Nine years had passed since a gang of laughing boys raped Lola Bell at the back of a weedy and trash strewn vacant lot. Pulling a train, they called it.
Now it was about to happen again.
Back then, 16 years old, five of them had grabbed her in the late afternoon as she cut through the lot on her way home from the dance lessons her grandmother had paid for. She knew three of them. Tall, brooding, hostile – Brothers of the Struggle, they thought of themselves, young Gangster Disciples. They’d lounge on the benches, their hoods pulled down low over their faces, drinking out of bottles covered in brown paper bags. They had hit on her before, made comments to her, appraised her as she left her building and walked to the bus stop.
“Hey shorty, where ya walkin’?”
“Honey, I’m liking that big black ass.”
“C’mere baby, wanna make some green?”
Stupid, always taking that shortcut through that back lot, never thinking of the danger. She remembered how the late sun was sharp and savage in her eyes as they held her down and took turns riding her. She remembered how the towering shadows of the Robert Taylor houses grew longer as the time passed. She remembered the sound of cars speeding by on the Dan Ryan freeway. She remembered the smell and taste of cheap wine on their breath. She remembered, after they left, lying there alone, the night coming on, rats starting to move in the bushes.
Now, twenty five years old, she stood in a tiny orange bikini and high heels, in a small, bare office five stories above Congress Street, Portland’s main drag. She cursed herself, her stupidity, that this could happen again. She had come here for a modeling “try-out.” But now the man stood just behind her, holding her, twisting her arm against her back until tears nearly came. His other hand held a chunk of her hair, not quite pulling it, but tensed, ready to pull, controlling her like that.
Mr. Blue Eyes, he called himself. He was tall and good looking with a muscular body. He was clean shaven and blond, and when she met him he was wearing a light blue Polo shirt by Ralph Lauren, and a pair of tan khaki slacks. His teeth, she had thought at the time – he didn’t have model’s teeth. That was what threw off his look. He had the snaggle teeth of a redneck.
“Hey Shaggy,” he called across to his partner. “You should see the tattoo she’s got on her shoulder blade here. Girls Kick Ass, it says, in a neat little curlicue. Well, ain’t that cute?” He leaned close to her ear. “You gonna kick my ass, honey?”
She could feel his erection against her back, pushing against the rubbery fabric of his Speedo shorts. They were standing on a plastic mat and behind them was a fake ocean scene. On either side of them were the bright lights and the black umbrella of a professional photographer. The lights were hot, and both she and Mr. Blue Eyes had a fine sheen of sweat on their skin. She thought of the tattoo, the optimism it had represented for her, the dawning of a new day.
All lost now. All gone.
Across the office from them, maybe ten feet away, Mr. Shaggy hunched behind a video camera on a tripod, viewing the action.
“Easy now,” he said. His words flowed like molasses, and his voice gave a taste of the Confederacy, as if he had come north as a 10-year old boy and never quite assimilated. “Let’s just do this real easy. You’re a beautiful girl, Lola. You got a future in this type of work, if you want one.”
Mr. Shaggy was everything Mr. Blue Eyes was not. A mountain man, husky, bordering on fat, with a bushy beard and long hair. He was a bear of a man in a black Harley Davidson t-shirt. He had been stretched behind the desk when Lola walked into the nearly empty outer office, his feet up on a side table. He had conducted the interview.
Lola had liked Mr. Shaggy. Despite his fearsome appearance, he had a disarming way about him, a gentle manner, one that had put her right at her ease. When she walked in, he had smiled, looked her up and down.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Young lady, I think you’re gonna do just fine.”
Mr. Shaggy and Mr. Blue Eyes. They were a perfect pair of con artists.
And Lola had walked right into their trap.
A week before, she had spotted a flyer tacked up on the public bulletin board in Monument Square. MODELS WANTED. Male and Female. Experience preferred, but not necessary. Fresh or exotic look, enthusiasm, most important.
Lola had done some modeling from time to time. A couple of years had passed since the last one, but she still kept her eyes open for opportunities. She didn’t imagine anything would come of it, but decided to give it a try. A little extra money would come in handy. And with her long curls and brown skin, she figured she could pass for exotic in any case. She pulled the flyer down and stuck it in her bag, glancing around as she did so. People sometimes got funny about it when you pulled down flyers.
That night, she called the number on the flyer. A brisk, businesslike woman’s voice on the machine said to leave a message. Lola did. Two days passed and no one called her back. On the fourth day, a man called her in the evening. He told her the modeling agency was conducting interviews in Portland the very next evening for a catalog shoot. Could she make it? Friday night. She sure could.
He scheduled it for seven o’clock, gave her the address, said they would buzz her into the building. He told her to bring a head shot and a performance resume, if she had these things. She said she did. He told her that would be great.
“No promises,” was the last thing he told her.
“None expected,” she said.
She tried not to get too excited after she hung up the phone. These things had ended in disappointment before. All the same, it might be something.
Now, her moist skin broke out in gooseflesh despite the heat from the lights.
“You cold, honey?” Mr. Shaggy said. “Need somebody to keep you warm?”
Her heart raced. Her breath came in rasps.
Mr. Shaggy looked up from the camera. “Mr. Blue Eyes, will you remove those bottoms for Lola, please? If she’s not gonna do it herself.”
Mr. Blue Eyes brought extra pressure to bear on her arm. He let go of her hair and his hand strayed to the panty of her orange bikini. It was made of tight, grippy latex. He needed two hands to pull it down, but if he released her arm, then she’d be free.
“Come on, Lola, help me out,” he whispered into her ear. His breath smelled like those curiously strong mints, the ones that came in the little tin and used the spaceman in their ads. He smelled like he had eaten a whole handful of them.
“I promise I’ll make this the best one you ever had.”
She had changed out of her street clothes and into this skimpy bathing suit when Mr. Shaggy suggested they take a few pictures, see what they had. She changed in a tiny bathroom. It looked like no one had used this office in months. When she came back out into the office, Mr. Blue Eyes was already packed into his ice blue Speedos. They barely contained him. He had thick neck muscles and a broad chest. His legs rippled with muscle and veins.
She had fanned herself with her hand, feigning a hot flash. “Oh my,” she had said. “I didn’t realize.”
“That’s what I like,” Mr. Shaggy had said. “A girl with a sense of humor. Okay kiddies, let’s shoot a little something, what do you say?”
Now he said, as he looked through the LCD screen that folded out from his camera, “Yessir, like to break me open a little piece of that. Mmmmm-mmmm. That’s what the doctor ordered.”
The things they said made it hard for her to think. The bright lights blinded her. She was in danger of freezing up. If she allowed her mind to lock, then they could do with her what they wanted. She had to get loose. Calm down, find the center, let everything go. Become soft rather than rigid.
She could scream. Yes, she could do that. What had she learned about screaming? Don’t scream for help. Nobody responded to cries for help. If anything, cries for help scared people away. No. People responded to a different word. One that made them look out for their own self-interest.
She took a deep breath, lungs gathering air for the effort. It had to be loud, it had to be piercing, it had to rip through the calm and the quiet of an after hours building, it had to rip through the walls out to Friday night drinkers and diners and moviegoers – people walking by five stories below on the street. It had to rip through the world.
Mr. Blue Eyes clamped a hand over her mouth.
He whispered in her ear. “If you scream, then we’re gonna have to hurt you.”
It was too late to scream. It was too late to do anything. She carried no weapon. The only weapon she had was herself. In a ridiculous orange bikini and high heeled shoes.
Empty hand, she thought. Empty hand.
“You know what?” Mr. Shaggy said. “Let’s have you folks head over to the examination table there. I’ll just let this camera run, and bring the second camera over there and join you both. That’ll make things easier on everybody, hmmm?”
Mr. Blues Eyes turned her to the right and shuffle-stepped her over to an empty desk sitting near the wall. The wall itself was lined with floor to ceiling mirrors, as if this place had once spent time as a dance studio. He bent her over the desk.
He pulled her head up by the hair. “I want you to watch.”
In the mirror, she saw him hovering behind her. His smile floated above his muscular torso. He still held her arm behind her back, but he had relaxed the pressure just a little. She felt him, erect now, monstrous, against her. Her eyes stared back at her. Was this what all that training was for? Was this what all the long hours of hard work had come to? To be easily manhandled by two jerks? By two rapists? No. The answer was no. All her hard work was so nothing like this would ever happen again.
Mr. Blue Eyes giggled. He had become almost, but not quite, gentle. He stroked her hair, his fingers ready to clench again at any false move.
Nearby, Mr. Shaggy fussed with the lighting, moving the big umbrella closer, a round light shining up into its maw.
“Please don’t do this,” Lola said.
“What’s that? What did you say?”
“That’s a good girl. That’s what I like to hear.”
What was she waiting for? She still had one free hand. Do it now.
In the mirror, she watched him.
He gyrated his hips against her, like a dance floor showoff. The sight of it might have been comical in some other circumstance. “You are gonna come your brains out tonight, darling. You are one sexy bitch. I can’t wait to put it to you, you know? I mean I just can’t wait. Fact is, I think I love you.”
Then Mr. Shaggy’s big body appeared in front of her, blocking her view. His meaty hands undid his belt buckle.
“You got a boyfriend, Lola?” he said.
He lifted her chin between two thick fingers. Strapped to his other hand, he had another small camcorder, its LCD screen folded out and facing her, displaying her own face back to her. Her eyes were wide and frightened and confused.
“Sure you do, pretty little girl like you. See how pretty you are? I bet you got yourself a nice boyfriend.”
Lola thought of her boyfriend, Smoke Dugan. Silly old Smoke, who had offered to come with her on this interview. He was afraid for her because scams like this were all over the place. He wanted to protect her. Smoke, always a gentleman, well into late middle age, who walked with a limp and carried a thick wooden cane everywhere – his shillelagh, he sometimes called it. Dapper Smoke, who had gray and white hair and wore Irish touring cap of wool tweed in cool weather. Smoke, with his big workman’s hands and his cats and his cigars and his long afternoon naps. Smoke wanted to protect her from animals like these.
“I’m a big girl,” she had told him. “I think I can handle it on my own.”
“That’s all right,” Mr. Shaggy said now. “We’re gonna give you right back to him when we’re done. Of course, that’s if you even want to go back.”
DO IT her mind shouted.
“All right if I put something in your mouth right now? Come on Lola. Open up and say AAAAH.”
“Okay,” she said quietly. She heard her voice shaking. Her chin had begun to tremble in his hand. Her whole body started to shake. She felt like she could vomit.
“What’s that?” Mr. Shaggy said. “Not sure I heard you correctly.”
“Okay. I’ll do whatever you want. Just tell him to stop twisting my arm. It hurts.”
The two men exchanged a glance above her head.
“Well, young man. You heard the lady.”
“Do I believe her?” Mr. Blue Eyes said.
Mr. Shaggy shrugged. “Come on, kid. We’re on camera here. It’s not a conversation we’re filming.” He undid the button of his green workpants and pulled down his zipper. “What’s it gonna be, Lola?”
She felt the first sting of tears and let them come.
“Whatever you want.”
“I believe her. Let’s get down to business.”
Mr. Blue Eyes released her arm. The numb arm flopped around in front of her like a fish and she planted her palm on the desk, next to her other hand. He released her hair. She was free, bent over the desk, her chin in Mr. Shaggy’s hand. Still, she did not move.
Mr. Blue Eyes stepped back and bent over, peeling down his Speedos.
She had signed a waiver.
That thought struck her now with strange force. Mr. Shaggy had handed the waiver to her right before she went into the bathroom to change her clothes. He had spoken with offhand nonchalance.
“Let’s get you to sign one of these releases. You never know. Might get something tonight we want to use.”
She signed without even reading it.
Oh, they were smooth. They had it down to a system. Get the stupid girl to take off her clothes and put on a bikini. Flatter her some, tell her you’ll pay her $100 an hour. Have her sign away her rights. Then rape her on camera.
Chances are good she never tells a soul.
If she does, you have it in black and white. Hey, maybe things got a little out of hand, but she agreed to it beforehand. It’s all right here on paper.
Bastards. They had done this before. Of course they had.
“It’s okay,” Mr. Shaggy said. “It’s gonna be good. No need to cry.”
His voice came to her as if she were at the bottom of a deep well. He removed his shirt. He positioned himself in front of her, his big hairy stomach even with her face. Sometime today, he had sprayed his belly with cologne.
If she was going to stop this happening, it had to be RIGHT NOW.
“She looks tasty,” Mr. Blue Eyes said somewhere behind her. His hands returned, roaming her body. He stood behind her, his erection poking between her thighs, rubbing against the fabric of her bikini bottom.
“Let’s spread these legs a little,” he said.
She leaned down close to the desk, like someone doing a push-up. She turned her head to the side, cheek against the hard surface. From the corner of her eye, she saw Mr. Blue Eyes, his attention consumed by what he was about to do.
“Uh, Lola?” Mr. Shaggy said. “We’re playing both ends against the middle in this game. I’m gonna need some help up here.”
She placed her forehead against the desk. Her body tightened like a coiled spring.
She thrust herself upward, legs planted, body pivoting at the waist. 90 degrees to a vertical 180 in one second flat.
The back of her skull smashed into Mr. Blues Eyes’s face.
There was pain, but also the pleasure of feeling him cave in like a wet, rotten pumpkin.
He grunted like a pig, and the impact reverberated like high voltage electricity down her neck to the base of her spine, and across her small shoulders. Her whole body thrummed with the recoil.
For a long instant, the world went black.
Then white light streaked across her vision and Mr. Shaggy stood across the desk from her, erection in one hand, camera in the other, eyes wide, mouth a great big O of surprise. She spun, bringing her right elbow up and around with the full force of her momentum. It connected, but not well, with the side of Mr. Blue Eyes’s head. He held his hands to his face. Blood flowed between his fingers.
She sidestepped away from him.
A moment passed, the three of them standing in a triangle, each person’s eyes darting between the other two endpoints.
Suddenly Mr. Shaggy whooped and laughed. “Damn. You let a little girl bloody you up like that? Shit. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Lola backed away, kicking off the high heels.
Mr. Blue Eyes stood nude, monster erection at half mast now. He rubbed blood away from his face.
“Nose broken?” Mr. Shaggy said.
“I don’t know. I think maybe not. It sure hurts though.”
Mr. Blue Eyes looked at Lola. Then he did an odd thing. He smiled.
“I knew I shouldn’t have let her go.”
“Look,” Lola said. “Let’s make a deal. You let me leave, I don’t call the cops.”
Mr. Shaggy smiled too. “Oh, that’s funny. You’re not going anywhere, Lola. We tried to do it the nice way. We like the nice way. Makes for better content. But we can do it the hard way, too.”
Mr. Blue Eyes grinned broadly, his face a swirled mask of blood. His teeth were jagged, like a row of shark’s teeth. His eyes showed a simplicity, nearly a brute stupidity. He was enjoying himself. He sauntered toward her.
“You know I used to be in the ring when I was a kid,” he said. “Had 15 fights. Never once did I get knocked out. Probably not gonna start now.”
Mr. Shaggy moved toward her from the left, buttoning his pants. He was a hairy son of a bitch. He even had hair on his shoulders. “You know,” he said, “it’s gonna be awfully hard to make it in modeling if you won’t do nudity.” He was still filming with the hand held.
She backed toward the tripod camera, watching them approach.
“This is the most exciting one yet. You know, we’ve had some get away, walk out before we ever got this far, but you’re the first one who ever went this far and still showed this kind of spunk. Mostly, they just go limp.”
“Seem to enjoy themselves, some of them,” Mr. Blue Eyes said.
And then Lola realized what was missing. She wasn’t angry. Up until this moment they had scared her. Everything had flowed their way, their trap working perfectly. And she had gotten scared. But now she saw them clearly for the first time. They did this over and over, tricking young women who wanted to feel glamorous, wanted to feel good about themselves, wanted to be like the people they saw on TV. Wasn’t that it? Yes it was, and in a sense she saw herself for the first time, too.
The exploitation, the degradation, the goddamn fucking lie of it all.
Somebody had to make them pay.
Well, if the past nine years hadn’t been for a moment like this, then it had been for no moment at all. The high white buzz of adrenaline surged through her veins. Still shaking, still crying. That was okay.
A whistling sound seemed to shriek near her ears.
Mr. Blue Eyes was almost upon her.
“Hey, take it easy now,” he said. “Let’s stop crying. Let’s cut out all this nonsense and be friends again, okay?”
Her chin quivered.
He opened his strong arms to embrace her.
“Careful,” Mr. Shaggy said.
“Oh, I’ll be careful. I’ll be gentle. We’re gonna make Lola feel right at home.”
Lola planted her feet and rammed her forehead into Mr. Blues Eyes’s face. He was just as dumb as a stump, wasn’t he? She drove it in hard, like she would hammer a nail into a log. The blow accelerated into the impact.
His nose felt sharp. This time she broke it. She heard a sound like a club pounding on a hollow gourd.
Mr. Blue Eyes made a choking sound. Maybe it was a scream.
He fell back.
She lunged forward. As she did, she delivered a punch to his throat with the edge of her right palm, the blade of it. The punch was part of the lunge, organic to it, instead of tacked on at the end. She had practiced just such a move thousands of times until it was seamless and flowed like water.
Mr. Blue Eyes gagged and sputtered, his hands to his face. Blood soiled his chin and neck. His eyes seemed to peer at her from over the top of a bright red wall. She leapt into the air and delivered a front kick to his naked, helpless groin. He dropped to his knees, then fell to the carpet like the broken toy of a careless child.
Mr. Shaggy was there, too late for his friend. He grabbed her from behind. She tried to use her head on him, but he sidestepped and her skull bounced harmlessly off the meat of his shoulder. He got both hands, strong hands, in her hair and spun her around. Roughly, he forced her to her knees before him.
He had put away the camera.
She stared up at him. He looked down at her. Their eyes locked.
She had two free hands, and he had none. With one hand, she reached up and grasped his testicles through his loose fitting chino workpants. She got a good grip on him, measured the heft of him. She held him as she would hold a piece of fruit for inspection.
He shook his head. “Don’t.”
She squeezed and gave a savage twist.
He let go of her hair.
She sprang to her feet, phantom hands still yanking her hair, the pain there still bright. Shaggy was slightly bent, holding his balls with both hands.
She took one step and side-kicked him in the face with the ball of her foot.
He staggered away, lost his footing and fell over.
She glanced around for something to do next. The camera on the tripod caught her eye. She walked over and inspected it. It was a Canon XL1, a digital. It was still filming. She fumbled with the camera for a moment, then ejected the disk, a Mini-DV cassette. She flipped it onto the desk next to the hand held camera. She ejected the Mini-DV from that one, too.
Then she picked up the tripod, camera and all. She held it by the tripod legs like a baseball bat. It was heavier than it looked.
“Don’t even think about breaking that,” Mr. Shaggy said from the floor.
Now she was having fun.
“You know? I kind of liked you, Shaggy. I mean, like an hour ago, when I first met you.” She swung hard and smashed the camera against the wall. A piece of its hard plastic casing flew across the office. The force of the blow punched a hole in the painted sheet rock of the wall.
“Aw fuck,” Mr. Shaggy said. “Honey, I paid $3,000 for that.”
She swung again, punching another dent. The LCD screen broke off and hung by a wire. “I guess you’ll need a new one.”
He climbed heavily to his feet. She watched him.
He paused, staring down at Mr. Blue Eyes, who writhed and squirmed on the floor, blood from his nose staining the carpet black. Mr. Shaggy sighed from deep in his chest. He released a long exhalation. “I think my friend is hurt.”
He turned to look at her.
She swung the tripod and the shattered camera connected with his face.
“So are you.”
Alone now, Lola surveyed the wreckage.
She crouched between the two men piled on the floor. She was naked but for a bright orange bikini. No matter. Mr. Blue Eyes had no clothes on at all and Mr. Shaggy’s belly hung out there like a giant hairy potato. She was still breathing hard, her hair was matted to her head and sweat dripped down her face. No matter. They were both bleeding like twin volcanoes.
All those years of practice, Women’s Self-Defense, Extreme Self-Defense, Karate, Grappling, several different styles, years of sparring, and she had never really known if any of it would work in real life.
Worked? It had damn well rocked.
“Are we done here?” she said.
Neither of the men said a word.
“I guess that means yes.”
She climbed out of her crouch and glanced around the office. Nothing much to see.
“Listen, I want to thank you guys. That was the best time I’ve had in years.”
Later, fully dressed and back out on the street, she walked several blocks before she started laughing. She came to a corner and threw the two Mini-DV cassettes in the gutter. She stepped on each of them, grinding them with her heel, then kicked them into the sewer. All the while, she giggled like a lunatic.
Two couples out for Friday night drinks passed her, glanced her way and kept going.
A moment later the tears began to flow and she could not stop weeping.
Smoke Dugan lay awake in absolute darkness, thinking about death.
Across the room, he heard the furtive rustlings as two of his cats wrestled. A glass of port wine from Portugal sat forgotten on the table at his elbow. She hadn’t called yet and that was not like her. Somewhere in his mind, he knew this, but the problem was he knew other things as well. He lay in his basement apartment, watching the visions imprinted on his brain.
The visions were memories.
For more than a year, he had been free of the things. Then last week, something had happened that brought them all rushing back. He had been walking in the Old Port, enjoying the bright fall day. In fact, just moments earlier he had been out on the Maine State Pier watching four harbor seals frolic in the bay. He had read his morning paper out there on a bench, watching also as the Peaks Island Ferry came in and out. Now he was walking back through the sparse crowds. He was thinking he wanted to have a bite to eat, and he was deciding about the many restaurants available to him along the waterfront.
A man was following him.
Damned if it wasn’t so. Smoke had first noticed him on the pier. He was a 40-something tourist in a gray fleece jacket, jeans and LL Bean boots. He wore a Brooklyn Dodgers replica baseball cap and dark sunglasses. Sure, Smoke had seen him there, registered him with his binoculars and his camera and his leather over-the-shoulder tourist duffel. He had registered him like he registered the Hispanic fishermen in their sleeveless t-shirts with their plastic bait-buckets, the floppy-haired teenagers with their skateboards, and the crusty old salts sitting on the benches, commenting and frowning about the state of the world. Smoke registered everything, scanned everything, and as long as everything stayed where it belonged and acted properly, everything was just fine.
But on the crowded sidewalk of Commercial Street, he felt rather than saw the tourist there behind him. That’s when the antennae began to twitch. Was he really there? What was he doing?
Smoke bumped into a young woman passing with her girlfriend.
“Oh my,” he said, turning to her. “Oh young lady, I am so sorry. Are you all right?”
He touched her shoulders and glanced to his left.
The man was there, following along, 20 feet back. He tinkered with something on his camera. Had he taken another photo just a few seconds ago? Smoke’s grip tightened on his cane.
The young woman smiled. She was a pretty girl, blonde. Her friend had a ring through her nose like a bull in a field. “I’m fine, really. It’s my fault. I should have been paying attention.”
“No, I insist. It was definitely my fault.”
“Well, no harm done.” Both ladies laughed.
The man found something fascinating in a storefront window.
The young lovelies moved on. So did Smoke. He walked along, heavy midday traffic flowing to his right. Abruptly, he turned and stepped into the flow. A car screeched to a halt. The driver leaned on the horn as Smoke waved his cane. He hurried across the street, glancing behind him at the driver who still hurled epithets. The tourist watched him go.
Now, Smoke peered into the dark. He reached and took a sip of his wine.
It didn’t prove anything.
Half the street had watched him. After all, he had made a suicidal plunge into heavy traffic. People must have thought he was a senile old man.
Maybe the man really was a tourist. Maybe he wasn’t. But Smoke couldn’t stay here – couldn’t stay anywhere – forever. That’s what he realized now. He had always known it, but this past year had been so good that he allowed himself to forget. The day would come when the man behind him wasn’t a tourist.
Perhaps the time had come to explain himself to Lola. Tell her the whole story. Ask her to run away with him. There was nothing keeping either of them here.
Would she come? Would she even believe him?
She wouldn’t. It was that simple. Lola grew up in bad circumstances, but she was a good girl. She wasn’t tough. She wasn’t cut out for the life Smoke had led. Few people were. Lola was comfortable with the idea that he was a kindly older man who had made a lot of money building toys for retarded children.
Even that. He laughed at the word. “Retarded.” She hated it when he used it.
“Why can’t you say special?” she said. “Or even developmentally disabled?”
He didn’t know why. He just couldn’t. He loved the children, God knew, but he hated the way people danced around what things were, describing them with words that didn’t explain anything. Hearing impaired for deaf. Vision impaired for blind.
Since the tourist, Smoke had started setting the traps again. And the traps had brought the dead children back to him. He saw the dark ocean water with flames riding on the surface, the bodies floating like dolls, the sharks gathering in the deep. The adults, okay that was bad. But the children… He saw their big vacant eyes most of all, the life gone from them.
“Shit,” he said and rolled over.
He was fully awake now, itching to call her. Every minute she didn’t call was another minute they had gotten her. He would call her, but that didn’t conform to the rules. The rules were she was a big girl, she had grown up in the Chicago housing projects long before she met him, and she could take care of herself. She would call when she got in.
“Some tough girl,” he said. “Can’t even say the word retarded.”
The phone rang, too loud in the close darkness.
“Smoke?” It was her.
He smiled. He put the sound of sleep in his voice.
“Yeah, babe. Thought you forgot.”
“Did I wake you?” she said.
“Not really. How’d the audition go?”
“It didn’t… it didn’t go well. I don’t think I’m going to get the job. I don’t think they liked me very much.”
“Well, that’s okay. You’ll get ‘em next time.”
“We having dinner tomorrow night?” he said. “You, me and Pamela?”
“We sure are.”
He thought he heard her voice shake just a little bit.
“Hey,” he said. “Is everything all right?”
“I’m just tired. It’s been a long day. I’m on my way to bed.”
“Well, I love you,” he said.
There was a pause. Sometimes he feared he said it too much, put too much pressure on her. Damn. She was half his age.
“You don’t have to say it,” he said.
“I love you too, silly.”
When they hung up, Smoke picked up his wine glass. Somewhere in the room, the cats still played.
Smoke saw the flames again. He saw the dead eyes of the children.
He pictured two massive hands, grasping in the dark. They were groping for him, trying to find him. Hands that would seize him and crush him.
Denny Cruz had murderer’s eyes.
That’s why the waiter never looked at him. It wasn’t the four-inch scar that came down the side of his face like a jagged stretch of highway – the scar that he left there against all the best advice of well-meaning people.
“Hey Cruz, you got the money, why don’t you get rid of that scar?” someone would say to him.
“Because I want to remember,” he would answer in a voice that rose just barely above a whisper. In Cruz’s experience, you didn’t need to talk loud to get people’s attention.
“Yeah, but one day a witness is gonna see that thing and you’re gonna go down.”
“I don’t leave witnesses.”
It wasn’t the scar. And it wasn’t his slim, razor sharp body. No. It was the eyes. Even now, after all these years, some mornings Cruz was startled to see those eyes looking back at him in the mirror. He had seen the same eyes in newspaper pictures from Rwanda. Men who had hacked thousands of innocent women and children apart with machetes, men who lived 40-deep in small, unlit cells, waiting to go on trial for genocide.
In newspaper photographs, these men had the eyes.
Cruz sat in the open-air restaurant just off the lush courtyard and in-ground pool of the elegant Hotel St. Therese in New Orleans. He had just finished his breakfast, and his appetite had been good. He had polished off a plate of Eggs Bayou Lafourche, two golden beignets piled with snowy sugar, a glass of juice, and two cups of real New Orleans French Roast with chicory. It would be nice to light up a cigarette right about now. Of course, it was verboten to smoke indoors. Smokers like himself had been hounded and persecuted by the good clean pink-lunged people of the world for going on ten years. Soon, the smokers would probably be packed off to camps in the countryside. For their own good, you see.
No matter. Cruz felt good – well laid, well rested, well fed.
Today was the day.
He took a pleasant moment to survey his surroundings. The courtyard was green with the dense tropical plants grown there to give the place ambience. A few people sprawled about in white chaise lounges near the pool, chatting and sunning themselves. The air was heavy, the sun was bright and hot, and the sounds of conversation were muted. No children ran around, laughing and shouting. This was a place for adults. The St. Therese was a stately old place that had been a whorehouse before the turn of the century. It sat at the edge of the French Quarter, on busy North Rampart Street, across from Louis Armstrong Park, but no sound came in from the street.
