Stan had watched everyone go, watched Beggar glide out like the angel of doom back to his ivory tower. I told Lou to lock up then take a hike. Stan's driver-bodyguard waited in Stan's Fleetwood, so it was just me and him sitting around the Monopoly table in the monkey cage.
"Get a bottle," he said.
"Whatever. Bring two glasses."
I fetched a bottle of Chivas, straddled my chair backwards. I leaned forward, filled each glass a third full.
He sipped. I sipped. We sat.
Finally he said, "You heard all that?"
"How do you size it up? The situation."
"They're handing you a big shit sandwich," I said.
Stan nodded. Smiled. Not a happy smile. A might-as-well-get-used-to-taking-it-up-the-ass smile. "You have a good way with words, Charlie. Charlie the Hook. Anybody still call you that?"
He scratched his head. "How'd you get that nickname? Been so long, I forgot."
"I killed a man with a boat hook once."
He chuckled. "Oh yeah." He'd been forgetting a lot lately.
He finished the Chivas, coughed a little. "I don't really drink anymore. Eighty-one years old. Believe that shit? All I've lived through, and it's drinking and smoking and cholesterol and shit I have to worry about. Fuck."
"But tonight-" He tapped his glass. I poured it a third full again. "- tonight I need a drink."
He drank. I drank. We still sat.
I cleared my throat some, kind of looked at him.
"Go ahead and ask," he said.
"What do we do?"
"Right now we do nothing. We toe the line. You know Kyle Donovan?"
Not personally, but I'd been listening on the wire. "Owns a titty bar called Toppers on Orange Blossom Trail. He answers to you?"
"He's pretty far down the food chain," said Stan. "He answers to people who pay me for the honor of doing business in my neighborhood."
"Who do you want me to take along?"
"Who do you need?"
I only thought a second. "Bob and Benny to cover the doors. I'll go in myself after hours. I'll leave New Guy to watch out for things here."
"New Guy? Who the fuck's that?"
"Lou Morgan. The huge guy. Muscles."
"Don't worry about that. I want you to call Benny and Bob. I want you taking care of this tonight before Beggar heads back for Miami."
"What's that? Some kind of problem?"
"No problem, Stan."
"Good. Nobody gets out. Got it? If it moves, it's dead."
"I got it."
"Now listen, Charlie. This is the important part. There's a black, eel-skin briefcase with the initials A. A. Combination locked. Grab it. Turn the place inside out if you have to but put the snatch on it top priority, capiche? Beggar wants the case taken to Alan Jeffers."
Stan explained Jeffers was the twitchy coke-head that worked for Beggar. Beggar's blond gunman was a cat named Lloyd Mercury.
I said, "I understand. What's in the case?"
"What the fuck you care what's in the case? Just get it."
"Shit, what a fucking night. Look, forget I snapped. I'm a cranky old man, right?"
"No problem, Stan."
"I got to go. I'm trusting you to take care of this."
We said our goodbyes. From the window I watched him bend his old-man body into the Fleetwood.
As I was dialing Benny's number, I thought that Stan still hadn't asked where Blade Sanchez had vanished to. Maybe he had a reason for not asking. When you asked questions, you risked getting answers.
Benny answered after four rings. "Yeah?" He didn't sound sleepy. Night owl.
"Put your fun hat on," I told him. "We got work."
At a quarter to five, me and Benny and Bob waited in a black mini-van in the Toppers parking lot. The girls had left in a steady stream, not quite as appealing out of their g-strings and in their street clothes. When the lot was empty, I told my team to check the loads on their shotguns. The plan: I go in and sweep the place clean. They wait by the exits and plug anyone who tries to bolt.
"You sure about this, Charlie?" Benny chewed his fingernails. All of his jittery habits surfaced when it was go time. But he had his head on straight. No problem.
"Our best guess is there's about nine guys in there," he said. "We'll know better when you talk to the girl."
