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  • #16
    Chapter 16

    Big and Little returned on the second day, as promised. "Well, Jack Ross the sign maker, we're back. What's the word, have we got a deal?"

    "No deal, Ms. Fothergill. That was just day before yesterday, and my friend in the business advised that the place would bring more than you offered. But thanks for your interest, anyway." In truth, Ross had made no decision prior to their appearance, but the refusal had been automatic in the presence of the pugnacious Big. He didn't like her.

    "So, what's your price?"

    Haven't got one yet. You said all you wanted was a yes or no, and you've got it. No dickering, you said."

    "We won't dicker, but tell me what you'll take for it, and we'll think about it. And I don't really like doing business with people like you, anyway."

    "I know the feeling. For another fifteen thousand you can buy it."

    Big left the office and strolled into the shop area. Little stayed behind and seemed to be trying to look even smaller than she was. Jack looked at her and realized she was really a beautiful girl, but not at ease with him.

    "Your friend is an obnoxious broad, and I don't even know your names."

    "I'm Jenny and her name is Jaynie. She's really a nice person if you get to know her."

    "Sure, maybe that's it. And she's good to you."

    "Oh, yes! I'm getting a green VW convertible!" Suddenly, Jenny could be fifteen years old.

    Big was back, and she stood looking out the window, and she heaved a big sigh. "Your friend is full of shit and you're an idiot."

    "Your partner is a minor and you're a muff-diver." Jenny was horrified and Jaynie fumed audibly. "Are you in or out?"

    "Jenny likes the place. But your price for this dump is a ripoff."

    "Are you in or out? Don't do me any favors."

    So, on the following Monday they met at the bank and Jack sold the Zodiac Sign Shop building for the ripoff price, to the surprise of both Jack and the banker. Ms. Fothergill signed on the dotted line and agreed to wait seventy-two hours to take possession. She declined to smile at either of them. Jenny attended, but took no part in the transaction. Jack wondered if Fothergill ever went anywhere without her.

    By Thursday his little business was history, leaving him without visible means of support, but with considerably more money than he had ever had when he was painting. He thought he should feel something more, but it wasn't there. He had packed his tool kit and taken his files and the computer. When he showed up at half past nine, Big and Little were again waiting for him, under his pecan tree. They filed into the building and spent three minutes touring the work area aimlessly. Opening the cupboard door under the sink, Big pulled out a paper bag she found there.

    "What's the cat food for, Ross?"

    "It's for the cat, Jaynie."

    Jenny suppressed a girlish giggle. "You have a cat? What's her name?" Jenny was showing a spark, here on the last day.

    "His name is Shop Cat. He's not mine and he doesn't live here, but he comes in once in a while when I leave the back door open, and I feed him. This is just a stop on his route." Jack went and opened the back door, and Shop Cat ambled inside, as if on cue.

    Big made a face. "Gawd, he's an ugly beast."

    Jenny was following the cat toward the office. "Can I pet him?"

    "I doubt it. He's a pretty independent cat. I guess you could try."

    "Does he have fleas?"

    "Probably." He found himself hoping Jenny and the cat would find a connection of some kind and that Fothergill would be infested by fleas. "Don't lock him inside when you leave. He wouldn't like that." He took a last look around and give Big the keys to the building and left.

    Just like that, it was over. He cranked the truck and headed for McDonald's to get some hotcakes and sausage. He wasn't used to getting up so early.
    Last edited by vapros; 04-05-2018, 10:47 AM.
    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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    • #17
      Chapter 17

      *** Watching Stephen King interviews today, and I am reminded how long my story here has been neglected. That's not good, and beginning right now I will get Jack Ross started on his return to Wheeling.

      I don't read Stephen King, but he is a funny guy and he does great interviews and lots of them. Everybody wants him on their show and I want to watch, so I'm a fan. Here is my favorite Stephen King story, and I hope I have not told it on this site before:

      When he was a young school teacher and just married he and his wife lived with her parents, having a couple of kids and no money. He recalls overhearing his father-in-law say one day, "I know I'm going to have to support that four-eyed son of a bitch for the rest of my life!" King says he remembers that every time he buys the guy a car.

      - - - - -

      When Ross was finished with his breakfast, he resisted going home. He should have been headed for the shop; it didn’t feel right not to go, so he circled around and went by his former building. Big and Little, Jaynie and Jenny, were outside looking at the big sign on the wall. Lettering on cinder block is a pain in the ass, no matter how many coats of paint have been applied, and he had many hours of labor in the design and rendering of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, arranged in the correct order in a circle. Some of his best work, without a doubt, and a sort of landmark in the neighborhood. And also without a doubt, the new owner would paint it out before many days passed. He told himself he didn’t care.

      With nothing better to do, he drove past Gus Mendoza’s house. There were no cars under the carport, and a couple of daily papers, still in their bags, rested on the little front porch. The place looked empty, he thought. Maybe not abandoned, but empty. He didn’t know whether Gloria had a job, and it seemed likely that she had gone off to be with her husband, wherever that might be. Jack drove into the park and parked on the grass under an oak tree and called the BRPD, only to find that Detective Haydel wasn’t in the building. He didn’t leave his number – surely they would have let him know if Mendoza had been found.

      So he went home to the garage apartment with the outside stairs, and climbed right up without pausing, now that he was getting stronger. Not that much stronger really, and he had to sit down on the landing with his feet on the top step, gasping for breath. Starting tomorrow he would begin doing something about that, or the day after for sure. Inside, he sat on the stool at his breakfast bar and attacked the paper work from the file cabinet, getting it ready for the bookkeeper who would deal with it one more time. Having no payroll beyond Jack Ross and Shop Cat, end of the month was always a breeze. The Zodiac Sign Shop would not require much buttoning-up, but he recalled that he had nearly four thousand dollars in accounts receivable, and it gave him an excuse to get back on the street to see how much of it he could collect, so he went back down the stairs.

      At day’s end he had picked up twenty-two hundred dollars and had a promising promise for another seven hundred after the weekend. Not bad at all, and he told himself that he could blow off the rest if need be – he had money in his pocket, didn’t he? Being this solvent would take some getting used to, and he vowed to pursue the remaining dollars; nearly enough to finance his coming travels, to be sure. Instead of climbing the stairs when he left the truck he took a walk. Once around the block would be a good-faith beginning for his recovery, but he had to stop twice to sit on the curb and rest. He was still a long way short of fit. He saw a Subaru sedan pass in the traffic, and then another one going the other way. He could not be sure of the colors, here in the daylight, and Gloria’s ride was newer anyway. Not to worry.

      Mendoza was much too much in his thoughts, and the following day he phoned the St. Louis PD, and was routed to the detective named Marcello when he identified himself. “I’m calling for news in the Miriam Moscowitz murder case, detective. Has Gus Mendoza been picked up yet?”

      “Nothing on that, Mr. Ross. He’s still a fugitive, and somebody will come across him one of these days and contact us, and I will be sure to let you know. We’ll look for him until we find him, and I stay in touch with the police in Baton Rouge. I think that’s the most likely place, as he will be the most comfortable there. He knows his way around. After hearing from you, we have established that he was in this area at the right time. We know where he spent two nights and where he bought gasoline.

      Our other guy, Ortega or Velez, is still a person of interest, but he seems to be gone, also. At least he had a relationship with the victim and he’s acting just as guilty as your man, so we have requested the Louisville police to find him for us.

