Banger felt it was something of a revelation: Fish eyeballs looked the same whether the heads were attached or not.
"I'm gonna find the room," Eddie said. He held onto the briefcase--fat with a quarter million dollars in large bills--and left the other bags for his partner to lug.
Banger lagged behind, distracted again by something the average person might casually disregard. This time it was an aquarium in the office of the Rest E-Z motel in Tucson. Two orange and one silver-hued goldfish traversed the waters, along with a large, menacing lo0king thing that shadowed them from one end of the tank to the other. The little speedsters would pirouette, then swoop high or low, easily clearing out of the monster's way with each lumbering pass. The ugly thing's eyes, soulless and cold, gave him the creeps.
The desk clerk--a squat, balding man in a sleeveless T-shirt--spoke with a foreign accent. "The beeg fish is called an 'Oscar.'"
"I think he's trying to eat the little ones," Banger said.
The man grinned and bit into a huge salami sandwich he'd retrieved from beneath the counter. The room reeked of garlic. "Very perceptive, my friend. Yes, he eat them. I have fifty in there a couple weeks ago, and now look!"
"But he won't catch these...they're too fast. They can outrun him all day long."
"Oh no," said the man. He get them. He get them sure as shit. Leetle fish get distracted for just one second and WHAP! It disappear."
Banger managed a queasy grin, and the clerk set into a fit of laughter. "Beeg fish ALWAYS eat da leetle fish...you cannot escape your fate my friend...you cannot escape your fate!'
He scooped up the bags, whirled and pushed through the door, relieved to get away from the man, whom he figured must be crazy. The clerk's muted laughter followed him down the walkway as he searched for Eddie and the room.
They lay stretched beside the motel pool, the sun a giant pad of butter melting in the blue October sky. Banger said, "Hey, Eddie, where'd you stash the bills?"
"Lodged 'em behind the toilet tank. Don't go wipin' your ass with them."
"Hhaw...that's good, Eddie...that's real good."
A woman entered the enclosure and plopped her towel, book, and lotion onto a chaise lounge at the opposite end of the pool. She removed her shorts and top, revealing a bright yellow bikini beneath. Banger caught his partner's mutt-hungry gaze, a look he'd seen before, back in Jersey.
He didn't want to think about where they'd come from or what they had done. Ripping off the big-time drug dealer they worked for had been Eddie's idea. He'd said it was their one shot. Then they were driving--day and night--and trying to lay low.
The woman dove into the water.
"You think Antonio will come after us, Eddie?"
"Jesus, man--I wish you'd shut up about that. Like I said, there may be some wise guys on the lookout here and there, but they got no idea where we are. Anyways, it's not like he'll be sending the 'A' team, know what I mean? That kinda dinero is a drop in his bucket."
"Yeah....drop in the bucket. We make it to Mexico and we're just two pretty faces in the crowd, huh Eddie."
"Uh, make that ONE pretty face, my man."
The woman emerged from the pool and toweled off, short dark hair sleek behind her ears like the tail fins of a '57 Chevy. The bikini top was the kind that cloys to the skin when wet, allowing a semi-transparent view of what's underneath. She turned toward the men and smiled--the dark, perfect circles of her nipples clearly outlined against the material. Eddie's eyes fixed upon her as he drained the last of his soda. A breeze flirted with the fronds of the surrounding palms. Undulating waves of sunlight danced upon the water. "Ahh," he said, allowing the breath to escape lazily from his lips. "We've got it all right here, man. The sun, the water, and some fine lookin' stuff giving us a show. I could stay here forever in poolside paradise."
Eddie sure seemed to fit in, Banger thought. In swim trunks, with his slim but toned build and wavy hair, he was like a young Frankie Avalon in one of those beach movies.
"Hey Eddie, what do you think...is it better to be BIG....or is it better to be FAST?"
"What the hell you talkin' about, man?"
"I mean just in general--in life. Better to be big...or fast."
