Mark Jacobs

Clean and Legal, With Birds

 

    Certain things I can remember where I was when they happened and how it felt. Like the first time I saw a Chestnut Sided Warbler. Tupelo, Mississippi, three Easter Sundays ago. I had a monster hangover and a raw dick from what went on the night before. It was in a catalpa tree. There was a breeze, somebody was frying chicken, the air smelled hopeful, and here’s this amazing bird on a low branch. Not that I knew what it was. At the time all I could tell you about birds was, the early ones got the worms. Seeing the Chestnut Sided was what got me hooked on them.
   I mention the way my memory works so you will believe me when I say I remember the exact moment I decided to rip off my partners and get out of the robbery business.  
   We were living on the outskirts of Gnarl, Kentucky, in a very cool apartment over Ford’s mother’s garage. Ford came from people who kept the habit of spending money long after they’d lost the knack of making any. It was late April, the Kentucky Derby coming up the only thing on everybody’s mind. At that point I was already thinking of them as the Gang That Couldn’t Think Straight.
   Lacey Belle and I were fooling around, a thing we sometimes did when Boo and Ford were out of the apartment. We’d reached the nibbling stage and she hadn’t once called me Birdman. But then she did. Faster now, Birdman, she whispered into my ear, her voice breathy and Alabamian. So I did what she wanted faster, but at the same time something snapped.  
   No more crime, I told myself. I will live a better life, clean and legal. I didn’t have a plan. But I knew I needed one.
   It was no coincidence that this resolution came to me in April when the warblers were passing through Kentucky. The spring migration of the warblers is a thing that will take your breath away.
   A Box of Crackers: that was my other name for the gang that Boo put together. They were all Southerners in the worst way. I don’t mean Confederate or racist, they weren’t that. It had to do with the way they let an obsolete code of honor define them, and then didn’t live up to it. I had the right to be critical. I was born in Memphis and raised in Heartache, a whistle stop on the Dog and Dixie. Along the way I paid my blues dues.
   As criminal gangs went, we weren’t Dillinger. I mean we were not a threat to the social fabric. We’d knocked over a couple of gas stations, two or three convenience stores, that kind of chickenshit activity.  
   It was Boo Bradley’s gang, a fact he did not let any of us forget. Boo grew up in Birmingham, where his parents ran a tattoo parlor. He was way too young to remember the music of Molly Hatchet but believed in their cultural significance. Skynryd’s okay, he was always saying, but if you want to hear the true heartbeat of the South you gotta get you some Molly. Boo’s brown mustache had long wings. His boots were made by Alvarado in San Antonio. He shaved every morning and could gargle hymns.
   Lacey Belle Ritter was sexy in an eye-catching way that made her good at distracting the hired help. She was a redhead with a tomboy’s body that behaved with womanly grace, and control. She was only twenty two but had years of experience kiting checks, picking the pockets of drunks, foraging in department stores. Lacey Belle came out of Alabama with Boo. Somehow their friendship survived the death of sexual passion, a situation I found of great psychological interest.
   Ford was our blueblood. Upscale casual, Lacey Belle once described him. Pale-skinned and straw-headed, he shuffled around in khakis, polo shirts, and loafers oozing an odor of privilege which Boo believed would someday be useful to us. According to legend, his family had once owned half of Gnarl and the surrounding county. The family wasn’t what it used to be, but they still lived like they were. The house Mrs. Carwiller occupied was one of those plantation mansions they like to burn down in Civil War movies. If she knew her youngest son was a crook, she never let on, which in my opinion took a certain amount of class.
   I’m probably not the best person to talk about me, but I’m the one holding the pencil. My name is Randolph Rich. I am a compact sort of person but strong, and a good mechanic. My associates called me Birdman. They made fun of my Sibley Guide, not because they had anything against birds but because it didn’t fit. What was a thief like me doing with a respectable hobby like bird-watching? Boo had me down in the books as the wheelman. Considering the size of our jobs, it was an inflated title.
