The last of his bourbon glowed in the sunlight. Johnny drank it neat. No mint juleps this time of year. It was already November, but it settled in nice and easy here, nothing like the Chicago winters he was used to. Christmas would be pretty here. Johnny had spent every holiday for the last decade with Luther and his family.
The sky was a clear, frosty blue that hurt to look at. Johnny folded the clipping again and stuck it back in his pocket.
Kids ran past, laughing. It was a beautiful day to be alive. That blue stared down at him, and he stared at the pavement. Walking alone, he could be himself again and not the wealthy Northern entrepreneur with more dreams than sense. He remembered Gondorff's eyes. They were the exact color of the sky, and Johnny was a lousy poet. Probably why he'd never had any luck with the girls. With Gondorff, he'd been lucky.
For a brief, shining moment, Johnny Hooker had touched something larger than himself—and no, it wasn't that. (He measured up fine in that department, and anyway, that was later.) Gondorff had been a rabbit's foot as well as a horse's ass, a great teacher, the guy who ditched him, and a page three story about an arrest gone wrong.
Johnny shuffled along, kicking at the leaves. He'd been out here a few months, so far off the beaten track that there was nobody to tell him the news. He'd had to read it in the paper. Gondorff had been down near the border, running an oil scam. The Feds got wise, not just to the scam but to Gondorff's real identity, and things went south. Johnny was headed south too, but first, he spent a couple of days wrapping up his business. A professional didn't leave things undone.
But all that was later still.
Johnny would have followed him anywhere. In the end, he followed him to the train station. He offered to come along. Partners was what he'd wanted to say and a lot of other things besides, but there were people all around and the train about to leave.
Gondorff turned him down flat.
Johnny stood on the platform, like a chump, as the train rolled away. Those were the last words they'd exchanged.
That was before.
Johnny stood there now, in an old Mexican graveyard, looking down at a double grave. 'Maria Rosa Herrera' the inscription read, and next to it, there was a fresh headstone with the name 'Johann Schmidt'.
Whatever Johnny was looking for, it wasn't in that grave. He'd caught a glimpse of it a couple of times during the Lonnegan con. It was like that feeling of walking down a dark alley and sensing the walls towering over you even though it was too dark to see. Or maybe it was like the guy you knew was tailing you even though you couldn't spot him. But the con had ended before the feeling had caught up with Johnny, and he still wasn't sure what it looked like out in the light. Maybe he didn't want to know. Maybe he couldn't stand not to. That itching sense of something had chased him down to Texas and across the border.
"I don't know what more I can tell you, Mr. Jones." The priest hovered at Johnny's side.
His English was good. Better than Johnny's Spanish anyway. The bulk of the church rose behind them, cutting off the noise of town. Beautiful, feathery trees rose around them. Jacarandas, apparently. They would bloom in the spring and carpet the ground in flowers. It was peaceful, and maybe Maria Rosa had been someone to Gondorff. He'd have no reason to tell Johnny either way. The itch was still there between Johnny's shoulder blades.
"Will you meet up with his uncle while you are here?" the priest asked.
And there it was: his grifter's instinct saying something was off. Something didn't fit.
"The argentine. He sponsored young Johann to go to university in your country, yes?"
I'll just bet he did, Johnny thought. The birthdate on Johann's gravestone made him younger than Johnny was now.
Johnny eyeballed the pale stone facade from across the street. Somebody washed the grime off this old building pretty often, and that cost money anywhere. A series of graceful arches and pillars made up a colonnade across the front of the building, so you could stroll along in the shade. The front doors were still locked up tight.
Johnny wiped his forehead. Early December in central Mexico wasn't sweltering, but it didn't feel much like winter either. The weather was as mixed up as he felt. He went off to find himself a cold drink and a monkey suit.
He came back when the stars and the red carpet were out. A pair of bouncers with necks the size of his waist guarded the entrance. They'd stuck a couple of palms in pots out too. Like he'd thought: a class joint. Johnny knew how to look the part now. He had the togs, and he sailed in. The gorillas at the door barely glanced at him.
