Wednesday, May 13, 2009
This chapter's a bit of a game changer, friends. Well worth the wait. So, what's with the rabbits? A couple years ago I traveled to San Diego to visit my dad, and I managed to escape from his apartment long enough to stroll through this wooded area that was nearby. I wanted to take the evening air and finish a bottle of Old Crow in piece. After several perambulations around the place, I had finished the bottle and was feeling very drowsy. It being a pleasant night, I decided to nap al fresco on a bed of wilted palm leaves. Very soon I fell into a deep, dark sleep. In my dreams there was nothing but darkness, but I could discern a form moving about in the dark. It was none other than the black outline of The Nightwatchman on his nightly patrol through the unending moonless prairies of a nonexistent wilderness. At first, he seemed very far away but that was only an illusion. He was suddenly very close to me, and I was looking into his starving, steel colored eyes. He grabbed me by the shoulders and shouted "Wake up!" I came to and saw a troop of forty to fifty cottontail rabbits, of varying colors, standing on their hind legs and looking right at me. Just before I thought they were going to pounce on me and devour me, they all disappeared into the labrynthine manzanita. It just goes to show you, friends and neighbors. Be careful when you fall asleep in a strange place. You never can tell what The Nightwatchman will have waiting for you when you wake up...
We traveled for almost two hours more. Deb fed me updates on which way we were heading and I tried to write it all down in my notepad along with the time so that we could keep our story straight for Gail, and maybe the cops if it came to that. That’s hard to do when you’re balled up behind the passenger seat and you can’t move or see anything:
7:10: Drove over the I-95 bridge bearing east towards Brooklyn.
8:00: Still east on I-95. Approaching Commonwealth, Normandy Village.
8:30: Outside of city limits. Approx. 30 miles SW of the Osceola Forest.
9:00: East on I-10. Near Baldwin, Mattox.
It was a long drive. Either these guys had made a deal with backwoods, hillbilly moonshiners or they were taking the money camping with them. The sun had set. Deb switched on the headlights and the dash lit up bright red. I decided it was dark enough to climb up in the passenger seat without getting spotted and blowing her tail, but I still kept low. At 9:15 they exited the freeway and headed down a state road. My concern was that if the streets got too secluded it would be easier for them to spot our tail. I told Deb to ease off a little bit. The streetlights, ranch houses, and convenience stores started to vanish and the tangled oak and Spanish moss began to take over. The truck flipped a right and bounced over a cattle guard onto a dirt road.
“Drive past the road that they turned on and then turn around. We’ll keep following them with our headlights off,” I said to Deb. She drove past the road a couple hundred feet, then she flipped a hard U into the other lane, cutting off a Dodge van that was probably full of girl scouts.
“Jesus,” I said, buckling my seat belt. We got on the dirt road and she killed the lights. The red taillights from the truck could be seen a few hundred yards ahead like some creature’s red eyes staring through the mossy oak and the gathering fog. The road narrowed and I could hear the saw palmetto branches slapping against the side of the car. We had to keep at a good speed to keep up with the truck that was kicking up a cloud of dust ahead of us. Between the winding road, the fog, the dust, and Deb’s lead foot, the road was becoming less than safe to travel on with the lights off. Ahead I could see the truck’s brake light on. It looked like they were stopping.
“Pull over and park the car before they see us,” I whispered to Deb. “We’ll have to bring the equipment a ways on foot and set it up near them. Quiet, quiet, quiet.”
She pulled over sharply and the Trans Am lurched headfirst into a soft shoulder filled with mud. We’d never get it out, but there wasn’t any time to think about that. Deb jumped out to get the stuff out of the backseat. I reached into the glove box and pulled out a pint of Jim Beam that I stuffed into the back of my waistband next to my .38. It was shaping up to be a long night and I didn’t want to get thirsty. I stepped out of the car and got my good loafers into the mud. I got the reel-to-reel and the microphones out of the back. Deb got the camera and her laptop to take notes of everything that we were going to listen in on. We tramped through gnarly branches and swamp water well away from the road to avoid getting seen by the marks. The full moon cast crazy shapes onto the forest floor. The steady drone of the insects was thankfully deafening enough to drown out the sound of our shoes slurping through the mud. Out here, it doesn’t take long for you to sweat through your clothes and after that you’re moving in slow motion. Then, the mosquitoes get what’s left of you.
Through a break in the bushes I could see de Ramos’s truck in the weedy parking lot of what looked like a motel. An old neon sign stood unlit by the road’s entrance, “The Nightshade Motel,” written in squiggly, indefinable letters. The place looked long since abandoned. There was no light in the long, cracked window where the manager’s office would be. A dog-eared “CLOSED” sign was in the corner. The moonlight washed over the lime green paint on the concrete and the room windows looked cracked and covered in dust. No lights were on in the windows. This could have been any number of “adult” motels that dot the back roads of the South, complete with vibrating beds, porn DVDs, and complimentary massage oils. Not to mention the on-site companionship. Usually girls fresh out of high-school on the mob payroll who turn tricks for truck drivers in exchange for free blow and the occasional black eye. Maybe, that’s the kind of outfit an independent contractor like Derek de Ramos can get ahead in. Except that Derek and his buddies weren’t looking to flop with any Nightshade cooze tonight. Nobody had done that here in a long time. If that money wasn’t going to disappear in the thongs of motel gutter wenches, then I wonder what else he had in mind.
