Killing floor, p.17
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       Killing Floor, p.17

         Part #1 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
slower 1  faster
Chapter Eighteen

 

  I DROVE PAST ENO'S DINER AND ROLLED ON NORTH AWAY from town. The plain sedan followed. Forty yards back. No attempt to hide. The two guys just cruised behind me. Gazing forward. I swung west on the road to Warburton. Slowed to a cruise. The plain sedan followed. Still forty yards back. We cruised west. We were the only things moving in that vast landscape. I could see the two guys in the mirror. Gazing at me. They were spotlit by the low afternoon sun. The low, brassy light made them vivid. Young guys, Hispanic, loud shirts, black hair, very neat, very similar. Their car sat steadily in my wake.

  I cruised seven or eight miles. I was looking for a place. There were bumpy earth tracks off to the left and right, every half mile or so. They led into the fields. Looped around aimlessly. I didn't know what they were for. Maybe they led to gathering points where farmers parked machinery for the harvest. Whenever that was. I was looking for a particular track I'd seen before. It led around behind a small stand of trees on the right-hand side of the road. The only cover for miles. I'd seen it from the prison bus on Friday. Seen it again driving back in from Alabama. A sturdy stand of trees. This morning it had been floating on the mist. A little oval copse, next to the road, on the right, an earth track looping behind it, then joining up with the road again.

  I saw it a couple of miles ahead. The trees were a smudge on the horizon. I drove on toward it. Snapped the glove compartment open and lifted the big automatic out. Wedged it between the squabs on the seat next to me. The two guys followed. Still forty yards back. A quarter mile from the woods I slammed the selector into second and floored the pedal. The old car gulped and shot forward. At the track I hauled the wheel around and bounced and slewed the Bentley off the road. Hurled it around to the back of the copse. Jammed it to a stop. Grabbed the gun and jumped. Left the driver's door swinging open like I'd tumbled out and dived straight left into the trees.

  But I went the other way. I went to the right. I danced around the hood and hurled myself fifteen feet into the peanut field and flattened into the ground. Crawled through the bushes and put myself on a level with where their car would have to stop on the track behind the Bentley. Pressed myself up against the brawny stalks, low down under the leaves, on the damp red earth. Then I waited. I figured they'd dropped off maybe sixty or seventy yards. They hadn't tracked my sudden acceleration. I snicked the safety catch off. Then I heard their brown Buick. I caught the noise of the motor and the groan of the suspension. It bounced into view on the track in front of me. It stopped behind the Bentley, framed against the trees. It was about twenty feet away from me.

  They were reasonably smart guys. Not at all the worst I'd ever seen. The passenger had gotten out on the road before they turned in. He thought I was in the woods. He thought he was going to come at me from behind. The driver scrambled across inside the car and rolled out of the passenger door on the far side from the trees. Right in front of me. He was holding a gun and he knelt down in the dirt, his back turned to me, hidden from where he thought I was by the Buick, looking through the car at the woods. I'd have to make him move. I didn't want him to stay next to the car. The car had to stay driveable. I didn't want it damaged.

  They were wary of the copse. That had been the idea. Why would I drive all the way to the only woods for miles, and then hide in a field? A classic diversion. They'd fallen for it without even thinking. The guy by the car was staring through at the woods. I was staring at his back. I had the Desert Eagle lined up on him, breathing low. His partner was creeping slowly through the trees, looking for me. Pretty soon he'd get right through and come right out into view.

  He arrived after about five minutes. He was holding a gun out in front of him. He dodged around the back of the Buick. Kept distance between himself and the Bentley. He crouched down next to his partner and they exchanged shrugs. Then they started peering at the Bentley. Worried that I was lying on the floor or crouching behind the stately chrome radiator. The guy who'd just come out of the woods crawled along in the dirt, keeping the Buick between himself and the trees, right in front of me, staring under the Bentley, looking for my feet.

