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THE CARRIER


Preston Lang





Copyright © 2017, 2018 by Preston Lang


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TABLE OF CONTENTS


The Carrier


About the Author

Also by the Author


The Down & Out Books Publishing Family Library of Titles


Preview from Suburban Dick by CS DeWildt

Preview from Last Year’s Man by Paul D. Brazill

Preview from Flight of the Fox by Gray Basnight





CHAPTER 1


CYRIL HADN’T GIVEN ANOTHER THOUGHT to the frat boy. He assumed the kid had gone back to play pool with his friends or drink beer directly from the pitcher. Cyril turned to the bar and tried to watch Monday Night Football, but the players hit each other too hard and he decided to head back to his motel room. He was halfway to the door when the girl stopped him. She was dark-haired with quick, vital eyes, and she had a voice—low and tangy.

“That boy you were talking to is waiting outside—with two of his friends,” she said. “I just thought you should know.”

“Thank you for telling me.”

They stood for a moment, neither one ready to end the conversation.

“Why did you call him a fuck monkey?” the girl asked.

“He was acting—like a fuck monkey.”

“I’m sure you’re right, but what do you gain from pointing it out?”

“It may have been a mistake.”

The boy had banged on the bar with a spoon and made two loud yips at a shampoo commercial on the TV screen. Cyril was no more than ten years older than this kid, but it felt like the gulf of a few generations. He hadn’t raised his voice; he’d politely told the boy to stop acting like a fuck monkey. He thought the boy had taken the suggestion and that all was well in the barroom.

“So what do you think I should do?” Cyril asked the girl.

“Well, if you really want to impress me, you’ll go out the front and kick all three of their asses with a really cool expression on your face. But if I were you I would probably go out the back way.”

“Where’s the back way?”

“Through the kitchen. Just walk straight. The dishwashers will probably yell at you. By that time you’ll be out the back door.”

“Or we could sit down and you could tell me all about yourself. By the time you’re done, the boys will probably have called it an evening.”

“Don’t you have somewhere to go?”

“Not really.”

“You were leaving.”

“I was just going to go back to my motel room, maybe watch TV, maybe steal some soap.”

“You shouldn’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“They find you and they make you pay.”

“Tell me more about this,” Cyril said, motioning to a table.

He sat across from her with a view of the door in case any angry young men got tired of waiting out in the chilly Iowa night and charged in looking for a fight. The girl said that her name was Willow, that she was a senior at the nearby college, and that she wasn’t here with anybody. Other students stood and drank with young energy; townies sat at the bar and corner tables. Willow and Cyril told obvious lies about themselves and laughed. Soon enough it was closing time.

“You have a motel room?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“I think that I would like to see it.”

“It’s about a fifteen-minute walk.”

“You didn’t bring a car?”

“I don’t drink and drive.”

“You’re a really good example.”

They had been walking almost a minute when they saw the Fuck Monkey approach with two of his frat brothers.

“Hey, you. Asshole, you.”

He slurred his words but was reasonably steady on his feet. His brothers were much bigger than he was.

“Go home,” Willow said.

“Okay, darlem. You just step back. I’m going to tear up your boyfriend here.”

“What’s darlem?” Cyril asked.

“I think he meant darling,” Willow said.

The boy stepped closer to Cyril. His brothers moved in a bit too, but it looked like they were going to let the Monkey do what he could on his own before they joined in. Cyril checked out the two big guys quickly—wasted and amused. The Monkey poked Cyril in the chest.

“Come on, Les,” one of the brothers said. “Don’t play around. Bring the warrior to him.”

“Warrior,” the other brother said in his deepest death metal bass.

Les came at Cyril with a big, wild punch that was easily sidestepped. Les cursed and spun, and Cyril grabbed Willow and tried to hurry away, but the brothers blocked their path.

“Fight me,” Les cried.

“Look guys. This doesn’t make any sense. You’re all going to get thrown out of school.”

Suddenly the brothers began to edge away, holding up their hands and stepping backwards. Cyril watched, puzzled, and then he turned to see that Willow had drawn a gun.

“Bitch is crazy,” a brother said, but they had now turned and were retreating at a quick jog.

That left only Les. His eyes were drunk and scheming. He hadn’t given up yet.

“If he rushes you, don’t shoot him,” Cyril said.

“I might shoot him.”

“Please, go home.”

Les said nothing, and the insane ideas that had been careening through his brain died out.

“We’re going to walk away now. Please, don’t follow.”

And that’s what they did while Les slumped against the side of a building.

“Is it normal at your school for an undergrad to walk around with a handgun?” Cyril asked about five minutes later.

“Aren’t you glad I had it?”

“I suppose.”

“What were you going to do, make a little speech to the bros—You’re going to get in soooo much trouble.

They kept walking, past the main business district and into the darker residential streets. Cyril’s motel was off a side road somewhere close by. He hoped he could find it in the dark, but everything looked very much alike. First, he led Willow down a street that died at the barbed wire fence of an empty lot.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were taking me down a dark alley on purpose,” she said.

“Why, so you could shoot me?”

Willow smiled.

