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The Devil's Redhead
By David Corbett
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2002 David Corbett
All rights reserved.
Abatangelo stood on the porch of a safe house in western Oregon, watching with foreboding as an old Harley-Davidson shovelhead thundered up the winding timber road. The motorcycle turned into the long, steep drive to the house, spewing gravel and dust as it charged uphill beneath the pine shade.
Behind him, footsteps approached from inside. Glancing over his shoulder, he watched as Shel materialized through shadow at the porch door screen.
"Kinda early," she said, nodding down the hill.
"Isn't it," he replied.
Abatangelo recognized the bike. It belonged to a man named Chaney, one of the local throwbacks he'd hired for the beach crew. Not the brightest bulb, but he wasn't alone in that. This was probably the sorriest bunch Abatangelo had put together in years, comprised of Chaney and his wanna-be biker pals, plus an unruly and utterly toasted squad of pillheads from Beaverton and a few swacked Chinooks who at least knew the area. It underscored how right it was that this should be the last catch ever, a final nest egg against the looming unknown.
Chaney took the final crest of the hill at full throttle. The dogs, three spirited black Labs, barked from inside the fenced-in backyard as the bike left behind the thick shade of the drive and entered the hardpan firebreak surrounding the house. Chaney came garbed in denims and cowboy boots and aviator shades, with a black watch cap pulled down low on his head. Maybe all of twenty years old. Give him three years, Abatangelo thought, he'll be punching a clock for the timber companies, or whining because he isn't, same as everybody else up here.
Revving the throttle three times, legs sprawled for balance, Chaney walked the hog up to the porch. Abatangelo waited till he killed the engine, then waited a little longer for the dust to settle. Pines on all sides of the house swayed in the morning breeze. In the distance a lumber truck broke the valley-wide silence, groaning in low gear up a steep grade.
"What an unexpected pleasure," Abatangelo said, making sure Chaney caught his tone. This location wasn't common knowledge, not among the hirelings. Only the Company captains knew where to find each other.
"Yeah, well," Chaney said, clearing his sinuses of dust. "Eddy gave me directions."
Eddy was Eddy Igo, the Company's transportation chief. He was also Abatangelo's closest friend.
"He's in trouble," Abatangelo guessed.
Chaney lifted his shades, rubbing his eyes. "We were out last night," he said, "put a serious package on. Eddy was driving. Got pulled over on the lumber road to Roseburg. Trooper made Eddy get out and do the stunts. You can pretty much imagine how that went."
"Roseburg," Abatangelo said. "Kinda far afield. You were over there why?"
"Truck hunt," Chaney said.
It was Eddy's job to assemble the fleet of trucks they'd need to move the load off the beach to the remote barn they'd be using for temporary storage.
"Eddy in Roseburg now?"
"Drunk tank," Chaney confirmed. "He was getting cuffed, said, 'Tell the family for me, will ya? Have 'em make bail.' I figured he meant you, 'cuz I got no idea where his people are."
"And he gave you directions here."
"Kinda vague and cryptic, you know, hush-hush," Chaney said. "Not so the trooper caught on. Don't think so, any rate. If I didn't live around here, I'd a been clueless, too."
Abatangelo looked off, scanning the forest as he thought things through. The story could be horseshit. The locals may have turned the boy already, sent him out here to lure the next man in. Me, he thought. Worse, Shel. There was no way to tell without taking the next step, heading into Roseburg. If the kid was telling the truth, Abatangelo knew he had to get Eddy out soon, before the law caught on to who he was.
"I appreciate your bringing the news," he said finally. A display of gratitude was called for, in the event Chaney was being straight with him. "You want to come on in? Stretch out, maybe have a bite?"
Shel recognized this as a cue. Opening the screen door, she stepped on out to the porch, dressed in a tartan lumberjack shirt and blue-jean cutoffs, barefoot, her red hair still tousled from sleep. Chaney, blinking, broke into a love-struck smile.
"Come on in, roughrider," she said, extending a hand.
Chaney froze, like she was asking him to dance. Shel wiggled her hand and Chaney came to, struggling to disengage himself from his machine and staggering a little as he got his legs beneath him, trundling forward, up the wood-plank stair and onto the porch.
As Abatangelo headed into the bath for a fast shower and shave, Shel led Chaney back through the house toward the kitchen. The kid ambled along, inspecting the place as though everything in it possessed a veiled meaning. He lingered at the framed photographs on the walls, taken by Abatangelo during his travels with Shel—Tulum, Barcelona, Pataya, Trinidad, Vanuatu. There were both landscapes and portraits, black and white mostly, but color, too, even a few hand-tinted prints. Chaney, eyes wide, probed the corners of his mouth with his tongue as he walked picture to picture.
In the kitchen, Shel pointed to a chair at the pine table near the window and asked, "Hungry?"
Chaney wiped dust from under his eyes and nodded. "Got any tuna fish?"
