“Jackie, if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?”
“I’m just a patsy. I didn’t kill anyone.”
“I do not want to die… I was framed to kill Oswald.”
My big mistake was allowing happiness to creep in.
It’s worse than complacency; or maybe it’s just the same goddamn thing. But for somebody like me, for somebody with my sort of past, allowing the present to lull you into happy complacency is the surest fucking way to insure you’ll have no future at all.
I met Linda when she was vacationing up at Lake Geneva, just another cute blonde among many cute college girls, many of them blond. She wore white-a white tank top that made her seem flat-chested (which she wasn’t, really) and white cut-off jeans, cut so short that the lower moons of her cute little ass showed through fringe of the cut-offs. She had china-blue eyes and short, very curly, white blonde hair, a tiny nose and the whitest teeth you ever saw; when she smiled, it was Dimples City-and you just had to like her. Or anyway I did.
I lived, at the time, in an A-frame cottage on Paradise Lake, a small, private lake with a scattering of summer homes. Paradise Lake held no truck with tourists, other than those visiting relatives in one of the cottages, and it afforded me plenty of peace, quiet and privacy. Nearby Lake Geneva, on the other hand, provided plenty of pussy, to put it bluntly, and when I first met Linda that was all she meant to me.
Maybe she made a little more impact on me than the average college girl I’d pick up, in those days; she was, after all, very innocent, or as innocent as a girl can be who goes to bed with you the day you met her. She wasn’t terribly sexually experienced, and her idea of being daring was to smoke a little dope. She didn’t strike me as terribly bright, but she was funny and cute and when she called me on the phone three months later, I remembered her almost immediately.
“Jack,” she said. “This is Linda. Remember me?”
“Sure,” I said, unsurely.
“You know. Linda.”
And the inflection in her voice brought her back to me.
“Well, Linda. Where are you calling from?”
The catch in her voice, and the static on the line, sent me a message.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “And where is home, anyway?”
“Home is Indiana.”
As in back home again in.
“Okay,” I said. “Now tell me what the trouble is.”
“My folks. They’re…”
And I could hear her crying.
“Linda, what is it?” I tried to be sympathetic, fighting irritation.
“My folks were killed last week.”
“I’m sorry. What do you mean, killed?” That word meant something different to me than it might to some people.
“Automobile accident.” She swallowed. “New Year’s Eve.”
It was the first week of January. Linda’s parents were just another statistic.
“I’m sorry, kid,” I said, trying to mean it, wondering why the hell she was calling me.
“Funeral was a few days ago,” she said.
“Yes?” What did this have to do with me?
“I need to get away for a while,” she said, in a rush. “I wondered
… I wondered if I could come up and spend a few days with you?”
I mean, Christ, she was just some one-night stand. What the hell was this about? That was all I needed, was some college girl moping around my place for a week.
“I don’t have anybody, Jack. Any — body. My friends are all back at school. My folks were all I had, except for my brother, and he headed back to San Francisco this morning. Now I’m all alone in this house and I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Well, uh… go back to college with your friends, why don’t you? Best thing in the world for you would be get back in the swing of things.”
She paused. Then: “I flunked out. I’m not going back this semester.”
She began crying some more.
I’m not particularly soft-hearted, but I remembered her being a good kid, and who knew? Comforting her might add up to my getting laid regular for a week or so. Would that be so bad?
“You can come stay with me, kid,” I said. “Long as you need to.”
“Oh, Jack… Jack, I knew I could depend on you!”
“Why don’t you fly into Chicago,” I said, “and I’ll pick you up. At O’Hare.”
We’d made the arrangements, and she came and stayed with me for a week. Pretty soon the week turned into a month, and a year later, in a little chapel at Twin Lakes, I married the girl.
Here’s the deal. I was thirty-five. I was getting bored with one-night stands and my own microwave cooking. I wanted some company, and she seemed pleasant enough. She talked too much, but most people do. She was beautiful, a terrific cook, and she kept out of my way. What more could I ask?
For many years the notion of living with one woman was out of the question for me. I was in the wrong business to accommodate what Donahue and the women’s magazines would refer to as a “relationship.” But that business was behind me. I had retired, after socking away a hell of a nest egg. I could live off my investments, one of which was an oddball business called Wilma’s Welcome Inn which was just five minutes from my A-frame.
The Welcome Inn was a rambling two-story affair left over from another era-gas station, restaurant, convenience store, and hotel sharing one somewhat ramshackle roof. It struck some chord in me, reminded me of something from my childhood, a place I’d gone with my parents I think. Anyway, I liked the place, for no good reason, and I also liked the gal who ran the place, Wilma.
But Wilma-a nice fat woman who made great chili-died a few years ago, leaving the place in the unsteady hands of her boyfriend/bartender Charley. He was having trouble keeping the business afloat without his porky pillar, and Wilma’s daughter, a zaftig babe in her late teens who wanted nothing to do with the business except for any money it generated, was not happy with Charley letting things slip; she was threatening to can the ex-con and sell the joint. So I bought it from the girl (who used the dough to stake herself to a move out to California, where she planned to break into the movies-right) and kept Charley on.
When I was a kid back in Ohio, I tinkered around with cars and had worked in a garage when I was in high school and junior college; so I was able to get the gas station on its feet easily enough. I’m also fairly handy with a hammer and nails and paint brushes and such and was able to do some remodeling, make the Welcome Inn less ramshackle, though rambling it would always be. At first I hired a woman away from a place in Lake Geneva to handle the hotel and restaurant, but she was a smart-ass, and eventually Linda took over.
Linda was no rocket scientist (I handled the books) but people liked her, staff and customers both, and she was damn near as good a cook as Wilma had been.
So my life had settled into something not unlike normalcy. The vacation center we were a part of lent itself to water sports in the summer and skiing in the winter and there was plenty to do, including make a little dough at Wilma’s Welcome Inn.
Both Linda and me got pudgy. Mine came from too much of her cooking, both at home and at the Welcome Inn, and from a general laziness-I ran the Inn like any good executive, delegating responsibility and filling my own life with relaxation. I listened to my stereo (Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme) and read paperback westerns (they engaged my brain without taxing it) and watched old movies on TV (we had a satellite dish) and generally lived a life of leisure, acquiring the spare tire that went with it.
Linda’s extra weight came from another source: my dick.
“You’re pregnant?” I said.
“You sound… disappointed… or mad or something.”
“Well, hell-how should I sound?”
We were discussing this at the A-frame, sitting out on the porch in deck chairs, looking out at a lake bathed in moonlight. Her eyes were a similar color-washed-out blue. I really liked the color of her eyes.
“You should sound happy,” she said. Her eyes were tensing.
We hardly ever argued. In fact, I can’t remember arguing with her. Sometimes I got mad at her when she was a little thick about some business aspect at the Inn, but when all was said and done, I cared more about her than any of that other shit, so I tended to cut her some slack. I mean, fuck, I didn’t need the money. The Inn was just something to do.
“Happy isn’t my style,” I said.
“Sure it is,” she said, and she got up and sat in my lap and smiled at me, dimples and all, though I could tell she was still sad.
“You want to break this damn chair?” I said.
She just smiled some more and hugged me around the neck and said, “I’m not that heavy yet. I’m only a month or so gone.”
And she was a little thing, after all. I bet she didn’t weigh a hundred pounds.
“I thought you were using something,” I said.
“I was. I stopped.”
“We should have talked about it.”
“I thought you’d want a child with me. You said so once.”
“I was drunk. And you know I don’t drink, and when I do, I can’t be held responsible.”
“Well, you’re responsible for this,” she said, and patted her tummy, and her smile shifted to one side of her face, crinkling it.
Goddamnit, there’s no way around it: I did love her, or as close to it as I’m capable.
I said, “If I was going to have a child, I’d want it with you.”
“Well, I should hope to shout. I’m your wife, aren’t I?”
“Only one I ever had,” I said, which was a lie. I was married one other time, but that was in another life, the life she didn’t know about.
“We’ll be a family,” she said sweetly. “Won’t that be wonderful?”
This girl thought life was a fucking Christmas card.
“Linda, I don’t know about bringing anybody else into this goddamn place.”
She looked confused. “What goddamn place?”
“This world. This planet. It’s no prize.”
“Our life isn’t so bad, is it?”
“We have a great life.”
“So, why not let a third person in on it? A person who’s part of us, Jack…”
I shook my head. “You don’t understand, kid. This is a very protected life we got going here. We’re the couple in the plastic bubble-nothing touches us. But a kid-he’s going to have to go out in that world and face all the bullshit.”
“How do you know it’s going to be a he? And what’s wrong with going out in the world?”
“For one thing, it’s crawling with people.”
“I like people!”
“I don’t. I’m not so sure pulling another passenger onto this sinking ship is such a hot idea. What’s he got waiting for him? Or, her?”
She gave me a sideways look, trying to kid me out of it. “Don’t be such a Gloomy Gus.”
“Read the papers. They’re full of famine and AIDS and nuclear bombs.”
“Jack, you don’t read the papers.”
“Well, hell, I watch TV. And I’ve been out in that world, baby. It sucks.”
“I don’t know why you feel that way.”
“Well I do.”
“Why? Have you had it so bad?”
She cocked her head, gave me a smirky, pixie look. “When did you ever have it bad?”
I tasted my tongue.
“I never mentioned it before…”
Her eyes narrowed. “What, Jack?”
“I… I saw some combat.”
“Where do you think? In the war.”
I sighed. “Vietnam, dear. A distant event in history that happened during your childhood. Let’s just say… I’m not wild about bringing somebody into this life when Vietnams are still a part of it-and they are.”
She looked very troubled. She was sweet but she wasn’t deep. “I never heard you talk like this.”
“Sure you have.”
“Not so serious, at such length. I… always thought it was a joke, the things you say, the way you see things. You always made me laugh. It was just, you know… sick humor.”
“What… what makes life worth living then?”
She was really getting upset; I decided to smile at her. Said, “Life’s worth living as long as somebody like you’s in it.”
She beamed and hugged me.
I held her for a while. Listened to the crickets.
Then she drew away and said, “Jack, you don’t really… you wouldn’t have me get… rid of it, would you?”
Her lip was trembling and her china-blue eyes were wetter than the goddamn lake.
What else was there to say?
“Of course not,” I said. “What do you think I am? A murderer?”
I was chopping wood, which was about as physical as my life got these days. The lake was placid and blue, surrounded by trees painted in golds and yellows and browns; the water reflected a soothing Indian summer sun. You could almost understand why somebody, long ago, chose to name the lake Paradise. There weren’t even any mosquitoes this time of year.
I swung the axe in my two hands, building a rhythm, liking the pull on my muscles, enjoying the sweat I was working up, feeling alive. Wood chips flew and logs became firewood. When Linda got back from her yoga class at Twin Lakes, I’d prepare supper (still had a microwave) and the wine would be chilled and we’d sit before the fireplace and be “toasty warm” (as she put it) together. We would also undoubtedly have great sex, one of the major reasons I kept the ditsy little dish around.
Feeling winded but good, I sat out on the deck and unzipped my down jacket and relaxed with a cup of coffee. I was watching the lake when a cloud covered the sun and the gravel in my driveway stirred.
A chocolate BMW pulled abruptly up, making a little dust storm. I did not recognize the car-other than as the pointless and drab status symbol it was. I stood. My shoulders tensed and it had nothing to do with chopping wood.
From the edge of the deck I noticed two things: the driver of the car, a slightly heavy-set man of about fifty in a London Fog raincoat; and the front license plate of the BMW, which was covered with mud. There hadn’t been any rain in the Midwest for several weeks.
He saw me perched above him on the deck. My expression must have been hostile because he smiled tightly, defensively, and put both hands out, palms forward, in a stop motion.
“Just a few minutes of your time,” he said, “that’s all I ask.”
He had a mellow, radio-announcer’s voice and a conventionally handsome, well-lined face, a Marlboro man who rode a desk.
“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying.”
His smile twitched nervously. “I’m not a salesman, but I am here on business.”
I motioned off toward the highway. “Talk to Charley up at the Inn. If he can’t handle it, make an appointment to see me, there, later. I don’t do business at home.”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with the restaurant business, Mr. Quarry.”
I said nothing. A bird cawed across the lake. My sentiments exactly.
“I, uh, realize that isn’t the name you’re using around here.. ”
The outstretched hands went palms up, supplicatingly. “Please. There’s no reason to get your back up. There’s no obligation…”
“You sound like a salesman.”
“Your wife won’t be home for another hour. I didn’t want to bother you while she was here…”
Mention of Linda made me wince; this guy, whoever the fuck he was, knew entirely too much about me. He didn’t know how close he was to spending eternity at the bottom of one of the area’s scenic gravel pits.
“Come up here and have a seat,” I said.
He smiled tightly again, nodded, and came around and up the stairs.
I sat in one of the lounge-style deck chairs, legs stretched out, and he took one of the director-style chairs and pulled it up near me. His salt-and-pepper hair was heavy on the salt and thinning a little, though some fancy styling minimized it; you could buy a week’s groceries for what he spent on that haircut. He smelled of cologne-some expensive fragrance, strong enough to blot out that of the pines around us.
“May I smoke?” he asked.
“It’s your lungs.”
He lit up-something unfiltered from a flat silver case drawn out from under the London Fog; I had a glimpse of dark, vested, well-tailored suit with blue striped silk tie.
“I know this is an intrusion,” he said, deferential as all hell, “but I think, when everything is said and done, you’ll be pleased. This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Does this have anything to do with Amway?”
A short, harsh, nervous laugh preceded his response: “Hardly, Mr. Quarry. This is more on the order of… Publishers Clearing House.” The constant if slight smile turned wry, smug. “Mr. Quarry, I’m in a position to make you a very wealthy man.”
“Drop the name, all right? I haven’t used that in almost ten years.”
He made a small open hand gesture. “A man known as the Broker gave it to you, a long time ago.”
“That’s right.” I looked at him, locked his eyes. They were gray, like his cigarette smoke. “What else do you know about me?”
His smile faded, and he shrugged facially. “I know that you were a hero. That you served your country honorably and well.”
“Yeah, right. Is there more?”
“I known that you were married once before. You returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam to discover your wife had been untrue.”
“Untrue? I found her in bed sitting on a guy’s dick.”
“You killed him.”
I shrugged. “Not on the spot. I came back the next day, after I cooled off, and he was under his sporty little car, making some minor repairs. I made one, too.”
“You kicked the jack out.”
I shrugged again. “He called me a ‘bunghole.’ What would you do?”
“You were arrested.”
“But not tried, except in the papers.”
“The unwritten law.”
“There are two times society puts up with murder.”
“War is one,” he said, nodding.
“Finding somebody fucking your wife is the other.”
He gestured with cigarette in hand. “Nonetheless, you were looked down upon in certain quarters.”
“I had trouble finding work. I was a Vietnam vet, remember? We were all assumed to be unreliable dope addicts. And I was a ‘disturbed Viet vet’ before it was fashionable. Before it was a cliche even.”
I killed a guy, after all. Nobody minded the numerous yellow people I killed for no good reason. The one white asshole I killed for a good reason got people bent out of shape.
“Shortly after that,” he said, carefully, quietly, the gray eyes studying me but pretending not to, through a haze of cigarette smoke, “you met the Broker.”
“I don’t know the circumstances, but you began taking contracts. Working as part of a team.”
Did I mention I had brought the axe up on the porch with me? Well, I had. It was leaned up against the front of the house, near the door. Not far away at all.
“Are you sure,” I said, with a gentle smile, “that you want to keep this line of conversation going?”
“I just want you to know that I’m familiar with your background.”
“Because I have a contract for you.”
“I’m not in that line of work anymore.”
“Mr. Quarry, you are an assassin. It’s not something you can leave behind.”
I nodded. “Well, I’m willing to kill again, under certain circumstances.”
“Assholes coming around fucking in my life.”
He smiled again, another tight nervous twitch, and he said, “I’m not here to make trouble in your life. I’m here to improve your life.”
“Say it. Whatever it is you’ve got to say, say it.”
“Mr. Quarry, this isn’t something one can…”
“Say it. I sat through ‘This Is Your Life’ patiently enough, but now the show’s over. Cut to the commercial.”
He cleared his throat, as if about to make a speech. Maybe he was. “You are said to have been the best at what you do. But you dropped out.”
“I dropped out. My partner bought it, the Broker bought it, and I dropped out. Say what you came to say.”
He let the cigarette fall to the deck and ground it out with his heel.
Then he said: “One million dollars.”
There’s only one thing you can say when somebody says that, and I said it: “What?”
“One million dollars,” he repeated.
“In regard to what?” I asked, dumbfounded and a little annoyed.
“A million-dollar contract.”
He nodded, his smile confident now, not nervous at all. “One hundred thousand down. In cash. Unmarked twenties. It can be delivered to you in twenty-four hours.”
“I noticed you hesitate before saying so.”
“Anybody would hesitate, offered a million bucks.”
“You could go anywhere in the world. You and your wife. Nothing could touch you.”
“Don’t mention my wife again.”
“No offense meant.”
“Don’t mention her. Don’t speak of her. Or I’ll cut your fucking heart out.”
He swallowed and nodded. He’d noticed the axe.
“I just wanted to emphasize what a rosy future you could paint for yourself with that kind of money.”
“I don’t believe in the future, and I don’t give a fuck about the past. And my present is rosy as fucking hell. So why don’t you just go away.”
“Mr. Quarry, it’s a million dollars.”
“I know it is. But… I’m retired. What do I need with it?”
“One job. One simple job.”
“I doubt it would be simple.”
“You’d be surprised.”
I stood. I walked to the edge of the deck and looked out at the lake. The sun was still under a cloud and a light breeze was blowing in. The water looked gray. I was going to have a son, or a daughter, before long. With my past, maybe it would be a good thing to get out of this country. With a million bucks you could live like a king in Mexico or South America. Maybe on a beach, the ocean your front yard. A protected life. A safe life for me and mine. In a year, I would be forty years old.
I turned and looked at him. “What’s the contract?”
“Have you heard of Preston Freed?”
“I’ve heard the name… he’s some sort of right-wing loon, isn’t he?”
His face cracked with the first of his many smiles to reveal teeth; too white and too perfect to be real.
He rose and walked over to me. “That’s exactly what he is,” he said, folding his arms, seeming at ease with me for the first time. I’d have to do something about that. “He is the founder and leader of the Democratic Action party.”
I made a sound in my throat that wasn’t quite a laugh. “Just another one of these homegrown would-be Hitlers.”
He shook his head no. “He’s not a Nazi. His politics are a grab-bag mixture of extreme right and extreme left, but he’s relatively young and genuinely charismatic, a Kennedy of the lunatic fringe if you will… and he’s gathering real momentum for his movement. Do you follow the political scene in the papers?”
“I catch it on TV. But, look…”
He raised a hand in a gentle stop motion. “Freed has several key issues that have rallied conservatives around him-he’s strongly anti-abortion and pro-school prayer, for instance. That’s all some people need to hear.”
“I suppose, but…”
“You don’t have to know much about politics to understand that the coming presidential election will be a volatile one. We have a once popular, now somewhat tarnished president ending his two terms in office. Supposedly a conservative, this man has raised the national debt to a record high.”
“Politics don’t interest me.”
“Even so, we are coming into a fascinating election year. The two parties-depending upon whom they choose as their standard bearers of course-should be in for a real battle. Think of it: the highest office in the land up for grabs… we could have a true conservative in the White House, or our most liberal president in years…”
“What does this have to do with anything? If this contract is political, you can really forget it.”
His gray eyes pleaded with me, his brow knitting a goddamn sock. “Mr. Quarry, Preston Freed is a presidential ‘spoiler’ in the truest sense. The way his movement, his ‘party,’ is gathering steam, he will throw the entire election off kilter.”
“Yeah, I suppose. I don’t know much about it, and I don’t want to, either.”
“At this point, it is hard to say whether the Democrats or the Republicans would suffer the most, but…”
“I think you should leave. This is a civics lesson that I just don’t want to hear.”
“I represent a certain group of private citizens, responsible, powerful, patriotic citizens, who want Preston Freed stopped. Who want the natural order of our political system restored, and this madman-this potential American Hitler, as you aptly described him-destroyed like the rabid animal he is.”
“That’s very colorful, but I don’t do politicals. I don’t do any contracts anymore, as I tried to make clear… and I shouldn’t have let you get into this at all.”
“I don’t do windows, and I don’t do politicals.”
“You can offer me two million and I’d turn you down.”
He was astounded; shaking his head. “Why, do you think it would be difficult to get near the candidate? True, Freed is somewhat reclusive, but with the first primary in January, there’ll be plenty of opportunities, starting with a major press conference next month, which…”
“Stop. It’s not hard to kill a politician. It’s the easiest thing there is. You got a public figure, an egomaniac who thinks he’s immortal, going out kissing babies and shaking hands and it’s the easiest hit in the world.”
“Then what is your objection?”
“I wouldn’t live to spend the money.”
“Are you implying that…”
“That you would have me killed? Why, I don’t know what got into me. You and your concerned patriotic citizens wouldn’t think of being party to murder, now would you?”
“Mr. Quarry, we are men of honor.”
“Sure. I’d be an instant loose end, pal. You don’t get away with shooting presidents or even would-be presidents. Oh, the guys who hire you can get away with it. In fact they always do. That’s ’cause the poor bastard who squeezed the trigger is either dead, or locked in a cell and written off as a madman.”
“I assure you…”
“I’m retired. I don’t want to get back in the business, not even once, not even for your big bucks. This is a real good place to call a halt to this conversation… I still don’t know your name, and that’s how I like it.”
“You won’t reconsider?”
“No. And I don’t want to see you again. You know far too much about me. I ought to kill you on general principles.”
He sucked breath in, hard; till now, talk of death had seemed abstract to him, I’m sure. “But… but you won’t.”
“Not unless I see you again.”
He nodded, sighed, extended his hand for me to shake. I ignored it.
Withdrawing the hand, he smiled gently and said, “No hard feelings, Mr. Quarry. It’s too bad. I think you’d have been the right man for the job.”
I didn’t say anything.
His smile disappeared and, shortly, so did he, in a cloud of gravel dust; the BMW’s back license plate was covered with mud as well.
I went inside and started a fire.
I sat before the glow of it, by the metal conical fireplace in one corner of the A-frame’s living room, and waited for Linda, wondering if I should’ve killed the son-of-a-bitch.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d made a mistake. A week crawled by, my every moment filled with a sense I’d fucked up. No way I should’ve let that guy walk away from my place. He knew too much about me: where I lived, who I was, who I used to be. I should’ve followed the old instinct and iced him on the spot and dumped him in a gravel pit.
But my caller in the London Fog raincoat didn’t exist in a vacuum, and he wouldn’t die in one, either: he was clearly just a messenger, a fancy one maybe, but a messenger. Which meant somebody else-your classic person or persons unknown-had sent him; knew as much, or more about me, as he did.
So killing him would still have left somebody out there knowing more about me than was healthy.
There were options. I could’ve dropped everything and followed the messenger home, and done what needed doing, to all concerned.
But I didn’t.
I could pack up and disappear. Walk out of Linda’s life and leave her and the child inside her and the Welcome Inn and the comfortable life I’d somehow managed to contrive for myself forever behind me. Go and start over somewhere. I had money stashed under several names, including my real one back in Ohio; I had buffers built in to allow this sort of contingency.
Or I might risk taking Linda with me. She loved me. She was as loyal as Tonto, or anyway Pocahontas. And, with the exception of her brother, she had no ties, family or otherwise, to prevent her from disappearing with me, the two of us starting up and over somewhere, under new names.
She would probably go along with that. It wouldn’t even be necessary to tell her the truth about my past; she would, most likely, accept it when I told her that something in my past required it. Something “bad” that she didn’t need to know.
So why hadn’t I sprung it on her?
Because, goddamnit, I liked my life. I liked it just fine the way it was. I was fat and comfortable and, fuck! I didn’t want to start over. Why should I start over if I didn’t want to?
I had turned these people down. They knew I wasn’t interested, and if I wasn’t interested, what was I to them? Certainly no threat-what could I say to anybody about what they were up to? Nothing, without risking seriously screwing up my own life.
They would simply go elsewhere for their hired help. I was retired, they asked me to come out of retirement, I declined, their messenger in the London Fog tipped his figurative hat and went. No hard feelings, he’d said.
So why shouldn’t I go on about my business, go on with my life?
And, so, I had, but I still couldn’t shake the thought, the feeling, I’d made the wrong decision. The visit, from the man’s smooth but nervous manner to his muddy license plate, lingered like a bad dream, leaving a mental aftertaste and not a pleasant one.
The days themselves had been ordinary enough-I divided my time at the Inn between the garage, where for the hell of it I helped work on cars from time to time, and making sure the restaurant and hotel operation was operating smoothly. That was slightly weird, because half the time I’d been in greasy coveralls, the other neatly attired in suit and tie, an executive with a wrench in his back pocket.
I’d spent some time with Linda, quiet evenings, watching the tube, curled by the fire. We were both readers-I stuck with my westerns, while she read these dismal sappy romance novels, sitting there lost in them, smiling dreamily. The girl saw the world through rose-colored glasses- prescription rose-colored glasses, at that.
Another week passed, and the unsettling feeling that I’d fucked up began to fade. It didn’t disappear; but it did fade. Nonetheless, I took precautions. I owned three nine-millimeter automatics, and was carrying one, a Browning, with me everywhere I went now, instead of just in the glove compartment of our sporty blue Mazda, and the drawer of the nightstand next to the bed.
Early on, Linda had wondered about why I owned so many guns, particularly handguns, keeping them stashed about.
“I’m just a little paranoid,” I said. “Both my parents were killed by an armed robber.”
Her eyes had gone wide and round; that, added to their light blue color, made her look impossibly innocent. “Jack… I knew your parents were… gone… but I never…”
“They ran a little neighborhood market,” I said. “You know, mom-and-pop kind of deal. And they were both killed.”
“Oh, Jack,” she’d said, eyes full of tears, holding me tenderly.
It was all lies of course, but it led to some immediate great sex and some long-term understanding. She never asked me about the guns again, until just recently, when I started carrying the nine-millimeter around with me.
“Why are you wearing that?” she asked, concerned, as I was slipping my sportcoat over the shoulder holster, on my way up to the Inn.
“There’ve been a few robberies in the area,” I said. “It’s been in the papers.”
And there had been, but so what? That was almost always true.
“I understand,” she said, nodding sagely, and came over and hugged me, gun and all.
The girl’s new insight into me apparently came from her adding the truth that I’d been in combat to the lie about my sainted mom and pop being shot down in their grocery store. I was just a poor, sensitive, traumatized soul, wasn’t I?
I wasn’t packing the gun when we drove down to Chicago for the day, however, though one of the three automatics was in the glove compartment. We were picking up her brother Chris at O’Hare early that evening-he was coming in from Atlanta, Georgia-and Linda suggested we go in early, spend a day in the city Christmas shopping. Even mid-week, the city was jammed with traffic, sidewalks packed with people, and was a good reminder of why I lived on a quiet lake.
She shopped at Water Tower Place, six floors of trendy expensive nonsense, equal parts marble, glass, plants and people; it was the sort of shopping center where women in mink coats rode escalators. I quickly found my way to the theater complex and parked my butt in a fairly comfortable seat and watched Clint Eastwood pretend to be a marine for a couple of hours. I met Linda for lunch at a cafe next to the theater-where two people could have pie and coffee and get just enough change back from a twenty to leave a tip-and she was bubbling over about the things she’d bought, including several hundred bucks worth (using the word “worth” loosely) of metal signs, replicas of vintage advertisements for Coca Cola, Crackerjacks, Heinz pickles and so on, for decoration in the Welcome Inn’s rustic dining room. She’d also bought some presents for me, which she was dying to tell me about but managed to contain herself. She was a sweet kid. I didn’t deserve her, but then who does deserve what they get in this life, good or bad?
We walked to Gino’s East a few blocks over and shared a medium pepperoni pizza, the best deep dish pizza (so they said) in a town famous for deep dish pizzas. The walls were carved up with graffiti (it was encouraged-it gave the place atmosphere, and having your customers provide the decoration made more sense than buying little tin advertising signs yourself) and she coaxed me into carving our names there. Too many romance novels. What the hell, I did it, using the serrated part of a table knife, a heart with Jack and Linda in it, squeezed between THE BOSS FOREVER and BON JOVI SUCKS.
I never met her brother before, and when he showed up-his flight an hour late, his only bag a tan leather carry-on-I wasn’t sure I wanted to. He was very blond, very tan, and prettier than Linda. He wore a loose-fitting pastel blue shirt and off-white, baggy, pleated linen pants; he also wore huaraches and no socks.
“Sis!” he said, beaming, and hugged her. Then he backed away, with her still in his arms and said, “I’m freezing my nuts off.”
What kind of dildo would fly into Chicago in November dressed like the fucking beach? This kind of dildo.
“Here,” I said, and gave him my plaid hunting jacket. “It isn’t Ralph Lauren, but it’ll keep you warm.”
“Why, thanks, sport,” he said, and he had a nice smile, white teeth in a face as tan as his Gucci carryon. He slipped the jacket on and it fit him fine. Well, in terms of size it fit him fine.
“I thought I’d never get here,” he said, slipping his arm around her shoulder. She looked up at him adoringly. I fell back, following them down the wide aisle toward the main concourse. “All these delays, and the turbulence? I’d have lost my lunch, if I’d eaten any.”
“You look great, Chris.”
“I feel terrific.”
“Are you being careful?”
“I’m being careful.”
She’d never mentioned her brother was gay, but I had figured it out. First he lived in San Francisco, then in Atlanta-both centers of such activity-and he was thirty-five and unmarried. I know you can be thirty-five and unmarried and live in one of those cities and not be gay, but not when you have a succession of male roommates, and particularly not when you have a sister who cries every time she reads about AIDS in the papers.
“Safe sex,” she said, shaking a lecturing finger at him.
“I know, I know.”
“But you broke up with Ray…”
“I’m looking for a monogamous relationship. I’m not by nature promiscuous.”
I stopped listening about then. I wasn’t interested in the conversation, and I was distracted by the sight of Preston Freed’s clean-cut disciples peddling his Democratic Action party magazines and bumper stickers (the latter seemed pro-nuclear energy and anti-Jane Fonda).
