Shane opened his mouth to protest, but a quick, hard look from me shut him up. I told Lou to search him, and he found a cell phone in the kid's jacket pocket. It was one of those little kind, and Lou flipped it open, saying, "Kirk to Enterprise."
I took the cell phone and handed it to Shane. "Call Benny."
"Call your brother."
I slapped him hard across the face. Tears welled in his eyes.
"Don't give me that shit. You dial him up right now. I'll tell you what to say."
"Okay, okay." He dialed.
I said, "Tell him this address. Tell him to come here, you understand? Something went wrong with your drug deal, and you need him to come here. Tell me you understand."
"Sure. I understand."
I cocked his pistol and put the barrel against Shane's temple.
"Yeah, it's me," said Shane. "I need your help. I had some problems with the drop."
Benny's voice screeched on the other end, and Shane pulled the phone away from his ear some.
"Take it easy, Benny. No, I can't go into it right now." Shane glanced at me, and I nodded. He gave Benny the address. Shane said, "Hurry."
Benny showed up twenty minutes later. I had Lou stand behind the door and open it. I stood out of sight on the other side. We made Shane stand in front of the door about ten feet inside the house where Benny could see him. Shane still favored the bad knee.
The door creaked open, and Benny walked in. It never occurred to him for a second he was about to get his head handed to him.
"What the hell's this?" Benny asked Shane. "Somebody forget the light bill?"
He took three more steps in, and I spoke up. "We've been looking all over the place for you, Benny."
Benny started at my voice, turned to look. His eyes needed a second to adjust, then he saw it was me. "Oh, hell."
He made for the door, but one of Lou's big hands fell on his shoulder.
"Charlie, you got to let me explain. I know it looks bad, me splitting town just when everything's turning sour, but I can explain, I tell you."
"There'll be a time for that," I assured him. "First things first. You know the routine."
I slapped a strip of duct tape over his mouth.
We used the rest of the roll to tie Shane to a staircase.
I thought maybe I'd tie Benny to a chair, but there wasn't a single stick of furniture in the house. Lou and I took Benny into the bathroom, because the shower curtain rod was surprisingly sturdy. We tied his hands up to the rod with strips of rag we'd found under the kitchen sink. He looked scared, the blood gone from his face.
He worked his mouth behind the tape like he wanted to ask us something, but I shook my head no. Talking would come later. After we softened him up.
I worked the ribs for a little while, my knuckles biting hard into Benny's side. He took the shots with whimpering grunts. I worked my way into a good rhythm, trying not to give any spot particular attention, spreading the punches around his whole torso. I stopped for a few seconds to shed my jacket, handed it to Lou, glimpsed his face. He looked a little sick. He liked to fight, but this wasn't a fight.
Benny cried a little, and I let up.
I pulled the tape off with one quick jerk. "Where's Stan?"
He drew a wheezing breath, like ice skates on a chalk-board. I turned the shower on him, gave him a blast of cold water. He leaned into it, letting it wash over his face, hanging limply from the curtain rod.
"Okay," I said. "Let's hear it"
"How much do you want to know?"
"Start when the Earth cooled, and I'll tell you when to stop."
"It was Beggar Johnson," began Benny. The water beaded on his bald head, dripped down and streaked his face, soaked his mustache. "He came to me with an offer. It wasn't like I had a choice, Charlie."
"No, Charlie, no bullshit. Really. Beggar said Stan was finished in Orlando. Young blood was coming in to take over the territory. The old man might go soft or he might go hard, but he was going. That's how Beggar put it. He said my future was in my own hands. If I cooperated, it would go easier for everyone. Geez, Charlie. I mean, well, shit. I got a life, right. What am I supposed to do? Stand up to Beggar Johnson?"
"You could have come to me or Bob or any of us."
"I thought of that. I really did, but Beggar had Sanchez with him. They made it look like the whole team was bailing out, going over to Beggar. I got scared."
"You sold out."
"It's not like that." Benny tugged at his bindings. "They're cutting off the circulation."
I shook my head, sat on the edge of the tub. "Stan was good to us, like a dad, Benny."
"There's more, Charlie."
"You're not going to like it," he said.