They found his motel, a cheap little two-story chain: the Firstway Inn. The room smelled flat and dusty, and only one of the three overhead lightbulbs worked. She jumped on him, wrapping her legs around him, toppling him onto the bed. She kissed his face and his neck then worked inside his mouth, biting his inner lip. They tore off their clothes quickly and tumbled off the bed. Willow was urgent, like they were the only humans left in a world full of zombies—there’s nothing else out there except mindless death, but this has got to happen now. Then she put her clothes back on. When she got to her shoes, Cyril sat up.

“Where are you going?”

“Nowhere.”

Cyril started to get dressed.

“You don’t have to get dressed,” she said. “I just like to have clothes on.”

“That’s too bad.”

Willow put on her jacket and then she pointed her gun at Cyril.

“I’m going to need all the money,” she said.





CHAPTER 2


SAIDA WAS UPSET THAT A CONVICTED sex offender had moved into the apartment complex. She told Marcus that the man, a short Asian guy named Danny Chin had been looking at her.

“Looking at you?” Marcus asked.

“Yeah, walked me all the way to the stairs. And then he made sure I went up first,” Saida said.

“Isn’t that being a gentleman?”

“No, it’s so he can look at my ass.”

“But you’re supposed to let a lady go first.”

“On level ground, not upstairs.”

“But you can look at a lady’s ass on level ground same as you can look at it walking up stairs.”

“It goes upstairs, it comes right to eye level.”

“What does?”

“The ass. So he can bite it.”

“Did he? Did he bite your ass? Because if he did, then I’d go over there right now, kick in his door.”

“Well, all right. Fine. He bit my ass—took a bite like he was at Taco Express, enjoying a meal.”

“He’s Chinese, why’s he eating a taco?”

“Chinese man can eat a taco.”

“He didn’t touch you, right? Didn’t do anything other than let you go first up the stairs, right?”

Marcus was a big, stupid-looking guy, but once you got to know him you realized he wasn’t as dumb as he looked. A little bit after that, you realized he wasn’t exactly a genius either. He was a sweet man, and he loved Saida very much. But she’d sacrificed a lot for him, hadn’t she? It was for the sake of his job that she’d moved out here to Leprechaun-fuck, Massachusetts, where everyone drank hard and talked in that stupid accent that sounded fun the first time you heard it, but after a few weeks it turned into donkey. These people talked like a pack of jackasses. Saida was sick of it, and now Marcus was being difficult about an actual sex criminal?

Saida had tried to see if there was a legal way to get Danny Chin banned from the apartment complex—too close to a school, a playground, something? But they were out in the middle of nowhere, near a gas station, a warehouse, and a quarry. If you had to put a rapist back into the real world, this would be the place to put him, out here next to some rocks.

“Anyway, you’re always saying how there’s nothing but white people around here. Now a man of color moves in and you want me to kill him,” Marcus said.

“Let me see if I get you: I’m supposed to be happy that a pervert moves into the complex because at least he’s a man of color?”

“You’re always complaining.”

“How would you like to live in the ‘hood—whitest person you see is a half Puerto Rican? How would you like that?”

“I’d be all right with it.”

Yeah, that was true. Old Black ladies loved Marcus—he called them ma’am and didn’t mind when they compared him to large animals. With his size and his Virginia manners he’d be fine in Saida’s old neighborhood.

“I just want you to take care of one little, dirty man. Step up to him and let him know he better run and hide when he sees me coming. Can you do that? Please?”



It was two days later that Marcus saw Danny Chin walking back to the complex. Danny wore a bright blue shirt and white jeans, and he had a bounce in his step. Either his clothes were new or he used a better detergent than Marcus did.

“How’s it going,” Danny said with a smile, recognizing a neighbor.

“No. I need you to understand something.”

“Sure.”

Danny stopped and gave Marcus his full attention: he was ready to understand.

“You know my girlfriend?”

“No, who is she?”

“Short, African-American girl—lady. She lives in the complex.”

“With you?”

“Yeah, with me.”

“I think I have seen her, yes.”

Marcus had lost his menace. It seemed pointless. Small as Danny was, why couldn’t Saida take care of it? It must be something like how she felt about water bugs. She was capable of crushing them herself, but she didn’t like to hear the squish.

“So. She thinks you’re looking at her,” Marcus said.

“I’ve said hello to her. She seems very nice. I hope I haven’t done anything to upset her.”

“You’re a sex criminal?”

Danny paused, not a guilty pause but recognition that this was heavy enough to stop the conversation for a moment.

“I’ve got a conviction. Yeah, I do. It’s not right how they railroad you.”

“I don’t have time for that, but you better leave her alone. If you see her coming, you better hide around a corner.”

“Now wait a second. If I see her coming, the last thing I should do is hide around a corner. If you want, I won’t speak to her or anything, but as soon as I start to slink around like a criminal, that’s when the misunderstandings start.”

“We don’t need misunderstandings.”

“I respect this—what you’re doing. You a Redskins fan?”

“What?” Marcus glanced down at the old burgundy sweatshirt he was wearing. “Yeah. I mean, sure.”

“You watching the game tonight?”

“We don’t have ESPN, because our TV is kind of—it’s not important.”

“Kickoff is eight-thirty. If you want, stop by. I’m 1K.”

Saida was at school that evening, at a study group where they pretended they were running a business and made displays on really shiny pieces of oak tag. She wouldn’t be back until late. And that’s how Marcus found himself in the apartment of a sex criminal, drinking Rolling Rock and watching Monday Night Football. When Marcus was five beers in, he asked Danny about his arrest.