      That reminds me, I want you to get me a notarized statement with all your information laid out for me. Do it today, if you can. I need to know exactly what Mendoza told you about the crime, and anything else I can use. And you need to watch your back, Mr. Ross. Even if we find him today, there’s no evidence at all from the crime scene. Your testimony is all there is, and you can bet he has figured that out. You told me he shot you right after, well, he was on the right track. His best bet is to shoot you again. That’s what I would do in his shoes.”

      Ross frowned and stood staring out of his second-story kitchen window. He wondered where Gus might be today.
      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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      • #18
        Chapter 18

        The conversation with the St. Louis detective didn’t do anything to improve his mood. The guy figured that the best bet for Gus Mendoza was to remain in the Baton Rouge area, since he knew his way around in the town, and because he still needed to kill Ross. He had pointed out that Ross’ testimony was the only thing that could help him make the case for the murder of Miriam Moscowitz. It did not seem like a good sign that Det. Marcello considered his statement urgent. Why urgent? In case Jack couldn’t make it in person?

        He sat at the keyboard and began to write. Just how much to include required a bit of planning and he developed an account of the business in Wheeling, telling Marcello what he figured he needed to know, and without giving up the full story of his relationship with Miriam. If he was pressured for more detail, sometime in the future, he would give up a bit more. None of it would matter if they never caught Mendoza. He told himself that this was not the biggest item on the police blotter in Missouri, anyway. It figured to be little more to them than the unsolved shooting case on the desk of the detective named Mazzone in West Virginia.

        He wrote that he had met Ms. Moscowitz only recently, but that they had planned a trip to western Pennsylvania for a private enterprise that required the cooperation of both parties. When he had foolishly told Mendoza, his mailman, what was developing, Gus M. decided to take a hand in the venture, and had apparently gone to St. Louis to find Moscowitz. She had refused him what he wanted and he had forced it from her with violence, ending her life in the process. Catching up with Ross he had lied about being Moscowitz’ representative, finally confessing that she would not be answering Jack’s telephone calls.

        As he told the story he tried to recall Mendoza’s exact words and suddenly realized that the confession had only been implied rather than explicit. Let Marcello figure it out, and he reported it honestly. He went on to say that the plan had broken down and was no more than a dry run, and that Mendoza had tried to kill him on the way to Pennsylvania to keep Ross from telling on him. Satisfied that he had given Marcello all he needed, he printed up the one-page statement and took it to his bank and signed it in the presence of a notary, paying a small fee for the imprint he needed. He printed three copies and put the original in the mail to the St. Louis PD, attn: Detective Marcello. He wished he could phone Gus and let him know that it was too late to shoot him again.

        The rest of the day was spent in the house, doing a lot of things that didn’t really need doing – not today, anyway. He did all his laundry, stripping bare and washing even the clothes he was wearing. He washed the bedding, which had been done just the day before yesterday. One never knew. Maybe Sandra would want to come to visit, and she was picky about such things. He made a list of the things he would need to take with him on the road back to Wheeling, and another list of the things he would need to attend to before he left. The truck needed an alignment and an oil change and maybe even a good waxing, but he crossed that off when he realized that the more ordinary it looked the less it would be recalled. One doesn’t wax a work truck. It was what the school teachers call busy work; more like something to do. His trip was probably a month away and would happen when he was stronger, when he had a few weeks of walking and general rehab. Couldn’t hurry that.

        He had guns in the closet just inside the door at the landing and he took them all out and did a general inspection and maintenance and fresh oil. There was a twenty-gauge shotgun which he loaded with number five shells, this being the heaviest shot he had on hand. He stood it just inside the door. A little flat .22 auto was still in the box. He had bought it for Sandra and she had refused to take it. That could stay in the closet for now. He also had a long-barreled .22 target pistol – accurate, but had no hitting power. The .38 he had kept in the sign shop – the one he had used to kill Sonny Boy Leppert – had been cleaned recently. He deemed it immune to any possible ballistic exam, because the slug had passed through Sonny and he had picked if off the floor and tossed into the garbage can. Sonny’s own revolver was there too, and needed to be thrown away since he had no way of knowing what its history might be.

        Ross figured he had about an average number of guns in his possession, certainly no assault rifles or such as that. Everybody with any sense kept some guns, and especially now that he had Gus Mendoza to think about. That was certainly not paranoia – Gus was a threat to his life and he vowed never to leave the house without something comforting in his pocket until Gus was caught. Tomorrow he would call Detective Haydel for license tag numbers for Gloria’s and Gus’ cars, so he could watch for them. He felt certain he would be more diligent than would Haydel and his side-kick, Farmer.

        It was full dark when he got a cold beer and took it outside and sat down on the landing. Baton Rouge in the summer is almost as hot at night as in the daytime. The ululating sound of the cicadas was nearly deafening, as they sang oo-ee-oo-ee without pause in the semi-rural neighborhood around his garage apartment. Halfway through the beer, their buzzing throttled down and stopped. The sudden silence seemed just as loud.
        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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        • #19
          Chapter 19

          Ross froze with the beer halfway to his mouth and frowned. The sound of the cicadas was suddenly conspicuous by its absence. How much of an interruption was required to make them quit? Perhaps something like a fat Mexican prowling around, come to kill him or burn him out. Foolishly, the St. Louis Blues popped into his head. “Throw your clothes out the window and let the shack burn down!” Mendoza and St. Louis. He thought he should go down the stairs and walk around in the dark. There was a vacant lot on the other side, between his place and a patch of woods. Instead, he went inside and went to the bedroom, leaving the light out and sitting on the bed, looking out the window.

          He could see the rear end of a car parked in front of the woods, with two wheels on the grass and two on the street. No good reason for it to be there, and it had not been there an hour ago. He thought of calling 911, but what would he say – there is a Toyota parked illegally on my block? He felt like he was treed, and he didn’t like it. There was no doubt in his mind that Gus was out there in the little patch of woods, and if he was, the reckoning was on him before he was ready. But he could get ready in just a couple of minutes. At the back door he picked up the shotgun and threw the slide. At the last second, he took his .38 and stuck it in his belt. He killed the outside light and went out and down the stairs as lightly as he could, aware that the buzzing sound of the cicadas had returned.

          He went around the back of the building and along it, shotgun at the ready, trying to see into the brush and trees some seventy feet away. He was blind in the dark and realized he had on a white tee shirt, but the building was painted white, anyway. Too late to worry about that. The rear end of the car was still in sight, and he thought he saw something near it and swung the muzzle of the gun in that direction.

          The shot came from the side, though, and the impact knocked him down and took away his breath and he lost both his weapons. The wound he had taken in Wheeling came immediately to mind: the same Goddamned Mexican had hit him in the gut again and taken away his breath, and again he had nothing in his hands for protection. He scrabbled onto his knees, but couldn’t stand. There was blood on his hand, but he was beginning to get some short and painful breaths. The blow had turned him to face the shooter, and Mendoza was now in full view, fifty feet away and closing. He fired twice more, but both went wide. Jack searched the ground in front of him and found his revolver. He rocked back on his haunches, holding the gun in both hands and aimed at his man and pulled the trigger.

          The shot stung his hands and he lost the gun again, but Mendoza was down and then up. His fourth shot again was wide and then he was headed for the car in the street, dragging one leg badly behind him. Ross finally spotted the shotgun and crawled to it, just as the car was pulling away. He let off a round for no good reason. The twenty gauge sound was puny compared to a bigger gun. His right leg was numb and he couldn’t stand, but he began to crawl toward the street, dragging the shotgun as he went. He would fire it again, as soon as a car came along the street, to call attention to himself. He didn’t want to bleed to death in the night.