The three men got out of the truck with the black bag. They opened up the door to one of the rooms without a key and a light turned on in the window behind the off-white drapes. A troop of rabbits appeared on the edge of the parking lot. They all stood up and sniffed the air furiously, their eyes in the moonlight like tiny, smoldering embers.
“What the hell is going on here?” Deb said. “We have to get closer to these guys without getting spotted.” Through the bushes, I could see the motel had rooms in the back of the building as well as in front.
“If we can get into the room behind them, then maybe we can hear them through the wall,” I said. We snuck out into the broad moonlight and hustled over to the rooms back of the motel. Room 9 was directly behind the room the men were in. If we could get into that room hopefully we could find a way to record what they were saying through the walls. Four brown rabbits scurried away from the battered door as we approached. “What are you doing?” Deb said as I started working on the door with a little screwdriver that I kept on my key chain.
“What’s the matter Deb? This pale moonlight isn’t romantic enough to get you in the mood for a little B&E?” She looked just a little guilty, but I knew that she wanted the straight dope on de Ramos just as much as I did. I ran the screwdriver along the runner until I could feel the lock catch and then unlatch. I opened the door slowly then groped in the dark for a light switch before turning on a lamp that was on an end table.
“Gross,” Deb said. The room looked like it hadn’t been redone in 30 years. It had that anonymous, airless smell typical of old motel rooms. There was false wood paneling on the walls, big orange lamps with tall cylindrical lamp shades, and a bad painting over the king-sized, coin-operated bed. There was an old TV with big, luminescent dials and a VCR. Stacked on top were faded VHS porno tapes with obvious titles. The painting was of a 10-point buck standing on a wind-swept, paint globbed hill with lifeless, coal black eyes that stared back at me without the customary points of light painted into the corners of the eyes. A chill rushed through me like rabbits running over my grave.
I could hear the men murmuring in the room next to us. Time to roll. A central heating vent was over the table on the far wall. Maybe, if the vent communicated into the next room I could get the cover off and feed a microphone through the vent to record what they were saying. It had worked for me in the past. “Let’s move,” I said to Deb. Quickly, she pulled the reel-to-reel out of it’s case and started up the word processor while I took the cover off of the vent with the screwdriver. We fed the microphone in, plugged in our big headphones into the machine, and flicked the record switch on. There was a crackle and then we could hear the TV channels being flicked through in the next room. The sound was coming in loud and clear. Deb pumped her fist in victory and got ready to transcribe.
Man 1: When are these guys gonna get here?
Man 2: Said they were about twenty minutes away.
Man 1: Hope they get here soon. Ain’t shit on TV, homes.
Man 3: This is the most fucking work I’ve seen you do all week. Give me that fucking remote.
I could hear Sportscenter on, and the lighting of cigarettes or cigars. Somebody popped the cap on a bottle. The baseball scores came on and nobody talked. This felt like a different scene from the one I saw at the Shark Tank. If de Ramos was the third man in the room, and I believed he was, he sounded tense, edgy. A big deal was about to go down and he wasn’t going to rest easy until it happened. If that black bag was money, it looked awfully heavy. De Ramos was probably going to buy his product wholesale all in one shot. It had to be about dope. Had to be. Nothing but drugs would bring him out to an abandoned motel in the middle of the swamp. My palms started to sweat listening to the TV go on and on. I suddenly really wanted this de Ramos guy to go down. It was nothing personal. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but prisons had a lot of nice guys, too.
There was a knock on the door. I could hear de Ramos’s guys falling all over each other to answer. “Derek de Ramos,” came a drawling, backwoods voice on the other end of the door. The sound of two maybe three new sets of boots walking into the room.
“This is a long way to drive for a quick trade. You Florida boys got the heaviest, dampest weather I ever did see. Some say South is South, but this here Florida is wet and muggy to beat any Georgia weather, I declare.”
“You bring the package?” Derek asked, wanting the show back on the road.
“Got it in my truck,” said the man. “You got the money?”
It sounded like the duffel bag got slung onto the bed and someone unzipped it.
“Hundred thousand. Unmarked, nonconsecutive. Secured through our Cayman Island partners. That’s real green.” de Ramos said.
“It surely is,” said the man, appropriately laconic. He lit a cigarette and took a drag. “I’ve never seen so much of it all in one place before. Your boss must be real interested in this little gewgaw. Frankly, I can’t tell why.”
“What is it?” de Ramos asked, easing up now that the money was out.
