Authors: Steven J Patrick
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Retail, #Suspense, #Thriller
"Right," Hooks sighed. "Goodbye, all."
We all sat quietly for a few seconds. I got up and walked over to Art's day-erase board. I picked up a purple marker and wrote "Joe" at the top of the board, "Jane Wright" on the left, and "P.P.V." on the right. At the bottom, I wrote Jack's name. Next to his, I wrote "Colville tribes".
"I let this get out of hand," I murmured, irrationally pissed. My hand with the marker in it was shaking and the other one was so balled up so tightly into a fist that I could feel my nails digging into my palm. I squeezed harder. The tiny pain was refreshing and clarifying and I got an inkling, a tiny glimpse of something that had been right before me all along and I had been to preoccupied to see.
"Fuck me," I rasped, "One goddam rule of investigatory logic to remember and I got busy and forgot that."
"What rule?" Jack asked, coming around to look at the board.
"What stands out is always what you eliminate first," I snapped, "I'm not going to say anything -
- until I'm sure but..."
"You're seeing a connection," Art said quietly. "Fuck if I do."
"Don't get too amazed," I mused. "I may have my head up my ass."
Joe involuntarily pulled the phone away from his ear. He had been expecting Katja and was all set with a mini-travelogue on the glories of the Rhone Valley, lubricated by the lovely hillsides of Gigondas and the Domaine les Pallieres '98 in the glass before him.
He'd gone native, as always: scuffed brogans, weathered khakis, neckerchief, suspenders and a loose linen shirt. A battered gauloise hung from his lip and his beret was worn backswept, like the local grape pickers. He had soaked his fingers in a bowl of cheap, inky Syrah in his room before going out this a.m.; testament to long hours and endless days of work in the vineyards and crushing house.
Rawlings had been spooked enough that he stayed holed up in his suite throughout the glorious days. Finding this out had been as easy as plying an off-duty steward with wine and chatting about eccentric guests. Joe had simply sat, all night, on the roof of an abandoned warehouse six blocks away. It was a warm, still night with low humidity; the longest, but in many ways the easiest, shot of the three.
And now, the serene villages of France. He felt calm and in control for the first time in nearly 10 days, sitting in a sleepy sidewalk café, speaking only French, sampling glorious wines, reading the local news ("Claude Dufresne's new calf was born at 7:12 p.m. on Tuesday") feeling the poisons of uncertainty seeping away and the ants sloughing off like shed skin.
This call, then, was ice water in his face.
"Yes," Joe agreed softly, in English, "it was an easy shot."
"Well," the voice chuckled, "I was referring to all three. Danvers couldn't have been easy."
"Hard, but doable," Joe muttered, giving nothing away.
"You realize, of course," the man went on, "that this has put me into a pretty tricky position."
"I can't see how," Joe shrugged.
"No," Joe said emphatically. "Look, you've been such a help to me, on so many occasions, that I always hesitate to cross you, but it never came up before that your interests conflicted with mine. I always wondered what I'd do. Now I know. Don't blame it on the girl. I'm doing what I have to do."
"It's a bit too late for chivalry," the voice snapped, its frigid tone seeming to actually burn Joe's ears. "She'll be located in a day or two and stopped."
"I said she's not to blame," Joe said, puzzled.
"Well, I don't agree," came the reply. "You and I had talked this out. All you had to do was keep quiet and do nothing. Then she got into your ear and created this…this catastrophe."
"What catastrophe?" Joe sighed.
"What did I tell you, all those many years ago, when you started out? 'Make no waves, not a ripple on the pond.' We had deserving targets, remote locations, odd times, and the simplest possible plan. Now, you have garden-variety businessmen - oh, guilty of something along the way, I'll grant you that. Every corporate weasel is - but they're people who'll be missed, mourned. People killed in splashy locations, broad daylight, with a plan that makes brain surgery look like mindless doodling. No, I should have done this years ago. She's cancelled."
Joe fumed silently. As nearly always happened, his plan that seemed so elegant and flawless in his head simply didn't translate into words. His frustration, to anyone else, would have felt like being buzzed by a gnat. To Joe, it felt wildly out of control. He groped for just the right words…and failed.
"I know what I'm doing," he murmured, "and I know it's right."
"Right?" the voice chuckled incredulously. "Right? Explain to me if you would, Joseph, what the fuck is at all right about this."
"I'm protecting my home," Joe tried. "Protecting the wilderness, for that matter. It's wrong, ripping up the land that way."
"If you need to invent specious rationales to justify this to yourself, maybe you should ask if you really want to be doing it," the man replied coldly. "Since when have you ever given a shit about the land, the environment, right and wrong, or any other fucking thing outside yourself? That's why you and I have always been good at what we do. We follow orders, act decisively, and don't involve our emotions or some phony moral code. The assignment is what's right, period."
"Uh-huh," Joe shot back, "and I pile up all this money and do…what with it, exactly? Let it sit there, gathering interest, being invested and reinvested, and that's it? Just piling up money for the sake of piling up money? What's the point? You work hard and save your money to get something you want. I wanted privacy, space, freedom, and I got it. And now somebody's trying to take that away. I won't have it."
"But don't you see?" came the answer. "If you'd done it my way, there'd be no suspicion, no noise. Now, cops and feds on two continents are in a frenzy to catch a murderer. They won't stop when you do. And they'll find you, because, eventually, they'll get around to looking right under their noses."
"They won't find anything," Joe said simply.
