We went in like insurance salesmen just like Tommy’d laid it out. Three-piece suits, briefcases, the whole bit. At six-thirty in the morning. Seems Tommy had a friend who was an assistant manager at the Men’s Warehouse who could be talked into letting us have some threads on credit. We’d just have to pay double the price on the stickers. Seemed reasonable usury, the credit place we were in.
Standing there, waiting for someone to answer the doorbell, I kept saying over and over, “I’m having a dream here. I’m having a dumb-ass attack in this dream . . .”
Nothing suspicious about us at all, just two hustling estate-planner types, out hitting the whole life/double indemnity trail early, hustling to beat the competition. We walked up to the mark’s house dressed that way in case any of the neighbors were out watering their lawns and also so the victims would open the door. Who would suspect guys who looked like Chamber of Commerce types?
A woman in a pink bathrobe and matching pink hair curlers opened the door.
“We don’t want any,” she said and tried to close the door. Tommy put his foot in the door just like the vacuum cleaner salesman in all the jokes, at the same time trying to get his .45 out from the coat pocket where he stuck it. He fumbled it, almost dropped it, then got his mitt around it.
“I ain’t said what we got yet, lady,” he said.
The woman was looking at the glass in her hand and it didn’t look like she saw what Tommy had in his hand. She coughed a whiskey cough and began hacking and wheezing until she got it under control. When she looked back up at Tommy, it looked like she still didn’t grasp that he had a gun in his hand.
“You don’t look like Ed McMahon, honey,” she said. “And he’s the only guy that’s got what I want this time of day.” She started to close the door again and Tommy blocked it with his knee. That’s when she saw the gun. Her mouth made a silent O.
“Well, now, why didn’t you say that was what you’re selling?” she said. She let the door swing open behind her and walked back into the kitchen. “By all means. Come in, boys.”
Tommy and I gave each other a look and went into the house. I closed the door behind me.
The woman was standing by the counter. It looked like she was waiting for a blender that was making a racket to be done.
“Is this a rape or a robbery?” she said. “Not that it makes much difference. I’ll need a cup of coffee before you begin. I hate getting raped before I’ve had my coffee.”
This wasn’t going exactly as I’d envisioned it.
“Tommy,” I whispered. “We got us a Hostess Ding-Dong here, brudda . . .” We just stood there, looking at her. I was waiting for Tommy to do something. Damned if I knew what to do.
The woman went to the kitchen cabinet over the stove and began pulling out cups. She started screeching. “Honey! Honey, we got company. Avon calling.” She lighted up a long cigarette she took from a pack of Benson & Hedges on the counter.
A smallish man, in brown dress pants and a white shirt, poked his head around the corner from the hallway. He had a blue bow tie in his hand. He saw the gun in Tommy’s hand and blanched. I figured this was Fred, the manager, Tommy’d talked about. I couldn’t remember his wife’s name or if Tommy’d even told me.
“Oh, hi, pumpkin,” she said. “Guess who’s here?” She shined us a weak smile. “A couple of low-life’s.” She paused. “And so early in the morning. You ready for your coffee, dear?”
Tommy finally seemed to come awake. He motioned with his gun for Fred to come into the kitchen. He came in, brow furrowed. He looked first at his wife, then at us, then back at his wife. “What’s this, LaVerne? Who are these men and what do they want?”
Tommy said, “Hey, Fred. We’re having a little coffee. Sit the fuck down and join us.”
Fred didn’t act like a supermarket manager, at least he didn’t act the way I thought supermarket managers acted. He seemed more irritated than scared.
He eyed Tommy and said, “Have we met?”
Tommy raised his .45 at him. “Meet Mister Smith and his brother, Mister Wesson.” I didn’t point out that he was holding a Glock Model 21, sister of the same one I had stuck in my own pocket.
The man sat down on one of the tall counter chairs.
This was just plain nuts. I went over and looked through the little window in the front door. The neighborhood looked okay. Nobody stirring.
No cops with red lights anyway.
The wife—Laverne?—putzed around making coffee. She dumped a big dollop of vodka into a cup and poured the other half full of coffee. She pretty much ignored us.
“Surprised I know your name, Fred? I got some more surprises for you.”
I caught Tommy’s eye. “‘Scuse me. I need to talk to you a minute.”
He acted pained, but he strolled over to me where I was standing by the front door.
I whispered to him, my face close to his. “This is fucked, Tommy. Look around. I don’t think there’s any great love affair going on here. Did you see what the missus just put in her coffee cup? It’s half vodka! She’s a lush and I bet ol’ Fred there hopes we ice her, once you run the deal down to him. We need to leave.”
Tommy just gave me that smirk I was getting tired of seeing. “Naw, Pete,”
he said, talking as if he was explaining fractions to a six-year-old. “You’re reading this all wrong. He loves her. You’ll see.”
