I had a body in the trunk of my car.
I hadn’t planned it that way, but it wasn’t that kind of job. It wasn’t a job at all, really, rather a speculative venture, and now I’d made more of an investment than just my time and a little money.
This was in the summer, and Reagan was still president, early enough that he wasn’t showing his Alzheimer’s yet and late enough that he was keeping a good distance between himself and the Press Corps, waving and smiling and pretending he couldn’t hear them. We’d already had the Chernobyl meltdown, the Challenger explosion, and Pac Man fever. Disco was dead, which was fine with me, only I wish somebody had paid me to kill the fucker.
I make the above lame joke because I had once upon a time killed people for money—initially for Uncle Sam, but more profitably for a mobbed-up guy called the Broker (more about him later). Right now I was in business for myself, thirty-five years old and looking to make a killing. Financial kind.
Anyway, the body in the trunk of my car. And it was my car, not a rental, a blue ‘75 Pontiac with a lighter blue vinyl top, a Sunbird, which was really just a Vega pretending to be a sportscar. It had a lot of miles on it and had only cost a grand and change, bought for cash under a phony name in Wisconsin—another investment in this spec job.
I hadn’t known I’d wind up with a body in the trunk, but I was old enough a hand at this to know I didn’t want to use my own vehicle and a rental would be a bad idea, too. But to tell you the truth, I’d had bodies in my trunk before, so maybe that was a factor, after all.
For around six years in the ‘70s I had taken on contracts, and part of why I’d survived and even flourished was my ability to blend in. At five ten, one-hundred-sixty pounds, I’d maintained a fairly boyish look—into my late twenties, I could be been taken for a college student, and now I could pass for twenty-five or -six. I kept my brown hair medium-length because that helped maintain anonymity. I could be a working man in t-shirt and jeans or a salesman in narrow tie and sportcoat or a professional in button-down collar and pinstripe suit.
Tonight, though, I was doing my Don Johnson impression in a white Armani suit with a pastel yellow t-shirt and Italian loafers with no socks. Normally, the Miami Vice schtick was not for me, but I needed to fit in. The Paddlewheel attracted a wealthy crowd, and the over-forty set dressed to the nines, but the twenty- and thirty-somethings were Yuppies and dressed accordingly.
So tonight I was a Yuppie (a Yuppie with a body in the trunk, but a Yuppie).
This was a warm evening cooled by a breeze and the parking lot was full—my used car at least had that vinyl top to help it fit in with the Buicks and Caddies and BMW’s, and was maybe sporty enough to cohabit with the Stingrays 280ZX’s and Jags. I parked on the far side of the lot, near where the glimmering black strip of the Mississippi River reflected the lights of the ancient steel toll bridge joining River’s Bluff, Iowa, and Haydee’s Port, Illinois.
Everybody I’d talked to so far, which wasn’t many admittedly, seemed to shorten it to Haydee’s. And from the glimpse I’d got of the little town, they might have been saying Hades, and meaning it.
River’s Bluff itself hadn’t been that impressive, a long-in-the-tooth industrial town of maybe sixty thousand on rolling hills overlooking the river. Ivy-covered shelves of shale lined the freeway cutting through the old river city, taking me to the bridge and a thirty-cent toll. Going over the rumbling, ancient span was a more frightening ride than a fifty-cent one at any carnival.
And Haydee’s Port itself wasn’t any less frightening. A sign beyond the bridge announced it, a road curving right to eventually deposit me and my Sunbird (no body in the trunk yet—this was early afternoon) in a pocket below the interstate. Here I found myself beholding the open wound that was Haydee’s Port.
Main Street was almost entirely bars and strip clubs, rough-looking ones—big parking lots in back, empty mid-morning but indicating healthy-sized clientele. Among the few respectable businesses was a Casey’s General Store, which was also the only gas station, on a corner by itself just beyond the two-block strip of sin. No schools, and certainly no churches. Poking up out the trees that hugged the Mighty Miss emerged grain-elevator towers, which were one legitimate business anyway that had nothing to do with selling beer, except maybe providing out-of-state brewers with some of the makings.
