Announcement

Collapse
No announcement yet.

The Taking of Sonny Boy

Collapse
X
 
  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • The Taking of Sonny Boy

    THE TAKING OF SONNY BOY

    By William Boss




    The less you bet, the more you lose when you win




    copyright 2005 Wm Summers



    * * * * * * * * * * * *



    Something new for the journal section tonight. This is a full-length novel I wrote more than twenty years ago, and it's seeing the light of day for the first time. I intend to post it a chapter at a time for the duration. (That will be forty-five chapters.) I am hoping it will entertain.

    The formatting will not be the best, but no matter. Copy and paste was not an option, and I will have to add the necessary line and paragraph spacing by hand. I'm not going to do the indents, so you will have to imagine them. Also, I am not doing any updating - it is what it is. Not a big concern.

    My protagonist is Jack Ross. He's not anyone's hero, but the story is about him. Jack is a sign painter. Three decades ago there were still a few of those around, but it's a dying craft. Automation has taken over. Also, as I look back at him, I realize that he is a full-blooded, 24 karat schizoid. Back then I had never even heard the word - small world, I guess, but I did dump him into a one-man sign shop, which is the most solitary spot in any town. Enough.

    So, you are invited to take a spin with Jack and Sandra and Gus, Piper and Miriam, and John V and Sonny Boy, himself. Don't miss Chapter One. It's the only juicy part you're gonna get, but I wanted you to know how it is with Jack and Sandra.


    thanks, vapros
    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

  • #2
    Chapter One

    Ross awoke to bathroom sounds. It was early - he guessed about six o'clock by the quality of the light that filtered around the edges of the blind in the window. Sandra was up early. She always was. He allowed himself to doze again. His own schedule was not so structured as hers. The sounds from the other room stopped and he heard her bare feet returning her to the bedroom, first slapping softly on the tile floor and then whispering on carpet, and then for a few moments there was no sound at all, and he opened one eye halfway. She was standing by the bed, wearing his light blue robe tied loosely, and with patches of that firm golden skin showing in the gaps.

    "Good morning," she said cheerfully.

    "You too," he mumbled. "You on your way?"

    "Not just yet. I need for you to check something for
    me."

    "Check what?"

    Instead of replying, she sat on the edge of the bed and leaned over him, pulling the robe aside and freeing one of the beautiful pointed breasts. She leaned a little farther, and the breast touched his lips. It was soft and warm and fragrant. He opened his mouth just enough to let his tongue reach out and circle the nipple slowly. It began to grow.

    "Aaah, I was right," she whispered, closing her eyes and tilting her head back. "It's just as I thought."

    Ross stopped licking and drew back from the breast. "What's just as you thought?" he asked suspiciously.

    "I woke up feeling like I wanted to make love, and sure enough, I was right. I do."

    "You're dreaming. We just did that a few minutes ago." He had his eyes closed again.

    "Not so. That was five or six hours ago. You've been asleep and lost track of the time. You've had a lot of rest since then."

    "I have another way of keeping time, and it tells me that I haven't had nearly enough rest, yet. Besides, I wouldn't want to make you late for work."

    "Not to worry. It's early, and anyway, this won't take long. One or two of those nice things for me and one for you, and it's all over. I'm not talking about a full courtship, with guitars and all that. Just one to get the day started. Think about it a minute."

    "You forget how old and wasted I am. I couldn't do it if I cried my eyes out. Go and find your clothes."

    "But I'm just thirty-four, and getting into my best years, and you'll have to try harder. Take vitamins. Buy some ginseng. Exercise. Eat a steak. Get in shape. Get some Viagra. Tell the doctor you're having trouble."

    "I'm not having trouble - you're the trouble maker. I might die if I tried to do that. You don't realize how many older men die doing that. It doesn't get reported, but it happens all the time. Their hearts just quit and then the women get dressed and call the rescue squad and it goes in the books as a coronary." Ross folded his hands over his middle and closed his eyes and lay still. "Would you want to see me like this? Would you?"

    "Well, maybe, if I got my orgasm first . . . quit acting like you were sixty or something. You're forty-five. If I can prove to you you can do it, how about it?"

    "I already told you, you're dreaming. It'll be at least four or five days."

    "Four or five days, right." Sandra pulled down the sheet and straddled him on her knees. The robe fell open. She leaned over him on her elbows and laid her cheek against his, and the blond hair surrounded his face, and there was
    still a trace of perfume. Her breasts brushed his chest. "Ah, now you're doing better already, I can tell."

    "You can't go by that. It has no common sense of its own, or conscience, either. That's why it has me. It doesn't care if my heart stops, or if I blow an artery, and that's why I make all the decisions."

    "Would it let you hurt yourself?"

    "In a heartbeat."

    "Well, I certainly wouldn't want you to hurt yourself," but she had made contact, and was moving gently in little slow circular motions. "So how about this - you just relax and humor me a few minutes while I get what I want, and you can wait until some other day, when you're all rested. That shouldn't hurt you."

    "That's pretty risky. I don't have all that much common sense, either, and under certain conditions it just leaves me for minutes at a time."

    "And you might go ahead and hurt yourself, even though you know better?"

    "Even though I know better."

    "In that case, maybe this isn't such a good idea, after all. Besides, I'm probably not slippery enough to make it work, anyway. Sometimes that takes a while."

    Ross freed an arm and moved his hand down his belly and into the tangle of curly, golden blond hair. It was warm in there, warm and slippery. He exhaled slowly and let his hand stay longer than was necessary.

    "Don't do that if you're going to put me off until the end of the week." Sandra shifted her weight as if to leave the bed, but he stopped her with a firm hand on her thigh.

    "Wait," he said, "stay just a minute."

    "I don't want to hurt you."

    "No, no, I just want to see how it would be. Stay thirty seconds and then go get dressed. You don't stay over with me very often. It'll be okay, if we don't get carried away." He pulled her down onto him and she made the necessary little moves to join them. Ross sighed and grinned up at her, eyes closed. "Whoo, it's gonna be nice at the end of the week, isn't it?"

    She closed her eyes and inhaled through her teeth. "Should I just hold still?"


    "Well, not completely still, but be easy. It's just for a few more seconds."

    "Right, a few more seconds." She raised herself on her hands and let her head fall forward, and the soft hair reached down onto Ross' chest and chin. Her eyes were closed and she moved her hips forward and back slowly in short motions. He took a soft breast in each hand, and touched the nipples with his thumbs. Her motions grew longer, but still slow, and she bent and kissed him briefly.

    "That's probably about enough," he said. "We wouldn't want to let this get out of hand."

    "No danger of that - I'm being careful. I could easily get into this, but I'm thinking of your well-being. These are just little practice strokes. You know, like the golfers. Warming up for the real thing." She increased the tempo a little, and for long minutes she was lost in the gentle preoccupation of the contact between them. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was regular and deep, and little frowns of concentration crossed her face from time to time.

    "I don't remember seeing any of the golfers doing like that."

    "Hush."

    "With all those people watching, they'd get arrested for doing like you're doing. The US Open would get an X rating, and they'd have to show it on the Tuxedo Channel."

    "Be still, I'm busy." She raised her head and opened her eyes and frowned at the wall, and repeated it softly. "I'm busy. I'm busy. I'm busy." The words came in a singsong cadence that matched her back and forth motions.

    "What about the end of the week?"

    "Screw the end of the week. What about this morning? Be still." Her breathing quickened and the strokes of her hips became shorter and quicker. Her eyes suddenly opened wide and she stared at him almost in a panic. "God, Jack, help me!" She sat erect and took his hands from her breasts, and he stiffened his arms for her to lean against, and their fingers twined together. Her grip was powerful and even painful, and she clenched her teeth and closed her eyes again. "Oh, Lord, Jack!" she whispered. "Oh, Lord, oh, Lord!" The strokes became suddenly violent and spasmodic, and she grunted and froze in place with a shudder, like a piston engine that had seized up. "Help me, I can't move!" He grabbed her by the waist and held her while he thrust into her as high as he could reach. She sobbed and gasped and finally sagged forward, panting. "I'm okay now." She leaned forward on her hands and began to make the tiny little circular motions again, just barely moving. She breathed deeply and slowly through her nose. "That was great, and you did just beautifully. That should hold me until the end of the week."

    Ross was now making motions of his own, restricted by the almost dead weight of Sandra on top of him. "Don't quit just yet, stay a minute or two with me. This is nice. You can go in a minute"

    She raised herself to make room for his thrusting, and began to contribute her own movements. She smiled down at him, but he didn't see. His eyes were closed tight, and the muscles in his jaw began to flex with each effort.
    "What about your heart?" she asked in mock alarm.

    "If it'll just last another minute, that's all I'll need. Maybe less than a minute - fifty more beats!" Ross was panting and grimacing.

    "What about the end of the week?"

    "I'll be dead, I won't care anymore. Don't stop now."

    "I'm really concerned about you. I think I should stop."

    "I'll cut your tires!"

    "But you might die, Jack!" She had an evil little grin on her face, but Jack's eyes were closed tight, and his jaw was clenched, and he didn't see.

    "I know," he groaned through clenched teeth, "but I might not!"

    "Let's save it for later. I'll come back after work."

    "I'll burn your house down!" He was in frantic labored motion, now, gasping and sweating.

    "Your common sense is gone, I can tell," said Sandra. "You need for me to make this decision for you, to save your life."

    "Ha, you're too late," he gasped. "I've got it now. You can tell my next-of-kin."

    "You've already done it?"

    "No, but I've got it - I'm on the downhill side, and there's nothing you can do about it. Four more times . now three, now two! He arched his back and groaned, and Sandra pushed down and around and hit him five hammer blows with her hips. His head thrashed left and right on the pillow, and he collapsed and began to heave for the air he had neglected to take for the last twenty seconds. His heart pounded in his chest, and he had no doubt that he was near death. Women never believed it could be true, but lots of guys go at this very moment.

    "Are you all right?"

    "No, it's touch and go for the next three minutes." His breath was coming in long, deep gulps that he held while his heart struck four times, before exhaling.

    "Really, are you okay?"

    "I may live to see another day, but I'll never be able to do that again. That was the last of my sex life." He spoke between breaths. "Check on me before you go. If I'm looking gray, call the Fire Department, or whoever it is. Bodies don't last long, this time of year." Sandra bent and kissed him and then left the bed. He was inert, eyes closed, breathing labored. Beads of sweat could be seen on his brow and his chest. He lay on the edge of sleep, totally relaxed and recovering from the oxygen deprivation of five minutes ago. Half conscious, he heard her again in the bathroom, preparing to leave the apartment. Whenever they made love in the mornings, she slipped out as quietly as she could.

    Ten minutes later, for the second time, it came to him that there had been no sound from her for a brief period. She wasn't gone -he would have heard the door. He opened his eyes halfway, and she stood in the doorway, dressed to go, looking at him. He gave her a weak smile and she compressed her lips and wagged her head in wonder and waved goodbye with her index finger. She nodded without replying when he said, "I'll talk to you later." As he dozed again, it did not occur to him that her gaze had been more speculative than tender.

    He heard the door, and then her car, and he fell asleep.
    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

    Comment


    • #3
      Chapter 2

      Ross slept until ten. He threw the sheet back and lay naked and spread-eagled on the bed for five minutes, with his eyes closed, then sighed and got up slowly. In the bathroom, he adjusted a hot shower and stepped in. He reached for the soap and started a lather in his hair. No doubt about it, the hair was thinning. He looked down at his belly. He wasn't losing that. This was what middle-age was all about. Trade off your hair for the start of a little pot belly. Helluva bargain. His razor and toothbrush hung on a rack with a little mirror, inside the shower stall. When he finished a shower, man, he didn't need anything but the towel and the after-shave lotion.

      He put on light-weight work clothes and went to the kitchen, where he poured orange juice into a plastic glass and put the kettle on to boil. He split an English muffin with the bread knife and dropped the halves into the toaster. Sandra would have reminded him not to use a knife on the English muffin, but Sandra wasn't there.

      He opened the door to the landing at the top of the outside stairs, to get the paper. A blur of black and gray shot between his feet and into the apartment. It always gave him a start, and he swung around to see. Housecat was already inside, perched on Ross' stool. He knew better than to get on the counter, but he was free to use the stool until Jack wanted it, the rule in the kitchen being the same as it is universally. The little guys are welcome to use the stools until the big guys want to sit down.

      Housecat got his breakfast first, partly because it was easy - just pour it out of a box - and partly so Ross wouldn't have to keep an eye on him. When the kettle whistled, the cat laid his ears back, but he didn't take his face out of the dish. Ross made instant coffee in a big mug. He was finally learning to cook a little. For example, he had discovered that forty grains of salt made a cup of instant coffee taste better. It wasn't much, but it was a start. The muffin got oleo and strawberry preserves, and became a one-handed breakfast, leaving Ross a free hand to manipulate (and mutilate) the morning paper. It looked a lot like yesterday's edition. The news hadn't changed.

      Infielders hitting .235 were already talking about renegotiating their contracts. They all wanted another zero added. Pull seven hundred working stiffs off their jobs, said Ross to the cat, and ask them how much they'd charge to play baseball next summer. The cat didn't seem to know. The Braves were winning their division again, and looked like even money to win the pennant, too, but five-to-two to take the gas if they reached the Series. The Jews and the Arabs still hated each other and Louisiana was out of money again, or still. All the letters to the editor were from the usual writers, and there were few chuckles on the funny page. Reading the paper was getting easier every day.

      By the time breakfast was over it was eleven-fifteen, and Ross took the dishes to the sink, where he put a few drops of liquid soap in each and then filled them with hot water. All the kitchen drawers were checked for stray cigarets, but there none, just as he figured. It was time, more or less, to go and open the shop. He put the cat out and locked the door. The sun was high and hot, and it was Monday. He tried to remember how long it had been since he caught a fish.
      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

      Comment


      • #4
        Chapter 3

        Ross pulled the pickup into the driveway at the Zodiac Sign Shop, then swung right and parked it in the shade of a pecan tree. Two years ago, Sandra had demanded to know why he chose the name 'Zodiac' for his one-man business.

        "That's really a dumb name for a sign shop," Sandra had
        said.

        "Not at all. It's a carefully chosen name, maybe even a stroke of genius," Ross had answered. "It's all about jockeying for position in the Yellow Pages, but you'd have to be in business for yourself to understand about that."

        "The Yellow Pages?"

        "Right. Everybody wants to be first on the list, or as close to first as they can get, and it's an alphabetical list. Haven't you ever wondered why there're so many businesses named Acme and Ajax and Triple A and A-1? Lots of customers just start with the first listing they see, and then call up, and if you're 'way down the line somewhere you never get a shot at the people
        who shop that way. It's a hard fact, but life is a hard proposition."

        "That doesn't explain why some shmuck would name his place ┬░Zodiac'. You've got to be dead last on the list."

        "I am last. I was coming to that. With all that in mind, my first choice for a name was 'Abacus'. The Abacus Sign Shop."

        Sandra had raised her eyebrows. "Abacus?"

        "Right. Then I could advertise, 'Count on Me!', see?"

        "Lovely. But you didn't name it 'Abacus┬░."

        "Right. When I looked in the Yellow Pages, I found that would have put me tenth on the list. Imagine that, nine other places ahead of Abacus on an alphabetical list! That just blew me away, so I gave up on Abacus."

        "Good thinking."

        "Well, that was when I got the inspiration to name it 'Zodiac'. I remembered that in some parts of the world people read things backwards, or at least opposite to the way we do it. They start at the end, so to speak, and read towards the beginning. And let's face it, some of those people come to this country and open businesses, and buy signs, and now I'm set up to pick 'em off like cherries, because the others don't know about this. From the end of the list, my place is first, unless some slick coonass figures out what I've done and opens a place called Zydeco Signs. When you stop thinking, pal, you're all done, and my old brain is still as sharp as ever."

        "That's a sobering thought. I'm beginning to see you in a whole new light. Very few people would have thought of that. As a matter of fact, hardly any at all." Ross had bought her a sandwich, so she would have something else to do with her mouth.

        He unlocked the padlock and went inside, turning on lights and opening windows as he went. He started the fan in the big room and the air-conditioner in the little office. Gus Mendoza, the mailman, was halfway down the block, headed toward the shop, bandy-legged in the gray short pants with the black stripe on the sides. Or maybe the stripe was dark blue. Mendoza was bowlegged. He looked like he had been raised on a horse. Or maybe on a burro. He was swarthy, with a lot of black hair going gray on the sides and a heavy black and gray mustache. It took him five more minutes to make three more stops and reach the sign shop. He came in without knocking, shucking the big leather bag and taking a seat on a bench.

        "Good afternoon, Mr. Rockefeller," said Mendoza. "It's no wonder you're poor. You don't even report for duty until most of us are halfway through the day's work."

        "Don't 'good afternoon' me, Pancho Villa. It's eleven-forty in the morning, and besides, what does a civil servant like you know about a day's work? I'm surprised to see you at all today. I figured you guys would be off."

        "Off?" said Mendoza. "Why would we be off? What's today?"

        "Today is the Prime Minister of Poland's anniversary, for your information. How did the letter carriers let this one get past? The PM and Veronica have been married thirty-one years today."

        "Shit. How do you know that?"

        "As you sail the stormy seas of life, my son, you will come to learn that in the whole world there are really only two kinds of people - the ones who know and the ones who don't know. And I just happen to be one of the ones . . . do you see what I'm getting at? Don't ask me how I know. I just do."

        "Well, I guess we're screwed again, but I definitely will bring it up at the union meeting and we'll catch it next year. We can tell the President to have it on a Monday, and get us a long weekend."

        "As long as you're on the job this time, are you carrying anything for me or just getting out of the sun?"

        "Working, man, always working," said Mendoza. "Neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night nor the Jalapena squirts, and boy, have I got 'em today. If that gal ever learns to cook Mexican food, I might let her unpack her duffel, but the way she does it, I always have to walk with short steps the next day. Do you know who fixes the hottest Mexican food?"

        "I'll bite. Who fixes the hottest Mexican food?"

        "Gringos. Every time. They think the more hot peppers they put in, the better I'm going to like it. If a senora in Matamoros set out grub like that, her esposo would boot her out of the hacienda. I'm going to have to speak to Gloria about it, I guess, before she does me any permanent damage. Which reminds me, is it okay . .?"

        "Help yourself, but give me my mail first, and don't forget to open the window in there. You forgot, last time, and the city condemned my building for two weeks."

        Mendoza bent over the bag and came up with several items for Ross, which he tallied as he handed them over. "Let's see. Two bills and two checks; that's a good day when you break even like that. Just as many checks as bills. A flyer from a guy who wants to shampoo your carpet, a tool catalog, a plain envelope and a letter from your lawyer in St. Louis. See you later. Save the one in the unmarked envelope, so I can see. I've delivered a ton of those today. They better be important." He headed for the rear of the shop and went into the bathroom. By the time he returned, everything had been opened except the letter from St. Louis. Ross sat on the high stool, holding the letter and looking thoughtful.

