1 – The Hearse
Mid-morning Tuesday, I think.
The car rounded the corner of East Glen and Alvernon and came to a halt curb-side on familiar oil-stained dusty ground. It rocked like a nudged cradle, with a final touch of the accelerator, before all life was extinguished by a quarter turn of the key.
Despite its years, it had driven like a silk scarf wafted over enamel. Hidden beneath a gossamer veil of baked-on desert grime, harboured an iconic gothic masterpiece, craftsmanship that no longer extended in the making of American automobiles.
Tom and Seamus sat either side of their cynical boss, on the black leather bench seat, at the front of an enormous 1970 Cadillac Superior Royale hearse. Saul Berns slouched in between them nonchalantly chewing gum, smacking out a rhythm with his tuberous lips.
“I want you to take this fuckin’ thing up to Ron Ruby’s. Leave a fuckin’ note on the windshield saying your car has arrived!”
The boys laughed, despite the ludicrous, acidic instruction inciting gurgling bile to secrete and boil in their stomachs.
What kind of situation had they slipped into? This wasn’t what they had signed up for, doing leg work for a gangster, five-thousand miles outside of their comfort zone.
But like it or not, ultimately he was their boss; he paid them to sit here in the sunshine, he put beer in their bellies, girls in their arms and fundamentally provided them their liberty in the United States. It was an unpalatable dilemma; do as requested or go home.
The leviathan had sat there for several years unloved, sinister, Munster-like, with a touch of ‘Christine’ about it. And happened to be exactly what Saul Berns was looking for.
Now as they wilted under blistering Arizona heat, following a test drive with the AC turned off, Saul had revealed his intentions.
Tom was at the wheel. “That’ll wind ‘im up!”
“Uh?” Saul found these two Brits hard to comprehend at the best of times.
“Make ‘im mad,” said Seamus interpreting Tom’s colloquialism.
“That’s the least that cocksucker’s gonna get when I’m through,” replied the boss. “Now let’s pay for this piece of shit and then take me home. You can wash it when we get back, and then drive this fucker up tonight … it’ll be a nice supplement with the fuckin’ morning papers.”
Seamus was cautious in his response. “Aha,” he murmured; the task was becoming increasingly more daunting.
Fifteen hundred dollars was a cheap price to pay for a vindictive little poke at your enemy and besides it wasn’t Saul’s money he was paying with—it was never Saul’s money that he squandered.
Ron Ruby was Saul Berns’ nemesis; they had hated each other for the past 15 years. Like Saul, Ron was an associated mobster with a caustic history, who now dealt in the murky grey areas of land acquisition and development.
Ron wanted parcels of land that Saul had obtained and was vehemently hanging on to.
Ron’s grand scheme was to build a satellite city consisting of 21,000 homes and 2 resorts on fragile conservation land centred on a ranch in the south east corridor adjacent to the Saguaro National park, in Tucson. The project was causing uproar amongst the town’s ‘green’ fraternity and naturalists who had formed a coalition to halt the rape of their land and had enlisted the leadership of one Dr Kevin Launcher, an eminent conservationist and professor from the University of Arizona.
Ron required this land to complete his multi-million dollar investment and would pay massively over the odds for it. Saul Berns would rather slit his own throat before selling to “that fuckin’ big-shot sonofabitch.”
The feud between the opposing parties was festering into a political storm, with the town planning and zoning departments caught in the middle.
What started out as just another Rancho Vistoso or Green Valley project, had turned into a fiery referendum on the future of the city. A juggernaut that had solidified both sides of the spectrum and threatened to gather a few scalps before the final outcome was resolved.
Saul had sided firmly with the alliance, but he cared little about conservation, he just wanted to turn over his adversary, Ron Ruby.
Later that evening with the setting sun creating another spectacular trifle-layered sky, the boys were busy preparing for Saul’s latest skulduggery.
Tom was perturbed and fidgety. “What if we get tugged by the ‘Old Bill’?”
“We’ll be alright,” assured Seamus, “we’ll take it easy.”
“It’s gonna look pretty conspicuous driving around in that fuckin’ thing in the middle of the night.” Tom was peeping through a crack in the curtains towards the parking lot below their apartment. Some of the local kids had mustered up the courage to go peer inside the monster car, probably hoping that Vampira wasn’t laid out in the back.
“It’s got no tags ‘n no insurance; let’s ‘ope you don’t get a squad car up ya’ arse.”
“They’ll just think it’s students ‘aving a laugh,” replied Seamus.
“They’d better be blind, I don’t think you could survive another appearance in front of a judge!”
Seamus gave a short “ha”, in return.
Some months previously, Seamus had been pulled over on his way to work by a police officer, for speeding in their Chevrolet El Camino. The inspection revealed that he had out of date tags on the number plate, lacked insurance, had no valid driving licence and had outstayed his visa in the USA. It was a dead cert that Seamus would be deported; absolutely no doubt about it and Tom had started to entertain plans to go it alone.
But once the judge had deduced that this engrossing defendant was an Englishman, they got into a lengthy rapport about London, the weather and English actors, particularly Rex Harrison (Dr Dolittle) the judge’s favourite. And after charming his ‘Honour’ with disingenuous wit, Seamus was dismissed with nothing more than a $100 fine and a 2 day ‘step course’ on speeding to attend at a police station.
Of course Seamus, being Seamus, only went for one day.
After this brush with expulsion, the boys had decided to at least make their car legal. They got insured via Caitlyn Bern’s brother, Charles, who insured the car for himself, and then put them down as named drivers. They ran the El Camino through an emissions test to get the tags up to date and then they both took their driving test, a simple affair compared to the UK equivalent. It consisted of driving their Chevrolet once around the block with a police officer beside them, who was more interested in their accent than paying attention to their driving skills, reverse parking between two traffic cones, simple, and sitting a written multiple-choice Q&A paper.