The interior was dark and intimate. Couples whispered endearments in each others ears at tables clustered around a dance floor. Others danced to a slow tango. The band was pretty good he thought, but Johnny didn't have much of an ear for music. Archways in two walls led deeper into the club.
A few pesos to a waiter got him pointed towards the bar in a quiet back room. This was where the unattached men came to talk business. A man lounged there against the walnut expanse of the bar in a set of evening gear that made Johnny's look like rags. Johnny could see the edge of his van dyke beard and one arm of his spectacles. That matched the description of the uncle.
More potted palms screened the corridor to the john. Johnny sidled up behind them until he was close enough to eavesdrop.
The uncle was speaking to the bartender in a throaty accent. His voice sent shivers up Johnny's spine. Johnny only knew a bit of Spanish, and he didn't know a damn thing about Argentina. He'd swear he'd never heard that voice before, except the itch was still there.
While he was debating what to do, a slick customer strolled up to the bar. The new man was dressed to a tee in the style of the local Mexican swells. The cut of the suits here was a little different. Just a few months ago, Johnny wouldn't have noticed.
The two men greeted each other in Spanish. The newcomer gestured to the bartender who got down a bottle of something. The uncle laughed. As he turned in his seat, the light caught his spectacles, hiding his eyes for a moment. When Johnny caught a look at them, they were blue, so blue he could tell even in the dim nightclub. The mouth under that ridiculous beard was familiar.
Until this moment, Johnny couldn't have told anyone what Gondorff's mouth looked like. If someone had asked him, he'd have said he wouldn't recognize the man in a good disguise, but he'd memorized that subtle curve of his lips some time without noticing. Even with a solid covering of facial hair, Johnny knew Gondorff's face instantly—and was that beard real or pasted on, he wanted to know.
The two men bent their heads together, chatting too quietly for Johnny to hear and in Spanish that was too fast and colloquial for him anyway the couple of times he did. Johnny took a turn around the place before a waiter could catch him lurking. His heart was beating hard enough it was a wonder nobody else heard it.
He should get Gondorff alone, find out what the game was. Or would Gondorff give him the brush-off again?
On the dancefloor, the tango had picked up. Johnny watched the dancers whirl. A singer in a dark dress crooned about tragedy. It made Johnny's guts knot up. Gondorff had as good as told him to scram. Some people work better alone, my ass, Johnny thought. They'd made a good team. They'd both felt it. He'd thought they'd both felt it. But on the platform, Gondorff's expression had said there was no point arguing, and Johnny couldn't face that again.
He swung back by the bar, undecided.
Johnny could see the Mexican swell's expression from the doorway. A greasy politician looked at a chorus girl that way. It was half appropriate: the swell could easily be a politician himself. The guy leaned forward and put his hand on Gondorff's knee. The back of Gondorff's head didn't tell Johnny much, but the way he tensed, then relaxed back into that hand said plenty. Johnny hoped he was acting.
Gondorff made some excuse and walked, just a shade too quickly, towards the john. He disappeared behind the row of potted greenery. Johnny hesitated.
Gondorff's buddy signalled the bartender for another. He didn't look too put out to be deprived of his prey. Maybe he knew Gondorff would be back.
Johnny was no chorus girl, but he'd had to move plenty of hands off of his knee. It was the curse of being young and looking younger. The crooked politician types liked them green, naive, and friendless. Johnny had been that kid once until Luther had come knocking with a phoney telegram. He'd dragged Johnny out of that suite before they'd gotten past the room service and pawing part of the evening. Johnny'd had an idea, generally, what the mark wanted. The only detail he'd been interested in was the steak dinner for two. Luther took him somewhere for a strong drink and a stronger lecture. The longer he talked, the queasier Johnny got. Afterwards, he tried to look older, and he always moved the hands.
None of that described Gondorff. Even falling down drunk, nobody'd ever mistake him for naive. Cleaned up, he oozed sauveness and savoir faire and all that other French hoopla Johnny couldn't pronounce. In the specs and face fungus, he was practically distinguished. So why the hand on the knee?