  He crawled the whole length of the Bentley. I could hear him grunting and gasping as he hauled himself along on his elbows. Then he crawled all the way back and knelt up again beside his partner. They both shuffled sideways and slowly stood up next to the Buick's hood. They stepped over and checked inside the Bentley. They walked together to the edge of the copse and peered into the darkness. They couldn't find me. Then they came back and stood together on the rough track, away from the cars, framed against the orange sky, staring at the trees, their backs to the field, their backs to me.

  They didn't know what to do. They were city boys. Maybe from Miami. They wore Florida clothes. They were used to neon alleys and construction sites. They were used to action under raised highways, in the trash-filled lots the tourists never saw. They didn't know what to do about a small copse standing alone in a million acres of peanuts.

  I shot them both in the back as they stood there. Two quick shots. Aimed high up between their shoulder blades. The big automatic made a sound like hand grenades going off. Birds wheeled into the air from all around. The twin crashes rolled over the countryside like thunder. The recoils pounded my hand. The two guys were hurled forward off their feet. Landed on their faces sprawled against the trees on the far side of the earth track. I raised my head and peered over. They had that slack, empty look that is left behind when life has departed.

  I held onto the gun and stepped over to them. They were dead. I had seen a lot of dead people, and these two were as dead as any of them. The big Magnum shells had caught them high up on their backs. Where the big arteries and veins are, going on up into the head. The bullets had made quite a mess. I looked down at the two guys in the silence and thought about Joe.

  Then I had things to do. I stepped back to the Bentley. Clicked the safety on and tossed the Desert Eagle back on the seat. Stepped over to their Buick and yanked the keys out. Popped the trunk. I guess I was hoping to find something in there. I didn't feel bad about the two boys. But I was going to feel better still if I found something in there. Like a silenced. 22 automatic. Or like four pairs of rubber overshoes and four nylon bodysuits. A few five-inch blades. Things like that. But I didn't find things like that. I found Spivey.

  He'd been dead a few hours. He'd been shot through the forehead with a. 38. From close range. The revolver barrel must have been about six inches from his head. I rubbed my thumb across the skin around the bullet hole. Looked at it. There was no soot, but there were tiny gunpowder particles blasted into the skin. They wouldn't rub off. That kind of tattooing means a fairly close range. Six inches will do it, maybe eight. Somebody had suddenly raised a gun and the slow heavy assistant warden hadn't been quick enough to duck.

  There was a scab on his chin where I'd cut him with Morrison's blade. His small snake eyes were open. He was still in his greasy uniform. His white hairy belly showed through where I'd slashed at his shirt. He had been a big guy. To fit him in the trunk, they'd broken his legs. Probably with a shovel. They'd broken them and folded them sideways at the knee to get his body in. I gazed at him and felt angry. He'd known, and he hadn't told me. But they'd killed him anyway. The fact that he hadn't told me hadn't counted for anything. They were panicking. They were silencing everybody, while the clock ticked slowly around to Sunday. I gazed into Spivey's dead eyes, like there was information still in there.

  Then I ran back to the bodies on the edge of the copse and searched them. Two wallets and a car rental agreement. A mobile phone. That was all. The rental agreement was for the Buick. Rented at the Atlanta airport, Monday morning at eight. An early flight in from somewhere. I went through the wallets. No airline tickets. Florida driver's licenses, both with Jacksonville addresses. Bland photographs, meaningless names. Credit cards to match. Lots of cash in the wallets. I stole it all. They weren't going to spend it.

  I too
k the battery out of the mobile phone and put the phone in one guy's pocket and the battery in the other's. Then I dragged the bodies over to the Buick and heaved them into the trunk with Spivey. Not easy. They weren't tall guys, but they were floppy and awkward. Made me sweat, despite the chill. I had to shove them around to get them both in the space Spivey was leaving. I scouted around and found their revolvers. Both. 38 caliber. One had a full load. The other had fired once. Smelled recent. I pitched the guns into the trunk. Found the passenger's shoes. The Desert Eagle had blown him right out of them. I threw them in the trunk and slammed the lid. Walked back into the field and found my hiding place in the bushes. Where I'd shot them from. Scrabbled around and picked up the two shell cases. Put them in my pocket.

