That extra whiskey sour the night before had stopped my ears against the alarm clock the next morning, so I was half an hour late getting to the office. Not that it mattered all that much; private eyes punch bad guys, not timecards. But I like to set a good example for the troops.
Too late for that, it seemed. As I pushed through the door into the waiting room of my suite, I saw the troops cutting up pretty loud. Sheila was standing behind her desk, doubled over with laughter. She was wearing a low-cut summer number, and a good thing it was, too, since I think it was only the mesmerizing effect of the little ripples pulsing across the bronzed flesh of her ample breasts as she laughed that kept Wronwright from stamping on the ground and raving like Donald Duck having a temper tantrum. Instead, he simply stood there, furiously wiping his glasses. I figured I’d give him a minute to pull himself together before asking him to explain why his face had gone completely black. I seated myself on a corner of Sheila’s desk, plopped my hat down on the tower of unpaid bills in her in-box, and leisurely fished a coffin nail out of the pack, lighting it with my trusty Zippo.
“Well, well,” I said. “If it isn’t that great folk music legend, Delta Wron. Where’s your banjo?”
He stopped wiping his specs and put them on, but the schmutz hadn’t come off, it had just smeared into black whorls. He looked like Al Jolson wearing a pair of gag x-ray spectacles.
“I’m glad you find it funny! I was almost asphyxiated a while ago.”
“I didn’t want to go all the way to the crosswalk when I got off the subway this morning, so I cut behind a bus in the middle of the block. I saw a quarter lying in the street right behind it, and I bent over to pick it up. At that precise instant, the bus took off and spewed a cloud of diesel smoke right in my face. I bet the thing hasn’t had a tune-up in years!”
“Well, look at the bright side. At least you’re twenty-five cents ahead.”
Wron pursed his lips. “It turned out to be a Coke bottle cap.”
“And I didn’t even win anything in their ‘Look-inside-the-bottle-cap’ contest. It said ‘Better luck next time!’”
“It was the exclamation mark that really got to me. Like they were rubbing my nose in the fact that I wasn’t a winner.”
“Well, yes, but…”
“I mean, it’s not like it’s a contest involving any real skill or anything.”
“Ermmm…yeah. Listen, how about if we just pick up the pieces and move on? We’ve got an assignment. Congressman Issa has hired us to do some investigation work on the ATF’s ‘Fast and Furious’ scandal.”
That got everybody’s attention. In his excitement at hearing the news, Wron grabbed Sheila and planted a kiss on her cheek – leaving an oily black spot on her face, which she instantly started to wipe off with his necktie.
“What are you doing?” she squealed.
“Now you’ve got the stuff on me!”
“Sheila,” I said, “I think you might want to stop pulling so hard on his tie.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry, Wron, but you need to watch those involuntary outbreaks of exuberance.”
Wronwright cleared his throat and loosened his collar. “Yeah. Or switch to bow-ties. Say, is this a uniformed job, or are we working undercover?”
“Meaning, I suppose, do you get to wear your Napoleonic-era French dragoon uniform or your tied-dyed t-shirt and false beard? Neither. Something professional, but not too conspicuous.”
“Damn! Ok, so, what’s the deal?”
“Issa wants us to go to Nogales, in Arizona, and interview some of the gun store owners who were roped into the ATF’s plan to permit them to sell weapons to straw purchasers, who then delivered the stuff to drug cartels in Mexico. His staff’s concentrating on Phoenix and Tucson, and they’re spread pretty thin, right now.”
Sheila asked a question that was on a lot of peoples’ minds. “I’ve read some articles about that program, but never really understood it. How was the ATF going to track the guns once they were in Mexico?”
“They couldn’t”, I answered. “At least, not unless or until a crime was committed and the weapons were seized. By then, more likely than not, somebody had been killed.”
“Like that U.S. Border Patrol agent”, Wronwright pointed out.
