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"What's it gonna be, baby, what's it gonna be?" the red-bearded man in a garish vest challenged, dancing up and down and pounding rhythmically one huge freckled fist into the palm of his other hand.
The men encircling him, their arms around each other's shoulders, stomped in place according to the beat he had laid down and singsonged their response: "I no fucky you, baby, you fucky me!"
"Right, right!" the red-bearded man, whose name was Frederick Munns but who was called Barbarossa by the others, shouted back. "We gonna kill 'em?" he demanded to know. "We gonna blow 'em away?"
"You know we are, you know we are!" a little Chicano, Enrique "Badboy" Solis chanted at the ceiling, his head tipped back like a dancer in ecstasy. "They gonna pay their dues, baby!"
"Freddie D." Diammo looked like a veteran of a long, hard war, but actually he was younger than anyone in the room and had a B.A. in English literature from the University of Washington. It was he who had given Barbarossa his name by way of defending his own identity. Freddie was impatient with the disciplines of rhyme and contented himself with bellowing grace notes of obscenity and threat. It was a skill developed in compensation for his scholarship.
Standing in a corner--no one sat, no one could sit--was the man holding singular authority over the others, Connor "Con" Meehan, who treated self-control as a metaphysical idea. He worked off a lamp table at cleaning his carbine, sawed off and rigged for automatic fire. It was already in perfect condition but treating it in this way was simply a part of the same ritual going on around him. Con was not caught up in the romance of weaponrybut had a salubrious respect for its function. In the same competent way, he respected the need for the noisier aspects of the ritual.
The phone on the desk rang, creating an instant silence in the room. Roy Jackson, a large blond man with a deceptively mild moon of a face, went to answer it. But first, pausing with his hand on the receiver while it jangled, he turned and looked to Con for permission. He was given it with the slightest tip of the head. Roy's side of the conversation consisted of grunts no more lucid than the signaling of birds, yet the men in the room had been together long enough to perceive that the call was no cause for concern and returned to what they had been doing.
"It's the manager," Roy told Con, "bitchin' about the noise. He wanted to know when we'd be out of here."
"Fuck him!" Badboy said, shuffling by in an eccentric little dance.
"No," Con told him in his soft, measured way, "I don't think we want a lot of gung-ho redneck cops busting in here, do we?"
It sounded like a reasoned argument, but the Chicano knew it was more than that and danced over to the opposite side of the room to tell the others it was time to cool it.
"Shit, I ain't even worked up a sweat," Barbarossa complained. Always the organizer, he reformed the circle and started everybody punching the man next to him, the way kids will hit the one next to them and say, "Pass it on." It was a little less noisy than the dancing.
Badboy circled the circle, singing quietly: "I get no rip from cocaine, mere alcohol don't jazz me at all..." He was too small to get in there and let all those beefy Anglos work it up on him. His sleeves were rolled, revealing East Side L.A. gang tattoos on both forearms. Tough little bastard was still advertising fifteen years after the fact.
Roy came over with a newly opened beer foaming onto the rug. Con gave a glance and Roy put his mouth over the neck until it stopped. "Christ, this waiting," he said, wiping his chin with his sleeve. "You never get used to it, no matter how long you been around."
"You don't want to," Con agreed pro forma. The truth was, he never minded waiting on things like this; what he feared were those gaps in his life when there was nothing comparable for which to wait. He was rare in that he enjoyed action or the lack of it equally--so long as they were related. It had been the same when he led a platoon in Nam, even though he was only a boy then.
"Want a beer?" Roy asked him.
Con noted that the other man's face was slightly flushed. He was naturally a little florid, but just the same it was probably time to cut off the beer--Con never allowed anything stronger--just in case. "Sure, thanks. Everyone have a last one. This thing'll be going down soon."
A certain light came into Roy's eyes. "You know somethin' we don't?"
Con shook his head in the sort of limited response they were all accustomed to. But then he added, "If it doesn't in the next hour, we'll improvise."
Roy ambled over to Freddie D. to tell him, "Tonight's the night, baby. We're going in whether it comes off or not."
Freddie D, who hadn't changed out of his Levi's for weeks except to sleep, and had come to resent his own smell, grinned in relief. Plenty of time later to feel lousy about half a burn if it came to that. Right now he shared an itch with the rest that could only be assuaged by some kind of action. He looked over at the jefe, as Badboy called him when he was feeling ethnic, and wondered how he knew when the time had come to scratch.
Con, like the sports managers and coaches he admired, was alone in the crowd; not superior to it, or at least not giving that idea, but not a part of it, either. He was still fooling with the carbine, and would soon celebrate their own special Mass with it.