          The first car, though, was a police unit and they had picked him up in their spotlight while still half a block away. Someone had reported shots. The car stopped and the spotlight went out, but the gumball lights came on and two patrolmen left the vehicle and crossed the street. The one who approached Ross had a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. The second was playing his light across the trees and brush beyond the vacant lot. Jack tossed the shotgun away and remained on hands and knees.

          “Get on your feet, and put your hands up,” demanded Cop One.

          “I can’t get up, I been shot,” Ross offered his bloody hand for inspection.

          Cop One spoke into the radio on his shoulder, but kept his gun pointed at Ross. “Then stay where you are, an ambulance will be here in a minute.”

          Cop Two called, “Where’s the other guy?”

          “Drove away in a car, maybe a Toyota, maybe five minutes ago. I hit him, too.”

          “Hit him with the shotgun?”

          “No, I had a .38 but I lost it. It’s over there somewhere.” A siren could be heard in the distance, and Ross was down on his back by the time the medics arrived. He wondered how bad it was this time.
          If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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          • #20
            Chapter 20

            The ambulance climbed the low curb and rolled to within six feet of the prone body of Jack Ross. Cop number one had questions, and Jack gave him what he knew, but somehow he could not recall Mendoza’s first name, after knowing him for several years! Still a bit woozy from the impact of the bullet, he told the policeman that Detective Haydel would be interested to hear news of the encounter.

            “Son of a bitch has gut-shot me twice already this summer, and he’s wanted for murder in St. Louis and it would be good if somebody would catch him – I’m still trying to recover from the first time - this hurts like hell.”

            “You’re not gut-shot,” said the medic. “Shot in the hip, looks like. Just relax while we load you up and we’re on the way. I got a quarter-pounder with cheese getting cold in the wagon. Seems like you could have kept this gunfight going another fifteen minutes.”

            Cop number two arrived from an inspection of the street where the Toyota had been parked. “You hit him pretty good, man. I seen blood in the street. I called in and told the dispatcher to check all the hospitals – he might make it to the ER before we get there and you would have to wait your turn. Come on, Ray, I’ll ride in the back with the vic and get what I need for my report.”

            Nobody seemed to have much sympathy for Ross’ pain. The driver had both the lights and the siren in action, but he didn’t jump any traffic signals and driving with one hand he finished his hamburger before they reached the Ochsner Emergency Room. He backed expertly to the platform, and a bridge was put in place and the gurney was inside the automatic doors in less than three minutes. A triage nurse was waiting, and she supervised the lowering of Jack’s blue jeans so that she could view the nasty wound in his side.

            “Okay,” said the nurse. “Don’t stop here – take him right on to X-ray. We need to know where the bullet is.” Jack had no doubt that it must be lodged among his vital organs.

            “No X-ray needed for that,” offered cop number two. “I got the bullet right here,” and he produced a mangled and bloody slug, wrapped in a gauze sponge. “It fell out on the gurney when we jumped off the curb at the scene. I saved it.”

            The triage nurse rolled her eyes. “Okay, but we still need X-rays,” and off they went to the lab. When they returned, cop number one was coming in through the big doors.

            “Mr. Ross, didn’t you tell me you shot the guy with the revolver?”

            “Yeah, I did. His shot knocked me down and the gun went flying, and by the time I could get up on my knees, he was right on top of me and still shooting. I found my .38 on the ground and just had time for one round. Lost the gun again, and I figured it was all over for me until I saw him go down. Then he got up and ran for the car. Lucky shot, for sure.”

            “Double lucky, Mr. Ross. I been looking at your piece, and you were lucky it would fire even once for you. It couldn’t fire again – the cylinder don’t turn any more, it’s damaged pretty bad. I’m thinking that’s where you got hit, man. He hit your gun and the bullet was spent out before it struck you.”

            The ER doctor kept him waiting on the gurney for forty minutes, and when he showed up he had the pictures in his hand, and he slid them into place on the lighted cabinet and studied them intently for ninety seconds. “Not much to see, Mr. Ross. Shallow wound and possibly a very small chip in the hip bone. They tell me it was a ricochet that hit you. You will be pretty sore for a while, and you should get your primary care guy to look at the injury in a few days. If this was on the front lines they would slap a pad on it and tell you to walk it off.” The young doctor was smirking, and Jack gave him a dirty look. “We’ll keep you here until tomorrow and someone will take another peek at you before you go home. Get some rest.”

            Alone in the hospital room he stood up, with much groaning and frowning, undressed to his shorts and put on the hospital gown. A nurse came into the room and gave him a shot, and in a few minutes he was back in Wheeling, West Virginia, wrapped in the fuzzy black cocoon where he had spent several long days close to death. As he spiraled down into sleep he cursed Gus Mendoza and wondered where he was tonight. And he cursed the gaunt little apparition he had known as Piper.
            If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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            • #21
              Chapter 21

              “Wake up, Jack. It’s almost seven o’clock and I have to get to work.” He did not respond. “Come on, Jack, you’ve been asleep all night.” Ross opened one eye for one heartbeat and then closed it again. “Hey, it’s me.” He opened both eyes wide.

              “Sandra, good lord, you surprised me. I just got here a little while ago – how the hell did you know?”

              “Never mind, I’m here, but not for long, and don’t start thinking I’m going to show up every time somebody shoots you. What happened this time?”

              Jack shook his head and flinched as the movement was painful, and then blinked rapidly. “Same guy, Sandra. You remember Gus Mendoza – he got me again. I couldn’t believe it; it was like a bad dream.”

              “Where did he shoot you this time?”

              “Right outside my house. I mean he shot me in my side, but it was a ricochet, and not too serious. I’m going home this morning. It’s real good to see you again. I think of you often.”

              “Yeah, me and Mendoza, no doubt. I’m on my way to work, but I had to come by to see if you were going to be okay. What will you do about the guy who shot you? Maybe he will shoot straighter next time and I will only have to see about you once more, you know?”

              “Well, Sandra, I had my gun with me last night, and I shot him, too. Maybe they’ll catch him today. At least they know he’s in Baton Rouge and wounded.

              Look, I’m going to be hobbling around for a while – rehabbing from all this. Doing a lot of walking in the neighborhoods, getting my strength back, you know what I’m saying? Maybe, one day on a weekend, when you’re off . . .”

              Sandra was headed out of the room, and she turned back and put her finger to her lips and motioned to him to shut up. “Look both ways before you cross the streets, Jack.” and she was gone. Ross sighed and fell back onto his pillow and flinched again with the pain.

              “I’m next,” said a police officer, slipping into the room before the door could swing shut. “I waited until your lady left. They told me at the station you knew the guy who shot you last night. Is that right? I brought a picture for you to ID.” The name tag on her blue shirt said ‘Riley’. She displayed a picture, printed in color on copier paper.

              “Yeah, that’s Gus Mendoza. I’m pretty sure I hit him last night, too. Why are his eyes closed in your picture?”

              “That’s because he’s dead, Mr. Ross. You killed him.”

              “Killed him!? The last I saw of him he was running for his car, and limping. I thought I had hit him in the leg! How can he be dead from that?”

              “The guy drove to the emergency room at Lady of the Lake Hospital and parked his car in the lot. He opened the door, but he never got out. He sat there and bled out in the car. Probably didn’t take long, either, Mr. Ross. You cut the big artery in his groin, and the security guy found him because his door was open and the light was on. If you were shooting at his dick, Mr. Ross, you only missed by a couple inches. All I wanted on this trip was the ID. Prolly the DA’s office will be in touch to talk about the fatality. They will be the ones to decide what to do, you know? Charges and stuff. Take care and get well.” Officer Riley folded the picture and put it back in her uniform pocket and waved goodbye as she left the room.

