"Ohhhh, baby..." Maeve Donnelly said, lying flat on her stomach on her bed. Her bathrobe had long since parted company, revealing the Enforcer's strong back. She was resting her head on her muscular arms, just allowing herself to be swept away by her partner's expert touch.
"More?" Staci Hart said, straddling Maeve's legs.
"Yeah, baby, please..." Maeve slurred, so far into a state of bliss that she was practically dreaming.
Staci resumed her massage of Maeve's troublesome back. She expertly kneaded and molded the muscles that had given the fierce Enforcer so much pain since she had pulled them in a clash with the deranged Webster brothers a few months previously.
"Maeve, one of these days you're gonna find yourself unable to get out of your bed or even your car. You really should get a Doctor to look at it," Staci said, pausing briefly.
"Mmmmm. Later. Don't stop, baby."
Suddenly, Maeve's cell phone rang. Reaching down to the bathrobe on the floor, Maeve picked up the phone and flipped it open.
"Fever. Talk to me."
'Hey, Maeve. Can you recognize the voice?'
a female voice said.
"No. Should I?"
"Do you want me to stop?" Staci whispered, but Maeve shook her head.
'Oh, I'm heartbroken. It's R.C.'
"Roberta Cain! Holy flip! Man, it's been a while. When did you get out?"
'Three weeks ago.'
"Wow. Wait a minute, you didn't bust out, did you? I mean, they let you go, right?"
'Oh, sure. I got some time off for good behavior.'
"Ha, that's a first."
'How is life treating you these days, Maeve?'
"Oh, you know, up and down," Maeve said and turned her head to wink at Staci.
'I have something I want to discuss with you... but not over the phone. Can you meet me down at the Majestic in twenty minutes or so? Room 605.'
Having completed the massage, Staci got off Maeve's legs and moved around the bed on her knees. She took off her kimono and threw it on the floor with a flick of the wrist and then stretched out like a big pussycat. With a purr, she snuggled down on the bed and swept her long, black hair over her shoulder.
"Ummm, no can do, R.C. Make it an hour and twenty and we have a deal," Maeve said and flashed Staci a wolfish grin.
'OK. Here's my number in case you need to reach me,'
Roberta said and told Maeve her telephone number.
'See ya later.'
"Alligator," Maeve purred and let go of the phone. Growling, she slowly crawled towards the very, very naked Staci.
"Who was that?" Staci said, lazily running a finger from her collar bone down to her navel.
"Just someone from the past, baby."
"An old flame, perhaps?"
"Nope. My old mentor, Roberta Cain," Maeve said and put her hand on Staci's hip. She clawed it gently, marveling at the feel of Staci's soft skin against her fingertips.
"Should I be worried?"
"Good," Staci said, grabbed hold of Maeve's arm and pulled the Enforcer into a tight embrace.
"I haven't seen Roberta Cain in... wow, more than fifteen years," Maeve said in between placing gentle kisses on Staci's throat.
"Do you wanna talk or make love?"
"I can't believe you're asking *me* that question, baby," Maeve said and sought out Staci's lips.
A good while later, Staci arced her back and let out a long, sensuous groan. Completely spent and very much satisfied, she collapsed in a boneless heap on top of Maeve.
Maeve rolled the two of them over onto the side and reached down to gently remove the toy. After she put it next to them on the bed, she crawled upwards so she was at eye level with Staci.
"I guess that little investment paid off, huh?" she whispered into Staci's ear. When she didn't get a response beyond a muffled grunt, she began to nibble on Staci's earlobe.
"No, baby, please... no more..." Staci whispered, her ice blue eyes still darkened from the lovemaking.
"I have to leave now, anyway. But I'll be back. Count on it, baby," Maeve said and once again claimed her partner's lips.
Maeve rolled off the bed and went into the bathroom. Studying herself in the mirror above the wash basin, she was rather amused to see a string of small hickeys across the swell of her breasts.
"Staci Hart, you're a wildcat," Maeve said and reached into the shower to turn on the water jets.
After Maeve had showered and rubbed an ungodly amount of gel into her spiky, white hair, she went back into the bedroom to get dressed. As she rummaged through her drawers to find some clothes, she looked at Staci who was still lying on the bed, snoring lightly.
"How someone who looks so angelic can be such a devil in bed is beyond me," Maeve said with a throaty chuckle. She finally found a white tank top and a fresh pair of black silk boxers and put them on.
Staci stirred and yawned loudly, prompting another chuckle from Maeve.
"Hey... already showered?" Staci said and turned over so she was flat on her back.
"Yep. There's still water left."
"Gee, thanks. Who was that caller before?" Staci said and sat up. She tried to run her hands through her disheveled hair to sort it out, but soon gave up.
"Roberta Cain. She was the leader of a small-potato gang I ran with for a few years when I was in my late teens. Then we sorta lost contact," Maeve said and laid out her bullet proof vest on the bed. Her trained eye went over it thoroughly, checking for defects or loose threads.
"I thought you had always been with your uncle?"
"Well, uncle Freddie entrusted Roberta with my... ummm... practical upbringing, so to speak."
"Oh... you said she became your mentor?"
"Yeah. She taught me a lot of things about surviving the mean streets. She had a set of guidelines that us young turks had to follow... I can still remember them clearly," Maeve said and put on the Kevlar vest.
"I'd love to hear them," Staci said and swung her legs over the side of the bed. On bare feet, she padded over to stand behind Maeve to help her tie the laces securing the vest.
"Thanks, baby. Well, all right... One, no drugs... Two, there's no point in running from the law, they have the bigger gang so they'll always find you. Three..." Maeve said and found a pair of her trademark white jeans in the closet. She stepped into them and closed the zipper.
"... if you've fucked up, come clean at once so it can be fixed. Four..."
Maeve put on her favorite dark green silk shirt and started closing the buttons.
"Four, loyalty is everything. Without loyalty, we can't prosper, so if you betray the Family, you must be prepared to pay the price," Maeve said and put on her shoulderholster. She took out her Beretta 92F and checked the clip. While she had said the last words, Maeve's voice had turned cold and Staci could feel a shiver run down her spine.
The metallic clink when Maeve slapped the clip back in made Staci flinch slightly, but the mood soon improved when Maeve flashed her a wide, toothy grin.
"I feel like I'm missin' something...?" Maeve said and winked.
"Your boots, perhaps?" Staci said and looked down at Maeve's socks.
"I'm glad you're here to tell me these things. I'd be lost without you, baby," Maeve said and stood up on tiptoes to place a tiny little kiss on Staci's cheek.
Staci rolled her eyes and pointed at Maeve's boots that were standing in the corner of the bedroom.
"They're over there. If you're done fooling around, I'll go and take a shower," Staci said and went into the bathroom.
Maeve grabbed the boots and sat down on the bed. Even as she started tying the bootlaces, her eyes never left Staci's perfectly sculpted rear end as the tall woman wiggled her way into the bathroom.
"And to think that some people don't like Monday mornings!" Maeve said loudly, but Staci just waved her hand and closed the door behind her.
Maeve chuckled and went over to the closet to take out her leather jacket.
Slightly more than ten minutes later, Maeve pulled her midnight black Mustang GT off Jefferson Boulevard and into the parking lot of the Majestic Hotel. She quickly found a parking space, and as she got out of the car, a black Dodge Charger on the far side of the parking lot caught her eye.
Even though she was already a bit late for the appointment, Maeve walked casually over to the Charger to admire the car's aggressive styling.
It was the latest model, an SRT-8 special, painted in mat black and sporting a four-inch wide red stripe going from the front bumper across the hood and the roof to the back bumper. The alloy wheels were designed to be identical to the car's paintjob, black with a thin red line on the outer edge of the rim.
Maeve whistled approvingly and put her hands in her back pockets while she walked around the car to see it from all angles. After taking a final look, she went over to the rear entrance of the Majestic.
In the lobby, Maeve quickly established that everything was still as it had been for the last sixty years. She unzipped her leather jacket and went over to the elevator to press the UP button. Soon, she could hear the wagon creaking and rattling its way towards her, a journey she knew could take several minutes if the elevator was in a bad mood. She sighed and turned around to study the other people milling around in the lobby.
Even at this relatively early time of the day, a few working girls were busy chatting up their customers, most appearing to be businessmen out for a late brunch.
'Come nightfall, most of 'em will go back to their million dollar houses and tell their million dollar wives that they've had a boring, dull, uneventful day at the office,'
A rattling, wet cough signaled the arrival of Jaroslav Jurasz, the night porter of the Majestic. Maeve noted with some disgust that he still hadn't changed his undershirt. When he spotted Maeve, he gave her a quick wave.
"Hey, Jake, you still here?" Maeve said, her eyes fixated on the myriad of stains on the undershirt.
Jaroslav nodded and shrugged in a very tired fashion. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and tapped it with his finger. The ashes fell onto the carpet, but he didn't seem to care.
Behind Maeve, the little bell on the elevator dinged and the mesh door creaked open.
"See ya, Jake," Maeve said and gave the night porter a salute as she stepped into the elevator.
"Jaroslav, Fever! How often do I have to tell you!" Jake said loudly, his voice echoing through the lobby.
A couple of minutes later, Maeve knocked on the door to Room 605. Taking a step to the side so she wouldn't be in the firing line in case it was a setup, she reached under her jacket and put her hand on the handle of the Beretta.
When the door opened, Maeve could hardly believe her eyes. Roberta Cain stood in front of her, but it most decidedly wasn't the same Roberta anymore that Maeve had known all those years ago.
The prison term appeared to have been very hard on her as her complexion had developed an unflattering grayish hue, and the insides of her firm, sinewy arms were riddled with scars and needletracks. Her short hair had turned gray in places and even her eyes seemed duller. She was wearing black jeans and a black tank top that revealed that her shoulders and the upper part of her chest were covered in prison gang tattoos.
"Hey, Fever. 's good to see ya," Roberta said and moved aside so Maeve could enter the apartment.
"Yeah... likewise. Man, you look..."
"I know. I look like rough, old shit. Hey, that's what happens when you do twelve in a row... but I can still kick ass if I have to. You, however, look like a wet dream come true."
"Aw, Jeez," Maeve said and laughed out loud.
"Come in. Sit down. Want a drink, or something? A beer?"
"It's ten forty-five in the morning, R.C."
"So?" Roberta said and went over to an old fridge that was standing in a corner of the room. She opened the door and took out a sixpack.
"Nah. Thanks, anyway."
"Suit yourself. I seem to recall you could chug down a few brewskis back in the day," Roberta said and pulled out a chair at a table that had been placed in the center of the room. She tore the first can out of the sixpack and cracked it open.
"Yeah, I could. But that was then and this is now. So, is it your Charger down in the lot?"
"Looks pretty good. Only been out three weeks and you already got a hot set of wheels?"
"Yeah, it was a bargain. A real steal. Anyway, what are you driving these days?" Roberta said and took a long swig from the can.
"You always said you wanted a Deuce Coupe."
"I know. They were too expensive."
"What you got in it?"
"Huh... I'll bet you needed a shoe horn to get it into a Mustang. I didn't even know Ford went higher than a 392 for their crate engines... The prison library had a lot of street racin' magazines and I had a lot of time to read 'em," Roberta said off Maeve's surprised look.
"Well, that's right, usually they don't go higher than a 392, but I have a few connections. You got a Hemi?"
"Of course, man. A genuine MOPAR 372 Hemi. Wouldn't have it any other way. Perhaps we could, you know, have a pissing contest one of these days down on the quarter mile?"
"Perhaps we could," Maeve said with a grin.
"R.C., what actually happened back then? Suddenly one day, you just upped and disappeared?"
"I got a tip from your uncle. He told me it was high time I skedaddled, so I did. I went out to the West coast. Didn't help me much, though, 'cos I got caught after a year. And then the trial went on for a year after that, so..."
"Right. I never knew," Maeve said with an understanding nod.
"Well, you weren't in the need-to-know loop back then. Anyway, let's get to the point. Before we start talking, I want you to meet my new business associate. Hey, Paco! Come in here!"
The door to the bedroom opened and a Latino man stepped into the living room. He was in his late twenties, with short, dark hair, a well-kept mustache and a goatee. He was wearing basketball boots, dark blue jeans and an olive green army jacket over a colorful T-shirt.
The army jacket had a characteristic bulge around the man's left armpit, and Maeve automatically moved her hand closer to the handle of her Beretta. She eyed the new arrival suspiciously, quickly categorizing him as a potential troublemaker simply based on the cold look in his eyes.
"Paco Alvarez, meet White Fever, Fast Freddie Donnelly's number one Enforcer," Roberta said.
"Nice to meet ya," Paco half-whispered in a hoarse, creepy voice that held so little warmth that Maeve's hackles immediately rose.
"Paco," Maeve said and nodded.
"Fever and I go way back, Paco. More than twenty years, ain't that right, Maeve?" Roberta said.
"Yeah, back to the legendary Cue Ballz crew. Maeve was my number two back then and let me tell you, we did plenty of crazy-ass things. We were the baddest mothers ever to roam Eighth Street. It was never quite the same after we'd been there."
Paco nodded and moved over to stand behind Roberta.
"Well, past is past," Roberta said and reached under the table. Once her hand reappeared, it held a white envelope that she put down on the table top. She pushed it towards Maeve with her fingertips.
Maeve picked it up and looked into it - it contained a large wad of C-notes.
"What the hell is this?" Maeve said, puzzled.
"Well... let's call it look-the-other-way money."
"I don't think so," Maeve said and put the envelope back on the table.
Roberta reached down and found another envelope that she put next to the first one.
"Ten G, Maeve. Don't be an idiot. It's all yours."
"Didn't you just get out of the State Pen, R.C.?"
"I did. So?"
"I'm not gonna ask you where you got that money. You must be planning something," Maeve said, leaning back in her chair so she could get a clear line of fire if she needed it.
"We are. And we'd like you to be a part of it. For old times sake."
"Doesn't work like that anymore."
"No. Did you really think you could buy me like this?"
"Everyone has a price, Fever. Hell, back in the old days, Roddy Flanahan and Big Sully were willing to accept half of what I've just offered you."
"Roddy Flanahan and Big Sully are dead, R.C."
"So I've heard. But I figured there's no way Fast Freddie would harm his only niece."
"Yeah, well, don't count on it. Nobody is above the Family. Nobody. You taught me that yourself," Maeve said and got up from her chair. She took a few steps backwards without turning around.
"Hmmm," Roberta said with a lazy shrug. She scooped up the two envelopes and put them back underneath the table.
"Roberta, if you're planning on running an operation anywhere in the square between the East Side of the Monroe and the docks, and Uptown and Fourteenth Street, you're gonna need Fast Freddie's blessing," Maeve said coldly.
"We know. Do we have it?" Paco said in his half-whispering style.
"I'm going to run it by him. Don't do anything until you've heard from me," Maeve said and reached for the door handle.
"We won't. We'll be peaceful little lambs, won't we, Paco?" Roberta said.
Maeve looked from one to the other, but only saw smug, knowing looks. With a grunt, she twisted the door knob and left the small apartment.
Once out in the hallway, Maeve drew her Beretta and cocked it. She walked down to the end of the hallway and waited for a few minutes. When neither Roberta nor Paco left apartment 605, she put the pistol back in its holster and hurried down the grand staircase.
Leaning against the Mustang, Maeve dialed the number to the Donnelly mansion and waited impatiently for whomever was working the phones to pick it up.
'The Donnelly mansion, how may I help you?'
a young, female voice said.
"It's Fever. Is my uncle up yet?"
'No, I'm sorry, Miss Donnelly, he isn't.'
"Shit. When are you expecting him? I need to speak with him."
'Not for several hours. Do you want me to go wake him up?'
the young dispatcher said and Maeve could clearly hear a gulp coming through the connection.
"Nah. You're new, right?"
'Yes, just started this morning...'
"What's your name?"
'Wynne Masters, Miss Donnelly.'
"Welcome to the Family, Wynne. I'll swing by a little later. Please inform my uncle once he's up."
'Will do... and thank you.'
Maeve closed the phone and got into the car. She left the parking lot and started cruising South on Jefferson. At this time of the day, the traffic consisted mostly of taxi cabs and delivery vans zooming back and forth, and sometimes stopping in the most unexpected places.
After the third occasion where Maeve had been forced to break out in the center lane to avoid delivery vans suddenly pulling over, she gave up on Jefferson and turned right on Eighth Street.
She had driven down Eighth a thousand times since her days in the Cue Ballz, but the street still meant a certain something for her. She slowed down to take a look at some of the sights - the small park where she had kissed a girl for the first time, the alley where she had first held a gun and the sidewalk where she nearly had her throat slit when she had been on the losing side of a knife fight.
Roberta Cain had saved her ass then, like she had on several other occasions. Maeve shook her head when she thought about how Roberta looked now. The thing that upset her the most was the sight of the many needletracks on the woman's arms - Maeve could clearly remember how Roberta had time and time again ordered her crew to stay away from drugs. Maeve shook her head and tapped her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel.
She slowed to a halt in front of a derelict building halfway down the street. Many years earlier, the building had housed a small mom-and-pop convenience store that had acted as a turning point in the life of the sixteen-years old Maeve Donnelly.
In a flash of youthful stupidity, she had gone against Roberta's orders and had tried to shoplift a $2 magazine, but the owner had caught her and whacked her half a dozen times on her rear end with an old-fashioned broom. Of course, that was nothing compared to the bollocking she got from Roberta when Maeve got back to the flat they used as a club house.
That incident had taught Maeve an important lesson on loyalty and trust, and she was quite pleased with herself over the fact that she had never done anything against the Little Guy again - only against those who had it coming.
Maeve was about to continue when she suddenly spotted two young punks loitering at the corner of the derelict building and a grassy lot. It was obvious that money and drugs were changing hands, and when Maeve blipped the throttle, both men ran away as quickly as they could towards the far end of the lot.
'Looks like we need to keep a closer eye on Eighth in the future,'
Maeve thought. She grunted and drove on.
Maeve had a sudden need to hear Staci's voice, so when she pulled up to the red light at the intersection of Eighth and Franklin Boulevard, she unclipped the phone from her belt and dialed the number to Staci's cell.
"Hey, baby, it's me. Are you still at my pad?"
'Uh... no. I've gone home.'
'Did your meeting go well?'
'Do you want me to come back over?'
Maeve nearly said yes, but she knew that it was more important to speak to her uncle. The traffic lights turned green and Maeve drove right onto Franklin.
"Well... thanks for the offer, but I need to go out to the mansion in a little while."
"We did have a pretty good time this morning, didn't we?" Maeve said warmly.
'Yeah. It's fun when things develop unexpectedly.'
"Yeah! Heh, heh," Maeve said and overtook one of the ubiquitous white delivery vans that had seemingly overrun the city.
"Are we gonna... ummm, do you wanna go out for a quick bite tonight... or something?" Maeve continued.
'I can't tonight, Maeve.'
'It's not that I don't want to, but I have a lot of paperwork to fill out at the Club. It's payday next week, you know, and I need to have everything sorted out.'
"I know," Maeve said and slowed to a halt at the corner of Franklin and Fifth Street. She briefly considered continuing onwards to Staci's apartment on First, but decided against it. She sighed and activated her turning signal.
'Maeve, you sound a little... I don't know... down? What happened at the meeting?'
"Something unexpected... but not of the fun kind."
'Oh. Listen, I gotta go. See you later, OK? Love ya,'
Staci said and blew Maeve a kiss through the connection.
"Sure, baby. Love ya, too," Maeve said and hung up. She put the phone in the small tray between the seats and then reached up to turn on the radio.
'... listening to WERC on 91.2 FM, your number one rock'n'roll station. So, with the news out of the way, it's time to continue our special theme, Sad Songs For Singles. I'm Susan Blaine, and this is Tears On My Pillow by Little Anthony and The Imperials.'
Maeve chuckled over the uncanny timing of the DJ and turned up the volume. Soon, she was merrily singing along to the sentimental classic, slightly off-key but with great gusto.
"... No, we've got it ... yeah ... will you take a fuckin' chill pill, I told ya we got it ... it's going down tonight as planned ... yeah ... talk to ya later," Roberta Cain said and closed her cell phone.
"Jeez, those guys are impatient," she said and rolled her eyes. She put the phone on the table and looked at the two envelopes Maeve Donnelly had refused.
"What's your impression of Fever, Paco?"
"She's a wuss," the man said hoarsely as he sat down at the table. He pulled the second to last can out of the sixpack and cracked it open.
"A wuss? She's not a wuss. From what the grapevine has told me, she's fired more rounds, busted more heads and had more women than you have... or ever will for that matter. And she's an idealist. She always was. They're the worst kind of crooks."
"You don't think she'll tell Fast Freddie about us?"
"Oh, she'll tell that tub of lard about us," Roberta said and started scratching the many marks on her arms.
"But what the hell are we..." Paco started to say, but Roberta cut him off.
"Fast Freddie isn't stupid. He won't just give us his blessing to do what-the-fuck-ever we please. At first, he'll only allow us to do some small-time shit so he can check out how we're running. But we don't have time for small-time shit, 'cos we've got a deal goin' down tonight."
