Hard rock blasted over the 4Runner’s tinny speakers as we headed out of PV. A previous renter had left a few cassettes in the glove compartment. Harold bitched that there wasn’t any Bacharach or Herb Albert.
“Mexico isn’t an easy listening kind of country,” I said.
“Bunch of long-haired freaks banging on cheap Asian guitars. They don’t know melody from shit.”
“Never took you as a musicologist.”
Harold grunted and punched the 4-Runner. He weaved in and out of a line of cars, but was finally forced to slow down as traffic was too unpredictable coming around the hidden corners. I could see the anger growing inside him as clear as the ropey veins in his forearms.
There was no point in asking what was on my mind but I did anyway.
“So what… Strothers wants to put me down himself? Some sort of payback?”
Harold didn’t say anything. Something had been gnawing in my stomach ever since we left Tijuana. It was more than fearing he would pop me like he did Jules – sure, that still danced in the background. But this was something else, I couldn’t quite name it, but there it was, burning my guts.
Mostly Harold popped the tape and shoved in another. The tape was old and stretched, which warbled the guitars and vocals. That bent sound combined with the thick trees and vines that swam by my window. I felt like I was going through deep water. Sure, it could have been the rows of beers and tostados from Los Barios funky dancing their way through my digestive tract, but it was that something else. It was the exact feeling that I had back in the Esperanza. The feeling that made me bolt down that long ramp, dragging her as I ran, and spilling into the street. That was a lot of hours, fights, and miles ago.
Again, I asked question that I doubted would get answered.
“Did you kill Leon?”
“Who is Leon?”
“Skinny junkie guy. Hung out at the hotel where I stay. Esperanza. The place you played tether ball with my head.”
“What the fuck you mean you don’t know, Harold? Are you that cold hearted, or just dumb as sack of cats?”
Harold tightened his grip on the wheel.
“Short term memory issues, then? Too many blows to the head, Mostly?”
“Shit. Okay, that’s it.” He reached down and ejected the tape. He grabbed it and threw across to my closed window. It smacked the glass, bounced back and landed in his lap. “Son-of-a-bitch this day.”
Harold pulled the 4-runner onto the narrow shoulder, and skidded to a stop.
“Listen numb-nuts. There’s more than a chance you’ll end up like your junkie friend. And there’s a slim as fairy fart chance that you might not. I’ve heard they’re interested in you. Who the fuck knows why, because I am not. I wanted to finish you out in the field like that asshole in a leotard, but I was told to hold up on that.”
“Who told you Harold?”
“You know who asshole.”
“So you did Leon?”
“Lloyd did it. I hate knives. Messy as hell. Works for Lloyd cuz he can’t hit shit with a pistol.”
“Why did they care about Leon? He was nothing to anybody.”
“They knew that other guy, your pal, had hired him. Skinny little shit was snooping around. Saw shit he wasn’t supposed to. He saw Strothers do a guy.”
“Do him. Knife, gun, ice pick… how the hell should I know? It was Strother’s business. We beat up the junkie, sent him to the hospital. But Strothers was still pissed. He wanted to get a rise out…” Harold stopped.
“That’s a name? How is that a name?”
“Why are they interested in me, Harold?”
“Damned if I know. I told you I’m—”
“Are Strothers and the woman in a partnership?”
“Damned if I know.”
“C’mon, Harold. Don’t play this bullshit. I know you’re smarter than that.”
“You said I was a sack of cats.”
There was an honest melancholy drop in his voice. I admit that surprised the hell out of me.
“Sorry. Trying to get at the truth. Sometimes I just say shit. You’re good at what you do.”
I flicked off the music. “So Strothers told you to find Jules, take him out, and bring me back? Then what did Cynth want?”
Harold eased the Toyota back onto the road.
“Some sort of shit was going down. I didn’t follow all the he said, she said, somebody screwed the pooch on somebody, saids. And I didn’t give a rip.” Harold snorted. “Cynth. Hah. Is that what she’s calling herself now?”
“You were down here? At Strother’s?”
“For a few days.”
“You must have heard something. C’mon, Harold. I don’t know what the hell I’m going into, and I know you don’t care either - but, hey, how about some professional courtesy.”
Harold laughed harder than I’d ever heard him.
“You’re the one that said you weren’t a detective. And that’s about the only damn thing I’d ever agree on. Professional courtesy my ass.”
We both let the silence hang. I’d given it a shot - and probably now I was going to get shot. Dead in Mexico. Not really what I aspired to when I came down here. I hoped they’d find my body a nice hole close to the ocean.
“I overheard some stuff,” Harold said.
“What kind of stuff?”
“There was no partnership I’ll tell you that. You know when two kids get to fighting over who gets to ride the only bike, until the one kid pulls a knife, and the other has a gun?”
“Different kind of playground than I grew up on.”
“Shut the fuck up, you know what I mean. Strothers offered me a chunk of change to go to Montana. Retrieval services he called it. I told him I worked for her. And like I told you, he offered me more. So I went.”
“Not much loyalty, Harold.”
He rolled his window and hacked a huge loogie onto the road.
I recognized the curve before Strothers’s house. The Pair of Dice sign appeared, and we pulled into a narrow drive that I hadn’t seen the first time I was here. It was further up the road, past the choked tunnel of vines and flowers. The same goofy round trees were there, recently trimmed, and the peeing boy still peed. Though, from what I know knew about Strothers, the place had a different feel to it. Before he was just some cranky ex-pat semi-hood that happened to have a decent left hook. But now. What was he now? A tightness came into my neck and crawled down my spine.
