The deal went off without a hitch, and thankfully Beggar Johnson sent two of his muscle boys to meet us instead of coming himself. They'd driven up from Miami, and we met them in the desolate regions of a mall parking garage in Altamonte. The car ride had been quiet and nervous.
Beggar's goons identified themselves as Norman and Vincent. Norman was in charge, a gangly scarecrow of a man who tried to hide his lack of bulk inside a suit too big for him. Vincent knew he was just there to kill anything if Norman told him to. He was short but wide, a big, meaty guy with thinning hair and a sweaty face.
"You bring him?" asked Norman.
"In the back." I jerked a thumb at the Volvo.
Vincent was looking hard at the back of Marcie's car, maybe getting the tag. I didn't like it, but also didn't see how I could complain.
When they saw Blade's body, Norman flipped open his cell phone and described the tattoo to his boss. He nodded a lot, grunting without emotion. I started to feel a little moist under my arms. My eyes kept darting into the corners of the garage, looking for trouble. I'd sent Marcie into the mall and told her I'd join her for coffee when the exchange was completed. I needn't have worried.
Norman folded up the cell phone and looked at me. "What a fucking mess."
"What did you do to the poor slob?"
"He got out of line, so I bit him."
Norman frowned. "You're a laugh riot."
They took what they thought was Rollo's carcass and stashed it in the trunk of their black Mercedes. There was a nice layer of plastic in the trunk, all ready for the body. Bastards. Norman handed me a wrinkled manila envelope. I didn't bother looking inside. I knew the money would be there. We nodded to each other, and I walked away trying not to hurry. In the mall, I found a pay phone and dialed Stan.
"I got it."
"Understood," said Stan.
We hung up.
I didn't know how to explain to Stan that one of his guns had cashed it in, so I pretended it never happened. I was counting on the fact that Blade was a flake and nobody would miss him. Or at least I'd wait, maybe think of a better way to explain how it couldn't have been helped.
I located Marcie in the food court, sipping on a frappy-crappy-amaretto coffee something. I sat down, put the envelope on the table, and slid it across to her. "Take a look."
She cracked open the envelope and peeked inside. Her breath caught, and she coughed up a nervous chuckle. "Oh, my."
"Half is yours. Five grand."
"Wow." She blinked at the cash. "It worked."
"Let's just get a room. We can order up."
We quickly found the Hilton. Wrapped in the mingled glow of champagne and leftover adrenaline, we slipped between the sheets and completed our discovery. After, I lay awake for long hours, content to feel her curled against me. I'd have to call Ma tomorrow, tell her I got tangled up again.
We drove back to Marcie's the next morning. She said I should hang around awhile. I called O'Malley's and got Benny on the line. Told him to cover for me.
Marcie was out running errands, said she'd be back to fix me lunch. I poked around the place. I went through the side door in her kitchen, which led to the garage. It was dark. I felt along the wall for the light switch. No luck. I felt on the other side. Nothing.
I stepped into the darkness, felt something on my face, and jumped back.
A string. The light. I gave it a yank, and two rows of fluorescents flashed to life.
An eight-foot-tall polar bear charged me, its claws outstretched, its mouth twisted into a savage snarl. I stepped back, one arm flung up to ward off the bear, the other hand flying into my jacket, drawing the revolver from my belly holster. I backpedaled toward the kitchen, legs tangling. I fell on my ass, but the pistol was out. I squeezed the trigger three times, dotting the polar bear's chest with a neat triangle of.38 caliber holes. But the bear didn't drop.
As a matter of fact, he didn't budge at all.
Marcie was a taxidermist.
I stood, moved close to the polar bear. Marcie had done a good job. The bear was incredibly lifelike, and she'd fixed the animal with an expression that was likely far more terrifying than nature had ever intended. The bear was a perfect picture of rage. It felt like he was actually mad at me.
I explored the rest of the garage. A large worktable. Tools. Bottles of liquid. Various animal anatomy texts side-by-side with art books, cubism, sculpture. Alien to me. A large freezer took up one corner. It creaked open, and I found an assortment of packages wrapped in butcher's paper. I picked up one about the size of a big ham, turned it over in my hands. In black Magic Marker was written Raccoon.
"Ew." I shivered, dropped the package back into the freezer, and closed it.
