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Last man standing

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  • Last man standing

    Chapter 1

    When last seen (The Taking of Sonny Boy), Jack Ross was laid up in a hospital in Wheeling, West Virginia, trying to recover from a gunshot wound in his belly. I left him there, not because this gig was finished, but because I figured he could get out from there. But now, I’m not so sure he is smart enough to do what is needed, so I intend to follow him for a while, just to watch. As of now, I have no idea what might happen next, or where this road might go. If he gets inside the building and gets away with the boodle, then of course I will expect a nice jelly. If, instead, he is busted and scratches in the corner, then his name becomes Jack Who? and I will go and do the rest of my retirement. I can’t abide losers. You can come along, if you like – tourist class only.

    * * * * * * * * *

    For the next forty-eight hours, between alternating periods of pain and sedation, Ross reflected in wonder on the events of the previous fortnight. The kiss-off by Sandra hung heavy on his mind, but it didn’t demand his attention. Gus Mendoza’s murderous treachery had been revealed only hours before his gunshot, and could be addressed at his leisure. It was not a good time to make a serious error. He did not expect to find Gus in Baton Rouge, but he would still be out there, somewhere in the wind. After owning up to the brutal killing of Miriam Moscowitz in St. Louis, shooting Ross was absolutely necessary. Nothing else he could do. Failing to kill him was a disaster.

    John Villarubbia was the genesis of the whole thing. He took Sonny Boy and took the ransom and was long dead before Jack even heard his name. He tried to do right by his partners in the crime, but made a hash of stashing the cash, which was supposed to be waiting just down the road from Ross’ hospital bed. Piper died in a hospice in St. Louis, confessing to Jack in his final hours. Miriam was never really involved until she went to New York and killed Darrell Lindsay. Piper had made her think that might be all she needed, but he favored Ross and left her out.

    Hector Velez thought he might have cut a fat hog in the ass, expecting a share of Miriam’s coming windfall. His last-ditch effort to sell the names he knew had taken him to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he found Sonny Leppert and wound up mutilated and dead in a big ditch behind the railroad tracks. Sonny, for his part, hitched rides to Baton Rouge and braced Ross in his own sign shop, and died there, and now was well into decomposition in a remote spot similar to Hector’s. Gus Mendoza, coming off the bench in the last minutes of the game, had murdered Miriam and narrowly missed doing the same to Ross. Convinced the hidden money was gone forever, Gus was in full flight to somewhere, a wanted man in two states.

    It was obvious and fascinating. Jack Ross was the last man standing.
    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.

  • #2
    Chapter 2

    One of the more pressing matters facing him, as he recuperated, was an interview with the local police, who would almost certainly want to know who the shooter was. A detective named Mazzone had already been turned away, at least once, by a nurse who advised that Mr. Ross was still too ill to be stressed. When Mr. Mazzone turned up again, a couple of days later, Jack had his answers ready.

    “Feeling better today, Mr. Ross?”

    “Maybe a little. What can I do for you?”

    “I’ve got an attempted murder case to clear up, and I need the name of my suspect. I’m hoping you can help me with that. Who shot you, Mr. Ross, and why?”

    “Guy said his name was Vincent – I had just met him that day, over in Cambridge. He saw my Louisiana tag and wanted to talk. He said he had a good buddy in the military who was from Ville Platte; guy named Fontenot.”

    Fontaneaux, Ville Platte Mazzone wrote in a little notebook. “Did Vincent have a last name?”

    “Yeah, he had an Italian name, but I didn’t catch it. It wasn’t spaghetti, but it was more like spaghetti than macaroni, if you know what I mean. You know how those Italian names are. Definitely Italian-sounding, and he looked Italian, too.”

    “So, how do Italians look, Mr. Ross?” Mazzone sounded a little peevish.

    “Well, you know. Dark skin, black curly hair, black mustache. And this guinea probably has a black eye, if you catch him soon enough.”

    “And you didn’t get his name, but you remember his buddy was named Fontaneaux, is that it? Maybe I should start with Fontaneaux, since we know his name, and then work backward until we get to the shooter.”

    “Good luck with that, Detective Mazzone. Half the people in Ville Platte are named Fontenot. Maybe more than half.”

    “And how did you and that guinea wind up in Wheeling?”

    “I spent maybe five minutes answering his questions about Louisiana and went to get some lunch, but then he came and knocked on my door at the motel and offered me a hundred dollars to ride to Moundsville with him. He said he had to meet a guy, and he wanted somebody with him. And he gave me the c-note and away we went. A hundred bucks is a hundred bucks, you know what I mean? It was in my pocket, if you want to see it, but don’t take it and try to say it’s evidence.

    Well, we crossed the river, and I saw he was watching the mirror, like he was looking for something, and when we got to that parking lot he pulled in and sort of smiled at me and reached over and tried to feel me up, you know? So I hit him a pretty good shot with my fist and made him cry, and we both got out of the car and I figured he was going to fight me, but he pulled out a gun and said he wanted his money back. I told him to go to hell and he shot me, and shot me again when I was down in the gravel. I could hear somebody hollering, and he jumped back in the car and took off. I guess somebody came and took me to the hospital, and here I am.”

    Detective Mazzone closed up the little notebook he had been writing in and got to his feet. “Mr. Ross, Wheeling is not a bad town, and generally when there’s trouble it’s one gang-banger shooting another gang-banger, and I have to pretend to be interested. One of them winds up in our hospital and the other one in our jail, and neither one has any money, and we wind up with both back out on the street or gone down the road. The city doesn’t mind paying for a couple of bus tickets, if that will clear up the crime. This time I got a clean-shaven white guy with his own insurance, and a shooter who has probably gone back to Ohio, but I have to investigate and make a report. I’ll try to find Vincent, but it doesn’t look too good from here.

    Anyway, I heard you might have a place here in town to recuperate, when you get out of the hospital; I hear most of what goes on in this here little town. But don’t leave town without coming to the station to see me. We need to talk again.”

    Ross frowned. “Why do we need to talk again?”

    Mazzone paused in the doorway of Ross’ room and turned his head just enough to make himself heard. “Because I don’t believe any of that shit.”
    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


    • #3
      Chapter 3

      Before Detective Mazzone had been gone three minutes, a nurse and an orderly came into the room and told Jack that he had to stand up and take three steps. He explained that he couldn’t possibly do that, and the nurse said if he couldn’t walk they would take him back to the OR and open him up again to check for overlooked sponges. This did the trick and he got out of bed and took three tiny steps, all the while moaning and groaning about the pain. The nurse was unimpressed, but let him go back to bed, but twice more before the end of her shift she returned for more walking. He stayed in the hospital five more days and took therapy and made painful progress.

      On the fifth day the business office contacted him to say that the insurance company had said it was time for him to leave the hospital, and he let himself be persuaded to continue his recuperation at the home of the nurse named Brandt, Paula she said, and her mother. He had spent the hospital time pondering his situation and examining his options, and both changed complexion every day as he grew stronger. There had never been any thought of doing a hunt for Gus Mendoza, or what to do if he found him. He wondered if Gus had returned to Baton Rouge and to Gloria and what he might do now. Mendoza did not have Ross’ options, not after his confession and his attempt to kill Jack. He couldn’t recuperate and resume his life, like Jack – that was out – his blunder was permanent. Now Jack would go to see Mazzone and give him Mendoza’s name, not only for the local shooting but also for the murder of Miriam Moscowitz in St. Louis. Mendoza would become a wanted man and remain so until he was caught. That should keep him from any thought of stalking Ross. Too late for that now.

