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The Taking of Sonny Boy

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  • #31
    Chapter 30

    It was almost half past six when Ross wakened. Shopcat had left him, and was somewhere else in the building. He stretched and rolled his head around and let his feet down from the desk. He still wore his shoes. Sleeping in the shop was no big deal, one way or the other, and he walked to the bathroom and washed his face and gargled with mouthwash, and thought of Piper and his stinking breath in the hospice, just night before last, and he gargled again. He wondered how long he had been gone when Piper died, and was grateful that the nurse had looked in and found him alive in between. He wondered where Piper was now, or whether he was anywhere at all.

    The sun was up, but the sky was gray and the humidity was pushing 100 percent. Terrible day for drying paint. Ross decided to work for a while and then go out for breakfast. Gus had been right - the place was full of work, but that didn't mean that business was booming. Most of this stuff was nearly complete and would be picked up or delivered within a few days. He certainly didn't have a heavy backlog of orders waiting. If he decided to make an expedition with Lindsay, the situation here would not slow him down. There were work clothes on a hanger in the back, and he changed in the office and bustled around for a couple of hours, first at the table saw and then with the paint rollers. You had to finish making sawdust before painting anything.

    At nine o'clock he took a break, locking the place up and making a trip to his apartment. He carried the clothes he had worn to Sandra's house. Sometimes he could smell her perfume on a shirt, but not today. Or tomorrow. He took a shower and dressed again, and chose to eat out, rather than fixing himself something. Housecat was nowhere to be seen. At the cafe, Ross greeted the owner by name.

    "Good morning, Buddy. Can I still get some ham and eggs?"

    "Sure can, Jack."

    "And a biscuit or two?"

    "I think so. Is this your breakfast or your lunch?"

    "What time do you quit serving breakfast, man?"

    "Generally about nine-thirty."

    Ross looked at his watch. "It must be my lunch, then."

    Buddy wrote down the order and pushed it through the window to the cook, and returned to stand near Ross at the counter. "How's business? Making any money?"

    "I get to handle a little, but I don't get to keep much. In a small place, that's about all you can hope for."

    "You can say that again. This place is too small. Counting breakfast and lunch, you get three to four hours to make your money. Anybody who can't get a seat during prime time goes to somebody else's place. I need to be three times this big, but only for a few hours every day. It's about time for me to decide what I'm going to do. Connie Vicknair wants to buy me out, and I need to tell him something, one way or the other. He likes this location."

    "Connie ought to know what he's doing. He's been in this business since before you were born."

    "Oh, he knows what he's doing, all right. And I know exactly what he'd do, too. He'd rent the space next door and knock out this wall, and start expanding the first day. He's already been asking Mrs. Giglio about a price for the whole thing. She told me that, herself. If he thinks that's a good idea, then maybe that's what I'm supposed to do, instead of selling. But just standing still, man, that's slow death. After a couple of years, a man begins to dry rot. You got to do something, even if it's wrong."

    "Even if it's wrong, Buddy. I've been thinking the same thing, myself."

    "You gonna expand the sign shop and hire some help?"

    "Not likely. But I don't want to keep climbing ladders and digging post holes forever. I've got some pretty good customers and some accounts receivable, and there's a couple of guys who might buy the package from me. Maybe I could turn it into enough money to take a month off and then do something else a while."

    "You got your eye on anything?

    "Nope. Just something - even if it's wrong, like you said." They made small talk for another ten minutes, complaining about the economy, women, government, politicians and women again. They finally ran down, as complainers always do. Ross looked at the pictures on the walls - all of them were trains, and mostly old locomotives. Buddy was a nut about trains, and Ross had learned long ago not to ask him any questions about trains, unless he had the rest of the day to listen. Buddy would gladly expound at great length on the decline of the nation's rail system, and who was responsible for it. It had always been a puzzle, because the man wasn't old enough to have seen the good old days of the railroads. He probably had his house full of model trains. Gus Mendoza went past the window without looking in.

    "Is that my breakfast up there?"

    "No, it's your lunch." Buddy set down the plate and wandered off into the kitchen. Ross ate with good appetite, but scarcely tasted the food. He stared at his own distorted reflection in the polished coffee urn on the back bar. Suddenly, he was impatient to get back to the shop and call New York. He was going to do something today, even if it was wrong.
    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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    • #32
      Chapter 31

      Miriam Moscowitz was barely fourteen, and plodding through a rural school system south of Louisville, Kentucky, when she discovered the one thing in the whole world she could do just as well as anybody else, and better than most. Her goals were modest at first, and she believed she had truly scaled the heights when she waged a successful campaign for Homecoming Queen in her junior year of high school. You might say she won it in a walk, but it was even easier than that. Miriam won it lying on her back. Only the members of the football team were allowed to vote, and dealing with them was no problem for her. Even if all the boys in the school had been eligible, she would still have made a race of it. It wasn't a large school.

      She might have become an average student, at best, but it would have required a much greater effort than she ever made. Her looks were unremarkable, and she was always fifteen pounds overweight, if you went by the chart in the PE department, but about half of that was in her brassiere, so it didn't all really count against her. Like many adolescents, the first thing she learned about sex was how to do it. Her virginity was given up eagerly, for a pair of earrings the man said had been imported from the Orient, and they very likely had been. Most dollar earrings are. He was a married man who lived near her house, and in the first ninety-six hours of her sex life she very nearly widowed his old lady.

      By the time she had been active for ninety days, she had been through a lot of partners and had learned a great deal about the judicious allocation of what she had to offer. Sex revealed itself as a form of currency, and by that standard she was a very wealthy girl; perhaps the richest in Bullitt County. With her pants off, Miriam was at least the equal of any coed in the school, and her victory in the homecoming election, when it came, was anything but accidental. It was the direct result of a structured campaign, and it taught her more about commerce and economics than anything she had been exposed to in the academic curriculum. Give up enough of this and you can have that.

      On Good Friday of that same school year she shucked her panties for money for the first time, and for the remainder of her life she seldom performed for any other reason until she met Willie Graham, and even then her motivation might well be questioned. In October of her senior year, her mother discovered that she was not attending classes, and came down hard on her, but it was already too late. Miriam was seeing a gaunt, hollow-eyed young man who said he was from Louisville, and he wanted her to go there with him, She thought he was sent to her directly from heaven. She had been on the verge of taking a bus to Louisville and offering herself on street corners, for want of a better plan. Her mother's outburst only served to expedite Miriam's career as a whore. She and Hector left for Louisville on a Greyhound bus that same evening.

      In the city they learned the ropes together. Hector was not a polished procurer in the beginning, but they prospered in a relative sense, due to a combination of his shrewdness and her energy. Velez, for that was his name, was intelligent, ruthless and lazy, all excellent qualities for a pimp, and their relationship gradually took on the traditional pattern of pimps and whores. He handled all the money, or tried to, and took care of Miriam and paid the bills. Miriam lived with him and did little except screw the customers. He developed a drug addiction, and she became an occasional user, usually in the line of duty. She learned to hold out money on him whenever she thought she could get away with it, and he formed the habit of beating her now and then, on the assumption that she did. After the first year, he found he could not keep her on a short leash. She was far stronger than he was.

      There was one thing that set Miriam apart from most of the girls in her profession. She had not come to Louisville to be a model or dancer or actress or secretary. She had come to be a hooker, and it gave her a better outlook on the work, and saved her many of the disappointments the others had to endure. Before long she had a little money in a bank, and that meant independence from Hector's dominance. She didn't break off her association with him, but she did begin to leave him for weeks at a time to free-lance in other locales. He was her pimp when she was in Louisville, but he had to fend for himself when she went on the road. She favored conventions and military bases. The going rate was much better at the first, but the traffic was much heavier at the second.

      In time, Hector recruited other girls to tide him over during these absences, and in this manner they went along for several years. Miriam never achieved stardom as a prostitute, partly because she never acquired any polish to speak of and partly because she never lost the fifteen pounds that prevented her wearing the fashions of the day. Or of any day. Hector drove big cars and Miriam rode cabs. Hector ventured into dealing drugs and booking hookers of both sexes for kinky tricks. He contributed less and less to the relationship with her, and one day she dissolved it in a dispute over money, but they continued to live together for a time, at least when she was in town.

      When she made her connection with Willie Graham in 1998, she didn't bother to give Velez her new address, or even to tell him she wasn't coming back. She regarded Graham as her eternal john. Robert Redford he was not, and even as a hoodlum he was small time, but Miriam moved in and dug in, satisfied with the arrangement she had made. She knew she was on the downhill side of hustling, and she had found what her contemporaries were still hunting. Not a prize-winner, but not all that bad. He asked few questions and they lied to each other on a daily basis, in the manner of minor leaguers who have long since forgotten whether there is any truth.

      They lived together until Willie's illness put him in the hospital, at which time Miriam placed a call to Velez. She named him Father Ortega, (anybody with half an eye could see he was Latin), and summoned him to come to St. Louis to help her with a project of great urgency. For a change, he was working for her. The project worked out badly for her, as Hector's imaginary church came between her and some of the proceeds she had been expecting, and when Willie Graham was dead, Velez made a determined pitch for the plum that Willie had already bequeathed to Jack Ross and which Miriam felt should have been hers, having earned it, in her own mind.

      "****in' Ross gripes my ass, he's so smug. It was too easy for him. One visit to Willie and he gets what you been waiting for all this time. I'm riding down to Baton Rouge and see just how tough he is when he's lookin' down the barrel of a gun."

      "Relax, little man. Jack Ross hasn't got nothing yet, and he won't get nothing without me. I can handle Ross, if he's got a dick. Don't worry about that. You just stay out of it. I'll go to Baton Rouge. You've got plenty of work here."

      "What are you talking about? I'm finished here. Willie's gone."

      "Asshole! You got to invent a church before they process his will. You can't just show up and claim that insurance money. They ain't gonna just turn it over to some greasy-headed payaso with his hand out. The will says it goes to the church, and you damn well better be able to show a church, or the state or somebody else will get the money. Find out how to start a church, and then do it. That'll keep you plenty busy for a while. Get your ten thousand and get out of my sight. The rest of this is my business, not yours."

      "It's our business and don't you forget that for a minute. You called me to this town to help you, and you're not dumping me now."

      "I must have been brain-dead that day. A lot of goddam help you've been. You got Willie to give away a bunch of goodies that I prob'ly would have got. I already know for a fact you're gonna screw me out of my half of the church money. You've always wound up with the money I earned. If there's any more, it's mine this time. Put your collar back on and go start a church, 'cause that's all the **** you're gonna get!"

      "You think it's that easy, don't you? Look, I know how to find the guy in New York and I know how to find Jack Ross, and before I come up empty I'm gonna talk to Sonny Leppert. Maybe he'd like to be my partner. You think?
      Now, then, I want the keys to that car. You ain't going nowhere without me."

      "Screw you, Slick. Everywhere I go from now on is going to be without you. Get over it, and get out of my house."

      "It's been a while since I slapped you around, hasn't it? I think maybe it's overdue. You got ten seconds to give me those keys."

      Miriam reached into her purse, but instead of the keys Velez wanted, she came out with a short-barreled .32 revolver, and pointed it at him. "Now, big mouth, you got ten seconds to get out of here. If you go about it right, you could get shot today."

      Velez went. He didn't doubt for a minute that Miriam would shoot him. He was now homeless and on foot, but he didn't feel helpless. He walked three blocks and bought a roll of quarters and went to a pay station, where he dialed Binghamton, New York for the information operator. He found Richard Leppert with no trouble, but he wanted Sonny, mistakenly thinking this would be his best bet for a deal. Without interest or enthusiasm, Richard told him where he thought Sonny might be, and Hector thanked him and hung up the phone. He decided against trying to phone Sonny. He would go and find him.

      After Velez left the house, Miriam walked the floor for nearly two hours before reaching a decision. At last she went to a closet and retrieved a huge handbag - every hooker has one - and put into it enough items to see her through a couple of days. She scouted the outside of the house, gun in hand, to be certain Velez was really gone, and then started up the little red car and drove to Baton Rouge. When Ross reached the shop after his breakfast, or maybe it was his lunch, she was in his parking place under the pecan tree and she had fallen asleep.
      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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      • #33
        Chapter 32

        Miriam had stopped somewhere long enough to change her tee shirt and comb her hair and put on fresh makeup. The shirt, like the others Ross had seen, was a couple of sizes too small, her hair was badly in need of two hours of hard work, and she had on less makeup than Tammy Faye Bakker, but not a whole lot less. She was slumped down in the car seat and her jaw was hanging open. Ross thought at first she was dead, but he soon saw by the movement of her bust line that her lungs were on the job. In the hot car, beads of sweat were forming on her lip and her forehead.

        His first impulse was to leave her where she was. He could go on into the shop and go to work, or he could go back to the apartment and sit at the phone and start his search for Darryl Lindsay, but sometime today he would have to see Miriam. She had not driven six hundred miles, or whatever it was, to let him get away with that. For that matter, had she come all that way because she thought she could still talk him into doing what she and Father Ortega wanted? That wasn't likely, either. He decided to get it over with, and rapped on the glass with a knuckle. She stirred, but didn't wake up, and he got out his pocket knife and used that to hit the glass. It made a piercing clatter and Miriam suddenly sat bolt upright, wide-eyed and gasping. She looked through the window for a moment without recognition, and then recovered her bearings and closed her eyes again, shaking her head slowly against the back of the seat.

        She opened the door and swung her bare legs out. She was wearing denim shorts, and the legs weren't bad. "You scared the shit out of me," she said crossly.

        "You were hard to wake up," said Ross. "Been on the
        road all night?"

        "All night, and my ass is dragging, you can believe that."

        "Where's the bishop?"

        "Where's who?"

        "Father Ortega."

        "Ortega, right. I don't know where the hell he is, but he's up to no good, you can believe that. He and I had a disagreement yesterday and parted company. I think he's gone to see Sonny Leppert, but I don't know where. I tried to talk the son of a bitch out of doing it, but he went anyway. Tried to take my car."

        "You don't sound the same since you resigned from the church."

        "The church? Oh, yeah, Father Ortega. Well, you can forget the church. He's out. I'm here to see you on business."

        Ross heaved a sigh and wagged his head. "We did that yesterday. You're just like Ortega. You're out. You came a long way for nothing."

        "No, I'm not here for nothing. I got some things to tell you, and you need to watch your mouth. Can we go inside, this time?"

        "Yeah, I guess so, but only because you didn't bring that greasy priest with you. I'd make him wait outside again."

        Miriam smiled at him for the first time. "Yeah, I guess you would, at that. You pissed him off, you can believe that."

        Ross led the way into the shop, unlocking the door and going in ahead of her, turning on lights.

        "This is your place?"

        "This is it."

        "What's opening time?"

        He looked at his watch. "Twenty minutes to eleven."

        "Every day?"

        "Just today. Opening time is when I get here."

        "Hey, I heard that. That's the way I always did it, too. Is that the bathroom back there?" Ross nodded. "Can we make coffee or anything?" He nodded again. "Why don't you get it started while I go powder my nose?"

        She irritated him, marching into his shop and making herself at home, ordering coffee as if she were at the Waffle House. At the same time, she was an improvement over Ortega, who had done most of the talking in St. Louis, and he found himself wondering what she had come to say. She certainly didn't act like she was begging. He watched her strut toward the bathroom, still pushing her impressive chest before her. Like a couple of guide dogs, Miriam had followed those jugs all over the country. He shrugged and went to the sink, where he filled a little teakettle and set it on the hot-plate. There was instant coffee in a cupboard and mugs on the next shelf, and sweetener in packets in another mug. He seldom made coffee, and he decided he should rinse out the mugs and the spoons.

        By the time the kettle began whistling she was back, and looking a little better than before. He wondered what she had done in there, besides the obvious. In her place, after driving all night, he would have washed his face in cold water, but that was not an option when you had on that much makeup. There must be an alternative of some sort, but he didn't know what it was. Maybe it was just a plain old repaint - he knew a little about those. He dipped powdered coffee into the mugs and stirred it up with one of the spoons.

        "There's a shower in there," she said, wide-eyed.

        "Yeah, I noticed that," said Ross. "You want to borrow a towel and some soap?"

        "Have you got towels and soap in here?"

        "Sure. If you're going to have a shower, you've got to have towels and soap. Otherwise, what's the point?"

        Miriam pinched his arm and gave him a wink. "Sure, we'll have to take a shower some time. Man, you could live in here, couldn't you? Bathroom and sink and refrigerator and burner and everything."

        He didn't tell her he had spent last night here in the shop. She took one of the mugs and sweetened the coffee and stirred it up. Ross sweetened his own and got down a jar of powdered creamer and offered it to her silently. She shook her head, and he put some in his own cup. She went to the sink and ran some cold water in hers to cool it, and took the first sip with her eyes closed.

        "For instant, it ain't half bad." A blind man might have thought she was eighteen. This wasn't the impression Ross had gotten yesterday, when she was tagging along after Ortega. "You make signs in here." He didn't answer her. "You're an artist."

        "Mostly, I'm a computer operator nowadays."

        "You got a computer in here?" He nodded toward the machine under its' plastic dust cover. "You know how to work it?"

        "Enough to get along."

        "Does anybody work for you?"

        "Nope, just me and Shopcat."

        She looked around. "Shopcat? You got a cat?"

        "He's not mine, he just comes around. Cats don't belong to anybody. They just put up with you until they're ready to move on." He frowned. What the hell was going on?

        "I used to have a cat," said Miriam Moscowitz, sipping coffee and staring out the window. "I don't remember what happened to it. I guess mine did move on. That was a long time ago." She turned back to face him. "You must like all this."

        He shrugged. "It's not as good as being rich."

        "You ever been rich?"

        "No, but I'm pretty sure it's better than this. What about you?"

        "I've thought I was rich a few times, but it don't take a helluva lot of money to make me feel rich. I grew up poor." She offered that more by way of explanation than complaint. "And that's what I'm here about today, isn't it?"

        "Moscowitz, I hope you've got more to offer today than you had yesterday. As far as I'm concerned, you'll just have to get along on what Willie left you. It'll go farther, now that you're rid of Ortega, or whatever his name is."

        "His name is Velez, if it matters, and watch you don't say anything you might regret. I'm goin' to do a trick for you. I'm goin' to read your mind. Ever since you got back from St. Louis, you're wondering how much truth there is in Willie's story, if any, and you're wondering if it's worth your while to make a trip to New York to try to find Darryl Lindsay and see if you can work this thing out with him. That's what you been thinking. Well, I've got news for you. I made the trip to New York a long time ago, and you can forget about him, because he's dead. Lindsay's dead."

        Ross frowned at her. "How do you know he's dead?"

        "It doesn't matter how I know. I looked into that a long time ago, and he's dead."

        "Piper didn't know he was dead. I mean Willie."

        "That was only one of the things Willie didn't know. There was a bunch more."

        The front door opened and Mendoza came in with letters in his hand. Ross' conversation with Miriam halted. "Hey, Jack. You doin' okay today?" He held out the handful of mail.

        "Yeah, I'm fine, Gus. How's the family?"

        Mendoza grinned. "They're stayin' out of the sun. You have a good one." He hurried out. He had not missed the red car with the Missouri tag, parked under the pecan tree. Ross followed him to the door, and when Mendoza had gone he turned the latch, locking it. The interruption had given him a moment to think, but the only thought that had come to him was that it was busted, and he had gone through all this shit for nothing. But there must be more to it than that. He motioned for Miriam to follow him into the little office.

        "Man, look at that chair! I'm impressed." She sat in the smaller one, still with the mug in her hand. Ross lowered himself slowly into the big one.

        "And you drove all the way to Baton Rouge to save me the trouble of a trip to New York. Instead of calling me up. Why bother at all? What the hell do you care?"

        "You better listen, because there's more. I knew Lindsay, knew him pretty good. He told me everything he knew about this whole thing, and that's lucky for you, because you wouldn't have had any better luck with him than Willie did. He was a nut, for sure, but I cracked him. I put him on a diet of heroin and hair-pie and he told me all his secrets. Hector solved a problem for you and me both when he took off in a snit yesterday, because now there's nobody except us. I've got half the combination and you have the other half, and we can get along. We'll get that money. I know we will."

        Ross stared. "You've got what Villarubbia gave Lindsay?"

        "I sure do, and in the end you're going to have to believe it, because New York is a dead end. You'll find that out."

        "Why would he tell you his secret? That's not so easy for me to swallow, lady."

        "Well, that's another story, but I'm your partner. Believe it now or figure it out later."

