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Billy Summers / (by Stephen King, 2021) -

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Billy Summers /   (by Stephen King, 2021) -

Billy Summers / (by Stephen King, 2021) -

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: 348
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Billy Summers / (by Stephen King, 2021) -
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2021
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Stephen King
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Paul Sparks
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/ / / / upper-intermediate
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upper-intermediate
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16:57:16
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Billy Summers / :

.doc (Word) stephen_king_-_billy_summers.doc [1.2 Mb] (c: 9) .
.pdf stephen_king_-_billy_summers.pdf [2.27 Mb] (c: 9) .


: Billy Summers

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CHAPTER 1 1 Billy Summers sits in the hotel lobby, waiting for his ride. It_s Friday noon. Although he_s reading a digest-sized comic book called Archie_s Pals _n_ Gals, he_s thinking about ?mile Zola, and Zola_s third novel, his breakthrough, Th?r?se Raquin. He_s thinking it_s very much a young man_s book. He_s thinking that Zola was just beginning to mine what would turn out to be a deep and fabulous vein of ore. He_s thinking that Zola was _ is _ the nightmare version of Charles Dickens. He_s thinking that would make a good thesis for an essay. Not that he_s ever written one. At two minutes past twelve the door opens and two men come into the lobby. One is tall with black hair combed in a 50s pompadour. The other is short and bespectacled. Both are wearing suits. All of Nick_s men wear suits. Billy knows the tall one from out west. He_s been with Nick a long time. His name is Frank Macintosh. Because of the pomp, some of Nick_s men call him Frankie Elvis, or _ now that he has a tiny bald spot in back _ Solar Elvis. But not to his face. Billy doesn_t know the other one. He must be local. Macintosh holds out his hand. Billy rises and shakes it. _Hey, Billy, been awhile. Good to see you._ _Good to see you too, Frank._ _This is Paulie Logan._ _Hi, Paulie._ Billy shakes with the short one. _Pleased to meet you, Billy._ Macintosh takes the Archie digest from Billy_s hand. _Still reading the comics, I see._ _Yeah,_ Billy says. _Yeah. I like them quite a bit. The funny ones. Sometimes the superheroes but I don_t like them as much._ Macintosh breezes through the pages and shows something to Paulie Logan. _Look at these chicks. Man, I could jack off to these._ _Betty and Veronica,_ Billy says, taking the comic back. _Veronica is Archie_s girlfriend and Betty wants to be._ _You read books, too?_ Logan asks. _Some, if I_m going on a long trip. And magazines. But mostly comic books._ _Good, good,_ Logan says, and drops Macintosh a wink. Not very subtle, and Macintosh frowns, but Billy_s okay with it. _You ready to take a ride?_ Macintosh asks. _Sure._ Billy tucks his digest into his back pocket. Archie and his bosomy gal pals. There_s an essay waiting to be written there, too. About the comfort of haircuts and attitudes that don_t change. About Riverdale, and how time stands still there. _Then let_s go,_ Macintosh says. _Nick_s waiting._ 2 Macintosh drives. Logan says he_ll sit in back because he_s short. Billy expects them to go west, because that_s where the fancy part of this town is, and Nick Majarian likes to live large whether home or away. And he doesn_t do hotels. But they go northeast instead. Two miles from downtown they enter a neighborhood that looks lower middle-class to Billy. Three or four steps better than the trailer park he grew up in, but far from fancy. No big gated houses, not here. This is a neighborhood of ranch houses with lawn sprinklers twirling on small patches of grass. Most are one-story. Most are well maintained, but a few need paint and there_s crabgrass taking over some of the lawns. He sees one house with a piece of cardboard blocking a broken window. In front of another, a fat man in Bermuda shorts and a wifebeater sits in a lawn chair from Costco or Sam_s Club, drinking a beer and watching them go by. Times have been good in America for awhile now, but maybe that is going to change. Billy knows neighborhoods like this. They are