"Oh," Paco said and took a swig from the can.
"That's what the grease was for," Roberta said and took the ten thousand dollars out of the two envelopes. She briefly looked at the many bills and then put them into a cardboard box. She tore the envelopes to pieces and threw them into the trashcan.
"Our friends down south are very impatient people. We promised them a Vette, and we're gonna give them a Vette. But when Fast Freddie hears about our little job, he sure as shit won't give us any sort of blessing..."
Paco shrugged and finished drinking the beer.
"Ah, fuck 'em. We'll deal with Freddie and his stooges later. Come on, Paco, let's ride," Roberta said and got up from the table.
"Down to Eighth?"
"Yep. Jonesy and Garrett must be back by now. What do you think of your new crew mates, by the way?"
"A couple a' dickless wusses," Paco said and crushed the beer can against the table top.
When Roberta turned the ignition key, the Hemi came alive with a thunderous roar. She put on her sunglasses and flashed Paco a shit-eating grin.
"Love that sound, man. Raw power," she said and blipped the throttle.
Paco merely shrugged and put on his own pair of shades.
Once out of the parking lot, Roberta turned right onto Jefferson and started cruising towards Eighth Street, unknowingly going the same way Maeve had used earlier.
Five minutes later, Roberta double parked the Charger in front of the grassy lot next to the derelict building. She put the shifter into Park and took off her sunglasses so she could see better.
"Where the hell are they? They should be here by now...?" she said, craning her neck to look for the two missing members of the resurrected Cue Ballz.
"I'll go find them, R.C.," Paco said and opened the door.
"All right. I'll park. See ya at the crib in a few."
Paco nodded and got out of the car. He shook his head as Roberta took off with a roar, and then turned around to enter the lot.
He walked across the grass, constantly scouting for the two men they were supposed to meet there. When he reached the far end of the lot, he turned left and walked towards the rear side of the four-story apartment that was adjacent to the grassy lot.
Fifty yards later he stopped at one of the cellarways, rolling his eyes repeatedly when he could hear music playing from below.
"Those dumb fucks. We agreed to meet at the lot," he said out loud. Sensing some movement behind him, he immediately put his hand inside his jacket and spun around to face whomever was coming towards him.
It was a man in his late sixties with a shock of white hair and a two-day stubble. He was wearing heavy work boots, work gloves and a blue boiler suit and he had all the hallmarks of being a caretaker.
"Hey, son, we don't want your kind here," the man said.
"And what kind is that... Pops?" Paco whispered and slowly approached the older man. He looked over the caretaker's shoulder and spotted Roberta coming closer.
Roberta held up her hands in a 'calm down' gesture, and Paco let go of his gun and took a step back.
"The drug dealin' kind, son. Vamoose or I'll call the law."
As soon as she was close enough, Roberta put out her hand and started speaking.
"Hold on a minute, Sir. I've rented the cellar fair and square. We're just a couple a' friends meeting for a few beers and a little music. Won't be no drug dealin' goin' on down there," she said.
The caretaker turned around and eyed Roberta suspiciously. After a few seconds, he reluctantly put out his hand and shook Roberta's.
"Well, all right... but lemme tell you young folks something. We've worked hard to get this apartment building free of vermin," he said and looked pointedly at Paco.
"... And we intend on keepin' it that way. Oh, and don't play too loud!" the caretaker said sternly. He nodded to himself and walked away, leaving Roberta and Paco behind.
"He won't live long," Paco hissed. His voice was even more hoarse than usual and his lips were just a thin line in his face.
Roberta studied the retreating form of the caretaker. The man went over to a small gardening shed, worked the padlock and went inside.
"Once we're done, he's all yours. But not sooner. I don't want the pigs to get interested, ya hear?"
"Sure thing, R.C.," Paco said and walked down the short flight of stairs to the cellar. He pounded once, then twice and finally once more on the sturdy metal-reinforced wooden door.
The door was opened two inches and an eye and half a face appeared in the crack. As soon as the identities of the visitors had been verified, the door was closed and the chain removed.
As Theo 'Teddy' Garrett opened the door fully, he wiped some sweat off his brow and drew an audible sigh of relief.
"Thank God it's you, R.C. I was getting worried Fever would show up with some muscle before you got back," he said and walked further into the cellar.
"Fever? What the fuck are ya talking' about, Garrett?" Roberta said, slamming the door shut behind her.
"Fever spotted me when I got your stuff, R.C. I got it in here, by the way. Looks to be first class."
"Fever spotted you? Where the hell did you get it? Out on Jefferson in broad daylight?"
"Naw, man, right here. But there she was in that black Mustang. She saw me, but didn't do anything about it. I took off like a scalded cat, man," Teddy said and wrung his hands.
"There's more than one black Stang, Garrett."
"Not with those silver racin' stripes and those cocky bling-bling wheels, man."
Roberta growled and cursed under her breath.
"How the hell could Fever know about us already?"
"Wasn't me, man! I didn't say nothin' to nobody!" Garrett said, jumping up from the chair he had only just sat down on.
"I didn't say it was. But it's awfully suspicious nonetheless. Where the fuck is Jonesy?" Roberta said, scowling intensely at Teddy Garrett. He was in his early twenties, tall and gangly, and with an acne-riddled face only a mother could love. She had known many of his type - scrawny scaredy-cats most of them, typically afraid of their own shadow and generally too stupid to do anything but follow orders.
"I d-don't know, R.C.! He's out."
"No shit, homeboy. He better be here. That's all I'm sayin'," Roberta said and threw herself onto a well-worn couch.
A few minutes later, Garrett's cell phone rang and he hurriedly picked it up.
"It's Garrett... Jonesy? Where the hell are you, man? ... The basketball courts...? What the hell are you doing there? ... Yes, they're here," Teddy said and cast a worried glance at Roberta Cain and Paco Alvarez.
Roberta got up from the couch and snatched the phone out of Teddy's hand.
"It's R.C., Jonesy. Stay where you are. We'll be right over ... No, stay where you are," she said and then handed the phone back to Teddy.
"Come on, let's go shoot some hoops. I could use the exercise," Roberta said, cracking her knuckles. Paco grinned, knowing exactly what was about to happen to the unfortunate Jonesy.
Half past twelve, Maeve drove past the sentry and up the curved driveway to the Donnelly mansion. She parked outside the main entrance and got out of the car.
Looking at the withered leaves on the trees, she shuddered and zipped her leather jacket. Dark clouds were gathering and the sky looked like it could dump its contents on the City at any moment - November was definitely upon them.
She knocked on the double doors and stood back so the person inside could see her. Danny Watts' eye suddenly appeared through the narrow gunslit, and after a few seconds of fiddling with the locks, the doors were opened.
"Hey, Fever," the square-jawed former wrestler said in his typically rumbling voice.
"Hey, Danny-boy. Is my uncle up yet?" Maeve said as she entered the hallway.
Danny closed the doors behind Maeve and stood up straight, reaching his full height of 6'11".
"Yes, he's eating brunch in the den. Do you want me to get the kitchen to fix you something?"
"No, thanks, buddy. I've already eaten," Maeve said and hung her leather jacket on a hallstand. She adjusted her shoulder holster and made sure her silk shirt wasn't creased.
"How do I look?" she said with a grin.
"That's the best it's ever gonna get. Talk to you later, Danny-boy," Maeve said and knocked on the double doors leading to Fast Freddie's den.
"Enter!" a gruff voice said from the other side of the doors.
Maeve stepped inside her uncle's private quarters and felt, rather than heard, Danny close the doors behind her. The man sitting at the mahogany desk at the other end of the room waved his hand at Maeve and she stepped forward with a smile.
"Hi, uncle Freddie. You're looking good today," she said and sat down in one of the leather armchairs.
"Hi, Maeve. Thanks. You want something? Donut, bagel, Danish?"
"No, thanks, I'm good."
"You don't know what you're missin', young lady," Freddie said with a rumbling laugh that shook his entire body, all 375 lbs. of it.
"Is it too early to talk business?" Maeve said and crossed her legs at the knees.
Freddie Donnelly took a large bite out of a bagel and shook his head, making his double chins wobble.
"All right. Earlier this morning, I had a phone call from Roberta Cain."
"Rommffmta Cain?" Fast Freddie said surprised, swallowing the bite whole.
"That's right. She was at the Majestic, so I drove down there to see what she wanted. There's something fishy about it, uncle Freddie," Maeve said and leaned forward.
"She offered me ten G to look the other way."
"No shit?" Freddie said and took another bite of the bagel.
"No shit. I turned her down."
Freddie gave Maeve a 'duh' kind of look and then wiped his mouth with a napkin.
"What did she actually want?" he said after chewing the bite thoroughly.
"She never said, but it's something major, I'm sure of it. She was fishing for your blessing, but I don't think we should give it."
"Hmmmm," Freddie said and leaned back in his chair.
A knock on the side door interrupted his train of thought and he turned his head and barked "Enter!".
Mary Reynolds came through the door, pushing a small cart with various breakfast items.
"Do you need a refill, Sir?" Mary said and held up a small jug of orange juice.
"Coffee, please, Mary," Freddie said and pointed at his empty cup.
"One coffee coming right up," Mary said and took the thermos. As she walked past Maeve, she winked several times at the Enforcer, who replied by smiling broadly.
With a grunt, Maeve reached over and took a cup from the cart. She put it out and jiggled it a bit when Mary walked back past her.
"I'm sorry, Maeve. I'm all out of coffee. Mr. Donnelly got the last," Mary said and shook the empty thermos.
"Shit," Maeve said and put the cup back on the cart.
"Do you want me to make you some?"
"Nah. I'm not staying long. Thanks, anyway, Mary. How's Josie?"
"Oh, she's doing so fine after she changed schools. She's got a lot of playmates and several close friends now," Mary said, blushing.
"I'm glad to hear it. Anyway, you're looking better every time I see you."
"Thank you," Mary said quietly and absentmindedly ran her fingers across the scar on the side of her face. Her left eye was still cloudy, but the skin around her eye socket had returned to its natural pinkish hue, making the terrible injury a knife-wielding madman had afflicted on her stand out less.
"Yeah. You look great," Maeve said and patted Mary's arm.
Mary thanked Maeve again and then left the den.
"She's really a nice girl. Never spills a drop," Fast Freddie said.
"Yep. So... what about that blessing?"
"You know..." he said and put two sugar cubes in his coffee. After using a spoon to stir it, he got out of his chair and walked over to the window overlooking the small park with the duck pond.
Maeve waited patiently for the rest of the conversation. She knew that forcing her uncle into speaking before he was ready would only annoy him, so she kept quiet.
Freddie Donnelly took a sip of his coffee and turned around to face Maeve.
"Let 'em roast a little. Tell 'em it'll be a few days. If they don't mind waiting, they're all right. If they appear impatient, tell 'em to go fuck themselves."
"Yes, Sir. I'll do that right away," Maeve said and got up from the leather armchair.
On her way to the door, Maeve turned around and cocked her head.
"Uncle Freddie, if I may be so bold... what was it Roberta Cain did that got her arrested back then? She told me that you had alerted her...?"
"She'd done a few things, but the major case was that she'd been involved in an insurance scam that had gone sour. A detective for the insurance company disappeared... only to turn up beaten to death."
"Oh... but that would give her a life sentence, though."
"She ratted out on her associates," Freddie said and emptied the cup.
"She... what?" Maeve croaked.
"You heard me."
"Yeah. But I don't believe ya."
"But she hasn't changed her identity or anything. Wouldn't they pull some strings to get someone to come look for her?"
"None of her associates are still alive, Maeve. I guess Roberta has some very capable friends both in the slammer and outside."
Maeve's jaw began to grind - she knew exactly who Roberta's capable friend on the outside was.
"Oh. Figures," Maeve said brusquely and opened the double doors to the hallway.
Once there, she shook her head and rubbed her eyes angrily.
'I don't fuckin' believe it... R.C. has broken almost every single one of the fuckin' guidelines she taught me. The same fuckin' guidelines I've lived by for the last twenty years... That fuckin' asshole,'
Maeve thought, clenching her fists.
With a growl, she left the Donnelly mansion and walked out to her car. She unclipped her phone from her belt and punched in the number Roberta had given her.
After letting it ring for a full minute, Maeve gave up and got into the Mustang. She turned the ignition key and drove out of the driveway in a foul mood.
Staci pushed her laptop away and took a deep breath. She held it for a few seconds and then let the air out slowly. She put her hands on her extravagant glass desk and pushed herself back from it.
She looked at the round clock on the wall which read a quarter past four, PM. It wouldn't be long until the doors to the Three-In-One Club were opened, invariably followed by a mass invasion of businessmen and -women on their way to, or coming from, the restaurant upstairs - most of them came by to have a drink or two and send a few lusty glances at the pole dancers.
Later on, usually at eleven o'clock, the clientele changed, turning into Twentysomethings who stopped by to sip a $35 cocktail and to neck in the booths before going downstairs into the discotheque.
Staci yawned and rubbed her weary eyes. On top of trying to do the accounts, she was working out how to take over a small tavern down on Sixth Street and turn it into a girls' only place. A few months previously, she and Maeve had casually discussed it one evening, but while Maeve had forgotten all about it almost immediately, Staci had kept thinking about it.
She returned to the laptop, but suddenly felt that all the paperwork was suffocating her. Instead, she left her office and went into the main room of the nightclub. Walking around slowly, she made sure that everything was in order and ready for the opening.
'Tables... all clean, check. The carpet... vacuumed, check. The glass walls lining the room... polished, check. The bar stools... cleaned, check,'
Staci thought, going through a checklist in her mind.
To get a better view of the room, Staci walked up the short flight of stairs onto the catwalk. She checked all six poles, finding to her great annoyance that two of them hadn't been sufficiently polished. She raised an eyebrow and made a mental note to complain to the cleaning company later.
Staci got down from the catwalk and went through a curtain to get backstage. When she reached the small, yellow sign the dancers had put up on the wall just before the entry to the dressing room, she had to stop and chuckle, even though she had seen it a hundred times already.
'KNOCK - OR YOU'LL BE!'
After knocking on the doorjamb to the dressing room, Staci politely waited for someone to shout 'all dressed' before she turned the corner.
One of the Three-In-One Club's dancers, Rosana Dosamantes, was sitting in front of a large mirror, applying her typically garish makeup. She was a very pretty Latina in her early twenties, with aristocratic features and with hair and eyes that were black as coal. She was wearing a baby blue bathrobe and fluffy slippers that were supposed to look like little mice.
"Oh, it's you, Miss Hart. Great, then I can lose the robe. Too hot in here already," Rosana said and took off the bathrobe, revealing that she wasn't wearing anything underneath save for a thong.
Staci stopped dead in her tracks and she could feel her neck and cheeks turn redder by the second. She pulled out in her turtleneck collar to get some air down her front, but it didn't really work.
"Did you want something?" Rosana said and took a large tube containing a jelly-like substance that was a mix of purple and silver. She poured out a blob of the body paint on her chest and used her fingers to spread it out across the swell of her breasts and a few inches down her cleavage.
"Uhhh... I... yes, I wanted to tell you that two of the poles haven't been cleaned, the third and the fifth, so you need to take care," Staci said, looking the other way.
"Shit, I've had that happen once in another club. I used a sticky pole and fell flat on my ass. Thanks. I'm just going out to do a few warmup routines before we open," Rosana said and put the tube away. She picked up an aerosol can marked 'Glitter' and sprayed her hair and her chest with little, glittery stars that would reflect the lights and create a sparkling effect.
"OK. We open in twenty, Rosana," Staci said, watching in horror as the dancer put on her fake eyelashes using a tool that looked like it came straight out of a horror movie.
"Gotcha. Pasty time," Rosana said and held up two small, star-shaped objects.
"That's my cue," Staci said and left the dressing room. She walked with determined steps back to the office, but mere inches before she put her hand on the door handle, a male voice called out to her.
Staci turned around and noticed the chief bouncer standing at the exit, holding a piece of paper. With a grunt, Staci walked over to him to find out what he wanted.
"Yes?" she said.
"Miss Hart, we can't read this week's hit list. The printer in the coffee room must be on the fritz," he said, showing Staci the updated list of people the bouncers should turn away at the door. The printout was only a blurry mess of lines, prompting a groan from Staci.
"Great, that's all we needed. All right... uhhh... I'll print out a copy on my own printer. Come on," Staci said and spun around on her heel, quickly followed by the broad-shouldered bouncer.
A few minutes later, Staci handed the bouncer a readable printout and he thanked her and left the office.
Staci sighed and walked over to her couch. She fluffed the pillow she wanted to use as a headrest, but before she had time to lie down, somebody knocked on the door.
"Staci?" her assistant, Danielle, said from the other side of the door.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm here. Jeez, this is gonna be one ugly evening," Staci croaked and sat up straight.
Danielle opened the door and stepped into the office.
"Oh, I didn't know that you... never mind, I'll come back later," Danielle said, but Staci waved her hand.
"You're here already, so... what's up?"
"Well, I was just wondering if you would ask Fever if she'd be interested in coming to my sister's birthday party...?"
"I'm sure she would, Danielle. When is it?" Staci said and got up from the couch. She walked back over to the desk and found a pencil and a notepad.
"It's this Friday. It's at our parents' house upstate. Do you think that'll be a problem?"
"I honestly don't know. I'll ask," Staci said and jotted down the information.
"All right. Thank you."
"How is your sister?"
"She's better, but still not quite back to her old self. Even though she's been clean for more than a year, she still has some very bad nightmares. The doctors say it's because all the drugs she did changed something in the chemical balance in her brain."
"But, as I said, she's better now."
"Well, I hope she makes a full recovery," Staci said and touched Danielle's arm.
Danielle nodded solemnly. Out in the main room, Rosana went up on the catwalk to do her warmup. She activated the sound system and kept turning up the volume until the hidden speakers were ready to burst, effectively ending the conversation between Danielle and Staci.
Roberta gripped harder on the Charger's steering wheel. On paper, the operation was a simple one, but considering the quality of most of her associates, she was worried they were going to mess it up. She looked in the rear view mirror at the twenty-six year old Albert Jones who was forlornly huddled up in the corner of the back seat, sporting a shiner and a bruised face after learning first-hand that Roberta Cain didn't appreciate waiting for anybody - and that she liked to play rough on the basketball court.
She rolled her eyes and chose to look at Paco Alvarez instead. He was in the passenger seat, seemingly calm and disinterested, but Roberta knew that he was full of fire on the inside.
'He's the only one I can trust. The other two are worthless, but Paco is just as crazy as I am,'
'R.C., it's Garrett. There's a blue late-model Vette waiting at the red lights at Fourth and Jefferson. It's in the outer lane, so it's probably continuing South,'
a male voice said from the walkie-talkie taped onto the dashboard of the Charger.
"Good. Where are you?" Roberta said, pressing down a button on the transceiver.
'Just behind it.'
"Right. Call me once you reach Sixth."
"He's gonna fuck it up, that amateur," Paco said in his characteristic hoarse voice. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a Smith & Wesson .32 snubnosed revolver.
"Wouldn't put it past him," Roberta said with a snort.
They were parked in a very dark spot on Eighth Street, only a hundred yards back from Jefferson. Roberta knew from past experience that only a few people dared to walk down the dark streets in the middle of the night so they shouldn't be too troubled by witnesses, but to be on the safe side, she had rigged the headlights so they wouldn't turn on when she started the engine.
She checked her wristwatch - 3:15, AM.
'Sixth Street, R.C.'
"Right. When you're close to the intersection at Eighth, set the plan in motion," Roberta said into the walkie-talkie.
'All right. We're almost there. Get ready.'
"Oh, I'm ready. You ready?" Roberta said, looking at Paco - who responded by spinning the drum of his revolver and then slapping it into place.
Roberta grinned and turned the ignition key.
Teddy Garrett was right behind the blue Corvette, driving an old Dodge sedan. He gulped and moved around in the seat, anxious to get the whole deal over with.
When they were closing in on the intersection at Eighth Street, he pulled up along side the Corvette and waved his arm out of the window.
"Hey, dude! Dude! Slow down! Your right rear is flat!" he shouted, practically hanging out of the window in the driver's side door to get the other driver's attention. When the driver of the Corvette acknowledged the message by waving back at him, Teddy stepped on the brakes to allow the Corvette to get into the inside lane.
The man in the Corvette activated his turning signal and carefully moved towards the curb. Cars were parked all the way up to the intersection, so the driver of the Corvette did what Roberta had hoped he would - he turned right onto Eighth.
'He's all yours, R.C.'
Garrett said on the walkie-talkie, flashing his headlights several times.
Roberta stepped on the gas and the Charger lurched forward with a thunderous roar. She headed directly for the Vette, making the other driver stand on the brakes. Just when it looked like Roberta would hit the blue car, she yanked the steering wheel around, bringing the Charger to a stop right in front of the Corvette. Behind it, Teddy Garrett pulled up so close in the old Dodge sedan that the other driver didn't have an escape route.
... 1 second ... 2 seconds ... 3 ... 4 ...