        "There might not be any money, Miriam. Nobody ever saw it, except for Villarubbia, and he'll never tell. It might have been a lie, right from the beginning. Maybe he still had it all when they did him in, and somebody has spent it by now. It's been less than two days since I first heard of all this, and I still haven't made up my mind what I'm willing to do. I have some contacts in New York City that Piper gave me, and I was going to make some calls today, to try to get in touch with Lindsay. I'm still going to do that. You tell me he's dead. We'll see. Then I'll decide what happens next."

        He turned and looked at her, but she refused to meet his eyes, and he went on. "Did Lindsay put you onto Piper? Is that how you came to be in St. Louis?"

        Miriam slumped in her chair and stared at her coffee mug, running her thumb over the sea gulls Sandra had painted on the side. She heaved a tremendous sigh and suddenly looked older and wearier. "All the way down the road, coming to Baton Rouge, I been trying to decide how much of this shit to tell you. I guess I just as well tell it all, especially if you and I are going to trust each other. And we damn' sure have to do that. If there was anybody else listening, I wouldn't do this.

        In 1991 I was in Bossier City, Louisiana. I was hustling, to get some money to get back to Louisville. That's where I'm from, Louisville; and I was hanging around the air base down there. I was hanging out in the places on
        the strip out there by Barksdale Air Force Base, turning tricks with the soldiers. Airmen, I mean. GI's don't have much money, or at least they didn't in 1991, but it was easy to get what they had, and I was digging it out."

        Miriam drifted into the present tense as she told the story. "I'm sitting at a bar out there, and this sharp-looking guy comes in and sits down next to me and buys me a drink, and when he pays for it, I can see he's carrying a lot of money in his pocket. He has a rubber band around his money, and that's a good sign. It's the sign of a guy who generally carries lots of cash. It might be thousands of dollars. People wouldn't believe how many guys on the street are carrying that kind of cash in their pocket. Anyway, I make a move on him and for a while it looks like he's going to be easy, but he's not. I can tell he's not a soldier, and he's real spooky when I try to make a date with him to go to his room. He's a big talker, and he thinks he's smooth as silk, but he won't sign up for the treatment.

        So I stick with him, and we get a table and talk a long time, and have some more drinks, and he does a lot of sounding off about what a big timer he is, and all the things he's done, and about all the people in New York who could tell me what kind of blue chipper he is, and I'm thinking this is costing me money, what with all the soldier boys coming in and leaving, so I push on him a little more. I tell him I got somebody to see. Finally he says he'll think about it, and he writes down the phone number of the joint and tells me he might call me back in a little while. So I tell him if I'm still there we'll get together, and away he goes.

        I figure maybe twenty minutes at the most, but it's over an hour before he calls, and I keep him waiting a couple of minutes before I take the call. He tells me where he is, and he says he's got a yard on a hard long, and can I help him? That was funny. I never heard that one before. So I call a cab and go over to his motel, figuring I can get me a good piece of that wad of money he's carrying. I've got a little bottle of stuff that I keep in my purse, and if that packet has some hundreds on the inside, I might just knock him out and take it all. You have to leave town when you do that, but who cares, if the price is right? I'm trying to get out of town, anyway, you know?"

        As Ross watched her, in shock and curiosity, she became the conniving, predatory hooker that she looked like. It was as if the mug of instant coffee was changing her features before his eyes, like a mad scientist in a horror movie, drinking from a beaker in his laboratory. "But when I get there I can see that he's spent that hour getting himself wired up to the eyebrows, doing stupid things to himself. Suicidal things. There's a glass top on the dresser in the room, and there's about six or seven heavy lines of cocaine all laid out, and I can see where there'd been more than that before I came in. He hits the bed right away, with his eyes half shut, and he's thirty thousand miles down coke road. He's 'way past being wired, like coke does. It's more like he's stone zonked. I guess by now you know we're talking about John Villarubbia." She raised her eyes from the coffee mug and turned to look at Ross, to see how he was taking it. He was fascinated.

        "You're the one who killed Villarubbia!?"

        "No, I'll never say I killed him, but I was with him when he died, and I'm pretty sure I had something to do with it. He gets himself up off the bed and tries to do a couple of dance steps and says he needs some action, but he's just dreaming. A little coke makes lots of people feel sexy, but he's 'way past that. He's had more than a little, and all he's got behind his zipper is a little wad of wrinkles, and he's trying to explain to me that this has never happened to him before, but they all say that when it fails them. He says maybe if I take my shirt off, and I do that for him, but nothing happens. He says some more of the nose candy will do the trick, and we do some cocaine, but it's no use. He starts crying and telling me he's sick and he needs a drink.

        There's a bottle of bourbon there, and he tips it up and takes a good swig. I'm thinking this will do him in and I'll take his money and his car keys and hit the road, but instead of conking out he wakes up and gets aggressive, and starts insulting me. He says he believes he'll go back to New York, where everybody knows him and he doesn't have to get his sex from hookers. This is one of the things you have to sit through now and then when you're hustling, and I'm just waiting him out. I've got my knockout drops in my hand, and I'm watching for a chance to make him a drink and torpedo his ass so I can clean him out and go. But all of a sudden he's talking about putting the snatch on a big-time gangster and collecting a million dollars in ransom money, and I'm saying 'sure you will baby', you know, I'm hoping he'll calm down a little bit because he's making me nervous, but then I realize he's saying he did it already, and he begins to go into detail about how he lined up two other guys and did this kidnapping, and had to leave town in a gun battle because somebody told on him, and how he stashed the shares for the other two, because he was that kind of stand-up guy.

        He's raving, by this time, and he makes me write down their names, and he wants me to check it out in the morning, so I'll know he's the real McCoy and not just another big talker. He says sex is nothing to him, that he's into money, and lots of it. He pulls out the packet from his pocket and fans it out, and it's a couple of thousand dollars. There's a few hundreds, but mostly it's twenties and tens, and he looks at me with those bleary eyes, and when he sees that I'm not impressed with his stake he goes Asiatic on me. He leans forward and the eyes get big, and he whispers to me through his teeth, and he's pounding on his legs with his fists, and I'm beginning to be afraid of him. I'm not carrying anything, you know, for self protection, so I get up and go and pour him a drink of bourbon with a good jolt of my medicine in it. All I want by that time is to skin him and get out. I never figured on a lunatic.

        Finally he pours down the drink, and he gets up in my face, and he says, "Bitch, you've never been this close to three hundred grand in your goddam life." And then he folds up like a two dollar umbrella. He was tough, I'll give him that. He had a lot of chemicals in him before he passed out. In the next fifteen seconds I've got his money and his wallet and his watch and his car keys, and then I get to thinking about what he said about the three hundred grand, and I look in his suitcase, but all he's got in there is new clothes. There's nothing under the bed or in the dresser drawers or under the mattress, so I'm thinking I should blow it off and get out, but I go and poke around in the closet and behind a couple of blankets folded up on a shelf is a bag, and when I look inside, it's full of hundred dollar bills done up in bands, just like in a bank. And he was right about one thing, I hadn't never been that close to that much money.

        So I look at him to be sure he's still sleeping, and God help me he's going gray. I know he's dead. I had never seen anybody dead before, but this guy is dead and I know it. I don't know what the hell to do, so I check the lock on the door and turn out the light, as if I'm afraid somebody can see me in there with this dead guy, but I can't stand being in there in the dark with him, right, so I turn the light back on. That's a kick in the ass, ain't it? Now he's dead and he's finally going to get stiff! It's amazing, looking back, that I'm able to figure out just what to do. First I wet a washrag and wipe down everything I've touched, and then I put his watch and his wallet back on him and I take most of the money in the rubber band, but I put a couple hundred back in his pocket. There's still cocaine on top of the dresser, and whiskey in the bottle, and money in his pants, so who's to know anybody else was there at all? He o.d.'ed all by himself and went down, right?

        If I can leave the car in the lot it would be better, but I can't. I have to have it, so I take the car and the bag of money and his cocaine, and there's a whole lot of it, and I cross the river into Shreveport. I'm driving away from Louisville, not toward it, you know? I'm going west." Miriam Moscowitz ran down and stopped talking. Her breathing had become heavy and her eyes were glazed and staring. She didn't seem to remember that Ross was present. He got up and took both mugs into the back and began to make coffee again. He needed a chance to think. Before the water boiled, she came and stood near him, hesitantly. "Say something, Jack." The intimacy did not seem out of line. She had just confessed murder and grand larceny to him, and that might be the ultimate intimacy. More than simultaneous orgasms, certainly.

        "That's some story. How many people have you told?"

        "Just you. I never told Willie and I never told Hector, and I never had anybody else. I had to tell you, so you'd believe in this money. Villarubbia called it a million when he was all strung out, and then Lindsay said later it was eight hundred thousand and some coke, and I knew there was at least half a million I hadn't seen yet. The guy in Bossier had a little less than three hundred thousand in that bag, you see. I used to try to get Willie to open up with me, because I knew he was the guy named Piper that Villarubbia had mentioned, but I couldn't let him know what I knew, and he never really let me in on anything until he got pretty sick. I was never in a rush. I still had some of Villarubbia's money put away, and I figured I would get what I needed from Willie before long, and I would have, but when Willie found out he was dying and asked me to find him a priest, I called in Velez, figuring I'd do everything I could to make him happy, so he would do what I wanted. But I handled it wrong.

        If I was going to work with Velez, I should have told him what the deal was. For six or seven years I had been believing that I was going to get what Willie had on this deal, remember that. I'd been thinking about all of it, too, not just half. But Hector sort of got carried away with his plan for Willie to beat the devil, and we never dreamed there was anybody like you sticking in his craw. I knew Hector was a mistake from the first day. I could have got what I needed without him, and it was dumb to have to cut him in on the deal. I've known him a long time, and he always wound up with most of my money, anyway. Then Willie got the notion that me and Hector had something going between us, and that was bad, and then Hector told him to make his peace with the people he had done wrong and you popped up, and from there it was all downhill. He finally told us the whole thing, except the secret he was keeping for you, and he told it just like Lindsay did, so I know it's true. I still don't know why he figured he owed you."

        "It doesn't matter now. He let me down once in a bad spot when I was counting on him. I used to hate Willie, but his name was Piper then, and I never knew he felt bad about it. I had never seen him after that, until I went to St. Louis the other day. God, that was just day before yesterday. It seems like a week."

        "By the time you showed up I was trying to think of a way to shuck Hector. He was screwing everything up, and everything he said to you just made it worse, and he was only bluffing anyway, just like you figured he was. He knew I had something more, but he didn't know what it was, and he just kept pressing. I knew right away I could get along with you, but he thought he should run the thing. He still thinks that Lindsay is in New York, and I never told him any different. I don't know what he was planning to do about Lindsay. We never got that far. For a while I thought Bynum was in with you. Is he?"

        "No, he was just contacting me for Willie."

        "Well, the last I saw of Hector he was headed out to find that Sonny Leppert, hoping to make a deal. He thinks I've struck out, or he never would have left me, and he figures Leppert is his last chance to make anything off this deal. He must have forgotten that Father Ortega's church is in line for Willie's insurance money, even if it's not all that much. I don't know how he'll handle that. There's no church, and Bynum's not likely to help him pull a shitty, either. Bynum doesn't like him any better than you do."

        They took the coffee and went back to the chairs in the office. "What happened to Lindsay?"

        "About the same thing that happened to Villarubbia."

        "I guess you were there when he died too, right?"

        "Oh, yeah, I was there all right. I killed Lindsay, I can't deny that one. How does that grab you?"

        "I'm not likely to go off and leave my cup of coffee with you."

        "You got any habits?"

        "What kind of habits?"

        "You know - drugs or alcohol, or like that."

        "Nope, afraid not."

        She giggled. "You're probably okay, then, cause that's the only way I know to kill anybody. Lindsay didn't put his poison up his nose, like the other guy. His went in his arm, and I got to where I'd do it for him sometimes. Then when I was done with him, I got the needle and gave him a bubble of air. I had heard that was fatal, and it was. He was in a real coma by then, and there was nothing to it. When that bubble hit his heart, he gave a jerk, like, and opened his eyes and gave me a dirty look and then he was gone. He acted like it hurt him, but not for long."

        "You just killed him."

        "Well, yeah, I guess so. He wasn't much loss to anybody. He didn't have any real close family, he lived by himself and didn't work but just enough to get along. He was a drug addict. Two days after he was buried, all the people that knew him had forgot him." Miriam shrugged. "Guys like Lindsay . . ., you know what I'm saying?"

        Ross didn't. He just shook his head.
        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

        Comment


        • #34
          Chapter 33

          Miriam had handled herself well after leaving John Villarubbia's body in the motel. She calculated that the car was safe for at least a couple of days, but she took no chances. From Shreveport she drove it to Dallas, obeying all the laws and arriving just after daylight. She knew Dallas, and went directly to the Greyhound Bus station and left her bag of money and cocaine in a locker, and from there she drove west on 1-30 to Arlington, where she abandoned the car after wiping down the smooth surfaces inside. She picked a seedy neighborhood of old brick warehouses with little activity, and parked it behind one of them, out of sight of the street. Doors were left unlocked, keys in the ignition. The police would never hear of it. She walked eight blocks without drawing any attention and caught a shuttle bus back into Dallas, and got her parcel from the locker and went shopping for another car.

          On a lot, she found a three year old Cadillac and paid for it with hundred-dollar bills. The man at the lot raised his eyebrows and began a comment, but she stopped counting money and froze him with an icy glare. She thought of buying a brand new one, but was unwilling to give up the cash. She still wasn't used to being rich. It's a long haul from Dallas to Louisville, but not too bad when you've got a nice car, plenty of time, and nearly three hundred thousand dollars cash in the trunk. She killed most of two days getting there, and by that time she had a plan, and she stopped in Louisville only long enough to go to the bank and rent a big box to keep her money in.

          Sitting in the bar in Bossier City, Villarubbia had mentioned the names of a neighborhood lounge and a health club in New York, and Miriam decided she would try to find them. She was thinking about a couple of nouveau-riche kidnappers who just might be hanging around there, and she felt like she was even-money, or maybe better, to bust any swinging dick in town. She had a good pair for openers, and they were much more impressive in 1991 than when Ross saw them some fourteen years later. Her greatest concern was that Piper and Lindsay might spend the money before she found them, or that they might move to Bermuda or somewhere like that. New York was awesome. It went on and on and on.

          Dallas was nothing, compared to New York, and Louisville was even less. She drove right into the middle of it, and it left her a nervous wreck. All the traffic was made up of trucks and taxis, and they all acted like they were after her, and there was no place to go in a car. Wherever she drove, she was in somebody's way, and they all hated her for it and let her know it with raucous horn blasts. Even the taxis seemed to be armed with air horns, like the big rigs. She couldn't find a parking lot. No wonder there weren't many cars. She finally spotted another Interstate Highway and jumped onto it eagerly and turned south. It took her across a bridge and into the borough of Queens, and then into Brooklyn and she refused to get off until she began to see motels along the route. It took her an hour to find one with a vacancy, and then the price was outrageous, but she was both weary and wealthy.

          In the lobby, she bought maps of all the boroughs, and each of them looked bigger to her than Dallas. The phone directory came in volumes, like an encyclopedia, only bigger. A day later, she had located the health club from the yellow pages, but she had to learn to use the subway to get there. It was an old building in an ugly neighborhood and it looked almost deserted. Four stories high and coated with dirt and smoke and soot, it seemed to lean forward over the sidewalk, as if watching for a chance to cross the street. There was traffic in and out, but it was all men. She couldn't even go inside the place, so she couldn't be certain whether there were any kidnappers in there or not. She stood around outside, asking about Tranchina's place, but nobody seemed to know it until she asked an old man who was shuffling along looking in the gutter. He knew Tranchina's, and it was only about twenty blocks up this street, but the right name for it now was Babalu's. That explained why Miriam hadn't found it in any of the directories.

          She went to Babalu's that same night, taking the subway again, but coming up at a different station. There was a mixed group inside, most of whom seemed to know each other. She sat at the bar and ordered a drink from a surly, furtive man who was mixing them with one hand. The other one he carried in a blue denim sling. His name was Darryl Lindsay, and Piper had already shot him and New York wasn't really so big, after all. She didn't go home with Lindsay that first night. She didn't even stay until closing time, but she did change her seat to one at the far end of the bar after the first hour, and she allowed him to give her some grass, which they shared in the semi-darkness of the rear of Babalu's, and to do a little one-handed groping when trade was slack.

          Two days later she returned, and at closing time they took the subway to his place, and for an hour or two Miriam made him forget about the sore place on his arm. Lindsay knew a working girl when he saw one, but he didn't appreciate the implications of the freebie she bestowed on him. She could never bring herself to spend an entire night there during the three weeks she was working him, preferring to hit the Brooklyn sidewalks and walk the four blocks to the underground with her hand on the little .32 pistol in her pocket. His tiny apartment, over a seafood market, was full of rotten odors, and fish wasn't the worst of them. There was stale, half-eaten food, dirty laundry, bad plumbing, marijuana and the other tenants of the building.

          Lindsay had dozens of copies of gun magazines and Soldier of Fortune, and a collection of weapons for hand to hand combat and guaranteed silent killing, many of them still in the shipping wrappers from the suppliers. There were things to stick in a man, or to throw at him, or to wrap around his neck or to hit him with. Large, medium and small knives, and a variety of devices for carrying them concealed. There was a short folding knife with a smooth bullet-shaped end that the dealer said you could fit in your rectum. There was no mention in the brochure of a selection of sizes. Perhaps one size was supposed to fit all. If you had asked ten people who knew him, they might all have used the same word to describe him. He was a psycho. Miriam had never hustled at this level.

          Lindsay's primary habit was heroin, as Villarubbia's had been, (although Miriam didn't know it), and he borrowed money from her almost from the first day, and this was a source of some concern. He should have been as rich as she was, but he obviously was not. After two weeks, she knew why. He boasted that he had a serious piece of money put away, for some 'work' he had done, but that he was having trouble getting it. He told her about the stupid thing Villarubbia had done with it, and the problem he was having with Piper, and how it had happened that Piper had shot him in the arm. He promised that he would resolve the matter one day soon, and then deal with Piper.

          This revelation didn't change her game plan as much as one might think. She just turned her focus from the money to the information. She had learned that drugs, not sex, were the key to Lindsay's heart, and when he was stoned he became talkative. He had no intention of giving away his secret, but she was quite certain that he would, under the correct circumstances, and she was right. Instead of loaning him money, she began bringing him dope, and pretended to turn on with him. This was a skill she had picked up years ago. She kept him wired and attuned to the topic of her choice, and it didn't take long.

          Lindsay was given to fantasizing about what he would do to Piper, once he had gotten what he needed from him, and sitting naked one night on his old sofa, with Miriam sitting on the floor between his knees, he studied the Bowie-type knife he held in his right hand and mumbled that he hoped there was a river in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he could dump Piper when he was finished with him. He confided that he had always wanted to dump a body in a river, but so far it had never worked out that way, and he was right. He had never killed anybody.

          She already knew that there was a starting point for Piper's half of the treasure hunt, a landmark to which Lindsay would have to deliver him, and it seemed to be a church, but that wasn't enough to go on. She had no idea how big a city Wheeling might be, nor how many churches might be there, so she pressed on. A few days later, semi-comatose on a combination of heroin and vodka and fellatio, he gave her the rest of it. Piper's last day on earth, said Lindsay, would see him visit three places he had never been before - the church, the end of the rainbow and the bottom of the river. "What church?", Miriam asked. He was leaving her fast and she had to ask twice. His eyes were closed and he wore a look of vague annoyance. "The First Presbyterian Church of Wheeling, West Virginia," said Lindsay, slowly. He tried to repeat it, but he was too far gone.

          That was it. She was halfway home. There was a chance that he had been hallucinating, but she didn't think he had been lying, not in his condition, and she had stood him about as long as she could, anyway. If Piper was this easy, she had turned her last trick. So she injected a big bubble of air into Lindsay's vein and waited to see what happened. Just when she was about to decide nothing was going to happen, his body jerked as if hit with a cattle prod, and his eyes opened briefly and showed pain for a few seconds and then closed again. Lindsay was gone, and she gathered up her belongings and locked the door on her way out. She figured there might be a new odor in the building in a day or two.

          In Baton Rouge, Miriam gave Ross the whole story about Villarubbia and Lindsay, except for the name of the church and the town where it stood.
          If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

          Comment


          • #35
            Chapter 34

            Piper, Miriam soon discovered, wasn't going to be nearly as easy as Lindsay. She couldn't even find him, let alone rob him. It became an awkward search, done mostly on the telephone, because Villarubbia's comments had led her to believe that Piper and Lindsay could be found in the same environs - the health club and Tranchina's. She couldn't get into the one, and was reluctant to go back to the other. She had heard nothing about Lindsay being found, but when he was, it seemed likely that somebody would be wanting to speak to her about it. In fact, Lindsay's landlord had found him the morning after he died, and an uncle had buried him the following day, and his job at Tranchina's had been filled a day later by a moonlighting city bus driver. After some thought, she called there for him once, several days later, and was told only that he had died.

