We didn't seem to be driving in any particular direction.
I'd known Detective Sergeant Burt Remington about five years, and he knew me. I was the guy that brought him the fat envelopes full of cash whenever Stan needed a favor from the police department. So it was with reluctance that Burt held open the car door and motioned me into the backseat with the FBI agent.
I knew he was an agent just by looking at him, the three-piece gray suit, the haircut, the standard-issue sunglasses all gave him away. He reeked of Harvard or Yale or wherever glossy G-men came from. But if that wasn't enough, he flipped open his little badge wallet and said, "I'm Federal Agent Dunn, Mr. Swift. Let's you and I have a chat."
Dunn smoked a Pall Mall. Burt drove.
"You mind if I roll down a window?" I asked.
"I mind," said Dunn.
"Let me fill you in on a few details, Mr. Swift. Are you listening?"
"Good. I'm only going to say this once. I don't have to say it at all. I'm being nice. We could simply sweep you under the rug if we wanted. Am I clear?"
"Good." Dunn rolled the window down just long enough to flick out his cigarette butt. He lit another immediately. I tried to breathe as little as possible.
Burt turned his head, talked and drove at the same time. "I've been telling Agent Dunn here that you're a reasonable sort, Charlie. A good guy."
"I appreciate that, Burt."
"Mr. Swift, your presence jeopardizes an ongoing investigation. That's all you need to know." Dunn puffed hard, blew smoke, not quite at me but close. "I suggest you go far away while you have the opportunity. We're interested in bigger fish than you right now, but later on when we're mopping up, who knows who'll get caught in the net?"
If Jeffers was using his bank to ship currency offshore for Beggar, no wonder the Feds were watching him. I guessed they didn't want a two-bit gunman gumming up the works. I was out of my league, but I was never one to scatter just because some pencil-neck said Boo.
"I appreciate your concerns, Agent Dunn." This sounded like the right way to talk to his type. "But I have some responsibilities. I can't just skip town."
Burt frowned at me in the rearview mirror. He wanted us all to be pals.
Dunn shook his head like he was real disappointed. "Your loyalty to Stan is admirable but misplaced. He's all washed up. Orlando's done with him. It's done with you too."
That was probably true, but I had to know. "Where's Stan now?"
Dunn raised an eyebrow. "Well, if you don't know, I certainly don't either. If I were Stan, I'd be on the next jet to Costa Rica."
Could be, I had to admit to myself. Or maybe he was under a parking lot somewhere. A strong possibility, if Beggar got ahold of him. But the fact was not even the Feds were interested in Stan. Like Dunn had said, Stan was washed up, and I was washed up with him.
So what the hell was I doing? Looking for a guy who was maybe dead but certainly wasn't my boss anymore. The monkey cage had burned. The kingdom had fallen, the king banished. I should just empty my safe deposit box and split.
Burt drove us back to my car in silence.
As I climbed out of the backseat, Dunn said, "I think we understand each other."
I nodded. Burt walked me back to my car.
"Sorry about all that, Charlie, but Feds, you know?" He shrugged. "My hands were tied."
"Forget about it," I said. "But I might call you later. I have some questions."
"Jesus, Charlie, didn't you hear the guy? I mean, Stan's been good to me, but that's all finished. Game over."
"It ain't game over, Burt. It might be two outs, bottom of the ninth, and I might be swinging a toothpick instead of a Louisville Slugger, but you better remember how you afforded to put Burt Jr. through Stanford."
I held his gaze just long enough so he'd know I was serious. Then I gave his shoulder a squeeze, softened my tone a little. "I just need some closure. You answer a few questions, and I'm out of your hair that much sooner."
He chewed his lip but nodded. "Sure, Charlie. No promises, but call me. I'll tell you what I know, which isn't a whole damn lot."
I got back in my car and watched Burt and Agent Dunn pull away before I retrieved the tape recorder.
I pushed play.
Tina: "What's that?"
Tina: "I wish you wouldn't do that. It's bad for you."
Jeffers: "Not now, Tina."
Shuffling sounds, moving.
Jeffers: "If you're worried about my health, you should keep people from pushing their way in here and punching me in the face."
Tina: "What are you going to do?"
Jeffers: "I've got to call Beggar."
Jeffers: "I've got to tell him something. Do you know what he'll do? He'll sic that pet killer of his on me. Mercury."
Tina: "Your best protection is to get those books."
Jeffers (shouting): "Well for Christ's sake. Go after Swift. He's got the damn things. That's why I pulled the gun on him. Don't you think I want the books?"
Tina: "Calm down, Alan. Don't worry about Swift. I'll tell Styles to-"
The sound warped, and the tape ground to a halt. The damn batteries had worn down. I smacked the recorder with the palm of my hand but couldn't bring it back to life. Figures. Just when I needed the thing.