              Ross blinked stupidly and stared at the ceiling, trying to recognize his new status. He had suddenly been identified as a killer, a successful gunfighter and a three-time accuser of Mendoza’s violent sins. In the absence of any witness, surely his plea of self-defense would be accepted and he would avoid prosecution and Gus’ death solved a great problem for him, also. No longer would he have to wonder where Gus was. Maybe later there would be a reaction, but there was none right now. He wondered how Sandra would feel about it when she was told. He needed to stop thinking about Sandra.

              Before Riley was gone three minutes a nurse came into the room, moving quickly as nurses do. Her name tag said Caillouet, RN. “Good morning, Mr. Ross. How do you feel today?” She pulled down the sheet that covered him.

              “I feel like I’ve been shot”

              “There’s a good reason for that, but the doctor says the wound is not deep, and you can go on home this morning. Let’s have a look.” She began to remove the dressing on his hip, and he flinched again and groaned as she touched the area with her fingertip. “Well, it looks okay to me, and I’ve seen a few, lemme tell you. You are a lucky man, Mr. Ross, but you are gonna hurt for a few days, and I will give you a packet of stuff to care for your wound at home. You will laugh when you see this big bruise on your butt. It looks sort of like a pistol.”
              If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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              • #22
                Chapter 22

                The nurse told him he could get up and get dressed – apparently they did not intend to give him breakfast – and promised to be back in five minutes, and she was.

                “Okay, Mr. Ross, everything you will need to care for the wound is here in this packet, including instructions. Keep it dry until tomorrow, and then you can take a shower, or whatever you do. Now, if you go home and take to the recliner and do nothing except watch TV you will suffer with this injury for a month. If you do as much exercise as you can stand, and then a little more, you will be much better in a week. It will be painful but it’s okay to cry. The doctor left you a prescription for a dozen oxycodone pills to ease the discomfort. If you need more, see your neighborhood pusher, we hope you will not do that. Someone will be here soon with paperwork to complete your stay.” And she was gone, replaced almost immediately by a clerk with a clipboard.

                Processing out was mostly a matter of signing his name several times. The clerk was dismayed to learn that he had no one to come and pick him up but agreed to call him a cab. And of course he rode a wheelchair as far as the portico. At the apartment he paid the driver an extra ten dollars to help him up the stairs – he had no shot to make it by himself. It was an agonizing climb and he resolved not to make it again until he felt a helluva lot better. As soon as the cabbie was gone, Jack eased into his recliner and turned on the television. The nurse’s admonition rang in his ears, so he struggled to his feet and limped around the place, groaning over the fact that he had no way to reach a pharmacy to get his pain medication. He made coffee and fixed some cereal, but had no fruit to put on it. Back in the big chair he slept soundly until ten past three o’clock, wakened only by the ringing of his phone.

                “Mr. Ross,” said a young lady’s voice, “my name is Frances Berry and I am with the office of the District Attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish. I need to schedule you to come to my office in the matter of last night’s gun battle and the fatality that occurred as a result. I would like for you to come in tomorrow morning at nine-thirty and plan to be here for at least an hour, time to be determined by the charges that may be brought.”

                “Ms Berry, I have a fresh gunshot wound that hurts like hell and getting upstairs to the apartment where I live was pretty miserable and I intend to stay up here until I feel better. How about if I call you next week?”

                “Mr. Ross I don’t think you appreciate the importance of this interview. You may be facing criminal charges. Next week does not work for me, but under the circumstances I might make a house call. A man is dead and the local media wants to know about it, and the District Attorney would not like to have to admit that nothing has been done yet. Do I make myself clear?”

                “Yes, ma’am I understand, and I will be glad to cooperate with the DA’s office. Let me give you my address – there’s a mailbox on the road with the number on it. Take Paulat Lane and turn left by the convenience store. And look, Ms Berry, as long as we are talking . . .”

                “What is it, Mr. Ross?”

                “Maybe you could pick up some sandwiches on your way. I have some beers in the ice box.”

                “Mr. Ross,” she said in a frosty voice, “I’m an Assistant District Attorney!”

                “Does that mean you’re not going to bring any sandwiches?”

                “I will be at your house in about twenty minutes.”

                It was four-fifteen before a white Chevrolet pulled into the driveway. Ross watched through the bedroom window as a tall girl left the car and looked about at the garage apartment and the tall grass around it. She wore jeans and sneakers and she was carrying an expensive-looking brief case. And a bag from Subway.
                If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                • #23
                  Chapter 23

                  Jack limped to the only door for his little apartment and opened it, waiting on the landing. Frances Berry climbed the stairs and went in. They introduced themselves and she produced a foot-long sandwich and a six-incher from the bag and laid them on the counter.

                  “The long one is yours, Mr. Ross, it’s turkey breast. Can we just sit on the stools to eat?”

                  “Sure, have a seat, and turkey is my favorite. Will you drink a beer?”

                  “No, I’m here to work, but I’ll have water or a Coke. Tell me about your gunshot wound.”

                  “It was a ricochet. Not serious but pretty painful. They told me to exercise, so I’ll move around the house a few days before I try the stairs. Remind me to give you some sandwich money before you go. I appreciate this.”

                  “I won’t let you forget.” They ate in silence and he finished the big sandwich at about the time she finished the small one. Wrappers went back into the bag, and she pushed her empty water bottle aside and opened the briefcase. “I read the police officer’s report about the gunfight, and then a Detective Haydel came around with his report of the interview he did at your shop previously, and now I need to hear your explanation of your history with Mr. Martinez.”

                  “Mendoza, Gus Mendoza. He used to be my mail man at the sign shop, and I knew him fairly well – or I thought I did. I don’t know why he decided to get involved in something that was none of his business, but as a result he killed a lady in St. Louis and told me about it, and he has shot me on two occasions to keep me from testifying against him. They don’t seem to have anything on him up there except for the statement I furnished, so if he could have killed me he might have been able to work out something for himself. I found out he was still here in Baton Rouge, and not on the run, so I knew he was looking for a chance. One of the things I was afraid of was having him come in the night and set fire to this building, with me still weak from the first gunshot and with only one way out of here.

                  “So, when I thought I heard a noise last night, I looked out the window and saw a car parked where I’ve never seen a car before; there’s nothing here but my place. I was afraid Gus was here. I turned out the lights and took my shotgun and stuck the revolver in my belt and went out into the dark. I wasn’t willing to just sit up here and wait to see what he might do. I stood in the shadow of the building, trying to hear something. What I heard was the shot that hit me. It knocked me down and turned me around and I lost both my guns. I could only get up as far as my knees and then I saw him walking toward me, still shooting. Down in the grass I found the pistol and fired a shot at him, and lost it again. He went down and got up and headed for his car – he was limping so I knew I had hit him. The cops got here right away, maybe they heard the shooting.”

                  “Well, here again you seem to be the only witness against Mr. Martinez – “

                  “Mendoza”

                  “Right, Mendoza. He can’t dispute your account of this event, but the fact is he bled to death from your shot, and that makes a great difference. Self-defense seems obvious, especially at your house and with his history and I don’t see any firearm violations, but the District Attorney will make the decisions. I’ll let you know. Why did Mr. Martinez – Mr. Mendoza – go to St Louis and commit murder? Did you know the victim? Did he?”

                  “The victim and I had some plans, and he wanted in.”

