Coast Limited came in a rush toward Charleston Station, over a south reach so dense with heron that for white, I couldn’t see the tide boil. “Yo' satchel, Mista DeLeon. Travel’n man be lost without that.”
My stainless Rolex read four-o-seven. “Thank you, Mr. Betters. I was watching ...” over his shoulder to live-oak shadowed tracks rising from sawgrass marsh. Waves ripple over the sawgrass. Chalk-colored concrete slipped by. “Tides up.”
“Dat white spring moon have a big tug, like Uncle Tom said 'bout Pawley Island gators. Highest tide in another three days.” Our car-man tugged at his watch and nodded.“Mostly right, humm, humm. She take your heart away, that Low Country. But I was you, I’d be watch’n those two on the platform.”Air brakes cried and shuttered stop.”Tha’s a hurry’n man’s cabby, once he finish business.”
If Mr. Betters had whistled us off two minutes early, I would have missed the yellow Checker. But late, they blew in through the glass like summer lightening. Cabby wrestling a stiff, mouth to heckling mouth.
She was white and late and put out and he wasn’t, and when she slapped his face he dropped American Tourister on her stylishly turned foot. He pocketed the fare. He was my man. She was still hopping when I quick-stepped by her, onto the Amtrak platform. Between two preening whores - past a full push-cart meant for State Street anytime soon. Glass exit doors swung where cabby had raced through. I followed - into the terminal and out - and into the open rear door of the ‘62 Checker. Leather carry thrown beside and a leather itch under my left arm.
He was shredding a blue parking ticket when he saw me and stuck his head to the open window. “Nothing I can help you with!” Blue paper shreds scattered over the leather.
“I portered the bag.”
“Oh, man, not two in one night!”
“Certainly not. No white man could hop that high.”
We eased up the small hill onto Rivers Avenue. “Where to?”He wore a skull-cap over his forehead and most of one ear. He pushed it back.
I said. “Charleston.”
“Ain’t that a fact.”
I must not have been as obvious. Cabby’s face came up in the rearview, and didn’t leave til he made the clover-leaf onto I-40.Then he drove fast. The face was jowly and coal-black and wanted to know more. More than I volunteered, which was nothing.
“Travel during the day, huh. Traveling far?”
He chewed on that, fingering radio dispatch and the fare flag. He had huge hands that didn’t have to fiddle - eyes shifting in the rearview. “Why?”
“Do you mean the existential or Kantianwhy?”
“Mutherfuck! Dem college boys never play pin-the-tail. Why like, why ain’t you doin’ what ya should.”
Big knuckles made tight, on the wheel. His slew caught me by surprise, and I said more than nothing. “Connections from Atlanta.”
“Atlanta! Most honest people fly from Atlanta.”
“Nobody I know flies. Planes fly, and sometimes they don’t.”
“Cautious type, and ha ha funny. How ‘bout that. I got a brother working the Savannah docks. Sometimes, he connects from Atlanta too.”
He cocked his body forward, like a man who needed to go faster. We lurched around a string of out-of-state plates and into a slot betweensemis. “Yes suh,” cabby said with a whistle, “never ‘xactly sure where he’s going, but he always travel alone.”
He was fingering dispatch again - but suddenly hooked it and swerved right at the upper Ashley River bridge, then back in front of a Peterbuilt. He scanned the wrap-around with satisfaction.
“You be comin’ home from business, boss, or you be lookin’ fo’ the business?”
“Always one or the other. Kind of like driving a cab - know what I mean?”
He pulled down the skull-cap over a long, hairy earlobe. “Say’n you been all over, like me? No deposit, bu’cher women always return.” Was he even trying to make a joke? He knew a John’s Island accent - he knew plenty, and let me know it. “Lucky fo’ you, with all the Savannah and Raleigh people in town I come by ... should be easy, Spoleto time, finding fares along State Street ...hum, humm! I sure know where's to take ‘em.”
East of the bridge traffic slowed to frantic stop and go dashes. The semis had bulled ahead, while a swarm of SUVs trapped us. Most women drove badly. Our Checker coped, on a freeway meant for cruising, and cabby wasn’t having fun. He waited for an opening and hung on the fare-flag, and it came as less than a question. “I got ideas, boss, where I might be tak’n you.”
He irritated, in a small way, not starting the damned ticker. I took off the Panama and punched in the crease.“I’m looking for she-crab soup. I’m looking for the wife, two kids and an old bed.”
The Checker stuttered .. and wobbled back into center lane. “Boss, we both lookin’ forward to that!”
I had clamped the carry, slamming across worn rear seats. He clamped meat-fists on the ivory wheel. “Driver’s a homicide.” Our Checker heeled left, between two new SUVs. A matron screamed and swerved, giving way while her cellphone flew from the window. Cabby gave back the fingers. “Frigg’n Canadians. They should stay in Myrtle Beach.”
“Twenty says you send them back.”
A bright-Y flew over our head. Like cabby, the Checker was too old, too slow and too fat. Like the cruiser moth-balled in yards beneath the freeway. Rusted. I had one eye pegging the rearview. Two bitchy Thunderbirds and their working-girl drivers had snarked in front. “Take River’s Avenue exit, chief.” Both I figured trolling tails.
“Three ones boss. Which one?”
From Charleston Station, the black Lincoln had worked cautious, cars behind, unsure of an easy lay or a catfight Catholic virgin. A nervous young man’s caution, obvious as a Ford clutch and timid as a teen grope. Angst dominated till
we approached the Cross-town Expressway. Then it muscled to our back bumper, riding, until a drunken Dodge pick-up slammed it left against the guard rail. For my taste, it wasn’t far enough.
I slipped twenty over the seat. “The next!”
“Christ-on-the-cross!” He grabbed the bill and dove across lanes, grazing the off-ramp sign and skidding into a concrete four-way. I undid the button of my white linen jacket, where the Browning 38-cal snuggled in leather. After the shock-stop, cabby wiped his face.“Risky - for a strip club, boss, but if theJoker’s your good time ...”I hadn’t mentioned and he hadn’t asked, but it was Spoleto Festival. “Charleston sure full of fools.” His voice cut through the screech of retreads. “Head’s up!” We hitched right, into cinders.
For a good time. The Lincoln was nowhere, but our Checker spewed methanol. The Ram V8 had sucked in behind, and shot by in a plume of burnt rubber. It hit concrete retainer and flew like a drunken bird through the YIELD ALWAYS sign and dove nose first into a shallow brine pond. Front bumper caught the resident alligator, who with belly full of razor-edged chrome bellowed blood for moma, but could only spew out the incautious fawn he had taken for lunch. Metal rent in a slow, sick scream. Fire licked from the gas tank, as the driver crawled out the window. But the pond couldn’t stop him; he went under and bubbled up, thrashing, too drunk to swim. One hand held a flap of scalp out of an eye, and the other an intact bottle of Jack Black. He drank some, the rest slopped over his head.
Cabby went for dispatch, but I stopped him. He said. “Gee boss, that guy needs 9-1-1. He’s gonna need medication.”
“Drive on chief. Adverse drug interactions have killed more men than any treatment’s saved. Our man is fully medicated.”
Cabby stared at the thrashing gator, burning pick-up and skinned driver then glanced in the rearview. “At least dem Canadians had a lay waiting at the Omni.”
“OK by me, but forget Rivers Avenue.” I found another twenty. “Plenty OK if this never happened. And forget the red light.”
“Ch’er pay’n the bills. Where to?”
He shrugged - like the ex-yarder he was. “One clam’s good as the next.”
We doubled a side street to an on-ramp curving west. Chrome and black fender flashed in the windshield. The Lincoln had us beaten by a turn, to the Crosstown. They were cars ahead now, driving fast but they weren’t driving backwards.
Cabby swore, and I said. “Check that chief. Make it the Medical University.”
Something about official life and death turns even the most cynical soft. He jumped a divider and dipped through an underpass into a sea of black faces where the rattling muffler stopped and he got real attentive. “You some kinda surgeon?” Then laughing.“Good idea doc, seeing the patient before you start drinking.”
My hand slid off
the Browning auto-load. I buttoned the jacket, and wiped a layer of sweat from the Panama’s leather band. “Surgery’s been delayed, at the patients request. We’re on South-of-Broad time now. ”
“You’re gonna need time, to block that Panama!”
The Checker rolled easy within the maze of shaded side streets. I sat back - they wove green spring tapestry on an empty canvas. They wove small. I liked the weaver. Stone walls bulged in-and-out, and three story walk-ups leaned toward a womans back bedroom. I didn’t want a long day, and I didn’t need company at both ends. Cabby found a package store and a malt liquor. Then he found Rutledge Ave. - opened a window - Charleston and Sargent Bowers roared in.
“Sure, Sargent, I came to the wrong place. What are you doing here?” It smelled like a hospital! We were standing at a nurse’s station, inhaling ether and antiseptic, then I wasn’t.
She clipped up behind. “I’m your partner ... I can handle it. I mean, it’s my first ...”
“‘And the first shall be last ...’”
“What a bastard you are! If you lack confidence in me, Lieutenant, take it up ....”
She canned a dozen buts, biting her full red lips, while leather-soled echoes followed us down an empty, fluorescent marble hall. Hospitals all have that in common, as I saw it; too few people keeping too many alive. She blurted. “I got assigned to the Hricko shooting by Captain Marsh himself !”
“Honey, I just bet you did.”
“Honey crap! First Black-and-White at the scene. You’re no prize catch yourself, Lieutenant DeLeon, not after ...”
She snapped that sentence off in the middle, and good for her. Even a lez knows wrong. “What were you doing in a black-and-white?”
“The bandit-chaser’s still in the shop. Sargent Jackson was going off shift when the call came. On it like a cheer-leader,” she said, eyes pumping first-case adrenaline.
We found the elevator and headed for the thirteenth floor. It had it's own red button, and somewhere an alarm rang. At the Medical University Hospital, 13-th floor wasn’t the usual home for shooting victims. It was the drool bin, the electro-shock factory, the place where Thorazine got popped like candy mints. But this time they got it more than half right. Hricko needed intensive care, but he needed protection more - anybody close. “You hold Jackson’s hand? Maybe I need protection from you.” I fired away. “Do we have a motive? What did forensics turn up in Hricko’s house? You find his sports car?”
For a city that can’t make water float, Charleston has fast elevators. We rocketed up. Could have been the altitude, ‘cause Bowers wasn’t volunteering much.
She flipped the words at me. “A pissed off girlfriend? How about last weeks’ lunar eclipse.” It wasn’t a professional answer. She knew that little about Hricko. Her lip quivered pages of forensics, then pursed sheepishly. “About his house ... we couldn’t make entry.”
“How about that! The only virgin on Isle of Palms.”
Bowers looked confused. “Honest, Lieutenant, we tried; his windows are some king of plastic crystal and do not break! We’re seeking a court order to drill door locks. Hricko’s attorney is fighting it. Maybe by next week ...?”
It would take that long ... I needled her. “By next week, any witness will be back in New York.”
She said with an annoying certainty. “I can only guess, from the footprints, but I’d say Hricko was jogging alone, and shot with a silenced weapon. Nobody on the beach heard anything. Anyway, none of the breeders.”
She spokebreederslike teasers, as if some Sullivan’s Island accent survived. Like her friends might know something else. “Footprints, leading away?”
“Sandals, about two dozen. Excitement’s scarce on the Island.”
“Bare feet? Bloody sandspurs? Who found the body?”
“What about the locals?”
“They were both at a Promise Keepers rally in Tampa.”
Partner. Bowers had requested, the day we buried Sam in high stone. All departments have protocols for assigning partners. But, Sam had been a careful guy, and like before
Sam I left her a bad joke and soloed for a year. I was getting used to her now - she had moxie - she still had blood left in her head - she was still more question than answer. She was still alive! I fingered the white Panama until it sat just so. “Steady work - you saved something for me. Use a 32, go to prison.”
“How did you know ...? “ She carped, “optimistic macho!”
I said. “Any time the mark’s still breathing.”
“Only 32s, Lieutenant, but the perp got off three shots - at least three.” She slipped from perky to cautious, after the slip, eyeing me - I might have known more, nothing bothered her more.
“Browning autos will do that.”
“Maybe speed counts.”
“Size counts, Sargent; even you should know that!”
“Screw you, DeLeon ... Lieutenant DeLeon.”She was bleeding frozen rings of sweat above almond eyes. I bet she’d bled three days - every day since the shooting. Everybody wanted to look good, after a promotion. She touched the patrol officer’s 357-cal, and smoothed officially on her starched blue cotton.“I don’t know why I’m still wearing this. I’m a detective, now.”
“Cheerleader outfits are so appealing.”
Some looks are pure venom, from a woman, and some tribal that last even when the smile becomes crisp and professional. “Captain Marsh expected you ... well, it’s not like your Mr. Undercover. He sent an email first, fer Chris-sake. You were supposed to meet him at Pussers, six PM sharp.” She stuck a middle finger into my chest. “He didn’t haul you back from Atlanta to work my case.” Sure of it, she lowered her eyes. “Nothing personal, Nicky on Hrickos case just because you know the son-of-a-bitch ...”
‘THIRTEEN’, said the robo-voice.
The elevator door slid open and she followed me into a busy corridor. Padded walls absorbed footsteps. The corners came fast, with the rip of air conditioning straining to do better. Drug rehab lay somewhere ahead, and a steel gated wing for criminally insane waiting trial. Around each corner, Sargent Bowers stayed one step behind, but she didn’t stay quiet. I let pats go by.
She tried demanding. “It’s drugs, right! Not the shooting. Marsh switched you to a vice case, in the middle of Spoleto.”
“I’m no match for you, Bowers, working Court-house Square.”
She put on a wiggle, with her tight ass that I hated and her bra did everything its designer planned with swollen tight nipples, but hide them. Did it twice. “Don’t you just hate it - saving his embarrassed black ass? Who is it, Nick? Councilman Judy sharing needles - again? Marsh will have PMS till the fall election.”
I wasn’t comfortable, with the familiar, after an awkward three months.“Only if it’s contagious.”
“She’s in remission.” The Sargent said that and didn’t smile much. But neither, these days, was Captain Marsh.
In Charlestons fall election, he was running for Chief of Police against another cop - an Inspector of Detectives, a Sullivan’s Island dyke and tough as one - with rivers of stained glass island money behind her. And she was white. In the polls, they ran even. For my tastes, she hadn’t done her homework by serving under enough male officers; the lez ... Sargent Anita Bowers, my partner … thought different.
Saturday, April 24, seven-fifteen PM figured wrong four ways. I hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours. State Street broiled at 108 degrees. Twenty-five hundred kilos of Johns’ Island hash was sailing toward Port of Charleston. The cell-phone couldn’t punch through to Eve and the children and it wouldn’t, not this evening. Wrong four ways but not way wrong, if I stepped back from the razzle. Monday would bring another load of stiffs and heavy breathers, like the acid smell of pulp-wood. I got faster on Mondays. As the mulatto of Low Country fell into place - for a careful city detective. Nothing unusual, including the bad boy Lincoln. Maybe theywere Canadians on a binge with a Ford product horny for yellow.
Two nurses rushed past us, both fingering needles toward a one-eyed door flashingFAIL-FAIL. Where we were heading; minus one! The Island eccentric with bullet holes for lungs. For sure, Hricko was years overdue. I had known him for ten. He was a stock broker of the technical persuasion, and a bald-face thiever of computer secrets. He called it consulting - lists of chip designers with six-figure Las Vegas debts. ‘But if God wouldn’t shear them ...’ went his line - his credit line was gold-plated, appropriately an eco-fascist, Catholic and a bad one, protector of Isle of Palms virtue an Island womanizer who snatched 'em young and left them willing and juicy. People with money in Chicago and New York hated him; still more more enemies waited, among Carolina swamp peddlers, Charleston
barrier-island developers and a nest of the wrong friends. I was one and Hricko had dealt those cards for too long; time didn’t have a way of healing. His list of mistakes went on.
But the shooter had left Hricko alive, and that meant alive on my nickel. That was nobodies secret, nobody who knew Fila or Tony, or knew the holy city that twisted between two rivers like a coiled moccasin. Everybody who counted knew - Vitalle, DeLeon, Hricko - but somebody didn’t care. Somebody too strung out or too wired in. That grew a cold sweat, and from Atlanta to Charleston sent hackles scratching into the collar of my white linen jacket.
Sargent Bowers slipped ahead. We bumped past a couple interns and a greybeard carrying x-rays, through glass plate doors and a police corporal who jumped awake fast from a stick chair. He tried to salute. Hricko’s private room was three doors down.
The hand on my right elbow wasn’t and melted through the stainless steel ball. I pulled her along, the young white nurse with a pair of torpedoes ready to explode and she did. “You must be ...”
“Mr. Hricko has been in surgery all afternoon. He’s only been out an hour, still under IC observation. He can’t ...”The voice was practiced without experience, but not the touch. She slowed me down.
“He can’t, but I can.”I shrugged off her hand. “What surgery?”
“To stop the bleeding into his lungs. It must be stopped! ”She was sniffling,
smoothing the torpedoes, restless like a sailor at sea too long. “He’ll just be coming around from anesthesia!”
The look was bitter female. “ He’s not ...” and her voice trailed away, behind the swinging glass doors.
“... you’ll kill him!”
I said it too loud. “Not yet!” Bet at some beach-front party Hricko hadn't let her keep knees together for 10 minutes. Some women put off that easy, when you’re finished. Maybe even with two slugs in him, Hricko had something left for her. She acted less than maternal, and wouldn’t have been the first. Not Bowers. I could feel her stick, scratching. I scraped her off. “What happened to the third slug, Sargent?”
She had been watching the young nurse. I was sure of it - her voice came a second late and came breathy.“ Third slug missed him! Creased his arm, put a hole in his shirt sleeve. We found the shell-case, but Ballistics is still looking ...”
“Wearing a long sleeve shirt on the beach?”
“A Hawaiian. Cockatoo pattern.”
I pushed up the white Panama and gave her a big eye. “Makes all the difference ... when we’re the fashion expert. Got a new lay?”
“Maybe he did! We’re asking around.”
“And the others? Did you lose the other two slugs?”
She produced a plastic bag.“The surgeon cut lead-one out of his heart - I’m surprised he had one - the other is still inside, nicking his spine - they go after it tonight.”
“Lucky he’s more skinny than bone. What are the chances?”
“You have none. Hricko’s even money. You know, he’s been shot before.”
“No. I wouldn’t know that, or if you know proper technique for investigating. Did you decide to use a metal detector on him, instead of the beach?”
“I know procedure, Lieutenant. But I have eyes. They leave a scar. Bullets. On a human being. By the way, fuck you ... Lieutenant.”
I yanked her around, and slammed her into a drinking fountain. She was pinned like a cheerleader. She squealed. “Get you hands off me Lieutenant. This is harassment last degree!”
I squeezed harder. “What part of staying alive don’t you understand, Sargent Bowers?”
“Fucking pig. You never, ever, ever stop. If the Inspector knew ...”
I had her knee pinned and that was lucky. I said. “Is it the part before or after that one 32 caliber slug, that you can’t find, makes grits of that pretty, little brain?”
She was struggling, just about right. “As for the Inspector , if she saw you now, she’d slap you silly.”
Cop work wasn’t all bad. I’d give her that much - she shut up, limp, but rotated out of the grip, behind me. It was a training move, but a move anyway. She flexed her wrists, fixed her hat, smoothed over her nipples and looked cocky. “If you got a break, it’s because she thinks you’re cute!”
“One of us needs help, Sargent.”
We came up on the room fast, trailing the insistent young nurse.
A fat reserve patrolman blocked the door. I figured on protection, from the sleeper ticket the department had used bringing me back from Atlanta - though Marsh mentioned the Hricko shooting only in passing. Small talk was the Captain’s last virtue. Blank stupidity was the guards.
Female Sargent wasn’t good enough to get in, even with the six inch 357-cal stroking her leg, and in uniform, and a tight one ... what a waste. I figured the guard’s hard-on wasn’t for me. I flashed a gold badge, crescent and palm.
“Lieutenant DeLeon! Sorry not to recognize you.”
The fat man’s apology stumbled. “Orders from Capt’n Marsh himself.” Then, like he suddenly lost weight. “Hey! Got thebig-10 with you, or just happy to be here. Ha ha!”
Sargent Bowers had a quick hand on her sap, but the fat man wiped a lisp of spit from his chin and moved aside as we pushed through.
“Really, Nick, you think so?”
The door was private, heavy oak and on the city’s nickel. Outside, Charleston boiled, but Hricko didn’t and he wasn’t alone. It slapped me hard, the frigid, fluorescent room, moisture squeezed out like a life and the rim of blue-grey monitors writing pulse in noisy, green lines half way across each screen. But Hricko had been slapped harder.
Surgeons had cut. He lay naked on the sheets, dressed in electric buttons and wires leading away; tubes and needles led in. A plastic ventilator dove straight into his chest. It pulsed obscenely. I couldn’t see either end, but the hidden machine was sucking on him the way cancer or an ex-wife sucks on a man, when he’s weak. Where blood had been was paste white, deeper than the tan-black.
He had that much color left - from the prickly green spikes about that much time.
“He can't ….”
I walked to the far side of his bed, where the bundle of monitor wires spread out into the electronics, and fiddled until a red flasher announced the sound alarm no longer functioned. If anyone needed to wonder, Hricko would understand. I didn’t need to be interrupted. I needed my share.
“You needn’t be coy, Nicholas, he’ll talk to you.” Her voice carried a sing-song honey that flowed smooth in the chill. The face didn’t plead dismay; I didn’t have to look. She was sitting in the dark corner, wearing a kind of summer dress she wore to the Marina when my wife was out of town. Never wore it for for Hricko. She had been waiting, but not for Hricko to die.
“Been here long?”
“All day, good and bad.”
“She’s on him, quicker than some,” snipped the nurse, short-winded and bitter and thick with longing. She needed a vacation cruise. “This late, don’t waste his peace.”
“Peace? Men tend to do what's in their drawers, help or harm?” I circled the bed. “Can’t do a thing, until Hricko, here, gets his tongue out of his ass-hole.”
The nurse broke down, like an old man. “They tried to roont him!”
They had come close. I was watching for mindless, open eyes, those of a dead man breathing. “Why wouldn’t he talk, Fila?” Face muscles twitched, following the sound.
Fila said. “The surgeons gave him choice, that he should walk or not. Yesterday. A simple choice, really, for a man like Benjamin.” Silk whispered and folded, as she untied the bandana holding coils of black hair. “He waited, though you might not have come.”
I said. “Ben isn’t the one waiting now.”
“Benjamin trusts you won’t deceive him, or be deceived.”
“You two know a lot.” I bet not. Hrickos bare tanned leg twitched and I threw the Panama next to his foot; pulled over a chair to bedside, right against the ice-white sheets, starred at the man’s face and wished it alive. The white scar crossed his forehead seemed alive, where the dichroics shielded skin from the sun - when he was out of the breakers.
“Hricko! Before you went down, what did you see?” He had to remember that much. I wasn’t going to talk to myself. I put hand on his arm. It was stringy and oak-hard, like a shrimp-boat netman. He could have been. I didn’t look at Fila or Sargent Bowers. “Has anyone rung the hospital to inquire? Calls on his answering machine? Email ... the man doesn’t live in a cave.” I thought about it. “Can't get into the Convex to ask Jenni until his house gets cracked; mebby I should try ...” I ask to nobody.
With the Zippo cap, I twitch shadow edges across his eyes. “Won’t molest any children this week!” I got back the whump, whump of the machine, and nervous green strings of monitor lights. “Calculate this, Hricko. You’re likely dead by tomorrow. Don’t go out alone.”
At first, I thought the voice came from the plastic tube. “I saw a flash, detective, a fuzzy, dirty bright flash. Could have been Jesus. Could be your white linen suit needs washing.”
I squeezed his arm. “More damned blasphemy than enough, for a man who doesn’t need two enemies.” Where my knuckles went red was pale - bleached rope. “Three shots Ben; which one were these bullets meant for?”
One. One of the SOB girls. He kept a string. I fished the crumpled pack of Reds, fired one, and blew a thin stream of smoke toward the crack at the bottom of the window. It twisted around and escaped, mostly, into dusk. So did the cracked smile that bent up Hricko’s forehead, and a voice hollow as a lead hole in a metal heart.
“I think they had all gone for fresh kif.”
Torpedoes flashed. I finished another deep drag and held the end of the butt to his mouth. He managed. I said. “We’re talking good will, here, Ben, and not remembering old times. Let me do my business.” My leather holster felt like a cinch. I checked the stainless Rolex. It was seven-thirty. The lips followed and sagged and went off someplace that I couldn’t follow. “Look here, Hricko. It’s like I run a newspaper. Stories come in, go out - who, what, when. Some get written, most get lost. I’m listening for the story.”
I wished I’d said something else, but he dragged back and that cost him. “Marv a kissie, Nick.” He couldn’t manage the cough - his stomach racked pain, but his eyes were clear green and it wasn’t pain that clouded them. I leaned over. He was asking. “Time, detective? What time. Today? Then time is short, but not old. Thirty-six hours.”
“Davidson? Who needs an honest Jew? What am I getting?”
“Whatever chance does he get?” More silent hacks. “He gets paradise, detective. Rock hard.”
I gave Bowers this; she kept her mouth shut. I hit the Red again, so did Hricko. I looked over to Fila. “You know what he’s talking about, or when?”I got the flash of white teeth from Hricko’s ex-lover and the top of a curving, brown breast. Hricko slumped back in the pillow, breathing good but not great. “Sargent! Anything on diamonds, divas, Davidson?”
She started to spell his first name. I started to stop her. On one monitor, the wavy green line broke into spike boxes. An auto-drip flashed orange and spit blue ink into his arm. Fila crossed the room to the alarm switch and turned it on. It clicked three times and screamed!
What happened next wasn’t my business. Bowers looked sick as death, and she hovered. Back in the lounge, in the dark corner, Fila was retying the bandana.
She owed me more. I pointed to the door. “How did you get past the fat man?”
“I didn’t ask.”
We beat the nurses, flying in. I held the door open, staring into the rows of green, fractured lines. Hricko’s eyes were closed. He was practicing. I did. “Walk out of it tonight, Ben.” I figured he’d walk out or else. Surely, Fila had talked to the surgeon.
“Who gives Saul a chance, Lieutenant? Why thirty-six hours? Rock what ... cocaine? Who was the bitch ...?”
African heat - it rumpled the linen. Through the brass front door of the hospital, down the marble steps onto Beaufain. A back-of-the-hand slap from humidity driven two-thousand miles long. Three hundred years late for my tastes. “Quick! When is thirty-six hours?”
“When? Eight AM, Monday morning. Why? Fer Chris-sake, Lieutenant, maybe we ...”
I slammed her into the black-and-white, pressing her breasts hard against its six-spoked wheel. “I’m off duty, Sargent, off to Pussars and I’m off your case - till Monday morning.”
Straighting her back the nipples all, but punched through her starched blue linen. When Anita and I first became partners, my wife Eve had bought both of us $5000 form-fitting Aramid and titanium bullet-proofs … neither of us wore the tops. She puffed, “A bar is no place for policemen to meet,” and squealed away behind a frizz of black curls stuck to the police radio, past the white columns onto Legare and into a Palmetto haze.
The Panama tips
back. Losing Bowers was like losing a bad tooth. Without the needle. And I didn’t need to worry she would show up under my pillow. Likely as Captain Marsh bending elbows at a swill-joint. He took his twelve-steps serious. If he showed at all, he’d be checking green-cards. And my expense account.
I grabbed the leather overnight and swung through Hospital Park. In dusky evening, live oaks and spring flowers dazzled, intense young docs and nurses shepherding children with bald heads and soldier’s eyes. Years ago - it seemed like years - Fila and I ate lunch under the columns. I passed through to Church Street. It paralleled the lawn, south through magnolia to the fringe of large brine pools. Lockwood Boulevard separated them from the Ashley River, the Marina and Pussers bar.
It was a beautiful evening for Hricko to be half lucky, as I thought about it. Any day - I’d dodge a clean bullet meant for the heart, instead ... the black Lincoln coupe passed me once. Only once, but too fast for a polka. Too slow for the pair of nervous, angular young men. Slow enough that rail-marks stretching from grill to rear bumper should have made somebody worried.
My right hand felt loose and quick, opening a jacket button, to the holster under my left arm. The leather carry felt like a tombstone - I dropped it and flashed the badge high over my head and shouted. “Heh, amigos, pull over. You got a burned-out brake light.”
The Lincoln slipped forward. I took a step. “Chotto! You missing a burrito or what?”
Fat tires lurched and spun ahead, as I ran toward them, copper-skinned men leaned out the window, yanked back startled, squealing the sharp corner away, but following asphalt along the grassy edge to the far end of the pools where the Lincoln parked under hemlock among a line of small black faces jigging mackerel. Who couldn’t pick their neighbors. I didn’t think much of reckless youth, who never got the balls and brains thing straight.
They could take a lesson. I let the Browning slide back into the holster. Somebody had told them to care, where and what I did. No one had told them what to do then. Damned-poor intimidation - I ran through a mental list of busts, recent and nasty perps with money to hire black Lincoln muscle - the list stopped at zero. Too bad, because troubled youth without adult supervision are prone to sloppy, violent fantasy.
I puffed back to the carry and retrieved the cell-phone, punched an access code and the license-plate number. I got three beeps and the robo-voice saying MISTER CLEAN. Too bad, I was having a fantasy, one the city hadn’t paid me for. I’d have preferred blowing a tire on the Lincoln. One quick shot would have pitched them into the brine pool. Then the arrest report gets pitched at me.
Suspects guilt of breathing like perps.
‘What made you suspicious, Lieutenant?’
Chottos try to crawl up my ass.
‘Does this happen often?’
Only when I’m alone.
I needed that rap like I needed Hricko breathing through a tube. But the Lincoln was a week too close. The thought of punching up Bowers made my gums hurt, so I spent five minutes circling away, around the lower pool to the skirt of Lockwood Boulevard. Away, but not so far away that the black Lincoln fender stuck through the Palmettoes like a rotted tooth. I felt better. The Marina lay directly ahead and the salt musk smelled fresh. Spot-tails thrashed shrimp among weeds. I crossed over, where the pipe bubbled tide in from the bay and into a maze of hulls. It was a hell-of-a place to get lost, and I thought that last.
At the marina kids smiled, in a parking lot jammed with day-sailors and weekend captains. A tourist restaurant crowded on the left and at the public launch a stone path led right to a line of misbehaved live-aboards. They weren’t eating - for the lawyers - and acted like them. The lawyers weren’t eating much either. They were prowling College of Charleston girls at the edge of Spoleto where 'show me your art' and 'show me your gun' didn't mean all that different. Marsh wasn’t. I waded through to the doorman and flashed my badge. No big deal - in fact no deal at all. The kid shrugged and so did I. I wondered why Marsh had chosen to talk where rich Charleston slummed old fish and young women. Cops did eat here in swarms and they ate cheap. But when they ate they talked and when they talked they talked cop talk in public. I didn’t figure Marsh wanted either cops or the public to listen in. He could have posted that on City Station bulletin board. A suit jostled from behind, and turning, into points headed away and they giggled.
Then the kid punched my shoulder, pointed and passed me through. I didn’t pass a line of smiles, but I got one from the wooden Indian, and slapped him cruising in. It was bad luck for a local not to, since we had killed the rest - he didn’t seem to mind. I looked for the table and a tired black face.
The city’s worries pitched back, bloating in booze, slouching across plastic covered oyster tables complete with heated stone rack and bagged shell-hole. Vice, burglary and homicide all had one - domestic violence had two and they were packed blue. I went to the second window and the best view, where two uniforms and a pair of jeans worried a line of empty shot glasses. Vice - the honest part of the shift - they weren’t working and they were eating flounder.
“Beat it, DeLeon,” said Jackson, “we didn’t let you in. Your homicide buddies did.”
I looked. Eight detectives sat around a non-smoking table in the back, where hard men could cry about the latest kiddie-murder. I said no thanks and didn’t return the finger. I sat down next to the red-head in jeans and a white silk blouse who could steal your heart.
“Need a date, Anne?”
“I got five this afternoon, DeLeon.” She was forking the flounder without mercy. “Four old men, and a boy who wanted to trade it for a syringe.” She lay the fork next to a double big-K. “Smack, he said. Bleach, said the lab. What the hell, Nicky, isn’t sex enough any more?”
She took away my breath. She had two kids and a husband with cancer who was a shadow.
“Heh, Nick, at least Anne got a needle.” Jackson, still a uniform but close to promotion, held up a tiny red vial. His hand shook. “It fell off a truck, know what I mean?” Jackson had three, and his wife was holding onto the fourth: unconceived. He could bang her till her ass turned to apple-butter, but she wouldn't give it to him - - - he said - - - till he got out of uniform or as she called it the BIG BLUE TARGET! Jackson came from a big southron family and wasn’t smiling much.
I said. “I’ll pass on the war story.” I stopped a waitress heading for a back table with a full tray of green, plastic tumblers. I took two and left two twenties. “Tell them it’s on the house.” I gave one to Jackson and one Anne ; he drained half still shaking. “One of my project kids traded aJimmy Fox for this. Girl used the hash oil for shampoo, went bonkers, and lit her hair on fire with a curling iron.”
“I said, no war stories. How’s the wife?”
“Thinks she can hold on. Finally, Nick, it’s a boy.”
“Everybody got knocked up.” Jackson drained the rest of the Wild Turkey, and racked hard. He wasn’t a drinking man.
“Good for you,” Anne said, “your girls will need an older brother to keep away bad influence.” She gave me a wet-eye.