In one second flat, Paco shot out of the Charger with his revolver drawn. He ran over to the Corvette and tried to open the door - it was locked. Undaunted, he reached into his pocket and found a pointy metal hammer.
... 5 ... 6 ... 7 ... 8 ... 9 ... 10 ... 11 ... 12 ...
He smashed the driver's side window with a tremendous blow, showering the driver with glass. Paco dropped the hammer and reached in to open the door from the inside. When the driver tried to struggle, Paco tugged violently at the man's arm, forcibly dragging him out of the vehicle.
... 13 ... 14 ... 15 ... 16 ... 17 ... 18 ... 19 ... 20 ...
As soon as the man was down on his knees, Paco brought the revolver up and viciously thumped the man over the head with the butt of the handle.
... 21 ... 22 ... 23 ... 24 ... 25 ...
In the Charger, Roberta kept a close eye on her wristwatch.
"Come on, come on, hustle!" she shouted, worried that it was taking longer than it should.
... 26 ... 27 ... 28 ...
Paco sent her an Evil Eye but quickly put on a pair of thick leather gloves. He dragged the unconscious man away from the street and unceremoniously dumped him on the sidewalk, out of sight of most of the windows looking down on them.
Paco ran back out on the street and waved at Teddy who immediately reversed away from the rear bumper of the Corvette, leaving the sportscar with a clear exit.
... 29 ... 30 ... 31 ... 32 ... 33 ... 34 ... 35 ... 36 ... 37 ... 38 ...
Paco reached into the Corvette to brush away the glass from the driver's seat and then picked up the hammer he had dropped earlier. He quickly jumped in, started the engine and reversed away from the Charger.
... 39 ... 40 ... 41 ... 42 ... 43 ... 44 ... 45 ...
Looking like he didn't have a care in the world, he put the Corvette in Drive and drove around the rear end of the Charger. He put his arm out of the window and cruised at thirty miles an hour down Eighth Street. Behind him, Teddy Garrett followed at a safe distance in the old Dodge sedan.
Roberta took a deep breath and reversed away from the curb. When she turned on the headlights, the cones of light lit up a small pile of glass on the ground from when Paco smashed the Corvette's window. She paused briefly, but soon shrugged and drove around the glass, headed for the intersection.
"That went well, huh? 45 seconds. Not bad for the first try. Hey, Jonesy, now you know what to do the next time," Roberta said to Al Jones, but his busted lips and his bruised ego prevented him from replying.
When the lights changed to green, Roberta stood on the gas, sending the Charger flying around the corner in a cloud of tiresmoke.
When Roberta didn't make a u-turn at Fourteenth Street like everyone else did but rather continued straight through the intersection, Al Jones finally mustered up enough courage to speak.
"Where are we going? Are we driving into Chica territory?" he croaked, careful not to damage his lips even further.
"For Christ's sake, R.C.... Drop me off right here! The Chicas are nuts, each and every one of them!"
"Oh, why don't you just crawl back up your momma's womb, ya gutless wimp!" Roberta growled and pressed down harder on the accelerator.
"You don't understand, they don't like strangers and they *hate* men...! They'll kill me on sight!"
"Nah, they won't... 'cos they can see from a mile away that you're not a man," Roberta said, turning on the radio so she wouldn't have to listen to Jonesy's whining.
Even though the Southside was only slightly more than a mile and a half south of Downtown, it felt like it was in another country altogether - the buildings changed appearance and everything became more run-down. On their way down Jefferson, Roberta and Al Jones went past several city blocks that were seemingly made up of more derelict buildings than healthy ones, and they even noticed the occasional ruin.
The Boulevard changed as well, narrowing in from three lanes to two. Most of the street lights had been vandalized, leaving everything in an eerie semi-darkness that very few regular, upstanding citizens dared to venture out in.
Gone too were the shiny sportscars and the custom specials, replaced by rustbuckets held together by tank tape and pieces of string, and here and there, stripped-down chassis had been left at the curb, standing on bricks or other forms of temporary jacks.
"I made a few connections with the Southside Chicas while I was inside. They're the people to deal with these days, Jonesy. A real hardcore crew, not a lumbering mass of decaying blubber like Fat Ass Freddie Donnelly," Roberta said, mostly for her own benefit but directed at Al.
Jonesy just shrugged, not knowing what to say.
Three blocks further on, Roberta pulled over to the curb and opened her cell phone.
"Paco, it's R.C. Where are you?"
'Just coming up to Seventeenth Street now. We'll be there in two minutes.'
"All right. Meet ya there," Roberta said and pulled away from the curb.
When they reached Seventeenth Street, she turned right and immediately spotted Paco's blue Corvette approaching from the other side. They met roughly in the middle of the street, parking in front of a cluster of low, white buildings that were protected by a tall mesh fence equipped with nasty looking barbed wire on top.
"And that's how to do it," Roberta said and took her phone again.
She dialed a number and held the phone to her ear. After a few seconds, someone answered it and Roberta said a few words.
Two people came out of one of the low buildings and ran over to a gate in the fence. After unlocking it, they pulled it aside so the cars could get in.
Paco started the Corvette and drove across the sidewalk to head into the lot, but when Teddy Garrett motioned to do the same in the Dodge, Roberta hit the button on the walkie-talkie.
"No, Teddy, you stay out here with Jonesy. Leave this to the adults," Roberta said with an evil grin.
For once, Al Jones wasn't slow in the uptake, so he bolted from the Charger and ran across the road to join Garrett in the old Dodge.
Roberta put the Charger in Drive and followed Paco's Corvette into the lot. As soon as the two cars were inside the fence, the gate was closed behind them.
One of the Chicas ran in front of the Corvette, leading Paco over to a low building at the far side of the lot. Pulling hard on a shiny metal chain, she raised a sliding gate and then waved at him to drive inside.
Roberta parked on the outside of the low building and got out of the Charger. The night was chilly, so she popped open the trunk and took out a black denim jacket. As she was putting it on, she could hear booted footsteps approaching from somewhere behind her and she quickly turned around so it wouldn't look like she was being disrespectful.
"Hey, R.C., you're lookin' great," a woman in her early forties said. She was wearing the traditional colors and uniform of the Southside Chicas - biker boots, blue jeans, a black t-shirt and a dark brown leather vest. A red bandanna partially controlled her long, ash-blonde hair and she was heavily tattooed on every exposed piece of skin, except her face.
"Izzy! Damn, it's good to see ya, girl," Roberta said and gave the other woman a fierce hug.
"Likewise, R.C. Man, it's been a while," Isabela Solidas said.
"Couple a' years, but who's countin'? Did ya kill anyone lately?"
"Nah, but I dragged some guy behind my hog... does that count? Anyway, how's my cousin behavin'? I hope he's useful to ya," Isabela said with a big grin.
"Oh, Paco's doing just fine," Roberta said and locked the Charger.
"Good. Let's go talk business in my office," Isabela said and put her arm around Roberta's shoulder.
"We got a late model Vette for ya, as requested. Paco had to bust the driver's side window, but that shouldn't be a problem."
The two women began walking towards another of the low buildings when Roberta suddenly spotted the insignia on the back of Isabela's vest. It was a heavily stylized picture of the skull of a wild boar set against a background of red and yellow flames. The skull sported five-inch long fangs and two flaming red rubies were used as the eyes of the beast.
"Fuck, yeah. It's great to see you wearin' your true colors, Isabela. Prison orange just sucks."
"Yeah, no shit."
When they reached the low building, Isabela walked up a short flight of stairs and put her hand on the doorknob.
"So... we agreed on four K for the Vette, right?" she said, opening the door.
"It was five, actually," Roberta said with a wide grin.
"Heh, heh... still as sharp as ever, R.C. Not many people have the balls to argue with a Chica. C'mon, I've got the moolah ready in here," Isabela said and stepped aside to let the other woman enter the office. When Roberta was next to her, Isabela chuckled and gave Roberta a playful shove on the back.
Ten minutes later, Roberta came back outside, holding a wad of dollar bills. She folded them up and put them into her inside pocket, acutely aware that she was being watched by a small group of Chicas who were leaning against one of the low buildings.
"Paco!" she said loudly, looking around for her associate.
"Right here, R.C.," Paco said, standing in the corner of the lot, talking to yet another of the Chicas.
"All right. Be right there," Paco said and turned back to the woman he was talking to. They whispered something to each other and when the woman grinned broadly, he leaned in to steal a kiss.
"So?" Paco said as he got into the Charger.
"Here's your cut. Two G. I'll take two and a half and the two numbnuts out in the Dodge can split the final five hundred," Roberta said and handed Paco twenty Benjamin Franklins.
"Sounds fair enough," Paco said and put the money into his jacket pocket.
"Were you trading spit with one of the Chicas?"
"Careful, you might wake up one morning with something missing," Roberta said with a chuckle.
She started the Charger and drove slowly around the lot. When she reached the gate, two Chicas opened it for her and she thanked them by waving out of the window.
Once out on the street, she keyed the mic on the walkie-talkie.
"Garrett, we're leaving. Stick with us until Fourteenth Street, and then you're on your own. See ya tonight at nine in the cellar. Nine sharp! You, too, Jonesy!"
'Will do, R.C.,'
Teddy Garrett said from the walkie-talkie.
"R.C., what do ya think Fast Freddie and Fever are gonna do?" Paco said.
"Fast Freddie can go fuck himself, but Fever... well, I hope Maeve will come after us."
"Then we can see who the ultimate badass really is. It's gonna be like one of those steel cage wrestlin' matches. She's tough, but I fight dirty. It's gonna be great," Roberta said and flashed Paco an evil grin.
Paco blinked a few times and then looked straight ahead, wondering just what the hell it was he had gotten himself into.
When Staci woke up a quarter past nine, AM, she turned her head and looked directly into Maeve's eyes. The Enforcer's Irish green orbs shone with such love and warmth that Staci almost forgot how to breathe. A feeling of happiness swept over her, and the only thing she wanted was to spend the entire day in bed with Maeve.
"Good morning, baby," Maeve whispered and leaned in to place a gentle kiss on Staci's cheek.
"'Morning," Staci replied with a yawn.
Maeve rolled over onto her side, wrapped her arm around Staci's waist and snuggled down next to the tall woman.
"I'm glad you called me last night, baby. This was fun and cozy," Maeve said and gave Staci a little squeeze.
"I'm glad you could make it. I had a bum night and I needed someone to hold."
"And you got it. Hey, I like your bed. It's almost as soft as the one in my loft," Maeve said with a snigger.
"I thought you were going to say you missed the mirrors in the ceiling."
"Nah. When we're together, I never have time to look in 'em," Maeve said and kissed Staci's cheek again.
Staci took a deep breath and debated with herself for a few moments whether to go ahead or not with what she had in mind - she decided to go for it.
"Where... um... what do you see happening in the long run?"
"With what, baby?"
"With us," Staci said quietly.
"Oh... are we having an 'us'-discussion?"
"Right. Well..." Maeve said and rolled over onto her back. She put her hands behind her head and started pondering the question.
Staci took the cue and rolled over onto her left side so she was still face to face with Maeve. She put her hand on Maeve's chest, feeling the powerful beat of the Enforcer's heart through her t-shirt.
"You know where I stand, baby. I see you moving in with me on a permanent basis," Maeve said.
"I've been a good girl. I haven't tasted any forbidden fruit... I haven't even been tempted. Hell, the only woman I've even *dreamt* of is you."
Maeve turned her head and tried to decipher the unreadable expression on Staci's face.
"That still isn't enough? Because, frankly, I don't know what more I can do," Maeve said and took Staci's hand in her own. When a few seconds passed without any sort of reply from Staci, Maeve swung her legs over the side of the bed and got up.
"I don't know why you asked, Staci. You knew what I was going to say. I'll go make some coffee," Maeve said, put on her bathrobe and left the bedroom.
Staci sighed deeply and rubbed her eyes. With another sigh, she got out of bed and went over to the windows to pull the curtains apart.
She looked down at First Street which appeared to be less busy than usual for some reason, and then at Maeve's black Mustang, parked next to her own dark blue Jetta.
Mentally kicking herself for ruining the serene moment, she reached for her bathrobe and went out into the living room.
Maeve was standing at the kitchen table, putting coffee beans and water into the percolator. Staci walked up behind her and rested her chin on the shorter woman's shoulder.
"I'm sorry for being such a dick to you," Staci whispered.
"Baby, you're a lot of things, but a dick ain't one of 'em," Maeve said and turned on the percolator. Once she had done that, she reached behind her to find Staci's hands. When she had, she brought them forward and wrapped them around her own waist to show that she wasn't upset.
"No, I'm a dick. You're right, I already knew what you were going to say. I shouldn't have asked," Staci said with a sigh.
Maeve turned around so she was face to face with Staci.
"Baby, why are you still so afraid of moving in with me...? Even after all this time? We would have one hell of a good time together, I'm sure of it. We could wake up together every morning," Maeve said, finishing off by getting up on tiptoes and placing a kiss on Staci's lips.
"Oh, it's... I... you know the old saying, Once Bitten Twice Shy. Well, as you very well know, I've been bitten twice."
"I know, baby, but like I told you in the bedroom, I've changed. I'm not that irresponsible kid anymore."
"You weren't exactly a kid when it happened, Maeve. It's only a handful of years ago."
"Yeah, but I've learned so much since then. All thanks to you. And it's not just the sex, either. Living together is so much more than just the bedsports, it's sharing the..."
"Oh, not just the sex? ...I'm going to write that down, Miss Energizer Bunny," Staci said and looked around for something to write on.
"Aw, Jeez, baby doll, you know what I mean."
"It's just that I'm too old to be disappointed again," Staci said quietly.
"I understand that. And baby... I promise that I'll do everything I can to make sure you won't be," Maeve said and squeezed Staci's sides through the bathrobe.
With a faint smile, Staci leaned down to claim Maeve's lips in a loving kiss.
"So... you want some toast? I see you've got plenty of both the PB and the J," Maeve said, giving Staci's waist another little squeeze.
"Well... why not?"
"Good. Go get dressed. I'll fix it for ya," Maeve said and reached for the cupboard above the sink.
"I'll think about it. I promise."
"No, silly... the other thing."
"That's all I can ask, baby," Maeve said and winked.
Half an hour later, Maeve exited the stairwell and went into the parking lot. Just as she was crossing the paved stones to get to her Mustang, her phone rang.
"Fever. Talk to me."
'Fever, it's Danny. I've got two news items for ya. One medium bad, one horribly bad.'
'We tried to call you earlier, but your phone was off.'
"I'm at Staci's place," Maeve said and unlocked the car door.
'Oh. OK. Roberta Cain has made her move. At three this morning, a man got his Vette carjacked at gunpoint down on Eighth Street. Witnesses saw a black Charger roar off.'
"Oh, fuck. I can't believe it... those wankers just couldn't wait!" Maeve said out loud.
"All right. I'll get in touch with R.C. Please tell me that was the horribly bad news item...?"
'It was. Earlier last night, Fast Freddie held a brief meeting with a man called Maxwell Grant. I'm sure you've heard of him.'
'Yep. Seems his daughter has traveled to the Big City without his permission, so he's askin' for our help to find her.'
"Boy, that's gonna take a miracle," Maeve said and whistled. Her sixth sense made her look up at Staci's apartment and she saw her partner standing in the bedroom window. The news about Roberta had put a serious dent in Maeve's mood, so she blew Staci a kiss to get some of it back. Staci returned the kiss and mouthed something that could only be 'I love you'.
Maeve's face cracked wide open in a beaming smile and she blew Staci another kiss before getting into the Mustang.
'Yeah, no shit. Fast Freddie told the politician just that, but he was pleadin' pretty badly, so your uncle promised him we'd look,'
Danny said, oblivious to the silent conversation going on between Maeve and Staci.
"All right. Gimme some info and I'll call around," Maeve said and started the Mustang. She put it into Reverse and drove out of the parking space.
'Her name is Shawna Grant. She's seventeen years old, 5'7" and fairly skinny. She's African-American with a complexion like melted caramel, and her hair is frilly and at shoulder-length. When Maxwell Grant last saw her, she was wearing a plain, white T-shirt, pale blue jeans, Nikes, and a red windbreaker from one of those fashion companies whose name doesn't make any sense.'
Maeve leaned her head back and laughed out loud. She drove off the parking lot and turned left onto First Street.
"Spell it out, I gotta hear that," she said and changed the phone from her left to her right hand.
'The windbreaker is apparently called 'Denise 222 by Queen Denise Fashion 4 The Nu Woman'... that's the actual title. Jeez. I mean, naming a jacket?'
"Welcome to the new world order, Danny-boy."
'They can have it. Anyway, this is going to be that famous needle in a haystack again, but perhaps we'll get lucky and find her.'
"Yeah," Maeve said thoughtfully, thinking that they might find the girl, but the real miracle would be if they found her unharmed.
'You got all that?'
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Talk to ya later, Danny," Maeve said and terminated the connection. Her thoughts soon returned to Roberta Cain and her good mood vanished like the morning dew.
Wearing an angry scowl, she moved her hand up to turn on the radio. The Mustang was filled with the sounds of an instrumental evergreen, but even that couldn't take Maeve's mind off what needed to be done with Roberta and Paco Alvarez.
A few minutes after leaving Staci's apartment, Maeve pulled into the Burger Palace lot at Ninth Street and parked in a spot where she could follow the traffic on Jefferson.
She unclipped the phone from her belt and flipped it open. She sighed deeply and then found Roberta's number in the registry.
"It's White Fever, R.C. Just what the fuck do you think you're doing?"
'Are we upset this morning, Maeve? Didn't you get any last night?'
"You won't even try to deny that you've done a job without having Fast Freddie's blessing?" Maeve hissed, not bothering to comment on Roberta's juvenile jab.
'What's the point?'
"Where are you? I need to tell you this to your face."
'Oh... well, in that case, how about meeting us at the Majestic in twenty minutes? Same room as yesterday.'
"I'll be there," Maeve growled, closing the phone before Roberta could make a comeback. She put the cell phone in the glove box and then leaned back in her seat.
Maeve rubbed her eyes, trying to find just a single logical explanation for why Roberta Cain had done the things she had. Not finding any, she shook her head and reached for the ignition key.
Unlike the day before, Maeve stopped in the no-parking zone directly in front of the Majestic. With the things she had learned in the twenty-four hours since Roberta's return, Maeve didn't put it past her former mentor to try to gun her down in the shadows of the parking lot.
"... and if not her, then that little weasel Paco," Maeve said out loud and took the Beretta out of the holster. She double-checked the clip and then slapped it back in the weapon.
She got out of the Mustang and looked up and down Jefferson wearing a fierce scowl. Several pedestrians gave her a wide berth, no doubt sensing trouble.
Maeve walked through the revolving door and looked around. When she spotted four working girls chatting in the couch arrangement, she made a beeline towards them.
"Hey," Maeve said once she had reached the women. She recognized three of them, but one was a stranger to her.
"Hey, Fever," the girls replied.
"I need one of you ladies to do me a favor. There's a C-note in it for ya," Maeve said and held up a $100 bill.
"Oooh, anything, baby," one of the girls, Jerri, said. She was wearing high heels, fishnet stockings, a cheap, red plastic dress with a zipper on the front and far too much makeup. She waved her hand and shot up from the couch, ready for action.
"I need you to call Fast Freddie immediately in case trouble breaks out here," Maeve said, deciding that Jerri would be suitable for the job at hand.
"Oh, is that all? How disappointing," Jerri said cheekily, but soon sobered up when she noticed the dark look on Maeve's face.
"I mean... OK, Fever."
"You think you can do that?"
"Sure. You can trust me. Jerri Layne always keeps her promises," Jerri said sincerely, putting her hand on her heart in an overly dramatic fashion.
Maeve grunted and spun around on her heel.
A few minutes later, Maeve arrived at the door to room 605. When she saw that the door was gaping an inch, she drew her Beretta and knocked twice on the doorjamb.
"R.C.?" Maeve said loudly.
"It's open, Fever," Roberta said from the other side of the door.
Maeve nudged the door open with the tip of her boot. Keeping her Beretta low, she cautiously stepped inside and looked around.
Roberta was sitting at the far wall of the room in one of the chairs she and Maeve had used the day before. She had her legs crossed at the knee and her left arm was casually draped over the backrest.
Her right hand held a Walther P99 and she cocked it with her thumb when Maeve approached her.
"That's far enough, Fever," Roberta said and raised the pistol.
Maeve stopped five paces from Roberta but didn't lower her own gun. She tried to listen for Paco Alvarez, but couldn't hear anything.
"Oh, if you're lookin' for Paco, I sent him down to the convenience store to get a sixpack o' Bud and some bubble gum," Roberta said casually.
"R.C., I don't think you understand what you've done."
"First of all, how about us puttin' the hardware away while we talk...? Huh?"
"Forget it," Maeve said and walked sideways so she wouldn't be directly in front of the door.
"Suit yourself," Roberta said and kept her Walther aimed high.
"Roberta... why? Why couldn't you wait just one, measly day? I told ya I'd ask Fast Freddie, and I did. But you couldn't wait and now you've fucked everything up for yourself. Don't you understand that?"
