Chapter 17


By the time we finished wrapping up the corpse, Danny called. He said Ma had a flight in ninety minutes, and they were making for the airport. I said I had an errand, but I'd meet him back at Ma's house after. We wished each other luck.

Marcie and I dumped the guy's body in a shopping center Dumpster about ten miles away. I covered him over with trash and cardboard boxes. Nobody saw us. I took Marcie home.

She kissed me on the cheek as I left. "The Airport Hilton. Hurry and finish your business, or I'll leave your ass here."

I scooped her close and gave her a more serious kiss square on the lips. She hugged back, and our tongues met. She pulled away breathless. "That was nice, but you still have to hurry."

She left in her Volvo, and I headed for Ma's. When I got there, the driveway was empty. Ma hadn't had a car for a few years. Danny must have still been on his way back from the airport. I let myself in, found a Pepsi in the refrigerator, and opened it. I sat at the kitchen table, sipped cola and waited.

I remembered Lou and snapped my fingers, leapt to my feet, and went into the living room, grabbed the phone and sat in Dad's old chair by the window. I dialed, and Lou answered in two rings. "Yeah?"

"What's up, New Guy?"

"Stop calling me that."

I ignored his request. "What did you find out?"

"I went to Stan's like you said. Nice house, locked up tighter than a drum, but I figured this is a special case so I broke in a bedroom window."


"Didn't find anything though. I went through the whole place twice. Nobody's there."

"Any signs of a struggle?"

"Hell if I know. What are the signs of a struggle nowadays?"

"Blood," I said. "Bullet holes. Furniture knocked over. Use your imagination."

"Nope. Nothing like that."

That's what I'd figured. I'd given up trying to call, and I'd been pretty sure Lou wouldn't find anything, but I had to be certain. I'd have felt pretty stupid tear-assing all over the state looking for Stan if he were lying dead in his own living room the whole time.

"Where are you, by the way?" I asked.

"Phone booth near the ABC Liquor on Goldenrod," said Lou.

"The whole time?"

"Back and forth. Another fifteen minutes I'd have been on my way to the Arby's across the street."

Whatever. "You know what to do next?"

"I remember."

"Keep your distance when you get over there." I wanted Lou to get over to Heathrow and keep an eye on Jeffers's house. With Feds and Beggar's men coming and going, it seemed like a good idea to know what was going on.

"Don't worry. Later, man."

"Later, New Guy."

"Don't call me New-"

I hung up.

I didn't like waiting, but there wasn't any choice. I needed to see Danny. I started poking around the living room. The house was strangely quiet without Danny shouting at me or Ma throwing together some grub in the kitchen. I opened the hall closet and found Dad's collection of National Geographic. They were lined up in order, seventeen years' worth, only the one with the Polynesian article missing. I pulled a few down and scanned through them until I found one that talked about the Yucatan Peninsula. It had maps and large color photographs of the pyramids.

I was about halfway through it when Danny and Amber pulled into Ma's driveway. I set the magazine aside and opened the door for them. Danny walked in, leading Amber by the hand.

They immediately started with the questions, but I told them that would have to wait until later.

"You guys got to get out of here. There's people probably looking for me right now. You don't want to be with me if they find me."

"Let me help," said Danny. "If you're really in that much trouble, you could use an extra hand."

I squeezed his shoulder, smiled at him. He was a good kid. "I know I can count on you, but it's more important you take care of this." I'd taken the airport locker key off my ring. I gave it to him. "You keep that someplace hidden."

He shoved it in the pocket of his jeans. "I'll think of someplace later."

"Not too much later. You got a place to stay?"

"He can stay with me," said Amber.

I thought about that a second. Sure. That should work. "Sounds good. I'm sure Danny has no objection."

They smiled at each other. Amber blushed. Danny just beamed like he had the world in his pocket. I didn't blame him. She was a good catch. I handed Amber the National Geographic with the Mexico stuff and told her to write her phone number on the cover.

"Go pack," I told Danny. He started up the stairs, and I grabbed his arm. "Pack like you're not coming back. Understand?"

He nodded and took the stairs two a time.

While he was gone, I turned to Amber. "You know Ma and I have been trying to get him back in school."

"I know."

"Do you think you can have any better luck with him than we have?"

Amber smiled big, and somewhere a chorus of violins played. "Oh, he's going back to school. He just doesn't know it yet."

"You're a good girl."

Danny came back down with a tote bag over his shoulder. He assured me nothing would happen to the key as long as he was on the job. He thought he was still auditioning for the monkey cage. Amber would cure him of that. He grabbed me up in a big bear hug, and I hugged back. Amber kissed me on the cheek and squeezed my arm.

"Enough with the mush," I said. "You two get out of here."

I watched them pull out of the driveway, disappear down the block. I went inside and picked up the phone again, dialed Jimmy the Fix. He picked up after five rings.

