The sun was just percolating through the trees when Benny parked the van in front of the two-story house in Winter Park. I made the boys wipe their feet on the way in.
"That you, Charlie?"
"It's me, Ma. I got Bob and Benny with me."
"Hi, boys. I'll have food for you in a minute."
"Good morning, Mrs. Swift." Bob.
"Hope we're not disturbing you too early." Benny.
Ma made a noise in the kitchen like that was the most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard.
Two things: Ma never slept, and there was always something working in the kitchen.
I stuck my nose in the air. A quick sniff was all I needed: eggs, coffee, Canadian bacon. Ma had probably been up an hour, getting grub together for me and Danny. Ma was small and frumpy and motherly with flecks of gray in her auburn hair.
"Let me get a shower, Ma, and I'll come down for a bite. I'll get Danny up too."
"He's up," said Ma. "Punching that bag again behind the garage."
Danny had retreated home after quitting college again. He was supposed to be at Clemson University getting himself educated, but he thought punching the heavy bag and trying to talk Amber out of her clothes every night was a better use of his time. Ma was crazy with the whole situation, and I was supposed to sit down for a brother-to-brother ass-chewing session. I hadn't had a chance to get around to it.
"It's too early for boxing," I said.
"You let him alone. Let him punch. He's a good boy." Ma said that because Benny and Bob were listening. When it was just family, Danny was making her "nutso."
"I'll get cleaned up."
"Good. You look like a mess. I'll feed these boys." She led Benny and Bob to the kitchen table.
I dragged myself into the upstairs bathroom and slumped heavily onto the toilet. I made a point of taking the briefcase with me. The night's work had finally seeped into my muscles during the van ride, and I ached all over. I peeled myself out of the bloodstained shirt and went to work on the wound. It was shallow and ugly. I fished the first aid kit out from under the sink. I wiped the wound clean with water first then gave it a second going over with the hydrogen peroxide.
I turned the shower on as hot as I could stand it, bathed, dried, and bandaged the wound. I probably could have used a stitch or two. I made up for it with a few extra strands of medical tape. I slipped into jeans and an Orlando Magic T-shirt and packed last night's clothes into the hamper. I shuffled back to my room and found Danny waiting for me.
He sat in the window seat, which overlooked the street, his shorts and tank top soaked through with sweat. He'd given the bag a good work-over, and he still wore the gloves. He was a good-looking kid, taller than me, square shoulders and a flat belly. He was a sit-up junky from way back. At twenty-four years old, he was sixteen years my junior, and he'd been a surprise for my folks. Whereas I had a big square mug and a lump of granite for a chin, Danny's features were sharp, angular jawline. He got that from Ma. I took more after Dad.
Danny pulled off the gloves and pulled the bottom of his tank top up to wipe the sweat off his forehead. It didn't help much. "Hey, Charlie."
"Ma's got breakfast ready."
"Yeah. I smelled it. I hope there's something left when Benny and Bob are through."
"Ma tell you to tell me to go back to school yet?"
"About twenty times a day."
He shrugged. "I don't think school's for me."
I tried another strategy. "Ain't there like ten tons of gorgeous girls running around campus? You don't want to give that up, do you?"
"None of them are as good as Amber."
I couldn't disagree.
"Actually, I thought I might go to work."
"Yeah. I thought maybe you could take me on down at the monkey cage."
I made myself chuckle at him even though it wasn't very damn funny. "What the hell do you know about that?"
"Come on, Charlie. I hear you talking with those other guys. I know what goes on. I'm not a bookworm, okay? I've been in and out of college three times. I'm not cut out for it."
"So what then?"
He flipped back the spare blanket at the foot of my bed. Underneath was my little Mac-10 machine pistol, the spare clips and the flash suppressor. The firing pin was busted, and I hadn't gotten around to fixing it yet. Also, a 9mm Browning automatic, three Marine combat knives, and a stun gun.
"We'll talk later," I said. "I've got the boys downstairs."
Around the kitchen table three men frowned around mouthfuls of eggs and bacon. I was one of them. Coffee. Biscuits. More frowning. Ma had gone about her business. Let the boys talk.
We were all thinking the same thing. I didn't need to be a mind-reader. Dead cops. Now what?
I had the briefcase down by my ankles. We hadn't opened it. We didn't know if we were supposed to. I hadn't told them what I'd heard on the wire during Stan's meeting with Beggar Johnson. But we knew our instructions. Take the briefcase to Beggar's man Jeffers. The monkey cage wasn't supposed to ask questions.
Benny had reached that conclusion ahead of me. "Look. Just give me the case, and I'll run it over to this Jeffers character. We did what we were told. Period. We can't get in trouble for that, can we?"
Bob watched for my reaction.
I thought. Scratched my head. Drank coffee. Rubbed the stubble along my chin. Thought some more.
"Okay," I said. "What's our job is the question, right?" I looked at them.
They looked back.
Yeah, we were supposed to do what we were told. Sure. But we were also supposed to look out for the boss. If he went under, we were all sunk. "I'm going to call Stan."
I told them to wait and went upstairs to use the phone in the bedroom. None of the other boys had Stan's personal home number, so I dialed with reverence. He answered after five rings. Stan always answered his own phone.
"I got news."
I told him.