“It wasn’t right,” Danny said, without bitterness, more like he was describing a friend’s comic misadventures. “They’ve got this thing up in Boston where they put a lady cop on the T—in a little tube top and short shorts. Then when some guy gropes her, they arrest him. I even knew about the program. I’d read this thing in The Globe; they had pictures of these women, the bait. They were beautiful. I mean, they were the kinds of girls you had to say, what are you doing working for the Boston Police Department instead of—I don’t know—just sitting around and letting men buy you things?”

“So they showed the undercover cops in the paper?”

“I saw this lady on the subway. And it is a train, you know? So there’s lots of starts and stops, and people do jostle up against each other—that happens. So I saw this lady. Now, I’m not saying I didn’t hope that the motions of the train would position our parts in exciting alignment. I hoped for all that, but it really was some short stops that brought us together—mostly. But next thing I know six or seven cops grabbed me and booked me. Half that train was cops, and they really needed a bust that day. That’s how come I’m a sex offender.”

Marcus got up for another beer just a little too fast. He had a lower tolerance than most people expected from a 270-pound man, and he had to steady himself against the flimsy wall of the kitchen. He could probably punch right through into the next apartment if he wanted. What was the pervert going to do, call the cops? If he punched through the wall, then at least he could tell Saida that he’d done something. Maybe he’d do it later.

“And try finding a good job with that on your record,” Danny said.

“How do you get by?”

“They’ve got some programs, foundations to help us out. This wealthy sex offender died without any children; he left his money to a fund for the rest of us. I have to live off that.”

“That doesn’t really seem right. I mean regular guys—who never touched a woman wrong—we have to work for a living.”

“Jesus, man. I’m kidding. There’s no fund for sex offenders. I’ve got some very serious cash flow problems. But luckily I know a way in to some money.”

“How?”

The question of how would hang in the air for the next few weeks. In the meantime, Marcus became a regular at Danny’s apartment, and he never got around to punching a hole in the wall.





CHAPTER 3


DUANE’S LEFT INDEX FINGER still gave him a little pain when he gripped the steering wheel—likely the bone was broken and the flesh was a nasty pulp. He didn’t think it was infected, though. It would all heal fine, but it was a reminder that things were going off the rails, falling apart. The whole organization was going to hell.

The idea of seeing Tony made him sick, but Top had written him a stern text message: Make this meeting with T. Duane always heard people with straight jobs complain that they had to sit at meetings listening to worthless noise without killing everyone in the room. But that was exactly what he was driving to Newburgh for. It was going to be useless and stupid, and he wondered if he would be able to keep himself from doing something harsh.

Tony and Top were both ex-army—buddies from those days. At least that’s the way Tony told it. It was hard to believe he’d been military. If that’s what the army was coming to, we’d all be speaking Chinese in ten years. Hell, we’d be speaking Swedish if we really had an army full of imbeciles like Tony. The Swedes could row over in one of those Viking longboats, then just march to Washington while Tony worked on a cigarette and grinned—I’m supposed to do something, bro?

Yeah, Tony was bad and getting worse. Duane had seen it before: users rotting out their minds. It wasn’t that Duane didn’t understand—heroin was wonderful, a delight, the only way God really let you know there was something pure and holy within reach. But Tony had worn out the meager connections of his brain. He was left with just greed and a streak of self-preservation. And now Duane had to drive an hour to get scolded by this man who was actually the cause of the trouble. Was Tony Braxton really going to try that on him?

Yeah, his name wasn’t really Tony Braxton. That was just some hilarious joke someone had come up with at some point, and now Duane had to tell people, with a straight face, that Tony Braxton would have ten kilos in a week; or Tony Braxton would be coming to the meet. It was bad enough to have a two-minute phone chat with Tony, but to have to drive an hour to sit down with that fuck monkey face-to-face?

Fuck monkey? Duane hadn’t said that in a while, maybe not since high school when he practically used it as Cyril’s name. Not that Cyril was any better for a name. He felt pretty lucky that his mother had gone with Duane for her first child and Cyril for her second. Duane could remember summer days, his brother sitting out on the sidewalk, reading in a beach chair. He would sneak up quietly and smack the book out into the street. So that guy, Cyril the Brain, had made it through college in three years, then a so-so job, and then he just hit a wall. Duane had laughed hard when he heard Cyril was unemployed and trying to sell his furniture on Craigslist. It was so funny that Duane went to see the golden boy in his crap studio apartment.

“There’s so much money out there,” Duane had said. “You want to make some?”

Cyril poured himself a bowl of cereal, and Duane put a hand on his little brother’s shoulder.

“Are you scared of me—men like me?”

“Like you? Not really.”

“Why not?”

“Why would you do anything to me? Why would a man like you do anything to me?”

“They’re not all levelheaded like I am.”

“Okay, then we’re talking about men who are not like you.”

Duane smacked Cyril in the head—hard so it hurt, but also as a joke. Take that, inchworm.

“I don’t need to be reminded of how smart you think you are.”

Cyril cocked back a fist—the playfight continues? But Duane gave him a serious look.

“No. Do not.”

“Just kidding around,” Cyril said, sounding about seven years old.

“I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to do you the biggest favor of your life. So just listen, and don’t try to be smart. Some of these dudes are a little psychotic. They just are. Most are more like me: you don’t give them any reason for agitation, then it’s smooth doing business. You don’t have to prove you’re the macho man with a steel cock. You know what I mean?”