I asked, "You still have that moving van?"

I tried to convince Jimmy to drive in like we were making a routine delivery.

He frowned at my plan. "I went out there and had a look yesterday after I dropped you off. This isn't a warehouse on the normal delivery route. There's a guard on the gate, but I've never seen him before. I don't know what's going on in there."

"We'll figure something out." I was beyond worrying about it. I just wanted to get on with things.

We passed the Burger King next to the gas station where I'd deep-sixed the G-men. The car wasn't there anymore. There wasn't any sign that anything had happened at all. We continued into the sticks, a little past Bithlo. Boondocks.

"Who's your favorite character from The Wizard of Oz?" I asked Jimmy as the moving van approached the chain-link gate in front of the warehouse.

I thought he'd balk at the question, but he answered lightly. "The wizard, I guess. Except he's stupid to get in the balloon at the end."

I raised an eyebrow, and a smile crept across my face. "He's just going home."

"Home." Jimmy said the word like it had taken a crap in his mouth. "That's what you leave so you can make good. The wizard's got the whole Emerald City under his thumb, and he gives it up to float off with some skirt and her dog. You ever been to Kansas? It's like elevator music with grass."

"Here we go," I said as we got to the gate. I noticed my duct tape pillow still in the floor of the van. I grabbed it, slid one of my automatics inside. There was still enough stuffing to muffle my shots.

I ducked as he pulled the moving van through the gate, and when he stopped, I slipped out the passenger side, closing the van door quietly behind me. By the time I made it around the back of the van, the guard on the gate was at Jimmy's window. He must've been squatting behind a tree or something, because I hadn't seen him on the way through. I had the gun-pillow handy and took about four steps before the guard saw me and swung a serious-looking 12-gauge in my direction. I brought the pillow up and squeezed two shots into his belly before he could fire. Pillow stuffing flew ahead of me with each shot like a cartoon snowstorm. He fell hard, his shotgun dropping to the gravel road.

Jimmy stuck his head out the van window. "Get him into the shrubs."

I dragged Mr. Dead into the bushes by his heels. I checked his pockets for extra shotgun shells but didn't find any. I picked up the shotgun and climbed back into the passenger seat. "Drive."

I checked the shotgun's load. It held six double-ought shells. The pillow was about out of stuffing, so it was past its prime as a silencer. I tossed it out the window and returned the automatic to its shoulder holster. I pulled a pair of latex gloves out of my pants pocket and put them on.

Jimmy parked the van in front of the warehouse, and when nobody came out to squirt lead at us, I told him to keep his revolver loose and wait.

"Anybody comes at you, cut loose on them with your.38," I said to Jimmy. "Don't follow me in there, or I'll shoot you by mistake. Got it?"

Jimmy nodded. He looked pale.

"Just stay here and protect yourself." I tried to sound reassuring. "I'll be doing the rough work."


I kept the shotgun low and strolled up to the loading dock door nice and casual, like Avon calling. I tried the knob. It was unlocked, so I went in. A short hall. One end opened into the warehouse, a maze of crates and boxes. The other end of the hall ended at an office. I started toward it, and a young man emerged in denim and flannel. He was just out of his teens, fair-haired, thin. He had a half-eaten sandwich in his fist and chewed earnestly. He spotted me and the 12-gauge and froze.

I brought the shotgun up slowly, pointed it at his chest. "Nice and easy." I tried to keep the tension out of my voice and was surprised to succeed. "Back into the office." He nodded, and I followed him in.

A square, wooden table dominated the center of the little office, and three men in work clothes sat around it. Denim, more flannel, work boots, feed caps. They started pushing away from the table at the sight of me, but sat still again when I kicked the door closed and pumped a shell into the shotgun's chamber.

The table was covered with empty potato chip bags and playing cards. "On break, huh boys?"

They didn't say anything.

"Anyone carrying a gun?"

They shook their heads.

I lifted my chin at the fair-haired kid with the sandwich. "What're you all doing here?"

He licked his lips and darted his eyes at his buddies. No help there. He looked back at me and said, "We're waiting to close the place up. Everyone else went home."

I looked at their faces. One scared, one angry, two blank. One of those office phones with buttons for an intercom hung on the wall. I ripped it down and tossed it in the corner.

"Where's your boss?" I asked the kid.

His eyes darted to his buddies again.

"I didn't ask them, kid. I asked you." I didn't quite point the shotgun at him, but I held it up and reminded him it was there.

"Upstairs," he said. "There's a spiral staircase across the warehouse, and he's got the big office up there."

"What's his name?"

"Norman," said the kid.

I knew that name. The other guy from the parking garage.

"Who's with him?"

"Frank and Emery."

I didn't know them; it didn't matter.

"Anyone else?"


"What about an old man?"

"Not that I've seen."


The kid's mouth hung open, and he shrugged. He looked anxious at not being able to answer.

