When we did hit surf, Hricko bellied in, under the froth-laced curl then up shaved head and bullet-hole scars through the first wave shoulder spouting like a blue-finned barracuda. “Eskimos may drink in the cold, Nick, but there’s never an ice-cube in a cocktail glass.” Frozen throat, I knew he fought to spew that nonsense.
NorEast sea bruised you to the bone. Shivering beside him in the wallow between crests I was shaking brine slush from my hair and not talking while my teeth chattered, and if I cared, I didn’t know what the hell he’d been drinking. “Tomorrow supposed to be warmer. Ever wait?”
Now Tony might have. Tony Vitalle stood in the kissies arms stretched out for Hricko’s girlfriend Peachy. Who for decency sake couldn’t take another square inch off herself revealing where the insulating fat might hide under such perfect Irish Creme skin. Vitalle in bag-man trunks and half out of a sweatshirt, fighting with Peachy who tried pulling the sweat over shoulders meant for a bear while he slugged Rob Roys from a plastic bottle and she was howling “fecking let go of it man” and him in a spaz twitch “..that’s my fucking hair ...”. I had a frozen smile, but I’ve had worse - Peachy, Ben Hricko, Tony and me ... If Eskimos drink in the cold, then we shook a double martini on a frost-ass, slate-grey December morning - and us surfing mostly Hricko’s doing, when I thought about it.
We had swum out deep from the kissies. Vitalle led - a black-fur polar bear pawing through wave-slap, then Hricko, and me beating a crawl after them and Peachy into the offshore wind and the pink slit of Eastern horizon, Peachy swimming to the foam-line where endless eastern swells first catch up forming white-flecked green pyramids and suck your dead ass down to the bottom if you spend too much time admiring Gaia’s artistic touches.
Not months ago while Bens body was accommodating three new bullet-holes Tony had sent his PI creep Sam Levine down to Miami where Peachy was gun-trading Havana Ruski-made 22.5 mm bone-busters for 50-lb sledges of Venezuelan salvia. Sam weaseled her back never saying how or what he said or what he said Hricko promised because the long-nosed little bastard could sometimes just do things. You could get hurt a dozens ways brokering such theft of the BEARS military jewels, but that's how she maintained a 60-ft Jongert bluewater and seven-figure account in a Johannesburg investment bank. Hricko knew … or he didn't know, but his computers did and the 64-bit sys-miss must have told him something. She hadn't known and appalled flew back to Charleston and begged her way back into his sack. He claimed Peachy never gave him so much as 1/3 of his bed, but got better faster with Peachy splitting the goose-down comforter. Christ how you learn things about people you know well.
Vodka. The bottle floats in an orange ring, a WW2 cork life-preserver; my teeth shiver hovering a shot of Beluga Russian Vodka and damn it's cold. We were just admiring ... and when we got close she disappeared under a white-cap. We dive bug-eyed to the bottom. ‘Course Peachy isn'tthere - Hricko’s flounder, Hricko’s sea-trout, Hricko’s out-country babe - too hot-blooded I could figure easy crawling the bottom, fighting the rip and surf smart to try slipping current and lounge on the coarse ground shell, and it snapped my bones to be underwater like the Gulf Stream had turned round and delivered surf direct from Greenland! All Hricko’s idea, when I thought about it and we were nuts!
Vitalle gave a thumbs-down ... the girl had gone-the-wet-hell missing so we moved fast. I shot up between them - the bear and the barracuda and punched into briny wind-slap, all three of us, Vitalle shouting a testicle had frozen and Hricko - Hricko death thin in a dead man’s float cresting a swell, silent and pounded by the surf into transparent blue ice. I wasn’t taking photographs.
My stainless Rolex read five-forty. Wasn’t like we had all day find her, and coppers like me think the worse because the sea off Isle of Palms that morning had a violent turn that made any strong swimmer and a smart one feel not so strong ... now there’s another Irish
bitch I thought on point for you ... she has a suck to her, the sea, always has and for a man who’s spent time on blue water that suck is always outward bound ...
Sudden like we had gotten taller and were moving toward the beach - I could see the whole damned strip of sand and the whitecaps under us ... then Peachy boiled up off-side the swell trailing gold, streaming hair and shouting over the wind-scream, “ye swim like fecking gooney-birds,” and if she stopped laughing I never heard it.
Vitalle bobbed along-side. “Where was ya,”
Her arm stretched out there,”visitin’ yer Cutter.”
“How the fuck ...?”
When I looked, pushed backward belly-up a waves front side I could just barely see tip of the sail and its gold-bug insignia crawling toward the weather-vane. Peachy had gone those 40 strokes beyond us to Tony Vitalle’s 1/16 scale three-meter model J-Class schooner. Hand assembled mahogany it tacked graceful on 4-yards of silk and 32-bit auto-pilot running a P-386 and even older Debian. Ben laughed at it; said the processor couldn't run his Convex keyboard, but wrote the drivers for all analog control. Except for radar/sonar and onboard shoot-retrieve flounder gig the gas-turbine mini-engine was rarely used. Peachy bobbed up alone beside it, and I swore I’d never seen a sea-snake swim so far so fast. I waved a tepid little wave. “Go to hell!”
Her hair flew tangles of blonde, and she was shouting like I could hear anything above roaring ocean. “Bite Hricko’s ass this time,” and this time I rocketed the shout more down the beach than out.
Just about then I realized we all rode a salt-water freight-train headed for crash-junction. Nobody could swim against tide, eighty stokes underwater in two minutes. God, I hated all that.
Everything Peachy loved; she was glowing, threading around us, riding casual the grey, windblown sheet of water moving fast just to beach-side and the sea’s crest like us running about twelve feet above sand bottom. She pushed off from Hricko and wailed in that laughing kind of way ,“wairy ye gents catch me fecking other side of the railler.”
I waved a tepid little wave. “Go to hell!” Her hair flew tangles of blonde, and she was shouting like I could hear anything above roaring ocean, shouting and arranging her body curves for the next lash of icy salt brine. I swore if good fortune ever put me again on the teak-strake deck of my Ta-Ching 56 I’d never leave her. Green swell pouted; we hung suspended over the chill, slate-grey wall. Cutting us off and rushing at the same time after the girl. A slab of pink-noise twelve feet high, and I thought fast sure, good times come reckless ... Hricko, Vitalle and me, the barracuda and the bear and the copper ... we jack-knifed down the face of the comber.
The curl flung me over. I caught air; I caught yellow flash from the STATION 32 sign thirty yards away, a skin-warming present delivered courtesy of front beach that saidkiss my sandy ass. Then I boiled beneath Carolina surf and crashed into the bottom. Flailing, buried in loose foam. Breath seconds away ... sure of it ...
My head broke water and they were all shouting ... “Wheee! Spits sand like a MARV.”
“Got the arm, Ben? Pull!”
Faces bobbing around me like insane, hairy corks - rolling curl drove me down again. Undertow slammed me along shell races, random-like, my six-feet-two crunched up here and spread there among six groping hands - me knowing how clams feel when an octopus gets hungry.
“Bloody detective! Work him mate, across the hydraulic.”
“Yeah! Big-T, don’t let him go under - not again!”
Surface scum broke around me, but I didn’t break away easy - from the claw drawing out and smooth, running away ... I grabbed for the hand. In the strike of morning air I spit brine - I had a belly-full. Suddenly I felt free! Making three strokes of a crawl. Brine suck suddenly vanished, alone, rolling into backstroke courtesy of a long forgotten instructor who taught steady breathing and taught best on her back ... Suddenly, floating glassy space, between the rollers and kissies.
Neck deep in bubbly surf. All four of us more or less floating together. Vitalle, Hricko. And the girl. Peachy. Flashing brown curves and orange stripes that couldn’t hold water, and under blond hair a diamond choker sharped bright for every barracuda in Charleston Harbor. Circling.
Her two stripes held me up and she was giggling. “Dinkum-down, he’s alive!” Gold seaweed flashed. “MARVINNNNNN!” She whooped, diving away under a nest of pale brown wavelets and up. Tan legs kicking high. Her hand flourishing a piece of sodden drift.
“Iron men for my wooden ship,” she shrieked and wriggling buried teeth in Hricko’s neck.
Me sputtering. Her piece of hull flying overhead. Right! A man could sink or swim beside her.Running, was she? Didn’t seem the kind. She could sink an armada!From whom was she hiding underwater? She had a vague Welsh accent, the long ropy arms of a sporting girl and I couldn’t imagine where the Island pervert Ben Hricko had found her.
A copper thinks that way, a careful one. Hell no, I wasn’t jealous of Hricko’s luck, and I thought that through quick! Only dead men find themselves where they are, and all that eastern crap, I’d always figured. Control is good. I sucked down a frost-aire mouthful. Still gasping, treading water, but wondering if Hricko needed a lecture? A lecture about women who had better places to be. Hell no, I figured, not a lecture from a married man, but soon as I found a camera I’d send him a postcard of three bobbing heads, and Isle of Palms behind in three layers - white sand, dunes thick in brown sea-oats and southern sky foaming black ... because you only think the real intense memories stay most clear and the last woman was the right one.
A dying wave carried weightless me to the bottom. When I came up all three were laughing, betting my wool-T, ripped where the sand bottom last said hello would go under again and me with it. All three padding bubbles - waiting for me? Sure I wore swimming grandpas black wool wife-beater when the temps neared 50-F!
Hricko cracked a ice-smile. “Like gravity, Nick, let the curl roll under and stretch you.”
Vitalle wallowed, spit oceans of brine like he’d tried the martini and didn’t like it. “Sure, we try it again, but Jesus, Mary and the diver Joseph - DeLeon! Don’t push at the gawdamned crest!”
Must be me, looking for an excuse not to be cold and wet again. Far to the south-east, where two-mile long rock jetties herded a line of fat freighters piloting Charlestons harbor, bright aluminum sail-masts dogged each-other. A triple of blue-water motor-sailors tacked against gusts in a kind of sword-fight. Captains exchanged leads and shifted places, masts jabbed, rolled and sank fighting for position yet to be, anticipating the reaching north-wind when Captains yanked-over the mainsails and bows blossomed south'ard. Piss poor day I thought for testing keels, yet I could dream of being at the rudder. Eyes sharpened I saw the fin.
“There ya crazy polar bears,” I shouted. It broke water just beyond the surf-line. Hricko next caught the threat and shouted … but Peachy singsong ...”it's only a Mako gets close just kick its eye.” Crushing against, then pushing Hricko away, Peachy’s green eyes sparked. “Follow me, Mr. detective, bugger-ye-all. Use your eyes. Follow me orange stripes.”
Really, time for one more poke-in-the-eye to Neptune? Right! Bad advise arrived three-at-a-time. Silver glint caught my attention, at the far curve of beach, where Isle of Palms butts low windy dunes rich and east against Bulls Island. Glint’s a snap-shot I filed, before Peachy found a heckling rip-current sucking us out there mind the devil out there and we followed her diamond choker far into pale green combers as if she were Neptunes daughter and we benighted suitors. A space chopped from the surf where friends swam close and having Pans gay time after months seemed less like a fine idea than a patiently etched lithograph.
I picked that wave you would laugh at, a wave that squandered it’s crest in a low sandy rush to carry me into shore. A wave only aMARV would take if he didn’t want a solo ride, or a swimmer whose arms were too tired to swim if he could only feel the skin. Another shot of Vodka did not warm a copper who couldn’t shake the feel of being watched.
Not much later I stood alone in the deep wet sand, sucking in heavy damp ... escaping the three damn-fools anyone could say ... I still breathed heavy, leaning against theSTATION 32 sign dug into the dunes. Its yellow top rattled steady and I was staring into nep tide and spiting brine, sucking down on the Straight, blowing a thin stream of smoke into the stiff easterly. I must have looked a wreck, should have, planned to ... Puffing, itching too from the wool-T, a salt crust forming on it, wet and cold. Too tre’-hip, them laughing at the wool-T and I thought it was dammit-handsome - them - Hricko, Vitalle and the girl waved atop foaming pyramids beyond the first line of breakers where friends swam. All three would roast in Catholic hell.
Roast and bast while I watched. It made a difference, making time on a timeless beach, and you don’t do that watching in a careless way, no copper does who expects to collect a pension. I got busy now, looking farther out, steady eye on Tony’s model sailboat. It had flung itself far-up the surf-line tacking sharply 2-points off gusting NorEast wind. Vitalle took his models serious. Collecting his control-box, I flicked on a back-lighted blue switch that connected the controller chip to the onboard Alpha-900. I had short-circuited the model sail-boats brain, the silicon-on-Saphire maze that tied in sails, tiller, magnetic compass and gradient sensors like a sharks - better Tony said - and I took manual control with the palm-ball. Tacking it closer upwind. Sails fethered; I fingered the stick on the brushed metal, first teasing the hull by losing stolen points, luffing the foresail and shaving square-feet off the mainsail. The hull shivered and came ‘round, bow swiveling smartly smartly before the offshore, and diving between swells, diving sharp like a hungry gull. Nine scaled feet at the waterline, a stiff Boston Cutter design in dark mahogany, bright
maple, silicon and pale creme silk sail that made me look bad. It raced fast to the south all sails thrown and a bow-wave daring the swells. Closer now, and about ready to dive East Peachy bobbed up alone beside it. Damme I’d never seen a sea-snake swim so far so fast. I waved a tepid little wave. “Go to hell!”
Her hair flew tangles of blonde, and she was shouting like I could hear anything above roaring ocean. “_F u d r_ ot,” was the best I could make.
“Bite Hricko’s ass this time,” and this time I rocketed the shout more down the beach than out. If anybody cared. And I wasn’t trying the surf, again, like a damned waterlogged Palmetto sucked out by high tide and delivered to Davy Jones. Damn them - I was bracing awkward shin deep in sand, still wet above the high tide line, wet from the rain-squalls, me frozen staring up beach.
Where trouble delivered early. I took it out of the file - the silver flashes - trouble could have mailed a postcard, and in poor pink morning light the photo made my right hand itch and my arm from long practice at a cross-draw hung casual.
Happenstance, people out of place, the runners - they cost me half a morning surf and a lung-full of Virginia blend.
As a cop sees it, they had appeared coming from my off side, the east for a right handed shooter. But at that distance, an experienced man doesn’t think about a shot - not really, not one that counts, and you keep on dividing the distance in half as they approach like mad Zeno. Now they passed stone groins west of the tide pools. Groins that divide the beach east to west, dividing wealthy from hip, as if Station 32 beach front wasn’t three-white-bills-a-week in season. Sort of a boundary them, the low sand covered groins where teens got stoned, stoned and laid every Friday night, where now the silver flashes stopped for a sand-fight. Near a flock of catamaran masts feeding on sea-oats.
Hricko must have been running carefree and careless when he got shot. Then they continued down the beach toward me. They should have stopped dead. You knew that if you know the Island, knew it as well as the Holy City. I did and that was part Hricko’s fault - him an Island person and part that I sail, even
hopping sand-spits natives call barrier islands in the pestiferous Charleston Yacht Club multi-hulls. So I recognized the nest of catamarans that should have signaled stop and breakfast for thin, rich, jogging Palm Dunes whites from the eastern tip of the Island, since no tourist played fool on a wet winter Isle of Palms beach. And a copper didn’t escape easy, rapping on his own skull like that. It made the jukebox play.
‘Trouble’s always local for you, that’s the black bitch of it,’ Fila had said so long ago I couldn’t remember when – six months could be so long ... ‘It’s yourmood, Nicholas.’
‘Fucking DeLeon! You out there screwing around with those pervo’s at when? Five AM! Your white ass shark-bait, and I got six cases for you Nicky, six new stiffs in the morgue and you gotta play shark-bait. Who the uncircumcised-white-fuck isMARVIN, anyway ...,’ Captain Marsh had railed not two days before.
‘You ain’t snappin’ at me Lieutenant, like ya yost to ... had an AIDs test recent ...?’ Funny how lez babes get pissed when ya don't hit on 'em. Anita ... Sargent Bowers hadn’t wasted a smile.
The stainless Rolex read six AM. An early December Friday. Wind stinging bitter as Spanish espresso ... Isle of Palms front beach under cold squall. I sucked it in hungry, and alone since matters of personal affection are private matters. What’s public is the nickel you earn.
Across Charleston Harbor. At City Station. Where bones got broke in public. Where the living and the dead grinned the same dead grin. Captain Marsh, the lez and every dark-town or SOB stiff without a concrete leg. Trying to cozy up, like coppers kept people from being dead. It’s a honey-mouth deviance that feeds on the Low Country like bees suck pollen. Over there. When I sucked in the Straight I got marsh and bitter fresh salt and the swaying palmettos. All here, all stolen and stolen smooth. But it’s funny how often I thought in their voices ... Bowers and Captain Marsh’s and Fila’s ...
When memories came they clawed back, the sheer viciousness ... Six months since Hricko inhaled three lead deuces; six months since Vitalle swallowed gall, and let Fila back in his bed.
Words clawed back - those passed around, about her share. Fila’s. That she had gotten more than her share of both men. She and the bitch Peg Bottie. Stories of guilt hidden, City Station corrupted by double-cross, by drug pay-offs, money under the table and willing flesh beneath black, silk sheets. Plenty of rumors passed through the SOB side of Charleston, after the killings at Peg Bottie’s beach house grew cold.
I drug down to nub on the Straight and flicked it onto wet sand. It sizzled out, like stories passed around, but not passed around by anyone who knew ... most of it - all of Fila’s part that I didn’t know could have died with Hricko. But after enough raw blood to give AIDS to Africa, after the surgeons cut and got lucky - Hricko stayed alive and pissing!
For my taste he deserved better - or easier. What it cost him to come back. Vitalle had slapped him around Isle of Palms breakers till brine got spit not blood - coming out of the kissies. In the last month he was better. A month - while he found a girl he called Peachy and babbled madly, as if bungalow fever couldn’t snatch at the best of us.
I stood there on the beach good times a fresh taste in my mouth, Bowers rapping from the juke and with nobody but myself to blame playing silent movies in amber and damned foul black like the pink sky smudged and the surf roared while for all I knew the runners had morphed into silver plated crabs.
Then Hricko. He squirted in a hydraulic and came dripping across sandbars. Still paste white and woozy from rehab, his face razor thin, gaunt enough to see through, not just his face but humbled being weak and us knowing it. He dragged a shaved, rolling forehead and cockatoo baggys - new muscle on his shoulders for all that. And if bad luck dragged along he hadn’t gone tourist to the morphine motel and then native; contrary, near hyper-conscious, snatching crooked-neck glances from his brainstem and snapping them up the tide-line. Intense. If you didn’t know him, he’d scare crap out of you for what he might know.
Hricko came in that self-conscious way and gimp-legged behind me to a canvas bag. “What say, Nick?” He pointed to the surf where Vitalle and the girl sucked out on a rip-tide. “Big-T gonna freeze a testicle?”
“I can’t see the girl’s hands. Maybe not!”
A cracked smile split his face. “That’s a happily married man for you!”
“That’s any copper whose kept his wife.”
He turned a bit cautious, the surgeon’s scar stitched to his spine, stitched big as a freeway exit sign sayingDON’T WALK. God’s own gimpy luck. “Peachy says I trust her too much.”
“Trust her with what?”
“Fucking married Baptist!” He extracted a towel and shades and my pack of Straights laying on top, reached for the thermos and hopped swearing away when a sandspur bit his foot.
I sympathized. “Peachy. What’s her given name, her real one?”
“Peachy says she’s not real.”
“Least she keeps it interpersonal.” Last month, last surf I’d seen her for the first time, and she had only watched us - I couldn’t say being a long married man whether she watched like a Shepard or like a crow. Men don’t really ask. “And them?”
A pope-in-pig iron, I swore, Hricko, still weak I thought sort of curled into a canvas windbreak and still watching too close. One of us. I spit out some of the Straight. “How do you figure the pilgrims?”
“Pilgrims?” Only now - like he hadn’t noticed - did his face set due north boring into the runners. “I figure them ... closer.”
Which was close to the most threatening way Hricko could ever look at a person. Already I’d guessed the runners to be local and said so. “Island people, then.”
Hricko still dancing his toe off the sand, fumbling an orange juice bottle, cursing. “God’s mother, nothing to worry about, until they’re closer.” Then pawing the chrome Zippo. “But you, you worry me, Nick,” he coughed through a salt-water lung, “ all this damned watching. I watched too - it didn’t help half-a-fuck.” He drained the pint.
On this beach six months before, Hricko had watched careful, watched while his ex-lover Fila McKay dumped three slugs into him. Makes a man lose faith in his eyes ... “Cutters got the slugs,” I said sharp, looking away. “Now, try protein powder with your tequila.”
“Powder. Kilos of powder, liters of oil. Didn’t I ...” and he cut off, a frail mathematician cutting off a wayward equation that instead of spiraling into nothing, swings back and forth, growing ...longer.
My eyes shoot back. “Hricko, the surgeon took plenty, but didn’t take out half enough. He stopped at the bullets!”
“When to stop, Nick, nobody knows ...” He tricked around facing me. “Peachy says I should eat hagis and blow in her ear.”
“When doesthat stop?”
“She’s real sensitive there.”
“Smart girl ... knowing how to start ...”
“Yeah, smart ... girl.” He fumbled for a fresh Red. “How did Tony know … what did Sammy say … ?” Silence. Safe now, Hricko was just too tired to push.
“Sammy said he wore a checkered bow-tie, like Poirot”. For pals it was a fair enough try at present tense. He laughed tight, blew a stream of smoke from the Straight and shook one at me. Fired the Zippo. Sighted east along the flame. Snapped the cap over the runners. “Those pilgrims ... Hermes, or a silver crab, if silver crabs have six legs.” He hacked out the second drag. “Changed my mind, Nick. About your pilgrims. Looks like City business for a careful city detective.”
“City doesn't pay me once I cross the Sullivans Isle bridge.” Well, yeah, Hricko, I thought, so damned pretty clever, and if good were natural then dead would be hilarious. Hricko was still having fun and his jest came out a question, curious, the curiosity of a molested child wondering if an adult had lost his nerve - Charleston’s mulatto slap. I squinted up beach into a slice of sun glowing pewter. “Business, huh. Think so?” Maybe I saw six legs. “Your friends, Hricko, not mine
- one, two, three less than three.”
A taste sharp-edged like the taste of fermenting cranberries crackled in the wet, heavy air. The carry seemed a mile away, and buried inside a copper’s 40 caliber auto-load; I leaned over to loose hemp bindings and touch the cold pearl grip snuggling inside, then slipped it back when Hricko stared, his thin face breaking into a string of hacks ... then a smile.
“Peachy says, they call it ‘playing the bells’ in Riga, when a man touches a gun, because a funeral will most certainly follow.”
“Can’t hear a thing but the gulls.”
“Listen carefully. Who likes a friend’s funeral?”
“World traveler, she is ... Peachy. Every now and about she needs a bit of the provincial touch.”
“Friendship, huh … Eve is counting on a wedding Shower and 1st-person singular chat for The MS PEEPERS column. Eve is not one to disappoint.”
Hricko laughed, but did not smile. “Peachy is a modern woman … you know the thing about '… words of love …'?
I stood straight and looked, really stared at the man. Always pinched, Hricko’s face, profit and loss like a broker face should look. Always the cynical smile, bone deep. But now the face worried faster than it had - all cost ... he pinched at the words, and two scars that healed slowly over skin and bones. Dichroics flashed a gold band to the row of kissies, where his latest blond victim was giving Vitalle lessons.
“Friends?” Hricko said questioning, watching the men approach. “I have no Island friends. Not before ten.” He pushed back the dichroics, to the top of his shaved head. “Only women, Nick, just the wom...”
Hricko bit off the last word and again plunged into the grog. On his better days you couldn’t shut up the man, when talk turned to some obscure folk-lore like Latvian burials or wave-function collapse or just who qualified as an Islander on Isle of Palms. Only Islanders knew just who. Short in the wallet, most of them, before the developers came, and their reefer long. Older ones lean and laconic except when the blues were running in fall, and their children fat and misbehaved - while the Navel Shipyards still worked. Plenty had died with the Yard ...
Both Vitalle and I were Charleston people, SOBS if we had to admit. Tony and Fila living on the Battery and me on Colonial Lake. Both of us born to it ... not hardly.
“I’d die twice if I had too,” Hricko was musing, “just to meet her again.”
She. Peachy. She was too young and too peach-blond and too European in all the bad ways Americans imagine for Tony or me to be jealous and she rode grey hurricane combers like Neptunes daughter. “Woman, huh.” I tossed the butt. “Age Peachy fast? Tell me she’s twenty.”
“Not a day younger.”
“Full of crap, head to toe!”
“She’s bred to it. Nick, the money, the casual freedom. Cat’s claws and all. But I drag out each second. Different women take differently to that. Peachy said ...”
I fumed. “Peachy says, Peachy said ... you’re so full of it, Hricko. She’s got youMARVED.”
“Think so. Cut off at the waist?”
“Balls tied up like chicken necks in a crab-pot.”
Both Eve and Fila thought so. Said so. But then both women were old Charleston and saw less opportunity than danger in an untethered man like Ben Hricko and stole blithely any Island rummage to prove it.
Hricko prodded his beach-carry. “That true? Should put a man on guard.”
“Fed regular, though, eh Hricko?”
Hricko nervous. “Thought you said they cut it out?” His arm twitched spilling two stainless vacuums from the canvas. One coffee, one Brandy-Alexander if the hospital didn’t change him. He shoveled a chipped cup toward me. “Lucky for me, it’s not bottled.”
The ceramic steamed alcohol and burned my mouth. “Women, huh!”
I’d lost count of Hricko’s women, and that’s saying plenty for a married man. Whatever we think missed writ down in fractions. Anything half-way salacious, a happily married man counts twice, even when Saturday morning is a wake-up-alone. Though he’d have his way quick enough, before most of them knew ... When Hricko brought them ‘round - he always did, the smart ones, anyway, for old scotch at Tony’s digs or slings and crab on my back lawn - those women he brought around had already woken up. Alone doesn’t take a man two people, but women feel the need ... Some fractions those ... I always figured them homicides and the man convicted without a body. I’d lost count, done my time. Hricko never got parole.
He pawed light at two day’s beard. “She’s not for the security, you know. Not mine, Nick.”
“Your security? Certainly not, if fish have fins!”
He insisted. “There’s whiskey money, someplace in her family.”
“What isn’t she getting from you?”
“Baptists, Nick. We should have burned every one in 1590.”
“Daddy’s little what? Capitalist daughter?”
Hricko faced around. “More like, daddy’s long fast runabouts and short reaches.”
“A smuggler .. or a gun-runner!”
Hricko wouldn't give an inch, if he knew a yard. “A buccaneer!”
“Some fit, then ...” A new woman always is, I thought, till she isn’t new.
“Second time around for us; Peachy doesn't mind … says I'm as helpless as before. Life starts over, Nick. It can ... getting used to the ... the damned peace of it.”
He didn’t need to convince me, what he’d forgotten. Rain-squall spattered our faces and we both found caps. Either we started on Fila right then or we walked. When a lover cuts you down, bleeding from the heart she still cuts below the waist. Men see that clear - and we thought about hashing old eggs ... swaying easy in the awkward way moving from soft sand onto crust with Vitalle and Peachy someplace behind and the runners gaining in front. Life never did get all the way right, not in the real world. I’d never seen it. I said. “Another month, you’ll feel better about it, being on the rebound.” Hricko quiet. Me backing off. “Sharing the cot, is she?”
“Half or I've lost a number somewhere?”
Hricko sputtering and me damning Eve silent. Brandy was beating back the cold. “Together then, you and Peachy, tomorrow, at the party?”
Hricko brightened at the word - damned near jumped out of his sandals. “Certainly, if your wife doesn’t mind.”
My wife Eve minded plenty, before chatting up this Irish sylph. “Not at all, Ben; she’s asked about you.” ‘Has the perv croaked yet?’. That question was the last I recalled, but Eve might have asked me twice. I told her I’d ask ... “Out of the closet for you, Hricko.”
He considered that, longer than a bachelor should. “Next day too, Nick, at Blessing of the Fleet. The god-forsaken frozen ass fleet.”
“Taking the runabout to Shem Creek Marina, or you got to make Peachy work?”
“What do you think?”
“You mean the Akkad? Jez Ben ...” I scanned surf - Peachy and Vitalle thrashed in kissies like blues thrashing spot. “Some bear!”
“I thought she was sweet. Smart, too, eh like she doesn’t need to care. Have you introduced her yet to Jenni?”
“Peachy’s thing is FORTH, but Jenni didn’t seem to mind.”
“Ben, good friend, ass-hole. For once, listen to a Baptist. Have a good time with Peachy - make a flounder fart. And stay a weeks’ sail away from Father McClusky, til Peachy misses a period.”
‘Misses two,’ I thought. Smart stuff? We wouldn’t have laughed out loud. And what man can afford wide open eyes when he deals with a woman? We had walked thirty yards up the beach to the husk of a buried palmetto. We squinted, both looking east through the tide of sea-oats, shading against sun ... I’d half a mind to retrieve the carry ...
... when Hricko decided he knew the runners. “There we go ... not crabs at all ... some odd threesome, though. What’s TJ doing with the twins?”
“TJ? Parents don’t want to know.” But I felt better, since stoner skins never needled me wrong. Even a walking alkaloid syringe like TJ. “They’re alone.”
“By a quarter mile,” Hricko laughed. He spit some red but not much. “That hand’s awful casual, detective. What say you bring in Big-T’s Cutter. I’ll take the pervs.”
“Sure you can manage with that toe?”
“As long, Nick, as you don’t shoot it off. And remember, one means yes, zero mean no, one-zero means three ...”
I was striding away. “Roast with Popes in Catholic hell, Hricko.”
Silver crabs were his nickel - the Island. And taking them on one decision more than most men got to make for me, but then Hricko knew his island - and he was walking in front. I’d give him that much. He gimped up beach with his right hand steaming fresh old Brandy.
I slacked back to our pile of beach-bags, pulled on my duck jacket and flopped into a canvas lounge that some wop had misdesigned and Eve bought over the Web. I struggled in it some, while fishing out Vitalle’s black box and hit the one-shot labeled HOME. Question-mark flash on the screen. Some one-shot. I stood and looked out over the last wave, at the cutter hull crossing east. Y-2-4-1 lettered starboard. Maybe so. Lettering disappeared beneath white foam. The silk sails felt for wind, chopping rough at smaller seams in the sloughs, but steaded and slew around, counting points in silicon and HEX-code that I read too well now. Lucky me, Tony figured funny with his control-commands. I sucked on a thermos while nine feet of patiently hand-assembled and varnished hull drove due west.
“Jeez Nicky, you got spaz fingers,” came the roar. “You make me nervous!” The voice came up behind like a slap on the back.
“Bully for me - twice before seven AM.”
“That blue button works the jib reefer.”
“Pretty fancy for glued popsicle sticks,” I said, now punching curious at the blue button.
“Those popsicle sticks cost three big-ones.”
“I feel your pain - one bet at Saul’s poker table.”
“Careful, Nicky. The city doesn’t cover cosmetic surgery, and my collection guy doesn’t have a brainstem.”
Vitalle is a big man who doesn’t need talking loud to shout. He shouted right through the twenty knot wind whistling from the east. Peachy was crawling all over his J-sailor, in the kissies, nipping at a yard and clipping down a cantelever
dangling over the stern. She might have been a mechanic - but Tony is a big man and women don’t seem to fear him.
Her eyes quizzed Tony, but she said to me. “Looks like Ben's got the problem.” Peachy giggled, spilling honey, all over. “He's a hippy, TJ so he's well-stoned by now. Don’t be an old man, detective, even if you surf like a Palmetto log.”
Peachy had lifted the the keel thru its slate, and by a yellow hemp rope leading it by yards. Something wrong … the hull grounded in a foot of friffles. Coming up now through the shell-lace sand, slipping a towel about her waist Vitalle flipped her over his back, a race of gold fog into a fresh gust of cold. She screamed innocent ... something about the woman’s scream that yanked me around, toward Hricko and TJ and the two kids who were talking animated along the first dune line. Just an innocent scream; just fresh-mouth from a young woman among friends. Fear caught me surprised, plenty surprised, how it coiled among friends and struck at random.
They weren’t, thirty yards away and walking toward us, the tattooed stoner with unstylish long hair and the twins mobbing Hricko, all three of them and Hricko wasn’t laughing. He stopped at his bag, removed the nickel-plated revolver and stuffed it into the band of his cockatoo baggies. I noticed his gimp had disappeared ... a gambler now much quicker betting short. He wasn’t having fun anymore.
Soon as they got close enough to spit, the boy gave me smart-mouth. “Are you the dick?” Twins, Island-kids ten years old, beach-smart, dirty blond and shivering in the damp rising wind. The girl tugged at her silver Speedo and wrapped arms - brother scraped sand into Hoodos and raced ahead. “You sit like a dick.”
I let him gape-mouth until he turned blue. “Sez who,” I said, easing back in the canvas?
“TJ sez so!”
“Perps chewing that rap don't breath too good.” The pervo settled uncomfortable in the sand, and I switch-eyed from him to the twins. “What else does he say?”
“He sez I gotta squeal since I found ... him. Gonna put me in the lineup so I can fart beans?”
“Yuck,” said the girl, “my brother touched a leg ...”
“Did not! Just pushed him with my foot. I won’t get AIDS, will I, just because he’s dead?”
The kid looked scared and a scared kid is a good one. I wasn’t about to feel his pain. “Happens sometimes, to punks. You’re not a punk, are you kid?” He cringed behind TJ and that was good. I pulled off the ripped wool-T and scratched. Reached for the 38-cal revolver hiding inside my canvas carry and tucked it under the beach towel. “Say it again punk. Who’s dead?”
“That man, bobbing up-and-down in the water!”
Then the girl started to sob. I didn’t see a reason, just then, to get out of the lounge. The red raglin had wrapped comfortable around my shoulders. Brandy clean and hot, and the Straight tasted smooth. Peachy threw a purple-stripe beach towel over their heads and they clung together. A detective needs to be comfortable ... smooth. They had solved cases and snotty grand-kids. They got promoted. Nervous, uncomfortable detectives get widows. Vitalle and Hricko had both yanked on sweats and were pulling the J-schooner to shore talking low and unhappy. A sand-crab darted from a hole, then darts back as they circled in front, TJ and the twins.
“How come it's still dark detective?” TJ then pushed dichroics into a shock of straw hair, sampled the faint silver sun and fingered a Churchill-sized spiff. Resin drooled from the burnt end; he hadn’t stopped smiling, not for a second.
His frontal-lobes fully rewired, TJ wasn’t thinking much, but I figured he could still talk. “TJ! Who - or what is bobbing?”
His hand clamped down, on a wild snicker. Mimicking Hricko’s cracked smile with a floating disembodied smirk, but he was thinking hard and thinking came hard behind the reedy eyes. TJ must have been, thinking hard to remember the last fifteen minutes. He stopped thinking. Some of the snicker got out. “How-ya goi’n, Mister detective?”
“That’s good, Mr detective.” He chuckled small and winked at the boy. “Neither is the floater; 'cepting crabs he's got the tide pool all to his'self.”
That made three fools with the same story ... made me wince - a young man’s casual disregard for the living. I rolled a Straight over my thumb and threatened it with the Zippo, then ran an X-ray through the skinhead. “So the boy sez. Gotta stop buying inflatables at Benni’s sex shop, TJ. Never know where you’re gonna lose them. Where did you?”
“Inflatable? You mean a blow job? The old lady ain’t around.”
“I mean the body!”
“Body’s in the tide pool, Mr detective, and getting busy.”
“I chased away the crabs,” the girl volunteered with a sour face.”
Her brother’s face screwed up. “I smashed one with a plank!”
“Bet you did, punk. Good for you!”
“But, I ws careful not to hit the flounder-gig poking through his left eye.” He shifted, uncertain, behind TJ’s leg. “You hafta tell our mom? She’ll be pissed we didn’t go straight to the Red-and-White.”
Peachy tousled the kid’s hair. “Kind of early for a milk-run, son.”
“We, we ...” the boy stammered back a secret, but his sister pouted and spilled beans. “Mom ran out’a Baillys.”
She told me a lot. “TJ! What did you run out of?”
“Me!” Straw hair flopped lazy over leering eyes. “Just on my way home, Mister detective, heh heh heh. You know how the old lady hates it when you’re late!”
Which bought ‘round lines of snickering - even from the punk, but he and Sis were losing cool fast, jiggling away. “We gonna stand around, Mr dick like pelican poop?”
“Yeah, Mister detective,” went the sniggering, “like pelican poop.”
Fine with me. I made with a long whistle. “They say we got a dead body, Tony. What do you think?”
“You checked his pulse,” came the grunt?”
“I got one’na those,” TJ drooled.
Out of the surf, even the fat had muscle, a bear getting fur put on and he was in no hurry. He took his time lighting a fat Partagas. He got a full mouth of spice before talking. “A dead body in Charleston Harbor ... that ain’t nothin’ to think about. Now on Isle of Palms ...”
“Yeah, some crap! What’s your guess?”
“My guess? Another coked up Charleston lawyer with his knickers down.”
“Got him pegged, Nicky. But most shysters don’t die fast enough to float. Must be his rubber doll blew out a window.”
Vitalle said it certain, and this sent the perv into a little dance. Talking with his feet. Second time around, TJ got the words worked out, with more than four letters. His snicker got loud, under dichroics. “I got one of those Mr. detective, a rubber sex-doll. Don’t get tired like the old lady, but the floater’s nowhere near the same. Got a man’s body, and has big flounder-gig poking through where no A-holer would care.”
I rocked the lounge a little deeper in the sand. “Looked careful, huh. Inspected the body? Makes a man wonder, you looking for something special!”
TJ was checking his dictionary. Not the kid. “We found him, me, TJ and Sis,” he whined snot-faced, “and we ain’t no perv-hounds! Now we get to help you, Mr dick.”
“But we gotta get back to mom,” the sister whined.
“Soon as we can, kitten,” Peachy said, buttoning the bottom two buttons on her own weatherproof now snuggling the girl.
“My leg's cold too,” whined the boy.
“Punks always are cold,” I grunted his way. “You need a sea-witch to light that leg on fire?” He wailed collapsed beside Peachy holding her leg.
“Christ, DeLeon, them’s last words.” Tony’s Partagas belched a cloud that had never seen Honduras, sweet, commie and thirty a pop.
“Ya can't call the locals. You gotta look, don’tcha?”
Hricko evil-eyed Vitalle. “Our detective’s got a spare, eh Big-T?”
“No harm in ...,” I said unconvincing.
Hricko muttered. “We do have a sherif, Nick, or that’s what Sherif Kinney calls himself and that’s why we pay him.”
“Kinney, huh ... he still with the Promise Keepers?”
“Baaad attitude, Nicky.” Vitalle grunted - his mouth caught bits of gold-flake label, chewed and spit out. “Calling it in?”
He was working cotton across the sails, before reefing, but rain-spit had made drying the cutter’s silk impossible. Then he said dry-mouth. 'There's something queered with the model-J Nicky. The protective yard for the bow-bow is snapped for'ard, and the flounder gig has been fired. Can't happen, but did happen”
“Fresh loaded this morning?”
“Cat-gut waxed and barbs sharpened. Want I should leave it?”
“”Shook my head. “Pack it away.”
Vitalle had that look, and had left his piece under the front seat of his pick-up. Both made a difference - both made him nervous. “Mebby you should even call the dyke ...”
Gawd-forsaken mess. I kicked up from the chair. Sand and salt and canvas went flying ... some indecision with it. “Calling what in,” I rapped a bit too loud. “I have not seen a thing.”
Tony’s Partagas belched! “Figures!”
I protested. “Just a one-shot, Tony. Let's put peepers on whatever’s got these good citizens nervous. ”
“Last chance, Nicky, keep them peepers to yourself!” He shook his head, and sponged careful at the finger-size teak planking with a chamois. “Maybe Charleston got a better class ‘o stiff.”
“I’ve only seen the dead kind.”
“Your party, Nicky.” He spit Habanos into the sand. “I’ll take the kids and the girl, get them back home. Get a fresh thermos at the Comber. Follow you up beach.” He was fiddling the model into a teak rack.
“Fine, letting Peachy handle the kids. Give us a hand, won’t you Peachy?”
She snatched one hand from each of the twins, and shined Hricko with a grin that would give an Eskimo skin cancer. “Won’t get lost on me now, will you Benji?”
Hricko blushed under the wind-burn, while Peachy glowed as she had on top of the wave. Both twins dropped-jawed. “You’re prettier than my mom,” said Sis.”
“She’s a babe,” said the punk.
