The Taking of Sonny Boy

vapros

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Chapter 20

Chapter 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So where the hell are you?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vapros

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Chapter 21

Chapter 21

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

"What was in the letter he sent you?"

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

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

"From what reference point?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You still know how to find him?"

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

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

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

"What?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shrugged and kept walking "I hope somebody brings me some mouthwash."
 

vapros

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Messages
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Chapter 22

Chapter 22

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

"Sorry to keep you waiting so long."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What would you think?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Let me buy. This was my idea."

"Forget it. Willie's buying tonight," said Ross, and put down a bill from his pocket. Miriam Moscowitz and Father Ortega had lost their appetites. As Bynum drove the Lincoln out of the lot, Ross could see the other two leaving the cafe and heading for the red Firebird.
 

vapros

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3,627
Chapter 23

Chapter 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I guess I can accept that."

"Yeah, I guess you can."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yeah, I imagine you will."
 

vapros

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Chapter 24

Chapter 24

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

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

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

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

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

"Mr. Ross?"

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

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

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

"May we come in, Mr. Ross?"

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

"This is very important, Mr. Ross."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So I've been flim-flammed."

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

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

"I am only the priest."

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

"I believe so."

"Piss on that."

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

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

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

"Like his car."

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

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

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

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

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

"She always gives generously."

"I'll bet she does."

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

"She drives a better car than I do."

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

"No. You can go to hell."

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

"You were right. Was there anything else?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Where is this church, anyway?"

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

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

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

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

"You're turning us down."

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

"You're making a mistake."

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

vapros

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Chapter 25

Chapter 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"He must not have died coughing, then."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What was their deal?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What?"

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

"See you in forty minutes."

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

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

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

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

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

"Are you there, Mr. Ross?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ross shrugged and put the receiver down on the bed. He picked up his little bag and walked out of the room, leaving the door open for the maid.
 

vapros

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Joined
May 24, 2004
Messages
3,627
Chapter 26

Chapter 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Is there any money in the sign business?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Right. Let's keep in touch."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What's that?"

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

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

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

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

Ross looked him up and down. "That's okay. I can deal with you." He got up and walked to the fourth row of seats and sat in the one on the far end, waiting for his plane and feeling disgruntled. Ortega had nettled him again.
Miriam and the oily priest talked with their heads together for several minutes, and once or twice they seemed to be arguing. They left the terminal walking quickly and without looking back at Ross.
 

vapros

Verified Member
Joined
May 24, 2004
Messages
3,627
Chapter 27

Chapter 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Old friend?"

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

"So, you told him to forget it."

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

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

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

"Altoona."

"Altoona? Altoona, Pennsylvania?"

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

"What's a shemiel?"

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

"I'm talking in questions?"

"See, there's another one."

"Another what?"

"Another question," said Ross.

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

"Yeah, I just told you."

"In the truck?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Where were you?"

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

"You haven't said where you were."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You guys on the outs?"

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

"What's wrong with that?"

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

Mendoza raised his heavy eyebrows. "Sounds reasonable."

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

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

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

"Is there any beer in the box?"

"Should be. Bring me one, too."

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

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

"Is it a lot of money?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's not what I meant."

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh? Like who?"

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

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

"I'd buy you a lighter to match your ashtray." Mendoza flipped him off and left the shop.
 

vapros

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Chapter 28

Chapter 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 29

Chapter 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'll go along with that."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And was it so miserable as all that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 30

Chapter 30

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

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

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

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

"Sure can, Jack."

"And a biscuit or two?"

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

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

"Generally about nine-thirty."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You got your eye on anything?

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

"Is that my breakfast up there?"

"No, it's your lunch." Buddy set down the plate and wandered off into the kitchen. Ross ate with good appetite, but scarcely tasted the food. He stared at his own distorted reflection in the polished coffee urn on the back bar. Suddenly, he was impatient to get back to the shop and call New York. He was going to do something today, even if it was wrong.
 