“Exactly. And it looks like some of those guns never even made it to Mexico; they’re starting to show up in the streets of Phoenix and other towns. It’s a fiasco all the way around, and the responsibility may even reach into the highest levels of the Justice Department. Given the sheer stupidity of the whole thing, and the possibility of ulterior motives – like cooking up some statistics that showed we needed more restrictive gun-control laws – I wouldn’t be surprised if the culpability went even higher. Come on into my office, Wron, and we’ll work out the details. Just don’t touch anything ‘til you wash that grime off. Especially…” I sighed in despair.
“Your new Panama hat?” Wronwright smiled sheepishly as he handed me my brand new lid, which he had retrieved from Sheila’s desk. It was now dotted with oily black fingerprints. Well, I figured, maybe it’ll do for wearing when I mow the lawn. If I ever have a lawn.
* * * * * * * * *
You could spend a lifetime in Arizona and never see everything worth seeing. But you could see everything, liberally interpreting the phrase, “worth seeing”, in Nogales in about an hour, and we were now marking our fourth day. A dusty little border city simmering in a hundred-and-five-degree heat, it looked and felt like one of hell’s low-rent suburbs. We were staying in an old motel whose road sign couldn’t boast of anything more luxurious than a Coke machine in the lobby. It wasn’t part of a chain, but if its owners had applied for membership in the Motel 6 franchise, it would have been rejected for being a few numbers short. Even the cockroaches seemed apathetic and dispirited. Stomp on us, they seemed to say. We don’t care.
I was waiting in the motel lobby for Wronwright. The venetian blinds hanging over the plate-glass window were hitched up on one side, allowing the unfiltered desert sun to flood the small room, baking the few meager pieces of cheap, 50-year old Scandinavian-style furniture (judging by the undisturbed layers of dust on the blades, I’d say the blinds had been that way since the mid-1960s). I had located a small pool of shade at one end of a couch and was sitting there reading through my notes.
We had interviewed seven gun dealers in the area, so far, four of whom had been approached by the ATF to participate in Fast and Furious. None had seemed too keen on the operation, although they had reluctantly played along. We had one more gun seller to talk to, a guy named Alex Gianopolous, whom we would be meeting that morning before closing out our investigation and heading back home. Gianopolous had turned the ATF down flat.
Wronwright finally came marching into the lobby. The manager, glancing up from his newspaper as he sat on a stool behind the counter, quickly put out a little sign that read “Back in 15 Minutes” and fled into his office, slamming the door and throwing the latch. Wronwright walked briskly to the counter and began pounding on the bell – which, instead of ringing, made a flat clanking noise (he had either worn out the clapper over the last few days during his incessant appearances in the office to complain about the inadequacy of his accommodations, or the manager had removed it in self-defense).
“Ha! Back in 15 minutes, indeed! Paco, do you know what happened last night?”
“You didn’t find another scorpion under your pillow, did you? Or was the bath water still coming out of the tap all brown and gritty?”
“No. Well, yes, the water’s still brown, but this is something new. I turned on what the comedians who own this place laughingly call the “air conditioner” before going to bed – you know, that machine in the window that roars like a gas-powered weed-whacker and blows lukewarm fog all over the room [he shouted that last bit for the benefit of the manager, no doubt cowering behind his office door] – and during the night the thing conked out and a bunch of biting gnats flew in through the vent. My face is all chewed up; I feel like I’ve been sleeping face down on a porcupine pillowcase.”
“You do look like you’ve suddenly come down with a bad case of acne. Rub some Benadryl cream on your face and let’s get going. One more interview and we’re out of here.”
We walked out of the motel into blinding sunshine and climbed into our rental car. No wonder I got a big discount on the black sedan; it was like sitting in a kiln. I poured a little bottled water over the steering wheel, wiped it down with a towel and gingerly took it into my hands as we headed over to Sonora Outfitters and our date with Gianopolous.
It was a freestanding building located on the edge of town, modest in size, but fairly new and very well maintained. A broad awning cast some welcome shade over the entrance and the front parking spaces, so I parked near the door and we walked in. The store sold a wide range of camping and outdoor sports gear, and one of the side walls was lined with racks of rifles and shotguns. Glass counters held a surprisingly diverse sampling of handguns, ranging from semi-automatics to replicas of pre-Civil War percussion revolvers. Somewhere nearby a vacuum cleaner whirred.
Wronwright wandered over to a huge stuffed bear near the entrance and studied it.
