Agent Ramiel walked around the corner to his nondescript black Ford, got in and drove two blocks away from the crime scene. The details were burned into his eyes like afterimages. The detective's words kept coming up in his mind like an irritating song, "She was a nice girl, a waitress. She wasn't a whore."
When the old Ford finally gave out, the elderly preacher slowly eased it over onto the roadside. He'd been driving tight-lipped, his eyes locked onto the far horizon ahead, his hands gripping the steering wheel with the same force of will he used when laying on hands to drive out illness from one of his congregation back home. A few miles from San Angelo, Texas where they'd stopped in for lunch, the car had suddenly begun to grumble and groan. It stuttered and threatened to quit with unsettling loss of speed, then picked up where it left off and drove normally for a while before it made good on the threat.
Slappy watched Romeo drive off down the road in the piece-of-shit farmer pick-up truck that belonged to the motel. The dust from the road floated up into the air in the trucks wake and hung there like dirty cigarette smoke. Standing at the edge of the road by himself with a peeved expression, he looked every bit the bored teenage boy he was. He sighed heavily, jammed his hands in his pockets and turned back to the driveway where the three big mutts that also belonged to the motel stood watching him.
Sonora was all played out as far as Sardo was concerned. It was late Sunday morning and his head was grinding away at a hangover that'd seemed to begin before he'd even had a chance to enjoy his drinks. He and the other guys––Don, Mike, and Tony M.––had pretty much exhausted their options for a good time. It was always the way in those little shit towns, not like back home in New York where you couldn't get enough time off to wear out the fun, even if you never worked another day in your life.
It was half past three in the afternoon and the rain was still coming down like buckets of gravel. The noise was so loud, Romeo hadn't heard the lobby door open. The Bella Vista Motel didn't have a bell on the door, usually the dogs acted as alarm or welcome committee, but they'd been out running around when the rain started in and were probably huddled under a car or something.
Agent Ramiel parked near 56th street and paused to look over the notes he had written so far that morning. His notebook, though small enough to fit in his breast pocket, was meticulously organized by subject and date. His handwriting was small and precise. He liked to write his notes in the car after an interview, not during. It was too easy to miss contradictory expressions in the eyes, or subtle clues in gesture while trying to transcribe. He listened, he watched. His memory was infallible. And sometimes, as with writing down his dreams upon waking, he found that answers and understanding flowed from solitary contemplation after the fact.
Gabrielle parked the big blue Oldsmobile in the train station parking lot and cut the engine. She'd allowed the tears to run freely down her cheeks while she drove, but now she pulled a handkerchief out of her purse and began hastily wiping and dabbing, trying to salvage her makeup. Robert would be waiting for her inside, watching for her anxiously, watching for her husband even more anxiously. She glanced at her watch and sucked air through her teeth, she would have to hurry now.
Franco and George rolled up on the Bella Vista a quarter after two in the morning. They were tired as hell, stir crazy, and equally disgruntled that Johnny Black had made them come all the way out to Texas to get their share of the take.
Ruby sat up straight, leaning forward slightly in her seat on the bus, trying not to sweat. The heat of the coming day had let itself be known right away and she did not want to ruin her dress with perspiration stains. Nice dresses didn’t come from nowhere, she had to save up long and treat them like royalty. She’d paid dearly for the turquoise-colored sundress that until then had never seen the sun.
Romeo set Geo up in a room with a cold beer and plenty of clean towels then went out to check on the kid. Geo had told him a couple of stories about Slappy's behavior on the drive out that had him wondering if he wasn't in bad with the Boss after all. Why would he send out such a little bastard?
Romeo had just laid down for an afternoon nap when the dogs went nuts out front. Geo Caletti had called that morning. It had to be him and the kid. Romeo was almost giddy with anticipation for company. He got up, smoothed down the back of his hair and headed out front.
Carol had an awful feeling that someone was following her. She heard footsteps. Whispering voices flitted by her ears like moths. Fearing the shadows and unnerved by the cave-like alleys, she glanced back repeatedly, but could see no one. Nothing was behind her but a long, dark, deserted city street.
Romeo turned off the truck's engine in the driveway of the big white house on 9th Street in San Angelo. He stole a glance at Slappy and tried not to grimace. Ah, Christ, he thought, he's got a hell of a shiner coming up. He felt guilty for losing his temper and hitting the boy, then felt resentful that he'd been driven to it by his stupid mouth.
Charles could tell she was a whore right away. Nice girls didn’t respond that quick, even if they were wild. He’d never actually been to a real whore himself, but he’d read about them and considered himself quite the sophisticate. It wasn’t the first time he'd managed to lure a girl into the manikin storage room at Sweeger’s department store, however.
I couldn't figure how or why at the time, but I sure could see that things had taken a turn for the fucked. One day I was a guy climbing the ladder like a pro. A sweet, easy deal came along from Mr. G, and I grabbed it. How hard could it be to drive a few guys from New York to Los Angeles and keep an eye on them? Then next thing I knew, there I was, in some fleabag hotel in downtown LA, with one guy tied to the bed, one guy off on the lam, and one guy doing a pretty good job of squeezing off my air supply.
1941. Crockett County, Texas.
The neon Bella Vista Motel sign had no competition from the moon the night Madge arrived. It blinked and twinkled in the dark night sky, like the only pretty girl at a party.
The house didn’t aim to impress. Little more than a shack, its bleached slat wood walls slumped in the middle of a dusty plot of land, surrounded by scrub brush and broken fences. A rusty pickup truck with a fresh scrape along the driver’s side was parked like a passed out drunk in the front yard.
Jake and Skad were drunk, but not so drunk they'd let Arnie get away without paying up. The cards in his hand were garbage, just like they had been all night.
He hadn't even wanted to play to begin with, but Jake had noticed that queer pack of cards sitting on the edge of the bar, the ones with the laughing crows on the backs, and the three of them had found themselves playing hand after hand like there was no end to the night. There was an end to Arnie's money all right, and he had come to that end real quick.
The two of them were having a high old time, yucking it up every time Arnie had to push his chips their way. The sound of their barking laughter, like a couple of hyenas in heat drove him to want to break a chair on their heads. He rubbed the sweat off of his forehead, looked down and saw a card on the floor, just laying there, bird side up.
He thought just then that he'd really like to have the last laugh –– a real big laugh just like the bird. As his hand went for his gun, he thought hey, maybe that's what the bird on the back of the cards had been telling him all along... maybe the bird was saying, "Arnie, sometimes you gotta laugh it up big and let the bullets fly!"
The charred, waxy smell of burning pumpkin was everywhere. It seemed to crawl down Chuckie’s throat only so far and then stop. He tried to swallow, but simply couldn’t. He wondered if he had made it back to his room, or if he was still in the lounge where last night’s party had ended in a brawl.