Main Street was paved, but the others weren’t, just narrow hard dirt, with ruts to indicate what happened when it rained. The main drag was built with its back to the river, putting the residences of the little community behind the opposite row of saloons. Mostly Haydee’s Port was a glorified trailer park, minus the glory—shabby mobile homes here and there, as if where the most recent tornado had left them, with an occasional sagging twenties or older vintage clapboard house to add a little shabby variety.
This was a welfare ghetto, with the bars handy for disposal of monthly checks and probably willing to accept food stamps, maybe at 75 cents on the dollar.
All of which made the Paddlewheel (half a mile or so out of town) such an anomaly, at least at first glance. This was a class operation, not an all-night gin mill serving blue-collar out-of-workers or the spillover from River Bluff after the bars closed, rather a high-end entertainment complex that attracted clientele with cash, not food stamps. The reconverted warehouse was a massive affair, home to a restaurant, several bars, several lounges with stages, and a casino—a mini-Las Vegas under one roof.
Though when you really thought about it, the Paddlewheel was not an anomaly at all—some genius entrepreneur had realized that in an environment corrupt enough for downtown Haydee’s Port to openly thrive, erecting a sin palace for Mr. and Mrs. Got-rocks Midwest was also possible. Whatever bent cops and greedy politicos were allowing these lowlife joints to run wide open would be just as for sale to the Paddlewheel’s backers. Maybe more so.
Anyway, the body in the trunk.
You have to understand that I had no idea I was heading for Haydee’s Port. Hell, I had no idea Haydee’s Port existed. I’d been following a guy named Monahan from Omaha, Nebraska, which had been tricky for a variety of reasons, starting with the difficulty of staking out a guy who lives in a suburban home in an upper middle-class neighborhood.
Monahan was a guy about forty who lived a very respectable life for a contract killer, which is what he was. He was five seven or eight, in good shape, with short dark hair and the general button-down look of an insurance salesman, which as it happened was his cover.
I had no reason to believe his perky little blonde wife, also about forty, had the faintest notion Monahan was a hit man, to use the TV parlance. Certainly his two kids, a boy around thirteen and a girl of fifteen or sixteen were clueless that their suburban lifestyle was made possible by the man of the house committing commercial carnage.
Monahan and his wife and kids and his split-level in a housing development in Omaha have almost nothing to do with this narrative, so I’ll keep it short. I’d never met him, but he was one of fifty-some guys like me who had worked for the Broker, the middleman who’d provided me with contracts back when I was in the killing game myself. For reasons recorded elsewhere, the Broker wound up dead and I wound up with a database of his worker bees.
"Database" isn’t exactly right, because when I came into possession of that file, it was before home computers, and when I say "file," I mean literally that—a file, a fat manila folder full of extensive information including real names and aliases alike, addresses past and present, photographs for each name, even specific jobs that had been carried out.
Why the Broker maintained this explosive packet, I couldn’t say—eventual blackmail purposes should someone get out of line, maybe? Or food for the feds or cops should immunity and the Witness Protection Program come into play?
For all his veneer of suburban bliss, Monahan was an assassin whose specialty was particularly nasty: hit-and-run kills. This had made him one of the highest paid names on the Broker’s list—Monahan provided the kind of accidental death that sent official investigations off on the wrong track, and made handsome insurance pay-outs a breeze. As a professional, the guy had real skills, and you had to hand it to him.
But as I believe I already indicated, maintaining surveillance on a guy living in a housing development is a royal pain in the ass. Luckily I was able to rent a house just down the street from him on the opposite side of the block. I spent my time tailing him to the office he maintained in a strip mall, where he read newspapers and watched television and boinked a Chinese girl who worked for the carry-out joint two doors down; sometimes he went home on the lunch hour and boinked his cute wife, too. You know what they say about boinking Chinese girls—an hour later, you’re horny again.
So I smiled at my neighbors and mowed my fucking lawn and attended junior high baseball games and a jazz dance recital (the fifteen year-old blonde daughter looked good in a leotard) and even saw a Beverly Hills Cop movie and generally kept track of the prick.
Here’s the thing—after the Broker bought it, I decided I’d never work for a middleman again. Broker had betrayed me, and seeing his file with my own mug in it with detailed info about two dozen kills I’d been in on made me, let’s say, less than eager to ever work for anybody who wasn’t me. Pretty soon I’d figured out a way to use the file to stay in the same game, but on my own terms.
