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Milton needed a drink badly. It was soon to be the hottest part of the day and he was already wiping sweat from his face. He was all tensed up as he stood in the lunch line. Maybe it was because he was thinking more of drink than food, and of how to acquire the necessary few dollars for it, that he picked up on what the two men were saying and acted on it.
"Someone around here can use the money," one man said to the other. "See if you can round up at least three."
The man who said this stood a few feet away from Milton - not in the line. He was a tall, thin Hispanic with dark curly hair and good-looking features with a cool, somewhat disdainful look on them. He stood with a languid air about him, slump shouldered, hands in pockets.
The man he spoke to was almost as tall, black, muscular, with a baseball cap and shades on. He nodded and moved off along the line, as if looking for someone in particular.
Milton had heard the Hispanic man mention money, and suddenly he forgot about his empty stomach. This could be a way for him to earn more than he could collecting cans for a few hours.
Milton stepped over to the man, who continued to look after the black man. Finally, the tall man looked down at Milton.
"I wasn't being nosy," Milton said, "but are you looking for people to work?"
The tall man looked at Milton coolly for a few moments.
"You looking for work?" he asked.
"Yeah, I've been looking for days."
The Hispanic man looked away again.
"I could use the dough," Milton said.
The man looked at Milton again, but still didn't say anything.
"What kind of work do you have?" Milton detected a shaky timidity in his voice that he knew came from being sick. He hoped he didn't appear too nervous.
"Cigarettes," the man said.
"Yeah, man, you know, you go down to TJ, get the smokes and come back."
"Oh, the cartons?" Milton said, for he knew several guys who went across the border every week for cheap cigarettes, and then returned to San Diego to sell them. He saw the guys selling them at the food lines, including this one.
The Hispanic man nodded and smiled, and looked for his black associate again. Milton looked with him, thinking that he would be up for a cigarette run if it meant some quick cash. He had been thinking about doing this kind of thing anyway for the past few days.
"You get fifty bucks, man," the man said, looking at Milton again.
"No kidding?" Milton definitely liked the sound of that. The most money he had made in this town in one day was thirty bucks, and that had taken him most of a day to do it. "That sounds good. Like I said, I could use the money." Milton didn't want to sound like he was pleading, but the guy must have heard desperation in his voice. He studied Milton for a moment.
"How come you're shaking, man?"
"Oh, I'm just a little nervous," Milton said. "You know, no food, no sleep." A little laugh, and a valiant attempt at a full smile.
The man nodded his head, knowingly. Fortunately for Milton, the black guy returned.
"Nobody?" the Hispanic man asked.
"It's early in the month. People got check money."
"Shit." The Hispanic continued to look around, and then looked at Milton again. "You got ID?" Milton nodded yes. "You want to earn fifty bucks?"
The man nodded, and started off across the church parking lot, with the black guy behind him. Milton followed.
The two men in the lead started down the busy street that had the city bus company on it, as well as warehouses and a government center. Plenty of street people hung around on this street, with many of them heading to the lunch line. Along the sidewalk, there were men hawking cigarettes - packs or single smokes. Milton noticed that the two men ahead of him seemed to be looking for someone they recognized; and every once in a while the Hispanic man looked back to see if Milton was still with them. Milton was excited about making fifty bucks. He imagined what he would do that evening with money in his pocket.
After the men walked four blocks on that street, they turned a corner and walked back along the next street, until the two men in the lead, who casually talked to each other as if Milton wasn't behind them, stopped at a small, beat up white car parked near a small market.
The Hispanic man leaned into the back of the car and pushed some clothes and a couple of backpacks to one side to make room for Milton. The backseat had been folded down, so that Milton actually lay across the rear compartment.
"Let's go down to the park and see if the big guy's there," the Hispanic man, driving, said.
"He said he'd be there," the black guy said. "He told me yesterday that he needed the money."
"Everybody's getting fucked up today I guess," the driver commented.
"They'll be broke in a couple days. Then you won't be able to take all of them."
The driver laughed and nodded his head. He slammed the gearshift and swung the little car fast around corners, so that Milton had to brace himself. They went as fast as they could through the downtown lights, and eventually the driver stopped the car in the parking lot next to one of the well known, waterside parks. It was the morning of a weekday, and the park wasn't filled with people yet; in fact, most of the stone picnic tables were empty. Except for one that the black man pointed out.
