I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should've put some plastic down. I knew the heap was a rental, but I didn't like leaving anything behind for the inevitable forensics safari. That meant I'd have to strip all the carpeting in the trunk, douche out the blood with Clorox, and hope Avis took a long time to notice. I should've just taken a second and put some plastic down. Shit.
"Slow down, Charlie. You'll flag us." Blade Sanchez popped a Winston into his mouth, crumpled the pack, and tossed it into the backseat.
I grabbed the cigarette out of his mouth and jammed it into the ashtray. "You light another one of them fucking things, and you're in the trunk with Rollo."
"Christalmighty, that's my last one. Jesus, Charlie. What the fuck?" He pawed at the cigarette, but I'd smashed it up good. "I just said slow down is all. You want the state police should pull us over and find Rollo?"
It's your fault he's back there, I thought. But I slowed down. He was right, and that made me like him even less.
"You botched this good."
"So you keep telling me," said Blade.
Me and some of the other boys had been riding Blade Sanchez hard about his lack of originality. We called him "Blade" because he always whacked his marks the same way: a quick flick of his stiletto, an ear-to-ear smile. That's a sure way to tip your hand, doing it the same way every time. Not quite as bad as leaving a thumbprint, but it sure helps the profilers put together an M.O. when you fall into a pattern. Everyone knows what everyone's up to. It's just the difficulty proving it that keeps guys like Blade out of stir.
Now me, I'd never, ever developed bad habits or fallen into a routine, and as a result my name wasn't on a single piece of paper in a single precinct in any state in the union or the District of Columbia.
Anyway, we were riding Blade pretty good about his knife at O'Malley's over beers. And mostly we were kidding, but he was getting pretty sore, because he knew it was true. That's when guys get the most sore, when they know something's true. It was the night before we got this Rollo job, and Blade pulled me aside and practically begged me to let him be trigger man. He already knew I didn't want to work with him, and now everyone was on his case about his knife, so he was all eager to show he could bump this Rollo guy in some new and improved way. As if me and the rest of the boys still wouldn't think Blade was a moron. So I had a couple of drinks, and he wore me down. And before I knew what I was saying, I told him he could do Rollo, only don't screw it up or he'd have all of our balls in a vise.
Of course, it all went to shit. I should have known better.
When I picked up Blade the morning we were supposed to whack Rollo, gray clouds hung heavy in the winter sky but didn't quite threaten rain. All January the temperature hadn't dipped below fifty. Got to love the Sunshine State.
Blade had a fresh box of doughnuts all tied up in a yellow ribbon. I though maybe they were for us.
"Hands off," said Blade. "They're for Rollo."
Blade tapped a finger against his temple. "Research, compadre, research. Old Rollo's a doughnut junkie."
Rollo's neighborhood looked like something God had scraped off His shoe. Dull brick buildings hunched along the wide street. Every third car was stripped and up on cinder blocks. The front lawns were yellowing postage stamps of dying grass. I pulled the Chrysler into an empty spot across from Rollo's rented house.
Blade looked up and down the street shaking his head. "Whoever said crime don't pay must've been thinking of Rollo."
I didn't answer him, but I understood. It was like any other job. You were either good at it, or you weren't. Rollo Kramer wasn't very good at his job. He'd been a middleman for Beggar Johnson, a big-time boss hood from down in Miami. Rollo thought skimming off the top of Beggar's take would be a good way to supplement his income. Beggar caught Rollo with his hand in the till, and Rollo fled north. Orlando. Our territory. Since Beggar knew Blade from the old days, he'd asked Stan personally to put Blade on the job.
But the problem was that Blade Sanchez was a grade-A screwup, and Stan had him on probation. Sanchez had stuck his knife into the wrong guy in Detroit, and a month before that he'd dropped the ball in Tampa, letting a city councilman with a bull's-eye on his chest slip out of the crosshairs. So there I was in the car next to him on babysitting duty, making sure Blade didn't eat his own gun or forget to breathe or some damn thing. I'd made it clear I wasn't happy with the job, but since I had Stan to thank for every nickel hidden in my safe deposit box, I couldn't really turn him down.
Blade slipped into a Do-nut Barn jacket and delivered the box to Rollo's front door. When he returned, I gave him the fish eye.
Blade shook his head. "You'll see. I told him it was a gift from an admirer."
"Just what? Wait?"
So I waited. I pulled an old issue of National Geographic out of my topcoat and looked at the front for the hundredth time. On the cover, the beautiful brown face of a young Polynesian woman hovered in front of an expanse of virgin beach and deep green sea. I'd read every word of the article three times. I folded the magazine. It bulged awkwardly in the pocket of my topcoat, so I dropped it on the floor.