I went and got the car, not minding the cold at all, and picked them up amongst the cabs. He squeezed in back, behind me, with Linda’s many packages, and she sat in front but looking his way. They chattered all the way back, mostly about his work (he was an artist, and had had some gallery showings in several cities-an abstract painting in pastels of his hung at the A-frame, and I didn’t mind it). Later in the conversation Linda revealed that she was “expecting,” and he seemed thrilled, maybe even envious. He patted me on the shoulder and I smiled at him in the mirror.
“I’ll make a fabulous uncle,” he said. “I just love kids.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted the details.
Finally, I pulled in the restaurant parking lot, and Linda said, “It’s getting a little late-I’d rather wait till tomorrow to show Chris around the Inn.”
“Why don’t you kids go back and chat,” I said, getting out of the car. “I have something here I want to work on.”
“Jack,” she said, “come with us-we’ll make a fire, have some drinks…”
“I’ll be home by midnight,” I said. “You have a lot to talk about. Family stuff. You’ll both see plenty of me over the next week.”
She seemed a little disappointed, but she smiled anyway, said, “Okay, honey,” and slid over into the driver’s seat. Chris got out of the back and got in front next to her.
Gravel stirred as they pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. I went into the Inn and settled myself at the bar and watched the Tonight Show and then David Letterman and drank a couple of caffeine-free Diet Cokes. I wanted to sleep tonight.
“You okay, Jack?” Charley wondered. Business was slow and he was sitting on a stool behind the bar, watching TV, too. He was bald and round and wrinkled, a friendly old hard-ass.
“Ungh,” I said.
“Your wife’s brother’s arrived,” he said, smiling on one side of his face, nodding.
“Yeah.” I shrugged.
“That comes with the territory. In-laws.”
“He seems like an okay guy.”
“I’m sure he is.”
“His idea of a good time is sticking his dick in some guy’s hairy asshole, but hey, who am I to judge?”
“Don’t be an asshole, yourself, Jack. We can’t choose our relatives. Besides, maybe he prefers bein’ the stickee.”
“I know, I know. I got nothin’ against the guy.”
“You just don’t like fags.”
“I don’t give a shit about that.”
And I didn’t. I worked with one for many years, and he was, for the most part, as good a partner as any. Why somebody’s sex life should be of concern to somebody else is beyond me, anyway.
“You just like your privacy,” he said.
“Why don’t you polish a glass or something? Do I pay you to watch television?”
“Fuck you, Jack,” he said cheerfully. “You’re just like anybody else. You don’t like being invaded.”
I shrugged again. “Our place isn’t big. Having another human being under foot for a week, well… fuck it, I’ll live.”
“Sure you will. Why don’t you put him up here at the Inn? Business is slow.”
That perked me up. “Not a bad idea. Of course, we got room for him at the A-frame-he was going to crash on the couch in the loft…”
“You want my advice? You got a sweet little girl there. Don’t cause her any trouble. Show her and her brother a nice time-take ’em to Lake Geneva, and Twin Lakes, and do touristy shit-eat at a nice restaurant every night. Days, find work to do up here, give ’em some space. She can drive him around and show him antique shops and shit. She’s going to want to spend time with him, and you can cover for her at the restaurant, or work on cars or do any damn thing you want. We got plumbing problems upstairs, y’know, if you’re ambitious.”
“That makes sense, Charley.”
“And at night, well you send the boy up here where he has a private room. He can even entertain an occasional guest, if he likes. Beats sleeping on a couch.”
“Charley,” I said, and smiled a little, climbed off the stool, “forget about polishing a glass. Watch TV till your eyes burn, if you want. You just earned your keep.”
“No problem, Jack. Just remember that faggot is all the family your little wife has in the world.”
“Well,” I said, thinking about what was growing inside her, “that’s not entirely true, but I appreciate the sentiment. I know I got a good thing going. I’m no fool. I’m not about to fuck it up.”
He nodded and turned his attention back to the tube.
I walked outside and started back home. It was less than half a mile to the turn-in, off of which was my drive. The night was cold, particularly with me minus my hunting jacket, and overcast; the moon was glowing behind some clouds up there, not having any luck getting through. About half-way home I noticed a car parked alongside the road. Headed north. I was walking north, but on the other side of the road. It was a dark blue late-model Buick and the man behind the wheel was pale and blond and skeletal. He wore a black turtleneck sweater. He didn’t look at me as I passed.
There was no reason for him to be parked there. He wasn’t parking in front of a house or anything.
The house he was parked nearest to belonged to Charley, a quarter-mile away, and no other houses were immediately around; it was a gently wooded area near the lake, after all.
His plates were Illinois. Rock Island County. The Quad Cities.
Where the Broker had lived.
Without picking up my pace, I walked into the brush lining the road, wanting to make myself less of a target. I was not armed. My shoulder holster was in the closet; the other guns were in their usual positions in glove compartment and nightstand drawer. But the house was nearby, and all I had to do was get in there first.
My past had come looking for me; the lingering feeling I’d had that I’d fucked up had been valid. I’d chosen the wrong fucking option.
Well, it wasn’t too late. All I had to do was get inside that house and get one of my guns, and I’d start exploring other options.
I went in the side, rear door, quietly as I could; it was after midnight, but I figured Linda would still be up, talking to her brother in front of the fire. Lights were on in the front part of the house, so that seemed a safe assumption. I hoped to get in and get my gun and go back out, without alerting Linda or our house guest I’d even been home.
I opened the drawer of the nightstand, felt inside; my hand touched the cold gun.
That was when I noticed that Linda was in bed already, but she hadn’t made a sound; I hadn’t disturbed or frightened her, either, coming in as I had.
Because she was dead.
He didn’t hear me come up behind him.
I had slipped out of my shoes. Left them in the bedroom, next to the bed, where what had been Linda was soaking up the sheets, getting them red. She hadn’t suffered; that was something. My guess is she’d been asleep. He’d put one in her head, and three more in her chest and stomach. But it was clear she hadn’t stirred. She was on her side, like a fetus. His first shot, the head shot, had been enough. Why the other three?
And so I had walked on shoeless feet in the darkness through my familiar house and had made not a sound. It was something I had learned to do a long time ago and apparently, like riding a bike, it sticks with you. I was right up behind him, before he sensed me, and before he could turn, my gun was in his neck.
“You fucked up,” I said. My voice sounded strange to me. Probably to him, too. But to me it sounded distant. Like something playing on television in another room.
He didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t blame him. He was just a dark shape standing over the corpse of my brother-in-law. Chris was seated in my big soft leather chair, facing the dying fire, which was the only light in the room; a beer that had been in his hand had spilled onto the floor, soaking our new carpet. Linda had picked it out just a few months before; carpet samples had littered the floor for days.
“You killed the wrong man,” I said.
“Please,” he said.
“He was my brother-in-law. I loaned him my jacket, and you took him for me. Nice piece of work, dipshit. Toss the gun to the floor. Underhand toss. Now.”
He did. It was a nine-millimeter, too, but not a Browning: a Luger with a rather bulky homemade silencer attached.
“Turn around, slow.”
He did, and as he did, I stepped back and had a look at the man who had taken so much from me. He wasn’t big, he wasn’t small-about my size, five-ten, heavy-set but not fat; he was perhaps thirty. He was in a black sweatshirt and black pants and black gloves. He had short dark hair and dark frightened eyes in a round, pale face dotted by several dark moles. His cheeks had Nixon shadow.
“He doesn’t even look like me,” I said, gesturing to dead Chris. “He’s got blond hair, for Christ’s sake.”
He didn’t know what to say. His lower lip was trembling. He knew he was going to die. He knew there was nothing he could say that would change that. Maybe I could make him believe otherwise.
“I understand,” I said.
“That you’re just hired help.”
His eyes tensed.
“That this is nothing personal. I used to be in this business myself. I was a hell of a lot better at it than you, and I never killed a whole fucking family, but…” I got a hold of myself and smiled tightly at him. “… but I want you to think about telling me who sent you. If you do that, I might give you a pass.”
He shook his head. “They’d kill me.”
“What do you think I’ll do?” I said, and I whapped him on the side of the head with the nine-millimeter. He went down on the soft carpet, hard. He was out, or pretending to be, a trickle of blood like a red thread down his temple. I took off my belt and quickly lashed his wrists behind him. I kicked his gun under the sofa. I could have used the thing, the silencer would’ve come in handy, but I didn’t want to touch it. Not that gun.
I went to the door. Before I dealt with him, I had to deal with the back-up man. The man who’d been parked alongside the road. He might be gone, now. Seeing me come bopping along, when I was supposed to be home getting shot, might have sent him running. Or he might be coming in any minute now to help his partner. Those were pretty much the probabilities.
Thinking it over, I went back through the dark house to the side door. You could smell death in that house. I’d forgotten that, or anyway hadn’t thought about it in a long time. The smell of it. Of blood. Of shit. Of death.
I opened the back door and he was standing there, on the steps, about to come in, a ghostly pale presence in black, skinny and taller than me and with a revolver in his hand. A fucking revolver! Even his idiot friend knew enough to carry a silenced automatic…
Him standing there was a surprise to me, but then he was surprised to see me, too, so we both lost about the same amount of time and before he could raise and fire his revolver, I kicked his balls up in him. He howled and doubled over and I kicked the gun out of his hand, thankful that he hadn’t fired it reflexively. Then I slapped him with the nine-millimeter and he looked up at me with a face as pale as a sick child; cheek streaked with blood, eyes begging, he said, “No.. please no…”
I slapped him again with it and he went down on the small cement area, like so much kindling.
I really didn’t want to shoot him with the nine-millimeter. I hadn’t had time to map any of this out, but I knew I wanted to contain it; I knew I didn’t want to fill the night with gunfire. I was hovering over him indecisively when he reached out and grabbed my ankle and sat me down hard on my ass.
He didn’t want to stick around to fight; he didn’t even bother looking for the revolver he dropped. He just wanted to get away from me, from here, from everything. He ran, ran back toward the brush and trees that separated my house from the road, where his car waited. He was perhaps fifty feet away when I hefted the nine-millimeter and hurled it, hitting him in the back of the head, sending him face down to the ground. He didn’t move. Maybe he really was unconscious this time.
Enough fucking around. I went over to the woodpile and got the axe and went over to him and swung and it split his head like a melon.
Some of him splashed on my face and I knelt and untucked his sweatshirt in back and wiped myself off. On the ground around him, I felt around for the nine-millimeter; found it. Over nearer the house I found his revolver, which I heaved into the trees. Then I went back in the house where his partner was waking up.
“Your partner seems to have taken off without you,” I said.
“Oh God,” he said, quietly, pitifully. He was sitting up, hands still behind him. He was sitting next to Chris, who sat in my big comfortable chair staring with vacant eyes at the fire, which was damn near out by this time.
I untied his hands, put the gun in my waistband, slipped my belt back on. I stood over him, but didn’t want to wave the gun in his face. Wanted him to think he might have some chance, at some point, to overpower me.
“And now,” I said, “you’re going to tell me who sent you. I think I know. But you’re going to tell me…”
He shook his head. “You’re going to kill me anyway.”
“Let’s suppose that’s the case. What do you have to lose by telling me?”
“What… what do I have to gain?”
“Well… you could buy some time. Maybe your partner is still out there, waiting to make his move. Waiting to come in and blow me away and get you out of this.”
He thought about that.
“You’re not a pro, are you?”
He said, “No… not really.”
“You didn’t stake me out or anything. You just had information about me, where I lived, and you came and did this.”
“No careful planning. No surveillance. No days on the scene ahead of time. Just one day, or night rather. In and out. Just the hit.”
He nodded again.
“Were you told to do the woman?”
“Answer me. It’ll go easier if you answer me.”
“Whoever was here.”
“And she was here.”
He nodded, looked at the floor.
“You shot her four times.”
He didn’t say anything.
“Ever kill a woman before?”
He shook his head no. Then added: “Not a white one.”
Seemed I was in the presence of another Vietnam vet.
“How did it feel?”
“Just answer me.”
“It… didn’t feel like anything. It was no different.”
“Than killing a man, you mean.”
“Yeah… yeah, than killing a man.”
“Or some slant.”
“Or… or some slant.”
“She was pregnant.”
He looked at me sharply. “Really?”
“I… I didn’t know that.”
“Would it have made a difference?”
“Sure… sure it would.”
“Why did you shoot her four times?”
“To… to make sure.”
Nam or not, he wasn’t a pro. Didn’t claim to be.
“Who hired this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who hired this?”
“I can’t say. They’d kill me.”
“They can’t kill you any deader than I would.”
“They… they could kill my family. You don’t know who I am. You can’t do anything to my family.”
“Yeah, but on the other hand, I could cut your nuts off with a steak knife.”
He was shaking. “I can’t stop you from whatever you do to me. That was… was your wife in there.”
“That was my wife in there.”
“Then there’s no getting out of this. You killed my partner, didn’t you?”
I said nothing.
“You killed him,” the guy said, shaking his head. He was crying; quietly crying.
“I killed him,” I said.
He looked at me, his face slick. “I didn’t hear a shot.”
“I used an axe.”
He shivered. “God, oh God…”
“Are you praying or swearing?”
“Why don’t you just do it?”
“It’s political, isn’t it? It’s because I turned that job down. It’s because it’s political and I’m a loose end.”
He shook his head no, emphatically. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I have nothing to say to you.” He was staring at the floor.
“You’re going to say it all,” I said, trying to control the rage, and I reached down and pulled him up to a standing position, by his sweatshirt, and yanked the gun out and buried it in his stomach. He made a sucking-in sound; I was looking right at him, I could smell the minty mouthwash on his breath, see the hysteria in his dark eyes. “You won’t die in your sleep, like she did. You’ll crawl around the floor trying to keep your intestines from falling out, but all you’ll get out of the effort is bloody fucking hands. Now talk.”
“Fuck you,” he said, sobbing.
“Now you’ve done it,” I said.
“Gone and made me mad,” I said, and squeezed the trigger. His body muffled the sound and I let him drop and stood over him and watched him die. It took a while.
I went in the bedroom and sat on the bed next to Linda. What had been Linda. Put my hand on her stomach. My hand came away red.
I got a suitcase from the bedroom closet; when I opened it, I found several brightly wrapped packages. Christmas paper and bows, little cards inscribed by her hand, “Love you, Jack-your Linda,” and so on. I left the gifts in the suitcase but filled in around the sides with a few more things: pair of jeans, couple sweaters, socks, underwear, some toiletries. Just enough to get me by for a few days. I’d pick up some new clothes. Linda had some sleeping pills, Seconal, and I took the bottle with me. I had a few business papers I wanted to take along-from the old days, the Broker days-and from the safe in my little office I took my stash of emergency cash, ten grand, in twenties and fifties. Tucked those packets into the suitcase, as well. I left the safe open.
I went outside and took the axe out of the back of the guy’s head, which made a sound like pulling your foot up out of mud, and dragged him by the feet in through the back door, all the way into the living room; he left a snail-like trail of blood and brain matter, even though the mess was facing mostly up. In his pants pocket I found the keys to his car, which I kept. He had no I.D. of any kind, of course. Like a department store window dresser, I arranged my mannequin so that his head was against the metal lip of the fireplace. Near his open right palm I placed the nine-millimeter I used on his partner. I found my hunting jacket hung on the hook by the front door; my car keys were on the kitchen counter and I put them in the right-hand jacket pocket. As if dancing with a clumsy partner, I put it on the other corpse, and draped him near the fireplace as well. I removed his leather gloves; put them on-they fit perfectly-and reached under the sofa for the silenced Luger, leaving the gun near the two dead men. Then I stepped back to look at them, an artist checking his composition. As an afterthought-and with some reluctance, I admit-I removed my Rolex, engraved on the back “To Jack-Love Linda,” and placed it on the left wrist of the corpse wearing my hunting jacket. Now satisfied, I went back out to my little tool shed and got a can of gasoline. Still wearing the gloves, I soaked a good deal of the living room down, dousing the two corpses, and particularly the fireplace, whose dying embers flared into life. I didn’t douse Chris at all-him I hoped would eventually be identified. I splashed some in the hallway. Couldn’t bring myself to splash any around the bedroom. The smell of the gas began to override the death smell.
I went in the bedroom one last time. I was going to kiss her goodbye, but she really wasn’t there anymore, was she? She was gone. I’d fucked up, chose the wrong option, and she was gone. Somebody screamed. Me.
I had lived here a long time. But I could never live here again.
Then I went out the front door, suitcase in hand; I stood on the deck for a moment and held the door open with my foot. Put the suitcase down and lit a kitchen match.
Tossed it in.
The heat rushed back at my face, like an oven door opening.
“Bye, baby,” somebody said.
Behind me the world turned orange; ahead the world was dark. I walked toward the darkness.
The phone rang until it woke me. It rang a good long time, because I was way under, but it finally did wake me, and my eyes opened, tentatively, to a darkened motel room, just enough light filtering in around the drapes to let me know it was day.
“Hello,” I said. My mouth was thick and foul from sleep and Seconal.
The voice was male and sounded official and unsure of itself at the same time.
“Yes. What is it?”
“We were, uh… worried about you, sir.”
“I’m touched. Why.”
“It’s… Friday, sir. Friday afternoon, and you arrived early Thursday, in the early A.M. Which is to say, Wednesday night, very late.”
I yawned and sat up. Not terribly engrossed in this conversation.
“Yeah, right,” I said. “So?”
“Housekeeping informs us that you haven’t been out of your room since you arrived. You’ve taken no meals, and…”
“Is babysitting your guests part of the service here, at… where am I?”
“The Ramada Inn. Near O’Hare.”
Yesterday I’d been here with Linda. Not here exactly-at O’Hare, picking up her brother… and maybe it wasn’t yesterday, exactly..
“So it’s Friday,” I said. Blinking my sleep-crusted eyes. Tasting my gym-sock tongue.
“Friday afternoon,” he said. “Three o’clock, and no sir, we don’t ‘babysit’ our guests. We as a policy respect the privacy of our guests. But housekeeping has checked in periodically-you didn’t put out the ‘do not disturb’ sign-and, frankly, reports were that you were sleeping very soundly…”
They thought I was in a coma or something.
“Look,” I said, “who am I speaking to, anyway?”
“My name is Hollis,” he said, somewhat defensively. “I’m an assistant manager.”
“Is that your first name or last name?”
“Last,” he said.
“Well, Mr. Hollis, I appreciate your conscientiousness. But I’m really quite all right. I was just very tired, and needed a good deal of sleep.”
Then: “I understand. I’m sorry to have disturbed you, Mr. Murphy.”
“That’s all right. I like to get up every few days, anyway. Thanks again.”
“You’re welcome, sir.”
His voice still sounded doubtful, suspicious. “I’ll be sure to recommend your facility to my company,” I said.
“Well, thank you, sir,” he said, brightly, mollified.
I hung up.
I sat on the edge of the bed and ran my hand over my face. The grease and growth of beard there confirmed that I had indeed slept for a day and a half. I’d taken too many of those fucking pills. What was I trying to do, kill myself?
That wasn’t in me. I’d worked too hard, for too many years, to survive, to ever throw it away. Even yesterday’s losses-or the day before yesterday or whenever the fuck-weren’t enough to change that. This planet, without Linda on it, was pretty much worthless, but what else was new? It all fit in with the Almighty’s master plan, which was that there was no master plan, or Almighty either.
I’d learned two lessons in Vietnam: the meaningless of life and death; and the importance of survival. They seem to contradict each other, those lessons-but they don’t. I can’t explain it to you. I won’t try.
I got up, feeling woozy from all that drugged sleep; shuffled into the bathroom on rubbery legs and leaned on the sink with one hand and threw water on my face with the other. I looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were red and dead. My face held no expression at all. There was gray in my beard. I was getting old. Death was coming.
But not today. I went in the other room and dug the little bag with my toiletries out of that suitcase where Linda, in one of her last acts, had hidden my Christmas presents. I would have to open those presents to make room in the suitcase. Waiting till Christmas was out of the question. Death might be here by then.
I shaved; nicked myself twice. I smiled at the mirror, seeing if my face still worked. Seeing if I had the masks needed to go out in the world and mix.
I showered, cold to wake me up, and once awake, hot to relax me. My stomach was grinding. It had had nothing in it but Seconal for damn near two days.
I got into the jeans and a white Polo sweatshirt Linda had given me for my last birthday. The clothes I’d worn here would have to be tossed, preferably burned; there would be blood and fiber evidence and what have you. But in the meantime, I stuffed a few twenties in my pocket and walked out into an endless hallway connecting with other endless hallways, following various signs until I was in an equally sprawling lobby area, parts of which seemed under construction. It was one of those places that would always be under construction, I thought, growing constantly, like cancer cells. I ignored the hotel’s own restaurants and went out the front door, into a starkly cold and sunny afternoon, a jet roaring overhead, making its descent into the out-of-sight but nearby O’Hare. Within easy walking distance was a Greek/American restaurant that, among other things, served breakfast twenty-four hours a day. I ate a Denver omelet with pancakes on the side; also orange juice and iced tea. It tasted good, all of it, and made me feel alive again. It was a deceptive feeling, I knew, but even a beat-up wreck of a car needs some gas in it, if it’s going to struggle down the road.
And speaking of cars, in the motel’s vast parking lot, I found the dark blue Buick immediately, something leading me there though I had no conscious memory of where I’d left the thing. Before driving it away Wednesday night I’d taken only the time to check for registration and, not surprisingly, had found none. Now it was time to go over the car more thoroughly.
Not that I expected to find anything: it was a new car. It still had the new car smell; the ghost of the price sticker was on the driver window, several bands of paper and glue. But I looked anyway.
In the trunk I found nothing but the jack and spare. It was spotless; nothing had ever been stowed here.
In the backseat, even pulling the cushions out, I found nothing at all. Not even the usual spare change.
Nothing on the floors in back except paper mats.
In the glove compartment, I found three maps: Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa. There was also a silver flashlight. And a pair of flares.
Also an owner’s manual, warranty literature and such, the likes of which come with any new car. But no name of the car’s owner.
However, there was, on the manual, the rubber-stamp imprint of the car dealership from which the car apparently came: BEST BUY BUICK amp; OLDS, DAVENPORT, IOWA. Davenport was on the Iowa side of the Quad Cities; Rock Island-the county and the city, and the source of the Buick’s license plate-was on the Illinois side. Interesting.
I found nothing under the front seat, but digging down in the seat, in front, my fingers touched something small and cool. I withdrew a matchbook. It was bright red. In black its shiny surface said THE EMBERS. There was no address, but there was a phone number, and the area code-309-was an Illinois one-that included the Quad Cities.
I pocketed the matchbook and felt my face make something that might have been a smile.
Pros these boys had not been. Even driving a brand-new car, they had managed to leave a trail of stupidity all the way back home. They were lucky they were already dead, or I’d be killing them again.
One at a time, I spread the Illinois and Iowa maps out on the hood of the car; there were no markings on either. On the Wisconsin map, however, highways and roads en route were traced in pen and Paradise Lake was circled.
I folded the maps back up and tucked them under my arm. I walked back into the hotel, the cold air whipping at me, a jet screaming overhead. In the gift shop I found a blue Chicago Bears windbreaker, inappropriate for the time of year, but it would do till I had a chance to stop and buy a real jacket.
Not a hunting one this time, even though that would be appropriate.
I also picked up the Sun Times and the Tribune. The latter had a small inside story about the incident, but in the former, in true tabloid tradition, MULTIPLE MURDERS FOLLOWED BY FIRE
had made page two, and had some details, including a few pictures: what seemed to be a high school picture of Linda looking impossibly young, pretty and innocent (like usual) and a shot of firemen working hoses on the burning house; fire must’ve lasted a while, because it was a daylight pic. No pictures of me. There weren’t any, that I knew of, under that name; or dental records or anything else, if they went looking.
I was sitting on the bed, reading the articles a second time, the TV tuned to the “Eyewitness” news, when an update came on.
The glow of the TV was on my face like the set was a hearth I was sitting in front of. A black reporter in a gray topcoat and a black tie was speaking earnestly into a microphone, his breath smoking with cold. Behind him was my A-frame, not recognizably an A anymore, smoking with heat. Even now.
“No official statement has been made,” the reporter was saying, “but one Twin Lakes fire department investigator, who wished to remain anonymous, speculated that the blaze may have begun as an accidental side effect of a ‘fight to the death’ between the man of the house and an intruder. That as yet unidentified intruder apparently stole an undisclosed amount of cash from a safe in the Wilson home, after killing Mrs. Wilson and her visiting brother, Christopher Blakely. Apparently Jack Wilson, the husband, came upon the scene and struggled with the intruder. Both Wilson and the intruder were killed; their struggle, near a roaring fire in a fireplace, may have led to the conflagration.”
Cut to Charley, behind the bar at the Inn, looking haggard, shattered.
“Jack did keep money in his house,” Charley said. “How much, I don’t know. I do know that his brother-in-law and wife were alone in that house that evening, before he joined them about midnight.”
Cut to a closer-up shot of the black reporter. “Wilson apparently killed the intruder by smashing his head against the edge of the metal fireplace. But Wilson was shot during the struggle and was probably dead before the fire flared up.”
Cut back to Charley.
“I don’t know much about Jack’s background,” he said. His voice was quavering. I felt bad about putting him through this. Well, when he discovered the Welcome Inn’s ownership reverted to him upon my death, that would cheer him up some.
“I do know that he saw combat in Vietnam,” Charley was saying, “and he kept guns in his house. It don’t surprise me Jack took the bastard with him.”
Local news. They could leave words like “bastard” in. Was this one of those ratings “sweep” weeks, I wondered, or did they routinely go “in depth” into exploitable tragedies like this?
“Locals say this is the first murder at Paradise Lake since the late 1800s,” the reporter was wrapping up, “when two trappers fought over fur-trading rights. And it may be the most bizarre and tragic multiple homicide the Lake Geneva area has ever seen. Len Myers, Eyewitness News.”
Then some asshole came on and talked about the weather. It was going to get colder.
I left the Buick in one of the parking ramps at O’Hare, where it could sit for a good long time before anybody discovered it had been abandoned. Then I paid cash for a seat on an evening flight, via Air Wisconsin to Moline, Illinois. On my way to the concourse I paid five bucks to the clean-cut young men hawking Preston Freed’s Democratic Action party literature. The forty-five minute flight allowed me to inform myself on the evils of abortion, the need for prayer in school, the Royal Family’s role in global drug traffic, the Zionist-inspired banking crisis and the approaching nuclear apocalypse. All Freed’s world outlook lacked was a white rabbit looking frantically at his watch.
The Moline airport terminal was a massive modern rambling structure, ridiculously outsized for what it was. The structure was relatively new-in the old terminal, which was still standing nearby, a building that was modern in the 1950s sense, I had done a job once. One of my last jobs for the Broker. Killed a priest in the men’s room, only he was just a guy passing for a priest.
I was passing for John Ryan, a name I had I.D. for, including a driver’s license. Even though I was out of the business all those years, I kept a spare identity active. One never knew, did one, when it would come in handy.
Ryan was supposed to live in Milwaukee, though the address was just a P.O. box. He had money in the bank-time certificates, mostly. His profession, should anyone ask, was sales. He owned his own small company and sold auto parts. That was the story. It wouldn’t hold up if I was in serious trouble, but if I was in serious trouble, I’d be past needing it to hold up.
But I had my driver’s license, Social Security number, and several credit cards. And that’s all anybody needs in the United States to qualify as a real person. It felt great being a real person. Real persons can rent cars, and I did, from National, another Buick, this one light blue. I wondered if National bought their cars locally, in which case it may have come from Best Buy over in Davenport. Everybody sing: it’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all….
It was eleven when I checked in at the Howard Johnson’s near the airport. I’d been here before, too, years ago, but it had been remodeled some, not that I gave a shit. Remodeling a Howard Johnson’s is like a homely woman getting a facelift; sure she looks younger, but why the fuck bother?
I was feeling alert and awake, the Seconal hangover easing off. I had slept some on the plane, nodding off half-way through a Freed article explaining the link between the Zionists and the Illuminati. But before I’d dropped off, I learned something extremely interesting about extremist Freed: his home base was right here in the Quad Cities. His campaign headquarters for the coming presidential election was a suite of offices in the Blackhawk Hotel. His private estate was nearby, “just outside Buffalo, Iowa, in America’s heartland.”
Well, somebody in America’s heartland wanted Freed dead. And if I could figure out who that was, I’d know who I wanted dead.
I sat on the bed in the motel room, knowing I wouldn’t need to sleep for a while, and decided to get to work. I checked the phone book for Victor Werner, but there was no listing. It figured that he’d be unlisted. I had an address for him, in the Broker’s papers, but it was ten years old, that address. Would he still be there?
Only one way to find out.
I had left the Browning nine-millimeter behind, of course, but the other two, a matched pair of Smith and Wessons, were still with me. So was an Automatic Weapons Company HP-9 suppressor, a dark round tube that attached to the end of about any nine-millimeter, my S amp; Ws included. With a silencer like this, all a nine-millimeter made was a little thump you could sleep through. Forever, if necessary.
I attached the suppressor to one of the nine-millimeters and rolled the gun up in a bathroom towel. I still had my shoulder holster, but the silenced weapon was too bulky to wear that way. I had a dark blue sweatshirt along, which I put on, still wearing the jeans, and threw the lighter blue CHICAGO BEARS windbreaker over that. With the rolled-up towel under my arm, I looked like I was going to the Y for a work-out.
I wasn’t. I was on my way, in my rental Buick, to Davenport, via the free bridge at Moline; traffic was brisk, but that was to be expected on a Friday night. In Moline I made a stop at a 7-11 and bought a roll of wide adhesive tape and a plastic-wrapped packet of clothesline. Soon I was cruising four-lane River Drive, which connected Moline and Davenport, and to my left was the Mississippi, its shiny black surface reflecting the lights of the cities across the way, and to my right was a slope on which perched various homes, many of them mansions or anyway near-mansions.
Werner’s was a big white would-be Tara, with six pillars in front, its slope of lawn winter-brown at the moment, unmarred by sidewalk. I drove up the nearest side street and found you entered via an alley, off of which was the house and its three-car garage. But the place was dark. Well, it figured. Friday night.
I left the car several blocks away and walked back to Werner’s and waited. I waited in the shrubs near the garage. I never did do home invasions. That wasn’t my style. I always worked as part of a two-man team, one of whom would do most of the watching, the surveillance, getting the target’s pattern down before choosing the right time and place, when the other team member would do the actual hit. Which was usually me.
But home invasions, no, and so I had only the most rudimentary experience with things like alarm systems. A connected guy like Werner would have a sophisticated one, too, and possibly a live-in bodyguard or two, though after an hour no one checked the grounds.