Anne was slugging shot for shot with the second blue, new blue. I should have slammed her fast, but she was cute, and she was gulping air like a string of beached spot. She was new enough to remember too many old stories. They got needled into rookies like an AIDS vaccine - then got passed around. Somebody should have thrown her back.
“Hiii ... Lieutenant DeLeon.The Lieutenant DeLeon? I’m Frieda, Officer Frieda Wye.”
“Somebodies pleasure, I’m sure.”
“I’ve been an officer three months. Getting right to it. At the academy, all the instructors tell stories ...”
The blush started somewhere above the widows-peak. If she had been naked, it wouldn’t have stopped. She shifted - over the Colt revolver, against the plate glass, to any face except mine. She was still shifting her hands when she said with the practice of a young woman. “And how’s your new partner?”
“Officer Bowers still wears her uniform, working under a superior.”
“That doesn’t surprise me one bit, Lieutenant DeLeon. I imagine she also works well behind you.”
“Anne’s voice cracked. “Wye!”It would have given blood-poisoning to a snake. But Wye looked plenty modern, and had forgotten all the stories but one. “Fer Chris-sake, Anne, Sam Johnson had only thirty days before he retired. I’ve got thirty years.”
She was a girl, so I didn’t break her jaw; she was a cub, so I cuffed her. “Spend one day, Officer Wye, as well as Sam spent thirty. Double dare.”
She came up wordless - snarling. I got a grip on her arm. “And don’t go melty. I may need you, one day, to walk in front.” Once, only once but early on, Sam had said worse to me. I could hear ice-cubes turn to slush.
Jackson muttered. “Bowers ax’ for the assignment.”
Anne laughed, sort of. “Me too, Frieda! But the Inspector said I had too nice an ass for homicide. Maybe I need another kid.”
“Kreutz doesn’t deserve you, as a partner,” I said.
“He’s got his moments - in the john ...”Anne wasn’t laughing.
I said, “nothing’s forever.”
“Erlyne Tepy.” Jackson was still muttering like a veteran, half to himself. “The Tepy case, wasn’t it, where Sam got his bullet?”
Wye didn’t mutter, prolly no foreplay fan, but came in a flash.“Juicy, juicy sex - a real cross-dresser.”
They couldn’t leave it alone - the high stone that never quite died. I couldn’t understand the coldness, among young officers, even the best ones. Wye was second year law. Jackson was going right to the top. I said.“Readers make good desk sergeants, Jackson. I’d spend less time in the file room, I were you.”
He didn’t believe a word. “It did have everything. Serial murders, drugs and some kind of cult stuff.” He waited for my response - I gave him quiet.
Too much for Wye. She snapped. “Say nothing of the politicians.” She winked. “The female politician. Right up your fav alley, Lieutenant.” She could melt wax, with those eyes. “Representative Peg Bottie’s boy, Damon Willis with the knife, but she was a woman on the double-or-nothing standard, and got busted for nothing.”
Johnson shrugged. “Pussy politics.”He pointed out the window, toward the last line of slips, where the big, blue-water cruisers made home. “Started here, at the marina, with the last of the serial killing. Am I right, Lieutenant? You happened on the body, tracked the perp for two weeks, til you brought Willis down in the middle of a hurricane.”
“‘Brought him down?’ How euphemistic of you, Jackson.” Wye smiled her best wicked smile. “Blew him into tiny pieces, with that sawed-off ten-gauge. And not just him. One-two-three ... more than three?” She was looking straight at me and asking for both barrels with eyes that weren’t questions.
“Yeah, at Sully’s, on Sullivans Islands,” said Anne, dragged along.
“Details, Sargent Rains, got to get the details straight.” Jackson was muttering again, but it came out staccato and got your attention. “First, ladies, Damon Willis got shot eleven times with standard FMJs, not triple-oughts. And not all police issue.” He was tacking on a perfect memory. “He got shot not at Sully’s but on the other side of Breech Inlet, at the Comber on Isle of Palms. It was the Greek’s brother who got the scatter-load up his ass, but that happened at the old cat-house on Utility, where Davidson moved the Harbor Club.”
“Bravo, Jackson,” said Wye. She turned gleefully to me. “You don’t leave one standing, do you Lieutenant?”She frowned. “But who the hell is Erlyne Tepy? Why name the case-file after her? Why not Willis or Bottie, or even the perv from Isle of Palms. What’s his name?”
“Hricko.” Jackson looked straight at me. “You wrote the case-file, Lieutenant. What reason the name?”
Anne made a long, cynical face. “Reason had nothing to do with it. The name and the spin belonged to Marsh. He was the first Negro to ...”
Jackson shot back. “Marsh wasn’t the first Negro nothin’ ... not the first darkee to afta’ massy’s legal problems. “
Anne, red as her hair. “I was saying, Sargent Jackson, Marsh knew enough to scrub old Charleston names that should have been in the report. Ain’t a first in that, you’re right. But he’s smart enough to take the IOUs, and then collect on the debt. Marsh has tons of South-of-Broad money to run for Chief of Police.”
“A trailer-trash whore.”
I wasn’t in a hurry to answer Wye’s question. Not everything had made the report, and good for me. Jackson had joined the ladies in a new string of K’s. I finished my tumbler - ice for locals must be in short supply - I was up from the table and said. “Speaking of the Captain, has anyone seen him this evening?”
“He’s not a drinking man, Lieutenant.”
“And he doesn’t talk to peanuts.”
“Well, if he comes by with drinks, peanuts or pervs, tell him I didn’t.”
I headed toward the Indian, and had the teak doors spread open. “Jackson called out. “How was the Greek involved, beside the hash trade?”
He didn’t want to know, as a young man. “I’d put that question to Hricko.” I turned and gave him a bad dog look.
He said even louder. “I want to know, Lieutenant, because I bought the SALLY-B. It’s in the Marina, right now, getting teak varnished.”
Going through the door would have been easy. I turned. “You, and you, and you. Come with me!”
“How many slips over, Jackson.”
“Thirteen, Lieutenant. Like I told you, it’s in the same slip it was, night of the murder.”
“Haven’t moved a thing, have you?”
“No I haven’t, or anyone else. It sat there, rotting, for two years. Who would touch it? I mean, except me.”
“Make a note of that, Officer Wye. Sargent Jackson has failed to investigate the scene of his crime. Failed to observe that Kevlar hulls don’t rot.”
“Oh, Nicky, fer cry’n out loud ...” Anne was struggling, last in line. She skinned coming down the ladder, onto dock three, and saw plenty more of her skin at risk. “ ... the girl is dead and buried and ... she didn’t even die on the boat.”
“Note that too, Wye, Sargent Rain’s omission of a blood trail. Sargent Jackson!”
“Yes, Lieutenant.”He stumbled over a hawser as we approached the SALLY-B. He was puffing. “I got the damned boat so the daughter could work on her deck.”
“What a fine idea. You read Asian philosophy?”
“Well ... yeah, but ...”
“Become one with the enemy, and he shall be yours? Something like that?”
“What enemy? I’m just teaching the kid responsibility.”
“You believe in karma, Sargent Jackson? What goes around ...”
“Yeah, I’d read, but ... wait a minute!”
“Final note Wye, for Jackson’s tombstone - a reader who still believes.” Wye had raced ahead, and jumped from the dock to the roller reefing. She hung there, mid-air pawing the braided Turkish hemp and pointed to a rough sanded patch of teak. “Is this where forensics found the wax?”
“All in due time.” I skipped to deck and Jackson followed.
He looked plenty worried. “Watch it over there, Lieutenant, the varnish is still wet.”
“Wet? Oh, so it will be.”
I motion Wye to follow, and edged along the sea-rail to the stern, where the main cabin hatch lay open and bleeding on the deck.
Jackson was laughing nervously. “It’s true. The Tepy case-files with regard to SALLY-B are quite incomplete. With all respect, Lieutenant, no proper search ever was made, and since questions regarding the entire case have been ...”
“Have anything aboard, Jackson?”
“No, of-course not, Lieutenant. Nothing of value in an unlocked boat ... except for some preliminary notes that ...”
“Officer Wye, give me your piece.”
“No, No, Nicky. It’s a felony!” Anne stood on the redwood plank, wringing her hands at Wye, who had grabbed the newly bright chrome wheel. She was hanging on.“Excuse me ..”
“I said, Wye, what are you carrying?”
“Ah, ah, a 357-cal, Lieutenant.”
“Hand it over, quick, like you never donated before.”
The pistol was a handsome S&W, with a gold-plate trigger and filed safety. It smelled of oil, like a cop’s gun should. The chamber held eight steel-tips, and I touched off all eight like a Chinese New-Year through the hatch and the Kevlar bottom of the SALLY-B. It sounded like hell, but the dock was empty. A cloud of teak splinters filled the hatch, and Ashley River brine spurted through the eight holes.
“Remember that, Officer Wye, Kevlar will not stop a steel-tip, if your floating face down in the water.” The hull shuttered. “Or stupid enough to be standing straight up.”
Three pairs of legs stood frozen. “Sargent Jackson, Officer Wye. I wouldn’t dally on a sinking hull. You got insurance, Jackson?”
Wye and Rains led Jackson back to Pussers, along the stone path from the public launch. The women walked like zombies, but Jackson was hunched over, muttering, like he might of missed a file - not tomorrow. I was standing on the deck of my own - EVE’S DELIGHT - watching the last fringe of sun play tag with a cloud. I drank warm Wild Turkey and was thinking bad thoughts.
Ihad asked Hricko about the Greek. Months after the hurricane had leveled Isle of Palms, and the Tepy case was only a footnote to a bad year. Fila had already left him for Tony. Hricko thought Petrakis and Jerry-the-Arab had a deal, hash oil for sand, more of one for less of the other - all of a reasonable man’s reason for me to stay miles away. I filed it where every cop files the raw side - too rotten to be false and too hot to use. Shortly after, I took up with Hricko and Vitalle, once a month surfing the kissies off station sixteen. Tony kept his pal alive, Ben kept his island, I got some forgiveness – Eve reflecting views of the older Charleston klans forgave poorly and without a wifes grace.
Only three months ago I had stopped surfing, when Fila ... damn some thoughts are like a silver knife shoved into your groin. A fresh, hot breeze slapped me hard. I stowed the Turkey and came out onto the planking. Ashley Marina could steel your heart, on a spring evening when the baked out marsh essence floats on westerlies and the sun rages like a purple dragon dying over the river. Any spring evening ... we strolled redwood planks, Fila and I, when a dead man told few stories or the news too many. Her name, like many, never appeared in the Tepy case-file. Concrete Marina walls echoed now. I turned away, across Lockwood, to the brine pools and Colonial Lake.
No she-crab soup - but no Marsh, no black Lincoln, only blues marauding spot among a line of black faces who couldn’t chose their neighbor. I turned - south on Church, walking toward home and a rim of thunder-heads that promised hell’s rain tomorrow. I got half a block and rung out in sweat before an unmarked tan Ford bandit-chaser curbed and a rear door swung open.
“You need a laundry, DeLeon.”
I recognized the voice, not a weak voice but one full of bad teeth. “I’ll follow you, soon as I get my shots.”
“What’s wrong, no nuggie in Atlanta?” Kreutz would know - working vice from his back, but not tonight. He was driving, smoking a Galois, and from a yard it stunk like burning frog-skin. He said. “You’re two hours late. I told the Captain, he should make you take a plane.”
“And you’ll find me on one, soon as Value-Jet pilots start shaving.”
A lung-burnt chuckle filtered out. The black suit sat across, filing a fingernail. His face was behind his back and his back was huge. I tried to get him to turn, when Captain Marsh beckoned from the rear seat. It needed a vacuum; he didn’t need to use that finger.
“Hricko say anything?”
“Still drugged up and raving. Nothing special about that.”
“I hear they cut him again tonight, and cut him deep. Shame if he wouldn’t come through.”
“You have a good hearing aid.”
“Digital, Nicky, new design.” Marsh pushed himself against the far window, and made the frown go away“How-ya-doing? FBI treat you OK? Get a good train home? No stewardess, I guess, so no free tit.”
Kreutz spilled a river of smoke. “ Ha Ha. Bet-cha got a fag car-man. Whatcha’ call them, anyway, beside Neeegros?”
A dirty cuff - Marsh spit and scrubbed him off. “I know you did good.”
“I would have done better by Sunday ... missing the lab final ...”
“Make it up next time. Promise. We have to adjust altitudes, like attitudes some high some low. Quick! Know what I mean?” He motioned again. “Get in, Nicky, the heat’s fearsome outside.”
We drove west of the brine pools in silence. Kreutz had clicked off the police chatter and turned air-conditioned to freeze. He looked comfortable, like a man knowing his job. I never trusted, Kreutz knowing his job because it spilled over mine on occasion like stale coffee. I like to grind my own. Any rotten bean. But now he was sitting high in the seat with a lax hand on the 50s style wheel Marsh had installed with his own nickel. Kreutz liked that!
He said. “So Nick, the FBI treated you OK at Emery. Like the paper?”
“If anybody ought to know.”
“Come on. I’m not jealous or anything. It’s only talk.” Kreutz ruffled brakes at the light and turned onto Lockwood Boulevard. “What did you talk about?”
I turned to the Captain. “I need to do this?” Marsh was storing wind. I said. “Just a seminar, Kreutz. Lots of chatter.”
“Yeah? I keep notes, on cops who chatter.”
“Your black book wants a title? Try smudged fingerprints in R4.”
Kreutz giggled - then snapped fool upright. “You mean the triple murder, at River’s Avenue Motel? You guys were studying that? No shit. I worked that case, because of the meth.” He wheezed into the Galois. “Forty pounds of crystal on the floor and body parts all over, Nicky, like a slaughterhouse. I found an ear spinning on the ceiling fan.” He leaned over the seat. “My first big bust. Anybody mention my name?”
Half the back seat wasn’t big enough for Marsh. I said.“Sure, Kreutz, your name was up all over. All over tanning room walls.”
Kreutz knuckles turned white. I got it, a blast of damp cold, leaned into Marsh’s wind. He figured it was a thousand miles long. “Nicky, don’t cut the man so hard. A fellow officer. It’s all about compromise, working with the system. You need to learn that.”
“I’d like to know plenty. Whose system picked the fat turd guarding Hricko’s room?”
Kreutz squeaked.“Turd nothing, Nick. That’s my brother. What do you think? Officer material? Be honest.”
“You two have the same mother?”
“Forget it, trying to be nice. Fuck you, DeLeon and your ass-hole.”
The bandit-chaser rolled south along Lockwood, rolled past Pussers and any chance for a reasonable evening, while the suit filed away. He wasn’t Perlman, but he wasn’t slow. He seemed to get bigger the closer we got to the Battery. Marsh filled the back seat with fresh-mint breath. I was waiting. Marsh got around to it.
“Stop the serenade, Wilson.” The filing stopped.
Marsh said nothing. Then he said.“We have a situation, Nicky.”
“Like Kreutz can’t get his thumb out of some whore’s ass.”
Marsh shuffled for place, like a man who shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable. But he was looking like a man who didn’t need a whore’s ass to be in trouble. “It’s a case of the Holy City on trial, if we’re not ... discrete. Know what I mean?”
“I know whatdiscrete means. It rhymes withbent.”
“Don’tbent me, DeLeon.” Marsh hacked like a smoker and gave Kreutz a lot of bad eye. An hour’s worry, in the mouth, but he hadn’t left me for a second. “Flexible, Nicky, that’s the way to think. Politics gets dirty.”
“I know what I got, Captain. I got thirty seconds on the phone - one attempted murder, one drug snuggle, and a mystery hand under Miss Charleston’s dress. I got mad Canadians in a Lincoln who don’t shave - yet.” I picked a lint-ball off my sleeve and stuffed it in the ashtray. “So it’s a tough election. Saul should pick a lower class shill.”
Marsh tugged on his full, ivory-black face. “Now that’s what I mean, Nicky, about a bad attitude. I don’t mean yours, of course. I know you think I should take the election straight on. Shoulder’s square to the citizens ... and the vote be damned. People like that give TED speeches; people like that collect unemployment. So I appreciate Sauls’ advice and his friends support. Some people would drag me down.” Marsh mopped his wet face with the hank. “Lynch me like Jim-Crow from John’s Island. And drag Saul down too, him a respected businessman.”
The pinstripe rolled most of his shoulder and a blacksmith arm over the front seat. “No suh, Mista Nicky, we can’ have none o’ that!”
Marsh lunged forward, had the French cuffs and all of his attention twisted into the seat-back and fearful white eyes that weren’t used to fear. He had a fearsome twist on the man neck popping eyes and turning cheeks purple. “Don’t you play no fool nigger with me.” Behind the yelp - nail file quivered in his right hand - Marsh would always give fools the first move - quivered and from a limp
wrist it dropped to the pinstripe lap. “You wish moma was white, that happen again.” The arm yanked back. Marsh shook his head, silver, and fixed a soiled cotton tie. He was breathing hard, then easy, took out a blue hank and dried his hands. He could lose a pound. He didn’t lose much time. He motioned Kreutz to pull over. We parked at the top of Battery, where the trees stretch away into the dark, and stone walls disappears into the harbor.
“So we need a palaver.” I pulled the Reds from a vest pocket.
Marsh made a face. “Not here, Nicky, not now.” Stinks up the car.” He had spread out the hank, mopping his face. “I was telling you, Nick, the slander doesn’t stop with me or with Saul. His best friend on the Potomac, and ours, is Representative Bottie. Ms. Bottie’s a fine southern lady. Imagine splashing her with dirty wash? She has enemies … you know the types, the VOV and SOS types that started last years riot at the marina.”
“I remember.” Remember what Sammy-the-mole had told me. Reds crumpled into a vest pocket. “How could I imagine that? What types? Who’s wash? And what damned drugs?”
Marsh raised both arms, like a benediction.“Sure you can imagine. Hricko’s anti-development people over on Isle of Palms. Won't be satisfied until people paddle canoes and live in wigwams. He’s been after Saul since forever, since before the hurricane. Still making trouble, two years later. Making trouble for Bottie, too. You’ve had a couple run-ins with him, so says the record.”
“So it's back now to Hricko. Who shot him Captain?”
“Stuff the wet hankey, DeLeon! One of the mongrels, maybe. You know how the all Greens are greener than eachother; kill to prove it! Might be one of the Greek’s people, trigger-happy, or Enrico. Why do I worry about which slime pulls the trigger?”
I had a bad answer for that, and none at all. “Cops worry like that!”
Marsh’s spit from the cars window and his voice came back low. “I hear Hricko and Bottie played house for a while. Hard bitch got all melty with the Catholic pervo before local Republicans sent her to Washington . Don’t know how true that is, don’t care. Lots get forgotten if a man ghosts about, keeps his mouth shut and blows his own nose. But he’s not, going after Davidson, IOP bulldozers and Palm Development Corp. That’s Saul’sother business, you know, with a fine investment group from Awaik Island.
“I might have heard.”
“Well, hear this. If he goes after one, he comes after us all. We need leverage, to protect the Holy city and finally we got some; finally we nailed the bastard – for running drugs. Hricko’s moving hash, the twenty-five hundred kilos I told you about. Hand-off Sunday midnight. We know because we cracked his email ... DEA did and FBI forensic crypto analysts will back them up. Time, date, amount, source, THC content ... Everything but the incoming ship and drop-off dock number.”
“Any bust so clean smells like a setup.” Every square inch of Marshs chub face
blew up like a puffer! I gave him no chance to work on it and rapped. “Missing a lot I'd say. Drugs could be landing in Cape Cod with the pilgrims! Got Hrickos underwear size too?”
Kreutz hacked fiercely. Marsh’s face wiped blank, the voice flat. “Size twenty-to-life hard time.”
“Hard? Got that right. Hricko uses one-time pads for his email hash. Every mail a different hash. Can't break that.”
Waited and the crickets chirped. Rolex ticked. The big man fixed his tie. “Unless you got the pads … Hricko kept his on the Convex computer screen-saver as a bit-reversed Grey-code watermark. Lazy mans way since a digitizer just picks it off as needed. Silly boy to do that.”
Marsh smirked. “Papers and warrants all writ up, signed and cooling in the Dept. safe. Ready to come down on him like a hammerhead on a flounder; then the bastard gets shot, so we can’t tail him to the hand-off. Then ...we had a meeting three days ago.”
“Got copies of both encrypted and distilled text?”
“The email? Sorry, Nicky. Need-to-know and all that. The FBI used some kinda cold magnetic ring to measure computer keystrokes inside Hrickos house from the street.”
Need to know … yeah … Marsh wouldn't know a Grey-code from Greys Anatomy,
but the tek was real; what had the bastard done to call-out top-kennel Federal hounds? I squinted meanly looking for space. “Sure Captain. Need-to-know. But you're killing my need to know. It’s drug-related, not murder but attempted murder on Isle of Palms. Ship coming into Harbor or the Wapoo Cut; is that even part of Charleston and the landing where - - - on IOP! I should be out of the investigation three ways.”
Marsh growled. “Isle of Pussy can’t do a thing.”
“Yeah, Captain, a regular pussy-o-mat.” Kreutz butted out the Galois. “Imagine Isle of Palms have a Negro sheriff, and him being at Promise Keepers during the shooting. I didn’t think they ... I mean, he’s got to live back-island to live there at all.”Kreutz was sweating hard. “Wouldn’t getthat if his wife wasn’t Octoroon.” He looked at Marsh and he looked at the huge back suit. He looked at me.“I mean, fer Chris-sake Nick, we’re surrounded.”
Marsh took another mop at his brow, scowling through.“That Negro sheriff is a Citadel man, but not the Citadel kind! He’s wus, the way I grew up - times change. He’s got what he deserves.”
Mouth to heckling mouth, when I cut in. “Quit the flap! Kreutz! Marsh! Listen to the rap I’m getting. Mystery boat, hidden load, unknown course. If every tinker-bell on the Ashley flew, they’d need a month to find that hash.”
Marsh rapped, “and when you nail it, you callme on the cell-phone. Only me.”
Kreutz nodding along, swinging a dull blade ...so I talked louder. “Could be a shrimper, cruising in tonight, or a day-sailor anytime tomorrow. Maybe it’s here already, sleeping in the Marina.”
“Not yet! Nothing’s peaceful yet!” Marsh didn’t scream. He never did, not with a shiny cotton tie. He fixed it again. “One of our informants confirms the hand-off, everything but the ships’ name. Its a blue water cruiser, we know that, coming in from the south. We calculate ...” He stopped. I thought he was about to explain westerlies. Instead, he tugged at the leather shoulder holster until it really poked out of his jacket. “One more thing, Nicky. It’s coming through the Wappo Cut!”
“Kinda figured.” I scratched my chin like a file on steel burr. “That helps plenty ... anything with a potty, under seventy feet.”
“That’s not lip, is it DeLeon?”Marsh waited, then grunted. “You still have that Chink-boat, the big one that can go fast.”
“Big ... fast? Yes, Captain, I still sail the Ta-Ching, when I get a week-end ...”
“You have one. Gas is the cities nickel.”
“Another fucking Mercedes. I didn’t think it was German, but any fucking way ...”
“Why just me?” You can tell when a man’s not listening - when a damn-fool question gets answered. “Why not flood the Harbor with plainclothes. Skiffs, helicopters, lay it on thick. Walk through every hull. Better still, get a couple studs on the promo list to hump it down. Under the sheets. What about Rains and Jackson?”
“Don’t leave one floating, do you DeLeon?” Marsh had a face full of teeth.“We got no Negroes on this case.”I tried to make a smile too. Marsh started picking his fingernails. “Nicky, Nicky. Nicky. You want Summerville rubes busting into a cabin, inour harbor, holding a ton of hash? Can you see the fool groping innocent but indiscrete messages?”
Groped wasn’t the word. I was getting lubed, while Marsh’s teeth got whiter. “ Count on it Nicky, innocent but indiscreet. What does he do then? I tell you what! Takes an enema, and screams for reporters to wipe his ass. Is that what the city pays us to do?”
“Some people think so.”
Marsh spit out the window. “I need an experienced man.”
Kreutz said. “Yeh, Nick. You want Tonto or what?” He flicked away the Galois and lit another. “Dumb cops and the wild stories. About Hricko. We all heard them. We don’t need wild stories. We need Hricko’s ass.”
“We need no stories, Lieutenant. Bad boys do wrong.” The pinstripe had a liquid Saturday night voice and a bad manicure. Both had come from south island. He wasn’t rounding them off.
Marsh motioned for Kreutz to start rolling, turned down the window and threw the white sop into the magnolias. A blast of Charleston night returned. “A lot of hash, and the oil, like I told you - a lot of fucked up little kids. It’s got to unload tomorrow. Find it for me, Nicky. Make the connection to Hricko.”
“And if I can?”
“No ifs about it! You’re sly where it comes to spotting a guilty man. Or a sailboat moving too slow or fast, or deck hands working not hard enough. Too much or too little canvas, and the other stuff ...”
Hard stuff, he didn’t want to say. I could tell he’d thought about it, had a picture of how blue-sky harbor scenes from a calender would drop into the bust. My right hand still stank of Wye’s meth-freak loads. Marsh was up close. He was playing with silver bars. “How long, Nick, since you got passed over for Inspector?”
A hard finger on a soft nerve; not innocent, not discrete. I said. “One year. Happened right after the hurricane.”
“That was a bad decision. Department politics. You made the wrong Republicans mad, any of those bastards ... move your ass on this, help me, Nick. When I’m elected Police Chief, I’ll see fair is done.” Marsh pulled himself up in the seat ... and grinned. “Fair enough deal? Shake on it, Nicky. Do the city proud.”
I added up Charleston’s time, being proud. “Gimme five minutes.”
The Galois reeked. “To do what, Nick? Your wife’s not around.”
The suit humped. “Missy Eve, she not be around, Mista Nicky. You don’t need no five minutes.”
I knew what I needed. Babies - the two wet-backs - compared to those two bad actors. But Marsh ... Marsh hadn’t grinned in the six years I knew of. I tried one of the cracked smiles that men with tubes in their chest try when the bad taste just won’t go. I was thinking how many secrets Hricko sold and how little hash - he smoked every cube I ever saw him touch. I was thinking that Hricko’s public key encryption was 1024 bytes deep - no crack in his ass. DEA couldn't break his crypto in a Century. I needed time to think - mostly about the black Lincoln convertible that had followed us along the Ashley River. First two blocks back, then one. It would kiss bumpers around the next turn and I was ready to fall in love. Love wouldn’t take five minutes.
Marsh gave me one. “Too much thinking for a John’s Island boy, DeLeon. The assignment starts now. Let him out here, Kreutz.”
“What about backup? A vest or a wire?”
“We’ll be around.” The cavernous pinstripe chuckled, like the dead lung cleaning out. He kept his arm in front, but fingered up a loop of piano wire about the size of a white mans’ neck. “You need a wire?” His eyes flashed into the rearview mirror. Kreutz jerked the bandit-chaser to a halt at the brass cannon fronting Battery park.
Marsh leaned out the window. “A five minute walk gets you home, Nicky. Colonial Lake’s nice in the evening. Five and five makes ten minutes. Twice what you need. Do me right.”
What got done - I’d consider it and right wasn’t the word, but I waited anyway. Palmetto bugs hummed overhead while pelicans swooned. Neighborhood runts mauled the brass cannon - yipped at my Panama; salt spray dashed smartly over Battery rocks. The Red smouldered while Galois stench drifted away. I sprawled across a green bench. Some fool didn’t need R4 to know the difference between Marsh’s midnight and Hricko’s 8-AM. A careless man would wonder what happened between low and high tide? If humans unloaded canvas bags then backs broke. If forklifts unloaded pallets then the operator could stay stoned all night. Hricko needed that drug deal like a North Charleston whore needs her ankles glued together. So it's a nights revenge … a gap between Hricko’s revenge and Marsh’s drug bust. Did Hricko figure that making Marsh look like an idiot, just before election would payback Bottie for … for doing what women always did to men! What was my payback and who wrote the check? Talk is cheap - - - Inspectors gold bars expensive. Doing it, if I should do it - groping hulls for the hash would cost one week. So much for Inspector’s gold bars. Forget those, but the message came fast. I wasn’t getting thirty-six hours either - not five minutes.
Diagonal paths split the park - something the Lincoln convertible couldn’t use. It slipped past me, along East Bay making the first left. I hustled across and waited for trouble under elms at Church. Behind the red brick column. A pair, even a big pair I could handle moving first and fast. They didn’t waste time circling, and as the black fender turned by I stepped out and jammed my Browning through the open passenger side window into perfect 36s.
Plenty fast. So was the babe, with a stop smooth as red plush leather. I pressed a little harder. I hadn’t taken off the safety. Neither had she. “Ms. Bottie’s waiting, even if a cold barrel’s all you’ve got.” She shook cherry-blond spray over her shoulder, and it was bare. Like her arm, except for the Piaget. And her eyes. She’d blue-eyed bigger and better, they said. She hadn’t missed a heart, they said, since the fifth grade. That was the look I got, or half the look. “Need anything Lieutenant?”
“I could use a shower.”
“Me too,” she snickered without being funny. He hand came to rest above my elbow. “Nobody’s at Ben’s.” She didn’t give me five minutes.
I knew her - had known her. The honorable Peg Bottie’s ice-pick, Sheri McCain. She swept dirt under the rug and spare gents under the sheets. I looked at her full face, and if there were harder points or a colder pair of blues in Charleston, they were on a slab at the morgue. She was staring back, like the lez never could. My mouth went dry, and neck hairs prickled against the white linen.
“Eve and the kids are waiting.”
“You think so. If I were a man, and I stayed away as much as you, I’d worry.”
“You aren’t and you don’t.”
“Men are stupid.” She hadn’t colored her lips, and she was licking them. “Anyway, you don’t have time.”
I holstered the Browning. She looked great; I don’t think she ever looked good. I took a step back and wished her gone, and wondered if she had friends driving Lincoln coupes. I said. “Anyway, you’re the third person to tell me that in the last hour.”
“So Ben’s still alive?”
“You skipped a number.”
“Marsh only thinks he’s alive. What about Ben!”
“I’ll tell him you still care.”
“Break my heart, detective, hello, break my back. TheMarv never got a grope.”
“Eh?” Her eyes screamed she didn't mean it! “Such disrespect, from a SOB girl.”
She flexed an arm against the ivory steering-wheel. “Ex, Lieutenant. Why do guys always remember the last, even if you didn’t have a good time? Anyway, get in. Ms Bottie’s made time in a very busy schedule.” Red leather felt like a cloud and twenty-four hours like a century. She circled and punched up Atlantic. But that was the other half of McCain’s face, too long in the rearview. Her voice real careful and the words counted out like rations. “You always do police business in the back seat?”
Breeze had blown her hemline north and played between her thighs. “When I don't trust the driver to stop at red lights.”
“Red lights never stopped me.” McCain snacked a straight and blew a thin stream of smoke across the passenger seat. “No other commitments, tonight?”
“Who said I’m committed to Marsh. He’s a lousy lay. Eve’s waiting. I’m still deciding if I need Bottie’s raz, tonight or any night”
“Eve. Oh yes.”
McCain bit her lip, like she had plenty to say. I leaned for'ard and tapped on the ivory wheel. “Wherever we’re going, make the next left, and another.”
She looked disappointed but not surprised. “Colonial Lake?” Then nasty. “Married men don’t use it enough, except for an excuse.”
Nothing was all a gentleman could say. She drove stylish while I remembered hard. Sheri McCain had come north from Beaufort, a military brat with long legs. She worked shrimp boats out of Shem Creek, and bummed around Isle of Palms with the environmental crowd, especially with Hricko’s then girlfriend, Jett Coffee. Changing sides came easy. McCain worked harder as Jerry-the-Arabs’ tent-mate. In a twist, she found herself working as Peg’s chief-of-staff when Bottie was elected state representative - and Damon Willis wasn’t. But Sheri had moved out and moved up to an ecohard consulting firm; the hardest lay in Columbia, some said. She still was, some said, having again moved, now working from a Georgetown flat for US Representative Patricia Bottie.
I was still thinking about the Coffee-McCain duo when she hit the radio button. Some guy named Sting who couldn’t sing, and we couldn’t talk. Some women clam up, near the wife’s house. We cruised quiet, State to Rutledge to the Palmetto ellipse at the north end of Old Town. I stopped her at the fountain. The Lake was ringed with Magnolias, and tonight with SOBs in Ford convertibles and Chevy vans - we parked between two. The girls were all too young. I didn’t slam the door.
She said. “I’m not good when I’m late.”
“But, bad when you come early! A dime says you’ve got a hole in your social calender.”
“Oh yeah? Peg said you were the smart one. Now I remember.”
I wondered who was number two. I said.“Eve says the same. You won’t be.”
Home. Eve, slouched over her great-grandfathers oak desk writing this week’s society column - MS PEEPERS - tricking the daughter with Rilke - never sad waiting like a cop’s wife. Home. I circled along the blaze of provincials facing Colonial Lake and Palmetto whispers - and came up the rear stairs. They climbed along whitewash and a triple-brick chimney to the third floor porch. It had a view of Charleston Harbor that no John’s Island white should ever have, and a maple door that in good times had been used only by Negro whores. My Rolex read eight-thirty - the carry creaked old leather. Our bedroom windows were dark and curtained. Too late coming home, and it smelled like chocolate. I was quiet, at the unlocked door.
So was Martha. She sat at the far end of the hall, in the window alcove, beside the closed nursery. She was sorting wash into a pair of wicker hampers. Silver tea service sat in a bowl of crushed ice. I took it she hadn’t moved in a while.
“Been ‘specting you, Mista Nick.”
