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The Taking of Sonny Boy

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  • #16
    Chapter 15

    Richard hated the little yellow car. It was cramped inside, and a miserable place to sit, and the suspension was stiff as hell. There was practically nothing under the hood. It was exactly the sort of car you bought for your wife to run around town in, but it was not fit for a man to have to drive. To appreciate your Buick, you needed to drive one of these now and then. The bale of hundred dollar bills on the seat next to him was a depressing sight. Why hadn't they dealt with the Sonny matter last week, or last month? Here was the evidence that they had waited too long. Eight hundred thousand dollars worth of it. These people would never have grabbed him, Richard, or even Irving. Sonny was the cause of it, and he thought of Irving's idea - tell the guy to go screw himself and let the chips fall where they may, but even as he said it, Irving knew it would never happen. Richard's feeling was nearly the same, but he didn't say so, and he was glad that he didn't have to make a decision about it. Simon had done that for them, as he always did. He crouched over the little steering wheel and watched for the stick with the white rag tied to it.

    Villarubbia knew he had a good spot for the drop. He had picked this location with great care, because this was where his own ass would be on the line. If the Lepperts decided to make a move, it would have to be right here, at the drop, because this was the only place they knew they could find somebody to attack. He didn't think they would, but in case they did, he wanted to make it as tough as he could. T and C, one of his uncles used to say. He had been a Marine. Terrain and circumstances. A dozen times he had toyed with the idea of standing off at a safe distance, only dashing in to grab the package when the coast was clear and the other car had gone, but it could go wrong that way. Suppose he couldn't find it in the dark? What if the thing took a funny bounce and found a hiding place, and the entire Leppert clan showed up at dawn and discovered him still poking around in the grass? That would never do. There was a spot to conceal his car, even in the unlikely event that someone got out of the delivery vehicle and came and peeked over the top of the embankment, and he would have a gun in his hand, besides. And he himself was out of sight in the shrubbery, too.

    The spot was on the high side of a banked curve in the old road, and there was just enough shoulder for a driver to do as they had instructed Richard Leppert to do, which was to stop with his left wheels on the hard surface and the right wheels out on the grass. Beyond the shoulder was a sharp embankment, with the ground falling away before leveling out some ten feet below the high shoulder. If the package was done up pretty tight, and if Richard gave it any kind of shove at all, it should make it onto the slope and bounce along down the slope for twenty feet or more, and that would bring it right up to Villarubbia's hiding place. Headlights from a car in any position on the road at that spot would be useless, as far as illuminating anything below the shoulder. They would be pointed up into the night sky. Sunday night traffic was practically zero. Villarubbia would climb the embankment and look over the edge until he saw the lights of an approaching car, and then he would scurry down and back into his hole in the tall grass and bushes, with his heart racing. As the car went by, he would scramble back up the hill to try to see whether or not it had been yellow.

    Irving Leppert watched his brother drive away in the little car, losing sight of him when he made the left turn at the end of the block. You couldn't tell there was eight hundred thousand dollars and a packet of cocaine on the front seat, done up tight in a zip-up garment bag that was folded over and tied with a rope. He wondered if Dicky was in danger tonight, if the kidnappers were planning any kind of monkey business, and he wondered if his brother was afraid. He sat down on a plastic chair on the patio and lit a cigarette and tried to relax the muscles of his face. He realized he had been frowning for hours. There might be another phone call, for some reason, and he got up immediately and went into the empty house and opened a beer. There had never been a Sunday like this one for the Lepperts, no doubt about that.

    His father, Simon, was the strength of the family, and these guys had made a smart move by pulling this deal when he was out of town. It could have been a coincidence, though, because Simon was away more than he was in Binghamton. He had the lady in Fort Wayne and another one somewhere near Pittsburgh, plus doing nearly all the buying for the businesses - both the shit business and the other one. That seemed to involve a lot of travel.
    Dicky was more like his father than either of his brothers, and this sort of made him second in command by default, and without anything being said about it he was in charge whenever Simon was on the road. Irving had realized long ago that he was not suited for management, and that was generally okay by him. There were lots of things he could do, plenty enough to stay busy, and he was glad to have Dicky to make decisions. He worked harder than any of the others. That was okay, too.

    Sonny was something else. He had just about quit being any help at all in the coin machine part of the business. He never ran the route or counted quarters or did any repairs. In the other deal, Sonny felt right at home, but the family figured he was having a good day if he just came home without stirring up any trouble. He got the same share of the profits as the others, but his contribution was less every month. He had become a genuine liability, and that was really serious. It was a lot more than just the money. People went to jail for what they were doing. It was becoming apparent that Sonny was likely to go to jail before too long, for a crime of some sort, but if this thing came apart for Sonny, it came apart for all of them. Irving thought they had just passed up a possible solution to the Sonny problem. These guys might have done him in, as they had threatened, if the ransom was not paid. He resented borrowing all that money to buy Sonny back. The guy had it right -Sonny was a ****ing idiot.

    Irving frowned again, and stared out the window for thirty seconds, wondering what was happening out there. Dicky should be at JJ's by this time, and getting a phone call. They wouldn't jerk him around longer than they had to. They wanted that package, before something happened to it. He went and sat on the sofa, holding both the beer and the cigarette in his left hand, and dialed Romeo's number. Romeo answered on the first ring. As usual, he was handy and available.

    "Hey, Romeo, is that you?"

    "Yeah, Irv, who else? Say, what's happening with you guys today, anyway?"

    "I'll tell you about it, maybe tomorrow. Right now things are jumping, and we're hoping they'll quiet down in another hour or two. I got a question for you."

    "Okay, let's have it."

    "Who said Sonny was a ****ing idiot?"

    "What? You want an alphabetical list?"

    "No, man, I want to know who said it to you the other day. I remember hearing you telling Dicky about somebody who called Sonny a ****ing idiot. Either I didn't hear you say who it was, or I forgot. You remember that?"

    "Sure. We were talking about John Villarubbia. That's what he calls Sonny, but not to his face. Sonny'll probably hurt him if he hears about it. I'm not going to tell, because all Sonny wants is an excuse to do something to him, you know that. We don't need for Sonny to do anything like that, you know?"

    "Right, Romeo. John Villarubbia. I should have thought of him. Hold on a minute, man." Irving took the phone from his ear and held it in his lap. He stared out the window again, out into the dark where his brother was about to deliver a helluva lot of his money to John Villarubbia. He raised the phone again. "Look, Romeo, here's what I want you to do."
    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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    • #17
      Chapter 16

      Richard was nearly seven miles out of town by the time he spotted the little flag, and he had met only one car. It wasn't a good road, and you had to watch it as you drove, or you might hit a pothole that could break an axle or bend a rim. The roads that got little traffic didn't get much maintenance, either. This one seemed to be getting none at all. The guy on the phone had said forty miles per hour, but he was driving slower than that, picking his way through the hazards and trying to watch for a rag on a stick, and even so, he nearly missed it. It was a wispy little piece of white cloth tied onto a slim branch that stood no more than a yard high, and there was scarcely room between the marker and the road for him to pull off and stop as instructed. The interior light came on as he opened the right-side door, and suddenly he felt very vulnerable, sitting in the only illuminated spot in this big patch of darkness. He never doubted that the pickup man was within a few yards of where he sat, and it gave him a momentary spasm of cold. The man had no reason to kill him, but no reason not to, either. He wondered if it was the same guy who had so terrified Sonny.

      He wanted to get the little yellow car moving again, and be rid of the package of money and cocaine. He pressed the release on his seat belt and turned on the seat and put the sole of his right shoe against the bundle and gave it a violent shove that sent it sailing into the blackness, and it was all of three seconds before he heard it crashing through brush of some kind, down below the level of the road. The open door slammed shut as he gunned the tiny engine and steered back onto the hard surface. He pushed it hard for half a mile before remembering to slow down. Probably there would be no one in Kirkwood to check him in and out, but he was not about to screw it up now.

      John Villarubbia was safely in place by the time Leppert's car pulled to a stop by the marker. He crouched in the center of a small thicket of bushes; he had no idea what kind; pistol in one hand and flashlight in the other. He wasn't able to see the car, but he could see the light against the sky when the door was opened. The package came almost immediately, and he had to fight off the urge to break cover and run to get it. He held his position until the car was gone and then a minute more. What if the package had not been the only thing to leave the car? Suppose Romeo was somewhere up there right now, waiting for him to make a move. They wouldn't do a dumb thing like that, though, not while he still had Sonny, and he left the thicket and switched on the flash.

      The prize lay there, twenty feet away. He turned off the flash and stuck it in his hip pocket, then trudged up the slope to recover his marker, which he had fashioned from a castoff uniform shirt at the family construction lot. He didn't want the rag found and he didn't want it to be too easy for the people who would no doubt come around in the morning to find the drop site, hoping to find out something about the kidnappers. Keeping his grip on the .38 revolver and the little flag, he hustled back down into the ditch and hoisted the bundle of money with some difficulty. It was as heavy as he expected, but not nearly so bulky. Was it all there? He had expected to have to drag it to the car, but he found he could carry it without too much difficulty, and he stopped once during the hundred yard trip to the car in order to get his breath and listen for suspicious noises.

      At first the silence was total. A man could live his whole life in the city and never know that this kind of silence existed. He could almost believe that he had gone stone deaf, but ten seconds after his own sounds had halted, the night sounds began to return, one by one, and they all seemed suspicious to him. The rhythmic noises of the crickets might be a code of some kind, used by drug dealers when stalking kidnappers. The last forty yards was covered at a clumsy trot, and he put the package on the front seat, passenger side, just as it had ridden in the other car. The plan, originally, was to put it in the trunk, but he had decided to keep it closer to him. He had picked out a place to pull over and do a rough count, but he didn't want to have to get out. It was hard for him to believe that he wasn't surrounded by Lepperts with shotguns and mortars and grenades.

      From his parking place on the remote farm road he drove the half mile to a secondary road without headlights. From there it was a bit more than a mile to a numbered state road. He followed it to his counting place and spent five minutes doing a quick evaluation of the ransom money. Eight hundred thousand should have been a bigger parcel than this, but when you counted it, it seemed to be all there. He hadn't known it was going to be nearly all hundreds; that would account for it. When you were dealing in one-yard notes, a shoe box full was a lot of money. The cocaine was taped up into a sort of brick, and he didn't unwrap it. There would be time for that later, and he could only assume it was the real thing. He wanted some heroin, but he was glad Piper had said cocaine to the Lepperts on the phone. If he had demanded heroin, that might have touched a nerve, and made somebody think of his name. So far it looked like a clean operation, and it was about over. Have some of that, Sonny Boy. He took the first crossroad and then the very next turn off that one. If Richard Leppert was familiar with the area he could easily have figured out which road to take when leaving the drop site, and John was anxious to leave it. Just before reaching Binghamton, he turned in at a dark gas station and parked behind the building and walked around the corner to a pay phone, where he called Piper for the last time tonight. Piper picked up the phone, but said nothing.

      "It's all okay," said Villarubbia. His voice was still squeaky and unrecognizable. "Do what we said, and then get on the road. I'll see you soon."

      "Don't forget to see us soon. Be damn' sure," and Piper hung up the phone. Villarubbia lit a cigarette and stood smoking in the dark for five minutes. There was nothing to be seen, and the neighborhood seemed totally silent, but it occurred to him again that silence in town was not the same as the silence he had experienced in the country. What people called silence here in town meant that traffic was only a hum that came from a couple of blocks away, and it was quiet enough to hear the clicks that came from the junction box on the pole on the corner, as the traffic light changed. He felt a great peace - the relaxed satisfaction that came only after sex or something else you had done equally well. He believed that this was no doubt the biggest crime ever in Binghamton, and it had been so easy. He sat in the dark with all that money and was almost sorry the thing was over.

      He had avenged himself on his enemy, had repaid him tenfold for his insult, and the satisfaction could only grow as he spent the huge bundle of money. The one thing that grated on his mind was having to share equally with the other two men. He should have hired them for a few thousand each, and made a plan that would have kept them from knowing how big a score he was making. They would probably have gone for that, and even waited until after the drop to collect their shares. He should, by rights, have netted at least seven hundred fifty grand instead of the two sixty seven he would come away with. But that was out of the question, now. He didn't doubt for a minute that Lindsay, that wild man, would come back and make good on his threat to burn down the houses of his family and relatives. He made a mental note never to do anything in the future that might involve anybody like Lindsay. He could deal with Piper, if the need arose, but not Lindsay.

      He put out the cigarette and returned to the car. The money would be kept in his big personal locker at the construction company building until Wednesday, when he would call Piper and set up a meet. He would pick up the package after everyone was gone for the day, and be in New York by midnight. He had a brand new heavy-duty padlock in a paper bag, just on the off chance that there might be a spare key to the old one floating around. He made a last survey of his surroundings and started the car and switched on the headlights. It would only have been five miles to the company lot and building, from where he was, but he took a roundabout route and spent a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror. There was nothing to be seen. Finally he turned off the street and on to the long concrete drive to the cluster of buildings around a central parking area that was VilCon. They had put in lighting for their compound, but it wasn't enough even when it was all working, and tonight several bulbs must be out. That was okay. He could find his way around VilCon.

      He parked behind the main building, out of view from the street, and was about to leave the car when he picked up motion from the corner of his eye. His head jerked around, and he could see a short, wide man walking toward him. Who the hell could that be at this hour on a Sunday night? There was a light colored car parked among the company vehicles. Villarubbia had missed it, and didn't recognize it at first, but as the broad man drew closer in the dim light it all became clear. It was Romeo. John's eyes went wide and staring, and his jaw sagged open, and his heart missed a couple of beats and then pounded wildly. He tried to think what he should do, but his brain was as inert as his heart and his breathing. The shock of seeing the Leppert's man Friday here at VilCon, where he had come to stash the Leppert's money, had frozen the most vital of his functions. He was a bearing that had gone dry and frozen up. What to do? What did Romeo know? How many reasons could there be for his sudden appearance?

      Now he was at the passenger side door, and it was not locked. Romeo reached down and opened it, and the interior light came on, and the two faced each other for an instant before Romeo dropped his gaze to the bound bundle on the seat. He showed no surprise, and Villarubbia realized that a suspicion had just been confirmed. Romeo compressed his lips and nodded slowly, and raised his eyes again to look at Villarubbia. Then he took a slow step backward and his right hand reached behind his back for something he had in his hip pocket, and suddenly John knew just what he had to do. He turned the ignition key, and the hot engine fired instantly, and he jammed the accelerator to the floor, and for perhaps three seconds the back wheels spun furiously in place, and the two men faced each other with similar expressions of consternation.

      Villarubbia was horrified that his trusty Cadillac was not snatching him away from this mortal danger, and Romeo was frustrated because he knew it soon would, and he couldn't seem to get the gun out of his pocket. It was snagged, and he began to work at it with both hands. Then, without warning, there was traction and the big car shot forward, slamming shut the door Romeo had opened. There was sixty feet of concrete slab to cross, and Villarubbia used it as a launching pad, holding down the gas pedal and leaning forward, as if that might contribute to the acceleration of the car. Once it had a grip on the concrete surface, it covered the distance in an instant and then became airborne. At the edge of the slab was a drop of some sixteen inches before another sixty feet of slimy mud in a low spot where recent rains had left water standing until today. The nose of the car was high, and the rear wheels hit the mud first and the car turned ninety degrees so that it crossed the mud flat broadside in a wild slide, and only the momentum kept it from bogging down.

      The speedometer needle was laid against the peg. The engine screamed and the tires shrieked and there was a fantastic rooster-tail of wet mud that hung in the air for an instant before settling back to earth, and then there was traction again - at first just a little, and then a little more, and finally Villarubbia got off the gas pedal and was again able to drive the car, after a fashion. He negotiated most of an acre of high grass and found the culvert where you could cross the ditch and get into a street.