"Yeah, but the breakdown's okay. We got one bookworm counting the night's take, two bartenders, and two bouncers who may or may not be packing. That leaves four probably carrying heat, and I take them first."
"Look, I got plenty of faith in you," said Benny. "But maybe I should come with, huh?"
"I got it. You cover the rear."
"Okay." Benny handed me an envelope. "Her name's Candy."
"Sure it is."
I leaned against the back wall between the rear entrance and the Dumpster. Two minutes later, a ragged blond with big fake tits emerged and held the back door open for me.
"How many?" I asked.
"Nine," she said and snapped her gum. "The four suits all have guns. I sat in Myron's lap earlier, so I know he ain't packing."
"Donovan's cousin from down south."
My ears perked up. "How far down south?"
"Miami, I think. What do I know? He had busy hands and wasn't much interested in talking."
"Okay. Who else?"
"Sal and Ron- the bartenders- don't carry anything on them, but there's a small silver revolver underneath the register. The bouncers got nothing but muscles."
I handed Candy the envelope. "I don't know what your plans are, but I wouldn't come back here."
She opened the envelope, thumbed through the bills briefly, then stuffed the cash into her jeans. "Don't worry. I ain't ever coming back to this shithole." And she was gone.
I entered the dim hall and closed the door behind me. A few quick steps brought me to the girls' dressing room. A curtain on the left led to the stage, and the door on the right opened into a long hall that led to the kitchen. So far, it had been just like Benny told me it would be. I took a few seconds to check my guns. The twin.45s hung snug in their shoulder holsters, and the.38 with the three-inch barrel was clipped tight to my belt just below my belly. I used to wear a little.380 on my ankle, but I'd never needed it and it made movement awkward.
My last touch was a pair of latex gloves. You can get a whole box of them for free when you see your doctor for a routine checkup. A little compensation for having to read two-year-old magazines in the waiting room. Anyway, I wasn't eager to leave fingerprints.
I drew the.45 automatics and slipped down the hall toward the kitchen.
The kitchen was completely dark except for the dusty light that spilled in from the lounge beyond. I could hear men's voices and the clink of glasses floating in from the next room. I crept up to the edge of the doorway, staying in the shadow, and peeked in. One of the big bouncers still sat on his perch near the front door. He looked bored and tired and leaned heavily against the red velvet wallpaper, his eyes drooping. Both bartenders washed and dried glasses behind the bar, and the guy who had to be Myron sat at one of the big tables in the center of the room with two of the suits. Both suits looked clean-cut and serious.
I watched from the shadows for two more minutes, and my patience paid off. The other two suits returned and pulled chairs up to Myron's table. Myron was bent over some papers, reading hard and fast. The other bouncer was still unaccounted for, but I felt good enough about the situation to go in. I made a mental note of the order I wanted to start shooting people. From where I stood, I couldn't get a clear shot at everyone, so I needed to be on the move.
I started pulling triggers as soon as I stepped into the light.
The shouting and confusion erupted like it always did. Men pushed chairs away from the table, went for pistols inside jackets. Another thing about strip clubs: most are wall-to-wall mirrors, and the effect was that blazing death had descended on them from all directions. The thick-necked bouncer awoke on his stool, his eyes widening with panic.
I swung the automatics in a deliberate arc, squeezing lead into the four suits. They spun around in a shower of blood, guns halfway out of their holsters. Myron dove under the table, and I left him for the moment, turned my attention to the bar. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the bouncer's back as he disappeared through the front door. I was vaguely aware of a shotgun blast outside.
Behind the long, wooden bar, both bartenders were in motion. The first bolted for the kitchen door. The other went for the pistol beneath the register, and I followed him with a rain of lead. Booze bottles danced and shattered behind him, but I had to abandon him and attend to the second bouncer who emerged from the dancers' dressing room with a sawed-off shotgun. He stood center stage and blew a chunk of wood out of the table I'd overturned for cover. I stood and emptied both clips into him, and he fell into a lifeless heap on the stage.