                  “Detective Haydel said you were in West Virginia when he shot you. For a postman and a sign painter, you guys sure got around.”

                  “Yeah, but I’m not a sign painter any more. That Mexican put me out of business. I left for a four-day trip and stayed nearly a month, because of him. My little one-man shop died a natural death and I gave it up and sold the building. If I ever get well, I intend to get around some myself. Never really had a vacation.”

                  Frances Berry checked her watch and closed her briefcase and got off the stool. “This wasn’t so bad, and I expect we won’t have to put you in jail, but don’t count on that. I wouldn’t mind hearing this whole story, but you are right – it has nothing to do with last night’s events. I hope you feel better soon, Mr. Ross, and don’t forget you owe me for the sandwich.”

                  “Right, I can pay you, or just owe you a sandwich.”

                  “The money, Mr. Ross. Let’s get this all buttoned up. And why did Detective Haydel find you to be such a belligerent ass at his interview?”

                  “Well, first of all, Detective Haydel was pretty obnoxious, him and his sidekick, Freeman.”

                  “Farmer.”

                  “Farmer, right. And in the second place I had not killed anybody at that time, so I didn’t feel I had to be polite. And in the third place, Haydel didn’t bring me a sandwich.”
                  If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                  • #24
                    Chapter 24

                    For three days Jack lumbered around his apartment and began to wonder whether the nurse had been full of shit about walking off his injury. He looked after the wound and took selfie pictures of the grotesque bruise that looked worse every day and still resembled the handgun. He didn’t attempt the stairs.

                    A couple of police officers came by to return his shotgun, which had not been deemed evidence and to explain that the damaged revolver would be returned to him when the case was closed. In the process of verifying that it was his weapon he discovered that it wasn’t. By mistake he had grabbed the gun left on the floor of his sign shop by Sonny Leppert. The gun listed on his permit was still there in the closet. He could not account for the one still held at the BRPD, and he confessed only that he had bought it at a flea market in Mississippi about a year ago. This was duly noted by the cop. He thought they exchanged glances at his lie.

                    The following afternoon he took a call from Frances Berry, who announced that she needed to speak to him again and could come now if that was convenient. Also, she offered to bring sandwiches again if he was hungry. He assured her that he was, even though it was a bare two hours since his lunch. Again, it took her forty minutes to make the trip and again she was in jeans.

                    “Mr. Ross, it appears today like you will skate,” said the young ADA. “The boss hates to see you shoot an employee of the USPS without any consequences at all, and told me to write some sort of a citation that would require at least a modest fine. Providence has sent me the matter of the extra firearm, and I will probably write you up for that. If we discover that it has been stolen – and we are looking – you could be in serious trouble.”

                    Ross wagged his head sadly. “I don’t need that, and I’ve got no idea where it came from. Just seemed like a good chance to pick up a spare at a good price.”

                    “Nothing wrong with a spare, of course, but you don’t buy it from a flea market. Anyone knows that. Almost anyone. I’m writing you a citation for it, and you have a week to straighten it out. Pay the fine or plead not guilty and I will see you in court.” She produced a book not unlike that of a meter maid and began to write.

                    “And now I owe you two sandwiches.”

                    “No, Mr. Ross, you owe me for the two I have brought, cash money. If I could I would charge you for the gas for the company car, but I can’t, since it was work-related, and I don’t take Visa.” He paid her from his pocket.

                    “Thanks for coming around to brighten up my day. Maybe I will pay my fine and then take it on the lam before you find out I stole the pistol that just saved my life. You’re some kind of public servant.”

                    When her Chevrolet was out of sight he took a deep breath and walked down the stairs, one at a time, groaning as he descended. He started his truck and left it running while he walked a slow lap around the building. There was no evidence of the blood he had shed on the grass just a few days ago and likewise he found nothing to see when he examined the spot where Gus Mendoza had gone down briefly. Returning, he turned off the truck motor and approached the stairs. It looked like a long way to the top, and it was – the way he did it. A slow and painful trip back up to where his sandwich waited.

                    No doubt there would be a serial number on the gun that Sonny had dropped as he died, and there would be a record of some sort made when it was sold. There must be a program where they could enter the number and discover the original buyer, at the very least. Sonny Leppert? Not likely. He didn’t even know what to hope for.

                    Here in the hottest month of the year in Louisiana, Labor Day was only a week away, meaning there was some urgency about his journey back to Wheeling. He didn’t know when winter might begin in the mountains – surely not before the middle of October, at least. He wanted to be in and out before it began to snow, and his physical condition wasn’t ready. He figured he had a month to get in some kind of shape – not to run a marathon, but to handle a breaking and entering of a big metal building. He would start a regimen first thing tomorrow.

                    But during the night he had a bad dream. In the dream he had gathered the things he would need for the journey. His bag was packed and his tool kit was stocked with all the B & E gear he had gathered. He had nearly three thousand dollars in cash in his pocket. No paper trail when you pay cash. The apartment was locked and the truck was loaded. Yeah, lock and load, bro! But as he backed toward the street he was blockaded by a vehicle and the driver was out and standing by his window.

                    “Step out, Mr. Ross, we need to talk about that pistol.” She wasn’t carrying any sandwiches today.
                    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                    • #25
                      Chapter 25

                      He resolved to avoid the television, but wouldn’t you know it – baseball season was winding down – not his fault at all. However, between innings when the commercials were on, he got up and walked the apartment. Big deal. He could go around the big recliner and walk into the kitchen, stepping around the free end of the breakfast bar. From there he could go to the Other Side, with the bedroom and bathroom both right there. Who was he fooling? So he would go outside and down the stairs and around the truck and back up the stairs and then to the chair. Ten times as much exercise. Twenty time as much. At first he couldn’t make the round trip in time, as his pain made him climb too slowly, but after missing a dozen strikeouts and two homeruns and a bush-league misplayed ground ball he forced himself to move faster.

                      He monitored his injuries and thought of them separately. There was The Gutshot and the Other One. His walks went down to the corner and back and then around the block, with brief stops to rest. Labor Day came and went and he was going into the Garden District and walking in the shade under the big oaks and magnolias, feeling better by the day. He checked and rechecked his list and his tool kit. A few items he would buy along the way, instead of locally. There were only maybe three things to do on the day before he left.

                      The duffle bag full of hundred-dollar bills was never far from his mind. He would be able to live anywhere he wanted, and he requested brochures on the internet from the Chambers of Commerce in thirty different small towns around the country. He could pick one at his leisure. Great word, leisure. For realism, he reminded himself that there was more likely to be a long ride for nothing than the end of a rainbow. But he knew better, and he would enjoy even the long ride, anyway.

                      By the third week of September it was looking more and more like the Chicago Cubs, if you could believe that. A magic time, for sure. Jack Ross and the Cubs both cutting the mustard this year – both long shots, both getting it done. It struck him that he was stalling; reluctant to pack up his gear and go travelling and find the truth. The ADA’s card was still next to the phone, and he called her.

                      “Jack Ross, Ms. Berry, remember me?”

                      “Certainly I do, and I just thought of you yesterday, or maybe it was the day before. I have news for you about the gun that made that big black and blue place on your hip. Sears and Roebuck sold the gun many years ago to a man named Simon Leppert in Binghamton, New York. Mr. Leppert is no longer alive, but I spoke to his wife, and she had no idea what had become of it, but it certainly had not been stolen. She said that you may have gotten it from one of her sons, probably Sonny, the youngest. Do you think you might have bought it from him at the flea market?”

