The Taking of Sonny Boy

vapros

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May 24, 2004
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Chapter 40

Chapter 40

Ross stared down at the body, and the ringing continued in his ears. He made a face and shook his head and bent to take the other man's gun and he put both weapons in a cabinet and closed the door. He wondered who had heard the shot, and what to do now. His preparation had extended only as far as laying his revolver on the workbench and draping the shop towel over it. In the worst-case scenario he had seen himself forced to pick up the gun and point it at Leppert, or perhaps Leppert and Velez. There was no plan to cover this. He went to the front door and stepped outside casually, looking into the street. There were cars passing, but nobody walking, nobody standing and looking toward his shop, no sign that the shot had been heard. For people to hear a gunshot and recognize it, at any considerable distance, it usually needs to be repeated. Once to get their attention, and again to verify.

He stepped back inside and locked the door. Sonny had not moved, and Ross went around him rather than step over him, to reach the back door. He opened it and looked out at the sheet metal shop, and there was nobody in sight. Again he wished for a cigarette. Leppert had cigarettes, and just now he had kicked the habit. Ross took a deep breath and went back inside and knelt by the body. There was a small hole in the back of the tee shirt, and a trace of blood, showing that the bullet had bored clear through the mountain of flesh. He tried to find a pulse at the side of the neck and at the wrist, without success. Sonny was as dead as he was ever going to get. Ross looked at him curiously, and assessed his own reaction. He held up a hand and saw that it was steady, and took it as a bad sign. Shouldn't you feel something after killing another man? Even a Sonny? He remembered why he had returned to the body, and with a grunt he shifted the great bulk enough to get the pack of smokes. They were a bit squashed, but they'd burn.

Now then, to call the police or not. He could call it a robbery he had foiled, and all he would have to explain would be why his own gun was so close at hand. But then they would ID the body and trace the family and call them to come and get him, and somewhere along the line somebody would pick up on the connection between the two of them, concerning the ransom money. Mendoza knew, Miriam knew, Bynum knew, and maybe Velez, if he was still alive. The Lepperts in Binghamton might be in on it, too, for all he knew. Velez might have told them. He and Miriam would never get off the ground in their search. The hell with that. He wasn't telling anybody.

His single shot had accomplished a number of significant things. In saving his own life he had ended Leppert's, and at the same time had locked himself into the proceedings. The decision he had made was now cut in stone. He was the reluctant owner of a pretty hefty corpse, and a dues-paying member of the expedition to recover the ransom money. There was another consequence of his act, as well. The original participants in the kidnapping were now all dead. Villarubbia had been the first, then Lindsay, then Piper, now Leppert. And with the murder of Velez, the second generation had already begun to fall. Ross was part of that generation. Piper had put him there.

So, what to do with Sonny? Nothing, surely, until late tonight, and after careful planning, but neither was he going to try to work today with a dead body in his shop. He wasn't cool enough for that. He went around, securing the blinds in the windows and checking the doors, and opened a back room and got out a dirty canvas tarpaulin. He emptied all Sonny's pockets and rolled him up neatly in the tarp. It was hard work, just turning him over each time. Almost at once, the ruined alligator shoes came off, revealing dirty feet without socks. Ross almost turned and tossed the shoes into his own garbage, but thought better of it and stuffed them as far as he could up the pants legs. Like Gus, Sonny had small legs to go with his bulk. It was an unpleasant chore, and he was glad to finish. When there was nothing to see but a fat bundle, Ross pushed it over near a wall and took a sheet of plywood and stood it on the long edge in front of the package and leaned it over against the wall, building a sort of wooden pup tent over it. Or half of one.

His telephone rang twice while he worked, but he didn't answer, and he could hear messages being recorded on his machine. Finally he stood back, panting and sweating, and looked around. There were only traces of blood on his floor. It had looked like a heart shot, so not much blood had been circulated after the wound was made, and what bleeding there was must have been inside. There was hardly any bullet hole to see in the fat carcass. He got a handful of toilet tissue, and wet it and wiped the floor clean and flushed the paper down the toilet. He smoked one of the cigarettes, then another. There was a wallet with a hundred sixty dollars in it, and he turned it over in his hands before taking out the money and putting it in his own pocket, resolving to get rid of the wallet when he ditched Sonny's pistol. Somehow, robbing the body disturbed him more than killing the man, but what the hell are you supposed to do with a hundred sixty dollars that belonged to a guy who didn't need it any more? His mood was blacker than ever, and it would not have improved appreciably had he known that most of it had been Velez' money, and that Sonny had gotten it the same way he had. He turned out the lights and left the building, checking to be sure the lock caught as it should.

Back at the apartment he showered again and changed clothes, for no good reason except Death. He had to force himself to toss the clothes in the regular basket with the others that had only Dirt on them. Housecat was at the door and Ross let him in, glad for the company. He made coffee and filled a big mug and took it out on the porch, wishing he had brought the cigarettes home with him. He hoped to get past this business without becoming a smoker again, but it got tougher as he went along. Tension and nicotine went together like spaghetti and meatballs.

How had Sonny come to Baton Rouge? Did he have a car somewhere, and if so, why wasn't it at the shop? Was there anybody with him? He decided there must not be. When he spoke to Miriam he would ask about Velez, but for now he would assume he was dead and out of the picture, as Sonny had said. He could find no guilt or horror associated with this taking of a life. Instead, he felt relief that he had been the survivor of a lethal confrontation, and annoyance that now he had a dead body - a dead body weighing more than three hundred pounds - to get rid of without being caught. Sonny had become nothing more than a bag of garbage to be disposed of. A bag of nuclear waste, maybe, that would require special handling instead of going into the dumpster. For some reason, he was glad Sandra couldn't see him sitting at ease with his coffee, pondering what to do with the corpse in his shop. She'd have made something out of that, and he had the vague feeling that he should, too, but there was nothing.

At least he had been granted the leisure to make a good plan for what had to be done. The ideal thing would be for Sonny's body not to be found at all, but that would be a big order. If you buried him, the grave was going to be visible for a long time, either because of the fresh-turned earth or because the outline of it would show after a rain or two had settled the dirt. You would need a more remote spot than any that came to mind. The bottom of the river would be even better, but he had no way to get him there - he didn't even have a boat. If he dumped him off the old Huey Long Bridge he might land on a passing barge. Most of the people who went into the river turned up before long, and even though nobody could prove where he had gone in, Baton Rouge was one of the places he might have. Dead as he was, he continued to plague Ross.

In the end, after a good deal of objective consideration, he decided not to put Sonny to soak after all. Drive him a hundred miles and find a quiet spot to dump him, and let it be somebody else's problem when he was found. Prove he had gone to Baton Rouge. Prove he came to see me. Prove I did something to him. An obnoxious son of a bitch like that could have gotten lots of people to kill him. It wasn't completely safe, but he calculated he could pull it off. It seemed that killing Mr. Leppert had been the easy part. He was tired, but it would be hours before he could act, giving him ample time for some sleep. He kicked back the recliner, but his eyes were wide open, and his shoulders were tight. The morning paper was where he had left it in the kitchen, and he looked at it without seeing it, read it without comprehending, and tossed it down.

Housecat was restless, seeming to feel some of Ross' tension, and he wanted out. He looked apprehensive as he waited for the door to be opened. Ross heated a TV dinner and ate it without tasting it, and forty minutes later he threw it up. There was no nausea, but he threw it up. Death was subtle, but it was on him, nonetheless. With an effort, he figured that today was Thursday, still two days too soon to call Miriam in St. Louis. He had been to St. Louis a hundred years ago, on Monday. Now he slept.

It was dark when he awoke, past eight o'clock. His body was stiff and uncoordinated, and his head was fuzzy, eyes puffy. His mouth tasted like the bottom of a bird cage. He stood over the basin and splashed cold water over his face, again and again. He made more coffee and ate two toaster waffles, and felt only a little better, but he returned to the shop. Sonny was urgent. Something to deal with tonight. Ross waited at the stop sign for a couple of cars to pass in front of the shop and move on down the street, and when they were gone he pulled across and turned in, cutting his lights as he went. In the dim glow of street lights he went directly to the back door, where the truck would be out of sight, and backed up close to the building. Walking around to the front, he entered through the main door and locked himself in, but did not turn on any lights. It took some effort on his part to feel his way around in the dark, within a few feet of the dead man. He found a flashlight and satisfied himself that Sonny was still there, and still dead, although he imagined the body had changed positions slightly. The rolled-up package looked different.

He switched off the flash and opened the back door. Everything was quiet, like a graveyard. The evening was cool, but sweat was forming under his shirt. He dropped the tailgate and went back for his load. Sonny was well into rigor mortis. It comes and then it goes -he had heard that - but it had a grip on Sonny right now, and just getting him to the door was no easy task. Loading him into the truck was even worse, and Ross dropped him on the ground twice before getting him aboard. For a time he thought, in a panic, that he might not be strong enough tonight to do what he had to do. In the end, he got him into the bed of the truck, still wrapped in the tarpaulin and trussed up with rope, but a corner had worked loose and the soles of Sonny's bare feet shone white in the weak light, and Ross had to tuck them in, after which he wiped his hands roughly on a rag.

He brought the same sheet of plywood and built the wooden pup tent again, with the top edge of the panel resting on the side of the truck bed. He blocked it along the lower edge to be certain it didn't shift on the road and expose the suspicious package to the scrutiny of passing truckers, and he closed the tailgate. His shirt was wet, and sticking to his back, before he was done, and his chest was heaving.

On Interstate 12 he headed east toward Slidell, with the vague idea of making his drop somewhere in the desolate salt marshes of New Orleans East, but he didn't really know that area, and when the sign announcing Interstate 55 came into view he decided to turn north toward Mississippi. He thought it quite likely that he was breaking some additional laws by hauling the dead body across a state line for disposal, but it didn't seem important at this point. Surely they wouldn't call it kidnapping, not when your victim is already stiff. Besides, he mused, who the hell would pay you to bring back Sonny Leppert - but of course somebody had once done just that, which explained why they were both there, skulking around in the middle of the night.