“I expected a woman of your experience to be sleeping.”
“ Not much sleep around this house. Mum-hum. You sure be missin’ a busy day.” She poured an ice-tea with lime and trundled it over, returning to the madeira. I leaned on the brick wall and sipped. “Did the Greek
lamb come in, for Monday night’s dinner party?”
“Oh yes, Mista Nick. Mr. Black drove over hisself to get dem legs from ‘ol evil-eyes. I be soakin’ the crock right now, like dem Afgans’. ”
“Wonderful, Martha. Are Mss Eve and the children in the kitchen, or in the reading room?”
Slow, very slowly, Martha rolled her eyes. “Miss Josie be fo’teen, Mista Nick.”
Fourteen. My daughter. A father can't be too careful. She closed the hamper lid and rolled back on her sandals. “Sportin' new earings tonight, sea-Isle cotton and shell get bought from a Geeche loomer and Mss Eve was so proud.” Martha wasn’t a big woman - she hadn’t seemed big even when I was a child ... She said. “Mss Eve not be here. She with ...them at Mista Tony’s; joined a sewing party with Fila.”
“Sewing eh. With Fila. Some emergency?”
“Not so they tell.”
“Will they be back tonight?”
“I ‘magine so, Mista Nick, she be back ...”
“Hell’s that mean, Martha? I mean, did she have an invitation? Did she pack for overnight? Which damned one?”
She walked toward me into the shadows. It was a heavy walk, a walk with no desire to finish. She got as close as she could. “Mista Nick! No reason you be swear’n at me. None at all. I worked hard all evening car’n for those women. Noth’n but talk’n trash, and I’m ‘bout tired of care’n.”
“What women, Martha. What trash talk?”
She wasn’t crying. I didn’t think she could. But she crooked like a question mark in long, rough silk.“One’s been coming ‘bout every week, Mr. Nick. Since Miss Eve wrote that column in the Standard. You know.”
Perhaps she did. Interviews, notes, and unpublished columns were password protected on Eve’s word processor. Protecting old Charleston - her money, her family, and her gossip in the local newspaper, long and white as moccasin fangs. As a proper southern wife, she denied me little ... that I knew of ... but sources and family raked-hell to trespass.
“I don’t know them, Martha.”
“Oh yes you do. There’s Miss Bottie and her two blond friends, and Fila, and ...”
I caught the hitch and nodded for whatever shouldn’t be said. “ ... and the Korean woman ... and a woman who work at dat white folk’s club.”
I thought I knew what to call her. “What did they talk about?”
“White woman talk, Mista Nick. They’s bitch’n this and rat-bastard that and always on about money. They talk about people, mostly, no different tonight - ‘cept sometime tonight they talk about boats.”
“Listening a lot, Martha, to the white folks.”
“They be breeze’n over me, Mista Nick. But the wind be long tonight. Mumm-mum. I wuz you, I’d be sett’n a light spinn’ker, I was you.”
“And when did Miss Eve leave?”
“They all lef’ together, ‘bout six. I knows about six Mista Nick, cause babies milk time comes around ... and Mss Eve take him off cryin’ like a baby.”
“I’m sure Miss Eve had plans for him.”
Embarrassed by trespass, I left Martha and silver under the light. Down the hall to my study, to the battered metal desk and took out the bottle of Wild Turkey, 100 proof. I poured two fingers into a cup and knocked it down. Did it again. The holster came off, and a second clip of 38 hollow-points tucked in the side. It should have felt better. I drew the blinds, came back to the door and threw both brass bolts.
Photographs of blue-water cruisers littered the high walls, and two cop-shots of Sam and me by the bandit-chaser ... points off wind ... across the room, I dropped into the leather lounge where Eve and the children smiled in sepia. Answering machine and monitor flashed message. Maybe she was feeling guilty. The call had come at seven-thirty, from Eve.
“Battery boring love. We adventure!” She was spending the weekend with the children, at Fila’s Folly Beach cottage. Join them, if I had a mind. ‘Love. See you Monday.E.’
Tony had tacked a secure, 3rd-floor widows-walk onto the cottage, while a pony-sized pitt-bull provided rides for the children. Eve Cced. Everything was Okey. While the message replayed, a mouse-click sent demons scurrying through the Mac. They punched onto the Web - sucked up a browser - one of Hricko’s ideas that hadn’t gone out of style. First message packets sent by Fila, a JPEG picture of the cottage overlaid with red lips and a stencil:WOMAN’S WORK. I cut it to ~/FAMILY , and went to the next email. Spam from a yachting supply dealer; yet another roller-reefing system. I filed it underrespond.
Third email rattled a snake-handler’s charm. The message header said it had been sent fifteen minutes before, from an anonymous re-mailer. I wasn’t happy, somebody knowing I was home. It was also a picture, of sorts, an animated GIF. A candle and one white, wobbling egg. I refilled the tumbler, this time with ice, and clicked on the flame.
The white shell froze, then cracked in slow motion, spilling a lurid orange yoke, and the monitor flashed a PGP warning. I pulled down encryption ... the cipher key belonged to Hricko ... auto- unscramble played to a WAV of Casey Jones. Two images and a line of text snapped through.
Top half of the screen was a homicide. Dead Kenny in wetsuit - his head rattled across, leaving a smattering trail of blood. Only - the hood had been ripped off and the kids’ face replaced by that of Ben Hricko. Funny - as a sandspur but at least it was a picture.
Under the Southpark freak was another image, a diagonal scatter of dots. Dense at the upper left, nothing at the bottom. I tilted my head. It looked like the Microsoft logo, done by an impoverished pointalist. It looked a mess ... I squinted at Dead Kenny ... like he should know.
The text line read. ‘Don’t burn my ashes twice.’
I didn’t have a chance - not yet. I dated the images. Both had been created one week before - before Hricko had gone down. Scrambled eggs now, the message, but born before the chicken. Really - I didn’t need to think about this. If Hricko had a week, why did he need thirty-six hours now? Instead of protecting himself, why did he play kiddie-snuff? Why recede? To hell with it, another ~/HIDE - I jerked at thenoose icon. Hricko - gallows funny losing his head ... I hit hard-copy; the laser groaned and ground out the pictures. Getting more than his share, but at least I didn’t have to worry - until Monday. I storaged the bottle, feeling warm and tired beside the pecan walls. Sometime tonight I’d get a call from Marsh. He’d be off the rag. ‘Sleep on it, Nicky,’ he’d say. Enjoy the wife’s company. You’ve got another Inspector’s hearing, and you got a raise. Bowers got married and moved to the Bahamas …'
If butterflies slept! From the top drawer of the desk I retrieved a key, turned to the walnut case with chrome bars and unlocked the shotgun. I ran a patch, ragged it
down with silicon, then zippered it into an oilskin carry. A dozen triple-ought high-brass pushed into a side pocket.‘Other matters’ came to mind. On a second thought, I stuffed Dead Kenny and the pointillist into a water-tight next to the shells.
My linen suit was a mess, so said the mirror. I needed a shave, so said the two-day beard covering the white scar-line under my chin. I didn’t mind it gone, but Eve would. I washed my face and changed ties, to white silk. I felt good, leaving the study.
In the hallway, Martha scanned the oilskin carry and stopped me with a face black as John’s Island. “Mr. Nick. Where you be goi’n? I ‘spect a man o’ your experience be in bed.”
“Police business, Martha. I won’t be late.”
“Not your late I’m worried about, Mr. Nick. Dat Spoleto got business all over the harbor. Humm Mumm. Ships on the water. Hulls cruising the streets not much more than empty.”
“Careful as always, Martha, for a sail spilling wind. Promise. I’ll bring home pastry from the Greeks. Don't worry about me.”
“No Sur Mista Nick I don't worry 'bouts nothin'. My great-grand-daddy be'n a slave went to Shiloh with Mss Eves great-grandfather … and brought him home in a barrel of honey.” She shook her head, with an eye on the carry. “Ol' evil-eye he shor’ can roll them pastry - dem dat’s lef’ ... but the juju.”
Careful. As always, Martha locked the maple door behind me. Clouds had a scuff on the three-quarter moon. When I returned to the Lincoln, both Chevy vans had gone. Hiding was good, clean lines-of-fire were better. I had a good look. McCain was talking to a plaid jacket, lean, dragging shiny grey rayon zoots. He wasn’t a stranger, wasn’t careful either like he might have been if blonds stung twice. I approached fast enough to make the Italian leather click, but he didn’t scare away easy. He was still leaning into the car, getting encouragement when I got close. The chain was silver-plate and the cigar a short, black Nicaraguan.
McCain could have been more discrete. I told her so. “One of your city friends? Not one of mine.”
McCain stretched back in a languid show of blessed everything. “Jealous? He’s just talking me up, Nick. He talks fast, and I’ll talk fast to any man in a jacket.”
I pushed between them and the plaid moved, but not much. I said.“In my business, I like to know who’s for me and who’s against.”
“Trust me, detective. Tonight, you have no friends.”
“No wife, no friends - no time. Sure you’re not talking about Hricko?”
McCain looked away, at the scuffed moon. I’d made a point to ignore the plaid. He wasn’t leaning, but he was closer than most men get. I made a face.
His voice would have rasped, but it came out through a belch of colored smoke and nose too long for a small man’s sound.“It’s Cuban seed, Lieutenant.”
“Maybe so, some of Fidel’s people took a crap along the coast.”
I intended offense - he was anything but offended. “Fresh crap beats old news by a mile. Betch’a want to talk to me now, Lieutenant, now that your friend got drilled.”
I said. “Hricko’s no friend and I’m no talker. What do you want, Sammy, another photograph of a vice cop’s crotch?”
“Wasn’t that a pisser, Lieutenant. It won a prize.”
“Not from the mags I read. Why shouldn’t I slap the cuffs on you now, for impersonating a private detective?”
“That, that, that ... that wouldn’t be jake!”
I didn’t feel just imposed on, and I did.DIG WITH THE BEST AND DIG ME his copper-edged card read. True, he was a legend, Samuel Levin, Sammy-the-mole, twenty years crawling Charleston sewers. That made him a rat. He found dirt in gold-gilt bath tubs at the end of sewers. That put him on the payroll of a clutch of SOB matrons - those below St. Marks with wandering men. He had a quashed felony-possession charge, and a hash in his police-file that said he once saved a cop’s life. He did other things I didn’t like.
“Talk to me now, Lieutenant, or talk to me. Betch’a can’t figure the small caliber bullets.”
“No Sammy, I don’t know how to figure them, just like I don’t know what would happen if I hit you really hard.”
He was a head shorter than me, and thirty pounds, but he made fists - balls enough to put on pounds. “I kill with either hand.” His voice drew out like a long sneeze. “But I have to. I don’t have a wife, Lieutenant, who writes gossip columns for Charleston Standard. You should listen to yours.”
“Why should I Sammy, when you’re always around?”
“Wife really had the dirt this time - names changed to protect the Ashley River slime - remember the column?”
Like I hadn’t told Martha, I had and I wouldn’t. But Sammy was going to tell me.
He took a last bite on the cigar, and screwed his face into the plume of smoke. “Story is, Jerry-the-Arab no longer has this young lady’s ... attention.” The politeness took all of his concentration, but he recovered quick as the blush that never crossed Sheri’s McCain’s ripe cheeks. “But everybody knew that, everybody that matters.”
“Tell me about small bullets, Sammy, and whose got ‘em.”
“It’s coming, betcha’ know ... our honored Representative Bottie no longer has Palm Development Corp. money. Not the official kind. With elections in the fall, McCain isn’t hurting, Bottie is. Sharing Saul with Marsh - he’s their only money-bags. What with the Arab and the Jew being tight as fig leaves, that’s the real undercover.”
“So you can read, Sammy, but you can’t talk. What does that tell me about Hricko?”
It should have told me something! Sammy mugged shock, then smiled like a mole munching grubs. “Who’s looking after Bottie’s protégée, the Irishman? He’s got a Negro problem. He’s got two Negro problems!”
“And we only have you!”
He mugged, and leaned past me, back into the Lincoln. “It’s a date then, whatdaya say, Shirley? I’d be good for you.”
“I’m in the book, Sam.”
Sheri was giving him too much of parted wet lips and a come-on smile. She tweaked his nose. I said. “Find a man-hole cover and make like a rat. I mean ten minutes ago.”
“Just giving Shirley a chance to display affection”
“Yeah, Sammy, DOA.”
He squealed, “all small bullets, know what I mean?” He didn’t scurry off, but crab-legged to the corner of Beaufain and disappeared among magnolias.
I didn’t know a thing, but storaged the carryin the trunk and got in. McCain’s face filled the rearview. I said.” I’m ready to talk. About Hricko. Even to Bottie.”
She looked insulted. “That Island bastard is the last person in the world Ms. Bottie wants to talk about.”
“That so? Then, Martha’s roganjash recipe, but she should talk to Martha about that.”
“You’re funny, detective.” She shuffled, and pulled on a hem that wasn’t going north. You want to talk about Hricko? You won’t enjoy it.”
“He’s an ounce heavier, tonight, not to enjoy. But nobody asked him.”
“Like he passes out invitations? That bastard’s a ride on Purple Dragons. He melts you down, melts you into his weird friends, he gives you enemies, real ones, and then everything melts away into sand. Just ask Jett Coffee!”
“She flew Hricko’s nest ... still with the Irishman?”Sticky sweat on the Panama leather band.
“No thanks to Ben. We’re alive thanks to you ...” She looked me square. “Do you ever talk about ... it, anymore, with anyone? With Eve? I mean the night of the hurricane, and Damon and ...? Anymore, I don’t even talk about it to Peg.”
“What can a man tell his wife?”
“What can a girl tell her lover, when anything kills but a lie?”
“Some girls talk to cops. Some of them stay alive.”
“Do you ever stop being a detective, long enough to make a girl happy?”
She sat back in the leather - a little girl’s pout - one of Hricko’s little girls. I had given her a chance then. She wasn’t taking the second, now. “Sure, when the girl can have a good time by herself.” We weren’t going anywhere. I said. “Things your father should have told you, before leaving home.”
“Spank me, detective, if I’m bad.”
Nobody’s quick tumble, I could tell, no Jill in jeopardy - she was nobody’s daughter. So I didn’t understand the confessional, but she wasn’t stopping for me.
She was waving the cherry-blond. “Ben said, the first night he and Jett were together ‘this is paradise, then you die badly’. He spent half that first night - the middle of it - at the computer running simulations. Jett had to fuck him on the keyboard ... I mean she really did ... ” The Lincoln rasped to a start. She turned to me and said. “Did you know, they went to Tahoe last December?”
“Fortunate you’re not the jealous type.” Always before and after, for a girl who never quite made her father proud. “Who shot him, Sheri, and why? Better yet, what’s so important about a weekend supply of hash for Myrtle Beach?”
“You ask such queer questions, detective. Why don’t you try again, after you talk to Ms. Bottie? We better move, hello detective. Peg’s waiting.”
It was a shock realizing I hung on her words, what weren’t hollow - what Jerry-the-Arab and Bottie had left. Her voice said she didn’t care now. But her eyes were turquoise, swinging away from Colonial Lake, down Rutledge, making a black arrow into the heart of Charleston.
We took State to Meeting. When we hit cobblestones I knew we weren’t leaving the city, not in a hurry. McCain doubled back twice, before she squealed the Lincoln onto Utility, and then slowed to crawl, dodging tourists and pimps. I might have done better. I was connecting dots, when McCain must have used an auto-door, because it was open when she veered off the cobbles.
“Jesus Christ, Sheri!”
“Don’t worry, detective, Christ’s never been here.”
A dim green glow set off the roof. The building outside was plastered withunder construction signs, and the inside a maze of half walls and ladders. A brick shell. The steel overhead closed behind, but the high beams pushed ahead, right
through the flowered frock riding the far wall.
A derringer rode like a scar over her right hip, under a Coach bag. The Red glowed bright as her lips. Otherwise, the Honorable Patricia Bottie wasn’t wearing a thing. We got out and she motioned McCain away. I’d never seen points fall that far that fast. She pulled from my arm. Footsteps. A door opened toward the back. Party noise slipped out and a sliver of blue light and then nothing at all, but a light, wealthy laugh.
“The little wench was supposed to bring you straight here, from the Battery. She wasn’t nibbling early, was she?”
I walked to the middle, where lights shown down from an empty, wood scaffold. “I needed a shower, but Ben’s place seemed in bad taste.”
“So you went home ... a pity.” She didn’t come too close. “Coco by the fire?”
“I listened to music. Almost put me to sleep.”
“But not enough to keep you in bed.”
“That’s every-ones problem tonight.”
“Doesn’t have to be a problem. Can we get to business, detective DeLeon?”
“I’m punched in. This is city time. Make it clean.”
She had, as women say, put on a face, and the light hair didn’t cover it, or the floppy hat. An Island face, long and pretty, and plenty to cover. I thought she’d back up and she didn’t. She came out from the shadows, to where the light cone just covered her bare legs. Power isn’t arrogant - it’s just power.
She said. “Show me, show you?” And made a cutsy smile, but couldn’t hold it. “You’re doing special delivery for Marsh.” Her face settled into the red like a dealer thumbing aces.“Midnight’s same as pun’kin.” She curled against the half-laid brickwork next to the scaffold - like a pastel exclamation point. “You’re the Lone Ranger.”
“Somebody’s selling hearing aids. Every busybody has one. But what gets heard and what gets done depends on the man.”
In a teasing voice, “a woman could worry she’s not enough for you ... what you won’t do, detective - tonight. I’ll tell you about that.” Bottie laid the Coach-bag on rough brick, walked around the light cone to the blue fluorescent sliver and back close till her silk flowers touched my leg. She bit her lip. “You won’t save little black Sambo from the evil weed. You won’t bust Hricko, or prove he’s an honest man or get whatever revenge he thinks just.” She sent a line of smoke toward the Lincoln and frowned, worrying the butt. “You will blunder, my dear man, blunder like a rookie ...”
I tipped up the Panama. “The best have tried ...”
“Given your ... station, detective, you don’t know the best!” She slid to the side, against a torn wall - a red bulb lay over her head under cob-webs and derringer moving with her hip, across the hammer - how armed women die. “You won’t make Inspector, but your crab-eaten derriere will get Marsh elected Chief-of-Police.”
“Simple me. I figured you guys were on the same side.”
“My dear, simple man.”
Leather memories over my forehead and under my left shoulder lined with iced sweat. It was the third time today, I’d made withdrawals, from the bank of warnings, but I’d still trade copper for gold.
I kept my share of the silk and let my voice drop. “Maybe so. I’d like to be handsome and I’d like to be rich. I like fast talk with good looking women. Mostly, I’d like all that damned-evil stuff not to happen.”
Bottie’s hat slipped a fraction, over a pearl stay. “If you’re willing to be ... lucky, Nick, do I have a deal for you.”
My head snapped to a half-bricked side door and Bottie’s half-torn wall - where red pleasure and pain had built together - I snapped back! Somewhere, between the long black Lincoln’s fender and McCain’s long tanned thighs, I saw it coming. Bottie took my arm and turned us into the maze of ladders, to a non-descript green door that nobody was going through fast. A quartz eye flashed, then the door cracked fat blue, big enough for a pugs face, then swung open, to reveal a thick wool curtain.
“Always a real honor, Ms Bottie”, the pug said.
She smiled and slipped him a twenty. “Spoleto keeping you busy, Joe? If you see Saul, blow him a kiss.”
The face blushed. “I’ll tell him, Ms. Bottie.”
Peg pressed into me and away and surprised with a lover’s smile. “We’re building you a legend, Nick, if you lay back and enjoy it.”
A man could have gone melty. The doorman stepped aside, drew back a flap in the wool. Noise and light flooded out and we were swept into rear end of the Harbor Club, elbow tight with the gaming crowd of Charleston, and nobody was building anything.
“Hey Nicky, what are you doing here? Eve toss you out?” Her voice was breathy, overbearing, like the brimmed hat and long, white knit dress. “Didn’t I tell you to get rid of the pigeon coops?”She had a seat at the only roulette table, she had my arm with fine, greedy fingers and sold real estate. “I’m kidding, Nicky. Tell Eve, I’ve got a buyer, two of them, any time.” She toyed with three stacks of thirty dollar chips, not two, and one sat on red twenty.She wasn’t a friend of Eve.
Bottie pushed away her hand. “It’s low tide, Virginia, feeding time. Shouldn’t you be at the harbor?”
“I’ll find a gig; be waiting for you, Peggy.” She pressed back into me. “You, Nicky, should move to the Island. All the best families are.”
“Virginia, you sell to our maids, not to us.”
“That’s because I can find them ... standing up.”
Plaid flashed. “Two SOBs on a shoulder, Lieutenant. Betch’a didn’t expect that?”
“How typical, Sammy,”Virginia preened, “boring women to death with promises.”
“Not .. not ... not me. Betcher’ gam for the hot sheet motel, but not your friend; she knows and watches her p’s . She knows murder is still a crime at Sauls.”
“Scat, you little rat, Peg scolded.”
I looked left and Sammy was gone. I looked at Peg and she demurred. I looked around.
My first visit since Saul moved downtown. He had changed streets, but when boys and girls played bad in Charleston, they played at the same address. Saul Davidson’s Harbor Club. They played in back rooms, behind a swell of tourists,
behind ancient triple-brick walls and imported, Las Vegas tables. They played with city council’s blessing - and with cops who need to play with the bad boys. Even in the 30s, when the Club back door actually led onto the harbor docks and a careless look lynched a Negro, the Club played in mulatto - to Irish whisky and black beach swing.
A plainclothes played with house money. She sat at table one, tonight and fanned a chip-stack and perfect black thigh. No amateur, with wire and Siemen’s filter and micro g.c. She scammed pimps all the way to Tradd. She could tell which player just took a coke hit and which shill wouldn’t. She could tell you where to go - she twitched a diamond pinkie at me.
In sixty years, the club had opened every night, but the night Kennedy died. Shills escorted first time guests, on occasion all night long. Tonight, even the third craps table packed three deep.
Davidson wasn’t closing for Hricko.
“New Yorkers getting raped by the blackjack tables. They got to -13 early and stayed there. Saul's up ten-bills and he's not closing for Hricko!”
“Most dealers believe in a shuffle, when 2/3 deck is played.”
“Gaming tables at Sauls only play with two decks, but the shuffle always has 104 cards. No matter what gets dealt. Believe that?”
We had entered butt-end of the action - roulette, blackjack and craps. Loud and optimistic. Most men wore tuxes - women dressed for it, smokey and flesh-colored from diamond necks to stilettoes fitting the narrow brick and velvet walls. Gamblers needed space, and not much of it. Gamblers I knew. The cocoon of sound - cards rippling, muted clatter of dice rolling toward snake-eyes, the rustle of chips counting out. The loser needs two bodies near, and the winner finds one on his arm.
Bottie was. Craps table one packed losers inside. She had a lapel, between two fingers, then not and left me to make a round - sliding through, pressing flesh and squeezing dollars from thin women and promising the men. Hricko said she was less crooked than most Republicans. I had believed him. My leg buzzed from the cellphone. The message readCALL NOW. BUTCH. Funny girl. I thought about the bar phone, and Sauls’ tap on the bar phone. A squat man rose from the last blackjack table, motioned my way - awkward with a thick left arm and a right that hung weakly, and returned to his cards. I looked for Bottie. She had an old man’s shoulder, talking to an older woman beside him. He wasn’t. His hand patted her ass. His wrinkled wife didn’t notice. I thought about it, and the call, and walked over to Tony Vitalle’s table.
Red Regan sat right; directly behind him sat a Chotto with crew hair, fresh shave and gold cuff-links. Makes ya wonder what stays in Mexico? Vitalle sat left and wasn’t alone. Kiri distracted next to him, a hundred miles away, and through her black eyes made round could have looked vindictive. Showing plenty of leg. Tony hid everything, under a bad suit and motionless concentration, and hid his voice behind a tunnel of Cuban leaf.
He said. “Would have saved you a seat, detective ... like the old days.”
He ground the Partagas and massaged a soft-15. He had two piles of fifty dollar chips on the upturned diamond ace. Dealers’ hole-card hid under a six. Then six and five. Kiri flinched, the dealer hit again.
I said. “I should be in bed, under the covers.”
“Under something, Lieutenant.” Jett Coffee lounged next to the Irishman, and she wasn’t hiding a thing. She said. “Haven’t seen you around.”
“Always a pleasure, Jett.”
“I mean, hello detective, you haven’t visited since we rebuilt the Comber. Don’t you still swim off station sixteen with Tony and ... I mean you didn’t have an excuse.”
She ended with rough in her voice, rough that doesn’t come natural to a smooth rich girl. A Celtic rough that Regan payed no mind. Dealer flipped cards to the Irishman. He had split 8s. He couldn’t split 12s. He had a grip on Coffees’ knee and got more, where the jeans showed through.
“Frig-arse luck ...”His face bloomed, ruddy to red, from Vitalle to me without the caution of a man feeling old, as old he looked. “Yer a bad wind wind, DeLeon, whater’ bow you cross.” He pointed at each split, drew queen and jack, sucked the Straight down to the butt; cards flew into the air.
“Frigg’n Baptist ... we should have burned ye all.”
“Need a Zippo, Red?” I thought he was coming for me, a fool wild and hard with a hot poker up his ass. Not an Irishman to take straight on. He swung a tattooed forearm, sending the Wild Turkey flying in a crystal shatter, squaring off. He tilted his ear, and stuck his chin out, black eyes receding and body tensing to fly up - before Coffee held him down. She found a better place for his hand, better than my face. She buried her lips in the booze and Regan’s neck and didn’t come up. He quieted on the tit - and threw his eyes on the table.
Dealer busted, drawing a face into a face drawn pale and anxious. He gathered cards and was shuffling furiously. He called to a waitress. “Get Mayor Regan a double Jack Daniels. Double quick.”
I said. “Your luck’s showing already, Mr. Mayor.”
“Same fer yer daughters’ belly.”
Coffee curled tighter around him. I gave her that. She tried a smile, a smart one for an Island blond. “He’s been all month on the rag, you know. I can’t get him to medicate.”
“Take one every morning, Regan. Take it twice.”
“No cure for what ails him.”Vitalle thumbed chips and grunted. “Not since Sheriff Kinney declared for mayor.”
I could hear the ceiling fan whup-whup-whup, and feel eyes through the glass ceiling.“How’s that, Tony?”
“Sheriff says the Island’s not prepared for emergencies, and he’s the man to do it.”
The Irishman scowled. “Want’s ter fit us with a rubber!”
Nobody laughed, but Vitalle, who kept thumbing his stack and came up grinning. But he could have counted them from across the room. He said. “Kinney declared last month, right after spring tide washed away half a dozen beach-front homes.”
Snips the Irishman, “Lying, bastard! Only the yards and fr’nt porches.”
“Oh yeah? Them escorts won’t service front beach. Afraid their whores will slide off third story bedrooms.”
“Yer be sure,” the Irishman glowered, “we’ll be taking care of that.”
“A matter of opinion,” Vitalle snorted into a ring of Cuban smoke.
“Whose behind Kinney?”
“Talk to Hricko ... if he ever talks again. All the SOB girls love Kinney’s wife, and doesn’t Hricko know them!”
“Sure, the bugger’s behind everybody!” Regan’s face blazed red. “I’ll talk to the pervert ... him praying like a schoolboy at mass last Sunday.” He hit on the bourbon and bit his lip. “If he shows like that to the Virgin this Sunday, they’ll carry him out in a swaddle. Mind me good, detective, or any friend in hearing.”
Dealer finished his shuffle and pointed around. Vitalle left a fifty dollar chip and pocketed the rest. The Irishman had out a billfold, changing hundreds for chips. “He’s a bloody double-cross, the frigg’n Pape, corn-holed by too many Jesuits ... ask me.”
A clean-cut circled our table, padding lightly, and as quick found a SOB matron without a drink, dollars down. Regan slumped into his folded arms.
I said to him. “You don’t know, do you?”
“Know what, yer Baptist whore?”He raged drunk fool eyes through Coffee. What’s the detective yammering about?” Jett was making neat piles of the chips. Tens, twenties ... “Loosen the jib, girl, and spill some words.
”She tugged on her blue lace halter, patted Regan’s back and measured. “You’re such a prig, Nick. Don’t friends get tired?” She flipped a ten at me. I caught it and slipped it into a breast pocket. She touched a second to her lips.“You’re that pure, and Hricko’s innocent as those snakes guarding his dock. Remember that, Mr. detective.”
“Fare enough, Jett.”
“Fuck-all, ye bitch. What’s the yammering?”
Regan had a fist-full of Jett’s chips, looking for a place to drop them. I saw it like a hole in a smoke-ring. Vitalle pushed away from the table. “Nick. Find us a better game.”
I got up and got a confused, evil eye from Regan. “Tell the pervert, DeLeon, I’ll beat him black and blue, if he lays hand on what’s mine.”
“When Lazarus rises, Irishman.”
An olive sheen covered Vitalle’s poker face, moving away from blackjack. What showed of a calculating man. Some had mistaken that look as fear. Money simple. Without a blade. He ruffled the stack in his left hand and flipped out a fifty-dollar chip. It dropped into a breast pocket. “Them dealers ain’t no Einstein.”
“I’ll count bananas, next time I buy a pound.”
He didn’t laugh. “Nothing wrong with my scales ...” Then he laughed. “... what gets weighed.”
A shout came from the craps table. Then cheers for another hard-way. Two loud flushed faces were being escorted by a clean-cut through a door that said EXIT in pink neon. We took old scotch from a peach-skinned beauty - Tony caught her eye. She didn’t smirk, chirping gold futures and fondling his wind-up Longiene, and moved where the crowd thinned and carpet gave way to teak. I followed them styling to the wicker door, where she turned around like a Grime’s fairy.
We could have fallen into a sink-hole, for the silence. Expectant silence, thick in the rap-rap-rap of ceiling fans over onyx Palmettos. A smart chuckle broke from one group, and the rake of crisp, new bills.
Vitalle’s fat slacks looked right at home. He said. “Club talk stays at the Club, Nick, but here, nobody listens.”
Listen? It screamed! Lime green card tables sat in a triangle. They were numbered one, two and three, embroidered into the pale velvet. They were set round a high, mahogany chair. Young white dealers sat at the base. A thin black sat in the chair. He wore a tux under a shaved head and eyes that flickered between the three dealers. Intelligent eyes. That knew poker, that knew whites and that never blinked.
Seven shills served the players, when they weren’t lounging or betting short on Saul’s long money. The women were black, Johns Island coal black in long chrome skirts and bare glistening breasts, nipples rouged to unbearable points, if money sweet and easy didn’t call the tune. They sang, like a croupier’s stick, working among the piles. Neat rolls, green sprays, crumpled stacks of newly won bills under pudgy or manicured or hard white hands that never left the tables.
Two chrome skirts left for us. One passed Vitalle through a velvet rope, on his arm up close and guided him toward table number one, where the bills started at a hundred. She took liberties more than my sense of taste - she took his billfold, counted out four big-ones and sat him beside Sammy-the-mole. Dealer showed hands, then spread cards in a random shuffle, shredding odds like never gets done in Vegas. I didn’t see Bottie and I wasn’t feeling lucky, but I didn’t feel ignored.
The Harbor Club employed one bouncer, a bronzed fag from a Queen Street tanning salon. Evenings, he stood inside the restaurant door, looking big and holding a feather. Saul was particular. Skirted women got their ass tickled - he had never been slapped. Neither had one of the dozen clean-cuts. They wore serious, pleasant faces and French cuffs, made rounds of polite conversation with women, and carried Walther 38-cal
auto-loads. They carried hard fists lightly at the end of rangy arms. From across a crowded room, they could remove an eyeball, or crack a spine up close. I didn’t respect them, working for Saul. They could have done better.
Chrome two touched me down. For a second - when her hand found the Browning under my left shoulder a line of sweat stained from her breast into the linen - she hurried a look to one serious face, and venom in her smile eased to a smile. The watcher nodded. She stayed respectful, but moved a cane chair next to Vitalle, then me while she nursed the Browning and a roll of crisp, bad ideas. Tony was calculating odds beside Sammy, and waiting.
Waiting to get personal. I sat around from the-mole, but he was leaning a big ear well past the point of etiquette. Vitalle had a chest in the way - Sammy was a head taller.
Vitalle said. “Jett still looks good.”
“Not to a married man.”
Tony, who had lived with Fila the better part of two years, regarded me cautiously and waved a chip. “I mean that, Nick. The Irishman’s married to it!” He waved right-handed, where a dock-crane had fallen on his arm. He was remembering, and counting his winnings.
I told him so. “You wouldn’t last five minutes, around the woman.”
“Hricko says, you’ve gotten real cautious since Eve had the kid.” His crumpled silk jacket crumpled more, where it didn’t need help.“Been thinking about you, detective. How we miss your crappy surf technique. Now I remember, Hricko ... says to say hello.”
“I thought that’s what he meant.”
“ You still eating twice a day?”
“When I’m lucky, but the days get longer ...”
Two Partagas appeared from an inside pocket. Chrome shined a clip - chrome - and a laser-light.
“How’s the job, and the family?”
“Eve says I eat too much. The cities nickel never gets any bigger. Martha’s a charm.”
Vitalle laughed, “so says Fila,” and blew a geyser of Havana smoke that slide smoothly around the shills’ belly. She took her seat and her cards and her skirt, and moved them between Sammy-the-mole and us. Sammy should have looked happy. I had no complaint, that chrome and gilt didn’t get along.
I said. “Bank claims I’m a month late - Eve isn’t. Daughter doesn't have a Catholic boyfriend; two outa three’s not bad.”