   He was too cagey to say it out loud, but he hoped one day we would be remembered as the Bradley Gang. Visions of grandeur I think is what they call the disease he suffered from.
   Two things happened the night I made up my mind to get away from them. First Ford came back to the apartment with a bag of Kentucky-grown weed he scored from a prep-school friend who sold real estate around Gnarl. The weed was in a baggie labeled ‘Mint Julep.’ I thought that was a pretty lame marketing ploy, but the rest of them were impressed. They thought they were smoking exclusive marijuana.
   I never got high with them. Poor Birdman, he don’t know how to fly, Lacey Belle said one time, which earned her a laugh that guaranteed she would sit there until she came up with another clever thing to say.
   That night, having a clear head helped when the second thing happened.
   I could tell Boo had something on his mind. Anytime he came up with what he called a concept, meaning a place to rob, he was like a cat with a canary in its mouth. This time, as he toked on a Mint Julep blunt, the apartment filled with the sweet smoke of his satisfaction. We were sitting in rattan chairs with deluxe fabric pictures of African animals on the seats and backs. Mrs. Carwiller had had the place redecorated when Ford moved back home with his new friends. Where she got the money was a mystery no one was likely to solve.
   “Lady and gentlemen,” announced Boo, “we’re going to the races.”
   The races could only mean the Derby. I had a bad feeling in my gut. Then I had a good one.
   Boo had been hanging around the stables at the Downs. One of his annoying traits was talking like he knew a whole lot about things about which he actually knew next to nothing. One of Ford’s annoying traits was taking Boo seriously. As for Lacey Belle, because of what went on between us now and again I forgave her more than I should have.
   “There’s this prince,” Boo told us. “Saudi Arabian.”
   “The Arabs are big into horses,” Ford said, passing the blunt to Lacey Belle. “It’s part of their culture.”
   “Exactly. This guy, I don’t remember his name but it might be Bandoo, he has some kind of gambling addiction. I was told on good authority his bagman carries half, three quarters of a million bucks around with him. And he’s got a horse running in the Derby.”
   “What’s the horse’s name?” Lacey Belle wanted to know.
   “Kismet.”
   I could see where Boo was going, and how eager Ford and Lacey Belle were to follow him. They were like three little kids, and I was disgusted. There was no way we were good enough to take on a score the size of Bandoo’s briefcase. But that was exactly what they were pumping themselves up to do. I kept my feelings to myself. Birdman’s bummed, said Lacey Belle. He won’t tweet. That was hard to swallow, considering the pleasure she’d gotten out of me a few hours ago. But I let it go.
   That night, after everybody nodded out, I looked up the word ‘kismet.’ Destiny, said the dictionary, or fate. I liked the sound of that. It was time to make my own.


-*-*-*-*-*-


    Next morning Boo collected taxes, two hundred bucks each from Ford and me, to finance his surveillance at the track. Lacey Belle was supposed to kick in, too, but didn’t. That bugged me. I thought for a while about just walking away. I could get a mechanic job somewhere, start my new life then and there. But I wanted to leave with style, and some cash, not slinking like a rat. I also wanted to get even.
   Ford went to the big house and researched the prince on his mother’s computer. That was a sign of how seriously he was taking Boo’s concept because any time he went to the house Mrs. Carwiller descended on him with her sweet vicious recriminations, sharp little knives that hit all his tender places.
   I wasted the day tuning up the car, a Mercedes E500 whose better days had belonged to Mrs. Carwiller.
   That night Boo came back to the apartment with his plan. Lacey Belle made her famous ‘Bama Barbecue. Ford contributed a bottle of bourbon he filched from his mother’s liquor cabinet. While we ate and drank he told us what he had learned from the Internet.  
   Prince Bandoo al Saud had a fortune of something like seven or eight hundred million dollars. He wasn’t into politics, or business, or any of the serious things that occupied his cousin princes. His passions were horses, and starlets, and props from the Star Wars movies, which he collected and put on display in a castle in the English countryside. He had once wagered half a million pounds on a horse in an English race. And lost. And laughed for the cameras.