Twenty-six questions on road awareness of which 21 was the pass mark. Tom and Seamus sat one in front of the other at a desk along with 30 or more other hopefuls in a deathly silent sterile station room headed by one officer. It was like re-sitting a school exam but without the smell of pubescent teenagers.
Two questions into the test and Seamus was whispering back to Tom. “What’s the answer to number three?”
“A,” replied his buddy.
“What’s the answer to number four?”
“C,” Tom hissed.
This went on incessantly throughout the whole exam, with Tom getting more and more agitated, and spotlighted by the ripple of giggles from those around them. The examiner uncomfortably frustrated, burned a hard stare into Tom, but it had no effect on his mischievous friend in front.
After half an hour the papers were collected and marked while the gathering awaited their fate.
“I thought we were gonna get thrown out then, you bloody nuisance,” Tom frowned.
Seamus laughed. “I knew the answers really, I was just winding you up,” He grinned.
“You fucker,” replied Tom.
The test papers came back and they’d both passed, but to Tom’s amazement Seamus had scored one more correct answer than him.
“‘ow the fuck did that ‘appen?” he said astounded.
Seamus shrugged nonchalantly. “Dunno, luck I s’pose.”
They lined up for their photos to be taken, smiled for the camera and had their licenses processed there and then, laminated and handed over.
Out in the car park the lads were stunned by how little time it had taken. They stared at their licenses. “Arizona driver license, expires 2021,” read Tom, “I’ll have to do a retake when I’m sixty or I’ll have trouble getting into bars!”
“Mate,” said Seamus “I think you should do a retake now, that photo’s gonna make doormen think it’s a fake. You look about fifteen!”
“Ha,” barked Tom, “it’s me’ genes.”
“You’re wearing shorts,” cracked Seamus.
“This is true, let’s go tell Caitlyn the good news.”
The boys slipped into their car and for the first time in the USA, drove legally back to their illegal place of work.
“So what’s the plan then?” asked Tom, “you gonna wear gloves?”
“I’m gonna wear that Frankenstein mask that I got for Halloween last year. That’ll crack people up when I pull up beside ‘em at traffic lights.”
Tom chuckled. “Na, seriously you’ve to wear gloves, you don’t wanna leave any prints.”
“Got it sorted mucker,” said Seamus pulling on some huge fake gorilla hands. The boys almost pissed themselves laughing as Seamus ballet danced around the living room in nothing but his Y-fronts, gorilla hands and Frankenstein mask.
Tom had been in Tucson the longest. He originally came over for three months to visit his sister Keira, who was living at Bear Paw Nature Reserve near Colossal Cave with her husband Tom Price and their three-year-old daughter, Amber.
The Prices’ worked for the park’s wardens; Keira cleaned their huge Adobe house, which sat secluded in the middle of the reserve on a mound of rocky scrub surrounded by towering Saguaro cactus and outcrops of Mesquite trees and Brittlebush. Tom Price was caretaker of the numerous picnic areas that scattered the park.
Tom Reynolds had arrived one March morning bleary-eyed, translucent-skinned and broken-hearted. Three months R&R with his sister was going to do him the world of good. His dad however, who had driven him to Heathrow airport in freezing rain, thought this was the last he’d see of his son. He was convinced Tom would be stabbed to death or something equally as cheery. Tom’s dad had given him £500 to spend and a handshake. A paltry payment for a last goodbye.
His brother-in-law was exuberant and giggling like a loon when Tom appeared through the arrivals gate at Tucson International. Wearing the obligatory brand new clothes for a trip abroad, the traveller, being British of course, bizarrely carried a warm coat hooked over his arm.
Tom P greeted Tom R with a hug saying, “pinch y’self, y’dreaming, you’re in America now, son! Ha, ha, ha.”
“Alright Tom, thanks for meeting me mate, ‘ow’s things?” he replied drowsily.
“You won’t believe it son; you’ll think you’re dreaming! ‘Ow was the flight?”
“Long and annoying, I couldn’t wait to get off the plane at LAX. I felt like I was gonna explode. But I was sat next to a beautiful bird, only 18 and gorgeous, which was pleasant; shame she ‘ad a bloke waiting for ‘er at the airport.”
“Don’t you worry about that, son,” said Pricey. “The birds will be falling all over ya ‘ere, they just love that English accent,” he reasoned with a poor American twang.
The Toms had known each other since they were ten years old. They were the same age within a month and their parents knew each other well. Other than that, they couldn’t have been more polar opposite.
Pricey was loud, a leery rogue, a brigand who wouldn’t think twice about stealing from his own mother and often had. He was a master liar, a con artist, someone who wormed his way into your business whatever you were doing and then claimed it to be his own, a wife beater and a complete nuisance. Mind you Keira gave as good as she got, they used to fight like cat and dog at times, Tom had to get between them on several occasions. Pricey was however keenly generous, which was probably out of a need to be liked. He had a mop of rigid orange hair, (Keira called him ginger chicken-bollocks), piercing green eyes and freckles. He was of average height, solid in stature and loved to smoke weed, copious amounts of weed, to the point of incoherence.
Tom Reynolds was kind, thoughtful, softly spoken and methodical; worth a second glance, but not always a third, he thought. He’d been paid many a compliment in the past, but whenever he looked in the mirror all he would see was disappointment. The reflections stifled his confidence.
“You won’t need that any more,” referred Pricey to Tom’s coat. He was right; the warm night air outside the terminal was magical, a soft fuzzy reverie, a land with its own unique smell, a signature that would ingratiate Tom forever.