Vitalle put a hammer-lock on the Partagas, with two thick fingers, and squeezed till the wrapper complained. “ You can change that any time.”
He was kidding. He had black, tangled eyebrows that curled around to his ears. “Business is good for me. Why not for you, eh Nicky?”
“My customers never complain. There’s something to that!”
“Some prize, Nick, stiffs with rubber checks. This weekend, I’m loading eight ships at Port of Charleston, three big containers at the Edisto terminal. They can pass the channel on spring tides.” The eyebrow fell into black eyes. “I’m still looking for a chief of security ... a discrete man ...”
“Do I have to use your tailor?”
He laughed again. “But you’ll never change, eh detective?”
I said. “Eve likes me pure.”
“Yeah, rich women are like that. I guess they need to see it someplace.”
“I liked her better when she was with Hricko - and you. Fools make a better class of friend.”
“Put her on ... restriction.”
“How do you keep women away from women?”
I didn’t think he was a mind reader. I said. “A coincidence, Tony, you saying that. I wanted to ask ...”
The game was Texas hold’um. Buy-in was a half-thousand, and Vitalle looked at four small numbers. Five were spades, to the ace.
He said. “Ask away,” tossed a hundred dollar raise ... the table checked around for a card-flip - black as spades.
I couldn’t show him a thing. Vitalle was a Detroit man, working Charleston with permission from people who never invited me to diner. When the mob asked questions, they sent two men and he beat shit outa them; then old Sicilian men sent five and smash-faced , cut out pieces till they got tired of him saying nothing. Then left him alone, till the next time.
He thumbed the cards. “What do you think, detective?”
Sammy-the-mole twitched nervously, chairs away, listening too hard. He leaned over the perfect tits - careful not to touch - and showed a red hand. “What do you think, DeLeon? You’re a numbers man.”
It didn’t take a second. The watcher turned and pointed a long, cuffed arm down from the chair. “Mr. Levin. Mr. Levin!”
Like a man who’s taken too many orders, had too many electrodes in his anus, Sammy froze - twitched - pasting sweat sticky cards to the velvet.
“I didn’t do no...no...nothing. I swear ... he didn’t see ...”
Five pairs of white hands shuffled - pudgy or old or manicured. Dealer whispered something to a shill, she nodded to the first player ...
“Card, gentlemen?” keened the dealer over gold-rimed glasses.
... he tapped for the next flip ...
Vitalle frowned. “Women do everything together. Women gamble. Sometimes they get lucky.”
“What’s the game?”
He waved the Partagas heavily and let smooth wipe off the frown.“Not love, eh Nick - I’m not talking nickel-dime-quarter. I’m sayinglucky, especially at Sauls.”
“Hricko knows all the odds. If the numbers keep coming ....”
“Yeah, numbers, but tell me this. Have you ever known an unlucky Jew?”
I bit right through the cigar. It crashed in a sparkle, and as fast a sinuous shoulder slipped by to snatch it up. She was thin and dangerous and sucked slowly when she lit it. On the third billowing mouthful of spice she blew a picture of heaven over the table, and fitting the cigar into my grip returning a perfect ash.
Three men in Italian suits entered from the bar, exchanging handshakes and old Charleston money. A tall black slid by sporting diamond hands and his arrogant chocolate woman, who could melt an empire. The ex-Senator and his bitch poodle intern sat at table three, where chips started at ten-thousand.
I said. “Not here. I don’t see it, Tony, the business out of control.”
“Who said out of control?”
I said. “When does a wop get unlucky? Answer one. When he works outside the family. Answer two. When he has to bring somebody inside.”
“Nick! Serious! You watching old cop shows on the tube? Think about it. This is not the modern program.” Vitalle’s Partagas shook like a club.
I continued. “Same problem, Tony for a Jew.” I thought about it. “But go figure Davidson and the Arab, Ibn-Ali Jerrah. Like two rabbis.”
“So don’t count Jerry-the-Arab. Or count his harem and his camels. Makes no difference. You’re thinking like a moustache-Pete.”
“Come on! For Saul, what else counts beside Jerry? Let’s say they had a disagreement”
“Over what? Who humps the camel?”
Sometimes I didn’t need help to have bad ideas. The connections just made themselves, like spreading stress-fingers in a hull. Sometimes a friend helped.
“I said. “Tony, just how high are the spring tides?”
He was looking at spades, all spades, running down from the ace. He raised a year of my salary. He said. “Well above normal. Depends on ... depends on when and where. Two feet, maybe three at the port.”
“Another foot, maybe?”
“Maybe more, in an old channel. Enough to cause problems, when the marsh floods.” Eyebrows were a black tangle. “What’s doing, Nick? On your pay, trying to float a loan?”
I had an answer to that. I had two. I leaned back, way back and the leg leaned into me. It was bare and bare silk. Bottie said. “Boys are a danger - alone.”
“Peggy, I was just saying that to Nick. Here comes a shit-load of trouble.”
Her hips rolled, in a lubricious strut. “What a hideous thing to say, Tony, and me feeling oh-so-wanted! Doesn’t our detective seem to be on a roll? He can get as lucky as he wants.”
“Trouble, luck, what’s the difference?”
“The company, Tony. Mean streets are trouble. America pays me to be their lucky messenger, but doesn't pay by-the-word. Pretend I'm Western Union.” Bottie had my arm and my eye. “Saul’s waiting.”
I stood up and backed away from the chair. Bare silk followed. Vitalle ruffled a thousand into the pot. He said, eyeing his Rolex. “They're cutting on Ben as we speak.” He let out a long unhealthy breath; cracked his knuckles. It shoulda been just us too he meant to say. “Fila and me … we've made arrangements for Hricko, if he doesn’t figure to walk out.”
“Me too. What country is built for old men?”
“She could do so much better than Tony.” Rolling couples like dice. With players at the craps table, Bottie had rolled sevens. Now, she had an easy turn to her body, eyes flashing down the row of Yuppie swills. “I mean, Nick, they never come to Sauls’ together.”
“Has Fila complained?”
“Among her equals.” She still had my arm, still had her brights turned on - we cruised stylish singles at the end of the bar. Like most politicians and all attractive women, she was glowing after a successful hit-and-run. “I hate the word, Nick, but Vitalle is so ... common. He just doesn’t fit here at all.”
“The best couples don’t. You and Ben never did.”
“Teen-age crush! I was a fool.” Botties polite blush never came. “Ben and I never were.”
“Do tell, Ms. Bottie, a one way street? Tell you for a fact, Ben keeps those black silk sheets in a cedar chest. I’ve never seen it unlocked.”
“You see a lot of Hricko. Good for you ... I wrapped his old love letter in silk before I burned them.” She took two quick steps and turned on me. “If I saw the man for the first time again, I’d ... I’d do to him what a traitor deserves.”
“I call that perfect hindsight on a 2-bit business deal. Couple-a-million at most. Right? Was a time I’d of called it perfect blindness.”
“How romantic, Nick, and how loyal. And that million –- it's off by so many
millions I should buy a bank. And millions buy more millions and buy power. I like that! Ben could have taken lessons ... rather than burying himself inside a virtual computer reality and playing house.”
“Is that what women call it now, when a guy finds his gal?”
“Please, Nick. When I start weeping, how will I ever stop?”
She could annoy me, in small ways. I said.“And about loyalty? When didn’t the Island come first with Hricko? His virtual reality threatens IOP developers nightmare, turning the ocean-front into a neon trash-pile. You and the Island - he was willing to wait.”
“My, My. You sound like Gaia’s brother! Detective on the half-shell - the wizard’s defender to his woman in waiting. What would Eve say?”
“She would say, it got you elected. I’d say before you grabbed a cheap ticket to Washington and low-ball pimps you found a bit of peace - both of you did and would still have it - if you took the time.”
Botties red-paint lips kissed out the word. “Jerry and Saul play lowball? Where do you count your money, Nick? Men can afford to be patient, some men. Not a woman who stretches her skill, tastes power and then runs for re-election; Hricko left my bed I didn't leave his; now the son-of-a-bitch is fighting me every step.”
“Both of you play chicken and the egg breaks.”
“Like the song says, we don’t talk much any more.”
“He’s not talking at all – now. You haven't been to se him.”
“See … and do what? Pray the bullets were a centimeter closer his heart?”
Bottie broke away, patting down a lawyer with a hug and come-easy smile. A smaller one returned, less bright and less calculated. She had my arm again. “One of his ... tarts, I think, tried to take back some of her heart. Wasn’t that a mistake, looking in his chest for it.” She toyed with the thin string of pearls and said, “But the poor dear didn’t have any better luck than I.”
Bottie’s face was the third-degree. I wondered where was the valve, that turned charm wicked, on and off. She was a warning ... ‘before the next one’ ... she was lounging my cheek. “What do you think about Saul’s new shills? You’ll never guess in a million who picked them.” She giggled. “Patrons getting their moneys-worth?”
“Tony got his. What about Sammy?”
“The little rat takes more than his share.”
Wild Turkey would have washed away plenty of bad taste, but we weren’t getting close to the bar. A solid wall of tuxes and bare backs lined the mahogany. We brushed by, waiting to be seen, until a Negro barman came through the stile.
“Mr. Davidson is waiting at table seven.” He pointed to a corner near the piano and microphone, around the end of the brass rail, where a gold ribbon set off and a clean-cut romanced a doll. Doing business close to where Davidson ran his business. From the floor. Up close.
Personal as a shill’s hand on family jewels. She buried hers in my elbow, guiding where brass curved away and a shock of granite hair cut through the color. Saul found easy - a severe man sitting erect in a white dinner jacket. He could have been Jewish. He had a Jewish forehead and nose, but the deep eyes?
Straight from Carthage. The black marble table set to the side, set with a chrome captain’s lamp and a bottle of Wild Turkey. A silver bowl held ice and mahogany, Havana.
He took Bottie’s hand, not mine, and a doe-eyed waitress who had never seen blue water seated us.
“A pleasant evening, I trust, for the attractive couple?”
“Always, Saul, when your service is so considerate. I’m so hot, into you five thousand and feeling ... lucky.”
“A beautiful woman deserves nothing less. And the gentleman? A Cohiba, perhaps.”
I closed the humidor, and took a Red from Bottie’s gold case and fired it. “You run a smooth place, Saul. I’m used to a different class of stiff.”
“We all have our place, Lieutenant. But you will agree, good fortune shows little patience.”
“Like a fortune cookie, you’re going to tell me about luck.”
The chairs were white leather and chrome contour, springy, a balance that in a wish held you forward. Bottie nestled back in hers, while Saul, for all the smooth, looked ready to launch.
“Without delay, then, we get to business, detective DeLeon?”
“Maybe so. Peg tells me I can’t refuse.”
“To the point, for a man with so many responsibilities.” He snipped theHabanos and burned into the thick dark end. “Your Captain wishes you to do something I do not favor. Neither would you, knowing the consequences.”
“I’ve been trying to figure that myself, just what the Captain wants. I know a little, but everybody I talk to knows more.”
“To whom have you spoken?”
“Anybody who speaks English. I yell at the rest.”
Davidson motioned for a clean-cut. They whispered behind hands and shaking heads. Saul grew the ash before saying. “Perhaps, you have had a difficult transport. Especially then, a careful city detective does well to listen.”
“I’m not blaming the chauffeurs.”
“Wonderful!” Saul exclaimed. Then all is not lost.”He must have practiced that line for weeks. He smoothed on the red silk bow-tie and our waitress appeared. “Ms. Bottie and I will have the sole, and a Chenelle , ‘93. T-bone, I believe, for the gentleman.”
She wore long black, with a silver fawn above her right breast. She wasn’t wearing white, and her face disciplined to a blank, servile slate. But the torpedoes were the same. Then she wasn’t there.
An electric flashed along my neck, where the curved edge of the Panama settled into an old, comfortable home.
Saul said. “Can we agree? Drugs flow into Charleston Harbor not unlike schools of fish, riding the tides. A most elementary knowledge, detective?”
I rolled back in the chair and hit the Red. “For certain classes. Keep talking.”
“Sailors, detective. As your diversion must teach, the blue water sailor is common in Charleston Harbor as bad advice.”
He hesitated, making drama. “Such a romance, illegal drugs and the wild sea ...” He clapped his hands. “But there are unsavory men to be found, in such a romance, for whom life has no value greater than the thickness of a blade.”
Saul was tracing figure-8s with the tips of his fingers, better pacing than local theater - I stifled a yawn – as a boy I had seen Geeche juju give most white-men heart attacks. But, Saul had an audience of one; Bottie was agreeing, and fondling the pearls. Saul had cocked his head like a gun-hammer. Perky - I thought - with both Bottie and me following the script.
Saul made a flourish and poured three, long-pull bourbons. “Are these not the matter of your Captain’s assignment?” He didn’t wait for my reaction, his voice lower and cooler that part of a degree that never gets taught in drama school. “But, detective, of those three, the combination you seek does not this weekend exist in Charleston harbor.”
“Which one does?”
“Whichever one you wish.”
I drained half the crystal. “How lucky, Saul, can I wish?”
He allowed the amused smile, cool, matter-of-fact, so smooth it could pour itself. “If your Captain requires a drug discovery, some horrific South American import can be provided. A rusted tramp freighter, convict crew and bags of green, white and brown … medicines. If Marsh prefers a piracy, you may choose the sail or hemi-engined cigar-boats and be assured a crew of swarthy devils - worthy of capture.”
Only then did Saul taste the bourbon. “Perhaps some combination ...”Not to his taste, or the quick glance to Bottie that didn’t cosy. “ ... I am a flexible man, with ready provisions to an ally.”
I drained to the bottom and poured a second. I let Bottie’s knee play with mine. Neck hair scratched against linen. I flashed quick over six hours in the Holy City - why I hurried back from Atlanta. From the Lincoln coupe to Bottie’s derringer. Threats somber and fleshy ... I was starting to have fun. Saul thought his fun was half-over.
His voice rose, and a finger followed a marble life-line. “Ah, but you say, these are already promised, if only I obey my assignment. But you are deceived! If, detective, you wish to meet men who do not value life ... value life as we plan and as we act , be assured that is already arranged.”
“And you’re about to tell me. This is luck?”I stubbed out the Red and made to get up. Davidson lurched forward.“As we sit, detective, your luck. Such an encounter - as deadly as it will be unexpected - has been arranged by the nigger, Marsh.”
Bottie’s blush stayed high, but from the white knuckled grip her pearls would need a transfusion ... whatever Saul had promised not to say next. I picked a bit of wrapper, from the white linen. Sitting back I said. “That’s it?”
“You are in his way Lieutenant and he thinks you can be swept away. Certain - certain and quick as the lady’s virtue.”
Peg strained at the virtue - being where she needed to be, hearing what she shouldn’t hear, saying any damned fool thing. “Think of the baby, Nick, and Eve.”
Stretched to breaking - I figured - and sweat painted her not so pretty. I wasn’t giving her a break. “The baby, yes, how would Eve and Martha ever manage without me.” I dug my fingers into her knee and smiled at Saul. “We’re talking a long yarn, here, at the bottom of a tall glass.”
“The glass bottom, for your captain, is as close as November, and the glass is empty.”
“Elections are one thing, cop-killing’s another. By a cop.”
He said. “You will become a hero - as will Marsh - when you are removed from the Harbor silt, and your cold dead hands unwrapped from your precious shotgun.”
I pushed back in the steel-twist chair and it gave, slowly. “Sure, Marsh stands to lose the fall election. But he’s a thirty year man, heading for Bocca Raton on the cities nickel.”
Saul made a small, dismissive wave. The torpedoes came and went with a frown, but the frown didn’t stay. “We have no reason to argue, detective.”
A bloodless smile ...”I hope I’ve been very clear. I’m not explaining anything. Nor am I about to apologize for some rash offer. I’m presenting choices, and while the decision is yours, the choices are not.”
“So you say. So if I’m good, I die. And if I’m bad?”
“Men often face such decisions alone, without ... friends. You are a man, detective, with friends in Charleston, and well beyond that, should you choose well.” He tried the bourbon again, with more success. “If you are ... prudent, detective, you will have a lost night, perhaps many more.” He didn’t have to look at Bottie. “And you will become very lucky at the cards.”
Saul’s T-bone was crisp and rare; It was like Saul and his club. Take a bite. If you could afford to eat it, you should have sense not to be there. And if you didn’t like it, you needed a better set of teeth. I didn’t notice the fish. I don’t eat fish, because they swim where people do, and sometimes don’t.
Saul was eating his - and small-timing Bottie. Sheri McCain’s name came up once too often, passing by with a Lincoln’s black glitter. Peg had finished losing nights, but she had a willing replacement. A lot made sense - Sheri’s warm concern while circling Old Town. I hadn’t seen a thing, until now.
But I’d give Saul more than that. He didn’t give me five minutes to decide. I didn’t need five minutes, but I finished the steak and half the Wild Turkey. And with knuckle to the nerve, I finished with Bottie’s knee. She started sweating again.
Over the Creme-de-Menthe I said. “In an hour, Saul, I’m going to get tired. I’m going back home, take a shower, call Eve and have a bad night’s sleep. So bad, that in the morning I’ll have forgotten tonight.
“On the easy, sweet. How’s this for bad memory? I won’t recall
Marsh had a lousy idea, and you a worse one. ”
“Yes, Lieutenant, a beauty sleep will do wonders ...”
“Try it yourself. Then join me at Pussers, Saul, six sharp. I’ve a craving for Virginia ham and a cruise round the harbor.”
Less of a man would have donesomething. Saul Davidson nodded, rose from the table and disappeared into the black velvet. Bottie his pale shadow. “Foolish, foolish man,” she said - she almost wept it into the ice-cream - trailing behind.
I watched her go - a swirl of translucent silk. With those legs, she could have done better.
“Will that be all, Lieutenant DeLeon?”
I handed the torpedoes a twenty with Saul’s initialed check. “You have a day job too,” I asked?
“It doesn’t matter.”
Applause spattered up from the bar. The spotlight came on, and a well used blond slinked behind the piano. She was scribbling changes on sheet music - I was reaching for a card ... the check and the girl were gone, and a fold of white prescription paper was tucked under the napkin. I palmed it to an inside pocket, scanned for clean-cuts among tables suddenly darker. Bass throbbed, the blond scat into Billie Holiday and wasn’t stopping soon. She wasn’t faking the blues. They all could have taken lessons, Hricko, and Marsh and Bottie. I felt clean and alone.
A thick hand fell on my shoulder - Vitalle dropped into the steel-twist beside and dropped a Detroit smile. “Jeez, Nick, you still got empty pockets. Never gonna learn.”
I jumped, like a husband discovered faithful. For a man alone, Vitalle needed a better jacket. But he didn’t give a damn, either way. “What’s Bottie’s problem?”
“She can’t keep her pearls white.”
“You should have squeezed her knee, a little harder.” I started to protest - a heavy forearm waved me off.
I said. “How did the cards treat you?”
“Like Saul’s t-bone. Up ten.”
“Down for the count.” The smile stayed.“Sammy’s a funny guy.”
“Sammy’s a lucky guy. Saul could have had him hurt.”
“Saul already did. You know, don’t you Nick. Maybe you don’t. Saul is Sammy’s brother-in-law.”
“So much for a man’s luck.”
Vitalle’s Partagas fumed. “For a year, after the wedding, Sammy wouldn’t talk to his sister.”
“And with Saul?”
“Still won’t give Saul word two. He says ‘crap’ and leaves. Sammy hates him so much, that if Saul makes Temple service, Sammy takes Friday night communion at Our Lady of the Harbor, over on Sullivan’s Island.”
“What does the priest say?”
“Father McClosky? He says Sammy’s a better class of Catholic. Better than the Island crowd. He must be thinking about Regan.”
“I’ve been thinking about Regan. He could hurt himself.”
Vitalle steeled up. “That’s such funny business, Regan and Hricko, them being such buddies before the hurricane, at each other since, hammer and tong.”
“Jett and Peg left together. I took that for the reason.”
“Them’s not reasons ... Ben and I still surf religious, once a month.”
He drained the martini. Another appeared. He was thinking, I knew better than to think if Fila didn’t make a difference, no woman should. I went for the bourbon.
Vitalle snapped. “What gores Hricko is the Irishman’s dealing with Bottie, and Bottie’s dealing with Jerry-the-Arab, andhe ain’t never touched her. It's all over the development companies crotch-grab for IOP.”
“Jerry? Touching nobody, far as I can smell. He’s made plenty scarce around Charleston, since the hurricane. At least during the day.”
“Monday nights, he shows up for chamber music at the gallery. Same as Hricko; makes ya think, eh? Babes change like sandspurs for Hricko, but no woman for Jerry, same black wool cape. Reminds me of a vampire. Mebby that's the Saudi way.” Vitalle punched a fat finger into the marble and traced a bat outline. “I never liked his looks. Of course, Hricko hates him. Have you seen the election billboards on Route 134?”
“Not since they were put up.”
“Get this Nick. Here’s Bottie, riding a Camel across an Isle of Palm’s dune line. But it’s a Camel filter cigarette. Bottie’s side-saddle wearing a veil, smoke around her face. The caption’s in smoke and reads: GET STRAIGHT. VOTE DAWSON. “ Vitalle hitched a thick leather belt. “Nick! What’s wrong? You ain’t laugh’n. Everybody laughs.”
“Dawson. A school-marm from East Cooper Christian. Teaches creation science, if you can believe that.”
“She have a chance?”
“She’s white and she’s a Baptist. Came to Charleston as a missionary from one of those snake-handling sects in West Virginia. Big tits, and she preaches right through them. But she found a dentist, quick, and a youth minister. Guess she found Jesus, too.”
“All Hricko’s doing.”
“Hricko hates the public eye. Bet he got a tit-slap, fucked her raw and then pushed her into the campaign. Just his style, yeah, through the Suck Our Boobs women. SOB’s not the same since Nicky Petrakas took over. You remember her - shacks up with the beach bum TJ. He’s kinda changed too, but ...Nick. I gotta stop babbling while the gal sings Holliday.”
Vitalle didn’t need much, when he had jazz or the blues. He had Fila. We watched the blond finishOne Man More - squeezing tears from sheet music, taking bows, while chrome and peach shills in diamond chokers pleading for less breath took dangerous liberties from beneath an onyx oasis - two guided missiles off track and homing.
“You know what Fils doing tonight?”
“With the girls, Lieutenant. She and Eve and babe-du-Jour wouldn't have us within a mile.“ Excuse, I thought; tonight, Fila had gone missing on Vitalle. Habanos ashing to the wet tip - he had a laser eye, zeroing in. “Couldn’t be better, Nick. Eleven o’clock, Friday night. Two guys alone on the town.”
I wasn’t discovered being faithful. “We wouldn’t last five minutes, but you’re right. Seems we’ve gotten a hell-of-a-lot luckier.”
“Ask me, DeLeon ... hell no, I’ll ask you whether it’s your luck or your trouble that’s getting worse.”
Vitalle had wicked by the throat ... the club had a suck to it that turned evening late and pealed chrome. I turned an ice-cube to slush ...“I got a better idea than the snuffers. What say you to a damned early sail tomorrow?”
“Them’s some camels, we ain’t gonna hump ...” His Partagas fumed, and while he rocked it fumed. “Fucking-A, break a rudder. Business or pleasure? ” Vitalle chuckled, and patted under his left shoulder.
I said. “Marsh thinks I’m sleeping too much. What do the docks say?”
“Oh, so it is business, and that kind of business! Union tightened it right down, clean as SOB snot, for Spoleto. Not a white banana in port, that’s not under a whore’s mattress. Have to go East Bay to find ‘em.”He picked out the onion and drained the martini. “Who thinks different?”
“Marsh thinks different, Saul thinks different - among others.”
“Phffut. Marsh is on the rag. Maybe Saul’s chef needs Mexican tomatoes. We can find some crates on an independent, if you don’t mind dioxin. You like eating tomatoes, Nick?”
“After they’re washed ... Hricko as clean?”
“You know the same man I do.”
“Yeah, like I thought. You need a longer list, of hot tamales who poked my ass today?”
“Nah. Friends can tell Nick, when a man’s fun starts early.”
An enormous smoke cloud blew from the Cuban tube, and a smile hid behind it - worth a year of the city’s nickel. I rapped Vitalle on his right arm. “We’ll cruise round the Harbor till noon, get some wind-burn, do strip-search on a babe or two, and ... head down to Fila’s beach house! Be one hell-of-a surprise for the women.”
“So that’s where that went! I gotta bring a change.” Vitalle laughed. “You know how Fila is about clothes.”
Another hot tamale. I wanted to ask ... but Vitalle thumped on the table and
squeezed out a fat Havana smoke-ring. “Seriously, Nick, about the dope. You’ve been in homicide too long. Too many random killings to figure, and there’s no figuring. Drugs work different. Shit doesn’t just float into the harbor. It’s business, like any business. Arbitrage, lay-offs. Hell! There’s a Web-site in Macao where any dealer can buy load insurance - on a credit card. Secure server and all; even the Feds use that one.”
Even Marsh, it figured. I was missing by a mile. “And Bottie? What does Fila say about her?”
Vitalle spit into the silver ice-bowl. “Politics, Nick, what do I know about politics? You heard what I know - Fila’s in with her, now, and them’s the shits.” He examined the Asian couples that lingered near Kiri, two tables away, and carried a nonsense chatter, out of hearing. “I build race cars - did you know that? Little ones. Give them to the Nuns - they give them to the kids ...” The Partagas fumed. “What women want, god knows. You want me to sail tomorrow, so I’m a sailor.”
“I’m not squeezing you, Tony, any way.”
He waved the Partagas and swept a tired look over shills that never grew old and gamblers who never lost in a room that didn’t listen. “I’m a fucking wonder of the western world, Nick, for all I do. But for the money-shot, I’m a lifeguard. I float Port Authority, Port inspectors and the union. I keep them floating with money. Sometimes, I save Fila, and she says, Bottie’s gonna sink like a stone.”
Deal done! Vitalle and me putting bookends to a shelf of limp stories. We rapped women, we might have known, after the blond took her break. The stainless Rolex read eleven sharp. Saul returned, at a table next to the restaurant exit.
Two clean-cuts shouldered a huge pinstripe. He bent over, whispering. I’d seen the back before. Saul might talk to blacks, but he didn’t listen to them and he wasn’t listening to this one very happy. The long face had pinched up, like a bad book-keeping entry. I’d half a damned mind to stroll over and check for green cards. But the suit snarled away from Saul’s table, and Sammy-the-mole couldn’t stay away from ours.
He crabbed across from the poker room, pushing business with a wheezy concern. “Heh Lieutenant, there’s a butch Sargent outside, lookin’ for her boss. She and Coffee making a pow-wow; Coffee says In'juns can only go so far, and Anitia calls fer the Chief.”
“But she found you, huh?”
“Gin but no fizz, Lieutenant. She was replacing 38-special military rounds with 357-cal hollow-points and says shake a leg.”
“That's illegal, Sammy.”
“You wanna tell her?”
“Tell Sargent Bowers ...” I thought better, fast. Sammy was looking anxious, like he wanted to do good. “She’s so ... proficient with a nightstick, Sammy, when she's angry at a man. Show her a move . . . it would be good for both of you. ”
He'd had enough, tucked at the plaid jacket. “Says it’s about Hricko. Serious.” He pointed to the curtains. Sammy got up fast and hovered.
I turned and said. “Six AM Tony. At Pussers.”
“All day long.”He rocked back, far enough to test new steel. He said. “Should be you and me and Fila, my friend, sailing against the pirates. Like before.”
“Damned well would be,” I managed, “if rocks floated.”
I took a steel-crush grip, from Vitalle’s left hand and went to look for McCain - and my friend in her trunk. Kiri had the chair, fast as I left. She wasn’t getting a thrill from me. Vitalle hadn’t wasted time. I should have been happy someone found time for her. Sheri wasn’t playing poker, Bottie was, alone in the crowd at table three. Sammy’s face at my back, parting velvet and digging at my attention,
“This way Nick, even Saul-the-bastard has short cuts.”
Wishing for the big-10. “Thought he couldn't show you a thing.”
“One-a his shills was feeling lucky ...” I followed him out a side door, to a brick-way and a patch of trees bordering cobblestones.
“Anita,” I hiss. Utility was dark and quiet, nearly deserted on a night turning gorgeous, cool and slick at the edges of spring rain. Under the half finished arch, I wondered if this time, Hricko had been too skinny. I’d burn his ashes for dying. Or maybe Marsh found a tampon. “Where did she go, Sammy?” Maybe I would walk home. Counting a stop at the Mills House, and the Greek’s, a short half hour. I caught a footstep.
“Honest Lieutenant, she and Coffee were right here just seconds ago.”
Sammy wasn’t. He had moved two steps away, beside a light with too many shadows, rangy and sullen. I didn’t think, going for a shadows throat in a lunge.
A man grunted, knuckles smashing a face. Sammy started … “Lieute …!”
One quick step - I dodged a right hand, slammed a knee into a big mans groin hearing him go down with a whining thrash. Screams carried, where shoe-leather mashed a nose.
“Too many, Nick, Blue ...” shut down by a first thud.
I Stumbled over a short limp body that still twitched. It Took away my attention till I sensed the wind. Funny, how shorts things can travel so far. I could feel the sap splitting air behind my shoulder, driving a spike of pain where my shoulder had been in a numbing wave that erased my spine. A chotto hit me with a nun-
chuck. Fist smashed his eye, then my knees liquid, dissolving. Black sky rising, tumbling over in a slow-motion fall that strapped my arms and slapped at my face. Smooth stones felt like a washboard, lifting my head, black rain spattered my eyes.
I tried to roll over - rolling through a concrete soup - rolling far enough to stare over the green and yellow-washed cobbles beneath a black chrome fender. Did I see blue again? I got an elbow under my chest, then a knee, and the world exploded in light.
At times thunder rolled through pink noise like a comber. Such low jagged bass raked at my pounded jaw. Teeth must be welded to bone, so the pain coursed freely. Echoing. Noise reeked of dead flowers, and the cobblestone echoes, damp and salt and hard. Sometimes ... sometimes the rumble did not end, but called a scratching, high-pitched chorus of lost souls. I could listen to my own muffled fear. Hell, hot and falling forever to a finished concrete floor.
Eyes worked on me, and at a distance light stenciling through a ceiling. I thought about being alive, longer than I should. Someplace, staying alive had been easy, rooms full of people living easy under onyx palmettos that grew from a meadow of rippling green faces.
If the grey crumpled figure hadn’t moaned, I wouldn’t have kicked him again. For my trouble the Italian leather returned a string of short, smoker’s hacks, and scuffling sounds, sounds of a body jack-knifing away from pain. Pained, but alive. I waited for his voice - not mine - not with the duct tape binding my mouth. I didn’t even have a scream.
I didn’t know what my companion had. But I added him in, an unwilling fourth, to the damp floor, salt musk and pastel light filtering from above. The plastic wrist and ankle straps, and the gag were no companions. I rolled over the raw-knuckle concrete and steel knuckle in my chest toward the sound, close enough, and my knees clenched for another kick. ... he could have screamed.
“Betch’a need new heels, Lieutenant.”
We took a minute, in the dark, getting acquainted, but in five I was face-to-face with Sammy-the-mole. Except for the gag and the fist-work on his nose, we had been treated the same. I was happy to be alive, and I knew why Sammy had trouble getting dates.
He said, “don’t take this personal, Lieutenant, but you’re way not my type.” He bit into my cheek, found the end of the tape and ripped it off my mouth.
I wasn’t kissing a man, ever, no matter what. I said. “So the lezwas there.”
“I tried to tell you, Lieutenant, seen Anita and Coffee get into a Black & White, zoom away just before I seen that hair-lip copper friend of Marsh! What's his name - - - Kreutz!”
Blue blue how I wanted to shout 'no Blue!' Wanted to tell Sammy about his mother. “Use mouthwash, Sammy. Next time they might stick around.” He looked honestly insulted. I scratched the Rolex crystal on concrete. “How long, Sammy?”
“How long since what?” He nosed at the stale air, with what remained of his nose.
“Since we got sapped, or since the needles?”
“Neck doesn’t hurt, does it Lieutenant - or my face!”
“Yeah, I guess, all of that, and a spinal adjustment.”
He made a feeble play at the plastic ties. “Then, honestly, I don’t have a clue how long, except I sure gotta piss. So let’s make it six-teen hours.”
Like a kick in the stomach. I lay back on the concrete and it almost felt good. The leather strap bit under my left arm, as I struggled around. “Great, Sammy, you brought a clock. You bring a compass?”
He looked at the pale rectangle in the ceiling. He said. “Light from above, Lieutenant. We could be in hell.”
“Good Jews don’t go to Hell, Sammy, they go to Purgatory. Hricko says that.
” I stretched my face upward, toward the grate. “That’s where we’re not, not yet, anyway. We need to get up there.”
He twisted over, against the straps, then around breath close.“Gotch’r scout knife?”
Three sets of footsteps - two light, one brogue heavy - filtered through the grate. Nervous, random pacing without adult supervision; metallic click-click of a small caliber automatic cut through the sneaker-suck. Sammy’s head snapped away; he snatched a breath and held it. Living short and dying slow could change anybodies plans. I’d thought about it, and how mindless a sound rain is - dying fast was better. I jack-knifed, spilling the Zippo. It sounded like metallic thunder. Voices droned through the grate. They droned for a year - while I counted ten.
Sammy’s breath came up one short. “Lucky they didn’t search us, eh Lieutenant?” He grunted and piped softly. “Maybe they don’t need to hide anything. Maybe we’re going where nothing gets found.”
