Chapter 37

TWO OF THE THREE, LEO AND IONUCCI, WERE VETERAN legbreakers for the Sulari family, and were actually related by blood to Barry the Blade, though they often denied it. The third, a huge kid with massive biceps, a wide neck, and thick waist, was known simply as the Bull, for obvious reasons. He'd been sent on this unusual errand to perform most of the grunt work. Barry assured them it would not be difficult. The concrete was thin. The body was small. Chip a little here, and chip a little there, and before they knew it they'd see a black garbage bag.

Barry had diagrammed the floor of the garage, and marked with exact confidence the position of the grave. He had drawn a map with a line starting at the parking lot of West Park and running between the tennis courts, across the soccer field, through a patch of trees, then across another field with a picnic pavilion, then along the bike route for a ways until a footpath led to the ditch. It would be easy, he had assured them all afternoon.

The bike trail was deserted, and with good reason.

It was ten minutes after eleven, Saturday night. The air was muggy, and by the time they reached the footpath they were breathing heavily and sweating! The Bull, much younger and fitter, followed the other two and smiled to himself as they bitched quietly in the blackness about the humidity. They were in their late thirties, he guessed, chain-smokers of course, abusive drinkers, sloppy eaters. They were griping about sweating, and they hadn't walked a mile yet.

Leo was in charge of this expedition, and he carried the flashlight. They were dressed in solid black, lonucci followed like a bloodhound with heartworms, head down, breathing hard, lethargic, mad at the world for being here. "Careful," Leo said as they eased down the ditch bank in heavy weeds. They were not exactly woodsy types. This place had been frightening enough at 6 P. M. when they first walked it off. Now it was terrifying. The Bull expectedat any moment to step on a thick, squirming snake. Of course, if he was bitten, he could turn around with justification, and, he hoped, find the car. His two buddies would then be forced to, go it alone. He tripped on a log, but kept his balance. He almost wished for a snake.

"Careful," Leo said for the tenth time, as if saying it made things safer. They eased along the dark and weedy creek bed for two hundred yards, then climbed the other bank. The flashlight was turned off, and they crouched low through the brush until they were behind Clifford's chain-link fence. They rested on their knees.

"This is stupid, you know," lonucci said between loud breaths. "Since when do we dig up bodies?" Leo was surveying the darkness of Clifford's backyard. Not a single light. They had driven by only minutes earlier, and noticed a small gas light burning in a globe near the front door, but the rear was complete darkness. "Shut up," he said without moving his head.

"Yeah, yeah," lonucci mumbled. "It's stupid." His screaming lungs were almost audible. Sweat dripped from his chin. The Bull knelt behind them, shaking his head at their unfitness. They were used primarily as bodyguards and drivers, occupations that required little exertion. Legend held that Leo did his first killing when he was seventeen, but was forced to quit a few years later when he served time. The Bull had heard that lonucci had been shot twice over the years, but this was unconfirmed. The people who generated these stories were not known for telling the truth.

"Let's go," Leo said like a field marshal. They scooted across the grass to the gate in Clifford's fence, then through it. They darted between the trees until they landed against the rear wall of the garage. lonucci was in pain. He fell to all fours and heaved mightily. Leo crawled to a corner and looked for movement next door. Nothing. Nothing but the sounds of lonucci's impending cardiac arrest. The Bull peeked around the other corner and watched the rear of Clifford's house.

The neighborhood was asleep. Even the dogs had called it a night.

Leo stood and tried to open the rear door. It was locked. "Stay here," he said, and slid low around the garage until he came to the front door. It was locked also. Back to the rear, he said, "We gotta break some glass. It's locked too." lonucci produced a hammer from a pouch on his waist, and Leo began tapping lightly on the dirty pane just above the doorknob. "Watch that corner," he said to the Bull, who crawled behind him and looked in the direction of the Ballantine home next door.

Leo pecked and pecked until the pane was broken. He carefully removed broken pieces and tossed them aside. When the jagged edges were clear, he slid his left arm through and unlocked the door. He turned on the flashlight, and the three eased inside.