"Maeve, Maeve, Maeve... as idealistic as always. Tell me, do I look or sound like a woman who gives a flying fuck?"
Maeve gritted her teeth but kept quiet.
"Ya know, Maeve, I could tell you a few truths about your precious uncle, but I won't. It's much more fun if you find out for yourself."
"Stop talkin' trash, R.C., you don't know jack shit about Fast Freddie or anybody else. But hear this, if ya continue that carjacking crap, you're gonna end up ass-down in a plastic bag. And that's a promise," Maeve hissed.
"Oh, please. Who's gonna do that? You? Huh?"
"Even though you're not of Irish blood, I guess you'll still understand this ancient proverb from the old country - 'If you work with me, you're my friend. If you work against me, I'll fuckin' kill you, you fuckin' scumbag'."
The corner of Roberta's mouth twitched and she began raising her gun. After a few seconds, she lowered it slightly and took a deep breath.
"I think there's something *you* don't understand, Mizz Donnelly, and that is that I have one hell of a powerful crew behind me now. Mmmmm. That's right."
Maeve didn't know if Roberta was telling the truth or not, but the annoyingly smug look on Roberta's face gave Maeve enough pointers to believe at least some of it.
"This ain't nickel-and-dime shit anymore, Maeve, this is the real deal. With the real people. The Donnellys will soon be ancient history. You just don't know it yet... and with that, we're done," Roberta said and got up from the chair.
"We're not done, R.C. I'm telling you to stop your operation. You don't have Fast Freddie's blessing. If you continue despite knowing that, I guarantee that we *will* stop you," Maeve said and took a step back so she still had a good angle to shoot if it became necessary.
Roberta locked eyes with Maeve, and Maeve knew in her gut that her former mentor wasn't making any of this up - she was deadly serious.
"Well, I guess that's the way it's gotta be, then," Roberta said curtly and nodded at the door to the hallway.
Maeve walked backwards until she reached the door, and then she moved quickly down the hallway and down the staircase, anxious to relay the news to her uncle.
After calling the mansion, Maeve sighed deeply and closed her cell phone. Loud laughter from the couch arrangement reminded Maeve that she had promised Jerri Layne some money, so she clipped the phone onto her belt and walked over to the four prostitutes.
"Thanks for your help, Jerri, 'preciate it," Maeve said and dug into her shirt pocket to find a $100 bill.
"Ooooh, anytime, Fever. Big money for a little job... hey, what else is new," Jerri said with a wide grin. She took the bill, rolled it up and stuck it down her cleavage.
"That's what they always do in the movies," she said, making the other women chuckle.
"Have any of you ladies seen a young African-American girl around here in the last few days? Seventeen years old, inexperienced with life on the streets. Blue jeans, white T, red windbreaker?" Maeve said, holding up another C-note.
Jerri and the other three working girls looked at each other, but all of them shrugged and shook their heads.
"Is she a runaway?" Jerri said.
"Yeah. Her name is Shawna Grant. Anyway, you all have my number. If any of you see her, call me at once. I don't care what time it is or what you're doing when you see her, just call me," Maeve said and put away the second C-note.
"You betcha. Listen, Fever, I was... uhhh... wondering if you might be interes..." Jerri started to say, but she was cut off by the sound of an engine revving wildly behind them.
All five women went over to the large windows to look out on the street - a black Charger with a red stripe was double parked alongside Maeve's Mustang and the driver had the engine going at maximum revs.
Suddenly the driver released the brakes, sending the Charger thundering down Jefferson in a cloud of tiresmoke.
"R.C., you crazy sonovabitch," Maeve said, clenching and unclenching her fists. Needing to blow off some steam, she spun around on her heel and walked with determined steps towards the revolving door.
"Oh... well, talk to you later, Fever!" Jerri said, but Maeve was already long gone.
Maeve jumped into the Mustang and started the engine, intent on following Roberta's Charger. When she looked in the side mirror to see if the lane was clear, she noticed a piece of paper stuck under the left wiper.
She tried to reach it while she was sitting in the car, but her arm was too short. Letting out a string of colorful curses, she put the shifter back into Park and got out of the Mustang.
'Hey, Fever. Looking forward to our pissing contest. You probably need to put some air in your tire first, though. Love, Roberta. XXX'
Maeve took a step back and looked at the left front tire - the valve had been opened and most of the air had escaped.
With a look towards the heavens, Maeve threw her arms in the air and shook her head repeatedly. A vein started beating on the side of her neck and she needed several deep breaths just to calm down.
After regaining control of her temper, she folded up the note and put it in her back pocket. With a sigh, she went back into the car and pulled the small lever for the trunk so she could get to the tire-repair kit.
Twenty minutes later, Maeve drove up to the gas pumps at the service station on the Burger Palace lot. With a face that signaled 'stay away or else', she found a working air pump and replenished all four tires, just to be on the safe side.
After she had finished, she dialed Staci's number and leaned against the Mustang with a long, slow sigh.
"Baby, it's me. I want you, I need you, and I won't take no for an answer."
'Gawd, Maeve, you sound really upset... What's wrong?'
"I got snookered by R.C. Badly. Can I pick you up? Please?"
'Sure... to do what?'
"Cruise Jefferson all day long. Eat a burger an' have a Coke. Listen to some Rock'n'Roll. Hold hands and trade kisses. Anything," Maeve said in a tired voice.
'Oh, I can do that. Now, or a little later, or...?'
'All right. Well, I'm just vacuuming, anyway. I'm ready whenever you are.'
"Thank God. I'll be there in ten minutes."
'You got it. See ya then. Love ya,'
Staci said and blew Maeve a kiss.
"Love ya more, baby."
Maeve hung up and clipped the phone back on her belt. Just before she got back in the car, her eye caught a colorful advertisement hanging on the wall of the fast food restaurant. An idea formed in her mind and she walked over to the Palace to see if it could be brought to life.
Staci stared at the cell phone in her hand, wondering what on Earth had happened in the hour Maeve had been away.
'I know Maeve's ten minutes all too well... she's gonna be here in five,'
Staci thought and started rolling up the cord for the vacuum cleaner.
After putting it into the cupboard, she looked down at herself. She was wearing what she always wore when she cleaned - bathing slippers, faded Capris and an even more faded t-shirt.
"Hmmm..." she said and started rummaging through her closet. Even though Maeve had shrugged it off, Staci still felt bad about initiating the little argument they'd had, so she decided that she wanted to look her best for Maeve.
"Not that she wouldn't be satisfied if I came down in a potato sack," she said out loud, chuckling over Maeve's energetic enthusiasm.
"Aha," Staci said and pulled a dark red cotton shirt out of the closet. She nodded to herself and quickly whipped off the faded t-shirt.
As expected, Maeve arrived too early and Staci had only just finished tying her shoelaces when she heard the characteristic sound of the Mustang's twin exhausts - she had affectionately dubbed it the Noisy Beast - drive into the parking lot. She went into the bedroom and looked down.
She had to laugh out loud when she saw that Maeve had parked the Mustang at an oblique angle right in front of the main entrance, effectively blocking the entire parking lot.
She hurriedly grabbed a jacket, her wallet and her keys and then left her apartment.
Maeve almost forgot her frustrations when she saw what Staci was wearing as she came bounding out of the entrance - the tall woman wore a black fleece jacket over a very nice dark red cotton shirt... but the showstopper was a pair of form-fitting sand colored chinos that accentuated Staci's thighs and rear end to such a degree that Maeve was sure several States had banned them on health and safety grounds.
Maeve couldn't stop a wolfish grin from spreading out over her features and it only got broader when Staci sat down next to her. She had a very hard time tearing her eyes away from Staci's thighs and before she knew it, her fingers were running up and down the fabric of the chinos, just to get a feel for the treasure that lay inside.
"Hey, sailor. You need a friend?" Staci said and put her hand on top of Maeve's.
"Oh, baby, do I ever," Maeve said and leaned over to give Staci a thorough kiss.
"What the hell's happened? It's only been an hour!"
"Ugh, that's a long story. I'll tell ya when we get movin'. But first..."
Maeve reached into the glove compartment and took out a small box. She dusted it off and handed it to Staci.
"A gift for the Queen Of My Heart," Maeve said with a beaming smile.
Staci opened the small box and stared at what was inside - a ring made of pink plastic. It had a yellow plastic diamond on top, and it was encased in a paper ribbon, advertising a new animated movie called 'Princess Dreams'.
"Awww... thanks, baby," Staci said and slipped the ring onto her little finger.
"Ya like it?"
"I certainly do. It smells just like... just like... French fries?"
"Yeah, it's from a Happy Meal. I kinda figured it could be like an engagement ring. I know that none of us likes to wear jewelry, so..."
"Ohhhh. I'll cherish it for as long as I live," Staci said and ran her index finger down Maeve's cheek. When Maeve turned her head, Staci leaned over to give the Enforcer a kiss.
"Keep that up an' we'll never get out of the parking lot, baby," Maeve said in a husky voice, prompting a grin from Staci.
"Mmmm. Hey, did you eat all the fries yet?" Staci said and looked around.
"Actually, I didn't get any. I slipped the dude down at the Palace $20 just to get the box with the ring."
"Oh. Well, perhaps we can get some later."
"We sure can."
Remembering a few hairy moments that had occurred when she and Maeve were cruising the neon-lit mean streets of the Big City, Staci reached behind her, found the seat belt and clicked it into place between the seats.
"I'm ready to go cruising," she said, admiring her pink ring.
"That's the best news I've heard all day, baby. Let's do it," Maeve said and turned the steering wheel hard left so they could get free of the windbreak.
As soon as they hit Jefferson, Maeve turned on the radio, hoping that WERC would be playing one of her favorites.
'...stening to WERC on 91.2 FM, your number one rock'n'roll station. It's eleven thirty and here's the news headlines. Early this morning, a violent carjacking took place on Eighth Street, near Jefferson Boulevard. The victim, Mr. Jack Evans, was brought to the Community Hospital where he was treated for a head injury. The police has issued a statement saying...'
Maeve sighed and turned the volume way down.
"What's that all about? Is that why you're so upset?" Staci said and turned in her seat.
"Yeah. It was Roberta."
"Oh, Jeez... really?"
"Yeah. Her and her scumbag assistant. A slick weasel called Paco Alvarez," Maeve said and tapped her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel.
"Oh... I'm really sorry to hear that, Maeve. You spoke so highly of her earlier, and..."
"I know. I did think highly of her. I wasn't kidding when I called her my mentor. And now... crap," Maeve said and let her hand fall into her lap.
Maeve broke out into the center lane and gunned the engine, crossing the intersection at Fourth Street just before the traffic lights changed to red.
"I just don't get why she's done it... Jeez, baby, Roberta Cain practically taught me everything I know!"
"Maybe she was always like that, you just didn't notice back then?"
"Could be," Maeve said with a shrug.
"Did you have a crush on her?"
"Nah. She's always been charismatic, but, you know... I guess she's about twelve years or so older than I am. Today, that wouldn't really mean anything, but she wasn't was I was lookin' for when I was sixteen."
"Baby, I'm sorry. This is supposed to be fun. You won't hear me talking about her again," Maeve said and patted Staci's thigh.
"It's all right. I brought up the topic," Staci said and tickled the back of Maeve's hand.
"Let's get back to the real world. There's something else going on as well and you can definitely help me with that."
"Well, there's this young African-American girl who's been missing since a few days. Her father came to uncle Freddie for help. He thinks she's come here."
"Oh... I can remember when I was seventeen, I didn't want anything at all to do with Downtown. I was actually pretty scared of it back then," Staci said thoughtfully.
"Well, the dazzle of the neon lights has always lured in young, impressionable kids. I wouldn't be at all surprised if she thought it was going to be some kind of glitzy adventure. I just hope we'll find her before she gets in too deep."
The news broadcast ended and WERC started playing their familiar jingle. When Maeve heard, she turned the volume up a little higher.
'...was brought to you by the StaySafe Insurance Company. When you're with StaySafe, you know you're in good hands. All right, you're listening to WERC on 91.2 FM, your number one rock'n'roll station. Let's return to the instrumental classics. My name is Susan Blaine and here's The Jetstreams.'
"Awright, Bongo Rock," Maeve said and turned up the volume even more.
When the tune started, Maeve hummed along and started nodding her head to the beat. Staci didn't know the strange song at all, so she just looked with great amusement at the comical antics of the otherwise hard-as-nails Enforcer.
As usual, Maeve expertly maneuvered between the traffic, and they had soon completed the first tour of Jefferson. When Maeve prepared to do the u-turn at Fourteenth Street, Staci turned around in her seat and cleared her throat.
"The young girl who's missing... what's her name?" Staci said.
"We talked about the dazzling neon lights before, but it's not really the lights that can hurt a young girl... it's what's going on in the shadows between the lights," Staci said quietly, toying with her plastic ring.
Maeve turned her head towards Staci and then nodded solemnly.
"What do you think our chances are of finding her before... you know...?" Staci said, still concentrating on the ring.
Maeve opened her mouth to speak, but found that the only answer she had was a negative one, so she settled for shrugging.
"Last week, a girl in her early twenties came to the club asking for a job. The only thing I had to offer her was a position in the kitchen staff in the restaurant... as a dishwasher. She was so far gone into some kind of addiction that I almost couldn't look at her. It made me really ashamed to react that way, but she was just so..." Staci said with a sigh.
"You don't have to justify your reactions to me, baby," Maeve said and put her hand on Staci's knee.
The traffic lights at the intersection at Twelfth Street turned red and Maeve slowed the Mustang to a halt. In the outside lane, a dark blue Corvette Convertible glided up next to the Mustang and Maeve's thoughts immediately turned to the carjacking Roberta Cain and her gang had carried out the same morning.
"God, I really hope we can find this Shawna before something bad happens to her," Staci said and rubbed her face.
"I do, too, baby. But we need to be realistic. The Big City is a real killer, and as you know, there's a million things that can happen to a young girl who's out there on her own."
"... And they're nearly all bad," Staci said and sighed again. She closed her eyes and appeared to be concentrating very hard, almost like she was trying to establish a telepathic contact with the young girl they were looking for.
"Errr... what are you doing, baby?" Maeve said, furrowing her brow. The lights turned green and they continued North on Jefferson.
"Nothing... I was just... never mind."
"You've been watching too much late night teevee," Maeve said with a chuckle.
"Haw, haw, haw..." Staci said and slapped Maeve's thigh.
Roberta Cain turned off Franklin Boulevard and onto Nineteenth Street, scouting for the best location to hold the contest against Maeve and her Mustang. Rolling down the tinted window to see better, she quickly decided that she had found the perfect place for it.
Not only was the section of Nineteenth Street between Franklin and Jefferson straight as an arrow, long-abandoned factories lined both sides of the street, meaning that the place would be completely deserted after dark.
Roberta rolled the window back up and then checked her watch - a quarter past eight, PM. She grunted and made a u-turn that took her back towards Franklin.
A few minutes later, she arrived at Twenty-First Street and pulled up to a heavily fortified gate. She brought the black Dodge Charger SRT-8 to a stop and flashed the headlights four times like she had been told to.
Through the fence, Roberta could see that the headquarters of the Chicas was an old hotel that had been converted into something resembling a fortress. It was five storeys tall and nearly all the windows were covered by hoarding. Here and there, automatic rifles or submachineguns stuck out of the windows, giving the building the appearance of a porcupine.
On the sidewalk in front of the building, a large group of Chicas were talking amongst themselves next to a long line of Harley-Davidsons of all types. When the bikers spotted the flashing headlights, two Chicas, both carrying shotguns, ran over to the Charger.
One of them turned on a flashlight and shone it into the Charger, forcing Roberta to shield her eyes.
"I'm Roberta Cain. I'm here to see Izzy Solidas and your President."
"All right," the first Chica said and went over to the gate. The second Chica opened the Charger's passenger side door and got in.
"Hey, what the fuck...?" Roberta said.
"Jeez. Like fuckin' Fort Knox."
After parking, Roberta was ushered through an entrance that was protected by two piles of sandbags that almost reached the top of the doors. She didn't have time to give them much thought because she was given a sudden, unfriendly push in the back by her trusty Chica companion, still holding the shotgun.
"Watch it, tough gal," Roberta said. They went through a hall-like room and then turned sharp left to walk down a long, wide hallway that had numerous doors on either side. Her Chica guard didn't utter a word the entire way until they arrived at a pair of metal-reinforced doors without handles at the end of the hallway.
"Move," the Chica said and pushed Roberta aside so she could knock on the door.
"Enter!" someone said. The Chica used the butt of the shotgun to push on the center of the door, revealing a large room with a dais at the far end and row after row of benches in front of it.
Once the doors were fully opened, the Chica guard pushed Roberta inside, and then turned around and left.
"Evenin', R.C.," Isabela said, wiping off her hands on a rag.
"Hey, Izzy. Goddamn, that woman was itchin' for a beatin'," Roberta growled, looking at the guard. She and the guard exchanged scowls for a few seconds, and then the doors were closed.
"She just wants to look good to the seniors. Anyway, my President was very impressed by your little job with the Vette this morning. That's why she wants to speak with you," Isabela said and put her arm around Roberta's shoulder.
"Well, I'm glad. Does it mean she has another job for us?"
"It might. Now, when you speak to her, remember to address her Madam President. Some dickheads call her Mr. President, and it pisses her off no end. You dig?"
"All right. C'mon, it's this way," Isabela said and led Roberta through the large room.
It didn't take long before they were standing in front of a metal door that was equipped with a gunslit. When Isabela knocked on the door, the gunslit was pulled aside and both women were studied carefully. After a few moments, the door opened and Izzy led Roberta inside.
Roberta had expected an opulently decorated room, but what she found was a utilitarian, even spartan, office. It was 25x25 feet or so, and three of the four walls were lined with filing cabinets. The fourth wall was mostly bare, save for a large, old black and white photograph of a Latino woman and a teenage girl.
A relatively small wooden desk and a high-backed light brown swivel chair were placed in front of the fourth wall. The swivel chair was turned away from the room, but it was obvious that somebody was sitting in it.
Isabela cleared her throat, prompting the person in the chair to spin around.
The President of the Southside Chicas was a Latino woman in her late fifties, with dark brown eyes and salt-and-pepper hair tied into a ponytail. Her face and figure were mature, but the fire in her eyes proved that she was still very much on top of her game. She was wearing the customary black t-shirt and brown leather vest, but unlike most of her comrades, the President wasn't heavily tattooed.
"Good evening, Miss Cain. I'm Alejandra Trujillo," the woman said, still sitting in the chair.
"Good evening, Madam President."
Alejandra got up from the swivel chair and held out her hand, and while Roberta shook it, she noticed that the President's grip was quite strong.
"You did an excellent job with the Vette. Very efficient. I like that," Alejandra said and walked around Roberta, almost like she was assessing her worth.
"Are you ready for another job right away?"
Despite not caring much for the warning Maeve had issued in the Majestic earlier in the day, the Enforcer's words briefly flashed through Roberta's mind - but she soon shrugged them off.
"We're ready, Madam President," she said.
"Good. We need a luxury sedan. Lexus, Merc, Bee Em, Audi, Caddy, doesn't matter. The color is irrelevant, we'll just repaint it if we don't like it. There's eight G in it for you."
"All right. We can do that. You want a limo or just a regular sedan?"
"Just a sedan... for now. Izzy, you're right, Miss Cain is clever," Alejandra said with a dry laugh.
Isabela nodded and crossed her arms over her chest.
"You're to deliver the car to the chop shop on Seventeenth Street, some time before..." Alejandra checked her wristwatch. "One AM. That way we can have it done by dawn. Get all that?"
"Yes, Madam President. We'll be there."
"I won't hold you up. Go get 'em, Miss Cain," Alejandra said, sat down in her light brown swivel chair and crossed her legs.
Izzy put her arm on Roberta's shoulder, signaling the end of the audience.
On the entire trip back to Eighth Street, Roberta's thoughts circled around one particular luxury sedan, a silver metallic Cadillac. The owner was a business man who had seriously screwed her over, and who had in fact been the direct cause of her stretch in jail - Arthur MacCready, the CEO of the StaySafe Insurance Company.
Just thinking about MacCready made Roberta bare her teeth in an angry sneer, and she put her foot hard down on the accelerator, pretending that the gas pedal was his neck.
When Roberta locked herself into the cellar room on Eighth Street, it was already twenty past nine. She hung her denim jacket on a metal hook that acted as a hallstand, and then went into the living area of the cellar.
Teddy Garrett, Al Jones and Paco Alvarez were playing some form of Poker, and judging by the pile of money in front of Paco, he was winning. The table they were playing at was a mess, littered with empty beer cans, filled ashtrays and even a porn magazine opened on the Babe Of The Month. Garrett and Jonesy occupied the couch and Paco sat on a flimsy chair that didn't seem to be able to sustain his weight, but somehow did.
"Hey, Paco. All cool?" Roberta said and went over to the fridge to get a beer.
"I have a sweet deal for us," Roberta said and cracked open the can.
"I thought you said nine sharp, R.C.," Al Jones slurred, clearly drunk. At once, the room fell silent. Teddy Garrett moved away from Jonesy so he wouldn't get caught up in the inevitable fallout.
