Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 149 - Mike Dennis

PICKUP ACROSS THE RIVER - MIKE DENNIS

I opened a slit in the thick curtains, just enough to let a slim snippet of late afternoon sunlight into the shadowy room. Standing there, nude, I peeked out over the balcony into the street one floor below. It was only around a quarter of five, but the Bourbon Street symphony was already going full tilt: strip joint barkers, Lucky Dog vendors, whooping out-of-towners, and of course the music. It wouldn’t be New Orleans without the music. That’s why I wanted a room on this side of the hotel, so we could hear it flow up from the street.

I turned around, glancing back into the room. Tina lay peacefully in the disheveled bed. Still asleep, I was pretty sure. During our little hourlong nap, the AC had cooled us off considerably, taking care of the sweat on our bodies and in the sheets.

Earlier in the day, we’d walked all around the French Quarter like the tourists that we were, baking under the late summer sun. We both loved all the old buildings with the balconies and everything. Sometimes we’d just pick out a balcony, and try to guess what kind of person lived up there behind those shuttered French doors. It was all so...so mysterious, really. We both thought New Orleans looked like an exciting place to live, so we considered looking at real estate prices in the paper.

But frankly, we say that about almost everywhere we go. That’s because we live in a fairly boring town, so just about anyplace with any pizzazz at all looks great to us. Back home, we run a little ice cream shop in a mall. You know, a typical mom-and-pop type of thing. But about four or five times a year, we get to go out of town like we’re doing now. My brother takes care of the shop for the few days we’re gone.

Once we got back to the room, I just wanted to lie down, because we had serious work to do later on, but Tina had other ideas. And that’s when I broke a sweat. You get my meaning.

Afterward, my shower was cool, but the pressure was high. I really like those kinds of showers with the powerful spray, you know, like needles all over your skin. Makes you feel like you’re really getting clean. I wished we had one like it back home, but then again, we were in a swanky hotel here. It wasn’t everyday we got to stay in a place like this. I mean, they probably get upwards of eighty bucks a night for a room, maybe even a hundred. We were only here because AJ Frechette, the hotel’s owner and manager, comped us the room.

I threw on some clothes. Not just any clothes, but rather a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt worn outside baggy white pants. With this outfit, the .22 semi-auto could slip right down into my rear waistband, silencer and all, without causing any visible bulge.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, I gently kissed Tina awake. “What time is it?” she mumbled through a full-body stretch.

“A little after five. Time to rise and shine.” I stroked her cheek. It felt warm.

She reached out for me with both arms. Pulling me down to her, she spread a few kisses around my face and neck. I couldn’t help but smile.

“You know we don’t have time, baby,” I said, slowly easing out of her grip. “You’ve got to get up.”

“Oh, I know,” she groused, as she struggled her way out of bed, stumbling into the shower.

With the shower going full blast, I could see steam pouring out of the bathroom. That wasn’t going to make it any cooler in here, but I knew Tina really liked hot showers, so I didn’t say anything. Most women worry about heat and humidity ruining their hair, but Tina’s hair was short (shorter than mine, actually) and straight, too, so she never had to fret over it. Before long, though, I was sweating again.

Eventually, she came out of the bathroom, towel-wrapped, with me standing on the bed fanning myself directly in front of the air-conditioning duct up near the ceiling.

“Hot, are we?” she giggled, as she went to the door of the room. She flung it open, then stood in the doorway as clouds of steam were sucked out into the hotel corridor. Within a minute or two, the room had become livable again and the AC was back in control.

I kissed her on the lips, a short one, saying, “You know more than one way to make me hot.”

“Mmm,” she replied, as she ground her body into mine. “I like you sweaty.” I glanced at my watch. Twenty till six.

“Come on, baby, better get dressed. We’ve got to meet Mr Frechette at six.”

She threw on some sensible clothes, then buried her piece deep within her large purse. Soon, we were downstairs, in the doorway of AJ Frechette’s office.

*

AJ was a skinny guy. Real skinny, in fact. Probably no more than a hundred twenty-five or thirty pounds. Fortunately, he was only around five-eight or so. If he were any taller, he might disappear altogether when he turned sideways. Funny how you never picture a guy to look like that when you talk to him on the phone.

Anyway, he dripped with class, just like his hotel. His suit was steel-grey, matching his tightly-spaced eyes, and looked pretty expensive. His cufflinks had what appeared to be diamonds in them, and when he stuck out his hand to shake mine, I noticed a big, bloated Rolex on his right wrist. I always notice when a guy wears his watch on his right wrist. Often it means he’s left-handed. Like myself.

“Christopher,” he said as we shook hands. “A real pleasure to meet you.”

“Same here, Mr Frechette. And this is my wife, Tina.”

