After Jimmy parked the moving van, I told him to sit in a window seat inside the Burger King so our shadows could keep an eye on him from the parking lot. I sat with him for a minute.
"What if they're Feds?" asked Jimmy.
I'd thought of that, but it seemed more likely the Tempo on our tail were Beggar's boys trying to track down those ledgers. I'd been thinking a lot about Alan Jeffers. He knew I had the books. I was supposed to bring them to him, but it looked like he was turning rat, willing to hand over the books to the FBI. But if that were the case, why hadn't Agent Dunn put the squeeze on me? I kept chewing that question over in my mind, but only one answer even came close to making sense.
Jeffers was playing both sides. He told the FBI he was trying to get the books for them, and he told Beggar he was doing the same thing for him. In the middle sat Alan Jeffers, thumbing coke up his nose and wondering how he was going to pull his ass out of the meat-grinder.
So I didn't think they were Feds following me, because Alan Jeffers hadn't told them they should. I didn't take the time to explain all this to Jimmy. I just told him to trust me.
"I'll be back. Stay in the window where they can see you."
"Because you're decoy-boy."
"What're you going to do?"
Jimmy looked worried as I left him.
I high-stepped it out the other side of the restaurant and circled behind. From between two Dumpsters, I could see the goons in the Tempo. They smoked cigarettes and watched Jimmy through the window. I watched for a minute, but they didn't look like they suspected anything. I continued my wide circle behind the gas station, all the time keeping an eye on the Tempo, but they didn't notice me. I ducked into the gas station.
Inside, I bought a cheap pocketknife, a thick, souvenir Florida State Seminoles throw pillow, and a roll of duct tape. You can do abso-fucking-lutely anything with duct tape. Astronauts should take a dozen rolls on every shuttle mission.
The girl behind the register raised an eyebrow.
I locked myself in the men's room around the side of the gas station. A quick glance on the way in told me Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum were still keeping watch on the Burger King. I cut a slit down the side of the Seminole throw pillow. I fished one of the automatics out of my shoulder holster and jammed it into the pillow, where it nested tightly in the heart of the stuffing. I wrapped the pillow in duct tape and kept wrapping until I'd used half the roll. The whole thing was now a tight wad of stuffing armored with several layers of tape. I dropped the knife into my pants pocket and threw away the rest of the tape.
The pillow looked like a misshapen, armadillo-skinned football. I tucked it under my arm and headed for the Tempo. They were either amateurs, or they let themselves get too comfortable watching Jimmy through the BK window. In any case, I came upon them and swung open the back door on the passenger side without any resistance. I slid into the backseat and slammed the door as they jerked around frowning at the surprise of me.
"What in the hell-"
"Shaddup." I pulled the automatic out of the pillow and showed it to them. "Keep still, and do like I tell you. Get your hands up where I can see them."
They put their hands up on the steering wheel and dashboard. "I don't know who you think you are, but-"
"You're even dumber than you look." I let him feel the automatic's cool metal on the back of his neck. He was the one in the passenger side. Clearly another low-forehead type in a cheap suit and three-dollar haircut. The guy behind the wheel was a stick figure with one of those Don Juan skinny mustaches and an overbite that gave him a rat look. "You just talk when I tell you, and we can all be chums."
Before some passerby phoned the law, I brought the automatic down and stuffed it back in the pillow, keeping a loose finger on the trigger. Both of them faced forward waiting for me to speak. They didn't look particularly worried, so I knew this wasn't their first picnic. I'd need to get tough.
The one with the cheap haircut tsked at me. He was taking the hard line. "Pal, I think you need to reconsider your position. If you knew who we-"
I pulled the pistol out of the pillow again and smacked the barrel across the base of his skull. He grunted, bent forward and stayed there, moaning softly and rubbing his new lump.
"You dipshit," said the other, "you just assaulted a federal officer. That's five years hard time. You want to try for more?"
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"Okay, now listen." He said the words slowly, like he was talking to a dog or a retard. "I'm going to go into my jacket for my badge. No funny stuff. I promise."
I pointed the gun at him. "Slow."
He came out with the standard-issue billfold, flipped it open. A badge. An ID that said he was FBI Agent Nicholas Styles. He nodded at his buddy in the passenger seat. "He's Agent Novak. He'd show you his ID too, but he's not feeling so well."
God damn. They were Feds.