First things first. I couldn't keep driving around with Beggar's ledger in the back of my car. That was just asking for trouble. I thought about leaving them with Ma or Marcie or Danny, but anyone I gave them to became an instant target.
I drove to the airport, parked in the short-term lot.
I found a row of lockers in one of the terminals, picked one at random and dropped in a few coins. I stashed the gym bag with the ledgers inside and locked it up tight. I put the locker key on my own key ring, hoping it would blend in. It looked exactly like I was trying to hide an airport locker key on my key ring.
I left the airport and headed back toward the city without any clear idea of where I was going. I'd already decided I needed some help but wasn't sure who to call. Bob was dead, Benny was missing in action, and I'd heard Lou Morgan cash it in over the phone. I'd have to look outside the monkey cage for a friend.
I pulled off the Beltway and found a convenience store with a pay phone. I bought a cup of black coffee inside to make change. At the pay phone, I dialed Jimmy the Fix, and he answered after two rings.
"What it is?"
"Jimmy, it's Charlie Swift."
The pause was only a second, but considering my circumstances, it was a lifetime. In that pause, I rehashed my relationship with Jimmy the Fix. We'd always been on good terms, worked together a few times. As one of Stan's most trusted boys, Jimmy was usually in on the know. I knew he was good people, and I was sure he thought the same of me. But while we were on the same side, we weren't exactly peers. He was administrative, in on big decisions. He handled a lot of business for Stan. I was a dumb gun monkey that played Monopoly and made people bleed when they got out of line. So there I was in the middle of this eternal pause while Jimmy the Fix decided if I was worth the time of day.
When the pause at last ground to a halt, Jimmy said, "I don't know where Stan is, Charlie."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"It's been tough," said Jimmy. "I'm surprised to hear from you. You sound healthy. Good."
He meant I didn't sound like I'd been shot dead by hired killers.
"I need some help," I said.
He tsked on his end. "I'm in a pretty precarious position here. So far Beggar thinks I might be useful. He's leaving me alone."
"He told you that?"
"Because I'm not dead," said Jimmy heatedly. "Like I said, I'm surprised to hear from you. Get out of Orlando. Beggar won't chase you north or west. He just wants all of Stan's old team out of harm's way."
"But not you, huh?"
"A guy's got to survive, Charlie. Why don't you wise up? If Stan's alive, he's hauled ass by now. You should too."
I gripped the phone tight, barely had my voice in control. I took a deep breath, then started in. "I want you to listen to me real good, Jimmy. I haven't done a lot of good things I can be proud of. I'm good with my fists and with a gun, but those aren't the things that make your ma proud or impress a good woman or win you any community service awards. Okay, I'm not a model citizen, and neither are you. We don't try to be, and it ain't profitable anyway. But I got one rule, just one I've been faithful to no matter what. I've always been good to the people that were good to me. If you don't have people like that- if you can't be a person like that- then you're never going to have a friend or a moment's rest or a single good night's sleep as long as you live."
It was about the best speech I could muster on short notice, but it expressed a whole wad of twisted, churning feelings I'd had thumping around in my gut since this whole ordeal began. This time Jimmy's pause was deeper and stank of guilt and indecision. I hoped I was pushing Jimmy's buttons in the right places, that he'd remember all the times Stan had stood by his side when the breaks were against him.
"God damn you, Charlie."
And I smiled.
"Okay," said Jimmy. "First thing I'm going to do is ask about the rest of that goon squad you play Monopoly with."
"What about them?"
"Are they accounted for?"
"They're dead, if that's what you mean."
"Not all of them."
"No," I admitted. "I can't find Benny."
"What are you getting at?"
"I'll give you a second to think about it," said Jimmy.
I didn't need a second. I knew what he meant, and Blade Sanchez's words came back to me. Blade had said he could go to work for Beggar. Sure. That made sense. Before Beggar took over Stan's territory, he'd want to get a few guys on the inside.
"I'll call you after I find Benny," I said.
"Thanks for reminding me about some things."
I hung up the phone, got back in my car.
I drove. My head buzzed. Too much to think about. Time for a quick recap of my situation.
Stan was missing, maybe dead. All my buddies from the monkey cage were dead except for possibly Benny who was maybe a rat. Everyone kept telling me to run, but I had nowhere to go. I had a set of ledgers in an airport locker which could shut down Beggar for life if they fell in the wrong hands. Probably why the Feds were keeping a close eye on Jeffers, who just wanted to shove white powder into his nose and get through the day with as little fuss as possible.
In my corner: A fat guy called Jimmy the Fix. My kid brother with his toy gun. Marcie and a house full of dead art. Burt the cop, who might answer a few questions if he felt like it and if the Feds weren't too far up his ass. Not much of an army.
Oh, yeah. I was hungry. I pulled into Wendy's, ordered a burger value meal, biggie-sized it. I ate it too fast, digested poorly. I was pissed off, my stomach sour.
I went back to the convenience store, went inside for more change. I had calls to make.
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