A thick guy in a floral shirt was parked by the fountain. By the way he stood, I knew he had something loaded and shoved down his sea blue pants. We pulled up next to him, and he pointed Harold to the house, even though there was no need, it was right there. Last time I’d been here the driveway was empty, now it was crammed with three cars. Harold nudged the 4Runner next to a brown Ford. Another thicker guy came out on the terrace and waved us in.
Harold strode in the house and set the black satchel on the same kitchen counter where I’d shared punches and vodka with Strothers. Our host was stretched out in a recliner, wearing cream shorts with that razor crease of his, his ankle was wound with tensor tape. He saw me notice it.
“You didn’t break it – but damn near. There’s a thought. I should bust a few things on you so we start at an even level. Or just because I want to,” he said.
A bald goon, as grumpy as our traffic guide outside, stepped toward me.
“Easy, easy,” Strothers started. “Bygones and all that shit.”
“You expecting someone?” I asked.
“Why would you think that?”
I pointed at one of the goons.
“Lots of guests,” I said. “Your birthday party? Maybe they’re a traveling act. Do they do Stooges impersonations?”
Harold stepped into me.
“Settle it down numb-nuts.”
“Oh, Harold relax. I figured you two would be best of friends by now. Driving and flying across the country like one of those old road movies. You know, Bing and Bob.” Strothers sipped from a tumbler full of clear liquid. “Which one of you is Bing?”
“Before my time,” Harold said.
Strothers shook his head.
“In answer to our Mr. Fischer. Yes, we might be getting a few more guests. But they are not the sort to bring me a fruit basket. Ah, I see you’ve brought the minerals back. I’ve got a courier coming later today, shipping them out to Cuba. Not that it matters to you.”
I tightness went through my chest on his last words. Sure hope it’s a nice hole.
“You were pretty sure of yourself to book a courier,” I said.
“I knew you’d still have them. And I knew Harold would have you. Dicks are predictable.”
“He says he’s not a detective,” Harold said.
“I didn’t say he was,” Strothers said. “Alright enough of this nicey-nice bullshit. Let’s finish it up.”
Strothers drained his glass. He winced as he stood and put weight on his ankle. The thickest of the goons strode over to help him, which earned him a solid cuff to the head.
“Fuck off. I got it.”
Another goon, this one in a dark suit that looked completely out of place with the floral patterns everyone else wore, brought in a pair of suitcases and set them in the kitchen.
“Looks like you’re going on a trip,” I said.
“Now look who’s being a detective.” Strothers smirked.
“North?” I asked.
“East, west, south, who knows? Who gives a rat’s ass? I’ve had enough of this city and if I eat one more chile my entire digestive system is going to hold a protest. And it won’t be pretty.” Strothers pointed his finger at my forehead. “Enough about me. Aren’t you wondering why you’re not lying wherever Harold left that other thieving little shit?”
“It did cross my mind. But I’m also thinking your partner might be kinda pissed that you sent Harold to kill him.”
“My what? Who are you talking about?”
“Cynth Forrester. The so-called sister.”
That brought peals of laughter and another wince.
“I don’t know what’s funnier, you calling her my partner or a sister. Though, wait, I’m guessing you didn’t mean one of the holy orders. Unless you were thinking a coven, because she is one sneaky witch.” Strothers wiped his eyes and hobbled toward the kitchen.
“So Jules didn’t rip you off? That’s not what it was about?”
“Oh, no. That is for certain what is was about. Skinny little prick broke in when I was down south. Old witchy woman was trying to get something going… me, her, him and his gay artist buddies. There wasn’t a one that I would let into my bed let me tell you. Bunch of shallow pricks on all levels. I told her I wasn’t interested. She was small town, trying to get bigger. Anyway, blah, blah, blah, now he’s planted in a shallow grave in the middle of…” Strothers looked at Harold.
“Right. Nowhere.” Strothers refilled his tumbler of vodka, then poured another, finishing the bottle. “You did bury him right?”
Strothers handed me the second drink.
“You haven’t said what you wanted with me,” I said.
“Truth is… I gave the Harold the option of laying you out.”
I looked over at Harold, who shrugged again.
“Hahaha! Old Bob couldn’t pop Bing. That kills me.” Strothers pointed at me again. The finger felt like a 9mm right at my eye level. “Listen, let me pitch something to you Mr. Dick.”
The first crack shattered the window next to the recliner that Strothers had just left. It caught goon two in the shoulder and spun him around. He was still reaching for his gun when he hit the ground. I would have called him a tough son of a bitch, except that coming out of his crouch he took the next shot in the head. He was dead in the twelve inches before he hit the floor.
Bald Goon moved fast, back against the wall, his Glock held with two hands, scanning the yard. He fired out the shattered window. Harold moved to the french doors and slid outside. Shouts, someone called someone a fucker, and three fast shots. Strothers tucked inside the kitchen nook, opened the fridge freezer and grabbed another bottle of vodka. He twisted off the top, pointed at me and gestured outside.
“Are you fucking kidding me? You may think I’m a dumb-ass, but I’m not going out there without something in my hand that fires bullets.”
Strothers reached into a drawer and pulled out a 9 millimetre – and not an imaginary one. For a half-second, I figured that’d be it. More shots peppered the living room. Bald Goon returned fire. Strothers handed me the gun and two clips and pointed again to the outside. I took the gun and slid in one of the clips. He poured two more shots of vodka. I slammed one back and he toasted me with the other before he downed it.
“Go get ‘em, Ace.”
Come back Sunday for the next chapter of Surf City Acid Drop