a barometer, and this one has started to go down. The people who live here are working the kind of jobs where you punch a clock. Macintosh pulls into the driveway of a two-story with a patchy lawn. It_s painted a subdued yellow. It_s okay, but doesn_t look like a place where Nick Majarian would choose to live, even for a few days. It looks like the kind of place a machinist or lower-echelon airport employee would live with his coupon-clipping wife and two kids, making mortgage payments every month and bowling in a beer league on Thursday nights. Logan opens Billy_s door. Billy puts his Archie digest on the dashboard and gets out. Macintosh leads the way up the porch steps. It_s hot outside but inside it_s air conditioned. Nick Majarian stands in the short hallway leading down to the kitchen. He_s wearing a suit that probably cost almost as much as a monthly mortgage payment on this house. His thinning hair is combed flat, no pompadour for him. His face is round and Vegas tanned. He_s heavyset, but when he pulls Billy into a hug, that protruding belly feels as hard as stone. _Billy!_ Nick exclaims, and kisses him on both cheeks. Big hearty smacks. He_s wearing a million-dollar grin. _Billy, Billy, man, it_s good to see you!_ _Good to see you, too, Nick._ He looks around. _You usually stay somewhere fancier than this._ He pauses. _If you don_t mind me saying._ Nick laughs. He has a beautiful infectious laugh to go with the grin. Macintosh joins in and Logan smiles. _I got a place over on the West Side. Short-term. House-sitting, you could call it. There_s a fountain in the front yard. Got a naked little kid in the middle of it, there_s a word for that __ Cherub, Billy thinks but doesn_t say. He just keeps smiling. _Anyway, a little kid peeing water. You_ll see it, you_ll see it. No, this one isn_t mine, Billy. It_s yours. If you decide to take the job, that is._ 3 Nick shows him around. _Fully furnished,_ he says, like he_s selling it. Maybe he sort of is. This one has a second floor where there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms, the second small, probably for the kids. On the first floor there_s a kitchen, a living room, and a dining room that_s so small it_s actually a dining nook. Most of the cellar has been converted into a long carpeted room with a big TV at one end and a Ping-Pong table at the other. Track lighting. Nick calls it the rumpus room, and this is where they sit. Macintosh asks them if they_d like something to drink. He says there_s soda, beer, lemonade, and iced tea. _I want an Arnold Palmer,_ Nick says. _Half and half. Lots of ice._ Billy says that sounds good. They make small talk until the drinks come. The weather, how hot it is down here in the border south. Nick wants to know how Billy_s trip in was. Billy says it was fine but doesn_t say where he flew in from and Nick doesn_t ask. Nick says how about that fuckin Trump and Billy says how about him. That_s about all they_ve got, but it_s okay because by then Macintosh is back with two tall glasses on a tray, and once he leaves, Nick gets down to business. _When I called your man Bucky, he tells me you_re hoping to retire._ _I_m thinking about it. Been at it a long time. Too long._ _Truth. How old are you, anyway?_ _Forty-four._ _Been doing this ever since you took off the uniform?_ _Pretty much._ He_s pretty sure Nick knows all this. _How many in all?_ Billy shrugs. _I don_t exactly remember._ It_s seventeen. Eighteen, counting the first one, the man with the cast on his arm. _Bucky says you might do one more if the price was right._ He waits for Billy to ask. Billy doesn_t, so Nick resumes. _The price on this one is very right. You could do it and spend the rest of your life someplace warm. Drinking pi?a coladas in a hammock._ He busts out the big grin again. _Two million. Five hundred thousand up front, the rest after._ Billy_s whistle isn_t part of the act, which he doesn_t think of as an act but his dumb self, the one he shows to guys like Nick and Frank and Paulie. It_s like a seatbelt. You don_t use it because you expect to be in a crash, but you never know who you might meet coming over a hill on your side of the road. This is also true on the road of life, where people veer all over the place and drive the wrong way on the turnpike. _Why so much?_ The most he_s ever gotten on a contract was seventy K. _It_s not a politician, is it? Because I don_t do that._ _Not even close._ _Is it a bad person?