      The hammer of Romeo's revolver was snagged inside his hip pocket. As Villarubbia's rocketing car left him choking in a fog of burning rubber he worked at it with both hands, and succeeded in tearing the pants, but he never did get the gun free. He saw that Villarubbia had made it through the grassy area and would be on the street in a few more seconds, and he dashed back to his own car and set the same course his quarry had taken, but lacking the terror that was in the other man and the horsepower that was in the other vehicle, he got only halfway across the mudhole before plowing to a halt. In the end he was forced to leave the car and slog through the muck to reach the street and walk nearly a mile to a phone, and had to hire a tow truck to get him back on dry land. He paid an extra twenty dollars for the driver's promise not to tell anyone that he had made this call at all. Then he found more coins and reported in to Irving Leppert.

      While he waited for the tow truck to pick him up, he stood under a street light and frowned down at the huge globs of mud that he wore just below the cuff of his slacks. He made a vow to himself, a vow that mentioned John Villarubbia by name and a pair of alligator boots that had cost him several hundred dollars less than a week ago.
      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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      • #18
        Chapter 17

        If Romeo had jumped out of the little yellow car at the drop site, with a gun in each hand, and come charging down the embankment, Villarubbia would have been terrified, but probably not frozen. Back there, he had been still expecting the worst at any moment, not yet ready to believe they had really pulled this thing off. But in the quiet semi-dark security of his family's business property, the sudden appearance of Romeo hit him like a freight train. After his initial gasp, he held his breath until he made it to the street. The big car felt heavy and sluggish and in John's frenzied mind he could have found more acceleration in a tractor. He leaned forward in his seat, putting another six inches between himself and Romeo. Mud from the laboring wheels bombarded the insides of the fenders and flew up into the frame, and he left gobs of wet mud and muddy tire tracks on the asphalt.

        He had done it all, somehow, without headlights, and he traveled almost two blocks before he realized they were not on. He switched them on and then off again, recognizing that there was enough light to drive, and no other traffic to deal with. He kept watching the mirror, expecting to see Romeo's car giving chase, but after five minutes it was obvious there was no pursuit. Romeo was afoot, but Villarubbia didn't know it. He turned on the lights.
        Five miles of turns and crossings and side streets took him into a residential neighborhood that was nearly a suburb, and it gave him time to appreciate his situation, too. The encounter with Romeo had paralyzed him for a matter of seconds, and had left him with pounding heart and a shortness of breath, but in less than two minutes that part of it was over, and he had been able to begin recovering as he drove. Now, he pulled over to a curb in a street lined with overhanging trees, and parked behind another car and switched off his lights and reclined the seat back so that he could stretch out for a few minutes to think. He felt safe for the moment, and he lit a cigarette.

        Capture was the same as death. There was no doubt about that. Kidnapping and ransom was one thing, and there was at least a possibility that they had reported that to the police, though it didn't seem likely. But the brutalizing of Sonny Leppert by his man, Lindsay, was quite another matter, and he never even considered going back to face the consequences of that. If he ever fell into Sonny's hands, his death might take days. This was not a caper any longer. Now it was a disaster. He tried to think of a place where he could hide for a time, while he made a plan, but there was one fact that became more and more certain to him. He was finished in Binghamton for the remainder of his life, and the sooner he got out, the better. Sitting here in the dark, even for only a few minutes, was a waste of valuable time. He should be driving away. There was no way of knowing how much of a manhunt the Lepperts could mount, nor how long it might take them to get it started, but they would certainly know that he was already fleeing Binghamton.

        Would they take their cars and try to watch the roads? Would they contact associates for help? Lingering would be suicide, and he sat up and started the engine. He wanted a secondary road, and he didn't much care which way it went. In ten blocks he was at Highway 11. It headed due south, and could put him into Pennsylvania in about half an hour, although that wasn't a critical factor. He doubted that it was the law he was fleeing from. He decided to take a chance, having no way of knowing that Romeo was still lumbering down the middle of a dark street near VilCon, leaving his own muddy tracks and looking for a telephone.

        Villarubbia pulled off the road at the first convenience store he found, and parked on the dark side. Inside the door, he came face to face with a man he knew slightly and a woman. They would have stopped to talk, but he smiled and nodded and kept moving. He bought cigarettes and a quart of beer, along with a cold sandwich in a three-cornered plastic box and a bag of chips. This changed his route instantly. He had been seen on Highway 11, outside the city limits, and it was conceivable that word of this might reach the brothers Leppert. When he left the lot he turned south again, but after a mile he turned around in the road and returned to town, skirting the south edge of Binghamton until he got a chance to head west. He was thinking clearly now, and his courage was returning as he became convinced that he would get away. Whatever else, there was still eight hundred thousand dollars in cash in his car. And a sizeable block of cocaine. He could go a long way on that, if he had to.

        But he didn't have to go so far tonight. There was a place where he was always welcome, where he had ridden out hard times or waited out his father's wrath at some insignificant offense that was usually somebody else's
        fault, anyway. His Uncle Nin, in Elmira, was always glad to see him, and even if his enemies did think to check there eventually, it would give him breathing room and a place to get some sleep before setting out for wherever he decided to go. The sooner he got there, the sooner he could be back on the road, so he made his way west avoiding any major highways. He was sharp now, and making plans as he drove.

        Trying to figure what had happened was more wasted time, and he would deal with it later. It had to be Piper who had given it away. . . but how? Maybe he would find out someday, and maybe he wouldn't, but it wasn't important at the moment. The hardest thing for him to come to terms with was this final goodbye to the town where he had spent his life. Even when he was operating in New York City, he knew it was temporary - that one day he would get enough and go back to Binghamton. He could always go back to Binghamton. Well, forget Binghamton. The first time he had mentioned this action to Piper, Piper had cautioned him not to shit in his own mess kit, and he had thought it was a funny and clever thing to say, but he hadn't really understood what it meant. Now, driving west along the southern edge of New York, it was becoming very clear. He had done exactly that. He couldn't even go home to pick up his clothes. That part was okay, really. He had nothing against new clothes.

        He tried to imagine what the situation would be like tomorrow in Binghamton, and in a week's time. Would the Lepperts tell, or try to keep it a secret? If the word got around, would the police take a hand in it? Could the Lepperts afford that? Would his own family find out what he had done? His mother would never believe it of him, but his father knew better, and they would probably fight over it. What about Romeo, and Lord! - what about Sonny? John promised himself that if Sonny retaliated for what he had endured, he would personally come back in the night and kill him. He had exhausted all his adrenalin for the day, but his nerve was returning. He would come back and kill as many as he needed to. They could count on that.

        A great weariness was coming over him, and his eyes were getting heavy, and the sign that said he was entering Elmira, elev. 859 feet, verified that this fantastic day was finally over. He would sleep on Uncle Nin's couch and get back on the road in the morning. That would be soon enough to start making a real plan. With a sack of cash like this one, he didn't need to go back for his clothes, anyway. The Cadillac would have to go, of course. He would sell it at a car lot and ride a bus a hundred miles to another town, where he would buy something else. He would drive north from Elmira and post a letter to his family, to tell them he was going to Canada for a while. He would call Piper and make arrangements for the split of the money, because he couldn't risk having Lindsay going on a rampage in Binghamton with his cigarette lighter. Then he would head south, and the Lepperts could rifle Canada if they wanted to. He would be in Mexico, calling himself Gonzales or something. He was dark enough to pass. Somewhere along the way, he would convert this pack of cocaine to more cash. Cash was the thing to have.

        And he was all finished with heroin - that was just a bad dream from a life he was leaving behind. He had gone nearly all day today without any, hadn't he? That proved that even though he might be a user, he was not an addict. Tomorrow would be the first day of his new life. He lit up one more cigarette and inhaled deeply. There was no smoking in Uncle Nin's little house.
        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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        • #19
          Chapter 18

          Uncle Nin was retired from the railroad and lived in an area of small neat houses of a similar size, most of which had at one time contained retired couples, but many of which now housed only the remaining survivor. Such neighborhoods have a way of losing a name or two from their rolls each year. Uncle Nin lived alone, but he was not a widower. He had always lived alone, as far as John knew. John's own father had jokingly labeled him a sexual hermit, many years ago.

          "A sexual hermit," said John, Sr., "is a guy who'd rather go off by himself."

          Uncle Nin lived in a garden home, although he had never heard of the term. Tonight there was a dim light showing through the curtains in his little living room, and that would be the television set tuned to a channel of old movies. It was even money that Uncle Nin was conked out in his recliner, but he would still be glad to see his nephew.

          John cut the headlights and coasted into the carport, stopping short of the shelves of pot plants across the back opening. His uncle had a car, but he parked it in the street because he was not good at backing up, and he used the carport for other purposes. He switched off the engine and stretched both arms as far as the confines of the car would allow and rolled his head to loosen the taut muscles in his neck and took a couple of deep breaths, and without warning the night lit up behind him and he jumped in his seat and twisted to see the source of the sudden illumination. The blinding light in his eyes turned his whole field of vision to a white blank, and he could not see that it came from a sport pickup truck out in the street.

          It towered in the air on oversized wheels and huge tires, plus a custom suspension that had the chrome running boards out of the reach of everyone but the young. In addition to the headlights, it had a bank of chrome floods mounted on a bar across the top of the cab and they were in full bloom. As he blinked into the glare he heard the engine being cranked up with the shattering roar of a resonating muffler, and the weird vehicle lurched forward and swung into the driveway behind Villarubbia, and even as the lights blinded him, he heard the shouting of the occupants.

          For the second time in little more than an hour his heart hammered in his chest and his mouth locked in a wide-open position. This was worse than finding Romeo at VilCon. This unbelievable day had ended for him once, but now it was beginning again - right here in his safe place, here in Elmira. He fumbled for the ignition and the truck hit him from behind, driving him forward with a tremendous crash of terra cotta pots, potting soil and greenery. The wooden shelves smashed into pieces and flew away before the car, while the front wheels went off the end of the concrete drive and the car hit bottom with a loud metallic screech, much as Marty Leppert's little yellow car had done a few hours ago. He managed to turn the key and the Cadillac responded again for him, and the only way he could go was straight ahead, and among the dozen impacts at the end of Uncle Nines carport was another heavy jolt, as the tall pickup truck ran him down again, and it snapped his head back against the headrest.

          Now he was in the open grassy area that was everybody's backyard, trying not to spin the tires this time and searching for access to the next street. He was between two driveways, but both held cars, and the beast behind him was much more at home on the grass surface and was bumping him along as a soccer player would dribble a ball. He angled toward the end of a drive and squeezed his car behind the two parked there, and turned onto the street and hit the gas. Above the sound of the screaming engine he heard gunshots and the inside of his car was suddenly full of flying glass, and a small sphincter in his groin failed him and he began to wet his pants.

          On the street he had a big edge, with the powerful car much faster than the truck, but all the firepower was with the other side and they continued to blaze away at him and scored a couple more hits, and Villarubbia swerved along, gaining speed and struggling desperately to keep the center line between his wheels. He was still holding his breath and still wetting his pants. Almost at once he made a bad turn and found himself in a cul-de-sac where a street dead-ended against the rear of a shopping center, and his pursuers cut diagonally across a parking lot, cutting off his exit, but he turned the opposite way and crashed through a picket fence, speeding through another yard, and was able to reach the next street under full power. In the mirror he could see house lights blooming behind him, but the chrome floodlights on the pickup were nowhere to be seen. The contest was over for the present, and his bladder was finally empty.

          He made two more turns and drove several blocks without the lights, and then had to pull over on the shoulder, where he hung out the open window wild-eyed and retching, and in two minutes his stomach was as empty as his bladder and he drove on. When he intersected Highway 14, he turned south and in only a few minutes he was in Pennsylvania. There had been no sign of the strange pickup truck. For most of an hour he drove like a madman, glaring suspiciously at every vehicle he met, putting space between himself and the Leppert's henchmen.

          The wind whistled through his car, which had the rear glass and one of the rear side windows shot away. The circulating air was almost a godsend, as the inside smelled like a latrine. Urine saturated his clothes and the seat under him and even his shoes. Any highway patrolman who might pull up behind him would have stopped him instantly for the bullet-holed body and the shattered glasses, but he might well have let him go again when he smelled him. He certainly wouldn't have allowed him in the police car. His luck held and there were no troopers, but he knew that his faithful Cadillac would have to go before the sun rose. Not only for its ragged appearance, but also because Lord only knew how many of his enemies were on the lookout for it.

          In his imagination, every son of a bitch in the country who ever sold a lid of grass had been alerted by a criminal network, and had dropped their daily business to look for him. He was in full flight, now, and escape was the only thing on his mind. Escape, of course, with his eight hundred thousand dollars in cash. It was almost unbelievable that in the space of an hour the Lepperts had staked out his uncle's house in Elmira, but they had. He left 14 and was traveling west on a better road, US 6, and making good time, but the car was a liability. No self-respecting policeman could overlook it.
          Last edited by vapros; 09-27-2017, 07:36 PM.
          If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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          • #20
            Chapter 19

            Villarubbia drove the battered Cadillac like the wild man he was that night, alternately slowing down to avoid attracting state police, and accelerating to outdistance the invisible pursuers that certainly must be somewhere behind him. In forty minutes fatigue hit him like a blow to the head. No one else had threatened him, and he was becoming more aware of his nose than his pounding heart. He wondered if people in other cars caught a whiff of him as they passed. He had turned west on Highway 6, only because it seemed that changing roads would be good tactics, and towns were few and traffic was light.

            He took a side road for a mile and then turned off into a patch of trees, and got out of the car. Fumbling for the lock on the deck lid, he found a bullet hole with his finger, but the lock still worked, and he got out a gym bag with sweats and sneakers in it, and near the bag was a dirty beach towel. In the faint light from the little bulb in the trunk, he changed, discarding his own wet and stinking garments after emptying the pockets. He spread the beach towel on the back seat and got in, closing all the doors so the dome light would go out, but sleep was out of the question. He imagined that Romeo and the Lepperts were on his little side road, probing the woods and fields with their searchlights. He imagined that he would fall asleep and awaken at eleven in the morning to find that he was forty feet from someone's front yard, and that state police had been called, and had surrounded his shattered car.

            The weariness remained, hanging on him like sandbags, but his eyes were wide. He sat up and got out, taking the towel and folding it to place on the soaked and stinking front seat, and headed for the highway. He held his breath as he passed Mansfield, but nobody flagged him down or took any interest in him. The car had to have gas and he pulled into a station on the edge of town and filled up without attracting any attention. Food had no appeal for him, but he bought a drink and more chips. No beer, this time.

            He was in the best hours of the week for traveling, and he traveled, still pushing to the west. Before first light he had cleared Pennsylvania and was passing through Youngstown, Ohio, and he began to believe for the first time that he was getting away. But the car had to go. There were at least two bullet holes in it, and two glasses shot away, and he wondered how he had gotten so far in it. With the sky beginning to lighten in the east, Villarubbia found a deserted hulk of a house on a blacktopped road, and stashed his sack of money under the porch, after taking five thousand dollars, which went into his pocket.

            Continuing away from the main road, he took an unused track into a wooded area and then left the track, driving as far into the brush as the car would go, and used a screwdriver to remove the license tags, which he put into the gym bag. He cleaned out everything in the glove box, picked up some letters from the front seat, and checked the trunk for anything that might be traceable. He picked up his gym bag and felt his way out of the trees and began to walk toward the highway back to Youngstown. The traffic started early in Ohio, and a young guy in a pickup stopped for him within twenty minutes. The guy was wearing work clothes, and he had long hair trailing from under a greasy welder's cap with bright flowers on it. Villarubbia thanked him without making any explanation, and his offer of two dollars to help with the gas was turned down. He left the young man at a truck stop on the outskirts of town, and he went in and had breakfast with the drivers. He imagined they all wiggled their noses as he passed among the tables.