“I was hoping to hell that you could tell me that,” said the man. “Ain’t nothing but this little black box we found on the back of this cigarette truck that we borrowed. Ain’t got no opening, ain’t got no writing on it. Got a matte like finish on it, doesn’t shine back at you at all. Looks like it could weigh forty, fifty pounds, but when you pick it up it feels as light as any ol’ empty cardboard box. Damndest thing I ever did see. We found it and word seemed to get around in an awful hurry. Not long after, your boss called my boss and gave us a great deal. Too great even. We’re happy to take your money, but I’d just as soon part with it for less. It ain’t got no use no how, so far as I can tell.”
“It can’t be killed,” said one of the other Southerners, in a deep gravelly voice.
“Well, that is true,” said the talkative one. “We thought we’d shoot at it awhile to see if we could get it to open, and also just to pass the time a spell. My Remington ten gauge didn’t budge it, and I was right up next to it. Same as my SKS, my AK-47, my .386 deer rifle, a whole mess of those M-80 fireworks the kids had around the house, my wife’s bird gun, it didn’t matter. The fuckin’ thing didn’t have but one fuckin’ scratch on it after all that firepower. We even had a good ol’ boy with an M-60 mounted on his jeep take a whack at ‘er and it didn’t do shit.”
“It can’t be killed,” said another Southerner.
“It can’t be killed,” repeated the talkative one. “Like I said, I don’t mind bein’ rid of the thing. I just want to know what it is ‘cuz I’m the curious type sumbitch. Did your boss say anything about it? Is it a safe? I’ll just bet that it’s a safe.”
“I don’t know what is,” de Ramos said. “My boss didn’t tell me. When I asked him he got pissed, so I backed off.”
“Well, it’s your money,” said the talkative one. “Hell, it don’t matter. So long’s I’m rid of the fuckin’, cussed, bloody gewgaw. As you can see it’s had a bit of an atrophying effect on the minds of my associates. I’m a bit long in the tooth myself, knowing that the thing is nearby. Can’t get a lick of sleep. It’s like I can feel it watching me, almost. ‘Course I got a prostate ain’t worth a damn anymore. Try as I might, I can’t get to piss like I used to could…”
“Let’s get a look at it, eh?” de Ramos interrupted.
“It’s your party,” said the other man. The door opened and I could hear the door of a car opening and shutting.
“There you go,” said the Southerner, shuffling back in.
“What’s this wooden box? I thought it was black,” said de Ramos.
“Nah, it’s inside of that. It’s a cherry wood cabinet I made special for it. I figured since you were paying so much for it, I’d give you something to keep it in. Besides, it sort of… needs something to keep it in.”
“Nice,” de Ramos said, sounding genuine. I could hear the clasps on the wooden box snap and the lid creaked open. There was a long pause. No one said anything.
“My god,” came an indefinable voice, “What is it?”
Suddenly, tires squealed in the parking lot. I could hear them without the microphone. Another car had pulled up and they weren’t being quiet about it. Then, a loud pulsing noise filled de Ramos’s room and I flung my headphones off and hit the floor just as I heard the sound of bullets slapping into human bodies and punching through the walls into our own room. I could hear them thumping into the bed and the side tables, carrying that cordite smell with them. Deb screamed. There was a few more rapid pulses, like someone finishing the job, and then the shooting stopped.
I looked over the other side of the bed and saw Deb lying on the ground with her headphones half off and sucking big gulps of air. She was holding a spot on her calf that was wringing out bright gushes of blood. My pulse was jacked but I stopped the shaking long enough to grab the camera and wheel around to the other side of the motel. I had to get a good look at the shooters. I got a mental flash of Deb getting out of the hospital, looking at the pictures I took of them, and pointing them out to the jury when we would testify in court and send every one of these fuckers to the chair. I hid behind a bush and killed the flash on the camera, hoping to Christ that the moonlight would be enough. Two white males, late twenties-early thirties, wearing black hooded sweatshirts and black gloves loaded a maybe 2’x 3’ sized cherry wood box into a late model, black, Cadillac Escalade truck. In the passenger seat, a white male, mid to late sixties, watched them load up with the window down. He took a huff on what looked like an oxygen mask before rolling up the tinted window. That was something. The truck tore down the road. Snap, snap, snap. I got it all. I couldn’t make the license plate from where I was at, but I was hoping it would wash up in the pictures. Deb was running out of time. I ran back to the room and put my hand on her shoulder. She was breathing heavy, and the blood was getting worse.
I leaned in and whispered, “They’re dead already, girl. Dead. I promise you.”
Through a mist of adrenaline I called 911 with maybe half a bar’s reception on my cell phone. Told them to send an ambulance right away for a gunshot wound. The girl dispatcher on the other end sounded scared. I told her that they didn’t need to rush to help the six other victims of a mass murder in the other room. They would just need to get their pictures taken before getting hauled to the county morgue.