Max Allan Collins
Quarry in the middle
I had a body in the trunk of my car.
I hadn’t planned it that way, but then it wasn’t that kind of job. It wasn’t a job at all, really, rather a speculative venture, and now I’d made more of an investment than just my time and a little money.
This was in the summer, and Reagan was still president, early enough that he wasn’t showing his Alzheimer’s yet and late enough that he was keeping a good distance between himself and the Press Corps, waving and smiling and pretending he couldn’t hear them. We’d already had the Chernobyl meltdown, the Challenger explosion, and Pac-Man fever. Disco was dead, which was fine with me, only I wish somebody had paid me to kill the fucker.
I make the above lame joke because I had once upon a time killed people for money-initially for Uncle Sam, but more profitably for a mobbed-up guy called the Broker (more about him later). Right now I was in business for myself, thirty-five years old and looking to make a killing. Financial kind.
Anyway, the body in the trunk of my car. And it was my car, not a rental, a blue ’75 Pontiac with a lighter blue vinyl top, a Sunbird, which was really just a Vega pretending to be a sports car. It had a lot of miles on it and had only cost a grand and change, bought for cash under a phony name in Wisconsin-another investment in this spec job.
I hadn’t known I’d wind up with a body in the trunk, but I was old enough a hand at this to know I didn’t want to use my usual vehicle and a rental would be a bad idea, too. But to tell you the truth, I’d had bodies in my trunk before, so maybe that was a factor, after all.
For around six years in the ’70s I had taken on contracts, and part of why I’d survived and even flourished was my ability to blend in. At five ten, one-hundred-sixty pounds, I’d maintained a fairly boyish look-into my late twenties, I could be been taken for a college student, and now I could pass for twenty-five or — six. I kept my brown hair medium-length because that helped maintain anonymity. I could be a working man in t-shirt and jeans or a salesman in narrow tie and sportcoat or a professional in button-down collar and pinstripe suit.
Tonight, though, I was doing my Don Johnson impression in a white Armani suit with a pastel yellow t-shirt and Italian loafers with no socks. Normally, the Miami Vice schtick was not for me, but I needed to fit in. The Paddlewheel attracted a wealthy crowd, and the over-forty set dressed to the nines, but the twenty-and thirty- somethings were Yuppies and dressed accordingly.
So tonight I was a Yuppie (a Yuppie with a body in the trunk, but a Yuppie).
This was a warm evening cooled by a breeze and the parking lot was nearly full-my used car at least had that vinyl top to help it fit in with the Buicks and Caddies and BMW’s, and was maybe sporty enough to cohabit with the Stingray 280ZX’s and Jags. I parked on the far side of the lot, near where the glimmering black strip of the Mississippi River reflected the lights of the ancient steel toll bridge joining River’s Bluff, Iowa, and Haydee’s Port, Illinois.
Everybody I’d talked to so far, which wasn’t many admittedly, seemed to shorten it to Haydee’s. And from the glimpse I’d got of the little town, they might have been saying Hades, and meaning it.
River’s Bluff itself hadn’t been that impressive, a long-in-the-tooth industrial burg of maybe sixty thousand on rolling hills overlooking the river. Ivy-covered shelves of shale lined the freeway cutting through the old river city, taking me to the bridge and a thirty-cent toll. Going over the rumbling, ancient span was a more frightening ride than a fifty-cent one at any carnival.
And Haydee’s Port itself wasn’t any less frightening. A sign beyond the bridge announced it, a road curving right to eventually deposit me and my Sunbird (no body in the trunk yet-this was early afternoon) in a pocket below the interstate. Here I found myself beholding the open wound that was Haydee’s Port.
Main Street was almost entirely bars and strip clubs, rough-looking ones-big parking lots in back, empty mid-morning but indicating healthy-sized clientele. Among the few respectable businesses was a Casey’s General Store, which was also the only gas station, on a corner by itself just beyond the two-block strip of sin. No schools, and certainly no churches. Poking up out of the trees that hugged the Mighty Miss emerged grain-elevator towers, which were one legitimate business anyway that had nothing to do with selling beer, except maybe providing out- of-state brewers with some of the makings.
Main Street was paved, but the others weren’t, just narrow hard dirt, with ruts to indicate what happened when it rained. The main drag was built with its back to the river, putting the residences of the little community behind the opposite row of saloons. Mostly Haydee’s Port was a glorified trailer park, minus the glory-shabby mobile homes here and there, as if where the most recent tornado had left them, with an occasional sagging twenties or older vintage clapboard house to add a little undignified variety.
This was a welfare ghetto, with the bars handy for disposal of monthly checks and probably willing to accept food stamps, maybe at 75 cents on the dollar.
All of which made the Paddlewheel (half a mile or so out of town) such an anomaly, at least at first glance. This was a class operation, not an all-night gin mill serving blue-collar out-of-workers or the spillover from River Bluff after the bars closed, rather a high-end entertainment complex that attracted clientele with cash, not food stamps. The reconverted warehouse was a massive affair, home to a restaurant, numerous bars, several lounges with stages, and a casino-a mini-Las Vegas under one roof.
Though when you really thought about it, the Paddlewheel was not an anomaly at all-some genius entrepreneur had realized that in an environment corrupt enough for downtown Haydee’s Port to openly thrive, erecting a sin palace for Mr. and Mrs. Got-rocks Midwest was also possible. Whatever bent cops and greedy politicos were allowing these lowlife joints to run wide open would be just as for sale to the Paddle-wheel’s backers. Maybe more so.
Anyway, the body in the trunk.
You have to understand that I had no idea I was heading for Haydee’s Port. Hell, I had no idea Haydee’s Port existed. I’d been following a guy named Monahan from Omaha, Nebraska, which had been tricky for a variety of reasons, starting with the difficulty of staking out a guy who lives in a suburban home in an upper middle-class neighborhood.
Monahan was a guy about about forty who lived a very respectable life for a contract killer, which is what he was. He was five seven or eight, in good shape, with short dark hair and the general button-down look of an insurance salesman, which as it happened was his cover.
I had no reason to believe his perky little blonde wife, also about forty, had the faintest notion Monahan was a hit man, to use the TV parlance. Certainly his two kids, a boy around thirteen and a girl of fifteen or sixteen were clueless that their suburban lifestyle was made possible by the man of the house committing commercial carnage.
Monahan’s life with his wife and kids and his split-level in a housing development in Omaha have almost nothing to do with this narrative, so I’ll keep it short. I’d never met him, but he was one of fifty-some guys like me who had worked for the Broker, the middleman who’d provided me with contracts back when I was in the killing game myself. For reasons recorded elsewhere, the Broker wound up dead and I wound up with a database of his worker bees.
“Database” isn’t exactly right, because when I came into possession of that file, it was before home computers, and when I say “file,” I mean literally that-a file, a fat manila folder full of extensive information including real names and aliases alike, addresses past and present, photographs for each name, even specific jobs that had been carried out.
Why the Broker maintained this explosive packet, I couldn’t say-eventual blackmail purposes should someone get out of line, maybe? Or food for the feds or cops should immunity and the Witness Protection Program come into play?
For all his veneer of suburban bliss, Monahan was an assassin whose specialty was particularly nasty: hit-