"There he is," the black man said.
"I just hope he isn't too drunk today," the driver said.
"Shit," the other said, with a laugh. "I've never known that man to be sober."
The two men got out of the car and walked in the direction of the figure at the table. Milton, becoming more jittery by the minute it seemed (he hadn't had a drink since the previous evening), wondered again if he had made the right decision in coming with these guys, and realized now that this might be his last chance to back out. But his alcoholic craving had already decided for him.
"Oh no," the burly, broad shouldered, florid faced man uttered, upon seeing Milton in the car. "Who the fuck is this? Shit, whattayou getting me into, man? I don't want any part of this. Shit, look at the guy."
The driver and the black man tried to placate the big, red headed, bearded man. They said some things that Milton didn't quite catch, so absorbed was he with the sudden appearance of that big, red, sweaty face, and then the loud, gruff voice that went with it. This man certainly sounded drunk, Milton thought.
"Couldn't you find somebody else?" the red headed man asked, still not getting in the car. "I mean Christ, you know he's gonna fuck things up. Man, this is the last thing I needed today. I really wanted to make some money goddammit." And that is what decided the big man in the end; the same reason Milton was in the car. The red headed guy squeezed his burly form into the small car, grumbling and cussing all the way. His body stink was almost overwhelming.
"Do me a favor, man," he said to Milton. "Just stay away from me. Don't get in my way."
The two men up front chuckled, uneasily, but Milton didn't understand the reason for the man's hostility. He had just met the guy and hadn't said more than three words to him.
"I need some beer, man," the red headed guy said. "I hope you're gonna stop at the store before we go down there. I need a couple of beers today. I ain't shittin' you."
"I wouldn't mind a couple myself," the black man said, smiling. "Whaddayou say, chief?" he said to the driver.
"Okay, we'll stop."
Which they did, at a small market, before getting on the highway. Milton hoped they would offer him a beer, but they didn't.
"You ever done this before?" the red headed guy asked Milton, after he had sucked one cold one down. Milton shook his head no. "I didn't think so. Christ." He shook his big head and laughed. "Where'd you pick him up?" he asked the driver. "Saint Vinnie's, huh?" he said, looking hard at Milton for a few moments. Milton felt too sick for a staring contest. It was just the thought of having fifty bucks in his pocket that helped soothe him now. This stinking asshole was just an inconvenience to put up with for now.
"Where's your buddy today?" the red headed guy asked the driver. "The one with the mouth."
The Hispanic man glanced in the rear view, and Milton noticed he wasn't smiling now.
"The guy whose neck I almost broke," the red headed man continued.
The black man turned in his seat and chuckled.
"What's wrong with Hector, man?" he asked. "He's all right."
"Yeah, maybe he's all right to you, but I gotta go by my experience with the fucker. I mean the only reason I didn't hit 'em that last time was because we were all in this together. We were all broke. But that guy really got on my nerves I'm telling you."
Milton already had the idea that this loud drunk next to him had difficulty getting along with plenty of people.
"I mean I know what I'm doing here," the big man said. "I've been doin' this kind of shit for years. And then that punk thinks he's gonna tell me something."
"Ah, forget about it, man," the black guy said. "He ain't here today. Things are gonna go fine, just like they always do." He grinned back at the big man.
"Let's hope so, pardner. I'm tired of being broke." He guzzled some more beer, and had some spill into his thick beard. "You can't even panhandle around here there's so many tramps around."
"I hear that," the black man said. "The law's comin' down on that shit."
"They sure as shit are," the red headed man said. "Wait 'til they get that stadium built. You might as well not even show your face downtown with a backpack on."
When they got to the border, the driver parked the car in a small lot just off a side street. From the pile of clothes in the back, he passed out loose windbreakers and flannel shirts to the other three.
"We don't want to bulk up too much," the black man said. "It's a hot day."
"Better to have it than not," the driver said.
The redhead and the black guy slipped the clothes on, and Milton followed their example.
The four men walked to the first turnstile that they had to pass through, and then another one, with none of them staying too close to each other. "Just follow us and you'll be all right," the black man had told Milton. "We've all done this before. It ain't nothin' to it." Milton didn't necessarily believe that, but he appreciated the effort made by the other man, especially as the burly loudmouth had only another warning for him: to stay away from him.
