A little after 11 p.m. the dingy brown steel door of The Rainbow Room exploded outward. It slapped the yellow concrete block wall behind it as Jesse Rickman came through head first and air borne.
He landed on his face just short of where that little tar strip was oozed up. You know, between that big square concrete slab in front of the door and the asphalt of the parking lot. Then he bounced a little, like on wrestling on TV. Only in wrestling they ain’t landing on concrete, though they do wince like they are.
Well, the light above the door stopped about halfway out that concrete square. Jesse finally came to rest in the dark just past that. And his head was just shy of where the red light from the neon Rainbow Room sign lit the asphalt.
Anyway, an instant after Jesse hit the pavement, Ray Dickie came stomping through the door on his own two feet. He looked pretty imposing with his Bull Durham ball cap, his brown hair stringing down over his shoulders and his full, bushy beard.
His shoulders and chest bulged under the regular white t-shirt that was tucked into his greasy jeans. His cheeks were rounded and red up under his eyes like he’d seen a little exertion. His hands were balled into fists at his sides, and he was cussing a blue streak a mile wide and thicker than Texas.
Only he stopped for a second with the light of the door behind him, and he about blocked it. I mean, Ray ain’t no little guy. Rumor had it, back in the day he tried out to play defensive tackle for the Rams, only he was too big.
‘Course Jesse ain’t no little guy either at around 6’2” and north of 200 pounds, but he ain’t measuring up to Ray Dickie. Not in any good kind of way.
Well, with Jesse kind’a hidden in the dark down there on the asphalt, when Ray stopped he jerked his head right, then left. Like maybe he thought Jesse found his feet and run off.
But no such luck. You know, on Jesse’s part.
Still, all Ray could catch a glimpse of at first was me and Jackson. And then there were several others to the left and right of Ray himself. They came out when he followed Jesse’s hurled body through the door. Now they were bunched up on either side of it, six in one group and five in the other.
Me and Jackson were out front of Jesse. That’s on account of we’d just got out of Jackson’s ’48 F150 pickup and were heading in for a drink when that door blew open.
I figure Ray prob’ly saw us first, though prob’ly through an alcohol haze. But first or last, I was glad he saw us at all and counted us as no threat, ‘cause we weren’t.
Anyway, after he looked right and left, Ray finally looked down and caught sight of Jesse.
Jesse was just pushing himself up from the asphalt and shaking his head, hard, like he was clearing cobwebs. Now they got time for stuff like that on wrestling, on account of it’s all put on and the cobwebs are all fake anyway. But even with real cobwebs, Jesse should’a been in a bigger hurry than that. I know I would’a been. He could clear out the cobwebs some other day.
Anyway, as he pushed himself up I got a good look at his face, only I had to stoop over a little.
The right side of his face was scratched and raked, and his whole forehead was one big cherry from sliding along the concrete before he got to the asphalt. There was some blood mixed into the front of his pretty long blond hair too, like he’d been scalped. There were a few black tarry pebbles stuck in his right cheek, and two above his right eyebrow.
Anyway, he got his elbows under him, with his forearms still on the ground from there up to his wrists. So he was leaning kind’a up from the waist with his shoulders and head in the air and pointed in a particular direction. So kind’a like one’a them lizards doing pushups on a rock out in the desert, if you’ve ever seen that.
Now right there, see, if I was Jesse, that’s when I’d’a been digging the toes of my work boots into that concrete, getting me some leverage to sprint myself outta there. I’d’a made good time, too. Bet on it.
But not Jesse. Right there he paused again to shake his head. That was like on wrestling too, come to think of it, only on wrestling it’s all fake like I said.
Anyway that was probably his second mistake. You know, the first being whatever he’d done or said that caused Ray to use him as a battering ram.
Anyway, when he caught sight of Jesse, Ray stretched his lips wide open side to side in the evilest grin I ever saw. “Heh,” he said, and then he lumbered forward, only like he was in a hurry. He went back to cussing, too, only there were a lot of “c’meres” and “I’m’a gonna kill yews” mixed in.
Well, when he drew up along Jesse’s left side, he crooked his right elbow up like those wrestlers do on TV. Then he did a little leap, turned his butt toward Jesse and crashed down on him.
Jesse had just enough air to grunt, and that’s about all the noise we heard on the other side of Ray’s cussing. That and a few “oohs” from the crowd on either side of the door.
