“Here they come.”
Phil noted the two cars approaching on the dirt road trailing clouds of dust against a blue sky.
Jake sat in the shade, legs outstretched, back against a leg of the water tower, head thrown back, both hands covering his face as if in some strange prayer or some kind of yoga pose, not responding.
Phil looked over at the distant cars; two black vans, probably bullet proof. No mistake.
“They’re here, Jake.” Jose said in deep baritone.
Jake exhaled slowly and let his hands slide down his face, then stood up, brushed the dirt off his pants.
“Take your positions. Nick with Jose. Ralph with Vinny. Phil and Jay stay here.”
The men spread out in an arc, holding their shotguns and assault rifles, ready to shoot from both sides if things went south, close enough to the legs of the water tower to take cover if need be, but not so close as to look frightened.
They waited for the vans to come close across the threshold, a speed bump made of bags of gravel, a psychological line daring them to cross. It was a ploy to get them to come within effective range of the shotguns all the while maintaining the illusion of a simple meeting place.
The two cars came close to the water tower and stopped, one behind the other. The windshields were tinted, but each car would be carrying at least four men. Two got off of the car in front; overdressed men in dark suits and vivid ties one of them with a briefcase. The rest of them stayed in the bullet proof cars, a wise precaution against a sudden shootout.
“Nice to see you, Jake.”
“Same to you, Guido.”
“You brought the stuff?”
Jake gestured to Phil and Jay, who let the flap down on the pickup truck and removed the heavy cover sheet. Plastic parcels of white powder were neatly laid out on the back of the truck, twenty to a row, five rows deep.
“Do you mind?” Guido made an elaborate flowing gesture.
“Be my guest.”
The man at Guido’s side walked up to the truck and opened his briefcase on the flap. He chose a parcel at random and stuck a small nail knife into it. He took a test tube out of the briefcase, dropped the powder on the nail knife into the tube, and capped and shook it. The liquid turned bright purple. The man nodded at Guido. Guido gestured with his chin, and the man chose another parcel and repeated the procedure.
Jake noted that the man was not licking the powder.
“You gonna test them all?”
“As many as we see fit.”
“I wanna see the money.”
Guido turned and gestured to the car. Another man in a dark suit and bright tie came out of the front car carrying another briefcase. He obviously had a large weapon under his flapping jacket.
Jake accepted the briefcase and handed it to Phil without taking his eyes off Guido. The gunman returned to the van. Phil opened it, took out a random bundle and fanned the bills.
“Mind if we count it?” Jake looked over at the man testing the powder. He was getting started on another parcel. “We seem to have time.”
“Go ahead,” said Guido.
Phil took the briefcase to an old milk van where they already had two bill counters set up. Soon, they could hear the fluttering sound of the electric bill counters as Phil and Jay fed bundles of cash into the machines.
“Look who’s prepared,” said Guido with a grin. “You wouldn’t have some coffee for us would you?”
“I actually happen to have an espresso machine in the van. Would you like a cup?” Same grin.
“I promise it won’t be poisoned.” He stretched out his hands in a wide shrug, raised his eyebrows, and grinned even wider.
“I’m sure you do.”
The mechanical fluttering of the bills continued. The black vans kept their engines running, water dripping beneath from the air conditioning. Nothing else moved across the wide plains for as far as could be seen. A random grasshopper landed at Guido’s feet.
“How’s your daughter, Jake.”
“Don’t have a daughter.”
“Oh? I heard you do. A student in college. You must be a proud parent. Brown, I think they said.”
“You heard wrong.”
“I hear a lot of things. It’s my business to know the people I deal with.” Guido grinned. “You’re sweating, Jake.”
“It’s a hot day.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
Jake looked over at the pickup truck and saw that the man had picked up another parcel and poked his nail knife into it.
“How many do you have to test?”
“Just a few more.”
The man shook another test tube and waited for it to turn purple. He was marking the tested parcels with a magic marker and marked the corresponding test tubes. The bills fluttered over the dull rumble of the engines. The grasshopper at Guido’s feet had gone away.
“Those bags of gravel you used to mark the perimeter, and van and truck, placed perfectly. Very professional. I’m impressed.”
Jake only nodded silently.
“This is a tough business for a family man like you, Jake.”
There was silence. The fluttering had stopped. The two men stood facing each other about nine feet apart. Neither flinched.
Phil walked up to Jake from behind and said quietly, almost a whisper.
“We’re half a million short.”
The man testing the parcels froze mid-gesture. Guido looked sidelong at him, then gestured with his chin. The man hastily packed his briefcase and rushed back to the black van.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing, Jake. Nothing. What do you say you just give us a discount and call it a deal?”
“Even if it’s a family discount?”
