My suit was dirty.
So was the left side of my head.
That's what happens when you lie facedown in a sandy driveway, I guess. I felt the back of my head before trying to get up. No sticky layer of blood. Thank God for small favors. I got up on one knee, a little wobbly. I put my hands against the trunk of the Buick for support, climbed to my feet.
I brushed myself off.
I looked up at the sun, down at my watch. I'd been lying in the dirt all morning.
I was very very late to meet Stan.
Stan. I stood straight, head jerking around, scanning the yard. The briefcase- the eel-skin briefcase with the initials A. A., the briefcase I'd pried open with a knife, the briefcase I'd shot everybody dead in a titty bar for- was gone.
I bent, looked under the Buick. The gym bag. I opened it. The books.
Nervous, relieved giggling elbowed its way out of my throat, skipped away on the mild winter breeze. I re-zipped the gym bag, took the stairs two at a time back up to my apartment.
I called Stan's home phone. Twenty-one rings. No answer.
I dialed Bob Tate. Three rings and an answering machine. "Hey, this is Bob. I'm not here right now but-"
I hung up.
I dialed Benny. Fifteen rings. No answer.
Where the hell was everybody?
I called O'Malley's. Twelve rings and no answer. I let it ring five more times. Still nobody.
That was just wrong.
I looked out my window. Scanned the yard. No trouble. At least none that I could see.
Okay, Charlie old boy, now what?
I called Ma. She answered after three rings.
"Ma, let me speak to Danny."
"He's out back punching the bag."
"Is something wrong?"
"I just want to talk to Danny."
She went for him. He came on the phone panting. "Charlie?"
"Look out the front window. I'll wait."
"Just do it."
"What am I looking for?"
"A strange car parked across the street. Maybe somebody sitting inside. Take a good look. Maybe parked down a block."
"What's going on?"
"Just do it."
I waited, looked out my own window.
Danny came back. "It's clear."
"Okay. Still want to help?"
"Does this mean I'm hired?"
"Call it an audition. Still got your Buck Rogers gun?"
"Keep it handy. Don't let Ma see. No sense sending her off the deep end. Stay inside and try to talk her out of going anywhere."
"She's Ma. Where would she go?"
"Keep an eye on the window. Don't let anyone near that you don't know. I'll be in touch later."
"Charlie, what's going on?"
"Probably nothing. Just being careful."
"That's what you need me to do? Guard Ma?"
"That just shows you don't know anything," I said. "First thing you learn in the monkey cage is watch after your own."
"Okay, okay. Take it easy."
"I'll be in touch."
I hung up and took the medicine cabinet apart again. I withdrew the Colts and put them in the shoulder holsters but didn't wear them. I shoved them in the gym bag with the books.
I left the apartment, locked the door. I was halfway down the stairs when the phone started ringing behind me. I ran back up, fumbled the keys out. I unlocked the door and answered the phone on the eighth ring.
Lou Morgan. New Guy. "Where in the shit are you?"
"O'Malley's," he said. "Where's everybody else? Place is locked up tighter than Bob Tate's colon after a chunk of cheese."
"Can the comedy, New Guy. This is fucking serious. How long you been there?"
"An hour maybe."
"I tried calling."
"I was across the street," said Lou. "I thought maybe it was a holiday or something, so I wanted to see if Jan's was open." The deli across from O'Malley's. "I mean it's dead here, man. Nobody out front in the bar. Nobody back in the cage. Nothing."
The wheels in my head cranked, began to turn. "Have you talked to Bob or Benny?"
"No. I tried calling Bob first."
"Lou," I said, my slow thoughts stumbling over one another, "I think maybe you ought to get out of there."
"Hold on," said Lou. "Somebody's at the door."
"Don't answer it, Lou."
"It might be Bob. It'll just take a second." I heard Lou lay the receiver on the bar.
"Bob has a key," I yelled into the phone. "Lou!"
The scene beyond the phone unfolded like a radio play. The door opening. The rush of bodies into the room. Shouts. Lou's voice: Fuckers! Shots. Yelling. More shots. Glass shattering. Movement. Pushing? Another voice: Around there. Hurry.
"Lou!" My voice urgent.
It went silent quickly. Steps. The click and buzz on the other end of the phone. Disconnect.
I drove as fast as I could without risking a ticket, knowing the party would be over by the time I got there from my apartment. What else could I do? I fingered the.38 in the belly holster. The gym bag perched on the passenger seat.
This wasn't the slow squeeze anymore. It was bad.
But when I got to O'Malley's I found out it was worse.
I got within a block. A uniformed cop held back a crowd. Squad cars.
Beyond, fire engines.
Angry black smoke poured from the windows of O'Malley's. A team of earnest firemen directed hoses, drenched the burning building.
I didn't watch long, put the Buick into gear and drove on. Behind me, a world ended, my small, fixed place in it swept clean by fire, escaping and dispersing into the wide sky with smoke.