“Watch that mouth, punk or a sea-witch will steal a front-tooth and you be called one-tooth!” She’d be a good one in time, I figured, she’d be a long way from Hricko. ‘Benji?’ I thought and didn’t want to know ...
We moving away, Tony leading Peachy and the twins toward his Ford-250, Hricko and me prodding TJ following a path of wet
sand footsteps. The boy called back. “Are you the dick who shoots everybody? TJ tells us you’re a killer!”
“Only punks, kid, I only shoot punks. You’re not a punk, are you?”
“He farts beans,” shrieked his sister.
I scowled at her. “Enough, already! You tell stories on your brother, young lady, you’re gonna end up like TJ.”
TJ had out his butterfly knife, probing and testing the end of the blunt. “Yeah, man, isn’t the little Peyoteros great!”
From yards away, the girl looked back to snatch the compliment.
I snatched the knife. “A man doesn’t have to like that.”
“What’s wrong,” TJ whined? “I just polished the blade.”
“Think harder, TJ! What did you mean to say?”
“Damn! He fumbled in a back pocket. “Tell some stories, Mr. detective, that’s fer sure, and the twins sure can learn a lot from me. But man, you’re so fucking-A right, I shoulda clued Mrs Peachy right to the metal.”
“Clued her what? The kids will be safe.”
“Well yeah mebby so Mr Detective she'll clean and warm them up; feed 'em hot tomato soup and crackers I bet. But, the twin’s mom sure gonna be pissed. I still got keys to the handcuffs!”
Floater, huh ... I was muttering to myself as we pushed up the beach. Hand-cuffs, huh, and out of Bailly’s - gal’s in a fix. We scruffed east on wind-packed, damp sand. I felt sorry for the twins; I didn’t feel sorry for her. Any woman who lets herself get handcuffed on Friday morning needs a husband. TJ lagged in an aimless way and I dug a thumb in his ribs for the point not to save minutes but the whole damned morning.
And the stainless Rolex hadn’t yet hit the six-fifteen alarm. I clipped it off fast when the buzz came. Most surfing Fridays when the buzz came I’d be sitting next to Hricko on the butt-end of Vitalle pick-up, gulping bad french-roast. Vitalle would be burning the twenty-dollar end of a Habanos, both of us brandy-laced and watching Hricko light a city-rolled lefty that some vixen had stuck in his ear when she discovered left-handed really did mean a rope-burn, but not this morning.
If I hustled a time-line. Captain’s Marsh’s first bitch came due over an old forensic report at seven-ten; the lez punched in at seven-fifteen. Day shift at City Station got busy like a pool of crabs worrying a floater at seven-thirty. That left one hour on the beach - one hour for me to pick away. And this morning rushing at me; we were shuffling up beach after a rubber duck in a crab-pond. Nobody appeared more certain of that than Hricko, looking dissolute and thoughtful and put upon, a dis-repaired Island burger shaved head and all who misplaced bodies, but never expected to find one. I figured he’d be nervous, no matter what. TJ nonchalant and wasted. Me? I didn’t expect a rubber duck. Nothing at all, really, except a worm-eaten Palmetto log. Probably nothing to TJ’s story, but I had started feeling for the odd way and when TJ stopped drooling I started taking notes.
I had to start the perv, so I rapped him again in the ribs, not hard enough to crack; just hard enough to hurt. “Talk to anyone, after you found the body?”
TJ grabbed at the bruise, and pried uncertain at the few remaining brain cells. “Do the twins count?”
“You don’t want to know.”
He sniffed. “I offered Gaia two tokes on the blunt. Does that mean Father McClusky knows?”
“Where did you see her?”
“Oh wow, a trick question, Mr detective. She’s everywhere ... I saw her in the smoke ...”
“That everything you didn’t tell us?”
“I lost my matches. Can I borrow your Zippo?”
He had the snigger down perfect, and that didn’t bother me so much. Or feckless fems-in-fetters. I lit the Zippo and stuck it in his hand. He didn’t notice, but it made crabbing east a chore, to think of the twins without a real breakfast. We moved along the beach through sharp rain showers following the wavy high-tide line of debris. A long and windy straight line that most kids got over after their first lay; like stepping on cracks in a slate sidewalk - but here sand ridges over shell that lasted just long enough for Hricko to crunch them ... Jez when I thought about it he had made it a life, picking away at those windy edges other folks just couldn’t stand.
“Empty?” Hricko started picking away at TJ. “Both hands, TJ? Only the truth?”
“Only what, Mr Hricko?”
TJ’s bell curve broke off somewhere near the steep part. Hricko let some fat squally rain-drops blow by. “Didn’t touch a thing ... certainly not ...” Hricko gimped, and flashed a thin cracked smile. “Matter of confidence, Nick,” he said snapping around at me like I had missed the good part, “ that the truth never comes at you straight.”
TJ drooled. “Like straight as pierced arrows, man.” His face read true, too true for me to ignore like a smudged tab of blotter acid.
“Which one,” Hricko continued? “The mother or the floater?”
“She’s straight, man, the old bitch, at least I think so. Sure does keep those little Peyoteros in line.”
“Some Straights, huh, Hricko mumbled.”
“What do you call a fact,” I asked?
Crap ... and I was really trying to make them walk faster. I splashed ankle-deep in the shallows yards away. “Yeah, I can tell. First Peachy, now TJ’s needled your last nerve!”
Drool wiped away. “That’s what you old guys call it now, Mister detective?”
If TJ was one of Gaia’s select, then god really did roll dice - I figured to shave a edge. I didn’t think that Hricko was playing straight-guy into my rap, but I took it anyway, the thumb in TJ’s skinny ribs and the copper’s hot poker up his ass. “What should I call it, TJ? Gaia’s busting bodice? You find two kids, a dead body and us at six-AM on Friday morning. Find them all within thirty minutes along three miles of empty beach.”
He sneered. “Didn’t have to find the twins.”
“And I’m here, Mr detective so the beach ain’t empty. The rest is bad karma!”
“Yeah, and the wind blows ... introduce me.”
“Karma? To yours? I’d be committing one of those sins Mr Hricko’s always talking about.”
“Wouldn’t want that to happen.”
“I guess not! Serious men, twitchers, can’t stop it, the bad karma.”
“It’s like totally fucked Western culture. Not like those bitch’n twins - regular little peyoteros - got a bitch’n future.”
“Think so, TJ? Like yours? You shouldn’t smoke that blunt in front of a police officer.”
“OK Mister detective. Groovin’! I’ll walk behind, but no way is this mug’l a blunt. It’s solid, man.” He spit on the glowing tip, bit down on a piece and swallowed it. Smiled from somewhere. “I didn’t hollow out anything.”
Gosh, Mister detective, you’re pretty cool for a twitcher!” His blunt still billowed, and he couldn’t figure out how to walk behind us. But he talked. “Guess that blond Nazi in the pool didn’t try hard enough.”
A nugget, a fact, another scrap falling from TJ’s drooling mouth into my notebook. If he’d seen nothing on the beach - like I figured - he’d seen plenty of the details. But he was making us pay. Nothing stinks quite like Johns Island reefer. I buttoned up the duck weather-proof, covering the auto-load tucked in at the waist. Fat raindrops spit from thunder-heads that moved east and moved fast. We didn’t jog, in that direction, but I kept up with Hricko. Said a lot, since he should have died on an operating table months before, and yet looked more now like he had. Looks deceived - that wasn’t how a careful city detective stayed alive.
“Close now Mr Detective. This is where people fly kites.”
“I can catch them with my toes! Too bad floaters can't really float!”
We kicked through a patch of seaweed covering wet sand - sand mostly covered an old stone groin. Sea-oats tried for a grip where they weren’t welcome straggling up to the dune line which they carpeted. Things have places - people do. Ben and the perv ... I have places, where people die serious. Beach sand hardened leading into the broad triangle where wind and the inlet swept thick shell layers and formed a series of sand-bars reaching into the Atlantic.
The first pool came up - round, deep and empty. A spot-tail splashed heckling mullet in shallows. I kicked my Converse sneaks into the wet edge of the pool. “Smoke anything beside the blunt this morning TJ?”
“One reefer, Mr detective.” He smirked. “But the bitch ran out of Wingz, so I had to roll blotter acid paper.” TJ sniggered. “Sorta smooths out the bird-shit taste if ya don't wash you bud, know what I mean?”
“Without the purple dragons! No watermark is a stoners bad karma."
TJ shrugged like a pro. “Why waste paper?”
A reasonable man had no answer. The row of beach houses lay ahead - waste, beach rubble - porches shattered and balconies sagged. Summer storms had not been kind - a scatter of waxed mahogany planks and the second of three brine pools drained into outgoing tide.
Hricko pulled up at the Station 40 sign and leaned over it, surveying the carnage. “You’re looking, Nick, at the front line. We’re fighting them right here to the death.”
“Once is never enough,” I said and wished immediately I hadn’t, but the wind-burn red never left Hricko’s face and I said a prayer for that.
“Same time, Nick, same station, but now I carry the piece.”
“Same everything, except the woman.”
“All of it ... all of them. Jerry-the-Arab, Saul, Peg on her PMS days and Palm Development Corp. ... the whole band of Charleston rascals.”
“This time, exactly what is the fight over?”
“Look around at the mess. They want to level all the wrecks and the underlying dunes, run stone groins out about a quarter mile to prevent erosion ... of their god-forsaken investment.”
“What about the Pelican mold? Isn't that protected!”
“Palm Development offered to coat Teflon over the top layer of rocks. Non-stick like a frying pan. Then, with a secure shore-line, they could double the structure density just off the beach. Course it won’t work. Do just the opposite.”
“No. That works fine. Teflon fries Pelican eggs perfect, and what it does to the chicks should only be done on Thanksgiving. It’s not the top of the rocks that’s the problem, but the bottoms; the groins fail and sink away.”
“So sez ...”
“So says six months of calculations. Current patterns, sand diffusion, percolation ...”
I pulled my cap down low. “Solid stuff, huh ... real convincing ...” I tried to sound convinced, that computers made of sand could make sand compute ... I was real convinced ...
Hricko could tell. He shrugged in a way of all false modesty. “ Numbers, of course ... just numbers, Nick. And so in court says SOBs black-Irish shyster. We got Palm Development Corp. tied up in circuit court.”
“You know the judge and buy the case?”
Hricko chewed on that … felony. “We bought six months ... at four-hundred-per-hour and change. Lawyers can do that.”
“You didn’t mention Representative Bottie. Whose side is she now on?”
“Peg Bottie? Peg’s, of course. Every IOP beachcomber wants to keep their cinderblock rathouse. She shows a lil' tit and she's their baby. Right now Peg's with us.”
“Using your personal influence? I know it’s been a while. Peachy
Hricko flared . “What kind of a perv ...”
“Don’t ask, Hricko, don’t tell.”
We were walking again and Hricko watching his words, because any gent will tell you that a gal thinks a good night is a good day and court starts at noon. Hricko cleared his throat. “Peg looks at my voter profiles and vote projections. She doesn’t look at them from my bed ... anymore.” Hricko massaged thoughtful at his chin. “Funny thing is, Nick, Saul doesn’t seem to mind.”
“Maybe he’s got ecology insurance ... if Pelicans don’t die fast enough.”
“Pelican poop! It’s costing him millions. Some mystery, I think, when the spreadsheet doesn’t rule.”
“Bet Jerry minds. And Tepy.”
Bens face went dark and muttered a rune the whores name. Then: “Jerry-the-Arab would rather eat with his left hand ... like pulling Cobra fangs.”
“The odd spam. But then what would Jerry do without my numbers to hate?”
Seemed to me Hricko didn’t look so certain, all the spam got filtered. He’d had experience with Jerry-the-Arab’s spam. Neither was I. “So SOB screws both of them - Jerry’s burnt toast while Saul’s a cucumber! What gives, Hricko? Him and Jerry on the outs?”
“Not Peg, is it, holding them together?”
“Goy? It’s a family disagreement with them - blood over tactics - that stays inside the family, but so does the mystery.”
Four old birds saw us and scattered in blue tennis shoes, the
younger, but silver-hair women leading older white haired stock brokers. My stainless Rolex read six-twenty and we were a sight, going to a dead rubber duck. A cloud of gulls had descended on the second pool and they weren’t going anywhere.
Vitalle beat us - he must have flown, not driven Palm Boulevard. His red Ford 4-by crashed through pickets, through refuse piles in a spray of sand and frog-skin, down a washed-out lawn to the edge of the next brine pool. He jumped out and stood waiting with a foot on the front bumper, Partagas fuming. We were huffing the last twenty yards. Hricko split off to sit on the dune. TJ had started laughing that silly little high-pitched laugh that stoners do when they’re right and told you so and remember they did. Vitalle a solid pillar could have waited a century.
Not so the gulls, waiting anxious and hungry - the floater could have waited forever.
How many rafters - - so Cap'n Marsh called them - - does it take for a copper to have seen it all? I thought my first was plenty. This stiff hadn’t heard, hair spread wild and body rocking peaceful in the shallows, where the first brine pool drains into the second and the surface of the brine made a black coffin. His dead body fresh. Straw hat fixed like the dot under a question mark; blood seeped away in a lazy rivulet. Torso laying twisted waist up but face down, facing away. I lifted part-way. Shaft-guides from the founder-gig remained dead center of his back and the trident-blades pinched through center of his heart.
Tony edged into the pool, and ran fingers of the blades. “From the J-model,” I asked?
“How far can its bow shoot?”
“Forty feet under-water. Bot shape meant for that. Nobody tests it in air.” He thought about nobody, looked down with still eyes at the floater. “At most forty yards in air and still penetrate.”
Over-designed, I thought and no surprise in something Vitalle built. The floater under-aware.
Crew-cut blond ... a tourist maybe, from where cold doesn’t count. Tan swim trunks, a European cut never in style this side of Dresden.
Both Hricko and Vitalle had backed off, to the pools shallow end where storm debris still rested and rotted. “One of Sauls Herrn?”
“Sure”, Vitalle; “seen him at the club,” Hricko; “he was fucking a masseuse at the resort spa”, TJ. “I made snowfall when she was especially horny.”
Each death has it’s own designer. This one chose to make two holes … a cautious design when delivery services can't be trusted. I waded out and knelt next to the bobbing head. One small clean hole entered his head, just below blond trim; I could imagine the face. Below his chest, one red dragon tattoo led into his spine, just above the hip. Both hands made fists. Black leather straps covered his right, the arm outstretched beside a cell-phone. Under the surface the soggy straw hat covered his left. I kicked it away. Crabs scuttled from the gold Rolex waterproof, into a sharp furrow. The hand clutched a silenced Walther auto-load, a 25 caliber, and on the shell bank beside it lay three spent-brass casings.
For me, those last seconds of life clicked into place like a Lady Derringer in a rapist’s mouth. At the very last the dead man knew everything. So clear to me - as he fell, shooting, the clean-cut watched his killer, watched helpless, spine-dead but brain alive. Knowing the purpose of his own death ... and maybe death’s meaning ... It’s a poor book that doesn’t berate the author. Was he dead by the timer shooter punched-in the head shat? Did he feel … ?
I lifted a thin alligator wallet from the clean-cut’s back pocket. Three hundred-dollar bills kept it thin. Credit cards, drivers license, green card. All current. They all gave the same name - Martin Sturmer - a German citizen with a North Charleston address. I had thought local robbery at first and had thought way wrong. It was assassination, plotted and planned homicide, a mark gone down, a flat out murder that had exposed good German steel to Carolina brine.
Tony and I both jumped, so inward focused hearing
the splash ... the perv drooling breathless at the pool edge. “Wow, Mister detective. I thought the Nazis always won!”
Slow-motion I stood up from the squat. “They do! You move anything, TJ.”
“Gosh no, Mister detective.”
“Didn’t take something from his wrist, something real valuable?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I have eyes!”
My thumb buried in his chest and he gasped. “Uh ... uh, oh, you mean like ... like binoculars?”
“Now why would I guess that?”
Vitalle’s had pushed closer, and his left hand covered the kid’s shoulder like a bear-paw.
TJ stammered. “You ... you mean, like, it might be somewhere on the lawn?”
“If you walk there, now TJ, and find the binoculars you can still walk home. Bet that’s a thrill for the old lady.”
TJ got in a hurry to breath steady and Vitalle went with him, just in case the perv had an extra lung. Hricko and I circled the pool scouting footprints. From the scrape-marks in the pool beside the body, footprints that wouldn’t be. Both lower pools sat at a level between low and high tide. At high tide the pools became sandbars. At high tide, wave wash would have carried all the way to the spot where Sturmer had stood watching. Waves that could have silently carried a kayak behind a man intent on business down the beach.
But what business; whose business; why now? How a man watches makes a difference. They were Hasselblad, when TJ returned, small, gunmetal 12X, and could spot pimples on a Camel’s ass at eight-hundred yards. About distance from the body to STATION 32. They would have gotten him up close. Up close to us. Makes a man nervous, when a dead man watches.
We grilled TJ for more, scrapped down to the dried-out bean, but it’s tough to squeeze juice from a brain that thought DMT was a brand of decafe. I thought about cuffing him, for the locals, then thought about the cuffs and how sensitive locals are to German steel. TJ didn’t complain when we chased him off.
“What say, Nick, I buzz Sheriff Kinney on the cell-phone?”
We had gotten a bright blue patch from the sky and dying wind. No locals on the beach, on a scene laid out sensitive in the pieces and modes of a murder.
“Yeah, Nicky, let our local bastards hump it.” Then his sunburn face grew wary. “Not a honey-pot, do you think ...”
I guessed how funny we must look to the blue sky looking down. Hricko a man who never saw a number he couldn’t irritate. Vitalle never saw a product here, he didn’t want to move there. Sturmer, now a man who would never care … but, Hricko was thinking. I said. “You're both armed. Do a perimeter scout. Then your best at the truck.”
Ben and Tony too eager chambered shells and jogged of into the seagrass dunes. First pale sun broke the horizon like a flashlight for men searching. Minutes latter they shuffled back to Tonys Ford, to a huge stainless thermos. It steamed bad french-roast and brandy from twenty yards and I should have been sitting beside it.
Brandied french-roast was the best idea all morning and I needed good advice ... the thing about advice ... good advice is that’s it’s hard to take. I eased away, into the pool, and reached through ripples for the Nokia. Palm-sized - no K-Mart special. I shook off brine and punched the LAST CALL button.
Got buzz, click, buzz ...
“Virgin’s asshole ... Sturmer, fucking-A,
you should be dead. Sturmer ... Heh, Chotto! Who is this? Fuck with my number ...”
... buzz, click, buzz.
Not a gentleman’s companion to Central America, the heavily accented snarl. A Chotto come del-Norte’ and not so anxious for the tourist dollar ... I skipped down one number and after the buzz and the click ...
Got robo-voice ...
“BUSINESS HOURS FOR THE HARBOR CLUB
ARE ONE PM TO ONE AM. LUNCH RESERVATIONS
ARE TAKEN STARTING AT NOON. SAUL DAVIDSON
Got to do the click myself ...
Saul Davidson’s Harbor House. Saul hadn’t missed a tourist dollar since grade school. And now the green-card made sense. Too bad, one of his clean-cuts would miss lunch. On NEXT the NOKIA spit electric fuzz. Too bad. Remaining cell-phone memory had been wiped clean as Saul’s linen napkins. Christ. TJ, Sturmer, Chotto, Saul and mystery muffins. Before seven. It wasn’t the Nokia that had a bandwidth problem.
I caught the shout from Vitalle like a blast of good advise. “So much, DeLeon, for putting the peepers on a rubber doll!”
Hricko and Vitalle rested easy against the Ford - TJ might have been unlocking handcuffs; I wouldn't … and good for him. A pair of police sirens whined in the distance. I was nowhere without forensics and without jurisdiction anyway.
Vitalle stood ankle deep in the sand, fuming on the Habanos and shaking his head. “Professional job, eh detective?”
They were waiting with the coffee when I finally walked over. A shot from the thermos cleared my head. “Not like the clean-cut, to get snuck on an empty beach.”
“He must have been concentrating.” Vitalle took the binoculars and scanned toward Bulls Island. “Concentrating real good.”
Siren’s wail cut through. “Should have waited, until we had breakfast.”
“Waited for the cops? Those binoculars say he was!”
“Can’t hardly find one when you need him ...”
“Not me, Nick. Hricko made the call. Must have lost his appetite.”
It really wasn’t their concern, Ben and Tony, the rap on the Nokia and I thought for about two seconds just swallowing it while the local coppers tried to get their belt’s buckled. For about two seconds ... “Join the crowd,” I said. “Reservations taken at noon.”
“From the clean-cut’s Nokia. One of Enrico’s pals at bat, Saul on deck.”
“Last two telephone numbers, huh? Enrico - Saul. Them’s bad boys fer one and two. Who’s hitting clean-up?”
“Youth wants to know.”
“You takin’ that fuckin’ Viagra shit, Nicky?”
“Maybe so. But the cell-phone’s outa juice, lost data, wiped clean, only the last two called numbers are stored. What’s that Hricko?”
Ben had turned away and bent down. He grunted “, ... and the lost shall be found,” rummaging his carry and came out with a cell phone - might have been - sporting Cryllic letters and dangling a cord with five heads. It looked more like an electric toothbrush and buzzed when he turned it on. “Mind, Nick, if I borrow the Nokia?” He was punching buttons, on the black crystal face. Some flashed back.
I complained, “see here, Ben, this is evidence. Could be important to me.” I handed it over. “Besides, that looks like one of Peachy’s toys, not yours.”
He fondled both - with too much affection for my tastes. “Sure is. Peachy smuggled it out of the Ukraine. Unpaid military and all ... ah, that’s the mate!”
One of the five heads slipped into a notch. The Nokia display spit HEX-code. Hricko’s device spit back.
“One, two, three less than three,” he muttered. Then handed me the toothbrush. “Try this one, detective.”
It buzzed in my hand. Only two buttons on the black plastic face had English words. One readnext in bad TIMES ROMAN. It flashed. I know what that means. Hricko and Vitalle had their heads in close, like two smokestacks, when I hit the button. A question-mark spit back. “Your access code, Ben! One, two three, less than three.”
“Go figure. You know ...” He chewed deliberate on the battered Straight. “... Hadamard and Einstein were buddies.”
“But not yours.”
I punched 3-2-5. Peachy had to count for something. A wad of pink-noise flew out, dragging Bell South …
PLEASE DEPOSIT ...
Click, click, click ...
IM SORRY ...
A broad-band shriek, a dial tone, musical whispers.
“Grove here. What’s the hold-up, you betcha?
Blue cheese or blow it out your ear, like
this is a 900 number, start with the rap.
Forget your flashcards or can’t ... heh,
wait a min ...”
Then the roam button flashed - Hricko hit it. “Vanished without a trace.”
“What about him? That’s us! You know two Groves?”
It’s a thing, about working alone, that when your right foot goes down, you know where the left foot is. I pulled out of the smokestack. “We’ll have to work together, some time.” Hricko shrugged - having the same problem. But three is a good number - I lit a Straight. “Yeah, I know one. Larry Grove, aka Larry-the-lip, Sammy-the-mole’s ex partner.”
“How would the-Lip know Sturmer?”
“Larry and Saul get along?”
“Wouldn’t know, Ben, whether they say crap-face!”
Vitalle chewed theHabanos to the side of his mouth. “One of Enrico’s people told a story. The story, maybe ... Nick, you wanna listen.”
“Spicks in the Harbor Club?”
“What year is it?”
“Just talk, Vitalle.”
“OK. OK. Grove’s at the Club. Craps table. Fits his style. Then Saul comes over. Kissie, kissie. Sorry about. Imagine that! The-Lip lifts five big ones from a field bet, stuffs one in a shill’s tit, and slams Saul into an onyx palmetto tree. Larry’s scream’n. He sez, ‘try ta kill your own fuckin’ brother-in-law, Saul! What kind of a Jew does that, kills his own brother!’ Then he yanks Saul onto the marble floor and the clean-cuts go berserk. A couple break Larry’s arm - break his face. Saul’s got to pull them off like pit-bulls.”
“Too bad about Larry’s arm.”
“Saul paid the bill, Enrico sez.”
“Too bad about Sammy.”
I'm thinking of The Holy Cities most famous female vet. “He's been in the hospital before.”
The buzzing black box slipped from my hand into Hricko’s, and I took a long drag on the brandy-roast. “Yeah. Grove’s wife hasn’t gotten over it. What about you, Hricko?”
But that was a damned cold thing to say, and I was sorry before the words got cold. Sorry because Sammy had saved my life - lived - while the Fawn had died on my nickel and I had marked that bill personal. To be paid in full.
Hricko tightened like he’d thought it through already. “Some men pay cash, Nick, some can’t stop paying.” Hricko face then pulled
away from the buttons. He said. “You want evidence orthe evidence?”
Only part of that question is really one a copper should answer, but I needed a bright line, the kind Brillo leaves behind when you don’t mean to ... whose pot gets clean and who gets the red knuckles? I thought about Sargent Bowers - and her dykepal, the new Chief of Police - pawing the calls, while they pawed ...
“Evidence is good.”
“Now there’s the month’s surprise from our detective friend.” He was kidding .. a cracked smile got big and not just evil. “Peachy says, nothing beats a private grope.”
The Nokia display lit up with a splash of zero’s and ones that didn’t stop soon. Hricko lay the two devices on the hood of the Ford. Buzz seeped into the metal. The Partagas fumed, but I was running out of Straight, and thinking more of what I’d tell Captain Marsh when he asked than what the lung surgeon would know already. Hricko said, after the buzzing stopped. “I’ll have Jenny PGP you the telephone numbers and MPEGS. You are - current - aren’t you, detective? I can bring a floppy, tomorrow, to Eve’s party.”
“Jesuit arrogance, Hricko, that keeps you in trouble.” I looked at Tony.
He said. “Sure, Nick, I’ll ping your system - send in a crawler for any missing Mac-bytes. Hricko’s just fucking around.”
Now, the siren wail split eardrums. Fifty yards across the dunes, three police cars staggered off Palm Boulevard, rode the tracks of Tony’s 4-by onto the littered lawns above the sand and stopped. Two of the three were wallowing Chevy’s with IOPPD lettering the side. I didn’t have to guess. Sand covered the sides and where sand didn’t, rust made home like kittens in a litter. Somebody had wrapped blue tap over a broken dome-flasher, but at least its siren refused to turn off. The third car - a shiny black unmarked Ford bandit-chaser broke a parking light on a fence-picket, but the high-rent frog-skin ate through the metal wire. Charleston City Station, teeth and all, over here. Made you wonder why Charleston cops got paid overtime.
A twotone Buick and silver Jaguar trailed the coppers, and when
they stopped the Jag pulled to a sandy side-road and waited. Men in a golf-cart joined them. Waiting. The guess was easy. All had come like Newcastle coal to Isle of Palms front beach. All four cars. And all wanted the freshest story and the biggest piece of dead body. IOP didn't have a morgue, any more than they had real police so Charleston got that by default. But, the promotion bearing details … I lit a fresh Straight and prepared to oblige.
Spotting the pro came easy; competent tails are always the enemy of sloppy cop-work. I cross-eyed the three stopped cop-cars long enough to X-ray the duo-tone Buick that had just parked across the street. Scraggly sea-oats hid it, and it stuck out like a bad molar, with it’s toothy chrome grille, since it wasn’t a Chevy pickup or a Caddy. Island people earned one or inherited the other - nobody bought a Buick. Nobody living on Isle of Palms, outside the newly developed end adjoining Bulls Isle. Nobody with a reflecto-sheet for a windshield.
Half a mind - I had half a mind, then decided to hustle the duo-tone and it’s hidden driver, when the coppers got busy. Sargent Bowers chippered from the Ford and my tooth hurt. Two cop-kids and a blunt-faced old fart stumbled out of the Chevies. I thought 0-for-2. “Damn,” I muttered, not Sherif Kinney when I really need him. Not Kinney, stumbling from the lead Chevy, but an ex-vice squad cockroach named Dolrun. Fat-wallet Dolrun , sleeze-ball Dolrun ... the only vice-cop in police department history to charge pimps compound interest on hooker’s tricks and know how to do the calculation. A thirty-year Charleston cop. He had retired rich to Isle of Palms. He had lizard eyes and a thick ugly face that retirement hadn’t ruined.
As the cop-kids approached, Vitalle and Hricko eyed them like beach-stains on a virgin’s white bikini. The stainless Rolex read eight AM sharp. I said, “we all straight, guys?”
Vitalle chewed vicious on the Partagas, lopping off chunks. “Figures, like a dock-rat’s ass.” He spit five bucks of Havana-blend into the brine. “Sixth time we surf together, and some son-of-a-bitch can’t handle the pipes.”
Hricko perked over his electronics bag like a Jesuit over condemned manuscripts. “Clean-cut surfed a mirror, Big-T, and didn’t like the looks.”
If I thought about it ... the whole sideshow picture and I didn’t want to think it was us ... but our cosy had just turned into a beach-side circus. The damned fool shouted. “Just ... just a minute there you two,” It was a cop-kid. “I said hold it,” and he actually reached for his piece.
“Shut yer trap,” the ugly face growled and slapped away the cop-kid’s hand. “Heh, if it ain’t three-balls DeLeon,” Dolrun bellowed down at me.
“Lieutenant,” Bowers called out, “got a message for you from Sherif Kinney.” She primped by the bandit-chaser looking like luck you didn’t deserve but puffing official.
“Right there, Sargent, minutes ago.”
Everything - we got everything but the popcorn and bearded lady, and nothing else was going to happen; not in minutes. Dolrun on the rag. “Nicky, ya sons-a-bitch, haven’t seen ya in months.”
“How about that, Dolrun. You say months?”
“Yeah!” He pounded across the sand, cop-kids in tow. “Where’s the body? Oh Christ, it’s fuckin’ starting to balloon; Jez what a smell!”
“Now I remember, Dolrun! Still doing business?”
Vitalle and Hricko had moved to the side making sure I got everything they told me I deserved. Dolrun made sure ... he stomped past me into the pool shallows, put a foot on the body and pushed it away. “Business? Me? Not since the troubles, Nicky. I ain’t gonna talk about it, not with the bent copper and all. IA treat ya bad?”
“Eve loaded me a butt-plug.”
Dolrun spit. “Glad you warned me away, Nicky. Shit. I only lost two bills on the deal, but heh, it’s over. You doin’ OK otherwise?”
“Charleston still pays me, the wife doesn’t make me pay. No complaints.” I sized up his semi-starched collar. “What’s with the uniform, Dolrun, and where’s Sherif Kinney?”
“Yeah, you like that?” He spiffed at the arm-patch.
“Kinney’s ... ah ... doin’ investigation, yeah, that’s it, some background investigation on another case.”
“We’re certified, now,” squealed a cop-kid who should have been stealing hubcaps.
Dolrun leaned close, too close. “Probably a six pack, Nicky, know what I mean? Sherif Kinney’s a little ... unfocused. Isle of Palms needs professional help. I’m the guy to do it.”
“So you’re the Island professional.”
“Well ... part time now, but heh. I got thirty years, humping it in the butt. Who knows?”
“Count on it, Dolrun. They’ll bend over backwards for you.”
He chucked me on the shoulder ‘one of the boys’. I thought about making him sit down, fast ... but I smiled casual, chucked him back and said. “You’re the man.”
He beamed ... the louder he smiled, the uglier he got and he didn’t talk any better. “‘Course, Nicky, I gotta recruit new people.” He winked at me. “I can always use a good man.”
If winks festered, Dolrun’s eye had gangrene. The cop-kids had torn off the clean-cuts trunks, trying to roll him over. Even Dolrun noticed.
I yapped, “see what you mean. Better tell your squad to turn the body over before they drag it out. Don’t want to destroy evidence.”
“You got that right, Nicky.” Dolrun threw a dead butt at the first cop-kid. “Heh, you two, jack-off and jerko, don’t step on the poor bastard before you move him. Shit! Not by the god-damned feet.”
A cop-kid yanked hard and fell backward into the pool with a big toe still in his hand and while he splashed threw-up on his partner. Even Dolrun noticed. “Heh, Nicky, I got to supervise these clowns. You find the body?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“Well ... then you gotta stop by the IOP Police Station to fill some paper work.”
“Consider it done.”
“Somebody has to teach these bastards how to do paperwork.” Then his eye-lids squeezed into green, scaly slits. “Since the trouble, eh, City Station get along without me?”
“Just hobbling, but we try.”
“Heh, and too bad about Marsh losing the election, but ya never know about those dykes. Maybe she gives a little, just to find out what it’s like.”
“You’re just the man to set her straight, Dolrun ... I’ll give her your email address.”
“Yeah, do that, it’d be good for her too. Nicky - give my best to the family.” Dolrun’s head yanked away. “ Heh, you two fools. Fools! Not by the head! Somebody might want the casket open.”
Like the clean-cut would care anymore. Somebody might have, since the toothy Buick duo-tone had vanished quiet as an extracted molar. One of the cop-kids dropped the body, and got busy taking statements from Vitalle and Hricko. I took advantage of a fresh rain-squall to head for the Banditchaser. Bowers was walking little sand circles around the it, like she was digging for suntan. Breathing deep, too, with full violet lips and that was a shame ... I slipped in behind her, made for the driver’s seat, but her ass was behind the wheel in a flash - I’d never messed with that ass - I figured nobody had without asking ... behind the wheel her lips turned in a pert, knowing grin.
She smoothed on the wool, but never smoothed enough. Something’s cooking, Lieutenant.”
“Breakfast? That’s white of you Sargent Bowers.” Black, really, and she’d tell you so, but then she had never tried to burn water. “How’s that cooking?”
“Yo’ white ass on the griddle,” she mugged. “Sherif Kinney’s at Sully’s, on Sullivan’s Island. Sez he needs to talk. Pronto.”
“I don’t see the carrier pidgons?”
“Telephone, Lieutenant, sometimes try a telephone.”
I took the smack ... maybe for now, passenger was OK by me. “OK by me,” I said. It’s on the way. By the way, how did you get here so fast?”
“I didn’t ...”
“Oh. I hope you put in a good word for me. Make that two.”
“You have no idea.”
Made me feel better, knowing I wasn’t responsible for the lezs’ bright mood, but Christ she could pull down that skirt ... just a little. She blew off Palm Boulevard, flew Breech Inlet and pulled screeching into the Flying-A. Across the corner from the wood shack that on sunny August days looked dirty brown but the Sully’s sign in green neon was washed. Could have woken the dead, the screech and our smoking frog-skin. But it really didn’t matter here, since Sullivan’s Island wouldn’t come awake for months. Til next May. When August reefer had all burned out.
Sully’s! It wasn’t just the armpit of Sullivan’s Island, but locals didn’t shower to go there. Budweiser neon was dark and the sign said CLOSED. Only the front door was unlocked. Three fisherman sat at the bar - Coors, Sheriff Kinney and Jack Black had the lounge table all to himself, after the young black girl hurried away.
But not far away. “Hash, poonie” he grunted, shooting us a pained, suspicious glance and throwing the menu at her.
She threw it back. “You pay fo’ meat, mother-fucker. Usual fo’ them?”
“Only your best, honey.”
“Fo’ sur’, that ain’t comin’ from you.”
A sneer chased her to the grill. Lard fumed! Kinney spit into a Chia-pet planter, and kicked a rattan more or less toward me; I sat down more or less, Bowers beside and poured double around - poured them around twice. Kinney stopped before Bowers had drained the second and I don’t mind a drinking woman, even when she calls another drunk copper a brain-sucking pig.
But Kinney didn’t need loosening up. “You worry about AIDS?”
“The daughter and I already had a talk.” I figured if Kenney stole brains he was keeping them well hidden. I lit Bower’s Red and she sucked it down.
“Shit!” He glared at Bowers. “What about you?”
It took him a while ... Kinney threw out his elbow and rocked back on the metal chase. “Believe that shit? Been OK, Nick?”
Metal slides creaked, and Sherif Kinney adjusted the 38 Special at his belt. “I’m sensitive. Got arthritis in the knees. They twitch, when the weather turns cold fast.”
“Your knees have bad karma?”
“Try to be serious, eh Nick? All the shit I want early, I can get from the bitch.” He threw a fast look at the black girl behind the counter.
So did I. “How’s the wife?”
“White, cold, fresh and twitching like a gigged flounder, but not for me.”
“That’s too bad.” I hesitated ... “Got a fresh cold body down at Station forty-five, not twitching at all.”
“Just an accident, you finding the body,” Kinney said uncertain like he’d be happy to convince himself.
“That’s the way I’m playing it. You know anything different?”
“Elbow’s up, boys, and I means you too,” the black girl snapped from the side. Three blue-plates got slapped across the table. Kinney’s hash. And two egg scrambles in blackened scallops and they weren’t good, but great, but who the hell eats breakfast at Sullys?
I passed a lime squeeze, and Bowers forked in smoky quiet; smart of her, since Kinney didn’t like woman to talk, in or out of the sack. He was slathering ketsup.
“Bitch can cook, huh.”
“In or out of the sack.”
Kinney had a full mouth. “Both ways stay on the Island. Like the floater. Dolrun’s there.”
“Yeah, I ran into him. He’s got one foot in the shit, the other up his ass.”
“See what I mean?”
“No, I don’t,” says Bowers. Bowers didn’t duck much, for a gal cop but she buried herself now in the scallops.
Kinney puffed on the hash like a starved blow-fish, ready to implode any next bite. He hadn’t started out a bad cop, but from the start he had worked steady, and steady effort showed! It wasn’t the Island’s fault ... every island had it’s petty intrigues and penny horrors I thought ... maybe not so penny-ante here ... I didn’t get much contemplation time. A bite of hash went down. He tried, not swallowing all the Black in the white plastic tumbler and didn’t succeed. He threw the empty at the girl now burning fisherman’s eggs at the grill, and when it missed he turned directly at me. “You doing physical fitness, Nick?”
“Til my thumbs oppose.”
His gums flapped as he dirty-eyed Bowers , but thought better and simply said. “How frequent, you, Vitalle and the perv Hricko been surfing?”
“Last couple months.”
“Since fall, huh?”
“Only if the earth spins.”
“That’s what I mean; early morning traffic seems to be going up, last couple of months.”
I yanked up the blind on an empty street. “You call that heavy traffic?”
“Stop and go. You go, other people stop. Who’s here in the winter not to know?”
“You talkin’ tail?”
“Not tails, Nicky, more like ass-holes. Know what I mean?”
“No I don’t. In particular, a duo-tone Buick?”
Kinney buried the fork in his lip and swore. “Crotch-rot! That might be one. Some of those big Lincoln coupes, too, not making it all the way to Palm Dunes.”
“You got a flying asshole here, Kinney,” I offered. “Cross the street. Maybe they feel right at home, those Lincolns - feel like spawning with the pumps.”
Kinney choked hard, on a greasy lump. Spit it out and gulped Coors. “That more of your karma shit, DeLeon?”
“Ecology, Kinney. How crap goes down.”
“Ain’t no spawning this year on the Island. Too damned cold. Something else. You pay your income tax last year?”
That started the gallery. “Fucking income tax,” shouted one of the fisherman at the bar. “We got no income, since the cold water killed all the shrimp!” He broke a bottle over the oak and threw the long-neck against the wall.
“Nothing but god-damned imports now,” said another. He was drinking Heineken and didn’t care.
It shut thing up, for a moment. “Sorry, sorry folks,” he muttered as another Coors appeared. Nobody would remember. Nobody listened, on the islands, to what happened on the islands.
I finished the bourbon and a last bit of scallop. “Taxes? Broke both cookie-jars.”
Kinney glared at the Sargent. “That’s good. Been harassing Negros?”
“None that I don’t like. Whose dialing for dollars?”
“We got a new 900 number, at the office. I ain’t said nothin’.”
“You ain’t fuckin’ done nothin’, not me anywayz since last Thursday, and then you bein' too drunk to know,” yelled the black girl.
“Speaking of which, where’s Jack?”
“He comin’ up yo’ ass.”
“They got no sense of appreciation, them ...”
The Sargent’s empty blue-plate banged on the table. “You boys through bonding,” Bowers scowled? Her Red was a burning red tip.
“Nah, we ain’t ... go find an Amy or sonthin’”
“You wouldn’t know the right opening, Kinney!” She pushed out and made for the door, before the spade chick got to the Jack Black and an empty plastic glass flew over the bar and bounced off our table. Kinney was up and moving.
I trailed. “How cold?”
Kinney punched at the dangling screen, where Bowers had punched through. As I saw it, Kinney was hiding dollars and talking quarters. He gave me a dime. “Ain’t too cold, Nicky, but like I say, I’m the sensitive kind.”