      He phoned a contact in Baton Rouge, who agreed to post a notice on the door of the sign shop, advising callers that Ross was sick in an eastern hospital and would return to work as soon as possible. But returning to work didn’t hold much appeal for him. He had good equity in the property, and a small sign business that had some value, even in the face of the decreasing demand for his trade. Pressure-sensitive vinyl letters made on a machine was for others. Brush lettering was fading fast. He would sell for what he could get and take some time off to gather his strength for a return to Wheeling. The little Penn Dearie office building was never far from his mind. He needed preparation and a plan, and he intended to make his raid without leaving any tracks.

      The hospital staff delivered him to the front door in the obligatory wheel-chair and Brandt picked him up there in a fairly new Toyota and he waited in the car at Walmart while Brandt took has Visa card and bought him some sweats and socks and shorts and then took him home with her and gave him the use of the third bedroom in the house. The three of them spent their evenings playing gin rummy and eating ice cream and watching movies. Daytimes he walked with Brandt’s mother, Frannie, slowly at first. He was dismayed at how little effort was required to force him to sit down and blow. Gus had damaged him badly. Within a week, Frannie took him to the motel in Cambridge to get his truck. It stood outside the room where he had left it, as nobody had keys for it. In the office he settled his bill and picked up his little travel bag and his coat. With his own wheels, he counted the days until he could leave town and go south. In the meantime, he drove Wheeling and took pictures of mountains and forests and a big metal building where the parking lot was still made of loose gravel. No doubt it would be completed before he could get back to it; no help for that.

      It stood in a sea of tall grass with nothing to hide a man on his feet. He followed the road that had led him to it and there was little to see. In about a quarter mile he found a chance to turn left on a blacktop lane that took him to a parallel road that ran behind the building at a distance of perhaps two hundred yards. He snapped a dozen pictures. There was no good place to leave a vehicle, either today or in the middle of a future night, so he kept riding and looking and snapping. It would not be easy, but the rest of his life was going to begin when he opened that big tin can, one way or another. If he went to jail, he might see Gus Mendoza there.

      On the night before he planned to leave Wheeling, they all turned in early, and Paula came to him in the dark, wearing only a Mountaineers nightshirt, and he was reminded again that his recovery was still far from complete. The big girl wasn’t Sandy, but then nobody would be, and this hillbilly had great exuberance, and it was pretty good.
      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


      • #4
        Chapter 4

        Ross slept well and arose early, and packed a small duffel bag he had bought at Walmart. He noted how neatly it would fit between two studs behind a sheetrock wall, if you compressed the sides a little bit. He ate pancakes with the ladies and they all said their goodbyes, and promised to keep in touch; sure they would. They refused his offer to pay them for his keep, reminding him that he had spent generously at every opportunity.

        “Had no choice, really,” said Frannie. “If we had not taken you in, you would have wound up at that Med-Hab facility, with all those silly little student nurses practicing who-knows-what on you. Just teeny boppers, is what they are.”

        “Yeah, well, I appreciate your concern, saving me from such as that. Close call.”

        A last round of kisses and he boarded his pickup truck. Instead of heading for the Interstate, he went into town to see John Mazzone, deciding that it had to be done – better than leaving it as a loose end. The officer at the desk called the detective to come and meet Ross. The meeting was casual and low-key.

        “I was afraid you might have forgotten me. Heading south this morning?”

        “Yep, on my way to Baton Rouge. Been away too long, gotta see if my little business is still there, even if I’m still a week or two away from feeling good enough to do any work.”

        “What kind of little business, Mr. Ross?”

        “Sign shop. I’m a sign painter.”

        “Wow, I didn’t know there were any sign painters left. Who runs the place when you’re away?”

        “Nobody, it’s a one-man shop, and you’re right. Not many of us left, and I think I’ll give it up as soon as I can wind it up. Do like the buggy whip makers. Sell the building and kick back for a while. There’s just me, and I can look around.”

        “How do you like West Virginia?”

        “Man, this is like Disney land to a guy from down in the swamp. All those mountains, and nobody seems to notice. Ever since I got into the Smokies, coming up here, I’ve been like a blind dog in a butcher shop. I don’t know which way to turn. If I felt better I might try some mountain climbing. Are you a climber?”

        “No, climbing is for younger people than I am, but I’m a walker. There’s walking trails all over the place, and if you like to walk, this is the best place you can find. Get some good shoes and a back pack and a stick and do the ol’ heel and toe routine, in just about any direction. Go on back to Baton Rouge and then come back, and I’ll show you around. Sign you up in a couple of hiking clubs, meet some people.”

        “Well, I dunno about that. My first day in West Virginia I got shot in the stomach.”

        “So you did,” said John Mazzone, “and that reminds me, doesn’t it?”

        “His name is Gus Mendoza, and he works for the USPS in Baton Rouge. Son of a bitch was my mailman. Seen him five times a week for several years.”

        “Friend of yours?”

        “No, not really, just a guy I know.”

        “Tell me the story, Mr. Ross. Wasn’t he trying to kill you?”

        “Yeah, he was, and I’ve been trying to think what to tell you about it, and I’ve decided to stonewall it. I was headed east to see someone, and he followed me and caught up in Ohio, and it’s just bad luck that we had our trouble in your town; in your state. I don’t believe you would arrest me and lock me up, just to make me talk about it, at least I’m hoping you won’t. This thing is still a problem for me to work out, but you have his name now. You’re not going to send a posse to bring him in, are you?”

        “It's not really such a big deal. One perp and one victim, both from out of state, one gunshot, and now they're both gone. You’re the problem, Ross. I still have an open case, and there’s a guy down at the end of the hall waiting for me to wind it up. The shooter got away clean, there would be no trouble if he had killed you. One paragraph and all done, but it sort of chills my shit for you to come to my office and try to jerk me around, you know? Why didn’t you stick to that crap about an Italian named Vincent? I couldn’t believe it, but I could have lived with it.” Mazzone was pissed.

        Ross had nothing to offer. He frowned and cracked his knuckles and stared out the window at mountains.

        “You wouldn’t believe how bad I hate to write lies in my reports.” Mazzone got up and walked to the window and looked out at the mountains, turning his back to Jack Ross and effectively blocking his view. “Get out of here and hit the road. I hope I never see you again. Stay out of West Virginia.”

        Ross left without a word, and cranked the truck and made a U-turn in the street and drove out of town. He crossed the river and pulled into a gas station and bought a Coke and took out his maps. He would plot a different route back to Baton Rouge. He felt badly for putting Mazzone in such a spot, but he was glad he had not mentioned Gus’ crime in St. Louis. Bad enough, as it was.

        But the detective had given him an idea – something to think about as he drove. With a good pair of shoes and a back pack and a stick, one might walk back into Wheeling and on out to Penn Dearie, if one walked carefully.
        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


        • #5
          Chapter 5

          Jack Ross parked his truck on the apron and locked it. Taking his Coke and his map, he walked up a little rise behind the station, and looked down at the Ohio River and across to Wheeling on the other side. The Ohio was a pretty impressive body of water, unless one had seen the Mississippi. He reflected on his brief meeting with Detective John Mazzone, and understood his anger and appreciated that Mazzone had been charitable in opting not to press Ross in the matter of the shooting. There was nothing legal in the admonition not to return to West Virginia, but he told himself he would not go back. Or not more than once, at any rate.

