They said the man could make them a hundred grand in one sitting. Luther wondered if he had the right address.
Idling in front of a rancher that really needed new siding, Luther didn’t see dollar signs. Instead, he watched the man called El Tragón limp out of the house down three steps, sweating before the sun was even all the way up. El Tragón looked like one of those crazy white boys on MTV in the ‘80s: peroxided hair long in the back and spiky on top, gold hoop in his left earlobe, cheap sunglasses.
Luther squinted at the white T-shirt stretched over the man’s gut, to make sure he was reading it right: Bringing Hoes the Bacon.
Luther ran a hand over the smooth top of his head, thinking: People got no respect these days.
And who dressed this cat, anyway? El Tragón’s denim shorts weren’t long enough to cover the scars on both his knees, and his pale legs ended in orange Chuck Taylor hi-tops. Luther figured it was some kind of costume for Wing Thing, which was where he was supposed to drive El Tragón.
He had been in a funk lately, the Pagans told Luther, and they wanted someone hawking over him.
El Tragón lived in a section of North Vineland called the Planets, where the streets were named after points in the solar system. His house was on Jupiter Place, which was not nearly as fancy as it sounded. Two streets over, the fall before, this 19-year-old wiseass got shot in the arm. He told the cops he had no idea who’d tried to clip him. Luther saw the kid that night on one of the Philly news stations, with his arm in a sling, big smirk on his face, telling the reporter, “I got shot on Mars.”
Vineland was in the heart of South Jersey, but it didn’t have much of a pulse now. You only stopped there if your ride quit on you halfway between Philly and Atlantic City. But Luther never left, other than when they’d shipped him to Southeast Asia. And he never thought about leaving, because he swore someday they were going to fix the city up pretty good. Maybe it would be after he was long gone.
El Tragón stopped in front of an old Ford Escape with a bright-yellow custom wrap advertising his line of wing sauce. The ad screamed, El Tragón’s Bird Sauce, above a cartoon rooster flexing his muscles in front of a ball of orange flame. 5-Time Champ scrolled below the bird, like a nest. El Tragón popped the rear hatch and pulled out a cardboard box.
Luther had read about this guy in the papers—it was hard to avoid him, since he was Vineland’s biggest celebrity. Make that only celebrity. Luther tried hard to come up with another. There was Gary Ford, who’d played a few games in the outfield for the Red Sox, even got to see the Green Monster up close. But, after he was sent down to the minors, he robbed a Chinese restaurant and got away with $37 but no shrimp egg rolls, so that disqualified him in Luther’s mind.
One story in the paper said El Tragón’s name meant “gourmand,” which Luther had to look up in the dictionary. But, he asked some of the servers at the Águila for the real meaning, and they laughed. “Glutton,” or “gobbler,” they said.
“People planning to retire early off this man?” Luther chuckled as he reached for the coffee balanced between his legs. The doctor had said he should cut back to one serving a day, so Luther always bought the biggest cup Wawa sold.
Before he ran out the door that morning, he picked out some sounds for the ride. Who knew what kind of music the man was into? If he didn’t like Parliament, then, well, he could entertain himself until they got to Philly. But Luther had been so busy worrying about the music, he didn’t realize until he was halfway across town that he’d forgotten his pills on the counter. He’d thought of turning back, but then he’d be late for the pickup, and that was no good. Ada worked morning shift at the nursing home, so he couldn’t call her to run them over.
The doctor at the VA clinic had told Luther he had congestive heart failure, possibly from exposure to Agent Orange. One more reward for time served.
El Tragón forced himself into the passenger side of the Nova. He took off his shades, scanned the interior and then slid the cardboard box onto the back seat.
Luther reached over and turned down Parliament’s “Chocolate City,” which thumped from the car’s speakers, the singers chanting the chorus “Gaining on ya!” like they were testifying in church.
“This a cop car?” El Tragón asked.
“Bought it off a Porta-Rican,” Luther said. “Guy lost half his leg to diabetes. Shame.”