   Ford finished up like a professor. “According to the Wall Street Journal, the royal in question is putting five hundred thousand dollars on Kismet to win the Derby.”
   “What are the odds?” Boo asked him.
   “Right now they’re eighteen to one. Putting all that money on a horse with odds that long, the prince is making a statement.”
   “Right. And the statement is, ‘I’ve got so goddamn much money I can piss away a fortune.’”
   “Maybe,” said Lacey Belle.
   “No maybe about it. Prince Magoo going to lose his half mil all right, just not the way he’s thinking.”
   “A victimless crime,” I put in.
   Lacey Belle eyed me hard. She didn’t trust me anywhere near as much as she pretended to. She thought I was being a wiseass.
    “So here’s the plan,” announced Boo.
   According to Boo’s intelligence, Prince Bandoo had a predictable routine. He drove out to the track to watch his horse in the early afternoon. Then he hit the bar, where he drank champagne and played some sort of Arabic dice game with a sidekick. He left by five o’clock. Race days, he sent a bagman in a separate vehicle with the cash he was going to wager. He met the bagman in the stable where his horse was kept and took delivery of the briefcase. The bagman was an out-of-towner with a New Jersey accent, a low-skills type on the Bandoo payroll. Like everything else about the prince, however, the briefcase in which he carried the cash was top of the line.
   “His name is Cudaback.”
   “I thought his name was Bandoo.” Lacey Belle was slurring at that point. You could practically see the weeds growing up along the pathways in her brain her thoughts were supposed to follow. Some people aren’t meant to smoke marijuana.  
   “The bagman, sweetheart. Haven’t you been listening?”
   “Birdman?”
   Ford took the joint from her hand with a fatherly gesture he was good at, and she lay down on the sofa with her head on a giraffe. Ford, by way of contrast with Lacey Belle, was a born buzzmaster.
   “So,” he said, enunciating clear as church on Sunday morning, “presumably the idea is to separate Mister Cudaback from the object of our affection before he arrives at the Downs.”
   Cudaback took the same route to the racetrack every time, including a four-mile stretch of country highway, which was where he was going to come upon a sexy redhead with a flat tire. Her car, which we would steal an hour before show time, would be blocking the road. The helpless look on her face, not to mention her very long, very white legs, would reinforce the bagman’s instinct to stop and help. When he did, Boo and Ford would come out of the woods on either side of the road.
   “Guns blazing?” I said.
   “What’s your problem, Randolph? He’s going to think we’ve got guns, yes. And he’s going to think they’re loaded.”
   While they got some sort of drop on him, Lacey Belle would grab the briefcase. I would appear on command in a second stolen car, collect my business associates, and we would drive off half a million dollars richer.
   Ford loved Boo’s plan. It was simple, and simple was good. The fewer moving parts, the less likely the engine would break down. Cudaback might not have a Ph.D. in astrophysics, Ford pointed out, but he damn sure wasn’t going to make a lethal stink over a multimillionaire’s chump change. With the assistance of the weed and the bourbon, my partners skyed up on the wings of make-believe. Lacey Belle woke up long enough to ride with them. The three of them were spending the money in the Bahamas when I went to bed.  
   Unlike Ford, I didn’t much care for Boo’s plan. In the first place, it was dumb. There were so many holes in it, so many what ifs, that the odds of pulling off the job couldn’t be higher than twenty percent. More importantly, though, the way Boo had worked things out left me no room to maneuver. I had my own plan, a better strategy. The hard part was going to be selling it.
   I read somewhere that Picasso painted his best stuff after dreaming. I believe that, but it’s maybe not the dreams themselves so much as the secret roads your thoughts take in your sleeping brain. I woke up having traveled. I knew what I needed to do.