“Whatever you hear, I’d appreciate.”
We had come half-way across the intersection. “Heck yeah. Figures your Sargent knows more than me - bein’ she’s so connected. Does she ever wear a longer skirt?”
“Fuck you, Kinney,” she yelled back and rooted at the starter and the Bandit-chaser screamed back bloody, black-skinned murder.
In a stream of pickups, the bandit-chaser beat a
retreat to Isle of Palms. The lez was sympathetic. “I’d tell you Nicky, honest, if I knew anything. All I know is we got two stiffs at the morgue, and a lineup at two-thirty.”
“Played poker all night, did you?”
“Until I won.”
“No time, on the City’s nickel?”
“Sure, off duty, but a cop’s got to stay pro-active.”
A black band of rain marched across the road, blotting out the windshield and whatever grilling I had intended for Bowers. She had a soft spot, when the screws got applied just right. Then again, this wasn’t a City case. “Yeah, Nicky, it takes a village - gotta have relations.”
Then again ... ‘Jez’, I thought, ‘pro-active’? When’s the pro, being active? I needed to remember that rap. I remembered the lineup. Real funny. It worried a man, that the lez might actually learn how a copper does business. Not exactly that pro-active crap, where you stick your nose in until something smells bad. Something earlier than that, when your nose twitches before the smell ...
“Who was that fat alligator in the IOP Chevy,” Bowers broke in?
“Just a professional, Sargent.” And as I thought of professionals, if I were mooching like that, on a partner I’d give the same twaddle-line as Bowers, pro or otherwise, no matter what I knew.
Even worse than Goose Creek! On the driest day in December, the basement of Charleston City Station smells like Goose Creek sewage. It wasn’t just the pulp-mill ... December eighth wasn’t dry. Steady rain since the fifth - for what it was worth, since noon, when Sargent Bowers drove the Ford bandit-chaser and me back from Isle of Palms police station. The rap had gotten ‘round. Bad we expected - Marsh fuming and mold hangover from the basement.
Worse we got - raz and the wanado through City Station’s sick pale green front hall.
“Island vacation, Nicky? You wanado use my kids surfboard? Comes with a body bag.”
“Heh DeLeon, heard you lost some handcuffs. Wanado me next?”
“Shoulda-tol-me Lieutenant, you wanted to scuba. My husband’s gotta spare life vest, case-you-want-em floating face up.”
“Nice tan, Nick. Wanna do promo shots for the beef-cake calendar? But how-the-fuck you swimmin’ in that suit?”
We had stopped at Hricko’s where I changed into work-clothes. My white linen suit and Panama, starched white collar. Tre professional. A garlic clove might have chased the street coppers ... but I expected better from Rains and Johnson. They sang‘Little Surfer Girl’ treading upstairs to the detox tank blushing Bower’s cheeks maroon.
Captain Marsh caught us at the stairwell. “DeLeon, fucking DeLeon! Know what a time-clock looks like?” He looked us up and down like bent fenders on a used car. “You run into Sheriff Kinney?”
“Not at all, Captain. I believe he had an undercover assignment.”
“Could be water, Captain and spawning fish.”
“My skirt, Captain,” She plucked at the hem. “I changed into a shorter skirt.”
“Hem! Fucking hem? Covers! Under the fuckin’ covers ... And DeLeon! That ... that Nokia better not be the way ... the way it looks ...”
“IOP police asking for help,” I said?”
“Yea, we gonna consult with them. That means we don’t do a fucking thing ... you don’t,” he stammered and slammed his office door!
We treaded down the stairwell, Sargent Bowers scuffed behind muttering, “... makes me look bad, Lieutenant. Your white suit makes me look bad.”
She had dressed 9s that morning, with short wool knickers, green Coach and a golf sweater, but she wasn’t hitting close to par. I wasn’t carrying the bags. “Eve thinks white collars go well with my red hair.”
“Sandy hair, Lieutenant, you got sandy hair, not red. And with that linen suit, you look like a caddy at a public golf-course.”
I didn’t think she’d noticed. Bowers stepped ahead through the fuzz-glass office door and the cold blasted out first, followed by clouds of mold and I sneezed. A sink and a table sat at one side of the room, two cabinets opposite, and doing rough sex our desks mated under the window.
Last months grind banged into the aluminum perk. Story was, the room had been originally planned for autopsies, but the docs wanted fresh air. I scuffed at the dull brown splotches, and crossing the floor flopped into my hi-back wooden-slat chair. It’s color matched the rust on the beaten metal desk and brass lamp.
At least the floor in Sherif Kinney’s office was wet. Wet would have killed mold that had overtaken government surplus carpeting in ours. Puddles leached through the half-windows. While stench had killed all the roaches, it grew bad attitudes.
“Only if you want tree-bark.”
“Spare the hemlock.” Some human factors expert from Clemson had readWaldon Two. She had read it once and believed it. Newly promoted detectives got second story offices. With tile floors and heat-pumps. They got Mr Coffee machines and glass jars of jelly-beans from City Council. New detectives got warm in winter and cold in summer. They got shifted down here after a second promotion ... when they knew better. “Brown and hot gonna make do.”
“They tell me.”
I heard the wolf-whistle and waited for the buzz-bomb, but she never dropped it. I wiped stale butts into a plastic pail, and wiped a rheem of official looking papers creame and brown and a stack of finger-print photos to the back of the desktop and got out a yellow pad that said legal but nobody believed that - not when a copper actually works.
“If they gotta tell you, Lieutenant,” Bowers said sliding the mug across my desk and crossing long legs at her own catty-corner so not an inch of black silk got missed, “ you ain’t heard nothin’ but lies.”
Brown liquid boiled in the mug. “Couldn’t make this a bit hotter, could you?”
“Working days, you ain’t tasted my special recipe.”
A mouthful of steaming, caffeine-laced mud burned it’s way into my belly. “Don’t tell me, southern blend.”
“Fo’ sho’, yo’ daddy ain’t gonna tell you.”
She never really stopped, and I was damned-to-hell thinking I taught her some. She had one of those cute little cat’s-whisker’s mugs on her oh-so-tidy desk - next to the old Dec Rainbow and a fresh iMac, next to the neat plastic inbox-outbox which hid the ash-tray, because she had learned something.
Then somewhere in the raz we let work start. After I lit her Red she took to answering voice-mails, emails and a couple pink-fringed postcards she kept in a locked drawer at the bottom. My monitor winked blue-screen death and I turned it off ... and got back to bad attitudes. Counting them up. Bad attitudes about a floater named Martin Sturmer and a case that wasn’t mine.
I wasn’t counting Sherif Kinney’s - what Jack Black whispered in his ear, or how spawning Lincoln’s made his knees hurt. Three of my own bad attitudes grew fast. Attitudes with telephone toe-tags: Enrico, Saul Davidson and Larry Grove. The last three people Martin Sturmer had ever wanted to talk to.
My first guess about Sturmer proved correct. The dead clean-cut worked as muscle at Saul’s Harbor Club. A quick call to the Club figured that. I called his home number, and got a woman’s stiletto voice on an answering machine that promised never to return the call. He sure wouldn’t! But him working peepers at six AM on Isle of Palms front beach? Saul didn’t pay overtime. I relined the yellow pad in Magic Marker and bulleted names.
Enrico ?. I didn’t know the patronymic. His rap sheet started with dealing chronic, and ended with an unpaided tax bill on four Mercedes. Guatemalan - a white banana trader by way of every cupcake ass and blown nose on the Mexican Riviera. Enrico. Hricko’s kind of Catholic. Enrico thought that too. From the cell-phone rap at the beach, I figured him or one of his people were playing tourist agent. An agent who thought crew-cut needed a permanent vacation from over-time.
Not Larry Grove! I’d bet a trifecta that he was the hidden face behind the windshield of the duo-tone Buick. Grove, aka Larry-the-Lip, a flea-bit private eye. Shared a sheet with Sammy-the-mole til Sammy got promoted. The-Lip thought crew-cut hadn’t started to work. Larry had checked up in his duo-tone, and far as I knew hadn’t checked out.
Davidson! I saved the worst for last. Saul Davidson. Saul was a different fish in a far bigger pond. One of the barracudas. He ran the Harbor Club and the better half of conservative Charleston politics. If a dollar got gambled in Charleston County, Saul got ten-cents. Tight as dried figs with Jerry-the-Arab, his business partner on Awaik and Isle of Palms.
All three needed the roust. I got a mind-flash of the beach, a photo in pink sky of friends swimming close ... and another of the tide pool, of Sturmer who wouldn’t swim again, and it wasn’t just that a copper hates to see a dead body ... It gave a man bad attitudes, and if the floater had been my case, and if it wasn’t for the party ...
“Oh, Lieutenant,” Bowers chirped up, like she did when pretending she had just remembered, “Eve left a message. She said make sure not to be home late tonight.” I popped out of it, the dream, like waking up to a hot coffee mug. Bowers was saying “ ... and she’s got a pickup list for you and another from Martha.” She looked at me cross-ways. “You OK, Lieutenant?” Then hit the printer button on the iMac.
Three pages popped out of the laser, and I swore we should have catered, and Sturmer should have picked a different day to get careless ... and noisy ... I leaned back, in the rickety oak chair and swivelled around, to where Bowers humped away behind a cracked plastic screen. “This all of it?”
Bowers still eyed me skeptical, as a disciplined person will eye a dreamer. “You supposed to bring those home. Then Eve give you the lists.” Bowers laughed. “Tomorrow, Lieutenant, what time do the festivities begin?”
Festivities? Party ... a kid’s party ... it seemed like another dream. “Eve says eleven, but how can you tell when eighty kids finish breakfast.”
“No big thing, Sargent. Some of the daughter’s friends are coming over to help.”
Friends! Half a dozen teen boys, I didn’t say, and I didn’t like the looks of one. Eve knew their families ... Josie and her girlfriends candy-striped at MUSC and that was OK.
“Friend, huh, Lieutenant. Isn’t Jose fifteen? I bet she has friends” I didn’t think a lez could think like that. She was still laughing. “Rented a clown suit, Nicky, with big feet and a red nose. Think they’ll like it?”
“Sure they will, Sargent. That’s why Father McClusky rented the bus.”
“You do a good thing, Nick.”
I shuffled - uncomfortable. For my tastes, public charity that wasn’t private rattled like temple silver. ‘Course the party was all for the kids ... any SOB matron would tell you that. Bowers wouldn’t know any of them. “First taste on the potato salad, Sargent. It’s yours.”
At the first, the kid’s party had been Vitalle’s idea, innocent as fresh cranberry sauce tossed around with turkey during Thanksgiving diner. Then later with brandy, Fila’s idea, and Eve’s. Plans came along fast - an outdoor party for Our Lady of the Harbor orphanage. A party in Old Town, at Colonial Lake. Vitalle’s idea, too, filling Colonial Lake with radio-controlled boats for the kids. Buzz-bombs exploded when Eve had mentioned the idea in a Sunday column.
‘And just who,’ went the complaints, ‘might be expected to appear at Colonial Lake, and just where did they expect to go?’ Not on our lawns croaked the pained, Old Town reply. Old maids and worse threatened to storm City Council.
But Eve wrote a second column next Sunday in the Standard ... something about Low Country wives and country cousins ... and how everybody had one - past tense of course. Something close, and suddenly Christ had died for them. Door flung open. Every SOB matron needed an orphan, had to sponsor one and the real money looked for two or three. The kid’s party, now an expression of the City’s guilt had gotten way out of hand, my hands, when local TV promised Eve a crew.
I winked at the lez. “No telling, Sargent. Maybe the children ... well I mean ... you could get ideas ...”
She took a deep breath that her A2+ could not hide. “Not now, Lieutenant, don’t start on me now.”
At five PM I was playing with my straw Panama ready to hit the door when the email came through from Captain Marsh, and we weren’t going anywhere it said until he got there. I was sucking down the last of stale coffee. Sheriff Kinney served coffee - his secretary did, the Irishman’s wife and Bowers except for the first one didn’t. We were waiting for Marsh. Captain Marsh wasn’t.
Sargent Bowers plinked gamely at a keyboard, screwed up in a metal chair at the DEC Rainbow that belonged in a museum and was kept only because it forced her to lean over the keyboard. “Can you fucking believe this, Nicky.”
She was trying to type a murder report into Adobe Acrobat. She had long, crossed legs that kept sliding out of Peck-and-Peck. Silk does that to wool. She had waited for a girlfriend who knew more keys then she did. Then tried herself. Screwed up wasn’t the word. “Lieutenant! What the fuck is this word? NOPLA.”
“Sounds like a yohurt brand Sargent, but you make a believer out of me.” That’s NOKIA.”
“Oh, the cell-phone maker. Some Chinese company. No problem, but you need to take a short-hand course.”
“How can I learn it if I can’t read it! You’re the expert, Sargent.”
She preened. “Captain Marsh made sure the lab got it first thing. Could be some telephone numbers left in the redialer. These days, cell-phones remember everything.”
“Sharp as a tack, Sargent. Sharp enough to know why Captain Marsh wants to chat?”
Lez or not, she knew the move, when a man wanted something. She let the silk slide, to where a derringer nestled along black garter strap. Illegal as hell, that black strap. She typed three lines without a mistake. She slipped a Red from her purse which she never smoked except when I did; both the Straight and the Red I fired with the Zippo.
She looked around. “Oh, yeah?”
Styles change. She needed a box hat with a veil. Not much else. I needed one killer line, to open the box. “Isn’t he giving a speech to the KKK? Excuse me, the Charleston Lounge Cabin Republican Club.”
“You’re funny, Lieutenant. Talk is over at eight. Then dinner. Gays never lynch on an empty stomach. And look, since Marsh lost the election for Chief, he’s getting along better with everyone.”
“But you haven’t started.”
“What get-along? His, not mine I’m sure!” She blew a long, arrogant stream of smoke into the whiny metal fan. It smelled like scalded frog-skin. “You should think about it Nicky ... getting along.”
I’d thought about it! “His, huh. He got the intern to chauffeur, didn’t he?”
“Ms Cheeks is no chauffeur. She’s learning police work from the bottom up. The political IS the professional, but I don’t expect you’ve read Foucault.”
“Only in the sauna.”
“Screw you, Lieutenant! I mean ...”
A flag went up, at the deposit window. “So it IS the crew-cut!”
Bowers bit off the end of the Red and wasn’t happy. I could have told her that much. She pinched it into the garbage. “Saul made a stink. He asked for ... us.”
“Saul, is it! I thought you’d never ask.”
“Does Eve know - wives never do - what a pig you are? Do you know, Lieutenant, what those CCing clean-cuts cost? Just for the green cards?”
I though I knew ... “No lost sleep, Sargent Bowers.” I scrapped Italian leather soles on the edge of her desk. “ You could take a lesson.”
“God-damn you, DeLeon!” The thin green metal door slammed open. Captain Marsh poured through like a pot of yesterday’s coffee, acid, black and boiling over the sides.
He threw the Nokia across the room, near me and I caught it. “No way to treat exhibit one, Captain.”
“One! I’ll give you exhibit fucking one. You want a ten day suspension starting now or Monday morning?”
“Whoa, Captain, that’s not helping my retirement plan.”
Marsh had on his full-dress Captain’s uniform and it looked grand. It looked big and grand with him lurched over Bower’s table, steaming dark sweat and mint breath. He grabbed at the Nokia and branished it like a war-club. He had the wrong century, but I couldn’t tell him that. Stalking away. “Chinese!”
He had something right. Then shaking the cell-phone he boiled direct at me! “Is this Chinese or what, DeLeon?”
“I understand the Finns are close.”
“What fucking fin,” he snorted. “A Chinese product, Nicky. Ever heard of the global economy? Chinks doI Ching. Chinks got ‘ta remember! Chinks don’t get Alzheimers. Damn you, DeLeon, to a dry part of hell.”
If Marsh stared for a month, I couldn’t give him one innocent second. I knew it; he knew it. He was screaming. “What the fuck happened to the telephone redial numbers?”
“Remember? Numbers? Year of the RAT, Captain. Got to feed a rat if you want it to remember.”
Bowers pulled some, on the skirt, turning away from the table and whispered. “Rat? Got that right, Nick!”
“What’s that Bowers,” Marsh spit? “We ate squid, not rat. And what the fuck are you doing?” He squinted through the 14-inch screen. “You can’t make Adobe Acrobat files on a DEC! Didn’t you tell her that, DeLeon? You son-of-a-bitches need adult control.”
We needed control, or maybe a dentist. I had noticed how well the Captain had taken his election defeat. In public he was all smile for the last six months, but when the doors closed, out came the drill. “Speaking of rats, Captain, and control, how’s Saul!” Driving a nail into a bad tooth doesn’t always kill the nerve.
Marsh pounded the metal table. “I needed lip, DeLeon, I’d go listen to more of those fags. If I want some jerk-around tech tricks ...” Marsh stalked the room, across to the single window and a rain soaked view of City Station dock where three DEA-financed launches sat unattended in Ashley River brine. Like lawyers payed to spew by the hour but we couldn’t afford the gas. Talk didn’t cost a nickel. Marsh blew back, hovering. “Not alone at all, were you? Don't answer that! Wasn’t the perv with you, when you found the body?”
Not likely the leather web in my chair could stretch another inch. “Actually, a couple surfer kids stumbled on it. But yeah, Hricko was there.”
“And he didn’t have Fire-Wire growing from that bald head?”
“Not from there, Captain.”
“And the wop?”
“Vitalle? Him too.”
“Hricko and Vitalle ... two stains on the beach!” Marsh’s face rolled up into grin, teeth too big. “Just a morning roll in the surf, eh, for three grown men.”
What Marsh didn’t know about Peachy wasn’t hurting anyone. “It’s in the report, Captain, all in the report.”
“Toilet paper, DeLeon and the crap that’s smeared on it!” Marsh pulled a notepad from a pants pocket. “Victim dead of flounder gig, is that correct DeLeon?”
“Forensics hasn't said, whether the 22-mag headshot, or the heart-punching metal shaft killed did the killing. I say either one … both. Or neither, if he was standing in a different
“Mebby he should'a been at church; that's your cop-talk DeLeon?”
“He wasn't getting a suntan Captain, standing on a rain-soaked early-morning ice-cold beach with a pair of binoculars. Who put him there might have pulled-the-triggers.”
Marsh spit into a trash can filled with crumpled copies of the official report, filed by Sheriff Kenny. “This Vitalle guy … some kinda trade broker, a moneyman … friend of Hricko and your friend too Nicky. Was his model sailboat carried the flounder-gig did the killing?” He's looking at a page of hand-written script. “We need to bring him in and sweat-the-facts outa his wop hide.”
“Hard man to sweat.”
“His bowshaft his killing. That's reasonable to me.”
“Not to me, Captain. I was there during the entire scene.”
“Yeah, DeLeon I noticed that. The victim, one Martin Sturmer I understand is one of Saul Davidsons Herrn … a tough-guy. You and Saul never got along did ya?”
“I don't crunch my bootheel on rattlesnakes that don't try biting me.”
Marsh threw a flock of papers into the air. “Now there ya go again, DeLeon with that attitude.” Mouthing words , but not speaking; then: “Your gawdalmighty tight-ass mighta cost me the election.”
Marsh ranted on as Bowers clicked away on her FBI profile sheets. Who murdered with a flounder-gig? Bet that got the transistors hot! Marsh looked tired fast, shook his head, straightened and pulled himself across the room, to the black boiling pot of coffee. He poured half a Styrofoam cup and gulped it. Grabbed a high-back wooden chair and kicked into it. Unbuttoned the blue, where it bulged and his 40-caliber Colt never left home. A Straight came out and fired. The long black calloused middle-finger pointed directly at me. “Playing straight with me, aren’t you Nicky? It’s not our case!”
“Straight as a beach, Captain.”
“Not doing a Lone Ranger? Fucking with the telephone numbers in the Nokia ... nothing like that.”
“Lone Ranger? Never gave it thought one.”
“No attitude, huh. Nothing you think too subtle for the old Captain.”
He turned to Bowers. “What do you know, Sargent?”
She was thoughtfully pinching a lot of black seam. “Where to buy lacy nylons.”
“Cheese-cloth on a Chia-pet!” Scalding coffee slopped from the styrofoam; Marsh whooped, swore and pitched it into the plastic pail. “Now Nicky, that’s what I mean,” he muttered, rubbing pain into the scald, “your fucking attitude rubs off, even when you can’t get close.”
I didn’t mean to smile and neither did Marsh when he saw me. She was going to start, Bowers was. Start in on Marsh and on me, on the whole male patriarchy that kept her curvy ass in Peck-and-Peck. She was going to start in 1492 - or 813 - and wasn’t going to get current, anytime soon. She was going to make us guilty three ways we were persecutors, white and Negro - and God bless her make us glad we were men.
Bowers - wound up and sparking like an electric streamline train was going to do all that and more, when the dull red light flashed on the tele-console and three cops slapped leather fast since the light was connected to a button on the second floor that only got pushed when the wordsofficer down came into police dispatch.
We hit City Station front door running, and fumbling with Bower’s mint green jacket that didn’t quite fit over a 357. It didn’t quite fit anyway and that was a shame. We crossed from the station in a hail of sideways rain so dense that it swallowed the parking lot and the lights and the entire City of Charleston. My white Panama plastered down. I threw myself into the front seat, Bowers after me and rooting the starter at the wheel.
Marsh caught us at the bandit-chaser. “The HIGH STEPPER, DeLeon. That’s a jive joint off Rutledge.”
“Yeah, Captain, caught it on the pager. A dance club!”
“Dance? Dance till your ass-hole falls out! DMT, Ecstacy and hash oil. Some dance!”
“I may have been.”
“Maybe yo’ daddy been, not you DeLeon!”
“I’ll stay sensitive.”
“Keep your sensitive white ass against a wall, while you get our people out of there.”
“How many cops?”
“Two many. Bowers! You just try to stay alive.”
“Fuck you, Captain, sir,” she shouted through the open window at nobody in particular, speed shifting into second and careening onto the Crosstown Expressway and I knew because I couldn’t she couldn’t see for the rain a god-damned thing.
Semis exploded in front like sixteen-wheel hydroplaning whales, spreading like butter and vanishing in spray. Vanishing behind a throbbing, blue-strobing black arrow. A duo-tone Buick dogged ahead. Bowers nicked around it in a white, frog-skin flame that left orange quartz steaming. She had the wheel at twelve o-clock and with her left hand worried a long black run in her nylons at ten.
I tipped the white Panama. “Nice pass, Sargent Bowers.”
“Thanks, Lieutenant, you really think so?”
We pushed through the crowd two car-lengths into the alley, cracked the Bandit-chaser doors and slipped out onto the wet cobblestones. You expected the worst. Withcop down, you better expect the worst. Anything else when I got there made getting there a city-cruise.
“Fucking psycho ...,” the young copper was fighting off the terror, bitting off pieces and spitting them out, kneeling in sludge beside his bleeding partner. “This ain’t no four-twenty Lieutenant, and the axe-man ain’t no shine!” Tough talk from the copper. His fear talking tough under the haze of blue throb and pale red fluorescent.
My eyes flicked front, to the cop, then into the blank back end of the alley. “Gets right to the nub, patrolman.”
“Insane ...!” A white patrolman furiously bandaging his partner’s hand - the smashed pulp of a left hand - him trying to focus but his eyes pealed away, plucked into the alley following high-beam splatter against brick walls and they shook “... he came out’a nowhere with the bitch ...”
I shredded foil packets. “Yeah, that’s where they hide.” Jammed tabs at the wounded copper. Him trying to talk.
“Fired ... one ... round ...” White gauze soaking red covered broken bits of the blue wall. “Torso ... think I ...” Where pain is a man’s companion.
Pain and noise; at the scuffing I whipped around, because it was easy to think the dying had stopped. A trickle of Friday night swells still flowed onto cobbles and behind us porch-lights flickered. Mulatto women fluttered like moths from a bat-cave. Another raft of survivors floated by the bandit-chaser and onto Rutledge. Over a litter of bogarts, empty red glass vials, plastic Amyl nitrate snap-offs - all of them cracked under loose alligators and tight stiletto heels.
“Try the horn again, Sargent.”
“Static, Nicky, nothing but static! My cellphone's flashing aPOWER OUT error. ”
“Nobodies comin’! Are we in hell, Lieutenant?”
The HIGH STEPPER CLUB tucked gaudy into the narrow, dark-town side-street. Arrows flashed under the smooth, nuzzle-glass walkway and high on the canvas awning. A nine-foot neon flapper strutted above the neon-crusted sliding door. She buzzed in the rain like a horny African honeybee. It made a converted warehouse something else, in a string of sagging, brick warehouses. Raked hell. It must have been raked hell before the killing started.
Both officers struggled to their feet. “He busted right through us,” moaned the young copper. “What’ll I say ...”
“Say - you’re partner’s still alive.”
“Bus’ right through ... fucking cracker. Lieutenant DeLeon, I...”
His partner, black and blue with Sargent stripes and the service revolver hanging limply in his right hand and eyes smokey from Percs and the long drain of Wild Turkey from my silver flask. The S&W was still warm.
“Still using a 32, Sargent?”
“I ain’t never kill’ a man, Lieutenant. Not in twenty years.”
“Good for you.”
“Down there,” his partner spit!
I looked down there - down the cobbled alley - where a spade wouldn’t go and wouldn’t send a white man if he knew him. Beyond the red neon door. Shuttered loading docks; shadowed grill-work. Half-way down, a column of yellow bulbs roosted five levels high on a warehouse fire-escape. The iron skeleton went up dark and didn’t come down fast. Like the flapper.
Front to back ... that’s how the scene flowed. But it started at
the neon door. Blood spatters from a 32 caliber gut-shot that won’t kill a man, but makes him crazy. If he needed help -
“Not this one ,” Bowers mind-reading.
Blood spatters circled black under red and under the awning pointed away where the fluorescent arrow pointed and readHIGH STEPPER Club. Steps behind, where the alley spilled into Rutledge, the bandit-chaser slew crossways. To the hubs in fresh swill
Sargent Bowers humped over the wheel, spitting into radio crackle, her left hand thumbed a 357 and thumped the roof.
A reasonable man would be nervous. She screamed into the mic, “... twenty god-damned minutes!” She screamed at me, “forget backup.”
I blew in her ear. “That’s us, Sargent.”
She didn’t seem to mind and didn’t seem to hear. “Intersections flooded - nobody’s moving - nobody gives a fuck!”
The lez had one-third right.
Lines of black-faced men pressed against brick between the bandit-chaser and Rutledge who knew too much about Charleston justice. And they heard, certainly did like I did the crab-legged shuffle down the alley, off-side the brights creeping high on the right side brick. A slow-legged shuffle, only two legs shuffled like four. I pushed back the white straw Panama on my forehead, where a copper stays alive. How to figure the shuffling legs? Two legs might have run away, or two stalking legs might scare off cautious a prudent family man, but I’ve never understood the damned arrogance of evil.
I reached into the Black-and-White, turned off the headlights, and tossed a key to my partner. “The shotgun, if you please, Sargent Bowers.”
She grabbed my collar. “No fucking way, Nick! Wait for SWAT. Wait for the hostage team.”
“That’s no place to grab a Lieutenant ... Sargent.”
Her hand came loose a little. “A hostage negotiator - that’s what we need. Your god-damned white suit, Nick. We’re a fucking bulls-eye! Lieutenant!”
Funny, how rancid humidity can drain all sound from night air, swallow it like a whore ... she rammed the chrome barrels into my left hand and clicked safety from her own piece. I checked the fletchet loads in theBig-10. They were without God’s mercy.
Both blues had backed away from their own patrol car, backed together with both pieces covering the steamy rectangle of light escaping theHigh Stepper’s front door. Not one bit did I blame them ... they were backed to the door of my bandit-chaser ... they might have gone steaming into the alley ... I respected them. “Yes Sargent, there will be targets.”
Us running, now, Bowers and me steps ahead. A smooth sear-sucker jacket and black face swayed from the bricks. He caught me by surprise, the lefty pulled down to a glowing butt. “Tha’s a bad-boy, Mista DeLeon. Have a bad wind behind him.”
My leather soles skidded, then stopped. December night whipped chill to the bone. I knew the face. “Mr. Betters, a man of your experience might not be here, in a bad wind.”
Pinpoints around us buzzed a circle of Edisto reefer. A felt brim pulled down. “Man give me a layover, till the Coast Limited run come Monday.”
“I’d sleep till it whistles.”
“Makes two of us, Mista DeLeon. Half dat min’ gonna sleep right through, but dem young ones got a welcome... what they make a man do ...”
“Makes two of us, Mr. Betters.”
“Jes one night ...”
“Only the women want two.”
“Man should be thankful ...” A worn set of eyes slide out from the felt brim. “Some men, they wear out dat welcome, before they bin’ ask’.”
I hitched uncomfortable at the Panama. “Why was a white man in the club?”
“He be sell’n, oh yeah, selling that juju oil - numbs it right up, like the young girls need. Some men going to need that.”
“Some might ... so he didn’t use the axe shaving hash-cubes.”
“Hehehe. Thas our daddy’s ol’ trick, from south islan’. But now ...? Not hardly, Mista DeLeon. He got that nex’ to the fire extinguisher, case we have to chop down the doors.”
“Folks still burning, eh ... and the girl?”
“Oh, white boy come, do his business, but see the axe and the girl. Los’ his head. Not be the first man to do that ...” The chuckle, slow and south side of tired might have been. He tipped back from his face the felt brim, but the wingtips weren’t shuffling. “So did the boyfrien’ - he be lying in there when somebody got time to look ...”
EMS would look. Forensics would look. By way of empathy, I had not much business with the dead. “Did the white boy come alone?”
“He be alone - less than alone, you know what I’m say’n?”
I pointed down the alley. “And now?”
Mr Better’s felt scrapped against the wall. “Now? Tha’s one dark alley! Tha’s some fine brown throat he be sharpen’n that blade on. Now!”
“I’ll watch close for that, Mr. Betters.”
Already, I was running as the bright flash of teeth faded into shadow, and cold swill sloshed over my Italian leather. Bower’s panting came behind, but close behind through the rectangle of light from the club door and into the black brick tunnel where the only sounds were those of swill and footsteps and panting, and then in tinny rasps the scrape of hickory and steel against brick. Then outlines, fuzzy in dim scattered light of two bound shapes, struggling backwards into cones of yellow light. They came up fast, hickory and steel.
Against a graceful, cinnamon throat that needed love’s sharp teeth, just steps away, so close that I could feel the axe-blade cut air as it swung.
I dodged and the blade chipped brick over my head. Meth-freak loads - steel tipped lead scorched over my shoulder and chipped brick.
“Hehe, hehe. Nigger bitch can’t shoot worth a damn.” Dribbling wasn’t the word - his mouth foamed! “This here one gonna get a shot from me, hehe, hehe.”
He towered over the woman. A rag doll whipped about by a scare-crow - gangly and stupid and looking like half the whites west of State Street. Striped cotton shirt growing a red-bile stain. Swollen ears and the right one hung a gold earing, eyes swollen cocaine-yellow saucers under the fringe of yellow light. But lariat arms - his left hand squeezing a breast - dragging - and stropped blade shaving hairs on the cinnamon throat. As terror, it had an eloquence that words couldn’t describe.
“Fuck you all up. I’m gonna drag this bitch down and fuck you all up,” he screamed!”
It made a man wonder, why some men wore blue and Christ had bothered with the nails - I poked out with chrome barrels. Chrome wasn’t finding a space, between brown flesh and white. It made a difference. He was stepping back, dragging the girl as Bowers and I stepped forward, all of us moving toward the fire-escape still yards behind, but the moving never stopped.
Bower’s voice caught raspy in her throat. “Nick, shouldn’t we be ...”
“Negotiating?” I tipped back the white Panama. “God bless us Sargent, we’re gonna negotiate. We will understand this man’s problem!”
Words flicked out. “No closer you bastards!”
“There we go. Closer! The first step in any negotiation is understanding, Sargent. And understanding starts with a good first shot! A shot well placed for warning.”
“Ai’ no nigger bitch need a warning from me, before I pop her and a pig pimp.”
A whistle snuck out. “Name’s not pig.” I cocked one hammer. “What’s your name, punk. Charlie?”
“I ain’t no Charlie!”
“Funny. You smell like Charlie’s asshole.” Then I waved theBig-10 across the pair of faces. “That’s chocolate suicide, Charlie. Just let her go, and I’ll take you to Weight-Watchers.”
“Who’s fucking Charlie? Get that hehe, hehe!”
“Negotiate, Charlie. Lose the girl, Charlie, slim down or I’ll do it for you.”
“Fuck you, pig, I ain’t losing no weight!”
“On the plan already, Charlie. Slimmer by the second. Sargent, he’s got his rights read. We negotiated. Now take off Charlie’s right ear.”
“Fucking say what!” He stumbled backward, onto the first rung of the fire-escape. “Not another step, or she’s cut - I’ll give this bitch a new necklace.”
“Hear that, Sargent? Charlie’s in the jewelry business. That’s good. Wholesale, earnings are cheap.”
“Hehe, hahaha! She’s Cotex-on-a-coat-hanger, badge-boy!”
“Pony-girl, DeLeon. Know what that means? Do you god-damn know what that means!”
I’d give her that - I had to listen, but didn’t have to figure what a woman meant. Or wait for eighty grains clicking into place and blowing off like a love letter from de Sade - blowing a red stripe down the brick wall that had been an ear.
Screams came - screams from shock more than agony as the face yanked right, like it was watching the ear fly away. Pearls of agony as the axe blade flailed helpless in the air above the cinnamon throat. Bowers snarked. “It makes a difference when you ask a girl,Charlie, 'diner and a movie'?” The pain backed him, brown legs catching between stairs and the muffled cries but it backed him up two more stairs.
My foot caught the bottom iron rung. “Fine shooting, Sargent. Captain Marsh will hear about it, your negotiating skills. Now try a piece of the leg - shave some off just above the shin.”
Charlie’s right arm dropped - the axe-head scrapping along the rusted iron slats - him dragging the girl up - away from the steel-tipped hornets. He should have taken a cab. The chrome hammer clicked and fell, and another stinger flew from a long-barreled white flash and the gristle of his right kneecap shattered in a pink, gritty film. Seriousness - steel-tips have plenty and deliver with postage paid. Screaming ... he couldn’t find enough screams in a lung-full of Chesterfields. The axe dropped rattling down the iron and the breast fell open and free ... in the yellow damp.
I stepped over the girl, between her and lariat arms that kept grabbing for missing pieces and loose, bloody ends. He wasn’t missing enough, for my tastes. “How I love negotiating, Sargent! Now, drill out Charlie’s eyeball!”
“Under a brow, through the droopy lid?”
She was a women who never had it, and had it in for men. I could count on the lez forthat! Again the revolver rasp. Blood spilled into Charlie’s saucer-eyes. But before the hammer click down he fled, shrieking, scrambling up trailing the shattered knee, up to the first railing and then the second, me steps behind with chrome barrels leveled at his gut. When he hit the third railing he fell to the iron spewing red, crawling away while the chrome pushed him, away. But he was closer, way closer to another person than I intended him to be, ever again.
I cocked the second hammer – the simple stupidity of it ranked my sense of proportion. Somebodies unbalanced! H
e lurched against the rusted iron, leaning as far away and as hard … “You gonna talk now, Charlie, or you gonna dive?”
“I ain’t no talker.”
“Surprise me! Who ya taking the dive for, Charlie? Somebody set you up!”
“I shoulda’ learned. I shoulda cut that bitch when ... No! I want my rights. I want everything got taken put back ...”
“Sorry Charlie. They say, hell burns all the missing pieces first,” I crooned, jamming the steel barrels into his left elbow.
It didn’t give loud, the rusted railing, it just gave throwing the body over in a swirl of arms and legs. Charlie called for the missing ear, as he tumbled, and for the knee. The crunch on cobbles below - seconds away - came soft and without a scream for the wetness. Charlie couldn’t have used the knee; he wasn’t walking anywhere. It made a difference, that I didn’t need to look.
Heights have always scared me. From thirty feet up I could see plenty. Sargent Bowers standing over one body, holding another but her eyes focused up at me, cold eyes full of anger and misuse. In pitch black I saw plenty, the B-movie script coming in a rush.
Beyond the strobing red neon, both blues waved flashes and held back a crowd of women - children too after a fix, but the men had their fill and had vanished beneath the sodium street-lamps. My white linen suit glowed yellow beneath yellow, metallic light. Nothing glowed, at the far end of the alley, where sodium lamps didn’t flicker. Surely, an accident. Forgotten by public works; shot out by street gangs; doused by the rain, of course. And Brewster-light flickering along the wet. Noise, really, what got revealed - Sam had taught me that, how a careful Charleston detective stays alive.
I stepped away, from the yellow and touched off both vertical barrels, vaporizing the lights on the landings above. I reloaded and took out ones below. It got dark fast - too fast and too dark maybe - for the one that never gets heard. Sure of it!
Back of the landing I climbed over rails, down the vertical ladder, climbing into a whites-only waiting room - I got a breath when my feet hit cobbles. Sargent Bowers stretched flat in the swill, covering the girl who was now breathing OK, and except for her ass sticking up from the Peck-and-Peck she was no fool lez.
She had the 357 long-barrel stretched right down the alley. She whispered. “The black Lincoln, Lieutenant. White sidewalls, open driver’s window.”
“Oh, I think so.”
The stainless Rolex read eleven-forty. Time for unsupervised youth to become restless. After the children played. I let slip chrome barrels - they slipped behind rusted iron grill-work and blazed a chrome arc. One pinpoint flash reached out silent from the car window and chipped away the bead from the muzzle. Two more chipped cobbles and the Lincoln spun out and eight steel-tips stitched the side without stopping.
Gun retorts and rubber screech echoed along alley brick till the city swallowed it. Charleston was good at that, the mean quiet after a mullato scream. My straw Panama was soaked and the silk band ruined, but I put it on. “Aim higher, next time, Sargent Bowers.”
“Don’t bleach the linen, Nicky, next time.”
I’d have Eve speak to Martha about that, but Martha was set in her ways. “Evaluate, Sargent Bowers.”
“A 30 caliber carbine.”
“Not the song, Sargent, but the pipes.”
“Closer, Lieutenant, he expected you to be closer.”
“And the duo-tone? You figure he’s close too?”
“What Buick? My father always owned a Buick.”
A new one I bet. Familiar. All too familiar for my tastes, what a middle class childhood does to a policeman’s instincts. I’d left them raw, never identifying with the first step up ... I wasn’t leaving her on the swill, Peck-and-Peck with a new crease, where the shoulder puffed up and it bled just a little.
She didn’t give me a rave, but took my hand, getting up, and we carried the girl to the front door of theClub. A physician from the neighborhood and three nurses worked over the blue who was bleeding bad and had fallen into vacant-eyed shock and whose partner was not much better off. A pack of police sirens got close. I thought about it. Close and closer.
The voice came sharp and didn’t surprise me. “DeLeon! God-damned DeLeon. What happened to the cutter?” Marsh on the scene - like he was humping for a promo list; Marsh covering his own men. He had the 40 caliber auto-load out and buried in a fat right hand. Looking for a problem to solve - he didn’t need a problem to solve.
“A false step,” I said. “I believe the cutter took a long false step.”
“Didn’t push him, Nicky, eh? That’s good; took care of the patrol too. You making church regular these days?” He was kidding. Captain Marsh shouting in my ear. Face bleeding fat black sweat and feet closer than most men got. “You didn’t drag your partner into that ally alone, did you?”
“Not at all. Sargent Bowers had my back.”
Marsh glared at theBig-10. “Now that’s what I mean, Nicky, about your attitude. People will say you mean to kill.” Some words allow no reply. He turned on the lez. “Sargent Bowers, what happened to you; should have been one block over directing a SWAT team?”
Bowers skin shown so softly, at that moment I figured her for an angel. But, pain was flinching a bare shoulder and a fuzzy red crease in the soft brown. “Lieutenant snapped my bra-strap, but he didn’t get much more.”
“DeLeon! Fucking DeLeon.”
March left a minute late for my taste. He headed down the ally - waving an EMS bag-man to follow - he had that much right. Hackles rose on my neck and stayed scratchy against the white linen. I figured plenty had gone wrong. Bodies out of place, stacked up like accidents. First the clean-cut, then a bird-dogging Buick that sniffed and ran. Before Charley appeared. Charlie who lost parts like a Buick dealer. Charlie who had gotten closer than most men got. And finally the cowboy Lincoln with a taste for long distance, 30 caliber romance. I believe in coincidence. First one accident, then another ... happens all the time to anyone but me.
I slammed into the bandit-chaser front seat. “Sargent Bowers.”