It was fitting, Cruz noted, that he was sitting in an old whorehouse, and right across from him at the table, enjoying her breakfast in the splendid late morning sunshine, was a high priced whore. She was Brazilian, this sexy girl, and had deep bronze skin and blonde hair. The combination turned Cruz on to no end. That and the red mini dress she wore that barely covered her succulent ass. He was going to have to take her back up to the room again before the morning was over, that much was clear.
He liked the girl, mostly. It was her looks that did it for him. He was trying to see past the other thing.
The other thing was her brain.
He had never met such a highly-educated whore in his life. It didn’t seem to flow, this being a whore and at the same time, knowing so much.
She spoke four languages. Portuguese, Spanish, English and French. English was her weakest language, beyond doubt. As a teenager, she told him, she had gone on study exchange programs to both Paris and Caracas, Venezuela. After studying in Paris, she had taken three months and bummed around Europe, traveling as far to the east as Istanbul.
Where did the whoring come in? That’s what he was wondering. What role did that play in this whole thing? She couldn’t be very much older than 20. What did she do? Come back from Europe and decide the best thing to do was become a whore?
She had studied art and architecture. They were practically one and the same, she told him. She expounded on the architectural style of the hotel they were in, all the while scarfing down her Eggs Benedict with Canadian bacon. She told him about the paintings hanging on the walls of his suite. One was a bad knock-off of Van Gogh’s style. One was a bad knock-off of Andrew Wyeth’s style.
“You know a lot,” he said, as the waiter poured him more coffee. The waiter did not look at him or make any gesture or sign. “Such a beautiful girl, and smart too.”
She smiled at him. “How you talk.”
Her smile lit up her beauty light a thousand-watt lamp. Cruz sighed at the majesty and mystery of the world. Things were never what they seemed. He glanced at his watch again. It would be just another minute.
“Will you excuse me just one moment?” he said. “I have to take a call.”
The girl shrugged. She would. She wouldn’t. She indicated as much.
Cruz glided to the bank of old fashioned phone booths at the back of the restaurant. Real phone booths, with real doors and real privacy. He slid into the middle one, the one with the sign on it that said “Out of Order.”
He perched on the wooden seat that folded out from the wall.
The phone rang and Cruz grabbed it.
A man’s voice came on. “We checked the paper today. Still nothing.”
It was a deep, gravelly voice. The voice didn’t introduce itself, but in his mind Cruz could see the man it belonged to right away. Crag-faced, like that cartoon hero from the Fantastic Four way back when – the one made of stone. Big Vito, a man who would never say his own name.
Cruz knew what he was talking about. They were monitoring the internet version of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. They had read it the past four days, waiting for word. His employers were not patient men, and sometimes that grated on him.
“It took me a couple of days to set it up. I had to check everything out first. But I’m happy to say it’s all ready to go. It’s gonna happen tonight.”
“Good. We need you back here as soon as possible. We got a little something for you to take care of up north.”
“North?” Cruz said.
“Yeah, like New England.”
“Great. You gonna fly me straight up there?”
“No. We need you back here first.”
“All right. It’s your dime.”
“So everything will be done by tonight?”
“Tonight,” Cruz agreed.
“Good enough.” There was a pause. “Listen, how’s the girl?”
Across the restaurant, Cruz could see her, still at the table. She was examining something along the hem of her skirt. It gave him a flash of panty.
“She’s great. Very smart.”
“Uh, okay. How’s the suite?”
“Couldn’t be better. Richly appointed furnishings. Views of the French Quarter. 24-hour concierge.”
“All right, then. We got a new service and I just wanted to make sure everything worked out.”
“It’s great,” Cruz said.
“Then get it done, will ya? We’ll see you soon.”
Cruz returned to the table. It was shaping up to be a hot and sticky day. The girl was finishing her fruit cocktail. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember her name. Did it matter?
“What do you say?” he said. “Let’s go to the room, eh? I got a busy day today and I want to fuck you some more before I send you home.”
She slurped a cherry down, then licked the glass cup with her tongue.
“Good,” she said. “More money for me.”
They went upstairs.
“That bitch,” Darren Pelletier said.
His voice had taken on a nasal pitch because of the cotton wadding stuffed up his nose. A white plaster splint made an A-shape across its bridge. Both his eyes were black, and the whole package together made him look somewhat like a raccoon.
“You know I’m gonna make her pay, right?”
Hal Morgan didn’t say a word. He just sat in the living room of his ramshackle three-bedroom house in Auburn, Maine, thirty miles north of Portland. He let his friend ramble on. Hal’s hair hung loose and he pushed it out of his eyes. Mr. Shaggy, he often called himself when the young ladies asked. He held his first beer of the morning, a can of Budweiser. It was ice cold and felt good in his hand. He sipped it quietly while reviewing his menu of options.
They didn’t look good.
He gazed out the front picture window. He lived just down the road from the Lost Valley ski resort. In fact, he could see the small mountain – little more than a hill really – from right here on the sofa. He watched that mountain now, the bald ski runs bathed in morning sunlight, reds and oranges of fall mixed in with the evergreens along the edges of the trails.
Soon, another six weeks at most, the hill would be covered in snow. From his living room, he could watch the skiers glide down. Then, before he knew it, the scene would change yet again. The seasons passed faster and faster as he grew older. He was almost forty years old now, and it seemed like on Monday he would glance up that hill in green and sunny summertime, and on Tuesday a howling wind would blow powdery snow from the top of it.
Closer to home, his neighborhood sprawled out in what he liked to think of as the mountain’s shadow. It was a quiet neighborhood of small saltbox and ranch-style houses, not quite suburban, not quite rural. The neighborhood itself looked like it was leaning toward suburban – what with the houses just ten or twenty yards apart. But the pickup trucks with the gun racks and the sagging condition of some of the homes said the people were leaning toward rural.
He sipped his beer and watched Darren.
Darren sat sprawled in an easy chair. His shirt was off, revealing his well-muscled upper body. His sandy blonde hair was slicked back. He was drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, sulking, touching the plaster the emergency room doctor had put across his nose, cursing to himself, and looking over his various bruises all at the same time.
Mr. Blue Eyes.
The moniker fit him perfectly. Nobody had eyes that were bluer than Mr. Blue Eyes. He had eyes of pale blue – like the sky, like a Caribbean lagoon. You could fall into his eyes, they were so blue. In fact, Hal knew that Darren wore contact lenses to give his eyes that color. There was nothing wrong with his eyes that needed correction – except their color: they were actually brown.
Darren had slept in the spare bedroom because he didn’t want to go home to his wife after the beating he took. Darren often slept in the spare bedroom. Sometimes he slept in there with the girls from photo shoots they did – a lot of the girls weren’t nearly as resistant as Lola to modeling with Darren. Sometimes he slept in there alone. Beating or no, Darren rarely wanted to go home to his wife.
“Gonna eat that bitch alive next time,” he said, almost to himself. He took a deep drag from his cigarette. “Yes sir, next time I surely am gonna do it to her.”
Hal smiled. “We’ll have to put a paper bag over your head, but okay.”
Darren’s handsome face winced as he gingerly rubbed a large purplish blot on the side of his thick neck. He smiled around the cigarette. “Man, she got me good right here.” The bruise looked like an octopus imbedded in his neck, trying to push its way out through the skin. It looked like somebody had hit him there with a baseball bat.
“Oh yeah, that’s the worst of it,” Hal said. “What’d she do there?”
“Kicked me as I was falling.” Darren took a big slurp of his beer. “Or maybe it was after I was down.” The two men glanced at each other for a moment, and burst out laughing. It was funny, if you looked at it the right way. Last night had been the worst screw-up they had experienced in their new careers. A couple of girls had almost escaped, at times, and one had even pulled a gun, which they talked her into dropping. But none so far had busted out with this Bruce Lee shit. That was the one thing they hadn’t expected.
Hal took a sip of his Budweiser as the laughter subsided. “Kid, we got our asses kicked by a little girl.”
“We sure did, partner.”
They lapsed into silence, and Hal looked around the room.
He had inherited this house from his mother years before, and there was no doubt he had let the place go to hell. It was in need of a woman’s touch, maybe. The furniture was old, the window blinds were moving toward ratty, the rugs were threadbare, and bordered scuffed wooden floors that had long since needed resurfacing. The kitchen cabinets were old – they had probably been put in during the 1940’s. Ditto the stove, although it still worked well. The refrigerator was only two years old, but that was because the last one had broken. Outside, the lawn did whatever the hell if wanted. Right now, in mid-October, it was long and going toward brown, slowly dying. Bits of paper and other assorted flying garbage had embedded itself here and there on the grass. Beneath the grass, especially near the rickety front porch, were empty beer cans that Hal and Darren had chucked while sitting on the porch and bullshitting.
If the house looked bad, Hal could take comfort in the fact that it looked no worse than any of the other houses in the area. A lot of people in that neighborhood were struggling. Hal could also take some comfort in the fact that he was not struggling. In fact, with the free house and the little bit of money he had squirreled away over the years, and the new business he and Darren had been working these past eleven months, Hal felt like he was doing just fine, thank you.
Right out of high school, Hal had gone in the military. For four years, he had seen his chunk of the world. He went to Louisiana, to the Philippines, to South Korea, to Germany. On leave he checked out Southeast Asia and lots of Europe. What did he learn from all that traveling? Apart from the eye-opening food choices, he learned there are whores wherever you go. Some are a little more expensive than others, but in general, they’re all pretty cheap if you get the right ones. Sometimes it’s out of the goodness of your heart that you pay them all – he learned that one, too.
But these photo-shoot girls were the best.
Hal had a guy down in Florida who could sell anything Hal could shoot. In fact, the guy wanted more all the time. Especially these modeling agency interview shoots. People went nuts for it, and the girls lined right up to participate. Hal put up these ads, these flyers, looking for women and men. When men called, he ignored them. He didn’t want men. He wanted girls.
Saying he wanted men made the girls think he really was planning on a calendar shoot, or a catalog shoot. When they found out otherwise, they didn’t usually complain. Instead, they went limp. They obeyed. It was like, “You want me to take my clothes off? Uh, okay. You want me to put that in my mouth? Uh, okay.” Girls were passive. It was in their nature.
Hell, maybe they even liked it.
After each shoot, he’d send them out with a “We’ll call you if we need you,” or “We’ll send you a check.” He hadn’t sent anyone a check yet, and nobody had complained. What were they going to say? Some of the girls really did seem to enjoy themselves. He figured the rest of them just tried to put it out of their minds.
In case of any future trouble, Hal took precautions. He moved the office around all the time, taking short leases. He had changed the name of the business three times so far. When he transferred the video from the Mini-DV tape to the computer, he always edited his own and Darren’s faces out of the movie.
Then he would upload it to a secure web site the guy in Florida kept for submissions. Like magic, the guy would send back money. It was fun, and they were starting to make a very decent living. But this whole episode with Lola, it could jeopardize everything.
“I don’t know if you’re just talking trash or not,” Hal said. “But we do have to go back down there and talk to Ms. Lola.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“She took the digital tapes, kid. We’re on there. A brawl like that, you can hardly say she was begging for it, then changed her mind later. She decides to go to the cops, how much more evidence are they gonna need? We need to get those tapes back.”
Darren shrugged. He blew a smoke ring. “I got no problem with seeing her again. I’ll look forward to it. You know how to find her?”
“Well, she filled out that release with her address. I still have it.”
Now Darren smiled. His lumpy raccoon eyes glittered. He flexed his chest and his shoulder muscles. “Like I said, I’m gonna put a hurtin’ on that girl. I’m gonna split her wide open. And you know what? She’s gonna like it.”
They’re coming to get you.
The thought came to Smoke Dugan unbidden. It interrupted every quiet moment, ruining even the best of times. The more he tried to ignore it, the more he sent it back to where it came from, the more forcefully it resurfaced the next time. It was paranoid. It was stupid. But there it was – some part of him was convinced that they had found him.
He sat in his favorite outdoor chair, trying and failing to enjoy the early afternoon sun and the slight autumn chill in the air. The chair was a metal patio chair set before an ornate iron table in his backyard. The chair had three brothers, although rarely did anyone join him at that table.
Normally, he would have no problem enjoying the day.
The setting was perfect. It was fall and all around the neighborhood, the trees were turning. He wore a pair of baggy workpants and a bright blue Carraig Don wool sweater. He had just clipped, and now held in his gnarled hands a small Romeo y Julieta cigar. It came from the Dominican Republic, not Havana. In his present circumstances, Havana cigars were not easy to come by. That was all right. In the meantime, these Dominicans did a good job. He held the stogie to his nose and inhaled. It smelled sweet.
He had a bottle of Concha y Toro in front of him, a heart-healthy and tasty Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. Here in Maine, the vagaries – some might call it the corruption – of the wine industry meant he couldn’t get the New York Long Island wines he had once favored. So now he experimented with the stuff from abroad, and much of it was to his liking. He had a bit of the red wine in his sparkling glass, which itself was imported Waterford crystal. Lola always cringed when she saw him using the crystal – how could he drink his everyday wine from such an expensive glass?
“Quality,” he would say, “makes it taste better.”
Nearby, Lorena Hidalgo was working in her garden. The whole backyard, except for the stone patio where Smoke now sat, the small grave plot with the tiny headstone that said, “Butch – One Smart Dog,” and the work shed in the very back, was Lorena’s garden. It was some fantastic garden. Smoke sometimes sat back there and marveled at it. It had tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, hot peppers and herbs. It had all the easy stuff. It also had carrots and cabbage and sure enough, she was growing a few pumpkins as well.
“Hey Lorena,” Smoke said. “Do me a favor and don’t go in the shed, okay? I’m working on something in there.”
Lorena looked up and made a face. “You know I never go in there. That is your place.” She went back to her gardening.
Lorena was a miracle and a menace rolled into one. She was an older lady from Guatemala. They had met a few months after Smoke had moved into the basement apartment of this house. He was sitting in the backyard at this same table, which had come with the apartment, skimming through a text on generating wind power. The backyard was a mess, and although he had toyed with the idea of clearing it, he hadn’t made any move yet. At first, he hadn’t trusted his new surroundings and was ready to leave at a moment’s notice. But after a while – for instance, after he buried that smart dog Butch – Smoke began to settle in. By the time Lorena called to him over the fence, he had decided to forget about the backyard and focus on making himself a little workshop in the old disused shed way at the back of the yard.
He closed his eyes and imagined the yard the day she had first shown up, in late March some three and a half years before. It was overgrown in places by high grasses and thick brush. In other places it was shallow mud from melting snow. Snow that hadn’t melted sat in clumps here and there. A ripped plastic bag from Shaw’s supermarket hung like a flag at the top of a bramble. Three cases of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon bottles crouched by the door – reminders of the previous tenant. A rusty shovel and hoe leaned against the fence – the very tools Smoke had used to lay ol’ Butch to rest.
It was cool that day, but Smoke was in his shirtsleeves.
“Excuse me, mister sir!” someone called.
Smoke had a cigar that day as well, and he seemed to remember it was a dollar cigar he had bought at a highway rest stop. A man running for his life wasn’t always picky about cigars. His new name was James Dugan, and although he himself had created the name years before, he wasn’t comfortable with the first name. It seemed too bland to him. James. Everybody was named James.
He looked up from his reading and across the fence at the woman who was about to change his name for him. She was a small woman, round, impossible to tell her age, with gray and black hair and Mayan or mestizo features that seemed to have traveled time to arrive at his fence. Indeed, she wore a kerchief on her head and from the neck up could just as easily lived in 1399 as 1999. But that’s where the illusion ended. She also wore a big bubbly winter parka. It was bright red and had the words TRIPLE GOOSE DOWN stenciled in white on one of the sleeves.
“Accuse me, mister smoke,” she said, and outside of signing bank statements or paying bills, the name James went out the window.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Mister smoke?”
She smiled. She was just tall enough to clear the fence. “Mister smoke, yes. Can I help you?”
“Can you help me?”
“Yes. Of course I can.”
Talk about turning the tables. The woman’s smile was infectious. “How can you do that? Help me, I mean?”
“I can clean your house for you.”
He frowned. “Oh, that’s okay. I don’t need any house cleaning, thanks. I just moved in, and I don’t have very many things. In any case, I only have the basement.”
She went away, but the next day she was back.
“Yes,” Smoke Dugan said. “I am Mister Smoke.”
“I am thinking last night. It is a terrible shame about this garden. It is such a wonderful place.”
Smoke looked around at the murky jungle that surrounded him.
“I can help you with that,” the lady went on. “I propose a deal.”
“Oh, I’m not thinking about doing any gardening.”
“That is the beauty of it. You don’t do any gardening. You don’t pay me. I do the gardening. I pay you rent in the food I grow.”
“Well…” he said.
“You will eat only the freshest foods. No bad chemicals on them. I only grow them natural. Please? I have such a small garden at my home. This will be much better. It will be the wonder of the whole town.”
And so it began. Against his better judgement, Smoke had keys made for Lorena. He had to have keys made because there was no entrance to the yard. The only ways to get in were either by climbing the fence (quite out of the question for a woman “of a certain age” who just about cleared five feet tall), or by coming through the basement apartment. Lorena came there early in the mornings, tip-toeing through the efficiency apartment, past a sleeping Smoke Dugan. In the afternoon she came back, stopping for some small talk with Smoke if he sat at the back table, or leaving him alone if he was in his work shed. Smoke would sit at his table, absorbed in the problem of this or that, and gradually his awareness would begin to include sounds. The sound of clippers cutting, or the grunts of an old woman as she pulled weeds, or the squeak of the ancient wheelbarrow she had arrived with one afternoon.
And the place took shape. She cleared half the big yard that first year, the half that ran the length of the concrete wall. There was cabbage that year, tomatoes and green beans. The cucumbers were a disappointment, and the peppers were so hot that Smoke couldn’t put them on anything. But all in all, he had to agree with Lorena that the backyard was better for the garden.
Now the garden was an oasis. She had put in flagstones to mark the path to his patio, and then on to his workshop. There were giant sunflowers. There were all manner of vegetables and herbs. There were flowers. She kept the mosquitoes under control through a variety of natural means, and in any event, mosquitoes tended to stay away from Smoke’s cigars. All summer long he would get some vegetables here and there when their time came. But every year at harvest time, she presented him with a bounty of food, her part of the bargain for his allowing this garden to happen.
“Smoke,” she said now, placing three giant cucumbers and a pile of green beans in front of him, next to a paper sack filled with ripening tomatoes. “It is a beautiful, beautiful day, no?”
“It sure is,” he said.
“On a day like this, I feel like there is nothing in the whole world to worry about.”
He grunted at this, hoping his grunt sounded like agreement.
“Hmmmm?” Lorena Hidalgo said. “You say something, Smoke?”
“It’s a great day,” he said.
Open on the table was a large book of the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci – anatomical studies, studies on the nature of water, drawings of the Deluge, and of various machines and other half-completed projects. Smoke loved Leo, less for his art than for his mind and for how he had pushed the envelope of human knowledge. Leo and his zany, high-speed dissections of the fresh corpses of criminals – there was no way to preserve the dead in the 1500s – had bridged the gap between the medieval understanding of the human body and the modern. Smoke could picture Leo, up to his elbows in wet gore, carefully describing and illustrating the relationships between the organs, the skeleton, the nerves and the muscle systems. But anatomy was just part of it – the sheer range of topics that came under his investigation was amazing: zoology, botany, geology, optics, aerodynamics and hydrodynamics among others. Long before these things came into being, Leo had imagined and drawn the bicycle, the automobile, the submarine, and the helicopter.
Today Smoke had hoped to study the plans for Leo’s proposed bridge across the Gulf of Istanbul, connecting the Golden Horn and the Bosporous. The bridge plan was squelched by the engineers of the time, who cringed when they found out how big it was supposed to be. Somewhere, Leo had gotten the last laugh, however, because modern engineers determined that the bridge would have been completely sound, even with the materials and methods of the 1500s.
But Smoke couldn’t focus on Leo. Instead, he kept thinking about simple booby traps. Ones you could make easily and that were practically guaranteed to seriously maim, or even kill. Wasn’t that funny? There was a long road between Smoke Dugan and Leonardo da Vinci.
The particular death trap Smoke was fixated on at this moment was a light-bulb trap. He had made one earlier in the day. So simple, a child could do it. He had taken a medical syringe and filled it with gasoline. Then he had injected the gasoline into the top of a 100-watt incandescent bulb. It had taken some doing to poke a hole through the top of the bulb, but once he had, it was nothing to inject the gasoline. In fact he injected several syringes full.
Then he had screwed the bulb into the overhead light fixture of the small corrugated shed that crouched in the back of his yard. The shed served as his workshop. Voila! The bulb hung naked, and was turned off and on by a small chain that hung down beside it. If someone were to pull that chain, the bulb would come on and the filament would ignite the gasoline. Instantly. The bulb would shatter, spraying liquid fire all over anyone standing below. Breathing the flames would roast a person’s cilia, the tiny hairs in the esophagus that protect lungs from harmful pollutants. Should be enough to kill anybody.
Maybe the person would even catch fire.
Now that would be something.
Smoke didn’t like heights.
That’s how he thought of it: he didn’t like heights. He didn’t consider that he was afraid of heights. He rarely talked about it, and when he did, he didn’t describe the breathlessness, the shaking, the heart palpitations and the fear – nay, terror – of dying that seemed to come over him when confronted with a high place. Even in the reaches of his own mind, he seldom admitted the sense of things spinning out of control that heights brought on, or the waves of unreality that seemed to wash over him.
He didn’t like heights, that was all. He didn’t like them a lot.
On the drive over to Lola’s apartment, Smoke got caught on the Casco Bay Bridge. He watched with dismay as the red lights began to flash, the safety arms – so like the safety arms at railroad crossings – came down, and the traffic ahead of his little Toyota Tercel slowed to a stop. The span that crossed the high end of Portland harbor, where it met the Fore River, was a drawbridge. He put the car in park and sullenly stared ahead as the giant steel grates of the bridge began to inch toward the sky.
He was ten cars back from the front of the line. He was way up there, six and a half stories above the high water mark. And it seemed like more than that.
Smoke knew how high he was because he had studied the schematics in the public library. He crossed the bridge damn near every day – he figured he ought to know something about it. It was a new bridge, opened only in late 1997, and had won awards for design and for aesthetics. It had replaced the old, deteriorating and outmoded Million Dollar Bridge that had stood there before it. It was a vast improvement over the old bridge, which had cleared the water line by a scant two and a half stories.
Portland was a busy oil port, one of the busiest on the East Coast. It was also low to the water. To make any bridge tall enough for the tankers would have meant an impossible angle shooting straight up in the air and straight back down again. So they made these goddamn drawbridges instead.
Which was fine with Smoke except when he got stuck with the bridge up. Driving across the bridge itself, he was okay with that. Although it was nearly a mile long, all that meant was about a minute, maybe two minutes on the span. And most of the bridge wasn’t all that high. There were maybe two hundred yards at the very top of the bridge that were a good six or seven stories above the harbor. Even this section was okay if Smoke kept his eyes on the road or on the car in front of him, and thought of other things, and drove smoothly along until he reached the stoplight at the far end of the span. He made it across the bridge many times in just this manner.
But today he got caught at the draw, and to make matters worse, he got caught at the very top. As he sat behind the wheel he felt beads of sweat breaking out on his back. Then they broke out on his brow, and his hands began to tremble oh so slightly.
Look at you, you’re ridiculous, he thought, a grown man acting like this. And not just any grown man, he realized. A criminal. A bank robber.
He was a man who had sunk his own boat – his Boston Whaler – in a terrible storm off the eastern end of Long Island, and lived, not to tell about it, but lived nonetheless. He had been through real dangers and had escaped death. Yet this simple act of sitting on a bridge put him in his place. Just ahead, the steel cage towered high above him, still rising. It filled his windshield.
So don’t look out at the water, he told himself. Which was silly, of course. It was like telling somebody not to think of the color red. Then of course all they can think about is the color red. Red barns and red apples and red fire trucks and red stop signs and bright red cherries. Don’t look out at that view – the one some people raved about, how it took in the vast blue sky, and the sweep of the city’s skyline along the harbor, green islands and white sailboats in the distance.
He was high above the water. Way down below, he saw the tanker pulling through the bridge and into port. The deck of the tanker was about to pass through the opening. If Smoke were to somehow fall from that height, he imagined, he would smash like a tomato against the solid decking of that tanker. It would be a sickening five second fall, followed by a wet thud as the liquid insides of his body splashed in different directions much to the chagrin of a few startled Chinese sailors.
They’d probably laugh about it later.
Remember the suicide, he thought. Remember the suicide. Three years before, just after Smoke had settled here, a distraught mother of five had walked out onto the bridge. She had been put off welfare some time before, and had ground out a slow struggle on a work program. But she hadn’t cut the mustard. Work just wasn’t for her, not at the age of thirty, not after twelve years, her entire adult life, on the dole. Her electricity had been cut off, so she and her children were now sitting in the dark with no money, no prospects and most of all, no lights.
She walked out on that bridge, and without so much as a scream or a speech or a final telephone call, she climbed the very low fence at the top. It was little more than waist high. Smoke had noticed it several times. To his mind, it was so low a person could practically fall over it, never mind climb over.
As traffic screeched to a halt all around her and people came running to stop her, she leapt to what she thought was a certain death. A crowd of people gasped as she fell away and seconds later, hit the water far below.
Without so much as a broken bone, or even a sprained ankle.
In fact, a young carpenter on his way to work acted without thinking, and jumped off the bridge in a desperate bid to save her life. And lived. Without a scratch. When the Coast Guard fished the two of them out of the water, the young man told the waiting reporters that the jump was the most fun he had ever had.
None of which made sitting there any easier on Smoke. He knew it intellectually. A person could live after falling from that bridge. But his body knew different. A fall from that bridge and he would be fish bait. And curiously, he felt drawn, compelled even, to the edge of it. The worst of his dislike of heights was the madness that gripped him – it made him want to jump.
Smoke’s grip had tightened around the wheel and he heard his breath coming in shallow gasps. He was mouth-breathing, never a good sign. He tried to loosen up and relax, but gripped the wheel harder than ever. A bead of sweat rolled down to the end of his nose. It wasn’t even hot out. His heart skipped a beat. His stomach lurched and did a lazy barrel roll.
He saw himself hit the deck of that tanker again.
“Shit,” he said through clenched teeth. “Shit on this.”
It had happened more than forty years earlier, back in Hell’s Kitchen.
He could see those days like they were yesterday. The five-story walk-ups they all lived in – tenements, the newspapers used to call them. All along Ninth Avenue, clothes were hung out to dry on the fire escapes. There was a constant buzz of sound, day or night, punctuated by the odd shouts or screams. The Irish, the Italians, all poor, all cramped together, and now the Puerto Ricans coming in. Smoke couldn’t remember a time when there weren’t Puerto Ricans, but his mother – all the grown-ups – talked like the spicks had never existed just a few years before.
Smoke was still Wally O’Malley then, and he was already running with the wrong crowd. In Hell’s Kitchen there was no other crowd.
Born with a bum leg, there was a lot little O’Malley couldn’t do. He couldn’t play stickball. He couldn’t fight – in a fist fight, his leg would give out from under him.
But there was one thing he could do…
It was a hot spring day. The boys stood out on the corner of 53^rd and Ninth, laughing and joking. O’Malley was with them. They leaned against the lamppost or the wall, cigarettes hanging from twelve year-old mouths, wearing stove pipe jeans, sports shirts with collars turned up. The teacher would wring your neck for a turned up collar in school, but there were no teachers on the street. They patted down their slicked back hair, every strand in place. Very carefully, very precisely cool. Squinting and watching the cars cruise the Avenue. Talking, talking, talking that good bullshit.
“You seen the tits on Maggie Lefferts?”
“Maggie Lefferts? Shit.”
“You seen the ass on that spick girl in class? Jesus. Now that’s a nice ass. What’s her name?”
“Yeah, but whaddya gonna do? Fuck a spick girl? You know what I’m saying? Who gives a shit what it looks like if you can’t get at it?”