"Mmmm?" Roberta said in a surprisingly calm voice. She took a long swig from the can and started moving closer to Jonesy. When she reached the table, she put down the can and cracked her knuckles.
"Y-yeah... we were here at n-nine, b-but you weren't," Jonesy said. It was clear his courage was deserting him, but he suddenly knew that he was in too deep to withdraw.
With the speed of a striking rattlesnake, Roberta reached down and grabbed hold of the lapels of Jonesy's jacket. She pulled him upright and then smashed an elbow into his face with shocking force.
His nose broke with a loud crunch, and as his head flew back, a cascade of blood spurted out of the mangled orifice. He landed on the couch with a thump and soon started whimpering, holding his nose.
"You broke my fuckin' nose, you crazy bitch!" he slurred. He tried to get up, but Roberta put her boot across his chest and applied so much pressure he couldn't move a finger.
"Paco, it's time to throw this piece of trash in the dumpster," she said calmly.
"I agree," Paco said hoarsely and got up from the flimsy chair. Behind him, Teddy Garrett scooped up all Jonesy's money and put them into his own pile.
"Jonesy, I'll be watchin' you. If you as much as think about telling Fever what you've heard here, I'm gonna find you, I'm gonna cut off your balls and then I'm gonna make you swallow 'em. Got me?" Roberta said, still pressing her boot down on Jonesy's chest.
Al Jones nodded, not really in a position to do anything else.
"Good. Paco, he's all yours," Roberta said and stepped aside. She picked up her beer can and drained it in a single gulp.
A few minutes later, Paco came back and washed his hands clear of Jonesy's blood.
"I think he got the message," he said, drying his hands on one of the curtains.
"Excellent. Now, here's what we've got. We've been asked to find a luxury sedan, brand and color less important, and deliver it to the same place as last night... and it has to be done before one, AM. That's in three and a half hours, boys."
"How the hell are we gonna do that, R.C.?" Paco said and sat down on the flimsy chair.
"I've already found us a Caddy," Roberta said with a sneaky smile.
"Figures. Go on."
"It's uptown, parked in a driveway without a gate. I've checked it out already and the owner is an older couple, so they probably won't try any heroics. The real challenge is to get it silently. Garrett, do you think you can hotwire a Caddy?"
"Jeez, I don't know, R.C. Modern cars have all kinds of electronic anti-theft gizmos. I don't think we can count on hotwiring it," Garrett said, worried that he'd get the same treatment Jonesy did if he sounded too negative.
"Easy. We just force our way in and take the keys," he said calmly.
"Just like that?"
"Just like that. Three of us, three guns, two of them, no guns... or maybe a BB gun, who knows. In any case, it shouldn't be a problem," he said and took his snubnosed .32 out of the holster. He opened the drum and spun it a few times.
"All right. Deal. But if there's to be any shootin', I'll be pullin' the trigger," Roberta said and leaned back in the couch.
"Be my guest," Paco said and put the revolver back in the holster.
Teddy Garrett's face showed a great deal of apprehension and his eyes darted from R.C. to Paco and back again.
"Um, before we start shooting anybody, perhaps we could try the tire trick again," he croaked.
"Won't work, Teddy. This particular suit never drives Downtown. When he leaves for work, he goes straight over to the financial district in Midtown West," Roberta said and took a new beer.
"What the hell... who is this guy? Why do you know so much about him?" Paco said.
"I'll tell you later."
"R.C., how about doing it the other way 'round, then?" Teddy Garrett said, leaning forward on the couch.
"You said it's just parked in a driveway, right?"
"I'll put on a skimask or something and sneak up to it and do... something. Whatever. Then you can call the dude and say that you're just passing by and that there's some junkie sneaking around the Caddy. Anyone will go check on his wheels. One hundred percent guaranteed, R.C."
"Hmmm. Not bad, Garrett. Not bad at all. Then he'll come out, and bam, we've got him. Maybe he'll even bring the keys."
"That's what I'm thinking," Garrett said, flashing a beaming smile.
"All right, saddle up. We'll try it. If it doesn't work, we can always kill 'em both," Roberta said and emptied the can.
Maeve had just left Rose Dougal's bar on Madison Boulevard when her phone rang, and she had to juggle the door, the phone and the $1400 she had just collected.
"It's Fever," she said when she finally had a hand free to unclip it from her belt.
'Miss Donnelly, it's Wynne Masters from the mansion. Something's happened and your uncle wants you here on the double.'
"I'll be there," Maeve said, wondering about the strange noises in the background.
"What the hell's going on out there, Wynne?"
'It's Mr. Donnelly. He's quite... uhhh... upset over... uhhh... something.'
Maeve strained her hearing and could pick out a few colorful Irish curse words.
"I'll say. It's been a while since he's used those words," Maeve said and got into the Mustang.
"Tell him I'm on my way," Maeve said and closed the phone.
A few minutes later, she drove up the curved driveway and parked in front of the mansion. She was met in the door by Danny who had a sheepish look on his face.
"What's up with you, big guy?" Maeve said and slapped Danny across the gut. She took off her leather jacket and hung it on the hallstand.
"Your uncle is spit-flyin' mad right now, Maeve. You might wanna secure your flakjacket before you go in there," Danny said and closed the door behind them.
"Oh, goodie," Maeve said, took a deep breath and then went into the den.
Fast Freddie was sitting in his armchair, holding a handkerchief to his forehead. His face was very red and the top button of his shirt had been torn off.
"Good evening, uncle Freddie," Maeve said meekly as she sat down in one of the chairs.
Fast Freddie turned around and looked at his niece. He sighed and wiped his forehead.
"Roberta Cain has really gone and done it this time, Maeve. Not half an hour ago, she shot and killed a man just two streets over."
"What?!" Maeve said, grabbing hold of the armrests.
"The CEO of StaySafe Insurance, Arthur MacCready. I've gone through some of our files... apparently, he was one of the people she dealt with in the insurance scam that eventually sent her behind bars. The company kept him on the board of directors for whatever reason, and last year, he was made the CEO. In the trial, he was a witness for the prosecution. He made a deal with the shysters and took the stand against her."
"Oh... shades of what Roberta did herself later on."
"Exactly. Anyway, the widow has told the police that her husband got a phone call informing him that someone was trying to steal their Caddy. He went out to check... and then they shot him in the heart at point blank range."
"Yeah. The widow was too frightened to do anything but call the police, but she did get a look at the shooter... the easily identifiable Roberta Cain, holding a smoking pistol, grinnin' like a fuckin' maniac."
"That crazy-ass motherfucker..."
"That's what I said... although I used stronger words. Anyway, after shooting MacCready, they took his Caddy and left," Freddie said and wiped his forehead again.
"How do we know all this so soon?"
"Detective Duffy called me. They're as worried as we are, Maeve."
"Uh... how so?"
"Carjacking is a federal offense. The thing with the Vette yesterday flew under the radar, but a homicide in cold blood... especially when it's one of the bigwigs... leads to big, bold headlines. Catch my drift?"
"Yeah... Sean Duffy and the boys in blue don't want the G-men snoopin' around any more than we do," Maeve said and pinched the bridge of her nose.
"No shit. We both got too much to hide. Well, that's where we stand right now. Maeve, please get Danny in here."
Maeve immediately got up and went over to the double doors. A few moments later, she returned with Danny in tow. Maeve motioned to sit down again, but Fast Freddie waved his hand, making both his top Enforcers stand at attention.
"Danny, Maeve... your orders are to find Roberta Cain, Paco Alvarez and whoever they're riding with and make sure they won't do anything like this ever again. I don't care how you do it, I don't care where it's done... just do it," Freddie Donnelly said.
"Yes, Sir. I think this is what Roberta wanted all along. A battle between her and me," Maeve said in a steely voice.
"Could be. Well, now she's got it," Freddie said and poured himself a healthy drink.
Maeve nodded and took a deep breath. As she let the air out slowly, she thought about what would happen when she and Roberta would square off - it certainly wouldn't be pretty.
"What the hell are you still here for? Get out there and find them," Freddie said angrily, wiping his forehead yet another time.
Danny and Maeve briefly looked at each other and then left the den in a hurry.
"Danny, Roberta is mine," Maeve said as she put on her leather jacket.
"Won't hear no complainin' from me. I'll get Paco Alvarez and the rest of the motley crew."
"OK. My best guess is that they'll go into hiding for a few days, but R.C. is so unpredictable that she might be planning a new job already. Goddamn! I shoulda put a bullet in her noggin when I had the chance," Maeve said and slammed one fist into the palm of the other.
"Where should we start? Patrick Daly?"
"Hmmm... it's worth a shot. Don't think Roberta would go there, though. Not the bars, either. That's not really her style. Besides, she's not exactly a mouse, so I doubt she'd want to spend too much time around other people..." Maeve said and suddenly fell silent.
"What's on ya mind, Maeve?"
"I was just thinking that she needs to hide her Charger, too. No way in hell she's gonna get rid of it so soon. Anyway, try to give Jaroslav down at the Majestic a good squeeze an' see what comes out. I've met R.C. there twice. Maybe he knows something."
"Right. I'll go there at once."
"R.C. must have a base somewhere around here, but we'll never find it unless we know exactly where to look. Oh, I feel so fuckin' useless! It's just like the Goddamn Clover gang all over again..."
"Well, we killed 'em all that time."
"Maeve, what if R.C. brings in the Chicas?" Danny said and opened the front door.
"Jeez, Danny, one disaster at a time, please. You're giving me heartburn," Maeve said and put her hand on her stomach.
"Man, I feel like I'm stuck in some endless fuckin' loop!" Maeve said as she stomped through the open door.
"I know exactly what you mean..."
'It's midnight and I'm sure you know what that means 'cos after all, you're listening to WERC on 91.2 FM, your number one rock'n'roll station. Nat Thompson is comin' up in a few minutes, but first, here it is - the original, the immortal, the foot-tappin' classic. This is Ricky Dean signing off with Bill Haley and His Comets... Rock Around The Clock, baby!'
the DJ said and cued the classic song.
For once, Maeve didn't feel like Rocking Around The Clock at all, so she turned the volume down slightly and pulled over to the curb halfway between Second and Third Street. She sighed and leaned back in the Mustang's soft seat.
She felt lost and confused, and even worse, betrayed. She remembered back to some of the fun times she had shared with Roberta Cain and once again wondered what on Earth had happened to the woman Maeve had considered her mentor... and friend.
She shuffled around in the seat and dug her fingers into her back pocket. She pulled out the note Roberta had put under the wiper the day before and read it again...
'Hey, Fever. Looking forward to our pissing contest. You probably need to put some air in your tire first, though. Love, Roberta. XXX'
Looking for any kind of clues, Maeve flipped the note to look at the back, but quickly ascertained that there wasn't anything unusual about it at all. In fact, it was written with a perfectly regular blue ball point pen on a perfectly regular piece of paper. Maeve crumpled it into a small ball and threw it into the unused ashtray, grunting in frustration.
Needing to get the case and Roberta off her mind for a few minutes, Maeve decided on the spot that she would make a pass around the Fairy Godfather to check for creep trouble. Without hesitation, she went back out on Jefferson and continued onwards to Third Street.
Ten minutes later, Maeve was cruising down Franklin when a woman suddenly ran out onto the Boulevard, frantically waving her arms. At once, Maeve stood on the brake pedal and pulled into the slow lane, ready to see what was going on.
The woman came up to the Mustang acting like she was desperately short of breath. Maeve rolled down the window and immediately recognized the woman - it was Queen Anne, the elected spokesperson for the homeless people living in Cardboard City on a vacant lot on Sixth Street.
'Queen' Anne Beauchamp's face was red from the exertion, and the yellow-tinted street lights gave her complexion a sickly hue. She put her hands on the windowsill and bent down, trying to catch her breath.
She wore fingerless gloves and she was dressed in a heavy, green parka coat, woolen Navy pants from the Army/Navy surplus store and basketball boots. Her short hair was covered by a blue beret, but she soon took it off to use it as a fan.
"Easy does it, Queen Anne. What's wrong?"
"I... was about to... call for help... but then I... heard your car and... I... I need your help, Fever. Some... peckerwood has attacked one... one of my friends," Anne said, panting hard.
Maeve groaned inwardly and rubbed her face. Making a quick decision, she leaned over to open the passenger side door.
"Jump in. Show me what's going on."
"Thanks a bunch, Fever. It's over on Sixth, close to Adams."
"Hang on," Maeve said and put the Mustang into Drive. She stepped on the gas and the car lurched forward with a loud roar, headed for Sixth Street.
It didn't take long for Maeve and Queen Anne to arrive at the scene of the crime, and as soon as the Mustang had come to a halt, Anne bounded from the car and ran over to the place where she had left her friend.
Before the real estate mogul who owned the lot had filed for Chapter 11, an apartment complex was supposed to have been built there, but after his financial collapse, it had never been completed. It had only taken the homeless a few days to move in, and the entire lot had turned into one big camp, soon to be dubbed Cardboard City.
"He's right there," Anne said and pointed at a man curled up inside a shelter on the outer rim of the camp, just off the sidewalk. Maeve briefly wondered why none of the other homeless were helping him, but she put those thoughts away as she kneeled down next to the man.
He was in his late twenties, with long, greasy hair and an unkempt beard. His clothes were torn and he was looking quite frail. Maeve noticed that the only protection he had against the November cold was a worn sweater.
"Hey, buddy, what's happened?" Maeve said and touched the man's shoulder - he groaned and tried to turn away from her.
"His name is Jeremy. He's new here. Only arrived the other day," Anne said.
"Is that why the others won't help him?"
"Yes. But I've met him around before. He's always been kind to me. We're friends," Anne said, wringing her hands.
"Jeremy, what happened? Are you hurt bad?" Maeve said.
Jeremy shook his head slowly and tried to sit up. Reaching in, Maeve grabbed him under his arm and she easily pulled him upright.
"It was a couple of frat boys. They just roughed me up," he said in a croaky voice.
"No they didn't, they banged you up pretty good!" Anne said, but Jeremy just shook his head vehemently.
"Anything broken?" Maeve said.
"No! And I don't want no help! Leave me alone!" he said and pulled free of Maeve's grip. Without support to keep him steady, he wasn't able to stay erect and he fell backwards into the shelter. With a groan, he wrapped his arms around his chest and closed his eyes, intent on shutting out the world.
"Jeremy! Don't be a fool. Let Fever take you to the Volunteer's Clinic. You need to be checked!" Anne said, but Jeremy's only reply was an angry grunt.
Maeve got up and dusted off her hands. Anne's shoulders slumped and she let out a long, slow sigh.
"He doesn't like strangers," she said quietly, looking at the man in the shelter. She turned away from Jeremy and started walking back towards Maeve's Mustang.
"I understand. He called them a couple of frat boys... have you seen anyone suspicious here lately?"
"There are so many people here, Fever, I... I just don't know," Anne said with a despondent shrug.
"Where's your shelter?"
"In the center of the camp. But I'll stay with Jeremy tonight. He needs all the help he can get. He just won't admit it."
"Yeah, I know the type well. Anne, if anything happens, and I do mean anything at all, try to get in touch with me. Here's my number," Maeve said and handed Queen Anne a small business card.
"Right. I'm in a good standing with the owner of that convenience store," Anne said and pointed at a small store on the opposite side of Sixth. "... he'll let me use his payphone if I need it," she continued.
"Good. I'm sorry I couldn't help your friend," Maeve said and put her hand on Anne's shoulder.
"Yeah... he's so pigheaded. Maybe I can talk him into going to the Clinic come dawn. Depends on how much he's hurtin'."
"All right. See ya later, Queen Anne. I'll be lookin' for the troublemakers," Maeve said and got into the Mustang. When she drove off, she gave Anne a quick wave out of the window.
Two hundred yards down Sixth Street, Maeve slapped her forehead when she realized that she had forgotten to ask Queen Anne if she had seen Shawna Grant.
"D'oh! Man, man, man, I'm gettin' old! Man! I'm gonna need a little notepad around my neck pretty soon just to remember the things I need to do. Jeez!" she said loudly and slapped her forehead again.
Maeve pulled over and tried to look in the rear view mirror, but she couldn't see Queen Anne anywhere. She rolled her eyes and found her cell phone instead.
"Doyle, this is Fever."
"I need your help with something..."
'Oh, but I'm... I'm sorta busy right now...'
"Oh yeah? Keep playin' that record and your Christmas Bonus will be a one way ticket to Death Valley, chum."
'Oh... but... but...'
"But what, Doyle?" Maeve said and chuckled over Doyle's predictable response.
'But, Fever, I'm with my girlfriend... you know...'
"You're with your girlfriend? Which one of 'em? And more importantly, does your wife know?"
"I'm sure I have her number somewhere..."
'Fever! You wouldn't!'
"Hell, yeah, I would. Will ya stop blabbering! I need you down on Sixth Street at Cardboard City, ASAP. Someone's been using the homeless as punching bags."
'Oh... I'm... all right. When do you need me there?'
"Like I said, ASAP. That means as soon as possible, Doyle."
'I'll be there in ten minutes. I need to get dressed first.'
"Preferably!" Maeve said and laughed out loud.
Twelve minutes later, Doyle parked behind Maeve's Mustang and got out of the char coal gray Lincoln. On his way to the sportscar, he repeatedly tried to straighten his shirt, wondering what the hell was wrong with the buttons.
"Doyle?" Maeve said, leaning against the door.
"You've buttoned your shirt crooked, man."
"And you have a hickey on your throat. Fiery girlfriend?"
"Oh, man, you have no idea... well, maybe you have," Doyle said with a cheeky grin.
"Wouldn't let you go, huh?"
"She hung on me like one of those little fish who suck onto the sharks."
"O... K. Ahem. I didn't really need to know that," Maeve said and squirmed.
"Well, anyway, like I told you over the phone, someone's attacked one of the homeless people here. We can't have that. I want you to stay here for a few hours to see if the perps return. If they do, deal with them."
"Yep. Who we lookin' for?"
"A couple of frat boys. Unknown age, unknown looks, unknown wheels."
"So, basically, you want me to intimidate everyone who looks like a frat boy to see who soils their pants?" Doyle said, standing up straight.
Like several others of Fast Freddie Donnelly's foot soldiers, Doyle Brennan was a former wrestler. He wasn't as tall as Danny Watts, nor as heavy, but he was beefy, broadshouldered and definitely able to inflict a lot of damage with his 6'2" frame if he needed to.
"That's more or less it, yeah. Oh, one more thing. When you see Queen Anne, please ask her if she's seen Shawna Grant... you know, the politician's daughter."
"Will do, Fever."
"All right. It's... twenty to one, AM. I'll be back at three or so to check if you've fallen asleep," Maeve said and opened the car door.
"Betcha $10 that I won't," Doyle said and put out his hand, palm up.
"Deal, buddy," Maeve said and slapped her hand down on Doyle's much larger paw.
Roberta Cain threw herself onto the couch, put her feet up on the coffee table and started searching for the remote for the ancient CRT tv set that was sitting in the corner of the cellar's living room.
When she finally found it, she turned on the tv and leaned back on the couch. The News At Twelve on Channel 7 had already started, showing live pictures from a press conference. Roberta turned up the volume and put the remote down on the table.
The camera zoomed in on a very grave looking Sean Duffy who was standing in the middle of a temporary dais, surrounded by men who all wore similar, grave expressions. The wrinkles on his face seemed to be deeper than usual and he had dark circles under his eyes.
"Hey, Paco, throw me a beer, will ya," Roberta said - and deftly caught a can of Bud flying through the air.
"Thanks," she said and cracked it open.
Paco came over to sit on the flimsy chair and took a long swig from his own beer. On the TV, Sean Duffy cleared his throat and moved up to a microphone.
'... First we'll tell you what we've got and then we'll take your questions. All right? Let's begin. Earlier this morning, Arthur MacCready, the CEO of the StaySafe Insurance Company, was brutally shot down and killed at his house on Larke's Road.
The assailant fired two shots at Mr. MacCready at point blank range and both were or would have been fatal. After killing Mr. MacCready, the assailants drove away in the victim's Cadillac and another car.
A witness was able to describe that car, it's an older model Dodge sedan, it's blue and it has a large amount of rust around the left rear wheel arch...'
"Good thing we dumped that piece of crap Dodge," Paco said casually.
"Wow, the wife musta been watchin'. Knew I shoulda gone inside and popped her in the skull," she said and took a swig.
'... there's an APB on the vehicle, but so far it hasn't turned up. According to the witness, the shooter is a woman, late forties or early fifties, with a haggard appearance...'
"Haggard appearance!? Get the fuck outta here! I look better than you ever will, dickbreath," Roberta said and flipped the middle finger at the TV.
'... At the time of the shooting, she was wearing a black denim jacket and black jeans. If you have any informa...'
Roberta reached for the remote and hit the mute button, silencing Sean Duffy.
"Now what?" Paco said, resting his chin on his arms.
"Now we wait for Garrett to return and then we're gonna play possum for a few hours. Let's hope he understood his orders."
"Well, I guess 'dump the Dodge' shouldn't be too hard to understand, R.C."
