Vanilla ride, p.9

Vanilla Ride, page 9


Vanilla Ride

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  I patted her knee. “Because you are so pretty.”

  “Oh. Well, of course,” she said, “duh, there is that.”

  “I got a joke,” I said.

  “Not now,” Leonard said.

  “It’s pretty good.”

  “Not now,” Brett said, and I knew that was the end of that.

  “I don’t know about you two,” I said, “but I miss Kelso already. He had such sweet, if electrified, eyes.”

  “You’d think they’d wipe these boogers down,” Brett said. “I don’t know who they think that intimidates. It’s just nasty.”

  “I hear that,” Leonard said.

  “And that piss smell,” she said. “It could hold your coat.”

  “It could wear it,” Leonard said.

  The door opened and Drake came in, and there was a guy with him that had a head like a concrete block. His haircut had something to do with that, gold as an Aryan dream, waxed up in front, flared out on the sides. He had a big hooked nose and thin lips and seemed to have more teeth than a human ought to, something a crocodile might envy, only straighter. His eyes were big and dark brown, like two unwiped butt holes. He reminded me of a villain out of those old Dick Tracy comics.

  Drake went over and leaned against the wall, got a whiff of the piss, moved to another corner. The guy with the square head leaned back against the mirror. He said, “There’s nobody on the other side.”

  “You say,” Leonard said.

  Drake said, “No. He’s right.”

  “Damn, glad we got your word on that,” Leonard said. “That makes it all right, then.”

  “I locked the door leads into the investigation room,” Drake said.

  “You got the only key?” I asked.


  “Ah,” I said. “No one else would of course use their key and go in there and look at us. … But frankly, we don’t care. Ask what you want. It was self-defense.”

  “I know,” Drake said.

  That sort of stunned us, but lawmen are tricky.

  The door opened and two guys came in. One of them was the guy who had been in Tanedrue’s trailer, the one who wasn’t with the batch we shot up today, the guy whose profile was gone, whose nose was splinted now and taped over good with tape so thick he looked like the Mummy. His forehead looked as if someone had broken in his ball bat on it. A shock of thick hair poked up from the top of the bandages like a rooster’s comb. He went over and leaned against the wall and looked at Leonard. It wasn’t a look of adoration.

  I thought, What the hell?

  The other guy was a short fat guy in a black suit with a black tie and some black shoes that needed a shine. He looked like an undertaker in a pet cemetery. He blew some breath out between his fat lips, went over and leaned on the wall next to our friend with the tape and the bruises.

  The room was starting to get tight. If one more person came in we’d all be wearing the same suit of clothes, and I was sure I needed to change my underwear.

  Brett looked at the two leaning on the mirror, said, “There’s boogers on the wall and there’s something on the mirror I don’t think will pass for mayonnaise. Just a word to the wise.”

  They stopped leaning.

  Leonard glared at the taped-up man, said, “What the hell is the Phantom of the Opera doing here?”

  Drake said, “We’ll come to that. But first, we got a little deal for you guys.”

  “A deal?” I said. “Think we’re going to rat each other out? There’s people saw what happened. We didn’t go looking to be shot at. I might run over that yard gnome again I got the chance, but getting shot at like that, trust me, I’d rather pass. And you said it yourself, self-defense.”

  “You’re going to get the charges dropped, or rather they’re going to definitely turn into self-defense,” Drake said. “No court. No problem.”

  “No shirt. No shoes. No problem,” Leonard said. “What kind of bull is this? There’s always court. What’s the catch?”

  Drake didn’t say anything. He crossed his arms.

  I said, “There is a catch, isn’t there?”

  “That’s one way of putting it,” Square Head said. “It’s more like we got your dick in the zipper and we’re pulling it up tight. In your case, ma’am, I guess it’s your tit we got caught up.”

  “Then you better have a lot of zipper,” Brett said, “’cause I’m serious in the tit department.”

  No one opposed this opinion.

  “Agent Tenson here,” Drake said, nodding at the Dick Tracy villain, “he’s with the FBI, and he and his buddy here, Captain Bandage—”

  “Man, that’s some funny shit,” Captain Bandage, aka the Mummy aka the Phantom, said.