It stopped her cold. "We're talking breakfast here."
Chaney shrugged. "Well, yeah."
The tone in his voice, it reminded her, This is a boy. "Sure," Shel said.
"Tuna fish and Thousand Island dressing. Slice of Swiss if you got it. You know, a sandwich."
He pressed his palms together, as though to demonstrate what a sandwich was. Good God, Shel thought, gagging.
He sat down and shortly noticed a stack of prints and proof sheets Abatangelo had left out on the table. "Jeez," he said, waving in the vague direction of the hallway, as though to include both groups of photographs in his remark. "These are like, you know, good."
"Danny has an eye."
"I mean, like professional good," Chaney said. "You know, Time. Newsweek. Penthouse."
Shel dumped a splotch of Thousand Island dressing into a bowl of canned tuna and started working the stuff with a fork. "He's sold a few to the wire services, AP, that kinda thing." She slathered the stuff onto two slices of white bread.
Chaney sniggered and sat back. "Yeah right. And this load coming in, what's that?" He crossed his arms, snorting as he nodded toward the pictures. "Probably bought all this shit at some kinda ... I dunno, sale."
Shel put down the fork, wiped her hands, strode across the room and leaned down till she was nose to nose with him.
"Look at me," she said, tapping the bridge of her nose with her finger. "You got something you wanna say?"
Chaney leaned back a little, glance jittering from one eye to the other. "I said it already."
"You're sure of that."
"Good." Shel straightened. "If not, let's hear it now. All of it."
Chaney gnawed his lip. "What I meant," he said quietly, "is, like, it's a good idea, you know? Make the place look artsy. Like that's what you guys do."
"It is what we do," Shel said. "Remember that." She stormed back to the counter, threw his sandwich together and served it to him with a jar of pickles and a can of RC cola. "Chow down, Brown," she said, then headed for the bath.
Abatangelo was finishing up, shaving himself, his lathered face reflected in a hand-wiped circle of steamless mirror. Shel sat down behind him on the edge of the tub. He was naked from his shower, dampness clinging to the hair along his legs, droplets dotting his back where he'd missed with the towel.
He glanced over his shoulder and nodded toward the kitchen. "You trust him?"
"He's hell-bent on putting my self-control to work, I can tell you that."
"That could be stuff."
"It's not stuff, believe me. It's him. Anyway, yeah, sure, what's not to trust? If the locals already rolled the kid, they'd have come up here themselves. You're the head man. Why wait?"
"Always looks good in the papers," he said, "you take down the whole crew."
"You are the whole crew," she said. "Be real. They get greedy, especially using that kid out there, they risk tipping you off. You close the whole thing down, poof, you're gone. Then what've they got? Eddy on a drunk driving beef."
Abatangelo rinsed his razor beneath the spigot. "You're probably right."
"Which leaves us where?"
With a washcloth he wiped away the last of the shaving cream. "If we're lucky," he said, "Eddy's already been sprung and he's wandering around downtown Roseburg."
"You feeling lucky?"
Since the decision last spring to roll the dice, go ahead with this final run, fuckups had grown routine. The buzzards of bad luck were circling.
"Not particularly," he admitted. He went into the next room, sat on the bed and pulled on a T-shirt, a pair of socks.
Shel followed him in. "Let me take care of Eddy," she offered. "Go in, make his bail."
Abatangelo got to his feet, stepped into his pants. "What makes you less of a risk than me?"
"Oh come on, Danny, don't."
Shel's role in the Company was limited to playing the nice girl, the friendly new neighbor. She baby-sat the safe houses, took care of the dogs and gardens, finessed the locals. She was a brave, convincing actress, a sterling liar, but she handled no product. She never put up seed money, never optioned shares on a load. That was Danny's bit.
"I've got a better idea," he told her.
* * *
The man's name was Blatt, a private investigator with no address but a Roseburg post office box. Most mornings he could be reached at a luncheonette named Brandy's on the outskirts of town. They learned this from a local defense lawyer they contacted anonymously.
While Abatangelo waited in the car, Shel met Blatt in the restaurant. The place was paneled in knotty pine turned smeary and dark from years of grill grease and smoke. She sat with a cup of bitter coffee while, across the table, Blatt feasted on rheumy eggs, two rasps of charred bacon, and hash browns that looked like a fried disk of soap shavings. The man wore hiking boots and jeans, with a gabardine sport coat over a Western shirt, complete with bolo tie. He was medium height and wiry, with knobby hands and dirty nails. It was difficult to tell, from the way his long, thinning blond hair swirled around his head, whether he'd made a bad job of a comb-over or just been caught in the wind.
Shel explained what she wanted. Blatt nodded as he listened, then said, "Gonna cost you a thousand dollars. On top of his bail, which is two-fifty. That's standard on a DWI up here." He stabbed at an egg yolk with a wedge of toast.