“When do men use binoculars?”
“When they can’t find a keyhole! What’s wrong? Eve started locking the bathroom door?”
“Wouldn’t like getting caught, would you?”
“I watch movies. Lieutenant!”
“Binoculars, movies ... ever go to a drive-in?”
“Works like this. Couples park close to the screen, if they want to see the movie. Park in the rear if they want to play the movie. Sound familiar?”
“I thought you wanted me to see ...”
“Pinhole or binoculars?”
“No Nicky, I don’t see nothin’. You gotta stress problem or what - maybe it’s time you saw Dr Blotte.”
“The department shrink, at City Station. Helped me work through torn shirts dirty laundry.”
I miss the metaphor. “Cleaned out the brush or the trees?”
“Yeah, how did you know? Heh, we can’t go see no drive-in. I gotta go to MUSC Emergency. I hear you can get AIDS from lead poisoning.”
She was kidding ... she chafed a bit, at the deep red burn on her shoulder and was trying not to look hurt and I gave her some for that. But she hadn’t seen people far away who ought to have been close and I wasn’t going to write her a love letter explaining.
“Yeah, if you lose both straps to the bra.”
“Stick around, you might get lucky.”
I felt the molar thump.
She found the ignition. “But serious, don’t we have to do special reports on the drive-by? I mean, that’s what it was, really.”
“Special? A drive-by shooting on Rutledge? Archtypical Sargent, like rain in Seattle, and the forecast is for rain.”
“Serious, Nicky. I got the shrink’s number written down right here.” She was serious. She started to rummage Coach - I started to stop her. “Why do I bother,” Bowers said with no look of resignation. “Men don’t talk to women about sex anyway.”
Pretty clear, neither had Dr Blotte. She hadn’t missed Freud by more than a hundred years. I smoothed back in the seat. The Bandit-chaser 426 coughed octane and rumbled. I caught the flash of a silver fawn. It didn’t matter that bad boys did wrong, or that some Chotto had bullet holes for eyes and still had friend with long memories, even when time doesn’t quite fill in the spaces ... she caught me drifting.
“Nicky!” The lez had out a mirror and lipstick case. “Marsh has PMS for a report.”
I didn’t like it. “Nice pink shade, Sargent.”
“Thanks, but one of us has to multi-task. And you gotta get home sometime tonight. Can’t be a zombie when the kids come ‘round.”
Multi-task. Crap! I clipped open the med kit. Slapped a sterile medi-pres on her shoulder. She flinched about right. Rain had started, slanting into the alley from the south like a long distance runner. Soft for all its energy. Real determined. With long, experienced legs under black silk …
“Maybe we get a hurricane.”
“Weather report says clearing tomorrow.”
I took the Gallois from Bowers and lit hers and lowered a window to let out the frog-skin stench. Red oozed from the medi-pres where I’d done half a job. But I’d have a close eye on tomorrow. Watching careful, and if I cared enough Sunday morning at Colonial Lake might bring ...
“Turn up the heat Nicky,” Bowers voice cracked through, “we got sleet on the windshield.”
Sunday morning on Colonial lake and the kids swarmed better than butterflies ever swarmed on Magnolias. The first hundred people I met were all laughing and eating Dove bars and one man swore that even SOB bastards could bury in a pastel paradise their distaste for all that was decent. I thought he should wait a bit. That was eight-fifteen. Noon. Colonial Lake just north of warm and packed with adults on good behavior. Fifteen hundred people who thought orphans were special, if only they could buy one now.
“Plenty of them, eh DeLeon,” the reedy voiced Vice-Inspector had offered as he sifted by? Munching a corn-dog. “Bet you talk to all of them today.”
“Silly me, Moraine. I can just talk to you.”
His slough-eyed leer sifting Johns. “Take em for the preacher’s son, all of them if I didn’t know Baptists.” Moraine arrogant mountain Scotch born, fermented Catholic and aged bitter.
“Lighten up, or you’ll sink,” I said easy.
“Some are above it.” He wiped his chin on a fat hank. “Not you, though, DeLeon. Pay attention and you shouldn’t miss one.”
Hat tipped to the woman beside me - then drifting away to his pack of blue foxes.
Dodging a Fudge-sickle cart, I couldn’t figure why-in-hell he’d spend the City’s nickel here. For my tastes he could keep the penny. I had finished a second circuit of the lake and payed plenty of attention. How the party lay out. Of the four streets bracketing Colonial Lake, Beaufain, Rutledge and Trumbo had been blocked, and the streets filled with vendors. Ashley had been left open - where model sailboats were delivered to the Lake’s edge. Queen was open, filled with ice-cream trucks and kids and a needle couldn’t be threaded anywhere close. I counted a dozen off-duty coppers lounging the green lake fringe. I squinted into the bright without thinking, dividing the geometry of water, the wall of people holding it in and the rim of houses holding in the people - dividing it in ways done by a careful City detective. How shadows lay peculiar at noon. Who could shoot fast from where - when and how - who would escape and who didn’t need to.
Sure I was having a good time. Father McClusky waved from a balcony. Pretty clear it wasn’t a day for trouble in pastel paradise; when a priest can actually save a soul.
“Over here, detective,” Peachy shouted into metal grind, her face bouncing up and down in a wedge of blue sky. “With your little groupie!”
They had climbed a bandstand, Josie stuck onto Peachy, mugging, and I had no idea how they met, or introduced, or what a girl from Riga found in common ... except Hricko and the noise and maybe they weren’t so different. The girls were mugging behind a group of tattooed, Industrial thugs. I read lips; I believed the band’s sign nailed to a wood slat over the drummer. F# LATHE. It wasn’t their noise that any machine shop makes that bothered me, but when they tried music ... a writhing wedge of teen spirit separated us.
“You let her be so bold, Nicky.” Virginia carping happily. “Too bold if you want my opinion!” We moved away, from the inlet corner of Colonial Lake. I wasn’t giving them a tonal lesson just yet. “I know what the fathers all say; time their little kittens grew claws. Sooo sophisticated ... and damned liars to the last one.”
“Nothing like that! She’s found a chaperon, Virginia, just as I thought.” I thought a whole lot less, about what Virginia knew.
“That, that English girl, with a name like some vegetable?”
Virginia had my arm. “Typical of what’s-his-name, Hricko, to pick one so young.” She wanted my attention and wasn’t going away soon. “And tasteless as ... well .. she wears white like a scandal!”
“But nothing under it, Ben says ...”
“Foreign trollop! They start at thirteen in Holland.”
“Start what, Virginia?”
“It, Nicky ... doing IT in their very own bedroom next to their Teddy-bears.”
“Shouldn’t you be selling something, Virginia? A house, a first-born ...”
“But I am, Nicky. You just aren’t paying attention.”
“Too slick for me, Virginia, when everything needs to be explained.”
“That, Nicky, makes you wiser than every man I know.”
Certain of it! The trick had grown teeth, long and yellow before I first figured it out. How to troll a crowd inconspicuous. Let her troll along. Virginia distracting - she played that and more; more than I remembered last time she wore a scoop dress. She had eyes for the circle of basket weavers and pulled me along.
“It’s breeding that counts, of course, but if she were my daughter ...”
“How I wait for that!”
“Nicky, you slime!”
“Hricko says slippery as a ...”
“That bastard! What has he been saying ... never mind, he imagines too much.”
“Certainly one of Ben’s problems.”
“But not your’s, Nicky, not imagining ... I’d worry. Josie might be influenced by someone like Ben’s tart?”
“Tarts, oh yes Virginia, let’s see. Tarts, berry pie, hotdogs, motherhood! By damn, Virginia, you zeroed right in on a father’s nightmare.”
“Termites, Nicky. You have termites in the root cellar. Come along. I need to buy a basket to hold my bids on condemned houses. Just last week I closed on two, did I tell you? Poor dears, but they do loose everything.”
Steps away in a swirl of colored skirts I lost her. Virginia busy half-pricing the priceless Gulla basketry. I looked above the a circle of turbans, and there was Peachy again, and Josie waving a silver flute. Pastel riding above conch beads in disarray - indigo royal high on black foreheads. She mouthed, ‘Ben’s underneath!’
“God sake! Don’t let him up.” Looking for Hricko, I had been, in an indiscriminate way. Eve’s mercy. I like looking for one person, or two, whether the attention is personal or the Cities business; maybe I like that better. But Hricko, I had the worst excuse to find him. It’s like that, without an excuse, when other people find you first.
“Hiiii, Lieutenant DeLeon! What a surprise.”
“Frieda ...” I blurted as she spun me around.
“Boy, are you in short supply. Annie and I were just saying, you must have gone undercover.”
Officers Wye and Rains weren’t just drop-dead coppers. Frieda Wye was a sparkler, and Annie Rains the slow burn. “Under the covers, more like it, Nick. Whose the broad?” Annie Rains shifted her eyes toward Virginia.
“Oh, no one in particular; a friend of Eve’s.”
“Whose not particular? Women don’t have those kind of friends. Not when they’re married.”
Self conscious, but not defeated, I took the hug from Annie. She was looking at me funny and I said, “Virginia only bites when you rattle her.”
“Some tail, Lieutenant.”
Frieda Wye’s snipers made plenty of contact at arms length. She hadn’t made a big issue of it, that she was willing to give full time benefits for part time work - just that she was never more than a strike away. I heard the rattle.
So did Anna, who slipped in beside me. “You been busy, Nicky.”
“Some people claim I get paid for it.”
“First the floater, over on Isle of Palms, then ....” Annie’s clipped voice hitched a bit. “Heard you got shot at last night.”
“Just late with my electric bill.”
“Only you and Bowers went in, people say. Watsa matter, Nicky, you breathing too regular?”
“A copper went down.”
“And you’re the only cop left in the city.”
“Bowers and I got there fast. Faster than the next.”
She was accusing ... I knew her reasons ... everybody did and I wouldn’t stop her. “Eve and the kids at home. Waitin’ for what?”
I couldn’t give an answer, even Frieda would believe. I shuffled uncomfortable in the patch of grass. Anne shook her head. “Another blue hero?” She was walking in front, had my arm and parked us by a Dove-Bar stand, bought the ice-creams.
We traded three more for an empty bench without the kids. I wanted to talk; Wye wanted to eat. Nobody should eat a Dove-Bar, the way Frieda Wye licked hers into submission. I was having a tough time finding any way other than in. Frieda was down to the stick and grinning chocolate. “I usually finish faster, Lieutenant, even in the afternoon.”
“Don’t stop because of me. Have another.”
“Annie. You on a diet?”
“She can’t get passed the nuts, Lieutenant. I love nuts!”
Nothing a gentleman could say - Frieda gay over a scoop while Anne Rains moped her gallon. But Anne had just gotten her silver and that looked to me like a quick way out. “Talk to Moraine?”
“Old scabby-eyes? Not today. He still sends me those hand written notes.”
I tipped up the Panama. “Must make a difference, now that you’re a Lieutenant.”
“Yeah. I ain’t twat number six.”
“How ‘bout the clients?”
“See me spending big?”
“I’d like to see ... you spend some of it.”
“No big deal. I get propositioned by lawyers, instead of their perps. It ain’t no improvement.”
One tear got cried and blinked away. She had high score on the officer’s exam. Four coke-busts in the last five months. Her husband was dead four. Kids five and two. Marsh had planned on giving her Kreutz’s old bars, when her promo came through. I squashed that fast. Melted them down on a City Station hot-plate. I got a three day suspension, a bill from the department and black-hand notes in my locker. As I figured the bill, justice done at bargain basement rates! What Anne had earned. She still wore sad sack - she would - draped over like yesterday.
“Just wait, Anne, till the judges start. You’ll need to rent a runway.”
“Oh Nicky, if you weren’t such a son-of-a-bitch ...”
“Yeah, I know, you’d shoot me dead.”
“But not from up close, Lieutenant.” Frieda Wye had the 45 deuces strapped to the small of her back. The Derringer wasn’t fitting under the pink jumpsuit; nothing was that belonged to Frieda and the knit silk teaser didn’t hide a thing.
“From sixty yards, Officer Wye, you have the most killer ass at the lake.”
She wiggled it. “I ordered the holster from Lady Derringer. Easy on, easy off, quick return. It makes a girl feel wanted.”
“Not bad on a Corporal’s salary.”
“They take credit. Doesn’t everybody, Lieutenant DeLeon, put something on the tab?”
She was every bitch, you didn’t want her to be. “Only if you like, somebody groping your plastic.”
“Women don’t wear supporters, Lieutenant.”
I didn’t mind, the back and forth, but Anna Rain’s face had drawn out real tired. “Heh, guys, enough already. Frieda, we gotta go hustle some Johns. Rich ones, this time.”
“No kidding, Anne? You two working a shift?”
“We’re off duty, right? The new lez Chief calls it ‘pro-active multi-tasking’. Where did she find that word,proactive?”
“I have no idea, but Sargent Bowers might.”
“Stay safe, Nicky.”
“And keep the plastic warm, Lieutenant.”
How they did, what they did and no one gave a crap I couldn’t imagine. They sauntered off, through the circle of south-island women sitting cross-legged on the grass and hawking woven baskets. Weaving some too, I noticed, between the pander. Not finger-flashy, though I could follow the fingers no better than the Gulla. I had an easier time following - always have - stuff, useful stuff getting made, getting fitted into baskets or the patios ... But justice ... what’s fit for and gets fit into justice a decent person shouldn’t know.
I looked around for my distraction. Virginia was buying a pair of hemp ropes. They would cram into the baskets. She might try weaving them, or well-knotted they might loop over her bed-posters. She was still trying for half price - somebody would pay double ... Still poking around for Hricko, it gave me time to maneuver.
The easiest ‘round, into little Guatemala. Where the voices got loud as red mangos and the gold 10 carat. Bikers roiled with bangers and hipsters and white, riverside wannabes. They were somebodies leading edge. Not half of what they were or one-percent of what they weren’t. On their best down-brown behavior.
The line of zooted Cisco’s stood pretty much to themselves and blocked my way. I made it a point, to take up space, where the line closed tight. An index finger poked at my shoulder. It wore a gold ring you didn’t find in cereal boxes. I hitched at the white linen suit and turned around into a Panama brim twice the size of my own.
“DeLeon! You must be Detective DeLeon. Nice party, three-balls.”
“Not everybody who knows my name likes it. Do I know you?”
“We got mutual friends. I’m seeing you with the real estate fox. Virginia’s my agent.”
“Oh yeah. Guess we invited all the homeless.”
“Like the movieDel Norte’”
“You got spunk, DeLeon, and you got mercy. The Virgin will reward you in heaven.” I didn’t think I knew him. Boots polished, and a vest of Spanish leather. Thin in the waist, thin everywhere but his shoulders. He wore a shiny black shirt and the wordsCisco Kid in beaten silver riveted to a wide, black belt. Shadows caught high cheek-bones and nose - an Inca curve to his nose, not Spanish and that must have cost.
“Baptists go to purgatory,” I said. “But here, the Virgin donates green cards. No justice in this world, eh Cisco?”
“Donate? Si! Justice? Where does a man find that?”
“Keep your eyes open.”
Half a step back, he slug a shoulder over the boot. “How does a man live like that, looking for justice with uncertainty for his enemy?”
“Whose uncertain, Cisco? I’m just patient.”
“So are coffins, DeLeon ... patient. I live life for now, DeLeon. That’s why life addresses me, tells me to stay, and why you ... you are so anxious to leave.”
“Silly me, to believe I was just settling in.”
Cisco rapped on the silver buckle and laughed. “I like you, DeLeon ... a fast man getting slower.”
Now I recognized him. Twenty. He might have been born twenty. I knew the look. He was going to live forever and die fast at twenty.
I punched at the weak spot. “If enemies make you old, Cisco, I’d get better friends.”
“These gringos? Diversity - I’m such a big believer ... you should try it sometime, hehe hehe.” He chewed at lip-hair trying to grow. ”Some of them ... they can learn. Not like you, old man.”
Cisco had a scrawny dealer by the arm and the dealer’s hand held a red mango. “We make them honest merchants, you see DeLeon? If they have something to sell.”
“Stuff a banana, Cisco,” I managed to spit, yanked away the mango and threw it into the lake. “Teach him to snorkel.” Pushed through the smirking line of faces, pushing off toward Peachy.
“Police harassment, DeLeon!” Cisco’s voice raced after me, and the racy laugh spitting twenty year old life. “It’s coming, DeLeon. Closer. Virgin’s own truth.”
I figured She knew it. She had got the hell out. A tag-team of nymphs burst through and I let them swirl around in white skirts and painfully long, golden and black hair that God gifts to children because close as they play together and warm their affection - they will be so alone. They passed.
Hectoring voices faded into background. Faint salt touches blew in from the harbor, rippling Palmetto shadows across the lake. Somewhere among the clumps of matrons and elastic swirls of children … Virginia’s whine nicked at my shoulder. “Oh, there you are, Nicky. Not getting bored, are you, without me?”
“Every minute without you, Virginia, counts for something,” I said hasty.
“Well I tried to be fast ...” Her eyes narrowed. “Are those ... people friends of yours?’
We couldn’t see the Chottos now, but she must have. “Business associates, Virginia - future clients you might say.”
Virginia’s cheeks puckered lemon. “I’m sure not! Anyway, what do you think of my baskets?”
“They look bigger, inside than out.” It occurred to me, she might fit into the biggest, if she curled just so …
“Oh Nicky, you are such a funny man. ”
“First impressions are always so wrong.”
Virginia’s cheeks ashed lime green. “Well not mine, Nicky. Mind what I said? Have you located Josie, yet, and Benjamin’s shameless tart?” Her long fingers coiled on my wrist. “I believe some adult supervision is required here.”
I looked at Virginia, then at the baskets and wondered how tough it would be ... then through a wedge in the crowd Hricko bobbed up like a cork too tall for the bottle some perverse designer had assembled him in with no thought he just might fit through the neck. Barracuda, cork, people swirling around him - he always seemed to be trying the next game - like now, a shiny black seal swimming in the Tux. His shaved head was covered with a San Francisco Seals baseball cap. He had slumped on grass beneath a Palmetto, balancing a laptop on his cumberbun and beside him like elegant cranes on a rock dodging long lace necks and swapping tails of flight sat Josie and Peachy.
Both wore long, white lace, and played counterpoint through bare lips, Josie still glued to her like silver flutes mated for life. They had entranced two nine year old girls whose recorder melodies watchfully trailed.
“Not a minute to waste,” Virginia sputtered.
Waste? Not something a careful copper does. Virginia tugged while we spent some time walking over ... I was checking for any trailing burrito. It didn’t happen. Then closer, Hricko’s face turned up, into the sun. I hated to wake him up. “Ben Hricko, you sea-snake! Eve says get social.”
One side arched on his windburn face. Up close - his mouth rattled a cell-phone. His left hand modestly fondled Peachy’s trim, tanned ankle. He wore a dealer’s poker-face, nodding to Virginia then back to his rap, the social Hricko looking obscure and dodgy, a man who like plague had avoided the SOB divorces Eve had sent streaming his way. It was Eve’s way of hating him forever, Hricko had assured me. He looked like a straight-razor half-finished a cut. I hated to wake him up. He put down the cell-phone yawned sleepy. “Social contacts, not willing women? For how long and with how many?”
“Eve’s got a Rolodex full. She thinks an older woman might calm you down.”
“Better talk to Peachy, old man, whatever she wants.”
Peachy dropped the flute from her lips. “Isn’t he a proper scoundrel, Lieutenant?” Something hidden whispered under the lace hats between Peachy and my daughter like silver tunes whispering and I heard the last “... but fair enough guid when they want ye.” Josie’s arm went over her shoulder and squeezed - then Peachy looked up at me like the friend-of-a-friend she never trusted. “You really think so, Mr detective? I’ll be older and wiser next month.”
I thought about sitting beside them, and thought about green stains on white linen. “That’s sure to bring Eve around ...”
Peachy giggled. “Girls do that, yer know, - guid for me, guid for yer dotter.” She shued at Josie. “Off with you! Go to the boy, love. He’s awfully nice for a schoolie.”
Josie bounced up! “Love you, daddy.”
“I’ll see about that,” pouted Virginia.
“Remember Tony’s expecting you and ..., ” I shouted after her.
And Josie was gone in a scramble of legs with the girls, and Virginia in tow. Josie running through the tangle, dragging my cover.
I mumbled. “What boy ..?”
“Last to know, the father ...” Hricko said grinning as Peachy leaned against his side. “A boy, any boy, after the family jewel.”
I sputtered. “The hell ...”
“Kitten’s growing claws, Mr detective.” Peachy wiping down and boxing the flute. “Leave her be, won’t you wairy her innocence for tomorrow.” Then she settled against Hricko’s chest. “When I’m older, will Ben know he should love me more?”
Hricko grin went shy - he thought he knew. “Me ... certainly, buried in Joyce ... like a wake.” Bungalow fever - I stood there hands on hips thinking it was as contagious as a mad mosquito. “Guilty as charged, Hricko.” It crossed my mind, how I’d look all Tuxed out at a front beach wedding. “You setting dates yet?”
“She hasn’t missed a period yet, or missed two ...”
Hricko and Peachy, curled up under the Palmetto like their song was the first to make the sun rise - a song sung not exactly in tune but ... “Try not being a month long tooth-ache, for the woman, will you Hricko,” I said and planned being pronto someplace else where privacy didn’t matter. Yeah, I was staring at them taking photos, because you only think the most intense moments are best remembered. Being the first to know doesn’t always feel bad. I didn’t feel good for long.
Hricko sitting straight up and pointing. “But not them, eh Nick?”
I whorled around. It’s funny how fear grabs attention even when friends are close.
“They’re guilty as black sin,” he continued, standing up and walking next to me, “and it didn’t take them a month.”
I tipped up the brim on the white Panama, tipped it way back where not a thing got missed; my eyes screwed up a little and that’s about as much emotion as I like to show. I lit a Straight ... Hricko had that figured right, what new party guests can do in five minutes.
Every party outdoors has it’s mood swings ... every one I’ve ever given. First you’re happy even half the guests can find the place, and rain hasn’t spoiled the punch and the rare roast beef appears even vaguely pink. A party starts. Then some of the guests discover every person they hate, and few who don’t begin talking while kids mischief, but not too bad and the party has started all over. I was eyeing the new guests and vaguely wondering why Hricko with a gal like Peachy would need to change the tune.
A few late couples, stylishly so are needed at any decent party like Tabasco on somebody else’s eggs. But not them! Not the stylish new guests ... black sin in heat, if it takes a Baptist to say so! Hricko had flipped down his dichroics - we both pinched views beyond the grassy lake edge over yellow sawhorses where Trumbo sneaks between high, three story balconies into Rutledge. A muddied view for the people between leading copper’s eyes into the pack of prowling, wild dogs. Top bitch in the lead.
“You expect them,” Hricko asked?”
“No, I didn’t expect road-kill at the lake, but somebody must have run over a cat.”
Any fresh meat would have done fine. First out from a stretch Mercedes strutted Peg Bottie’s ice-pick Sheri McCain, then Peg through the open door, a doorman bowed - ladies first. Behind her back I wouldn’t call her that, not a lady, not Bottie. She waved to the clutch of admiring SOB matrons that pressed in ... Certain the two men following her out wouldn’t. The first man, Jerry-the-Arab, then Saul Davidson. Not waving, them, but both smooth and sharped on the crowd’s attention. They were Bottie’s brain-trust and money-bags. Bottie had the face and the legs and delivery smooth as wet ice. They both knew what they paid for.
A TV crew started interviewing Bottie; she was plenty ready with small hair and puckering red lips. First Jerry, then Saul appeared by her side. Where had the ice-pick gone? Hricko didn’t spit; Hricko never spit ... he forked Straights from the Tux and I lit them. He was about to say ... then just shook his head and went back to Peachy, while I tried to figure the tune he’d meant to play, and the little game playing out next to the Mercedes. Ah, there was Sheri, pushing the men in and out of Bottie’s attention like grinning Knights trying to mate on an empty board.
I wondered if Saul had identified the clean-cut’s body. Hricko’s voice jerked me away ... he was laughing. “This week, Nick! Want to know who controls the Columbia River?”
“Don’t want a piece of public policy?”
“Call it what? Okey I’ll take my chances … one-yard.”
Eve will find that $100 bet, win or lose. I thought Davidson took some, for a public man. Saul wore yesterday’s shave and pinstripe and a snap-on bow tie. Looking like that, his own doorman wouldn’t let him at the bar. Not the one in the back-end casino. Hricko snapped off a string of code. “Too late. You now own a colony of sea otters.”
“Otters - fat, inefficient, stupid enough to eat abalone and eight sea-lion pups. They eat salmon. You own them all!”
As the group moved away from the Mercedes, Ibn-Ali, aka Jerry-the-Arab not Saul had Bottie’s arm. “The hell ...”
“Leave Peggy be, Nick. For this deal she’s tenth-of-a-point. Nothing important happens on the Columbia River in the tenths-place.”
Head turned in the SOB crowd, first to Saul, then to Ibn Ali, grazing. She made the turns part of a smart style and yet ... “Hricko. You so sure ...”
“Already up $25, cause Engineering Corp decided to let a salmon-choking dam sit for another year. Salmon can't run from a six sea-otter.”
“I though you said they were small?”
“The pups are. Oops!” He said it casual, like a pencil point just broke. Clicks raced by. “ Trouble in the Columbia River, Nick. Coastal temps up. Projected flow’s down ... sea-otters, sea-lions ... statistically they’re all dead come next September.”
“Dead when,” I snapped! Christ, I didn’t believe him ... he was typing madly ... what I’d bought into with a brainstem that never leaves alone tenth-of-a-point.
Hricko distracted me plenty ... just me and I swore done, random small-talk with the perv till brine froze solid and Eve, young in her mother’s yellowed lace trailing me into John’s Island holly ... dead otters, dead sea-lion pups ... Voices brought me around. Laughter.
Eve and urchins, the better dressed ones had come down from our front porch and milled between Saul and Jerry and Peg. McCain had gathered them waving to no one in a sea of flashbulbs. Lucky the kids didn’t taste better, but smiles around to let you know who was eating whom. They didn’t wave at me.
Vitalle did. From across the lake, in the lake and I picked him out fast. Wading shin deep in shadows, to retrieve an overturned China Clipper. All over him, boys thick as crabs. Fila sat above, on the grass with her brown arms buried in calipso skirts. She would not look up. Like some people who didn’t mean it. I like people one-at-a-time, or two. All she wanted, she could damn me silent.
“There you are! Wandering like a lost shoe, and Eve’s in a proper snit searching ... Nicky. Are you ...?”
“The ropes, Virginia. They’ll burn your wrists.”
“You are the cavalier today, aren’t you Nicky! Well, I’ve got both baskets filled and ... oh, the mayor, don’t move now.”
Beside the fountain, our mayor and two state senators argued over tall bourbons and child welfare ...
“ ... gaddd damn-them, Virginia ...” and how pollution couldn’t be removed “ ... canned oysters, Virginia, not shitty oyster trees ...”
... from Charleston Harbor. All three hacked Reds. One had chronic syphilis, the other AIDS, and Anne Rains swore she would shoot both if she had again to drag them from the same East-bay whore-house. I counseled patience as I had for her husband. Wait for Gaia.
“ ... but if the union thinks this fal-de-dal’s worth overtime ...”
The shift-eye Vice-Inspector drifted between them and they may have recognized his hollowed out face, dressed as an old man with red smears high on thin cheek-bones and he was only three years passed retirement age. His string of foxes trailed … they were all ex-mil.spec with under-fire experience and all board-certified lawyers. How he got them as Charleston vice-detectives amazed all –- but how he afforded them was the real unseen trick, and the Federal program he claimed had no listed address or email. They smacked the paw of any shielded blue-coat tried patting them down.
Insular. Hostile. Most all but one, a rangy red-head in party pinstripe. Pale red lipstick, but whose pat-a-cake with a lawn-mower kept the nail polish on. Hawk-eyes and her own points and she should have screamed federal-cop for the white teeth flash she gave and nothing else. Taking one pol’s arm, then another making laser-vision counts of the crowd a hundred yards away around Bottie. She could have candled eggs with that scan. Her second blink caught me staring. Yellow aviators dropped into place. I checked around. She had a bare back, but wasn’t on vacation. A hustler suit got stripped off like nail polish; then she faded into the crowd. Toward Bottie. I couldn’t see why. Unless she was collecting souvenir voice-files. On her best day, Peg wasn’t worth the fibre-optics in the pinstripe’s left ear.
“Gone silent, have we?” Eve ... coming from nowhere. “Well you should - all that talk of a hurricane.” She had all of the sky blue and owned my arm when she took it. “Who spilled beans?”
“It’s all over, the story of two brave Charleston detectives saving a wounded cop.” Eve winked. “Should make my column tomorrow morning. Try ‘lone cops in a lonely alley’.”
“The alley was packed.”
“My readers demand solitary virtue.”
“On jez ...”
“Fess up Nicky, you and Anita were dead wrong to go in alone.”
“First time this year, Eve, but it’s only noon.” I smoothed at a crease in my white linen jacket. “If Virginia doesn’t put on a sweater we’ll get rain just to see what part of the halter’s really her.”
“You are a dear.” Eve plucked at the crease - then frowned and undid the second button. She frowned, “Virginia went south last winter, with the swans; all of it migrated back with her.”
“Things a husband just doesn’t know ...”
“When I’m not looking, she looks at you, Nicky ...”
What she wanted to say, I couldn’t imagine. She caught it between thin red lips so red they made magnolia blush. Then pulled down the tip of my white, straw Panama.
“Kept me in the dark about that!”
“I keep you well enough. Do you imagine the world you can’t see disappears, while you don’t see?” Eve wore no bracelets or chains excepting the first diamond I bought to grace her flawless throat.
“Not the world, sweets, I worry about.”
“Sweets! Oh my, darling, the time you spend with Hricko ... takes you away.”
I tipped up the brim. “If the devil were woman”.
Eve smiled the coy devil’s smile. If paradise is Colonial Lake ... Eve had my arm. “Where are your sunglasses?”
“Left them in the study, I imagine.” A pair of dichroics - a present from Hricko - nestled next to the long-armed 44-cal auto-load and to hell with him. I patted down the 38-cal. I squinted, watching Josie walking yards away with a boy I didn’t like. They held hands and smiles in a cautious, shy way and threw flower petals into Colonial Lake.
“He’s from ...”
“Cooper River Friends School.”
“Christ’s-cross ... when did she buy that skirt?”
Eve never called me Nicholas, never had since Fila took options on the formal first, except to scold where she felt police matters intruded. Nailing me with stern green eyes that said I might not have come home from yesterday evening to a daughter who was a undeserved gift and I knew it damned well. I hadn’t told Eve about last night, and the mad-man with rangy arms and saucer -eyes. Or the Lincoln. I never did, just after ...
“Family problems, detective?”
“First goes the daughter, Nick, then the wife.”
Hricko had slipped away from Peachy, and Tony from ‘round the lake. It was that easy to lose track ...
“Tony! Uncle Benji!” Josie came flying from water’s edge like a pastel heron. She caught two tuxedo shoulders and flew around. “Daddy, save me, the penguins are attacking!”
“Since your father won’t save the family jewel ...”
“Really, Benjamin ...!”
“Got a punk for a boyfriend, eh kitten?”
“He’s NOT my boyfriend, Uncle Benji!”
“Iiiis too,” hissed Vitalle.
“Is not!” Josie blushed at me …
“I could tell,” Vitalle grumbled. “No time for the old men any more.”
Eve and Hricko close, too close and squared off. He flipped down his dichroics - he looked like cold hell. He said, “say hello, Eve.”
Eve gathered in Josie. “Tony,” she nodded and smiled. She snapped, “we haven’t missed you, Benjamin. But I’m happy to see you alive.” Better she could not arrange.
Eve’s Charleston beauty at its icy, pale best. Cold came fast, when Eve turned on the southern frost. My neck hairs prickled I didn’t know if she hated Hricko more, than she sometimes hated Charleston police. DeLeon, Vitalle, Hricko - everybody knew that. Sun-burn creases flared on Ben’s face.
“Father McClusky says the same.” After a cracked smile. “You could thank us, though, for pulling your husband’s water-logged ass from the breakers. Over his head again.”
“Whenever he’s surfing.”
“Mommy, don’t be mean,” Josie pouted.
“Yeah, mom, don’t be mean,” Vitalle mimicked in a voice somewhere below base. He chewed on a rich Cohiba - not needing to light it for the spice. “Josie’s coming with us.” He pointed across the lake, to a line of antennas and a jumble of children. “Got a special sailboat just for her.”
“Nicky, not with ...”
“Mother’s arms, Eve.” Hricko’s arms made a nest. Dichroics tipped up showing eye-sockets more hollow than not with black beads deep inside. “Cross my heart.”
“If you had one.”
Hricko swallowed the barb. “As long as the stitches hold.” He would have swallowed a gig had Eve driven it through his chest. Fila had taught that well.
“How’s my sailor?” Peachy came up with tanned Island arms around his neck. “Feeling the lash?” And didn’t imagine introducing herself to Eve whose eyes blazed cold death and instead flipped down Hricko’s dichroics in scanning gold band.
“Well. We do welcome everybody ...” They caught a blind-mans-bluff weaving around our three-story house - led by a red-nosed clown with big feet. They caught a kid ...
“Josie? Who are the MARVS?” The kid I didn’t like. I’d forgotten about him. Shambling up from the concrete fringe. A XXX_controller box under his arm. Taller than he looked. Josie pulled away from Eve and walked beside him. Hricko and Vitalle followed, surrounding like penguins of death.
“What’s wrong with that skinny creep? Where are his eyes, Josie,” said the kid?”
“On you, punk,” growled Vitalle coming chest-to-chest and the kids backed up. Half a step.
Hricko in his face. “What do you think, Big-T? Looks like a one-A-four to me.”
“We don’t do that crap,” sniffed the kid. He got a funny look and sniffed a bit more. “You guys ...”
“What’s your name, punk?”
“Like in Tommy-gun?”
“Well Tommy-gun, you sailing a boat?”
“Yeah, kind of.”
“Control it, or just playing with those switches to keep your fingers busy?”
Eve turned white and Josie buried a laugh in her hands. The kid not stopping. “Demagnitizing the shunt. I can’t afford ...”
“Quad crystals, huh. So, how fast does your kind-of sailboat bob, when you control it?”
“Pretty slow, if the hull is lead.”
Josie now laughing out loud and pulling on Hricko’s arm. Ben putting on a long, serious face. “Think you’re pretty smart?”
“Yeah, kind of.”
“Kind of, huh.” Hricko took off the dichroics and chewed on the plastic tip. “Josie. Got yourself a smart boyfriend. Bring him along.”
She twirled away and grabbed Tommy-gun’s arm. He shucked, but didn’t shuck it off. “Josie. Who are the penguins?”
“Friends of my fathers ... my friends. Why are they giving you such crap?”
“Male bonding, I guess. Our phys-ed teacher talked about it last week. I’ll tell you ...”
Vitalle grunted. “Bonding, huh. Stick with epoxy, Tommy-gun. It won’t wash off in the shower.”
“What’s he talking about?”
“Nick! You aren’t just letting them go!”
“They will come crawling back, Eve dear.” Virginia had snaked in. “Slithering, don’t you know. Just wait till the sun sets.”
Eve pounced claws spread. “I’d look to my own mattress, Virginia, twas I a southron woman.”
I pulled her to my side managing a smile for Virginia . “No man slaps a bitch that still points.”
And the little blank shocked expression spread across Virginia’s face, from nose to cheek to throat. Virginia well beyond her station. Since a southern man’s dogs and his bed are pretty much his own concern. Eve fought back a wicked little turn to her mouth - but I figured any woman would.
“Very well, Nicholas. Old does not mean well-aged.”
Eve was biting into thin lips she had forced thin as southern hospitality. “If this is your sense of ... of natural!” Eve didn’t spit out the wordnatural; a proper southern women would no more spit than make a cold bed. But what got public ... we took the frosting naturally except for Hricko whose cracked smile just got bigger and I think Peachy blushed and that was too much for the women.
Eve did flutter her eyebrows. “Martha has dinner planned for seven. Don’t put her in snit, Nicholas.” Eve turned. “I know a prospect for you Virginia. Shall I introduce?”
Virgina eyes rang like a slot-machine. Eve left red on my cheek, then she and Virginia stalked away, where the senators snatched them from an ice-cream stand like peyoteros who didn’t need be recruited. I guess every island grows it’s own birds. Both pols chirping animated. Grabbing above their station. They read Eve’s column like the Bible and she thought them rat-turds and their families carpet-baggers which they were while the best of hers in grey had died atAntietam. Good for her. Good for the senators, any copy with their names in black print.
She did glance back at me once. Hricko and Vitalle split with the kids for the other side of the lake. “What a rotter you have for a wife.” Peachy had stayed behind. I didn’t think she liked older women.
“Only before eight.”
“Better’s ‘round, in the morning.”
“She bet on me.” Closer than most people got; it just slipped out and Peachy was smiling the careless, wayward smile of those too young to need anyone’s good guess.
“Wind from the gods, don’t you know, and every woman looks for a sail ...” She swam easy in words like a sea-snake and the hotter the better. Quick, like Josie and like Josie a kitten for all the claws with a girl’s sense of what kills. A man hangs back ... a prudent man does.
“Now that’s putting on a couple years.”
“Must have pinched the line, from an old, musty book.”
I said. “Blow out the candle, before reading Bouvier.” Wind ruffled at the blonde and I let that pass. “Don’t you know ... Ben tell’s a different story.”
She let the wind play God’s grace till gold flax carelessly covered her face. “Ben’s in love ... with the Jesuit part of me.”
“Jesuit? That’s not you; that’s Jenni and he wrote the code for her.”
She giggled. “He never stops ... trying to unscramble me.”
“The man can’t believe his luck.”
“You think so. Ben tries to be so self-contained. Like a port-master.”
“God’s grace, Peachy, Ben’s a shipwreck,” I said. “Tell you a story ...”
Damned-fool thing for me to say. Peachy perked up at that - stories about Hricko. I had two stories; more than two, but couldn’t pick the one that hurt less. Fila, Peg ... SOB girls leaving the wreck, the Fawn going down with it. DeLeon - sending Hricko’s ship to the bottom ... who needed that, so I lit Reds for both of us and said nothing and both of us felt better for it and instead watched across the lake - Josie in a mad dash with Tommy-gun.
Scrambling along the concrete sides waving antenna. Vitalle and Hricko stood beside them. Into shallows where they dissolved in a rat-pack of kids. And a raft of 2-meter Js under
bright sail. One-designs had taken most of the water. Bigger historic hulls tacked away, deeper, south then east toward a rowdy line of Ciscos. Where fireworks and sparklers exploded on the far side of Colonial Lake.
Where even orphans had lives. Until saying nothing wore me down and it didn’t come out subtle. “You staying around?”
“On the Island?”
“No my dear in the godforsaken galaxy! Ben says you’re seen the world.”
“I like Benji.”
She giggled. “Oh! Staying like that!” A sharp toke set both ends of the Red glowing. “Tis a man’s place to offer.”
Knees to chest she pulled up and wrapped arms about them. A cocoon. While her face lit she was every unprotected gam in the world and behind the Red, every uncertain one. That’s what Hricko saw. Damn! Seventeen-carrot peeling away, a ruffle of it anyway. Showing transparent behind - anyway - I hitched uncomfortable at the Panama brim. I’d see a lot of things in beautiful women ...
“His friends care.” I mugged. “And he’s jake with a straight-shooter.”
“Some feeking friends,” she laughed, lapsing careless into a Welsh brogue. “Mine too?”
“With a straight-shooter ...”
She paused uncautious. “He’s asked ...” Plaited some, with the long gold strands. “A serious man, you know. Benji. Doesn’t want feelings to fly off on their own guid course - like a secret life.”
“Feeling trapped already!”
“Trapped ... he keeps a secret, deep, or an inner eye. You must know, you and Tony. Benji’s secret.”
“And you’ve never kept one ... a secret.”
“Ner one that’s trapped me, but I’m a pirate’s daiughter now ... I feel chains on him, over a secret; it’s trapped him. I feel ...I take it for love.”
“Take him serious, Peachy,” I said, grabbing her shoulders in a quick shake, “whatever parts he’s missing.”
“He’s a man missing me,” Peachy said.
“Maybe so,” and I let go her shoulders. “Romance is a straight-shooter.”
She waved a little girl wave. “You owe me a story, Mr detective, sometime,” and bumped away.
“All of them,” I didn’t mean to shout.