   It all depended on Lacey Belle. The woman loved to sleep late. Boo and Ford left the apartment surprisingly early, given the amount of poison they had put into their bodies the night before. I went into Lacey Belle’s room with a cup of coffee and massaged her thigh, not too close to the garden of Eden but in an adjacent district. She drank the coffee with her eyes closed.
   “I’m not giving up my virtue,” she warned me.
    I felt the muscles in her leg clench.
   “Let’s take a drive.”
   “Where?”
   “Out to the country.”
   The place I had in mind was called Happy Trails, a ranch where you could rent a high-quality animal and put it through its paces, and the scenery was stunning. This was Kentucky at its bluegrass best. I knew how to sit a horse and was a decent rider. Lacey Belle was skeptical, but she cantered alongside my big roan on a gentle paint pony, and after a few minutes she got into the spirit of the thing. At one point we pulled up on a rise. Below us, a green valley spread smooth and regular to the south like something a kid would draw with crayons.
   “Look,” I pointed. “In that hollow, halfway down. Half a dozen Eastern Meadowlarks.”
   She looked, she saw, she didn’t much care. “What’s this all about, Randolph? You’re up to something.”
   “What do you think of Boo’s concept?”
   “Fill me in. I sort of slept through it.”
   I filled her in, doing my best to appear neutral. Listening, she bit her lip, then ran her tongue across the tender spot. She knew a bad plan when she heard one. When I finished, her horse snorted, saving her the trouble.
   “So what do you think?” she asked me.
   In any criminal gang there is a hierarchy of intelligence. That’s natural. However you analyzed ours, Lacey Belle came out on top of Boo and Ford. She was a bright woman, and I wondered what she would have done as a law-abiding citizen. Been a lawyer, probably. When she wanted to, she could argue you into the ground.
   “What I think doesn’t matter. I’m the wheelman.”
   “Bullshit. I’ll tell you what you think. It’s the same thing I think. Boo’s plan is a piece of garbage.”
   “Why don’t you go ahead and tell him that tonight?”
   “I know you, Birdman.”
   “I hate it when you call me that.”
   “Randolph. I know you. You’ve thought this through. You think you have a better idea.”
   But I wasn’t giving it up that easy. I made a clicking noise through my teeth and tugged on the reins, and the roan headed for the barns. Lacey Belle followed on the paint in a serious snit. She didn’t like it when she couldn’t make me do what she wanted.
   That evening was a trial. Mrs. Carwiller showed up at the apartment with a huge pitcher of nuclear margaritas. She was gaunt in the way rich women think they have to be. Her hair should not have been blonde. She was lonesome and silly and wanted to get loaded with Ford’s interesting friends. We did her the courtesy of drinking the margaritas, and Boo danced what Mrs. Carwiller called the Watusi with her, once. All the time she was there Lacey Belle kept giving me the evil eye.
   After a decent interval Boo walked Mrs. Carwiller home. When he came back, he and Ford started up again on how simple the plan was and therefore how brilliant. Half the time jobs went wrong, they kept telling each other, it was because the operators made things complicated. There was enough Mint Julep weed left for one last monster blunt. As they smoked themselves mellow, Lacey Belle sat bolt upright on the sofa, one leg folded, the other one riding high and splendid.
   “Add a ton to simple,” she said through the haze, “and you get simpleton.”
   “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Boo said, the ghost of the thing they’d had back in Alabama haunting his voice.
   “Nothing.”
   She got up off the couch and flounced to her room.
   “What’s eating her, Birdman?”
   “Something about the plan, I think.”
   “What about it?”
   I shrugged. “Damned if I know.”
   The next morning she made me ride with her to the grocery store. She drove. She was spitting nails all the way, but that was her personality type. Not until we were loading the Mercedes with the stuff we bought did I break down and answer her question.
   “What’s your plan, Randolph?”
   I shook my head. “You heard ‘em. They want simple. My idea’s different.”
   “Different how?”