"You wanna bet your life on it?"
"Nope," Paco said and emptied his beer can.
"We need a new pair of wheels. I'm keepin' the Charger under lock and key for now. I need that for my little game with Fever."
"What kind of wheels?"
Roberta's phone rang and she leaned forward to pick it off the coffee table.
"It's R.C. ... OK? ... Yeah, I'm watching it now ... Well, you didn't mind when we dropped off the Caddy, did ya? ... Didn't think so ... You want a what? A Mercedes Convertible? ... Hmmm. That's gonna take us a while ... Yeah ... Yeah ... OK. Talk to ya later."
"The Chicas?" Paco said.
"Yep. They want an open-top Merc."
"Is that wise... I mean, so soon?"
"Ya wanna make some dough, don't ya?"
"Anyway, it doesn't have to be right away, Izzy gave us 36 hours. Now, the next question is... where the hell are we gonna find an open-top Merc?" Roberta continued.
"Hmmm, uptown's gonna be crawlin' with pigs and we sure as fuck won't find a Merc Convertible here in Downtown," Paco said and furrowed his brow.
"Let's see. Let's see..." Roberta said and turned off the TV.
A sudden scraping sound at the door to the cellar made both Roberta and Paco draw their guns. Then someone knocked on the metal door - first once, then twice and finally once more.
"Garrett," Roberta said and holstered her Walther.
"I'll let him in," Paco said and went over to the door.
Teddy Garrett stepped into the living area of the cellar and put a plastic bag from CoolMart down on the floor.
"Fresh supplies," he said and dug out two sixpacks from the bag.
"So? Any problems?" Roberta said.
"Nope. The Dodge is no more. I left it in a parking garage over on Buchanan. I wiped down everything and even left the keys in the ignition. I'll bet it won't be there by dawn," Teddy Garrett said with a laugh.
"Good. How did ya get back here?"
"Took a cab. Got off on Jefferson and Seventh and walked through the backyards and stuff."
"Not bad, Garrett. Keep that up an' you'll have earned your Cue Ballz colors before you know it," Roberta said and reached for the new beers.
"... So, what happened when you came back to check up on Doyle?" Staci said as she and Maeve were travelling down First Street, headed for Jefferson.
"You'll never believe it, baby. He had actually been able to talk Jeremy into going to the Clinic with Queen Anne. Turns out that Doyle's younger brother is suffering from a similar mental illness, so Doyle knew exactly what to say to Jeremy."
Maeve activated the turning signal and went right onto Jefferson. She moved out into the center lane at once, positioning the Mustang between a lowrider and a minivan.
"Well, that's something at least," Staci said and turned up the heater another notch.
"Yeah. But I lost $10," Maeve said with a grin.
"I just don't understand why people would hit someone who's weaker than them. It's... sick."
"Won't argue with that, baby," Maeve said and clawed Staci's thigh. Much to Maeve's disappointment, Staci hadn't put on the magical pair of chinos, but the gun metal gray slacks she was wearing instead wasn't far behind the others when it came to bringing out the best in Staci - and the worst in Maeve.
"Have you found Shawna Grant yet?" Staci said, turning around in her seat.
"No... no, we haven't. Unfortunately. We haven't been able to locate R.C. and Paco, either."
"They must know by now that you're hunting them. Do you think they'll do another job, despite everything?"
"Honestly, baby... I wouldn't put it past R.C. I really wouldn't," Maeve said and reached up to turn on the radio.
'... I'm Susan Blaine, and you're listening to WERC on 91.2 FM, your number one rock'n'roll station. It's ten PM and here's the news. The police is still investigating the fatal shooting of StaySafe Insurance CEO Arthur MacCready early this morning. At a press conference at noon, Senior Detective Sean Duffy said that the police has an excellent description of the shooter, and that they need the support of the public to catch the criminals. The StaySafe Insurance Company has...'
"It's been all over the news all day. It was Roberta, wasn't it?" Staci said, putting her hand on top of Maeve's.
Maeve nodded grimly.
'... Annette Jameson MacCready, the widow of the late Arthur MacCready has been admitted to the Killarney-Hayes Sanitarium, following a breakdown caused by the shock. The police ask that...'
"God, that poor woman," Staci said and shook her head.
"Yeah," Maeve said and tapped her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel.
In her peripheral vision, she caught a glimpse of a man in the passenger seat of the chop-topped Mercury lowrider driving next to them doing something funny with his hand - immediately, Maeve reached under her leather jacket to grab the handle of her Beretta.
The man rolled down his window and signaled for Maeve to do the same. Keeping one eye on the road and the other on the man, Maeve rolled down the window, but didn't let go of her gun.
"Yo, Fever," he said, his voice almost drowned out by very loud hip hop. He was wearing a bright red bandanna, a white and black lumberjack shirt and black sunglasses, despite the fact that it was already pitch black outside.
"Not much. Heard you were lookin' for Paco Alvarez?"
"That's right," Maeve said and steered closer to the Mercury so she could hear better.
"Watch your ass. That motherfucker is loco. He won't think twice about poppin' ya."
"Thanks. D'ya know where he's at?"
The other man shook his head.
"No, but try down South. He's connected to the Chicas."
"All right. Thanks," Maeve said and waved at the other man.
The driver of the lowrider pulled into the turning lane at Fifth Street and was soon out of sight.
"Great. Paco's connected to the Chicas, too. That's all we needed," Maeve said and rubbed her brow.
Staci opened her mouth to speak, but before she had the chance, Maeve cut her off.
"Anyway, I don't understand how they can listen to that hip hop. I mean, it's so... so... and half the time, the things they sing about don't make any sense. What's the point in that?" Maeve said with a shrug.
'...and you're listening to WERC on 91.2 FM, your number one rock'n'roll station. The weather report was brought to you by Pellegrino Umbrellas & Raincoats. Pellegrino, we love it when it rains. Right, on with the show. I'm sure you all know this one,'
the DJ said from the radio, cueing Little Richard's Tutti Frutti.
'A-wop bop-a loo-bop, a-wop bam-boom! ...'
"You were saying?" Staci said, teasing Maeve by wagging her index finger in front of the Enforcer's nose.
"Yeah, yeah..." Maeve said and grabbed Staci's hand so she could kiss the long digits.
A little while later, they pulled up to a red light at the intersection at Eighth Street. While Maeve waited for the traffic lights to change, she casually looked around - suddenly, a thought flashed through her mind and she furrowed her brow.
Looking at the street signs, she began to connect the dots, and soon, she had a pretty good idea of where Roberta Cain and Paco Alvarez were - somewhere in the vicinity of the empty, grassy lot on Eighth Street.
'Of course... back in the old days, the Cue Ballz homebase was a flat in the apartment building next to the grassy lot... I'll bet $1000 that Roberta has gone back there...'
When that piece of the puzzle fell into place, Maeve mentally kicked herself for not realizing it earlier. She looked over her shoulder to see if they had room to go down Eighth, but the inside lane was blocked by a delivery van.
At the same time, the traffic lights changed to green, so Maeve stepped on the gas and continued across the intersection.
"Hey, baby, let's play a little game," Maeve said and turned down the volume.
"A game? OK," Staci said and turned in her seat.
"Let's say you're Roberta Cain."
"Huh? I'm not sure I like that game."
"It's just hypothetical. If you were Roberta Cain, where would you hide? Out of sight... or in plain sight?"
"Uhh... I'm not sure I'm following you, Maeve."
"You know you're hunted. Where would you hide?"
"Well... somewhere I feel safe. Perhaps a place where I can... oh, I don't know. Are you onto something?" Staci said and cocked her head.
"I think so. We need to take a detour down Eighth."
"OK...? We've just passed Eighth."
Maeve hit the gas and swept into the fast lane, narrowly cutting across the bows of a Firebird. The driver in the sports car honked at her, but Maeve just waved in the rear view mirror.
"Jeez!" Staci said, holding onto her seatbelt.
"Just hang on, baby," Maeve said and zoomed into the turning lane at Ninth Street.
"It's already yellow, we won't make it!"
"Of course we will," Maeve said and stepped on the gas. A split second before the traffic lights turned to red, Maeve hustled the Mustang into the intersection and made a tire-squealing u-turn that made Staci shriek loudly and reach for the panic grip above the door.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Maeve Donnelly!" Staci said once she had caught her breath.
"Settle down, settle down, nothing broken," Maeve said with a broad grin. She kept her foot on the gas, making the Mustang roar back towards Eighth Street.
"Yeah, but for how long? Sheesh, one of these days..."
"One of these days what?" Maeve said and pulled into the turning lane at Eighth Street.
"One of these days you're gonna get hurt doing that, Maeve."
"Nah," Maeve said and turned left onto Eighth Street.
A few minutes later, they stopped outside the apartment complex that had once housed the homebase for the old Cue Ballz.
"Hmmm... everything's been redeveloped. I very much doubt that R.C. and Paco could hide here. They'd stick out like a couple a' nuns in a cathouse... shit. It was a good idea, though," Maeve said and sighed.
"Oh, well," she said and continued down Eighth Street.
"Maeve... are you ever gonna tell me what the hell is going on?" Staci said, reluctant to take her hands off the panic grip in case Maeve flipped out again.
"Well, it's like this..."
Half an hour later, Maeve drove the Mustang into the Burger Palace lot and pulled up to the end of a long line of cars.
"Looks like their new drive-in is a hit already. I'm hungry, so I think I'll have my usual menu. You want a salad or something? My treat," Maeve said.
"No, I could do with a cheeseburger... Just a little one. And a Coke. Please," Staci said and flashed Maeve one of her most charming smiles.
"You had me at cheeseburger, baby," Maeve said and leaned over to place a kiss on Staci's lips.
"Yeah. I'm glad you've finally gone past that 'oh, no, I have a roll of fat'- phase."
"Excuse me! I did have a roll of fat!"
"No, you didn't. Anyway, I can attest that you're in the best shape you've ever been in. And you can trust me when I say that... after all, there isn't a square inch of you I haven't seen in close-up."
"Aw, shucks, thank..."
"Yeah, I do love a woman with some meat on her bones," Maeve said with an impossibly cheeky grin.
"Maeve Donnelly, know that God is my witness... I'm gonna make you pay dearly for that one," Staci said and tried to tickle the Enforcer's stomach - unfortunately, even Staci's long, strong fingers weren't able to get through the Kevlar vest.
"Saved by ol' Kev. Again," Maeve said with a grin.
In the mean time, the driver behind them had become impatient, so he started honking. Maeve's own patience ran out after the second honk, so she rolled down the window and leaned out.
"Hold ya flippin' horses, buddy!" she bellowed.
"Maeve, it's our turn now," Staci said and put a calming hand on Maeve's thigh.
"Huh? ...Oh, OK," Maeve said and took her foot off the brake pedal. While the Mustang crept forward to the booth, she gave the driver behind them the Evil Eye through the rear view mirror.
"Hey, Fever," the young man in the booth said.
"How ya doin'. I'll have a Double Cheesy Deluxe, hold the onions, a small cheeseburger, a small fries, not too much salt, a large Coke and a small Coke, please."
"Double Cheesy, no onions, small cheese, small fries, two Cokes, got it," the young man said, speaking into a headset.
"Not too much salt on the fries," Maeve said and pointed her index finger at him.
"Got it, Fever. It'll be a few minutes."
"Yep," Maeve said and crawled forward to the check-out booth.
Three minutes later, Maeve was handed a large paper bag that she pushed over to Staci. At once, the Mustang was filled with the smells of the fries and the burgers, and both Maeve's and Staci's stomachs growled simultaneously.
"How much is that?" Maeve said and found her wallet.
"That'll be $22.95, please," the young woman at the till said.
"Here's $30, keep the change."
"Thank you, Fever," the young woman said with a smile.
The parking lot was so full they had to drive around twice to find somewhere to park, but they eventually managed to find a space next to the car wash. After reversing into the parking space, Maeve turned off the engine and moved the seat back so she had enough room to eat.
"Here's your Deluxe... and your Coke," Staci said and put the items in Maeve's lap.
"Fabulous," Maeve said and immediately went to work unwrapping her Double Cheesy Deluxe.
"... And the Frenchies," Staci continued.
"Put 'em on the dashboard."
"My cheesy and my Coke... shit... no napkins."
"I have mmffmpm some in mphmmmfhm the glovebox," Maeve said through a mouthful of cheeseburger.
"Boy, you weren't lying when you said you were hungry..."
"Nah, when I'm in my car, I always eat this quickly. You never know when things happen," Maeve said and forced the straw through the large Coke's plastic cover.
"Good point," Staci said and opened the glove compartment. She rummaged around for a few moments and then found a couple of napkins. She took one for herself and gave Maeve two.
"'Cos a burger that big will make twice the mess," Staci said with a grin.
"Ha, ha. Man, this is great. Rock'n'Roll on the radio, burgers, Coke and a hot babe in the car... can life get any better?" Maeve said and squeezed Staci's thigh.
"Shhhh. Don't push our luck, Maeve," Staci said and bit into her small cheeseburger.
Grinning, Maeve turned her head to look at her partner.
'How lucky am I? Look at that world class babe sitting right there. Those eyes, those cheekbones, those thighs... that ass. If I could get her to move in with me, my life would be perfect,'
Maeve thought. She chuckled out loud, drawing Staci's attention.
"What?" Staci said.
"Yeah, right. There must be something."
"Well, I was just thinking that you're God's gift to Maeve Donnelly, baby."
Staci stopped chewing and locked eyes with Maeve.
"Yeah... maybe I am," she said in a husky voice that made a sweet thrill run up and down Maeve's spine - and sent an even sweeter thrill straight down to Maeve's center.
"Jeez, I need to wash my hands before we go anywhere," Maeve said and stared at her fingers. Despite wiping them repeatedly on the last remaining napkin, all ten digits were covered in various juices from the Double Cheesy Deluxe.
"You shoulda had a smaller one, like mine. Look," Staci said and showed Maeve her perfectly clean fingers.
"But I love my Double Cheesy Deluxe! See ya in a few," Maeve said and struggled to open the door without getting goo on the lever. After fumbling for a bit, she got it open using her thumb and she stepped out of the Mustang. On her way to the fast food restaurant, she turned around and waved at Staci, who waved back with a big grin.
Staci followed Maeve with her eyes until the Enforcer turned the corner and went into the Burger Palace. She chuckled and started collecting the burger wrappings and the cardboard box the fries had been in.
While Staci was doing that, a garishly dressed working girl walked past the front of the Mustang. The woman stopped mid-step and stared at the car and at Staci for several seconds - then she spun around and made a beeline towards the car.
"Hi. I need a word with you," she said and used one of her long, fake fingernails to tap on the window on Staci's side.
After doing a triple-take at the way the working girl was dressed - a cheap, red plastic dress with a zipper on front that was opened so far down that her bare stomach was showing - Staci rolled down the window and eyed the woman suspiciously.
"Can I help you?" Staci said, trying to look the other woman in the eye instead of gawking at the vast expanses of flesh on display.
"This is Fever's ride, isn't it?"
"Oh, sorry, how rude of me. I'm a very good friend of Fever. I'm Jerri," the working girl said and stretched out her hand. When she leaned forward, the movement caused her assets to move dangerously close to falling out of the dress.
Staci shook Jerri's hand politely but immediately regretted it - apparently, Jerri had sprayed a ton of disinfectant onto her hand.
"Hi, Jerri, I'm Staci," Staci said, annoyed over the fact that her hand was suddenly clammy. She looked around for a napkin, but could only find the ones Maeve had already used up.
"Oh, sorry 'bout that. I just had a john over behind the car wash. He wasn't exactly... uh... freshly bathed, so I had to use my bug zapper juice. It'll wear off in a few minutes. He was so flippin' eager he tore my dress!" Jerri said and pointed at the broken zipper.
Staci's lips parted in a disgusted sneer, and she started a frantic search for a clean napkin to wipe her hand on - she finally did, after turning the glove box inside out.
"Hey..." Jerri said and looked over her shoulder. Satisfied that no one was around to hear what she had to say, she leaned in and lowered her voice.
"Uh, I'm gonna tell you something about Fever, but you have to promise me you won't get mad at me, OK?" she continued.
"Uhhh... OK," Staci said, suddenly worried that she was about to hear some bad news.
"You're a real pretty girl an' everything, but honey... I have to tell you that Fever already has a steady girlfriend," Jerri said sincerely.
"I see?" Staci said, more confused than ever. She finished wiping her hands and crumbled the used napkin into a little ball.
"Yeah, I'm sorry. I've never met her, but the word on the street is that Fever likes her very much. So, you know... just tryin' to let you down easy, honey."
"Uhhh... thanks. Fever's girlfriend, does she have a name?"
"Staci, I think. Not sure, though."
Staci blinked a few times, beginning to suspect that Maeve had paid Jerri to pull a practical joke on her. She eyed Jerri thoroughly to look for any hints of foul play, but the working girl seemed to be very sincere.
"Jerri, *I'm* Staci!"
"No! Really? Oh, I don't believe it! Not only does Fever two-time her girlfriend, she does it with someone who has the same name! I mean... can you believe it! That... that Birddawg!"
"Who's a Birddawg? Hi, Jerri," Maeve said, having snook up while Jerri was having the animated conversation.
"You are! I can't believe it, Fever. Look at her, she didn't know," Jerri said, pointing at Staci through the Mustang's windshield.
"Didn't know... what?"
"That you're using her to cheat on your girlfriend!"
"I'm *what*?" Maeve said, pinching the bridge of her nose to stop her sudden headache from spreading.
"Yeah, go ahead and act all innocent, Birddawg. Man, I can't believe it. I'm so disappointed in you, Fever. Well, guess what, now the pretty girl in the car knows so you can't sweet-talk your way out of it!" Jerri said and strode away from the Mustang.
Open-mouthed and wide-eyed, Maeve turned to look after the working girl. After a few moments, she shrugged and got into the car.
"Um, baby, that was Jerri."
Staci was sitting with an unreadable expression on her face and she was covering her mouth with her hand.
"I got that part," Staci said through her fingers.
"She obviously didn't stand first in line when the brains were distributed."
"I got that part, too."
"Baby, I don't have another girlfriend... honest! Cross my heart, hope to croak," Maeve said and drew the sign of the cross over her chest.
Suddenly Staci couldn't contain herself any longer and she leaned her head back and started laughing so long and hard that the windows almost misted up.
"I'm glad you see it that way, baby," Maeve said and took Staci's hand.
"Man, that was... odd," Staci said, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her fleece jacket.
"Yeah. I guess I have to square it with her later on. Boy, that's gonna take some fast talkin'."
"Well, I think I've had all the excitement I can stand for one evening," Staci said after she had finished laughing. She winked and gave Maeve's hand a little squeeze.
"Oh, but I kinda thought we could, you know, go back to my place..."
"It's 'not just the sex', remember?" Staci said and winked again.
"Ugh. I shouldn't have said that... um, baby, it's not because you're pissed off because of Jerri, is it?"
"Hell, no, Maeve, gimme some credit! No, I've had a great time. It's been too long since we've cruised at night."
"But now I need to go to work. Danielle can drive me home when we close."
"Oh... all right. There isn't anything I can do to change your mind?"
"Not tonight, Maeve. Here's your goodnight kiss," Staci said and stroked Maeve's cheek. Pulling gently, Staci turned the Enforcer's chin around so they were face to face - then she leaned in to claim Maeve's lips in a loving kiss.
Much later, Maeve started the Mustang and reversed out of the parking space at the rear entrance of the Three-In-One Club. Staci's scent lingered in the Mustang even after she had left, and for the umpteenth time, Maeve found herself wishing that she could somehow convince Staci to move in with her.
As she cruised along Sixth Street to get back to Jefferson Boulevard, she started thinking about what she could do or say to influence Staci's decision, but soon came to the conclusion that the tall, beautiful woman was far too stubborn and headstrong to be swayed by cheap tricks - or even expensive tricks.
Maeve shook her head and turned on the radio. She checked her watch - ten to midnight. Soon, Rock Around The Clock would be blaring out again, signaling the arrival of yet another new day.
Just as the last bars of the immortal classic faded out, Maeve stopped in front of the redeveloped apartment complex on Eighth Street. She hadn't been able to shake the feeling that Roberta Cain and Paco Alvarez were there somewhere, but at the same time, she knew that the odds of finding them would be like picking the winning numbers in the State lottery.
"Slim to none and slim just walked out the door," Maeve said out loud and chuckled over her own joke.
She looked up and down the street, hoping that she could find somewhere to park, but dozens of cars were parked bumper-to-bumper on either side - except in front of the grassy lot, where a no-parking sign had inexplicably been placed.
With a satisfied grunt, Maeve put the Mustang into Reverse and backed up to the grassy lot. The street was narrower there, but she put two wheels onto the sidewalk so that other cars could still pass. She got out of the car and locked it.
Walking over to stand in front of the grassy lot, she put her hands on her hips and surveyed the situation.
'No flippin' way,'
she thought as her eyes drifted across the pitch black lawn. She didn't want to risk stepping in something nasty in the darkness, so instead of going onto the lawn, she spun around and walked towards the apartment building itself.
