When Dexter walked out the back of the Manhandler massage parlor, Richie Moats panicked and almost blew his own leg off with the .357 he was holding. Great, he thought. Why him tonight? Dexter Calley is pure mean crazy and damned near bulletproof. Part Arapahoe, part black, and just up from Nogales. Big and quick enough to play pro football in Canada for two seasons. Vicious enough to serve thirty-eight months in Oklahoma on a manslaughter beef. Luckily, they'd only met a couple of times, so he probably wouldn't recognize Richie behind his mask. Dexter glided slow and easy, a cornerback's poise in a prison-yard strut. Shoulders wide as a dashboard. He studied the alley and casually sniffed at the air. His black hair was in a luxurious long ponytail that Cindy Crawford would have envied. Although the late-March Colorado night was cool, he wore only a T-shirt and charcoal pleated dress slacks. Suddenly, he turned back to the door and nodded.
If seeing Dexter made him nervous, Richie almost had a seizure at what came next. Out into the alley strolled all five feet, five inches of Sid Wahl. Richie swallowed hard. Not that he was intimidated by Sid. But the two men had talked to each other a dozen times or more and the little man might make him, eye mask or not. What then? Killing people was definitely not in Richie's repertoire. Relax, he told himself. Like Tina had said just that morning, "If armed robbery was easy, everyone'd be doing it."
"Let's get a move on," Sid said as he adjusted the leather briefcase in his hand. "I told him we'd be back by eight."
Dexter grunted and they both turned to head toward the car. Before they could take two steps, Richie moved from behind the Dumpster. Standing firm, he waved the huge .357 blue barrel between the two. "Hold it right there!" He was relieved that his voice was deep and steady.
They stopped, although Dexter swayed a bit. Even standing still he seemed to be in motion. Richie leaned back a tad and aimed his gun squarely at the big man. "I said stop!" he yelled. Glancing at Sid, he added. "And you, drop that briefcase!"
"You got any idea who you're fucking around with out here?" Dexter asked, clearly pissed, but calm. He sized up the masked man standing about four feet away with the cannon aimed at his chest. Could he lunge and grab the barrel before the guy fired? Probably not.
"I'm sure he does or he wouldn't be here." Sid's voice was flat and he broke into quick grin. A flesh-colored Band-Aid was wrapped around the nose bridge of his horn-rimmed glasses and he squinted hard at the mask. Not much those eyes missed. "Ain't that right, Zorro?"
Richie glanced down at himself. He was wearing all black: shoes, sweatshirt, pants, eye mask, and fedora pulled low over his forehead. "Drop it, asshole," he said, looking up again. "And keep your hands where I can see them. Both of you." He forced his voice deeper, but Sid was boring in. Damned smile, Richie thought. Sid knows he knows me, even if he can't come up with a name yet.
Sid held his gaze for another moment before tossing the case to the ground in front of him. The alley was quiet as a coffin, and the thick smell of Chinese cooking from the restaurant next to the Manhandler made it feel cramped and stale. Szechuan and garlic. On both sides, ancient brick walls the color of dried ketchup appeared to lean inward. A bare bulb over the doorway Sid had just left was the only illumination. To Richie, there was a stark, almost comical contrast between the two men standing in the dirty light. Dexter's tight physique and dark features next to Sid's squat, lumpy body stuffed into a plaid cloth coat like so much ripe produce.
"What now, hard guy?" Sid asked. He let out a soft hiccup. Whenever he got mad or anxious, that happened. Standing there with his hands raised to his shoulders, he was both. Furious with the man holding him up and nervous about the bitter fallout that would roll his way later. "Is this where we're supposed to beg you not to kill us?" His head hopped as he finished another hiccup.
"You got a big mouth for being such a little pecker," Richie said. "Whoever's got the car keys, toss them down."
Dexter Calley let out a long sigh like the whole deal was getting too tedious for words. Richie took a short step toward him and stopped. With both thumbs, he pulled back the gun's hammer, making a loud, clicking noise. "I'd hate for this thing to go off, me being so buggy and all," he said.
His voice was deliberately lifeless and it had the desired effect. Dexter reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the keys to the Lincoln. Without looking, he tossed them onto the ground next to the briefcase. Richie Moats drew them toward him with his foot. Then he squatted and grabbed them, all the while keeping the .357 on Dexter. "Let's go," he barked as he straightened up.
No one budged and Richie frowned behind his mask. "If I have to shoot you two jerk-offs every time I give an order, it's gonna start hurting after a while." Slowly, Dexter and Sid started toward the big white vehicle parked about fifteen feet in front of them. Richie stepped aside and then followed them. When they got there, the pair stopped and looked back, their faces betraying nothing.
"Move over," Richie ordered. As they did, he walked forward and opened the trunk with the third key that he tried on the chain. Then he stepped back and motioned toward the car. "Get in!"
"What the fuck?!" Dexter shouted.