He drenched in the atmosphere “Nice ‘ere innit!”
“You’re in America now son,” repeated Pricey again.
When darkness fell, the boys left their air-conditioned little pad and were once again engulfed in hot dry air, stepping out of the front door felt like walking into a baker’s oven. They’d been here for more than a year but still hadn’t acclimatised to the brutal taxing heat.
They meandered down the steps and out to the car park wearing long shorts, vest tops and Airwear boots, just the ‘clobber’ for an evening’s tomfoolery.
Tom was going to follow Seamus in the Super Sport until they made the delivery, then they would hightail it to the Uni campus for a few beers and a bite to eat, maybe at ‘Gracious Bob’s’.
The journey to Ron Ruby’s house in the foothills of the Catalonian Mountains was thankfully uneventful. They cruised along the sand-coloured stucco boundary wall and passed the electronic entry gates that had been advantageously left wide open.
Quietly rolling to a stop on the street they extinguished their headlights and turned off the engines. Tom got out and walked on to Seamus who sat nervously tapping his black ape fingers on the steering wheel.
“That’s a result,” whispered Tom, “leaving those peeled back.”
“We better get this done before anyone sees us. I’ll wait here in the motor, you drive up slowly with y’lights off, then leg it. Maybe they’re out for the night. Don’t forget the note on the dash!”
Seamus was pensive. “What if someone pulls a gun on me?”
“Run in a zig zag, it’ll be ‘arder for ‘im to ‘it ya!” certified Tom.
“For fuck’s sake,” laughed Seamus nervously, He took a long draw from a one skinner spliff, flicked it to the ground and said, “D’ya wanna swap?”
“Do I fuck! We tossed a coin—you lost. I’m waiting ‘ere.”
“Mate,” said Seamus throwing back his head.
Tom just stared back at him nonplussed.
“‘urry up or we’re gonna get fuckin’ caught.”
Behind, the sound of an oncoming car caused them to swivel round to see what was arriving. An open-topped Porsche Carrera with two college jocks inside slowed down as they approached the hearse and rubbernecked as they passed.
“Nice wheels Herman!” They shouted before speeding off.
Tom just nodded; they couldn’t afford a scene.
With that, Seamus started the big beast up, took her down the road, performed a u-turn and headed back to Ron Ruby’s drive. He extinguished the lights and swung the Cadillac in through the gates and very cautiously rolled her up the sloping drive in pitch darkness on tick-over.
Ruby’s house was huge, a two-storied modern villa with sand-faced walls, expanses of glass, turrets and circular terracotta tiled roof sections that splayed forward like open fans. The paved driveway swooped around the manicured dry-zone garden which smelt of damp earth and cactus blossom, and arced into a turnaround in front of the main entrance centred by a garish stone fountain in full spume. Seamus didn’t want to wake the dead, so he opted to abandon the hearse across the face of the triple garage doors to the right of the house.
Positioning the calling card on the dashboard, he stealthily extracted himself and closed the door with a gentle click.
His heart was pounding in his chest as he made for a quick tiptoe walk back down the drive, as best he could do in Airwear boots. Not a sound escaped the house, no sudden illumination, no dogs barking, nothing. Piece of piss, he thought.
He neared the entrance gates hoping to step out of entrapment and into street light, but suddenly bright headlights of an incoming car flared against the surface of the open gate.
Seamus sprang sideways like an elk on coiled feet, avoiding a mass of agave plants and managed to crouch behind a fair sized boulder, one of several that adorned the landscape, cutting his knee in the process. “Fuckin’ ‘ell … fuckin’ ‘ell,” he whispered, followed by “bollocks,” as he saw the electronic gate come to life and slowly start to close. He knew that Ruby would soon see the new mode of transport awaiting approval and blow his top at the sight of it. Seamus had to make a run for it before he was caged in the grounds and surely tortured to death when captured.
Up like a sprinter leaving his blocks, he straggled and stumbled his way across lethal terrain, negotiating dangerous projectiles as best he could in the dark. He made it to the boundary wall just as the gate maliciously smashed into its locking mechanism, barring his escape and filling him with dread. From behind him he could hear a commotion brewing near the house; he had to get out sharpish.
Edging along the rough surface of the wall, gingerly probing for salvation, his leading leg abruptly stopped in mid-motion, halted by something hitherto unseen, something prickly, hairy, warm and smelling like the large mammal enclosure at London Zoo. The beast let out a guttural resonant grunt before leaping to its feet and turning to face the poor bastard that had woken it from slumber.
Javelina? thought Seamus, shit. The collared peccary weighed around 60 lbs, had two huge razor-sharp yellow tusks jutting out of its mouth and although a vegetarian, fancied a chunk of Englishman on this night. It forced a couple of short breathy snorts through its nose and flexed itself ready to charge. Seamus, frozen with fear momentarily, had no time to think before instinct took over.
Jumping upwards, he used the dynamics of the sprinting pig to his advantage by stepping on its back to reach the top of the eight-foot-high wall. The pig squealed as Seamus’ 14 st bore down on his spine using it like a springboard, hurling him up and over before the pig shot off terrified into the darkness.
“Hey!” boomed a voice from the direction of the house.
For once Seamus declined to answer.
Crashing down on the other side of the wall in a heap of sweet, blood and prickly pear, he lost no time dashing for the El Camino.
Tom, expecting his friend to pop out of that garden in rather a hurry, had started the engine and opened the passenger door in anticipation.
“Drive!” shouted Seamus throwing himself into the car.