They passed Mexican border guards, but not as many as Milton figured on, and they weren't stopped. In fact, the guards barely glanced at them, if at all.
In Mexico, the four of them walked a short distance to a parking lot, where another car - a large sedan - was parked for them. Then they drove through crowded streets and a well-populated business district. Milton had been to Tijuana almost twenty years before, briefly, and he didn't recognize anything now. Although, his mind wasn't on sightseeing at the moment. He wondered why they were driving anywhere in the first place. Couldn't they have just walked to a place that sold cigarettes? He didn't recall any of the guys he knew in the cigarette business telling him of car rides in Mexico.
When the Hispanic guy turned them onto a highway, Milton became uneasy. Yet no one else was talking, so Milton kept his mouth shut. The driver dialed in a music station on the radio - Latin flavored stuff with a fast beat - and he smiled and tapped his long fingers on the wheel. I'm glad he's happy, Milton thought, looking out at rows of shabby looking apartment houses and dwellings lining the hillsides on either side of them, with clothes hanging on lines, dirt yards, loose dogs, ruined cars.
After about twenty minutes of driving, Milton wondered if they were still in the outskirts of Tijuana. He really could have used a drink now and held both hands together in a ball in his lap, so that the trembling wasn't noticeable. He didn't want to get the big redhead going again. Fortunately, a couple of the windows were halfway down, so that the redhead's smell wasn't as strong in this car.
After more than a half hour's time - or what seemed like it - they seemed to have entered another small city or big town, and the driver turned off the highway into a business area with tight, congested streets. The driver kept looking around, as if for an address. He said something to the black man, who looked around himself.
Finally, they came to their destination - a small motel with a gate at the front and a courtyard-lot behind it where cars were parked. The driver - who Milton heard the black man call Pete for the first time - got out and went to the office. He came out with a key to a room.
Milton still didn't ask any questions (something told him it was best not to at that moment) as they all got out of the car. They were greeted at an open door by two young Mexican men with closely shaved heads, wearing t-shirts and shorts. They smiled and greeted Pete in Spanish.
Inside the first small room, another young man with long hair lay on a single bed. A fan was going slowly on the ceiling, and curtains covered the one window in the room. A door opened to a small bathroom in one corner. A dresser opposite the bed had some Styrofoam food containers, paper bags and beer cans on it. The white walls looked gray in the dim light.
The big redhead walked right into the bathroom. After nodding at the Mexican guys, the black man walked into a second room, which had sunlight spilling into it. Milton nodded at everybody, and one of the young men laughed, and the others smiled. The talk continued in Spanish. Milton followed the black man into the next room.
There was a TV in here, which the black man turned on. There was also a double bed and a couple of chairs. Through the window, Milton could see the back of another building.
"Sit down and relax, man," the black guy said to Milton.
Milton sat down, for there was nothing else to do; but relaxing was out of the question. Not only was the suffering drunk trembling for lack of a drink, but he was now quite uneasy with this situation he had put himself in. Something definitely didn't feel right, with the long car ride and the secretive, edgy behavior of the black guy and the big redhead. It wasn't that they were silent - the big drunk definitely wasn't that - but nothing they had talked about revealed enough for Milton's liking.
"You gonna get us some more beer?" they heard the red headed guy say in the next room.
Pete said that he would get some, and they heard the door open and shut. The big hulk stepped into the bright TV room. He stopped still just inside the door and stared at the other two. Neither Milton nor the black man looked at the big man.
"I can't believe this," the big man said, shaking his head and smiling, and Milton had the idea that the man was laughing at him again.
It was bad enough that he was shaking for a drink, and now this loudmouth was really starting to annoy him. If Milton had had a few drinks in him, and they weren't in this strange place, he might have said something to the man, regardless of his size. There was no doubt in Milton's mind that this man was a fighter, or that he was tough (he reminded Milton of bikers he had known); but years of hard living hadn't done him any good physically, with his big belly and beat-up looks. The man had probably reached his scariest prime about ten years before and now he was definitely on the downward slide - something he probably knew quite well. Something he was ready to try and disprove at the drop of a hat.
Milton kept his eyes on the TV set: a soap opera in Spanish, it looked like. Nothing at all of interest to him, or to help him relax a little. The black man got up and changed the channels. He found a music video that he left on.
