After my shower, I tended my hand, fresh bandages. I needed to be alert, so I couldn't risk a pain pill. Instead, I swallowed a half-dozen aspirin. I put on jeans, a tan pullover, and fished my navy pea coat out of the closet. I hadn't bothered with the thermostat, and the house held a deep chill.
I dialed the Hilton and asked for Marcie Kramer's room.
"Where have you been?" Marcie's voice blared harsh through the phone. She didn't sound sleepy at all, more like she'd been awake, waiting.
"I got tied up."
"I tried to call. It rang like a million times."
"Sorry." I must have been zonked on the pain pills. I was just lucky to come around enough to hear the break-in. "Listen, stay put, okay?"
"What about you?"
"I have to clean up some things here."
We made some goodbye noises at each other and hung up.
I tore the tags out of two sets of sheets and wrapped up the Minelli brothers. The blood started soaking through right away, except for Teddy, because I'd choked him. I cut up a whole box of garbage bags and wrapped the bodies in a second layer in plastic.
I searched the whole house and garage, but couldn't find any duct tape. I wished vaguely Marcie was there to help with the bodies. She was a good hand.
I put each brother over my shoulder and carried them to the alley one at a time. Freddy'd left the sedan keys in the ignition. I grabbed them, unlocked the trunk, and filled it full of Minelli.
The blood on the kitchen floor was the worst of the mess. I mopped quickly, then threw the mop and bucket in the trunk with the boys. The rest of the mess would keep for later.
My guns were still missing in action, so I gathered up the two.410 cannons the Minellis had carried and educated myself. They were olive-green revolvers with one-inch barrels. Each held six.410 shotgun shells, solid lead slugs. They'd put a good hole in a guy, but really they were pretty stupid guns. Still, I didn't have any more ammunition for the.32 automatic with the silencer, so I put one of the cannons in each front pocket of the pea coat. They hung heavy, looked suspicious.
I filled a to-go cup with the rest of the coffee and drove the sedan to a shopping center twelve miles away. I pulled around back, parked, made sure no one was around. I heaved the bodies into the Dumpster, closed the lid, looked around again. All clear. So long Eddie, Freddy, and Teddy.
I'd spent a lot of time lately dumping bodies, and I wasn't happy about it.
Dawn cracked over the horizon.
I pointed the sedan toward downtown Orlando.
Mercury had sent the Minelli boys to put the snatch on the ledgers and put a couple of.410 slugs into my much-loved and tender body. It was my intention to get some answers out of him by any means possible. And Stan. I had to know about Stan.
I stopped at a gas station, bought a small can, filled it with unleaded.
I drove downtown and parked on the street in front of Mercury's club, Red Sky, where the punk kids came to knock against each other and call it dancing. I emptied the gas can into the backseat, punched in the car's cigarette lighter. When it popped, I grabbed it and tossed it in the backseat. The gas caught immediately, and the car went up in flames. I put my hands in my pockets and walked away like it was none of my business.
Faces came to shop windows. A couple big gorillas in shiny wise-guy suits stepped out of the club and watched the car burn. I ducked down the alley and headed for the back of the club. Behind me, I heard the car explode. In the distance, a woman screamed.
In the alley behind the club, I found the back door to the place. I'd been here dozens of times before, when Stan had sent me to collect protection from the club's old owner, so I knew the layout of the place fairly well.
I didn't want to walk in on a party, so I pulled over an empty metal trash can and used it to boost myself up and look in Mercury's office window. It was empty. I pushed at the glass, but the window was locked. I climbed down and drew back a foot, ready to kick in the door, but I stopped myself. I tried the knob. It was open. I pushed the door in with an ugly metallic squeal of hinges.
Nobody came to investigate.
The office was like I remembered it, and if Mercury had any ideas for decorating the place, he hadn't implemented them yet. I searched the room, the top of his desk, not thoroughly, just to see if anything looked important. Nothing did. I scouted behind the heavy curtain that hid the bar. That would be my spot.
Sirens in the distance, fire trucks.
I cracked open the door, looked down the hall past the restrooms into the club. There wasn't much to see. The sirens were right in front of the club now. I heard footsteps at the far end of the hall, so I closed the door. I took my place behind the curtain, drew one of the Minelli cannons, and stood ready.
Three hoods shuffled into the room with Mercury. I watched them from the crack in the curtain. I'd been doing a lot of sneaking around lately. The hoods were typical low-forehead bruisers: polo shirts, bellies hanging over chinos, gold chains. Fifty-dollar haircuts on ten-dollar heads. The bulges under their windbreakers made them dangerous.
Only Lloyd Mercury stood out, lithe and sharp, straight and lean as a knife blade. He moved with the graceful and deadly precision of a jungle cat.