Artie Mulligan came walking up the block. O’Malley could see from half a block away that something was wrong. He was walking…wrong. Then he saw the blood streaming down Artie’s face. Artie Mulligan – twelve years old and already tougher than leather, a born leader of men, shot dead in a tangle with FBI agents eleven years later – Artie had gotten a beat down.
He stood among them now, his eyes on fire.
He leaned on a car and lit a smoke. His hands were shaking. His whole body was shaking. O’Malley noticed, not for the first time, how skinny Artie was, how small. Size didn’t mean shit.
“Who did it, Artie?”
“Ace McCoy, Phil Evans, some of those.”
The boys looked at him and nobody said a thing. Ace McCoy was 16 years old. His whole crew were fifteen, sixteen, just about to cross the threshold into manhood. In a year or two they would go to work on the docks, or join the Army, or get on board as street muscle in man-sized rackets – in a few years they’d be doing man-sized prison terms. If they weren’t men yet, they were about to be.
Artie stared right at O’Malley. Wally O’Malley was high up in Artie’s brain trust. More than that – O’Malley was Artie’s brain trust.
“What can we do?”
O’Malley shrugged. Then he smiled. “I have an idea.”
The older boys had a clubhouse they kept in a vacant lot between two buildings. The clubhouse was made of wooden pallets stolen from the docks on the river. The pallets were tied together with rope. The roof was a slab of sheet metal placed on top of the pallets, and the furniture was discarded rubber tires. The clubhouse slumped in the back of that vacant lot, hidden by the weeds, but all the neighborhood kids knew it was there. They also knew not to mess with it, or go there at all.
“I need gasoline,” O’Malley said. “And motor oil.”
A pint of gas, a pint of motor oil, that was all. The boys could siphon. The boys could steal. They had it in an hour. Then they gathered some rags together and two empty Coke bottles. O’Malley showed them how to make firebombs, two to be exact, with the gas and oil mixed together, the gas-soaked rags stuffed into the bottles, a long piece of rag blocking the neck and poking out as the wick for each bomb.
“Why the oil?” Artie said.
O’Malley smiled. “It makes the gas sticky.”
He wasn’t there when they bombed the clubhouse. He couldn’t run away if it came to that, so he waited at home for the news. He sat on the Murphy bed in the tiny railroad apartment, watching a cockroach move along the wall. From where he sat the pungent odor of burning tires came through the open window and reached his nose.
“Yeah,” he said. “We showed ‘em.”
Artie Mulligan would be pleased.
A few days later, O’Malley was on the roof of the building. Up here, there was light and space. Up here, he could escape from the dark and cramped apartment, from the narrow hallways and stairs, from the crush of people on the street. The roof was his sanctuary. He moved across the gravel and gazed out at the endless vista of clotheslines and TV antennas. Three buildings away, a one minute walk stepping over air shafts, old Mr. Principato stood waving a white flag on a long pole, putting a flock of pigeons through their paces.
O’Malley sat along the low wall and gazed down at 49^th Street, five stories below. The street was a hive of activity, the people moving to and fro, and he watched it all as if he were stationed on some far away planet.
A shadow moved behind him.
He turned and four teenaged boys stood there. They were slim and tall and well-muscled in their tight white T-shirts. True to form, one of the boys had a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve, showing off one bulging and tattooed bicep. Greaseballs. They loomed over him like dinosaurs above a scrap of hamburger. He became aware of how small he was – and not small like Artie. Small small. Small in his mind. Small in his presence. Small in his very being somehow. He became conscious most of all of his right leg and of how useless it was.
He knew a few of their names. Ace McCoy was right out in front with the cigarettes and the tattoo. O’Malley had seen Ace and his crew around, and what was bad about the situation was they had evidently seen him as well.
“Hey there, Gimp,” Ace said.
“Hi,” O’Malley said.
“Hi, that’s rich,” Ace said. He put a big fake smile on and waved like an idiot. “Hi!”
The other three laughed – a merciless sort of laugh. A tall blonde one said, “You know why we’re here, right?”
O’Malley tried to give them nothing, but already he could feel his body shaking. Already he could feel his heart pumping in his chest. “N-no.”
“Nuh-nuh-no. I knew you were a gimp. I didn’t know you were also a stutter.”
All of them laughed now.
Ace squatted down to Smoke’s level where he sat on the wall. “Our clubhouse got burned up the other day, Mr. Gimp. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you? You wouldn’t know any smart guys who like to make firebombs, right?”
Smoke shook his head, moved to say something, if only he could get his lips unstuck one from the other.
“Now wait a minute, before you say anything you need to know something about us. What you need to know is we like stand-up guys who tell the truth. Guys who lie, we don’t like them. Bad things happen to guys who lie.”
O’Malley found his voice. “I don’t know anything about it.” Once it was out there, he found he had surprised himself with the statement. It came out strong and firm, like he meant it. “The bombs, I mean. I don’t know anything about that at all.”
“You don’t, huh?”
“Then how did you know there was more than one bomb?”
“You just said it yourself. You said it was bombs.”
“Did I say that boys?”
“I didn’t hear you say bombs, Ace. I heard you say bomb.”
“No, you didn’t,” O’Malley said. “You said bombs.”
Ace stood up. “Okay, if that’s what you say, I guess we gotta deal with that. You say I said bombs. You say you don’t know about it.”
“That’s exactly right.”
Ace took a long drag on his cigarette, regarded the short butt remaining, then flicked it into O’Malley’s face.
Three of them grabbed him. He tried to kick and punch them, but they were too strong. Within a couple of seconds, they had him under control.
Ace gestured at the open air on the other side of the wall, the five-story drop to the pavement below.
“Liars take the dive. Okay boys, let’s see what he says to that.”
O’Malley fought them, but it did no good. They lifted him into the air and turned him upside down. Then they held him out over the edge by the legs. O’Malley’s arms dangled down helplessly. His hair dangled down. His shirt came un-tucked and fell down almost to his nipples. He felt the pressure of the blood rushing to his head. He saw the activity down below, all of it oblivious to his plight up here.
It went on for a long time. They were saying things to him now, and he could hear their voices, but the sounds had melted together into a slow-motion, unintelligible mush. All there was out there was that upside-down view of the street, so far away. He felt their hands slipping on his legs. They grabbed him harder and higher, the split second as they abandoned their old grip for a new one stretching out sickeningly. They laughed because they had almost dropped him. The world spun.
He felt his bladder go.
The piss went with gravity as all things will do. Instead of running down his legs, it soaked through the fabric of his pants, it cascaded between his belt and his waist, and streamed down his torso and chest. Droplets made the journey past his shirt and rolled down his neck to his chin. His tasted urine on his lips. And still more came. He had never pissed so much in his life.
“Look! He’s pissing on his own face!”
He heard that much clearly.
He didn’t care that he was pissing on his own face. He didn’t care if he ended up shitting on his own face, if that was even possible. What he cared about was these kids were going to drop him, either because they would lose their grip on him, or because they were sadistic bastards and they didn’t care if they killed him. They were going to drop him and he was going to take an incredible dive to the pavement, one that would seem long but would be too short. One that would end with him splattered on concrete like an overripe gourd.
“I didn’t do it!” he screamed. “I didn’t do it!”
The car behind him honked its horn, really leaning on it. Smoke looked up and noticed for the first time that the drawbridge was down and he was free to go. He’d been free to go for a while, by the looks of things. Traffic was streaming by him on the left. To the right, that drop to the water still beckoned. The driver behind him honked again.
Glad as ever to be getting down from there, Smoke put the car in gear and cruised toward the end of the bridge.
“Are you going to tell him?” said Pamela Gray.
Pamela was Lola’s roommate of two years – and in many ways Lola’s opposite. She was pretty in an understated way, and dressed conservatively compared to Lola’s sometimes sexy, sometimes outrageous sense of style. She had grown up in a quiet New Hampshire suburb with a typical nuclear family. She was bookish – she devoured romance novels, for instance. At the same time, she had an edgy side to her – Lola had picked up one or two of Pamela’s romance novels. The books she read were the steamy kind – adventure tales of pirates on the high seas, of wild untamed women and dark men with powerful thighs and raging, uncircumsized members. Bodice rippers, she sometimes called them, historical rape novels.
Pamela was shy about men, okay, but there was more to her than met the eye. When you got her going, she had a tongue that was plenty sharp. And she was not afraid to speak her mind.
“Am I going to tell what to whom?” Lola said.
Lola and Pamela were cooking dinner. As they talked, they bustled about the kitchen. Tonight was smoked salmon with cream cheese, lightly sauteed Digby scallops and shrimps, and garden salad made from Lorena’s bounty. Pamela had made a chocolate mousse for dessert. They had already opened up the first bottle of wine. Smoke was coming, and the two women sometimes cooked together for him as though he belonged to both of them. They would share him, his conversation, his sense of humor, the warm smell of his cigar, right up until the time came for Smoke and Lola to go to bed.
“Are you going to tell Smoke about what happened?”
“Why? So I can upset him? So he can decide to be chivalrous and go off looking for them and maybe get himself killed? There’s nothing anybody can do, and besides, no harm done. I fought them off. I won.”
Pamela didn’t smile. “But what about the next one? Will she win? What if it was me? Would I have won?”
Lola was silent.
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“I think you should tell Smoke and then you should go to the police.”
Lola began to think she should have gone to Smoke’s for dinner. If Pamela was going to be so adamant about this, what slip of her tongue might be loosed during conversation after a few glasses of wine?
But then, going to Smoke’s would be too strange. Lola rarely went to Smoke’s apartment at all, and never went there to stay the night. She liked many things about Smoke. She liked that he worked with his hands, and that his hands were the thick, rough and strong hands of a working man. She liked the smell of his evening cigar, especially when they were on the deck together, looking out over the water and the sweet smoke would pass for a second before the breeze lifted it and took it away on the air. She liked his smile, and the fact that he chose to do his work for children. She liked that he was so smart. It seemed he could make anything.
But she didn’t like his apartment. He lived in a dingy basement efficiency with bad light. He kept books and papers piled up on the kitchen table at all times. He kept six cats which had the run of the place, with all the unpleasantness that suggested. Their litter boxes were in the bathroom, and Smoke wasn’t the most fastidious man on earth about cleaning the boxes. Smoke often brought greasy and dirty pieces of machinery into the apartment from his shed out in the garden, and left these either on the kitchen table or on the floor. Finally, the place smelled like smoke. It wasn’t the wisp of cigar smoke blowing on the wind, but the built-up smell of dozens of cigars trapped in the apartment during the three-year period he had lived there.
No sir. Lola did not want to spend the night in such a place. She had done it a few times, waking up each time with a cat nestled on her head and the smell of cigars in her clothes. They had come to an agreement. If Smoke wanted to spend the night with her, then he had to spend it at her place.
They lived on the top floor of a three story brick building at the top of Munjoy Hill. It was a large two-bedroom apartment. The back deck gave out on a view across the back yard to the Eastern Promenade, and a splendid view of the harbor and sailboats out there.
The apartment below them was empty. When the previous tenants had moved out, the landlord had decided to renovate, and so workmen were there during the day on weekdays, and in the evenings no one was down there. On the very bottom was an old man who had come to Portland to play with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Pamela had a crush on him.
Which brought Lola to the crux of the Pamela conundrum – she was attractive, smart, and well-read. She kept herself fit by jogging and working out with weights, and made good money as a librarian at the Portland Public Library. Yet in two years together, Lola hadn’t seen Pamela go out on a single date with a man.
“I just think,” she would say, “you know, you’ve got an old man and it seems to be working out, so maybe I should go for one myself.”
“Pamela,” Lola said, “Smoke is almost 60. Okay, he’s a lot older than I am. But Mr. Scheiskopf must be 75 at least. That’s old. I mean, who can say if he even gets it up anymore, or even wants to?”
“Is that all that matters?”
Lola shook her head. “Obviously, that’s not all that matters. But it’s one of the things that matters, at least to me. Men are good for some things. Other things, they’re not so good for. That happens to be one of the things they are good for.”
Pamela smiled. “Oh, I bet he does get it up. He’s fit for his age. He’s a musician. He’s vital and creative. I bet he does everything, wants everything. He wants to experience everything right up to that last moment. He wants to be fully alive.”
Lola held her tongue. She wasn’t sure, but she guessed the library might not be the greatest place to meet men.
Not that it mattered. Lola thought a woman could go about her business and have a full life without a man in it. She had spent plenty of time without a man in her own life. But for Pamela, men seemed an obsession. She wanted to be with a man, but then seemed to repel them as though they were invaders. If any young attractive man approached her, she went stone cold. Then she developed elaborate fantasies about people like Mr. Scheiskopf, a man she had hardly ever spoken to. She didn’t know anything about him except he was a musician and played for the Symphony. Sometimes the two of them heard the strains coming from his violin as they entered the building. Scheiskopf was practically a hermit, yet Pamela had given him this rich life as a vital genius musician. Who really knew what he was doing in there?
Lola, on the other hand, had never suffered a lack of male attention. In fact, she had always received too much of it. She knew she was sexually attractive from the time she was twelve. She was long and leggy. She had wild curly hair and deep brown eyes. She was high-yellow black, with a taste of American Indian blood in her that gave her an exotic look. The family legend had it that her great-great-grandfather was a Sioux who had fought at Little Big Horn alongside Crazy Horse. Lola often felt she had the blood of that long-lost Indian brave singing in her soul. It was like she could feel him there, approving when she took the bold and courageous road in life, quietly disapproving when she was not brave.
What would be the brave thing to do here? To go to the police? To tell Smoke?
She thought warmly of Smoke – her old man. He had a way about him, a quiet confidence, that made her want to be with him. He was handsome, for sure, and the best lover she had ever had. She remembered the first day she had seen him at the school where she had started working as a teacher’s assistant. All the women there were enthralled with him. He came to the school because he made toys for the special children, especially the ones who came from poor families. They were wonderful toys with lights and sounds and big colorful buttons. The children would laugh and laugh, delighted each time they pressed a button. And Smoke made the toys for free – the story went that he was a retired engineer and inventor who had made a lot of money and who was now giving of himself. His eyes had a glint to them as he played with the children, a sparkle that made her think of a slim and wiry Santa Claus. When her eyes met his, it was there between them the very first time.
“Young lady,” he said. “If we’ve met before, and I don’t recall the exact day and time, then I must be growing old indeed.”
But he was no fighter. He had a bum leg that he had broken as a child and that had never healed properly. He could barely walk without his cane. And there was nothing in his personality that was violent or even aggressive. In fact, despite his strong hands, and the forearms of a sailor, Smoke was about the gentlest man she had ever met.
No, she wouldn’t tell Smoke about what had happened. She didn’t want to drag him into some kind of showdown he wasn’t built for. If there was any more to what had happened, she could and would handle it herself.
They were just about done putting the dinner together. Pamela poured a little more wine in both their glasses.
“So what are you going to do?” she said.
“I’m going to wait and see,” Lola said. “Okay?”
Lola stared at Pamela, waiting for an answer. At last, Pamela raised her hands as if she were under arrest. “Okay. I’m not going to say anything.”
Just then, a key turned in the lock, the door to the apartment opened, and the object of their attention walked in. Smoke Dugan appeared in the flesh, a dapper grin on his face, his cane in one hand, a paper bag with a loaf of long French bread cradled in the other.
Again Lola realized how happy she was to have him. Some would say that Lola could have any man she wanted – and that was probably true, as far as it went. She could have any man for a night or two, any muscle bound young man who wanted her for only one thing. Smoke wanted that thing, too. And that was great. But he wanted more, and he wanted to give more. The past year, she reflected, had been the fullest, and the happiest year of her life.
“Ladies,” he said. “Fantasize no more. The man of your dreams has arrived.”
Night in the French Quarter.
The crowds swirled down the narrow streets. Above them, the lacy ironwork of the Spanish-style balconies were like tropical gardens teeming with ivy, begonias, ferns and young women flashing their breasts to passers-by. Shouts and laughter, and strings of Mardi Gras beads came from the streets below. Camera flashbulbs popped.
Disneyland for drunks, Cruz had heard it called.
He leaned against an ornate light post on Decatur Street, watching the people move along. He wore khaki pants and a large colorful Hawaiian shirt that hung down below his waistband. He slowly sipped from a plastic bottle of lime seltzer.
A young guy in gym shorts and a t-shirt peeled off from a group of college kids, boys and girls, all-Americans. The guy wore a baseball cap backwards. His shirt – pulled tight to a chest inflated by many hours in the gym – said DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS. He had a big plastic tumbler of a fruity drink. He came toward Cruz, stumbling just a bit and grinning. He was four or five inches taller than Cruz, and probably outweighed him by seventy pounds. It looked like a lifetime of mild success at sports had convinced the kid he was immortal. He reminded Cruz of one of those kids he had seen on TV, the ones that threw the cheerleaders in the air at college basketball games.
“Hey Scarface,” the kid said. “How ya doing?”
He stuck his hand out. Cruz ignored it.
“The girls over there? They think you’re cute. They want you to come out with us.”
Cruz glanced over at the gaggle of college kids across the street. The group looked over at him. A couple of the girls laughed. He turned back to the kid.
The kid poked Cruz’s shoulder.
“Didn’t you hear me? They think you’re cute. The way you got your hair all greased up. It’s cute.” He poked Cruz again. It was more of a push the second time.
“I want you to do something,” Cruz said. He hadn’t moved from the post.
“Yeah? What’s that?” The kid smirked.
“I want you to look right here, into my eyes, and listen to what I tell you. Okay? Look right here.”
The kid did so, and already the wild light was dying from his own eyes. In an instant, he saw something there, something Cruz well knew. It was the reason Cruz rarely looked directly into the eyes of the straight world. It did him no good to go around scaring grocery cashiers and rent-a-car clerks.
“You’re a good kid, right? Grew up in a nice house? Gonna have a nice life, sell stocks or some shit. Right?”
The kid nodded. He looked down at his sneakers.
“No, don’t look away. I want you to look right here.”
With some effort, the kid lifted his gaze again. Cruz spoke quietly, his voice raising just above a whisper – but loud enough for the kid to hear.
“Good. That’s good. Now I’m only gonna tell you this once, but I think once will be enough. I said I was busy, and I meant it. You stay here any longer and I’m gonna cut you up and feed you to my dogs. You understand, right?”
The kid looked down again, nodded.
“Okay. Now get lost.”
An hour passed.
It was after midnight. The streets were still jammed. Cruz had hardly moved since the kid had left. No one had spoken to him since then. He watched the door of the hotel across the street, trying not to grow annoyed.
He had called upstairs a few minutes ago. Carmine was still up there in his room. When Carmine had answered, Cruz had affected an accent, looking for Pablo, and Carmine told him to go fuck himself, he had the wrong number. Rather, he had slurred it. Carmine was drunk again.
Carmine Giobbi. Carmine the Nose.
Carmine had money problems. He had borrowed so much that he had no way to pay it back. It was okay when he owed it somewhere else. But once you started burning your own people for money, the game was over. Carmine couldn’t even pay the juice anymore. Half a mil, the dossier said he owed.
Half a mil? Cruz suspected it was more than that.
Carmine had already been gone a month with no contact. That was way too long.
Now it looked like he had no plans of coming back. It looked like he was going to stay down here and drink. Cruz had watched him two full nights so far, and by the end of them, Carmine had been so drunk the whores he picked up could hardly keep him standing. Carmine was a big heavy man. He had a goddamn big nose, too.
They couldn’t have Carmine down here, drinking every night with strangers. The time had come to send him home.
Here came the big lug now. He stepped out onto the street from the hotel and started down the block. No surprise, he looked just like an enforcer on vacation. White silk shirt, top three buttons open, showing his hairy chest and his gold crucifix, hanging loose at the bottom as if to cover a piece in his waistband. There was no piece, at least, not the night before.. Cruz had crept close enough to Carmine the night before to thoroughly examine the area at the bottom of his shirt. Carmine might be loaded with weapons in his hotel room, but he went out at night unarmed. Khaki pants and alligator shoes rounded out Carmine’s clothing ensemble.
His gold watch sparkled. Of course it was a Rolex. Cruz had gotten an up close look at it in a bar the night before. It was a wonder nobody had rolled Carmine for it yet, for the watch and that fat billfold he kept whipping out.
What was wrong with this guy?
He was drunk already. Sure. He had probably been knocking them back in his room since whatever time he woke up. Sitting on the balcony, drinking, watching the day pass into evening, watching the evening pass into night, the crowds gathering, the streets glowing with excitement.
Cruz pushed himself away from the light post and started walking.
Up ahead, Carmine weaved through the crowded streets. His big shoulders bumped a couple of people out of his way. Carmine was a handful, all right.
Cruz kept a safe distance. He watched as the Nose entered an open air bar, grabbed a woman’s ass, then got in a shoving match with the woman’s boyfriend. He nearly shoved the guy through the wall. The bouncers, three of them, walked him out of there, consoling him with pats on the back. Big guys were all the same, and they liked to see those pushy, big guy traits in each other. A guy Cruz’s size pulled that kind of shit in that bar? Those bouncers would take him outside and tap dance on his skull.
Carmine stumbled on. He went into another bar and grabbed another woman’s ass. This ass grabbing, this was something new.
After an hour, Cruz had had enough.
The streets were still crowded, but the tone had changed. People were very drunk now. Women screamed for no reason at all. A man leaned over and puked into the gutter. A small crowd gathered around a young man who had fallen down and lay sprawled on the concrete, unable to stand. Carmine staggered along through it all like the monster from Frankenstein. Then he stopped, looked around and turned down an alley.
Shrewd Carmine, making sure the coast was clear.
Cruz surveyed the scene from across the street. No cops anywhere. Lots of people milling about, going this way and that. A darkened alley between buildings. And Carmine down there, probably taking a piss.
Cruz crossed the street and walked toward the mouth of the alley. As he did so, he took two thin leather gloves out, one from each of his front pockets, and slid them onto his hands, like a doctor preparing for surgery.
Down the alley, just twenty yards down, big Carmine leaned up against the wall, bracing himself with a hairy arm. The other hand had worked his whanger out of his pants. A steady stream emanated from it, soaking the wall and splashing back on Carmine’s pants and shoes.
Jesus, the guy was a mess.
“Yeah, just a minute here. Gotta water the flowers.” Carmine’s lower lip hung down.
Cruz worked the stunted black Glock pocket pistol – the. 40 caliber M-27 – from the back of his pants. Cruz always demanded the M-27. It was smaller than the standard Glock, it was light, it was concealable even with a longer, threaded barrel attached so it could take a silencer. Nine rounds was more than enough for Cruz,. 40 cal was excellent stopping power, and the gun itself always worked – rain, heat, cold, snow, it didn’t matter. The Glock worked.
He quickly attached the silencer, a Gemtech SOS-40, a nice one. They always gave him nice toys on these jobs, anything he wanted. And he was a creature of habit – what had worked in the past would work in the future. He held the gun so his back was blocking it from the sight of any pedestrians on the street. He glanced out there. Nobody was looking. He stepped closer to his quarry.
“You know me, Carmine?”
Carmine looked up, his eyes half-closed and bloodshot. He squinted at Cruz.
Cruz approached and put an arm around Carmine’s massive shoulders. Cruz felt nothing out of the ordinary. His heart wasn’t beating hard. He wasn’t sweating more than the humid southern night warranted. If anything, he felt a pang of mild embarrassment, what with Carmine’s Italian sausage hanging there.
“No, you’re right. You don’t know me. We’ve never met before. But I know you.”
Carmine peered down at his fancy alligator shoes, wet now with urine.
“I think I’m gonna puke.”
“Carmine. I know you, you understand? It’s important you understand this.”
Carmine looked at Cruz again. Something like a dull light ignited behind his eyes. “They sent you? From New York?”
The big man nodded. “Okay.”
“You get it?” Cruz said.
“Yeah. I get it.”
Cruz clapped him on the back. “Good man. You got anything you wanna say?”
“Yeah. Tell ‘em to go fuck themself.”
Cruz brought the Glock around with his left hand and placed the silenced muzzle against Carmine’s meaty chest. Carmine looked down at the gun. Cruz looked at it. All it took was a few ounces of pressure and he would send Carmine off to the next world.
The seconds passed.
And for some reason, the finger didn’t pull the trigger.
Shit, it was happening again.
Then the gravity of the situation penetrated Carmine’s pickled brain. His eyes opened wide and he came awake. “Hey, get that fucking thing away from me.”
His reflexes, now activated, were fast. He grabbed the gun with both hands. He forced Cruz to point it heavenward, pushed Cruz back against the brickwork, then came up with a savage knee to Cruz’s gut.
Cruz felt his wind go out of him in a long hiss. He felt the gun yanked out of his hand. He sank, knees to the hard pavement, trying to catch his breath. He ripped the buttons of his shirt away and reached inside.
Carmine tottered over him, huge, towering. Gun in one giant hand.
He brought it down to point at Cruz. Cruz stared down the black maw, death just seconds away. He felt nothing, thought nothing.
“Hey dickhead,” the Nose said.
Cruz pulled the surgical tape away from his chest. He grabbed the four inch Buck Woodsman knife he kept strapped there.
“Tell ‘em I ain’t that easy, see?”
Cruz lunged, just as Carmine fired. He stabbed, fast and crazy, in and out, four times, five times.
The gun made a near silent, “phut, phut, phut.”
A breeze went past Cruz’s head. Bullets whined off the brick wall and ricocheted down the alley.
Cruz looked up at Carmine, who stared down with something like surprise. Cruz had plunged the knife up to its handle. It was buried in Carmine’s lower abdomen. Cruz renewed his grip. Then he ripped upward, all the way to Carmine’s rib cage. Carmine’s face went slack again. Blood flowed from his mouth.
Gently, Cruz took the gun from Carmine’s hand.
He stood and put the gun to the big man’s heart. Again. Again he hesitated. Carmine was weaving. His eyes had gone blank. Blood flowed from him. Either it was the booze or his own brute strength and stupidity that kept him standing.
Well, he was going to die anyway.
Cruz pulled the trigger. He fired three times into Carmine’s heart, then lowered him to the ground.
Back out on the street, gloves off. The crowds were still there. People staggered to and fro. A woman with a big floppy sun hat fell down, laughing. Cruz began to stagger just a little, as if he himself were drunk. His flowery shirt was splashed with some of Carmine’s blood. Worse, Carmine’s smell was on him. The sharp scent of booze mingled with the coppery stench of blood.
It made him sick. It made him shake.
Cruz walked around the block. Knots of people laughed, stumbled, screamed. More beads flew through the air. Cruz turned a street corner, quickly wiped the knife handle for any possible prints and dropped the knife down a sewer hole. He would break down the gun and get rid of it later – a piece here, a piece there, the farther apart the better.
He came past the alley again. From the street, there seemed to be nothing down there. Just a big drunk sleeping off a bender.
A beam of cold moonlight stabbed into the room.
Smoke sat up in bed, sipping his last glass of wine. It had been a lovely evening, sitting on the deck with two lovely ladies, eating a fine meal, watching the ships pass as the sun set behind the building. They had chatted and laughed with Pamela until it was full dark and too cold to sit outside anymore. Then they had made an assembly line and washed all the dishes.
Some coffee, a little more wine and laughter in the living room, then Lola and he had come in here for a long, slow bout of lovemaking. They began, but the spark wasn’t there. His hands had felt like lead.
It started, it stopped. It fizzled out.
“You seem distant,” he said after they gave it up for good.
“Not distant,” she said. “Just thoughtful.”
Now, Lola’s warm and sleeping form pushed up against his. Her arm was around his waist. Across the room, the digital clock read 2:35. There was no sound anywhere. That was the thing about this city – when night came, the sidewalks rolled up and it was almost as if no one lived there.
Her voice came, quiet and thick with sleep. “Smoke?”
“Do you love me?”
“You know I do.”
“That’s good, Smoke. Real good.”
A few moments passed, and her breathing deepened and became rhythmic. She was gone again and he was here, awake and on the case. Her protector.
He was going to have to tell her something soon. He just didn’t know what that something would be.
Cruz slumped in the back of the black Mercedes S-500, sunk deep into the plush leather, his eyes closed behind reflector sunglasses. The earphones of his Sony Discman hung slightly askew, just enough that he could hear everything being said up front, but not so much as to arouse suspicion. At the same time, he could listen to his music. The compact disc was DANCE PARTY HITS OF THE 70’S, the soundtrack of his youth.