"Shit, I hope we don't have to wait here all afternoon," the redhead said. He had taken his baseball cap off and Milton noticed that his hair was thinning on top.
"That was bullshit last time," the black man said.
"Damn right it was bullshit. I'm gonna say somethin' to him about the money too. We're not gettin' enough for this shit." The big man sat in one of the chairs. "And nothing but this bullshit to watch too."
"I'm gonna say somethin' myself," the black man said. "I mean I've done this for him enough times now, I want a raise."
"He's making a shitload of money on us," the redhead said. "This fifty bucks ain't cuttin' it."
Yet neither man said anything to Pete when he came back; they were just grateful for the bag of beer he brought. There were two six packs in it, and this time Milton was offered one. He couldn't drink it too fast on his empty stomach, for he would have spit it up. Still, this was a start at getting well.
Pete had gone right back out with one of the younger guys, and the other two Mexicans stayed in the other room, eating food and drinking beer. The music on the TV was too lively for any of their tastes at the moment.
"Get this shit off, man," the big man said.
The black guy changed the channels again.
"There ain't a whole hell of a lot on," he said.
"I know there ain't. This place don't have a hell of a lot goin' for it, period."
With most of the first can gone, and the medicine working a little on his shakes, Milton felt better. He had reached a pathetic state, he thought, letting this habit bring him to this, and now what had he gotten himself into?
"Hey, man," the big man said to him. "You do know what you're bringing back over, don't you?"
Milton looked into the hard green-red eyes but didn't say anything.
"He did tell you what you're carrying, right?"
"He told me we were getting cigarettes," Milton answered, though he knew now by what the man had just said that cigarettes had nothing to do with this business. And with that realization came a sickening feeling that went much deeper than the shakes.
"Cigarettes?" the redhead asked, his can halfway from his lap to his mouth.
This had gotten the black guy's attention too.
"That's what he told me when I asked him," Milton said. "That's why I came."
"Oh Christ, that fuckin' guy," the big man said. "I can't believe this shit. Cigarettes? Can you fuckin' believe that?" He looked at the black guy.
"I can believe it, but I don't like it one bit," the black man said, and he guzzled some beer.
"Man, you better know right now you ain't carryin' cigarettes," the big guy said. "I don't care what that asshole told you. You're carryin' pot."
"Pot?" The worst had been confirmed.
"Yeah, pot," the redhead said, with the trace of a smile in his beard. "Weed. Marijuana. That's what you're gonna be carryin' over that border with you."
"Shit, he didn't say nothin' about pot," Milton said.
"Yeah I know, and I'm gonna mention somethin' about that too. He should have at least told you that." The redhead shook his head and crushed his empty can. "I don't like him playin' these games when our ass is on the line." The big guy got up and went into the other room. "Cigarettes my ass," they heard him say. "You heard that, amigo," he continued in his loud, harsh voice. "We got a guy in there thinks he's gonna carry cigarettes back with him."
Milton thought he heard one of the Mexicans laugh, maybe both. He did hear them talk in Spanish.
"I know that sounds funny to you," the big man said, "but my partner and I aren't exactly amused." The big man stepped into the bathroom again and they heard the long stream of piss.
"Don't listen to that," the black man said to Milton. "The last thing you want to be is more nervous than you already look. I noticed you're shaking pretty bad there."
"This'll help some," Milton said, holding up his can. "I needed a drink bad."
"Is that why you came along? You needed a drink?" The man smiled a little and nodded his head. He had taken off his sunglasses, and Milton could see that one eye was off, looking to the side.
"I could kick myself now."
"It's too late for that. You're here now. Have another one of those beers."
Milton didn't hesitate there. This second one would go down faster. He might actually start to feel pretty good. And then he would have to think hard about this situation and what he was going to do about it. He definitely didn't like the idea of smuggling drugs across the border. A few cartons of cigarettes were one thing, but weed was another. And at this time, only a few months after the 9-11 attacks, border security had been tightened up; there were long, slow lines going into the U.S.
The more he thought about it, the more nervous Milton became again. All he could think of was facing a prison term on a smuggling charge, and in Mexico too. He had heard horror stories about gringos doing time south of the border, and he remembered movie scenes where prisoners went through hell in foreign jails. These thoughts did nothing to soothe his jitteriness.