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Chapter 31

Chapter 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Velez left the house, Miriam walked the floor for nearly two hours before reaching a decision. At last she went to a closet and retrieved a huge handbag - every hooker has one - and put into it enough items to see her through a couple of days. She scouted the outside of the house, gun in hand, to be certain Velez was really gone, and then started up the little red car and drove to Baton Rouge. When Ross reached the shop after his breakfast, or maybe it was his lunch, she was in his parking place under the pecan tree and she had fallen asleep.
 

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Chapter 32

Chapter 32

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

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

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

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

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

"Where's the bishop?"

"Where's who?"

"Father Ortega."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"This is your place?"

"This is it."

"What's opening time?"

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

"Every day?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Have you got towels and soap in here?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Enough to get along."

"Does anybody work for you?"

"Nope, just me and Shopcat."

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

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

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

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

"You ever been rich?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"About the same thing that happened to Villarubbia."

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

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

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

"You got any habits?"

"What kind of habits?"

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

"Nope, afraid not."

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

"You just killed him."

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

Ross didn't. He just shook his head.
 

vapros

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Messages
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Chapter 33

Chapter 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Baton Rouge, Miriam gave Ross the whole story about Villarubbia and Lindsay, except for the name of the church and the town where it stood.
 

vapros

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Chapter 34

Chapter 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vapros

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Chapter 35

Chapter 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did you open the mail?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Why is that?"

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

"Do you believe her?"

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

"Did she tell you what happened to Lindsay?"

"Yep. She killed him."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Fifteen years, I guess. Maybe more."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Lindsey's been dead a long time."

"So what now?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What do you mean?"

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

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

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

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

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

vapros

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Chapter 36

Chapter 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He found Sonny in his front yard, shirtless and with his belly hanging over his belt, working under the hood of a big sedan that had to be fifteen years old, at least. He looked like something more than three hundred pounds. His face was childish and pink, and he had the tiny eyes of a pig. The scar on his forehead was all but invisible, but the one on his chin had healed into a raised seam that glowed an angry red in the heat. The blond hair on his chest hid the marks of the other wound he had been given by Darryl Lindsay. Velez was walking, having arrived in town on a Greyhound bus, and he stopped by Sonny's mailbox, which was mounted on a rotten four-by-four post with a serious list. Sonny raised up from his work and stared at Hector with his little pig eyes, and Hector was suddenly afraid.
 

vapros

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Chapter 37

Chapter 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vapros

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Chapter 38

Chapter 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I've had my dinner."

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

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

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

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

"I have access to some information."

"What information is that?"

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

"But you don't have them yet?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would be the ultimate stroke of justice. He was too late to avenge himself on either Villarubbia or Piper, but the man named Lindsay would pay for all of them. Lindsay and Piper's heir, Ross. Ross and Lindsay would come through for him, as Perez had. And the money, which he would invest at the prevailing rate, whatever that was, would provide him with a lush life from now on, and every dollar he spent would be his revenge on Richard and Irving and Simon and John Villarubbia. He would do like the Moslems, who were said to kneel in prayer three times a day, facing Mecca. At breakfast, dinner and supper he would face Binghamton and toss 'em the old Italian arm salute. Or maybe the regular old prong, his fat middle finger. He had waited a long time for this day. It made him walk faster and sweat more profusely.
 

vapros

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Messages
3,627
Chapter 39

Chapter 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yep, I'm Ross."

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

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

"What time you generally open this place?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's the one."

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

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

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

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

Ross shrugged. "Okay, whatever you say."

"So what the hell was his name?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Perez told me he was alive."

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

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

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

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

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

"And why are you telling me this?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leppert's astounded gaze went from Ross' face to the hole in the front of his own tee shirt, and he knew that his heart had already stopped beating. For an instant there was a tiny wisp of white smoke at the wound, as if the bullet might be in there, starting a fire. Belatedly, he tried to raise his gun to return the shot, but it was much too heavy. He grimaced and gasped, showing his teeth, trying to get one more breath, but that was beyond his reach, too. He went to his knees heavily, and closed his eyes and Ross had to step aside as Sonny Boy Leppert pitched forward on his face.
 
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