar but doesn’t much think about it because he’s not the kind of guy who’s ever going to need more than the change in his pocket. The kind of guy who’s really just a big kid who likes to read about space aliens and watch movies where lots of things blow up, but the kind of guy who’s just a little bit insecure about being a big kid, gets his back up when someone asks him if he might have his old fourth grade lunch box kicking around because he sure doesn’t want anyone to figure out that he wouldn’t bust the covers of Money Magazine even if they were giving away free shares of AT amp;T with every issue.”

“Jesus. The doctor is in.”

“You mean I’m wrong?”

“No, I’m not saying that. All I’m saying is-”

“No. You’ve said enough for now. Unless you want to answer one final question, champ.”

“What’s that?”

She made him wait for it, sliding off the sunglasses, giving him his first look at a pair of eyes that were cat-green, cat-curious. And then those lips of hers twisted into kind of a halfway grin and she said, “Riddle me this. Batman-if you’re telling the truth, if you’re such a don’t-give-a-dam-about-a-greenback-dollar kind of guy, then why are you so interested in Vince Komoko’s money?”

Jack’s mouth came open but nothing came out.

‘Take your time, champ.” She winked at him. “When you come up with an answer for that one, maybe we’ll talk some more.”

She tossed her sunglasses his way.

He caught them.

Then she turned and jackknifed into the pool.

Jack stared at the water in disbelief.

The splash she’d made wouldn’t have filled a shot glass.

EIGHT

Heat waves curled off the highway’s back and broke against the Saturn’s windshield in a rushing hiss. If you watched them long enough you’d swear that the horizon was doing the mambo. If you stared at the white line splitting the road you’d swear that it was an albino snake slithering over blistering blacktop. And if you ignored both those options and glanced at the desert you’d swear that you were in the same spot you’d passed twenty minutes before.

Woodrow Saad Muhammad did all of these things, and doing them-one after another in quick succession-made him exceedingly uneasy.

Ensconced within a car, air-conditioner running efficiently, Sonny Rollins on the tape deck, he felt separated from all that surrounded him. Completely alien.

By extension, he did not feel that he could stop the car and step outside. Not without a spacesuit. For all around him was another world. That was the only sane explanation for his feelings of unease.

And in that world there was nothing at all. Only the desert. Earth the color of mummified flesh. Brittle plants crippled by environment. Razor-wire tumbleweeds. Curling heat waves and a cloudless sky so blue and deep Woodrow felt as if he could drown in it.

It all seemed so unreal.

Woodrow hadn’t seen another car for at least fifteen minutes. He examined his left hand and was pleased to find that the bandage he had taken from the first aid kit in the trunk was holding firm. Though his hand still ached in spite of the aspirin he’d swallowed, the dog bite was no longer bleeding.

He had cleaned the wound thoroughly with astringent, of course. Still, it occurred to him that the dog bite might become infected. He did not wish to consider such matters as rabies. His knowledge of canine diseases was extremely limited, and he did not care to expand it through personal experience. Woodrow sincerely hoped that Jack Baddalach took his animal to the vet on a regular basis.

Perhaps he would ask Baddalach about that before he killed him.

While considering how best to pursue that particular line of questioning, Woodrow fiddled with the tape deck control knobs.

Sonny Rollins’s sax stabbed a sharp riff through Woodrow’s eardrum. It was a singularly unpleasant sensation. Quickly, Woodrow turned off the tape deck and turned up the air- conditioning.

A moment later, he found himself shivering.

His hand ached persistently.

He pressed the gas pedal to the floor.

The Saturn roared forward.

The horizon did the mambo.

Something in it, up ahead, danced to the tune.

A building.

A gas station.

***

The pump jockey looked like a poster boy for the Aryan Brotherhood, but Woodrow didn’t pay him any mind. He parked his automobile at the pump, whispered “fill ’er up” to the cracker through lips that betrayed not the slightest tremor of hatred or disdain, and went in search of a restroom.

He wandered past a Coca-Cola machine and continued around the side of the gas station, where he confronted two doors.

Both doors were metal. Long ago they had been white. Now they were pockmarked with rust spots the size of quarters. Woodrow wondered how anything could rust in an environment of such unremitting dryness, but he didn’t wonder for long because he could spare no time for idle speculation.

His need was unquestionably urgent.

He tried the door to the MEN’S. It was locked.

Tried the WOMEN’s. Locked as well.

Woodrow returned to the front of the gas station. Mr. Aryan Brotherhood was sitting in a lawn chair crisscrossed with orange and turquoise straps. He didn’t look up as Woodrow approached. Instead, he stared at the highway.

No cars in sight, but he stared just the same.

Woodrow said, “I need the key to the restroom.”

The man did not utter a word. Neither did he look in Woodrow’s direction.

“The restroom key,” Woodrow said, slowly this time, with just enough edge in his voice to provide an unmistakable emphasis. “The doors are locked. I need the key.”

The man’s head jerked quite suddenly. He looked at Woodrow, a slash of a smile on his face, a ribbon of sweat on his upper lip.

“Guess someone’s in there,” the man said. “Guess you’ll just have to wait.”

Woodrow stared at the man. But the man had already looked away, once more directing his gaze toward the road.

There was nothing to see but the desert, the heat.

Woodrow took a few steps toward the restrooms.

“Hold on,” the guy said.

Woodrow turned.

“Pump’s self-serve.” The man gave Woodrow a look that was all ice. “And you gotta pay first.”

“When I’m ready,” Woodrow said.

Woodrow’s Saturn waited at the pump. The only other car on the lot was a beat-up Camaro. Woodrow could not read the license plate from his vantage point, but he speculated that it would be something clever, like GRZMNKY or WHTEPWR.

It was very quiet.

Just Woodrow and the cracker.

There wasn’t anyone else at the gas station.

Knowing this, Woodrow stood in the heat, his eyes trained on the locked bathroom doors.

Waiting with a heavy bladder.

It seemed that he would wait for a very long time.

Time afforded him the opportunity for introspection.

It had started bad with the kid at Baddalach’s condo. The kid went yack yack yack while Woodrow stood there listening, knowing all the while that, upon reflection, he would loathe his indecisiveness.

He hated that feeling worse than anything else. The feeling that he was a wriggling fish with a hook in its mouth, and someone else was jerking on the line. And the kid had played him for all he was worth. Without question, the kid had caught him off guard-his head had ached terribly, a result of the fall he’d taken while battling Baddalach’s dog-but that was no excuse because Woodrow was a professional. He should have been able to adjust to the situation, no matter how fluid it became.

But he hadn’t. The kid had landed and gutted him with nothing but a torrent of little barbed words. In the end, the Combat Commander had been useless against the kid’s mouth.

And now there was this hillbilly. He wasn’t as smart as the kid, but he was every inch as calculating. Like that ofay bastard they’d tossed in Woodrow’s cell in Rahway, everything sliding sideways out of his cracker mouth as if his brain were greased with K-Y Jelly. Push push push, until push finally came to shove.

At Rahway, Woodrow had put up with it way too long. And then one day he began to loathe himself for putting up with it at all. That was when Woodrow sharpened his toothbrush and stabbed the cracker.

He’d done it in the showers. Stabbed the man twenty-seven times. Every wound was distinct in his memory to this day. Stabbing and stabbing. Scarlet blood everywhere, the cracker’s white skin going whiter and whiter, excrement dribbling down his leg as he fouled himself, not one word issuing from his cracker lips …

Afterward, Woodrow’s only regret had been that you couldn’t cut out a man’s tongue with a sharpened toothbrush. That particular regret troubled him to this day, and he realized it was a direct result of his hesitation in dealing with the situation in a timely fashion.

In retrospect, Woodrow could see how he should have handled the situation. If he had bitch-slapped the cracker the first time the white man entered the cell, he wouldn’t be thinking about him right now. .

If he’d shot the kid in Baddalach’s condo the second he opened his mouth, his gut wouldn’t be churning this minute. .

But no, he had waited, waited until those little things piled one on top of another, waited until all those little things added up to something big.

Something unforgettable.

A memory to churn up on very bad days.

The cracker came around the corner of the gas station. He was holding a tire iron. The sun was behind him, and Woodrow noticed for the first time that the sun was very bright today.

A grin was smeared on the cracker’s face-that Crisco grin they all had.

Woodrow’s head began to throb. The light was very bright. And there was a hum behind it-

“You better go now,” the cracker said.

Woodrow’s bladder ached. “That’s exactly what I’d like to do.”

“I mean you’d better haul ass.”

“I haven’t relieved myself” Woodrow did not blink, even though the light was burning straight through his eyes, singeing his brain. “And I didn’t get my gas.”

“I’m real sorry about that,” the cracker said, still grinning. “But the fact is I’m closed now. We Westerners, we like to take our afternoon siestas. But if you want to wait around for an hour or so. .”

The cracker shrugged, slimy smile coming on, but it was suddenly eclipsed by the glaring white light, and the taffy-pulling machine in Woodrow’s head started working again, kneading his brain, and his eyelids were once more as heavy as iron and he blinked once. . twice-

The desert seemed different behind the gas station. No ribbon of highway, no Coca-Cola machine. Only what Allah had put there a long time ago.

Woodrow kind of liked it that way. Quite suddenly, he had developed an appreciation for the alien world he’d discovered through a tinted windshield.

This world seemed beautiful. Almost like the Valley of Fire. Earth the color of his first love’s skin. A blue ocean of sky. Tumbleweeds dancing on the wind.

Razor-wire tumbleweeds. Yes. But their beauty was undeniable.

Woodrow admired the scene as much as anything he’d observed in an art gallery.

There was no sense soiling such magnificence.

He grabbed hold of the dead cracker’s overalls and dragged the corpse to the side of the gas station. His headache was nearly gone now. Nothing more than a dull whisper. And the sun was washed with a flat haze. The blinding brightness was gone.

In truth, Woodrow could not recall killing the cracker. But he knew he must have done it, for he still held the cracker’s tire iron in one hand.

Woodrow took a handkerchief from the dead cracker’s pocket. He wiped down the tire iron and tossed it into a pile of twisted auto parts heaped near the cracker’s Camaro.

Still not a car in sight. Woodrow popped the Camaro’s trunk, hoisted the redneck’s corpse, and deposited it in a nest of Eager Beaver magazines and empty Budweiser cans.

Woodrow urinated. Slammed the trunk.

He gassed up the Saturn. Then he purchased a Diet Coca-Cola from the machine next to the locked rest rooms. The can seemed very cold in his hand.

Woodrow popped the top and stared at the desert while he drank. The Coca-Cola was very cold, and the fingers of his left hand tightened around the can. The coldness lessened the pain of the dog bite on Woodrow’s palm.

He took his time, properly quenching his thirst.

Without question, he had never enjoyed a Coke quite as much as this one.

NINE

The woman in the black bikini swam laps and the former light-heavyweight champion of the world sat on his butt and watched her.

She said her name was Kate Benteen. Major Kate Benteen. Late of the United States Army.

Jack thought it over. Maybe Major Benteen knew Komoko from her days in the military-Freddy had said something about Komoko being some kind of war hero, hadn’t he?

Sure he had. But that didn’t mean anything. Just because the woman in the black bikini said she’d been a major, that didn’t make it so. People said all kinds of things.

And she said more than most. Jesus. She said she’d been a movie star, even an Olympic diving champion. All kinds of crazy shit.

She’d really nailed that jackknife, though. Jack had to admit that. But just because she could dive into a swimming pool without sending up a cannonball-sized splash didn’t mean she’d won Olympic silver.

Baddalach’s battered Timex ticked off fifteen minutes while he tried to sort the whole thing out. As the second hand began another circuit and the woman began another lap, he faced up to the truth-sitting on his butt and contemplating his navel while Kate Benteen played Sub-Mariner was getting him nowhere fast.

With some difficulty. Jack extricated himself from the chaise longue. Kate Benteen didn’t show any sign of slowing down. He left her sunglasses on top of the chair, got the stuff he’d bought at the Pipeline Beach Five-and-Dime from the Range Rover, and climbed the stairs to room 22.

The accommodations didn’t come close to the Mirage or Caesar’s. Truth be told, they didn’t even come close to Freddy G’s aged Casbah. But they’d do.

Jack went to take a leak. A band of white paper encircled the toilet seat, just to let you know that no one had been pissing in your toilet since the maid had finished cleaning it. Freddy G liked to rag on the things. He called them ass-gaskets and swore that they were a sure sign of a low-class establishment.

Jack thought maybe it would be interesting to see Freddy debate that particular observation with Sandy Kapalua-Dayton. Judging by his first impression of Sandy, Freddy might even rate odds in such a matchup.

Jack tore the ass-gasket loose and took care of business. Zipped up, flushed, then checked things out. The room held absolutely no surprises, but that was good because Jack wasn’t in a surprise me kind of mood. On the plus side there were plenty of free postcards, free HBO on the TV, plus a Munchkin-sized coffeepot that was a twin to the one he’d found in Vince Komoko’s house. And a few minor inconveniences to balance things out-the TV remote was bolted on a swivel which in turn was bolted to the nightstand, like someone was going to run off with it or something. The only real problem Jack saw was that the ice bucket was much too small. That was okay, though. The garbage can under the obligatory desk was bigger.

The ice machine was downstairs. Jack made the trip and tried to ignore the fact that Major Kate Benteen was still hard at it. Swimming back and forth, back and forth.

A sarcastic sigh passed Jack’s lips. He figured Benteen was probably pretending that she was Flipper. Yeah. That’s what someone who was so stuck on old TV shows would do. She’d imagine that she was a dolphin that had its own theme song.

This week’s episode-Captured by Marine World, Flipper must escape and rescue Bud and Sandy before they suffocate in a bathysphere where they’ve been trapped by wily dolphin poachers.

The sarcasm didn’t take. Jack admitted to himself that overt displays of discipline made him jealous. The only option was to ignore the good major.

Jack filled both the petite ice bucket and the garbage can with ice and returned to his room. There was a little area off the postage stamp-sized bathroom with all the stuff that didn’t fit therein-a sink, a counter, a mirror. Jack set the garbage can on the countertop and jammed the Molsons into the ice. The bottles were piss-warm after being locked in the Range Rover all day. Jack didn’t even want to think about what the beer would taste like.

He took a shower and felt a little better. Ripped into the packs of underwear and T-shirts he’d bought at the Five-and-Dime and got dressed. Almost opened the drapes that covered the big window next to the door but was afraid that by now Benteen would have worked her way up to a spectacular finish-diving through flaming hoops, doing that famed Flipper- cackle just for him. Hell, his ego had taken enough bruising for one day, being locked up by a woman sheriff named Wyetta Earp. He didn’t need to see phase two of some GI Josephine’s gung ho act.

He checked the beer. Still miserably warm. Checked out the telephone. Damn. Local calls were free, but it was going to cost him a buck every time he made a long-distance call. Plus the long-distance carrier was some company he’d never heard of-probably one of those outfits that skinned you for a buck a minute if you called anyone beyond walking distance.

Jack figured what the hell. It wasn’t his problem. The room was on his corporate plastic.

He dialed Freddy G’s number.

Deputy Rorie Holloway admired her boss. Wyetta Earp was a woman who made her way in the world completely on her own terms. She didn’t take shit off of anyone. Spend a day with the sheriff of Pipeline Beach and you knew for sure and for certain that a woman could scorch her own personal brand on a public office.

Rorie had seen it happen with her own two eyes. She’d watched Wyetta put the fear of God into a swarm of politicians before lunchtime, bust up a ring of horse thieves before dinner, top off the day by kicking some wife-beater’s balls into his throat. The lady deputy figured that the lady sheriff could do just about anything she set her mind to and do it pretty damn well, to boot.

Except decorate a house, that is.

Wyetta owned a big adobe outside of Pipeline Beach. Inside and out it reminded Rorie of a castoff set from an old John Wayne movie. Longhorn skulls were mounted over most of the doorways, countless Remington statues featuring bucking broncos and cowboys in twisted positions that defied the limitations of both human and equine anatomy, rough pine cabinets stocked with enough Winchesters and Sharpes and Remingtons to hold off Victorio and every damn Apache warrior who had ever lived.

Rorie liked it better when they went to her place. She’d bought all her furniture at Sears. At Wyetta’s she always felt like she should be wearing a gingham dress while she bustled around in the kitchen, rustling up a mess of chuckwagon biscuits and sonofabitch stew. But there was no arguing with Wyetta, especially not tonight. Not after the way things had gone in the last forty-eight hours.

Wyetta hadn’t said one word since leaving the office an hour earlier. They’d left in separate cars, of course-Rorie in her Camaro and Wyetta in the bashed-up Jeep Cherokee the county provided (and boy oh boy Rorie knew she better keep her mouth shut about that). Things hadn’t gotten any better when they arrived at Wyetta’s place-no conversation, not even a God it’s been a tough day kiss. Wyetta had taken the time to get Rorie an O’Doul’s out of the fridge, but that was it.

And now Wyetta just sat there in a cowhide chair with arms and legs made from the horns of dead cattle, her face washed in the dull leathery glow of a Conestoga wagon lamp with a jerky-colored shade. The sheriff was working on a fistful of Jack Daniels on the rocks, but there were damn few rocks in the big tumbler that weighed heavy in her hand. Rorie didn’t like to see Wyetta drink so much-the sheriff was on her third tumbler in less than a half hour.

Wyetta’s drinking seemed to be getting worse ever since the Komoko thing had started up. Just last week Rorie had found a bottle of JD stashed in the filing cabinet in Wyetta’s office. Not that she was snooping or anything-she’d opened the cabinet at Wyetta’s direction, looking for a file. But she hadn’t dared say a word about the bottle because she knew what Wyetta would do.

She’d get mad. Accuse Rorie of invading her privacy. And then Rorie would be the one who’d end up feeling guilty, like she’d done something wrong.

She wondered if the boozing was what the sheriff was thinking about right now. Wyetta looked sure enough disgusted. Maybe she was disgusted with herself. Maybe she was about to say, “Okay, Rorie. This is gonna be the last one. Ever.” Slam it down her gullet, savor one long and appreciative sigh, then throw the bottle into the fireplace with the cactus andirons that she’d ordered from that Ralph Lauren catalog. And maybe she’d just forget all about the Komoko thing while she was at it, and then they could get back to the way things used to be.

Slap leather to the night. Do something crazy. Take off in the Camaro. Ride hard and ride fast until they hit Vegas. Go buckin’-bronc-wild with their charge cards in some of those fancy all-night boutiques the big casinos had.

Those were the things Rorie was thinking about. But not Wyetta. Rorie discovered that PDQ, because suddenly the sheriff emerged from her own personal fog and said, “If we only knew who Komoko was calling on that damn cellular phone of his.”

Rorie nodded. At least Wyetta had broken her silence. At least her comment acknowledged the fact that Rorie was in the room.

“That would sure help us some,” Rorie agreed. “I wonder if there’s a way we could get ahold of Komoko’s phone records-”

“Wait just a goddamn minute.” Wyetta drained her drink and thunked the tumbler onto the redwood burl coffee table. “Where’d you put Komoko’s phone?”

“You’ve got it,” Rorie said, and she said it gently because she didn’t want to get into a fight; personal experience told her that the one thing that got Wyetta more riled than a bronc in a barn fire was a challenge to her memory.

“That night,” Rorie continued, “after we came back here. . you had that drink to calm yourself down, and then you told me to put the phone-”

“In the library, behind my Wyatt Earp books.” Wyetta remembered, after all. “Wait here. I’ll go get it.”

Rorie took a deep breath. Maybe things weren’t so bad. It was just the Komoko thing. It was getting to Rorie, too. And the whole thing was really her fault, because she was the one who’d told Wyetta about Komoko in the first place. If she’d kept her mouth shut they wouldn’t be going through all this shit right now. But this shit couldn’t last forever. This was just what you called a bad patch, and once they got through it, together. .

Rorie settled back on the couch, a Navajo-patterned monstrosity that smelled like old horse blankets. She sipped her O’Doul’s. Just a bad patch, she repeated, almost believing it this time, and once we get through it … together-

Wyetta returned, cellular phone in hand. “Damn. I should have thought of this before. Komoko’s phone is one of those titties-on-a-bull models. It has all the whistles and bells- including a redial button. All we have to do is punch that button and presto, we’re in touch with the last person he talked to.” Wyetta didn’t wait for a reply. She punched REDIAL. Listened.

Five rings. An answering machine picked up. First came some music. Drums. A military cadence. Followed by a sprightly theme song. .

Jesus, it was the theme from Hogan’s Heroes.

The music cut off abruptly. Somebody said, “Benteen residence. Nobody’s home. If you’re not a reporter, leave a message. Wait for the beep.”

Wyetta hit the OFF button and turned toward Rorie. “Well, we’re off and runnin’, cowgirl. The phone belongs to someone named Benteen.”

“A woman?”

“Yeah … it was a woman’s voice on the machine. Why?”

“Little Miss Death-From-Above. Her name’s Kate Benteen.”

“Who?”

“You remember-the chicklet at the Five-and-Dime. The one in the black T-shirt and combat boots, the witness to Baddalach’s run-in with Jerry Caldwell. I was talking to her while you and the boxer did your little dance.”

“No shit? Her name’s Benteen?”

“No shit whatsoever.”

“Oh, man. What an act, pretending that she didn’t even know the pug. We’ll have to have us some serious girltalk with that little gash.” Wyetta walked over to the bar and grabbed her own telephone. “But first I’d better make some calls … do a little checking up on Ms. Benteen.” The sheriff grabbed a pencil and a notebook and returned to the dead bovine chair.

“What do you want me to do?” Rorie asked.

Wyetta gave her a big smile. “How about rustling us up some dinner? There are a couple of T-bones in the fridge. There’s even some lettuce if you’ve a mind to make me eat my rabbit food. And I bought some of those Pop’n’Fresh biscuits you like, too. They’re in the freezer.”

“No problem,” Rorie said, because that was what she always said when Wyetta asked her to do something.

As she started for the kitchen she heard the unmistakable sound of Jack Daniel’s sloshing over ice.

But she did not turn around.

She did not speak a single word.

Instead she rustled up some dinner.

After her swim, Kate Benteen returned to her room. Sandy Kapalua-Dayton had put her in 23, which was right at the top of the stairs. Kate didn’t care. She might have, had she known that Jack Baddalach was in room 22, but she had no idea where the boxer had disappeared to.

The first thing Kate did was power up the air conditioner. HI-FAN. MAX A/C. She liked things cool. Then she took a shower and washed off all that chlorine. Motel pools always used way too much. Kids always took the rap for pissing in ’em, but Kate put the blame on turista guys who drank too much beer. She’d known more than a few guys like that in her time.

She toweled off, shredded the safety seal on the bottle of Murine she’d bought at the five-and-dime, and dribbled a few drops into her eyes. For a second she felt really good, like she could see the whole world really clearly.

Then she blinked and quite suddenly ersatz tears were rolling down her cheeks.

Benteen wiped them away. Swearing at herself, she pulled on a pair of jeans and a clean T-shirt. Another black one. This one said KILL 'EM ALL amp; LET GOD SORT 'EM OUT.

She cleaned her guns even though they weren’t dirty. It was an old habit, and hard to break. She had a Heckler amp; Koch USP.45 and a Benelli Super 90 shotgun, and she checked the action on both after reassembling the weapons.

She stowed the Benelli with her other gear. While she was up, she grabbed a couple boxes of ammo-Winchester 185-grain Silvertips and Federal 230-grain Hydra-Shoks-then juggled them, trying to make a decision.

After a minute she set the Heckler-still unloaded-on her nightstand, because suddenly the least little decision seemed to require way too much effort.

It was too damn quiet and she knew it. She wished she’d bought a couple of paperbacks at the store. Maybe a new Mack Bolan, something that would distract her. She didn’t want to think about what she was doing in Pipeline Beach because she didn’t know if she’d be very happy with the answer to that question if she went looking for it.

Screw it, then. She wasn’t going to think about it.

The TV remote was bolted to the nightstand. The TV itself was bolted to the dresser. The whole setup made her want to break something.

Kate ignored the temptation and turned on the TV instead.

Just in time to see some guy get thrown off a train.

He rolled down a grassy knoll and came to a stop stark-staring-dead-as-you-please.

Then the theme music started up. Twangy sixties spy guitar set to a tiki-torch beat. Patented Henry Mancini. Kate didn’t need to see the credits to know that the picture was Charade, starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.

The plot wasn’t what you’d call alarmingly original. Still, Kate didn’t hit the OFF button. Didn’t even hit mute or change the channel. She just sat there, staring, her worst couch potato instincts taking hold.

Audrey was in Gay Paree, and her husband had turned up dead-he was the stiff who’d been tossed from the train (a jowly little gent who, Benteen noted with her signature sense of sarcasm, looked like he’d have about as much chance of wedding Ms. Hepburn as he’d have being mistaken for Cary Grant). There were all these menacing strangers hovering about the exotic environs through which Ms. Hepburn wove her way, including the aforementioned Monsieur Grant, and each and every one of them seemed to be real interested in discovering the extent-and location-of Ms. Hepburn’s inheritance.

Parts of the picture were still pretty cute. Like Audrey ordering everything on the menu when she got nervous. Eating every bite of it, too. And, of course, her wardrobe was the best. Hey, after all, this was Paris, right?

But other parts of the picture that had never bothered Benteen before got under her skin in a surprisingly efficient way tonight. Like the way Mr. Grant wrapped Ms. Hepburn around his fucking little finger with the least little bon mot that slithered out of his mouth. Jesus. Tonight it was almost more than Kate could take.

Grant and Hepburn “met cute,” of course-movie parlance for tossing the romantic leads together in an oh-so-clever way. In this case, meeting cute involved an Alpine ski resort, a precocious child, a water pistol and a few snowballs, heavy on the witty repartee. But that Benteen could have lived with, because it was nothing compared to what Mr. Grant put Ms. Hepburn through once things got rolling.

For one thing, he had about a million stories-a different one each time Audrey batted her eyes. And the way she batted them, melting every time he turned on the charm. All that well-practiced sincerity while he tried to explain his inconsistent behavior, even though he was lying. And Audrey fell for it, hook, line . . et cetera et cetera. And then Grant reeled her in with that goofy I’m really not a narcissistic stuffed shirt act. Acting silly, taking a shower with his clothes on, like that made him some kind of boho daredevil. Christ. A guy who probably lost half a day every time he passed a mirror.

Wow. Suddenly, Benteen’s spine went dress parade stiff. The whole thing was hitting way too close to home. Like the other night, punching the button on her answering machine up there in the big lonesome called Grizzly Gulch, Montana. First message she’d gotten in three weeks, but hey, who was counting?

And then hearing his voice. Christ, her breath catching in her throat, her heart beating fast. After all this time, he could still do that to her. .

No. Forget that. That wasn’t what was bothering her. It was the movie. Cary Grant. Audrey Hepburn.

She concentrated on the television. Refocused on Audrey and the way she handled the bad guys. But that annoyed her, too. Audrey sitting in a phone booth, shaking like a scared poodle while James Coburn flicked lit matches at her darling little Givenchy outfit. Audrey’s eyes going coronary-wide when George Kennedy threatened her with his mechanical hand.

Man oh man. That was definitely more than enough. Kate snatched up the Heckler, grabbed the box of Hydra-Shoks. Tore it open and enjoyed each sharp little click as she filled the empty clip to capacity.

Yeah. That was what Audrey needed. A Heckler, or maybe something a little more elegant. Hey, after all, this was Audrey Hepburn. Maybe a Smith amp; Wesson M442.38 snubbie would do the trick. Six little Remington Golden Saber cartridges. A few tugs of the index finger, a few perfectly measured kicks of gunpowder, and that would be that for Mssrs. Coburn and Kennedy.

But those two, they were the easy problems. They were like the boxer Benteen had met poolside, kind of ham-fisted, not real fast on their feet (mentally speaking, anyway). Everything was out there where you could see it with a guy like that, easy to skate around if you had your own moves down.

In short, Coburn and Kennedy weren’t like Cary Grant. They didn’t say oh-so-witty things, and they couldn’t make you melt in that completely illogical and uncontrollable way, and they could never, ever, under any circumstances, make you do anything that you really didn’t want to do. Especially when you damn well knew better.

Kate Benteen set the gun on the night table and stared at the TV.

Cary Grant pulled Audrey Hepburn into one final clinch. She accepted it eagerly.

Benteen bristled. How could Audrey do that when the smartass had played her for such a sap? Benteen shook her head. Man oh man, the day she relied on a man to bail her size 7 ass out of a jam, that would be the day she’d hang it up for good-

And that was when it hit Benteen-like one of those cop-killer rounds that rob you of every sensation but the one they provide-the undeniable source of her inescapable unease.

Instantly, she jabbed the shackled remote, expertly spearing the OFF button with her index finger, but it was much too late.

For the image was there, a hot red wound drilled through her consciousness.

Cary Grant.

Vincent Komoko.

Two of a fucking kind.

The phone in Baddalach’s motel room was busy for a really long time. That worried Johnny Da Nang, because the boxer didn’t seem like much of a talker.

Johnny had gotten the phone number for Baddalach’s room from the lady at the front desk of the Saguaro Riptide. He figured it wouldn’t hurt to call her back, double-check the number, make sure he hadn’t gone dyslexic while writing it down or something.

Well, the lady was real nice about it. Kind of kidding him, saying he didn’t sound old enough to forget anything. Kind of flirting. Anyway, the number checked out, and then somehow one thing led to another and they got to talking. And it turned out that the lady-who had a real growly Suzanne Pleshetteish kind of voice; y’know, the kind of voice where you could picture some chick who smoked unfiltereds right down to the wrist-well, anyway, she got to talking to Johnny, and it turned out that her husband had been in the music business.