          He had little enthusiasm for going back to Baton Rouge right away, even after his month in Wheeling. He couldn’t see Sandra when he got there, and had no plan for what to do if he saw Gus Mendoza again. Was he even there? He had a house and a wife, but he couldn’t be sure if he was wanted on an attempted murder charge. Had Ross given up his name to the local police, or did he have his own plans for a handful of justice? Either way, Gus had serious troubles, and Jack tried to imagine what he might do, himself, in such circumstances. In a way, Mendoza was yet another victim of the long-dead John Villarubbia, and of his heir, Piper.

          No doubt the Post Office was holding his mail, and there would be a bundle of it when he claimed it. He would also enquire for Mendoza while he was there. Surely, Gus would be gone – but where? He resolved to liquidate the Zodiac Sign Shop. He didn’t know what the business might be worth, but there were some accounts receivable and several orders on hand – or gone by now. He felt certain he knew a buyer for the building and contents, and he could come away with some money in his hand, enough to do as he pleased for a year or more. A bit of high-priced independence, and a real indulgence for a man sliding and stumbling into middle age.

          On his map he plotted a scenic and leisurely course south and west, one that would follow I-70 back to Cambridge and then I-77 through Ohio and back into West Virginia at Parkersburg, then through Charleston and on into Virginia. The Appalachian Mountains and the Appalachian Trail would lie in his path, just beyond the border, but he was still too weak to climb or do any serious walking. Maybe another time . . .

          In a big dog’s ass! Who was he kidding? He took the interchange and got back on I-70, driving east and back through the middle of Wheeling. He left the Interstate and took the same route he and Mendoza had travelled, past the hospital where he had courted death and the tiny image of Piper, and on to Penn Dearie, where a crew was busy paving over the gravel lot where he had fallen. He couldn’t tell whether the big metal building was finished. The road pointed northeast toward Pennsylvania, and the map indicated that the border was not far. Ross wasn’t interested in Pennsylvania today, but he noted that he could return to Wheeling from the east and commit his crime without having to go through town. After only a couple of miles he turned left onto a macadam road that skirted the woods and connected with the road that would take him past the back of the big building. There was almost no traffic, and he had no doubt that he could drive a vehicle fifty yards into the woods and leave it safely out of sight. He hoped it would be only for a couple of hours, and not for five to seven years. The thought made the soles of his feet tingle, as when he looked down from a great height. He worked his way north through Wellsburg and Hooverson Heights, and crossed the river at Steubenville, Ohio and by noon he was on US 22 and going west.

          In Cambridge he stopped for lunch and took a nap in his truck in the parking lot of a small shopping center. When he woke, the afternoon sun was in his eyes and he turned south, avoiding the cities and taking state roads into Kentucky. Jack Ross was on his way to Penn Dearie, by way of south Louisiana, and he searched the radio dial for some suitable music.
          If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


          • #6
            Chapter 6

            Ross spent all of three and a half days making the trip to Baton Rouge, stopping often to eat and nap and even doing a bit of walking. He avoided the interstate highways and drove state roads whenever he could. They went up and down mountains and over streams of all kinds and through small towns and forests and past all manner of things growing on farms. The long wound on his belly looked pretty good, he thought, and wasn’t unbearably tender, but he was still far from strong – and getting there slowly.

            He enjoyed Kentucky. There actually were horse farms, but from the road it was not easy to tell which ones were worth more than a million dollars, they all seemed shiny and well-tended. The grass looked green, rather than blue – maybe one had to stand closer to see. No doubt all the people there must be hillbillies, but there were few bib overalls and straw hats to be seen. Might as well have been in the Super Walmart at Siegen Village in Baton Rouge. He drove carefully, within the speed limit, always fearful of sliding off one of the left curves where one could tumble forever if one left the road. On the bigger roads Kentucky had built guardrails, but on local routes such disasters were in easy reach. He marveled that the other drivers seemed not to notice and flew around the bends like Danica P. He was cruising, and in no hurry to get home, and seldom thought of Mendoza, but the tin building in Wheeling was always with him.

            Tennessee was much the same until he was south of Chattanooga, where it began to flatten out a little. Alabama went by quickly and Mississippi, of course, was the home stretch and the driving was easy. It was late afternoon when he reached town and he stopped at the sign shop first. There was an accumulation of several days’ mail under the slot in the door, gathered before the post office began to hold it for him. Few things are as useless as month-old mail. He wondered who had told them and who was walking the route now. It damn’ sure wasn’t Gus Mendoza, but one of the items on his floor was a plain envelope with only his name on it, and it was from Gus. The single sheet of lined paper had a telephone number and Gus’ note – call me, we need to talk. What would Gus have to say? He locked the door and sat in his big chair and decided the call could wait until after he rested. He leaned back and closed his eyes, as he had done a hundred times before, and went sound asleep.

            He woke with a headache an hour later, stiff and sore and exhausted. He wanted to go home to shower and sleep in his own bed, but the call to Gus needed his attention. His phone still worked, but the bill must be overdue by now. Pay it tomorrow. Call the Mexican pistolero first, and he dialed the number in the note. It rang three times before it was picked up, and Gus must have known his number, because he immediately said “Jack?”

            “I got your note. Where are you?”

            “I’m in a safe place for now, maybe a couple hours out of town. Jack, the police have been to my house and to the post office. That’s not good, man. We need to get together and talk, right away.” There was no response. “Are you there? Did you hear me? Are you in your shop or at home?”

            “I heard you, you sorry bastard. What do you want?”

            “You must have given them my name, in Wheeling, and now I can’t even go home.” Ross let him wait. “Man, I’m sorry for what happened, but we could have worked it out between ourselves. There wasn’t no need to screw up my life, you know? It was just a heat of the moment thing, and now you’re all recovered and all. I wish you had thought about all this before you gave up my name. Now I’ve got to call the people up in West Virginia, but I need for you to call first and drop the charges. I’ll find a way to make it worth your while if you’ll do your part. Man, I really need to get back to work.”

            “I couldn’t help you now, even if I wanted to, Gus. The guy in Wheeling is probably the least of your worries. Wait until the homicide people in St. Louis get on your trail. Pal, I’ve told everybody I could think of. You better pack a lunch.”
            If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


            • #7
              Chapter 7

              Mendoza was quiet for a count of seven. “You son of a bitch, I should have killed you.”

              “You almost did. For a while, there in that little hospital, I figured you had. It was a bad time, and I’m still trying to get well, and I’ve thought about you every day. Five or six weeks now, but I’m getting stronger. I didn’t give up your name until just a few days ago, thinking I might run you down myself, but I’ve changed my thinking on that. I’d feel pretty stupid, going to jail for a shit like you. Let the police do it.

              You don’t shoot a man in the belly and then tell him you want to talk about it. You should have known better. Now you have wasted more than a month, and it’s a genuine emergency. Wherever you’re going, you should be there already. Run, don’t walk, pal.” Ross hung up the phone. He had lied to Gus about dropping a dime with the St. Louis police, but he resolved to do it tomorrow. There was no reason to believe that Detective Mazzone, in West Virginia, was going to press very hard.