One of his pals jumped in to help out. He was older, a salt-and-pepper beard and a green John Deere cap. "I'd guess so, partner. I sure never seen 'em lift anything when the trucks come in."

"What trucks?"

"We've been loading trucks all day, cardboard boxes. Couldn't tell you what's in 'em. But that's all we do. Just lift and move."

I nodded slowly, letting the silence stretch, letting them sweat a little. Finally, I said, "Count to sixty, then get out of here. Don't come back. Don't even look back. There's a world of shit coming down. You understand?"

They nodded.

I backed out of the room and closed the door. I threaded my way through the warehouse and found the spiral staircase at the rear. Halfway up the stairs I heard the distant pop pop pop of a pistol outside. Jimmy. I grit my teeth. He'd have to be on his own.

I double-timed it up the stairs, and just as I hit the landing, one of Norman's goons erupted from the office with a pistol in his hand. They must've heard the shots, because he came out looking for trouble and leveled his piece at me.

The shotgun bucked in my hands, and the double-ought pellets tore across his chest, a grease splatter of ruby geysers on his white shirt and striped tie. He stumbled back two halting steps, teetered for balance, then fell forward. I rushed the office door hoping to catch Norman and his other man before they could get their ducks in a row.

Once inside, events slowed. I no longer had surprise on my side, so I had to choose my targets carefully. I didn't see faces, only arms and legs and hands holding guns as I took in the situation instantly. And somewhere, in the distant reaches of the lump of rock I laughingly called a brain, I realized I'd made a terrible mistake. If I'd had one of my automatics in each hand like usual, I'd have been able to take them both. But I could only point the shotgun at one.

Norman stood behind the desk. He went for something in the top drawer. The man on my left was too close. He stuck a revolver in my face, and I saw the chamber turn in slow motion as he squeezed the trigger. I didn't have time to do anything but slap my left hand over the end of the barrel, my fingers closing over the gun, pushing it away.

The bullet tore through my palm and exited the back of my hand as I fought down a wave of nausea. I pointed the shotgun in his general direction the best I could with one hand and blasted him in the knee. He collapsed, screaming from the bottom of his throat.

I dropped the shotgun and turned on Norman as I drew the.38 from my belly holster.

He was faster.

He fired twice and one bullet whizzed past my ear, the second taking off a chunk of my right earlobe. I ducked, unloading all six bullets at him. Four slugs tore through a stack of file folders on his desk, sending papers leaping into the air. The fifth caught him low in the belly, the last in the center of his chest. Norman fell stiffly across his desk, rolled off it and landed hard on a large cardboard box. The man with the destroyed kneecap was still screaming.

I shuffled over to him, turned the pistol around in my hand. Three swift strikes with the butt of the pistol at the base of his skull finished him. The room smelled like copper and gunpowder. I was about to throw up but kept it in. I was a bloody mess. My own blood on the left hand, his in my right from the pistol whipping. The fingers of my left glove filled with blood. I found the restroom and grabbed a wad of paper towels to slow the bleeding from my palm.

My head was light, my throat dry.

Back in the office, I searched the desk, didn't know what I was looking for. I'd come for answers and found bodies. I kicked the guy off the cardboard box and looked inside. Plastic bags wrapped in tight bundles. I grabbed a letter opener from the desk, ripped into one of the packages. A bundle of cash, old bills.

Stan wasn't here, and I hadn't found out dick.

Outside, I found Jimmy by the moving van, two of the warehouse workers dead at his feet. One was the fair-haired kid.

Jimmy got an eyeful of me. "Christ, Charlie. You okay?"

I ignored the question, still looking at the dead men. "What happened here?"

"They tried to make a run for it," said Jimmy. "Two others got away, but I nailed these two."

He sounded proud of himself, and I didn't bother to set him straight. Dumb son of a bitch.

"I'll call about a doctor," said Jimmy. "I think I know somebody safe."

He went into the warehouse.

I leaned against the van, my good hand holding me up. My stomach convulsed, and I tried to heave, but nothing would come up. I was sweating all over, and the pain was beginning to finally seep into my wounded hand.

I crawled into the front seat of the moving van and rested my head against the cool glass of the passenger window. Blood gushed with every heartbeat. My vision was going fuzzy.

Jimmy stormed out of the warehouse, his big belly quivering each time his foot hit the ground. It looked like he had an armload of shredded cabbage. He got right up in my face. "It's here, Charlie boy. We found it. It's here!"

I worked my mouth at him, tried to ask him what he was talking about. Stan? Had he found Stan? He was floating away from me. Blood trickled warmly from my ear and down my neck.

"You're fine, Charlie. I got you," said Jimmy. "You hang tough. We'll get you a doctor."

I could barely keep my eyes open, and I drifted off, dreaming of Jimmy in a balloon, dreaming I had wings.

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