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19

The sleek black crew wagon sat on the grassy shoulder of West Shore Drive, facing north. Away to the right, or east, Lake Phalen was hidden from view behind a sheltering screen of trees and shrubbery.

Riding shotgun in the front, crew chief Danny Toppacardi was getting nervous. He checked his watch at frequent intervals, mentally marking off the minutes until their scheduled rendezvous with the man. He wasn't late — not yet — but Danny Tops was already feeling the strain.

Not that the other members of the crew seemed put out by the waiting. In the driver's seat beside him, Lou Nova was working his way through his third cigar of the morning, puffing contentedly away. In the back, gunners Vince Cella and Solly Giuffre had the broads sandwiched in, and they weren't feeling the sweat, no way. Solly kept one arm looped around the lady cop's shoulders, and the fingers of his free hand were tracing little abstract patterns on her knee.

Danny heard a slap from back there, and the lady cop was saying, "Stop that!" in a no-nonsense tone. The crew chief turned around in time to see her straightening her skirt and Solly pulling back his hand like a kid caught reaching into the cookie jar.

The gunner flashed him a vacuous, shit-eating grin, and said, "No sweat, Danny. We're A-okay back here, right, momma?"

The policewoman just glared at him silently.

Perfect, just perfect. Danny felt disgust rising in him, on top of the nerves.

"Cool it, Solly," he drawled. "This ain't no social outing."

Chastised, the gunner lost his smile, replacing it with a petulant expression.

"Sure, Danny," he groused. "Whatever."

Toppacardi turned back toward the front, staring at nothing through the Lincoln's broad windshield. Sure, he could understand and sympathize with the restlessness of his troops. They had been on station for fifteen minutes, waiting for Old Man Smalley to grace them with his presence and take the two broads off their hands. That was a long time to spend sitting out in broad daylight with two kidnapped women in the back seat. Too damn long, yeah.

Hell, Danny could feel the restiveness himself, even if he couldn't afford to let it show.

Fifteen minutes sitting in the park with nothing to look at but trees and birds, and one car that had cruised by a few minutes earlier, putting everybody on edge. No wonder Solly and Vince were feeling their oats back there with the broads.

Danny wouldn't have minded cutting a slice of that for himself, but a job was a job, dammit. The boys should keep that in mind.

Another two minutes had passed, and Danny Toppacardi had checked his watch twice more before Roger Smalley's car pulled up and slid to a stop on the grassy shoulder ahead of them. The old man got out and walked back to meet them, his face locked into one of those politician's smiles that Danny Tops had learned to distrust on sight.

And Smalley took his own damn time about reaching the side of the car, finally getting there and leaning in through the window with his arms crossed on the sill, grinning at the broads in back.

"Ladies, I trust your accommodations were adequate," he said politely,

And the lady cop snapped back, "Go to hell, Smalley!"

Danny watched the old guy's face, stifling a grin that tugged at the corners of his mouth. He liked nothing better than to see a pompous ass deflated, but the dude was a paying customer, and he couldn't forget that either.

The crew chief's face was blank, impassive, as the assistant commissioner turned to address him for the first time.

"Any problems?" Smalley asked.

Danny Tops gave his head a casual shake.

"Nothin' we couldn't handle," he said. "What do you want us to do with the load?"

Smalley tossed another quick glance back toward the women.

"I should be taking them off your hands momentarily," he said.

As if on cue, another car rolled past them, easing to a stop some yards ahead of Smalley's vehicle. It bore no markings, but the four hardmen made it instantly as a police cruiser. They tensed reflexively, hands starting the casual slide toward hidden guns. Roger Smalley noted the reaction and tried to calm them with reassuring words.

"Relax," the commissioner said, "he's with me. There's no problem."

Danny Tops kept his hand inside his jacket, just in case. He watched a husky cop in plainclothes exit the cruiser and walk around to pull a skinny, pasty-faced kid from the passenger's side. The kid looked twenty-one, twenty-two tops. His hands were cuffed behind him, and his darting eyes had the desperate look of a cornered animal.