_ Nick laughs, shakes his head, and looks at Billy with real affection. _Always the same question with you._ Billy nods. The dumb self might be a shuck, but this is true: he only does bad people. It_s how he sleeps at night. It goes without saying that he has made a living working for bad people, yes, but Billy doesn_t see this as a moral conundrum. He has no problem with bad people paying to have other bad people killed. He basically sees himself as a garbageman with a gun. _This is a very bad person._ _Okay __ _And it_s not my two mill. I_m just the middleman here, getting what you could call an agenting fee. Not a piece of yours, mine_s on the side._ Nick leans forward, hands clasped between his thighs. His expression is earnest. His eyes are fixed on Billy_s. _The target is a pro shooter, like you. Only this guy, he never asks if it_s a bad person or a good person. He doesn_t make those distinctions. If the money_s right, he does the job. For now we_ll call him Joe. Six years ago, or maybe it was seven, it don_t matter, this guy Joe took out a fifteen-year-old kid on his way to school. Was the kid a bad person? No. In fact he was an honor student. But someone wanted to send the kid_s dad a message. The kid was the message. Joe was the messenger._ Billy wonders if the story is true. It might not be, it has a fairy tale fabulism to it, but it somehow feels true. _You want me to hit a hitter._ Like he_s getting it straight in his mind. _Nailed it. Joe_s in a Los Angeles lockup now. Men_s Central. Charged with assault and attempted rape. The attempted rape thing, tell you what, if you_re not a Me Too chick, it_s sorta funny. He mistook this lady writer who was in LA for a conference, feminist lady writer, for a hooker. He propositioned her _ a bit on the hard side, I_d guess _ and she pepper-sprayed him. He popped her one in the teeth and dislocated her jaw. She probably sold another hundred thousand books out of that. Should have thanked him instead of charging him, don_t you think?_ Billy doesn_t reply. _Come on, Billy, think about it. The man_s offed God knows how many guys, some of them very hard guys, and he gets pepper-sprayed by a dyke women_s libber? You gotta see the humor in that._ Billy gives a token smile. _LA_s on the other side of the country._ _That_s right, but he was here before he went there. I don_t know why he was here and don_t care, but I know he was looking for a poker game and someone told him where he could find one. Because see, our pal Joe fancies himself a high roller. Long story short, he lost a lot of money. When the big winner came out around five in the morning, Joe shot him in the gut and took back not just his money but all the money. Someone tried to stop him, probably another moke who was in the game, and Joe shot him, too._ _He kill both of them?_ _Big winner died in the hospital, but not before he ID_d Joe. Guy who tried to intervene pulled through. He also ID_d Joe. You know what else?_ Billy shakes his head. _Security footage. You see where this is going?_ Billy does, absolutely. _Not really._ _California_s got him for assault. Which_ll stick. The attempted rape would probably get thrown out, it_s not like he dragged her into an alley or anything, in fact he fucking offered to pay her, so it_s just solicitation, DA won_t even bother about that. With time served, he might get ninety days in county. Debt paid. But here it_s murder, and they take that very serious on this side of the Mississippi._ Billy knows it. In the red states they put stone killers out of their misery. He has no problem with that. _And after looking at the security footage, the jury would almost certainly decide to give old Joey the needle. You see that, right?_ _Sure._ _He_s using his lawyer to fight extradition, no big surprise there. You know what extradition is, right?_ _Sure._ _Okay. Joe_s lawyer is fighting it for all he_s worth, and the guy ain_t no ambulance chaser. He_s already got a thirty-day delay on a hearing, and he_ll use it to figure out other ways to stall, but in the end he_s gonna lose. And Joe_s in an isolation cell, because somebody tried to stick a shiv into him. Old Joey took it away and broke his wrist for him, but where there_s one guy with a shiv, there could be a dozen._ _Gang thing?_ Billy asks. _Crips, maybe? They got a beef with him?