We ditched the VW about a half-mile from where I'd left my car. We walked in silence, Lou all sullen. I dropped him at his motorcycle and sent him back to Orlando with some instructions. I needed him to keep an eye on some people.
"How will I get hold of you?" he asked.
I gave him Ma's number and waved bye. The Harley thundered away like the end of the world. I found a phone at an Exxon station. Time to put Benny's information to use.
I dialed Jimmy's number. He answered in one ring but sounded sleepy. I apologized for ruining his nap.
"Hookman, what's the latest?"
Almost nobody called me Hook or Hookman anymore. "I got a lead, Jimmy."
"What is it?"
"I don't want to talk about it on the phone."
"Nobody ever does."
"Okay, Charlie-boy. Make the drive. I'll be waiting."
The drive from Gainesville to Wedgewood, the golf course community on the edge of Orlando where Jimmy lived, took just a hair over two hours. I wanted this to be over quick. If Stan were on ice in the warehouse Benny had told me about, then I needed Jimmy's help to bust in and grab Stan out of there- dead or alive.
Wedgewood was an up-and-coming community with gleaming white houses that all looked more or less the same with cookie-cutter lawns. But it was near good schools, safe and clean. A place where the residents didn't have to worry about guys like me and Jimmy. I parked in the driveway behind his Cadillac.
I knocked, and he let me in with a smile and a nod. He was still a great big fat tub of goo.
"Hey, Charlie, come on in." Jimmy waved me into his living room. A ten-year-old kid sat watching The Wizard of Oz on video. It was near the beginning of the film, and the house had just landed on the witch. "That's my son, Jimmy Jr. Say hi to Charlie, Junior."
The kid turned, gave me a wave, then glued his eyes back to the tube.
"The tin man's my favorite," I said.
"I like the monkeys," said the kid.
"They only fly when the witch tells them to. How about the lion?"
"He can't fly."
"There's more important things than flying, kid."
"You look like shit, Charlie," said Jimmy.
"I had a long night." It was true. I was wrung out, no sleep.
"Come on. I got coffee."
I followed Jimmy into the kitchen and slumped at his table. He poured me some coffee in a World's Greatest Dad mug. Jimmy sat across from me. His mug said 100% Italian. For a second it was like we were two buddies, maybe getting ready to hit the golf links, maybe going fishing. But I forgot all that when Jimmy raised an eyebrow, cleared his throat. Time to get down to business.
"I might know where Stan is."
Jimmy's face was blank. "Yeah?"
"I found Benny. If Beggar has Stan, Benny had an idea where they might have stashed him."
"Where's Benny now?"
"He's not in the picture anymore," I said.
He knew better than to ask more about it. I told him about the warehouse in Bithlo. Jimmy nodded, said he knew the place. That made sense, since Jimmy was in charge of moving stolen goods in and out of the city. I didn't know too much about that end of the operation, but I'd heard there were warehouses and storage sheds all over the city full of hot televisions, car radios, leather jackets, tires, compact discs and booze.
Jimmy cleared his throat, fiddled with his coffee mug. "All that stuff you said about sticking by Stan. That's all true, so I'm going to help you, okay? But there's more. Another reason I'm going to help you."
Another of Stan's lieutenants. "What about Larry Cartwright?"
"What's it matter? I called his house, his office, and his cell phone like maybe five hundred times. Nobody's seen him. Pretty clear to me Beggar's trimming the fat. I don't feel as safe as I did last time we talked."
Good. I hated to be a hardass, but trouble for Jimmy meant he was more on my side.
"There's more," said Jimmy. "We got to face up to the fact that Stan might be past saving."
I was painfully aware of that possibility but didn't say anything.
"There's something you don't know about." Jimmy lowered his voice and leaned forward. For a moment the house was dead quiet, only the sound of singing munchkins coming from the other room. "The stash."
"What the hell's the stash?"
"Money," said Jimmy. "So much money not even God knows how much."
"I have no fucking idea what you're talking about."
"Forgive me, Charlie, but Beggar was right about a couple of things. Orlando is a juicy territory. We were raking in money hand over fist, so much we didn't know what to do with it. Well, we can't have the Feds and the IRS and everyone breathing down our backs all the time, right? We can only launder the money so fast, and we could only make so many trips to safe deposit boxes without getting people suspicious. So Stan just started stockpiling the cash. He didn't know how to get rid of it or launder it any faster."
"How long's this been going on?"
"Four, maybe five years," said Jimmy. "Cash just kept arriving in suitcases and trunks and trucks."
I shook my head, closed my eyes tight trying to get the dragon's horde image of all that money out of my head. "What's this got to do with finding Stan?"
"I'm just saying we might not find Stan. He might not be findable. In which case we got to look out for ourselves." Jimmy's eyes darted toward the living room where his son still watched the movie. "We got families to think about. A big stack of cash could set us up in the Bahamas, Spain, Australia."
I chewed my bottom lip while thinking about it. "We look for Stan. Maybe we find some other things along the way. Fine. But one thing at a time."
Jimmy put up his hands. "Fair enough."
"Now what?" I asked.
"I think I know a way to get us close to that warehouse. I got to make some calls."
"Okay. You got any medical tape? Maybe some iodine?"
"Just a scrape."
"In the bathroom down the hall, under the sink," said Jimmy. "Take what you need."