            Inquiries for Piper caused no alarm and brought no results, either. Several of the people she contacted expressed curiosity in the matter of where Piper had gone, and a couple even showed a bit of concern, but none of them apparently intended to conduct a search of any kind. He had not been seen since the day of the showdown with Lindsay, when he had returned to his apartment and carried away as many of his belongings as he could quickly put into a borrowed car. He owed no rent and made no explanation. He seemed to be a man of somewhat more substance than Lindsay, but New York took no notice of his departure, either.

            Miriam paid an investigator $300 to reach the same conclusion as her own. Piper was gone, and nobody knew where. When the investigator offered to keep looking, if she kept paying him, she spent another thousand from her stash and then called off the search. In the course of asking around, he came up with something else she already knew, or at least suspected. There had been a man from Binghamton going around looking for somebody named Villarubbia, who used to be in the neighborhood, and his interest was extended to include both Piper and Lindsay, but he seemed to be gone now, too. It reinforced her belief in the story of hidden money. After a month in New York, she drove back to Louisville and moved in with Hector Velez again. She learned to wait tables and tend bar, and never returned to serious hustling.

            Miriam had finished her second mug of coffee, and now she fell silent, slumped in her chair and studying the mug as she turned it in her hands. Her feet were stuck out in front of her, and she wore blue and white checked canvas shoes, surprisingly small and dainty-looking. Ross didn't want her to run down before he heard the rest of the story.

            "How did you find Piper in St. Louis?"

            "Well, when I left New York I figured I was out of luck. Piper was gone, just like that, and I had killed a guy for nothing, the way it looked to me. Even if you wanted to say I had killed the other one, Villarubbia, it wasn't for nothing. At least I came away with a nice piece of money - I don't know if that made it better or worse - but Lindsay I killed for nothing. And it bothered me for a long time, I want you to believe that. I would never have done it if I had known Piper was gone. I don't think I would, anyway. So I went on with life, and started to work around Louisville, but in restaurants instead of joints, and I made enough to live on and seldom went to my lock box. I don't know why I lived with Hector, just habit, I guess. He went about his business and I went about mine and we hardly ever ran into one another. But I never quit looking for Piper. It wasn't my occupation, you understand, but it was a sort of hobby.

            I spent some more money for investigators, and made a lot of phone calls, all over the country. Hector knew I was up to something, and I finally told him a little about what it was, but I was paying my own way and I figured it was none of his damned business. Every now and then I would find somebody who had a little something for me, or could give me another contact, and I would go on. Sometimes I told them I was his sister, or his ex-wife or I worked in a bank where he had an account. This went along for maybe seven years, or something like that, and then I found a couple of people, one in New York and one in Missouri, and they both told me Piper had moved to St. Louis a couple of years ago, and might still be there. That's all they knew, but it was the best thing I had heard so far, and it got my nose open again.

            I still had most of Villarubbia's money, and I hired another investigator to check out St. Louis for Piper, and he didn't keep me waiting long. He said Piper had been in St. Louis, at least for a little while, but now he was gone again. But he also said that everybody he talked to who knew Piper said they had no idea where he had gone - he just left one night - and that he didn't believe any of them. There was something else there, and he might be able to find it if I wanted him to keep looking. So I signed up for another week, and sure enough, on the last day he called me to say he had my man. He was still in St. Louis, but now his name was Graham, and he gave me his address. He said he had been through the records of people who had changed their names in court, and that's how he found him.

            Well, that was all I needed. I could taste that half million, and I packed up my stuff and went to St. Louis without saying anything to Velez. He never liked for me to do him that way, but I always did. Two weeks later I knew Willie pretty well, and in sixty days I was living in his house."

            Ross frowned at her and shook his head. "And you've been with him all this time, without getting what you wanted from him?"

            Miriam shrugged and started to say something, but changed her mind and cut it off. Then she started over, again beginning with a shrug. "That's true. It's been a long time, and I'm still waiting. Or I was until a couple days ago."

            "Why didn't you ever do to Willie what you had done with the first two?"

            "I wanted to, at first, and I used to watch for my chance, but Willie didn't have any habits to help me. He didn't hardly drink at all, and I never knew him to use hard drugs. No heroin or crack cocaine, or anything. He would
            smoke a little grass once in a while, but I never saw him stoned, and he was smarter and more watchful than the others. He let me know about the money, little by little, and even about Lindsay, although he never told me his name. Sometimes he talked like the money was gone forever and he just wanted to forget it, but sometimes I knew he was still trying to come up with a plan to get it. He sort of figured that when they were old men they would get together and get that stash, and I believe he thought of it as some kind of retirement fund that was just waiting to be claimed, but at the same time he worried that something would happen to the building where the stuff was hidden. Maybe he thought it might burn down or get remodeled.

            There were times when I thought I should come clean with him, and me and him could go and get the money and split it, but always I would decide to hold out a little longer, and maybe get my chance to get it all. And I had turned into Lindsay, you know? Him and Willie couldn't manage it, and I had my doubt that me and Willie could do it, either. Willie and I got along pretty good for all this time, and that's why I wasn't in a hurry to rock the boat, you know? I made it a point to keep him happy, even when it was hard. He wasn't a kind man, I guess you know that, but he was pretty honest with me, and I hung in there through some times when I know I would have walked out on anybody else. So I had a good thing going. He was looking after me and paying the bills, and if I worked a little now and then it was my own money, and that's the kind of spot most girls are hoping for, for their whole life. I had a pretty good thing going with Willie, and after a few months I guess I had it in the back of my mind not to do anything dumb. He was like my bird in the hand, you follow me?

            At first, I might have done him something if I figured I could get his information, and I did some asking around about truth serum of some kind, but nobody knew much about it, or even if it would work, and I didn't really want to kill anybody else anyway. I had pushed my luck a whole lot and got away with it, but if you do it enough times somebody is going to catch you. I really believe that. So I guess my attitude got sort of like Willie's, except that I felt sure of getting rich one day. It was like my nest egg, that I would be able to go and get when I wanted it, and the only thing that bothered me was something maybe happening to Willie, just like it did. I've asked him a few times to tell me his secret, but he never would. He promised he'd do it later on, but that went down the pipe when he decided he needed to give it to you. I believe I'd have got it by now, if I hadn't lost my head and called in that goddam Velez. I guess he thought he was helping me keep Willie happy, but he got kind of carried away with that preacher routine, and before I knew it Bynum had sent for you and I was out in the cold.

            He died without knowing that Lindsay was dead, or that I was his partner. I had passed up whatever chance I had of making a deal with him. I could have got my half plus whatever he had left of his share when he died, but I was greedy. I wanted it all. So now, I'm hoping for half again, and you and I have got to do it. We can't let it go by again. We have to at least go and see if it's still there. If it's gone, I want to know, so I can stop thinking about it."
            She fell silent, and she looked tired. She stared at her blue and white shoes without seeing them, with a pout on her mouth.

            After a minute or two Ross raised himself from his chair and went to the window and opened the metal blind. He stood with his back to her, both hands in his pockets, and watched a squirrel tight-roping a power line among the pecan trees, whipping his bushy tail left and right for balance. The glass was dirty, both inside and out. Next week he would wash it - or for sure the week after.

            "Well, say something. Tell me what you're thinking." Miriam was out of her trance.

            He answered without turning around. "I'm wondering what that goddam' Piper has done to me this time. It pisses me that this thing isn't even optional."

            "What do you mean, it's not optional?"

            "I mean that I seem to be in, whether I like it or not. There's no decision for me to make, is there? What would you do if I told you to get lost, because I'm not interested?"

            She turned her head away from him in disgust, and made a gesture of dismissal with her hands. "I guess I'd go help Hector hunt for Sonny Leppert."

            "That's what I'm talking about. I couldn't call it off, even if I wanted to. I can either go hunting for the money or look forward to dealing with Sonny Leppert."

            "Why the hell would you want to, anyhow? This is not some kind of dumb dream or something. This is half a million dollars, and you'd be back to your little shop in less than a week. Look, if we don't find it, I'll pay all the expenses, okay?"

            "No, I don't want you to pay my expenses. I'm going. It's the only thing to do, but I'll be glad when it's over, either way."

            "You're in much better shape than Willie was. At least you don't have to trust that psycho, Lindsay."

            "Right. All I have to do is trust the woman who murdered him."

            Something ugly flashed in Miriam's eyes, and was gone. "Shame on you. When can you be ready?"

            "You mean what time today? You planning to sit here in my office until I'm ready to go?"

            "No, I've got things to do. I mean how many days? still have to drive back to St. Louis and make arrangements for some kind of funeral for Willie, you know?"

            "That's good. Run along and bury Willie. If I wind up dead, like all the others, I'm going to go to hell and look him up and pour gasoline on him."

            She went to his desk and wrote something on the yellow pad there. "Here's my number. Call me in three days, that'll be Saturday. Are we going to ride together?"

            "No, I'll drive my truck and you do what you want. Where should I meet you, Chicago? Detroit? Toronto?"

            "I'll tell you when you call." Miriam made another stop in his bathroom and headed for the door, looking refreshed. She turned to him before walking out, and blessed him with the smile she kept for her best johns. "Don't worry, it's all going to be fine. You and me will do okay together, I can tell. We can do anything, you and me. Maybe it could work out that we could take the money and get us a place in Kentucky. I know some great places in Kentucky, especially for people who have money. Keep an open mind about that. I think you'd really like me. I know I could like you."

            Ross stood in the doorway and watched her drive the little car out to the street, where she turned left, toward St. Louis. Buddy's ham and eggs felt like a rock in his gut. He didn't believe for a minute that Miriam was hoping for half of that money.
            If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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            • #36
              Chapter 35

              Ross went to the refrigerator and scanned the contents, stooping to see around and behind a collection of containers, some styrofoam and others Rubbermaid. The beer was all gone. He left the shop, locking the door, and walked the seventy yards to the store on the corner. He got a six pack from the cooler and picked out a packaged sandwich to eat later. At the counter he found Mr. Patin's daughter, Linda, handling the register. She looked at his purchases and shook her head sadly. Ross put his finger to his lips and shook his own head as he put down some bills. This got him half a rueful smile and thirty five cents in change, which he pushed back at her. She frowned at it and he rapped on the counter with his knuckle, and she produced a cigarette from her own pack and put it on the counter. He rapped again and she put down one more. He picked up both smokes and smiled sweetly at her.

              "You don't have much will power, you know that?"

              "I'm trying to stifle the little bit that's left," said Ross and walked back to the shop. He locked the front door behind him as he went in, and took a beer and his cigarettes to the rear of the shop, where he opened the back door and settled himself on the sill. The yard behind the shop needed some attention. The grass was getting too long, because the boy who appeared periodically with a mower hadn't showed up in some time. Other than that, it might have been a notch above most sign shops, but only because Ross was just in his fourth year at this location. His collection of worthless junk was becoming impressive, but it was at least distinctive. He could identify every item. Shopcat appeared from somewhere and went into the building, seeming not to notice the man as he squeezed past him.

              Ross drank the beer and smoked both cigarettes, and acknowledged the wave of two workers at the sheet metal plant on the other side of the hurricane fence. Somebody was banging on the front door, and he spent fifteen seconds deciding that he had to go and open it. It was Mendoza. He was still in blue uniform, but on the way home.

              "What kind of operation is this, anyway, that a man has to knock on the door to get in? If I wanted to buy a sign, I'd go and buy it from your competitor."

              "I just had a customer the other day," said Ross. "I wasn't expecting another one so soon. And I was right, too. Nobody at my door but some wise guy who never buys anything."

              "Did you open the mail?"

              "No, I was busy. I put it down somewhere. Why? What's in the mail?"

              "Something from that McDaniel outfit. If that's the check for that big wall job and all those trucks, you're going to be one fat gringo patron, and you can buy my lunch one day this week. By the way, was that Miriam what's-her┬Čname from St. Louis?"

              "Sure was. When I got back from breakfast she was sleeping in that red car under a tree in front. Drove all the way down here just to see me. Parked in my spot, too."

              "You said she was a pain in the ass."

              "Aw, that was day before yesterday. Now we're buddies, and partners, too, I think."

              "Why is that?"

              "She says the guy in New York is dead, and she has his half of the directions, and nobody gets to heaven unless she says so."

              "Do you believe her?"

              "Well, I've got some contacts that Piper gave me, and I ought to be able to find out if Lindsay is really dead. If he is, then I have some decisions to make. So far, I can't think of what she has to gain by lying about the rest."

              "Did she tell you what happened to Lindsay?"

              "Yep. She killed him."

              "Killed him! Jesus, man, do you think she did?"

              "Beats hell out of me. If he's dead, I guess it's possible she did it. She's kind of a hard case, or at least that's the way she comes across. If I go anywhere with Miriam, I'll be watching my back."

              Mendoza studied Ross' face, looking for signs that his leg was being pulled. He couldn't really tell, for certain. "I never know when to believe you," said Mendoza. "So what's her proposition? Does she want you to go chasing off with her to get this buried treasure? This doesn't sound like a coincidence to me. First she knows Lindsay in New York and then she turns up living with the other guy, Piper, 'way down in St. Louis. She might have killed him, too, somehow."

              "I don't think she killed Piper, but she did mention being on the scene when Villarubbia died. She already got the three hundred thousand he was carrying."

              "Holy shit, Jack! Sit down and talk to me about this lady; She's real bad news, whether she's a mass murderer or just the world's worst liar." Relating the gist of Miriam's story took fifteen minutes, at the most, and Ross benefitted from another trip through the details of it. He was explaining to himself, as well as to Mendoza. By the time he had finished, he had also strengthened his own resolve. He was in for a pound. Gus sat and listened in wonder, making occasional gestures of disbelief and shock. He said nothing until Ross was through. "So what will you do now?"

              Ross looked at his watch. "I guess I'll lock the door and get on the phone to New York." He headed for the front of the shop and Mendoza discovered the beer in the refrigerator. He helped himself, and took the seat Ross had vacated in the back doorway. The first phone call was a dead end. The man he wanted to talk to had moved away some years ago. The second got him one of the names on Piper's list, but the man was reluctant to give him details.

              "Darryl Lindsay!" said the man. "How long since you last seen him?"

              "Fifteen years, I guess. Maybe more."

              "Yeah, I guess it was. Lindsay is dead, my friend. Probably been dead about that long."

              "Damn, what happened to him?" said Ross.

              "I dunno. They found him dead. Drugs, maybe. It's been a long time, like I said. I dunno."

              Ross thanked him and hung up. After a minute he picked up the phone again and called the bar. Piper had it listed as Tranchina's, just as Villarubbia had mentioned it to Miriam, but Ross now knew it was Babalu's, and the operator gave him a number. A woman answered and said she had never heard of Darryl Lindsay, but said if he would hold a minute she would ask some of the others. Without waiting, she banged the instrument down on the bar, making Ross flinch, and he could hear bits of a lively exchange between several people, with Lindsay's name mentioned a number of times, and a woman asking who it was that wanted to know. Finally she returned to say that the only two people there who knew Lindsay said he was long dead, and who was calling, anyway? Pete Gomez, Ross told her. Thank you and goodbye. He got another beer for himself and walked to where Mendoza was seated on the floor in the doorway, with his feet outside, gazing up into the trees.

              "You're going to have a zillion pecans again this fall," said Gus. "Those are the best two trees in town."

              "They're on sort of a roll," said Ross. "With all those pecans, you get lots of squirrels, and that means lots of squirrel manure, and that means lots of pecans in the tree. Do you think those fuzzy little suckers know what they're doing?"

              "Maybe they're some kind of farmer-squirrels. I know some farmers with less brains than a squirrel. Less nuts, too. What's the word from New York?"

              "Lindsey's been dead a long time."

              "So what now?"

              "I guess I'll go east with the lady. I promised I'd call her on Saturday and give her my decision. I think she's still at Piper's place. That gives me a couple more days to think about it."

              "Just pick up and buzz off, is that it?"

              "Why not? What's the matter with that?"

              "Are you sure that's the smart thing to do?"

              "Screw the smart thing to do, Gus. I'm all the time trying to figure the smart thing to do, but not this time. I'm just going."

              "You're just now getting this little shop in good shape, and you'd walk off and leave it to chase a rainbow with a lady who kills people. You can't afford to do something like that. It's bound to take too much time. Suppose you did follow all the directions and find the right building. Then you'd have to commit a burglary. You could wind up in jail, either rich or poor. Or else she'd do you like the others. It's a bad move, Jack. You're going to die broke, like they say about the horse players."

              Ross sighed and ran both hands through his hair. "Listen to me. When a civil servant like you gets old, he retires. He gets his pension and his IRA's and his senior-citizen discount from the drug store and he plants nasty things in a little garden behind his little house and he gets hooked on daytime TV, like the housewives. And pretty soon he dies. They don't ask you if you ever lived, or not. When the time comes, you die. People like me, making it like this - he jerked his thumb toward the interior of the shop - when I get old, the only thing that will happen is that it'll take me longer to climb a ladder. There isn't going to be any retirement unless I hit the lottery. I'm planning to work until noon on the day of my own funeral, Gus. From where I am, you don't just blow off this kind of thing. Maybe this is why some of us hang on in little shops - so we can chase a rabbit, if one comes along. If I'm gone just a few days, it won't make any difference at all. If I'm gone a long time, maybe the business will suffer and I'll have to build it back again, and that will mean that I can't trade in my truck next year, like I'm planning. One of the few good things about my setup is that I can do something like this if I want. So I'm going east with Miriam." He shrugged.

              Mendoza scowled in irritation. "Cry me a river, amigo," he said. "You can still be a civil servant if you want. I'll tell you when the exam is coming up, and maybe you can get on with the Department, and I'll ask the supervisor to give you a route with some shade trees and no dogs over fifteen pounds. Then you'll never have to decide what's the smart thing to do. Somebody will always tell you. How would that grab you?"

              "Take it easy, pal. You misunderstood me. I don't want to get on with the goddam Department, and I don't want a pension and a garden. I'm here because I wanted to be here. And it suits me just fine that there's nobody I have to explain to if I decide to go east for a few days. If I want to spend some time chasing my tail, I can. Look here - what's going to happen to you in the next week?"

              "What do you mean?"

              "Think ahead for a week. What's going to happen to you?""You mean good or bad?"

              "Shit, man, either way. Good, bad or something in between. My point is that probably nothing is going to happen to you, unless somebody's dog bites you. Well, something is going to happen to me, most likely, if I lock up the shop and take this trip. I might not like it, but on the other hand, I might. So, I'm going to find out, and then I'll tell you about it later. If I stay here, I imagine next week will be a lot like last week. If I go east, it will probably be a whole lot different, and I've got my pick."

              "Welcome to it. You're not as smart as I thought."

              "I'll take it," said Ross, nodding to himself. He realized that he had been preparing to go east ever since he got back from St. Louis. He turned his back on Mendoza and began to shuffle some old work orders. Gus tossed his empty beer can on the floor. He was standing next to a garbage barrel, but he ignored it and left the can for Ross to pick up.

              "See you later. I hope it works out for you." He put on his helmet and let himself out the front door, closing it with more than necessary force. Ross didn't turn to see him go. He took a deep breath and began to plan his work schedule for the next two days.
              If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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              • #37
                Chapter 36

                If there was a dirty son of a bitch in Binghamton, New York in 1991 it was Sonny Leppert. He would break your fingers, or spit in your plate, or open your car door and piss on the seat. He would ask your wife for a blow job in the presence of a crowd, or seize your adolescent daughter by the crotch and lead her around in tears of rage and pain and humiliation. Sonny was seldom loud, but he was almost always crude and obnoxious, belligerent and offensive.

                He was short and broad and hefty and powerful, and had been that way since age fifteen. As a down lineman, he had discovered that he could terrorize nearly all the high school football players in the area, and did so gleefully. A small college in Pennsylvania gave him an athletic scholarship, and he left Binghamton at the age of nineteen, but college football was not so kind to him. In his very first game, the senior guard in front of him moved him around like he was on wheels, making it look easy and never even deigning to speak to him. Two weeks later, a young blonde giant nearly beat him to death, with brutal forearm blows to the stomach and slaps to the side of his helmet that made his ears ring. "Nothing personal, cuz," said the big blonde boy, with an evil grin. "It's just that you're in my ****ing way." A few plays later, the giant seemed to lose his footing, and Sonny was able to charge into the offensive backfield, where a fullback he never saw knocked him colder than a frog. This was not his kind of violence, not at all. He didn't formally withdraw from college. He just went home after the game and never came back.