        "What was in the plain envelope?" asked Mendoza.

        "Grand Opening."

        "Grand Opening of what?"

        "Ah, carwash or hamburger stand or copy shop or something. It's in the garbage can if you want it."

        "Who paid up today? Is that a check from Kenny?" Mendoza was trying to read it upside down. "I can't figure it. Why does Kenny pay you, of all people? He's not paying anybody else."

        Ross grinned, without looking up. "Kenny wouldn't stiff me. I know where he goes on Friday nights."

        "Where does he go on Friday nights?"

        Ross shook his head. "Forget it. As long as he pays his bill I won't tell on him. Dead ducks don't lay golden eggs."

        "What does your lawyer in St. Louis have to say? Did your pardon come through, or will you have to do the time?

        "Damn if I know. I'm sitting here trying to think who I might know in St. Louis, or why this lawyer might be writing to me. I can't come up with a thing."

        "If worse comes to worst, you could always open the letter."

        "Right. That's what I'll do." Ross slit the envelope with his pocket knife and took out the single page it contained. There was the letterhead of an attorney with the notation LLC, a salutation with Ross' name, and a two-sentence paragraph over an illegible signature. "This guy says if I am the Jack Ross who lived in Utica, New York in 1985 I should give him a call right away, as he has some information that would be of interest to me. What do you make of that, amigo?"

        "Well, are you the Jack Ross he's hunting?"

        "I guess I am. Unless there was more than one."

        "What the hell is in Utica, New York? What were you doing there in 1985, or any other time?"

        "There isn't a hell of a lot in Utica, or at least there wasn't back then. I lived there a while after my discharge, doing some odd jobs on a contract basis."

        "What kind of odd jobs?"

        "Oh, security stuff. Running errands, mostly. The government was full of little security outfits of one kind or another, and lots of them had only a handful of people on the payroll - clerks and bureaucrats and secretaries. Whenever they had anything more complicated to do than walk to the post office, they had to bring in somebody from outside, and they would call this broker in Syracuse, or somebody like him, and he would supply a man or two who was qualified to do whatever it was they needed. Lots of times all they needed was a high security clearance, to hand-carry something from here to there, and he used to call me for that. I was getting just enough of that work to pay the bills and I didn't hang around too long. It was about one pay-grade above working at the A&P, but at least you didn't have to smile at anybody. At the A&P, aren't you supposed to smile?"

        "Not that I know of, and anyway, there ain't been any A&P's around here for years. Were you a Top Secret guy?"

        "Higher than that. In the security business, Top Secret's not such a big deal. There's two or three levels above Top Secret, or at least there were then. I don't know about now."

        "Do you suppose they've kept up with you all these years? I've heard they do."

        "Hell, no. No reason to keep up with me. They didn't tell me any top secrets."

        "Well, how about that!" said Mendoza. "And all this time I never knew. I figured you had been a sign painter ever since you quit school in the fifth grade. Come to think of it, you do have sort of a sneaky look about you. You might have made a pretty good spy."

        "Now that you mention it, I did make a couple, but only one was really good. The other was a disaster."

        "How so?"

        "Well, we were in a little office behind a candy store down in Manhattan, see, and it was about midnight when we got the urge. I probably shouldn't blame the lady for this because it really wasn't her fault, but even so, she's part of a very sad memory of that night. All the circumstances were wrong. The only furniture in that poor little office was a chair on wheels and a wooden desk about two feet by four and covered with all manner of crap. There was paperwork and pencils and ballpoint pens and old paper coffee cups and candy samples and Lord knows what all, but that rolling chair was out of the question, so it had to be the desk. I suppose I was lucky to be on top, you know - it could have been worse. For that matter, it got worse. Guess who came first."

        "I throw up," said Mendoza, gazing at the ceiling. "Who came first?"

        "Victor Sergeyevich, the guy who owned the candy store. We didn't even hear him open the door." Ross closed his eyes and shook his head, as though to banish the recollection. "Horrible goddam experience. For a couple minutes, there, this guy was beating up on me pretty good. Had to get my face sewed up in two places. One was an emergency room, as I recall, and the other was a tailor shop or something."

        Gus ignored the bad joke. "Big tough Russian comrade, huh?"

        "Actually he was kind of a bony little fart, but don't forget I was wearing my trousers at half-mast, and that's a big disadvantage in a fistfight. And the lady drug up and went and waited for me at the car. She never threw the first punch to help me."

        "Bummer," agreed Mendoza. "What were you doing in his office in the first place?"

        "I just told you what we were doing."

        "I mean besides that."

        "I don't know. It was the lady's assignment. I told you I wasn't a spy, anyway. I was just there to do the breaking and entering. We barely knew each other well enough to lower our snuggies. She didn't tell me what she was in that candy shop for."

        "Did anybody ever shoot at you?" Mendoza wanted to know.

        "One night a Mexican shot at me in a cab company office outside of Detroit. Little bitty room, and he busted a cap with a .38 revolver from about four feet away. As near as we could tell, he didn't hit anything at all - me, or the wall or the ceiling or the furniture or anything. We never did figure out where that shot went. Big mystery."

        "Sounds like one of my relatives. All rotten pistoleros."

        "Oh, were your folks Mexicans?" asked Ross, raising his eyebrows.

        "They said they were."

        "Small world."

        "Anyway, there ain't no Mexicans in Michigan, so I think you're full of shit."

        "Hey, hey, you might have a song there."

        "So what happened to the Mexican?"

        Ross turned away and walked to the window. "I don't remember. That was a long time ago." He stood in silence, thinking of the year he spent working out of Utica, N.Y. Mendoza stood up and shouldered the big mail bag and set the pith helmet on his head. He looked top-heavy. He might have worn the same size pants Ross did, but his pants didn't even pretend to circle his waist. His belt was firmly fixed just above his hipbones, and slanted forward at a sharp angle, and just above it protruded the stomach and chest of a much bigger man. Ross thought it must be a terrible physique for a man who made his living walking, but it didn't seem to bother Gus Mendoza. He always said the big men had an advantage over the smaller ones and the women, because of the weight of the big bag. Even so, he carried the bag and the top half of a large man on an inadequate-looking pair of legs.

        "So. Are you going to call the man in St. Louis, or not?"

        "I'll have to think about it. There was nobody connected with Utica that I ever want to see again. Toward the end, just before I quit, I was getting suspicious of some of the jobs this guy was coming up with. It didn't seem too likely that even the boneheads in Washington were behind all that crap. I suspected he was taking on dirty work for somebody else, just to stay busy. The last job I took was legitimate, I'm pretty sure, but it just went all to hell and I came this close to going into Long Island Sound with something heavy wired to my neck. I took the pledge and came back to Louisiana. That was twenty years ago, pal, and I can't think of anything good that might happen to me from calling this guy in St. Louis to tell him I'm the one he's hunting."

        "But you'll probably do it anyway."

        "Probably," said Ross.
        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

        Comment


        • #5
          Chapter 4

          Ross spent an hour with masking tape and paint rollers, creating colored panels on overlaid plywood blanks. The dark blue on a gentle chartreuse made a great impact on the eye, but the green over pearl grey was disappointing. He shrugged and kept going. He put a transparency into the overhead projector and spent another hour blowing up a terrible homemade logo for a local trucking operator. There had been a time when he might have refused to turn out a sign with such a logo, lest people think he was responsible for its design, but art had long since given way to commerce, as it has a way of doing.

          He got an apple from a plastic bag in the refrigerator and ate it sitting on a stool and staring out the window. Shopcat came strolling up the street, full and sleepy. The garbage bin behind Popeye's Fried Chicken had been left open, and he had been inside it for the past forty minutes - the nearest he would ever get to heaven. It would become a regular stop on his route from now on. He might never again find it open, but somewhere in his fuzzy skull there would always be a fond memory of the day he did. He was the veteran of a hundred cat fights and looked it. One ear was torn and the other wouldn't stand up like it should. He had a permanent limp and a marbled eye, and assorted bare spots where fur had been snatched off him.

          He came in slowly, without acknowledging Ross, and jumped onto the window sill and settled himself into a sunny spot and went to sleep. After his nap he would make an effort to groom himself, but he would still be the ugliest cat in this part of town. Housecat wouldn't have given him the time of day. There was some significance to the fact that Ross' place was home base for Shopcat. It told something about both of them. Of the two, only Ross was aware of the implication, and he tried not to think about it too often.

          Ross finally went inside the little office and found three messages on the answering machine. He noted each one on a yellow legal pad, along with the numbers to call, but he didn't answer any of them. Instead, he called the lawyer in St. Louis, whose name was C.P. Bynum. A woman answered in a weary voice. Ross could tell that she was fifty-five years old and had on a large summer dress from Sears. She took his name as if she didn't really want it, and put him on hold. Country-western music started immediately and continued for nearly a minute until Bynum came on the line.

          "Mr. Jack Ross in Baton Rouge?" Bynum sounded older and wearier than his secretary.

          "I'm Jack Ross. Your letter came this morning."

          "I appreciate your calling promptly, Mr. Ross. This matter seems to have gotten a bit more urgent than when I wrote the letter. No doubt you're wondering what sort of business could wait all these years, and then suddenly be urgent. I would be, in your place. By the way, you are the Jack Ross who lived in Utica, aren't you?"

          "I was in Utica. I'm calling mostly out of curiosity. I nearly decided to blow it off."

          "Why, Mr. Ross?"

          "I didn't leave anything in Utica."

          "No, I'm sure you didn't, but this matter really has nothing to do with Utica. That was just our method of qualifying you; of identifying you. I was fairly certain that you were the man I wanted, but I had to be sure. There's one more question, and it's for the same purpose. My client tells me that he left you on a beach one day, about twenty years ago. Can you give me his name?"

          The Long Island fiasco. Ross had stood in knee-deep water and watched his backup man, crouched over the tiller of an old Evinrude outboard on the transom of a little rented Boston Whaler, hauling ass without him, knowing he was there in the edge of the Sound, refusing to even look back at him, much less circle back to pick him up. And it wasn't really a beach. A beach should have sand, or at least pebbles. This was a mud flat, black muck with clam shells in it, and weeds. He had tried to hide himself in that cold water and muck, up against a dirt bank where a weeping willow bent over the water, but it hadn't done any good.

          "Mr. Ross?"

          "I'm here."

          "What's my client's name, Mr. Ross?"

          "Piper. That's all I ever knew." The name didn't make him grit his teeth anymore. He hadn't actively hated Piper since about the third year. Maybe the fourth. "Piper's your client?"

          "That's right. I've represented him for some time, handling various legal and business matters. He has asked me to get in touch with you on his behalf."

          "How did he know where to find me?"

          "I can't answer that, but he seems to have known where you were for the past several years. He knows some people in Baton Rouge. There's probably a connection of some sort there."

          "Why doesn't he call me, himself?"

          "Mr. Piper is ill, Mr. Ross. Terminally ill. He's confined in a hospital here, for the third or fourth time, and it's not too likely that he'll get out this time. Actually, it's a hospice. He's under an oxygen tent, and he coughs himself unconscious sometimes, and his heart has stopped twice that I'm aware of. Naturally, there's a limit to how many times he can survive that. Like all dying men, he has some affairs to put in order, and you seem to be one of them. When I wrote the letter, two or three days ago, the doctors felt that his deterioration might take several weeks, but they've changed their minds. Now they are saying his time is probably much shorter than that."

          Ross interrupted C.P. Bynum. "What's he dying of?"

          "Emphysema, mostly. I understand that the damage it does in the lungs never regenerates, and when you get enough of that damage, you die. Mr. Piper wants to see you before he dies. He feels very strongly about it. I don't know much more than that."

          "What does he want from me - absolution?"

          "Not exactly, Mr. Ross. He's afraid to die, perhaps with good reason, and he certainly wants absolution, but not from you, directly - although you're part of it. He feels he owes you something, for whatever happened between you."

          "And now he's going to pay me."

          "Can you come to St. Louis in the next day or so?"

          "I'm afraid not. Tell Piper to have a nice trip and to save me a place by the fire."

          "That's a pretty callous thing to say."

          "Piper would understand."

          There were several seconds of silence before Bynum spoke again. It was evident he didn't relish the contact with Ross. "He said you would probably refuse to come."

          "He was right."

          "I am authorized to pay your expenses, if you will agree to make this trip."

          "Forget it, Mr. Bynum. If he thinks I'm going to lock up my business and fly away to St. Louis to kiss him goodbye, then he's brain-dead already. He's nothing to me."

          "I'm quite certain there is more involved here than the absolution of Mr. Piper's past sins. Without going into detail, he gave me to understand that this would be a profitable meeting for you."

          "Maybe he's making me the beneficiary for his life insurance, and the heir in his will."

          "No, that's not it. I believe you would do well to reconsider. Keep account of your expenses and we'll prepare a voucher when you get here, and give you your money back."

          "Give me a minute to think about it." Ross looked around the shop at the work in progress, several orders pinned to a cork board, and the messages on the yellow pad. He stared absently at Shopcat, dozing on the windowsill. The cat seemed to feel his gaze, and half opened his good eye briefly. Wishes don't take twenty years to come true, and anyway, he had long since decided that he didn't care any more. He turned back to the telephone, where the lawyer in St. Louis waited. "Piper has cost me all the money he's going to; I'm not risking any more. He can throw this party. Wire me a thousand dollars, and I'll come this evening and stay until tomorrow."

          "That sounds like an excessive amount, to shut down a very small sign shop for one day, and buy a round trip ticket to St. Louis and eat a couple of meals."

          "Don't send it, then."

          Bynum sighed audibly. "I'll wire it right away. We need to get this matter completed without delay. When you get to the airport, call me at home and I'll pick you up. I don't live far from there. Write down this number."
          If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

          Comment


          • #6
            Chapter 5

            Ross picked a travel agent from the yellow pages and found he could get an evening flight out of New Orleans International that would put him in St. Louis a little before ten o'clock. He asked the girl to book him on a round trip ticket with the return left open. He had a choice of several flights back to New Orleans, beginning at 5:30 AM. He would wait and see. She asked if he would like for her to arrange a car rental, but he declined. Let Bynum drive him around. She said the office would close at six, and he promised to be there in time to do his business. He didn't tell her that if Piper's money didn't show up, he wouldn't be there at all.

            Ross did not travel often. He hardly ever traveled far enough to fly, and he had never become accustomed to the matter-of-factness about the whole process. Once you got through the terminal, which he understood was an ordeal now because of the rag-heads, the rest was about as exciting as catching a bus. There were people who flew coast-to-coast several times a week and thought nothing of it. He wouldn't want to have to live like that. When he thought about flying at all, it was about flying south with one bag with some jeans and shirts in it, but of course he couldn't do it. Six months max, and he'd have to come back and open the shop again. Besides, he wasn't sure there were any good places left to go. Every place was polluted with either tourists or soldiers - sometimes both. In the Caribbean, they still wanted the Yankee dollar, but they wanted it mailed to them.

            A man would have to be out of his mind to do anything as dumb as that, but maybe one day he would do it anyway. Probably not, but maybe. He tried to think about Piper and was surprised to find it difficult. He had worn Piper out years ago, when he used to think of him every day. The thing on Long Island had been more Colin's fault than Piper's, anyway. Colin obviously hadn't known whether the little man was reliable in a scrape or not, but he sent him out anyway, and didn't bother to tell Ross. It seemed like a logical choice at the time - Piper knew about outboard motors and boats, and that should have been all they needed, according to Colin. There wouldn't be any excitement, Colin had said, unless they turned the boat over. But he had been wrong. It turned unexpectedly hairy, and Piper's response would not have surprised anybody who knew him. He bolted.

            Ross despised him for it, but he no longer hated him. People disappointed you only if you expected too much of them, and Ross had been guilty of that, so it was his fault, too. He had gone into a hostile environment, far from home, dependent on an old outboard motor and a backup man he knew nothing about. The motor had done its job; Piper had not. One out of two. Not nearly good enough.

            He didn't look forward to seeing Piper again. But neither did he look forward to cursing him, or demeaning him in Bynum's presence, or even confronting him and demanding an explanation for what he had done in 1985. He would be glad when the trip was over. During the conversation with Bynum, Ross had expected his demand for a thousand dollars up front to end the matter, and had been genuinely surprised when Bynum agreed. Either Piper had a lot of money these days, or he had something important to say. Profitable, Bynum had said, but that could mean anything. To be honest, he didn't really object to a flying trip to St. Louis at Piper's expense. He could easily be back tomorrow, and he would have a story to tell Mendoza, and maybe a souvenir with St. Louis written on it somewhere, and Mendoza wouldn't know whether to believe him or not.

            Sandra would feel entitled to know he was going but he decided to let her wait until tomorrow, also. If she pressed him about the trip, he would have the option of telling her about it or telling her it was not her business. For some reason, Ross had periodic urges to remind Sandra that his business was not her business. She deserved much better than that and both of them were beginning to realize she was unlikely to ever get it, at least from him. He wasn't proud of that but he was aware of it.

            There wasn't anything in the shop that wouldn't wait. He worked another hour and then locked up, shooing Shopcat ahead of him as he went out. The messages on the answering machine went unanswered, at least for now. He bought a sandwich at Subway, and went to the Western Union office. His thousand dollars was waiting. He told himself that he wasn't really stealing. Piper didn't need the money where he was going. And they didn't have to send it.

            He wrote a check for the airline ticket, and it was more than he expected. There wouldn't be as much profit in the thousand as he had thought. Airline fares were always going up and down, and if you wanted a bargain you had to go when it suited them. He went back to the apartment, where he ate the sandwich and showered again, dressing in slacks and pullover shirt and getting out the gray seersucker jacket in case it was chilly on the plane. At the last minute he took down a shoulder bag from the shelf in the closet and packed a change of underwear and socks, shaving kit and another shirt. This way, if he needed to stay a day, he'd be ready. He stashed seven hundred dollars in a pair of folded socks in a drawer, and added the other three hundred to what he was carrying in a side pocket. There was a slim wallet on his hip, but he didn't keep any money in it. He broke a hundred dollar bill when he bought gas for the truck, and then headed for 1-10 and joined the eastbound traffic. He found himself hoping Piper wouldn't die before he got there.
            If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

            Comment


            • #7
              Chapter 6

              The trip from Baton Rouge to New Orleans is rather a pleasant ride, but only if you like swamps. For most people a swamp is easiest to enjoy through the tinted window of an air-conditioned car, at least in the summer. Or a pickup truck. The second best way is from a bass boat traveling at a respectable rate of speed. In August it's pretty tough to find any other good way. The temperature is above ninety and so is the humidity, and at ground level there's no breath of air stirring. There's a better route if one doesn't have to go into New Orleans. 1-12 runs from Baton Rouge to Slidell, following the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain through Hammond, Ponchatoula and Covington and then picks up I-10 again. But that's not the way to the airport.