              He left the light burning in the little office, but darkened the rest of the building. On his way out, he paused and went back for the gun Sonny Boy Leppert had left behind, and put it in his hip pocket. He left the truck where it was and crossed the street and backed into an unlighted doorway, wishing he had a cigarette. Twenty minutes later, a small Subaru sedan cruised past the shop. He felt certain it was Gloria Mendoza’s vehicle, and he recognized Gus at the wheel, and he held his position. The Subaru went around the block and came back slowly and he drew the pistol and stepped into the street, staring into the car. Gus picked up the movement at the edge of his vision and turned his head toward Ross. His eyes were suddenly wide, and he gunned the car and fled toward North Baton Rouge. Jack picked up a sandwich and a milkshake and went home. The stairs seemed much longer than he remembered, and he reached the top out of breath.

              Surely Mendoza wasn’t going to hang around, knowing Ross had busted him. Just to be sure, Jack ate in the dark, watching at his window but there was nothing to see. He took a shower and fell into his bed gratefully. It seemed like he had been gone a year, and he wondered where Sandra was tonight as he fell asleep.

              It was after ten o’clock when he woke, feeling better. There was nothing fit to eat for his breakfast, and he would get hotcakes and sausage at McDonald’s on his way to the shop. House cat was nowhere to be seen – maybe tomorrow – or not. No way of telling, with cats. At the shop he parked under the pecan tree and sat for a few minutes, seeing the familiar neighborhood. Inside, he switched on all the lights and looked in the little refrigerator. No beer, no food, and he had smoked the last of Sonny’s cigarettes weeks ago. As he sat down with the stale mail, the door was opened and a mail carrier named Vernon came halfway in.

              “Well, you seem to be back. You know where to pick up the mail we been holding?”

              “Government Street?”

              “No, it’s at the station by St. Louis King of France. I’ll start carrying it again tomorrow.”

              “Sounds good. Where’s Mendoza?”

              Vernon flinched and looked away. “Mendoza’s on leave. Been a while, too. I’ll see you next time.”

              Ross nodded at him and the mail carrier left. Right, he thought, Mendoza’s on leave. Gonna be a while longer. He reminded himself to call the police in St. Louis, wanting some pressure on Gus, to be sure he left town or was in jail, so he wouldn’t have to worry about him. But how to do it – he doubted he could stonewall them as he had done with Mazzone. They would want to know how he knew. For that matter he didn’t even know for certain that Miriam was dead.

              There would be some traffic in the shop on his first day back, so he locked the building and drove to Independence Park and stopped under an oak tree. He took his cell phone from his pocket and dialed a number. A familiar female voice answered.

              “Hello, is Mr. Bynum in? Yes, ma’am. Tell him Jack Ross in Baton Rouge.”
              If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


              • #8
                Chapter 8

                “Mr. Ross, I’ve been thinking about you. Did you get my phone messages?” C. P. Bynum seemed glad to hear from him. Ross suspected the lawyer might be a little disappointed to see the end of the strange and mysterious story of Willie Graham – the recently-departed man Ross knew only as Piper.

                “No, not yet. Been away for more than a month, and I haven’t touched the pile of mail or the phone messages. Still got it to do, I’m afraid. Did you get Willie all buttoned up and buried?”

                “Ah, there doesn’t seem to be any family, and that makes it more complicated, but I guess it will be the county’s problem. Miriam would probably have qualified under common-law, and gotten what was left, except that somebody has killed her. Miriam’s gone. Someone beat her to death and left her body in a sort of ghost-town about ten miles outside of St. Louis. I figured you would be interested, and that’s why I tried to call. They suspect Father Ortega, because they can’t find him. That’s all I know about that, but I wondered whether you had contacted the guy in New York.”
                Jack caught himself just in time to keep from telling Bynum that he knew what had happened to Father Ortega. “The guy in New York has been dead for years.”

                “So you haven’t got rich since the last time I saw you?”

                “Sure didn’t, Mr. Bynum.”

                “And after all, this is what it comes down to. Why did you call me up, then?”

                “I wanted to find out if Miriam was really dead. I needed to know.”

                “You’ve been talking to Ortega?”

                “No, sir, and Ortega was never his name, anyway. He’s a pimp from Louisville named Hector Velez.”

                “Ross, you’re not telling me everything.”

                “I never said I would, but I’ll tell you this much. I talked to Miriam Moscowitz, and she admitted that she killed Darrell Lindsay, the contact in New York. She got the information she wanted and then killed him with an overdose. She was the other party, and Piper didn’t even know it. The two of them could have teamed up and gone for the money, but Miriam was greedy. Until Piper sent for me, she figured to get it all, assuming there ever was any money. Will anyone buy a stone for Miriam?”

                “No, I mean I don’t know. How did she get involved in all this, anyway?”

                “That’s a strange story, and maybe I will tell you some day. Miriam was quite a gal, as it turns out. Good talking to you.” Ross broke the connection and wished he had a cigarette. He reclined the seat a few degrees and leaned back and pondered what he would say to the St. Louis police. A motorcycle cop made a lap around the park and then pulled up next to his window and rapped on it, without leaving his bike. Jack put the window down.

                “Are you feeling okay?” asked the cop.

                “Yeah, I’m just resting a while, getting out of the office.”

                The cop smirked at him. “If you’re waiting for your date, he ain’t coming. We busted him yesterday.”

                “**** you, lieutenant,” said Ross and closed the window. The cop made a small wheelie and rode away, laughing gleefully. Jack called information for the number of the homicide division of the St. Louis police department and then made the call. The phone rang seven times before it was picked up.

                “Homicide, this is Corporal West.”

                “My name is Jack Ross, and I’m calling from Baton Rouge. If you have a case on a victim named Miriam Moscowitz, I need to speak to the detective on that case.”

                “You calling with information on the case, Mr. Ross? You can give it to me and I will pass it along to the detective. You said Moscowitz, Mr. Ross? What was the date of that homicide?”

                “I don’t know, but it was more than a month ago, and I want to speak to the detective.”

                “He’s busy, Mr. Ross. He’s got a lot of cases. You can tell me the information.”

                “Never mind, Corporal West, maybe I’ll call back when he’s not so busy.”

                “Don’t hang up, Mr. Ross. I’ll ring his desk for you. He might be too busy to pick up.” Corporal West was irritated and Jack didn’t care.

                “I might be too busy to call back.” He waited while West did whatever it was he had to do. No doubt he was referencing the case and talking to the detective, who picked up a phone that had not rung.

                “This is detective Marcello, Mr. Ross. You have some information on the homicide of Ms. Moscowitz?”

                “Yes, I’m calling to give you the name of the guy you want. He’s Gus Mendoza, and he works for the post office here in Baton Rouge.”

                “How do you know he committed this crime, Mr. Ross?”

                “He told me he did.”

                “I’m looking at my file right now. Why do you wait six weeks to tell me?”

                “Well, he tried to kill me, too. Put me in the hospital for a while, and I had to decide whether to tell on him, or save him for myself. Much better you folks deal with him, so I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder. I hope I never see him again.”

                “Do you know where Mr. Mendoza is, Mr. Ross?”

                “I’m pretty sure he was here in town last night, but he’s probably traveling right now, unless he’s waiting to be picked up. I think he was already wanted by the police in another place, and I think he will run.”

                “I need more information, Mr. Ross. Why did he attack you?”

                “I’ve told you all I know about the Moscowitz case, Detective Marcello, and the rest of it is a private matter. He said he killed her, and now I have a small business to run, and I have done what I could for you.”

                “Thanks for your help, Mr. Ross. We will be in touch.”

                Jack Ross had a leisurely lunch and picked up his mail at the post office and returned to the shop without much enthusiasm. He listened to sixteen phone messages and culled the bundle of post, filling his waste basket. He frowned at his bank statement, and tried to remember how much cash had survived his trip and made it back to town. He had left it in a drawer at the apartment.