One said, "Hey boss, let's get a drink. How 'bout a pitcher of Bloody Marys? Me and Lenny had a late night." I saw him start for my spot.
My heart stopped a second to see what was going on. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
"Don't even start," Mercury told his henchman. "I need you straight when the Minelli brothers arrive. Freddy didn't quite sound right on the phone. I have a strange feeling."
"What about that fire?"
"I don't know. Vandals. Kids maybe?"
"It just seems kind of funny, that's all."
Mercury scratched his chin. "Okay. You and Dale stay out front and watch the street. Lenny, check the kitchen. And leave the box here."
The one called Lenny handed Mercury a metal box, which he in turn put in the bottom drawer of his desk. The box looked just big enough to hold twenty thousand if the bills were large. My escape money.
When Mercury's boys had gone, I stepped out from behind the curtain and made sure Mercury saw I was pointing a gun at him.
He startled maybe a tenth of a second before a slow, thin smile spread across his face. "Hello, Swift."
"Let's keep it quiet. We need to have a little conversation without Lenny and the others."
"If you like."
"Get your hands on the desk."
He put them on the desk, palms down.
I backed up to the door, looked in the hall. All clear. I closed it again and locked it.
"Tell me about Alan Jeffers."
"What about him?"
"Don't fuck with me. I already killed three guys this morning."
He nodded, looked at me carefully. "You got the Minelli brothers." It wasn't a question.
I shrugged. "It got messy."
"Who was that on the phone?"
I saw him thinking, then his smile grew. "Well played."
"Jeffers," I prompted.
"What's to tell?"
"Tell it like a little story. I want details."
He shrugged, keeping his hands on the desk, fingers spread. "Once upon a time there was a crime boss named Beggar Johnson. He had an accountant write columns of numbers of everything he did illegally into little books. One of Beggar's men-at-arms- Myron- betrayed him. The evil FBI had cast a spell over Myron to snatch the books away from Arthur."
"Arthur Angus," said Mercury. "Beggar's accountant."
That explained the initials A. A. on the briefcase. "Keep talking."
"So this disloyal Myron person made off with the secret books to the faraway land of Orlando, where he sought refuge with his kinsman, Kyle Donovan, owner and operator of the dubious establishment known as Toppers. Here he was to meet with federal agents to turn over his prize and keep himself out of the terrible big house."
"I asked you about Jeffers."
"Patience." Mercury's smile never budged. "I'm getting to him."
"The FBI, being creatures of habit, cast the same spell over Alan Jeffers that they cast over Myron. They told Jeffers he couldn't very well be able to enjoy his house and his nice car and his time-share in Boca or be able to put his MBA from Rutgers to any good use if he landed himself in a federal penitentiary. To appease the government men, Jeffers promised to sacrifice these books once they came into his possession."
"I know all this already."
"Indeed. But did you know that the FBI agents who cornered Jeffers and threatened him with jail were in fact suspended?"
"What do you mean?"
"Suspended," repeated Mercury. "From duty. It seems they were under suspicion for taking bribes. They figured, I think, that their careers as G-men were over, and decided to fund their retirement by extorting money from Beggar. Their names are-"
"Styles and Novak," I said.
Mercury's smile faltered only a second. "I underestimated you, Mr. Swift. I see you're keeping abreast of current events."
"I get around."
"Then you probably know the name of the third officer who was suspended."
I frowned, decided to take a guess. "Dunn."
Mercury laughed. "That Boy Scout? Hardly. I see you don't quite have all the details, do you?"
"Why don't you fill me in?"
"I believe you remember Jeffers's attractive assistant Tina."
My eyes went big. "She's an agent?"
"She weaseled her way into Jeffers's good graces as part of a legitimate undercover investigation. Once she learned there was a buck to be made from blackmailing Beggar, she conned Styles and Novak into going along with her. They figured Beggar would pay a cool million to stay out of jail and keep his organization intact."
That explained just about everything. If Tina and her chums were running a sting on Jeffers, then she wouldn't have told Dunn about my bringing the books that morning. That's why Dunn didn't search my car or demand the books, didn't even ask me about them. And Jeffers thought Tina, Styles, and Novak represented the FBI. He'd hand the books right over to Tina if he could just get his hands on them. He'd be too afraid to do anything else.
"You look a little worried," said Mercury.
"I'm just figuring some things out."
"You don't like my story?"
"Keep going. You're telling it good."
"There's really not that much more to it," said Mercury. "Except for one small matter. Beggar still doesn't have his ledgers. You have them. This will not do."
"What do you propose we do about it?"
"In this desk is a metal box," said Beggar. "In the metal box is twenty thousand dollars in cash. It was meant for the Minelli brothers. They are no longer in a position to spend it. How about I hand it over to you?"
"In exchange for what?"