Barry said he remembered the place being a mess, and Clifford obviously had been too busy to tidy things up before he passed on. The first thing they noticed was that the floor was gravel, not concrete. Leo kicked at the white rocks beneath his feet. If Barry had told them about the gravel flooring, he didn't remember it.

The boat was in the center of the garage. It was a sixteen-foot outboard ski rig with a heavy layer of dust over it. Three of the four trailer tires were flat. This boat had not touched water in years. Layers of junk were piled against it. Garden tools, sacks of aluminum cans, stacks of newspapers, rusted patio furniture. Ro-mey didn't need a garbage service. Hell, he had a garage. Thick spiderwebs were strung in every corner. Unused tools hung from the walls.

Clifford, for some reason, had been a prodigious collector of wire clothes hangers. Thousands of them hung on strands of wire above the boat. Rows and rows of clothes hangers. At some point, he'd grown weary of running the wire, so he'd simply driven long nails into the wall studs and packed hundreds of hangers on them. Romey, the environmentalist, had also collected cans and plastic containers, obviously -with the lofty goal of recycling. But he'd been a busy man, and so a small mountain of green garbage bags stuffed with cans and bottles filled half of the garage. He'd been such a slob, he'd even thrown some of the bags into the boat.

Leo aimed the small light at a point directly under the main beam of the trailer. He motioned for the Bull, who eased onto all fours and began brushing away me white rock gravel. From the waist pouch, lonucci produced a small trowel. The Bull took it and scraped away more gravel. His two partners stood over his shoulders.

Two inches down, the scraping sound changed when he struck concrete. The boat was in the way. The Bull stood, slowly lifted the hitch, and with a mighty strain rolled the front of the trailer five feet to the side. The side of the trailer brushed against the mountain of aluminum cans, and there was a prolonged racket. The men froze, and listened.

"You gotta be careful." Leo whispered the obvious. "Stay here, and don't move." He left them standing in the dark beside the boat, and eased through the rear door. He stood beside a tree behind the garage and watched the Ballantine house next door. It was dark and quiet. A patio light cast a dim glow around the grill and flower beds, but nothing moved. Leo watched and waited. He doubted the neighbors could hear a jack-hammer. He crept back inside the garage and aimed the flashlight at the spot of concrete under the gravel. "Let's clear it off," he said, and the Bull returned to his knees.

Barry had explained that he'd first dug a shallow grave, approximately six feet by two feet, and no more than eighteen inches deep. Then he'd stuffed the body into it. Then he'd packed the pre-mix concrete around the body, which was wrapped in black plastic garbage bags. Then he'd added water to his little recipe. He'd returned the next day to cover it all with gravel and put the boat in place.

He'd done a fine job. Given Clifford's talent for organization, it would be another five years before the boat was moved. Barry had explained that this was just a temporary grave. He'd planned to move it, but the feds started trailing him, Leo and lonucci had disposed of a few bodies, usually in weighted barrels over water, but they were impressed with Barry's temporary hiding place.

The Bull scraped and brushed, and soon the entire concrete surface was clear. lonucci knelt on the other side of it, and he and the Bull began chipping away with chisels and hammers. Leo placed the flashlight on the gravel beside them, and eased again through the rear door. He crouched low and moved to the front of the garage. All was quiet. The chiseling could be heard, all right. He walked quickly to the rear of Clifford's house, maybe fifty feet away, and the sounds were barely audible. He smiled to himself. Had the Ballan-tines been awake, they could not have heard it.

He darted back to the garage, and sat in the darkness between a corner and the Spitfire. He could see the empty street. A small black car eased around the bend in front of the house, and was gone. No other traffic. Through the hedge, he could see the outline of the Ballantine house. Nothing moved. The only sounds were the muffled chippings of concrete from the grave of Boyd Boyette.