"That was Rollo at the door?" I asked.
"Why didn't you push him inside and whack him right then?"
Blade frowned. "Whatever."
God damn hotdog amateur.
Long seconds crept past.
"If he's such an addict, don't you think he'll already have doughnuts?"
"These are fresh."
The explosion shattered the windows in Rollo's house and shook the rental car.
"What the fuck was that?"
Blade grinned big. "That would be the Boston cream."
We tumbled out of the Chrysler and ran up the walk and into Rollo's house to the scream of car alarms set off by the blast. I kicked in the door, and we found what was left of Rollo still sitting in a ladderback chair blown back about ten feet from the kitchen table.
"Holy shit, Blade."
Rollo's neck still oozed dark liquid. It pooled around his body on the linoleum. The walls and ceiling looked like a giant anteater had sneezed a watermelon. Thick chunks of red gunk dripped from the kitchen cabinets, and hung in gelatinous strands from the ceiling fan.
Blade looked around like he couldn't believe what he'd done. "Where's his head?"
I squinted hard at something fuzzy and bloody in the sink. "I think this is a piece here. Crap. What'd you put in that doughnut?"
"Four blasting caps."
I shook my head. "Idiot."
Blade looked hurt. "He's dead, isn't he?"
"We're supposed to bring back the body to collect our bonus," I reminded him. "How's Beggar supposed to identify the body without the head?"
"Gimme a break, Charlie. I stayed up all night thinking of this. I got up at five in the morning to suck out all the cream with a straw. Then I shoved in the caps with my thumb and squirted the cream back in."
He seemed genuinely upset that I didn't appreciate his genius. Right about then I wished he'd just stuck his knife in the guy. I went into the living room and came back with Rollo's ugly green drapes. I spread them on the kitchen floor and motioned for Blade to help me lift Rollo.
Blade made a sick face. "But he's a mess."
"You dumb shit. Everybody in the neighborhood heard that Boston cream go off. Somebody's called the cops for sure. Now shut up and help me wrap Rollo up in the drapes."
The blood was already soaking through the drapes when we stashed the corpse in the trunk of the Chrysler. I threw the doughnut box in on top of the body. Blade looked like he'd swallowed a bug the whole time. I didn't see how he made it in this business. I guess everyone has his limit. The police sirens grew in the distance as we pulled out of Rollo's neighborhood.
We zig-zagged around for about twenty minutes before I finally pulled into an Exxon station and told Blade to wait in the car while I made a phone call.
"Who're you calling?" asked Blade.
"Just wait here."
Stan was my boss. Blade's too. We worked for him, but he rented us out freelance whenever he smelled a buck. That's when we earned the real cash. I'd been with him for years and never had any reason to question his judgment until now, so I was a bit relieved when he finally picked up the phone after thirteen rings.
"It's me," I said.
"You in a jam?"
I spilled out the story, Stan snickering the whole time on the other end of the line.
"I don't see what's so damn funny."
"Just you with that bozo, Sanchez," Stan said. "How'd you guys get paired up in the first place?" Like he had nothing to do with it.
"Are you going to help or not?"
"You stay put," said Stan. "I'll call you back in ten."
I gave him the number to the phone booth, then hung up just as Blade came and knocked on the glass.
"We wait," I said. "If you want to be useful, go into the gas station and get us some coffee."
Blade left, then returned and handed me a Styrofoam cup about the size of a gnat's jock. "You couldn't spring for a large?"
"It's just the way you like it," said Blade. "Lots of cream and sugar."
"Why the hell would you say that? You've never gotten coffee for me before in your life."
"I thought you'd like cream and sugar."
"Next time, black." I poured it on the ground.
Blade wrinkled up his face at me like some little kid and stood pouting next to the rental. He folded his arms across his chest and kept an eye on traffic. My hands balled into fists just looking at him. Guys like Blade were why this business wasn't what it used to be.
I dropped in another thirty-five cents and dialed my mother's number in Winter Park. She answered on the third ring.
"Charlie, don't tell me you're calling to postpone again."
"Sorry, Ma. I got tangled up."
"You work too hard."
"When can we expect you? You know Danny really would like to see you."
"I know. I want to see you too. And Danny."
Ma lowered her voice gravely. "I can't do a thing with him, Charlie. If your father were still alive-"
"Danny's a big boy now."
"But you'll talk to him?"
"Sure, Ma. I have to go. I'll call and let you know when I'm coming down."
I hated to put Ma off like that, but business was business. My little brother Danny would keep for a while. He was a good kid. He wouldn't push Ma too far.