About the time Ray’s butt hit Jesse’s back, his elbow took Jesse in the back of the head and reacquainted his face with the asphalt. Only on the left side of his face this time. At least the two side’s’d match, if you could call that a good thing.
Well, about the time that grunt squished out of Jesse, Ray got off him and crabbed around in front. He grabbed Jesse’s hair on both sides and reared up on his knees.
That pulled Jesse’s head up about where it was before Ray landed on him, only now Jesse’s arms were just kind’a hanging there.
I believe Jesse was out cold.
That’s about the time through the top of my eyes I saw a little short shadow slip out through the door with an attachment sticking up and to the right.
For a second, I guess the shadow and its attachment was more interesting than what was about to happen to Jesse, so I looked up.
The shadow was Miguel “Mickey” Muñoz, the guy who runs the place. The attachment was his sawed-off Remington 870 shotgun.
Which he wasted no time in cocking.
Now racking a shell into a magazine-fed Remington shotgun makes a particular sound that’s hard to ignore. And plus, just as Muñoz pumped a shell into the chamber, he yelled, “Ray!”
Ray stopped, only Jesse’s hair was still twisted up in his fists just above Jesse’s ears on both sides. But Ray looked up at Muñoz and said, “Huh?”
Now I couldn’t see his face, but I’m betting Aunt Hattie’s gold teeth he was frowning.
So then Muñoz said, “Whatchu doing, Ray?” He dipped the barrel of that shotgun toward the ground a couple’a times. “Put that guy’s head down and come over here.”
Ray looked down at Jesse’s head like he’d just noticed it was there. Then he looked up at Muñoz again. Then he shrugged, straightened up on his knees and kind’a shoved Jesse’s head away from him.
It hit the asphalt with a dulled thwack, then rolled onto its left cheek.
Ray looked at Muñoz again and his ears raised a little, like maybe he was grinning. “Like that?”
Muñoz nodded. “That’ll do. Now come on over here.”
Ray looked down at Jesse again, then pursed his lips and squeezed out some spit. Prob’ly he was trying to get it to land in Jesse’s right ear. I couldn’t quite see if he hit the mark, but I did see that a lot of it was still stringing across Ray’s beard.
Anyway, Ray pulled his right foot up under him, then grabbed his right knee with both hands and pushed himself up. He overbalanced and teetered a little, and me and Jackson took a couple steps backward. Trust me, you don’t want Ray Dickie landing on you.
Then Ray kind’a leaned to the front and off he went to see what Muñoz wanted. Six shuffling steps into it, he stopped and said, “Whut?”
Muñoz pointed toward Jesse with the shotgun. “Wha’d he do? Run off on a tab?”
Ray looked back toward Jesse, then shook his head. “Nuh uh.”
Muñoz frowned. “Did he ask your girl to dance? Rosemary ain’t here tonight, is she?”
“So what then?”
Behind Ray, Jesse had his head up again, though only half as far as the first time. He shook it again.
Ray frowned at Muñoz. “You said.”
Even in the dim red light reflecting from a distance off the asphalt on Muñoz’ face, I saw his forehead wrinkle. “What? Whaddya mean, I said? I said what?”
Meanwhile, Jesse slowly pulled himself up to his knees. The top of his khaki button-down shirt was hanging open down to his belly and the top four buttons were gone. He only had one shirt pocket, on the left breast, and it was hanging by half of itself. Only the back of the tail was still tucked into his jeans. His black belt and the silver pass-through buckle were both scarred by the concrete.
He shook his head again. Then, before I got a chance to look him over good, he sucked in some breath and jerked his head around to look over his shoulder right quick. Like he’d stuck a fork in an outlet, or maybe like he could feel Ray’s breath or something.
Only Ray was still back there with Muñoz.
Jesse turned to us again and raised one hand to wipe something off his head. I guess Ray got him after all. He looked at his palm, wiped whatever was there on the back pocket of his jeans, then looked up at me and Jackson.
The left side of his face was covered in generally the same manner as the right, plus there were a few pebbles stuck to the side of his neck. That must’a happened when Ray landed on his back. Otherwise he wouldn’a been that flat.
Still looking at Jesse, both me and Jackson, like we were synchronized or something, jerked our heads to the left a little bit. You know, telling Jesse to git while the gitting was good. I mean, we didn’t say anything out loud—not with Ray standing right over there—but Jesse got it.
Moving real easy, he put his fingertips on the ground and pushed himself up to his feet. Then he looked back at Ray again and started tiptoeing off to his right.
