Friday, February 1, 2008

BIG MONEY, Chapter 27

Travel directly to Manhattan after your flight into Newark-Liberty International Airport and the New Jersey you’ll remember involves refineries, garbage, and rust. Very American, of course. But decidedly unappealing.

To snap another shot of Jersey, drive south on the Turnpike, then down the Garden State Parkway half an hour, watch the scenery transform into forests of maple, pine, and oak. Rivers and salt-water sloughs; farms with horses and barns. Central New Jersey’s rural suburbs best anything in Connecticut or Massachusetts.

Of course, another thirty minutes south on the Parkway and you’re in New Jersey’s pine barrens, a desert-like, endless brush of stunted, twisted, yellowed evergreen scrub that makes the night drive from L.A. to Las Vegas look scenic.

“Where are we going?” I say.

“Somewhere Bluefish no look for you.”

Besides the accent, Mama Bones’s language and tone also carry a certain confidence I wish I could share. When Gina saw Tony was dead, and went off like a hotel smoke detector, it was Mama Bones who brought Gina back with a small smack and a quickly mumbled shaman’s spell. The old woman’s bag of tricks definitely carries mojo. But I just witnessed a murder, and I can identify at least three of the four murderers. If I’m Bluefish, I not only look under every rock for Austin Carr, I station a man there.

Gianni’s driving the Escalade. Thomas rides shotgun. Mama Bones, a nonverbal Gina, and yours truly stack the next row. Tony’s still in the back. Hard to believe the guy with German Shepherd eyes wound up dead searching for a good plate of baked mac.

“If Bluefish’s people wanted Gina dead, why didn’t they kill her tonight?” I say.

“Their orders were to kill just Tony,” Mama Bones says. “Gina was supposed to get a phone call and be out of restaurant. No witness. But now, when Bluefish find out you and Gina were there to see his men kill Tony, he will sure try to kill both of you.”

Gina leans against me, her body loose from exhaustion. Despite all that’s happened, my shock over Tony’s murder, Gina’s weight warms me in places I shouldn’t be getting warm. Unbelievable. It’s rare, I admit, but sometimes even Austin Carr can show cooth.

“How do you know all this, Mama Bones?” I say.

Mama Bones leans forward to touch Gianni’s shoulder. “Is next exit.”

It’s not an easy movement to pick up, the dark-haired, black-shirted young man presenting only minimum outlines, but Gianni nods.

“How you think I know, smarty pants?” Mama Bones says. “Maybe me and Bluefish in the same business, you think? Maybe I work for Bluefish?”

“And he told you they were planning to kill--”

“Bluefish tell me nothing,” she says.

Gianni guides the Escalade off the Parkway. We roll through a stop sign at the end of the short off ramp, turn right onto a ribbon of blacktop running into the pine forest. A full-grown deer bounds into the SUV’s headlights, and then is gone. Planets stare and stars blink at us from a narrow strip of sky between the trees.

“But you heard what was going to happen,” I say, “and tried to help Vick’s friend Tony?”

The SUV’s tires hum against my feet through the floorboard. Another deer watches us from the tree line, this one’s eyes glowing neon yellow. Or do these night-vision lenses belong to some other kind of animal? A night hunter, perhaps. Sharp beaks, or a mouth with fangs.

“I mean, I know you didn’t come to save me,” I say.

Mama, Gianni, and Thomas laugh on cue like a warmed-up TV taping audience. Johnny Carson never had a crowd so well prepped. Maybe I’m funnier than Groucho Marx, but I don’t think so.

Gina’s fingers touch my arm. “Mama Bones came for me,” she says. “She’s my aunt. My mother’s sister. I’m named after her.”

Angelina. Right. I knew that.

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