The complex consisted of four stairwells, each housing eight apartments. Maeve checked the names of all the residents very carefully, but she soon realized it was a thankless task. She knew that Roberta obviously wouldn't be using her real name, but none of the names were even remotely close to being interesting.
Maeve stepped back out onto the sidewalk and looked at the windows. Most of them were dark, but one or two were still lit - not that it would be of any practical use to her. Knowing a dead end when she was in one, she sighed and started walking back towards the Mustang.
Just as Maeve walked past the first stairwell, the lights went on in the windbreak and the front door opened. A sensibly dressed woman in her mid-thirties stepped out onto the sidewalk with a stack of newspapers under her arm and a small dog on a long leash.
When the woman saw Maeve, she took an involuntary step back and nearly tripped over her dog. She tried to flap her arms to keep her balance - with the inevitable result that she dropped the stack of newspapers which ended up all over the sidewalk.
The small dog walked the wrong way around her master to sniff the newspapers, getting the leash thoroughly tangled up in her owner's legs in the process.
"Oh!" the woman said and tried to turn around so she could unravel the leash. She kept looking at Maeve with a very anxious expression on her face, almost like she expected to be mugged any second.
"No need for alarm, Miss. I'm one of the good gals," Maeve said and crouched down so she could scoop up the errant newspapers. It didn't take her long and she was soon able to present a neatly folded stack to the woman.
"Oh... thank you."
"You're welcome. Well, since we're already talking, do you have time to answer a quick question?" Maeve said with a smile.
"You're not one of those religious... uhhh... agitators, are you?"
"Most decidedly not."
"Then I guess it's all right," the woman said and stretched out the hand she was using to hold the leash.
"I'm Eliza Deegan. Nice to meet you," she said.
"I'm Maeve Donnelly. Likewise. So, have you seen anyone suspicious here in the last few days? A woman, early fifties, sort of aggressive looking, typically wearing black denim?"
"Are you a cop? You don't look like a cop."
"I'm not a cop. Well, have you?"
Eliza scrunched up her face and tried to remember if she had seen anyone matching the description, but she came up short.
"No, I'm sorry. This is a clean neighborhood these days. I've heard some horror stories from those who've lived here longer than I have, though. I moved in last year, so I've only seen the good sides of Eighth Street... well, mostly. Did you hear about that terrible carjacking incident up near Jefferson the other day? Isn't that terrible? I mean, I told my husband, his name is Kenny, by the way, I told him that it almost made me swear off driving... not that we have a car at the moment, but still..."
Maeve nodded with a crooked smile fixed on her face.
"So you haven't seen anything that would, you know, raise your alarm?"
"Well... not apart from you," Eliza said and sniggered in a very girlish fashion.
"Oh, you needn't worry about me. I'm a lamb in leather. Well, thank you for your time, Mrs. Deegan," Maeve said and shook hands with the other woman again.
Just as Maeve was turning to leave, Eliza put her hand on Maeve's arm.
"Wait, I just thought of something. Perhaps you could come back and ask our caretaker, Mr. Malloy. He's here from eight to five. It's possible that he knows something. After all, he's outside all day and I've heard he's thrown a few... uhhh... long-haired types out of our backyard."
"Oh? That's a good idea, Mrs. Deegan. Thank you."
"Anytime," Eliza said with a smile.
On her way back to the Mustang, Maeve went past a young, gangly man who was carrying three pizza boxes. She looked briefly at his acne-riddled face, but didn't pay any particular attention to him.
"Smells great, buddy," she said as they passed each other. The young man just nodded and kept walking straight ahead with determined steps.
Fifty paces further on, Teddy Garrett spun around and stared at Fever who was leaning against the side of her Mustang, talking into her phone. He gulped several times and then disappeared into the shadows next to the apartment building.
"Hey Danny, it's Fever. What are you doing right now?" Maeve said into the cell phone.
'I'm down at Fourteenth Street. There's been a fatal shooting an' Sean Duffy and his gang are all here.'
"Don't tell me it's another carjacking?"
'No, a young woman got wasted in her apartment. Oh... the coroner is carrying the casket out now.'
'23 from what the grapevine tells me. She had apparently rejected her downstairs neighbor's advances. I guess he didn't take it too well.'
"Shit," Maeve said, rubbing her brow.
'I heard it on the police scanner so I thought I'd stop by in case it was connected to some of our stuff. Don't think it is, though.'
"Good thinking. Well, keep me posted."
'Will do, Fever.'
Teddy Garrett ran along the back of the building, kicking hard on the door to the cellar once he got there.
"What the fuck are you doin', numbnuts?" Paco hissed as he opened the door.
"Fever is outside! Right outside!" Teddy whispered and hurried into the cellar. He put the three pizza boxes down on the coffee table and started wringing his hands.
"Well, I guess we'll just have to deal with her, then," Roberta said and got up from her favorite position on the couch. She took the Walther out of its holster and cocked it.
"You two stay here. If you can hear the shit hittin' the fan, come and back me up," she said and ventured out into the darkness of the backyard.
Roberta ran towards the grassy lot, careful not to make any sounds that would reveal that she was there. When she reached the corner of the apartment building, she peeked around it, holding the pistol ready in case Fever was close by.
Fever was still standing at the car, but as Roberta was watching, the Enforcer got into the Mustang, started the engine and drove away.
Roberta harrumphed and uncocked the Walther's hammer.
A minute later, she returned to the cellar and threw herself onto the couch.
"So?" Teddy Garrett said worriedly.
"There's no 'and'. She left. Now let's eat while they're hot, I'm starved," Roberta said and grabbed the first of the pizza boxes.
"Pineapple... this is definitely yours, Teddy," Roberta said and handed the box to Garrett. She took the next box and opened the lid - black olives, pepperonis and mushrooms. She grinned and picked up a slice.
"Come on, Paco! Quit guardin' the door. I told ya Fever left," Roberta said loudly.
Paco came into the living area of the cellar and holstered his .32 revolver.
"That's the second time she was here. She'll be back," he said on his way over to the fridge. He threw Garrett and Roberta a beer each and then took a can for himself.
"Undoubtedly. But so far she don't know jack shit. Otherwise she woulda gone straight for the cellar. We're cool for now."
Paco shrugged and went over to the couch. He grabbed the last remaining pizza box and began to eat his favored Jalapeņo special.
"For now," Garrett echoed quietly.
"Ah, don't sweat it, Teddy. Which reminds me... would ya mind contactin' your dealer? I'm almost out," Roberta said as she chewed on a pizza slice.
"No problem, R.C. You must be his best customer by now," Garrett said, looking away from the steely glare he knew Roberta was sending him.
Staci looked again at the round clock on the wall of her office, refusing to believe that it was still only half past two, AM - she'd need to be at the Three-In-One Club for at least another hour and a half.
She closed the laptop, pulled out the upper drawer of her fancy glass desk and put a wad of papers on the desktop. Like so often in the recent days, she mulled over whether she should continue with the plans of buying out of the owner of Smokey's Bar or if she should just throw it all away - a part of her wanted to go ahead with it, but another, perhaps stronger, part told her that it was a futile exercise.
Staci sighed and put the files away. She took her cell phone and went over to the couch. Dialing the number to Smokey's Bar, she kicked off her shoes and folded her legs up underneath her.
'Smokey's Bar. It's Vicky,'
a female voice said from the other end of the connection.
"Hello, Miss O'Neal, it's Staci Hart. Have you had time to consider my offer?"
The line fell silent for so long that Staci thought Vicky O'Neal had hung up on her. She was about to try again when the woman at the other end spoke up.
"Well... what do you think?"
'It's not nearly enough.'
Staci stared at the cell phone and felt a sinking feeling inside.
"Eight hundred thousand Dollars isn't nearly enough?"
'Fifty fuckin' million bucks wouldn't be enough! Did you think I wouldn't check you out?'
'I know exactly who you are and what you are, and I don't want anything to do with your kind!'
"And what kind is that exactly, Miss O'Neal?" Staci said coldly.
'You're a fuckin' gangster! It's bad enough that I already have to pay two thousand fuckin' bucks each and every month to you fuckin' hoodlums. If I don't, you're gonna send some muscle to rough me up, right? Don't even try to deny it!'
'Yeah, well, I've got some news for ya. I've got a 12-gauge under the counter, so if ya want an intimate relationship with a buncha pellets, just swing by."
'Don't call me again. If ya do, I'm gonna round up some muscle of my own and then we're gonna make you wish you wuz never born, bitch!'
Vicky O'Neal said, shouting the last words so loudly into the cell phone that the connection became distorted.
When the irate woman had terminated the connection, Staci's shoulders slumped.
"All that work... for nothing," she said out loud, running her free hand through her long, black hair.
After letting out a long, heartfelt sigh, she leaned forward to put her cell phone on the low glass table next to the couch. With a heavy heart, she let herself fall sideways onto the couch where she put her arm across her eyes.
Vicky O'Neal's angry words repeated over and over in her mind, and deep down inside, she knew they were true - she really had become a gangster. She, Staci Hart, the daughter of a florist and a school teacher, was now firmly connected to the mob, whether she wanted to be or not.
'Oh, Maeve... if only I didn't love you so much... without you, I'd walk away in an instant,'
Ten minutes later, Staci rolled off the couch and went over to the minibar where she poured herself a healthy Bourbon on the rocks. Refusing to let the angry woman's words get to her, she took the glass and a napkin and left her office to go out into the main room of the night club.
Staci soon found a good spot that gave her the opportunity to watch the entire catwalk at once. The pumping dance music was blasting out through the hidden speakers and all the poles were occupied by scantily clad women, writhing up and down, left and right, and then up and down again for good measure.
April, a very leggy and sensual blonde dancer, was working the pole nearest to where Staci was sitting, and she winked at her boss when they made eye contact. When Staci smiled in return, April hooded her eyes and flicked her tongue seductively. Staci immediately made a mental note to talk to April as soon as they closed for the night.
'... Just to weed out any misunderstandings,'
Staci thought and pulled out in her shirt to get some cool air down her front.
A little later on, Danielle walked around the main room and refilled the little bowls of pretzels that were placed on each table as a free service to the customers. When she came over to Staci's booth, she sat down opposite her boss to rest her legs.
The bowl on Staci's table was empty, so Danielle poured some pretzels into it - at once, Staci scooped up a handful.
"Hungry?" Danielle said.
"Oh. Know it well. Ummm, Staci, have you asked Fever about my sister's request yet?" Danielle said and started playing with a pretzel.
Staci stopped chewing and swallowed audibly. As she shook her head, her cheeks began to flush a deep red.
"Gawd, no, Danielle... I'm so sorry. I've... I've totally forgotten all about it. Gosh, I'm so sorry!"
"Oh. It's no biggie," Danielle said, the disappointment etched into her face.
"The hell it isn't. Uh... stay here, I'll be back in a flash," Staci said and got up from the booth. She strode into the office, picked up her cell and then spun around and returned to the booth Danielle was sitting at.
She flipped open the telephone and found Maeve's number in the registry.
"I'm doing it right away, Danielle," Staci said and held the phone up to her ear - at the same time, she stuck her index finger in the other ear.
'It's Fever. Talk to me.'
"Hey, Maeve, it's me. Do you have a moment to pop by the club? Danielle needs to talk to you."
'Sure...? Danielle? Did something happen to her sister?'
"Oh, no, no."
'All right. ETA five minutes.'
"Good. See you then," Staci said and hung up. She put the phone on the table and grabbed a handful of pretzels. She broke them in half and started chewing on them.
"She'll be right over, Danielle."
"OK. Thanks. Well, I guess I better get back to wor..." Danielle started to say, but was suddenly interrupted by a loud crash from the catwalk.
One of the dancers, Miss Marlene Dominixxx, was sitting in the middle of the catwalk, holding her ankle and firing off a blue streak strong enough to peel the crushed velvet off the walls.
She reached behind her and found the snapped three-inch heel that had caused her to fall over. With a flick of the wrist, she sent it flying up the catwalk where it skidded off the side, disappearing somewhere under the curtain to the dressing room.
The other dancers didn't know whether to help their fallen comrade or not, so they just looked at each other. After a few seconds, they shrugged and continued dancing, leaving the unfortunate Miss Marlene to get up on her own.
Staci sighed and stepped out from the booth.
"Danielle, go get the bouncer. Tell him he needs to carry Miss Marlene into my office. We better get her ankle checked."
"Right. I'm on it," Danielle said and hurried towards the exit of the nightclub.
A little more than five minutes later, Maeve knocked on the door to Staci's office. When she didn't get a response, she opened the door and peeked inside.
"Baby...?" she said and stepped into the office. She had to rub her eyes when she saw what was going on - not only was the couch occupied by a very underdressed dancer, but Staci was kneeling between the woman's legs, apparently doing something that made the dancer fling her head back and groan.
"Um... baby?" Maeve said and scratched her hair.
"Hey... good you came. I'll bet you have more experience with this sort of thing than I have," Staci said, holding something in her hand that Maeve couldn't quite identify.
"She twisted her ankle and fell," Staci said and showed Maeve the bag of ice she was pressing against Miss Marlene's ankle.
"Ohhh... well, that's a load off my mind," Maeve said and took off her leather jacket.
"Hi, Fever," the dancer croaked.
"Hi. Rough night?"
"Yeah. Those fuckin' heels," Marlene said and squirmed when Staci put the bag back on her ankle.
"It's swelling even with the ice, Marlene. You're gonna have to take a few days off," Staci said.
"We need to apply the ice for a few more minutes, but then I'll help you get dressed and catch a cab."
"Damn... thanks, boss," Marlene said and sighed deeply.
Maeve kneeled down next to her partner and leaned in to kiss her cheek.
"Oh, baby, seein' you in charge like this turns me on *so* badly," Maeve whispered for Staci's ears only - as expected, it didn't take long for Staci's cheeks to turn fire engine red.
"We gotta stop meetin' like this, huh?" Maeve said out loud, pointing at the dancer's long, shapely legs right in front of them.
"Yeah," Staci said with a dry, muted laugh.
"Is everything all right, baby?"
"Oh... sure. Sure. I'm OK."
"Hmmm?" Maeve said and put her hand on the back of Staci's head.
"There's nothing, Maeve. Really."
"So, what was it Danielle wanted to talk to me about?"
"I forgot to ask you something important, but you better go and talk to her yourself. She's outside."
"Yeah, I know. I waved at her when I came in. I'll do that right away," Maeve said and got up from the floor.
"See ya later, huh?" Maeve continued, patting Miss Marlene's bare knee.
"See ya, Fever," the dancer said through clenched teeth.
"Maeve, I... I need a word with you before you leave, OK?" Staci said. She looked up and locked eyes with the Enforcer, sending her a very clear message that despite what Staci had said before, everything wasn't 'all right.'
"It'll only be a few minutes, baby," Maeve said as she put her hand on the door handle.
Ten minutes later, Maeve and Staci watched a yellow taxi cab leave with the unfortunate Miss Marlene propped up on the backseat. Staci sighed deeply and folded her arms across her stomach, a sure sign that she was worried about something.
"Baby, please tell me what's wrong. I know you're hurtin', but you need to tell me what's going on," Maeve said and put her hand on Staci's arm.
"Where did you park?"
"Let's talk in the Mustang. I don't feel like going back to the club right now," Staci said and began walking towards the main entrance. Nodding briefly to the bouncer, Staci continued straight ahead instead of turning right into the nightclub.
She and Maeve walked through a narrow passageway that led to the Three-In-One Club's back entrance. After working a lock, Staci opened the door to the backyard and stepped outside with Maeve in tow.
Maeve pressed the small button on the remote and the Mustang replied by blinking its hazard lights twice. Speeding up so she got to the car ahead of her partner, Maeve opened the car door and held it open so that Staci could get in unhindered. Once Staci was safely inside, Maeve ran around the car and jumped in herself.
"OK, please tell me what's up, baby. You're scaring me," Maeve said and took Staci's hands in her own.
"I had a nasty phone call."
"Oh...? A pervert?"
"No," Staci said with a tired chuckle.
"Remember when we talked about maybe starting an all-girl bar?"
"Uh, not really... but go on."
"Well, I've been working on it and it's been going pretty good... until now. I've found a little place called Smokey's Bar and I offered them a very good deal."
"I'm guessing it's turned to shit...?"
"You might say that. The owner of the bar refused to sell to me because I'm connected with you. She yelled at me and called me a gangster."
"Am I, Maeve? Am I a Made Woman? A Wisegal?" Staci said and turned to look at Maeve.
"Those terms are something Don Coluzzo would use, baby. Uncle Freddie runs a family business."
"And I'm part of it," Staci said quietly.
"It shouldn't really be a surprise to you... I mean, you've always known how I made my money. And, yes, as the owner of the Three-In-One Club, you're part of the organization... and you're definitely part of the family, baby," Maeve said and gave Staci's hands a squeeze.
Staci sighed and shook her head despondently. Maeve grinned and let her fingers run gently across Staci's cheek.
"Baby... I think I understand what you're going through, but... it's a little late for that," Maeve said.
"But I'm not a gangster!"
"Is Mary Red a gangster? Or Wynne, the new girl working the phones? My uncle has a lot of people working for him who aren't gangsters. Some of us are, yes, but not all."
"Hmmm..." Staci said and shrugged.
"Listen, baby, as my girlfriend, you have all the benefits but hardly any of the obligations of the regular Family members. And if we ever were to become more than just girlfriends, you'd come under my wing completely. That means you wouldn't have to pay to have the club protected, or..."
"It's not the club, Maeve..."
"... Hear me out, please. My uncle is very fond of you. If he wasn't, many things would be different, girlfriend or not. Look at how Sammi Jo was treated. She paid four times the amount you do, baby."
"I know... but it's still a bit of a wake-up call. I realize I've been too damn naīve all this time, but I loved you too much to really care," Staci said quietly.
"Loved?" Maeve said, noting the past tense with terrifying clarity.
"Love. I love you too much for my own good, Maeve, and I always will."
"Thank you. Love you, too, baby," Maeve whispered and leaned over to kiss Staci on the lips.
"This deal with Smokey's bugs me, though. When I was tending Rose Dougal's bar over on Madison, I often thought about starting a little place of my own... I never dreamt of running the biggest establishment on Jefferson," Staci said with a deep chuckle.
"Well, you asked to run it, baby."
"I know, but... I'm not cut out for it. I know that now."
"Oh, tell ya what, babe. In my eyes, you *are* cut out for it. In fact, I think you're the best, and definitely the sexiest, manager I've ever collected protection money from."
"Aw, Jeez, Maeve," Staci said and chuckled.
"I'm not kiddin'! You may blush whenever you see a boob, but you have one hell of a clever noggin on your shoulders. I'll bet that in a few days, you'll have found a much better solution regardin' that bar. And I hope you know that I'll be behind you one hundred percent," Maeve said and started toying with Staci's black locks.
"I'm glad to hear it, Maeve. I really am. But I'm still a bit shocked about being called a gangster."
"Oh, baby, you know what I say. It ain't never so bad it can't be cured by a..."
"A quick hump. Yeah. I think I've heard that before. And I think I've already told you the answer. Not tonight. But thanks for the conversation, anyway," Staci said and leaned over to repay Maeve's latest kiss.
"C'mon, let me drive you home," Maeve said when they separated.
"No. Danielle has already said she'd do it," Staci said and reached for the lever to open the door.
"Staci, wait. The woman who yelled at you... do you want me to take care of business?"
At first, Staci thought Maeve was joking and she nearly made a quip about it, but the steely look in the Enforcer's eyes made Staci realize that her partner was deadly serious. She gulped and felt a shiver run down her spine.
"No... no, thank you, Maeve. I'm fine. Really."
"If you change your mind, just say the word, baby. That's what the Family is for. I'll be there for you. Always," Maeve said and put her hand on Staci's thigh.
"I know. Thanks, but it won't be necessary," Staci said and climbed out of the Mustang.
"Garrett. Yo, Garrett!" Paco said, standing above the sleeping Teddy Garrett.
Paco took a step back and gave the old couch a hard kick, but it still wasn't enough to pull Garrett from his beer-induced slumber.
"We ain't got time for this nonsense. We've only got a few more hours until the deadline and we haven't even looked for a suitable car," Roberta said and put on her black denim jacket. She checked her watch and furrowed her brow.
"Jeez, he's bombed out, the dickless wimp," Paco said, moving away from the couch.
"Fuck him. We've got bigger fish to fry," Roberta said and opened the cellar door. The first rays of the early morning sunshine greeted her, making her reach into her pocket to find her sunglasses.
"C'mon. We've got work to do," she continued, waving her hand. Paco grunted, grabbed his army jacket and left the comatose Garrett behind.
"That's my new wheels? For fuck's sake, Paco," Roberta said when she stood in front of the Dodge Grand Caravan minivan Paco Alvarez had stolen the night before.
"You wanted to travel incognito, didn't ya? Can't get more invisible than drivin' this thing," Paco said and unlocked the minivan.
"Jeez... you're drivin'."
"Where are we goin', anyway?"
"Around. Up and down Franklin and Jefferson."
