This time the phone book was a bust, and Information stuck me for two quarters so I could find out no place called Mudhog Sammy's existed as far as the phone company was concerned. I parked the Suburban in a pay lot off downtown near the clubs, and Lou and I searched on foot. I didn't think any of the respectable places would inflict Spanklicious on their customers, but we had to start someplace. Since it was a lazy afternoon, nobody much minded taking a few seconds to talk to us, but nobody was much help either.
Finally, an old black man with trumpet player's cheeks pointed us in the right direction. "A place just off Main called Underground. Full of kids. Plays that new clank and crank electro-junk. Maybe that the place. Maybe not. No telling. All them bands look alike. Sound alike. Ask somebody over there."
"Thanks." I pulled a wad of bills from my pants pocket. "Let me take care of you."
"Thanks, no. Just remember where to come back to when you want to hear something good. We got Diesel Joe Jarvis on the ivories tonight."
"We'll keep it in mind."
We found the Underground just off Main down at the rotten end with the homo bars, but it was closed. A sign said they wouldn't open until ten and advertised a band called the Bone Destroyers. We stood on the sidewalk with our hands in our pockets.
"Okay, New Guy," I said. "How do we find these guys?"
"I don't know, but I'm getting hungry."
"I'm telling you, man, I get cranky if I don't eat on some kind of regular schedule. I've got to keep my carb level at a certain-"
I tuned him out. Across the street, three dirty teenagers sat on the curb, panhandling the pedestrians. The two girls looked like the might have been pretty under their layers of street grime. The guy had half of his head shaved, and the other half was a green mop, tattoos up and down his arms. He leaned back on his elbows letting the girls do the work.
"Shut up about food," I said to Lou. "Follow me."
I walked up to the kids as I fished the wad of bills out of my pocket again. I peeled off a single and handed it to the first girl. Lou made a noise behind me like I was the dumbest thing on legs.
"God bless you, sir." That must've been what she figured generous people wanted to hear. She made the dollar disappear into her sweater, but kept looking at me, expectant. She knew there was more to it. Smart kid.
I took out a five, held it where they could see it. The other girl paid attention too. The guy still acted like it was none of his business.
"A band called Spanklicious," I said. "Ever heard of them?"
The girls looked at each other. Then the guy said, "They don't play the Underground." He looked away again like that was all I needed to know.
The one girl shrunk into her sweater. The other one was a little older, blond hair tucked up under a Gators ball cap, ring in her nose, another in her left eyebrow. She eyed the five in my hand and tried to turn the guy's comment into useful information. "They wouldn't play downtown. No place around here."
"You know a place called Mudhog Sammy's?"
I gave her the five and said thanks. Lou started in on me as we walked away.
"Might as well of flushed the six bucks down the toilet."
"I didn't see you coming up with any brilliant ideas," I said.
A voice chased after us as we turned the corner. "Hey, mister."
We looked back. It was the girl in the oversized sweater. She jogged up to us, stopped, looked at us hard for a second. "Are you two cops?"
"If I ask straight out and you're cops, you have to say so, or it's like entrapment or something, right?"
"I know some more about the Mudhog and the band."
"I want some money. More than five."
I took the bills out, showed her a picture of Andrew Jackson.
"How 'bout I squeeze it out of her?" said Lou.
That didn't scare her. She just looked at me.
"Let's hear what you have," I said. "I'll decide what it's worth."
"The Mudhog's out on the Prairie, back in the woods before it gets too swampy. It not like an official kind of place, you know? It was like this old house, and then kids started hanging around a lot. Then some people just sort of set up shop and sold beer but didn't card anyone, and you can usually score some smoke or whatever you want. Maybe on a Saturday night there'll be a couple of hundred kids."
"Keep going. What about the band?"
"They'll be there tonight, but they don't just play. They also deal from the back of their van. I've scored from them a few times."
"How do we know this ain't just a pretty story, so you can tap us for a few bucks?" asked Lou. He said to me, "She saw that wad of dough you had, man. Maybe she figured you looked gullible."
She pushed up the sleeve of her sweater and turned her arm over to show us the tracks. Some of the needle marks looked fairly old. "I get high out there off and on when I can get a ride. That's why I asked if you were cops. I could get in the shit talking to cops."
"What did the van look like?"
"It's been a while."