   Without coming out and saying it, I managed to suggest I’d be more communicative if I scratched a private itch. That was a tactical more than a sexual move; I was playing hard to get. An hour later, lying next to me in her bed, smelling like my idea of a tropical forest after a hard rain, she tapped my chest with a long-nailed finger.
   “What’s your plan?”
   “What’s the point, if Boo won’t go for it?”
   “Tell me anyway.”
   So I did, and that evening she and Boo took a ride. While they were gone, Ford tried again to teach me chess. In his own way he could be as relentless as Lacey Belle, and he didn’t seem to notice I had more of a Chinese checkers type of mind. When Boo and Lacey Belle came back our leader’s face was red and thoughtful, and he made me go through my plan for the three of them, step by step.
   When I finished, Boo looked at Ford. “What do you think?”
   “Birdman’s approach is not as simple as yours. It’s more... more daring.”
   “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
   “If we pulled it off, it would be an exceedingly good thing.”
   “What else?”
   “You want the truth, Boo?”
   “Of course I want the truth, goddamn it. Why the fuck do you think I asked you?”
   “Randolph’s plan raises the odds of actually getting our hands on the briefcase. In fact it shoot them up considerably.”
   “How come you didn’t come to me with this?” Boo wanted to know.
   “You never asked my opinion before.”
   “Well in the future, you got an idea you bring it to me first.”
   I faked being pissed off, shrugging my shoulders with exaggerated deference. “Yeah, boss.”
   We had a week to Derby Day, but by noon the next day I was worried we wouldn’t make it that long. The more they thought about my plan – Ford christened it the Birdman Alternative, and the name stuck – the better they liked it. The way these things worked in our gang, it quit being my idea. Boo took it over. You could tell the way he talked about it that eventually the plan would come to be known as the Bradley Alternative.
   The problem was, they overcompensated. They quit thinking. Everything that came out of their mouths was pure make-believe. Our bold and stylish robbery of Prince Bandoo al Saud would go down in the annals of American crime. And the American public would be on our side. Screw the cops, we were taking money from a corrupt Arab who was manhandling our starlets. It was a Robin Hood kind of hoist, with patriotic overtones. By Sunday we would be national heroes. I half expected them to start making calls for publicity agents.
   Lacey Belle tried to keep her head, but it was hard. Their enthusiasm was contagious. Boo usually went around with hundred-pound sacks of rocks on his shoulders. The burden of being the boss did not sit lightly on him. Now he was carefree, optimistic, even generous. And Ford was so moved by the prospect of our job that he took his mother out for a liquid lunch at the country club, which was normally an ordeal he shrank from.
   While my partners gassed on, I did what I had to do. I went to the Downs. I got hold of a jockey’s outfit. I walked the path that Cudaback would walk to get to the prince. I picked out my horse. I scoped out a lot in Gnarl where we could steal a car, and located a motorcycle.
   I reported back to the others everything I learned and did. Except the motorcycle. The bike belonged to the part of the plan they didn’t need to know about.
   “Jesus,” said Boo when I filled them in. “I didn’t know you had it in you, Randolph.”
   I had it in me, all right. And that was where it was going to stay.
   I worried the night before the race because they started drinking early. It was possible they would party so hard they wouldn’t get up on Saturday morning. I had seen it happen before. But at a certain point in the festivities Lacey Belle frowned like everybody’s little momma and asserted herself.
   “You want to do this job tomorrow or not?”
   Boo was offended by her tone. “Say what you mean, sweetheart, or keep your mouth shut.”
   “Think about Sunday.”
   “What about Sunday?”
   “Two things can happen. Either you wake up with half a million bucks and the story of a lifetime, or you crawl out of bed remembering you were too hungover to go to work on Saturday.”
   “The lady has a point,” said Ford.
   Boo glowered. He didn’t like having his authority challenged. But Ford had a point, that Lacey Belle had a point. Boo capped the bottle of single malt they had been sharing, and twenty minutes later the apartment was as quiet as a museum.


