Excerpt from THE AXE
Asbury Park, New Jersey
Early Sunday Morning
Melvin Tolliver scanned the sidewalks on both sides of Springwood Avenue as he drove the Coupe De Ville slowly up the street, looking for the hooker. The Caddy wasn’t his; everyone knew that. But driving for Rollo gave him a certain prestige and a little bit of power, even though he was only twenty-one years old. Nobody messed with Rollo’s driver, because nobody messed with Rollo.
It was just past 6:00 A.M. and cold as hell outside, so no one was out yet to see him cruising in the Cadillac. Melvin didn’t care. He was only looking for one person this morning.
He didn’t see her on his first pass up the street, so he made a U-turn at the intersection at Main Street and headed back. Then he spotted her almost immediately, coming up a side street from the direction of the train station.
She walked hunched over with her arms wrapped around herself against the freezing cold. Melvin thought that her arms probably did a better job keeping her warm than the thin sweater she was wearing over her cocktail dress. His heart went out to her, for more than one reason.
She spotted the Caddy and waved in case he didn’t see her, and then wrapped her arm back around herself. As he pulled to the curb she shuffle-ran up the sidewalk, trying not to stumble in her high heels. Melvin hoped she wouldn’t fall. It hurt like hell to get a scrape when it was cold outside.
As she neared the car Melvin noticed that her high heels were the toeless, sexy kind. He turned up the temperature on the Cadillac’s heater for her.
Inez reached the Coupe de Ville, yanked the back door open and almost dived into the rear seat. She slammed the door shut, shivered and said, “Lord have mercy it’s cold out here! Turn the heat up, Mel.”
Melvin smiled at her in the rearview mirror. “I just did. You’ll be warmed up in no time, Inez.”
“Shoot, it’s going to take me all day to thaw out.”
“You don’t have all day. He’s waiting at the diner. Want me to stop somewhere so you can get some coffee or tea first? Or maybe some breakfast? You hungry?”
“No Mel, I’m fine. Let’s just go on so I can get this over with and get some sleep.”
Melvin drove slower than he had when he was looking for her because he was looking more in the rearview mirror now than at the street in front of him. He couldn’t help it, because Inez was so pretty. She had smooth skin that reminded him of those little caramel candies wrapped in cellophane. Her hair was jet black – good hair that fell halfway down her back and made him figure she had some Indian blood in her family. Inez was four years older than him, but she could pass for a teenager, which some of the sicker bastards liked. And she was smart too, which is why Rollo had her in charge of his girls, and had her collect the money from them when the night was over.
Melvin cut his eyes to the street to make sure he wasn’t going to run into anything and then back to the rearview mirror. “You ladies have a good night?” he asked, just to have something to say.
Inez shook her head. “It’s been slow all weekend.”
“You know Rollo’s not going to want to hear that,” he said.
Inez clicked her tongue. “Shit, President Kennedy got his head blown off two days ago. Ain’t nobody in the mood to fuck right now.”
When Inez was nervous or trying to pretend that she wasn’t as smart as she really was she cursed and used bad English. Melvin figured she was nervous. She had good reason to be. Rollo got mean when he felt like the girls hadn’t earned all they should have. Still, he wished she wouldn’t talk like that. Inez was too pretty for such ugliness to come out of her mouth.
Melvin drove them to the diner out on Route 35. He stopped the Coupe De Ville in the parking lot in front of the entrance and let the engine idle.
After a minute Rollo came out. He wore his black mink coat over a gray sharkskin suit, and a bolero hat over his processed hair. He looked nice and warm. Melvin thought about Inez being out on the street all night in the cold wearing nothing but a thin sweater over her cocktail dress. He pushed that thought out of his head. He didn’t like to think about Inez being cold or uncomfortable in any way.
Rollo was a big cat – close to three hundred pounds – and the Caddy’s shocks compressed under his weight as he climbed into the back. Inez had to slide from the middle to behind the driver’s seat because Rollo’s girth filled up almost half the seat. Because Rollo was fat, every now and then some new fool thought he could take him. And every now and then some new fool didn’t live to be an old fool.
Rollo sat back and said, “Man, all them muthafuckas in there wanna talk about is fucking Kennedy. They saying the cat that shot him is some kinda communist or something. What goddamn difference it make what he is? A bullet’s a bullet.”
Rollo’s scent – the mingled stink of old cigarette smoke, shaving powder and Aqua Velva – filled the car. Melvin tried to breathe through his mouth as he asked, “We going to the house?”
