I sat up, shifted the recliner into its upright position.
The base of my skull ached distantly. Dim light leaked in from the kitchen, and I got up, followed it back to its source. Marcie sat at the little kitchen table, hunched over the books, reading them by the light of a low-watt bulb in the small lamp she dragged in from her bedroom nightstand. She wore a pair of grandmotherly half-glasses.
I smelled coffee.
She saw me, read my mind.
"I just made it," she said. "Want me to pour you a cup?"
"I'll get it." I took a plain white cup down from the cupboard, filled it. Drank. I took the pot to the table, refilled Marcie's cup.
She'd arranged the books on the table side by side, had her finger on a column of numbers. Her lips moved quietly as she read, the finger sliding down the page.
"I thought you'd stashed those," I said.
She shrugged. "You needed to sleep, and nothing good was on TV."
"A fun read?"
"I was an accounting major for two semesters."
"Why would you want to be an accounting major?"
"That's what I asked myself," she said. "Why would I want to be an accounting major? Why would anyone? So I chucked it in for art."
"So what's with the ledgers?"
She put her hand palm down on one of the books. "These are the accounts of several businesses in South Florida, mostly in Miami. It's all here. Let's take Geno's as an example."
"So according to this book," she patted the ledger again, "Geno's made a profit of sixty-seven thousand dollars." She looked at me over her granny glasses, made sure she had my attention. "But according to this book," she slapped her hand over the other ledger, "Geno's made two point four million dollars in the same year."
"What? Let me see that." I grabbed the book. My eyes danced along the rows of numbers. I had no idea what I was looking at, but I didn't need the book. I knew the rest of the story.
I held in my hands Beggar Johnson's whole operation. Two ledgers. Two accounts of all the businesses under Beggar's thumb in South Florida. One for public consumption, the one he showed the I.R.S. The other book contained the real numbers. The money laundering. It completely outlined the flow of cash for his whole organization. These books should have been under lock and key. No wonder Beggar wanted everyone in Toppers rubbed clean. If these books got into the wrong hands, it could be Beggar's end.
But they were in my hands, and as far as I was concerned, they were hot potatoes.
"I got to go see somebody about this."
Marcie took off her half-glasses, set them on the table. "How bad is it, Charlie?"
"Bad, Marcie. As bad as it gets. I have to go."
"It's the middle of the night!"
"There's no time. I can't stay here." I gulped the coffee. There was a bag of rolls on her kitchen counter. I opened it, grabbed two rolls, shoved them in my jacket pocket.
"You can stay as long as you like. You know that."
I shook my head. "No good. If they find me, they find you. Then we're both dead."
I took the books, headed for the front door. Marcie followed.
I stopped, looked at her.
"Anytime, day or night," she said.
I nodded, thought about her, the ledgers, us. I hadn't known her long, but you got to have somebody to trust, lean on. Might as well be somebody pretty.
I kissed her. "I'll be in touch."
I tried to think of what I needed more, friends or answers.
My friends were all dead, at least the ones who could help. I knew I could count on Marcie and Danny and Ma to all go to the mat for me, but I didn't see how they could help and I'd only be getting them in hot water.
I decided to settle for answers, and I figured Beggar's toady, Alan Jeffers, might have them.
I drove to a convenience store, found a pay phone.
Information had a listing for Alan Jeffers in Heathrow. I got the number and dialed it. Nine rings. It was about four A.M., so I wasn't surprised when Jeffers's machine answered. "You've reached the home of Alan Jeffers. I can't come to the phone right-" I hung up, put in another thirty-five cents, dialed again. "You've reached-" I hung up, a quarter and two nickels, dialed the digits.
"Do you know what damn time it is?" Jeffers sounded groggy and annoyed.
"Mr. Jeffers, this is Charlie Swift."
"Swift." He was putting the name through his brain, and I heard him suck in a big gulp of breath when he figured it out. "Holy shit, pal. Where've you been?"
"I got held up. When can I bring over the stuff you wanted?"
"Now. Bring them now."
"Can't. How about noon?"
"For crying out loud, Swift. Beggar's having a shit fit."
"Noon. Yeah. Okay, noon. You know where I live?"
"I know." I hung up before he could figure out a way to give me trouble.
I drove to Heathrow and parked about half a block down from Jeffers's place, close enough to watch. Nobody came or went. Good. Jeffers wasn't expecting me until noon, so I was pretty sure I could catch him with his panties down at the breakfast table. I didn't want to give him time to arrange a reception for me.
I had a dim, feeble notion of the bare bones of a plan knocking around in my head. I'd get ahold of Jeffers and make him tell me about those ledgers, about Beggar, about Stan and Jimmy Hoffa and Bigfoot and anything else I could get out of him. I didn't have the time or the temperament to be subtle.
