I came to and looked up to find Whanger and Rocketman hovering over me repeating, "You OK? You all right?" Rocketman pointed to an overhanging tree and said, "You ran right into that big branch!"
They rejoiced as I struggled to my feet. My head was pounding. I tried to make sense out of what they were saying. Something about "We got the bastard!" and "Here's his wallet!"
I took it and put it in my wallet pocket with the other one. I was dazed.
"Who?" I said. "What?"
Whanger said, "That guy who was following you? I whacked him a good one. Look!"
He motioned back down the path I had fled on, and there was a man, groaning and trying to sit up. Good. He wasn't dead. Must be Carranza's henchman. I couldn't get a good look at him in the darkness.
"I got him with that log," Whanger said, pointing at a large, broken-off branch. "Here's his knife." He handed me a closed switchblade.
Trembling, I jammed it in my pocket and said, "Let's get outta here! Come on!"
I jerked Rocket Man's skinny arm toward the path out of the woods.
"Wait!" Whanger said. "We gotta get our stuff!" They both trotted a few steps into the weeds.
What "stuff" could a couple of homeless winos have? Suddenly I remembered that I too had stuff: my bugging equipment. We all grabbed our belongings, keeping an eye on the fallen man, who was still struggling to get up. Whanger had really smacked the dude.
Their stuff was one ratty backpack each, into which they had crammed what sounded like wine bottles and tin cans. We trotted to my car, one commando officer, and two foot soldiers.
When we got into the light of the parking lot, I saw that I had lost a fair amount of blood, much of which was soaking the front of my shirt. Must have split the skin open above my left eyebrow.
Rocket Man was staring at me in alarm while Whanger drank from a Thunderbird wine bottle. "Jeez," he said, "You're really bloody."
"You're very perceptive, Rocket. Let's go."
I gestured for them to get in the back seat, hoping god-knows-what didn't rub off on the fabric.
They were nervous and suddenly quiet as they climbed into the car.
"Whaddya gonna do with us?" Whanger asked as I told them to buckle up. I didn't want some sharp-eyed cop stopping us.
"Nothing," I said, "but you can't stay back there anymore. That guy's dangerous, whoever he is. I think I know who he is, but not his name. Sorry, but you gotta move. So, where do ya wanna go? Dick's limousine at your service."
"What about the wallet?" Whanger asked politely. He sounded like a little kid whose piece of cake had been swiped.
"I don't know." I shook my head and tried to think. A mess piled on top of a mess. What to do with two homeless characters? In the rear-view I could see them looking worried at each other. But some courtesy finally returned and I said, "Thanks, you guys. You may have saved my life. At least you kept me from getting the shit beat outta me."
I worked the wallet out of my pocket and handed it back. "Take the money and gimme the wallet back."
Wait a minute! I thought! That could be hundreds of dollars!
"How much is it?" I asked.
"Two twenties, a five and two ones!" Whanger said, delighted. "Wow!" said Rocketman, and they chorused "Hey!" and "Wow!" several times. Alive and animated now, they were saying that no one was gonna beat up their friend, by God, and they could sure use some good wine.
Great. Here I was driving down the freeway with a bloody head and a carload of winos.
"OK, I'll take you to Old Jack's on Haley Street. So, where you gonna spend tonight?"
"Under the wharf," Whanger said.
"You might get robbed," I cautioned.
"Nah," he replied. "There's usually only a couple of women there and they don't fight. Hey!" He elbowed Rocketman. "We might get really lucky! Remember ol' Betty? Big Betty?"
Both guys had a laughing fit. I didn't even want to think about it. But thanks to me, it was party time at Homeless Central.
I turned off onto Laguna Street and headed for Haley, also known as Drug Street, formerly Santa Barbara's very own black ghetto, now industrial section, Latino ghetto and semi-wasteland. With 47 dollars in their pocket they could get maybe 10 jugs of wine. Vintage - Last Month, or even better.
I parked at Old Jack's and looked around. The coast was clear
"You guys better be careful with all that loot," I said.
"Don't worry!" Rocket Man said in his high squeaky voice. "The only way they'll get our money is to pry it loose from our cold dying fingers!"
Both laughed loudly at this stale witticism and they did a high-five going into the store.
Old Jack's boxy little store between a vacant lot and a plumbing supplies warehouse looked so bad it was almost good. Almost art deco. It looked like an old-time postcard. A former gas station with the pump island now provided two parking spaces. A dispirited white storefront with block letters. Sale signs. Old Jack's offered a helluva good deal on Mexican beer. It was said that in the good ol' days, you could buy almost anything in there, from a bet on the ponies to a baggie of herb.
My guardian winos came out moments later, grinning, each toting two tall bottles of Thunderbird. Rocket Man had a paper bag under his arm. Turned out to be generic vodka. They would have some money left over for hair of the dog later.
They climbed in laughing and chattering: "Oh boy…wow…gonna be good, love this stuff…"
I heard the seal crack as one of them opened a jug.
I yelled at them: "Hey! Knock it off! You're not supposed to have an open container in the car!" I looked around and was relieved not to find a black-and-white watching us. I headed for the wharf.
"Whaddya mean, open container?" Rocket Man wondered.
"Booze! You're not supposed to drink in cars! Or even have an opened bottle unless it's in the trunk."
"Even if you're not drivin'?"
"Even if. You can wait a minute."
"Not even you guys can drink all that in one night. Can you? What'll you do with the leftovers?"
"We'll bury ‘em," Whanger said.
"Yeah," Rocket Man snickered, "like buried treasure."
"Yeah," Whanger agreed. "Treasure Island!"
I saw another high five in the mirror.
I parked by the wharf and watched them totter off, wagging their swag - Mr. Whanger's Party. You could write a poem.
I was in debt to those two clowns, and briefly contemplated joining them for a shot of dago red, but there was the smell of the unwashed to consider … it lingered in the car. I opened my window wider. It was getting late and I figured I should go to the hospital for stitches. The wound was still juicy.
I had to think. There would be plenty of time for that in the emergency room. Time seemed to drag in that place, a depot for the walking wounded, the suddenly sick and old guys who didn't know how to take care of themselves.
I went home and washed up first. I looked through the wallet and pondered the name on the California driver license: Jose Martin Diego. Had to be Carlos's muscle. I felt a definite chill. I bet the sonuvabitch drove a big black Cadillac. Another of many chilling thoughts: What if my pursuer turned up in the emergency room? I decided to tape the wound shut with a bandage, which I fashioned from a couple of Band-Aids.
I needed to take a close look at these bastards in action and confirm some suspicions. I set the alarm clock so I could call Purtch first thing in the morning. We would all take a nice little boat ride tomorrow.