CLINT S ACCORD STOPPED NEAR THE TENNIS COURTS. A RED Cadillac was parked near the street. Reggie turned off the lights and the engine.

They sat in silence and stared through the windshield at the dark soccer field. This is a wonderful place to get mugged, she thought to herself, but didn't mention it. There was plenty to fear without thinking of muggers.

Mark hadn't said much since napped, together on one bed, for an hour after the pizza had been delivered to their motel room. They had watched television. He had asked her repeatedly about the time, as if he had an appointment with a firing squad. At ten, she was convinced he would chicken out. At eleven, he was pacing around the room, and going back and forth to the bathroom.

But here they were at eleven-forty, sitting in a hot car on a dark night, planning an impossible mission that neither really wanted.

"Do you think anybody knows we're here?" he asked softly.

She looked at him. His gaze was lost somewhere beyond the soccer field. "You mean, here in New Orleans?" "Yeah. Do you think anyone knows we're in New Orleans?" "No. I don't think so." This seemed to satisfy him. She'd talked to Glint around seven. A Memphis TV station had reported that she was missing as well, but things appeared to be quiet. Glint hadn't left his bedroom in twelve hours, he said, so would they please hurry up and do whatever the hell they were planning. He'd called Momma Love. She was worried, but doing okay under the circumstances.

They left the car and walked along the bike trail.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked, looking around nervously. The trail was pitch black, and in places only the asphalt beneath their feet kept them from wandering into the trees. They walked slowly, side by side, and held hands.

As she took one uncertain step after another, Reggie asked herself what she was doing here on this trail, in these woods of this city, at this moment, with this kid whom she loved dearly but was not willing to die for. She clutched his hand and tried to be brave. Surely, she prayed, something would happen very soon and they would dash back to the car and leave New Orleans.

"I've been thinking," Mark said.

"Why am I not surprised?" "It might be too hard to actually find the body, you know. So, this is what I've decided. You'll stay in the trees close to the ditch, you see, and I'll sneak through the backyard and into the garage. I'll look under the boat, you know, just to make sure it's there, then we'll get out of here." "You think you can just look under the boat and see the body?" "Maybe I can see where it is, you know?" She squeezed his hand tighter. "Listen to me, Mark. We're sticking together, okay. If you go to the garage, then I'm going too." Her voice was remarkably firm. Surely, they wouldn't make it to the garage.

There was a break in the trees. A light on a pole revealed the picnic pavilion to their left. The footpath started to the right. Mark pressed a switch, and the beam from a small flashlight hit the ground in front of them. "Follow me," he said. "Nobody can see us out here." He moved deftly through the woods without a sound. Back in the motel room, he had recounted many stories of his late night walks through the woods around the trailer park, and of the games the boys played in the darkness. Jungle games, he called them. With the light in his hand, he moved faster now, brushing past limbs and dodging saplings.

"Slow down, MarK, sne s[nu mui He held her hand and helped her down the ditch bank. They climbed to the other side, and crept through the woods and underbrush until they found the mysterious trail that had surprised them hours earlier. The fences started. They moved slowly, quietly, and Mark turned off the flashlight.

They were in the dense trees directly behind Clifford's house. They knelt and caught their breath. Through the brush and weeds they could see the outline of the rear of the garage.

"What if we don't see the body?" she asked. "What then?" "We'll worry about that when it happens." This was not the moment for another long discussion about his options. On all fours, he crawled to the edge of the thick underbrush. She followed. They stopped twenty feet from the gate in thick, wet weeds. The backyard was dark and still. Not a light or sound or movement. The entire street was sound asleep.

"Reggie, I -want you to stay here. Keep your head down. I'll be back in a minute." "No sir!" she whispered loudly. "You can't do this, Mark!" He was already moving. This was a game to him, just another jungle game with his little buddies giving chase and shooting guns with colored water. He slid through the grass like a. lizard, and opened the gate just wide enough to slide through.