I explored my side with my fingers. It was tender, but I didn't think it was infected. I'd need to change the bandage the next time I had a chance. I checked my.38, then slipped it back in the belly holster. And I still had the listening equipment Stan had wanted me to use to eavesdrop on his meeting with Beggar.
Now I just had to wait for the sun.
I snapped awake. The glow of morning spread orange over Heathrow, reflected brightly in the windows of the houses up and down the street. My stomach was coffee sour, so I fished one of Marcie's rolls out of my pocket and ate it.
I got out of my car, rubbed my eyes, and headed for Jeffers's front door. It occurred to me as I knocked that I wasn't nervous. Maybe I was too tired, too sore from sleeping in the car, too God damn wrung out to be nervous.
A woman answered. She was lean, black hair bobbed at the ears, thick dark lips, nose pointed and predatory. She held a white cotton robe together with one hand and looked at me like I had a lot of nerve knocking her awake at the crack of dawn.
"I'm here to see Jeffers." I pushed past her into the house.
"Wait, you can't just-" She padded after me, bare feet slapping against tile. "Alan!"
She shouted toward the kitchen, so that's where I went.
Jeffers was at the kitchen table, a half-eaten slice of toast in his fingers. "Tina, it's too early to be screaming all over the house for- oh, hell."
He saw me and froze.
"I'm Charlie Swift."
"You've got a lot of nerve busting in here like this. I have a good mind to-"
"Shut up. We need to talk."
He huffed and puffed a little. Tina stood in the doorway behind me, waiting to see what happened.
"You weren't supposed to be here until noon," said Jeffers. "I'm not ready for you yet."
"That's the idea."
"Do you have the ledgers?"
Jeffers frowned, then just looked confused. "What the hell's the point then?"
"Is there someplace we can talk?" I jerked a thumb over my shoulder at the woman. "Without your wife listening?"
"That's not my wife. My wife lives in Boca." He looked past me to her. "Tina, go get dressed why don't you?" He stood, motioned for me to follow. "We can talk in my office, Swift."
His office was a big, modern glass and mirrors room with electronic everything and a view of his pool in the backyard. It glittered crystal blue in the cool morning air. He sat behind the metallic bunker he called a desk, steepled his hands like he was considering my loan application, and waited for me to speak.
"I need some answers, Jeffers. And I need them without a lot of smart-guy double talk."
Jeffers raised an eyebrow. "I think you have it backwards, pal. It's you who'd better start explaining."
I started feeling all hot up through my face.
"Beggar's not happy," continued Jeffers. "He wants to know where his ledgers are and why they weren't delivered on time. He's not a patient man."
"I'm not so patient myself these days."
"Now, really, Swift, I don't think you understand who you're dealing with here."
I was across the desk quick and grabbed a fistful of his shirt, hauled him out of his seat. His eyes bulged. A little yelp of terror got stuck in his throat. I yanked him about halfway across. Pens and pencils scattered. A calculating machine flew to the floor. My teeth and jaw were set. I tried to make sure I looked like I felt. Mad.
"Are you crazy?" said Jeffers. He pried feebly at my hands, trying to pull away, trying to get back behind the safety of his desk.
"You're digging your own grave, you fool. I work for Beggar Johnson."
"I'm getting a little sick of everybody saying that name like he's Jehovah. I want to know where my boss is right now. What happened to him?"
"Stan, you fucking pencil-neck. Where is he?"
"How the hell should I know?" Jeffers was too scared to lie. "I'm not involved with that end of Beggar's operation."
"You are now. You're down in the dirt with the rest of us."
"Please," Jeffers whined. "Let me go, will you? Let me go, and I'll explain."
I held him with a hard stare for a moment, nailed him to the desk with my eyes. I let him go, but I remained standing and close to the desk.
He was shaking a little. He opened a cabinet behind the desk, and my hand drifted into my coat and hovered over the revolver in case he was reaching for something dangerous. He came out with a bottle of Ballentine's and a tumbler. He held up the glass and cocked an eyebrow.
I shook my head.
He filled the glass three fingers' full, shot it back, and filled the glass again. He exhaled raggedly, calmed down some. He contemplated the bottom of his glass like he might find some answers there.
"You said you'd explain," I reminded him. "Start talking."
"Okay. Right." He nodded. "Sure." He looked back at the bottle of booze, thought about it a second, then shook his head.
"Like I told you, I don't see the nasty end of the business. I handle the money. I happen to be president of the Exchange Bank in Longwood. I make sure nobody looks too closely at Beggar's deposits, and I supervise the smooth flow of monies to various offshore accounts. I take it you've figured out Beggar's taking over Stan's territory."