-*-*-*-*-*-


    I was highly keyed up on Saturday morning, I admit it. Lacey Belle drove me to the Downs in the Mercedes. The way she leaned over and kissed me goodbye, I felt like a commuter.
   “Be careful, Randolph.”
   “I will.”
   “I’m not talking about today. I’m talking about what comes afterward.”
   “What do you mean?”
   “We pull this off, Boo is going to be happy as a clam for maybe a week. The money will seduce him. But sooner or later it will get to him that the whole thing was your idea. He’ll come at you, and he’ll want to make it hurt.” She put her hand on my kneecap and squeezed. “What me and Boo had, back in the day, that was just a convenience. For both of us, I mean. We were each other’s ticket out of Birmingham. You and me, on the other hand...”
   “We have something?”
   She slapped me on the cheek in a way I didn’t mind at all, and that was it.
   If you’ve never been to the Downs on Derby Day, you ought to go. For all the excitement, the crowd, the noise, it’s as though the world is standing still. It remembers something it thought it forgot. Since last year, everybody has forgotten how much they like tradition, and here comes the wheel rolling around again. Surrender and ride is your only option.
   I was caught up in the feel of it, the overwhelming wash of people and color and pleasure, horses and drinks and money and floppy hats and overdressed posers. I was early, probably too early considering all the time I had to kill. But I was there, and after about a hundred years of anxious waiting the thing that I had come to do began to happen. It was like one of those experiences you hear about where the person who is doing a thing feels like he is watching someone else perform the act. That was me at the Kentucky Derby, watching myself perform.
   I felt ridiculous in the jockey’s colors I had picked up. They were purple and green stripes. But I liked the horse I chose, an unfamous two-year-old, black with one white forelock and intelligent ears, from his stall in the remotest barn. His name was Far Distant. I waited until no one was looking, then saddled him and rode toward the barn where Kismet’s high-rent apartment was located.
   I expected to wait a while, but I only had to hang around outside Kismet’s stable for a few minutes before Cudaback showed. A bull-necked guy in a black turtleneck, he came down the lane with the briefcase held tight against his body. Ford was right, he probably didn’t have a degree in astrophysics. He knew exactly what was in the case, however. When I nudged Far Distant and the horse stepped in front of him, his response was to clutch the briefcase even tighter.
   “What the fuck,” he said, but he made the mistake I was hoping he would make, turning his attention to me.
   That gave Boo the unguarded moment he needed to grab the case. For reasons of security we had decided Boo would wear a wig and a fake mustache. That was fine, it was a decent precaution if he had made a reasonable choice. But he didn’t. The wig on his head came awfully close to a fright wig, and just as close to orange. And he had peeled the mustache from the face of Snidely Whiplash.
   It was touch and go, and touch and go again. Cudaback was not a small man, but Boo was bigger than he was and wanted the briefcase more than Miss America wanted world peace. After some back and forth between the two men, which was complicated by the way Far Distant kept getting in the way, Boo gave the bagman a shove and came away with the case.
   His surprise was visible through the absurd mustache. It was as though he hadn’t really believed until now that we could actually do the thing that we were doing. But we were. It was happening. Glee is the only word to describe the expression on his face as he tossed me the briefcase. I secured it while Cudaback was still getting to his feet, Boo turned and ran, and I kicked Far Distant in the side with both heels.
   I couldn’t worry about Boo getting away, I had my own job to do. I raced the horse along a narrow track between two barns, threading my way between horses and milling men, and then out toward a pasture. The pasture was fenced. No plan was perfect; I had no idea what my horse thought about fences. But I drove him toward it as though we had talked the whole thing over in considerable detail, and he cleared the fence like a steeplechase champ.
   The little thud in the gut I felt as he came down in the pasture was a good feeling, almost sexual.
   On the other side of the pasture, there was a road. On the road, Ford was waiting in a practically new Impala I had snatched the day before and parked in the woods. Crossing the pasture at a gallop, I aimed Far Distant toward the waiting getaway car.