In a room on the second story of the same motel, a young couple lay sleeping, intertwined. He was twenty-eight, she was twenty-two. Both were nude, their French jeans and monogrammed T-shirts tumbled in a pile at the foot of the bed, as they had made love and fallen asleep directly afterward, the result of a long drive earlier in the day.
The girl was delicate in appearance, with long reddish-blond hair that spread out around her pillow and made a filigree on the sheet she had pulled up over one shoulder. This was Portland, Oregon, in late August, and the air conditioner had over-chilled the room. She had come originally from Victoria, a well-to-do urban background, and he from a relatively poor rural family at the foot of the Cascades. Yet they had driven here in an almost-new Mercedes SL that had been purchased with cash in a paper bag.
In the corner in a portable crib the girl's baby by another man breathed in healthy rhythm, making sucking noises on its pacifier. It was a little boy of eleven months named Jonathan, but called "Free" by the couple in the bed. His natural father was a drummer with a rock group in Spokane.
The young man moaned in his sleep and the young woman, who was used to that without understanding it, reached unconsciously to comfort him. In groping for his face, her hand touched and then jerked away from the grip of the Luger he had placed under the pillow, but without his waking. The young man ceased moaning and the girl rolled over onto her back, her high, firm breasts raising and lowering the sheet. The uneasy sleep might have been due to the fact that they were waiting for an important phone call which was late in coming.
In yet a third room on the second floor, two men were still awake and had no intention of sleeping. They were also waiting for a call, but if it didn't come, they would simply take their empty suitcases down to their Cadillac and start driving in shifts back to San Francisco. One man sat on the toilet with his hat on, a black, narrow-brimmed, wide-banded hat of a type seldom seen west of Bayonne and more typical of Queens or Brooklyn. He was reading the New York Daily News or, more accurately, looking at it, and smoking a cigarette.
The other man sprawled on the bed in his underwear and socks, watching television. He drank Canadian Club from a water glass, siphoning it through his gum, and was a little drunk. Next to him on the bed was a .38-caliber Police Special with the safety on. Neither of these Italianate men knew of the presence of the young couple a dozen doors down the second-story exterior walkway, but they wouldn't have been surprised.
Con nursed his beer until it was warm, rationing out each draw at the bottle in such a way as to carry him right up to the moment of action. In his own mind he had settled on 1 A.M. as the best time to move if it was an abort. He rubbed the bottom of the bottle across the palm of each hand, an unaware justification for the moisture already there. Lighting a cigarette and cursing himself because he was trying to quit, he went over and got the Gideon out of the bedside table. Gideons had been one of the few constants in Con's life until lately when a lot of motels had stopped accepting them. He wasn't religious, but still he regretted it.
On Highway 26 fronting the motel, a black Porsche, new and highly polished, cruised past; once at eleven o'clock, in the opposite direction at eleven-thirty, and back quickly once more at eleven forty-five. This last time it moved off the highway onto the surface streets and drove something like a grid pattern in the vicinity of the motel. At last, about twelve-fifteen, the driver settled in a spot two blocks distant from the building to stare at the second story, fixing at a point approximately where the young couple was sleeping.
He sat there as still as a yogi, the only movement a slight jiggle from the idling of the muscular engine. Jerry DeForest had always been known for his self-control, which was genuine in that it was rooted in an adamantine self-esteem. He was capable of remaining perfectly still like this and concentrating all of his faculties and energies on a single problem for hours at a time. It was an ability or quality he shared with Con Meehan, a man he had never met.
Jerry, at twenty-nine, was eighteen years younger than the other man. He was three and a half inches taller, over twenty pounds lighter and considerably fairer in coloring. He wore jeans, athletic shoes, an Hawaiian flowered shirt and denim jacket, whereas Con had on worn corduroy pants, a sweatshirt and zippered nylon jacket. There were other differences.
Fifteen minutes passed without sound or movement in the vicinity of the motel. Then Jerry saw two male figures amble along the walkway, watched them disappear around a corner and return again. Both were well set-up, moved with physical ease. He thought he knew who or at least what they might be.
There was some organically grown fruit from his own farm in a plastic bag in the glove compartment; he ate it while he sat and wondered and it helped to pass the time. The Beretta automatic pistol which had been covered by the plastic bag now lay fully exposed and close at hand on the leather seat beside him.
A car turned into the street behind him; Jerry switched off the ignition, gripped the Beretta and slid down out of sight. A four-door gray Chevrolet with two men in it cruised by slowly and went on toward the motel. Something, the way it cruised, the shape of the men in it or the way they sat, or perhaps nothing that concrete but simply an instinct, confirmed for Jerry what he had been thinking.