Eddie reluctantly took his eyes off the woman, who lay on her back, face tilted toward the sun. He cocked his head for a moment as he pondered the question. "Okay," he began. "Take your dinosaurs, for example. They were the biggest, meanest, muthas in the valley, right? So where are they now? Then, you take your lions and cheetahs and shit...they're FAST, man. That's how they've survived all this time, 'cause they can track down their prey and kill it."
Antonio's face--angry and cruel--flashed through Banger's mind, making him shudder.
"No offense, man," Eddie continued. "But take you and me. Uh, what are you--about six-five and two-fifty or so?
"Yeah, about that."
"Right, so you're BIG. But you're kinda slow, if you know what I mean. That's why I gotta be the brains of this operation. No offense."
Suddenly, the woman was standing in front of them, cigarette in hand. "Can I trouble you guys for a light? Eddie scrambled to retrieve a Bic from his duffel bag. "Sure is a nice day, isn't it? Where you fellas from?"
"Connecticut," Eddie said quickly. "We're dealers...uh, ART dealers. I'm Jonathan and this is my business partner...Maurice."
"Pleased to meetcha--I'm LuAnne from Texas. So tell me, how'd ya ever get into something fascinating like that?"
Eddie cleared his throat and reached for one of his own smokes. "Got the inspiration while I was in the army...in Japan. One day I was on liberty and took a tour of the Sakahachi Museum in Tokyo--beautiful place I must say. I was hooked from then on."
Banger, a half step behind, was momentarily confused. But his mind wrested with a dilemma. "What do you think, LuAnne," he interrupted. "Is it better to be big, or better to be fast?"
"Maurice, here, is kind of a philosopher," Eddie said.
She gave Banger a wink. "That depends on what you're talking about. Me, I like to think in terms of having it all--so I would say it's better to be both." She took a long drag on her cigarette and blew the smoke in Eddie's face. "My husband's attending a business conference," she sighed. "He's gone most of the day, leaving me here with nothing much to do...can ya imagine that?"
Eddie jumped to his feet. "Hey Lu, are you hungry? I spotted a little bar and restaurant down the street. We could discuss...uh...modern art or something."
"Well now, that sounds just fine."
Banger rose halfway from his chair, but Eddie stared him down and said, "My associate here has some business of his own to take care of, right?"
"Uh....yeah, right." He watched the two of them leave, wondering how in the hell he got saddled with a name like "Maurice."
A week had passed, and Eddie was making himself scarce, spending most of his time with the attractive dark-haired lady. Killing time, Banger found himself wandering through the grounds of a large cemetery. The vegetation was meticulously mowed and trimmed, suggesting that death provides a sense of order unavailable to the living. Sparrows that bickered irreverently amongst themselves--their noisy disputes spilling from tree to tree--now rained their wrath upon the common enemy below. He looked up just in time to step out of the line of fire. "You crap on heads...and headstones alike!" he said, grinning at his own cleverness. Then, "I ain't so dumb, Eddie. I ain't so dumb."
He walked along, trying to ignore the morbid thoughts that wormed their way into his brain. He ruminated on all the things he might have been: professional wrestler...football star...bouncer in a topless bar. But Eddie had shown him what seemed like an easy way out. Eddie's the brains, he kept telling himself. Eddie's got it all under control.
He knelt beside a small marker and read the inscription:
August 4, 1932--June 9, 1957
A life nipped in the bud
now blooms in God's garden
The man had been close to Banger's age when he died.
He was hungry, and already beginning to feel the rising chill that could take a stranger to the desert night by surprise. Nearing the Rest E-Z parking lot, something stopped him cold in his tracks. It was the two suits walking from their car toward the office. Banger had a bad feeling. A really bad feeling.
When the men disappeared inside, he ran to the room. Again he froze. A Do Not Disturb card hung from the doorknob, along with a hand-scrawled sign: THAT MEANS YOU, MAURICE! He cursed under his breath. For a moment he stood staring at the dull grey paint on the door. In the twilight, everything was becoming a blur.