Some kind of small world, huh?

The husband was dead now, though. Too bad. Johnny had never heard of him, anyway-some guitar player from the sixties who did that Beach Blanket Banzai kind of stuff. Still, Johnny enjoyed talking to the woman. He made sure to mention the name of his band a couple times. He kind of worked it into the conversation in an offhand way-Johnny Da Nang and the Napalms. . hahaha, yeah, some things never change, you gotta have a catchy name to make it in this game, don’tcha?

It couldn’t hurt. Maybe Ms. Pleshette’s vocal clone would be down there at WalMart one day, see his CD and remember that nice kid she talked to on the phone.

Hey, you never knew, y’know?

Johnny stuck with it for a couple more minutes. He didn’t want to be rude. Then the lady said something about checking on her dog, and that gave Johnny the opportunity to bid her a speedy adieu.

He shifted the receiver to his other ear-Jesus, a couple more years of telephone networking and he’d have cauliflower ears that would make Jack Baddalach jealous-and then he redialed.

The boxer picked up on the second ring. “H’lo?”

“Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s me, Johnny.”

A pause. “What’s up?”

“You’re not gonna like this, Jack.”

“What?”

“Well, I went over to your place this afternoon. And there was this guy there-”

Baddalach interrupted. “Black guy? A Muslim?”

“Yeah, he had one of those little African hats and everything. . even a bow tie. How’d you know?”

“Coconut telegraph.” Baddalach sighed. “What happened? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay, but Frankenstein-”

Baddalach swore. “Did the son of a bitch kill my dog?”

“No. He didn’t kill him. But I took him to the vet when it was all over, and, man, I just don’t know if I can cover the bill. You should see the pathetic little sucker. I mean, he’s tough and all. Like Rin Tin Tin or something. But the poor little pup’s all doped up, mummified-looking, and the vet’s got him in some kind of doggy traction-”

“You listen to me, Johnny. You get in touch with Freddy G at the Casbah. Tell him to take care of the vet bill.”

“Yeah. Sure, Jack … I hate to tell you, but you’re gonna need some new furniture, too. The guy was pretty rough on it.”

“Screw that. Are you okay? I mean, Jesus, did the guy rough you up, too?”

“No … but … I don’t know how to tell you this, Jack. Oh, man, it’s kind of embarrassing. And I feel like a real Oscar Meyer wiener, but the guy had a gun.” Johnny sucked a deep breath before continuing. “I told him where you are.”

“You told him the truth?”

“Yeah. I gave him the name of the motel. The Saguaro Riptide. Pipeline Beach, Arizona. Right?”

“Yeah. Good job, Johnny.”

“You’re glad that I told him?”

“Uh-huh … I’m looking forward to meeting the dog-beating son of a bitch,” Jack said, and Johnny could almost picture the evil grin on his face.

They said their good-byes. Johnny hung up.

He patted Frankenstein’s head and opened another can of food.

Frankenstein went to work on that dish of Alpo like he didn’t have a care in the world.

Johnny grinned. The vet had said ol’ Franky was well named. Said the pup had the constitution of a monster, all right.

Johnny didn’t want Jack Baddalach to know that, though.

He wanted Baddalach thoroughly stoked.

Because Johnny was really enjoying the picture that was forming in his mind-one Muslim hitman busted up good, former-light heavyweight-champion-of-the-world style.

Baddalach stared at the phone. Damn. This was getting complicated.

There wasn’t anything much he could do about it right this minute, though.

So he sat there, stewing in his juices.

Jack thought about Vincent Komoko, and then he thought about the Muslim hitman. When Jack was tired of thinking about him, he thought about the address Freddy G had given him when they’d talked earlier in the evening.

Freddy’s lackeys had checked out the Pipeline Beach phone number that turned up so often in Vincent Komoko’s phone records. Just yesterday, Jack had called that number from Komoko’s place, rattling the cage of a young woman who, in Jack’s estimation, had some kind of connection to Komoko that deserved further investigation.

Their first conversation hadn’t done Jack much good. The woman had hung up on him before he had a chance to learn anything.

But now he had her address.

Now they’d have a real heart-to-heart.

Jack picked up the receiver and dialed the girl’s number.

She answered on the third ring.

Jack started talking.

The girl didn’t say much.

Outside, in the junkyard next to the Saguaro Riptide, Sandy Kapalua-Dayton’s pit bull was barking like crazy.

TEN

Priscilla stood in the shadow of Graceland, the desert wind at her back strong enough to muss her heavily sprayed bouffant. It was a hot wind, and dry, like everything else in Arizona.

Everything but the lonely teardrops spilling from her eyes.

Ellis didn’t like her coming out here alone. A lot of time there was no use arguing with him about where she could go and when she could go there-the bruise on her ankle proved that-but tonight he had really surprised her by not kicking up a fuss when she said she was going for a walk. He’d said sure, go ahead. . I’ll play with the cats. . watch some TV. .

Sometimes she could handle him just fine. Mostly he just sat in front of the TV with a cat or two curled up on his lap. But other times. .

Priscilla’s ankle began to ache. She didn’t want to think about those other times. She didn’t want to think about Ellis. He was back there in the trailer watching a letter-boxed video of Viva Las Vegas. Priscilla had hurried outside as soon as he shoved that one in the VCR. She couldn’t watch it. Not for a minute. Not tonight. If she did she’d start crying for sure. And it wouldn’t have had anything to do with Ellis.

Her tears would have been for Vince.

Priscilla had met Vince in Las Vegas two years ago. It was one of the few times in her married life that Ellis let her do something without him, and the only reason he’d let her go was that she made the trip with her big sister.

Just a quick weekend to celebrate Rorie hiring on as a deputy with the Pipeline Beach Sheriff’s Department. Rorie used to love to do crazy stuff like that-take road trips on the spur of the moment. But now Rorie had Wyetta, just the way Priscilla had Ellis. They were still sisters but they hardly ever saw each other, even though they lived in the same small town.

Sometimes Priscilla wished she could talk to Rorie about Ellis. She wondered if Rorie felt the same way about Wyetta, because things didn’t seem to be too great between the two of them. But Priscilla didn’t seem to know how to start that kind of conversation, and neither did Rorie. They always found stuff to talk about, only none of it seemed very important.

Priscilla thought about it. Things seemed to happen so fast. Slip a ring on your finger. . let a stranger share your bed. . and your life changed forever. Priscilla didn’t think that was fair.

She also knew that she couldn’t do one little thing about it.

But she didn’t want to think about that. Not tonight. Tonight she wanted to think about Vince, and how wonderful he’d been on that first night in Vegas.

Vincent Komoko had spotted Priscilla and Rorie in the casino at the Casbah. He had some kind of job there. First thing, he asked Priscilla where the King was. That kind of threw her off guard. For a second she thought Vince must have been a friend of Ellis’s from his days in Vegas. She only thought that for a second, though, because it was plain that Vince was too young to have been around when Ellis was shaking things up as the hottest Elvis impersonator on the Strip. Then Vince gave her that big wink she’d come to know so well, and she realized that her first guess had been wrong-he was only complimenting her because she really did look like the real Priscilla. The way the real Priscilla had looked when she was married to Elvis, before she ran out on him and went Hollywood.

Well, that broke the ice. They got to talking. Vince was easy to talk to, and Priscilla was hungry for that because Ellis didn’t talk much. And then talking led to drinks, and drinks led to dinner, and then. .

Rorie was a good sport about the whole thing. She didn’t even bat an eye when Vince moved in on Priscilla. Certainly, she wasn’t jealous-Rorie wasn’t much interested in male affection. And Priscilla linking up with Vince kind of left Rorie free to cut a path of her own, though she wasn’t the kind to say so in so many words. Besides, Rorie didn’t much like Priscilla’s husband. She said that Ellis was too old for her sister, too set in his ways, said that he might as well have traded his dick for a TV remote a long time ago. It was Rorie’s sisterly opinion that Priscilla should do a Tammy Wynette on the fat old hound dawg and get a D-I–V-O-R-C-E.

And maybe that was what Priscilla should have done. Maybe she should have made a clean break. Instead of sneaking around with Vince, waiting for him to make those little side trips down to Pipeline Beach when he ran the mob’s money into Texas. Satisfying herself with a couple stolen hours at the Saguaro Riptide every month.

Ellis never caught on. Priscilla was sure of that. Because if Ellis had had the least little inkling of what was going on, Priscilla would have never set foot outside their trailer again. If Ellis had even been suspicious, he would have fixed it so she couldn’t do anything while he was away on those weekend road trips of his.

Priscilla shivered. If Ellis had known about Vincent Komoko. . well, forget about bruises on the ankle, he would have killed her. No question about it.

Vince, too.

God, but she’d loved that man. Every minute with Vince had been something special. All those times together at the Saguaro Riptide, and she’d never once gotten her fill of him.

She knew she never would, no matter how much time they had together.

Priscilla would have left Ellis if Vince had asked her to. She’d known that from the start.

But Vince never asked.

After a while Priscilla figured out that Vince was never going to ask. They were never going to run off together and start a new life. Things weren’t going to happen fast this time. Her life wasn’t going to change.

Not ever. That had already happened once.

It looked like once was all you got.

Priscilla didn’t think that was fair, your life changing just once and then you were stuck with it the rest of your days.

That was when she started hating Vince.

The hate built up inside her. When she couldn’t stand it anymore she asked Rorie if she remembered the guy they’d met in Vegas. Of course Rorie remembered. So Priscilla told her all about him, being sure to mention that he ran mob money from Vegas to Texas.

Rorie told Wyetta.

Wyetta liked the idea of that mob money.

Split three ways.

And now Vince was dead.

And her husband wanted her to make a couple of deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, sit down and watch Viva Las Vegas with him and his cats like everything was okey- dokey.

And some stranger was calling her on the phone, asking about the time she’d spent with Vince at the Saguaro Riptide Motel.

And the caller didn’t sound like anyone to mess with. And he knew where she lived. And he wanted to talk to her, face-to-face.

She couldn’t stay home with all that going on. So she’d come here, to the ruins of Graceland.

Only she wondered if you could really call a place a ruin if it had never been finished. Ellis had run out of money when the house was about halfway done. Lost his enthusiasm for it, like he did with everything else. To this day there wasn’t a single pane of glass in the windows. There wasn’t even a front door in the gaping entranceway behind the unfinished Georgian columns. What there was was a sand dune in the front hallway, and a nest of scorpions in what should have been the Jungle Room, and a family of kangaroo rats in the kitchen, and a whole lot of nothing everywhere else.

Except for that statue of Elvis up in the bathroom. And now even it was busted, missing its head, stained with Vincent Komoko’s blood.

Now it was a ruin, too.

Priscilla sat down on a rock. She rubbed her sore ankle. The dusky purple color might fade, but the bruise never went away anymore. Not really. Neither did the ache. Sometimes she could ignore it, but not tonight.

Quiet surrounded her. Her gaze wandered to the big bronze marker at the side of the house. In Memphis the area was called the Meditation Garden. Here it was just another patch of sand and scrub, though the grave marker was a twin to the one that covered Elvis Presley’s grave in Memphis.

She rose and walked past the grave, which was, of course, empty. She didn’t notice the burrow at one corner of the marker or the fresh earth heaped around the opening or the lone footprint in the fresh sand. She walked past those things as if they did not exist. She walked into the desert, moving slowly, searching for a spot where the earth had been disturbed.

The spot she was looking for had to be nearby. Rorie and Wyetta wouldn’t have dragged the body far. Not with a storm blowing all around them.

She walked for five minutes, then ten. Her ankle hurt and she began to limp, but she knew that the spot she was looking for had to be here somewhere just as surely as she knew that Rorie and Wyetta wouldn’t want her looking for it.

Just as surely as she knew that she had to look.

And if she found it. . why, if she found the spot she’d stand over it with her eyes closed. She’d let tears stream down her cheeks without shame, let them fall on churned earth out here where there was no one to see.

And next time she’d bring flowers. If she could find the right place. And she’d sit with Vince, and she’d tell him how pretty the flowers were. And she’d tell him about all the secret hopes and dreams she’d had for them that she’d never shared, and all the things she’d left unsaid because she was so afraid of the things he’d say in reply.

But now she’d tell him, and she wouldn’t be afraid.

Tumbleweeds, golden brittlebrush, teddy bear cholla, and rusty tangles of barbed wire at the property line-but she kept walking. The sun sank slow and easy into the west, guiding her progress like a friend who kept all her secrets, and she followed its path until it was gone and she was alone in the still shadow of twilight.

PART FOUR

Catching the Wave

ONE

Woodrow popped four excedrin, chewed, and dry-swallowed.

Having exhausted the supply of aspirin he kept in the Saturn, he had purchased the Excedrin in Tempe. But he had neglected to purchase a beverage. Hence the chewing and dry-swallowing.

It was odd. Just a few hours ago he’d felt tip-top. Leaving the dead cracker at the gas station, he’d donned a pair of sunglasses to ward off the afternoon glare as he headed south. Things had been just fine. He had enjoyed the drive, amusing himself with thoughts of the dead cracker locked in the trunk of his Camaro, cooking under the Arizona sun.

In spite of the sunglasses, the glare began to annoy Woodrow. It seemed particularly unforgiving in the desert-slicing the Saturn’s windshield into angry diamond patterns, riding the black freeway in shimmering waves, ricocheting off other cars with such lethal intensity that Woodrow felt he would rather meet a Medusa’s gaze than stare at the tinted window of one more Mercedes.

A Mack truck roared toward him in the northbound lane, its grille a blinding chrome nightmare.

Woodrow found himself squinting. Tears filled his eyes. .

And the taffy-pulling machine went to work on his brain, grinding. . twisting. . tearing. .

The Mack might as well have slammed him head-on.

The pain was supersonic.

It was ten miles to Tempe.

He barely made it.

He bought the Excedrin at a minimart. He swallowed two tablets in the parking lot and tried to sleep, but each time a car door slammed fresh needles of agony hammered his skull.

So, squinting, his jaws clamped together vise-tight, he drove out of Tempe and turned off on the first dirt road he found. He followed that road, and then turned off another. The second road was in miserable repair. That made him happy, for the likelihood of hearing car doors slamming on a rarely traveled road seemed exceedingly remote.

As twilight fell, Woodrow pulled to a stop and turned off the engine. The only sound he heard was a feeble whine rising from his chest. He blocked the front window with a sunscreen provided by the Saturn dealership in Las Vegas. Next he rolled down the side windows, took clothes from his garment bag, hung them over the glass like makeshift curtains, and rolled the windows up again. He then jammed the garment bag in the hollow behind the back seat, closing off the rear window.

He sat in the milky shadows and chewed two more Excedrin, waiting for true darkness, waiting for his headache to disappear.

And now he was chewing four more Excedrin.

And it was dark outside.

Woodrow removed his clothes from the side windows. Folded them and replaced them in the garment bag. Then he rolled up the sunscreen and tossed it in the back seat.

The night was mellow purple, going black.

Woodrow massaged his eyelids. His muscles relaxed.

For the first time in hours, he opened his eyes.

Fully. Not a rumor of a squint this time.

He gazed into the distance. His only wish was to relax. But a terrible frustration welled within him. He was wasting so much time. He had a job to do. He should have been in Pipeline Beach by now. Baddalach should have been dead hours ago.

If the dog hadn’t attacked him … If he hadn’t cracked his head on the floor of Baddalach’s condo. .

Things started to blur. Woodrow blinked several times, rubbed his eyes.

And then he noticed the light. Far off on the horizon, a pinprick rising over the low hills. Perhaps it was only an aircraft heading for Tucson. . but it was so bright. . perhaps a low-flying private plane. . a helicopter. . but it moved so fast. . and it was coming closer. . swelling, streaming across the wounded night sky like the blood of a cloudless afternoon. .

It was coming. . at great speed. .

Getting brighter. . brutally bright. .

Fresh needles of pain hammered Woodrow’s skull. .

He tried to look away but could not. So he cried out, whimpering like a child. . and he dropped the Excedrin bottle and pills spilled over the front seat. . and the brutal light was everywhere and he was on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere and he was slipping. . slipping. .

No. . Woodrow gasped. . he was not slipping. . not one inch. . he would not allow it. . he was chewing. . swallowing Excedrin. . dry. . and he would be just fine. . and the taste in his mouth was bitter Boraxo Death Valley days. . and he would drive on in just a moment because the thing in the sky was nothing more than an illusion. . but his hand could not find the ignition. . and it was difficult to concentrate with the light incinerating layers of night. . purple and violet and lavender layers. . and Woodrow could not help but watch … the light was hypnotic. . so hypnotic that Woodrow could not string two thoughts together. .

Two thoughts. . but four Excedrin. .

He had swallowed four Excedrin. . and doing same would allow him to string two thoughts together. .

Soon. . Praise Allah, let it be soon. .

Woodrow’s eyelids scoped down. . became honed steel slivers that sliced his retinas. . anguished tears dribbled through his squint. . and he was in the middle of nowhere. . and the light was everywhere. .

Getting brighter. .

And. .

It seemed that this was the place where old furniture came to die.

Woodrow stood in front of the Saturn. Glowing headlights cast his long shadow over a broken couch that had lost half its stuffing.

A twisted bicycle lay in front of the couch. To one side of that was a wheelless baby stroller with a headless doll as passenger. To the other, a mound of plump plastic garbage bags speared by clumps of surrounding yucca. And beyond that was more crippled furniture-three-legged chairs, a television with a cracked picture tube, shapely lamps stripped of their shades. .

And clothes were everywhere. Clothes that Woodrow recognized. Clothes from his garment bag.

His clothes, strewn about the desert like so much garbage.

Woodrow’s heart pounded. With shaking fingers, he reached to loosen his bow tie.

But it was already untied. . and his shirt was unbuttoned. .

He sat down on the broken couch and tried to imagine what had happened to him. He had been in another place. . a place where there was no broken furniture. . and the light had come. .

And he had lost all sense of time. .

And somehow. . somehow he had been transported to this place. . and his clothes had been strewn about. . his bow tie untied. .

He glanced at his wristwatch. It was very late.

A gentle breeze stirred in the distance, whispering through hollow knots of mesquite and ironwood, washing Woodrow’s brow. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs with the dry scent of the desert and the raw stink of the abandoned couch.

He had to calm down. He had to think this through. Logically.

Many hours ago he had fallen and injured his head severely enough to cause a brief lapse of consciousness. Severe pain, in the form of a dog bite, had brought him out of it. But for a time he had been disoriented, unable to function properly-witness his run-in with the Vietnamese kid at Baddalach’s condo.

And then came his visit to the cracker’s gas station, where the feeling of disorientation returned. He saw bright lights, and his headache returned, and he blacked out. .

He killed the cracker during the blackout. He had no memory of the murder, but he knew that it had happened just as surely as he knew he had done it. There could be no other explanation, for he had been holding a bloodstained tire iron when the blackout ended.

Perhaps the bright lights had triggered the blackout, along with the pain. Perhaps that was what had happened here. It made sense-the lights had returned before this last episode, and so had the pain.

But this time he had blacked out in one place and regained consciousness in another. And it was different from the episode at the gas station: he hadn’t a clue as to what might have occurred in the interim.

At least it was over now. The pain was gone. The lights were gone.

But where had they come from?

Alone, sitting on a broken couch, Woodrow considered the question.

Each time he had seen the lights, they had come from the sky.

The sky was home to Master Fard’s space platform.

And the men who never smiled.

The breeze grew stronger, blowing down from the north cool and insistent and powerful enough to tear a fistful of stuffing from the couch’s wounded arm.

Tumbleweeds scratched over rocks, eluding yucca barbs, traveling south. The wind threaded small rips in the garbage bags, and they rose and fell like disembodied lungs gasping for breath.

A voice seemed to whisper in Woodrow’s ear, a voice from that science fiction film he’d seen as a boy: People of earth, look to your skies for a warning. . People of earth, look to your skies for a warning. .

Woodrow turned toward Mecca, knelt, and prayed. Perhaps it had happened. Perhaps, at last, he had seen the Mother of All Planes. Perhaps he had come face-to-face with the men who never smiled.

If only he could remember.

He rose and faced the wind, waiting, studying the desert by the spectral glow of the Saturn’s headlights.

A garbage bag gave up a handful of moldy confetti that rode the night, fluttering above ironwood and mesquite, over yucca and garbage and broken furniture.

A tumbleweed crackled by on Woodrow’s right, traveling the stream of darkness that flowed between the Saturn’s headlights. He turned and watched as it scrabbled over the Saturn’s hood.

And then, quite suddenly, he didn’t care about the tumbleweed.

He saw something else, something infinitely more interesting-a shard of yellow paper fluttering in the wind, one corner trapped by a windshield wiper.

Woodrow hurried toward the car, thinking of Master Fard and the men who never smiled; and a space platform that would rain explosive death upon the world; and messages that would drop from the sky, written in Arabic, which would allow 154,000 Muslims to survive the carnage.

He snatched the shard of paper from under the wiper blade.

Suddenly, everything made sense. His disheveled appearance, his conservative clothes tumbling across the desert sands.

Because the note was not written in Arabic, and the paper it was written on had been torn from Woodrow’s own notebook.

It read:

HEY NIGGER:

I’MBACK!

WOODY.

TWO

Woodrow stepped away from the motel office, holding the key to room 21 in his wounded left hand. He hoped the number was a good omen, for he was definitely due a change in luck.

He did not know exactly why he had come to the Saguaro Riptide. Baddalach was here, of course-the clerk had let slip that a famous boxer was staying next door in room 22, saving Woodrow the trouble of any detective work.

It was Woodrow’s job to kill that boxer. But in light of the revelation that had occurred in the desert outside Tempe, the execution of Jack Baddalach seemed suddenly unimportant.

It was, however, quite necessary. Now, more than ever, Woodrow was determined to protect his professional reputation. It was the cornerstone of his identity, the one thing he could cling to in a trying time such as this.

He drove past two cars parked in front of the motel proper. A battered Dodge Dakota with Arizona plates and a Range Rover with a Budget Rent-a-Car sticker. Woodrow guessed that the latter vehicle had most probably been rented by none other than Jack Baddalach.

To the west of the motel stood a junkyard surrounded by a chain-link fence. A dirt road ran along the fence, stretching into the desert.

Woodrow parked in the gravel lot at the side of the motel. Hopefully he would be able to execute the boxer somewhere other than his motel room. It would be preferable to force the pugilist into the Saturn at gunpoint, then transport him to a remote location where one could easily dispose of a corpse.

Exhibiting no little care for his wounded left hand, Woodrow attached a silencer to the Combat Commander and returned the weapon to its shoulder holster.

The coming dawn was beautiful. Not colorful at all, but beautiful just the same. A smear of ash along the horizon, the dull petrified earth below, soft light bathing all. He stared at it for a long moment, listening to his heartbeat, filling his lungs with cool dry oxygen.

He felt surprisingly relaxed. Confident. Certain of his identity. He’d suffered a couple of blackouts, that was all. He’d killed a man-a man of hideous disposition whom he would have undoubtedly killed anyway. And he’d tossed his own clothes into the desert, and he’d written himself a note, signing it with the name he’d gone by as a callow youth. These were not events that should trouble him. They were nothing more than the result of a knock on the head-isolated incidents that would soon fade from his memory.

The fact was that he felt much better now. The morning light didn’t bother him at all. A little rest, a little relaxation, and he’d be perfectly fine. No more bright lights. No more blackouts.

Woodrow stepped out of the Saturn.

He knew exactly who he was.

And exactly what he had to do.

He opened the trunk and withdrew a prayer rug. He unrolled it on the gravel at his feet, turned toward Mecca, and prepared for his morning salat.

Woodrow Saad Muhammad prayed five times a day. To him, prayer was as important as breath. He knelt. .

. . and prayed for guidance. .

. . for freedom from his past. .

. . opening himself to Allah. .

. . and his concentration was interrupted by a dog barking in the junkyard.

Woodrow turned, his wounded hand tensing automatically. A stubby little pit bull charged along the perimeter of the fence, tried to climb the chain link with its stubby little legs, ended up earthbound as a brick. Woodrow paused, stared at the dog, studied its fury. The animal was completely focused, the way he had to be right now, when only one thing was important-

Another sound punctuated the dog’s barking. Crackling. No, crunching. Quick footsteps on gravel-

Someone grabbed Woodrow from behind and dragged him him his feet.

Automatically, Woodrow’s hand slipped under his coat. Fingers closing around pistol grips, index finger finding the trigger, he started to draw the weapon.

He never made it, because the pain was explosive. Thermonuclear. A private little cold war erupted on his backside, just below his ribs. He knew he’d been kidney punched-that was all there was to it-but the pain was paralytic, and just as it started to pass there came another explosion, the epicenter of this one his backbone, and his legs went numb for an instant, and he never even felt his knees caving in.

And then he was on the ground, gravel in his mouth.

The dog was still barking, raking chain link with sharp teeth. Woodrow grunted. Something was pinning him to the ground. Someone’s foot, or knee. That someone leaned forward, putting his full weight on Woodrow’s spine. Woodrow’s coat was pulled back, and the butt of his pistol tore at his ribcage as it was drawn from his shoulder holster.

Woodrow heard the slide rake back and forth as his attacker chambered a round.

The man said, “Think about it.”

Woodrow did.

And that was when his skull caved in for the second time in two days, and suddenly he was falling. . falling. .

. . into a bottomless pit of light.

THREE

Baddalach punched the Saturn’s gas pedal and frowned. Damn, but he hated cars that were named after astronomical phenomena. The Ford Galaxie, the Mercury Comet, the Chevy Nova. . and now the Saturn.

Not that they weren’t okay automobiles-it was the old game of heightened expectations that bothered Jack. Some marketing guy in Detroit decides that people want to feel like Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise when they climb behind the wheel and pretty soon you’ve got automobiles named for every heavenly body this side of Uranus, as if a metal box on four wheels could really send you soaring through the stratosphere.

And what was worse was that people fell for it. All kinds of people. Even hit men.

Jack laughed at that. He sure hadn’t expected the hired gun to show up in a Saturn. He’d expected something flashy and tanklike. A Caddy or something.

But maybe the hired gun was smarter than the average bear when it came to such matters. No ostentatious Caddy ragtop for him. He’d picked a car that would make him look like Joe Suburbs. That showed a little more brainpower than Jack might have expected.

So maybe the hit man was a thinking man. That didn’t worry Baddalach. Let the son of a bitch think all he wanted to. Thinking wasn’t going to change the fact that he couldn’t take a punch.

The cat was a big mother, too. Not heavy. Pure ectomorph- the kind of body type Jack wished he had. Hell, he hadn’t felt any fat at all when he’d kidney punched the dude. Good muscle mass and low body fat. Jack would’ve never lost his title if he’d had a body like that.

He’d kind of hated to clobber the guy while he was praying, though. That seemed like a low blow. But, hey, the guy was a dog-beater. What the hell did he deserve?

Jack grinned. What a beauty of a punch it had been. Half uppercut, half hook-like slamming a brick under the guy’s ribcage. Hey, for Jack Baddalach, that spelled S-A-T-I-S-F-A-C-T-I-O-N. Rabbit-punching the guy and watching him go down was even better.

First the chump dropped to his knees. Then he went face first into the gravel, sending up a puff of dust that looked kind of like a miniature Hiroshima.

Yep. It was a real Kodak moment, all right.

Jack hadn’t lingered, though. Other fish to fry, and all like that. But he did take the time to steal the hit man’s gun, wallet, and car.

That’d teach the bastard to beat up on a guy’s dog.

Jack wished he could have hung around to see the hit man come to. No car, no gun, pockets empty except for the key to his room at the Saguaro Riptide.

Room 21. Right next to Jack’s room. Jack knew where the guy was. He also knew that he wasn’t done with him yet.

The highway was clear of traffic, the road itself as straight as Jack’s right jab. Jack hit the gas and the Saturn lurched forward like a peg-legged man pushing a wheelbarrow.

In other words. Jack had plenty of time to think things through.

One of the first rules of boxing at the championship level-know your opponent. You watch films of a guy, see what he does over and over, figure out what you’re going to do to take the play away from him. You hire sparring partners that can approximate the guy’s style, and you go to school on them. You get in shape, you get your mind right, you stick to your plan. . and a lot of times you’ve got the fight won before you ever step in the ring.

Jack glanced at his reflection in the rearview mirror. “Time for a little scouting report.”

Okay, the hit man’s choice of wheels told Jack something. And Freddy G had told him something else-that the guy was a Muslim. Not some mystical kufi-wearing Muslim either. No, this guy looked like the old-fashioned kind, a throwback to the suit-and-tie era of the sixties when the heavyweight champ of the world had joined up, changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.

This guy looked like a real Fruit of Islam candidate. They were the A-1 badasses who protected the Muslim elite, kind of like the Nation of Islam secret service. To a man they were purer than pure and meaner than mean, and their hearts were made of stone.

The hit man’s wallet lay on the passenger seat next to his gun-a serious enough looking piece. But Jack didn’t know anything about guns, so the pistol didn’t tell him anything.

He reached over and opened the glove compartment. The contents told him plenty:

1) A few cassettes, mostly jazz. That fifties be-bop shit where you couldn’t hold onto the melody with both hands.

2) A brand new map of Arizona, folded so that it showed Pipeline Beach and its environs.

3) A little notebook in which the hit man kept track of mileage and maintenance on the Saturn.

Jack flipped through the notebook. He had to admit that he was impressed-the hit man actually changed the oil every three thousand miles.

He tossed the notebook aside. The situation was pretty clear now. He was being tracked by an anal-retentive oil-changing dog-beater with a car named after a planet who liked to listen to the Jack Kerouac hit parade. Somehow, it didn’t seem like hate was too strong a word.