              Just beyond LaPlace, I-10 is forced to leave the ground and take an elevated causeway across the Bonnet Carre Spillway, right where it runs into the lake. As a rule, there isn't much water to be seen in the Spillway, but when the water level in the Mississippi River gets high enough on the levee they pop the floodgates and dump into the lake. This has happened eight times in the past sixty years, most recently in 1997, and it takes the lake several years to get well each time. If the river ever knocks the levee down, however, it would take New Orleans a lot longer than that. Most of New Orleans is below sea level. The Floodway is nearly six miles long and that mountain of muddy water charges through the gates like a freight train. Ross had never gotten to see the initial rush, when the Corps of Engineers starts yanking some of the 7,000 creosoted pilings from the gates.

              He could remember driving the old river road, which runs only a few feet from the levee, when you could look up and see the superstructures of huge ships towering above you, when you knew the keels were as high as the road. The levee was massive and sturdy-looking, but Lord, there was a lot of water on the other side, awaiting its chance to go into town. The river is unbelievably crooked. In downtown New Orleans, the West Bank is due east from the East Bank, and the river has changed its course many times over the years. Today, it's doing its damnedest to turn south-southwest at Morganza, above Baton Rouge, so that it can join the Atchafalaya for the last leg to the Gulf of Mexico. The Corps of Engineers is holding it off with a control structure at the top of the Morganza Floodway, but the brutal assault of the river in times of high water is a terrible and violent thing to see, and one day the Old Man will have his way. In Baton Rouge and New Orleans, they pray that the Engineers will win again this year, and that the complex structure will hold. You can't have a port unless you have a river. Down at Morgan City, they pray for the same thing, but for a different reason. They're afraid Morgan City wouldn't float.

              Old Man River is the most - don't ever doubt it. Whatever you have to say about the river, it requires superlatives. One of the things it is, is filthy. A lot of the filth came with prosperity, as potent and mysterious compounds were dumped in by industry. Baton Rouge gets its water from a series of deep wells scattered around town, and this fact entitles the locals to look down their noses at communities downstream that drink water from the river. At one time there was a lounge in Baton Rouge with a sign in the restroom that read: 'Flush it twice. New Orleans needs the water.'

              Ross made the trip at a leisurely pace, enjoying the swamp through the tinted window of his air-conditioned truck. He made his flight without haste, and as soon as the Seat Belt sign was off he traded his aisle seat for one at the window. The plane banked over Lake Pontchartrain and lined itself up with the 23 mile long causeway, which pointed more or less toward St. Louis.The causeway has been a godsend to developers, as it has opened up an easy commute to the North Shore. Whereas New Orleans is largely surrounded by swamps and marshes, and in order to build anything there you must first undertake a massive drainage project, the North Shore is much different. It is gently-rolling land made of sandy soil with pine trees on it, and you needn't either drain it or fill it before you can pave it.

              The stewardess gave Ross a smile when she brought his dinner tray, and another one when she returned to pick it up, or maybe it was the same one over again. He liked going away, even just for a day or two, and he always resolved to do it more often and then forgot about it when he got back. You could always anticipate that Something Unexpected might happen, and there would be no need to go back, at all. It wasn't likely, but one should be ready, just in case. The little overnight bag had been an afterthought today and it would dawn on Ross, someday, that he hadn't gone anywhere without it for many years.

              He pressed the button and reclined in the seat and went to sleep with such a peaceful expression on his face that the Second Officer, strolling down the aisle, was moved to ask the stewardess whether she had been up to anything he should note in the log.

              In St. Louis, Ross dialed the number Bynum had given him and a teenage girl answered and asked if he were Jack Ross. When he confessed to that, she instructed him to catch the limousine or shuttle toward downtown, and ask the driver to let him off at the convenience store at Fairchild Road, saying that her father would be waiting, or would be there in a minute or two. It worked out exactly as she predicted, and a three-year-old Lincoln was pulling into the lot as Ross was leaving the shuttle.

              The driver pushed open the passenger-side door and Ross got in, lifting his little bag over into the back seat. The man offered his hand without enthusiasm and said he was C.P. Bynum. He was sixty-ish and overweight, and his gray hair was combed straight back, and flat. He wore a brown suit with a sport shirt unbuttoned at the collar. Cigarette smoke and cologne combined to taint the inside air with more odor than the air conditioner could pump out. Bynum said he had talked with the nurse on duty earlier in the evening, and there was nothing new to report on Mr. Graham. He was getting lots of sleep, and was alert and lucid between naps. If they wanted to talk to him, they should come on out. She could not guarantee that he would be feeling this well tomorrow.

              "Graham?" said Ross. "Is Piper calling himself Graham?"

              "That's been his name for as long as I've known him - at least six years. More like seven. I never heard of Piper until he asked me to contact you the other day. He said Piper was the name you would know him by. There's no doubt that Graham is his legal name, at least now. I'm his lawyer, remember. Maybe it used to be Piper. He didn't offer to explain. Wilson A. Graham is the way he does business."

              "What sort of business does he do?"

              "Aah, he has some taxis and some cars to rent out for special events, and he makes a finder's fee now and then for bringing a buyer and a seller together in various kinds of transactions. A couple of years ago I would have said he was getting himself pretty well set up, but then he got sick, and the doctors and hospitals and nursing services have gotten most of what he had. I guess just about all of it, by now. He has no family, and when he's sick he has to
              hire people to look after him. He has a girlfriend, but she wouldn't figure to be much help to him. Emphysema seems to be an expensive disease, if you hang on like he's done. I guess any disease would be, for that matter. I've got it myself, but I hope I pass out and fall under a train or something when the time comes. I can't afford three hundred thousand dollars worth of intensive care."

              "Keep on smoking."

              "I know it. I always said I'd quit when cigarettes hit a dollar a pack, but now I've decided to hold out until they get to ten bucks. You're not a smoker?"

              "I quit, ten or twelve years ago. Dying is one of the things I'm afraid of. I figured I'd probably live longer if I quit."

              "I imagine you will. Did you know Mr. Graham, or Piper, I mean, very well?"

              "Hardly at all. I had seen him maybe twice, and only worked with him once. And that was one time too many - if I'd known him, I would never have worked with him."

              "How long since you last saw him?"

              Ross grunted and looked out the window, remembering the last time he'd seen Piper. "About ten minutes too long," he said.

              “What does that mean?” Bynum looked atRoss in the dark car. They were on a four lane road now and had it mostly to themselves, but he drove intently, hunched over the wheel as though he had difficulty seeing through the windshield.

              Ross shrugged. "I had to go to a place out on Long Island, in New York. Out on the Sound. Had to go in a little boat, and Piper was my driver. He dropped me off and went to get out of sight in a little grove of trees, to wait for my signal that I was ready to leave. It got a lot more exciting in there than it was supposed to, and I sent him the signal and hit the shore running, with a sort of half-assed posse about a minute behind me. Piper was on the way in for the pickup when he spotted the people chasing me, and he turned the boat around and left me. I could see his back, and I saw him flinch when I hollered at him, but he never looked around. I managed to stay out of their reach for maybe twenty minutes or so, but there was no place to go, and they finally caught me. I had some pretty bad days because of Piper." He shrugged again.

              "And that's why you hate him."

              "I don't think I hate Piper any more. It's been too long. He couldn't help what he did, because he didn't have it in him to do any better. Piper didn't have any balls. I might like to know whether or not he knew it beforehand. If he knew it, he shouldn't have gone at all. If he found out about it that day for the first time, then maybe I should feel sorry for him, but I don't. He's nothing to me. I won't shed any tears for him, but I don't hate him, either. Part of the fault is mine, for going out on a job without knowing more about my backup man. Part of it belongs to the guy who lined it up. Piper was just being Piper. It wasn't all his fault."

              "What sort of a job was it, anyway?"

              "A bad job - the kind of thing I've been away from for years. It doesn't really matter, does it? More than likely nobody even remembers it, except me."

              "Willie remembers it."

              "Right. Me and Piper and Willie."

              Bynum relaxed a bit behind the wheel and lit a cigarette, and offered Ross one. Ross took it, and then put it out after two drags. Bynum looked at him again in the darkened car. "That's good news. I wasn't sure what to expect from you when you saw him again. I figured to stand by in case of trouble, but then when I saw you it didn't seem like such a good idea. I don't think I could deal with you."

              "Don't worry about it. I'm not here to hurry him on his way. I'm curious to know why he wants to see me, and to know how you were able to find me on short notice." Ross chuckled at Bynum. "Besides, I couldn't pass up a thousand dollars for an over-night trip to St. Louis. You surprised me. I figured you would tell me to go to hell, and that would be the end of it."

              "You were gouging, that's for sure, but it's Graham's money and he wanted me to do what was necessary to get you to come, and I really do think he's on his way out. He's weaker every time I see him. He and I aren't what you'd call close friends, but I've been his attorney for some years and he doesn't have anybody else to attend to things for him when he's down on his back. Finding you was no problem. He's known where you were for some time, but I'm not sure how that happened. I guess you could ask him. He has a woman, Miriam, but she's a lot younger than he is and not much use with any details. I think she was hustling until she found Willie a couple of years ago. She and I don't get along. She drops in to see him every day or two, mainly because she's expecting some good news in his will."

              "Is she right?"

              Bynum hesitated, but Ross doubted that he was considering the ethics of discussing his client's private business. He didn't seem to be a man who would get very excited about ethics. "Yes and no. He'll leave her what there is, but it's probably less than she thinks. She knows he's dying, so she probably feels like she's the one paying for his care. The longer he hangs on the less there will be left for her. Willie's bad news, when it comes, might make her smile. I don't like Miriam. I guess you can tell." Traffic became heavier, and Bynum began to labor over his driving again, leaning forward and cradling the wheel between his forearms. He glanced at Ross again, and decided to go on with his revelation. "There's an insurance policy, and that would have been Miriam's, also, but she outsmarted herself and let it get away from her. The church is going to get it. As you know, Graham is not a brave man. A few weeks ago, when he realized he really was dying, it shook him badly. I suppose it will shake us all when our times come, but it's doubly hard on him, because he believes he's likely to go to hell." Bynum shrugged and raised his eyebrows. "And he might, at that. And he's sure to run into a helluva lot of lawyers if he does." He chuckled at his own joke. "I guess I'm not at the point of taking hell very seriously, but the idea has got Willie by the throat, and Lord only knows how long it's been since he was inside a church, so he didn't even have a clergyman to call."

              He sniffed and wagged his head. "So when Miriam showed up one day with a man she introduced as Father Ortega, Willie latched onto him. If Ortega's a priest, I'm a Zulu aviator, but Willie either doesn't know or doesn't want to know. I'm pretty sure there isn't any church, except for Miriam and Ortega. Normally, Willie is not a stupid man, whatever else he may be, but he hasn't shown much common sense in dealing with this fictitious church. Anyway, Ortega has spent a lot of time with him, and he's got him believing he still might beat the devil, and that's pretty important to Willie right now. So Father Ortega's church, what there is of it, is now the beneficiary of Willie's life insurance policy, and I imagine they're just about as entitled to it as Miriam would be. About a dead heat, if you will." Bynum chuckled again. "I would say she blew her chance by bringing the guy in, but then, they might well be in it together. I wouldn't know. If I understand it correctly, the campaign to save Willie from hell involved three things. Number one, a lot of praying, and he's been doing that. He does it out loud when he's got enough breath, and sometimes when I hear him I think he's gone crazy. But he isn't crazy, he's scared. Number two, he's to leave the insurance money to the
              charitable programs of Father Ortega's church. I've taken care of that for him, but I suspect that these charitable programs are going to kick off only when they get Willie's money, but of course that's not my business." Ross could tell he thought it was, indeed, his business, but he said it wasn't anyway.

              "Number three, Ortega advised him to make things right with the people he's wronged, and that seems to be you. And now I've told you more than you really needed to know, but I don't care. I'll be glad to get all this wound up. I don't know what Willie might say to you, but that's between you and him. I'll take you up and then leave you with him, but I'll wait and take you where you want to go, because I told him I'd do that." They reached another community, and turned off a boulevard onto a side street, and after several blocks through a residential neighborhood the Lincoln passed a school and a small stadium and then turned into a long drive that wound among fir trees and shrubbery toward a two story building that looked as if it had been a huge house at one time. They drove under a wrought-iron sign that said it was now a hospice. A place to die. It seemed to have a lot of lights burning for so late an hour. It was a quarter past eleven.

              They parked in a paved and lighted area where several other vehicles stood. Bynum turned off the ignition and seemed on the point of asking Ross a question, but he thought better of it. Instead, he dropped his eyes and inspected his hands. "I'd like to keep our conversation confidential, if you have no objection. I feel like I've said too much to you."

              Ross shrugged. "Is there anything I need to know before I go in?"

              "No, I guess not. Whatever he wants to say to you, he's been sitting on it for a while, I gather. I think maybe he'd have contacted you before long, illness or not, but that's only a guess. You'll just have to ask him yourself."
              If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

              Comment


              • #8
                Chapter 7

                There was a private security man on duty in the lobby, but he didn't seem to care who they might be or even whether they came in. He had a magazine and a canned soft drink, and he hardly looked up as they passed.

                "Does he know you?" asked Ross.

                "I don't think so. I never come at night. Maybe he just watches out for people stealing the TV's or cracking the candy machines."

                "Maybe he's a scout for a mortuary."

                Bynum gave him a strange look, but made no reply. They found stairs at the end of the lobby and walked up to the second floor, where they reported in to the nurse at the station in the hall. The place looked and smelled like a hospital, but with considerably less equipment to be seen. The only communication with the various rooms seemed to be a board with numbered lights on it. There might have been a buzzer on it somewhere. Bynum told the nurse who they were and who they wanted to see, and she scanned an assortment of little yellow notes secured by magnets to the wall of the refrigerator next to her desk. She took one of the notes down and read it through her bifocals, holding it so that the visitors could not see, and then rose painfully and led them down the hall. She was elderly and heavy, and she walked as though her feet hurt. Ross imagined he could smell death in the air, and he wondered what kind of people were capable of spending forty hours every week in this environment. People like the elderly nurse, no doubt, whatever that was.

                Piper-Graham's room was the fourth door on the right and the nurse entered without knocking. Bynum followed her in, but Ross hesitated for a moment, suddenly not certain he wanted to see Piper again, after all. He didn't like digging up dead soldiers, but he reminded himself that the affair didn't matter any longer. He pushed open the door, which had swung shut silently behind Bynum, and went inside.

                Piper lay staring at the door, obviously anticipating Ross' appearance. He was only a few years older than Ross, which would put him in the neighborhood of fifty, but he had aged far beyond his years. Most of his hair was gone, and his skin, instead of being wrinkled, seemed to have shrunk until it could barely contain his skull. His mouth had drawn back from yellowed teeth, and his eyelids had receded, leaving the white of his eyes showing all around the irises. It gave him the appearance of a permanent incredulous, staring expression, like a man who has just discovered a dead mouse in his plate lunch. He looked every bit the sick man he was - emphysema, mostly, Bynum had said - but somehow he didn't have the look of other dying men Ross had seen.

                There was a plastic tent above him, but the near side had been lifted, so that his view of the door would not be obstructed. He was alert and calm, and lying on his side with a book in his hand; a cheap-looking book with a golden cross printed on the cover. The lamp on the bedside table was the only light in the room. When he faced the door, the light fell directly on his face, but when he turned and lay on his back, grisly shadows gave him an appearance like that of Lon Chaney in full makeup. All his attention was for Ross, but he showed no fear. If anything, his gaze was curious. Ross met his eyes for a few seconds, but he felt nothing and said nothing. Bynum watched the reunion in silence, and the nurse with the sore feet laid down the ground rules.

                "If you and Mr. Graham want to talk, we'll have to take the tent down, and hook the oxygen hose to the mask, and keep it in his hand. He can't go too long without oxygen. He can decide when he needs it. Try not to excite him, as he's very ill." She spoke as though the man in the bed were asleep, or deaf, or didn't understand the language. "The hardest thing for him is to try to speak loudly. That's what starts the coughing. Sit up close and remind him to keep his voice down, if he forgets. How long he talks is up to him. Press that button if you need me." She lifted the plastic canopy away from the bed and draped it over a chair. The hose was disconnected and attached to a mask, which she put into Piper's hand. She checked the gauge and adjusted the regulator and limped to the door and out of the room. She still had not spoken directly to her patient.

                "Willie, is this the man you wanted to see?"

                The wasted figure in the bed nodded slowly, and began to move his dry lips around, preparing to speak, possibly for the first time in hours. He went around the lips with his tongue and spoke - not to Bynum, but to Ross. "Jack, you look pretty good. You haven't changed all that much." Ross was surprised to recognize the voice. It was weak, but still the same as he remembered. The accent was from some part of New York City, and he had a nasal tone, as some of them do. He and Ross had spoken only a few times before, but the familiar voice made it easier to believe that he really was Piper. Or was it Graham? There was no tension in the atmosphere. Ross still felt nothing, not even pity.

                "You look kind of used up, Piper. I wouldn't have known you. Maybe I should go around and look at your back. I might recognize your back."

                Piper missed the barb, or chose to ignore it. "Still tall and straight. I always wanted to be tall. You might be fifteen pounds heavier. Anything else change since the last time I saw you?" He sucked at the oxygen mask.

                "Yeah, I'm not as scared as I was the last time I saw you."

                "I figured you for a hard-ass, Jack, a real tough guy. I knew you were in trouble, but I never figured you were scared."

                "I thought I was pretty tough when you took me in there, but I got over it in a hurry, standing in that black muck up to my knees and watching you going home without me."

                "Did Mr. Bynum tell you I was dying?"

                "He said you were pretty sick."

                "Well, I'm dying. Everybody knows it. That's what a hospice is. Everybody here is dying. It's cheaper to die here than in a hospital." He paused to pull at the oxygen, but his eyes stayed on Ross. "My lungs are gone, and one
                day soon I'm going to cough my way right out of here. I'm glad you came to talk to me before I go. I've been thinking about you lately."

                "I came mostly to hear what you wanted to say to me, and I'm traveling on your money. I made Mr. Bynum send it to me in advance."

                Bynum excused himself. "Mr. Ross, I'll wait in the lobby downstairs. Take your time." He seemed satisfied that Ross would not murder Piper. Or Graham. "Willie, I'll see you in a day or so." He let himself out.