                Dreams of the NFL were forgotten, and Sonny settled for being a big fish in a small pond. He didn't like it, but he took it, and dug into the life of a local bully. His father made a place for him in the family business, over the
                protests of his brothers, but he never showed any aptitude or interest in coin machines, and only peddled enough shit to keep money in his pocket. He became more brutal and overbearing than ever, and would go berserk if anyone asked him about his football career. Most people would go a long way to avoid an encounter with him. There was one notable exception - Romeo. The first time Sonny threatened him, Romeo looked into his eyes and put a forefinger on Sonny's chest.

                "Don't ever **** with me, Fats," said Romeo, "unless you're goin' to kill me. And I'm only going to say it once." In the presence of his whole family and several others, Sonny was forced to back down with a disdainful sneer and a dirty word. He never crossed Romeo's path again, and they never spoke beyond what might be necessary to do their business. Nobody knew for certain if Romeo had ever killed, but nobody doubted for a second that he would. You had only to look at him.

                Sonny was a liability from the beginning, a problem which Villarubbia and Piper and Lindsay resolved for them, after a fashion, in the short span of twenty-four hours. He returned from his overnight ordeal with a bloody cut across his chest and lesser ones on his forehead and chin that all had to be sewed up, and a collection of bruises and bumps, many of which turned black and blue in the days to follow. Even before Sonny got home, it was known that John Villarubbia was one of the kidnappers, and there was some confusion in the matter of what to do about it. John seemed to have gotten away after Romeo missed him in Binghamton and a pickup crew of youngsters lost him in Elmira, and the Lepperts had to decide whether to take any action against the remaining Villarubbias. They quickly decided to do nothing, and for several reasons. For one thing, the Villarubbias were numerous and well respected, and nobody thought, even for a minute, that any of them other than John were involved.

                John was the Villarubbia's equivalent of Sonny, and the only possible action would have been to demand the eight hundred thousand dollars back, and that was out of the question. They couldn't even prove they had lost it. Another factor was the Leppert's decision to take their loss in silence. A council of war, called hurriedly after the caper's climax, had seen them vote against calling in the police. There was little to be done, with John long gone, and they were ill-prepared to explain to anybody how they came up with that much cash to pay the ransom. Especially to the IRS, who would have been amazed to learn how much profit there was in juke boxes and condom dispensers.

                Simon, at long last, went nose-to-nose with Sonny and told him to straighten up his routine or be shoved out. Not only out of the business, but out of town. Sonny whined about being punished because he'd been kidnapped, and said he would get some Villarubbias just to make him feel better, and Simon forbid him to even go near them. "I swear to God, Sonny," said Simon, "if you make any kind of a move against those people, I'll give you to Romeo. We're all hoping to see John again one day, but that's family business, and we'll handle it when the time comes. You lay low, and don't do nothing I don't tell you to do. You've cost the rest of us a fortune in the last five years, and I can't carry you forever. And you might as well know right now, there was some serious discussion before we decided to bail you out this time."

                They were aware that kidnapping is a Federal crime, and with the FBI involved and the snatcher known by name, there was every reason to think they might catch him. But their decision was to keep silent and do their own enforcement of the law. With the Villarubbia family right under their noses, it figured they would eventually find John, and he would give them the others, and there was even a possibility they would get some of their ransom money back. But only a few days later, news of John's death in Louisiana reached Binghamton, and that made them even more certain that they had done the right thing. The kidnapping and the ransom were written off as a part of the cost of having Sonny in the family. This had obviously been the result of a matter between black sheep. Although a great many people in Binghamton, including the police, came to learn of the crime, nothing more ever came of it.

                Dealing with Sonny was something else. Darryl Lindsay had broken him like an egg, and he never recovered from his experience. In truth, Sonny wasn't badly hurt. He, himself, had administered many worse beatings, but that was different. He became even more testy and bellicose and violent, but there were other things, also. He began to wet his bed, and to stammer when he spoke, and sometimes his hands shook. Frustration possessed him, with John Villarubbia dead and the other two a mystery, and he careened around town out of control. Richard and Irving Leppert confronted their father about Sonny.

                They said he was no longer a danger; now he was a disaster, waiting to undo them all. Simon had given Sonny his warning, but before he got around to doing what he had to do, Sonny beat an addict to death in a parking lot - a brutal act that outraged the local media, although nobody knew who was responsible, except the Lepperts. The men of the family met, and Sonny was drummed out of all family enterprises and told to get the hell out of town and stay out. He refused, and they told him if he didn't they would turn him over to the law, to answer for his crime. Simon gave him five thousand dollars in cash and told him to take care of himself - in some faraway place - and Sonny went.

                Over the ensuing years he worked his way across Pennsylvania, stopping in four or five towns for varying periods, doing misdemeanors to support himself, and spending time in jail in at least two locales. He was at times a mugger, burglar, pimp, and minor dope dealer. He contacted his family once or twice a year, usually when he needed money, and several times they sent him what he wanted. At least they usually knew where he was, or had been recently. His trail turned toward the south, and by 1996 he was more or less established in West Memphis, Arkansas, living with a woman not unlike Piper's Miriam, except that she was the support of the couple, instead of Sonny.

                They rented a little house in a rundown area, and Sonny hustled around the dog track across the river. He continued to steal when the opportunity or the need arose, but he didn't steal in West Memphis. He had learned a belated lesson, screwing up a very nice position in Binghamton. When Hector Velez contacted Richard Leppert, after the confrontation with Jack Ross, he was told that Sonny had been in West Memphis at last report, and that's where he found him. It was no trouble at all. Velez knew how to find a drug dealer in a strange town, and the dealer gave him directions to Sonny's house. It wasn't a very big town. The closer he got to Sonny, the more he began to suspect he had chosen the wrong Leppert. He should have stated his business when he was talking with Richard, but it was too late now, and he pressed on. Maybe it would work out okay for him. Judging by the neighborhood, Sonny must need the money, in which case he figured to be receptive to a partnership proposition.

                He found Sonny in his front yard, shirtless and with his belly hanging over his belt, working under the hood of a big sedan that had to be fifteen years old, at least. He looked like something more than three hundred pounds. His face was childish and pink, and he had the tiny eyes of a pig. The scar on his forehead was all but invisible, but the one on his chin had healed into a raised seam that glowed an angry red in the heat. The blond hair on his chest hid the marks of the other wound he had been given by Darryl Lindsay. Velez was walking, having arrived in town on a Greyhound bus, and he stopped by Sonny's mailbox, which was mounted on a rotten four-by-four post with a serious list. Sonny raised up from his work and stared at Hector with his little pig eyes, and Hector was suddenly afraid.
                If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                • #38
                  Chapter 37

                  Mustafa Ibrahim Jalil crouched motionless behind a bush, his back against a metal utility pole that had never been wired. Actually, he was sitting. Yesterday he had crouched, or squatted, for more than three hours, but today he had found a cinder block in the dump across the road, so he sat. It was a degree or two less miserable than crouching. His face was a mask. Only his eyes moved, and they were alert to everything in front of him. He knew there would be little warning if his opportunity came, and he had to get the shot today, or it would be too late.

                  He was in an area that somebody had started to develop some years before, and had abandoned when the financing dried up. There were streets, but grass grew up through the expansion joints. In some places sidewalks had been started, and there were even the remains of some wooden forms that still awaited the concrete truck. There were modern utility poles, like the one he was leaning against, but there was no electricity. No wires and no street lights. After dark, the area was sometimes visited by people whose errands were best pursued away from the light. They left behind condoms and syringes and an occasional spent shell. The deserted streets were loaded with trash of all kinds, because nobody ever picked it up, and the inevitable plastic bags of garbage could be seen.

                  It was a ghost town without ghosts, because there had never been any people. Mustafa Ibrahim knew there were rabbits here. They must live in the tall grass, and you could find rabbit shit and see the end of the tunnel in the vegetation that they used when they crossed this street. He called it Turtle Street, because turtles crossed it also, and he had gotten several shots of a small one yesterday. There was no street sign that he could see, so he had to name it himself. He also had a couple of shots of a long-legged white bird standing in some stagnant water in a ditch, and he hoped that no one would be able to tell it was stagnant water when they viewed his picture. This was wildlife, without a doubt, but he was not yet satisfied.

                  The deadline for the plant photo contest was tomorrow, Monday, and the theme this year was animals and wildlife, and one of the rules was that all pictures must be taken in the city limits of St. Louis. Everybody said it was a dumb theme to pick a rule like that, so most of them would enter Polaroid shots of family pets, and the committee would be inundated with pictures of dogs, cats, birds, gerbils and maybe a few reptiles. As usual, there were some really neat prizes offered, among them an expensive camera with an arsenal of specialty lenses. He intended to win it, if he could.

                  He had already spent several hours in the darkened basement of the apartment building where he lived, hoping for some mice or rats. When the super found out what he was up to, he told him to be careful, as there was a rat down there big enough to stand flat-footed and **** a big dog, and that put an end to his underground vigil. Any rat big enough to do that was big enough to bite a small Arab, too, and he wasn't going for that shit. Not hardly. But a great idea had come to him at night, lying there in bed with the television off. Suppose he could come up with a shot of a rabbit and a turtle at the same time! The Hare and the Tortoise. Would that be a great entry or what? Could the committee find any excuse not to reward that kind of imagination and patience? He would have to rig it, of course. Nobody could be that lucky.

                  So he had come back today and caught a turtle. It wasn't hard to do - there were lots of them around. It was sort of a small turtle, too, but that didn't matter. Who knew? The rabbit might be small also. He had positioned the turtle on its back in the street next to his hiding place, and it had been swimming in slow motion in the air ever since, trying to get a purchase on something to help it right itself. When the moment came, if it did, Mustafa would flip it over with a stick that was lying ready. It would be awkward, but the Hare and the Upside-Down Tortoise didn't sound so ingenious. His line of sight went directly from the little camera, across the turtle, and on across the street to the opening in the tall grass where he was hoping for a rabbit. Just to tilt the odds in his favor, he had put a carrot in the grass near the spot.

                  There is a limit to the length of time that a man can maintain his alertness when he can't move and nothing is happening. It's a problem for soldiers in wars, and it was a problem for Mustafa. After a while, he found that the rhythmic movement of the turtle's legs was hypnotizing him as he tried to watch the end of the rabbit's tunnel in the grass, and he would have to look away. He began to nod and then jerk awake again. Then suddenly, there was a rabbit, and his heart and respiration stopped. It was in the end of the tunnel and seemed to be looking right at him. A pretty scruffy looking rabbit, and not very big, but a genuine 24 carat rabbit. He dared not pick up the stick to turn the turtle over, not with the rabbit watching him. In a few seconds the rabbit came out of the tunnel and ambled right past the carrot and began to cross the street, and in seconds it was obscured behind the bush that hid Mustafa. It had gone the wrong way, but it was still in the street.

                  The picture might still be there, but not from where he sat. He picked up the stick and flipped the turtle, and it began to walk slowly toward the grass, but the rabbit was nearly out of sight. It was still in the open, but hardly visible through the bush, and no longer in line with the turtle. He needed to move a couple of steps to his left, but dared not. His feet were in dead leaves, and the rabbit would bolt when it heard him. As a last resort, he decided maybe he could fall down far enough to get the picture, and with less noise than walking, since one doesn't have to move one's feet when falling down. Some people do, but it isn't necessary. The trick would be to grit his teeth and line up his subjects and click the shutter just before he hit the ground, and then take the blow. He got a grip on his camera, with finger on shutter button, and began to topple to his left, slowly at first, then accelerating as gravity seized him.

                  The rabbit heard him, or saw him, and leaped for the grass, and Mustafa aimed and fired just before landing on his side with a jolt that knocked the breath from him momentarily, and then it was over. He cursed and picked himself up, without knowing whether he had the picture or not, and walked the two blocks back to his little car. On the way home, he dropped off his film at a drug store, where the clerk assured him that he could get the pictures at noon tomorrow. There was nothing to do now but wait.
                  If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                  Comment


                  • #39
                    Chapter 38

                    "Are you Mr. Leppert?" Velez asked the fat man, who was holding a spark plug wire in one greasy hand.

                    "I might be. Why?" The voice was small, for such a big man, almost squeaky.

                    "If you are, I need to talk to you a few minutes. If you're not, then I've come to the wrong house."

                    Sonny laid down the wire on the fender and picked up a filthy rag and studiously wiped his hands without improving their appearance noticeably. Finally he looked up at Velez and began to walk around the front of the car toward him, still wiping his hands. For an instant, Velez had the feeling that he shouldn't let Leppert approach too close, and he adjusted the positioning of his feet, but the other man stopped six feet away.

                    "Let's have it. If you and I knew each other, Jack, you'd have called me on the phone, but that's okay. You didn't know. I just rather talk to people downtown. This is where I live, you know what I mean?"

                    "I want to talk to you about a kidnapping. If you want to hear me, I'll meet you somewhere. I've never been to this town before."

                    Sonny continued to wipe his hands slowly, and his voice gave nothing away. "What kidnapping?"

                    "Yours. You're from Binghamton, aren't you?"

                    Leppert did not answer the question. He turned his back on Velez and looked at the car and at the house, and then turned to face his visitor again. "Why don't you sit on the porch a few minutes." He wasn't really asking. "I need five more minutes on that car and five minutes in the house, and then we'll take us a ride, so we can talk." Velez walked to the porch, where he had a choice of four chairs, all in need of repair. None looked like it could support Sonny Leppert. He let himself down in a cane-bottom rocker that had an old flat cushion laid over the broken canes. At one time the cushion had been upholstered in a flowered material, but you couldn't tell to look at it. Sonny spent forty seconds installing the remaining plug wire, and then started the engine before closing the hood. It started promptly and ran loudly and rough, but it seemed to sound okay to him, as he nodded in satisfaction and switched it off and closed the hood, which had been supported by a broomstick. The broomstick was stowed in some invisible accommodation in the engine compartment, and the man passed Velez on his way into the house, wiping his hands on the same rag as he went.

                    Ten minutes later he was ready. His rubber flip-flops had been replaced by alligator loafers, without socks, and the loafers were splayed wide and flat. The seams were letting go and the heels were worn down to a fraction of the original thickness, mostly on the outside. There was mud on them, dried white. He had put on a huge yellow tee shirt with an inscription; 'NUKE THE WHALES'. He needed a shave and haircut, but at least he had managed to clean up his hands a little. He locked the front door carefully, and one of the locks was a deadbolt that looked new.

                    Hector Velez was feeling pretty stupid. He had realized in the first two minutes that he wasn't likely to make any profit selling anything to this man, but at the same time he didn't know how to extricate himself from the spot he had walked into. If he had had anywhere to go, he would have run, but it was a long way back to town. He had walked more than thirty minutes to get here, after leaving the bus, and now he had squandered his ten minutes of grace while the other man was in the house. He should have hit the street and opened a gap between them.

                    Sonny Leppert was a broker, that was not in doubt. If he had any money he wouldn't live in this house, drive this car, wear these clothes. Velez was trying to think of an excuse to get Leppert to drive him back toward the bus station, and then leave him. More than that, he feared Sonny. He had not feared Jack Ross, even after Ross threatened him, but he had the feeling that bad things could happen to him here with Sonny, and he feared for his own safety. The reaction, or lack of it, to his mention of the kidnapping had not seemed right. You'd think a man would show more interest in such a matter. He suddenly wished he had made his pitch to Sonny's brother, when he had him on the phone.

                    Leppert was off the porch now, moving toward the car. "Come on, Jack, I got to open your door from the inside. There's a trick. We don't have any air conditioning, but we don't care about that, do we? What's your name?"

                    "Perez. Why can't we talk here on the porch, if you've got trouble with the car? I won't be long."

                    "I told you, not at my house. And I'm not having any car trouble. A bad muffler isn't car trouble." He was in the car, now, and had the passenger door open for Velez. "Let's go. You walked a long way to find me to tell me about a kidnapping, so let's get with it. Hop in."

                    Velez looked around him. The house immediately next door was abandoned and in ruin. There were others nearby, but he had seen no people. He got into the old car, planning what he would say to Leppert. The door with the trick handle sounded bad when he closed it, and he had a hard time rolling down the window. They turned around in the yard and took a right in the street, driving away from town. That wasn't so good.

                    "Where are we going, Mr. Leppert? If you want to hear what I have to tell you, let's go the other way, back toward town. I'm not comfortable with this. Maybe I've made a mistake, coming to you with my information."

                    "Relax, Perez. We'll hit a highway out here a ways, and there's a nice place to eat, and I'll buy your dinner and we can sit in the back and do our business."

                    "I've had my dinner."

                    "I haven't had mine. Relax, like I said."

                    "Turn around. I want to go to West Memphis."

                    Sonny didn't answer, and he didn't turn around, and they didn't come to any highways or any restaurants. The street became an old road, and Velez' apprehension became alarm, and then they were in a semi-wooded area with no houses, and the sweat that ran down his back was not there because the air conditioning was out. The car slowed and turned left from the road, up and over a railroad track, but the promised highway was not over there, either - it was a deserted pasture - and Velez seized the door handle and tried to open it, before they speeded up again, but it didn't work. There was a trick, Sonny had said. Sonny appeared not to notice that his passenger was trying to leave him. He gunned the engine and went two hundred yards and stopped. The elevated railroad bed behind them had put them out of sight of everybody except God. The brush in here was heavy, and the grass was tall, and there were no buildings of any kind in sight.

                    Sonny got out, taking the key from the ignition, and walked around the car to the side where Velez was sitting. He reached in through the open window and did the trick and opened the door. He stood up close, blocking escape.
                    "What do you know about my kidnapping, Mr. Perez? Why do you know anything at all, and how did you find out? Not many people even know I was kidnapped."

                    "I have access to some information."

                    "What information is that?"

                    "I can find out who was in with John Villarubbia. Two thirds of the money is still hidden away, but you have to find both the other parties to know where it is, and I can get their names for you. Addresses, too."

                    "But you don't have them yet?"

                    "Not yet. The guy wants money for the information - a lot more money than I can come up with."

                    "That's where I come in, right?"

                    "That's what I was hoping, but it looks like a bad idea. It looks like we'll have to talk to your brothers about that."

                    "Why do you say that?" He moved closer to the car.

                    Velez tried to edge back from the fat man. He thought about a dive for the driver-side door and a mad dash to anywhere. This tub of lard would never catch him in the open. But he was in a position to dive into the car and grab his hostage before he could get out, and Hector was reluctant to initiate any action. He carried a large knife, but getting it out of his pocket would take some doing. He ad-libbed furiously.

                    "Well, you look like you're having some tough luck right now. I'm talking about some serious money, because there's maybe half a million dollars involved here. This guy isn't going to endanger himself for peanuts." He changed his position on the seat, pretending to get in a posture where he could better meet Sonny's eyes. He was actually extending his left leg, to unlock his left trouser pocket, where the knife was, and living to see another day was the only thing on his mind. Sonny dropped back a half step.

                    "Money is easy, Jack. If you've got something worth selling, I can get money to buy it. Don't be fooled because I'm not driving a Jag. What's your proposition?"

                    Velez changed his position again. Even if the knife had been in his hand, Sonny was now out of his reach. He got his left foot against the hump in the floor that accommodated the drive train and launched himself out through the door, going for Sonny's groin with his right hand. Sonny was ready and shifted enough so that Velez' reach hit only his thigh, where there was nothing to grasp, but he lost his footing and went down backward in the high grass. Velez went down, too, but he was quick as a cat, and rolled to his left, crossing under the open car door and came up with the switchblade knife in his hand. He was ready to either attack or turn and run, but he had underestimated Leppert. He was still on the ground, but now he had a revolver in his hand, pointed at Velez.

                    For the next hour, Velez threw a party for all the devils that had tormented Sonny Leppert since the Sunday he had spent with Piper and Lindsay. Sonny's dreams were beginning to come true. In the first five minutes, Hector abandoned his story about having access to the precious information and admitted that he already knew. Then, with his breath coming in sobs and blood running down his chin, he eagerly related everything he knew, not only about the kidnapping, but the ensuing travels of John Villarubbia, including his act of secreting roughly two-thirds of the ransom money in an unnamed town somewhere along the way. He even gave up Piper's explanation of why John would have done this, instead of keeping it all for himself. He lied when Sonny wanted the names and addresses of the two parties who were holding the key to the treasure trove, and Sonny seized one of his fingers and broke it and asked him again, and Velez gave that up, too. Sonny wrote it all down in a little notebook and put it aside.