-*-*-*-*-


    And then went past it. Ford put his head out the window and hollered at me as I went by, but I couldn’t make out the words. I couldn’t help noticing Lacey Belle was not in the car with him the way she was supposed to be, according to the plan. I assumed that meant trouble.
   It did. Half a mile down the road, I turned the horse up a dirt path into a patch of greenish-blue woods. That was where I had stashed the motorcycle, a Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 somebody had paid good money for. That bothered me. It bothered me a lot, almost as much as seeing Lacey Belle standing next to it.
   I pulled up the horse, dismounted, and slapped him on the rump. He moved off into the woods, exploring while he caught his breath. I liked Far Distant and was grateful. He had done about as well as an animal could do in the execution of the Birdman Alternative. And there I was, face to face with Lacey Belle’s smirk.
   “I knew it, Randolph. I knew it all the time. Let me see the briefcase.”
   “Boo had an ugly wig.”
   “What did you expect? Doesn’t that make everything better? I mean, you pulled it off. You did it. I followed you when you swiped the bike, in case you were wondering.”
   I have a hunch everybody has to live through one moment like the one I was living through, when two completely incompatible desires go to war on the plains of your heart. I wanted Lacey Belle. Bad. And now I had her. The money and my semibrilliant unbelievably lucky plan had seen to that. But I wanted something else, too. The other thing was harder to put into words.
   “This is like a dream come true,” I told her, not handing over the briefcase, which was made of an exotic leather and embossed with golden Arabic letters. “I mean, I’m getting away with the money and the girl both.”
   “Boo and Ford, they’re small time, Randolph. They’ll never be anything but small time. We both know that.”
   “I had a dream the other night,” I told her, inventing as I went. “You and me were in a boat, a little boat on a big ocean. I was kissing you. You were kissing me. Then all of a sudden we’re on an island digging a hole under a palm tree. I remember thinking, where did the shovel come from? At the bottom of the hole there was a briefcase. Like this one.”
   “Let’s look at the money.”
   The case was locked, but I had thought of that and worked open the lock with a pick I’d brought along. When I lifted the top I more than half expected to find nothing, just empty air and disappointment. But the money was there all right, in tight stacks of hundreds bound with blue rubber bands. I took out the stacks and filled a black fabric sack with them.
   “Lordy lord,” said Lacey Belle, all Alabamian and unbelieving at the sight of it. She caressed a stack with a hungry hand.
   I got onto the Kawasaki. I was feeling bad about stealing the bike, which was a superb machine, some citizen’s high-performance pet. The engine was running a little ragged, and I intended to tune it up, park it in a conspicuous place, then make a phone call to the cops telling them where to find it. 
   “Hand me the sack,” said Lacey Belle, moving to climb up behind me on the bike.
   So here was that moment. War on the plains of Randolph Rich’s heart. I started the bike and turned it around. Lacey Belle stood there expectantly, hand out for the bag. I reached out with one hand and pushed her breast.  I pushed for two reasons: to knock her off balance, but also to feel that luxurious resistance a woman’s breast makes when you press against it.
   By the time she figured it out I was gone down the path. She probably screamed something at me, but I couldn’t hear anything over the engine noise, which was throaty and confident.
   That was when my plan fell apart. I hadn’t counted on doing what I did. Tuning up the Kawasaki and calling the police, sure. That was always part of my idea, fundamental to the concept. But not stopping the bike. And tossing the sack of Prince Bandoo’s money back toward Lacey Belle, then taking off again. None of that was in the plan.
   It was, in all likelihood, the only time in my life I was going to heave away half a million dollars.
   I didn’t have the head to explain it to myself. That might come later, if I was lucky. For now, the important thing was to drive toward the future. Not that I had a map. The one thing I knew, it was going to be clean and legal, with birds.

tiffany jolowicz Monday on Michigan Island, Yesterday, the Day Before, Two Thousand Years