"They had this place tore up the last time I was here," Monk griped to Big Top as he drove under the rectangular green sign that said New Orleans International Airport. "And they still got it tore up. No telling which way we're supposed to go." A cement truck rumbled past them on the right, raining gravel on the windshield of their Chevy Astro minivan.
Big Top jerked his freckled elbow inside for protection, concerned about the cars madly crisscrossing lanes around them. Riding in the high-up front seat made all other other cars look much closer.
He saw some instructions ahead.
"Arriving Flights," Big Top said helpfully, pointing. An old Chrysler with dented tail fins narrowly missed the front bumper and swerved into the next lane.
"Jesus of Nazareth!" Monk hollered and banged his fist on the horn.
The Chrysler careened off into Short-Term Parking. A skinny white man came over the roof and shot them the bird.
Monk gunned the van's engine malevolently and rolled down into the dark bowels of the lower-level baggage claim area.
A big cop in a rumpled blue uniform screamed, "SLOW IT DOWN!" in Monk's face, and he obediently hit the brakes. Big Top had to grab the dashboard to keep from going through the glass. He and Monk exhaled in unison as the van crawled through teh snarl of cabs, limousines and cars meeting passengers.
"See him?" Big Top asked. "I ain't never met Rue."
"No, I don't," Monk said, fighting for a spot at the curb. He had met Rue and was afraid of him. "He's a little guy though," Monk said, "and mean as a snake," as if you could spot the meanness in somebody.
Willie LaRue, or "Rue," as he liked to be called, walked a straight path from Delta's Gate 31 on Concourse A all the way through the maelstrom of congested humanity to the main terminal. Though his eyes darted constantly from side to side, his head barely seemed to move, and he avoided collisions with the people hurrying toward the restrooms and parents herding children mainly by suddenly slowing down or speeding up his pace. He wore a brown straw cowboy hat, brim turned down, with a green headband, and he had pink ears that stuck straight out like wings on a chicken. He had on a tan leisure suit, with dark brown trim, and looked like lots of other Texas tourists getting off the Southwest Airlines flight.
LaRue carried a dull burgundy overnight bag in his left hand. That was all the luggage he needed. Everything else was supposed to be in the van, unless Monk or his hillbilly partner from Mississippi had forgotten to bring it.
New Orleans music seeped out of the intercom. At the moment it was Fats Domino singing "I am the sheik of Araby. Your love belongs to me." The chipper melody did not add any bounce to Rue's steps. His was a rigid composure that wouldn't crack. A kid on a leash dashed out in front of the tall man, lollipop embedded in wet purple lips. LaRue snarled and stepped over him.
His flight from Houston had been on time. He was right on schedule. Now, if the turnips from the boonies were where they were supposed to be, everything would be fine.
Marguerite Patino checked her straw-colored hair carefully in the noisy ladies room on Concourse B. She finished by giving herself a big wink with her long black eyelashes and stepped briskly into the bright corridor teaming with people. Trailing a red plastic suitcase that rolled erratically on its tiny wheels, she promenaded toward the terminal, demurely deflecting the glances of all sorts of guys headed toward the planes.
She looked sharp. Her hair was permed into a reckless swirl of ringlets that Don, before he socked her for sixty dollars, had told her were just the thing for "down South." Her coral-pink suit came with the shortest skirt she owned and hung tightly on a body trimmed of most of its excess fat by three miserable weeks of fasting and aerobic agony. She was ready to get on with her first real vacation since a high-octane trip to Cancun two years ago with her ex-boyfriend Romney.
Her only regret was that her soul mate, Rondelle, was not along. Rondelle had come up with the idea of going to Mardi Gras in the first place. "Just the girls," she said, and she had even made the reservations. Then Rondelle had chickened out. They had had a big argument. Marguerite's lips turned down in a pout when she thought about it. Rondelle just could not seem to take the big leap. So she was stuck back in Chicago scraping ice off her Geo and Marguerite was here in New Orleans, ready to party down on Bourbon Street at the Mardi Gras. Only thing was, she had had to lie to her mother about traveling alone.
What's done is done. I'm thirty-one. Whoopee. She passed by the line of people trudging through the metal detector and entered the main terminal. Anticipating bacchanalia, she was immediately disappointed that it looked pretty much like a miniature version of the airport back home. The sight of something called an oyster bar and a tough-looking female concessionaire in fishnet stockings pushing a rolling wagon of whiskey bottles gave her some reassurance.
Past the baggage claim she stepped through the sliding glass doors into the Big Easy and immediately needed oxygen. Hot wet air wrapped around her like the steam of a sauna. Gasping, momentarily dizzy, she reached for a grimy concrete pillar for support.
