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Page 4

"Seems a lot of cash, just to carry a bag." Something was wrong here, I could feel it, and anyway The Chicken wasn't famed for generosity.

"Oh you'll earn it all right. I ain't no charity." He sucked and chewed on the dead cigar butt, sliding it slowly across his mouth like a spider digesting a fly." For a start it's life if the cops catch you, and death or something worse if other guys do. So you'll have to get in and out fast. But if you play it right you might get home free, then you can call off those nightmares before they find you." He made a slobbering sound I took for laughter, checked his watch and released the brakes of his chair. "Well? I ain't hanging around all day. You want the job or not?"

I took a deep breath. What the hell, the way things were what choice had I got. "OK, count me in." I hoped the tremble in my voice didn't show. "Where do I make the drop?"

"Right now the less details you know the better. Just stay sober for fuck's sake and make damn sure you're ready and waiting in that rat hole you call a home at ten tonight. The Hump here will bring the merchandise and give you instructions then. And remember, once the job's done, we never met till I tell you different." The Chicken signalled to the skinny dwarf with a hunchback and anthropoid arms who had materialized from the shadows. Then, ignoring me, sat back in his chair as The Hump, deftly flexing his arms every other step to sight the way, propelled him swiftly through the tables to the exit.

Now that I was committed everything felt different somehow and I didn't know how to occupy myself. I checked my watch. Five long hours to wait. Force of habit walked me to the bar and another Slitz, but though ice cold, this beer tasted metallic and I left most of it untouched. As I headed for the door I could feel Castro's eyes on my back following me out. It wasn't often I left a drink so I guess he was curious. But then knowing him, he would have noted my talk with The Chicken and realized something was up. Probably knew what it was too, which was more than I did. For no reason a cold shiver ran down my back.

I walked aimlessly through the streets making the most of the cooling breeze. Each evening it came without fail, quitting the ocean just long enough to wipe the heat from the sidewalks before dying away without warning to leave the city sweating and sweltering again under another hot airless night. Thunder rumbled far out at sea. With luck we were in for one of those flash storms that hit without warning in mid summer. They didn't last long either, a few hours at most, but long enough to kill the dust and bring the desert flowers into bloom for a couple of days like in the spring. I found myself standing by the hot dog stall on the corner of my apartment block. Strange how we head for home when our minds are preoccupied, maybe we still have a little racing pigeon in our genes. I ordered a dog with all the trimmings and carried it up to the one room apartment. But my stomach was knotted with fear of things to come and the smell of the onions made me sick. I dropped the dog down the wall trash and lay down on the bed, staring out of the window, watching the gathering dusk turn to night and wondering what dawn would bring.

I must have dozed off for when I opened my eyes the room was dark barring a pool of neon from the eatery across the street flickering on the only armchair. It was him of course, dapper as ever and still wearing that silly hat perched on his head. But this time he wasn't smiling. This time as he leaned forward the face was white and puckered. This time he looked really scared.

"You can't go through with this Joe, call it off for pity's sake, get away from here. Leave right away, don't bother to pack, just go, go this minute. Get down to the train or bus station and buy a ticket on anything that's going anywhere, but get yourself out of here and do it fast. There's no more time Joe, please for both our sakes don't let it happen. Whatever you do don't let this happen."

There was a knock on the door and the thin reedy voice of The Hump shrilled. "Let me in boy, it's time. Open the door and let me in."

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