                At a quarter past three o’clock two men in golf shirts and sport jackets came in without knocking, and stood looking around the shop. He could tell that the fat one was going to address him as Mr. Ross, and he was right.
                If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


                • #9
                  Chapter 9

                  “Mr. Ross, I am Detective Haydel”, said the fat one, and he pointed to the skinny one and advised that he was Detective Farmer. “Detective Farmer has brought a recorder today, and we are here to ask a few questions.” Neither offered to shake hands, and Ross stood silent. “We have been requested by the Municipal Police Department of St. Louis to interview you and take your statement.” He looked expectantly at Ross, who gave no indication he had heard. “They have an open homicide case on a victim named Miriam Moscowitz, killed some weeks ago.” His squeaky voice and inflection made it sound like a question. “They said you had contacted them this morning, Mr. Ross. Did you call up the police in St. Louis?”

                  “Yes, I called them this morning.”

                  “And did you speak with Detective Marcello, Mr. Ross?” Detective Farmer had taken the small recorder from his pocket and was recording.

                  “Yes, I did. I gave him some information – a name.”

                  “Detective Marcello said you told him a man named Gus Mendoza was the perpetrator of this homicide.” He looked up hopefully. “Did you tell him that, Mr. Ross?”

                  “No, I told him that Mendoza had said he killed Ms. Moscowitz. I didn’t say he did it, just that he said he did.”

                  “Why would he say he did, Mr. Ross, unless he really did?”

                  “I don’t know, Lieutenant Haydel.”

                  “I’m not a lieutenant, Mr. Ross. I’m just what I said I was, a detective.”

                  Ross had little patience for this encounter, or for the two policemen. He wanted them to go and let him return to his office chores, such as catching up with details here, and also preparing to sell the building and return to Wheeling. And he was not sure Gus Mendoza was convinced that their trip had been for nothing, either. He might suspect that Jack had misled him and might hang around in the area until someone put him in jail. He didn’t like his two visitors, but he was rooting for them to find Gus and ship him off to Missouri.

                  “Do you know why he killed Ms. Moscowitz, Mr. Ross.”

                  “She had some information, and he wanted it.”

                  “Did he shoot her?”

                  “I don’t know. He didn’t tell me how he did it.”

                  “We need more detail on this matter.”

                  “Detective, I was not an eyewitness. The lady is dead, my mailman told me he had killed her, and I called St. Louis and gave them his name. That’s it. Pick up Mendoza and ask him. He knows all about it. I have tried to be helpful.”

                  “Do you know where he is?”

                  “Late last night he was cruising past my sign shop in a Subaru, and I saw him. We also talked on the phone, and I told him I had busted him with the St. Louis police. Actually, I had not – not until today – but I wanted him moving. Unless he has decided to wait at his house for you to come and get him, he should be ‘way down the road and travelling. I pissed him off pretty good, and I scared him, too.”

                  “Detective Farmer and I want to know about this information the victim had that got her killed.”

                  “Both of you? Look, I’m trying hard to avoid telling you that this is not your business, but you really are trespassing. I’d like to see a copy of the request you got from St. Louis. I can’t believe they wanted you to ask me for anything beyond what I know about their homicide case. You’re just being nosy.”

                  “Well, of course, you are not entitled to see that message. That’s police business. Can you tell me what Mr. Mendoza did after killing Ms. Moscowitz?”

                  “A day or so later he took a shot at me, to keep me from telling on him.”

                  “And did he hit you, Mr. Ross?”

                  “Yes, he hit me.”

                  “Where did he hit you?”

                  “West Virginia.”

                  Detective Farmer failed to adequately stifle a giggle, and it got him a dirty look from his partner. Haydel continued to do all the talking. “What the hell were you and Mr. Mendoza doing in West Virginia?”

                  “Just before the shooting, we were travelling east on Interstate 70. We had just crossed the Ohio River. Mendoza was driving. He stopped the car in a parking lot and we got out and had a confrontation and he shot me.”

                  “And why were you crossing the Ohio River?”

                  Jack suddenly stood up and glared at the detectives. “Like the chicken, Mr. Haydel – to get to the other side! Now, goddammit, get off my back and go and look for Gus Mendoza. That’s what the homicide guy in St. Louis would want you to do.”

                  Detective Haydel stood up in response, and Farmer, wide-eyed, looked for an order to turn off the voice recorder. “If necessary, we can load you up and take you downtown and continue this interview there. You can’t just decide not to cooperate, you know, this is a murder investigation.” Haydel’s face was turning red.

                  “If I have to go downtown I will be looking for somebody to tell a funny story about a couple of Keystone Kops and a recording machine. Maybe you’ll get promoted.” Ross looked from one lawman to the other, and spread his hands. “Where are we?”

                  “We’re going, Mr. Ross, and I am making a note that you have turned out to be a hostile witness.”

                  Ross picked up a pencil and a yellow pad and pushed his luck. “And I’m making a note of my own, with your name in it. Weren’t you supposed to ask me about the shooting in West Virginia, Detective Haydel? Then you wouldn’t have to come back.”

                  “Don’t worry, Mr. Ross. If we get an inquiry from West Virginia, you will see us again.”

                  “Mendoza told me last night that the police had already been to his house. Don’t you have any info about that?”

                  Haydel turned to Farmer and raised his eyebrows. Farmer fumbled in the inside pocket of his jacket and came up with a folded sheet of paper. He offered it apologetically to Haydel, who snatched if from him and scanned it furiously and shoved it back with a look that promised they would talk about it later. “Yes, just as well get to the West Virginia business while we are here. Save us having to come back tomorrow.” He sat back down and gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling of the little office and steepled his fingers and took a deep breath to begin.

                  Ross turned from the window, where he had been looking into his pecan tree. He was glad he had brought some cold beers. “I need a beer,” he said, and walked toward the rear of the shop.

                  “None for me, Mr. Ross.”

                  “I couldn’t have put it better myself.”
                  If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


                  • #10
                    Chapter 10

                    “Okay, let’s get this done,” sighed Detective Haydel. “You and Mr. Mendoza crossed into West Virginia together and had a confrontation. Tell me about it, Mr. Ross.”

                    “Mr. Mendoza took a revolver out of his pocket and shot me in the stomach, and I went to the hospital and stayed there quite a while – I think they figured I was dying.”

                    “I want to know about the confrontation and why Mendoza confessed his crime to you. And I want to know how the homicide victim, Ms. Moscowitz, back in St. Louis is tied up with you and Mendoza; I know damn’ well there’s a connection.”

                    “I’ll bet the detective in West Virginia didn’t even ask you to do this interview with me, Mr. Haydel. He and I did the interview before I left Wheeling. I bet all he wanted was for you to pick up Gus Mendoza and interview him about the shooting. I want to see that message that Farmer Brown has in his pocket.”

                    “Forget that and stop demanding to see confidential communications addressed to me. I feel certain that information about Mendoza’s activities will be of interest to the police in Missouri, as it might concern their homicide case, and when they ask me I don’t want to have to tell them I don’t know. Now, why were you and Mendoza in West Virginia in the first place?” Haydel had no doubt he was back in control.

                    Ross got up and walked back to the window, still working on the beer. “Ms. Moscowitz and I had a little project going, hoping to make some money, so this Mexican mail man dealt himself in, went to St. Louis and put enough pressure on Moscowitz to get the information he wanted and then killed her. She and I had a meeting set up in Ohio, and he showed up, claiming to be her agent.”