"Joe," the voice growled, "the fact that they don't find anything will be the most suspicious thing, of all! You don't exist! That's not possible anymore. They interview you, run your vitals and get nothing? They'll dissect you like a pickled frog."
"I'll handle it," Joe shrugged.
"Look," the voice said, not unkindly, "that land and that cabin - at least the way you wanted it, in absolute solitude and isolation - was lost the moment the you hammered down on Percy Kensington. That's just a fact, Joe."
"No, it's not," Joe snapped.
"Sell it, Joe," he implored. "Your whole life has been about doing the smart thing, so do it now. You can't marry a place, Joe. Sell it, move on, find someplace better."
"And what happens there, when the developers come?" Joe sighed. "Move again? That's called running."
"It's part of the job," the voice said simply. "You know that."
"Yeah, well, I hadn't told you this 'cause I wasn't sure, but I've done my last job. I'm out. I'm as well off as I'll ever be and I'm sick of all the silly intrigues," Joe growled.
"Gonna take up fly-fishing, Joe?" the voice chuckled mirthlessly. "I'm sorry but
don't quit. You'll be turned loose, in time, but you serve an important purpose now and you will perform. Being unknown is a double-edged sword, Joe - it helps you stay invisible but it also means nobody's going to miss you if you're gone."
"That a threat?" Joe asked acidly.
"Just facts," the man said evenly. "And this crusade - this wistful, doomed mission of yours - is becoming a hindrance. You have real jobs waiting. They won't wait forever."
"Then find somebody else," Joe snapped. "I'm out. And anybody who comes after me is out, too. We clear?"
"Sorry you feel that way, Joe," the voice sighed. "You were the best. Now, you're dead and don't know it."
"I'll take my chances," Joe said simply and severed the connection.
He punched Katja's number by rote and listened to the faint rings sounding out—one, two, three—somewhere in the vastness of Europe.
Clive Dunbar went down in Munich, just outside a P.P.V. mill. Arthur Beecham and Alfred Pennington died on a country road in Austria, just north of Salzburg. Both shot through the roof of a moving Bently. This all happened in 14 hours, before we got up the next day.
Jack and Aaron took the Cherokee and got hotel rooms in Spokane after we were done with Art. They bagged it and went for a nightcap in the hotel bar, after I had extracted a mutual non-aggression pact from each of them.
I buttonholed Bettijean Moorage and had a surprisingly easy time getting her to pick me up at the hotel. We went up 395 a couple of miles to the Barrister's Corner and ordered drinks.
I got right to it.
"Betts," I grinned, "to say that the tension between you and Art was palpable tonight was like saying you've got a nice ass for a 40-ish babe. What gives?"
"I'm 50-ish, Sparky," she chuckled, "and I've earned every goddamn wrinkle of it. I've added several new ones, lately, behind this Wright family circus. Art is lucky I didn't shoot his silly ass, this week. Friday has come just in time."
She took a soul-deep bite of her Glenlivet and lit up a Tareyton. I didn't even know they still made Tareyton. Also, Washington is a no-smoking-indoors-period state. I made the mistake of saying so.
"No, no," Bettijean gestured dismissively, "Fuck that stupid-ass, New Age-crap law. I'm grandfathered in. We'll deal with your pansy-ass, viceless, sexless, pointless semi-existence along about Scotch number four, Lumpy. Right now, I'm venting about Little Miss Janie Wright and it's stuff you want to know. So stifle it."
"Uh…okay," I murmured.
"No talking," she interrupted. "Now, here's what you won't get from the Godfather, Don D'Onofrio. Clay Wright, for all his money and clout, is one of the most clueless muh'fuckers who ever lived. Janie - who also doesn't exactly challenge Stephen Hawking - has stumbled upon the time-honored but intellect-challenged redneck notion that, if she does her partying and trou-dropping with the local Jerry Springer crowd, the class divisions will operate like some sort of Romulan cloaking device. She's been operating off this theory for a decade or so; even out in L.A. where she carried on a torrid "affair" - by that we mean semi-public screwing in coatrooms and pool cabanas - with a low A-list actor who just happened to be her new hubby's star nose-job. This began maybe two weeks after the nuptials."
I started to speak but suddenly found a hand in my face.
"Ah-ah…there's more," Bettijean hissed. "Now, apparently, all this time pre-homecoming, Janie is stomping through new hubby's bank account like a mule through high corn. She acquires a new Mercedes, a diamond the size of a plover's egg - whatever the fuck that is - and enough brownie points on Rodeo Drive to get elected mayor. No shock there, right? Young wife, sugar daddy; sleazy but it happens. However, according to my friend Marlise at First Citizens, Janie's accounts here are recording clockwork deposits in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $9,999, usually in cash, with nary a withdrawal in almost 14 months. Janie doesn't work. Janie is the antidote to work. And it's not coming from her parents. So, where's the beef?
"Everything below the Feds' reporting limit," I nodded.
"Yup," she smirked, "and the account, as of this morning, was well into seven figures."
"Jesus," I gulped.
"Still more," Bettijean groaned, rubbing her neck and stretching picturesquely. "Since moving back, Clayton Wright seems to have been sentenced to life on the putting green, so Janie has been left to her own devices. Apparently, her device of choice resides within the tightie-whities of a certain young stud-muffin from out Colville way, whose great-aunt just happens to be - get this - our very own Lucille Greenway, your basic principal agitratrix in the whole voter-fraud flap-doodle that precipitated your lovely, albeit carnally-unavailable presence here tonight, just within range of my sexual wiles."