  “They want to talk to you,” Drake said. “Me, I’m just a lowly fucking public servant who’s always got the raw ass from these fed guys sticking their dicks in it, and I hate them.”

  “Come on,” Tenson said. “There’s no need to turn this ugly. You and me, I’m sure we got things in common, Drake.”

  “Yeah,” Drake said. “These guys, that’s what we got in common. May have been self-defense, but it didn’t just come out of nowhere, these folks wanting to kill them. There has to be a backstory. I don’t like lettin’ them off. They shot a lot of people. They ought to at least have a paddling, a night in jail, noses in the corner. This isn’t right, man.”

  “What I want to know,” Leonard said, “is why is the fucking Mummy in on this?”

  The Mummy’s voice sounded snotty, which isn’t unusual when your snout is packed with cotton. “It’s Milhouse. I was working undercover. Thanks a lot, asshole, you fucked up a real sting operation just to take some whore home.”

  “Her granddaddy doesn’t see her that way,” Leonard said.

  “Yeah, but me, I’ve had surgery, and I got to have some more. Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome,” Leonard said, and the Mummy came off the wall and Drake stepped over and put a hand against the Mummy’s chest.

  “After what he done to you,” Drake said, “I wouldn’t push it. I think he can do it again. And we took the handcuffs off.”

  “Yeah,” Leonard said, still sitting, holding his hands up. “They took the handcuffs off.”

  “We ought to all just beat him down,” the Mummy, aka the Phantom of the Opera, aka Captain Bandage, said.

  “We ought to,” Drake said, “but we won’t.”

  “You were undercover,” Leonard said. “Might have been nice had you warned us Tanedrue and his mutts were going to take a run at us.”

  “I didn’t know,” Milhouse said. “Had no idea. I told them I had some family concerns, got out. My figuring was some higher-ups were gonna come down on them, and I didn’t want to be there when it happened.”

  The fat guy said, “Way it was gonna work was we was gonna let Tanedrue and his dopes take care of you guys, then we were gonna come down on them, spread their asses all over Kingdom Come. Guys like them are too stupid to deal dope, and let me tell you from experience, that’s putting them in a real stupid place. We got guys working for us that are damn near retards and they do better. One guy in Dallas hasn’t got any legs and goes around in the streets on a wheeled board selling dope and peddling ass for us, and he does a better job than those fucks.”

  “And who are you?” I asked. “My first guess is since you got people selling dope and ass for you, you’re not a cop, though these days, hard to say. And though you could be a priest on vacation, I’m doubtful.”

  “I’m the guy that wanted you two killed,” the fat man said.

  Leonard shifted in his chair. Drake said, “I got a gun, Leonard.”

  “I don’t like people want to kill me or Hap,” Leonard said. “Fact is, it seriously chaps my ass. I don’t like you bringing him, whoever he is, in here to lord over us like he’s somethin’. What the hell is going on here? Tell us or arrest us or shoot us or do some goddamn thing or another. I’m fed up.”

  “Hold it a minute,” I said. “Di
dn’t someone say something about a deal? I mean, there’s some kind of deal, I want to hear it.”

  “Oh yeah,” Drake said. “These guys got deals out the ass.”


  A day after they let us go, after they offered us the deal, Marvin gave us a short-lived holiday. He owned a boat and he took me and Leonard and Brett out to a lake near LaBorde to go fishing. It was a nice lake with a big dam. Marvin had some kind of membership there, and you could only get in with a key to a gate that had a sign on it that said BEWARE OF ALLIGATORS. It was an open boat and had plenty of seats and a lot of room, a place to lay your rods and clamp them down. There was a container in the floor of the boat and we had some cold drinks in there, but it was too cold to want them. We also had a couple thermoses of coffee, some bologna-and-mayonnaise sandwiches, some bags of potato chips that were more inviting.