The mark took something from his pocket. He tipped it into the drink.
Johnny might have missed it except for the little flash of a white pocket handkerchief as he got whatever it was. The mark was smooth about it too, like he'd practiced. The little vial—it was probably a vial—was in and out of his pocket in a couple of seconds. The bartender had turned away. Gondorff was answering the call of nature.
Johnny stepped forward.
The mark spotted him as soon as he started moving towards the bar. His dark eyes came up, then slowly down, assessing the goods. That was more like it. Johnny was back on familiar ground. He took Gondorff's stool and signalled for the bartender.
"Una… uh… cerveza?" He didn't have to fake the bad accent.
The mark chuckled. "You Americans and your beer," he said.
The mark waved the bartender away, not that the guy had hopped to to get Johnny's beer in the first place. Johnny looked over. The mark was smiling at him. It was one of those fake nice smiles with something hungry under it. Johnny usually got hit with one right before the hand on the knee. The mark was in better shape than most of the past smilers, ten years younger and fifty pounds lighter. He looked like he ate his spinach, though with those manicured hands, he didn't do anything Johnny would classify as real work. His suit reeked money, which explained what Gondorff wanted with him, but not what he wanted with Gondorff.
Johnny smiled back.
"You shouldn't drink the beer here. It is terrible."
The mark had a neat little mustache and hair slicked back tight with pomade. He might have been handsome if he'd been a pal and not the kind of guy who put things in people's drinks.
"Yeah?" Johnny smiled some more, a lost little lamb to whatever hunk of mutton Gondorff was playing today. He could almost see the wheels turning in the mark's head.
"Here." The mark pushed the doctored glass towards Johnny. "This will, as you Americans say, put hair on your chest."
Johnny eyed the glass. All right, so it wasn't poison, and it wasn't a standard mickey that would put him out at the bar. Both would be stupid, careless, and most of all pointless with a total stranger. Well, there was one way to find out what the mark was trying to dope Gondorff with, and that was to drink.
He picked it up. It smelled like medicine. Tasted like it too.
The mark laughed at his expression. "Fernet can be an acquired taste."
"Back home, I'm lucky to get bathtub gin."
Johnny took another sip. It was herbal. Nasty. He was probably too unsophisticated to get it.
"Pedro Mendoza." The man held out a hand. "Welcome to Mexico."
"Sam Johnson," Johnny said, picking the first thing that came to mind.
They chatted for a while about nothing much. Johnny wondered where Gondorff had gotten off to. Mendoza kept asking Johnny about himself. Johnny remained deliberately evasive. He was staying in Mexico for some time. He didn't have steady employment. Yes, his suit was rather nice, wasn't it. Yes, this was his first night in the Cha Cha Club. The drink went down easy, despite the nasty taste. Johnny relaxed. Whatever was in it was giving him a nice buzz.
Mendoza watched it disappear down the hatch. The gears were turning again; it gave him a crafty look. Johnny would love to play him at poker. He was probably terrible and thought he was great—that was probably still true of Johnny himself, but he didn't choose to dwell on it.
"You saw my friend, I think," Mendoza said.
It should have made Johnny nervous. He hadn't meant to be seen lurking around. "Your friend?" he stalled.
"A middle aged gentleman. You took his seat."
Johnny licked his lips.
"No, no, I'm not angry. You saw that I was lonely, and you came to visit me. I would never be angry at such a charming companion."
He put his hand on Johnny's knee. Johnny nearly giggled.
"You see, my friend is… grieving. He came here to bury his beloved... nephew." He drew the word out. "They were inseparable—traveled the world together. Such a tragedy."
Older guy with money dragging his 'nephew' around, yeah Johnny saw. And Mendoza saw that he did.
"I would like to cheer him up. Perhaps you would like to help too?"
That was a business proposition. Maybe Johnny hadn't seemed as naive as he'd hoped.
"I need someone to be his Johann. His John. Just for the evening."