The song was Le Freak, by something called Chic.
He remembered it. He saw himself at a Manhattan dance club, brooding, holding up the bar, watching the young girls flaunt themselves out on the dance floor as the lights strobed crazily, streaks of technicolor electricity flying through the air. Again, he felt the rage, the yearning and the frustration. Nearly 30 years had passed since those days, and in all that time he had only managed to slap a few thin coats of whitewash over the real Cruz. His personality was like a slice of linoleum pasted over a dark abyss – if you dropped through, there was no bottom.
He had done this kind of work since the age of eighteen. That year, he had been cut loose from the youth home with two hundred dollars, plus cab fare to his aunt’s house in Corona, Queens, and an appointment to see a job counselor out there a week later. They had let him go with a kiss on the cheek and a kick in the ass.
He never made it to Queens.
His aunt didn’t want him, and why should she? He had lived with her at the age of ten, then again at fourteen. He was bad news, the product of her sister the drug addict’s wasted life. His face carried a deep knife scar from one of her sister’s many boyfriends, a maniac who one night decided to cut the little boy’s eyes out. Luckily, the maniac had been too drunk to see what he was doing or hold onto the boy for long – Cruz – who ran screaming out of the squalid apartment. But the scar on his face was only an emblem of the deeper scars he carried. Cruz was trouble, and he knew it. No, his aunt would not have him, and on some level, he didn’t blame her. She wasn’t yet thirty years old herself, struggling with three young kids of her own. Cruz was enough to sink them all.
She had called him the day before he was set to leave the home. He stood at the pay phone in the concrete stairwell. A couple of younger kids were talking and laughing down at the other end of the narrow hall.
He looked at them. Gradually, they sensed his stare. Then they left.
“Chuco, do me a favor, ah?” his aunt said.
“Yeah,” he said, already knowing what was coming.
“Don’t come over here. I got enough to worry about with the kids and the rent and all the rest. You know? I like you, Chuco. You was good when you was a kid. But now… you know? It’ll be bad having you here. I don’t got the room. I don’t want the cops coming here. You understand, right?”
“Yeah. I do.”
“You’ll do good, Chuco. You’ll figure it out.”
“Just don’t come here. You come here, I can’t let you in. I’ll call the cops myself, okay? I’ll tell ‘em you stole my money.”
Cruz hung up.
He rode the cab into Manhattan, stopped at a check-cashing place, cashed the two hundred, stuffed most of it in his sock, and checked into a twenty dollar a week room at a Single Room Occupancy hotel on the west side, not far from the river. He paid for a week up front. Then he sat upstairs and cried for an hour. Cried for everything. He gave himself one hour to get the cry in, no more. He even timed it on the Timex watch one of the teachers at the youth home had given him. At the end of an hour, he stopped and looked around. The room was about twenty feet long and fifteen feet wide. There was a narrow bed and a sink. There was a cheap wooden dresser with a sticky blotter pasted on top of it. There was a closet with a couple of coat hangers. The old white paint was peeling crazily, showing a nasty green behind it – the walls, the ceiling, everywhere. A window looked out onto the fire escape. The street was three stories below. The bathroom was down the hall.
He’d never been here before, but instinctively he knew the game. There would be predators in the bathroom. They’d be looking for an easy mark on the shitter, an easy mark in the shower. People would break into his room while he wasn’t home, looking for money. Junkies would drop dead from ODs. He’d be lucky if some junkie didn’t burn the place down in the middle of the night with a cigarette or a hot plate left on. The management wouldn’t do shit about any of it.
Anyway, it was a start.
He went out. If there was an answer to his problems, he wasn’t going to find it staring at the four walls of his room. The answer was out there, on the streets. He resolved that he would find that answer, whether that meant he had to go to prison, or whether he died with his blood running in the gutter. The thought appealed to him. He would live, and thrive, and make it big, or he would die. No compromise.
He went to Times Square.
1976. The Bicentennial. 200 years of flag waving and good times. Rocky. Jaws. And in a lighter vein, 18 amp; Horny and Guess Who’s Coming. Just outside the Theatre District, the Broadway of A Chorus Line and The Wiz, Times Square lay spread like the blighted whore she was. The lights dazzled Cruz. The pimps and hookers and drug dealers hanging out with beer cans in paper bags, the streams of runaway kids, the junkies, the scumbags, the pickpockets, the johns, the freaks who wanted to fuck children – a circle of lost souls. The blood banks, the liquor stores, the X-rated movie houses, the massage parlors, the greasy spoon diners with deals going down in every booth – there was barely a legitimate business in the whole neighborhood. Times Square was an open sewer. In 1976, for someone with the right kind of eyes, it was also a glittering promise.
Cruz loved it.
He went to a live peep show and watched a big black guy tool a tiny oriental girl on a table. He bought a dollar in booth tokens, and every time the screen went down on this little act, he pumped in another token.
Then he went and bought himself two hot dogs, fries and a Coke at Nedick’s. He stayed there a long time, watching the action out on the street. The sex, the freedom, the crazy sparkling madness of the place – it was a revelation.
“Hey kid,” a fat little bald man said one night a week later. “I seen you hanging around here a lot. Wanna make some money?”
“What do I have to do?”
“You look like a sharp kid. Ever hurt anybody before?”
Cruz smiled. “Sure.”
Now, a much older man, he smiled again at the memory.
He opened his eyes and glanced around. He liked this Mercedes. It was a comfortable car, damn near the top of the line, and probably three years old. Cruz hated new cars. The new car smell made him sick to his stomach. This car was perfect. It didn’t smell like anything and had that kind of smooth ride where the bumps in the road were like a rumor you had heard years ago. You couldn’t hear the outside at all.
Quiet as a tomb.
The car was cruising the highways somewhere in New England. It didn’t matter where right now. They had passed Hartford a little while back. The kids up front were supposed to wake him up when they entered Maine. From behind his shades, he noticed the color on the trees along the highway – reds, yellows, orange.
Cruz was tired. He had flown in from New Orleans on about two hours sleep. At La Guardia, he bought a small tin of Vivarin caffeine pills, crushed two up, and snorted them for breakfast. The limo – a big Lincoln Town Car – snatched him at the airport and whisked him straight into the city. The driver – an old Polack or Russian – gave him his next gun, his next Glock. It came in a handsome padded traveling case that Cruz threw into a garbage can before they even left the airport. Cruz didn’t care about presentation – he planned to carry the gun, loaded, ready to pop.
The driver also gave him the dossier for this job, sealed for Cruz’s eyes only. The same dossier was now at Cruz’s feet. He read it while the limo took him across the Tri-Borough Bridge into Manhattan, then down the FDR Drive. He would read it again before they got to Portland. Gave him everything he needed to know about this guy Smoke Dugan, as well as the two young guys he would ride along with on this trip.
The meeting in Manhattan had been short and sweet. It was at a coffee shop on Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, just up from the park. They moved around all the time, staying one step ahead of the bugs. Big Vito and Mr. C.
Mr. C never spoke. Just in case the bugs were already in place. After a lifetime on the outside, he was not going to die in prison. He sat there wrapped in a long wool coat, his thin hair slicked back, his face old and lined and unshaven, his eyes bright, sharp and aware. At all times, he held an unlit Havana in his liver-spotted and palsied hand. The world had changed and now cigars were bad for you. Mr. C would regard that cigar at the end of his fingers and sigh. Sometimes he nodded at something that was said. Sometimes he managed a ghost of a smile.
“You gonna eat?” Big Vito said. In person, his voice sounded like gravel pouring from the back of a dump truck. His nose was wide and flat. It had been broken so many times, it looked like a lump of mashed potatoes. Above it, his eyes were like twin lasers. His eyebrows were gray. His hair was gray shot through with white.
Fantastic Four, getting old himself. Cruz imagined those big stone hands choking the life out of someone. The legend was that’s how Big Vito used to do it to you. Strangle you with his bare hands.
“I don’t know. How’s the food?”
“Would we be here if it was bad? Come on, Cruz. You gotta eat. Keep up your strength.” He looked to Mr. C for confirmation. Mr. C nodded his agreement.
“All right, I’ll eat.”
Vito waved over the skirt.
Cruz looked at the menu. He spoke in a quiet voice. “Three eggs, scrambled. With Swiss cheese. Sausage. Corned beef hash. Black coffee.”
“That’s what you’re gonna eat?”
“What’d you think, a fruit cup?”
“Nah, it’s just, you know. They got healthier items. Look. Egg whites. Turkey bacon. Anything you want.”
Cruz put the menu down. “I think I’ll stick with what I said.”
The girl went away.
“We read the paper today,” Vito went on without preamble. “You know, got the box scores. Checked everything out.”
“Yeah? What do you think?”
“Good. We’re happy the home team won.”
Mr. C. nodded, licked his lips, gave his cigar a long look.
“Very pleased,” Vito said.
“Good,” Cruz said. “I want everybody to be happy.”
There was a pause. “You looked at what we left you? The driver gave it to you?”
“Yeah. Not sure I get it, but… ”
“What’s to get? It’s in plain English, right?”
“Oh yeah, that’s not it. It just seems like, maybe a little lightweight. Retrieval isn’t my thing. I’m usually in, how do you want to call it, disposal.”
“It ain’t lightweight. You let us worry about the thinking end of it. You just make it happen.” Vito wrote something on a napkin and passed it across to Cruz. 63 and Lex. Black Mercedes. Massachusetts plates.
“I’ll make it happen,” Cruz said.
The girl was coming with the food. The two men got up to leave. “Enjoy your breakfast.”
“You guys ain’t gonna stay?”
“You know, we got business. Never ends.”
Cruz looked at the breakfast. It made his stomach turn.
Mr. C eyed him closely.
“Hey Cruz,” Vito said. “How ya feeling?”
“You know, because you look like shit. We worry about you. Maybe you need some time away, like down in the islands. Maybe when things slow down a little.”
“Yeah,” Cruz said. “That sounds good.” He dug into the food.
Now, in the Mercedes, he watched the two young men up front with some interest.
The dossier at his feet included information about both these two kids. The driver was a big muscle guy, wore a leather cap and black sunglasses. The other one was skinny and missing three fingers on his right hand. Jesus, who were they hiring nowadays? Cruz was wary of the whole thing. He had worked on his own for years, and now they gave him this babysitting job, with these kids to drive him. He didn’t like it.
The one in the passenger seat was Ray “Fingers” Pachonka. He had lost those fingers playing with explosives. Lucky to be alive after a fuck-up like that.
The driver was Roland Moss. Late twentysomething. Former bouncer, former legbreaker. Barely two years in the murder business, and he had been in on a dozen hits.
Roland is strong as an ox. He likes to hurt people. Likes to make them talk.
That’s what the dossier said.
Cruz watched them carefully, mostly because he didn’t trust them. Cruz had learned early on that it was best not to trust anybody, especially young men who believed themselves to be on the rise. He had learned this from himself.
He listened in to their conversation for a moment.
“So they sent us to do this jigaboo one time,” the skinny one, Fingers, said. He spoke rapid fire, like a machine gun, or the heartbeat of a rabbit. Bippity, bippity, bippity. “The guy had ripped somebody off. I don’t remember the details. Different job, same bullshit. Right?”
“Yeah,” said the big one, Roland Moss. The guy could be a pro wrestler, Cruz thought. His broad shoulders extended past the edges of his bucket seat. His neck was a trunk line, his head sitting perched on top like a pomegranate. The muscles in his neck stood out and flexed like cables.
“They sent us to Gary fucking Indiana, just outside Chicago.” Fingers paused, seemingly for effect. “I mean we fucking drove out there. Me and Sticks. You know Sticks? Little guy, smokes a lot. Pissed off, always wants to cut somebody. Somebody doesn’t signal in the car ahead of him, he wants to cut the guy. You know him, right?”
Moss nodded. He spoke slowly, like syrup pouring from a bottle. “Yeah, I know him. Did a couple jobs with him. Saw him cut a man’s eyes out once.” He sounded like he was giving it a taste of the South. The dossier said he was from New Jersey.
Fingers nodded. “Yeah, that’s him. Sticks. Crazy as a fucking loon. So we drive out there, me and him. And Gary Indiana is like, nothing you ever seen before. Everybody is gone, except some jigs that couldn’t make it in Shy-town. All the buildings are empty. Or just plain gone. A wasteland. So we find the jig, drive him around for a while. He’s all acting cool, like his life is worth something. Like he thinks we drove all this way just to, I don’t know, shoot the shit or something. He has this gym bag with him? He has a fucking Tec-9 in there.”
“Piece of shit,” Moss drawled.
“All right, a Tec-9. It’s a piece of shit. But I mean this jig has it in the gym bag, and he has a forty round clip in it, and then he has this custom twelve dozen round drum magazine, you should’ve seen the fucking thing. Like something out of the movies. He says he has the thing modified for full auto, and this big drum to attach to it. Can you imagine this guy running around, spraying bullets everywhere? No wonder all these little kids get shot in these jig neighborhoods. You got these guys running around, think they’re fucking Rambo. Am I right?”
“I never saw a gun like that,” Moss said.
“You wouldn’t see one. Only a crazy person would have one. So anyway, we bring him to this abandoned building, right? We take him upstairs. Now he’s not as cool, he’s starting to get the message. We bust him up a little. Then, you know Sticks, he starts to cut the guy up. It’s all right, but it’s a lot of blood and shit now. The jig is crying and all this, half his face coming off. Sticks cut the jig’s lips off, you know what I mean? The guy’s teeth are like out to here.”
Fingers held his hand out about a foot in front of his face. He laughed, an uncertain sound. “I don’t know about Sticks, man. He should’ve been a butcher or some shit. He gives me the fucking creeps, to be honest.”
“And the guy never pulled the gun?” Moss said.
“Yeah. He never pulled it. He never got anywhere near it. A hundred and forty four rounds. A lot of good it did him, right? So finally, I take over from Sticks and I’m just like let’s do this shit and get out of here. So I take the jig and I tell him, you know, that’s it, man. You’re done. He’s grateful by then. He just wants the whole thing over with. They got these floor to ceiling windows and they’re all busted out. So I send him out the window. We’re about six stories up, right? By now, it’s full on dark. And I send him down into a vacant lot down there. I mean, the whole city’s a vacant lot. The guy didn’t scream or anything. He just sailed down there in total silence.
“So here’s my point. We go downstairs to the street, and it’s like, let’s check it out, let’s make sure this guy is dead. We go around back and here’s the jig. He’s laying there and the whole top of his head is broken off. You know what I mean? I mean, he hit the pavement and the top of his head broke off – right above the eyes. He was like a stewpot with the lid off. His eyes were open and I thought for a second he was looking right at me – I thought he was gonna say something. And his brain had come out and was sitting there on the ground. So I’m just standing there looking at this brain, and the jig with his eyes open is laying there like he’s awake. And the brain – it was like a bowl of Jello. You know, when you turn the Jello upside down and it comes out all in one piece? It was like that. Like a toy. It was fucking perfect.
“So what does Sticks say? He’s like, let’s take the brain.”
“He wants to take the brain,” Moss said. He laughed, a short, deep bark. “That sounds about right for Sticks.”
Fingers nodded. “Yeah, he wants the brain. I’m like, you got to be fucking kidding me. Is this a joke? He wants to take it for a souvenir. Thinks he’ll put it in his refrigerator or maybe pickle it. And he starts getting adamant about it. I’m like, man, I am not driving twelve fucking hours to New York with a brain in the car. You want the brain, call a cab.”
Cruz had had enough of their conversation.
He slipped the music back on his ears and picked the dossier off the floor. He started to read about Smoke Dugan again, but then changed his mind. Instead, he gazed out the window and watched the passing trees.
Pamela jogged the Back Cove trail.
It was three and a half miles of dirt track around the Cove. On a cool fall day like today, the trail was packed with joggers, walkers – some with baby strollers, and bicyclists. It was high tide and the Cove shimmered blue with the skyline of the city in the distance. Out on the water, two wind surfers raced back and forth.
Pamela was an avid jogger. She jogged here often, stealing glances at the men who passed. The Back Cove trail was a veritable smorgasbord of fit people out getting their exercise. She noticed the women, too. The women in their tight spandex shorts and halter tops. The sexy women with whom she could never compete.
She in her sweat pants and layered t-shirts.
God, what was wrong with her? As long as could remember, she had always been this way. Shy, retiring, tongue-tied with people she did not know. But she was good looking. At least she thought she was and Lola always told her she was. But she was twenty-nine years old, and more than three years had passed since she had been alone. She thought of her last boyfriend – Thomas – bookish, thin, with glasses. He was smart and had an off-beat, self-deprecating sense of humor. He was a student at the University of Maine law school, and when he graduated, he asked her to marry him.
She said no.
Things were good with Thomas, and she thought long and hard about becoming his wife. But in the end, he wasn’t her type. At least, he wasn’t the type she imagined was hers. And she was not the quiet suburban wife of Thomas the corporate lawyer. She recalled the last time they had made love, right before he left town for Providence, Rhode Island. He had cried, and so had she, and they had stopped halfway through. It made her think of the old joke – if I’d known the last time was really going to be the last time…
Why could she never seem to find a man?
She was bookish, certainly, just like Thomas. From the earliest age, she had been more interested in reading books and watching movies than in dealing with people. Life seemed so boring sometimes, and the lives lived in books, well, they seemed so exciting. She had grown up in Newmarket, New Hampshire, a town where the big excitement was the freight trains passing through town – so close to her family’s backyard that Pamela often thought of jumping aboard as the open cars passed – and summers on the nearby Seacoast beaches. In the evenings, she and her brother would often play Scrabble or Monopoly with her mom and dad. It was a normal, stable life. And for Pamela, from the time she was a little girl, the real excitement – and maybe the only deep enjoyment – came from escaping into the stories. The Nancy Drew mysteries. Encyclopedia Brown. A little later, The Lord of the Rings. And of course, the movies: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and The Never Ending Story.
She envied Lola. She loved her like a sister, but there was also the sting of envy. Could you imagine? Lola had grown up in a Chicago housing project – a slum where drug deals went down on street corners, where gunfire sounded at night, where men murdered each other in the hallways. Just last week, two men tried to rape her, she beat them both at once, and now she acted like it never happened. Pamela could never do that, would never want something similar to happen to her, and yet, there was something about it that enticed her.
She remembered how as a girl, she would imagine herself as a pirate. Not as a woman who hung around with pirates, but as an actual pirate herself, sailing the high seas, attacking and plundering other ships, making people walk the plank.
She would give anything to live a life of swashbuckling adventure. She should have become a cop, or a spy, or an ambulance driver – not a librarian who half the time felt afraid to meet the eyes of library patrons.
Face it, her life was boring. It was an endless string of days, each fading into the next, her youth passing away fruitlessly. The lives of the library patrons were boring, too. She watched them. She saw the emptiness in their eyes, the longing for escape, the unfulfilled wishing for something, anything, to happen. Even the homeless people – she had once held a romantic notion that the life of a homeless person might be exciting. But they came into the library by the dozens during the cold weather. They slumped in chairs and dozed. They leafed through magazines for hours on end. Some of them simply sat and stared into space. The homeless people led boring lives.
Adventure. That’s what she longed for, what she had always longed for. To be in danger. To survive on the edge. And to take a lover, a dark and handsome stranger – yes, just like in the books – a desperate man with rippling muscles, yes and long hair and a fire in his belly. A savage, passionate man. Yes.
She finished her run at the parking lot. She was sweaty, out of breath, and felt exhilarated as always. It was a nice day, and it was good to get these negative thoughts out of her system. She consoled herself as she stretched on the grass near her peppy little car, a Volkswagen Golf.
Someday, she thought, it will happen. I will be like Lola. And I’ll lead a life of adventure just like the one she has lead.
Empty hand, empty mind.
Lola sat cross-legged on a wool blanket. She had placed the blanket on the gently sloping hill of the city’s Eastern Promenade. Eastern Prom was the extremity of the peninsula that made up downtown Portland. A long avenue of stately Victorian mansions giving way to early 20^th century tenement buildings on one side of the street, and a grassy park and pedestrian walkway overlooking the islands of Casco Bay on the other side, the Prom was just around the corner from her apartment. Indeed, Lola could see this same bay from her back deck, if she chose. As on any Sunday in the fall, the bay was dotted with white sails driven by the wind – there was a sailboat rental concession on the waterfront not a half mile away from where she sat.
Lola came here to meditate.
Empty hand was karate. She learned to fight with no weapon but herself – and she believed now, for the first time, that she needed no other. Empty mind was Zen, a path that had been married to karate almost since the beginning. It was a term one of her teachers had given her. The karate practitioner – the karateka – sought to train herself to develop a clear conscience, an empty mind. This would enable her to face the world truthfully. An empty mind was tranquil – because to see the truth meant no fear of death, no fear of pain, no fear of anything. An empty mind lived in the present, the essential time, the only time that was available. The past was irretrievably lost and the future was forever unattainable. There was no time but now.
She sat, eyes closed, facing the water. Her hands were upturned and resting lightly, one on each folded knee. She wore jeans and a light jacket. Her feet were bare, her sandals kicked off in front of her. The cold breeze blew across her, each gust with the bite of the coming winter embedded deep within it. She took deep breaths, each one coming from the belly, and with each breath she tried – she tried too hard – to let go. It was no use. The memories flooded back. They always did.
She thought of the time when the bad thing happened.
She was living with her grandmother, an old woman who had seen more than her share of heartbreak. They lived together in a two-bedroom unit at the Robert Taylor Houses, the largest public housing complex in the world. Lola hated it there. She hated the grim towers that dominated the landscape, and she hated the fenced in outdoor walkway that made their apartment seem like some kind of motel room. She hated the drug dealers who plied their trade, bottle by bottle, in broad daylight. She hated the police who circled like vultures. She hated the pimps and the crack whores and the crack heads. She hated the couples who fucked – there was no other word for it – in the stairwells, and the muggers and the molesters who lurked in the shadows, and the thieves and the murderers and the corpses that sometimes turned up on the sidewalks in the very early mornings.
She hated them all.
She kept her hate inside herself, clutched it tightly to her like she clutched her schoolbooks. She didn’t show her hate to them. Instead, she went about her business and dreamed of the day when she would be away from here. She knew from the television that there was another life outside of this one, a life where people weren’t afraid all the time, where you could go outside after dark, where it was okay to show weakness, where people smiled and said “thank you” and “please.”
But for now, this was where they lived, and since Lola’s mother had died, there was nowhere else for her to go. And Lola’s relationship with her grandmother was great. They talked and laughed together easily, as though there weren’t fifty years between them. Her grandmother had even scraped the money together to send Lola for modern dance instruction. By sixteen, it was clear that Lola wasn’t going to Broadway, but she still enjoyed it and it kept her fit.
But dancing for fun ended that early spring afternoon.
Months before, she had discovered a shortcut, a path that cut across a vacant lot about a quarter of a mile down from where the project started. She would walk home from the bus station, and spy that path cut through the weeds, and think that it would probably save her five minutes walking time. At first, she wouldn’t walk that path. But then one day, she got up the guts to do it. It was a weedy jungle back there, ripped clothes hanging from the bushes, broken glass littering the packed down earth. Her heart was beating something terrible, but she made it through.
Afterward, she realized that if she stuck to the path, there was only a moment, perhaps thirty seconds of walking, perhaps a full minute, where she lost sight of both the street behind her and the one ahead of her. Surely nothing could happen during those short seconds. She started taking the path regularly, and nothing happened except she reached home five minutes earlier.
But there was a boy named Kendrick who said he liked her and kept nagging her when she walked the streets. She didn’t like him. He had been tall, a big dumb boy, always playing basketball in junior high school and early on in high school. He was gonna go pro one day, right? He was still tall, but now he was selling drugs and he didn’t go to school anymore. With his vacant stare, and his bloodshot eyes, he looked like he was high most of the time.
Kendrick was a loser.
He was never going to get out of the neighborhood, and by that age, Lola realized that the only hope a person had was to get out of the neighborhood. In any event, she could tell the look in his eyes. He only wanted her for sex. She wanted no part of that – no part of a boy who thought of himself as a desperado, and would soon go the same way as the rest of the desperadoes. Jail. Addiction. Death. One of those, and maybe all three.
But Kendrick the loser was insistent.
“Oh, you’re gonna be with me,” he told her with a smile. “You think you’re too good for everybody. I tell you little sister, you ain’t gonna be uppity like that for long.”
On the fateful day, she debated with herself as she always did. Should I take the shortcut? Should I go the long way around? Once again, she took the shortcut. As soon as she reached that point where neither street was visible, a voice spoke behind her.
“Little Miss Uppity Nigger. Girl, why you always cutting through this back way? You looking for somebody back in here?”
There was laughter. She turned.
Maybe twenty feet behind her was Kendrick, and he wasn’t alone. He was accompanied by two other boys, Tyrone and Abel. Lola knew all three of them. Tyrone and Abel were a year behind her at school. They were following Kendrick down the sewer. They grinned at her.
The facts came to her in one second flat – pierced her awareness like a bullet to the brain. The boys were here for a reason, and it was all business. They had been watching her, and they knew she took this shortcut.
She dropped her books, turned and ran.
Just ahead on the path were two more boys. They were brothers. Michael and Ishmael. Coming this way. For a moment she thought she was saved. Two people on the path. Witnesses. Then she saw the grins – the boys hadn’t come to rescue her. They had looped around the block on Kendrick’s orders.
They went for her. She tried to bolt past them with her big legs and her speed. But then their strong young hands were on her. One hand grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head backwards.
“Bitch, where you think you going?”
Bitch. The word stung like a slap. It was a strong word, a hateful word, and she felt paralyzed against its force.
They took her deeper into the lot, behind some bushes. There was an old mattress back there, and some old and tattered pornographic magazines. She could hear the traffic out on Dan Ryan Freeway, but she didn’t cry out. Then they stuffed a dirty sweat sock in her mouth and she couldn’t cry out.
They did their dirty business, one at a time, while the others looked on and critiqued the action. She didn’t remember much except the sharp and terrible pain in the beginning, and then the sun in her eyes as it sank behind the buildings, bringing an end to another gray day in Chicago. That and the sound of their whispering voices as they talked about her as if she weren’t human, as if except for her body, she wasn’t even there.
“Damn. I didn’t know she was a virgin.”
“Nigger, how you gonna know something like that?”
“Learn something new every day.”
“She ain’t one no more.”
They giggled like the children they had been only recently.
Then she was alone. No, there was one person left. It was Kendrick, more than six feet tall, towering over her as she lay on the mattress. He spit on her, and the saliva landed on her breasts and stomach.
“You ain’t so uppity now. Am I right?”
Then he too was gone.
It was almost dark. There were sounds of rustling in the weeds, the rats that lived at the edge of human society. Thousands of them were all around the Robert Taylor Houses, maybe millions of them, feeding off the garbage of more than twenty thousand people. She didn’t want to stay there a moment longer. She didn’t want to see the rats, of course. But at night, back in that horrible lot, there were worse things than rats. Anybody might come along. Somebody worse than those boys, even.
Her clothes were all around her, on the mattress and on the ground. They at least had the decency to leave her something to wear home. She got dressed, went back to the trail, gathered up her books, and went on home.
Smoke lay in bed, enjoying the bright play of light, and the cool breeze coming through the open window. Both Lola and Pamela were out somewhere.
Sunday was the day Smoke most loved to sleep in. It had little or nothing to do with it being a day of rest after a week of labor. Smoke’s schedule was his own. No, it was a sense of nostalgia, of romance.
It was already noon. In an hour, the Patriots would come on TV. Smoke had adopted them since he had been here in Maine. He would spend the day with them, sipping his wine, and perhaps enjoying a cigar on the deck during half-time. He might watch the second game, he might not – but for three hours, the New England Patriots would command his complete attention.
He lay there and relished this thought.
Then he remembered sitting in the darkened living room.
It was a sunken living room in another life, when he wasn’t yet Smoke. It was the kind of living room in the kind of house that middle class housewives looked at and salivated over in glossy magazines. Black leather furniture converged in the center of the room. At the far end, there was a fireplace that was as clean as a hospital floor – split logs were piled inside it, but it probably hadn’t been lit in years. Floor to ceiling windows looked out across the patio and the sloping lawn to the Long Island Sound. To the left of the patio, blue and red lights beamed up from the floor of the in-ground swimming pool. Behind the sofa Smoke sat on, there was a huge canvas – a giant orange dot on a white background.