“Yeah, let’s roll. Go through town, though. I wanna see the water. Whatcha got for me?”
Melvin knew the question was for Inez. He tensed up as he pulled onto the street and headed for the ocean.
“It was slow tonight, Daddy,” Inez said, her voice already pleading. “Nobody’s in the mood. And it’s so cold –“
“Bitch, whatcha got? Give it here!”
Melvin pressed his lips together and gripped the steering wheel tighter. He heard the crumple of bills as Inez pulled the night’s earnings out of her bra. He held his breath.
“Goddamn it!” Rollo bellowed. “This all you sorry hoes got for me?”
Melvin felt his heart sink to his stomach and dread fill its place in his chest. Come on man, go easy.
“Daddy, there was nobody out last night – Ow!”
Melvin winced like he was the one who’d been hit. The thump sounded like Rollo punched her in her head. He wouldn’t hit Inez in her face because that was his money.
Rollo yelled, “Bitch, get all them hoes up and get ’em back on the street, right now! Walk it in front of the churches if you have to and catch the holy rollers comin’ out, but get me my fucking money! Melvin, turn this goddamned car around!”
They were in a suburban neighborhood in Asbury. Melvin slowed down and pulled close to the curb so that he could make a U-turn. He looked around. The neighborhood was quiet. Nobody was up and out yet.
He heard another thump, and then heard Inez whimper her pain. That one sounded like a body blow. He sighed, put the Cadillac in park and reached to his inside coat pocket. Then he turned and looked over into the back seat.
Inez was curled into the corner of the back seat with her arms folded over her head and her knees drawn up to protect her body.
Melvin extended his arm over the back seat, toward Rollo.
Rollo looked at him, frowned and leaned toward him. “Muthafucka, is you crazy? What the fuck you –“
Rollo couldn’t believe what he was seeing. That’s why he was asking questions instead of acting. That was his mistake. Melvin pressed the tip of the barrel of the .22 against Rollo’s forehead and squeezed the trigger. Rollo’s head snapped back. He let out an “Uh” sound and fell back, and then over sideways.
Inez screamed out, “Shit, Mel!” and slid up against the Caddy’s door, as far away from Rollo as she could get, like she thought that bullet holes in the forehead were contagious.
Melvin leaned and looked down over the backrest to the rear seat. Rollo wasn’t dead. He was lying on his side, twitching and shuddering. His eyes were open and he was still frowned up, like he was trying to figure out what had just happened to him. Melvin wondered if President Kennedy had twitched and shuddered as they drove him to the hospital in Dallas. Rollo wasn’t going to any hospital.
Melvin looked up from Rollo’s twitching body. There was a splatter of blood and what looked like a piece of bone on the inside of the back window, but the glass wasn’t broken. That was good. He wouldn’t need to get the glass replaced.
He looked at Inez. She looked at him.
She was so pretty, even when she was surprised and scared. Melvin put his .22 back in his coat pocket so that she wouldn’t think he might shoot her, too. He’d never hurt Inez. He wouldn’t let anybody else hurt her, either. Now Rollo understood that.
“Y-you all right, Mel?” she asked. Her soft, unsure voice told him that she was still afraid. Maybe afraid of him. He didn’t want her to be afraid of him. He wasn’t Rollo.
He said, “Yeah, I’m all right. How’re you doing, Inez?”
“Better than Rollo. You gonna drive around until he dies?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, there’s this place down in South Jersey, where the Italians go to dump their trash. I figure I’d take a little trip that way.”
“I mean after that. What are we going to do?”
He liked that she’d said we. He said, “We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing. Except that I don’t want you to work anymore. Just be in charge of the girls.”
Inez looked at him for a moment, like she was studying him. Then she said, “Anything else you want from me, Mel?”
“Yeah, Inez. I want you to be my woman. Nobody but mine. From now on nobody touches you but me.”
Inez didn’t respond to that. She looked down at Rollo. “I think he’s dead now.”
“Too bad,” Melvin said. “I read somewhere that Abraham Lincoln suffered all night before he died. Rollo deserved no less.”
Now Inez frowned at him. “Mel, I thought you were a nice, quiet guy.”
“I am nice. That’s why I shot him.” He pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and said, “Would you mind getting that back window? We don’t want the cops pulling us over.”
Inez took the handkerchief. Her frown turned into a smile as she said, “Yes, Daddy.”
Still only .99 cents!