“Sure.” Cyril fought the impulse to giggle.

“You never even had a ticket, right?”

“No.”

“You’re a good driver with a clean record and a pretty, Caucasian face.”

“Thank you for saying that.”

There was a fairly strong resemblance between the two brothers, but it was easy to tell just by looking at them that Duane was the harder, angrier man.

“You can say no. But do it now. If you say yes, and I get you in—then you’ve got to do it right.”

“What are we talking about?” Cyril asked, still in groggy breakfast mode.

“What do you think?” Duane’s anger was rising again.

“Specifically, I mean.”

“Oh.” Duane weighed the question and found it reasonable. “It’s just driving. But it’s important. And you’ll make more money than you would have even if everything had worked out in—fucking botany school? Whatever you were doing at college.”

Duane had sold the job pretty hard, but he thought he’d been honest. The money he’d been making had him feeling like he was a big deal, and when Tony Braxton sounded him out about drivers, he thought it would be a shame if Cyril missed the easy money.

As it turned out, the only time the brothers did anything together was when Duane brought Cyril—in a cardigan sweater for fuck’s sake—to see Tony that first time. It was early afternoon at a bar in Rockland County without windows. That was back before Tony had turned into a complete disaster.

“This is your brother? Are you a puss like Duane?” Tony asked.

“Watch it,” Duane said.

“What, he can’t take it?”

“You insulted me, Tony.”

“How?” Tony gave a stupid grin.

“Look, you wanted to meet him. Here he is.”

Cyril still hadn’t said a word, but he looked up evenly at Tony.

“You can do this?” Tony asked.

“Yes,” Cyril said.

“There’s no reason you should ever get picked up. It just shouldn’t happen. If you get stopped, take a ticket—that’s fine. I’ll even pay it. If they want to search, tell them to get a warrant. If they don’t have one, do not let them inside the car. If they bring in the dogs and you get arrested, then just do the time. If you try to do anything else, you’ll end up dead. You get that, right?”

“Yes.”

“That’s something you understand?”

“That is something I understand.”

Cyril was calm and his voice was deep and even; Duane was a little impressed.

“Okay. Good enough,” Tony shrugged. “You want to drive tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I can do that.”

“Here you go.” Tony handed Cyril a cell phone. “Don’t let the batteries run out and don’t call anyone with this. We switch these pretty often, so you have to keep up. Can you handle that?”

“Yes, I can.”

Usually at the end of a job interview there’s the opportunity to ask a few questions—what’s the policy on sick days; is there a softball team? Walking out to Duane’s car, Cyril still had one important question.

“If I want to stop—can I just do that? Just stop?”

“You haven’t even done one job, you’re thinking of quitting?”

“I’m just looking at the long term.”

“Good thing you didn’t ask Tony.”

“So I can quit if I want?”

“No one reasonable is going to hurt a courier just for stepping down.”

“But some of them are psychotic—you told me that.”

And now Duane was a lot less impressed with his little brother’s cool.

“Look, Cyril, it’s possible that the first time you make a delivery the guy you meet will decide to slice off your tongue and make you eat it in a sandwich. That could happen. This isn’t preschool.”

“Thanks, Duane. That makes it a lot clearer for me.”

Duane was about two seconds from throwing Cyril out of the car; sarcasm was something he really didn’t really need. But he calmed himself—Cyril wasn’t used to this kind of life.

That was, what, three years ago now? Back then Duane thought the organization was tight, and the money would always come in big, regular chunks. But nothing ever stays the same. You never recognize the high-water mark. Yeah, trouble was coming, and Cyril would just have to take care of himself.





CHAPTER 4


IS IT STUPID TO BRING A GIRL with a gun back to your motel room?

Yes, it was stupid. Cyril knew that. It didn’t take a genius to see a problem coming, but this was the middle of the country where average people carried guns—housewives, realtors, undergrads. He’d been lonely, and he’d just loved the sound of Willow’s voice—going on about her classes, and the professors who were all a little sleazy, and the way she loved to feel gooseflesh rise on her skin in poorly heated dorms. It was all lies, but she told them so well.

“The money. Where is it? I know you have it,” she said.

She held the gun like she knew how to use it, and she wasn’t shaking. It was a small pistol, a nine-millimeter, but it was powerful enough to stop his heart.

“My wallet is in my pants,” Cyril said, still in just boxers.

Willow fished the wallet out of Cyril’s jeans and checked.

“There’s thirty-five dollars in here,” she said.

“Keep it”

“Come on. The money.”

“What do you mean by the money?”

“You’re going to make this difficult?”

Willow went through Cyril’s bag—a change of clothes, deodorant, a paperback, his passport. She opened all the drawers—all empty.

“Is it still in the car?” she asked. “You left that kind of cash in the car?”

“Can you tell me what money you think I have?”

“You know what money.”

“You can check the car. The keys are on the table. It’s a gray Toyota. There’s only two or three cars in the lot anyway. You’ll see it.”

She wasn’t sure whether she could leave him alone in the room. Maybe she was even starting to doubt that she had the right guy.

“What do you do for a living?” she asked.