"Now, how about handing over that gun, Swift? It's really your only option."
"Just hold on a second." I'd really stepped in it this time. I had to think.
"The longer you wait, the worse it gets for you, Swift," said Styles. "Just hand me the gun."
"I said shut up a minute."
Novak groaned. The knot on the back of his head was swelling good and quick.
"He might have a concussion."
"So if he sustains some sort of serious injury because you prevented me from getting him to a doctor, and then he dies, I guess you can tack on a murder charge."
I knew I hadn't hit him hard enough for that, but I was getting flustered. I had to get control of the situation again. People were going in and out of the gas station, and I remembered I was waving a pistol around. I stuck it back in the pillow.
"What's it going to be, Swift?"
I decided I should be the one asking questions. "What are you tailing me for?"
"You can do better than that."
"How many times do I have to say it?" asked Styles. "We're the FBI. We don't answer to cheap hoods."
"I don't care if you're J. Edgar Hoover in a ball gown," I said. "Did Agent Dunn put you on my tail?" Dunn had warned me to skip town. Maybe he'd set these two jerks the task of making sure I left.
At the mention of Dunn's name Novak lifted his head, and he and Styles looked at each other a moment. It wasn't much, but it was enough to tell me something was going on.
"Of course," said Styles. "Orders from Dunn. Who else?"
Who else? Good question.
I said, "Okay. Call Dunn. We'll wait for him. I'll surrender to him. Nice and quiet." It wasn't much of a bluff, but I'd sensed some kind of chink in the armor at the mention of Dunn's name. I had to see how they'd react.
Novak spoke first, but not to me. To Styles. "Nick, we can't call Dunn. He'll-"
"Quiet!" Styles shifted his eyes from me to Novak and back. "Enough of your double-talk, Swift. Stalling for time won't help you."
I nodded to myself, tried not to let my smile show. They might've been big-shot FBI agents, but they were basically still cops, and like all cops they'd come to depend on people falling into line whenever they flashed their badges. I'd seen past the badge, and I saw only a couple of jokers trying to pull a bluff.
"You don't have orders to tail me at all, do you?"
"Don't be moronic, Swift."
"Doing a little overtime work, eh boys?" I smiled openly now. "What did you think? That I'd lead you to those ledgers?
Novak groaned louder.
"Can't you see he's hurt?" said Styles.
Novak really groaned this time, and I leaned forward to tell him to put a sock in it. He twisted suddenly in his seat and reached over at me. He grabbed my wrist with one hand, went for the gun-pillow with the other. What happened next was strictly reflex.
I squeezed the automatic's trigger inside the pillow, and the stuffing dulled the report to a thick fwup. The.45 slug tore through the back of the seat and found a home in Novak's back. He wheezed, twitched once, and fell over his folded hands on the dash like he'd fallen asleep at prayer.
"Shit!" The blood drained from Styles's face. I thought he might be sick. "God, Swift, what'd you do?"
"The same thing that's going to happen to you if you don't answer some questions." I had to keep talking tough, had to keep control of the situation, but inside my guts churned. What had I done?
"Jesus, Swift." He was shaking his head, looking at his buddy. "Don't kill me, okay?" He started breathing hard and sniffling. I thought he was ready to start the waterworks.
"Knock it off," I said. "Think hard and answer my question."
"What fucking question?" He voice was strained. He talked to me, but his eyes stayed on Novak.
"Why are you tailing me? I know Dunn didn't put you up to it, so don't try to tell me he did. I can smell it every time you lie."
"Like you said. We wanted the ledgers."
"Why? What do you mean why, you son of a bitch? They outline Beggar Johnson's whole operation. Whoever has those ledgers has Beggar by the throat."
"So if I have them, I guess I'm pretty big shit."
"You'd get Beggar's attention, that's for sure."
"That's all I wanted to know."
I pulled the trigger, and the automatic belched inside the pillow, spit lead and stuffing at Styles. He fell over the steering wheel dead.
I kept telling myself I had to do it. I was already up to my neck for killing Novak. I might have gotten away with the four agents I'd popped in Toppers, but Novak had been different. Styles had seen me. If I let Styles go, I'd have every cop in the state on my ass within an hour. This was how I explained it all to myself. This was how I tried to convince myself I was still in control of the situation.
