THE VOICE ON the phone said to Virgil Royal, “You still in the subcontracting business?”
Virgil recognized the voice. “Yeah-but I got something on right now.”
“I know what you got on. Thing I don’t see is what you living on. Some lady feeding you?”
“I’m scratching,” Virgil said. “I don’t want this one to get away.”
“Somebody’s gonna tell you when he come out on the street. What you worried about?”
“Man’s got people anxious to see him beside me. Got to get to him first or wait in line. But yeah, I could use something. How much we talking about?”
“I can go fifteen hundred for some fast action. Like today.”
“You too busy?”
“Yeah, shit,” the voice said, a tired, slow tone. “I got one, man won’t sit still. It’s taking some time. This other one, somebody wants right away. Reason I’m calling you this early. You want it, I can give you what you need.”
“Who we talking about?” Virgil said.
“Name of Lonnie-used to work for Sportree? You know him?”
“Lonnie? With the high heels and shit? He’s a doll baby.”
“Talking doll,” the voice said. “The policemen play with him and he talks to them. You want it?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Lemme see, I need some working capital, get me a driver. Only thing I got right now’s this twelve-gauge Hi-Standard I was saving for somebody.”
“I don’t know. Six-shot pump action. One thirty-four ninety-five.”
“Yeah, it’s all right. It’s a big motherfucker.”
“I already cut it down,” Virgil said.
“I can give you a nice clean piece, still got the factory oil on it,” the voice said. “If you want it. I never tell a man his business.”
“I don’t know. I been wanting to try the twelvegauge before I shoot for the prize.”
“Yeah, see what way it pulls.”
“I’ll be over pretty soon,” Virgil said. “Let you know.”
An hour and forty minutes later, Virgil called his brother-in-law from Sportree’s Lounge on West Eight Mile. He told him he wanted to see him. His brother-in-law said, Man, way out there? His brother-in-law sounded half asleep. Virgil said it wasn’t far, take him about fifteen minutes. His brother-in-law said he had some things he had to do. Virgil said patiently, “Hey, Tunafish? One more once. I’m at Sportree’s and I want to see you. I want to give you some money… That’s what I said. Right now it’s two hundred and fifty dollars. But you know what? It’s gonna go down ten every minute you aren’t here past eleven o’clock. You understand what I’m saying?… Then quit talking, man. Run.”
Virgil came out of the phone booth grinning, seeing Tunafish throwing his clothes on, flying out of the house and jumping in the car-if Lavera hadn’t driven to work. Then he’d have to borrow a car. Or pick one up. Virgil looked at the clock that was over the cash register, between the bar mirrors. Tunafish would get here about five after and he’d pay him two hundred. Which he’d already decided was about right.
See, there was the hard way to do things and there was the easy way. The hard way looked good at the time; in fact, it looked like the only way. But it upset your stomach and could break your knuckles. It produced blind spots that could mess you up and cause pain, not to mention losing your ass. The easy way required thinking and remaining cool. Not standing-around cool, but authentic genuine cool. Cool when you wanted to smash something or break down a door. No, hold it right there. Think on how to do it the easy way. Then turn the knob gently and the door opens.
Virgil learned patience at Jackson. Not the first time he was there, on the assault with a deadly weapon conviction-when he was still trying to do it the hard way, pushing and shoving, getting caught with tin shivs and spending a total of nine months in solitary-but the second time, the Wyandotte Savings and Loan armed robbery conviction. He learned patience thinking about Bobby Lear as he stamped out license plates-Michigan, the Great Lake State-and how he was going to get the motherfucker as soon as they turned him loose.
His lawyer had said Bobby didn’t have any Wyandotte money, maybe a few bucks was all, and anybody who said he had a sizable amount was blowing smoke up Virgil’s ass. There wasn’t any talk that Bobby Lear was on the street spending money. He always had money, but he wasn’t throwing any around, was he? Virgil didn’t talk about it much at Jackson. He kept it in his head. Bobby Lear either had the money, hidden somewhere, or he didn’t. Either way, it didn’t matter. When Virgil got out he would go see the man- “Hey, Bobby, how you doing?” and all that shit-and ask him where the money was. If Bobby said, “I’m glad you mention that, I been saving your piece of it…” Then it better be close to eight, nine thousand, half what they said was taken. If it happened like that he would say thank you before shooting the man in the head. If the man gave him five seconds of bullshit he’d do it right then and not have to listen to any more. It was the only way to protect yourself from the man.
