Chapter 19


NINETEEN

The house was big and quiet after Marcie left.

My ear hurt.

My hand hurt.

There wasn't really much that felt good.

I knew I wasn't in any shape to drive, not yet.

I hobbled up the stairs, thought about calling Ma in Michigan, but let it go. Okay. I was exhausted. Nothing much to do now except pop one of my delicious prescription pain pills and take a nap. Funny, but it was my ear that hurt the most.

For some reason, I wasn't taking the bullet through my hand too seriously. Then I tried to grab a water glass without thinking. I fumbled it. It shattered on the bathroom tile. It took me twenty minutes to sweep it up, because I couldn't hold the broom and dustpan right. I looked at the hand with renewed worry. It wouldn't be any good for a pistol, not until I got it back in shape.

But for pain, there was no beating the ear. It throbbed along with my heartbeat. I thought about doubling the dose, but the doc had already impressed upon me that a single pill was more than enough to knock me on my ass. I shucked my clothes. As per instructions, I crawled into bed before taking the pill. It took me a few minutes to adjust myself so my ear and hand were both comfortable, an elaborate arrangement of pillows and blankets.

I slipped into narcotic dreams.

I was back in Toppers, the firefight with the bartenders and the badge-men. I spun on my opponents with a pistol in each hand, but they weren't the automatics. I held a pair of revolvers. The chambers spun and spun, getting nowhere fast. The pistols were slippery, and I had to concentrate to keep from dropping them. I couldn't pull the triggers. I was too weak, or they were jammed.

Bullets riddled my body. No pain. No blood. It was like they were shooting me with those suction-cup-tipped rubber darts from toy guns. I laughed at them and threw my pistols down. They were too hard to hold anyway. My palms were red and sticky.

I stumbled toward the guys behind the bar. My plan: pull off their limbs with my bare hands and juggle them like a circus act. But they all climbed into the little Volkswagen Bug behind the bar. There was a lot of room back there. The Bug was painted like a clown car.

My hands were sticky.

I grabbed a bottle of scotch off the bar and tried to pour it over my hands. Nothing came out. Another bottle. Same result. I started breaking bottles, looking for liquid. Then I couldn't grab the bottles. I was all thumbs. Every time I grabbed for a bottle, it shot away and shattered until the whole bar echoed with the shriek of flying glass. The glass-

My eyes opened.

┬ĘC broke.

At least, I thought my eyes had opened. I blinked. I thought I had blinked. I wasn't sure. My head was still heavy with painkillers. The noise of glass. I was still dreaming. I tried to sit up. It wasn't fun. Or easy. The glass. It wasn't a dream.

Somebody was in the house.

A surge of adrenaline. Not a mighty surge. Frankly, a relatively feeble surge, but enough to swing my feet over the side of the bed. I shook my head, rubbed my eyes. Wake up, asshole. Somebody was in the house.

I fumbled along the nightstand, knocked over the alarm clock. A racket. Loud. Where were my pistols? Where had Marcie stashed the bags? I'd told her to leave them in the car. Brilliant. My hand found my British commando knife on the nightstand. Okay. Better than nothing. I drew the blade, tossed the sheath aside. I stood, went to my bedroom door, cocked an ear. Nothing.

I remembered I was naked.

It's hard to repel a home invasion with any measure of confidence when your schlong is hanging out. I felt around on the floor until my fingers crept across my boxers. I climbed into them, nearly losing my balance. That would have to do for wardrobe.

I cracked open the door, took a look into the hall. Dark. I listened. Quiet.

I'd been dreaming. That was it. No breaking glass. No one in the house. Maybe if I hurried back to bed I could still get some of the benefit from the pain pill. Maybe I could dream about something better than-

I saw the flashlight at the bottom of the stairs, the beam playing over the far wall and across the front door. I froze, and realizing that I froze told me how screwed up I was. Snap out of it, Charlie.

I darted across the hall to Ma's room before the flashlight turned the corner and headed up the stairs. From there, I would be able to see if the intruder turned into my room when he came up the stairs, or if he went to Danny's or Ma's. It would give me a few extra seconds to get ready for him. He'd probably be armed. I'd need to get close to use the knife.

They started up the stairs. Two of them in dark pants and pullovers. No masks, but too dark to make out faces. One stabbed ahead with the flashlight. The dark, heavy object in the other's hand was obviously a piece. I saw more as they came up. Middle aged. Ruddy complexions. Black, thick, Omar Sharif mustaches. One was bald, the other was on his way. I thought they looked familiar, but it was still too dark.

I kept track of them through the crack. The one with the flashlight eased into my room, pushing the door open slowly. The other one broke off toward me.

I backed up behind Ma's big cedar wardrobe. If he went through the room, he'd have to go past me. I'd get him on the blind side. I'd have to be quick with the knife. If I didn't get a hand over his mouth right away, he'd call in the other one. I didn't think I was up to taking both at once with only the knife.