They hadn’t got around to discussing that. She knew about all his childhood injuries and his favorite songs. She’d talked more than he had, and he’d laughed a lot, a wry shake of the head that she really seemed to like. Then they’d compared the size of their hands. Yeah, it was all cheap, sexy nonsense.

“I’m in web development,” he said.

“Like in computers? Programming?”

“Sure.”

“What do you mean sure?”

“I mean that I do some programming, yes.”

Cyril tried to look like a poor traveler who thought he’d met a nice young lady in a bar and was now trapped in a nightmare.



Willow wasn’t buying it. This was the man. She’d got the right address, and she’d practically picked him up from in front of his house, then hung onto that car all the way: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. She’d lose him for a minute or two and then find him again; she’d gambled and won on when to get gas. She’d followed his gray Toyota all the way to this crummy motel in Iowa, and Cyril was the only one who’d gotten out of that car. Of course, he was going to deny as much as he could. Losing money was a very dangerous thing for a man like this.

“I’m not any kind of—bank robber,” he said.

“Who said anything about a bank robber?”

“Whatever you think I am. Look, if there’s no money in the car, will you believe me?”

Willow’s eyes scanned the walls—vents, flaps in the wallpaper? Or could he have hidden it somewhere outside of the room? If so, when did he do that?

“Come with me,” she said.

“Can I put on a shirt and pants?”

“Yeah, but no jacket.”

He put on his jeans and his shirt. He reached for his socks, but she stopped him.

“No shoes.”

“No shoes in the parking lot in the middle of the night?”

“Walk.”

He walked out the door, and she followed. Her Beretta was the same color black as her hair. She let the sleeve of her jacket flow over the gun to conceal it, but it wouldn’t keep her from firing if she had to. She kept a few paces between them at all times. As they moved toward the lot, they could see the woman behind reception. She was young and heavyset, reading something in her lap and drinking an enormous cup of Sprite. He slowed his pace. Would he call out to her—help me, save me obese, night worker at chain motel.

“Keep going.”

They made it to the parking lot. Even though it was less than half an hour since they’d been outside, it felt a lot colder. Willow pointed to a spot on the ground, about fifteen feet from the car.

“You sit down here and watch. Answer questions if I ask. Otherwise, please don’t talk to me.”

He sat still, no fidgeting. First Willow went for the trunk where she found jumper cables, a spare tire, a flashlight, a towel, and a filthy tee shirt. Next, she opened the driver side door and shined a flashlight in the car—a few old CDs and a box of tissues. She picked up the box—nothing. She opened the glove compartment—a few papers, a map, a Swiss army knife, and a cell phone. She put the phone and the knife in her pocket, then she pressed down on the seats and reached in between. If there was anything in the car, it must be hidden away, sewn under the seats, stuffed into the gas tank? What was she going to do, take the car apart? Why did everything have to be so difficult? She peeked under the car briefly, turning her back to Cyril for just a moment. When she whirled back on him, he hadn’t moved.

“Okay,” she said, “I’m taking the car.”

The money had to be in here, didn’t it? It couldn’t be anywhere else. Or could he have stashed it somewhere? If so, then all she was doing here was stealing an old Toyota. She’d waste a day figuring out how to rip it apart, while he slipped the money out of the wallpaper and laughed his way home.

“You really have to take my car?” he asked.

“No. You could give me the money—then you’ll get to keep your car.”

“There’s no money in the car.”

“I think there is. I’ll drive it somewhere and take it apart until I find the money. And I will find it.”

“You’re going to take apart my car?”

“Why not just tell me where it is now? Then you get to keep your car and your wallet, and I save a few hours.”

Cyril looked at her carefully.

“You’re not really a student at the college here, are you?”

“Maybe you should stop talking to me like I’m stupid.”





CHAPTER 5


MARCUS FOUND HIMSELF DEFENDING Danny Chin to Saida.

“He didn’t do—anything. Not really.”

“They put him in prison.”

“Yeah, okay. He got arrested for sensual assault, yes. But that was a mistake.”

“It’s sexual assault.”

“What did I say?”

Sensual assault. You can’t say sensual assault.”

“All right, fine. Sexual assault.”

“No, I mean—you can’t go into the world and talk about someone committing sensual assault.”

“They said he pressed up against a lady on the train. I mean, is that sensual enough for you? Can I just explain—”

“So that’s your friend? That’s the kind of guy you like to watch football with?”

“It was a setup.”

“A setup? Marcus, every man who ever got put away says it was a setup.”

The following Monday after an overtime victory by the Chargers, Marcus again found himself pleasantly drunk on Danny’s couch.

“What would we do without football?” he asked.

“Man, I don’t know. Soccer? If they ever ban football, they’ll try to fob soccer off on us. They’ll even insist we call it futbol. I had a friend inside who tried to get me into soccer—didn’t happen.”

“You made a lot of friends in there?”

“Really just Luis. Some people started calling us Cheech and Chong. Because, you know, there’s an Asian guy and a Latin guy.”

“What’s Cheech and Chong?”

“Cheech and Chong made these movies about two guys running around trying to get stoned. So some people thought we were called Cheech and Chong because we could get drugs. And as it turned out, we could. So we started to do okay in there, but it’s hard to really be sure that you’re getting your cash when you’re inside. Luis is still in there, and he’s getting dicked around by his people on the outside—so I’m in the cold, right? But his daughter is this real sharp girl, Inez. And she found out about some money that’s going to be easy to grab. She’s going to set it up, and I’m going to take it.”