The night was overcast and cold and a little foggy up on this higher ground; the streetlamps in the alley glowed like halos. I should have been chilled, in the light jacket, but for some reason I couldn’t feel it much. I felt dead, even if my breath in the cold air indicated I wasn’t.
Finally, just after midnight, a security company car crawled down the alley. One of the two uniformed, brown leather-jacketed men got out and walked the grounds with a flashlight, while the other waited, sipping steaming liquid from a styrofoam cup. It was only a half-hearted effort, the one with the flash not even brushing the bushes where I hid with his beam. Good thing. Coldinspired laziness had saved a couple of lives.
And at one-thirty-something, a jade green Lincoln coasted down the alley and pulled in the drive; one of the three doors of the garage swung up upon electronic command, and the big boat of a car docked itself within.
The door shut itself, and a man in a camel’s hair overcoat and a woman in a mink exited the garage via a side door. The woman was in the lead, a harshly attractive blonde in her late forties who was staying perhaps too thin in an effort to hold onto her youth. The man was shorter than his wife, and in his mid-fifties though his hair was jet black; he had a round, youthful face, but his mouth was a tight gash. He was pulling on his gloves.
“We’re going to the game,” Mr. Werner said, irritably.
“You’ll go alone,” the apparent Mrs. Werner said. Her voice was as icily crisp as the air.
“Isn’t it enough I give those phony bastards my money? Do I have to…”
She turned and pointed a finger in his face; she was wearing black leather gloves. “The Arts Council is the most important thing in my life. Don’t louse it up!”
“We don’t have to be at every goddamn meeting…”
“Well, I do,” she said.
By this time they were at the back door. The woman stood with her arms folded, tapping her foot as if to some inner and no doubt unpleasant tune while Werner worked a key in the lock.
“I’m going to that game,” he said. “I didn’t spring for season tickets to stay home.”
“I’m co-chairperson, Vic. Don’t forget that.”
“Would that I could.”
He had the door open, now. The whine of an alarm system sounded.
“Doesn’t mean a thing to you the Hawks are number one in the nation, does it?” he asked, as he reached around inside to work another key in a wall socket, turning off the alarm.
With a patrician downward glance at him, she said, “I enjoy the games. Driving all the way to Iowa City doesn’t thrill me, but I’m as much a Hawk fan as you are…”
“I doubt that.”
“I just have my own priorities.”
So did I.
They stepped inside and I stepped in with them, putting the nine-millimeter’s silenced nose in the back of the woman’s neck.
“God!” she said.
Werner was looking at me through narrow eyes, as if trying to comprehend that I was really standing there. The kitchen was dark, but the alley was well lit and that made for some visibility.
“Don’t turn on the lights,” I told her, “and don’t turn around.”
“Don’t rape me,” she said. “Please don’t let him rape me, Vic!”
“Shut up,” he said.
I tossed him the packet of clothesline.
“Tie her in that chair,” I told him. To her I said, “Keep your back to me. Don’t see me.”
“All right,” she said timidly.
“Sit,” I said.
Werner, moving with slow, quiet disgust, tied his wife into the chair. I watched him carefully and he performed his task well, making it tight enough and knotted well enough to get her bound, but not hurting her. Despite their bickering, he seemed to care for her.
While he was doing that, I asked him: “Anyone else in the house?”
“We have two kids, both at college.”
“Neither home at the moment?”
“Neither home at the moment.”
“Any live-in help?”
“No. I used to have live-in help like that. No more.”
“I’m a respectable member of the community. Respectable members of the community don’t go around with bodyguards.”
He got up from where he’d been kneeling to tie her legs to the chair and said, “Now what?”
“Her mouth,” I said, and tossed him the adhesive tape.
He sighed and put a slash of tape across her mouth. I saw him smile reassuringly at her, squeezed her shoulder once. Said, “Don’t look at him, Virginia.”
“Now what?” he asked.
“How often does the rent-a-cop car come by? Don’t lie.”
“Twice a night.”
He shrugged. “About midnight. Then again around three.”
“Let’s go outside.”
“I have the gun. The one with the gun gets to ask the questions.”
“Right,” he sighed. He turned to his wife, whose back remained to us. “Just sit there,” he said pointlessly. “Don’t try to do anything.”
She nodded again, which was about all she could do, anyway.
And her husband and I went out into the cold foggy air. The distance from house to alley was moderate, but the yard was wide and protected from neighboring houses and their big yards by walls of shrubbery.
“What’s this about?” he asked. He didn’t seem very afraid.
“I used to work for the Broker.”
That only seemed to irritate him. “Well, what are you coming around here for, then? And what’s the idea of the gun, and tying up my wife?”
“Simple precaution,” I said; he seemed to have taken me for somebody else, which could prove interesting.
“Look… Stone, is it? None of this has anything to do with me, and I don’t want to have anything more to do with it. You can tell that to Ridge.” He sliced the air with the side of his hand, karate-chop style, in a gesture of finality. “I’ve done all I’m going to do.”
“I may not be who you think I am.”
“Well, you’re Stone.”
“No I’m not. I know who you mean. I worked with Stone, a few times. But I’m not Stone.”
“I’m someone else who used to work for the Broker.”
“Someone else? Who?”
“What’s in a name.”
“Look, a lot of people worked for the Broker. But that’s ancient history. That cunning old son-of-a-bitch died years ago.”
“I know,” I said. “I was there.”
He wasn’t impressed yet. “Were you really.” It wasn’t a question.
I said, “He pointed you out to me, once, Mr. Werner. He said you were a rising star who fell.”
He laughed humorlessly. “That sounds like him.”
“He said you were destined for big things in the Outfit, but that you made some mistakes. You were lucky to stay alive, actually, let alone hang onto your vending business, hotel interests and other holdings locally.”
“I have very little to do with those people anymore,” he said. “I am, as I told you, a respectable member of the community. What are you, down on your luck? Looking for work? If you’re auditioning, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’re just a thief, now, well, there’s little of value in my house, but I’m willing to lead you to what there is, if you’ll be done with this and go. We have perhaps a thousand in cash, some negotiable securities, some jewelry, a few paintings, though the latter might not be anything you’d want to fool with.”
“Well, you’ve seen me, Mr. Werner. You’d give my description to the authorities.”
“But I wouldn’t. I’m still connected enough that I don’t relish investigation of any sort. If they caught up with you, you might tell them what you know about me, and while I don’t think much would come of it, it could prove embarrassing.”
“Embarrassment is the least of your problems. I said I used to work for the Broker.”
He looked at me sideways, drawing back a bit. And then it hit him. The blood left his face. “You… you’re not the one he called… Quarry, are you?”
And now he was scared. He was starting to breathe heavy, his country club cool melting on him, even in this weather. He started backing up.
“Don’t do that,” I said.
He stopped; suddenly his breath was smoking up the place. “I thought… I thought…”
“You thought I was dead? And why is that?”
“Look-I was just doing a favor for a friend… I…”
“What friend? What favor?”
He patted the air with his palms. “Let’s be reasonable. Let’s just be reasonable. I can explain.”
“I’ll explain. Someone came to you, someone who knew you had mob connections, and requested the name of an assassin. And you used to be the Broker’s mob conduit, so you knew the names and even the whereabouts of some of his people. What made you pick my name out of the hat?”
A swallow and a sigh. “Broker said… he said something about you once.”
He looked at the ground. “I don’t remember. I just remember he singled you out.”
“No, really. I’m interested.”
He swallowed again, reluctantly met my eyes with his. “He said you were his best man. If I ever had anything… out of the ordinary, anybody important, you’d be the man for the job.”
Even dead, all these years, that cocksucker was still causing me problems.
“Well, I’m flattered,” I said. “And that’s why you gave out my name for this political contract, is it?”
He shook his head no, repeatedly. “I don’t know anything about the contract. I just know who put it in motion.”
“And who would that be?”
Then said: “If I tell you, you have to promise me something.”
His eyes were slits. “You’ll kill this man at your first opportunity.”
“He’s… a friend of mine, you see, but he’s… he wouldn’t stop at anything, to reach his goals. If he knew I’d told you who he was, I’d be dead.”
“Who is he?”
“He’s a self-made millionaire. Real estate.”
“What’s his name? Ridge?”
“Ridge,” he nodded. “George Ridge.”
“Lives here in the Cities?”
“In Davenport. That’s where his business is, too. It’s in Paul Revere Square on Kimberly.”
“I see. You’ve been helpful, Mr. Werner.”
He smiled. “You don’t have to worry about me keeping my mouth shut,” he said.
“Oh, I know,” I said, and raised the nine-millimeter.
“Wait! Wait. That’s not necessary!”
“You thought I was dead, Mr. Werner. Why?”
“George… George told me you hadn’t worked out. He asked me if I could give him another name. I… I gave him one.”
He thought for a moment, then shrugged, what the hell. “Stone. I.. guess I let that slip before.”
“But that’s just what the Broker called him. He was living under another name. Brackett, I believe.”
“I know that, too,” I said.
“Oh, you do. But I have been of some help…”
“You have. Only something doesn’t track, here.”
“The two men who tried to hit me. Neither one was this man Stone, Brackett, whatever. I don’t think they were pros, those two.”
He lifted his eyebrows. “Well-I think Stone was going to get offered the job you turned down. George has people working for him who have pretty rough backgrounds. He might have used some of them.”
“How educated a guess is that?”
“Pretty educated. He did say to me… well, he said he was going to have to do something about you.”
“Because I was a loose end.”
“Something like that. He… I admit he makes me more than a little uneasy.”
“And why is that, Mr. Werner?”
“Well, hell-I didn’t want to be a ‘loose end’ myself.” He shrugged, lifted his eyebrows. “But I don’t really think George looks at me that way.”
“He thinks of me as Outfit. Which I still am, to a degree. It’s just that I’m strictly legitimate these days.”
“Do you love your wife, Mr. Werner?”
“What sort of question is that?”
“Do you love your wife?”
“Of course I love her.”
“Well, thanks to you, my wife is dead, and my unborn child. So when I’ve done you, I’ll do Mrs. Werner.”
“And I may just look those kids of yours up for the hell of it.”
His eyes went wide with a terror like none I’d ever seen; I let it linger there a few moments, then shot him between them. The heavy camel’s hair overcoat cushioned his fall and he lay on his back staring up at the overcast sky, eyes and mouth open, in a look of empty yet reflective horror.
I had no intention of killing his wife or kids. I didn’t want to lower myself to that level. I just wanted him to think I would.
There’s no reason to believe there’s anything after this life but darkness, and I wanted to make sure the son-of-a-bitch spent at least a few seconds in hell.
The wide one-way of Brady Street burrowed through a valley of plastic and metal and cement that was America in all its fast-food, discount-chain glory. It was Saturday afternoon, and the four lanes were thick with cars; even in the unemployment-stressed Quad Cities, people seemed to have income to dispose of, as car after car would leave the pack and disappear into the jammed parking lot of this temple of Mammon or that one. And on the right, as the valley dipped, between McDonald’s and Payless Shoe Source, an auto lot sprawled, a virtual football field of vehicles,
new and used: BEST BUY BUICK amp; OLDS.
I pulled the rental Buick into the lot and stepped out, looking (I hoped) fairly prosperous in my suit and tie and brown leather overcoat. These, as well as a second suitcase and enough clothes of various sorts to fill it and my immediate needs, I’d bought at shops on the Illinois side of the Cities, at South Park Mall, which hadn’t been far from the Howard Johnson’s I’d checked out of. I had checked into the Blackhawk Hotel, just before heading out Brady Street, and all of this had eaten up most of the morning. It was now approaching noon, the sun bright and reflecting off the shiny new (and used) cars.
I began nosing around. Buicks and Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs. Sporty cars and conservative ones. Expensive ones and less expensive ones. Here a two-tone barge with a vinyl top; there a low-slung number with a garish bird spread over its crimson hood. Symbols of status that told you who you were, in case you didn’t know.
A Mexican blue-collar type was chatting with a heavy-set salesman in a red blazer; the blazer blurred into the red Firebird they were discussing in puffs of smoky breath. A middle-class family was looking a station wagon over; the father was about my age, the mother perhaps ten years younger-two well-behaved kids, a boy and a girl, six and four I’d guess, tagged along. A younger red-blazered salesman was pointing out the benefits of these practical wheels; but I caught the father gazing wistfully at a sporty little two-seater.
I heard the swish of nylon and turned to see a beaming, very blond, startlingly beautiful woman in red blazer and white pleated skirt and blue shoes approaching. Her lipstick was bright red, teeth a dazzling white, and her eyes a deep resonant blue. She was a human American flag, her arms moving like a soldier on parade, waving her hips by way of patriotic greeting.
I couldn’t help but smile; first time in days I’d done that. Her manner was a skillful blending of cheerleader sexiness and no-nonsense businesswoman. You wanted to fuck her, and she implied she’d love to fuck you, as well-only business before pleasure.
“What do you see that you like?” she said, in a tone utterly devoid of innuendo, or for that matter irony.
“Nothing yet,” I said, smiling blandly, and moved along the row of cars, ignoring her, as if I didn’t know she was following along at my side, like a beauty pageant contestant on a runway.
“Do you have something in mind?” she said, pleasantly, her breath visible in the cold. None of the sales staff was dressed warm enough.
“I was here about a week ago,” I said, giving her a casual glance. “I don’t believe I remember seeing you, and I think I’d remember.” A quick smile to acknowledge her attract- iveness. “You new here?”
“Why, relatively new,” she said, the question throwing her just a bit off guard. “But I’ve been with the firm several months. Were you here in the evening?”
She smiled like a stewardess. “Well, that explains it. I’m only here mornings and some afternoons.”
“You don’t often see a woman working a car lot.”
“Times are changing,” she said, perkily, not insulted, or anyway not showing it.
“I noticed. But car lots-particularly used car lots-seem one of the last male strongholds. When did you last hear someone say, ‘Would you buy a used car from this woman?’”
“Never,” she said, something warm and more real in her voice now, “but then I almost never get mistaken for Nixon.”
That made me smile again and look at her, in a different way. The Nixon reference was surprising, because it was something you’d only say if you were about my age, and I’d thought her younger than me. And she was, but only a few years, though if you looked past the deft, sparingly applied makeup, you could see it. She’d been a cheerleader, all right, and probably a beauty queen too-but fifteen years ago.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
She pointed to her bosom; on the blazer it said, ANGELA, in blue stitched cursive. Her tapering hand wore no wedding ring, but I could see the smooth shadow where one had been.
“Jordan.” And she extended her hand.
I shook it and said, “I’m Jack Ryan. From Milwaukee. I get through here from time to time.”
“That’s right. And, like I said, I stopped by your lot, here, not long ago. Had my eye on a buggy. A Buick.”
“And you don’t see it here? Do you know the model?”
“No. It was a big car, or as big as they make ’em now. Dark blue, with a sky-blue interior, white walls…”
“I think I can show you a similar car, but not with that color combination… funny.”
“I think I know the car you mean. A Regency. Beautiful car.” She lifted her eyebrows. “It’s just funny that you should ask about that particular unit.”
We were walking into the used car area now. There was a gentle but chilly breeze; pennants flapped above us.
And I asked her again: “What’s funny about it?”
She sighed, crinkled her cheeks with a wide, closed-mouth smile. “It was stolen.”
I shook my head and made a world-weary face. “Really. That’s terrible.”
She grunted agreement, then said, “Of all the cars on the lot, that one was the only one taken.”
“I suppose somebody hot-wired it and just took off.”
“I suppose. We never had a car stolen before. I mean, I’m pretty new, like I said, but Don has been here for years, and he said he never heard of such a thing.”
“Yes. And it just happened, you know.”
“Actually, I… well. Why don’t you let me show you something similar to the unit you had your eye on.”
“You started to say something. About the stolen car.”
“Well, Lonny-Mr. Best-just reported it stolen, yesterday.”
“Mr. Best? You mean the ‘Best’ in BEST BUY is a name?”
“Sure.” She looked at me with just a tinge of suspicion, or maybe it was just curiosity. “I thought you said you got through this area from time to time.”
“Well, I do, but only recently. I’ve only been working in Iowa and Illinois since the beginning of October.”
“I see,” she said. “Now, I know we have a like-new Regency, it’s a copper-brown, but…”
“Excuse me, Angela. Mind if I call you Angela? You said that car I wanted was just reported stolen, like that surprised you.”
“Well… I noticed it was off the lot on Wednesday morning, and I asked Lonny who’d sold it. He said nobody, and I asked where it was, and he said he thought it was being serviced.”
That was about as far as I dared push it.
I said, “What have you got in a smaller car?” She gave me a puzzled, if good-natured, look.
“I thought you wanted a big Buick…”
“I did. But it got stolen. What about that little black Sunbird?”
We walked over to it and she put her hand on the hood, gently, almost affectionately.
“It’s a cute little car,” she said. “It does have some miles on it-but a one-owner. The camel interior is lovely, don’t you think? I drive a little Sunbird myself.”
It had a cardboard sign in the window that said $2,500.
“What would you say to two grand cash?”
She raised an eyebrow, smiled. “I think that’s a possibility. I’ll have to check with Lonny. Mr. Best.”
“That’s fine. I’d like to meet Mr. Best. Lonny.”
She showed her teeth and her dimples; they went well together. “I think that can be arranged.”
I followed her back up the lot and into the showroom, where Cadillacs and other pricey barges were in dry dock. Soon I was inside a cubbyhole office decorated with GMC awards, classic car photos and, on a special shelf, golf trophies.
“Mr. Best,” Angela said, “this is Jack Ryan. He’s made an offer on the black Sunbird.”
Lonny Best stood behind his desk and smiled, a big glad-hander’s grin that let me know that no sale was too small to command the boss’s attention. A few years older than me, he was nonetheless boyish, and fairly small-perhaps five-eight-and just this side of chunky, with short brown hair and apple-red apple cheeks that spoke of high blood pressure; his eyes were small and dark and bright, the eyes of a predator, or a salesman, if there’s a difference.
His red blazer was thrown over the back of his chair; he wore the white short-sleeve shirt, red-white-and-blue striped tie and white slacks that seemed a part of the BEST BUY uniform. He thrust his hand out for me to shake and I did. He suggested I pull up a chair and I did. He gave Angela a nod, which I supposed was a silent command for her to gather the paperwork, and then turned his too-pleasant smile on me. If his smile had been any bigger, there wouldn’t have been room in the little office for the two of us. If it had been any less sincere, I’d have lost all my faith in my fellow man.
“That’s a nice little car,” he said. “Mind if I smoke?”
“Go ahead,” I said, and smiled meaninglessly.
He lit a filtered cigarette, one of those low nicotine and tar brands that let you die slower.
“You drive a hard bargain,” he said, winking at me, giving me a sly ol’ grin. “But I think two thousand is a reasonable offer.”
“Well, this is a second car. For my wife. I also need to get something bigger, newer. Had my eye on that dark blue Buick that Ms. Jordan says got stolen out from under you the other day.”
He shook his head, laughed, as if something were funny. “Damnedest thing. Almost fifty years since my dad started this business, God rest him, and never had a car stolen before. Right off the damn lot.”
“Awful,” I said, world-weary again. “How do you suppose they managed it?”
His smile turned curious and perhaps a shade irritated; he cocked his head to one side like a dog and said, “Pardon?”
“How do you suppose whoever it was managed to steal it, right off your lot? On one of the busiest streets in the Cities, I would guess. Constantly travelled, and your lot’s well lit.”
He shrugged elaborately, still smiling, said, “Well, folks are always driving through the lot, after hours, browsing. Probably wouldn’t be so tough to do. Maybe we’re lucky it never happened before.”
“Don’t you have security?”
His smile showed some strain. “Not on the lot, no. But the boys in blue swing by, and a local security company has us on their route.”
I made a tch-tch sound. “Yet you still get a car swiped off your lot.”
“I guess there isn’t anything they wouldn’t steal these days. What do you expect?”
“I know,” I said, shaking my head in disgust.
“That’s what you get,” he explained, no trace of the smile now, “in a welfare state full of dope addicts.”
“That’s what you get,” I nodded.
“Country’s going to hell in a handbasket,” he said. “But don’t get me started on politics.”
“I don’t mind. I like a lively political discussion.”
His smile drifted to one side of his face. “Well, I got to warn you, Jack-my views are a little on the conservative side.”
“That’s fine with me, Lonny. I’m just a little to the right of Genghis Khan myself.”
He laughed, though I wasn’t entirely sure he understood the remark. “You have to expect wholesale theft in a society where the police are hamstrung, and the courts are soft on crime.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “How do you feel about this fella Preston Freed? Isn’t he from around here?”
He frowned. Swallowed. “I draw the line where that bastard is concerned-if you’re a supporter of his, I don’t mean to offend you.. ”
“I’m not and you haven’t.”
“He goes just too far. Too damn far.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He sure makes a lot of sense where prayer in school is concerned, and abortion. He’s got a healthy anti-drug posture, don’t you think?”
“Maybe so, but… well, here’s Angela.”
She came in, smiling sunnily; she had indeed got the paperwork together, and handed it to Best. He looked it over, informed me matter of factly that license and tax and so on would be on top of my two grand, and I didn’t bitch. I handed over the cash and we shook hands and I said, “I had an ulterior motive, coming to see you.”
“Could we have a word in private?”
He nodded, then nodded to Angela, who disappeared in another swish of nylon, closing the door behind her. “What can I do for you, Jack?”
“Maybe I can do something for you. I’m in the auto parts business. Used.”
“Well, I’m afraid I’m not in the market…”
“Hear me out. I think I can provide you with like-new auto parts. Regularly.”
His eyes narrowed; his smile was, for the first time, sincere. Which is to say crooked, in more than one sense of the word. “I may understand at that.”
“I have people in Milwaukee and Chicago who can provide you with about anything you might need. Reasonably.”
He was nodding slowly.
“I’ve been working all over the Midwest, from Missouri to Wisconsin. But you’re the first person I’ve approached in this area.”
He lifted both eyebrows. “I’d need to be the only person you approached.”
“Fine. I understand you have another lot on the Illinois side.”
“Yes. And one in Clinton.”
“Why don’t you think it over,” I said, rising. “I’ll be in town a while. We can talk later.”
He stood, too. “I have a business partner I’ll need to discuss this with.”
“Jack, if we do business… I don’t want to know any more than what you’ve just told me. I don’t know anything about you and/or your business. As far as I know, you’re a reputable auto parts dealer from Milwaukee.”
“Sure, Lonny. Far as we’re both concerned, a chop shop is a Chinese restaurant.”
He liked that. He laughed. Sincerely.
We shook hands and I left him in his cubbyhole office with his opinions about wholesale theft and the criminal justice system.
I had, I knew, in one stroke established myself with a cover story that was both believable and shady enough to serve my purpose, over these next few days. I had also learned plenty about Lonny Best.
Outside, Angela was waiting with my Sunbird and my keys. I arranged with her to have the car delivered to the Blackhawk Hotel; I had my rental to return. She was helpful and, the sale made, more relaxed, more real.
The sun bathed us, despite the chilly air; her congeniality seemed genuine, and so did her interest in me. My interest in her was pretty abstract. She was a beautiful woman, and I found her attractive and pleasant, but right now I had no plans for my dick except taking the occasional leak.
“I hope to see you again,” she said, warmly, touching my hand.
The little flags flapped overhead.
I glanced around this lot where that dark-blue Buick had sat, just a few days before, the vehicle that had brought death back into my life.
“You will,” I said, and got in the rental.
It was only ten minutes from Best Buy Buick to Paul Revere Square; I turned off Kimberly Road onto Jersey Ridge, a funeral home off to my right, and pulled in at the left, between the brick pillars, the wrought-iron gates standing open, as if welcoming me to a private estate.
Paul Revere Square was an ersatz slice of New England plopped along the frontage of Kimberly Road, a sprawling commercial strip on the western edge of the Cities, connecting Davenport and Moline. Mostly Kimberly was middle-class mini-malls, and franchise restaurants with “Mister” in their names; but Paul Revere Square seemed to cry out, “The wealthy are coming.”
I parked my rental job in the side lot and walked toward the courtyard square where wooden signs extended from buildings on wrought iron, swinging in the gentle chilly breeze, and lampposts lit up the overcast afternoon with yellow electric lights that pretended to be gas. Despite the efforts to look old, these brick buildings were new, the mortar barely dry, and a good many of the storefronts had yet to be filled. Saturday afternoon or not, there weren’t many people wandering the courtyard of shops, though those who were were well-dressed.
Several handsome fortyish women in mink jackets over slacks outfits wandered into a shop where, a glance in the window informed me, fancy dresses were displayed on the walls like museum pieces.
Two- and three-story brick buildings-an anomaly on this commercial stretch where low-slung and cheaply built was the standard-loomed on the periphery, making me feel more like I was in a fortress than a mall. Of course, this wasn’t just a mall; various medical specialists kept offices here, and Butterworth Tours, E.F. Hutton, several insurance firms, a massive bank. Building A, for instance, numbered among its occupants the Obstetrics and Gynecology Group, and Slices and Scoops. The latter had nothing to do with either obstetrics or gynecology: it was a deli restaurant with “home-made” pie. I ate lunch there. So did several pregnant women.
Just after one o’clock, I wandered into Ridge Real Estate World, on a lower level around the corner from the courtyard shops. I found myself in a waiting room where cream carpet and cream walls set a soothing tone, and a large elaborately framed picture of George Ridge, the company founder, was the dominant wall decoration. The wall was otherwise covered with plaques various civic and mercantile groups had awarded to Ridge and/or his company. A good number seemed to have to do with public speaking; several were from the Toastmasters, for instance.
I stood and stared at the picture of Ridge for a good long time, and finally I heard a pleasant voice say, “Could I be of help?”
She was brunette and she was petite and she was attractive; she wasn’t as attractive as Angela back at Best Buy, but this woman, too, had most likely been a cheerleader and/or a beauty queen, only somewhat more recently than Angela. She had money-green eyes and too much make-up and a forced, sparkling white smile. She also wore a blazer: a blue one with a RIDGE crest over a white frilly blouse.
This, apparently, was my day to encounter attractive women-in-blazers.
I put on a smile and walked over to the desk. “I had an appointment with Mr. Ridge,” I said.
I thought that would send her scurrying to a desk drawer for her appointment book, but she only smiled and shook her head. “You must be mistaken,” she said.
I took off the smile, put on a concerned, confused look. “I don’t think that’s possible. My secretary called…”
“Mr. Ridge is out of the country. I’m sorry if there’s been a mix-up.”
“I see. Where is Mr. Ridge, exactly?”
Her smile tightened. “He’s in Canada. Giving a seminar. He will be back Tuesday, however.”
“Yes. I can probably make an appointment for you, for then.”
“I’d appreciate that.” I dug for my billfold in my inside suitcoat pocket, removed a business card. “My name is Ryan, and I’m president of the company. I’m sorry for the confusion I’ve caused.”
“That’s fine, Mr. Ryan,” she said, coldly pleasant. “And might I ask the nature of your business with Mr. Ridge?”
“I’d like to invest some money,” I said.
Her smile disappeared; she didn’t frown, but she definitely was not smiling.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she said.
“Well,” I said, “I really would prefer to discuss it with Mr. Ridge.”
Her eyes narrowed and she kept them narrowed as she examined the business card. Then she stood and twitched her cold pleasant smile and said, “If you’ll excuse me.”
“Certainly,” I said.
She left the reception area and I glanced around some more, wondering why anyone in a real estate office would be confused that I wanted to invest. But then this was the damnedest real estate office I’d ever seen. It was more like a doctor’s reception area, or a lawyer’s. Where were the prominently posted photos of houses with their detailed listings? Where were the eager-beaver agents, in their fucking blue blazers, scurrying after my (after anybody’s) business?
Nothing here but this big fat gilt-framed photo of George Ridge, and an attractive, icy receptionist. I walked over to look toward where she’d gone; down to the left was a hallway off of which were a few offices. The place smelled new, smelled of money, yet it was small for a real estate operation, particularly one that had (as the late Mr. Werner had told me) made George Ridge a millionaire.
Finally she came back, a small woman with a nice body under that blazer and skirt, not that I cared. She gave me the phony smile and a hard appraising look from the money-green eyes.
“Mr. Janes will see you,” she said.
I gave her a phony smile back. “And who is Mr. Janes?”
“He’s a vice president with the company. He’ll be able to help you.”
“I’d like to see Mr. Ridge.”
“He’s out of the country.”
“Who’s on first?”
“I’ll talk to Mr. Janes. Point me to him.”
She walked me there; she was wearing Giorgio perfume. Linda had used that. Expensive fucking shit.
The office was small and rather bare. Janes was a young, thin, pockmarked man wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a big smile. I’d seen a lot of smiles today, but this one I almost believed.
“Mr. Ryan,” he said, grinning, pumping my hand, like we were long-lost buddies. “Sit down. Please.”
A chair opposite him was waiting.
His desk was filled with paperwork and he was in his rolled-up shirtsleeves, his tie loose. He had a coffee cup, from which steam rose like a ghost.
“Excuse the mess,” he said, and sipped the coffee. “Can I have Sally get you a cup?”
“No thanks. Kind of you, though.”
“Excuse my appearance. I don’t generally deal with the public on Saturday. I’m only working because half our staff is on the road this week, and I’m up to my armpits in alligators.”
“I know the feeling.”
He put the coffee cup down and folded his hands on top of some of the paperwork and leaned toward me, his eyes tightening, his smile tightening. “I understand you’re looking for an investment opportunity.”
“Sally tells me you’re the president of your own company.” And he grinned, and shook his head, as if amazed, as if it was all he could do to keep from saying, “Gosh.”
And the hell of it was, he seemed sincere.
“Frankly,” I said, “all I did was hand Sally… is that your receptionist’s name?”
He nodded, but added, “She’s an executive assistant, though.”
“Executive assistant. Sorry. Anyway, I just handed her my card, is all. She doesn’t know any more about my business than you do, but in point of fact I’m president of an auto parts outfit in Milwaukee. My secretary was supposed to have called and made an appointment for me to talk with Mr. Ridge, but there was a screw-up somewhere.”
He laughed. “These things happen.”
Christ, this guy made Up with People seem glum.
“At any rate,” he said, “investment opportunities.”
“You do understand we’re a privately held company, not offering any stock.”
“Certainly,” I said.