                      “I doubt it, but if you will get their pictures and make a lineup, maybe I could recognize him.” Jack pictured Sonny Leppert dead on the floor in the Zodiac Sign Shop.

                      “Bullshit, Mr. Ross, I have no further interest in the gun. I was hoping perhaps I could prosecute you and send you to jail. Maybe next time. So, how is your recovery going?”

                      “Not bad. I’m taking it easy and watching baseball on TV.”

                      “Is it a big relief not to have to worry about Mr. Morales any more?”

                      “Mendoza, Ms.Berry. Gus Mendoza, and I have to admit he was on my bucket list. Now that I am an unemployed sign painter, recuperating and with money in my pocket, I believe I will just crank up my truck and hit the road for a while. I never really had a vacation, and there are places I want to see before winter begins.”

                      “That’s the third time you have said that, Mr. Ross. Going back to West Virginia, are you? You told me you liked the mountains there.”

                      “There’s plenty of mountains in other places. Maybe I’ll drive up through Arkansas and Missouri. Lots of mountains up there. Pretty country. A cop named Medina told me not to ever go back to West Virginia, and you only have to shoot me once to get my attention.”

                      “Mazzone, Mr. Ross. I read his bulletin to the BRPD – detective Mazzone.”

                      “Mazzone, right. Anyway, next time I see you I’ll tell you about my vacation.”

                      “Sure, give me a call, and if my husband answers the phone you should hang up. He’s a pretty big policeman. Have a good trip and be very careful up there.”

                      “Up where, Ms. Berry?”

                      “You know where, Mr. Ross.”

                      “Goddammit, I can hear you grinning.”

                      “No you can’t,” said the lady from the DA’s office. “I’m going it silently.”
                      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                      • #26
                        Chapter 26

                        After the phone call Jack had to chuckle to think that Ms. Berry had correctly guessed that he would head back to West Virginia, but it really wasn’t funny at all. In his mind it was to be a secret pilgrimage, if you would, maybe even clandestine. He had made the decision to carry cash and to spend it for everything, leaving no paper trail; not that he expected anyone to ever want to track him. He tried to remember what he might have said that made her think that way. Shot in the dark, no doubt, and that brought Gus Mendoza back to his mind – also a shot in the dark. A couple of bad shots.

                        He had run out of reasons to delay the trip. He had bought a spiral notebook at Walmart, and in it he had his proposed schedule, a punch list of things to do before he left, and the beginnings of a log. It would be easy driving and he figured most of three days to reach Wheeling and he had no intention of entering the area with a Louisiana tag on the truck. Google advised him that both Pennsylvania and West Virginia, like Louisiana used just one tag, mounted in back. Not so the states of Ohio and Virginia, which required two. His first two crimes would be misdemeanors. Switch a tag before you steal one.

                        He finished his laundry and packing, took some perishables out of the refrigerator and made up his garbage in a plastic bag, to be left in someone’s dumpster. He didn’t want his garbage can to sit at the curb until he came back. His bills were paid and the USPS had agreed to hold his mail. The tool kit and his gun were stashed under the seat in the truck, and a cordless drill and socket set as well. Hopefully he would find a way into the building without pulling screws and peeling the siding, but he was prepared. Somewhere on the road he would find a police supply store to buy plastic handcuff ties and then a party store to shop for some kind of disguise. A simple B & E was becoming a major caper in his mind.

                        Just one more thing tonight. He dialed Sandra’s number, and she called him by name when she picked up, courtesy caller ID.

                        “Hello, Jack, how’s the recovery going?”

                        “I’m nearly as good as new, or at least as good as I was ninety days ago. Been resting up and doing some walking and taking care of my gunshot wounds. All healed up.”

                        “That’s good news, of course, and at least the same guy won’t shoot you again. You’ll have to pick a new fight. What can I do for you?”

                        “Well, before I do anything else I’ve decided to go riding for a week or two – gonna get up in the morning and leave town, me and the truck, our first vacation in forever. When we get our fill of travelling we’ll come back to town. No plans beyond that.”

                        “So, why are you telling me?”

                        “Somebody needs to know I’m going. If anyone has to locate me, you’re the only one they would think of, you know. Sort of like Ghost Busters, who you gonna call? To some people it is probably still Jack and Sandra, like before. You and I know better, of course.”

                        “Of course. I suppose I should get mad that you have called me to catch your calls, but as you said, somebody needs to know and it must be me.”

                        “There probably won’t be any calls, Sandra.”

                        “Sure. Going back to Wheeling, are you?”

                        Not again! “The detective up there is mad at me and told me not to come back. Why would I go back to Wheeling?”

                        “For the same reason you went last time, whatever that was. And you are still circling around my questions – looks like I would have learned by now.”

                        “Well, I’ve quit apologizing. I’m sorry I called.”

                        “That’s another one, isn’t it? Anyway, be careful up there.” She broke the connection.

                        Ross frowned, irritated that everyone seemed to know his plans. The phone rang again immediately and he let it ring twice more before he picked it up.

                        “Jack, this is Gloria, and I need to see you. We have to talk.”

                        “Talk about what, Gloria? Why do we need to talk?”

                        “Well, you’ve killed Gus and you at least owe me the courtesy of taking thirty minutes to talk to me. You have made me a widow, in case you haven’t noticed.”

                        “Gus made you a widow. I killed him in my yard after he shot me for the second time. Quit trying to blame me for a mess that he made himself. And I don’t have time for this crap, either. I’m going out of town in the morning. Call me again in ten days.”

                        “Hah, going back to Wheeling, West Virginia aren’t you?”
                        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                        • #27
                          Chapter 27

                          Gloria Mendoza’s call left Jack in a foul mood. He did not know what she wanted from him and he didn’t feel like thinking about it right now, but he had to wonder if his trip could be impacted in some way by Gus’ widow. She had damn sure assumed he was on his way back to the town where his confrontation with Gus had put him on life support in the hospital. How much did she know about it and what could she do? He had spoken to three women today and they all appeared to know what he was up to. His plan for a clandestine outing was in rags.

                          He went to bed, but he slept badly and was up before six. He sat on the bed and stared out the window at the street. The sky was gray and it was raining. He gathered up the two small bags he was taking and locked the deadbolt on the door as he left. Having nothing in the house to eat, he stopped at McDonald’s for hotcakes and sausage. On the way out of town he swung past his former sign shop. At seven in the morning the building looked empty as he went by, and he noted that his sign on the cinder block wall had been painted out, but the Zodiac logo had been saved. He tried to feel some nostalgia about it, but that was not in the air today. He thought of Big and Little, Jenny and Janie, and wondered what they would do in there. His bad mood persisted until he took the ramp onto I-12 and headed east.

                          In Gulfport he stopped in a costume shop on the beach and wandered around for ten minutes, under the watchful eyes of two skinny guys in muscle shirts. He didn’t intend to be recognized in West Virginia. He finally bought a New York Yankees cap with a bit of curly blond hair showing around it and picked up an eyebrow pencil and a pair of tinted eyeglasses. One of the proprietors said his credit card was good but he replied that his cash was better and paid and got back on the Interstate. He took I-65 out of Mobile and followed it to Birmingham, where he bought two sets of handcuffs in a gun store. He took I-59 and pushed on to Chattanooga and checked into a motel. Still a long way from Wheeling.