Johnny blinked. John? "I'm always happy to help out a friend," he said. "A generous friend."
"I see we understand each other."
Johnny slipped the greenbacks into his jacket. Good old US dollars, popular the world around. The bartender was still ignoring them, either busy or smart enough to scram.
"Ah, Heinrich." Mendoza turned.
Gondorff had finally emerged from the toilets. He didn't seem to have fallen in, but the trip hadn't done him any good either. He stared at Johnny like something was giving him indigestion.
"Hey." Johnny saluted with his drink. It was mostly gone. He felt great. "I like the glasses," he said. He did too. They made Gondorff look like a stern bookkeeper. The beard framed his mouth. His lips glistened where he ran his tongue over them.
"Who's this?" he asked Mendoza in a peevish voice.
Mendoza got to his feet. He helped Johnny up from the stool; the floor swayed oddly as though they were on the deck of a ship. Gondorff caught him under the other arm. His blue eyes snapped concern. Johnny winked at him and smothered another giggle.
"For tonight," Mendoza said, "Let's call him John."
Johnny laughed as they steered him out of the club.
Gondorff's worried face came into view. "He seems to be intoxicated, Don Pedro," he said over his shoulder.
"Just Pedro tonight."
"Damn it, kid," Gondorff said, too low for Mendoza to catch. His eyes scanned Johnny's face.
Johnny made the signal with his finger along his nose.
Ice clinked. Mendoza slithered into view with a couple of martinis. One had olives, the other onions on a skewer. Gondorff didn't let him have either. He slapped Johnny's hand away and snagged the olive one for himself.
"You've had plenty," he said.
"He is like your nephew, no?" Mendoza rested his chin on Gondorff's shoulder, looking down at Johnny. "You described him like this. Blond. So American."
Johnny grinned up at them. "Heya, Uncle Henry," he said. It was supposed to be Heinrich. Oops. He would have apologized, but he got distracted by Mendoza's arm helping up. It was nice and warm and steady as it steered him towards the bedroom.
"Remember what we discussed," Mendoza hissed in his ear.
Henry trailed after them. "Don Pedro, really…"
Johnny turned. Whether it was the Fernet or the little something extra, he felt on top of the world. His feet were less of a sure thing: He tried to kneel down to make good on his part of the bargain. Instead, he tripped and sent both himself and Henry toppling backwards onto the bed.
Henry was a line of tension under him. Johnny ran his hands over his chest. Henry's heart was rabbiting away, but there was nothing wrong with all that lean muscle under his shirt. "Relax," Johnny mouthed into his ear.
Henry's hands felt even better as he rolled Johnny off of him. The same moldings stared down at him in here. It was weird the little details you remembered.
"He's… different," Henry said.
"Is he?" That was Mendoza's face overhead, blocking some of the molding. Johnny smiled beatifically up at him. "Your description was vivid," Mendoza went on. "I'd have said he was the spitting image of your Johnny."
Henry made a noise. Johnny looked over. Mendoza had his hand down Henry's pants, moving things along. Huh. He wanted to rewind the conversation a sentence or two.
Henry's eyes locked with his. Whatever he saw on Johnny's face must not have reassured him much because he disengaged Mendoza's hand. "He's nearly unconscious," he said. "Not with an unconscious man." He signalled with his eyebrows.
It might have meant faint or play along or I'm the Emperor of San Francisco. Johnny didn't much care which. He was more interested in watching Henry's face. The beard would take some getting used to.
"I'm fine," Johnny said. That was true. He felt amazing, all loose and relaxed, like he could just float away while they watched him—but not with Mendoza pawing at Henry, like he showed every sign of doing again. "Gimme," Johnny said. He reached for Henry's belt.
Henry stepped back. "No," he said.
Mendoza sighed. "I promised our young friend an evening of company. If you cannot oblige, perhaps I can."