"Not like a new mini-van. Bigger. Blue. Dark blue. But you can't miss it. It's got like a really shitty airbrush job of a moon and stars kind of night sky picture on the side."
"Probably has Orange County plates," said Lou.
"Ford or Chevy or what?" I asked her.
"I don't know," she said. "Can I have the money?"
"No. I want directions."
"I told you Paynes Prairie."
"I want a map. You draw it." Lou had a pen, and I ripped down a lost dog sign from a telephone pole. She drew a map on the back.
"That's the worst map I've ever seen," said Lou.
"Label the roads."
"I did," she said.
"For fuck's sake, it doesn't have a name. It's a dirt road."
"Then write that. What's it near?"
"There's a bait shack about four miles back," she said.
"Write that down."
She gave me the map, and I handed her two twenties.
"Waitaminute," said Lou. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her close.
"Ow, that fucking hurts you stupid-"
She shut up.
"I'd hate to think we paid you good money for nothing," said Lou.
"I told you the truth."
"Yeah, but keep it to yourself. I wouldn't like to hear that you warned them we were coming."
"Don't worry." She jerked her arm away. "Bragging that I talked to you guys won't exactly win me a lot of friends."
We headed out to Paynes Prairie that evening, the girl's map surprisingly accurate. It had been dark about an hour when we passed the bait shack, and I flipped on the Suburban's high beams so we wouldn't miss the dirt road.
"Don't start punching people unless I give the signal," I said.
"It's cool, man." He kissed the knuckles on both hands. "The ladies are ready when you say."
We turned onto the dirt road, which wound its way back into the woods. It was narrow and made of soft sand, so we poked along at twenty miles per hour. Soon, I saw blue lights flashing through the trees, reflecting off low clouds. A lot of lights.
"Aw shit, man." Lou had seen them too. "We might want to forget about this."
I rounded the next bend, and a patrol car blocked the way. More blue lights came up, and officers stepped out of the woods on both sides with shotguns cradled in their arms. One held up a hand, and I stopped the Suburban.
"Let me talk," I told Lou.
I rolled down the widow as the deputy came up to my side.
I gave him the fake. He glanced at it a second then handed it back.
"What're you doing out this way?"
"My daughter," I said. "She took off with some bad kids out here. My old lady will have my ass if I don't get her back."
He nodded like he'd heard that one before. "A lot of people's kids are in there. You'll have to call the station later tonight after we've processed them all. Can't let you through now."
"She supposed to be with some kids in a big blue van with stars and moons on it. The band, I think. Spanklicious or some crazy thing. I'm really worried."
He sighed. "Hold on."
He checked with one of the other deputies and returned shaking his head. "We got a lot of cars, motorcycles, trucks. You name it. Nobody's listed a van like that. Listen, buddy, I know you're worried, but we got like eighty kids in cuffs out here, and the dogs are sniffing for dope now."
As I backed out he called after me. "Call the station in the morning."
We drove back to the bait shack and parked. It was closed, so I took a leak in the woods around back, then let Lou drive for a while. I didn't know what to do.
"The cops probably busted the place before the band got there," said Lou.
"You know what I think, man? I'll tell you what I think," said Lou. "I think that's the end of their little mini concert tour. Right?"
"So they'll probably head back for Orlando. Right?"
I didn't know. I didn't know where to go next or what to do. And I didn't have very much faith in Lou's detective skills. "Let's get something to eat. We'll think about it."
This whole trip was starting to feel like a wild goose chase. I missed Marcie. I worried about Ma and Danny. What was going on back in Orlando while I was tromping around in the woods?
Back in civilization, Lou spotted a pizza joint in a strip mall. He pulled in, passed a Christian bookstore, a barber, and slammed on the brakes in front of an all-night Laundromat.
"Shit." My arms flew up to keep my forehead from smacking into the dashboard. "What the hell'd you do that for?"
"Look, man. There! Right over there." He pointed, and I followed his finger with my eyes. At the end of a line of cars between the Laundromat and the pizza place sat a big blue Chevy van with a shitty airbrush painting of a night sky with a crescent moon.
Lou made like he was getting out of the car. "Let's get 'em."
I pulled him back in. "Get who, moron? All we see is a van." I looked around but didn't see Benny. "Okay. Back up into that space." I jerked a thumb behind us. "We'll wait."