“You know,” he said, turning to me, “I wonder if these things are really as dangerous as they’re made out to be.”
Suddenly, the bear pivoted, and a massive claw swept toward Wron’s head. He gasped and hurled himself backwards, tripping over a pup tent and falling into a stack of fishing poles. While he thrashed around, trying to extricate himself from a selection of Shakespeare glass rods and Zebco spinning reels, a dark-haired angel emerged from behind the bear.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I was vacuuming and I had to move the bear. Can I show you boys anything?”
She already had, and I was admiring the inventory. Her smiling, liquid brown eyes glinted beneath a mantle of thick, jet-black hair, and her natural olive complexion, although darkened by exposure to the desert sun, was smooth and clear. She was of diminutive stature, but perfectly proportioned, and a silver and turquoise necklace rode the gentle swell of her breasts beneath a cotton work shirt tied up at the waist, as she recovered from the exertions of shifting the bear.
Her round, but firm, hips were sheathed in skin-tight denim shorts. How did she get them on, I wondered, and – I removed my hat and ran a handkerchief over my brow - off.
“Good morning,” I said. “We’re from Rep. Issa’s office. I think one of his assistants called about our visit. I’m Detective Paco, and that fellow there who looks like he’s just bought several hundred dollars’ worth of fishing tackle is my partner, Wronwright. We’re looking for Mr. Alex Gianopolous.”
Her eyes twinkled merrily as she responded. “I’m your man!”
Wronwright, who had been hastily restacking the fishing rods, goggled at her like a bass contemplating a purple worm. “You’re Alex Gianopolous?”
“Yes. ‘Alexis’ is what it says on the birth certificate, but I’ve always gone by Alex. I inherited the business from my father when he died several years ago – he was an Alex, too – and I’ve been running it with my brother ever since. Listen, it’s a little warm in the store. The air conditioning went on the fritz yesterday. The service man repaired it late in the day, but the place still hasn’t cooled down yet. Let’s go in my office and talk things over. Follow me.”
We did so – with pleasure – and found ourselves sitting in a spare, but neat little room, with a desk, a few chairs, a couple of filing cabinets and a small refrigerator. An oscillating floor fan kept things reasonably comfortable.
“Would you like some bottled water or soda-pop?”
“Yes, thanks,” I said. Whatever you’re having.”
She withdrew three bottles of mineral water from the fridge. Raising hers in a kind of toast, she said, “Confusion to the enemy!”
I took my hat off and placed it on a corner of the desk, and removed a small notebook from my coat pocket. “You don’t mind if I jot down a few notes?”
“Not at all. Although there’s not much to tell. A couple of guys from the ATF came buzzing around with an invitation to participate in a special operation. Said they wanted me to sell guns to straw purchasers so they could track them once they were sold to cartels in Mexico. Sounded screwy to me, and I told them I didn’t want any part of it. Particularly when they mentioned who one of the straw purchasers was.”
“Somebody you know?”
“Yeah, a local low-life by the name of Jimmy Fowler. He’s a self-styled big shot who’s been selling guns on the black market for years, but never in Mexico that I ever heard tell of; just around Arizona. I see him at gun shows occasionally, and he’s been in here a few times, trying to place large orders. I tried telling the ATF boys about his history, especially about him not being involved in Mexico, but they didn’t seem to care. They said that’s exactly the kind of guy they were looking for. I wouldn’t have anything to do with him, and I told the ATF so.”
Alex lifted her chin and ran the ice-cold bottle over her neck. Her eyes closed momentarily and her lips parted as she savored the refreshing coolness. A drop of condensation from the bottle caught at her throat, clung momentarily, then descended precipitately into the depths of her tawny cleavage, leaving a thin, watery trail across one of her breasts.
“Besides”, she said, “he always tries to hit on me for some reason.”
For some reason. Wonder what it could be, I thought facetiously.
She grinned. “But I always tell Jimmy that I’m only interested in the intellectual type. I’m pretty sure he had to look the word up.”
Wronwright, who, up to this point, had been sitting motionless and gazing at Alex like something he wanted to swipe off a shelf and stick in his pocket, suddenly pulled his eye-glasses out and put them on.