He walked back to the kitchen table and held his gun up for effect.
“Listen up, folks, My partner and I need to talk. Don’t try anything weird, Fred. You either, lady. I’ve got my eye on you.”
Laverne batted her eyes at him. “And me without my makeup on!”
He strolled back to me.
“Look, Pete. I’m going to lay something on you that will set your mind at ease. Pete, I am half Indian. Half Pawnee, half Cherokee, and half French. Ten percent German. Being Indian, I have unique skills. For instance, I can read human nature like a deer trail. This man loves this woman deeply. the eyes, Pete. It’s in his eyes. The eyes are like lie detectors to the red man. Trust me.”
I looked at him and pictured him in the same gray cell I was picturing for myself.
“Half Pawnee, plus half Cherokee, plus half French, and your little toe’s German, huh? That equals all asshole . . .”
He just doesn’t get it. He walked back to the table where Laverne was just setting down the coffee carafe and a couple of new cups.
“Here it is, gents,” she said. “Drink hearty. I know I am.” She sloshed more Stoli into her own cup and swished it around and then tipped it back and took a healthy glug.
Tommy ignored her. He addressed Fred. “Now, Freddie,” he began. “You want to be clear on all this. You and me are going to go down to your store and . . .”
I could feel a tiny bead of sweat roll down my nose. I wiped it off and caught Laverne’s eye. She smiled at me.
Tommy was still going on, explaining to the both of them that we were professional cold-blooded kidnappers and unless Fred followed his instructions exactly, he and his lovely missus were both going to be items on the obits page in the Times-Picayune. My take on Laverne was that she wasn’t focusing all that well. I’m not sure she was capable, at that point.
Just before Tommy left with Fred, I got him over in the corner for one last plea to his sanity. “I am getting bad, bad vibes about this, Tommy. I would seriously question whether ol’ Fred here would really go to the wall for the lovely Laverne at this point in their relationship.” I tried my best to get through to him, but I could see it was a losing proposition. I tried, anyway. “In fact, Tommy, I have a suspicion that he may even relish the prospect that she might achieve a state of room temperature as per our threats should he not comply with our stated wishes and get in touch with the authorities, against our explicit instructions. What say you?”
“Naw,” he said. “He loves her. You’ll see. Besides, it’s not his money he’ll be giving us; it’s the company’s. And don’t forget—I’ll be with him every step of the way. There’s no way he could call the cops, even if he wanted to. Your fears are groundless.”
I didn’t know what else to say, so I didn’t.
I was still trying to figure out how I might be yet able to dissolve our partnership, when he went back to the table and explained to Fred and LaVerne how the kidnapping and payoff was going to go down once more to be sure they got it right. I, the Mad Dog Killer (he called me that), would stay with LaVerne here in the house while he would go with Fred to the store where he would open the safe and get the money. In case any of his loyal employees wanted to know what they were doing Fred was to tell the assistant manager or head cashier or whoever got nosy that Tommy was a detective and that the police had received a tip there was going to be a robbery and he was there to provide security in getting the money out. Fred was also to explain that in a few minutes, other detectives, male and female would be along to take the regular clerk’s places and thwart the robbery.
It was an ingenuous plan, I had to admit, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought just maybe Tommy knew what he was doing.
That’s what I thought.
—I guess you had to be there. Little did I know that if I had been in China at that moment that it was about to be Chinese New Year’s and the start of the Year of the Baboon.
“You’re a fool.”
“What?” It was the lovely LaVerne. We were sitting at the kitchen table. Tommy and Fred had been gone a long time. A long time. Enough of a long time that she had killed the first bottle of vodka and was halfway toward the bottom of a second.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She had her head up now and was really working on the Stoli, not bothering with the coffee mixer any more, just tipping the bottle up and letting ‘er rip. I had to admire her—she could drink that stuff like there was an AA meeting coming up in ten minutes and she had to make hay.
“You don’t think Fred’s going to give you guys any money, do you? I mean, seriously?”
I didn’t like the way she said that and I especially didn’t like the little laugh she gave.
“What’s he care? It’s not like it’s his money. Hell, he’ll probably make out like a bandit. Say we stole twice as much as we did. Insurance company’ll pitch a bitch, but they’ll come through, sure as rain.”
She stopped in the middle of a major swallow and gave me a funny look.
“You really don’t know, do you?”
“Know what? What the fuck don’t I know?”
“Shit.” She looked down at the table. “I’m being kidnapped by a couple of amateurs who are going to get their dicks shot off. I’ll probably end up getting shot myself by some stupid cop with a hangover and a burning desire to have his name in headlines.”
“You think Fred’ll call the man?”
She snorted. “I’m amazed that they’re not here already. Although I don’t think it’s the cops he’ll call. You should only wish.”