I'd just about talked myself into crossing the street for another cup of coffee when the phone rang. I picked it up.
"Rollo's ex-wife lives in Sanford." Stan's voice. "She can identify him."
"We don't need her to identify him. We need the guy who's paying us to identify him."
"Do what I say. You put the grab on her and take her to meet Beggar's boys. If she sticks up for you that should be good enough."
"If you say so."
This deal was going down the tubes quick. I was used to a certain level of professionalism. Maybe that's one of the reasons I preferred to work alone. Or maybe I just didn't like people.
I pulled the car off the turnpike and onto I-4, pointing it toward Sanford. We rode through the town in silence, Blade getting fidgety because he hadn't had a cigarette in a while. Rollo's ex-wife had an acre of land and a ranch-style house out by the regional airport. We turned down her long driveway and parked close to the house. The shrubs out front were overgrown. Big oaks kept the house in constant shade.
"I hope she don't have dogs," said Blade, scanning the yard. "I hate it when they have dogs."
"I'll go talk to her," I told him. "You stay here and keep an eye peeled for dogs."
I knocked, and she answered. Stan had told me that the former Mrs. Kramer's name was Marcie, thirty-four years young. My eyes took a quick trip up and down her body. She was casual in blue jeans, a Hilton Head T-shirt, and open-toed sandals. She wore her red hair short like a boy's, and her breasts knocked around heavy and braless under her shirt. Her skin was smooth and bright. It was only around her brown eyes you could tell she had some miles on her. Not so pretty that I felt like a troll standing next to her, but pretty.
I said, "Miss Kramer, I'm Charlie Swift. I don't know how to say this, but Rollo is dead."
She took me in with those eyes, looked past me to Blade waiting in the car, nodded slowly, her eyes lighting on me again. "You're not police."
"You killed him and now you want something from me." It wasn't a question.
"Yes." Her penetrating brown eyes made it pointless and silly to lie.
She nodded, raised an eyebrow. "Yeah. Knowing Rollo, I thought he'd get it sooner or later. What is it you think I can do for you?"
I was tired from the drive and tired of Blade's company. I told her I had a proposition for her, and I sent Blade into town with a twenty-dollar bill and instructions to bring back Chinese food for three. He shot me an evil look before climbing behind the wheel of the Chrysler.
Usually, I'd have slapped some duct tape over her mouth and shoved her in the backseat of the car, but there was some quality about Marcie I didn't want to spoil. She had that subtle characteristic which made her seem good without making me seem clumsy or crude. She wasn't afraid, but she was careful, and I suspected she knew the ropes from being kicked around a lot. Anyhow, I thought she was tough enough to deserve a break, or maybe I just wanted to talk to a pretty woman. Either way, I was glad when she asked me in.
She pulled the tabs on two cans of Schlitz, and I sat across from her at her drab Formica-covered table in her dim little kitchen. I told her the story, and she knew how to listen, asking the right questions in the right places.
"I really expected to hear he was dead before this," said Marcie. "The kind of people he ran around with, you know? Anyway, I wished him dead a couple times myself. I haven't seen an alimony payment in nineteen months."
"I might be able to help you with some money, if you'll help us."
She smiled. "I'd have killed the little prick myself if I'd have known he was worth anything dead."
There'd only been a trace of anger in that remark. Mostly, she was being practical, just another on a list of people who'd figured out the world was better off without Rollo Kramer. That toughness again, but I sensed deep down she had the ability to be soft if she wanted. Or maybe that was just something I wanted to think. Anyhow, I liked her.
"You didn't seem frightened when I came to the door."
She shrugged. "You were going to do what you wanted anyway. I couldn't see how freaking out would help. You should have seen some of the wild characters Rollo dragged home. At least you seem well-groomed. Clean. When I was with Rollo I used to keep a loaded gun by the door. It's in a closet someplace, I think."
"Why'd you marry a guy like that in the first place?"
"Young and stupid, the usual story." A little smile crept across her face, like she was talking about some dumb kid sister instead of herself. "Every teenage girl wants to ride off with a young rebel." She shook her head. "It's horrible and shocking to realize you're a clich¨¦. I grew up."
"So what do you do?" I sipped my beer.
"I make my money as a taxidermist, but I consider myself an artist."
"Isn't it creepy working with dead things?"
A little smile pushed up the edges of her mouth. "I don't know. Is it?"
Blade returned, and over sweet-'n-sour pork, we agreed to cut Marcie in for ten percent if she identified Rollo's body.