Ma's door creaked open. The hinges squealed, not so bad truthfully, but it sounded like screaming amid the night's deep stillness. The intruder moved into the room. I heard him shuffle around, open the wardrobe right next to me and paw through it. He was searching.

He closed the wardrobe, and when he moved by with his back to me, I pounced. I forced my bad hand to cup his mouth. It hurt, but I clamped down tight. I brought the knife from underneath so I could get him under the ribs.

His free hand shot up to pry at the fingers over his mouth. That was reflex. His gun hand twisted down to block the knife thrust. That was professional. He'd known where the blade would be coming. I could tell by the moves these weren't neighborhood cat burglars. Our wrists knocked together, and I gave up on putting the knife in him. But I had the leverage and a little surprise left. I spun him around and smashed his hand against the wardrobe, a little more loudly than I liked. Once, twice I smacked his wrist against the cedar until he dropped the pistol. He found his feet and pushed back, pinned me against the wall. Some of the air whooshed out of me. I'd been slow, standing wrong. He twisted. Caught my knife wrist with his free hand. We pulled at each other.

The skin between my thumb and forefinger wedged into his mouth. He bit down. Hard. Blood spilled down my hand, between his teeth. My blood. I winced, flinched, jerked the hand away.

The guy's mouth was free. "Eddie!"

I punched him full in the kidney. He grunted, spun away. I aimed another blow at the side of his head. He turned with that one too, and it glanced off.

The other guy exploded into the room. He stuck the flashlight in my face, and I lost vision. I felt two rapid fists in my gut. I tried to exhale with the blows, but my reflexes were off. I backed away, trying to blink my eyesight back into focus. I took a shot on the chin, and sparks went off behind my eyes. My knees went gooey. The last blow on the side of my head sealed the deal. I fell a long, long way into swirling blackness. The long, dark slide into nothing.

Shag carpeting underneath.

My head hurt.

My gut hurt.

Everything that had already hurt now hurt worse.

My eyes popped open. I was flat on my back in Ma's room. The bald one sat in a little wooden chair four feet from me, his pistol pointed lazily at my head. His face looked like it had been spanked by a shovel, a nose broken and rebroken with regularity over the years. I guess they didn't want to risk the overhead light, but they'd snapped on the little lamp next to Ma's bed. The room was a shambles, drawers opened and dumped out, the mattress half off the bed. The sounds of less-than-gentle searching floated in from the hall.

In the light, I had a better look at my guest.

"Hello, Teddy. I'd have had you in for coffee if you'd just knocked." I'd meant to sound nonchalant, but my voice was rough.

Teddy chuckled. "You fucked up real good, Hookman."

Teddy. And the other one- Eddie. I'd heard him call out to Eddie. The Minelli brothers. Eddie was half of a set of twins, which meant Freddy was dicking around someplace, probably in the car keeping watch.

The boys were professional head busters and almost always worked as a trio. I knew these guys, strictly freelance. Once, Stan had sent me and the rest of the boys from the monkey cage over to break up a picket line at Disney. Stan figured we needed some extra help and had hired the Minelli brothers. So I'd seen their work first-hand, knew they were tough customers.

"Why don't you tell me how I fucked up, Teddy."

"You got something what ain't yours."

The books again.

Teddy raised his voice, called out to his brother. "He's awake, Eddie."

Eddie came in, chewing his gum like it was a meaningful relationship. "Word up, Ted."

"Shut up talking like that. You find it?"

"Naw. Buncha regular house shit, clothes and whatnot. One pretty fly set of golf clubs."

"I'll fly you, idiot. I told you, stop talking like a mooli."

"Get with the times, home boy."

"I don't want you watching no more MTV. It's fucking up your brain." Teddy turned his ire on me. "Okay, Charlie sport, you know the routine. You either tell us, or we mash you into hamburger, and then you tell us."

"I don't know what you're talking about." Playing dumb wouldn't help, of course, but you had to go through the steps.

"He's dissing you, Teddy," said Eddie.

Teddy frowned at his brother. To me he said, "I'm giving you one last chance."

I didn't answer. I was trying to think of something I could do or say to keep the Minelli boys from stomping my balls.

Teddy nodded at his brother. "Get his attention."

Eddie put the heel of his boot into the palm of my wounded hand, twisted, bore down hard with all his weight, grinning like a sadistic moron.

Pain lanced up my arm, past my elbow to my shoulder. It felt like I was being sliced open with a laser. Sweat broke out on my forehead, chest, under my arms. I fought hard to keep my face straight, didn't show the hurt.

"You should open an acupressure clinic, Eddie," I said, proud to keep my voice steady. "You have a soft touch, like a little girl's."