Modern art. The fat man was a collector.
Presently the fat man came out of the nearby bedroom wrapped in a thick terrycloth robe. He wore slippers and walked through the shadows of the living room, headed toward the kitchen. Must’ve heard something in his sleep, Smoke mused. Decided to eat something. Smoke noted that his hair was greased, even now.
Smoke reached inside his jacket and fingered the Taser pistol strapped there. Before he came he had popped eight new Energizer AA batteries in it. It was ready to fry.
The fat man waddled along like he wasn’t going to stop.
“Roselli,” Smoke said.
The fat man stopped, did a double take, looked again at Smoke sitting there on his couch, legs folded, cane in hand.
Give Roselli credit. He was half-asleep, no reason to expect anyone, no way anyone could get in, the whole house alarmed, yet he didn’t look frightened or even all that surprised. The fat fuck never lost his composure – if he had, Smoke had never seen it. Roselli was like all the rest. When it came right down to it, it was hard to scare these guys. The only emotion you could get from them was anger.
“O’Malley? What the fuck are you doing in my living room? At…” he looked at the clock on the opposite wall. “Three-thirty in the morning?”
“I came to talk. Why don’t you sit down?”
Smoke gestured at one of the leather chairs.
“Sit down, shit. How the fuck did you get in here?”
Smoke offered the chair again.
Something in Smoke’s eyes registered with Roselli. The fat man walked over and eased his weight down into the chair. He pulled the robe tight around his belly. He ran a beefy hand through his hair, making sure it was slicked back. He stared at Smoke across the short distance between them. He squinted.
“O’Malley? I wanna say something to you right now. I known you a good long time. You were always a good kid. This ain’t right, you being in my house like this. People eat shit for this kind of thing. Less than this. What if my wife was here? My kids? It don’t look right.”
“Your wife and kids live in Florida, Roselli.”
Roselli stabbed the air with a finger. His face turned red. “Don’t fuck with me, O’Malley. You know that’s not my point. You want me to come over there and wring your neck? Is that why you’re here? You’re in my fucking house, you fuck. And you got exactly three seconds to explain what you’re doing here.”
Smoke took a deep breath. “Flight 1311,” he said. “New York to Helsinki with ninety-seven people on board.”
Roselli stopped. He shrugged. His hands floated upward in the air, palms toward the ceiling. They lingered there, and a long moment passed.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Roselli said. “You wanna talk about that, I got no problem. But now ain’t the time. And this ain’t the place. You got a work related problem, you need to call me and set up a meet. Go home, O’Malley. Call Angela on Monday, she’ll set you up with a time. Then we can talk.”
Smoke didn’t move. “In 1978, I torched twenty-one buildings up in the Bronx. Remember? That was 1978 alone. We did buildings starting in ’74, and I did my last one in ’80. It was a brisk business there for a while. You know how many people died in all those buildings I did? You know how many?”
Roselli waved his meaty hand. “O’Malley,” he said. “I’m telling you. You go on out the way you came in. If you disappear right now, I’m gonna forget this ever happened. You call Angela on Monday, and we’ll set up a time and place. We’ll talk all you want.”
“None,” Smoke said. “That’s how many. We spread the word, cleared everybody out, and nobody died. We even cleared the bums and the junkies out of the real shit-holes, didn’t we? Even gave them a chance to live, right?”
Roselli cleared his throat. “That’s right, we did.”
Smoke reached inside his jacket again. “So what changed? What changed so much that you’re willing to blow planes out of the sky, with women and children and goddamn fucking exchange school students on board? What happened, you fat piece of shit?”
Roselli was silent for a time.
“Times changed, O’Malley. And money changes things. You know that. It was the Russians. You know how those motherfuckers are. There was a guy on that plane, a Moscow guy on his way home. They couldn’t get near him on the ground, so… Listen, O’Malley. Somebody tells you the biggest score out there is you bring down a plane. They’re gonna pay you, maybe you owe them a favor and this is a way to get out of it. Maybe there’s even more to it than that. I don’t give a shit who you are. You do it.”
“You told me it was a bank job. You told me you needed some C-4, a timer, and a blasting cap, something to detonate with. Did I have the stuff? Could I put it together? You said you had some guys who needed to bring down a cinderblock wall.”
Roselli stood from his chair. He sighed, and then managed a small smile. He seemed to like the smile, so he tried on a bigger one. It worked for him. He showed his teeth.
“I didn’t think you’d do it if you knew what it was for.”
Despite the grin, his eyes flashed malice. They said he would never forget this intrusion, that as far as he was concerned, O’Malley had signed his own death warrant.
Smoke stood, rising on his cane. “I wouldn’t have.”
They faced each other. Abruptly, Roselli’s grin disappeared. “Is that what you came to tell me? That you’re better than I am? Got more principles? If so, it could’ve waited. It can wait forever, actually.” He pursed his lips. “You want more money? That I’ll consider. Call the office, like I said.”
Roselli turned to go.
“Now get the fuck out.”
Smoke pulled the Taser out of his jacket.
“Roselli, one thing before I leave.”
The fat man spun around. His robe flapped open again, exposing the hairy expanse of his chest. “Yeah?”
Smoke stepped forward and let Roselli have it. The twin probes of the Taser flew out and caught Roselli just below the neck. Fifty thousand volts of electricity coursed into Roselli’s body. His nervous system overwhelmed, Roselli jittered and jived, the rolls of fat on his neck jiggling, his teeth clicking together. Five seconds was a long time. He danced a bit more then went down, all three hundred pounds dropping like a lead weight. His eyes rolled back in his head. Drool formed at the corners of his mouth.
Smoke looked down at him.
The fat man’s eyes fluttered, then opened. After a moment, they focused on Smoke again. When Roselli spoke, his voice was a rasp. “You know Ice Pick Tony? Maybe you never had the pleasure. Well, now you’re gonna. I give you my word. Tony’s gonna take you to his place in Queens, hang you upside down in the shower, and bleed you like the fucking pig that you are.”
The probes spent, Smoke used the Taser’s touch stun feature to give him another jolt.
Roselli blanked out. He woke up one more time before the end.
“You ain’t shit, O’Malley. You never were more than hired help. Ask anybody.”
Then he rode the juice again.
Smoke was three miles away when the place blew. He parked on a hillside, looking back west toward the city. Over the far horizon, he could see the glow from millions of lights against the darkened sky. New York City, where the lights never went out.
Much closer, a fireball went up suddenly, literally a ball of fire, on a straight vertical line like a rocket ship headed for orbit. A long rolling boom came across the land a few seconds later. An after-burst went up, a smaller one, and then another boom.
Moments of silence passed, orange and red flames flickering in the night. It was so quiet that Smoke could hear them licking and crackling across the miles.
Then the sirens began.
Smoke got back in the car and started it up. Roselli was dead. Soon, O’Malley would join him, going down with his boat in heavy seas off Orient Point.
And somewhere out there, a new life was waiting for James Dugan.
The children were all the same.
Big Roland Moss was going to fuck with him now, test him a little.
“Hey Cruz,” he said from behind the wheel. “How come me and Fingers here can’t stay in your hotel?” His eyes met Cruz’s in the rearview mirror. A razor-sharp, predator confidence showed there. Cruz knew from that look that Moss was one of those guys who never felt fear. Unlike Cruz, Moss had been born without the capacity. No fear. No empathy. Moss was the ice-cold center of his own barren universe.
He had probably tortured kittens as a little boy.
“You know, it makes us feel a little left out. You get to live it up in some swank place, and we get the Holiday Inn. It don’t seem right somehow.”
His comments elicited an embarrassed giggle from Fingers.
Cruz glanced out the window. The sleek Mercedes nosed its way through Portland’s end of season throngs. The narrow streets of the Old Port – the newly glittering waterfront district – teemed with well-heeled tourists peeking in shop windows or laughing as they stumbled out of the public houses.
“Hey Cruz, I’m talking to you, son.”
Cruz regarded Moss again. Thick neck. Wide brow.
“You ever kill a man by mistake?” Cruz said. He spoke just above a whisper. They could hear him all right up front.
Moss smirked. “Me? I don’t make mistakes.”
Cruz smiled. “I do. Sometimes I get a big guy around me, kind of a pushy type, you know? And I end up misreading his intentions. Maybe he startles me. Better he goes down than I do, right? Can’t be too careful these days. So they put me somewhere by myself. It cuts down on the mistakes I make.”
Moss pulled the car into the cobblestone circular driveway of the Portland Arms Hotel. A man in top hat and tails, white gloves, the whole silly get up, hovered by the door. He eyed the car, ready to pounce.
“I guess I’ll need to remember that,” Moss said.
Cruz stepped out, dossier in hand. He hadn’t been out of the car in nearly six hours. The first thing he noticed was the temperature change – it was colder here than in New York. And New Orleans? Forget about it. He had only just left there this morning, but already it seemed like weeks ago.
Hopefully, they’d be out of here in two days or less. Maybe even by tomorrow night. Otherwise, Cruz was going to have to buy some new clothes.
“Call me if you get anywhere,” he said to Moss and Fingers. He waved off the doorman, and carried his own bag up the steps. The Mercedes pulled out just as he entered the hotel.
Inside, the lobby was all carpeting and polished chrome. The help tip-toed around and spoke in hushed tones. Aging yuppies in lime green cardigan sweaters and sunflower yellow pullovers lounged in overstuffed chairs by the fire. Their cheeks were rosy with the brisk chill of the Old Port, not to mention the flames of the fireplace, and the sherry and port wine in their glasses.
Check-in was effortless and Cruz went straight to his suite.
Once in his suite, Cruz double locked the door. He was on the third floor, so there was no chance of them coming in that way. The only way in was through that thick, solid door. That pleased him. The kids weren’t staying in the same hotel as Cruz for one reason: Cruz had no intention of letting his guard down so some young stud could move up the ladder by putting him in a box.
Cruz poured himself a seltzer from the mini-bar and took off his light jacket. Jesus. It had been a long day. He went in the bathroom and was pleasantly surprised by the two-person Jacuzzi tub built right into the floor. He took the Glock out of his waistband, and laid it on the sink. He removed the rest of his clothes, checked the windows and doors again, then went out to his kit bag. He brought the bag into the bathroom. He locked the bathroom door. He turned on the jets of the tub, as well as the underwater lights. He brought the bathroom phone within reach of the tub. He killed the overhead lights, moved the Glock to the edge of the tub, then settled into the hot bubbling water.
He picked up the gun and chambered a round. He grunted to himself and laid the gun, ready to fire, along the tub basin just above his head and well within his reach. Nine shots if trouble found him here relaxing with his pants down.
He went back into his kit bag. Inside was a six-inch straight razor. He opened the blade, gazed at it for a moment, then brought it into the tub and under the water. He placed it on the bottom next to him.
A gun, and if that somehow failed, a blade. Anybody who tried him while he was in the tub was in for a nasty surprise.
Now he could relax. Facing the locked door, he reached back and put his hands behind him, forming a cradle for his head. The Jacuzzi jets pounded water against his back and his legs, working out on the stiff muscles in his body. He closed his eyes.
They weren’t going to get him. Not like he had gotten Oskar.
How many had Cruz killed?
He wasn’t sure. He had done quite a few in his time. Beginning with those first messy jobs in and around Times Square – the blitzkrieg knife attacks, the shoot ‘em ups in welfare hotels, the guy he had gut-shot six times but who had still managed to run screaming into the street – Cruz had moved onward and upward.
And being apprenticed to Oskar? Well, that was part of what had made Cruz a pro. Oskar was the very definition of the professional – smooth, calm, utterly devastating. Oskar’s was the first death that rattled Cruz, and made him wonder about this life. All these years later, and he was still wondering.
They were doing a job out in Short Hills, New Jersey and they both knew that the time of Cruz’s apprenticeship was coming to an end. For one, Oskar had asked for, and received, permission to retire. For another, Cruz had become a polished and effective killer in their four years of working together. He had always been ruthless. But now he had verve and style. Now he could kill without emotion. He could appear, disappear, and cover his tracks with the best.
Oskar was sixty-three years old. Cruz was twenty-four. Cruz had never counted his own kills. Oskar had his own kills memorized. One hundred and ninety-nine. They had two to do in New Jersey. Oskar had suggested they each take one, and then he would finish with an even two hundred. Cruz thought that a fine idea.
They cruised along a narrow road of estate homes set back in the woods. They were driving a nearly new 1980 Alpha-Romeo Spider. It was small, fireapple red, with a black convertible roof and classic sports car looks. Although it was a sunny day, they had the roof up. The car had been a gift to a girlfriend by one of the men in the house, Mr. Eli Sharon. Eli was an Israeli who had come to the United States to enlarge his fortunes. He was fifty-eight years old and ran penny stock scams. His business partner was an American, forty-four year old Howard Brennan.
The girlfriend was young and beautiful. She was from India. That morning, she had left the house in Short Hills to go shopping. In a parking lot, she had been abducted and taken by van to a house in Brooklyn. The transfer had gone without a hitch. When the girl, shaken and tearful but not hurt, had climbed into the van, Cruz and Oskar had climbed out with her car keys.
The way Cruz understood it, she would not be harmed. Indeed, one of Cruz’s jobs today was to retrieve her passport from the top drawer of her armoire. Very soon, she would book a Tower Air flight from JFK to Delhi. She would settle in back home, maybe find a nice boyfriend her own age. That was the plan, and when they explained it to her, she agreed that it was time for a change.
They pulled up to the gate of the sprawling mansion. It was a wrought-iron gate with electric cattle wire strung along the top, which would issue a non-lethal charge to anyone who tried to climb it. It was a low-level type of security installed by a man who either felt he had few dangerous enemies, or who was confident in his ability to deal with them.
The Alpha-Romeo had an electronic device on the dashboard that sent a signal to an electronic lock box on the gate. Once the lock box recognized the device on the dashboard, the gate slid slowly open. There was no guard around of any kind.
So much for security.
Cruz was driving. It was nice car, a little tight with Oskar’s big shoulders there next to him, but nice nonetheless. He was thinking about buying one. Just from driving it around that day.
“What do you think of this car?” he said.
Oskar sat upright and alert in the passenger seat. He wore thick, round glasses. As always, he wore a suit and tie – today, a suit of light summer linen. His face was lined like that of an old, old man. Oskar wore black gloves, and had a MAC-10 submachine gun cradled on his knees. It had a huge Sionics specialty silencer installed at the end of the barrel. Oskar used to laugh about the MAC. People would get a load of it and all the fight would go out of them. They’d become like jellyfish, ready to do anything and everything he said. Oskar carried the MAC for show – he did his actual kills with the Ruger he kept strapped inside his jacket.
Cruz smiled. Oskar was a man ready for action. Even on his last assignment. Cruz respected that and always would.
“This car?” Oskar mused. “It’ll break down all the time.”
“How do you figure that?”
“It’s Italian. That’s a bad sign. Italians don’t make good cars. You want a good car, then spend the extra money and get a German car. The Germans, God help us, do everything well.”
“Even if you say so yourself.”
Oskar shrugged. “I don’t say it because my parents were from Germany. I say it because it’s true.” He laughed, and Cruz laughed with him.
They drove up along the tree-lined and curving avenue that passed for a driveway. If all was correct, the servants had been given the day off today. All was correct, Cruz knew. All was always correct.
He drove the car up the driveway, which ended at a circle in front of the grand entrance to the house. Next to, and attached to the house, was a four car garage. Eli was rich – there must have been good money in manipulating stock prices – but he was no Rockefeller. Cruz felt a stab of pity for him. An Italian sports car, a nice-looking exotic girlfriend, a four-car garage and a big house in Short Hills. The guy probably saw himself as a new-age sultan. Untouchable.
He was about to find out how wrong he was.
Their garage door was the second from left. The smoked windows of the car, combined with the glare of the sun, would probably thwart anyone from inside the house seeing into the car and alarming themselves. The device on the dashboard opened the garage door as well, much as the girl said it would.
Everything was normal. The girl had arrived home from shopping and had just slid into her normal position in the garage. The power garage door slid shut behind them. As it did so, the automatic overhead light came on in the garage.
Cruz checked his guns one last time. Beside him, Oskar did the same. Cruz favored a big. 44 Magnum in those days. Its silencer was huge as well. Howard was to die first, with a blast from the Magnum. This would intimidate Eli and get him to open the safe. There was a diamond in the safe that was on its way to Los Angeles tomorrow. Besides that, any easy cash lying around, Cruz could have it. This was a loot for cash job. Nothing else was to be touched except for the passport. And after all was said and done, Oskar could end his career with a bullet to Eli’s head.
“Ready?” Cruz said to Oskar.
Oskar had checked and rechecked the MAC and the Ruger. “Of course.”
They exited the car. The door to the house was locked, but of course there was a key on the girl’s ring. Cruz opened the door and it gave upon a large kitchen with an island in the middle and several workstations. Huge pots hung down from the overhead rack.
They passed through the kitchen, walking quickly.
“There you are my dear, we’re in the sitting room,” a voice called. “We have some wine for you.”
They turned a corner and here was the sitting room. Two men sat in easy chairs. Eli was the one on the left, the one with a large mole on his cheek. Cruz knew both of them from the dossier. They were fat men, and Cruz felt another pang of embarrassment for Eli. He was the fatter of the two, a corrupt middle-aged man with a lot of money. He thought he had the love of a beautiful young woman. Maybe he thought he had swept her away with his abilities as a lover, yes? Cruz wouldn’t put it past him. Rich men on the verge of violent death were prone to making such miscalculations. The girl had given them everything they needed to reach this man. She had done it in a heartbeat, to save her own life.
Eli and Howard gazed at Cruz and Oskar. Oskar held up the MAC as if it needed amplification, and Eli nodded.
“I have money,” Eli said.
“So do we,” said Oskar.
Cruz couldn’t resist. “The girl was with you for your money,” he said. “There was nothing else.”
“No, it was love,” Eli said.
Oskar said nothing.
Cruz paced into the room. “She went home to India today,” he lied. “Next week she’ll have a new lover. Probably a young man with a hard body who drives a Porsche and will inherit his father’s fortune.”
“Still, I know her. It was love.”
Cruz shrugged. Leave it at that, then. It was love. He took a step forward and shot Howard in the forehead with the Magnum. In the second before Cruz pulled the trigger, Howard squinted and cringed, but made no other move. The shot made very little sound, but the man’s head came apart with an audible crack. Brains and bone flew. A mirror against the wall twenty feet behind him smashed into a dozen large pieces.
Eli’s eyes went very wide.
“It’s in your interest to tell us some things,” Oskar said.
Eli talked a lot. It seemed he had a lot to say. One thing he described was the safe’s location and the combination. Then he opened it for them. At the end of it all, Oskar finished him with a gently laid bullet to the forehead. It was almost a blessed relief, by the look on Eli’s face.
Oskar went about pulling some things from the safe. First, he laid his gun down. He opened a pouch and placed the diamond inside it. It was quite a thing to behold, that diamond. Then it disappeared into the bag.
Cruz stood behind and about ten feet away from his teacher.
They had each gotten their own dossiers for this operation. Oskar’s had included descriptions of Eli, Howard, the girlfriend, and the diamond, as well as the layout of the house. Cruz’s dossier had included all these things and one more: a description of Oskar and his upcoming retirement.
“Oskar,” Cruz called.
“Yes, yes, one moment.”
“Oskar, you need to turn around.”
Something in Cruz’s voice made Oskar stop what he was doing. He stood very still for a moment, no longer looking at whatever paperwork he held in his gloved hand. Then his back slumped. It had to be a disappointment for things to end in this way.
“It’s like that then, is it?”
“It is.” Cruz felt something well up in his eye. He brushed it away, whatever it was or might be.
Oskar turned around slowly. He gazed wistfully at his Ruger, just out of reach on the table. He made no move toward it.
“You got your two hundred,” Cruz said.
“Yes, I did. Somehow, it no longer tastes very sweet.”
“You were the best,” Cruz said.
“A cold comfort, I’m afraid.”
The two friends stared at each other for a long moment. “A final lesson, if you haven’t moved beyond learning,” Oskar said.
Cruz shook his head. Of course there was time for one last word from the teacher. If only time could stop in this moment. “I haven’t.”
“Avoid the mistakes I’ve made. For one, never try to retire. I gather now that it cannot be done. For two, never flatter yourself into believing you are not expendable. You are. And three, never turn your back on a young man in your charge. Especially one with great potential. Especially one that you loved like a son.”
“End of lesson,” Oskar said.
Cruz shot him four times. The first bullet entered his brain and killed him. Without pain, Cruz hoped. The next three were insurance.
Years before, the first lesson, delivered in Oskar’s clipped no nonsense tone, had gone as follows: when you kill a man, make sure he is dead.
They didn’t call him Fingers just because he was missing some.
One of the things he prided himself on was being able to steal just about any American-made, late model sedan in less than two minutes.
They were in a small seafood restaurant along the waterfront. Nets and lobster traps hung from the ceiling. A huge old steering wheel was mounted on one wall. An ancient anchor stood upright, mounted on a pedestal when you walked in. Fingers had already finished a platter of fried fish, French fries and cole slaw, and Moss was still demolishing the bread bowl that some New England clam chowder had come in.
In a little while, they would head out to the airport and Fingers would pick up a work car out of the long-term parking lot. The Mercedes wasn’t for work – it was for maximum comfort while driving up here. For work, they needed something nondescript, with local plates, maybe five years old but with a good solid engine. Something with a little bit of go power. The body had to be good, no rust, but the paint a little faded, a real middle-class blubber boat. Left there by some hard-working citizen who had parked his car and flown out to see his sister in Ohio for two weeks.
Fingers looked forward to it. In fact, he could hardly sit still. He loved these missions, and no doubt he liked to whack people. But one of his favorite things, although he would never tell a guy like Moss, was stealing cars. Moss would probably relegate grabbing a car to the scrap heap of STUFF THAT HAD TO GET DONE, like reading your dossier, like ditching evidence, like getting to the fucking airport on time. Not Fingers. He loved it when he had to take a car – it was what he had come up doing as a kid – and he liked to show his stuff. At one time, he had practically lived for it. That feeling of moving low and fast, his sneakers barely touching the concrete, his eyes darting, sizing up the cars on the fly. This one? A blue 1995 Oldsmobile Achieva?
This one? Yeah, that’s the one. A green 1999 Chevy Impala.
After he snatched them a car, he and Moss would see about this wetback who cleaned Dugan’s apartment. Put her through her paces. For now, however, it was dinner time. And dinner time was downtime.
“I tell you what,” Roland Moss said in a long, lazy drawl.
Fingers sat across the table from Moss and waited for the rest of his statement. It could be a while before the big man decided to finish it. If there was one thing Fingers knew about Moss after the last couple of jobs he had pulled with him, it was that Moss always talked slow.
He did everything slow. It wasn’t that he couldn’t move fast – he could. Fingers had seen him move with sudden lightning speed. It was almost as if Moss did everything slow on purpose, to allow people to let down their guard.
Fingers watched him destroy the bread bowl, slowly, deliberately tearing its remains apart, and putting them in his mouth. Here was a big lumbering creature of a man. Everything about him said SLOW. He even talked slow – sometimes pausing for what seemed like a very long time between words and even syllables. He claimed that he talked slow so that everyone – even the simplest of simpletons – would understand.
And his sheer size and the crazy mayhem in his eyes meant that his patience was rarely tested. Clerks were terrified of him. His two monstrous hands on the counter, the epic bulk of his shoulders and upper body leaning forward, his body relaxed but the brow of his forehead creased with mild annoyance…
“Son,” he might drawl, letting that word linger, the time stretching out between himself and the startled mouse of a desk clerk below him, “I hope you’re gonna go on and do what I ask.”
This was enough. This was more than enough.
Fingers had seen it happen. Times when he, Fingers, would practically have to throw a tantrum to get what he wanted – and he was a hired killer, for Christ’s sake – Moss merely had to clench his jaw in disapproval.
Six months ago, Fingers had watched Moss break a man’s neck with the same bland expression on his face that he wore right now while eating his dinner. It was a mixture of boredom and detached concentration.
Moss chewed the bread with near infinite care. “The thing is,” he said, his impassive eyes roaming the restaurant, soaking in the other early dinner patrons. “I’m not sure I like that boy.” He nodded, as if in agreement with himself. “It’s his attitude. Rubs me the wrong way.”
“Cruz?” Fingers said, to make sure they were on the same page.
Moss raised his eyebrows, as if to say, “Who else?”
“That’s probably why he works alone, right?” Fingers said.
Moss motioned to the waitress. “Well, he ain’t working alone on this job. If he’s gonna act this way, he might need a talking to.” He cracked his mighty knuckles for emphasis. The waitress, a blond with a young, firm body, and a face and voice that were middle aged from years of smoking, came over.
“Darling,” Moss said, “may I have a cup of coffee and a dessert menu? Any time you get a moment.”
Over his apple pie with whipped cream on top, and two cups of coffee, Moss half-listened as the little monkey chattered away. Hell, let the boy talk. He was just working out his nerves before the job.
“You know what it is?” Fingers said, talking low and fast, glancing around between every statement to see who was looking. “It’s this: I like killing people. That’s why I feel like I got the best job in the world, you know? I go out on a mission, and I know we’re gonna do somebody, I’m like right there, man. I’m ready. I look forward to it.”
That’s how the monkey sometimes talked. He called them “missions.”
“Look at this fucking hand,” Fingers said. He held up the hand with the three missing fingers. He touched his pinky to his thumb, rapidly, three times, like a crab with its pincers. The hand was permanently discolored, an angry lobster red.
“I like this hand. You know why? Because it’s a war wound. I ever tell you how I fucked up this hand?”
Of course he had. Probably three times. But here it came again.
“I blew it up, see? I had a fucking bomb in my hand. And it blew up.” He pointed at Moss with the angry red pinky. “But that’s the kind of life I lead. Action. Everybody should lead such a life. I like to go out on missions where I know there’s gonna be some action.”
“What do you think of this job?” Moss said.
Fingers shrugged. “Retrieval duty. Whatever. I don’t really like it, but I don’t criticize. It looks like a boring one. But you know, maybe we’ll see some action. Who knows? You know, I do what I’m told – I steal a car, whatever – and I shut up about it.”
The fingers of his good hand drummed on the table.
Moss sipped his coffee. Retrieval duty. He didn’t mind it. Money was money. No fuss, no muss. Pick up the old man, find out what he did with the money, and get it back if possible. Then bring the old boy down to New York, with the money or not.
The money, the money, the money.
The dossier said the old boy had killed Roselli and made off with $2.5 mil from the fat man’s safe. Moss mused on this for a moment. He had met Roselli a few times when Moss was bouncing at the club on Bell Boulevard in Queens, knocking around the college boys when they got out of hand. The fat man used to come in there, sometimes alone, sometimes with a couple of guys from his crew, sometimes with a fake tit platinum blonde on each arm.
He had wagged a fat finger at Moss one time. “When I talk, you listen. Understand? When I say jump, you jump.”
He had said this to Moss. To Moss! Didn’t he realize Moss could snap his neck with one hand?
Moss snorted. Roselli was a fat, bossy fuck with a big mouth. Sooner or later, he might have killed the man himself.
In any case, this trip wasn’t about Roselli. Nobody missed Roselli. This trip was about don’t fuck around, and give us back the money you took. The money was the reason there were three of them on this job. One man, on his own, might stumble upon all that money – it was just too tempting.
Moss waved it away. He made plenty of money. The way he saw it, he exchanged his time and his peculiar talents for a high standard of living. He lived alone in a big three bedroom condo in Long Beach, a place he hadn’t been back to in the past month. He had ten suits and fifteen pairs of shoes. He owned a big damn Hummer H2 which he almost never had the opportunity to drive. He had silk shirts and silk sheets. He was busy and that suited him fine. On rare days when there was no work, all he did was he sat on the beach and watched the waves crash. At night, he went to the clubs, sucked down the booze, and threw money away on the whores. He spent big money, and you know what? He could live this life forever.
