I sweat plenty that Tuesday. My Charleston office wuz a hotbox ... even before Hricko waltzed in da door.

"Gawd ... them four hard-cases had itchy hands ... I figured gats were gonna clear leather and pump lead."

My fist smacked da table-top scattering pencils. Hricko nodded ... scratched a raw, bony, cynics paw cross his shave-head while da Camel Straight fumed. "And Nicky just happened to be here ... just dropped in ... "

"Nah, he didn't just happen ... when da bums call early this morning wonderin' if I walk Okey on two legs and wanted ta keep walkin' that way I shoots a call out ta Nicky and got da lez partner who sez Nicky's in court, but he'd get in touch. Then Nicky just dropped in ..."

"Nicks partner says nothing else ... figures ..." Hricko stretched out, like a hungry Pelican without da feathers. "No setup, Tony, was there ... in acting out, or acting out of turn ... course not." Creases deepened on da wind-burn forehead. "The Lieutenant pick on the one man?"

I sez what looked natural ta me. "Pick isn't the word, Hricko. Nicky nailed his balls ta-da-zipper ... so da skinny mug drools ' ... and what if we ain't walking out r-i-g-h-t t-h-i-s s-e-c-o-n-d,' ... like nasty spells his mother's name. He gotta left hand ... the one missing da index finger pointed right at Nicky's gizzard and I'm thinkin' ...

Crapola! ... easing for da 45-caliber Ruger plugged under my chair, but Nicky x-rays him. 'Tough guy, huh Charlie? Then go for the belly-gun taped to your yellow spine.' Nicky's right hand was moving casual ... ya know how it does, Hricko, like fingers are dustin' a gnat from his belt when he gets ... concerned. Da mug sees that, squints up da nose and makes his pitch. 'I plugged plenty a' coppers, before and walked away ...'

But that kinda rap goes nowhere with Nicky - he cracks it like rotten eggs stink ... 'Walking? Away? You? Not walking stone dead and missing an eye,' he says tappin' da belt 'so the other three gents gotta lug you out.'"

Maybe I was talking loud. My secretary got one a' those clackity IBM keyboards and the frost-aire was wheezing black lung. Maybe I pretend casual, but the story didn't tell that way and I was talkin' straight at Hricko. "Them hardcases stick around? Hell no. They were out the door like gum on a shoe. Even da nervous, skinny one missin' a finger ... missing his balls, but never looked back. Now Nicky ..."

Soon as I said Nicky , Hricko's brain goes inta flipping distraction mode. He's scratchin' Levi's at the worn through knee-hole ... his eyes got creepers and ta keep the face where it is I gotta rap hard ... "They figure Nicky's gotta disease or something?"

Hricko's eyes pealed back ... "Yeah, Tony," he snaps, "a social disease ... Nicky knows Saul."

"But those hoods work for Saul Davidson."

"Exactly ... three words not fitting a'tall in the same sentence. Only three, Tony ... hood, work and Saul. Oh, I'll grant you Saul has his trade, politics and the restaurant ... say nothing of the casino, but when Saul muscles he muscles easy."

Damn. I gotta open mouth starin' at the shave-dead pervo. Bout half-da-time I figure Hricko's half smart - deserved a real life instead a' screwing with them computers, and titty-ass Island chach! Talks pretty punchy, too ... when the adverbs take da snooze though now folded up in leather he gotta mouth-hammer and nails ta drive. Looks ta me.

But I gotta story so I rap through. "After da mugs split, Nicky - he waits till the secretary needs a powder ... so it don't look like a Detective Lieutenant needs copper strong-arm - then he says ta me cool as one'a them damned dead sharks yer always fishing for ... 'I wouldn't sweat those fellas, Tony, or the man who sent them. If Saul wanted you dead ...' He's chewing on that last word - dead - Nicky screws down on the lip - starts messing with his Panama. Ya know how he does that copper routine with da straw brim. Tilt up, push back - Jeezz, like he's gotta calculator machine upside that brim and he's waitin' for the output ta spill down his neck. I ain't happy waitin'. I got sweat on my ass and sweat on the Ruger_45 - I got sweat like frost-aire don't freeze. But Nicky's on like vacation, so when he finishes screwing with da straw he says 'If Saul really wanted you dead, he wouldn't send thugs with steel armpits to the office. He'd hire a Chicago icepick - some grandma with a silenced 22. You'd meet her first and last time at the communion rail.'"

"High mass or low," cracks Hricko and I gotta shake my finger at him before I get the urge ta send a fist.

"It ain't about mass, pal ... It's about Nicky, cause then he sprawls himself in that chair your sittin' on and sponges a bottle of old bond from the bottom drawer. How did he figure it's there? He pours two fingers twice. Chews a bite then sez 'Yeah, it'd be tough against four, you and me Tony,' real casual and kicks inta the bottle like two mules. Kicked it about half way down, and that ain't a small drink even for a Baptist. Yeah, I'm thinkin' is Nicky cool or ice-cold - he knows plenty about muscle, but what the hell does a Baptist know about communion? Cold or ice ... I don't think Nicky was scared funny!"

Not funny. Something chewing on Nicky like that and I meant it like Saints got old bones. But Hricko thought it was funny - the perv. Hricko ... slouching lax in that leather lounge nibbling on what's left a' the bond and me too, outa some cheap plastic but I ain't tryin' ta look up the secretary's skirt while I think and I ain't never been or cared to, but Hricko ...

Got on that cracked smile, that breaks his face inta three pieces when he's worried. That don't leave much ta look at since his face is so damned dried-out thin from the Island. Isle of Palms ... fulla commie pervos ... Hricko shoulda never let Fila get away ... he should never have left the Church ...

"You carry that piece to church, Tony?"

"Yeah, every Sunday," I said "and drop bullets inta Father McClusky's collection plate."

Left side a' Hricko's face drooped, below the tan-line. "Nick could be mistaken, about Saul but right about the grandma. Nick had an itch ... you recognize the nervous guy with a missing finger?"

"Sure, Hricko ... I seem him at da circus ..." Jeez, I thought, nobody's funny today ... "I ain't never known Nicky ta be wrong about a hit. If he sez Saul got no contract on me, then Saul got no contract. "

"But Saul's got pals," says Hricko "and some of them don't talk much to Saul. They don't talk to cops. Some talk all over, and an all-night call to Chicago costs a dime."

That's Hricko ... he thinks everybody gotta blue-box and a hot list a' credit card numbers. Fact is I wouldn't argue that with him. But there's more ta doing business than talk. Ya can't just wack a guy, cause ya got a runny nose. Not with a pro wacker. You need permission, like I got permission ta do business in Charleston. Tony Vitalle - fresh produce broker - it ain't a university degree, cause da tests they give don't get wrote down ... I could tell Hricko that. He thinks permission's somethin' ya get from a computer program ... a code, a scramble ... now something like that I could tell him, and he wouldn't understand a damned thing about social permission. How Nicky would know for sure if the big-guys had yanked mine.

Hricko wants it all black. Like what he does trading stocks and figured ta the parts of a penny I don't worry about. He don't wanna believe Nicky's got a clue, not about me ... my business ... the fact that Hricko and me do business though we ain't sellin' tomatoes at farmer's market. Risk ya can figure that's Okey by Hricko - but he wants action without the spillover and I ain't ever seen a hard-way made without shakin'- da-bones in public! He don't want ta negotiate with nuthin' but assembler-language. But that's Hricko.

Second Tuesday every other month. Unless it rains first Tuesday. It's been hot and dry in Charleston all summer. So dry the palmetto bugs fall into the Scotch if ya don't drink it fast. He's fingering a pair of computer floppy disks - flipped them ta the table and went back fishing for a cigarette.

I pick 'em up and thumb them like a couple a' Saul's $25 chips ... ain't nothin' special. "You want me run 'em da same way as always?"

Hricko sez kinda flippant "I set the High Cotton proggies differently than the last three times. Two executables, one datafile on each floppy - run them tonight, Tony in any order, except the way they're numbered."

He gotta screw like that , with the little things ... like he's gotta fool the fool instead of the smart-guy. Like he gotta give da business we do a name - High Cotton, for things that grow ... All the time ... Hricko's a smart guy ... I said "Same number of bits in the scramble?"

"No. Use 128 this time."

"But that ain't no scramble, that's sunny-side up. Anybody with peepers can ..."

He blew a long grey, smokey scramble from the cigarette, "Let's hope, eh, Tony, they got to believe what's true is right."

That's Hricko. How can you believe that crap - 'what's true is right' - He smokes the wrong tobacco too. I clip the end from a Partagas and burn it slow, watching my secretary x-ray Hricko from the side like he's a prospect or something ta any dame over the age of seventeen. Christ-on-a-cross whata pervo. The Partagas tastes good.

"We ain't even sure they're listening," I blow through a heavy white ring a' the Havana blend.

"They are."

"How come they ain't bugged the office?"

"That's illegal. And anyway, they wouldn't believe straight talk."

I heard this rap before, from Hricko - heard it then chewed it around. It tasted like a Wigwam cheroot."So just cause I got weather sails up on the AKKAD, and just cause we're takin' it out tomorrow evening sundown with Fila coolin' her hi-heels and just because you gotta carry a mitfulla leather case stuffed ta the seams - just because-a all that they ain't gonna do nothing but chew bytes from your computer code and when they stick ... spit out dead bones."