Traffic was beginning to ease off, and what was left was mostly trucks. He imagined that all the drivers were craning their necks to inspect his cargo as they went past him, and he drove faster to maintain his place in the line. Suddenly he realized that he was going seventy-five miles an hour, and he slowed again. He had no radar detector, and he didn't need to be stopped by a trooper. Not tonight. He drove looking straight ahead, both hands on the wheel, with frequent peeks through the rear window to check on Sonny, and before he knew it he had crossed into Mississippi. This should be far enough, and he began to scout for exits onto state roads. The one he chose was at McComb, and outside of town he turned again onto a lesser road and then again, until he was deep into piney woods, with no lights in view and no traffic. He didn't know what this spot might look like in the light of day, but it looked okay now, in the pitch dark.

He picked the high side of a banked curve in an elevated roadway; the same sort of site that Villarubbia had chosen for his money drop fourteen years ago in Binghamton. Ross pulled off the road and got out, trying to see down the embankment, and it looked like a tangle of brush down there. He dropped the tailgate again and began to fight Sonny for the last time. He got him out into the road and then rolled him over the edge into the darkness. After the fact, he wondered whether he should follow him down and recover the tarp, but decided it could not be traced to him, and then followed him down anyway and pulled some bushes over him, so one would have to look closely to find him. He had done all he could. He should have known that the tarp, speckled and stained with paint in a wide variety of colors, could not have come from anywhere other than a sign shop, but the fact escaped his attention. And without being aware of it, he had left Sonny within ten miles of the spot where Sonny's dead Buick still sat on the shoulder of 1-55, with a citation under the wiper.

The ride back to Baton Rouge was a breeze, with Leppert out of his life forever. In his mind, Ross went over the day's events half a dozen times, looking for oversights, and at last concluded that he had done well. He wasn't sure how many crimes he had committed, but he did feel like he had gotten away with all of them, at least for now. It wasn't a process he would like to have to go through every day. Being a criminal must be tough on the nerves.

On the other hand, he was planning some more crimes before he went straight again. He wanted to do a breaking and entering and some destruction of private property, like maybe a Sheetrock wall, somewhere around the Canadian border. After that, he promised the world silently, he would be a model citizen. Well, as good as most of the others, anyway.
 

vapros

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Chapter 41

Chapter 41

Ross' workday on Friday began at two AM - he didn't go back to the apartment at all after returning from Mississippi. Being at the shop all night no longer caused any comment in the neighborhood. It was something he did often, lights on, doors locked and blinds closed. He cleaned and reloaded his pistol and hid Sonny's, since he had forgotten to get rid of it. He should have taken it out with him and thrown it into a river somewhere. Then he tended to business for a solid twelve hours, pausing only to go out for lunch.

He had an eight by twelve sign he had been looking forward to doing for a week. It was for a boat landing and tackle shop and bar down in Lafourche Parish, and the customer had paid him in advance, paid him quite well, and told him to make it look nice and nautical. He had done a color rendering that was right on the money, but the work went badly. The lower part, that had started as a beach, ended up looking like a desert, needing only a couple of old camel skulls lying around. The color of the sky was all wrong and the orange orb suspended there was surely too hot for sun-bathing. The two white gulls soaring overhead looked like they might have taken a wrong turn over Morocco. Sonny Leppert wasn't the only thing Ross had killed today. In the end he laid all three panels down flat and poured paint thinner on them and scrubbed them down with rags until most of the color was gone, and when it was dry he recoated the whole thing. He would try again tomorrow.

As he moved around the shop he found himself looking at the places where Sonny had been; where he stood, where he knelt and then fell, where he spent the day as he waited for Ross to come back for him. There was no evidence he had ever been there. Every time the phone rang, or somebody opened the door, Ross was certain it was about Sonny, but that was pure paranoia. If it ever did happen, it wouldn't be for a while. At least he no longer had to worry about Sonny's arrival. Sonny and Velez were both accounted for.

Just before lunch he stepped on something near the window, and when he picked it up to look at it he saw that it was the bullet that had killed Leppert, and he dropped it instantly, snatching his hand back as if burned. He picked it up again with a rag, and threw it into the garbage can and went in the bathroom and washed. He smoked two more of Sonny's cigarettes and did some deep-breathing exercises. This wasn't going to do. In the afternoon Ross made two trips in the truck to deliver completed work, carrying his wares in the same vehicle he had used to haul three hundred-plus pounds of dead pork last night.

Friday was Mendoza's day off, and a man named Perrin had brought his mail today, and that was just fine. He and Gus could make up next week, if he wasn't out of town, but he didn't feel like dealing with it right now. Or maybe they wouldn't make up at all. It was a casual friendship at best, and they really didn't have all that much in common. Gus and Gloria would occasionally stop at the shop if they were out and about in the evening and if Ross' lights were on, and he had been to their house two or three times in the past two years. No big deal, either way. If Gus was going to be his mail carrier, he would prefer to get along with him, but Gus was sometimes a pain in the ass, like most civil servants.

He thought of calling Sandra, but he didn't know what he could say to her if he did, and she would do all she could to make it awkward for him. Her talents in that line were at least the equal of his own. She was a master of the same tactics of discomfiture that he had used on both Velez and Leppert, and they were both dead now, if there was anything to be made of that, which there wasn't. But he didn't call her. You didn't have to be Forrest Gump to figure that out. Ross returned to the apartment and showered and went out to dinner alone, and two different people asked him about Sandra and he found it difficult to answer. What had they done, anyhow - split the blanket, cut the ties, pulled the pin, drawn the line? He didn't even know if they were still speaking. If they were, they hadn't, had they? It was a pain in the ass, and he went back home. Everything seemed to be a pain in the ass this week.

Tomorrow he would work hard again, and gas up the truck again, and answer all his phone calls, and later he could make a call of his own, to St. Louis. Calling Miriam might be better, just this once, than calling Sandra. He was at least sure that Miriam would be glad to hear from him. He undressed and fell into his bed and dreamt about killing Sonny and settling down in Kentucky with Miriam. Couple of bad dreams, and there was nothing about money in either of them. Saturday started early for him. Not as early as Friday had, but early by his standards. His tendency, and his preference, was to stay up late and sleep late, and to open the shop when he had no more excuse not to. Cunctatorship could be an art form.

By six-thirty he was frying eggs to put on top of his instant grits. The coffee was made and there were prefab biscuits in the oven, and both honey and strawberry preserves waited on the counter top. He had a little dinette set of table and chairs, but he almost never ate there. Clearing enough room for a meal would be a major project. Sandra had bought him a single stool, which he kept in the kitchen and sat on while he ate from the counter top. It made perfect sense to him. Eat where the food and utensils were. And the sink. Why carry it all away and then have to bring it all back? Anybody could see the logic in that. He suspected that single people all over were doing it, but lots of them wouldn't admit it, lest they be thought barbaric. Even the stool had been a sort of concession to Sandra. For years he took most of his meals either standing or on a lap tray carried to the recliner in the front room. She had liked him in spite of the way he lived, not because of it, and she had pointed this out to him on more than one occasion. He always reciprocated. They had looked down on each other and up to each other. Go figure.

Ross bought gas on the way to work, and picked up some road maps, going as far as Ohio. There was a lot of driving ahead of him, hopefully starting today or tomorrow. He could always fly and rent a car, but this would save a little money and make him more mobile and flexible, besides allowing him to pack the gun. There was no doubt in his mind that Miriam would do him in for his half of the half million, if the chance presented itself, but she wasn't going to get that chance. If she played square with him and they reached the little brick building at last, he would make the first move. He would snatch her purse and put it on the ground while he searched her - really searched her. She could like it or lump it. Then he'd go through the bag carefully, and when he'd found her weapon it would be time to go into the building. The advantage would be his, because he would be the first to know they had arrived. He didn't want to do any more killing, and he didn't want her share of the money, but he wanted a head start for his getaway. And if she tried to make a move on him, he just might change his attitude about the money, too.

Like Sonny, she didn't deserve any reward if she made trouble. 'Do unto others' thought Ross, 'but do it first.' He made note of the fact that his own attitude had changed sharply in the past few days. On Monday and Tuesday he had been extremely skeptical, at best, about the adventure and the possibility of finding this money, but all the events of the week had strengthened Piper's story, and he now thought in terms of success, with its attendant perils. Perils that had already claimed the lives of five people. He prepared a set of tools that might be needed to get into the building where the riches lay waiting. He had no lock picks, and wouldn't know how to use them if he did, but he took an assortment of screwdrivers and a glass cutter and a keyhole saw and pry bars of two sizes, then added a carpenter's hammer and some pliers, needle-nosed and regular. Everybody in the world has a ring of assorted keys, left behind by long-gone locks, and Ross' collection was added to the pile he was making. One never knew. The wall, itself, Piper had said, was Sheetrock, and all that would be needed was to punch enough of a hole to get a few fingers into and he should be able to tear it out by hand. All the items went into a big plastic tackle box, except for the longest pry bar, and he slipped that under the seat of the truck, along with the .38 in its three-cornered zipper pouch. The box was opened again, and he put in a big flashlight and a little one. He couldn't think of any more preparations he could make, and he forced himself to go to work.

He tried to think how many years it had been since he had done anything that had produced this kind of anticipation. The ill-fated trip to Long Island with Piper had always been one of his most vivid memories, but in truth, there had been nothing memorable about it until he had looked out a window to find that he had been discovered. The trip out, driving an old pickup truck through the desolate parts of the island, had been routine. The excitement had begun with the chase and continued right up to the instant when he realized Piper was leaving him. Then excitement had suddenly turned to fear, but they both had felt the same to his heart. Sometimes, it was hard to tell the difference between excitement and fear. Sometimes there isn't any difference. Piper had smoked the entire trip, and Ross had had to open a window. It occurred to him that Piper had been apprehensive from the start, and he had failed to notice. At nine-thirty he realized he wasn't getting anything done, and he made coffee and walked to the store, where he prevailed on the cashier to sell him two cigarettes. Sonny's were all gone. She wagged her head in mock despair as she pushed them across the counter.

"I sure am disappointed in you. I figured you could do it."

"I have things heavy on my mind, and even then it's only a couple at a time. Besides, where do you get off with that stuff? You're the one with the habit."

"Yeah, but that's different, 'cause I only smoke for weight control. If I quit smoking, I'd weigh one-eighty by morning. When you smoke, it holds down your appetite and you don't eat as much."