He didn’t care for Bobby. Just looking at him and feeling something, he didn’t care for him. He also didn’t care for the way Bobby ran out and left him humming Joe Williams in the Wyandotte vault all by himself while the blue and whites were slipping up to the curb. Bobby and Wendell Haines made it out, with or without the cash from the cashiers’ windows, leaving him dumb and alone in the vault. Virgil heard they got away clean. He sat in the Wayne County jail between arraignment, examination, and trial and didn’t say a word. Then he learned Wendell Haines was found shot dead in his room. That wasn’t hard to see. Either Bobby decided he didn’t want to split with Wendell or he was afraid Wendell would get picked up, cop, and turn him in.
So then it was Virgil’s turn, when he got out and went to see Bobby, knowing what a sweet man he was, what would Bobby do? Would he say, Hey, baby, and put his arm around him, and buy him his dinner? Shit. Bobby’d sandbag him on sight. Or talk nice and get him relaxed first, it was the same thing. Bobby Lear killed people. That’s why Virgil learned to be cool at Jackson.
The trouble was, by the time he got out and had bought the twelve-gauge Hi-Standard, Bobby Lear had been busted again and sent to a state hospital and Virgil had to use some more of the patience he’d learned and wait for him to get out. Then wait for him to show himself. Then use a little more of his running-out patience following Bobby’s wine-head woman around.
Five minutes to eleven in the morning in an empty cocktail lounge and Bad George Benson coming out of the hi-fi system, Virgil was still waiting.
Tunafish came out of the sunlight into night darkness, looked over at the reflection of the bar mirrors and the empty stools, then at the booths on the other side of the lounge, and walked over that way. He knew it was Virgil because of his hat. Nobody had a hat like Virgil Royal’s.
It had been a cowboy hat one time and was seasoned now and had a look of its own, with a brim that was almost flat except for a nice free-form curve to it, slightly up on one side, and a down-sloping dent in the narrow-blocked crown. The hat was part of Virgil, and the way he wore it-with his bandit mustache and usually sunglasses-down a little on his left eye, almost straight but down, you knew you had better not touch it.
Virgil said, “Two hundred and ten dollars.”
Tunafish, sliding into the booth, looked at his watch. “Hey, shit. Two hundred and… twenty.”
“Two hundred and twenty, then,” Virgil said. “You want something to drink?”
“I ain’t had no breakfast yet.”
“You want some coffee, milk?”
“You don’t have nothing.” Tunafish wanted to keep his voice calm, like Virgil’s, but it was Virgil’s calm that made him jumpy and suspicious. Virgil was different since he got out, quieter, like he knew a secret.
“I must have got you out of bed,” Virgil said. He took a fold of bills from his shirt pocket, beneath the maroon jacket, and peeled off two hundreds and two tens. “Here. So you feel better.”
Tunafish took the bills, all of them brand-new. He felt good, folding them and sticking them in his pants.
“What am I supposed to do now?”
“How you and Lavera doing?”
“Fine. We making it.”
“Long as she working, huh?”
“I bring home money,” Tunafish said. “You think I don’t?” Virgil’s tone was getting to him again. Virgil didn’t seem to notice, though. He was looking away, like he was thinking about something else.
“I don’t get no complaints from her.”
Virgil’s hat came back to face him. Virgil’s expression was calm.
“You remember a boy name of Lonnie? Used to work for Sportree?”
Tunafish straightened, looking across the empty lounge. “Yeah, he was a bartender, at night. But he don’t work here no more.”
“I said used to. You know where he work now?”
Tunafish had an idea he’d short-cut Virgil, show him something. He said, “Lonnie don’t know Bobby Lear. They was some dudes in a place talking about him one time, Bobby. I remember Lonnie say he don’t know him.”
Virgil waited, in no hurry. “What did I ask you?”