God damn ghoulish way to earn a living. Okay, I killed people, but I didn't keep any souvenirs. I looked at the bear again, shook my head, laughed.
I went back in the house, flipped on the television. I made a couple laps around the channels with the remote control but nothing was good. Bored.
I wrote Marcie a note.
Thanks for a nice evening. Sorry I couldn't wait. Work. I'll call you.
That's the thing about Orlando: it wasn't a tall city, but it had a bad dose of the sprawl, creeping out in every direction, soaking up communities like Altamonte and Longwood and places that used to be rural like Sanford and Oveido and even Bithlo. All of Central Florida from Disney to the Space Coast was a snarled clusterfuck of beltways and mini-malls and cookie-cutter housing developments and hotels, hotels, hotels.
In Longwood, I'd managed to find a nice apartment over a two-car garage. It was far enough away from 17-92 that traffic noise was almost obliterated if you turned your TV up loud enough. The lady who owned the garage and adjacent house was about seven hundred years old and hadn't raised the rent once in the eleven years I'd lived there. The house was on a pond that everyone in the neighborhood pretended was a lake so the sign at the entrance to the place could say Lake Potter.
The taxi let me out, and I paid the guy. I took the stairs up the side of the garage and let myself in. The place was just like I'd left it. One chair. One single bed- made, sheets and blanket tucked under the corners. No dishes in the sink and a two-thirds-full bottle of Chivas on the small, round wooden table.
I showered, changed into fresh clothes. Charcoal slacks. Tweed jacket. Muted paisley tie.
I fixed myself a roast beef sandwich, horseradish, tomato, cut it in half- diagonally. A glass of water, no ice. I read the National Geographic while I ate, the one with the story on French Polynesia.
The phone rang.
I picked it up. "Yeah?"
"Stan's looking for you." It was Bob Tate. I could hear the crowd murmur and clink of glasses from O'Malley's behind him.
"I don't know. He seems irritated."
"What did you say to him?"
"I didn't say nothing. He's the boss. He can be irritated if he wants."
"I mean did you tell him where I am?"
"I didn't know where you were."
"You still don't. Understand?"
Bob cleared his throat, made unhappy noises. If he had something to say, I really should have heard him out. Benny and the new guy Morgan- and even Blade when he was alive- usually knew better than to second-guess me, but Bob was next down on the totem pole. He'd seen about as much shit as I had, and believe me, there was plenty to see. Stan's organization was into everything. Numbers, protection, fencing, bookmaking. If there was a dirty buck to be made, Stan was on top of it. And if anybody looked at Stan sideways, he gave us a ring in the back room at O'Malley's. The monkey cage, Stan called it. I'm still not sure why.
Me and Bob and the others were Stan's enforcers. The guys with the guns, the knives, the brass knuckles. The guys with the deep voices and the long shadows. The guys with the heavy footfalls on the stairs late at night. I'd read all that in a dime novel once.
In the years I'd known Bob, he'd been shot three times, stabbed, had his ribs busted with a baseball bat, and been sideswiped by a Toyota. In all honesty, he'd earned the right to speak his mind. He wouldn't bother unless it was important.
But I guess I just wasn't in the mood to listen.
"Tell him I had some personal business, Bob." I cradled the phone against my shoulder, tore the cover off the Geographic and folded it, put it in my pocket.
He cleared his throat again, code for Stan ain't going to like that, but he said, "Sure, Charlie, whatever you say."
I hung up the phone and went downstairs to my Buick Skylark. I didn't want to go back to O'Malley's. I wasn't ready to explain to Stan about Blade, and if I stayed around the apartment he might call.
It only took me a second to think of someplace to go.
I found Marcie on her front porch. She sat on the wooden bench sipping a gin and tonic.
I stopped in front of her, just off the porch. "I shot your bear."
"You what my what?"
"The big stuffed polar bear in the garage," I said. "I shot it. With my gun."
"Why the hell'd you do that?" She stood, balled her little fist.
I shuffled my feet, shoved my hands deep in my pockets. "It sort of startled me."
"My God. A grown man." Marcie stomped into the house trailing obscenities.
I followed but paused in the kitchen. She'd left the door open, so I could hear her growling from the garage. I tossed some ice cubes into a glass and drowned them in gin. I went into the garage.
Marcie fingered the singed fur around the holes in the bear's chest. She frowned at me with every muscle in her face. "Well, that's just great."