                Piper spoke again. Ross couldn't think of him as anything but Piper. "That's okay. I told him to do what he had to do. How about getting one of those extra pillows out of the closet and propping me up? And pull your chair up close. I can't talk very loud, you heard the nurse." A speech of that length drained him badly, and he went to the oxygen again. Ross got the pillow and lifted the other man enough to slip it behind his shoulders. Ross guessed he weighed a hundred and fifteen pounds. Piper's breath made him turn his head. That much of him was already dead. He brought the chair up next to the bed and positioned it so that he had an ear tuned to Piper, but with his nose pointed into the air conditioner.

                Piper rested a moment, staring at the ceiling and planning his approach. "Ross, tell me what happened on Long Island after I left." He made no attempt to explain or apologize.

                "They caught me, what else? There wasn't anywhere I could go. They were private security of some kind, not police, and they pushed me around a while and cracked a couple of my ribs and asked a lot of questions. They wanted to know what I was looking for and who had sent me and who was the guy in the boat."

                "Did you find what you were looking for in that building?"

                "I never really had time to look around. I had to break into the place and I was worried there might be an alarm that sounded up at the house, so I planned to go to the front window about every thirty seconds and have a look at the house. It was maybe half a mile up a shell road, and sure enough, about the second time I looked I could see a car and a pickup truck coming my way in a hurry, and maybe half a dozen men, so I had to get the hell out of there. I gave you the signal on that little transmitter, and hit the brush behind the building. I figured I was okay, because they were a ways behind me and they had to find me. That little point was only eight or ten acres, but there was lots of cover and they didn't know where I was going. All I needed was for you to be there."

                "Well, I waited as long as I could, but I could hear the cars, and I figured there was no use them getting both of us," offered Piper, but he wasn't looking at Ross.

                "Bullshit. There was plenty of time, and you know it. You didn't hear any cars. They were all on foot by that time, because they had to leave the cars when they got to the edge of the woods. It wasn't time you ran out of, Piper, it was nerve.. Is Piper your name, or not?"

                "It was then; it's not now. How did you get out of all that?"

                "They couldn't decide what to do with me. They weren't about to call the law, and they didn't want to let me go. This wasn't an organized group of any kind. It was just a bunch of low-lifes somebody had hired to do Lord knows what, including look after the property on Long Island. They were drinking, and knocking me around once in a while, and sometime during that night, they decided I had to go into the water, and somebody else could figure it out when they found me. For a few hours, I was in the same spot you're in now. It looked like it was finished for me. But they didn't do it, because of you. They didn't know who you were, but they knew you knew where I was, and they just kept getting madder. A couple of them had shed a little blood in
                the excitement, and figured they should get more satisfaction than just the fun of breaking my nose. I was wet and cold and hungry and sore and scared shitless, and as soon as I got a chance, I told the oldest one that a guy in Albany was holding twenty four hundred dollars for me, and that he could have it, but he had to get me out of there first. So he decided to go for that, and he and another guy told the others something or other, and in the morning the two of them put me in the car and I told them we had to go to a Western Union office in Manhattan, near Central Park, where they knew me, so that's what they did. They took me to Manhattan."

                "And you had to give up the money to get away?"

                "There wasn't any goddam money, Piper. If I had had twenty four hundred dollars I wouldn't have been working for Colin. I wouldn't have been out on Long Island breaking into private buildings, with a backup man with no balls.
                And I wouldn't have spent an evening and a night getting my ass whipped by a bunch of punks. When we got into the Western Union office I broke the news to these two guys, and the older one turned red and blue and said he was going to kill me, and he told me to go outside with him and get in the car and I told him there was no way in hell. If he was going to do it, he could do it right there. I wasn't leaving. Man, I was ready to stay in there until closing time and then go home with the manager, if I had to.

                So they started a fight right in the Western Union office, with about eight people standing around, and I couldn't hold up my end of it, not with a couple of cracked ribs, anyway. They worked me over pretty good. Nobody would give me a hand, but at least somebody called the police, and finally the two of them rassled me outside, and they had me down, and they took my wallet and the money I had in my pocket, and I don't know what they would have done, but a squad car rolled around the corner and pulled up in front of the building, so they dragged me to the edge of the lot and pushed me down a little hill into Central Park, and then I guess they got away in the car. I never saw them again."

                "And the police picked you up and took care of you?"

                "Hell, no. I passed out at the bottom of that little hill, and when I woke up it was all over, and there were no police around, and nobody had looked for me very hard. I was pretty sick, Piper. For a couple of hours, every time I tried to move around I got nauseated and had to throw up. Finally, just before dark, I got back up the little hill and onto the sidewalk, and I figured I might sell my watch for enough to get back to Utica. I had pushed it up my arm, under my shirtsleeve, and the goon had missed it, but the first guy I ran into found it and took it, and he pushed me back down that same hill. That made it official. I was flat broke - as broke as any bum in the park - and there wasn't a soul who wanted to hear about it, as far as I knew.

                But I was wrong. I found the Salvation Army and they took me in and cleaned me up a little and painted the worst places with merthiolate and washed my clothes and fed me and lent me a bed. After a few days I was feeling better, and I got on a crew with some Latinos and we worked at night, cleaning up movie theaters after closing time. Someday before you die, Piper, you need to get up and go and clean a stag movie theater after it closes. There's nothing like it. I did that for about ten days, then drew my pay and checked out of the Salvation Army place and bought a bus ticket back to Utica. I knew I wasn't supposed to call Colin, but I called him anyway, about the second day I was in New York, and his wife answered and that bastard Colin wouldn't even talk to me. Back in Utica, I went through his stupid drill and got my money for the Long Island trip, and he didn't even want to know what happened out there. He asked about you once, and I told him to forget you as it wasn't likely he'd ever hear from you again. He said he would call me in a few days, but I knew he wouldn't and I'm pretty sure he knew he wouldn't find me if he did, and we left it at that. The last thing he said to me was that I should take care of myself, and the last thing I said to him was to go piss up a rope. It took me about twenty minutes to pack my duffle bag, and then I headed south on a bus. For a couple of years, Piper, I woke up every day thinking about you and Colin."

                Ross had stared out the window as he told the story, but now he turned to look at Piper. Piper looked incredulous, because that was the only expression he had left. His eyes, like his breath, had preceded him in death. Ross thought it was obvious that he had wanted to hear the account only from curiosity, not because of any concern for Ross.

                "What about now?" Piper wanted to know.

                "I've kicked that part of it. I figure you did the best you could, at the time. Some people can hang in, and some can't. I should never have gone out without knowing more about you, so it's partly my own fault. The cuts and bruises all healed up, and it was time to move on. I'm sure you know I'm not here today because I wanted to see you again."

                "I know that."

                "I was glad for an excuse to close the shop for a day or two, and I'm traveling on your money, and I wanted to hear what you had to say. Bynum mentioned that this might be profitable.'

                "He's right, it could be a pretty good thing. And you were right about me. I was probably closer to that house than you were, by the time I found a spot to hide out until the signal came, and when the alarm went off I could hear it, and I walked up the bank a ways and saw those guys piling out and getting in the cars, and I didn't wait too long after that." He rested for thirty seconds, breathing oxygen with his eyes closed. "I got your signal, but you seemed to take a long time getting back, and I figured it was about time for that other bunch to show up, so I decided they could have you, if they didn't already, and I left." Piper inhaled the oxygen again.

                "I was in the edge of the water when I hollered at you, and I saw you flinch. You knew I was there."

                "It was too late, by then. You were on your own. And that was the only time I ever did that, too. From then on, I've always been a standup guy."

                "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

                "It doesn't matter. I never cared what you thought, or Colin either, for that matter. I never even went back for my eighty dollars."

                "Eighty dollars, is that what you were making?"

                "What were you getting?"

                "A lot more than that, but not near enough." He changed the subject.

                "Bynum said you knew where to find me."

                "That was a coincidence. I used to buy some cars from a guy named Levine in Baton Rouge, and he mentioned your name one time when I was down there. We were trying to find somebody to do some work for us, and he said you could do it, but you might not be interested in the kind of thing we were up to at the time. I told him to forget you." Piper wheezed to a halt, and went into a fit of weak coughing. The oxygen relieved the coughing, but Piper had to rest before continuing. He was like a cordless tool. When he ran down, he had to be plugged in to his power source before he could work again. Apparently, the oxygen bottle was going to be his constant companion for what remained of his life. Finally, he went on. "I made Levine drive me over to the block where your shop was, and I got a look at you, and I told him not to let you know he knew me. I've checked once or twice, just to see if you were still there. No reason - it was just something to know."

                "You said your name was really Piper when I knew you."

                "Sure. I was Piper for a long time. Born a Piper. It was Willie Piper, too, but not many people knew that. I hated the name Willie, but I kept it. But I finally changed Piper to Graham legally, just so I could breathe easier." He closed his eyes and drew his dry lips back from the yellowed teeth and chuckled feebly at his own grim joke. "Go to another town and change your name, and it's a whole new life. People do it all the time. It's like changing into a clean shirt. I didn't do it because of what happened on Long Island. By that time, there was a bunch of things I wanted to leave behind. So I did. There's people around this country more anxious to see me than you ever were. But it's about too late for any of 'em now. Except you. You're getting in under the wire, Ross."

                "Take a break," said Ross, getting out of the chair. "Rest up a minute. Don't die before you make me rich." He went to the window and stood looking down at the parking lot. The security man was sitting on the fender of Bynum's Lincoln, smoking. Bynum was not in sight. He could see the school they had passed coming in, and the stadium next to it. There was no traffic to see, and not many lights in the neighborhood. He stayed several minutes at the window, giving Piper time to recharge his batteries at the oxygen mask. When the little man was speaking, it was always with the mask in his hand, and each time he paused for breath, he breathed the oxygen. It was almost like taking bites from a rubber sandwich. Ross pondered the strange reunion he was involved in; two men with no feeling at all for each other, tied together briefly by some bond that still might prove to exist only in the mind of the one who was dying.

                When he turned toward the bed, Piper looked lifeless, but when he went back to the chair and sat down, the other man opened his eyes immediately. Suddenly Ross wanted to get it over with. "Why did you send for me? What's on your mind?"

                "I'm going to put you on to a bundle of money, if it's still there."

                "Why? You just said you don't give a shit about me, and it doesn't seem to bother you that you let me down one time. Bynum said you had a woman and a priest. Why aren't you giving it to them?"

                Piper did not reply at once. He seemed to grow smaller and sink into the pillows that supported him, and he focused on something high on the wall while he organized his answer. He looked at Ross and frowned slightly and looked away again. For an instant it seemed he might break down. "This is all about dying, Ross. It's not easy to talk about dying with a healthy guy like you, because you don't know anything about it. But I do. I've already started dying. You start dying when the doctor tells you you're too sick to get well. There's people who come around to places like this, social workers of some kind, I guess, and they'll talk about dying with you, if you want to. I hear about people who welcome it, and die peacefully. They say some die smiling. I don't know if that's true or not, but it's not the way I'm going to die. I'm going to die coughing, with my eyeballs sticking out and my face red, probably by myself at three in the morning. That's when I generally do things." He closed his eyes and went to the oxygen, and was glaring at Ross when he resumed. "You can't possibly know what a mother****er this is, Ross, to have things you want to say, and not have anybody to listen except a guy who's glad you're dying."

                "I'm not glad you're dying. Don't make it worse than it is."

                "Right. Well, you're it, anyway. I've got people I know better than I know you, but you're it. You're the one I'm telling. I'll get around to the part you want to hear in a minute. Since the last time I saw you, I've done a lot of bad things, and hardly any good things at all. It never bothered me, just like it didn't bother me to leave you on Long Island. I don't go to confession and apologize to a guy in a dress on the other side of the wall. I don't pray and promise to do better next time. I just don't think about it at all - it's the way I get along. You make signs or whatever, and I do what I do. Now I'm dying - they tell me there's no way to get around it - and I'm going to be dead a long time, and I've got nothing to do all day but lie around and think about it, and it gets scary." He rested again, but only long enough for two or three breaths from the mask. He still wore the astounded look, but without really changing anything on his face he now looked afraid, too. Afraid of going to hell. Bynum had been right. Ross was sorry for him.

                "I don't know what happens when you die - maybe nothing. But I've got to do whatever I can, don't you see, just in case. No, you don't see. But you better hope that when it's your turn, you don't have all this time to think about it. I made out my insurance to that priest and his little outlaw church, just to get him to pray for me. That's the only way I know to get anybody to do what you want. Pay for it. I don't even know if he's the real thing. I'm going to be pissed if I go to hell, anyway, after leaving him my insurance." He tried to make a grin, but achieved only a grimace. "Miriam has been with me a while, and she still lives in my house and the priest goes over there now and then, and they pray. They say they pray. How the hell do I know? Maybe they screw each other in my bed, or on my sofa or on the floor. We were not much more than roommates, you follow me? People like Miriam don't fall in love, or people like me, either. But she comes to see me and brings me magazines and I had Bynum make out a will that leaves everything to her, because I figure better her than the county. Or is it the state? Whatever. All she'll have to do is bury me, and then there'll be the house and a few dollars and a couple of little businesses that she'll sell for whatever she can get. I won't get away owing Miriam anything." Piper was winded, and he rested and refueled. Ross thought he was growing stronger as he went. He continued. "Bynum will handle the whole thing, so he'll make his fee, and Miriam will check his arithmetic because his share will come out of her share. Bynum is okay, but most of his clients are a lot like me. And a lot like him, for that matter." Piper stared at the far wall for a few seconds, and then closed his eyes.

                He knows, thought Ross. He knows there aren't going to be any mourners at his funeral. He wondered how that would feel, and it suddenly came to him that his own sendoff might be poorly attended, as well. He wasn't close to very many people. Whatever Piper was feeling, he wasn't going to let Ross know about it. He seemed more remote than ever; even angry, perhaps, when he returned. Lots of people get just such a reaction, after giving you a peek under their skins. He sucked at the oxygen and went back to work.

                "That brings me around to the point of all this. Father Ortega. . ." he rolled his eyes a bit, "Father Ortega says it's important for me to do what I can to make things right with the people I've done wrong, and that makes pretty good sense. If there's a heaven, then the people who get in don't have to be the ones who have been good all their lives. The big thing is that you have tried to straighten out your sins, wherever possible. Try not to laugh, Ross. Believe me, it looks different from behind this oxygen mask than from that chair where you're sitting. If Ortega had known about this money I keep talking about, he might have recommended confession instead of atonement, I don't know. You think? Anyway, I left you on the hook back in 1985, and if I owe anybody, I guess it would be you. I don't mind telling you that it never bothered me until I got sick, but this is a chance to make it up to you - or at least try.

                There's supposed to be some money stashed away in a safe place, unless somebody's already found it by accident. A lot of money. Something like five hundred grand in cash, packed in some kind of duffel bag and hidden in a building. I'll tell you as much as I know about how to get it, and then you can do whatever suits you. That's all I can do. If I punch out without telling anybody, then it all goes to waste. Miriam has known about it for several years, you know, I never tried to keep it a secret, but I never told her all I know about it, either. There's been quite a few times that she pressed me to let her know the big part - just in case something happened to me, she always said - and now and then I've had the feeling this might be the whole name of the game for her. It could be why she's hung on this long, I don't know. But I'm not all that old, Ross, and I never figured anything was going to happen to me just yet. It's only in the past month that I've had to get used to the idea that I'm never going to get that money. I don't know what I would have done with this thing I'm going to give you. Maybe she'd have wound up getting it after all, but that didn't set too well with me. It would have been like her winning and me losing. If I even had a brother or a cousin, you know, but I don't, so I guess she's screwed up by calling in this Ortega guy, because that's how I decided that the best thing would be to give it to you. Whether he's a real priest or not, it seems like a good move to do something good for you after that deal in '85."

                Piper delivered his explanation with two stops for fuel, and now he paused again, but kept his eyes on Ross, and continued. "You're my man, right? Not Miriam and not Ortega, but you, because you're holding my note, so to speak, and hey - it won't cost me anything to pick it up. I could never get the money, but maybe you can. Understand, this is only because of the shape I'm in. It's not because you mean anything to me." It was almost like a fixation. Father Ortega had convinced him that he should atone, but if he'd mentioned anything about repentance, Piper had missed it. Just before sticking his gaunt face back in the oxygen mask, he added,"This is not for you - it's for me. I'm trying to make a couple runs here in the bottom of the ninth."
                Last edited by vapros; 09-21-2017, 11:29 AM.
                If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Chapter 8

                  In 1988, a handsome young man of action named John Villarubbia decided he had outgrown his hometown of Binghamton, New York, and promoted himself to the Big Apple, setting sail for the major leagues with his pockets full of spending money and his Cadillac full of silk shirts. At the end of three years there he had acquired a small stable of working girls, a fan club of unsavory parasitic admirers and a serious heroin habit. Operating independent of any local contacts or affiliation, he prospered modestly and assured himself that it was only a matter of time until his talent and industry caught the attention of someone who might offer him even greater opportunities. The reality was that a neighborhood operator named Velasco was the first to note John's activities and sent word that he wanted to speak with him about the matter of the girls. Villarubbia chose to ignore the summons, and hearing nothing further about the matter immediately, he compounded the error by assuming that he had backed Velasco down. Five months later he entered the shylocking business, lending money to workers in a couple of food-processing plants at a shylock's rate of interest, and this time Velasco didn't bother to send him any messages at all.

                  Just before Labor Day of 1991, a couple of well-spoken young men in good suits and perfect haircuts visited him outside his favorite club and without preamble they went at once to the matter at hand. One of them mentioned a name that impressed John greatly, and made a brief explanation to him in the matter of what his options were. He could either drive back to Binghamton in his Cadillac, or they would have him shipped by freight in a box. Then, almost as an afterthought, he hit John in the mouth with a tremendous straight right hand shot that dumped him on his butt in a shrub with some kind of thorns which tore his silk shirt. The men helped him to his feet and stood by for a minute or two to answer any questions that might occur to him. There didn't seem to be any, so they got into a very nice car and drove away.

                  Villarubbia went to Atlantic City that night, pausing only long enough to get his lips sewed up at an all-night clinic. The thought of it terrified him, but the damage was too great to ignore, and a nurse had to give him an injection to calm him enough to permit the doctor to work in his mouth. He wasn't on the run from the New York people; they had not told him to get out of town before sunup, or anything like that. It was vanity over his wounded face that drove him to hole up in a motel off the boardwalk and stay nine days. He didn't want his girls or his friends to see him in his grotesque condition. He spent his first day there formulating a plausible lie to explain his absence, but he might have saved himself the trouble. As soon as he made a call to his answering service, he discovered that everybody he knew had already heard all about the affair in the parking lot. Mr. Velasco's associates must have put out the word on him, since John, himself, had not told anybody. The jig was up, in a manner of speaking.

                  So he had a long week to brood and watch television and plan his future strategy, which turned out to be a decision to get the hell out of New York and stay out. The decision was not all that difficult. He had neither the stomach nor the resources to go to war, and wooden boxes were probably full of wooden splinters, anyway. Beyond that he wasn't able to come up with much, except that he would return to his family in Binghamton for a while, where he could vacation in relative safety until he was ready to strike out on his own again. In some other direction.

