Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Twenty Three

A solar lamp glowed blue outside the shabby pub and a wooden sign swung in the breeze. Macy and Diana reined in, jumped off their horses and shed their dusters. Macy was festive in red with spangles and feathers. Diana owned nothing comparable, other than the rose-colored dress Sputnik had arranged for her the year before, and the bodice no longer fit her thickening waist. She wore her black dress from that morning, altered Macy-style, the skirt slashed and pinned to show some leg, collar unbuttoned to her breastbone, and a glittering necklace of salvaged glass at her throat. Diana had protested Macy's efforts with makeup and curling iron, but only weakly, and now she looked quite the coquette with her painted lips and riotous brown curls.

"Smile," Macy whispered, taking her arm. "We're a couple of young ladies looking for a good time, remember?"

Diana nodded and looked around, her gaze falling on a ragged boy across the street, trying to sell tortillas from the back of a donkey cart. "Oh good, Compass is already here."

"I told you he would be. Now, relax. Just stick to the plan and do what I do."

They stepped into the saloon and paused to get their bearings. The room had a faded elegance about it and although the paneling was dry and splintered, the floor chipped and sconces tarnished, in the dim light these things were easily overlooked. The man behind the bar eyed the girls curiously, trying to determine whether they were whores or just high-spirited townies. Macy steered Diana in the direction of a table out of the main path of traffic. "Gin and tonic, if you've got it," she told the waitress.

"Tonic's flat."

"I don't mind, honey."

The waitress turned to Diana. "And you?"

"Gin and tonic is fine." After she had gone, Diana leaned close to Macy. "Are you sure it's a good idea to drink?"

"We'll stick out if we don't. Just sip slowly."

They paid for their drinks and settled in to wait. A few men sized them up, and wandered over to talk. Macy engaged them in cheerful banter, and soon they were offered more drinks, invited to play cards and asked to dance to the wild flailings of a dusky man at the piano. One of their suitors even tossed them a key to his hotel room, which made Macy giggle. “Too bad I’ve got a boyfriend and have to behave myself,” she said after he left. “I could be earning some money.” When Diana raised her eyebrows, she added, “For Unitas, of course.”

As the night wore on, they grew nervous. If Strecker’s guards didn’t show, what then? They were debating what their next move should be when Diana noticed a movement near the door and dug her fingers into Macy's arm. "Over there."

Three men in black were standing in the doorway, assessing the room and the crowd with critical eyes. With watchful glances all around, they approached the bar where the bartender halted his conversation with a rancher and hurried over. While he mixed their drinks, the guards continued to scan the crowd, as if still on the lookout for threats to their boss.

"Well," Macy said, “No time like the present." She stood up, patted her curls, and sauntered over with a hip-swaying motion that made heads turn. From where she sat, Diana couldn't hear what she said, but it was apparently the right thing because no one seemed suspicious. After some laughter and teasing, Macy took one man by the arm and led him toward Diana, the others falling in behind.

"Graciela," she said, using one of the code names they had agreed upon, "This is my new friend Enrique."

Enrique, a dark brick of a man, shook Diana's hand.

"And his friends Tierry and Botas."

Diana shook hands with each of the men in turn, but gave the last one a quizzical look. "Botas?"

He pulled up a chair and sat down, then held out a foot for her inspection. "Extra big boots. For my big feet. You know what they say about men with big feet."

Diana didn't know, but from Macy's phony giggle, she could guess.

The other men sat down and Macy launched into a bright bit of chatter, asking meaningless questions, feigning great interest in their answers and praising them for their cleverness, no matter how inane their responses. Diana tried to follow along, but couldn’t match the vapid babble of her friend’s conversation. Annoyed and ashamed of herself, she toyed with her glass.

“Want another one?” Tierry asked, indicating Diana’s empty glass.

She nodded, realizing that Tierry had been mostly silent during Macy’s carrying-on. While he tried to attract the waitress’s attention, she studied his face. He was young, with a receding chin that made him look weak, in spite of his stern expression. Diana could have sighed with relief. She knew how to handle shy men. She scooted her chair a little closer.

In spite of Macy’s best flirtations and Diana's progress at winning Thierry's confidence, by midnight they had still found out nothing about Strecker. The guards didn’t even want to reveal their own plans for the next day, let alone their boss’s, other than to say they would be busy.

"You're lying,” Macy laughed, slapping Botas playfully on the arm. “I don’t care how weird you say your boss is. No one makes their people work all day."

"It doesn’t happen all the time, but we’ve got a lot going on and tomorrow is critical."

"What about lunch? We could have a picnic."

"A roll in a grassy field could be fun,” Enrique agreed. “But, no. We’ll be especially busy at lunch."

"What could you possibly—

He patted her knee. "Guy stuff, cutie. Don't you worry about it."

"Well, how about breakfast?" Diana said in exasperation. "Surely your boss will let you have your morning coffee?"

"Only if they're serving it at the cemetery," Tierry sighed.

"What on earth are you going there for?"

All three men exchanged glances. "Boss grew up around these parts," Botas said reluctantly. "His childhood sweetheart is buried here. Back in federal days, she ratted out a hoarder and the hoarder's friends killed her."

"In a very nasty way," Enrique added.

"He still takes flowers to her grave," Tierry said. "First thing tomorrow, we'll go see the flower lady on the plaza, and then we're off to Jacinta's grave. We probably won't stay long," he shrugged. "But you never know with him. He might decide to read poetry to her, like he did a couple days ago."

"I’d sure rather be having coffee. . . or something else with you." Botas said with a wink.

"Maybe you were talking about room service coffee at five o'clock, after being up all night," Enrique offered, tracing the inside of Macy's thigh with his finger. "Come on. How about it?"

"Tomorrow," she laughed, pushing his hand away.

"Tomorrow night's kind of iffy."

"Well tonight's impossible. We've stayed too long as it is."

It took another half hour of protests and persuasion, but Macy and Diana finally extricated themselves and went outside. Diana signaled Compass as she hoisted herself into the saddle. "I have a feeling they might try and track us," she told Macy.

“Don’t I know it. I wouldn’t put a thing past those dogs.”

They kicked their horses into a trot and took the first turn they came to, trusting that if the guards decided to follow, Compass would delay them long enough that they could find Will and Coyote. They hurried through the narrow residential streets, increasingly nervous, straining for the sound of hoof beats behind them.

The sudden flash of a light up ahead made them breathe a little easier. Diana reached for her flashlight and returned the signal. Two shapes separated themselves from the shadows.

"How'd it go?" Coyote asked, pulling up alongside Macy’s mare.

"Great," Diana said. "We've got a perfect chance at Strecker in the morning." She looked over her shoulder. "But those guys started getting weird back there."

"Possessive bastards," Macy muttered.

Will looked back up the street with troubled eyes. "Were you followed?"

“We don’t think so, but we can’t be sure.”

"Let's hurry."

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