“Whose money is it?”

“It’s ours.”

In the three weeks Marcus had known him, Danny had nearly always been light, telling jokes or accepting whatever Marcus threw at him in stride. But now Danny showed the face of a man with a serious side, not just a silly little guy with bright clothes who liked to fondle women on mass transit.

“So this guy Cheech—”

“Let’s call him Luis,” Danny said.

“Okay, Luis. He brought the drugs in, right? He had the connection outside?”

“Right.”

“What did you do? Why did he want you for that? You’re not a big guy or part of a gang or anything, right?”

“I was his friend. We had some really deep conversations about religion and spirituality, like about whether animals have souls. But the main thing to understand is that we—you and me—can pick up some serious money, just by being at the right place.”

Danny tapped the table in front of them. It had cigarette burns, like someone used the top as an ashtray. Marcus had never seen Danny smoke; the furniture was probably left over from the previous tenant. A lot of people just took off in the night at this complex, and no one had nice furniture. Marcus didn’t mind that much. Who needed nice things, fancy things? He had hot water and a roof over his head. It was only for the sake of Saida that he wanted more, because he really was ashamed when he thought of what he had to give her.

“What do you say, dog?” Danny asked.

Could be some kind of setup. But what would the setup be? Marcus was broke and Danny knew it, so there couldn’t be any money con going on. The only possibility was that a crime was going to be pinned on him in such a way that would benefit Danny. That seemed very complicated. It seemed more likely that Danny needed a big, cash-strapped guy to help him out with a job.

“Is it going to be dangerous?” Marcus asked.

“It’s not exactly getting the dry cleaning, you know? But from what I understand, there’s one guy picking up some money in a car, and he doesn’t travel with a weapon. It’ll take a lot of driving and some boring scenery, but I think it’s going to work.”

“Who’s the guy?”

“Just a guy they have who mules their product ordinarily. This time he’s going out there to pick up straight cash.”

“Out where?”

“Nebraska, Iowa—one of those corn states.”

“I get cash?”

“Of course, you get cash. We’re not going to take vouchers or nothing like that. We get cash money, legal tender USA. I want you in for this, man.”

Marcus nodded slowly.

“Let me talk it over with Saida,” he said.

“Okay, I respect that you have a strong relationship and everything, but you cannot talk-it-over with Saida. You understand me?”

“What do I tell her?”

“Nothing until the job is done. And then you lie about where the money came from.”

“What’s my share?”

“You get fifteen percent. I think it’s close to a million in the bag.”

Marcus couldn’t do all the math in his head, but he knew this was serious money.

“Half we give to Inez—that’s for Luis—and thirty-five percent goes to me.” Danny rattled off the figures quickly like he was giving an annual interest rate for a small-business loan. “What Inez is going to do is put a tracker on the car. All we have to do is follow the car. And we don’t have to ride right up on it; we just stay within a few miles. Then we wait for him to make the pickup, and we find the right time to jump him. That might be the tricky part, because he’s not going to make too many stops, but he’s got to stop somewhere to sleep. That’s going to be when we take him.”

“And we don’t know where the driver is going to pick up the money?”

“I told you, out in the corn somewhere. We just have to stay close enough, so we can jump him when he stops at some motel on the way back.”

“When you say jump him, what does that mean?”

“We might have to hit him pretty hard, but we are not killing anyone. No one wants that.”

“Why do you want me for this?” Marcus asked.

“Come on, dog. Do I have to get sentimental? I like you and everything, and you may dig that I have a limited circle of friends. I know you need the money, and you look like the kind of guy I want in case there’s fisticuffs.”

It made sense: Marcus as muscle for a rough job. Hell, even Saida treated him that way. She wouldn’t go for this, though. Maybe he could say there was a weeklong construction job down in Virginia that his cousin got him on. Could he get away with a lie to Saida?

“Fifteen percent of a million dollars is fifteen thousand?” he asked.

“No, fifteen percent of a million is one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. That’s what a bone surgeon makes in one year. You’re going to make that in one road trip.”

That was more than all the money he’d made in his entire life. It would mean he could pay off all of Saida’s tuition and debt, and then they could live pretty highball for as long as he could see into the future. He was going, and she would come around when he had money in hand, wouldn’t she?





CHAPTER 6


WILLOW HAD TWO CHOICES: either she could get rough with Cyril, or she could put a few cards on the table. But she didn’t know how to get rough other than by shooting him in the leg, and that couldn’t be done quietly. She decided to march him back to the motel room and open up a bit.

“A little while ago, I started dating Tony Braxton,” she said.

“Okay, well that’s really your business. I mean, the age difference and—”

“See, here’s how I know you’re lying: you don’t think I’m crazy. You pretend you don’t know anything about money or Tony Braxton, but here you are, treating me like a rational player. If you really didn’t know what was going on you’d be freaking out—this sexy girl pulled a gun on me and said she was dating some old R&B singer.”

“You don’t think I’m freaking out?”

“No. And I will shoot you if I have to—probably in the leg.”

Willow lifted the gun and aimed at his left knee—so much for conversation.

“I’m going to count down from ten, but I might shoot at any moment. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven—”

Cyril was not quite brave enough to call her bluff.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay. Just calm down.”