"You take it just right."
Jeffers shrugged. "Then you must understand. Beggar needs somebody like me who looks like an upright citizen, who has legitimate contacts in the business community. Stan's still running things like it's 1955. He couldn't modernize, so he's out."
"None of that answers my question," I said.
"You're not listening. I don't know where Stan is. That's not my job. I don't rub anyone out or give them cement overshoes or any of those other wonderful things you film-noir types do. Beggar's got a guy named Lloyd Mercury for all that."
"Then where do I find him?"
Jeffers snorted and looked at me like I was trying to push a truck uphill with a wet noodle. "I hope you don't think you can bust in on Lloyd Mercury like you did here with me. He'd kill you. It's that simple. I've never seen the man operate, but I've heard enough to know I don't want to hear any more. He's a cold-blooded professional right down to the bone."
"I'll be leaving now, Jeffers."
"But what about the ledgers?"
I leaned forward, slapped an open palm down on his desk. "You don't get dick until I hear about Stan. Get on your phone, call who you have to call, but when I get back in touch with you, you'd better tell me something useful."
"You're not being smart about this, Swift." The tone in his voice kept shifting. He couldn't decide if he was pleading or telling me off. "Stan's a sinking ship. Why are you still shoveling coal into the furnace?"
"I'll tell you why." The words came out harsh, and Jeffers flinched. "Because when you throw in with a guy, you stick with him. Otherwise, you're just some kind of animal."
As I spoke, I pounded the desk again for emphasis, but my other hand slipped under the edge of the desk. The microphone was the size of a button and had some gummy stuff on the back so it would stay. I pressed hard, made sure it stuck.
Jeffers shook his head. He couldn't believe how dumb I was being. "Only dogs are that loyal, Swift." He opened the top desk drawer, and reached in lazily. When he came out with the little automatic, I was surprised. I didn't think he had it in him.
"If you don't put that away," I told him, "I'll take it away from you and shove it straight up your ass."
He lifted his chin, put on a brave face. "I can't have you running around causing trouble. We're going to sit here nice and quiet while I call Beggar and find out what he wants done with you."
My hand snaked out fast, and I plucked the little pistol from his grip. His eyes grew, and he looked down at his empty hand like he was trying to figure out a magic trick. When he looked back at me, my fist caught him on the chin. The No Sale signs popped up in his eyes, and he wilted into a little heap behind his desk.
I left his office and made for the front door.
Tina stood in my way. Her robe had fallen open, and she was naked beneath. Her robe had fallen open, because she wasn't holding it closed anymore. She wasn't holding it closed anymore, because she needed both hands to point the enormous revolver at me. It looked like a.44 magnum. It looked like it could make me one hundred percent dead if she pulled the trigger.
I cleared my throat. "Hello."
She was steady with the gun, held it well like she'd been trained how. She looked over my shoulder, trying to see into the office. "What did you do to Alan?"
"He's just napping. I had to put him out."
"He pulled a gun on me."
We exchanged long, probing looks, sized each other up, and I think we were both surprised at what we saw. It was obvious to her I'd had a gun pointed at me before. It was obvious to me she was ready to pull the trigger if necessary. Your average person doesn't know dick about aiming a gun or how to hold it or squeeze the trigger. Your average person would shit his pants when looking down the barrel of a cocked handgun. We were not two average people.
And then she did something so smart, it made me realize how dangerous she might be.
She stepped back and motioned with her chin that I should leave.
"Just like that?"
"I have to speak to Alan," she said, "before I can do anything with you."
I gave her a half-hearted salute. "Until next time."
She smiled, cold and tight. "I'll be keeping an eye on you, Mr. Swift."
I got out to my car and fumbled with the headphones, put them on, adjusted the volume. I could hear Tina helping Jeffers to his feet, getting him back in his chair. He groaned, and she said she'd get him some ice for his chin.
"What do we do?" asked Jeffers. "This is bad."
I looked in the rearview mirror. A car approached, parked behind me. It was so blatantly unmarked that it screamed "cop." I quickly plugged the receiver into the little tape recorder and stashed the whole setup under the car seat. I tugged off the belly holster, and the pistol joined the tape recorder.
A tall man climbed out of the unmarked car. I knew him. He was bent and his hair was thick and white. He wore a shiny brown suit and cheap cop shoes. He walked up to my car on the driver's side and knocked on the window.
I rolled it down. "Morning, Burt."
"Hi, Charlie." He bit his thumbnail, looked almost like he was embarrassed to be troubling me. "I think you'd better take a ride with me, okay? I got somebody back here that wants to have a word with you."
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