                          From there he quit the interstate highway system to drive through the Appalachian Mountains, roughly parallel to I-85. He tooled along on state highways and county roads, but it didn’t have the feeling of a vacation. He vowed to go back the same way, but at the pace of a tourist – whether he found the pot of gold or not. As a result he spent two full days in the truck to get to Morgantown, and then he was there. The Penn Dearie warehouse was only a few more miles up the road. After much debate with himself he had decided to try to avoid stealing a local license plate, because it would have to be current. No use stealing an old one. Going north he passed into Pennsylvania, and in Fall Bridges he pulled into a small used car lot. A young man approached him immediately, and Ross could see a woman sitting in the doorway of the office building.

                          “Got a good inventory right now. See anything you like?”

                          “Tell me about that little gray Nissan.”

                          “It’s a 2012 model, and got a lot of miles, but it runs really great. Economical transportation, for sure. I’m sure we could work something out, but your truck is probably worth a little more than my car. Want to talk about that?”

                          “What I really want to do is rent the Nissan for a week. Give you five hundred, and leave the truck with you until I get back. Pure profit for you.”

                          “Man, I can’t rent vehicles, I don’t have no license to do that. I could get in trouble and maybe lose my license to run this lot. Maybe you could buy it and then sell it back to me next week.”

                          “No, that doesn’t work for me. I have to go to Pittsburgh and I don’t want to go in my truck and I don’t want any bill of sale in my name. How’s business here in the lot?”

                          The woman had strolled out and was listening to the conversation. “What are you guys talking about, anyway? Sell him something, Stanley. Your lunch is getting cold.”

                          “He wants to rent a car for a week, and I told him I can’t rent cars.”

                          “Mister, why are you trying to rent a car?”

                          “I’m on my way to Pittsburgh, but not in my truck. I offered him five hundred dollars and told him he could keep my truck until I get back. Don’t do anything you don’t want to, but it’s easy money and I don’t see a whole lot of shoppers here today. Say the word and I’ll go along and try somewhere else.”

                          “Goddam, Stanley, if you don’t need the five hundred I’ll rent him the car myself. Like he said, there ain’t anything happening here. Live a little and take a chance. You’d be lucky if he never brought it back and you’d have the truck. Who the hell is gonna know, anyway?”

                          Stanley looked around and took off his baseball cap and then put it back on and was uncomfortable in the woman’s hard stare. He opened his mouth and then closed it.

                          “Gimme the money and park the truck over there, out of the way, and leave me the key.” the woman said.

                          “No, the key goes with me. If I don’t come back, you’ll just have to figure out how to handle the truck, but don’t touch it for a week. Get me the key to the little car, and be sure the registration is in the glove box.” He counted out the five bills into her hand and drove the truck to the spot she indicated. She brought the Nissan and gave him the key, and stood watching as he transferred all his gear to the little sedan.


                          She grinned evilly and said, “that’s a nice truck you got there. If we get a customer this week I might just sell it, mister. What would you do then?”

                          Jack cranked the engine on the Nissan and smiled back at her. “I would burn this place to the ground.” He backed the car around and pointed it toward the Pennsylvania border.
                          Last edited by vapros; 09-14-2018, 03:59 AM.
                          If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                          • #28
                            Chapter 28

                            Jack Ross and his Nissan sedan took a vaguely diagonal route across the southwest corner of Pennsylvania. It was mostly rural, with brown and yellow fallen leaves blowing around in the country roads. It might be late summer in Baton Rouge, but here it was fall, and he felt he had cut his schedule a bit close and he wanted to be gone before the first snow, whenever that might be. As he approached Waynesburg he began to watch for a small motel but it was a college town and he decided to push on a bit closer to West Virginia after his lunch, which he ate at Norm’s Diner – almost on the small campus.

                            There were homecoming decorations in the windows and in the booths and he paid a plump co-ed fifteen dollars for a tee shirt with the legend Go Jackets. Norm, himself, was at the register and boasted that the football team was 2-0 against Penn State, having whipped the Nittany Lions in 1931 and again in 1932. Impressive bit of trivia, unless maybe you were a grad. Jack wasn’t, and before leaving town he crossed I-79 and struck out on a state route that seemed to be heading more or less toward Wheeling. Above Muriel he pulled in at a small facility across the road from a convenience store. Yes, the guy had vacant rooms and Jack signed a registration card and had to go and look at the car for the license number, and the man frowned and stared at the card.

                            “Got some ID, Mr. Ross, driver’s license maybe?”

                            “No, I don’t have any ID, but I’ve got eighty dollars for tonight and tomorrow night – cash money. Do you want it?”

                            The money went into a shirt pocket and the man asked if he needed a room near the back of the driveway.

                            “No, I don’t care where it is, but I need clean sheets and plenty of towels.” The room number was stamped on the key. The tag bore an ad for a package liquor store. Ross opened the room and took his bags inside and turned on the window unit and stretched out on the bed. The bed was soft and the AC made a muted hum and he fell asleep. It was full dark when he woke up and he took a shower and dressed to go out, noting that he needed to buy shorts and socks. He ate at a McDonald’s and drove on to Wheeling with no idea of committing any crimes tonight.

                            Without difficulty he found the I-70 bridge over the Ohio River, and the big Presbyterian church where Guz Mendoza had turned the navigation over to him. From there the dying Piper’s directions took him, again, to Penn Dearie. It was an eerie, silent ride tonight, through the edge of town to the big new building and the parking lot where Gus’ shot had knocked him down in the gravel. The parking lot was paved now and a new sign was mounted over the front door.

                            He continued around the long block and followed the dark road past the back of the building. More paved parking there, also. Making a sudden decision, he circled again and drove as far as he could into the woods, to the hiding place he had picked out before leaving Wheeling. It was obvious that another week of falling leaves would make it unusable as a cover. He left the car and walked the sixty yards back to the building without seeing a single vehicle. He wondered if an alarm might pick him up in the parking lot, but the tall grass still stood in the vacant site next door and that would be his escape path if his presence brought a response of any kind. Sitting in the grass, he waited half an hour with no result and he got up and went closer.

                            Through a window in the back-door Jack could see inside the big building. Dim night lights showed a couple of long work tables and steel storage shelves rising to the height of about fifteen feet. The structure, itself, was covered in a corrugated sheet-metal skin, anchored with hex-head screws at eight-inch intervals. He would have to remove a lot of them – perhaps thirty or more – to be able to lift a panel enough to get in. There would be a socket in his set to fit the screws and his cordless drill would do the job. The night was chilly and he shivered as he walked back to the car.

                            At a Super WalMart, he bought underwear and black socks and a black Mountaineer sweatshirt. There was little more he could do in the next twenty-four hours. At the little motel he took his back pack into the room and plugged a charger into the wall socket and topped off the charges in two power packs for the drill. He turned on the television and then turned it off again. He went to bed early, but lay with his eyes open in the dark, not able to sleep. Time enough for that tomorrow night, unless he opted to drive back to the car lot where his truck waited. On the eve of his first burglary, he assumed the option would still be there.

                            The message from Bynum, the lawyer, about a request from a dying client had taken Jack from his little sign shop to St. Louis, back in June. In a single night he had heard Piper tell the story about John Villarubbia, Sonny Boy Leppert and Darrell Lindsay, and about the stash of cash he had made in Wheeling, West Virginia. He had met Miriam Moscowitz, lady with a plan, and Father Ortega, whose plan was not quite the same as hers. There was the sobering reflection that all six were dead now, as well as his former mailman, Mendoza.