"Or as long, either. But don't stop now. If you weighed one-eighty I'd have to dream about somebody else, and get me a new pusher, too. I love you just the way you are, but I'd like to be on your life insurance, just in case." He left whistling, feeling young and strong and fearless. At eleven he locked the door and went into the office and called the St. Louis number Miriam had given him. He waited while it rang ten times and then hung up and went back to work. An hour later he dialed again, without an answer. Then again at one, with the same result. He called information in St. Louis and the operator verified the number for him. As he had guessed, the phone was in Miriam's name - people like Piper were never listed. It was much too soon to become alarmed. They had not agreed on a time for the call, and Miriam hadn't promised to wait at home all day to hear from him. Surely Piper-Graham had been buried by this time, but she figured to have plenty of things to attend to. Sooner or later he would reach her, but he was strung up pretty tight, and not programmed for patience.

He straightened up the things on his desk, and checked to be certain all the bills were paid, and sharpened six or eight pencils of various kinds and then went to the rear of the shop, where he scattered sweeping compound over the floor and began moving it around with the push broom. And he kept calling St. Louis. Just after four o'clock Western Union called with a wire from St. Louis. It said that Miriam was leaving town and would meet him Monday evening at the Holiday Inn on Interstate 70 in Zanesville, Ohio, where a reservation had been made for him. It was signed 'M'. The lady on the phone read it to him twice and promised that a hard copy would be in the mail right away. Ross' reaction was mixed, at best. This woman was pretty goddam sure he would do as he was told, and that certainly was not the impression he had tried to give her. 'Meet me in Ohio', your ass, lady. And why tell me like this, instead of calling? Probably so she wouldn't have to hear him say it to her. Or else something was going on, and he was being left out. On the other hand, wasn't this what he was waiting for?

The hunt had begun, and he was in on that, for sure. Was Zanesville the town? How big was it, and could a man go there and get access to the building permits from 1985, so that he could locate a small brick office building, without depending on Miriam to show him where to begin? Surely she was not that naive. The money wasn't in Zanesville, but it wasn't far away, either. He would pack up and go, no two ways about that. It didn't matter if Miriam Moscowitz got off on bossing him around, as long as he beat her to the draw at the showdown. Or maybe even a little before. He went home and settled into the recliner and extended it to its fullest and went to sleep immediately. He would drive through the night, like he used to do.
 

vapros

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Joined
May 24, 2004
Messages
3,733
Chapter 42

Chapter 42

Ross went all the way to Nashville Saturday night in the truck. He enjoyed the trip as far as Memphis, but he had to push himself to hang in there for another three and a half hours. He checked into a motel before daylight and slept until noon. He awoke feeling stiff and logy, so he took a shower and drove into town, where he parked the truck and spent an hour walking the streets, and it made him feel better. Nashville should have been full of people carrying either guitars or fiddles in cases, but he didn't see a single one. There were constant reminders that this was the cradle of country music, but if there were any country musicians around, they must be in disguise, or maybe they didn't come out until after dark, like vampires. When he got his money, he promised himself, he would come back to Nashville to visit. Nashville and a lot of other places.

After lunch he slept again and returned to the road, and was in the Eastern Time Zone before dark. There isn't a whole lot to see in Zanesville in the hours after midnight, but Ross didn't care. There was a Holiday Inn, and it was easy to find, and there was a reservation for him for Monday, but wasn't he kind of early? But never mind, there was a room he could have, just sign right here and fill in the blanks. He drove to the rear and fell into bed, not feeling nearly as young and strong as he had on Saturday.

It was twelve-thirty when he awoke this time, and he was three minutes out of the shower and still damp here and there when the knock came on his door at twelve-something. He pulled on the same pants he had taken off during the night, and padded across the motel carpet in his bare feet. It would have to be the maid, and she could come back in fifteen minutes. Miriam had best not show up unannounced, six hours early, after the way she had handled the arrangements. If it was Miriam, she was going to get an earful, but it wasn't Miriam at the door. It was Gus Mendoza.

Ross stared wide-eyed and slack-jawed. He couldn't have been more stunned and disconcerted if it had been Manuel Noriega. For five seconds he totally lost his bearings and became disoriented. The shock made him doubt that he was where he had thought he was. If he was in Ohio, then Mendoza wouldn't be at his door, would he? The first identifiable emotion that came to him was anger. He had been right; something had happened without him, and all the advantage was with his adversaries. Whoever they were, they were certainly his adversaries, and this had to be one of them. He was as defenseless as he had ever been, and the best he could do was to make Gus move first.

"Damn, Jack, I didn't mean to hit you this hard. I knew you'd be surprised to see me, but I wasn't expecting paralysis. Can I come in?"

"Yeah, come on in, by all means. If you walked off without any explanation, I don't think I could take it."

"You were expecting Miriam." It wasn't a question and Ross gave no reply. He was beginning to recover. Mendoza looked at him, noting his wet hair and bare feet. "Go on back in the bathroom and finish up. I'll wait."

"Bullshit. You might be willing to wait, but I'm not. Is she with you?"

"Miriam? No, she's not here in town. I'm here as her agent, I guess you'd say. She called me - somebody told her I was a friend of yours, you told her, maybe - and said she was worried about this thing, and afraid that the two of you would wind up in the same fix as the first two, not able to trust each other far enough to find the right spot. And she was afraid that you would try to take the whole amount and she wouldn't be able to do anything about it. She made me a deal and asked me to come here to meet you and see this thing through. She figured you and I were more likely to be able to work out the details, and I had to tell her she was probably right. I'm to deliver her half to St. Louis, assuming we pull it off, and she'll give me a percentage of her share. She knows I have a wife and family, and she doesn't think I'll try anything. She's not totally comfortable with it, but she feels like it's her best chance. She has nightmares about not getting this money, Jack."

"Where is she now? Why didn't she come?"

"She decided to wait in St. Louis. We didn't know what to expect on this end, and she figured she could trust us just as well from there as from here. She's still picking up after the guy who died the other day. You call him Piper, she calls him Willie Graham. There doesn't seem to be anybody but her to settle up his affairs, and I guess she's to get whatever he left behind."

"She gave you her information, so that you and I can go to the right place and do this thing?"

"Right. She gave me the town and the reference point. The landmark. It's not here in Zanesville, but it's not much of a trip to get there."

Ross looked at him speculatively, trying to arrive at a course of action. He turned and walked to the window and opened the curtain, and began to dry his hair slowly with the towel that had hung over his shoulder. When he turned back, Mendoza's attitude seemed to be apologetic. His expression was rueful, eyebrows raised and head cocked slightly. Ross sat in one of the chairs and looked out the window again. There was nothing to be seen except the parking lot. "Gus, you've got half the key and I have the other half, and the only way to find what we're looking for is to trust each other. Is that about the way you see it?"

"That's exactly it. If we don't, we're both going back empty-handed, and I'll have to try to explain to Miriam that we couldn't do it. I wouldn't look forward to that."

"Miriam Moscowitz is a real hard case," said Ross, "and just like you say, she has nightmares about not getting this money. She was afraid I might not take it seriously and might not cooperate with her. Miriam killed Lindsay, and she killed John Villarubbia, and she'd fight the Red Chinese Army with a ****ing Ginsu knife for this money. She's not afraid of me, Gus - I'm afraid of her - and goddam it, she didn't willingly send you and me up here to dig up the money while she cools her heels in St. Louis. She's been waiting too long for that. You're telling me the worst goddam lie I ever heard in my life, and yet you think I should trust you. You must think I'm an idiot or something. What have you done with Miriam? Tell me that and we'll talk about the other matter."

And in St. Louis, Mustafa Ibrahim Jalil was hurrying into the drug store. He was on his lunch break, and they had promised to have his photos ready by noon today. He anticipated the prize-winning picture of a hare and a tortoise, and some lesser stuff he had shot while waiting, like that long-legged bird. He didn't notice that the lady at the counter became nervous as she saw him approach, or that there was a tremor in her hand as she gave him the envelope. He opened it immediately, and the first picture on the top of the pile was The One. His heart sank. He had not managed to hold the little camera level, and the horizon looked like a hillside. A pretty steep hillside, at that. Worse, there was no hare and no tortoise, and it had been a clean miss, and his disappointment fell over him like a cold wet blanket.

But the man peering over his shoulder thought it was a fascinating picture. He was short and round and he wore a funny little snap-brim hat, a la Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. A porkpie hat, that's what it was. Like Popeye, he was a police detective, and he had been waiting over an hour to meet Mustafa, because in that same picture, if one looked closely, one could see a pale bare leg sticking out from under a bush, and at the end of the leg was a foot with a little blue and white checked canvas shoe on it.
 

vapros

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3,733
Chapter 43

Chapter 43

Gus Mendoza sighed patiently, and stared at Ross in thought. He found something interesting on one of his knuckles and studied it for a few seconds, before looking up and taking a deep breath. "Call her up, Jack," he said. "She said if there was a problem you were to call her. She's expecting it. She said there was no way you would do anything without her say-so."

"I've been trying to call her for two days."

"She said she'd been busy as hell. Call her now. You want the number?"

"I know the goddam number by heart. Gus, if she doesn't answer this time, you can get your ass out of here and go back to wherever you're staying, and I'll let you know something later this afternoon. This stinks and you're lying to me, and I've got to do some thinking."

"Think fast, man, because I had to take a week off from work on short notice, and I have to show up Friday morning. If we find this place, we might need a couple of days to figure out a way to deal with it, and there's still a lot of driving left between here and Baton Rouge."

"Especially if you have to go through St. Louis to give Miriam her money." He gave Gus a dirty look that Gus pretended not to see. Ross pulled the telephone toward him and began to dial, and as it rang in Missouri he kept his eyes on Mendoza's, and his face expressionless. After ten rings he held it out for Gus to hear, and then hung it up. "The only reason she went back to St. Louis was because she had to get Piper buried. Otherwise she'd have camped in front of my shop until I could get ready. That's how important this was to her. So she went back, and made me promise to call her on Saturday to make plans, but now she's been out of touch for at least two days, and I'm not going for it. You sent the wire, didn't you?"

"Sure I did. It was my project by then. I signed it M for Mendoza, so I wouldn't have to lie to you." He grinned at Ross. "Now then, what are we going to do? You say you want some time to think about it?"

"Yeah, I do. You're 'way ahead of me, and I'm not moving until I do some catching up. There's a guy in St. Louis I want to call, to see if he knows anything about Miriam. If I don't find out where she is, or what's happened, there's not much danger I'm going anywhere with you, money or no money."

"Why, Jack? Go ahead and call Bynum, you've told me all about him. If he can straighten this out for you, that's fine. But if he can't, why couldn't we go ahead and worry about it later? What the hell do you care, as long as you get yours?"