Not that he was in a benefit-of-the-doubt kind of mood or anything, but Jack figured he’d make one more dip into the pond. He pushed the cassettes aside, fumbled the map out of the way, and came up with a cellular phone.

If he’d been a cartoon character, a glowing lightbulb would have appeared above his head.

He pulled onto the shoulder of the road. Pictured the hit man regaining consciousness back there in the motel parking lot-spitting loose chunks of gravel out of his mouth, his backside and neck electric with pain as he rose and stumbled to his motel room. Keying the lock like a drunk, cringing at the sound the door made when he closed it. Kidneys aching while he pissed. Then looking at himself in the mirror, figuring what a sorry way this was for such a smart guy like himself to start the day.

Jack kind of felt sorry for the guy. He flipped open the hit man’s wallet and found his Visa card. Grabbed the phone. There was only one 800 number that he’d committed to memory, but he figured that one would be more than enough.

He made a call.

Okay. Fun was fun. . but now it was time to play some mind games of the mucho serioso variety.

Jack phoned information. A minute later he had the number he needed. He punched it in. One ring later, he was through.

“Pipeline Beach Sheriff’s Department.”

Jack stared down at the name on the hit man’s driver’s license. “My name is Woodrow Saad Muhammad. I’m a guest at the Saguaro Riptide Motel. I’m staying in room 21.”

“How may I direct your call, sir?”

“Someone stole my motherfuckin’ wallet and my motherfuckin’ car,” Jack said. “Oh, yeah. . and he beat the motherfuckin’ shit out of me, too.”

“All right, sir, let me transfer you to-”

“And one other thing: the motherfucker who did it is a guy named Vince Komoko.”

Woody’s head was feeling pretty fucked up when he answered the door.

Two cops stood there.

Two women cops.

Two white women cops.

Shit. Woody hoped that he was seeing double. Seriously.

“Are you Woodrow Saad Muhammad?” the first cop asked.

Woody almost laughed. Stood to figure that they were after the monk, the self-righteous prayer-sayin’ nigger who shared his head. They didn’t want him at all.

Be a bitch explaining that one, though. So Woody just nodded.

The second cop smiled. “Mind if we come in?”

“Whatever pops your cherry.”

Both bitches glared at him.

The taller of the two entered first. Woody checked her out-blond hair pulled tight against her skull and a long braid that almost brushed her outstanding little ass. Her uniform shirt seemed tailored to show off a perky pair of titties. Put the whole picture together and she kind of reminded Woody of the Valkyrie from the old Incredible Hulk comic book.

“We’re here to follow up on your phone call,” the Valkyrie said, her painted lips expressionless. “You’d like to report a robbery?”

Woody didn’t say spit. This whole thing was fucked up. Like hearing the punch line without hearing the joke. Ever since he awoke that first time at the gas station, he’d been certain that he was tuned in to everything the monk said and did. Of course, it didn’t seem to work the other way around-the monk was real surprised to find out about him-but, hey, that was the monk’s problem.

But this-Woody sure as shit didn’t remember the monk making any phone call. Especially not to the goddamn cops. He wondered how the monk had managed to pull it off. Maybe he’d underestimated the stiff motherfucker.

“I’m waiting,” the Valkyrie said.

“I was robbed,” Woody said.

Shit. A man had to say something. Besides, Woody knew that it was the truth. The monk’s wallet was gone. His gat, too. Even that fucked up whitebread car of his. And all those stiff clothes that made the nigger look like he should be hocking a stack of Muhammad Speaks newspapers on some corner in Vegas.

The Valkyrie didn’t say shit. She was busy following her pert titties around the room, checking things out. Woody figured that was okay. There was nothing to see. Everything had been stolen.

Then he glanced at the bed. Shit. Rewind on that last part, homes. Because the monk’s shoulder holster lay on the cheesy spread, empty.

The Valkyrie must have seen it, but she didn’t say a word.

Woody decided that he’d better ease on over toward the open door.

That was when the other cop crossed the threshold, closed the door, and leaned against it.

This one was shorter. Her titties were actually larger than her partner’s, but her uniform shirt was way too baggy to show them off.

“My face is up here,” she said.

Woody blinked and found the woman’s eyes.

Shit.

Her eyes were blue and very angry.

The Valkyrie said, “What’s your real name, anyway? I mean, you registered here at the Riptide as Woodrow Jefferson. But when you called our office, you said your name was Woodrow Saad Muhammad.”

Woody blew a sour breath her way. The monk had really fucked it up. That’s how bad Woody’s note had rattled him. The church-goin’ motherfucker had actually written Woody’s name on a motel registration card. And that blew Woody’s cover cold. Man, just when he was ready to start off fresh, after all these years.

“Don’t you understand, boy?” Big Titties said. “The sheriff means, What did your momma name you?”

Both women stared at him, waiting for an answer, the heels of their gunhands resting on their pistols. Woody wanted to laugh. Seriously. Shit, he thought every word these bitches said was true. He hated all that Muslim crap. But these bitches thought that he was the monk. . and the monk wouldn’t appreciate talk like that.

Man, this was sure as shit getting complicated.

The Valkyrie smiled. “You can talk, can’t you?”

Big Titties said, “Maybe he speaks Swahili or something.”

“Maybe we could call in the United Nations-”

“Or try Esperanto.”

“I’m a Muslim,” Woody lied, trying to sound like the monk. “I changed my name when I converted.”

“Is that so?” The Valkyrie wrinkled her brow. “I gotta admit that I don’t quite get it. Not that you changed your name- that’s okay-but it’s the part you didn’t change that bothers me. See, I’d understand if you’d changed your name from Woodrow Jefferson to Ali Baba Muhammad or something like that. I mean, if you’re going to change something, change it. Go whole hog. Hell, sticking with Woodrow. . that’s lame. I mean, you might as well be Moe Saad Muhammad or Curly Saad Muhammad or Shemp Saad Muhammad. What’s the point? You’re still Moe or Curly or Shemp. You’re still one of the Three Stooges.”

Big Titties said, “Scratch a Saad Muhammad, find a Jefferson.”

Woody wanted to laugh so bad he almost pissed himself. These bitches were sure enough his kind of folks.

But he had to keep a straight face so he could get this shit over with. “Mostly I use my old name for business,” he explained. “Sometimes it makes things easier. Especially when I’m on the road. You’d be surprised-ain’t everybody as enlightened as y’all.”

The Valkyrie sat down on the bed, picked up the shoulder holster. “By the way. Woody, just what is your business?”

“I’m in ladies’ gun belts.” Woody laughed. “I’d give you gals a free sample, but the motherfucker who robbed me stole my sample case.”

The women laughed and shook their heads.

“Looks like we’ve got us a real comedian on our hands,” the Valkyrie said.

“Looks like,” Big Titties put in.

Woody kept quiet.

“What can you tell us about the man who beat you up?” the Valkyrie asked.

Woody stared at her tits, at the long blond braid draped over her right shoulder like a whip. If the opportunity arose, and he kind of hoped it might, he was really going to enjoy chilling this bitch.

Shit. Down in his pants, Little Woody was getting real hard.

He hoped the Valkyrie could see that.

If only he had the monk’s pistol. .

A grin twitched at the comers of the woman’s painted mouth. A lipstick grin the color of blood.

“Answer my goddamned question,” the Valkyrie said. “What can you tell us about the guy who kicked your ass?”

Woody tried to stare her down.

He blinked first.

Shit.

“Don’t you get it?” Big Titties said. “We’re way past done fucking around with you.”

“It’s like this,” the Valkyrie explained, “if you don’t give us an answer right now, we’ll hurt you so bad your relatives in Africa will feel the pain.”

Woody’s anger boiled. No bitch was going to talk to him like that. “I’ll tell you this much about the bastard who jumped me-he’s a dead man.”

“You don’t have to tell me a goddamned thing,” the Valkyrie said. “Whatever scam you’re trying to run, you might as well drop it here and now, because you aren’t half as smart as you think you are. Calling us up and telling us Vince Komoko robbed you, when I know the son of a bitch is dead. That isn’t news to me, idiot. I know he’s dead because I killed his ass. And if you don’t want to end up the same way, I suggest you get the hell out of my town.”

Big Titties said, “We don’t mean tomorrow or the next day.”

“We mean before sundown,” the Valkyrie said.

Baddalach stared at the directions he’d scrawled on a piece of motel stationery. Komoko’s woman had said she’d meet him at eight A.M. sharp. He was supposed to look for a double-wide trailer with a pink Caddy parked out front on the west side of the highway, then take the next dirt road heading east.

As it turned out, one was right on top of the other. Jack hit the brakes and swung the wheel hard to avoid missing the turn. The Saturn lurched through it like a man having a heart attack, and then Jack was on the dirt road.

Which was not in what you’d call good repair. There were potholes aplenty. Jack hit damn near every one of them, and about a quarter mile down the road he hit the granddaddy of them all.

The steering wheel seemed to explode. A giant marshmallow appeared out of nowhere and attempted to smother him.

A goddamn air bag. It didn’t do much to protect him-the only purpose it served was to muffle his curses.

And blind him. Jack couldn’t see a thing.

But he didn’t need to see to slam the brake pedal to the floor.

Once more, the Saturn had a heart attack.

This time, it died.

The air bag deflated like a whoopee cushion that had done its duty and done it well.

The car had come to a stop sideways on the road. Jack stared through the windshield. Nothing but saguaro and rocks and brush, all under a morning sky the color of deep water.

There wasn’t one cloud in the sky.

But thunder boomed in the distance.

A bloody vulture landed hard on the Saturn’s hood, flapped around for a second or two, then squawked its last.

Jack rolled down the driver’s door window.

The road stretched for another quarter mile.

A big old southern plantation-style mansion loomed at the end of it.

Elvis Presley was halfway between the mansion and the Saturn. He held a smoking shotgun in his hands, and he was coming in Jack’s direction.

His pace was brisk.

FOUR

Jack Baddalach didn’t know much about shotguns.

He knew something about Elvis, though. And the faux Elvis who was coming toward him with shotgun in hand represented the King at his peak as far as Baddalach was concerned. Not the Hillbilly Cat who’d shaken things up in the fifties, not the doughboy who’d given jumpsuits a bad name in the seventies, and certainly not the guy who’d staggered through all those bad movies in the sixties-the incarnation Jack always thought of as Elvis Lite.

No, the man with the shotgun was Elvis starved to perfection and tanned like a god who had stepped down from Mount Olympus, sheathed in black leather, motorcycle boots kicking up pale dust devils that swirled in the morning breeze. Pure ’68 Comeback Special. Jack almost expected the guy to snatch up a microphone and start singing “Guitar Man” or something.

But the man with the shotgun didn’t start singing. He jacked a fresh shell into the chamber and advanced on the Saturn. Not too fast, not too slow, with a little Jailhouse Rock smirk simmering on his face and just enough glide in his stride to let Jack know that he was way past frosty.

It was a picture, all right. Jack couldn’t blink, let alone look away. The scene was so hideously unreal that Jack was strangely mesmerized, as if he were staring down an exotic and particularly deadly snake.

Jack knew how you ended up if you tried to do something as stupid as that. With some difficulty, he forced himself to look away.

At the passenger seat. At the hit man’s pistol.

Jack reached for it, then realized that the damn thing was useless to him. He had never fired a pistol in his life. He didn’t know how to chamber a round, or how to cock the thing, or even if you had to cock it.

Maybe all you had to do was pull the trigger. .

But maybes could get you killed.

The shotgun thundered. Jack hit the deck just as the windshield shattered, and a heavy blanket of safety glass slapped his backside.

The peppery scent of gunpowder drifted through the air. Lying sideways on the seat. Jack reached up and keyed the engine. It cranked, almost caught. Then the shotgun barked again, and the sound of the front tire exploding rode the gun’s report like an echo.

Jack experienced a sinking feeling both literal and metaphorical. He took his hand off the key just that quick and came up off the seat real slow, hands up.

Elvis’s smirk was riding a little higher now, just on one side of his mouth, revealing teeth that gleamed in the morning sun. So white they had to be capped, with an incisor that was just this side of feral.

One-handed, Elvis eased the shotgun over his shoulder. For a second Jack thought that the King was going to switch gears and recreate the unforgettable James Dean Christ-on-a-cross-with-Winchester pose from Giant.

But no. That wasn’t Elvis’s plan at all. His eyes narrowed, and his free hand drifted into his pocket.

Emerging a moment later with a gleaming silver microphone.

Jesus. Jack almost laughed but ultimately didn’t, because just moments ago he’d come face-to-face with his ignorance concerning firearms. Maybe this was some crazy kind of pistol with a silencer-spy stuff-like something out of a James Bond movie.

No. It wasn’t a weapon. Jack could see that now. But it wasn’t a microphone, either.

Because Elvis didn’t hold it to his mouth. He raised his chin just a notch and lay the thing against a section of throat crisscrossed with scars that were as thick as pencils, as angry-pink and blood-purple as the heart of a rare steak.

The scars wriggled into a knot, and a reptilian smirk squirmed molasses-slow on Elvis’s perfect face. But his eyes were as cold as graveyard dirt as he opened his mouth and thumbed a button on the side of the silver rod.

Jack shivered. Elvis’s voice sounded like a cross between the Robot from Lost in Space and a can opener with stripped gears.

He said, “If. . you’re looking for. . trouble. . you came. . to the right. . place. .”

Jack didn’t move quickly, but he did move. No way was he going to touch the hit man’s gun, but he did manage to pocket Woodrow Saad Muhammad’s wallet as he eased out of the Saturn.

Jack closed the car door and Elvis backed up a couple of steps, maintaining a distance of six or seven feet. Even if Jack Baddalach had had moves like Sugar Ray Sattler, there was no way he could close a gap like that and not come out looking like a butchered side of beef.

So he held up his hands and shrugged. “Man, you got me shakin’ like a leaf on a fuzzy tree.”

Elvis’s smirk slithered higher, “What. . brings you ‘round. . here boy?”

Jack didn’t answer. Elvis brought the shotgun off his shoulder. Aimed it one-handed, still holding the microphone thing to his throat with the other. If Jack could get to him, it wouldn’t take much to knock the gun aside.

Jack took a step forward.

Elvis took a step back.

"You. . stay offa my blue. . suede shoes boy. . and answer my God. . damned question what. . are you doing. . 'round here?"

Jack pointed at a weather-beaten sign posted near the highway. The one that went some distance toward explaining the situation. The one that read:

FUTURE HOME OF ELVIS PRESLEY MUSEUM AND MEMORIAL MINIATURE GOLF COURSE

“I’m a miniature golfer from way back,” Jack said. “Never miss a chance to get in eighteen holes before breakfast. I’m hell on those windmills, especially.” He shaded his eyes, glancing over Elvis’s shoulder. “I don’t see any windmill here, though. You do have windmills, don’t you?”

“We don't got. . no stinking windmills and. . don't you fuck with me boy. . I know why. . you’re here you're here to chop. . my beef you’re here to. . put the pork to my woman. . and I'm. . here to fix your God. . damned wagon for you you’ll be. . picking your bloody balls off a. . cactus spike if you cross me. . boy. .”

Jack backed up. The scars on Elvis’s neck wriggled like a fistful of bloodworms. His upper lip twitched uncontrollably, transforming from smirk to snarl with near-lycanthropic intensity, as if he were about to sprout fangs and claws, do the whole Michael Landon teenage werewolf bit for an encore.

But none of that was really necessary. Elvis didn’t need an encore. The shotgun was enough.

More than enough. Elvis’s finger went white as it tightened around the trigger. The shotgun barrel weaved in the air, catching the morning light. Suddenly, the gun seemed to have a life of its own.

“Cool down,” Jack said. “Whatever way you want me, that’s how I will be.”

Elvis redirected the barrel and sent a blast over Jack’s head. The boxer dove for the dirt. Elvis released the gizmo that looked like a microphone, chambered another shell, and caught the cord before the mike hit the ground, swinging it up like some kind of too-smooth-for-words lounge singer and slapping it against the scarred ridge of misery that was his throat.

“Don't you fuck with me. . boy don’t you. . fuck with me at all you find out. . what happened to the last boy who thought. . he could chop my beef. . his name was Komoko and some people I know chopped him real good and. . buried his ass china-deep. . you keep out of my briar patch boy ’cause you. . ain’t gonna pick my berries and don't you dare. . speak the King’s words in my presence again or. . I'll send you to hell. . boy on a shingle.”

Jack got up. Slowly. He brushed chalky dust off of his jeans. Glanced at the Saturn sitting there with a blown-out windshield and a flat tire. Shrugging, he turned away and started walking toward the highway.

It was a hot morning, but Elvis’s voice cut through him like a Halloween wind.

“Light-heavyweight. . champion of the world I. . never knew that a hunnert. . and seventy-five pounds could fit in. . such a little sack of shit.”

FIVE

Eight-thirty in the A.M. and Jack Baddalach felt like an egg sizzling on a hot skillet, and whoever had ordered that egg liked ’em scrambled hard.

The highway stretched before him, blacktop shimmering under a blanket of heat waves. The former light-heavyweight champion of the world had been walking for fifteen minutes and hadn’t seen a single car.

He began to wonder exactly how many miles separated him from Pipeline Beach. Seven miles seemed an optimistic estimate; ten was more likely. In the old days, when he’d first turned pro, he’d run ten first thing every morning and gone on to spar ten rounds in the afternoon. But in those days he’d gone 155 soaking wet. These days his weight was closer to 180, and he’d been beat up real good a time or two. Most boxers didn’t like to admit it, but there was something about surviving a real solid beating that took something out of you forever. No matter how hard you trained, you could never get it back.

Jack hadn’t done his roadwork in Wolverine boots and Levis, either. That’s what he was wearing today. The only positive wardrobe choice he’d made was a white T-shirt. It didn’t soak up the heat the way a black one would, but it didn’t exactly make him feel like he was taking a stroll on the North Pole, either.

In fact, he felt like someone was roasting his backbone over a low fire. Still, all in all, he had to admit that his little constitutional was slightly more pleasant than the morning’s other option-a load of buckshot in the ass. And then there was that stuff Elvis had said about Jack’s family jewels hanging on a cactus spike or something. . Jack wasn’t sure of the precise quote, but it had definitely formed a mental picture that had moved into his cerebrum and set up permanent housekeeping.

So he kept on walking, and he tried to think about other things, but every time he looked at one of those goddamned saguaros he imagined his cojones dangling from on high like bloody Christmas ornaments.

So he looked at the sky instead. Still no clouds. No shade, no nothing.

And one less vulture, thanks to Elvis’s shotgun.

Hey, get off it, champ. What’s done is done. Sure you got scuffed up. But you survived. Get up off the canvas, take the eight count, and get back to business.

Yeah. Soon as I hump these ten miles.

Jack ran fingers through his hair, slicked it straight back, out of his eyes, and wiped a trickle of sweat from his brow. So he’d suffered a flash knockdown. So what. Elvis had come out of nowhere and put him on his ass. But only because Jack had gotten overconfident. After taking out the hit man, he’d figured he was on easy street. He’d figured all he had to do was meet Komoko’s sweetie, sweat her a little, and she’d turn over Freddy G’s bankroll most expeditiously.

He’d set up a meeting with the girl last night. Her name was Priscilla and she’d been real nervous on the phone-to Jack, she’d sounded like a woman who’d been downing straight shots of Maalox since his first call. Still, he should have known to watch his back walking in. Like the referees always said, protect yourself at all times.

Jack couldn’t decide if Priscilla had actually set him up, or if Elvis’s heartachin’ G.I. Blues blitzkrieg was a result of real jealousy. The mop could flop either way. But either way you figured it, Jack was sure of one thing-when Elvis talked about Vincent Komoko, his words came straight from his not-so-wooden heart.

Vincent Komoko was dead.

Buried.

Getting his mail from the gophers.

If gophers could live in a burnin’ hellhole like this desert.

Jack wondered about that. He really did. And he wondered about other things, too. Elvis had mentioned that “some people” he knew had “chopped” Komoko, and Jack wondered who those “people” might be. He wondered if a guy like Elvis might have a couple of friends who were especially good at chopping. Maybe a couple of friends who wore badges and brassieres.

It was something to ponder, all right. This Jack did. In fact, so intense was his consideration of the issue that he didn’t notice the battered Dodge Dakota until it was almost on top of him.

The truck pulled onto the shoulder and didn’t stop until the front bumper was about to get real familiar with Jack’s kneecaps.

The driver hung her head out the window and smiled at him from behind her shades.

“So, champ,” said Kate Benteen. “You want a lift, or what?”

Jack got into the truck and smelled strawberries.

There was a box of Pop Tarts on the seat next to him, along with a thermos. A raw tart missing a few bites lay on the dashboard. It was strawberry all right, and it was leaking.

“You hungry?” Benteen asked.

“Yeah, but not for that.”

“Your loss.” Benteen finished off the tart and poured herself a short cup of coffee. “Breakfast of champions.”

Jack squinted. “Hey, that’s my line.”

“So it is, champ.” She tossed down the coffee, capped the thermos, and hit the road. “Which way you headed?”

“Back to Pipeline Beach. I’m about ready for a real breakfast. Do you know if there’s a Jack in the Box in town?”

“Can’t help you there, champ.”

“Damn. How about MacDonald’s?”

“Jesus. I don’t work for the chamber of commerce.” Benteen’s gaze didn’t stray from the road. “And pay attention to the little details, champ. Like for instance, right now Pipeline Beach is in our rearview mirror. I’m heading the other way.”

“Leaving so soon?”

"Don’t you wish.” She grinned at him. Dark lipstick. Lower lip full and pouty. Pretty damned attractive.

“Well … if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

"What?”

Jack shrugged. “Something my mother used to say.”

“Your mother must have had the brains in the family.”

Jack thought about that, but trying to decide if Benteen had just insulted his mother made him kind of dizzy, maybe it was the heat. Or the fact that he’d missed breakfast. Anyway, he figured he’d better sidestep the whole thing, especially since Benteen was driving. He didn’t want to walk the two miles he’d already walked all over again.

Jack grabbed a raw Pop Tart from the box and peeled the wrapper. “So where are we going?”

Again, the grin. “Champ, I’ve got to see a man about a horse.”

The hell of it was, she wasn’t kidding. They drove past the trailer house with the pink Caddy parked out front-seeing it a second time. Jack knew it had to be Elvis’s place. About ten miles past the trailer they passed a sign advertising a horse ranch. Kate Benteen swung into a long driveway and followed a leaning fence line until she came to a corral where a guy dressed head to toe in denim that hadn’t been blue since the days of Eisenhower was waiting for her.

“This’ll only take a minute,” she said, pulling to a stop and ratcheting the emergency brake.

“You’re really gonna buy a horse?”

“Appaloosa.”

“Why?”

She lowered her sunglasses, gave him another little taste of her green eyes. “Sometimes it pays to have a back door, champ.”

Jack knew even less about horses than he knew about shotguns, but any fool could see that Kate Benteen had some serious knowledge of equestrian pursuits.

Which meant that she knew enough to steer clear of the horse hockey if she wanted to keep her combat boots clean, and then some. Which was another way of saying that she handled that little pony, all right.

Jack overheard the old-timer telling Kate that she should watch herself because the devil’s own fire burned in the Appaloosa’s belly, but the warning didn’t seem to slow Benteen down one bit. First she made a few turns, tugging the reins gently but firmly, the horse whinnying and snorting until it figured out who was boss. That done, she didn’t waste any time-she spun the sleek animal around, jumped the corral fence, and took off into the brush without so much as a hearty hiho Silver.

Horse and rider were gone about ten minutes. On the return they jumped the fence again and Benteen was off the animal before it even broke stride.

She handed the reins to the old-timer, who couldn’t do more than take off his busted Stetson and shake his head. Benteen pulled a wallet from the back pocket of her jeans. Money changed hands. She climbed the corral fence and came down walking, dusty combat boots making purposeful strides. Over her shoulder she said, “Fatten him up some. Give him some dog biscuits. And Frosted Mini-Wheats, if he wants ’em.”

“You goddamn right,” the old-timer said.

Jack watched Benteen come. There was a glow to her face now, a little sheen of sweat. It looked good on her.

Her T-shirt worried him, though. It was canary yellow and featured a rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike. The legend beneath the snake was a familiar one: don’t tread on me.

Jack Baddalach was beginning to think that was pretty solid advice. He poured himself a cup of coffee and helped himself to another Pop Tart as Benteen slid behind the wheel.

“Don’t push your luck, champ,” she said, and she grabbed the Pop Tarts box and shoved it under the seat.

They were back on the highway, heading toward Pipeline Beach.

Jack asked, “Where’d you learn about horses?”

“I’m a Montana girl. My daddy was a cavalry officer-Air Cav-Vietnam, of course. Helicopters. But Daddy was the kind of man who wanted to live in another era. Wanted to charge up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. Anyway, he got me started with my first little Paint when I was just four. I got serious about it later-from 1980 to ’83 I won my age division in barrel racing events from San Francisco to Calgary. Took a couple years off, came back and won the Grand Nationals in ’89.”

“What happened between ’83 and ’89?”

“College. Plus I got interested in platform diving. I won a silver at Seoul in ’88.”

Jack laughed. “Yeah. You mentioned that yesterday. I guess I can’t quite keep up.”

“You said it, not me,” she whispered, then fell silent.

Jack didn’t let it go. “’83 to ’88, huh?” he said. “What were you. . maybe twelve years old when you went to college?”

“I was fifteen. You’re a smart guy. You can figure it out. Home schooling. Child prodigy. All that kind of stuff. Hey, I can even play the piano. Anyway, I started college at fifteen. Graduated med school just shy of twenty and finished my residency at twenty-one.”

“A real-life doctor, huh? And here I was just getting used to the idea of you being a rodeo rider and an Olympic champion. Oh. . and a movie star, too. Not to mention the fact that you used to be an officer and a gentlewoman.”

“To put it all together for you, there aren’t too many patients who’ll accept a twenty-one-year-old doctor. So I joined the army. They were happy to have me. I was a flight surgeon-it wasn’t like I came up through the ranks. Major Kate Benteen. Like I said, you can look it up.”

“So what do you want me to call you-Major, Doc … or maybe you’re a lawyer and an Indian chief, too?”

She kept her eyes on the road. “For starters, why don’t you try Benteen.”

“Good.” Baddalach finished off his Pop Tart. “You can call me Jack.”

“Sure thing, champ.”

Once again, they passed the trailer with the pink Caddy parked out front.

“So,” she said, “how’s the Mike Hammer biz going so far? Any beautiful babes ask you to kiss me, deadly? Anybody beat you up. . maybe take a shot at you?”

Jack closed his eyes. The way she put things. Like she was playing with him. Like she already had everything figured out and was enjoying watching him stumble around.

“I can almost hear the wheels grinding up there in cranial central command. Don’t hurt yourself, champ.”

Jack opened his eyes. “Okay. You win. Fact is, the Mike Hammer biz could be a whole lot better. No one’s tried to kiss me. And this morning a guy took a couple of shots at me with a shotgun.”

“Ah … so you’ve met Pipeline Beach’s own King of Rock ’n’ Roll.”

“You know him?”

“I wouldn’t say that. I know a little bit about him. For instance, I know he uses a Winchester shotgun to enforce a strict vulture no-fly zone over his property.”

“He likes other men even less than he likes vultures. I think he worries about his wife’s extracurricular activities.”

“Yeah … but a guy like that, he’s not too hard to figure. I mean, think about it. Elvis impersonator loses his voice to larynx cancer, the old confidence meter has gotta clock dangerously low. I bet he would have rather lost his nuts.” Jack remembered the Elvis impersonator’s comment concerning cactus and castration. He didn’t share it with Benteen, but he figured her appraisal was dead-on.

And the part about larynx cancer-that explained the scars on the guy’s neck, the gizmo that looked like a microphone, and the guy’s robotic voice. His vocal cords had been surgically removed.

“What else do you know about him?” Jack asked.

“Ellis Aaron Perkins. Born Ed Klausthauser. He moved to Vegas shortly after the King’s death and became the first Elvis impersonator to hit it big. Had a five-year contract with one of the major hotels and was a big hit with all those fan club queenies, at least the ones who could still fit into their high school prom dresses. Apparently the guy was a sexually voracious predator, if you want it in Gold Medal paperbackese. He really got into some serious roll-playing. You know, he enjoyed that semimournful, seminecrophiliacal snatch.”

“You mean he liked the women to pretend he was the real deal?”

Benteen nodded. “If they were talking to his face. Carry on that conversation a couple feet lower, he liked ’em to address the royal member as Little Elvis.”

“Cute.”

“It gets better. After the cancer ended his career, he disappeared for a couple years. Drove around the country in that pink Caddy of his. Then, about five years ago, he moved here and settled down with the lovely Priscilla. She was the daughter of some fan club queen from Tucson-he’d known her since she was a little girl. Anyway, he bought himself a bigga bigga hunka desert in Pipeline Beach. Planned to build The Elvis Presley Museum and Memorial Miniature Golf Course.

“It would have been something, too. Ellis planned to create a copy of Graceland with a different miniature golf hole in each room. Paradise, tourist-trap style. He actually started construction, but the Presley estate found out about the deal and came down hard. Pretty soon our buddy Little Elvis had eight or ten lawyers jerking his balls. Ellis dropped some serious change on lawyers of his own, even tried to compromise, but the Presley people wouldn’t have any of it.”

“He should have put in windmills.”

“Huh?”

“Windmills,” Jack repeated. “For the miniature golf course. You want to be a success, you’ve gotta have windmills.”

Benteen nodded. “Yeah, windmills probably would have swung the deal. He had a pretty good eighteenth hole designed, though.”

“Yeah? What?”

‘The last hole was supposed to be in the master bathroom. There’d be a horizontal Elvis statue on the floor, mouth open. You’d putt your ball right through the King’s sneer. Game over.”