  Then I locked up the Buick and left it. Popped the Bentley's trunk. Pulled out the bag with my old clothes in it. My new gear was covered in red mud and streaked with the dead guys' blood. I put the old things back on. Balled up the muddy bloodstained stuff and shoved it in the bag. Threw the bag in the Bentley's trunk and closed the lid on it. Last thing I did was use a tree branch to sweep away all the footprints I could see.

  I drove the Bentley slowly back east to Margrave and used the time to calm down. A straightforward ambush, no technical difficulty, no real danger. I had thirteen years of hard time behind me. I should be able to walk through a one-on-two against amateurs in my sleep. But my heart was thumping harder than it should have been and a cold blast of adrenaline was shaking me up. It was the sight of Spiveylying there with his legs folded sideways that had done it. I breathed hard and got myself under control. My right arm was sore. Like somebody had hit my palm with a hammer. It jarred all the way up to the shoulder. That Desert Eagle had a hell of a recoil. And it made a hell of a noise. My ears were still ringing from the twin explosions. But I felt good. It had been a job well done. Two tough guys had followed me out there. They weren't following me back.

  I PARKED UP IN THE STATION HOUSE LOT, FARTHEST SLOT from the door. Put my gun back in the glove compartment and got out of the car. It was getting late. The evening gloom was gathering. The huge Georgia sky was darkening. Turning a deep inky shade. The moon was coming up.

  Roscoe was at her desk. She got up when she saw me and walked over. We went back out through the door. Walked a few paces. Kissed.

  "Anything from the car rental people?" I asked her.

  She shook her head.

  "Tomorrow," she said. "Picard's dealing with it. He's doing his best. "

  "OK," I said. "What hotels you got up at the airport?"

  She reeled off a list of hotels. Pretty much the same list you got at any airport. I picked the first name she'd listed. Then I told her what had happened with the two Florida boys. Last week, she'd have arrested me for it. Sent me to the chair. Now, her reaction was different. Those four men who had padded through her place in their rubber shoes had changed her mind about a lot of things. So she just nodded and smiled a tight grim smile of satisfaction.

  "Two down," she said. "Good work, Reacher. Were they the ones?"

  "From last night?" I said. "No. They weren't local. We can't count them in Hubble's ten. They were hired help from outside. "

  "Were they any good?" she asked.

  I shrugged at her. Rocked my hand from side to side, equivocally.

  "Not really," I said. "Not good enough, anyway. "

  Then I told her what I had found in the Buick's trunk. She shivered again.

  "So is he one of the ten?" she asked. "Spivey?"

  I shook my head.

  "No," I said. "I can't see it. He was outside help, too. Nobody would have a slug like that on the inside. "

  She nodded. I opened up the Bentley and got the gun out of the glove box. It was too big to go in my pocket. I put it back in the old file box with the bullets. Roscoe put the whole thing in the trunk of her Chevy. I got the carrier bag of stained clothes out. Locked the Bentley up and left it there in the police lot.

  "I'm going to call Molly again," I said. "I'm getting in pretty deep. I need some background. There are things I don't understand. "

  The place was quiet so I used the rosewood office. I dialed the Washington number and got Molly on the second ring.

  "Can you talk?" I asked her.

  She told me to wait, and I heard her get up and close her office door.

  "It's too soon, Jack," she said. "I can't get the stuff until tomorrow. "

  "I need background," I said. "I need to understand this international stuff Joe was doing. I need to know why things are happening here, if the action is supposed to be overseas. "

  I heard her figuring out where to start.

  "OK, background," she said. "I guess Joe's assumption was it's maybe controlled from this country. And it's a very difficult problem to explain, but I'll try. The forging happens abroad, and the trick is most of it stays abroad. Only a few of the fake bills ever come back here, which is not a huge deal domestically, but obviously it's something we want to stop. But abroad, it presents a completely different type of problem. You know how much cash is inside the U. S. , Jack?"