“Mr. Ridge will, I’m sure, appreciate your interest, but that’s just the way it is. You’re not the only one who’s been so inspired by Mr. Ridge’s program, or impressed enough by the growth of our company, to make such an inquiry.”
“Perhaps we’ve got our wires crossed…”
“Isn’t this a real estate office?”
He seemed puzzled. “In what sense?”
“Well, in the sense of offering properties for sale. Houses, land. You know. Real estate.”
And now he was amused. He laughed like a bad impressionist doing Burt Lancaster. “You don’t think Mr. Ridge actually sells real estate, do you?”
Well, that answered one question: who was definitely on first.
“What exactly does Mr. Ridge sell?”
“Why, advice, of course.” He sat up. “Is that all you’re interested in?”
I smiled, shrugged.
He smiled ruefully, shook his head. “My apologies. When Sally informed me that you were the president of your own company, that you’d had an appointment with Mr. Ridge that had somehow fallen through the cracks, that you wanted to invest with us… boy, is my face red. Excuse me.”
He rose and left the small office.
I just sat there wondering what the fuck this was all about. I wondered if the son-of-a-bitch would be so cheerful if I let him suck on the nine-millimeter a while.
Then he entered and we exchanged shiteating smiles and he sat and handed me across a tan book about the size of a dictionary, only it wasn’t a book: it opened up into a carrying case for a dozen cassettes.
“The whole program is there,” he said.
“Everything you’ll need to know about no-money down real estate. How to take advantage of distressed properties. The creative use of credit cards. That is how George Ridge became a millionaire by the time he was thirty.”
No money down real estate! Is that what this was?
“You don’t sell real estate here,” I said. “You’re strictly in the business of selling books, tapes. Putting on seminars. How-to stuff.”
“Certainly. Surely you knew that.”
“Of course,” I said. “But I was under the impression that you were also in the real estate business proper.”
He shook his head no. “Not at all.”
I didn’t blame them. This scam was much safer.
“I was also under the impression that Mr. Ridge was available for private consultation.”
“You desire direct advice on investing?”
“That’s right. Excuse me, but I can’t talk to a goddamn tape.”
And I patted the tan carrying case.
He nodded, eyes narrowing, seeing the wisdom of that. “You’d like to sit at the feet of the guru of real estate, so to speak.”
“You took the words right out of my mouth.”
“I can understand your desire. And from time to time Mr. Ridge does do personal consulting. But it is expensive. He’s a very busy man.”
“I know. I understand he’s in Canada, at the moment.”
“Yes, Toronto, with two of our other top people.”
“And he’ll be back, on Tuesday?”
“I’d still like to arrange an appointment. Even fifteen minutes of his time would be appreciated.”
Janes stood, increased the wattage on the smile, extended his hand. “I’m sure Sally can arrange that. Just tell her I’ve given my okay.”
“You’ve been very helpful. What time Tuesday is Mr. Ridge getting back from Canada?”
“Oh, he isn’t getting back on Tuesday. He’s flying in Monday night.”
That’s all I wanted to know.
“As I say, you’ve been very helpful,” I said, and left him and his positive attitude behind.
I stopped at the desk of the “executive assistant” and told her Janes had approved an appointment, and made one for eleven o’clock Tuesday morning. Fifteen minutes was all I got, but what the hell. I’d make and keep my own appointment with him, Monday night, when he arrived by plane from his Canadian seminar.
On my way out I paused again to stare at the portrait of George Ridge.
A friendly looking, slightly heavy-set man of about fifty, a smile cracking his well-lined face.
It had to be a recent picture. He had looked much the same when he came to my A-frame to offer me that million-dollar contract.
I dropped the rental Buick off at the airport, where I stopped in to check available flights to Toronto. There was nothing direct-all flights had O’Hare connections, with return trips likewise routed through Chicago. That meant anybody coming back from Toronto Monday night could be on one of half a dozen flights offered by a trio of small, shuttle-service airlines. This would make it easy for me to be on hand to welcome George Ridge home.
An airport shuttle bus dropped me at the Blackhawk Hotel, but I didn’t go up to my room. I didn’t even go into the lobby. Instead, I stopped in at the DEMOCRATIC ACTION PARTY NATIONAL CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS, which was located in one of the street-level storefronts that were a part of the hotel’s eleven-story building.
A banner in the window wondered PRESTON FREED-WHY NOT A REAL PRESIDENT? and so did several other smaller red, white and blue posters, without obstructing a view of the bustling activity within the modest boiler room set-up: two rows of half a dozen banquet tables on either side, with staffers manning (though more frequently womaning) the many phones, all of which were red, white or blue. The patriotic color scheme extended to the various posters on the white walls, which pictured Freed himself, a smiling, boyishly handsome man in his vague forties, with rather long stark white hair. On one side wall, where it could be viewed from the street through the front window, a large color portrait of the candidate revealed eyes that were spookily light blue in a well-tanned face. He was wearing a tan suede jacket and a riverboat gambler’s string tie and looked, in the massive color blow-up, like a cross between Big Brother and Bret Maverick.
The busy campaign staffers were mostly young, between twenty and thirty, closer to twenty in most cases. It surprised me, somehow, though it shouldn’t have. Vietnam-era relics like me have trouble believing the stories about a conservative younger generation, but here was the proof, as clean-cut and persistent as those Mormons who periodically show up at your door.
And so many of these zealots were young women. Girls. They weren’t wearing blazers, like Angela at Best Buy and Sally at Ridge Real Estate; but they were color coordinated, like their phones, blouses of red, white or blue, skirts of the same; the designer label on these threads, if there were one, would most likely read Betsy Ross not Betsey Johnson. The men-boys-wore white shirts and red or blue ties and navy slacks.
There was almost constant movement, the living flag of the Freed campaign headquarters seeming to constantly wave as its individual components would gesture animatedly during the phone solicitations, or hop up eagerly from a seat to consult another staffer, often one of those with a computer, one per banquet table. Girls and boys with faces full of no experience, as pretty and handsome as a collection of Barbie and Ken dolls come to life, they were enough to make you wake up screaming from the American dream.
By the front window, in the small, eye-of-the-hurricane reception area, were two tables of Democratic Action party literature, one of which bore a communal coffee urn, styrofoam cups and a plate of cookies. I nibbled a cookie, a Lorna Doone, and thumbed through some of the campaign literature-much of it railing against the “Drug Conspiracy”-and overheard a phone solicitation by a pretty, bright-eyed blonde, of perhaps twenty.
“Your savings will be safer with us,” she was saying, with the utter conviction of the very young. “You mustn’t trust the banks-their collapse is imminent… I understand your concern… yes, unless Preston Freed is elected President, you can rest assured that your Social Security checks will stop within eighteen months. Your contribution is much appreciated, but I must stress that we can protect your savings as well.”
I felt fingers tap my shoulder and I turned. A willowy redhead with a faint trail of freckles across her nose and dark blue eyes and red full lips was extending a hand for me to shake. She was in a red blouse and a blue skirt.
“Becky Shay,” she said. “Volunteer for Democratic Action.”
“Jack Ryan,” I said, shaking her hand. “Holdout for Creative Skepticism.”
Her smile glazed and so did her puppy-dog eager eyes, as she tried to sort that out.
I let go of her hand and said, “I’m just giving you a bit of a hard time. I’ll tell you frankly-I picked up some literature on your party, at O’Hare, and read it on the plane coming here. I’m interested. I want to hear more.”
The glaze melted away. “Where shall I start?”
“Anywhere you like.”
She gestured toward the table of literature. “I’d suggest you pick up some of Mr. Freed’s position papers. They are far more eloquent than I. And no contribution is necessary-though it is appreciated.”
“What’s the ‘Drug Conspiracy’?”
“A complex alliance between the banks, certain governments and the crime syndicate.”
“Oh. What are they conspiring to do, exactly?”
“To fatten themselves off the masses.”
Everything this kid said sounded prerecorded; it was like hearing the robot Lincoln at Disneyland give the Gettysburg address: patriotic and hollow.
I leafed through a booklet. “This wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with ‘international Zionists,’ by any chance?”
“Certainly. You’ve heard of the Illuminati?”
“Sure. I have all their records.”
She ignored that; trying to kid her was like kidding a nun about the virgin birth.
She went on with the catechism: “The forces of evil are gathering. Only Preston Freed can lead this country out of the darkness.”
“We’re talking your basic good versus evil here.”
“Precisely,” she said. “The future of humanity is at stake.”
I gestured with the booklet, nodded over at the two tables piled with them. “I see a lot here about what’s wrong about America. And let’s grant that there is a lot wrong. But what does your party intend to replace all of that with?”
“Common sense,” she said, with a smug little smile.
Yeah, that oughta do it.
“Well,” I said, smiling back, “you’ve given me a lot of food for thought. Suppose I wanted to make a contribution?”
Her smile widened, the smugness evaporated. “Why, that would be wonderful…”
“I mean a sizeable contribution. Of a thousand dollars or more.”
She touched my arm. “You’d immediately become a member.”
In a hushed, pious voice she intoned: “Of the Democratic Action Policy Committee.”
“I never dreamed,” I said.
She just smiled.
“But I’d like to know how my money would be used,” I said. “Where it would go.”
She frowned a little, as if that were a concept that had never dawned on her.
I pressed on. “I’d like to talk to Mr. Freed’s campaign manager. If I’m going to make a contribution of this size, I want to go straight to the top.”
She thought about that.
“It’s only common sense,” I said.
She nodded, and went down the aisle between the rows of tables. I followed, but when we reached a closed door at the rear, she turned and raised a forefinger and narrowed her dark blues to tell me not to follow her into the office. She wasn’t in there long, however.
Smiling, she ushered me in, and shut the door behind her, leaving me in a conference room where the walls were covered by a huge, much marked-up calendar, several arcane charts and various large maps-one of the United States, another of Iowa, another of New Hampshire, another of various Iowa counties and communities. Sticking pins of various colors in the Davenport map, as if it were a flat voodoo doll that controlled the city, was a man in his late forties in shirtsleeves and loosened tie. He did not wear the glee club apparel of his young staff, however; his pants were gray, and went with the gray suitcoat slung over a chair at the conference table. He had salt-and-pepper hair, longish but receding, and was well-fed but not fat, with a fleshy, intelligent face.
He put one more color-coded pin into the map, and turned a steel-gray gaze on me, as well as a practiced smile, a sly smile unlike those of the Night of Living Conservatives bunch in the outer room.
“You’re Mr. Ryan,” he said, and shook my hand. “I’m Frank Neely, campaign manager.”
“A pleasure, Mr. Neely,” I said. I gave him one of my business cards. “I’m doing some business in the Quad Cities and wanted to stop by. I knew Preston Freed’s national HQ was located here, and I was anxious to get a first-hand look.”
His smile remained, but his eyes turned wary. “Becky indicated you were a… fresh convert to our cause.”
“Frankly no,” I said, smiling back, taking the liberty of sitting at the conference table. “I’ve followed Preston Freed for some time. I only pretended to be a novice, so I could test the mettle of your staff. I can’t say I was much impressed.”
“Really,” he said with concern, remaining wary and on his feet.
“Becky, if that’s the name of the young woman who greeted me, is a good-looking kid. But her line of patter is strictly rote. She’s like a damn tour guide.”
He laughed, and finally sat, crossed his legs, ankle on knee.
“It’s a problem,” he said. “These kids are very enthusiastic, and very hard workers. They come into the party alert and questioning, but they get so indoctrinated, after a while, that they become, well, rather single-minded.”
“They should be able to discuss the issues, not just parrot the party line.”
“I couldn’t agree more. What’s your interest in the Democratic Action party, Mr. Ryan?”
“I just like what Preston Freed stands for. I represent a loose, informal group of businessmen from my community. We want to contribute several thousand dollars to the party-perhaps as much as ten.”
He raised his eyebrows.
I raised one of mine. “But I want to make sure we wouldn’t be pissing our money away.”
He gestured around his little war room. “Do you think we’d make this effort if we didn’t think it would amount to something?”
“Well, frankly, you yourself are probably well paid. Most professional campaign managers are. And your staff is obviously fresh out of college, looking for meaningful work, taking on a low-paying position for the experience and out of belief in a cause. Kids right out of college who haven’t figured out, yet, that you can’t deposit a cause in the bank.”
He nodded, smiled wryly.
“And I would imagine some of your staff are college kids, drawing on the various campuses in the area… Augustana, St. Ambrose, Palmer…”
“Yes,” he admitted. “Most of the area colleges allow political science students to work on campaigns for academic credit.”
“So,” I said, “I see that it’s extremely possible for me to be pissing my and my associates’ money away by donating to your party’s election efforts. We might be better off supporting conservatives within the Republican party. Candidates who actually have a chance of winning.”
“You’re underestimating us, Mr. Ryan,” he said, shaking his head. “We’ve been at this for a long, long time. This will be our third Presidential race. In our first attempt, we gathered less than 80,000 votes in the national primaries. But last time around, we racked up a quarter of a million. And this year? Anything is possible.”
“You’re not a fool, Mr. Ryan, nor am I, and certainly Preston Freed is anything but a fool. Victory is a practical impossibility.” He raised a forefinger in a lecturing gesture. “However, we’re undoubtedly going to be putting on the strongest third-party candidacy since George Wallace in 1968.”
“You’re anticipating that Preston Freed will become a kingmaker, at the Democratic convention.”
“We do anticipate that. Who can say what victories will come from that? And we can look forward to the next election. If our rate of growth continues, the next time around Preston Freed will be a viable candidate, and the Democratic Action party will be a third, vital, major party.”
“All of this from a storefront in Davenport, Iowa.”
“Don’t be deceived, Mr. Ryan. This is only the first stop on the primary trail. We’re getting an early start. The Iowa precinct caucuses January twenty-first sound the opening gun of the presidential race. But we’re running now. Our candidate will begin making public appearances next week. Our volunteers, our staffers, will cover every county in Iowa, door-to-door and by telephone.”
“And then on to New Hampshire.”
“On to New Hampshire. And at least a dozen more primaries after that, and we’ll be purchasing radio and TV spots in each of those states. Beyond that, we’ve already purchased four half-hour national television broadcasts.”
“I’m starting to feel encouraged.”
“You should feel encouraged. And the presidency is only the most visible aspect of our strategy. I don’t have to tell you that where the Democratic Action party has made strides is in local and state government-we’ll field thousands of candidates in those races, and we’ll win a good share. We’ve done it before.”
“You sure made a mess out of Illinois state politics not so long ago.”
That made him grin. “Thank you. I had a certain small hand in that. We’ve had similar successes in California, Texas, Maryland and Oregon.”
I stood and offered him my hand. “I won’t take up any more of your time, Mr. Neely. I’ll be talking to my fellow business people, back in Milwaukee. My report will be favorable.”
His grin went ear to ear as he shook my hand. “I’m very glad to hear that. You will not, I assure you, be pissing any money away. All of you gentlemen will be welcome members of the Democratic Action Policy Committee.”
I looked forward to getting the secret decoder ring.
“I had hoped,” I said, “considering this is the national headquarters and all, to get to meet the candidate himself. Have a little one-on-one discussion, however briefly.”
Neely shook his head and his smile turned regretful. “I wish that were possible. Mr. Freed doesn’t drop by here often. In fact, not at all. And these headquarters, despite the ‘national’ designation, are strictly for the Iowa effort. We have a suite of offices upstairs, in the hotel, for our executive staff; and the actual command center is at the Freed estate.”
“Not far from here,” I said.
“Not far from here,” he said, “but I’m afraid Mr. Freed doesn’t meet with individuals often… although once we know the exact size of your contribution, well. But do keep in mind, Preston Freed is a political genius, and like all geniuses, he has his eccentricities. He’s a bit of a recluse.”
“Isn’t that unusual for a political candidate?”
“Frankly, it is, and I’ve had to work on Preston to get him to come out and ‘press the flesh’ in these primary campaigns. You must understand that there are many people who would like to see Preston Freed dead.”
I managed not to laugh, and merely nodded with concern. “I can see that.”
“And of course, the Mafia.”
“Certainly. You’ve read the Freed position paper on the Drug Conspiracy?”
“Oh yes. The alliance between the banking community and the crime syndicate.”
He shook his head somberly. “It’s all around us. Infiltrated like a spreading cancer. Did you see the papers today?”
“A local businessman was murdered just last night-by a syndicate assassin, it’s thought.”
“I know it is. Apparently this man-who I thought was a respectable member of the community, hell, we belonged to the same country club! — had a long history of ‘mob ties,’ as the QC Times put it.”
“Well, then you can understand why a man with the strong views and the bitter enemies of a Preston Freed would choose to fight from within a fortress, so to speak. In the last campaign, Preston made no public appearances, restricting himself to radio and TV speeches.” Disgust twisted his mouth. “The Reagan administration ruled that we do not qualify for Secret Service protection, which shows you that our enemies are not restricted to Russians and Sicilians.”
“But now Freed plans to get out among the voters.”
Neely nodded. “Yes-at the insistence of myself and his top advisors. If we’re to make our move into the political mainstream, to become the viable third party that we are already starting to become, to leave the stigma of the so-called ‘lunatic fringe’ behind, Preston Freed must emerge from his fortress and do battle in the corrupt outside world.”
Arch as that sounded, Neely was right: there was no place in the scheme of things for an armchair politician. And, of course, as I well knew, the threat to Freed’s life was a real one, even if it didn’t have anything to do with the Soviet Union, even if the mob connection was only tangential.
“Does Freed have any enemies in the business community?”
“Certainly,” Neely said.
He paused. Then, rather reluctantly, he said, “One does come to mind. You have to understand that the Democratic Action party’s policies represent neither the left nor the right, as conventionally defined. Some of what we stand for is thought of as conservative, and yet Preston Freed was first thought of as a leftist, and in fact led a splinter group out of the old SDS, during the ’60s.”
“One of Preston’s best friends, closest advisors, who’d been with him since those early days, became… frankly… disenchanted with some of the party policies, as we have become more aligned with what are seen as ‘right-wing’ ideologies.” His voice seemed weary. “It’s a loss to us all, that one of the movers and shakers of our party should go over to the other side.”
“The other side?”
He nodded. “The Democrats. Of course, it would be no better if it were the Republicans. But in George’s case, it was the Democrats… he’s made sizable donations, been active in fund-raising and so on.”
“You don’t mean George Ridge, the real-estate guy?”
“Well, yes I do… let’s say nothing more about it. All great causes suffer setbacks. But with Preston going high profile for this primary push, we can overcome anything.”
He walked me to the door. Put a hand on my shoulder. “The thing of it is, Jack-if I may call you Jack-Preston is a charismatic public speaker. His personal magnetism is, frankly, our secret weapon. It’s worked before.”
“Germany, for example,” I said, pleasantly.
And I smiled and patted him on the shoulder, and moved through noisy, bustling Zombie Central and out into the cold but real world.
The Embers Restaurant was in Moline, just off 52nd Avenue, near South Park Shopping Center and not far from the airport. A two-story, brown-shingled, rambling affair in the midst of its own little park, the Embers was perched along the Rock River like just another rustic, if oversize, cottage. I left the black, “like-new” Sunbird in a nearly empty lot (it was late afternoon-before the supper hour) and briefly wandered the pine-scattered grounds, noting a teepee and a totem pole, a white pagoda bird bath, a statue or two of a Catholic saint, stone benches, wooden picnic tables, and a bright red sleigh awaiting snow. Along the gray river, with a well-travelled overpass bridge looming at left, was a cluster of gazebos with red-canvas roofs; there was even a band shell. Here and there plaster animals, deer mostly, were poised in plaster perfection, to make you feel close to nature.
This was just the sort of oddball, cobbled-together joint that went over well with tourists and locals alike. As the former owner of the Welcome Inn, I felt at home.
An awning covered the lengthy astro-turfed walkway up to the entrance, which was the back door of the place really, and a narrow wood-paneled hallway, decorated with ducks-in-flight prints and various signs (“Casual dress required,” “Home of Aqua Ski Theater”), led to an unattended hat check area where I left my overcoat, with stairs to the right and a bar to the left.
I went into the bar, which opened out onto a dining room with a river view. The Embers interior was just as studiedly rustic and quaint as the grounds. The ceiling was low and open-beamed with slowly churning fans, and there were plants and ferns here and there, though a Yuppie joint this was not. The barroom walls were populated with stuffed animals-small ones, birds and fish mostly. If the Bates Motel had had a restaurant, this would have been it.
A youngish blond guy with glasses and a white shirt was working behind the bar. “We’ll be serving dinner in about half an hour,” he said.
“Fine. I’ll wait.”
“You can sit at the bar, or the hostess will be here in a moment and seat you.”
“Fine,” I said, noncommittally.
A couple of businessmen were sitting at the bar having drinks, munching peanuts. I noted several ashtrays cradling Embers matchbooks like those I’d found in the dark blue Buick.
I sat at a small round table near the big brick fireplace; a fire was going, and the warmth was all right with me. The afternoon had grown colder.
On the hearth was an aquarium, about two feet tall and four-and-a-half feet wide. In the tank swam a fish, silver, and a foot and a half long. He had a very sour expression. He would glide slowly to one end of his tank, make a swishing turn and glide to the other end of the tank, make a swishing turn and you get the idea. I supposed his life was no more meaningless than anybody else’s.
“He’s from the Amazon River,” somebody said.
I looked up. It was the blond bartender; he’d come over out of boredom or to take my order or something. He was perhaps twenty-five years old. The fish tank’s lights reflected in his glasses.
“Amazon River, huh,” I said.
“Notice the little goldfish down toward the bottom of the tank? They’re his supper.”
This fish tank sort of summed up everything anybody needed to know about life.
“I guess that makes him King Shit,” I said.
“Guess so,” the bartender said. “Till we come in some morning and he’s belly up. Can I get you anything?”
“Well, it won’t be fish.”
“I mean, from the bar. We aren’t serving dinner…”
“Till five, right. Just a Coke. Diet, with a twist of lemon.”
He nodded and went briskly back behind the bar. I got up and went and took the glass of Coke from him, to save him another trip. I sat two stools down from the businessmen and sipped my soda and said to the bartender, “This place been here a while?”
“Thirty-five years,” he said. “Original owners are still associated with the place.”
“Associated with it? You mean they don’t own it anymore?”
“No. They just manage it. Some flood damage a few years ago hit ’em hard, and a local businessman bought ’em out.” He made a clicking sound in his cheek and shook his head.
“Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not from around here, obviously, but d’you see the papers today?”
“That fella that was shot? Ja read about that?”
“I’m vaguely familiar with the story.”
“He owned this place.”
I fingered a book of matches in the ashtray. “No kidding. What sort of guy was he?”
“Okay,” he shrugged. “He wasn’t around all that much. This was just another investment, I’d guess. One of many.”
I lit a match, studied the flame.
“You want some cigarettes?” the bartender said.
I smiled, waved the match out. “No. I don’t smoke. It’s bad for you.”
“Here’s the hostess. She can seat you. We’ll be serving in about fifteen minutes.”
I turned and watched the hostess approach.
She was a very attractive blonde with dark blue eyes, in a light blue, wide white-belted turtleneck dress, menus tucked under her arm. She filled the dress out nicely, if not spectacularly, but what was most impressive was the white dazzling smile. That, and the fact that I knew her.
She recognized me immediately, too. “Why, Mr. Ryan. Hello again.”
I climbed off the bar stool. “How many jobs do you have, Ms. Jordan?”
“Make it Angela and I’ll make it Jack. Deal?”
“And it’s two jobs. Fulltime at Best Buy, and weekends here. I’m a single, working parent.”
“How many kids?”
“Two. Both girls. One in second grade, another in sixth. Where would you like to sit? The upstairs dining room doesn’t open till six, but you can eat out here in the bar, by the fire, if you like, or.. ”
“Out where I can have a river view.”
And I followed her through the dining room proper, past prints of riverboats and your occasional cigar store Indian, out onto a sort of sun porch, a glassed-in greenhouse-like area with plenty of plants and more rustic knicknacks.
I sat down and said, “Why don’t you join me for a few minutes? Nobody’s here yet.”
She smiled, glanced behind her. “I shouldn’t.”
“Have a seat. After all, the boss is dead.”
She tipped her head, viewed me through narrowed eyes. “How do you know that?”
“I read the papers. Sit down, please.”
“That wasn’t a very nice thing to say.”
“If the fella was a friend of yours, I apologize. I was just trying to get your attention.”
She smirked wryly. “Well, you got it.” And she sat across from me, on the edge of her chair, ready to get up at a moment’s notice, casting an occasional eye through the dining room into the bar area, watching for customers. A few wait- resses, in black skirts and white blouses, were milling around.
“Really, that was a thoughtless thing to say,” I said, and shook my head.
“That’s okay.” She leaned forward. “He was a sonof-a-bitch, anyway.”
I smiled. “Really?”
She raised a hand and squeezed the air, palm up. “Handsy. You know.”
“That’s illegal. Sexual harassment.”
“Tell me about it.”
“How’s your other boss in that department?”
“Lonny? He’s very sweet to me. We’re just friends.”
“You say that like maybe he wishes you were more.”
“Well…” She smiled a little, a modest smile, showing just a touch of dazzling white. “Maybe he does. Frankly, I got both these jobs because of who I am.”
“Who are you?”
“Maybe I should say who I was. This is embarrassing. I hardly know you.”
“I’m the guy who bought a car from you today.”
“And don’t think I don’t appreciate it. The commission will help pay Jenny’s orthodontics bill. Her father sure won’t.”
“No alimony? No child support?”
“He’s way behind. The courts are slow. What can I say? But I have him to thank for my two jobs, in a way. That’s what I started to say. Lonny Best is a good friend of Bob’s, my husband, ex-husband. I think he… Lonny always… well, a woman knows.”
“When one of her husband’s friends has the hots for her, you mean.”
She laughed shortly and shook her head. “Do you always say exactly what’s on your mind?”
“No. The world isn’t ready for that just yet.”
Her smile turned arch. “Is that right?”
“That’s right. So Lonny Best feels sorry for the sorry financial condition his pal Bob has put you in.”
“Something like that. We have something else in common, too.” She glanced out at the bar; no customers yet.
“Well… boy, this is a little much to get into. Why do you want to know this?”
“I like you.”
Wry little smirk. “Oh, yeah?”
“I bought a car from you, didn’t I?”
“You’re milkin’ that for all it’s worth, aren’t you?”
“Wringing it dry. But I like to get to know a woman, if I’m attracted to her.”
“You seem to say most of what’s on your mind.”
“What else do you and Lonny Best have in common? It’s not stamp collecting.”
“It’s not stamp collecting,” she admitted. “Lonny and Bob and I met… this sounds stupid. At a political rally.”
“A political rally.”
“Yes, I was there because this actor from a soap opera… this sounds really stupid… this actor was speaking. On behalf of the candidate. I just wanted to see this actor, get his autograph. I didn’t care two cents about politics either way.”
“When was this?”
“Roughly ten years ago. Anyway, I met Bob and was, well, attracted to him right off the bat; thought he was real interesting. He was kind of a… well, a man’s man. He’d been to Vietnam, he was in something called Air America, too.”
“He didn’t look all that rugged, but he had a way about him. He seemed… dangerous. He was working for Victor Werner, on his ‘personal staff,’ at the time. What that amounted to was, well, he was a bodyguard. Carried a gun. I found that exciting. It sounds stupid, and immature, but I’m older and wiser now.”
“What was he doing at this political rally? And don’t tell me he was there to get the soap opera star’s autograph, too.”
“He’d been hired as security, another bodyguard stint really, but was told to blend in with the crowd. Only he ended up getting caught up in it, too.”
“Caught up in it?”
She nodded, sighed, smiled sadly. “Preston Freed. He put both Bob and me under his spell. Bob’s still under it. That’s the problem.”
“Preston Freed,” I said, reflectively. “He’s supposed to be a lunatic-fringe right-winger, isn’t he?”
“He most certainly is,” she said, and now her smile was tinged with self-disgust. “But you’re talking to a real sucker for a persuasive line-or at least somebody who used to be a sucker for that kind of thing. I used to be a ‘born-again’ Christian-got saved over the TV when I was still in high school. I was into that heavy, which is how I met my first husband-a wimp and a weasel who ran off with a born-again bitch-and…” She shook her head again, not smiling. “Never again. Never again.”
“Never again what?”
“Will I fall for some guy just because we belong to the same goddamn club. That’s what these things are, you know.”
“Ah, born-again anything. Preston Freed, his Democratic Action party, it’s a club. No-it’s a cult. Freed is a great speaker… hypnotic. He’s got these light blue eyes, this terrific smile.”
She said this smiling her own terrific smile. She could, under different circumstances, a lifetime or two ago, have made me join her cult, no questions asked.
“But Freed hasn’t appeared in public much,” I said.
“Not in recent years,” she said. She laughed humorlessly. “He thinks the Russians want to kill him, and the Mafia… I think he’s as self-deluded as his followers.”
“If he’s such a recluse, how does he control these followers?”
“Well, he goes on retreats with party members and staffers and such. And he’s got that weekly cable TV show.”
“TV show? I don’t know anything about that.”
“Oh, sure-it’s a weekly half-hour show that he buys time for on all these cable channels. It’s a ‘news’ show-only it’s his version of the news-like pointing out which members of the President’s cabinet are Soviet agents. He sells ‘subscriptions’ to his monthly magazine, Freedom News, and memberships to the party.”
“The subscriptions are five hundred dollars a year. Party memberships are a thousand.”
“Jesus. And people send in money?”
“Every day. I used to work for him; part of his secretarial staff at first, then helped produce the TV show. I was privy to this stuff-saw the envelopes with the cash.”
“He’s pocketing it?”
“Oh, sure, but he does plow a lot of it back into his campaign. He means it when he says he wants to be president. It’s just… well.. look, I’ve said enough. We’ve got way off the track here.”
“No, I find this interesting. What soured you on Freed?”
Matter-of-fact facial shrug. “He’s a hypocrite. He preaches against drugs, but he has a cocaine habit that puts Hollywood to shame. He rants and raves about the ‘permissive society’ and then sleeps with every female follower he can lay his paws on. And that’s plenty of ’em.”
I looked at her hard. “He tried to lay paws on you, too.”
“Yes, he did. And I don’t mean he was just ‘handsy,’ either. It was… much more serious than that. And when I told Bob…” She swallowed, shook her head. “This… this is too personal.”
“Bob didn’t care.”
Eyebrow shrug. “Bob didn’t believe me. I walked out. On Bob, and on that fucker Freed.” She stared at the tablecloth.