_ Nick shrugs. _Who knows? For now, Joe_s got his own private quarters, doesn_t have to get slopped with the rest of the hogs, gets thirty minutes in the yard all by his lonesome. Also meantime, the lawyer-man is reaching out to people. The message he_s sending is that this guy will talk about something very big unless he can get a pass on the murder charge._ _Could that happen?_ Billy doesn_t like to think so, even if the man this Joe killed after the poker game was a bad person. _The prosecutors might take the death penalty off the table, or maybe even step it down to second-degree, or something?_ _Not bad, Billy. You_re on the right track, at least. But what I_m hearing is that Joe wants all the charges dismissed. He must be holding some high cards._ _He thinks he can trade something to get away with murder._ _Says the guy who got away with it God knows how many times,_ Nick says, and laughs. Billy doesn_t. _I never shot anyone because I lost money in a poker game. I don_t play poker. And I don_t rob._ Nick nods vigorously. _I know that, Billy. Just bad people. I was only busting your chops a bit. Drink your drink._ Billy drinks his drink. He_s thinking, Two million. For one job. And he_s thinking, What_s the catch? _Someone must really want to stop this guy from giving up whatever he_s got._ Nick points a finger gun at him like Billy has made an amazing leap of deduction. _You know it. Anyway, I get a message from this local guy, you_ll meet him if you take the job, and the message is we_re looking for a pro shooter who_s the best of the best. I think that_s Billy Summers, case fuckin closed._ _You want me to do this guy, but not in LA. Here._ _Not me. I_m just the middleman, remember. It_s someone else. Someone with very deep pockets._ _What_s the catch?_ Nick turns on the grin. He points another finger gun at Billy. _Straight to the point, right? Straight to the fuckin point. Except it_s not really a catch. Or maybe it is, depending on how you feel. It_s time, you see. You_re going to be here __ He waves his hand to indicate the little yellow house. Maybe the neighborhood it sits in, as well _ the one Billy will discover is called Midwood. Maybe the whole city, which sits east of the Mississippi and just below the Mason_Dixon Line. __ for quite awhile._ 4 They talk some more. Nick tells Billy that the location is set, by which he means the place Billy will shoot from. He says Billy doesn_t have to decide until he sees it and hears more. Billy will get that from Ken Hoff. He_s the local guy. Nick says Ken is out of town today. _Does he know what I use?_ This isn_t the same as saying he_s in, but it_s a big step in that direction. Two million for mostly sitting around on his ass, then taking one shot. Hard to turn down a deal like that. Nick nods. _Okay, when do I meet this Hoff guy?_ _Tomorrow. He_ll give you a call at your hotel tonight, time and place._ _If I do it, I_ll need some kind of a cover story for why I_m here._ _All worked out, and it_s a beaut. Giorgio_s idea. We_ll tell you tomorrow night, after you meet with Hoff._ Nick rises. He sticks out his hand. Billy shakes it. He has shaken with Nick before and never likes it because Nick is a bad guy. Hard not to like him a little, though. Nick is also a pro, and that grin works. 5 Paulie Logan drives him back to the hotel. Paulie doesn_t talk much. He asks Billy if he minds the radio, and when Billy says no, Paulie puts on a soft rock station. At one point he says, _Loggins and Messina, they_re the best._ Except for cursing at a guy who cuts him off on Cedar Street, that_s the extent of his conversation. Billy doesn_t mind. He_s thinking of all the movies he_s seen about robbers who are planning one last job. If noir is a genre, then _one last job_ is a sub-genre. In those movies, the last job always goes bad. Billy isn_t a robber and he doesn_t work with a gang and he_s not superstitious, but this last job thing nags at him just the same. Maybe because the price is so high. Maybe because he doesn_t know who_s paying the tab, or why. Maybe it_s even the story Nick told about how the target once took out a fifteen-year-old honor student. _You stickin around?