  I thought back to what the bank guy had told me.

  "A hundred and thirty billion dollars," I said.

  "Right," she said. "But exactly twice that much is held offshore. That's a fact. People all over the world are holding onto two hundred and sixty billion dollars' worth of American cash. It's in safety deposits in London, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, stuffed into mattresses all over South America, Eastern Europe, hidden under floorboards, false walls, in banks, travel agencies, everywhere. And why is that?"

  "Don't know," I said.

  "Because the dollar is the world's most trusted currency," she said. "People believe in it. They want it. And naturally, the government is very, very happy about that. "

  "Good for the ego, right?" I said.

  I heard her change the phone to the other hand.

  "It's not an emotional thing," she said. "It's business. Think about it, Jack. If there's a hundred-dollar bill in somebody's bureau in Bucharest, that means somebody somewhere once exchanged a hundred dollars' worth of foreign assets for it. It means our government sold them a piece of paper with green and black ink on it for a hundred bucks. Good business. And because it's a trusted currency, chances are that hundred-dollar bill will probably stay in that bureau in Bucharest for many years. The U. S. will never have to deliver the foreign assets back again. As long as the dollar stays trusted, we can't lose. "

  "So what's the problem?" I asked her.

  "Difficult to describe," Molly said. "It's all about trust and faith. It's almost metaphysical. If foreign markets are getting flooded with fake dollars, that doesn't really matter in itself. But if the people in those foreign markets find out, then it does matter. Because they panic. They lose their faith. They lose their trust. They don't want dollars anymore. They'll turn to Japanese yen or German marks to stuff their mattresses with. They'll get rid of their dollars. In effect, overnight, the government would have to repay a two-hundred-sixty-billion-dollar foreign loan. Overnight. And we couldn't do that, Jack. "

  "Big problem," I said.

  "That's the truth," she said. "And a remote problem. The fakes are all made abroad, and they're mostly distributed abroad. It makes sense that way. The factories are hidden away in some remote foreign region, where we don't know about them, and the fakes are distributed to foreigners who are happy as long as the stuff looks vaguely like real dollars are supposed to look. That's why not very many are imported. Only the very best fakes come back to the States. "

  "How many come back?" I asked her.

  I heard her shrug. A little breath sound, like she had pursed her lips.

  "Not many," she said. "A few billion, now and then, I guess. "

  "A few billion?" I said. "That's not many?"

  "A drop in the ocean," she said. "From a macroeconomic point of view. Compared to the size of the economy, I m
ean. "

  "And what exactly are we doing about it?" I asked her.

  "Two things," she said. "First thing is Joe was trying like mad to stop it from happening. The reason behind that is obvious. Second thing is we're pretending like mad it isn't happening at all. So as to keep the faith. "

  I nodded. Started to see some shape behind the big-time secrecy going on up there in Washington.

  "OK," I said. "So if I were to call the Treasury and ask them about it?"

  "We'd deny everything," she said. "We'd say, what counterfeiting?"

  I WALKED THROUGH THE SILENT SQUAD ROOM AND JOINED Roscoe in her car. Told her to drive out toward Warburton. It was dark when we reached the little stand of trees. Just enough moonlight to pick it out. Roscoe pulled up where I showed her. I kissed her and got out. Told her I'd see her up at the hotel. Slapped lightly on the Chevy's roof and waved her off. She turned in the road. Drove slowly away.

  I pushed directly through the copse. Didn't want to leave footprints on the track. The fat carrier bag made it awkward. It kept snagging in the brush. I came out right by the Buick. Still there. All quiet. I unlocked the driver's door with the key and got in. Started up and bounced down the track. The rear suspension kept bottoming out on the ruts. I wasn't too surprised about that. Must have been about five hundred pounds weight in the trunk.