There was a subtle shift in tone; he’d put aside playing the innocent.

“So where’s the money?”

“There is no money. I don’t carry money. Who told you I did?”

“Tony.”

“You’re dating him?”

“Whatever you want to call it. I can’t say I’m fucking him, because I’m not. He’s not into that.”

“What is he into?”

“He’s got these army men, little plastic toys. What he does is first he gets naked, then—”

“Okay, I get it.”

“You get it, really? So tell me what happens next?”

“I mean that I don’t need to know the details.”

“So you were on board with the army men? It’s only when he gets naked that you can’t take it?”

“Pretty much. What did he tell you?”

“He said you were carrying money out west.”

“Okay. Willow. I don’t have any money.”

“He said you did. He also said you were the best courier by far.”

Cyril looked annoyed at the compliment.

“Why is he talking about me to anyone?”

“So you are carrying?”

“No. I have nothing with me. If I did I wouldn’t be stopping for drinks and making new friends.”

“So what are you doing?”

“I have to make a pickup—product.”

“Then you must have money. Whichever way things are moving—drugs go one way, money goes the other.”

“They’ve got special bank transfers or something, better ways of moving money than putting it out on the highway.”

“So why does Tony say you’re carrying cash?”

“Because he’s an idiot.”

“You think?”

“You’ve met him.”

Her stomach was starting to turn on her—this was supposed to be easy.

“Tomorrow I’m going to pick up dope. Okay? I’m out here to do that. Right now I have nothing. Would I have been so lax about letting someone follow me, or go to a bar and leave the money unattended, or pick up a girl with a gun? Would I have done any of those things if I had anything with me?”

“Maybe. Maybe you’re sloppy.”

“Tony Braxton said I was the best, right?”

“He’s an idiot.”

“Okay. There you go. Thank you. Do you see how this is all a misunderstanding based on the fact that Tony is an idiot?”

Had she come all this way on Tony’s useless story? Was it possible that a deviant addict who called himself Tony Braxton was capable of passing on bad information?



Cyril had been such a good courier for three years. He even worked a real job—part-time web design—just to make it all look good on paper. But the driving was changing him, and tonight was the worst kind of proof. It had been coming on for a while. He’d cursed out his noisy neighbors, and he’d almost attacked a guy at work. A few weeks back a programmer named Larry had gotten in his face about some bad code. Cyril stared at the guy—Do you understand that I just dropped off thirty kilos of heroin, and you’re a 108-pound desk jockey with an M.C. Escher poster on your wall?

“Why don’t you just worry about yourself?” Cyril had said.

“Because—you—affect—me. I have to work harder for same money when there is you on job,” Larry said, breaking it down like a really smarmy kindergarten teacher.

“Talk to me like that again and I’ll break your stapler.”

“I would never talk to you at all if you could actually get your work done in any kind of reasonable timeframe. I don’t talk to you for fun.”

Cyril broke Larry’s stapler. He snapped it back against its natural direction and then slammed it on the desk. Larry retreated behind the black mesh of his Aeron chair, and Cyril came very close to lifting the chair and crushing the little programmer with it. The fact that he hadn’t made him feel like he’d failed, like he had unfinished business. So now to compensate he was acting tough in bars and picking up dangerous women? Sloppy, so sloppy, because this dangerous woman had his wallet, his passport, his car keys, and his cell phone. And he really needed that phone. Maybe he should just make a break for it, abort the mission. That wouldn’t make anyone happy, but it wouldn’t get him killed. Or would it? Maybe couriers were like resumes: one mistake and you tossed them?

“Are you even listening to me, honey?” Willow asked.

“I’m listening.”

“Here’s the thing you have to realize: even if I hadn’t showed up, you were already in a whole lot of trouble.”

“We’ve all got problems.”

“No, but you really have some serious crisis. In fact, meeting me may have been the luckiest thing that ever happened to you.”

It sounded unlikely, but Cyril was willing to hear her out.





CHAPTER 7


SAIDA WAS LYING ON THE COUCH, frowning over a textbook when Marcus walked in the room and hovered. She lost her place.

“What?”

“I got to tell you something,” he said.

“Hmmm,” she mumbled, looking back at her book.

Saida was always mad with Marcus these days. She blamed him for bringing her out to this wasteland and then losing his job. He hadn’t found anything permanent in almost a year. The best he could do for right now was some part-time landscaping, which was embarrassing for her to have to tell people. Yeah, sometimes Marcus mows a lawn. So she didn’t. She told her sister Margaret that Marcus drove a forklift now. Saida even researched the kinds of licenses forklift operators needed to get. Marcus needs me to help him study for the OSHA test, she’d say to her sister and then get off the phone.

“I have a job,” Marcus said. “Saida, can you listen to me?”

“Okay, what?”

“It’s going to take me out of town for a few days, maybe a week.”

“What kind of job?”

Saida put down her book. What was the big deal, an odd job out of town? Why was he acting so bizarre? He was going to Pittsfield to clip a hedge? Why the big announcement?

“It’s just a job,” he said.

“Is this a landscaping thing?”

“No, it’s a—it’s a little bit different.”

“How?”

“I can’t tell you too much about it, but it’s—it’s not completely…with the law.”

Marcus made circular gestures with his hand.

“Are you doing a magic trick?”

“No, I’m just trying to tell you—so you know—there’s risk in it.”