Tom floored the Chevy and they wheel spun their way up the street, lights off for a couple of blocks and as quick as they dared. Taking many turns, Tom slowed the vehicle and negotiated his way down the foothills and back into Tucson, all the while checking his rear-view mirror for any vengeful gangsters that might have kept pace. Luck was with them, there were none.
“That was close,” gasped Seamus. “I ain’t doin’ that again… A fuckin’ Javelina attacked me.”
“They’ve got pigs as guard dogs?”
“It was a fuckin’ wild one kipping in the garden… I ran into the fucker by the wall.”
“You tellin’ porkies … did you give it a karate chop?” Tom grinned.
“It ain’t a laughing matter … look at the state of me’ legs.” Seamus raised a foot up onto the dashboard so that Tom could see the extent of his injuries.
He gave them a quick glance. “Shit, did the pig do that?”
“And the cactus and the agave and every other fuckin’ thing with spikes and prickles in that fuckin’ garden.” Seamus appeared rather tense.
Tom was quiet for a few minutes. “Did you leave the note?”
“‘course I fuckin’ did … wos’ the point in deliverin’ the joke without the punchline?” Seamus was picking bits of thorn and gravel out of his wounds and feeling hard done by. He had a particularly nasty gash on his right shin and razor cuts all over his legs and hands.
Tom thought it a good idea to lighten the mood. “Wos’ the difference between a pig and a stepladder?”
“See, that’s ya’ problem right there.”
Seamus was wide eyed. “It’s not fuckin’ funny, if it wasn’t for that Javelina’s assistance I’d be pleading for me’ life right now.”
Sidestepping the seriousness of Seamus’ disposition, Tom made light of it again. “Imagine Ron Ruby’s face when he saw that ‘earse, ‘e’ll know it was from Saul.”
“Uh ha.” Seamus concentrated on a cactus thorn embedded in his left knee.
“Saul’s gonna laugh his bollocks off in the morning—” Tom paused and took another look at Seamus’ legs. “I better take ya’ to Julie’s house so ya’ can get cleaned up, we can’t go out with ya’ lookin’ like that.”
Julie was a sweet-natured girl, smart, pretty and independent. She lived in the middle of town close to the university and had been Seamus’ confidante and lover for several months. He relished her company, yet he treated her apartment as a kind of motorway service station, in for a top-up of affection and out after a short stop.
Tom held the girl in high regard, she was amusing and kind, but he didn’t personally find her attractive; she had the misfortune of having a vertebrae missing from her neck which restricted her movement, so that she had to turn her whole body in order to look over her shoulder and it made her head seem like it was sitting on her shoulders. This never bothered Seamus who reported her to be a revelation in the bedroom, where they would often spend days wallowing in their own dirt.
“Okay,” she said upon opening her door, “what have you done this time?”
Seamus related his story whilst she retrieved various fluids and ointments from a cupboard. “Help yourself to beer Tom,” she said in mid flow.
Tom gravitated to the enormous fridge, opened the door and wallowed in its golden light. The ancient monster was brimming with goodies, best of which was a twelve pack of Miller genuine draft. “Draft in a bottle,” the contradiction tickled him. “You two want one?” he hollered.
“Be rude not to,” replied Julie.
“Yowza … phwoar … Jesus Christ that ‘urt.” Seamus winced as iodine was dabbed on his cuts.
“You big baby, it’s only a scratch,” insisted Julie with a hint of sadism.
“That big bugger’s not, I think it needs stitching,” he whined.
“Stick a plaster on it, it’ll soon heal up,” interjected Tom.
“Stick a what on it?” said Julie bemused.
“Sorry, a Band-Aid, I keep forgetting that you don’t speak English.”
Julie laughed; she loved the boys’ satirical sense of humour. Her face then changed to pensive, and then concerned. “You really shouldn’t do Saul Berns’ dirty work you know, you’ll get yourselves hurt or arrested or something.”
“I am hurt!” protested Seamus.
“No I mean really hurt; these are hard-nosed criminals that you’re messing with.”
“We’ll be alright we’re just havin’ a laugh,” Tom masked the fact that he was really crapping his pants. “Besides, no one knows who we are; we’re on ‘oliday if anyone asks.”
“Just be careful is all that I’m saying,” remonstrated Julie.
Tom leant back on the sink unit. “Yes Mum.” He took a swig from his bottle.
“I’m peccary-proof,” assured Seamus from his seat on the kitchen table. “I just have an issue with cactus.”
Eight months into their stay in the United States the boys had decided to write, direct and star in their own home movie, on a camera that they had borrowed from Caitlyn Berns. They entitled it ‘And for desert’. It featured some local TV footage that they’d appeared on, some comedy sketches that they had improvised, a trip to the Grand Canyon and a heartfelt hello message to the folks back home.
On November 5th 1988 they went out into the Rincon Mountains to capture the rugged beauty of their desert surroundings. Tom was setting up the camera, focusing on Seamus who plonked himself down on a rocky outcrop right next to a teddybear cactus; so called due to the shape of the plants limbs and fuzzy fur-like appearance of their close-knit spines being reminiscent of a toy bear.
These small Cholla cacti have an intriguing way of propagation. A small joint will attach itself to anything that passes too close and break off, with the prospect that they’ll be carried into the yonder and later discarded onto the ground, set down roots and become a new plant that is genetically identical to the mother from which it came. Each spine on the joint is covered by a paper-like sheaf that falls off at the slightest touch to reveal a lethal barbed spine that once in your skin, is excruciatingly painful and extremely difficult to remove.
The boys had a British Union flag on a short pole that they had wedged in between some boulders behind where Seamus was sitting, to give the scene a sense of the ‘Brits abroad’. This was to be the opening shot of the movie, the British flag fluttering in the breeze against a perfect blue sky, tall green cactus imperious in the background and two ridiculously dressed home boys introducing their families to their adopted country.