“It didn’t roll out his asshole or anything?”

She shook her head. “Nope. That would have been sacrilegious. Besides, if the first rule of miniature golf is that you’ve got to have windmills, the second rule is that you’ve got to get the ball back at the end of the game.”

Jack shook his head. “How’d you find out about Ellis, anyway?”

“Sandy Kapalua-Dayton. The woman who runs the Saguaro Riptide. Seems like she knows every story in town.”

Jack grinned. Talk about scouting your opponent. Kate Benteen was turning out to be one amazing woman. “So what’s Ellis do these days? I mean, besides shooting at strangers with his shotgun.”

“He’s an electronics wiz. You must have seen that battery-powered rig he’s got for talking-that didn’t come out of any medical supply catalog. He custom-designed it himself, wanted it to look like one of the big ol’ stage mikes Elvis used in Vegas.”

She brushed a stray strand of hair away from her face.

Her hair was auburn. And then it caught the light, turned the darkest red. .

Damn, Baddalach. You’re getting carried away.

Benteen hadn’t noticed. “Anyway, Ellis has a little electronics business. You know those emergency phones they’ve got along the highways these days?”

“You mean those solar-powered cellular things?”

“Yeah. The ones you use if you break down in the middle of nowhere.”

“Okay.”

“Well, our friend Ellis steals those phones. Guts them. Transplants the circuitry and programs the codes in another cell phone. He sells the finished product at flea markets around the state. Whoever buys one gets a couple of months free long distance courtesy of the great state of Arizona. After that, the phone company catches on and cuts things off. But, hey, in the meantime it’s a pretty good scam.”

“A real character.”

“A real psycho character. Sandy thinks he beats up his wife. He’s just around the bend from pathologically jealous, as you found out this morning.” Benteen took a deep breath, and suddenly her voice went cold. “I think that maybe Ellis killed Vince Komoko. Or if he didn’t, he knows who did.”

Jack shook his head. There it was, right in front of him. Kate Benteen was definitely dishing it up and putting it right on his plate.

He wondered why. He could think of a half-dozen reasons right off. Some good. Some not so good.

Maybe he could trust her. Maybe they could work together- get to the end of this thing without anybody getting hurt.

Maybe he should tell her what Ellis had said about Komoko- that Ellis claimed to know the people who had chopped Vince down.

She said, “Let me ask you a question, champ.”

“Shoot.”

“Did you know Vince?”

“No.”

"Then you’re just after the money, nothing else? This whole thing isn’t personal to you?”

He looked at her. A long hard look. She stared straight ahead, at the road, waiting for an answer.

He wanted to tell her about his last night in the ring and how he knew he could never climb through the ropes again, and his worries about the new career Freddy had in mind for him. And he wanted to tell her about the hit man who was on his tail, and what the guy had done to his dog, and what the guy might have done to Johnny Da Nang, and how just the idea of putting someone so completely innocent as Johnny in danger was driving him nuts.

But most of all Jack wanted to give Kate Benteen the right answer, the one that she wanted to hear. He didn’t know why. But it occurred to him that maybe if this whole thing was something personal to Kate Benteen, it might become something personal to him, as well.

He sucked a deep breath. That was crazy. Man, he didn’t know anything about this woman. She could be anybody. Sure she could dive into a swimming pool as smooth as Esther-fucking-Williams, but that didn’t make her an Olympic medalist. And sure she could ride a horse, but that didn’t prove she was a rodeo queen.

Let alone all the other stuff she claimed to be.

And she claimed to be one hell of a lot.

Man oh man. .

“I’m waiting, champ,” she said. “One more time: is it personal?”

“I’ve got to think about that,” Jack said, and the words were barely out of his mouth when she whispered, “Don’t think too long.”

They pulled into town.

“You still hungry?” she asked. “Want me to look for a Jack in the Box?”

“No,” he said. “I think I’ll take your advice.”

She raised an eyebrow.

Jack raised an eyebrow as well. “You can drop me off at the public library, Major Benteen.”

SIX

Kate swore under her breath. The former light-heavyweight champion of the world had certainly romped and stomped ail over her first impressions. Jack Baddalach was definitely smarter than she’d guessed. And that played serious hell with her ego, because she had always thought of herself as a crackerjack judge of character.

Barring Vince Komoko, of course.

She swung the Dodge Dakota into a parking space in front of the Saguaro Riptide. Sandy Kapalua-Dayton was over by the swimming pool, busy with one of those little chlorine test kits. She waved as Kate slammed the door of the truck, and Kate waved back as she headed up the stairs.

Kate entered her room and closed the door, relieved to have escaped even the most minimal human contact. She stood stock-still for a second in the dark, appreciating the silence.

The simple truth was that she loved it. She was glad to be alone, glad to be out of sight.

Glad that there wasn’t an answering machine to check, so she didn’t have to feel bad that no one had left a message for her. Glad that there wasn’t a mailbox out front with her name on it, so she didn’t have to feel bad that no one had written her a letter. Glad that she didn’t know anyone within a thousand miles who gave a damn about her one way or another, apart from a guy who obviously had a missing bag of money foremost on his mind and a motel owner who only wanted to know if someone had been pissing in her swimming pool.

Kate hit max a/c and the air conditioner whirred alive. She sat on the bed, untied and kicked off her army boots, and speared the shackled TV remote with her index finger.

"Well, Ricki, I never meant for things to get so out of hand. I mean, Patrice and Rene was in different towns. I never thought they’d be findin’ out about each other. .”

Kate’s index finger came down hard.

CLICK. The channel changed.

". . it wasn’t like that, Geraldo. You make it sound like I was using her. Remember, she got something out of it, too. But she acted like I owed her something, even said that I was insensitive. Man, I am sensitive. Mucho sensitive. Shit. . next to me, Mr. Rogers is like Jeffrey Dahmer. That woman just wanted too much, way more than I could give. .”

CLICK.

“. . and that’s the way it is, Oprah. It’s over. I accept that now. I’m just looking for closure.”

Kate’s palm slammed down on the remote.

The TV screen went blank.

Still, Kate couldn’t look away. The picture tube was murky green, the color of an angry sea. The color of deep water out past the point where whitecaps churn, where people drown and their bodies are lost forever.

Sitting there on the bed, Kate could see her reflection in the picture tube very clearly.

“Don’t you dare wimp out on me, Benteen,” she said.

She snatched up one U.S. Army-issue size 8 boot and brought it down hard on the shackled remote.

Plastic shrapnel exploded across the bed. Two AA batteries flew through the air with the greatest of ease and disappeared in a wave of shag carpet like a couple of depth charges vanishing in a deep blue sea.

Kate pulled off her canary yellow T-shirt and draped it over the TV screen so that the coiled snake and the legend beneath it-DON'T TREAD ON ME-faced her bed.

She stared at the legend for at least a minute. Then she unzipped her jeans and wriggled out of them.

She needed to think.

It was definitely bikini time.

“This database indexes magazine articles for the last several years,” the librarian said. “What would you like to look up?”

“A person named Kate Benteen,” Jack said.

The librarian typed BENTEEN, KATE. A moment later, a list of articles appeared on the screen.

“You can scroll through this listing, even print it out if you want to.”

“Great. Thanks a lot.”

“No problem. Let me know if you need anything else.” The librarian smiled, semi-ingratiatingly. “It’s not often we have a celebrity in our midst, Mr. Baddalach.”

The elderly woman didn’t wait for a reply. She turned and headed toward the reference desk before Jack even had a chance to say Aw shucks, ma 'am. Robbed of his opportunity to turn on the charm, he sat down at the keyboard and scrolled through the list of articles.

And there it was, in golden letters glowing on a black screen. Somehow, Jack didn’t have it in him to be surprised. Still, he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.

He stared at the screen for a long time, letting it all sink in. Then he hit the print button. A moment later he had it down in black and white-what the computer nerds called a hard copy. And Jack could definitely go with that, because this information seemed seriously hard, one amazing road map of one amazing past:

Jack tore off the list and turned, eager to ask the librarian where the magazine collection was stored.

He came face-to-face with the two cops instead.

“My God,” the deputy said. “It can actually read.”

“Yeah.” Wyetta Earp grinned. “Kind of scary, isn’t it?”

Twenty laps quick-time and Kate felt a whole lot better. Lungs on fire. Lithe muscles pumped and hard.

She kicked to the edge of the pool, avoiding the ladder. Two hands solid on the coping and she vaulted from the water as smooth and graceful as anything on God’s green. If there were judges for swimming pool exits, every damn one of them would be holding up a sign with a “10” on it.

A lazy afternoon breeze-hot and dry as they came- washed over her. Kate toweled off and grabbed the sunblock. Lathered on that Coppertone 45.

Her mind felt as clear as the afternoon sky. Swimming did that for her. Blew all the misery right out of her soul. Something about pushing her body to the limit-every inch of it, every muscle working in concert-provided a solitary satisfaction and restored her confidence. All alone, she could stay afloat and keep it moving, plowing through the water, her direction sure and constant.

Jesus. She almost laughed. What was she doing thinking thoughts like that? Was she ready for Oprah or what?

She slipped on her sunglasses and glanced over at Sandy Kapalua-Dayton, who was cleaning out the filter trap. Sandy smiled, gave her the old thumbs up.

Then her expression changed. A splash of surprise, a demitasse of awe.

At the same moment Kate heard a car engine behind her. She looked over her shoulder just in time to see a florist’s van pull into a parking space near the pool.

The driver got out and opened the side door of the van. He disappeared inside for an instant, then reappeared with a dozen red roses in hand.

Kate looked at Sandy.

Found that Sandy was staring at her.

Neither one smiled, because both knew that at present there were only two women at the Saguaro Riptide Motel.

So the order of the day was poker faces for two, like gunfighters doing the high noon thing.

Simultaneously, they looked at the delivery boy.

He nodded. “Howdy, ladies.”

They smiled like homecoming candidates awaiting a crown.

The boy turned. He passed the motel office and headed for the motel proper.

Jackpot, Kate thought.

The boy climbed the stairs.

Neared Kate’s room.

Glanced at a receipt.

Passed Kate’s door without breaking stride.

Stopped two rooms down, at the end of the landing, and knocked.

A long moment passed. Finally, the door opened.

The delivery boy presented a black man with a dozen red roses.

Sandy Kapalua-Dayton said, “Shit.”

“It’s like this,” Wyetta explained, shooting a thumb over her shoulder in the librarian’s direction. “Marge plays bridge with my dear old gray-haired mama. They had themselves a game just yesterday, in fact.”

“And girls will talk, won’t they?” Jack said.

“Will you look at that.” Rorie chuckled. “Not only can it read, it can think, too. Next thing you know, it’ll be using tools.”

Wyetta let the comment go, focusing on Jack. “Yeah. Girls will talk, all right. Especially my mama. Why, she just had to tell Marge the story of how I locked up the ex-light- heavyweight champion of the whole wide world for stealing a stack of magazines.”

“So … let me guess: Marge, being a good upstanding civic-minded citizen, figured you needed to know when a magazine-rustling desperado such as myself appears at the public library with periodicals on his mind."

“Just like lettin’ a horny rooster into the hen house,” Rorie said.

Jack folded the computer printout and stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans. “Then I guess there’s no point in me trying to take a gander at the old magazines, is there?”

Wyetta feigned surprise. “Hey, did I wake up in another country? Russia, maybe? Heck, cowboy, this here is America. Home of the brave, land of the Freedom of Information Act, and all like that.”

“Uh-huh.” Jack sighed. “So where does your pal Marge hide the back issues?”

Wyetta shrugged. “Well, I hate to be the one to piss on your hydrant, but magazines are for reference use only here at the Pipeline Beach Public Library. Marge keeps ’em in the back room, safe from thievin’ sidewinders like yourself We wouldn’t want you to go cuttin’ any erotic pictures out of the National Geographic when we weren’t looking.”

“Actually, nothing turns me off faster than that ritual scarification stuff,” Jack said. “And modern primitives. . well, you show me a woman with a tongue stud and I get the all-over heebie-jeebies, believe you me.”

“I don’t know.” Wyetta glanced at Rorie. “What do you think, pardner? Can we trust this gringo?”

“Well. . it’s okay by me. But just this once.”

“C’mon, cowboy.” Wyetta escorted Jack to the reference desk. “Marge, our friend here wants to look at a few magazines.”

Marge smiled at Jack. “Certainly. Just give me your library card and I’ll get whatever you’d like.”

Jack pulled out his wallet. Flipped through his card collection-Nevada driver’s license, corporate plastic, ATM card, a couple of video rental membership cards.

“Looks like I’m short one library card,” he said.

Marge pushed a form his way. “No problem. Just fill this out. We’ll need to see some identification with your address here in Pipeline Beach.”

“Actually, I’m a stranger in these parts. And I’ve got a nasty suspicion that you can’t accept anything with my Las Vegas address.”

“Sorry,” Marge said. “Our facilities are for local taxpayers only.”

Wyetta shook her head. “Fats Domino said it best: Ain’t that a shame. Can’t we bend the rules just a teeny-weeny bit. Marge? The boy has promised that he won’t ask for any National Geographics.”

“Well. . maybe if our friend here could get the City of Las Vegas to share some of its tax dollars.”

“C’mon, Marge,” Wyetta coaxed. “Just this once?”

Marge tsk-tsked the sheriff. “Now, Wyetta. . you know better than anyone what your mama always says.”

The women traded sly nods.

“Okay,” Jack said. “The suspense is killing me. I’ve got to know. What does Mama Earp always say?”

In unison, the women said: “Bending’s as good as busting.”

Wyetta slapped Jack on the shoulder. Hard.

“Them’s words to live by, cowboy,” she said.

And then, as punctuation, she winked.

Sandy said, “The thing is, my husband’s been dead for five years. But a delivery boy shows up with an armful of red roses and I figure that heaven must have finally got 800 numbers and Dale figured I was way past due for a dozen.” She shook her head. “That man still has such a strong hold on me, it’s amazing.”

The hot breeze brushed Kate’s hair like an invisible hand. She let things go dark for just an instant, then pushed her hair away from her eyes and stared at the swimming pool.

Water shimmering there, catching the sunlight, reflections dancing there that could have been anyone.

Her own reflection. Sandy’s reflection. But in her mind’s eye she saw only one person. Vincent Komoko. It seemed she’d never forget him. Never. No matter how hard she tried.

“Jesus. I’m sorry,” Sandy said. “You want me to get you some Kleenex?”

“No,” Kate said, wiping away her tears. “I’ll be all right.”

“I know it’s none of my business. . but does this have something to do with that guy you were asking about? That Vincent Komoko?”

“Yeah.” Kate wiped her eyes with die back of her hand. “It’s him.”

‘Trust me, kiddo-he ain’t worth it. Not to tell tales out of school or anything, but I just gave you the Dragnet version when you asked me about Komoko the other day. You know, the way Jack Webb used to do it-just the facts, ma’am.”

“I think what I need is the Mike Hammer version.” Kate smiled unexpectedly. “You know, Mickey Spillane-down and dirty and play up anything juicy.”

Sandy chuckled. “It ain’t anything to laugh over, really. If you ask me, Komoko was a slime. I don’t know what he was like when you knew him-and I get the sense that you knew him and knew him well. But by the time he started showing up here at the Riptide he’d gone full-tilt Robert De Niro.”

Sandy shook her head. “Komoko would show up once a month, like clockwork. First time I saw him, he was wearing this purple gangster suit-same color as Barney the Dinosaur. And that turned out to be one of his most tasteful outfits. Anyway, he’d book a room for the night, always pay cash. Then he’d hang around the pool in a pair of ball-buster bikini trunks, and he’d hang one of those damn reflector things around his neck so his Adam’s apple got good and tanned. And he always wore a Walkman, and thank God for that. I got a look at his tape box one day. Talk about a waste of plastic. Any idea why they let Lionel Ritchie make so many albums?”

“Maybe they already had all the Tupperware they could use?”

Sandy considered the explanation and nodded in agreement before continuing. “Anyway, at night Priscilla would show up dressed like she was ready for a night on the town. It didn’t take me long to figure out that your pal Komoko planned his visits to coincide with Ellis’s flea-market trips.

“Even so, I think Priscilla had to wait for Ellis to phone and check up on her, because she never showed up before eleven. Anyway, once she arrived, it was straight to the room, plug a pair of those four-battery speakers into the Walkman and pump up the Barry White tapes. The only time he opened the door was for the pizza delivery man.” Sandy shook her head. “Priscilla didn’t even get a good dinner out of the chump. More than once I’d see her the morning after-dressed to the nines, same way she’d arrived-staring at Komoko’s car as he pulled onto the highway. And, believe me, he never once waved good-bye.”

“That wasn’t Vince’s style,” Kate said. “He wasn’t a rearview mirror kind of guy.”

Sandy raised her eyebrows. “Sounds like the voice of experience.”

Kate nodded.

“Not that you learned your lesson or anything.”

Kate thought about that. “All I know is that Vince Komoko is the one who brought me to Pipeline Beach. He made me come. And he’s not even here.”

“And now that you’re here, he won’t let you go.” Sandy sighed. “Look, I’m going to lay it on the line for you-I came here twenty-seven years ago because a man I loved asked me to. I’d never even seen the place. But my man wanted to come, and he wanted me with him, so I came.

“His name was Dale Dayton,” Sandy said. “Maybe you’ve heard of him?”

“Sure.” Kate grinned. “Big kahuna of the surf guitar. Dale Dayton and the Daytonas. I’ve got three of his albums- Telecaster Stomp, Pipeline ’64, and that one he did after the surf craze died out. The one with the TV themes on it.”

"The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Goes Ape.”

"That’s right.” Kate snapped her fingers. “Hey, wait a minute. Now that I think about it. Pipeline ’64 opens with a cut called ‘Saguaro Riptide.’”

"Give the girl a prize.” Sandy smiled, deep in memory. “We were going to make a home here, a place all our own. Build an oasis.”

"And something got in the way of that.”

Sandy nodded. “You’ve got a real way with understatement, girl.”

“So … are you going to tell me about it?”

“No,” Sandy said. “I don’t give that up easy. But what I will tell you is that Dale Dayton is dead and gone and I’m still here in a place I never wanted to be. I’m here in a busted-down motel, with a junkyard in the spot where an oasis was supposed to be and a junkyard dog standing in for the man I loved. But I have to tell you-if anything ever happened to that dog. . well, that would be it. Bad enough to be stranded, bad enough to be chained to the ground by a goddamned ghost. But to be all alone. .” She shook her head. “Jesus. Listen to me. I never talk about this. I don’t even think about it. And now I know why.” She glanced over at the motel office and the junkyard beyond. “He’s a dog, for Christ sakes. But if anything ever happened to him, it would be like losing Dale all over again. Like. .”

Kate wanted to reach out and touch Sandy’s arm, but she knew that would be a mistake. Still, she had to do something, so she said, “I’ve still got Vince in my head. And the sickest part of it is that I’m sure he’s dead. There’s no doubt about that. But he’s got a hold on me. A real death grip. And I can’t seem lo break it. I feel just like one of those no-hopes on the talk shows.” Her voice was rich with mockery that did nothing to hide her pain. “Help me, Oprah. I’m looking for closure.”

“Closure’s a bitch,” Sandy said.

“You’re right about that.” Kate filled her lungs with dry desert air. “Vincent Komoko, the love of my life. A guy who ended up taking fashion tips from a purple dinosaur.”

“Sometimes it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what a man is-it’s what you see in him that’s important. And sometimes a woman sees that one thing she wants to see and focuses on it until she can’t see anything else. She’s like a carousel horse, and she’s running after that one thing, and she’s sure she’s gonna catch it if she just stays the course. But she’s only going ’round and ’round-she’s not getting anywhere. She keeps on running, though. And pretty soon the paint peels off her flanks, and her mane gets chipped, and she still hasn’t caught up to that thing she wanted. And maybe some kid with a penknife blinds her just for fun. . but she keeps on running, because she knows that’s what carousel horses do. And she tells herself. I'm not tired yet. I’m almost there. Almost. Another day, another week, another month and I’ll be there. . And then one day it doesn’t matter that she’s blind, because she never once knew where she was going, anyway. It occurs to her that the running is the important thing. It’s all she’s ever done, all she’ll ever do. She fills her days with it. She doesn’t think about anything else but the running. It’s comfortable. It’s what she knows.”

Neither of them said anything for a while. Over in the junkyard Dale the dog started barking, but Sandy didn’t move.

Finally, Kate said, “You think I should leave?”

Sandy’s answer came fast. “Not until you decide where you want to run to. Then leave, and never look back.”

Kate smiled. “The old rearview mirror trick.”

“Hey. . men know all the best tricks. Wouldn’t hurt us to learn a few of ’em.”

Safe behind her sunglasses, Kate nodded. “I don’t know about you, but talking makes me thirsty. Buy you a Coke?”

“No. You’re not the only guest here at the Saguaro Riptide who’s got problems, y’know.” Sandy pointed to the room of the man who’d gotten a dozen roses. “I’d better make the rounds.”

The two women watched Baddalach cross the street and enter Floyd Riley’s barber shop.

“What do you think he’s doing?” Rorie asked.

Wyetta looked at her long and hard. “Jesus, Rorie. I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box, but I think maybe it’s safe to assume that the pug’s going to the barber shop because he wants his ears lowered.”

“Well sure,” Rorie said. “He’s getting a haircut. That’s obvious. But why now?”

“Who knows? Maybe he always retreats to bastions of masculinity when women with badges whittle his dick down to size. Maybe he didn’t see a bar nearby. Who cares?”

“Well, what do we do now?”

Wyetta stared at the name Marge had written on a scrap of paper. "Kate Benteen,” she read. “Yesterday she’s standing up for the pug at the five-and-dime like they’re sharing the same sheets. But today she’s his research topic at the library. Kinda makes you wonder about the parameters of their relationship, doesn’t it?”

“You think maybe we should look her up on Marge’s computer? See what the pug found out?”

The sheriff’s eyes narrowed. “Wyatt Earp didn’t rely on computer databases, Rorie. He went straight to the horse’s mouth.”

“Yeah, but Wyatt had his brothers to back him up. And Doc Holliday, too.”

“Cowgirl, I’ll take you over a tubercular dentist any day of the week,” Wyetta said.

And then she started walking.

SEVEN

Woody sneezed. Shit. It fuckin’ figured that he’d turn out to be allergic to roses.

A card had accompanied the flowers. Woody had read the damn thing at least twenty times, his lips barely moving. Didn’t matter how many times he read it, though. It set his blood to boiling each and every time.

The card said:

LOVE AND KISSES YOU DOG-BEATING BASTARD.

FROM HERE ON OUT IT GETS WORSE.

The card wasn’t signed, but Woody figured it had to be from Jack Baddalach, which meant that Baddalach had learned about the monk’s run-in with his dog and had been waiting for payback when the monk pulled into the parking lot at the Saguaro Riptide.

The Vietnamese kid had practically predicted the whole thing. Shit. Woody couldn’t figure why the monk hadn’t popped a cap on that little motherfucker. Boy had a real mouth on him. Letting him live had been a big mistake.

Just one of many. Woody looked in the mirror. Shit. He looked like something that had been scraped off the highway. His eyes were red as Ripple, and his hair was as scraggly-looking as an Airedale’s butt, and his Sunday-go-to-meetin’ lame-ass monk clothes were dirty, and his left hand was fucked up from a dog bite.

That was the hand he jacked off with, too. Shit. He couldn’t even get the least little bit of a break.

Woody tossed Baddalach’s message into the garbage can. Half this shit wouldn’t have happened if the monk had used the balls God gave him. Not that Woody cared about the monk, but, shit, a man had to look out for himself.

’Cause if the monk got his ass chilled, it meant that Woody would get his ass chilled, too.

That wasn’t going to happen. Now that Woody was in charge again, the monk was going to stay locked up in the Rahway of his mind.

A life-fuckin’-sentence. No possibility of parole, neither.

Woody was the man, now. And there were just a couple of three things he had to deal with.

First off, he had to get himself a weapon.

Second, he had to get himself a car and get the hell out of this town before those crazy bitch cops came after him again. They thought he knew something about some cat named Komoko. Shit. He didn’t know Komoko from Kiss-My-Ass. Probably the whole thing had something to do with the boxer, but at this point he didn’t even care. He just knew he didn’t want to tangle with those bitches again, because they were crazier than any cons he’d ever run up against in the slams.

Third-and most importantly-he had to get himself some pussy. Lack of trim made him real edgy. And he’d been lacking trim for a seriously long time. Locked up in the monk’s head all those years. . shit. The monk-he didn’t jerk off, didn’t even look at no magazines, let alone shoot some beaver.

Woody thought it through. Getting a weapon, now that might be a little hard, especially if he wanted something good. He could probably find himself a pipe or something lying around over by the junkyard, but a knife or a gun might be tough.

And he might need something like that to get hold of a car. Shit. Hard to scare a person with a hunk of pipe. Somehow, folks really didn’t think you’d beat them to death just to rip off their ride. But a gun was different-wave a gun in someone’s face and they’d hand over the keys, like yesterday.

There weren’t many cars here at the motel. An old Subaru wagon was parked by the office-it probably belonged to the lady who ran the joint. A Range Rover with a Budget Rent-a-Car bumper sticker was parked below Woody’s window-he figured that Baddalach was the cat who had rented it. The Rover would be Woody’s preference. Get the pug’s car. Kill him, too, just to be doin’ it.

Woody peeked through the drapes. The only other car- actually, it was a truck-belonged to that sweet little bitch sitting by the pool.

A black bikini that fit her just right. And skin as white as cream.

Shit. Little Woody was getting hard. Woody’s heart started to trip-hammer. Without thinking, he squeezed Little Woody with his wounded left hand, then yelped in pain.

This was going to be tough. Woody bit his lip. Maybe his third priority was going to have to change places with his first.

’Cause his need for trim was seriously bad.

He lay back on the bed and thought about it. Unzipped his fly and tried to get things going with his right hand, but man, it just felt too weird.

Completely fucking unnatural.

But, shit, sometimes a man just had to have hisself some relief.

Damn it was good. Erupting like Krakatoa, East of Java.

Heart pounding. Head thudding like goddamn conga drums-

Shit, no. Someone was knocking at the door.

Woody jumped up, thinking. Hey, maybe the little bitch delivers.

He zipped his pants and opened the door just as the motel lady turned away.

She wasn’t the bitch in the black bikini, but she was damn fine for a woman with some mileage on her.

“Hey,” Woody said. “I was taking a nap. I almost didn’t hear you.”

“Sorry to wake you, but I wanted to make sure that you were okay.”

Woody turned on the charm. “Been better.”

‘The sheriff told me that you were robbed,” she said. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am. This place isn’t much, but I own it. No one’s ever been robbed here, not in twenty-six years.”

“I’m sorry to be the first.”

She smiled, and Woody noticed that she held a plastic bag in her right hand.

“It’s not much.” She handed him the bag. “Some toothpaste and a toothbrush, some shaving stuff But hopefully it’ll get you through until things straighten out.”

“That’s sweet.”

“Don’t worry about it. And don’t worry about your bill. The room’s on me, for as long as you need it. It’s the least I can do.”

“Well all right. Hey, you want to come in?”

“I probably shouldn’t.” She pointed at the roses fanned out across one side of the bed. “Nice flowers.”

The comment brought Woody up short. So did the amused little smile on the woman’s face.

In self-defense, he tried to trap the smile on his own face, but it managed to escape. Shit. He didn’t like this bitch seeing the flowers. A man didn’t get flowers. Bitch was going to think that he was a faggot or something.

“The roses were a mistake,” he said, trying to keep his voice light.

“They weren’t for you?”

“No. They were for me. But they were a mistake.”

Now she was really smiling, like this was the fucking funniest thing she’d ever heard of “You sure about that?”

“Yeah.” A dull throb bloomed behind Woody’s eyes. “I’m sure. You want to come in? I could get us a couple of Cokes or something-”

“Maybe later,” she said, still grinning. “Right now I’ve got some work to do.”

“Sure.”

She walked away. He closed the door.

The stink of the roses burned in his nostrils.

His head pounded. His stomach churned. The bathroom was fifteen feet away. A garbage can was closer.

Woody made neither.

He didn’t bother to clean up the mess. Suddenly, he was tired, and there was too much other shit he needed to do.

He sat on the bed and fumbled through the contents of the bag of toilet articles until he found a razor. Two tiny blades were embedded in the plastic cartridge. Woody twisted the plastic until it broke. The blades dropped to the green bedspread, glinting there like tiny fish in a huge ocean. Woody picked up the one closest to him, then searched the bag for the toothbrush the smiling bitch had mentioned.

His fist closed around the bristles.

He dropped the bag on the floor.

Sighed.

Shit, he was seriously tired. He wanted to lie down.

Instead, he sharpened the end of the toothbrush.

But his thoughts drifted, because he really was tired. First he thought about the woman, and how things might have ended up with her if those goddamn roses hadn’t been in the room. Then he thought about the way the bitch had smiled when she’d seen them, like she was in on some little faggoty secret.

Next he thought about the man who had fucked up the whole thing by sending those roses in the first place.

That man’s name was Baddalach.

Woody smiled. The end of the toothbrush was starting to look pretty wicked.

People said it all the time, but this time it was true- Baddalach didn’t have any idea who he was fucking with.

The barber had more hair on his arms than he had on his head, and his only customer looked like he’d paid for a hair-weave that hadn’t quite taken. As far as Jack was concerned, these were portents both negative and frightening, but he entered the barbershop anyway. He was a man on a mission.

Jack traded nods with the men-Don’t squirm, goddamnit, the barber said-and took a seat in a chrome-backed chair that looked like it had been designed by Torquemada.