                    “Okay, tell me about the ‘little project’ you mentioned.”


                    “I could come back with a court order, Mr. Ross.”

                    “Do it. I’ll call a lawyer while I wait here. I don’t think you can get an order.”

                    “We’ll come back to that later. Explain to me why Mendoza confessed the homicide to you.”

                    “I refused to deal with him until I could speak to the lady in St. Louis, and I started trying to call her, and he had to tell me she wasn’t going to answer, and then I knew what he had done. I didn’t want to waste all the time and money I had spent to make the trip, so I got in the car with him and we headed east on the Interstate. The plan never got off the ground – it was a bust. I guess Mendoza realized he had done a murder for nothing, but figured he could come back to the Post Office here and at least have a job, except for me. So, he tried to kill me too. Hard son of a bitch, and I guess I never really knew him. Now he’s pissed at me, and I’ll be glad when somebody locks him up.”

                    “You waited a long time to speak up, Mr. Ross.”

                    “Yeah, for a while I was thinking I wanted him for myself, but I changed my mind. As of now, this whole thing is history and I’m trying to forget it. I don’t need to do a killing. If you happen to find Mendoza, shoot him in the stomach for me.”

                    “Was your little project something illegal – maybe criminal?”

                    “God damn it, Detective Haydel! I bet you peek through keyholes, too, hoping to get in on the edge of other people’s action! Did anybody ever piss in your eye, through a keyhole? Go find Gus Mendoza, but watch out for his revolver. Maybe you can get some excitement of your own today.”

                    “How did you get to West Virginia?”

                    “I drove my pickup truck.”

                    “You’re trying to tell me you closed up your place of business and drove to West Virginia to meet a lady and commit a crime, and then changed your mind and came back to Baton Rouge? That makes no sense at all. What happened?”

                    “Well, all I’m trying to tell you is that it’s none of your business, and you don’t need it to respond to those requests. Moscowitz wasn’t much of a lady, she was a retired hooker, but I think Mendoza killed her before she told him everything he needed to know – that’s what happened. Mendoza wasn’t prepared to commit this misdemeanor. I was thinking about killing him even before he shot me.”

                    Jack tossed his empty can into the trash basket. Detective Haydel looked at his watch, put his little notebook into his pocket and signaled Farmer to shut off the recorder. “I’m off the clock now; we’re off the clock as of one minute ago. I figure you owe us each a beer, just for being such an asshole. I saw where the fridge is.”

                    Ross frowned in disbelief and then shrugged and sighed and went back to his rolling chair. “Bring me one, too. You can have a beer for being such a nosy-rosie jerk, but then you got to hit the door and leave me alone. Couple of pains in the ass.”

                    Haydel took the only chair in the little office and Farmer had to take a half-seat on the corner of the desk. Ross couldn’t recall whether Farmer had ever spoken at all. He seemed to be Haydel’s gofer.

                    “Man, I’d like to hear this story. We are one hundred percent off the record now, and you wouldn’t have no jeopardy or nothing like that. What was that long ride all about?”

                    “As it turned out, it was just a long ride and an expensive week in a hospital. I knew when I left town it was a long shot and I looked at it as kind of a vacation. I never take vacations, but I just decided to go. I spent an extra day getting there, and sort of took the scenic route. It really was a hell of a story, but you’ll never hear it from me, and I’m the only one that knows it now. It was Moscowitz’ story, and she drove down from St. Louis to talk me into taking a flyer with her. I never should have told Mendoza as much of it as I did, and look what happened! Mendoza was my mail man, can you believe that?

                    She made it sound good, but she was a real piece of work, a hard case. Mendoza might have done me a favor, because she admitted to two killings of her own. If this thing had worked out, she might have killed me, too, and I was in it only by accident.” Ross studied his beer and turned his back of the detectives, swiveling his chair around so he could look out the window. “I’m not strong enough yet to go back to work, and sign painters are on the way out, anyway. I believe I’ll sell this place and move away. Kentucky, maybe, I liked the mountains – anyplace with mountains, you know. Or West Virginia, there was good mountains in West Virginia. I might go there.”

                    Well, if you go back to West Virginia, you better be careful.” Haydel and Farmer stood up.

                    “Yeah, I’ll be careful.” Ross made a mental note to be very careful.
                    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


                    • #11
                      Chapter 11

                      Ross stood at his door and watched the two detectives as they walked to their car and he wondered what might happen next, and where Gus Mendoza might be at that moment. He felt sure that the guy in West Virginia, Mazzone, was interested only in an interview with Mendoza, relative to his wounding of Ross. If Mendoza turned up on the street in Wheeling, he might be arrested and face a charge of some kind, but it was not likely the local cops had been requested to do any more than question him. The St. Louis police, on the other hand, would have a greater interest and might well want Gus picked up and held – perhaps until they could send someone to Baton Rouge. They had a murder investigation going, and he knew they weren’t likely to find their suspect, Hector Velez. Sonny Leppert had said he left Velez in a ditch in West Memphis. The call from Ross, with Mendoza’s name, was certainly their best lead.

                      Only Mendoza knew just what he had done to Miriam Moscowitz, and he would be crazy to do anything but run like hell and try hard to cover his tracks. If he was found, the rest of his life would be spent in a Missouri prison – or worse. Ross assumed Mendoza was on the road to somewhere, and wondered about his wife, Gloria,and about her Subaru. He tried to remember what Gus’ own car was. On the off chance, he called the number he had called last night, but there was no answer, and he decided to speak to Gloria if he could. He found a number in his little book and dialed. Gloria picked up almost instantly.

                      “Gloria, this is Jack Ross, and I’m trying to reach Gus. Is he there?”

                      “Bastard!’ she screamed. “He’s in some kind of trouble because of you, and now he’s gone – left in the middle of the night. You’ve got some nerve to call here. You knew he was gone, it’s your fault!” She was sobbing loudly now.

                      “He’s in trouble, you better believe that, and it’s big trouble and it’s his own fault. I don’t know what he told you, but I guarantee you he was lying. You don’t want to hear the truth. And if he’s gone, why didn’t you go with him?”

                      “He’s gonna send for me in a few days. I’m his wife, Jack, and we’re in this together. And what do you care, anyway? If you know something, you need to tell me. You and Gus used to be friends.”

                      “Okay, shut up and listen to me. When Gus left you and his job a few weeks ago, the first thing he did was make a really bad decision, and then he made it worse every chance he got. He followed me across the country and shot me in the stomach when he caught up with me in Ohio and left me down on the ground in a parking lot, and he was in bad trouble even before that. When he found out I wasn’t dead, he should have started running. I couldn’t believe it when I saw him cruising my shop in your car last night. Has he been here in Baton Rouge for the past month? He must be crazy, and unless he leaves the country you can’t go where he’s going. Gloria, he’s a wanted man in two states, and if they catch him he’ll go to jail for a helluva long time.”

                      “I don’t know whether to believe you or not. Gus said it was your fault. How bad is the trouble?”

                      “As bad as it could get. You’ve got some decisions to make. Take my advice and get control of whatever money you guys have – all of it. You’re going to need it, now that he’s gone. Even if he sends for you, you can’t go, because the police will be looking at you. Get used to it. I won’t call you again and I won’t do anything to help Gus. He’s no friend of mine now. Good luck.” Jack ended the call.