"You'll do all right, man," the black guy said. "There's nothin' to it. I've done it a number of times. Just do what we do. Walk right through."
Milton very much wanted to believe the man; he liked the way the man said: walk right through. And yet he thought: with my luck these guys will walk through, and something about me will attract attention. He could feel the strong, quick hands patting him down as he watched the other two disappear for good.
Redbeard came back into the room, belched loudly and reached for the beer bag again. Looking at the man, Milton wondered if he attracted the notice of the border guards with his unkempt, fairly dirty appearance. Milton figured that the long hair and beard didn't help, nor would the boozy body odor.
"All I can say, man," he said to Milton, "is you're gonna have to keep your head. You got no choice now. You're in another country. And they're gonna wrap three blocks of dope to you with tape. Right?" He looked at the black man, who nodded. Redbeard stepped close to Milton. "You're gonna have one here." He tapped Milton on the back. "And one on each side." He touched Milton under his arm. "They're gonna wrap you up real tight. And then they'll put those shirts over it. And you just walk through there like you just came over for a day at the bars. You should do all right because you look clean."
"That's what I think," the black guy said.
"Yeah, he prob'ly won't have no problem at all," Redbeard said.
Milton went and used the bathroom. In the other, dimly lit room, he noticed the man on the bed staring at him. The second man had left the room.
He splashed himself good with cold water and smoothed his hair down. He decided that he would just walk away from this. He didn't need the money that bad. He didn't know where he was, or how far from the border, but he'd rather try to hitch back than take this chance.
Milton walked right to the door from the bathroom, nodded at the man on the bed, and stepped outside into the sunshine. The second young Mexican was standing nearby in some shade next to the building, with a young woman. He seemed surprised to see Milton, and then smiled. He said something to the woman and then came over to Milton, looked at him quizzically.
"I can't do this," Milton said. "This isn't what I was told it would be. I'll find my way back."
The Mexican continued to look at him, but said nothing. He still seemed puzzled. Milton figured he couldn't be more than eighteen, if that. The room door opened behind him, and Milton saw the longhaired kid there.
"Just tell Pete I said thanks, but I can't do it," Milton said.
The man in front of him looked at the one in the doorway and smiled. Milton turned and gave the longhaired guy a little fair well wave and nod, and then he started to move toward the front gate. But the smiling young man stopped him, shook his head and lightly guided him back toward the room.
"It's all right, man," he said. "It's all right." Still, the hand remained on his back, guiding. The man in the doorway didn't have a smile on his face, however; he eyed Milton with a seriousness that Milton wouldn't have called friendly. Milton allowed himself to be brought back inside the room (something told him it would be best this way). He noticed Redbeard standing in the doorway to the next room, staring at him. The young man who had guided him back to the room stuck his head out the door and looked around to see if anybody had been watching.
"Where'd you think you were going?" Redbeard asked.
"I just wanted to get outside," was all Milton could say.
"C'mere," Redbeard said, gesturing for Milton to follow him into the TV room.
Milton reluctantly did that, and the black man was staring at him too.
"Man, do you want to live?" Redbeard asked. "Do you want to get back home alive?"
Milton nodded his head affirmatively.
"Well then, you just sit back and take it easy. You ain't goin' nowhere. These guys aren't gonna let you go. You know what I'm sayin'?"
Again, Milton nodded his head.
"You're in this now," Redbeard said. "You're goin' through with it. Have another beer if you're nervous. Christ, he looks like he's about to shake out of those clothes." He looked at the black man with a little smile.
"He needs a drink," the black man said. "He's more of a drunk than I am."
Milton gratefully took a third beer. For some reason, he felt some relief now that things were settled for him. He had no choice now; he had gotten himself into this and now he would have to live with it. The thought of being killed and his body dumped somewhere decided that. Milton felt like one of those naïve unfortunates in books and movies who get caught up in something out of their control, a Hitchcockian character. Yet just as quickly he saw himself as not being all that naïve, and definitely not innocent, but rather self-destructively desperate. He had wanted money as bad as these other guys.
He would just sit here and keep his mouth shut and hope that in a couple hours time he would be on the other side of the border, with money in his pocket, and a cold quart of beer in his hand. When, and if, he got back to San Diego, he would go to Balboa Park and flop on the grass and very much appreciate a quiet evening. He would cut back on the juice; this kind of experience could be the kick in the ass he needed.