“Call me AJ.” Then he took her hand also, but much more gently. “Welcome to New Orleans, Tina. I hope your room is satisfactory.” He spoke with that thick accent you hear from people who’ve been born and raised in New Orleans. Kind of like a New York accent, but without any of the rough edges.

“Oh, it’s wonderful, Mr Frech—I mean, AJ,” Tina said. “A very comfortable bed. And a great shower, too.”

“Yes, well...please be seated.” We all sat down, him behind his desk, Tina and me in front of it. A beautiful desk, too, I might add.

He sat with his hands folded in front of him on the desk. “Now, as you know, we have mutual friends here in New Orleans, and y’all come highly recommended. They tell me you’ve done some things for them in this area over the last two or three years.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “We’ve made the trip down here a couple of times now.” I looked at Tina. “I think this’s our third, right, honey?”

Before Tina could nod, he went on. “The fellow you want is over in Algiers, right across the river. Here’s his name and where he‘s staying.” He held up a piece of paper. It contained a man’s name, along with the name and address of a motel, as well as the room number. I memorized his name and the room number, while Tina got the name and address of the motel. Then AJ picked up an object off his desk that looked like one of those little glass balls with a winter scene inside it, you know, the kind that snows when you turn it upside down. He picked this thing up, flicked something on it, and a flame spit out of the top. It was a lighter, as well.

“There’s one more thing,” AJ said, as he held the flame to the scrap of paper with the data on it. “He’s going to have a metal briefcase with him. Brushed silver with a combination lock on it. Take it with you and bring it back to your room.”

I nodded. “When’s the best time to, uh, see this fellow?” The paper burned in his large ceramic ashtray.

“Later on tonight. Around ten-thirty. He’ll be expecting you.”

“Expecting us?”

“Well, yes. He’s looking for a couple who are going to give him money for that briefcase.”

Tina spoke up. “What’s in it?"

He opened the top drawer of his desk, retrieving a thick envelope. “Nothing that concerns you. Just bring it back here to the hotel. Take it to your room, then call me. I'll be in the lounge.”

He tossed me the envelope. “Here’s half of what you’ve got coming. You’ll get the other half when the job is completed. But that means I’ve got to have that briefcase. Understood?”

His piercing little eyes told me he meant business. Mine told him I understood. I was sure glad I didn’t have to work around this guy every day. Don’t get me wrong, now, I don’t mean that Tina and I take things lightly. We know what we’re doing and it’s serious stuff. But, this AJ, I can just tell he’s not really my kind of guy.

He stood up, indicating our meeting was over. He said, “Now, y’all go on into the King’s Landing tonight, right out there just off the lobby." Pointing in that direction, he added, smiling, “Have a nice dinner on me. You’ll like it. It’s one of the finest restaurants in New Orleans.”

I shook his bony hand. It was firmer this time.

“Talk to you later,” I said, as Tina and I headed for the King’s Landing and what turned out to be a terrific dinner.

*

Algiers felt like a foreign country, and we hadn’t even left town. Everything was all different-looking over there. No one seemed to be moving, or if they did, it was in ultra-slow motion. They all just kind of lounged around on the sidewalks, leaning up against cars. I don’t know, maybe it was the heat. It hadn’t cooled off any since this afternoon.

We consulted our map and found the motel with no problem. The room in question was in the back, on the second floor in the middle of the long building, about the same distance from each of the two stairwells. We weren’t real crazy about that because it meant we’d have to do some walking from the room back down to our car, and that meant exposure. But, as I looked around, I saw no activity in the parking lot. The lighting wasn’t too good, so that was a plus. We grabbed a spot right off the rear stairwell and backed the rental car straight in.

A line of sweat started to make its way from my hairline down the side of my face. I wiped it with my short sleeve as best I could, then pulled a headband from my pocket. I always carry one in hot climates, because the last thing I need at crunch time is sweat running down in my eyes.

Tina and I then gave each other the look we always wore right before doing a job. It was just a look, but it said so much. We checked our weapons, jacked the slides, and got out of the car.

Our Nikes didn’t make any noise at all, as we ascended the stairs and made our way down the landing, past all the curtained windows. We heard TV sounds coming from several of the rooms, tipping us to the poor noise insulation. A moment later, we knocked on the correct door.

It opened, and a tall, youngish guy stood in the doorway. Luxurious hair formed a blond corona around his head. It was the kind of hair women loved to run their hands through. Unfortunately for him, that was about all he had that women would like. Behind him stood a heavy-set man in loose clothing and a buzzcut. We spoke the young guy’s name, then he let us in. Mr Heavy-Set eyed us very carefully. I saw the briefcase on the bed in the background.

“So…where’s the money?” the young man asked, looking at Tina’s large purse. He had a high-pitched voice I didn’t like.