“I thought you were wearing your new contact lenses?” I asked pointedly.
“What?” he muttered vaguely. “Oh. Heh. You’re right. Force of habit. You know how absent-minded we bookworms with advanced academic degrees can be.”
Alex flashed her sweetest smile yet. “I imagine you wouldn’t have to look up ‘intellectual’!”
We were getting a little sidetracked. “He tried one time, but he couldn’t find it under ‘e’, so he gave up. Listen, Alex, if I understand you correctly, the ATF was pushing you and other gun dealers to sell to this Fowler guy, right?”
“And as far as you know, he didn’t have any experience in moving weapons across the border?”
“No, he always brags a lot – trying to make himself look like some kind of big-time outlaw – but he never mentioned moving guns to anybody but narcotics traffickers and other hoods based right here in Arizona.”
“Strange that the Feds would single out this bird for a straw purchaser, if the goal was to track guns in Mexico.”
Her smile switched from sweet to coy. “Isn’t it, though? Almost makes you think the government had some other plan in mind.”
“An ulterior motive,” my intellectual partner added.
“Exactly,” Alex purred. “Like maybe what the administration really wanted was simply to get weapons into the hands of criminals in either Mexico or the U.S. in order to support more stringent gun control legislation.”
“Tell me something. The ATF people who approached you. Were they local or from Washington?”
“Strictly Washington. Most of the local agents hated the program.”
I took a long pull on my bottle of water – deeply regretting that I had left my flask of bourbon back in the hotel room. “Let’s size this up. The Washington brass wanted you and the other arms dealers in the area to sell to Fowler, but it’s looking like he never sold guns to anybody but local criminals. Some of those guns have been seized in Phoenix and elsewhere in Arizona and traced back to sellers here in Nogales – which means Fowler was most likely involved as the straw purchaser. Yet, even though operation Fast and Furious has been closed down, the Feds know Fowler sold hardware illegally – at least in Arizona – yet he’s still walking around loose. I think we need to talk to him.”
Alex frowned. “I don’t know. He’s likely to clam up. If the Washington boys aren’t showing any interest, he’s not feeling any heat.”
Wronwright snapped his fingers. “Wait a minute! Alex, you say the ATF agents here in southern Arizona hated the gun-running operation, right?”
“Yes, I know most of them, and they thought the higher-ups were crazy. A couple have turned whistle-blower, as a matter of fact.”
“Well, what if we could set Fowler up – arrange for him to sell some guns illegally right under the nose of one of your trusted ATF buddies? The lawman wouldn’t have any choice but to arrest him.”
I saw where Wron was going. “So then, once we’ve got him on a real charge, he has to stand trial, and the whole program starts to get some genuine attention in the press. If nothing else, we at least get a dangerous criminal off the streets. You know, Wron, maybe you are an intellectual, after all.”
He brushed aside my compliment. “I’ve got another idea. To really pique Fowler’s interest, why don’t we give him a shot at the big time? We get an actual member of one of the Mexican cartels to turn him on to the idea of supplying weapons for some serious cash.”
“And,” he beamed, “I can be the drug dealer!”
I should have seen it coming. Wronwright, the Master of Disguise. A guy who had once worn a gorilla suit to a costume party and was recognized immediately by the host’s sister, who had only seen him before once in her life, five years earlier, as she rushed out of the front door of her brother’s apartment to catch a cab.
“Look, if you’re going to bring up the gorilla suit episode, Bob’s sister just had a keen eye for faces.”
“You were wearing the head.”
“Well, maybe she recognized my voice.”
“You were growling.”
“I can do this, Paco!”
I buried my face in my hands and sighed right down to the soles of my wing-tips. When I glanced at Wron – all bright-eyed anticipation and Eagle Scout determination - I knew I couldn’t refuse him.
“All right, all right. Alex, how do we arrange a meeting with Fowler?”