Richie raised the gun with both hands. "I'll tell you 'what the fuck,' Geronimo. Get in the trunk or you're dead. That's what."
Dexter looked at Sid, who just shrugged, so the big man crawled into the trunk, keeping tight eye contact with Richie as he did. Sid moved forward and stopped. "Don't you want our wallets?" he asked. His head bobbed again in the tiny spasm of a hiccup. A hint of a smile was back on his face. "This here's a robbery, ain't it?"
Richie didn't say anything. He released the hammer on his weapon, but kept it trained on them.
"A real coincidence, us walking out with that particular briefcase just now and you being right here," Sid continued as he lowered himself next to Dexter. The two were now spooned together in scrunched-up, interlocking positions. "Yes sir. With what's in there you sure don't need our wallets."
It was Sid's way of saying he knew this was an inside job. He and Dexter were making the rounds of sex shops and massage parlors like the Manhandler, picking up a week's cash gross. Had to be at least four hundred thousand dollars stuffed into the huge briefcase. The masked man knew that the massage parlor, just off Colfax Avenue on Denver's West Side, was their last stop. He had to know: a total inside job.
Richie ignored Sid and grabbed the trunk top, about to close it.
"You're gonna regret this, pal," Sid hissed from below him. "That's a promise. You're gonna regret it like the plague."
Richie bent in closer, glared at Sid, and then pulled back. As he did, his black fedora hit the edge of the lid and slid off his head. In one harsh motion, he reached for it with his left hand. His fingers brushed hard against his temple, causing the cheap elastic string on his party mask to snap. The mask tumbled after the hat into the trunk. His mouth dropped as Dexter and Sid stared up at him. He frowned, confused and terrified, and his legs felt weak. Then he swallowed and took a step back. The best he could do was utter "Holy shit," barely above a whisper.
Sid's face flickered with anger, but his mouth quickly turned up again in a smile. "My, oh my. If it isn't little Richie-what's-his-name. Tina's friend. That's one very slick disguise. You got any idea what kind a deep shit you just stepped into, Richie boy? Any idea whose money's in that case?"
Richie was suddenly nauseated and his mouth was so dry he began moving his tongue around furiously to work up some saliva. But his voice stayed even. "Well, seeing as how I'm the one with the gun, I guess it's mine." His eyes bulged with stress. "Organ-grinder, Dago eyes," his uncle used to tease him when he was a kid. Large, intense, and almost black. Same color as his mustache and the mop of curly hair that now dangled freely around his face.
"Clever boy," Sid shot back. "Too bad dead men don't get to spend their money. You might as well kiss your sorry ass goodbye right now, Richie." He paused. "Jesus, who'd a thought you had the stones to pull a move like this? I always pegged you for a queer or something like that."
Richie put his left hand on the trunk top, his body swaying for a moment. His stomach twitched in violent nausea and he squinted to focus. He could feel the sweat forming over his eyes and he quickly ran the back of his gun hand across his forehead. What the hell was his move now? The gun seemed to weigh about a hundred pounds and it almost fell from his hand. Say something, do something. But what? Sid and Dexter were glaring hard at him and he knew they were thinking of lunging out. Richie pulled his head back and managed to steady his .357, moving it slowly and evenly between the two men. His mouth was so dry by now he wasn't sure he could say another word. He glanced down at the party mask and hat resting on Sid's legs and just that quick motion of his head caused the nausea to flare.
Suddenly he spoke, his words sounding thick and tentative. "We'll see who's the queer." Then, before he even realized it was happening, Richie's body shuddered wildly and he vomited straight out his mouth and nose, all over the two men. They jolted upright screaming, with Dexter crashing his head on the trunk frame. Then they fell back to their original positions, both swearing so broadly that Richie couldn't make out what they were saying. With his left hand, he jerked the trunk lid closed.
As he took a step back, wiping at his mouth with his free hand, he could hear the two men groaning loudly and banging into the sides and top of the trunk. Almost against his will, he smiled as he thought of that extra helping of pasta in white wine and clam sauce he'd had for dinner. "Enjoy," he said toward the car, his grin widening.
When he got back to his Chevy Blazer, he jumped in and quickly drove east. It would probably take Sid and Dexter hours to get free and they wouldn't be thinking all that clear once they were out. Still, Richie had to get Tina fast. Their contingency plan in case something went wrong was for them to leave Colorado. Right now. They each had a suitcase packed full of clothes in the back of the Blazer. As he drove, he picked up his cell phone and called her at work.
"Get out of there," he told her when she answered. "Grab whatever we need and get the hell moving. I'll pick you up in fifteen minutes in front of Currigan."
"What happened?" Her voice stayed calm.
"Sid Wahl happened, is what. He made me. I thought you said he never did pickups."
"He was there? He doesn't ... I mean not usually. From what I heard, he's only done that maybe twice."
