Randy Whitcomb was a human stinkpot, a red-haired cripple with a permanent cloud over his head; a gap-toothed, pock-faced, paraplegic crank freak, six weeks out of the Lino Lakes medium-security prison. He hurtled past the luggage carousels at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, pumping the wheels of his cheap non-motorized state-bought wheelchair, his coarse red hair a wild halo around his head.
"Get out of the way, you little motherfucker," he snarled at a blond child of three or four years. He zipped past the gawking mother and tired travelers and nearly across the elegant cordovan shoe-tips of a tall bearded man. "Out of the way, fuckhead," and he was through the door, the anger streaming behind him like coal smoke from a power plant.
· · ·
The bearded man with the elegant cordovan shoes, which came from a shop in Jermyn Street in London, leaned close to his companion, a dark-haired woman who wore blue jeans and a black blouse, running shoes and cheap oversized sunglasses with unfashionable plastic rims. He said, quietly, in a cool Alabama accent, "If we see yon bugger again, remind me to crack his skinny handicapped neck."
The woman smiled and said, "Yon bugger? You were in England way too long."
Brutus Cohn, traveling under the passport name of John Lamb, tracked the wheelchair down the sidewalk. There was no humor in his cold blue eyes. "Aye, I was that," he said. "But now I'm back."
· · ·
Cohn and the woman, who called herself Rosie Cruz, walked underground to the short-term parking structure, trailing Cohn's single piece of wheeled luggage. As they went out the door, the heat hit them like a hand in the face. Not as bad as Alabama heat, but dense, and sticky, smelling of burned transmission fluid, spoiled fruit and bubble gum. Cruz pushed the trunk button on the remote key and the taillights blinked on a beige Toyota Camry.
"Ugly car," he said, as he lifted the suitcase into the trunk. Cohn disliked ugly cars, ugly clothes, ugly houses.
"The best-selling car in America, in the least attention-getting color," Cruz said. She was a good-looking woman of no particularly identifiable age, who'd taken care to make herself mousy. She wore no makeup, had done nothing with her hair.
Cohn had once seen her in Dallas, where women dressed up, and she'd astonished him with her authentic Texas vibe: moderately big hair, modestly big lipstick, two-inch heels, stockings with seams down the back; her twice-great-grand-uncle might have died at the Alamo. Cruz, when working, dressed for invisibility. She fit in Dallas, she fit in Minnesota, she fit wherever they worked—she was wallpaper, she was background. She took the driver's side, and he sat on the passenger side, fiddling with the seat controls to push it all the way back. At six-foot-six, he needed the leg room.
"Give me your passport and documents," Cruz said, when the air conditioning was going.
He took a wallet out of his breast pocket and handed it over. Inside were a hundred pounds, fifty euros, fifty dollars, an American passport, a New York state driver's license, two credit cards, a building security card with a magnetic strip, and a variety of wallet-detritus.
The whole lot, except for the passport and currency, had been taken from the home of the real John Lamb by his building superintendent, who was a crook. Since the credit cards would never be used, noone would be the wiser. The passport had been more complicated, but not too—a stand-in had applied by mail, submitting a photograph of Cohn, and when it came to Lamb's apartment, it had been stolen from the mailbox. As long as the real Lamb didn't apply for another one, they were good.
Cruz took out the currency and handed it back to Cohn, tucked the wallet under the car seat and handed over another one, thick with cash. "William Joseph Wakefield – Billy Joe. Everything's real, except the picture on the driver's license. Don't use the credit cards unless it's an emergency."
"Billy Joe." Cohn thumbed through the cash. "Two thousand dollars. Three nights at a decent hotel."
"We're not staying at a decent hotel," Cruz said. She reached into the back seat, picked up a baseball cap with a Minnesota Twins logo, and said, "Put this on and pull it down over your eyes."
He did, and with his careful British suit, it made him look a bit foolish. She wouldn't have given it to him without a reason, so he put it on, and asked, "Where're we set up?"
She backed carefully out of the parking space and turned for the exit. "At the HomTel in Hudson, Wisconsin, just across the state line from here. Thirty miles. Two hundred and twenty dollars a night, for two rooms for you, adjoining, which is twice as much as they're worth, but with the convention in town, you get what you can. I'm upstairs and on the other side of the motel."
"Where're the boys?"
"Jesse's across the street at the Windmill, Tate is at the Cross Motel, Jack is at a mom-and-pop called Wakefield Inn, all in Hudson. All within easy walking distance from the HomTel." Multiple nearby rooms in different hotels made it easier to get together, and also easier to find an emergency hideout if the cops made one or another of them. They could be off the street in minutes, in a motel where they'd never been seen by the management.