"Stan was..." Benny shook his head, groping for the words. "Something was wrong with him, Charlie."
"Shut up. What do you know about it?"
"He's a good man, but he wasn't sharp anymore. He wasn't all there."
"I said shut up." My fists balled.
"I'm not saying he's senile... just, I don't know. Old fashioned. Beggar could see he wasn't running the show right."
I got all hot up through my face. I couldn't see how to tell Benny how wrong he was. I had to make him understand. My teeth clenched. My fists came up.
"My arms. Can you untie-"
I grabbed a fistful of his shirt, held him so he wouldn't swing while I was hitting. I started punching again, short jabs with the other fist. One, two, three-
Six, seven, eight-
"I just want-"
Ten, eleven, twelve-
"My arms. I can't feel-"
I kept punching, lost count.
Benny sobbed, yelled. "Okay. What do you want? I'll tell you already."
I stopped. I was sweating good, nearly punched out. What did I want?
"I'm going to get some air," said Lou. New Guy looked green and confused.
"You stay," I barked. God damn stack of muscles. Couldn't he stomach to watch a pro work? Lou didn't argue. I let go of Benny. "Stan. What happened to him? Where is he?"
"I don't know. For God's sake, Charlie. I don't."
"You must want another pasting."
"Charlie." Lou tugged at my sleeve like some little kid. "He's had enough, man. He doesn't know."
I swatted him away. "You listen to me, New Guy. You understand this. Everything was good. Stan did what he did, and we did our job. It was perfect. And when somebody came along to ruin it, this rat bastard didn't stand up. He didn't stand up for Stan or for you or for me. He turned on his own, and that's the unforgivable sin."
"There's a place, Charlie," said Benny. "I heard some talk between Beggar and that killer of his."
"Yeah. A warehouse in Bithlo, out of the way. I heard them talking about it. I don't know if Stan's there, but they were talking about how out of the way it was, like maybe it was a good place to hide something or somebody."
Benny leaned pathetically against the shower tile. He was covered with sweat and bruises. A little ragged moan crawled out of him.
For a second, I felt bad for him and reached for the shower knob to give him another cold bath. Then I thought about Stan, what I would do if I even found him. Everything had been good. Now it was shit. My hand veered toward the hot knob.
At first, Benny was grateful. He lapped at the water, let it soak him, run down his chin. But the spray heated quickly. Benny's eyes got big with realization. And then the hot hit him full on
"Shit! Fucking turn it off." He hollered, twitched, tried to twist away from the spray. "Ow, fucking shit, you're killing me!"
"Come on," I told Lou.
He went out ahead of me. I pulled the bathroom door shut, Benny still yelling for us to come get him. He'd be a little pink, that's all. The hot water would run out soon, and he'd just be wet and prune-skinned. But his pleas for mercy followed us into the hall.
Lou looked at me like I'd just fucked his pet bunny up the ass, but he didn't say anything. He needed out for a while, so I thought of an errand for him.
"Can you hot-wire a car?"
He nodded. "I used to do repossessions."
"Get us something. They'll pick us up in two seconds if we go out in the Suburban. I'd like to be out of here before daybreak. Try to be discreet."
"Okay." He looked at the bathroom door then back at me again. "You going to be okay here, man?"
"Me? Yeah. I'll be fine. He's not going anywhere."
"If you're going to work him over again, do it while I'm gone."
I waved him away. "Sure."
He left out the back.
I put my ear to the bathroom door. Benny had shut up his screaming. Probably the water had turned cold, or maybe he'd passed out. I had some thinking to do, so I went outside and sat in the front seat of the Suburban with the window down. I thought about turning on the radio but didn't want to risk the noise.
I closed my eyes, replayed the fiasco at the Laundromat. Shane was a two-bit pusher. He thought I'd been at the Laundromat to make a buy. I looked in the backseat, thinking maybe the paper package had flown out when the door had come off or during one of Lou's sharp turns. But it was right there on the floor. I grabbed it, tore it open. Three fat kilos of snow-white powder. I took a closer look at the wrappings. The brown paper was a grocery bag from a Piggly Wiggly. The inside layer was the sports section of The Orlando Sentinel.