  I jounced out onto the road and drove east toward Margrave. But I turned left at the county road and headed north. Cruised the rest of the fourteen miles up to the highway. Passed by the warehouses and joined the stream north to Atlanta. I didn't drive fast, didn't drive slow. Didn't want to get noticed. The plain Buick was very anonymous. Very inconspicuous. That was how I wanted to keep it.

  After an hour I followed the airport signs. Found my way around to the long-term parking. Took a ticket at the little automated barrier and nosed in. It was a huge lot. Couldn't be better. I found a slot near the middle, about a hundred yards from the nearest fence. Wiped off the wheel and the transmission. Got out with the carrier bag. Locked the Buick and walked away.

  After a minute, I looked back. Couldn't pick out the car I'd just dumped. What's the best place to hide a car? In an airport long-term lot. Like where's the best place to hide a grain of sand? On the beach. The Buick could sit there for a month. Nobody would think twice.

  I walked back toward the entrance barrier. At the first trash can I dumped the carrier bag. At the second I got rid of the parking ticket. At the barrier I caught the little courtesy bus and rode to the departure terminal. Walked in and found a bathroom. Wrapped the Buick keys in a paper towel and dropped them in the garbage. Then I slipped down to the arrivals hall and stepped out into the damp night again. Caught the hotel courtesy bus and rode off to meet Roscoe.

  I FOUND HER IN THE NEON GLARE OF A HOTEL LOBBY. I PAID cash for a room. Used a bill I'd taken from the Florida boys. We went up in the elevator. The room was a dingy, dark place. Big enough. Looked out over the airport sprawl. The window had three layers of glass against the jet noise. The place was airless.

  "First, we eat," I said.

  "First, we shower," Roscoe said.

  So we showered. Put us in a better frame of mind. We soaped up and started fooling around. Ended up making love in the stall with the water beating down on us. Afterward, I just wanted to curl up in the glow. But we were hungry. And we had things to do. Roscoe put on the clothes she'd brought from her place in the morning. Jeans, shirt, jacket. Looked wonderful. Very feminine, but very tough. She had a lot of spirit.

  We rode up to a restaurant on the top floor. It was OK. A big panoramic view of the airport district. We sat in candlelight by a window. A cheerful foreign guy brought us food. I crammed it all down. I was starving. I had a beer and a pint of coffee. Started to feel halfway human again. Paid for the meal with more of the dead guys' money. Then we rode down to the lobby and picked up an Atlanta street map at the desk. Walked out to Roscoe's car.

  The night air was cold and damp and stank of kerosene. Airport smell. We got in the Chevy and pored over the street map. Headed out northwest. Roscoe drove and I tried to direct her. We battled traffic and ended up roughly in the right place. It was a sprawl of low-rise housing. The sort of place you see from planes coming in to land. Small houses on small lots, hurricane fencing, aboveground pools. Some nice yards, some dumps. Old cars up on blocks. Everything bathed in yellow sodium glare.

  We found the right street. Found the right house. Decent place. Well looked after. Neat and clean. A tiny one-story. Small yard, small single-car garage. Narrow gate in the wire fence. We went through. Rang the bell. An old woman cracked the door against the chain.

  "Good evening," Roscoe said. "We're looking for Sherman Stoller. "

  Roscoe looked at me after she said it. She should have said we were looking for his house. We knew where Sherman Stoller was. Sherman Stoller was in the Yellow Springs morgue, seventy miles away.

  "Who are you?" the old woman asked, politely.

  "Ma'am, we're police officers," Roscoe said. Half true.

  The old lady eased the door and took the chain off.

  "You better come in," she said. "He's in the kitchen. Eating, I'm afraid. "

  "Who is?" said Roscoe.

  The old lady stopped and looked at her. Puzzled.

  "Sherman," she said. "That's who you want, isn't it?"

  We followed her into the kitchen. There was an old guy eating supper at the table. When he saw us, he stopped and dabbed at his lips with a napkin.

  "Police officers, Sherman," the old lady said.

  The old guy looked up at us blankly.