  Marvin steered the boat out to the middle of the calm water, making it less calm as we went. Small, dark birds were in the willow trees across the way and the grass near the trees was tall and still green even in the brisk beginnings of winter; it grew out from beneath the trees, ran across the bank and into the lake like a green tattoo. Once we got settled and the wake of the boat had subsided, the water around us looked like a huge sheet of tin. There was the faint smell of dead fish in the air and there were a number of old logs floating on the lake’s surface. After a while one of the logs swam away.

  It was an alligator, probably sneaking up on a frog. It had fooled me. I cast my line away from that direction, but watched the alligator, the way it split the water and gave the lake a darker color wherever it swam.

  “I certainly got you guys in a mess,” Marvin said.

  “You did,” Brett said, frowning at the little green rubber lizard she had on the end of her line for bait.

  “I know, and I regret it. Thanks for having them cut Gadget loose, Hap.”

  “I didn’t have them do anything special,” I said. “I just told them they wanted a deal from us she had to be cut loose.”

  “It’s the only way they would have let her go,” he said.

  “No problem,” I said. “How’s she doing?”

  “She’s in rehab, out in Arizona. Rachel and JoAnna are with her. I convinced them, after what you two did, I couldn’t go. Had to be here to help you. But Gadget, I guess she’s doing all right. Rachel said she’s still in a kind of shock. She feels guilty going back to Tanedrue, didn’t know they would come after you and take her with them, didn’t know it was going to be like that. She doesn’t love that dead fuck anymore, sees him for what he is and what he was doing to her. Now, after all that garbage she finally sees. She’s as naive as a fresh-born baby sometimes. Said to tell you, Brett, she deserved every slap you gave her, and then some.”

  “Hell, I know that,” Brett said, and cast her line. She looked cute today, in a heavy coat with a tan cap with earflaps and big cream-colored puffy boots full of warm stuffing. Her long hair was tied back in a ponytail, and it was bloodred against her back because of the way the sun was falling on it.

  “The FBI sort of got us over a barrel,” I said. “That had something to do with us telling them yes, trying to better our situation. We’re not all that noble, Marvin.”

  “Speak for yourself,” Leonard said. “I am one noble sonofabitch, and way special. If I weren’t so tired I’d walk on water and kick that alligator’s ass.”

  “You’d have got off anyway,” Marvin said. “There would have been a trial, and a lot of time taken up, but in the end, they’d have let you three off and fined you for the shotgun. I don’t know, might have been some jail time. Witnesses, though, they were on your side. There was one fellow upset about some yard gnomes, another about some pink flamingos, but other than that it came out all right.”

  “Death to gnomes and flamingos,” I said.

  “Bottom line,” Marvin said, “is I know why you did it, and you can downplay it all you want, but I know why you did it, and I won’t ever forget. Already owed you guys, now I really owe you.”

  “We owed you some too,” Leonard said. “For something or another, though I kind of forget what. But after this we’ll be even. We can start running tabs on each other again.”

  We fished all day in the cold, dry weather on the flat gray lake beneath the pearl-colored sky, eating the sandwiches and chips, drinking the coffee and talking a little, but not too much. I cast my line without purpose, and with no real hope of catching anything. I was fishing a wish and nothing more. I reeled my line in time after time, watching it cut the water like the thin edge of a knife. I cast and recast until the sun was falling down behind us and the sky that had been clear and pearl-colored at my back turned red as a whore’s lipstick, then was stained with purple like the insides of a plum stretched out. I reeled in my line and turned to take a good look at the sky. I thought it might be the last time I saw a sky like that, or went fishing. Might be the last day and night I saw Brett, because in the morning I was sending her away. It had been a battle, but I had convinced her. She was going out to Arizona too, to join Gadget and Rachel and JoAnna. Secretly, I think events had unnerved her. Not that she was fearful of what might happen to her—well, no more than someone should be reasonably fearful—but because she had enjoyed it all too much; there was something inside of her that had snapped. It was the same thing that had allowed her to set her ex-husband on fire and beat him with a shovel, and pistol-whip a midget. It hadn’t frightened her before, but now it had. She had seen its full face and it was gruesome. This time people had died. I didn’t question that they needed to die, but they had, and by our hands, in an explosion of blood and urine and feces, a whiff of gun smoke on the air.