                    Fifteen minutes later, with his nose smashed and blood pouring from cuts in both eyebrows, Sonny made him say it again, and compared the answer with his notes. Hector Velez tried everything he could imagine in his efforts to make Sonny happy enough to let him go, but it got him nothing. The question was asked again at the end of the hour, when Hector was face-down in the grass and near death, and the reply tallied again. Satisfied that he had gotten the truth, Sonny throttled him where he lay and took his wallet, with something over two hundred dollars in it, and dumped the body in a deep drainage ditch grown over with vines, and drove the big car back to his house, and within an hour he had crossed the river and was on Interstate 55 southbound toward Baton Rouge. He had to know if there was a man named Jack Ross at the address Velez had given him.

                    Just north of McComb, Mississippi his car quit on him and he left it on the shoulder of the road and walked a mile to a rest stop, where he hitched a ride with the driver of an eighteen-wheeler bound for New Orleans. When 1-55 crossed 1-12, he got off at a truck stop and ate two waffles in a cafe and walked across to a truckers' motel and checked in. No point in getting into Baton Rouge in the middle of the night. In the morning he ate two more waffles and connected with another trucker headed west.

                    In Baton Rouge they left the Interstate at College Drive and parted company in front of a Texaco station, where Sonny bought a city map and started walking. He could have ridden a taxi - he had money in his pocket - but he was in a killing mood, and suddenly he was the Sonny Leppert who had made them all cross the street back in Binghamton. He could see himself, in his mind, dealing with Ross and then Lindsay, as he had with Perez, and leaving no trail for those who would be detailed to find him. So he walked, imagining what changes a half million dollars would make in his life. He would not go back for the derelict Buick on 1-55, or the girl in West Memphis. The state troopers were welcome to both.

                    It would be the ultimate stroke of justice. He was too late to avenge himself on either Villarubbia or Piper, but the man named Lindsay would pay for all of them. Lindsay and Piper's heir, Ross. Ross and Lindsay would come through for him, as Perez had. And the money, which he would invest at the prevailing rate, whatever that was, would provide him with a lush life from now on, and every dollar he spent would be his revenge on Richard and Irving and Simon and John Villarubbia. He would do like the Moslems, who were said to kneel in prayer three times a day, facing Mecca. At breakfast, dinner and supper he would face Binghamton and toss 'em the old Italian arm salute. Or maybe the regular old prong, his fat middle finger. He had waited a long time for this day. It made him walk faster and sweat more profusely.
                    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                    Comment


                    • #40
                      Chapter 39

                      Ross was rankled by Mendoza's criticism of his plan, but he wasn't going to let him see that he had touched a nerve. Gus was probably right; this was a dumb thing to do. The shop was doing okay, and it didn't need to be locked up and abandoned for a week while he wandered away, following Miriam Moscowitz to Lord-knows-what. It might turn out to be just a hell of a long ride for nothing, or it could be worse. They might follow all their directions and find a building, and then get arrested and put in jail for breaking into it. They might get inside and find the half million, and then Miriam might blow his head off and go home with the whole pie. There were a lot more bad possibilities than good. Most of all, he was becoming irritated with himself for continuing to debate the pros and cons. Before long, somebody would show up in Baton Rouge and point a gun at him and make him trade his information for his life. Or he could lose both. Anyway, he didn't want out.

                      Mendoza was full of shit if he thought Ross had any real choice in the matter. About the only thing left for him was to try to avoid any fatal mistakes. Come to think of it, where was Velez? Where were the Lepperts? He didn't know if they would be coming or not, or whether they would arrive before he left town. He wouldn't waste any time, after making the final plans with Miriam. He even thought of going to New Orleans or Biloxi for a couple of days, and calling her from there, but what if she tried to reach him in the meantime? At any rate, it wasn't any of Gus' goddam business. Gus was right where he belonged - working for the Post Office. Ross got no work done Wednesday after Mendoza left in a snit, so he locked the place up and went and had the truck cleaned up and serviced, and returned to the apartment. He thought of calling Sandra, but it was too late. A couple of days too late. Longer than that, really.

                      Ross did his laundry and watched part of a ballgame on television and sat outside on the little porch a while in the dark, wishing he had a cigarette. He cursed Piper in four languages, and Mendoza in two. He was multilingual, but only for profanity. He could not bring himself to curse Sandra. What the hell had he thought she was going to do? This was some kind of a week. If Housecat had wandered along, he probably would have scratched Ross, just to make it unanimous.

                      At twenty minutes to ten he left the apartment and cranked up the truck and bought a ham sandwich on the way to the shop. It came in a big bag, but it turned out to be a small sandwich, and Ross was forced to curse somebody he couldn't even call by name. The refrigerator gave up a chicken leg and a beer and a can of fruit cocktail and a candy bar. All the food groups. He ate while touring the shop for the fourth time in two days, and then settled into the big chair with mail and trade magazines. By eleven pm he was sound asleep. He awoke at six-thirty with a backache and a headache. Two consecutive nights in a chair is one too many. Groaning and cursing, he arose and stretched his muscles and set about turning out all the lights. He closed the shop and started the truck. Traffic was already steady in the streets, and he went straight to the apartment, took a shower and a couple of aspirin and went to bed.

                      It was after ten when he awoke again, in a bad mood. He fixed breakfast and didn't eat it. He brought in the paper and didn't read it. He poured cat food into Housecat's bowl and left it on the porch on his way out. When he reached the shop, there was a fat man sitting on the ground in the shade of the pecan tree where he always parked. For the second day in a row, somebody was occupying his parking spot and he had an impulse to drive right on past, but he turned in, instead. There was no car to be seen. Somebody had dropped off the fat man. As he drew nearer, he saw that the man was wearing alligator shoes that should have been discarded year before last, and a greasy baseball cap. He smoked as he sat patiently waiting, and suddenly Ross knew who he was. Sonny had arrived. Where was Hector Velez?

                      The man was leaning against the tree, and watching Ross park the truck. He was on his feet by the time Ross got the door open and got out - he moved better than he looked like he could. They inspected each other for a few seconds, and Sonny spoke first. "You Jack Ross?"

                      "Yep, I'm Ross."

                      "I'm David Leppert," said Sonny, without offering his hand. "My friends call me Sonny." He watched Ross for a reaction, but none was forthcoming. He did get a slight nod. "I'm pretty choosy about my friends, but the ones I've got call me Sonny."

                      Ross turned without comment and started walking toward the door of the shop. Sonny fell in behind him, following.

                      "What time you generally open this place?"

                      "Whenever I get here. It's my place." Ross was feeling a little testy.

                      "That's pretty tough on your customers, ain't it?"

                      "I don't get much trade before lunch. Call me next time."

                      "No sweat. I'm not here for no signs."

                      Ross unlocked the door and Sonny followed him inside. There was mail on the floor, under the slot, and he picked it up. Mendoza had been here and gone. That was okay. Ross opened the windows and turned on the lights, and turned toward his visitor. "What can I do for you?"

                      "A guy named Perez came to see me yesterday." He cocked his head and raised his eyebrows, inviting Ross to comment, but he waited in vain. Velez-Perez could have told him about that, too, if he had asked. "Perez said you were a prick. He said I wouldn't like you."

                      "He must know me pretty well, but I don't seem to know him."

                      "How about that? He said he met you in St. Louis a couple days ago, but you can't remember him."

                      "In St. Louis? A sleazy-looking guy with greasy hair? Did he look like a pickpocket?"

                      "That's the one."

                      Ross grinned. "His name's not Perez. He's been pulling your leg."

                      It took Sonny a few seconds to recover from that. It was his first indication that Perez had told him anything but truth. "So what's his real name?"

                      "It doesn't matter. He's just a policeman from St. Louis. Why is he going to see you?"

                      "A policeman!" Sonny yelped. He lost his composure for an instant, and went wide-eyed. "Shit. That guy wasn't no policeman."

                      Ross shrugged. "Okay, whatever you say."

                      "So what the hell was his name?"

                      "I told you, it doesn't matter. What are you here for?"

                      Sonny Leppert had been jolted from his course by the comment about Perez being a policeman, and he was trying to rethink his position, but he was ill-equipped for it. "Do you know who I am?"

                      Ross looked at him. Sonny was standing with his feet apart and his arms at his sides, or as close to his sides as his bulk would permit. His heels were off the floor, and he balanced on the balls of his feet. There was mud on the shoes, dried white, and they looked like the remaining stitching might let go at any minute. He looked like a gunfighter who had just been challenged, but was going to permit his opponent to draw first. Ross inspected him curiously, beginning with his head and dropping his eyes to the big belly, and then on down to the disreputable shoes. Sonny felt foolish, and took a more conventional posture.

                      "No, I don't guess I do. Who are you?" Ross had spent some time in the last twenty-four hours trying to decide what to say when, and if, Sonny came to see him, but he found he still was not prepared. His pulse rate had risen a little, and he wished he were somewhere else. Sonny looked like bad news on the hoof. If Piper had known much about him, he had neglected to tell Ross. He wanted a smoke, but not badly enough to ask Leppert for a cigarette.

                      "I'm the one who got kidnapped. It's my money you went to St. Louis to see about. That's who I am." This was the part that Ross had not figured out. If anybody had a legitimate claim to the money, it would certainly be Sonny, or at least the Lepperts. If he intended to pursue the hunt, it would have to be in spite of that fact. He cursed Piper again, silently. Had Sonny come with hat in hand, Ross wasn't certain what he might have done, or that's what he told himself, anyway. Under these circumstances, though, his course was easy to see. Sonny could go piss up a rope. An obnoxious son of a bitch like this had no business with half a million dollars, even if it was rightfully his.

                      Ross would surely be remiss to let him horn in, and that was the end of that. "I was going to play dumb if you showed up, but I've changed my mind since yesterday. There's no need for it. If I told you the little bit I know about all this, then you'd be in the same fix as me, because I've already made some calls to New York. You know about the guy in New York?"

                      "Sure do. I know about Darryl Lindsay, and how to find him. New York is my next stop, as soon as I'm done here." He gave Ross a smug little smile and shrugged his shoulders just a bit.

                      "Have a nice trip. Lindsay's dead."

                      Sonny's grin disappeared, and he was derailed again. "Who says he's dead?"

                      "The contacts in New York. You've probably got the same names I do. I called yesterday. Been dead a while, too. I guess the guy in St. Louis didn't even know it."

                      "Perez told me he was alive."

                      "Perez told you his name was Perez, too. He's here to help you get in trouble, and he has no idea whether the other guy is dead or alive. He's never even talked to him."

                      Sonny struggled again with the concept of Perez as a policeman, and came up empty, but very concerned. Why would a St. Louis cop come to West Memphis to see him? Why would Ross say the guy was a cop, unless he was? He had a sudden feeling he had come a long way without preparing himself properly. He might have made a serious error doing what he did to Perez, or whatever his name was, but what to do now? That was the question, and the answer he came up with was typically Sonny.

                      "Well, **** him anyway. Do you know where he is now? He's at the bottom of a big ditch in Arkansas, and he's gonna be there a long time is my guess."

                      "You killed him!?" A big ice cube was forming in Ross' gut.

                      "He came apart in my hands, like. It was his own fault. I wanted him to talk to me, and he wanted to play games, and I sort of lost my temper. I get that way now and then when somebody tries to jerk me around, you know? I try to do better, but it's hard for me. My mother's always on me about that, and she's right. Perez said he'd sell me his information, and I said '**** that noise, baby. Give it to me or die', and in the end he did both."

                      "And why are you telling me this?"

                      "I want you to know I'm serious, Jack. I'm serious as a ****in' heart attack. You've got some information for me and I come all the way down here to get it. It's my money, you know. I suffered for that money, and my father paid it, and if anybody gets it back it's going to be me. Us, I mean. I'm hoping you'll tell me what I need to know, just because you can see it's the right thing to do, but you don't have to. Perez decided he was going to have some fun with me first, but in the end he did what I wanted, and so will you. You look like you already got yourself something going here, Mr. Ross, so you don't need to get mixed up in this other matter, do you? You probably don't know much about people like me, and you're better off that way, believe me. I wish Perez was here, he could explain it, but he's not."

                      "We're out of luck, Leppert, both of us. I only have half the information, and the guy with the other half is dead. Go on back to Arkansas. The money's gone, as far as we're concerned."

                      "I'm going to New York later today. I'll ask around. Even if he's dead, like you say, maybe there's somebody else there who can help me. Piper's dead, too, but I still have you, see what I'm saying? If it's gone, it's gone, but not
                      because you say so. I'll check it out for myself, when I'm all done in Baton Rouge. If you'll work with me, we can work out a split, but I'm the one going to New York. Then, if there's any money, I'll share with you. Which way do you want to do this?"

                      "How will you know if I'm telling the truth?" It was a dumb question, and Ross knew it, but he had to ask.

                      "Well, I've really got no choice, I'll have to trust you. You know what I'm saying? Sometimes you got to trust somebody."

                      The change in Sonny's approach was not nearly subtle enough to pass unnoticed. Ross studied him briefly, and Sonny looked almost plaintive, and Ross turned away and walked to his bench, where he took a quill from a box and dipped it in a can of transmission fluid and began to shape it with his fingers. Sonny followed and took up a position a few feet behind him. A drop of sweat formed in the edge of Ross' hair and ran down his forehead and into the corner of his eye. He wiped at it with the back of an oily hand, and spoke over his shoulder, hoping he sounded casual.

                      "I don't think I want to be your partner. If you really killed - what did you call him. . Perez? - you're going to draw a crowd, Leppert, and that's bad news." He knew Sonny was worried about the implications of killing Hector Velez. He also knew that Sonny had to be planning to kill him, also. He had been much too candid to do otherwise. "You've wasted a trip. Sorry."

                      "What the **** do you care, if the other guy's really dead? If Lindsay's dead. Why get killed over something you say is worthless?"

                      "Killed?" Ross turned, bug-eyed, to face Sonny. He still held the little brush, and had transmission fluid on both hands. There was a snub-nosed .38 in Sonny's hand, and he had backed up two steps. Ross stared at the gun, then at Sonny's eyes. "You'd really kill me for this?"

                      "In a ****in' heartbeat, Mr. Ross. You don't know me, man, I tried to tell you. I don't give a shit, believe that. Tell me what I want to know, before somebody wanders in here. Don't shit me, Mr. Ross."

                      Ross laid down the brush and picked up a red shop towel and began to wipe the oil from his hands. "I can't believe this is happening. You're a crazy man, you know that?"

                      "Crazier than you think, Jack. I'm goin' to get what I want from you, one way or another, and it don't make a shit to me. Don't make me do it here in your place. Let's get in the truck and take a little ride, you and me, and don't forget what a crazy mother****er I am. Perez had a tough last hour on this earth. You can avoid that, but suit yourself. I'm not leaving this town with nothing, man. Maybe I won't get what I want from you, but I'll at least get you. I'll carry your balls back with me and keep 'em in a bottle of alcohol. That's what kind of guy I am. Now, let's go."

                      "Put the gun away, Leppert. You're not in Arkansas. You can't go around shooting people here."

                      "You're an aggravatin' mother****er, Ross. Hit the ****in' door - I ain't ****in' telling you again!"

                      The shot sounded like a cannon in the little building. It reverberated in the confined space, rattled the glass in the windows and set up a ringing in the ears of both men. The red shop towel leaped forward out of Ross' hand, as if to follow the bullet into the hole in the center of Sonny's chest, but instead, it fluttered to the floor between them. Ross kept his gun pointed at Sonny, and for an instant he thought perhaps he should fire again, but the other man's weapon was sagging toward the floor. He forgot that he held it.

                      Leppert's astounded gaze went from Ross' face to the hole in the front of his own tee shirt, and he knew that his heart had already stopped beating. For an instant there was a tiny wisp of white smoke at the wound, as if the bullet might be in there, starting a fire. Belatedly, he tried to raise his gun to return the shot, but it was much too heavy. He grimaced and gasped, showing his teeth, trying to get one more breath, but that was beyond his reach, too. He went to his knees heavily, and closed his eyes and Ross had to step aside as Sonny Boy Leppert pitched forward on his face.
                      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                      Comment


                      • #41
                        Chapter 40

                        Ross stared down at the body, and the ringing continued in his ears. He made a face and shook his head and bent to take the other man's gun and he put both weapons in a cabinet and closed the door. He wondered who had heard the shot, and what to do now. His preparation had extended only as far as laying his revolver on the workbench and draping the shop towel over it. In the worst-case scenario he had seen himself forced to pick up the gun and point it at Leppert, or perhaps Leppert and Velez. There was no plan to cover this. He went to the front door and stepped outside casually, looking into the street. There were cars passing, but nobody walking, nobody standing and looking toward his shop, no sign that the shot had been heard. For people to hear a gunshot and recognize it, at any considerable distance, it usually needs to be repeated. Once to get their attention, and again to verify.

                        He stepped back inside and locked the door. Sonny had not moved, and Ross went around him rather than step over him, to reach the back door. He opened it and looked out at the sheet metal shop, and there was nobody in sight. Again he wished for a cigarette. Leppert had cigarettes, and just now he had kicked the habit. Ross took a deep breath and went back inside and knelt by the body. There was a small hole in the back of the tee shirt, and a trace of blood, showing that the bullet had bored clear through the mountain of flesh. He tried to find a pulse at the side of the neck and at the wrist, without success. Sonny was as dead as he was ever going to get. Ross looked at him curiously, and assessed his own reaction. He held up a hand and saw that it was steady, and took it as a bad sign. Shouldn't you feel something after killing another man? Even a Sonny? He remembered why he had returned to the body, and with a grunt he shifted the great bulk enough to get the pack of smokes. They were a bit squashed, but they'd burn.

                        Now then, to call the police or not. He could call it a robbery he had foiled, and all he would have to explain would be why his own gun was so close at hand. But then they would ID the body and trace the family and call them to come and get him, and somewhere along the line somebody would pick up on the connection between the two of them, concerning the ransom money. Mendoza knew, Miriam knew, Bynum knew, and maybe Velez, if he was still alive. The Lepperts in Binghamton might be in on it, too, for all he knew. Velez might have told them. He and Miriam would never get off the ground in their search. The hell with that. He wasn't telling anybody.

                        His single shot had accomplished a number of significant things. In saving his own life he had ended Leppert's, and at the same time had locked himself into the proceedings. The decision he had made was now cut in stone. He was the reluctant owner of a pretty hefty corpse, and a dues-paying member of the expedition to recover the ransom money. There was another consequence of his act, as well. The original participants in the kidnapping were now all dead. Villarubbia had been the first, then Lindsay, then Piper, now Leppert. And with the murder of Velez, the second generation had already begun to fall. Ross was part of that generation. Piper had put him there.

                        So, what to do with Sonny? Nothing, surely, until late tonight, and after careful planning, but neither was he going to try to work today with a dead body in his shop. He wasn't cool enough for that. He went around, securing the blinds in the windows and checking the doors, and opened a back room and got out a dirty canvas tarpaulin. He emptied all Sonny's pockets and rolled him up neatly in the tarp. It was hard work, just turning him over each time. Almost at once, the ruined alligator shoes came off, revealing dirty feet without socks. Ross almost turned and tossed the shoes into his own garbage, but thought better of it and stuffed them as far as he could up the pants legs. Like Gus, Sonny had small legs to go with his bulk. It was an unpleasant chore, and he was glad to finish. When there was nothing to see but a fat bundle, Ross pushed it over near a wall and took a sheet of plywood and stood it on the long edge in front of the package and leaned it over against the wall, building a sort of wooden pup tent over it. Or half of one.

                        His telephone rang twice while he worked, but he didn't answer, and he could hear messages being recorded on his machine. Finally he stood back, panting and sweating, and looked around. There were only traces of blood on his floor. It had looked like a heart shot, so not much blood had been circulated after the wound was made, and what bleeding there was must have been inside. There was hardly any bullet hole to see in the fat carcass. He got a handful of toilet tissue, and wet it and wiped the floor clean and flushed the paper down the toilet. He smoked one of the cigarettes, then another. There was a wallet with a hundred sixty dollars in it, and he turned it over in his hands before taking out the money and putting it in his own pocket, resolving to get rid of the wallet when he ditched Sonny's pistol. Somehow, robbing the body disturbed him more than killing the man, but what the hell are you supposed to do with a hundred sixty dollars that belonged to a guy who didn't need it any more? His mood was blacker than ever, and it would not have improved appreciably had he known that most of it had been Velez' money, and that Sonny had gotten it the same way he had. He turned out the lights and left the building, checking to be sure the lock caught as it should.

                        Back at the apartment he showered again and changed clothes, for no good reason except Death. He had to force himself to toss the clothes in the regular basket with the others that had only Dirt on them. Housecat was at the door and Ross let him in, glad for the company. He made coffee and filled a big mug and took it out on the porch, wishing he had brought the cigarettes home with him. He hoped to get past this business without becoming a smoker again, but it got tougher as he went along. Tension and nicotine went together like spaghetti and meatballs.