"I care, goddam it, because if you've done something to Miriam then you'll do something to me, too. I'd love to have half of this bundle, but I'm not willing to die for it. I'll go back where I came from and make signs. That's what you were preaching to me, anyway, last time I saw you. That's another reason this looks fishy to me, after all you said about it. And I'm sitting here trying to decide whether you could kill people or not. What the hell has come over you, anyway?"

Mendoza had never left his feet since coming in, and now he sat down in the other chair, and his face was red. He was angry, and Ross had never seen him look this way before. "Screw you, Jack, you're mighty self-righteous all of a sudden, for a man who's hunting for a pile of somebody else's money. I meant to ask you, did you hear anything from Sonny Leppert? No, I don't kill people. I deliver mail for a living and do stupid things like this in my spare time, but this is the last one." He stood up again. "I'm in Room 328 when you decide what to do, but you think real hard before you decide to blow it off and leave it behind. Whatever you find out, or don't find out, I've got the rest of the information you need, and I'll bend over backwards to cooperate with you. I'll tell you right up front where we're going, and you can handle the rest any way you see fit. By the way, it's close enough so we can still go today, and at least locate the place, if you don't fart around too long making up your mind."

He walked to the door and let himself out, and Ross didn't speak again. He was wearing the bath towel over his head like a babushka, and his face was dark and clouded. He dialed the number in St. Louis once more, but he was certain he was wasting his time. He would have been amazed if she had answered. How in the shit had all this happened, anyhow? He didn't believe for a minute that Miriam had contacted Gus with a proposition of any kind, so how did he come to be involved? There were not too many possibilities. It would not have been a great shock to find Bynum at the door, because that was something he had thought of several times. Tell the truth, he had half expected Bynum to turn up somewhere along the way. But Bynum had no reason to bring Mendoza into it; no reason that Ross could think of. He had never even heard of Mendoza. The only thing that made any sense was that Mendoza had changed his mind and decided to take a shot at the money, and started by going to St. Louis to see Miriam, but she had never given up her pair of Jacks willingly. Not in a million years. So Gus had done something to her - had he tortured her until she told, and then killed her? Was Gus capable of that? He would never have believed it of him, but there had to be an explanation.

Ross lay down on the bed and closed his eyes and cursed Piper. He had to decide how important it was to him to learn what had become of Miriam Moscowitz, and the answer to that was that he didn't really care, except insofar as it applied to his own situation. She was nothing to him, of course, and this wasn't the time or place to wax sanctimonious for mankind, or even for retired hookers. His only safe course was to assume that Gus could, and had, done away with her, and if so, that he would do the same to him if he got a chance. Did that mean that he should back out, or only that he should exercise great care? Every secret, right from the beginning, in this whole convoluted mess of kidnapping and consequences, had been given up by dying people. It appeared that Miriam had become the fifth person to die for this plum, without counting Piper. And also, Ross obviously didn't know doodly-squat about his mailman.

The world was a strange place, and screw you again, Piper. You too, Mendoza. The decision, then, was simply to make this trip with Gus or go back home without trying. Not such a tough call, once a man had it all thought out. Ross finished dressing and combed his hair and walked to the restaurant. Only a few tables were occupied, and Gus sat at one of them, finishing a plate of something or other. He looked up as Ross entered, but Ross ignored him and took a table in the smoking section. He ordered a sandwich and talked the waitress into bringing him a cigarette to smoke while he waited. When the sandwich came he ate it without tasting it, and drank two glasses of iced tea. By the time he had finished, Gus had left and Ross had ignored him again. The waitress brought him another cigarette to smoke after his lunch, without a request, and he took it with gratitude, and left her three dollars on his way out. He still had not bought any cigarettes, so nobody could call him a smoker. Well, actually he had bought them all, but he had never bought a whole pack, and that was how you could tell if you were a smoker. A serious smoker bought them at least by the pack, and usually by the carton. He had killed a man a few days ago, but at least he wasn't a smoker. He went off to find Room 328.

He rapped twice on the door with one knuckle, and Gus opened it without delay. The television was on, and he had been watching a game show with the volume turned down low. The bed in the room was made up, so Ross couldn't tell if he had just checked in today, or if the maid had already serviced the room. Not that it made any difference. Gus smiled at him, and he took it as a bad sign. He and Gus never smiled at each other, but this was about the third time today. Suddenly he wanted to get finished.

"Well," said Gus, "that didn't take long. What did you find out?"

"I found out nobody's seen Miriam. She seems to be missing."

Gus shrugged. "So what are we going to do?"

"I've decided to hold on until I talk to Miriam. She and I will work it out, or maybe we won't, but I'm not going anywhere with you. You've made a bad guess, thinking I would go for your story. Go on home and walk your route. I'm going to St. Louis to see Miriam, and I'll tell her I'm not doing any business with her agent and we'll go back to our first plan. I'll let you know what happens next time I see you."

Mendoza gazed at him for several seconds, letting his eyes wander over the parts of Ross's face. He turned his back and went three steps into the room and stood with his hands in his pockets. Then he turned again and sighed audibly. "You can't talk to Miriam. You already knew that. Miriam is out of it. There's just you and me now. Your options are to work it out with me or to blow it off. Forget talking to Miriam, today or any other day."

"Now, all of a sudden, I believe you. It kind of pisses me that you thought I would buy the rest of that shit. It wasn't even a good lie, man. What did you do to Miriam?"

"I did something to her, but it'll keep until later. You must have made some kind of decision before you came to my room. You in or out?"

"I'm in, I guess. Seems like it's pretty late in the game to be out. I'll have some more decisions to make, when I get a little breathing room." Gus shrugged again, without speaking, and picked up his room key. In the parking lot, he turned toward Ross. "Come on, go with me. I got a rent car for this." Ross considered for a minute, and could think of no reason to refuse. He'd leave the tools in the truck, because this trip was just to look for the building. They weren't breaking into it today. Gus might not even know it was a building they were looking for. Besides, he preferred to be the passenger and have both hands free, rather than the other way around. He didn't intend to have Gus doing anything to him. "That's fine," he said. "I'm tired of riding the truck."

Mendoza followed the service road to the access ramp and they proceeded eastward on Interstate 70. After five miles of silence, Ross spoke. "You promised to tell me where we're going."

" Yep, I did, and I will. Understand, Jack, once I do that I'm at your mercy, so I'm trusting you to be fair with me, and it's something I have to do, because my part's first. We can't go home like Piper and Lindsay, without getting the money. Today's the day and you're my man." Ross didn't answer, and Gus continued. "We're going to Wheeling, West Virginia. It's supposed to be about an hour and a half, and then we have to find this address." He fished a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket, and gave it to Ross. It didn't say anything about it being a church. "From there on you're the pilot." Ross looked at it and put the paper in his own pocket, and they drove another ten miles in silence, passing several small communities that had only one exit each. Ross took the slip of paper out of his pocket and turned it over and wrote something on the back and returned it to his pocket. Gus took no notice.

"That gives you ninety minutes to tell me what you did in St. Louis." Mendoza didn't look at him. He turned his face slightly the other way, looking in his outside mirror, and let some time pass.

"One thing at a time, amigo. I'm not ready to confess anything yet. All in good time." If he thought his ambiguity was reassuring to Ross, he was mistaken, but at least he had ended the conversation. He made one or two attempts of his own, to get a dialogue started on some other subject, but had to give it up. Ross was playing the clam about the other half of the key, and they made a long ride like strangers. It was after three-thirty when they reached Wheeling, and after four by the time they located a city map and were able to find the address on the slip of paper. It was a church, and Ross had to find that reassuring. Miriam had mentioned that part, but she had not said which church. If there had been a Toyota dealership or something of the sort at the address, the trip might have come to a halt until they could verify that there had been a church there once. Gus pulled the car over to the curb and looked at Ross.

"This is it - I've done all I can. You want to drive?" Ross scowled and looked down at his hands. They were steady, but the palms were damp. He decided that Mendoza had probably been honest about it.

"No, you drive, Gus. I'm going to be honest on this end. If this doesn't work, man, your ass belongs to me." He indicated the direction they should take, and Gus put the car into gear and steered into the driving lane. They were silent until time for the next turn, and the next.

At last Ross said, "Go up here a couple of blocks and turn left at a stone house with a little stone wall around the front yard." That was all he offered, and he didn't turn to face the other man. Traffic was light. The stone house turned up on schedule, and Ross felt a tingle in the soles of his feet. They made the left turn, and almost immediately the houses became more widely spaced, with more vacant lots, most of them grown up in weeds. Mendoza turned his head toward Ross.

"Does this look right?"

"I don't know. Before long the street should swing right and cross a little creek on a flat bridge. If it does that, we're on the way." The street lived up to all their expectations, and the creek was on duty under the little bridge. Ross felt a change in his pulse, and he made himself breathe deeply.

"We're gonna do it, Jack, I know we are. I can understand how you felt. I shouldn't have sounded off to you the other day."

"Go about a mile and a half. This is the number we're looking for, and it should be on a small brick building," Ross said. He produced the note from his pocket and passed it to Mendoza. "It should be on the left." He settled back into the seat and tried to relax. Mendoza's nostrils were flaring as he breathed, and he began to move first one hand and then the other from the steering wheel, to wipe them on his pants legs and then back to the wheel. Beyond the creek the houses ceased entirely and they drove through a half mile of wooded land and then emerged into a sort of industrial park, passing a small hospital on the right, with a blinking caution light in front, and then scattered businesses of a service nature, generally in sheet metal buildings with brick faces and paved parking in the front.

Mendoza slowed, peering at the numbers on his left, and turned in at a huge metal building, still under construction, although no one seemed to be on the job today. A mailbox on a post stood on the shoulder of the street, and the correct number showed in white numerals - five of them. He checked them against the slip of paper in his hand, and glanced toward Ross. The lot was not yet paved, and they drove on a loose gravel surface toward the front of the building. It was closed up. There was the remains of a sand pile to the right, and a lot of metal and lumber scraps lying around. Mendoza cut the engine and they sat in silence.