  I knew how she felt. Problem was, that thing inside of me had clicked loose so many times it was starting to feel normal, like the necessary lancing of a wound. I had looked into the abyss so much it was no longer just looking back at me, it had its arms around me and was puckering to kiss.

  I wanted to just let it all go, do the jail time, forget about the FBI deal. But then I thought some more about that jail time, and since I had already done prison some years back and I could remember it as if it were yesterday I didn’t want any more of that.

  I cast my line toward the setting sun and the stained sky, and when I started reeling it in a fish hit. I reeled it until it was close enough for me to reach out and take hold of the line just above the fish. It was a moderate-sized perch. I loosened the hook from its mouth and gently tossed it back in the water.

  We started ashore then, my fish having been the only one caught. Marvin hadn’t driven the boat far toward shore before the night overtook us, collapsed over the water and made it dark as the River Styx. When we got to the boat ramp there was no more light except a thin ray of rising moonlight that was slowly being bagged by some fast-moving clouds. The wind picked up and really turned cold. The weather had changed in a flash. Welcome to East Texas.

  We used flashlights and got out at the front of the boat without stepping in the water and fastened the crank line to Marvin’s trailer, then used the automatic crank and put it in place. We drove away, along with a rumble of thunder, and soon after, out on the highway, there were thin streaks of lightning, like bright varicose veins cutting across the black sky. We drove to Marvin’s place and put the boat in the carport and closed it up, then he drove us home in his big Ford truck, and he and Leonard spent the night at our place.

  We put Leonard on the couch and we got a blow-up bed for Marvin, some extra pillows for them from the closet. We weren’t supposed to have guns, but Marvin had brought a shotgun for himself and one for Leonard and he gave me and Brett handguns. We talked for a long time in the dark, sitting in the living room, then finally Brett and I went up to bed, placing the handguns on the nightstand.

  Brett and I were fiery that night and at first I feared they would hear us downstairs, then after a while I didn’t care at all. When we finished, we hugged for a while, then she said, “You’re sure Jim B
ob’s coming?”

  “Oh yeah, he said so, so he’ll be here. Marvin arranged it. I just wish we could have found Veil. But you know how he is. Locating him is like trying to find a virgin in a whorehouse.”

  “Jim Bob, he’s good.”

  “Real good,” I said. “After Leonard, he’s who I would want at my back. Veil, I’d kind of like him there too.”

  “He’s like that character the Shadow.”

  “He is. Kind of gives me the creeps, but he’s a good one to have on your side. Wish we could have found him.”

  “What about this guy Marvin knows that’s comin’? Tonto?”

  “Marvin says he’s good, so I reckon he is. He’s one more, and that’s good.”

  “Yeah,” she said, “that’s good.”

  “Marvin said Tonto owes him a big favor. He won’t say what the favor is, but he says he’ll pay him back.”

  “Not everyone pays favors back,” she said.

  “Marvin said Tonto does, so I got to believe him.”

  We were hugging close and I could feel Brett’s warm tears on my cheek. I said, “It’ll be all right, baby.”

  “I feel bad leaving you.”

  “I don’t feel bad you’re going,” I said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

  “All right, then,” she said. “There’s nothing else to say, is there?”

  I shook my head. “Nothing else.”

  She pulled her big T-shirt that said SHEN CHAUN, MARTIAL SCIENCE over her head, kissed me, and rolled over and went to sleep with my hand on her hip. She could do that a lot of the time, just go down into dreamland no matter what was on her mind. Wasn’t that easy for me, not when I had plans for the next day, especially the kind of plans we had to set in motion.

  The rain outside picked up. I sat up and put my pillow behind my head, against the wall, listened to the rain grow savage. Thunder shook the upstairs windows with a sound like dice being rattled in a cup. Lightning was jumping around outside. The rain made a sound like a giant snake hissing, and the roof was taking some serious shots from drops that were hitting like artillery fire.

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