I would choose a name from the Broker’s list—the name of someone like myself—and go and stake out that party, then follow him or her to their next gig. Once I’d figured out who the hitter’s target was, I would approach said target and let him or her know he or she was in somebody’s fucking cross-hairs.
I’d offer to discreetly eliminate the hired killer (sometimes, killers) for a fee that was in no way nominal. Further, I’d offer to look into who had hired the hit, and remove them, for the kind of bonus that meant I wouldn’t have to do this more than once a year or so.
You might think this risky—what if the target freaked out, being approached by a stranger with a wild story, a stranger who claims to be a kind of professional killer himself, and called the cops or otherwise went apeshit. But the thing is, anyone who has been designated for a hit is somebody who almost certainly has done something worth getting killed over. These tend not to be shining, solid citizens. You don’t inspire somebody to kill your ass by behaving yourself.
This is, incidentally, why somebody like me—a guy who is no more twisted than you or your brother or sister or wife—is able to commit murder for money, and sleep just fine. It’s down to this: anybody targeted for a hit is somebody who is already dead. They have done something or some things that have made them eligible for being on the wrong end of a bullet or a speeding car or what-have-you, and they are due to die for it. Yes, they are still up and walking around, but that’s just a temporary technicality. They are dead already. Obits waiting to be written.
Back when I was doing hits, I was no more unethical than any guy working for a collection agency. I just collected a different kind of payment due. A repo man after something other than appliances, boats or cars.
No denying, though, that murder is illegal and if you’re caught doing or having done it, you can earn a cell or a rope or a firing squad or a gas pellet. That meant that the other "collection agency guys" I was now turning the tables on were just as dead as any other designated target.
Anyway, it had mostly worked out well so far—I’d used the Broker’s list and taken this approach ten times with occasional glitches but enough success that I was still above ground and with a healthy bank balance to boot.
The downside of my innovative business plan had always been two unpredictable factors....
First, standard operation procedure for hired killings, at least among Broker’s crew, meant a two-person team—Passive and Active.
Passive Guy went in to watch the target for at least a week and sometimes up to a month, getting the patterns down. Active Guy would come in a couple days before the hit and get filled in by the Passive partner, often doing his own short-term surveillance to get a feel for what he’s up against.
I’d been paired with a number of guys, and usually worked the Active side. I preferred it, but the Broker had insisted I work surveillance one out of four jobs, saying both guys on a team needed to keep their hand in on both roles.
My current approach meant that not only did I have to perform my own surveillance, I had to do so with no knowledge of when my subject’s next hit would go down. It was entirely open-ended, and a guy as specialized (and well-paid) as Monahan might only do three or four jobs in a given year.
Meaning I could grin at neighbors, cut grass, watch junior high sports, grow hard-ons over teenage girls in leotards, and take in lousy Eddie Murphy movies for months on end before the real action kicked in.
But this time I got lucky. I only did Suburban Male duty for a little over two weeks before I was on the road, following Monahan to Fuck Knew Where.
Not that this wasn’t also tricky—a lot of the driving was on Godforsaken flat Heartland interstate that made tailing a guy no more obvious than walking into a restaurant with no shoes and no shirt and no pants, either. Luckily turn-offs and rest stops were rare, and I could lay back ten or even twenty miles, and still stay with him.
So this afternoon, Monahan had led me to Haydee’s Port, and I had trailed him to the Wheelhouse Motel, which was just outside the cruddy little town, on a curve before you got to the Paddlewheel.
There was nothing cruddy about the Wheelhouse Motel, though, which boasted outdoor pool and satellite TV and a 24-hour truck-stop type restaurant, although there were no gas pumps. I didn’t know it yet, but this was the Paddlewheel’s official lodgings. The only other motel in town was the Eezer Inn, a dump used for sleeping it off or getting it on, or combinations thereof.
The motel office and the attached restaurant faced the highway and the rooms were along either side of the long, wide structure, with an additional wing down at the end making a right angle beyond the pool. Monahan pulled in on the right and drove down to the last unit of the wing.