Reggie followed on all fours through the weeds, then stopped. He was already out of sight. He stopped behind the first tree, and listened. He crawled to the next one, and heard something. Chink! Chink! He froze on his hands and knees. The sounds were coming from the garage. Chink! Chink! Very slowly, he peeked around the tree and stared at the rear door. Chink! Chink! He glanced back at Reggie, but the woods and underbrush were black. She was nowhere in sight. He looked at the door again. Something was different. He crawled to the next tree, ten feet closer. The sounds were louder. The door was open slightly, and a win-dowpane was missing.

Somebody was in there! Chink! Chink! Chink! Somebody was hiding in there with the lights off, and he was digging! Mark breathed deeply, and crawled behind a pile of debris less than ten feet from the rear door. He hadn't made a sound, and he knew it. The grass was taller around the debris, and he crawled through it like a chameleon, very slowly. Chink! Chink!

He crouched low, and started for the rear door. The ragged end of a rotted two-by-four caught his ankle and he tripped. The pile of debris rattled and an empty paint bucket fell to the ground.

Leo bounced to his feet and darted to the rear of the garage. He yanked a. 38 with a silencer from his waist, and scooted in the darkness until he was at the corner, where he squatted and listened. The chiseling had stopped inside. lonucci peeked through the rear door.

Reggie heard the racket behind the garage, and fell to her stomach in the wet grass. She closed her eyes and said a prayer. What the hell was she doing here?

Leo sneaked to the pile of debris, then cut around it with the gun drawn and ready to fire. He squatted again, and patiently studied the darkness. The fence was barely visible. Nothing moved. He slid next to a tree fifteen feet behind the garage, and waited. lonucci watched him closely. Long seconds passed without a sound. Leo stood upright and crept slowly toward the gate. A twig snapped under his foot, freezing him in place for a second.

He moved around the backyard, bolder now but with the gun still ready, and leaned against a tree, a thick oak with limbs hanging low near the Ballantine property line. In the unkempt hedgerow less than twelve feet away, Mark crouched on all fours and held his breath. He watched the dark figure move between the trees in the darkness, and he knew if he kept still he would not be found. He exhaled slowly, his eyes glued to the silhouette of the man by the tree.

"What is it?" a deep voice asked from the garage. Leo slid the gun into the waist of his pants and eased backward, lonucci was standing outside the door. "What is it?" he repeated.

"I don't know," Leo said in a half-whisper. "Maybe just a cat or something. Get back to work." The door closed softly, and Leo paced silently back and forth behind the garage for five minutes. Five minutes, but it seemed like an hour to Mark.

Then the dark figure eased around the corner and was gone. Mark watched every move. He slowly counted to one hundred, then crawled along the hedgerow until it stopped at the fence. He paused at the gate and counted to thirty. -All was quiet except for the distant, muffled chiseling. Then he darted to the edge of the brush, where Reggie was crouching in terror. She grabbed him as they ducked into the heavier undergrowth.

"They're in there!" he said, out of breath.

"Who?!" "I don't know! They're digging up the body!" "What happened?" He was breathing rapidly. His head bobbed up and down as he swallowed and tried to speak. "I tripped on something, and this one guy, I think he had a gun, almost found me. God I was scared!" "You're still scared. And so am I! Let's get outta here!" "Listen, Reggie. Wait a minute. Listen! Can you hear it?" "No! Hear what?" "That chinking noise. I can't hear it either. We're too far away." "And I say we get farther away. Let's go." "Just wait a minute, Reggie. Dammit!" "They're killers, Mark. They're Mafia people. Let's get the hell out of here!" He breathed through his teeth, and glared at her. "Settle down, Reggie. Just settle down, okay. Look, no one can see us here. You can't even see these trees from the garage. I tried, okay. Now, settle down." She fell to her knees, and they stared at the garage. He placed his finger to his lips. "We're safe here, okay," he whispered. "Listen." They listened, but the sounds could not be heard.