                        How had Sonny come to Baton Rouge? Did he have a car somewhere, and if so, why wasn't it at the shop? Was there anybody with him? He decided there must not be. When he spoke to Miriam he would ask about Velez, but for now he would assume he was dead and out of the picture, as Sonny had said. He could find no guilt or horror associated with this taking of a life. Instead, he felt relief that he had been the survivor of a lethal confrontation, and annoyance that now he had a dead body - a dead body weighing more than three hundred pounds - to get rid of without being caught. Sonny had become nothing more than a bag of garbage to be disposed of. A bag of nuclear waste, maybe, that would require special handling instead of going into the dumpster. For some reason, he was glad Sandra couldn't see him sitting at ease with his coffee, pondering what to do with the corpse in his shop. She'd have made something out of that, and he had the vague feeling that he should, too, but there was nothing.

                        At least he had been granted the leisure to make a good plan for what had to be done. The ideal thing would be for Sonny's body not to be found at all, but that would be a big order. If you buried him, the grave was going to be visible for a long time, either because of the fresh-turned earth or because the outline of it would show after a rain or two had settled the dirt. You would need a more remote spot than any that came to mind. The bottom of the river would be even better, but he had no way to get him there - he didn't even have a boat. If he dumped him off the old Huey Long Bridge he might land on a passing barge. Most of the people who went into the river turned up before long, and even though nobody could prove where he had gone in, Baton Rouge was one of the places he might have. Dead as he was, he continued to plague Ross.

                        In the end, after a good deal of objective consideration, he decided not to put Sonny to soak after all. Drive him a hundred miles and find a quiet spot to dump him, and let it be somebody else's problem when he was found. Prove he had gone to Baton Rouge. Prove he came to see me. Prove I did something to him. An obnoxious son of a bitch like that could have gotten lots of people to kill him. It wasn't completely safe, but he calculated he could pull it off. It seemed that killing Mr. Leppert had been the easy part. He was tired, but it would be hours before he could act, giving him ample time for some sleep. He kicked back the recliner, but his eyes were wide open, and his shoulders were tight. The morning paper was where he had left it in the kitchen, and he looked at it without seeing it, read it without comprehending, and tossed it down.

                        Housecat was restless, seeming to feel some of Ross' tension, and he wanted out. He looked apprehensive as he waited for the door to be opened. Ross heated a TV dinner and ate it without tasting it, and forty minutes later he threw it up. There was no nausea, but he threw it up. Death was subtle, but it was on him, nonetheless. With an effort, he figured that today was Thursday, still two days too soon to call Miriam in St. Louis. He had been to St. Louis a hundred years ago, on Monday. Now he slept.

                        It was dark when he awoke, past eight o'clock. His body was stiff and uncoordinated, and his head was fuzzy, eyes puffy. His mouth tasted like the bottom of a bird cage. He stood over the basin and splashed cold water over his face, again and again. He made more coffee and ate two toaster waffles, and felt only a little better, but he returned to the shop. Sonny was urgent. Something to deal with tonight. Ross waited at the stop sign for a couple of cars to pass in front of the shop and move on down the street, and when they were gone he pulled across and turned in, cutting his lights as he went. In the dim glow of street lights he went directly to the back door, where the truck would be out of sight, and backed up close to the building. Walking around to the front, he entered through the main door and locked himself in, but did not turn on any lights. It took some effort on his part to feel his way around in the dark, within a few feet of the dead man. He found a flashlight and satisfied himself that Sonny was still there, and still dead, although he imagined the body had changed positions slightly. The rolled-up package looked different.

                        He switched off the flash and opened the back door. Everything was quiet, like a graveyard. The evening was cool, but sweat was forming under his shirt. He dropped the tailgate and went back for his load. Sonny was well into rigor mortis. It comes and then it goes -he had heard that - but it had a grip on Sonny right now, and just getting him to the door was no easy task. Loading him into the truck was even worse, and Ross dropped him on the ground twice before getting him aboard. For a time he thought, in a panic, that he might not be strong enough tonight to do what he had to do. In the end, he got him into the bed of the truck, still wrapped in the tarpaulin and trussed up with rope, but a corner had worked loose and the soles of Sonny's bare feet shone white in the weak light, and Ross had to tuck them in, after which he wiped his hands roughly on a rag.

                        He brought the same sheet of plywood and built the wooden pup tent again, with the top edge of the panel resting on the side of the truck bed. He blocked it along the lower edge to be certain it didn't shift on the road and expose the suspicious package to the scrutiny of passing truckers, and he closed the tailgate. His shirt was wet, and sticking to his back, before he was done, and his chest was heaving.

                        On Interstate 12 he headed east toward Slidell, with the vague idea of making his drop somewhere in the desolate salt marshes of New Orleans East, but he didn't really know that area, and when the sign announcing Interstate 55 came into view he decided to turn north toward Mississippi. He thought it quite likely that he was breaking some additional laws by hauling the dead body across a state line for disposal, but it didn't seem important at this point. Surely they wouldn't call it kidnapping, not when your victim is already stiff. Besides, he mused, who the hell would pay you to bring back Sonny Leppert - but of course somebody had once done just that, which explained why they were both there, skulking around in the middle of the night.

                        Traffic was beginning to ease off, and what was left was mostly trucks. He imagined that all the drivers were craning their necks to inspect his cargo as they went past him, and he drove faster to maintain his place in the line. Suddenly he realized that he was going seventy-five miles an hour, and he slowed again. He had no radar detector, and he didn't need to be stopped by a trooper. Not tonight. He drove looking straight ahead, both hands on the wheel, with frequent peeks through the rear window to check on Sonny, and before he knew it he had crossed into Mississippi. This should be far enough, and he began to scout for exits onto state roads. The one he chose was at McComb, and outside of town he turned again onto a lesser road and then again, until he was deep into piney woods, with no lights in view and no traffic. He didn't know what this spot might look like in the light of day, but it looked okay now, in the pitch dark.

                        He picked the high side of a banked curve in an elevated roadway; the same sort of site that Villarubbia had chosen for his money drop fourteen years ago in Binghamton. Ross pulled off the road and got out, trying to see down the embankment, and it looked like a tangle of brush down there. He dropped the tailgate again and began to fight Sonny for the last time. He got him out into the road and then rolled him over the edge into the darkness. After the fact, he wondered whether he should follow him down and recover the tarp, but decided it could not be traced to him, and then followed him down anyway and pulled some bushes over him, so one would have to look closely to find him. He had done all he could. He should have known that the tarp, speckled and stained with paint in a wide variety of colors, could not have come from anywhere other than a sign shop, but the fact escaped his attention. And without being aware of it, he had left Sonny within ten miles of the spot where Sonny's dead Buick still sat on the shoulder of 1-55, with a citation under the wiper.

                        The ride back to Baton Rouge was a breeze, with Leppert out of his life forever. In his mind, Ross went over the day's events half a dozen times, looking for oversights, and at last concluded that he had done well. He wasn't sure how many crimes he had committed, but he did feel like he had gotten away with all of them, at least for now. It wasn't a process he would like to have to go through every day. Being a criminal must be tough on the nerves.

                        On the other hand, he was planning some more crimes before he went straight again. He wanted to do a breaking and entering and some destruction of private property, like maybe a Sheetrock wall, somewhere around the Canadian border. After that, he promised the world silently, he would be a model citizen. Well, as good as most of the others, anyway.
                        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                        • #42
                          Chapter 41

                          Ross' workday on Friday began at two AM - he didn't go back to the apartment at all after returning from Mississippi. Being at the shop all night no longer caused any comment in the neighborhood. It was something he did often, lights on, doors locked and blinds closed. He cleaned and reloaded his pistol and hid Sonny's, since he had forgotten to get rid of it. He should have taken it out with him and thrown it into a river somewhere. Then he tended to business for a solid twelve hours, pausing only to go out for lunch.

                          He had an eight by twelve sign he had been looking forward to doing for a week. It was for a boat landing and tackle shop and bar down in Lafourche Parish, and the customer had paid him in advance, paid him quite well, and told him to make it look nice and nautical. He had done a color rendering that was right on the money, but the work went badly. The lower part, that had started as a beach, ended up looking like a desert, needing only a couple of old camel skulls lying around. The color of the sky was all wrong and the orange orb suspended there was surely too hot for sun-bathing. The two white gulls soaring overhead looked like they might have taken a wrong turn over Morocco. Sonny Leppert wasn't the only thing Ross had killed today. In the end he laid all three panels down flat and poured paint thinner on them and scrubbed them down with rags until most of the color was gone, and when it was dry he recoated the whole thing. He would try again tomorrow.

                          As he moved around the shop he found himself looking at the places where Sonny had been; where he stood, where he knelt and then fell, where he spent the day as he waited for Ross to come back for him. There was no evidence he had ever been there. Every time the phone rang, or somebody opened the door, Ross was certain it was about Sonny, but that was pure paranoia. If it ever did happen, it wouldn't be for a while. At least he no longer had to worry about Sonny's arrival. Sonny and Velez were both accounted for.

                          Just before lunch he stepped on something near the window, and when he picked it up to look at it he saw that it was the bullet that had killed Leppert, and he dropped it instantly, snatching his hand back as if burned. He picked it up again with a rag, and threw it into the garbage can and went in the bathroom and washed. He smoked two more of Sonny's cigarettes and did some deep-breathing exercises. This wasn't going to do. In the afternoon Ross made two trips in the truck to deliver completed work, carrying his wares in the same vehicle he had used to haul three hundred-plus pounds of dead pork last night.

                          Friday was Mendoza's day off, and a man named Perrin had brought his mail today, and that was just fine. He and Gus could make up next week, if he wasn't out of town, but he didn't feel like dealing with it right now. Or maybe they wouldn't make up at all. It was a casual friendship at best, and they really didn't have all that much in common. Gus and Gloria would occasionally stop at the shop if they were out and about in the evening and if Ross' lights were on, and he had been to their house two or three times in the past two years. No big deal, either way. If Gus was going to be his mail carrier, he would prefer to get along with him, but Gus was sometimes a pain in the ass, like most civil servants.

                          He thought of calling Sandra, but he didn't know what he could say to her if he did, and she would do all she could to make it awkward for him. Her talents in that line were at least the equal of his own. She was a master of the same tactics of discomfiture that he had used on both Velez and Leppert, and they were both dead now, if there was anything to be made of that, which there wasn't. But he didn't call her. You didn't have to be Forrest Gump to figure that out. Ross returned to the apartment and showered and went out to dinner alone, and two different people asked him about Sandra and he found it difficult to answer. What had they done, anyhow - split the blanket, cut the ties, pulled the pin, drawn the line? He didn't even know if they were still speaking. If they were, they hadn't, had they? It was a pain in the ass, and he went back home. Everything seemed to be a pain in the ass this week.

                          Tomorrow he would work hard again, and gas up the truck again, and answer all his phone calls, and later he could make a call of his own, to St. Louis. Calling Miriam might be better, just this once, than calling Sandra. He was at least sure that Miriam would be glad to hear from him. He undressed and fell into his bed and dreamt about killing Sonny and settling down in Kentucky with Miriam. Couple of bad dreams, and there was nothing about money in either of them. Saturday started early for him. Not as early as Friday had, but early by his standards. His tendency, and his preference, was to stay up late and sleep late, and to open the shop when he had no more excuse not to. Cunctatorship could be an art form.

                          By six-thirty he was frying eggs to put on top of his instant grits. The coffee was made and there were prefab biscuits in the oven, and both honey and strawberry preserves waited on the counter top. He had a little dinette set of table and chairs, but he almost never ate there. Clearing enough room for a meal would be a major project. Sandra had bought him a single stool, which he kept in the kitchen and sat on while he ate from the counter top. It made perfect sense to him. Eat where the food and utensils were. And the sink. Why carry it all away and then have to bring it all back? Anybody could see the logic in that. He suspected that single people all over were doing it, but lots of them wouldn't admit it, lest they be thought barbaric. Even the stool had been a sort of concession to Sandra. For years he took most of his meals either standing or on a lap tray carried to the recliner in the front room. She had liked him in spite of the way he lived, not because of it, and she had pointed this out to him on more than one occasion. He always reciprocated. They had looked down on each other and up to each other. Go figure.

                          Ross bought gas on the way to work, and picked up some road maps, going as far as Ohio. There was a lot of driving ahead of him, hopefully starting today or tomorrow. He could always fly and rent a car, but this would save a little money and make him more mobile and flexible, besides allowing him to pack the gun. There was no doubt in his mind that Miriam would do him in for his half of the half million, if the chance presented itself, but she wasn't going to get that chance. If she played square with him and they reached the little brick building at last, he would make the first move. He would snatch her purse and put it on the ground while he searched her - really searched her. She could like it or lump it. Then he'd go through the bag carefully, and when he'd found her weapon it would be time to go into the building. The advantage would be his, because he would be the first to know they had arrived. He didn't want to do any more killing, and he didn't want her share of the money, but he wanted a head start for his getaway. And if she tried to make a move on him, he just might change his attitude about the money, too.

                          Like Sonny, she didn't deserve any reward if she made trouble. 'Do unto others' thought Ross, 'but do it first.' He made note of the fact that his own attitude had changed sharply in the past few days. On Monday and Tuesday he had been extremely skeptical, at best, about the adventure and the possibility of finding this money, but all the events of the week had strengthened Piper's story, and he now thought in terms of success, with its attendant perils. Perils that had already claimed the lives of five people. He prepared a set of tools that might be needed to get into the building where the riches lay waiting. He had no lock picks, and wouldn't know how to use them if he did, but he took an assortment of screwdrivers and a glass cutter and a keyhole saw and pry bars of two sizes, then added a carpenter's hammer and some pliers, needle-nosed and regular. Everybody in the world has a ring of assorted keys, left behind by long-gone locks, and Ross' collection was added to the pile he was making. One never knew. The wall, itself, Piper had said, was Sheetrock, and all that would be needed was to punch enough of a hole to get a few fingers into and he should be able to tear it out by hand. All the items went into a big plastic tackle box, except for the longest pry bar, and he slipped that under the seat of the truck, along with the .38 in its three-cornered zipper pouch. The box was opened again, and he put in a big flashlight and a little one. He couldn't think of any more preparations he could make, and he forced himself to go to work.

                          He tried to think how many years it had been since he had done anything that had produced this kind of anticipation. The ill-fated trip to Long Island with Piper had always been one of his most vivid memories, but in truth, there had been nothing memorable about it until he had looked out a window to find that he had been discovered. The trip out, driving an old pickup truck through the desolate parts of the island, had been routine. The excitement had begun with the chase and continued right up to the instant when he realized Piper was leaving him. Then excitement had suddenly turned to fear, but they both had felt the same to his heart. Sometimes, it was hard to tell the difference between excitement and fear. Sometimes there isn't any difference. Piper had smoked the entire trip, and Ross had had to open a window. It occurred to him that Piper had been apprehensive from the start, and he had failed to notice. At nine-thirty he realized he wasn't getting anything done, and he made coffee and walked to the store, where he prevailed on the cashier to sell him two cigarettes. Sonny's were all gone. She wagged her head in mock despair as she pushed them across the counter.

                          "I sure am disappointed in you. I figured you could do it."

                          "I have things heavy on my mind, and even then it's only a couple at a time. Besides, where do you get off with that stuff? You're the one with the habit."

                          "Yeah, but that's different, 'cause I only smoke for weight control. If I quit smoking, I'd weigh one-eighty by morning. When you smoke, it holds down your appetite and you don't eat as much."

                          "Or as long, either. But don't stop now. If you weighed one-eighty I'd have to dream about somebody else, and get me a new pusher, too. I love you just the way you are, but I'd like to be on your life insurance, just in case." He left whistling, feeling young and strong and fearless. At eleven he locked the door and went into the office and called the St. Louis number Miriam had given him. He waited while it rang ten times and then hung up and went back to work. An hour later he dialed again, without an answer. Then again at one, with the same result. He called information in St. Louis and the operator verified the number for him. As he had guessed, the phone was in Miriam's name - people like Piper were never listed. It was much too soon to become alarmed. They had not agreed on a time for the call, and Miriam hadn't promised to wait at home all day to hear from him. Surely Piper-Graham had been buried by this time, but she figured to have plenty of things to attend to. Sooner or later he would reach her, but he was strung up pretty tight, and not programmed for patience.

                          He straightened up the things on his desk, and checked to be certain all the bills were paid, and sharpened six or eight pencils of various kinds and then went to the rear of the shop, where he scattered sweeping compound over the floor and began moving it around with the push broom. And he kept calling St. Louis. Just after four o'clock Western Union called with a wire from St. Louis. It said that Miriam was leaving town and would meet him Monday evening at the Holiday Inn on Interstate 70 in Zanesville, Ohio, where a reservation had been made for him. It was signed 'M'. The lady on the phone read it to him twice and promised that a hard copy would be in the mail right away. Ross' reaction was mixed, at best. This woman was pretty goddam sure he would do as he was told, and that certainly was not the impression he had tried to give her. 'Meet me in Ohio', your ass, lady. And why tell me like this, instead of calling? Probably so she wouldn't have to hear him say it to her. Or else something was going on, and he was being left out. On the other hand, wasn't this what he was waiting for?

                          The hunt had begun, and he was in on that, for sure. Was Zanesville the town? How big was it, and could a man go there and get access to the building permits from 1985, so that he could locate a small brick office building, without depending on Miriam to show him where to begin? Surely she was not that naive. The money wasn't in Zanesville, but it wasn't far away, either. He would pack up and go, no two ways about that. It didn't matter if Miriam Moscowitz got off on bossing him around, as long as he beat her to the draw at the showdown. Or maybe even a little before. He went home and settled into the recliner and extended it to its fullest and went to sleep immediately. He would drive through the night, like he used to do.
                          If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                          • #43
                            Chapter 42

                            Ross went all the way to Nashville Saturday night in the truck. He enjoyed the trip as far as Memphis, but he had to push himself to hang in there for another three and a half hours. He checked into a motel before daylight and slept until noon. He awoke feeling stiff and logy, so he took a shower and drove into town, where he parked the truck and spent an hour walking the streets, and it made him feel better. Nashville should have been full of people carrying either guitars or fiddles in cases, but he didn't see a single one. There were constant reminders that this was the cradle of country music, but if there were any country musicians around, they must be in disguise, or maybe they didn't come out until after dark, like vampires. When he got his money, he promised himself, he would come back to Nashville to visit. Nashville and a lot of other places.

                            After lunch he slept again and returned to the road, and was in the Eastern Time Zone before dark. There isn't a whole lot to see in Zanesville in the hours after midnight, but Ross didn't care. There was a Holiday Inn, and it was easy to find, and there was a reservation for him for Monday, but wasn't he kind of early? But never mind, there was a room he could have, just sign right here and fill in the blanks. He drove to the rear and fell into bed, not feeling nearly as young and strong as he had on Saturday.

                            It was twelve-thirty when he awoke this time, and he was three minutes out of the shower and still damp here and there when the knock came on his door at twelve-something. He pulled on the same pants he had taken off during the night, and padded across the motel carpet in his bare feet. It would have to be the maid, and she could come back in fifteen minutes. Miriam had best not show up unannounced, six hours early, after the way she had handled the arrangements. If it was Miriam, she was going to get an earful, but it wasn't Miriam at the door. It was Gus Mendoza.

                            Ross stared wide-eyed and slack-jawed. He couldn't have been more stunned and disconcerted if it had been Manuel Noriega. For five seconds he totally lost his bearings and became disoriented. The shock made him doubt that he was where he had thought he was. If he was in Ohio, then Mendoza wouldn't be at his door, would he? The first identifiable emotion that came to him was anger. He had been right; something had happened without him, and all the advantage was with his adversaries. Whoever they were, they were certainly his adversaries, and this had to be one of them. He was as defenseless as he had ever been, and the best he could do was to make Gus move first.

                            "Damn, Jack, I didn't mean to hit you this hard. I knew you'd be surprised to see me, but I wasn't expecting paralysis. Can I come in?"

                            "Yeah, come on in, by all means. If you walked off without any explanation, I don't think I could take it."

                            "You were expecting Miriam." It wasn't a question and Ross gave no reply. He was beginning to recover. Mendoza looked at him, noting his wet hair and bare feet. "Go on back in the bathroom and finish up. I'll wait."

                            "Bullshit. You might be willing to wait, but I'm not. Is she with you?"