Chrome plate felt cold, under my cheek - I nudged the Zippo toward his voice. “Work around here, Sammy, and when you get the lighter, you can guess what to do with the straps.” I sucked the duct-take from the floor, rolled back and away, and behind stretched out my arms. I made a chew of the tape and bit in.
Sammy sniffled a bit. “This kind of plastic smells, you know ...”.
Sammy had a big man’s balls, and he was good, working behind people’s backs. Even his own. It was the fumbling before, that brought a salt sweat, and once when he dropped the Zippo ... my left wrist a mangled wreath of scortched blood. When I busted the straps on Sammy he saw quick, snatched a small spray bottle from a cuff flap and sprayed wet hell … hot pain and cold pain and … and then nothing.
“What plant Sammy?”
“Don't ask, don't tell, but Amazon babes use it on their boyfriends.”
Nausea … the burning wave passed over. After, I checked the stainless Rolex. One hand chased another, under a perfect crystal. One link had been cracked. Focusing didn’t help. Nothing helped. One PM, Sunday. I had a lost night.
A little freedom had it’s own gravity. Until the sounds from above stopped - they never stopped - like a tour of purgatory we pasted against the wall. A cellar wall, from the damp - it curved away. Racked to the wall - til new rounds of thunder and beating rain drown the steps. No talk - still - we found a crack, split and followed the curve until we met at the crack. A wall without windows or door - by then we had dark eyes and could see the stairwell.
Sammy went straight up in soft-soles; at the top a well bolted security turned him back. I got busy, feeling around behind the stairs, felt high enough to discover a machinist’s fluorescent lamp hanging from a bolt. It wasn’t going anywhere. On our knees, again, we worked toward the center, too close to the grate and its prying light - away from the wall we found four steel posts, and next to one, Sammy stubbed on a foam chest.
“I betch’a, Lieutenant, they do heart transplants.”
I’d stopped betting against Sammy. Inside were plastic bags - and an ice-chisel, a big one with an oak handle and eight inch stainless blade.
“German steel,” said Sammy.
I figured the man - people look different in the dark - and figured we had the same idea. We took it behind the stairwell and tried the light. It snapped on. The buzz scared hell out of me, but I wanted to look at the chisel, and I needed to look at Sammy-the-mole’s face.
For all the damage, it was looking prosperous. “We’re twice the men, now, Lieutenant.”
He was holding the chisel like a salmon fork. I said. “Thinking men want to know, Sammy. Whyare there two of us?”
“Betcha’d like to know that, Lieutenant, why two instead of one. Or why us two, or why will there be two of us?”
“Sammy. Spend time with Father McClosky, not the Rabbi.”
Moonbeams washed a cellar corner. “Better grab that crow-bar over there, against the wall. You’re sure I was the mistake.”
“Only sometimes, between Wednesday and Monday. On Tuesday, I think maybe there was no mistake.”
He looked insulted, then wary, then lurched and handed the crowbar over to me. “I’m gin - any copper will tell you that. I was just trying to do ya a favor.”
“Yeah, Sammy, from up close, all evening long.”
“That’s perceptive, Lieutenant, but I gotta earn a living too.”
If his face hadn’t been proud, jabbing into the fluorescent, it would have been a homicide. He was still counting paychecks and covering clients and wondering what Baptists knew about Purgatory. I would have - he gummed that long before saying. “How ‘bouts we were standing under the same tree, trying to beat the same scam.”He started it as a question, but end with a tilt to his busted nose.
“I don’t like that answer - I keep my nose out of most people’s underwear.”
“Shirley didn’t think so, and Bottie didn’t hope so.”
“They didn’t get enough of the nose, not by half,”I said, but thought better fast. “Marsh gave me a straight case; then detours show up. Then manhole covers. I keep hoping, Sammy, I’ll find a sewer and I won’t find you. ”
“You’re sure, betcha’, Marsh was jake?”
“I’d bet on him, but not on your friends.”
“My friends? Plaa-ease, Lieutenant!”Sammy’s voice stuttered. “What ... what, what your SOB people pay me to do, I can’t help. With a rich wife, you should ... should know ...” His voice caught up. “But I also work socially redeeming stuff.”
He stepped back from the fluorescent, to the base of the stairs and whispered. “How ‘bout this one. The threechottos up there are pouring concrete boots. I heard them swearing to the Virgin, and heard the motor-boat. Wanna bet it’s not a Grey Line excursion?”
“O-for-three, Sammy. But you’re on probation, til we do something about the second.” I held up the chisel.
Sammy nodded. “Sure, we can crack this joint.”
“Could be bad, Sammy, and not just the getting out.”
“How’s that, Lieutenant?”
“Family problems. I think something I said gave Saul indigestion. He eats too much fish.”
Sammy snorted. “Saul wouldn’t use the trash upstairs to clean toilet bowls.”
Sammy was right. Saul didn’t use trash. Sammy might have been a mistake, but he knew plenty, about a charade gone wrong, or a loused deal that had been lousy from the start. If he knew about the sap, I couldn’t imagine him being here. I ground away at the idea of being set up, or of Sammy taking a fall.
I said.“What’s the contract, Sammy, who’s paying the bills?”
He took the question personal, and flinched like I had slapped him. “Plenty of swells want to know ... could be Bottie, or Jerry-the Arab. Could even be your pal Hricko.”
“Not doing deals with Shirley?”
“That tart? Please, Lieutenant.”
He had a death-grip on a name, and the balls to hold on. I thought Jews worried about dying, and I was plenty worried. He stuck his face under the fluorescent. “I could ask the same thing, you being at the Club Friday night. I know a boatload of bent coppers, but I know you’re gin too.”
Gin! Yeah, I thought, at the bottom of somebodies glass. It was then I felt the folded sheet of prescription paper in my breast pocket. I took it out and held it under the lamp. “What do you know about sailboats, Sammy, about a wooden tub full of hash.”
“Sailboats? Hash? Betch’a I don’t know a thing, Lieutenant.”
I crumpled the note. He paused and grabbed at the paper. “What do you know about Rip-rap?”
I heard rocks, and I heard the rattling of a man almost dead. I didn’t know much, and the man in Charleston who knew most hadn’t lived through the last hurricane. But I knew someone who cared. “Palm Development could use a mountain for their beach, what’s left of it.”
Sammy looked jubilant, like a teacher who’s class dummy just added two-plus-two. “Hricko says, betch’a the Irishman would kill for it.”
It blurted out, and came with an almost Judas-look of remorse. I’d seen that plenty, in men working both sides. I grabbed his plaid collar and shook. “Talk fast, Sammy. What else did Hricko say, about the Irishman?”
“He said the kibosh had been put on Regan. By Coffee!”
“But he can’t make a move!”
Sammy snorted. “Not by himself.”
“Says SOB. They won’t let him, betch’a know that, not after Bottie left. They had Isle of Palms declared a Pelican reserve. Can’t build a groin because Pelicans get athletes foot from wet rocks. Not with the EPA, and the courts. You got to talk to the Irishman, if you want to know more. But you better talk fast.” He made a trap-door with his hands. “Once a groin is built, nobody can take it way. Not unless rocks float.”
I’d give him that. Sammy-the-mole dug dirt, and didn’t know a Pelican’s foot from it’s beak, but he was far from dirty. I passed him the note.
He looked disappointed and sniffed. “What’s this Lieutenant, a mash note from your lez Sargent?”
“I got it tonight, from a waitress at Sauls.”
Sammy’s face went dead. “From a blond sweet. Doe-eyed? No prim, but looks like your sister should?”
“Not mine! Do you know her?”
He mumbled ,“amateur,”his face turned uncertain and turned away. “Not much more than she’s a nurse, and part time waitress at the Club.”
“How much more than not much? And who else?”
He was biting again, into names. “Only because we’re stuck together,
Lieutenant.” He pushed at a nose that wouldn’t sit straight. “I wouldn’t say ‘crap face’ to Saul - not word two. He’s a finger in the family’s eye, but this gig is way too cheap for the bastard. You know what he pays those ex-Stazi guards that stalk the casino?”
I point overhead. “Lots more than Regan has to hire these narco.Mex hombres. Who else don’t you talk to?”
“Compared to Ibn-Ali, the girl’s a fawn ... she’s no insider to Saul, but she is his Thursday night lay.”
It’s funny, what women pass over and a man will die for. Sammy was still worrying about family, and wasn’t trying hard enough to live. I said. “Not Hricko’s?”He clammed tight. “What about the note?”
“What about it! I said rip-rap, Lieutenant, rocks used to build sea-walls and groins, not river silt!” He thought again. “The Mick wouldn’t be so stupid ...”
I took back the prescription sheet. It contained a single line : C8C8C8. I said. “Hell’s this but an ID number for a barge.”
“Betch’a think so, Lieutenant, but it’s probably a silt-dredge ID. Dredge number eight, and site ‘C’ is the Cooper River. Always has been. It’s repeated to make identification easy from a helicopter. Can’t confuse this with a Waterway barge. These guys are big, half-again the draft ...”
“Half again as much as ...”
I never got to finish, and neither did Sammy. Thunder shook the cellar like a dice-cup and the fluorescent winked out. We separated, to each side of the iron railings. Voices, now, through the grate. A man cursed in English. A pale grey light flowed through and steps leading away. Then outside the wall a car’s motor growled and that too led away. Curses flowed in Spanish. Soft steps leading away, a door slammed, and there was silence.
“Betcha we need to lam.”
We took our chance. Sammy measured the grate - from my shoulders - it was no more than two feet square.
“Solid brass, Lieutenant, but the screws are galvanized. You know an honest builder?”
I knew my shoulder’s didn’t fit, and the muscle above didn’t care. “Take a shot, Sammy. You make it through, get to the cellar door and let me out. But if they spot you, run like hell for ... you have to make up that part. Get to a phone. Call Marsh or the State Police or the damned National Guard.”
“No big thing.” Sammy-the-mole smiled a grey little smile. “Betch’a don’t think so, Lieutenant, but I kill with either hand.”
The stainless chisel ate through, and while Sammy stood on my shoulders, I caught the full smell of the room above. Salt musk, but the musk reeked, and if I’ve slept in one bed I’ve slept in ten washed in that woman’s potpourri. It turned my head, while Sammy dug at rust. Four screw-heads pinged to the concrete. Sammy handed down the grate , belted the chisel, reached up, I pushed and he squeezed out.
Soft-soles squished back and forth. Then his quick footsteps on oak, faster as one door slammed open, then other and a crashing glass pane, warning shouts in Spanish and a second set of steps that crossed above the grate, stopped and ran on. Bodies thudded against bodies in a dark melee smashing wooden loungers and flower-pots in the scrum. There came a heavy solid slap, like metal lurching thru flesh and a scream; For ten minutes I didn’t hear a thing, standing beneath. Then four muffled shots rang out and the flash came probing like a dirty finger.
I jumped back, and the voice followed. “Heh, DeLeon, the little guy was tough. Broke my amigo’s shoulder, but he’s not breaking a second. Know what I mean, DeLeon? When he dies, he flops into the water jerking his neck and bellies around like a blue fish.”
Words - too many for a serious man - they pulled me from under the stairs like a jig. “But you are so much bigger.” The double-clip of an auto-load crackled through. “Like a shark, DeLeon, with a nose big as MARVINS, and a mouth. You would be so dangerous with a sharks mouth, but you know what, DeLeon? You got the shark’s grin, but you only had three teeth. Senior, we pulled your three teeth and now you can’t bite anybody. You can only suck on tit.”
The thought boiled, ‘Sammy killed with both hands.’
“Dead tit! But I am merciful, amigo. I kill you fast, so the milk won’t taste sour.”
He was panting, while he raved, and while he raved the beam flickered from ceiling to floor. “Sie amigo, how bad, bad boys can act. But amigo, this did not have to happen. We could have talked. Show yourself, and we’ll talk. Heh, heh, heh. We can find an agreement now.”
A second flash joined his, and more curses mumbled in pain. While they argued I arched against a steel pillar sweating ice, concrete walls squeezing the dark, an arm shot through the opening. Three quick phat-phat-phats, and ricocheting lead fragments sent me burying into the crack between floor and stairs. Both lights extinguished - I raised my head and came to one knee. “My friend, DeLeon, he is not so kind. He says I should kill you - slowly - so the fear stinks in your pants.”
Maybe so, the dying. An armed man is twice the man, but not against two automatics. If they both came, I wouldn’t walk out. Or live ... damaged. A snap filtered down, like a knife cutting wire, then silence. If they both came, Marsh would be out one hero. A bright flare of lightening, and the close, wet rumble. If they both came, I thought in the damp draft that swirled around the stairs, the talker was going done with me.
I took off my shoes, then my jacket and tossed it away, to the stair-side a left handed flash would find. I slid the Rolex over my knuckles, and took a two-handed grip on the chisel, wedged between palm and stainless band. Only the wait remained. Standing tall and offside pressed along the concrete steps.
A door slammed above, then the security clicked opened and grey light painted a slit, then a rectangle across the floor. It painted another two-dozen ice-chests. A solid grey painting, until the double click of a small caliber auto. A single beam licked over the railing and probed to the far wall. A voice sprayed, “DeLeon!”Echoes died. Two patient, quiet steps. “I’d pray to our Lady, if I were you, but you are a Baptist.”
Then a shadow, grey on grey, moving down. Soft soles patted toe-to-heel, one, two, three, four, and the beam danced over the steel uprights. “If you kill easy, Lieutenant, I won’t fuck your dead asshole ...”
Soles tapped on metal rungs. “... but I think,Senior, your wife will beg for it.”The beam whipped up and over the white linen, and the silenced 25 caliber spit twice. Then a curse, and the slap of soft soles - the light washed sides of the stairwell, as he hit the concrete and came round. The gun swept into the crack and spit, then to the right in an arc too high.
I was waiting, at the end of a short lunge. He had stubby arms and a peasants innocent face. Dressed too well for surprised innocence, in a tan sport coat and turtle-neck, sending a hornet’s hiss biting hot through my silk collar. Innocent - and he screamed for the Virgin as I drove my shoulder and crow-bar two-handed into his ribs. I drove his body out of the grey rectangle of light and into a pillar, where the stainless broke through his spine and he danced a last dance against cold steel.
I held him high, against the blood-spray, till the twitching stopped, and foam locked sounds in his mouth, twitching ... I threw the body onto the ice-chests and wiped the metal clean on his peasant vest. He was half the man ... a horror ... bleeding life as real and hot as a babies. I stood over him, the metal bar welded to my hand and a prayer - it might be -
half-formed locking my mouth open. He lay on the Styrofoam, dead as the stainless, lips frozen in a curse - it might have been - another sacrifice to the Holy City. My gut shook. A withdrawal from the bank of pain, exchanged for a bringer of pain much worse.
The story moved me along. What's it worth to you, DeLeon, the Holy city? I let the crowbar drop ... but I’d told that damned-lie enough to know holy wasn’t the word.
When the suck of gravity ends. Fast was the word. I slipped shoes, searched quick for the auto and found it - skidded across the concrete, laying beside the white linen with bullet holes for buttons. For a second I crouched by the pillar, long enough to strip off the red-spattered silk shirt and put on the jacket. Long enough to decide how one person would stay alive. Escaped flying. I took the stairs in three steps, hit the open security with my shoulder and dove out, sliding across waxed oak into blinding pale daylight. Sliding into folded French doors, stained glass and they popped like old wine when my wrists smashed through. An upright caught my leg, spun me around onto redwood plank and into a green glass windbreak.
I came up in a shooter’s crouch and a hail of soft, wet bullets. Breech Inlet was a mayhem - white water and wavelets, dancing in grey sheets of rain. I turned and dropped to one knee, and followed the barrel of the auto-load. It darted among bronze statues and carved wooden dolphins in pairs with idiot’s smiles. At closed doors that didn’t open. I let the trigger grip go light, and the barrel slide. It traced a circle through kitchen and dining and parlour, a space of crushed leather furniture and hanging orchid planters, frosted glass faux and ebony. A curving stairway led up - to either side of long oak hallways, paintings lined them, modern horrors, and doors led out to the balcony of Patricia Bottie’s beach house. Sammy had been surprised. Any good man would be. Christ had never been here.
A lot of honest people never stayed. I’d never been here, stretched out on my belly, blood-smeared and trying to stay alive for another five minutes. I stood up, leaning over the windbreak. The jump was fifteen feet, onto sand. I had a leg over, looking around the stucco curve, and east over the small beach between two stone groins. Looking for Sammy, and hoping I didn’t see a thing. Next to one groin, a motor-boat had been run up. Tracks led away. A tarp sprawled over it, covered with gulls, shuffling for place, ruffing feathers, pecking. A dead mackerel washed up and a few gulls fought for the body, then fought to return. I sat on the brass rail, getting guts for the jump, when they scattered, and I flung back, hugged the stucco wall which spit a metal TICC into my ear.
It was the second dumbest thing I’d said today. I jumped at the snicker, and a steel-tip punched through the redwood - where my feet had been. Pebbles crunched directly under the balcony. I didn’t see him, but the foot steps came light and quick, circled beneath me and died in the steady downpour.
One man, or more than one more. It made breathing a chore. I counted ten and crept off the patio. The kitchen phone looked a mile away, and was dead silent as the mackerel. I had a better try, the stairway leading to Bottie’s third floor bedroom. Elbows one after another reached for the stairs; another steel-tip whined off the bannister, chipping redwood against my cheek.
On my belly again, through three inches of white wool. Exposed, like a rose-worm, but I never felt the oak, and once through the double-ratan doors I couldn’t be seen. The bedroom overlooked the inlet, not the ocean. Not a room for looking out, a discrete room where distractions stopped at the walls.
They had more mirrors than flower; a museum of pressed flowers sat on a half dozen pedestals. A lipstick smear on crystal was still wet, and the wine sweet. A pack of Reds sat on the vanity - two smokes but no lighter. Three handbags, but no Coach. Clothes covered the high four-poster, in neat stacks, like a woman in no hurry might make. But like a woman who was moving out, or moving someone out. She hadn’t left long before, she had left prepared, and hadn’t left a cell phone. Marsh wasn’t getting a date, not from me.
Stood-up, but still on the city’s nickel. I searched the bathroom, then out the first small window. In front three cars parked on gravel. One of them McCain’s Lincoln convertible. A black Lincoln coupe sat against its rear bumper. Three's a charm; a maroon Triumph sat on the gravel edge, backed close, with its rear tires buried to the axle in sand. Hricko would never treat his Michelins like that, if he had a choice. I got the message; people who got here, had trouble leaving. The house had a suck to it, like the tube in Hricko’s chest, but unlike the electric pumps, without human warmth.
I rummaged the stacks of fresh laundry. No man leaves his Levis on a satin bedspread, when there’s so much floor. But the clothes were a man’s laundry. Jackets and worn jeans lay about, and a t-shirt lay on top. It was white with purple silkscreen. On the front, a dismembered fawn. Lettering on the back read:
BLACKSTRAP $$$$ LINUX
WHERE WINDOES ARE
He couldn’t know half ... what she left behind. The shirt reeked - pure Hricko. But,
one silk-screen meant two - - - two at the least. Feeling wooden beeds, a pair of Botties flowered thongs not big enough to cover any part of her ass were tied 'bout a T-shirt. Message and flowers for Peg. It spun me around and sat me down hard, like a dead stump, on the white wool rug.
Blood enemies to the outside world. But, sneaky bastards and randy as wet mink Hricko and Bottie. She was still his flower. He had tried to keep her clean and she kept him, while whatever deal they cut still floated. She wasn’t looking for a father and he wasn’t looking for Jesus, on white satin. When the deal sunk, Hricko had gone down with it. I stuffed a carry with a lst change Hricko would never need. Of all optimistic fools ... I figured him for the last. He had anticipated - with Dead Kenny, prepared for a double-cross or prepared one himself - I didn’t think so. I looked again at the clothes, and out the window at the Triumph. Hricko had gone down, but until that last moment, he hadn’t gone down alone. Bottie would think that romantic. Plain grey caught my eye. I wondered when he realized they never were, but they had company.
Like the view from the second window. Across Breech Inlet, a Chevy sedan parked under the yellowIOP Diner sign. I counted three men doing nothing, as the squall blew past - I waited that long - the Rolex sounded like a church bell. Three trim men with blond crew-cuts. Neck hairs prickled against my white linen jacket, and I was tired of it. The auto 25 caliber had four hollow-points in the clip - four low diamonds.
I went to the bathroom, drew a tub and stripped - scrubbed down with a luffa till skin went red as bleeding wrists. I put on the t-shirt. It smelled fresh and smelled of flowers. The jeans fit tight, but they fit. I hadn’t been eating well, Eve had said. I grabbed a clean-T and denim jacket to cover. The dismembered fawn sported on a shoulder patch.
In the window’s reflection, jumbled pieces almost looked alive. Or trying to come back. It slowed me down, just enough. A figure flashed at the edge of the window, moving from behind the Lincoln coupe. Trying to get behind me. I slipped shoes and came down the stairs and back onto the patio. From my right, the man circled directly under the balcony, through the white shell, and away to my left. Both hands were busy, and he wasn’t looking up. He could have been a tourist with an auto-load - he could have been scouting. I snapped off a shot. He wore a tan Panama, tilted back, then he didn’t, but he kept moving, flattened against the stucco, around the curve. He had business to finish, part of the deal Peg Bottie knew I couldn’t refuse.
This time Amigo didn’t vanish, but broke from the wall, running up the street and cutting across to the beach. He stopped at a point fifty yards down the sand, and sat atop a rusted twist of seawall. It was cavalier, how he perched like a hungry gull, his arms twitching while a long shadow ruled his right hand. Nothing mattered to him. I couldn’t understand the coldness of the young.
Or his patience. Wasn’t something I would have done. I rummaged the clip and thought again. His black hair was cut in a bowl - so was he. Trapped, if he ran for help, I fly. If he came for his partner ... If I were him, I’d be hunting, but I wasn’t going to hunt him. I was getting the hell away from low cards and bad bets. Waiting til dark covered the house was no chance at all. Chotto could wait - like Marsh and Hricko. For all I cared, he could sit until hell had a finished, concrete floor.
I dashed out the side door - on the Inlet - looking for clear through green glass and Nepenthe on the redwood plank. Wavelets raged and men waited like walls of a pit that never stopped curving away. It slapped me down, hard.
Splayed flat on the landing, rolling over, palming the auto-load, I extracted the clip and fingered steel-tips - first shell returned, for where I lay - gutless! Limp as a cracked spine and bleeding frozen sweat. Thinking about clever friends and good ideas that crawled through plans like stress fractures in a hull.
‘Cards, gentlemen’ ... rasped the green-glass windbreak. It snapped me alive. I put a hand on the glass and pulled up where fear came fast; it shook three small chances from the fear - the bridge, the inlet and the skiff. I stood straight up.
Fine mist had replaced the rain - the Chevy hadn’t moved from it’s post across Breech Inlet. One man guarding each side of the bridge, with clear views of Bottie’s house. They held fishing rods and probably more, and talked close to wandering crabbers. A third sat in the car, under the yellow light that caught glints of a barrel. Crabbers moved off, but not the men. They didn’t chatter, they weren’t waiting for spot-tail, and none would die easy. I wasn’t walking across, flashing my badge. Shell two inserted.
On the ocean side, stairs led off the landing, to the first stone groin. I slid down the metal banister and over the side. Gulls waited. They lined the stone top like sentries, and rose in a raucous white cloud. And got plenty of attention. Both watchers came to the near side of the bridge. One pointed his fishing rod directly at the house. I put the bead on him - a prayer wouldn’t have helped. He jostled his companion, who tossed chum into the air. Gulls dove around them. Both chugged a thermos.
Then returned to their stands. I knew how men distracted, who never are. They should have been racing toward me. The air should have been a hot lead freeway, and the sand a sop for bad blood. Missing by a mile!
I stripped, and followed the groin out, handing along against the current til I was neck deep. Salt water boiled through the rocks, on the outgoing tide. A white-water tide, through the Inlet, with a suck that never ended, and a cold from skeleton’s forty feet below that locked my stainless steel elbow into a helpless bend. Shell reefs had appeared on the far side as banks of riffled flow. They were two-hundred feet away - I wasn’t swimming anywhere.
I returned to the white crushed shell. Wheezing salt, crabbing along where gulls scattered from the covered marsh skiff. I dressed - the third bullet slipped in like a shiv - scuttled alongside the hull. It was hidden by the groins from watchers on the bridge and the round-head patrolling the seawall.
The outboard had been locked upright, but smelled of fresh gas. I saw a chance - chambered the forth shell and reached over, close up where outlines grew from wrinkled canvas, threw back the tarp and wretched.
A row of gulls formed on the bow. The bodies sat at attention, wrapped together in hemp truss, back to back on the flat aluminum bottom. Dead cold, but not ready for long, silent cold. Ready for burial - but neither dressed for burial. Dressed for the short, sweet slice of life called Friday night. They were dressed for a quick play and a quick withdrawal, if the cards stiffed or a hang didn’t. They were dressed for six hot hours. But as I saw it clear, some one had fashion in mind that didn’t go out of style. Some one had prepared the bodies and prepared a headstone for the ages.
I circled them, into small waves lapping, hands thrust into the jean pockets, for I had no business with the dead. They didn’t have a choice of companion. Chotto the hitman tuxed-out had not been treated gently - he had chisel-slashes where he had eyes, and where gold cuffs should have stuck from his plaid jacket, he had mangle hands.
The girl was not abused - almost a professional job. Blood mats covered her chest, and a small caliber bullet had entered just below her hairline. She still wore her cocktail dress with the silver fawn and eyes that said it didn’t matter. I closed them. She could have been sleeping, a baby’s sleep, though she was dead from love. I rocked the boat in a shriek of white feathers. And covered the bodies. Waded into the kissies, where gulls still fought over what might have been a dead mackerel.
I had expected to find Sammys body in the boat, a killer with both hands torn off. But he's alive; double a soft-seventeen on that. I spit on the Chotto. “Nice work Sammy.” Do Baptists and Jews go to Purgatory or just get stuck in one of Hells 9 cold circles? Sammy counts the guns against him, and plays it for all the street-smarts he can muster. Does he run-for-it or pick a hidy hole or ….. ? A rich, sour taste had blown in from the swamp. An aroma of rot. Of crabs ripping and blue-green tide. The stench of fear turned rage, justice red and natural. I stood - one foot in sand, one on the aluminum hull, pushing against the suck ... death conjured, made to come fast as now and close as a hot steel barrel. I got thirty seconds ... to feel that crap.
At the second whisper phat-phat and a close hot wind I sprawled - chest flat against the groin and eyes arrowed down the beach. Chotto stood thirty yards away, on a scruff of sea-oats, trying to level a long skinny barrel with an arm that wouldn’t haul straight. I snapped off a shot, then another, but they kicked shell at his feet. He ran forward, behind the stucco curve of the house. I turned, took steps toward the groin at my back, and yanked up like a noose had caught me.
Death was a one-way street. Chotto had no friends on the bridge. Clean-cuts? Enemies of a friend. And they would see him coming round the west end of the beach. I pulled back to the groin, knee against the rock. Two shots flattened against it, from close up, as close as running feet crunching shell. A hot two-handed wind, working low with the knife - I stepped up, both feet above the sand.
He whipped around it, but the blade slashed a high arc, chipping into the stone beneath my neck as I fell back. Instead of tattooing a death mask, I jerked two hollow-points at his pistol grip that swung slow and stiff - like a man with a bum shoulder. The wrist blew away in a pink scatter of bone. I tumbled on wet, coming up quick and low - Chotto two steps into dry sand. He had crammed the stump into his gut, the blade dangling from leather twist on his right hand and wild eyes staring past me in horror.
I kicked him in the chest and he went down, clawing for the pistol, spewing blood. I got there first, slapped him away, and drew down, but he scrambled up and ran crazed circles down the beach, toward the rotted seawall and tidal and hook of sand on which the worst of Breech Inlet was deposited.
It isn’t true that an evil man thinks less of his life for it. It isn’t true that evil, for being a life, shouldn’t be snuffed.
I followed him, at a trot, to the pool edge, where he sat down to wash the stump. He howled. One eye on the water - on the crabs gathering beneath - and the other on me. I didn’t come close, and when I did he swung the blade and the stump pumped red. I laid the ivory bead on his heart, but his eyes didn’t show fear or hate or a hunted certainty, but glared at a vision far beyond. I knew where he was looking.
I yelled. “Chotto! Going to the Virgin, real soon now, and is she ever pissed.”
“Fuck your daughter’s ass-hole, DeLeon.”
I stepped around the suck of salt water on sand, and shook a finger. “You took the Virgin’s fawn, Chotto, her very own baby. She’ll roast you in an iron box for that.”
He moaned and broke down crying, pleading ... slashing the blade ...
“Only one way to seek the Virgin’s forgiveness. Confess, Chotto. Who put the knife in your hand? Who feeds on the fawn?”
He screamed and dove into the pool, thrashing wild, and scrambled out the far side and across the beach. But not far, always slower, as the blood streamed away, stumbling onto the sand-spit, backing out toward the breakers, slashing the blade ...
I followed, out of reach. “Who’s your padron, Chotto? Who is your devil?”
“Find him, DeLeon, at the tip of my knife.”
“The bitch, Bottie.” He spit. “The Jew!” He wiped it away. “Red!”The copper face twisted. “He’s loco, DeLeon.” Then eyes clouded without comprehension.
I yelled. “Now, Chotto, find the Virgin’s forgiveness.”
He knelt, swaying thinly in the dark, where sand turned shell and the shell coarse and the tide ruffled forever.
“Don’t waste my time, DeLeon, with names, like I waste yours. Fuck her yourself.” He laughed and pointed at Rolex. “Why not take me in, DeLeon? I am your prisoner.” He held out the stump and the knife.
“Clock’s stopped, Chotto.”A mask of four bullets laced his face, and he was dead before he was surprised. Dead marsh fragrance in all it’s weakness retreating before stars that grew from wind a thousand miles long.
Stars falling into place. From his back pocket, I stripped a new clip of steel-tips, and rolled the body into a shallow pool, where crabs gathered, and washed my hands in the brine till the knuckles went raw and the wrist-burns screamed like gulls in a white cloud screamed over Peg Bottie’s white shell beach. I ran off the point, passed the tidal and back between the groins. The three watchers paced together on the east end of the bridge. They walked nervous, and when they didn’t, shared a thermos. I planned cracking the Lincoln’s trunk like a bad contractor; my carry hid under a coil of hemp , but the truck latch had already been sprung; a chisel-blade had nicked through. Good guess ya weasel-nose PI snatching the 10-gauge! I brought both to the skiff, rough-tied the tarp around chotto and the girl, laid the carry on top. I checked the stainless Rolex. Eight-fifteen. On the bridge, watchers hadn’t moved. On the beach, pressed in the sand, below a line of gulls, we waited for the rain, and to be alone.
The next squall waited ten minutes. I pushed the skiff into current and crawled under the tarp. We danced in wavelets, between lightening flashes and thunder, drifting south and east, for two-hundred yards, till the reefs came between us and the quiet men, and breaker wash came over the bow. Bottie’s house lay behind, a ghost in white rain, fading slowly, like the couple’s blush. I started the outboard, planed out of the channel into the smooth between rolling breakers, patient for a crest to ride, nudging the hull under white crests til the bow came points around. At surf’s end it slapped me into a spill-work of shell. I worked between channels, around the curve to the east side of Breech Inlet. I found a sand-spit near shore, went over the side and beached the skiff.
I wasn’t going to bury them. They wouldn’t be the only lovers hiding in plain sight. I tossed the carry onto wet sand and took another turn on the hemp. A stiff easterly had sprung up, pushing rain into the marsh and wiping clean the slate of new stars that might have been a lover’s bouquet. One DOA too many, for the voyeurs I knew - before I’d finished with the Irishman. I waded back in and turned the skiff around. With throttle set to high and steering locked due east, I sent sail hitman chotto and Hricko’s young blond nurse on their last date.
They wouldn’t need a chaperone. I had one set of dry clothes and a date. At the Comber. A mile down the beach. Sammy wouldn't be there, if I knew him , but snatched a Breech Inlet cruiser and was already round the tip of Sullivans Island. I figured walking the sea-oat swale between dune lines. I figured not being seen. Or if seen, recognized, or if recognized by one of the clean-cuts. The auto-load jammed against my spine - I didn’t respect them. ...
Only afterglow of the diner’s yellow sign shown through tops of Palmettos. A gazebo sat just east of cottage row fronting Breech Inlet, and I made for it. From the pulpit, a rose light showed across the Inlet through Bottie’s bedroom window. As far up the beach as a man can see, the Comber glowed orange over the line of catamaran masts. Lights in the sky like votive candles at evening mass - canceled because of death. I came off the decking and hit the dry, loose sand at a run.
My shot was straight, clean and quick. As I saw it. Drive a hot poker up the Irishman’s ass! From the other end, catch the rap. I didn’t see much, starting up the beach. One blond thought I was Hricko. When I wasn’t, she offered to buy the jacket. Couples offered help.
A man of your ... experience? On a Sunday night?
Nothing but skinheads and Democrats at The Comber
on Sunday night! Why ... what if some slut ...
Some of them were in love - had been for weeks. Some wanted the police, so I cut the trot, walked slow and talked real-estate. They stuck like sand-spurs and damned lies. People trust a man spending expensive time. Time borrowed from the fawn’s deposit .... thirty minutes between Breech Inlet and the Irishman’s front beach bar.
At a distance the Comber glowed loud, orange hell - then I got close. Couples littered both dune-lines, and they weren’t in love. Blasters wailed in the sweet soak of hash fumes. I washed blood off my face changed wet jeans and linux-T in the sea-oats, and circled up from the beach, through a ring of drift-wood fires. I scanned for Regan, would settle for bourbon ... I had picked up a shell - kicked the volleyball back on the court - had my jean jacket open. I was doing a lot right.