The camera was static on a rock, looking up to where Seamus sat. Tom clambered to perch beside him at the exact moment the flagpole decided acting wasn’t for him. It keeled over, slamming into the teddybear cactus, pushing it forward and into Seamus’ shoulder.
“Aahh … fuckin’ ‘ell … aahh … what the fuck is it?” cried Seamus, “aahh!”
Tom straightened up, saw the cactus joint in Seamus’ bare flesh and scrambled to his feet panicking, involuntarily laughing at his friends’ plight. The limb of the beast had embedded into Seamus’ skin in several places and was searing him like tiny red hot branding irons.
“Get it out, get it out, get it out!” Seamus hollered.
What could Tom do? He couldn’t touch it for it would surely stick into him. All they had to hand in the way of tools was a pair of sunglasses and a notebook.
At first Tom tried to prise the thing off with an arm of the Ray Bans, but all this achieved was to roll it on to a fresh part of skin and further attach itself. Seamus continued to scream with every attempt at extraction, which made Tom laugh even more, the camera kept on recording.
Having had the brainwave to use the notebook as a shield on Seamus’ shoulder, Tom painstakingly managed to remove the limb after exerting some effort under the still scorching autumn sun that was peaking at 86°F; hot enough to fry an egg on a boulder.
Each spine had held on like grim death, pulling Seamus’ skin outwards forming a tiny pink cone at least a half inch long before finally yielding to pressure, each extraction causing severe pain to the victim.
The process took at least an hour and truly disturbed Seamus for weeks after, who insisted it wasn’t the flagpoles fault, but the cactus’, which had actually jumped at him.
Tom apologized for laughing at the time, but when watched back on video, the scene had both of them in fits of laughter.
Julie, Seamus and Tom drove to Gracious Bob’s, a venue in the centre of the campus. They could have walked, it was so close, but Seamus was having trouble in that department.
The night was balmy and the soft reggae tones from Mystic Lights wafted into the car park a familiar tune. The band had a residency here and the boys knew them well. David the singer and Jamie the bass player nodded to the trio as they sashayed and hobbled up to the bar, ‘plonking’ themselves down on heavy wooden bar stools facing the stage.
Gracious Bob’s was typical 80s design, walls of glass and acres of stained timber. It had a sunken dance-floor in the centre of the room, circled by elevated, balustrade dining areas, sandwiched between the stage riser at one end against the front wall, and the tri-sided bar at the other. The kitchen was out the back.
“When’s your next gig here?” asked Julie raising her voice over the music.
“A week next Friday, we’re trying out a new keyboard player, ‘e’s blind and deaf!” quipped Seamus.
Julie gave a look of bewilderment, “Sounds interesting.”
“Yeah ‘e’s a cross between Ray Charles and Beethoven, he can’t see or hear what ‘e’s playin’, but it feels great,” enlightened Tom. “One day we might even plug ‘im in.”
“You’re kidding right?” Julie was aghast.
“Na’,” said Tom straight-faced.
Seamus had his head buried in the menu.
“What happened to your last keyboard player, wasn’t he blind as well?”
“And arrogant; ‘e once shut my foot in the car door as I was getting out behind ‘im. It hurt like fuck an’ ‘e didn’t apologise … didn’t even say gee or anything, ‘e just stood there waiting to be led into the gig. I think ‘e thought the world owed ‘im a favour.”
The band finished their song to enthusiastic applause and then dedicated the next song to their English friends at the bar, Seamus and Tom saluted as the ‘Lights’ struck up a reggae version of ‘The Boys are Back in Town’.
“I’m havin’ the Sonoran chicken tacos; two soft flour tacos stuffed with pulled Sonoran chicken breast, topped with cabbage and a fresh Pico de Gallo, served with Spanish rice and authentic charro beans,” read Seamus quoting from the list. “What you guys ‘avin’?”
“A beer to start with I think,” said Tom, “pitcher of honey beer alright for everyone … Julie … yeah? Alright then order up Seamus, let me look at the menu.”
“Why don’t you have the Carne Asada, the marinated steak, it’s really good here,” advised Julie.
“We’re off the red meat now love, if I can’t kill it then I won’t eat it,” proclaimed Tom.
“Could you kill a chicken?” she asked.
“He’s always wringing ‘is chicken’s neck,” ribbed Seamus.
“What?” said the confused American.
“Bashin’ the Bishop … Shakin’ ‘ands with the unemployed … ‘Avin’ one off the wrist,” Seamus continued.
Julie was now totally dumbfounded.
“It’s the Southern Border Stromboli for me old chap,” Tom concluded.
Julie was swivelling on her stool left and right, not knowing what to make of these guys. “I’ll have … the Lizzy salad,” she said at length.
“Thin Lizzy is it?” asked Seamus nodding towards the band.
Julie laughed. “That’s right,” she said, patting Seamus’ good knee.
“Mixed greens tossed with lightly-grilled chicken, sliced thin, smoked bacon, chunky gorgonzola, red onion, sweet bell peppers, spiky croutons tossed in the very best basil, olive oil, rice and vinegar dressing you’ve ever had.”
“You’ve sold it to me,” said Seamus “‘ook me up one of those; I’ll go back to just white meat tomorrow.”
Tom rolled his eyes. He knew that his mate was only appeasing him on this slope towards vegetarianism; it was just easier when cooking at home for them both to have the same thing.
They left the bar at midnight fully sated and merry but with a sensible head on, for it were mid week and they had work the next day. Seamus stayed at Julie’s apartment while Tom drove home, carefully within the speed limit and on the look out for any hoods who might be tailing him. There were none.
