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Chapter One

I SPREAD THE CONTENTS of the red duffel bag out on Shannon Dupree’s kitchen table and together we looked over each item. A black leather wallet, very old, worn at the corners and cracked along the fold; three big bricks of heroin, each tightly wrapped in several layers of cellophane; a good-sized pile of cash; and of course the brown paper grocery sack. I’d done other burglaries but this was my biggest haul by a long shot. My entire body was humming with a stomach-turning mix of dread and excitement, and as I looked over at Shannon, I could see her trembling.

She caught my eye, then looked down at the duffel bag, frowning and wetting her lips.

I opened the wallet first. I pulled out his Texas driver’s license, a gas card, and a San Antonio Public Library card and laid them on the table.

“What are you looking for?” Shannon asked me.

I slid some folded papers out of one the wallet’s inside pockets. The papers had originally come from a handheld memo notebook and when I opened them they were covered with hash marks and row upon row of three-digit numbers. I saw my number in there more than a few times.

“This right here,” I said. “This is how he keeps his books.”

“You can read that?”

I nodded. I knew Laza’s system, all right. “The man’s an idiot,” I said. “Once you know his code, you know everything about his business.”

I crammed the papers into my pocket. Then I examined the bundles of cash. The bills were all hundreds and fifties, each bundle folded over and strapped with a rubber band into packs of twenty-five-hundred dollars. I made a quick count and came up with eighty thousand and change.

“You want me to buy you something nice?” I said.

“Peter.” Her voice was strained. We’d done a lot of planning, a lot of late night decision making, to get us to this point. She just wanted to get on with it.

“Sorry,” I said. I laid the money aside and went back to the other stuff on the table. The money didn’t mean anything to Shannon anyway.

There was the heroin, of course. Three big bricks of it, a little over six pounds. You’d think that much heroin would be the big white elephant in the room, but it wasn’t. Shannon’s eyes slid right over it to the brown paper grocery sack I’d yet to open.

I watched her face. I watched the curve of her hips under her gypsy skirt and the way her flimsy black camisole swelled over her breasts. Her skin was pale as marble and the bridge of her nose was sprayed with freckles. She had reddish-brown hair that she had pulled back into a loose ponytail and tied up in a black velvet band that matched her camisole. Her eyes were a deep green, wide open, shining with anticipation. I was in love with her, and the depth of my feelings for her scared the crap out of me.

“Do you want to open it?” I said.

She shook her head. “You do it, Peter. Please.” I watched as she tried to swallow the lump in her throat and couldn’t.

I nodded and said, “Okay.”

The paper sack was crumpled and oily and the top was rolled down tight. I unrolled it and spread the opening apart. Inside were several hardbound account books, which I took out one by one and laid on the table. They were black with cracked green bindings, the gilded dates on the fronts going back seven years. No year was missing.

I looked up at Shannon. “Is that all of them?”

“I think so.” Her voice was small, her features lost in shadow. She touched one of the books, opened it to a random page and ran her fingers down the notes listed there. The entries weren’t coded like Laza’s. Shannon could read them, same as me. We both knew they detailed the fortune her father, a criminal defense attorney, had embezzled from the Mexican Mafia’s drug operations. There was entry after entry describing transactions of heart-stopping amounts of money.

She put the ledger aside, scanned the others, and finally said, “That’s all of them. Put them away, please.”

I did as she asked. Then I put the paper sack and the heroin back in the red duffel bag. I scooped the bundles of cash––all but five of them––into the duffel bag as well, and zipped it shut. When I looked up Shannon’s face seemed paler, and she was staring into the darkness over my shoulder. She said, almost in a whisper, “He was gonna ruin my father.”

“He was gonna ruin all of us,” I said. “Himself included.”

“Yeah, well, fuck him.”

She turned her face so light fell on it. Her huge dark eyes locked with mine and as we looked at each other I could see layers of tension falling away, like heat shimmers coming off an asphalt road in summer. I hadn’t realized how hard the last several weeks had been on her until that moment. It was like watching the clouds clear away from the sun. I could see the old Shannon Dupree shining through, the little Irish hippie chick I’d fallen in love with coming back to me.

She had Van Morrison’s “Moondance” playing on the sound system in the living room. The windows were up and a cool night breeze was rustling the white curtains. They looked like languid ghosts dancing in the shadows.

My eyes walked over Shannon. I looked at the outline of her breasts underneath that black camisole. Her nipples were hard, straining at the fabric. I traced the curve of her hips under that red and gold gypsy skirt. I noticed for the first time she wasn’t wearing any shoes.