                      He felt sorry for Gloria, and almost sorry for Gus, who had thrown away a good job and a wife for a slim chance at some money that might not even exist. Ross wondered if it might have been his fault, after all. Maybe he had made it sound like an adventure. Once Mendoza had left Baton Rouge and done the deed in St. Louis, there had been no place to stop and now it was much too late. He was history. Ross told himself that all this had no relation to a small breaking and entering he was planning to do amid the mountains of West Virginia. Not the same thing at all.

                      However, he had to wonder whether anyone had found the body of Sonny Boy, in the woods off Interstate 55 and if so, had they noted that the body was rolled up in a tarp stained with paint in many bright colors – like one might find in a sign shop.
                      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


                      • #12
                        Chapter 12

                        Jack locked the front door and went into the working area of the shop and stood looking around at the tools of his trade and reflected that he still was not strong enough to do much work. He told himself to regard them as tools of his former trade, which seemed to take a lot for granted. He saw two sections of scaffold, broken down into pieces, two step ladders and an extension ladder and a post hole digger with its two shovel handles leaning against the back wall. He had a good table saw and a cut-off saw and a band saw and two skill saws. Four grand – maybe five - of his hard-earned money, without the hand tools and the stuff in the box. It might bring him two, if he was lucky.

                        He frowned and picked up a big garbage bag and returned to the office and began to fill it from his file cabinet. Everything older than a few months went. He wondered if there was any point in saving a collection of his hand sketches, in color, for job proposals, and he wasted an hour looking at them before stuffing them into the bag. The Zodiac Sign Shop was getting an enema, and the sign painter was moving on. First he would be a tourist and then for a few hours he would be a burglar, and after that was anyone’s guess. Perhaps a man of means or just another shmuck looking for a job. Not a convict - that was out, unthinkable. How much for first offense B & E, anyway?

                        He wanted to talk to Sandra, but she might not want to hear from him. Surely she would want to know he was back in town. Just thinking about it was a waste of time, and he picked up the phone and picked her number from the speed-dial list. She picked up on the third ring, and recognized the number.

                        “Hello, Jack. I heard you were back in town. How are you feeling?”

                        “Not too bad, I guess, but I’m still sort of weak. Getting my strength back, but it’s a slow process. They told me you had called the hospital.”

                        “I didn’t give them my name.”

                        “I know, but it had to be you. Who else was gonna call?”

                        “They said you had been shot in the stomach.”
                        “Right in the stomach. I was pretty sick for a while.”

                        “Who shot you?”

                        “It was a Mexican named Gus – a crazy Mexican.”

                        “Did they catch him?”

                        “No, he was in the wind by then, gone. Just a couple of days before, he had killed a woman. I guess that’s what he will have to answer for, if they ever catch him.”

                        “Jack, what in the world were you doing in West Virginia in the first place?”

                        “Same as the Mexican, both of us on a wild goose chase.”

                        “There must be quite a story here.”

                        “Quite a story, I promise you. Stranger than fiction. Are you okay?”

                        “Yes, I’m fine. My life got real different all of a sudden, but I’m fine, and I’m glad you called to let me know you were back, and glad to know you are recovering. I did worry about you. After we . . . left each other, within a couple of days you were gone, and I had no idea where you were.”

                        “Sandra, I should have let you know. This story, once it got started, took off with a bang. You didn’t think I had gone in the river, did you?”

                        “No, I knew you wouldn’t do anything like that, but I felt sort of guilty that I might have had something to do with your leaving town so soon. Did the story begin here in town?”

                        “No, it began in St. Louis. I guy I used to know was dying in St. Louis and he wanted to see me, and his lawyer called me.”

                        “Old friend?”

                        “Lord, no. He just seemed to have me on his conscience. He had let me down in a bad spot, many years ago, and felt he owed me something. He was just a small-time bum. I’m closing the shop and I will sell the building and maybe take some time off for myself. Been working a long time. I wasn’t sure calling you was a good idea, but I figured you would want to know I had gotten back.”

                        “I was hoping you would call me, as a courtesy, but it doesn’t change anything, you know.”

                        “No, I know that, Sandra. For me, everything is about to change, except this. I will let you know, if you want.”

                        “I don’t want. I’m okay, doing fine. You really did go to St. Louis that night, didn’t you? I guess that’s something. I didn’t believe you. See you around, pal.”

                        “Yeah, you take good care.” Jack hung up the phone and tried to think about anything but Sandra.
                        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


                        • #13
                          Chapter 13

                          He tramped around the shop, frowning. He had no pending work orders, nothing at all to produce any money. He wasn’t destitute, but the trip to West Virginia had cost a bundle, what with the copays for his hospital treatment and traveling expenses, and the Zodiac Sign Shop was well into its second straight month of red ink. There was no chance, in his mind, of trying to get it up and running again, even if he had had the strength to do it. Little remained except to button it up and move along.

                          Ross stopped and looked at the lettering brushes on the bench. Except for the fitches, they were all carefully shaped in blade form, wet with transmission fluid or lard oil. He had always liked the smell of the brushes and the oil, and he would miss it, and he suddenly became aware that he might never paint another sign. Also on the bench was an assortment of paint rags and shop towels, including a faded red one with a bullet hole in it. That one would be added to the items he would keep – a grisly reminder of the day he had found Sonny Boy Leppert sitting on the ground under his pecan tree, waiting for him to come and open the shop. Sonny was collateral damage, incidental to the rest of the failed journey eastward. He had already decided to go, to meet Miriam Moscowitz and find out, once and for all, whether there was any money waiting for them.

                          But there was one more sign to be done, and he would do it now; tonight. On the easel was a two foot by three foot blank, already coated and ready to go. A pattern had been pounced on it, month before last, in readiness for his attention the next day – except that the next day he had been two hundred miles down the road and rolling eastward. He took a rag and wiped off the black dots of the pattern and poured turps into a cup and washed out a brush, and then used the same turps to mix up some black One Shot enamel. In big casual characters he painted Building for Sale. No phone numbers listed. He posted it in the office window, between the glass and the bilind. He cleaned and shaped the brush and laid it on the bench, just because he couldn’t bear not to. He wasn’t sure how to prepare the brushes for keeping, or even why, but he would keep them all.

                          He turned out the lights and went into the little office and turned on the television and sat in the big rolling chair, but only briefly. There was nothing he wanted to see and he turned off the set and let himself out and locked the door and went home. The climb up the outside stairs left him puffing and weak again. Where was Gus tonight, he wondered, and where was Sandra? Neither was any of his business any longer, but he wondered anyway.

                          When he got to the shop in the morning there was a Volvo SUV under the pecan tree, in his parking place, and two women were standing at his front door, cupping their eyes with their hands as they peered into the building. One was pretty and petite, short shorts and tank top and fashionable sandals. Her dark hair was in a ponytail. Her companion was bigger and bulkier and wore cowboy clothes, including pointed boots. Her hair was cut short, like a man’s, and she wore a heavy watch on her wrist, and she turned away from the door and spoke in a deep voice.

                          “Are you the owner of this building?”
                          Last edited by vapros; 03-08-2018, 11:50 PM.
                          If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


                          • #14
                            Chapter 14

                            The two women backed up just enough for him to unlock and open the door. They followed him inside and he went around turning on the lights as they toured his shop, looking into the little bathroom, opening his refrigerator and sniffing the interior. All their attention seemed to be for each other, and Jack was ignored. As they walked around they conversed in hushed tones and offered no introductions. He began to think of them as Big and Little.