After a full night’s sleep, dreaming of frosty mornings and running around the countryside exhaling vaporised breath, Tom awoke to another sun-blinding roasting morning. He lay there, motionless for a while cringing from the thought of what might have happened to them the night before.
Ron Ruby turning up like that was too close for comfort and he shuddered before rising from the bed. He washed, dressed and had a cup of tea, gathered some work clothes for Seamus, then left the apartment. “Let’s see what today brings,” he said aloud, wondering about the reprisals.
Outside Julie’s house Tom honked the El Camino’s horn to little affect, Seamus was still in ‘the land of nod’. He was never, ever, ready on time. “I’ve spent ‘alf my life waitin’ for this bloke,” Tom conceded before pursing his lips.
Julie’s door bell was eventually answered by a puffy-faced, bloodshot excuse of a best mate, shrouded in an ill fitting peppermint dressing gown.
“Come on we’re gonna be late,” thundered Tom.
“Two minutes … I’ll be two minutes,” assured Seamus.
Tom threw Seamus’ clothes at him, “‘urry up, I’ll wait in the car.” He caught a glimpse of Julie’s naked back through the open bedroom door as she lay entangled in the bed sheets, like an alabaster nude statue. She never stirred.
On the way up to Orange Grove, Seamus pleaded for Tom to stop at a Seven-Eleven to buy some apple juice. “I’m dyin’ of thirst mate,” he proclaimed.
Stopping made them even later and added to Tom’s frustration; he hated to be late for anything.
By the time they reached the Berns’ house it was 9:10 a.m. They parked the car at the bottom of the drive and marched up to the house through the shaded approach of date palms. They entered the building via the open double garage doors to the right, on through the utility room and into the kitchen where they greeted the Berns’ with a “Good morning.”
Caitlyn was fixing some breakfast by the stove while Saul reclined in one of the cushioned wicker chairs facing the patio doors which led to the garden.
The mingled aromas of fresh percolated coffee, toast and scrambled eggs relaxed the boys into a false state of symmetry.
Caitlyn flicked her eyes at them briefly and smiled.
“You gotta watch?” Saul demanded without turning around.
“Yes Saul,” replied Tom.
“It’s broken,” Saul said sarcastically.
“Sorry we’re late Saul,” said Seamus, “the traffic’s a nightmare today.”
“Bullshit,” snapped Saul, “you’re always fuckin’ late.”
“That rat bastard’s been calling here this morning, thanking me for the present. Says he’ll loan it to Caitlyn in the not too distant future, that sonofabitch, cock-sucking piece of shit. I’m gonna shove that car so far up his fuckin’ ass they have to open his mouth to change the fuckin’ oil.”
“I nearly got caught in ‘is garden,” offered up Seamus in an attempt to calm his boss.
“What?” snapped Saul looking over his spectacles.
“Ruby come home mid-delivery, I had to ‘leg it’ through the garden and leap over the wall to escape, ‘ad a fight with a Javelina on the way as well.”
Saul looked his employee up and down and barked out “Ha, work-related injury, there’s no fuckin’ insurance gonna cover this event.” Saul’s crooked smile meant his mood was lightening. “Did he get a look attcha?”
“No Saul it was too dark, we shot off pretty sharpish.”
“Good, I don’t want your asses nailed to a fuckin’ cross.”
“Saul honey, your eggs are done,” interrupted Caitlyn.
“Ok, ok, you guys go pick some fruit while I eat my fuckin’ breakfast, then one of ya can take me to the office. I want four orange, three tangerine and one grapefruit each, you got that?”
“Yes Saul,” they said, and then left to retrieve some white plastic carrier bags from the garage.
“Bit tetchy,” whispered Tom.
“‘e’ll be alright after a coffee and a stick o’ gum,” managed Seamus through a yawn.
“’ow many packets o’ gum d’ya reckon ‘e gets through in a day?”
“D’no, but ‘e must be keeping Wrigley’s in business.”
The boys separated and got to work in the orange grove, climbing the trees and picking the fragrant ripe fruit. The climb was tricky because of a thick mass of interwoven, sharp twigged branches on some of the trees, in need of a prune. But the fruit were the best oranges the boys had ever had in their lives. They were intoxicating and tasted exactly how orange blossom smelled. You couldn’t just eat one, you had to have two or three; they were that delicious.
Tom had managed to fill one bag of oranges when he heard Saul seething again, from the garage.
“What the fuck’s this? I said four orange, three tangerine and one grapefruit, you dumb shit. Not one fuckin’ mixed bag. Four bags of oranges, three bags of tangerines and one bag of grapefruit, like you always fuckin’ do. Jesus H Christ!”
Seamus, still half asleep, had picked just one grapefruit, three tangerines and four oranges and was now being berated by a raging maniac for his blunder.
Tom giggled behind the camouflage of a tree canopy as Seamus, red-faced, was sent back to, “Do it right this time.”
Saul had mellowed with the boys just lately, treating them better than he had his adopted son; Caitlyn’s 23-year-old, Jamie, who in Saul’s eyes was just a waste-of-space drug addict and something to ignore.
Jamie had tolerated living with his menacing stepfather and doting mum for 5 years but had finally been shipped off to college after some extremely wild behavior.
“That spoilt brat’s gonna fuckin’ kill himself one day, he ain’t gonna fuckin’ do it under my roof,” he had said to Caitlyn as he slammed the front door shut on his stepson.
Jamie had left Tucson on an Amtrak train with a bag of clothes and a hand gun.