But she was already dimming into the crowd on Rutledge. I didn’t chase her with the parts. What I knew of the howling secret parts that had followed Hricko to the Island, driven him there. Where Fila had to pull him ashore, before the crabs got busy. How the island stood for him a devious thing with woeful trackers out of the night. Damned well, I didn’t tell that story casual, over sunny-side smiles, I beg your pardon but the man fell right through your slippery smile and is wanting the core. Just thought you should know, none of the slippery gold peels you let peel away will do for him now. You should know how evil a core can be.
I caught myself lecturing Peachy’s ghost. 'Be a woman for him … that's different from 'be his woman.' Eve taught me that. Who restrains the light transparent world traveler that waves a little girl’s wave and rests with a man who needs rest. It didn’t need a lecture from me, not that ghost ... Peachy, out of sight.
What replaced her ... a ripple of white replaced her and moving-head shadows on asphalt rippling closer. I sucked on the Straight, and let breeze play with the thin smoke wand, smooth as luck till it caught itself and dissolved in chaos; that was the black bitch of it, Hricko’s luck. And mine. I walked half way across the street, and stopped under the dead stop-light. The crowd had thinned out. I figured making another swing around Colonial lake. Planning is good, control is good ... the first two steps of it I took and for what ghosts thought got done I got no chance to take the third.
“Ahh, she could make heaven cry.” It stopped me quick as shadow twitches an eye. Ibn-Ali’s viper hiss gave evil a bad name. A shadow coiled over my left shoulder. “And her face ... close as peace comes to a man, Lieutenant.”
Four shadows. Ghosts. The two women and Saul stood behind him. I didn’t jerk around. “Happens sometimes, Jerry, if you watch careful.”
“The man who would be Orpheus.”
A mind-grope is bad enough ... I felt the coiling and still didn’t look Jerry’s way. “Music to my ears.”
“Music, yes ... isn’t it odd, how humans measure one tone against another?”
“Try a file, Jerry, try sheet-metal.”
“Always the practical man, who forces the abstract to be come solid.” Jerry laughed. “Oh yes, the streets fill with such tones, and yet some sweet as a narcotic. Yes. Peace, Hricko’s fiction. Like his numbers, yes, aren’t they also music?”
“Take a night class, for all I care.”
“But Lieutenant, I know what concerns you. Men of action like ourselves ... we find music and peace a luxury.”
I flipped the Straight into a gutter and turned around. Polite wasn’t the word - not for Jerry. Or handsome, though in a brooding way he was. Striking came to mind, face to face with the open cold-blooded smile of a cobra. I shifted, where the 38 auto-load gripped tight. “So what do I do, Jerry, bust a jay-walker? I’d rather listen peaceful, while I pick away ... at the rot!”
He bowed slightly from the waist, a back and forth movement that never really stopped. “Then Charleston is your heaven, where such rot sits at it’s very heart.” Jacket white Italian silk. A wool turban hooding his forehead and neck, shadowing dull black sunglasses. They slipped off. His eyes glowed - I’d never call the glow red, since a glow reaches out. Instead, from the racing red pits came a suck …
“Jez, Jerry, all that home-grown rot and I got you also. Charleston sure makes hating easy.”
Suck ... and Oxbridge diction. “Come now, Lieutenant. Surely not anger, not from a man like you. We have come only to pay our respects. To admire your good works, caring for the weak.” Wind blew white wool from the wind-burned face - it rose slightly smiling perfect white teeth. “Surely - Allah is pleased.”
“If Allah’s so pleased with me, Jerry, why are you still breathing steady?”
“As your ministers teach, so with us, Lieutenant. Allah favors the strong. Do you not pray ‘deliver us from evil’?”
“Yeah. Federal Express. Where can I send you?”
He thought that was funny, or maybe I was the last funny guy he’d spoken to before leaving Saudi Arabia for Awaik Island south of Charleston. Nobody knew why Jerry-the-Arab had come, nobody except Hricko and nobody believed Hricko. Most folks thought Jerry had saved Awaik from being cloned, bottled and sold as another Hilton head. Hricko thought Jerry the smartest man alive, and figured to make Jerry smile once before he made Jerry dead. Now a copper doesn’t like that kind of nonsense, not from a friend. Honest citizen’s don’t go ‘round killing high class thugs - as I thought of Jerry. Now Jerry’s thinking I’m telling jokes.
At least his face started turning up in a laugh ... he thought about it. “Of all men, you say that? Are you so different, when you favor discipline - harsh I could say - for bad boys who do wrong by the law.”
“Bad boys, Jerry. And me on the City’s nickel. Crawl back to your Island. Take your friend.”
“I’m afraid Ms Bottie has never cooperated fully, in my pleasure ... on either island. Perhaps with your suggestion ... how is it that you call such ...?”
The women - I knew what to call them; you could switch your eyes between them, back and forth for a month and never find an honest lay. Sheri had my eyes, she had the ice-picks and muttering had Bottie’s ear but wasn’t stopping her - stepping sharp around Ibn-Ali Jerrah. On her head, now I thought. Since her file had been put under lock, IA had put solemn curses on me to stay away; I stayed miles away and read Eve’s columns.
Not PG-13 material. Since re-election, Bottie had groped the federal treasury and pandered the Low Country like a child-molester paroled into a school-yard. Pressing flesh no doubt ... when the money ran slim for Jerry’s business pals. But for all the Saudi money she took from him, Peg was still everybody’s American woman and none of Jerry’s.
She said. “Hello, Nicky. Long time ...” Peg had out a politician’s hand and long naked legs and dark hair that swept over her lips. Red. She hadn’t put on much. Somebody had voted for her.
“Call me Lieutenant, Peggy. It seems like minutes ...”
She brushed back, some of the hair. “Alright, Nick! Can’t we get passed this retro thing. Election’s over.”
“You’re not exactly my chosen people. I voted for the Red Sea.”
“Oh just stop!”
“Can’t remember when a woman last said that.”
“Obviously, it’s your brain that needs more blood. No hard feelings, if you can spare any.”
“I got a dime.”
“Ben ... Ben seemed to have understand everything.”
“I’ve never been sorry for that.”
“Sister, I bet you aren’t.”
“Ben still gets his share.”
“No steak, eh Peg, but shake‘n bake. Hricko figures Jerry isn’t carving up Isle of Palms fast as he wants. Time slows down. Makes a number’s man like Hricko real understanding.”
“Ibn-Ali has compromised; so has Ben. You, Nick, are still vengeful and manufacturing guilt.”
“I don’t call justice guilt. Or vengeance.”
“Still looking for vengeance.”
“I’m the sensitive type, Peggy.”
“Surely not for Ben’s sake ... tarting around with that ... child!”
I puckered some, on the smile, to keep the warm glow mostly inside. Tiger claws on the tabby - it made a man feel wanted. It hadn’t changed since Medea - give a woman a good night and all’s well - no matter how many pieces float behind. An image of the Fawn flashed, and Sammys smashed face. Pieces. The smile came a bit ragged. “A tart’s enough, when the apple pie’s gone.”
“Oh, please ... whatever it is one’s suppose to do for old glory.”
She didn’t ask to be admired, while she slapped your face but damned-well expected it. Yet what she expected and what she needed ... she needed spanking - more than one. I wondered if Hricko every considered his public duty. I lit her red with the Zippo, and my Straight.
“Even ex-Catholics need love.”
“And you, Lieutenant? Baptists need guilt. They take it for granted.”
We were sparking along, Bottie somewhere east of felony, me just west of sudden retirement. Jerry-the-Arab, who cut off heads for less, more than amused. “Sin happily, Lieutenant under Allahs mercy.”
“Go to hell.”
“I see our Lieutenant is not ... in the mood, as you say Ms Bottie. He admits distraction by peace!”
“Murders distract me.”
“Such old business, my friend. You don’t mind if I call you friend?”
“I’ll be at your funeral. Yours too, Peggy. If voters will let you off the Island alive.”
“What year is it Nicky? I won re-election. I’m ... we’re up six points in the polls. ”
“Any Sullivan’s Island bitch with a broken patio window gets six points, just for cleaning up the glass.”
Saul shifted uneasy, like he had better things to say and I caught that fast. Bottie glared at her manicure. Jerry-the-Arab wanted to make peace. “You enjoy the Island’s surf, do you not, Lieutenant, while Ms Bottie enjoys the voters ... or dare I say they enjoy her.” He found a bronze-headed cane, under the cloak, and tapped the pavement with its head. Easy to imagine, somebodies head was usually under it, when he struck.
“I wouldn’t surf Breech Inlet, Jerry. On second thought, let me lend you a board.”
Second time, he crushed a palmetto-bug. The cane flipped vertical, and Jerry bore in on me with those snake-pit eyes.
“Such bitterness, Lieutenant. To my mind, your South Carolina voter acts simply as - how should I say - as a free-thinker.”
“Now how’s that?”
“It’s so for all people of the warm regions - marsh, desert - jealous of their freedom and so, violent.”
“You see lots of violence here?”
“Orpheus, again. I see well fed slaves, under the watchful eye of their masters. Such as you, Lieutenant. And you also, under a master’s eye.”
“I didn’t take you for Moujaheeden, Jerry. Need to loose a few pounds. Maybe Weight Watchers would do the trick.”
“They are as close as the swamp - any swamp, like a random swarm of mosquitos. Malarial ...” He lit a Galois from a leather pouch. “Just wait. You think suicide incredible, but you politicians will let in swarms of MuJad vipers my nation would simply slaughter. Such is your corruption … and Hricko whines that a casino might be laid upon his precious island.”
Pure madness; my throat grew cold and stiff. “Peggy! Ever use a can of RAID?”
“That is more than enough!”
“Hardly started. And Saul. What’s your problem? Cat got your tongue?”
Davidson shuffled uneasy, like a bit player mugging down without lines. Bottie bitched in. “Not Saul’s, but your wet-dream, Nicky.”
“I toss and turn, and I’ll see you toasted, Peggy dear. Count on it!”
Jerry was wiping bug-crush from the brass with black, kid-skin gloves. He looked up. “Such hostility among people who should know ... who do know how slippery is the truth of guilt.”
“Really, Ibn-Ali ... wasting words on the man.” Bottie tugged on Saul’s arm.
“Perhaps another time ... soon, Lieutenant.”
“We’re always busy at City Station. Make an appointment, Jerry, but bring your friends.”
“Later DeLeon, on the Cities nickel.” Saul slung the words at me and wheeled away, Bottie in tow.
I made a note of it. That the alpha bitch doesn’t always lead the pack. ‘Course you couldn’t hunt quail like that and expect a shot. Made me wonder ... I let some go and wandered east, where shadows had begun to cool and lengthen near the palmetto grove and a man could think. They stuck with me - Jerry-the-Arab, Peg and Saul - in the only way that counts.
How a copper sees it. The thick case-file had got labeledKREUTZ/MBH. City Station IA had the file hashed and the ceramic DVD under lock. Judge or jury contrary, City Station wouldn’t let go anytime soon.KREUTZ - for the vice-cop gone bad and gone down. With the hash-oil and more bad boys than I cared to recall. Kreutz who in the public eye had been tagged for the whole rap. I’d taken him down; would burn in a hotter hell for it. Every cop knows that. But damned few coppers knew MBH.
McKay, Bottie and Ben Hricko. A nasty triangle that, if you took it straight on, which nobody in the Holy City dared do. A drugs for campaign money scheme - Jerry’s hash and Sol’s money if you knew anything! Fila dealing at the center. Peg’s campaign sucking in the money.
Hricko stumbled on it, crashed really ... I just picked up the pieces. Felony corruption, murder ... it should have sent Peg dearest to Joliet. But the voters sent her back to Georgetown instead when Hricko shut tight as a clam in Pelican poop. Traumatic amnesia Hricko claimed. For Tony’s sake, I knew, and for Fila, who had left Ben to live with Tony. Yeah, it stuck with me, but I tried to keep tough cases and old friends at a distance. A respectable distance just so far away they wouldn’t grab at a good time and couldn’t run from a long memory.
Up the lake, mock battles had begun among the larger model sailboats. Two dozen model hulls tacked and heeled, sails stretched like gull-wings, hulls of China Clippers, whalers, frigates, Spanish Galleons and rude, beamy pirates of Dutch design. Any century, from the nineteenth to the fifteenth. Blank shots crackled in long, erratic strings sending billows of black powder smoke across the shoreline. Bottie had grabbed the photo-op.
Just upwind from the smoke, she primped with the Mayor and as many unfortunates as she could fit under two arms and somehow the pinstripe had gotten glued to her shoulder. Saul and McCain stood behind - Jerry nowhere and that seemed odd as a bronze cane-head that didn’t shine.
I smiled, finally, spotting Josie along the concrete edge, running beside a sailboat whose jib unfurled in a light, rustling breeze. Her laugh low and rustling, amber hair flying, face turned away from the punk I didn’t like. But I could hear the music, further along through the palmettos, finding Josie again with her arm over the boy’s shoulder. They sat close and careless under the elm. He was fixing a sail-boat rudder, focused in like that working rudder was the first present he had ever given a young woman and she was bound to love it ... and even though she was shouting I couldn’t quite hear her.
Like a shot! Sothis was the way it started ...
Cisco’s voice pegged me. “I like seeing a family man enjoying himself.”
“We are like the Siamese twins - connected at the ass-hole.”
“Don’t get used to it Chotto.”
We approached the elms that dot east side of Colonial Lake, walking side-by-side, stride for stride and I wasn’t liking it.
“It’s Cisco, DeLeon, like the Cisco Kid. You want to remember the name.”
“I can read toe-tags.”
“You also, amigo.” His silver boot-tips clicked on cement, reflected sun and his bronze Azteca skin glowed; a man at ease and moving ahead. “After I swam the river, first thing I learned was how to read. Read this, DeLeon. We have so much to share!”
When I turned toward him, I caught the whiff of black powder and gold tooth flash. He slipped me a business-card with a holo-print on front. I caught skin-flash, red and black from a roulette wheel ... and stuffed it in a pocket. “What’s this?”
Step-for-step ... I stopped fast. “Chotto. For a young man, you have an awful long desire not to get old.”
He pointed toward the lake. “But I like old things, old man. Like the model sailboats, so old and yet so modern. Laser controlled, are they not?”
My neck-hairs crackled. “What do you know ...?”
Cisco hunched indifferent. ”In particular, that Spanish galleon with gold-cross sail. Spectacular, and so different from one of the Wops skinny, plaster casts.”
“Vitalle? I wouldn’t say that to his face, if you like your face.”
“That piece of Sicilian dog-meat,” he spit. “What do you think, DeLeon, of the galleon? Sixteenth Century design, or perhaps the seventeenth?”
Cisco’s mouth took a cruel twist and his face stuck to the galleon’s gold cross like radar control. He knew where to look, but he should have known the century. The Spanish galleon just below custom, a second rank copy of theNS de Atocha, except for the ranks of cannon. Polished brass barrels glinted in the sun. The original hadn’t floated with sixteen. NowNS de Atocha had twenty-four. “Nice boat,” I managed. “That’s why Chotto, not many of you around. And more of us.”
“Heh, DeLeon, I don’t think so.”
“Family’s never traded much with the enemy, has it?”
Spanish leather boots shuffled quick. “Trade? What have you to trade, DeLeon?”
“You bore me Chotto. Go find a cupcake and relax. Like the cheese ... age a little.”
His mouth spread wide, laughing uncontrolled into empty spaces and three gold teeth. “I don’t think so.” His arm pointed where ships-of-the-line marched in order and spaces between filled with plumes of black powder.
“Cupcakes are for a time of peace. No Peace, DeLeon, between us - we go to war!”
“Say what? Don’t you need a turkey feather?”
I had the wrong century. He thumbed the decoder ring like Captain Crunch and a shiver seemed to pass through thede Atocha. For model sailboats in slow motion dance, it happened fast. The de Atocha bore down on the string of 19th Century China Clippers. Swordfish broke line first, bearing port and slipping in behind the galleon. She and the de Atocha close tacking
against each-other’s wind. The Galleon came first, across the Clipper’s bow luffing sail, then stern to port, parallel; a ripple of smoke shot starboard fromde Atocha. Sharp cracks buried in the random fire of blank cartridge. Galleon hull recoiled, wallowing beneath its own smoke, while port side of the Swordfish dissolved in a cloud of shattered mahogany. It sunk faster than a Nokia and didn’t remember anything.
“Three numbers, DeLeon. Easy to remember, for one who left so few of us behind.”
Couldn’t be happening ... one of those things that couldn’t happen ... it snapped me around. The galleon heeled smartly after the pass, in a tack and bore directly toward shore. On the elm shadow, it’s hull came around, sails reefed and above the wind an electric motor sang high pitch. Two rows of dull brass cannon leveled on the tree like dead shark-eyes.
“Amigo, your daughter and her boyfriend - too young to have many scars - too young to ...”
I went for his eyes shouting “dead meat Cisco like a wet Burrito.” Like his eyes sat on the galleon deck, lining down the long brass barrels.
He lurched fast and my thumbs buried in his throat. So the words cackled out. “Not me, DeLeon. Up there!”
A black Lincoln. Yards away. Up there, where his fingers grasped for air. Through the open window, a woman’s face. A shout!
“Three numbers, ya pea-prick and ya keep the little bitch!”
Tommy-gun, rising ... “my Clipper,” ... turning ... “who is that, Mr. DeLeon, Who’s the Cisco?”
Steel wires around my wrist ... “Fucking-A, DeLeon ...”
Vitalle’s shout miles away. “Nicky!”
Racing at me - smudged sweaty faces and sudden movement ... pastels ... I struggled for the auto-load .. Cisco’s grip, oily calloused scale - Josie lifting her head and Tommy-gun a step toward the lake. My left elbow cracked through Cisco’s eye like a knife cracks an eggshell, while the 38-cal barrel came round in a slow motion arc, the bead cutting through flags, then canvas and lined on a shiny brass cannon as I touched off one round, Cisco’s bloody-pulp head drove me back.
But I could see. A steel streak ripping away brass barrels, furrowing the deck. The galleon lurching backward as my shot struck home, heeling forward. Lurching again, as fire stripped from the top row of cannon, smoky fingers reached toward the shore and Tommy-gun folded like a kite in a storm and pitched forward in the water. Not fast, like a young man might. A suck, not a splash, a mirror swallowing it’s own bleeding image. A nightmare, when steps slow into dark do not evade those faster in the dark behind.
Josie had darted after him, knee-deep in the water. Then lifting her head to stare - at thede Atocha yards away, steady, the row of brass barrels true-sighted across her bare legs.
I froze. Cold washed over. A limp kind of cold that freezes blood and sucks out warm, red powder. Cisco clawing through my left arm. Sliding down to claw at Josie, catching her up like a crab snatches a chicken neck - crabbing across the line of brass barrels, dull open snouts ... piggy ...
I felt ice from the stainless shiv he held to her throat. Knew that I could send a bullet through his brain ... but the piggy hand ... Josie screaming.
My mouth working silent ‘Bring you back, kitten; stay alive for ...’
Vitalle busting through, his 45-cal plucking divits around the galleon. Vitalle sent sprawling, as the brass cannon spit white again and stitched his leg with mini-balls. Vitalle rolling to the lake’s concrete edge.
Cisco kicking over his body and onto the bank. “Those numbers, DeLeon. One day! Be in touch ... Till then, we leave her untouched - alone as the Virgin.”
My own shout I heard “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO...” like a canyon echo.
Scrambling up the embankment to the Lincoln. Josie slung over his thick shoulders. The bloody face and vest of torn, Spanish leather turned toward me as arms grappled them inside the Limo. “Three numbers, DeLeon,” he screamed, “or she’ll hang like a slaughtered lamb ...” A black suicide door swung closed. “ ... the Blessed Virgin ... she wouldn’t have the scraps!”
A photo snap-shot. I took it down the dull steel barrel! Of the colored body maze. Inside. Outside, tires screamed a grey rubber industrial tune. Black and white flashed by scattering bodies. A rear wheel came up in the bead of my 38 caliber between children’s heads that still played until it turned on Beaufain and not once did I imagine shooting though fuzzy pastel lace bunched innocent under a dozen child faces that came up in that red gun-barrel bead and through which I watched in cold detachment the black Lincoln moving in never-ending slow-motion horror.
I did imagine silver vapor at Cisco’s gut ... they were gone …
“Get his face out of the water! ... under the fuckin’ arms …
... me snatching at the chrome bumper …
“Christ, his heart’s still pumping ...”
“Bleeding ... Tony!”
“What the fuck, Nicky!”
... because I hadn’t let go when the brass cannons fired ...
“He’s not dead yet! Goddam easy with ...”
... but oh what a mess I made of the beaten silver buckle …
“Tighter ... the tourniquet!”
“Tie easy? It’s a fucking bow-tie, Hricko! Hang on Nicky!”
... sometime real soon.
“Say what, Nick! Just plug the holes, Big-T. Jesus didn’t die for you.”
Colonial Lake howled lunacy - the carnival gone mad - an insane merry-go-round of screaming figures ... every face bleeding.
I was dragging Vitalle ... then viciously twisting the tourniquet on his leg while beside us docs worked on the kid ...
“... any lower he’s gone. Forty-over-eighty, falling ...”
“... fucking live-cam around here. Shoot the kids face, yeah ... before he dies!”
“ ... if you just ... stand the fuck back ...”
“ ... and shit sterile; clamp the artery. Ten cc ...”
Pushed away. A frenzy pushed the knot of us from the kid, hands tearing at wounds ... When, I didn’t know, minutes after EMS arrived ... how long after ... blood caked the Rolex. An arm spun me around and I pitched into the mob.
“... the fucker go, I got him. Are you ...?”
“What do you mean, the kidnapper said nothing!”
“Lieutenant DeLeon. Lieu ... Channel Six ... witnesses say ... virgin. Is your ... ?”
“City Station, Nicky. Please, Mrs. DeLeon ... no, not the fucking house, Nick. You got mugs to look at.”
“Oh, God, Nicholas, ...!”
“Officer Rains, will you please ...”
“ ... who has my baby?”
“She’s at the house, Nick, with the baby.”
“Lieutenant DeLeon, I’m Didi Prescot - with the Standard? Do you have any ...?”
“Captain! Captain Marsh, have any other kidnaping been directed against Charleston police ...”
“Get the fucking camera out of the way. Let the medics through!”
“ ... total crap!”
“Captain, will this kidnaping affect your new ...”
“... at all responsible ... Lieutenant ... children are shot?”
Rains had my arm. “Don’t hit her, Nicky, fer Chris-sake Nicky, not a reporter.”
I’d give Anne Rains that; the slap-grip on my left wrist, where rage didn’t flow so fast. A slap, as she swirled by sheltering Eve into a cloud of blue uniforms. A carriage hustled up the embankment with the thin, bloody body of Tommy-gun run through with plasma tubes, oxygen mask swathing his face while medics jabbing needles at exposed skin and the ambulance wailed.
God-dam Bowers. I looked for Bowers. I needed her. Now Johnson had my arm. “Tactical got here quick.” He pointed at two white vans surrounded by black bullet-proof vests. They wore shiny shoes.
“Squad Sargent’s my wife’s brother. She figured the kids could show them some humanity.”
“Officer! Stop that man!”
A hand grabbed at me and I wiped it away ... sirens, shouts, random waves of movement - scenes all stretched out in a slow-motion sludge, haze and some so crisp they needled my spine where the eye sees everything. I couldn’t remember being whipped free of it. The lunacy.
Vitalle and Hricko had me, forcing me along, breaking through ... the pastels all broken down ...
“Bastards. Again, Nicky. Hit god-damned Turkey again.”
“Swallow hard. Red first, Nick, then the tabs ...”
... a plague of broken pastels umbrellas ... we had pressed into the small palmetto grove south end of the lake where people streamed toward the Battery - a thick stream of broken smiles. I forced myself to watch, thinking maybe one face, one guilty face had been left behind. The flask came back, and I took a long, careful swallow that cut through the haze. I thought about it, and spit out two of Hricko’s yellows.
Vitalle spun me around. “Who’d you fuckin’ bugger, Nicky?” He grabbed back the booze. “I ain’t never seen a kid hit!” He groaned. Stripped to the waist. Slugging on the silver flask. Blood-soaked strips of white silk trussed up his left thigh, where the red oozed steady.
“Doesn’t mean anything, Nick.” Hricko ash-faced, knotting a tourniquet above Vitalle’s knee. “Muzzi’s will do it - so will the Columbians.” Hricko hunched over the green bench where we sat - shot me a look. “Marsh got you working some political case?”
“Christ, Ben, not you too!”
“Spit it out, Nicky!”
After me. They came after me like I had made cannons roar and held the shiv to my own daughter’s throat. “Games”, shouted Vitalle, “son-of-a-bitch fucking games! You’re holding out, DeLeon. “ He turned on me like a mad bear. “Some fucking case!”
Vitalle hit me so hard, that Hricko couldn’t hold me up when I fell on him. Vitalle hit me with his left hand, and with his right pulled me up from the grass and shook so the 38 auto-load banged against my face and I grabbed and couldn’t let go of the god-damned thing. Never let go of it …
Hricko lunged between us. “ ... make us zombies, Big-T!” Sweating chin-to-chin with Vitalle. “Take down one kid and make us all bloody zombies.” Vitalle’s good right hand around his throat and squeezing ... “That’s what they planned.”
Vitalle shook, stepped back hands to his face and fell down heavily in the grass. “Fucking sorry, Nicky, fucking sorry I lost it.” He was looking around wildly. “We lost her ...”
‘I lost her ...’ I wiped blood from my lip; Vitalle pale under the black beard, on the grass - shivering - everything lost and he wasn’t finding anything, anytime soon. An eddy of lost souls swirled into the fronds, babbled helpless and deflected away.
Vitalle would have joined them if Hricko hadn’t held him back, thumping on him mumbling “... and the plan, you think, Nick? So many people, but one body to snatch. Just one? Any ... one! Nobody can plan out the stochastic. Not God’s mercy, not ...”
“Spit it out, Hricko!”
“Damn-it Nick, who snatched Josie?”
“Chotto! The Cisco Kid!”
“Who the fuck ...!”
“The Cisco Kid grabbed her. Then passed her along to a couple perps in the Lincoln. One was a woman.”
“This Chotto, Nick!” Hricko pushed back the dichroics, where eyes had sunk into tiny black beads. “What did the man want?”
Hricko. “Oh. Any in particular?”
“They want three numbers - in exchange for Josie. I remember three. I have a day; one blessed day.”
“Numbers are easy, Nick, numbers are popular - every time you say one you say two. But once we have them, how do you give them the numbers?”
Listening to Hricko’s cold easy chatter, I’d never known him to be more insane. ‘Be in touch,’ said Cisco Kid. He was screaming it! “I don’t know, Ben.”
My hand fumbled a pocket and came out with a white, blood-soaked card. I caught the holo-tit-flash and the words ESCORT SERVICE at the top.
“Cisco said, ‘be in touch’.”
Hricko snatched it. He caught more, after a glance. “Mighty current for the average wet-back, but still south-of-the-border.”
“Hricko, talk sence!”
“The URL, Big-T. SNATCHU.com.mt. A Martinique based server.”
“You crazy, Hricko,” Vitalle snorted and grabbed at his arm. But
Hricko shook it off and dropped to the grass. Fished the laptop from the tan carry, punching away, and I don’t think he looked up once after he said ‘URL’. He took a minute, at the keys. Then he fumbled, but not wide-eyed.
“Japs got nothing on the French, comes to Lolitas.” Even in bright sun, five bills buys a good plasma display. “Look at this crap!” Hricko held it high - Vitalle and I got real close.
“It’s got an English version, gentlemen. A Web site for the tourist trade. Pick a dolly and place your bets.”
“But the screen does suck you in, doesn’t it Big-T? Nice design!”
Pervs. Vitalle had all of that right. Hricko had killed the tool-bars, so the browser displayed full screen. At the top, two bare-ass animated gifs rollicked beneath palms. Thirteen I’d guess, both girls, or younger than thirteen from the self-conscious way their hands played in long, black hair. Aiming to please ... They were alone. A banner over them flashed silver.
SPIN TO WIN
In a JAVA window beneath them, Cisco Kid danced jerky, and pointed to a three-D roulette wheel. Four white entry blocks lay on the table, and the cursor sat in the first marked PRACTICE.
Before I could grab his hand, Hricko entered 1-7-2-9 and punched spin.
A .wav window opened. Cisco spoke.
WRONG INDIAN, SHIT-HEAD. SURFS UP.
The roulette wheel set spinning, and the ball a cream blur around the top. Then slower. Another JAVA window open. The picture was bouncy, pixilated, and showed a crowded water-front, blurred puffs of white, a body curling into the water streaming red and then chaos. People tumbled, running ... it showed a young blond girl and Cisco grabbing ...
I boiled over. “A camera on ...”
“Yeah. Whoever runs the site got Josie.”
“Son-of-a-bitch is current. Grabs frames, then FTP’s through ...” “Hricko! You so sure we got a wrong guess to make?”
“No tilt!” His shaved head tilted forward, and he pointed at the dully glowing goat-skulls at the bottom of the screen. “I think they flash if you lose.”
“Don’t lose, Ben”
“I’m trying ...”
“Can you punch into it?”
“Firewall!” He cursed, tapping away at the keys “... nobody but me.” Hricko blue-screened, dropping out of the site ... we stared at him while he carefully gathered up the laptop, stuffed it in a carry. Buried thumbs in his forehead and then looked up like a man losing something and grabbing for it drifting away ...
His chrome Zippo burned at the Straight. “From the beach, Nick?” Hricko was breathing shallow, like a man in a trance, “Three numbers ... the clean-cut’s telephone numbers, the numbers we took from the Nokia.”
I jumped straight up. “Sturmer!” The single word exploded.
“No accident, us in the surf!”
“Yeah Nick. Maybe numbers for Enrico, Saul and Larry Grove. Maybe those three.”
“Cow-shit in a can! What bastard doesn’t own a telephone book.”
“The people, Big-T, not the numbers.”
“What do they know?”
Scenes flew by. Black clouds and pink sky. Steel grey combers flashing gold. Silver crabs and white sails. Three men tired and laughing ... The flask made a round. Made another and then it was empty. “I don’t know?”
“A cycle!” Hricko gesturing coldly with his left arm, sweeping it around. “Not what they knew, but who knew them. A cat chasing it’s own tail kills a mouse in the circle.”
“Sturmer’s a mouse - Grove is a cat?”
“Enrico’s a snake.”
Vitalle moaned. “And Saul eats matzah ... Noah’s Ark in a nut-house! Fucking recursive crap!”
Hricko. ”True. Each of the three knew Sturmer was at Isle of Palms front beach. The clean cut knew for sure, who he talked to and what he told. But none of the three knew who else Sturmer called.”
“Or what Sturmer said.”
“Or what Sturmer found on the beach, if anything, unless you were his boss, or worked back through the telephone numbers.”
“If Sturmer reported to his boss, what he found, if anything. But I bet, if he did, one of the three heard about it.”
“So did one of the other two. Enrico said that he expected Sturmer to be dead. Must have known why Sturmer should have been dead! That makes Enrico most likely perp.”
“Maybe for killing Sturmer, but for snatching Josie? That’s the person who didn’t know enough!”
Vitalle, who hated Saul like only a Sicilian can was letting him go. Dead end! Nowhere. It left us nowhere for five dead silent seconds til Bower’s whine pitched in. “Saul”s not like you bastards!” Only I looked up as she stumbled against a palmetto trunk and sat down hard. “Nicky. Where the hell you been? Marsh got a hot poker ... everybody’s lookin’ ...”
“Lost a daughter, Sargent. You wouldn’t have seen ...”
“Off your rocker, Lieutenant! Marsh has you on Ad-Min leave already so ... these butt-fuck vigilantes!”
“Posse Commitatus, Sargent.”
“Shit-head!” She had the clown suit off, except for the big shoes with red rubber toes.
“Yeah, that’s Davidson,” Vitalle spit. “He would have the man wacked!”
“Unless ...” Hricko sharp. “Sol got a weak spot? Some dolly?”
Suddenly. They were both racing ahead ... I took a Gallois from Bowers and bit deep into the smoke. “Davidson. Maybe so. Yesterday evening, Bowers here said Saul was shook, surprised at the killing.”
“Yeah, Nicky. He wanted us on the case real bad.”
“Nice cover, for the cool at heart!”
“What’s the connection, anyway? You figure, Big-T, whoever hit the clean-cut snatched Josie?”
“Why didn’t they just snatch Sturmer, if they needed him so bad?”
“You got to be kidding. Unless he got set up, moonlighting for Cisco. And Cisco ran out of time.”
“We have no time.”
“It figures. Figures that way.”
“Do the drill!” Bowers fingered the short-barrel 357 at her hip. “You spill all this good thinkin’ on Marsh.”
“Throw it in the can - that’s what you mean!”
“God damned Wop. Marsh has a sticky-finger on those guys in ten minutes.”
“We could get lucky, and cut off the Lincoln before they leave the city ... or the Feds get the case.”
“Case? Its Josie!”
“We’re cops, Nicky. We have a badge and a gun and the law. They pay us to get the bad guys.”
I hated Bowers for it, repeating the rap I’d given her ten times. How cops squeeze their emotions out of the nickel - how that cold decision makes the law - makes it work. It turned my stomach and made smart talk cheap. But nobody had rapped on Hricko. His face gone quiet as a priest at confession.
“Which bad guy,” Hricko said softly?
“The perps,” Bowers shot back!
“Your perp, mine ... everybody has a different one, a different payoff. Like a game; a three person game, so you must try choosing a partner.” His eyes flicked over to me. “Cisco chose you, Nick.”
Bowers groaned. “I got nothing to say to a hippy freak. What game? What people?”
Hricko triumphantly. “Nick, Cisco, and the coppers. Cisco wants numbers. Cops want Cisco.”
Vitalle growled in. “We want the kid.”
“Exactly! Different payoffs. Cisco plays the trade, Josie for numbers. But he’ll never give back the kid. We get Josie over Cisco’s dead body.”
“Cops trade the dead kid for live Cisco. The Feds will.”
I blurted out, “not today!”
“Yeah, not today.” Hricko’s voice now running hot. “What’s a player’s best chance in a one-shot, zero-sum game? Kiss ass? Hell no! A player should screw everybody in sight.”
“So we hit Saul.”
“Saul first - we hit all three.”
The lez jumped up, tripping over her big, red toes. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this. It’s not being the Lone Ranger, Nicky, what you’re doin’, it’s a God-damned rebellion.”
“High cotton, Sargent Bowers,” Hricko shot back. “Isn’t South Carolina grand?”
“Shit-head Slovak. South Carolina got a big white ass-hole for its trouble, first time around.”
Vitalle waved a fat hand, under her nose. “Most people admit, we’re not half as white, this time around.”
“Fucking Wop. Where did you people come from?”
She was sparking along, like a steam locomotive run through a caution flag on a dead-end line. The lez, never made police work easy. Sam would have ... I wasn’t going to put her down ...
She glowered. “You just gonna wack these guys?”
Vitalle’s face, covered in ice-sweat. “Like the cavalry. We can sure try.” He turned away from Bowers, toward me. “But Saul always has muscle around. Enrico’s a tough bastard. Grove ... I don’t know, what we can squeeze out.” Tremors buckled him, legs rubber and head in a swoon. He sat down hard as Bowers brushed by him.
She said. “I’m outa here, like a blind bat you bastards, and I ain’t heard a fucking thing.”
“You ain’t said a fucking thing worth hearing!”
“Stay ... close to Eve ... Sargent.”
“Yeah, Nicky. I’m close.”
Then she dropped through the circle of palmetto trunks and was nowhere. Worse? Bowers could have done worse - she could have stayed. Where lunacy made blood race and bad law, and men made the best of it, we three. I ground the butt into the steel leg of the bench and let words fly. “The question is simple. Josie’s best chance?”
Looked close at the two men. Hricko straightening on the bench, fondling the pearl handle of a 32 caliber revolver. “If we go, where we go, second place in the game is never enough.”
Vitalle pushed up from the grass. “I say we hit Saul first. Move fast, Nicky! Ream out that son-of-a-bitch.”
“How Roman of you, Tony.” The tired voice cut through low palmetto branches. Then wolfish outlines of a face appeared. “Perhaps another time ... but today, someone’s beaten you to my asshole.”
My 38 flashed toward the sound. Saul’s Nazi ignored the barrel, stepped out first, blue eyes vacuumed the lake - a partner came through twice the size, same blond crew. Then Saul. “My condolences, detective. They should take a man’s heart, before his daughter.”
“Write that in cold stone.”
“It’s been done. Perhaps they are not readers.”
I took a step toward him, but slicked away the auto-load. “We figurethey andyou may not be so different.”
“I can read.”
“You can kill.”
Saul Davidson stepped into the bright Moire splotches from palmetto-fans waving in breeze. River breeze that didn’t stop for a good time. A well ordered man slicking strands of black hair from his forehead. “Friends in their prime may die.” The clean-cuts pinched in. He shook them off. “To make large of small things, I also have had a loss.”
“Shills loading the bones?”
“A human loss.”
Vitalle grunted. “Them crew-cuts human? You got them big test tubes, Davidson. Just infect a couple more. What’s a little skin off your nose ...”
A blond cheek tightened, and Saul’s. “Yes. Perhaps just some ... skin, as always ... and are you looking to take more without the law?”
Vitalle tossed it off. “... or you got ‘em box-cared in from Cour-de-Alain?”
Red now, on a pale cheek. I said. “You’re out of place Saul, asking questions. The law has a bundle for you. Starting with Sturmer.”
Galois appeared from a silver case, like alibis well prepared and a clean-cut lit it. Davidson dragged at the frog-skin til a bitter little cloud appeared. “Martin was German. From Dresden, as it happens.” Saul coughed roughly, then said. “By chance, he wasn’t alive when you found him? He didn’t say ... have a chance to say ... anything? I know the police report ...”
I said. “Saul, you know nothing, but you know it fast. Sure, floaters always have the last word. They say ‘I’m cold, dead and not having fun.’ They say ‘hell’s supposed to be hot’!”
“Very bright! Better than most, Lieutenant, you know how dead men speak.” He loosened a bow-tie. “I believe his lady - she who was ... she displays more tender feelings.”
Saul checked his Piaget. “At the Club, grieving as we speak.”
“Steady lay, if blunt is sharp. She too, works at the Club.”
Saul hung up some, on the words. “Human resources.”
“Lover. Martin Sturmer’s lover. And as most, she sorrows noisily.”
“Listen for yourself.”
“Mighty convenient. You wouldn’t know, why your own man was bird-watching, six-AM, Isle of Palms front beach? ”
“If I said no, truthfully, would you believe it?”
“Sure, I’d believe it, like I believe a hooker’s second orgasm.”
“But I’m here!”
“Nice cover, when a family member dies. You’re learned something from Sammy-the-mole.”
“Family? Yes. Family ... and more loyal than some. I had hoped, detective, you might take five minutes, while the festivities had other’s attention. But now ... especially, I see some relevance.”
“How things tie together ...”
“I got this offer straight? At the Harbor Club. You give me five minutes pumping Sturmer’s girlfriend?”
“As long as you need.” His mouth buried in smoke. “Whatever you need to return the daughter.” Then sharped into a bright patch of light. “Whoever’s loss must be suffered.”
He was writing it in stone. Could it be, Saul didn’t know what I needed was time? I stopped hearing blood race. Funny, how a low, uncertain voice can snap you around. I flashed on a stream of blond hair, and on Vitalle grunting blood on dirty grass and Hricko staring absent - cold blue eyes fondling the handle of a 32 auto-load.
I didn’t need five minutes. “Half an hour, Saul.”
“Consider it arranged. Alone, I assume.”
“Your mother’s tit,” Vitalle belched, half-stood and fell over like a wounded bear.
Davidson stared at me. “A brave man, Tony. At your side, he will bleed away and take you with him.”
“One Catholic dies bad as another.” Hricko’s jilted Island brogue caught at his throat.
Saul made a disgusted little wheeze. “More distraction than worthy companion, but ...”
Hricko hitched at the stiff, white collar. “We’ll get her, Nick. Get her back - rip guts til we do.”
“Very well,” came Saul’s imperious snap that cut off sharp. “Make your arrangements, Lieutenant.” Saul slipping away, pinched tight between the clean-cuts. “I’ll be waiting.”
Maybe Saul thought that, but I saw something different. All three made a loop across the lake’s short grass fringe, then cut a quick L across Rutledge. Hell on Italian leather, mud and asphalt, but that looping would have caught up most tails. Saul then turned toward Tradd and a waiting Mercedes. Only the clean-cuts trailed, in a Chevy. Then silence.