Roger Smalley was grinning like a shark with prey in sight.

"I believe we're all ready now. If one of you gentlemen could help me escort the ladies to the lake..."

"That's me," Vinnie called from the back seat, already crawling out and reaching for the broad nearest him.

Danny glanced back in time to catch Solly scowling at the other gunner, and Vince Cella was waggling an upraised middle finger at him, snickering derisively.

"Maybe next time, Solly," he said, playing it to the hilt. Solly Giuffre's answer was a husky growl.

Commissioner Smalley stepped back to make room as the two broads were half carried, half pulled out of the back seat. In another moment they were on the shoulder of the road, with Vince holding each one by an arm, grinning broadly.

"Excellent," the commissioner said, turning to Danny. "There is one other thing. I'm expecting some, er, unwelcome company. A man, probably alone. When he arrives, make him comfortable until I get back. Understood?"

"Yeah, yeah. Sure."

And that was all Danny Toppacardi needed on that sunny summer morning. First he brings his crew out to the park, where they park in broad daylight for a quarter-hour with two hot broads in the back, and now he's waiting for some wildcard to appear from who knows where. And all the time they're sitting there, Vince and the two cops are off at the lake doing God knows what to the two broads.

He shook his head wearily, letting his breath out slowly in a long, disgusted sigh.

At age forty, he could remember the good old days when cops were bought off or frightened off or rubbed out. None of this kowtowing bullshit in those days, no sir. It wasn't right, somehow. He could feel it in his bones.

Danny watched as the little group disappeared into the trees and underbrush, Smalley leading the way like some kind of movie star with his entourage. Vinnie Cella went next, with the broads held close on either side of him, and the husky detective brought up the rear, keeping a tight watch on the scrawny kid. In a moment they were all lost to sight, leaving Danny Tops alone with his crewmen and his thoughts.

They settled down to wait, Danny firing up a smoke and passing the pack to Solly in the back seat. Still sulking, the gunner waved him off.

Maybe a minute after Smalley and his group had faded into the trees, a tall man in windbreaker and slacks appeared up ahead of the Lincoln, walking along on the opposite side of the drive at a casual pace, his nose buried in the morning newspaper.

Danny and Lou Nova saw him at the same time, and the wheelman came erect in his seat, growling, "We got company."

From the back seat, Solly Giuffre chimed in, "Back here, too, Danny."

The crew chief craned his neck and caught sight of a second, smaller man, togged out in sweat clothes and jogging in the opposite direction along the far side of the drive. As he sat there watching, the two men closed on a collision course, the jogger puffing and watching his feet, while the big guy was lost in his paper.

And damned if they didn't collide, right out there with nothing but wide open space all around, jostling each other off stride with the impact.

The wheelman chuckled gleefully. "Stupid bastards."

Danny let himself relax, his hand sliding free of his jacket again.

The big man was looking around himself as if in a daze, the rumpled newspaper dangling from limp hands. And the little jogger was bent over double, clutching his side, all red in the face from his wheezing and puffing. The little guy's mouth started working, and Danny could tell he was chewing the big lummox up one side and down the other, damning him for a clumsy ass.

The big guy stood there taking it for several seconds, his reticence making the little man bolder. The jogger stepped closer, pushing his reddened face up at the big man's like a baseball player giving hell to the umpire on TV. The big guy was trying to answer, but he couldn't seem to get a word in edgewise.

Suddenly, the jogger snatched the papers from the big guy's hand and threw them down on the ground, going into a little dance step on top of them, grinding them into the turf with his sneakers.

Lou and Solly were laughing openly now, and Danny couldn't suppress the grin that worked at his mouth any longer, watching the comic spectacle.

"Christ, it's better than television," he said to no one in particular.