“I said you know where he work?”
“Shit, Lonnie? He’s dealing. What he always done. He was working here he was dealing.”
“He’s a good friend of yours, huh?”
“You see him much?”
“Yeah, you know. I see him around different places, sometimes the methadone center.”
“How you doing with your habit?”
“I’m making it.”
Virgil grinned. “Lavera stays right on your ass, don’t she? She was a little girl she was always serious, like a little mama.”
“She not worried no more,” Tunafish said. “Lonnie, shit, he still doing both, couple of dimes and the meth. Fucked up good but he don’t know it.”
“What’s he dealing?”
“Lonnie? Mostly he deal grass. Get this low-grade weed and sell it to the people out the V.A. hospital, tell them it’s Tia-wanna gold, some bullshit name he make up. The stuff, man grow it in Pontiac.” Tunafish started to grin, seeing Virgil grinning. “Assholes out the V.A., they go oooh, aaah, Tia-wanna gold, hey, shit, man, get us some more this stuff. Lonnie shake his head, he say he don’t know but he try.”
Virgil slid out of the booth, still grinning a little. “You want something now?”
“You gonna have one?”
“Yeah, something. I don’t know yet.”
“Give me aaaaah… vodka orange juice,” Tunafish said.
He watched Virgil go over to the bar and wait for the bartender, down at the end, to notice him. The man had changed. Standing there waiting. Talking to the bartender now. Four years ago he would have called the bartender over here to the booth. It looked like Virgil because of the hat, but it didn’t look like him, coming back, carrying two orange vodka drinks.
“I’d like you to call up Lonnie,” Virgil said, seated again, looking right at him.
Tunafish didn’t move. It was coming now, and for some reason he hadn’t expected it to be about Lonnie. He thought that had been warming-up talk, bullshit talk, and Lonnie had happened into it.
“Tell him you want to see him,” Virgil said. “Say you got a deal on some good weed he’d like to have.”
“I don’t know his number,” Tunafish said. He was holding on to his drink. “Or he’s got a phone or where the man lives. I don’t.”
“I give you two hundreds and two tens,” Virgil said. “His phone number’s on one of the hundreds.” Virgil kept looking at him.
Tunafish was trying to think and act calm at the same time. He didn’t want to ask any questions if he didn’t have to.
“He might not be home.”
“I bet right now he is,” Virgil said. “Still in the bed with his little girl. What’s her name? Marcella Lindsey. Two eight three two Edison. Upstairs. Tell him you be over six, six-thirty, if he wants a sample. None of that Tia-wanna shit, top-grade stuff. If he don’t want to see it, you show it to somebody else.”
Tunafish was listening carefully, nodding. He still hadn’t moved.
“Go on, call him. Tell him that,” Virgil said. Tunafish got up from the booth. “Hey-he say he can’t see you, then you say you call him back later. Dig?”
Virgil watched him go over to the wall phone, taking the folded bills out to look at the number-narrow hunched shoulders and round afro shape, skinny kid in a leather coat too big for him. His head moving a little with the George Benson sound coming out of the hi-fi. Showing how he could set his friend up for his brother-in-law and not ask why. Knowing, whatever the reason, it had to be. Yeah, Tunafish knew what was happening. He didn’t know all of it yet, but he knew enough.
Tunafish came back and slid into the booth.
“Say he can’t make it at six, he has to be someplace.”
Virgil grinned and relaxed against the cushion. Tunafish waited, but Virgil didn’t say anything.
“When do I call him back?”
“Uh-uh, all I wanted to know, was he going to make his appointment.”
“‘Pointment for what?”
“The beauty parlor,” Virgil said. “Get his super-fly hair fixed up. Every Friday, six-thirty, Lonnie comes in after the ladies have gone.”
“Ladies’ beauty parlor, huh,” Tunafish said. “Man, he never told nobody that.”
“Place called the Hairhouse, in Pontiac,” Virgil said. “Little white boy name of Sal does his hair, Lonnie gives him a couple of baggies.”
“You knew all that, what’d I call him for?”
“Make sure Lonnie’s going to be there this evening,” Virgil said. “Isn’t having his period or something.”