Yet then Milton thought of the border guards again, and probing hands, and questions put to him. And the damn stupid TV program didn't help matters. It was this waiting that frustrated him, and the other two also.
Pete and the third Mexican came back after an hour and a half, which was good because the beer was gone, and the three men were quite tired of the TV and the smiling young Mexican walking in and out of the room, and trips to the john. Pete was all business now, as were the two young Mexicans, who seemed to snap out of their easygoing stupor. Pete had the longhaired one go outside to keep watch after the dope had been brought in from the car. He and the other two carried the square, flat, white packages into the second room and threw them on the bed. Milton had never seen that much pot in one place, or packaged that way for that matter. It was a plastic wrap around the bundles, to keep it dry of course. And with the pot, Pete had rolls of thick gray masking tape.
Redbeard and the black man started peeling off their shirts. "Strip down, man," Redbeard said to Milton.
"Yeah, c'mon, we gotta move," Pete said.
"He thought he was down here for cigarettes, man," Redbeard said. "Hell, he heard about this and he was out the door."
The young Mexican who had stopped Milton from going said something in Spanish to Pete, who looked seriously at Milton.
"That's a good way to get fucked up," he said. The brown eyes no longer held any amusement.
"That's what I told him," Redbeard said.
"I'll be all right," Milton said (four beers had had the desired effects). "Let's just get it over with."
"Do him first," the black guy said, nodding at Milton.
"You don't have to take your pants off, man," Redbeard said, shaking his head, and they all laughed. Milton had had his pants to his knees.
They moved the TV and the chairs out of the way, and positioned Milton in the middle of the room. One of the Mexicans held one of the white packages against Milton's back, at the base. They had Milton hold his arms up, and Pete moved around Milton a few times, pulling the tape tight as he wrapped.
"Ol' Pete knows how to wrap 'em up, don't he?" the black guy said.
"Yeah, but that little guy ain't no problem," Redbeard said. "Wait'll he gets to me."
Then came the other two packages against Milton's ribs, with Pete going around and around Milton, and the Mexican holding Milton still. This was a whole new sensation for Milton and an awkward feeling at that. He couldn't help but think that this added bulk would be noticeable even with some loose shirts over it, particularly with someone of his small size. It must not have looked right at first, for Pete made him take one of the three shirts off, and then played with the clothing a little.
"Keep fluffing it up," he said to Milton.
One of the young Mexicans said something in Spanish, and Pete smiled.
"He says you look like a football player," Pete said. "Just keep fluffing it and you'll be all right."
Milton went to the bathroom to look in the mirror. He really couldn't see much because the mirror wasn't big enough.
When he went back in the TV room they were wrapping up the black man. And then there was some difficulty in making Redbeard look good because he was so heavy to begin with. Every few minutes, Pete sent one of the Mexicans to look out the door. Milton wondered how often they used this place for business. For a moment he imagined a group of armed men in uniform coming through the door, but quickly put that out of mind as best he could. Again he thought of getting back to San Diego, and how he would enjoy himself with a good meal (no food line tonight) and maybe a bottle of top shelf whisky. No, he shouldn't be thinking along those lines at all. That's why he was here.
Fortunately they had the bigger car for the ride back, for with the extra padding it was a tight fit with the three mules in the backseat. Milton found himself sitting on the edge of the seat to accommodate his rigidity.
Pete and two of the young Mexicans sat up front, and they spoke a little Spanish to each other, but other than that it was a quiet ride. The three men in the backseat knew that the time for talking was over. It was show time.
The car was parked. Pete looked Milton over and told him to fluff his shirts again. "Stay with me," he said, and led Milton toward the long, slowly moving line. There were plenty of people around who weren't in line, of every age. The line was on one side of a metal railing, and eventually led up a ramp into a long corridor, and then the customs building itself.
The black guy had gotten in the line first, and then Redbeard, after he let a few people go ahead of him. Then it was Milton's turn, after some more people went in front of him. Pete remained on the other side of the fence, looking up ahead of them. Some teenage kid came up to Milton on a bike and said something that Milton didn't catch. Milton stopped, but Pete urged him on.