                            He was truly the last man standing and tomorrow night he might learn whether the dirty money that had cursed them all would get him, too.
                            If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                            • #29
                              Chapter 29

                              Sometime in the wee hours he fell asleep and awoke at five minutes past eight and calculated he had slept four or five hours. He showered and turned on the television, but there was nothing to see so he muted it and opened the backpack and took everything out and then repacked it. The battery packs were ready but the thought of taking out thirty hex-head metal screws with the cordless drill made him vow to use the ratchet handle in the socket set instead. It would take a little longer but would make a lot less noise. Metal building, after all, but there was room in the backpack for both and he would carry it all. The little kit of hand tools was necessary, as were the two crowbars and the can of WD40 and the rubber gloves.

                              He had a big flashlight and a little one, and a glass-cutter that he had added for no good reason. It was about the size of a tire gauge. There was duct tape and two pair of handcuffs that he was hoping would not be needed. He didn’t like taking the pistol but decided he couldn’t go without it so he packed it also. Better safe than sorry, in a warped manner of speaking. Should he do the trick early in the evening, or wait until after midnight when traffic would surely be less? He had no idea.

                              In the car with Gus Mendoza he had felt excitement, anticipating that they could get in and get the money and get out with it in a matter of minutes. Now, alone in the cheap motel with a whole day to wait and nothing to do, doubts were hitting him life a cloud of mosquitos and he imagined a lot of other things that could happen and he forced himself to leave the room, taking the backpack with him. He drove to Bethlehem and had breakfast at a McDonald’s and felt compelled to go on into Wheeling and scout the area of the Penn Dearie building again – being so close, you know.

                              As he drove past he noted four sedans in the parking lot and maybe a dozen pickup trucks. On the side of the building two of the big doors were open and he could see a freight truck inside one of the bays. Going around the block he could see a Buick parked on the concrete apron in back. Afraid of pressing his luck he drove back to Bethlehem and spent several hours in the small public library, checking his watch every few minutes. He couldn’t decide whether the time was dragging by or rushing toward the evening. The place closed at five pm and he returned to the motel. No one had been in his room, as far as he could see, at least not to clean it up. He figured he was probably not even registered.

                              It was full dark before six forty-five and he had no more excuses. He took everything when he left the room, not intending to return and went directly to Wheeling. A lap around the block showed the big parking lot empty and the building unlighted but for the night lights, but around back the Buick was still there, and now a Toyota was parked next to it. The manager and someone else, no doubt. He thought the smaller car looked familiar. Why not just wait them out? Surely, they would not spend the night in there, so he went around again and pulled his vehicle into the woods. He could wait in comfort but he decided he should see the people who were delaying him so he shouldered his pack and locked the Nissan and walked back. He entered the tall weeds before reaching the building and made his way as close as he dared, and settled down out of sight a few paces from the back door. There was a small outside light.

                              The autumn night was cool and he was glad he had bought the sweatshirt and he wished he had a hat of some kind. Then he remembered that he did, in fact, have a hat and it was in the pack, done up in a plastic bag. He unfastened the flap and found the NY Yankees cap with the straggly hair sticking out in back and he put it on gratefully. They kept him waiting until almost exactly eight o’clock. The back door of the building opened and two people came out. The woman was Frannie Brandt, Paula’s mother, in whose house he had convalesced for more than two weeks after Mendoza had shot him in the gut. He had forgotten she worked here. The man was seriously overweight and waddled as he walked and he was in shirtsleeves. Frannie and the man kissed and she got into the Toyota and drove away, but he went back inside, closing the door behind him.

                              Something interesting to know, but it didn’t change anything. Ross would just have to wait in the tall grass a while longer for him to come out again. There were lots of dark hours left in this night and he would be unscrewing screws before Fatso’s Buick was out of sight. He would definitely use the socket set and the ratchet. Then, as he sat on the hard ground he had another idea and he went back into his pack and took out the revolver. His misdemeanor B and E was about to become felony armed robbery. When the door opened again he stood up and took a rapid six strides forward and confronted the astonished fat man with the gun in his hand.

                              “Not yet, Chief. Just turn around and we’re going back inside. Don’t do anything without thinking about it first. I’m from the government and I’m here to help you!”
                              If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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                              • #30
                                Chapter 30

                                But the fat man didn’t turn around. Bug-eyed and staring at Ross’ gun, he stumbled backward into the building, and kept retreating as Ross followed him in and closed the door.

                                “Aw, shit!” exclaimed the man. “My wife sent you – I know she did. I knew she would. Can we talk about this, man?”

                                “Shut up, Slim,” said Jack. “I want your cell phone and your keys to start with. Put ‘em on the work bench there, and then face the wall and hit a brace, hands up high and take one step back and spread your feet, you look like you might know the routine. Have you got a gun?”

                                “Yeah, man, I got an automatic in my hip pocket, I’ll get it for you! It’s Margaret, isn’t it? My wife sent you.”

                                “Don’t move, chief. I might get nervous. I can find your pistol. What’s the pistol for, anyway? You go out the back door in the dark, with your pistol in your pocket; it ought to be in your hand! You’re not smart enough to have a pistol if you don’t use it. You could have shot me and maybe saved your own life. Stupid! Was that your wife in the Toyota?”

                                “Don’t say that, man! Just hold on here, we can work something out. It was my wife wasn’t it? My old lady sent you here, didn’t she?”

                                “If it makes you feel better, chief, it wasn’t your wife. It wasn’t anybody’s wife.”

                                “Oh, man, thank God it wasn’t my wife. I got a little money in my wallet, and you can have it. You can have the phone and the gun, I’ll give you all that stuff.”

                                “Pay attention, chief, you ain’t got to give me anything, I’m the one with the gun, remember? And now I got two guns, and so I’m a bad motor scooter. You thought I was here from your wife, didn’t you? Well it wasn’t your wife at all. It was a husband. Now you just sit down on the floor by that work bench. Which one of these keys opens the little office building?”

                                “A husband!!” squealed the fat man, “A ****ing husband, you say. Was it Titsy’s husband, just tell me that? Did Titsy’s husband send you? There ain’t nothing there, I swear, man, Titsy is the fork lift operator, I don’t hardly know her, really.”

                                “Shut up and sit down where I told you. Here I got handcuffs, chief, fasten one of ‘em around your right wrist. Lemme see, I don’t want you slipping your hand out while I ain’t looking. Okay, now lean back and put your left arm around that brace. I’m laying my gun down for a second, but you shouldn’t do nothing stupid.” Ross fastened the cuff to the left wrist and his prisoner was secure. “Is this the key I’m looking for, this one here?”

                                “It couldn’t a been Titsy’s husband, they’re legally separated, she told me. Had to be RitaGay, but she does local delivery, and I don’t hardly ever see her, she’s always out of the warehouse. I can’t believe this shit, man, what a night. But I have to know, you know what I mean? Which one was it?”

                                “Can’t help you with that, chief. He didn’t say, he only give me one name; yours. Now shut up, and don’t have a heart attack before we get done here. Is this the goddamn key, or not?”

                                “Yeah, that’s the one. The door might not be locked, anyway. There’s not anything valuable in there, it’s just the office. Why do you want to go in the office?”

                                “I just want to use the rest room – is it on the first floor?”

                                “Wait, there’s a bathroom right over there, we keep it good and clean, it’s for the employees. Unisex, they call it now, anybody can go. Save you fifty steps.”

                                Jack Ross shouldered his backpack and looked down at the other man, who sat in obvious discomfort on the cold floor. “Relax, chief and don’t try anything funny. We might still work something out when I get back. I shouldn’t be very long. Now, you be thinking about a proposition and maybe I’ll go for it, especially if I’m in a good mood.” He set off across the big building, walking quickly now. He’d know something soon.
                                If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

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