As soon as they were gone, he turned on the ignition, revved the motor gently and pulled away, each small movement reflecting the smooth economy of that overweening self-control. He drove back onto the highway and then headed north, on U.S. 5, toward the farm, careful not to exceed the speed limit despite a car that longed to pull away. The events of the evening had cost him a cut in five figures, yet he did not feel particularly frustrated or even disappointed. The money would be earned again next month or the month after. He had survived the game, that was enough for now.
The young couple with the baby slept on in the absence of the phone call or visit from a man putatively named Brian Kersey whom they had never seen, and now would never meet. The two men several doors down were waiting for someone who called himself Michael Cromelin, likewise a man they had never seen. There was no Kersey or Cromelin.
The two hoodlums were less passive, less adaptable than the young couple, men who suffered idle time badly despite the fact that they had served eight and a half years in prison between them. They played gin, quarreled and drank a good deal while listening to late basketball scores on which they had bets riding, coming in from around the country. A man in the next room measured it all with a stethoscope-like device pressed against the wall.
Alec Dineen came out of the bathroom yawning. He was a large man with incipient gray hair. His face was full of tissuey peaks and ridges and the vacant blue eyes seemed to be floating somewhere on an Arctic sea, totally detached from the rest of him. Only recently assigned from another team where he had held command, he moved through these men with assumed authority. Con allowed him that, but there was no love lost between them.
"Shit," Alec complained from an outsized stretch. "What the fuck we waitin' for?"
Con picked up the automatic carbine and cradled it. "We're waiting for me to say what we're going to do." He smiled easily up at Alec from where he sat, although someone else might have preferred to stand.
The walkie-talkie resting on an end table began popping, and Badboy jumped off the couch to grab it and turn it up. "Hey, Irish Leader ... you there?" came through the static.
Badboy looked to Con, who nodded permission. "What's happenin', baby?"
"This is Captain Jack."
"We know who you are, man."
"Where's Irish Leader?"
"He can hear you. Go on."
Alec, Barbarossa, Freddie, and Roy automatically patted down their personal possessions, looked at their watches and checked the chambers and clips of their handguns as they moved closer to the radio. All knew instinctively that whatever was said, the time had come to fulfill their function.
"Well, our guy just heard from your guy. Sorry, but no buy. That fucking Red Dog's a no-show again. Something or somebody spooked him."
The men in the room swore competitively, and banged things around, except for Con, who had hunted Red Dog longer than any of them. He took the walkie-talkie from Badboy.
"Hey," he told Captain Jack, "it's okay, nobody's fault. Probably made some of the local cowboys sniffing around out there. I think I spotted a car myself from the room. Our guy's top of the line, what can I tell you."
"You ever catch the fucker, do me a favor and look up his ass. See if there isn't radar up there."
Con told him the bars were still open, he should go out somewhere and be good to himself. His own people would take care of business.
"Kickoff," Con announced quietly, and everyone gathered around in another ragged huddle. To a man, they were moving on the balls of their feet. Badboy and Alec, who did not like each other, had their arms around their respective shoulders. Roy sucked on a cigar, which was not lit, and flexed his shoulders in a constant loosening motion, like an athlete. Con smoked another cigarette, his second of the night. It was 1:01 A.M.
"Okay, starting with the obvious, the two grownups at the far end are going to be packing, handguns, we didn't see anything else when they checked in, but they are pros. They're boozing but it's only beer and their jackets don't show any instances of real dumb moves when they been collared. At least, not too dumb. That'll be Freddie, Roy, and Alec. Try not to wage World War Three in there, will you. We're getting all this bitching about costs. Any questions?"
There were no questions--there never were.
Unless they got some kinda shit in the room, another reason you shouldn't have any grief, unregistered firearms is probably what they'll go up on, and that's, you know, a laugher to a couple of tough guineas like this. On the other hand, don't assume any of this, right? Oh, yeah--Alec takes the point."
Alec nodded impassively and shifted his ceramic bulletproof vest. He had the seniority and had gone through a lot of doors under these conditions, and his whole attitude conveyed his genuine fatalism at going through one more. If he recognized Con's courtesy in naming him, that didn't show.
The first team, holding their weapons down by their sides, left the room--gliding, silent hunters who melded familiarly with the night.
Addressing Enrique and Barbarossa, Con went over the problem of the baby and the girl. The listening device indicated that the child was out of the line of fire coming straight through the door. Whatever happened, they must avoid putting any rounds into the area to their left; that is, the south end of the room. The girl would be in the double bed beside the man they were after. She was not armed as far as they could tell, and had no record of violence.
While his own record wasn't much, the young man should be regarded as unpredictable. Con had watched him the day before when he had first come into the area and there was a certain cockiness about him, a suggestion that maybe he had something to prove.
"Any questions?" They followed the first team out onto the walkway.