As he stood in line, feeling sweaty and a little shaky again, Milton kept his eyes on the broad, windbreaker-covered back of Redbeard, about ten people in front of him. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of the black man. He never had found out either of their names, but that was probably how they liked it.
The line did keep moving slowly; it never stopped for any length of time. Milton was still nervous, but not as much as he had been back in the motel room when he had first found out about the pot business. He figured that if these two guys in front of him hadn't been lying to him about their previous experience, and they were going through with it again, then it might not be as bad as he thought. He certainly looked clean cut compared to Redbeard, and his looks had always worked in his favor when it came to the cops.
The black guy went through one of the checkpoint-counters without any problem and this definitely made Milton feel easier. Yet just after that, it was Redbeard's turn at another counter, and just after he had stepped through, one of the guards asked him to step to the side.
"What?" Redbeard said in his gruff voice that carried. The guard led him off to the side to where some other guards stood. "What's the matter?"
It looked to Milton like the one guard had his hand right on the package on Redbeard's back. Milton could feel Redbeard's fear from across the room. And now Milton himself was only two people from an official. He suddenly thought about drug dogs (he had forgotten about them) and his nerves seemed to have gotten an electric charge.
Milton had his ID out for the guard, as Pete had instructed him. A young, Hispanic man, who looked the card over briefly.
"What brings you down here?" the guard asked.
"Just visiting for the day," Milton said with a little smile.
And that was it, no problem at all. Still, he wasn't jubilant yet. He wasn't outside the building yet, he wasn't in the open air. He couldn't help but glance in Redbeard's direction, and was glad to see that the big man was being allowed to walk away. He felt elated for the man, though a couple hours earlier he hadn't cared for him at all.
Milton just kept walking, as unhurriedly as he could, and was glad to be out in the sunshine again. He went with the flow of traffic until the black guy called to him. He was standing next to a phone booth with a Hispanic man.
"Pete'll be along in a minute," the black guy said.
Redbeard then joined them.
"Jesus Fuckin' Christ," he growled. "I thought they had me there, man. I thought those fuckers had my ass."
"Man, I thought they had you," Milton said. He could see that the man was still shaken up.
"The fucker had his hand right on it," Redbeard said. "I can't believe they let me go."
"They stopped you?" the black man asked, though his eyes kept looking for Pete.
"Fuck yeah, that's what I'm telling you. I told them I had a back brace on. And they let me go."
"You're goddamn lucky," the black man said.
"I still can't believe it, man," Redbeard said. "Had his hand right on the thing."
"I saw it," Milton said, and the big man looked at him. But the condescension and contempt were gone now in the big, sweaty red face. They were equals for the moment.
"You saw it, didn't you?" Redbeard said.
"Man, I was happy for you when I saw you walkin' away," Milton said, grinning.
"Man, where is that fucker?" Redbeard said, smiling as he looked around for Pete. "I want to get rid of this shit while my luck's still goin'."
"C'mon, Pete," the black man said.
"He'll be here," the Hispanic guy said.
And then he was. Pete led them quickly to that short side street that they had driven down earlier that day, to the small parking lot and the small white car. Milton had been the first to be wrapped up, but he was the last to be cut loose.
"C'mon, man, c'mon," Pete said, looking around from the car. This was where it got risky for him again.
Milton was concerned with being cut with the box cutter, but Pete was a pro in getting the tape off too. He then covered the weed with blankets, locked the car doors, and hustled Milton away from the vehicle. While they were in the car, Pete had handed Milton a baggy of weed. "It's yours, man," he said. A bonus.
Pete went into a store to cash a hundred dollar bill.
"Never mind cashing the goddamn thing, he ought to give us one of those each," Redbeard said. "This fifty bucks is bullshit."
"Damn right it's bullshit," the black man said, his shades back on again.
"I'm not doin' this again for this bullshit," Redbeard said. "They almost had my ass today. Fuck that."
"I'm gonna have me a talk with Pete, 'cause this shit ain't gonna happen anymore at this price," the black man said.
Pete came out and paid them, and Milton didn't hear either of the two men say anything, other than Redbeard asking where the nearest beer store was.
"You wanna do it again?" Pete asked Milton. He was smiling now.
"I don't know, guy. I'll have to think about it." Milton could see that the man knew this to be a no. "You know where I'll be at though."
"All right, man."
Redbeard had the right idea. Where was that beer store?
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