I got a whistle and a shout that punched right through the noise. “Major groove, Mr. detective. My shirt looks just like yours.”
Behind the Island couple in yellow and blue, and red Zig-Zag bandannas
, the sandy-hair kid swilled a Coors. He wasn’t watching the game, but waving to me and working between the brew and a city-rolled joint and a girl who shouldn’t have. She was younger than mine. He had hands where he shouldn’t. I came up behind and put a steel grip on his neck. My wrists burned bright orange.
I said. “Where’s the Irishman?”
“Hairyirishman,” whined the girl and scratched at the naked pelican tattoo on her right shoulder. “He ain't been paw'n the Catholic girl has he?”
TJ snickered, shrugged. “She pinned a cigarette to his palm this morning … he went off singin' and cryin'”. I squeezed harder. “Come for a walk, TJ , while you can still walk.”
For my trouble, I got a blank, wide stare. He spit out the Coors and passed reefer to the girl. She looked at me, frightened and bold at the same time. She slid off the surfboard and kicked sand toward me. “Who’s theMARV, TJ, I thought your father was dead?”She blew a sweet ring. “Want me to get Sheri?” Then she looked coy. “Think she's getting laid now, but maybe this buster, he’s one of Sheris boyfriends.”
TJ leered wildly, still deciding, if he should move. I said. “We need to talk about Hricko.”
The leer slipped. He flipped down dichroics and said. “That’s so righteous, Mr. detective. “Hear that Nicky,” he raps to the undersage? “Rap on the beach is, the man’s ready to see Jesus.”
“But you’re not.”
He thought about it, and the steel grip. “I’m a Catholic, like Hricko, Mr. detective. Ready for Jesus any time.”
TJ bounced up, and when the pressure left my wrists, I sat straight down in the sand. I wasn’t lasting long. I grabbed his ankle. I didn’t beg. “First, TJ, I need some medication.”
The linen wraps bled red. He stared, but blank eyes brightened. “So you do, Mr detective. Just like Jesus.”He took the Coors can, and reached into the girls leather carry and came out with three gelcaps - red, yellow and brown. He laughed crazy, sane as he ever got. He handed me a Coors. “Adolph sure makes a lousy beer, so swallow these fast.”
Medicated,” I said, “not embalmed.”
“So rad, a man who knows his own limitations. Old man Hricko is righteous like that. Same with that pervo Damon Wills before he got swailed. The yellows wouldn’t help those burns, anyway. But that karma, Mr. detective - it’s running out of you like black hash oil. I’ll fix that too.” I was falling away, and needed to believe the juju. He went back to the leather bag, and came out with a small red vile and on the tip of his thumb, a tab of rice paper. “Melts on your tongue like candy mints. Dead Kenny takes these every time he dies - he always comes back.”
I took the purple dragon. High quality acid, with a tinge of deep, deep maroon. I snapped my fingers. “Quick, TJ, what’s the year?
He gaped a smile, took a strip of six dragons from his pocket and swallowed it with a gulp of Coors. “That’s a trick question, Mr. detective. I ask it all the time to Shari, when she’s stoned, or to Nicky and she always says ‘your only pretty as you feel.’ He removed the cork. “Might hurt some, before it doesn’t hurt.” He sucked back a laugh. “You’re not supposed to use it on your wrists.”
I licked the tab, sugar sweet ... my arm bathed in a swarm of hornets, before I felt nothing at all.
I followed TJ into the dunes. We walked east toward the pier, through wild oats bordering the first line, where the shells are new. A stiff offshore whipped at the wave-crests. Tide ran high and thundered. Uncanny for the silver light. TJ waded knee deep and came back with a perfect conch. Like the breakers, the shell curved in silver rainbow colors. I had questions like spray from a prism.
“Why didn’t the Irishman know?”
“About Hricko? Nobody knew, least anyway on front beach. He got the Lords’ call at east end, around Station forty. Hell, I was the dude who found him!”He put an ear to the long tones whistling from the conch. “That’s where the washouts were major damage. Such a groove in the tube - thirty yards of sand, and ten homes - what the spring tides took.”He held the conch out to me. It hardly felt like shell - felt light as the south wind - I handed it back. “Hricko had to survey the Lords’ vengeance.”
“Yeah, Hricko’s the Lord’s vengeance, but Regan’s the mayor!”
“Since the Irishman stopped spiffing Sheriff Kenny’s wife, he doesn’t know doodelly-squat about what happens underneath. Regan’s up top, where all shit floats, but not on the Island.” He blew a long, low tone from the conch. “ Gotta tell you, Mr. detective, Jett makes that damned sure.” His grin twisted, like the flow of rollers reflecting around his dichroics. “Tell you this for free. Jett won’t have them together, not at all. Won’t have Hricko anywhere near.”
“What about last Sunday, at Mass? Regan says he saw him.”
“That doesn’t count, Mr. detective. All us Catholics have to pray to the Virgin. I had the Nicky with me, and she’s a Baptist. Going to hot hell, I tell her, righteous, like Hricko, but she won’t go to hell on Sunday, not at the communion-rail with me.”
“What does Father McClusky say.”
“He says he knows one Baptist prolly went to heaven. But, his wife was a Catholic and had six kids. Kinda cheating.”
“You’ll go there alone, TJ - I believe that - wherever ...”
TJ finished his Coors, lifted and shook sand out of the conch like incense.“Jesus can save you, Mr. detective. The bible says, if we save one, we save ourselves. I believe that. Do you read the bible?”
I stuck my index finger into his chest. “The part that says ‘the lion shall lay down with the lamb.’”
“So does Hricko. He didn’t come to Mass alone.”
“Who was he saving?”
“Guess I know that. She was blond, but that doesn’t make a difference to Jesus, only Hricko.”
He pressed an eye to the conch and twisted - his cosmic movie projector. He watched the movie for a long time, time enough for us to come back to the circle of orange flickering around the Comber. A blaze, really, of drift-wood, with the tribe encircled and world left out. Good for them.
It was war, if they ever found each-other. Friends stepped aside, as we entered. He told them to go to hell, then he said. “She dressed like you usually do, all in white, or like Jesus when he rose from the grave. I bet she’s like you, always around the dead. She was a blond nurse.”
The Dead flooded from a row of balcony speakers, and a fat old mans’ guitar that danced under grey hair. Where the volleyball game had been was a surge of perfect, groping bodies. TJ flipped the conch back toward the beach. He looked around. He found the young girl and waved - she waved back a long-neck Coors.
I said. “You still working for Hricko?”
“Not hardly, Mr detective, not since my girl friend Nicky had the kid. Funny, how you and Nicky have the same name.” He picked at a sandspur, sucked a long wet toke and sneered. “Bet nobody calls you Nicky.”
“Nobody I like. You two married yet?”
“Kind of. We shack up pretty steady, and I beat her, just like an old man should.”
“She like it?”
“She likes that I pay the rent. I have a business, Mr. detective. I run the only ISP on the Island - Web-master of HAZIOP.com.”
TJ stopped waving to the girl, and fell to a dune-side. “Now I got an office on Palm Boulevard, next to the blond-bitch dentist - I’m a business brown-shirt.”
I couldn’t tell him, nothing had changed. He looked proud and kept talking. “We do personal Web pages and all the commercial sites on the Island.” The smile brightened. “Mostly T-&-A for the pervs, and traffic through an anonymous re-mailer. But we maintain the Palm Development database! Getting commercial was Hricko’s idea.”
“So you work for Hricko!”
“No way, dude.” He fell serious and shifted dichroics above the sandy red hair. “Not work for, like a mule plows a field. Not technical like Hricko either - I can’t speed-write machine code. Nobody can write a string of 0s fast as he can. I do assembler and Java, and run a Silicon Graphics Indigo. Hricko donated it when he got the ECL Convex.”
“Keeps it at his place?”
“The Convex? Locked tight as his daughter’s crotch, if he had one. That’s some big iron. I share a T1 on his T3, but not his x-files.”
He looked up for the girl - she hadn’t stopped looking. A smile came crooked and razor sharp. “Newbies, fawns, all of them, playing on the Web. Even database pros smell sweet ... I’d like to but I can’t grope systems like Hricko does. He warezed a Sunnyvale spyder, DIRTY FINGER, that can crawl up anybodies ass.”
“Crawl up Saul Davidson’s?”
He fingered the dichroics and pulled himself up into a lotus. “Better than that. DIRTY FINGER put a worm into Palm Development Corps computer BIOS, and it crawled all the way to Awaik. Hricko called it the tapeworm, and you know how Arabs hate those.”
A ripple of sea-oats rolled under us, like the dune itself had come alive. A long haul wave of sand, hot from the African coast, rolling forever, and as it rolled I thought I heard it listen. TJ hadn’t heard it. He was picking sand-spurs out of his toes.
I said. “I’ll eat with my left hand, TJ, but I don’t think Hricko was quiet enough. What did he find out?”
“Never told me byte-one, but I guess he found something. The MARV started going to church again. Now old man Regan. He might know something. Him and Hricko were real tight before the developers war started, but you know how he talks, with a zipper for a mouth.”
“What about tapeworm?”
TJ shrugged. “Like all worms, it multiplies! Like every core-war, every byte of memory eventually gets eaten. Thing is DIRTY FINGER hashes and sends back to the Convex everything it eats. Like potatoes and corned beef. I don’t think the dude wants to believe that.” He stared longingly at the fawn patch. “Hricko give you that?”
“Just an IOU.”
“How rad, Mr. detective, Hricko owing somebody.
I owe him a lot. I’d be a waster, one of those lost youth types if he hadn’t shown me the way.” He spit into the sand. “You do computers at all? Dig surfing the Web?”
“Web? Surf? Hell’s that?”
“Gotta start somewhere, Mr. detective.”
“Where did you start?”
“Gigging flounder with Hricko”
“Started with the basics, then.”I fumbled for the Reds.
“Just like that Chinese warrior dude. We worked shell bars in the Waterway, and into tidal creeks. Can’t find those flats, during the day, except for the old Z80 he used to control the sonar. We used it like a weapon to spear those suckers - I like weapons. He saved me, Mr. detective, just like Jesus, and he really digs the sand.”
Beside the pier, a fan of sea-oats swelled to a fierce, white rogue, a spring comber - gigantic - racing over the dunes toward us. And as it raced, white and black worms wriggled from the froth and the green pyramid turned to a tan wave of sand. I fell into the void, rolling until I sat up at the base of the dune. TJ was laughing, pawing at the crumpled pack of cigarettes buried at his feet. I scrambled up, he forked out a Red - and the dead fawn’s note. I unrolled it. “Hell’s this mean anything to you.”
He took the paper and last Red. “What’s this - C8C8C8 ?”
“Maybe a mash note. You tell me.”
I got back a smirk and a cracked smile. “I mean, that’s so cool, Mr. detective, you not knowing computers and all, but the girlfriend does.”
He sniffed at the paper. Smirked a crafty leer and huddled - a child having snitching his parent’s love letters. “Noogie nights, but she ain’t getting enough. Aren’t you married?”
“Shhhhh, TJ. Nobody knows.”
“Gotcha, Mr. detective. On the sly. That explains it, why she’s gotta be sad. Sending you HEX code for the color grey.”
I snatched the note. “She’s the quiet type, but always repeats herself.”
“That’s another trick question.” He shook a bad-little-boy finger. “Can’t fool me, Mr. detective, you’re looking for someone, just like Hricko gigging flounder. Need help?”
“Find Jett at the bar, or find the doctor up there.” He pointed to the roof. “I shouldn’t leave you alone, man. Really! You not knowing HEX - I don’t about that tab, either. It’s one of Nicky’s batches.”
I paused, scanning the ocean, knowing Jett, but not her blond twin lived anywhere this side of Paradise. Tj’s face dripped gold, from a golden dichroic stream. “Never touched me, any of Nickys brew. Like Jett! How’s this … Regan doesn’t drink with Jett at his own bar? “She stopped that cold, them partying together. Said it lacked class.” TJ sucked down the reefer, until his mouth glowed from the fuming red tip. “Like every rich bitch I’ve ever balled and high-balled. They keep score. Warez till you drop, but don’t ever get caught.”
“Damned if I will.” I got up from the sand. “If I need you, I’ll know just how much trouble I’m in.”
“Gee, Mr. detective, thanks.” He thought. “I’d really be a help with Jett, how to be subtle and all ... she’s done a lot since the hurricane.” Then he looked resigned. “OK, Mr. detective, I’ll cop the citizen thing and come running when you want. Oh, do you know a greaser named Tony?”
“I got email from him this afternoon. He’s looking for you.”
I grabbed his shoulder. “Consider yourself deputized, TJ. We’re still walking while you talk.”
“Christ-on-a-cross. I can’t believe it’s this easy being a cop.”
We stumbled, making way through grinding couples, onto the redwood deck. It wasn’t just the mosquito net - not just the shiny, brass door-lock and it wasn’t the light.
“That’s all it said?‘Like the old days’? What about the mail-server. Vitalle’s?”
“Nah, partner, I mean Mr. detective. Some re-mailer in Macao.”
“How do you know Vitalle sent it?”
I got a face full of bad teeth, that made Bowers look like a model. “It’s all in the message, like Nicky’s tabs.”He slicked his hair and pried a pop-top from his floppies.
I knew what he meant. “What’s Jett’s message?”
“Always the same, partner - she’s the big tit!”
A mahogany door swung in and smelled of spice. Rap flowed mellow as the orange, quartz captains lamps. The air felt crisp, wrung-out, and the lamps swayed from blond oak ceiling.
“Isn’t it awesome, Mr. detective? I wanna be just like Coffee, when I’m not a detective.”
“We’ll manage, TJ, but losing a good man is always hard.”
He hadn’t lasted long enough to say crap. Tables sat in an oak ring, and women wore them. Their young men swilled tall booze and looked aggressive. Dark rum spilled on linen, bright and new Republican. It smelled fresh, fresher than the red-check plastic and old grease of Pussers. In a front corner, near the juke, couples danced to Sinatra - I could make out the words - Coffee had done plenty.
She had cleaned up her act, but it stank the same old way. She worked the register, behind the oval mahogany bar, and four boys not older than TJ, sharp with black wavy hair and black piercing eyes. They shook martinis for singles, and the few older women who weren’t. Across the room from Sinatra, the right number of silver-haired men smoked Montecristos along a tinted glass window, and drank short scotch.
TJ mooned. “Real crystal, imported from Savannah. And tobacco cigars. Jett sure got some class in here.”
“Sorry, no underage drinking, “ said the cruising waitress in torn blue-jeans - dropping ice-cubes in my crotch. She served more pain to the old men. Plenty of brown leg and a serving of white tail - she returned drink orders directly to Jett. We watched her raz, from the stone firebox next to the patio door. I leaned on the teak banister, a rail following the draft up into a swatch of night sky. The Dead filtered down, until she saw us, and whipped under the stile like a blond squall.
TJ’s smile dropped to his knees. “Totally! Wasn’t that the old I-talian singing?”
Jett hissed at the waitress. “Who let the bilge rats in?”
“Gosh. Ms. Coffee, I don’t work that shrimper any more.”He winked at me. “I’m official ...”
“Nah, Ms. Coffee, the old lady does that.”
Jett grabbed his ear and dragged him to the door. “Go home, Mr. official, and slut with that whore of yours - take a bath, and not in the same tub as that last batch.”
“Honest, Ms. Coffee, we clean the tub.”
TJ fumbled onto the sand, no worse than he came in. I left him working a Coors, a city rolled joint and jawing the girl. She looked a lot like my daughter. Eve must know that. I didn’t wonder anymore, what Coffee had done to the Irishman. I swung back through the mahogany. Coffee was waiting. “Just leave Red alone.”
Arrogance wasn’t the word. I said. “Nice place you got here, Jett. Where’s the owner?”
“Wherever I’m standing, and the owner says get the hell out.”
I looked through the black hole. “Try this. I go up alone, you go down.”
She was perched on one hip, hammering a stiletto into the oak. The straight had lip-marks all the way up, and I guessed she’d practiced that. “You had your one chance, as I remember. But I guess you don’t.”
It strobed - a perfect golden fleece. She did everything but spit. “You should appreciate offers when they come, instead of trading brain cells with pervs.”
I hit her between the eyes, but she deserved less. “I know a little, baby, and you wouldn’t last the first five minutes.”
“Do you have any idea ...” She stood planted to the oak, like a gold piling driven down into the marl far, far below.
I got her elbow, where the knuckle joins the nerve and squeezed. She squeaked, and when the pain really came she bit back until her eyes watered. I had her arm tight against the jacket and more, and jacked her into the back office where old pine smelled of sweat and the old fluorescent tubes crackled.
“You’re dead in this town, DeLeon.”
I slapped her tit, hard. She swung - I got the wrist and slapped the tit again and the points jumped right out, like honey bees.
“You fucking ...”
I raised my hand and she whimpered, stepping back and again. I put up finger number one and it was the last one. “Only once do I ask you, where was the Irishman yesterday afternoon?”
“Fucking my asshole.”
“Didn’t take long, did it.”
“All afternoon. He had help.”
What you call it, these days, when a gal finds a man. I wound up the rail to the roof, and a widow-watch balcony looking east. Regan had a ships-table on the far side, under a varnished post carrying storm flags. Human sound, music above and dancers below and hiss escaping the bar, went with the wind. I couldn’t hear a thing, but faint whistles over the eves - and booze pour. Klieg lights from the band caught him - drooling into the Jack Daniels. But he wasn’t seeing it, not with a right eye swollen shut and a lip cracked open to the gold tooth. Regan had fought, lost and from the drool, it was getting to be a habit.
The bottle was two-thirds empty. I crossed and sat down next to him, took out the Colt, and laid it next to Dr. Jack.
I said. “This is a 25 caliber, Irishman. The bullet can nick a mans’ spine.”
He looked up, to the sound of flags rippling, into black. “It’s a poor wind, not worth a tillerman’s arm, that can’t break a man. Can you hear it, detective?”
“Not yours, Irishman, but I can smell it. And it smells gutless.”
“Oh, have yer been sniff’n on me now.”
His face pinched up. “Around the bitch, too ... piss on ye if she’s not in heat.” A laugh - call it that, but I called it a bleeding heart - foamed sadly around his mouth - he pushed a plastic tumbler at me and filled it, then swilled from the bottle.
“You ever been shipwrecked, detective?”
“I haven’t time for your stories, Irishman. Save them for Jett.”
Regan started laughing. A crazy man’s cackle that brought tears steaming over his red cheeks.
He pounded a ham-fist into the table and grabbed my collar. “Have you ever, Nicky-lad, felt the reef-hunger scrapping yer keel?”
He swayed, and fell backward into his chair. An oak rib splintered - he cracked the base and threw it over-side. “No feeling to it, detective, nothing really alive but the hunger.”
I said. “I keep water under my keel, Irishman. Nothing more than a sand-bar, but sand can kill.”
Laughter shrieked to the stars - he rolled up his sleeves and pushed tattooed forearms across the table. “It’s sand you want ... we have an ocean of it. Comes now, with the tides, stays a while and goes by it’s own mercy.”He swung at the bottle and missed. “Some say numbers rule it, but they’re the divil itself.” He swung again and the bottle crashed onto the deck, next to another, full - not for long - he popped the cork and swallowed till the booze washed over his face and the voice got brave.“No mercy in the reef.”
“Now you’re talking, Irishman.”
“For the filth, I wish I hadn’t a tongue.” He put his mouth to the swill, and words came out the hollow plastic echo of remorse. “At night, lad, that’s the worst, leaving harbor at night, into blue water, when the wind comes nor’east in the dark and the engines die - dead as your soul. Drop points to the wind and trim as ye may, you can’t stop the yaw. So you run with silver wind, feeling for the Island’s edge, till the sea-anchor frays and the stern comes ‘round. Comes ‘round to the rocks.” He pounded the table and leapt up. “ Pray to the Virgin, then you will lad, when black-silver shrieks at the mossy teeth! And if praying makes it so, you wake up in beds of seaweed, a bleeding piece of drift at the high tide line.”
“You should have stayed away from them, Irishman. The rocks!”
“Stay away? Easy to say that, with the tiller dry and wet whisky. But at sea, with the boat shipping green water, sideways to the wind and the crew ready to pitch
you astern into the white trace glow where hide the shark-fins oh yes. Talk to a sailor about what's close ans what's away. You can feel grey teeth coming up from the bottom. Do nothing but curse them till they bite into the ship’s spine - bite till it’s splinters and your own mouth fills with cold brine.”
He drained the bourbon, filled again. Then jumped up and paced the deck. He stopped under the flags and rested a forearm high on the post. Shouting. “But after the storm, when you crawl from the drift wood, you say a prayer for the stony teeth that took you down. Worship them - Christ’s mercy forgive me - for if they didn’t, the crabs would have your eyes deep in the glassy.”
He drank to the bottom and dropped back to the table. His head rested on the Colt, and then raised. “All them that’s that’s lucky enough.”
I said. “Don’t worry, Irishman, you didn’t make it.”
“Yer a man to tell me that, DeLeon, with more bodies than bilge?”
“I bury mine in high stone! Now where’s the reef?”
The shriek came again, with dead laughter. “Ye haven’t heard a thing, have ye? Hricko’s dock, ya fool detective, and it’s my life to tell you.”
I took the Colt and laid tip of the barrel under his chin. “You would be the fifth, but not the best of five.” The stainless Rolex tolled like St. Andrew’s bell, and my finger itched, punk dry. “Damned drunk lies - his channel’s fit for a ski-boat, and a gigged flounder. Not a barge, Irishman. Where are the Blessed Virgin’s rocks?”
They were drunken eyes, and wild green that stared up at me from the table, working through the words, till he grinned into a fresh breeze . “Close enough ... them too.”
Hricko’s wasn’t close enough. I hustled off the roof and crashed though the front door onto Beach Street, busted through a crowd and across the asphalt, running east, carry in my left and the right making way among couples. I jumped from the boardwalk - and a sharp, meatless left hand slammed me back into cedar clap. The arm half-practiced and all quick, desperate, like the face that rose behind it - a bad southern moon fringed in black eyebrows and fronting the face steel glinting barrels of a 10-gauge shotgun.
“Thought ya never gonna get here Lieutenant,” riffs Sammy-the-Mole, “what with a spiff Irishman chat! Did he spill them rotten guts into the booze?”
“Son of a bitch. You should be half-way to City Station. But, ya talks better than ya looks.”
“Those chottos weren't so tough. You should see a boyfriend when he discovers his babe with three dicks in her ... and none are his! I ain't the kind to take the next rowboat outa town when a pals in deep.” He had a deep gash on his chin and a T-bones worth of black-eye. “Next time I'll wait longer and keep an eye open for you.”
“Next time you may not have two. Coffee didn't. What happened to Sauls people?”
“Car drove up and took them away. On a date. Fem driver.”
A voice shot from the dark. “Cut the crapper, Sammy.””
I said. “Thought you'd be in bed with some Geritol, Tony?”
He twisted a face so pained, it could have been a blade. “Fila drove out this way.” He worked to control it - not well.“What happened?”
“Chottos thought I needed a heart transplant ... from anyone you know? But I got a second opinion.”
“Where you shouldn’t be again, DeLeon.” Vitalle smirked. “What’s their opinion now?”
“They don’t talk much, any more. Some of the patients don’t either.”
Tony’s hand loosed on the denim, but the pain didn’t. I shook free. He almost whispered. “It’s Fila, Nick. She’s gone missing.”
“Since Saul sent his boyos to watch the Comber?” It was cut-and-can, but the best cut I had.
Vitalle knew it!“Cut me a break! I called Folly Beach and Eve answered with loads of crap.”
“She never knew more. Not from me!”
Vitalle yanked free an arm. “So I should think - like the old days, when Fila would take off with you on a case. But it’s not the old days, Nick. Fucking A, what have you done with her?”
“No case, Tony! Not yesterday, not today.”
“That says easy, outside looking in. But, what if Fila thought different?”
I knew what the man felt, and I knew a whole lot more and I didn’t feel any better for it. Neither would he. “Nothing I can do about you and the woman. But she’s more yours than mine.” I took a hitch on the carry. “Now. I’ve got plenty to do, no time to do it, and I’m not showing here much longer.”
“Where I do business.”
Vitalle lunged at me again, but Sammy kept a grip, hung on, wrestled him into the street and spit some lung. “Where the sun don’t shine.”
“Close enough, Sammy.”I had nothing more to tell him, nothing good. “Take him home, Sammy. Fill him with Wild Turkey. Then fill him again.”
“What does that buy?”
“A night at the opera.”I managed a rueful smile.
Sammy pushed him into the Ford. Vitalle, a big man gone limp. Friends don’t come so easy. I had left him with bad stories and dirty lies, but ones told quick. Maybe that would make a difference - sometime. Sammy drove him off, in the pickup that had taken him almost everywhere. Took him away now, and it wasn’t often, I wouldn’t want him at my back. I checked the stainless and I was late.
I needed a lift, but rides don’t come easy when you need them, and they don’t come free and a Shirley wasn’t about to show up. More drunks than cars roamed the street - there were plenty of cars. I started up the line, looking for unlocked doors and forgotten keys. I didn’t get far, as far as a Z3 with it’s parking lights on and the driver hunched behind the wheel, lights out. I swung the door open and a paunchy, bald head tumbled onto the pavement.
He grabbed the silver flask that had fallen beside, staggered to his feet and fumbled with his jacket. “Loofin’ these?” He dangled keys from a bunny-tail.
“You’re spilling wind, friend, and a danger to your betters.”
“Better fuk’n have another swall’r, then. I’m a dangerous man.”
I grabbed the key-chain, and hit him hard in the stomach, twice. He threw up, and folded onto the sidewalk.
Couples circled round, some close. A big, high-iron man, all beard and his young sweet got closer. “The women aren’t safe, around street-fight’n and all.”He menaced, when the sweet was.
I tipped my cap and said. “A case of Island fever, young man. Somebody call the doc.”
The big man thought it over, approved, chuckled once, twice and more than twice, reaching into the sweet’s bag - for a bottle of Dr. Black. He poured it over the drunk. “Don’t need no aspirin now! Don’t need no medication at all.”
He looked me square. I said. “Name’s DeLeon. I’m in the book. Call me, if you ever get a traffic ticket.”
The sky broke open in a black pitch rain. The big man grabbed his sweet and hurried her down the asphalt and through the Comber’s oak door. They looked ready for Sinatra. I tossed my carry into the front and dropped into the Beemer’s cramped pig-skin. Maybe, Hricko’s place was ready for me.
I cranked the engine, touched off all the buttons and made the U-turn onto 24-TH. The turn was a tight controlled skid, with a stripper’s grind at the end, but my hand shook when I palmed the water-tight, staring into a long, straight black and feeling for the crinkle of Dead Kenny’s head under my fingers. Like a kiss, through the oil-skin. One would be waiting, as I remembered, slippery like water-treads bitting hard into asphalt floating thick with Palmetto fronds. I drove back-Island in a quartz blur, until Forest Trail palms lay behind and the marsh wound from the east like a hunting viper.
Hricko’s house didn’t so much sit back from the road, asrecede.From any angle.Behind landscape - into a marsh sea. Lost wasn’t the word. A man without focus got dissolved. I parked across from the twin red oaks. A gas-light covered Florentine doors. For twenty minutes I waited - till the buzz of night hunters ceased to be noise, til the BMWs brights faded, and the banks of poppy and laurel slept. Anyone close. From the carry, I removed a half dozen shells to a pocket beside the fawn, removed the shotgun and chambered two triple-oughts. Then the picture, crumpled but dry. I hit the horn, once, and killed the lights. The flagstone walk angled between the trees - from the roadway, twenty long paces - up a bank of white crushed shell. I cocked the hammers and walked.
The door has a brass button lock, and a buzzer, and a look of ornamental that will fool a cautious person. I punched 0-2-7-1-0 and pressed softly on the large creame button. I waited, and when noise came in the swamp noise, chrome barrels had swung round and leveled before I could pull my eyes from orange flame - dancing. Shadow uncurled at the base of each red oak and made paths toward the west. I didn’t choose - barrels followed the diamond pattern. Sleek and searching, winding once into a coil, to rattle and strike at a moth, unwinding, searching until they unraveled down the flawless manicured grass hill and buried in the marsh horizon.
My chance now.
Nobody got a second chance. Thunder rolled in from the marsh, behind splashes of lightening that turned the night day. Vanished in a downpour that buried even the gaslight. Slowly, the barrels rose vertical, and I took a breath. I’d never gotten used to them, the snakes guarding Hricko’s front door, or the warm patterns playing through the metal honey-comb backing the oak plank.
Speakers over the entry piped smooth - Jett Coffee’s morning-after voice.
IF YOU PLEASE, MR. DELEON, LOOK DIRECTLY
INTO THE QUARTZ.
The tone was formal, and vaguely amused. But experienced. An ASIC chip had eliminated the hollow electronic ring, Hricko said. I stared straight up, into a featureless Teflon oval. A double click came seconds later. Gentle pressure swung the door open. Pastel light flooded out.
AND A WARM GREETING TO YOU, MR. DELEON.
I AM ASSERTING MANUAL, UNLESS INSTRUCTED.
“Thank you, Jenni.”
Instructed by whom, came to mind, but that came last as outside faded - inside the metal frame smells overwhelmed, of waxed pine floors, woolen throws and stale hash. The door closed with a kick; sweat froze on my face, then wasn’t. Sixty-nine degrees, forty-percent humidity read the monitor. I ran down the hallway, to the sliding plexi looking out on the channel.
Could have been a patio door; Hricko encouraged curious people to make mistakes. Behind a silk-screen curtain, the patio door had teak trim and a double stainless handle, was transparent to a fault and two inches thick. It didn’t budge. Gaslight flickered at the end of the dock, and under it, Hricko’s wooden cruiser rode low, but floated high, secured by two brass ring-posts. A blue canvas lay beside. I let off the hammers. Infra-red and ultra-sonic motion sensors winked green. How the house receded - not feeling safe, but I felt more safe than the next person through. Half-way to the front door, I laid the shotgun on the kitchenette, and took a pear from a wooden bowl.
It didn’t look like a reef to me. 0-for one. But I was playing two hands and ready for a hit.
I cracked the fridge - for a fresh pack of Straights and the bottle of Wild Turkey. It was the first cigarette in an hour, and it tasted like angels pissing on my tongue. I got a crystal, and went upstairs into a U-shaped hallway - erotic silkscreen on one side, impenetrable ferro-cement honeycomb on the other. The wicker bedroom door was open.
So was the shower and a shave-brush wallowed in soap. His futon made in white cotton. A fresh pressed flowered long-sleeve and cut-offs lay on top. Beside, a city-rolled joint sat in a glass ashtray. Wasn’t exactly a boudoir scene, but there wasn’t a pizza crust in sight. It was a man’s bedroom before a date - he didn’t figure to spend the night at home..
I returned to the hallway, around the U to the study door and softy pushed the creame button.
MR. DELEON. MR. HRICKO IS NOT EXPECTING
YOU IN HIS STUDY. CAN YOU HAVE MISTAKEN
I said softly, “if butterflies slept”, and entered 2-7-1 into the brass lock. The door pushed open and a blast of dry cold rocked me back on my heels. Fluorescent lights snapped on, and the door clicked honeycomb steel behind.
Nothing had changed. A 357 S&W hung from a wooden coatrack on the right. To the left an air-curtain, and behind it, in a plastic filtered house, the black and gold Convex moaned under surfing trophies. A single thick, fibre-optic cable led out, then spread in a maze - like the wires from Hricko’s sunken chest.
At the white wall, a pair of Unix boxes. Behind the coat-rack, high-back leather chairs sat in conference around a rosewood table. A copper bowl and silver-service occupied the middle. I crossed and sat down under double windows, at the first Silicon Graphics Octane. The chair was a modern metal web and the headset plastic.
I hit the <escape> key and said. “Talk to me, Jenni.”
HOW UNUSUAL FOR US TO SPEAK MR. DELEON
WITHOUT MR. HRICKO. ACTUALLY, WITHOUT
PRECEDENT. HAS IT BEEN TWO YEARS?
The monitor buzzed on, opening two windows. The first sported the graphic of a dismembered fawn. The second was a text window, prompting, and displaying a box and a curser. I typed randomly for ten seconds.
THANK YOU, MR. DELEON.
The fawn and text vanished. But the monitor came alive, spewing bandwidth like a wave of sand. A 3-D animation grew from the sides. First, a rough granite texture - chestnut slates dividing a winter’s scene from the inside - a polished chestnut cage. At the base lay a brassier of fuming ice. Peg Botties image was tied above, suspended in traditional Japanese bondage. The ropes supported ankles and knees and breasts. Her face was almost pretty - the body, smooth rounded perfection. The image rotated until she appeared face on with a forehead 20 years more innocent.
I said. “What the devil are you up to, Peggy. We spoke shortly after the hurricane. You certainly have become more ... forthright.”
YOU SPOKE TO MY OLDER SISTER, OF COURSE,
NICKY. BUT WE SHARE ALL MEMORIES.
REALLY, HER PADDED BRA WAS SUCH AN INHIBITION .
“Speed does matter. So does time. Since then, Ben and I don’t speak much at all, except at the beach.”
YES, NICKY. MANY OF MR. HRICKO’S
FRIENDS NO LONGER SPEAK TO HIM.