We watched for twenty minutes, people going in and out of the restaurant and the laundry, but no one going to the van. Then three kids came out of the pizza place. The fat one thought he was growing a beard, and the blond chick with short hair was cute in a dirty, gutter sort of way.
The third had to be Shane. I'd heard a description, but I didn't need it. He was tall and cocky, good looking in that uncombed way kids are now. His black hair was pulled back in a tight, wet ponytail. His earrings looked like fishing lures. Leather jacket. Yeah. One of those. Young tough.
They took a package wrapped in brown paper from the back of the van. They looked at their watches, spoke a few words, and Shane tucked the package under his arm, gave his pals the thumbs up. They retreated to the pizza place. He went toward the Laundromat.
"Now can we get him?"
"Hold on," I said. "What's he doing?"
"Washing his undies? What's it matter?"
He went into the Laundromat and took a seat between two lines of washers. It was easy to keep tabs on him. The laundry was well lit, one of those big, floor-to-ceiling windows in front. We watched awhile. Shane just sat there. The other customers filled washers, tended dryers, folded clothes. Shane lit a cigarette.
"Look," said Lou, "let me go in there and drag the little bastard out. I'll ring his bell until he tells us where Benny is."
"Let me try just asking him first. I'm fairly persuasive. You stay here. Come rescue me if I get in trouble?"
"How will I know that?"
I thought about putting on my shoulder holsters but decided I could handle Shane easy enough without the automatics. I climbed out of the Suburban and gave Lou one last firm look over my shoulder. I needed him to stay put, not cause another scene. If we needed a scene, I'd damn well cause the thing myself.
I entered the Laundromat, stood with hands in pockets, looked the place over. A shriveled lady with white hair sat with her knitting and watched the clothes tumble around in a dryer. A guy in a New Orleans Saints jersey sat under his comb-over, reading the newspaper. A few more patrons scattered around the place. Dirty laundry got clean. Wet laundry got dry. In the middle of it all sat a little piece of shit called Shane, smoking a cigarette like he was doing it a favor, waiting for an opportunity to cause the world some pain.
I sat next to him.
He looked at me. I looked back.
"What's up?" he said.
"Ain't nothing up, Shane. Just thought I'd pay you a visit. You look like a real prick. Anyone ever tell you that?"
"Hey, fuck you, man. I don't need this shit." He patted the package in the seat next to him. "If you want to do business, then let's do business. I'm not here to get jerked around."
"I see." I gave my brain a second to digest what he'd said. "Whatcha got there? Some junk? Spanklicious not selling any albums I bet, so you're pushing a little smack."
"Fucking shut up, man." His eyes pinballed around the room, landed back on me again. "Keep your voice down. This is a private transaction."
"I'm not who you think I am, Shane, and I'm not here to buy your dope. I'm here to find Benny-"
"I don't know no Benny."
"- and I'm here to drop on you like a bag of bowling balls if you don't start coughing up some God damn answers."
"Who the fuck are you?"
"I'm the guy that's been chasing your ridiculous band all over Central Florida. You don't really have any fans, do you? The band's a cover so you can ride around delivering junk."
"Fuck you, asshole. We sold sixteen CDs last week, and I'm all done talking to your sorry ass." He opened his leather jacket and showed me the butt of a pistol sticking out of his waistband. "Now get the hell out of here."
My hand darted into his jacket as he was finishing his tough talk, and I grabbed the pistol, pulled it out. I twirled it in my hand as his eyes widened until I was holding it by the barrel. I lifted it high and brought the butt down on his knee with everything I had. The kneecap shifted with a fleshy thuck.
Shane fell forward, his hands going to the knee. His cry sounded like an animal. "Ohmyfuckinggod! Ow shit, oh, Christ whatthefuck." He rocked back and forth, his eyes filling with tears. "Oh please, oh please, God."
I stood, got a handful of his jacket in my fist, and pulled him to his feet. He hopped on one leg. "Kid, that's just the beginning. You and me are going to have a long, painful talk."
The Laundromat leapt into action around me. Shuffling. The unhappy click and whirl of thumbs on revolver hammers. Bullets sliding into chambers.
"Freeze, motherfucker! Police. Drop the gun right fucking now." It was the guy in the Saints jersey. "Right now! Do it. Drop the gun."
I froze, looked around, but didn't drop the pistol. The little old lady with the knitting needle pointed a magnum at me the size of a howitzer. No less than four of the other Laundromat patrons stood with pistols in hand, ready to make me heavy with lead. I was real unhappy with this turn of events.
