Turns out I wasn't the only guy in town with a kid brother.
In my hunt for Benny, I'd called a topless cocktail waitress named Ruth he shacked up with sometimes. I woke her up, and she gave me an earful. I told her I was looking for Benny, and she gave me another earful.
"He tore out of here like his ass was on fire," she said with her cigarette voice. "Went on the road with that brother of his."
"What's his name?"
"Shane, I think."
"On the road where?"
"What are you, a fucking cop?"
"If I have to come over there and smash you in the mouth, you'll wish I was only a cop."
"Tough guy. I meet all the charmers."
"The Shane kid's in some kind of band. They play up and down the state."
"What's the name of the band?"
"Oh, for God's sake." I heard her fumbling around on the other end, rustling some papers. "They call the band Spanklicious, and they're playing at the Handlebar Saloon. Benny said he'd call me later, but he probably won't. He said he'd be back in a couple of days, but I don't believe that either. That's all I know, I swear to God. Can I go back to sleep now?"
"Sure. Got any messages for Benny when I find him?"
"Tell him to drop dead."
I said I could deliver that message no problem.
Gainesville was a college town about thirty-five miles north of Ocala, and when I got there, I found another pay phone, dialed Marcie, and left a message that I might be busy for a day or two. Then I grabbed the phonebook and found the number for the saloon.
I got to the Handlebar Saloon about 10 P.M., which is when the kid on the phone said the band really got cranked up. The Handlebar was in a worn-out chunk of downtown near the railroad tracks and some other buildings that reminded me of Dresden war photos after the bombing. The dirt parking lot across from the saloon held an equal split of pickup trucks and motorcycles. There wasn't any music when I walked in, so either the band was on break or hadn't started yet.
The Handlebar's interior looked like it had taken up the bombing motif. The walls were mostly exposed brick with the occasional graffiti-covered patch of yellowing plaster. The wooden tables and chairs were rickety and mismatched. The patrons were a rough, working-class lot, and I maneuvered through them as unobtrusively as possible. I found the bar and waved over a beer. The fiftyish man who brought it had a canned ham for a face, and the sleeves of his flannel shirt were rolled up, revealing a set of serious looking tattoos. A special forces skull on the right arm, a naked girl riding an atom bomb ¨¤ la Slim Pickens ¨C except with nipple- on the left.
"I'm looking for the band." I placed a five-dollar bill on the bar for the dollar draft. "Are they on break?"
He nodded past me. "That's them there."
I looked. Three middle-aged men mounted what passed for the Saloon's stage and grabbed guitars. A fourth sat behind the drum set. This didn't strike me as Shane's band, and I didn't see Benny. The bartender brought my change, and I tried again.
"That's Spanklicious?" I felt like a first-rate jackass saying it.
"That's The Dan Riley Band," he told me. "Spanklicious was the early band. Left about an hour ago."
I asked, "Are they playing at the same time tomorrow night?"
"They would've, but we fired them."
I raised an eyebrow.
"Buncha damn noise. You want another beer?"
He refilled my glass and said, "All that jumping around and screaming might be fine for the college kids, but these folks all work for a living. They got enough stress in their lives."
"Do you know where I might get ahold of them? Maybe what hotel they're at?"
"Maureen books the bands. She'll be in tomorrow morning."
"It's important," I said. "Just point me in the right direction."
"Mister, I'm the only one behind the bar, and people need beer. Try tomorrow."
I finished my beer and left as the band cranked up a sluggish version of "Brown-Eyed Girl."
I found the Ramada Inn, got a room.
I kicked off my clothes and flipped on the TV. I needed something mindless to do, so I emptied the guns out of the duffel and began cleaning them. That didn't take long. I flipped through the channels. Shit. I flipped again. Still shit.
Okay. Back to work.
I called Burt. He answered halfway through the first ring. He was still awake, full of coffee and worry.
"Give me your number there."
I gave it to him.
"Give me ten minutes." He hung up.
When he called back, I heard traffic noises in the background.
"It might not be safe to talk on the home phone," said Burt.
"You know I'm looking for Stan, Burt. Let's start with that."
"Look, I have no idea where he is. I'd tell you. Honest."
"What can you tell me?"
"They got people watching Jeffers around the clock," said Burt.
"Easy," said Burt. "The FBI has been putting a case together against Beggar Johnson for three years. Now, they're in a position to shut him down hard. Jeffers was supposed to be getting some accounting ledgers that exposed Beggar's whole operation from Miami to Jacksonville. The Federal boys have Jeffers over a barrel. Either he coughs up the ledgers and testifies against Beggar, or they put him away."
That didn't make any sense. I was the one supposed to be bringing the books. Jeffers knew that. I got suspicious. I mean more suspicious. I went to the window and scanned the parking lot through a crack in the drapes. A black Ford Tempo about ten spaces down, maybe some people sitting inside. The darkness made it hard to tell for sure. Could be I had a few Feds on my tail. Maybe they thought I'd lead them to the books.
Or maybe it was Lloyd Mercury, Beggar's big boy, the killer Jeffers seemed so worried about. I tried to recall what he looked like from the one time I'd seen him. It wasn't difficult. You don't forget a guy like that. He looked like a cocked gun ready to go off. Hard, mean, and quick to pounce.
I made a mental note to look over my shoulder once in a while.
"How was Jeffers going to get the ledgers?" I asked.
"Don't know. The FBI doesn't tell me anything," said Burt.