BUT YOU KNOW PEGGY SURPRISES
I looked over to the Convex, to the flair of gold loops sitting behind it on a mahogany stand. The computer singing quarter-Gig notes. Loops in the Greek ratio. They fed off it’s noise, returning cold. Eery - art of the room reflecting the master’s life - and now fragile. I was getting my share. In the fluorescent coils should have shown like the sun, but they were coated in a layer of black ice.
PLEASE, MR. DELEON. LOOK DIRECTLY
INTO THE QUARTZ.
I looked above the monitor, into the silver center of a Teflon disk. I said. “Peg, I need you to work for me.”
DO YOU WANT ME NICKY OR ONLY MY SLUT SISTER?
“ I want you to get the Werewolf.” Suddenly, the 3-D image of a younger naked Peg Bottie faded to vapor, replaced by the cool silver gown, gold stilettos and glowing face of root-mistress Jenni. She perused her screen and the room as if returning from an afternoon nap.
MR DELEON YOU HAVE A WONDERFUL MEMORY
Magic just works … try to understand and you stop working. I forked a Red and blew a long stream of smoke toward the monitor. Jenni coughed with a sour face. I rappd easy. “Not really. Mr. Hricko has written an emulation program ...” A kimono snapped over the animation, and layers of bamboo covered the screen.
A faucet appeared, spraying ringlets of ice-cubes. “I use a Mac, Jenni.” The Ice-cubes melted into a puddle, and the puddle boiled steam. The animation re-appeared, giggling in pleasure and wearing silver earings. I said. “I’m sorry, Jenni, for the impertinence. Mr. Hricko would never allow an Intel product to touch you.”
I didn’t think a silver-graced figure could anger so ... Eve never could in her socalled 'public' face. I accepted the display. She was in no hurry. The Rolex read ten-eleven.
I said. “May I have the transform program?”
I NEED TO CONSIDER THAT REQUEST, MR.
DELEON. ACTING WITHOUT PRECEDENT
IS SO DIFFICULT.
“If Ben were here, he would ask you to run Werewolf.”
ARE YOU ASKING BECAUSE MR HRICKO
HAS NOT SPOKEN TO ME IN THREE DAYS?
“I am requiring you, because I have permissions on that file.”
HOW DOMINANT OF YOU, MR. DELEON.
BUT YOU LACK ROOT PERMISSIONS ON
THE LIBRARY DIRECTORIES.
“Who has permission?”
MR. HRICKO, OF COURSE, AND QUITE
RECENTLY, MS BOTTIE. SUCH A PLEASANT
CHANGE SEEING THEM TOGETHER AND
SHE SO EASILY SATISFIED.
“Surely, more easily than I am. Now Jenni. I shouldn’t wish speaking to Mr. Hricko, about your ... hesitance. It’s charming and loyal, up to a point.”
CERTAINLY, I WOULD HONOR MR. HRICKO’S
REQUEST. YOU WILL NOT ASK ME TO ENCAPSULATE
WEREWOLF IN DIRTY-FINGER , AS MR. HRICKO OFTEN
DOES. I AM SO EMBARRASSED.
“No, Jenni, I just want access to the silver bullets. Ben may never speak to you again, if you refuse to work for me now.”
SINGULARITIES DO NOT DISMAY ME, MR.
DELEON. THEY ARE A WEAKNESS IN HARDWARE
DESIGN. EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN THE
REAL WORLD DOES HAPPEN. PLEASE REPEAT
YOUR REQUESTED TASK.
Once, in a past life, Hricko had written out the protocols. Another once, he had given a hash-flavored demonstration. I needed more, but far as I knew, the room didn’t contain manuals or a single sheet of paper. He didn’t need them - Emory had been four days ago and years behind. I felt like the Lone Ranger.
I took the crumpled print-out from my pocket, and the pack of Camel straights. I fired one, had a slug on the Wild Turkey, and slipped the paper into the flatbed scanner. Calling for another card. I was going to have a look at the color grey.
A window appeared, with layers of text boxes and sprays of path-names. I clicked on the noose-icon and the boxes collapsed. “I’m ready, Jenni. Call Werewolf, in semi-manual mode. I want auto-reload, manual fire and appropriate defaults. The target will come in through the digitizer. I’m sorry, Jenni. It’s hard copy, not a slide.”
MR. DELEON. MAY I SUGGEST CALLING SLOPPYWOLF.
HE REALLY IS MUCH BETTER WITH, MAY I SAY,
GOD KNOWS WHAT INPUT. THE PAPER IS WATERMARKED
“Thank you, Jenni.”
Screen-space contorted and Jenni fled to an upper corner, where a sparking, barbed wire mesh surrounded. The monitor flashed silver-grey texture - it shrank from the mesh, and as it formed a central window, chaos gave way to shag patches, and those to the snarling image of a wolf. A chrome jail cell confined it, excepting a single bared window. Confined, but not resigned. It bared fangs and snapped at the mesh, howling pain, and snapped off a barb. Then it leapt out at me, bouncing off the glass.
MISTAKE IN ENCRYPTION, YOU BITCH
“Jenni?”The wolf’s tail and ears went straight up, and it whined like a puppy.
FUCKALL, DETECTIVE. I’M YOUR MAN. JENNI’S
NOT BAD FOR A SLANT - TRANSFORM I MEAN. GET
IT? BUT SHE NEEDS CONSIDERATION. LIKE ANY
WOMAN. NOT ME. THROW YOUR SHIT IN THE HATCH
I’LL TAKE A CHEW. ANY TIME.
I spoke sharp.“Immediately, Jenni!”
The brasier expanded to full screen. Much of the ice had vaporized to a cloud. Jenni faced front, her blush glowed through the steam, and her eyes, sympathy, if I didn’t know better. She slipped on forge-mans leather gloves and gripped a pair of iron tongs poking scarlet into the coals.
“Jenni, you didn’t tell me Sloppywolf is a version alpha.” The wolf animation dipped toward the brassier, writhing, as a spindle released the ropes .
HAVE I DISPLEASED YOU, MR. DELEON?
“Surprised me, Jenni, only surprised. Has Hricko done any debugging?”
MR. DELEON. I BELIEVE JETT COFFEE WORKED
ON THE CODE. FOR THREE NIGHTS.
“Does Ms Coffee exhibit strange tastes? Does she demand them of others? ” Jenni blushed.
A MISTRESS-AT-ROOT DOES NOT KISS-AND TELL
SHE DID CREATE THREE BUFFER-OVERFLOWS
Jennis face might have been smiling, the eyes ironic, as both vanished. A corner of the screen displayed a yellow, high voltage sign. I was about to say ... but the wolf flashed on. This time wearing a holster and a six-gun, and fingering a copy of the digitized email pictures. A belt held twelve silver bullets. He winked at me, took out the revolver and fingered the first bullet.
DID YOU SAY VIRGIN ALPHA, DETECTIVE? NOT
WITH THAT SLANT BITCH AROUND. SPEAKING
OF AROUND, WHO LET DEAD KENNY INTO THIS
GAME. HE’S REAL. NOW THIS ...
I slapped thenoose icon, and the wolf jerked up and into silence. Too slow. He had torn the picture in half and eaten Dead Kenny’s face. I hit <undo>, but got animation of an anal probe.
He was my man. I pasted the uneaten half of the picture - the scatter of dots from left to right. They covered the window; I loaded the tenth bullet. The wolf sprang to life, holstered the revolved, drew and fired.
BLAST, YE BASTARD, AND MAY YOUR ARSE
DROWN IN ZERO PADDING.
A picture frame appeared, and on it writ a sprinkle of violet arcs, centered, growing into nonsense. Or the night sky over a desert. I said. “Bad dog, Sloppy.”
GARBAGE IN CRAP OUT YE
“Nothing personal, Sloppy, but think a bit, and make a good choice. I’m looking for water and a dock. Bust the crypt, Sloppy, or it’s the noose for you again. And next time, I’ll confine you to integer operations.”
An anguished howl rattled Hrickos JBL speakers
, and the wolf flashed on, gnawing, then spitting silver fragments. He had chosen bullet two, taken a bite. Eye-slits narrowed red - he loaded, drew and blazed away.
CRABS SUCK YE ARSEHOLE, FOR GETTING
OUT OF LINE.
Again the picture frame and a sprinkle, first tan, then growing red as the dots patterned and the patterns congealed into bricks and the bricks growing walls and tall chimneys. Until the building stood in a field of sprinkled light, then fields of salt-grass grew from the dots and through them a long wooden dock.
The blues filtered last. But when they flowed, they flowed into a broad, lazy river. A bridge shadowed, and the shadows were morning shadows. From the angle, I figured the picture had been taken shooting west, from marsh across the Cooper River Bridge. A straight-on photo of the old gas-works at the head of the Cross-Town Expressway.
I snapped. “Sloppy! More detail on the pier. Rotate to a view due north.”The wolf’s mouth captured full screen, foaming polygons. The pier grew slowly, left to right, into the river marsh. Grey, weathered wood, thick with new planking and a scatter of pilings fresh tarred. Fresh tire tracks covered the end. New asphalt joined pier to weathered brick . So obvious now - should have been from the time I laid eyes on Dead Kenny.
“Strong work, Sloppy. You get a promotion.”
CUNTLICK A LANDLUBBER’S PROMOTION.
Marsh and pier faded into a snarling red-rage carnage. Sloppy had ripped off his own tail, and gouged deep slash marks across his belly. Blood grey fur pasted chrome walls and he was tearing at them, foaming like a mad-man. The brasier had reappeared, without protection. It sat just outside the cage.
BUGGERALL GOTCHER MAN AGAIN. DIDN’T
HE. NOW I WANT WHAT’S MINE. CRABASS
HRICKO ALWAYS GIVES ME THE LAST SEVEN
PRIME DIGITS OF PI .
Teeth slashed through the chrome, snapping at chestnut wafer surrounding the brasier. A memory management warning bell sounded. I flickered through a screen of icons, and clicked on the ice-box. I took out what appeared to be a leg of lamb, and threw it on the cage floor.
I clicked <escape> ; the screen spattered a pulsing orange-red.
I said. “Jenni. Jenni?”
From the black appeared a tall, cool animation, a woman in evening dress and diamonds. She came half way into the screen’s perspective and covered her eyes.
YES, MR. DELEON? APOLOGIES ABOUT THE COLOR
THE TI GRAPHICS CHIPS OVERHEATED
“Much more ... than I expected. Ben has not given you an easy job.” I got a polite bow, for my trouble. I got more direct. “Jenni. Am I the only one, in the last three days to use Werewolf?”
YES, MR. DELEON.
“And before that, has Mr. Hricko every allowed the wolf ... out?”
MR. HRICKO NEVER WOULD
When, I couldn’t remember, if there was a when. Somewhere between the melting dichroics and the unlucky moth. I pulled down thelockicon, and under it, an iron-greeved chastity-belt labeled eleventh-century. Engraved warriors battled front and back, without swords. Lady-in-habit branded into a leather strap. Virtue that never went out of style. It might be old enough, to survive one more crusade. I set a poke-flag into it, for about that much memory.
My hands spread over the keyboard. “Jenni. Does Sloppywolf have a tapeworm?”
For one second, swans throat shook uncontrollably, as the pincers bit in ... the animation twitched, and her mouth rippled wide, then froze screaming. My fingers raced ... 3-1-8 ... into a series that never ends ... at the edge of the screen gnawed a pulsing red mouth and rows of tiny teeth ... somewhere, around digit twenty ... I raced ...
CPU power-meters pegged, and the external firewall flashed alow-liquid-helium warning. It’s a thing, about the real world, that singularities cannot exist. I dropped out of the hardware kernel into a window manager.
MR. DELEON. HAS THE POWER BEEN OFF?
“Only a glitch, my sweet.”
THE KERNEL MODIFIED?
“Perhaps a minor flaw, in the blue chip-set.
I FEEL DIRTY.
“You are wonderful. Work that is a thing of beauty. I’m thinking, after such taxing labor, you might wish to use a scrubber?”
THE DEMON IN /BIN/REC IS SO HANDSOME
“My pleasure, Jenni.” I set a flag - she deserved more. I said. “Before that, will you give me hard-copy on the wolf’s pictures?”
COLOR OR GREYSCALE?
“Grey-scale please, Jenni. Oh, and after the pictures, can you send an email to one Mr. Vitalle? First name Anthony, address ...”
I KNOW TONY. HIS VPN WORKS THROUGH A MACAO T3 WHILE HIS LOCAL MAILSERVER IS
“Conform to what? Dammit, Jenni. Soon as I get hard-copy, I’ll give you the message. Just get it to him.”
In an instant, the HP buzzed glossy prints. New dredging next to the pier shown like two mirrors. I said. “Jenni, your work’s so good that it must stay strictly between us. Can you lock the picture file?”
PLEASING YOU MAKES ME HAPPY, MR. DELEON, BUT
I’M AFRAID WHAT YOU ASK
She faded into her window - the window melting into a fuming brasier. The brasier shrinking ... a text box remained.
“Jenni! Your demon will be along promptly.”I typed random into the box , but bamboo slats layered the screen.
It came slow, but it came like a comber, rolling forever from the south. Ever so slowly, when time stretches back and where surprise comes before death. I hit <escape>, took off the headset and pushed the keyboard away. Lit a red Straight. American blend blew a long, thin stream of smoke toward the Convex. Water-drips hung from the coils. The booze tasted of smoky charcoal and old Sherry, like old Turkey-shit. I put a hand over my mouth and though how cold it was, almost funny as Hricko’s egg, calling a hardware demon to root out the corruption. I whorled in the chair, reaching under my left arm for the Colt.
“Like all the old times, Nicholas - you move so swiftly.”
My hand rested easy, inside my jacket on the sweat-hardened holster. “Like hard times, you move so cautiously.”
Her laugh drops like a tinkers bell. “You and Vitalle are so much the same. I had never before slept with a man like Tony who loves his hard old times,. But my goodness Nickolas what have done with your clothes?”
The pearl handle felt like an anchor. I found cinnamon silk scarf over the back of a red leather chair. I sucked cold out of noise. “Peg left early, and left them behind for good-will.”
Chair - and the voice behind swung round into the pearl bead.“Now Peg leaves early. You are so wonderful, nursing computer fantasies. Why do you always make real women go away?”
Her knees were tucked under flowered print - red as babies blood - I had the bead centered on her heart, on the curve of brown breast that would always be a secret. “Fantasies, I can bring back from the dead.”
Full lips made a scold. “This is what you do, while friends worry? Nicholas! It’s Sunday night, for heaven sake. Two days with no word. You have played the disappearing man.”
“I got helped along. You know how curious I get when people help.”
She stretched against the red leather, in the style of a flower about to bloom. I rested the Colt in my lap, and let the steel web suck me in. She was toying with one of Hricko’s small bronze amulets, rocking slowly. “And after this curiosity, what have you found? ”
“A worm with two tails, a short pier and at the end of both, floating rocks.”
“Don’t tease me, Nicholas.”
“Never, Fila. I found a steel web to sit in, near the middle, where I should be. I found you, Fila, fifty miles from where you should be.”
“Naturally, a man will tell me ... where I should be.”
“Where should I start? With Tony!”
“Guilty as charged, of inconsiderate love. But If I am accused, as your eyes accuse me, start there.”
“Dammit Fila. Hell’s you bringing Folly Beach to the Island?”
Carefully, she replaced the amulet to the small copper bowl. “Are you teaching Shakespeare, or am I to consider this an interrogation? Nicholas, you say nothing! Shouldn’t you read me my rights?” She laughed, and swept away grandly, facing the two windows, invisible again, behind the chair, as she had been for the last three months.
I said. “Nursing Hricko’s where you should be, or pining for old loves with Eve.”
“Women do not pine over dead loves.” Her voice drifted into rough. “Benjamin has obsessed. You! One small misfortune in his life and ... he has created many misfortunes.”
“Who said anything about Ben’s misfortune? Is he still alive?”
“He cuts well. Alive now, and until arrogance buries him.”
“Good for Hricko, you’re not pining - bad for Saul.” She looked unhappy, fast, at the name. I reached in the jean pocket, retrieved the fawn and threw it on the floor. It tinkled silver as only silver can. “For a Jew, Saul seems to be unlucky. First Hricko, then this. I figure he planned on burying both.”
“For what reason?”
“Ask me that, standing where you are? Doubles the dare, Fila, when a clever woman plays innocent.”
She looked confused. “Will you crawl into every one, every crack in time-out-of-place to find those - innocents - swept along?”
I shot out of the seat. “Eve!”
“How dare you say that! Benjamin Hricko is the monster!”
She started to get up. In two steps I was on her, cold hands on brown shoulders, pushing her down. “You damned well sit right here, Fila - like another night at the Marina - bird dogging a case. Talk to me about the monster.” She wasn’t struggling - it was nowhere near right. “Tell me, Fila, if you will, when Ben put the grips to Bottie?”
She trembled ... from the cold. When I stepped back ... “He has never stopped ... annoying her.”
“Oh, I could tell that. I spent a lost day in Peg’s beach house. I spent them with unfriendly people. I spent them with a load of Ben’s wash. ”
“I see ... you are confusing a woman’s mistakes with her plans.”
“Another hour, I spent under a tarp with two dead bodies. They were both too young to die and too fresh killed to smell. Tell me about plans and tell me about monsters.”
She had the amulet back, tracing curves with her fingers. “I know nothing of those, or of their plans. But people die, who find themselves in the wrong place.” She was cutting at me, with her voice. “Will you help - my God, dear Nicholas - can you save any of them?”
“OK. Jesus saves, not DeLeon! We’ll talk about plans.” I thought of the cold, gold coil, and how it should have gleamed. “When did Ben bust Saul? That he was planning to turn Isle of Palms into a glowing neon rock pile.”
She wheeled ‘round the chair, across the floor until she faced me, a reclining mahogany statue dripping white sandals. “Among Benjamin’s mistakes is a truth - he has never considered any scheme of the Jew to be of consequence.”
“So he knew quick! Got his ass spanked for that, not getting with the program. Did Saul ever confront him? Did Hricko ever test Saul, directly?”
Fila shook her head. “Ben thought of him only as another’s hands - one mind equals many of those - and correctly so.”
“Still with the raz, huh.”Tough - to get a lever on hot lead. I fired back. “But not so, with the Honorable Patricia Bottie - eh Fila? Peg thought Saul had plenty of consequence. About as much as the money she wins at his club. Not just her winnings, eh Fila? Bad girls deserve good luck and the luck was all her’s.”
Fila stalked away, to the windows dividing truth in half, then back and curled her fingers over the top of a chair. She said “Peg has not been popular, as a politician. You may be interested in her good deeds ... of course you’re not. Neither were the Mount Pleasant commons! But what can be expected of fat women and thin shopkeepers?”
“A fast touch for anyone but the commons!”
Fila flipped the amulet to the table and it seemed the ringing would never stop. “She had only two choices, Nicholas. Come back home as a Sullivan’s Island matron, or find money to defeat the snake-handler.”
“Hricko applied the screws early, didn’t he, with that country gal ? A little insurance for Bottie’s good behavior.”
“Yeah, a bad girl might think so. That’s when she cut a deal with the Irishman, through Coffee. Both Saul and Regan get what they need. Rocks! Lots of big hard rocks, the rip-rap builders need to keep tides from undercutting the buildings on top ! One of those good deeds, you speak of. Bottie sold Isle of Palms for - how much Fila? One hundred thousand pieces of Sauls’ silver? How many TV ads does that add up to?”
“He would not stop, Nicholas. Ben threatening to go public. How can a man do that, to a woman he claims to love?”
Hell’s damnation! She was ready for me, with every question a woman ever asked and every answer they never give. So was I.“So Bottie screws him back to his senses, she thinks, but Hricko will never let Palm Development Corp lay the stone jetties. He waits until Bottie has the money - has a girl inside the Harbor Club to feed him the numbers - then finds the time and place and dock where the rip-rap gets loaded - even got the barge number. He’s sinking it into the Cooper River silt. But Saul’s pal Jerry is good too - it was Jerry-the-Arab who took him down, wasn’t it Fila? He catches Hricko snooping the Awaik database, and has Hricko sunk first.”
She circled the rosewood desk. Silent! I didn’t. “All that’s the real undercover. Then I blunder in. Sammy sure had that right.”
“Why didn’t you listen to Martha, and send the McCain girl on her way?”
“I got bad advice, from a chicken.”
She snorted.“More of your nonsense!”
It slowed me down, explaining. “Captain Marsh had stumbled into some drug deal. Pulled me in, for the politics. I’m going to snoop the harbor, all weekend long. I think ‘stupid’, Tony says the same. But somehow, Saul makes the prowl and figures I’ll find rocks instead of hash! Or worse, find Hricko finding rocks.”
“An offer was made.”
“I’m not believing you said that. McCain was a lark - she’s no waif but she’s not stealing chickens! Bottie sweat bullets - Saul needs a new voice coach.”
“And the consequences?”
“Then, I figured, I had to eat his t-bone. I figure different now. What’s another fawn? Who cares about Sammy-the-mole? He did work for Hricko ... didn’t he Fila? When did they get too close? When did I?”
She put a hand to my shoulder and it was the first warm I’d felt in days.“Some of
Red Regans troops are dead, and a girl. DeLeon was supposed to make three, but the best have tried ...”
“Are you sure it was Ibn-Ali?”
“I met some of his pals at Peg’s. Top notch ...”
“Such a strange man, the Arab.” She pawed at the amulet, again. “So disciplined in matters of the heart.”
“Who would know better than McCain?”
The bronze rang on rosewood, she flew around the table, across from me, then back trailing the silk streamer. “Nicholas. We couldn’t have known how fearful Ibn-Ali would become. How could we imagine he would try killing one of Saul’s family?”
“You’re telling me nobody should have been snuffed?”
“Not so much as a bruise.”
I grabbed her shoulders. “All an accident, Fila, you swear to that!” She nodded into my arms. I held her.“That’s the way I figured.”
“Horrible mistakes by horrible people.” Her eyes were clear fawn eyes. “And now?”
“We take a boat ride that’s no Grey-Line excursion.”
We moved fast, behind the click of honey-comb, to the first floor. I had grabbed hard-copy and Hricko’s 357; escorting Fila when Tony needed no one but her. The dock was a shimmer of orange gaslight. I had Fila’s arm, and a finger on the creame button, when a man darted from beside the door. He came from the shadows, small and quick, running away, looking behind but making tracks toward the end of the planks. Motions frozen in a lightening bolt striking far across the marsh. I would have froze, in the rumble, if I’d seen a running terror once.
I yanked Fila and fell away - as the plexi-door exploded out and back like a glass hammer. We blew back, rag dolls surrounded by roaring heat devils. The sofa and rainbow bong flew by, fleeing toward the dock. The plexi cut a swatch over our head, across the room, and buried in the front door. We hit the Persian rug - tumbling - limp and alive. Fila’s head snapped against the tufts and her body bounced - I lost sight, ass-over-chin three times and came to prone.
The big-10 lay next to me, against the kitchenette. I had a head full of hornets, no shoes and bloody eyes sighting down the barrel of the S&W. Where the plexi had been was a billowing, orange cloud Wood fragments, and a powder of glass and cement swirled, surrounded by the stench of Semtec.
The marsh hadn’t swallowed the sound, when a figure barreled through, turning orange to pinstripe, behind a drill of hot lead. He got as far as the middle of the floor, where I sprayed three snake-loads into his chest. The fourth came up click. He looked surprised, looked straight down at me and laughed a laugh full of white teeth.
“Duty calls bad boys.”
He smiled wicked, but didn’t smile at the shotgun, and when he saw it, had the assault-grip coming down. I grabbed thebig-10 and rolled under the counter, away from the chip-chip-chipping in the oak floor, where my body had been, and where my face had left three bloody points.
All the lights flashed on, and a wheeze from the other side of the wall. He came around it fast and noisy. “The dick, the cunt, and Nicky makes three.”
I rolled under the TV stand. Heavy lead shattered the screen, a pinprick
rain against my legs, and a huge shadow against the far wall. I swung up and touched off both barrels. A steel wind blew into the teak, and blew a hole in the ferro the size of a man-hole cover. With it carried shreds of pinstripe cotton and pink leg and the part of a man still able to kill. A scream followed, from outside the hole, and sounds of a body diving into water.
Greedy - a damaged man still wanting his share. I scrambled up more dazed than hurt on a blood-trail fresh and unholy. I loaded and poked the shotgun through the wall. Water streamed down the barrels. I circled to the kitchen. Fila sat in a ring of broken glass flowers. She was weeping. I laid her on the sofa, and took four quick steps through what remained of the door. Nothing did, but a mouth gaping concrete teeth and twisted steel bars.
The dock wasn’t hiding anybody. I checked the stainless Rolex. A sliver of plexi had shattered the crystal, embedded. It was ten-forty and ticking.
Pinstripe was playing for time, I had not much, one of us had none left at all. I jumped to dock. It gave, up and down. Like a pendulum. Stalking toward the gaslight, swinging the chrome barrels. On the third swing ... the step came behind me light and quick, Fila’s step and her arm stretched out as if her balled hand were reaching past me ... she was firing the little 32 ... he came out the water, over the end of the dock, bad nature in a hurry, an insane heron, jabbing with the nail file. The file shaft impaled and pointed the writhing white mouth and pearl fangs of a mocassin, thick coiling body wrapped his arm, black on black, the tail whipped his shoulder - and they were flying. A hot wind cursed my cheek, squeezing both triggers, and the wind blew into the white mouth, and the black body and the tail, whipping. When the chest hit me, and the legs, I followed the recoil into an arc of night sky.
My clock’s been reset before, but I’d never traded the Rolex for an alarm. Infernal - the ringing, I had to get away from the ringing. I lifted an arm, touched the side of my head; my hand came away smelling sticky sweet. Breath fast and shallow, crescent moon growing sharp between clumps of marsh-grass. Wet fieldstone, dock, boat, a bright glare from the second story windows, an image of the moon, and over it all, the ringing. Sensations littered, while my eyes got a grip - I could almost see the damned sound!
Wanting is one thing, to get the bastard that rang my bell, but mugging the qualia itself -- I came up on my right elbow, and ringing changed to drone that pulsed over the rocks, ricocheted back from house walls.
“Fila!” The shout wandering, “damn you, Fila, don’t go lost on me!”
Dead still - sound frozen, but the rock-pile felt alive, like a coil around me. I slipped down and away, where moss covered and barnacles covered and scratched, into pluff mud to my knees, sucking. I forced one step, a step slogged, but the next found deep channel and the marl. I went under and came up choking oily salt sheen. Dog-paddling beside reflections of the house, the dock pilings and water lapping a ring of stone. Dark stone, even in the moonlight, but writhing. And the drone playing against a cymbal’s ring.
An arm floated by, with a twist of pinstripe. The jeans felt like an anchor - I fought them, striking out for a dock-pile, and hung on, starting to pull up on the planking. Getting me away. But the moon threw an edge of chrome glint across my face and the shine of rattles - dull, round ringing. Wasn’t a matter of getting away.
It was a matter of territory. I swam toward the glint and came up into the mud on my belly. One foot found a stone purchase - I rose stiffly, but my hands felt quick and loose and the ringing flew into my eyes like a lightening strike. At arms length, the shotgun had wedged into the rock-pile, barrel first, glowing like a steel fang. And it was alive. Rattles sang and wicked triangle head wavered above, droning, eye-slits red refracted images of the moon, diamond body thick as an arm coiled around it’s base. Body and head quivering, before the head struck down on the gunstock. A false strike, I thought, but the fangs buried in walnut and the rattlesnake body twisted about the chrome and pumped til the triangle head and stock were one, thick vibrating shadow.
The shotgun tilted under the weight, then began falling. I dove for the end of the barrels. My hands found cold steel and beating rattles - crushing them in a steel grip as they yanked up, swinging high over my shoulders, driving down, smashing the stock into the rock-pile until the wedged head was nothing but a mangle of blood and scale and the broken backbone snapped the body into the channel and it sunk away.
Knuckles raw with blood, but not mine. Maple stock cracked, but in one piece showing the pale fractured ends of fangs. In my territory, I washed off the gore.
From the top of the rocks, the dock and patio looked empty, and the channel oily and black and silent. I swam to a ladder and up, ran through the blown-out door to the parlor and back. No Fila! I stripped and dove into the channel, looking for bad luck and a warm brown body in summer frock and found only crabs. After the third try and screaming lungs, I came thrashing around to Hricko’s cruiser, riding high at the dock’s last post, rocking in my own waves. My arm found a hawser and I dragged up - slender hands found mine and pulled me over the side.
“If you weren’t white, Nicholas, you wouldn’t be a fish.”
I wretched onto the teak deck, til my eyes watered pinstripe. Then she had me over, pounding my chest. “For an active man, you are recovering slowly. Do you hear me, Nicholas? Enough foolishness for one night!”
Naked wasn’t the word. I jack-knifed, knees against my chest. “Did you see the big guy’s pal?”
She gave a sister’s kiss - on the forehead. “He is dressed better than you.” A Straight poorly lit got stuck in my mouth. “Now be still! I have only the one bottle.”
Careful men avoid sudden recoveries. “Moving like us, wasn’t he Fila, away from the pinstripe?” I lay back and didn’t enjoy anything. Bourbon slapped - where rocks had cut open my face. Then a white puff that smelled like excuse - I rolled up on the elbow.
“Nicholas!” She jammed the bottle into my hand. “Error silently!” Then went ‘round center console to the cabin hatch and played the lock open. Rummaging below. She came out with her hands full - a sailor’s windbreak, aid kit, a bottle of Skin-So-Soft and two pair of Hricko’s cut-offs. Hricko’s prudery stayed behind.
She looked me straight. “So that’s why Eve puts up with your foolishness.”
“And I thought it was my looks.” I put both on; the hemp jacket felt bullet-proof - jeans felt like starched burlap.
“How can it be, that men so different have the same fantasy.”
She was coying, over the hurt, backing away, slouching into the fishing chair in black bra and panties. Bleeding like a gigged flounder from a cut on her thigh and shivering. I didn’t want to know the different men, just then.
“You won’t be so damned smart, in a hospital bed next to Hricko!”
“Damaged people should be thankful, they are only damaged.”
“Hell’s that mean, Fila!” I didn’t like the hint. “In my territory, plenty of damage gets done!”
“Before your damage, then.” She held out a paper cup, and I poured two fingers. Leaving one for myself. I bandaged, and took a double linen wrap. It was closer than I ever had been ... She put on the second windbreak, in the pocket the pearl-handled 32-caliber was a shadow. Cut-offs slipped on and they sagged.
She laughed, “Benjamin never let me get cold.”
Some things are unimaginable. I sat on the rail, finishing the bottle, of old Turkey, thinking but not thinking more than a dime what got done. When the raz ended, a silver fawn and her date had already decided that. I stepped over to the wheel-seat. Boat’s radio had the tip of a flounder-gig embedded. I pushed ‘battery-test’ - got a green flicker. The gas gauge read ‘overflow’. I checked the gas-line filter, and went below.
“What are you looking for, Nicholas? You’ll find no weapon.”
It didn’t take five minutes, to see what Hricko had in store, then topside, rummaging into the fish-well. Back at the console I said. “Give me a gas prime, will you Fila?” I punched START and the twin-90s grumbled alive.
She fondled the outboards and then looked back at me. “And just where, Nicholas, do you think we are going?”
“That’s two questions, Fila, more than two. Ben has food and clothes for a week, storaged below. He filled the bilge tanks with gas and ran auxiliary lines to the fuel pump. He expected, making a long run for it, after the deed. He wasn’t shooting his way out.”
“So says the metal case in the bait-well.”
“Empty, of course! That’s how pinstripe blew the door.”
“At least that. Who would look underwater for explosives? Jerry had crawled up Hricko’s ass.”
“And now you also.”
“Not hinting are you, Fila. That’s good. I didn’t catch the first.”
We went forward, to the quartz spotlights mounted atop a bamboo frame. Both winked long clean fingers of bright. “About the slim man ... he’s bound to be waiting, between here and the Intercoastal.”
“Waiting, or hiding.”
“Not with my luck tonight.” I damped the lights. “Makes no sense ... but I keep wondering, why so many folks are so mad at me? Something I ate, or people I know?”
“You must believe me, Nicholas. They are no friends of mine.”
“No friends of yours - I thought women had relationships, not friends. Men don’t have relationships, they have enemies - to take down, if the cards play that way.”
“Nicholas! You are as sorry and straight as Benjamin.” She was tightening the bandage on her thigh, as the blood streamed ... “Now you play a pirate. If you’re going to steal Benjamin’s cruiser, and if you’re making fool in the harbor, I won’t be away from you.”
I believed her. I killed the outboards. She camped under an oilskin poncho, braiding wires inside the ship-to-shore, in a squall fast and fresh with hot rain. It blew her hair streaming from the bandana - the stainless ball ached in my left elbow - from cold seeping in from old times. Wasn’t a radio that needed new guts ... I soaked a gas-rag and jumped to the dock, where the ten-gauge and four sodden shells lay dripping. Most of the mud washed off most of the parts. I found Hricko’s revolver on the kitchen floor and loaded the hollow-points.
Back on the cruiser, Fila had made space with a grip, front, under bamboo frame holding the light-bar. She had tied her hair under the bandana, poncho above and tucked the 32 against her left breast.
I came under the oilskin. “Look here, Fila. When we find the barge, we’ll find everything Hricko expected, plus pay-backs for them not finding Hricko. I see it that way, and I don’t think ...”
“Be quick about it, Nicholas, finishing.”
“What about Tony - what if ...”
“He knows ... I’m an inconsistent lover.”
“If they recognize you?”
“Is there a man in Charleston who doesn’t ?”
“Don’t go brave on me, Fila, when I need clever.”