  "Is there another Sherman Stoller?" I asked him.

  The old guy nodded. Looked worried.

  "Our son," he said.

  "About thirty?" I asked him. "Thirty-five?"

  The old guy nodded again. The old lady moved behind him and put her hand on his arm. Parents.

  "He don't live here," the old man said.

  "Is he in trouble?" the old lady asked.

  "Could you give us his address?" Roscoe said.

  They fussed around like old people do. Very deferential to authority. Very respectful. Wanted to ask us a lot of questions, but just gave us the address.

  "He hasn't lived here for two years," the old man said.

  He was afraid. He was trying to distance himself from the trouble his son was in. We nodded to them and backed out. As we were shutting their front door, the old man called out after us.

  "He moved out there two years ago," he said.

  We trooped out through the gate and got back in the car. Looked on the street map again. The new address wasn't on it.

  "What did you make of those two?" Roscoe asked me.

  "The parents?" I said. "They know their boy was up to no good. They know he was doing something bad. Probably don't know exactly what it was. "

  "That's what I thought," she said. "Let's go find this new place. "

  We drove off. Roscoe got gas and directions at the first place we saw.

  "About five miles the other way," she said. Pulled the car around and headed away from the city. "New condominiums on a golf course. "

  She was peering into the gloom, looking for the landmarks the gas station attendant had given her. After five miles she swung off the main drag. Nosed along a new road and pulled up by a developer's sign. It advertised condominiums, top quality, built right on the fairway. It boasted that only a few remained unsold. Beyond the billboard were rows of new buildings. Very pleasant, not huge, but nicely done. Balconies, garages, good details. Ambitious landscaping loomed up in the dark. Lighted pathways led over to a health club. On the other side was nothing. Must have been the golf course.

  Roscoe killed the motor. We sat in the car. I stretched my arm along the back of her seat. Cupped her shoulder. I was tired. I'd been busy all day. I wanted to sit like this for a while. It was a quiet, dull night. Warm in the car. I
wanted music. Something with an ache to it. But we had things to do. We had to find Judy. The woman who had bought Sherman Stoller's watch and had it engraved. To Sherman, love Judy. We had to find Judy and tell her the man she'd loved had bled to death under a highway.

  "What do you make of this?" Roscoe said. She was bright and awake.

  "Don't know," I said. "They're for sale, not rental. They look expensive. Could a truck driver afford this?"

  "Doubt it," she said. "These probably cost as much as my place, and I couldn't make my payments without the subsidy I get. And I make more than any truck driver, that's for sure. "

  "OK," I said. "So our guess is old Sherman was getting some kind of a subsidy, too, right? Otherwise he couldn't afford to live here. "

  "Sure," she said. "But what kind of a subsidy?"

  "The kind that gets people killed," I said.

  STOLLER'S BUILDING WAS WAY IN BACK. PROBABLY THE first phase to have been built. The old man in the poor part of town had said his son had moved out two years ago. That could be about right. This first block could be about two years old. We threaded through walkways and around raised-up flower beds. Walked up a path to Sherman Stoller's door. The path was stepping stones set in the wiry lawn. Forced an unnatural gait on you. I had to step short. Roscoe had to stretch her stride from one flagstone to the next. We reached the door. It was blue. No shine on it. Old-fashioned paint.

  "Are we going to tell her?" I said.

  "We can't not tell her, can we?" Roscoe said. "She's got to know. "

  I knocked on the door. Waited. Knocked again. I heard the floor creaking inside. Someone was coming. The door opened. A woman stood there. Maybe thirty, but she looked older. Short, nervous, tired. Blond from a bottle. She looked out at us.

  "We're police officers, ma'am," Roscoe said. "We're looking for the Sherman Stoller residence. "

  There was silence for a moment.

  "Well, you found it, I guess," the woman said.

  "May we come in?" Roscoe asked. Gently.

  Again there was silence. No movement. Then the blond woman turned and walked back down the hallway. Roscoe and I looked at each other. Roscoe followed the woman. I followed Roscoe. I shut the door behind us.