"Mark, these are Muldanno's people. They know you've escaped. They're panicking. They've got guns and knives and who knows what else. Let's go. They beat us. It's all over. They win." "We can't let them take the body, Reggie. Think about it. If they get away with it, it'll never be found." "Good. You're off the hook, and the Mafia forgets about you. Now let's go." "No, Reggie. We gotta do something." "What! You want to pick a fight with Maria thugs? Come on, Mark. This is crazy." "Just wait a minute." "Okay, I'll wait exactly one minute, then I'm gone." He turned and smiled at her. "You won't leave me, Reggie. I know you better than that." "Don't push me, Mark. Now I know how Ricky felt when you were playing around with Clifford and his little water hose." "Just be quiet, okay. I'm thinking." "That's what scares me." She sat on her butt with her legs crossed in front of her. Leaves and vines rubbed her face and neck. He rocked gently on all fours like a lion ready to kill, and finally said, "I've got an idea." "Of course you do." "Stay here." She suddenly grabbed the back of his neck and pulled his face to hers. "Listen, buster, this is not one of your little jungle games where you shoot rubber darts and throw dirt clods. Those are not your little buddies in there playing hide-and-seek, or GI Joe, or whatever the hell you play. This is life and death, Mark. You just made one mistake, and you got lucky. One more, and you'll be dead. Now, let's get the hell outta here! Now!" He was still for a few seconds as she scolded him, then he jerked viciously away. "Stay here, and don't move," he said with stiff jaws. He crept from the brush, through the grass to the fence.

Just inside the gate was an abandoned flower bed outlined with sunken timbers and covered with weeds. He crawled to it, and picked out three rocks with all the fussiness of a chef selecting tomatoes at the market. He watched both corners of the garage, then made a silent retreat into the darkness.

Reggie was waiting, and she had not moved a muscle. He knew she could not find her way to the car. He knew she needed him. They huddled again in the brush.

"Mark, this is insane, son," she pleaded. "Please. These people are not playing games." "They're too busy to worry about us, okay. We're safe here, Reggie. Look, if they came tearing out of that door right now, they could never find us. We're safe here, Reggie. Trust me." "Trust you! You'll get yourself killed." "Stay here." "What! Please, Mark! No more games!" He ignored her and pointed to a spot near three trees, about thirty feet away. "I'll be right back," he said, and he disappeared.

He crawled through the brush until he was behind the Ballantine house. He could barely see the edge of Romey's garage. Reggie was lost in the dark undergrowth.

The patio was small and dimly lit. There were three white wicker chairs and a charcoal grill. A large plate-glass window overlooked it, and it was this window that attracted his attention. He stood behind a tree, and measured the distance, which he estimated to be the length of two house trailers. The rock would have to be low enough to miss the branches, yet high enough to clear a row of hedges. He took a deep breath, and threw it as hard as he could.

Leo jumped at the sound from next door. He crept in front of the garage and peeked through the hedge. The patio was quiet and still. It sounded like a rock landing on wooden decking and rattling around next to the brick. Maybe it was just a dog. He watched for a long time, and nothing happened. They were safe. Another false alarm.

MR. BALLANTINE ROLLED OVER AND STARED AT THE CEILing. He was in his early sixties, and sleep had been difficult since the removal of the disc a year and a half ago. He had just dozed off, and was awakened by a sound. Or was it a sound? No place was safe in New Orleans anymore, and he'd paid two thousand dollars for an alarm system six months earlier. Crime was everywhere. They were thinking about moving.

He rolled to one side, and had just closed his eyes when the window crashed. He bolted to the door, turned on the bedroom light, and yelled, "Get up, "Wanda! Get up!" Wanda was reaching for her robe, and Mr. Ballantine was grabbing the shotgun from the closet. The alarm was wailing. They raced down the hall, yelling at each other and flipping on light switches. The glass had scattered throughout the den, and Mr. Ballantine aimed the shotgun at the window as if to prevent another attack. "Call the police!" he barked at her. "911!" "I know the number!" "Hurry up!" He tiptoed in his house shoes around the glass, crouching low with the gun as if a burglar had chosen to enter the house through the window. He fought his way to the kitchen, where he punched numbers on a control panel, and the sirens stopped.