“Where does Lonny Best fit in?”
“He was a loyal Freed supporter, too, once upon a time. But he got disgusted about a year ago and dropped out. Freed’s excesses, personal and political, finally got to Lonny.”
“So he sympathized with your situation and gave you a job.”
She nodded. “That about sums it up, I guess.”
“Is the same true of Werner?”
“Pretty much. He stopped by Best Buy one day-just a few months ago-to talk to Lonny about something. Then he came out on the lot and talked to me, asked how I was doing. I said making ends meet, and he asked me if I was interested in moonlighting here, on the weekends. I said sure.”
“Nice of him.”
“He had his hand on my hip when he asked, so I knew what I might be up against. But he wasn’t around here much. Actually, tonight was his night. Saturday night, I mean. He and his wife would have dinner. Even with her along, though, he’d manage to cop a feel.”
“At least you don’t have to put up with that anymore.”
“Hey. Please. I didn’t wish the guy dead.”
“Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean you have to start thinking nice thoughts about him.”
“Yeah,” she said, indignantly. “What do I have to feel guilty about? I didn’t kill him.”
“Me either,” I said, and smiled.
That made her laugh.
“You’re a character. Whoops, I finally got customers.”
“How late do you work tonight?”
She stood. “We serve till ten.”
“Can I stop by for you?”
“I have my own car.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“Excuse me,” she said, and went and tended to her customers.
A waitress came by and I ordered the barbecued ribs.
I was just finishing up when Angela stopped by the table and dropped a cocktail napkin before me.
“See you at ten,” she’d written.
It was just a little after five now. That should give me time to do what I needed to do.
I’d been down this road before. But it had been years ago, and the road had been dark then and was darker now. The moon, just a faint blur in an overcast sky, was no help; only my headlights lit the world, which is to say the stretch of concrete immediately before me.
This was the River Road, the road in question being narrow two-lane Highway 22, the river the Mississippi, although its presence over at my left-not at all far away-couldn’t be proved by me. A blackness of trees, beyond the railroad tracks, obscured any river view.
Soon-not far from Davenport, really-the quarry began, or signs of it anyway: dunes of crushed rock rose at my right like monstrous anthills; my headlights caught swirls of powder, which built into a modest but steady dust storm. Then, at left, skeletal steel buildings and machinery mingled with silo-like structures, awash in a greenish-gray glow, amber lights winking here and there, white billowing smokestacks lathering the dark sky, tempting God’s razor.
And now on my right was the vast quarry, acres of emptiness, beautiful in its barrenness, a natural wonder enduring this ongoing invasion stoically. An enclosed conveyor mechanism slashed across the sky diagonally, from the plant to the quarry, going again and again to this limestone well to make little bags of cement, and bigger bags of money.
Beyond the mile-long quarry was Buffalo, a village whose small business section-a few unpretentious restaurants, antique shop, gas station-was scattered along the right, with railroad tracks and, finally, the visible Mississippi at left, its surface reflecting the gray filtering of moonlight.
And beyond Buffalo was another quarry, an abandoned one, filled with water now, put there by man or nature or somebody, so that it was, in effect, a lake. And on that lake, above its shimmering surface, above the ledges of limestone, was a house. It was not small; its lines were modern in the Frank Lloyd Wright sense, with the central part of the house a story taller than the rest. A few lights were on, glowing yellowly behind sheer curtains. From the highway, looking across the expanse of what for lack of a better term I’ll call Lake Quarry, it seemed not just distant, but abstract.
Behind the house, the bluff rose, thick with trees; those trees were bare, but no matter-tonight they were an ebony blot against the charcoal sky. The home-the estate-of Preston Freed was seemingly impregnable. Fuck it; I was going calling, anyway.
Half a mile or so down, there was a road-two narrow lanes of gravel-that seemed the most likely access to the Freed estate. My Sunbird stirred up dust, climbing the bluff until it leveled out, and dipped and farmland began appearing on my left; but on my right was forest, and barbed wire with signs that said, PRIVATE PROPERTY- TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. Added to one of the signs, by somebody unimpressed by these cornfield threats, was: AND EATEN.
Soon, off to my right, a paved driveway materialized, blocked by a heavy, unpainted steel gate-nothing fancy, just formidable. A car, a brown Ford, was parked on the other side of the gate, on the grass, and somebody was in it; the orange glow of a cigarette showed on the driver’s side.
I’d gotten a good look, going by, and without attracting undue attention, either. On gravel like this, you had to move slow; and on a night this dark, the watchdog in the parked Ford couldn’t see whether I was looking his way or not. And what the hell, with that massive, unpleasant-looking gate, anybody driving by for the first time was bound to gawk a little.
About a mile down I found a little access inlet to a cornfield, and I left the Sunbird there. I was wearing a black windbreaker over a black turtleneck sweater with black slacks and… let’s just say I was wearing your basic black and leave it at that. I wasn’t nervous, but I wasn’t not nervous. Home invasions are not, as I believe I said, my style. And a home invasion where an estate is involved-an estate inhabited by a wealthy paranoid political crackpot who thinks the Soviets are after him-was like nothing I’d ever attempted.
I had a nine-millimeter in the shoulder holster, under the windbreaker, which was unzipped. I did not have the noise suppressor attached. If this little endeavor came apart on me, I could need to do a lot of shooting, fast, considering the number of bodyguards and security types this guy would likely employ. And a silenced gun can’t be used rapid fire; you have to work the action by hand, each round, because the gas you’re suppressing, to keep the gun quiet, is the very thing that makes the automatic automatic.
What I had instead-and what was in my hand this very moment as I moved across the gravel road to the barbed wire fence and its warning signs-was a so-called stun gun. I’d picked it up at a pawnshop in Davenport this afternoon. I’d never used one before, though I was plenty familiar with the principle, as I’d carried its bulkier relative, the Taser, on some jobs right before I quit the business.
The Nova XR-5000 Stun Gun was pocket size, not much bigger than a doctor’s beeper, which it somewhat resembled; its two brass studs would send not a beep, but a 47,000-volt message. I gave it a test burst, and an arc snapped and sizzled whitely between the two test electrodes. Just like in an old Frankenstein movie.
This toy had its drawbacks: you had to be in direct contact with your man, and the jolt of the thing would probably make your man scream; it took three to five seconds of contact to make the subject lose muscle control. The Taser, on the other hand, shot darts, and at a good distance. But then the Taser needed reloading every two darts, and this puppy carried around thirty hits, if properly recharged.
Tonight, you see, I had to be careful not to kill anybody. It was a pain in the ass, but it was necessary.
The barbed wire fence was only waist high; it could be stepped over without much difficulty, if you were careful, and I was. For all the threatening NO TRESPASSING signs, and the heavy gate, Freed’s security wasn’t anything to write home about. State of the art it wasn’t. There were no television cameras down by that gate, nor was the gate anything that couldn’t be ducked under or over. Killing the watchdog in the Ford would be no real challenge to anybody who even vaguely knew what he was doing.
I moved slowly, breath visible in the chill air, easing through the trees, most of which were bare of leaves, though there were occasional pines, so I had both leaves and needles under my sneakered feet, which made for some crunching no matter how hard I tried not. I wasn’t any fucking commando, after all, though I’d done some jungle fighting. But you didn’t run into many pine cones or beds of leaves where I had my on-the-job training.
Finally I came to the edge of the trees and the house was perched on a gently rolling, landscaped lawn, like a tiny toy house on top of a great big cake. Only it wasn’t a tiny house: it sprawled, an angular, many-windowed affair, dark natural wood and sandstone giving it the feel of a cabin or lodge.
My vantage point was to the right rear of the place; in back there was a big garage-big enough for a small fleet of cars-which connected to that paved driveway, which I now could see travelled along the edge of the quarry drop-off. I was up high enough to see the view: Lake Quarry; the narrow highway; some trees and the Mississippi beyond. Even on this dreary night, it was some view. A man who lived in a house like that-who owned a house like that-who looked out on a view like that-could come to think of himself as pretty all fucking powerful.
I almost didn’t see the guard. He walked right by me, not five feet away. The trees hid me, and he was lazy, not directing his flashlight into the trees; in fact, his flashlight wasn’t even on.
But he was a burly guy, in a heavy brown leather bomber jacket with a. 357 mag on his hip; he looked like a sheriff’s deputy but without the insignia. He didn’t hear me come up behind him, slip the stun gun under his coat and against the small of his back. My hand was over his mouth, stifling his scream, slapping the wide slash of adhesive tape in place and his body shook from the shock of it. Nice part is, the shock doesn’t transfer from his body to yours. You just hold on, pressing the button while counting One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi, Four Mississippi, Five Mississippi, and he just does this pathetic jitterbug in your arms, wetting his pants.
I lowered him to the ground and brought his hands behind him, using flex-cuffs to bind him. I bought a gross of these “throw-away handcuffs” years ago-they’re like garbage bag ties, little lightweight pieces of plastic with a serrated tip that draws up tight through an eye. I put another one of them around his ankles-the only way these things could be removed was by cutting the fuckers off-and dragged him by the feet into the forest. He smelled bad. Full bladder.
There wasn’t piss on his jacket, however, and he was enough bigger than me that it fit over my own; his keys were in the jacket pocket. He was out of it. It would be fifteen minutes before his brain resumed control. I removed his black western-styled holster and slung on his. 357 mag. I picked up his flashlight, which he had dropped (understandably), and carried it in my left hand-the stun gun in my right, twenty-nine or so more pops to go-and moved with casual authority across the rolling golf-course of a lawn, toward the house.
It was a walk that took probably three minutes and only seemed an eternity. I walked across the paved area to the back of the house, where a stone stairway with wood banister rose to a landing flush with what was probably the kitchen, and was about to go up when the door opened and another sentry came out and said to somebody within, “It’s quiet tonight, too quiet,” archly ominous. And then he laughed. He was another big man, wearing jeans and plaid shirt with a big revolver on his hip. Probably another. 357.
He was standing on the landing, lighting up a cigarette when I joined him and put the stun gun in his belly, slapping tape across his open mouth, his eyes so wide the white showing overwhelmed iris and pupil. He struggled, and I pushed against him, maintaining the contact, and he danced with the jolt, and peed, and broke the railing behind him and landed on his back about a story down. I pondered going down and cuffing him, but figured the sound of wood breaking and flesh-and-bone thumping might have roused people within the house, and I couldn’t fuck around with it.
So I went inside, and it was a kitchen, a big, white, gleaming kitchen you could feed an army out of, though, incongruously, there was but a tiny table in its midst, where a paperback adventure novel was folded open, a cup of steaming coffee nearby, another empty cup before another chair, which was pulled out. No one sat at this table; apparently my most recent dancing partner had been sitting there. But so had somebody else, and where was the guy? Or was he the one who was sleeping in the forest, at the moment?
I moved into the house; the floor was slate-a stone waterfall, lit from below with amber lights, gurgled under a winding, open staircase. Off to the right was an office area, a secretarial post apparently, several photocopy machines, three desks with small computers, counters and cupboards for storage and work areas, the wall space decorated with framed posters from Freed’s various campaigns, all of them showing his white-haired, tanned, blue-eyed, boyishly smiling countenance. As much as ten years separated some of the posters, yet he seemed the same in them all; plastic surgery, or a portrait aging in the attic, maybe.
The secretarial room opened doorless onto what was apparently a conference room, although it had a fireplace (unlit) over which reigned a framed oil painting of Freed, dressed as a riverboat captain, and a small but well-stocked bar was in one corner. This room was hung with wildlife paintings and prints and glassed-in displays of frontier weaponry, rifles, bowie knives, the like. Attached to this warm, open-beamed room, with no doorway separating it, was a small office/study, with a desk and many phones and a wall of photos of Freed with celebrities (including Angela Jordan’s soap opera star), and two walls of books-political ones exclusively, authors ranging from Adolf Hitler to Robert F. Kennedy, from Karl Marx to Eugene McCarthy.
“Have you seen Dick?” somebody behind me asked.
I picked up a paperweight from the desk-a heavy brass replica of the Presidential seal, about as big around as a glazed doughnut-and turned and hurled it into the stomach of the approaching bodyguard, another brute, the missing link from the kitchen table, this one with thinning blond hair and a light blue workshirt and jeans and, on his hip, the ever-present. 357 mag.
Which he was going for, incidentally, when I reached out and shoved the stun gun in his belly and pressed the button; he let a yelp out, but not much of one, because the paperweight I had tossed into him, like a discus, had knocked the wind out of him and he hadn’t recovered. And now he was busy doing the electrical dance. I kept my hand over his mouth till he was under, and eased him down. He didn’t pee. Maybe that’s where he’d been: the john.
I did take the time to flex-cuff this guy, hands and ankles both, and slap some tape on his mouth, and went back the way I’d come-past the winding staircase and waterfall, past the front entryway, and into a living room with the breathtaking picture-window view I’d expected. There was another fireplace, also unlit; over it was another oil portrait of Freed-this time dressed in buckskins, like a frontier hero. The furnishings were modern and expensive but looked comfortable; modular stuff, earth tones. A big 27-inch console TV was perched in one corner. Glass sliding doors opened onto a patio, or did in nicer weather, anyway.
I back-tracked again, and went up the winding staircase. I found myself in a round room, a circular bar with more political posters and Freed memorabilia on display, a few more antique frontier weapons hanging, and windows on the world. Chairs were gathered around the edges of the circle, as if someone (gee, I wonder who) might have occasion to stand centerstage and pontificate in the round.
Off to the right, I could hear muffled sound; then laughter, also muffled. I moved closer to it. From behind a door, to the left of a well-stocked, leather-fronted bar. Talking, laughter, very muffled.
Somebody was watching TV in there. But who, and how many of them were there? Well, sometimes one is reduced to the obvious. I looked through the keyhole.
Another large bodyguard type was sitting in a chair, and he was smiling; the chair was comfortable, he had a can of beer in one hand, and Bill Cosby was on the TV screen. What more could a man ask for?
I was on top of him putting the stun gun in his belly as he slouched there before he could do anything but try to scream into my hand and the adhesive strip, and pee his pants. Beer’ll do it to you.
I cuffed him, hands in back, and secured his ankles, too, then looked around what seemed to be the quarters for the security staff. Though not much more than a cubicle, there was a TV, a small refrigerator, a couple of couches, several stacks of men’s magazines and paperbacks and a private bathroom. Then I explored the room beyond: a simple guest room, double bed, empty dresser.
Moving back into the circular bar, I tried another doorway, found myself in a hallway; past a closed side door, at the end of the hall, was light. Muted light, but light, like the first glow of dawn over the horizon. If you get up that early.
I rounded the corner and there, on a waterbed the size of New Jersey, on black silk sheets, a mirror overhead, was the Democratic Action party’s candidate, with his dick in the mouth of an attractive young woman. Or at least what I could see of her was attractive: her ass was to me.
That’s where I hit her with the stun gun.
Right above the crack of it, actually, and fortunately for Freed, she opened her mouth wide, rather than clamp down, and I slipped the tape over her mouth and gave her a three-second jolt, which did the trick. Freed recoiled, his icy blue eyes damn near as shocked as the unconscious girl, who I noticed with certain amusement was the redhead from his campaign headquarters. He’d been feeding her the party line, but now he plastered his naked self against the fancy western-carved headboard of the waterbed, withering.
“W-What do you w-want?” he said. Even stuttering, his voice was melodious, like a radio announcer’s.
“Sorry about your silk sheets,” I said, making a tch-tch sound, noting the dampness the girl had caused.
“If you’re going to kill me,” he said, suddenly brave, “then get it over with.”
“If I’d have agreed to kill you,” I said, “my life wouldn’t be so fucked up now. And you’d already be dead.”
The blue eyes narrowed. “The Soviets?” he asked.
“Put some clothes on,” I sighed. “I don’t talk business with naked politicians.”
He slipped into a dark blue silk robe while I cuffed the girl’s hands and ankles. I moved her off the area of the bed she’d made wet-it was the least I could do-carrying her in my arms like a big baby. She was a nice looking woman, despite the circumstances.
He stood nearby, while I did that, nervous but hiding it pretty well. He was taller than me, and had considerable bearing, the mane of white hair, the china-blue eyes, the dark tan, a striking human being; feeling no humiliation at all, it would seem, despite being caught with his pants down.
“Are you going to tell me what this is about?” His baritone, melodious or not, did have an edge of irritation. Not that I blamed him. Nobody likes to get interrupted in the middle of a blow job.
“We have to get a couple things straight first,” I said, and the nine-millimeter was in my gloved right hand now, the stun gun tucked away in a jacket pocket, his sentry’s. 357 on my hip.
“Such as?” he said. He had winced, just slightly, upon sight of the automatic; otherwise he maintained an admirable cool.
“Do we have it understood,” I said, “that if I were here to kill you, you’d be dead by now? That if I were here to steal from you, you’d be trussed up and we wouldn’t be talking at all? That if this were a kidnapping, I’d have hauled your ass out of here already? Do we understand all that?”
He nodded very slowly. The light blue eyes bored into me like soothing lasers. Their color reminded me of Linda’s eyes. I tried not to think about that.
“I came in here the way I did for a couple of reasons,” I said, “all of them good. First, you’re not an easy man to see. I tried finding you at your campaign headquarters, and heard all about how reclusive you are. Second, I wanted to show you that if somebody did want to see you bad enough, they could get it done, reclusive or not.”
His mouth twitched in a half-smile. “I thought I had excellent security.”
“Your security is pretty half-assed. But even if it were great, you could be gotten to. Anybody can be gotten to.”
“If you’re not here to kill me or steal from me or kidnap me,” he said, “why are you here?”
“To make you a business offer, for one thing. For another, to save your life.”
An eyebrow arched. “Why don’t we go out in the bar and talk.”
“Fine. But if any of your staff should show up- somebody I don’t know about, or the one guy I didn’t take time to bind up, or anybody else with a gun or something — you’re going to make ’em back off. Otherwise, people are going to get hurt. And I can just about guarantee you, you’ll be one of them.”
He nodded, as if to say, fair enough.
“Could I use the bathroom first?” he asked. There was one off the bedroom.
“Sure,” I said. “Leave the door open.”
He frowned at that, but said nothing. He went in there but didn’t use the john. He ran water, washed his hands. Then he bent over the counter, like he was almost kissing it. I didn’t know what he was up to, until he turned and was wiping a little white powder off his nose. The small mirror on the bathroom counter reflected the overhead light.
Then I followed him out into the circular bar.
“Would you care for something to drink?” he asked.
“No. But help yourself.”
He went to the bar and poured himself several fingers of Scotch. Not one to deny himself anything, he withdrew a long fat cigar from a box on the bar and lit it with a wooden match; then he sat in a captain’s chair, which he had dragged to the center of the circle, and motioned for me to sit nearby. I chose instead to take a chair that put my back to the wall and gave me a view of several doors and the open stairway. I kept the gun in my hand and in my lap.
“And what do I call you?” he asked. Half the room between us.
“You can call me Quarry. It’s not my name, exactly, but it’ll do.”
“All right, Mr. Quarry. Perhaps you can explain why you’ve invaded my home-and, apparently, put my entire security staff out of commission.”
“Let me ask you something first. If someone, this afternoon, had told you that one man would enter your compound and put you in the position you’re in right now, what would you have said?”
“I would have found it impossible. Unbelievable.”
“Fine. Keep that in mind when you consider the story I’m about to tell.”
And I told Preston Freed, self-styled presidential candidate, the story. That I was a retired professional assassin who had been offered a million-dollar contract; that he was the target of said contract; that I had refused the contract; that an attempt on my life had subsequently been made. I did not mention the loss of my wife, my life at Paradise Lake. That was none of his fucking business.
Freed listened with rapt attention, eyebrows arching, nostrils flaring, eyes narrowing, widening, as one might expect. But disbelief was something I did not sense. Perhaps in a way I was making a dream come true for him: his paranoia was finally being substantiated, even if the Soviets weren’t involved.
“Now,” I said, “it would seem to me we have some mutual interest in this matter. For my part, I’d like to respond in kind to those who tried to have me killed.”
“Understandable,” Freed said, nodding.
“And you, I would think, would like to identify those who are trying to have you killed.”
“Frankly,” he said, drawing on the thick cigar, “I’d like to do more than just identify them.”
“I thought you might. You need to consider exactly what this situation is: I turned the contract down. That made me a loose end-in a political assassination, involving a national figure, a presidential candidate, one does not leave loose ends. But that speaks only to my situation. What about yours?”
“Someone else-someone like me-was approached with that million-dollar contract. Someone who accepted it.”
“Is this a conclusion you’ve drawn, or…?”
“It’s more. It’s direct knowledge. I understand you fear retaliation from what you describe as the ‘Drug Conspiracy’-the banks and the mob.”
“The Sicilian/Hebrew Connection,” he said, nodding.
“Spare me. But I will give you this much: somebody with mob connections who died recently gave me that information.”
The icy blue eyes narrowed to slits in the tanned face. “Victor Werner? You killed Victor Werner?”
“I didn’t say that. Did you know him?”
“I never met the man, but I knew of him.” Then, with contempt: “Knew of his ‘family’ ties. He told you of a second assassin?”
“Yes, Werner gave me a name. It’s a name I’m familiar with. Which is one reason why I think I can head this thing off.”
“Head it off?”
“I can stop the hit from going down. Because I know who it was that came to see me, the upstanding citizen who tried to hire me. And I know who he hired in my place.”
“I have to do something about this!”
“No kidding. Look, we can go about this a couple of ways. I can just tell you who these people are, and fade away. You have men on your staff; you might be able to deal with this in-house.”
I knew he wouldn’t want that; but saying this gave me leverage.
“What’s the other way?” he asked, sitting forward.
“I could handle it all. I can take out the other hitter. I can take out those who hired it done, as well.”
“There… there might be more than one person behind this?”
“The man who tried to hire me said he was representing a group of patriotic private citizens.”
He laughed mirthlessly at that. “And you said, this individual spoke of me as a ‘spoiler’-meaning this threat might have come from the right or the left?”
“If I… were to turn you loose on this, to handle it as you wish… what would be in it for you, besides a certain satisfaction?”
I shrugged. “Well, the revenge factor is going to work in your favor. That ‘certain satisfaction’ you mentioned is going to make a hell of a perk. So all I need is ten grand. And you don’t owe me anything unless I deliver.”
Those spooky blues studied me suspiciously. “You said you were offered a million dollars.”
“Ten grand for the assassin. Ten more for whoever hired him.”
“That’s still only twenty thousand dollars.”
“Feel free to tip.”
“Will they… look like accidents?”
“Not necessarily. No frills. Dead is dead.”
He blew out a stream of smoke and raised his eyebrows and considered the ceiling’s open beams. “You know the name of the man who came to see you,” he said.
“That’s right. I did some snooping today.”
“Are you a detective, or an assassin, Mr. Quarry?”
“Necessity has turned me into a little of both, Mr. Freed. Now do you want my help? Or do you want to handle this yourself, in which case I’ll have to ask a finder’s fee of five grand, if you want the names I know.”
He was thinking.
“Or,” I said, “I can just walk out of here, fade into the forest and out of your life. You can choose to not believe me. Or try to deal with this yourself, without the names.”
He was shaking his head no. “I would like, Mr. Quarry, for you to handle this. But I wish to know none of the… messier details.”
“That’s best for all concerned.”
“I would, however, like to know the name of the man who came to see you. Who tried to hire you.”
“You agree to my terms? Ten grand with a ten grand bonus?”
I drew my upper lip back across my teeth; it was my very worst smile. “Guess what I do if somebody reneges on me.”
“I think I can guess that quite easily, Mr. Quarry.”
“His name is George Ridge.”
He sat up. Turned ashen.
“George Ridge,” he intoned. “George…”
“You were friends once.”
“Yes… yes, we were. He was one of my staunchest supporters..”
“And something went wrong.”
He stood, began slowly to wander amidst the framed political posters and memorabilia. “How much do you know about me-that is, about my party?”
“I’m not political, Mr. Freed. I just don’t care.”
He ignored that. “You must understand-I am thought of, in most quarters, these days, as right-wing. That is a gross simplification. It is an attempt by the powers-that-be, of both major political camps, in league with the media, to defuse my efforts; the Illuminati understand that a third political party, not beholden to the bankers and the mobsters, with a real candidate, not some rehearsed synthetic one, threatens their stranglehold on America, on the world.”
“I have a ten-year plan, Mr. Quarry,” he said, and his voice, his presence, added up to something persuasive, despite the loony tunes text. “I must keep it, or humanity is doomed. It is unlikely-though not impossible-that I will secure the Presidency this year; but in the following election, I can and must win-and global alliances are but a step away.”
“Yeah, right. Look…”
“I’m keeping this simple, Mr. Quarry, because you say you are not political. But you live in a world, a society, controlled by politics. What is politics but human relationships? Make love not war, we once said; but both are politics!”
“Right. What about George Ridge?”
He looked out the window into darkness. “We were great friends. You must understand that my political adventure began in the sixties-in Far Left groups; you may recall the SDS, where both George and I were quite active, where George and I met, in fact. But the SDS seemed to us not to be accomplishing its stated goals, and we broke away. This was at Berkeley, where we formed Strikeforce Freedom, to weed out the leftist groups who were only paying lip service to the cause.”
“How did you weed them out exactly?”
“We armed ourselves,” he said matter of factly. “Not with guns: nothing more lethal than a length of pipe or a chain. It was an important moment, because our people understood that rhetoric wasn’t enough. You had to stand and fight.”
“Is that your idea of politics? Violent overthrow of the government?”
“It was then, in those more innocent days,” he said, smiling, as if discussing a childish phase he’d once gone through. “My roots were in Communism, socialism… but I moved on to embrace larger, wider ideals.”
Such as bilking old people out of their savings, I supposed, thinking of the phone scam I’d witnessed in progress at his campaign HQ. Well, that was his business.
I said, “So what are you saying? Ridge maintained his left-wing leanings, while you moved to the right?”
“I am neither right nor left. The Democratic Action party embraces disaffected Republicans and Democrats alike; we have a goodly number of former Ku Klux Klan in our ranks, standing shoulder to shoulder with former SDS. I favor a free-energy economy, and an end to reactionary oligarchs and financiers…”
“That’s just peachy keen. But getting back to Ridge-you seem more disappointed than surprised that he’s behind this.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said, with a world-weary smile that quickly disappeared. “And I doubt he represents any group. I think this is personal. He feels I’ve betrayed him-and he has obviously betrayed me.”
I put my hand up in a stop gesture. “I don’t think we can operate from the assumption he’s alone. He may well represent a group-and if he does, you need to know.”
“What about this assassin? Your replacement?”
“I know him. How he works, how he thinks. He won’t, I don’t think, hit you here at home-although you need to expand and improve your security, obviously. But this guy, he’ll do it when you’re out and about. Out among the public.”
“During my primary campaign,” he said, tensing, stopping in front of me. “I make my first public appearance this Tuesday morning. I’ve set up a press conference at the Blackhawk Hotel-which will be well attended by the national media…”
“When Ridge came to see me,” I said, “he specifically mentioned that press conference. If that’s when the hit’s going down, we don’t have much time.”
“What should we do? What can we do?”
I was a little out of my element; a political hit differed drastically from the work I had done, which invariably involved a two-man team, staking out the victim well before the hit, a methodical approach that went out the window when dealing with a sheltered national figure who would present himself as a target only at public events like the coming press conference.
“We’ll start with Ridge,” I said. “I’ll deal with him myself.”
“You sound sure of yourself.”
“I am. I’ll need some details about the man before I go; where he lives, anything about his habits-I already know where his office is. But anything that might be useful.”
“I can certainly help you on that score. Could Ridge lead you to the assassin?”
“Possibly. Probably. But Ridge doesn’t get back in the country till Monday night. So-if Tuesday’s press conference is really it, we’ll have to alert your security staff, just in case I haven’t been able to shut this thing down by then.”
“But you intend to try?”
“Of course. Like I said, I know the man who took the contract. He’s a pro-very good at what he does; stopping him will not be easy-once put in motion, well… but I know him. I worked with him. That’s to our advantage. And I may be able to use what I know about him to find him beforehand; if we’re right about Tuesday morning, he’s probably already in town.”
He sat in the chair next to me and thought. He smelled of musky cologne. The big house was silent. Well, a clock was ticking someplace, but that was about it.
“Let me suggest something,” Freed said, finally, with a sly smile, a fairly demented twinkle in the blue eyes.
He lifted a gently lecturing forefinger. “Don’t attempt to deal with this assassin until he tries something…”
“Let him be shot down in the attempt on my life.”
“Are you crazy?” Stupid question.
“It would have excellent publicity value,” he said. “I would be taken seriously, immediately. The current administration’s failure to provide me with Secret Service bodyguards would create a scandal. The eyes of America, the world, would be tightly focused on Preston Freed.”
I hate it when people talk about themselves in the third person.
“That would be a very dangerous game,” I said.
“Would it? But if we knew he were coming…”
“We could half-bake a cake. No, I won’t play that game, Freed. It’s too dangerous. For all concerned.”
He shrugged. “All right. It’s just a suggestion. But I’ll say this: if you feel you could arrange it in that fashion, I could see my way clear to offering a second bonus. Twenty-five thousand dollars.”
That was impressive. Not as impressive as a million dollars, but impressive enough for me to say, “I’ll think it over.”
He extended his hand. “Good. I must say you’re a very brave man, Mr. Quarry, storming my citadel as you’ve done.”
I shook the hand; it was firm, not sweating at all. He had his share of stones, too, willing to go on the firing line just to get some publicity. Or maybe it was the coke and the booze making him brave.
“I’ll give you my private phone number,” he said, and went to the bar and scribbled it on a pad. He tore off the sheet and handed it to me, saying, “Day or night. If we need to meet…”
“We will. I may want to brief your security people-just those involved with press conference security. You’ll have to introduce me as a security expert or something. We’ll work that out. Oh, and I made contact with your campaign manager. He’ll be mentioning me to you-Jack Ryan, the name will be-he’ll say I want a private meeting, in return for a sizable contribution. But one way or another, I want immediate acceptance as an insider with the campaign.”
“Done,” he said. “How do I contact you?”
“You don’t. I contact you. And I don’t want to be followed. If any of your people follow me, I’ll just disappear and you’ll be on your own. And you wouldn’t want that.”
“No I wouldn’t.” He sighed, shook his head. Even for a man like Preston Freed, this had been a lot to absorb. “What now?”
“Fill me in a little more on Ridge. Then you’re going to pick out one of your bodyguards for me to uncuff, to have drive me back to my car.”
