Half an hour later, Tony, Travis and I were safely ensconced in a second floor room. Getting Travis and his bloody shoulder through reception hadn’t been as problematic as I had anticipated, although he had looked a little out of place wearing Tony’s long leather coat in this heat.
The room wasn’t exactly five-star, but it did have its own bathroom and a TV. Once we’d cleaned and bandaged Travis’s wound, we looked for ways to kill time while we waited for Frank to show up.
I lay on the bed and watched Star Trek while Travis and Tony played poker with a deck Tony had brought with him. I had declined the offer of a place at the table, figuring that anyone who carries a deck of cards even when he’s robbing a bank must know his way around a full house.
After a couple of hours, I was proved right - Travis was down three hundred dollars and Tony had run out of room on the table for his winnings and was now putting them on the bed after each hand. Every so often he would dip into this ‘bank’ in order to beef up one of his bets, but he always seemed to put more back in than he took out.
At once, Travis’s mood changed. A smug, triumphant look coated his face as he displayed a diamond flush. Tony indifferently spread a full house on the table and began to scoop his winnings up. If the knock on the door hadn’t interrupted, I have no doubt that Travis would have dived over the table and attempted to make Tony eat the cards.
I opened the door and received my second nasty shock since arriving in Halfway. I was confronted by a tall man in his fifties wearing an untidy mustache and a Chief of Police badge. He patted the buttoned holster on his belt and leaned against the doorframe. Behind him stood a much younger cop.
“Halfway Police Department,” he said. “Mind if I ask you boys a couple of questions?”
It wasn’t a request. I stepped away from the door and told them to come in. The older man introduced himself as Hardaway and eyed the room suspiciously.
“As you might have heard, we had a little incident here earlier on.”
“Yeah, I heard some guy got shot or something?” I responded, trying to balance impassive with concerned.
“Stabbed through the heart, actually,” the Chief smiled. I have never seen, nor do I hope to ever again, a more humorless smile than that one.
“Although the victim did manage to squeeze off a few rounds,” he continued. “From an unregistered gun.” He looked around the room suspiciously again, paying particular attention to Tony’s pile of bills on the bed. You like that? I thought. Try looking under the bed - there’s a black sports bag stuffed with money under there.
I glanced over at the young deputy, who remained silent, also scanning the room like a good little faux-boss. I turned back to Hardaway, looking him in the eye.
“Well, I’m sorry to hear about that, but my friends and I are just here for the night. We’ve got a long drive tomorrow, so if you don’t mind...”
I put my hand on the door handle. Hardaway stayed right where he was. The deputy glanced at my hand and then returned to quietly staring at each of us.
“We noticed your car parked across from the crime scene earlier and just wondered if you... or your friends,” he nodded at Tony and Travis, “had seen anything.”
Each of us confirmed that we hadn’t seen anything. Which, as it happened, was the truth. I smiled regretfully at the Chief and opened the door.
“Sorry we couldn’t be any more help...”
“This boy wasn’t a local,” he said, ignoring me once again. It was like holding a conversation with an ATM - Please enter information. “His drivers license says he’s a Mitch Webber from Miami. You wouldn’t happen to know him, would you?”
Shit, I thought, Mitch the fence. I think I managed to avoid looking as startled as I was, keeping my voice level.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well thank you for your time, gentlemen,” said Hardaway, moving toward the door. He looked over at Travis, eying the clean white fabric of the bandage that protruded down from the right sleeve of his T-shirt. “You had that checked out, son?”
Travis rubbed the shoulder and smiled, then responded with a calm assurance that surprised me.
“Took a spill on my motorcycle a couple of days ago, it’s okay now, thanks.”
The chief and his deputy left and I closed the door behind them, putting my ear against it until I could no longer hear retreating footsteps. Then I turned to the others, both of whom had evidently realized the severity of the situation. We just looked at each other for a few seconds before Travis quietly broke the silence.
“What the fuck do we do now?”
“We sit here and wait for Frank,” I answered. “Then we work out what the hell happened.”
Travis was sounding more than a little frantic now, in sharp contrast to the way he had spoken to the chief a moment before: “Yeah, if Frank bothers to show, that is. Where the hell is he? He was supposed to...”
Travis started as the door banged open, this time without a knock. My head snapped round and I was greeted by the sight of Frank standing in the doorway, face reddened and sweat standing out on his knotted brow. Given that Frank stood about six four, was built like a tank, and looked mean at the best of times, this was a mildly intimidating sight. Frank once told me that he had boxed in Chicago when he was younger. Looking at him now, I felt sorry for his opponents. Stan followed him into the room, a fair-haired, wholesome-looking guy in his early twenties, looking somewhat less intimidating. Stan looked like he’d be more at home handing out the shoes at a bowling alley.
“Frank,” I said evenly. “Where you been?”
“Where the hell have you been, Johnny?” he countered. “We were supposed to meet at the bar.”
“What bar? The one downstairs?”
“The one down the road,” he said as if explaining something painfully obvious. “Al’s Place.”
I flashed an enquiring glance over at Tony, who was busy counting his winnings.
“Sorry man,” he shrugged. “Must’a heard it wrong.”
I turned back to Frank. “Anyway, forget that - we’ve got bigger problems.”
“You hear about that thing at the barbers?” I asked
“Frank looked puzzled. “Some guy got shot or something?”
“No, not some guy,” I responded, “Mitch.”
He looked blank for a moment, then: “Mitch the...”
“Yeah. Mitch the Fence - Our Mitch.”
Stan shook his head and looked at the carpet. “I always figured Mitch would get a blade between his ribs someday. He pissed a lot of people off.” Stan spoke as if he’d been in this line of work for years. When did he start, I wondered, when he was eight?
“But why here? Why now?” Tony voiced what we were all thinking, concisely as always.
“I don’t know,” I looked at him, shaking my head. “But what I do know is that somebody decided to do it here, on the same day the five of us blow into town. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. And I get the feeling Chief Hardaway might agree with me.”