These metal buildings went up in a hurry, even big ones like this. Ross judged they were a month late, or maybe six weeks - not that it mattered. The reality hit him hard. He had assumed that the cooperation was the only hurdle, and if they got that part right the rest would fall into place. And he had assumed, at least for several days now, that it was going to work. What were the odds on somebody putting up a brick office building and tearing it down again fourteen years later? He wondered who had found the money. A blue-collar man like himself? It had been there, he was convinced. Had the story made the local paper, or had the finder quietly carried the money away? It wasn't important, either way. He had no claim on it, except in his mind, where it had already become his. The thought of returning to work in the shop was almost too depressing to deal with. Maybe he would spend a couple of extra days on the trip back. Maybe he would go to Nashville and stay a while. Go to the Opry. There must be something there, everybody was doing it.

He got out of the car slowly and stretched his back and his shoulders, and he picked up a handful of gravel and began to throw the stones at a battered water cooler that stood near the building. He wanted to hurl a couple against the building, so that he could at least leave some dents and make some noise, but there were other buildings adjacent, probably with people still working. It was not yet five o'clock. After a few minutes, Gus joined him outside the car. "You're not so good. I would have figured you could throw rocks better than that."

"It's farther than it looks, and I've hit it twice already. If you think you can do better, be my guest. There's over seven million rocks here."

"How can you tell?"

"As you sail the stormy seas of life, you sorry bastard . . .

"Never mind. This is the place, isn't it?"

"Yes and no. It's the right address, but it's the wrong building. We needed a brick building. We should have been here yesterday. It seems like most of the places I've ever been to in my ****ing life, I should have been there yesterday. But it's a nice little town. I had never been to Wheeling, West ****ing Virginia before." He bent down for more stones, and began to throw harder. It made his arm hurt, so he threw even harder.

"You were asking me about Miriam Moscowitz."

Ross threw another stone before replying. "Looks like you committed a murder for nothing, doesn't it? You and Miriam both. And Sonny, too." Then a terrible truth dawned on him like a blow, and he felt very stupid, indeed. He swung to face Mendoza. Mendoza had a gun pointed at his belly. Of course he did - who didn't know that? But it wasn't exactly like the last time, because Ross' gun that lay handy under a red shop towel last week was now under the seat in his truck at the Holiday Inn in Zanesville, Ohio. What the hell had he brought it for, if he wasn't going to carry it? Thinking about that didn't make him feel much better, either. "I guess this figures, doesn't it? Okay, what happened to Miriam?"

Mendoza shrugged. He had done a lot of shrugging today. "After the day you and I argued in the shop, I had the red-ass pretty good, and I went home and got in a row with Gloria, and I kept thinking about you and this dumb treasure hunt, and I really hated the thought that you might actually find this pile of cash and come back and give me the horse-laugh and start living high while I lugged that mail bag up and down the streets. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed possible. And then I got the notion that I could get in on it, too. I might be able to get some of the money, or all the money, and put you in your place at the same time, so I could give you the horse-laugh.

I had a pretty good idea how to find the woman in St. Louis, and I knew I'd have to kill her, but it didn't bother me enough to stop me. Don't ask me why. Maybe it's something about a person being worth less than five hundred thousand dollars. Whatever it was, I found some things in me I didn't know were there, and the next day I took a week's vacation and packed a bag and headed for St. Louis. I told my supervisor and Gloria both that I had a family emergency. Gloria doesn't hardly know my family, and I was in a bad mood. I didn't ask her permission - I just told her I was going. At that point, I felt just like you. I was going, and it felt pretty good.

Well, I laid a trap for Miriam in St. Louis, and when I caught her I did what I had to do. She was a hard case, like you said she was, and I had to work hard on her. She spit in my face and cursed me and all that just made it easier, and in the end she told me everything I wanted to know. I squeezed Miriam out like a wet dishrag. She knew I was going to kill her, and she would have died without telling, if she could, but she couldn't hang on. By the time it was over, there wasn't much left of her, and I sure as hell wouldn't want to have to answer for it, and I don't plan to. And that brings me around to you. You're the only one that knows I've been to St. Louis."

"So now you're going to shoot me, is that it?"

"I'm not sure what I figured I was going to do with you. I guess this is it. I can kill somebody. They say the first one's the hardest, but even that one was pretty easy for me. I put her down like I'd kill a chicken. There's something spooky about finding out you can do that, and one of these days I guess I'll have to sit down and think about it, but not today. You're my chicken of the day, and when I get this done I can go back and pick up that big leather bag and keep walking toward my retirement, just like last week. I won't be any richer, but I won't worry about going to jail, either. I'll have done like my friend Jack. I'll have given it a shot. This one didn't work out, but I'll have given it a chance and covered all my tracks. The first killing isn't really the hardest, after all. This is going to be the tough one, Jack, it really is, but I'm going to do it anyway. I can't do anything else, can I?"

"If you shoot me here forty people will hear it and then get to watch you driving away. You're busted, Mendoza. And if you keep pointing that goddam gun at me you just might get it stuck up your grocery chute. I just saw a half million in cash slip away from me, and I'm in no mood to fool around with some misguided, mail-carrying Mexican murderer. You'd better get in your car and get the hell out of here. I'll get a ride back to Zanesville, don't worry about it. I imagine you've got to kill me, but you won't do it here." Ross sounded a lot more certain of that than he felt. He took a step forward, and Gus fell back a step, frowning.

Ross had him pegged right. Mendoza wouldn't shoot him here. If he still had some of the gravel in his hands he could probably get the jump on him. Throw the stones in his face suddenly and nail him before he could get reorganized. He took another step forward and Mendoza shot him in the stomach.

The sound of the explosion was much less out here than the one in the shop, but there were seemingly endless metallic echoes in this street of tin walls and empty spaces, and the impact of the bullet drove him backward and he lost his footing and sat down hard in the gravel. It knocked the breath out of him, and suddenly he understood what Sonny Leppert had been trying to do when he died. There was a fire in his gut and he couldn't get any air in his lungs, and his eyes bulged and he folded his arms across his abdomen and bent forward. He was dying. The bullet had been too low to hit his heart, but he was going to die from lack of air.

Somebody shouted in the distance, then another voice said "Hey!" Mendoza spun around to see, and there were men running toward them from the next building, maybe a hundred yards away, and he turned back to where Jack Ross sat on the ground. He lifted the gun again and the shouts were repeated, and again he turned away. People were coming, but Ross knew it was too late for him. Mendoza addressed him again and aimed for his head. Ross flinched sideways and threw up an arm. Mendoza's second shot went through his forearm and into his shoulder, knocking him down on his back. He heard the other man's hurried steps, labored and crunching in the treacherous footing, heard him start the engine and gun it, and felt the shower of stones from the spinning tires. It was Piper, not Mendoza, that Ross cursed as he gave it up and passed into a comfortable darkness where a man didn't need any air.
 
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vapros

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Messages
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Chapter 43

Chapter 43

Gus Mendoza sighed patiently, and stared at Ross in thought. He found something interesting on one of his knuckles and studied it for a few seconds, before looking up and taking a deep breath. "Call her up, Jack," he said. "She said if there was a problem you were to call her. She's expecting it. She said there was no way you would do anything without her say-so."

"I've been trying to call her for two days."

"She said she'd been busy as hell. Call her now. You want the number?"

"I know the goddam number by heart. Gus, if she doesn't answer this time, you can get your ass out of here and go back to wherever you're staying, and I'll let you know something later this afternoon. This stinks and you're lying to me, and I've got to do some thinking."

"Think fast, man, because I had to take a week off from work on short notice, and I have to show up Friday morning. If we find this place, we might need a couple of days to figure out a way to deal with it, and there's still a lot of driving left between here and Baton Rouge."

"Especially if you have to go through St. Louis to give Miriam her money." He gave Gus a dirty look that Gus pretended not to see. Ross pulled the telephone toward him and began to dial, and as it rang in Missouri he kept his eyes on Mendoza's, and his face expressionless. After ten rings he held it out for Gus to hear, and then hung it up. "The only reason she went back to St. Louis was because she had to get Piper buried. Otherwise she'd have camped in front of my shop until I could get ready. That's how important this was to her. So she went back, and made me promise to call her on Saturday to make plans, but now she's been out of touch for at least two days, and I'm not going for it. You sent the wire, didn't you?"

"Sure I did. It was my project by then. I signed it M for Mendoza, so I wouldn't have to lie to you." He grinned at Ross. "Now then, what are we going to do? You say you want some time to think about it?"

"Yeah, I do. You're 'way ahead of me, and I'm not moving until I do some catching up. There's a guy in St. Louis I want to call, to see if he knows anything about Miriam. If I don't find out where she is, or what's happened, there's not much danger I'm going anywhere with you, money or no money."

"Why, Jack? Go ahead and call Bynum, you've told me all about him. If he can straighten this out for you, that's fine. But if he can't, why couldn't we go ahead and worry about it later? What the hell do you care, as long as you get yours?"

"I care, goddam it, because if you've done something to Miriam then you'll do something to me, too. I'd love to have half of this bundle, but I'm not willing to die for it. I'll go back where I came from and make signs. That's what you were preaching to me, anyway, last time I saw you. That's another reason this looks fishy to me, after all you said about it. And I'm sitting here trying to decide whether you could kill people or not. What the hell has come over you, anyway?"

Mendoza had never left his feet since coming in, and now he sat down in the other chair, and his face was red. He was angry, and Ross had never seen him look this way before. "Screw you, Jack, you're mighty self-righteous all of a sudden, for a man who's hunting for a pile of somebody else's money. I meant to ask you, did you hear anything from Sonny Leppert? No, I don't kill people. I deliver mail for a living and do stupid things like this in my spare time, but this is the last one." He stood up again. "I'm in Room 328 when you decide what to do, but you think real hard before you decide to blow it off and leave it behind. Whatever you find out, or don't find out, I've got the rest of the information you need, and I'll bend over backwards to cooperate with you. I'll tell you right up front where we're going, and you can handle the rest any way you see fit. By the way, it's close enough so we can still go today, and at least locate the place, if you don't fart around too long making up your mind."

He walked to the door and let himself out, and Ross didn't speak again. He was wearing the bath towel over his head like a babushka, and his face was dark and clouded. He dialed the number in St. Louis once more, but he was certain he was wasting his time. He would have been amazed if she had answered. How in the shit had all this happened, anyhow? He didn't believe for a minute that Miriam had contacted Gus with a proposition of any kind, so how did he come to be involved? There were not too many possibilities. It would not have been a great shock to find Bynum at the door, because that was something he had thought of several times. Tell the truth, he had half expected Bynum to turn up somewhere along the way. But Bynum had no reason to bring Mendoza into it; no reason that Ross could think of. He had never even heard of Mendoza. The only thing that made any sense was that Mendoza had changed his mind and decided to take a shot at the money, and started by going to St. Louis to see Miriam, but she had never given up her pair of Jacks willingly. Not in a million years. So Gus had done something to her - had he tortured her until she told, and then killed her? Was Gus capable of that? He would never have believed it of him, but there had to be an explanation.