"Taxi, ma'am? Right here." The short Lebanese had her elbow and was directing her, with charming courtesy, toward his vast cab labeled, in flowing gold script, the White Cloud. His purple shirt was half untucked from his tight black slacks, and his mustache was ragged. He looked very much like the cabby who had dropped her off at O'Hare about three hours earlier.
Disoriented, Marguerite let herself be led away.
"That's our man." Monk pointed his chin at the tall figure with big ears emerging from the baggage area.
"Guess he knows us," Big Top mumbled as Willie LaRue, guided by some internal radar, stepped off the curb and pointed himself unerringly at the van.
"Skinny feller," Big Top said.
"He's a dangerous little prick. He's named for some damn cowboy, and he acts like it," Monk said, but he rolled down his window and called, "Hey brother, join the party."
LaRue came alongside and lifted his sunglasses to examine the occupants of the van. His eyes were squinty and green and matched the band of his hat.
"You're Monk," he said by way of greeting.
"Right. We met before. This here is Big Top."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Big Top said.
LaRue made slits out of his eyes and nodded. Then he pulled the van's side door open loudly and vaulted himself into the back seat.
"Let's ride, boys," he said.
Monk pushed the buttons that rolled up the windows and hit the air.
He steered around a party of locals carrying parkas and lugging their skis into the terminal, anxious to get out of town, and snaked through the traffic in the direction of daylight.
LaRue mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and turned around in his seat to inspect the van's cargo.
A brand-new turquoise five-horsepower Makita generator took up a lot of space in the rear and a handsome gray steel tool chest with enameled red drawers took up the rest.
"You got everything?" he asked doubtfully.
"The whole shopping list," Monk said, pointing the van toward the interstate. "You just gotta watch out the darkies don't steal everything out of it."
LaRue looked suspiciously at Monk, who was black as a buffalo horn, but he didn't say anything.
Big Top, who had a wave of unruly red hair over a face filled with freckles, giggled uncontrollably.
LaRue thought they were both idiots. He knew they lived in a house trailer way back in the pine trees somewhere in Mississippi, and he didn't care for that arrangement. Monk could pass for a college boy singing in a church choir, and he was said to be reliable, but his selection of Big Top, who resembled LaRue's own inbred cousins, was a major demerit.
"What you got for me?" he asked impatiently.
Big Top bent over to fish around under his seat and came up with a gun in a compact black nylon holster. He handed it butt-first over his shoulder to LaRue, who peeled back the Velcro strap and shook the weapon out for closer inspection.
"Forty-five caliber," Monk explained.
LaRue did not comment on the obvious but went to work figuring out how to fasten the holster to his belt.
"You don't worry someone will see that under your coat?" Big Top asked. "I keep mine in my boot."
"No," Rue replied. "I've been here before. Anyone sees a white man with a pistol on his belt in New Orleans, they figure him for a policeman."
Monk laughed. Big Top chewed gum.
At Metairie Road Monk flipped on the blinker and cruised off the exit ramp. He turned left into a cloud of black exhaust from a city bus.
"We'd better go by the back roads," he said as he set off on an erratic route through pot-holed residential streets in the direction of Bayou St. John.
"You worried about a tail?" LaRue was tense.
"No, man," Monk said. "Damn parades are everywhere. They got 'em all over on Veterans this evening, and one of 'em goes down Canal Street this afternoon. Last week when I came down to look around I got stuck for an hour just trying to get across downtown. I could have locked up the van and parked in the middle of the street, but, you know, I didn't want to chance getting towed. So...," he swerved down a tree-lined street of two-story shotgun houses, white paint fading behind crooked iron fences, "We stick to the ol' hoods."
Some boys playing soccer with a beach ball jumped out of their path.
Abruptly, the narrow street joined a wide boulevard. They careened around a statue of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, whose horse wore a bright bridle of plastic beads, and drove beside a wide sluggish stream of water that had once provided passage to the tribes of Indians who traded with Frenchmen before being exterminated by them. A gentle grassy bank separated the roadway from the edge of the bayou. It being Sunday, solitary fishermen and urban picnickers claimed most of the shady spots along the shoreline. The setting was picturesque, and the people who lived in the expensive homes on the opposite bank had a relaxing view of tides rippling gently in and out, marred only by the occasional drunk or fleeing felon who missed a curve, went airborne, and ended up nose down in the ancient green muck.