We stared at each other. She was trembling again. She started to speak and then stopped, her mouth open. I knew what she was feeling because I felt it too.

I put my hands on her hips and lifted her onto the kitchen table and she gasped. Then she spread her knees apart for me, her bottom lip between her teeth. I put my hands on her legs and pushed her skirt up around her hips. I caught a flash of black panties and hooked my thumbs under the waistband. Her eyes were wide open. She was breathing hard. She raised her hips up and I pulled off her panties in a single motion.

She leaned back and pulled her camisole over her head. Her breasts were perfect, the areolas a deep brick red and round as quarters. I could see them rising and falling with her breathing, shining with a faint mist of sweat.

Together we wrestled with my belt and the zipper on my jeans. They fell into a puddle around my feet and a moment later I was in her, moving in her, the two of us grinding together with a mutual need to lose ourselves in this thing we were when we were together.

And that’s when my cell phone started playing the “Mexican Hat Dance.” I froze, and Shannon and I looked at each other, horror-stricken. Only one person in my phone had that ringtone.

The man we had just robbed for all he was worth.

* * *

Fernando Laza had been my heroin supplier since I was a seventeen-year-old homeless kid looking for any way possible to survive. He’d been a lot of things to me, father, priest, teacher, but that was all over. Now that I had Shannon I was leaving that world behind.

But the “Mexican Hat Dance” kept on playing. It sounded obscene while I was there with Shannon in my arms and I finally pulled back, crouched down, fished the phone out of my pants and answered it.

“Peto!” Laza said. “Peto, is that you?” His speech was slurred, like he was high, and he sounded scared.

“I’m here, Fernando.” I was struggling to keep my voice even. “What’s up?”

“Peto, I got a problem. I got a big problem. I need you to get over here.”

Shannon and I stared at each other. Her shoulders had slumped forward and she looked small and fragile. I saw her close her arms over her chest, almost as though Laza himself had entered the room.

“Fernando, look, I’m kind of busy right now. Can I call you back later?”

“NO, goddamnit!” He screamed it into the phone and Shannon and I both flinched. He was so high and so angry he could barely get the words out. “Peto, goddamnit, I’m in fuckin’ trouble deep. I need you to get over here.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “What kind of trouble?”

He hesitated, like maybe he didn’t want to say too much over the phone. Fernando was like that, always paranoid. It was a way of life for him.

He said, “I don’t know what to do. I got this girl over here. Peto, she stole from me. She took . . . it’s gone. I don’t know what . . .”

Silence.

“Fernando, what in the hell are you talking about? What girl?” But it was already dawning on me. When I’d left him earlier that afternoon, he’d been talking about treating himself to a big night. A couple of speedballs, some Jim Beam, a hooker I knew by the name of Honey. Oh shit, I thought.

“Fernando,” I said, “what did you do?”

“Peto, I got this bitch over here. I just checked, man, it’s all gone. My fucking money––everything! And now she’s not telling me what the fuck she did with it. But you better, bitch! You better fucking tell me!”

I heard him grunt, like he’d just kicked somebody in the gut, and then a muffled scream that trailed off into whimpering. Then Laza was yelling again. “Don’t you fucking lie to me, bitch! Where’d you put it? Where’s my fucking shit?” He was slurring more by the moment, and I could almost see the spittle spraying out of his mouth.

There was long pause, and then his breath was loud in the receiver again. “Peto, you there?”

“Yeah, Fernando. What . . . ?”

“You heard her, right? You heard that. Even my fucking wallet’s gone, Peto. You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna call Frankie. I’m calling him right now. He’s gonna make you talk, you little fucking whore!”

I was holding the phone so tightly my fingers were going numb. I said, “Fernando, I need you to . . . Fernando, you hear me?”

“I hear you.”

“Fernando, just wait a second. Take a deep breath, okay? That girl, she’s just some trailer park whore. She’s not a thief.”

“I’m calling Frankie.”

“No!” I said. “No, do not call Frankie. Seriously, Fernando, if you call him you will create a situation that I will not be able to unfuck. Just hold on. I’ll be there in five minutes to help you, okay?”

A long pause.

“Fernando?”

“Yeah,” he said. He was panting like a dog. “Yeah, okay.”

“Okay, just wait for me.” I hung up and set the phone on the table next to Shannon’s hip.

She said, “What’s going on, Peter? What was that all about?”

I brushed the hair off her forehead with my fingertips, but there was no passion in it. That moment was gone.

“We got problems,” I said. “He knows it’s gone.

Copyright © 2010 by Joe McKinney
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