Ross lay down on the bed and closed his eyes and cursed Piper. He had to decide how important it was to him to learn what had become of Miriam Moscowitz, and the answer to that was that he didn't really care, except insofar as it applied to his own situation. She was nothing to him, of course, and this wasn't the time or place to wax sanctimonious for mankind, or even for retired hookers. His only safe course was to assume that Gus could, and had, done away with her, and if so, that he would do the same to him if he got a chance. Did that mean that he should back out, or only that he should exercise great care? Every secret, right from the beginning, in this whole convoluted mess of kidnapping and consequences, had been given up by dying people. It appeared that Miriam had become the fifth person to die for this plum, without counting Piper. And also, Ross obviously didn't know doodly-squat about his mailman.

The world was a strange place, and screw you again, Piper. You too, Mendoza. The decision, then, was simply to make this trip with Gus or go back home without trying. Not such a tough call, once a man had it all thought out. Ross finished dressing and combed his hair and walked to the restaurant. Only a few tables were occupied, and Gus sat at one of them, finishing a plate of something or other. He looked up as Ross entered, but Ross ignored him and took a table in the smoking section. He ordered a sandwich and talked the waitress into bringing him a cigarette to smoke while he waited. When the sandwich came he ate it without tasting it, and drank two glasses of iced tea. By the time he had finished, Gus had left and Ross had ignored him again. The waitress brought him another cigarette to smoke after his lunch, without a request, and he took it with gratitude, and left her three dollars on his way out. He still had not bought any cigarettes, so nobody could call him a smoker. Well, actually he had bought them all, but he had never bought a whole pack, and that was how you could tell if you were a smoker. A serious smoker bought them at least by the pack, and usually by the carton. He had killed a man a few days ago, but at least he wasn't a smoker. He went off to find Room 328.

He rapped twice on the door with one knuckle, and Gus opened it without delay. The television was on, and he had been watching a game show with the volume turned down low. The bed in the room was made up, so Ross couldn't tell if he had just checked in today, or if the maid had already serviced the room. Not that it made any difference. Gus smiled at him, and he took it as a bad sign. He and Gus never smiled at each other, but this was about the third time today. Suddenly he wanted to get finished.

"Well," said Gus, "that didn't take long. What did you find out?"

"I found out nobody's seen Miriam. She seems to be missing."

Gus shrugged. "So what are we going to do?"

"I've decided to hold on until I talk to Miriam. She and I will work it out, or maybe we won't, but I'm not going anywhere with you. You've made a bad guess, thinking I would go for your story. Go on home and walk your route. I'm going to St. Louis to see Miriam, and I'll tell her I'm not doing any business with her agent and we'll go back to our first plan. I'll let you know what happens next time I see you."

Mendoza gazed at him for several seconds, letting his eyes wander over the parts of Ross's face. He turned his back and went three steps into the room and stood with his hands in his pockets. Then he turned again and sighed audibly. "You can't talk to Miriam. You already knew that. Miriam is out of it. There's just you and me now. Your options are to work it out with me or to blow it off. Forget talking to Miriam, today or any other day."

"Now, all of a sudden, I believe you. It kind of pisses me that you thought I would buy the rest of that shit. It wasn't even a good lie, man. What did you do to Miriam?"

"I did something to her, but it'll keep until later. You must have made some kind of decision before you came to my room. You in or out?"

"I'm in, I guess. Seems like it's pretty late in the game to be out. I'll have some more decisions to make, when I get a little breathing room." Gus shrugged again, without speaking, and picked up his room key. In the parking lot, he turned toward Ross. "Come on, go with me. I got a rent car for this." Ross considered for a minute, and could think of no reason to refuse. He'd leave the tools in the truck, because this trip was just to look for the building. They weren't breaking into it today. Gus might not even know it was a building they were looking for. Besides, he preferred to be the passenger and have both hands free, rather than the other way around. He didn't intend to have Gus doing anything to him. "That's fine," he said. "I'm tired of riding the truck."

Mendoza followed the service road to the access ramp and they proceeded eastward on Interstate 70. After five miles of silence, Ross spoke. "You promised to tell me where we're going."

" Yep, I did, and I will. Understand, Jack, once I do that I'm at your mercy, so I'm trusting you to be fair with me, and it's something I have to do, because my part's first. We can't go home like Piper and Lindsay, without getting the money. Today's the day and you're my man." Ross didn't answer, and Gus continued. "We're going to Wheeling, West Virginia. It's supposed to be about an hour and a half, and then we have to find this address." He
fished a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket, and gave it to Ross. It didn't say anything about it being a church. "From there on you're the pilot." Ross looked at it and put the paper in his own pocket, and they drove another ten miles in silence, passing several small communities that had only one exit each. Ross took the slip of paper out of his pocket and turned it over and wrote something on the back and returned it to his pocket. Gus took no notice.

"That gives you ninety minutes to tell me what you did in St. Louis." Mendoza didn't look at him. He turned his face slightly the other way, looking in his outside mirror, and let some time pass.

"One thing at a time, amigo. I'm not ready to confess anything yet. All in good time." If he thought his ambiguity was reassuring to Ross, he was mistaken, but at least he had ended the conversation. He made one or two attempts of his own, to get a dialogue started on some other subject, but had to give it up. Ross was playing the clam about the other half of the key, and they made a long ride like strangers. It was after three-thirty when they reached Wheeling, and after four by the time they located a city map and were able to find the address on the slip of paper. It was a church, and Ross had to find that reassuring. Miriam had mentioned that part, but she had not said which church. If there had been a Toyota dealership or something of the sort at the address, the trip might have come to a halt until they could verify that there had been a church there once. Gus pulled the car over to the curb and looked at Ross.

"This is it - I've done all I can. You want to drive?" Ross scowled and looked down at his hands. They were steady, but the palms were damp. He decided that Mendoza had probably been honest about it.

"No, you drive, Gus. I'm going to be honest on this end. If this doesn't work, man, your ass belongs to me." He indicated the direction they should take, and Gus put the car into gear and steered into the driving lane. They were silent until time for the next turn, and the next.

At last Ross said, "Go up here a couple of blocks and turn left at a stone house with a little stone wall around the front yard." That was all he offered, and he didn't turn to face the other man. Traffic was light. The stone house turned up on schedule, and Ross felt a tingle in the soles of his feet. They made the left turn, and almost immediately the houses became more widely spaced, with more vacant lots, most of them grown up in weeds. Mendoza turned his head toward Ross.

"Does this look right?"

"I don't know. Before long the street should swing right and cross a little creek on a flat bridge. If it does that, we're on the way." The street lived up to all their expectations, and the creek was on duty under the little bridge. Ross felt a change in his pulse, and he made himself breathe deeply.

"We're gonna do it, Jack, I know we are. I can understand how you felt. I shouldn't have sounded off to you the other day."

"Go about a mile and a half. This is the number we're looking for, and it should be on a small brick building," Ross said. He produced the note from his pocket and passed it to Mendoza. "It should be on the left." He settled back into the seat and tried to relax. Mendoza's nostrils were flaring as he breathed, and he began to move first one hand and then the other from the steering wheel, to wipe them on his pants legs and then back to the wheel.
Beyond the creek the houses ceased entirely and they drove through a half mile of wooded land and then emerged into a sort of industrial park, passing a small hospital on the right, with a blinking caution light in front, and then scattered businesses of a service nature, generally in sheet metal buildings with brick faces and paved parking in the front.

Mendoza slowed, peering at the numbers on his left, and turned in at a huge metal building, still under construction, although no one seemed to be on the job today. A mailbox on a post stood on the shoulder of the street, and the correct number showed in white numerals - five of them. He checked them against the slip of paper in his hand, and glanced toward Ross. The lot was not yet paved, and they drove on a loose gravel surface toward the front of the building. It was closed up. There was the remains of a sand pile to the right, and a lot of metal and lumber scraps lying around. Mendoza cut the engine and they sat in silence.

These metal buildings went up in a hurry, even big ones like this. Ross judged they were a month late, or maybe six weeks - not that it mattered. The reality hit him hard. He had assumed that the cooperation was the only hurdle, and if they got that part right the rest would fall into place. And he had assumed, at least for several days now, that it was going to work. What were the odds on somebody putting up a brick office building and tearing it down again fourteen years later? He wondered who had found the money. A blue-collar man like himself? It had been there, he was convinced. Had the story made the local paper, or had the finder quietly carried the money away? It wasn't important, either way. He had no claim on it, except in his mind, where it had already become his. The thought of returning to work in the shop was almost too depressing to deal with. Maybe he would spend a couple of extra days on the trip back. Maybe he would go to Nashville and stay a while. Go to the Opry. There must be something there, everybody was doing it.

He got out of the car slowly and stretched his back and his shoulders, and he picked up a handful of gravel and began to throw the stones at a battered water cooler that stood near the building. He wanted to hurl a couple against the building, so that he could at least leave some dents and make some noise, but there were other buildings adjacent, probably with people still working. It was not yet five o'clock. After a few minutes, Gus joined him outside the car. "You're not so good. I would have figured you could throw rocks better than that."

"It's farther than it looks, and I've hit it twice already. If you think you can do better, be my guest. There's over seven million rocks here."

"How can you tell?"

"As you sail the stormy seas of life, you sorry bastard . . .

"Never mind. This is the place, isn't it?"

"Yes and no. It's the right address, but it's the wrong building. We needed a brick building. We should have been here yesterday. It seems like most of the places I've ever been to in my ****ing life, I should have been there yesterday. But it's a nice little town. I had never been to Wheeling, West ****ing Virginia before." He bent down for more stones, and began to throw harder. It made his arm hurt, so he threw even harder.

"You were asking me about Miriam Moscowitz."