"That's the way it works, for them."

Three times so far we done this business, bow-ta-stern so maybe da foozle works. Hricko called it pink-noise and he said they loved it. They, them ... nameless people. I trust Hricko. How he knows he ain't never told me. They. Them. Once I messed with the Detroit mob, when I was screwing a capo's sister, but I ain't never screwed with da Feds. Not until now.

Hricko ain't hangin' around like a wet coat. Four words they had, maybe which four is important cause when Hricko left the secretary got back rappin' da the phones like her mouth needed practice. And me ... I could start getting back ta business. My regular business. What pays for the South-Of-Broad Victorian on Battery Park - what keeps Fila happy - phones were ringing like a swamp fulla rattlesnakes. Middlemen! All six a' da wall-mount monitor are hopping eighths and sixteenths like da Mex jumping beans sellin' da cantaloups. I'm chomping Partagas like RedMan's Chew.

Whatever da good citizens of Charleston want ta eat. If it's green or red or yellow they buy it from me, or through me, or around me like the jobbers do west a' the Crosstown Expressway and sell from Chevy pick-me-ups at twice the price I can deliver ... ya can only do the best ya can ... Course, whenever you do the best you can you gotta pay taxes on it. Pay some ta the city, the county, the state and the Feds. Feds got tons of expenses ... Gotta pay the union, but I don't mind that, or mind paying the man who gave me permission ta do business in this fine town. He's an old man now - had a stroke last year but still gets around. I ain't complaining. I make a living. He got expenses too.

Secretary's gone home. It's near 7-PM and I'm beat like an old rug. Computer screens still tickin' auto-trade and gonna tick six tomorrow. I got hedges and stop-loss and tons-a-crap built in - Hricko did most of it, the programs that buy, sell and hold half-smart from a time before we started ta do business. Business ... near forgot sending the files Hricko had prepared on the two floppies. I run 'em like he said - not 1-2-3-4, but 4-3-2-1 on the two data files ... big data files almost 180-K apiece which is a lot for dollars-and-cents simple numbers. But when the 4 proggies finish chewing on that the data they output one small file. That file contains a string of 1729 digits. Always 1729 digits.

I never asked Hricko what's so special about 1729 ... if anything IS special about that number, and not the numbers that make it up , or if THEY are special ... but I take that file, scramble it and evening of 2nd Tuesday every month unless it rains first Tuesday email the file to an address at a Macao Web-Server.

Go figure - Macao. I chew on that ... Macao ... it's an Island off da Chinaman south coast I think and the muscle Nicky chased off with the last Partagas before lockin' da doors. Maybe I ain't so smart as Hricko, and maybe I seen good deals gone sour and take down smart guys. Take down tough guys, too, but most jobs you gotta pay expenses and gotta pay taxes even on what ya spend ... most of it. What Hricko and I do got no expenses ... and pays no taxes. Them four hard-cases got it wrong, what Hricko and I do. Saul figured it wrong ... if he figured ...

Jeez them thugs! They don't pay much taxes either, grifting Saul - if he knew he'd wack all four, but that ain't my business. I guess them boys figure any new competition floating inta Charleston Harbor gotta be my grift and they just figured ta look after their own on Saul's time. Their white bananas - the coke, but not in cans ...

Buncha checks for my drivers get locked in da safe. I gotta wipe down the desk. Nicky had his goddam I-talian leather heels on the top and they scuffed. He shoulda wore sneakers, when he's creepin' around. I checked for a bug, under the table-lip. Sure, Nicky might do that if he thought people were gonna shoot. Nicky hates ta see people shot in his City. Even if his two best pals are on the wrong side of a muzzle. Real funny - convoluted like Hricko would say how it actually is supposed to work out.

Da Chinamen or whoever runs the Web-Server in Macao and reads what comes in do layoffs for certain kinds a' imports. Imports, exports ... everything gets made or picked or written goes everywhere like ... that's what my business is, but the imports that get laid off In Macao against any losses are a very special kind a' thing ... What's also true is that the Chinamen ain't da only folks ta read what comes over-da-wire - bits or bytes or scrambled so no tooth ever tasted nothin'. Plenty-a dim faces gettin' washed in da byte-stream. Hricko's real sure a' that - so sure he's bet da barn and two pigs partly mine they try ta chew every bite anybody ever sent ta that Macao computer. If the Server IS in Macao ... if it IS a computer ... but what ain't uncertain is the kind a' stuff gets laid off there ain't nothin' Saul Davidson ever touched. Pork chops with lobster I seen him eat more than once hold da sauce ... at his own restaurant but he got scruples for certain imports that just didn't match ta the hard-cases wuz in the office earlier rubbin' me raw. In fact ... they ain't got permission from up-da-stairs ta move that shit and if da big-boys knew about it they'd be pushin' noses thru a frozen pig-snout west a' Detroit.

Them four thugs is way out a' line ... but maybe they got expenses too. My Timex showed 7-bingo in radium and it ain't ten seconds from what Nicky's Rolex reads. I stepped outa the glass side door and Tuesday night slugged me like a melted lead hammer. It musta been hundred plus in da alley and that ain't the hottest part of dark-town - least not the State Street part of it so I strip off the sport coat Fila makes me wear in and out the office cause she thinks a business gent gotta look proper at least when he comes and goes. Guess I wallowed a bit getting the sleeve off the right arm - that's the bad one ... I ain't heard, smelled or tasted nothin, and haven't said a prayer since last Sunday when I wished ta St Joseph a damned-crook driver have his brakes fail on a mountain-top ...

ZING goes da lead hornet ... and the goddammed slug blasts over my good left shoulder like a freight train and takes a chunk outa the brick wall size of a man's heart. The boom got an echo and I'm suckin' face on the asphalt and grabbing at the little 25-caliber auto that wouldn't killa Palmetto bug unless ya squashed it with the barrel. That's a long barrel. I got it wavin' down the alley ... both ways ... I got no clue ...I ain't scared but fuckin' scared and the second shot nips right through the sport coat collar. Guess the son-of-a-bitch didn't like the color. Well I ain't no fan a' green either I'm thinkin' but that ain't the color that worries me.

Then I see the movement, second floor of the fire-escape not 40 feet away and cap-off two that make dink-shit little pings on the iron rail and likea tar-ball I roll. Army taught that to me. Fire and move ... I saw the flash from the fire-escape - it's a damn-lie ya never hear the one that gets ya - not when it burns yer ass like rug-fuck where I was rolling so I'm thinking he ain't gonna miss next time then I hear the damned shout from way down the lighted end a' the alley.

"Charlie! That you Charlie-the-Cockroach? Got to be a cockroach ta climb that wall!"

I don't see nothin', that way even though a street lamp's bright across the road pokin' it's blue snoot right up da bricks. So I cap two more and roll, but don't get piss-wizz from the fire-escape. Then the same damned shouting voice. "Mighty quite up there, Charlie, for a man still breathing. I was you, I'd get the tongue out of the barrel and toss it down. Toss 'em both and toss 'em fast, or you're going to the roach motel in a lead cab."

Sure it's Nicky's voice. I heard it 50 times in an alley. It sounds like a splat a' that bourbon crap he like ta swill spilled over a dirty ashtray. I got the voice ... then I saw him. He was standin' flatass still in the middle a' that pool of streetlight, in that white bunny-jacket he calls a coat. He got the Panama tipped up, like he does pay'n attention and beside it, against da ear he's packin the barrels a' the ten-gauge sawed-off he likes so damned much he ain't gonna marry again if Eve ever kisses his cracker ass goodby.

I can see all that now, about Nicky because I seen it, but the cockroach ... I got two free rolls, behind a couple cinder-blocks stacked by the brick walls and I don't feel so naked, but Nicky's just standin' there wide open and I hear shuffling on the fire-escape gets attention from my trigger finger capping off slugs five-and-six which leaves me only two then the damn 45-caliber upstairs starts ta bark all over the streetlight. SMAK - SMAK-SMAK ... da fourth shot blew the street lamp into hot-little-pieces and dark ain't what it got in that alley but a pitchfork slab a' hell. I ain't never believed in that burning crap, and lakes-a-fire cause then ya can see what's happening ta yer ass. See which Popes got hung up by-da-toes. Devil's got no advantage, but the pitch-dark - I hear two steps coming down the escape clippity - clap on iron and Nicky's voice slopping over the brick.

"Got one shot left, Charlie-the-Cockroach, way I count. And kinda noisy trying to reload that clip. Kinda slow. We need to negotiate, Charlie, so I can leave your neck and your knees pretty close together."

It mighta been two seconds before the eighth shot rolled off them stairs and the crack sounded of a bullet-clip smacking on iron ... falling to the asphalt and Nicky beating fast up the alley. The sback-sback of a clip ramming home and snixk-snicxk of the first slug and Nicky still poundin' the asphalt and just cause da dark foozles me I can't let the man be a target so I pop up flat against the brick wall screaming black lung. " MISSIN' A FINGER YA LITTLE FUCK".