"Two things." He held up one finger. "First, you immediately hand over those accounting ledgers. We can tuck them in a nice safe spot and finally stop worrying about them." He held up another finger. "Second, you leave town. We don't care where you go, but go far and don't come back. Beggar doesn't want any of Stan's old crew cluttering up the place."
I looked at him a second, still pointing the gun. Lloyd Mercury was one slick number. And because of that I didn't trust him, not an inch. He'd put a slug in my back the first chance he got in spite of whatever agreement we made now. And I never forgot for a second what Bob Tate looked like with that bullet hole in his head. Mercury had done that, or at least ordered it.
"No deal," I said. "But since I'm the one holding the gun, I guess I'll take that metal box anyway."
The doorknob rattled. Mercury and I both froze, looked at each other.
A knock. "Boss? What's up?" Lenny.
Mercury's smug smile widened just a little.
Lenny tried the knob again. "Hey, boss."
Mercury was so fast, I wasn't even sure what was happening at first. He heaved out of his seat, grabbing my wrists, pointing the gun away from him. "Lenny!" he yelled.
The door creaked with impact. A shoulder or a boot trying to bust it down.
I twisted away from Mercury, aimed at the center of the door and fired. The.410 slug bullied through the door, splintered wood, left a hole the size of a softball. I heard a groan on the other side, the thud of impact as a body slid against the door and to the floor. I looked at the gun. Not bad.
Mercury flipped his desk over at me. I stepped back, fired twice more. Huge chunks of desk exploded into the air as dust and splinters. My new favorite gun.
Feet pounded down the hall. Gunfire. Bullets ripped through the door, whizzed past my ears.
Time to go.
I fired the last three shots to buy a little time as I stepped through the back door. Two into the hall door, one into the desk. I didn't think I hit anything, but the gun made a fine racket. I stuffed the spent revolver into the pea coat and ran full speed down the alley. I took the first turn. Zigged. Zagged. A look over my shoulder. Nobody following. The bus station was five blocks away, and there were always a couple of cabs out front.
I ducked into the station, approached a long line of pay phones. The bus station was deserted, only the guy behind the window was there, and he seemed more interested in CNN on his little television.
I needed some help and thought of Jimmy. Maybe he was still in town. I dropped in the coins, dialed his number.
It rang and rang and rang.
The cab dropped me at Ma's. I kicked at the dust on the sidewalk for a moment, shoved my hands in my pockets. I looked both ways. The neighborhood was dead still, no kids playing, no dogs or birds, nothing.
I walked toward the house and froze at the bottom of the steps. Someone sat in the front porch swing. I went for my gun but stopped, hand on the pistol butt. For a second I thought I was imagining him, looking at a ghost.
He sat with his hands folded in his lap.
He stood. I took a step back.
"How's it going, kid?"
Anger and confusion and relief all mixed together. He stood there like the last couple of days were nothing. "I've been looking everyplace for you."
He just started talking like we were back in the monkey cage. "I got a job for you, Charlie. You up for it?"
"Up for it?" I blinked at him. "Up for what?"
"I got a job for you."
"Stan, where have you been? What's going on?"
It was like he was looking right past me, putting on some crime-boss act instead of just being Stan. Like he was spilling out lines he'd rehearsed in the mirror.
"I need you to give those books to me," he said. "Once I have those books, I'm in the clear. Beggar won't dare move in on Orlando. I'll have him by the fucking balls." He handed me a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. "You call me at that number when you get the books. You're a good kid, Charlie. I know you been saving those books for me."
Was he out of his mind? Bob Tate was dead. And Benny and Sanchez. Cartwright too. Jimmy had skipped town. There was nothing left to Stan except old bones. He was an empty suit, a king without a kingdom. "Stan, I've been looking all over to find you, but there's nothing left. Orlando is over for us. I'm sorry."
From somewhere in his little frame, he tapped a store of rage. "You listen to me, Hogan. Nothing's over till I say it's over! Get it? Now are you with me or against me?"
"Dammit, answer me. It's a simple question. I need to know who's on my side."
"What's it going to be?" he shouted.
"Stan, I'm not Thumbs Hogan."
"You called me Hogan. Thumbs has been dead for years."
"No, I didn't." He wasn't shouting now. He stared at me, half-confused. "I didn't do that. What are you saying? You saying I don't know what I'm talking about?"
"No, Stan." I felt sick in my gut. "My mistake."
"You call that number." He turned and suddenly seemed weak and small as he hobbled down the porch steps. "I'll be waiting."
He walked down the street half a block and climbed into a red Pontiac. His driver was waiting.
I stood still, watched the car glide away through the neighborhood, turn and vanish through the trees, back the way it had come, maybe all the way to back to 1955 when Stan had a straight back and a strong voice and a head full of hair, back when his word was law.
I thought about what he'd said to me. It didn't matter, a conversation between two people who didn't exist anymore.
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