Bob Tate's house was ten minutes away. I screeched to a halt in his driveway, jumped out of the Buick, left the driver's side door open. I knocked on Bob's front door. Waited. No answer.
I knocked again. Louder. Insistent.
When I tried the knob, the door was unlocked. I pushed it open, walked inside.
I tilted my head, listened. The house was dead still except at the open windows. The cool breeze tickled the thin curtains. Where next? In the living room or up the stairs?
"Bob?" This time louder.
I decided on the living room. I found his answering machine. It blinked its story at me. Two phone calls. I played the messages. First Lou, then me. Variations on a theme. Where the hell are you?
Into the dining room- nothing- through to the kitchen.
A jagged scattering of glass glittered on the floor. My eyes traveled up the back door where a square of glass had been punched out just above the door handle. A break-in.
Through the rest of the ground floor. I ran up the stairs two at a time and pushed open the first door I came to. A bedroom. Bob's bedroom.
Bob was there.
He lay faceup on his bed in his boxers and undershirt. The clothes he wore the night before at Toppers trailed from the bathroom to the foot of the bed. Bob wore a neat bullet-hole in the exact center of his forehead. A trickle of blood ran down past his open eyes, alongside his nose and over his lips.
Bob had been a cold-blooded, hard-as-nails killer. A brute with a sap or an axe handle or a set of brass knuckles. His wife had left him and took the twins back to Jersey. He chewed with his mouth open. He farted for comedy. No one on the planet would miss Bob Tate.
I pulled up a chair, sat looking at Bob's cold body. After a few minutes of his vacant eyes, I got up and threw a blanket over him. I sat down again in the chair, put my head in my hands.
Would I find the same scene at Benny's place? At Stan's? I'd already heard what had happened to Lou. What now, Charlie? What now, you dumb, thick monkey? I'd spent a lot of years doing what I was told. Now I had to think for myself.
I suddenly felt tired, ragged. How long without sleep? From Toppers to Ma's to my apartment. I'd spent some time facedown in my driveway. Did that count as sleep? I didn't feel rested.
And why wasn't I dead? Somebody had clocked me good but left me alive. They'd only wanted the books.
I got to my feet, down the stairs, back out to my car.
Where? Not back to my apartment. Fuck that. Too dangerous. I didn't want to end like Bob. Back to Ma's. Hell, no. They'd think to look there. I'd only get Ma killed with me and Danny. Better for them if I stayed away. I pulled into a convenience store, found a pay phone, dialed a number.
She picked up after four rings. "Hello?"
"I need a place to stay."
No hesitation. "Come on then."
Marcie let me in, took my coat. "Are you okay?"
"I don't know yet." I handed her the gym bag. "Put that someplace out of the way. Please."
"Okay." She disappeared into the garage then came back.
I still stood in her dim foyer. "Where'd you put it?"
"In the freezer under the raccoon."
"Come on. You look terrible."
She took my hand and led me into the living room. I stood there like I didn't know what to do. I felt numb, listless, indifferent. She lowered me into the big leather recliner in front of the TV, put the remote on the arm of the chair but didn't switch it on. I leaned back, raised the chair's footrest. My muscles cried in relief.
I hadn't noticed Marcie had left the room until she returned. She handed me a drink. Chivas. My brand. She'd been shopping. I nodded my thanks at her.
"It's a long story," I said.
"Maybe I can help."
"You can't help."
"You don't know. Try me."
I thought about it, closed my eyes. "My boss is being squeezed out by a big shot from Miami. All my buddies are dead, and the place where I work just burned to the ground. I was hit on the head and slept in the dirt. And all I got is a gym bag full of questions. Still think you can help?" I gulped back the Chivas, emptied the glass.
She took the glass from me. "Well, anyway, I can get you another drink." The rustle of her clothing followed her out.
I didn't hear her return, didn't get my next drink. I sank into the comfort of the chair, down into vivid Technicolor dreams.
The first dream was a rerun. I was looking down the barrel of Blade Sanchez's Luger again. He was talking and talking but only one thing he said really came through clear. Beggar says I can go to work for him anytime.
Why would Beggar want to hire your sorry, dumb ass?
In the next dream, I walked through O'Malley's. Flames licked the walls, skipped across the carpet. I kept thinking we needed to get everybody out. But Lou Morgan was there, waving a big muscle arm. "Get out, man. It's empty."
Yeah. Empty. Where were the people? The place should have been full of drunks. The bartenders. Amber. Why weren't they there? I was alone in a burning house with nobody to save.
Somebody had tipped them off. That was the only answer, and I realized I wasn't dreaming anymore. I was thinking, figuring it out. But I didn't want to think too hard about thinking. It was like asking the centipede which foot he started walking with. Think about it, and you're fucked. So I let the thoughts drift. Somebody had tipped the bartenders. They didn't come open. Patrons couldn't get in. Don't show today. Fire. Everyone gets the tip-off.
Except the monkey cage. We didn't get the word. Somebody'd set us up.
Sold us out.
I opened my eyes to darkness.
P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com