Still in my Camry, I read Luis’s letter for the third time. Is he talking about Gina? Angelina Farascio? He can’t be in love with the other Angelina I know, Angelina Bonacelli, although in my mind, Mama Bones definitely approaches warrior-like status.
If Luis’s love interest is Gina Farascio, that would explain why he kissed her so tenderly in the bar a few minutes ago, maybe why she was at Luis’s to begin with. That little peck on the cheek was the deepest display of affection I’ve ever seen from my favorite bartender. Luis in love. Why the idea almost--
A truck or bus backfires in spurts. Kinda like a TV cop-show shootout. Bam-bam-bam...bam-bam...bam.
Wait a minute. I forgot the Camry’s windows are rolled up, the engine already purring. It’s possible I may have failed to appreciate the true, more violent nature of those recurring bam-bams.
Rolling down the car window, I recognize another sound now--human adults screaming and yelling their bloody heads off--and even Austin Carr can put bam-bam and eek-eek together. Gunshots.
I hop my ass out of the Camry.
Oops. Luis’s letter tumbles from my lap. Don’t want to be running back inside with that little flag unfurled. Show Luis my true, villainous nature.
I fold Rosalinda’s check inside the letter, tuck everything under the Camry’s driver’s seat. My car’s semi-shag rug is a litter-box of rice-sized pebbles and coarse beach sand.
An orange sun fades below the parking lot’s pine tree border as I jog between a crowd of cars and SUVs. Branchtown lies in growing shadow. Small birds cheep-cheep their goodbyes to the safety of daylight. Tires and engines hum along Highway 35, a thick steel river of Friday night traffic.
Two uniformed Branchtown cops burst out of Luis’s Mexican Grill. I view mostly backsides as they run across my path, then dodge screeching rubber and two-ton fenders crossing the highway. They must be chasing somebody.
I look left, then right. Whoever they’re chasing--maybe the shooter?--he’s doing a great job of camouflage. Can’t see anyone they could be running after. And I notice the cops haven’t drawn their guns.
Maybe they’re chasing dick.
“I hope to hell you got a decent look at them.” Franny says. Her green eyes are dead-set against me.
How the hell was I supposed to know the cops were the shooters? “I can tell you something about them.”
El Capitan Frances Chapman and her sidekick, Chef Stuart, arrived at Luis’s eighteen minutes after the gunplay, twelve minutes behind the paramedics and a Branchtown patrol car.
“Two white males, dressed as Branchtown policemen,” I say. “One of them was one-sixty to one-seventy-five pounds, forty to forty-five years old. The other was two hundred pounds or more, in his twenties. Both of them five-ten to six-feet tall. Didn’t get hair color because of the police hats. No visible scars or tattoos.”
Once again, watching TV cop shows makes the witness invaluable to law enforcement investigators. Thank you, Detective Andy Sipowitz.
Franny says to Stuart, “You getting this?”
Everybody in the place is working pen on paper. First thing when they got there, after securing half the restaurant with crime scene tape, the real Branchtown cops told Luis’s patrons to sit down, write their name, address, and phone number on paper. I know it helped calm the place. The tears and shrieking lost most of their momentum when people tried to remember how to spell Smith and Jones.
Franny saying, “Think you’d recognize these two if you saw them again?”
“Maybe,” I say. My eyes took a few decent profile shots. “Maybe not.”
“Come on, then.” Franny turns me over to a uniformed trooper the size of Paul Bunyan. Or maybe Bunyan’s blue ox. His hands feel like horns, and he uses his state trooper chest belt to bump me around like livestock. Franny saying, “Let’s have you look at some mug shots.”
Moving toward a joint exit with Trooper Bunyan, I seem to have lost weight. About a hundred pounds. My toes fly across Luis’s hardwood floor. At least I’m on my feet. Barely breathing, Creeper went out on a stretcher. Multiple gunshot wounds, including one to the head. Kinda harsh punishment for locking my daughter Beth in a car trunk.
Bluefish and Jerry will leave later. In rubber body bags.
“It’s a simple question, Carr,” Franny says two hours later. “Did you see Gina Farascio near Bluefish, either before or after the shooting?”
“I’m tired,” I say. “I want to go home.”
“Okay. As soon as you tell me what I want to know. Now how about it? Did you see Gina beside Bluefish?”
I sigh. My back is killing me. First the barstool, then the back seat of a cruiser, now this spine-twisting chair at Trooper Interrogation Central. I wonder if I’ve been transported to a former Soviet bloc country so they can torture me?
Having witnessed two men's brains oozing across the restaurant floor, all that fresh, salty-smelling blood, I couldn’t see what direction we were headed, let alone where we ended up. I can’t even say how long a ride it was.
Where’s Chef Stuart with the fresh coffee?
“Gina checked Bluefish’s pulse. That’s what she was doing as I came back inside,” I say.
Franny’s eyes narrow. “She was crouched beside him?”
“Yeah. Touching his neck.”
“I don’t remember.”
Franny leans forward so that our faces are six inches apart. “Think. It’s important. Was she reaching across his chest?”
“It just is. Think. What was she doing with her hands?”
“Is something missing from Bluefish’s body?”
“Shut up. Did you--”
“See, I ask because the only person I saw going through Bluefish’s pockets was you, Franny.”
“Captain Chapman to you.”
“Captain, my ass.”
Just for a second, Ms. Strawberry shows up on El Capitan’s face. One of her sea-green eyes winks at me. “You had your chance.”
Click on the headline to read the first two chapters and reviews of BIG MONEY.