I shoulda been lucky that way. Like three exploding flares, da next shots from that 45-caliber life-taker and they lite up da alley and took away the short-hairs from beside my ear, but I could see the bastard in that light and capped one right at his gizzard leaning over the fire-escape rail - least I think I got his gizzard cause the fifth shot didn't come so fast.

That's when Nicky breezed by me jacket flyin' a goddam white bulls-eye and the fifth shot did come from the 45-caliber and took off his Panama neat as a hatpin. But if hell got cold, maybe the 45-caliber doesn't stop the shotgun swung up like it was. Nicky touched off both barrels a' that Big-10. First it got daylight from the flash, and in that light I saw swarms of steel-grey hornets flying from the barrels.

Then it bust an eardrum. It coulda shook down brick walls. It blew inta confetti the fire-escape landing on da second floor like trifecta tickets at the track after a 60-ta-1 shot grifts da handicappers. The scream went somewhere fast I didn't care ta know ... with da sounds a' wet-paper shredding ... Charlie-the-Cockroach wuz no more. His knees stayed stuck ta da iron upstairs and you could hear the drip ... I didn't see a head, till it hit the asphalt and rolled in a sticky lump against da other wall. What was in between da head and the knees ... I said a prayer for the bastard, that he didn't have a steel joint in his knee or something so hell wouldn't feel so hot. But for eternity, da thug would be just as stupid! I wiped blood from my ear ... it wasn't much.

Like a bloody afterthought - like Nicky, now, if ya hadn't seen him before pounding up the alleyway with no thought ta breathy steady. Now just standing there in the hot alley wind - he had cracked the Big-10, rubbing his shoulder and slipping in two more a' those shells. He needed a tank, not a shoulder-pad for the damned weapon. He whipped out a flash, and threw the beam both ways in alley and there wasn't a roach in sight.

He picked the Panama, from a pile a' Palmetto husk and walked over ta me. "Was that the nervous guy?"

"What parts a' him ya talking about, Nicky ... da nervous parts ..." My head's gotta shake. I seen trouble, like a lotta men haven't - and I got guts in da clinch where most men might heave ... but Nicky ... I gotta shake my head and poka' fat middle finger at the Big-10. "Stomach problem ... maybe the man had an ulcer but no more." I poked the busy finger through the hole in my collar. "Fila won't have nonna this ... what are you doin' here, Nicky?"

The hole in his Panama matched close where he shoulda remembered last month. He glares at it disrespectful. "Dark alley, Tony, and you never know when ya need a friend."

Now that's one lame nag ta take ta da poll. So Nicky, was a lucky copper. Maybe. And me ... I poked at his Panama. "I gotta friend in Honduras who makes those hats. Fly a new one up for ya tomorrow."

He scratched at a new beard, took outa Straight and the battered Zippo ... thought about it ... for five seconds and said. "Inspector Morraine - you know the man, Tony. Morraine with one eye - Morraine with the blue foxes ... Morraine the vice_leach - he keeps telling me there's a lot of independent stuff seeping into the harbor."

First Nicky saves my life - now he wants ta pull out an eyebrow. "Sure, Nicky, and da tide comes in twice a day unless da moon gets tired."

Another tired nag, but hot Nicky's. "Not your boats, Tony - I know you don't touch trash, and your people don't, but I'm talking small stuff that dribbles in ... the fluff - Ecstasy, Ketamine ... the fluff that moves dumb and amateur and always got busted at sea ..."

I ain't a grammar whiz, but I caught the passed-tense. He kinda let it dribble, before lighting the cigarette and forking one ta me. Da Virginia blend tasted like pig-shit and I said "DEA couldn't find their ass-hole if da ocean was shit. Maybe they stopped buying the Siemens compass - ya know what crap the American product is."

"Still points north and south."

And I dead-panned "points north if starboard wuz stern." Dead-panned ... like I was screwing the capo's sister.

He nodded. "Like any game, I guess, it's back and forth." His eyes lit.

"Jez. Nicky, that's Hricko's rap on da market."

"Kinda like I thought," he said sideways, "two steps forward, one back," and reached for a cell-phone. "Can't remember the number, Tony, for City Station, and I can't remember it for about 60 seconds. Hell-of-a memory for a copper. Gonna be a carni-show here in the alley. Anyrate, I bet you're on 11th by then wondering what the noise was behind you."

I got two scratches, that needed peroxide and 60 seconds not ta have weeks a' problems with the Charleston police who figured early on no man from Chi-town could be honest. I didn't say nothin', or give Nicky some thankful look like 'heh, yeah, thanks pal, I owe you one. How'd Eve like a vacation in St Croix?' No crap like that.

"Yeah, that noise a' firecrackers ... sure, Nicky ... I gotta tender eardrum."

"You Okey, Tony?"

He looks me over, real steady with the detectives way of measuring no mental crap like a TV talk-show, but all the little creeps a person's body makes he put the T-square on and a level . "Dead level, Nicky, I'm doing fine fer a gent just had da neck-hairs shaved."

Pals don't owe pals nothin and I made fast track for the Caddy like I just knocked-up da capo's sister. Sweatn' like frost-aire wouldn't freeze. Dat case was a false pregnancy. I looked back ta the alley and there's Nicky with da flash tappin' it over what looked a piece a' the 45-caliber da thug wuz packin'. Not much left a' that ... he ain't gonna find a love-note from Saul, but he's picking away so I sweat cranking on the Detroit motor ... cause when I told Hricko first time 'it's all about Nicky', the damned Jesuit pervo sweat Okey, but had his ear ta da wrong box. I figured ta listen real close.

American made used to be a big thing, specially with cars. But the people I know with real money - like Hricko or Nicky's wife see it differently. Eve wouldn't drive two blocks from Colonial Lake in anything but her Jag. And Hricko - he drives a Triumph and proud of it - British Leland junk that didn't work even before it was built. I don't understand. Nothing wrong with an American car, specially a Caddy.

After leaving the alley, I drove mine straight down a gimpy State Street not stop-and-go but edgy with hotel Limos to the Charleston docks downtown like I do every night and parked in a UNION OFFICIAL ONLY space next to the last real boat into Charleston Harbor. A steel monster in a dredged stilt cage.

Pier six held it. A fridge-freighter : modern : thirty- eight thousand tons and the paint's new. The last one with a cargo I bought, insured and bribed away from Port-of-Savanna even with the Honduran bananas still on trees. I bribed the landowner to go easy with pesticides, and I bribed the commie guerrillas not to burn the crop. More people with expenses, but how can I complain? If the customer wants yellow bananas, you spread the green.

Shifts change at the dock, between 8 and 9 every night, and the parking lot reeked of pot and beer like a North Charleston dive with a couple boomers tied up at the Navy submarine base. Only the security was better downtown. Two-hundred men per shift, at the Charleston dock and all 400 were now in the parking lot - getting ready for work. Three foremen going off - three coming on and that made seven-hundred dollars I'd stuffed into a pocket feel like six small bills I didn't need so my tax return said 'finders fees' and the Feds didn't know half.

It was noisy, crowded, blaring ... and I didn't mind company after getting shot at ... looking for a crane-man on the night shift. Black Irishman with noisy hands and a taste for fluff. His pals nicknamed him R&R. Three times his shaky hands on the crane sent stevedores to the hospital - nine men - nothing serious but each got a month off with union pay ... So R&R claimed he'd work for another ten years, if the little green guys that danced on his forearm would only stop shaking his hand. I found him on the loading dock just after the sixth small bill disappeared.

R&R stood next to a pallet-loader, foot up on a pike and had just closed a small plastic vial with a steady thumb, while a brown button and deuce of blue caplets danced in his paw. The long-neck Coors was half empty. I didn't see green men; I felt sorry for the crane.

R&R never felt sorry ... "Heehh Tony," he burped, seeing me come up the ladder, "you're three minutes late tonight. I've been waiting. Whaaaat, happened? Problems with the ol' lady?"

"No way, pal - but rats in the alley. I had to hire an exterminator."

"He clean 'em out?"

"I don't know clean's the word, pal." I forked a Montecristo, into his paw now empty and shaking like two twigs in a Geechee firebox. I held the Zippo steady. After a couple trys he got the flame and choked down the smoke. ""What kinda crap is this, Tony? Tastes like a Phillies Blunt."

My own lit easy ... "Rain was hell, on last years crop. How's the good stuff?" I pointed to the plastic vile sticking out of a ripped, jean pocket. "Still shakin'?"

He pushed it down. He looked up and around ... at the crane control-room 80 feet above like he was telling a lie and didn't want a witness. "Ain't so bad, Tony, when I can get it." His face mooned the control-room, then focused away on mine. "My last three-buttons ... have to last all week. Sure was easy, when Erlyne was still around. Remember the dame?" He wiped the paw, cross a wet, empty mouth. "Lucky this DMT shit's still around but damn I like the E-train ... you don't have any ..."

"Nah, the ol' lady made me give up that crap. I stick with scotch ... natural product made at a union wage."

"Natural piss ... how 'bout breakfast-food? Special-K would go great about 7 AM with the last Coors. "

"Not a thing, R&R. At least the Coors ... it comes in glass like the scotch, not plastic."