  The woman led us into a living room. A decent-sized space. Expensive furniture and rugs. A big TV. No stereo, no books. It all looked a bit halfhearted. Like somebody had spent twenty minutes with a catalog and ten thousand dollars. One of these, one of those, two of that. All delivered one morning and just kind of dumped in there.

  "Are you Mrs. Stoller?" Roscoe asked the woman. Still gentle.

  "More or less," the woman said. "Not exactly Mrs. , but as near as makes no difference anyhow. "

  "Is your name Judy?" I asked her.

  She nodded. Kept on nodding for a while. Thinking.

  "He's dead, isn't he?" Judy said.

  I didn't answer. This was the part I wasn't good at. This was Roscoe's part. She didn't say anything, either.

  "He's dead, right?" Judy said again, louder.

  "Yes, he is," Roscoe said. "I'm very sorry. "

  Judy nodded to herself and looked around the hideous room. Nobody spoke. We just stood there. Judy sat down. She waved us to sit as well. We sat, in separate chairs. We were all sitting in a neat triangle.

  "We need to ask you some questions," Roscoe said. She was sitting forward, leaning toward the blond woman. "May we do that?"

  Judy nodded. Looked pretty blank.

  "How long did you know Sherman?" Roscoe asked.

  "About four years, I guess," Judy said. "Met him in Florida, where I lived. Came up here to be with him four years ago. Lived up here ever since. "

  "What was Sherman's job?" Roscoe asked.

  Judy shrugged miserably.

  "He was a truck driver," she said. "He got some kind of a big driving contract up here. Supposed to be long-term, you know? So we bought a little place. His folks moved in too. Lived with us for a while. Then we moved out here. Left his folks in the old house. He made good money for three years. Busy all the time. Then it stopped, a year ago. He hardly worked at all since. Just an odd day, now and then. "

  "You own both the houses?" Roscoe said.

  "I don't own a damn thing," Judy said. "Sherman owned the houses. Yes, both of them. "

  "So he was doing well for the first three years?" Roscoe asked her.

  Judy gave her a look.

  "Doing well?" she said. "Grow up, for God's sake. He was a thief. He was ripping somebody off. "

  "You sure?" I said.

  Judy swung her gaze my way. Like an artillery piece traversing.

  "It don't need much brains to figure it out," she said. "In three years he paid cash for two houses, two lots of furniture, cars, God knows what. And this place wasn't cheap, either. We got lawyers and doctors and all sorts living here. And he had enough saved so he didn't have to work at all since last September. If he did all that on the level, then I'm the First Lady, right?"

  She was giving us a defiant stare. She'd known about it all along. She'd known what would happen when he was found out. She was challenging us to deny her the right to blame him.

  "Who was his big contract with?" Roscoe asked her.

  "Some outfit called Island Air-conditioning," she said. "He spent three years hauling air conditioners. Taking them down to Florida. Maybe they went on to the islands, I don't know. He used to steal them. There's two old boxes in the garage right now. Want to see?"

  She didn't wait for a reply. Just jumped up and stalked out. We followed. We all went down some back stairs and through a basement door. Into a garage. It was empty except for a couple of old cartons dumped against a wall. Cardboard cartons, could have been a year or two old. Marked with a manufacturer's logo. Island Air-conditioning, Inc. This End Up. The sealing tape was torn and hanging off. Each box had a long serial number written on by hand. Each box must have held a single unit. The sort you jam in your window frame, makes a hell of a noise. Judy glared at the boxes and glared at us. It was a glare which said: I gave him a gold watch and he gave me a shitload of worry.

  I walked over and looked at the cartons. They were empty. I smelled a faint, sour odor in them. Then we went back upstairs. Judy got an album out of a cupboard. Sat and looked at a photograph of Sherman.

  "What happened to him?" she asked.

  It was a simple question. Deserved a simple answer.