I was getting a sinking feeling in my gut and I didn’t think it was the remains of Pascale’s tamale from the night before.
“What—” Before I could get the next word out, one hell of a commotion broke out just down the street. I watched, stunned, as at least half dozen police cars roared past the house and tore right up into the yard of a house halfway down the block, about the same number coming from the other direction, and then heard a bullhorn thundering out:
INSIDE THE HOUSE! COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP AND NO ONE WILL GET HURT!
The chances of two kidnappings taking place so close together at the same time was fairly remote, I figured. I doubted Vegas would even give odds on something like that, no matter how much you wanted to lay down. It also occurred to me that it would be in my best interests to leave the lovely Mrs. Laverne Frehaun and her house and get as far from this address as my legs could carry me in the shortest period of time.
Laverne hadn’t even seemed to notice either the action down the street, which we could plainly see out of the kitchen window, as she had sort of passed out, her head flopped down on the table, and I was just getting up to make my way out the back door, when she raised up, fixed a bleary eye on me and said, “You interested in the real money?”
Knock me down. Talk about a cool customer.
“Don’t you want the serious money he keeps?”
“I heard you. Are you aware there’s an F.O.P. convention going on at your neighbors over there? I think I will take my French leave now, thank you. I have grown to like you, Laverne—an awful lot—and hate to do this, but I am going to go now and I will have to smack you over the head so’s you won’t be tempted to go screaming out the door once I leave. This is nothing personal, you know.”
“Wait a minute, Festus,” she said, a weary tone to her voice. All that lifting of the bottle must have about wore her out. “We’ve got a little time before they figure out they got the wrong place and dope out which is the right one. Come on. I’ll make you a rich man.”
I was wrong about that “Year of the Baboon” thing. It was the Year of the Seriously Challenged Nutcase.
I saw she wasn’t near as drunk as she had seemed. She seemed suddenly as sober as a turkey at six a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. I was a bit nervous with all the action down the street, but she had definitely got my attention with talk about “serious” money.
She pulled herself to her feet, steadied herself and then walked over to the counter and picked up the phone receiver on the wall. I started to get up and do what I didn’t have a clue.
“What the fuck?” I said.
She looked at me and smiled. “Don’t piss your pants, junior.” She dialed a number and I took another step toward her and she held up her hand like a traffic cop. I obeyed.
“Hello?” she said. “Bill there?” She listened a second. “Good. Send his cab over to Laverne’s house. The street behind. He’ll know where.” She listened again. “Just tell him the eagle has landed. Ten minutes. Don’t be late. Tell him that. He’ll understand.” She paused again, held the phone away from her for a brief second, then said into it, “Just do it, schmo.”
She hung up, stood there with her hands on her hips, staring at me like she was trying to decide something. It was plain to both of us that I wasn’t in control of the situation.
She turned and walked past me and down the hall. “I’ll get you out of here and with a bundle besides, Gilligan,” she said. I followed, after a second. What else was I to do? I could hear the police outside talking over that bullhorn. Come out, I think they were saying, and they weren’t saying “please” unless please sounds like “motherfucker” from a distance.
I went into a room I seen was the master bedroom and watched Laverne go over to the closet, open the door, step inside, and take down a large suitcase that was up high on a shelf, behind some odds and ends. I could tell it was a load by the way she grunted and almost fell over as she jerked it down. She lugged it over and threw it up on the bed.
“Open it,” she ordered, and of course I did as she said.
It was money. A suitcase full of money, just like you see a million times in the movies. But this wasn’t any movie. This was real. More money than I ever imagined I would be standing in a room next to.
“That’s . . . money,” I said. Quite the genius.
Laverne gave me a look. “My, you’re the brainy one, aintcha?”
I guess it was unanimous.
“Do you know why those cops are out there now?” she said.
I shook my head up and down.
“No you don’t,” she said. “You haven’t thought it through. All you think is that you’re busted. You think you better get the fuck out of here because in a few minutes they’re going to find out they’ve got the wrong house surrounded and pretty soon they’ll be outside the right one. Even the dumbest donut-gobbling cop out there is going to figure that out eventually and find out which is the right house. This one. The one with you and me in it. That’s what you think, right?
She was a good guesser, I had to give her that. That was exactly what I thought.
She shook her head in a disgusted way and shut the suitcase. She walked over to the closet again and reached up on the shelf again and came out with a small blue case, one of those that women like to put cosmetics and junk like that in. She opened it up and looked inside and seemed satisfied, closing it. I couldn’t see what was in it.
This was just all too much for my brain to handle.
Laverne strode over to the dresser and began yanking out clothes and throwing them on the bed. She undid the belt on her robe and let it fall. She was buck naked. The whole time I just stood there, staring.
“Man!” I said, before I thought. She gave me a smile. I couldn’t take my eyes off her mammaries. They were museum-quality.