Ross threw another stone before replying. "Looks like you committed a murder for nothing, doesn't it? You and Miriam both. And Sonny, too." Then a terrible truth dawned on him like a blow, and he felt very stupid, indeed. He swung to face Mendoza. Mendoza had a gun pointed at his belly. Of course he did - who didn't know that? But it wasn't exactly like the last time, because Ross' gun that lay handy under a red shop towel last week was now under the seat in his truck at the Holiday Inn in Zanesville, Ohio. What the hell had he brought it for, if he wasn't going to carry it? Thinking about that didn't make him feel much better, either. "I guess this figures, doesn't it? Okay, what happened to Miriam?"

Mendoza shrugged. He had done a lot of shrugging today. "After the day you and I argued in the shop, I had the red-ass pretty good, and I went home and got in a row with Gloria, and I kept thinking about you and this dumb treasure hunt, and I really hated the thought that you might actually find this pile of cash and come back and give me the horse-laugh and start living high while I lugged that mail bag up and down the streets. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed possible. And then I got the notion that I could get in on it, too. I might be able to get some of the money, or all the money, and put you in your place at the same time, so I could give you the horse-laugh.

I had a pretty good idea how to find the woman in St. Louis, and I knew I'd have to kill her, but it didn't bother me enough to stop me. Don't ask me why. Maybe it's something about a person being worth less than five hundred thousand dollars. Whatever it was, I found some things in me I didn't know were there, and the next day I took a week's vacation and packed a bag and headed for St. Louis. I told my supervisor and Gloria both that I had a family emergency. Gloria doesn't hardly know my family, and I was in a bad mood. I didn't ask her permission - I just told her I was going. At that point, I felt just like you. I was going, and it felt pretty good.

Well, I laid a trap for Miriam in St. Louis, and when I caught her I did what I had to do. She was a hard case, like you said she was, and I had to work hard on her. She spit in my face and cursed me and all that just made it easier, and in the end she told me everything I wanted to know. I squeezed Miriam out like a wet dishrag. She knew I was going to kill her, and she would have died without telling, if she could, but she couldn't hang on. By the time it was over, there wasn't much left of her, and I sure as hell wouldn't want to have to answer for it, and I don't plan to. And that brings me around to you. You're the only one that knows I've been to St. Louis."

"So now you're going to shoot me, is that it?"

"I'm not sure what I figured I was going to do with you. I guess this is it. I can kill somebody. They say the first one's the hardest, but even that one was pretty easy for me. I put her down like I'd kill a chicken. There's something spooky about finding out you can do that, and one of these days I guess I'll have to sit down and think about it, but not today. You're my chicken of the day, and when I get this done I can go back and pick up that big leather bag and keep walking toward my retirement, just like last week. I won't be any richer, but I won't worry about going to jail, either. I'll have done like my friend Jack. I'll have given it a shot. This one didn't work out, but I'll have given it a chance and covered all my tracks. The first killing isn't really the hardest, after all. This is going to be the tough one, Jack, it really is, but I'm going to do it anyway. I can't do anything else, can I?"

"If you shoot me here forty people will hear it and then get to watch you driving away. You're busted, Mendoza. And if you keep pointing that goddam gun at me you just might get it stuck up your grocery chute. I just saw a half million in cash slip away from me, and I'm in no mood to fool around with some misguided, mail-carrying Mexican murderer. You'd better get in your car and get the hell out of here. I'll get a ride back to Zanesville, don't worry about it. I imagine you've got to kill me, but you won't do it here." Ross sounded a lot more certain of that than he felt. He took a step forward, and Gus fell back a step, frowning.

Ross had him pegged right. Mendoza wouldn't shoot him here. If he still had some of the gravel in his hands he could probably get the jump on him. Throw the stones in his face suddenly and nail him before he could get reorganized. He took another step forward and Mendoza shot him in the stomach.

The sound of the explosion was much less out here than the one in the shop, but there were seemingly endless metallic echoes in this street of tin walls and empty spaces, and the impact of the bullet drove him backward and he lost his footing and sat down hard in the gravel. It knocked the breath out of him, and suddenly he understood what Sonny Leppert had been trying to do when he died. There was a fire in his gut and he couldn't get any air in his lungs, and his eyes bulged and he folded his arms across his abdomen and bent forward. He was dying. The bullet had been too low to hit his heart, but he was going to die from lack of air.

Somebody shouted in the distance, then another voice said "Hey!" Mendoza spun around to see, and there were men running toward them from the next building, maybe a hundred yards away, and he turned back to where Jack Ross sat on the ground. He lifted the gun again and the shouts were repeated, and again he turned away. People were coming, but Ross knew it was too late for him. Mendoza addressed him again and aimed for his head. Ross flinched sideways and threw up an arm. Mendoza's second shot went through his forearm and into his shoulder, knocking him down on his back. He heard the other man's hurried steps, labored and crunching in the treacherous footing, heard him start the engine and gun it, and felt the shower of stones from the spinning tires. It was Piper, not Mendoza, that Ross cursed as he gave it up and passed into a comfortable darkness where a man didn't need any air.
 

vapros

Verified Member
Joined
May 24, 2004
Messages
3,733
Chapter 44

Chapter 44

Ross was out of touch for a day and a half. He was still alive because he had picked a good place to get shot, if there is such a thing, - only a few blocks from a hospital. A rescue unit was on the scene in ten minutes, and in another ten he was in the emergency room, already suffering from blood loss. He bled internally, through the many wounds made there by Gus Mendoza's bullet. He was filling up inside, and his blood pressure was falling. From the emergency room he went to the OR, and remained there for most of the evening.

He lay on the operating table, limp and gray, with his belly laid open to accommodate the hands and implements that came and went. For a time, the bleeding kept pace with the transfusion, and even got ahead of it sometimes. They put the blood into him through a little tube, and it ran out through all those big holes. As the doctors patched the holes, the bleeding slowed, became intermittent, and finally stopped.

A bit of color returned to his skin, and his blood pressure began to rise. A nurse with a vacuum hose had been busy for some time, collecting the blood and contaminants that tried to fill the abdominal cavity. When a man is gut-shot, he poisons himself with a lot of filth that he would normally process through his sewage system. If it isn't cleaned out, it can kill him. Somewhere along the way, a doctor had cleaned and treated the hole through his arm, and taken a second bullet out of his shoulder. These wounds would heal long before the damage in his belly, and no bones had been hit.

One by one, the crew completed their work and backed away from the table, removed gloves and masks, and stretched aching muscles. Their bloody clothes would go into laundry carts, to be replaced with fresh outfits before moving along to other customers. By the time an intern had finished sewing up the long incision, only a few of the original work force remained.

In his room in intensive care, Ross made the transition from anesthesia to exhausted sleep. He lay spread-eagled with tubes in his nostrils and needles in the backs of his hands, connected to bottles and bags suspended from chrome stands next to the bed. Sensors taped to his body made patterns and numbers on a console at the nurses station, proving that he was still alive. A catheter tube emerged from under the sheet and ran to a container on the floor. Plastic tubes into his nostrils supplied the oxygen that he took in shallow irregular breaths. With a little imagination, one could have argued that the man on the bed was the power source, and that all the equipment was plugged into him for the energy to keep it running.

He didn't carry a wallet, but he had a card case with the bare necessities in it. His driver's license was there, and some credit cards and a few of his own business cards. It was turned over to a volunteer, who called the business number in Baton Rouge, but all she got was Ross' own voice, granting her permission to leave a message if she wanted. From Information she got his home listing, and nobody answered at that number, either, so she called the shop again and left a message, unaware that it would be a long time before anybody heard it. On Tuesday morning a doctor came to his room and forced him to wake up for a few seconds. He opened his eyes briefly, then closed them again without seeing anything. He had no idea where he was, and didn't care. In reply to the doctor's questions, he said he felt okay and there was nobody they should call. That made him think of Sandra for an instant, but then he forgot why. The doctor told him to lie still and rest for a few days, but Ross didn't hear him. He was gone again.

An awareness of pain came to him in the small hours of Wednesday morning. There was a dull ache in the middle of his body and he had a raging thirst. He was in the depths of a dark well; dark and dry. The walls were rough and abrasive to the touch, and he could see a light at the top, a long way above him. He considered trying to make the climb, but then the pain and thirst subsided and he slept again. Twenty minutes later they came back with a bit of a jolt, and he peered upward toward the light and began to search for handholds and toeholds in the darkness, but a brief effort drained all his strength and he fell back into sleep.

On the third attack he opened his eyes and blinked rapidly for a focus. He wasn't in a well. He was in a laboratory, with strange equipment standing around him. He was unable to move and his belly was burning, but he didn't know why. Somebody should be there to help him, but nobody was. He struggled to raise his head, but it was too heavy and the motion made his stomach feel worse. He tried to think what to do, but his brain was still asleep, and it seemed to be wrapped in something fuzzy and soft.

The terrible pain settled into the bed with him and put a bear hug on him, and made him contort the muscles of his face. There was something else, too. There was a man sitting at the foot of the bed. Ross could just barely see him at the bottom of his range of vision, his head elevated a little by a small pillow. The man was grotesque and evil-looking, his skin pale and shiny and stretched tightly over the bones of his face. A tiny little man, less than two feet high. Ross struggled to see him better, but still couldn't raise his head. The man saw that he had been spotted, and he leaned forward and smiled, exposing yellowed teeth. It was an ugly smile, with no mirth in it.

"Piper?" croaked Ross weakly. His mouth was incredibly dry. He lay for some minutes, moving his tongue around, searching for some moisture to wet his dusty lips. He tried for a deeper breath, and it was like turning the knife in his gut, and it made him light-headed. He rested for a minute and tried again. "Piper, is that you?" he whispered. The man smiled again, but did not answer him. No doubt about it, it was Piper, but how could that be? Piper was dead. It must mean that he was dead, too, but this didn't look like hell. It looked like a hospital, and Piper's tiny feet, propped up on the foot of the bed, had on hospital slippers. If this was a hospital, then why was he here, and what was that awful pain? He closed his eyes and tried to untangle some of these mysteries.

"Mr. Ross?" That didn't sound like Piper, and it wasn't. It was a nurse in starched whites. "How are you feeling?"

"I feel bad," he said in a faint voice. "My stomach hurts and I'm thirsty." His speaking was improving, but it used up all his breath, and he lay panting, staring at the ceiling.

"You'll be fine," said the nurse. "You've had surgery, and you're doing just fine. I can give you something for the pain, but no drink today. Everything you need is coming through the IV's."

Bullshit, thought Ross, but he didn't say it. "Piper is here," he said stupidly, instead.