“Christ, I hadn’t thought about them! How do I explain you to ’em?”
“I’m a security expert, remember?”
“Tonight, I was just a little test you were giving ’em,” I said. “To see how secure your ‘citadel’ really was.”
“A test,” he said, smiling, liking it.
“Yeah,” I said. “And they flunked.”
I was running a little late; it was 10:35 and I hadn’t had time to change my clothes and was still wearing the black windbreaker, turtleneck and slacks. The holstered nine-millimeter and the stun gun and such were in the Sunbird’s trunk. I might have smelled a little raunchy, too-I’m not particularly nervous by nature, but I do sweat, particularly when I storm citadels.
But storming that citadel and briefing its potentate had taken all evening, and when I picked her up at the Embers, where she was sitting at the bar with an empty martini glass in front of her, pretty legs crossed, now all in white, Angela Jordan was a little irritated and marginally pie-eyed. She lifted an eyebrow at the young blond bartender and played with her martini glass, then looked at me and smirked and said, “What’s this? A ninja?”
The bar was still doing some business and people out in the dining area were lingering over meals. The fish from the Amazon was still travelling back and forth in his little kingdom, nibbling goldfish.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said. “Fell asleep back at the hotel.”
And that was all the explanation it took.
“Aw, no problem,” she said, and smiled without smirkiness. “Sorry I greeted ya with a smartass remark.” She was a good-natured kid. She slid off the stool and I gave her my arm. She needed a little steadying. She wasn’t sloshed, but just the same I said, “Why don’t we take my car?”
“Good idea. Let’s see how she runs.”
“She runs fine,” I said, as we strolled out into the brisk night air. “You wouldn’t sell me a lemon, would you?”
She hugged my arm. “Not to you,” she said, like we were old pals. Lovers, even.
I didn’t know if I was game for that. I hadn’t made this little rendezvous because I was looking to get laid. I supposed someday sex would interest me again, but with Linda gone, the thought of it seemed pretty abstract right now.
But I needed to get close to this lovely, lonely divorcee. She knew all the principals: Best, Freed, and (having worked for Freed) presumably Ridge, even the late Mr. Werner. I might get some information. I might get some insights. It was my best option right now.
“Sorry I look so informal,” I said, behind the wheel, exiting the Embers’ lot.
“I don’t mind,” she said, settled comfortably in the bucket seat.
“Would you like to get a bite to eat?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Something to drink?”
“That’d be nice. How ’bout my place?”
“My house. The girls are with my mom. She takes ’em on the weekend, Friday and Saturday nights, that is. Between the restaurant and the car lot, I work most of the weekend. It’s better for the girls.”
“That’d be nice. If I’m not imposing.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said.
“You’ll have to guide me. I don’t know my way around the Cities all that well.”
“Head over to Davenport and go up Brady Street. It’s a housing addition way out past the shopping malls and everything.”
“Okay,” I said, and pretty soon I looked over and she was slumped against the door, sleeping. Snoring a bit.
I didn’t figure it was that she’d had all that much to drink. More that she was just bone tired, working two jobs to support her little family. It sort of pissed me off that her husband wasn’t paying his share. There’s a lot of lowlifes in this world.
We’d just glided past a shopping center called Brady Eighty, with signs signaling Interstate 80 up ahead, when I nudged her awake.
She sat up with a start and was immediately embarrassed. “Oh, Jack, I’m sorry… really…”
“Don’t worry about it. You work hard. You get tired. You’re entitled.”
She rubbed one eye with the heel of a hand, smiled in a crinkly fashion. “You’re really very nice.”
“Yeah, I hear that all the time.”
“It’s right up here.”
“The Hastings addition. Where I live. Just to your right.”
I made a turn into well-lit, well-tended, split-level suburbia. The houses were good size, but fairly close together. It took money to live in this neighborhood, but these people weren’t wealthy. Not, say, in the Victor Werner sense. Of course these people were alive, which is something they had over Werner.
She directed me into the driveway of a two-tone green split-level and I parked, got out, opened her door, gave her my arm and walked her up the curving sidewalk with its occasional steps. She wasn’t drunk by any means; but she was tired, and she’d had a few. She fumbled for her keys and then we were inside.
The entryway was a landing between floors; the lower floor, from what I could see of it, seemed to be a family room. I followed her up the open stairs half a flight into the plush living room. This was definitely the home of somebody who grew up lower middle-class and came into a little money. It had that would-be classy look of an above-average motel. Lots of massive Mediterranean furniture, drapes gathered with tassels, sofas and chairs of green and red with crushed velvet cushions, sculptured green carpet. Coats of arms and reproductions of Rembrandts and such on the walls. It was the home of somebody who used to bowl but now golfs.
I followed her through the living room into a smaller, stone-and-brick room; it had a warm look, lots of rusts and golds and browns.
“You know how to make a fire?” she asked, getting behind the bar.
I looked over at the stone fireplace. “Sure. You don’t have any wood, though.”
“You’ll have to go outside and get some.”
“Uh, chop it or…”
“No, silly,” she said, stirring a pitcher of martinis, “it’s piled just outside on the patio. Through those glass doors.”
I went outside into the chilly night. I breathed deep. Closed my eyes. Swallowed. Then I picked up an armload of firewood and went in and made a fire.
“What would you like?” she asked, as she poured herself a martini.
“Do you have a Coke? Diet, preferably.”
“Do I have to drink alone?”
“I don’t drink.”
That seemed to disappoint her. “Oh?”
“I got nothing against it. It’s just not a habit I picked up. You have whatever you want, however much you want. You’re a hardworking girl. You got it coming.”
“Thanks,” she said. “You’re a sweetie.” Actually, if she got a little drunker, I might get more information out of her.
She came over, in her nyloned stocking feet, the belt of the white dress gone now, and handed me a tall, icy glass of Coke.
“It’s Diet,” she said.
“Good,” I said, sipping it. “I’m trying to take some weight off.”
“That why you wear black?”
“It is slimming, isn’t it?”
“You don’t look heavy to me. Your face looks… well, actually it looks a little drawn.”
“I haven’t had much of an appetite the last few days.”
“Oh, I see.” she said, as if she did. “You make a nice fire.”
“I’ve had some experience.”
“Want to sit in front of it?”
I said nothing.
“I said, want to…”
“Sure,” I said.
She tossed some cushions on the floor-it was a shag carpet in here, very homey-and we lay on them and watched the fire.
“You must think I’m terrible,” she said.
“Why would I think that? Which I don’t.”
“Inviting a strange man to my home.”
“I’m not a strange man. I’m a good customer.”
She almost did a spit take with her martini. “Geez, that sounds even worse…”
I smiled at her. “I didn’t mean it to. I like you. I like being around you.”
It wasn’t a lie. It wasn’t the reason I was here, but it wasn’t a lie.
“I’ve had kind of a… rough time of it lately,” she said. “I wanted some company tonight.”
“Glad to oblige. Why a rough time?”
“My boss… Lonny…” Shook her head. “He’s making things tough…”
“I like Lonny. We were friends for years, or anyway he and Bob and Laureen-that’s Lonny’s wife, ex-wife now-well, we were all friends. Socially, and involved with the party.”
“Democratic Action party, you mean?”
“Right. And, anyway, Lonny’s been really sweet, giving me this job and all. But he’s been, well, pressuring me.”
“He getting ‘handsy,’ too?”
“I wish it were that simple. He’s asked me out. We’ve been out. I’ve… let him kiss me a few times.” She made a face. “Damn, this sounds so, so high school. I’ve never slept with him. I just don’t.. don’t feel that way about him.”
She sipped her martini.
“But he’s serious about you,” I said.
She nodded. “I know now that he only gave me that job to be close to me.”
“Afraid if you tell him you’re not interested in him you’ll lose your job?”
“That’s not it, exactly. I’m good at what I do. I sell a lot of cars. I could go elsewhere, I really could. I was a good student, you know-or I was till my senior year, when dad died. I got pregnant in junior college, and was already involved with that Born Again bull, and my life sort of got away from me. Then working for Preston Freed I realized I still had brains, that I could go out in the business world and make something of myself, without Bob’s help, screw him if he doesn’t want to help his own kids… well, one of ’em’s his, anyway.”
“Then what’s the big deal with telling Lonny how you feel? You’re not afraid for your job, after all.”
“I know,” she said, rim of the martini glass near her lower lip, “but I like him. He’s been sweet. I just don’t want to hurt him.”
“You afraid of hurting your ex-husband, too?”
“Bob? Why, what do you mean?”
“If he isn’t paying his child support and alimony, throw his butt in jail.”
She shook her head wearily. “It isn’t that simple. Bob… that’s something else that’s been a little rough on me lately. Sorry if I sound like I’m feeling sorry for myself…”
“It’s okay. Bob.”
“Bob,” she said. “You see, he wants me back. He says he’s not going to run around anymore. Learned his lesson and all that garbage. He apologized for that time he didn’t buy what I said about, you know, Freed getting ‘friendly.’ He… he wants his family back.”
“Do you want him back?”
“No. I loved him once, but he’s too smothering. He’d never let me work; this house was my world. And since the split I found out I like to work. Anyway, he’s been coming around a lot… it’s hard, it really is. See, he’s holding back on what he’s supposed to pay, knowing that for me to do anything about it I have to take him to court.”
“Have you done that?”
“Yes. I saw an attorney six months ago. And faced with that, Bob paid up, four months worth. Now he’s pulled the same thing-three months behind. I’ll have to go through the same damn rigmarole.”
“Unless you take him back.”
“Unless I take him back.”
“Which is in the no-way-in-hell category, I’d guess.”
“Sure is. Even though he’s trying to work on me through the girls.”
She stopped, something catching in her throat; she had tears in her eyes. She finished the martini and got up and got herself another one. I sat up and poked at the fire while she did that.
Then she settled herself on the cushion again, on her stomach, ankles crossed behind her, white dress hiked up, and said, “Why do you ask so many questions?”
“I’m interested in you.”
“You got a nice smile.”
“Is that all?”
“You got nice just about everything.”
She gave me a kiss; even the alcohol on her breath didn’t take anything away from it. Slow, kind of wet, very sweet. I liked it.
“You don’t know me,” I warned her, wondering why I was warning her.
“I don’t want to know anybody right now,” she said, smiled and sipped her martini. “Just want some company. Okay? Just be company.”
We listened to the fire crackle.
Then I said, “Somehow I can’t picture you getting caught up with this Freed character.”
“Then you’ve never heard him speak. He’s something. Those eyes really hold you. Charmed the pants off many a girl.”
“You said as much earlier. He really fools around with a lot of those pretty young things on his staff?”
“He sure does. I was almost one of ’em, remember? But you know what I heard?”
“What did you hear?”
Giggled, sipped her martini. “I heard the damnedest rumor. Thing of it is, I think I believe it.”
“Well, you know he has this TV ‘news’ show, told you about. In fact, I used to be sort of involved with it-if you call carting-the-tape-every-Monday-night-to-the-little-cable- outfit-that-does-his-uplinks being involved. He has a small but pretty elaborate studio at his house. Actually it’s more than a house, it’s kind of a mansion. Anyway, he tapes his weekly show right there.”
“They say that’s not all he tapes there. They say he’s got a video-tape library, of all his ‘conquests.’”
“You mean, his sexual conquests?”
“Yeah, yeah. There’s this mirror over his bed, they say, and there’s a camera behind it. He tapes himself doing it with these girls.”
“I heard it on good authority. From a girl who found out and was pissed off, man, really pissed.”
“So he doesn’t tell them, then?”
“Hell, no! He just takes ’em into his bedroom and has his way with ’em and watches the replays to his heart’s content.”
There was a mirror over Freed’s bed. And the bedroom had been well lit. And the candidate was a narcissistic son-of-a-bitch. It made a perverse sort of sense.
“And none of these girls knew, at the time at least, they were on camera. Can you imagine?”
If the Democrat Action party’s presidential candidate had been taping tonight, I’d been on camera, too. Stunning the stunning behind of Freed’s latest conquest. I didn’t like the thought of that. Leaving my image on tape, no, that I couldn’t allow. I’d have to check this out.
“Angela, what’s the deal with Best and Freed? Why did Best drop out of the party? Did he get fed up with Freed’s excesses-political and/or sexual?”
“Hey, this home porno-movie deal isn’t well known, not at all. I don’t think Lonny or anybody knows. I shouldn’t have told you. If I wasn’t who-knows-how-many- sheets-to-the-wind, I wouldn’t’ve.”
“So it was a political rift, then?”
“That split up Best and Freed.”
“I don’t think so. Frankly, I think Lonny still believes in what Freed stands for. But as a businessman, visible in the community, Lonny doesn’t want to be associated with somebody controversial like Freed.”
“Well, is Lonny active with any other political group?”
“He’s a Republican. He gives ’em some money.”
“But he’s never been really active in politics since splitting with Freed.”
“No. Not nearly. Why are you so interested in this?”
I’d gone too far with my questions. Time for a strategy shift.
I leaned close to her. “Well, frankly… can you keep a secret?”
She grinned, very crinkly. “Judging by the way I’ve been spilling things tonight, no. But I’m willing to try to learn.”
“Good. I’m not really in the auto parts business. I’m in security work.”
“You mean you’re a detective?”
“No. Security. I was approached by Preston Freed to help him train and prepare his security team for the upcoming primary campaign.”
That perked her up. “Oh, yeah?”
“I haven’t taken the job yet. I knew Freed was something of a nut, and I didn’t know if I wanted to get involved with him, professionally speaking. So I needed to check him and some of his friends out.”
“Is that why you hit on me?”
There was no expression in her face. Her eyes, deep blue, were unreadable as they fixed upon me.
“Yes,” I said.
She smiled sadly, looked into her martini.
“That,” I said, “and your smile, and I wasn’t lying about liking you.”
“You came to the car lot looking for me, then?”
“No! That was a coincidence.”
“Well, I was there to check Best out. I didn’t know anything about you. Just that you were a pretty woman in red, white, and blue-and I’m as patriotic as the next guy.”
She smiled one-sidedly and touched my cheek. “I guess I don’t take it back. That you’re a nice guy.”
“I didn’t mean to take advantage of your good nature.”
“Frankly,” she said, “I wish you would.”
She kissed me again; another slow, sweet, sticky kiss. She rolled over on top of me and my arms slipped around her, my hand settling on her ass, dress hiked up over pantyhose and panties; nice shape to her ass, soft yet firm. Something stirred in me, below the belt. She kept kissing and I kissed back. The fire was warm on us. I rolled over on top of her, felt her breasts through her dress; she reached behind and unzipped it and brought it down over her breasts in a wispy bra that she slipped down and my hands went onto her cool flesh, warming to my touch and the glow of the fire. Her nipples were hard under my fingertips and I put my mouth on her breasts, suckled, and she moved my hand to her pantyhose, inside her panties, in front, and I pulled away, like my fingers had touched fire, not soft curly hair.
I was breathing hard. Blinking. Something was wrong.
“Jack… Jack, what’s wrong?”
She was sitting next to me, looking lovely if disheveled in the fire’s glow, and I tried to say something but my tongue was thick. My dick wasn’t.
“Jack, what is it? You’re…”
“What?” I managed to say.
I touched my face. I’ll be damned if I wasn’t.
“What is it, Jack?”
“I… I’m sorry, Angela. I just can’t.”
She smiled wryly, but sympathetically, her arm around my shoulder. “You were doing fine. Just fine.”
She dabbed my face with the cloth of her dress. “What is it, Jack?”
“I lost my wife not long ago.”
“I… haven’t been with a woman since.”
She swallowed. Patted my shoulder. “How long has it been?”
“A year.” It seemed like a year. And it seemed like a moment ago.
“I guess I’m just not ready,” I said.
“Oh, Jack, I understand.”
“I feel funny.”
“What is it?”
“The oddest feeling.”
“Are you sick?”
“I don’t know.”
“You… you want some aspirin or something?”
“No. It’ll be all right. Let me catch my breath.” What was this feeling?
“It’s natural to feel a little guilty,” she said.
Was that it? Guilt? Of all things.
“Why don’t you stay here tonight,” she said. “You can sleep out on the couch, if you like. We can just be there for each other. I think maybe we can both use some company tonight.”
We walked back through the living room and down a hallway. Several family photographs in frames lined the wall. I stopped at one.
“Your girls?” I asked.
“Yes. Taken a few years ago.”
“They look like you. They’re going to be beauties.”
She hugged my arm.
I envied her a little; even without a partner, she had something here. Kids and a house and a life. Mediterranean furniture or not, I could almost see myself here. In this house with this woman and her family and her life.
We moved to the next picture, a larger family portrait, and I stopped short.
“Your, uh, ex?” I asked.
“I should take it down, I know,” she said. “But to the girls he’s still dad.”
“What’s Bob doing for a living these days?” I asked her, studying the portrait.
“Are you okay, Jack?”
“What’s he doing for a living?”
“He works for George Ridge now. Real estate counseling, I guess you’d call it.”
I said nothing.
“Yeah,” she went on, “he’s making good money, too, flitting around. In Canada this weekend, some fancy deal.”
“Is that right,” I said. “I… I don’t think I can stay tonight, Angela.”
The dark blue eyes were very wide as she searched my face. “Why not?”
“I’d like to. But I just can’t.”
“The guilt,” she said, nodding sympathetically, eyes narrowing.
I said nothing. I just kissed her, briefly, and let her walk me out to my car.
And I drove away from there, from that house, from the family picture that included the round, pasty face, several facial moles and all, of the man who had come into my house and killed my wife, and my wife’s brother, and who had in turn been killed by me.
Around ten the next morning, Sunday, I went down to the lobby of the hotel and had a word with the man at the desk.
“I’m working for the Freed campaign,” I told him.
He nodded, smiled noncommittally. He was in his mid- twenties and blandly handsome; crisply dressed in a navy blazer and red and blue striped tie, he would be a manager here someday. The two women back behind the counter, doing the real work, wouldn’t have a chance.
“With the press conference tomorrow,” I said, “we have to be careful.”
“Certainly,” he said, the smile gone, very serious now, as if what I’d said was something he well knew, when actually it had never occurred to him.
“Our sources have informed us,” I said, “that one of the major parties has hired a political dirty trickster to disrupt the press conference.”
I was careful not to say which party. That way, if he were a Democrat he could assume Republican, and vice versa.
Whatever, he nodded, narrowed his eyes, leaned forward, pretended to be concerned.
“The agent provocateur in question,” I said, “makes G. Gordon Liddy look like Mother Teresa.”
He smiled at that, but a serious smile.
“We would like your help in keeping an eye out for him,” I said. “We’d like no one but yourself-and your night relief-to be aware of this request.”
“Do you have a photograph?”
“No. But I can give you a detailed physical description, and I know several of the names he frequently travels under.”
“He’s a slender man a few years shy of fifty. Six-one, pockmarked. Cleft chin. Eyes have kind of an oriental cast. Dark hair, widow’s peak, pale complexion.” I could tell, from his blank expression, he wasn’t visualizing anything yet, despite that laundry list of facial features. I tried again: “You know the guy in Star Trek?”
“No, the other one-but without the pointed ears.”
He smiled, nodded.
“He looks something like that guy,” I said. “He sometimes uses the name Stone. He sometimes uses the name Brackett. Sometimes Pond. Sometimes Green.”
That was all the names I knew.
“Let me check the registry,” he said, and he began flipping the little cards, looking up each name. “Nothing,” he said.
“What about the description? Did it ring a bell?”
“Well, yes it did.”
I leaned against the counter. “What room number?”
“No, I just meant I knew which guy on Star Trek you meant.”
Maybe he wouldn’t be a manager someday.
“How long are you on?”
“Two other shifts, then, after you?”
“When does the graveyard shift start?”
“Good.” I handed him two twenties, folded once, lengthwise. “I’ll talk to the two night men personally. You just keep this to yourself.”
“That isn’t necessary, sir,” he said, meaning the money, which he was trying not to look at.
“Sure it is.” I let go of the bills and they made a little tent on the counter. “Now, I’m going to have to look things over for security purposes. Where is the press conference going to be held?”
He pointed across the lobby to some stairs going down. “The Bix Beiderbecke Room,” he said. “At nine o’clock Tuesday morning.”
“Thanks. By the way, my status with the Freed campaign is known only by the top-level people. So don’t go throwing my name around.”
“Uh, what is your name, sir?”
“Of course,” he said, smiling, as if the name had just momentarily slipped his mind.
I gave him a smile and a little forefinger salute and left him and the money behind.
The Blackhawk was an older, recently refurbished hotel; the lobby’s black and white marble floor gave it an art deco feel, though the extensive mahogany woodwork and whorehouse-red-trimmed-gold ceiling harked back to frontier days. The lobby wasn’t small, but a low ceiling and comfortable furnishings made it seem intimate, as did the way the thick pillars separated it off into areas. A row of shops and offices-one of them the rear end of the Freed campaign headquarters-was just around the corner from the check-in desk.
I went down marble stairs, following a sign that said ARCADE, and found an arcade in the earlier, pre-Pac Man sense: a row of shops and businesses, about a half a block long, beneath the hotel lobby. The walls were light plaster and decorated with amateurish murals depicting New Orleans street scenes, in honor of Davenport’s legendary Dixieland jazzman, Bix Beiderbecke, who died young. Frightened by the mural, possibly, with its grotesque Mardi Gras figures and frozen Basin Street musicians.
The shops were closed today, although from the looks of things, several stalls were shuttered no matter what day it was. Among those currently in business were a barber shop, a beauty shop, a shoeshine stand and an architect’s office. A ghost town on Sunday; I was alone down here, despite the crowd brunching it upstairs at the hotel’s Sundance Restaurant.
The arcade walkway was really just a hall-perhaps eight feet wide-with a fairly low ceiling made lower by chandelier-style light fixtures. At the end of the hallway were carpeted steps moving up into a newer, beige-brick section of the hotel.
But just prior to that was the entry to the Bix Beiderbecke Room, a short hallway with a short flight of steps that led down to an open area outside the room itself: a medium-size meeting hall with a door at right and another down at its other end, at left. I peeked in the door at right.
A podium was set up facing a room full of chairs, arranged in rows with a central aisle. Seating for probably a hundred or so. Standing in that doorway, I was within twenty feet of the podium.
I looked at my watch, waited for the second hand to point straight up. Then quickly ran from the doorway, down the short hall out to the arcade and up the carpeted steps. Checked the second hand.
I looked up from my watch and saw that I was indeed in the new part of the hotel, a high-ceilinged add-on that connected the Blackhawk with its parking. I was a few steps away from a door to the street, where there was plenty of parking at the curb on both sides of the wide one-way; and a few steps away from the parking garage itself, where if I had a car parked on the bottom floor nearby I was within seconds of wheeling out of here. A few more steps to my right, down a gentle Oriental-carpeted ramp-like walkway, were hotel elevators.
Back up the ramp, still in the beige-brick modern addendum, which was overseen by a huge, old-fashioned wall clock, I was facing the glass wall of the indoor swimming pool/sauna area. A few families were in there splashing around. I’d have a swim later. The door was kept locked, but your room key would open it.
The upper lobby’s arcade connected nearby, and I wandered back in, thinking over what I’d seen. A row of telephone booths, set in the mahogany walls, was on my right. I used one of the phones to call the number Freed had given me.
After several rings, Freed himself answered.
“Yes?” he said, thickly, obviously awakened by the call.
“This is Quarry.”
“That’s Jack Ryan to you.”
“Yes, certainly-what is it?”
“I’ve had a look around here at the Blackhawk Hotel. We better have that security briefing we talked about. Gather the key people who are going to be covering your butt at the press conference. I need to talk to them.”
“I can do that. When?”
“Is this afternoon too soon?”
So I went in the front way this time, a hunting-jacketed sentry in the brown Ford climbing out to open the unpainted metal gate, and I drove down the paved drive, forest on either side of me, until I was driving along the edge of the quarry drop-off, the lake below shimmering with what little sunlight was filtering through today’s overcast.
I parked in back and was met by an armed guard in a brown leather bomber jacket and tan slacks; he had that same deputy sheriff look as some of those I’d stun-gunned last night, but I didn’t recognize this one, a round-faced man with rosy cheeks and thinning hair.
Me, I wasn’t in ninja black today, but spiffed up in a suit and tie and brown leather overcoat.
Freed came down the wooden stairway in back, off the kitchen, its railing freshly repaired, and greeted me with a smile and an extended hand. I shook it, smiled back. He was wearing a blue suede jacket and a light blue shirt with a string tie; his mane of white hair brushed neatly back, and the light blue eyes in the tanned face, made him seem almost otherworldly.
“Jack,” he said, “it’s good to see you again.” And he slipped his arm around my shoulder.
“Been a long time,” I said.
Soon we were in the open-beamed conference room, where the oil portrait of Freed as a riverboat captain held sway; at a large table sat four men, two of whom I recognized. All four stood as Freed introduced me, and one by one shook hands with me.
One of them was campaign manager Frank Neely, he of the steel-gray gaze and fleshy, intelligent face. He was wearing a sweatshirt that said WHY NOT A REAL PRESIDENT? VOTE FREED, with the last word given extra prominence by a somewhat protruding belly.
“Mr. Ryan,” he said, smiling warily, “please excuse my informality-this was a last-minute meeting…”
The other one that I recognized was a thirtyish, somewhat heavy-set, balding blond guy, who I’d met in this very room last night, introducing myself by way of a brass Presidential seal in the belly. He was dressed much the same as the night before: blue workshirt and jeans. When we shook hands he kept his grip insolently limp, dark eyes drilling into me, his smile a scowl. His name, Freed said, was Larry.
“You can stuff the apology,” Larry said, sneering.
“What apology?” I said.
“Larry,” Freed said. “Just sit down.”
Larry sat down and did a slow burn. Nobody’s favorite stooge.
The other two men were named Blake and Simmons; one had brown hair and the other blond, but they were pretty much interchangeable, a pair of oversize WASP ex-cops who had probably been football players in college or anyway high school. Linebackers, I’d say. They were, Freed had informed me last night, his security chiefs on the primary swing.
Both had firm grips; both smiled without revealing any warmth-or teeth, for that matter.
We all sat, except Freed, who stood at the head of the table, his back to the fireplace, which was going, his own portrait looking over his shoulder.
“Jack Ryan is an old friend of mine,” Freed said, beaming at me, so convincing a liar I almost had memories of our friendship, “who also happens to be one of the best security men around. Yesterday he handed Frank here a line, and Frank was ready to set up a meeting between Jack and myself, without running any kind of security check first. I think we’ve learned something, haven’t we, Frank?”
Freed said this gently, and Neely seemed to take it well, smiling a little, though the smile was tight at its corners.
The candidate continued, in his mellifluous baritone: “Last night-as Larry can tell you first hand-Jack ran a little test on my security team here at the house. We came up a little short, didn’t we, Larry?”
“Yes, Mr. Freed.”
“We’re going to be making some changes. Adding some staff. Changing some procedures. But that’s not why Mr. Ryan is here today. Jack, would you like to take over?”
Freed sat and I stood.
“As the candidate probably has told you,” I said, “we have reason to believe an assassination attempt may be made at the press conference Tuesday morning.”
Blake-or was it Simmons? — chimed in. “With all due respect, Mr. Ryan,” he said in a gravelly voice (maybe he’d been a tackle), “we got that covered.” He opened his coat and revealed the holstered revolver there.
“Ah, a. 38,” I said.
“Must help you remember your I.Q.”
Simmons-or was it Blake? — glowered at me, but I got over it.
“First suggestion,” I said, looking at Freed, “is you change the site of the press conference. But don’t announce the change till the last minute.”
“That’s impossible,” Neely said, shaking his head. “It would be a logistical nightmare, and make for very bad relations with the media.”
I looked at Simmons and Blake. “Have you people scoped out the Bix Beiderbecke Room?” I looked at Freed. “Appropriately named, ’cause you could die before your time there.”
Freed was watching me intently. “Why do you say that, Jack?”
“If I were doing this thing,” I said, “I could shoot you and be on my way, in my car, moving, in under thirty seconds.”
Simmons and Blake smirked at each other, eyes rolling.
But Freed said, “Explain.”
“An assassin staying in the hotel could take the elevator from his room down to the parking garage entry area, walk down the steps to the Bix Beiderbecke Room, block the meeting room door at left-with a table or whatever-open the door at right, getting a direct shot at the speaker at the podium, take that shot, quickly block that door, run up the steps, walk to his car-either in the garage or on the street-and be gone before anybody’s figured out whether the candidate’s dead or not.”
Neely said, “It would be difficult to change locations. Not impossible perhaps, but…”
Freed said, “The location stays. What can we do to secure that location, Jack?”
I sighed. “Well. Post several men outside the conference room. They need detailed descriptions of the man we believe will be attempting the hit-which I’ll provide-but they just generally will need to play heads-up ball. For what’s at stake, our man could easily shoot more people than just the candidate. How big is your security force?”
Blake-or was it Simmons? — said, “Half a dozen.”
“Armed, of course,” the other one said.
“Add a couple men,” I said. “You have the advantage of knowing that he’s coming.”
“Are you convinced of that now?” Freed said.
“After seeing the set-up for the press conference,” I said, “I tend to be. Anybody wanting a crack at you would be crazy not to take advantage of this. Will there be any cops on hand?”
Neely said, “We requested police support, but were denied. We’re not popular at City Hall.”
Freed said, “Should I wear a bullet-proof vest?”
“Soft body armor might be worth the trouble,” I said, “but, frankly, he’s going to go for a head shot.”
“And he could do it from the doorway, there?”
“At that range, he could throw a glass ashtray and get the job done.”
Simmons and Blake, no longer rolling their eyes or smirking, seemed to be convinced. Larry didn’t like me, but I could tell he was taking me seriously, too. Neely looked ashen, sick. The thought of his campaign starting off with this kind of bang didn’t seem to agree with him.
“And for God’s sake,” I said, “tighten up security at the hotel itself. I went to the desk and told the guy I was with the Freed campaign and without even asking my name, let alone to see credentials, he went along with everything I asked him and pointed to where the press conference was going to be held and you name it. Put a lid on this thing, boys. You’ve got a controversial candidate with a lot of enemies. Get on the defensive.”
Simmons and Blake swallowed, glanced at each other embarrassedly. Neely remained ashen, and Freed looked glazed. Larry was picking his nose.