Johnny frowned. Mendoza was handsome enough now that he was in the right light, but he didn't have a patch on Henry. His eyes weren't that bluest blue. His fingers weren't long and slender like that. He didn't have his intense eyes or his quick wit. Not that Henry's wit was much on display now with him gaping like a beached fish. What had he been thinking with this Johann Schmidt stuff? Did Germans find 'John Smith' any more plausible? Had he really described him like Johnny? Henry obviously needed some help on this operation. It was a good thing Johnny was here. He laughed again.
Henry licked his lips. "He is very like," he admitted finally.
Henry had an accent. Johnny hadn't noticed it before. He spoke English like an Argentinian—at least, that's what Johnny figured it was. Johnny himself had never been further south than this bed.
Johnny felt hands on his belt buckle. Mendoza? No, Henry, so that was all right then. Henry fished him out. He knelt, looking down at Johnny for a long minute. Johnny kept glancing from his eyes—painfully blue—to his hand—deliciously tight. "I'm supposed to be the one…" He flapped a hand in the general direction of the proceedings.
"Ah hell," Henry said. "Johnny."
He bent low. His lips grazed the crown of Johnny's cock, and then he swallowed it whole. Jesus. He put several dancers of Johnny's acquaintance to shame.
Johnny forgot all about Mendoza, about whatever con Henry was running, about calling Henry 'Heinrich' or 'uncle' or anything else but: "Henry, Henry, Henry!"
Henry dumped him down in a chair and went to put the coffee on. It was a nice chair. Nice and flat. The table was nice and flat too. "Chicago," Johnny said while his cheek got acquainted with the wood grain.
"No, no, don't go to sleep." Henry prodded him back upright. "You're not in Chicago anymore, and I don't know what he gave you."
"Whatever it was he was going to give to you. You might say thanks."
Henry scrubbed his hands over his face. "If he'd given it to me, the photos would be of me and him instead of me and you." He went back to the kitchen, muttering to himself. Rearranging the con, probably, whatever it was. It was bad form for a grifter to barge in in the middle of another man's play. Johnny didn't regret a thing.
"Blackmailer?" he asked.
"One of the worst."
"What's in the grave?"
"Nothing, now." Henry bustled back in with the coffee. "It was the grave next to it. I have a couple of unorthodox spots for my retirement funds. Never mind."
Johnny drank his coffee. Slowly, his brain drained of sludge, and he could think again. Nothing came rushing back at him. He felt pretty mellow considering there were photographs out there. They'd deal with that later. More importantly, Henry was the kind of guy who put his hand on other fellows' knees and a lot of other places besides. Johnny was feeling surprisingly mellow about that as well. Apparently, Luther's lecture had skipped over some of the good bits.
Henry leaned against the wall, watching Johnny. He had a crease between his eyebrows and a face like he was trying to stay calm and failing. Johnny didn't like that look at all. Henry hadn't looked like that in the hotel room, had he? He hadn't from Johnny's perspective, not once he'd gotten going, but he'd never seemed like the kind of fellow who ran around pining after spurious and suspiciously-named nephews either.
"You know, I never did give you your money's worth."
Henry sucked in a breath. "Jesus, kid. I don't pay for it."
"No, your dear friend did." Johnny set down the coffee cup and stood. "Apparently, you're in a decline and need cheering up."
"Oh, is that what he said?"
"He spun me a real sob story. Very tragic. Romantic and everything. Being recently bereaved, I could relate."
Henry raised his eyebrows.
"See, an old buddy of mine kicked the bucket, and I had to read about it in the paper."
That got him a startled stare. "Billie could have told you," Henry said. "Or Twist."
"Yeah, well, I didn't hear it from them, now did I? Nobody told me a damn thing. So if you want to feel guilty for something, you can forget about the hotel room and worry about that instead."
Henry was still propping up the wall. Johnny prowled over to him.
"He must have been some nephew. Johann, was it?"
"What, now you're allergic to my first name? Or are you trying to get cute?"
Well, he knew how to fix that. Johnny sank to his knees. It was a lot easier when he wasn't doped to the gills.
Henry put out a hand. "You don't owe me," he said.
"Damn right, I don't. Not after a stunt like this and not even telling me you were doing it."