What was it about the door? Some kind of force tried to suck him right into it, to absorb him right into the wood. Then, as if jacked into a time warp, he felt small. Now he was the seven year old, standing outside another door. The door to his mother's bedroom. The door he was forbidden to open whenever the "guests" were there. But he HAD opened it. Once.
"What are you doing in there, mama?" he whispered. Surprised when the knob turned in his hand, he stepped cautiously inside. The room was dark and still. Eddie and LuAnne were passed out on the bed, sheets crumpled in disarray. There was an empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the bureau, and the smell of booze lingered in the air. LuAnne lay on her stomach--nearly off the edge--her deeply tanned back and one white breast exposed. He crept to her side.
Something was building inside him--a dark, fetid thing. "Mother, you WHORE. You filthy whore!" His eyes searched the room for some kind of blunt instrument. They fell upon a glass vase filled with plastic flowers. He gripped it in one hand and stood over LuAnne, raising the vessel high above his head. In a second it would come crashing down, smashing the back of her skull.
There was a dizzying moment in which his thoughts became jumbled again. He put his other hand out to steady himself against the wall. Tears streamed down his cheeks. "Mama," he said softly.
The world had turned topsy-turvy for a moment, but now things were righting themselves. Gaping at the flower vase, he watched it transmute from murder weapon into an object of beauty again. LuAnne's words at the pool jangled around in his head. Something about having it all. He set the vase onto the bureau and scrutinized the clothing and personal effects scattered about. The bathroom door was cracked open a few inches, and the light had been left on, sending a a thin beam running along the floor and up the opposite side wall. It was all the illumination he needed.
He poured the contents of her purse onto the floor. Wallet. Black address book. Cigs. Lighter. Three lipsticks. Tic Tacs. And something metallic in one of the zippered compartments.
The lady was packing heat.
He opened the wallet and removed her driver's license. "LuAnne from Texas" was in reality Cassandra from New York. Banger had never been good at math, but he could put two and two together--yes, he surely could. Those two men were here to finish the job that Cassandra had lost sight of. Antonio didn't like getting ripped off, but he also didn't like it when his operatives failed to follow through.
He left the room with the briefcase full of cash in hand, the woman's purse slung round his neck, Eddie's wallet tucked inside his shirt, and the car keys in his pocket. He was about to close the door when something else caught his eye. Stepping back inside, he grabbed the plastic motel ice bucket from the bureau. He threw everything but the bucket into the front seat of Eddie's Camaro.
The men he'd spotted earlier emerged from the office. One was lanky, the other thickset. "Muscles" tugged at his collar as though his tie were too tight, while "Stretch" hiked up his trousers as if they were too loose. They craned their necks in either direction, then moved slowly together down the walkway, checking room numbers as they went.
Crouching behind the car, Banger wondered who would get the worst of it--Eddie or Cassandra? But he couldn't worry about that now. He crossed the parking lot and ducked into the office. The crazy man was not behind the desk. A television chattered from the adjoining room. He squatted beside the aquarium, and for a moment his heart sank like a paper boat in a storm.
Only TWO goldfish left.
The big Oscar glided ominously back and forth between the borders of its crystalline world. "Too late," Banger said softly. Suddenly, the little silver speedster jetted from behind a plastic coral reef and joined the other two at one corner of the tank, safe for the moment. 'NOW!" Banger said, thrusting the ice bucket into the water.
Out on the freeway, the evening desert air blew cool on his face and the stars winked in through the open window. "I'm your dad now, and I'm gonna take care of you little guys," he said. The ice bucket rested flat on the passenger side floor. "First chance we get, we're stopping to buy you a new home--a BIG fish tank--how about that?"
A blue highway sign pointed the way to Phoenix.
"We'll hole up in the big town for a while. Then, maybe...Montana! Yeah, nobody's gonna be looking for us in Montana!" But even as he said it, Banger knew that Antonio would be picking up the scent. "So right now, we gotta be FAST. We gotta be REAL fast." He jammed the pedal to the metal, and the Camaro's big engine roared .
Four little fishes streaked into the night.