“Leave that to me. He’s always been oblivious to my contempt for him, so he won’t suspect a thing; probably he’ll just figure that I’m finally coming to my senses. I’ll call him and lay out this once-in-a-lifetime proposition, have him show up at one of his favorite dives, and then Wron can meet with him and seal the deal. I’ll tell Jimmy that the cartel hombre wants to see and buy a sample of his wares, then you and the ATF agent can jump him when he and Wron go out to Jimmy’s car and some money changes hands. I even know which ATF agent will be most interested. Jack Perlman. I’ll set the whole thing up.”
“I guess that’s about it. We’ll be in touch later to iron out the details. Wron?”
My partner was looking off into the middle distance, lost in thought. I tapped him on the arm.
“What? Oh, right. I was just mentally sketching out my disguise.”
“Well, put your brain crayon away and let’s go. We’ve got a lot to do.
* * * * * * * * *
The downside of our operation was that we had to stay a few days longer at our seedy motel. To ward off Wronwright’s steady barrage of complaints, the manager had scratched out “Back in 15 minutes” on the little sign that signaled his unavailability and written “Gone ‘til next Tuesday”. Wron, however, had become swept up in his mission, and had employed his time to travel around town assembling his drug-trafficker outfit. In fact, in what appeared to be an obsession with authenticity, he had even crossed the border into Nogales, Mexico. I was beginning to get worried.
“Wron, drug lords don’t dress that much differently than anyone else. Maybe a little flashier, a little heavy on the bling, but I don’t see why you’re knocking yourself out.”
Wronwright gave me a sort of superior smile and sighed. I think he came within an ace of actually patting me on the head, as one might a well-meaning, but rather dull-witted child.
“Paco, Paco, Paco. Deception of the magnitude that I have in mind takes careful planning and tremendous attention to detail. Not only am I putting together a realistic wardrobe, I have been brushing up on my Spanish. One must not simply look like a narcotraficante – that’s Spanish, incidentally, for…”
“Drug dealer. Yeah, I know that one.”
“As I was saying, one must not simply look the part, one must sound the part, one must be the part.
“Well, we want to make sure you don’t wind up only being good for parts, so don’t overdo it. Remember: this guy Fowler’s a dangerous character.”
Later in the afternoon, we got a call from Alex. Everything was fixed for 9 o’clock that night. Fowler had fallen hard for the idea of breaking into the international black market for weapons and was eager to meet his new business partner from Mexico. Alex described Fowler as looking like a thin Elvis Presley with a mustache. Jack Perlman was onboard and would be sitting in his car outside, watching for the exchange of money and guns. I’d be on the inside to provide backup for Wronwright in case things began to move sideways – and Shiny Sal, my stainless-steel Ruger Police Service-Six, would be tucked into an ankle holster, in case Fowler decided to give Wron’s performance the bird.
* * * * * *
I took a cab to our rendezvous, arranging to be there a quarter hour ahead of Wronwright. It was a rundown bar in the warehouse district called the Oasis, a ramshackle joint located in a one-story cement-block building, with an exterior finish of pus-colored ochre stucco and a dusty red barrel-tiled roof. In a large window by the front door (a screen door, by the way) an orange neon sign featuring two palm trees flickered spasmodically, the antique wiring buzzing and popping like a bug light in a swamp on a sweltering summer night. The place made the Rusty Dagger of Dick Tracy fame look like the Four Seasons in New York. Somewhere out there in the rutted, gravel parking lot, Jack Perlman was sitting in his car. I hoped.
I had put on blue-jeans and an old denim shirt, and had replaced my Panama with a baseball cap bearing the Red Man chewing tobacco logo, hoping to pass for a trucker. Pushing through the door, which whined on its hinges and slapped shut behind me with a bang, I entered into a realm of cigarette smoke and semi-darkness, thinly populated with hard cases who had the aspect of having spent a lifetime looking over their shoulders – or making other people look over theirs.