"I said drop the gun!"
"Don't be stupid, buddy," said another. "We got you covered on all sides."
"I don't know this asshole," said Shane.
"Nobody's talking to you, fuckwad." To me: "Drop it now!"
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. "Wait. Just hold on a second. There's been a mistake."
"You're making it now," said the old lady. "Drop the gun, or I'll blow your motherfucking balls off!"
"This ain't my stuff." Shane shook the bag in the air. He was still hopping on one foot. "I'm a musician, you fucks."
Stupid. I was a dumb son of a bitch. Standing there like a putz, holding the wrong end of a revolver.
"Just shoot them both," someone shouted.
The Laundromat's big front window filled with headlights. A V-8 engine roared beyond. Heads turned. An explosion of glass as the Suburban plowed through the front window. The vehicle's big tires bulldozed the shin-high row of brickwork, filling the place with dust, knocking plaster loose from the ceiling. Lou was behind the wheel, grinning like a madman.
Screaming. Orders. One stray gunshot.
He crunched the front bumper into a row of washing machines. They tipped, and warm, foamy water flooded the floor ankle deep. Water lines split open, covered everything in a thick sudsy spray. The guy in the Saints' jersey made a grab for us, slipped, fell face first into the soup.
I leapt over the fallen row of washers toward Lou. I still had a hold on Shane's jacket, but he didn't clear the washers. His ribs smacked into the side of one, and he grunted pain. I dragged him over. The old lady jerked her trigger three times, and the washer sprouted three holes where Shane had been, the slugs making metallic tunks as they punched through the side of the machine.
The back door of the Suburban swung open, and Lou shouted, "Move it!"
Gunfire. Shattered glass. The windshield of the Suburban looked like a Braille scream. Lou's head popped back up. He held one of my automatics, aimed high, emptied a clip into a row of dryers. The shots sent the police to the floor. I pulled Shane into the Suburban. "Go, Go, Go!"
Lou backed the thing out fast, but I hadn't closed the door. It snapped off against the wall. Shots chased after us.
"Does that look like an unmarked police car?" Lou motioned with his chin to a beige sedan parked behind us.
I turned. Looked. "Maybe."
Lou threw it into reverse and stomped the gas. He smashed into the sedan hard, jammed it up against three other cars near it. I grabbed Shane, kept him from bouncing out.
"Let me out of here," he said. "You're fucking nuts."
"Shut up." I pushed him onto the floor. Told him to stay there. Lou put us into drive, jerked the wheel, and tore out of the parking lot. I had to grab a seat belt to keep from sliding out myself.
"We've got to get off the road," I said.
Lou nodded. "Right."
He turned off the street, zig-zagged us into a dark residential neighborhood. In the background: sirens.
"We've got to ditch this tank." I scanned the street for someplace likely.
"I know. I know."
"Wait. Back up."
Lou stopped the car, then backed up, stopped in front of a house with a For Sale sign. I hopped out, ran up to one of the front windows, looked in. No furniture. Empty. I ran back to Lou.
"Pull in around back. There's a chain link fence with a gate. Pull in up close to the back of the house." I jumped back into the Suburban. Sirens much closer.
There was a padlock on the gate. Lou pushed through it with the Suburban. I got out again, tossed the broken lock into the bushes, pushed the gate closed. One hinge was loose, but it would look okay from the street.
Lou had parked, gotten out. He had Shane by the collar of his leather jacket. I elbowed a hole through a glass pane of the house's back door, reached in, and unlocked it. We went inside. Everything was dark, hot, and stale. Nobody had been there for a long time.
"Keep him here," I told Lou.
"I got him."
Shane didn't say anything. I guessed he'd wised up some. He still limped.
I went through to the empty living room and peeked through a crack in the heavy drapes. Blue lights flashed with red down the street, edged closer, passed the house. I waited five minutes, and they came back the other way. This time two patrol cars, one following the other fast. I waited fifteen more minutes but didn't see any more signs they were still searching the area.
I had Shane's gun stuck in my pants, so I pulled it out and looked at it in the sliver of light that slid in through the crack in the drapes. I don't think it had ever been fired. The light sliced through the room and fell across Shane's face. He looked young. Two big men had grabbed him away, spirited him into the darkness. He looked scared.
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