Just the three of us. The stainless Rolex read four straight up. My right hand felt casually free, Hricko on a sharp edge, Vitalle ... sprawled weakly across the green bench, swallowing yellows, browns and blues Hricko popped at him like candy mints. Like lunch-hour at my old high school, but Vitalle wasn’t smiling.
“You making it alone Big-T?”
“Fuck yeah, Hricko. Don’t worry about me. Can you shoot that pee-pisser? Can you get Nicky the hell away?”
“Into hell?” Hricko tucking a pearl grip into his belt. “Only left-handed and slow.”
“But you they ain’t lookin’ for.” Vitalle waved a fat hand at me. “The god-damned Panama, Nicky ... and the white plantation crap ... every blue-bastard in Charleston’s got two eyes. All looking for you.”
“I can’t vanish, but dim ...”
“Fucking dim ... They’ll be swarming, Nicky - you better turn out the light.”
“Not much help, I’m afraid, but my Triumph’s parked two blocks up on Beaufain. In Virginia’s driveway.”
“I bet so.”
“ Meet you there. Anyway...” Hricko’s voice cracked like his smile, “... nobody gets Josie; nobody but me.”
“You’re one sick human being, Hricko.”
“So Peachy says.”
I bet so. He was squinting far away from under his SanFran Seals baseball cap. He was seeing numbers plain-as-three and Caroline sky blue and hot and natural as a gut-shot.
I tried getting close. I got about twenty feet away from Martha, Fila, Peg Bottie ... set like quartz chips in a steel ring of blue. Damn their tired faces ... all they needed was a coffin. For the losers, a child lost among so many children will do that - empty what is full - they huddled in our front garden, under a bay window that sometimes showed so much of Charleston Harbor and the river that I felt part of it all. Eve stood among dead roses. She saw me. I think and not one line tore he face or one tear graced her blue eyes.
As I moved away. Silent, studied - I didn’t intend to share that - me a visitor on the fringe of my own property. Strangers had drained from the triple-deck porches along the south side. Paper shreds swirled in the empty lawn. I crossed between the bare elms heading for the first floor steps when above me, on the third floor, a door swung open and Mr. Black’s long, thin face appeared. Then his white palm, waving me ... I hit the stairs at a run.
The arm slammed into my chest. Stopped me dead! A ham-fist clamped on my shoulder. I got a face full of mint breath. A face full of Captain Marsh. “Badge and gun, DeLeon! You’re on admin-leave.” He put on full dress authority, and towered over a lean shadow in government issue pinstripe. “Indefinite leave. As of now!”
I swallowed the curse, but the laugh escaped, a small one and I rocked back.” You want a badge?”
“Some are tin-plate. Shiny though!”
No-show. Instead, I got the pinstripe’s talking head. “Don’t play home-on-the-range with me, DeLeon, unless you need a tin asshole.”Not backward, not at all - and she had made tracks ... in expensive, alligator pumps. She wore ringlet-red hair all tied up, lips thin and pale that didn’t waste effort. She’d been around.
Sure, Marsh towered, but who talked and who gave orders was clear. Marsh voice came gruff as he patted me down - found the empty holster. “Leave this case for the pros.”
My Rolex read four-0-five. I said. “This is not right!”
“Tell me right! If things were right I’d be eating a sugar-cone packed with Rocky-Road. Things aren’t right! Right sends you to the slammer. Safety first.” The hand pulled away. “Federal offence, kid-napping. I got FBI crawling up my asshole. So I crawl up yours. Where’s the 40 caliber?”
“My badge and auto-load are upstairs.” Where they should have been left sweat-sticky blotches under my white linen jacket. I felt fast and light.
“You were going out after them, weren’t you? Lone Ranger and the fucking perv. I got eyes!”
A tilt came, to the brim of my straw Panama. I left it there, and the feeling in my right hand of casual freedom. Marsh bore in, more teeth than face. “I got legs!”
“Stuff 'em on a lounger, DeLeon. I got two minds to put you under protective custody. Got more than two minds. I got Jackson and Rains.”
They slunk from behind the magnolias. Traitorous wasn’t the word. They looked ready for the firing squad. They looked like crap. “We're hot for it Nicky, working with the FBI!”
“For your own good, Nicky. For the kid!”
“Treat you like a bro’, Lieutenant.”
“Bro’ my ass. They’ll treat you like a East-Bay pimp on banana-skins if you look sideways. Got the cuffs, Jackson?”
“It’s the man’s daughter, Captain Marsh!”
“Cuffs, Captain? What ...I mean ... no, don’t have cuffs. Left them in the cruiser.”
Pinstripe gave me the X-ray scan. “So you’re DeLeon!” Then blo-dried the photo. “Your smaller ... no, more human than I expected.”
“You - expecting?” She had a New York lisp, and I’d gotten it right - points under the pinstripe worth Broadway opening nights. She had gotten used to them.
“In a small town, I buy the tickets.”
“Try losing a daughter; try having one sister. I’ll buy you a ticket you won’t believe.”
“Don’t call me sister!” She caught the flinch, before it left her eyeball, and she had a long memory. “Watch those movies too? Gun in your lap and loose cannon rolling over the side - any sway, any side, but one god-damned cannon. Yes indeed. I do know you, DeLeon.”
“The pleasure’s all yours.”
“Pleasure isn’t the word. You float up like a lead nickel on gold, every time I search for serial-killer/cop/southern/white. You score ten-of-eleven in the category bad-ass son-of-a-bitch. And unofficially, DeLeon, in a data-base only us gal agents keep, you make fifteen-of-eleven in the absolute male sleeze-pig rating. And if you fuck with me DeLeon, after we find your daughter and we have the perp in Joliet and after your daughter is safely sleeping in her own bed I’ll see you in uniform, passing out bottles of Clorox to the Rivers Avenue cowgirls.”
“When’s my turn, sister?”
She rapped on the maple rails. “You must be kidding?”
Marsh bit hard into a fat lip. He had seen his people hit harder before, but not lately. “He’s one of our finest ...”
“No doubt.” She turned and said. “Problems, Captain. Any problem?” Then rapped out orders. “Use his house as a lock-down. Your two men with him inside. I’ll put one of mine at each outside door.”
“But Agent Topper ...”
“I’ll have officers fitted with headsets.” She took a pen and pad from a month’s salary worth of Coach-Bag. “Here are the access codes. Get to it. Now!”
She was a busy beaver, for a New York gal. I gave her that. Why ask - FBI at Colonial Lake? Eating party favors. Whose party? Who got favored? Coincidence - it hung sideways, like afternoon October sun. Coincidence - blown in from Rutledge by a hot, foul whiff of broken sewer. I got a lung-full, and a long twisting turn of bile in my stomach. “I feel sick ... get to the toilet ...”
Marsh growled. “Go with him. Both of you. Close as an ass-hair.”
Like construction foremen watching bad dry-wall go up, they stood back, arms folded, figuring how the other screw-up got the job. We struggled up two flights of stairs, Rains and Jackson on each arm, to the top porch and the maple door, cracked not enough to see into. I stumbled to a knee and threw up.
“Christ, Nicky ...”
One leg tucked under and my shoulders straining not to move where the holster’s leather straps should have held them down, muscles tight and waiting …
“Get a towel, Jackson, get some ...”
Launched up! I hit the door full stride as it flew open and slammed behind. Bolts shot home. White slates of light crisscrossing dusky hallway. I hit wallboard and bounced back, against maple. Other side, two bodies slammed against it, and they weren’t delivering mail-order. My name was taken in vain. Many were. I scrambled.
Mr. Black was shuffling toward the dark end of the dark hall.
“Dem doors, drafty, Mista DeLeon, and dat wind just keeps poundin’ away.”
“Lock seems to be stuck, Mr Black. It needs oil.”
The old face came up long and thin and sad as an old man’s face. “I oil dem locks, Mista DeLeon, but that study door already got that slick.”
“How thoughtful. Mr Black.”
“Be figur’n ... you gotta punch them crafty holes. For Miss Josie. God be forgiv’n you ... Mista DeLeon.”
Minutes. Maybe I had two. Down the hall, to my study and the heavy oak slicked open, me careful unlocking the gun-case and slipping chrome barrels into the leather carry. It was cold steel without a heart, meant to converse in triple-ought high-brass. TheBig-10 carried such a finality ... I moved out the door and down the servant-way to the cellar where servants had once been branded so as not to hear screams and out the low window on the north side of the house. Among thorns. Creased pant-legs hurried by - shiny, black wingtips under cuffs. Then an alley. Then a second, across Beaufain crossing south, moving toward Lockwood among shards of party-goers who might have seen me but had seen too much. I didn’t look at them. Made a point of it. Some still had their daughters.
My Rolex read four-fifteen and the sun seemed to have slipped points off the arch of blue sky. I dropped the carry behind tan-buckets and slipped in beside Hricko. His laptop was plugged into the cigarette lighter and spitting Intel Assembler.
He was slipping a grey 38 auto-load under the tux. “Could be Jesus, in a white linen suit.” He handed me a snub-nosed 357 revolver that wasn’t worth piss and a leather holster that snugged against the small of my back and somehow wouldn’t move.
Hricko scanned behind us. “Fed bitch ready to kill and after you like bad cheeze on toast.”
I buckled in. “‘ ... and of those slain, they numbered 5000. And not one remained alive.’”
“Maybe so, but God didn’t depend on Lucas Electric.”
I checked the NOKIA. It buzzed furiously. It wasn’t Traveler’s Aid. The battery read half-empty. “They any better than the Chinese?”
“Just kidding, Nick. It’s a Buick harness. All American like us, made in Brazil.” He punched at the starter. “We are official, eh, on the Cities nickel?”
“Plenty official. Disability, but the union pays.”
I didn’t mention the Feds. Assembler had mutated to machine-code. “Can you put a worm in the site?”
“Fools are running NT ... we have a chance. Twenty hours to break the firewall. JENNY says, maybe a bit less.”
“Jenny said that?”
Jenny. A million lines of C-code, twelve-pages of assembler two Chezko FPGAs illegal everywhere and a couple dozen ASICs. Maybe she did. He said it like a sailor gone down in grey-green water. He didn’t believe anything. He plucked gingerly at the shifter, before it settled into first. Dichroics slid down over black eyes. “Jenny! She says to say hello.” Hricko’s Triumph roared out onto Lockwood Boulevard, and I thought his eyes under the gold reflection must look like a mad-man’s eyes.
SAULS CHOPSread the small neon sign. Glazed windows angled away over old brick. Hricko went first through the swinging glass doors. I hesitated - waiting for government issue to pinch in from swirls of tourists crowding Queen Street and they didn’t. Good for me. I followed.
Engraved in brass on the oak-topped stand -SAUL DAVIDSON’S HARBOR CLUB. Bettors used the rear entrance. Tourists made stencils. Locals knew the chop they were getting.
“Will that be two for lunch, Sirs,” whined the afternoon shift maitre-d?
I got a slap from Frost-Aire and a mechanical smile from the hostess trying to escape a black cocktail dress, who liked Hricko’s Tux-top and didn’t like the flashing-red light on the metal detector over our heads. She had an experienced finger on a big, cream-colored button and would have fingered it to death and sweat blood if two clean-cuts hadn’t swept through the dining room and escorted us to the last back table. Saul Davidson didn’t sweat.
He wore crisp white, and a ruby pinky ring he hadn’t yet broken over someone’s face. When he spoke he spoke straight at me. “You aren’t expecting anyone, are you detective? Anyone else?”
First surprise. He shrugged at Hricko. “Must feel lonely, Dr Hricko, without your animal friends.” Nobody called Hricko, Dr Hricko, and nobody teased him about the pet vipers. Nobody who walked on his lawn.
“When an onion is peeled, Saul, you get an onion smell.”
“And at the core?”
“I’ve never found one. For me, the Harbor Club is just like home.”
Saul’s back stiffened, and that said a lot. I didn’t admire Hricko, for his Jesuit rap, but anyone who could strap whale-bone on Saul ... he said something brief to a shill, hovering and went back to work. Second surprise. A dining room all but empty. Heavy plastic sheets covered a hole in the side wall, where a vertical concrete slab was replacing old brick. Re-bar looked like skeletons. It had never been easy to get out, of the club and Saul was making it tougher to get in. Saul worried easy. “Hungry, gentleman? Perhaps some sole ... ” Saul was a cautious man. “How rude of me. Of course not.”
He worried a large, baked flounder and had placed a gold pocket-watch next to the bottle of Atascadero white. Flounder steamed. He had taken two bites - a third sat impaled and ignored on the silver fork. A knockout in sequins and seamed, nylon shorties pulled up loungers and I sat down. Heavily. Could have been her.
“Where’s the girl,” I asked?
He pointed to a small safety door with aNO EXIT sign over it in polished black onyx. “In the bar.”
In the casino, he meant, and since it didn’t exist, you could hardly get there from here. Nobody could enter, nobody ever did get out. “Pain, detective. You stand up to it well.”
“But not long. I don’t have long.”
“Patience buys time.” He fingered the gold watch. “Doreen is the shy type. As I told you, grieving. And though the afflictions are recent, they quite threaten her life.”
I said. “I guarantee a speedy recovery!”
Saul cut into the fish, stopped and pushed away the china. After a sample, also the wine. He said, “Atascadero has many fortunate vintages.” Wiped a ridge of sweat from his cheek. “As for the girl, perhaps not.”
When we entered, she wasn’t just sitting at the bar in a long rose dress. We entered through sequined curtains or maybe the waitress was just advertising on Saul’s nickel, buttoning part of her dress under an onyx palmetto where the bar joined the poker room. Two shills and a fat navy officer exchanged side-bets over Saul’s money and watched her. I’ve watched a few dames not just sitting at the bar. “Union must be tough on break-time,” I snided – Saul said nothing.
Doreen was loving mahogany to death. One Wild Turkey bottle sat empty. Another on its side, empty and spilled. A crisp bartender was filling her crystal tumbler and he wasn’t Jack Black. He had forgotten ice. She had turned sideways as we approached, so her blush cheekbone sat high and in shadow, blue from the bar-lights, and skinny model’s legs sat akimbo. But hunched over.
I’d seen prisoners hunched over. After a cop tried squeezing truth serum from a kidney. But she didn’t wail - for a dead lay or otherwise. She drank. She had been beautiful.
I said to Saul. “Have you spoken to her?”
Saul snapped. “Doreen!”
Legs spun around with the captain’s chair. She had a scar on her left cheek the shape of a coffee-mug handle and scars like that don’t wear well. A new scar. She wore it better than the last one I’d seen on a dead junkie. And the junkie had only been dead for days.
She was just another dame at a bar and I said. “Are you OK?”
Her pearly-whites clicked against ice and her eyes flickered away from me. “Ok? Whose’s the swell, Mr Davidson?” She shined on Hricko. Then shined me. “Whose the concrete leg with a mouth?” She slid off the chair into a model’s vamp. “OK? Am I OK? I’m not OK, I’m fucking perfect!” She whirled back on me. “Think so, Mr mouth?”
Saul took her shoulder and turned her gently around. “The Lieutenant needs to asked a few question.”
“Whose lieutenant? My agent send somebody around? These two? I’m not ready, Saul, to see a producer. My eyes ...”
“It’s about Martin. And you look fine, Doreen.”
Doreen looked drifty to me - I butted in. “Mind if I question her alone?”
“I believe, Lieutenant, you have missed something.”
A peal necklace unclasped. “Near a ten, ten-plus, wouldn’t you say Mr. Davidson?” Next a gold ankle-chain. She dangled it on long, blue fingernails. “ Who are these ... gentlemen? Here to see Martin? Has that boy been bad? I can tell you about bad. Martin stood me up this morning, that bad boy. We were supposed to go bird-watching; he took my binoculars day before ... that’s what he said, bird-watching.”
“Sea sparrow? It's mating season on Kiawah Isle.” Saul tapped his temple with the ruby finger.
She stepped away, between tables and then behind Saul and hung on a shoulder of his white diner-jacket. Whispering a confidence. “It seemed so strange he’d take them, but I figured, you know how women figure ... I was worried ... he was scamming on some chick. I’ve always worried about that since he got his own apartment, but that’s a thing that only women worry about. Told myself that ten times, but now these ... stiffs coming looking for Martin and I know I’ve done something terribly wrong that they should be here.”
Maybe once before, I’d been slow on the uptake. “You two birdwatch often? Pretty unusual for love-birds, getting up so early.”
“Oh! Martin loves them, the pelicans. Loves to photograph them screwing - you know they screw flying.”
“Maybe you need the Nature Channel on cable. Cut out the middle man.”
She looked confused. “Oh no. Martin has to take the pictures himself.” She giggled - wouldn’t stop. “Soon as he gets back, we’ll shoot twenty rolls of film. I get to fly!”
“Has a camera, does he?”
“Hasselblad, just like the binoculars?”
“Yeah. How did you know?”
Doreen did a pirouette back to the bar. Hung over the chair. It wasn’t Saul and she didn’t whisper. “Did I tell you how wonderful Martin is in the morning. If Larry didn’t call us, we would never leave the sack. But Larry’s so careful about calling. He called yesterday morning, but Martin ... Martin ... he just didn’t come home that night. I mean ... he wasn’t serious about the new place, his place away from me, but all men need that. Know what I’m trying to say? You understand, Mr Davidson ... about men ...”
I said. “Larry. Larry Grove?”
“Yeah, Larry-the-Lip. You know tons of stuff Mr mouth.”
She sucked down on the bourbon. “Like a brother to me. Martin’s brother, just like him I bet if he had one.” Crystal slipped from her fingers and smashed on the pine-heart floor. The bartender scrambled while Doreen’s giggle flew high pitch.
“He introduced us, Larry did. Martin was whoring around with this waitress bitch, wasting his time. But Larry knew what he needed, once he had the chance. I fixed him right.” She froze up. “I was a shill then, for Saul. At the 21 tables, mostly. Made three grand a week ... fixing odds for the high-rollers. Give them a big win. Then they keep betting.”
Saul’s eyebrow might have raised. Mine didn’t. “Who fixed your cheek?”
But her cheek wasn’t the problem. She slid over next to Hricko, and where her hand went under his tux I didn’t care to know. If she got anything, he didn’t notice. But she said. “This is last time that bastard stands me up. You two aren’t so bad. I’m off at two. Why don’t you pick me up, go home and watch some nature movie? Your place or mine.”
She heaved around the table, stumbled toward a door labeledNO EXIT and threw up over an onyx palmetto and almost took out a shill who ran away fast. She tried brass leaves to wipe her dress - they didn’t help. Her shoulder came out first, then the rest. Bloody brass scratches across her breasts.
Saul kicked away his chair and had off his diner jacket. It was bad cover in a bad place; I’ve been in bad places but I’d never been to hers. She screamed, “Stay away from me, you lousy bastard. You fucking killed him, killed Martin you lousy Jew.”
Even the clean-cuts wouldn’t come close, till Saul draped the white jacket over her shoulders. She let Hricko lead her away to a circle of half-dressed shills and a dealer in shorts and socks. They gave her a drink.
I made for the door that said NO EXIT and led to a cobbled alley behind the club. Hricko and Davidson returned together, followed me out and slammed shut the steel honey-comb on two trailing clean-cuts. Saul did. Shadow from St. Marks edged the cobbles and the air hinted of evening. Saul hitched uncomfortable at the small leather holster under his armpit. Like a man does not used to a firearm.
He hawked-eyed the street and said. “Do Catholics believe the insane ... blessed?”
“Catholics believe in purgatory.”
“And you, Lieutenant, have you acquired ... anything?”
“A shadow. I need not to be seen. I need to know why Martin was on the beach?”
Saul had off the ruby ring, dissolving blood in a linen napkin soaked with bourbon. It didn’t clean fast. “Discrete men respect needs. Even as they peal away.”
He told me a lot. My hand got fast and loose and Hricko grabbed the fore-arm, starting up … “Like noise in a tube, Nick. It doesn’t have to get there to be there.”
“Saul, if your angle isn’t straight as a T-square, I’ll bury you in that piece of new wall - standing up.”
“You may need to stand in line.” He keyed open the door and Frost-Aire blasted out. “Stay in touch, Lieutenant. I will.”
Their BMW was German made and fast. The tail lasted through eight gut-wrench blocks, to a warehouse on East Church. A sign over the door read EXIT ONLY; Vitalle owned the building. Rented to a chemist with more jail-time than degrees. The bottles read ASPIRIN. VIAGRA was printed on the pills, before they hit New Jersey.
Inside, Hricko changed to Nevada plates. Illegal as hell, to be two places at once. Hricko said. “The little perv kept his cool.”
“My fault. Clues stunk like Pelican foot-rot, but I had my nose ...” I grabbed a Marlboro - must have been Peachy’s from the dash and bit into the end with the chrome Zippo. Dragged through the filter; it tasted like horse-shit. “Bird-watchers keep a notebook handy; I didn’t find one around the body.”
“Figure he’s already fenced the camera?”
“That’s his lucky day! He may be in the darkroom.”
“Darkroom! You don’t figure ... so we stop everything and strong-arm TJ now? He’ll be at the server, running daemons.”
“I thought all that stuff was automatic?”
“Not when sysop is hacking new passwords. Users get nervous about their privacy. So does TJ.”
“Can he hack yours?”
“So he thinks. Jenny creates bogus files every couple hours, just to keep the bastard busy.”
“More reliable than Peachy, in matters of the heart.”
He wasn’t kidding - not Hricko. The warehouse door ground open and the stainless Rolex read five-straight-up. I pointed west, toward the chimney of the old gas-works. “He can wait.”
We hit Rivers Avenue in a rush, headed toward the rust-bucket navel yard remains, and the office of Larry Grove. Deadbeat private eye.
Hricko looked back. “Like chocolate icing on a carrot-cake.”
I said. “We didn’t shake the Chevelle. Not for a block.”
“Women drive fast. So do 396's.” He diddled a valve on the dash, but engines - like people - have just so much suck to give. He rapped the vacuum gauge with a knuckle. “You wonder what keeps-em-going. Like a goddam pink bunny with no drumstick.”
“Your excuse? It’s a women?”
Hricko didn’t swear when crossed like he had - before Peachy - and he wasn’t above blaming her for that. Now Doreen was beating his ass up River’s Ave, half a block behind and way drunk and hell mad at every crew-cut who missed a date. I figured.
“You got to her, Nick.”
“Make the right on 15th.”
You needed a reason to be here. Hricko slammed second and the rear-end did a double hop, coming around stiff and flat onto a broad street lined with boarded-up strip-joints, ezy-loans and pawnshops promising top dollar. Only the liquor stores were open, but nobody had Chivas on sale; high or low.
We were running fast like in a tunnel at a glassed-in guard-house and rusted double gate. Framed in brick. Above it in yard high ironwork:
CHARLESTON NAVEL SHIPYARD
WE SERVE THE FLEET
Some wit had graffited an enemabagon the brick. And pasted below, the picture of a Wonderbread sandwich. Nobody asked what got eaten.
Through a red light with no cars to stop. Another broad street with barbed wire on one side and rancid, cinder-block squares opposite that hadn’t seen elm shade in fifty years and at the Y, Hricko bore south and the cinder-blocks had no paint.
The third turn came faster. Between frame houses that hadn’t been homes in fifty years into a parking strip. Frog-skin smoked to a stop inches from steel pipe buried in asphalt, a wilted live oak and a brick stair-way leading up to a plyboard rear door.
Crumbling brick. A door, warped and unpainted. And a copper sign that once read:
SAMUEL LEVIN & LARRY GROVE
PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS: WE DIG YOUR DIRT
Actually a classy sign - not old - optimistic. A coat of primer had been slapped over Sammy-the-mole’s name, and summer rains had washed off most of it, the paint, so the name looked like a ghost-name on a ship that had left port once too often. My neck-hairs came up in a prickle against white linen. A curtain pulled back from a solitary window and yanked shut. We yanked around! The Chevelle whipped by, skidded out of view, roared in behind us - backward.
It was Doreen stumbling out, and into the short barrel of my 357. I was glad it was Doreen - I had off the safety. She had on a halter and less of a faded summer skirt that hung down but not much from a skinny patent leather rope twined about her waist.
She swung round, the pint bottle of Jack Black. “Need a belt?”
“Be like that,” she muttered and had one herself. “My fucking luck, you two are coppers.”
“And you’re the Tupperware lady making home delivery.”
“Yeah, Tupperware - and chopped liver - that I can’t see through the Saran-Wrap you coppers got covering your brains. Beady little brains, always working. Your heads flash like Christmas trees. Screw you guys.”
“Just maybe, you wanted to stay safe.”
“Stay where? Christ in a fucking crap-house,” she cried, swooning into Hricko’s arms.
I holstered the piece. “You got to her, Hricko! She got the heels right, and the right heel.”
“Christ-on-a-cross, she weighs a ton!”
Somebody cared. Above us, the curtain snatched open showing hat-brim and a line of dull steel. Then the door cracked. Smoke curled from the crack in viscous eddy around a natty bow-tie and profane face that showed once but not twice. From the half-dark the barrel of a street-sweeper poked out and stayed out.
Voices rolled up and down the stairs. “Betch’a need your ass up here real fast. Shit no. I’m not comin’ down. Whatdaya think this place looks like, the Mills House? And watch the dame; she ain’t no bone-bag. Frig your mother too, Hricko.”
Hricko groaned. “Fast is relative. She’s heavy, for a thin girl, even one with a lead ass.”
I tipped back the Panama. “Got an extra bed?”
“Got the only one I need.”
“Then point the damn sandblaster at it.” The barrel wavered, scanned the bit of empty street behind us and disappeared. I took half Doreen’s weight.
Hricko shouted. “The girl’s problem is not her complexion.”
“Betch’a know, I like mine pink,” said Grove. “What’s that, DeLeon? What triple-ought enema? I don’t gotta get it out if I don’t bend over.” And that told me a lot while the stairway got two miles long and Hricko swore he’d carried the last woman’s load but we both knew what a damn-lie that was.
At the top I kicked open the door. Light filtered out from the toilet. A kitchenette smelled of fried steak, and a White Owl cigar fumed at the twelve inch screen of an ancient Blue-PC. We dragged Doreen across the rug, where Grove grabbed her and with more strength than most swells had with one arm and tossed her onto the cot like a bag of spoiled sweet-potatoes. Grove straightened his bow-tie. “She ain’t say’n much is she?”
“I ain’t worried. The dame’s no well and you’re no pump!”
“She said plenty! Doreen sez you run a wake-up service. For your buddy Martin. You remember him, right? Blond. Handsome. Dead.”
“He was a friend.”
“Saul, Doreen and you too? A man could die of friendship.”
He stiffened up, in the threadbare brown suit and scratched careful at a grimy wrist-cast. “Three ain’t too many, not by a long shot, not three. Not when ...”
“Not when Nuga’s around. You own a kayak, Larry?”
“A kayak. Like Nuga the Eskimo.”
“Stop friggin’ with me, DeLeon. Is this friggin’ South Carolina or you got an iceberg up your ass? You guys fucking crazy or what? Must have been you, Hricko. All your fuckin’ idea from day one! Yeah, your sister does too! Who got snatched! Jeez, Lieutenant, sorry about that. What happened! Tell me it ain’t so! Gotta lead? Yeah, I always scratch my balls but I ain’t no lead. Jesus-shit, you guys really jake? First Sturmer, then the kid? Must be ... but you ain’t that kinda perv, Hricko, and you made your number. Can’t hate Bottie that much. What fucking artillery - that’s a quail gun. Self-defense from bird-shit, you gotta know.”
“Plenty of that on front beach, IOP. You own a Buick, Larry?”
“I gotta thing for sunrise.”
“What about Cross-Town Expressway, in the rain last night? It’s an eighty-four Cierra, duo-tone, plate number ...”
“Rain too. I get an erection. Don’t start that evidence crap ...”
He weaseled fast as a small man can, but I pushed him back quick into a plastic kitchen chair. It fit just right. “Checking up on me real careful-like, haven’t you been, Larry. Figures you check up on the daughter too.”
“I ain’t snatched no kid! I ain’t scoped out no kid. I ain’t ... no fucking setup for whoever got your daughter!”
“Bet the judge sees it that way!”
“I ain’t ...”
“You ain’t some something, Grove. Mostly, you aren’t going to live six months of the five life-terms the judge gonna nail to your ass.”
Grove had that rabbit look, and I was ready. He banged down two puffs from the White Owl and stood up. “Fucking heart attack, DeLeon, that’s what you are, a fucking duo-dick heart attack.” He scrubbed out the cigar. “I need a drink. Coffee and turkey piss or straight?” He looked straight at me. “The kitchen, DeLeon, just in the kitchen.” He got up, went to the kitchenette and clattered some cups, then spoons; the perc sounded like a freight train. It could have been the Mills House, except Grove owned more clean spoons.
I said. “Black.”
I thought about it. Grove and Sammy-the-mole had been partners since the last, honest Charleston mayor. They went back a long time. Private investigators who specialized in wedding photos - the kind that guaranteed new weddings of old SOB gentlemen and young blonds that would never look back at Georgia clay. Like hyenas Larry and Sammy culled the herd of fat fools til Sammy caught religion and I still hoped it wasn’t from Hricko and got pying clients fast SOB. Grove had gone fast to hell, after that. No more wedding photos. He took pictures of bald tires at stop-signs. He had been culled.
I figured, he needed a picture. “Larry! How do know Doreen? And Martin. You talk to Saul Davidson recently, or any friend of Sauls?”
He thought about it, while plates rattled. “Yeah, fact is I talked to Saul couple weeks ago.”
“That’s when you met Doreen?”
“That’s when I met Martin.” Seconds ticked by and the kitchen went quiet. “Doreen’s my sister.”
More seconds passed quiet, enough to make a man nervous and I was till Grove’s head poked out of the kitchen and broke in with a rap. “He calls me in, Saul does, fucking bastard. Yeah, Martin and another ‘cut are with him, three weeks ago and lays two bills on the table and a cell phone. Green’s fresh as a cheer-leader’s twat - fancy phone with a scrambler. I don’t know Martin Sturmer from nazi-Bill, but Saul sez cat-like we’re real good friends. Just like that. Real good friends and I should hang on the cell phone, Martin’s gonna start calling early mornings and I’m gonna get two bills every week I answer.
“And you can’t getyes out fast enough.”
“What fucking’ yes! I slap the bastard’s face. I tell him good about Sammy - what a rotten Jew he is to trash family. I slapped him again, would’a broken the bastard’s neck but the damned ‘cuts got me ... that’s when Doreen shows up, I’m on the floor, them pounding away and she grabs Sturmer, pulls him off like he’s a lambchop ... what the fuck!”
“So now, your just one of the family. You and Saul, kissy, kissy.”
“I got one sister, DeLeon, only one sister and I don’t got Sammy no more and ya ain’t no fuckin’ innocent about that shit so don’t piss on the way a man gets by.” Broken glass - I got a mouth full. A daughter came to mind and what a man will do if he has only one daughter ... Grove’s head bobbed behind the rusted frig. “Couple days later, I get a call - somebody interested in him too, but she was two craps and a piss from being Saul’s friend?”
“Some old friend of Sammy. I mean old. Wants to be my old friend, know what I mean, if I got stories to tell. But I got ears. She’s gotta fresh mouth, but the rap is old. FBI old. Kind of bitch that uses starch on her rubbers.”
I knew the type. Bet I knew the woman. I knew plenty, about how a man under interrogation, a smart man gives a little, just a little on one edge of the whole truth then slides to the far end - gives a little more while the rap goes on and maybe, just maybe the questions get tired before the answers get long and straight. “Oh yeah? What did she want? Ben! Heh Ben, what’s your poison? Ben?”
He was hunched over Doreen, doing something with her eyeballs, or to them, and he was stop-watching something. “Sodium Pentothal, I’d guess. A big dose, within the last four hours.”
“How do you figure?”
“It figures, Saul had a chat with her. Look at the capillaries. When they ...”
“Grove! Oh shit!”
From the chair, I jumped, not walked to the kitchen door, and on the kitchen table a pair of chattering false-teeth chattered on a pair of rusted teaspoons and a butter-knife. It was clean. Grove crapped here, ate here, worked here and slept here. He had done all that. For months, from the garbage smell. Doing it real intense, from the size of the shotgun and the sting in the rap. But whatever he had done in the second floor flat, he wasn’t doing it now.
Suckered! We hit the back door together and it bust out rotted, hanging onto two locks like an old drunk’s two teeth and we stood swearing on the balcony for one full second while Larry Grove’s Buick spit a lung-full of carbon and roared down a weedy alley and away. We left the front door open. Doreen wasn’t going anywhere.
We caught his bumper flash six blocks away in Doreen’s Chevelle crossing the Interstate. I was driving and driving hard, but a GM-396 is no Bandit-chaser! Hricko’s Triumph stayed at Grove’s office and wasn’t going anywhere, with or without Doreen.
Neither did Grove, it seemed. Over the Ashley he drove suburbs aimless in heavy traffic, us one block behind, then nipped east on Riverfront Drive. Through the yuppie Palms Apartments and along the Ashley, then back, into a used car lot and around it twice. He sat through two red lights. The Buick then muscled between a pair of Ford Torinocustoms- drive-by limos from the look and into a line of cars at the entrance to Charlestown Landing. He shared a salute, with one Torino.
Him clueless we hung on his tail. If he had killed a man, I’d of called itblood simple. Grove looked happy being alone. Maybe so, he figured, we weren’t good for his health.
We laid back, wolfish, as Grove made for the north end of the parking lot. Took with him a canvas sack and found a group of Japanese tourists heading for the Puma compound. The cubs were outside the den. Eating a squirrel. Cameras snapped like crazy. Kids hooted. It was packed ten deep and not moving like a Tokyo bullet-train. Grove snuggled in. Quiet. Coying up to the sailors looking lost in crowd noise and feeling good about it. We came up behind and each took on arm and jammed gunmetal into the adjoining rib until each rib crackled. Grove stopped looking happy.
He rapped like a trapped rabbit. “What the ... you sons-a-bitches again, this is a public ... I’m a citizen god-dammit and ... what the ... easy with the sticks, yeah, I’m movin, so did Marilyn Monroe and lottagood that did her. Fellas up top get ... ohhh shit, the nerve, yeah you got the sack or I’ll send it fucking Federal Express but don’t rattle it. I got the trigger shaved down. I get a city receipt? Your on my nickel, aren’tcha, cop-work. Official business? Yeah, and I swear too that blue suede shoes are butt-fuck ruby slippers. What’s Hricko doing with you? Betcha can’t tell me that, when I need a cop, really need a cop who ... the fucking ribs! I gotta hernia and it tears right up. Ok! Allright, where we fucking going? Where’s Doreen? You would never bring her, DeLeon - that’s Hricko’s screwing around, you ever think about that, pal around with a fucking snake freak? What! Think I didn’t know that? Sammy told me and fuck him like Hricko’s a Catholic, crap on this swamp. Heh, why we headed down this way. Fucking alligators are down here. WAAAAit a fucking minute. I’m not ... ouch, the ribs. You got the safety on, tell me you got it on and since when you carrying a snot-nosed piece, DeLeon? Wife cut you off. Heh, heh, heh OK! OK! I’m moving but I ain’t movin happy, know what I mean, you guys jerking me around like smoked turkey ... watch the hands, Hricko ya friggin’ queer, heh, fuck no, not into the water ... I hate water like Sammy hated the water, a skin problem and ... sure I’m gin ... and Bottie ... Bottie ... somebodies got a contract on Bottie!”
We stiff-legged him quiet to the ‘gator pens and he looked sicker. Couldn’t see one of course - not the alligators. Not in the open pens. Just a low marsh peppered with moss-covered logs. Floating green logs. A man couldn’t see the alligators and every so often neither would a heron come fishing at low tide for the frogs and just disappear in a nasty white swirl of mud and feathers. And then you wouldn’t see anything. Made a man feel optimistic.
I pushed him in. “The cure, Larry, we’re gonna take the swamp-water cure.” Grove sloshed shin deep in muck when I grabbed his collar. “Why’d you run?”
He struggled some, and sank a bit. He had headline fear written across his face and was giving Hricko home delivery. No more Natty Larry Grove. His fat mouth moved but no sound came out and he looked at his watch, but seven-fifteen is just dark enough so a man can’t always see his watch but only know that quiet, stalking things are getting awfully close. A man might need talk then. He looked that way. The way I figured, he needed to talk fast.
I figured on helping him. “Why’s that log moving, Larry? Moving this way. Must be twelve feet long.”
“What fucking log. I don’t know about no log. Heh, quit the pushin. Up to my fucking knees in this shit. I ain’t goin’ no deeper.”
“I try to be nice, Larry, but you aren’t getting any smarter, are you? But smart enough to use a cell phone.”
“Yeah? So that makes me who, Larry Einstein?”
“He couldn’t count either. How far can you count, Larry? Count to three?”
“Heh, what the ... you weren’t the jake ... what kinda ink you got on the blotter?”
“Wrong again, Larry. I ask, you answer.” I thumbed the double-action 357. Hricko would never leave a bullet under the hammer. Sure of it! Grove lurched away - I hung on. “And what’s this crap about a contract. A contract on Bottie. Peg Bottie? Every Republican’s favorite dead lay.”
“Give that friggin’ trigger a rest!” Grove had bleached white, in the dusk. “I can’t say ... about the lay part. Got to ask your pal Hricko about that.”
“She got hippy hots one month after a beach party; Hricko took the best stuff fast. Later on they had their moments.”
“Hear that Larry, she had her moments. Now you got yours, but you got a quick moment because I can’t see that log any more.”
“Get me the fuck outa here!”
I’d give Hricko that, for a man too thin. Sudden strength in a sudden lunge out from the oak walk surrounding the marsh and Larry Grove flew back with Hricko’s hands buried in brown serge scruff and one damned-sad pair of smoky, reptile eyes floating back among moss-green logs that had dinner for sure and lost it.
I stepped out of the muck, myself, quick, and that was one damned loss of fine Italian leather. But it broke the ice. Hricko punched up two Reds and a third when Grove asked. We cruised heavy plank, in the dusk two feet and fifty million years from the swamp right there, but the swamp was always too close for me. Red’s smouldered.
The glowing tip shook on Grove’s and he was talking. “Water kinda salty or what, hell on cuffs, but I wasn’t the friggin’ bastard needing my toenails softened. Am I sure? Sure as fucking AIDS on an ant-hill. No! No! I ain’t telling you Jack’s-three-balls about who paid me, if they payed me, to put glass eyeballs on Martin. Saul? Saul who? Sure I’d like to know. How stupid do I look - would I be here if I knew that? But dead? Bottie! Guaranteed dead by three tomorrow afternoon, and you can break your back on that one!”
“What’s Bottie got to do with my kid being snatched?”
“I have no idea.”
My back was broken. “Can I tell you once, Larry, man to man, how much I don’t want to walk you back into that swamp. But some Chotto snatched my kid, and the Chotto thinks that whatever Martin found I found. I need to find him and if I find him sucking at the chewed-off stump of your arm, I’m a happy man.”
“You gotta know something, DeLeon. Sure, sure, like Moses don’t float and I don’t either, know what I mean if Saul ever finds out I gave him the tonsil treatment.”
“Spit it out! I got a memory like Regan’s, when the information’s good.”
“OK! OK! It’s a double deal. First, Martin’s full time on the Guat’ Enrico. Know him? You got to. Friend of the wop. Then Davidson sends Martin to put the glass eyeball on you three. Yeah! You, Hricko and Vitalle.”
“Saul got plenty free with his info, seems to me, but then, your part of the family.”
“Saul, crap-face! Doreen told me. Martin told her. You know how people talk, after they do the dirty. Talk and fuck, fuck and ...”
“Yeah, so what?”
“So Doreen sez, Martin sez Davidson’s got a hot-hernia over Peg Bottie! She may have been re-elected, but her life insurance policy’s been canceled. Heh, get a long tooth, DeLeon, how should I know how he knows. But he knows long distance, he knows the operator but not the telephone booth. Know what I mean, I’m shit-faced scared all of a sudden about Doreen and I bet the Feds are watching Martin. Martin’s watching Enrico full time, and you and don’t know why, but he’s not watching for Pelican’s foot-rot, you betcha’! Know what I mean, and Saul does, maybe. But you don’t know what I mean ... what Martin thought you knew, boy you’re fucking stupid.”
“Your so right, Larry. Every second I sit here without seeing pain on your weasel face makes me feel so stupid. Make me feel smart. Did Saul give you and Martin some kind of code-words to use?”
“Nah. All I do is tell Saul what Martin tells me. No, he don’t say what! I don’t care what. But Martin don’t tell me nothin’! Call after call he sez nothin. ‘Hello, babble, goodby!’ Yeah! Nothing, like I say. Not for weeks, until three days ago!”