To my right, four bikers who, in the aggregate, probably tipped the scales at just over a ton, had somehow managed to wedge themselves into a high-backed wooden booth. It had probably taken ten head of cattle to provide all the leather they were wearing. Directly ahead of me was the bar, behind which stood an enormous bartender with a gleaming bald head, an eye-patch and a livid scar that ran from his left ear to his jawline. He wore a clean white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing forearms the size of pot roasts, covered in tattoos of mythical beasts, the most benign being a dragon with dripping fangs. The barkeep poured a glass of rye which he expertly slid down the polished wooden surface to a tall, dark young man standing at the end, whose quiet intensity and ramrod-straight posture made him look like a human switchblade; no doubt he could produce the real article with very little provocation. Judging from the slicked-back hair, this had to be Fowler. I walked up and ordered a Miller Lite – Cyclops scowled at me as if I had ordered a double-mocha latte, with extra froth - then took a seat a few booths to the left of the front door. I nursed the beer slowly, waiting for Wronwright’s entry.
Ten minutes later, I heard a car horn honking in what seemed like desperation – a series of quick blasts, succeeded by a forlorn, dying coda. Shortly thereafter, the door opened, and in walked Wronwright.
Psychologists will tell you that people, when faced with a threatening situation, react instinctively: either “fight or flight”. What they overlook is the not inconsiderable number of human beings who are occasionally overwhelmed with a desire to shrink to the size of a dime and roll into the first convenient crack in the floor, but have no alternative but to stick things out.
I was feeling very much like a member in good standing in the latter club. Wronwright swaggered to the bar looking like Zorro’s father. He was wearing green corduroy pants held up with a wide, hand-tooled leather belt that resembled something worn by one of the stalwarts of the National Wrestling Alliance. A pair of ostrich-leather cowboy boots with three-inch heels protruded from the flared bottoms – complete with huge silver rowels jingling from steel spurs. A short brown-suede leather jacket, crossed bandoleers and a wide sombrero completed the ensemble. Somewhere he had also acquired a bushy mustache and a goatee. He glanced around the room, studiously avoided noticing me, and placed an order with Cyclops.
“Bonus notches, my good man! A tequila, por flavór. And don’t be stingy with the salt!”
The barkeep’s one eye bulged like a poached egg; apparently he had formed the impression that my partner was what you might call a gay caballero. “Look, buddy, I think you’re wantin’ the Purple Poodle on the other side of town.”
“Nonsense, tender of bars! My drink! Chop-chop! Er…I mean, pronto.”
The bikers seem to have gotten the idea that the Oasis had suddenly been transformed into one of those places, so they paid their tab and lumbered out to their Harleys, shaking their heads in disgust.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Fowler stood stock still, his brows furrowed. I could see the wheels turning. He was likely beginning to wonder whether this whole thing had been Alex’s idea of a joke.
Wronwright took a sip of tequila, coughed violently, and smiled benignly at the bartender.
Cyclops placed both hands on the bar and glared at Wronwright. “Would you like for me to freshen that drink for you?” he growled.
“No, no, my friend. I’m still working on it.”
“Well, I just thought I’d ask – since that one seems to be growing mold on it.”
Wron threw a quizzical glance at the bartender, who nodded at the glass.
To my horror – and, no doubt, to Wronwright’s – his goatee had come off and adhered to the lip of the glass. I have to admit, he gave it the old college try.
“Heh. It is the curse of my family. Our hairlines begin receding from the chin up.”
At that moment, one of the bikers returned and addressed the barkeep. “Hey, Mark, can you bust a five for me?”
“Sure thing, Ned.” As he gave Ned his change, he asked for a favor. “Say, do something for me, will you? Escort the Frito Bandito outta here. He’s lowerin’ the whole tone a’ the place.”
Ned the biker smiled. “Glad to.” He grabbed Wronwright by the collar and the back of his belt and ushered him through the door. “C’mon, amigo, let’s go outside and play!”
“Wait!” Wron cried. “I protest! Is this your idea of gringo hospitality? What about the Good Neighbor policy?”
The door slammed behind them as they went out into the parking lot, where they were met with the loud jeers of Ned’s fellows. I prayed that Wron could talk his way out of that jam. In the meantime, I had to act fast. Fowler had paid his tab and was preparing to leave. I was going to have to step in for my partner. I knew enough Spanish to get by, and, having watched Treasure of the Sierra Madre some 20 or 30 times, I felt confident that I could fake the accent.
“Hombre!” I said, as Fowler walked by. He stopped and stared at me. I motioned to the opposite side of my booth. “Siéntese.”