_ Paulie asks when he pulls the car into the hotel_s forecourt. _Because this guy Hoff will get you the tool you need. I could have done it myself, but Nick said no._ Is he sticking around? _Don_t know. Maybe._ He pauses getting out. _Probably._ 6 In his room, Billy powers up his laptop. He changes the time stamp and checks his VPN, because hackers love hotels. He could try googling Los Angeles County courts, extradition hearings have got to be matters of public record, but there are simpler ways to get what he wants. And he wants. Ronald Reagan had a point when he said trust but verify. Billy goes to the LA Times website and pays for a six-month subscription. He uses a credit card that belongs to a fictitious person named Thomas Hardy, Hardy being Billy_s favorite writer. Of the naturalist school, anyway. Once in, he searches for feminist writer and adds attempted rape. He finds half a dozen stories, each smaller than the last. There_s a picture of the feminist writer, who looks hot and has a lot to say. The alleged attack took place in the forecourt of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The alleged perpetrator was discovered to be in possession of multiple IDs and credit cards. According to the Times, his real name is Joel Randolph Allen. He beat a rape charge in Massachusetts in 2012. So Joe was pretty close, Billy thinks. Next he goes to the website of this city_s newspaper, once again uses Thomas Hardy to get through the paywall, and searches for murder victim poker game. The story is there, and the security photo that runs with it is pretty damning. An hour earlier the light wouldn_t have been good enough to show the doer_s face, but the time stamp on the bottom of the photo is 5:18 A.M. The sun isn_t up but it_s getting there, and the face of the guy standing in the alley is as clear as you_d want, if you were a prosecutor. He_s got his hand in his pocket, he_s waiting outside a door that says LOADING ZONE DO NOT BLOCK, and if Billy was on the jury, he_d probably vote for the needle just on the basis of that. Because Billy Summers is an expert when it comes to premeditation, and that_s what he_s looking at right here. The most recent story in the Red Bluff paper says that Joel Allen has been arrested on unrelated charges in Los Angeles. Billy is sure that Nick believes he takes everything at face value. Like everyone else Billy has worked for over the years he_s been doing this, Nick believes that outside of his awesome sniper skills, Billy is a little slow, maybe even on the spectrum. Nick believes the dumb self, because Billy is at great pains not to overdo it. No gaping mouth, no glazed eyes, no outright stupidity. An Archie comic book does wonders. The Zola novel he_s been reading is buried deep in his suitcase. And if someone searched his case and discovered it? Billy would say he found it left in the pocket of an airline seat and picked it up because he liked the girl on the cover. He thinks about looking for the fifteen-year-old honor student, but there isn_t enough info. He could google that all afternoon and not find it. Even if he did, he couldn_t be sure he was looking at the right fifteen-year-old. It_s enough to know the rest of the story Nick told checks out. He orders a sandwich and a pot of tea. When it comes, he sits by the window, eating and reading Th?r?se Raquin. He thinks it_s like James M. Cain crossed with an EC horror comic from the 1950s. After his late lunch, he lies down with his hands behind his head and beneath the pillow, feeling the cool that hides there. Which, like youth and beauty, doesn_t last long. He_ll see what this Ken Hoff has to say, and if that also checks out, he thinks he will take the job. The waiting will be difficult, he_s never been good at that (tried Zen once, didn_t take), but for a two-million-dollar payday he can wait. Billy closes his eyes and goes to sleep. At seven that evening, he_s eating a room service dinner and watching The Asphalt Jungle on his laptop. It_s a jinxed one last job picture, for sure. The phone rings. It_s Ken Hoff. He tells Billy where they_ll meet tomorrow afternoon. Billy doesn_t have to write it down. Writing things down can be dangerous, and he_s got a good memory. CHAPTER 2 1 Like most male movie stars _ not to mention men Billy passes on the street who are emulating those movie stars _ Ken Hoff has a scruff of beard, as if he forgot to shave for three or four days. This is an unfortunate look for Hoff, who is a redhead. He doesn_t look rough and tough; he looks like he has a bad sunburn. They are sitting at an umbrella-shaded table outside an eatery called the Sunspot Caf?. It_s on the corner of Main and Court. Billy guesses the place is plenty busy during the week, but on this Saturday afternoon it_s almost deserted inside, and they have the outside scatter of tables to