Felt like it too. But that didn’t matter to Jack. Because the chair sat next to a table brimming with skin magazines.

Jack fished the computer printout from his back pocket. He glanced over it, pretty sure that the list itself was proof enough that the woman who looked so good in a black bikini wasn’t conning him. The printout certainly proved that there was indeed a person named Kate Benteen who had done some pretty amazing things.

But pretty sure wasn’t going to cut it, not the way things were going. Because while the information Jack had found at the library proved that Kate Benteen existed, it did not prove that she and the woman in the black bikini were one in the same.

Only a picture could do that.

Jack double-checked the date on the printout. Then he started to dig through the magazines.

Four issues of Beaver Hunt on top. Every ’94 issue-it appeared they were on a quarterly schedule. Then he thumbed through a selection of Shaved and Tail End, but neither publication deterred him from the task at hand. He managed to resist the charms of 44 Plus, as well, digging ever deeper, working his way through two years worth of Hustler.

A jackalope head was mounted on the wall above the chrome chair. A buffalo head loomed over the front door, and a coyote head hung eternally vigilant over a door at the back of the shop. A half-dozen glass eyes seemed to study Jack as he finished off one stack and started on another, but the stuffed menagerie made no comment.

The guy with the bad hair-weave did. He fidgeted in the chair, trying to get a look at the barber, and said, “Picky bastard, ain’t he?”

“Don’t squirm, goddamnit!” the barber said.

The guy in the chair giggled. “Hey, buddy-if you’re lookin’ for the magazines with boys in ’em, Rudy keeps those in the back. Those are his favorites.”

The barber jerked and the man in the chair screeched.

“Jesus, Rudy! Watch it!”

“You got another ear, asshole.”

Jack ignored the two combatants. He continued through the Hustler collection. The last couple issues were stuck together. Jack was a novice at the detective business, sure, but he figured that this was a line that even Mike Hammer wouldn’t cross.

Gingerly, he pushed the pile away.

He pulled the next pile toward him.

Halfway through a run of Penthouse, he found it.

Playboy. September 1991.

The “Girls of Desert Storm” issue.

Rorie pulled up a chair and sat down on the right side of the chaise longue. Wyetta took the left side, flipping her chair around backward, straddling it, leaning her elbows on the back.

The occupant of the chaise longue peered over the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. “Let me guess,” she said, pointing at Wyetta, “you’re a little bit country, and she’s a little bit rock ’n’ roll.”

Wyetta glared at her, but the chicklet in the black bikini was wearing real dark sunglasses and the glare didn’t take.

But this girl was an odd one. Wyetta decided that right off. Out here under the sun with that marble skin of hers, a bottle of Coppertone 45 at her side. Trash magazine in her hand and more magazines under the lounge, probably more trash-

Wyetta did a little double take as she checked out those other magazines. She spotted the same issue of Guns amp; Ammo that had arrived in her mailbox just the other day. Bitchin’ article about combat shotguns in there. New Soldier of Fortune, too, with an article about handgun tactics in hostage situations. But along with those the little gringa gatita had a couple issues of Mademoiselle, even a battered Seventeen. Wyetta couldn’t figure the mix.

The gringa followed Wyetta’s gaze. “When it comes to magazines, we get the shit end of the stick, huh. Sheriff?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just check this out.” The chicklet tossed Wyetta the Cosmo she’d been reading, and it was all Wyetta could do not to drop the thing on general principles.

First off, the magazine was stuffed so full of fragrance cards that it smelled like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s underwear drawer. And second, there was some dark-eyed Gina Lollobrigida-looking bitch on the cover-except this bitch was skinny.

Wyetta shook her head. At least the bitch didn’t look like Cindy Crawford. Jesus, today they all looked like Cindy Crawford. Eyebrows like Tyrone Power and tits inflated like the tires on an old Huffy bicycle.

But Cindy only had a lock on it if they wanted to sell you something sexy, like perfume or nightgowns or booze. If they wanted to sell you a product you could trust-like tampons or mouthwash or douche-they’d pick a perky little blond thing who looked like every girl’s best pal, Meg Ryan.

Wyetta glanced at the table of contents. The articles were scarier than Boris Karloff, FROM HATE AT FIRST SIGHT TO FRIENDS TO MARRIED. Or; GIVING HIM A (SEXUAL) NIGHT TO REMEMBER. Or: A TOP MODEL SHARES HER (DROP-DEAD) BEAUTY SECRETS. Or: INVESTING IN LOVE (AND WE DON’T MEAN MONEY, HONEY). Or: MUST YOU DEPEND ON HIM THAT MUCH?

“These rags all look the same to me,” Wyetta said. “But I don’t see-”

“Think about it,” the chicklet said. “A woman goes down to the five-and-dime to buy a magazine and she ends up with one of these. She takes it home and reads it, ends up all depressed because she doesn’t look like any of the models on those slick pages. She doesn’t dress like ’em, either. And her man doesn’t look like any of the men in the advertisements. His name’s Fred or Bob. It sure ain’t Pablo or Antonio or Lucky.

“And if she reads the thing, well, then she’s worse off. Because pretty soon she figures out that she’s bought a magazine aimed at an audience of independently wealthy anorexic New Yorkers who while away the hours designing new ways to delight their billionaire lovers. And that’s not what she does with her life. She’s too busy scraping crusty meatloaf out of a pan that’s been in the sink for a week. She’s not fulfilled. And on top of that, she’s out two bucks and fifty cents, retail.”

The chicklet grinned. “But a man-he goes down to the five-and-dime for a magazine and what does he end up with?” She snatched up the Guns Ammo. “One of these. And he gets home, cracks a brew, settles back. Sees that all the guys in the ads are kind of tubby, just like he is. Sees that they’re all smiling. And happy. And fulfilled. And what have they had to do to get there? Did they have to let some surgeon whittle down their nose or pump up their chest with silicone? Did they have to go on a diet or move to New York City? Hell, no. They didn’t have to do any of that stuff. All they had to do was buy the right gun and the right ammunition, and they were set.”

Kate Benteen dropped the magazine and settled back.

Wyetta glanced at Rorie. The deputy looked like someone had beaned her with a blackjack. Wyetta felt kind of the same way herself.

It was definitely time to put this gatita in her place before she got to feeling that she had any wiggle room.

Wyetta dropped the Cosmo. Patted the butt of the cedar-handled.44 American that filled her holster. “Me, I found the right fit a long time ago,” she said. “I’m happy. Hell. . maybe I’m even fulfilled. But I didn’t come here to talk about me.”

The gatita stuck with the grin.

“I came here to talk about you,” Wyetta continued. “I want to know if you’re still looking for the right fit, or if you’ve already found it.”

The grin wavered, just a millimeter.

Wyetta went for the jugular. “So the real question is: what gets it done for you anyway, little darlin’? Is it a peckerwood thief like Vincent Komoko?”

“Or maybe it isn’t Komoko at all,” Rorie said. “Maybe it’s his money that gets our little friend all slick and sassy.”

“Uh-huh.” Wyetta nodded, smiling. “Or maybe. . just maybe what this little gash needs to ring her chimes is Vincent Komoko’s money. . and the hardest part of the former light-heavyweight champion of the world.”

Staring down at the Playboy magazine, Baddalach swore under his breath.

It was her, all right. Kate Benteen. The woman in the black bikini. One and the same.

There were three columns of text on the first page of the interview. A photograph at the bottom of each column. Three portraits in black and white, each one featuring Kate Benteen and her familiar sunglasses. And beneath each photo, a quotation from the interview.

In the first photo, Benteen was smiling. “As a kid growing up on a horse ranch in Montana, it never seemed like I could fill myself up. I was an only child. Dad was off flying choppers in Vietnam; Mom was busy running the ranch. I grew up around people who got things done. That was how they were built. Fear wasn’t part of the equation. I don’t think I ever even heard the word failure until I was sixteen.”

She wore a pensive expression in the second photo. “Renaissance woman? Spare me. I’ve just got a low boredom threshold. I got tired of barrel racing when I was fifteen. Moved on. Got tired of diving into swimming pools when I was twenty. Dried off and chucked the Olympic medal in a drawer. My uniform. . they took that from me, but I’m not going to cry over spilt milk. Now I’m here in Hollywood, but watch out for my dust. Been there, done that. . those are words to live by.”

In the third picture, her lips were interstate-straight-no expression at all. “People want to make me into some kind of American hero. That’s not for me. I don’t think this country’s always right. But I was proud to do my part in the Saudi. I was a soldier. And being a soldier means you take it the way it comes, you live by the soldier’s code. I didn’t panic when our chopper went down. I never lost hope when the Republican Guard locked us in Saddam’s dungeon. But it wasn’t my country that got me through. It was the people who were with me in that hellhole-and what was important was their faith in me and my faith in them. My fellow Americans. God, that sounds corny. This sounds worse-One fellow American in particular. I’m not talking about love. I’m not talking about romance. In that kind of situation, there’s no room for any of that. That came later. What I’m talking about goes much deeper. It’s a special kind of intimacy you don’t get to any other way. A special kind of trust that you build on. I hope it lasts forever.”

Kate Benteen said, “That’s a good question. Sheriff. Much as I hate all that introspective shit, I gotta admit that I’ve been thinking about it myself. And the only answer I can come up with is Vincent Komoko. He’s what gets it done for me.” One corner of her mouth twitched, but she stuck with the grin. “But ol’ Vince doesn’t seem to be around. Not anywhere. I think maybe his days of getting things done for anyone are long gone.”

“We know that he phoned you,” Wyetta said.

Benteen nodded. “Vince got my answering machine, actually. Not that it mattered. He didn’t have anything important to say.”

Wyetta’s fingers brushed the butt of her pistol, lingering there long enough so that the little gash was sure to notice. “You sure about that?”

Benteen spit a short laugh. “I’m sure. All Vince wanted to talk about was some money. Two million bucks. He hid it somewhere. Wanted me to come and get it. Like giving it to me really made a difference.”

“Where is it?”

Another laugh. And then her words, deadpan: “It’s in a safe place. Like I told you: Vince told me exactly where to find it. Hell, I’ve been here a couple days. It wasn’t like I had to figure out a puzzle or anything.”

Wyetta glanced at Rorie. The deputy rolled her eyes. Benteen shrugged. A rumor of a blush glowed on her cheeks, and she shook her head as if she were terribly embarrassed. “I know it sounds crazy,” she said.

Rorie laughed out loud.

“If you’ve got the money, what the hell are you doing hanging around here?” Wyetta asked, nearly exasperated.

“I don’t quite have that one figured out. Sheriff.” Benteen glanced down at the Cosmopolitan magazine. “Maybe I’m just looking for closure.”

“Bullshit.”

“C’mon now. . Helen Gurley Brown would understand.”

“Fuck Helen Gurley Brown and the horse she rode in on.”

“Why would I lie?”

“Don’t fuck with me,” Wyetta said. “If you so much as try, you’re going to be one sorry little-”

An insistent ringing interrupted her.

“Is that your pocket?” Kate asked.

“It’s my phone, idiot.”

Wyetta flipped open her cellular.

“Kirk to Enterprise,” Kate said. “Two to beam up.”

Baddalach sat in the barber chair, an electric razor buzzing around his ears. He didn’t squirm-didn’t move his head at all. Only his eyes moved as he scanned the pages.

He’d figured out that Kate Benteen talked the talk about two minutes after meeting her. But reading her interview in Playboy convinced Jack that she walked the walk, as well.

Because it was all right there, between the celebrity layout and the centerfold spread. All the stuff she’d talked about. The rodeo titles, and the Olympic silver medal, even the stuff about being in the movies.

And the stuff about the Saudi, too. Kate Benteen had been in the Gulf War as a flight surgeon attached to a chopper battalion. Jack had always thought of Operation Desert Storm as one of those pleasant little wars, a lopsided exercise that could be measured in hours rather than days. To him, the whole thing had seemed like putting a featherweight in with the heavyweight champion of the world. Didn’t matter how good the featherweight was; he was going to get crushed.

But Desert Storm hadn’t been easy for Kate Benteen. She’d been on a rescue mission, looking for a downed pilot. Her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, and she’d broken both arms and a collarbone in the crash. That was bad enough. Worse was getting captured by Saddam’s troops.

Not just grunts. The Republican Guard got her-Saddam’s true believers. They tossed her in the back of a truck along with the chopper’s other survivor-the pilot. Drove them through the desert and locked them up in a dungeon God knows where.

It was just the two of them for days. With the broken bones, Benteen could barely move. The pilot fed her, took care of her. After it was over, Benteen said she’d never felt so close to another human being. She said you couldn’t buy that kind of closeness. It was something you’d never give up because you’d gone through hell to get it.

Jack wondered if the pilot agreed with that, but he knew he’d never find an answer to that question.

Because the pilot’s name was Vincent Komoko.

Kate watched as the cops drove off.

Judging from the sheriff’s tone and the things she’d said, Kate figured the phone call that had interrupted their little chat wasn’t official business. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t urgent. The sheriff and the deputy had taken off faster than a speeding Bullitt (if you knew your Steve McQueen).

They said they’d be back, of course.

That was fine with Kate.

Because she’d decided exactly what she wanted. Not that it was a conscious decision-it was just that all of a sudden she knew what she had to have before she could leave Pipeline Beach.

Could be a handful of people might give her what she was after.

The sheriff and the deputy were definitely on the list.

“All done,” the barber said, spinning the big chair with such unrestrained enthusiasm that Jack figured the guy had missed his true calling as a Tilt-a-Whirl operator.

Jack came face-to-face with a large mirror.

Decided his Tilt-a-Whirl assessment had been dead on.

Because the guy sitting in the barber chair was a complete stranger.

Jack said, “Shit.”

The stranger in the chair said the same thing.

PART FIVE

Deep in the Barrel

ONE

Rorie hated coming out to her sister’s place. Not that she hated her sister. She loved Priscilla. In truly sisterly fashion, too. The person Rorie hated was Priscilla’s husband. Ellis Aaron Perkins. One look from him and she felt like some little cutie out at the Spahn Movie Ranch being sized up by Charlie Manson himself.

Which was another way of saying that as a brother-in-law the guy really bit it. And it wasn’t that he’d been an Elvis impersonator-Rorie could have lived with that. Nor was it the fact that he’d lost his voice to cancer and spoke through a machine that made him sound like some big oI’ talking Elvis doll that had had its cord yanked once too often.

No. What bothered Rorie was that Ellis was a real creep. He was mucho possessive about Priscilla, and Rorie suspected that he’d hit her sister on a couple of occasions. Not that Priscilla would admit to anything. But Rorie had seen her share of battered women during her years with the sheriff’s department, and she knew that her sister showed some of the classic signs.

Of course, Priscilla was cattin’ around on Ellis with Vince Komoko. Had been, anyway. And while Rorie hated to admit it, that little fact made her think that maybe her sister kind of got what she deserved when it came to Ellis’s conjugal behavior.

No, damnit. Thinking like that was medieval. Damn near insane-

Rorie bit her lip. Hell, Wyetta had slapped her a couple of times. So maybe she was projecting. She’d read an article in Cosmo where a psychiatrist discussed that kind of thing- projecting your own problems onto someone else’s situation.

But Rorie didn’t know what to think of Cosmo anymore. Not since Kate Benteen had spouted all that crazy feminist shit at the Saguaro Riptide.

Rorie had to admit that all that shit was pretty exciting, though. That Benteen chick. She really had some strange ideas. And she looked pretty damn outstanding in a black bikini.

Rorie’s lower lip was getting sore. She realized she’d been chewing it. Maybe she should drive across the highway and check on Priscilla. See how her sister was holding up under the strain. Make sure that everything was okay-

No. Wyetta wouldn’t like that. Not now. Not when they were handling business.

And this was business. Rorie recognized that. At first she hadn’t thought much of it-Ellis’s phone call interrupting Wyetta’s interrogation of Kate Benteen. Ellis had been known to fly off the handle for no reason at all. But when Wyetta told her that Ellis claimed he’d had a run-in with the former light-heavyweight champion of the world, that naturally got Rorie’s attention.

It damn sure got Wyetta’s attention, too. She was bulldogging the problem, talking to Ellis on the sand-covered porch of his own personal Graceland.

Rorie almost laughed at the two of them. Ellis in Presley-esque leathers circa 1968 and Wyetta in her best Annie Oakley-wear-fringed Cavalry gloves, snakeskin Nocona boots, and a cedar-handled.44 that was a twin to the pistol Wyatt Earp had worn in Tombstone. Together they looked like the stars of some weird Elvis time-travel movie. Viva Rio Bravo! or something.

Rorie listened to Ellis’s busted Hasbro voice as he answered one question after another. But it didn’t matter how many questions he answered-just the fact that Jack Baddalach had come to Graceland meant that the boxer was cutting way too close to the bone.

And the way he’d come here-now that told her something else.

He hadn’t arrived in that Range Rover he’d rented up in Tucson. He’d come in another car, and he’d left it here-a shot-up Saturn that blocked the middle of the road.

Blown front tire. Windshield riddled with buckshot. The damage didn’t matter, though. Not to Rorie. What mattered was the license plate number.

She didn’t need to run that baby, either. She remembered it. She’d written it down just this morning. The Saturn belonged to that weird black guy who’d been busted up in the parking lot at the Saguaro Riptide.

The guy said the Saturn had been stolen.

Baddalach had driven it here.

But why would Baddalach steal a car when he had one of his own?

The whole thing was enough to make her head spin. She wanted someone to set it all straight for her.

Only one person came to mind.

Rorie glanced at Wyetta.

The sheriff was headed her way.

'What’s up?” Rorie asked.

Wyetta shook her head sharply. “Not here.”

She got an evidence bag from the Cherokee. Opened the passenger door of the Saturn. Took a pencil out of her pocket and fished a pistol off the front seat of the car. A Colt.45 Double Eagle Combat Commander. She bagged the gun and returned to the patrol car.

Rorie took the passenger seat. Wyetta slipped behind the wheel and handed Rorie the bagged pistol.

“What’s the deal with this?” Rorie asked.

Wyetta said, “Insurance. I figure that’s Baddalach’s piece. Ellis said he didn’t touch it. Maybe it’s got the boxer’s prints. If it does, it could come in handy.”

Wyetta started the engine and made a U-turn. Ellis watched from the porch of his unfinished palace. He didn’t wave at Wyetta. She didn’t wave at him.

She drove down the dirt road that led to the highway.

"Talk to me, Wyetta.”

The sheriff shrugged. “He says Baddalach showed up looking for your sister. Says he scared off the pug with his shotgun. Says he wants us to pick up the boxer for trespassing. Says he’s leaving to make his flea-market rounds tonight, that he’s gonna be gone for a couple days and he doesn’t want anyone messing around with Priscilla.”

“Jesus. Do you think he’s serious?"

“He’s your brother-in-law, darlin’. You tell me.”

Rorie shook her head. “So. . was Baddalach alone? Or, did he come out here with that other guy. . Woodrow what’s-his-face?"

“Ellis says the pug was solo. No sign of Ali Baba.”

“So what do you think?”

“Damned if I know. Maybe Baddalach did bust up Ali Baba and steal his car. Or maybe our buddy Woodrow is Baddalach’s boy Friday. Maybe they figured they could turn the pug’s run-in with Ellis into a plus. Figured they could report the car stolen, get us to nail Ellis for car theft and assault. Get Ellis’s gyratin’ blue suede ass away from the property so they could hunt for Komoko’s money without fear of getting their asses full of buckshot.” Wyetta shook her head, getting comfortable with the idea. “Maybe the two of them are in cahoots. Hell, maybe they’re back at the motel, takin’ turns bangin’ Kate Benteen. Maybe they’re all three of ’em in cahoots.”

“You really think so?”

“I don’t have a clue, cowgirl. But I aim to learn the truth before I let any one of ’em leave this town.”

A pale cloud mushroomed behind the sheriff’s Jeep Cherokee as it headed for the highway.

Women cops. Now there was one slice of nineties reality that got Ellis Aaron Perkins all shook up.

Elvis Presley had been a law-and-order man. Ellis Perkins knew that. The King had compiled a collection of law enforcement badges and credentials from all over the country. Even got a DEA agent’s badge from President Richard Nixon himself. Elvis hung out with cops, too. Went on drug busts with them down in Memphis. Illegal drugs. The King only used prescription medications. That was a different ball game.

Ellis knew that. Himself, he liked those diet pills. That’s what the King had used in the early sixties, mostly. If the King would have stuck to that stuff, he would have been fine. They gave a man the energy he needed. Elvis had had a whole lotta energy goin’ on back in the sixties.

They hadn’t had women cops in those days. Ellis Perkins knew that, too. Back then, women had known their place.

Ellis knew a woman’s place. Priscilla was there, right now. Home in the trailer. And she wasn’t going goddamn anywhere without his say-so. He’d fixed that for sure, and his fix was as solid as solitary confinement at San Quentin.

Uh huh-huh. Priscilla wasn’t going to say a word about it, either. He’d slapped six inches of duct tape over her mouth himself, and he didn’t figure it was coming off until he was good and ready.

He’d show her what it was like, not being able to talk. It was horrible. He knew that. When he lost his voice to cancer, he thought he’d never talk again. The doctor’s had shown him the little throat-buzzer things that patients used as artificial vocal cords. The devices set up a vibration against your throat, gave you a little robot voice. But Ellis didn’t like the ones the doctors had. Every one had a whiny tremolo that drove him nuts… Besides, lots of cancer survivors used those things, and they all sounded the same as a result. Ellis didn’t want to sound like everyone else. He wanted to have a distinctive sound, even if it was robotic.

So he made his own throat-buzzer. Went looking for something with a deeper buzz, a slower vibrato. And it was a stroke of genius, finding the right thing. Because one day he was in a sex shop, and he noticed the vibrators. . and the wheels started turning up there in his brain. .

Like they say, necessity is the mother of invention. He customized the sucker, of course. Painted it silver. Covered the head with a hunk of black foam rubber that looked like a microphone cap, so no one could tell that the thing had been a vibrator. And then he had his own voice. A distinctive voice. Even if it was the voice of a robot.

So anyway, he’d slapped the duct tape over Priscilla’s mouth, just to remind her how much he’d suffered. It was kind of good, seeing ’Cilia that way. Slapping some tape over her mouth always made her eyes that much more lively. Put a little teary gleam in ’em that was kind of sexy. Fact was, a little tape over her mouth and ’Cilia could have passed for Ellis Aaron Perkins’s idea of a perfect woman.

Nova in those first two Planet of the Apes movies. That woman Big Chuck Heston fell in love with when those talking gorillas tossed him in their zoo. Now there was a woman with real lively eyes. She also had dark hair. Plus she looked real good in animal skins. And the topper was that she couldn’t talk a lick.

’Cilia wasn’t going to do any more talking, though. Not for a good long while. She knew better than to peel off that duct tape when her husband had a mad on. And the fact that she’d set up a meeting with the ex-light-heavyweight champion of the world had definitely made him mad. Not that she knew how he knew about it. Hell, she probably believed what he told her.

"THE NIGHT. . HAS A THOUSAND. . EYES BABY.”

Uh-huh-huh. He had to tell her something, didn’t he? He couldn’t tell her that he knew about Baddalach. Tell her about that and he might as well admit that he knew about Komoko, too. And that would ruin everything.

So he’d hit her with an explanation that was really no explanation at all. Let her worry about how much he knew. He’d just play it frosty.

Ellis checked his sideburns in the rearview of his scar-colored Caddy, smoothed them down. They needed trimming, and some white was showing through at the roots. Looked like he was about due for another dye job. The Caddy could use something, too. Man, painting it with pink Rustoleum had been a bad idea.

But what was done couldn’t be undone.

Ellis knew that.

Return to sender, address unknown. Think about it. No way you got anywhere with that one. Uh-huh-huh.

The cop cruiser turned onto the highway, leaving the mushroom cloud behind. Ellis watched the cloud dissipate as it drifted over ragged yucca spears.

That goddamn sheriff. She was so goddamn willing to believe that he was such a goddamn idiot.

Like he hadn’t figured out what was going on.

Like a guy who was smart enough to rig up his own electronic throat-buzzer wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to tape his wife’s phone calls when she started playing around with some velvet-voiced dickwad who ran mob money out of Vegas.

Like a guy who was smart enough to do those things wasn’t smart enough to fill in the blanks when he listened to those phone calls and got a bonus-the calls his wife made to her badge-carryin’ dyke sister. Like a guy who could put that puzzle together wasn’t smart enough to kick his own plan into gear when he figured out what the whole bunch of them were up to.

Like a guy like that couldn’t figure out how to send a jerkwater sheriff on a wild goose chase.

A torrent of dry laughter crossed Ellis’s lips. He sounded like that damn dog in that damn cartoon. Stupid little dog with a wheezy laugh. He couldn’t remember its name.

It didn’t matter, anyway.

He popped the Caddy’s trunk and grabbed a shovel.

He looked around. The mushroom cloud was gone. No people around anywhere. Nothing but desert as far as the eye could see. Real clear. Everything right out in plain sight.

Ellis put the pieces together. A duster had blown up the night Wyetta and Rorie killed Komoko. He’d heard Rorie tell Priscilla all about it during one of the phone calls he’d taped.

A duster. . now, a man couldn’t move too far in weather like that. Especially a velvet-voiced dickwad like Komoko. Hell, a Vegas lounge lizard like Vince Komoko probably couldn’t find his ass in the dark with both hands.

It was purely obvious that Wyetta and Rorie didn’t have Komoko’s money. If they did, they wouldn’t have come nosing around the minute Ellis mentioned that a stranger had shown up at Graceland. And the ex-light-heavyweight champion of the world didn’t have it, either, or he wouldn’t have come looking for answers about Komoko.

So it had to be that Komoko’s money was still around here somewhere.

Ellis Aaron Perkins was going to find it.

Uh-huh-huh.

TWO

The baseball cap said OLD FART. Wearing it, Jack looked like he’d dropped fifty IQ points.

He stared at his reflection in the motel room mirror and removed the cap. Without it, his IQ rating plummeted another twenty points, easy.

His ears looked especially big. That was because the barber with the hairy forearms had razor-cut the hair on the sides of his head, leaving him looking like a white sidewall tire with stubble.

At least the butcher had left some long hair up on top. In the front, anyway. And in the back, where a magnificent cowlick sprouted. But between those two points Jack’s hairline resembled a particularly short crew cut. If his head had been a highway, a road crew would have been forced to install a DIP sign up on top.

Baddalach held his head under the tap until his hair was good and wet. He toweled off and tried combing the patch of longer hair up front over the dip to disguise the damage, but he didn’t have enough hair to pull it off.

Suddenly, Jack found himself contemplating some of those camouflage hairdos favored by politicians and TV anchors. He wondered how those guys did it. Maybe he could phone ABC News, ask Sam Donaldson for some tips.

Probably a long shot. If he was going to waste time, he might as well call Florida, see if he could borrow one of Burt Reynolds’s toupees.

But there was no use being unrealistic. He turned his attention to the cowlick. Plastered it with water again and again, but it popped up every time. BOINK! Jesus. That kid from The Little Rascals had nothing on him.

And on top of everything else he was out nearly twenty-five bucks. First, he’d paid seven for the haircut, for no other reason than to spare himself another run-in with Wyetta Earp. Then he’d stopped off at a drugstore where he bought a pair of scissors and the OLD FART cap (a winner by default-his other choices were OLD FART'S WIFE and the ever-popular WHO FARTED?) There went eighteen and change. And the real hell of it was that he’d been so rattled about the bad haircut that he’d forgotten to use Woodrow Saad Muhammad’s stolen credit card or his own corporate plastic.

Jack gazed at his reflection and decided that there was only one thing left to do.

With one hand he grabbed a fistful of long hair.

With the other he picked up the scissors.

Woody was swimming laps, stroking back and forth across the motel pool. On the whole, he had to admit that he felt damn good. Not one bit tired anymore.

He paused, treading water in the deep end, holding the sharpened toothbrush in one hand. No one was around. Not the boxer or the motel lady, not even the bitch in the black bikini.

Nice to have the pool to himself, though. Just the gentle slosh of the water as he paddled around. Real peaceful.

Then a funny feeling scrabbled over his spine, a feeling that told him he wasn’t alone.

Someone was watching. He was sure of it.

He looked around but didn’t see a soul.

And then he glanced down. It seemed kind of crazy doing that, but it didn’t seem so crazy when he spotted the man at the bottom of the deep end.

Woody didn’t recognize the man. He couldn’t see him all that well-sunlight glinted off the rippling water, and Woody himself was kicking up little waves as he tried to stay afloat, and the man was doing the opposite, stroking with his arms, trying to stay underwater.

Still, Woody didn’t like the idea of the man being down there. He swam for the side.

Just as Woody’s hand touched the pool ladder, a torrent of bubbles boiled up from the man’s mouth. He pushed off from the bottom of the pool and came at Woody like a torpedo, and at the last instant Woody recognized the monk and the monk grabbed Woody’s legs, pulled him away from the ladder, dragged him under before Woody could get a breath and he gulped water, tasted chlorine and his head was throbbing, throbbing, and the monk had hold of him like the Creature from the Black Lagoon in that old movie and he pulled Woody through the rippling water, beneath bright waves of light and-

A door slammed. Woody jerked awake.

Automatically, his right hand made a tight fist around the sharpened toothbrush. He couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep.

He didn’t know what time it was. Didn’t even have a motherfuckin’ watch. If the door hadn’t slammed-

Shit! Maybe Jack Baddalach was back.

Woody jumped up and opened the door.

Just in time to see the Range Rover backing out.

A white guy with a fucked-up haircut was behind the wheel.

Jack Baddalach.

Woody tossed the sharpened toothbrush across the room.