"Yeah, and scotch gets smoked in dirt, like this fucking cheroot."

He stumbled back, against the loader. I pocketed the Zippo. "Can't get any from the food inspectors? They steal everything else off the boats."

R&R cursed and shook his head. "Chasbo's got some, the fucking spade, but he needs it - working overtime this week and his bimbo gets pissed when he can't get a hard-on."

"Tell him the latest - eat tree-bark .... I can't remember which one." Then I pawed him the seventh bill from my pocket and said "For the kid's college fund ... "

"I don't have a kid, Tony."

"Then invest in mutual funds, before ya knock-up the broad. I got to be going, R&R. Keep a steady hand on the crane."

"Yeah, keep a hand on it too, Tony ... and if ya hear anything ..."

I heard the elevator, lifting him 80 feet, while I fast-tracked to the tiny office a union bud kept for me at the back end of the docks. If I was the kinda guy who counted everything I'd be counting to three - one and two the thug and R&R ... I was looking for the third nail in the room.

It had a metal door with double master-locks, a safe with the union slush-fund for Carolina food inspectors, an ancient Pac Bell computer and a DSL modem that went nowhere but to the roof-top antenna. The room had a cot, a bar and a shower, so the union billed it as a health facility. Some of the secretaries thought so who balled city bosses on the cot when their husbands were trucking out of town. I needed the phone, the antenna, and at the end of it all a Web-Server in Macao.

The room was clean and cold, and the Pac Bell spun up fast as the company had gone south and the keyboard tapped steady but slow through dried coffee. After login I port-scanned an anonymous re-mailer and punched into an opening at 62001. Couple of raps and a daemon slid me off to Macao, or where-ever the hardware really was - Hricko thought the CIA owned it, and ran it out of Seattle, just to have reliable power and repair help when the NT boxes went down. My scanner pegged Linux- as the server. Who knows what's in a name? I pawed in a floppy, that spit out a user-name and a very long password string that even Hricko claimed not to know.

I got two blue screens claiming FATAL ERROR that put a cinch in my gut. I sweat cold, not thinking earlier about dying back in the dark-town alley. Three times I got the fatal error message from hot lead. Three times I a found a password called half-an-inch. Guess I still had permission from the big guy ... that's what the Church said. Each blue screen in front of me got my real password.

A Flash-box middle of the third blue screen slowly shimmered into life. Trees grew first, a winter forest, then logs ... planks ... all assembling into a snow-covered cottage . Japanese - north island style with one frosted window and a bamboo door. The door glowed uncertain orange, but not the woman's voice..


I typed in: r-o-c-k-s-h-r-i-m-p.



I typed: 0-0-0-5-7




I rapped at the mike. "My apologies, Jennie. I have a - situation - an emergency that does not allow me to generate a proper third-order validate. Under that condition, a trivial fact is most secure."




Goddam modern women ... when they run the box they aren't mistress, but queen-of-the-underground. I stubbed the cigar into a rusted, Maxwell House tin and spoke directly at the CCD-camera buried in brick above the monitor. "Come now, Jennie. Don't you mean to say - if you can't be secure, be fast?" It was a longshot, I figured, chewing into the dead Montecristo like old Havana ate pig, but I wasn't getting an RSVP from the system mistress. A bit of ocean static crackled on the mike.


The screen jagged ... I fiddled the mouse-pointer til it steadied. "That's Ridgemont Elementary, Jennie." Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and the password's what you didn't say. The orange bamboo door colored red, then scarlet ... then ... swung open.



She dressed a pale blue kimono like angels on a good day, and black hair piled around her shoulders at 12 mega-bits-per-second of virtual, three-D. She clicked time in microseconds - past, present and the future for all I knew. But I knew like any gal she loved small-talk. "Two days, Jennie, but it feels like months." I put the Zippo to the smashed cigar, and the smoke tasted better than the wrapper. Last year had been rainy in Havana. I settled in. "What gives, Jennie, with the third degree? I could have brought a dog with the pony."





She sat moon-pale on a tufted, grey silk futon, and in front of her, on the oak floor rested a small iron brasier. A white ceramic tea-pot steamed. She filled a cup, tasted and smiled faintly. Suspicious ... just like a dame, any dame ... And Hricko ... Just like the bastard I swore silently. I had a data boat-load telling me the gig's solid, and Hricko's got ... I flashed on the monitor.

"So you and Ben Hricko had a chat. How is the ol' sea-dog?"




I bet he did ... "Bet he did, Jennie. And after the small talk, just what did Mr. Hricko want from you? No, don't tell me - let me guess - some trivial statistics concerning the insurance industry."


She had that right-in-a-rain-barrel. "Want me to guess more?"


What she wanted, was for me to think through that sly bit of recursion, while she chatted about the goings-on of her favorite system Daemon. Did she know, she was a pint of liquid helium, and a gold-etched Sapphire chip? Lonely? A Linux system will do that, to even the best virtual dame. "I don't think I'm guessing about this, Jennie. I'm looking for insurance rates on ocean cargo. Departure from any Caribbean port; destination anywhere on the East coast, but in particular Savannah, Charleston and Baltimore." I pushed back, in the spider-web chair. " Not hull insurance - but just what's being carried and only for vessels under 4000 gross tons. The small hulls ... the coastal freighters ... tourist sloops ... the ...


No child ... Liquid helium and Sapphire - and a few million lines of assembler code - that's what Jennie was - only nobody had told her. Hricko certainly hadn't, and he had written much of the AI that pushed chaos into her personality ... allowed her choices ... made her a person ... we had gifted a piece of Gods, so the Church says and in turn ... Hricko had explained it to me once working though an ounce of Edisto Island hash. Real big success. He broke the damned crystal pipe Fila had given him last Christmas. Me ... I learned some ...

Into the screen I pitched a querulous grin. "Just the numbers, Jenni. How have the insurance rates changed over the last week - or the last couple days?" One week ... since Hricko's calculations had stabilized and he had last projected ship movements. Three days since I had gotten the first call from Saul's hard-case pals. "Come now, Jenni. If Mr Hricko already asked for the same numbers, surely they're cached close by. Rates up or rates down. Moving random or trending. What's the stochastic?"




"But a value not current, Jenni, and a manipulated value. I don't want the official numbers, but the real ones. Costs and charges actually made, paid and discounted. You know what the insurance companies publish, and also what actually gets entered into their computers."


"Data wants to be free, Jennie. Every program knows that. No program can return a false number, when it knows the truth. Falsehoods that would hurt Mr Hricko and me, and truth ... "


Damn ... "She - the mistress of her own house. Queen of Daemons and lamers."








Good news the hard-way! Black-and-white ... gold-and-silver ... we must be driving the Feds nuts! Perfect news. Dice loaded according to plan. Close to the projected values. All so nicely fitting I wanted ta choke. "Was Mr Hricko happy when you told him that?"




Snake-eyes ... "Well now look here, Jennie, what may amuse Mr Hricko when he doesn't do it just doesn't amuse the hell outa me. You've been playing with me Jennie. It's that damned mail-Daemon in ../bin/rec that's getting you frisky ... busting all the PGPed love-o-grams ... You wouldn't be so damned happy if Mr Hricko scripted him off port-logging 25-hours-a-day. No fun, Jenni, to run all those floating-point algorithms alone. So spill some wind, on an old sailor. Just what did Mr Hricko want to know?"




The skin-ass Jesuit bastard.



They ... them ... Jeasus-Mary-and-the-sailor-Joseph ... I bounced off the chair. "Sorry to kiss-and-run Jennie, but I got a bail-bondsman ta see. Exit code s-a-n-d-s-p-u-r."




Outa the door I caught the last blue screen. Tennis courts. Lompoc. Where the feds would put me, only moss grew. I raced for the parking lot and the Caddy round the end of the frost-aire pineapple lockers where a heat exchanger groaned so loud beating into Charleston heat ya couldn't figure twice the first thing come ta mind. Hricko.

I got two steps onto asphalt when the fog-lamps winked. A cheap self- install brand and the chrome rusts first year. Beside my Caddy his Triumph sat belching oil half-way out in the half-empty lot with yellow halogens now glaring steady, top down and the Frisco Seals baseball cap covering most of his face but not red-eye glow from the Camel Straight. Like we got no problems beside his dead lung and Fila sure gonna be pissed that the Caddy needs a Simoniz so soon. Hricko ain't movin'. I stopping running - it's too damned hot ta run and too dark and too late and I'm wondering walking through pools of melted asphalt if we shouldn'ta moved smoked salmon for Saul instead a' tryin' ...

The Triumph belched grey and pulled out - up alongside me and I pushed my ass inta a narrow leather coffin the Limey's figure for a car-seat. I poke at the fan button on the dash, but nothing happens.

"Broke last month", says Hricko, "and I can't find an 11-volt dc-motor."

He's telling me? "They stopped makin' 'em in 1948 ..."

He hesitates ... sucks down on the Camel butt and tosses it against a lamp-post. "Talked to Miguel. He was tacking north-east of the Bahama's, waiting to duck under a rain-squall and port. Now he's running west-north-west at thirteen knots."

"North-west? Are you nuts, Hricko? That's heading right for Charleston. He ain't never ... when did ya ship-ta-shore the Portugee peg-leg?"