"I see." He didn't really sound too surprised, went quiet for long seconds.
I waited, ear glued to the phone. When he finally came back on the line, my heart jerked up in my throat. Anxious.
"Open the case," said Stan.
"Pry it open."
I didn't hesitate. I grabbed the bowie knife and pried open the latches in ten seconds flat. The briefcase contained two leather-bound ledgers, accounting books. I flipped through the pages. Rows of numbers. All Greek to me.
I told Stan.
"Bring it to my place. One hour."
"You don't want me to take it to Jeffers?"
"Who's running the show here?" His talk was tough, but his voice strained.
I swallowed hard. "Right."
"You done good." His old, old sack-of-rocks voice sounded fatherly for just a second.
We hung up.
I went downstairs.
"I'm going to Stan's."
Benny shook his head, but Bob said, "Good."
"Listen," I said. "We got to keep a lid on this. Take the mini-van and ditch it." It was stolen anyway. "Dump the shotguns." I handed over the.45s and the.38. "These too." I had replacements.
"What about you?" asked Benny.
"I'll get Danny to drop me by my place. I want to change before I see Stan."
They got up, and I showed them out. They had their marching orders, and I had mine.
I yelled for Danny.
From upstairs: "What?"
"Pull your hot rod around," I yelled back. "I need a ride."
The first time Danny tried college, he'd surprised the hell out of everyone by getting a baseball scholarship. So we gave him the eight thousand dollars we had in a savings account that we'd been saving for tuition. He dropped three grand on a 1965 Chevy Impala, big V-8 engine, fire-engine red. Convertible. He spent a month covered in grease, rebuilt the transmission, fixed it up nice.
So we were heading up 17-92 to my apartment, Danny driving. We had the top down. Wind blew. Normally, I'd be noticing how cool we looked, but my brain kept spinning me around in circles thinking what I was supposed to do with the briefcase in my lap. Take it to Stan I guess. Keep my mouth shut. Why didn't that seem good enough?
"Have you thought about what I asked?"
I blinked, stopped thinking about who I could shoot to make things better for Stan. "Huh?"
"About working down in the monkey cage," said Danny.
I waved him away. "You don't even know what it takes."
"Oh yeah?" He wore a denim jacket. He steered with one hand and pulled back his jacket with the other. Tucked in the belt of his jeans was an enormous, nickel-plated automatic pistol. There was a scope on it.
"What the hell is that?"
He took it out, slid it across the seat. "Take a look."
I picked it up, turned it over in my hands. Danny had added a barrel extension, extra-capacity clip. What I'd thought was a scope was actually a laser sight. "I'm serious," I said. "What the hell is this?"
"That's one bad-ass chunk of serious heat. That's what that is."
"What are you, Buck fucking Rogers?"
"What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing, I guess. If you're trying to blow up the Death Star."
"Listen, man, I'm good with that thing. I've been to the range twice a week."
"Let me ask you something," I said. "Where'd you get this thing?"
"Shoot Straight Gun Emporium."
"How'd you pay?"
"Okay," I said. "So you shoot somebody. The cops get the ballistics and have no trouble tracing the piece right back to you. A nice, legal trail. Puts you in the slammer, twenty-five to life. Am I making my point?"
"Fine. I get it. I don't know everything. You probably didn't either at first. You had to learn."
"That's right. I had to. You don't."
"Danny, it's an ugly, hard, shitty way to earn a living." I couldn't help I was good at it. "And frankly this is not a good time. Things are crazy right now, and I've got to think about what I'm going to do."
"Maybe I can help."
I exhaled, the breath huffing out of me like it had given up. "I'll let you know."
Danny let me out in front of my garage apartment, rumbled away in the Impala with his giant gun and a sour look on his face. I went upstairs.
I shed my jeans and T-shirt, slipped into a black double-breasted suit, cuffs, red tie with a subtle pattern. Wingtips.
I went into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. I took out the aspirin, milk of magnesia, various antiseptics and bandages. Set them all on the back of the toilet. I pried away the false back with a penknife, revealing the hidey hole where my spare pistols hung on pegs. I left the two Colt.45s and took down the.38 police special with the four-inch barrel. I checked to make sure it had a full load, then snugged it into the belly holster. When I buttoned the jacket, the piece was almost invisible, and I could draw three times faster from across my belly than I could from the shoulder.
I put the medicine cabinet back together and checked myself in the mirror. Good. I looked professional again.
At my kitchen table, I fussed with the eel-skin briefcase. After my makeshift locksmithing with the bowie knife, I could only get one of the latches to snap back into position. I didn't want the books to spill out into the street, so I found a dark green gym bag under my bed and put the books inside. Zipped it up.
I started out the door with the gym bag, stopped, looked at the briefcase still on the table. Stan said bring it. Of course, he wanted what was inside, but why risk having to drive back? Details. That's what separates the professionals from the average jerkoff. Details.
I grabbed the briefcase and my car keys and went downstairs.
Behind my Buick, I dropped the gym bag at my feet, still had the briefcase under my arm. I slipped the key into the trunk but never had a chance to turn it.
The blow slapped sharply across the base of my skull. My eyes were swallowed by darkness; the big fireworks display went off in my head. I stumbled forward, sprawled on the trunk. The blackness drawing me down into a spiraling funnel of white noise.
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