                            “I’m Jack Ross, and this is my place – Zodiac Sign Shop.”

                            “Jack Ross the sign maker,” sniffed Big, much as she might say ‘Jack Ross the yard man’. “How much are you asking for the place?”

                            “I don’t know yet. I just put up the sign last night, and I’ll have to get some advice on an asking price. Maybe a few days - I don’t know how much it’s worth.”

                            “Can’t be all that much for this building in this area. We might have some use for it, anyway, and I might make an offer this afternoon after we talk about it.” Big and Little continued their inspection, taking an interest in the paints and brushes and discussing the power tools. They wondered about various things out loud, to each other, but had no questions for Jack. They opened the back door and looked out into the yard, which had lacked attention during his absence. The grass had grown tall, and old signs in various conditions stood propped against the wall. Without speaking, they conveyed their disdain for the mess. Jack thought Big needed a punch in the mouth. He had not heard a word from Little since she entered the shop.

                            They moved into the little office, trying his big chair and turning on the television and his computer. Big picked up the phone and listened for a dial tone and hung it up. She pulled out the top drawer of his filing cabinet and spent more time than she needed, and Jack pushed it closed. She sniffed again and turned away, stepping to the window and surveying the street outside. Both women left him in the office and went back into the shop area and stood by the sink. Big spoke to Little and got a smile and a nod in return. They returned to the office.

                            Big sat at the desk and leafed through the legal pad for a clean sheet and began writing. Three minutes later she tore out the page and folded it once and laid it on the desk. “There you go, Jack Ross, that’s my bid for the place with all contents, as it sits. You can take your computer with you. The offer is good for forty-eight hours, and I will contact you day after tomorrow to see if we have a deal. I never negotiate or haggle. Yes or no is all I will want to hear from you.” She looked at him expectantly, but he gave her nothing. She shrugged and nodded to her small partner and they drove away in the Volvo.

                            Ross figured he had seen the last of them; hoped he had. The process of shutting down and getting out had begun with a jolt, and it left him a bit weak. He got a beer from the refrigerator and sat down at his desk. Big’s folded offer lay unopened where she had left it. He thought about his brushes and paints, his ladders and section of scaffold, his post hole digger, his accounts receivable, his big chair and his sign shop. He suddenly realized that he had put the sign in his window without much attention for what he was doing. He thought about Sandra and about Gus Mendoza; he recalled killing Sonny Boy Leppert, listening to Miriam’s story and driving to West Virginia, and his plan to go again.

                            He left the office and went back into the work area. The business had never been much of an enterprise, never even an LLC, just a private place for one man to make his living, not at leisure surely, but at least on his own schedule. It wouldn’t be missed by anyone else, and not much by him. He went into his bathroom and scowled at himself in the mirror. He opened the back door and rejoiced in the fact that he might not have to clean up the back yard after all. Shop Cat appeared for the first time since his return and strolled past him and went directly to the office and jumped into his chair.

                            Jack opened another beer and took a deep breath and wondered what else he might be opening. And none too soon, either. He was forty-three years old.
                            If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


                            • #15
                              Chapter 15

                              Ross followed Shop Cat into the office and picked up the folded offer that Big had left on his desk. It was signed G.A. Fothergill. The amount impressed him and indicated that he had some serious equity in the property, but he had little idea how it might compare to the actual value. The woman had said her offer was good for forty-eight hours – not much time for gathering the information he needed. Getting the matter finished so soon was an exciting prospect and far beyond anything he had imagined when he was preparing the sign he had put in his window last night. At the same time, it was tempting to think about turning down the big woman in the cowboy boots.

                              He called the bank and dialed the extension for Barry Minor, who picked up on the second ring. “Hey, Jack, been a while, man. You want to borrow any money today?”

                              “Not today, Barry, but maybe next week or the week after – I’ll keep you on speed dial. I’m closing the shop and trying to sell the building. I put a sign in the window last night, and today I got a prospective buyer and she gave me an offer that’s good for two days, so all of a sudden I need to know what the place is worth and I need to know who can help me with that on short notice.”

                              “Hell, man, ask me. I can tell you pretty damn’ close.”

                              “In two days?”

                              “In five minutes, buddy. I’m bringing it up on the system as we speak. We got the mortgage, so it’s my business to keep up with what it’s worth. I’m not a realtor, so I can’t advise you about what to ask, but I can give you the figure I would use if you wanted a second mortgage. How much is the offer you’ve got?” He peered at his monitor and listened to Ross’ response. “Huh, that’s an easy call. Take it and try not to grin at the lady. Bring her in.”

                              “Barry, she wants it all – you know, all my gear and my power tools and my refrigerator, everything. She wants me to just walk out.”

                              “I don’t care. Take it if you can get it. Anyway, man, why are you getting out? I thought you were hanging on pretty good in there. You gonna retire?”

                              “Not exactly. I’m making a slow recovery from a serious injury and I’m not in any shape to go back to work yet. I was laid up for several weeks in another state, and the shop sort of closed itself while I was gone. A small commercial shop isn’t maintained with lettering brushes any more, anyhow, and this is my excuse to get out. I’ll sell the building and get out of town for a while. Travel around a little and get well. Then I will look around and do something else, and I’m looking forward to it. Sort of exciting.”

                              “Jack, I heard you got shot.”

                              “Yeah, pal, right in the stomach. Had a bad time for a while. How did you find out?”

                              “Well, Sandy is a good friend of my wife’s. Gerrie said it hit Sandy pretty hard. Do they know who shot you?”

                              “Yeah, I gave them his name. It was a guy I know. It wasn’t the worst thing he did that week, either, and now he’s wanted in two states. Far as I know, he’s somewhere out there, running hard. I’m rooting for the cops, for sure, Barry.”

                              “Jack, I think I know who it is, you know?”

                              “You might. I called his wife and advised her to gather up all their money, so he can’t get it and leave her busted. He’s history, and she needs to get used to the idea. She can’t do anything for him.”

                              “Sounds like a helluva story, man. If you ever feel like it, I’d like to hear about it.”

                              “Could be. I’ve had more adventures lately than the other sign painters around here. Thanks for your help. Maybe I’ll be in touch soon.” Ross hung up the phone. He lifted Shop Cat out of the chair and sat down. He wished he had a cigarette.

                              He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes and spent an hour reflecting on the unlikely events of his forty-fourth year. Beginning with the letter from Bynum in St. Louis and continuing up to the written offer to buy his sign shop, still in his hand, from the obnoxious Ms. Fothergill, he had ridden a runaway sled halfway across the country and back. The two days she had allowed for his response was only a pause before he would get back aboard to continue the frenzied trip to . . . well, to somewhere. He began to make a plan, for the lack of something better to do. He would walk every day and work out, to get his strength and stamina back. He would gather up the things he might need in a tool box to take back to West Virginia. Everything was here in the shop, and Big need not ever know what he took.

                              At some point, as he sat, a handful of mail came through the slot in the door and fell to the floor. It made him think of Gus Mendoza and his own part in the bad decisions Gus had made after hearing Jack’s running account of the taking of Sonny Boy and the tale of the ransom money. He wondered if he should feel some responsibility for Gus’ current plight, but he did not. Dumb Mexican.

                              The very recollection exhausted him, and he fell asleep. Shop Cat returned to the office and jumped into the chair with him, fleas and all.
                              If it ain't funny, it ain't much.