                            "Miriam? No, she's not here in town. I'm here as her agent, I guess you'd say. She called me - somebody told her I was a friend of yours, you told her, maybe - and said she was worried about this thing, and afraid that the two of you would wind up in the same fix as the first two, not able to trust each other far enough to find the right spot. And she was afraid that you would try to take the whole amount and she wouldn't be able to do anything about it. She made me a deal and asked me to come here to meet you and see this thing through. She figured you and I were more likely to be able to work out the details, and I had to tell her she was probably right. I'm to deliver her half to St. Louis, assuming we pull it off, and she'll give me a percentage of her share. She knows I have a wife and family, and she doesn't think I'll try anything. She's not totally comfortable with it, but she feels like it's her best chance. She has nightmares about not getting this money, Jack."

                            "Where is she now? Why didn't she come?"

                            "She decided to wait in St. Louis. We didn't know what to expect on this end, and she figured she could trust us just as well from there as from here. She's still picking up after the guy who died the other day. You call him Piper, she calls him Willie Graham. There doesn't seem to be anybody but her to settle up his affairs, and I guess she's to get whatever he left behind."

                            "She gave you her information, so that you and I can go to the right place and do this thing?"

                            "Right. She gave me the town and the reference point. The landmark. It's not here in Zanesville, but it's not much of a trip to get there."

                            Ross looked at him speculatively, trying to arrive at a course of action. He turned and walked to the window and opened the curtain, and began to dry his hair slowly with the towel that had hung over his shoulder. When he turned back, Mendoza's attitude seemed to be apologetic. His expression was rueful, eyebrows raised and head cocked slightly. Ross sat in one of the chairs and looked out the window again. There was nothing to be seen except the parking lot. "Gus, you've got half the key and I have the other half, and the only way to find what we're looking for is to trust each other. Is that about the way you see it?"

                            "That's exactly it. If we don't, we're both going back empty-handed, and I'll have to try to explain to Miriam that we couldn't do it. I wouldn't look forward to that."

                            "Miriam Moscowitz is a real hard case," said Ross, "and just like you say, she has nightmares about not getting this money. She was afraid I might not take it seriously and might not cooperate with her. Miriam killed Lindsay, and she killed John Villarubbia, and she'd fight the Red Chinese Army with a ****ing Ginsu knife for this money. She's not afraid of me, Gus - I'm afraid of her - and goddam it, she didn't willingly send you and me up here to dig up the money while she cools her heels in St. Louis. She's been waiting too long for that. You're telling me the worst goddam lie I ever heard in my life, and yet you think I should trust you. You must think I'm an idiot or something. What have you done with Miriam? Tell me that and we'll talk about the other matter."

                            And in St. Louis, Mustafa Ibrahim Jalil was hurrying into the drug store. He was on his lunch break, and they had promised to have his photos ready by noon today. He anticipated the prize-winning picture of a hare and a tortoise, and some lesser stuff he had shot while waiting, like that long-legged bird. He didn't notice that the lady at the counter became nervous as she saw him approach, or that there was a tremor in her hand as she gave him the envelope. He opened it immediately, and the first picture on the top of the pile was The One. His heart sank. He had not managed to hold the little camera level, and the horizon looked like a hillside. A pretty steep hillside, at that. Worse, there was no hare and no tortoise, and it had been a clean miss, and his disappointment fell over him like a cold wet blanket.

                            But the man peering over his shoulder thought it was a fascinating picture. He was short and round and he wore a funny little snap-brim hat, a la Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. A porkpie hat, that's what it was. Like Popeye, he was a police detective, and he had been waiting over an hour to meet Mustafa, because in that same picture, if one looked closely, one could see a pale bare leg sticking out from under a bush, and at the end of the leg was a foot with a little blue and white checked canvas shoe on it.
                            If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                            • #44
                              Chapter 43

                              Gus Mendoza sighed patiently, and stared at Ross in thought. He found something interesting on one of his knuckles and studied it for a few seconds, before looking up and taking a deep breath. "Call her up, Jack," he said. "She said if there was a problem you were to call her. She's expecting it. She said there was no way you would do anything without her say-so."

                              "I've been trying to call her for two days."

                              "She said she'd been busy as hell. Call her now. You want the number?"

                              "I know the goddam number by heart. Gus, if she doesn't answer this time, you can get your ass out of here and go back to wherever you're staying, and I'll let you know something later this afternoon. This stinks and you're lying to me, and I've got to do some thinking."

                              "Think fast, man, because I had to take a week off from work on short notice, and I have to show up Friday morning. If we find this place, we might need a couple of days to figure out a way to deal with it, and there's still a lot of driving left between here and Baton Rouge."

                              "Especially if you have to go through St. Louis to give Miriam her money." He gave Gus a dirty look that Gus pretended not to see. Ross pulled the telephone toward him and began to dial, and as it rang in Missouri he kept his eyes on Mendoza's, and his face expressionless. After ten rings he held it out for Gus to hear, and then hung it up. "The only reason she went back to St. Louis was because she had to get Piper buried. Otherwise she'd have camped in front of my shop until I could get ready. That's how important this was to her. So she went back, and made me promise to call her on Saturday to make plans, but now she's been out of touch for at least two days, and I'm not going for it. You sent the wire, didn't you?"

                              "Sure I did. It was my project by then. I signed it M for Mendoza, so I wouldn't have to lie to you." He grinned at Ross. "Now then, what are we going to do? You say you want some time to think about it?"

                              "Yeah, I do. You're 'way ahead of me, and I'm not moving until I do some catching up. There's a guy in St. Louis I want to call, to see if he knows anything about Miriam. If I don't find out where she is, or what's happened, there's not much danger I'm going anywhere with you, money or no money."

                              "Why, Jack? Go ahead and call Bynum, you've told me all about him. If he can straighten this out for you, that's fine. But if he can't, why couldn't we go ahead and worry about it later? What the hell do you care, as long as you get yours?"

                              "I care, goddam it, because if you've done something to Miriam then you'll do something to me, too. I'd love to have half of this bundle, but I'm not willing to die for it. I'll go back where I came from and make signs. That's what you were preaching to me, anyway, last time I saw you. That's another reason this looks fishy to me, after all you said about it. And I'm sitting here trying to decide whether you could kill people or not. What the hell has come over you, anyway?"

                              Mendoza had never left his feet since coming in, and now he sat down in the other chair, and his face was red. He was angry, and Ross had never seen him look this way before. "Screw you, Jack, you're mighty self-righteous all of a sudden, for a man who's hunting for a pile of somebody else's money. I meant to ask you, did you hear anything from Sonny Leppert? No, I don't kill people. I deliver mail for a living and do stupid things like this in my spare time, but this is the last one." He stood up again. "I'm in Room 328 when you decide what to do, but you think real hard before you decide to blow it off and leave it behind. Whatever you find out, or don't find out, I've got the rest of the information you need, and I'll bend over backwards to cooperate with you. I'll tell you right up front where we're going, and you can handle the rest any way you see fit. By the way, it's close enough so we can still go today, and at least locate the place, if you don't fart around too long making up your mind."

                              He walked to the door and let himself out, and Ross didn't speak again. He was wearing the bath towel over his head like a babushka, and his face was dark and clouded. He dialed the number in St. Louis once more, but he was certain he was wasting his time. He would have been amazed if she had answered. How in the shit had all this happened, anyhow? He didn't believe for a minute that Miriam had contacted Gus with a proposition of any kind, so how did he come to be involved? There were not too many possibilities. It would not have been a great shock to find Bynum at the door, because that was something he had thought of several times. Tell the truth, he had half expected Bynum to turn up somewhere along the way. But Bynum had no reason to bring Mendoza into it; no reason that Ross could think of. He had never even heard of Mendoza. The only thing that made any sense was that Mendoza had changed his mind and decided to take a shot at the money, and started by going to St. Louis to see Miriam, but she had never given up her pair of Jacks willingly. Not in a million years. So Gus had done something to her - had he tortured her until she told, and then killed her? Was Gus capable of that? He would never have believed it of him, but there had to be an explanation.

                              Ross lay down on the bed and closed his eyes and cursed Piper. He had to decide how important it was to him to learn what had become of Miriam Moscowitz, and the answer to that was that he didn't really care, except insofar as it applied to his own situation. She was nothing to him, of course, and this wasn't the time or place to wax sanctimonious for mankind, or even for retired hookers. His only safe course was to assume that Gus could, and had, done away with her, and if so, that he would do the same to him if he got a chance. Did that mean that he should back out, or only that he should exercise great care? Every secret, right from the beginning, in this whole convoluted mess of kidnapping and consequences, had been given up by dying people. It appeared that Miriam had become the fifth person to die for this plum, without counting Piper. And also, Ross obviously didn't know doodly-squat about his mailman.

                              The world was a strange place, and screw you again, Piper. You too, Mendoza. The decision, then, was simply to make this trip with Gus or go back home without trying. Not such a tough call, once a man had it all thought out. Ross finished dressing and combed his hair and walked to the restaurant. Only a few tables were occupied, and Gus sat at one of them, finishing a plate of something or other. He looked up as Ross entered, but Ross ignored him and took a table in the smoking section. He ordered a sandwich and talked the waitress into bringing him a cigarette to smoke while he waited. When the sandwich came he ate it without tasting it, and drank two glasses of iced tea. By the time he had finished, Gus had left and Ross had ignored him again. The waitress brought him another cigarette to smoke after his lunch, without a request, and he took it with gratitude, and left her three dollars on his way out. He still had not bought any cigarettes, so nobody could call him a smoker. Well, actually he had bought them all, but he had never bought a whole pack, and that was how you could tell if you were a smoker. A serious smoker bought them at least by the pack, and usually by the carton. He had killed a man a few days ago, but at least he wasn't a smoker. He went off to find Room 328.

                              He rapped twice on the door with one knuckle, and Gus opened it without delay. The television was on, and he had been watching a game show with the volume turned down low. The bed in the room was made up, so Ross couldn't tell if he had just checked in today, or if the maid had already serviced the room. Not that it made any difference. Gus smiled at him, and he took it as a bad sign. He and Gus never smiled at each other, but this was about the third time today. Suddenly he wanted to get finished.

                              "Well," said Gus, "that didn't take long. What did you find out?"

                              "I found out nobody's seen Miriam. She seems to be missing."

                              Gus shrugged. "So what are we going to do?"

                              "I've decided to hold on until I talk to Miriam. She and I will work it out, or maybe we won't, but I'm not going anywhere with you. You've made a bad guess, thinking I would go for your story. Go on home and walk your route. I'm going to St. Louis to see Miriam, and I'll tell her I'm not doing any business with her agent and we'll go back to our first plan. I'll let you know what happens next time I see you."

                              Mendoza gazed at him for several seconds, letting his eyes wander over the parts of Ross's face. He turned his back and went three steps into the room and stood with his hands in his pockets. Then he turned again and sighed audibly. "You can't talk to Miriam. You already knew that. Miriam is out of it. There's just you and me now. Your options are to work it out with me or to blow it off. Forget talking to Miriam, today or any other day."

                              "Now, all of a sudden, I believe you. It kind of pisses me that you thought I would buy the rest of that shit. It wasn't even a good lie, man. What did you do to Miriam?"

                              "I did something to her, but it'll keep until later. You must have made some kind of decision before you came to my room. You in or out?"

                              "I'm in, I guess. Seems like it's pretty late in the game to be out. I'll have some more decisions to make, when I get a little breathing room." Gus shrugged again, without speaking, and picked up his room key. In the parking lot, he turned toward Ross. "Come on, go with me. I got a rent car for this." Ross considered for a minute, and could think of no reason to refuse. He'd leave the tools in the truck, because this trip was just to look for the building. They weren't breaking into it today. Gus might not even know it was a building they were looking for. Besides, he preferred to be the passenger and have both hands free, rather than the other way around. He didn't intend to have Gus doing anything to him. "That's fine," he said. "I'm tired of riding the truck."

                              Mendoza followed the service road to the access ramp and they proceeded eastward on Interstate 70. After five miles of silence, Ross spoke. "You promised to tell me where we're going."

                              " Yep, I did, and I will. Understand, Jack, once I do that I'm at your mercy, so I'm trusting you to be fair with me, and it's something I have to do, because my part's first. We can't go home like Piper and Lindsay, without getting the money. Today's the day and you're my man." Ross didn't answer, and Gus continued. "We're going to Wheeling, West Virginia. It's supposed to be about an hour and a half, and then we have to find this address." He fished a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket, and gave it to Ross. It didn't say anything about it being a church. "From there on you're the pilot." Ross looked at it and put the paper in his own pocket, and they drove another ten miles in silence, passing several small communities that had only one exit each. Ross took the slip of paper out of his pocket and turned it over and wrote something on the back and returned it to his pocket. Gus took no notice.

                              "That gives you ninety minutes to tell me what you did in St. Louis." Mendoza didn't look at him. He turned his face slightly the other way, looking in his outside mirror, and let some time pass.

                              "One thing at a time, amigo. I'm not ready to confess anything yet. All in good time." If he thought his ambiguity was reassuring to Ross, he was mistaken, but at least he had ended the conversation. He made one or two attempts of his own, to get a dialogue started on some other subject, but had to give it up. Ross was playing the clam about the other half of the key, and they made a long ride like strangers. It was after three-thirty when they reached Wheeling, and after four by the time they located a city map and were able to find the address on the slip of paper. It was a church, and Ross had to find that reassuring. Miriam had mentioned that part, but she had not said which church. If there had been a Toyota dealership or something of the sort at the address, the trip might have come to a halt until they could verify that there had been a church there once. Gus pulled the car over to the curb and looked at Ross.

                              "This is it - I've done all I can. You want to drive?" Ross scowled and looked down at his hands. They were steady, but the palms were damp. He decided that Mendoza had probably been honest about it.

                              "No, you drive, Gus. I'm going to be honest on this end. If this doesn't work, man, your ass belongs to me." He indicated the direction they should take, and Gus put the car into gear and steered into the driving lane. They were silent until time for the next turn, and the next.

                              At last Ross said, "Go up here a couple of blocks and turn left at a stone house with a little stone wall around the front yard." That was all he offered, and he didn't turn to face the other man. Traffic was light. The stone house turned up on schedule, and Ross felt a tingle in the soles of his feet. They made the left turn, and almost immediately the houses became more widely spaced, with more vacant lots, most of them grown up in weeds. Mendoza turned his head toward Ross.

                              "Does this look right?"

                              "I don't know. Before long the street should swing right and cross a little creek on a flat bridge. If it does that, we're on the way." The street lived up to all their expectations, and the creek was on duty under the little bridge. Ross felt a change in his pulse, and he made himself breathe deeply.

                              "We're gonna do it, Jack, I know we are. I can understand how you felt. I shouldn't have sounded off to you the other day."

                              "Go about a mile and a half. This is the number we're looking for, and it should be on a small brick building," Ross said. He produced the note from his pocket and passed it to Mendoza. "It should be on the left." He settled back into the seat and tried to relax. Mendoza's nostrils were flaring as he breathed, and he began to move first one hand and then the other from the steering wheel, to wipe them on his pants legs and then back to the wheel. Beyond the creek the houses ceased entirely and they drove through a half mile of wooded land and then emerged into a sort of industrial park, passing a small hospital on the right, with a blinking caution light in front, and then scattered businesses of a service nature, generally in sheet metal buildings with brick faces and paved parking in the front.

                              Mendoza slowed, peering at the numbers on his left, and turned in at a huge metal building, still under construction, although no one seemed to be on the job today. A mailbox on a post stood on the shoulder of the street, and the correct number showed in white numerals - five of them. He checked them against the slip of paper in his hand, and glanced toward Ross. The lot was not yet paved, and they drove on a loose gravel surface toward the front of the building. It was closed up. There was the remains of a sand pile to the right, and a lot of metal and lumber scraps lying around. Mendoza cut the engine and they sat in silence.

                              These metal buildings went up in a hurry, even big ones like this. Ross judged they were a month late, or maybe six weeks - not that it mattered. The reality hit him hard. He had assumed that the cooperation was the only hurdle, and if they got that part right the rest would fall into place. And he had assumed, at least for several days now, that it was going to work. What were the odds on somebody putting up a brick office building and tearing it down again fourteen years later? He wondered who had found the money. A blue-collar man like himself? It had been there, he was convinced. Had the story made the local paper, or had the finder quietly carried the money away? It wasn't important, either way. He had no claim on it, except in his mind, where it had already become his. The thought of returning to work in the shop was almost too depressing to deal with. Maybe he would spend a couple of extra days on the trip back. Maybe he would go to Nashville and stay a while. Go to the Opry. There must be something there, everybody was doing it.

                              He got out of the car slowly and stretched his back and his shoulders, and he picked up a handful of gravel and began to throw the stones at a battered water cooler that stood near the building. He wanted to hurl a couple against the building, so that he could at least leave some dents and make some noise, but there were other buildings adjacent, probably with people still working. It was not yet five o'clock. After a few minutes, Gus joined him outside the car. "You're not so good. I would have figured you could throw rocks better than that."

                              "It's farther than it looks, and I've hit it twice already. If you think you can do better, be my guest. There's over seven million rocks here."

                              "How can you tell?"

                              "As you sail the stormy seas of life, you sorry bastard . . .

                              "Never mind. This is the place, isn't it?"

                              "Yes and no. It's the right address, but it's the wrong building. We needed a brick building. We should have been here yesterday. It seems like most of the places I've ever been to in my ****ing life, I should have been there yesterday. But it's a nice little town. I had never been to Wheeling, West ****ing Virginia before." He bent down for more stones, and began to throw harder. It made his arm hurt, so he threw even harder.

                              "You were asking me about Miriam Moscowitz."

                              Ross threw another stone before replying. "Looks like you committed a murder for nothing, doesn't it? You and Miriam both. And Sonny, too." Then a terrible truth dawned on him like a blow, and he felt very stupid, indeed. He swung to face Mendoza. Mendoza had a gun pointed at his belly. Of course he did - who didn't know that? But it wasn't exactly like the last time, because Ross' gun that lay handy under a red shop towel last week was now under the seat in his truck at the Holiday Inn in Zanesville, Ohio. What the hell had he brought it for, if he wasn't going to carry it? Thinking about that didn't make him feel much better, either. "I guess this figures, doesn't it? Okay, what happened to Miriam?"

                              Mendoza shrugged. He had done a lot of shrugging today. "After the day you and I argued in the shop, I had the red-ass pretty good, and I went home and got in a row with Gloria, and I kept thinking about you and this dumb treasure hunt, and I really hated the thought that you might actually find this pile of cash and come back and give me the horse-laugh and start living high while I lugged that mail bag up and down the streets. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed possible. And then I got the notion that I could get in on it, too. I might be able to get some of the money, or all the money, and put you in your place at the same time, so I could give you the horse-laugh.

                              I had a pretty good idea how to find the woman in St. Louis, and I knew I'd have to kill her, but it didn't bother me enough to stop me. Don't ask me why. Maybe it's something about a person being worth less than five hundred thousand dollars. Whatever it was, I found some things in me I didn't know were there, and the next day I took a week's vacation and packed a bag and headed for St. Louis. I told my supervisor and Gloria both that I had a family emergency. Gloria doesn't hardly know my family, and I was in a bad mood. I didn't ask her permission - I just told her I was going. At that point, I felt just like you. I was going, and it felt pretty good.

                              Well, I laid a trap for Miriam in St. Louis, and when I caught her I did what I had to do. She was a hard case, like you said she was, and I had to work hard on her. She spit in my face and cursed me and all that just made it easier, and in the end she told me everything I wanted to know. I squeezed Miriam out like a wet dishrag. She knew I was going to kill her, and she would have died without telling, if she could, but she couldn't hang on. By the time it was over, there wasn't much left of her, and I sure as hell wouldn't want to have to answer for it, and I don't plan to. And that brings me around to you. You're the only one that knows I've been to St. Louis."

                              "So now you're going to shoot me, is that it?"

                              "I'm not sure what I figured I was going to do with you. I guess this is it. I can kill somebody. They say the first one's the hardest, but even that one was pretty easy for me. I put her down like I'd kill a chicken. There's something spooky about finding out you can do that, and one of these days I guess I'll have to sit down and think about it, but not today. You're my chicken of the day, and when I get this done I can go back and pick up that big leather bag and keep walking toward my retirement, just like last week. I won't be any richer, but I won't worry about going to jail, either. I'll have done like my friend Jack. I'll have given it a shot. This one didn't work out, but I'll have given it a chance and covered all my tracks. The first killing isn't really the hardest, after all. This is going to be the tough one, Jack, it really is, but I'm going to do it anyway. I can't do anything else, can I?"

                              "If you shoot me here forty people will hear it and then get to watch you driving away. You're busted, Mendoza. And if you keep pointing that goddam gun at me you just might get it stuck up your grocery chute. I just saw a half million in cash slip away from me, and I'm in no mood to fool around with some misguided, mail-carrying Mexican murderer. You'd better get in your car and get the hell out of here. I'll get a ride back to Zanesville, don't worry about it. I imagine you've got to kill me, but you won't do it here." Ross sounded a lot more certain of that than he felt. He took a step forward, and Gus fell back a step, frowning.