He wasn’t about to risk all for a one-time grab at the brass ring. Not even thirty yet, and he had already put too many dumb fuckers out of their misery for trying exactly that. He knew, he knew: it was a dumb play. You don’t get away with it. It was a lesson the old boy was about to learn in spades.
Moss didn’t like that fucker. He didn’t like that pocked up face or those beady little eyes. He didn’t like the way he talked down to you, like he was above it all somehow. Cruz was getting old himself. To Moss, he seemed like a guy about to take a fall.
And that was good.
“What do you think, slim?” Moss said to Fingers. “Is it time to get ourselves some wheels or what?”
“Travis, you get down off that goddamn tree!”
From his perch on a white plastic chair on the back porch of Darren’s single-wide three bedroom trailer, Hal had an ample view of the wreckage of his friend’s life. The trailer sat on cinderblocks, surrounded by thirty similar trailers in a house park optimistically named Metro Gardens.
Hal mused on the name. There was nothing metropolitan about this place, and there were no gardens in evidence. The lot was hard-packed earth, with thick bushes along the edges of the property, and the Androscoggin River just past them, close enough to bring the mosquitoes in the spring and summer. The bushes served to obscure the river and the ancient, decaying factory on the other side.
The property was fenced along the river, so the kids from the trailer park wouldn’t be tempted to ford their way across and break into the abandoned factory. Nothing but trouble over there. Nine year-olds smoking pot. Thirteen year-olds having sex. Rejects, maniacs and predators of all kinds would haunt a spot like that. Nobody in this trailer park would want their kids going over there. But it did no good. Hal could see two gaping holes in the fence right from here.
He took a slug of beer and chased it with a sip of Jack Daniel’s. He shrugged his big shoulders. In any case, on a cool October day like today, the skeeters were all gone, and it was still just warm enough to sit out and barbecue back here. Darren had gone back inside to replenish the little six-pack cooler from whence they took their beers.
While Hal waited, the sun went down across the open trailer park from him. In the fading light, he watched Darren’s three kids, ages nine, eight and four, and Darren’s wife Lynn. Lynn, never particularly attractive, had reached her mid-thirties, and was becoming fatter, more sallow, and ever more disagreeable by the day. Come to think of it, that last child, the four year old, was probably a trap set by Lynn – she hadn’t worked since the first one was born, and one more child had put the final nail in the coffin of Darren’s dream that she might ever get another job.
The kids raced around the lot with all the other trailer trash children, shouting and screaming. Travis, the eldest, was the offending tree climber. Lynn stood by a circular clothes hanger, smoking cigarettes and talking with two other mommies going to seed. Now and then, she would turn her attention to the kids and unleash instructions or abuse, depending on what the situation warranted.
Living in a trailer with three kids and Lynn. Man. Not for the first time, Hal reflected that his friend Darren was like a flashlight without a battery. He had worked low-paying, back-breaking shit jobs his entire life. This is where he had ended up. Without Hal’s influence, Lynn would probably be the extent of Darren’s sex life, and he wouldn’t have an extra dime to put in his pocket.
Darren was being sucked under. Lynn spent what she could, and Hal knew, was constantly critical – where they lived, what the kids wore, where they shopped, what they drove. None of it was ever good enough. In Hal’s estimation, Darren needed to leave this bitch and get out of this rat’s nest of a living arrangement. It seemed strange that a big boy like Darren allowed himself to get pushed around and used up like this.
It wasn’t right.
Darren came back on the porch. He smiled with that big jaw of his. Atta boy. His eyes were still blacked, his nose plugged and taped, and that bruise on the side of his neck was coming along good. They had skated by on the damage by telling Lynn they’d been down to Old Orchard Beach drinking in a bar, and got in a scrape with some black boys. Lynn hated those blackies in Old Orchard.
“Only got four beers left,” Darren said. “Guess we’ll need to head out for some.”
Hal smiled, too. The sun was just about gone. Twilight was coming in, and with it, the night’s chill. “Wanna show you something before we do.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
Hal’s grin grew even broader. He was feeling good. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, he was feeling real good. He looked forward to a challenge, after all. And getting even? Boy, was there anything quite like it? Even being around Lynn today couldn’t bring him down.
“Out in the car,” he said.
The two men sauntered, beers in hand, the flask of Jack in Hal’s back pocket, through the gathering gloom and over to the parking lot. They reached Hal’s big Caddy Eldorado. He pressed a button on his key chain and the trunk popped open a few inches, the light coming on inside.
There was no one around.
Back over by the bushes – the woods is what they called them – the kids were still running and screaming. They had flashlights now.
Lynn’s voice floated across the lot. “Okay, come on you kids. Get in the house. Now, I said.”
“Whatcha got?” Darren said.
Hal opened the trunk. Lying there, amidst the jack, the tire iron, some recyclable beer bottles, and a few assorted sundries, was the gun case.
“Oooooh,” Darren said.
“You know that Mossberg 20-gauge I had my eye on down to Kittery Trading Post? The single barrel with the pump action?”
“I guess I do.”
Hal unzipped the case and yanked out the shotgun. “Went down and bought her last week. I forgot to mention it in all the recent excitement.”
Darren giggled like a boy. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Just like Darren to be a step behind. Why else would it be in the car? “Sure am, kid. Thought I’d bring it with us down to Portland tomorrow night, see what Little Miss Lola does with her prize pussy when she gets a look-see at that big barrel.”
Hal took another slug of his beer. His smile was wider than ever.
After Lorena finished in the garden, she lingered for some time in Smoke’s apartment itself. It was a tiny place, a bachelor’s home in every way, with a double bed in one supposed room, then through a wide open double doorway to the kitchen and dining area, then out the door to the back. The cats had a little doorway they could squeeze through in the lower panel of the back door itself. Oddly, Smoke kept triple locks on both doors, and sometimes at night he placed a t-bar against the bottom, secured with a bolt which he had mounted into the floor.
She teased him sometimes about this. “Who are you afraid of, Smoke? Will the secret police come to get you?” “I am like the janitor – I have so many keys on my chain. They are all to get into your home.”
Smoke didn’t keep the place very clean, and sometimes Lorena cleaned up after him. She didn’t clean too often, though, because Smoke had a woman who should take care of that for him. Lorena was well past the age of competing for a man.
She sighed, not realizing she had done so, then stood and left Smoke Dugan’s apartment. Once outside, she walked the half-mile to the Shaw’s Supermarket near the bridge and purchased some milk and eggs, and a very few other items she needed at her own small apartment.
She walked along the darkened street toward her own home, not far from that of Smoke Dugan. It was quiet and chilly, and dead leaves rustled as they blew along the ground in the breeze. Lorena could just see her own breath.
A man came toward her. He was a tall man, a young man who looked strong. She imagined that if she were not a mixed race old woman from Central America, this young man would offer to carry her bags home to her apartment. Instead, because things were as they were, he would ignore her. She did not believe he would do this out of spite, but out of fear. People were afraid of one another, of reaching out and being together. This she knew about people. The boy would probably fear that if he offered assistance, she would answer him in Spanish and he would not be able to respond.
The young man passed her without so much as a glance in her direction.
There was something unusual about him, but she wasn’t sure what it was. Only after he passed did she realize that his right hand was missing nearly all of its fingers. He seemed to have a pinkie and a thumb, and that was it.
She continued to walk, allowing the weight in her hands to settle deeper, pulling down harder on her shoulders. La Mula, she called herself. The Mule. She was a strong as one, and could be just as stubborn. She was a fool for engaging in these fantasies about people and their nature. The boy hadn’t given her a thought.
Here came another man up this same deserted street. Also a young man. What is he thinking, Mula? Will he help you with your bags?
The man approached slowly, but this man was very definitely looking right at her. She thought she didn’t like the look in his eyes. He was a big man. She stopped and studied him carefully. He was very big. Violent crime was almost unheard of in this city, but this one had the dark, hard and wild light in his eyes – that light she remembered from so many murderers in her homeland. There was hard laughter in his eyes, but no real mirth or warmth. Nothing was funny.
She thought of the man who had just passed. Perhaps she could run to him. She turned, and he was right behind her.
A hand clamped on her hair from behind and pulled her backwards. She dropped her groceries. She felt, rather than heard the eggs smash. She tried to turn, to struggle, but to no avail. The big man had her in a powerful grip and was dragging her along by her hair, keeping her off-balance.
The smaller man approached her quickly. He smiled and punched her in the eye. It hurt, it was horrible, it was shocking. Then he hit her again. Things were moving too quickly. Her heart beat rapidly.
She fell to the ground.
They pulled at her, yanking her along the sidewalk. Dios mio! What did they want? Her bag, she realized. They were pulling her along the ground by her hand bag. She felt her dress, then her skin tearing as she bumped along the gravel. They wanted her money, her little bit of money.
Well, they could have it.
She let go of the bag. At last, she thought. They would be gone.
But no. Now one stood over her and kicked her. It was the small one. He delivered swift, sharp punishing kicks to every part of her body. He kicked her in the head. She grew dizzy. The world went dark, then swam back into focus. Then went dark again. She saw the big one, standing nearby watching the little one kick her to her death.
As she faded from consciousness, she realized the madman was still kicking her.
Sirens howled somewhere close by.
Cruz heard them approaching as he sat slumped and bleeding to death in the front passenger seat of a black car. He was shot, he didn’t know how many times. He looked over at Carmine the Nose, who had just crawled into the driver’s seat. The Nose was a bloody mess. His intestines hung out into his lap where Cruz had gutted him. His big hands caressed the steering wheel.
“Where to, old buddy?” the Nose said.
Cruz opened his eyes.
He stared up at the ceiling of the bathroom in his suite at the Portland Arms. His head rested on the marble apron of the tub. The water was hot. The jets were still going. Steam rose all around him.
The bathroom phone was ringing near his head. It echoed against the tiled walls and the marble floor. He reached back, brushed the gun to make sure it was still there, and picked up the phone.
“Yeah?” he said.
“You awake? It’s Moss.” Moss, the clown who didn’t like staying at the Holiday Inn. He wasn’t supposed to disturb Cruz tonight, not unless he got to the Guatemalan.
“Listen son, we got the wetback.”
Cruz stifled a yawn and sat up in the tub. “Tell me.”
There was a long pause over the line. “We got her.”
“What else did you get?”
Cruz could practically hear Moss’s lazy grin cracking ear to ear over the phone.
“We got all the keys to Dugan’s place.”
Smoke left Lola’s apartment around eleven the next morning. Both Lola and Pam had gone to their day jobs, so Smoke lounged around for a bit before heading back to his own place. He was in no hurry, and it was a nice day.
He came down the stairs into his apartment, still with lingering thoughts of Lola and her body from the night before. Last night had been better, thank you. It was almost noon and she should be on a break soon.
Yessir, he was a lucky man.
A large pile of fur was heaped on the linoleum floor of his tiny kitchen. At first, he thought one of the cats was merely sprawled out there. It was Bubbles, a big lazy yellow tabby. Sprawling out on the floor was nothing new for Bubbles. In fact, Smoke barely looked at the cat.
Then he did.
There was something abnormal about the way Bubbles lay there. Smoke’s heart raced off in a wild tattoo. Rat-a-tat-tat. The cat looked almost like it had been broken, or even smashed. Smoke approached Bubbles cautiously.
His heart pounded in his chest.
Run, you idiot.
The cat was demolished. It was humped and bloodied, like it had been tortured and killed by a cruel and sinister child. A streak of blood stained the linoleum beneath its carcass.
He turned and a man stood behind him. The man had just emerged from the bathroom hallway. The man was short and dark, in jeans and a white T-shirt, covered by a light autumn jacket. His face was pock-marked and scarred along the side. He looked to Smoke like a man in his mid-forties, maybe a little older. Behind him stood a much taller, much broader young man. The kid was huge. He wore a leather cap on his head. Greasy brown hair strung down from it. He had a cowlick on the front of his hairline and a wild light in his eyes.
Smoke had seen the look before. It was the look of a crazy kid who should have been locked up someplace, but instead was hired as muscle. It was the look of those guys who went on bank jobs, then suddenly started spraying civilians with gunfire. It was a bad, bad look. It was the look of murder for hire.
Smoke turned to bolt out the back door, but another young man stood there. This one was slim, clean-cut, not as crazy looking, nor nearly as big as the other one. This kid’s eyes said he had seen a few jobs, and did exactly what the bosses told him. This was the survivor type. The survivor type with a Colt. 380 in his hand.
The back yard was blocked, and the way to the stairs was blocked. Smoke couldn’t outrun these guys. He had his cane, but he couldn’t outfight them. He couldn’t do anything.
Damn! So stupid to wait and wait and wait. Now it was too late.
He had had a bad feeling, and here it was in the flesh. The bad feeling personified.
“Can I help you fellows?” he said.
The small, dark man lit a cigarette.
“That’s okay, go ahead and smoke. I don’t mind.”
The man shrugged. “James Dugan, right? That’s what you call yourself these days?”
“Who wants to know?”
The kid ambled out from behind the small man. He was big, even bigger than at first glance. Smoke watched him approach. It was like watching a dark and terrible storm move in across a valley. He angled toward Smoke across the dingy linoleum, taking his time, not hurrying at all.
“Son,” he said. “The man asked you a question. It ain’t polite to answer him with a question.” He cracked his knuckles.
“You guys are in my home. Ever think of that? That puts me in charge of asking questions.”
The big man feinted with his left hand, then delivered a hard right cross to Smoke’s jaw. Smoke stumbled backwards, crashed into the kitchen table and went right over it. Two cats scattered as he rolled over and fell to the floor.
The kid came, and smiling, stood over him. His huge hands, like the mechanical claws that sift through scrap metal at the junkyard, reached down and picked Smoke up by the shirt. The kid backed up and swung him around in a large circle, then let him go. Smoke felt himself crossing the room as if he were flying, his feet barely scraping the ground. He hit the far wall, plowed into it, then bounced off and stumbled backwards. He turned, pinwheeling for balance. He spilled and slid across the floor.
Then the small man was standing over him. Smoke looked up at that hard face. The scar stood out in sharp relief. Smoke thought of the old dueling societies in Germany, where the guys would wear the scars as badges of honor. The guy took a drag on his cigarette.
“Friend,” the guy said. His voice barely rose above a whisper. “I want to talk to you. And I want you to look at me when I do. Right here, in the eyes.”
Smoke did. The eyes. Somehow, this guy had eyes that were worse than the madness of the kid’s eyes. It was almost like there were flames behind those eyes, and the guy was burning in there, burning in a hell you would have to live through to appreciate. Smoke had also seen this look before, but maybe never this strong.
The eyes held him. “Do we understand each other?”
More whispers from the little man. “Okay. Here’s the rules. I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to answer them. You’re not in a position to act funny. You’re not in a position to ask me any questions. Do you still understand?”
Smoke nodded again.
“What? I didn’t hear you.”
The scarred face smiled. “Good. Now, I want to show you something.”
He stepped aside and again the giant psychotic kid appeared. This time he was holding one of the cats. Melon was the cat’s name, so called because it was orange and as fat as a melon. Smoke’s heart sank at the sight of the kid with Melon. The kid stroked Melon’s fur, and even from the floor Smoke could hear the cat purring.
“That’s a good kitty,” the big boy said.
Jesus, after just watching this kid knock the piss out of me. Talk about betrayal.
Then the kid stopped stroking the cat and instead grabbed it roughly by the head. He turned the cat’s head to the left with a sudden and vicious snap. The cat went limp and the kid dropped its carcass to the floor. Two cats dead. It was a fucking cat holocaust.
The kid would pay for the cats, Smoke decided. In blood.
The scarred face appeared again.
“James Dugan, also known as Walter O’Malley?”
Smoke spit at the face. “Fuck you.” These guys were worse than the cops.
The karate works.
Lola sailed through the morning on that thought alone. Two big men had tried to take advantage of her – face it, they had tried to rape her – and she had kicked ass, just like the tattoo on her back said. It had been scary, sure, but now that it was over and gone, she wanted to do it again. This time, she wanted to go in knowing she would fight, and just get in there and, and, and… KICK ASS.
God, the feeling. She had put their lights out in seconds flat. She could have really hurt them both. By the end there, they were both completely under her power. Even now, she felt a tingle of electric excitement up her spine at the thought of it.
Smoke hadn’t been ready for her last night. That feeling of power, well, it had translated into everything. Friday night had churned up a lot of memories for her, had made it hard, but now it was clear, after last night, that it was for the good.
She felt great, that was the simple matter of fact.
She had lunch monitor duty today so she couldn’t call Smoke. Now she could barely wait until her afternoon break so she could check in with him.
It was a long day.
Smoke opened his eyes and was surprised to find himself on the floor again. For a while, they had put him in the chair.
He looked at the floor around his head. The linoleum was tacky with blood.
The skinny kid, the one who was missing the fingers, stood over him again. “Well, look who’s awake. Your girlfriend called a while ago. She left a message on the machine. She knows you’re out in the shop working. She just wanted to tell you that she loves you.”
The kid’s eyes showed rising good humor. He had a sheet of paper in his lobster claw hand. He referred to it, then looked up with a smile. “That would be Lola Bell, right? Twenty-five years old, African-American, resides at 210 Vesper Street in Portland? Top floor apartment?”
Jesus, Lola. He had to keep her out of it at all costs. It didn’t matter what they did to him. Lola was not part of this. She knew nothing about this. He wouldn’t take the bait. He wouldn’t say anything about her. If he let the comment die, perhaps they would forget about her. If he could get a message to her somehow, tell her to run…
The big one placed another dead cat on Smoke’s chest. He took a moment to get it positioned just so. Then he stood up. Smoke pushed the cat off. This time it was Minefield, so named because he was the three legged cat in the bunch. Three down and three to go. He looked around. The others appeared to have scrammed. Good for them.
The big guy settled into the chair. He pulled out an emery board and began filing his nails. “Smoke, she called you. Is that some kind of nick-name?”
“What does it sound like?”
The kid smiled. He rolled his eyes slowly. “Son, you’re gonna learn to appreciate how patient I been with you thus far. Like that cat of yours…” he gestured at the crumpled remains of Minefield. “I took all that time to get it just so. It was a piece of art how I had it. Then you knock it away. What you think of that, Fingers?”
Fingers flashed a silly grin. “I think it’s rude.”
“Rude. That’s exactly the word I would have picked.”
The dark man, Cruz, came out of the bathroom. He was not smiling. Another lit cigarette dangled from his mouth.
“O’Malley. I see you’re awake. Anything you’d like to tell us about your life up until now? Like, for instance, what you did with about two and a half million dollars you took from Roselli when you killed him.”
Smoke lay back on the linoleum and sighed. “I’m telling you. You have the wrong man. My name is James Dugan. I’m retired. I used to be an engineer for Sikorsky down in Connecticut. Now I make toys and adaptive devices for retarded children.”
Cruz nodded at the big kid.
Slowly, the big man moved his bulk out of the chair. He flexed his triceps as he did so. He cracked his knuckles. He smiled.
“Friend, I’m starting to get bored, you see what I mean?”
Then the pain came again. And when the pain came, Roselli was dead and Smoke was holed up in a motel all the way out in Greenport, Long Island, waiting for the bad weather to come in, with all that money stashed in a satchel under the bed. The urge was there, to take that cold, hard cash and spread it out all over the bed and just lay in it and roll around in it, but he fought off the urge. When the storm came, he finally made the call, yeah, Walter O’Malley making reservations on Block Island, half way between the North Fork and Rhode Island. Yeah, I’m coming in on my own boat, is that okay? The weather? Oh, it’ll be a wet one, but I’ve been in worse than this. Sure, I’ll see you tonight.
Then he was out on the Boston Whaler, in the dark and the rain and the wind. Whitecaps topped the waves, the foam tearing off and blowing in his face. He went inside and set the charges in the cabin. He set them against the hull, one on each side, wet hair dripping in his eyes, Smoke working feverishly as the boat rocked and listed. He lowered the red fiberglass dinghy, no ordinary dinghy, a sturdy survival boat that would rock and roll. He loaded up and powered out of there. The Whaler was on its own.
He heard the muffled blasts moments later, and then the Whaler was gone. And O’Malley was gone. And bedraggled Dugan raced across heavy seas toward New London, where his car was waiting like a trusty dog, man’s best friend. He could take that car and run anywhere. Anywhere at all, and wherever he went, it would never be far enough. So when he found a place he liked, he stopped. He stopped way too soon.
Sometime later, Smoke opened his eyes.
His wrists were cuffed together, and they were attached to a rope slung over one of the exposed pipes that ran along the ceiling. The whole thing was pulled just tight enough that his toes barely touched the ground. He looked up at his hands. They had turned purple while he was passed out. He knew he had lost some teeth. In fact, he had seen them come out. It was possible that he had some bruised ribs as well. At least bruised. Maybe broken.
A new and terrible thought had occurred to him. “How’d you get in here?” he gasped to nobody in particular.
The one they called Fingers floated in front of his face. He grinned. His face looked like a carved up Jack o’ lantern. In his own way, he was as bad as the other two.
“We talked to the housekeeper.”
Shit. Lorena. She had been swept up in this, too.
“Where is she now?” Smoke said. He felt his Adam’s apple bob. He was afraid of the answer, afraid of everything now, afraid of what he had wrought with his goddamned stupid laziness. He had played a role, he had pretended to be a normal person, and then he had come to believe in the role himself. He had lied, and then he had bought the lie.
“She’s sleeping, brother,” Fingers said. He raised his eyebrows.
Smoke went numb.
Time passed as he hung there. He noticed the shadows were growing long outside. The light was starting to fade from the sky, and from the room. Death would be a relief of sorts. It was the money, of course. That was why they were here, and it was the only thing keeping him alive. They wanted to know where the money was.
It seemed like an effort even to blink.
There was pain everywhere in his body, and now that he thought about it, that was probably a good thing. They hadn’t severed his spinal cord, for instance. If ever he got away from these guys, he’d still be able to walk.
The beginning of a plan began to form.
Cruz stood in front of him. “You’re a trooper, O’Malley. I’ll give you that much. You can take a beating. We’re getting tired of it, actually. You see, we don’t like beatings. They’re slow. They don’t work on old-school tough guys like you. But our orders were not to hurt you too bad. You see, we had to keep you presentable in case that money was in the bank somewhere and we needed you to go in and get it.”
He shrugged, as if to himself. “But I guess it didn’t work. So when it gets dark out, we’re all going to take a little ride down to New York. You’re going to talk to some people down there about what you’ve been up to these past three years. Then you’re going to officially retire.”
“Well, that’s nice to know,” Smoke said. “I’ve been looking forward to retirement.”
Cruz nodded to the other two. They untied the rope from the ceiling and Smoke collapsed in a heap on the floor. The back of his head hit the worn floor hard, but it was just another pain to add to the list. Still, he faded in and out for a few seconds.
Cruz hunkered down next to him. He stood in a squat like a farmer, like he might run his hands through the deep rich soil. Smoke figured he couldn’t stand like Cruz was doing now even on his best days.
Cruz’s voice took on a conspiratorial tone.
“They’re going to kill you. You know that already. What you don’t know, and what you’re probably wondering, is why they’re bothering to bring you down to New York when we could do it just as easily here. I’m going to tell you, you know why? Because I don’t like to see anybody suffer needlessly, and you seem like a pretty good guy.”
“Thanks,” Smoke said. He made an effort to swallow.
Cruz went on. “You worry them, you understand? Here’s a guy who’s involved in big jobs over the years, suddenly up and disappears. Kills a guy. Steals a lot of money. Sinks his boat in a storm. You didn’t think anybody bought that lost at sea bullshit, did you?” He smiled. “No, nobody bought it. They’ve been looking for you the whole time. You’re an important man.”
Cruz paused, as if in reflection.
“There was something you did that had to be kept real quiet, am I right? Yeah, I am right. So they want to know who you talked to about this thing during three long years away. Did you talk to girlfriends? Did you talk to a shrink? To a priest?”
“I didn’t talk to anybody,” Smoke said, giving up the charade that he wasn’t the man they wanted. “I kept it to myself.”
Cruz turned to look at the two men standing behind him. Then he turned back to Smoke. “And the money?”
“Safe deposit boxes. Six different banks. Four here in town. One in Boston. One up in Quebec City. In case I had to run.”
Cruz nodded solemnly. “I believe you. But they’re not going to. They’re going to torture you, you understand? They’re going to cut your teeth out, one by one. They’re going to crush your balls. They’re going to break your fingers and toes. They’re going to impale you through the ass on a stick. They’re going to cut your eyes out. They’re going to do whatever they want. If you talked to anybody, they’re going to find out, and it’s going to be a slow process. The way you can beat that, and die quickly, is to tell them everything up front, right away.”
Smoke started to shake. “Look,” he said. His words tumbled out in a torrent, a flood of chatter. “You win, all right? You win. Am I keeping my mouth shut? No, I’m not. I told you where the money is. We can get most of it tomorrow, if you want. And I didn’t tell anybody. I can prove it, too. For the first couple of years I kept a diary. I wrote in loose-leaf notebooks almost every day. I kept stacks of them. I couldn’t keep it in my head, but I was afraid to tell anybody. For just this reason – I didn’t want to get anybody in the soup with me when you guys eventually showed up. I probably even wrote about stashing the money in the banks. I don’t remember now. But you can look at them. We got all night, right? The banks are closed by now. If we hadn’t spent all day with this…” He gestured at the floor around himself, the dead cats, the blood, his own crumpled form, and somewhere out there, his dead friend Lorena, who only wanted to have a garden.
“…with this bullshit, you could’ve gotten the money…” Abruptly, he started crying, and that surprised even him. But it hurt. It hurt so bad, and they had hardly even fucking started yet. New York was going to be worse. He knew that. He knew how bad it was going to be. His body was wracked by sobs.
“You can have the fucking money. Read the notebooks. It’s all in there.”
Cruz smiled. “Okay, notebooks. That’ll be a start. It won’t be proof that you didn’t talk to anybody, but it might make things easier on you. Where are the notebooks?”
“I keep them out in the workshop.”
Cruz looked at the two men standing by the doorway, watching the sun go down. “Moss, go check out those notebooks.”
The big man smiled, apparently at the thought of this little man giving him a direct command. “You heard the man, Fingers. Go on and get those notebooks out of the shed. We can see what our friend’s been up to all this time.”
Smoke shook his head, the tears still flowing. “The kid will never find them by himself. They’re in there under about a million different things. He’ll never be able to figure out all my junk.”
An amused, mocking light came into Cruz’s eyes.
“You know if you try anything funny, I am personally going to cut your left eye out. You realize that, right? You can’t get away from us, so don’t let something in your mind convince you otherwise. It’ll make your life, what little is left of it, a lot harder.”
Smoke shook his head. “I know all that. I’m just trying to help. The kid won’t find the stuff. It’ll take him half an hour. I’m not even sure where they are myself. But I’ll do a better job of finding them than he will.”
Cruz gestured at Smoke, and Smoke lay there until the two young men came over to help him. They grabbed him under the arms, and lifted. Smoke let his head loll backwards as they raised him.
Then he was standing. “I need my cane,” he said.
Cruz was right in front of him.
“Never mind your cane. Fingers here will help you walk.”
Smoke allowed Fingers to support him as he and the kid passed through the garden backyard and approached the workshop. Cruz followed behind them. They passed the little grave marker for Butch.
“You used to have a dog, Dugan?”
“Not me. The dog was buried there when I got here. I never felt like digging it up.”
Fingers leaned Smoke up against the wall of the shed, and handed him the key chain they had taken away from him earlier. Smoke worked the key in the lock and pushed the heavy door. It creaked as it opened. The shadows were long inside the workshop.
The kid shoved Smoke through the door and Smoke bounced across the room, then fell to the dusty floor. He was lying below the window that led to the back alley, and from there, the street. That back alley was overgrown with weeds that came right up to the window. He locked that window whenever he was away from the shed. But he kept the lock well-oiled and ready to open. It got hot in there, some days.
Fingers laughed at him. “You know what, old man? You’re pathetic. This is the easiest job I been on in my life. You know what I mean? I mean, we didn’t even hurt you. Not really.”
Smoke reached up and used the window to claw himself into an upright position. He leaned on the window sill. He reached up to the top of the window and clamped his hand on the lock. Motes seemed to float in front of his eyes. He was going to pass out again, and soon.
