Chapter 21


TWENTY-ONE

To hell with all this.

What did Stan expect? What did he think I could do? All I wanted was to find him and help him, make sure he got away okay. Stan had delusions that he could get back on top again. I didn't want to think of the old man as slipping, as losing his mind, but he wasn't facing reality. I was. In my reality, the best I could do was save my own neck, go off someplace with Marcie and maybe have a life. I went in the house.

Inside, the faint sulfur of gunfire still hung in the air.

As I was putting on another pot of coffee, the urgent, panicked thought that Lloyd Mercury was in the house washed over me. I froze, listening for some sign of him. Instantly, I felt ridiculous. I wasn't used to fear getting me like that, crawling under my skin. It was a new feeling, and I didn't like it.

I poured coffee. Drank. Thought. Frowned.

Soon Mercury would come for me. Or maybe he'd send men. And if he found me like this, beat up, one handed, I'd be toast in two seconds flat. I wouldn't catch him by surprise again, and I wasn't good enough to take him straight out. It hurt to admit that, but, again, I was facing reality. Beggar Johnson paid top dollar for his hired killers. The plan: pack up and run.

I rolled the plan around on my tongue and swallowed it. Digested it.

Okay. Enough with the horseshit. It was go time.

I wasn't going to bother going back to my apartment for my packed suitcase, but Ma's spare luggage was too flowery. I found a Nike tote bag in Danny's closet. I had a few articles of clothing around Ma's house, some T-shirts and jeans. I twisted the silencer off the.32 automatic and packed both along with the knives. I threw in the empty.410 pistol and kept the loaded one in my pea coat in case I wanted to shoot down a jumbo jet.

Now I had to make things permanent. This wasn't a vacation trip I was leaving on. Ma wasn't coming back. I wasn't coming back. I never wanted to be within Beggar's reach again. I wanted to go someplace nobody knew me. The big start-over.

Finish.

Shopping.

At Joey's Gun & Outdoor Supply, I bought a hundred rounds of.32 ammunition and a black leather shoulder holster. I didn't see any kind of holster which could possibly accommodate the Minelli revolvers, but I got a hundred.410 shells. I pondered over the various kinds of shot, wondering at the different patterns, maybe something good for blasting away into a crowd, but I decided I didn't know anything about it. Besides, I liked the way the enormous lead slugs tore through everything in their paths.

My next stop was ABC Liquor. I bought twelve bottles of the absolute cheapest and most alcoholic brandy they had.

My hand hurt. I broke a pain pill in half. Took it dry.

Thirty minutes later, I was half-loopy but still able to function.

Supermarket: Candles. Kitchen matches. Charcoal lighter fluid. Rubbing alcohol. Cigarettes.

I took all my shopping back to the house. I found a dusty ashtray under the kitchen sink, cleaned it, and put it in the living room on the lamp stand next to the empty liquor cabinet. When Dad had been alive, it was kept full of Cutty Sark. I lit three of the cigarettes and set them in the ashtray to burn. I opened ten of the brandy bottles and emptied them onto the carpeting around the lamp stand, poured a trail to the drapes, dumped the remains into Dad's chair. It was old and would burn well.

I pulled my car out of the garage and parked it on the street. Back in the garage I dumped the bag of old rags under the barbecue grill. I emptied the charcoal lighter fluid onto the rags, let them soak. I relocated anything even remotely flammable next to the grill. I thought about the Halloween costumes Danny had when he was a kid but was sure they'd been thrown out long ago.

In the kitchen, I turned on all the stove burners.

I was using my injured hand too much. I took the other half of the pain pill.

Upstairs I made sure I had everything I wanted, went downstairs, put the Nike tote in the trunk of the Buick.

Back inside: I threw an apron and two hand towels on the stove burners. Into the living room, struck a fistful of the kitchen matches and scattered them on the carpet. The brandy caught. I watched for a moment as the flames spread, crawled toward the curtains, leapt up the wall.

I grabbed the National Geographic with Amber's number on the cover. I also found the jacket I'd worn home from the hospital and grabbed it too. An envelope fell out of the pocket. It was the piece of mail that had been in Ma's mailbox. I stuck it in my back pocket.

I left the house through the garage, paused to drop a match on the rags.

I got in the Buick and drove a block away, parked, got out of the car, and watched.

It wasn't much of an arson job, but I'd avoided using gasoline or something else obvious. Maybe it would pass muster. Maybe not. Ma was insured.

It didn't look like much at first, but then the smoke came. Some windows popped out. Flames lapped from within. I couldn't have explained to anyone why this was a good idea, but I knew it was. Fire, the great cleanser. Pushing me forward, burning bridges behind.

Neighbors came out of their houses. I didn't wait for the sirens. I cranked up the car, drove.