"Who's here?" The nurse was smiling faintly as she prepared a syringe.

"Nothing. Why did I have an operation?" He could tell that he was mumbling, but he couldn't do anything about it.

The nurse didn't answer his question. She made a cold spot on his arm with alcohol on a cotton ball, and stuck the needle into the spot. The medicine made a warm patch around the cold spot as she removed the needle. "Lie still. I'll be right back."

"I'll wait here."

"You don't sound very sick to me." She went into the little bathroom and returned with a wet washcloth and began to bathe his face. As she wiped his lips he tried to suck some water from the cloth, but it wasn't wet enough. As she continued to cool him slowly, the pain and the thirst began to slide away and he became drowsy and comfortable. The nurse stood back and watched the tension go out of him. He sighed and closed his eyes.

"Piper's here," Ross said thickly. "That son of a bitch."
 

vapros

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May 24, 2004
Messages
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Chapter 45

Chapter 45

Ross spent most of Wednesday and Thursday at the bottom of the well. The darkness was total down there and it was nearly silent, with only the hum of his air conditioner and occasional soft sounds of rubber-tired vehicles passing in the hall making a reassuring level of noise. Very sick people depend on such things, so they can know that they are alive. When it's completely dark and completely quiet, it's hard to be certain. Only when the pain was fierce did he make the effort necessary to scale the walls of the well, and at those times one of the nurses would know, somehow, that he was climbing, and she would come to ask how he was feeling and to bathe his face and to give him what he needed to stay in the well. It was a refuge, and Ross would dig in and stay as long as he could each time. When he felt the need, he could look up and see the circle of light that marked the top of it, and it made him feel better. Trips to the top were always painful.

Usually when the nurse was in the room, Piper would be there, too. He never spoke to Ross, but he always grinned at him with that ghastly stretching of skin over teeth and bones. If Ross had the burning thirst on him, Piper would be drinking something tall and cold, and he would raise it in a toast and his grin would become even wider. After the first day, it didn't even seem strange that Piper was so small. He had never been very big, and now that he was dead . .... sometimes he wasn't there at all.

On Friday morning he woke up in much the same way that other people wake up in the morning. Not exactly the same, of course, but more like it than he had in a long time - he had no idea how long. He had not had a completely lucid five minutes since Gus Mendoza had knocked him down in the gravel, just blocks up the street. There was a nurse in the room, and she opened the blind a bit for him, and the sunlight made him squint. He was weak and in some pain, but he knew he was better, and he questioned the nurse about the days he had missed.

She told him he'd been shot, but who didn't know that? He noted a sore arm and a sore shoulder for the first time, and she told him he'd been shot two or three times, and that was news. She said there was a policeman that had been wanting to see him about that, and if he called today she would tell him he could come in for a few minutes. Ross reminded himself to prepare some answers for the policeman's questions. He asked her who had shot him, and had the guy ever called to see about him or not, and she couldn't help him in that area. Nobody seemed to know, she said. A doctor came in shortly after she left and inspected the chart on the clipboard at the foot of the bed and asked him a few questions and peeked under all his bandages, and assured him he was doing just fine and then was gone. Ross had some questions of his own for the doctor, but never had a chance to ask. A doctor on rounds keeps his feet moving.

A pair of matching orderlies showed up next and gave him a sort of half-assed bath and changed his bed, and that was a bad scene - painful as hell. When it was over he was more than ready to go back down his well. He cursed Piper, just to keep in practice, and that reminded him of something else, but he lost it before he recognized it. The nurse returned with his fix, and it was something different this time. It took longer to get a grip on him, and it didn't return him to the well. Instead, it seemed to tuck him into an oversized sleeping bag lined with black velvet, and he was able to sink down out of reach of the pain, and it wasn't such a bad thing at all.

In the late afternoon he awoke with a burning fever, stinging eyes and heaving chest. There were already people in his room; people with a cart full of cold packs, and they iced him down like a mackerel and made him a frosty cocoon in a rubber sheet. The pain from that first day and night returned and crawled into the cocoon with him, and the people in the room were adding more bags and bottles of liquids to the standing rack. They must have decided that the needles in his hands couldn't handle it all at once, and they put in another one, inside his elbow. Piper danced on the foot of the bed, trying to stay out of their way, and a couple of times Ross saw him craning his skinny little neck for a better view of what was going on. There's death in here today, thought Ross, and when nobody was looking he plunged back down the well.

He returned to surgery that evening, but wasn't aware of it, and two more days in the ICU passed without his knowledge. The office staff went back to calling the two Baton Rouge numbers without success, and finally got the information operator to give them the numbers for a couple of other sign shops, and the first guy they reached on Monday knew Ross, and promised to contact someone who would be in touch. Fifteen minutes later, Sandra called the Wheeling hospital to ask about him. She called twice that day and twice more on the following day, then once on Wednesday. The calls ceased when they were able to tell her he was doing nicely.

The crisis passed for Ross and he began his recovery again, but he was weaker and more wasted than before, and he slept nearly all the time. The wounds in arm and shoulder were healing as they should, but the incision up his front had been reopened and equipped with new drains, and the pain seldom relaxed its grip on him, and he could call for medication when he wanted it. He saw Piper nearly every time he stirred, and he thought the little man wore a look of disappointment, as if something he wanted had been denied him.

In time, Ross came to understand the thing with Piper, or at least he thought he had it figured. Piper was his pain. He had a pain that he could see. Who ever heard of such a thing? The little apparition was also his failure - his failure to complete the adventure that had brought him here. Unless he suddenly got worse and died, he knew that the pain would eventually leave him, but he feared that the failure was permanent. Was that little son of a bitch going to be a feature of his bad nights forever?

A volunteer in a gray uniform visited him in his room and scolded him for not having a number in his wallet so that someone could be notified when he was sick.

"Don't you have family, Mr. Ross?"

He nodded gently without opening his eyes.

"Is there anybody you'd like for me to call today, to tell them you're getting better?"

"I'll tell them."

"Surely someone would want to know." Gus Mendoza's name drifted into his foggy mind, and drifted away again before he could understand why. The volunteer in the gray dress sighed and smoothed his sheets and left the room, and Ross slipped back down the well.

He awoke in pain during the evening, and the room was dark. He lay in silence for a few moments, trying to get his brain back on line, and began to search for the cord with the call-button on the end. Somebody was in the room. Screw you, Piper, he said to himself, then realized it was not Piper. He shifted his head a bit and peered into the shadows. It was his favorite nurse, a tall strong girl named Brandt.

"How're you doing?" she asked him.

"Got a stomach ache, Dutch. You okay?" His voice was not too impressive tonight, and he spoke slowly.

"Fine. Can I sit down?"

"Sure. Not on the bed."

"No, no, on the chair." She backed up a step and dropped out of his vision. "There's pain medication on your orders, and all you have to do is let the nurse know."

"I've got a little thing with a button on the end," he said slowly, "but I can't find it."

"A little thing with a button on the end?" said Brandt. Ross could tell she was grinning. "Maybe when you're feeling better, I'll help you look for it." She rose and came over to the bed and gave him the buzzer. He pressed the button with his thumb, and told the nurse what he needed when she answered on the intercom. They waited without speaking until she brought him the medicine. The two women greeted each other, and the one on duty left the room.

"You working?" Ross asked her. His speech was slow and his voice was faint.

"No, I'm on my way home. I just thought I'd check on you and maybe get off my feet a few minutes."

"Good."

"Can you talk okay?"

"Yeah, for now, but I'll be leaving you pretty soon. That's good stuff they bring me." He kept his eyes closed when he was speaking, but opened them as he finished, as if that helped him hear her reply.

"I know. Just go on when you get a chance. They'll downgrade your dose in a day or two, so enjoy while you can. Where will you go when you get out of here?"

"Aaah . . Baton Rouge. I live in Baton Rouge."

"I know you do, but it's going to be a while before you can drive that truck to Baton Rouge."

It was the first time he'd thought of the truck, or his room at the Holiday Inn in Zanesville. "Damn! Where's my truck, Dutch?"

"It's waiting at the motel in Zanesville. Somebody called and had them pack your stuff and check you out. They'll hold it all for you."

"How did they know?"

"You told them, I think. They said you talked a blue streak about your truck that second morning. Somebody took care of it."

"Good."

"They'll let you out of here before you're well enough to drive back to Louisiana, though, so you have to have a place to go for a few days."

"I'm not ready to think about that, yet. I'll do it tomorrow, or the day after, for sure." He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling, and told himself the medicine would kick in, any minute now.

"Do you want to spend a week with my mom and me?"

"I don't know, Dutch. You don't have to do that."

"I know, but we'd like to, and it would solve a problem for you."

"She doesn't know me."

"She came by this morning and looked at you, and said she guessed you'd do. You'd like mom, too, she's good people. Mom's a bookkeeper."

"Bookkeeper?"

"Yeah, she works right where you got shot."

"My stomach?" Ross asked stupidly, and he heard Brandt giggle audibly. It seemed to be getting darker in the room, and he had trouble seeing her, but suddenly he could see Piper, and Piper was pouting. Piper was jealous.

"No, not your stomach, silly. She works down the street at the Penn-Dearie building."

"I got shot at Penn-Dearie." He was telling it to himself.

"Yep. She had only left the building five minutes before it happened. She almost got to see it."

"The building wasn't even finished. I remember that." There was something here to discover, but his head was beginning to get fuzzy inside.

"The building where she works is finished. She's worked there for more than ten years."

He was trying to reason with Dutch, but she was slow, and he was having trouble making her see. "There's only one building, and it's not finished, yet." He frowned, and settled deeper into the bed. He had stopped opening his eyes, and he was on his way out.

"There's a little building where my mom works and it's inside the big building. It's an office building. It used to be all that Penn-Dearie had here in Wheeling, that office. Now they're building that big warehouse and service center. The little one was all set up and running, so they kept it going, and just built around it. It's inside the big building, and that's where my mom works."

This was important, no doubt about that, because it made the soles of his feet tingle again, as if he had just looked down from a great height, but he would have to think about it later. Right now he was out of here.

"See you later," mumbled Ross softly.

"Sleep tight," said Brandt.

He began to slide down the well, then hesitated. He frowned and sighed, and struggled back up to the edge, and rested there a moment. Then he opened one eye a tiny crack and looked toward his feet. He was just in time to get a glimpse of Piper's scrawny ass as the little man tumbled backward off the end of the bed.

The End
 
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