“Now, gentleman,” I said, “if you’ll excuse me, I need to use the facilities. Talk this over amongst yourselves, and we’ll get into some of the specifics of revising your security plan when I get back. And I’ll give you a detailed description of the man we believe will be the assassin.”
“Let’s make that would-be assassin,” Freed said, with a nervous smile.
“That’s up to your friends here,” I said pleasantly, and left the room.
I walked out through the adjacent secretarial room and out where the waterfall gurgled by the winding staircase. I went up those stairs, and crossed the circular bar to the door that opened onto the hallway that led to Freed’s bedroom.
About half-way down that hallway, at my left, was a closed door. A closet door, one might assume. I hadn’t paid it much notice the night before, when the glow at the end of the hall had beckoned. But right now I was more interested in what was behind this door, to which I put my ear-and heard nothing. Gently, I tried the knob; locked.
But not very locked: a credit card opened it. This was a fairly quiet operation, though not a silent one, so I paused and listened for the sounds of anybody else who might be up here-a bodyguard in that room across the bar, for example-but heard nothing.
I opened the door and entered a room that wasn’t a closet, though it wasn’t much bigger than one. At right was a window; a video camera on a tripod was aimed at the window, and on a table nearby a big bulky video tape machine squatted, not a home VCR, but an industrial model. I glanced out the window and saw Freed’s bedroom. The camera was pointed directly at the waterbed with its elaborate western headboard and its black silk sheets. I didn’t remember a mirror on the wall, but there must’ve been one. The mirrors overhead must’ve been strictly for fun, not two-way video windows.
Otherwise the rumor that Angela Jordan had heard would seem to be no rumor.
Because at my left was a library of video tapes, shelves of the black plastic boxes; on the spine of each black box was a woman’s name written in bold white letters: Sheila, Jane, Sally, Heather, Clarice, thirty-some women in all.
And one tape box had the name “Angela” on its spine.
I removed it from the shelf, took the tape from the box, and put the empty box back on the shelf. Then I went to the video tape machine near the camera and pressed the eject button. I removed the tape; on the counter nearby was what I presumed was the tape’s black plastic box, which had the name “Becky” on the spine, and Becky was (if memory served) the name of the eager staffer I’d encountered at Freed campaign HQ and whose butt I’d electrically prodded last night.
I slipped the “Angela” tape in one of my suitcoat pockets, and the “Becky” tape in the other. I was surprised that Angela had actually made it onto a tape-she’d said several times that Freed had come on to her but that she’d rebuffed him-but it was an understandable lie. I don’t always tell the truth myself.
The tapes, somewhat larger than the home-machine variety, were bulky in my pockets, so I went to the kitchen where I’d left my brown leather overcoat and transferred the tapes to those deeper pockets.
Then I went back into the conference room and joined in on the discussion about how to keep candidate (and home-video buff) Preston Freed from getting blown away (as opposed to just blown) on the first day of his primary campaign.
Pennants flapped lazily overhead as the last few Sunday afternoon browsers strolled around the BEST BUY lot, peering in windows, perusing price stickers, kicking the tires. The day was too cloudy, too cold, to attract much business; and the sales personnel, Angela Jordan among them, had finally made a concession to the undeniable reality of winter by wearing heavy coats of various sorts over their identical red blazers. It was almost five. Quitting time.
I waited for Angela to deal with the young couple looking droolingly at a shiny silver Firebird, and when they left in a boxy little brown AMC something-or-other, talking animatedly, I figured she had another sale in the bag.
“Next trip in,” I said, “and you’ll sell ’em.”
“I think so,” she smiled. “Just hope they can afford it. I’m trying to steer them toward something a little smaller.”
“Better not let your boss hear you talk like that.”
“You don’t understand the car business,” she said. “If I treat those two right, they’ll be my customers for the next thirty years.”
We walked toward the showroom.
I said, “I’m sorry about last night.”
“No need to apologize. I understand. It’s tough enough adjusting to the single life, after divorcing somebody you don’t love anymore, let alone after… losing somebody you still do love.”
“I was hoping I could take you out for a bite of supper.”
“That’d be nice. I don’t have any plans.”
“Maybe we could take your girls along.”
She smiled; teeth didn’t come much whiter, smiles didn’t come any better. “Wish you could meet them. And you will one of these days. But my mom drove the girls into Chicago for the day for a big shopping spree. They won’t be back till nine or ten tonight.”
“How much longer are you here?”
She checked her watch. “It is five, isn’t it? I’m off as of now. Let me go back in my office and change clothes. I’m going to be pretty casual…”
I was still in the suit and brown leather overcoat. “Well, I could always change into my ninja threads,” I said.
She laughed and said I looked just fine.
I followed her into the showroom and the smell of new cars. “You got any place special you’d like to eat?” I asked her.
“Any place but the Embers,” she said, and flashed her smile and disappeared into a small office. The other sales people had either gone or were going. But sitting in his office, staring out at me, was chunky little Lonny Best in his shirtsleeves and red-white-and-blue tie. He had a filtered cigarette going. He was frowning at me.
He stood and crooked his finger, like I was a kid he was summoning.
What the hell.
I went into his office and closed the door behind me.
“What the fuck’s the idea,” he said.
“Could you be a little more specific?”
He came out from behind the desk, apple cheeks blazing, eyes hard and small and glittering. He thrust a hard forefinger into my chest.
“You lied to me,” he said. “What was that shit about auto parts?”
“You’re in the security game. Working for Freed. I know all about it.”
I had hoped Angela would be more discreet.
“Maybe I was checking up on you,” I said.
He thumped my chest again. “Well I don’t fuckin’ appreciate it! And stay away from Angela. I don’t want you havin’ anything to do with her.”
“Don’t touch me again.”
He shoved me hard. “I’ll touch you. I’ll fuckin’ kill you.”
I opened my coat and reached under my arm and took out the nine-millimeter.
His eyes got very large, considering how small they were, and he backed up. “Jesus-what’s the idea…”
I slapped him alongside his head with the barrel and he went down like a kid’s tower of blocks.
I sat on top of him and put the gun’s nose against his. His ear was bloody from where the gun slapped him. His eyes looked back and up at me, frantic and afraid. “Jesus, Jesus… I didn’t mean…”
“Don’t threaten to kill people,” I said. “It isn’t nice, unless you mean it. It isn’t nice if you mean it, either, but in that case, what’s the difference?”
He was sweating. “What… what do you want?”
“Like you said, I’m in the security game. And I’m working for Preston Freed.”
“What… what’s that to me?”
“That Buick that was stolen off your lot.”
His eyes tensed. That told me something.
“The men who took it,” I said, “did not have Preston Freed’s best interests at heart. Only I don’t think they ‘took’ it. I think you gave it to them.”
“You’re… you’re fuckin’ nuts.”
I twisted the bleeding ear and he howled.
“You used to be a Freed supporter,” I said. “What turned you against him? Why do you want him dead?”
“I don’t want anybody dead!”
“You can be dead yourself, if you don’t come clean.” I twisted the ear again. “Talk to me Lonny,” I said, above his howl.
A knocking at the office door interrupted us. “What’s going on in there?” Angela’s voice cried. “Lonny? Is Jack in there? Lonny, are you all right?”
I climbed off him, helped him up. He was shaking and shaken.
“Not a word about this,” I said, putting the gun away. “Find something to wipe off your ear.”
“You’re crazy,” he said, breathlessly; it was not an accusation, or an insult-more a surprised statement of assumed fact. He stumbled into a small washroom off his office and used a damp cloth on his ear.
I cleaned his blood off my hand with a handkerchief and opened the door and a wide-eyed, worried Angela was standing there, poised to knock again. I slid past her and pulled her along.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get something to eat.”
“What was going on in there?”
“Your car or mine?”
“Let’s take both this time, I’ll follow you; but what…”
“I’ll tell you when we get there.”
The Sundance Restaurant in the Blackhawk Hotel was a yuppie’s notion of the old west-pottery and Indian-blanket carpeting, sepia photos of Wild Bill Hickok and Sitting Bull, mingling with the usual hanging plants. Rather large, the open-beamed place was sectioned off and made to seem cozy, its unfinished pine walls cluttered with wagon wheels and mounted buffalo heads and lamps made from antlers. We sat by ourselves in a nook below a blue-and-orange stained-glass skylight.
“What was going on in Lonny’s office?” she asked, leaning forward. The ride over had not dimmed her interest or her concern. She was nervously toying with the gold chain around her neck; she was wearing a white blouse and blue jeans.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. I would have liked to take off my coat and tie and unbutton my top button; but I still wore my nine-millimeter in its shoulder holster. So I remained less than casual.
“You’d said you’d tell me,” she said with brittle, barely controlled anger. “It sounded like you were fighting in there.”
“It was just a scuffle.”
“A scuffle! What about?”
“You. He told me to stay away from you, and took a swing at me. I decked him, then sat on him a while till he was cooled down. That’s all.”
Exasperated, she shook her head, eyes large, said, “Does this sort of thing happen to you often?”
“It used to. I been leading a pretty quiet life lately.”
“Well, you’re certainly getting back into the swing of things, aren’t you?”
“Yes. But I wish I wasn’t.”
“What do you mean, Jack?” Her anger was fading already.
“Nothing. Let’s forget about this and just have a nice meal, okay?”
“Oh-kay,” she sighed, smirking with frustration, and we ordered drinks-her a martini (again) and me a Diet Coke (again), and I got her talking about her kids for awhile. The older one was a cheerleader, but not such a great student; the younger girl was shy, though her marks were excellent. Angela’s eyes lit up when she talked about them. The sadness that I’d noticed in her last night was absent this evening, at least when her kids were the topic of discussion.
I hadn’t eaten anything today, so I had a full dinner, the main course wiener schnitzel (the Sundance menu wasn’t particularly frontier-oriented); Angela, who probably weighed one hundred twenty, had the diet plate.
She was having a second martini, an after dinner one, when I got back into it.
“I need to ask you something about your husband,” I said.
“Bob? What about him?”
“You said he’s working for George Ridge now.”
“Yes. He’s an… executive assistant, I think is the title.”
“But Ridge and Preston Freed had a bitter falling out. Are you aware of that?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding.
“Yet you indicated your husband is still under Freed’s ‘spell.’”
“Yes, Bob’s still a member of the Democratic Action party. I don’t think he’s as active as he used to be, but… I don’t get your point.”
“Well, the point is, how can he work for Ridge, and still be involved with Freed?”
“I don’t know. Lots of people who work together, who’re in business together, disagree politically. Is that so unusual?”
I let some air out. Shrugged. “I just figured the rift between Ridge and Freed was so acrimonious, it’d spill over into other things …”
“Maybe so. I really don’t know anything about it. Why don’t you ask George Ridge about it? Or Freed? Or Bob, for that matter?”
She didn’t know it, of course, but nobody was going to be talking to Bob again, not unless it was with a Ouija board. And the same would be true of George Ridge, before long, once I’d met him and his plane Monday night. Freed I could, and would, ask.
“Something else we need to talk about,” I said.
“Yes?” Her smile was eager; she was assuming, wrongly, this would be pleasant.
“Don’t ask me how I know this. Don’t ask me how I did this exactly.”
“Know what? Did what?”
“That rumor about Preston Freed’s video-tape library.”
She smiled, laughed softly. “His triple-X home movies, you mean. What about it?”
“It’s no rumor.”
She shrugged. “I’m not really surprised. But how’d you verify it? Oh, sorry-you said not to ask…”
She wasn’t as impressed as she should be.
I reached over to the chair next to me where my brown leather coat was draped. I got the black plastic box out of one pocket and showed it to her. “This is from his private library.”
She smiled one-sidedly, a little amazed. “You’re kidding!”
“No. Check out the spine.”
She looked at it. “‘Angela,’” she said. “Well, this isn’t me, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Hey, he’s got a camera pointing right at his bed. He’s got a shelf of over thirty tapes with the names of women on every one of them. There’s no reason to kid me.”
“Jack. Read my lips. This isn’t me. I never slept with Freed. Or did anything with him. Have you screened this?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t know where to find a machine that’ll play it. It won’t play in a home VCR-I need the kind they use at TV stations.”
“Three-quarter inch, not half-inch,” she said, nodding. “You know, I think I know where I can find us a screening room.”
We took her car. It was dark now, as we headed up Brady through its neon franchise canyon, gliding along by BEST BUY, heading on out past the shopping malls and even her own housing addition. Well past the city limits, as Iowa farmland began to kick in, a cluster of small buildings appeared at our left, a garden of big metal mushrooms- satellite dishes-along its one side.
We got out of the car and she looped her arm in mine, saying, “If Chuck still works here, and I think he does, we’ll be in business. I used to drop Preston Freed’s weekly ‘news’ show off to ’im.”
There were no lights on in the front, office part of the small building complex, but a few windows glowed toward the rear. The side door, marked “Cable Vision Employees Only,” just this side of the mesh fence that enclosed the satellite-dish garden, was unlocked. I followed her in and down a narrow hall.
An open door to the right revealed a small studio, lights unlit, cameras unattended; she knocked at the next door and, shortly, a shaggy-haired mustached guy in a dark green sweater and blue jeans answered, styrofoam coffee cup in hand. He was about thirty-five and sleepy-eyed; dope was in his past and maybe his present. Behind him was a small but elaborate control booth, video tape machines and monitors and banks of switches, with a big window looking out on that empty studio.
“Well! How ya doin’, beautiful,” he said, brightening at seeing her. “Don’t tell me you’re workin’ for the Great White Father again.”
She laughed. “No, I had enough of that windbag to last a lifetime. You’re still running on caffeine, I see.”
He sipped his coffee. “It’s legal. What’s the occasion?”
“Need a favor, Chuck.”
“Hey, anything for a pretty face. You still selling cars?”
“Yes, and that’s why I’m here. We had this hotshot advertising firm out of Cedar Rapids do some commercials for us, but when the tape arrived, it was on three-quarter. All we have at the
showroom is a VHS.”
“And you wanna screen the sucker. Well, no problem, babe. There’s a machine and a monitor in the office next door.” He pointed with his thumb to a door that said STATION MANAGER. “It’s not locked.”
“No problem-o, babe. Gotta get back to work. Let me know when you’re leavin’…”
He toasted her with his coffee and shut himself back in his booth.
“They run a pretty tight ship around here,” I said.
“It’s a small operation,” she said, leading me into the station manager’s office, a cluttered cubbyhole with a desk and several files but also a stand on which sat a TV monitor and, under it, a big VCR. “They serve several small communities. And they’re making some dough uplinking Freed’s show for him every week.”
I handed her the tape and she inserted it in the machine and we stood and watched.
Watched, thanks to a sharply focused if stationary camera, Preston Freed in spirited action with a lovely blond girl of about twenty. I fast-forwarded it through several sexual positions and practices and some mutual coke use and, while it was hardly a testimonial to the conservative values Preston Freed extolled, the tape had nothing to do with Angela Jordan.
Almost immediately she said, “That’s Angela Huseby.”
“So it isn’t you.”
“No, of course not. See for yourself. I’m not the only Angela in the world.”
“Who is this girl?”
“She was only with the party for a few months. She’s dead.”
I looked at her sharply. “Dead?”
“She had a nervous breakdown. Suicide.”
“When was this?”
“At least two years ago.”
I shut the tape off. “I’m sorry. I should’ve believed you.”
She smiled at me, touched my arm. “You were trying to do me a favor, weren’t you? You saw the name on that tape, and assumed it was me, and took it. To give to me.”
“Yeah, or to destroy,” I said. Like I had already done with the other tape, the one that had the name “Becky” on the spine, co-starring me and my stun gun.
“You’re sweet,” she said. “But that tape isn’t me. It is, however, political dynamite. If you’re working for Freed, you’d better get rid of it.”
“Maybe I’m a blackmailer.”
She smiled wide. “I don’t think so. You’re just not the type. And I’m a pretty good judge of character.”
If she were a good judge of character, she wouldn’t be a divorcee twice over. But I didn’t point that out to her.
I tucked the tape back in my pocket and we exited the cubbyhole. Out in the silent hall, she stuck her head in the studio and waved at Chuck through the glass of his booth; he looked up from inserting a tape in a machine and smiled and waved. Soon we were on the road again, heading back to Davenport.
“Would you mind stopping by my house for a few minutes?” she asked. “We’ll be going right by. It’s getting late and I’d like to check and see if Mom and the girls are back yet.”
“That’s fine. I’d like to meet your family.”
But when she pulled into the driveway of the green split-level, next to a shiny white Pontiac Bonneville, she said “Damn! They’re not home…”
“Then whose car is that?”
She paused. Made a face. “Lonny’s.”
“I’ll handle the little jerk,” I said.
She touched my arm. “Don’t let things get out of hand.”
“I’ll just send him on his way.”
I got out of the car and opened her door for her and escorted her up the sidewalk. He was sitting up on the front stoop, the tip of his cigarette an amber eye in the darkness; he stood as we approached, still in his BEST BUY blue blazer, no topcoat.
She got between us. “Now, I don’t want any trouble…”
But I could already see from Lonny’s haunted expression that this was about something else. “Angela,” he said. “Please. We have to talk.”
“We can talk at work on Monday.”
He paused. “I’m afraid I have some bad news. It’s Bob.”
“What about Bob?”
“Bob…” He sighed. “He’s apparently drowned. Him and Jim Crawford both.”
She clutched my arm. “Oh, my God. How… how did it happen?”
“A boating accident,” he said.
“A boating accident?” she asked, incredulous.
“I know it sounds crazy, this time of year. But Bob and Jim Crawford were apparently takin’ a small cabin cruiser, this morning, to this island on Lake Superior. I guess some business associates of their boss, Ridge, lived on this island and, well, a storm blew in out of nowhere and… a wind like that can dump a vessel a lot larger, they said…”
“Oh, my God. What will I tell the girls? What will I tell the girls?”
“The boat was found, capsized. Nobody aboard.”
“What about Ridge?” I asked.
“He never was aboard,” Best said. “They were going to that island to meet him.” To her, he said: “There’s… I’m sorry, honey, but they said there’s really not much chance of recovering the bodies.”
She was weeping now, into my arm. “Jack… Jack… what can I do?”
I patted her back.
Best, looking stunned himself, shook his head, touched her shoulder; said, “Sorry, hon. I’m very sorry.”
“Why’d they call you?” I asked him.
“Authorities been trying to reach Angela all day,” he said, refusing to get defensive about it. “Somebody finally led ’em to the car lot. When they called, it was just after you left, and I was the only one still around.”
I looked at him hard, looking for complicity in his reddish round face; but I couldn’t find any. He seemed genuinely concerned, upset, himself.
“You want me to hang around?” he asked her.
She shook her head no.
He swallowed again, nodded, said he was very sorry, to let him know if there was anything he could do, and, head lowered, ear scabbed over some from where I tagged him, he shuffled down the curving walk to his shiny new car and drove away.
I guided her into the house and we sat on a sofa.
I let her cry into my shoulder for a while. She was having a rough time of it. So was her ex-husband, poor old Bob Jordan: first I shoot him and burn his body, and now he up and drowns.
Perhaps fifteen minutes later, she stood. “The girls will be home before long.”
She hugged me.
“Oh, Jack. You’ve been so kind.” She swallowed. Looked up at me with those dark blue eyes, shining with tears. “Part of me still loved the bastard, I guess. It’s hard… so hard. But then you know all about that.”
I touched the tears on her cheek.
“You know all about losing somebody you love,” she said.
I said nothing.
“I think I’d like to be alone now,” she said. “Try to collect my thoughts before the girls get here.”
I thought that was a good idea. I called a taxi and sat with her till it arrived.
There were half a dozen flights from Chicago to monitor. It was Monday evening, and George Ridge, routed through O’Hare on one of three shuttle airlines, would be on one of them. I could not go down to the gate where he’d be coming in. Doing that would mean crossing the concourse, through security, and the nine-millimeter under my arm-in the shoulder holster, the noise suppressor in my suitcoat pocket to attach if need be-would win me the grand prize if I tried to walk through the metal detector.
I didn’t want to kill him here, anyway. I wanted to talk to him before I sent him on his way. He knew things that I wanted to know.
In the small gift shop I bought a Snickers bar (supper) and a late edition of the Quad City Times. I wasn’t in the mood to read it or anything, but I needed something to hide behind, and I’m just not the sunglasses and fake mustache type. George Ridge and I had, after all, met-back on the deck of my A-frame, when he first approached me to kill Preston Freed. Not only could he easily recognize me, he might even be on the lookout for me; he obviously knew I wasn’t dead: the cover-up he’d arranged for the deaths of Bob Jordan and Jim Crawford indicated he knew just how badly his attempt to kill me had gone awry.
Both Jordan and Crawford had their pictures on the front page of the very Times I held in my hands. I’d seen the pictures in the morning edition, so it came as no surprise to me (nor had it this morning) that Crawford, who had accompanied George Ridge and Angela’s ex-husband on that ill-fated expedition up north, was a certain thin, blond, cadaverous guy. It did come as a surprise to me to learn he’d died in a boating accident. I seemed to remember putting an axe in the back of his fucking head.
I planted myself in a seat in the wide, open area near baggage claim; the airport had a single conveyor belt affair that handled baggage from all flights. Ridge would just about have to come here. And even if he sent some flunky after his luggage, from where I was sitting I could see where the concourse emptied out all returning passengers. He wouldn’t escape me.
My intention, unless he made me, was to follow him. I could have waited at his fancy house-I knew where it was, I’d cased the outside of the place earlier today-but I thought there was a possibility he might make a stop somewhere on his way home to confer with some fellow conspirator. After all, me and the shit had hit the fan while he was (conveniently) out of the country, and tomorrow morning was the press conference-cum-shooting gallery. So tonight, it stood to reason, would be a lively night for George Ridge. Lively for a while, anyway.
In the parking lot I had found the chocolate-brown BMW he had driven to my place; mud no longer coated the license plate, which was Scott County. I touched the car, my hand trembling. I wanted this fucker. I wanted this fucker.
Ridge was large in my thoughts, but he wasn’t alone.
He shared them with the man he’d hired to do the job I turned down.
I had, in fact, spent the day trying to track that man-Stone-without much luck. I felt he had to be in town-I almost sensed he was here, if I believed in that shit-but he had apparently not checked into the Blackhawk. I was dealing with desk clerks on all three shifts and none of them seemed to have seen him.
Having worked with him, I knew he liked to roost close to the site of a hit. It was something we argued about, one of the reasons, really, why I had asked the Broker for somebody else to work with. I’d learned a lot from Stone, he was a good teacher, but he had a serious flaw: I felt he left a trail. He would go so far as to stay in the same hotel as his target and that, I knew, was stupid.
But either he had gotten smart in the intervening years, or he just hadn’t checked in yet. I laid twenties on desk clerks in three other, nearby downtown Davenport hotels, but my description of Stone, and his aliases, rang no bells there, either.
Stone had two other quirks. First, he liked arcade games, was your classic pinball wizard, and he particularly, predictably, enjoyed shooting games. Surveillance over a period of days, even weeks, is tiring, intense work, and I could understand him taking a breather with the mindless challenges presented by an arcade full of games. But he was excessive. In a bar, Stone could park himself at pinball or an electronic ping-pong game for hours.
When I was teamed with Stone, it was before the video-game craze came (and, largely, went). But I had a hunch Stone would have flipped out over Pac Man and Donkey Kong and Galaga and the like. So I spent the afternoon doing what I thought was a clever piece of detective work, checking out several video arcades in Davenport, thinking Stone might be killing time within. But he hadn’t been. So much for my investigative abilities.
Stone’s other quirk? He liked to swim. He would invariably stay at a hotel or motel with a pool, an indoor one this time of year; the relaxation, the soothing, meditative qualities of it were something Stone craved. I had, in fact, picked up the same habit. It wasn’t the only thing Stone had taught me, but in a way it was the most important. Swimming was a constant in my life: in Lake Paradise in the summer months, at the Y in Lake Geneva other months. And like Stone, I would tend to seek out an indoor pool wherever I was staying on a job.
I had swum last night, and today, at the Blackhawk’s pool, relaxing and staking the place out at the same time, my nine-millimeter wrapped in a towel, poolside.
I had also spent some of my time hanging around the non-video arcade below the lobby of the Blackhawk; a shoe shine stand with four seats was unattended and I plopped myself down and watched the world go by. It was a world Stone wasn’t part of.
And I wasn’t surprised, really. Not much by way of recon was necessary on this gig. It would take Stone about five minutes to map it all out, the Bix Beiderbecke Room right next to the steps up to the parking garage, Christ. It was too easy.
By now it was eight-thirty and George Ridge had not been on any of the four flights that arrived so far. The next one would be in at nine-fifteen. I stood and stretched, bones popping in my back. I folded the paper under my arm and walked a bit.
Speaking of video arcades, the airport had its own small one next to the gift shop. I peeked in, and Stone wasn’t there, either. I let out a short laugh at my own expense. As a detective, I made a good hitter. I fed some quarters into several of the machines; there was a Ms. Pac Man that I did pretty well on, but couldn’t make the scoreboard. I checked my watch. Not quite nine. I put some quarters into a game based on the cartoon character Popeye. It was pretty good-Bluto and Olive Oyl were on hand, behaving in character, namely Olive Oyl was a whiney bitch and Bluto was a brutal cheat. I got the hang of it quickly, and on my third quarter made it to the hardest level, a pirate ship. On my fourth quarter I made the scoreboard.
Hot damn, I said to myself, as I punched in three letters (all you were allowed): RYN, for Ryan. I was number two on the scoreboard.
Number one was STO.
I stared at it, wondering if it were some guy’s initials or… no, it couldn’t be Stone… could it?
I went back to my seat and hid behind the Times, waiting, the gun rubbing under my shoulder. People came and went. So did the nine-fifteen flight, which did not get in till nine-thirty. No Ridge.
Shortly before ten something disturbing happened: reporters began showing up. Print guys and TV teams from three stations, with minicams in tow. I began wondering what they were here for, and when the ten o’clock flight arrived, Ridge was on it, and they were on him.
My mouth went dry, seeing him again. The same handsome if slightly heavy-set man who’d come calling at my A-frame, every salt-and-pepper hair in place, though he looked tired, drained, even though he was moving quickly.
He had to. The press was swarming him. Ridge was accompanied by two men, who (like him) were dressed in London Fog raincoats over business suits; nonetheless, they had the rough-around-the-edges look of bodyguards, in other words cut from the same cloth as Jordan and Crawford. The bodyguards went to get the luggage while Ridge cut quickly through the reporters, smiling somberly, answering a few questions but not lingering.
He hadn’t noticed me, which was one small blessing. I hadn’t figured on the reporters. If I’d been thinking I would have known that the Quad Cities was just small enough an area, and Ridge large enough a local celebrity, for the “boating accident” of the day before to have attracted regional media attention. It had already gotten big play in the local papers, after all.
I followed on the heels of the reporters through automatic doors out into the chilly night and watched, with a sick sinking feeling, as Ridge climbed into a chauffeured limo, a sleek black stretch Lincoln. The bastard wasn’t even waiting for his luggage!
Weaving between cars and taxis, I ran across the several lanes that separated the airport from its vast parking lot, hurtled a low cement fence and was soon in the Sunbird, behind several cars in line, waiting to pay the parking fee. I kept an eye on that limo, saw it caught behind some traffic in the exit lane nearby. Another small favor.
I was able to slide in behind the limo at the stoplight, planning to keep at least one car between us for the ride to wherever we were going. Then, oddly, the limo turned almost immediately, wheeling into the airport Howard Johnson’s. We weren’t going far at all. George Ridge lived in a big, Frank Lloyd Wrightish home on the so-called Heights in Davenport, up above where Werner had lived, with a magnificent view of the Mississippi. He had not been home for several days, but rather than retire to his modernistic castle, he was being dropped off at a room at a Howard Johnson’s.
I moved along by, while Ridge got out of the limo, shooing it on its way. He stood there in his London Fog, on the sidewalk by the first-floor rooms on the west side of the motel. He withdrew something from an inside pocket; light glinted off it. Soon he was smoking. Then he put the flat silver cigarette case away. He was watching and waiting. Possibly he was watching to see if any of the media people had followed him.
I had pulled into one of the motel stalls and sat in darkness with the nine-millimeter in my lap. I was down a ways from him, but I could see him. I felt myself tightening like a fist, and made myself relax. It was hard to do. I’ve killed people before, as you may have gathered; and usually with utter dispassion. But George Ridge was someone I would enjoy killing. I was sorry only that I was limited to killing him once.
He was nervous. I hoped that was because he knew I was out here somewhere. He just didn’t know how close. That made me smile. He checked his watch. Then, quickly, he slid open one of the glass doors of the room just behind him and stepped in and slid it shut again.
I thought about that. I knew he wasn’t meeting a woman for an affair in there, at least it was unlikely; he was divorced, although I supposed a married woman might be meeting him here. More likely-much more likely-he was meeting with someone about tomorrow’s press conference. Where he’d cast his vote by way of a bullet delivered by a surrogate, putting an end to the candidacy of Preston Freed. Isn’t democracy grand?
The question was, when to go in? If he was meeting with, say, Stone, and I went in, the shooting could start before any questions got asked and answered. And in the motel setting, I’d have to use the suppressor, and that meant the relative slowness of working the gun’s action by hand after every shot. Well, I’d have to make the best of it.
I was about to get out of the car when a figure walked quickly by, in front of my parked Sunbird, heading in the direction of the room Ridge had slipped into. The man was heavy-set and balding but moved with an athlete’s grace. He was about six feet one and was wearing a long black leather topcoat and black slacks. He looked like something out of an Italian western.
He was Stone.
Older. Less hair, and what there was of it grayed, the widow’s peak a casualty of time; and heavier. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I was heavier myself, although not that much heavier. I had given the hotel desk clerks descriptions of Stone as I had known him perhaps a dozen years ago. I had not allowed for-and, in fairness to myself, could not foresee the exact nature of-the effect of time.
Stone’s hands slid open one sliding door. That meant he was expected: otherwise those doors would be locked. He ducked in there.
I crouched between two cars, nine-millimeter in hand, watching the glass doors, draped, shut, possibly locked now, perhaps ten feet away. I was trying to decide how to go in-the room number was no problem, it was posted above the glass doors, 114-when Stone came back out, moving quickly.
His face was white. Stone was naturally pale, but not that pale; and his eyes were round and wild.
He ran back the way he came, not past where I was now crouching, not seeing me, and moments later I heard a car start up and tires squealed and I glanced back and saw a sporty little cinnamon car-a Dodge, maybe-flash by, and he was gone.