I dropped the empty automatics, deciding it would be quicker to pull the.38 from the belly holster than it would be to shove another clip into one of the.45s. I thumbed back the hammer and rolled along the tile floor until I was up against the bar.
The bartender might still be crouched near the register, but if he was smart he'd have crawled two-thirds of the way to the other end, so he could pop up and squeeze off a few shots at me. But I didn't know if he was smart or not, so I watched the bar in the mirror on the other side of the room.
I guess he wasn't too smart, because he popped up about ten seconds later, still near the register, holding the little silver revolver in front of him like he was trying to choke it. After the rage of gunfire, the club was now strangely quiet.
"Dave?" he called. "You okay? You get him?"
I double-checked his position in the mirror, then stood and fired. I caught him solid right behind the ear. Blood surged fleshy and wet. He slumped forward over the bar. The pistol fell out of his hand and clattered across the tile.
I thumbed back the hammer again and slowly approached the table in the center of the club. I crouched, the.38 leading the way, and found Myron flat on his stomach with his hands over his head. I was about to turn his lights out when he said something interesting.
"Who are you? You want it? Just take it. Okay? Leave me alone." He thrust a finger over his head. "In the briefcase." Myron was a portly, sweaty man with fat arms and fat legs and stubby fingers and a nose that looked like a little fist. A cowering blob in a nice suit. I'd seen a hundred like him, but I was suddenly curious.
"You stay put." I kept the revolver on him. I couldn't afford to be too curious. The shots would bring the sirens soon enough, but I had this gut feeling that there was more going on here than the after-hours strip club routine. I tried the briefcase, but it was combination locked with a three-digit code. The initials A. A. in gold.
I waved Myron out from under the table. "Open it."
"Sure, pal. You got it. I'm cooperating, see?" Myron worked the combination, flipped the latch and reached into the case.
I saw his shoulders tense and twisted away from him just as his fat hand came out of the case with a snub-nose revolver. He fired once where my midsection had been. I felt the hot kiss of the slug glance along a rib as it passed through my shirt and jacket. My side grew warm and wet with my own blood.
The.38 jerked in my hand three times. The bullets sprouted red across Myron's chest. He twitched once and fell across the table, slamming the briefcase closed. Locks clicking shut again.
I checked myself. The wound stung like hell, but it wasn't too bad. I kicked Myron away from the table and grabbed the briefcase. On my way out, I passed over one of the dead suits. A brassy hint of metal sticking out of his jacket caught my eye. By all the rules, I should have hauled my ass out the back door a long time ago. But some strange little tickle in the back of my brain made me stop and poke my nose into things that were none of my business. My job was done. I should be gone. But that little tickle.
I bent and shoved back the suit's lapel, revealing the shiny hunk of metal pinned to his vest.
It was a badge.
My heart shifted into passing gear, and I swallowed hard. A quick check revealed three more badges on the others. I'd just pulled the plug on four cops. This wasn't in the game plan. Not by a long shot. I pocketed one of the badges, picked up my automatics. And left Toppers through the same door I'd come in. Benny and Bob looked impatient.
"Christ," said Bob. "We almost left you. Get in the van, and let's get out of here."
"Listen, guys, something's fucked up," I said.
"Something's always fucked up," said Bob. "Let's talk about it in the van."
I flashed him the badge, and his eyes got big as hubcaps. "I took it off one of the marks in there. There's three more just like it. Somebody's not telling us everything. The shit's going to hit the fan. I just thought we should get ready to duck."
He looked unhappy. "Goddamnmotherfuckshit."
"I think we'd better go someplace. Figure this out."
"The monkey cage." Benny's suggestion.
"No," I said. "I know where. And we can get some breakfast."
I held a handkerchief to my bleeding side as I climbed into the van. The angry song of sirens chased us into the fading night.
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