                              Ross had him pegged right. Mendoza wouldn't shoot him here. If he still had some of the gravel in his hands he could probably get the jump on him. Throw the stones in his face suddenly and nail him before he could get reorganized. He took another step forward and Mendoza shot him in the stomach.

                              The sound of the explosion was much less out here than the one in the shop, but there were seemingly endless metallic echoes in this street of tin walls and empty spaces, and the impact of the bullet drove him backward and he lost his footing and sat down hard in the gravel. It knocked the breath out of him, and suddenly he understood what Sonny Leppert had been trying to do when he died. There was a fire in his gut and he couldn't get any air in his lungs, and his eyes bulged and he folded his arms across his abdomen and bent forward. He was dying. The bullet had been too low to hit his heart, but he was going to die from lack of air.

                              Somebody shouted in the distance, then another voice said "Hey!" Mendoza spun around to see, and there were men running toward them from the next building, maybe a hundred yards away, and he turned back to where Jack Ross sat on the ground. He lifted the gun again and the shouts were repeated, and again he turned away. People were coming, but Ross knew it was too late for him. Mendoza addressed him again and aimed for his head. Ross flinched sideways and threw up an arm. Mendoza's second shot went through his forearm and into his shoulder, knocking him down on his back. He heard the other man's hurried steps, labored and crunching in the treacherous footing, heard him start the engine and gun it, and felt the shower of stones from the spinning tires. It was Piper, not Mendoza, that Ross cursed as he gave it up and passed into a comfortable darkness where a man didn't need any air.
                              Last edited by vapros; 10-06-2017, 01:26 AM.
                              If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                              • #45
                                Chapter 43

                                Gus Mendoza sighed patiently, and stared at Ross in thought. He found something interesting on one of his knuckles and studied it for a few seconds, before looking up and taking a deep breath. "Call her up, Jack," he said. "She said if there was a problem you were to call her. She's expecting it. She said there was no way you would do anything without her say-so."

                                "I've been trying to call her for two days."

                                "She said she'd been busy as hell. Call her now. You want the number?"

                                "I know the goddam number by heart. Gus, if she doesn't answer this time, you can get your ass out of here and go back to wherever you're staying, and I'll let you know something later this afternoon. This stinks and you're lying to me, and I've got to do some thinking."

                                "Think fast, man, because I had to take a week off from work on short notice, and I have to show up Friday morning. If we find this place, we might need a couple of days to figure out a way to deal with it, and there's still a lot of driving left between here and Baton Rouge."

                                "Especially if you have to go through St. Louis to give Miriam her money." He gave Gus a dirty look that Gus pretended not to see. Ross pulled the telephone toward him and began to dial, and as it rang in Missouri he kept his eyes on Mendoza's, and his face expressionless. After ten rings he held it out for Gus to hear, and then hung it up. "The only reason she went back to St. Louis was because she had to get Piper buried. Otherwise she'd have camped in front of my shop until I could get ready. That's how important this was to her. So she went back, and made me promise to call her on Saturday to make plans, but now she's been out of touch for at least two days, and I'm not going for it. You sent the wire, didn't you?"

                                "Sure I did. It was my project by then. I signed it M for Mendoza, so I wouldn't have to lie to you." He grinned at Ross. "Now then, what are we going to do? You say you want some time to think about it?"

                                "Yeah, I do. You're 'way ahead of me, and I'm not moving until I do some catching up. There's a guy in St. Louis I want to call, to see if he knows anything about Miriam. If I don't find out where she is, or what's happened, there's not much danger I'm going anywhere with you, money or no money."

                                "Why, Jack? Go ahead and call Bynum, you've told me all about him. If he can straighten this out for you, that's fine. But if he can't, why couldn't we go ahead and worry about it later? What the hell do you care, as long as you get yours?"

                                "I care, goddam it, because if you've done something to Miriam then you'll do something to me, too. I'd love to have half of this bundle, but I'm not willing to die for it. I'll go back where I came from and make signs. That's what you were preaching to me, anyway, last time I saw you. That's another reason this looks fishy to me, after all you said about it. And I'm sitting here trying to decide whether you could kill people or not. What the hell has come over you, anyway?"

                                Mendoza had never left his feet since coming in, and now he sat down in the other chair, and his face was red. He was angry, and Ross had never seen him look this way before. "Screw you, Jack, you're mighty self-righteous all of a sudden, for a man who's hunting for a pile of somebody else's money. I meant to ask you, did you hear anything from Sonny Leppert? No, I don't kill people. I deliver mail for a living and do stupid things like this in my spare time, but this is the last one." He stood up again. "I'm in Room 328 when you decide what to do, but you think real hard before you decide to blow it off and leave it behind. Whatever you find out, or don't find out, I've got the rest of the information you need, and I'll bend over backwards to cooperate with you. I'll tell you right up front where we're going, and you can handle the rest any way you see fit. By the way, it's close enough so we can still go today, and at least locate the place, if you don't fart around too long making up your mind."

                                He walked to the door and let himself out, and Ross didn't speak again. He was wearing the bath towel over his head like a babushka, and his face was dark and clouded. He dialed the number in St. Louis once more, but he was certain he was wasting his time. He would have been amazed if she had answered. How in the shit had all this happened, anyhow? He didn't believe for a minute that Miriam had contacted Gus with a proposition of any kind, so how did he come to be involved? There were not too many possibilities. It would not have been a great shock to find Bynum at the door, because that was something he had thought of several times. Tell the truth, he had half expected Bynum to turn up somewhere along the way. But Bynum had no reason to bring Mendoza into it; no reason that Ross could think of. He had never even heard of Mendoza. The only thing that made any sense was that Mendoza had changed his mind and decided to take a shot at the money, and started by going to St. Louis to see Miriam, but she had never given up her pair of Jacks willingly. Not in a million years. So Gus had done something to her - had he tortured her until she told, and then killed her? Was Gus capable of that? He would never have believed it of him, but there had to be an explanation.

                                Ross lay down on the bed and closed his eyes and cursed Piper. He had to decide how important it was to him to learn what had become of Miriam Moscowitz, and the answer to that was that he didn't really care, except insofar as it applied to his own situation. She was nothing to him, of course, and this wasn't the time or place to wax sanctimonious for mankind, or even for retired hookers. His only safe course was to assume that Gus could, and had, done away with her, and if so, that he would do the same to him if he got a chance. Did that mean that he should back out, or only that he should exercise great care? Every secret, right from the beginning, in this whole convoluted mess of kidnapping and consequences, had been given up by dying people. It appeared that Miriam had become the fifth person to die for this plum, without counting Piper. And also, Ross obviously didn't know doodly-squat about his mailman.

                                The world was a strange place, and screw you again, Piper. You too, Mendoza. The decision, then, was simply to make this trip with Gus or go back home without trying. Not such a tough call, once a man had it all thought out. Ross finished dressing and combed his hair and walked to the restaurant. Only a few tables were occupied, and Gus sat at one of them, finishing a plate of something or other. He looked up as Ross entered, but Ross ignored him and took a table in the smoking section. He ordered a sandwich and talked the waitress into bringing him a cigarette to smoke while he waited. When the sandwich came he ate it without tasting it, and drank two glasses of iced tea. By the time he had finished, Gus had left and Ross had ignored him again. The waitress brought him another cigarette to smoke after his lunch, without a request, and he took it with gratitude, and left her three dollars on his way out. He still had not bought any cigarettes, so nobody could call him a smoker. Well, actually he had bought them all, but he had never bought a whole pack, and that was how you could tell if you were a smoker. A serious smoker bought them at least by the pack, and usually by the carton. He had killed a man a few days ago, but at least he wasn't a smoker. He went off to find Room 328.

                                He rapped twice on the door with one knuckle, and Gus opened it without delay. The television was on, and he had been watching a game show with the volume turned down low. The bed in the room was made up, so Ross couldn't tell if he had just checked in today, or if the maid had already serviced the room. Not that it made any difference. Gus smiled at him, and he took it as a bad sign. He and Gus never smiled at each other, but this was about the third time today. Suddenly he wanted to get finished.

                                "Well," said Gus, "that didn't take long. What did you find out?"

                                "I found out nobody's seen Miriam. She seems to be missing."

                                Gus shrugged. "So what are we going to do?"

                                "I've decided to hold on until I talk to Miriam. She and I will work it out, or maybe we won't, but I'm not going anywhere with you. You've made a bad guess, thinking I would go for your story. Go on home and walk your route. I'm going to St. Louis to see Miriam, and I'll tell her I'm not doing any business with her agent and we'll go back to our first plan. I'll let you know what happens next time I see you."

                                Mendoza gazed at him for several seconds, letting his eyes wander over the parts of Ross's face. He turned his back and went three steps into the room and stood with his hands in his pockets. Then he turned again and sighed audibly. "You can't talk to Miriam. You already knew that. Miriam is out of it. There's just you and me now. Your options are to work it out with me or to blow it off. Forget talking to Miriam, today or any other day."

                                "Now, all of a sudden, I believe you. It kind of pisses me that you thought I would buy the rest of that shit. It wasn't even a good lie, man. What did you do to Miriam?"

                                "I did something to her, but it'll keep until later. You must have made some kind of decision before you came to my room. You in or out?"

                                "I'm in, I guess. Seems like it's pretty late in the game to be out. I'll have some more decisions to make, when I get a little breathing room." Gus shrugged again, without speaking, and picked up his room key. In the parking lot, he turned toward Ross. "Come on, go with me. I got a rent car for this." Ross considered for a minute, and could think of no reason to refuse. He'd leave the tools in the truck, because this trip was just to look for the building. They weren't breaking into it today. Gus might not even know it was a building they were looking for. Besides, he preferred to be the passenger and have both hands free, rather than the other way around. He didn't intend to have Gus doing anything to him. "That's fine," he said. "I'm tired of riding the truck."

                                Mendoza followed the service road to the access ramp and they proceeded eastward on Interstate 70. After five miles of silence, Ross spoke. "You promised to tell me where we're going."

                                " Yep, I did, and I will. Understand, Jack, once I do that I'm at your mercy, so I'm trusting you to be fair with me, and it's something I have to do, because my part's first. We can't go home like Piper and Lindsay, without getting the money. Today's the day and you're my man." Ross didn't answer, and Gus continued. "We're going to Wheeling, West Virginia. It's supposed to be about an hour and a half, and then we have to find this address." He
                                fished a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket, and gave it to Ross. It didn't say anything about it being a church. "From there on you're the pilot." Ross looked at it and put the paper in his own pocket, and they drove another ten miles in silence, passing several small communities that had only one exit each. Ross took the slip of paper out of his pocket and turned it over and wrote something on the back and returned it to his pocket. Gus took no notice.

                                "That gives you ninety minutes to tell me what you did in St. Louis." Mendoza didn't look at him. He turned his face slightly the other way, looking in his outside mirror, and let some time pass.

                                "One thing at a time, amigo. I'm not ready to confess anything yet. All in good time." If he thought his ambiguity was reassuring to Ross, he was mistaken, but at least he had ended the conversation. He made one or two attempts of his own, to get a dialogue started on some other subject, but had to give it up. Ross was playing the clam about the other half of the key, and they made a long ride like strangers. It was after three-thirty when they reached Wheeling, and after four by the time they located a city map and were able to find the address on the slip of paper. It was a church, and Ross had to find that reassuring. Miriam had mentioned that part, but she had not said which church. If there had been a Toyota dealership or something of the sort at the address, the trip might have come to a halt until they could verify that there had been a church there once. Gus pulled the car over to the curb and looked at Ross.

                                "This is it - I've done all I can. You want to drive?" Ross scowled and looked down at his hands. They were steady, but the palms were damp. He decided that Mendoza had probably been honest about it.

                                "No, you drive, Gus. I'm going to be honest on this end. If this doesn't work, man, your ass belongs to me." He indicated the direction they should take, and Gus put the car into gear and steered into the driving lane. They were silent until time for the next turn, and the next.

                                At last Ross said, "Go up here a couple of blocks and turn left at a stone house with a little stone wall around the front yard." That was all he offered, and he didn't turn to face the other man. Traffic was light. The stone house turned up on schedule, and Ross felt a tingle in the soles of his feet. They made the left turn, and almost immediately the houses became more widely spaced, with more vacant lots, most of them grown up in weeds. Mendoza turned his head toward Ross.

                                "Does this look right?"

                                "I don't know. Before long the street should swing right and cross a little creek on a flat bridge. If it does that, we're on the way." The street lived up to all their expectations, and the creek was on duty under the little bridge. Ross felt a change in his pulse, and he made himself breathe deeply.

                                "We're gonna do it, Jack, I know we are. I can understand how you felt. I shouldn't have sounded off to you the other day."

                                "Go about a mile and a half. This is the number we're looking for, and it should be on a small brick building," Ross said. He produced the note from his pocket and passed it to Mendoza. "It should be on the left." He settled back into the seat and tried to relax. Mendoza's nostrils were flaring as he breathed, and he began to move first one hand and then the other from the steering wheel, to wipe them on his pants legs and then back to the wheel.
                                Beyond the creek the houses ceased entirely and they drove through a half mile of wooded land and then emerged into a sort of industrial park, passing a small hospital on the right, with a blinking caution light in front, and then scattered businesses of a service nature, generally in sheet metal buildings with brick faces and paved parking in the front.

                                Mendoza slowed, peering at the numbers on his left, and turned in at a huge metal building, still under construction, although no one seemed to be on the job today. A mailbox on a post stood on the shoulder of the street, and the correct number showed in white numerals - five of them. He checked them against the slip of paper in his hand, and glanced toward Ross. The lot was not yet paved, and they drove on a loose gravel surface toward the front of the building. It was closed up. There was the remains of a sand pile to the right, and a lot of metal and lumber scraps lying around. Mendoza cut the engine and they sat in silence.

                                These metal buildings went up in a hurry, even big ones like this. Ross judged they were a month late, or maybe six weeks - not that it mattered. The reality hit him hard. He had assumed that the cooperation was the only hurdle, and if they got that part right the rest would fall into place. And he had assumed, at least for several days now, that it was going to work. What were the odds on somebody putting up a brick office building and tearing it down again fourteen years later? He wondered who had found the money. A blue-collar man like himself? It had been there, he was convinced. Had the story made the local paper, or had the finder quietly carried the money away? It wasn't important, either way. He had no claim on it, except in his mind, where it had already become his. The thought of returning to work in the shop was almost too depressing to deal with. Maybe he would spend a couple of extra days on the trip back. Maybe he would go to Nashville and stay a while. Go to the Opry. There must be something there, everybody was doing it.

                                He got out of the car slowly and stretched his back and his shoulders, and he picked up a handful of gravel and began to throw the stones at a battered water cooler that stood near the building. He wanted to hurl a couple against the building, so that he could at least leave some dents and make some noise, but there were other buildings adjacent, probably with people still working. It was not yet five o'clock. After a few minutes, Gus joined him outside the car. "You're not so good. I would have figured you could throw rocks better than that."

                                "It's farther than it looks, and I've hit it twice already. If you think you can do better, be my guest. There's over seven million rocks here."

                                "How can you tell?"

                                "As you sail the stormy seas of life, you sorry bastard . . .

                                "Never mind. This is the place, isn't it?"

                                "Yes and no. It's the right address, but it's the wrong building. We needed a brick building. We should have been here yesterday. It seems like most of the places I've ever been to in my ****ing life, I should have been there yesterday. But it's a nice little town. I had never been to Wheeling, West ****ing Virginia before." He bent down for more stones, and began to throw harder. It made his arm hurt, so he threw even harder.

                                "You were asking me about Miriam Moscowitz."

                                Ross threw another stone before replying. "Looks like you committed a murder for nothing, doesn't it? You and Miriam both. And Sonny, too." Then a terrible truth dawned on him like a blow, and he felt very stupid, indeed. He swung to face Mendoza. Mendoza had a gun pointed at his belly. Of course he did - who didn't know that? But it wasn't exactly like the last time, because Ross' gun that lay handy under a red shop towel last week was now under the seat in his truck at the Holiday Inn in Zanesville, Ohio. What the hell had he brought it for, if he wasn't going to carry it? Thinking about that didn't make him feel much better, either. "I guess this figures, doesn't it? Okay, what happened to Miriam?"

                                Mendoza shrugged. He had done a lot of shrugging today. "After the day you and I argued in the shop, I had the red-ass pretty good, and I went home and got in a row with Gloria, and I kept thinking about you and this dumb treasure hunt, and I really hated the thought that you might actually find this pile of cash and come back and give me the horse-laugh and start living high while I lugged that mail bag up and down the streets. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed possible. And then I got the notion that I could get in on it, too. I might be able to get some of the money, or all the money, and put you in your place at the same time, so I could give you the horse-laugh.

                                I had a pretty good idea how to find the woman in St. Louis, and I knew I'd have to kill her, but it didn't bother me enough to stop me. Don't ask me why. Maybe it's something about a person being worth less than five hundred thousand dollars. Whatever it was, I found some things in me I didn't know were there, and the next day I took a week's vacation and packed a bag and headed for St. Louis. I told my supervisor and Gloria both that I had a family emergency. Gloria doesn't hardly know my family, and I was in a bad mood. I didn't ask her permission - I just told her I was going. At that point, I felt just like you. I was going, and it felt pretty good.

                                Well, I laid a trap for Miriam in St. Louis, and when I caught her I did what I had to do. She was a hard case, like you said she was, and I had to work hard on her. She spit in my face and cursed me and all that just made it easier, and in the end she told me everything I wanted to know. I squeezed Miriam out like a wet dishrag. She knew I was going to kill her, and she would have died without telling, if she could, but she couldn't hang on. By the time it was over, there wasn't much left of her, and I sure as hell wouldn't want to have to answer for it, and I don't plan to. And that brings me around to you. You're the only one that knows I've been to St. Louis."

                                "So now you're going to shoot me, is that it?"

                                "I'm not sure what I figured I was going to do with you. I guess this is it. I can kill somebody. They say the first one's the hardest, but even that one was pretty easy for me. I put her down like I'd kill a chicken. There's something spooky about finding out you can do that, and one of these days I guess I'll have to sit down and think about it, but not today. You're my chicken of the day, and when I get this done I can go back and pick up that big leather bag and keep walking toward my retirement, just like last week. I won't be any richer, but I won't worry about going to jail, either. I'll have done like my friend Jack. I'll have given it a shot. This one didn't work out, but I'll have given it a chance and covered all my tracks. The first killing isn't really the hardest, after all. This is going to be the tough one, Jack, it really is, but I'm going to do it anyway. I can't do anything else, can I?"

                                "If you shoot me here forty people will hear it and then get to watch you driving away. You're busted, Mendoza. And if you keep pointing that goddam gun at me you just might get it stuck up your grocery chute. I just saw a half million in cash slip away from me, and I'm in no mood to fool around with some misguided, mail-carrying Mexican murderer. You'd better get in your car and get the hell out of here. I'll get a ride back to Zanesville, don't worry about it. I imagine you've got to kill me, but you won't do it here." Ross sounded a lot more certain of that than he felt. He took a step forward, and Gus fell back a step, frowning.

                                Ross had him pegged right. Mendoza wouldn't shoot him here. If he still had some of the gravel in his hands he could probably get the jump on him. Throw the stones in his face suddenly and nail him before he could get reorganized. He took another step forward and Mendoza shot him in the stomach.

                                The sound of the explosion was much less out here than the one in the shop, but there were seemingly endless metallic echoes in this street of tin walls and empty spaces, and the impact of the bullet drove him backward and he lost his footing and sat down hard in the gravel. It knocked the breath out of him, and suddenly he understood what Sonny Leppert had been trying to do when he died. There was a fire in his gut and he couldn't get any air in his lungs, and his eyes bulged and he folded his arms across his abdomen and bent forward. He was dying. The bullet had been too low to hit his heart, but he was going to die from lack of air.

                                Somebody shouted in the distance, then another voice said "Hey!" Mendoza spun around to see, and there were men running toward them from the next building, maybe a hundred yards away, and he turned back to where Jack Ross sat on the ground. He lifted the gun again and the shouts were repeated, and again he turned away. People were coming, but Ross knew it was too late for him. Mendoza addressed him again and aimed for his head. Ross flinched sideways and threw up an arm. Mendoza's second shot went through his forearm and into his shoulder, knocking him down on his back. He heard the other man's hurried steps, labored and crunching in the treacherous footing, heard him start the engine and gun it, and felt the shower of stones from the spinning tires. It was Piper, not Mendoza, that Ross cursed as he gave it up and passed into a comfortable darkness where a man didn't need any air.
                                If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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