I'd been fucking up in every direction, starting with the stupid way I'd handled the Rollo Kramer job and what I'd done with Sanchez. What I was doing now might not have been smart, but it was decisive. Permanent. No going back. Stan had always said lead, follow, or get out of the way, but do something. I laughed at the burning house. This was something all right.

I took another pain pill.

Maybe I hadn't done a damn thing right, but I was sure as hell giving myself a clean slate.

And Ma was better off in Michigan. The house wasn't safe anymore. I didn't want her there by herself. And it was full of papers, photo albums, a trail. I couldn't have anyone coming after me or using Ma to try to find me. Maybe my solution was a little harsh.

I giggled.

A song running around my brain, the one 'bout the lion sleeping in the jungle.

The pain pills, I realized. I was off my rocker.

The Tokens, that was group. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." I hummed it loud.

I put about five miles between me and the fire, then pulled into a gas station to fill up. I reached into my back pocket for my wallet and came out with the letter. I took a good look at it for the first time. It didn't have a stamp or a postmark. There wasn't even an address, just CHARLIE SWIFT on the front in block letters. I tore it open and read.

Mr. Swift,

You've made things very difficult for me and my friends. I want those accounting ledgers, and I want them soon. Your brother wouldn't cooperate, but the young lady was more forthcoming. We convinced her to tell us everything she knew. We know the ledgers are in a locker someplace. Call me at Jeffers's home and tell me where, and I promise no harm will come to young Amber. I don't know what she is to you, but I believe she's very important to your brother. Try anything foolish, and you won't see her again. Believe me, Swift, I'm at the end of my rope, so don't push me. Just do what you're told. I'll be waiting for your phone call.

┬ĘC Tina

My heart dropped into my stomach. I ran to the car and got the National Geographic with Amber's phone number. I found a pay phone quickly and dialed. Sixteen rings, no answer. I looked her up in the phonebook, scribbled down the address.

I fractured every known traffic law getting to Amber's apartment complex. Her place was on the second floor. I ran up the stairs three at a time. A yellow strip of police tape stretched across her door. I tore it down and went inside.

Inside, a few sticks of furniture overturned. A dark stain in the center of the carpet. The place was small, so I went through it fast. Nobody there. I sat on the couch, flexing my sore hand and thinking hard.

I picked up the phone and called Burt Remington. His answering machine came on after four rings, and I hung up without leaving a message. I tried him at the police station, and the operator put me through to his desk.

"I've been trying to call you," said Burt. "Did you know your brother's in the hospital?"

"He's alive?"

"In bad shape, but yeah."

I melted against the couch with relief. "What happened, Burt?"

"It was at his girlfriend's place."

"Amber," I said. "I'm here now."

"You're not supposed to be there. It's a crime scene. It's sealed."

"Can it, Burt. I want to know what fucking happened."

"Okay. Calm down. The neighbors heard gunshots and phoned us. A patrol car went over to investigate, and they found Danny on the floor. The apartment door was wide open. Danny'd been shot, and he was bleeding pretty bad. The officers at the scene phoned for the paramedics, and he was taken to County General. He's there now. I'm told he's recovering okay."

"I'm on my way."

"Whoa, Charlie, hold on. That might not be good for you to be seen around there."

"Is he under arrest or something?"

"No. He had this enormous fucking gun, but it was purchased legally and registered, so it's a straight case of self-defense."

I'll be damned. "Then what's the problem?"

"Well, nobody believes it was a simple break-in. I managed to call off my boys, but the Feds are a different story. Agent Dunn keeps showing up around Danny's room. I think he's hoping to catch you there. Dunn is crazy pissed. There's been some strange, bad shit going on."

"I'll worry about Dunn."

"Charlie?"

"What is it, Burt?"

"What's going to happen?"

"Don't worry," I said. "It's all going to be over soon."

Danny opened his eyes, saw me, and grinned weakly. He had the usual array of tubes in his arms. I'd sent the nurse out so I could talk to him.

I said, "Hey, Bro."

"Hey." His voice was barely above a whisper.

"What happened?"

"They came in so quick." Danny swallowed hard, closed his eyes. "I had my gun out, fired." He shook his head. "It was no good. I didn't even know what was happening."

"How many?"

"Three. I'm not sure. It was all confused. Three, I think."

"One was a woman, sharp features, short black hair?"

"Yes."

Tina.

"Do you remember anything?" I asked.

"They shot me, Charlie. I was so scared. I thought I was going to die."

A lump rose in my throat. "I know. I'm sorry. Try to remember."

"I was trying to stay awake, trying to get up and help. Amber was-"

"Go on. It's okay."

"She was screaming. Oh God, screaming and begging for them to let her go. The woman said they'd take her someplace out of the way. She said it wasn't safe to stay in Orlando."

"Where?"

"I don't know. Oh, God."