I pulled the Sunbird into a spot for restaurant patrons and went in. The place had a three-sided counter and booths along the windows; riverboat prints rode the rough-wood walls, and a big brown metal jukebox squatted near the entryway, with "Proud Mary" playing (the Credence version)—a coincidence, I hoped, and not on an endless loop.
A booth was waiting from which I could see the unit (number 36); Monahan’s green Buick Regal was pulled into a nearby space. The Buick was a car he’d bought in Des Moines, by the way, leaving his own Oldsmobile Cutlass in long-term parking at the airport, though he hadn’t been flying anywhere.
I had a good view of that unit, and staring out the window wasn’t suspicious, because some good-looking women in their early twenties and skimpy bikinis were using the diving board and splashing around in the pool when they weren’t sunning themselves.
I hadn’t eaten for a while, so I ordered a Diet Coke and the Famous Wheelhouse Bacon Cheeseburger, which somehow I’d managed never to hear of. Just didn’t get around enough, I guess. The famous burger came with fries, which were worthy of fame, because they were hand-cut, not frozen.
These I fearlessly salted and dragged through ketchup and nibbled while I watched the unit; Dionne Warwick was singing "That’s What Friends Are For." I’d felt lucky getting hand-cut french fries, but I got luckier yet: Monahan and a skinny blond kid I didn’t recognize (not a face in the Broker’s file, new blood) exited the motel room and they were walking and talking, casually, and heading my way.
Actually, the restaurant’s way. The place had enough patrons to make me inconspicuous, and when Monahan and the blond kid took a booth at the back, against the wall, where I had a good view of them, I managed not to smile.
I say the blond was a kid, but he could have been thirty. He had that blue-eyed Beach Boy look that makes you a kid your whole life (as long as you don’t get a gut), shaggy soup-bowl hair, and a tan that said he probably operated out of somewhere coastal. He was wearing a black Poison t-shirt with a skull and crossed guitars, so he was a metal head, despite his Mike Love demeanor.
In his short-sleeve light blue shirt with darker blue tie and navy polyester slacks, Monahan looked like the kid’s high school counselor. Or he would have if they both hadn’t been smoking. Christ, didn’t those two know that shit could kill you?
The hardest part was not staring, because they were close enough to lip read. Though surveillance had never been my specialty, I’d done enough of it to pick up the skill in a rudimentary way. What follows is part guess, but it’ll give you what I got out of it.
"Tonight," Monahan said.
"Little soon, isn’t it?" the blond said, frowning.
"Sooner the better. This is too wide-open here."
"No, the town. You can’t predict shit in a place like this."
True, I thought, gaining respect for him. Smart.
"And too small," the older man went on. "Where do you fuckin’ lay low? I don’t know how in hell you ain’t been spotted."
I wondered if Monahan was one of these guys who reverted to tough-guy talk on the job. Surely he didn’t talk like that pretending to be an insurance salesman. I lost respect for him.
"No problems," the kid was saying, grinning, waving it off. "I got a good set-up—farmhouse right across the way."
I’m guessing about "the way," because a waitress in a white-trimmed brown uniform got between us, taking their order.
So I watched the bikini girls for a while. Shit, there were eight or nine of the little dolls frolicking around. Must not have been much to do in Haydee’s Port before nightfall.
The waitress left, and the kid asked: "So it’s tonight, then? Where, do you think?"
Monahan’s response seemed a non-sequitur: "Only three minutes from that joint to the Interstate ramp."
"That’s good." The kid was grinning again. "Perfect from where I’m sittin’."
They stopped talking about the job. Monahan asked the kid about how Heather was doing, and she was doing fine, and this line of lip flap seemed to be about the kid’s girl or maybe wife. That meant these two worked together all the time. Not uncommon.
Then their food came, and I let them eat it. I was done with my Famous Bacon Cheeseburger and lesser known fries, and paid at the counter and got the fuck out. I had an idea I knew what they’d been talking about, but I wanted to check it out.
Without even speeding, it was almost exactly three minutes from the Paddlewheel parking lot to the Interstate bridge ramp. I pulled into the restaurant/casino’s lot—it was blacktop and the size of a football field—rows and rows of white-painted parking spaces. The entrance was near the building, the exit all the way down—only that one way in and one way out. Just seeing the geography told me how Monahan would do it.