Shit!

The motel office was actually part of Sandy’s house. The door on the back wall connected to her living room, and that was where she actually spent most of her time.

Actually, it was a pretty nice room. Sandy’s old surfing pictures on the wall, along with posters from Dale’s concerts. And a sliding glass door on one wall that afforded a spectacular view of the low mountains to the west.

It wasn’t what you’d call an unobstructed view, however.

The junkyard was in the way.

When Sandy and Dale designed the house, they hadn’t planned for a junkyard to be part of the view. The living room was supposed to overlook a miniature Pacific complete with a wave machine and palm trees and acres of soft sand, but things hadn’t worked out that way.

Sandy popped a beer and looked to the low mountains, jagged shards of cinnamon beyond a forest of tangled metal. Even the junkyard could be beautiful at times, when the desert light was right.

But tonight Sandy didn’t want to look at the junkyard. She didn’t want to look at the mountains, either.

Tonight she wanted to look at the sky. It reminded her of nothing so much as a cool watercolor brushstroke, darker at the bottom, like the angry Pacific during a hurricane, lightening as the brush moved across the horizon and the bristles grew dry, until all that remained was the clear liquid blue of a gentle wave washing Poipu Beach on the island of Kauai.

Sometimes just looking at the sky made Sandy want to go back to the Islands. Some days she really missed that life.

But she could never figure out how to get started. She never knew what she should take with her and what she should leave behind.

She’d take Dale, of course, but even that was a problem. If you took a dog to Hawaii, the authorities insisted on quarantining the animal for a period of months. Being locked up would drive Dale crazy. And Sandy couldn’t stand to be separated from him, anyway.

That wasn’t the only problem. Other stuff was just as hard. Like she had never been good at getting rid of anything. She still had all Dale’s stuff. His clothes, his guitars, even his records.

And she should have trashed the records, because they were all messed up. Most of them were warped. She couldn’t play them even if she strapped a boulder to the turntable’s tonearm.

Sandy never told anyone about the warped records, though. Not a soul. Because she knew it was the records that had killed her husband.

“Saguaro Riptide” was the one that had done it. Not the version from the Pipeline '64 album that Kate Benteen remembered-this was Dale’s very first record, an early version of the song recorded as a 45 for an independent label long before he hit it big. And it was rare-if you could find a copy, it would set you back a hundred bucks.

Dale didn’t play it very often. He hardly ever played any of his own records because he didn’t want to wear them out or take the chance of scratching them. He’d paid some kid to transfer his entire vinyl collection to tape when they lived in LA, and that was the stuff he listened to. He kept all his Dale Dayton and the Daytonas records in a special cabinet that stood on the same wall as the sliding glass door that overlooked the junkyard.

The sun hit that wall every day. Heating it up. And at night the moon came up, and things cooled down. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

And the records did the same, pressed against the other side of that wall, day in and day out.

Heating up, cooling down. Time and time again.

Sandy never thought about it. Neither did Dale.

Until the day Dale tried to play “Saguaro Riptide.”

Sandy wasn’t home. She’d gone to town for groceries. Dale was all alone. She knew he was depressed. They’d just opened the junkyard, and in many ways that was the final straw-like giving up on the dream, like finally admitting that the miniature Pacific and the sandy beach with the palm trees was never going to happen.

She should have never left Dale alone on a day like that. A day didn’t go by without her wishing she hadn’t done it.

But she had done it. She’d gone to buy hamburger and milk and bread and mustard, and her husband had killed himself because she wasn’t there to put her arms around him when he took that warped 45 off the turntable.

The junkyard had only been open a week. A single car sat in the huge lot surrounded by gleaming chain-link fence-a battered lemon-colored VW Bug.

That was where Sandy found Dale late that afternoon- leaning against that battered lemon Bug, the hole in his head the same color as the blistering lava sunset.

Still gripping a pistol in his right hand, the warped 45 in his left.

Sandy sipped her beer. She knew that the VW Bug had been crushed many years ago, but she was always afraid she was going to see it when she looked through the sliding glass door.

But the VW wasn’t there this evening. Sandy wished for the millionth time that she had only dreamed it, the same way she’d once dreamed of watching soft waves brush a golden beach in the Arizona desert.

Sandy opened the door. A gust of wind ruffled her dark hair. In the junkyard, twisted Detroit steel floated in pools of twilight. Broken windshields gleamed, as if charged with the last whisper of sunshine. A slight wind rose, bringing with it a golden haze, and the golden haze whistled through tailpipes fluted with rust, dying in dead engines heavy with oil that could smother any sound.

And then shadows were everywhere. They came on the wind, from the cinnamon mountains. And the wind was rising, howling-

Sandy laughed, because the wind wasn’t howling at all.

“Goddamn dog,” she said, and she snatched a can of Alpo from the kitchen and shoved the can opener in her back pocket and stepped through the doorway that afforded a view of the junkyard and the mountains beyond.

Dale yipped in delight, stubby legs pumping like mad as he charged along the chain-link fence.

Sandy smiled.

“Hold on, boy,” she said. “I’m comin’.”

Woody stepped onto the landing. The Range Rover hadn’t returned, and now the Dodge Dakota was gone, too, meaning that the bitch in the black bikini had also hit the trail.

Shit. Wasn’t nobody around but him and that damn dog barking in the junkyard.

Mutt was driving him seriously crazy, too.

He wished he had the monk’s pistol.

But he didn’t. Didn’t have a gun. Didn’t have a car. Didn’t have a motherfuckin’ dime in his pocket.

Shit.

The dog shut up. Only one reason why-the motel lady was over by the chain-link fence, feeding the mutt some dinner.

She was wearing a pair of cutoff jeans that rode up her ass like a second skin as she knelt to dish up that dog food.

Had nice legs for an older bitch, too.

She turned and headed for the house. Not bad tits on her, either.

Woody wished she’d dish something up for him.

She looked up just then and saw him.

She waved, gave him a smile.

Just the way she’d smiled when she spotted those goddamn roses.

Smile and wave at the faggot, that was what she was thinking.

Woody smiled, waved back.

This was some sorry shit, and he was seriously tired of it. He went inside and grabbed the sharpened toothbrush. He’d teach this bitch to smile at him.

He’d teach her a thing or two. .

THREE

Ellis hit the brakes a second too late. The scar-colored Caddy fishtailed, balding steel-belted radials spitting up rocks on the shoulder of the road as the car powered past the turnoff to Ellis’s mobile home.

That was what he got for daydreaming about Komoko’s money. Miss the damn turn.

Not that he was going to back up. To hell with that. He swung the wheel hard to the left and kept on going, tires kicking up sand now, front bumper gobbling cholla and prickly pear and any other damn thing in his way. He’d make his own damn road-that’s exactly what he’d do. And to hell with anything or anybody who got in his way.

If he’d seen a tourist pissing behind one of the sixty-two saguaros that dotted his property, he would have run him down without a second thought. That’s how shook up he was. Be you man or beast, woman or goddamn miserable desert vegetation. . you’d better leave ol’ Ellis Aaron Perkins a wide berth this evening.

Because Ellis hadn’t found one thin dime of that missing money. Not in the ruins of Graceland, not out in the desert. Must have been he’d covered three or four square miles searching for a spot where Komoko might have buried something, but he hadn’t seen a single sign-it was like the whole goddamned place hadn’t been disturbed since the days when dinosaurs had walked the goddamned earth.

But it had to be that the money was out there somewhere.

It had to be.

Maybe it was just that Komoko had hidden it damn good. Some place you wouldn’t notice right off.

Ellis pressed the gas pedal to the floor.

Maybe he’d never find Komoko’s money.

Maybe no one would.

Man, that was a hell of a note.

Ellis pulled to a stop in front of the trailer. He knew that it would be hotter than Ann-Margret inside but didn’t really care, because that’s where the beer was.

He climbed out of the car. His goddamn leather coat was a mess. All covered with white dust. He looked like a goddamn ghost. And sweaty-man, there wasn’t even a rumor of the Old Spice he’d used to wax down his pits that morning.

Manly odor wasn’t his only concern, though. He hoped his pit-juice hadn’t short-circuited the batteries for his vibrator throat-buzzer. That would be a damn shame with him having to go on the road tonight and all. He didn’t have time to play Mr. Fixit.

Didn’t have time to get the coat cleaned, either. And he wanted to wear it, because all his jumpsuits were at the cleaners. Hell … he didn’t have time for any of this shit. He’d just beat off the dust, run a quick check on the throat-buzzer, dump some Hai Karate on the coat, and hope for the best.

Now that he was going. No avoiding that. He had to go on the flea market trip, because he was about busted. Of course, if he’d found Komoko’s goddamn money, he wouldn’t have to go anywhere at all.

Heat waves shimmied on top of the trailer like the ghosts of frenzied go-go girls. The place sure wasn’t any Graceland. Just a leaning hunk of tin in the middle of nowhere. Tinfoil on the windows just the same way the King had done it, both because he was nocturnal and also needed his privacy. But Ellis Aaron Perkins was up in the middle of the day and nobody was begging for his autograph, and on this cracker box tin-foiled windows just looked like that much more tin because Ellis hardly had a goddamn dime to his name.

Ellis studied on it until he couldn’t stand it anymore. Then he reached into the backseat of the scarred Caddy and grabbed the shovel that had been so goddamn useless and threw it as far as he could.

“Goddamn,” he said, and with all that plumbing missing out of his throat the word couldn’t even be called a whisper.

He sure needed that beer.

Ever since that Vegas doctor had cooked him straight through with all that radiation, his throat had been drier than a popcorn fart. Always had a taste in the back of his mouth like he was gagging down a hunk of burnt tinfoil, and he could never wash that taste away. Just couldn’t get enough spit up, no matter how hard he tried.

He couldn’t help but try, though.

Grimacing, Ellis swallowed dry. It wasn’t any good. He slammed through the front door.

Priscilla was standing right there, waiting for him, a can of Coors in one hand. She popped the top and handed it over.

He didn’t quite know what to say. The way he’d left her this morning … he figured she’d be sulking.

He took a deep swallow, then jammed the vibrator against his neck, “THANK. . YOU NUNGEN,” he said.

Elvis Presley had always called his Priscilla Nungen.

Ellis figured Priscilla might have smiled when he thanked her, but he couldn’t really tell with the duct tape on her mouth.

Ellis wondered what she was thinking about-him, or Komoko, or maybe Jack Baddalach.

Or maybe she was thinking about Komoko’s money, the same way Ellis was.

She turned before he could get another look at her face and headed for the kitchen.

Ellis stepped away from the open door. A slash of sunlight slapped Priscilla’s backside, lit up her dark hair real nice.

She moved away from the light. It caressed her, traveling down her backside like Ellis’s hand sometimes did, real slow, glinting on the leg-iron around her right ankle just as she disappeared into the shadowy kitchen with its tinfoil-lined windows.

She was gone. Ellis watched the chain playing out from the eyebolt drilled in the living room floor.

She could only go so far.

The living room was done up kind of like the Jungle Room at Graceland. Lots of furniture with leopard spots and zebra stripes.

Ellis put a record on the turntable. Moody Blue. The King’s very last album.

The heavy-gauge plastic sofa cover made a crinkling sound as he sat down. He sipped the beer and set it on the coffee table. He wasn’t crazy about having plastic covers on everything. But Priscilla said that they needed them if they were going to keep so many cats in the house.

Ellis liked the cats. There were twelve of them, each one named after a different member of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia. Charlie Hodge and Lamar Fike were fluffy Persians, while Joe Esposito and Gene Smith were calicos. Red West was a big old tabby with a flame-colored belly. Sonny West was blacker than the ace of spades. Dave Hebler was a Siamese. Ellis liked the last three best, even though in real life they had betrayed Elvis by writing the first tell-all book, the one that had been published just before the King’s death.

Elvis had wanted those boys to kill Mike Stone, the karate expert who stole Priscilla Presley’s heart. But those boys refused to do it. After all the things Elvis had done for them. . they wouldn’t even do him a little bitty favor like that.

Besides the cats, Ellis didn’t have an entourage. Still, he knew some folks who didn’t have a problem when it came to committing murder. Wyetta and Rorie. Not that they’d intended to murder Komoko for him, of course. That was just the way it had worked out.

Wyetta and Rorie had done him a big favor by chopping Komoko. He wondered if they’d do him another favor, maybe chop this Jack Baddalach character. Hopefully the boxer would get in their way and end up dead, just the way Komoko had.

Damn. That would sure enough simplify the situation. With Baddalach dead, there wouldn’t be anyone left to phone Priscilla.

Purring, Lamar Fike rubbed against Ellis’s legs. Ellis bent down and scratched Lamar’s big ol’ tomcat neck. Lamar was always hungry and took the opportunity to whine for a treat.

Ellis figured he should open a can of food. But the cat food was in the kitchen, and so was Priscilla. Suddenly Ellis was real nervous about being close to her. The way she’d given him the beer … he just didn’t feel right about it, what with her having the tape on her mouth and the chain on her leg and all.

Kind of guilty. That’s how he felt.

He knew what Elvis Presley would have done. Elvis would have gone out and bought Priscilla a fancy car or some expensive jewelry or something. The King always gave expensive gifts as a way of apologizing. Never said he was sorry or anything.

But Ellis couldn’t afford to apologize that way.

He couldn’t say he was sorry, either.

And why should he?

She had cheated on him, running around with that Komoko fella every chance she got. She’d been perfectly happy doing that until she figured out the guy was an asshole who never intended to run off with her. Then she called up her sister and her sister’s dyke lover, and together they figured out how to cash in the asshole’s chips.

Maybe Ellis could live with that. Really. If he was the one to find Komoko’s money, he could pretend the whole thing had never happened. Pretend he hadn’t heard the velvet-voiced asshole say all those things to Priscilla on the telephone tapes. Pretend, when he lay with his wife in their bed, that she didn’t have anyone else on her mind.

If he found the money, he’d tell her that he’d made a big score with the cellular phones or something. Give her a wink like there was something more to it that he couldn’t talk about.

She’d buy it. Sure she would.

And he’d have that damn money.

Two million bucks. He could get the hell out of Pipeline Beach. Take Priscilla back to Vegas. Get her away from that goddamn sister of hers.

He’d buy a new house, something in North Vegas. Air-conditioned. And he’d still have money left over. Enough for a whole mess of authentic Presley-size “I’m sorrys.”

Ellis got cleaned up. Took a shower. Waxed down his pits with that Old Spice Stick. Doused the black leather coat with Hai Karate.

Sometimes he thought that everything would be okay if he could still sing. Sit out there on the porch at night and serenade Priscilla, look her dead in the eye, watch her shiver as he ripped her up with “Loving You” or “Treat Me Nice.”

He thought about it. It would sure be nice. He really missed being able to sing. But even two million bucks couldn’t buy you a voice if you were missing half the plumbing in your goddamn throat. Ellis knew that.

He combed his hair and wandered to the kitchen. Caught the smell of dinner cooking.

Couldn’t believe it.

First the beer at the door and now this-the unmistakable aroma of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

The King’s favorite meal.

It seemed like someone was turning over a new leaf. .

. . or someone was feeling real guilty.

Ellis loaded the cellular phones into the trunk. He wouldn’t have to do any legwork this trip-he was getting a reputation and had buyers lined up all over Phoenix.

He had a long drive ahead of him.

But he couldn’t quite get moving.

Because he couldn’t stop thinking.

A beer at the door wasn’t a gold bracelet. And a peanut butter ’n’ ’naner sandwich sure wasn’t a new Cadillac.

But add ’em together and they sure as hell seemed to be some kind of apology.

Or maybe they were a sign of guilt.

Ellis thought it over. He’d stripped the tape off Priscilla’s mouth so she could eat dinner. But she hadn’t said a goddamn word, except to ask him when he’d be back from Phoenix.

He said he’d be home soon enough. And then he made a trip to the living room, put a CD on the stereo. Some of Elvis’s Vegas stuff.

When “Suspicious Minds” came on, Priscilla wouldn’t look at him at all.

Ellis slammed the Caddy’s trunk and glanced over at the shed next to the trailer. He kept his tools in there.

The tape recorder was in there, too. The one he’d spliced into the phone line.

Maybe he should check the recorder before he left.

See if anyone had called while he’d been out treasure hunting. See if his wife had dared to peel that tape off of her mouth.

He wandered over, real casual, and opened the door.

It was dark in the shed.

The flashing red light on the tape recorder was the size of a pinprick.

But there was no way he could miss it.

Or what it meant.

FOUR

Wyetta took one last swig from the JD bottle and threw it into the desert behind her house.

Three silhouettes waited among the towering saguaros. Three pairs of unblinking eyes were trained upon the sheriff of Pipeline Beach.

Wyetta stared them down. She was alone. Rorie had gone home. Said she needed some rest. Wyetta had said okay, because what she had needed was a drink and she didn’t want Rorie looking at her with sad puppy-dog eyes while she had one.

Or two.

The sun slipped behind the jagged horizon to the west, painting the desert with fresh shadows. Black shadows over white sand-the same palate of colors that had shaped the generation weaned on Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.

The three figures came clearer in the soft shadow of twilight. Standing stiff and straight, expressions set as if for eternity, waiting for the sheriff without a word.

No words were necessary. Wyetta knew why they were here.

A sawed-off shotgun lay on the picnic table to her left. Wyetta held her left hand aloft, smiled at the figures, then reached down slowly and took hold of the shotgun. Eased it off the table, aiming its barrel at the ground as fast as she could.

And then she came at them, not too fast, not too slow. Like a knight without armor in a savage land. Moving into range. And she didn’t blink once. Her gaze traveled everywhere. From their guns to their hands to their unblinking eyes.

Wyetta said what Wyatt had said a long time ago: “You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight.”

Not one mouth opened. The three of them stood there, waiting for her as if they were mystery contestants on some strange outlaw game show. Desperado #1, Desperado #2, and Desperado #3.

Wyetta closed the distance.

One last step. Quiet tread of Nocona boots over Arizona sand.

One last breath, a deep one.

And then the fingers of Wyetta’s right hand closed around the red cedar handle of her.44 American and she yanked the big pistol and opened fire.

The first bullet slammed Desperado #1 in the chest. The second opened a hole in Desperado #3’s belly. Neither man made a move; Wyetta hadn’t stopped moving. Again and again, she pulled the trigger.

Bone-colored splinters flew as a bullet carved a hole in the forehead of Desperado #3.

Wyetta’s next shot hit him in the belly. Her last two bullets drilled holes in Desperado #1 and then the.44 American was back in its holster and her free hand closed around the shotgun’s slide-handle and she fired left-handed, sending a load directly through the belly of Desperado # 2.

His legs did not move. But he toppled from the belly up, his plywood torso sending up a puff of incense-colored dust as it pancaked the desert floor.

Jack Baddalach, Kate Benteen, and Woodrow Ali Baba. It didn’t matter if the three of them had teamed up. Wyetta would finish them the same way Wyatt and his men had finished Desperados #1 thru #3 at the O. K. Corral.

Wyetta wandered over to the bisected figure of Frank McClaury. Turned over his torso and stared into his painted eyes. Part of her had hated to blow Frank in half, because he and his two plywood compadres had been a gift from a sheriff buddy of hers up north. He’d had them painted up special the year Wyetta won an award at a meeting of Arizona law enforcement officials. Giving Wyetta plywood figures of the badmen who had met their demise at the O. K. Corral was kind of a joke, but kind of an admiring tip of the hat, too.

Blasting Frank McClaury with a shotgun reflected Wyetta’s passion for historical accuracy. That was exactly what Doc Holliday had done to Frank at the world’s most infamous gunfight. Plus, blowing the plywood figure in half made Wyetta feel pretty damn good. Ventilating Billy Clanton and Tom McLaury had felt pretty good too. And, as with Frank, the placement of her pistol shots jibed with historical accounts of the gunfight at the O. K. Corral.

Wyetta grinned. Yep, she was one pretty tough pistol packin’ mama, and she wasn’t about to lay her pistol down. Not yet.

Not until this Komoko business was settled.

Boy howdy. If she could only figure out where Komoko had hidden the money. She and Rorie hadn’t had a bit of luck finding it the night they’d put the little Vegas pissant out of his misery. She was sure it wasn’t hidden in Graceland, because they’d damn near torn the place apart. Of course, their search outside had been tougher, because the sandstorm got in the way of things.

They’d checked Komoko’s car though. The money wasn’t there. They’d even checked to see if he’d registered over at the Saguaro Riptide before coming to Graceland. But Sandy said she hadn’t seen him in a month.

Komoko hadn’t made a reservation, either. Not that he’d need one at the Riptide. Still, Wyetta wondered if Sandy was telling the truth. Maybe Komoko had checked in. And maybe he’d left the money in his room. Sandy might have played dumb, got hold of that money herself. .

No. That was crazy. Sandy didn’t have a clue about Komoko.

Unless Priscilla had let something slip during one of her Riptide rendezvous. Unless-

Wyetta shook her head. This was crazy. If she wanted to worry about someone beating her to the money, she shouldn’t be worrying about Sandy. And if she wanted to speculate about who knew exactly what, she needed to think about Baddalach, and Benteen, and Woodrow Ali Baba.

And that bunch was making less sense every minute. Take for instance Ali Baba’s car being out at Graceland, and Ellis swearing that Jack Baddalach was the guy who’d driven it there. Sure, Ali Baba had reported the car stolen, but the question was why would Baddalach steal it? He had a rental car-that Range Rover he’d been driving when they’d arrested him at the five-and-dime.

Maybe Ali Baba and Baddalach were partners. And maybe there was a heaping teaspoon of dissension in the ranks. Maybe-

Wyetta swore. The pieces of the puzzle wouldn’t fit. Either that, or she had too many goddamn pieces. Or-

Frank McClaury stared up at her, refusing to blink. Suddenly, Wyetta did not like the amused grin the artist had painted beneath Frank’s bristling moustache.

God, she wanted another drink.

But another drink and she wouldn’t be thinking at all.

So she spit in Frank McClaury’s eye and kicked corpse-colored dirt over his face.

Wyatt would have done the same thing. If only she could talk to him about Komoko’s money. If only she could ask his advice.

And then, quite suddenly, she remembered that she could do just that.

As it turned out, Rorie was too upset to take a nap. She couldn’t eat, either. So she closed the drapes and settled in with the TV, hoping to take her mind off her troubles.

She channel-surfed for a while. Lots of news and game shows and even more talk shows. But what Rorie liked was show shows. Movies and that kind of stuff.

She found a pretty good one on HBO. She’d missed the beginning, so she didn’t know the name of it. But it was pretty cool. Some woman archaeologist had been kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists, and the terrorists were doing these awful Middle Eastern things to her. The archaeologist was trying to escape, but she wasn’t having any luck.

And then a chopper landed in the desert. A black one. And someone got out, all alone. Dressed in black leather, wearing a chopper pilot’s helmet with a mirrored face.

Man, it was too cool.

And then came the best part. Because the chopper pilot took off that helmet, and it turned out the pilot was a woman!

Way too cool!

The pilot shook out her auburn hair. Kind of a Louise Brooks look. Very tough. She backed a motorcycle from a compartment in the chopper’s belly and loaded it up with a bunch of guns and grenades and stuff.

Then she straddled the cycle and started it up. The roar of the engine rode a series of quick close-ups. The pilot wore heavy red lipstick, and her eyes were green, and man oh man did that leather outfit fit her like a glove, and. .

It hit Rorie like a ton of bricks. The actress in the movie … she was a dead ringer for that chicklet at the Saguaro Riptide-Kate Benteen. Of course, Rorie hadn’t seen Kate Benteen without her sunglasses, so it could be that the resemblance was coincidental, but still-

No way. This couldn’t be Kate Benteen. That girl, in the movies? The way she talked about Cosmopolitan? No way, it didn’t make sense.

Still, Rorie was real eager to see the credits at the end of the flick.

The chopper chick raced through the desert on her black cycle.

Cut to-a tank with a bunch of real grody-looking Arabs heading her way.

Rorie settled back on the couch. Man, things were going to get good now.

The phone rang.

Rorie answered it.

Wyetta didn’t even say hello.

What she said was, “Get your ass in the saddle, cowgirl.”

They rode together in the sheriff’s Jeep Cherokee.

Wyetta was driving.

Rorie could smell JD on her breath.

She kept her lip buttoned about it, but she didn’t want to. What she wanted to do was say, Jesus Christ, Wyetta. Wasn’t the other night enough?

She didn’t say anything, though. Not that she had a chance. Wyetta was rattling on like a holy roller caught up in the spirit. In a way, that’s exactly what she was. Only the spirit that had her by the short and curlies wasn’t Jesus Christ. No, Wyetta was caught up by the spirit of her own personal Lord and Savior, Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp.

She’d been talking to him through that damn Ouija board again. Or so she claimed.

She also claimed that Wyatt had told her where Komoko had hidden the money.

And she couldn’t shut up about it.

But that didn’t mean Rorie had to listen. No siree. She stared out the window as mile after mile of nothing whipped by. All that nothing had been out there the other night, but she’d seen a lot less of it then.

A duster had blown down from the north. Not that Wyetta was bothered by the storm. In pigheaded Earp fashion, she had ignored it.

She kept the pedal to the metal. Damn the torpedoes. Balls to the wall law enforcement and all like that.

Only Wyetta and Rorie weren’t going to enforce any laws on that particular night. They were going to break some. They were going to steal some money. Maybe murder someone.

Not that Wyetta saw it that way. Hey, they were stealing money from the mob. So that wasn’t really stealing, was it? And the only guy they might have to kill was a mobster. So that wasn’t really murder was it?

Wyetta made the whole thing sound like a public service. And she wouldn’t shut up about it. Talking and talking, like she was trying to convince herself.

And Rorie could tell that Wyetta had been trying to convince herself another way, too, because she could smell Jack Daniels on the sheriff’s breath.

Riding through that duster, Rorie wished she’d kept her mouth shut. She wished she’d never told Wyetta about her sister’s asshole lover. That was the conversation that had planted the seed. Once it took root, there was no getting away from it. Wyetta had insisted that Rorie bring her sister out to the rancho for a little dinner party.

They’d talked it out over margaritas and nachos. Wyetta made it sound like a joke at first-“Hey, ’Cilia, the guy deserves to lose some money,” she said. “He treated you like shit, didn’t he? This’ll bring him down a few notches. We’ll show him you can’t treat us Arizona girls like cow dumplings.”

Priscilla went along with it, of course. Hell, she’d fallen for Komoko’s line, and he was a minor-league shit-shoveler. What could stop her from falling for Wyetta’s world-class bullshit?

Nothing. So, Wyetta came up with a plan to get Komoko, and ’Cilia set him up. The next time he phoned, she told him that Ellis was out of town on one of his flea market trips. Said Komoko should meet her out at Graceland, because he’d never seen the place and was always asking her about it.

But the way Wyetta planned it, Priscilla wouldn’t be anywhere near Graceland when Komoko arrived. Instead, Wyetta and Rorie would be waiting for him. They’d have his money before he even had a chance to figure out that he’d been set up.

Only it didn’t work out that way. There was the duster, of course. It slowed Wyetta down. But what slowed her down more was the bottle.

Rorie didn’t say a word about the bottle that night, either. She just sat there in the shotgun position, waiting to get the whole thing over with, hoping Komoko wouldn’t see them coming.

With the duster, there was a good chance of that.

But with the duster, there was also a good chance that Komoko might bag the whole thing. Stop at a motel a hundred miles up the road. Not show up at all.

Either way, it was okay with Rorie.

That was what she was thinking as they neared the little dirt road that cut from the highway to Ellis Aaron Perkins’s personal Graceland. Rorie was thinking so hard that she didn’t notice until the last minute how fast Wyetta was going, or how close the turnoff was-

“Look out!”

Wyetta cut the wheel too sharply. The Jeep’s big wheels dug into the desert, kicking up sand and rocks and then the cab leaned over-it all seemed to happen so slowly in a crazy kind of way. The Jeep rolled, slammed down onto the driver’s side and kept on moving, body screaming over sand and rocks, headlights illuminating a stand of saguaros, the Jeep still moving forward, plowing through the sand, long cactus fingers bending toward the windshield like fingers closing into a fist and then Rorie couldn’t see a damn thing because she had a faceful of air bag and the Jeep suddenly skidded to a stop.

Wyetta was swearing. Loudly. But the wailing siren was louder and they couldn’t turn it off because the air bags were in the way and neither one of them could see the dashboard. Wyetta was cussing a blue streak, but Rorie didn’t dare say a word. The truth was that she was almost too scared to breathe.

The air bags deflated. Waves of gravestone-colored sand blasted the Jeep. A suicidal tumbleweed raced through the storm and exploded against the windshield, little stick shards making spidery scratching sounds.

The sticks scratching, Wyetta’s cussing, the siren-every sound was muffled by the ringing in Rorie’s head. The sheriff squirmed in her seat and flicked off the siren. The deputy hung sideways in the cab, suspended by her seat belt. Rorie turned with some effort, saw steel-colored clouds boiling overhead through the passenger window.

“Can you get the door open?” Wyetta asked.

Rorie didn’t answer. But she wanted out. She didn’t care how hard the damn wind was blowing. The seat belt was cutting into her belly like a backstreet abortionist’s scalpel. The shoulder strap had wrenched her shoulder and chafed her neck. She felt like a crash-test dummy strung up by some automotive lynch mob.

The cab closed in on her. She could sense it getting smaller as the storm grew stronger.

Rorie kept her eye on the window, on the sky above. Those steel clouds were going to fall out of the sky and crush the Ranger flatter than flat. She was sure of it.

Panic knotted her chest. She had to start moving.

She managed to open the door. She couldn’t unfasten her seatbelt and ended up cutting it with her pocket knife, at which point she dropped on top of Wyetta, who unleashed a fresh torrent of expletives.