“The stuff is over here somewhere,” he said. “Look, can you turn that overhead light on? I can’t see, I need some light if I’m gonna see over here.”
“Do it yourself,” Fingers said.
Obnoxious kid. “Can’t you just do it? You guys come here, beat the shit out of me, and tell me I’m gonna be killed. Then you push me down onto the floor of my shop. I can’t even fucking walk, you know that? Shit. Fuck it, I’ll turn the light on myself.”
He made a move like he would turn around and pull the chain on the light, the simple hanging bulb. If only it was right there behind him. If only he could move a little better. If only he wasn’t so sore from the beating he had taken. He turned around wearily, creakily, gazing upward at the bulb. It was dark out, getting darker.
“What’s taking so long?” Cruz called from somewhere outside. It sounded like he had drifted back toward the house.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Fingers said. “I’ll turn on the fucking light, you gimp.”
Smoke braced himself as the kid moved into the room behind him. It was too bad it was just he and the kid in here. He wished it could have been everybody. Okay, this would have to do. His hand quietly turned the lock on the window. He imagined himself yanking it open then leaping through, blasting head-first through the bug screen, propelled by both his legs and arms. It would take everything he had.
Fingers played with the chain. “I can’t seem to get this thing to…”
Come on, kid. Light it up.
“You gotta do this fucking thing, you gimp.”
“Why? You can’t turn on a fucking light?”
“All right,” Fingers said. “I got it.”
Smoke saw the flash of light played out against the wall. He heard the tiny pop of the light-bulb going and then he felt the sudden heat on his back. An instant later he heard the kid start to scream.
It was loud, like a siren.
Smoke wrenched the window open and sailed through, his back in flames, the fire eating away at the hair on top of his head. He fell to the ground in the alley behind the shop, rolling to put out the flames on his back, patting out the flames on top of his head.
The inside of the shop was already on fire. With the paints he kept in there, the thing was going to blow sky-high. He saw a shadow stagger through the bright orange and yellow of the flames. It was the kid, lit up like a torch. He screamed for only a second longer, then went silent, and keeled over. Smoke pictured the kid inhaling fire. His larynx ruptured, the scream had died almost before it began.
The kid was a goner, but the other two weren’t. Smoke dragged himself up the footpath between yards in the gathering dark. Behind him, the shadows leapt and danced in red and amber.
Precious seconds passed.
Smoke turned right on the quiet street. No one was coming. No one was running. Soon though, they would all come soon enough.
Paint cans. Gunpowder. Blasting caps.
These were just a few of the things he stored in that shed.
He thought of the two ladies, old biddies, sisters, who owned the house. They could have been twins, but after so many decades, who could tell? Neither one stood five feet tall. They both had their white hair pulled back into buns. Neither one could hear worth a damn. They were eighty if they were a day. He rented his apartment from them, and they lived upstairs. How far was that shed from the house? Thirty yards? Less?
The neighbors, the firemen, someone would come and get them long before the house was threatened – he felt sure of it.
He lost his balance and fell into his neighbor’s dense bushes. His vision swam and darkened. He crawled deeper into the hedge.
He heard the explosion just before he lost consciousness again. The sound was deep, like far away thunder. It made an impression in the air, like a wave on the ocean. The wave passed over Smoke Dugan as he lay in the bushes. His face was lit with the firelight as the flames burst toward the heavens.
At the very end, a thought occurred to him. They knew about Lola.
His eyes rolled back in his head and he slept.
Cruz ran up the street, Moss loping along beside him.
In his mind, Cruz saw Fingers go up in flames again and again. The image was imprinted on his mind. He had stared at Fingers for several seconds too long.
Then the whole shed had blown and he and Moss were over the fence and running together up the block of tidy suburban homes. No signal, no teamwork, just BOOM, and they were gone.
They reached the work car. It was a green Ford Taurus, a couple years old, nondescript, a real piece of shit. It had twenty thousand miles on it. At least it would run for a while. They jumped in. Moss took the wheel and Cruz slid into the passenger seat. Moss started it up. Fingers had removed the lock mechanism. He had left four license plates in the trunk for them, in case they had to switch later. Fingers had done his job. Now he was dead.
Moss was laughing.
“Okay, what’s funny?” Cruz said. He didn’t see much humor in it. The whole job, everything, slipping away in the two minutes it took for Dugan and Fingers to go out to the shed.
Moss cruised past the house with the backyard on fire – ice cold, Moss – burning embers flying everywhere, black smoke funneling into the sky against the red and orange glow. The house was in danger of going up next.
Moss turned slowly onto the main thoroughfare – Broadway, it was called – still cruising slowly. His head did a slow swivel, looking for possible tails. None. Only now did he turn on the headlights. Cruz watched him check the rearview.
Now he sped up into traffic.
“You,” Moss said. “You’re funny. You tried to send me in that shed with the old man. If you had your way, it woulda been me going up in flames. That was the biggest fuck up I ever seen. Only way it could have been bigger was if it had been me.”
Cruz sat back. “I didn’t see you warning him off.”
Moss only shrugged. “You’re the boss, big man. That’s what the dossier says, anyway.”
At this moment, Cruz would love to know exactly what else Moss’s dossier said.
Moss went on: “And you know what? I didn’t mind Fingers. Had a sort of way about him. You didn’t know him, seeing as how you work alone and all, but I did. He was a good kid. Didn’t get scared. Did what he was told, didn’t complain too much.”
Moss nodded at the truth of this eulogy.
Cruz figured it would amount to about the kindest tribute Fingers would get now. If he had a mother somewhere in the world, God knew she had been expecting her boy to go down in flames for years – except without the actual flames.
Sirens began to wail in the distance. As of yet, Cruz didn’t know from what direction they were coming. They stopped at a traffic light. Three or four cars were ahead of them. No one was looking or acting strangely.
“Do you suppose the old man got out?” Moss said.
Cruz regarded the question. He didn’t answer right away. It was his job, they had sent Fingers along with him, God knew what for, and now the kid had been deep fried. Toasted. In his mind, Cruz saw the kid go up in flames again. His insides felt scraped raw. Shit. He cared. He had to get out. He was tired of seeing them die, even guys like Fingers, who had probably lived on borrowed time since he was ten years old, and had deserved his fate ten times over.
We all deserve it, Cruz thought. All of us.
These maniacs had killed the fucking Guatemalan cleaning woman or whatever she was. Why? No loose ends. That was the excuse, anyway. That was always the excuse. The real reason was they had killed her because they felt like it. They had tied her to some cinderblocks and dumped her off of the pilings near one of the lighthouses. It was about twenty feet deep, they thought, and murky down there. Oh, somebody would find her soon or later, sure, but we’d be gone by then. When they had told Cruz about it, he had nearly cried.
But he kept on the face. Impassive. A mask. Hell, he had seen it all before.
A thought surfaced like a shark from the depths of his mind. Dugan’s money was out there, enough money to drop out of sight and get away from all this bullshit. Six safe deposit boxes, four here in town, one in Boston, and one up in Canada. Could it be true? Cruz found himself clinging to the idea that it was true, that most of the money was right here somewhere, and all he had to do was make Dugan go in the banks and get it for him. Tricky, but after seeing what Dugan was capable of, Cruz would be more careful next time. And Moss? Cruz could handle Moss if necessary.
“Yeah,” Cruz said. “I suppose he did. That’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? Getting out? He had the place booby trapped.”
He scanned the streets, looking for what he knew he wouldn’t see – Smoke Dugan, bloodied and battered, his lungs half-seared, limping along with the secret to more than two million unmarked dollars tucked away in his head. No, Dugan was back there somewhere, back near the flames.
Damn! Cruz had done exactly the wrong thing. If he had wanted Dugan, he would have had to risk the cops and the good people of South Portland and wait around back at that house. Instead he had run.
Getting old, Cruz. Getting weak.
“What’s your big plan now?” Moss drawled.
Cruz had one ready. “We go forward,” he said. “Back across the bridge and into the city. We go see the girlfriend. If Dugan, O’Malley, whatever he wants to call himself, lived through that, he’s going to run to her next. Either to warn her, or collect her before he leaves town, but he’s going to get her. And when he does, we’ll already have her.”
“What if he don’t?” Moss said. “What if he just gets the money and leaves?”
“He won’t,” Cruz said. “An old guy like that, he’s going to run for the girl.”
Moss smiled. “All right, I’ll buy it. The girl I saw in the pictures, I’d like to run to her too. Can’t wait to meet her, in fact.”
Moss hit the gas and stolen Taurus took off across the long, winding bridge and toward the city.
Hal had a bad feeling.
He and Darren were parked in the Cadillac, the bucket seats lowered way back, watching the action on the dark, quiet street around Lola’s building. The way they were sitting, Hal could just about scan the area over the top of the dashboard. A moment ago, they had watched two men pull up in a Ford Taurus, park it up the street, and climb out. One of them was fucking HUGE. To Hal, it seemed like his massive arms hung down almost to his knees. He was like a gorilla, only taller. In fact, the big guy had captured his attention so completely that it was only after a moment he noticed the other one – a little guy, thin, dark, wearing a light spring jacket, no doubt with a gun inside there somewhere.
His first thought: cops.
Sure, he had made these guys as the real thing in no time. Lola had called the cops and these guys, plainclothes detectives, were working the case. They were probably doing some follow-up with the victim – cop talk for “let’s go back and ogle that sexy chick some more.”
All these thoughts had passed through Hal’s mind in the first seconds after spotting them. Then they had come down the block, moving fast, and gone into Lola’s little walk-up building. Here’s where it got squirrelly. The building was old. It fronted the street with a red wooden door, right on the sidewalk. The door was locked – Hal had checked it half an hour ago. The big boy had jimmied the lock on the door and had it open in about ten seconds flat. Of course. These locks were to make the straight world feel safer. They were there to keep honest people on the narrow path. They didn’t mean shit to somebody who knew how to take them down.
But why would two cops break into the building?
Easy answer: they’re not cops.
He glanced over at Darren, who was smoking a joint to calm his nerves. The lumpy skin around Darren’s eyes was slowly turning a sickly yellow. Darren smiled and offered the joint. It was clear from the beatific look on his face that Darren had taken the edge all the way off.
“No thanks. Look, do me a favor, okay? Go up the block and break the right taillight on that Taurus those guys popped out of, will you?”
Hal shrugged. “No reason. Just looks to me like something’s going on, that’s all. Boyfriends, maybe, but I doubt it. Boyfriends usually have a key to the front door. A broken taillight ain’t really any harm if I’m wrong, is it?”
Darren climbed out and moved up the block in the darkness.
Simple Darren. The two guys – bad guys, trouble – go in our building. A building we already cased. There’s three apartments in there. The first floor opens on the street, and we already saw a creaking old man enter there just as the sun went down, straw hair swooped back over his head like a cartoon version of a symphony conductor. Then there’s a second-floor apartment, currently empty. Then there’s a third-floor apartment, belonging to Lola Bell / Pamela Gray, according to the mailbox. Roommates, apparently. These guys break in there, and Darren’s wondering why I might want their taillight broken. So I can tail them, you silly fuck.
He loved Darren like a brother, but this is how Darren got to the trailer park. He didn’t think. He couldn’t think.
Hal heard the sound of a breaking taillight. At least Darren got that part right. Here he came now, floating back up the sidewalk like a ghost.
He slid into the passenger seat. “No problem,” he said. The grin seemed permanently locked onto his face.
Hal glanced at the building again. He imagined reaching up and hitting that carved granite face he had seen go in there a moment ago. Just the thought of it made his arms tired. Another woman, a young white woman, her hair pulled straight back, came along the street and entered with what looked like a bag of groceries. She didn’t even stop and notice the door was already open. She just went right inside.
“Well, it looks like we got ourselves a party now,” Hal said.
The pain was like a rotten tooth lodged in Smoke’s skull.
“Shit,” he said. “Motherfucker.”
He stood at the public phone in the parking lot of the Gas-N-Go. Traffic flowed by, the people oblivious to the life and death struggles going on all around them. Lola’s telephone was a loud, obnoxious and constant busy signal. The girl was in her twenties, supposedly of the new modern generation, and she seemed like the only person left in America who didn’t have call waiting.
He slammed the receiver down.
“Shit!” He walked around in a tight little circle.
Only moments ago, Smoke had awakened and crawled through the hedges next to his home. When he reached the end of the hedge, he had lingered in the alley a moment, staring out at the parked cars. Behind him, huge orange shadows had danced on the sides of houses. Every few seconds, his vision had grown dark at the edges and he thought he would pass out again.
The fire department had already come, hosing down the backyard and the shed, which burned intensely. Crowds of people had gathered. Smoke came out and began walking along the street, eyes downcast, his head spinning, limping along at just under double speed. Bad enough just to walk. But worse if people noticed him and saw how badly he had been beaten the same night that his workshop exploded. Either way, he had no choice – he had to get moving.
Now, he stepped a few yards away from the phone. He could still see the red orange glow on the horizon. Cruz was out there now, rolling around like a loose ball bearing. No telling what he was going to do next. Then Smoke realized why Lola’s phone was busy. Cruz was already there. He had taken the phone off the hook – maybe ripped it out of the wall. Maybe Moss had wrapped the phone cord between his hands and…
Shit, Lola. A searing pain ripped through Smoke. It had nothing to do with the beating he had endured. It was the pain of separation, the impotent fear for her safety. His mind raced. He couldn’t breathe. He drifted back to the phone.
Call the cops. Call the fucking cops. Smoke had never called the cops in his life. Call the cops. Call them NOW.
A woman stood there next to him. She was blonde and slim, that kind of early-forties suburban mom who chauffeurs her children in a late model minivan from school to soccer practice to music lessons.
“Sir, do you need that telephone? My cell phone died.”
She smiled, but the smile died when she saw his bloodied face.
“I’m using it,” he snapped.
“Are you all right? Do you need an ambulance?”
He punched in Lola’s number again. This time it rang. Thank God.
It rang and rang.
Finally, she picked it up. Her voice came, upbeat and musical as ever.
Cruz and Moss paced through the second floor apartment.
It stood to reason it would have a similar layout to Lola’s place upstairs. Two bedrooms, a narrow bathroom, a living room, and a combined kitchen and dining room by the front door. This apartment was stripped – no furnishings, half-painted – paint cans, ladders and canvas tarps piled in a corner of the living room. It had that stale, musty smell – that stench of paint and sawdust trapped inside for too long. Cruz looked around. All the windows were closed. The smell was giving him a headache.
It was crazy roundabout bullshit to do it this way. If they had the girl Dugan would have to give himself up. Or would he? Some men would ditch, Cruz knew. It all depended on what the old boy felt for this hot little black girl he had seen in the dossier, and that remained to be seen. If she was just a piece of ass to him, he would leave her behind and run.
And then Cruz would have blown the job and would have one more person to kill, an innocent. Two innocents, including the second girl. Not to mention Moss. He’d have to kill Moss, too, wouldn’t he? Sure. If he blew this job, there was no going home again. Man, this shit was wearing on him.
“It ain’t lightweight,” Vito had said. “You let us worry about the thinking end of it.”
Well, it wasn’t lightweight so far.
Someone was coming up the stairs. Moss pulled his gun and stepped lightly to the door and watched through the eyehole. Cruz heard the person reach the top of the first flight of stairs. Footsteps moved along the hallway.
“It’s a girl,” Moss whispered. “Going upstairs. Must be the roommate.”
Shit, another one. Another innocent in the way of this bullshit job. Cruz flashed to the cleaning woman weighted down in twenty feet of seawater, being picked clean by the crabs and the elements. When they pulled her out of there, they’d have to check the dental records just to know who she was.
Cruz didn’t want to go up there, not with Moss. Moss could turn this thing into a bloodbath. Unless…
He felt the sudden urge and let it carry him for a moment. What would it take? Pull the Glock right now and put three slugs in the back of Moss’s neck. Finish him with one to the brain. Walk out of this building then get in the car and drive.
Without the money.
No. It was too soon. Either do the job all the way through, bring Dugan back to New York, or wait around and get the money. Don’t do neither. The realization came to Cruz like something that had always been there, submerged at the bottom of a deep pool but slowly working its way to the surface over long years. The way you retire, he grasped now, is you don’t announce it beforehand.
Moss turned back to him. “Ready?”
Cruz couldn’t let Moss know just how far he had drifted in the past hour. At least, he couldn’t let him know yet. “Let’s do it,” he said.
“You’ve gotta get out of there!” Smoke shouted. “You gotta get out of there right this minute.” It made no sense.
Lola stood with the phone to her ear. She was distracted momentarily as Pamela came in from work – she had just this moment walked in the door with a bag of groceries from Micucci’s Italian Market at the bottom of Munjoy Hill. She was in her neat work attire. Slacks, a blouse, and a sports jacket. It was neat, but hardly sparkling. She wore sneakers for the long walk up the hill.
“Hey babe,” Pamela said. “You left the door open downstairs again.” She began to put the food away.
“I’m pretty sure I locked it,” Lola said.
“Listen to me! Will you listen to me?” Smoke was babbling, almost incoherent. Something about she had to get out of the house. He was insistent, he was raging, he was out of his mind. She had never heard him like this before.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Wait a minute. What are you saying?”
“I don’t have time to explain,” came his voice. He sounded like he was outside somewhere, next to a highway. Cars were going past him in the background. “Some men attacked me today.”
“What? Some men attacked you? Are you all right?” She thought of Mr. Shaggy and Mr. Blue Eyes. Had they attacked Smoke? Why would they attack Smoke? They could have been following her, seen Smoke, and decided to take out their revenge on him because they knew they couldn’t harm her. Jesus!
“Who were the men? What did they look like?”
“Lola, shut up and listen to me!”
She stopped. She hated that. She hated when any man thought he could end the conversation just by being louder, or by putting on his man-authority voice. If he had been attacked, he needed to tell her about it. But he didn’t have to tell her to shut up. She wouldn’t stand for that. He knew as much, too.
She heard her voice go cold. “I’m listening, but it had better be good, and it had better come with a box of chocolates and some roses.”
He didn’t take the hint, or even stop to comment on it. That, more than anything, made the skin on her back tighten into gooseflesh. He spoke slowly, as if to an imbecile or a child. There was something in his voice…
“Lola, I need you to trust me. Can you do that?”
“Okay, there’s a lot I can’t get into right now. I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I never did, and now you just have to do what I say. Some very dangerous men are in town. They want money from me. I got away from them, but I’m worried they’re coming to get you. You have to get out of there.”
“Smoke, come on. What is this, a game?”
“Go out the back way. Right now. GO!”
Pamela came out of the bathroom, in stocking feet with her shirt unbuttoned halfway down from the collar. She headed back into the kitchen.
A knock came on the door. Lola looked at it. So what? Somebody was knocking. But how did they get in the building? Pamela changed directions and headed for the door. She reached out for the lock and the knob simultaneously. She wasn’t even going to glance through the peephole.
Suddenly, Lola was afraid.
“Lola, you’ve got to get out of there right now. If Pamela is there, you have to take her with you. It’s not safe.”
Pamela’s hand was on the knob.
“Don’t open it!” Lola screamed.
Pamela turned to look at Lola, her eyes puzzled by the sudden outburst. She had unlocked the door, but hadn’t opened it. The door burst open, knocking her backwards. Lola watched Pamela take two stagger steps backwards and fall to the floor.
A man came in. He walked with a swagger. He was huge, with impossibly muscular arms. The hand at the end of one of those arms held a gun. The gun had a large silencer attached to the end of it. He looked down at Pamela sprawled on the worn carpet near the door. Then he looked up at Lola.
Lola dropped the phone.
Cruz followed Moss up the narrow stairway. Moss’s bulk barely fit between the walls. His head nearly scraped the low ceiling.
Moss burst through the door and Cruz padded in behind him, moving fast, moving quietly. Moss backed the black girl, Lola, into the living room with the gun. The other girl, a slim, bookish white girl, was lying on the floor in a daze. Cruz pulled the door shut and locked it.
The girl on the floor stared up at him. Pretty girl, gone numb.
“If you do anything, I’ll kill you,” he said to her. He held up his gun for her to see it better. “It has big bullets. It’ll put big holes in your body. Understand?”
She nodded. Her eyes were wide and hollow like those of a Japanese cartoon.
“Is anyone else here?”
She gazed at him and didn’t answer. Couldn’t answer.
Cruz did a quick sweep of the apartment. He already had one extra witness. He hoped nobody else was in here. God, the bodies were piling up. He didn’t want to think about it. He went into a room. It was a bedroom with a double bed, the headboard against the wall. There was a poster of a black girl in tennis whites on the wall. Black girls played tennis? So much Cruz didn’t know. He picked in the closet. Nothing here, except some clothes, skirts and such. The room was clean. He went back outside.
He paused in the doorway and glanced over at Moss, who had Lola at gunpoint. She wore a pair of black tights and a belly shirt. Her body seemed to defy gravity. Her hair hung down in wild curls. She was something.
Moss looked at Cruz.
He grinned, and gestured at her with the gun. “Whaddya think?” he said.
Just then, Lola kicked out.
Amazingly, she knocked Moss’s gun right up into the air. Her kick – it finished high, nearly as tall as Moss’s head, and the gun flew back up and over his head, into the room Cruz was standing in. It slid across the floor. Moss watched it go. The girl followed up with a punch at Moss’s throat. Moss stepped back just before getting the brunt of it.
“Girl, I never saw anyone kick that high. Not in real life.”
Then she came for him.
Her movements were a blur. Moss blocked her first two punches. He was still laughing, the embarrassed laughter of a ten-year-old boy being attacked by a little girl in his class. Then Cruz saw her knee go into his groin. Moss grunted. A fist connected with his face. He barely moved. It was almost as if he was watching it happen to him. He couldn’t get his engine going. His eyes said that this sort of thing just didn’t happen. She hooked his leg, whirled and elbow smashed him in the face.
He lost his balance, stepping backwards and sideways. She kept coming.
A punch, a kick and down he went. Moss went down.
MOSS… WENT… DOWN.
It was like watching a building fall. Cruz felt the floor shake.
“Pamela!” Lola shouted. “Pamela, get the gun.”
The girl Pamela looked up from her stupor. Her eyes brightened as she became aware of the situation. She was four feet from the gun. Cruz was half way across the room from her. Ridiculous. Imagine if that little girl actually picked up the gun and began shooting it? She probably wouldn’t hit anything, but then again she might. In any event, a lot of shooting wasn’t the answer in this small apartment building in this residential neighborhood.
She crawled across the floor and reached for Moss’s gun.
Despite everything, Cruz felt calm. Very cool. He had seen worse than this. A lot worse. He had seen worse this very afternoon.
He held up his gun again. “Pamela,” he said.
She looked up at him. He pointed the gun at her and drew a bead down the barrel. He didn’t want to kill her. That was the last thing he wanted. Her face was perfectly centered in his iron sights.
There was no way he could pull this trigger.
“Pamela, if you pick up that gun I’m going to kill you. What I want you to do is crawl right back to where you were.”
Long seconds passed.
She backed away from the gun.
“That’s a good girl.”
As Pamela crawled away, Cruz moved in and picked up the gun. Then he backed into his doorway again, where he could get a better view of the whole apartment. He looked back over at Lola and Moss. Moss was up, circling in. He was still laughing, but he didn’t sound as enthusiastic as before. Lola circled away from him.
“Yessir,” he said, almost to himself. “I never seen anything like it.”
She swung and he blocked it with his thick arm, but an instant later her other hand came around and caught him on the side of the head. Then a foot shot up and kicked him in the balls. She danced away, just out of his reach.
“Lola!” Cruz called.
She cast an eye at him, all the while minding Moss.
“I want you to stop now,” Cruz said. “If you don’t, then I’m going to have to kill Pamela. Do you hear me? We’re here to see you. Pamela is worth nothing to us. If you don’t stop I promise I will kill her. If you do stop, I promise I’ll let her live. How does that sound to you?”
Lola faced Moss again.
“Lola, I’m going to kill her right now. Do you understand?”
Sure, she understood. She must have because she hesitated for moment, then let her arms go slack by her sides. She was winded, and she had a fine sheen of sweat on her face. Cruz pictured her dancing at a nightclub with a similar sheen on her. For an instant, he pictured her moving in bed, her body glistening.
“All right,” she said. “You win.”
Moss walked over to her.
“My friend’s going to give you some handcuffs to put on,” Cruz said.
Instead, Moss smacked her hard across the face, an open hand slap. She fell backwards onto the couch.
“The bitch kicked me in the balls,” Moss said. He wiped his mouth with his hand.
Cruz watched as Moss took out the cuffs and slapped them on.
Cruz looked at Pamela. What to do about her?
Moss came over and stuck out his hand. It seemed a foot wide. He didn’t look Cruz in the eye. He doesn’t like that, Cruz thought. Tangling with a little girl, and being rescued by me. He doesn’t like me. Cruz had known this since yesterday, but it was the first time he actually thought the words. Moss didn’t like him. Moss might look for a reason to kill him.
Cruz handed Moss his gun back.
Moss looked down at Pamela on the floor. He toyed with his gun a moment, as if he were thinking everything over.
“You serious?” he said. “You plan on keeping this one?” He pointed at Pamela with the gun. It would take nothing, a few ounces of pressure, a mistake, and he would shoot her in the face.
“I gave my word, didn’t I?”
Moss shook his head. “Son, this is the most fucked up job ever.”
Hal and Darren sat slumped way down below the dashboard of Hal’s Eldorado. They watched as down the block, the two men came out with Lola and the other girl. The smaller guy seemed to be leading Lola along by her elbow. Oh, they weren’t cops, these two. Something deeper was going on.
Hal felt that old tickle of curiosity. This was even better than what they came for, maybe. “Her hands seem to be cuffed to you?” he said to Darren. “You catch a glint of metal there or anything? Both the girls, they got handcuffs on?”
Darren was watching. “I dunno. Can’t tell. What did you think?”
Hal shrugged. “I think I saw something.”
He kept watching. Now he really saw something. Up ahead, the two men opened the trunk of the Taurus and helped the girls inside. What the fuck? They put the girls in the trunk! And the girls went right on in there!
“Did you see that?” Darren said.
“I saw it.”
“What do you want to do? Call the cops?”
Hal’s wheels were turning like mad. “I don’t know. And say what? This girl we were trying to put into porno just got abducted by two other guys? First off, I don’t like to let two guys just walk off with my girl. Second off, I don’t want to just hand this over to the cops. Could be something big here. Could be money involved. Could be Lola needs to be rescued, and we’re the ones who need to do it. What do you say? You want to follow these guys? I mean, if we let them go, what else are we doing tonight? Aren’t you the least bit curious about what’s going on?”
Darren heaved a heavy sigh. “Did you see the size of that guy?”
“I saw him. Don’t worry, partner. I saw him, and we’ll steer clear of him until we’re good and ready.”
“Do I have any other choice?” Darren said.
Hal smiled. “Nope. It’s either this or crawl back to Auburn with your tail between your legs.”
He waited until the Taurus had turned left at the next corner onto Congress Street. Up at this end of town, the top of Munjoy Hill, Congress dead-ended into a quiet street of walk-up apartment buildings and storefronts. Down at the bottom of the hill, it became the main artery for downtown Portland.
Hal pulled out onto the street and cruised to the corner of Congress. The car was up ahead, driving down Munjoy Hill into the lights of downtown.
“We should’ve used handcuffs the other night,” Darren said. “On Lola, I mean. Keep her pacified.”
“Maybe we will,” Hal said. “Maybe we’ll make handcuffs a regular part of the act.”
Hal made a left, and he and Darren followed the Taurus downhill. The naked bulb shone bright white, while the rest of the taillights shone red and yellow. Darren had done a good job. Hal was going to be able to read that thing from a hundred yards back.
Hal knew how to tail.
For a long time, Hal had drifted from place to place and job to job. For a while he worked as a security guard, and that job led to undercover store security, and finally to a gig working with a private detective agency. He spent five years as a detective, then started his own firm and went belly-up in a matter of months. But he was good at surveillance, he knew that much.
In truth, Hal figured that he excelled at almost everything he did. Amazing really, since he had just about graduated high school, after all. Now, he had spent more than twenty years finding out how good he could be at things.
Tailing with one car, though, this was going to be work.
“You’re letting ‘em get too far ahead,” Darren said.