"That's him," Monk said, pointing ahead to a smoky gray Pontiac parked beneath a spreading oak tree at water's edge. A tall and extremely thin dark-skinned man was leaning against the passenger door watching them approach. He fumbled around in the pocket of his khaki uniform shirt for a cigarette as the van crawled slowly past him on the jagged asphalt-and-clamshell shoulder and came to a halt in the grass.
Through the minivan's windows Willie LaRue studied the waiting man without saying anything.
The fellow finally got his cigarette lit, tossed a wooden match in the direction of the blue water, and slowly ambled in their direction. Monk stuck his head out the side window.
"Get in the back and let's talk," he directed.
The skinny man struggled with the sliding door, but he finally gave it a great pull with both hands and got it open.
"No smoking in here," LaRue ordered. He slid across the seat to make way for the newcomer.
The man was uncertain what to do with his cigarette. He took a big drag and laid his smoke carefully on the ground where he hoped to retrieve it later. Crouching low, he poked the top half of his torso into the dark hold and pulled his legs in after him.
"Yo," he said to LaRue, who didn't reply. With a sigh, he strained to slam the door shut behind him and get his long legs properly arranged.
"This is James," Monk explained. "Security man at First Alluvial Bank. This is Big Top. This is Mr. Rue," he indicated with his index finger. All four men nodded. LaRue continued to adjust the pistol on his belt.
"Who's the other guy in your car?" Monk asked James, indicating the shadowy head in the Pontiac's passenger seat.
"That's Corelle," James said, shifting his weight to one side and grabbing his left calf with both hands to make himself secure.
"Why's he sitting out there instead of coming over to talk to us?"
"He wants me to do all the talking and work everything out," James said. "He's worried."
The afternoon glare coming through the windshield was bothering Monk, so he put on his sunglasses. He twisted around in his seat.
"What about?" Big Top asked anxiously.
"He thinks something may go wrong."
"Why don't we deal with Mr. Corelle's concerns later," Monk interrupted smoothly. "This man here is the boss," he said, indicating LaRue. "And he ain't got time for a lot of trash. Explain the plan to him."
"Sure. I work until two o'clock in the afternoon," James said. "Bank closes at noon 'cause it's the day before Mardi Gras. They'll be closed all day Tuesday for Mardi Gras and won't open up until Wednesday morning."
"Right," Monk said. "And we're coming in with all our stuff at one o'clock tomorrow, right after lunchtime. Who's going to be there?"
"Nobody," James said with confidence. "All the secretaries and the bankers will be gone out of there before noon. Most of 'em don't even come in tomorrow, and them that do it's just to eat some King Cake and go home. It's a real slow day. They lock up the bank itself at twelve o'clock sharp. As soon as they clear all the customers out, the guard in the lobby gets to go home, too. Then I'll be all by myself."
"And you're going to get us into the vault?" Monk prompted.
"Not the vault, no, sir. Just the room with all the safe deposit boxes."
"Well, that's what I meant." Monk looked at LaRue reassuringly. The boss flipped one of his earlobes back and forth with his fingertip and listened.
"Yes, sir," James continued. "That's my job. I sit in a little glass booth, see, right by where you go into the safe deposit room. I can see the vault, but it's on a timer deal. I couldn't open it even if I knew the combination, and only Mr. Duplantier knows that. But with my monitors on I can see what's going on in the whole bank, upstairs, downstairs, and everywhere. I got keys to every door in the place. 'Cept the vault."
"We ain't interested in the vault," LaRue said. It was the first time he had spoken. "Just the safe deposit boxes. And in not being disturbed."
"You ain't going to be disturbed while I'm there," James said, turning to face LaRue. He did not like the man's eyes and shifted his own to the straw hat. "Nobody's allowed to come down to the basement after the bank is closed. I've got it all locked off, and nobody is coming downstairs but you."
"We're using that generator behind you for the drills," Monk said. "It's mighty loud though. Is anybody going to hear it?"
"If they did, I don't believe anybody would care," James said. "I'm telling you, they're going home for Mardi Gras and they ain't stoppin' for nothin'."
LaRue held up his palm to stop Monk's interrogation. "You know the box number?" he asked James.
"Yes, sir." James' eyes were roaming all around the van, looking everywhere but at Rue, and he was sweating.
"Well, give it to me?"
James handed LaRue a crumpled up piece of paper that he had hidden in the cuff of his trousers. LaRue took it and stuck it in his own pocket. "What happens when you go off shift in the afternoon?" he asked James.
The guard shuffled to reposition himself in the cramped back seat and grabbed his other leg.
"That's when Corelle comes on. He works from when I get off until ten o'clock at night, and after he leaves there won't be a soul around the place until Wednesday morning."