I figured Shane's band had been ferrying the stuff all around the state. It looked like Benny had gotten little bro in on the act, and I resolved to take Danny's Buck Rogers gun away from him. We'd have another loud talk about college.
I slunk back into the house, back into the bathroom. The water had turned ice cold, and I shut it off. Benny's weight had bent the curtain rod enough so he could rest his knees against the side of the tub. His eyes were shut, and he maintained a low, steady whine, a whimper. I couldn't tell if he was dreaming he was in hell or awake for the real thing.
I untied his hands, pulled him down. His arms flopped dead to his sides like two sleeves full of Spam. He groaned again. I let him down on the floor, sat down next to him, brushed the wet hair out of his eyes.
His head rolled toward me without the eyes opening.
His face scrunched. "It hurts. My ribs."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"It hurts." His voice was a whisper, the hiss of a knife sliding into its sheath.
"Bob's dead, Benny, and I barely know New Guy. Why didn't you come to me? I'd have done anything if you'd just come to me."
"I tried... I was too scared."
He coughed, and his whole body wracked. He faded, and I thought he'd gone out on me. "Benny."
I exhaled long, rubbed my temples. I must've hurt him more than I'd meant. I felt along his ribs, and he sucked breath. I tried with a lighter touch. I might have broken a couple. Maybe a punctured lung, internal bleeding. He was groggy.
"I hit you," said Benny. "I'm sorry. I called Beggar after Bob and I left your mother's house and told him you were taking the books to Stan, and he said I'd better get them or be sorry."
"So I went to your apartment. I waited in the shrubs, and when you came out I hit you." He coughed, red flecks on his lips. "I guess the joke was on me. I grabbed the briefcase, but it was empty."
"Just take it easy."
"It's cold." Benny's eyes were glassy, unfocused.
"It's okay." I sat on the bathroom floor and pulled his head into my lap. "It'll be okay."
I pinched his nose between thumb and forefinger, put my other hand over his mouth. He went stiff, feebly tried to wiggle free, but there wasn't much left in him. I felt him give, go slack under my touch, and that was all.
I pulled down the drapes in the master bedroom and wrapped him, dragged him to the hall closet, and put him inside on the floor under the shelves. I had to fold him up to make him fit, put him in a sitting position with his knees up to his chest.
I took one of the rags we'd used to tie him and wiped the place down, made sure I covered all the fixtures in the bathroom and all the doorknobs. I didn't want to leave any prints. I circled the house twice, once inside and once out, to make sure we hadn't left anything.
Then I went to Shane. He sat like a shrunken ball up against the stairs. The duct tape was twisted and stretched where he'd tried to pull free. He must've heard everything that had happened to his brother. He looked at me like I was the devil. I cocked his pistol, lifted it, aimed it at his forehead. Shane was a loose end. He shook. Tears in his eyes. I felt something hot and wet on my face. Tears there too. Everything had gotten so fucked up. How did it happen?
I lowered the pistol.
I fetched the package of coke, spilled half of it in front of Shane. "If you call the police, you'll have to explain that. If I were you, I'd just get out of here, understand? Keep pulling at that tape, and you'll get free. Benny was... just business. He screwed up."
I couldn't tell if Shane understood or not. It didn't matter. I went outside and sat on the back steps. The night was cool. I huddled inside my jacket, and the tears came quick and hot down my face. I let it out, put my face in my hands, my shoulders heaving up and down. I was a mess of tears and sweat and snot. I made the low whimpering sound of a wounded animal.
An hour later, Lou pulled into the backyard, driving one of those updated Volkswagen Beetles. It was electric green. Lou opened the door, looked like a giant climbing out of a clown car.
"This is what you got?"
"I figured it was the thing most opposite of a Suburban. Inconspicuous."
"You're a regular James Bond."
"I also stole a license plate off a Dodge up on blocks two houses over for when the Bug's reported stolen."
"Good. Help me get the stuff."
We took everything out of the Suburban and jammed it into the backseat of the Bug. I checked under the Suburban's seats and went through the whole thing, but it looked like we'd gotten it all. I wiped it down with the rag.
"Anything new?" Lou asked.
"I'll tell you on the road."
"What about the kid?"
"It's been taken care of."
He didn't ask about Benny.
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