"My brother's a tattoo artist," said Marcie. "For our wedding present, he gave Rollo and me matching tattoos. They say Rollo Loves Marcie inside of a heart."
"On our butts."
I raised an eyebrow. "You too?"
"I had mine removed. It looks like I sat in acid."
We adjourned to the back of the Chrysler. I opened the trunk and peeled Rollo out of the drapes. Most of the blood had dried, but he was still as headless as ever.
"Oh God." Marcie swallowed hard.
"You gonna be okay?"
I pulled down Rollo's slacks just enough to reveal the tattoo. It was bigger than I thought it would be.
Marcie's sudden intake of breath made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I stiffened, realizing I'd leaned too far into the trunk, my back to Marcie and Blade. I got the sickening, dull ache of stupidity in the pit of my stomach. I turned slowly and found myself on the bad end of Blade Sanchez's 9mm Luger.
"That's all I needed to see," said Blade. "I guess old Rollo and I will be going now, and I'll take the whole bonus."
"Don't be a blockhead, Blade. Stan won't stand for this."
"I don't think so, Mr. Smarty-fuck hired gun. I know something you don't. Beggar Johnson was in Raiford with Rollo for two years. They were cellmates, so I'm sure he's seen that cute little tattoo in the shower. Beggar says I can go work for him anytime."
"Even so, Blade, this ain't professional. It's gonna look bad."
"To hell with you." Blade quivered and shook the pistol in my face for emphasis. "You been riding my back since we took this job. You think you're just the shit, the big-shot trigger-man on the block, huh? So you team with me like I'm some kind of charity case. Well, I'm getting the last laugh. Now give me the car keys, you smug, cigarette-hating, black-coffee-drinking son of a bitch."
I gave him the keys.
Marcie and I stood and watched as Blade tore out of the gravel driveway in the Chrysler. Thank God I always rented under a fake name.
Marcie turned to me immediately. "If I give you the keys to my Volvo so you can go after him, will you cut me in for his half?"
I blinked at her, not quite sure if I'd heard right. She'd just seen her ex-husband's decapitated body without flinching. Now she wanted me to go after Blade. I liked her a lot.
"Well?" She jingled the keys in front of me. "He's getting away."
"I'm coming with you."
Her baby-shit yellow Volvo was about ten years old but in good shape. It didn't take us long to catch up with Blade. I'd seen him drive once, so I wasn't surprised he was taking it easy. He didn't recognize Marcie's car, so we came up behind him slow. I made like I was passing him, but he recognized me when I pulled alongside. He tried to gun the Chrysler, but I got ahead of him a little and swerved hard into his lane. He went off the road and smacked the rental into a pine tree. I pulled the Volvo over and told Marcie to stay put.
Blade was slumped heavily over the steering wheel, a trickle of blood running from his forehead to his chin where he'd bashed his head. I reached in the driver's side and pushed Blade back in his seat. His eyes blinked open, and he pointed his pistol at me groggily.
I said, "You smell that, Blade? Smoke. You've landed in tall, dry grass and your exhaust pipe's caught it on fire. Give me the gun, and I'll pull you out." While he thought about it, I went around to the passenger side, opened the door and grabbed my National Geographic off the floor.
Back around on Blade's side. "What's it going to be?"
He glanced in the rearview mirror, and when he saw the smoke billowing behind the Chrysler, he handed me the Luger. I pulled him behind the Volvo and dropped him on the ground. Rollo was still in the trunk, but before I could go back for the keys, the whole car went up in flames.
I walked over to Blade, thought about him pointing his little Kraut gun at me and flushed hot around the ears and up through my cheeks. The smug expression on his moron face when he thought he'd put one over.
I squeezed the trigger and put a bullet in his chest.
Marcie got out of the Volvo and stood next to me. "What a mess."
"Yeah. You'll have to pay your brother out of your half," I said.
"To tattoo Rollo Loves Marcie on Blade's butt." I sized up Blade's carcass. "He's roughly the same build as Rollo."
She raised her eyebrows in appreciation. "Okay, but I'm not cutting off his head."
Right. With no head and a tattoo on Blade's ass, Beggar wouldn't notice the switch. I hoped.
"Just help me get him in the trunk before the sheriff comes."
Marcie sighed as she opened the Volvo's trunk. "I just wish we had some plastic or something to put down." She rolled up her sleeves and went to work. Good girl.
I felt suddenly clumsy and foolish. I didn't like feeling that way, so I hurried ahead to get it over with. "Maybe when we take care of this, I could take you to dinner? Do something that doesn't involve dead bodies?"
"Sure." She bent, took Blade under the arms. "Get his legs, will you? This son of a bitch is heavy."
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