Meanwhile, Ray focused his full attention on Muñoz and that Remington. He slipped his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans, then shifted his weight from his right foot to his left. I swear I thought he was gonna say, “Aw shucks” or something like that.
But real quiet, and kind’a whining—me and Jackson could still hear him, but just barely—he said, “You know, Mickey. What you said.”
And just then me and Jackson heard cars pulling into the parking lot behind us. At first we twisted our necks around to look, but then we turned on around.
Not that we’d lost interest in Ray and Muñoz, but there are things you don’t turn your back on.
It was those two homicide dicks, Valentino and Galecki. Cops.
Only they came in different cars. That was different.
Valentino swung his car into a spot first, and then Galecki pulled his in on the passenger side of Valentino’s.
For a second I thought it was just really good timing, what with Jesse and Ray and then Muñoz with that shotgun.
Except Valentino and Galecki work homicide and there wasn’t anybody dead here. Or any dead body here. You know.
Then I remembered on the other side of The Rainbow Room was Mickey’s Place, the cops’ hangout. So they were probably off duty. Probably they were glad there weren’t any bodies anywhere.
When he first got out of his car, Valentino put his left hand on the roof and glanced over at Jesse, who was halfway across the parking lot by then and still limping away.
The left side of Valentino’s grey, off-the-rack suit hung open. His heater dangled upside down in its holster at his left side. He watched Jesse for a minute, then closed his door and turned toward us.
Galecki did the same thing, complete with watching for a moment as Jesse limped along, only at his car.
His suit was a copy of Valentino’s. Only the fedoras were different. Galecki’s was dark brown and Valentino’s was grey. Trust an Italian to match his hat to his clothes. Still, they were both fedoras.
The cars were the same too.
Both Ford Crown Vics, both in a plain white wrapper.
Both unmarked, like that made a difference. Hey, if it’s a Crown Vic, chances are the filling is a cop.
As they walked toward me and Jackson, I nodded amicably. “Detectives.”
Bigs Valentino glanced past me for a second, checking out Muñoz and Ray, then directly at me. The guy’s got the most intense eyes I’ve ever seen. There’s never any doubt who he’s talking to. The only mystery is how deep he’s going into your brain. “Pilfer,” he said. “What’s going on?”
He calls me Pilfer on account of I could generally lay hands on whatever you might need whenever you might need it. Even information. You know, back in the day. In exchange for monetary consideration.
Me and Bigs kind’a used to be partners that way, him needing and me providing. I don’t know Galecki, though I’ve seen him around. I heard he’s a good guy though. And he’s hanging with Bigs, so he can’t be all bad. Maybe.
I shrugged. “Oh, nothing, Bigs. Nothing. Me and Jackson, we were just taking some night air before we go inside.”
Galecki said, “So you haven’t been inside yet?”
While I was busy with Galecki, Bigs glanced past me again. He seemed to be sizing things up.
Jackson said, “Wull, yeah, but—”
I looked at Galecki. “No, not here.” I looked at Jackson. “He means here, man.” Then I looked at Galecki again. “We just got here a few minutes ahead of you guys. You gotta forgive Jackson. He gets nervous.”
Galecki looked at Jackson, then at me. Prob’ly trying to decide what to believe. Then, like he really didn’t want to be involved, he shrugged and looked around, kind’a stretching his neck. Only he avoided looking straight at Muñoz and Ray. Finally he said, “Yeah, well, you know—nice night for it.”
Bigs apparently decided Muñoz was in control of whatever was happening behind us. He grinned that direction once and tipped his head just the slightest bit. Then he glanced at me. “Hey, you boys have a good night.”
Then the two dicks stepped around us and started toward the front corner of the place over on the right. The front entrance for Mickey’s Place was around that corner, about twenty feet down.
I turned around to see what Muñoz and Ray were doing.
Only they weren’t there. They and their entourage had gone inside. The entourage itself prob’ly disappeared when me and Jackson first turned around to face the cops. I tugged on Jackson’s sleeve and started toward the door of The Rainbow Room. “C’mon,” I said. “I wanna see what Muñoz told Ray that caused him to beat the crap outta Jesse.”
Jackson wagged one hand. “As if. By now it’s all history, I’m sure.”
We got to the door about the time Bigs and Galecki reached the front corner of the building.
I reached down, worked the brass latch with my thumb and pulled on the big door handle, then swung it open.