Saul Berns was born Saul Bernstein, in New York City in 1907; his parents were Jewish Russian immigrants from Odessa. He westernised his name in later life because he shared it with an infamous double agent spy who was unearthed by the CIA and tried for crimes against the state. Saul quickly reeled from any unnecessary attention, changed his name and became less prominent—less conspicuous.
He got involved with gangs and crime at an early age; in what was to become known as the Jewish Mafia, and at the age of 21 had apparently amassed enough fraudulent money to buy an island in the East River, hoping to develop it into a residential area. This didn’t come to pass, so he sold it on for a huge profit. Hundreds of murky deals followed including one time using the classic sting of exchanging property deeds for a million dollars in cash, by switching identical briefcases with a sucker, in a crowded railway station, one carrying the deeds, the other a couple of telephone directories.
Saul thought this was highly amusing, but having the balls to actually do such a thing was a part of his success.
In the 1950’s he married a world famous opera singer and although turbulent, they enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, one time spending a whole year on a cruise ship with his pal, movie legend, Anthony Quinn.
In the 50s, New York was a place of opportunity, the skyline was comparatively tame compared to the reaching spires of concrete and glass there today, and there were still many plots of un-urbanised land for sale. Saul formed a syndicate of 20 Jewish business associates who bid for these plots of land at auction. Keeping their bids pathetically low, they were able to buy the land at ridiculous prices, develop it and sell it on, making a fortune in the process.
Inevitably, greed took over in the dog-eat-dog underworld and one by one the syndicate members were squeezed out and ripped off. When finally the balance tipped in favour of the aggrieved, despite being a powerful and feared man in the city, Saul Berns received numerous death threats. The heat became too hot to handle and he fled town, taking refuge first in Las Vegas, where the big shot New Yorker lavished his cash, hanging out with movie stars and singers like Sammy Davis Jr and Nat King Cole.
This was playtime for Saul, but it ruined his marriage and in the 70s he divorced his wife, leaving a sizeable pension for his two sons and a lump of property in New York.
He headed for even more ambiguity down in Tucson Arizona, like a snow bird on permanent vacation, where he set up a real estate company, acquiring land through dubious circumstances and selling it on. He employed pretty, blonde, Baton Rouge girl Caitlyn Emberg as his secretary who at the time was in her mid-20s, married and had a young son. Saul was 65, 30 years her senior. He was rude, arrogant, bad-tempered, foul-mouthed and had a typical dry New York sense of humour. He could assassinate your character in one flippant sentence, but over time Caitlyn came to think of him as powerful, generous and endearing; a provider, and a protector.
Somewhere along the line they fell in love, which struck the boys as pretty amazing, since he had told them that one time a girl had come for a job interview with her baby in a stroller, and Saul had held the infant out of a multi-storey window, threatening to drop it if the girl didn’t give him a blow job. This may well have been Caitlyn.
But apparently it was love and during the early 80s Caitlyn left her husband and moved in with Saul. Within a few years they were married, had bought a decent property on Orange Grove Road, remodelled it, filled it with fine art and shipped in Jamie, a troubled but now spoilt teenager.
All was swell in the Berns’ household; Saul was now 71, he had an office downtown, a dutiful blonde token wife, crooked lawyers, accountants and notaries under his command and 17 bank accounts lending him money on the deeds of land that he didn’t actually own.
The scam worked thus; he would view an area of land with the prospect of buying it, acquire the deeds for approval, forge a sales agreement, have the document notarised, register it with county hall as his property, then split the land up into smaller parcels and sell individual lots to his various companies that were scattered around the United States and some others that were offshore. All unbeknown to the true owner who would only realise that he no longer had possession once a real buyer came along. Saul would then take the deeds to his banks and borrow money on the equity. This activity was now his sole income.
The original duped landowners would face a near impossible task of fighting for ownership in many different state courts. So enormous was the battle that few would persist, giving it up as far too costly an exercise. Saul was a clever ruthless bastard and everybody knew it.
After the fruit had been gathered, Saul took the boys to the back-lot to show them what he’d like done today. The garden was typically landscaped for this part of the world, lots of raised planters containing large boulders, yucca, cactus and palo verde, with a scattering of citrus trees, remnants from the orange grove that once sprawled along this old road. Most of the ground here was paved in something akin to York stone and there were steps at various levels leading from an expansive arcaded patio up to the pool area, all of which was walled off from the neighbouring properties with a 5 ft, cream-painted, block and stucco perimeter. Beyond this, in the ‘back-40’ was a brick pathway that meandered through a tall line of cypress trees and a border of mature palo verde. This lot was fenced off with seven-foot chainlink mesh.
Saul pointed to some wilting fronds on an infant desert fan palm, “You can cut bullshit out,” he said with a cursory swathe of his hand. “Cut that bullshit,” he said indicating the lower limbs of perfectly healthy agave plant. “Clear up the dog crap, water everything, rake the fuckin’ leaves and clean the fuckin’ pool. When you’ve done that you can wash the fuckin’ dogs especially Reina … she stinks.”
“Right, Seamus, you can take me to the office, get those bags of fuckin’ fruit and put ‘em in the Elegance; I’ll be out front in five minutes.”
It was 9:30 and the temperature was climbing rapidly, Tom stripped down to just his shorts and boots revealing a firm teak brown torso glistening with beads of sweat that had formed along his spine. They would not run or form pools on his waist band, it was far too hot, the water sapping from his body would evaporate without a trace. He gathered some tools from the shed and set to work pruning the plants as instructed, oblivious that he was under surveillance.
Forty-five minutes later the iron-gate that divided the front and back yards creaked into life and slammed shut again. Seamus had returned.
“How was ‘e on the way in?” Tom was on his knees in the dirt.