Teddy chuckled. "Now he's dissing you, Eddie."

Eddie scowled at his older brother and kicked me in the head.

"Never mind," said Teddy. "Old Charlie's a pro. Go get the stuff out of the car, the extra battery and the clips. We'll put a few volts through him, see if that loosens his tongue."

"Dope," said Eddie. "Real dope."

"Just get the fucking stuff."

Eddie left. Teddy leaned toward me, pulled a silencer out of his pocket, and screwed it on the end of his pistol. "This is a damn shame," Teddy said in a low voice. "How'd you let this happen? A pro like you. Look at you. You're a mess."

"Stan know you're here?" Half my brain carried on the conversation. The other half started piecing together some kind of strategy. I gathered strength. Something would have to happen soon while Eddie was out of the house.

"Nobody's seen Stan. Probably split town. He don't fuck up like you. You should know better than to take something away from a job."

"My... head. I..." My breath came in short gasps.

"That kick Eddie gave you rattled your brains."

"Uh..." My head rolled to one side. My eyes rolled up.

Teddy kicked my feet. "None of that, asshole. We need you awake, so we can find that stuff."

"Stuff is in... the..." My voice was barely a whisper.

"What?" Teddy leaned closer, nudged me again with his shoe. "Speak up for Christ's sake."

I mumbled, an inaudible rasp between my lips.

"Son of a bitch." Teddy knelt next to me, leaned over.

I sat up as hard and as fast as I could, thrust my head forward and smashed it into Teddy's nose. I heard the cartilage snap, but didn't spend any time congratulating myself.

Teddy brought the pistol around. I blocked it with my bad hand, ignoring the agony. The pistol sneezed out a bullet, which shattered an antique perfume bottle on Ma's dresser. I aimed a kick at his balls but missed. My foot landed in his belly, and he deflated like a set of bagpipes, fell on the floor next to me and let go of the pistol.

I got my good hand around his throat and cut off his air. I brought my knee up twice with all my strength, landing two more blows to his gut. He turned red, then purple. Teddy's struggles were perfunctory now. I held on until he was done. Then I rolled away gasping for breath, my heart drumming a mambo.

Eddie came into the bedroom, car battery and cables in his arms. I grabbed the pistol off the shag before he processed what was going on.

"Shit." Eddie dropped his torture kit and made for the stairs.

I popped a slug into his thigh.

He fell, rolled, his hand darting into his jacket and coming out with some sort of atomic pistol the size of a rocket launcher. If he pulled the trigger on that thing, he'd wake up the world. Patrol cars would be here in two seconds.

I squeezed the trigger three times fast, and the silencer dulled each shot to a high-pitched poot. A little red-dot triangle sprung up across Eddie's chest. He fell back, his lifeless head knocking against the floor.

I quickly checked both Minelli brothers.

I checked the window in the hall. Nobody parked on the street. I looked out Ma's bedroom window toward the back. A long, dark sedan in the alley. I couldn't see if anyone was in it or not. I watched for a minute, almost gave up. Then I saw the cigarette, the orange pinpoint flaring in the darkness on the driver's side.

Freddy.

There was no good way to approach him without being seen, and I needed to get some answers out of him.

First things first.

I went back into my room, put on my robe, stepped into my slippers. I looked for where Marcie might have stashed my pistols. Clueless. It must have still been in the car like I thought. I'd have to call her. Later. I'd call later.

I went down to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee, threw some bacon and eggs into a skillet. Set the burner on medium-low.

I went up to Danny's room and found his Daisy air rifle under the bed. I pumped it up, made sure it had a pellet, then went back to Ma's room, stepping over Teddy to get to the window. I opened the window quietly, poked out the screen. Nothing from the sedan. Freddy still having a smoke.

I dragged Teddy over to the window.

"Ever see Weekend at Bernie's?" I asked Teddy's carcass.

I propped Teddy's body up to the window. I aimed the air rifle over his shoulder at the sedan. I shot the window. The pellet bounced off the glass, and Freddy's cigarette went dark. I pulled the air gun back into the house and peeked over Teddy's shoulder.

Freddy rolled down his window and stuck his head out, craning his neck to get a look at the house. The half-moon cast a pale light on his face.

I pushed Teddy from behind, made like he was stretching out the window. I took his arm and waved it at Freddy in a come-here motion. I must've still had some of the medication in my veins, because I started giggling. I pulled Teddy back in and dropped him on the floor. I ran downstairs and waited in the dark kitchen with Teddy's silenced pistol in my fist.

When Freddy came through the door, I flipped on the light switch.

He went stiff, his eyes big. He saw me and the pistol, a bad combination. Freddy looked like his twin brother Eddie, except less dead and more scared.

I said, "Hello, Freddy. I want you to take out your piece nice and slow. Two fingers. Twitch funny, and I make you go bye-bye."