“What are you doing? What stupid shit are you about to start?”

“The less you know, the better. Right? I can’t tell you any of the when and where and who, but I should tell you the basic truth of it. Because you have a right to know that I’m putting myself on the line—for us.”

“Who got you into this?”

“Never mind that.”

“It’s the—that pervert, that little guy? You’re working with him?”

“No comment. Okay. No comment at all.”

“What kind of work does he want you to do? There’s no money in groping ladies on the bus—none at all.”

“It’s just some work. Okay? So what do you think?”

“I think…”

Saida let her sentence die. The concern that she should have felt for Marcus heading out to do something dumb just wasn’t there. He was about to rob a liquor store or ship meth to Alabama or something even more stupid. If he was lucky he would end up in jail. But Saida surprised herself by how little she cared.

“How much do you figure to make?” she asked.

“A lot.”

“What’s a lot?”

“I should come back with 200,000 dollars. Around there.”

He had to be making that up—just picked a really big number out of the sky. She wished he’d said something smaller, more believable.

“You think you’ll be safe doing this?”

“I think so.”

“Well, all right, then.”

“You’re okay with this?”

“Am I okay with this? No, but you’re going to make up your own mind, right?”

Did she think Marcus was going to succeed with his little caper? No, probably not. But Saida had known crack dealers riding in fifty thousand dollar SUVs who were at least as dumb as Marcus. Maybe he’d pull it off: a one-time thing could happen to anyone. Maybe the sex criminal was smart. You had to be at least a little smart to get away with being a pervert, right? And that’s where it started to fall apart. Danny Chin hadn’t gotten away with anything, had he?

“I’m doing it for us,” Marcus said. “Because I haven’t taken care of you like I should. I was supposed to be bringing in more while you were going to school. But now finally I think that can happen.”

So Marcus was going gangsta? If that’s what she’d wanted, there were plenty of Ricks in Brooklyn she could have had. No, she was done with Marcus one way or the other. If he succeeded and brought back a few dollars, great. She’d help him spend until it ran out. If not, she was gone even sooner. There was a girl at school who’d take her in short term. This was the smart way to play it, even if it made her feel like a callus bitch.

Marcus was still standing above her, looking sincere and committed.

“Really, baby, it’s going to be fine,” he said.

“How long are you going to be away?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a few days, maybe a week.”

“When are you leaving?”

“I don’t know, soon. Really, I’ll tell you when I know, but I just don’t know right now.”

“All right, then. Let’s not talk about it anymore.”

When he lifted her, she didn’t tell him to put her down. They went to the bedroom and made love like it was necessary, the two of them surprisingly present to the act.



Marcus’s phone rang just after three the next morning. He shut off the ring and hopped out of bed before Saida had a chance to complain. He kissed her sleeping head, and she hummed ambiguously.

He met Danny out in the parking lot, many hours earlier than either underemployed man was used to. It was pitch black on a cold Monday in November, and Danny had to scrape a little frost from the windshield of his car. It was the first time they’d been together outside of the apartment complex. Danny took the receiver out of the glove compartment and turned it on. He showed Marcus the blip that represented their target. It was sitting there on a map of a residential street in Dutchess County, New York.

“He hasn’t left yet, but we want to get out in front of him,” Danny said, starting the car.

“Who is he?”

“I don’t know his name or anything, but he’s just one man and he’s definitely unarmed.”

The device was small, and more than anything else, it looked like an old hand-held electronic game.

“Inez just slapped it on his car. He must be leaving soon.”

Danny drove west through the darkness. When the sun came up they stopped for breakfast near Wilkes Barre. The car on the tracker still hadn’t moved.

“At this point we should just sort of chill out. You want to gamble?”

“Is that a good idea?”

“There’s a casino in Bethlehem.”

“I don’t know about gambling. I mean, we want to have cash to spare, right? In case we need it?” Marcus asked, but he also felt like gambling, or skydiving, or running with the bulls. He felt ready for any task all of a sudden.

“Maybe you’re right.” Danny nodded across the room. “Some elegant ladies at the far table.”

Marcus glanced over.

“Don’t look, man,” Danny said.

“Is that a good idea?”

“How else are we going to meet ladies? I have always found that the best way to meet a lady is to walk over and say hello to her.”

Just then a beeping, like a no-nonsense ringtone, came from Danny’s pocket. He took out the receiver and smiled.

“Our man is moving.”





CHAPTER 8


WHEN DUANE WALKED INTO THE BAR and saw the girl, he knew trouble was coming sooner rather than later. Who was she, and why was Tony Braxton sitting with one arm around her, drinking liquor when he’d called specifically to have a serious conversation with Duane?

The girl was slim, about average height, very pretty, probably Dominican or Puerto Rican. Tony was looking horrible: his hair was thin and greasy, and he’d lost weight since the last time Duane had seen him. It was pretty clear that the girl let his arm stay where it was for something other than personal pleasure.

Yeah, Tony was a mess. Duane had told Top that once, and Top had shut Duane down—not a topic of conversation. If Duane could leave these clowns, he would, but he still had too much invested with them at the moment. Top was moving money through bank transfers in a way that was supposed to make it all clean and scrubbed, but it was taking a long time for any of it to get back to Duane. So he had to sit through this nonsense; he had to meet Tony in this ridiculous sports bar.


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