                  On his seventh day in Atlantic City he went to a local doctor and had the stitches removed from his mouth, and two days later he decided he was ready to move. When he returned to New York, there were no parades, and very little indication that he had been missed. His girls had disappeared and all their phones had been disconnected, and someone had even broken into his apartment and taken some loose cash and his Book, and presumably had taken over his money lending scam without so much as the courtesy of returning his investment capital, but he decided against making an issue of it. He found a few friends who seemed happy to see him again, but not all that enthused about being seen in his company. If Villarubbia had, indeed, ever made a splash in Gotham, the ripples were long gone. He was able to get most of his clothes in the car and he engaged a moving company to handle the rest of the stuff in his elegant apartment, and he was gone within eight hours of getting back. It could have been worse. At least, there were no bullet holes in any of his silk shirts.

                  Back in Binghamton, his welcome was more sincere than it had been in New York, but not much. He rented a modest apartment for himself, nothing at all compared to the one he had just vacated, and his father gave him a spot on the payroll of the family construction company and a ragged-out Dodge pickup truck with faded lettering on the doors and a tool box behind the cab. At the age of thirty-one, he was back in the same job he had been given in the summer after his high school graduation. He didn't even have a key to the tool box in the truck. Of necessity, he was driven almost immediately to make contact with a local drug dealer, which was no problem at all for him. Things had not changed so much in the three years he had been away. Before leaving Binghamton, he had not really been an addict, but he had known where a man could buy some shit if he needed some.

                  The contact's name was Sonny Boy Leppert, youngest of the Lepperts, a family well-known in the shit business in the area just north of the Pennsylvania border. For several months he was a steady customer. He didn't like Sonny, which was understandable, because nobody else liked him, either, but then lots of dopers hate their suppliers, anyway. Sonny lived an indolent life, devoid of ambition, but with lots of free time and money to burn and as many girls as he might want. He was courteous to policemen, but there always seemed to be a tinge of indulgence in his courtesy, as if he didn't have to if he didn't want to. Sonny was short and heavy and powerful. What had been a barrel chest in his youth was on a fast slide down to his waistline and beyond. He had washed-out pale blue eyes, and a receding hairline that was creating a forehead where there had been none before.

                  None of this was lost on Villarubbia, who soon began to have visions of himself as a shit merchant, as most addicts do at some point. He would start at the bottom, like Sonny Boy, but unlike Sonny Boy he wouldn't stay there long. In this town he didn't lack for contacts, and in a year or two when he had learned the things he needed to know and had the necessary sources, we would see what we would see. He would not make the same mistakes he had made in New York. He would join the Lepperts as a soldier and rise through the family ranks. His mouth was still a bit tender and he was not ready for any confrontations. So John made it a point to run into Sonny on an occasion when he was not in need of making a buy. He joined a health club where Sonny spent a great deal of time and presumably sold a great deal of shit, and followed him into the steam room one early afternoon when there was no one else present.

                  "John," said Sonny, "how you doin', boy?" He sat on the wooden bench and laid the club towel across his lap.

                  "Okay, Sonny, okay. What about you?"

                  "I'm good. Need to sweat a while. Drank too much again last night." He belched loudly, as if to verify.

                  "I heard that," said John. "This is a good place to bring a hangover." Sonny grunted and inhaled deeply. His voice was surprisingly small and reedy for a man his size, and he used it only when necessary. He had little interest in Villarubbia, unless he was selling him something, but he tried to be polite to his clients, as long as it didn't take too much effort.

                  "You planning to stay in town a while, son?"

                  "I might. I'm flexible. New York wasn't for me - I stayed there as long as I could stand it and then shucked that town like a dirty shirt. I didn't lose nothing in New York, believe me."

                  Sonny grunted again and let a little smirk linger on his lips. He knew why Villarubbia had left New York, but he didn't have any reason to mention it. His last question had made the other man think, for just a moment, that he might not have to approach Sonny Leppert about what he wanted, after all. Maybe Sonny was sounding him out for the same purpose. But Sonny lapsed into silence, and it became Villarubbia's turn again. "Sonny, I know a helluva lot of people in this town. This might be the place for me, after all. They can ****in' have New York and all of New Jersey, as far as I'm concerned."

                  "Me, too. Last time I went to New York I stayed thirty-six hours and didn't run into nobody but assholes. I was glad to get back home. I guess I'm a country boy."

                  "I've been using too much H, you know what I mean? I've seen people go too far, and not be able to get back. I don't want that to happen to me. I keep gettin' the feeling that I'm on the wrong end of the needle, you know what I mean?"

                  "No, I don't guess I do." Sonny was becoming uncomfortable, and shifted his position so that he could see both Villarubbia and the door to the steam room. Perspiration rolled down his face and dripped from his nose and chin.

                  "I've about decided to quit using it, but I keep thinking that I could sure as hell sell a ton of it, with the contacts I've got around here."

                  "Be careful, man. You get caught doing something like that, you liable to leave town again, and for more than any three years. I hear a lot about that kind of thing."

                  "Nobody seems to bother you, Sonny. If it's done right, it looks safer to me than a lot of things I've done in my time."

                  Sonny's face turned stormy, and he lowered his voice almost to a whisper and leaned closer. "Lemme tell you something, my man. You're one of about four people I get the stuff for, and only because I happen to know a safe source. And I'm about to cut that out altogether. I don't make near enough for the risk I take. My job is music boxes and coin machines, and I been working at that with my brothers and my old man for a long time. You don't get rich, but you don't go to jail, either. I'm not no dealer, don't ever make the mistake of thinking I am. That's serious, and I'm not going to have that shit getting started. And from now on, you can take your habit someplace else. I'm not getting in trouble for the few nickels I've made off you." Sonny stood up, grabbing at his falling towel and missing it.

                  The denial was not unexpected. Lots of people sell drugs, but none of them admit it. The idea of Sonny Leppert working in the jukebox and coin machine business, or any other business, was almost laughable, except that Sonny was not a man to laugh at. If any laughing was done, he'd do it himself. However, if he wanted to be coy, John could do the same. "I know what you're saying, man, but you and I know each other better than that. I'm offering to bring my connections and my contacts into your family business. I don't know how many coin machines, or whatever, you're moving now, but I could show you a sizeable increase. I don't want to be a competitor - I want to be on your side. There's a lot of money out there that we could be getting. I know people who want to buy and don't have a good source. They're screwing around with a couple of guys that they can't even find sometimes. I see 'em riding around in their cars, down around the warehouses and the tracks, trying to spot their man on the street. A business man shouldn't have to spend two hours on a thirty-second transaction. We can ****in' have those people, just for the asking, you know what I mean?"

                  "Yeah, I know what you mean, Johnny. You're telling me that you're still a punk. I used to whip your ****in' ass in high school, just because I didn't like punks, and the only thing that's changed is that now you're a professional punk. Having a pickup truck don't make you a working man. You're a punk with a habit, and that's the worst kind. You're on the small end of that needle because that's right where you belong, and you ain't going anywhere. And now you want to be a dope dealer, you say. Well, I say, go to it. Something bad will happen to you in the first ninety days, because something bad always happens to people like you.

                  But I'll do all I can to help you. You can have my other three customers. My old man told me just the other day I had to quit ****ing with that shit if I wanted to keep working for him. And that's what I'm going to do. I think I've still got a little bit in my car, in a brown paper bag. I'm on my way out, and I'll leave it in the back of your truck. Don't forget to pick it up, it's free. You're a dope dealer, now, and I'm out. Lemme give you some advice. Don't go freelancing around in that business.

                  You remember the two guys that run you out of New York? Well, you better be watching for 'em, right here in Binghamton. And next time, you won't get well in no two weeks, or whatever it was. Son, I couldn't do nothing for you, even if I wanted to. The word's out on you. You're officially bad news, and if I made any deals with you those guys might come to town to see me. My advice is to stay where you are and keep workin' for your daddy, or try to get on at McDonald's, but you do what you want. And next time you see me come in this ****in' steam room, you go play on the swings, or something like that. Now you have a nice day." And Sonny Boy Leppert was gone, leaving footprints on the wet tiles with his rubber flip-flops.
                  If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Chapter 9

                    Had Sonny Boy understood punks as did the two young men in New York, all the rest of this would never have happened, because he would have hit Villarubbia in the mouth at the end of his admonishment. Its one of the secrets of dealing with punks. If he had left him on his butt in the steam room, with blood running down his sweaty chest and into his pubic hair, he would never have had to deal with him again. A well-defined and permanent relationship would have been established between them. The omission changed Sonny's life forever.

                    John, when he was sure Sonny was gone, snorted in derision and finished his steam bath in leisurely fashion. He claimed the small brown paper bag from the bed of his truck, dined on lobster at Our Father's and retired to his apartment to plan his next move. There was no thought of ignoring Sonny's insults, just as there had never been any thought of pursuing an honest living at Vilcon as a life plan. This was Binghamton and he was a Villarubbia and the Lepperts were nothing but dope dealers. He was destined for much better, and Sonny's scorn was the trigger to put him in motion. He had things to do, and the youngest Leppert had moved to the top of his list.

                    Vengeance must be anonymous, unless one is seeking to instigate a running feud. That's usually a frustrating realization, when it comes, and it came to John early in the evening. He could not openly attack Sonny without risking a reprisal that could be almost anything, and he wasn't ready to risk that. So, with personal satisfaction clearly out of his reach, the only thing that made any sense was to hurt him for profit, and by the time the late news was on the screen he had ruled out everything except kidnapping. Nothing else seemed workable, so he began to make a plan. To his credit, it was a good plan, for a beginner, and it occupied his mind for most of a month.

                    A couple of assistant kidnappers would be required for the success of the venture, and he had them both in mind, right from the start. One was a twenty-four carat psychopath from the Bronx, and his name was Darryl Lindsay. Long-legged, stoop-shouldered and gaunt, with eyes like a snake, Lindsay never smiled. He was reasonably intelligent and had even been to college for some unknown period of time, and this impressed Villarubbia. Even more impressive were his fictional accounts of deeds already done; the victims already maimed and terrorized at his hands. When Sonny Boy Leppert was in their custody, it would fall to Lindsay to inspire him to make a genuinely moving appeal to Sonny's father and brothers to send the money that could save his life, and John never doubted that Lindsay could do that. He looked and sounded like a psycho. He aspired to be a professional assassin; a hit man, but so far he had not been able to get any contracts. It wasn't easy - one couldn't take an ad in the Yellow Pages. Prospective clients looked at him like he was crazy, and in a way he was. To pay his rent, he tended bar in a club where men with Italian names hung out, and he sold marijuana by the joint. He was tickled to death to get the call from Villarubbia. He took it as a sign that his star was on the rise. Villarubbia - how Italian could you get?

                    The other call went to Piper, and thus was born Piper's half-interest in a stash of some five hundred thousand dollars. It was a plum that dangled just out of his reach for more than fifteen years and which he would one day pass along to Jack Ross from his deathbed in a hospice in St. Louis. All that would remain was for Ross to work out the details. Piper was short and furtive and generally ordinary-looking and his hands were surprisingly broad and strong. His skin was pale and his upper lip was barely able to cover his prominent front teeth. When he opened his mouth he looked more likely to bite than to speak.

                    By the time of the kidnapping, Piper was a hoodlum and a thief. He was experienced in burglary, armed robbery and drugs. He was a procurer and a part-time fence for stolen property, both his own and other people's. He even had a little money, which he kept in a bank. Not in a checking account, or even savings, but in a safe deposit box. His assignment to drive Ross along the edge of Long Island Sound in a boat may well have been his last venture in working for pay. And he had not even claimed the pay. His primary qualification, however, for involvement in the kidnapping of Sonny Leppert was the same as Lindsay's, his belief that John Villarubbia was a tough, shrewd son of a bitch. John was in need of somebody who loved him, and these two were among the last of his admirers after the fiasco in New York. So John drove his Cadillac back to the city and looked up both men and took them to dinner. It was an impressive gesture, as both subsisted mainly on deli food and roast beef sandwiches served in neighborhood taverns. Afterward, over drinks and cigars, he outlined his proposition and offered them the chance to sign up for some big money.

                    "I've got a ****ing idiot picked out in western New York, and I'm going to snatch him and sell him back to his daddy for a million dollars. One or two days at the most, and then back home with the cash, but I can't do it alone. I'm going to need two other guys I can trust. Equal shares, too. We'll cut this pie three ways. What do you think?"

                    Piper and Lindsay glanced at each other. No one had trusted either of them since Moby Dick was a guppy, and they damn sure didn't trust each other, but they both trusted Villarubbia.

                    "You sure his daddy has that kind of money?" asked Piper. Lots of people look good, but they can't raise much cash when they need to. What makes you think we can get that much cash?"

                    "Drugs," said John. "Big drug operation."

                    "Hold on, these people got to be connected. Anybody dealing on the west side that can pay a million dollars is connected, and if you're gonna **** with connected people you're not gonna live very long. You better think about that."

                    "Not the west side, Piper. Western New York state. The only thing this guy's connected with is his daddy."

                    "Not Buffalo, I hope."

                    "No, not Buffalo, Binghamton. There's nothing to be connected with in Binghamton. Don't worry about it. This is going to work, believe me."

                    "I got an uncle in Binghamton," complained Lindsay.
                    "
                    So what?" asked Piper.

                    "Nothin' I'm just sayin'."

                    Villarubbia got up from the table and went to the rest room. When he returned, both men said they were in.

                    "When does this happen," asked Piper, "and how do we get to Binghamton?"

                    "Day after tomorrow. Steal a decent car and drive it out there and call me up, no later than five in the evening."

                    "Steal a car!?" Lindsay frowned.

                    "Right, steal a car, man. If you don't know how, Piper can show you. We're talking over three hundred large. Each. Don't act like you never stole a car. Can you do that?"

                    "Don't worry about the car," said Piper. "We'll be there and we'll be ready. What else?"

                    "That's it. I'll tend to everything else. Here, I'm gonna write down my phone number." Villarubbia's preparation was nothing if not diligent. Back in Binghamton he prepared timetables and maps with routes marked on them and locations of pay phones in suitably remote locations. He wrote the address of, and detailed directions to the Leppert house where Sonny lived with his father, as well as the empty house just a few miles from town, with working telephone, where Piper and Lindsay would hold their hostage. Villarubbia, himself, would be the silent partner who made the decisions and directed from the shadows.

                    "We'll take good care of this ****ing idiot," Villarubbia had promised them.
                    "He's worth his weight in gold and he weighs a ****in ton."

                    On the appointed day, Piper and Lindsay stole a car in New York and switched license tags with another car that obviously had not run in a while. This was almost a guarantee against trouble from this quarter. Both were experienced car thieves, and knew there was little chance of discovery after making the switch. They would be back in a, couple of days, at any rate. Let the police try to find a stolen American-made car with the wrong license plates on it. Fat chance. If anything unfortunate happened to them in this enterprise, it didn't figure to be because of the car theft. With one stop for food and gas, they drove it to Binghamton, where Villarubbia waited. Both were terrible drivers, (all New Yorkers are) but they arrived more or less on time, anyway.
                    They made the call to John from a pay station in a parking lot, and immediately had a problem.

                    "Stay where you are," said Villarubbia,"and I'll come to meet you. Tell me where you're at."

                    "We're in ****ing Binghamton, New York, like you said. There's houses across the road, and a sign right here that says Goodyear. That's tires. We're at a Goodyear tire store, John."

                    "Shit, Piper, can't you see a street sign?"

                    "Street sign, right. It's a number. We're on Highway 17 John. Does that tell you where we're at?"

                    "I'll find it. Sit tight. You got the car, like I said?"

                    "No, John, we caught a cab. Certainly we got the car. We got a Ford, it's air conditioned and all. Come on."

                    For the next ninety minutes, John rode with them in the back seat of their car, directing them through the route they would use. In lighted areas or where they met traffic, he ducked down out of sight. He would never be seen with them, and would never be in the same place they were, during this snatch. He would be quite visible, somewhere else, during the actual grab.
                    He took them to the house where Sonny Boy lived, and showed them a good spot to leave the car on the street behind it, how to find their way across a vacant lot in the dark to reach the Leppert back yard, and received Piper's assurance that he could get into the house. The elder Leppert was out of town, as he usually was, and didn't figure in the plot at all. When Sonny's car was not there, the place should be deserted.

                    From there they traced the route to the house where Sonny would be held, for less than twenty-four hours, if all went as it should. It was a short ride of about seven miles, for two reasons. For one thing, they didn't want to spend unnecessary time on the road while transporting their victim. Also, they wanted to be on the local telephone exchange. The hideout was well chosen. It was in a secluded rural area, it had an empty garage with doors that closed, and it was guaranteed to be vacant for a week. They didn't want an unoccupied house. It would not have had a working telephone. The plan was simple and solid, and by the time they delivered Villarubbia back to his car, they had driven the route three times. He transferred two bags of groceries and several needed items to their car from his own, and then left them. He would go directly to a night spot, where he would stay the entire evening and then go home with the daughter of the proprietor. Piper and Lindsay went straight back to the Leppert house and prepared their trap.

                    They parked the car without incident and gathered up the items they needed and crossed the vacant lot in the dark, tripping and cursing as they went, and alerting most of the dogs in the neighborhood, but none of the people. The grass in the lot was unkempt and several inches tall, and they had little doubt that it harbored poisonous snakes. Neither man could remember the last time he had walked in grass. The lock on the back door baffled Piper completely, and after ten minutes Lindsay grew tired of waiting and broke out a window, climbed in, and opened the door from the inside. Villarubbia had provided rubber gloves that he told them to wear to avoid leaving prints, but Piper knew a lot more about prints and rubber gloves than that. Rubber gloves are too hot to wear for long, and they might have an extended wait, so Piper's method was to carry a rag in one hand and wipe down every surface that might hold a print, immediately after touching it. It was unlikely that any police would be called to solve this case, and if they were, finding usable prints was always a tough proposition. They opened Mr. Leppert's refrigerator and got out some of Sonny's beer and cold cuts and settled in to wait for their man. The empties they left in the garbage can were probably covered with good fingerprints.

                    Sonny kept them waiting until nearly three in the morning, but they were comfortable in the semi-dark. A night light burned around the corner in the hall. There was little conversation. Finally it was Lindsay who said, "Somebody's home. What do we do if he's not by himself?" Nobody had thought of that, but fortunately Sonny was alone, and a bit under the influence of drink or drugs, or both. He parked under the carport and climbed the two steps to the side door and let himself in, and Lindsay decked him with a blackjack before he could turn on a light. Luckily for him he was wearing a leather cap - otherwise the blow might well have cracked his skull. In spite of his reputation, Darryl Lindsay had never hit anyone with a blackjack before. His main concern was that he strike hard enough. Sonny went down heavily and silently, and Piper knelt to inject him with something Villarubbia had provided.