  "He was shot in the head," I lied. "Died instantly. "

  Judy nodded. Like she wasn't surprised.

  "When?" she asked.

  "On Thursday night," Roscoe told her. "At midnight. Did he say where he was going on Thursday night?"

  Judy shook her head.

  "He never told me much," she said.

  "Did he ever mention meeting an investigator?" Roscoe asked.

  Judy shook her head again.

  "What about Pluribus?" I asked her. "Did he ever use that word?"

  She looked blank.

  "Is that a disease?" she said. "Lungs or something?"

  "What about Sunday?" I said. "This Sunday coming? Did he ever say anything about that?"

  "No," Judy said. "He never said much about anything. "

  She sat and stared at the photographs in the album. The room was quiet.

  "Did he know any lawyers in Florida?" Roscoe asked her.

  "Lawyers?" Judy said. "In Florida? Why should he?"

  "He was arrested in Jacksonville," Roscoe said. "Two years ago. It was a traffic violation in his truck. A lawyer came to help him out. "

  Judy shrugged, like two years ago was ancient history to her.

  "There are lawyers sniffing everywhere, right?" she said. "No big deal. "

  "This guy wasn't an ambulance-chaser," Roscoe said. "He was a partner in a big firm down there. Any idea how Sherman could have gotten hold of him?"

  Judy shrugged again.

  "May
be his employer did it," she said. "Island Air-conditioning. They gave us good medical insurance. Sherman let me go to the doctor, any old time I needed to. "

  We all went quiet. Nothing more to say. Judy sat and gazed at the photographs in the album.

  "Want to see his picture?" she said.

  I walked around behind her chair and bent to look at the photograph. It showed a sandy, rat-faced man. Small, slight, with a grin. He was standing in front of a yellow panel van. Grinning and squinting at the camera. The grin gave it poignancy.

  "That's the truck he drove," Judy said.

  But I wasn't looking at the truck or Sherman Stoller's poignant grin. I was looking at a figure in the background of the picture. It was out of focus and turned half away from the camera, but I could make out who it was. It was Paul Hubble.

  I waved Roscoe over and she bent beside me and looked at the photograph. I saw a wave of surprise pass over her face as she recognized Hubble. Then she bent closer. Looked harder. I saw a second wave of surprise. She had recognized something else.

  "When was this picture taken?" she asked.

  Judy shrugged.

  "Summer last year, I guess," she said.

  Roscoe touched the blurred image of Hubble with her fingernail.

  "Did Sherman say who this guy was?"

  "The new boss," Judy said. "He was there six months, then he fired Sherman's ass. "

  "Island Air-conditioning's new boss?" Roscoe said. "Was there a reason he laid Sherman off?"

  "Sherman said they didn't need him no more," Judy said. "He never said much. "

  "Is this where Island Air-conditioning is based?" Roscoe asked. "Where this picture was taken?"

  Judy shrugged and nodded her head, tentatively.

  "I guess so," she said. "Sherman never told me much about it. "

  "We need to keep this photograph," Roscoe told her. "We'll let you have it back later. "

  Judy fished it out of the plastic. Handed it to her.

  "Keep it," she said. "I don't want it. "

  Roscoe took the picture and put it in her inside jacket pocket. She and I moved back to the middle of the room and stood there.

  "Shot in the head," Judy said. "That's what happens when you mess around. I told him they'd catch up with him, sooner or later. "

  Roscoe nodded sympathetically.

  "We'll keep in touch," she said to her. "You know, the funeral arrangements, and we might want a statement. "

  Judy glared at us again.

  "Don't bother," she said. "I'm not going to his funeral. I wasn't his wife, so I'm not his widow. I'm going to forget I ever knew him. That man was trouble from beginning to end. "

  She stood there glaring at us. We shuffled out, down the hall, out through the door. Across the awkward path. We held hands as we walked back to the car.

  "What?" I asked her. "What's in the photograph?"

  She was walking fast.

  "Wait," she said. "I'll show you in the car. "

 
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