He eased onto the bench seat. “You want something, mister?”
“Sí. But there is a password that our mutual friend provided to you, I think, no?”
Slowly, his map took on an expression of understanding.
“Ohhh..I get it. So, you’re the man.”
“I don’t know. Am I? The recognition phrase, if you please.”
“Right, right.” He scrunched up his face in thought. “Something about…geeks wearing lifts?”
“Close enough.” If Alex really was interested in the intellectual type, then, quite apart from his participation in criminal activities, it was definitely “game over” for this mug’s romantic aspirations.
“Yeah, that’s why I was thinking that that character who just got tossed out of here was the man I was supposed to meet. ‘Geeks wearing lifts’. I mean, did you see the heels on that clown’s boots?”
I waved away his observation. “Obviously a mere coincidence. Probably just a musician in a mariachi band who got separated from his friends.”
“Could be. So, back to business. You’re with one of the cartels?”
“Yes, the, er, Paco cartel in Sonora. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”
“Oh, sure,” he said, with a false air of worldly wisdom. “Everybody knows about that one.” He took out a pack of cigarettes and offered me one, then lit them both with a match that he struck on his shoe. I smiled inwardly. Tough guy.
I continued. “Then you know that, even though we are not the largest cartel, we have big plans. And big plans require the right kind of assets – the kind I’m told you can provide.”
He gave me a crooked smile. “I’m your boy!”
We talked for a while, discussing his access to weapons and the kind of volume he could provide on a regular basis, haggling over prices, sketching out potential supply routes. All of it being recorded for posterity on a concealed device I had in one of my shirt pockets. After listening to this puffed-up little squirt drone on for thirty minutes or so, I decided it was time to close the deal.
“You have brought a few pieces with you, no? I want to see the kind of merchandise you have on hand. I’m willing to buy a few things now, if they look good.”
“Sure, let’s go. I’ve got some prime stuff in the trunk of my car.”
“Is it safe to examine the goods here?”
He gave me the smirk I was rapidly growing tired of. “Are you kiddin’? Even the cops steer clear of this neighborhood.”
I threw a fiver on the bar and told baldy to keep the change. We then proceeded into to the parking lot. I was both astonished and relieved to see that Wronwright was not only still in one piece, but had apparently made some new friends. He was squatting by one of the bikers’ motorcycles, flashlight in hand, his big sombrero hanging on the back of his neck by the drawstring.
“See? There’s your trouble right there. You’ve got a crimp in your fuel line.” The bikers, gathered in a semicircle around Wronwright and the Harley, uttered a chorus of “Oohs!” and “Ahs!”, like so many first-year med-school students observing the handiwork of a world-renowned surgeon.
Satisfied that my partner was ok, I permitted myself to be guided by Fowler to his car. It was a big Cadillac parked at a front corner of the bar, well in the shadows. He popped open the trunk, and he must have seen my eyes gleam. He laughed. “Bet you don’t see high-grade iron like this every day!”
He was right. I had never seen so many semi-automatic pistols and AK-47 clones in one place in my life, let alone every day. I picked up a few of the weapons in succession, removed and replaced the magazines, worked the bolts and slides. I smiled broadly and nodded.
“Excellent! I will take all of these.”
We agreed on a price and I pulled out a roll of bills that I placed in his hand. As he began to count the money, our transaction was abruptly interrupted. A hulking great fellow with a crew-cut loomed in the offing, a Glock pistol gripped in a beefy paw.
“James Fowler?” It sounded more like a command than a question
Fowler whipped his head around and gaped. “Who are you?”
“Agent Jack Perlman of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. You’re under arrest.” Before Fowler knew what had happened, he was bent over the now-closed trunk, his hands cuffed behind his back. He was, to put it mildly, incensed. The whole time his rights were being read to him, he bellowed in fury.
“You can’t do this to me! You’re just some local T-man! I got a deal with Washington! The Department of Justice!”
Perlman arched his eyebrows and we looked at each other and smiled.
“Oh?” Perlman said. “I’m sure Congressman Issa will be interested to hear about your deal with Washington. Move it, punk! The car’s over this way.”