"The idea is," Monk explained, "we got all of tomorrow night and Tuesday to work. When we leave, we tie Corelle up to his chair and leave him there. His story will be that we broke in on him someway. If he gets fired, he is still sitting pretty because we can get him a new job with the city, plus he gets his fifty thousand."
"So why's he waiting out there in the car?" LaRue asked.
James rocked back and forth uneasily. Big Top, watching him, was getting dizzy.
"He says you guys are all getting away, and nobody knows I'm the one let you in, so I get away. He's the only one left behind for everybody to point at."
"His story," Monk said, "will be that he saw us beating on the bank's doors when he was making his rounds. He can make up any old thing. Like I was bleeding and begging him to help us. He can just say he opened the door a crack and we forced our way in."
"They'll fire him sure for that," James said.
Monk shrugged. "It's not much of a job, is it James? What you get? Eight or nine dollars an hour? Twenty thousand a year? If the job was so great you wouldn't be a part of this either."
"That's a fact," James agreed. "But I aim to keep the job anyway. Corelle is bound to lose his. I believe what's bothering him most, however, is he'll be tied up all Mardi Gras Day and he'll miss the parades and parties and what-not." James laughed nervously, but nobody joined him.
LaRue looked sternly at Monk. "I thought all the details had already been worked out," he said quietly.
"Me, too," Monk said. "It's too damn late for Corelle to be backing out," he told James.
Big Top reached around his seat and gave James' jumpy knee a squeeze. He popped his gum. "What the dude means," he said, "is you should go talk to your podner."
"Okay," James nodded, in a hurry to free his thigh from Big Top's rather personal grip. More proficiently than the first time, he got the door opened.
"Don't close it," LaRue ordered.
James' chin dribbled up and down like a basketball, and he walked quickly away. LaRue watched a family of ducks paddling contentedly along the edge of the water, bobbing after cigarette filters and items unimportant to humans.
"There's no way to do this without that asshole, Corelle, is there?" LaRue asked.
"Somebody's got to explain to the security company why the monitors aren't working," Monk replied, brow wrinkled in thought. "If there's no guard in the booth to call them, they'll send the police over for sure. We need a live body in that booth."
"And he already knows the plan," LaRue stated flatly.
Big Top spat out the window. He left the planning to the smart people. His buddy Monk had kept him out of trouble when they were cellmates at Atmore, and he wouldn't let him down now.
There were drumbeats in the distance. Somewhere a parade was rolling.
"Here he comes," Monk announced, scanning his mirror.
In a second James stuck his head inside the passenger window.
"I didn't do so good," he reported sadly. "Corelle wants to forget the whole thing. He's got a chance to ride in Zulu on Mardi Gras morning." James wagged his head, ready to be scolded.
"I'll try to explain the situation to him," LaRue said and disembarked from the van. He straightened his tan polyester jacket over his sidearm, adjusted his turquoise and silver belt buckle, and walked back to the Pontiac.
Big Top stuck his head out the window to watch and started whistling a tune. Monk fixed the side mirror to keep the action in view. Outside, James kneeled down to try to find the cigarette he had dropped earlier.
They saw Rue somehow entice a fat brown-skinned man out of the car, and watched the two of them step into the shade of the tree to powwow.
It was a short conversation. Without fanfare, Rue pulled his pistol out an stuck the barrel in the vicinity of Corelle's nose. The stocky guard began to raise his plump hands in supplication, but Rue slapped them away. He patted Corelle down efficiently with his left hand, confiscated a small pistol from the man's back pants pocket, and lowered his own to Corelle's ample midriff where it might look less interesting to passing motorists or canoers on the bayou.
He escorted the big man back to the van and pointed him inside.
"What you got to say now?" Corelle grunted at James, who held his hands out, palms up in apology, and otherwise looked helpless.
"Inside." LaRue prodded and pushed the fat man through the door.
"Put your cuffs on him," he instructed James.
"Now, now." James hesitated.
"Give me any crap," LaRue spat, "and I'll cut out your fucking tongue and feed it to the fish."
James got the point and with shaking hands quickly dug his silver handcuffs out of his pocket.
Corelle glared at his co-worker while his meaty wrists were secured behind his back.
LaRue holstered his gun and held out his hand. James gave him the key to the cuffs.
"We'll see you tomorrow at the bank at one o'clock, just as planned," LaRue told James, climbing into the van. He slammed the door home with a clang.
"Don't worry 'bout a thang," Big Top said, spitting his gum out the window.
Monk started the motor and slowly rolled the van back onto the boulevard.
"Damn," James whispered, sulking and trying not to show it. He patted his pockets for his cigarettes and lighter. "Damn," he said again.
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