"Well, make that three times," he responded. "And he was working with that psychotic Indian, or whatever he is. Calley. I 'bout wet my pants when those two came out the door."
"Dexter? He never makes pickups either. Almost never, anyhow. Are you sure they knew it was you?"
Richie said nothing at first. "It's a long story but Wahl ended up calling me 'Richie boy, Tina's friend.' I'd say that's a pretty good indication they made me."
"Damn," she said. "Rudy's going to want us dead for sure."
"He has to find us first. Plus, Sid and Dexter are furious. We had a little accident that's not sitting too well with them right about now. Grab that stuff and get going."
Tina looked at the phone for a long time after she hung up. Running her hand down the front of her skirt, she shook her head. They'd planned for the worst but she'd never really thought it would happen. Other than cops stumbling into the alley, Richie being recognized was about the only thing that could go wrong. Now Rudy would know for sure that she was involved. Two and two always equals four, even to an utter bozo like Rudy Fontana.
And he'd be doubly furious because she'd had a position of trust. Although only twenty-nine, Tina Gillis had worked for him for nearly four years. First as a topless dancer at one of his strip joints and later as full manager of his three massage parlors. Finally as his Gal Friday. But she never turned tricks. Didn't have to. When she was stripping, she'd make an easy twenty-five hundred a week just for shaking it up a few hours a night. All smiles and flying red hair, moving around the stage like a jungle cat, Tina seemed to just magically pull the fives and tens out of their pockets from across the room.
In her current job, she helped with the overall operation of Rudy's incredibly lucrative sex-for-sale empire scattered throughout Denver. She ran personal errands, advised him on hirings and firings, kept his appointments straight and his office organized, and was a part-time confidante. He didn't tell her everything, but she knew plenty. Like when and where the cash pickups were made.
For his part, Rudy liked Tina from the first day he met her. Oddly, the attraction was never sexual. She was much sharper than the rest of his girls: dependable and with a work ethic that would make a Japanese CEO blink. He trusted her completely. She knew that, which is what made her think she'd be above suspicion for the robbery. But all that changed when Sid recognized Richie.
Tina walked to her file cabinet in Rudy's outer office and opened the bottom drawer. Muffled downtown traffic noise from Champa Street outside the window was the only other sound. She grabbed the two fat file folders she'd been assembling over the past few months. The Denver Vice Bureau would give up doughnuts forever just to get their hands on them. They contained names, numbers, code words, addresses, and dates, along with cryptic ledgers. Also, they held a couple of dozen photos of naked middle-aged men frolicking with Rudy's girls, doing things that a Doberman in heat probably wouldn't even consider. Tina recognized several of the johns from local television and newspaper stories. These were important men. Although she didn't understand all the material, she was pretty sure that she had enough goodies to put Mr. Fontana behind bars for all eternity, plus ten. Her and Richie's life insurance policy. She stuffed the folders into her large purse and glanced around the room one final time.
"So long, Rudy," she whispered. "Thanks for the severance package." With that she walked out and headed to the nearby Currigan Exhibition Hall to meet Richie.CHAPTER 2
Streeter just knew that the dipshit in the fancy Saab was going to plow into his Buick. Driving slowly past the parking-lot entrance, he'd noticed that the driver, instead of looking ahead, was perched up on his Yuppie butt, one hand on the wheel, and studying his reflection in the rearview mirror. Combing his hair with his right hand as his new convertible rolled forward. Immediately after they collided, Streeter pulled over. This would really mess up the rush-hour crunch on First Avenue. He got out and glanced at his right rear quarter panel. Not much of a collision. He wouldn't even bother repairing a fifteen-year-old tank like the Buick. Just tell the Saab moron to be careful and then head on home.
"I had the right-of-way," the other driver said as he walked to the front of his car. He nodded toward the traffic light, which was now in his favor. "Look." His voice was high and whiny. "It only comes in one shade of green. That one! Yours was red."
He was maybe thirty, tanned, and well dressed. And there was a pinched-up arrogance about him that said he wasn't about to take the fall for some lumbering jerk in an American car. A brown one, no less.
"Those lights change color from time to time," Streeter said firmly. "You don't have to be a Supreme Court justice to figure this one out. I had the green light, and besides, you've got front-end damage and that usually means you're at fault. Which planet did you learn to drive on?"
The young man raised his shoulders in indignation and pointed at the Buick. "The same one where you got that piece of shit."
Streeter glanced at the clogged, late-afternoon traffic. They were in front of Denver's posh Cherry Creek Shopping Mall. He shook his head. "Look, there's not much damage for either of us. Let's just forget it. Life's too short to deal with insurance claims adjusters."
The Saab guy wasn't buying any of that. He went back to his car to get paper on which to write Streeter's name and license number. He was gone a couple of minutes, and just as he returned, a Denver motorcycle cop pulled up behind the Buick and parked. The officer got off and approached them, studying the damage. "Back up into the lot," he finally said. "Both of you."