"He's not getting any more dead. What's the big deal?"
"This is my work."
"Don't you have some stuff to shove in the holes? Just use some white shoe polish on the burn marks. When the people come to pick it up they'll never notice."
"It's not a job for a client," said Marcie. "It's one of my art pieces."
"And you shot it."
She huffed back into the kitchen, built herself another gin and tonic.
I stayed in the garage, looking up at the bear's snarling mug. "How's this art?" I shouted over my shoulder.
"I wouldn't expect you to understand," she shouted back from the kitchen. "You're an uncouth Neanderthal crap-head."
That seemed a little harsh.
"I have a master's in art from SUNY Buffalo for fuck's sake." She loudly slurped the gin and tonic, sucked ice.
And the bear, the way he looked, seemed angry. Not merely savage like an animal hunting food or defending its territory, but actually angered by some wrong. Like somebody had insulted the bear's shoes. Or kicked his granny down the stairs.
I told this to Marcie, voice raised so she could hear me in the kitchen.
She came back into the garage quietly, her drink leading the way. "He looks angry? Really?"
"Is that wrong?"
"No." She was surprised. "That's what I meant. I was going for angry."
"When people bring in an animal for me to mount, I try to give each piece an expression that matches the owner's. It's hard to give animals human emotions. Most people don't think they can love or hate or be angry like people. But the bear's mine. I wanted him to look angry."
"So this is your art, huh?"
She laughed, put her hand on my arm. "I can't exactly claim my work is wildly popular." She kissed me on the cheek. "But thanks for getting it."
I wasn't sure I was getting it, but I was glad she wasn't yelling at me anymore.
On a whim, I fished out the folded-up picture of paradise, the cover of the National Geographic, and showed it to her. "Let's go here sometime."
"Why not? Doesn't everyone want to go someplace like that? The beach. Palm trees."
"Who gives a shit about palm trees?"
"Who gives a- are you kidding? Look at the picture. It's paradise."
"I want to see pyramids."
"Or Mexico," said Marcie. "We could go to Acapulco. They have beaches and pyramids both."
I slipped an arm around her waist. "Well, that's one idea, I guess. I'll take it under advisement."
"Are you staying here tonight?" she asked.
We drank our drinks and stood for a while looking at her angry polar bear.
In the morning, Marcie got a call for a taxidermy job and took the Volvo to pick up a dead pelican.
I put last night's plates in the dishwasher and cleaned up the kitchen. That took fourteen minutes. I made the bed. Three minutes. I showered, shaved and dressed. Twenty-one minutes.
I had a cup of coffee.
I had some guns in the trunk of my car, fetched them out. I took the Belgian.308 apart and cleaned it and the Browning automatics too, even though I hadn't fired them, and they were spotless. I did a quick inventory of my ammunition. I had a hundred.308 shells and two hundred.45 rounds including what was in the spare clips. I had eighteen bullets for the.38 revolver. I drank another cup of coffee.
Time to call Ma.
I dialed her number, and she answered after four rings. She was happy to hear from me, then immediately bawled me out for not calling sooner. She filled my ear with news of aunts and distant cousins.
"Ma, you didn't want me to call just to tell me Aunt Nora was having her gall bladder out, did you?"
"It's Danny," said Ma. "Your brother's making me crazy."
"He's a Swift. Comes with the territory."
"I know, and I'm probably worrying over nothing. You know, if your father were still alive-"
"I know, Ma."
"Sometimes, he needs a man to talk to. I do my best."
"Come over. I'll cook for you."
"Soon." I cleared my throat. "I've met somebody."
There was a pause. "Oh?"
"She's nice. Smart. Has a master's degree from college."
"Well, be careful, Charlie."
I fought down my irritation. "Why would I need to be careful?"
"I know you're an adult, of course." She lightened her tone and put a chuckle into her voice. "It's just that no one's good enough for my baby."
"She's good enough. Maybe too good."
"Let me know when you're coming."
We made our goodbyes, and I hung up the phone.
I poured a third cup of coffee. It was 8:41 A.M.
I picked up the phone. No more stalling. Marcie had her work, and I had mine. Vacations were nice, but I was a professional. Stan picked up after seven rings.
"Hi, Boss," I said. "You've been looking for me?"
P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com