"It's rush hour, R.C. There's gonna be a shitload of traffic now."
"I know. Shut up and drive," Roberta said and got into the passenger seat.
Twenty frustrating minutes later, Roberta rubbed her face and started tapping her fingers on the console in front of her. When that didn't conjure up a Mercedes either, she slammed her fist down onto the dashboard, setting off a small dust storm.
"Twenty fuckin' minutes an' we haven't even seen anything close to resembling a Mercedes Convertible."
"We gotta go uptown, R.C. We'll never find it down here," Paco said, slowing to a halt at the intersection at Sixth Street, going South on Jefferson.
"Uptown is gonna have all their little surveillance cameras workin' overtime, Paco. The pigs are gonna get there before we can even take a piss."
"How about using Garrett's phone trick again?"
"Won't work. It was all over the news yesterday. Every single one of those fancy-ass broads up there will have heard about it," Roberta said and shook her head.
"R.C., do you think Izzy would mind if this one wasn't a convertible?" Paco said, looking in the rear view mirror.
"There's a Merc C-Class Coupe comin' up behind us. Two women drivin'. Blondes. Easy pickings."
Roberta turned around and studied the car behind them. She could see the two young women laughing and obviously singing along to some music. They were well-dressed, so she surmised they came from somewhere in Uptown. The car was dark silver metallic and appeared to be in prime condition.
"We gotta make a quick decision, R.C."
The traffic lights turned green and the endless rows of cars continued their slow journey South.
"I know. Hmmm. Shuffle around so you get behind them. Let's see what happens."
"You got it," Paco said and swerved out into the fast lane. The cars behind him had to stand on the brakes and several of them honked repeatedly.
"Hey, that's it," Roberta said and snapped her fingers. She turned around again so she could get a clear view of the other car out of the side window. The center lane was slightly faster, so the Mercedes with the two young blondes passed them easily.
"Now get behind them! Real close!"
Paco swerved back into the center lane, cutting off a white delivery van. The Dodge minivan crept closer and closer to the Mercedes Coupe until it was only a few inches off the expensive car's rear bumper.
"I don't think blondie likes having us so close, R.C. She's gonna change lanes again."
"If she does, follow her."
The words had hardly left Roberta's mouth when the Mercedes Coupe changed into the slow lane - as instructed, Paco followed her closely. The driver of the Mercedes touched the brakes several times, making the brake lights flash.
"She's onto us," Paco said.
"Hell, even a blonde can see we're following her."
Paco and Roberta could see through the windshield that the driver of the Mercedes made a big production number out of holding her cell phone to her ear.
"Awwwww, she's gonna call Daddy," Roberta said.
"What's the plan, R.C.?"
"To ram 'em as soon as we get into less traffic. Not hard, though. We don't want to get their bumper scratched. Then we'll turn down one of the streets and get out to exchange insurance info like the polite, law-abidin' citizens we are. Or possibly to bash their cute little blonde heads in, I don't know yet."
Suddenly, Paco could see flashing lights closing fast on the other side of the Boulevard. A police cruiser turned hard left at the intersection at Eighth Street and came to a full stop, blocking the traffic in all three Southbound lanes. Two police officers got out and drew their service revolvers.
"Fuck!" Paco shouted.
"What the... she musta called the pigs! Step on it! Foot to the floor!" Roberta said and found her Walther. Paco turned the steering wheel to the right as far as it would go and stepped hard on the throttle. Roberta tried to roll down the window, but the lever snapped off in her hand.
"Aw, fuck, what kind of crap wagon is this?!" she said angrily.
The Dodge minivan lurched forward and clipped the rear of the Mercedes Coupe, pushing it several feet to the side and busting the minivan's headlights and grill in the process. Paco kept his foot down on the gas and bumped violently over the curb and onto the sidewalk, making the pedestrians run in all directions to get away from the speeding van.
While they were racing at insane speeds towards the blocked intersection, Roberta used the butt of the pistol to break the side window, sending shards of glass flying all over the sidewalk and the unfortunate pedestrians.
"Eat this, cocksuckers!" she roared and leaned out of the smashed window. She didn't bother to aim, but settled for emptying the entire ten-round clip into the police cruiser.
Not all her bullets hit, but those that did sent sparks flying from the black-and-white, and she managed to hit the windshield and the rotating lights on top of the roof.
The two police officers had dived for cover when Roberta started shooting, but they soon returned fire, creating an even bigger panic among the pedestrians in the firing line.
"Faster, Paco!" Roberta shouted and slapped another clip into her pistol.
"Won't go any faster, fuck it!" Paco hissed, his voice even more hoarse than usual.
"Turn right onto Eighth. We can lose 'em!"
When they reached the corner leading onto Eighth Street, Paco yanked the steering wheel to the right and the minivan bounced off the sidewalk and back onto the street.
The rear window shattered at once, a victim of the hail of bullets the two police officers sent after the escaping criminals, and it didn't take long for both side mirrors to go the same way.
"They're not following us yet! Get to the park. We'll dump this crate and double back to the parking garage. I knew I shouldn't have left my Charger behind!" Roberta shouted, ducking down in the seat so she'd present a smaller target to the shooters.
A couple of hundred yards down Eighth Street, Paco stood on the brakes and the minivan came to a screeching halt in front of a small park. At once, he and Roberta bounded from the vehicle and raced through the shrubbery and across the deserted basketball courts. They continued at full speed through several backyards until they could see the rear side of the parking garage on Ninth Street.
The wailing sounds of a dozen sirens filled the cool morning air and Roberta was almost certain that the police were about to catch up to her and Paco, but when they reached the entrance to the parking garage where she had left her Charger, they were still alone.
They ran into the garage and turned a corner so they were out of sight from anybody walking on Ninth Street. As soon as they were safe, Roberta leaned against the concrete wall, panting like crazy and sweating like a pig.
"Fuck it, I'm outta shape," she said and put a hand on the dusty wall.
Paco wiped some sweat off his brow and looked around nervously.
"R.C., what the fuck are we gonna do now?"
"Follow the plan, Paco. Always follow the plan. Here, you go get the Charger. I'll wait here until you're back," she said and threw Paco the keys to the car.
"I don't know where it is, man!"
"It's on level three... I hid it under a dark green tarp and some cardboard boxes. Will you hurry the fuck up?"
"All right, all right..." Paco said and ran towards the staircase in the corner of the parking garage so he could get to the third floor.
The characteristic roar of the 372 cui Hemi and the sound of the tires squealing on the smooth concrete were comforting to Roberta as she followed her car's progress down towards her. Soon, the Charger arrived next to her and she ran over to the driver's side door.
"Get out, Paco. I'm driving," Roberta said and tugged at the sleeve of Paco's army jacket.
"I guess that means I'm shootin', then," Paco said and climbed out.
Before Roberta got in, she strained her hearing to listen to how close the sirens were to them.
"I can only hear one or two sirens now. That probably means the pigs have found the minivan."
"Probably. Now can we leave?"
"Yep," Roberta said and got in. Driving carefully, she turned right onto Ninth Street and cruised casually towards Franklin.
"R.C., for Chrissakes, we're bein' chased by the fuckin' pigs!"
"There's no way in hell they got a look at us. They're not chasing us, they're chasing the two people in the Dodge minivan who were harassing the cute blondes in the Merc."
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"If the pigs knew it was us, they would've come in full force. They didn't. So why attract attention to ourselves? Lie low, drive slow."
Paco stared long and hard at Roberta, but finally admitted to himself that she was right.
Ten minutes later, they were cruising Northbound on Franklin Boulevard, heading towards Uptown. Roberta had turned on the radio and they were listening with great interest to someone reporting live from the incident on Jefferson.
When the reporter handed back to the studio, Paco turned to face Roberta.
"You were right. The pigs think it was two guys."
"Of course I'm right," Roberta said and turned off the radio. The traffic lights at First Street turned red and Roberta slowed down accordingly. A delivery van in front of them turned right, giving them a clear view of the intersection.
"What do we do now, R.C.?"
"Like I said, follow the plan. The deadline is almost here, and we still need a... motherfucker!" Roberta said and slammed her fist down on the steering wheel.
"What? What?" Paco said and drew his revolver. He looked around in a panic for several seconds until he understood they weren't under attack.
"Lookie there what Lady Luck has just brought us," Roberta said and pointed out of the windshield.
In the turning lane on the other side of Franklin, a champagne-colored Mercedes E-Class Convertible was about to turn left onto First Street. The driver was a middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses and a scarf around her head. The rag top was up, clean and unscratched and looking to be in excellent condition.
"We're gonna follow her and do the tire trick. If she doesn't respond, we'll cut her off and blow her to hell," Roberta said coldly.
"You got it," Paco said and checked his revolver.
"Miss! Miss! Your right rear is flat!" Paco shouted, leaning out of the window of the Charger.
The lady in the Mercedes rolled down her window and pushed her sunglasses up her forehead.
"Huh?" she said and put her hand behind her ear.
"Your right rear tire is flat!" Paco repeated, gesticulating wildly at the rear of the car.
"Oh... thank you," the lady said and slowed down, eventually pulling over at the mouth of an alley roughly halfway down First Street. Roberta stopped in front of the Mercedes, and both she and Paco quickly exited the Charger so they could get to the Convertible before the other woman would notice that the tire wasn't damaged at all.
While Roberta went around the rear of the expensive car, Paco came up to the driver's side door and flashed his most winning smile.
"Miss, when you passed us back in the intersection, we couldn't help but noticing that your right rear tire was flat... but don't worry, we'll help you fix it," he said and smiled some more.
When the middle-aged woman hadn't stepped out of the Mercedes after a handful of seconds, Roberta decided to up the charade by whistling loudly.
"Gosh golly almighty, it looks like you've been too close to a curb. You really oughtta come take a look at it," she said, trying her damnedest to sound friendly. Wearing a smile that she hoped didn't come across as being too creepy, she walked up to the right hand side window and waved at the other woman.
With a sigh, the middle-aged woman took off her sunglasses and opened the door. Playing the perfect gentleman, Paco held it open for her as she got out - in reality, he was eyeing the pearls she was wearing around her neck and the gold rings on her fingers.
Wearing high-heeled shoes, dark green harem pants and a forest green satin shirt, the woman sashayed round the back of the Mercedes to take a look at the wheel.
"Oh, no, my husband is going to kill me. We've only just bought these whe..." she started to say, but stopped mid-word when she saw that the tire was undamaged - shocked, she turned her head and stared wide-eyed at Roberta.
Not even a second later, Roberta grabbed the middle-aged woman by the scruff of the neck and remorselessly slammed her head down twice onto the rear fender of the Mercedes.
The woman crumpled silently to the ground with blood seeping out of a long gash on her forehead. Roberta looked up and down First Street, but no one appeared to have witnessed the crime. With a satisfied grunt, she hurried back to the Charger to clear the way. Paco followed suit by jumping into the Mercedes and starting the engine.
Roberta quickly reversed out of the way and then leaned over towards the still opened window on the passenger side.
"Meet me at the chop shop in twenty-five minutes. Stay on First Street past Madison and when you get to the docks, go South. Shouldn't be too much traffic there," Roberta shouted.
"See ya there," Paco said and gave her a thumbsup. He selected Drive and pulled away from the curb.
Roberta nodded to herself and reached for her cell phone. Watching the Mercedes driving further and further up the street, she dialed the number she'd been given for contacting the Chicas.
a gruff, female voice said.
"It's Roberta Cain. Is Izzy Solidas there?"
"Tell whomever is in charge that we've got the latest package. We're on our way to the rendezvous point now."
Roberta terminated the call and chuckled over the taciturnity of the Chica she had spoken to. She looked over her shoulder at the woman she had beaten, but quickly decided that she couldn't be bothered to move her further out of sight.
Putting on her sunglasses, she drove off, leaving the middle-aged woman behind alone and helpless in an ever-increasing pool of blood.
Five minutes later, Staci was pulled from her sleep by the familiar wail of sirens driving past on First Street.
When the third emergency vehicle came past in as many minutes, she mumbled a few choice curse words and started fumbling around for her alarm clock. After half a dozen attempts, she finally found the clock and hit the button to activate the little light. She groaned loudly when she saw that it was only twenty to eight, AM, and she angrily turned over onto her stomach to go back to sleep.
Only a minute later, the fourth emergency vehicle came flying past with blaring sirens, and Staci slammed her fist down onto the mattress in frustration. She rolled over onto her back and sat up. Rubbing her tired eyes, she swung her legs out of bed and went over to the windows where she moved the curtains apart a few inches so she could peek out without being watched herself.
To her far right, she could see an ambulance with its lights flashing and the rear doors open, and right next to that was a shock of green lying motionless on the sidewalk. As she was watching, two paramedics and a police officer helped the person in green onto a stretcher and carried it out of sight.
A few minutes later, the ambulance, the paramedics and one of the police cars came by with full lights and sirens, headed for Jefferson.
Staci shuddered and closed the curtains. Fully awake now, she sat down on her bed and ran her hands through her sleep-tousled hair. She yawned widely and came to the conclusion that she could do with a few more hours' worth of sleep.
She opened the drawer in her nightstand and began to rummage around for her earplugs. After finding a dull pencil, a petrified, broken elastic band, the spare set of rechargeable batteries for her vibrator, an MP3 player that she couldn't even remember owning, her prescription medicine for her menstrual cramps and a faded printout of herself and Maeve mugging for the camera in Maeve's cell phone, she finally found the small box with the earplugs.
She opened the box and took out the small plastic bag which she proceeded to rip open. After molding and inserting the earplugs, she fell back down onto the bed and shuffled around to get comfortable, hoping that the Sandman hadn't gone too far.
'...tening to WERC on 91.2 FM, your number one rock'n'roll station. I'm Susan Blaine and it's twenty past noon. We're in the middle of the B-Side Bonanza, so here's...'
"... So you didn't notice anything?" Maeve said into her cell phone as she was cruising South on Jefferson. She reached up to turn the radio down slightly so she could hear better.
'No. Not apart from the emergency vehicles. I couldn't really see anything down there, either,'
Staci said from the other end of the connection.
"Oh. Well, I just wanted to hear your voice and stuff. I got a little worried when I heard on the news that a woman had been the victim of a carjacking on First Street."
'That's so sweet, Maeve. But I'm perfectly fine. Do you know anything about the woman's condition?'
"No. They didn't say on the radio."
'The TV news crews have put the Community Hospital under siege, but the info is still sparse. Anyway, are you going with Danielle tomorrow?'
"Well... I don't know if I have the time, honestly," Maeve said and slowed to a halt at a red light at Eleventh Street.
'Michelle will be disappointed.'
"I know, and it bugs me. I'll try to work it in. It depends on Roberta Cain. If she triggers another major incident like this morning, I'll be swamped in work."
'Mmmm. Where are you now?'
"Jefferson and Eleventh. I'm on my way down to Daly's EmPORNium. He called me to say that he may have seen Shawna Grant."
'Oh! Finally some good news.'
'Listen, Maeve, if you decide to go with Danielle tomorrow... do you think it would be possible for me to... oh, sleep over at your loft tonight? You know, maybe we could have a drin...'
'I had a hunch you'd say that, Birddawg.'
"When have I ever not said yes, huh?"
'Let me see... never.'
"That's right, baby," Maeve growled, earning herself a throaty laugh from Staci.
When Maeve arrived at Daly's EmPORNium, all three parking spaces in front of the shop were occupied so she had to turn the Mustang right onto Twelfth Street. She pulled over at the first opportunity, putting two wheels up on the sidewalk.
"Baby, I'm here, so I gotta go. Talk to you later. Love ya," Maeve said and blew Staci a kiss through the phone.
'Love ya more, Maeve.'
The garishly decorated shop windows looked even more vulgar in broad daylight than they did in the dark, and Maeve rolled her eyes several times on her way into the shop.
"I'll be right there, Fever," Patrick Daly said from somewhere behind the circular counter that had been built in the center of the shop.
"Whatcha doin' down there, Patrick?" Maeve said and closed the shop door behind her.
"Wiping up the little mess I just made."
"Forget I asked," Maeve said and got the shivers.
Patrick popped up from behind the counter holding a roll of tissues. He was wearing horn-rimmed glasses, black polyester pants and a white, short-sleeved shirt that was buttoned up so high that it made him look like he had a double chin. It wasn't particularly warm in the shop, but even so, his face was covered by a light sheen of sweat like it always was.
He opened a hatch in the counter and stepped out into the shop. When Maeve saw the large, white splotch of something unidentifiable he was wearing right on his crotch, she had to rub her forehead and look away.
"I spilled some Greek yogurt," he said and held up a spoon and an empty cup.
"Oh... thank God. So... Shawna Grant?"
"I think I saw her the other night. Uhh, would you mind if I went and changed my pants before we talked?" he said, blushing.
"Be my guest. I'm not squeamish, but there's a limit even to my levels of tolerance," Maeve said, trying not to laugh out loud at the man's predicament.
"Be right back," Patrick said and hurried down the center aisle towards a door that led away from the shop.
Maeve put her hands into her back pockets and shuffled over to take a look at some of the new titles that were on display. She noticed with some interest that volume seventeen of 'Cowgirls Hard At Work' had arrived and she picked up the DVD box to take a look at it.
She had made it as far as 'E' when Patrick Daly returned, now wearing a coffee brown pair of polyester pants.
"I'm back, Fever."
"So you are. Shawna Grant?" Maeve said and put down a copy of 'Erotomaniacs Exposed'.
"Yeah. I think I saw her. African-American girl, late teens, caramel complexion, right?"
"Right so far, but there must be hundreds like that."
"Yes, yes, but not with frilly hair and wearing a red windbreaker. Is there a reward?" Patrick said and took off his glasses to polish them.
"Not yet, but there might be if she doesn't return soon. Sounds like you've got the right one, though," Maeve said and scrunched up her face.
"Where did you see her?" she continued.
"Right outside, two nights ago. I wanted to call you sooner, but, you know..." he said and shrugged.
"Yeah. Go on."
"Well, she was peeking through the windows. At first, I wanted to shoo her away... you know, the kids occasionally like to gawk in, but it's really uncomfortable for my customers, so I usually scare them away... uh, the kids, I mean."
"Shawna..." Maeve said, trying to steer Patrick back on course.
"Oh, yes, anyway, when I saw it was her, I ran outside and called her name, but she had already left. I saw a red windbreaker maybe one hundred yards further up Jefferson, but I couldn't go after her with people in my shop. I hope you understand that?" Patrick said and took off his glasses again.
"Yeah, I get it. Hmmm. And you haven't seen her since?"
"Shit. How did she look? Was she beaten, or...?"
"Oh, I didn't see her long enough to tell, but she seemed... I don't know... fairly normal," Patrick said and shrugged.
"Mmmmm. All right. Thanks, Patrick. Now, on the subject of Roberta Cain..."
"I haven't seen her at all since she got out. And not that other character, either. Paco Alvarez, right?" Patrick said and picked up a small feather duster. He started walking through the aisles, dusting off the boxes.
"But I did see someone who I think may have something to do with it. A young pup called Al Jones. Goes by the street name Jonesy. He came in last night looking like he'd been run over by a steamroller," Patrick said, pointing the feather duster at Maeve.
"I asked him what the hell had happened, because he'd been in here late last week and he was fine then... he didn't really want to talk about it, but he mumbled something about some badass bit... um... woman having done it to him."
"Yeah, and I thought, 'hey, either it was Fever or it was someone else.'
And that someone else might be..."
"R.C.," Maeve said and absentmindedly ran her index finger across her lips.
"So it wasn't you?"
"No. I've never heard of him. Is he a local?"
"From what I know, he hangs around up on Eighth. There's no way you can miss him if you start lookin'. His face looks like a fully decorated Christmas tree."
"Right. I think I'll do just that. Thanks, Patrick."
"Wait a minute, Fever, you can't leave yet. I have a few things for you."
"Yep. I have a few used rentals that I thought you might be interested in. I used to have a deal with Jimmy Snakes, but he hasn't been around lately."
"Naw, he won't be back for a while. He hit the jackpot. Used rentals?"
Patrick put the feather duster away and went behind the counter. A few seconds later, he came back out, holding a neutral white plastic bag filled to the brim with colorful DVD boxes.
"DVDs. Some of them are a bit scratched, but they should all play without any problems. There's an eight day warranty in case something major is wrong with them."
"Looks pretty good from where I'm standin'," Maeve said with a grin as she peeked down at the top box.
"Top quality, only the major production companies. People come in here and try to push their home-made videos all the time, but I always show them the door. You wouldn't believe how crappy some of them look."
"I hear ya. Did you sort them, or are they just random titles straight off the shelves...?" Maeve said and reached for the plastic bag.
"Oh, no, they're painstakingly sorted. You won't find any... uhhh... unwanted bits and pieces in any of 'em."
"Thanks, Patrick," Maeve said and grinned broadly.
"Listen, if Shawna Grant or that Al Jones character returns, call me. Day or night, doesn't matter, just call me. And try to get them to stay here until I arrive."
"Will do, Fever."
"That's a good boy, Daly," Maeve said and put her hand on the shop door's handle.
Concluded in Part 2