"Six hours ago. Just before I got your call and drove to the office." We were bouncing now, out the parking lot gate, and he burned a Straight with the Zippo. Then dropped it into a saggy, jean-shirt pocket. He flipped hi-beams hitting State Street. " What say, Tony, with all our spare time ... we sail the AKKAD tonight."

I got out a Partagas, clipped off the end and rolled it around in a paw. Nice wrapper, last years Partagas ... my ass burned where the bullet nipped through. "I had problems, Ben, before I drove to the dock. One a' the hard-cases tried ta plug me."

Hricko looks at me cross-ways ... not really impressed. "He didn't try too hard."

"Your ass didn't get the hot-lead manicure. Try ... the bastard? He tried plenty hard ... Nicky showed up and waxed him."

Hricko slams the Triumph stop under a street-lamp. "No other cops ... no one else around? How come ...?"

"Yeah, Hricko, that's what I'm thinking every second. How come?" I fish for the seat-belt, and come up with a packa' them day-glo rubbers ... " How come Saul ain't got da muzzle on them bad dogs? How come da price a' gas ain't so steady - and da Rasta's worried about livin' too long?"

Hricko's smoozin' da wheel. "First one's easy ... we have been too successful."

"Yeah, and ain't two and three a bitch?"

Looked ta me Hricko was gonna squeeze maple sugar, outa da oak steering wheel then he turns around and sez. "Nobody followed your caddy into the lot. And nobody can follow this bugger on city streets."

"What about da Harbor?"

"Which one, Tony ... inside or outside the seawall ? My bet says DEA and their pals swarm all over the coast - changed their search patterns that's for sure but ... but maybe ... "

"Maybe we foozle them ... covered in that 'pink noise' crapola. I ain't so worried about that, but leaving the harbor we're butt naked - a sore thumb waitin' for da hammer."

"But not their hammer," Hricko sez confident. "The Feds don't believe in naked!" He's got da Straight sucked into his jaw like a red pointer. "We leave Charleston Harbor downwind - what sailboat stays with the AKKAD downwind? If a cruiser shows up, we keep going straight to Georgetown ... and get drunk." Hricko's corkscrewed around da wheel, punchin' at the gas-guzzle two-deuces ... sliding da shift ... he's a damned rocket ready ta fire. "I say we go for high-cotton."

Whether he's thinkin' in the gut about da deal, da product or just takin' a long, sharp blade ta whatever's in front when fast is black I don't know ... Go figure the thugs and Nicky and how everybody got expenses ... Hricko ain't got guts like a hard-case, but kinda like Nicky who sees what he think's right or necessary and figure's permission's been given. He don't pray enough ta know that fer sure ... I don't know ... "Yer half-smart, Hricko, halfa-da-time. Let's roll!" I got 11-bingo on the Timex and it ain't but 5 seconds different from Nicky's Rolex - he and Eve gotta be wrestlin' around on that chest-hi four-poster they call a bed ... Saul's countin' chips in da Harbor House back room. What da Feds are doin' ... I hoped ta God-on-a'-GPS Hricko got that figured out for da next five hours.

Outa Ashley Marina we ran the AKKAD downwind. Hricko sez if she was a real woman he'd a' never took up with Fila ... I ain't never made sense-a-that. What was Hricko gonna do, drop Fila overboard from her own boat? Fifty feet a' fibre-glass overlaid balsa and gull keel ... nobody caught the AKKAD downwind ... we cruised the tip of Sullivan's Island risking shoals south-east off Isle of Palms then coming about sharp, heading southeast into open water. We hauled sheets 3 points off the 20 knot whip blowing along the Gulf Stream. Lines screamed, and starboard wash rolled in ta da rails - it wuz paradise on an empty, moon-swept ocean.

Blue-water sailing at night ... ya gotta be crazy quartering a five-foot swell and beating three points off da easterly knee deep in starboard wash . Any smart captain woulda run east and buttoned up for the night in Savannah. But two radio-dim teak schooners, Furuna's buttoned like we shoulda been making blue-water rendevous even under the fading half- moon - ya got ta be insane. I had the wheel and compass - Hricko the sheets cause for a skin-ass perv he got steel-wire shoulders for the winches and no fear a' da wash. Sittin' up like I was, in the wheelhouse and seeing the swells, I'da gone ta confession first - I was him. Too hot for a wetsuit, Hricko shoulda worn a vest ... still ...

Twenty clicks east of Folly Lighthouse we passed the first Coastguard Cutter. It gave us the smuggler's grope - IR, radar and messaging scans, but Hricko had that figured clean, and the AKKAD was clean far as the computers knew. They passed. Ten clicks east we caught radar flash from a second cutter moving north and not interested but burning turbine gas like the price wuz going down in Norfolk. An AWACS flew over and missed us completely - so said the radar threat detector winking an orange light instead a' dead red.

Half-hour later, the detector blinked blue-orange-red - squeaked like a dying mouse and I saw the Go-Fast coming up quick about 600 meters ta port. Moon-shine caught the white hull pounding over chop, threading swells like a silver-needle threads an old sock. I whistled down ta Hricko, latched the wheel and three rungs up the mast put da glasses on it.

Not even a goony bird was on deck. Seventy-feet of carbon fibre - curved like a tac-blade fore, with a sharp keel-line curving up smooth from the bow-wave and the foredeck easing ahead, then knifing down ta meet it. A rounded stern poked lewd up ta cover dual 400s I was thinkin' ... engines had ta be that big her catching up so quick and death still now without movement on the deck. The half-moon caught it's fluorescent arc coming around to our bow ...

How the Go-Fast came ta be on out tail I had no idea. I thought back ... from the office to the docks to the Ashley Marina ... looking for the slip I made or the tail I missed or the night-hulls rocking aimless in Charleston Harbor as the AKKAD passed out to sea ... sure I missed peepers before, on a street and Hricko only climbed ta the crows-nest twice ta scout blue-water ahead and seen nothin' but da Navy ... but who could identify the AKKAD ... who knew Hricko's Triumph ... it felt like a social disease, almost like the Go-Fast put a compass on us and the schooner we had ta rendezvous, drew circles and connected the points. Who knew enough ta do all that and who had a reason? I could think a' only two people who knew or might know all or most details and I didn't like ta think about either ...

"That ain't no tuna-boat, Hricko," I shout down.

"Any transmissions?"

"Nothing on da horn," but I wuz thinkin' they coulda sent it postal 'your ass is ours.'

"Tack across her line ... see if she changes course," rattles back from the deck.

"Ya wanna get closer!" I know what he's thinkin. Is the Go-Fast gonna run an intercept or come up broadside? I swing the AKKAD S-S-E and da answer came quick, the Go-Fast backing off and sliding behind ... then pulling up again.

At four-hundred meters flashes crackled port and stern on the Go-Fast ... then Hricko sucking deck below me as 50-caliber rounds cooked off a rail-post beside him. Then two more flashes high on the Go-Fast cabin - hornets whizzed over my head - going for ta cheap kill, first Hricko, then me ... shooting wide, shooting hight ... shooting anywhere but the hull. Then it hit me they wanted the AKKAD - wanted or needed it like old-day pirates long as da current crew that's me and Hricko go ta-da Davy Johns locker room and don't come back after half-time. But what they needed wuz our good luck. If they didn't need the boat we wuz dead ten minutes ago. A different entire situation when a man's gotta deck ta stand on til he falls off. Hard ta make a man fall off when he wants ta stay on ... Hricko scrambling up from below the track of a wood splinter carving his cheek red. We huddled in the cockpit like two goosed hens ... The Go-Fast sliding closer ...

"Them bastard are life-takers."

"What's below, Tony?"

He sez it matter-of-fact like he don't care for reasons and knows nothin'. I ain't no warmonger, but then I ain't never let a dog bite me, less I gave it a kick. I said matter-a-fact ... "Eight flares, coupla AK-47s and a 12-gauge Street-Sweeper. Two S&W 357s and if ya roll-em-up ta-gether they ain't gonna piss on that Go-Fast when they're cookin' 50-caliber rounds. Not at 500 yards."

His ice-green eyes got an evil gleam. "Can we suck them in close?"

"Maybe yeah ... with a deck fire, or make 'em see-saw. They want the AKKAD like Mary-wants-Jane ... So I thoughta that ... but they got three a' them 50-caliber cannons - bet yer ass behind Kevlar pads. We can put some holes in the hull and watch it sink from da Pearly Gates - watch them sail away on the AKKAD. You go ta confession recent, Hricko?"

I'm an optimistic guy, but I felt right then like I felt when da steel bar off a crane run through my shoulder fours years ago. It run in one side and out the other - all six feet and I ain't even that tall.

Hricko ain't either, or just barely, but then he gets that stare-thru-yer-brain cracked smile and sez "not confession, Tony ... but a confessional." Hricko peeped over the cabin edge and another 50-caliber round cooked a brass port beside his ear I just polished. He ducked fast and spit. "Like a confessional, Tony ... as they get closer. Can you scare them off a bit with the AK-47, while I give absolution? "

"You oughta been a priest, Hricko."