            By the time he was finished, he was dopey and drained of the last of his strength, and the urge to rent a room and sack out was nearly more than he could resist, but he had two more cups of black coffee and walked across the highway to a small repair shop, where a nine-year-old pickup was for sale for three thousand dollars. A spare tire lay unsecured in the bed, along with some beer cans and two empty five-gallon plastic buckets that had once continued adhesive for floor tiles. He sat and smoked and dozed for half an hour before the proprietor showed up, and he bought the truck for twenty-two hundred. The odometer had obviously turned over, and had clocked another thirty thousand miles, and the interior was about gone, but it sounded pretty good and the air conditioner worked. The mechanic promised to fix any troubles he might have in the next thirty days. Right, thought John. In thirty days he would be twenty-eight days into Mexico.

            He drove back into the country and retrieved his money and then returned to town, where he checked into a truckers' motel under a phony name and went to bed with the package of cash under the covers with him. It was dark when he woke up, and he felt rotten. His body felt old and stiff and painful, and his teeth seemed to be coated with wax and the foul taste remained in his mouth, and he thought he could still smell the urine from the front seat of the Cadillac. He walked to the motel office, locking his door carefully behind him, and paid for another night, and bought a trucker's shaving kit from the clerk. It was a cheap zipper bag with the necessities for a man to clean up, all in miniature amounts. Back in the room he showered and shaved and brushed his teeth for a long time and went out to find a shopping center.

            The ransom money was difficult to stash in the pickup, but by moving some junk around he was able to hide it behind the seat. He spent a hundred and fifty dollars for some casual clothes and bought a couple of canvas suitcases and took everything back to his room, with one stop at a drive-in for sandwiches and fries and a big drink, to go. After his meal he turned out the light and lay on the bed. It was time to make a plan. His first decision concerned the truck. He would trade it in on a car, a big late-model car, in top shape, to go to Mexico. One shouldn't count on finding expert repair service south of the border. The truck had no trunk where he could lock up the money out of sight, and it was too uncomfortable to drive a couple of thousand miles, anyway. It had a stiff suspension and made too much noise. He would feel pretty stupid driving such a disreputable vehicle, with eight hundred thousand dollars in cash riding behind the raggedy seat. That would be his first move in the morning.

            It was hard to believe that this whole nightmare had begun only a few hours before, when Piper and Lindsay had grabbed Sonny Leppert from his house. The last two days had aged him by years. He had pulled it off - they could put that much in the history books - but the cost had been high. He had their money, but he could never go back home again. He had won and lost. Binghamton and western New York state were off-limits to him forever. New York City, also, and Pennsylvania and probably the whole eastern seaboard, for that matter. If he had to put down new roots, just as well do it a long way from there. No telling how far the Lepperts could spread an alarm for him, especially in the shit business. That reminded him that he had had no fix for a day and a half, and was doing fine without it. He had known all along that he wasn't an addict, and Sonny might know better than to say it, if he could see him now.

            He turned the light on and found paper and envelopes in the drawer in the table. He wrote a note to his family, saying only that he was on his way to Canada and would be in touch soon, and they were not to worry about him, as he was fine. Tomorrow was soon enough to go out for stamps and a mailbox. There was only the matter of sharing out the take with Piper and Lindsay. In his present situation, he really needed the whole amount for himself, but Lindsay's threat had to be taken seriously. Crazy as he was, he would be a terrible enemy, and Villarubbia did not want him charging back into Binghamton in a rage, looking to take an eye for an eye, so to speak. He thought of calling New York and setting up a meet, as planned, and risking a trip back, just long enough to see them and kill them both, but there was no guarantee he could pull it off without getting into some kind of trap. The two of them might bushwhack him, instead, and he would never see Mexico. He had gotten this far by the skin of his teeth, and all his travel in the near future would be away from New York. Their shares would have to be paid, after all. And he could do plenty with a quarter of a million. It only had to last until he could find someone to sell him a new identity and then get some action going among the Mexicans. Maybe a little joint with some girls and some gambling. He could learn to count pesos.

            How to do it? Not by mail. Not by Federal Express or UPS. What if the wrapping on the package was accidentally torn, and the money inside exposed? Some ****ing employee would take an early retirement, and Lindsay would lay Binghamton to waste, after all. There was nothing to do but stash it in a good, safe place and let them know where to find it, so he could keep moving south. They would have to come out to Ohio and get it, and they wouldn't like it a bit, but that was alright. He would never see them again, anyway. Bury it in the ground and draw a treasure map? Forget it. He could picture Piper and Lindsay, in their Gucci loafers, tramping the Ohio countryside with picks and shovels, and trying to find the spot to dig. Arguing about which tree was an oak, and which direction was southwest, so they could pace it off, like the pirates in Treasure Island. That would never work. He would figure it out tomorrow, and call Piper. Villarubbia went back to bed.
            If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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            • #21
              Chapter 20

              Piper wasn't expecting the call until Wednesday, but it came on Tuesday afternoon, taking him by surprise. He had to go and turn down the volume on the television so he could talk to Villarubbia.

              "Glad to find you in, man. I know I'm a day early, but things are not on schedule. Can you talk?"

              "Yeah, I can talk, but I'd rather listen, John. What's happened to the schedule?"

              "I'm on the run, man. One of you guys must have given it away. When I got to my hiding place for the money, they had a man waiting for me with a gun. You understand me? Thirty minutes after getting the money, I go to hide it, and this guy's already there and waiting for me. They knew, and I damn' sure didn't tell. I was lucky as hell to get away in one piece."

              "Go ahead and tell me. You lost the money, and we're out of luck, and you're sorry, right? Do you know what that ****ing Lindsay kept saying to me, all the way back to town? He kept saying we'd never see you again, and we were a couple of assholes to leave Binghamton without our money, and he's called me about four times in the last two days, to say it again. We never gave anything away. I guess we really are a couple of assholes, to get mixed up in this. They must have known it was you, right from the beginning. This thing was born dead - it never had a chance."

              "Cool down, Piper, 'cause you're all wrong. I've got the money, and you'll get yours, but the arrangements are going to change. I'm not going to New York, tomorrow, or next week or ever. I'm busted in that whole part of the country, man. When I got away in Binghamton, I was going to my uncle's in Elmira to spend the night, and there was a whole truckload of 'em there, and they started a shooting match, and blew the glasses out of my car and almost got me. They were parked in front of my uncle's, you hear me? They knew I was coming, but I don't know how they knew. Something went wrong. I guess it's too late to worry about it now."

              "So where the hell are you?"

              "I'm across the border in Canada," lied Villarubbia. "I don't know where I'll wind up, but I'm still traveling, and not ready to stop yet, either. I can't ever go home again, Piper. It's Canada from now on."

              "Well, tell me where you are and sit tight. We'll catch a plane or a train, and come to you. You know we don't either of us have a car, but we'll get there, John. This whole thing is for shit, but we'll do what we have to."

              "You can forget that. I'm not sitting tight until I get farther away than this. Those guys are in a network of people in the dope business, and I can't even guess how many people are watching for me, or how big an area is hot.
              I'll leave your money in a safe place, and call you again, and you guys will have to come and pick it up. That's the best I can do, Piper. You keep that goddam Lindsay cool until I get this all figured out. If he does anything foolish, I'll have somebody kill him, I promise you. Not only that - before it's all over, these people will be asking around in the City, wanting to know who I knew there and who I might have lined up to help on this job. So the two of you are going to be hot, too. When you get your money, you both better go someplace besides New York, or you might not get to spend it."

              "This is really going to make Lindsay's day, you know what I mean? He's about got himself convinced that you're going to screw us out of our money, and now I'm supposed to tell him to be patient, because his money's in Canada, but he'll get it someday if you can figure out a way. Don't be later than tomorrow, John, making your arrangements and calling me back. Me and him will be figuring out how to get there, and we won't be long."

              "That's fine. I can get it done tomorrow, and get back on the road. You be at home in the evening, about eleven. That's when I'll call. And you can tell Lindsay what I said. I didn't have to stop and call at all, you know, but I did."

              "We'll be waiting." The phone conversation was a relief to both parties. John had taken the first step toward solving a problem that was weighing heavily on his mind, and Piper had been contacted about his money by a man he had not been certain he would ever hear from again. After hanging up the receiver, he sat for half an hour, smoking and mulling over this development. Of the three men involved, none was really aware of a brutal fact that had been part of the scheme from the first day. There had never been any possibility of an equal three-way split of the ransom money. One of the things that might have happened was that Villarubbia would take off with the whole amount, and Piper and Lindsay had known that all along, but it was, after all, his plan, and their option in the beginning was to be in or be out, so they decided it was a good risk to take. The holding of his family as a sort of security had helped them make up their minds on that score.

              Another eventuality was that John could have driven to New York, as was intended, and the three-man meet might have turned into a winner-take-all shooting match, especially if he had attended with the bag of ransom money unopened to show his good faith. Or, if John had called New York and spoken to Piper about arrangements for the meet, Piper might have either killed Lindsay or just neglected to contact him, and dealt with Villarubbia one on one, hoping to get out with the whole take. Of all the possible results, thirty-three percent for each of them was nothing more than a concept, but if any man had consciously recognized the fact, it had been Piper. He had been a thief longer than the others.

              John Villarubbia had already taken more money from the bag, and had bought a slick year-old Buick for the pickup truck and nine thousand dollars, and he immediately felt a bit more at ease. He was now twice removed from the Cadillac, even if somebody had already found it and reported it, which didn't seem likely. After talking with Piper, he checked out of the little motel and headed south. He had told both his family and Piper that he would be in Canada, so he figured it was time to head for Mexico. He drove as far as Wheeling, West Virginia, and checked into another little motel, using another phony name.

              He unpacked the ransom money and counted it again, and sorted it out into two portions. He put half a million dollars back into the plastic hanging bag, but when he picked it up, it all fell to the bottom in a wad, and it had to be done over. This time the packets of bills were put in a thick layer that extended over the length of the bag, much as clothes would fill it. Then it was folded in the middle and fastened with the rope and tape, and ended up in the form of a large suitcase. This was for Piper and Lindsay. The rest, just under three hundred thousand, he awarded to himself - because he figured he could get away with it. Like Romeo and Sonny and the rest of the Lepperts, he didn't intend to ever see either of them again. Mexico was a big place, especially after telling everybody Canada. He resisted the urge to break into the packet of cocaine. If the other two asked about it, he would say it had been talcum powder or something, and that they had been cheated on that part. If they wanted to make a complaint to the Leppert family, go to it. The coke would be sold, or maybe even taken to Mexico with him. He doubted the border guards were on the lookout for people smuggling dope out of the U.S. His share of the ransom, along with the cocaine, went into the second canvas bag he had bought on Monday. Tomorrow he would find a hiding place.

              Wednesday was a day of frustration, as he put a hundred miles on the Buick, cruising Wheeling and the immediate area, looking for a safe place to stash half a million dollars in cash. It was a much tougher proposition than he had expected. Bus station lockers were ruled out as being too public. There were a couple of neighborhoods with abandoned buildings, but when he went to check one out he surprised half a dozen teenagers smoking pot, and had a hairy ten minutes talking them out of kicking his ass for him and taking his Buick. His irritation increased as the day wore on. He wanted to get on the road. Just before dark, in an industrial development near the Ohio River, he found the perfect spot. A small brick building was under construction, and there was no watchman in sight. He forced an outside door and went in, leaving the money in the trunk of the car a block away. In the rear of the building, on the second floor, the drywall work was about a third completed, and there were several walls in progress.

              This was right up his alley. In Binghamton, every male Villarubbia could hang drywall by the age of thirteen. Even John could hang Sheetrock. One room in the building was padlocked, and he broke in with a crowbar, wrenching the screws out of the wood. Everything he needed was there, including half a bucket of mud. He hurried back to the car and retrieved the money and carried it into the building. The packet was a snug fit between two studs in a wall, and he covered it with a four by eight drywall panel and risked the noise of nailing it in place. Nobody appeared, and after having a good look around, he went back in and taped it and finished it with the mud and a wet rag, and the cache was invisible. His work was as good as the rest. The wall now had one more panel in place than it should have, but who would remember? And the mud would be dry in an hour. He put his tools and supplies away, and stole a Skill saw and a cordless drill to make it look like a burglary, and then left them hidden in brush when he went back to his car.

              It was full dark, and his problem was solved, and he felt as good as a man can feel after abandoning more money than he had ever seen in his life. He checked out of his motel and turned the Buick west, taking Interstate 70 toward Cambridge, where he could go south on 77. At the appointed time he would stop and get some change and call Piper. He drove steadily, clearing Ohio before ten o'clock and going back into West Virginia at Parkersburg. Looking at his road map, he calculated that he could push on to Charleston and do his telephoning from there, and his last tie to the kidnapping would be snipped. He had already prepared Piper for what he had to tell him, so that wouldn't be so bad. He might carry on and bitch a little, but so what?

              Lindsay was quite another matter, and he tried to imagine the scene when Piper broke the news to him, and a sudden revelation hit Villarubbia like a load of buckshot. He nearly slammed on the brakes right there on the interstate. How could he have been so stupid? Shit! Piper wasn't going to break any news to Lindsay! Piper was going to hit the road to Wheeling by the fastest means, snatch the half million and keep going, and Villarubbia was liable to run into him one day, down in Mexico. Piper didn't give a damn whether or not Lindsay went back to Binghamton and started setting fires. And it would only be one day - two at the most - before Lindsay figured it out. No word from John and Piper gone from New York. He would go berserk, for sure. Could he call them both? Bad idea; suppose he reached one and not the other? Lindsay had no home phone, anyway. This was a bonehead plan he had come up with. What the hell ever made him think he could make this work? Now he had to go all the way back to Wheeling and get the money out of that wall before morning and make another plan.

              Or maybe he didn't, if he could figure a way to tie the two of them together. He began to make a plan that didn't include going back to Wheeling, and what he came up with was the very arrangement that kept the cache untouched for all these years. Initially, Villarubbia thought it was clever and foolproof. In fact, it was idiotic. The directions to the hiding place were already fixed in his mind - he had been about to call New York and explain the process to Piper. Instead of that he would cut the directions in half, and give each man half the solution, by mail. This would ensure that neither of them could rob the other, wouldn't it? He continued on to Charleston and bought a writing pad and envelopes and stamps in a supermarket, and got directions for finding the post office. Addresses were in a notebook he had recovered before abandoning the Cadillac.

              Villarubbia stood at a table in the lobby of the post office and composed a short letter to Lindsay, telling him to make a trip to Wheeling, West Virginia, with Piper, and to go to the First Presbyterian Church, even giving the
              street address. He assured him that Piper would know what to do from there, sincerely, JV. A similar communication was prepared for Piper, advising him to accompany Lindsay to a spot that only Lindsay knew, and telling him how to find a certain little brick office building from there, and then what to do when they got inside. No sweat, the building would not be finished for some time, just do it at night, best regards, JV. He sealed the envelopes and added the stamps, but hesitated before dropping them in the slot. What was he forgetting this time? He went outside and sat on the steps of the building, smoking and thinking. The second time a patrol car went by slowly, with two policemen inside looking at him through the window, he got up and mailed the letters, and returned to his car, trying to recall how to find 1-77 from downtown.

              He became aware that the new plan was not a very good one, but had no idea just how bad it would prove to be. And it got him off the hook, which was the whole reason for it in the first place. He had left their money, and told them how to get it. What more could they want from him? His plan to drive to Mexico lasted only two more days. In Bossier City, Louisiana, he picked up an opportunistic blonde in a joint near Barksdale AFB and between a bottle of liquor and his supply of nose candy he fell into such a stupor that he began boasting foolishly and in great detail about his recent exploits, including the fact that there was nearly three hundred grand in his hotel room. It took Villarubbia less than fifteen minutes to live the rest of his life, and the blonde left town with his Buick and his cash and his cocaine and his secrets, none of which he needed any longer.