Standard operating procedure, worked out and talked-over in prisons across the country. Cohn nodded and said, "Okay."
· · ·
"I almost went home when you invited Jack back in," Cruz said, threading her way through the concrete pillars of the parking ramp.
"Better to have him inside the tent pissin' out, than outside the tent pissin' in," Cohn said.
"I don't know what that means," she said.
"It means that when he gets picked up—and I do mean when, it's only a matter of time—he'll try to cut a deal," Cohn said. "We're one of the things he's got. I need to talk to him."
"He'd cut a deal whatever we do."
"No. Not really. I've thought on that," he said, in an accent that spoke of the deep southern part of Yorkshire. "There are circumstances in which he would not cut a deal, no matter what the coppers might have offered to him."
"You've got to lose that bullshit British syntax, right now," Cruz said. "You're Billy Joe Wakefield from Birmingham, Alabama. You need khakis and golf shirts."
"Give me two minutes listening to country music," Cohn said. "That'll get 'er done."
"Anyway, about Jack..."
"Let it go," he said. "I'll take care of Jack."
"Okay," she said. "Put your sunglasses on."
· · ·
At seven o'clock, the sky was still bright. Cohn took a pair of wrap-around sunglasses from his jacket pocket and slipped them on. At the pay booth, Cruz dropped the window and handed ten dollars to a Somali woman in a shawl. Cruz got the change from the ten, and a receipt, rolled the window back up, pulled away from the booth and handed the receipt to Cohn.
"Check it out," she said.
He looked at the receipt, said, "Huh. The tag number's on it."
"There's a scanning camera at the entrance," Cruz said. "I'm wondering if it might digitize faces at the same time that it picks up the license plates—hook them together, then run them through a facial recognition program."
"Would that be a problem?"
"Not as long as somebody doesn't put your face in the car with your face in the FBI files," she said. "That's not a question with me, of course."
"Got the beard, now," he said. "And the hat and glasses. I cut the beard off square to give my chin a different line. I was wondering about the baseball hat..."
They rode along for a minute or two, as she got off the airport and headed into St. Paul, past the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. Even in the middle of a big urban area, the river valleys had a wildness that reminded him of home in Alabama. In Britain, even the wild areas had a groomed look.
· · ·
"Jack, I can't get him off my mind. I'm sorry..."
"Never mind Jack." He was looking out the window. "You almost went home, huh? That'd be... Zihuatanejo?"
"Never been to Mexico in my life, Brute," she said with a grin. "Give it up."
"With a name like Cruz, you gotta have been in Mexico."
Her eyes flicked to him. "Why would you think my name is Cruz?"
He laughed, and said, "Okay." But she looked like a Cruz.
She clicked on the radio, dialed around, found a country station. "Instead of worrying about where I'm from, see if you can get the Alabama accent going."
The first song up was Sawyer Brown singing "Some Girls Do," and Cohn sang along with it, all the way to the end, and then shouted, "Jesus Christ, it's good to be back in the states. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and North Ireland can go fuck itself."
· · ·
Randy Whitcomb, Juliet Briar and a man whose real name might have been Dick, but who called himself Ranch, lived in a rotting wooden house on the east side of St. Paul, that sat above a large hole in the ground called Swede Hollow; once full of houses full of Swedes, the hole was now a neglected public park.
Whitcomb was a pimp. He'd become a pimp as soon as he could, after his parents had thrown him out of the house twelve years earlier. He liked the idea of being a pimp, and he liked TV shows that featured pimps and pimp-wannabes and his finest dream was to own a Mercedes Benz R-Class pimpmobile in emerald green. He enjoyed the infliction of pain, as long as he wasn't the object of it.
Briar was his only employee.
A heavy young woman who wore a shapeless grey dress, her hair was the sad tatters of a curly perm gone old. She sat half-crouched over the steering wheel of Whitcomb's handicapped van, and alternately chirped brightly about the sights on the street, and sobbed, pressing her knuckles to her teeth, fearing for what was coming. What was coming, she thought, would be a whipping from Whitcomb, with his whipping stick.
He'd broken the stick out of a lilac hedge a block from their house. A sucker, looking for light, the branch had grown long and leggy, an inch thick at the butt, tapering to an eighth of an inch at the tip. Whitcomb had striped the bark off with a penknife; the switch sat, white and naked, spotted here and there with blood, in the corner of the room next to his La-Z-Boy chair.
He'd beaten her with it three times over the summer, when her performance had sagged below his standards.
He liked the work. He couldn't stand up, so he made her drop on the floor like a dog, on her hands and knees, while he sat on his chair and whipped her with the switch. The thing was limber enough that it didn't break bone—he wouldn't have cared, except that broken bones would have kept her from waiting on him—but it did maul her skin. So she laughed and chirped and pointed and giggled and then sobbed, the fear rising in her throat as they got closer to the house.