That explained it. They were keeping Burt in the dark on some of the details. Maybe they suspected his loyalty. Maybe he just wasn't important enough to know everything. If I were the Feds, I'd be careful too. I thought about those men with the badges in Toppers. They'd been Feds too. They almost had the books then except for me. I showed up and shot everyone dead.
"Thanks, Burt," I said. "Anything else?"
"Yeah. Sorry to tell you this, but the FBI has frozen a bunch of bank accounts, Jeffers's included." He cleared his throat apologetically. "Yours too. And I wouldn't try getting near your safety deposit box."
That just fucking figured. "Thanks for the heads up."
"If you and Stan pull this thing out of the fire, just remember who was on your team."
The Handlebar was open early the next morning, so the third-shift crowd didn't have to wait for normal bar hours to get drunk. I was told Maureen wouldn't be in for an hour, so I retreated to a less dilapidated part of town for coffee. I called Marcie, left her another message. I went back to the Handlebar.
Maureen was a tired, sagging matron who didn't look like she gave two shits about anything or anybody, least of all me. I asked her questions, and she answered, not out of kindness but because she judged it would be more trouble not to. Smart lady.
"Worst mistake I ever made," she said. "God damn punk metal bullshit or whatever they call it. I thought maybe we'd attract a younger crowd, you know? Broaden our appeal a little."
"But the regulars didn't care for them?"
"The regulars wanted to kick the shit out of them. You know what they did when the crowd started booing? Spit on 'em. On everyone in the audience."
"So you gave them the boot?"
Her nod started a ripple through the flab sacks on her face. "They wouldn't have lasted another second, let alone another night."
"I'm not exactly a fan, but I do need to find them. I thought you might know where they're staying."
"I'll tell you what I told the other guy. Talk to Parker. He tends bar for us, and it was his idea to book the band in the first place. I should've fired his scrawny ass too."
"What other guy?"
"He's out there now." Maureen jerked a stubby thumb at the back door. "He came in with the same questions you did, and I told him Parker was in the alley having a smoke."
"Thanks. I better have a look." I headed for the back door.
"Mister, I'd take it slow if I were you. This other fella's about as big as they build 'em."
"I'll be careful."
In the alley, an enormous comic book character was pushing a greasy kid up against a stone wall. He was doing it just right. The kid's feet dangled about a foot off the ground, and the giant had to keep pushing against his chest with the flat of his meaty hand to keep him up there. The big guy was Lou Morgan.
Lou whipped his head around. "Charlie?"
Lou folded the kid in half and jammed him down deep into one of the big alley trash cans. "You stay put, Parker. I got to talk to this guy." He gave the can a loud kick for emphasis.
Parker made a cooperative noise, and Lou threw his arms around me in an uncomfortably tight bear hug. "Holy fuck, Charlie, I never thought I'd see you again."
"Me?" Funny, but I didn't mind the hug so much. "I thought I heard you die on the phone. How'd you get out in one piece?"
He posed muscle-man style for me. "This is the Lou-man you're talking about. I fought my way out like a fucking champ, that's how."
We traded stories. I told him I was looking for Benny. I told him why.
His face fell, and he shook his head. "Damn. I was hoping to find somebody to tell me what the fuck's going on. You mean Benny's working for Beggar?"
"Looks that way," I said.
"That's a real bummer," he said. "I liked that little guy. He was little but mean and tough, you know? I thought he was cool. Kinda gets you mad to think somebody cool like that would sell you out."
I knew what he meant. I thought about the beers I'd shared with Benny, the times around the Monopoly table in the monkey cage. I started getting hot all up through my face. Sometimes I get so furious about stuff like that my whole body shakes, and I'm doing something harsh without thinking first. My fists tightened, and I started feeling bad for Benny, knowing what I was going to do to him.
Lou threw up his hands. "Then that's all she wrote, man. Might as well go home."
"We'll go home when I say. We find Stan first, and that means we find Benny."
"You're not in charge of me anymore, man. O'Malley's is ashes. The boss has hit the road."
"You got a choice. You're either nobody going no place, or you're one of Stan's boys, and we're on the job."
He put his hands on his hips, exhaled. "Okay, man. You're the boss. But stop fucking calling me New Guy."
"Whatever you say, New Guy."
"The kid in the can's name is Parker. He's about to tell us useful things, aren't you, Parker?"
I stepped around Lou and found Parker in the trash can. "How's it going?"
"A little cramped."
"I'm looking for Spanklicious."
"I know the house," said Parker. "Just get me out of here, okay? And I'll tell you where."
"Don't get me wrong, Parker. I'm not here to rescue you. You tell me what I want to know."
"And you'll get me out of here?"
"902 Texar. It's a one-story white house. My roommate knows the drummer, and we put them up."
"Are they there now?"
"Maybe. I guess. I don't know. Get me out of here, dude."
"Okay," said Lou. "Let's go get them. Let's find Benny."
I pointed at the trash can. "What about him?"
"We don't need him."
"The second he crawls out of that can, he's going to phone ahead and warn them we're coming."
"Yeah. Okay." He grabbed up the lid of the trash can and clamped it down hard over Parker. The kid's muffled protests caused Lou to pound on the lid. "Shut up in there. We'll let you out when we're done." He scooped up the can by the handle, his biceps rippling without effort.
"Okay, I got him," said Lou. "Let's go."
Lou Morgan was a big, dumb slab of meat good only for throwing punches and taking them. He wasn't somebody I'd normally include in my circle of friends, and we'd only given the lug a job because we didn't want to get our hands dirty throwing deadbeats out of O'Malley's. A towering waste of space.
God, but I was glad to see him.
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