“I got ‘em,” Hal said.
“Brother, you got to keep it shut and let me do this, okay?” He said it forcefully, in a way that would pre-empt any more conversation. He needed all the concentration he could muster, and he couldn’t afford a smoked up Darren butting in every couple of minutes. Darren was not the brains of this operation.
The Taurus was three blocks in front already. Ahead and far below was the skyline of the city, lit up at night. Hal let them put on a nice lead, and kept his eye on that broken taillight. It disappeared for a second behind another car, then came back. He didn’t worry. It took an instinct, and he had it. You had to know where that car was going to be. Here was his guess: they would turn right on Washington Avenue and head for the highway – 295 North – or they would head straight downtown.
“No problem, no problem,” he said to the Taurus. “Do what you need to do.”
When Hal did detective work, on important jobs, two tail cars was the minimum. Three cars were better, if the client would pay for that sort of thing. The more cars the better. One car would be on the tail awhile, then drop back and another one would pick it up. The extra cars would be on the radio, following along on parallel streets. On the highway, they’d drop waaaaay back, or they’d speed up and get out ahead. Whatever. Keep dropping in and out of the tail, give them different looks, that way the target wouldn’t catch on. Leapfrogging, they used to call it.
But one car. That was an art. You had to play it real cool.
You had to lose touch sometimes. You couldn't give them any reason to suspect you. If they did, if they made you, then they’d bolt. They’d blow red lights. They’d drive the wrong way on one way streets. They’d make U-turns at police speed traps on the highway. They made a move like that, then you were lost. You blew it. You couldn’t follow.
Hal had a hunch here. It buzzed in his head like electricity. These guys weren’t going to blow any red lights. They weren’t going to try to shake a tail. There was something happening, and they couldn’t risk getting busted by a traffic cop – not with a couple of prisoners in the trunk.
In the trunk! He couldn’t fucking believe it. Man, this beat everything. This was like the movies. This was better. This was real. Totally awesome. Goddamn! They had walked right into some kind of full-blown hostage drama.
Hostages. Sure. These bastards had taken the girls hostage.
In some sense, hadn’t he and Darren done the same from time to time?
“Make a right,” Cruz said. “Right here, take this right.”
Moss took a long looping right past a fried chicken take out and onto a main drag, Washington Avenue. It was long, nearly deserted, a big old warehouse or factory passing by on their right. The highway entrance was at the end of this strip.
Cruz found himself sulking as they drove along. It hadn’t gone as he intended. Nothing on this whole trip had gone as he intended. That fucking taillight. He didn’t like that at all. Trouble was, he wasn’t sure that it hadn’t been broken in the first place. Fingers would know, but Fingers was dead.
Why would Fingers steal a car with a broken taillight?
He wouldn’t, that’s why.
“Now! Make this left!”
Moss veered in front of an oncoming car and made the left. They cruised down a steep hill, a side street with run down houses climbing the hill. At the bottom, there were low-slung garden apartment style housing projects. From an unlit basketball court, dark black faces peered at them as they passed.
“I’m telling you, son. I’ve been in this game a little while now. There ain’t nobody back there. It was a kid that broke the taillight.”
“Why the fuck not? You paranoid, Cruz? That the problem?”
Cruz didn’t like it. The variables were piling up. Two girls in a trunk. A broken taillight. It was supposed to be a quick snatch, and then a return drive to New York. Goodbye, Smoke Dugan O’Malley, you worry about your problems, I’ll worry about mine. Instead, two people were already dead, and this Lola girl would have to go when all was said and done. She would have to go just as surely as the skinny girl, her roommate, would have to go.
And all the while, Cruz thinking about getting out. Face it. He was no good for this business anymore.
Moss cruised the side streets, moving slow, making random rights and lefts, stopping at all stop signs. They passed a parked police car. The cop was inside, writing something in his book. He didn’t look up.
“We done out here? You mind if I get back and get on the highway now? That’s all we need, a porky little pig try to pull us over for a broken light,” Moss said.
“That’d be one dead pig,” Cruz said absently. He meant it. No matter what trouble he himself was having, he knew Moss would drop a cop without giving it much thought.
He checked in back of them one last time. No one back there. Just dead, deserted streets.
“Yeah, go for it,” he said. “Make a left here.”
Moss made a left and climbed back up toward Washington Avenue.
“I think you’re losing your focus, son. We got the girl, like we said we were gonna do. Okay. The man’ll either give it up or he won’t. If he don’t, then we got problems. But in the meantime, we got this extra girl back there. And that’s a problem right now. She’s baggage back there. I can’t have that and neither can you. It’s bad for business.”
“I see what you mean,” Cruz said. To Moss, his decision to spare the roommate must have looked like weakness. To Moss, this entire job must have looked like weakness.
“I hope you do,” Moss said.
They were back on Washington Avenue, right near the chicken takeout again. A group of dark-skinned men sat out on plastic lawn chairs in front of another eatery, this one with no sign on it at all. The whole long strip of the avenue was darkened and nearly deserted. As they headed down the street, a few people loitered here and there in the gloom, standing around in ones and twos.
“Let me see your phone,” Cruz said.
“Son, you need to stop giving orders. Your big shot orders got my little buddy killed earlier today.”
Cruz and Moss crossed eyes like swords. Now was not the time for the show down with Moss. Or was it? Cruz pictured whipping out his gun and blowing Moss away right here in the car. It was one measure of how far he had fallen that Moss would say these things to him. The deeper measure, however, was that Moss was still alive. He couldn’t fight the man – Moss was too big, too strong. In the old days, Cruz would have just killed him instead.
“Lend me your cell phone, will you?” he said. “I want to call Dugan so that we can save this job before it goes all the way down the shithole.”
“That’s better,” Moss said. “I thought you didn’t use cell phones.”
“In an emergency, I’ll make an exception.”
Moss handed him the phone, a small black number with a lot of meaningless features. Cruz scrutinized it for what he needed, the green SEND button for one. He fished in his pocket for the girl’s home number, straight from the dossier.
“What’s the story with this phone?” he said. He hated cell phones. He didn’t even like to look at them. Cops could snatch these conversations right out of the air. Cops could trace back these phone calls. Somebody dies, and then what? The cops check the phone records, right? And here’s this cell phone number. Hell, maybe it’s right there on the caller ID. Shit, he hated these things. Lazy people used cell phones.
Moss shrugged. “It’s clean.”
“It’s PCS. Completely digital. Encryption codes make it almost impossible to intercept the call.”
To Cruz, it sounded like so much mumbo-jumbo. “What about trace-backs?”
“The phone belongs to a gentleman from Fresno, California. He paid the whole contract, a whole year, up front. He likes to travel a lot, this gentleman. He’s got coverage everywhere in the great forty-eight. Anybody traces back a call, they’ll find out this gentleman made that call.”
“Who is he?”
Moss smiled, showing the gap in his front teeth. “Someone who don’t exist anymore.”
Hal leaned up against a telephone pole in the dim light along Washington Avenue.
Thirty yards away, the Cadillac was parked in the lot of the old bread factory. Now it was an office building, a low-rent warren filled with the offices of low-budget social service organizations. Hal glanced at the Caddy. Darren was hunched down low, probably wondering what the hell he was doing out here.
“Come on,” Hal said under his breath. “You know you want me.”
All the same, he was starting to worry. He had seen them make that sudden turn down the side street. But he knew those streets. He knew there was nothing down there for them. He knew it. There was nothing down there but machine shops, auto shops, and housing projects filled with refugees from African wars. Imagine, the wretched of the earth, refugees from Somalia and the Sudan, the desert, the baking heat, the sand storms, being relocated to Maine. It was like a cruel joke. Don’t like all the warfare, you desert nomads? Here, try snow and ice six months out of the year.
A car was coming along the avenue.
Hal looked at his shoes.
It passed, and he looked up. A green Ford Taurus. The broken taillight shone bright and white as it receded in the distance. They were heading for the highway.
“Ha! I knew you couldn’t leave me!”
He stepped into the shadows and ran for the Caddy.
It was cramped and dark in the trunk.
At times, little beams of light stabbed in through some crack above their heads. It was hard to breathe. They were on their sides, hands cuffed in front of them, facing each other. For a while, Pamela had hyperventilated. Now, as Lola watched her, Pamela simply lay there, eyes wide like saucers, tears streaming down her face, her lower lip quivering.
“Listen!” Lola hissed. “Pamela! Listen to me.” Pamela was beyond listening.
The car hit some kind of dip in the road. They went down and then up. It was like riding a roller coaster. Lola nearly fell over on her face. The car accelerated, and she guessed they were on the highway now.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said, not sure if she was saying it to Pamela or to herself.
She thought of the moment the two men burst into the apartment. Smoke was on the phone, shouting something into her ear. Then that massive man with the stringy hair was there. He seemed to fill the entire room. And she had fought him. Kicked him. Punched him. Knocked the gun out of his hand. Knocked him down.
When he had slapped her, it was like a car crash, the force of it. He was that strong. She had been stunned. No one had ever hit her that hard before. And she knew he hadn’t hit her nearly as hard as he could.
But he wasn’t unbeatable. None of them were. They could be beaten, and she could do it. Maybe if Pamela… no, Pamela was a goner. Well, you could hardly blame her. Two strange men storm the apartment, handcuff them, and whisk them off.
Where are we going? Who are these men? The questions piled up. She had never seen either of them before in her life. She pieced it together. They were the ones who had attacked Smoke. Did they know Mr. Shaggy and Mr. Blue Eyes? Maybe not. Smoke had said it had something to do with him – they wanted money from him. Why did they want money from Smoke?
She sighed heavily.
All these men.
She had defined her life in relation to them. If she could, she thought she would thank those boys that raped her now, if she ever saw them again. Unfortunately that in itself would be hard to do. But she would if she could because the boys had awakened her. They had created the Lola that existed now.
At first, she had crumpled up and died inside.
After she was raped, she had dropped out of school, she had quit dancing lessons, she didn’t go anywhere. She didn’t see her friends anymore. She stopped taking an interest in anything. She stayed in her room and watched soap operas on television most of the day. She didn’t even read.
One day when she woke up, there was a thin, paperback book on the table next to her bed. Her grandmother had gone out to run her errands, but that book was there. It was called Sandinista Woman. It had a photo of a woman on the cover, a Hispanic woman in a green camouflage military outfit.
Lola didn’t pick it up at first. First she watched TV. But later in the day she grew bored with the television, and she picked up the book. It was the story of exactly that, a woman who had fought with the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. The woman had been captured by the fascist forces of the Nicaraguan government, and raped by dozens of soldiers. It was a source of terrible shame for the woman, until she met other women who were fighters for the cause. They came to realize there was nothing to be ashamed of in their suffering, that indeed it was a badge of honor. Gradually, all of the women came to realize this, as did the men who fought alongside them.
Lola read the book in two days, stopping only to eat and use the bathroom.
Still, she didn’t buy it right away.
The next day, a flyer slid through the crack under her bedroom door. It showed an Asian man flying through the air, kicking and shattering a brick that must have been suspended ten feet from the ground.
DEFEND YOURSELF! The flyer read. Learn devastating self-defense techniques from a master. At the bottom of the flyer it said Special Women Only Classes Available. Below that, her grandmother had scrawled in pencil.
So she joined. What else was she going to do? She couldn’t stay in that room forever. At first it seemed like a joke. The basic techniques she was learning, she didn’t think they’d work on anybody. But times passed, and months later she wasn’t so sure.
She started to come alive again.
And as part of being alive, she began to think of revenge. They had stolen her old life from her, but now she had this new life. She was increasing in confidence, and with that newfound confidence came a new question. Could she get back at them somehow?
If so, how?
She began to keep alert for news of them. Five boys, one older than her by a year, a couple her age, one a year younger and one a year younger than that. Kendrick. Tyrone. Abel. Michael. Ishmael.
A whole year went by and she was still musing on this subject. She had changed – she was astounded by the things her body was capable of. It still didn’t mean she could take her revenge with that body, though.
Michael died in a drive-by shooting. A week later, Tyrone and Abel were arrested for the crime. A year after that, Ishmael was shot in the groin and then in the back by an unknown assailant or assailants. He lived, but he was paralyzed from the waist down. The rumor went that not only was he impotent, but that his member was actually obliterated. That left only Kendrick alive and on the streets. And he had disappeared.
Five years ago, it came to pass on a chilly evening in March that she climbed off the bus three blocks from her apartment and her dying grandmother, and began to walk home. It had been raining all day, and had just stopped recently. The ground was wet, the air was wet, and she could see her breath as she moved along. Just in front of her, a big man shuffled along in a long and ratty trench coat. From behind him, all she could see was the slope of his back, the shake, rattle and roll of his legs, and the fluffy crown of unkempt nappy hair piled on top. She moved along behind him, walking slow, watching the tall man weave.
The back was familiar, but she almost couldn’t believe it was him.
On this strip, nobody was around. Two young crack dealers lolled on a bench to their right. One said something to the other and they both laughed. Tall and skinny, they looked to be about twelve years old. They both wore big bubble TROOP jackets, their legs sticking out the bottom like pipe cleaners. They looked like some new kind of dinner bird, fattening up for Christmas.
Lola watched the big man approach them. He said something, but they shook their heads. “Ken, you used up all your credit already. Go on back to Gary, you want credit.”
The big man shuffled on.
The kid called him Ken. Her heart did a lazy barrel roll. It had been years since she had seen him.
She let him get another ten yards past the prepubescent dealers. Then she moved in. “Kendrick?” At first her voice came out as a croak and the man heard nothing. He just shambled along, bopping to some music only he could hear.
“Kendrick!” And this time it was a shout.
The two dealers sat up and took notice. Perhaps here came some of the family strife that was such a constant backdrop to the ghetto. This was entertainment. For two young men on the fast track to oblivion, this would be better than the lame, watered-down fare on television. This was real-life, messy, often action-packed and bloody, and without any commercials.
The man turned around, his body moving as slowly as the glaciers.
He was tall, a full head taller than Lola. That was the first thing that sank in. The next thing that sunk in was how horribly wasted he had become. His shoulders were broad, and so had seemed to give some shape to the trench coat as it hung down. But beneath that coat he wore a Milwaukee Brewers T-shirt and red sweat pants. Both were ratty and had holes in them. And he was skinny. The T-shirt, which must have been a small or a medium, clung to a frame that had once worn extra large. His navel showed at the bottom of it. The clothes had probably come from a mission somewhere that gave out such clothes. Summer clothes in the winter, winter clothes in the summer. He wore old Air Jordan sneakers with no socks.
Sure, wearing somebody’s cast-off sneakers.
He peered at her and she came closer. Closer, she began to get the smell of him, the funk of days without a bath, of nights on benches in train and bus stations. In the light of the street lamp she saw his rheumy bloodshot eyes and she saw that he trembled just slightly. An old, closed scar ran under his chin.
It was Kendrick. Times had caught up with him.
“Lola?” he said, squinting just a bit now. His voice was hardly more than a whisper. “Lola.” The second time he said it with a nod to himself, as if the sudden appearance of Lola now confirmed everything, as if this was the final rung of his downfall. He smiled a grim smile and showed the black spaces where some of his teeth once were.
“We got you good, girl. Stopped going to school and everything. That’s what they told me. Never saw you on the street no more. Yessir, we got to you good.”
She dropped her bag, much like she had dropped her books four years before. She stepped up, hands protecting her face, and gave him a front kick to the groin. She didn’t try to kick hard, she just concentrated and moved her body properly. This generated more than enough force, coming out in a line from her torso, her buttocks and finally the big leg muscles above the knee.
Kendrick melted to his hands and knees on the wet ground. He coughed hard as if to clear his throat.
Only a second had passed, maybe two. Lola resumed her stance, then fired a roundhouse kick that caught the side of Kendrick’s head. He fell over sideways and sprawled half on the sidewalk, half on the muddy weeds and dog shit that bordered the sidewalk.
Behind Lola, one of the drug dealers whooped and hollered.
“You go, girl! Bruce Lee, motherfucker. She fucked that ass up!”
The two boys laughed.
And like that, the anger evaporated. It was replaced by a calm and almost bitter disappointment. She immediately understood that it was a feeling to which she would spend a long time reconciling, maybe the rest of her life. For four years she had hated this bastard. No, she had more than hated him. He had become almost everything to her. She had trained for the day when they would meet again and she would be ready for him. She carried a carving knife in her bag in anticipation. She imagined he would be the strong and arrogant and evil Kendrick that he was at eighteen, not this pitiful character, already the walking dead at twenty-two. She imagined theirs would be an epic battle that would take all her energy to fight, and might take both their lives. Her identity, her life had become defined in relation to this man and what he had done. Her revenge had become her obsession.
And here she was, standing over him. But the victory was far from sweet. The ghetto had taken her revenge long before she ever got there. If she wanted to kill Kendrick, she would have to spend six months cleaning him up first, feeding him, keeping him off drugs, buildings up his wasted muscles. Otherwise it wouldn’t mean anything.
Kendrick’s breaths came in rasps. He was down and out, as far down as most people get without being dead. Drug-addicted, weak, cold, and now laying in the mud after a swift beat down from a woman wronged. It was a long walk back, and Lola knew that when someone had come this far, they didn’t even try to make that walk. It was too damned far.
“Bitch,” Kendrick said in that same hoarse voice. “Bitch.” Lola looked closer and saw he was crying. She thought about spitting on him, for old time’s sake, but she couldn’t even bring herself to do that. Everything had once again been stolen from her. She picked up her bag and continued on her way.
When she was half a block away, she turned around to see if Kendrick had managed to get up yet. He hadn’t. He was on all fours on the wide, glistening sidewalk. Like circling vultures, the two boys had moved in after she was gone. When a man was down, a man was down. The law of the jungle prevailed. They took turns kicking him and jumping up and down on his carcass.
From where she stood, their laughter was carried to her on the breeze. It was the laughter of childhood. In another time and place, two boys might laugh like that on their way down to the creek to go fishing.
It was time to go home.
Smoke arrived at the apartment knowing how late he was.
It was full dark. He parked his little Toyota half a block down from the apartment. He killed the headlights, then waited and watched. No one was moving on the street. TV lights flickered from homes on his left and his right. His sense of dread was so complete that he felt he might vomit. All along, he had made mistakes, and now it had probably cost Lola and Pamela their lives. He should have told Lola long ago about his life before now. Scratch that – he shouldn’t have become involved with Lola, or anyone.
A breeze kicked up and the trees along the street creaked and swayed. Shadows moved. A young couple, bundled up and leaning on each other, laughed together as they walked along the sidewalk.
He had killed the kid without thinking of the fallout. It had been an instinct. Kill the kid. Kill them all. Get away. But of course he hadn’t been able to kill them all. That big guy, Moss, it would be hard to kill a guy like that.
He should have let them take him in – maybe he could’ve escaped some other way. Lola’s death was a horrible price to pay for his own life.
He had been unable to go back to the apartment – the neighborhood was crawling with cops and firemen. His car was around the corner, so he had simply climbed in and driven off-you mention earlier that he had to go back and get his car. It’s a little confusing as written. He didn’t know when he would go back there. So the long and the short of it was he couldn’t pick up his guns. They were trapped in the apartment. In the old days, he had loathed guns, but over time he had made a certain peace with them. Since he had been on the run, he had kept three of them. Two, fully loaded, safeties off, hidden in the apartment, and one small two-shot derringer here in the car, tucked away under the driver’s seat.
At least he had the derringer – the Bond Arms Cowboy Defender. He held it in his big hand. Five inches long in total, with three-inch, over-under barrels. It was so small that it looked almost like a toy cigarette lighter. But it packed a wallop. It fired two. 45 rounds, and was fully loaded. The barrel was so short that the gun was useless except for the most up-close fighting. That’s why he kept it in the car. You couldn’t hit the side of a barn with it if the barn was more than ten yards away, but if somebody was sitting in the car with you, or standing right in front of you, you might just kill them. He thought of Moss again. He looked at the tiny Derringer in his hand.
He climbed out of the car and moved slowly toward the building, limping, gun palmed in his hand. He could palm the fucking thing, like they used to do to hide their cigarettes from adults when he was nine years old. Despite the chill of autumn in the air, beads of sweat ran down the back of his neck. He had incinerated their friend, so God only knew what they had done to his friends.
Unless, of course, they were still up there, laying in wait for him. He had called the apartment again, and had gotten only a busy signal, but that didn’t mean anything. They could be sitting there in the living room, waiting for him to walk in. Or lurking in the stairwell along the empty second floor.
Well, fuck it. If he was going down, he was going down shooting.
He reached the building. The old man was home downstairs, playing his violin. The haunting beauty of the music seemed to come from a world other than the one Smoke inhabited. Looking around, up and down the street, he entered the building.
Nobody was in the bottom hallway.
The overhead light was on. He reached up and smashed it out with the gun. The small crash of the bulb breaking didn’t disturb the violin in the least. Smoke ventured up the narrow stairs into the gloom of the second floor. He tried not to let the ancient wood creak. It was ridiculous. If they came now, he would be doomed. Then again better they come for him than kill Lola. He stopped trying to hide himself.
He reached the second floor landing, and hobbled along until he reached the bottom of the stairs to the third floor. He peered up. The door was closed. There was no sound up there. He climbed the stairs.
The door was unlocked. He walked in.
He could feel the apartment’s emptiness. The light in the bathroom was on, throwing shadows through the living room. The coffee table in there had collapsed, as though someone had fallen on top of it. That was the only sign of struggle he could see.
He stood for a moment, holding his breath, looking and listening.
No sound, except from below. Far away, the strains of the violin.
He settled onto one of the dining room chairs. His breath came out in a long, low groan. Okay. He had come this far. Now he would take a moment, gather his emotions, and then search the rest of the apartment. If anyone was here, they were dead.
I’m so sorry, Lola.
The phone was on the floor. He stood, picked up the receiver, and placed it back in the cradle hanging on the kitchen wall.
It started ringing.
Smoke jumped so high he nearly banged his head against the low ceiling.
Two rings. Three rings. He stood and watched it ring. He picked it up just before the answering machine.
“Dugan?” the voice said. It was Cruz. It had to be.
“Are you alone?”
“Good. I was wondering when you were going to finally get there. That was some job you pulled with the kid. It’s not going to make this any easier on anybody.”
Smoke swallowed. “I understand that.”
The voice went on. “Your friend is here with us. Okay? Other than that, we don’t have much to talk about.”
“There’s no reason for her to be involved.”
“Well, sure, I agree with that. But you involved her. Okay?”
The little man went on. “The other one, too. The roommate.”
“Was she here?”
Smoke nearly choked. “Where is she now?”
Cruz said nothing. He didn’t even answer. Smoke had dealt with men like this for most of his life. They were fucking animals. They had no reason to keep Pamela alive. No reason at all.
“Where is she?” Smoke repeated.
“See if you can find her.”
“So it seems like the thing for you to do is to get moving. That place is going to get pretty hot by tomorrow, if not later tonight. I don’t think your friend here wants you to see that kind of heat, you know?”
Smoke knew. Sooner or later, the explosion at his apartment, combined with the death of the kid and Smoke’s disappearance, would lead the cops here to Lola’s place. In fact, sooner or later the cops were going to find out that there was no Smoke Dugan. Probably sooner rather than later. They were going to take some prints in that apartment and find out that Smoke Dugan was actually Walter O’Malley, convicted felon from thirty years ago. Shit. He needed some time before the police came down on him. The last thing he needed was to get picked up by the cops. Getting picked up by the cops was worse than getting picked up by Cruz. They’d kill Lola and then get him in jail.
Cruz went on. “Do me a favor, all right? We need a place to meet, a public type place, a crowded restaurant, say. We’re there, you walk in, sit down at our table, your friend gets up and walks out. And we need to know where you’ll be staying tonight, a place we can reach you. Got any ideas? We’re open to ideas right now. Ways we can make this happen without too much pain.”
“There’s a Best Western in South Portland,” Smoke heard himself say. “It’s a motel right by an exit off the highway. There’s a big restaurant there, Governor’s, a lot of people go there for breakfast.”
“Yeah? How’s the food?”
“You eat eggs? Bacon? It’s a buffet.”
“Okay, that sounds good. Best Western, South Portland. Governor’s Restaurant.” There was a pause as Smoke imagined Cruz writing this down on a napkin or an envelope. “Your friend know how to get there?”
“Okay, then. Take a room at the Best Western. We’ll contact you there tomorrow, or maybe later tonight. You won’t know. If you’re not there when we call, I guess you know what happens. The deal will be off. The trade won’t happen. Do you know what I mean?”
“I do.” The trade was Smoke for Lola. That’s what they were offering. “Is the trade for both of them?”
“Sure, if you like.”
It didn’t sound right. He didn’t know whether to believe them or not. Lola and Pamela could both be dead already.
“Put her on the phone.”
Smoke shook his head, as though Cruz could see that. “Not tomorrow, now.”
“Okay, that’s enough chat. Never know who’s listening nowadays. Do me that little favor I mentioned, will you? Wouldn’t want anything to get in the way.”
Smoke was about to say something else.
The line went dead.
He stood there with the phone in his hand for several minutes. Out the back window, and far away, a boat went by on the dark water. He couldn’t see the boat at all. He could tell it was there by the red running light at its stern.
The phone started buzzing violently. “If you’d like to make a call,” a robot woman said. “Please hang up and try again. If you’d like to make a call…”
Smoke hung up.
He walked through the rooms absently, checking out the rest of the apartment. Shadows loomed all around him. No one was here. Pamela wasn’t here. Whatever they had done with her, they hadn’t left her behind.
He went into Lola’s room and the life-size poster of the black tennis player startled him. It hung there over the bed, accusing him. You murdered her. You did it. There was nothing he could say in his defense.
He kept an extra cane here at the apartment. He rooted around in the closet and found it at the back, behind a pile of clothes. That, at least was something.
He went back into the dining area and sat down again.
Smoke looked at the cane in his hands. It was knobby wood, more of a walking stick than a cane. Along its shaft was a button, camouflaged to look like a part of the cane itself. You’d have to look closely to even notice it.
Hell, you’d have to know it was there.
He pressed the button and the bottom twelve inches of the cane detached and fell off. A sharp stiletto spike six inches long protruded from the end of the shaft that he held. A solid jab with that would piece anyone’s heart, even big, bad Moss.
Smoke looked at his large workman’s hands.
He had the strength. He could do it.
“You see, I don’t often hit girls,” Moss was saying. “I don’t like doing it.”
They were driving north along Interstate 95, Moss’s big hands gripping the wheel. All around them, the darkness had closed in. Cruz marveled at how the city simply ended and the country began. There was nothing to see out here but trees. It was like driving off a cliff into complete darkness.
Well, they’d let all that smoke clear back there, and hide the girls somewhere Dugan couldn’t try to get at them. In the morning, they could go and collect Dugan, provided the cops hadn’t already done so. Or they could make Dugan wait a little while. Fear him up that they were going to kill his girls.
In fact, Cruz wasn’t sure what to do next.
He thought of the money again.
How many times? How many times had he put down someone who thought they could run? Too many. No amount of money was enough. Certainly not a couple mil.
He glanced sidelong at Moss. That thick, solid skull. It wouldn’t stop a bullet.
“So,” Moss said. “You know, the girl is kicking me and hitting me, and I’m not fighting back.” He shrugged. “You know?”
Cruz lit a cigarette. “I know. But you think we ought to shoot this other one.”
Moss looked at him. “Don’t you?”
It was Cruz’s turn to shrug.
“Anyway, it’s one thing to hit a girl,” Moss said. “It’s another thing to shoot somebody. Shooting’s easier.”
A half-hour passed, each lost in his own thoughts. They got off the highway and cruised slowly down the dark and quiet exit ramp and along a feeder road. There was not another car on the road. They turned at an intersection, empty except for a hanging streetlight that blinked red in all four directions. The area was deserted this late in the tourist season. The road ahead was winding, two lane blacktop. Moss drove along between dense stands of forest. Cruz wasn’t sure what he was looking for – he figured he’d know it when he saw it.
And see it he did.
“There,” he said. “Stop in there.”
A sign said: COUNTRY HOME MOTEL amp; COTTAGES – Open Through Thanksgiving.
A long winding driveway led up from the road to the motel compound.
“Let’s go up there and see if it’s quiet.”