              Likewise, his intention to avoid Binghamton forever quickly went by the boards. Eight days after the snatching of Sonny Boy Leppert, John Villarubbia was buried in the family plot there. On the way, the funeral procession passed within a block of the vacant lot that still bore the marks of John's now-defunct Cadillac, and Romeo's car, and a tow truck. There were four Lepperts in attendance at the service, but it was a wasted trip. They didn't find out anything about where their money had gone. Several of the Villarubbias remarked later on the unexpected appearance of a clan they hardly knew at all, and how sincerely mournful they all looked.
              If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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              • #22
                Chapter 21

                Piper, in his room at the hospice, spent nearly an hour telling Ross as much as he knew of the story. It was slow work, carried out in a voice that grew progressively weaker, and interrupted by frequent pauses for oxygen. Now he coughed painfully several times and collapsed into the pillows, mask pressed to his face and chest heaving. His eyes were closed and he seemed to shrink up, even as Ross looked at him.

                "What was in the letter he sent you?"

                Piper waved feebly to him to wait, and he went to the window, where he stood looking out and inhaling the fresh air, escaping for the moment from the little man's rotten breath. He returned to the chair by the bed and waited for Piper to recover. There had been no apparent reason for the long narrative, until he realized that it might have been the primary reason for the summons to St. Louis. Piper wanted him to know that he had, indeed, done some things of consequence in his time. In spite of Ross' impression of him, he had not always been a boat driver with bad nerves. Now, it was time to tell about the money, and he had run down. Ross sat quietly, watching Piper, and promised himself that he would never die like this. He thought the little man had worn himself out and gone to sleep, when Piper slowly removed the oxygen mask and spoke to him without opening his eyes.

                "The letter had directions on how to find the way from the reference point to the little building where the money was done up in the wall, and what part of the wall we would have to tear out."

                "From what reference point?"

                "I don't know. That part was in the letter he sent Lindsay."

                "In what town, Piper? Do you know that?"

                "Hell no. He told Lindsay that, I guess, but I don't think he told him if it was hidden in a building or buried in the ground, or what. Neither of us had enough to even start guessing."

                "So why the hell didn't you and Lindsay ever get the money? Did you ever try? Was Villarubbia jerking you around with those letters?"

                Piper sucked oxygen briefly. "Think about it. We would have had to trust each other, right? Lindsay wouldn't want to take me to the right town and the reference point, because then he would be out of business, right? And if he did take me somewhere, and tell me this is the place, how could I believe him? And if I believed him, and showed him how to find the building, then I'm out of business if he had lied to me. Or I might take a wrong route and end up no place, and come back later without him.

                Shit, there's no end to it, Ross. Imagine a couple of guys like me and Lindsay in that fix. I often wonder if Villarubbia couldn't see that coming. He should have split up the money and made two stashes and let us each know how to find our own, but that's not what he did, and then he was dead. I found that out from his mother a week later, when I decided we were screwed unless we could find him, and I called his house. I got to rest a minute." He collapsed on the pillows again, and began to breathe oxygen. Ross thought he looked worse, and felt foolish because he was pulling for Piper to live long enough to finish his tale. A fairy tale, probably, but a pretty good one.

                "By the time I got my letter, a couple of days after he was supposed to call, I had made up my mind to screw Lindsay out of his share. So, like some kind of dumbass, I screwed up the whole thing on the first day. I made sure I never got any money. I was thinking John would tell me where the stuff was, and I would just go and get it alone, but he must have figured that out for himself. Then when the letter came, and I saw what he had done, I figured that I still didn't need Lindsay if I could get his letter. It didn't make a rat's ass to me if he went back to Binghamton and started burning down houses or not. So I went over to his place right away and jimmied open the mail box, hoping the other letter might be in there. It wasn't - he already had it - but he came out of his pad and caught me at it, with a little pry bar in my hand and his box lid hanging open. We had a fight, right there, and he tried to kill me with a knife. He cut me and I shot him, and then we broke it off."

                "I went home and packed up my stuff in a suitcase and moved to another place, and left town a couple days later for good." He went back to the mask with a greater urgency than before, but he kept his eyes open and fixed on Jack Ross. "I called him before I took off, and we made a date to meet and work it out, but I didn't show up. You'd have to know Lindsay to understand what I'm telling you. You don't shoot Darryl Lindsay and then sit down to talk business with him. The only thing on his mind would be how he was going to kill you, or at least that's the way I had it figured. He's got eyes like a snake. I'm about to tell you not to trust him, you know, but you've got to, or you'll be in the same fix I've been in all this time. I can't tell you what to do. You figure it out. In the back of my mind, I guess I've always thought we would get it one day, that it would wait for us to show up, but now that's out. It was kind of a nest egg for my old age, you know what I mean? Back then I didn't know I wasn't going to have any old age."

                "You still know how to find him?"

                "Sure, I can give you enough contacts, for all the good it'll do you. He might still be where I last saw him. He won't go far from New York, not Lindsay." Piper tried to grin at Ross, but he didn't have a grin left in him. All he could do was to draw back his dry lips and expose the yellow teeth. "I may not even be doing you a favor. Maybe this is a curse, after all. I might still go to hell over this."

                Ross stayed another twenty minutes, while Piper gave him what was left. At one point, Bynum came and opened the door enough to look into the room, but left again without speaking. He was checking on Ross, rather than Piper. There didn't appear to be anything between the lawyer and his client. Finally it was over, and Ross stood up and walked again to the window. Piper followed him with his dead eyes.

                "I'm glad you came. I can't talk to these other people - they're a bunch of buzzards, coming by to see if I'm dead yet. Ross? Jack?"

                "What?"

                "Do you still hate me? It's been a long damn' time."

                "No, I don't guess I do. Not much point in it now, anyway. This is worse than anything I ever wished for you."

                "Man, if you only knew. I hate all you ****ers that aren't going to die this month. That money's there. I know it is. John Villarubbia was scared to death of Lindsay, and he sure God didn't want him on the loose in Binghamton, among his family and relatives. There was some kind of tie between them - it seemed like they were fascinated with one another - but I know he tried to do the right thing. In that way, he was better than either me or Lindsay. For that kind of money, we would have gone south and never looked back, but not him. He wasn't mean enough, or hard enough, to split without worrying about his family. If nobody has torn out that wall, and if you can figure out how to deal with Lindsay, you can get that money. But watch your ass. He'll kill you in a second. You might better plan to do him first, if he gives you a chance. He's not very smart, but he's crazy." Piper stuck his pale face back into the mask, and drew life. "You headed right back to Baton Rouge?"

                "In the morning, I guess. You need anything?"

                Piper hesitated. "Yeah. Shake my hand, Jack." The wide eyes were intense and fearful. He produced a small, pale hand from under the sheet and extended it tentatively. Ross took it slowly, and Piper's grip, for a few seconds, was like steel. It was as if he thought his visitor might have the power to save him from what lay ahead. Ross frowned slightly, and Piper relaxed the grip and drew the hand back under the sheet.

                "See you later, Jack," said Piper softly.

                Ross left him staring into a far corner of the room. In the hall, he met the nurse with sore feet. "How's Mr. Graham?" she asked him.

                Ross fanned his hand in front of his nose. "He could use some mouthwash."

                "Shame. Some day it'll be you in there, you know."

                He shrugged and kept walking "I hope somebody brings me some mouthwash."
                If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                Comment


                • #23
                  Chapter 22

                  Bynum and the security man shared the dark lobby in silence. The lawyer looked sleepy and the guard looked bored. Bynum stood up stiffly as Ross entered the lobby, and for the second time the two of them passed through the door without a challenge.

                  "Sorry to keep you waiting so long."

                  "It's okay, I knew it would take a while, but I'm always glad to get the hell out of there. It makes me uncomfortable. I figured Willie would want to tell you the whole thing. He's pretty tired of talking to me and Miriam,"

                  "I'm glad to get out, too. We all want to die in our sleep at home, and we don't want to have to think about it first. And if you die in a hospital, at least they're still trying to save your life, but there's only one reason to be in a place like this. Piper knows why he's here, and what it's going to take to get him out. Why doesn't he just do it? What the hell is he hoping for?"

                  "One of the doctors said he might be hanging on until he got to talk to you. I don't know. I've seen sicker-looking people than him that got well, but when he gets one of those coughing fits, you can tell that that's the way he'll go. You ready?"

                  "Yeah, let's go. I appreciate all your trouble for me."

                  "It's okay, I'm glad to help. It's all part of seeing a man through his last days. I've been through it once or twice before. I represent a bunch of people sort of like him, and he's not the only one without any family. I guess that's a commentary of some sort on my law practice - one that I don't like to dwell on, but it's a fact. Some lawyers make more on one case than I'll make in all my years of cleaning up after people like Willie, but sometimes I look down on them, believe it or not. They do some things that I wouldn't."

                  Ross grinned at him. "Do you do things they wouldn't?"

                  Bynum sniffed and shrugged. "I might. Different strokes, I guess." Both men began to breathe a bit deeper as they walked out into the night and away from the hospice. "You hungry?" Bynum asked him.

                  "Yeah, I could eat something. I feel like I'm abusing your hospitality."

                  "I'm okay. I had a little nap, and I'll sleep in tomorrow, if I feel like it. I'll just get the wife to call Maggie and tell her." He unlocked the Lincoln, and they got in. The scent of cologne was gone, but the smell of the cigarettes was there for good. It had taken a permanent grip on the upholstery. Bynum took the car down the drive and into the street, and then back to the boulevard. "Did you guys bury the hatchet?"

                  "We're not ever going to be friends, but it doesn't bother either of us much. I'm sorry for him. I hope I never get like he is up there."

                  "He's all alone, you know? He's been up there several weeks now, and you know who-all has come to see him? His heirs. You and me and Miriam and that sleazy priest. If he didn't have anything to leave behind, nobody would show up at all. What the hell, he doesn't belong to a church or a club, but he's lived a few years in this town, and he knows a few people, but nobody comes to see him. Maybe nobody knows he's there. Maybe it's because he's not married, you know? It's always the wife who tells people things like when you're sick. I never thought about it. Except for the wife, I guess it could happen to me. You married, Ross?"

                  "I used to be, but I got over it several years ago. Some of us just aren't cut out for it." Both men were silent for a few minutes. The ride was smooth and comfortable in the big car, and Ross relaxed in the seat and thought about Piper again. "If you ever get like him, looking like death and sucking your oxygen through a hose, are you sure you want people to come and look at you?"

                  "Would it be better if they just forgot about you, and left you to die alone?"

                  "I'd have to think about it. The thing that sticks in my mind is that I don't want to get that way. The waiting has got to be as bad as the dying - maybe worse. I'll bet if the doctor came in some night and told him he had forty minutes left, it would be a relief to him. Wouldn't it?"

                  Out of the corner of his eye, Ross could see Bynum turn his head to look at him, but he didn't acknowledge. He drove on, without answering the question. Within a few minutes he turned onto a service road that paralleled the Interstate, and after a block they parked at an all-night place called Mooney's. There were cars in the lot and people inside, mostly couples. They took a booth in the front window and ordered breakfast from a big girl in a small blue uniform with most of the customary condiments in evidence here and there on the front. She returned with coffee, and they both smoked from Bynum's pack.

                  "Did Willie tell you how to get the money?" asked the lawyer, watching for Ross' reaction and then smiling at the sudden surprise that widened the eyes looking at him over the rim of the cup. Ross had obviously not been prepared for the question, and he lowered the cup and stared out the window for several seconds before answering.

                  "How much has Piper told you about all this? Everything, I suppose, except for the actual instructions for finding the hiding place. You said you didn't know what he wanted to tell me."

                  Bynum shrugged. "I know. I thought it was best, because I hadn't decided yet what I wanted to do. While you were up there with Willie, I was down in the lobby giving it some serious thought, and I decided to talk to you while you were here in St. Louis, instead of trying to do it on the telephone, later."

                  Ross was visibly irritated, and he sat for a time with his lower lip stuck out and his brows lowered, watching the traffic passing on the highway. This didn't seem to be much of a secret that Piper had just told him. Finally he sighed and moved his eyes back to Bynum. "What did you decide to talk to me about?"

                  "About the money, naturally. Listen to me a minute and try to follow my thinking. It's been a couple of days since Willie told me the same thing he's been telling you, but without the important details, so I've had a little time to examine the whole thing." He was hunched over the table, leaning on his forearms, with his head thrust forward and down, and he had to raise his eyebrows to look directly at Ross. It made him seem smaller, and furtive. Ross' initial shock had passed, and his face had returned to its' usual expression; a sort of poker face that didn't reveal much about what was in his mind. When Sandra was having trouble communicating with him, she referred to it as a double coat of blockout white. He met the other man's eyes and held them, but there was nothing in his manner to help Bynum tailor his approach.

                  "When Willie first mentioned this matter to me, and asked me to contact you, I wrote the letter without giving it much thought. It was just another little service for me to bill him for after he was gone. That was only a couple of days ago. But that same night, while we were finishing up some other little things, he went on and told me most of the story, but he saved the goodies for you. It was something he really figured he had to do - something for the debt he owed you. By the time you called, he had lost a lot of ground, and the doctors figured his time was short, so I sent you some of his money to be sure you came quickly. What I at first took to be a wild goose chase began to look more like a real possibility. Willie believes in it, I'm pretty sure of that. Just look at the situation, beginning with this man John Villarubbia. I called an attorney I know in Binghamton, and he checked it out. A young man by that name is buried there, and he was found murdered in a motel in Bossier City, and his family has a construction company.

                  The kidnapping apparently was never reported, but Richard and Irving Leppert are real and they have a brother named Sonny who left town at about the same time. Their father, Simon, is dead now, but they seem to be dope dealers on a pretty large scale. All I could find out fits the story, and I believe Willie when he tells it. Going to hell is what this is all about, and I don't think he's lying to us. He's convinced the money's up there somewhere, so I think so, too. Villarubbia left it behind because he was afraid of Lindsay, if for no other reason. Besides, if he was going to try to keep it all, why go to all the trouble he did? The hiding place was a good one. When the crew showed up the next day, they just kept hanging sheetrock, beginning right next to the panel Villarubbia had put up for them. No reason for anybody to ever tear it out. Being in an outside wall, even a remodeling shouldn't have disturbed it. I think it's still there, waiting. Maybe it's not. Maybe it never was. But that's what I think. Whether he knew it or not at the time, the arrangements he made couldn't have been worse. Maybe you and I could have worked it out between us, but not Lindsay and Willie. He might as well have shot it to the moon, for all the chance they had to get it. And that's why I believe it's still there. Think about it."

                  The waitress came with their orders, and Bynum had to straighten up and move his elbows to make room for her to set down his plate, but his eyes stayed on Ross. The intensity of his manner came as another surprise, seeming out of character for the aging lawyer who had volunteered to drive the visitor out to the hospice and back. He was working himself up to making a proposition, but Ross did not feel the same excitement that made the other man wide-eyed and talkative.

                  "I am thinking about it," said Ross, "and what I'm thinking is that Piper has told too many people. I figured I was the only one. Now I find he's told you, too. What about Miriam and Father What's His Name, and is there anybody else?"

                  Bynum had his mouth full of hash browns, and there was a delay while he swallowed a couple of times and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. He appeared to be considering his reply, and twice he looked at Ross, and then looked away again. "We've got to assume he told the woman and the priest. They're both closer to him than I am. But I doubt there's anybody else. Nobody else has gone to see him, as far as I know. I guess we could ask him tomorrow, but it doesn't make much difference, does it, as long as he hasn't been telling the important bits? Also, I'm assuming that he did give you that tonight." He made it sound like a question, but Ross did not comment.

                  "Has he told you how to find Lindsay, too?"