Rorie didn’t give a shit anymore. Wyetta’s words couldn’t hurt her. Not the words themselves. But she could smell the drunken breath that carried those words, and that breath burned in her lungs like hellfire as she gasped for fresh air.

The two women scrambled out of the Jeep. Both of them were okay. Nothing more than a few bumps and bruises. Wyetta jumped off the passenger side of the Jeep and started jogging up the road. She didn’t even break stride. The only thing Rorie could do was follow.

The wind lashed her, and the blowing sand slapped her with callused intensity. Rorie squinted into the storm. She could hardly see Graceland at all. And Wyetta stood next to her, but she looked like a ghost. Suddenly, Rorie worried that the storm would tear Wyetta apart and the wind would steal her away.

“You see Komoko’s car?” Wyetta yelled.

“No.” Rorie answered. “You think he saw us? You think he heard the siren?”

“I don’t think he could have seen anything in this goddamn bliz-”

Wyetta’s words died in her throat. Just ahead, twin fireballs raced through the storm-a pair of headlights coming straight for them.

Rorie hit the dirt and rolled through a tangle of stunted mesquite. Wyetta held her ground, opening fire with her.44 American.

One of the fireballs died. The other stopped moving as Wyetta squeezed off her last shot.

Rorie couldn’t believe that Wyetta had actually hit the driver, not in this concrete wind. But the surviving headlight remained motionless, and there was no arguing with that.

Rorie stood and drew her pistol. Wyetta was suddenly at her side, reloading her.44.

The wind tore at them.

They both knew what they had to do.

Together, they raced toward the light, firing their weapons but hearing nothing more than the angry scream of the concrete blizzard.

The car was empty.

Wyetta dipped her head inside.

“He took the keys,” she yelled.

“No he didn’t.” Rorie stood at the rear of the car. The keys were in the trunk. And the trunk was open.

Wyetta swore. “He’s got the money. He’s rabbiting.”

Once more, they reloaded their guns. Rorie’s fingers wouldn’t move right. She gave up with only five shells in the clip, jammed it into the butt of her automatic. The crash, the storm, the gunshots. . she was numb. Colder than she’d ever been in her life. She felt dead, and the wind was shoveling dirt over her, a boot hill of dirt blowing out of the night sky.

She didn’t want to go anywhere. She just wanted to stand there in the storm, and take it, and wait for it to finish her off.

But Wyetta was moving. “This way,” she yelled. “He’s gotta be heading back to Graceland. It’s the only shelter for miles.”

Rorie sucked a deep breath and tasted that boot hill dirt on her tongue.

She swallowed hard.

If she didn’t move, she’d lose Wyetta in the concrete night.

She moved.

They stood by the grave. A warm breath of wind washed Rorie’s forehead. Tonight it was so very quiet. Almost peaceful.

“It has to be here,” Wyetta said. God, but she couldn’t seem to shut up. “Wyatt spelled it out on the Ouija board. EAP. . TCB.”

She pointed at the big bronze marker. Rorie stared at it. The grave of Elvis Aron Presley. EAP. His personal motto stood out in stark relief at the bottom. TCB, with a lightning bolt sprouting from the C. And any fool knew that TCB stood for takin’ care of business.

EAP. . TCB. Rorie wondered if the Ouija board had really spelled out those letters for Wyetta. She decided that it really didn’t matter. Even if the board had spelled out the message, the fingers on the heart-shaped cedar planchette belonged to Wyetta, and Wyetta already knew about the grave marker, which was a twin to the marker at the real Graceland. The message could be nothing more than a trick of the sheriff’s subconscious mind.

“Damn!” Wyetta said. “Check this out, cowgirl!”

Wyetta was kneeling at the bottom corner of the marker. She slipped one Annie Oakley-gloved hand into a hole. Elbow deep, then further.

“Maybe it’s only some jackrabbit’s burrow.”

“Looks a little bit wide for that.” Wyetta grunted. “But it doesn’t matter if it is. Komoko could have jammed the money into it during the storm. Damn hole probably filled up with sand that night, anyway. Maybe the storm buried his loot for him.”

Rorie could see that Wyetta was probably right about that last part. Fresh sand was heaped around the edge of the hole. Maybe the storm had filled it up.

If that was true, someone else had already emptied it.

Or some thing. Rorie wondered if a Gila monster waited in the rabbit hole. Those nasty suckers sometimes took over other animal’s burrows, and they were dangerous, venomous. .

“Be careful,” Rorie warned. “You don’t know what the hell’s down there.”

Wyetta’s eyes gleamed. “Yes I do.”

Her arm traveled deeper. Almost up to the shoulder. “Whatever made this hole did a damn good job-practically hollowed out the area under the marker. Damn. I wish my arm was longer. .”

Rorie stared at the fresh dirt heaped around the hole. She spotted a boot print pressed in the soft sand. The pattern wasn’t anything like Wyetta’s Noconas, or the Tony Lamas Rorie was wearing. The print didn’t look like one of Ellis’s motorcycle boots, either.

“The money isn’t here, Wyetta.”

“Hold your horses, cowgirl. It’s got to be here. Maybe Komoko shoved it in real good with a branch or something. Maybe what we need to do is get a truck with a winch on it. Haul this goddamn hunk of bronze out of the way and-”

Rumbling thunder slapped the sheriff’s words.

Rorie looked to the heavens.

Nothing there but blue sky.

Again the thunder. Only this time she recognized it as a shotgun blast.

Maybe a mile away. Maybe not that far.

Maybe as close as Priscilla’s trailer.

Wyetta pulled to a stop in a tangle of brush surrounded by cottonwoods. She drew her pistol and stepped out of the Jeep. Rorie did the same.

Fifty feet of scrub separated them from the trailer. Ellis’s scab-colored Caddy was parked in front, but Rorie didn’t see any other cars. Of course, it would be easy enough to hide one in the brush. She kept her eyes peeled for Baddalach’s Range Rover or Benteen’s Dodge Dakota. The Range Rover was new, metallic blue. It would be easy to spot. Benteen’s truck would be tougher-painted a dry-twig beige, with rust spots, it could blend in pretty easy.

Wyetta flashed a hand-signal. The two women parted, advancing on the trailer from different angles.

They were getting real close now.

Rorie stepped over a net of twigs. Middle-of-nowhere quiet out here. The least little sound was magnified a hundred times. The way the shotgun blast had been. The way-

A loud voice came from the trailer, “I'll tell you anything you want. . but you have to get me out of here.”

Rorie stopped dead in her tracks. She glanced to the right and saw Wyetta frozen the same way. Because it was Priscilla’s voice they’d heard. And it was so loud. And Priscilla never raised her voice at all, not even when-

"I'll do my best. That’s all I can promise.”

Rorie had only talked to Jack Baddalach twice. Still, she was sure that the second voice belonged to him.

But why was he yelling?

"That's not good enough,” Priscilla said, “I can't stand it here. Not another minute. not with that son of a bitch I'm married to. If you want to know what happened to Komoko, you have to get me out of here. Either that, or you’ve got to kill him for me.”

Rorie was shaking. Priscilla’s voice was so cold. And it sounded like a whisper. But it was the loudest whisper she had ever heard.

Something square and black ripped through the trailer’s screen door. Rorie brought her pistol up. Out of the comer of her eye she saw Wyetta mimic the action.

The black thing kicked up dust as it landed between them.

It was a boom box. And it was notched to full volume.

“I didn't come here to kill anyone,” Baddalach said.

“Then you'll never find out what happened to Vince Komoko,” Priscilla replied.

Rorie aimed her pistol at the boom box. She knew it was crazy. She knew the stereo couldn’t hurt her, but she couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of it.

Baddalach said, “Okay. . maybe I can help you get out of pipeline beach. I’ve got friends in Vegas, and if you help us out. .”

The screen door exploded off its hinges. Ellis came down the stairs, running for all he was worth, and there was a shotgun in his hands, and he pulled the trigger and pumped, pulled the trigger and pumped, until there wasn’t enough boom box left to make a transistor radio.

He dropped the gun in the dust and stared at the stereo’s guts. That patented Presley sneer crept across his face, and he swaggered up to the wrecked boom box and gave it a kick.

He was wearing black leather pants and that black leather jacket he was so proud of. But Rorie could see that something was wrong with the jacket. It was wet. Slick and shiny.

It was. . spattered with blood.

Fresh blood.

For a second, Rorie thought that Ellis had been shot.

Only for a second, though.

Ellis finally noticed her. He glanced at Wyetta and his sneer disappeared. But the big artery on the left side of his neck thudded away, pumping blood beneath a blanket of scar tissue.

To Rorie, that artery looked like the devil’s own tail.

Ellis’s eyes burned a hole straight through her, because he could see well enough what she was looking at. He slapped that thing that looked like a microphone against his throat, "Your bitch of a. . sister is inside. . you can have what’s left of. . her I blew the cunt right out of her pants but she deserved what she. . got and-"

It was getting darker now. Rorie knew they shouldn’t just stand around. But she didn’t know what else to do.

Rorie hadn’t looked in the trailer. Wyetta had checked for her. And Wyetta said that Priscilla was dead and there wasn’t a chance in hell that she could have felt any pain, so Rorie knew it must have come quick, and it must have been bad. Her sister was dead.

Rorie wished Ellis would just go ahead and die. He lay there on the ground, staring straight up at the sky, not blinking at all, and he wouldn’t move for five. . maybe ten seconds, and then all of a sudden his shoulders would heave and a whistling sound would rise from one of the bullet holes in his chest and he’d get that rattle in his throat and. . Jesus, it was awful.

Wyetta couldn’t stop staring at him. That was the worst part. She got down on her knees and looked him right in the eye. “I wonder if he sees it,” she said.

“Sees what?”

“His flaming star.”

“Huh?”

“You know. . Flaming Star-that movie where Elvis is half-Indian. He sees the flaming star of death up there in the night sky and knows he’s going to go belly-up. So he kills half the Kiowa Nation, and then the other half kills him, and his white half-brother marries his girl.”

“Barbara Eden,” Rorie said, because she remembered now.

“Right.”

“Maybe we should get out of here.”

“No rush.”

Wyetta stayed at Ellis’s side, watching. Rorie went over and sat on the porch. A couple of cats wandered out of the house and rubbed up against her. She picked up a tabby and held it close, but the animal refused to purr.

Wyetta came over a few minutes later. “He’s dead.”

Rorie sighed. “What do you call it when you kill your brother-in-law?”

“Fratricide?” Wyetta guessed.

“Nah. . that’s when you kill your father.”

“Matricide?”

“Nah. . that’s your mom.”

Wyetta thought it over. “Maybe you just call it your good deed for the day.”

Tears filled Rorie’s eyes, but she laughed like a son of a bitch.

Tears and laughter.

Seemed you couldn’t have one without the other, anyway. But at least the laughing felt good.

Back in the Jeep, headed down the highway.

“I’ve been thinking that maybe you asked the Ouija board the wrong question,” Rorie said. “You asked where Komoko hid the money. Not where the money was. So it could be that the Ouija board was right about Komoko hiding the money in Elvis’s grave. Maybe it’s just that someone beat us to it.”

“So you think we should ask Wyatt where the money is now?”

“Yeah.”

“Waste of time.”

“Why’s that?”

Wyetta smiled. “C’mon, cowgirl, you read track about twice as good as me.”

“Oh yeah,” Rorie said. “I almost forgot about that.”

Rorie didn’t say anything else.

Neither did Wyetta.

Because both of them had recognized the boot print by Elvis Presley’s grave.

A hiking boot-standard army issue.

FIVE

Dark clouds smothered the full moon.

Shadows blanketed the desert.

Kate Benteen moved in.

A man dressed in black leather lay on the ground. Kate figured it had to be Ellis Aaron Perkins, because the man’s resemblance to Elvis Presley was uncanny.

A Winchester shotgun lay at his side. She kicked it out of the way, then nudged Ellis’s head with the toe of her boot. When it came to determining life or death, the old nudge-nudge wasn’t the most scientific method in her repertoire. But tonight it did just fine, because tonight Kate didn’t feel like a doctor at all.

And besides, any fool could see that Ellis was deader than Grizzly Gulch on Saturday night.

Ten, maybe fifteen steps separated Kate from the trailer. The dull yellow glow of the porch light puddled on the front stairs. The screen door was a broken mess hanging from one hinge. The front door stood open. Soft fluorescent illumination bathed the living room carpet. Not much light, and not good light, but enough to give Kate a fighting chance if Ellis’s killer was wailing to ambush her.

There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room in a trailer. Kate knew that if she was in for a fight, it would be belly to belly. She’d have to make her first shot count, because she probably wouldn’t get a chance at a second.

Iron clouds melted overhead. The night grew blacker. Kate stood next to Ellis’s corpse, listening for the slightest sound from the trailer.

What she heard was a whole lot of nothing. Staying low, she moved toward Ellis’s Cadillac and placed her palm on the hood. The engine was colder than he was.

She kept moving. Dressed in black, right down to a pair of steel-toed go-go boots. She hadn’t worn the outfit since she’d done that action flick for Roger Corman two years ago. But she was glad she’d saved it, because it was just the thing for covert ops.

Her palms were completely dry. That was good, because you didn’t want to get careless when you were holding a Benelli Super 90. Guns amp; Ammo called it the world’s deadliest combat shotgun, and Kate wasn’t about to argue with Guns amp; Ammo.

She skirted the puddle of yellow light on the porch. Put her back to the wall next to the door. The trailer was warm, the metal siding still holding the heat of the noonday sun.

Kate drew a measured breath and held it until her lungs burned. The shotgun was ready. So was the Heckler, secure in its shoulder holster.

So was Kate Benteen.

She whirled fast, a whisper of black leather, and came through the doorway low, her green eyes scanning the room with the deadly intent of a cold-blooded predator.

The man who turned to face her looked too white in the fluorescent light. He said “Jesus Christ!” and the Siamese cat he was holding sprang from his arms.

Kate almost pulled the trigger. Almost. .

And then she was shaking. . because she’d almost pulled the trigger. Almost. .

The cat brushed past her leg and raced outside, hissing.

“Hey,” the guy said. ‘Take it easy, all right? We’ve got two corpses here already.”

Kate swore. Then she lowered the shotgun.

She said, “What the hell happened to your hair, champ?”

Jack explained about the haircut. Benteen laughed, but it didn’t seem all that funny to Jack. His haircut had almost got him killed.

She ruffled the uneven buzz with one hand. “You look like you lost a fight with a lawn mower.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“Kind of makes you look like Bruce Willis-”

“You can stop now.”

“Only you’ve got a nicer smirk.”

“Hey. .”

“Ohhh. . Touchy, are we?”

She was wearing some kind of black leather jumpsuit with lots of zippers. Black boots, too. Even her shotgun was black. Overall, she looked like a refugee from The Avengers.

“You do your shopping at the Emma Peel Outlet or something?” Jack asked.

She glanced down, as if she’d suddenly forgotten what she was wearing. “Some styles are eternal,” she explained. “That’s what they say in Vogue. And according to Soldier of Fortune, black leather is still all the rage for late-night derring-do.”

That seemed to wrap up the chitchat. Jack got down to it. “So, what brings you here?”

“Process of elimination. I got tired of sitting around the motel waiting for answers. I figured I’d go out and find some for myself. I’ve already kicked in Wyetta Earp’s front door. Deputy Rorie’s, too. They weren’t home. I figured Ellis was next on the list of possible suspects.”

“What do you think?”

“I think Ellis isn’t up to giving me the answers I’ve come looking for.”

“He’s not the only one.”

Jack pointed at a chain that was held in place by an eyebolt screwed into the living room floor. Together, they followed the chain’s path to the bedroom.

The last link of the chain was attached to a shackle that encircled a woman’s leg. At least it had once been a woman’s leg. Now it was a mass of tom flesh, sharp sliver of shinbone showing through.

Priscilla’s corpse lay on the bed. The room was painted with her blood. Only her face was recognizably human.

“Shotgun,” Kate said. “And there’s a Winchester Model 97 out by Ellis’s corpse.”

“So Ellis killed Priscilla … but who killed him?”

“You’re telling me that you didn’t do it?”

Jack snorted laughter. “Lady, believe it or not, I don’t even have a gun.”

She looked at him and didn’t so much as blink. He could see that her grip was firm on the shotgun. “I think it’s time you explain your part in this,” she said.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning: what the hell are you doing in Pipeline Beach, champ?”

Explaining the deal with Freddy G took a while. Kate Benteen was skeptical at first, and Jack couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t like he was telling her that he was a soldier, an Olympic diving champion, a doctor, a rodeo rider, and a movie star all rolled into one.

But in the end she seemed to believe him. So he told her about his last phone conversation with Priscilla.

Ellis’s wife had wanted out of Pipeline Beach. Bad. Jack said he’d help her if she’d tell him what she knew about Komoko and the money. She agreed and gave him part of the story as a gesture of good faith. Jack was to meet her at the trailer after Ellis left town on his flea market rounds.

If things had gone according to plan. Jack would have gotten Priscilla’s story and Priscilla would have gotten out of town courtesy of Freddy G. Of course, things didn’t go according to plan. Ellis obviously hadn’t left town, and things had gone bad for Priscilla in a big way.

Kate took her time, thinking about Jack’s story. Finally, she said, “So you don’t want the money for yourself.”

“Hey, I want my twenty percent. Freddy promised me that. But I’m not planning to steal two million from the mob. That would be crazy.”

“You think Vince was crazy?”

Jack shook his head. “No … not after what Priscilla told me.”

“Do tell.”

“Priscilla didn’t give me the whole story. But what she did say was that Komoko walked into a setup. He wasn’t stealing that two million at all. He wasn’t stupid enough to run out on the mob. Priscilla wouldn’t tell me who set him up, but I’ve got a pretty good idea. Priscilla was in on it, of course, and I think she had some help from-”

“Let me guess: the Lone Rangerette and her own personal Tonto.”

“So you’ve met Wyetta and Rorie.”

‘They showed up at the Saguaro Riptide with their rubber hoses this afternoon. We had quite a little chat.”

“Okay, then. I think we’re starting to get an idea of exactly who did what to whom. But that still doesn’t tell us where the money is.”

“That’s easy,” Kate said. “It’s in room 23 at the Saguaro Riptide, under my bed.”

“I was one up on you in the Mike Hammer department, champ. Vince left a message on my answering machine the night he was ambushed. He told me exactly where he hid the money. All I had to do was show up with a shovel and start digging.”

“He wanted you to have it?”

She nodded. “Vince didn’t tell me where the money came from. He didn’t say what he was doing with it. What he said was that there was a good chance he wouldn’t see the other side of the trouble he was in. He figured he wasn’t going to be able to take the money with him if things went the way he thought they were going to go, and that I was the only person in the world he’d want to end up with two million bucks if he had to leave it behind.”

Jack shook his head. Kate Benteen stood in front of him with a shotgun in her hands. A pistol waited snug and secure in the shoulder holster under her right arm. And the missing millions were under her bed.

“This is crazy,” he said. “If you’ve already got the money, what the hell are you doing hanging around here?”

She smiled. “I’m looking for closure.”

“Huh?”

The smile was gone. She sighed. “Look … we don’t have time for this. I couldn’t explain it if I spent all night trying. It would sound corny and awful and maudlin if I even tried. Let’s just say that I know what’s in my heart, and what’s in my gut, but I can’t put it into words because if I do I’ll be a mess, y’know?”

“You’re talking about Komoko.”

“You’re damned right I am.”

Jack nodded. “Then I’ve got kind of a working knowledge of the situation. I took your advice, remember? I’ve read your press clippings. One of them, anyway.”

“Which one?”

“The Playboy interview.”

“Oh, Jesus.” She actually blushed. “You didn’t.”

“So I know all about your adventures in the Gulf War, and a certain chopper pilot, and why you might be having a little trouble letting go of him.”

“I still can’t believe I said all that stuff to a reporter.” She shook her head. “It’s awful, isn’t it?”

“I enjoyed it. Especially the part where you threatened to plant a bomb in Hugh Hefner’s hot tub.”

“I’ll admit that was a little drastic. But the only thing that reporter wanted to know was if the Iraqis had raped me. He must have asked the question fifteen different ways. All that talk about plastique and timers shut him up.”

“You should try dealing with sportswriters sometime. Talking about plastique would only give those guys a hard-on.”

Jack was quiet for a moment. They were dancing around the important stuff now. If they were going anywhere- together-they had to get things straight.

“Cards on the table, okay?” he said.

She nodded.

“I want the money,” Jack said. “And that’s all I want. What do you want?”

“I want to get hold of Wyetta Earp. I want her to tell me where Vince Komoko is buried. And then I want to put a bullet between her eyes, and say my last goodbye to Vince, and get the hell out of Pipeline Beach, Arizona.”

“You don’t want the money?”

“No. If you’ll back me against Wyetta, you can have the money. I don’t want a dime.”

Jack thought about it.

He didn’t think long.

He said, “I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

“Bogart you ain’t.” Kate drew the Heckler from her shoulder holster and handed it over. “But you’re going to need this.”

Jack set the gun on a table before it had a chance to go off by accident. “Uh. . about guns. There’s something I need to tell you. .”

Kate popped the Caddy’s trunk. The compartment was packed light with Ellis’s bootleg cellular phones. With Jack’s help she loaded them into the Dodge Dakota. All she’d say about it was, "Only two hundred and sixty shopping days until Christmas, champ.”

Jack hopped into Kate’s truck, and she drove him to the spot where he’d parked the Range Rover.

“I almost forgot,” he said as he climbed out. “If you see a big black guy with an African hat at the Riptide, kill him. He’s a hit man, and he’s after me.”

She shook her head. “Thanks for the update, champ.”

“Sure.”

“Any other late-breaking bulletins?”

“Nope … I think that about does it.”

“Then let’s get down to brass tacks.”

They headed toward Pipeline Beach-Jack in the Range Rover trailing Kate in the Dodge Dakota. About halfway between Ellis’s place and the Saguaro Riptide, they turned off the highway and followed a dirt road for a couple of miles. Kate pulled to a stop near an abandoned shack. Jack parked behind her.

She got out of the truck and chalked a man-sized outline on the side of the shack with a soft stone. Then she gave Jack a quick lesson with the Heckler. The cloud cover had drifted away from the moon, and the desert was painted with a tarnished glow. Jack set to work firing at the target while Kate returned to the truck and made some calls with one of Ellis’s phones.

Jack went through two boxes of Hydra-Shoks. He took a flashlight from the truck and inspected his work. He’d hit the shack plenty of times. But most of his shots had missed the target, which admittedly was closer in size to the Incredible Hulk than Wyetta Earp or Rorie Holloway.

Kate stood beside him. He hadn’t heard her coming.

She eyed the bullet holes in the side of the shack, little tsk-tsk-tsk sounds passing between her lips. Finally she said, “If you use the pistol, make sure you’re close enough to smell their perfume.”

“Maybe I should use the shotgun,” Jack suggested. “I’m more likely to hit something with it, right?”

Kate shook her head. “You’re more likely to hit me. Better stick with the pistol.”

Jack figured he’d save himself further embarrassment by changing the subject. “Who did you phone?”

“All our friends in Pipeline Beach. Wyetta still isn’t home. Neither is Rorie.”

“You think they’re waiting for us at the Riptide?”

“I think so. The heat’s on. They haven’t found the money, and now they’ve murdered Ellis. They’ll want us out of the picture. They won’t want anyone sniffing around the mess they’ve made.”

“Shit.” Jack ejected the clip from the Heckler and began reloading. He was all thumbs, though-slick little cartridges slipped between his fingers and dropped to the ground.

“Let me do that,” Kate said.

“Man,” Jack said. “I don’t think I’m cut out for this business. And if I get my ass killed by a woman named Wyetta Earp. . man oh man, talk about your embarrassing endings-”

“You’ll do fine.” Kate slapped the clip home and returned the pistol.

They were close now. Their eyes met-he had to look up because she was just a little taller than he was. Not a lot, just a little. His eyes were green and alive in the tarnished moonlight, and one corner of his mouth was kind of twitchy, like he couldn’t decide if he should smile or not, and she started to step away-

His hand found hers in the shadows. “Hey,” he said. “Just for luck, huh? Just because we’re doing this thing together.”

“Okay,” she whispered.

She kissed him. It had been a long time since she had kissed anyone. Since Vince. And Jack Baddalach was a good kisser. His lips were soft, and his mouth was warm, and he didn’t push her away, he drew her in, his arms around her, and her arms slipped around his waist and the kiss was slow and easy and wonderful.

They really took their time with it.

As if they had all the time in the world.

Their noses touched as their lips parted.

They let them touch like that for a long moment, staring into each other’s eyes.

Both smiled. Jack stepped back, hands drifting over her hips but not letting go just yet because he was a little dizzy and had to hold onto something.

“You’re something, Major Kate Benteen,” he said. “I never met anyone quite like you.”

His voice was as soft as his kiss, as soft as his hands on black leather.

Those hands were drifting away.

Kate found one of them. Held it in hers. Guided it to her breast.

Leather whispered in Jack Baddalach’s grasp.

“This outfit has thirteen zippers,” Kate said. “And every one of them works.”

Kate glanced at the pair of high beams in the rearview mirror. Baddalach was behind those headlights, following in the rented Range Rover.

God knew what he was thinking.

Kate knew what she was thinking: Goddamn-it just doesn’t get much more romantic than this. Off to kill a couple of gunslingin’ law-gals, but first let’s make a little love on an old horse blanket in the back of a Dodge Dakota. Snuggled up between a bunch of boxes filled with bootleg telephones, and not one drop of champagne between them, but who the hell needs champagne when you’ve got a tarnished moon in the sky and a hundred and seventy-five pounds of stud on top of you and good music on the radio.

An oldies station out of Tucson. Late night and hardly any commercials. The disc jockey must have known what was going on out there in the desert. He’d played “Surfer Girl” and “Sealed with a Kiss” and “Hurts So Bad.” Hell, he’d even played “Baby the Rain Must Fall.”

Kate bit her lower lip. She hadn’t felt this bad in a long time. This good, either. She hadn’t felt much of anything in nearly two years. She’d been running on that even keel, just sticking to a routine, taking things nice and easy and-

Damn, but it felt good to be with a man again.

Damn, but she was miserable.

Jack Baddalach. If only she had been with him. . and only him. His breath warm on her neck while the cool evening breeze brushed her brow, his lips finding hers in the shallow glow of moonlight.

If only she hadn’t closed her eyes and given in while her heart dredged up the memory of Vincent Komoko.

Because then it was Vince’s breath warming her neck while the cool evening breeze brushed her brow. Vince’s lips finding hers in the shallow glow of moonlight. .

The telepathic disc jockey up in Tucson was still in touch. He dropped the needle on Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely.” Kate turned off the radio.

“Goddamnit,” she said, slamming her palm against the steering wheel. “Goddamnit!”

Why did Jack Baddalach have to turn out to be such a fuckin’ nice guy, anyway?

PART SIX

Wipe Out!

ONE

Woody’s balls were killing him.

Shit. That motel bitch could kick like a fucking mule. Had to be she knew karate or something.

He paced along the junkyard fence. The bitch was hiding in there somewhere. Her kick had sure enough doubled him over, but he’d managed to straighten up just in time to see her scramble over the chain-link fence.

Woody shined a flashlight through the chain-link but didn’t see a goddamn thing besides busted-up cars.

He’d found the flashlight in the bitch’s house. While he was looking around, he’d traded the sharpened toothbrush for a meat cleaver, too.

The cleaver was pretty damn sharp. Maybe he should just jump the fence, go after her.

But her dog was in there, too. And Woody didn’t want to go up against a pit bull, not even with a meat cleaver. Shit. He’d just been dog-bit the other day. The monk had, anyway. And Woody couldn’t see himself making any mistake that the monk had made.

Man, it seemed like he’d been pacing back and forth for hours. The motel bitch was hiding, and there was no sign of the boxer or the bitch in the black bikini. Woody swore. Maybe he should just bag the whole deal. Find the keys to the motel bitch’s Volvo and hit the dusty trail. Worry about getting himself some trim somewhere civilized, like Tucson maybe.

Yeah. Why not.

He went into the bitch’s house one more time. Her purse lay on the sofa. Woody grabbed her car keys. Figured, what the hell, and grabbed a wad of greenbacks, too.

It’d be good to see this fucked-up place in his rearview mirror, anyway. Just put the whole deal behind him. Coming here had been the monk’s idea, anyway. Woody should have figured it would be a king-sized mistake.

Woody counted the bitch’s money as he stepped out the door. Sixty-seven bucks and change. He shook his head. But, shit. . sixty-seven bucks was better than noth-

“Freeze, asshole.”

Woody froze.

The sheriff said, “Drop the cleaver.”

“Do it now,” said the deputy.

Sandy couldn’t believe her luck. She climbed the chain-link fence and ran across the parking lot.

Wyetta had her pistol trained on Woody Jefferson while Rorie patted him down. “Sheriff!” Sandy shouted. “Jesus, am I glad to see you! That son of a bitch practically broke down my door. He tried to rape me, and-”

“Hold it right there,” Wyetta said.

Sandy couldn’t believe it. Wyetta had turned, but she was still holding her pistol as if she were ready to shoot.

Only now the gun was aimed at Sandy.

“Ease off, Wyetta,” Rorie said. “Sandy doesn’t know what’s going on here.”

Wyetta’s eyes narrowed. “Just how do we know that, Deputy?”

“Hell, Wyetta. We don’t know for sure. We don’t know anything for sure, I mean.”

“And I’m tired of that. Deputy. There’s only one thing I want to know-what happened to that goddamned money. I want to know for sure, and I’m not leaving this place until I find out.”