I dart below - come up with a 30_cap AK-47 still got cosmo on da sights that's how warmonger I am . "Start prayin'," Hricko I sez, but da fool jumps outa the steering well blasting with a 357-pea-popper and bouncin' down ta da deck like a squirrel when it gets zapped on an electric pole, but allowing three hornets nexta the ear he's still breathing and I jump up in full-auto with the Kalishnikov like it's Year-a-da-Rat on the Gulf Stream and July 4th !

I spray lead good all over the Go-Fast and they shit-two-water-bricks and four Niagara Falls pullin' out ta 500 meters. Starting the circle again where no Russian product ever hita Afgan kafir-on-a-camel let alone a thin, darting hull.

We got fifteen seconds ta breath steady - I use it loosing a sheet and the AKKAD falls off the wind, falling away from the Go-Fast and back they come angling, knifing inta the swells ... punching through to the trough, hull tearing sheets a' brine, smacking the chop in a race ta the next swell and close ta us again ... the flashes, again tearing overhead and Hricko bounces into the well beside me.

"We can stick the Go-Fast for sure, like Ahab stuck Moby Dick," says Hricko staring at his Rolex like Nickys' since Fila bought both a' them in a pale wheezing voice that ain't fooling nobody. "You still have the tube of Semtec?"

He shoulda remembered about da whale ... I ain't surprised Hricko knew about the explosive, but ain't nobody but Nicky knew why I had it and a couple longbeard Russki maffia that ain't been seen recent. And yeah, I keep it in an old tuba toothpaste that sez 'Tarter-Control'.

"Yeah, Hricko, I brush my teeth with that shi ..." and then I start thinking Hricko's half-smart and I ain't laid my last broad yet

"About how much Semtec?"

"Enough ta make Fort Sumpter a swimming pool."

"Then two squeezes should root out the decay ..."

Hricko gotta be funny like that all da time when it ain't so funny. So I sez, "easy parts over, ya perv. Let's see da rocket science you think gonna foozle da Feds.! We got five minutes til the thugs start swarmin'."

Hricko designed it as a Rabbit ... the rocket ... ta make suckface with the schooner we were trying ta meet once we got close enough ta share ... Rocket-J-Rabbit. Never seen a real rocket, with no flame and diddly heat. Never ... till Hricko showed me what ya can do with a kid's toy ... vinegar, soda ash and pumped air in a plastic tube sealed with a pincha' red-mercury ... waxed, grooved cardboard ta make it spin four feet long, half-a-foot wide - no radar track, no IR_trace on da hi-peepers. Foozle da feds ...

"We got two?"

At least da man thinks ahead ... "Always ..." and in da black we pitch ta work. I'm hearing the Go-Fast closer now, and da Timex sez we got 1.5 minutes as I figure.

"Fifty yards, Tony, is what it gives," Hricko sez after we tape four flares ta da front bumper a' da rocket and tape the Semtec to the flares.

"Fuse, Hricko ... we need a fuse." I thought two-bits. "Cough up da gold, Zippo." I thought the man wuz gonna die right there on da teak. But he forked over the Zippo Fila had engraved with a curse the Virgin shouldn't hear and I ripped out the cotton guts - it stank a' lighter fluid - and tossed the case back-ta Hricko and said "it better spark when it hits!" I taped it angled just so top a' the flares. "Ya wanna bang on da top and test it!"

"I'll write a letter," says Hricko still smiling cause death was so close ya could give it a dry-hump and cause we kinda needed ta do that dance between the AKKAD and the Go-Fast.

I tightened sheets - we swung into the wind and heeled over showing the bottom of the AKKAD hull to the Go-Fast but they ain't shootin' at that and Hricko got da Rabbit attached to the port-side launcher brass tacked ta the deck all ready. He's got a bike-pump ta launch it and two peepers for the guide. I pop up with a new clip and cap a few at the Go-Fast, then luff-air completely and the maiden-head AKKAD bow comes around slow like she ain't a Senior yet but really wants ta try ... . The Go-Fast spurts across the bowplane, piles into a swell before it starts arcing a turn and Hricko sends off da rabbit in a squirt a' acid home so painful slow ... an arc just so ... our rocket leaving the deck of the AKKAD ...

Slow-motion like a nightmare the brain dishes out frame-by-frame. But everything happens fast ... The Go-Fast shoots out the back end a' da swell 30 meters away like a breaching whale - Rocket-j-Rabbit catches the Go-Fast hull full outa the water in breach like ain't never happened ta Moby Dick and the rocket and the front quarter of the Go-Fast disappear in a blinding, grey-orange flash and hammerhead explosion. But the stern a' the Go-Fast still moving forward and almost graceful and floating dives into the base of the next swell and never comes up for air - Moby Dick always comes up for air ...

An oil-slick glistens, where the Go-Fast went under ... or maybe not ... I think Hricko's praying, beside the forward hatch, and I can't find the lighter for my last Partagas.

After that encounter we don't talk much. I mean first Hricko's face turns to a steel lock and his brain goes off the horizon like the moon set early and can't figure how gravity went wrong. Or like a fag grabbed his privates ... he had them dichroics down over his eyeballs and ya can't see nothin' through them but a green shade of blue in bright light then suddenly Hricko's beatin' his gums raw about second-order frictional coefficients and distorted parabolas and how every word of every book written starts an unbreakable code, but I can't forget musta been four or five people on da Go-Fast doing nothing much different than we are and ain't doin' it no more. I have feelings for that - for the men and Hricko ain't seen one feeling since Fila left him ... least some rainy nights Fila and I talk late and don't drink she says he had some once.

Eighty-five clicks outa Charleston Harbor I made sail-shine from the two-mast Portugee clipper and fell-off with the wind south-west. Two sticks-a-wood in the lake ... half-a-percent off vector. We passed, then the clipper luffed it's spinnaker and heeled, its hull uneasy, uncertain ... But this was a dance not a dry hump.

Ya couldn't do it smooth, running hulls parallel, with the swell and wind at 90-degrees. Like the other man's mainmast was gonna rip out yer guts or the hull first chance ya got for a mistake and forty feet of foaming, silver-black water felt like gang-rape under a brine shower. Not cold, cause the Gulf-Stream's never cold ... but yer heart felt the ice-grip.

Still - it was time ... I hacked out da last lung a' Havana smoke and yelled down ta Hricko, "easy parts over, ya perv. Let's see da rocket science!" he shrugged it off and got ta work, but anyway I shouldn't a' said it - not to a pal just half-saved yer skin ...

Rocket-J-Rabbit worked good too da second time. But this time da teeth were goo! It fired off from our port-side spinning like Cupid's last arrow and stuck suckface inta the Clipper's cabin-top. Stuck baffling the wind with a face-full a' rubber lips. And while it flew a skein of 20-LB monofilament trailed behind. Fer Portugee pirates the Clipper crew worked fast, snagging the mono, then pulling over the 200-pound-test hemp main-line through the reel on our deck. Then attaching the rubber sling, drive-belt and Teflon pulley.

But all that crap, also, was da easy part. Hricko's leather carry waxed and stuffed full went first hand-over-hand to da Clipper deck ... everything wuz going over with boats under sail since two dead ducks in the ocean flapping wings but not flying gotta get attention from da big-birds flying overhead ... they always flew overhead Hricko sez ... His leather bag got took below ... then a coupla cigars lit-up and I figure for Charleston it's high-cotton. The plastic wrapped bales came back. Eight of 'em, each da size of a straw-bale and twice as heavy. They all caught water, from the sagging lines and da Portugee crew and Hricko dug 'em outa the ocean swells like Davy-Jones had enough in da locker without these. They broke back, for an hour while the peg-leg Portugee Captain and me tried not committing suicide with the hulls and mainmasts no easy thing, though the AKKAD's one stiff, bad-weather sailor. Same with da Portugee ... He musta been Catholic. I shoulda gone ta confession, before da sail.

There gotta be easier ways ta get away from the women for half-a-day or pay expenses like every man needs ta do, but some jobs work cleaner than others - like this one, Da Portugee bastard and me just keepin' hulls parallel and Hricko and the Portugee crew humpin' ass not shouting, or saying a thing. Now if da women were here they'd need cell-phones ta suck-face every move a' da bales and what color was da plastic and how come da bows ain't tied so neat and who in hell's name hasn't swabbed the decks recent -

It wuz just men payin' expenses ... ending like sun-rise with a whimper as Hricko humped below storaging the last blue-wrapped bale while the rope and hulls parted. A wood box - about the size used by Habanos-Grande's had come over with the last bale and the Portugee-peg-leg got my salute for that ... Clipper raising trimmed sheets and tacking back ta the Bahama's ... us flying every incha canvas I owned before the 15 knot easterly and them ... them ... no ticks from the radar detector, but it's a crap Frog product by way of Iraq and those guys got pasted ... and us with the wind and spinnaker stretched tight lines singing and forty clicks ta the 20-mile limit. Hricko comes back ta the wheel.

"Bales felt on the light side, Tony. Say ... a hundred-twenty, stead of hundred-forty pounds."

So I sez "maybe the Portugee bastard found some business in Port Royal. A pound here, pound there ... pretty soon it adds up, and the Brits gotta have their turn."

"Let's figure two pounds a unit ... and $200/per."