Across from the Paddlewheel was a field of corn that wasn’t as high as an elephant’s eye, but this was only June. A metal gate was across a gravel driveway that angled up to a rundown farmhouse in a small oasis of overgrown grass in the middle of all that corn.
I drove half a mile and pulled my Sunbird into an access inlet, which enabled tractors and other big farm rigs to get in and out of the cornfield, with the added benefit of slowing down traffic. This time of year nobody was planting or harvesting and I could leave the car there.
The sun hadn’t gone down, the temp about eighty-five, so my dark-blue windbreaker wasn’t really necessary, and yet it was, because I had my nine millimeter auto in my waistband and the windbreaker covered it. I was otherwise in black jeans, a light blue polo shirt and black running shoes.
Weather aside, the windbreaker also proved invaluable in moving through that cornfield. The blades of those fucking stalks were like nature’s razors, and I was glad my head was above them, albeit just above. I was headed for that ramshackle two-story farmhouse.
Which, when I got there, showed no signs of life. I could see from some oil on the gravel where the drive came around back that the blond kid (or somebody, but likely the blond kid) had been parking here. He would still be over at the motel for now, though he’d long since finished his own Famous Bacon Cheeseburger and there was no telling at what point he’d return.
That was assuming, of course, that I’d figured right, and that this was where he’d been keeping watch on the target, who was clearly somebody who worked at (or more likely ran) the Paddlewheel.
Anyway, I needed to get inside but not in a way the kid would notice. He’d have been going in the back way, but that door, which was up a few paint-peeling wooden steps to the kitchen, was locked. I’d have been surprised to find otherwise.
What did surprise me was how sloppy the kid was—though the same could be true for whatever real estate agency represented the property—as I discovered the slanted cellar doors unlocked. I went down in and found sunlight slanting in stubby windows onto a mostly empty cement area with a broken-down washer and drier and not much else but exposed beams. There were pools of moisture here and there, but I could skirt them. I heard some mice or rats scurry, but they stayed out of my way and I did them the same favor.
The chance of anybody being upstairs was minimal. But I got the nine millimeter out anyway, and took the creaky wooden stairs as quietly as I could manage—shit, probably took me two or three minutes to get to the top. All the way up I was wondering what I’d do if that door was locked. Forcing it would be no problem, but it might leave a visual record of my entry, plus if anybody was up there, I’d be announcing myself more obnoxiously than I cared to....
But it wasn’t locked.
I eased the thing open, and it didn’t make any more noise than the Crypt Keeper’s vault, thought it didn’t matter a damn. Nobody was in the kitchen, which was where I came out. Nothing was in the kitchen, except a dead refrigerator that dated back to Betty Furness days, no kitchen table, nothing except a counter and sink and empty cupboards.
We’ll skip the suspense stuff—nobody was in the house. I searched it slow and careful, because that’s what you do in such a case; but the place had not a stick of furniture in it much less a person. Even the flotsam and jetsam of the lives lived here by good solid immigrant stock for maybe a hundred years had gone to Dumpster heaven.
I should have said "no stick of furniture" original to the house, because in the living room, by the front bay-type window, was some recently-brought-in stuff that indicated the presence of a human being, not a rodent (except maybe figuratively).
The blond kid’s set-up included a folding chair, the beach variety (Mike Love again), like he’d been sitting by a pool or maybe on the deck of cruise ship, and not in the front room of an old farmhouse where he could maintain surveillance on the target of a contract killing. He had a portable radio with cassette player that ran off batteries (yes, Poison tapes), and a Styrofoam chest with ice keeping cans of Pepsis cold as well as a few wrapped Casey’s General Store sandwiches. Some small packets of potato chips leaned against the Styrofoam chest, and a pair of binoculars rested on the window ledge. Having searched the house, I’d already determined that the toilets still worked, so he had a decent stakeout post here, though my own back couldn’t have stood that flimsy chair.
If the fact that he was a Pepsi drinker wasn’t disgusting enough, I noted to one side of the beach chair a pile of Hustler magazines, a box of Kleenex, some baby lotion, and a metal wastebasket filled with crumpled, wadded tissues, which told me more about how the blond kid dealt with boredom than I wanted to know.