Perlman stashed Fowler in his car. Another agent sat in the front seat, keeping his eyes on the would-be international gun smuggler through the wire mesh that divided the front and rear of the interior.
Perlman returned to the Cadillac, where I was puffing on a cigarette. Wronwright joined us, wiping his hands on a rag that one of the bikers had provided.
I stared at Wron and shook my head. “The master of disguise!”
He sighed and threw the rag on the ground. “Sorry about that, Paco. I guess maybe the bandoleers were a little over the top?”
“Maybe just a little,” I said. “But tell me something. Why did you blow the horn when you pulled the rental car into the parking lot?”
Wronwright frowned. “Yeah, I heard that, too. But it wasn’t me.”
Perlman piped up. “It was me. I saw you waltzing into the bar looking like the rooster from that Disney cartoon, The Three Caballeros, and I was trying to get your attention. I wanted to tell you that costume wasn’t going to cut it at all.”
Wronwright sighed again. But then his expression brightened. “Anyhow, all’s well that ends well! We got our man!”
We had, indeed. The whole thing gave me a feeling of great satisfaction. Almost as much satisfaction as I got from the realization that we’d be leaving behind, forever, that flea-bag of a motel.
* * * * * * * * *
A few weeks later, I was sitting in the office, writing out checks to cover the bills which had been piling up, when Sheila popped in. She was dressed in something that seemed to be all the rage among young females that summer – a short, sleeveless, tunic-like dress, tightly belted, and made out of fabric that looked like high-quality sweat-shirt material. It put me in mind of something an ancient Roman slave girl might wear. Or an ancient Greek slave girl (I quickly suppressed a recollection of my encounter with Alex). In any event, I was looking forward – guiltily, to be sure - to the first time she got caught in the rain wearing that outfit.
“Did you see the news?” she inquired excitedly, brandishing the Washington Post.
“No, I haven’t had a chance to read the newspaper today.” I picked up the last, remaining unpaid bill and studied it curiously. “Say, what the…”
“It says here,” Sheila continued, “that Attorney General Eric Holder is stepping down.”
“Don’t tell me. To spend more time with his family?”
“Yep! Of course, thanks to you boys, the family time might wind up being only on visiting days.”
“You never know. He’s pretty slippery. But I’m glad just to see him go. Listen, there’s a dry-cleaning bill here for over $200…”
“Knock, knock!” Wronwright stepped into the office, all smiles. Sheila clapped a hand to her mouth – presumably to stifle a laugh, but it could have been that her stomach was turning. He had the appearance and manner of a grandee who had a land grant from the King of Spain tucked in his back pocket.
“Wron! I distinctly remember sneaking those clothes out of your suitcase and hiding them under your bed at the motel before we went to the airport!”
“Yeah, well, I snuck ‘em out again. No sense in letting them go to waste. They look good as new now that I’ve had them cleaned and pressed.”
I looked at the dry-cleaning bill, closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. If I had known what was coming, I would have used my hands to cover my ears.
“And check this out!” He whipped out a trumpet from behind his back. “You might recall that I used to play the trumpet in the high school marching band. I’ve parlayed that into a position with a local amateur mariachi group. Listen to this.”
Before I could stop him, he was off and running, racing through several bars of something that might possibly have been La Cucaracha, but sounded more like the terrified braying of a doomed mule that had wrong-footed itself on a narrow trail and toppled into the depths of the Grand Canyon.
He stopped, bowed to imaginary applause, and asked, “How was that?”
Sheila, who was checking the windows for cracks, was blunt. “Wron, that sounded like a traffic jam.”
Wronwright frowned. “Hmm. I guess I could use some practice. I’ve got plenty of time, though. Our first performance isn’t until next Sunday.”
I stared in amazement. “You’ve actually got a gig?”
“A charity performance. At the, er, at a place here in town.”
“”Where?” I insisted on knowing.
“Ok, ok. It’s for patients at a treatment center run by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Hey, but at least we’re making the effort. They’ll be grateful.”
Sheila sauntered toward the office door. “I don’t know about the merely hard of hearing”, she smiled as she glanced over her shoulder at Wron, “but the stone deaf sure will be.”