LEO HAD JUST RESETTLED INTO HIS GUARD POST NEXT TO the Spitfire when the crash shattered the stillness. He bit a hole in his tongue as he scrambled to his feet and darted once again to the hedge. A siren screamed briefly, then stopped. A man in a red nightshirt down to his knees was running onto the patio with a shotgun.

Leo crept quickly to the rear door of the garage, lonucci and the Bull were crouched in terror beside the boat. Leo stepped on a rake, and the handle landed on a bag full of aluminum cans. The three stopped breathing. Voices could be heard next door.

"What the hell is it?" lonucci demanded through clenched teeth. He and the Bull were shiny with sweat. Their shirts were stuck to their bodies. Their heads were soaking wet.

"I don't know," Leo bristled, spitting blood, inching toward the window facing the hedge that separated the Ballantine property. "Something went through a window, I think. I don't know. Crazy bastard's got a shotgun!" "A what!" lonucci almost shrieked. He and the Bull slowly raised their heads to the window and joined Leo there. The crazy man with the shotgun was stomping around his backyard, yelling at the trees.

Mr. Ballantine was sick of New Orleans and sick of drugs and sick of punks trying to rob and pillage, and he was sick of crime and living in fear like this, and he was just so damned sick of it all, he raised his shotgun and fired once at the trees for good measure. That'll teach the slimy little bastards that he meant business. Come back to his house, and you'll leave in a hearse. BOOM!

Mrs. Ballantine stood in the doorway in her pink robe, and screamed when he fired and wounded tne trees.

The three heads in the garage next door hit the dirt when the shooting started. "Sumbitch is crazy!" Leo screeched. Slowly, they raised their heads again in perfect unison, and at precisely that instant, the first police car pulled into the Ballantine driveway with blue and red lights flashing wildly.

lonucci was the first one out the door, followed by the Bull, then Leo. They were in a huge hurry, but at the same time careful not to attract attention from the idiots next door. They scooted along, close to the ground, dashing from tree to tree, trying desperately to make it to the woods before there was more gunfire. The retreat was orderly.

Mark and Reggie huddled deep in the brush. "You're crazy," she kept muttering, and it was not idle talk. She honestly believed that her client was mentally unbalanced. But she hugged him anyway, and they squeezed close together. They didn't see the three silhouettes scampering along until they crossed through the fence.

"There they are," Mark whispered, pointing. Not thirty seconds earlier, he had told her to watch the gate.

"Three of them," he whispered. The three leaped into the underbrush, less than twenty feet from where they were hiding, and disappeared into the woods.

They squeezed closer together. "You're crazy," she said again.

"Maybe so. But it's working." The shotgun blast had almost sent Reggie over the edge. She'd been trembling when they arrived here. She'd been mortified when he returned with news that someone was in the garage. She'd damned near screamed when he threw the rock through the window. But the shotgun was the final straw. Her heart was pounding and her hands were trembling.

And oddly, at that moment, she knew they couldn't run. The three grave robbers were now between them and their car. There was no escape.

The shotgun blast brought the neighborhood to life. Floodlights filled backyards as men and women in bathrobes walked onto patios and looked in the direction of the Ballantines'. Voices shouted inquiries across fences. Dogs came to life. Mark and Reggie withdrew deeper into the brush.

Mr. Ballantine and one of the cops walked along the rear fence, searching perhaps for more felonious rocks. It was hopeless. Reggie and Mark could hear voices, but they could not understand what was being said. Mr. Ballantine yelled a lot.

The cops settled him down, then helped him tape clear plastic over the window. The red and blue lights were turned off, and after twenty minutes, the cops left.

Reggie and Mark waited, trembling and holding hands. Bugs crawled over their skin. The mosquitoes were brutal. The weeds and burrs stuck to their dark sweatshirts. The lights in the Ballantine house finally went off, and they waited some more.