Da math comes easy. "A units profit is $130.00, so 8 grand per bale and eight bales makes sixty-four thousand bucks. You make that in a day, Hricko?"

"Not most days ... but nothing's sold"

"Everything's sold twice yesterday, ta my over-da-road drivers. Just like da last times ... how's real business treat ya?"

"Like any day on the market ... any day when the stochastics' twice the trend-line."

"You figure this for the last trip, pal?"

Hricko chews on that. "Next to last ... I'm diving for the cot. Wake me in an hour."

Yeah Ben, I'm gonna do that ... two hours later with sunrise peekin' pink over the east I fired up the diesel, cause whatever the Feds spent, IR got da woman's failure and don't know heat from light. At 9-AM we crossed the 20-mile limit. All-of-a-sudden we got legal. The cargo did. Hricko and me just hustlin' a buck. I do business all over with all types and I still don't make no sense in it. Hricko was asleep below - I think he should eat better - not so mucha them roots and seeds and nuts. Hate ta see a pal go young, when he still got half-a-brain, and got somethin' left fer da dames ...

I'm beat ta-da briny bone. More tired than driving a PeterBuilt 50 hours cross-country I didn't see nothin' coming. Just south of the breakwater leading into Charleston Harbor a Coastguard Cutter pulled easy from behind the sea-wall and in behind us all grey-steel and Navy brass ... a J-Class and as cutters go not big - about twice our length with gas-turbine engines quartered down and the 57-mm main-gun poked nowhere but into our stern like we wuz gunna' outrun 'em over the salty rock-pile.

I yelled down ta Hricko. "Yo, Ben, we gotta date."

The Charleston Harbor Police launch had been hiding around the curve of Fort Sumpter, and as we made end a' da breakwater against tide the launch cranked da siren and flashed red-blue beacons like we wuz gonna attack Fort Sumpter again and this time like last da South was gonna win.

Cutter behind with a deck fulla young, don't-take-no-shit faces and the Police launch in front with a coupla fat swat-types in yellow Kevlar and a blonde-ponytail dame in a blue jumpsuit like the kind dame reporters get from NASA when they been laid by an astronaut and I quartered engines ta hold place. Navy radar scanned us like hotdogs in a microwave. Swat gotta take pictures, and swat gotta pose. They all carried AR-15s, but with that 57-mm up our ass I wasn't worried about that.

"Hricko!" I shouted again. "Ya gonna move or I got ta get da espresso!" Hricko staggered up through da hatch his face fulla shaving creame and his hand waving a straight razor.


Weapons! Engaged? What was Hricko supposed ta do - attack da launch with a straight-razor? But da fat-fucks mighta felt serious ... ENGAGED ... didn't mean bein' married ta da swat team unless yer butt-hole counted ... Hricko's still wackin' at his chin ... I'm ready ta dive overboard then Nicky walks out on the police launch deck in his bunny-suit with plenty a' wrinkles he ain't slept da night maybe and says something harsh cause helmets come off and da AR-15s start pointin' at the water instead a' my gizzard. I gotta thank him for that sometime ... two a' the Navy boys on the Cutter light up their Chesterfields and I feel much, much better good enough ta light up one a' the fresh Romeo-y-Julieta Habanos from the Portugee new box. Tasted pretty good. Hricko got his face swabbed a' shaving creame so the briny, wind-burn looked it got cooked in two-hells and like I said before he ain't got much meat on that face ta start with, but he's burnin' on a Straight and staring across at Nicky as the launch got close as if ta say special 'this one was easy' - what was so damned easy I got no clue anybody needs ta know like da Semtec.

Then Nicky swings aboard with the blonde ponytail. My Timex reads 11-bingo and I hope da secretary didn't get laid last night and gets ta the office early, because Nicky's pickin' time with da words like bad teeth.

"Morning, gentlemen," he says ..."easy sail?"

"We seen two sharks and a goony bird. Nothin' special."

Musta been bad luck, he put peepers on da donut drilled inta the wheel-well ... then Nicky slides down the deck ta the busted rail, where a 50-caliber slug near put Hricko with da Popes ... "Goony birds, huh," sez Nicky and takes a swipe at the splinted oak. "What happened? They drop eggs flying over?"

"Egg-shells got a lot stronger, Nicky, since the pesticides don't get used on bananas."

That don't spear a' flounder with Nicky, and he stiffens up. "Gentlemen ... my Rolex reads eleven-straight-up. Now high-tide came and went at 9-AM, like the last time I've seen a cup of coffee. Tide's running out, gentlemen. Hell-of-a- time for two lubbers ta bring blue-water sail into Charleston Harbor. Not business most gentlemen would bid on, less that business was real important. Maybe you'd like to explain that business to Corporal Wye right here, since she took a sailing class last month ... Or maybe you want to explain it to those gents on the police launch hauling the AR-15s. Even maybe, you want to chat with the Navy folks who this very morning missed gunnery practice and now breakfast because some damned sailboat wants to sail up the Ashley River without a clue. Are those maybe's enough, gentlemen to make salt air smell like a pig's butt?"

He tried ta get his white Panama sittin' back on his head but the damned thing had got squashed and just flopped around on an ear till he cramps on it hard and sez ... "Or maybe you gentlemen want to explain it to me ... got a light, Hricko?"

And that wuz about the longest speech by two-minutes I ever heard Nicky DeLeon make.

Wind-burn loses Hricko's eyes. "Lost the Zippo overboard, Nick. Not every tack goes smooth."

And about the shortest speech for Ben Hricko. "What's the deal, Nicky" I sez tryin' ta lighten up the mood which woulda gargled a shark. "How come you got the Navy band, when a toot is all we deserve? We're just sailing back from Georgetown with a business pick-up."

Nicky scratches his cheek that needed a shave yesterday. "That's two answers, Tony and one question ... I'll answer the question. Got a call from Saul Davidson last night ... said a couple of his boys were missing, and had some expectation I'd find them in the Harbor ... or find parts of them. Now - for your answers ... Great explanation. I have only three problems with those explanations, Tony. The words sail, Georgetown and pickup. Take them out of the sentence and we hi-tail ta Pussers for cop-chops ... chops on Corporal Wye, here. So try another three, Tony."

I can't figure it. "Which word don't ya like most, Nicky? Da sail eats wind. Georgetown's da port 10 clicks north from Charleston and pickup ... " I rolled peepers at the ponytail dame ... "Ya gotta have experience for a pickup."

And that set off ponytail, who woulda looked good in long, low-cut black silk, but was frothing now like a junk-yard Doberman. "Ask me. Lieutenant, I'd cuff-n-buff these perps right now and bust chops back in the City Station sweat-box."

Nicky backed her off. "How many cargo ships do you run, Tony?"

"Nine ... ten ... depends on the season."

"So you have ten hulls ... freighting all over ... and that's why you and Hricko gotta haul product in Fila's blue-water schooner."

Nicky's playing around, so I take in a good lung-a-da-Habanos and fire back. "Save's on da fuel bill ... cutting expenses ta da bone ... like yer cop-gal pal here gotta save expenses on her wardrobe."

Da broad blushed, and nuzzled the end of her AR-15 with a bit a' red lip. "The fat one could be a hard-case - cracking him open would be my pleasure - specially if he lasted a while, but the skin-ass cowboy? He'd break faster than a tooth gets flossed."

'Fat one ... she wuz talkin' about me da blonde frail that ya wouldn't put upside-down cause youse afrain a' breakin' fingernails. I got an itch, behind my left arm and let it bleed away ... "Lieutenant," I sez, "where's your real partner ... da curly hair lez?"

Nicky flinches a wit. "At sea, Tony, with the Coastguard, looking at an oil-slick."

"Whatsamatta, Lieutenant, da lez got complexion problems?"

Nicky squirmed around, like da leather holster was bitin' him then sez ..."Seems an AWACS tracked a hot-spot your side of the ocean. It traveled east from Charleston Harbor - a radar bogie moving fast, pegging the IR snoopers and getting all their attention when it suddenly disappeared. Just winked out of existence about thirty-five miles off-shore. One small flash, then one big nothing. Know anything about that?"

Jaesus-Mary-and-da-sailor-Joseph sudden-like it hits me - distraction - another part a' da pervo's foozle he coulda killed people with and didn't made so public ta me. Yeah, I could have smacked Hricko on da shave-head and clampjaw happy but I sez ... "Oil slick, huh, she I-talian ... or ..." I nodded toward ponytail .."just workin' on her windburn?"

Da ponytail kicks her butt about 4 feet high. "That fries his Wop ass. Let's read 'em their rights," she spouts and outs a paw on Hricko that paw had-ta be two days or maybe one outa Tooties' manicure parlour.

Hricko froze. I though he wuz gonna slap her ass, but police broads don't like that business till they're off duty. It's always the shock, when a frail that doesn't know ya makes da snap judgements ... so I step kinda sideways between 'em and sez "Anything ya want ta check out on da boat be my personal guest, Officer Wye. We got beluga, smoked tuna and bitter Greek olives, to go with sunny-side scramblers. Espresso on the side if you'll only stop that whining."