                  "Not an address, but probably enough so that I could find him if I tried. I know the names of some places where Willie used to see him, and a few people they both knew. So I guess Miriam and Father Ortega could, too."

                  Ross was putting strawberry jelly on the point of a piece of toast, and without looking up he asked, "While we're on the subject, would that be Miriam and Father Ortega getting out of the little red Firebird?" This time, he had surprised Bynum. Bynum put down his fork, which had three bites of hotcakes and syrup speared on the tines, and turned to look out the window, squinting to see from the bright interior of the cafe into the darker parking lot.

                  "Sure is, but I don't know what they're doing here at this hour."

                  "You're amazed to see them, right?"

                  "You think I brought you here so they could get a look at you, don't you?"

                  "What would you think?"

                  "The same thing, I guess, but you're wrong. I've been here with them a time or two, and Willie might have told them you'd be in town tonight, so maybe they've been cruising around hoping to find my car here. But I give you my word, they're not in this with me. I'm not going to get mixed up with that pair."

                  Ross' face slowly assumed an expression of innocent wonder, and his own eyes went wide under raised eyebrows. He stopped eating and leaned forward, both hands on the edge of the table. "Mr. Bynum, what is it that they're not in with you?"

                  Bynum was flustered and caught at a disadvantage, and it angered him. "Nothing, at this point," he said. "Let's finish and we can talk in the car. I'm trying to be helpful and you're making me feel guilty about it. I must be doing it wrong. And I didn't need for them to show up, either. That doesn't help a bit."

                  The newcomers were inside, now, and they took a small table about twenty feet from where Ross and Bynum sat. The woman wore stretch jeans and a tee shirt, and had red hair piled high on her head. She was studying the menu through cat-eye glasses, and she looked exactly like a hooker on the downside - one who had found a way to get off the street. She was twenty pounds overweight, and her ample breasts rose high and proud in front of her. The shirt was tight enough to reveal how deeply the industrial-strength foundation garment was cutting into her flesh, both over the shoulders and across the ribs. Miriam was suffering for her impressive profile. The man with her was dressed all in black, except for the white dress shirt, worn open at the throat and without a tie. Black cloth suit, new black shoes and black socks. He was bony and gaunt, and the suit coat hung badly on him. His hair was long and dark and unkempt, and it curved down his face from either side like parentheses, hung there to enclose the vacant stare of an addict, perhaps, for the inspection of a sophomore H & PE class. Ross felt certain he had become a clergyman on the same day that Miriam had reported that Piper wanted one.

                  They looked neither right nor left, and Bynum made no effort to acknowledge their presence, even as he and Ross passed within a few feet of their table on the way to the register. Nothing more was said until Bynum reached for the check in Ross' hand.

                  "Let me buy. This was my idea."

                  "Forget it. Willie's buying tonight," said Ross, and put down a bill from his pocket. Miriam Moscowitz and Father Ortega had lost their appetites. As Bynum drove the Lincoln out of the lot, Ross could see the other two leaving the cafe and heading for the red Firebird.
                  If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                  Comment


                  • #24
                    Chapter 23

                    They followed the service road to the first main crossing boulevard, and from there back up onto the Interstate. Bynum turned away from the city and allowed the big car to gain speed. Ross was relaxed again, and settled himself into the seat and smoked another of Bynum's cigarettes and looked out the window. "Have you got some time to take a ride and hear what I have to say?" asked Bynum.

                    Ross kept him waiting again. "Go ahead, but don't drive so fast. Poor Miriam doesn't have a Lincoln back there."

                    The muscles in Bynum's jaw clenched and released, and he looked in the mirror without moving his head. "I'd like to know what the hell they think they're doing, following us around."

                    "They're waiting their turn to do the same thing you're about to do. Apparently you're not the only man with a plan. I can't wait to hear why everybody wants to get next to me. I've been in St. Louis less than four hours and already I've got a fan club. Let's get on with it; I'm thinking about going back to Baton Rouge."

                    "Well this hasn't worked out worth a shit, but I might as well go ahead, anyway. Have you decided what you'll do with the information Willie gave you? He did tell you all of it, didn't he?"

                    Again, Ross ignored the last question. "I haven't had any time, yet, to think about what I'll do. Don't forget, I was thinking he had told me a secret - a hot tip that was twenty years old, you might say. I've known enough people like Piper, or Willie Graham, not to get all excited about his story. I'll certainly make some effort to check it out, and run down the other party, but I'll do it at my leisure. It's much too soon to close up my shop and retire. It never occurred to me that this thing was urgent, after all this time. Now, all of a sudden, I find that Piper's lawyer knows almost as much about it as I do, and he wants some of the action, although I don't know what his proposition might be. Besides that, Piper's girlfriend and Piper's girlfriend's boyfriend may feel the same way, either individually or jointly or together with the lawyer or in cahoots with somebody else that I don't know about yet.

                    And this money everybody is running after, if there is any money, is tainted. It may have started out as drug money, but now it's ransom money, and even if I could walk in somewhere and pick it up, it would make me uncomfortable as hell, with all the people who know about it. I'm not too holy to spend ransom money, if that's what it is, but I don't want to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, either. All I have to do to get rich is work out the details with a psycho named Lindsay, and that's something Piper has been having nightmares about for all these years. That's assuming I can find him at all. Then, suppose I get the money, or half of it. What if you or Miriam or Chico the priest or somebody else decides to sell my name and address to the Lepperts, in Binghamton? That couldn't be anything but bad news. You told me this trip to St. Louis could be profitable. Well, I can think of several other words that might apply, too. I'm pretty sure I'll at least investigate this thing, Mr. Bynum. I can't just ignore it. It's too much money. But I want to think about it a while, first. I'm not sure Piper has done me any favors."

                    Bynum seem uncertain how to begin. "Just out of curiosity, do you feel entitled to this money? Do you figure Willie owes you this much for what happened on Long Island?"

                    Ross laughed. "He owes me something, but I never figured to collect, not from him. I never expected to see him again. And I don't see much need to wonder whether I'm entitled or not, not yet. Or how to spend it, either. It's much too soon. Anything I might get out of this, over expenses, will be gefunde gelt, as the Jews say. Found money. That'll be time enough to start thinking about who's more entitled to it than me. Unless it would be the Lepperts - and I doubt I'd go for that - no other names come to mind."

                    "I guess I can accept that."

                    "Yeah, I guess you can."

                    Bynum was embarrassed again. "You're not an easy man to talk to, are you?"

                    "I'm not here to make it easy for you, can you understand that? Put yourself in my place. All this has been dumped on my head on short notice. While we're talking about it, I don't think for a minute you would have contacted me, at all, if you figured you could get Piper to tell you what he had, so I don't have a hell of a lot of sympathy for your position, whatever it is. I'm beginning to get irritated, and it's pretty late. Make your pitch and then let me out, or else take me somewhere I can get some sleep. I guess I'll go and see Piper one more time, to ask him how many other people are in on this, and then I'm going to Baton Rouge. I'm not likely to make any decisions in the next few days."

                    "All right. I hate to disappoint you, but I haven't been plotting with Miriam or anybody else, and I never pushed Willie to tell me his secret, either. And I don't have a proposition for getting part of the action. But I do have an offer for you to keep in mind for later, if it should work out that way. I know you didn't ask to get into this business, but you're in it, and I'm sure you won't blow it off without at least talking to Lindsay, and maybe the two of you will be able to get this money and split it and live happily ever after. Or maybe you'll find yourselves in the same position as Lindsay and Willie; in a dead standoff. Before you give it up, call me. I'm not prepared to front any money, but I would be willing to give you and Lindsay my note for half of any money recovered, as payment for whatever information the two of you can give me. In other words, I'll buy your secrets and his secrets if the two of you can't work it out. Then, if I get it, you'll get fifty percent to split.

                    If I don't get it, the notes would be worthless, unless you wanted to take me to court and prove I'm lying. If I get it and then try to stiff you, you'll have legal documents that I wouldn't want to have taken to court, plus it would all become taxable or returnable to the Lepperts. I'm substantial enough in this community that I wouldn't be likely to go south with the money. So, that's the extent of my conniving - an alternative to deadlock. Keep it in mind. If it develops that way there would be nothing you could lose. Now, do you want a motel near the airport, or near Willie?"

                    "The airport, I guess. Maybe I can call him in the morning. There's one thing that bothers me, already. Did the people in Bossier City ever catch John Villarubbia's killer? Did they ever solve this murder?"

                    "I don't think so. Why do you ask?"

                    "There's not much question he was killed for the money he was carrying?"

                    "It would be a great coincidence if he wasn't, but I guess it's possible. What are you getting at?"

                    "I sure would like to know how much he was holding, you know? I'd like to know if he was killed for three hundred thousand or for eight hundred thousand. This whole thing could be a wild goose chase."

                    "Could be, but my own opinion is that he hid the money he said he did. Everything points that way. The little red car is still following us. Shall I shake her, so you can sleep in peace?"

                    "No, don't worry about it. If she wants to see me, I'll give her a couple of minutes, and then sleep in peace afterward."

                    "I don't really like leaving you to deal with Father Ortega. He talks about heaven, but there's some kind of hell in his eyes. He makes me cold."

                    "He's pretty spooky-looking, but I'll be okay."

                    "Yeah, I imagine you will."
                    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                    Comment


                    • #25
                      Chapter 24

                      Bynum obliged by taking him to a motel within a couple of miles of the airport. A neon sign in the front promised there was a vacancy, but even if there had not been, three other places were within walking distance. Ross took his little bag from behind the seat and declined the offer to wait and drive him to his door. As he left the car at the main entrance, he turned to Bynum.

                      "What can I say? Thanks for the service?"

                      Bynum nodded. "No trouble. Here, take my card. You might want to call. No, wait. Here's one with my home phone number on it. You want me to keep you posted on how Willie's doing?"

                      "Only when he dies. I'd be interested to know when he's gone." He turned and walked into the lobby, tossing a half-wave. Bynum was shaking his head slowly. Ross registered with the clerk and asked for a ground floor room on the back parking lot. The man pushed a key at him and pointed out his room on a map of the property. He paid in advance for one night and left through the back door of the lobby, crossing a courtyard diagonally. Miriam's red car was tucked into a row of parked vehicles in front of a line of rooms. He might have missed it, except for the fact she had her foot on the brake. He walked by without looking at her.

                      His room was at the extreme rear of the motel, just as he had requested. He went in, turning on lights and closing the door behind him, and put the bag down on the bed. There wasn't much in it, and finding his toothbrush and toothpaste took only seconds. In the little bathroom he washed his face and cleaned his teeth, brushing away the taste of Bynum's cigarettes. Exhaustion took him immediately, and he turned down the bed and switched off all lights except a night light. But instead of going to bed, he sprawled in the only big chair in the room and waited in the darkness. His first day in St. Louis wasn't quite over. Miriam didn't keep him waiting long. He saw headlights sweep across his drapes and go out. Car doors closed and high heels clicked on the pavement. Ross pulled out his shirttail and undid a couple of buttons on his shirt, and took his time answering the knock when it came. They were both at the door, but it was the man who spoke, and his voice was unexpectedly soft and smooth. He sounded like a clergyman.

                      "Mr. Ross?"

                      "I'm Ross. What's the trouble?"

                      "Nothing, Mr. Ross, no trouble at all. I'm Father Ortega." Ross did not respond, so he turned to the woman. "This is Miriam Moscowitz."

                      Ross nodded and held his position, leaning forward through the half-opened door. One hand was on the doorknob and the other was against the inside of the jamb. He waited, without expression. Father Ortega smiled at him, a strange sort of bloodless, toothy wound between sunken cheeks. Ross wasn't making it easy for him, either.

                      "May we come in, Mr. Ross?"

                      Ross looked at his watch. "Afraid not. It's late and I've had a long day. I'm on my way to bed."

                      "This is very important, Mr. Ross."

                      Ross sighed and squinted at the other man. "Important to who, Mr. Ortega? To you or to me?" He deliberately neglected to call him 'Father'.

                      "To all of us." He was still smiling, but the smile was beginning to look a bit strained. "We're not really comfortable, just standing out here. We'd like to come inside."

                      "Well, you can't, not tonight. I'll come out and give you a couple of minutes. Try to be brief."

                      "You're not very hospitable, Mr. Ross." His teeth were still showing, but the expression was no longer a smile.

                      "That's true." Ross stepped out, pulling the door shut behind him, and stood expectantly.

                      Ortega looked to Miriam, and she smiled sweetly at Ross. "I'm a bit disappointed. I thought we could all sit down sociably and discuss this matter that is so vital to our friend, Mr. Graham." She presented herself a little better than he had expected, after hearing Bynum speak of her. Perhaps not so slick as Ortega, but better than one might anticipate. He could tell she had been a good-looking woman before she had become whatever she was now.

                      "Willie is not a friend of mine, and it's not a reasonable hour to come to see me. State your business."

                      "You went to see Willie tonight, Mr. Ross." Ortega seemed to want an acknowledgment, but he didn't get any. Ross offered him the same blank countenance that had defied Bynum's efforts to see beyond it. "Has Willie told you that, through me, he has found God?"

                      "He must have forgotten to mention it. Are you Catholic? What is your church, anyway?"

                      "If it makes any difference, Mr. Ross, I represent the Church of the Refuge."

                      "The Refuse?" Ross had decided to dislike Ortega, and Ortega made it easy for him. He looked like a pickpocket, perhaps from Dickens. He sounded like a priest, but he looked like a thief.

                      "Refuge." Father Ortega spoke slowly and patiently, but his manner was no longer gentle. Ross didn't know many priests, but none of them had eyes like Ortega's. "Church of the Refuge, for lost lambs."

                      "Sounds like a 4-H project." To the priest's left, Miriam was trying to keep a straight face.

                      "You're not a pious man either, I'm afraid. I hope that before it is too late for you, you will find the revelations that have come to Mr. Graham. And if you're not a friend of his, then why did he send for you?"

                      "You're not making good use of your two minutes." Ross shifted his position, moving toward the door to his room.

                      "I'll come to the point. I had hoped for an opportunity to make a more complete presentation of my cause, but your attitude, so far, has denied me that." He paused again, and again Ross passed up a chance to help him. "As you may know, Mr. Graham has not been especially charitable, during his life, toward those around him who have been less fortunate. His good deeds were few and far between. Now, his doctors tell him he is dying, and he belatedly feels a need to do whatever he can to gain admission to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the task of the rest of us, such as you and me, to do as much as we can to help him, here at the eleventh hour, as it were. Willie's close friend, Miss Moscowitz, called on me for this work." Ortega was considerably smoother than Ross had anticipated.

                      Ross interrupted the pitch. "Miss Moscowitz is one of your, ah, parishioners?"

                      Ortega turned and examined the woman beside him, as if to verify that that was, indeed, her status. "Yes, she's a member of the Church." He turned his attention back to Ross. "Mr. Graham has named the Church as beneficiary of his life insurance policy, as part of a program that I recommended to him in this belated effort to find salvation. I advised him to pray, and to dedicate his worldly possessions to good works, and to try to make amends, wherever he could, for wrongs he has done in the past. That brings us to you, Mr. Ross. For some reason, yours was the only name that seemed to weigh on his conscience, but he did not see fit to explain to me exactly what his sin against you had been." Ortega wasted another pause. Ross might have been an unmotivated teacher listening to the recitation of a student.

                      "Anyway, Willie has turned over to you his one remaining asset; his half of the directions to a large amount of dirty money. Even though you have not acknowledged this to me, I knew he intended to do it, and the fact that you have come to St. Louis to visit him is proof enough. His decision to do this was most certainly hasty and ill-advised. Surely his debt to you was not so great as all that. I had intended that he contact you and make sincere apology for whatever it was, but he seemed to get a bit carried away, and I feel certain he has done himself great harm. That money, if there is any, should go to the church. If necessary, I believe I can go back to Mr. Graham and influence him to see things in that light, and his account in the Book of Life can certainly use the additional credit, if I may express it in that way. On the other hand, if you will make this gesture yourself, there will be no need to go back to Willie and talk business with him, as it were, in his final hours. And perhaps such an act of charity on your part might also tip the scales in your favor when the time comes to assign you to a place for Eternity." Ortega carried off the whole thing quite neatly, but with an air of not being totally comfortable with it.