Even before we went in, the pounding beat, beat, beat of some kind’a progressive rock stomped through the door at us. Some would-be singer was yelping at the top of his lungs over and between the beats. And that was on a sound system or a radio or something. Maybe we could get them to turn it down.
There’d be a live band on Friday and Saturday nights, maybe. If someone wanted to play, and if Muñoz wanted to hire them.
The sound was accompanied by a mixture of smells—mostly alcohol, vague body odor and smoke—maybe with a little hint of perfume swirled in.
Inside, the smells were stronger. The place was dimly lighted, too, and hazy with the grey stench of cigarette smoke. And maybe there was some other smoke too. Seemed to be a little eau de marijuana mixed into it here and there.
As for the lighting, other than the few lights above the bar, there were maybe ten lights in the ceiling, and they were recessed. Plus some were kind of an orange yellow and some were red.
There was a slightly raised bandstand in the far corner on the left. It was Tuesday, so there was a set of drums and a couple’a empty mike stands on it, but nothing else. And it was dark. It had its own lights, I guess, when there was a band.
There was a dance floor on the near side of the bandstand, then thirty or so cheap wooden tables with their chairs. Most of the tables had at least a couple’a people seated at them, all tainted by the orange-yellow and red lights. They were all talking among themselves, leaning toward each other to be heard underneath the music.
And then the bar stretched the length of the wall to the right. Like I say, it was the only part of the place that was pretty well lighted. And then there were a couple’a short fluorescents over the whiskey and wine bottles on the shelf under the mirror behind the bar. There were several people at the bar. Most were on barstools, most minding their own business, their elbows on the bar and their shoulders hunched around their own problems.
To the right of the door, a new bouncer had taken Ray’s place.
It was Blay Mercer—the Blay is short for Blaylock, I’m not jokin’—in all his camouflage glory. He was never in the military, but he wanted to be I guess. He was perched up on a barstool he’d dragged over from the end of the bar. The heels of his worn black combat boots were hooked over the chrome rail that ran around the base of it about a foot off the floor.
His blue eyes filled his coke-bottle glasses as he peered at us from beneath a camouflage boonie hat. His kinky dark brown hair supported it with tight curls. “Hey guys,” he said, his head bopping to the beats of the music.
“Hey,” Jackson said as we moved past. No live band, no cover, no need to stop.
We headed for a couple barstools at the near end of the bar, one on each side of the corner where it turned to run back to the wall.
Jackson took the barstool at the corner on the long side of the bar.
I moved past the corner and aimed my butt at the first barstool on that side. There were only two barstools behind me, and both were vacant. Beyond that was the door that connected The Rainbow Room to the more conservative Mickey’s Place.
I liked that barstool. I could see most of the room from there. I looked forward to maybe spotting Muñoz and asking him about what happened earlier.
As I sat down and swiveled the barstool to face the tables, I looked at Jackson. “So, you gonna get your usual?”
I thought Muñoz would be behind the bar, but he wasn’t.
The bartender on duty was Josh Dermin, an old guy who was basically a chunk of conservative flesh.
He wore a white t-shirt over khaki trousers and black oxfords. The guy was bald, save for a quarter-inch stubble of white hair in the center of the top of his head. The rest of his hair was also a quarter-inch long. It formed a white horseshoe from his left temple around the back of his head to his right temple. It also extended down the back of his neck.
He’s one of those guys who shaved down to the neckline of his t-shirt. When he bent and moved his shoulders just right over the rinsing sinks, the front or back of his t-shirt would bulge open a bit to expose some of the hair he didn’t bother shaving. That was on his chest and back. And probably his shoulders.
I rapped on the bar with my knuckles just as a man about halfway along the bar said, “See you next time, Josh.”
The man slipped off his barstool as Dermin raised his left hand toward me to let me know he’d heard me.
Dermin watched, wiping his hands on his bar towel from force of habit, as the man leaned down to look at the ticket containing his tab. Then he leaned forward and said something to the guy, but I couldn’t hear it.
The guy laughed and said, “Good one.” Then he straightened, fished several bills out of his pocket and laid them on top of the ticket. “Keep it.”
Dermin grinned and raised a hand as the man turned away. “Thanks, Bob.” Then he picked up the ticket and the bills, turned and opened the cash register.
My mouth watered. Soon after Dermin got the money put away and dropped his tip into his pocket, I’d get my first taste of the day of a Beam and Coke.