“Right here,” Tina said, slowly reaching inside her purse.

Now, at this point I should mention that Tina, being right-handed, always stands on my right. Always. Like I said earlier, I’m left-handed. It's convenient this way; when there are two targets, each of us can take the one in front of us, and we don't bump arms in the process. And there will always be one in front of each of us. They never line up one behind the other. Sure enough, the young man was in front of Tina, eyes fixed on her purse, while the big guy was slightly behind him on the left, in front of me, his hand ready to reach under his shirt.

Tina’s hand came out of the purse holding her muffled .22. At the same instant, I whipped mine out, and we began firing. The quiet spits found their marks right away, as the men crumpled to the carpet. Then, careful not to step in the widening pools of blood, we went to each man and put one shot in each of their heads at point blank range.

I scooped up the briefcase—it felt light, like there was nothing in it—then we headed out the door, Tina wiping our prints from the knob as we left. Momentarily, we were back in the car, pulling out of the parking space. We headed toward the motel exit and the safety of traffic. Everything had gone perfectly.

As we neared the exit, a van pulled out of a parking spot, stopping directly in front of us and blocking our path. I could see there were two men inside. The driver looked straight at us and raised a pistol into view. I shoved it into reverse and squealed backwards, spinning the car around. I heard a shot glance off the side view mirror. I raced toward the back of the parking lot. As I rounded the rear of the building, I saw the van go around the front, where it met us in the large parking lot on the other side. The driver was determined to crash into us, head on. Tina rammed fresh clips into our weapons and began firing both guns out the window at the oncoming van, as I drove straight at their headlights.

The van swerved at the last second, but it wasn’t enough. My right front nicked it, sending us into a roll and the van into a row of parked cars at the end of the lot. Our car righted itself with a big jolt, while theirs burst into flame. From where I sat, frantically trying to restart the car, I saw they had escaped the inferno, heading for us, pistols in hand. Two more crawled out the rear doors of the van, dragging an injured comrade out with them. One of the two joined in the charge, while the other attended to their friend. Tina fired at them through our smashed windows, hitting one of them. The rest kept coming, returning the fire. The damn engine still wouldn’t roll over!

“Christopher!” she cried between shots. “We gotta get out of here!”

“Go!” I shouted, as we kicked open the doors and piled out. During the rollover, the briefcase had flown into the back, wedging itself underneath the seat. I reached for it and finally managed to jerk it loose.

We ran, keeping the car between us and them as best we could. They quit shooting when they got to our car, because by then, we’d hit the street. Tina shoved our weapons into her purse. As we quickly flagged down a cab, a small crowd had gathered around the parking lot entrance. True to human form, their attention was not on us, but riveted on the burning van, and on the large orange flames flaring upward into the moonlit sky.

*

I took Tina’s hand, as the taxi made its way to the airport early the next morning. Through the rear window, the city skyline glistened in the sun.

“I hope the tomatoes are doing okay,” she sighed. “It was supposed to rain real hard yesterday.”

The cab swerved around a corner, as she swung into my chest. While she giggled, I said, “They’ll be all right. A little rain’ll never hurt them.”

She stayed snuggled up next to me. “Oh, I hope you’re right, because they always taste so much better than the store-bought ones. You know, like on your BLTs.”

We started laughing and pretty soon the taxi pulled onto the airport arterial.

“What airline?” the driver asked.

We told him, then he pulled up in the breezeway at the dropoff spot.

As we got out of the cab, Tina whispered to me, “Don’t think you’re going to fiddle around with those tomatoes when we get home, because I want to make mad love to you.”

Inside the terminal building, we headed straight for the ticket counter. My big smile was full of anticipation, and so was hers, as we pulled out our phony IDs.

BIO: Following a thirty-year career as a professional musician (piano), Mike Dennis retired a few years ago to pursue writing. Leaving his beloved Key West, he moved to Las Vegas in late 2006. He has a short story, Block, slated to appear in the forthcoming 2009 Wizards Of Words Anthology. His first novel, The Take, was recently picked up by a publisher and will be released in 2010.

5 comments:

Morgan said...

Way to go Mike! Great style and great story, but then I wouldn't expect anything less from you.

MORGAN ST. JAMES
www.silversistersmysteries.com
A CORPSE IN THE SOUP
SEVEN DEADLY SAMOVARS

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful, Mike I love your style. I can't wait to read more.
Penny Patrick

Wallow III said...

riveting!
Noir with feeling!

Paul D. Brazill said...

I do like this story.Almost missed it. Glad I didn't. Class act.

Don Lee said...

A lot packed into such a short story. The contrast between the couple and the assignment. You got a good feel for New Orleans. I love it a lot. Anyway, implied backstory, everything just sorta clicked right. Looking forward to reading more of your work, novels, everything.