                      Ross clasped his hands behind his back and leaned forward toward the other man for a few seconds, and then turned his gaze to Miss Moscowitz. She favored him with another tight little smile, and he thought for an instant she was going to roll her eyes at the priest's performance, as well. He swung back to Ortega. "As I understand it, Willie and I will get the credit from God, and you'll get the money. Is that about it?"

                      "Yes, I will . . ." He stopped abruptly, grimaced, and began again. "The Church will be custodian of the funds, and will have them available to expand our program of charity and love. A great deal can be done with such an amount, Mr. Ross, as you can imagine."

                      "I don't know how to tell you this, but I've already promised my share of the loot to another church."

                      Ortega's patience was wearing thin. He sighed and elevated his eyebrows until they seemed disassociated from the narrow eyes. "Oh? And which church would that be, Mr. Ross?"

                      "First Corinthians." An audible giggle escaped Miriam Moscowitz, and earned
                      her a brief, reproachful look from her companion.

                      "First Corinthians, as we all know, is not a church."

                      "So I've been flim-flammed."

                      "Your levity is poorly timed, I'm afraid."

                      "You're the Church, aren't you, Ortega?"

                      "I am only the priest."

                      "And if I do as you ask, then when I die there is a good chance that I will go to the same place as Willie?"

                      "I believe so."

                      "Piss on that."

                      The venom flashed again in Ortega's eyes, and then softened. "There's no need for that, Mr. Ross. There's a lady present."

                      Ross fought off an urge to shade his eyes and scan the parking lot. "You called this his one remaining asset. Isn't Willie leaving anything else behind? No will?"

                      "I believe Miss Moscowitz will get Mr. Graham's personal effects."

                      "Like his car."

                      "I believe there is a car, isn't there?" Ortega shifted his feet, and Miriam shrugged and nodded vaguely. They were all standing within fifteen feet of the car in question. "And a house. She gets the house, too?"

                      The priest turned to his companion. "Will you inherit Willie's house, Miss Moscowitz?" he asked politely. She was flustered, and her blush could be seen, even in the dim light. Her eyes widened, and she explained that she had not actually seen the will, and could not possibly know what was in it. Ortega turned back to Ross, and opened his mouth to speak, but Ross cut him off.

                      "And the taxi business, and the rental cars and the other interests - Miss Moscowitz gets the lot, doesn't she?"

                      "Mr. Ross, you can't expect me to know all about Mr. Graham's personal business, or Miss Moscowitz' either, for that matter."

                      "Bullshit. You know all about my business, and I know damn' well you know all about theirs, too. I have a question. Is she going to turn over all her loot to the church, like you're asking me to do?"

                      "She always gives generously."

                      "I'll bet she does."

                      Ortega tried again. "She is not a wealthy person, if it's any of your business. Her security in her senior years is involved here."

                      "She drives a better car than I do."

                      "This is not for you and me to decide, and it's not the issue at hand. Can I count on your cooperation?"

                      "No. You can go to hell."

                      The man in black and white glanced briefly at Miriam, before replying. "I thought you might say something like that."

                      "You were right. Was there anything else?"

                      Ortega's manner changed visibly. He seemed to be standing a little straighter; he looked wider than before. He cocked his head to the left a fraction before speaking. "Yes, there are a couple of other things of interest. If you won't reconsider in this matter, we are prepared to call the Lepperts in Binghamton and give them your name and address."

                      Ross heaved an audible sigh and stared down at the sidewalk between them. "That really makes my goddam day. Willie didn't keep much from you people, did he?"

                      "We know almost as much as you do. Maybe more, in certain areas. If I were you, I would think about it."

                      "What would you gain by telling the Lepperts where to find me?"

                      "I'm quite certain they would pay well for a package with you and Darryl Lindsay in it. We could give them both, of course."

                      "You keep saying 'we'. That's you and Miriam, here?"

                      "The Church, Mr. Ross. Always the Church."

                      "Where is this church, anyway?"

                      "We're in it now. The Church is everywhere."

                      "That's about the way I had it figured. The low rent district. Why didn't the two of you just come to me and lay it on the table? Just tell me that if I didn't cut you in on this mysterious money, you'd call the Lepperts and tell on me. There wasn't any point in dressing up in a nine-dollar black outfit and then shaking your imaginary church at me like a club. I'm not Willie, and I'm not dying. Put a stocking over your head so I can recognize you, and make your pitch. You said there were a couple of things. What's the other?"

                      Ortega looked at him for a few seconds before turning to Miriam, and he looked at her for a few seconds before answering Ross' question. "I think I'll save the other one for now. Can we talk?"

                      "We just did." Ross opened his door, but made no move to invite the others inside.

                      "You're turning us down."

                      "Good, you're smarter than you look. Do whatever you think you should, but think about it first. That's always a good rule."

                      "You're making a mistake."

                      Ross grinned at Ortega wearily. "I do some of that, pal, I really do." He went inside and closed the door. There was muffled conversation and then the sound of Miriam's high heels going back to the little red car. Ortega must have had rubber soles. One of them gunned the engine and spun the wheels as they left. Ross undressed in the dark, and fell into bed. He didn't leave a call.
                      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                      Comment


                      • #26
                        Chapter 25

                        At six-thirty Ross was wide awake - still tired, but no longer sleepy. The motel bed had not been kind to his back, and he squirmed around in it until he was more comfortable. The thick drapes on the window kept the room in semi-darkness. He wanted to go back to sleep, but his mind had already started the day. Could one call the airline desk at the airport at this hour and book a flight back to New Orleans? Would they send a courtesy car for him? Should he call Piper before he left? Not much point in that, anyway, for now. He didn't have much idea what he was going to do about this whole thing. It would take some thought, but he could do it after he got back. Would Ortega really call the Lepperts? Had he, Ross, gone overboard in his hostility toward him?

                        Piper must have lost a lot of sleep in the first months after the kidnapping, knowing that his half of five hundred thousand dollars was tied up with Lindsay's, built into the wall of a building in western New York, or Pennsylvania or Canada or even somewhere else. The fact that Villarubbia had been killed in Louisiana made Canada look like a false lead. Mexico was more likely. The stash, if there was one, figured to be somewhere along the way. Villarubbia had told him of driving from Binghamton to Elmira, and of his plan to go on into Canada, but that proved nothing. No doubt he wondered a thousand times whether it might all have been worked out with Lindsay, had he not tried to cheat him out of his share.

                        At some point, he must have come to grips with the reality of his fix. His two options were to go back to Lindsay or forget about the money. It could not have been easy to just forget about that much money, but it must have been impossible to approach Lindsay, at least in his mind. He had apparently made no effort at all in many years. Had Bynum ever approached Piper as he had approached Ross? Not unless it had been this week, according to Bynum. He said he had just heard the story. Piper had evidently not kept his secret very well. He had told at least three people besides Ross. Told them everything but the directions, just because he couldn't stand for them not to know. Ross had to wonder whether Piper had been making a sincere effort to give him something to atone for abandoning him on Long Island, or had simply played one more trick on him before punching out. Maybe he should get a car and go back to the hospice with some of his questions, before departing. There could be a few things Piper might still tell him.

                        He climbed out of bed and showered and shaved, noting that his eyes looked just about like they felt. Not so good. By the time he had put on fresh underwear he was sleepy again, and lay down on the bed. The hell with it. He would sleep a while and then go home. He didn't want to see Piper again, today or any other day. The call to the airport could wait, too. In thirty seconds he was sound asleep. It was ten minutes after seven.

                        At twenty to eight the phone rang, and Bynum was saying, "Good morning. Did I wake you up?"

                        "Not quite. I wanted to sleep a while longer, but I wasn't having much luck. This is a rotten bed."

                        "Well, I felt like I should talk to you before you go back to Baton Rouge. They called me from Willie's place this morning - from the hospice - to say that he's dead. After we left they rigged up his oxygen and tucked him in, and found him dead a few hours later."

                        "He must not have died coughing, then."

                        "He didn't. He got lucky, I suppose. His heart quit on him. We should all go like that."

                        "I'm lying here half awake, trying to think what this means to me. I guess it just means that anybody he hasn't told yet is out of luck. I was trying to decide whether or not I should go back to see him about a couple of things. Now, I can catch a plane and go home."

                        "Every time you make a comment like that, I think what a cold fish you are, but the truth is I don't feel much over his death, either. What was it about Willie, anyway?"

                        "Willie was a taker, as far as I can see, but I never knew him anyway. He didn't give a damn about me, and made it a point to say so three or four times last night. Probably didn't give a damn about you, either. He was in it alone, and we could take it or leave it. If I were in your place, I'd call every undertaker in town, and take bids to see who could get his dead ass buried the quickest and cheapest. Take whatever you think you can charge for your services and leave the rest to Miriam and her spooky Latino in the black suit. Get it over with and keep moving. He's not much loss."

                        "That reminds me - did they come to see you last night? I mean this morning?"

                        "They came. I was pretty ugly to them. Wouldn't even let them into my room. I made 'em stand out in the parking to make their pitch, and then told 'em to go to hell."

                        "What was their deal?"

                        "Not much. For half a million dollars, Ortega said he'd try to keep me from going to hell when I die. He said he thought he could get the information from Willie, if he really tried. I wonder if they went back to see him when they left me."

                        "No. I asked. Nobody had been there. So where do they stand now?"

                        "He threatened to call up the Lepperts in Binghamton, and sell them my name and Lindsay's. I told him to go ahead. If I had it to do over again, I might not be quite so hard on him - I don't like the thought of the Lepperts suddenly showing up. I was planning to go back to Baton Rouge and take my time about deciding what to do, but having this hanging over my head might force me to get on it sooner. If all this is a bad dream, I would sure like to know about it now. I feel a little ridiculous, but I'm in it, whether I like it or not. I think that damn' Willie has done it to me again. Now I'm calling him Willie, too."

                        "I'm sold on it. I really am. If you want out, give me a call. I get tired of just being on the edge of all the action, and lawyers do a lot of that. When the excitement is over, that's when everybody needs a lawyer. Maybe just once, you know what I mean, I could get there before the sheriff. I'm not getting any younger."

                        "Yeah, I know what you mean, but I don't think I want out. I might just buckle up and put a quarter in the slot to see what happens." Ross laughed. "It can't cost me a hell of a lot. Did you call Miriam and Ortega?"

                        "Not yet, but I guess I will now. Maybe I can catch 'em both with one call, ha ha. The people at the hospice are making the immediate arrangements, but I guess Miriam needs to get in on this pretty soon. She's the bereaved."

                        "They're both bereaved. Maybe Ortega can get there in time to bless him before they take him away, or something. I wonder if he has the balls to do a service for Willie, and who would show up for it."

                        "Lord knows. I think I'll let it be Miriam's problem. Are you ready to eat breakfast again?"

                        "Why not? I'm gonna be sick, anyway."

                        "What?"

                        "Nothing. Come on over, there's a coffee shop up front."

                        "See you in forty minutes."

                        Ross used up about six of the forty minutes getting dressed and putting his gear away in the little bag. He was glad for the fresh shirt, but it should have spent the night on a hanger, instead of at the bottom of the bag. He opened the heavy drapes on the window and sunlight struck his eyes like a blow. He sank into the one big chair and propped his feet up and looked out into the parking area. The commercial travelers were beginning to turn out in force, carrying sample kits and attache cases. Most of the cars were medium-to-luxury, and a lot of them bore rental agency decals. Not many stripped-down Fords and Chevvies any more. The truck drivers were long gone by this time of day. Maids plodded along, pushing carts and making slow-motion invasion of the rooms where doors had been left open.

                        The sun was warm and he was still tired, and he got sleepy again, and nodded in the chair. Bynum could call him from the coffee shop when he arrived. Fat chance. The phone rang, within a foot of his elbow. He glared at it, and let it ring twice more before he picked it up.

                        "Mr. Ross," said the phone, "this is Father Ortega. Are you feeling better this morning?"

                        Ross let him wait a few seconds, and sighed into the phone. "I was."

                        "Mr. Graham's attorney just called to say that Willie passed away during the night. He said you already knew." Silence.

                        "Are you there, Mr. Ross?"

                        "I'm here. What is it you need today?"

                        "For one thing, a little cooperation. We don't have to like each other, but we must find a way to get along, at least until our business together is done. You will soon discover that you need me, after all, and if you keep closing doors in my face there will be no money, either for you or for the Church. We should be able to work out something equitable, so that you won't have to go away empty-handed. I want to see you before you leave St. Louis." His tone sounded imperious to Ross.

                        "If you've got something I need to know about, better say so now. You keep wanting to play, but you don't seem to have any chips."

                        "All in good time, Mr. Ross. First things first. When can we get together?"

                        "You can give me your number, if you want, and maybe I'll call you back. I'll have to think about it."

                        "Maybe, nothing. Think about it now. I'll hold."

                        Ross shrugged and put the receiver down on the bed. He picked up his little bag and walked out of the room, leaving the door open for the maid.
                        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                        Comment


                        • #27
                          Chapter 26

                          At the front desk he turned in the key to his room and bought a local paper, which he took into the coffee shop. He ordered a large orange juice and opened the paper. The news in St. Louis looked a lot like the news in Baton Rouge, except they didn't seem to care for either the Astros or the Braves. No accounting for tastes. He wondered whether anybody would bother to submit an obituary for Piper. For Willie Graham. He decided it wasn't too likely. Like funerals, obituaries were for the ones left behind, if any.

                          A plump woman in stretch pants with stirrups was opening the gift shop in the lobby, and Ross left his paper and his juice and walked out of the coffee shop, telling the waitress he would be back in a minute. She didn't look like she cared, either way. He picked out a garish ceramic ash tray. It said 'St. Louis, MO' on the side, hand-lettered under the final glaze, and there was a foil replica of the Gateway Arch in a plastic envelope, to be mounted in two
                          holes on the rim, and it all came in a cardboard box for mailing. He bought it for Gus Mendoza, who probably wouldn't believe he had been to St. Louis, anyway. The plump woman peered at the thing through cat-eye glasses, and charged him seven ninety-five plus tax, and it made him feel dumb. Mendoza didn't even smoke.

                          By the time he got back to the coffee shop, Bynum was at his table, reading his paper through bifocal glasses. They ordered breakfast for the second time in about eight hours, then sat in silence, smoking Bynum's cigarettes again. The traveling men came and went around them, singly, in pairs, by threes. Many of them appeared to know each other, and there were no women to be seen. If there were female traveling salespersons, they must stay somewhere else.

                          "Things could be worse," said Ross, after watching them for some minutes.

                          "No shit. I wouldn't do that routine for anybody, man. Rubber eggs, leather toast, bad coffee and weak orange juice every morning, and then spend the day smiling at a bunch of purchasing agents who don't really want to see you anyway. Even being a shyster lawyer is better than that."

                          "I might not go that far," grinned Ross. "But I'll be glad to get back to my little shop today, and get some paint under my nails. Which ones are making it? The ones reading the paper and taking their time, or the ones smoking and drinking coffee and looking at their watches?"

                          "The ones who are making it aren't up yet. They wined and dined somebody last night, and they'll play some golf today, after the grass is dry, and talk a little business. They sell big pieces of real estate, or locomotives or drilling rigs, and they don't make six presentations a day. If they close two or three deals a year they make a lot more than I do. Lawyers like me don't make money. Big-ticket salesmen make money. Did you ever sell?"

                          "I couldn't sell rifles at a riot. You need a thicker skin than mine to sell."

                          "Is there any money in the sign business?"