The only sound was the squeaking of rubber soles as they moved single file down the exterior walkway. When they turned the corner they could see the silhouettes of the others grouped ahead, waiting. Con glanced up at the stars; it was as close to a religious gesture as he ever came, this touching base with the elemental before a crunch. Behind him, Badboy crossed himself surreptitiously.
A woman in a bathrobe, her hair full of curlers, opened the door of her room with every intention of going down to the soft drink machine. Confronted with Barbarossa going by, an outsized Visigoth swinging an automatic pistol, she let out a little yelp and slammed the door. No one smiled. Barbarossa tugged at his earring and muttered: "I'll be glad to get rid of this sonofabitch--drives me nuts."
The silence deepened, pervaded, restrained the breathing of the men up and down the walkway, until the thought flashed through Con's mind that it would take a great effort of will to violate it. Badboy's reticence, if he had any, was not visible as he moved to slip a pick expertly into the lock. Summer insects murmured in surrounding trees and an occasional car or truck hummed past on the freeway--Con envied them their innocence--otherwise, time was suspended. The door edged open with a tiny click and then stopped. Badboy pressed firmly but gently, without success. The chain was on. He listened. No sound from inside. The three men glanced at each other; no one spoke, but Badboy mouthed, "Shit."
Con motioned the others to move aside. He pointed his carbine down at the floor, holding it well out to the side, and backed up against the railing. Looking along the walkway at the other team, he raised his free hand high. His right leg came up and, for one absurd moment, he resembled a wooden soldier on the march. Everyone watched that raised arm.
Con yelled and the hand jerked down. It swung back to the railing and gripped it, helping to lift him off the ground as he launched one foot at the door. There was a cracking sound, but it failed to give. He cursed himself for not having brought a ram.
Badboy began shouting, "Police, police!" in his accented and peculiarly high voice and similar cries were heard from the far end of the walkway, where the first team smashed through without difficulty.
Con reared back and kicked the door again and succeeded only in damaging some ligaments in his foot, which he ignored. By now they were all hollering like maniacs and the din was almost disorienting. Before he could have a third try at it, using his other foot, Barbarossa was past him to hit the door with a great bellow and a shoulder the size of a buffalo's hump, ripping the chain out of the molding with a splintering sound.
The momentum unexpectedly carried him into the room on an angle, stumbling and clawing at black space for balance. He was still hollering but the arc was downward and he found himself utterly helpless in a room as dark as the inside of a stomach. The pistol in his right hand flailed in all directions. He could hear Badboy outside, still at it: "Freeze, motherfuckers! Freeze, goddammit!" but he knew that wouldn't protect him.
Con was into the gap behind Barbarossa almost instantly--Badboy knew better than to challenge that prerogative--filling the doorframe with his stocky silhouette and holding it there. Unconsciously, he was going to draw the lightning from Barbarossa, who shouldn't have been in the room before him, anyway. Against his back he could feel the press of Badboy's will, urging him to make way. Ahead of him he heard sounds, but indistinguishable between anger or fear or surprise. Then the bright flash and distinctive snap of the Luger.
If Con hesitated even a fraction of a second, he wasn't aware of it, although later he tried to believe that he had. He brought the carbine up to just above his waist, pointed it at the flash and pulled the trigger. Nine bullets ripped out of the muzzle before his finger left the trigger. He wished immediately it had been seven or five or three, but knew also that such things were instinctive, atavistic; someone had tried to kill him.
Barbarossa was getting his second wind and warming up to a scream. Badboy was still shouting insensibly, things like, "Hold it! Don't move! Police!" Con knew better and his own cries died in his throat; the bullets that had struck walls and furniture had made a distinctive splatting sound, and there were about seven of those--at least two had penetrated something more yielding. Nevertheless, he lunged to one side and down close to the floor, the gun still pointed. Badboy came into the room behind him in a rush, going the other way, and vanished. There was a truce which no one violated for several seconds, then a moan and the sound of breathing even more rapid and less regular than that of the men who had stormed the room.
Con felt his own breathing become more shallow, knew his heart and belly were sinking away and wished fervently that someone would make the next move for him. Barbarossa hit the light switch, temporarily blinding everyone who could still see. The young man thrashed on the bed, one leg drawn up and held by both hands, as if he feared it would come loose. He looked at the intruders with wildly shifting eyes, pleading or hating. The Luger was on the floor below him; Badboy darted in to grab it.
The girl stared straight up into the glaring light, making spasmodic but very small, diminishing movements. There was already an ugly rattle in her throat and blood billowed up to spread in an ever-growing circle on the covering sheet.
The three officers stared at the couple on the bed as the baby began to wail. Freddie D. came into the room behind them. After a beat, he murmured, "Aw, man."