“He says what?”
“He sez ‘Sunday brunch.’”
“Most days! Who do I look like. Galileo?”
“Sturmer tailing Enrico, that day?”
“Let me check my crystal ball.”
“What did Sturmer say yesterday?”
“He said blue water too, fer one.”
“You make any sense of that? And how would Enrico know, Martin’s about to die?”
“I make babble. Let me check ...”
Hricko, nonchalant. “We expecting company?”
“Only if you ordered Chinese.”
“Sorry. Can’t handle MSG.”
“A cough or a carload?”
“Three, maybe more on the left. Two in the aviary.”
“If walking tours count, across the Rio-Grand.”
A crisp shout from shadows. “Heh DeLeon, you skinny-ass gringo.”
“You order pepperoni. Or what?”
“I can’t afford the grease. Can’t you afford a better car, or does Torino meanmy sister’s whorehouse. ”
“Funny man, when the odds are so bad even a tough man wants to show his politeness.”
“I make it two to one. Don’t you need help, Enrico?”
“All balls, DeLeon. The Virgin protects men with balls - I pray to her every day. But leave counting to your friend.”
“Sure, soon as you get a GED. Until then, I count you number three on the list of shit-heads.”
“So they tell me - you’re looking all over town. Such a loss, you have suffered, and my heart goes out ... but I come to you, DeLeon, to prove I am no enemy.”
The 357 slipped out. “Step closer then, into the light Enrico, and show me what a good friend you are.”
“A joke, always with the joke, DeLeon.”
“The Blond Tiger, one hour, and may the Virgin protect you until then.”
“Plenty far fromThe Joker.”
“What a kidder, eh amigos? See what your children will become if you take their money. And you, DeLeon! That garbage bag takes only your white trash.”
“Ben, what do you think?”
“I think he chews stems, instead of the button. And chews between the wrong cheeks.”
Only a whisper, that became a ricochet whine. Damp twigs clipped as it skipped through marsh-grass and buried in pluff. A silenced 222 express. The bullet had clipped the dichroics from Hricko’s head. Enrico howled.
And when the laughing stopped. “I owe you a new pair, broker. Have your computer send mine a bill!”
“That’s check number two, on your tab.”
“Maybe I waste your time, DeLeon, maybe I save your daughter. Either way is equal with me. Either way. One hour, DeLeon.”
“Jesus, DeLeon. What the ...”
“Shut up, Grove! Leave the crap in the toilet.”
We hustled Grove back to his office in the Chevelle, while I’m sure, his Buick got parted out. I cuffed him to the bed, where Doreen still lay knocked out. The stainless Rolex read seven-twenty and we pulled up to the tombstones fronting St. Marks at seven-fifty and Hricko said Jesus Christ couldn’t have trod the Cooper River any faster but that was a damn blasphemous thing for a Catholic to say before meeting three very bad men.
At The Blond Tiger. Always two, with Enrico. Pink blazed from an open rear door half-a-block down Church, but it could have seeped through brick. To make noise, faces changed, those two but always one cool, one hot. Fat rain splattered off the Cinzano umbrellas; a pair of sirens wailed along State Street.
Rivulets hissed at the one orange light, and in the moire big taco pawed ruffled cuffs and a Michelin sports-watch while copper pots banged behind him. A real gorilla, the first one but for the Tiger it was a little late for French dip.
Any Saturday after seven. He cracked knuckles and missed a head from where I stood, between the bones. but he twice filled the rear door without Zen chimes.
More clanging - the baskets were baskets of rock-shrimp and bottles of Anej’o. Enrico held court at the Blond Tiger. Saturday after seven. Beside one-tit-Wanda and a norta~na branch of the nose-candy express. They didn’t eat French. The gorilla buttoned over a flap of hair seeing us and cracked his knuckles.
He said. “You walk on water, amigo. But why do you drive the British Leland crap?”
“It gets us to the church on time,” Hricko flashed without a hint of smile.
“Heh, pretty good. Pa’dron didn’t say how much you were both funny guys. Go in, please Seniors but first, the pistolas, portavor because my hands get so tired cracking these fucking knuckles.”
Our handguns removed slow. “Can you hear the leather moan senior,” I rattled?
“Sad to be unarmed, yes.”
He accepted both pieces and bowed, slightly. “A man without a weapon better be fast, eh, better be twice the man.”
“Who dies well without a daughter?”
He twitched, took the slap, hung on a thumb then grunted into a cell-phone and shuffled back in a shuffle with no reasonable end until he waved us through. His hand hung over the door as we passed under like a detector of arrogant moves. He said, “Maybe, such a man is waiting.”
We walked, into the kitchen and out the swinging door I could see them. In the dark. Behind washer-boys and cooks. Waiters in white jackets loaded black fish that just went on and we needed to break through them and the oak swinging doors to see Enrico and when we came through we sent vile fruit brandy and two bottles of tequila crashing to the marble floor and a girl wearing all but no blue chiffon dress sprawling after them in the shock of being slapped on her ass and not remembering why.
She looked up from the sprawl at both of us that way. I was two steps in and a step right of bronze-Wanda. Ooohs and aaahs chorused right. Lawyers, doctors and the good people of Charleston eating diner-style next door and loving it swivelled chairs around with faces pouting big, puckering mouths people use to greet bad luck for some poor pilgrim.
But not the hard man. Kicking away his chair all angles and spit and sandy hair. Eyebrows groomed in Lybian terror camps and high Matamoris desert they said haughty. A gold ring flashed and a thin hired man darted to restrain him - one chop behind the knee put thin rolling tortilla flat. Away from the hard man. Who raged at me. “And who! Just who in fuck lets you tip over the apple cart with anyone else. But me!”
“My wife conplains .. I'm always on the City nickel!”
He flew in a rage, blind with searchlight eyes. “Spew DeLeon! Haven’t you made a mistake? I think you have ... badge-boy.”
“Call me what?”
All angles. Equal fluid movements above the waist, a southpaw cross-draw and snap of the right wrist. He snapped eyes across the fallen women. “Upset equilibrium must be returned oh yes!”
And his voice rocked back and forth. Keeping the Glock and wrist-knife between me and Enrico in the green leather lounge. “You’re looking to party, for Miller time down the street.”
As I retreated he came around on my right so the angled white face rocked white and pink from the lights and words scampered out. “Arrogance well damn, I do detect it! Move! Jump like a rabbit in that white suit, so give me the hippity-hop, hippity-hop out through the diner like good soldier’s hippity-hop all the way home.”
Legs just so in a military cramp, three steps, four steps with the .357 magnum turned right-angle and yawning steel, but the tube wasn’t so much a guide to hot lead as a cold-pump meant to freeze blood in an uncertain heart. He had never yawned. “I said move, badge-boy, you just can’t be the life of the party.”
My left hand chafed at neck hairs scratching against linen and my right casually free. Retreating, clearing the base of Wanda’s bare bronze foot where forever grass tickled and I notched the Panama with my left hand. I said, “not really, but I can bring good thinks to lite,” and he was watching me say that ‘cause cocaine drives searchlight eyes into edges of tiny movement and not watching my right hand chop quick at his gun-wrist and drive it into the shiny bronze nipple of one-tit-Wanda and the girl thought she didn’t have enough.
After the scream ... I drove in my left fist. Over the blade and up, into his nose. He collapsed in blood-spray, winding around Wanda with one wrist pinned and the other making short feeble scratches on her bare feet. The bronze statue wobbled some, on the marble base. She had seen less constant lovers, and he had gotten the G-spots right, but she still wasn’t falling for a company man. Adrenaline felt like a rocket motor sucking on the room. Pin-drop quiet in the diner, the waitress scrambling on her knees to the crippled hood, cracked high-pitched whining and Enrico’s muffled laugh. And the black tux moving alongside.
“What say, Nick, it’s time for the song and not the singer.”
“Hey hey. You messed him up good, DeLeon.”
Then, from back in the dark. “Gee, Mr detective, I tried that, being still a deputy and all but the other Trog busted my arm. How can my left finger type? No hacking machine code, I guess. Not this month, Mr Hricko.”
Green lounges emptied. Enrico got up from his. “I just hired the gringo and already he’s on siesta.” A wave - two slims and a zoot drug off the moaning body. “How can a man make honest dollars in this country, when the peasants like to sleep?”
“You mean, those looking for you, the Federals. Even to my poor office at the dock, they come to ask ... even a women with steel for a crotch. You are in such demand ...join me, DeLeon, in the corner.”
He wasn’t kidding, not Enrico. He pointed at the empty circular
table with the only corner plate glass on Meeting Street and two zoots stationed outside. “Your friend - how do you call him, TJ - had an accident so please, accept my apology.”
“Say you’re sorry, TJ.”
“We say, pain is always a poor man’s pleasure.”
“No shit, Mr mango. I just fucking left ...”
Hricko slammed TJ onto green leather and pushed him to the back corner where pink wall lights sucked on a pink, battered face and a gold tooth once smiled in. Like Hricko smiled. “Now that’s a good boy, TJ. There we go, just sit and smile and when an adult asks a question, just answer it.”
Enrico straightened, as might a man of dignity who talked to many , but spoke with one. “How do I say, DeLeon, we had to act for the moment. My older brother Pepe - he works for the Jap - he calls me at siesta when the Haselblad camera walks into the pawn shop. He tells me I got a steal on good, Jap product, do I want it?”
“But you know I want it!”
“We say, DeLeon, that a snake once bitten crawls like hot desert wind.”
Enrico and I sat across. Pure blue tequila came with lemon and shot glasses and a properly dressed canteni~a. We sucked down, to the rattlesnake eyes.
“And the film!”
“But that was ...”
“Only when spoken to, TJ.”
Enrico chewed on rough salt and spit some out. “When we snatch him, he does not have the film. We try to reason, eh, with the boy, but for us he has nothing but mumbles. We try to convince him for his own good ... but we must take him back to his business and squeeze it out - juice from a bad agave.”
“They busted up the router, Mr Hricko! The 4261 Cisco!”
“A piece of metal, for which another north American dollar always exists. Is it not this way?”
“We’re down for a week!”
“My brother’s nom-de-guerre. Heh, I like these norte Americano names ... fucking butcher ... Such a coincidence! Can I not imagine this TJ has hidden the film there? And he had!”
Shots went around and the toast. A black plastic film cartridge rolled across the table. I fingered it nervous, popped open and glanced at first frame corrupted with shot-noise. A shot glass cracked down. “Such a disappointment for me. Just mumbles, eh, when you have a closer look. But what I tell you now you cannot take a picture of and for that we are both blessed.”
I squinted at the perv. “TJ! What’s wrong with this picture?”
“Just being creative, Mr detective. Hada’ groove what the Nazi shot, but I ran out of fixer. So I mixed up a batch of free-base. Woulda’ worked fine, if the coke had been cut with laxative instead of talc.”
“Talc! Silly me.” I turned to Enrico. “Cisco!”
“Yes. To my family’s shame, I was at the lake. I watched while your daughter was taken. By Cisco! My parents, they gave him to Christ as Juan ... but up here every nigra is a nigger ... I told him, he should not come north.”
“No senior, that is myself. This baby who is my brother graduated from the Technical University. A good boy.”
“He is $$$$$ - a wiz! Lives with me two months and then hired at Awaik - as programmer - but by the hooded-one you call Jerry.”
“And he sprouts the bad seed!”
“Not the seed, DeLeon, that corrupts, but the soil!”
It slowed me down, how fast America could teach. “Where do I find him, Enrico?”
“If he is smart ...” Enrico bit into a lemon and washed down the bitter with long swallows from the bottle. “Saturday night he spends with norte party girls, at a club called The Two Goats. About ten miles south on Highway 134.”
“Covered in neon. I would not party there, with an old Venezuelan whore.”
“Every Saturday night?”
“Now, my brother spends none with me. This you should know also. The Two Goats. It is one half a painted, cinder-block building.”
“Yeah, what’s the other half.”
“An abattoir, amigo - a slaughterhouse.”
‘... and even the Virgin wouldn’t have the scraps ...’
“What did you say, DeLeon?”
‘...three numbers ...’
Enrico’s copper face spilled into mine. A waiter’s tequila soaked rag swabbed wildly at brass-Wanda. More sirens on Broad, running north through the Four Corners in long, sobbing wails like the last true-blue rodeo not liking the horns I gave them. Rain hammered at the glass pane. Outside, ponchos buried as men do without protection - twice the men with a long, unarmed night ahead. Lime acid bit back as I drained the Anej’a down to rattlesnake eyes. The worm stared up through gold skim and I made the decision like all important decisions get made fast on a dull, copper edge.
“I got a problem, Enrico. Two problems. Ben, bottle’s empty. Guess which end of the worm you get.”
“Sort of counting on the rattlesnake, myself, eh Nicky, slice off one or two for the squaw - she grinds them up ... heap big medicine when the fire gets hot.”
“You’re out of it Hricko, out of the firing line! Know what I mean? Go native instead! The Triumph’s hot as third gear. Marsh and the Feds can’t get hands on TJ. Not now. Not for hours.”
“Who’s your bail bondsman?”
“How many hours?”
“BL’s tank-full and a blower. Use it! Take the blue-boys as far onto Edisto Island as you can, and then get your goddammed hands up high. Not making Peachy a widow before she’s a wife.”
“She can swim for it. But my ribs still hurt.”
“Don’t get funny, on me now. I need your cell-phone, too, and queer the encode.”
“Something of yours in the trunk?”
“I think so.”
Hricko out fast from the lounge and TJ rapping. “Guess I’m not a deputy any more, eh Mr detective?”
“Way wrong there, my man. See those five bottles of 161-proof tequila? Gather them up, and put them beside you, in the front seat. Now, wherever a cop car gets close behind, wait for a corner, take two slugs from a bottle and toss it out the back.”
“Jez, what’ll that do?”
“Not much, if you don’t light the bottle first.”
TJ snickered. “I'll take the Combers honey-bitch with me. Baby gonna light their fire. But, I'll need a lawyer.”
“You will be innocent enough.”
“Honey-bitch gonna wear her knee-jeans only and sue for sexual harassment. It's the new freedom of worship!”
Crap. Anaita guesses right again … Hricko returned, stowed my leather carry under the table and gone, that fast when he needed, Peachy at the TR6s wheel and you can never ask more of a friend.
Salted wind whipped in the back door. I said. “Enrico. Mind if I use Hricko cell-phone from here?”
“Of course, but they tap everything, like deaf shoemakers. They who must put a sole on twice.”
I shucked over the unit, fingered in code til an amber light sparked green. “Yes. I think now God is deaf.”
Enrico the bad man, crossed himself. I palmed film and went out alone, through the back door. Under the Cinzano umbrella, the gorilla paced nervous; Enrico’s only guard - and that of his guests - and it said plenty about a man sitting guard alone. My 357 passed over. I thumbed the cylinder while his eyes brushed through shadow. “Seen anybody?”
“Shadows,” he said.”Shadows or ghosts,” and crossed himself.
“Got a flash?”
A small black tube slipped from his breast pocket. “Maybe they see us really well now, eh senior?” He cracked knuckles. “If a man comes, perhaps you can shoot him. This is necessary. And then I must kill you, as a matter of order, but at least one lives.”
“That’s all I need, pal, just one life.”
The plastic cap flipped off. I shook the film cannister. Torn, celluloid edges crept out.
Vitalle’s grunt punched through the scramble. “Jesus, Nicky!”
Line noise, and Vitalle shouting, “takin’ a crap, OK? Is that fucking OK?”
Noise of digits mixing, then ... “Still there? Half the town’s cruisin’ for you and cruisin’ mad, the other half’s dragging the Ashley.”
“Yeah, I feel the heat. How you doing?”
“They got me stitched up and browned down. I’m doin’.”
“See straight enough to find me cold wheels?”
“Where are ya?”
“The Blond Tiger.”
“Jez, Enrico. I’d figure they’d sniff him out, ‘cause them bastard’s all over me here.”
“Eve OK. You talk to her?”
“NO, she’s a god-damned suicide - Fila’s with her. But don’t worry. I’ll get Fila’s Caddy down to the tombstones. Somehow. Half-hour OK?”
The stainless Rolex read seven fifty-seven. “Plenty fast. I got left one deep breath.”
“I’d save half. Do you know some bitch named ...”
Color negatives spilled into my hand. “I’ve had the pleasure, got wet feet and cross-hairs on a techno called The Two Goats.”
“Jesus, Mary and the shepard Joseph. Couldn’t you just go to Bangkok?”
“Somewhere south of Charleston on Route 134.”
“Way outa town! Must be the latest, cause only Frostway drivers trucking meat can afford the play. They say if it's a bang you want then two you'll get! That road-house pops addresses the way old Strom pops Viagra.”
Frames riffed by, white-spotted frames of silly faced men and a peach who might be blond, against the parking lot halogen and bare ocean that proved Martin Sturmer was no Ansel Adams but he sure did like water. I got out the pocket knife, clipped away and stowed frames with men smiling. I imaged one, and between Ben and Tony’s damn-fool grins I was laughing ... in all six frames. Celluloid edges scattered away onto wet asphalt and watching them float by, into a river of sorrow because of the lot, those edges made only six.
Grinning - bet Vitalle wasn’t now. “The Two Goats? You gotta be kiddin’, maybe you been in Tibet, banging-the-gong at some monastery. A monk get strangled by a jealous prayer-wheel? Christ-on-two-crosses, don’tcha read your wife’s column? Or the coppers, Nicky, don’tcha’ talk to the vice-cops?”
“Your shining my gears, Vitalle!”
“Two Goats, Nicky! It’s a bleeder, a petal-picker, a rose-motel where the virgins check in, but they don’t check out.”
“She does me, she does me not, she ...”
“Heh, ya’ catch on fast, for a Baptist. There ain’t no virgins, coming out of The Two Goats. Tre’-hip for sweet sixteen with a Gold Card, new Mustang and ankles that just seem glued together.”
“Never heard ... can’t imagine ... but, how do they ...”
“Test? It’s modern. They use MRI ... talk to me Nicky ... I ain’t never been, but they tell me it’s some kinda auction setup right on stage. You pay, then get to play, and two-fer-one , so there ain’t no goin’ back to put it delicate ... you still ain’t talking ... where on 134?”
“Two Goats shares the building with a slaughterhouse.”
“I think ... must be ... hell, you don’t have a goat, you got the whole, bleating hog.”
The whole story - Vitalle read minds like a swami. I didn’t. Either Sturmer got fast what he needed, then shot pinups, or made like the bunny, and kept looking, looking ...
“You still there, Nicky!”
I slipped frames back into the cannister. “What hog?”
“Not hogs, no way hogs ... them bleaters is lambs, Nicky, hundreds of lambs. Imported from New Zealand. For the Saudis living on Awaik Island. Lamb stew, lamb bacon, lamb pies ... what the hell, can you jerk a lamb leg? Jerry-the-Arab owns the damned slaughterhouse.”
“Sez me! I got the contract to haul all them pieces of lamb back to Awaik. He signed it! We gotta haul every night, but Ramadan. He must own the building and Jesus, Nicky, you gotta get help!”
“Help’s on the way.”
“That’s a load, DeLeon. Ain’t too late to call your friends. Lemme get March on the horn.”
“Have no friends in blue, after ten PM.”
“Where all those friends are going to be real soon.”
“Son-of-a-bitch ... the Caddy’l be waitin’. And don’t fucking come back in a bag, DeLeon. I’m gonna need a liver transplant, after this shit is over.”
Rain spattered through the brim of my Panama. The gorilla stood in the downpour staring out at shadow. Enrico had one foot out the back door. One arm around a bare-foot brown lolita with a bare tit - the other waved a gold bottle of tequila. The girl squeezed lime juice into his mouth.
A mouthful spit out. “You friend, DeLeon - the TJ - he gave me twenty dollars for the tequila bottles . Twenty-dollars doesn’t pay for the worm, but consider them a gift.”
“I’ll consider the source.”
“In return, make me a gift. My brother - the Cisco - you will let him die like a man ought to die. If he does not kill you.”
“He might live forever. By the way, Enrico, what’s your family name?”
A river of gold spewed from his mouth. “May the Virgin, DeLeon, have mercy on your daughter.”
A man could believe anything, about poured plaster. I’d always favored the night’s mercy. At the wall, a rotted door gave quick. St. Marks draws worshipers from SOBs elm-lined streets. The better ones lie dead and buried around the church. I huddled beside a limestone slab dated seventeen-something, and the woman must have been a saint. The slab readIN LOVING MEMORY and damned if she wasn’t patient while the El-Dorado headlights crept up State Street. The stainless Rolex read eight thirty-six. Empty as a church pew - headlights sweeping through whiskers of early, harbor fog. The rams-head Jaguar dark, close behind.
At the curb, Caddy lights dimmed and the door swung open. The figure getting out moved dark and empty as the street. I came over the wall - wind snapped silk from her face and Fila would not look at me, but hurried to the opened passenger door of Eve’s Jaguar and left me behind. I guessed, people wanted to meet them ... behind the wheel, I turned air-condition to frost, rolled down the window to mirror level and slid chrome barrels from the carry. A scum of brine mixed with the gun-oil. Chammied them, then the stock and loaded triple-oughts from the carry’s Teflon pouch. Hadn’t figured on two cars ... and hadn’t considered who would drive the first. Now that I thought about it, not much had been considered.
Certainly not do what, if the sta-press arm of a low-button tan trench came resting on the window. It caught all the wind, the rain-cheater and stripped the lapels down to tight silk and the fat red curls above her forehead into wet streams slapping at the brim of my Panama. I pushed it back, the Panama. She pushed down on the window with a pearl handled glove. She could have broken glass, but it wouldn’t have been a forcible entry. We had a silent exchange of views, to see what steel lay behind green and cold blue. Frost-Aire whimpered in harbor fog that was just getting serious.
She let slip a smile, and slipped the pearl 32, into a weather-pocket. Then she said. “If you tried using that gun, I’d of had to kill you, just keeping order.”
“You might have come second.”
“I never come second.”
Not since anyone started counting. “So you’re the shadow. Nice tracking, for a city girl.”
“Don’t kid yourself. What’s behind you, Lieutenant, looks more like a trench than a trail.”
She didn’t waste time, getting close. The Frost-Aire went toroast as we circled Battery Park second time, and her short red shooter’s fingernails went all over thebig-10 like goat-skin was never enough when a girl always plays by agent’s rules.
“This weapon is illegal in every state of the Union. Its use violates human rights.”
“Illegal?” It wasn’t human rights, the sawed-off ten gauge was meant to violate. “Silly me.”
She was saying, “... you can consider yourself under arrest, Lieutenant ...”
“Yeah, I feel shorter by the minute.”
“... more like protective custody ...”
“While my kid gets snatched.”
“... while we locate your daughter ...”
“And we go ‘round in circles.”
“ ... but if you don’t get my ass to wherever the Cisco Kid hangs out - get there fast no way-in-hell I keep the god-damned bitch Peg Bottie in one piece.”
“That’s your nickel?”
“You pay every penny.”
“Let’s make a deal.”
“The Agency doesn’t make deals, with law enforcement.”
“Whose enforcing? Use your imagination ... lay back comfortable and enjoy it. Imagine I’m one of your buddies - illegal in every state.”
“Ourbuddies, don’t have to borrow a friend’s Cadillac.”
“Never had a good lay slumming?”
“You ever had one not?”
“None worth a whole night ... but surprise me! Spin Cisco’s deal; trade Bottie for my kid.”
“The Agency would never allow that! Cisco is a criminal, a terrorist, a threat to political order. Peg Bottie is one of only four-hundred and twenty-three US representatives. But every father has a ...”
“Sleep good every night, sister?”
“Like a lamb, and don’t call me sister!”
She knew the company rap. I knew people with green eyes who slept well. Whose smooth green eyes told one story because they didn’t need two - I was staring in violent green shards. “I want the wire.”
“Then, the sniffer.”
“I don’t ...”
I yanked the Caddy to stop. Alongside the mottled brass cannons that hadn’t stopped Yankee rum or Yankee slaves in two-hundred years. Teen couples milled among live oak. She shuffled long-stems under a long black dress and flicked her wrist. The silver dollar in silicon-and-sapphire pitched out my window and I sent it to hell-in-a-thousand-pieces with Hricko’s piss-shot 357 before it hit the brass. High pitched teen giggles shot back. I caught the second silver in my left hand.
She was saying, after fog swallowed the retort, “... there’s a server in Martinique ...”
“I’ve been told.”
“Three weeks ago, the Company intercepted a telephone call, just pieces of a cell-phone conversation.”
“The Company, huh. Budget’s tight so they took a party line. Be illegal for most folks to do that.”
“Nothing we do is illegal.”
“Oh, I see that real clear.”
“Write your congress-woman! We didn’t extract everything, from the scramble. Parts of five sentences ... we think, five sentences. One of those five contained the words:retire, eighty-thousand, Bottie.”
“Every sentence got to have words.”
“But not those. In fact for Spanish, only one in six million four-hundred thousand.”
“Pretty slim, from where I sit. How many people named Bottie retire on eighty-thousand dollars?”
“Don’t cute me, Lieutenant. Nobody in Martinique. The first word of the first sentence wascontract ... the last sentence contained an ISP address ... but it’s only a mirror site. Cisco ...”
“Yeah, yeah, Juan Valdez is web-master, but your database springs Cisco Kid as an alias. Sothat got the Agency started?”
“Not bad, Lieutenant, for copper-tone 101. Certainly, the word is started! Bottie’s re-election - real nasty campaign, wasn’t it - figures too, and her exposure. When Bottie’s due to show up at your carnival, and then next day at blessing of the fleet, the threat-vector turned red.”
“Yeah, some arrow. How far up your ...”
“No! That’s when your name showed up and the threat went right off scale!”
“You do this kind of work on taxpayer money?”
“With you in the picture, I donated vacation time! One chance in seven-hundred fifty - if you need the number - that our Peg Bottie will be assassinated.”
“Our? Now it’s our ... why tomorrow?”
“I figured an attempt today, at Colonial Lake. Maybe it happened, but something went wrong - maybe you screwed up. But you won’t be in Mt. Pleasant tomorrow and Bottie will! Cisco will!”
“Sure it’s him?”
There’s a thing, about the Feds, for my tastes like the Vatican and not just that hell’s coming for both in a hot iron tube. Pope Pius and J. Edger both wore asbestos longjohns. Yet the best always work for them and as a hard world turns the best are always wrong. Wrong for both, but never trivially wrong. And with all that thinking, never, ever wrong too soon.
Her black kid gloves had a clutch on Coach. I said. “Maybe so. Cisco plays roulette, but we gonna tilt the dam-oak table. Where are your buddies?”
“Don’t tilt my table, sister; you won’t like what ends up in your lap.”
“You don’t know what I like! In my lap.” She chewed some, on a black kid glove. “OK! Standard procedure. Chevy and Ford coupes make an Oreo, three blocks away. Every twenty minutes they exchange with SUVs.”
“No need, not with the sniffer.”
I said. “Some dog’s a whole lot smarter than others.” But I lit a Straight, in the open window and lit a candle. They hadn’t fingered the Caddy!
Bet not. “Yo, Jefferson,” I yelled at the nearest couple.
The black kid sauntered over, fingering stretch-Nikes. “Man say, Columbia nigger ‘bout the dumbest folks around.”
I palmed green. “Need a fast bill?”
His face poked in the window, pulled back and spat. “Fuck that mama yo’self, nigger, I ain’t no two-way street.”
I flipped him the silver dollar - a pigtailed girl with a‘No way I ain’t yo’ bitch’ t-shirt snatched the hundred.
I said. “Run like hell, and palm silver to the first white man you see. Then run like hell.”
The kid pushed the 45 auto-load back into the Nike waistband. “Yo one weird mothr’. I still say, take yo’ bitch to a motel.”
They were around the corner of Murry and gone like flying pigtails. Topper had a stitch in her nose. “That gun was illegal as sin!”
“Kids are too young for baptism -- too young to sin - too young to have an illegal weapon.”
Coach Bag stowed, under her legs. We crept up Tradd cobbles - a green Ford coupe rolled by like an advertisement for Federal Job Services. But electricity - plenty of it - well meaning fools who could do great harm in an instant and spend weeks making that harm look official. I should have paid for the auto-load.
Topper hitched at the black dress where it didn’t seem so long.
“So this rodeo-crap is what you do? What a bastard!”
“Sister, my name isn’t bastard and this isn’t the rodeo. We’re at the barn-dance night before.”
“Don’t call me sister!”
I knew what to call her and I bet she danced. Caddy swung onto Cross-Town Expressway heading south. Belching heat. Always like that with Yankees, who didn’t know hot but thought they knew cold. She had off the trench and it didn’t help, not a bit with silk lenses for searchlights.
I said. “Call me Nick.”
“Bastard ... Nicky it is. Mine’s ... Wanda. Yeah, you heard it right, Wanda Topper and I’m real sensitive about people fucking with my name so no crap from you.”
We drove silent, surrounded by the padded amber of upper class dash-lights. Soft south reach fog swallowed the city. Like a tunnel-mouth, Route 134 came up hard and common in the glare of semis. Then Wanda said. “So Nicky, what is she like ... I mean your daughter?”
“Josie? She’s smart. Very smart.”
If chrome could bleed, Wanda would have squeezed both barrels dry. She thumbed open the receiver and fingered a dull red high-brass slug.
“Your wife ... she must love her a lot.”
“Loves a ton. Josie can be ... lotta conflict, at age fourteen. Kid’s got to step out, feel around ... our house-woman … our servant … our family nurse gets hit with most of that.”
“Sayslave DeLeon.” Topper flushed, clampjawed then … “And your wife doesn’t, but Josie does come running to you.”
“Not that simple.”
Wasn’t much of a smile, the rye turn to her mouth. A red curl fell over her eye and she poked it back. “Still, daddy’s little girl.”
Like Eve, she saw father’s daughter on a merry-go-round, through a kaleidoscope; never saw the flint heart. A reflector slipped by in puddles and her neck turned. Like me, she timed the drive against mile-marks and watched for neon. A semi crashed by lights blazing from a wall of water - the road came up through the windshield as two red pits in a wash of rubber blades.
Brass slicked on steel and the receiver snapped shut. “This place, Two Goats, what kind of a name is that?”
I lifted the shotgun from her lap, to the space between the velvet bucket seat. Maybe she had, and maybe she wouldn’t feel for the safety and find it missing.
“Croation,” I said, “like the lost settlement,” and waited for another brace of Peterbuilts to cover the noise.
“There!” On the right, neon rainbows flashed, and the goats rutting between them weren’t selling cheese.
I pitched between semis and dove onto the ramp that first went up on concrete piles and then straight down into a four-way intersection black as pitch. Two lane asphalt led straight ahead into nothing. “Even The Cisco Kid gets homesick.”
I turned right, on the gravel cross-road, and a street sign readMartinique. Short swamp pine edged in from the sides; the Caddy bottomed through mud-holes. But every fifty yards another reflector sign hung from a branch. A neon-frosted birthday cake decorated with sixteen sparkling candles and an axe-head through the middle.A half-mile along, the road widened, then split in a Y. Asphalt to the left, beside Farsi script and to the right, gravel under flashing neon goat-heads. Caddy ground to stop. “We have a plan?”
“You still haven’t told me, Nicky, what this place is like.”
“Not sure myself. One guess - a teen nightclub.”
“Oh yeah? Your daughter got kidnapped to a teen club? Where are the cruisers?”
“Maybe kids don’t drive, if they’re having more than one.”
“What does that mean? What aren’t you ... well, this one doesn’t get had so easy.”
A horn blast exploded from behind. Headlights and high chrome teeth flared in the rearview. I lurched right, under the goat-heads as a Peterbuilt blasted by, left through the Y and disappeared in a rolling smog of mud. In the suck, the Caddy gave a sickening little rock. “Well, guess we know which way is the slaughterhouse. Maybe the cruisers got eaten!”
Wanda reached for her Coach Bag. “You’re bull-shitting me, Nicky.” Her hand went down empty, and came up full - a short barrel 25.06-cal auto-load. It fit her hand like a glove and made holes in bears like its bigger cousin. It disappeared inside the trench, next to her heart. “Night club, huh. Then it’s show time Nicky, and we’re the main attraction.”
Caddy crept up a short hill, around a pine thicket and popped into an all-but-empty parking lot. As big as it was empty. The square, cinder-block building nearly as dark as it was big and fronted by a single small elm. Razor wire caught my eye. At the building rear, PeterBuilt high-beams glared into black pine woods; the trailer squatted into a loading dock like it had come the long-way-round.
In front, a dozen upscale sedans scattered near a halogen-lit front door that looked heavy and wooden. Instead of a handle, it had a meat locker push-plate. A goat-drawn sleigh promised Budweiser on tap, but the gifts piled high were all bottles of Jack Black. I circled the sedans. One neon triangle extending high above the building promised flashing, pink goats. Unlit neon triangles covered the cinder-block, from the front around both sides. Somebody had stopped having fun.
Wanda’s gloved hand had my arm. “This can’t be right, Mister.”
“First bastard, then Mister. Next thing, you’ll blow in my ear.”
“Next thing, you’ll want my 25-06.”
Cops don’t squeeze arms, male cops don’t, when bullets are about to sing, and a cop wants to keep his voice real low pitch. But I knew what she meant. We parked feet from the door. “Raucus?”
Mine felt like lead. “Subtle?” I thought about it, for as long as we had.
“I can do subtle.”
We came out, and under fluorescent and I braced thebig-10 against the trunk of the small elm. She had my arm, moving fast through the oak door. My alligator and her trench open. Rules of the trade, her face left, mine right, eyes to the back of the room, drawing to the front. Respond to motion that any styling couple would not find tre’-chic. Wanda leaned over, bit my ear and muttered, “sons-of-a-bitch,” but she was OK by me. She had to bite into something, when what we were looking at, couldn’t
really be …
In the smoky dark. A waitress skittered from behind the bar. “Hey, honey, we got some action!”
She looked vaguely familiar, like I’d seen her in a back seat but hadn’t spent the night. Her voice woke the bartender, who raised sleepy eyes from the bottom of a tall, polished beer-mug, but not much more. “Anything I can help you folks with?” He wore a tan, lamb jacket under a bored, undistinguished face. He wore them well.
“Lamb chops almost ready,”, a fat red face called out from the grill. “Honey mustard sauce, special this evenin’,” spilled from a cigarette ash. It smelled like molasses.
Musty is a word. Smoked hams might have hung from the rafters not fresh-bled chicklets. Patsy Cline cried from a jukebox. At a captain’s table near the middle, two tired couples nursed ‘slings, but not each other. A Carolina cowboy and his date in sheepskin fumbled respectfully in a wooden, corner lounge and it never would get dark enough and she would never get the lipstick off. But she blew a kiss through the filter.
“Whooo, hoo, lookie here, Jonah, who just come in. Ain’t they the bees?”
Marlboros smoldered in a clean ashtray. They drank full bottles of Coors. Cowboy tipped his Stetson. “Glory, glory; no bettern’ you, sugarplum.”
She cooed in his beer. You could hear a rat eat cheese. Several checkered tables sat empty, except for that closest the door, where two sharkskin brims and a dark suit flipped cards and played distracted with plastic, bourbon tumblers.
“Wooden pegs,” Wanda cooed smiling sideways at country girl.
“And a mallet.”
Big brim pushed up his felt and brought a battered face around like a punch-drunk fighter ready to fall. “Heh, DeLeon, what are you doin’ here?”
Little brim snapped up from his seat, scratched an itch and came two fast steps across the pine floor. He winked a bright little weasel-wink and straightened a black rayon tie. “Yeah, ain’t ‘chu got the wrong side ‘o the Ashley?”
I poked his chest, where the 38 special hid not well and wrinkled the sharks-tooth. “Shouldn’t use a jockstrap for the piece.”
“That ain’t no jockstrap. And whose the dame, DeLeon? Some looker! Wife not treating you right-o?”
Wanda giggled, “some classy friends ya got, Nicky,” and nibbled my ear.
For my tastes, she got a mouthful; the waitress dirty-eyed us, brushed by and stopped chewing her pencil. “How ‘bouts a nice lounge, over in the corner?” She raised a pencilled-in eyebrow. “Real private, over in the corner.”
Big brim slapped the dark suit’s arm. “She’s fixin’ em up, like this was a real boine.”
Wanda’s arm caught my shoulder and she snuggled curls against my neck. “Nice, place too, huh Nicky?” She was catching the drift; my ribs caught searchlights that wouldn’t turn off. I pointed at the table, where the dark suit had not turned around and big brim slapped at the bourbon.
“A martini for the lady, Turkey for me. We’ll have a seat with the gentlemen.”
Big brim shucked at his chair. “Heh, Cooly, he’s talkin’ ‘bout us!”
Small brim weaseled. “Sit on it, Rosco. Don’t talk through it!”
“Shut up, ya two fools,” ordered the suit.
“Whose the dame, DeLeon?”
Wanda made lashes flutter showing some leg. “Nicky likes my seem,” and giggled madly. W
e pushed through. I knew the brims; small time muscle, who wouldn’t lift a finger. The suit ran them with a small, vicious brain fused for suicide. I didn’t know the sheepskin. Gentlemen were in short supply. I said to the small brim, who had gotten a step behind. “So Cooly, when did you get out?”
“Two weeks, DeLeon. Just two weeks ago.”
“Together,” said big brim, we got out on the same day.”
“Years off for good behavior, no doubt.”
Cooly scuttled into his chair. “Yeah, good behavior. No doubt.”
“And gainfully employed so soon. Vice told me you boys were working theJoker. What happened, get a rash?”
“That’s funny DeLeon, real funny. Since the Yard closed down and the Navy boys left, ya can’t find two bimbo’s on the same block.” He tried flexing a stringy wrist. “No hustle, no muscle, know what I mean? We get hired one day, fired the next ...”
He looked over at Wanda, and she was pumping on the long black skirt. She bit at a red curl. “You boys working?” She eased a bare calf over mine. “Nicky loves to work late.”
Both brims jostled for the view and shrugged. They bracketed the dark suit, like shiny commas bracket four letter words patched together and run on without ever making them special. I caught him straight on with the eye. “You, Elmo, you’re always working.”
“Executive employment, DeLeon. I’m the boss!”
“Two felony convictions already, and you got pieces for these guys? Your the boss’s ass, Elmo.”
“Don’t ... friggin’ call me Elmo!”
Drinks came and I paid for them. Wanda tipped glasses, and did her martini in one long slurp of gasoline flavored alcohol. Then she did more. “Oh yeah”, she squealed at the dark suit, “what should I call you then - Mr Mole?”
Big brim gasped. “Better not call him Elmer Moot!”
“Oh fuck, Nicky.”
“Better not come second, Irene.”
Wasn’t like we had tickets for the big show, and orchestra table waiting courtesy of Gold-Card. From the cook to the cowboy - country flooze with the brims thrown in to scare children. It would fall apart like bad Albie, in bleating bursts of energy. But the question was when ... when does it fall apart and when it does, who picks up the pieces and makes the serious move? What makes a man fall apart.
How does a man kill? Elmo answered question one. His hand flew from the breast pocket with a oak-grip snub-nose 38-cal whipped across the table and smashed into the big brim’s mouth where teeth had once lived and lifted to smash again. ‘Just a name, Elmo’, somebody should have clued. Still in act one. Nobody waited for act two in a sleet of hot lead.
The bartender’s shotgun went off almost accidental and blew Patsy Cline and the jukebox back to Nashville. He dropped down, behind the oak while both rubes came blazing out of the dark rear lounge.
“Spank that leather, sugarplum!”
“I’m ridin’ it Daddy, high ‘n juicy.”
Tombstone Ted and Texas Annie. Pistolaros with Colt 45s. Talking trash and shooting from the hip, anybody standing, both brims and Elmo and one of the four pilgrims drinking ‘slings who just had to finish the last drink and died doing cheap gin. A stray shot hit the cook - and the mirror shattered and kept shattering ... bodies pitched over like horseshoes at a country dance, but any country fool knows it’s the fiddle calls the tune.
“EEEEEEEha, watch them suckers dance!”
“Nice shoot’n there sugarplum, but ooooooh, that bitch just blew my nuts off and I’m in a turrible way.”
I’d give her that. Wanda blew off their cowboy hats and everything underneath with just four slugs from her Glock and I could have told them that you just don’t screw with a German auto-load. Not Wanda’s. We were under the table. I was eating pine and looking for the waitress who was no fool, and the bartender.
He popped up - betrayed by the bar mirror and blew the table in half with two magnum loads from a 12 gaugeDefender and it was damned smart of us not to be in the middle. I shot six times with the 357, hit him and the shotgun once and he didn’t shoot any more, but his lamb vest was perfect.