                          Ross grinned at him again. "Not the way I do it. I have a one-man shop and I open it when I get around to it every day, and every month I sweat the nut. When I'm busy, closing time is liable to be two or three in the morning. Or four. It's not all bad. I eat lunch when I get hungry, and if it gives me gas I can either fart or belch without having to apologize. I can do whatever I want, except make money. I can't make any money. But I can lock it up if I feel like it and fly off to St. Louis on a wild goose chase."

                          "You don't think there really is any money to find, do you?"

                          "How do I know? I haven't had any time to think about it, yet. I damn' sure don't know anybody who ever got any money this way. Do you?"

                          "Not exactly, but I've come across some strange things that have been done with money - more money than this, a time or two. You have to know a little about the kind of people involved. About Willie and his friends. Kidnappings still happen once in a while, and ransom money is paid sometimes. It's a form of extortion and extortion is still pretty common in some circles and many times it isn't even reported. Suppose you were in Villarubbia's position. You've got all this cash and you're on the run, but you figure you have to make the split you promised, to keep this guy Lindsay from doing something terrible. What would you do? They don't think like the rest of us. They don't bank, they don't use UPS, or the US mail. This cash could have been packaged and sent parcel post, but not by somebody like Villarubbia. They have another system. They hide things, and talk to each other in riddles, and sit with their backs to the walls and look out of the corners of their eyes. It's like going to a James Cagney movie. It's mostly bullshit, but they do it anyway. This thing might look unlikely as hell, but don't think it couldn't have happened. People don't know each other. People like Willie do things that people like you and I wouldn't even believe."

                          Their orders came. The waitress didn't use a tray. She had a plate in each hand, and another one, with the toast and jelly, balanced on her left forearm. Damon Runyon might have said she was dealing them off the arm, and her style would have been just right in a bus station. Their conversation was suspended while they ate. Bynum finished first, and took a cigarette from the pack on the table, but didn't light it until Ross had finished. Ross was a slow eater. When he was done, the girl took their plates and poured more coffee for Bynum, but Ross waved her away. It was pretty anemic brew, by Louisiana standards.

                          "I'll try to get in touch with Darryl Lindsay, probably in the next couple of days. It doesn't seem likely that he'll still be where Willie last saw him, not a guy like that, but I've got some other contacts I can use. I hope running him down doesn't turn out to be a major project. Once I make the connection, I'll be winging it from there on. I'll have to believe that he's really interested in giving it a try, because I know I'll be the one who has to make a trip. This stash has got to be closer to him than to me. Or maybe he'll meet me somewhere in between. I'll be trying to make something happen to wind this up, you can count on that."

                          "I think Willie's been talking to Miriam about this for quite some time, and she must have expected to be the beneficiary of this information that he's given you. Listening to her, I get the feeling that she has no doubt about all this being true. She's known the story a lot longer than I have, I'm sure. Miriam is kind of a dumb blonde, except when she's a dumb redhead, but she might turn out to be a bulldog. You might chase Ortega away, but not her. I think Miriam is burning inside. She was expecting to be where you are, and now she sees a half million dollars slipping away. Or her share of a half million, at least. You might have to deal with her, one way or another, whether Ortega calls the Lepperts or not."

                          "Well, we'll see. You taking me to the airport?"

                          "Sure, it's not far. Ready when you are."

                          They boarded the Lincoln and turned west, toward the airport. "I'll take you up the ramp and let you out at the front door to the concourse. I need to get back to the office and start buttoning up Willie's affairs. I know he has a bookkeeper, and between the two of us, it shouldn't be much of a job. People like Willie don't keep many records.

                          We'll pay the bills and take our fees and do as you suggested - leave the rest for Miriam. I don't even know if she has a lawyer, but I doubt she'll want me. She probably holds me responsible for bringing you to town. In ninety days, it'll be hard to prove that Willie ever lived."

                          "I'll remember Willie, I'm pretty sure. If somebody catches me and shoots me while I'm breaking into a little brick office building in Niagara Falls or Cleveland or Toronto, I'll think of him while I'm bleeding to death. And if I get rich, then maybe I'll come back and buy him a stone with his name and a dollar sign, and an angel with a halo. If anybody remembers Willie, it will probably be me."

                          "Here we are. Can I call you now and then to see what's happening?"

                          "Sure. And if you ring my phone and Miriam answers, will you call my mother and tell her what happened to me?"

                          "Right. Let's keep in touch."

                          "Okay, and thanks for everything." He got out and watched Bynum drive away. The Lincoln was beginning to need a paint job, and Bynum wasn't a very busy lawyer. Either he had already made his, or he had given up on it. Ross turned toward the terminal and the electric eye picked him up and the heavy smoked-glass doors slid apart on silent tracks to admit him.

                          It was like opening a coffin. The first thing he saw was the cadaverous face of Father Ortega, grim and reproachful. To his immediate right was Miriam Moscowitz in another tight pullover shirt. Her shoulders and elbows were thrown back and her breasts rode high beneath the fabric. It was easy to imagine that she had spent some years 'in the life'. Old habits die hard. She gave Ross another smile, perhaps a few degrees warmer than the one this morning outside his room. For the first time, he noticed that she seemed a bit impatient at the manner of her companion, possibly even embarrassed to be in his company. Bynum might have been right about her. She might be the tougher of the two.

                          Ross beat Ortega to the opening remark. "Willie's dead. Why aren't you folks out seeing to his arrangements, instead of following me around?"

                          "Don't concern yourself about Willie. You can be certain we will do what is needed for him. But he's not about to catch a plane back to Baton Rouge. We felt we had to see you again, to press the point I mentioned on the telephone."

                          Ross sighed. "I have business at the ticket counter. If you want to find some seats somewhere and wait until I finish, I'll give you a couple more minutes. If you follow me across this lobby, I'll throw you down the stairs. Both of you." He moved to walk around them, and Ortega quickly shifted his feet to block the path and maintain the confrontation. He presented a menacing glare and seemed ready to make physical contact, and Ross stopped again.

                          "You're about to **** up, Reverend," said Ross. "I can see it in your eyes." Ortega did not reply, and Ross walked around him and on to the ticket counter. They didn't follow.

                          The girl at the counter made him a reservation on a flight to New Orleans that boarded in thirty minutes, and gave him a company smile. He bought a Diet Coke from a vending machine, and returned to the waiting area. They were in the back row of chrome and naugahyde chairs, and Ortega had saved him the one on the end. He ignored it and sat in the seat next to Miriam, keeping her between them. He pulled at the drink and suppressed a belch, and turned toward them.

                          "Okay, let's hear it." He was more or less speaking into the bow ribbon on Miriam's head. It kept him from getting a clear look at Ortega, and vice versa. Ortega leaned far forward, elbows on knees, trying to catch Ross' eye. As usual, he got no cooperation from Ross.

                          "Do you have any idea who the Lepperts are, in Binghamton?"

                          "Yeah, they're the people you're about to call up and tell on me because I won't do what you want."

                          "They're more than that, Mr. Ross. They are narcotics dealers in the Binghamton area. How do you think they feel about having one of their family kidnapped, and having to pay a fortune to get him back? What do you suppose they will do if they find out how to get their money back? What kind of people do you think they are, that they didn't call the police about that crime? I'll tell you. They are hard people, who handle things their own way. A couple of them will certainly turn up in Baton Rouge to see you, and they'll be in a bad mood."

                          "Ortega, I don't even know if there are any Lepperts in the city of Binghamton. I never heard of them until last night, and what I did hear was from a man I have no respect for. And before I get a chance to think it over, another man I have no respect for is threatening to send them after me. He doesn't know if they're real, either. You already told me this on the phone this morning, and I told you to go on and do what you have to do. Now shove off and let me alone."

                          "I don't want to call the Lepperts. I don't need that kind of money in my church. I'd much rather see you do the right thing and share with the needy. The Lepperts don't need to know, after all this time. But don't make the mistake of thinking I wouldn't do it, because I would. You have my word."

                          Ross finished the drink and dropped the empty can into the gaping top of Miriam's purse, which rested in her lap. She smiled again and wriggled in her seat, pressing a breast against his arm. "Blackmail is a dirty habit for a man of the cloth, like you. What would your Bishop say if I told him?"

                          "You're forcing it on me. Use your head."

                          "You might at least be a little more honest. Maybe you convinced Willie you were a priest, but I've seen enough grifters to know one when I see one. You're a wannabe thief. Let me give you something to think about, before I go."

                          "What's that?"

                          "Blackmail is a one-bullet gun, Ortega, and once you fire your one shot, you're all through. You've got nothing else going for you. Suppose you sell me out to the Lepperts, or to anybody else, for that matter, and cause me a lot of trouble. Then I'll owe you something, won't I, and I'll have to come and find you, either here in St. Louis or someplace else. And then every day, for the rest of your miserable life, you'll have to wake up wondering whether today is the day."

                          "I'm not impressed. And I'll give you a thought for the road."

                          "Go ahead." Ross stood up and picked up his bag.

                          "Before it's over, you will have to deal with me. Remember that."

                          Ross looked him up and down. "That's okay. I can deal with you." He got up and walked to the fourth row of seats and sat in the one on the far end, waiting for his plane and feeling disgruntled. Ortega had nettled him again.
                          Miriam and the oily priest talked with their heads together for several minutes, and once or twice they seemed to be arguing. They left the terminal walking quickly and without looking back at Ross.
                          If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                          • #28
                            Chapter 27

                            Ross boarded the plane on the first call. He was in a bad mood, partly because he hadn't had enough sleep, and partly because he had let Ortega get under his skin. He liked to think he was too cool for that, but this guy had his number. And he felt a bit foolish about the threat he had made. He had never made a crusade of finding Piper, even back when he was twenty-five years old, so it wasn't likely he would make much effort to locate Ortega, if that was his name. But he might. In addition, he was feeling more and more as if Piper had played another trick on him with this thing. After lying dormant for so many years, suddenly it was steaming out of control, as if it had waited only for him to get on board. He still was not able to regard it as a possible windfall. It was a trap, and he was in it. He cursed Piper silently, and that was something he hadn't done in a long time.

                            His fatigue, however, was stronger than his irritation, and even before the jet engines had started, he was buckled in and rocked back, and making funny noises from somewhere behind his nose. The stewardess took the little bag from his lap and set it against the arm of the seat, where it would not fall. She touched his arm when he stirred, and Ross frowned at her in his sleep. On the ground at New Orleans International, she had to return to wake him up.

                            "We're in New Orleans, Mr. Ross. Don't forget your bag, and drive safely." By the time he had focused his eyes, she was gone. He went straight into the terminal and across the concourse and down the escalator and out into the heat. He still had his jacket over his shoulder, hooked onto a forefinger. He had never put it on.

                            After paying the parking charges for the truck, he took the old Airline Highway back to Baton Rouge, just because it was right outside the door, and because he hadn't driven it for years - since the Interstate had opened. The pavement was in bad shape in a lot of places. It had seen heavy traffic in its time, but those days were gone forever. The airport was in Kenner, and Kenner had been a swamp, not too long ago. Roads in south Louisiana, including Kenner, needed plenty of patching and repair. They tended to sink into the land.

                            His first stop was at the apartment, where he changed and fed Housecat and picked up the paper. The light was blinking on the answering machine, but he didn't stop to hear the messages. It would probably be Sandra, and he wasn't ready to talk to her yet. It was half past one by the time he reached the shop, and Gus Mendoza had come and gone. There was mail on the floor under the slot. The same messages were still on the machine in the shop, along with a couple of new ones, including one from Sandra. Her tone was definitely peevish. Ross toured the building, opening all the doors and windows, and then sat at the desk and returned all the calls, saving Sandra for last. He made an appointment to see a prospective buyer, and wrote a couple of work orders on sheets from a scratch pad. One of these days he would go to a printer and get some real work order forms and get the place organized. He had been meaning to do that since 1993, or maybe '92. Unless, of course, he suddenly came into a lot of ready cash. Then he wouldn't need any work orders, at least for a while.

                            He called Sandra at the office and she said she was too busy to talk now, and would call him later in the afternoon. He wrote a couple of checks, since he was already at the desk anyway, and spent five minutes finding the roll of stamps. It had been left in a ceramic mug full of pencils and unfinished packs of Rolaids. There was a cigaret in the mug also, and he lit it immediately. There was a trip to the lumberyard to be made, and he had to go around the shop again and lock it up. They loaded five sheets of overlaid plywood into his truck, along with some fancy molding and a can of wood glue, and instead of adding it to his bill, he paid with some of Piper's money. It was a bad move, because he would lose the cash ticket and not be able to use it when doing his IRS return next April 14. He lost most of his cash tickets.

                            "Your credit's still okay," said Benny, raising his eyebrows at the traveler's checks that Ross was signing on the counter.

                            "I know it, but I've got to cash these somewhere. You don't care, do you?"

                            "Lord no, I wish I had a million of them things. You been traveling?"

                            "Naw," said Ross. "I bought 'em to come over here. hate to carry cash to a lumberyard, you know. It's the people you meet."

                            "That's not a bad idea." said Benny. "People in lumberyards are mighty poor nowadays, and you could get hit over the head with a two by four for a few bucks."

                            Ross wondered what he might encounter for half a million dollars. A lot of dead ends, probably. Back at the shop, he had to open up everything again, and carry in the stuff from the truck, grunting frequently. He sure wouldn't miss this part of the business. Mendoza appeared in the doorway. His workday was over.

                            "I was running late today. Had a ton of junk to haul. Even so, I was ahead of you. Anything happening?"

                            "Not much. I had some manual labor to do a few minutes ago, but there's never a Mexican around when you need one. You feeling better?"

                            "Oh, yeah, I'm okay now. We ate like gringos last night - chicken-fried tennis shoes and rice and gravy. I can digest that. You should have waited until manana for your heavy work. Lots of Mexicans manana."

                            "Shame on you. Gloria is the best cook in the neighborhood. Call me if you don't like what you're getting. What you need is about ninety days of burgers and pizza. You'd be glad to get back to her table."

                            "You're right. I should count my blessings. I could be a sign painter that nobody would cook for because of his rotten disposition. Did you call St. Louis?"

                            "I called. That lawyer said a guy I used to know was dying up there, and he wanted to see me before he punched out."

                            "Old friend?"

                            "No, I never knew him very well, and didn't like him anyway."

                            "So, you told him to forget it."

                            "Nope. I shaved and put on my other shirt and went to St. Louis."

                            "And you're back already. Right. You've really been to St. Louis."

                            Ross grinned at him and went to the office and came back with the package that contained the ash tray. He gave it to Mendoza. Gus opened the box and held up his gift. "Is this beautiful thing for me?" He held it at arms' length, trying to read the inscription. His glasses were in his pocket. "St. Louis," he read. "St. Louis? Where the hell did you get this?"

                            "Altoona."

                            "Altoona? Altoona, Pennsylvania?"

                            "St. Louis, you shlemiel. I bought it for you in St. Louis. They don't sell those in Altoona."

                            "What's a shemiel?"

                            "Shlemiel. That's a Yiddish word for a Mexican who doesn't know where to buy an ashtray with St. Louis painted on it. Did you know you were talking in questions?"

                            "I'm talking in questions?"

                            "See, there's another one."

                            "Another what?"

                            "Another question," said Ross.

                            "Shit, Jack. You better tell me about all this. Have you really been to St. Louis and back since yesterday afternoon?"

                            "Yeah, I just told you."

                            "In the truck?"

                            "No, I called a cab." The phone was ringing, and Ross went into the office to pick it up. It was Sandra.

                            "Are you all right?" she wanted to know.

                            "Sure, I'm all right. Why?"

                            "You said you'd call yesterday, but you didn't, and I kept trying to find you and I couldn't. I called your apartment until after midnight, but you never answered, and I thought something must have happened to you. Didn't you get my messages?"