"It's okay, Danny." I grabbed his hand, squeezed.

"You've got to get her back, Charlie."

"I will."

Tears streamed from the corners of his eyes. "Please. You've got to find her, get her back for me. I'm begging you."

"I will," I said. "I'll find her. I'll fix everything."

Outside the hospital room, I found a water fountain. My hands shook, breathing turned heavy. Danny. My brother. Almost dead.

I took a pill, found the elevator, went down.

In the parking lot, Agent Dunn stood next to my Buick waiting for me. I stopped in front of him, and we looked at each other for a second. He lit a cigarette, puffed.

"I'm getting pretty damn tired of never knowing what the hell's going on," he said.

"Sorry."

"I told you to get out of town."

"I've been trying."

"Maybe I should take you downtown, question you there."

"I don't have time for that," I said. "How about I make you an offer?"

He gave me a curious look. "Like what?"

"Like maybe I help you solve some of your problems."

"Really? This is just absolutely fucking fascinating. And what are my problems per se?"

"You've got three rogue agents for one thing," I said.

"It's only one now. We found two of them shot, but you wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

I shrugged. "I know I can get Beggar Johnson's accounting ledgers for you."

That made him stop puffing his cigarette.

"Where are they?" he asked.

"That's not how it works. You've got to get out of my way and let me do what I need to do. I'll send you the books. Beggar's no friend of mine. Put him in jail, or don't. It's all the same to me. But I don't have time to mess with you right now."

He considered, then stepped aside. "Sure. Why not?"

I got in my Buick, but he grabbed the door before I could close it. "I'm not going along with this because I trust you. I don't. I'm going along with this because this case is already so fucked up, I don't see how it could hurt." He handed me a business card. "But if you're on the level, I can be reached at this number."

I took it, and he stepped back. I closed the door and drove away.

I went back to Amber's apartment complex, parked the Buick, and grabbed my tote bag. I'd made sure to park as far away from Amber's apartment as possible. I was a little tired of people following me, and I wanted to finish my business without any of Beggar's men or the Feds on my tail.

I zigzagged my way through the buildings and found Danny's Impala. I threw my luggage in the backseat and found the keys under the floor mat.

I'd been holding the steering wheel too tight from stress, and it made my hand hurt. I wanted another pill bad. I resisted and drove.

I knocked on Jeffers's door, but he didn't answer. His Lexus was in the driveway, so I tried again. Tired of waiting. I tried the knob. It turned, and I pushed my way in. Nobody in this town locked up anymore.

In the hall, I passed a bathroom. A radio sat on the back of the toilet, country music, turned up loud. I kept walking.

Into the kitchen. A little TV on the counter blared I Love Lucy at me. Whaaaaaa, Ricky!

I remembered where his office was. Jeffers wasn't in it, but his stereo was up almost all the way. Steve Miller Band blaring "Jungle Love."

The living room, another TV. This time MSNBC's constant flow of misery. The Middle East blah blah blah. Washington blah blah blah. The economy blah blah blah.

I felt another giggle stirring in my gut, looking to rear its ugly head. I pushed it down. Not now. Find Jeffers.

In the corner of my eye, I caught a little flash of movement through the French doors leading out back. My hand drifted into the pocket of the pea coat, closed around the butt of my Minelli cannon. I ducked behind a curtain, looked through the French doors to the backyard. Jeffers had a pool, and I wondered if I was walking in on the Sunset Boulevard scene with Jeffers facedown in the pool like William Holden.

Jeffers stood stripped to the waist. He was sagging and pale, a few tennis muscles covered by a layer of prosperity. His back was to me. He danced a silly, drunken middle-aged dance. A little portable radio sat next to an empty gin bottle. Jeffers was having a little party for himself. The radio and gin bottle perched on a glass table with a mirror and a mound of white powder.

Jeffers was barefoot, and his slacks were soaked to the knees, where he'd evidently braved the first step or two into the swimming pool. I turned down the TV, so I could hear what he was dancing to. Some oldies bubble-gum pop.

I opened the French doors and stepped outside. I kept my fist around the Minelli cannon but didn't haul it out.

Jeffers heard somebody behind him and spun quickly.

"Tina?"

"Nope."

He looked terrible, dark heavy bags under the eyes, skin sallow and clammy. His hair was a matted, greasy mess. I didn't believe he'd bathed recently or gotten much sleep. I assumed the tumbler of clear liquid in his fist was gin.

His glassy, bloodshot eyes focused on me with effort. "It's you."

"It's me."

"Where've you been, for Christ's sake?"

The song on the radio segued into "Sugar Shack."

I decided Jeffers wouldn't appreciate all of the real and gritty drama in its entirety, so I boiled it down for him.

"I'm looking for Tina."