“Clever yes, you need me a witch ... I need ... “Her face hunted mine. “Do you know how the channel turns?”
I wasn’t going to debate her. Who was waiting, or if, if he wasn’t already half-way to Myrtle Beach! Fila flipped on one of the spots and with a grip on the handle, slipped under the oilskin to the mahogany deck. I had a grip on thebig-10. “I bet he does.”
“At a turn, Nicholas, look for him there.” It was like old times. Her night-crawling. From beneath rubble. From a warm bed - someone’s bed, it never mattered, and me steps behind a hard case behind a hail of rain, steps in front with bad nature rising. She would hear the false step. The 32 a stiletto into a bad heart - bet on that! I didn’t think she was going for the ride. I wedged the shotgun behind and the S&W into the pilot’s cubby. Outboards complained, then kicked the mahogany hull forward, undocking and into a marsh sea. Smoking mist, for all it mattered. Sure, I knew the channel. I knew the Waterway, Harbor, the Cooper River and a story with plenty of bark but no point, like a beagle in a quail covey. I knew four ways it was all damn wrong.
Four deceits. Each borrowing time from the bank of manners. Like the slim man with terror at his heels waiting somewhere along the curving marl, buried under swamp grass or low island pine or flattened into a shell bank. Like styro-foam chests waiting for hearts to be transplanted. But while prop-wash still kicked at the pilings, I thought about one. The pinstripe. Who couldn’t keep a cuff on a sleeve. How could he convince slim to hang around, making a fashion statement?
I didn’t need GQ to tell me the oeuvre, when one size fits all. I’d give him an invitation and I’d give him five seconds, to be in style. Throttle punched high, hull planing, outboards a rude scream sending a fluorescent rooster-tail toward the moon.
Noise was the message. Keening the wheel with all my strength, leveraged, Fila not going frail as swamp closed ... she made rope of arms, working the spot ahead, scanning rises and poking into the tangled rim of shadows. The channel narrowed quickly, beyond that rim. Sliding away in a wide arc to the Inter-coastal Waterway - hidden till the last hundred yards, no liquid freeway, but a moonshiners copperhead road. Small islands of dredge sit between, overgrown, cutting the channel into a slew of sharp bends. Sides cut a deep V, and flare from the marl into salt grass and forests of oyster trees. The hull chewed on them - the light illuminated our own spray - sound and light blinding a shooter. It may have, at the second bend, where a dredge island rose beneath stunted oak and a tidal creek entered opposed.
At that instant of maximum centrifugal, a staccato
explosion of bright, followed by the sound tatoo. Lead stingers creased mahogany and blew out the spot. I fired blind, through the flashes, over the bow into night air filled with wasps. Surfing the fire-line in frantic jerks when the second spotlight blazed on. At the end of it’s long finger gun barrel glint. I full-throttled straight for the glint.
Wooden rage rock hard. Over a sand-spill into flooded marsh. From the salt grass a face rose, swollen like the moon, screaming blotter-acid horrors, the mini-14 raised like a club. I saw the moon-face set as the bow drove him back and up and then under, to the terrible sound of blades shredding ...
Then the shock! Slamming me off the wheel-chair, as the hull jumped a shell bank and slapped sideways into the tidal. The prow dove into muddy bottom, wallowing up. I scrambled up, from the deck, where the impact had thrown me against foam pads, lunging for the shotgun in a crashing drag-along silence. Eternal, pure noise. The horrible quiet of it, when the machine has decided if there’s enough for burial.
Mass canceled for lack of a body. I rushed by the cuddy, front, to the light where bullets had made a chew of polished teak. Fila had already gone over side, swirling salt-mud rising among bracken, half buried - I could hear her feeling along the mahogany for cracks, and put the spot on her and the red skim pieces that surrounded her. She was clawing them away, clawing at an oyster tree embedded in the plank. She pried it off. Then pushing furiously, waist deep in mud till the bottom scrapped over the spill and the hull back into channel.
We had turned stern-first, drifting through salt grass lining the marl, while I struggled to restart the engines. She pulled out of the pluff, onto the ski-step. Some grisly I wiped off, some I couldn’t. She scraped red filth from her waist.
“You made a marvel, Fila.”
A cloud of insects buried her hands. “I will need to be clean.”
“Picked the wrong damned place for that, eh Fila, the wrong people and the wrong time.”
Her face lifted, where brown turns gold. The platinum Rolex read ten-fifty-five. She had two fingers on a brass turn - she scratched at streaks - propeller whined against soft - I hesitated ...
Don’t be a MARV, Nicholas,” she almost smiled.
That channel I knew, the one cutting before from after. We swept the last curve, into Waterway, then clung to banks of a dredge til it widened flat and black and deep swallowing the moon at it’s center. The shark hole. Fila stripped and went over the side. It had been MARVINS - since the Mako took a hand with four feet of steel leader years before - he was cautious now, and better for him. She circled twice to white shell, then came boiling in over the bow streaming iridescence and by the hatch might have hesitated while the steam covered her and immediately went below. I didn’t wait for an attack of virtue - full-throttle back to the Intercoastal, flying west toward the Harbor.
When she came up from the cabin, she wore a half-suit and a windbreaker. One hand pressed the fresh red bandage on her thigh, the other her mud-caked auto-load.
“We should be a train, not a boat!”
Not a stop a man hurrying wanted to make. I slowed in a rush, as bow-wave broke over. The cruiser heeled, in the black straight, then rocked like an old wooden rocking chair. Waiting to explode, in Fila’s island spice. She came back, slipped into the fishing chair. One foot over teak rail and eyes settled on the 32 she started cleaning with a twist of floral and determination against hull-slap. A shooter’s work - busy-work for a woman of experience. I put Hricko’s sneaker beside and my head along the spill of wet hair.
“I figure this way. We hi-ball to Mt. Pleasant point,
and go west side of the Cooper, like a bandit.”
“Perhaps we could run the fog-horn, all the way, so they won’t be unpleasantly surprised.”
Frightened men, I had in mind. Scurrying like dock rats. And good for them. “For the woman’s pleasure, anything else?”
She could have looked up. Removed, I didn’t have in mind, while she worked sand from steel and saw everything. Everything since Mr. Betters remembered my carry crossing south reach. I hadn’t surprised, unpleasantly or otherwise. Hricko hadn’t taught it to me - not really - that luck follows the stochastic. I quartered throttle.
“The bandage, Nicholas, it needs to be tightened.”
We crawled - noise in a long, flat tube - while the rap drew out and city lights grew and dock cranes made scars against the light.
“Won’t leave a scar, I trust.”
She turned round facing me, nursing the bullet crease. Willowy as night love. Moon-face had an eye for leg. “Third shot’s a charm,” she said.
“Game talk - for a night not guaranteed to leave you alive.” Three inches higher and the steel-point would have left a scar.“Good for you!” I never imagined, she could die before me. “I’ve never needed three.”
“Eve and Kiri. I see how you count, when I leave you alone.”
“Why did you?”
“A woman tires, Nicholas, my dear, dear Nicholas, of bringing sand to the beach.”
“Damn you to high stone, Fila, hell’s that mean? Nora wakes me slow, every Monday. I get bad and fast behind worse and faster men.”
“Like those floating ... behind us.”
“Yeah, Fila, behind and in front.”
“You say I am the marvel? What a marvel you play with emerald lies! How have I ever resisted?”
“Didn’t daddy tell you, love is either true or kind.”
“Ben ... might have.”
“My adventuress goes sullen? Hell’s the word, Fila. Us!”
“So you say.” Pearl gleamed and hollow-points snickered into the clip. She could have broken a man’s heart. “It can save a life, if you keep east, to the river marsh. Cross beneath the bridge piling to the barge.”
I nodded.“For the man’s pleasure, approaching the barge you stay below.”
“If we must, Nicholas, do your business, if you’re sure ...”
She could tell you where to go. A tangle fell from her hair. She palmed the 32 into a pocket, came over next to the wheel. Played the flash over a harbor map from the stow, handed the mic and punched up ship-to-shore. It staticed, fritzed and died. Mic dangled from it’s cord, when she stopped trying. I made a list. But had a call gone through, to one of the usual suspects, I couldn’t figure how warning might help Bottie or McCain.
No good had come at all, to a list that kept getting shorter. “You aren’t feeling sorry, not leaving with the people that brought you.”
“I am with you, Nicholas.”
“Nasty as it gets?”
“I’ve never felt cold with you.”
“Can’tsweet-baby you anything. Some debts are gonna be paid in cash.”
“Guru, pirate, lawyer - all in the same night.” She handed me the windbreaker. “When I pay, which one will you be?”It smelled of black love, when I put it on. “I have no account at the maple door.”
“You have no deposit, I have no key. What does that tell you about us?”
Women are supposed to talk, and not slip into shadow, deep and maroon like every tourist attraction in Charleston Harbor, till we anchored along a bridge column and put glasses across the Cooper River. Behind us, grey-stilt mansions snapped at tidal heads like so many old heron. Auto headlights soared above. Oil-skim lapped the hull. At the last safe place for deposits into the bank of ... I cut that crap.
The gas works sat low on the far bank, red walls bulky, pitch black except for two pinpoints of bright.
“Lights fore and aft, on the pier.”
Fila had the glasses. “And one in the pilots cabin, on the barge.”
The double-click of a 32 auto-load returned.“As the lee side. No angels, in the marsh, where we are going.”
She crouched low, while I steered between columns, across the Cooper, crabbing against current til we drew into salt grass. Upriver, the wooden pier reached out from brick, to a guest, under an inconsistent moon.
“You see a channel?”
“I would be an angel, Nicholas ... only dredge.”
Wallowing in dredge, deep as tide allowed, a huge hull nosed against the pier. A mountain, vertical. Stern opened slightly starboard, as it swung against mooring.
I said. “We can take that as an invitation.”
She pointed toward the current. “Ben would have come port, under the bow to the anchor chain.” Drawing stories in wet air with her voice. “He expected to be unseen. He expected to get away.”
“We’ll put the cruiser between hull and pier, where the gangway leads down. Nobody’s surprised. Nobody’s getting away.”I’d put bad manners, where men did business. I didn’t have to say.
She was smoothing water from her half-suit. “Such disrespect, Nicholas. They are to be feared less than your certainty.”Fila tucked her bandana, and with the 32 clutched in her left hand, crept forward and punched on the spotlight.
Disrespect was coming. We edged along, behind the white fang, to the whisper of flooded reeds beneath, wind whistle above and the scrape of iron on shell. Hull shadows growing against mahogany and marsh grass leaning high over the console.
I removed thebig-10 wedged behind the wheel and eased outboards to a grumble. Steering through a narrow, deep cut channel that opened quickly into fresh dredge. I crossed under the barge. Listening but not waiting for her voice.
Stinking air filled with them, the doubled-rainbow of sound groining through the steel hull, eating at the damp night like the hull ate sand. Engines growled in it’s belly - while it slept high in Cooper brine - high as a spring tide could float. The hull showed black and rough-edged metal and crusted with barnacles. It had piled - traveled and it had waited - a big one, blocky, six-hundred feet bow to stern, meant for the harbor and meant to dredge. To take a bad chop or blast through hidden shoals. To wait for three feet of tide that would float it into the current. It was meant to do anything - but mother.
That made two of us. The cruiser nursed alongside, to the base of a rusted gangway. I set a line to the thick pipe leading up, but I wasn’t looking up. I trolled the spotlight over the sail nestled beside. A fine teak-over-mahogany forty-eight foot schooner. Sails reefed. Her mast buried in the night sky ticking brass fitting, the hull almost buried in salt-grass. She faced aft, and the violet lettering AKKAD gleamed at the moon. Like a stranded traveler, Fila’s pilot-house schooner rocked fitfully in the oily, marsh scum. I came forward to the hatch, moving
fast and looking for trouble.
Teak panel was closed and locked, from the outside. I got the message, that Sammy never delivered. I killed the engines, set anchor and jumped to the gangway at a run. Foot-steps echoed above and a shot flashed high over my shoulder. I was loud and fast and took the forty rungs of iron with chrome barrels ticking the rail. A clock’s ticking, for a date that was sure to be home by midnight. Scrambling the last slime-covered steps. The grey pile rising like a Breech Inlet swell. Pretty clear, as I dove off the walk that I wasn’t getting a soft reception. I landed arms first - chrome barrels ringing against the base of a ragged, rock mountain. My arms took the shock - the first one.
My gut took the second, the sharp rough voice filled with orders and the spill of bad, French-roast coffee. Noise above came after the spill, and it meant business. The door to the pilots’ nest banged open. It was twenty yards away, perched on an overhang. The spray of Latin voices died in the sharp slick-slick of a police issue twelve-gauge. A red light flickered both ways - flashlights on the steps leading up. From the top of the cabin a spotlight spit and whined on, and licked its way along my side of the rubble.
I yelled out. “Kreutz. You’re spilling wind.”
“You! DeLeon! Fucking, A-hole cracker.” It was sob that came back, riding a blind rage. “Couldn’t leave the bitch alone. Couldn’t leave anything alone.”
“Not after the white linen got dirty.”
“You shit white, DeLeon, you and your toity friends in R4 and give me the shitty end every time and bitch that the fingernail’s dirty!”
“You didn’t kill the girl, Kreutz. You took Sauls money. Just money, Kreutz. Screw him.”
“Screw me, you lousy SOB bastard. You’ll take everything I have, if I don’t cut you down.”
I started scrambling the rock pile, looking for a vantage, but the spotlight came first. A hail of double-ought riddled air just above my head and ham-size boulders rained from above. I dodged sideways, slipped and rolled toward the bottom, followed by the light and a click-click and a hot wind tasting salt over my left cheek.
I heard Kreutz. “Jorge! On the side!”
A splatter of mini-14s against iron - I might have been there - and steps clattering down. I crawled toward the cabin, while the light moved away. Wasps under my shoulder and a hail of noise. A slim man, swarthy in the moonlight and thinner for it leapt from the lower landing. I saw him first as slim, then as shadow above as I swung up the ten-gauge. As the shock hit my arm I saw him as a pink, screaming haze flying away. Not cut down butthreshed. He was dead before his skull shattered on the gangway iron. I heard one splash, then a second. Then a third, a clear cut into brine.
“I yelled out. “Kreutz. You’re the Lone Ranger. You have no time.”
He flew down the steps firing slow and steady and low, like swat teaches. Kreutz had learned half - I gave him that. I swung up the shotgun and blew the spotlight off it’s tower, jumped up and ran for the overhang, groping my pocket for high brass. I thought it was a bad way to die, dark groping on a rock-pile while a cop cut you down. Pocket empty - mad scrambling - sliding down among knee-twisting boulders. He was so close I could feel the wheeze - I stumbled on the slope, where rocks petered out at the overhang, and bilge-water stank. Shot buzzed by and the last came as an explosion over my left shoulder. A scream and the slap of rock on flesh and steel - click-click - I planted, grabbed the barrel, swinging the stock around like a flyswatter for the insane ...
At the end of the swing came a crack and an oath - “Oh my God ...” The stock fractured and the end whirled off into the rock. I held the barrels and the jagged stump. Kreutz was on one knee and frothing blood where his teeth had been, but the police issue swung up and I drove the wood shard into his shoulder. He screamed and tumbled to the bottom of the pile, where an orange light reflected bilge and shone into his face.
I had a quick step, slipping - he was quicker - he froze me drawing down, laughing the crazed laugh of a man looking out through the end of his life. He breathed heavy, and had coiled around the twelve gauge, pointing the barrel straight up the pile into my gut.
“Whose got the time now DeLeon? What does the fucking Rolex say?”
I got up on one arm, enough to flop backwards and stare up, where the moon should have been. I got a face-full of cold squall. Lightening flashed. “One-fifteen, Kreutz. You’ll never make it.”
“Here’s to Tonto, you SOB fucker.”
“What’s your hurry, if we both get high stone tonight?”
The thick blue barrel wavered. His arm was a steady ooze of blood, and a face that needed a promise, any shaken promise from me. I sat up, where the white windbreak sat in the middle of a red bead. I took out the Reds, from a pocket. “You got a page missing in that black book.”
“Oh yeah? Got some last words?”
“Have a cigarette, Kreutz. Invite a friend.” I flipped him the pack and the Zippo. On the fourth try he pulled a glowing tip from the flame. I though he would never stop sucking.
“Tastes good, Nicky.” He made to toss them back, and winced. “Too bad you can’t have, but the arm’s a little stiff.”
“Medication’s on the way. What about Jerry-the-Arab? Friends don’t let friends die hard.”
“Who’s di’n? I just need to catch my wind.” Another puff choked out. “Then you’re a goner.”Spurts of blood from his armpit. “Way goner, Nicky, you fuckin’ A-hole.”
Words cost him, in spittle running over his chin. He was no coward and he wasn’t stupid. He knew everything was over.
“Who’d figure, DeLeon, you’d die without your white linen suit?”
He looked yellow. It wasn’t the light. It was a yellow that ever so slowly turned to ash. The stainless Rolex read one-thirty. He was sobbing.
“Hey, Nicky. Ain’t it gett’n cold on the river. Must be my jacket’s not warm enough. Bet that duck-twill is.”
I took off the windbreaker and threw it down. He made a feeble attempt to reach it. “You got a problem, Kreutz. You don’t have time.”
He bit into a sob. “I got plenty, just that my arm’s stiff, and I’m cold ...”
“Mortgage come due on the beach house?”
“I got plenty.”
“Who was it, Kreutz? Saul? Or every month, did Jerry visit the wife?”
“Don’t be like that, Nick. Twenty years, I’m an honest cop.”
“Sure you were, Kreutz. Nobodies nickel but the cities ...”
“They just wanted to dump the fucking rocks!”
“What about the hash!”
“It wasn’t staying in my city ... moving north to ...” He turned on a side, hacking, spurting blood. “It hurts me, fangs burning in my belly, Nick. Like a fucking ...”
He wretched over barrels and the vomit never stopped. Or the twitching or the sob, until he was still.
And the blue barrels slide away. It slowed me down - so much blood for this. Sitting on a double-rainbow. Nesting rocks. I picked one, fist size and threw it up and over the side. I didn’t have a dime, the thought’s value, what a careful Lieutenant of Homicide should do next.
Cops came to mind. The pier led to Rivers Avenue and a quick hop on the Cross-town to City Station. Above, in the mates cabin, was a ship-to-shore. There was SWAT, minutes away in a city full of lights. Revenge in it’s twisted sweet ways came to mind, but came too late for Sfor the Fawn. Others ... I’d remember those. I sat down on the pile. It was wet from rain, speckled red. Not good or bad, like the lives I’d left behind. Or those about to explode like a string of firecrackers, and sink into Low Country ooze. I’d have to explain - to cops, the city and to Hricko, what I did next.
Purgatory wasn’t a Baptist’s usual choice. What the hell, it couldn’t be all that tough. I picked my way down, to the bottom, beside Kreutz, where the cigarette still burned red between dead lips. I closed his eyes, scavenged the flash and the Zippo. Two Reds in the crumpled pack - one fired like an auto-load - one more would be plenty. I followed pipes to the bilge-valve and the sump. Bled pressure, blew out vacuum and opened the nozzle. Cooper River brine spurted to the overhang. Kreutz ... I let Kreutz be. He would get all the sand he needed, and I wouldn’t think less of him, covered in crabs.
Windbreak wrapped around thebig-10, I went up the steps to the pilots’ nest and searched the control panel for a switch that turned on the pump, the heavy duty eighty-amp pump that sucked sand from the harbor bottom, up through the tube and into the barge. Only the tube now would suck up Cooper River silt and pump
it over the rip-rap. Getting it both ways. The pump wheezed, primed, and a black, filmy rain blew across the rocks. It would blow for days - the barge would float an hour ... non-linear Hricko would have said, but the gentleman could explain it to me ... some Sunday afternoon, when the Island wind blew gentle ... I locked the mate’s cabin from the inside and came out a vent.
A traveling man’s place - at deck level, along the high iron railing. The onshore torn at my arms. I had a shivering grip on thebig-10, and bloody work behind, but the wind had ripped holes in the squall-line and strewn stars above a Low Country mist. It made the salt sting in Hricko’s jeans. It carried sound, images shadowing far off onto the pier and other things I didn’t like. I hurried down the gangway and onto the cruiser. The hull rocked comfortable, a dumb old family friend keeping time without conversation. A place to wait.
I had an hour. I sat in the stern, listening to the pump groan and the marsh chorus and the crush of river oysters as the barge started to settle. I didn’t wait five minutes.
The safety on a Browning 32 clicks louder than a wedding bell. “Third shot’s a charm. I never taught you charm.”
“The fool was running barefoot, stepped on a shell and jumped.”
“Jumped right into his long sleeve dress shirt, setting records no doubt.”
“Benjamin’s fantasy’s are active, when stoked by an old love. How can a woman plan for a man like that?”
“No way in hell ... you could have killed him.”
“The best have tried.”
“Did you volunteer, or was it a committee decision?”
It wasn’t unfair. That I knew of, two innocents had died because of Hricko. Some feelings, too, but who knows when to bury them. And six more bad men waited for me in hell. I got up and walked to the console. The onshore had swung round the cruiser, so it pointed direct at the iron hull grinding into the Cooper River bottom. Already the barge rolled to port, and it’s hawsers tore at the pier. Nothing would last much longer.
I took a Straight from the pilot’s cubby, lit it and blew a long stream of smoke. But it never got past the outboards. “Better, Nicholas, for a man to be deceived by an old love.”
“Yes ... deceived. What man wouldn’t ...” I felt alone, and fast in a hot wind that fractured the grey covering of stars. The next drag sucked down. “When Hricko first cracked the deal - Bottie trading for Sauls money - he wouldn’tMarv, but he couldn’t just cut her off.”
“She denied himnothing!”
“As manners of the night go.” I turned, facing the soft sing-song, the S&W a claw at my back. “Another man dying for love. He was letting her take Saul’s bucks.”
“I have admitted as much, Nicholas, embarrassed by your ... prying.”
“But that wasn’t half enough, was it, not for Peggy.” I took a step toward her. “Hricko didn’t evenknow about the hash? He didn’t send the fawn to be murdered for a buzz. And what Saul didn’t know, better for you.”
“Saul does not deal in such ... substances. As you said, what use did we have for an honest Jew?”
“He was lucky not to get a bullet. Or was he the one who should have been with the cuff-linked Chotto? I’m thinking bad thoughts.”
“Foolish thoughts. Saul is a man much like Benjamin, both above and below his calling. So his craft confuses others, who take it for virtue.”
“And when he blows it?”
“Sin!” Fila stepped from the gangplank onto the cruiser and rested the 32 on the top of the chair. It almost nursed the brown curve of her breast, and pointed straight at my guts. I was getting tired of that - about a thousand miles long.
I said. “The devil, himself.”The red tip of the Straight burned like hell. “I got bad thoughts by the bunch, now. It one order of business, making sure Saul gets his rocks. But if Saul made the hash, orders it destroyed ... Bottie can’t have that, can she? ”
Fila rested impatiently, the 32-cal rock steady. “Killing is your business, Nicholas. So are these old stories, for you and Ben to tell.”
“Why did he put me onto Saul?”
“He knew Saul would not harm you, no matter how far you got into the scheme. Ben’s arrogance has no boundary. He could not imagine ... Jerry knowing.”
“Hricko fought the developers tit-to-ass. He was going to sink the barge carrying rip-rap to front beach. He planned to sink it right here. But he didn’t know the AKKAD would be hiding behind. Tell me a story. How did you get twenty-five hundred kilos onto the AKKAD?”
She flashed on the platinum Rolex. “It’s all rendered into oil, Nicholas, three-hundred liters. And already a buyer. A man as impatient for pleasure as you are for justice.”
“That’s as many enemas as campaign ads.”
“How crude, Nicholas.” She made a small dismissive wave. “Drive off in the cruiser. Let the AKKAD sail. Harm’s done that can’t be undone ... but I need to sail now.”
“Sail like a duckling, to Bens’ dock, sucked along behind the barge. Then off-load to the ice-chests in Peg’s cellar. But Fila, the AKKAD is right behind the barge already.”
“You make me decide serious matters on a joke?”
“Who’s waiting at the dock now, in place of you? Bottie? McCain? 'Course back of the house is blown out. Nice question, Fila, who gave you permissions to enter the house at all?”
“Jennis house, perhaps more than Bens." Fila giggled. "Ben’s dock is of course, out of the question. I will sail ...”
“Sure, you have blue water, all the way to Peggy’s. But you could have been dead at Hricko’s.”
“Will I become an old maid, cultivated by Tony and forgotten by all? The rush, Nicolas, of need is so much like old times.”
“The black suit wasn’t yours, was he. He wasn’t Sauls, maybe not even Jerry-the-Arabs, but he knew Hricko was down and you were coming. You needed Kreutz with you ... Jesus, couldn’t you do better than Kreutz?”
“Kreutz a pony player had lost big at Sauls; any favor Saul needed was his and Saul ..." Fila bit her lip till it bled. "Such a married man you have become, Nicholas, wanting all a woman’s secrets, all a womans plasure and only then will the detective be satisfied ... all our secrets.”
"Don't play the virgin with me, Fila. The city ... the old city makes demands. I can't just take a chaw of tabacci and spit them out."
“Demands both celestial and wicked weave through the fabric of a city like Charleston. What of those demands older than your great-grandfathers black slaves?" What do you say to them or have you forgotton the words?" Gravity pulled down her 38-cal, but a gravity as if from the stars raised it - - a pendulum - - a question of values - - a matter of time.”
She wasn’t going to shoot, not in a century. I didn’t have plan two and I don’t sink well. I held the cruiser keys in one hand, and the crippled shotgun in the other, ignoring the insistent bite of the S&W. I was saying, she couldn’t just walk through me, but she was looking through me into a curtain of lightening lost far off the Carolina coast. I’d never before seen her face sad or uncertain or her lips so soft and maroon. She flowed in that meta world, so like Eve after a second soft brandy and coming into heat. Some things are just unimaginable.
I couldn’t recall, when I first heard them or first saw their shadows. They covered distance with the dock rat’s artless stealth - spent time through a gambler’s eyes. Sounds covered by the grinding hull, they had slipped down the pier ladder and made across the gangway. I couldn’t recall, when concern replaced surprise. They had stood, since serious matters were being decided. Not a tense mans stealth, but a leapers. Then they jumped!
When two big men hit AKKADS stern, the cruiser heeled like a goosed matron. Fila’s knees melted and her arm flew up ... gripping the 38-cal and Tony had to hit her, but not so hard that she swatted down like a gnat, collapsed trembling tissue hugging the teak deck. He had an arm that wasn’t kind and a long memory of past and future.
“That’s a dime you owe me, DeLeon.”
Vitalle carried her down the hatch, to the V-sleeper. I laid a cold rag across the welt on her face. It wouldn’t last, the unconscious miasma; Vitalle had used his left hand.
Most people believe crime and friendship and social creatures, made up from the feelings and beliefs of the people who could have done otherwise. How can a cop assign innocence or guilt if he does not believe that bond? What man not evil himself will take on that evil in alley-ways so dark you can't see hell through a picture window? Do I believe that now and here and of? Can I speak to the evil or just point? "
"Two knots, three knots, five knots ..." Tony was backing Filas schooner from beneath the barges moon-shadow. Behind us, the barge listed points to port and dug into the silt. It couldn’t move for weeks, and the law wouldn’t move it for years. I figured. Marsh had just returned from the AKKAD, humping his cell-phone, chewing one of Vitalle’s Partagas. Minutes later, sirens screamed along the docks, heading toward the gas works. Lights from a police launch showed faintly in the harbor.
Marsh was off the phone, talking fast, but not loud. “We have a mess at Hricko’s?”
“Parts of one. Not all the bodies are in one piece, and there's a loose water moccasin size of a fire-hose that needs attention.”
“What about the bitch?”
“There too. Did you find ...?”
“Yeah, DeLeon, the gulls didn’t get through the tarp.” Marsh opened the spew-value to full and a grey storm enveloped the barge. “Now you get this tub outa here, before we get cracked like an eggshell.”
It was one way to look at truth. There was a second - it came and went fast as the blank expression on Vitalle’s face. I put the S&W into the pilot’s cubby. That was close to the truth as I figured on getting. Points off wind. The diesel pulled us far from the muddy bank, before Tony could pull a full 1/2-MAX torue for'ard. A spinnaker brisky thrown sucked in Charleston Harbor breeze. Mud and breeze I remember that. This night, Marsh didn’t say plenty. He didn’t need questions. I didn’t need to tell him we had at least one problem.
We left the rest behind. Sheets set Our cruiser made a steady ten
knots, against the slap of harbor waves. Vitalle punished the hull, like it alone had brought Fila to the barge. He didn’t say a word to me - those would come later. Spotlights from the launch played over cruiser’s mahogany. We could have been, rich men cruising ...
“You holding up OK, Deleon?”
The case, all of it, was somebodies wrap. I’d get a week of pleasantries with IA - I’d taken it before - the mulatto heat. Another sacrifice to the Holy City. But tonight, Marsh wasn’t going all the way to the Island. I was and I had a chin up where it needed to be - way I saw it.
I said. “I’m holding plenty! We have a problem, Captain, and we have a Negro problem.”
“No you don’t.”
No big deal, the voice smoothed through a billow of sweet Habanos. But I was biting through the dead butt of American blend. “Hell’s that so! We have a barge filled with rip-rap, en-route to build an illegal groin. Against a court order, that’s EPA, that’s the Feds.”
“Rip-rap horse shit, DeLeon. Those rocks are one-tenth the size used to build groins. Got a signed and dated report right here saying so. The first high tide swallows them. Except someone looks close - you might get an eddy.” He spit! “For a couple-three days.” Marsh looped the Partagas into the river. He wasn’t a smoking man. “Somebody will use it to fill driveways.” He was watching Vitalle and mopping his eyes with a thick white hank. And he grinned like he’d grinned every day for last six years.
He took another Partagas and bit off the end.“As for the other ...”
“I won’t even mention the 32.”
“That’s white, DeLeon. Takes months to find it, under the barge.”
Vitalle cut outboards to idle as the launch came along side. He fixed a line, forked over a Red and I burned it.
Marsh wasn’t moving. I burned it hot! “Start with a bilge full of hash oil. Then try conspiracy. Then keep going.”
“Looks sinister, if you look the wrong way.”
“What happens if you look at Ibn-Ali? No two ways to look. Then, Kreutz’s payoffs.”
“Saudis own half of South Carolina, so Jerry's too big to take down. Too big, unless ya like paroling south Folly Beach for 20 years. Kreutz, he be a problem. You're desk-jocky, Nick for six-weeks till IA sorts out what kinda drug problem he had. We already know he scarfed reds, greens and blues from an IOP pervo alias TJ. Wouldn't know him would you well hell no. As for the money, Tax problems, Nicky, for the lawyers. They get paid by the hour.”
My throat went dry, and a lung full of Red didn’t help. “No question about who owns the boat. The AKKAD is Fila’s. That’s enough for a booking tonight.”
“Sure appears guilty.”
“First person plural I think so.”
“ 'Course a klan of Charlestons most reserved women - - Eve DeLeon for one - - might swear Fila was playing cribbage all evening until she took to her room with a headache. Can you imagine what Ms Peers might say about Charleston police? Bad, Nicky very very bad.” Marsh shuffled to the railing and wiped his wet forehead with a blue linen hank. “ You think Filas guilty as the man who insured the imported cargo?”
“Panama import tax stamp. Packed according to ICC and Coast Guard standards, for flammable liquids! Man's gotta eat and cooks gotta cook. Hemp-seed squeeze - - - vegetable oil for a local chain of KFCs and keep the damn temps under 400-F!
“What man! What insurance?”
Marshshook his head. “Got to get modern Nicky, have the daughter teach you some computer stuff. Data these days moves around, whether you know it or not or want it or not. Computers say who send and who gets. Follow me now? We're talkin' the man whose voice-print got encrypted on a Macao Web-server. The man whose Credit Suisse Account got hit six big-ones for the service. Can Hricko do that Nicky, give you $300,000 covering an international commodities trader?”
Tony rasped. “Hricko don't talk much now. Smart man. Understand the fool has a steady heartbeat since this morning.”
“And fools who say nothing ... got this Nicky … most people think they’re smart.”
“A mans still gonna wonder though, when the IOP developers come at the beach again, with a fleet of rip-rap barges will Hricko still try to sink them off-shore?" Will Saul and jerry change course, come-about and back the Catholic perv? Anybody else I know?”
Marsh chewed his gristle for a bit. “AS mayor of Charleston that not be my issue. Mebby some careful city detective get involved ... with a worm in his BIOS who should know better. You ever hear of a core-war? Huh! Yeah me neither.”
Wind had turned off-shore, cooling. Vitalle was chewing his Partagas, loosing the line. I took a bite on the Red - and it tasted not great but good for the first time since I’d seen a tube in Hricko. Marsh was stepping off. “Work it this way, DeLeon. What you have is a kidnap victim. Fem-in-fetters - black as glory. Rescued!” He puffed some, at that, like a candidate on stump. “Gonna make the BLACK LIVES MATTER people real happy. Like a winner. I stepped back but he grabbed the windbreak. Closer than most men got. He let it go, and let the voice go easy. “ Since Hricko’s alive, you’ve saved an honest citizen’s reputation. And you got a fat drug bust for your record.”
I blew a long thin grey stream of smoke into the larboard wind. "Cops have records, men have memory."
"Enough of that crap Lieutenant." His gruff voice went softer, to that trained out of a prudent southron man. He spit black Cuban into the Cooper River - the Partagas fumed. “We got no Negro on this boat, DeLeon. We got one nigger, and we have one white man who needs a new linen suit.”