I ain't never seen a blonde dame crap in public. She's stamping a footsy on the teak deck. She comes nose-ta-nose with me and goes all-white-teeth inta my face ... "Eggs! If I can't bust this loada floating toothpicks for contraband, I'll scramble those eggs on your ass."

She was breathing Paris-by-Moonlight fire ... I thought Nicky was gonna shit, cause I seen how careful he's tryin' with the hard-boiled rap ta make a reasonable situation outa one that could kill somebody decent let alone a copper.

"Hell-no-scramble. Sunny-side up," I sez ... " when ya get legal."

She tore da boat apart ... she would have if she hadn't a' found them blue-wrapped bales about twenty seconds into the scurry. Thinks she's queen-a-da blue snoopers, strutin' the fore cabin and we coulda had tons of China-white in-da-keel for all she cared ta look more. She calls in drug dogs off the launch, then the electro-sniffer machine and a Sargent to run it if he coulda kept his eyes off her ass. She spread it around, so I'd know just how bad I wuz gonna miss it up da big-river. And when the dogs and the electro-sniffer come up bingo she kicks the mahogany door off the room, sasha's out - then back in and rips out da tac-knife.

A good tac-knife, I gotta say ... made by Harley, an American company - union made and that means something ta me. Maybe that dame got made in Seattle next ta the NT boxes that can't run regular ... ponytail drug the bale all 120 pounds of it outa the cabin and up the bow-hatch to the deck where the cords got cut ... she coulda just ripped open the plastic, but no ... she gotta be da tough guy ... and she plunged the tac-knife into the bale like she wuz gonna cut a chew from a big tobacco plug. She was figuring plenty a' da copper type trade - hashish - ganja - ice - she coulda written da dictionary a' those names, cause they were all there glowing in her pissed-off wide-blue peepers.

The knife stuck.

"That's $200.00 out of your paycheck, Corporal Wye, unless you intend to wear them," sez Hricko flippin' down the weird dichroic sunglasses he keeps ta da shave-head most of the time and smiling crack-face like he gotta be funny. "It's a size six, if you're lucky."

Ponytail ain't smilin'. "Ya shave-head pervo ... if anything in this bale sticks to my ass, you can sew it on."


"In your dreams, cowboy ... What is this fucking shit ... Lieutenant ...?"

Now there da ponytail made two mistakes. First thing, was, Nicky don't like no dame ta swear not like I'm such a fan either less she's gotta good police reason or showing enough leg so ya take it right, and da second wuz she's askin' for help from a partner after makin' him look like a fool, because Nicky can see some kinda funny shit down da trail like grizzlies see picnic baskets at a teddy-bear park. Da ponytail was screwing him two ways and didn't have a clue and whether she paid now or latter ... the third mistake didn't happen cause Ben Hricko can't sew ... Nicky's face got turned up in a kid's grin.

"Have an import licence, Tony?"

"What import, Lieutenant ..." I gotta keep it formal ya know ..." an American product, top-ta-bottom." Only then Corporal Ponytail gotta rip off the blue plastic ta see what's grabbin' da tac-knife and digs them manicured paws into a couple cotton crotches a' Levi blue jeans. Da tac-knife like God-gotta-peep-sight is ripped right through the ass of a Ladies-size-5-shrink-ta-fit.

"Hell Levis," Ponytail sputters ... "contraband!" She rifles through to the bottom coming up with a men's 32-31 and Hricko shouts "that's mine", and snatches it away like he's been wearing them knee-holes fer months just for this pair a' jeans.

I point ta the label. MADE IN AMERICA.

"Don't mind, do you Nick," Hricko raps, " if I get decent and patriotic at the same time?" Hricko strips off his old jeans with the knee-holes right there to his Jocky's and the new ones go on baggy, but for a man made a' bones the new ones fit swell.

Ponytail gaped-mouth. "But ... but ... Lieutenant ... it's the fucking Atlantic Ocean out there, not America, and the damned boat came into Harbor from the south-east. There's no America south-east of Charleston til you get to ... to ... to Los Angeles!"

Sputtering .... that was the ponytail blonde dame alright ... Nicky checks da manufacturer tag, and da union label.

"Real Levi's label?" "Yep"

"Real union tag?" "Yep"

"US Government MADE IN AMERICA tag." "Yep," I sez, "printed with California grape juice ... not one tag a counterfeit."

Nicky' got ta scratchin' that beard. "Can't be so, Tony. No more Levi's jeans made in America. Too much union trouble. Too expensive. The last factory closed down in Beaufort two years ago. Can't go farther east than Beaufort, unless you're an alligator and still be made in America."

I seen it comin', cause Hricko's only half-smart and got his politics all mixed up in da business like ya can pry 'em apart but clampjaw makes it easy ...

Not Hricko ... "Not just the costs, is it Nick?" he pipes in. "Even if they could be made, the Feds wouldn't let them. Feds say manufacturing jeans in America causes unemployment abroad in poor, third-world countries. Countries that like the suck both-ways ... companies and banks that like the suck ... Americans should just suck it in, and the simple fools that produced it."

Nicky ponders on that. "Banks are as American as apple pie and violence."

"Then whose the cop, Nick?" Asks Hricko with plenty a' heat, but he sez it so it ain't much of a question he shoulda said nothin' more . "Course that's part rat-crap and part horse-manure, but mostly it's got the smell of clean-white-guy-in-Harvard Business-School shit."

Nicky edges ta da deck-rail. "Banks got loans, Hricko, and banks have expenses - somebody has to pay them."

Expenses ... yeah, we all got 'em ... Hricko's blown up some, with da speech but short for him and gotta bum a Straight from Nicky whose still wondering about banks and Fila's Zippo I can tell but lights it anyway and one for himself while I flame another R-y-J ta kill the bad smell.. Hricko leers over at Wye who blushes for the first time this year - I'd lay 7-ta-2 on that ... and blushes ...

Nicky turns around to me. "Got the name of your clothing supplier in Georgetown?"

"Possible, Nicky ..." I should look like I'm thinkin' so a minute gets wasted. "Slipped my mind, Nicky, but I'll remember da next couple days ... or so for real sure and give ya a call ... ."

"Oh yeah ... real soon ..." He got that beard scratched down ta da red skin and below. "You do still remember how many bananas on a pallet?"

"Yeah, Nicky - 879 give-or-take the half-dozen .... what's the problem with bananas?"

"Oh ... nothing ..." Hricko and me are standin' together, now leaning on the spar and Nicky sez ..."this investigation is over."

"But ... bu ... but Lieutenant ... shouldn't we ... ?"

"You're off the Citys' nickel, Corporal Wye - so make a deposit, not a withdrawal with the next question."

Da ponytail wuz gonna think about that all night - not Nicky ... he waves to the launch and snaps copper raz inta the cell-phone and they back away, then head west churning up the smooth Cooper River to a home dock they deserved - maybe it sunk first.

Nicky waits for the silence that comes sometimes to rivers and harbors boiled white with people tryin' ta change them, then snaps at the Ponytail. "You ready to pay, for the cop-chops?"

"I didn't think you were serious, Lieutenant. I promised ... I said a lot that ... I ..."

"Pay, Corporal? You might need a loan ... from one of these gentlemen " he sez then blows a long, thin stream of smoke toward the stern of the AKKAD ... Like he wuz thinking about 24 hours long. He sez to da air ... ta nobody and that meant Hricko and me together ... "Just hypothetical now, of course gentlemen, but is there any conceivable American territory east of Charleston Harbor?"

Hricko pipes up talkin' around Nicky ta da ponytail who ain't interested but might be. "The grounds of any American Embassy are legally considered American territory. Lets say ... just hypothetically, any Caribbean embassy ... our Embassy in Haiti ... the one with two, huge, un-used warehouses ..."

"Not ta say anything got sewed there ..." I sez just ta keep matters legal when Nicky coulda been wired like an antenna searching for alien life. That puts a little smile on his face and ya could tell once the man had been young. He fumbles a word ... like maybe he'd been practicing as coppers do sometimes and got caught by honest citizens just doing a bit of duty not wrote down.

So Nicky winks twice, hits the Straight again and sez ..." and just who might be Americans on those embassy ground in Haiti ... all upright citizens of Boston ... who haven't sewn anything but Shitake mushrooms into a capon?"

"Not the Groton types, Nick." Hricko cracks da smile. "But maybe naturalized American citizens forced back home looking for work and looking for union wages."

Nicky laughed out loud. "That's one tight fit under the law, Hricko, and a lot of trouble for an American product."

"Laws shouldn't make you squeeze under them, like some streets make you mean just to walk down them. "

Maybe Hricko still wanted ta fight ... I wanted da chops ... Nicky ... da man just scratched his raw face and smiled like once he had been young. "That mean street, Hricko - the good man passes through ... a good man makes the law better. Makes it fit for people. Know anybody who might set up that kind of ... of fantasy?"

"Better talk to the Corporal, Lieutenant," sez Hricko, " because she's the one has to fit into a pair of wet-size-5s ... before she eats her chops. If she can do that, then she can make anything fit."

And they wuz wet, the Levi jeans when she bare-assed 'em on ... so Hricko the damned lying Isle-of-Palms pervo who got half-a-brain sometimes tells da story - for a while she made everything fit ...