So why were my hands shaking so much when I reached inside Styles's jacket and then Novak's? I pulled out their badges and slipped them into my jacket pocket. It wasn't that I wanted some morbid souvenir. I just knew these guys would be found sooner or later. Maybe the gas station owner would notice the car had been there awhile. A couple of dead bodies would cause a fuss, but a couple of dead FBI guys would set off alarms all over the place. I figured I could toss the badges in a Dumpster down the road.
I climbed out of the Tempo, closed the door, looked all around, over my shoulder. As far as I could tell, nobody had taken notice of me or seen what I'd done.
I walked back toward the Burger King, feet leaden, arms rubbery. How had everything gone so horribly down the shitter? I felt overwhelmed, that I was screwing this all up, leaving a trail of bodies a blind man could follow. Any minute now the Feds would swoop down on me with the handcuffs or Beggar's boys would come along and throw a sack over me.
Forget it. I'd had enough.
I went into the Burger King. "Let's go," I said to Jimmy.
I started walking out, motioned for him to follow. "Take me back to my car."
He saw my duct tape pillow. "What the hell's that?"
I ignored his question. "I'm going home. You were right. Stan's dead or gone."
"We don't know that." Jimmy waddled after me, out of the Burger King and into the parking lot. "What about the warehouse?"
"That's right." I climbed into the moving van's passenger seat and waited for Jimmy to drive. He hauled himself into the van's cab with a grunt and settled his gut behind the wheel.
I made it clear I didn't want to talk. He drove back to his house where my car was parked. I got out and walked around to his side of the van, and he rolled down the window.
"Sorry, Jimmy. But this was all crazy from the beginning. I should've just taken everybody's advice and disappeared. We can't help Stan. You should go too, Jimmy, or you'll end up like Larry Cartwright and Bob Tate. Take your kid and go. There's no magic stash of money, and only God can help Stan now."
"Sheesh, Charlie, I don't know what to say. Call if you hear something."
"I won't. I'm leaving town."
"I mean it," said Jimmy. "Just get some rest. Things will settle down."
I got in my car and drove away.
I pulled up in front of my apartment slowly. I hadn't been there in a while, but somebody might still be waiting around to do me some harm. I got out and climbed the stairs, my eyes darting into every shadow. Seemed safe enough. I went inside with guns drawn, but there was no need. All clear.
I went to grab my green duffel bag and remembered it was full of incriminating accounting ledgers in an airport locker. I took a big red Samsonite suitcase from underneath the bed and put it on top. Opened it. I shoved in about a week's worth of shirts and underwear and socks. An extra pair of shoes. I put in two more suits, tried to fold them in easy so they wouldn't wrinkle too bad. I saw my National Geographic on the table and tossed it in. The rest of my stuff could rot. I almost packed my toothbrush when I remembered I hadn't used it in a while.
I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth. It occurred to me I was greasy and messed up. I stripped out of my smelly clothes and let them drop on the bathroom floor. I kept my revolver close by on the sink just in case. The shower was warm. I just stood in the hot water a long time, maybe twenty minutes. It felt like the best thing in the world. When the hot water started losing strength, I shut off the shower and stepped out. The wound on my side had started to scab okay, so I didn't bandage it again.
I looked at my bed. Tempting. No. I'd fooled around long enough. Time to get the hell out of Dodge. Everything else could go to hell. I toweled off, climbed into a dark gray suit, and strapped my guns back on. I grabbed my suitcase.
I put my hand on the doorknob.
The phone rang.
The little guy in my head who tries to keep me out of trouble shouted don't pick it up, dumbass.
I picked it up.
A brief pause, then: "Charlie?"
"Oh, Charlie. For God's sake where have you been?" She sounded frazzled. "I've been calling and calling."
"What's wrong? Are you okay?"
"No, I mean, I am now. But I need you."
"Slow down. What is it?"
"Not on the phone. Come over."
I glanced at my suitcase. "I'm right in the middle of something here, hon."
"CHARLIE, COME OVER RIGHT FUCKING NOW!"
"Okay, okay. Take it easy. Just calm down. I'm on my way."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell. Just please come over."
"Okay. It'll be okay. I'll fix it." I didn't know what it was yet, but I'd fix it.
I hung up after promising about twenty more times that I was on my way. I checked my guns, and everything was go. I got back in my Buick and headed for Marcie's house at top speed.
Halfway there I realized I hadn't brought the suitcase.
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