The waitress. Shell-blast had made a dusty room smokey. Out the side! She made Heckler spray. Darted through a door. The sign said women only. I bet not. We each wasted a slug - into steel honey-comb.
We stood up, in the carnage and the low moaning of death delivered, but not quite completed. I listened for tap-back; none came. “That was a waste of good bras.” I was grasping at it, because the slaughter seemed less real than the cook’s mirror.
Wanda saw it different. “Nicky,” she said, “stay with police issue,” and slapped the Glock into my right hand. She palmed the Big-10 and swept the room just to see what a real barrel felt like.
“I said, “goodnight Irene.”
“She said, “don’t call me Irene, before we have a good night.”
“You call five minutes a good night?”
I gave her back the Glock, punched out the front door and reloaded the shotgun under the elm. Death, as insistent as the sobbing coming from inside the door. Wet and cold and when I came steaming back into the room it felt like god’s quick terror on earth and all those deserving it. Beyond the door labeledwomen only. I had out a hank, to wipe night sweat from the high-brass.
She said, “I don’t want to hear it, Mister.” Then she blew in my ear. I snapped shut the receiver - we didn’t waste time.
We hit the door together, that saidwomen only then through slop and hit the second and beyond the second door - exploding noise, blazing neon goat heads - was a homicide but nobody called it that when everybody’s having fun. A band, the stage, a pit writhing with angry, unsupervised youth and above both a line of lamb carcases. Hung from hooks, drooling blood, moving jerky on the conveyer from slaughterhouse, back thirty feet to the open rear door of the refrigerated trailer.
On stage, a black haired child danced obscene, the child from roulette.mt - two goats tied beside her. A goat-faced master-of-ceremony touted the game.
“I have three-hundred from the floor.
Anybody make that bet three-fifty? Yes!
Three-fifty from the yellow faggots! Now
Four-hundred. Anyone? Once, Twice. Where
are the big-dick breeders? Faggots!
The auction is over at three-fifty.
Now, puuns and tangs, it’s time to spin-
A giant digital roulette wheel hung from the ceiling. Only two slots. One red slot and one white - the number three-fifty flashed from white, the word HOUSE from red.
A goat-skull shrieked around the wheel, and dropped into red.
“House cunt! House cunt! Pit gets the tokes.
Bitch gets the goats!”
City-rolled reefer fluttered from the ceiling. At some level of disbelief, everything becomes obvious. Somewhere a hot iron pipe’s waiting because I thought ‘thank god’. In the pit, everybody served. We broke left. Over the bandstand. The one free path from the entrance to conveyor cat-walk except for the drums that appeared over the shotgun barrel just after the band dove head first into the crowd. One shot turned brass and chrome into glittering confetti and vaporized a blue Fender. It never sounded better.
“I got the slaughterhouse.” I wheeled right toward the truck. Under dripping lambs and the sickening ratchet ... barrels at port …
A shout. “Cisco! He’s coming this way.” Ecstasy laden teen snowflakes ran a scrabble-board around us. Some found a door and some a bullet ... legs flashing feet pounding iron grate, then concrete thinking if I were just fast enough she might ...
A grey rectangle exploded in blinding fluorescent. “Gotcha now, ya’ fucking porkchop!”
So bright, the meat-hook swinging from the open trailer and I went down hard with the shiny steel tip ringing chrome.
Bounced up. Shots echoing. The hook sliding off, high above a heavy, red-faced snarl. Another shot and the hook whipping down before I touched off the second barrel. Into blue, blood-spattered denim. The hook tore off my collar, as it yanked back with the body that flew away, like a red-crested blade cutting down the light and row of carcases hung in the trailer smashing together in pieces at the far, dark corner.
Not a thing breathed and I was late. From behind, a shot followed by the high whine of ricochet and a scream.
Late. I ran, loading two slugs nubbed into the stock, under lambs that didn’t move now but bled and through the plastic cold-door where Wannda screamed …
“I saw her, Nicky” ... and took the shot that might have been mine.
Thirty yards away, across the slaughterhouse floor and high on the wall a power-box had been drilled into cinder-block. That box and everything else I saw pitched into black when I blew it off the wall into shreds of sparking copper wire.
Pitch black - I dropped to one knee, but I could still see everything. The slaughter. Under the power-box, a stainless cart piled high with fluffy white skins.
A fresh killed lamb oozed red in the middle of the concrete floor. The waitress sprawled beside, clutching the Heckler and surrounded by a pool of her own blood; the hole in her chest and the crimson pool would not grow larger - the Heckler wasn’t laughing, ever again. Closer to me, Wanda splayed backward, struggling up on her left elbow. She had clamped her right hand low on her leg where a bullet had torn through.
“It hurts me Nicky ...” where a honey-bee had creased red on her silk shoulder ... a second crease appeared, one meant for me and she fell away from the buzz, moaning.
Pitch black - broken by a hysterical, echoing laugh. Cisco could talk in the dark. “Now you come, DeLeon, just when I’m starting to have fun.”
“No way to treat a lady, Cisco. All foreplay! I think you need a longer barrel.”
“Oh yeah? I got her, any time I want - I’ll have it now!”
I snap-shot the second barrel into the echo. Roaring laughter returned.
“You kill a lambskin, amigo!” A string of .223s rip across the concrete, where Wanda had lain but wasn’t now. No soft thuds of lead into flesh, no gasps of pain, but only the slow random heat-death of those traveling empty space - or Cisco riding the concrete range forever, but he’d never get his six-by-three. Not there.
“What’s wrong, Cisco, only got wooden bullets to go with that straw dick?”
Torn electric cable sparked over the lambskins. I had angled over, behind the drive motor for the conveyor and beyond that, to the bleating pen of sheep. Working behind him, listening to boots shuffle closer.
Him still a voice from the dark. “Show your face, DeLeon, and we will see what is straw and what is steel. What’s the matter? You bleat like a goat, but hide like a lamb.”
I rolled out of the straw and onto a metal grill, where the lambs were bled. Electric cable snaked against metal, showering sparks that caught one silver oval. And the voice above it that shot straight toward me. “Call for a good time, Cisco!”
“You got nothing left for the shotgun, is that it DeLeon? Maybe you got a water-pistol. Maybe, all you got left is one ball.”
I stood up. “Plenty for you, Cisco.”
Forty feet away, he had been looking straight through me. His mini-14 swung up just behind the last of Hricko’s hollow-point 357s.
Silver vaporized. He lurched back, like a horse had kicked him in the belly. I dropped to the grill. He was jerking off shots. I couldn’t see it but he could - a thumb-size hole appearing in his silver belt-buckle, spilling red but it wouldn’t spill forever; a man shouldn’t die that way. The rifle dropped - he stumbled crazy to the middle of the floor and collapsed over the still-bleeding lamb.
I yelled, “Wanda!”
Silence returned. I walked, across the floor, to the place I had last seen her. My flash picked up the streaked trail of blood, to behind a row of metal barrels labeledscrap. But I figured nobody has asked the sheep. I whispered, “Wanda?”
A thin gun barrel pressed against my neck. “You don’t give a girl much warning.”
“Jez, sister, can’t you tell my voice?”
“Hell no, all you southerners sound the same. And don’t call me sister.”
“I’ll make it collect. Where did you see ...”
“Can’t see it from here, but there’s a ramp that leads down from a side door ...”
“Yeah. How lambs come into the building.”
“That’s where I saw your daughter! Going out with - can’t describe the son-of-a-bitch ... but Nicky, they were .. if we had time, I’d draw you a picture. Help me up, Nicky, we got to move fast.”
“Fast, not stupid. Lets have look at the wound.”
“You’ve been looking all night.”
“Couldn’t find a shorter pair of legs?”
I ripped off her skirt. “Nicky, I’m trying to tell you ...”
I eased her head, to the concrete.
She gritted. “Bastard!”
The steel-tip had missed a nylon shorty and drilled straight through the fleshy part of her thigh. Cauterized! Clean holes, in and out and straight through a small blue tatoo of the Battleship Boys. They still had their bells, but no deck to stand on. A strip of wool skirt made a squeeze.
She gritted down a Perc. “Bastard.”
“You have the Glock?”
She palmed the 25-cal.”
She had my shoulder, pulling up. “Don’t call me Irene ...”
Light filtered in behind us, through the plastic cold-door. The blood pool spread black from the center - feeling out. We circled next to the wall, under sparking cable to the far corner, behind the lamb-pen where a wood-slat ramp led up to double doors. Pink noise slapped dully from the other side.
We punched out into driving sleet. Stinging hornets of sightless, frozen despair. Then steps, ours, feeling through muck, along fence-posts. The black rim started at arms-length, from which nothing returns and into which everything must fall.
I shouted, “Josie!”
Away from the wall, vague fluorescent scatters rippled through a grey horizon of pine. Then steps, shadow-pairs fleeing into them, the random crunch of slush - we pushed through the railed gate at the end of the sheep pen. More fleeing bodies. A spot-light slapped over us, winked out and running lights blinked from the long stretch body of a Mercedes.
“Tell me anything, Wanda, about the man ...”
“I tried to tell you, Nicky. The girl ... your little girl ... the man wore some kinda cape, and he and your daughter, as they went out ... he was holding her hand, Nicky ...”
A black BMW came from nowhere, pulled in front of the Mercedes and cruised paces away - giving us the X-ray - then made tracks into the dark. Second Beemer hung back. From the edge of the woods, the stretch turned and rolled quiet toward us, inside lights a dim glow, crunching stop close enough to taste.
Front window slid down and a cap said, “Mr DeLeon?”
Stretch lunched ahead. Then rear suicide doors swung open releasing a flush of amber over pucked red leather. White teeth smiled disconcerned - the wind-burned face rustled turns of white wool. “And this must be the courageous Agent Topper.”
“Daddy,” she offered, “what's a peace cow?”
“Really, Lieutenant, in your condition or your daughters. I might say far beyond any interrogation - be it mine, Ms Josie or your own.”
We sat, stretched out but not close, in the opposed rear seats of Jerry-the-Arab’s Mercedes. Josie curled up beside me. Wanda beside Ibn-Ali, her hands shaking a tumbler of very old brandy Jerry imposed on her but not much. It was her second. I felt rock steady, till just beneath the skin.
I didn’t drink. I didn’t talk well. “Tell me again, Jerry, how you were just checking on the day’s last load.”
“As would any businessman, with a personal touch.”
“Just happened on the Cisco Kid. He’s armed to the teeth, Josie’s scared to death.”
“Not that I employed him as such, how do you say, the Cisco? I expected him to be running tests on our new computer software.”
He pulled some, at the bush-goatee. “As for your daughter being frightened ...”
“You heard gunshots, and simply walked out the way you came in - Cisco beating his gums, Josie in tow.”
“Patrons of that club to whom I rented space, perhaps unwisely ... they can become ... uncivil.”
“No complaint from Cisco?”
“Juan, pardon me, the Cisco in fact insisted. Assured me that the young woman had come here by mistake and was now under his protection.” Old brandy disappeared into his smile. “You must see, Lieutenant, I had but one practical choice.”
He reached a small snifter from the set-in, filled it half way and offered it across the seat to Josie. “Had I known immediately that the young woman was your daughter, every effort would have been bent to contact you.”
A sly grin followed his hand. Josie took the glass - made a try. The grin smoothed around pearl white teeth. “But, Lieutenant DeLeon, I understand that was as difficult as it would have been ... embarrassing.”
“I don’t blush easy.”
“Then, perhaps even deadly!”
I took the brandy from Josie, sniffed and brandy swilling the bottom returned the crystal. Jerry rolled down the window and tossed it smashing into the darkened front door of The Two Goats. Sleet had turned viscous - thick rubbery mats floating in air. Cold a skeleton hand knocking on the open window, we at seventy-one perfect degrees.
“Josie never was in danger, so goes your story.”
He said, “danger?” Like he smelled for it’s knock at the open window. “Your daughter’s courage equals her father’s. Her prudence ... well Lieutenant, we can all learn from the young.”
Jerry’s face some combination of light and deep, deep maroon. I would have said a Moor, if I didn’t know Saudi ... I would have said Carthage … I said. “You have contacted ...”
“Oh of course, Lieutenant. All the responsible authorities, as soon as you and Agent Topper exited the building.” He waved and the glass pane rolled up. “Of course with the weather ...”
“Desert nights, must make your eyes real keen.”
“Sensitivity does run in the Royal House.”
“But not so sensitive, an assassin didn’t sneak into your employ.”
“Am I ... disturbed? Certainly, after hearing Agent Topper’s concerns for the safety of our respected Representative Ms Bottie.”
“For that, Jerry, the Feds will run a vacuum cleaner over your whole operation.”
Jerry shrugged. “Allah’s pleasure is my own.” As if to say what a thousand years of desert couldn’t suck away, neither could scrub-faced lawyers and bureau-techs. Damn! The man had cooked his pot; we stayed hungry. A light flashed above the corded telephone. Mumbles, then Jerry broke into a wide smile. “Excellent! Excellent.” He leaned forward, brightly. “Such good fortune on such a miserable night.”
He replaced the phone and I met his eyes. “What happened, Jerry, you find a missing lamb?”
“Lieutenant, does not the bible speak of a prodigal son? Your friend Benjamin Hricko and his companion have appeared on Awaik and are in the safe-keeping of my associates.”
I can hardly admit Hricko was a Judas-Goat for me, dissembling interference from the State Patrol! Like a fist to the kidney. I jumped! “When!”
“Perhaps, less than an hour ago, and I might say, worn greatly. Perhaps he had been … chased?” He waited for me to flinch, got nothing, touched a button and locks clicked open. “You must excuse me, but matters of some confidence are at issue.”
The suicide door swung open and closed, behind the wool cape heading for trouble, but heading alone. We left behind, protected as the front door opposite the driver clicked shut. You could break inside … with a tank! A film of sleet covered the red leather where he sat. Wanda’s eyes flashed from their coma and she sat straight up. “You speak Arabic, Nicky?”
“Yeah, the part that says a camel just got traded for a fig-leaf. You feeling lucky, Irene?”
“I’m feeling woozy, like a piece of crap, and don’t call me Irene. We still got the deal working Nick. I did my part - you got your daughter. Your work’s finished. But I’m thinking, maybe Cisco wasn’t the one to hit Bottie.”
“That’s crazy talk, Irene. You need a doctor.”
“We don’t need to be here.”
“One of us doesn’t.”
“Why do I feel, we’re about to become more here than we already are?”
Wanda going two-for-two made my neck itch. I looked at Josie and between I looked at both. “Jerry won’t touch either of you. Follow my play.”
“You’re protecting somebody, DeLeon.”
“No, you are.”
She nodded and moved across the smooth bench-seat leather, to the other side of Josie. “For now, Nicky, but I got to come after you when I get the chance.”
“Do that, when you get the chance!” Kitten was eyeing me, with an eye glinting existential crap like 'what does kill me makes me … ' and not for a second will I allow that. “Stay close to Wanda, Kitten. She’s a pro at existential, like your father can only imagine.”
Josie had her arms around my neck. But her head, her feeling were someplace else I couldn’t imagine. She whispered. “Daddy, it’s not like ... anything like what was happening on stage. Between real people ... I mean ... with a boy.”
“No kitten. Nothing at all like that, between real people.”
She nodded, squeezed my arm and slid away beside Wanda.
Locks clicked open and Jerry burst in through a gust of sleet. Laughing. He reached for the brandy and a clean round of glasses. “Celebration seems appropriate.”
“Couldn’t punch me through, could you?”
“To your friends? As we speak, Benjamin and his strange companion
are under a physician’s care. So it seems, a car chase involved them. One against many ... of whom I have no idea, but for the few to prevail ... both they and we are fortunate. I’m sure you agree.” The toast went around in silence. Then Jerry said. “Lieutenant, considering the weather, and the condition of Agent Topper, may I suggest we all travel to Awaik, for the night. I can assure her of the best medical care. And I can assure the safety of your daughter. The storm will last through early morning. No travel is safer than this Mercedes.”
“I feel like crap, Nicky.”
I sat loose in the seat. “They’re yours, Jerry, the two women. Under your protection. A man who shows mercy ... to the weak, I treat him the same way.”
“Surely Lieutenant ...”
Those last words I caught midair kicking through the unlocked suicide doors making three steps away and whipping around.
“Allah takes care of the strong. Count on it!”
It wasn’t a smile I caught, from Jerry but the flash of deep-set black eyes, the flash men share when set against each other and death is coming one strike away. Legs pumping, mine did at a full run toward the ice-covered Caddy. Seconds counted forever, engine roar behind through a fumbled shift and smell of burning rubber on slick - I slammed into the door to freeze-break, yanked it open – auto key/code/button the dash flurried orange and its Northstar stuttered twice, then caught.
Behind me, Jerry’s Mercedes just sat there quivering, for seconds then pulled sharp left and away, moving deliberate toward the parking lot exit. Jerry-the-Arab - the cobra - deciding not to strike. I didn’t believe it. I shouldn’t have believed it faster. Low pine had just swallowed the Mercedes taillights. I caught the BMW engine scream and punched hard at the gas. The Caddy lurched ahead, spinning sideways and that was good enough to just miss the front fender of the 318i that slide by in a blinding glare of headlights through frozen window-pane.
“I punched the COM-button. Vitalles' voice sprang out. “You asleep yet Nicky?”
“Close. In the Caddy's seat like a cheerleaders ass. But, outside got a hard tail on asphalt won't say no.”
“Jeez Nicky that's just like ice-creame. Better soften it up.”
I set a path weaving through the parking lot just missing the concrete light stands, letting the Beemer get close, then doing a full spin around the last one before the woods. I caught two pine sapling and bounced away. The BMW wasn’t so lucky, spinning twice and I got behind it, driving forward as it came out.
My fender clipped it’s tail, sent it spinning into a lamp-post, body crumpling like a metal bow-tie. Two shots clipped through the back window, shattering the windscreen and at last I could see a goddam thing.
Sledgehammer cold blasted through. My brights caught the reflector at the exit road and I dove for it. Fifty yards. More brights came up in the rearview. On dry straight, the Caddy gets sucked by German engineering. It didn’t get the chance. I hit the twisting, slush-covered dirt ten yards ahead, and lost the lights following at the second ninety-degree turn. I used all of the road. I used more pine saplings and the rear deck. Used them hard. Vitalle had insurance.
Route 134 north to Charleston looked like a white-painted bowling alley. Cars were the pins; ice-storm a howling black-ice ball. I drove past fifty cars on the rail, a hundred skewed across lanes and a half-dozen burning or burnt-black wrecks. They deserved mercy. Mine was in short supply. Left handed, I light-fingered the wheel; my right fingered the small plastic tube of Martin Sturmer’s photographs. He was getting a retrospective. Charleston came up pitch black, like overexposed film.
I got waved stop at the Ashley River. Two yellow sawhorses, two black-and-whites and a Smokey flashing blue and red, and dandling from the concrete lip of the bridge. Officers sat on the tilted up rear bumper. Smoking, drinking coffee I bet from dull metal flasks. A short row of SUVs had pulled to the right curb. A police spot snapped over the shattered windshield. I drove alongside the first black-and-white. The female officer stepped out, and I flashed my badge.
Flashed it quick. “An emergency, no doubt, Officer ... Wye.”
She fingered the police-issue 357 at her hip, longer than a prudent officer might. I took a full load of wicked green. “You are wanted, Lieutenant DeLeon.”
“All good men are.”
“What’s with the Caddy? Undercover operation? Swedish down over silk.”
“Count on it.”
She made a note on a small yellow pad. Creased it to a breast pocket. “Don’t get me wrong, Lieutenant. I’m not a credit card, but I’m any bitch you want me to be.” She turned and waved me through.
What could I say? She took an IOU. I’d give her that - she didn’t make me sign it, but those pay-backs are always the most certain.
Over the bridge, wrecked citizens blocked Lockwood Drive. I angled through hospital parking lots and bare side-streets down to King. Then looped up to Legare and Colonial Lake. An elm had fallen across Beaufain, where palmettos bunch against water and taken down a power-line. I parked at the fall and stepped out, under a full pewter moon. Frost cold. Dead quiet. Clouds scudded east, to catch reefers of grey-tinted thunder-heads. Alligator trench whipped at my waist. One candle shown in the house, through a third story window. My stainless Rolex read two AM.
Quiet steps up the rear stairway, were not quiet enough. The maple door swung open. Mr Black said. “‘Bout time you comin’ home, Mista DeLeon. Miss Josie, she ain’t one to stay up so late. She sleepin peaceful the Mrs wants dat known.”
“Peaceful as a Kitten , Mr Black. And Miss Eve?”
Mr Black tightened slack in his Larson & Dee linen tie, as his great-great Grandfather must have done beforeescorting Master to death atShiloh,looked behind me, then nodded and shuffled along the hall. “She be with Fila, I ‘spect.”
We stopped at the study door. “No need to worry Mr Black. Miss Eve and I will both be fine.”
He drew away, so the sputtering candle threw more dark than light on his face and threw dark ripples along the oak floor. The spectacle came off. “I jes’ don’t know if I should be sayn’ this, Mista DeLeon, but Miss Eve ... she lets them in, thas’ lady agent and the Island police.”
“Be dat K'wah desert Redskin Isle.”
“She knows that combo, Mista DeLeon. Can’ keeps nothin’ from the women, and I knows that fo’ sure.”
“Where you inside? What did they take?”
“No sur’. I tol’ her, ain’t nobody s’posed take over a man’s place. No reason to that ‘tal.”
“What did she say?”
“Beg pardon, Mista DeLeon, I ain’t usin’ that language front o’ no person, black or white.” The specs at last seemed polished. “They leave not a tinkers dam, of those weapons.” He handed me the candle. “Martha, she have a pot ‘o tea on the stove. She say, you be comin’ home alone - leavin’ alone.”
“Thank you, Mr Black, but I won’t be needing a light. And ... Ms Martha ... makes very fine tea.”
Mr Black shadowed away. I punched security code into the door-lock and stepped inside. Fluorescent sputtered. Beside the door, a control panel read sixty-five degrees, forty-percent humidity, and one unauthorized entrance since I had left. Thirty-five hundred watts pumped steady from the basement generator powering the room. I’d of shot a fool, for hammering open the gun-rack into beveled glass shards and long splinters of maple old when my father had died.
They waste your heart. Fools. How many does it take, to steal a daughter; how many to return her? Jerry’s word. He knew his last breath depended on it. I depended on his word, if he was the only fool.
What would Hricko say … I punched up the Power Mac, double Wild Turkey and one of Vitalle’s Habanos, while the answering machine spit trash. Twenty cop-calls. Every one telling me what a son-of-a-gun I was. One from Captain Marsh. One from the IRS. One from the Union, saying I had overpaid dues and wasn’t getting back the extra - I sucked in a cloud of grey Cuban spice. It bit my tongue like a Havana whore, or two calls from the lez, saying I was a worse prick than a yellow rose. How would she know? The last ... a interminable, sobbing wail from Eve demanding to know what in God’s name I had done with her daughter.
How would she know? Josie should have been with them! What got traded?
I stalked; MacMail smelled the same - like City Station toilets. DELETE, DELETE, DELETE ... Hricko’s on-the-fly PGP sat me down.
Thank god - one graphic over the V.34. Dead Kenny’s rolling head and it looked like mine. Two text lines.
Peachy and Josie.
TJ drinks one, throws two.
You got friends, but who expected Jerry?
Friends! Hricko got the question right. I finished Turkey about time Mr Black brought tea. Brewed dark green in an ancient enamel pot. A yellow rose cosy hugged pot and a China mug.
“Its be shame, how folks don’t drink tea this end of the 20-Centuries,” Mr Black said. He had a look at the screen and winced. “Thas’ some nice pictur’, Mista DeLeon, humm humm. Ain’ nothin’ lik’ that Black-Strap, Martha be tellin’ me.”
“Not at all, Mr Black.” The door inched close - I waited. Rummaged the trench. Snap. Second bolt. Film negatives spilled from the cannister, and they hadn’t improved with use. At the workbench, all frames went under the lighted mag. Two of the thirty-four frames had been creased; water spray had marbled another three.
Gulping short, shallow breaths, between sips of bitter green. ‘Fool. Idiot. Aren’t you just one careful, city detective.’
I cursed my stupidity, stripping film under the Cinzano umbrella. The worst kind of stupidity. Impatience. It makes live bodies dead. I got up and went to the shelves; rustled through late copies ofSailing World. Ads, classifieds. Then back to the bench.
Any one of the photos might have cost Sturmer his life; I was betting mine, more than mine on any one of the photos. Any one of the twenty-nine worth looking at. Jenni would have a look. If I got lucky. I punched up Photoshop and fed twenty-nine frames through the CoolScan. It ate them slow, but then a Power-Mac is no fast food restaurant. Then punched into the Web.
Hricko’s first URL bombed. Enricohad taken out HAZiop.com. I switched to the BellSouth mirror, and fibre-optic turned to molasses. Screen-paints to death-by-a-thousand-pixels slowing … to … mud … crust. Last blast at the satellite service, Eves Christmas present last. Bingo. Second Turkey drained away, from the mug, while handshakes flew and Hricko’s welcome screen stuttered various shades of red-stained grey. A slow congealing of computer circuits and code, pushing up what lay at the bottom.
Raging Lupus pitched out of the screen toward me. Chains flung him back, by a sharped, studded chrome collar. Bound, howling,
the wolf ripped at its own flanks and frothed obscenity. Of course a phantom, a picture, a pretend ... what slept at the root of Hricko’s system. I watched the display clear-eyed. I do not live virtually, but this time as every time sweat drained from my hand into the worn leather seat.
Knowing virtual has its own agenda. Knowing Hricko; knowing the wolf. I grabbed a fang with the cursor and yanked. So did I, have a need. Fang came away from the socket, root and all. The wolf froze, and a full-screen message flashed.
PLEASE ENTER YOUR PASSWORD MR DELEON
I typed random into the fang, then plugged fang and root back into the jaw. Screen blanked with a single word of text.
The URL changed, to a Macao server. Screen snapped full of winter. A bare room, teak and oil-skin among snow-pine. A Geisha served, behind sliding glass doors.
T1s ARE WONDERFUL ARE THEY NOT MR DELEON
How did you do that, Jenni?”
THE WEB TREATS DAMAGE AS CENSORSHIP
AND ROUTES AROUND IT
“Still modest to a fault. And circumspect. I see you assigned Sloppy a new task.”
SLOPPY THE WOLF? NOT!
THAT IS MR HRICKO’S DOING. HE FELT
THE CODE TOO VALUABLE TO DISCARD
“Getting lazy, then, is he, in his old age?”
NOT HIM BUT HIS NEW GIRLFRIEND
CAN YOU IMAGINE SHE WANTED ME
TO OBTAIN ACTIVE-X CONTROLS
“Now, now Jenni. One paw on the screen is plenty. Are you really in Macao or am I accessing Mr Hricko’s Convex?”
I REALLY AM EVERYWHERE
IF MR HRICKO PERMITS
Maybe she really was, but the wordreal gets awful strange. For a second, I batted helpless at the keyboard. Then. “I have a problem, Jenni. Dirty pictures. Lots of dirty pictures that I need to have cleaned.”
MR HRICKO USUALLY HAS THE INVERSE PROBLEM
“What a gossip you have become. Now, Mr Hricko’s problem and mine coincide. Can you believe that is true?”
YOU DO CAUSE MR HRICKO PROBLEMS
“Are you being clever with me, Jenni? Are you flirting?” A blush caught the pale Geisha face, covered swift by a bamboo curtain and the water sound of laughing. The curtain lifted on an attractive woman in pinstripe and white-board. Playing an abacus. Smiling.
WE CAN BEGIN MR DELEON
“I have twenty-nine negatives. Ten megs a pop, and all corrupted by speckle noise.”
DO YOU KNOW WHAT FEATURES ARE HIDDEN
“Probably, only one feature is important. That feature could be three numbers. I have no idea what size those numbers might be or where in the pictures. But the person who took the pictures knew what he was after.”
I UNDERSTAND NOW YOU DO NOT WANT A CLEAN
PICTURE BUT THREE NECESSARY NUMBERS
“Isn’t that the same?”
HARDLY MR DELEON. WHAT IS MOST PROBABLE
IS LIKELY TOTALLY UNNECESSARY
“I’m not going to argue with you, Jenni.”
TOTALLY UNNECESSARY BUT MOST PROBABLE
“Don’t start, one of your funny recursions.”
THE PICTURES IF YOU WILL MR DELEON
I wasn’t going to argue with her. Not Jenni. The stainless Rolex read three AM; download took five minutes. A box opened, on the side sampling the stream of calculations: SVDs, multi-dimensional cross-correlations, likelihood and feature vectors. She also prepared agentleman’s companion. Screen paint shifted to a half-frozen brook. Rollicking outside the room, through a birch grove surrounding it and under leaves still clinging to white branches. Other rooms scattered the hillside, each nestled in redwood decking; grey smoke curls rose above each.
Where-ever was she? Where-ever, the digs rated first class. I wandered back to the workbench and the laid-out set of negatives. And wondered what Sturmer had thought necessary.
Only six frames, of the men. If us, he only needed six, and the numbers might be on every one! One shot of us all mugging, surrounding Peachy. Her getting dunked in a gold spray. In each case, Sturmer’s guess about who knew what. I pushed aside those seven frames.
Leaving shots of Peachy and the green combers - twenty-seven of them and I wondered how a man could be such a damned fool to laugh … The howl caught me buried between waves, and the second, much closer yanked me back from the window where Colonial Lake shown like a pewter bowl floating in an ice sea. And every dog beside its master.
Yanked me to the Mac - a wrist-flick chased the saver - the display now a virtual monstrosity viewed from across the stream. Looking back through twisted birch trunks to a blood-spattered deck and shattered plate glass.
I needed those numbers; somebody needed me not to have them. Somebody had waited. I didn’t figure to stop them. Not me. I tried to remember. PID popped a text box of processes. KILLALL69 got me SYSTEM RESOURCE UNAVAILABLE. Easy to see why, when memory management fails.
The wolf had escaped it bonds. Battle raged from the deck to the brook. A band of leathery, three headed gargoyles hacked and thrust at the red-fanged terror. A broken shaft hung from its belly - like most of the guts. The wolf ripping at gargoyles heads - one creature lay dead, splayed at the bottom of the hill, its torn neck bleeding green into black water. The wolf raging at another near the deck. Whirling, he ripped gristle from a knee. The gargoyle keened and thrust a trident through the wolf’s flank. One tine pinned it to ice, another had ripped its anus and torn through the tail. Anguish howled and foamed red through the fangs.
Howling. Snapping. The attacking gargoyle had lost one head to the wolf, and its jaws snapped over the second. But as the neck tore away in sinewy threads, a third defender jumped through the broken window. Its scared leather faces twisted in seams of color and hex and cold vengeance. Faces near bloody as the first. One arm had been torn off, but the other swung a shiny axe, swung it down and through the body of the wolf, and again and again, parsing the grey coat into so many slabs of shaggy meat, til not even the tail knew front from back.
The gargoyle stretched tall and scanned the far hillside. Then threw his axe on the carnage and all three heads came full screen.
WHO ARE YOU
I punched in the SU password. The gargoyle spit, into his remaining hand.
YOU EXPECT ME TO CLAP
Faces pulled back, with the perspective zoomed through the broken window and into the room. What had been. Now wreckage with a figure still prim in pinstripe lying in a pool of blood - red blood. The gargoyle lifted the body and brought it onto the deck. Jenni’s lifeless body. A blooded dagger in hand. Her throat gashed open and the white-board still dangling from one wrist. The gargoyle kicked shards of glass from the window-frame.
ANY FOOL CAN SEE
MUST BE PERFORMED
He pitched her body off the deck, and onto the pile with what had been the wolf, and the other daemons.
I typed. “Aren’t you a tad late?”
THIRTY-TWO BIT EMULATIONS
DON’T SCHEDULE REAL TIME SERVICE
Yet another three headed gargoyle, but unmarked, pawed at the bodies and clawed cautiously up the bank. I typed. “The white-board belong to me.”
CERTAINLY NOT MINE
Its tail flicked. A frail hand chopped off and the white-board with it. The gargoyles exchanged perplexed looks and streams of assembler code - six heads filled the screen.
DON’T KILL THE MESSENGER
LOGOFF TIME MAC
Browser flashed a pixel rainbow. Then full screen, to a string of condom ads at the Bellsouth default server. My MacMail flag went up. The message came out on a Gif and a prayer.
heart vanishes beneath
Dead center! I drained Turkey to the bottom. Beneath the kudzu lay Jenni’s composite image. More bitter than the tea, finding the matter’s heart without permission. I found dark thoughts came easy, of virtual affection and how one replaces ... that was the word, cause in this world it’s never getting paid back. She found truth. Not any picture Sturmer actually took on Isle of Palms beach, but the photograph he had to take.
To see it, to really punch through the veil, beyond foam on the near breaker to the hollow between that foam and the next muddy green wall, to focus down on pale letters I had to hate what rode beneath that diamond sparkle and wild golden veil. Hate beauty. I felt beauty suck all trivia, all consciousness away from mean wooden hull, and all desire except for that loveliness.
Truth is, I am a man who can hate. Jenni could have trusted me, as she trusted her daemons to succeed. If only at the end. I could see, through the gold veil, to the hull of Vitalle’s model boat. Beyond Peachy.
But just in case I didn’t, the numbers 2-4-1 flashed neon across her honey hair.
My stainless Rolex read four AM straight up. I’d tugged on poly and duck pants. Was fighting on the duck jacket over wool, over an oiled leather holster using the window as mirror. I hadn’t lost weight recently, but looked experienced. Any more lines, any more experience and I’d start to look old. Any more experienced and I’d start to wonder, just how much Peg Bottie’s ass counted in the scheme of Low Country order. Her life balanced against how much pain, in the guilty and the innocent - it mattered to me that I’d never met one.
Just a thought, like yellow roses don’t bloom in December ... any damned thing could be planted. ... deck-hand rubber clods pulled on easy. Unlike the pewtered face staring at me from the window, I’m not a man to act uncertain for uncertain reasons. Mac put to sleep, pigskins on I slipped from the study and out the rear maple door, down and round front to the rose garden.
Maybe I expected a greeting. Frozen grey silence ran from sky to the earth. Eve had mulched it deep. I broke ice-skim and dug toward the bottom, where a metal flag read %%%%%%. My pigskin came up with four hand-fulls of pine bark. The fifth came up steel - my 40 caliber auto-load and two full clips extra. I felt checks drawn, on my account, at the bank of good intentions. An account already overdrawn; Mr Black already with Heaven roped in. God only knew, what the lez would want.
Or what I needed. Early morning offshore tugged at my duck collar - it bit right through sending shivers up my back and ripples through the skim covering Colonial Lake. Surrounding houses dark and the roadways empty. Somewhere far up the peninsula a siren sang. Time; the storm had bought it for me - or anybody. Black-ice slicked at my rubber soles. Guessing with my legs; trying to guess fast and first, coming off the granite steps in a rush.
I wanted a second bit of luck. The auto-load slipped into leather - making tracks down Rutledge - steel slipped out faster - as fast and cold as ice-crunch behind me. More luck I wasn’t getting, but a mini-mag flash in the eye ... and a hushed load of crap.
“Betcha know I’ve been waitin’ for hours and Christ-almighty its cold.Sammy Levine said it would be cold, but not for you so he sent me instead. Cold enough to freeze witch-piss, but what do I get for my trouble except you got the banger in my right eye and I tell you that one’s the lazy one and … got the kid back?”
I slammed Sammy Levine against the wrought-iron fence and screwed the high wool collar into his neck.“Where’s Grove?”
“Brushing his teeth, with some babes tit.”
“Why, Sammy, are you the appendix I never lost?”
“Heh, easy with the hands, huh, I don’t breath so good with my neck in a bow-tie.”
“Has it occurred to you, Sammy, lots of folks don’t breath well when you or Grove shows up? At the Hot Stepper, then Isle of Palms - bodies dead from lack of breathing. You ought to call 911, whenever you take a drive.”
“Sez your two cents on the City’s nickel copper. Who do I look like, Ghandi or Mother Teresa?”
His duo-tone Buick was parked steps up Queen, with a steaming hood and tracks behind on the hail. His face choking up red. I shook him loose and stepped back. “Got business to attend to, Sammy, fast business and you’re going to get real cold cuffed to a palmetto.”
“Heh, wait a minute ... wait two ... cuff me no way, I got a sore wrist. I got a chest cold. I got ... I got what you don’t have!”
“I don’t think so. How long you been here, Sammy?”
“Hours, didn’t I say that, sure I did like ducks don’t quack and I’m just playing the odds. Know what I mean?”
“Odds like, where you gonna be? Every copper in the city’s looking for you, I’m lookin’, nobody knows but everybody knows yer after the snatched daughter and I figure heh, there’s two chances. You ain’t comin’ back nowhere if you don’t find her, but if you do find her she gets settled fast back at the nest.” His dry shoes pounded ice. “Betcha’ know what I mean. The kid OK?”
“Yeah, she’s just fine, Sammy. I wrapped that big fur coat around her.”
“Sure! I saw that! I knew that was keepin’ her warm.”
I clicked auto-load safety OFF. An echo returned, from Grace Church. Cuffs slapped against wrought iron. “What else do you know.”
“Bet she ain't wearing it now!
Want to .. wanted to put my bootheel through his face. Sweat poured, from under Sammys' felt and he loosened the top button of his wool overcoat. He stepped side to side on the pavement. “Heh, Lieutenant, I gotta make a living. What do I look like, a public library, but those guys keep the heat turned on. Whatdaya say we make tracks back to your place and talk ...”
“About a contribution?”
“Call it a finders fee. I know you ain’t fixed so good, but the wife ...”
My left arm caught him under the chin just hard enough to make breathing tough. “What do you know, Sammy? A man could freeze out here, freeze solid, cuffed to the fence. But you’re close enough to the hospital, so some of the frozen parts could be passed around. Know what I mean? ”
“Hell no! I got parts I don’t need frozen.” He hacked out a grey breath. “I know, I know ... I know your pal Hricko’s on the run.”
“I got a scanner; I got ears for the police rap.”
“So do I. Keep talking about Hricko.”
“Cops are after him - not just city rent-a-rubes, but the black helicopter types. Hricko’s stay’n lucky through, real lucky and that chickadee who sings for his supper’s right behind him.”
“Heh, Lieutenant, I’m jake, not jack. You guys were all swimmin’ together on Saturday and she ain’t one to forget. But why the hell is Hricko cruising Edisto Island? I figure he ain’t leavin you alone, not after today, unless you give him a special job. Special enough so he calls her.”
“You got one damn fine hearing aid.”
“Crap. I was parked across the street from Hricko’s place. He musta called, because she hauls into the Jeep, about one AM and calls him back on a cell phone. I coulda used tin-cans.”
Yeah, I thought, so could half the city. “How long you been waiting for me, Sammy? Since one AM? Those cheeks don’t look so rosy, for a man with patience.” Cuffs clipped on bone tight - cold as a maiden aunt’s tit.
“Oweeeeee,” the-Mole howled. “Try five minutes.”
“Five minutes, yeah, sure, I’m rappin’, I’m rappin’. Tailin’ the girl, like Larry said to south of the Wapoo, and this black Beemer shows up; gets horny with my back fender, and I just ain’t the type. So I cut out, and it takes me two hours back to North Charleston.”
“You’re getting closer.”
“Coming down Rivers I got this police bimbo on the scanner, hour ago, yakking to a girlfriend. Say’n how she ran into you, and got memory loss for a two night deal at Atlantic City. Yeah, I knew it was crap since you don’t play no six-deck black jack and you ain’t never promised a broad two nights except your wife.”
“So you figured here - I had to be coming home! And you didn’t see any damned risk. Watch close for a tail?”
“What risque, what tail? I ain’t had a piece for a month. And on these roads, I’m hot as witch-piss!”
Maybe so. Levine had hit two out of three, the hard way. I owed him that much. I pushed the auto-load back in the holster and clipped off the cuffs. “Sammy
, you got a steel-trap mind, and I wish I had one. I don’t, so be someplace far away. Now!”
“Betcha gonna be sorry, no straight jake’s watchin’ your back. But heh, I ain’t one to stick around, if I ain’t wanted.”
It crossed my mind - people always anxious, the wrong people, watching for a man’s back. I crossed to the south side of Rutledge. Levine was still standing next to the wrought iron fence, stomping his feet, buttoning up the overcoat, face shifting up and down the dead street.
I called out. “Keep your eyes open.”
“Sure, I got eyes in the back of my head.”