“Humongous, aren’t they?” she said. “Fred’s big idea of a birthday present. I’d rather had a trip to Bermuda.”
I kind of nodded, but mostly just stood there opening and closing my mouth without saying anything.
She went back to the closet, reached in and grabbed a black cocktail dress and pulled it over her head. The dress really showed off her assets. Both of them. There was a pair of black pumps sitting on the floor beside the bed. She slipped them on and walked over to the dresser, pulling rollers out of her hair as she walked, dropping them to the floor, one by one. She ran her fingers through her hair and picked up a brush on the dresser and bent over at the waist and brushed vigorously and then straightened up and shook her head and ran her fingers through it away from her face and smiled at me.
“My darlin’ husband Freddie blew the whistle on you and your friend. And me. You didn’t really think he was going to give you any money, did you? For me?” She laughed. “You ain’t never been married, have you? Only reason he called the cops is he hoped maybe there’d be a shootout and maybe I’d end up in a body bag along with you. Otherwise, he would have called . . . someone else.”
Her smile vanished. “Come on,” she said. “Grab the suitcase and let’s go. I think we’d better hurry.”
I didn’t argue. It looked like one of us had a plan. I sure didn’t. I guessed I’d use hers until I came up with my own.
I hoisted the suitcase and about dropped it on my foot. Damn! Money weighed more than I could have imagined. Laverne grabbed her makeup case off the dresser top and said, “Let’s boogie, Austin Powers.”
Out the back door we went, me following her. She cut through the neighbor’s yard in back to the next street over, me right on her heels. No way I was going to lose her. Not with every cop in New Orleans a block over.
We came out to the street in the middle of it and she looked up and down both ways. A taxi turned the corner on our left and she began waving like a Norfolk sailor’s wife when the fleet pulls in. The cab pulled up and we piled in, Laverne in front and me in back with the suitcase. For a second, I had the thought that maybe I could just boogie on down the road with the money, but I didn’t have the cojones, I guess. Where would I go? Sirens were going on everywhere, coming from every direction.
We all heard the bullhorn, even though all the windows in the cab were up and the A/C was pounding on high.
YOU IN THERE! THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE!
Slowly, we left all that behind us as we pulled away.
I realized I was sweating like a priest in a roomful of choir boys.
I took in my surroundings. Laverne was talking to the driver and it was plain they knew each other. My first clue was when she locked lips with him and the second was when she called him Bill Baby. He didn’t look like much—just a balding, average-looking guy of indeterminate middle age.
She was saying something to him.
“I hate the name Laverne,” she said to him. She turned around to include me in the conversation. “I think I’ve always hated my name. I’ve never felt like a Laverne. What do you think I should change it to?”
Even though she was looking at me, I wasn’t sure who she was asking her question of.
She shrugged and turned back to the driver.
“Uptown, honey. They’ll be all over the airport. I’ve got an idea.
Bill spoke for the first time. “This is it, then, pumpkin?”
Laverne said, “You got it, sugar. Time to rock and roll.” She leaned over and planted a kiss on Bill Baby’s cheek, who made a fist and exclaimed, “Yes!”
Must have been his scintillating conversational skills, I figured, was the attraction.
We came up on Carrollton Avenue where Bill took a left and then a couple of blocks after that ran into the levee and St. Charles where he took another left. Heading downtown. He kept looking back at me in his mirror.
“You look familiar,” he said. Then: “I got it! You’re on TV! You’re one’a them guys tried to rob that streetcar!”
What do you say to that? My heart sank. Our pictures were on TV? We were fucked.
When we drove past the 4141 Club, Laverne looked over at Bill. They must have had some kind of silent communication going on, because he nodded, even though she hadn’t said a word, and pulled over to the curb. She told me to open up the suitcase. She reached back and took one of the packets and held it up for me to see. They all had thick rubber bands around them. She rifled through it and it was all hundreds. She took off the band and peeled off five one hundred dollar bills and thrust them at me. “Here,” she said. “Here’s some walking-around money.” She shined me a big smile. I smiled back. I was starting to come to my senses again, the shock of the past few minutes beginning to wear off. If she thought she was going to buy me off with this she was mistaken. I guess she’d forgotten I had a gun.
At least that’s what I was thinking then.
It didn’t turn out quite that way.
“Close the suitcase,” she said, and I did.
As I was deliberating on the best way to get rid of her and Bill and take the suitcase and digging around in my pocket to reach my gun to put this plan into action, Laverne popped open the makeup case she’d brought with her and pulled out a gun. A really big shiny gun. Pointed at me.
“Say goodbye, Harvard Law.”
She turned to her monosyllabic squeeze while I fumbled with the door. “Mr. Mad Dog Killer has decided to get out and walk. He gets carsick. Don’t you, Mr. Killer?”
I was going to kill Tommy. Slowly, using needle-nose pliers.