He nodded, pulled out his gun in slow motion. It was another of those damn cannons like his brother's.

"What the hell are those?"

"A.410 gauge revolver. Shoots slugs or shot."

"A bit much, isn't it?"

He shrugged.

"Put it on the floor."

He did.

"Now kick it over here."

He did.

"Thanks."

I shot him in the kneecap. Poot.

He screamed and went down, blood soaking through his pants. He backed up against the door, squirming on the ground, blubbering and sweating and looking like he was going to vomit any second.

"Calm down, Freddy."

He wasn't listening, kept crying and screaming and trying to hold his knee together, the blood oozing between his fingers.

I picked up his gun and put it in the pocket of my robe. Then I poured myself some coffee. I scraped the eggs and bacon onto a plate, grabbed a fork, and had a seat at the kitchen table. Freddy cut down on the blubbering. He watched as I ate bacon, sipped coffee.

"Where's Eddie and Teddy?" His voice was whimpery.

"They're not going to help you."

"Fuck you, man."

I wiped my mouth with a paper napkin. "I'm not in a very good mood right now, Freddy. Your brothers were going to hook me up to a car battery and shoot electricity through my gonads. I'm not at all pleased with the Minelli boys right now."

"Tough shit."

"I want to know what your job was. I want answers, and I'm tired of fucking around."

"Lick my asshole."

I set the coffee cup down and picked up the pistol. I shot him in the heel. He yelled again, squeezed his eyes shut tight. He rocked back and forth groaning through his teeth.

"Start talking."

"You fucking fuck fuck fuck-"

"Freddy!"

"Beggar got tired of waiting for Jeffers to come up with his books, so he told Lloyd to take care of it."

"Mercury?"

"Yeah. That's why Stan told you to hit Toppers. Myron made a deal to deliver the books to the Feds."

"Why?"

"The FBI had Myron on drug trafficking charges, but they said they'd let him off if he helped put Beggar away. It was bad timing for Beggar, because he was right in the middle of taking over Orlando. Beggar wanted the books back quick. He told Stan he'd go easy on him if Stan helped get the books back."

"What happened?"

"You should know. Stan played us funny, told you to take the books to him instead of Jeffers like you were supposed to. When Beggar got word, he didn't like it. He decided to drop the hammer on everybody hard before things got more out of hand than they already were."

I nodded. "That's a good story. Very informative."

I finished the eggs, sipped coffee. "What do you mean Beggar got word? How?

"Somebody told him. The little bald guy."

"Benny."

"Yeah." Freddy didn't look good. His heel and knee bubbled blood. "All I know is Jeffers is crapping his shorts. And Beggar's not too happy either."

"But you don't know anything more about Stan?"

"No."

"What about Mercury? He up to anything else I should know about?"

"No."

"What were you going to do with the books after you got them from me?"

"Take them to Mercury."

"Where is he?"

"He's moved his office into the back of Red Sky," said Freddy.

"The punk dance club downtown?"

"Yeah."

"What was he going to pay you?"

"Twenty thousand."

"That's a lot just to grab a couple of accounting ledgers," I said.

"He knew we'd have to get them away from you."

I picked up the phone and took it to Freddy.

"My leg really hurts."

"That's a shame," I said.

"I need a doctor."

"Later. Right now you're doing me a favor. You want to be on my good side, right, Freddy?"

"Sure." He swallowed hard.

"Tell me Mercury's number."

"It's in my pocket."

"Get it out," I said. "Slowly."

He did and read me the number.

I dialed it.

"Yeah?" a voice answered.

"Get Mercury."

"Who the hell's this?"

"Minelli."

"Wait."

I put my hand over the phone and told Freddy, "Tell him you're coming over first thing in the morning, early. Tell him to have the money. Fuck this up, and you'll see Teddy and Eddie again real soon."

He nodded and took the phone. "Mr. Mercury? Sorry about the hour. Huh? Yeah, we got them. We want to come over in the morning- early. What? In the morning is better. We're sort of on a schedule." He shot me the okay sign. "Teddy? He's gassing up the car. He told me to call you and said you should bring the payment. Okay. Bye."

He handed me the phone, and I hung it up.

"I fixed you up," said Freddy.

"Yeah."

"Just like you wanted," said Freddy. His voice cracked. He knew he was close to being done. "He'll meet you down at the club. In the morning. With the money."

I looked out the kitchen window. Dark.

I lifted the pistol, reminded myself what the Minelli brothers were preparing to do to me.

"I don't think I'll ever walk the same." Freddy pretended not to see the gun, looked at his leg. He was breaking my heart.

"Here," I said. "I'll take care of it."

The pistol bucked in my hand. Freddy's eyes were wide, mouth hanging open. He fell face first into a pool of his own blood, a hole in the center of his forehead.

I went upstairs and took a shower.

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