                            "Not yet. I've been busy. I'm sorry about the call. I forgot I'd told you I'd call. Guess I can only think of one thing at a time. Maybe my mind is leaving me, here in my golden years. Can I buy you some supper?"

                            "Where were you?"

                            "I told you, I got busy and forgot to call. I'm sorry it happened. What else can I say?"

                            "You haven't said where you were."

                            "I know it. I have to draw the line somewhere, Sandy."

                            "I guess we have to talk, Jack. Let's do it this evening."

                            "This evening is fine. Shall we eat first?"

                            "No - I can only think of one thing at a time, too. Let's say about 7:30."

                            "I'll be there. And look, whatever else happens, I'm sorry I forgot to call."

                            "All right, I believe you. See you later."

                            Ross hung up the phone and stood staring out the window for a moment. Gus roused him.

                            "You guys on the outs?"

                            "Could be, I guess. I'll find out later. She wants to know where I was last night."

                            "What's wrong with that?"

                            "Well, I suppose there's nothing wrong with her wanting to know, but she thinks that if she asks me I'm obliged to tell her."

                            Mendoza raised his heavy eyebrows. "Sounds reasonable."

                            "Don't make me mad, or I won't tell you about St. Louis."

                            "Yeah, St. Louis. The lawyer says there's a guy you don't like, dying up there, so you rush off to visit him one more time. You going to explain to me about that?"

                            "Sure, if you want to sit around a while, but I've got to work while I talk. Not being a civil servant, I have to earn my money. I have to run the table saw for ten minutes, then I'll be able to talk to you."

                            "Is there any beer in the box?"

                            "Should be. Bring me one, too."

                            For the next hour and a half, in between power tool noises and a walk-in customer, Ross told Mendoza about the fiasco on Long Island, much as he had related it to Bynum last night. He told him what he knew about the kidnapping, and how Villarubbia had been run out of town and had stashed a lot of money in a secret place, and why Piper and Lindsay had never been able to recover it. He told him that he was now the guardian of Piper's half of the directions to the cache, and why it had worked out that way.

                            "So. If Mr. - what's his name, Villarubbia? - really did hide that money, and if nothing has happened to it in the past twenty years, and if I can find Mr. Lindsay and work out the details, then maybe my standard of living will go up a notch or two, at least for a while. What do you think of that, amigo?"

                            "Is it a lot of money?"

                            "According to the story, it's a nice bundle. Enough to get my attention, anyway."

                            "I don't understand why those guys could never get together and find that money. How could they just let it lay there all this time, and not even try to pick it up? believe I could have worked out something."

                            "That's what I thought, at first, but spend a little time figuring how you'd do it. Keep in mind that both the guys are thieves, to begin with. One of them knows what town it's in, and a reference point to start at. The other one knows how to find the money, once somebody takes him to the reference point. Suppose it's you and me, Gus, and bear in mind that we would be a lot more likely to trust each other than those two low-lifes. If you take me to the starting point, then you've burned all your powder, and if I decide to beat you out of your share, I can. That's assuming I trust your word. It cuts the other way, too. Think about it. The way it's set up, it figures that either they'll never get it at all, or one guy will get the whole pile. An even split is a real long-shot. If he really did hide it, like he said, it might stay there a long damn' time. It'll go up in a fire, or some hard-hat will find it when they tear down the building. I can't imagine what that guy was thinking of."

                            "I'm beginning to see what you mean. It would take a lot of trust. A couple of guys like them wouldn't have a prayer, I guess. Kidnappers or not, something like this might make a man go straight. Has it occurred to anybody that Villarubbia might have done this on purpose, just hoping they wouldn't be able to get it? He might have waited six months, or a couple of years, and then gone back and got it himself. Does anybody know where he is these days?"

                            "You can forget Villarubbia. He came to Louisiana and got himself murdered, just two or three days after hiding the money. You have to figure somebody got his share right on the spot. Well, anyway, that's what happened to me in St. Louis, and if nothing else comes of it, you at least got a lovely ashtray."

                            "Gloria and I are grateful. You'll never know how grateful, I guarantee you. Have you made up your mind what you're going to do?"

                            "I'm going to flip those panels and prime the other side, and do some airbrushing on that big logo over there, and make a pattern for a van that's coming tomorrow. After that, I'll take a shower and go face the music at Sandra's."

                            "That's not what I meant."

                            "I know what you meant," said Ross. "I don't know what to tell you. I guess I'll start by trying to locate Lindsay in New York and talking to him about it, then decide what to do next. If I find him, and he wants to give it a shot,
                            I'll probably make a trip east. In the meantime, I'll keep working, just in case."

                            "You got any idea where this money is, like what town it's near?"

                            "My gut feeling is that it's probably somewhere between Montreal and Shreveport."

                            "Well that narrows it down a little. It rules out Waycross, Georgia and the whole state of Oregon. Will you do it right away, or think about it some more?"

                            "Right away, I suppose. There's a couple of weirdos in Missouri who want a piece of this pie, and they're going to make something happen pretty quick, as I understand it."

                            "Oh? Like who?"

                            "Well, there's a shady lawyer and a retired hooker and a long-haired priest of some kind."

                            "Wow, all that in the last twenty four hours? You've had a busy day." Gus rose and lumbered toward the door, carrying his gift from St. Louis. He turned back with one more question. "Hey, what would you do if you found all that money?"

                            "I'd buy you a lighter to match your ashtray." Mendoza flipped him off and left the shop.
                            If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                            • #29
                              Chapter 28

                              Sandra looked like a million dollars. She always did. Her blond hair was tied back with a ribbon, and she was wearing a number jersey with the sleeves cut off and white shorts with a breathtaking pair of long tan legs sticking out of them. Ross stepped inside her door and treated himself to a long look at her. She stood patiently until he was through. When he reached forward to kiss her, she turned her head and took it on her cheek. That was a really bad sign. She had never done that before.

                              "Let's go and sit on the patio. It's pretty cool out there."

                              "It's pretty cool in here, too." On the patio, Ross let himself down on one of the rockers, but Sandra passed up the other one and sat on the stone wall, facing him. He offered her a small smile, just in case she wanted to make peace, but she ignored it. He didn't have the only poker face in this powwow.

                              "I really don't care where you were last night," she began. "It isn't very important, and I'm sorry I made an issue out of it. You apologized for forgetting to call, and that's fine. I've done the same thing when something was on my mind. I'm saying that we aren't here to have a fuss about last night." She paused and looked at him, giving him an opportunity to speak, but he let it go by. He realized that he was declining to do anything to make her chore easier. That was exactly what he had done to Ortega, this very morning, and to Bynum, for that matter. He dropped his eyes from her gaze, but he didn't speak.

                              Sandra sighed and pushed on. "It's been a good two years for us, in nearly every way." That was another bad sign, beginning like that. "I'm really glad we had the time together, and I don't regret any of it. But at the same time, I've had to decide how long is long enough. All the ground rules were yours, and the arrangement was fine with me, but after two years you've convinced me that nothing is going to change. I didn't believe it for a long time, but Jack, I don't know you much better now than I did after the first sixty days. I'm thirty-three, and I still want to get married one day and have some kids, but I'm on the wrong track, and I know it. Every morning I have to decide whether to end it today or go on a little longer. When I couldn't find you last night, I got upset and made up my mind to end the relationship. I've had all day to think about it, and I still feel the same way, except that I'd rather do it this way than in a tantrum. There's no need to shout at you."

                              Ross finally made a contribution. "Thanks for that, Sandy. I'm the loser here, but you're a smart girl and you had to break out someday. I probably wouldn't have ever done it for you. I've loved it just as it was. I didn't dream I was going to feel this way about you.

                              "You're going to do me a favor, and just let me go, right?"

                              "Not exactly, no. I don't want you to stop seeing me. You're the best thing that's happened to me in a long time, but in a way you're letting me off the hook. I couldn't figure out what to do about you, but you figured it out. This arrangement is great for me, but I know it's a hitch in your plan. So far, I've delayed you for two years, and I guess I don't want to be responsible for much more than that."

                              "You don't want to be responsible for much of anything, do you?"

                              "Can't we do this without any cheap shots?"

                              "You're right. All day I've thought it would be easier if I got mad, but it's not so hard, after all. I've just about made it, haven't I?"

                              "Just about." His mouth was dry. He didn't look forward to being without Sandra. "You got a beer I can have?"

                              "Nope, not a one. You don't look so good."

                              Ross frowned. " I'm not so good. You've been pretty important to me."

                              "Up to a point, you mean." Perhaps unknowingly, she was making it easier for him. He was all right now.

                              "That's it pal. Up to a point." He rose to go, and hesitated, allowing himself another long look at her. He thought he should say something, but he didn't know what. The cutting repartee that had played so well in St. Louis now failed him, and in failing, did him a great service. It didn't save him from doing this stupid thing, but at least he didn't compound the error with a dumb remark.

                              "This is no fun, Jack," she said. "Let's not stretch it out."

                              Ross shrugged and frowned again and jammed his hands into his pockets and began to cross Sandra's yard, walking backward away from her. He didn't want to go back through her house. The house - he was forgetting something. He walked back, taking a key ring from his pocket and disengaging her key.

                              She watched him gravely, her lips pursed into a red rosebud. "As long as we're at it, where were you last night?"

                              He looked at her for a moment, then down at the key he was handing to her. "I went to St. Louis."

                              Sandra heaved a big sigh and made a helpless gesture with her hands. "I shouldn't have asked you. I knew better."

                              Ross shrugged again, and set fire to his last bridge. "I shouldn't have told you."
                              If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                              • #30
                                Chapter 29

                                He drove around in the truck for half an hour, telling himself what a stupid thing he'd done. For the past two years, Sandra had been a beautiful option for him; a decision to be made at his leisure, in the future. Tonight, in five minutes, she had made the decision herself. Sandra was history. No, not Sandra. He was history. He was an idiot. He wondered whether it was already too late to go back, but it didn't really matter. He wasn't going, and he knew it. Even as he flogged himself mentally for letting her go, he was trying to remember whether it was an hour later in New York or an hour earlier. He had an urge to locate Darryl Lindsay, but decided to wait until tomorrow night. He wanted another day to make his plan.

                                The night sky was inky black and totally devoid of moon or stars, and for a time not a breath of air stirred. Then a breeze began and freshened immediately. Ten minutes later it was almost a gale, snatching leaves and twigs from gutters and scouring the streets of Old Goodwood and the Garden District with them, as it might with a raggedy broom. Leaves on trees flashed their pale undersides and flinched when the thunder came. A plastic trash can joined the parade and rattled down the street, first rolling left and then right in long arcs and then skidding and rolling again. Lightning flashes from Brusly and Addis vaulted across the river and came nearer, giving glimpses of shreds of cloud speeding across the sky, as if in a panic. Scattered large raindrops dotted the windshield for a few seconds and suddenly became a hammering deluge. It was exactly the right kind of night for having the best-looking girl in town give you the brush. On East Lakeshore, Ross pulled the truck off the road under the bridge where I-10 crossed University Lake, and cut the engine. He rolled the window down to watch and listen, and three minutes later he was sound asleep.

                                He slept thirty minutes, and woke slowly to find that the thunderstorm had settled into a steady rain. He was refreshed and hungry, and he left the shelter of the bridge and drove to a cafe on Government street, where he went inside and ordered a salad. Without touching it, he summoned the young waiter back and asked him to put it in a box to go. Instead of taking it home, he went to the shop and rummaged in a drawer in the back for a fork. Sandra might have pointed out that it was not a salad fork, but again, Sandra wasn't there. When the salad was gone, instead of going to work, Ross leaned back in the big executive chair to do some serious musing. Many people marveled, and a few commented, on the presence of such a luxurious throne in the little shop office, but Ross did not regard it as a luxury. Lots of nights he didn't go home at all, and he could sleep in the chair as well as he could in his bed. With his feet on the desk, he could get mighty comfortable.

                                But not tonight. Within minutes, the lights of a car turning in penetrated the shade on the front window, and for an instant he thought Sandra had reconsidered, but only for an instant. The chances of her coming to him were none. He went to the door to find Gus and Gloria Mendoza in their square-dancing clothes. Jeans and boots and western shirts with kerchiefs around the neck and sombreros on top. Wide belts with big silver buckles. Gus had once showed up in spurs, but the director wouldn't let him wear them, and they had hung over the mantlepiece at casa Mendoza ever since. Gloria's costume was less flamboyant than Gus', but she needed a lot less plumage. She was a knockout, and ten years younger than Gus. Not in Sandra's class, but very nice.

                                Ross opened the door. "Been to the hat dance?"

                                "Square dance, gringo. We had a good time, but you don't look like you're celebrating anything. Sandra must have wised up and given you your walking papers."

                                "Sure did. She said I was a lost cause and I was not to darken her door again."

                                "That's bad news," said Gloria, wagging her head. "Sandra's the best thing you'll ever get a chance at."

                                "I'll go along with that."

                                "What happened? Gus said you wouldn't tell her where you were last night."

                                "Gus has a big mouth. Look, Gloria, I probably would have told her where I was. It wasn't a secret, but she sort of ordered me to tell her, and that's not so good. We've had a working agreement, but lately it hasn't worked like it used to. Besides, as it turned out, that wasn't what caused it, anyway. Sandra wants to get married."

                                Gloria cast her eyes upward. "And you turned her down? What a bonehead!"

                                "I didn't say she wanted to marry me," said Ross, patient y. "She just wants to get married, and this was the logical way to get started. Cut the ties, so to speak."

                                "All you had to do was ask her," said Gloria.

                                "Maybe you're right, but it doesn't matter. I don't want to get married, to Sandra or anybody else. I've already been married."

                                "And was it so miserable as all that?"

                                "No, not really, but it didn't suit me. There's a lot of us who are not supposed to be married. Don't feel sorry for me - I'm right where I belong. Feel sorry for the people who can't decide which group they belong in. If I wanted to get married, I would want to marry Sandra. But I don't. Let's drop it. Where did you put your new ashtray?"

                                "It's in the hall closet," said Gus. "I put it behind my serape with the big green and orange rooster on it."

                                "But Gus, nobody will be able to see it."

                                "That's the way I've got it figured."

                                "Well, if I go to New York I'm not bringing you anything."

                                "That's a deal. You're not going to New York, are you?"

                                "I don't know. I said if I go."

                                Gloria wasn't quite ready to butt out. "Do you know what you just said? You said you were going to get old and die, all by yourself!"

                                "I don't know how old I'll get, especially after my trip to St. Louis, but I'm pretty sure I'll do it alone, Gloria. That's what works for me. I can't help it."

                                "Jack, don't tell me you'd lock up your business and go off on a stupid treasure hunt like this," scolded Gus.

                                "Why not?" said Gloria. "I probably would." Gus didn't keep any secrets from Gloria. She obviously knew the story.

                                Gus shook his head. "You better do some serious thinking about that, my friend. Just look around. This place is full of work."

                                "Yep, it sure is, but I'm not talking about closing it for a damn month. Just a few days. I can do that."

                                "Must be nice," said Gus. "We need to go to the house. It's almost time for the letter carriers to get up."

                                "I'll be right behind you. I'm not working - just hanging out. I feel like going to see Sandra already."

                                "Go ahead," said Gloria. "Maybe she'll give you another chance."

                                "Can't do it. It's over. I'm the last person she wants to see tonight."

                                "That's the trouble with you guys. After it's too late, you always want to change your minds."

                                "I didn't say that." Ross saw them to the door and locked it when they were gone. Shopcat had slipped in while it was open, and his head bobbed up and down as he ate from his bowl. Ross went into the office and killed the light and turned on a little radio and relaxed in the big chair. The old cat followed him in after a few minutes, and made a rare move. He jumped into the chair and settled in with Ross, willing to share his fleas on this special occasion. Ross leaned back and dozed, listening to the music. He knew better than to try to pet the cat. Shopcat had his rules, too.
                                If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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