                    They rolled him onto an opened sleeping bag and zipped it up around him and then rolled the bundle onto a stretcher. They carried him out through the back door and across his own back yard and then across the vacant lot to the car. The plan nearly broke down on this detail. Sonny was a heavy man, and neither of the kidnappers was what one could call robust. They staggered under the load and had to put him down once to rest before continuing. There was some talk of leaving him there in the vacant lot and demanding that John find a smaller Leppert to kidnap. Both were blowing hard by the time they had loaded him into the trunk and closed the lid. Twenty-five minutes after leaving a private club owned by his uncle, Sonny was their prisoner, and sleeping like a baby.

                    He awakened to music. A radio was playing in another room, with the volume turned down low. He felt rotten. His head ached and his shoulders ached. He had slept sitting up, his chin sagging down on his chest. His hands and feet hurt, and there was a foul taste in his mouth, and his stomach was queasy. It was nearly noon, but in the darkness he had no way of knowing. It was dark because he was blindfolded. Whatever it was, it was tied tightly around his head, and he could see faint light coming in from below it, where it crossed his cheeks. It was painful to try to open his eyes, with the blindfold so tight, so he quit trying and kept his eyes closed. He had no idea what this shit was all about, but when he discovered that his hands and feet were tied up and tied together and tied to the chair he was sitting in, it wasn't really much of a surprise.

                    Somebody had him, but good. He tried to remember something from the night before that might give him a hint, but came up empty. He had gotten a bit drunk and gotten laid and driven home alone, but none of that accounted for this shit. He didn't want to believe he was in serious trouble, but he must be. He wasn't at home, he was sure of that. There were no wooden straight chairs at home like the one he was tied to. Maybe someone had hit him on the head and robbed him. He tried to think how much money he had been carrying, and decided it had been about three thousand dollars, which was normal for him. He couldn't tell if he still had it, but it was a legitimate concern. He had lost his money in the first thirty seconds after being hit on the head. Lindsay had half of it, and Piper had the rest. Sonny had also lost a Rolex watch and two diamond rings, but he didn't know it yet.

                    He wondered where Dickie was. He wondered if he was alone in this house. If he was, he might get loose eventually. If he wasn't, then there was no getting around it - he was probably in deep shit. That realization came over him slowly, and his heart rate increased as the seconds passed. His stomach began to churn. He had been awake - really awake - for two or three minutes, and there had been no sound but that of the radio in another room.
                    He inhaled and said, "Hey!" in his best voice. It didn't sound so good, and even before he closed his mouth Lindsay hit him in the face. He had known Sonny was awake, and had been poised just in front of him, feet spread. It was an open-handed blow to the rear of the cheek and jaw, delivered with great power and making a loud report in the quiet house. Lindsay followed through on the stroke, and Sonny's head was snapped through ninety degrees. The impact was such that he didn't feel the pain at first. It was a loud smack and a violent jolt, nearly upsetting the chair where he sat. The taste of his own blood and the terror hit him like a second blow at almost the same moment as the vertigo and the ringing in his head. It occurred to him that he might die today. And still nobody had answered his call. Just the blow.

                    Lindsay gave him ten seconds to think about it, and then hit him again, on the other side. He could deliver equally with both hands, especially if his man were tied up tight. Sonny Leppert began to shake violently. He was sobbing, behind the blindfold. It hadn't taken long, at all. Lindsay was at the same time proud of himself and contemptuous of Sonny. During the next hour, the bound man heard nothing around him but the radio and occasional careful footsteps on the carpeted floor. The radio station was in Binghamton, for what that was worth. He could hear big trucks now and then, but they were a long way from the house. After the initial panic had subsided, his heart rate had gradually returned to a more normal cadence, and he strained to pick up some clue as to where he was, but without success. The ringing in his ears stayed with him for most of that time, and it was painful to move his chin. He thought he might have a broken jaw. It had to be a kidnapping for ransom, there being no other reason he could think of, but who in the hell had taken him?

                    Villarubbia's was one of the names that came to mind, but not the only one. They hadn't seen each other in weeks. Was it done as a commercial venture, by someone who knew the potential for a big reward in cash? There was a safe in his father's house, and Sonny knew that sometimes there was a lot of cash in it, but only Richard and his father could open it. The safe was encased in a block of concrete the size of a big desk, and was set flush with the floor, beneath a rug. Or was it one of his own enemies? That would be the worst-case scenario. He could think of several who might not be able to resist the opportunity to kill him, whether they got anything for him or not. And kidnappers sometimes killed, didn't they, just as a tactic? It was not a good hour. He wanted to go to the bathroom, but dared not say so. He had heard someone say that you wet your pants when you die, and that disturbed him.

                    He wondered how long he would have to wait. So far as he could tell, his captors were completely idle - doing nothing. There were at least two. Sometimes he could hear them speaking in another room, much too softly for him to understand. He could smell cigarette smoke. Their conversation stopped, and the tension grew in the air around him. He held his breath, listening. He felt that someone was in front of him again, but he had not heard him return. Somebody was there, looking at him. He tensed his neck and shoulders, anticipating another blow. The room was cool, but sweat ran down his ribs beneath his shirt, and formed on his brow and was absorbed by the blindfold, and trickled down his lip into his mouth. He could still taste blood, but the sweat was saltier. The ringing in his ears began again, as his blood careened through shrinking blood vessels, threatening to rip them open. His chin trembled and a chill hit him suddenly. And he was dead right about somebody looking at him. Darryl Lindsay was studying Sonny as one might watch a germ under a microscope. He was fascinated by what he saw, and he discovered that this powerful man was nothing at all when you tied him up. He was no better than a child under these circumstances. You could manipulate Sonny almost as you could a hand puppet.

                    He could tell when Sonny was straining his ears to pick up a sound. There wasn't anything you could point to with your finger, but when Sonny was listening, he could tell. If he suddenly shifted his feet just a fraction, he could see unmistakable signs that a blow was expected. The muscles in the neck and shoulders tensed, and the chin was moved down and in, and certain facial muscles let you know that the eyes were shut tighter than before under the blindfold. And the breathing would stop entirely, sometimes for nearly a minute. When he hit him, a whole new set of reactions was produced, but these were predictable, and could have been accomplished by any hitter. It was the more subtle ones that gave him satisfaction. He felt he was almost controlling Sonny with his mind. It was like a lab in a course for terrorists, and every minute he grew more convinced that he had found his calling. He was learning about himself and about Sonny, all at the same time, but one thing that escaped his notice was that his path of flight, should Sonny suddenly break free, had been his first order of subconscious business. He would know which way to run.

                    It was one o'clock, straight up, when Lindsay hit Sonny for the fourth time. This time it was a straight punch to the middle of the chest with a fist, a punch that drove the breath from him and sent a searing pain through the body. Almost instantly, it was followed by a slash from a sharp knife, in the same spot. Sonny could not have said whether there was one impact or two, but it left him gasping and terrified in his darkness, and he felt blood running down his torso from the slash. The attack would certainly have upended the chair, had not another invisible man braced it from behind. He had no way of knowing how badly he was hurt. Was it fatal? Would he bleed to death, there in the straight chair? He tried to remember his prayers. His lips moved spasmodically. He coughed and then he hiccupped.

                    Finally, Piper spoke to him. "You're in bad trouble, Porky, you ****ing idiot." said Piper. "Today were all gonna find out just how much your daddy loves you. Ransom is what this is all about, and we have a pretty good idea how much to charge and you'll hear me when I call up your family in just a minute. You can forget about poor-mouthing me, because I know better. There's big money in dope, and what they don't have in the till they can get, if they really want to, so don't do any routines about how tough it will be to pay. I don't want to hear it. We already did our arithmetic, and your people will either pass or fail in the next few hours, and you'll live or die. Before the sun comes up tomorrow we'll leave you by the road in a spot we've picked out. If the ransom's been paid, you can flag a ride home. If it hasn't, well, we promised my friend here he could have you for an hour or so, and by the time it's over he'll have killed you or made you ask him to. When I put you on the phone, it will be your job to explain to your brother how important it is for them to pay up, and you won't get much time to do it. So it's all in your hands, and if it don't work out like you want it to, you'll have nobody but your own self to blame. Be thinking what you want to say, Porky, because here we go."

                    The reference to Lindsay was not lost on Sonny. He would do his best. He tried to think what to say. He didn't doubt for a minute that his family could raise a considerable amount of cash for ransom, but the possible negative reaction of his brothers was a matter of great concern to him. And he still didn't know what the asking price would be. Piper took a slip of paper from his pocket, and dialed Dickie Leppert's number. A woman answered and told him that Dickie had gone out and would be back in thirty minutes. He hung up without comment, and dialed a second number, the one for the other brother, Irving. Irving answered the second ring, and Piper gave him the entire pitch, without stopping. He demanded a million dollars, and said he wasn't interested in the difficulty involved. At first, Irving refused to take him seriously. He didn't believe they had Sonny, and even if they did, he said he could write him a deed for the Binghamton Civic Center easier than he could raise a million dollars.

                    "Is that your final answer?" asked Piper.

                    "****ing right it is," said Irving. "You got to be crazy."

                    "Okay. Talk to Sonny Boy. He wants to tell you goodbye."

                    "He what!? Sonny? Sonny, are you there?"

                    "It's me, Irving! I'm here. They got me. I'm tied up. I'm blindfolded, and I'm all bloody - I don't know what they did to me!"

                    "That mother****er said he wants a million dollars!"

                    "You can get it, man, I know you can! Get Dickie to open the safe, and call Daddy, he'll know how to get the rest. Or else I'm a dead mother****er, Irving! I know it!"

                    "I don't know what to say, Sonny. Don't shit me, man." At this point the invisible Lindsay reached forward with his knife and sliced him on the forehead, and drew an immediate trickle of blood that followed the sweat into the blindfold. Sonny recoiled and screamed.

                    "They cut me again, Irving, on my head! Oh God, man, you got to do it, or I'm dead! Irving?" Piper hung up the phone.
                    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Chapter 10

                      Irving Leppert went directly to Dickie's house and reached it before Dickie returned. He turned down Marty's invitation to come inside and have a beer; instead waiting outside on the patio, next to the driveway. He paced back and forth in the shaded area, but his wait was less than five minutes.

                      "Hey, man, you don't look so good," said Dickie as he was getting out of his car. "You got troubles?"

                      "I been talking to Sonny, Dick. Sonny's in trouble."

                      Dickie kept walking toward the house, heaving a deep sigh and lifting his eyebrows and wagging his head slowly as he went. "Sonny's in trouble, right. How did I know you were goin' to say that? Sit down. I'll be out in a minute." Irving waited in silence, pacing and smoking and flicking his ashes into a potted plant. His brother returned, carrying two beers, and Irving accepted one. "So tell me about Sonny's trouble. What's it gonna cost?"

                      "A million dollars, they tell me. But we've got until tonight to get it up." Irving threw up his hands, helplessly.

                      "That's nice. If I can't find Romeo or Blue I'm gonna have to spend this Sunday afternoon driving around robbing machines and counting quarters, and when I get a million dollars worth, I should give it to Sonny, right? Let me guess. Somebody wants to kill him."

                      "Sonny's been kidnapped, man, and they want a million dollars by tonight. It's really a million dollars."

                      "Kidnapped!? Your ass, Irving! By who, and how do you know?"

                      "A guy called me, I don't know who, at the house about twenty minutes ago. He told me the deal and then put Sonny on the line. He could hardly talk from crying. He's scared to death those guys will kill him. He said he was all tied up and bloody and blindfolded. They've been doing something to him, I don't know what. But he's convinced, I can tell you that. Then they hung up the phone without saying goodbye. I guess they'll call again, either tonight or sooner."

                      "Are you shittin' me?"

                      "No, I'm not shittin' you. I told you all I know. Somebody's got Sonny."

                      "Irving, I can't believe it. People don't really get kidnapped. I never figured anything like this. You talked to the people - what do you think?"

                      "I only talked to one of them. I don't know how many there are in the deal. He sounded like a kidnapper, I guess, and he's got Sonny believing. That's a world of ****ing money, but what can we do? Can we get a million dollars, Dickie?"

                      "We might, if I can get hold of the old man. I know we don't have it, but maybe we can borrow it, but not you and me. I'd have to find Daddy, or we've got no shot at all. But is that what we're supposed to do? What if it's a scam, and we let somebody screw us out of the money? We'd still have to pay it back, you know. I guess you're waiting on me to say what to do. Son of a bitch! We really needed this. Maybe it's a gag, Irving, you think?"

                      "How the hell do I know, man? Sonny doesn't think it's no gag. I never heard him sound like that before. Sonny's crappin' in his pants. We got to decide. Either we get busy getting up the money, or we tell this asshole to go screw himself when he calls back. And if we do that and he kills Sonny, what then?"

                      "That ****in' Sonny. He wouldn't do this, would he?"

                      "I don't think so. I'm pretty sure Sonny thinks it's on the level."

                      "On the level, right. A ****ing kidnapping on the level."

                      "You know what I mean. I hope you know where to find Daddy, cause I sure don't. And for this much money, he'll have to be the one to decide."

                      "Daddy's in Fort Wayne, and I know a couple of places to look for him. I know where he generally goes in Fort Wayne. I guess I can go inside and ring some phones and hope to get lucky. Daddy'll be some kind of pissed."

                      "Daddy'll be pissed if anything happens to Sonny. You'd never know it to hear him, but he'd take it hard. You know that."

                      "All right. I'll see if I can find Daddy, and you go and see if you can find Romeo or Blue. If you find either one, don't take no for an answer. Tell 'em they have to run the route and catch the calls today, because we've got an emergency. I already tried to call 'em, so that's no good. But don't tell 'em what's going down. Just say an emergency, okay?"

                      "What if this guy calls back and I'm not home? Shouldn't I be at the house?"

                      "He can't expect you to raise a million dollars hanging around the house. Do what I'm telling you."

                      Marty Leppert came to the door. She was in shorts and rubber flip-flops and a sleeveless jersey with very little in it. "There's a guy on the phone for you, Baby. I think it's the same one called earlier." Her message came through as a whining complaint.

                      Dickie caught Irving's eye for an instant. "Shit, Baby, you didn't tell me nobody called."

                      "When am I gonna tell you, Richard? You been with your brother ever since you got back, right?"

                      "Okay, okay. Irving, stick around 'till I talk to this guy. It might be the same one." Dickie went into the house.

                      "What's the matter with him?" asked Marty, plaintively. "Is something going wrong or something?"

                      "Yeah, Marty, you could say that, I guess. Sonny's in trouble again, and we're trying to decide what to do. We don't know much about it, yet, maybe this is a call about Sonny."

                      "Sonny this, Sonny that," whined Marty. "You guys spend half your time and all your money looking after Sonny, and he never says thank you. I could have a better house on Dickie's share of the money it takes to keep up with Sonny. Somebody's going to kill him someday. I wish they'd hurry up and do it before he bankrupts all the rest of us." Dickie returned before Irving could think of a reply.

                      "Was that him?" asked Irving.

                      "That was him," said Dickie.

                      "That was who? What's Sonny done this time? Irving told me all about it."

                      "What did Irving tell you all about?"

                      "Well, he said Sonny's in trouble again, that's all. Somebody is gonna kill Sonny. Some of that money you guys keep spending on Sonny is ours, Richard. Sonny's a big boy, in more ways than one. How about telling him he's on his own now, and he'll just have to do the best he can? I guarantee you that's what he'd tell you if the shoe was on the other foot."

                      "Marty, you and I will talk about this later, maybe Thursday, but not today. I need for you to go to your mother's for the rest of the day. Sleep over with your mother. Call me up tomorrow. I need the house and the phone today, and I need for you to go see your mother. I got enough for now. Me and Irving are going to have a busy day."

                      "It's not right, Richard. This is my house and today is Sunday, and you got no business telling me to leave. Whatever you and Irving are going to do, just do it. I don't care what you do."

                      "Marty, I ain't got the time for this shit. Get your purse and go. You know I'm not gonna hit you, but if you don't do what I need, I'm gonna put you outside the house and lock you out, and if you holler Mrs. Levy will come to her window and take pictures of you again. Now go. I'll fight with you about it in a day or two, you have my word on that. Out." He turned his back and Marty snatched up her purse and stormed out of the house, slamming the door. She got into the little yellow car, slamming that door, too. Then she turned too short backing out of the drive and went out over the curb and the car dragged bottom loudly, making Dickie flinch inside the house. In the street, she shifted gears and shoved the gas pedal to the floor, trying to spin the tires, but the compact car was not equipped for spinning the tires. The revving little engine made a high-pitched whine, much like the driver's voice, and both moved off reluctantly.

                      "What did the guy say, Dickie?"

                      "Just like you said. He wants a million dollars, or he says they'll kill Sonny. He's gonna call us here this evening, but he said this was the last time he'll call from where Sonny is at, so we can't trace any calls."

                      "Did you talk to Sonny?"

                      "Yeah, for just a minute. Sonny is coming unglued. He cried the whole time. He's the world's biggest bully, but this guy's got him up against the wall. I don't know if these people would kill him or not, but they've got him thinking they would."

                      "That's what I was telling you."

                      "Well, I've got to get on the phone. Do what I told you - somebody has to run the route, and there's already a machine down in West Windsor. Then come back here, you'll have to be the driver for this thing. This is about a bitch, ain't it? I can't help thinking what we got to do in the next two or three years to get a million dollars, and this mother****er is going to take it from us in one day. We should have been kidnappers. Work one day a goddam year, you know?"

                      "Ever since Sonny got out of high school, we've been wishing something would happen to get him out of our hair, so now it has, and we're going to bust our nuts to find enough money to get him back. Dick?"

                      "What?"

                      "What if we go through all this shit, and borrow all that money and get Sonny back home, and then these people decide to do it over again next month?"

                      "We'll worry about that next month. As far as I'm concerned, after this, Sonny's out. Out of the family, the business, all of it. Marty's right about that. He's too expensive to keep, and a pain in the ass besides. We just tell him to leave town and go someplace and get a job. He don't do anything for us. We been carrying him for years, and he's drug his feet all the way. Let him look after himself a while. He can come home on Thanksgiving every year to see the family."

                      "Right. Daddy's really going to let us run Sonny off. He's the baby. Who would you guess is behind this deal?"

                      "Lord, Irving, I don't know. If it's just for money, then it could be anybody in the world. But if it happens to be some of Sonny's enemies, that would narrow it down to about a third of the population of Binghamton. Now get out of here. I got to find Daddy."

                      "I wanta get something on the record, before this goes any further. I don't want no money borrowed against my name to pay ransom for Sonny. Let him do the best he can."