In the bathroom, I peeled off the old bandage where the bullet had grazed my side. It was crusty with dried blood, but from what I could see it looked okay. I flushed the bandage. I cleaned the wound, taped on a new bandage. I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked beat. And old. I thought about Jimmy's fairy story, the stash of money. Maybe I should just get out of town. Maybe I'd take Marcie. I wondered offhand where my National Geographic was.
I just wanted to sit someplace with a drink. With Marcie. Yeah, she was nice, a good one. She knew all about me and didn't mind. But I had to finish what I was doing. There was something about quitting in the middle and running off without knowing what happened that didn't sit right in my gut.
I splashed water on my face, dried myself, went back out to the living room.
On the television, Dorothy was skipping along the yellow brick road. She looked confident; she didn't know the score. Oz was in color, but Kansas was real.
Jimmy came out of the kitchen, his coffee mug leading the way. In his other hand he held a pastry the size of a hubcap. No wonder he was a blimp. "I got it all straight, Charlie. I got one of my boys dropping off a truck. We'll slip in like it's a regular delivery. Just sit tight. I got to get some stuff." And he was gone again.
Jimmy Jr. still had his eyes glued to the movie. He was sitting real close to the TV. Ma would have told him to move back or he'd go blind.
"How's the movie, kid?"
"What you want to be when you grow up?"
He turned, spared me another quick glance. "A paleontologist."
"A pa-paleo- a what?"
"That's pretty good, kid. When I was your age I either wanted to be a cowboy or a robot."
"Which did you choose?"
Hilarious fucking kid.
Jimmy came back with a tote bag, and he'd changed into a sweatshirt and sweatpants. He told his son to behave while he was gone, and then we were in the parking lot next to a big yellow truck which used to be a moving van. You could still see where the word Ryder had been spray-painted over, and I asked Jimmy if the truck was hot.
"They're not looking for it anymore," he said, and that was good enough.
I shrugged into my shoulder holsters. We climbed into the truck. Jimmy cranked the ignition.
"How is it an important guy like you is driving a truck?" I said it with a straight face, but he knew I was ribbing him.
He shrugged, scrunching his chins into fleshy wads. Jimmy had been living the soft life, and he bulged pretty good under his Florida Gator sweats. He was one of these career wise guys that was always shoving a bratwurst down his face, and whenever the sun came out, he'd sweat barbecue sauce.
Jimmy said, "I like to keep a hand in." He looked back at his house. "I just hate leaving Junior on short notice. I guess it's okay leaving him with Maria- that's my house girl. Maria. It's been a while since I been on a run, you know? I fix up deals, right? It's been ten years since I drove a truck or waved a piece around or any of that crap. I do most of my work over the phone. I fix deals."
"You fix deals," I acknowledged.
"What's in the truck now?" I asked.
"Nike sneakers and Zippo lighters."
We drove east toward Bithlo, past the junkyards and the trailer parks, to the very edge of Stan's crumbling kingdom.
"You ever think about getting out of this business?" I asked him.
Jimmy's mouth hung open, and he looked at me like I had three heads. "What do you mean?"
"What the hell do you think I mean?"
"Think too much about that kind of stuff, and you'll go batty."
I guess what I really wanted was to find Stan and have him tell me everything was going to be okay. Either we'd kick Beggar Johnson's ass back to Miami somehow, or Stan would give me the okay to get the hell out of town. I didn't feel right without Stan telling me what to do. That wasn't easy to admit, but it was true.
Jimmy smelled a buck. I shook my head and laughed to myself over the notion of a secret stash of money.
"What's funny?" asked Jimmy.
"Nothing. How are you fixed for artillery?"
"Just in case."
"I got a snub-nose.38 on my ankle."
"Get it up around your waist. Tuck it in your pants."
"I'm wearing sweats. It'll fall down."
"Tuck it in your underwear too."
He did like I said and grimaced, sucking in a sharp gasp of breath.
"The metal's cold."
"It'll warm up."
We drove more.
I kept a casual eye on the rearview mirror, and about ten minutes into the trip I saw something I didn't like. I said, "Jimmy, let's stop for some coffee and a muffin. What do you say?"
He looked at me sideways. "Now?"
"Yeah. How about it?"
"I guess," said Jimmy.
Some ambitious redneck had built a sandwich shop up against a Chevron station, so Jimmy pulled off the side of the two-lane highway and parked the truck. We took a booth in the sandwich shop. A teenage waitress with a Southern accent as thick as a slab of ham took our order for two coffees and a cheese Danish for Jimmy.
Jimmy poured sugar into his coffee and kept pouring. I thought maybe he'd dozed off, but he cut the flow and dumped about two cows' worth of milk in after it.
"What are you making, cake batter?"
"Don't get defensive."
"Okay," said Jimmy. "What gives?"
"We're being followed. Don't look around. Eat your Danish."
He took half the thing in the first bite and said, "Bring me up to speed."
"Mutt and Jeff in a black Ford Tempo."
"Since Gainesville. I thought I'd given them the shake."
"Maybe not," said Jimmy.
"They're at the pay phone across from the pumps, waiting for us and pretending to make a call."
Jimmy raised an eyebrow. "You sure?"
"No." It looked like the same car.
"We got to be sure."
Jimmy frowned. "We can't lose them in the moving van."
"Let's pay for this and get going."
"What about our buddies?" Jimmy asked.
"Like you said. We need to be sure."
We drove for a while. The jokers in the Tempo stayed at a discreet distance, but they were definitely tailing us. They probably thought they were doing a good job.
"Pull into that Burger King up there," I said. "I'll get to the bottom of this shit."
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