I always ordered Beam and Coke for the first one. After that I just took whatever was in the well with Coke. I’m a good friend to Jim Beam, but after the first one it all tastes about the same anyway.
And I might as well order for Jackson too. A salty dog in an old-fashioned glass.
Dermin straightened and shoved the register closed as he flopped his bar towel over his left shoulder. The ding of the register sounded just as Ray Dickie came around the far end of the bar.
Behind him was Mickey Muñoz.
I focused on Josh Dermin.
As he turned away from the cash register, I raised my right hand and smiled. “Hey, Josh. Just bring me a—”
“Hey, you can’t bring that in here!” It was Blay Mercer.
“You can’t stop me! Where is he?”
Mercer again, yelling. “Hey! I said—”
Then noise of a struggle came from behind me. Somebody hitting the floor.
Me and Jackson both twisted around at the same time.
Blay Mercer was lying on top of someone on the floor, struggling, and four hands were extended toward me.
No, four fists. And something else. Like a small pipe.
Mercer shifted and there was a flash of blond hair.
With blood in it.
As he was getting up, Jackson pointed and yelled, “Jesse! That’s Jesse Rickman! And he’s got a—”
The explosion was tremendous in the enclosed space.
Behind me people were screaming, chairs were falling over, tables were scraping on the floor.
I seemed glued to the barstool. I swiveled back around to look at the tables.
The bartender had disappeared.
I felt myself frown. What’s all the screaming about?
As I was turning back to see where Jackson had gone—
How did he get off his barstool? Mine seemed stuck.
He had taken a step and stopped. He turned his head to look at me. “Jim?”
His face looked weird.
“What?” I said. Then I looked down.
Both hands were over his gut. Blood was pumping out through his fingers.
He frowned at me, then bent double and fell.
It took all my effort to turn my head back toward the bar.
Where’s Mickey and his shotgun?
Mickey was right behind Ray Dickie, being shoved along by Dickie’s backward progress.
Dickie was backing up, his hands up in front of his chest like a shield.
So he was okay. He was going the right way.
I twisted, agonizingly slowly, to look back at Mercer and Rickman, still tangled up on the floor. Just like wrestling on TV. Only that’s all fake.
Behind me, the door exploded open and slapped the wall.
A thunderous, “Where’s the gun?” came from a million miles away and right behind my left shoulder.
Bigs! That was Jimmy Bigs Valentino!
I started raising my right hand to point. “Over th—”
Another explosion, and I watched as a flame shot out directly toward me.
But something zinged off something. The seat on Jackson’s barstool spun like it was gonna take off. Somewhere behind me somebody grunted hard. Somebody fell down.
Then another explosion right inside my left ear and a red spot formed on top of Rickman’s head. His back kind of bulged and the hole started pouring blood.
Mercer jerked his arms back and screamed, his arms still flailing as he seemed to levitate up off Jesse Rickman. He landed on his feet and backpedaled ‘til his butt hit his barstool. His glasses flew up and off as he and the barstool went down together. He was on his back on the other side of it, still screaming.
There was something long and dark next to my left eye.
I turned my eyes, then my head.
It was Valentino’s arm. His right arm. His left was on the other side of it, both extended, his pistol out front in his hand.
It must be his right hand. The holster was on the left earlier. He must be right handed.
He moved past me, swung around the corner of the bar.
A hand on my left shoulder, squeezing. “You okay?”
I looked up and to the left. “Huh?”
It was the other guy. Galecki.
“You hit or are you all right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay.”
He moved past me and past the corner of the bar.
Valentino yelled to somebody to call for an ambulance.
Galecki was saying nobody could leave until things were sorted out.
I finally managed to get turned around.
People were picking up chairs, straightening tables, sitting, talking.
I leaned forward, my elbows on the bar, my fingers gripping the inside edge of it.
Dermin was there, standing by the cash register, the phone in his hand.
Was he there all along? Maybe he blended into the cash register.
Valentino was on one knee, saying to Ray Dickie everything was going to be fine.
Galecki was talking quietly to the folks at the nearest table.
The music wasn’t playing. It had stopped sometime or other.
Where was Mickey? I really wanted to talk with Mickey Muñoz but he was gone.
Maybe back in his office. I’d really like to see him, talk to him. I’d like to ask him, you know.
Hey Mickey, what’d you say to set Ray Dickie off?
* * * * * * *