                      "Sure. I'll pass that along to Daddy. Now go and find Romeo, like I said."

                      "Never mind. Don't tell him I said that."

                      "Look, I feel about the same way, but it has to be Daddy's decision, and you and I both know what he's going to say, but I'm with you when we talk to him about Sonny."

                      "Richard, don't call daddy. Let's go in the house and have a couple beers and watch golf. When this guy calls back, just hang up on him. If they kill Sonny, we'll just be as surprised as everybody else. These guys won't tell on us."

                      "Right, and if they don't kill him they'll let him go, and then he'll come home and tell daddy. I wouldn't want to face either Sonny or daddy, man. Now go and do what I said."
                      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Chapter 11

                        Finding Daddy was no trick at all. At the first number he called, a woman answered the fourth ring.

                        "Lee, this is Dickie, and I've got to find my father. Is he there?"

                        "Dickie, why would you call here, looking for Simon? Did he tell you to call here?"

                        "No, Lee, he never did, and I wouldn't call if it wasn't important, but I've got to talk to him. I know he's in Fort Wayne and I'm taking a shot. I got a list of numbers here to call. Is he there, or not?"
                        There was a pause of maybe three seconds. "Hold on a minute, and I'll get him. I don't appreciate this."

                        "I know."

                        It was three minutes before his father came on the line. "Richard, I guess this is pretty important."

                        "Sure it is. You know I don't call you. Somebody has grabbed Sonny and they're holding him for ransom, Dad."

                        Simon kept him waiting another five seconds. "You're saying a kidnapping?"

                        "Yeah, they got him last night, I guess, or early this morning."

                        "You've checked this out, Richard?"

                        "What's to check out? I didn't go to the house, but I've talked to the guy doing the trick and I've talked to Sonny. He's right on the edge, Daddy. He's scared to death. He says they've hurt him, but I don't know how bad, and he's pretty sure they'll kill him if we don't come up with a million dollars by tonight. The guy said this whole thing would be over by midnight, one way or the other. I guess I can go by the house, but there's no way they're gonna be in there, is there?"

                        "A million dollars . . . have you called the police?"

                        "The police!? Hell no, I haven't called the police! Do you want me to?"

                        "Did the guy say not to call the police?"

                        "No, there wasn't anything said about the police. You're the first to mention it."

                        "Let me think a minute, Richard." He heard the telephone being laid down on a table, and he held for a couple of minutes with his eyes closed and then heard it being picked up again. "Richard, Sonny wouldn't do this, would he?"

                        "He might, but I don't think he has this time. Daddy, when this is over, you got to talk with me and Irving about Sonny."

                        "I know. We'll get into that later. Let's don't call the police, at least not right now. I can't believe this shit - a kidnapping! I'm more than sixty years old, and I never heard of nobody getting kidnapped before. I'm not saying it don't ever happen, but this knocks my goddam shorts off. If you had told me Sonny had kidnapped somebody, I don't guess I'd be this surprised, and they don't give us much time to think about it, do they? Look, I'm going to have to take your word for it, Richard. I can't do nothing else when I'm here in Fort Wayne, you see?"

                        "Well, that's why I called you. If you can think of anything we ought to be doing, just tell me. And besides, if we've got any chance of raising that much money today, you'll have to be the one to do it. If it was a hundred thousand, I could just open the safe and handle the whole thing in cash. But not a million. I wouldn't know how to begin. Maybe the guy in New York would help us, but you would still have to be the one to ask. Tell me what to do. I damn' sure don't know."

                        "Well, we got to do whatever it takes to get Sonny out of this. Let's get that straight right now. Jesus, I can't believe this shit! A million dollars is not all that much money today, but I don't want people to know I can raise a million if they don't have to, you know what I mean?. It's a lot more than we have, but maybe we can get it. I know we could in a couple of days, but by tonight is another story. And understand this, Dicky - we don't use the money in the safe, no matter what happens. This whole thing can be some kind of ripoff. Maybe he's not really kidnapped, or maybe they're going to kill him anyway. We have to believe that can happen, son. But I'm not going to bankrupt the operation. I don't feel like I can do that, even for something like this. That's our operating capital, and a lot of people are depending on it. I'll find the money, but not in the box. Don't even think of taking that, okay?"

                        "All right, I got that. That's why I called. I'd rather you make these decisions, you know?"

                        "Look, it's no good me trying to come home. There's no time for that. I've got to get on the phone about this money, and I'll keep in touch and let you know what you have to do to get it. I might have to get it from three or four people, but I'm not going to do it from this number. I'll go to Leo's. He's going to have to know, anyway. You got that number?"

                        "Yeah, I got it. Irving's going to be our driver. I don't guess there's anything I can be doing, is there?"

                        "I don't guess, except do whatever this guy says you should do, until Sonny gets home or we find out he's not coming. You already told Irving?"

                        "Irving heard about it before me. I think the guy rang my place first, but I was out, so he called Irving. Irving talked to the guy and to Sonny, too. He knows everything I know."

                        "One thing, son."

                        "What?"

                        "Keep your eyes and ears open. See if you can pick up on anything that will help us figure out who it might be, like maybe somebody who knows Sonny already. We'll pay the money if we have to, but I want it back, right?"

                        "Right. It figures he does know Sonny. He said Sonny was a ****ing idiot."

                        "That's not so funny right now, Richard. It could be you or Irving out there, you know?"

                        "Yeah, I guess so, but it's not me or Irving. It's Sonny. It's always Sonny. I can't believe this is happening, though. If Sonny comes home rich, I'm going to kill him myself. I'm catching a lot of hell from Marty about the money we spend looking after Sonny. I can't even tell her to shut up, because she's right. And I'll tell you another thing, too. Irving doesn't want to pay these guys."

                        "First things first. I'll talk to Irving when I get home. Now, get your brother and put him on the road to Syracuse, right now. I'm pretty sure that's where a big piece of this cash will come from - maybe all of it. I'll line up as much as I can in Syracuse. Tell him to stop halfway and call you, and then call again when he gets there. I'll be in touch before long. You can call me at Leo's if you need to, but not here, Dicky. Give me thirty minutes to get there. I still don't believe this is happening. Look, if anything breaks, you let me know right away, okay?"

                        "Yeah, I'll call you." Richard felt a tremor in his hands, and he was weak and he could feel the sweat running down his ribs under his loose shirt. "Look . . . Daddy?"

                        "What is it?"

                        "Daddy, are we all going to jail one of these days?"

                        Simon Leppert kept him waiting a few seconds. "I don't know, Richard. We'll talk about that, too, when this is over." He broke the connection.
                        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Chapter 12

                          Simon Leppert's credit was good among his business associates, and he had no doubt he could get a million dollars to buy back his youngest son. There was a man in Syracuse who administered an emergency fund that was most often tapped to pay defense attorneys and post bonds, although it was also known to be available for ransom payments or similar emergencies, and their normal policy was to provide half of the needed money. He was not certain how much of it he would have to pay back; he figured maybe two-thirds. Some of it was his money already. This was, without a doubt, the first time the fund would be called upon for this purpose.

                          He suspected, correctly, that finding the right people on a Sunday afternoon would not be easy. He spent two solid hours making calls, including one to Dickie, but Dickie had no news for him. There had been no further contact. He imagined every possible end to the day, including the worst possible scenarios that would see them pay the kidnappers a million dollars and then find that Sonny was dead, or pay the million dollars and never get Sonny back at all, in which case they would never know whether he was dead or in South America spending their money. With Sonny, it was something to keep in mind. As his oldest son had said, it was time to do something about Sonny.

                          The best result he could think of was that the kidnappers would not call again, at all, and Sonny would catch a ride home from wherever he was, and they could spend tomorrow returning the money to the lenders. It was mid-afternoon by the time he completed the arrangements for the million dollars. Half would come from the emergency fund in Syracuse, and could be picked up immediately. Another two hundred thousand was waiting from another source there, and a hundred more was to be picked up on the way back to Binghamton. The final two hundred was coming from Albany by way of another driver, and should be expected soon after Irving was back home.
                          Simon was satisfied. Everybody had come through for him, and without any mention of signed notes, or even IOU's. There had been two offers of help in setting a trap to catch the person claiming the ransom, but he declined them both, preferring to follow all his instructions until Sonny was back. But it became increasingly obvious to him that, unless somebody made a really bad error, the chances of recovering the money were practically nothing.

                          Someone would have to make a bad slip. Richard would have to find a connection, or Sonny would have to have something for them to go on. Once the payoff was made, the money was probably gone forever. There was no time to mark the money, and they certainly couldn't alert the banks to watch for it, anyway. He just had to get used to the idea of being a million dollars in debt. At least he had not had to touch his working capital. If he could keep that, he could make the million dollars. His friends in the shit business had come through for him like champions. Many times he had wondered if they would, and they had. On the other hand, were he not in the shit business, he probably wouldn't need a million dollars to ransom Sonny. Nobody kidnaps jukebox people. Simon didn't know it, but the man in Syracuse would have given him the whole million, if necessary, and wouldn't have sweated the payments, either. Down in Binghamton, the Lepperts were buying heavily and often. And whoever had Sonny knew it. That, in itself, was a lead.

                          He called Richard, again, and told him what Irving should do. Irving was standing by in Syracuse. Simon decided against flying back to Binghamton, because he would be out of touch for too long in the air, and the whole thing was scheduled to be completed in the next few hours. He would tend the phone, and stay in touch. He occupied his time with more telephoning, on a second line from Leo's place, alerting as many people as he felt he could trust and asking them if they had any idea who might be doing this. Nobody knew anything helpful, but it gave him something to do. Tying up two of Leo's phone lines on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of baseball season was a serious matter, but this was more important.

                          It was only with great difficulty that he was able to imagine that Sonny might die in this thing. He spent a lot of time worrying that Sonny would kill somebody - they all did - and he was fairly certain that Sonny already had killed a man, maybe two men. The idea of someone else killing Sonny under other circumstances was never far from his mind, but not like this. The kidnapping - and apparently they were involved in a genuine kidnapping - seemed like it must be a commercial deal, done for the money, and when the money was paid, Sonny would be released. It was something that could happen to you in the shit business, sort of like going to jail and having to raise money to get out. You tried to be careful and avoid it, but it could happen.

                          Wherever there was money there were people hanging around looking for a way to get it. Simon didn't think of himself as a man with money, and yet he had just rounded up a million dollars on a Sunday afternoon, and still had a quarter of a million in a safe at his home. Sometimes he found it hard to believe that he was one of the main narcotics distributors in that area of New York. It had crept up on him. His jukebox and coin machine business was as near legitimate as that business can be, and he had gone into it knowing that a lot of cash would pass through his hands and that not all of it would be counted. He had known who his suppliers would be and who his competitors would be, and had had a rough idea of what he would have to do to get along, and none of it had to do with narcotics. But three years after reluctantly agreeing to buy some illicit drugs from his contacts for a few of his friends, he had finally had to acknowledge that he and his sons were major dealers and were handling upwards of fifty thousand dollars a month. Today it was much more than that, yet there had never been a conscious decision made to deal drugs. Unlike most dealers, he had never acknowledged that he might go to jail, or that it was an acceptable risk. His entire family could be hauled away to a Federal penitentiary in the same paddy wagon, but only recently had they openly discussed their dealings in this line. They were no longer the Leppert family, coin machine operators. Now they were the Leppert narcotics operation, and a sizeable one. To acknowledge that was to adjust all your attitudes.

                          They were part of an organization that had no membership list, never held meetings, and had no name. They had never joined, and had never been initiated nor introduced to the officers, (although Simon and Richard knew who was at the top), but they were members in good standing. No doubt about that today. If he was in the Mafia, or the Cosa Nostra, he didn't know it. Surely it was not the Mafia - he was Jewish, wasn't he? He and his sons could quit anytime and walk away without penalty, and just be jukebox operators, and one day soon they would. At least, he assumed they could, but he didn't even know how to find out for certain. Who to ask. Sometimes in the middle of the night he would dream that the Feds were at the door, and he was inside with all his sons, and he would realize they had stayed a little too long, and then he would wake up in a sweat, gasping for breath and with pounding heart. His boys would be giving up the best years of their lives. He would probably be giving up the rest of his. When a man of sixty-three gets any serious time from a judge, he has no business wasting time on plans for the future.

                          There were several buffer zones between Simon Leppert and jail, but they weren't foolproof and he knew it. Richard and Irving were good boys, (except for being dope dealers), and that was his fault. They looked to him for all the decisions - they always had. And if the Feds showed up at the door, they would look to him then, too, and he would have nothing to give them. Today, it was a great weight on his shoulders.

                          He was the first criminal in his family. He certainly could not say he had grown up in the life. He wondered if all the men doing what he was doing were as self-conscious about it as he was. On the street, in the supermarket, he met people he knew, and he wondered if they knew about him. But how could they? Unless they were buying from him, how could they know? People didn't go around telling their friends where they bought their dope, or even that they were buying, so how could the other people know? At the same time, they must know. When he was strictly a coin-machine man, all the charity campaigns and civic clubs came to him for twenty dollar bills, and he doled out as many as he figured he needed to. Now they wanted two or three hundred - you could tell by the way they looked at him when they asked - and they usually got it. That was another kind of ransom. They knew, all right. And if the ladies in the civic clubs knew, everybody knew. The police and the sheriff and the District Attorney, they all knew. He didn't have any arrangement with them, but so far they had never made a move to even speak to him about it. He had an idea that somebody was attending to that matter for him, but he didn't know who, and couldn't have said where he got that impression. It was a spooky thought. He wondered just how big an organization he belonged to. He wondered what were the chances of going to jail. He decided they would get out, all three of them. Not immediately, but soon. Right after they got this loan paid off. Simon wished they had all gotten out a month ago, which was to say a million dollars ago.

                          Sonny was another matter. Simon was pretty certain Sonny was not his son. It was one of those facts of common knowledge that was never mentioned, and there was no point in it now. His mother was dead, as was the man who had likely been his sire. Sonny belonged in jail, and would have been there long ago, except for the efforts and money dedicated by his brothers and his father to keeping him out. He was a liability in many ways, and Simon owed it to the other two to deal with him, and he would. There was not much chance that Sonny would ever work. Even when the rest of the family cleaned up their act, Sonny would probably still be a dope dealer, or something similar, for somebody else.

                          Simon even wondered if the right thing for him to do, today, was to tell the kidnappers to go to hell. That thought returned to him a number of times during the afternoon, as he made arrangements to borrow a million dollars. Sonny Leppert was pretty much worthless, except for being his son, and he probably wasn't even that. But Simon kept borrowing, knowing as he did so that he was probably the only person in the world willing to pay even a lousy dollar to save Sonny's life.
                          If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Chapter 13

                            Richard Leppert really had very little to do. Simon called him several times from Fort Wayne, and Irving called a couple of times from Syracuse, and he relayed the messages back and forth between them. His father seemed to have secured a million dollars for the ransom with little more effort than he himself would have needed to get ten thousand. He was impressed. His brother had located Romeo, and that had been easy, too. Romeo was running the route and catching calls. It made little difference to Romeo that it was Sunday afternoon - as long as you paid him, he would work. Richard didn't know what Romeo did with his free time, and wasn't sure he wanted to know, but Sunday was about the same as Wednesday to him. He was good help, and he was their collector as well. Just mention the name and the amount, and he usually got it for you. In this business, you had to have somebody like Romeo on your payroll. People stole from their employers or their wives to raise the money to pay Romeo.. They sold their cars and their boats and their golf clubs and musical instruments. A couple had sold airplanes. Romeo was the man Lindsay aspired to be.

                            By six o'clock Irving was back, carrying eight hundred thousand dollars, most of it in hundred dollar bills, and wearing a sort of dazed look. It was a lot of hundred dollar bills, and he was relieved to turn it over to his brother. An hour earlier, Richard had verified that two hundred thousand more was en route from Albany. He reported it all to Simon. At six-thirty he got bad news. The courier from Albany had driven his car under the back of an eighteen-wheeler on the Interstate, and had been taken to a hospital, probably in Cobleskill. The owner of the two hundred thousand on board called, in great distress, to tell Richard to forget about that money, at least for a day or two. He didn't know where the car had been taken, or whether the money had been found. He assumed it had been up front with the driver, rather than stashed safely in the trunk, and he at least would have some big-time explaining to do to somebody. And there was a good possibility that it would never turn up, at all. Either way, the Lepperts would have to get along without it. He called Simon with the news, and said that it looked like he would have to open the box, after all.

                            "No, you won't. I explained about that before. You don't touch that money, even for your brother. Without working capital, paying back this money will be ten times as hard. When the guy calls you, tell him we did pretty damn good on short notice, and that he'll have to settle for the eight hundred. Don't worry, he'll go for that. I'm tempted as hell to tell him we could only get five hundred, or maybe four hundred, but we can't do that. We got to do all we can for Sonny today. This gonif can't be too goddam comfortable in his spot, either. He wants to see it finished. Stand your ground. Tell him what happened. Tell him it's not our fault."

                            "Look, what about the money from Albany?"

                            "What about it? It's gone. We've got to get along without it."

                            "That's not what I mean. If the guy doesn't get it back, do we owe it to him, or not?"

                            There was a pause of five seconds. "Goddam if I know, son. We don't have to think about it today. Tomorrow will be soon enough. Yeah, we owe it to him. I told him I was in a trap and he came through. We'll definitely pay it back. Have you heard anything from the guy?"

                            "Not a word."

                            "Well, we got to figure he'll call, but not if we keep this phone tied up. Stay off the phone. If it all goes down, do just as you're told, and keep your eyes and ears open. I want this money back, I mean it. Call me when something happens."

                            "Look, I never did anything like this before."

                            "Neither did I. It wouldn't help for me to be there. You'll do okay, son. Just keep thinking, and don't do anything dumb."

                            "Yeah, we'll be okay." He hung up the phone and it rang immediately, and he snatched his hand away from it, as if it were hot. He looked at Irving. Irving was tight-lipped, frowning at the instrument. He motioned for Richard to pick it up, and it rang again. Richard wiped both palms on his pants and answered. "Hello."

                            "What the hell is going on?" It was Marty.

                            Richard closed his eyes and exhaled the breath he had been holding. "Goddam it, Baby, I said I'd tell you about this later. We're waiting for an important call on this phone, and I don't want it to be busy when the guy calls. Stay where you're at till you hear from me. Don't be a goddam problem. I got enough."

                            "Is Sonny all right, or not?"

                            "I don't know. I'm expecting to find out pretty soon, but not if you're gonna keep the goddam phone tied up. Why can't you just do what I tell you for once?"

                            "Dickie, we've got to talk about Sonny."

                            "Right. You're next in line, after this guy that's probably trying to call me right now. If he can't get through, we might not have to talk about Sonny any more, and then you can explain to Daddy why the phone was busy all night. Goodbye."