The glass doors were not only unlocked, one remained open, the cold breeze making the blue drape flap like a ghost.
I stepped in quickly, fanning the nine-millimeter around, easing the door shut behind me with a gloved hand. Other than Ridge, the room was empty, but I checked the bathroom, including shower stall, and closet. Nobody there.
Ridge, who was on the floor next to the bed on his back, still in his London Fog raincoat, which was appropriate, because his throat was raining blood. He’d been cut from ear to ear, an obscene scarlet grin below the sorrowful frown and empty open eyes of the late George Ridge. The only real estate in his future would be a cemetery plot.
And there’d be no talking to him now; no questions, no answers.
I wouldn’t even get to kill the fucker once.
I dove into the pool, into the deep; no diving board, just off the edge. Sign said NO DIVING but another said NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY, and I’d broken rules before. A nice clean dive, and I stayed under, swam the length of the pool that way and came up in the shallow.
The pool room was steamy, the lighting subdued, the blues and grays of the tile floor and the brown of the brick walls as soothing as the heated pool itself. Skylights above revealed the night; this was a small rectangular room, taken up mostly by the small rectangular pool. It was after eleven now, midnight approached, and I had the place to myself. The glass wall, separating the pool room from the beige-brick parking-garage entry area, was steamed up; but the occasional shapes of people, going to and from their cars, to and from the hotel, could be made barely out, smudgy apparitions haunting the hall.
I swam laps for a while. Very easily. I don’t push myself when I swim. Exercise is not the point for me. Relaxation is. It helps me not to think, when that’s what I want; and it helps me to think, when that’s what I want-the way they used to claim a sensory deprivation tank would bring you in closer touch with yourself. I was in close touch with myself already, thanks, but I did like the way the water and the warmth slowed my thoughts and at the same time brought them clarity.
I had told no one about finding Ridge’s body, having left as quickly as I arrived, apparently unseen. I considered calling Freed, and I would tell him, but now was not the time.
But I had called Angela Jordan, albeit not to tell her about Ridge. I’d apologized for calling so late-ten-thirty is late to make a phone call, anyway in the Midwest it is-and asked her how she was doing.
“Just fair,” she said “The girls… especially Kristie… are just devastated. Mom’s staying here with me. With us. Thank God for her. It’s been just awful.”
“Have there been arrangements to make?”
“No, not really. Bob’s parents are taking care of everything-there’s a memorial service Wednesday.”
“I didn’t know if I’d catch you at home,” I said. “I kind of thought you might be at the funeral home or something.”
“No. There’s no… body, remember?”
Actually, there was a body-partially cremated in my A-frame; by now, no doubt, it was buried in a grave with one of my names on it.
“It’ll be a church service,” she was saying. “I.. don’t get along with Bob’s folks very well. I mean, I’m not the wife, I’m the ex-wife. But the girls aren’t his ex-daughters, so… aw, jeez. This has just been a horrible day.”
I was about to make it even worse.
“What if I said I thought your husband’s death was not an accident.”
A stunned silence followed, briefly.
Then, in a somewhat accusatory tone: “What do you mean?”
“What if I said I thought it was murder.”
“Murder? Murder? I know Bob was involved in some… rough things sometimes, but…”
“And what if I said I thought I knew who was respon- sible.”
“Jack, what are you saying?”
“What if I said I couldn’t prove it, and that there was no way we could go to the police about it.”
There was firmness in her voice now: “Jack, if you know something, we’re going to the police. Right now-no discussion.”
“Forget I mentioned it.”
“Forget you… Jack, I’m coming there to talk to you.”
That’s what I wanted anyway.
“Okay,” I said. “Make it midnight in the lobby of the Blackhawk. I’ll spell things out.”
She’d agreed to that. I’d called her from my room. Now I needed that swim. To relax. To think. And for another reason.
I sat in the shallow section, my head out of water, rest of me under, and waited. Played a hunch. I was starting to feel foolish, not to mention wrinkled, when I was suddenly not alone.
Another guest of the hotel invaded my dank, until-then solitary chamber. As I had hoped he might. He was six-foot or so, a pale, potbellied, balding man wearing a dark blue knee-length terry cloth robe and black thong sandals. Something heavy was in one pocket of his robe; the right. His face was pockmarked, his chin cleft.
He was the man I’d known as (among other things) Stone.
He took off the robe and draped it carefully across a yellow deck chair. Stepped out of his sandals and, ignoring the sign just as had I, dove into the water. Graceful as an Olympic diver, if considerably fatter.
He ignored me entirely, started doing laps, arms cutting the surface; he didn’t take it as easy as I did, rather made the water churn. I sat there in the waves he made, watching.
Finally, he came up for air in the shallow, came up gulping air, actually, like a heavy, getting-older man would do, and glanced over at me.
The glance turned into a fixed expression, as his slate-gray, oriental-cast eyes locked onto me. The skin around them tensed.
“Quarry?” he asked.
“Stone,” I said and nodded.
He smiled briefly, as if about to say “Small world,” but the smile and the thought didn’t survive long.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. Flatly.
“Having a swim.”
“It’s a long story. How about a sauna?”
He looked at me through slits. “Ever drown anybody, Quarry?”
“I threw a TV in a bathtub once. A soap opera was playing.”
“Somebody in the tub at the time?”
“What would’ve been the point if there wasn’t?”
He twitched a smile, shrugged. Said, “I could stand to sweat off some flab.”
We left the pool area and entered the small sauna that was off the short hall to the showers, johns and lockers. He was in his robe again. I was in my trunks, carrying my rolled-up towel under my arm; tightly under my arm. In the towel was the nine-millimeter. No suppressor. The towel, and a contact wound, would make it unnecessary.
We had the redwood cubicle to ourselves-just me and Stone and the heating stones; we selected the higher of two shelves, sat side by side on the slatted wood. I sat on the right, he on the left; that put my rolled-up gun-in-towel under my right hand.
He left the robe on. The heat was dry, and thick enough to slice-if you had a knife.
He sat hunched, looked up at me, his strange eyes placid. “You still in the business, Quarry?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I was in retirement, but somebody tried to get me to make a comeback. To do one special job.”
“Really. Isn’t that flattering.”
“Hope to shout. Million-dollar contract.”
His eyes flickered.
“I’ll tell you about it,” I said.
There were parts I left out: I didn’t tell him I’d contacted Freed and was working for the candidate; and I didn’t tell him anything about Angela Jordan. I also didn’t mention trailing George Ridge from the airport tonight (and all that entailed). But the rest I gave him.
He sat and sweated and considered what I’d said. It had taken almost five minutes, and he hadn’t interrupted once.
Now he said, “I’m sorry about your wife. But it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
“It has everything to do with you.”
He shook his head no. Moisture beads flew off his forehead. “Like you said: you were a loose end. They tried to tie you off.”
“You don’t think you’ll be an immediate loose end yourself? You really think you’ll survive this, to spend your dough?”
“They’ve already put up half the dough. Up front.”
“Half a million bucks?”
“That’s right. In a numbered Swiss account.”
I’d only been offered a paltry hundred grand-but in cash.
“How are they supposed to pay the balance?”
“A deposit to that account.”
“They’ll find you,” I said, “and have you killed.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You think you’re smarter than they are?”
“Yeah. And you.”
“Where I failed, you’ll succeed, you think.”
“You didn’t fail, Quarry. They didn’t kill you. You killed them.”
“Like you killed Ridge tonight?”
That threw him. And this was a Stone not easily thrown.
“I didn’t kill him,” he said, sitting back, resting his hands on his knees; that put his right hand near the right, somewhat weighted-down pocket of the robe.
“I saw Ridge go in, and I saw you go in, and I went in after you took off.”
“You get around.”
“But you know, I never knew you to kill with a knife. How’d you manage that? You didn’t even get blood on you.”
“That’s because he was dead when I went in there,” he said.
“Well, then who killed him?”
“How should I know?”
We sat and listened to each other sweat. Then I said: “Ridge was the man who contacted you about the hit?”
“And you were supposed to meet with him tonight?”
He shook his head no. “I didn’t know it would be him. There was a message at the hotel. There were going to be some… ‘last minute changes.’”
“So then everybody’s presumption is correct? Tomorrow’s press conference is where, and when, the hit’s going down?”
He just looked at me. Then he nodded again.
Paused. Arched one eyebrow. He did look like a sinister Mr. Spock, gone bald and slightly to seed. “But when I got there, Ridge was dead on the floor, throat cut. I just got the fuck out.”
“Why are you still here? Why haven’t you split? Isn’t somebody icing Ridge enough to queer the deal for you?”
He slipped out of the robe; it made a slight clunk as he put it beside him. Beside his right hand.
He said, “Yes it was. I was planning to blow. To just get the fuck out.” He shook his head, smiled faintly. “Even though this hit is a piece of cake… brother. You check out the lay of the land?”
I nodded. “It looks like the easiest million this side of the lottery.”
“Yeah, well I don’t gamble.”
“Then why are you still hanging around here?”
“I’m deciding whether to stay or not. Whether to go through with it or not.”
“Why in hell would you still want to go through with it?”
He thought for a moment, not sure if he wanted to tell me something.
Then, casually: “Because there was an envelope waiting for me at my room. Somebody slid it under the door. It had ten one-thousand dollar bills in it. Crisp as fuckin’ lettuce.”
“And all I got was a mint on my pillow.”
“There was a typewritten note.”
He shrugged. “‘Tomorrow as planned.’”
“Well, surely you don’t intend to take that advice.”
“I intend to take the ten grand. But I got to think the other through…”
“Stone, there’s nothing to think through. Ridge was another loose end that got tied off. You’re next in line.”
“But I’m already a loose end. Why not at least take a shot at the other half mil?”
“Who are you going to collect from? Did you deal with anybody besides Ridge?”
“No. But that just means I’m no danger to anybody. I can’t finger anybody. They might just as well pay me off.”
“You told me, way back when, never do a political kill. You said if you want to commit suicide, jump off a bridge.”
His slightly yellow smile was spooky yet oddly gentle. “That was a long time ago, Quarry. You take all the advice I gave you back then?”
“Some of it. Let’s not get all mushy, now. You’re no father figure.”
“I remember you bitching about the ‘trail’ I leave.”
“I found you, didn’t I? Without hardly trying. By the way, I beat you at ‘Popeye’ earlier this evening.”
That also threw him a little, but he laughed. “I bet you didn’t.”
“You must want to quit pretty bad.”
He looked at me sharply. “What?”
“You been at this a long time. You were a mob guy, right? Where, Cleveland? Then you broke away and went freelance. That’s a lot of contracts. You must be tired. You certainly look old.”
“You’re older, too.”
“I’m older. You’re old. Like I’m heavier, where you’re fat. You’re going to die, Stone. You go through with this, they’ll kill you.”
“Or maybe you will.”
“Why should l?”
“To get back at ’em.” His lip curled up in a faint, sardonic smile. “Whoever it is that put this contract in motion, whoever it is that’s responsible for what happened to your wife. For fucking up your life. If you can get in the way of tomorrow’s plans, you’ll screw things up for them.”
“You might be right,” I said, my hand in the towel.
He was older, and fatter: before he could even slip his hand in the robe pocket, for his gun, the nose of mine was against his sweaty temple.
I met her in the lobby just after midnight. I’d been up to my room to change; I was casually dressed-jeans and a sweatshirt and running shoes. I felt refreshed. The swim had done me good.
She was in jeans, too, and a blue blouse, hastily thrown on; her hair was messed-up, looking greasy, obviously unwashed, her eyes were red and circled, she wore no make-up. But she still looked good to me.
We sat on a sofa, in the otherwise deserted lobby, a couple of ferns eavesdropping nearby. I told her that the man responsible for her husband’s death could not be touched by the police; I explained why-and I explained how he could be otherwise touched, done terrible damage-without violence.
We talked for forty-five minutes. She was alternately upset and angry but, finally, when I revealed what I had in mind, she was laughing. A little hysteria was in it, but it was laughter.
“Here,” I said, and handed her the black plastic box.
She smiled and nodded.
“And don’t forget these.”
I handed her the small bottle of Seconal. “Think you can handle this?” I asked.
“I know I can,” she said.
“And put on some make-up before you go in.”
She smirked. “Thanks for the beauty tip.”
She got up and I walked her down the stairs out onto the street and to her red Sunbird. It was cold and our breath showed.
“Angela,” I said.
“I know,” she smiled. “‘Be careful.’ I will.”
“It’s not that.”
I took her in my arms and I kissed her.
“What’s that for?” she asked, smiling, confused.
“Luck,” I said.
And it was goodbye. I wouldn’t be seeing her again.
I was not expected at the Freed estate, but the gate man-that same guy in the hunting jacket sitting in the brown Ford-recognized me. I got out of the Sunbird, and we talked across the metal gate, at first. I told him I needed to see the candidate. He said he’d check and see if the “chief” would see me.
“Tell him it’s urgent,” I said, as the beefy, sandy-haired sentry returned to his car to call in on something.
He wasn’t gone long; he unlocked and swung the gate open. “You can go on up to the house,” he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, his other hand resting on the butt of his holstered revolver. “But no cars in the compound tonight.”
“Security’s pretty tight.”
“Yeah. And I hear you’re the guy that’s responsible.” He grinned. “Some of the guys are pissed at you.”
“Some of the guys pissed, period, last time I saw ’em.”
He laughed. “Why don’t I drive you up?”
“That’s okay. It’s a nice night. I’ll walk.”
The guy shrugged, said, “Suit yourself,” and climbed back in the Ford, where he lit up a cigarette and went back to work.
It really was a nice night, more cool than cold, though I was glad for the sweatshirt under the black windbreaker. I had the nine-millimeter stuffed in my waistband, in back; still not bothering with the suppressor. This was an armed camp. If shooting started, noise would be the least of my problems.
Hands in the windbreaker pockets, I walked slowly up the paved drive, which cut through the forest, the smell of the pines reminding me of Wisconsin and Paradise Lake. Above me the sky was clear tonight; stars; moon. I felt relaxed. I wasn’t happy-I wasn’t about to fall into that trap again. But I felt peaceful.
The trees came to an abrupt stop as the rolling landscaped area began, the modern yet rustic-looking house far enough away to look small. The drive was near the edge of the quarry, and I wandered off the pavement to stand on the ledge of earth and look down at the water that filled the old pit, watched its surface reflect the stars and the moon. For just an instant, it seemed to call to me.
I got back on the pavement, followed it around behind the house. One of Freed’s deputy-like watchdogs was waiting in back. It was the heavy-set, balding blond one called Larry.
He turned his mouth sideways, at sight of me, doing his best to look as disgusted as he could, nodding toward the stairs that led up to the rear of the house, into the kitchen.
“He’s waiting for you in the livin’ room,” Larry said.
He snorted. Snot, not coke. “You’re no big deal, Ryan.”
“You and me, we’ll settle up one of these days.”
“Larry,” I said, standing close to him, smiling, “don’t take a little security check so personal.”
Larry’s head bobbed back and he stuck his tiny chin out and looked down his nose at me. He smelled like lime aftershave.
“You just don’t know who you’re messin’ with,” Larry said.
“Yeah, right,” I said, and took my hand out of the jacket pocket and stuck the stun gun in his stomach and shocked him senseless. While he was down on the ground, shaking, pissing his pants, mouth already covered with tape, I flex-cuffed his hands behind him and his ankles. Then I dragged him under the steps where he wouldn’t be easily seen.
“Add that to the bill, Larry,” I said.
I went on in; nobody in the kitchen. Going on through, I could see past the open doors of the secretarial area into the outdoorsy conference room, where several security boys were playing cards, money on the table. The security wasn’t all that tight since I’d come aboard.
I found my way past the stone waterfall and its amber lights and into the sprawling living room. The lights were out, but a fire was going in the stone fireplace, over which the oil portrait of the candidate-in-buckskins smiled like a frontier god. The subject of the painting was wearing his dark silk robe again. He was lounged back on a light brown sofa, the upholstery looking like burlap; his slippered feet were up on an ottoman. A glass of Scotch was in one hand. He looked comfortable, sitting staring out his big picture window, with its view of the quarry, the narrow highway, trees and the glistening Mississippi.
“Lovely view, Mr. Ryan, don’t you think?”
“From up here. It’s polluted though. Get close, you’ll see that easy enough.”
“If the people put the right man in office, we can take care of that kind of thing.”
Somehow, despite all the trappings of the great outdoors that decorated this place, I didn’t figure environmentalism would be a major priority in his platform.
He turned his spooky china-blue gaze on me, a smile tearing his leathery face. “Are you here for a last-minute, pre-game pep talk? Or is there really something urgent?”
I sat next to him. Not terribly close. But on the sofa. The nine-millimeter dug into my back. “We just need to talk, before tomorrow. What time is it?”
He checked his watch. “Quarter till two. Why do you ask?”
“Something I have to do at two. Why aren’t you sacked out? Shouldn’t you be getting in your beauty sleep, before the big day?”
“Ah, my friend, I only look calm. Inside, I’m a collection of frayed nerves. I’m just a man, after all. Don’t let the accouterments of power fool you.”
“Cut you, you bleed, you mean?”
His smile quivered, then broadened momentarily, then disappeared. “Something like that,” he said, looking away from me, out his window, where the reflection of the fire flickered.
“You’ve got your security team in place for tomorrow morning?”
“I certainly do. And I will be wearing soft body armor, whether you find that practical or not.”
“Won’t hurt anything. Think there’ll be a good media turnout?”
“Excellent. Representatives from all three major net- works, plus CNN; coming in from their Chicago bureaus, for the most part. The newspaper world should be equally well represented.”
“I saw something in the paper about you today.”
“The USA Today poll? Yes, it said my recognition is up seventy percent since my previous campaign.”
“Yeah, but sixty percent of those who recognize you think you’re a loon.”
His eyes narrowed in irritation. “I believe the question was, ‘Do you take Preston Freed seriously as a candidate?’ Perhaps after tomorrow they will.”
“That’s one of the things we need to talk about. You can leave your bullet-proof underwear home and call off your security. Well, the extra security, anyway. A presidential candidate always ought be protected, don’t you think?”
He was frowning now. “What are you talking about?”
“Stone is no longer a problem.”
He looked at me sharply. “You… found him?”
“Yes, I did.”
Eyes peered out through cuts in his face. “And you killed him?”
I nodded, then raised a finger gently. “You said you wanted no details, remember? Besides, it was nothing flashy. Bullet in the brain. You can read about it in the Times tomorrow.”
He sighed, shook his head. “Damn.”
He was visibly disappointed.
“You wanted him nailed at the Blackhawk tomorrow morning, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did,” he said irritably. “The attention an assassination attempt would focus upon me would make for invaluable publicity. I explained that. Well, you blew your bonus, didn’t you, Quarry?”
“Nobody’s perfect. Heck, I thought you’d be grateful that I took him out. He was hired to kill you, you know.”
“Yes,” he said, through white teeth, clenched wolf-like, “but we knew he was coming!”
I smiled. Whether it was wolf-like or not, I couldn’t say.
What I did say was this: “That’s what this was about from the beginning, wasn’t it?”
He brushed back his white mane of hair. “What in hell are you babbling about?”
“You took the contract out.”
His smile seemed one of amused amazement. “What, on myself?”
He laughed, shook his head, sipped his Scotch. “Really, Mr. Ryan.”
“You wanted to be a martyr. A living martyr. You wanted attention called to yourself. That was the intention from day one, to publicly avert an assassination attempt, which you figured was easy enough, when, as you say, you know it’s coming.”
He gestured with the glass in hand, dismissively. “This is all nonsense.” He scowled at me. “I’d like you to leave my home, Mr. Ryan, or Quarry, or whatever. I don’t think I have any further need for your services.”
“I was sought out because I have vague mob connections. When the authorities dug that out-after I was shot down by your bodyguards, at your press conference-that’d seem to give credence to your pet theory, the ‘Drug Conspiracy,’ the mob and bankers, all that bullshit.”
He looked at me with apparent pity. “The Drug Conspiracy is very real.”
“Yeah, and where would your cocaine habit be without it? You can plug Stone into that same scenario, incidentally. In fact, he’s a better choice than me-his mob ties weren’t so vague as mine.”
“This is insanity. We both know that George Ridge is the man who hired you.”
“And now I’ll tell you that George Ridge is dead, and you can act surprised.”
His eyes and mouth opened wide; he dropped the glass of Scotch and it spilled on the wheatcolored carpet. “What? George? Dead?”
“That was very good. You’re real smooth. Quite the actor. Did you kill Ridge yourself, or use a flunky? I’d say yourself. It’s an amateur’s weapon, a knife, and you’ve got all this hunting shit around, western stuff, there’s knives handy. You had the meeting set up at the motel, he came in, you did him, you went out through the motel. You don’t know how close you came to bumping into first Stone, then me. That would’ve been cute.”
He gave me his most earnest look, mixed in with some indignation. “George Ridge and I were bitter enemies!”
“Hardly. Oh, I was fed a convincing denunciation of you by Ridge, claiming to represent a ‘concerned group of patriotic citizens’ and such shit. That was just in case by some fluke I was not killed in the attempted hit, and fell into police and/or federal hands. That gave me a story to tell.”
“George’s break with me-”
“Was just more acting, mister candidate. Ridge was not the left-wing type. Sure, back in your salad days, you were both in that SDS fringe group; but that wasn’t politics, that was college. That was make-believe. Before Ridge learned about the realities, the glories of capitalism and real estate and especially selling gullible assholes tapes about getting rich quick. Jesus, why didn’t I think it through? George Ridge is about the least likely liberal I can think of. That was strictly for public consumption.”
He rolled those blue eyes. “ Now who’s the conspiracy nut?”
“There were several people involved, beyond you and Ridge, but I don’t think any of them know they were working for anyone but Ridge-like his hapless flunkies Jordan and Crawford, two prime fuck-ups who have managed to die twice in the last few days. And Ridge tapped into his friend Werner for the names and whereabouts of the ‘mob hitmen.’ And Lonny Best, I believe, was asked by Jordan to provide a car for the Wisconsin run, reported ‘stolen’ after the fact. The only thing really stolen were the Rock Island county license plates; the new car would’ve had none, otherwise. Best, you see, despite his public posture, is also still a Freed man-he knew I was doing ‘security’ for you, he told me so today; I thought I knew who told him that, but I was wrong-it was either you or someone in your camp. My hunch, though, is Best at most only vaguely knows he was part of any criminal conspiracy. I wouldn’t bother having him snuffed, if I were you.”
“Your security advice is always appreciated, Mr. Ryan.”
“But, all in all, at its root, it was a two-man conspiracy. That’s why you killed Ridge yourself. And that’s why I know I’m right about all this-how I finally put this together. Only you knew that I knew Ridge had taken that contract out. Only you knew that Ridge, too, was a loose end that now needed tying off.”
“If all that’s true, why didn’t I have you killed?”
“Well, you’d have probably had to do it yourself, and I think you know you’re not up to it. I didn’t tell you where I was staying, and I warned you that if I were followed, there’d be hell to pay. No, I think you wanted me there, at the press conference; I think I’d have been shot down in the confusion, to provide even more proof that some mob conspiracy had attempted to snuff out your idealistic flame. Why not a real president? If the mob wants him dead, he can’t be all bad!”
Finally he dropped the pretense and smiled with infinite smugness. His face took on an almost demonic cast, thanks to the glow and the shadows from the fire behind us. “It would work. It would’ve worked.”
“I think it would’ve at that. It was foolish for a man as public as Ridge-whose business was public speaking, after all, even if most of it was on audio tapes-to show himself to me. He would risk that only to help contain the conspiracy, and with the knowledge that I’d be taken out, later, anyway. You planned the same for Stone, of course. And all it’s really cost you is that ten grand you slipped under Stone’s hotel room door tonight.”
His smile now was one of almost gentle amusement. “What about all your talk of a ‘million-dollar contract’?”
“Well, Stone told me about the numbered Swiss account. He just wasn’t smart enough to know that the account was yours; that you no doubt have it set up for deposits and withdrawals. Pardon me if it comes as no surprise that a guy like you, bilking his supporters for every buck he can, would have dough stashed in a Swiss bank.”
He turned his body on the sofa to pay me complete and apparently benign attention, his voice mellow, soothing, like the glow of the fire behind us. “Mr. Ryan. Let’s suppose what you’ve said is substantially true. What is there left for you out of this? I can offer you money, if you’re interested-and I won’t play any tricks with numbered accounts. But you’re a man who can stand exposure no more than I, in this. Perhaps we can agree to go our separate ways.”
“My wife is dead. She was pregnant.”
He licked his lips; lowered his gaze as if respectful. “That is most unfortunate.” Then he lifted and trained the light blue eyes on me; persuasion radiated like heat over asphalt. “But I had nothing, nothing whatever, to do with that. Whether it was Ridge’s doing, or simply those bunglers Jordan and Crawford, I can’t say. But I never approved such a thing. Would never approve of such a thing.”
“Yeah, well you got your hands bloody tonight, just to protect your own ass. But, what the hell? Whose ass should you be expected to protect? Uh, what time is it?”
He checked his watch. “A few minutes after two.”
“You’re missing yourself on TV. You’re missing your show.”
Quick half-smile. “I thought just this once I could.”
“How does that work, anyway?”
“What do you mean?”
I gestured with one hand. “Something about a satellite feed.”
He frowned impatiently. “Well, there’s a small cable outfit that uplinks the show for me. Show goes out to approximately two-hundred stations across the U.S.-they air it two A.M., central time, on Monday night. Some of them tape and air it again. Why should that concern you, and at this particular moment?”
“Oh, it just seemed a curious time for a show to air.”
He shrugged, annoyed by this digression. “It’s less expensive to air at this time. We’re not the Republicans, we’re not the Democrats, we’re not the goddamn 70 °Club. There’s a limit to our funds. Why are we talking about this?”
“Let’s turn the TV on. Let’s see this show of yours.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
I reached behind my back, took the nine-millimeter out. “Let’s take a look. And if you call for your watchdogs, I’ll shoot up the fuckin’ place. Remember that, if any of ’em interrupt us.”
He nodded, more irritated than afraid.
A big 27-inch console straddled the far corner of the room. He rose slowly, smoothed out his silk robe, walked over to the set and turned it on. He pushed the buttons on the cable box on top until he found the correct station.
And what he saw was himself.
Apparently engaging in what polite folks call anal intercourse, if polite folks call it anything at all.
“Is that just rear entry, or are you really stirring the fudge there?”
His mouth dropped open to the floor. “What… what…”
“That poor little girl’s name is Angela. I don’t know her last name, but I understand she had a nervous breakdown, committed suicide, not long after you cast your vote in her every bodily orifice.”
“That tape… that tape… where…”
“Came from your collection upstairs. I don’t know how much longer this’ll air. Somebody’ll probably run out to that cable station and shut it off. I’d imagine your phone’ll start ringing pretty soon.”
“Jesus… Jesus… what have you done?”
“Publicly embarrassed you. Pretty much ruined you personally and politically for all time, I’d say. Sunk you and your loopy ‘cause,’ whatever the fuck it is, forever.” I pointed to the screen. “Uh, you don’t just pork that poor kid, by the way-you engage in some chemical shenanigans, as well, after awhile. That freebasing is pretty dangerous, don’t you think? Do you really think you ought to be doing that on TV, where you might influence young people adversely?”
His eyes were wide; he was moving his head slowly, side to side, the phosphorescence of the TV an aura on his face. “How… how did you…”
“Somebody must’ve switched tapes. Your weekly show got exchanged for ‘Debbie Does Preston.’ Probably just a clerical error. And the guy who works at the station, he’s all alone, and no matter how much coffee he downs, he’s got to fall asleep on the job sooner or later.”
He finally looked away from the set to glare at me. “You son-of-a-bitch…”
“Hey, lighten up. I could kill you. But I decided to let the press and the public crucify you instead. I’ll let you suffer the humiliation. Fate worse than death. That sort of thing.”
He found a smile; it was ugly-the real him at last. “You really think this will work? I’ll expose this for a fraud.” He crouched before the TV, as if worshipping. “The camera’s back far enough… I can insist it’s a hoax… lookalike actors…”
“Hey, yeah, maybe that’d work. The Drug Conspiracy-the Latvian/Martian Connection. Whatever. Give it your best shot at the press conference tomorrow.”
He stood; his smile was tight and not right. “You think I can’t. But you’re wrong. You’re wrong.”
“Who knows? You wanted an assassination attempt, but I guess you’ll just have to settle for character assassination. At least you can call off some of your security tomorrow. Your problem isn’t going to be Stone-who’s no problem to anybody anymore, anyway; your problem’s going to be ducking questions, not bullets. And you’ll have a good press turnout, don’t you worry.”
“I’ll pull it off,” he said, mesmerized by his own fucking image. “I’ll pull it off.”
“Yeah, give it a shot.”
And I turned to go, gun still in hand.
Behind me, he said, “That’s it? You’re just going?”
I turned back to him. “That’s right. You know, my only mistake was not taking the goddamn job in the first place, and save us all a lot of trouble. Because the mistake you made was thinking that once I’d been set in motion, I could’ve been stopped.”
I pointed the nine-millimeter at him.
His mouth fell open. The china-blue eyes were suddenly empty, his leathery face a mask.
It was tempting; but it wasn’t how I wanted it.
“So long, mister candidate,” I said.
And I walked out of there. When I went down the back steps, Larry was still under them; he was awake now, struggling like a fish, eyes bugged, mouth slashed with tape. I smiled and waved at him.
I stood at the edge of the quarry and looked in at the water. I couldn’t see myself. Just the moon and stars, shimmering.
I headed down the paved path to my Sunbird. I would drive to a motel, somewhere well beyond the Cities, and sleep (I’d kept a few of Linda’s Seconals for myself) and eventually wake up and head for Milwaukee. I had a name up there and a little money and maybe I didn’t have a life, anymore, but I might be able to put something together. It wasn’t like I didn’t have a trade.
When I got to the motel, though, I’d have a phone call to make before hitting the sleeping pills and the sack.
I’d call Stone, back at the Blackhawk, and tell him that security tomorrow morning should be no problem, though he ought to be aware that media coverage of the press conference would be heavy. Stone understood that he might not get anything out of it beyond that ten grand that had been slipped under his door; but after I’d explained it all to him, earlier, much as I had just explained it to Freed, he was eager to honor the contract. It wasn’t the money-it was the principle of the thing.
After all, once you set somebody like Stone in motion, it’s a mistake to think he can be stopped.