They couldn't afford a van equipped for handicapped drivers, and Whitcomb hadn't been trained on one anyway. They did get one with a hydraulic ramp, bought used and cheap through CurbCut, a St. Paul charity. At the house, Briar parked next to a wooden ramp built by Make a House a Home, and Whitcomb dropped the ramp and rolled out of the van, used the remote to retract the ramp and close the van door. He hadn't spoken a word since the airport, but his breath was coming in fast chuffs.
Whitcomb was getting himself excited, though, of course, nothing would come of it. He'd taken the bullet low in the spine, and he'd not have another erection in this life.
Now he spoke: "Inside."
"The light's on," Briar said. She stopped. She was sure she'd turned the lights off as they left. "I turned them off."
She was stalling, Whitcomb thought. "Ranch must be up."
"Ranch is not up."
Stalling. The crazy bitch had got the flight wrong, and now a pharmaceutical salesman was wondering why he couldn't find his sample case, and somebody else was wondering why a green nylon bag was going round and round on a baggage carousel somewhere else. Eventually they'd look in it, and find the sample case, and put two-and-two together, and the whole goddamn racket could come down around their ears. She was stalling.
"In the house," he said.
He shouted at her now: "Get in the fuckin' house..."
· · ·
She turned and climbed the ramp, unlocked the door and pushed inside, holding the door for him, and he bumped over the door jamb and turned toward the living room and accelerated. Moving too fast to turn back. And there were the Polish twins, Dubuque and Moline, sitting on the couch, big bulky black men with corn-rowed hair, drop-crotch jeans and wife-beater shirts.
Ranch was lying in a corner on a futon, face down, mouth open, a white stain under his chin, breathing heavily.
Moline had one of Whitcomb's beers in one hand and a piece-of-shit .22 in the other. The twins were managers in the sexual entertainment industry, and were known around the St. Paul railroad tracks as Shit and Shinola, because stupid people found them hard to tell apart. The cops and the smarter street people knew that Dubuque had lost part of his left ear in a leveraged buyout on University Avenue. Moline pointed the gun at Whitcomb's head and said, "Tell me why I shouldn't shoot you in the motherfuckin' head."
"What are you talking about?" Whitcomb asked. "What are you doing in my house?" He rolled across the room to Ranch and jammed the foot-plate on the wheelchair hard into Ranch's ribs: "You alive?"
Ranch groaned, twitched away from the pain. The door slammed in the kitchen. Dubuque jumped and asked, "What was that?"
"Woman runnin' for the cops," Whitcomb said. "She knows who you are. You're fucked."
Moline looked at the front door, then asked, "Why you running Jasmine down my street?"
"Jasmine?" Whitcomb sneered at him. "I ain't seen her in two weeks. She's running with Jorgenson."
"Jorgenson? You pullin' my dick," Moline said.
"Am not," Whitcomb said. "Juliet's all I got left. Jasmine got pissed because I whacked her lazy ass with my stick, and she snuck out of here with her clothes. The next thing I hear, she's working for Jorgenson. If find her, she's gonna have a new set of lips up her cheek."
Dubuque said to Moline, casually, "He lying to us."
"Juliet knows us, though," Moline said. He was the thinker of the two.
"I'm not lying," Whitcomb said.
Moline stood up, pulled up his shirt, stuck the .22 under his belt and said, "Get the door, bro."
Whitcomb figured he was good: "You next time you motherfuckers come back here..."
Dubuque was at the front door, which led out to the front porch, which Whitcomb never used because of the six steps down to the front lawn.
"We come back here again, they gonna find your brains all over the wall," Moline said, and with two big steps, he'd walked around Whitcomb's chair, and Moline was a large man, and he grabbed the handles on the back and started running before Whitcomb could react, and Dubuque held the door and Whitcomb banged across the front porch and went screaming down the steps, his bones banging around like silverware in a wooden box.
The whole crash actually took a second or two, and he wildly tried to control it, but the wheels were spinning too fast, and there was never any hope, and he pitched forward and skidded face-first down the sidewalk, his legs slack behind him like a couple of extra-long socks.
Moline bent over him, "Next time, we ain't playing no pattycake."
· · ·
Juliet showed up three or four minutes later, crying, "Oh, god, oh, god. Are you all right, honey? Are you all right? The cops are coming..."
Whitcomb had managed to roll onto his back. Most of the skin was gone from his nose, and he was bleeding from scrapes on his hands and forearms and belly.
He started to weep, slapping at his legs. He couldn't help himself, and it added to the humiliation. "Davenport did this to me," he said. "That fuckin' Davenport..."