"She was looking for you too," said Jeffers. He was looking dead at me but not focusing too well. "She got tired of waiting and left."

"To go where?"

"Oh, my God. Oh, oh, oooooh." He trailed off into a sad, throaty moan and slumped into the lawn chair next to the table.

"Jeffers."

"I've messed it all up," he said. "Oh, God why can't I die? Look at me. How come I don't die?" He started crying, a long, high-pitched feeble blubbering.

"Knock it off," I said. "Answer my question."

He kept on crying and groped for the mirror with the cocaine. He curled his arm around it lovingly, drew it to him, pushed his face down into the powder.

"Stop that."

He sniffed, tears dropping from his face at the same time, clumping in the white powder. He pressed his whole face into it, snorting and crying and writhing, coughing out sobs and sniffing in the powder when he could take a breath.

"Stop that. You look like a retard. Stop it."

"I need it." Sniff.

"You don't need it. This isn't helping."

"I need it, need need need it. Oooooh, please oh please." His face was still down on the table. He scooped the powder onto him with both hands, into his eyes, mouth, on his cheeks like he was trying to burrow into it, hide like an ostrich.

I grabbed him under the arms, pulled him out of the chair.

He went limp, dead weight, cried at full volume like an infant. His skin was slippery. I pulled him to the edge of the pool, dropped him. Moans.

"Sorry about this," I said.

I dunked him into the cold water. In and out, in and out. I kept that up for a while until he shouted at me between dunks.

"Okay, okay. Stop."

I pulled him away from the pool, let him lie on the grass. He was still crying, just a little, but it wasn't the out-of-control tantrum like before. He was spent now, defeated, but I could talk to him.

"Oh, Tina. I wish Tina were here."

"Me too," I said. "She could make us some coffee."

"She was so much more than a coffee maker."

Whatever.

"Oh, God, where is everybody?"

"I don't know." I turned one of the pool chairs around, sat looking down at him lying sprawled on the grass, eyes crunched up, lips pulled back in a feral grimace. "Tina's undercover FBI, you know."

Jeffers picked his head up, looked at me like I was Sherlock Holmes or a Martian or God. "How did you know about that?"

"Just tell me where you think she might have gone." You dumb shit.

"I don't know I don't know I don't know." He shook his head back and forth in the grass as he spoke.

"Guess."

"She just left. Went away and never came back. I need her."

"You don't need her. Straighten up and think for a minute, will you?"

"She said she had a plan. She said we'd get the money and leave this place, just be together, her and me."

Deluded asshole.

"They fired me from the bank," said Jeffers. "Froze my accounts."

There was a lot of that going around.

"Where's Tina's room?" I asked.

"Tina's gone. Gone gone gone gone-"

"Where's her room!"

"Past my office. All the way at the end of the hall."

I left Jeffers on the grass, found Tina's room.

She'd cleaned it out quickly. Naked hangers in the closet along with a suitcase-sized emptiness between some old boxes. Nothing helpful in the boxes. Her dresser drawers were empty. I looked under the bed. Nothing there. I kicked over the wastepaper basket near the bed, and a stack of papers fell out. Credit card bills. Visa. Sears. Phone bills. Junk mail.

I went back into the kitchen, rummaged the fridge and found a can of light beer. My hand hurt again. It was too soon to take another pain pill. I took one anyway, washed it down with the beer. I took a stool. Sat there. Thought. Scratched my head. Drank the beer.

I went back to Tina's room and picked the old phone bill out of the trash can. There were no local calls listed. I guess they'd be on Jeffers's bill. This statement was for a calling card. Tina had made twenty-two calls to Spring City, Tennessee.

I went back to Jeffers. He was passed out. I shook him awake, and he opened his eyes flinching at the daylight.

"What is it?"

"Did Tina ever say anything about Tennessee?"

"She has some family there, I think. A brother? Tom. Yeah. Good old Brother Tom."

"Get straight," I advised him. "Go someplace. Do you have a relative you can stay with? A brother or something?"

"I don't know. Let me think."

"Don't think too long. Agent Dunn might lose his patience and come for you here. Lay low for a while or don't. Whatever. I'm going. I have work to do."

"No."

"No what?"

"Please." He started misting up again. "Don't leave me. Please. I can't die. I'm trying to die, but I won't die."

"You'll die," I said.

"I used to be a banker." He started crying again.

"We all used to be something."

On the way back through the house, I used Jeffers's phone, called the airlines, asked questions, wrote down the appropriate information. Then I called Marcie at her hotel room.

"Charlie!" She practically shouted into the phone. "I'm getting pretty God damn tired of sitting in this hotel room."

"Shut up and listen. There's a flight leaving for Acapulco in fifty-one minutes. Go get a ticket."

"What about you?"

"I'll catch up when I can."

"When?"

"Maybe a day. Maybe two."

Maybe never.

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