“Never said a word, just sat there chewing and tapping on his briefcase.”
“Seamus! Tom!” A shrill melody pierced the morning air from the open patio doors. Caitlyn Berns was calling them in for breakfast, a ritual that had become a regular occurrence since they were now a part of the family. But it was something secret, something mischievous, and something that Saul had no idea about.
Caitlyn had made scrambled eggs, Louisiana-style with shrimps, tomatoes, onions and peppers, toasted English muffins and coffee with a shot of Bailey’s liqueur.
The boys wandered into the kitchen, then sat in the wicker chairs with their plates, while Caitlyn flitted around them clumsily spilling things and apologising for being such a ‘klutz’. One time, while showing the boys her new camera she stepped into the dog’s giant water dish, a stainless steel bowl that was always in the same place and always filled with water. How she could not know it was there was amazing. She plopped straight in it, with a look of sad disappointment on her rosy-cheeked face.
Seamus loved the breakfasts, the escape from work, the titillating flirting with the boss’s wife; he would pull her leg all day long if he had the chance.
Caitlyn loved playing the overzealous host; it was her pleasure, her playground when her husband was out of the house; she spoilt the boys as much as she dared.
Tom enjoyed the freebies but felt guilty for getting paid to do so little and a bit apprehensive that they might get caught at any given moment. So he was on ten-percent guard all of the time and couldn’t bring himself to enjoy it as much as Seamus did. Besides these morning breaks were getting longer and longer and starting to seem like a chore.
Caitlyn was still attractive for what the boys considered a mature woman, even though she had piled on a few unwanted pounds. She kept herself pristine by taking more than necessary showers during the day and there were dubious moments when she couldn’t be raised at all.
Seamus had quipped that she was, ‘probably playing with her twat’.
This amused Tom but he disregarded it considering the amount of times she went missing in eight hours!
“I’m going over to Macy’s for the rest of the day,” she said while piercing yet another can of decaffeinated diet Coke. “I’ll leave the door open. Help yourselves to anything, but make sure you clean the dogs; Saul’s most upset with Reina. I don’t know why she smells so much. I’ll take her to the vets next week; see if there’s anything wrong.”
Macy Moore was a multi-million-dollar heiress friend of Caitlyn’s who also had an eye for Tom, and the competition of who could best win the boys’ favour, was hotting up.
“No probs’ Caitlyn, we’ll get it all done,” assured Seamus.
“Thanks for ‘brekky’,” said Tom, “we’d better crack on Monty, time’s getting on.”
They left the coolness of the house and went back to work, Seamus reluctantly, hanging back as much as he could.
Tom finished the pruning and then got the hoses out to run water to all the large plants. A ring of earth walled up each specimen like tiny hill forts, creating a perfect reservoir so as not to waste a precious drop.
Seamus cleaned the pool while the two golden retrievers swam in it, which seemed like a pointless task. Fonda, the sleeker, more active dog rejoiced in diving for a rubber ball that Seamus repeatedly threw back in, while overweight Reina just lolloped in the shallows.
“That’s them washed,” said Seamus triumphantly.
“You’d better soap ‘em up mate, ‘e’ll know you ain’t washed ‘em properly if you don’t,” advised Tom, “an’ the other two beasts.”
The Berns’ had four dogs; the other two being Miko and Tres Jolie, a pair of Japanese Akitas that were Saul’s pride and joy, especially the boy Miko. He loved that dog more than any living creature. Woe betide if anything should happen to him.
Japanese Akitas were bred for hunting bears and other large game in ancient times, ferociously cornering and containing the prey until the hunters arrived. They are huge dogs, the males in particular, with massive heads, paws and powerful jaws. Two males in a face off could rip each other to shreds if riled. But these two were good-natured with fur as soft as silk. Jolie was pure black with a wisp of white on her chest, while Miko was a traditional Black-Masked Pinto.
“Alright, but I need a pony first, I’m burstin’,” said Seamus.
“Caitlyn won’t mind; use the lav’ in Jamie’s room.”
“I can’t mate, I’ll ‘ave to go au naturel.”
“What … what’s wrong with the bog?” asked Tom puzzled.
“I just can’t use someone else’s … for that,” explained Seamus with a lopsided grin, as he tip toed up to the back-40 to find a comfortable perch behind the Oleander hedge.
Tom shook his head in disbelief, “‘e’s got some strange habits,” he said to himself.
Within five minutes Seamus was back. “I ‘ope you’ve wiped your arse,” quarried Tom.
“Oleander leaf, old boy, very absorbent,” Seamus laughed.
The day wore on; Seamus captured and washed Miko who proceeded to dry himself on the living room furniture and rugs. But he couldn’t find Jolie. They searched the house and the grounds, calling her name to no avail, for half-an-hour. Suddenly she appeared, trotting down the yard, pink tongue lolling out of her gaping jaws, as happy as Larry and eminently proud.
“Oh, for fucks sake,” said Seamus, “she’s only rolled in me’ poo.”
Tom burst out laughing and ran away from the reeking animal. “You dirty bitch!” he shouted. “I’ll be over ‘ere, rakin’ leaves,” he called from afar, still sniggering.
Seamus grabbed Jolie by the collar. “Eurgh … I never thought I’d ’ave to clean me’ own turd off a dog,” he said with disgust.
Jolie got the full treatment with a hose before being doused with pet shampoo and thoroughly ‘sudded’. The muck took an age to clean off, hampered by the dog struggling to get away all the while. When she was finally cleansed she went berserk around the garden drying herself. The boys wouldn’t let her in the house till Caitlyn came home and even then they were convinced that she still smelled like Seamus’ arse, but they didn’t mention it.