Growing bolder by the moment, the little guy reached up and slapped his large opponent hard across the face, back and forth, making his head rock from the sudden impact of the blows. Danny saw the color flood into his cheeks as something snapped inside, and instantly the two men were grappling madly in a clench, arms flailing, legs twisting and twining as they fought without any thought of timing or strategy.

"I got ten on the little fart," Solly called from the rear.

"You're covered, slick," Lou snapped, keeping his eyes on the action across the street.

Danny Tops watched, amused, as the two combatants staggered and grappled their way into the middle of West Shore Drive. Their diagonal course was bringing them toward the crew wagon, and after a moment Danny noted with surprise that they were almost on top of the Lincoln, moving with surprising speed as they fought.

The crew chief's smile slipped a notch, but he was caught up in the action now, ignoring the little alarm bell that sounded in the back of his mind.

Suddenly, the two men were at the car, butting against the fender, still flailing at each other and cursing ablue streak. The little guy wriggled free long enough to land a looping right on the big man's cheek, wringing a whoop of vicarious support from Solly in the back seat.

Purple with rage, the big man grabbed his wiry opponent under the armpits, taking another flurry of blows in the process, and hurled him bodily over the hood of the Lincoln. The little guy hit once on the way over, emitting a short squawk, and then disappeared over the far edge of the fender.

Danny Tops was suddenly angry. Worse, he smelled a rat.

"Now wait a fucking minute!" he growled, flinging open his door. He was halfway out of the car when the little guy reappeared, crouching beside the fender, a squat automatic pistol with silencer leveled in a two-handed grip.

The crew chief's mouth dropped open, and he felt his bowels loosening. After a split second he started to reach for his own weapon, and the little guy shot him, twice, calm as you please.

Pop-pop!

Danny Toppacardi sat down hard, the hot pain in his abdomen merging at once into icy cold and numbness from the armpits down. He couldn't reach his bolstered .38, or even change positions as he sat there. It was as if his voluntary muscles had suddenly ceased to function.

Off to his left, he heard cursing from Lou and Solly, followed at once by more popping noises and the sound of breaking glass. Beside him in the front seat, Lou Nova was jerking and writhing under the impact of high-velocity slugs. A strangled yelp, quickly extinguished, was all he heard from Solly Giuffre in the back seat.

Danny felt a warm wetness in his lap and looked down, seeking its source. He was surprised to find himself sitting in a swamp of blood, much of it his, and all mixed up in a mass of pulpy tissue that looked suspiciously like brain matter.

Jesus! Lou's brains?

The door sprang open beside him, and suddenly the little jogger had a pistol thrust in Danny's face, his free hand gripping the crew chief's shoulder tightly. His lips were moving quickly, but the sounds seemed somehow delayed on their way to Danny Toppacardi's ears.

"Where are they?" he heard at last. "Smalley and the girl, where'd they go?"

Danny's head lolled limply on his shoulder. He tried to answer, but the words came out sounding like "mmpf loggly." He felt something warm and wet overflowing his lips, coursing down his chin.

"Come on, dammit!" the little guy was shouting, shaking him roughly so that something rattled and snapped inside of him. "Where are they?"

Danny was staring past the florid, twisted face of his tormentor, toward the hazy screen of trees thirty yards off. He could almost imagine the lake beyond, a breeze making ripples on the surface of the water.

It would be nice to slip beneath that surface and just float away.

Somewhere behind Danny Tops and to his left, a deeper voice was coming through the fog, saying, "Come on, Pol. The lake."

Yeah, the lake, right.

And the two guys were sprinting away from the Lincoln, leaving Danny Toppacardi sitting there in a pool of blood. He watched them go, jogging across the emerald grass, their movements merging into slow motion as they reached the screen of undergrowth and plowed on through, fading from sight.

Danny Tops watched them disappear, wishing he could follow. When they were gone, he sat alone in the vehicle of death, watching the sunlight fade from gold to crimson, sinking slowly into midnight black.


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