Henry tried again. "A grifter doesn't earn his lunch on his knees." His hand shook a little against Johnny's cheek. Johnny nuzzled it. "C'mon, kid. Get up."
Henry's tone said it was final and no arguing, just like the last time he'd run off, but Johnny was eye-to-eye with a compelling counterargument. He was starting to think he'd missed a thing or two on that train platform.
"I wasn't always a grifter," Johnny said. "You get hungry enough, you start considering other options." He stroked the front of Henry's slacks.
Henry's dick liked that fine, but his face still had that awful look all over it. Johnny sighed.
"Will you stop worrying if I tell you Luther put a stop to my budding career before it could even get started?"
"Luther told me you used to… that you…"
Along with his miserable expression, things were getting decidedly less interesting in parts south. Johnny got to his feet, but he didn't move back: Henry looked like he might bolt if given the chance. Johnny searched his face.
"Luther warned you off?"
"I wasn't always as discreet. He knew about my… tastes."
"I wish somebody'd told me. I didn't even know guys like you and guys like Mendoza… I mean, I only ever heard about old guys and hustlers before."
Henry laughed bitterly.
"I didn't mean you. You're not old!"
"And I'm not that young. Jesus, Henry."
Did you want that before, he wanted to ask. Is that why you left? But it was pretty obvious the answer was yes. Johnny did feel like a kid—not to mention a chump.
"You want to know the honest truth? Luther pulled me out by my ear the first time I ever tried it. I hadn't thought anything much about it in years until tonight. So whatever memory you think you're stirring up, it ain't there."
"It ain't… That was your first time."
Johnny threw up his hands. "Oh, now you're trying to make me feel like a dumb kid. Shut up and come here." He wrapped a hand around the back of Henry's skull and reeled him in.
Johnny might not know some of Henry's fancy tricks, but he'd had no complaints from dames. Henry had no complaints either when Johnny finally let him come up for air. Johnny slid down to his knees again and got to work before Henry could get any more stupid ideas. A grifter's timing was everything, and theirs, frankly, stunk. Johnny was fixing that, starting now.
Johnny unzipped him. Christ, Henry was a handful up close and personal like this. He was heavy and salty and hot on Johnny's tongue. The smell of his arousal was getting Johnny excited, but with such a big job Johnny needed both his hands for the task, and he still drooled all over himself. Johnny was sloppy and winded by the time Henry finished and so busy trying not to screw it up that he hadn't given himself any relief. He whimpered when Henry slid down beside him and took matters in hand. Johnny moaned into his collar and said a lot of things that would probably embarrass them both later.
After, he lay there shell shocked and filthy and really happy for the first time since that damn newspaper clipping. He finally took in the room. There was greenery up and a nativity scene made out of clay painted bright colors. There was a tree: a big evergreen that must have cost a bundle in Mexico. It was covered in tinsel. Johnny ticked off the days in his head.
"It's Christmas Eve," he said. "I'll be damned."
Henry laughed. "Probably, but not for a little holiday cheer."
"Where the hell are we anyway?"
"Uncle Heinrich's humble abode," Henry said. "At least for the duration of my business here."
"You've got a tree."
Henry chuckled. "Well, I am German, after all. By way of Argentina."
"Yeah? You got a passport and everything?"
"As a matter of fact I do."
"And no more feds?"
"And no more feds. Chicago's too hot right now, and probably Texas. I was thinking…" His voice got tentative. "We could head out to California."
We, huh? Johnny grinned. "I've never been to California," he said and kissed him. "Merry Christmas, Henry."
"Merry Christmas, kid."
The mysterious odors of the East pervaded the other room, meaning it stunk of incense worse than a whorehouse does of cheap perfume, and the smell had wormed its way in here to the combination supply closet and green room.
Johnny pinched his nose to ward off a sneeze. "You're sure you have enough blood?"
"Enough to play five Banquos."
In the other room, Twist intoned something about violent death and the unquiet dead. The members of the séance sighed as one.
"Showtime," Johnny said. They grinned at each other.
♥♣ The End ♦♠