                            "You're jumpy as shit, Dickie," said his brother.

                            "Yeah, I am. Kidnappings always get me jumpy, you know that."

                            "You want me to handle the money - make the delivery - when the guy calls?"

                            "Whatever he tells us to do, little brother. He may have one of us picked out. He seems to know a lot about us. He knew we could raise a million dollars today."

                            "He was one up on me. I damn sure didn't know we could. Who do you think it is, anyway?"

                            "How should I know? Daddy says for us to try to find out who it is. Get a clue. He forgot to tell me how to do it, but he said he wants to get this money back."

                            "Dickie."

                            "Don't say it, man."

                            "Dickie, if we didn't pay it, we wouldn't have to get it back. If it was you out there, and Sonny here, do you think he'd do this for you? Would he go in hock a million bucks to save your ass? Do you really think he would?"

                            "It doesn't matter if he would or not. We're not trying to be like Sonny."

                            "Do you know what Sonny'd do? When the guy called, he'd tell him to go screw himself, 'cause he wasn't getting any money. Then he'd tell the guy it was his move again, and the guy would have to either kill you or call it off and go get a job, you know? Most guys would let you go, wouldn't they? Why kill you?"

                            "I don't care. This is what Daddy wants to do, and you and I are going to do it. Like he told me, we can get the money back in a year or so, but we can't risk our brother's life. We don't know what this guy might do to him, money or no money."

                            "Sonny's not our brother."

                            "He better be our brother - he's cost us enough goddam money in the last five years, or whatever it is."

                            "You know he's not our brother."

                            "He's at least our half-brother, and if Daddy says he's in the family, then he's in. Daddy promised me we'd talk about it when this is over, 'cause I asked him. I'm running out of things to tell Marty. Get us some beers. Who knows when this guy is going to call. I'm not jumpy any more. I'll be looking for a way to catch him, and get it all back. We might even get to kill him. I'd do it in a heartbeat, for a million dollars."

                            "Eight hundred thousand dollars, Dickie."

                            "Right, I forgot about that. I'd kill him in a heartbeat for eight hundred thousand dollars."
                            "What do you think Romeo would charge us to kill this guy?"

                            "Fifteen dollars an hour, same as for counting quarters, or fixing a machine. Romeo wouldn't care."

                            "Sonny would kill him a lot cheaper than that."

                            "I don't know. This might make a big change in Sonny, Irving. They've broken him down. He's cried to you and me both. That's got to do something to him. It'll make him better or worse. Or maybe he had good reason to be afraid. Maybe they'll kill him, after all."

                            "You think we'll ever see this guy? These guys?"

                            "No, I don't. Once they get this money, all they have to do is drive away and keep driving. They know what to do. They've done their homework pretty good - they know us and they know Binghamton and so far, it looks to me like they know a little about kidnapping, so most likely they'll get that part right, too."

                            "I keep thinking it's somebody we know, or at least somebody that knows us. They didn't pick us out of the phone book to do this number on. They had to know we could get the money."

                            "Maybe you're right, but I don't think so. I don't think you do a snatch in your own town. For one thing, you couldn't spend the money. I think you get in your car and drive six hundred miles and put up in a motel thirty miles from a big town and then drive over every day and keep your eyes and ears open, and in ten days you know who to grab. Man, that's really bugging me right now - just think about it a minute. I know damn' well I could go to Cleveland or Milwaukee or just about anywhere, and find out who is selling the H and the crank and the weed there inside of a week. You could, too. Not the little guy on the corner, either. I mean the local operator. I keep thinking that maybe these guys came to Binghamton and asked somebody who's dealing here and they told him the Lepperts. We think we're real careful. We think everybody believes we're in the coin machine business, but we're only kidding ourselves. Any asshole who wants to know can find out what we're up to. You don't have to be Charlie Chan, you follow me?

                            You know what we're doing here, Irving? I'll tell you. We're waiting to get busted and all go to jail. If it don't happen today, it'll be tomorrow, but it's got to happen. We're all telling ourselves 'just a little longer and I'll get out', but one day they'll come around and we'll discover we should have got out yesterday, and we'll feel pretty stupid. I feel pretty stupid right this minute, with all this shit. Anyway, that's all they have to do. Find out who's the dealer in town and then you know who to kidnap, 'cause that's who has cash and won't call the police."

                            "I didn't say it was somebody from here. I just said somebody who knows us."

                            "Well, it's something to think about. I wish the guy would call."

                            They had expected the call would come at six o'clock, and then at seven, but Piper kept them waiting until almost seven-thirty. He didn't waste time, once the connection was made. "We're ready. How about you?"

                            "Yeah, we're ready. We figured you'd call earlier. I want to speak to my brother again."

                            "You can't. He's not where I am. Have you got the money?"

                            "We've got eight hundred thousand."

                            "Eight hundred wasn't the deal, man. It was a million." Richard noted the New York accent in Piper's voice.

                            "There wasn't any ****ing deal. You said a million dollars, and we tried to get it and I think we did pretty goddam good. We had the rest of it lined up, but the delivery guy had a wreck on his way here. We just found out about it. You want this eight hundred, or you rather try to sell my brother on the open market? I never figured we could come up with this much. Don't be greedy. You were probably hoping for three."

                            "Don't wise off to me, man, we've got this ****ing idiot tied to a chair. I believe we'll go for the eight, 'cause we don't want this thing to drag on overnight. Maybe we'll give you back everything but his balls for eight hundred thousand. You think he's got two hundred thousand dollars worth of balls? I don't think he has. On second thought, make up the difference in cocaine, and you can have him."

                            "Cocaine? Where the hell am I supposed to get cocaine?"

                            "Don't shit me, I'm getting tired of your shit," said Piper. "Get the cocaine wherever you always get it, I don't care. Just don't try to tell me you can't get it. We know better than that. You didn't get all this money selling music and rubbers. Now, listen to me. I want the money and the cocaine done up in a tight package, as small as possible, and taped up real good. Use a garment bag or a piece of tarp, or a blanket. Am I talking to Richard?"

                            "Yeah, I'm Richard."

                            "Okay, Richard, go and get your wife's little yellow car, that's the one you'll use tonight, and you'll be our driver. Do it now, and don't **** around. I'll call back in a little while and tell you what to do. It won't be long."

                            "I want to talk to Sonny. If you can't put him on the phone, there won't be any money."

                            "Quit worrying. Your brother is okay and you'll have to take my word for it. But he's not here. I'm calling from a different place than before. If you do what I say, you'll get him back in one piece and alive. I'll be glad to be rid of this ****ing idiot.

                            "That's not good enough."

                            "Yes, it is. Now get busy." Piper hung up the phone and immediately called Villarubbia to tell him how the contact had gone. Villarubbia was greatly relieved to hear that his plan was still functioning, although he didn't say so to Piper. It was nearly beyond the limits of his imagination that someone was about to give them so much money. If Piper had told him that the Lepperts had offered three hundred thousand dollars, he would have just as quickly accepted that amount. Richard had been dead right about that. So far, the kidnapping had not directly involved him. He had been the planner and director. He had not been to the house where Lindsay was keeping Sonny a prisoner - had not seen Sonny at all. The temptation to visit his captive, to do something painful and degrading to him, was strong, but he resisted. There was not much point in it, since he couldn't let Sonny know who was attacking him. One day in the future, he would enlighten him. That thought would have to do, for now. It was almost over, and now it was time for him to play his part, to join the action. He told himself to be cool and take control, but at the same time there was a tightness in his throat, and it made his voice shrill and his breathing shallow. He had harpooned the vein in his arm earlier in the day, but that was just about all gone now. He was feeling the need for another bite of the heroin, but he had promised himself he would do this thing straight. In an hour or two he might think about it. Everything was fine. His plan did not allow any opportunity for the enemy to lay a trap for them. It was all but done.

                            "That's fine," he said to Piper. "It's more than we figured, anyway, but it had to be a quick deal. I didn't want to give them time for Simon to get back to town. Now, you got your map?"

                            "It's right here. Any changes?"

                            "Yeah, I got one change. We're going to forget the Number One pay phone, and start him at Number Two. It looks like the first place has got a work crew inside, and I don't want this guy to get a chance to talk to anybody once this thing gets started. You got that?"

                            "Okay, the gas station is out. I'll send him to JJ's Market, and they closed at six o'clock, right?"

                            "Right. I won't have as good a spot to watch him from, but I'll use the glasses. If he leaves there without making any calls, and if there isn't anybody trailing him, I'll let you know. Send him along to Number Four on the map - I got to have time enough to get a good head start. Give him fifteen minutes and call him at Number Four, and if it looks right, call me right away at the number I gave you and let me know he's on his way. I'll be four or five miles ahead of him by then, and I'll be on the road and he'll be still in the middle of town. It's all in line. Don't forget what to say to him each time. You got anything else?"

                            "I'm ready to go. It sounds good to me, but I promised Lindsay that I'd remind you about the money, again. Lindsay's paranoid. He's still not sure he's going to get his share. He thinks you might **** him out of it, I guess, but goddam, he knows where to find you, you know?"

                            "Once you two take Sonny to the spot where you're goin' to put him out, you've got to keep on going back to New York. I've got a good spot for the money, and we can't sit around counting it and splitting it up tonight. I'm going to stash it and then go straight home, and I'll pick it up on Wednesday and bring it to you. That's the plan, and he's agreed to it. Tell Lindsay not to worry, I'll do right by him."

                            "I'll tell him, but he said to tell you that if you bug out with the money he'll come back and burn out every Villarubbia in this town. Don't get sore. I had to promise to tell you."

                            "I should never have called him. He's a wild man."

                            "Well, you wanted a wild man to deal with Sonny, and he's done what we needed. He broke him down in the first hour."

                            "That figures. Sonny's a piece of shit. And Lindsay's a wild man, and I'll be glad to be rid of both of them. Anyway, give them ten more minutes, and start this game. I'll call you in twenty-five minutes, right?"

                            "Right."
                            If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Chapter 14

                              Eight hundred thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills is not as bulky a bundle as you might think, if you ever think of it at all. We're talking about one hundred sixty packs of fifty bills each. A big suitcase will hold it easily. You wouldn't want to have to carry it very far, unless it was your own money. That would make it a little lighter. Sonny Leppert's ransom money was a bit bulkier and heavier. It was nearly all in hundred dollar bills, but not quite. There were some packs of fifties and even a few thousand in twenties, and they ran up the total volume in a hurry. On top of that, Richard had included a flat plastic package of cocaine, as instructed by Piper. It wasn't nearly two hundred thousand dollars worth, but it wasn't something they kept in the kitchen cabinet, either. It was the best he could do on short notice, and one would have to know the purity of it to know the value, anyway.

                              By the time Piper's next call came, the whole thing was done up in a zippered traveling bag for carrying hanging clothes, and the slack at the top had been folded over, the bag was doubled in the middle and he had bound it into a sort of bale with light rope. It was awkward, but manageable. The first time he picked it up it collapsed. The bale disappeared and it looked more like a bedroll, and he had to untie the ropes and take up the slack and tie it again. Marty's little yellow economy car was in the driveway, and Dicky was pacing the floor and smoking. He picked up the phone on the first ring.

                              "Richard, is that you?" asked Piper.

                              "It's me. I want to talk to my brother before this goes any farther. We're not paying for any dead bodies."

                              "Okay. We decided that was reasonable, but we were never going to kill him, anyway, as long as you did what we wanted. Who wants to go to jail for killing a ****ing idiot like Sonny? Here he is. Be quick." Piper had returned to the house where Lindsay and Sonny waited. He was certain that a brief local call couldn't be traced, even if they were trying, and it made no sense to let this thing fall apart because Richard Leppert wanted to hear Sonny's voice one more time. Lindsay had the prisoner primed and waiting. There were big red handprints on both sides of his face and a fresh knife cut across his chin and fresh tears running down his cheeks. When the phone was pressed to his ear, he performed well, and the phone was removed again after just a few words and a couple of sobs. Richard was impressed.

                              "Back to business," said Piper. "Have you got the package and the little car ready?"

                              "Everything's ready. Why the little car?"

                              "It's easy to watch and it doesn't have any power and it doesn't have a telephone. We're trying to keep you from making a serious mistake along the way. Sonny is hoping you'll do just as you're told, and not be tempted to improvise."

                              "Don't worry about that. What do I have to do?"

                              "Put the ransom money on the front seat, on the passenger side, and go to JJ's Market. I'm going to call you on the pay phone that's hanging on the wall on the side. I already know how long it ought to take you to get there. If you're late I'll most likely begin to wonder what you're doing. No other people, no other cars, no surprises. Just you. Start now." Piper rang off.

                              "What did he say?" asked Irving.

                              "I got to go to JJ's Market with the money," said Dickie. "He's going to call me on the pay phone there. After that, who knows? He'll send me someplace else, sure as hell. They'll be looking at me. I'm glad we didn't decide to try anything."

                              "I sure hate to part with that money, Dickie."

                              "Don't think about it now. You could get me and Sonny both killed. He's clocking me. I got to go."

                              "Call me first chance you get. I'll be right here by the phone."

                              "I will. Why does that son of a bitch keep calling Sonny a ****ing idiot? Who does that remind me of?" Richard left the house, staggering under the loaded garment bag and frowning. It was almost twenty past eight. Piper's call came through on schedule at JJ's, and Dicky verified that he was alone and carrying the bundle of money. Just as he suspected, he was directed to another pay station, this time farther into the center of town. When he had hung up, he looked around furtively, hoping for a glimpse of whoever was watching him. There was nothing but the empty parking lot, and nobody in sight. He wondered if they were really watching him, after all. His mouth was dry, and he thought of calling Irving before leaving, but could not bring himself to disobey his instructions. He returned to the little yellow car.

                              Three minutes later, Villarubbia reported to Piper that all was well, and that he was headed to the drop site. His voice was so squeaky Piper almost didn't recognize it.

                              "Hang on, man. It's just about done." Piper was beginning to worry about John.

                              "Relax," squeaked Villarubbia. "We've thought of everything. Next time you hear from me, I'll have the money, and you guys can dump Sonny and haul ass out of town. I'll see you on Wednesday."

                              "Right." Piper hung up and checked his watch. In six minutes he would call Richard Leppert for the last time. He walked to the other end of the house. Sonny was a bloody sight. The cuts on his forehead and chin were not serious wounds, but nobody had wiped away the blood, and it was drying in black streaks on his face and neck. The slash on his chest was a bit worse, and the front of his shirt was caked with blood. Piper had not known that Lindsay would be so vicious, with his man bound up. He hoped he would never be held accountable for all this. They had given Sonny a sandwich and some water in the middle of the afternoon, and had untied one hand for him to eat with. It had taken ten minutes for him to regain enough feeling in the hand to use it, and now it was trussed up again, and looking red and puffy. While he had a free hand they had let him go to the bathroom, but Lindsay had gone with him. Both captors had stood by alertly, in case he had tried to rip away the blindfold, but Sonny was not feeling so brave. Lindsay had grown tired of studying him, and was now just waiting for time to go home. Piper lit a cigarette and checked his watch again. He went to the refrigerator and got a slice of ham and a slice of cheese and rolled them up together and ate it between drags on the smoke. When he had finished, he returned to the telephone.

                              "Richard, you're doing just fine," Piper said when the pay phone was picked up on the first ring. "Anything you need to tell me, before we finish this up?"

                              "Just tell me where to take this goddam money, man. You may be having a good time today, but the rest of us are dying. We're in debt a million dollars, and we're all going to be poor as hell for a long time. Besides that, I don't know why you had to do whatever it is you've been doing to my brother. All you had to do was call up and tell us the deal."

                              "Well, one of our guys got a little carried away with his job, but your brother's okay. Everything we've done to him will get well in a week. Now. This is your last stop, Richard. You need to get on the old road to Kirkwood, and do it right away. It's not a good road, but it's passable and it's quiet. Make the whole trip to Kirkwood. Along the way, keep your eyes open for our signal. It'll be on your right. Watch for a stick stuck in the ground on the shoulder of the road, with a white rag tied on it. Make sure there's no other traffic to see you. Pass the stick and then go back to it, if you have to. Pull over on the shoulder and stop with your left wheels just on the road, right at that stick. Don't get out. Open the passenger door and give the bundle of money a good shove - I want it to clear the shoulder of the road and make it to the ditch. Then close the door and drive on to Kirkwood. Drive about forty. Turn around in the Exxon station and head back to town on the other road. When we get the word that you showed up in Kirkwood, we'll let Sonny go and he can start walking home. That's all there is to it. Don't get nosey about what's in the ditch 'cause it could be you, and don't make any errors now. Tomorrow's another day." Piper hung up without waiting for an answer.

                              He and Lindsay began moving around the house, gathering up the traces of their stay. When the owner returned, he was sure to know there had been visitors, but they didn't want him to know any more than that. They wet a hand towel and cleaned Sonny up a bit, but said nothing to him. Piper walked around behind the chair and put handcuffs on him and then cut the ropes from his hands and arms, and dropped them in the plastic bag with the garbage. It had been dark in the house since sundown. They had used small flashlights, but had not turned on any of the house lights. Both men lit cigarettes and waited by the phone. Sonny Leppert stirred a bit, moving his numb hands around in the cuffs, but he wasn't talking. After a whole day in that godawful chair, he had learned not to speak until he was spoken to. He thought of home. His spirits rose a fraction. He regarded the handcuffs as a good indication. They would let him go instead of killing him, unless his brothers tried some funny business like setting a trap to catch his captors. Surely they wouldn't risk his life that way. He wondered if the cuts on his face would leave scars, and how he would look. He wondered if Romeo would laugh at him.

                              Piper and Lindsay thought about money and New York. It would be good to get back. Neither of them was accustomed to having all that grass right outside the window. Binghamton was really way the **** out in East Jesus. If a man lived around here, he wouldn't have any choice but to have a car, but if he had one, he could at least find a parking place for it. A lawnmower, too. In New York you didn't need a car. Indeed, neither of them had one, and both were lousy drivers, but that was for the best, anyway. In New York, if you had a car you had to pay somebody a bundle for a parking space, and then people came around and ripped off the accessories. The timid ones came at night, but lots of them did it in the daytime. If you told a cop somebody had klepped the CD player and the speakers out of your car, he would pretend to write a note about it, which he put in his pocket and then threw away after you were out of sight. Their stolen car would be left in a good spot a long way from the neighborhoods where either of them lived, and they would catch the subway home. Assuming they didn't run into a ditch or something first. They would separate until Wednesday, when they would meet in a bar to await Villarubbia's call for the meeting, and after the split each of them intended to kiss the other goodbye for good. They had little in common, even for thieves.

                              When the phone rang, Lindsay was the closest to it, but he waited for Piper to answer. Sonny Leppert still had not heard his voice, and it was better that way.
                              If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

                              Comment

                              Working...
                              X