“But if Sandy knew about Komoko-”

“Hey,” Sandy interrupted, because she was getting mad. “I don’t give a shit about Komoko. The only guy I care about is the bastard who tried to rape me. I want you to lock him up.”

Wyetta shook her head. “Sorry, Sandy. We can’t do that. Not until we sort a few things out.”

“Goddamnit, Sheriff. You don’t seem to understand. This son of a bitch tried to rape me ”

“Uh-huh.” Wyetta nodded. “You’ve made that pretty clear.”

“Aren’t you going to do anything?”

“Sure.” Wyetta nodded at Rorie. “Deputy, put the cuffs on Ms. Kapalua-Dayton, and find some little out-of-the-way place where she can cool off.”

Rorie did as she was told and walked Sandy toward the motel.

“Maybe we’ll be talking some more, Sandy,” Wyetta shouted.

Sandy tried to turn, but the deputy pushed her forward.

The motel owner cussed a blue streak.

“Shut her up,” Wyetta said. “The last thing we need is for her to be screaming her head off when Baddalach and Benteen show up.”

The deputy’s hand brushed Sandy’s shoulder. “You’d better do what she says,” Rorie whispered. “It’s going to be okay. We’re on a tough case. It’s about to break wide open. Here. Tonight. Right now Wyetta doesn’t trust anyone. But I know that you don’t have anything to do with this. Just trust me, and you won’t get hurt.”

“I didn’t do anything!” Sandy shouted. “That guy tried to rape me! Just let me go! Jesus, just let me get out of here!”

Rorie hesitated.

And then she said, “I can’t do that.” She pressed her pistol lo the back of Sandy’s head. “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll shut up.”

Woody had to admit that the look on the motel bitch’s face had been priceless. Shit, it was just too rich-he tries to rape her, and she ends up wearing the cuffs.

He just had to laugh at that.

He laughed real good.

Until the sheriff whacked him upside the head with her pistol.

“You can’t be serious,” Rorie said.

Wyetta didn’t so much as crack a smile. “Do like I told you, Deputy.”

Rorie unbuckled her gun belt and tossed it at the black guy.

It hit him in the chest and fell to the ground.

“Pick it up,” Wyetta said. “We’re gonna have us an old-fashioned shootout, just you and me.”

“You’re crazy,” the black guy said. “Shit. I didn’t do a goddamn thing. First you hit me with your damn gun, and now you want to have a gunfight. I mean, this macho shit is way too much. You want to arrest me, then arrest me. But if you want to grow a dick, why don’t you just go get a damn operation or something.”

“You better do like I tell you or I’ll grease you where you stand. I swear I will.”

“Shit. I ain’t doin’ another goddamn thing until you take me in, book me, and let me talk to a lawyer.”

Wyetta’s eyes were on fire. Rorie had seen the sheriff primed and ready plenty of times, but never like this. Wyetta was actually shaking.

She was way too worked up. And Rorie knew that too much emotion could get in the way when it came to bad business like this.

Wyetta could get hurt.

All because of that damn money. Wyetta wanted it real bad. But they couldn’t seem to get hold of it. And every bend they came around seemed to bring them that much closer, but every bend seemed to lead to a dead end. First the Ouija board directing them to Ellis’s place, where they’d found nothing more than a hole in the ground. Then the boot print in the dust sending them here to the motel, but the chicklet who wore combat boots wasn’t anywhere around.

Neither was the boxer.

But the black guy was here. He’d tried to rape Sandy Kapalua-Dayton and, failing that, had stolen her money. And he was going to steal Sandy’s car, too, because he had her keys.

Rorie bit her lip. This buck didn’t know a damn thing about Vincent Komoko’s money. He wouldn’t be stealing sixty-seven bucks if he had the two million. He only wanted some Hawaiian-Irish-Navajo pussy and a stolen car that would take him down the road.

If Wyetta would just slow down for a minute she’d see that was the way it was. But the sheriff of Pipeline Beach had worked up a real head of steam, and that meant trouble for anyone who stood in her way.

Especially a smart-mouthed asshole like Ali Baba.

But he seemed so cool. Biding his time. Standing there as straight and stiff as a lawn jockey.

“C’mon, jailbird,” Wyetta said. “You know you want to do it.”

“You gonna lose your badge over this. Sheriff.”

“Pick up the gun. All you’ve got to do is bend over. You know how to do that. I figure a pretty man like you did a whole lot of bending over in prison.”

“Now, just you listen-”

Wyetta glanced at Rorie. “Help this nigger.”

“Wyetta, I don’t think-”

“Don’t you dare argue with me, cowgirl. Strap that goddamn belt around his waist.”

Rorie moved forward.

“Fuck you, bitch,” the black guy said, and he snatched up the gun belt and cinched it tight.

“That’s real good,” Wyetta said. “You’ve got a waist just like my woman’s. Nice and thin. Just the right size for a lady’s gun belt-no wonder you sell ’em.”

“I should warn you,” Woody said. “I do this for a living. I’ve killed twenty-three men.”

“There’s one way out of this,” the sheriff said. “Tell me what you know about Komoko and the money.”

“I don’t know shit about any Komoko.”

“Then we’re done talking,” Wyetta said. “Skin it, Woody.”

A cold grin rippled across the black man’s lips.

He squinted.

Because a wave of bright light crested behind Wyetta and Rorie, washing the desert floor, splashing three huge shadows against the cinder-block wall of the Saguaro Riptide.

The black man stared into the light.

“Allah be praised,” he said.

He yanked the deputy’s pistol and opened fire.

Jack was halfway up the rear staircase when he heard the crackle of gunfire from the far side of the motel.

Then he heard a scream.

Jesus. It was all happening way too fast.

And it wasn’t supposed to be happening this way. Nothing was supposed to happen yet. He wasn’t even in position.

He glanced at his battered Timex. Jesus, what the hell was going on? Where was Benteen? What had happened to all that shit about a flanking maneuver, about drawing Wyetta and her deputy out into the open? Shit, the two of them were already out in the open. And they were shooting. It had to be them-

And Benteen had to be crazy, jumping the gun. Either that, or she’d fallen into a trap-

If they’d killed her. If she was already dead-

Fuck that. Jack pulled the Heckler from his belt and charged down the landing. The last door was open-the door to the hit man’s room-and a slab of light spilled across the concrete walkway, but Jack didn’t even pause to investigate because he could see three people in the parking lot below.

Two of them were staring at the lights.

One was down on the ground, coughing up blood.

The lights scorched the desert, a dozen angry globes bearing down on the gravel parking lot below.

Jack grabbed the railing with one hand as he came to the end of the landing. Still, his momentum nearly tumbled him over the side.

Jack steadied himself, then racked the slide and chambered a round in the handgun

He was really going to do this.

He had to do this.

He took aim.

But the sheriff was already aiming at him.

She’d heard him chamber that round.

Wyetta’s pistol bucked in her hand.

A bullet trenched the meat of Jack’s left forearm just below the elbow.

The Heckler tumbled through the night.

***

The gun landed in front of the black guy, sending up a splash of gravel. He didn’t even grab for it. He was too busy hacking up a dark stream of blood. Down on his knees, one hand under his coat, where a bullet from Wyetta’s.44 American had excavated one hell of a burrow.

A bloody rattle raked his throat, and his eyelids fluttered heavily as his muddy brown eyes tracked that tight bank of lights which skimmed the desert floor.

The lights were coming, and coming fast. Had to be a truck with high beams and fog lights and even a rack up on top.

Just like the rust-bucket Dodge Dakota that Kate Benteen drove.

That bitch. She was too damn smart for her own good. Sending Baddalach through the back door while she raced hellbent for leather through the front.

“It’s a goddamned diversion.” Wyetta squinted, moving back. “They’re trying to sucker us.” She pointed at the second story landing. “Baddalach’s up there. Gotta be he’s trying to grab the money while Benteen plays off-road games. I’m going after him.”

Rorie said, “What do you want me to do?”

“Kill the little bitch,” Wyetta said, and then she snatched up Baddalach’s pistol and tossed it to the deputy.

Jack couldn’t quite figure out how he had ended up on his knees. He didn’t remember making the trip at all.

Light spilled across the landing from the open doorway. He got up, looked at his arm. A chunk of it seemed to be missing. There was a whole lot of blood.

A bullet cracked the cinder-block wall just above his head.

“Don’t move, cowboy.”

Wyetta Earp started up the staircase.

Jack dove through the open doorway and slammed the door closed with his feet.

He was up in a second. He locked the door and rammed the deadbolt home. Then he scanned the room, searching for a knife, a club, anything-

The only thing he found was Sandy Kapalua-Dayton.

She lay on the bed. Her wrists were handcuffed, and her legs were bound with an electrical cord tom from a lamp.

A hand towel was jammed in her mouth, held in place by a bandana.

Sandy’s eyes bulged. Her face was a startling shade of purple.

And then a wild spasm wracked her body, and she tumbled off the bed and thrashed about on the carpet, her head banging the floor like a runaway jackhammer.

Rorie stepped past the dying black guy and aimed the boxer’s pistol at the headlights.

The truck kept coming. Three hundred feet away. . two fifty. . The driver had to see her by now. Two hundred. . one fifty. . But the driver didn’t slow down, didn’t so much as swerve-

Rorie pulled the trigger. The first bullet smacked the left headlight and she corrected her aim. . one twenty-five. . the pistol rocking in her grip, two shots through the radiator and. . one hundred. . steam spit through the grille and the next two shots spiderwebbed the windshield dead center and. . eighty-five. . seventy. . Rorie adjusted one more time, fired. . fifty feet. . and the bullet-pitted glass and the battered Dodge Dakota swerved wildly, kicking up sand and rocks and brush like a wild bronco.

The truck crashed through the chain-link fence that penned the junkyard, slammed into a rusted-out Chevy and did not move another inch

Rorie waited. In the junkyard, a dog ran at the truck, barking like it was the end of the world.

But the truck didn’t move. It just sat there, all those headlights glowing like a portable football stadium.

Rorie checked the boxer’s pistol. It was an excellent weapon. A Heckler amp; Koch USP.45.

The only problem was that Rorie had emptied it.

She couldn’t finish Kate Benteen with an empty pistol.

Damn. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another.

She turned around, searching the parking lot for her own pistol. The black guy had dropped it when Wyetta plugged him. Had to be that it was around here somewhere-

The black guy said, “Surprise.”

Woodrow rose with some effort, staring at the lights.

He was still in the parking lot, but it was no longer morning.

He tried to remember. He had checked into the motel, and he had parked the Saturn in the lot by the junkyard, and he had taken his prayer rug from the trunk, turning toward Mecca to pray. .

And he had suffered another blackout.

A long one, because now it was night.

Woodrow could not imagine what had transpired in the interim. He only knew what had happened since he emerged from the blackout-he’d seen the lights in the desert, and he’d been shot by a female law-enforcement official who had departed the immediate scene, and he’d managed to shoot the woman’s partner. .

He stumbled forward, toward the lights. They had never been this close before. And being this close, he could tell for certain that they were not an illusion, no figment of a wounded brain.

The lights were real. If Allah would grant him the strength, Woodrow would know what was behind them before he died.

He stepped through a hole in the chain-link fence. A dog barked at him, but the animal was somewhere in the shadows and he could not see it. Still, he fired the deputy’s pistol into the night, hoping to hear the animal squeal because he recalled all too well the damage inflicted by Jack Baddalach’s dog.

Quite suddenly, the dog ceased its barking. Perhaps Woodrow had been lucky. Perhaps Allah had guided his aim.

He turned and faced the lights.

They beckoned him forward, and this time no needles of pain assaulted his skull, and no taffy-pulling machine tore at his brain.

Still, Woodrow was afraid. He hesitated, squinting into the light.

A silhouette shimmered within the pool of bright white fire.

The silhouette came toward him.

It was a woman.

Woodrow watched her come.

Her face was scarlet. Masked with blood.

Her clothes were black … but her hands were very white.

And in them she held a shotgun.

Woodrow raised his pistol.

The woman fired her shotgun.

Jack pulled the towel out of Sandy’s mouth. She gasped deeply, shivering.

“Easy,” he said. “Take it easy. .”

Sandy took another breath, and then another, and then her face wasn’t purple anymore.

Jack heard footfalls outside. Someone was running along the landing, just the way he had.

It had to be Wyetta.

Sandy’s fingers dug into his arm. The look in her eyes told him that she heard the same thing he did.

“Keep quiet,” Jack whispered, “and she’ll never know you’re here.”

Fortunately, Sandy Kapalua-Dayton was a skinny woman.

She actually fit under the bed.

Kate lay on the ground for a long time.

The shotgun recoil had put her flat on her ass. And even though she was a Montana girl and Montana girl’s got things done, she couldn’t quite get up the gumption to move. Partly because one of the deputy’s bullets had notched her right ear and nicked her skull, and she was still leaking pretty good.

That part of it was okay, though, because fresh blood made good camouflage. She’d smeared it over her face, just the way they taught her in the army. In a dangerous situation without the proper equipment, a soldier must improvise. And, hey, it had worked, because the hit man hadn’t known what to make of her until it was way too late.

But the hit man wasn’t the only one she had to worry about. There was the deputy. And the sheriff.

If the deputy was still out there, she was taking her own sweet time about showing her face. But maybe she was just a careful kind of girl. Maybe she was trying to figure a way to move in without getting her ass blown in half.

Maybe the sheriff and the deputy were flanking Kate this very minute.

Yeah. Could be. She’d better get to moving.

Kate gripped the shotgun. Just one more minute. One more minute and she’d start moving.

Damn. It was just too bad that the old Dodge Dakota didn’t have an air bag. Forget a bullet notching her ear-if she had had an air bag, she’d be fine right now. Give her a little bit of cushion and it would have taken more than a head-on collision with a Chevy junker to put a hitch in her getalong.

Kind of like the Saudi, in fact. Because Black Hawk helicopters didn’t come with air bags, either, and crashing one of those babies nose-first into a sand dune was just a little tougher than this.

Kate still had the scars to prove it.

But she’d had Vince Komoko to get her through the Saudi. And he’d been so beautiful then. So good. A-one all-fucking-American.

Kate remembered bouncing around in the back of an Iraqi truck, busted bones grinding against bruised flesh while she screamed her head off, a couple of Republican Guards trying to loosen the zipper of her flight suit but it hurt so bad and she had to scream, and Vince was busted up too but he went after those guys just like John Wayne.

That gave the soldiers something else to do. They beat the shit out of Vince. Kate watched them do it, every inch of her screaming in pain because there were lots of bumps in that desert and the truck driver seemed determined to hit every one. . hell, you’d think desert sand should be smooth but it wasn’t. . and she’d never forget what Vince did for her out there. Not just saving her ass from rape. Taking that beating, he’d given her hope. Showed her that they could tough it out, no matter what. Make it through anything with their dignity intact.

Vince had shown her that, and she’d learned the lesson. Together, they’d survived. That was important.

But there was more to life than simple survival, more than just drawing breath. Kate knew that. You had to make something of your life, or survival meant nothing.

If you ended up all alone with two million dollars for company. .

If no one cared about anything but your money. .

If the only person you wanted to give it to wouldn’t even answer her phone. .

A tear spilled from Kate’s eye, washing a clean trail on her bloodstained face.

Maybe you couldn’t help but be alone when you died.

Maybe. .

No. Kate knew it was silly to think about that. She wasn’t going to die. She was just a little busted up. Just bleeding a little. Jesus, she was sure happy that she wore her hair long-it would cover the notch the deputy’s bullet had clipped from her ear.

It’s nothing, she told herself. Only a flesh wound. Once it scabs over, no one will notice it at all.

No one will notice because you live alone, girl. A cabin out there in the middle of the big lonesome. No one visits. Your phone doesn’t ring. You have really long conversations with your horses, but they haven’t learned to hold up their end of the deal.

You’re a solo act from here on out, remember?

And she asked herself-if you were dying, who would you call? If you had two million, who would you leave it to?

Was there anyone, anywhere?

Vince Komoko was stone-cold dead. .

But maybe there was someone else. This other guy. Jack Baddalach. He was out there somewhere. And he was alone, just like she was.

He was waiting for her. Counting on her. The way she’d counted on Vince in the Saudi. The way Vince had counted on her to drop everything and come to Pipeline Beach, Arizona.

Because she was a Montana girl, and you could count on a Montana girl, especially if her name was Kate Benteen. Anyone knew that. Because Kate Benteen got things done. She was a war hero. An Olympic champion. A rodeo rider. A movie star.

And she was damn good with a gun to boot.

Kate stared at the motel. It seemed to be a million miles away.

Aw, Christ. That was a lot of bullshit. The motel was maybe a couple hundred feet away, tops. All she had to do was get up, get her ass in gear. .

She’d do that.

Because Jack Baddalach was waiting for her.

Counting on her.

Baddalach. . Man oh man, but that pug sure knew how to kiss.

And maybe that was what she needed. Some seriously sensual motivation to get her rear in gear.

Yeah. She’d bail the boxer’s ass out of trouble, tune in that oldies station, steal another kiss. .

Maybe two. .

Yeah.

Kate got up.

Something battered the door. Once. . twice. . but the deadbolt held firm.

Gunfire exploded outside. Jack sidestepped as a bullet whipped past his ear, missing him by inches.

The door flew open.

Wyetta Earp stepped into the room, her pistol held high. Jack’s empty hands rose automatically.

Wyetta took one look at him and started to laugh.

“What the hell happened to your hair, cowboy?”

Jack shrugged. “It’s kind of a long story.”

“Then we don’t have time for it.” She stepped toward him, the pistol steady in her hand. “Where’s Komoko’s money?”

Jack had no place to hide and he knew it. The room didn’t have a back door, and Wyetta had a gun. But instinct told him he had to move, so he backed up.

“Stand still.” Wyetta cocked her pistol. “You give me an answer, or you’re dead.”

“I don’t know,” Jack said. “You think I’d be here if I did?”

Wyetta smiled. “C’mon now, cowboy. Don’t treat me like an idiot. You and your girlfriend came here tonight for a reason. And I’ve got the feeling it wasn’t just because you wanted to get into a gunfight with me and my deputy. I know what you came for, same way as you know what I came for. Just hand it over, and I promise that the end will come quick.”

“Okay,” Jack said, “you’ve got me.”

“That’s smart, cowboy. Let’s get this thing done.”

“The money’s in Benteen’s room.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No,” Jack said. “Really. It’s under her bed. .”

Kate’s foot found the brake pedal just in time to prevent the bullet-riddled truck from crashing into the side of the Saguaro Riptide Motel.

She dropped the stick into neutral and set the emergency brake. So far, so good. She still felt kind of woozy, but she was going to be okay.

Because she was thinking straight. She’d known, standing in the junkyard, that it was a long walk to the motel. So she’d climbed behind the wheel and driven there instead.

And here she was, ready to come to Jack Baddalach’s rescue.

She stepped out of the truck, the Benelli shotgun in her hands, her eyes scanning the darkness for a sign of Wyetta Earp or her deputy.

She saw the deputy soon enough.

The deputy was dead.

Kate had parked the truck on top of the woman.

Oh, man. She’d never run over a cop before.

Nothing she could do about it now, though.

She stepped over the deputy and started around the side of the motel.

Her foot struck something hard.

She looked down and spotted the Heckler lying there on the ground.

That meant that Baddalach didn’t have a gun.

That meant that he was in real trouble.

“The money’s in room 23,” Jack said.

“This is unreal.” Wyetta shook her head. “Money hidden under a bed … I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it. Sheriff. Because it’s the truth.”

The space was tight on the landing. Wyetta was behind Jack, her pistol at his back. He knew he’d only have one chance, and if he blew it-

“Here we are,” he said.

“Open the door.”

“I don’t have the key.”

“Oh, man,” Wyetta said.

“Maybe you should shoot the lock,” Jack suggested.

She smiled, “I’ll kick it in, cowboy.”

“You sure? I mean, you had to shoot off the lock to get in the other room.”

“Step aside. . but don’t try anything funny.”

Jack pressed his back against the railing.

Wyetta holstered her pistol.

She sprang forward, her heel smacking the door.

It shuddered but didn’t give.

She kicked it again. . and again.

The fourth kick did the trick.

And that was when Jack moved. He slammed against Wyetta’s shoulder while her leg was still in the air, and his shove coupled with her forward momentum tumbled her into the room.

Jack landed on top of Wyetta, his right hand scrambling for her bolstered gun. His fingers found the grip, and he started to pull it, and he noticed that the perfume she was wearing was really kind of nice-

And her elbow cracked against his cheek.

Jack toppled to the side, feeling like he’d been whacked with a sledgehammer.

But that was okay. Because he had the sheriff’s pistol in his hand.

But Jesus, he couldn’t make his hand work.

And Wyetta was up. Her boot slammed his wrist and the pistol flew across the room. Jack watched it go and then saw her boot coming back from the other direction.

Instinct made him move. He leaned back, and her left foot sailed past his nose, missing him by less than an inch, and his hand lashed out and grabbed her right leg and he jerked her off balance.

She crashed ass-first to the floor.

And now Jack was up.

But he had to get past Wyetta to get to the gun.

He made a jump for it.

Her foot lashed out.

Caught him in the crotch as he sailed over her head.

He slammed the floor hard. Tried to get up.

The ref was counting. Five. . Six. . Seven. .

He had to get up soon.

Eight. . Nine. .

Because Wyetta was up.

And she had the gun.

She smiled at him. “Cowboy,” she said, “you can kiss your ass good-”

Gunfire erupted from the doorway.

Blood spattered Jack, and he blinked.

When he opened his eyes, Wyetta was flat on her back.

It seemed that most of her head was splattered across the wall.

Including her long blond braid, which clung to the plaster like some gory trophy.

“You all right, champ?”

Jack turned. Kate Benteen stood in the doorway, a smoking pistol in her hand.

Her face was covered with blood.

Jack smiled.

Somehow, she’d never looked better.

TWO

Benteen didn’t let up for a second. First she bandaged Jack’s arm. Then she checked Sandy, even though Sandy insisted she’d been fine since Jack pulled that damn towel out of her mouth. After that, Kate attended to her own wounds.

Finally, she asked Sandy about some of the equipment in the junkyard. Jack wondered why she cared about that stuff, until she climbed into her truck and drove through the gap in the chain-link fence.

A few minutes later, the night was filled with the roar of heavy equipment. A few minutes after that, Kate returned.

On foot.

Sandy emerged from the motel office with a six-pack.

“Any problems?” Sandy asked, handing Kate a beer.

“No,” Kate said. “That truck is part of your scrap heap now.”

“I can’t believe you junked your truck,” Jack said, reaching for a beer.

“Had to get rid of the evidence,” Benteen said. “And it wasn’t my truck. I bought it at a bar near the Tucson airport. And I paid cash.”

“You were thinking ahead,” Jack said, rolling the cold beer bottle across his sore knuckles.

“And so was I.” Sandy handed Jack a credit card receipt form. “I knew that Komoko was with the mob, and I figured that he had something to do with laundered money or drugs, the way he came through town once a month. So when Wyetta came sniffing around with questions about Komoko, I got suspicious. And when Ms. Benteen showed up with questions of her own, I started to see visions of missing dollars or missing dope. So when you showed up asking the same questions-”

“You figured you’d take out a little insurance policy.” Jack smiled. “You took my credit card imprint, but you didn’t run it, figuring that if I ended up with the money I might be willing to part with a chunk of it to buy back that receipt.”

“Yeah,” Sandy said. “If I didn’t run your card, it’d be like you never checked in.”

“Pretty smart,” Jack said. “But this wasn’t my only stop in Pipeline Beach. I was arrested in this town. Someone’s going to remember that I had a run-in with the sheriff, and if they put that together with Wyetta’s death-”

“Get real, champ.” Kate laughed. “You were arrested over a stack of magazines. Doesn’t exactly seem like that’s sufficient motive for murder.”

“Anyway, as far as I’m concerned you were never here.” Sandy tore the credit card receipt in half and handed it to Jack. “You saved my life. I would have suffocated if you hadn’t taken that towel out of my mouth. A surfboard broke my nose off Maui back in ’66, and I haven’t taken a decent breath through it ever since.”

“I know just what you mean,” Jack said. “I’ve had my nose busted a time or two.”

“Well, you saved my life. I’m glad you showed up when you did.”

“Me too.”

They clinked their beer bottles and drank deeply.

“What about me?” Kate asked Sandy. “Was I here?”

“You were a little smarter-you paid cash.” Sandy handed Kate a registration card. “But you weren’t here, either.”

“Outstanding.”

“Yeah. . well, thanks for shotgunning that rapist bastard. That’s a load off my mind.”

“So what do we do now?” Jack asked. “I mean, we’ve got a few dead bodies lying around.”

“I’m only taking responsibility for two of ’em,” Kate said. “I shotgunned the hit man. And I shot the sheriff, but I didn’t shoot the deputy.”

“No,” Jack said, “you ran over her with your truck.”

“Hey. . she was already dead.”

“I’m not kidding,” Jack said. “This is serious.”

Kate sipped her beer. “I figure it this way: first, we put the hit man’s corpse up in room 23 along with Wyetta. We leave the Heckler in his hand, the Benelli near Wyetta. We put Ellis’s bootleg phones in the back of Wyetta’s Cherokee, and we park the Cherokee on top of the deputy, maybe leave the engine running and the door open-”

Jack nodded. “And the whole thing will look like a bootleg phone deal gone bad. But do you think anyone will buy it?”

“Not if we leave it at that. But if we leave an empty money bag in the hit man’s room and scatter a few hundred-dollar bills across the floor, it might look a little better. Hell, we can even toss a fistful of dollars into the wind, let ’em blow around the parking lot. It’ll look just like the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

“It might just work,” Jack said. “But what about Ellis and Priscilla?”

“Nothing to worry about there-Wyetta and Rorie killed Ellis, after all. No way anyone can tie us to that.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Jack said.

“What about me?” Sandy asked. “What was I doing while all this stuff was going on?”

“Hey-you heard a lot of shooting. You were afraid to come out of your house. And you saw the sheriff’s Cherokee parked outside, so you figured the cops already knew what was going on. That’s why you didn’t call them for, oh, maybe another fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“You really think they’ll buy it?” Jack asked.

“No sense worrying about that,” Kate said. “Either they will or they won’t.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“I think we’d better get the hell out of here, champ.” Kate gave Sandy a hug. “And I think when this whole thing blows over, maybe you better get out of here, too.”

Sandy smiled. “Maybe I can do that now. Something ended for me tonight. When that son of a bitch broke into my house … I don’t know, I guess it made me realize that I’m not going to live forever.”

“Closure’s a bitch, all right,” Kate said. “You and Dale, you find yourselves some greener pastures.'

“Oh, man,” Sandy said. “I forgot all about that damn dog.” She drained her beer. “Either of you seen him?”

Kate looked at Jack. Both said, “No.”

“Dale,” Sandy shouted, heading for the junkyard. “You coconut brain! You better not be dead!”

The sound that rose from the junkyard was only a dog’s bark. But somehow, it sounded more like an answer.

THREE

They drove to the ranch where Kate bought the Appaloosa. Freddy G’s money was in the back seat, next to Kate’s saddlebags.

Kate didn’t say a word. Neither did Jack.

He followed Kate to the barn and watched as she saddled the Appaloosa. “You don’t have to hang around,” Kate said. “That field dressing on your arm is just temporary, you know. You really should get yourself to a doctor who can do things right. The sooner, the better.”

“I’ll do that,” Jack promised. “I’ll call Freddy G. I’ll bet he knows a sawbones in Tucson who doesn’t report gunshot wounds.”

“All right,” Kate said, leading the horse out of the barn. “As long as I’ve got your word on that.”

“You sure you don’t want me to drive you up to Tucson while I’m at it? It seems kind of crazy, letting you take off like this.”

“It may seem crazy, but it’s the way I’ve got to do it.”

Jack followed her outside. She climbed into the saddle.

The corral fence was fifteen feet away. Jack remembered how easily Kate had jumped it the afternoon she bought the horse.

He was afraid she’d do that now.

He was afraid she’d leave without saying good-bye.

And he was afraid that she wouldn’t even look back.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted,” he said. “You’ll never know what happened to Vince.”

“Maybe it’s better that way.” She didn’t turn around; she didn’t look at Jack; she faced the desert. “Look at it-it’s really just a big patch of nothing, isn’t it? But I know Vince is out there somewhere. Maybe it doesn’t matter exactly where. I figure I’ll ride out, and I’ll say my good-byes until I don’t have any left in me, and that will have to be enough.”

“Then what? Where will you go?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll let the horse decide.”

She tugged the reins. The Appaloosa moved forward.

Jack watched her. Kate Benteen wasn’t going to turn around. She wasn’t going to look at him, no matter what he said. He was sure of that.

But he had to say something.

“First one who heals calls, all right?”

She laughed, shaking her head. Long dark hair brushed her back, shimmering in the moonlight, and she tugged the reins, and the horse pulled up.

She said, “I’ve got your number, champ.”

“That’s not a yes.”

“It’s not a no, either.”

Jack didn’t know what to say to that.

But Kate knew what to say.

“Hey, champ.”

“Yeah?”

She turned to face him, tears gleaming in her eyes. “Don’t let the sun catch you cryin’, all right?”

“Not a chance of that,” Jack said, and this time he was the one who turned away because he knew it was a lie.

“One more thing,” she said.

“Name it.”

“You stay close to that phone, okay?”

He turned, hoping to see a smile on Kate’s face, but she had already slapped leather and the Appaloosa jumped the fence, and then came the sound of horse’s hoofbeats and a rising cloud of dust, and Jack watched her go, the night wind wild in her hair, her face turned toward the moon and the long night ahead.

“I’ll be waiting,” he said.