“Hey, shit.” Tunafish shook his head, grinning, feeling pretty good now because his part of it was over. “Lonnie going to the beauty parlor. Got his red silk suit on, his red golf gloves he wears, his red high-heel shoes. I can see him.”
“You might,” Virgil said, “since you gonna be there. Come on, what you think I paid you for, making a phone call? Man, you my driver.”
Virgil felt good the way things were going. Seeing his patience being rewarded. This afternoon seeing the ofay man who drove the light-blue Pontiac-in the bar talking to Lee-same man who wanted Bobby Lear and had showed up at the bus station and stood there by the men’s room, looking around like he didn’t know what he was doing. After this was done he’d go back to the Good Times and talk to Lee some more about the ofay man.
Virgil was feeling so good, maybe he’d give his brother-in-law another hundred.
He liked the dry cleaner’s panel truck Tunafish was driving. Nobody’d be looking for it till tomorrow. He liked the rain that had begun to come down in a cold drizzle about five. He could wear the raincoat and look natural walking down the street. Around the corner and partway down a block of store windows to the place with the orange drapes and the cute sign that said:
Virgil left his good hat in the panel truck with Tunafish and put on a tan crocheted cap that came down snug over his forehead. His right hand, extended through the slit opening in the pocket, held the twelve-gauge Hi-Standard pointing down his leg beneath the raincoat. About six pounds of gun with the barrel and most of the stock cut off. A little bell jingled when he opened the door.
Nobody heard him. Nobody was in the part where the empty desk and the couches were. Or in the section with the stools and the lit-up vanity mirrors. They were in the back part by the hair dryers: a short little dark-haired man in an open white swordfighter shirt and Lonnie in his red silk pants and a towel over his shoulders, bare skin beneath. Virgil walked toward them.
And a hairnet-Lonnie had on a hairnet holding the waves of his superfly in place.
Tight little red silk can sticking out, hand on his hip and gold chains and ornaments against his bare chicken-breast chest. Maybe the beauty-parlor man played with his titties. The beauty-parlor man looked like a little guinea or a Greek. They were both talking and giggling, Lonnie ducking down to get under a hair dryer. The beauty-parlor man was adjusting it, lowering the polished chrome thing down over Lonnie’s finger waves.
Lonnie looked up and saw Virgil. He stopped talking. The little beauty-parlor man saw Lonnie’s expression and turned around. It was quiet in the place. Both of them seemed helpless and afraid, like they might hold each other for protection. Maybe Lonnie knew him, maybe not. It didn’t matter.
A funny thing happened.
Virgil was pulling down the zipper of the raincoat with his left hand. The little guinea or Greek beauty-parlor man seemed to realize something then. He said, “Oh, my God, it’s a holdup.”
Virgil hadn’t thought of that. He didn’t have to say anything. The beauty-parlor man was telling him he had already emptied the cash register in front. The day’s receipts were in that little room, the closet, and he’d go in and get them if Virgil wanted. All right? Honest to gosh, but it was mostly checks. He didn’t want checks, did he? Virgil said no, he didn’t want checks. The beauty-parlor man went into the closet room. He came back out right away putting a stack of bills in an envelope that said Hairhouse in the corner and handed it to Virgil. Virgil said thank you.
He had to put the envelope in the left-side pocket. His hand came out and finished unzipping the raincoat, pulling the skirt aside. The heavy stubby front end of the twelve-gauge appeared.
“And thank you, honey,” Virgil said to the boy sitting there bare-chested with his chains and his hairnet and his mouth open. Virgil gave Lonnie a double-O twelve-gauge charge from ten feet away, pumped the gun hard with his left hand and hit him again, whatever part of him it was going out of the chair ass over hair dryer, making a terrible noise and shattering a full-length mirror, wiping it from the wall, as the beauty-parlor man began to scream, backing away.
Virgil stared at him, frowning at the painful sound, until he lowered the blunt end of the shotgun and zipped the raincoat over it. The beauty-parlor man stopped screaming. Virgil continued to frown, though now it was more an expression of concern.
He said, “Man, get hold of yourself.” And walked out.