For two hours and maybe fifteen minutes, I sat in his beach chair, long enough to get so thirsty I almost drank one of his damn Pepsis. I used the binoculars and could see the Paddlewheel okay, but without any meaningful view into a window. The late afternoon turned blue and then black. The house was warm and stuffy at first and then, without the sun, got cool and stuffy. At one point, I thumbed through a Hustler, but did not partake of the baby oil and Kleenex. I was raised on Playboy and still preferred Hefner’s fantasy to Flynt’s gynecology.
The kid drove a Mustang (I’d seen it parked next to Monahan’s Buick at the Wheelhouse Motel) whose headlights announced him when he pulled into the mouth of the drive. What followed was a graceless dance: he got out and unlocked and moved the metal gate, returned to the car, pulled in deeper, got out and locked up again, then back in his car to come crunching up the gravel drive.
When he unlocked the back door and entered the kitchen, I was to one side and put the nose of the nine millimeter in his neck. By now it was dark in the house, but some moonlight filtered in the dirty cracked windows over the filthy old sink and I could see his blue eyes pop. They were light blue eyes and looked spooky in the dimness. I mean the room’s dimness, not his.
"Hands on your head," I said.
He put them there. The eyes stayed wide. He was even skinnier, close up—still in the black Poison t-shirt, but a light tan jacket open over it. He had a snubby .38 in a jacket pocket. I took it, slipped it in my lefthand windbreaker jacket.
"Let’s talk," I said.
He said, in a husky tenor, "Who the fuck are you?"
He swallowed. "Then what are you?"
"What the fuck’s an interloper?"
"A guy who noticed what you’re up to, and wants in."
He frowned. Thinking took effort; it even made lines in his boyish face. By the way, I made him for maybe twenty-five.
He asked, "What do you mean, ‘wants in’?"
"Where? Do you see a fuckin’ chair?"
"I see the fuckin’ floor."
"I don’t think I mind."
He sat, cross-legged, Indian-style. He folded his arms, as if that would protect him. He looked up at me, like an inexperienced girl afraid of her first blow job.
I said, "Who’s the target?"
"What do you mean?"
"This is going to go very slow if you keep asking me that."
"Well, I don’t know what the fuck you mean."
I slapped him with the nine millimeter. Not hard enough to cut the flesh, just to get his attention, and to give me time to take the noise suppressor from my right-hand windbreaker pocket and affix it to the nine millimeter’s snout.
Seeing the silencer bothered him more than the love pat.
"I don’t dig roughing guys up," I told him, meaning it. "But I can shoot a kneecap off and live with it. Assuming you don’t pass out, you’ll get talkative. You won’t annoy me with dumb questions."
"It’s a guy named Cornell. Richard Cornell."
"What does he do?"
I thought, Runs the Paddlewheel.
"He runs that club across the way—the Paddlewheel."
"Who hired you?"
"Doesn’t work that way."
"You work through a middleman?"
He swallowed again and nodded. "Are you one of us or something?"
"How’s it going down?"
"How late does the Paddlewheel stay open?"
"Late. Five a.m. That’s the point."
"The point of Haydee’s Port. The point of the Paddlewheel. Across the river, they have to close at one a.m. People drive over to keep partying."
"Is it dawn by five a.m.?"
"Why don’t you get a fucking almanac? Jesus."
I shot him twice, thup thup, once for each eye of the skull on his Poison t-shirt. It was a smart-ass thing to do, but then I was responding to a smart-ass remark. The blood that spattered on the old fridge behind him gave the old kitchen a dash of color, even in the near dark.
It could use it.
The pain in the ass part came next, and I’ll spare you most it. I had to get the keys for that gate out of his jacket pocket, then had to walk down through the cornfield to my car and bring it around and go through the gate routine myself and then back the Sunbird up to the rear steps.
Finally I dragged the kid across the ancient linoleum—he made a snail’s trail of blood slime—and walked him down the steps, his head bumping and clunking down, and pretty soon I had him up and in the trunk.
An argument could made for leaving him there on the dirty kitchen floor, but I felt I wanted his body in the trunk, in case later on I needed to make a point.
It got your attention, didn’t it?
Copyright © 2009 by Max Allan Collins