“You pay us three million dollars or go home with nothing.”
“You should think of your daughter.”
“I ain’t got a daughter.”
“Wasn’t her name Clarissa?”
“Three million or no deal.”
“Be smart, Jake. Two and a half million is plenty of money. Do the wise thing.”
Without looking, Jake could feel that his two men on the wings had raised their guns aiming, not at Guido, but at the vans, so that they could pick off the gunmen the moment they burst out of the door. Jake drew a mental picture of the formation. Ralph and Vinny were to his left, Nick and Jose to his right. Phil and Jay were behind him, no doubt already in position behind the truck and the van ready for a shootout. The only weak link was Nick, young and inexperienced, but he was paired with Jose who was worth two men.
“You cough up the money now,” said Jake, “and we can save each other a lot of grief.”
“Come on, Jake. This is a reasonable offer.”
“You’re a cautious man, Guido. I know you brought another half million just in case the deal went south. Well, the deal’s gone south. So gimme the money.”
“Whatever you say, Jake.”
Guido turned toward the van and walked half way, but turned back again to Jake, and spoke loudly, almost a shout.
“How about those Indians, huh Jake?”
“The Indians. They won last night.” The same wide disgusting grin.
“Too late, Jake.”
Jake spun around to see five men in camouflage standing with assault rifles about thirty yards behind the water tower wading through the tall grass toward them.
“You see, Jake. You chose this place because you can see all around you. You can spot anyone approaching. But while you were looking at us, you couldn’t see behind. Ever heard of electric bikes? Very silent. They approached you while you counted the money. The counting masked the sound. You shouldn’t have counted the money, Jake. It would have been so much easier for you if you just took the money and left.”
The men in camouflage came closer as they beat their way through the golden grass. Jake’s men could turn around and shoot at them, but then the gunmen in the vans could pick them off. Besides, they had no cover on the back side.
“Now,” said Guido, “I would like my money back please. And the keys to the pickup.”
Jake turned to Phil, who was kneeling behind the milk van with his shotgun, and nodded to him. Phil put his shotgun on the ground and rose slowly, his hands in the air. He walked slowly to the bill counters and started picking up the money, putting rubber band on each bundle before putting them back in the briefcase.
“That’s right, take your time,” Guido called out, but Phil did not move any faster.
“So, Guido, who told you about my daughter?” Jake walked a few steps forward out of the shadow of the water tower, closing the distance between himself and Guido, but not as close as before.
“Oh, you do have a daughter now, do you?”
“Who told you?”
“I have friends. Lots of friends.”
“You’re about to have a few less.”
“A protective father, who would have thought?”
“You touch my daughter…”
“And? What can you do? I can decide to kill you, you know? I can just have all of you shot and take the money and drugs. You can only live if you have my good graces. Do you understand?”
Guido reached behind his back and drew a pistol, a chrome-plated automatic. Everyone tensed, but nobody shot.
“You know what? I think I changed my mind. I think I’m going to shoot you and kill you. And I’m going to go to that fancy college, find your daughter, and fuck her till she likes it!”
“Go to hell.”
Guido half raised his gun to Jake’s head when someone screamed. Then there were a barrage of shots from automatic weapons. The men in camouflage were shooting at their feet. Phil pulled out a military rifle from under the bill counters and shot at the men in camouflage. The doors of the black vans flung open and six gunmen came out, Ralph, Vinny and Jose picked them off methodically while Nick the kid sprayed bullets wildly. They did not even bother to cover their backs, but Phil and Jay had already taken out the men in camouflage. It was all over in a matter of seconds and only Guido, among all his men, was still standing, shaken. All guns were now trained on him.
Jake reached behind and pulled a revolver out of his belt.
“You were saying what?”
A single shot through his forehead and Guido fell to the ground.
Jake turned around and walked all the way to where Phil was examining the dead men in camouflage. There was a narrow ditch about two feet deep hidden in the tall grass like a secret moat protecting the water tower. Three of the dead men had died in the ditch. Others died close to it. An angry hissing came from the ditch. Some of the snakes were blasted apart, but were still writhing. Some were shot but still alive and still shaking their rattles. Some, presumably spared, hid quietly under the wet hay that covered the ditch floor.
“What a waste of fine rattlers,” said Phil.
“They saved our lives,” said Jake.
“Four hundred snakes didn’t come cheap. I would have preferred personnel mines.”
“Military hardware attracts too much attention these days.”
“Can I ask you a question, Jake?”
“Do you really have a daughter?”
“No. Somebody must have given Guido the runaround. I was just playing along to buy time.”
White clouds were drifting across the clear sky, and the tall grass swayed in the gentle breeze.
“Come on. Let’s clean this up before sun down.”