"A grand," she said. "A little steep, don't you think? That your hourly fee?"
"Make it two thousand." Blatt, still chewing, wiped his lips with his napkin, sat back, swallowed, licked his teeth. "Cash, of course."
Shel declined to make further protest for fear of the stakes rising again. "Where's this get done?"
"The money? Right here." He unwrapped a mint-flavored toothpick. "Do business here all the time. Look weird if we went somewhere else."
Weird to who, Shel wondered, glancing around the one-room luncheonette. The waitress was flirting with the cook. The other patrons, three lumpy middle-aged men, looked more like lonesome uncles than law enforcement.
"Excuse me a minute," she said, getting up from the table. She walked to the counter, picked up a discarded newspaper, and headed to the can. Once inside she locked the door, stood at the sink and counted out $2,250 from her purse, wrapping it inside the paper. God help us all if this is a huge mistake, she thought. Tightening the fold of the paper around the money, she headed back out to the table where she sat back down and set the paper between her and Blatt.
"Humor me, if you don't mind," she said.
She accepted a refill on her coffee and took two lingering sips. Finally, she rose and collected her purse. "Please let Ed know I'll meet him at the bus station." She left the newspaper behind.
* * *
Down the block, Abatangelo watched from the car as Shel exited the luncheonette. Squinting in the sunlight, she walked to the curb, rested her hand on a lamppost and removed her shoe, as though to shake out a pebble. That was the sign.
He put the car in gear and headed for the interstate. An hour and a half later he was in the Medford bus station, buying himself three packs of gum and copies of Esquire and Photography and Sports Illustrated, then retreating to one of the long wood benches in the lobby for the four-hour wait till the bus from Roseburg rolled in, hopefully with Shel and Eddy on it.
From time to time he got up, stretched his legs, ambled about the shabby premises, scouting among the bedraggled Greyhounders for anybody who might be undercover, checking the parking lot for unmarked cars. Time crept past, giving him more than ample opportunity for reflection.
In Bangkok the preceding spring, Steve Cadaret had watched all his old contacts disappear. Rumor suggested the vanishings were the handiwork of certain officers in the Royal Thai Army, who were not-so-secretly taking over the trade, running off the minor players. It wasn't till the wane of the dry season Cadaret finally tracked down a new source he felt he could trust. The price, though, to be transferred between Hong Kong accounts, was exorbitant, forty points on the tonne over anything he'd heard of before.
"Only the DEA will offer you better," he was told. "Make your decision quickly. Soon the rains will start."
Once a suitable ship was found and rendered seaworthy, the Company's skipper, Jimmy Byrne, set sail with a crew of marginally sober Australians, heading up the South China Sea to pick up the load. He made one communication, just one, to Abatangelo—to explain that the engineer he'd hired to wire and tune the radio had burnt out the capacitors. To make matters worse, the backup could only reach high frequency ARRL bands, the ones monitored by the Coast Guard. Byrne signed off promising in code that he was coming in to the Oregon coast at the appointed time, but he'd be radio-silent the rest of the way.
And so we sit, Abatangelo thought, waiting for a shipment from a source we don't know, en route aboard a ship we can't contact. As if all that weren't bad enough, there were the stateside foul-ups, Eddy's little problem with drink only the most recent. Joey Bassinger, the Company's paymaster, had left twenty grand in the trunk of a rental car. Mickey Bensusan, in charge of distribution, couldn't whip his wholesalers out of their lethargy; rumors of a grand jury in Portland had people spooked. Add to all that the lamentable beach crew, and you had a damn good recipe for disaster.
The bad turn in luck underscored the intelligence of getting out. The winds had changed, and it wasn't just Nancy Reagan and her berserk crusade to spare suburban teens the perils of pot. It wasn't just the competition from the sensemilla farmers along California's north coast, either, them and their mad botanist partners. The Mob had reclaimed the dope trade with a fury. No longer content to limit themselves to coke and skag, where the margins were better, they were perfectly content to blunder in where they had no place and glut the market with mediocre weed. On top of that there were blowback Cubans in the thick of it, too, not to mention the Marielitos, the Vietnamese, the Colombians, even the Mexican inheritors of the old candelilla contraband routes. Everybody was muscling for a piece of the prize. Greed ran wild, with a grisly streak of menace trailing behind. No more room for jokers like Danny Abatangelo. The era of the wildcat smuggler had played itself out.
Not that getting out was the snap the uninitiated made it out to be. First, it took time to work the money right so you weren't a sitting duck. Instant millionaire? Do tell. Second, you couldn't just strand your friends. Eddy, Joey, Mick, not to mention Cadaret and Byrne—he owed them, which was what this whole last run was all about: Put a little lucre in everybody's pockets, take the bitter taste out of their mouths as they tried to figure out an answer to, So what am I supposed to do now?
Excerpted from The Devil's Redhead by David Corbett. Copyright © 2002 David Corbett. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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