themselves. Hoff is maybe fifty or a hard-living forty-five. He_s drinking a glass of wine. Billy has a diet soda. He doesn_t think Hoff works for Nick, because Nick is based in Vegas. But Nick has his fingers in many pies, not all of them out west. Nick Majarian and Ken Hoff may be connected in some way, or maybe Hoff is hooked up with the guy who is paying for the job. Always assuming the job happens, that is. _That building across the street is mine,_ Hoff says. _Only twenty-two stories, but good enough to make it the second highest in Red Bluff. It_ll be the third highest when the Higgins Center goes up. That_s gonna be thirty stories high. With a mall. I_ve got a piece of that one, too, but this one? Strictly my baby. They laughed at Trump when he said he was gonna fix the economy, but it_s working. It_s working._ Billy has no interest in Trump or Trump_s economy, but he studies the building with professional interest. He_s pretty sure it_s where he_s supposed to take the shot. It_s called the Gerard Tower. Billy thinks that calling a building that has only twenty-two stories a tower is a little overblown, but he supposes in this city of small brick buildings, most of them shabby, it probably seems like a tower. On the well-tended and -watered greensward in front of it is a sign reading OFFICE SPACE AND LUXURY APARTMENTS NOW AVAILABLE. There_s a number to call. The sign looks like it_s been there awhile. _Hasn_t filled the way I expected,_ Hoff says. _The economy_s booming, yeah, people with money falling out of their asses and 2020 is going to be even better, but you_d be surprised how much of that is Internet-driven, Billy. Okay to call you Billy?_ _Sure._ _Bottom line, I_m a little bit tight this year. Cash flow problems since I bought into WWE, but three affils, how could I say no?_ Billy has no idea what he_s talking about. Something about pro wrestling, maybe? Or the Monster Truck Jam they keep advertising on TV? Since Hoff clearly thinks he should know, Billy nods his head as if he does. _The local old money assholes think I_m overextended, but you have to bet on the economy, am I right? Roll the dice while the dice are hot. Takes money to make money, yeah?_ _Sure._ _So I do what I have to do. And hey, I know a good thing when I see it and this is a good deal for me. A little risky, but I need a bridge. And Nick assures me that if you were to get caught, I know you won_t but if you did, you_d keep your mouth shut._ _Yes. I would._ Billy has never been caught and doesn_t intend to get caught this time. _Code of the road, am I right?_ _Sure._ Billy has an idea that Ken Hoff has seen too many movies. Some of them probably in the _one last job_ sub-genre. He wishes the man would get to the point. It_s hot out here, even under the umbrella. And muggy. This climate is for the birds, Billy thinks, and probably even they don_t like it. _I got you a nice corner suite on the fifth floor,_ Hoff says. _Three rooms. Office, reception, kitchenette. A kitchenette, how about that, huh? You_ll be okay no matter how long it takes. Snug as a bug in a rug. I_m not gonna point, but I_m sure you can count to five, right?_ Sure, Billy thinks, I can even walk and chew gum at the same time. The building is square, your basic Saltine box with windows, so there are actually two corner suites on the fifth floor, but Billy knows which one Hoff means: the one on the left. From the window he traces a diagonal down Court Street, which is only two blocks long. The diagonal, the path of the shot he_ll take if he takes the job, ends at the steps of the county courthouse. It_s a gray granite sprawl of a building. The steps, at least twenty, lead up to a plaza with blindfolded Lady Justice in the middle, holding out her scales. Among the many things he will never tell Ken Hoff: Lady Justice is based on Iustice, a Roman goddess more or less invented by the emperor Augustus. Billy returns his gaze to the fifth-floor corner suite and once more eyes the diagonal. It looks to him like five hundred yards from the window to the steps. That_s a shot he is capable of making even in a strong wind. With the right tool, of course. _What have you got for me, Mr Hoff?_ _Huh?_ For a moment Hoff_s dumb self is on full view. Billy makes a curling gesture with the index finger of his right hand. It could be taken to mean come on, but not in this case. _Oh! Sure! What you asked for, right?_ He looks around, sees no one, but lowers his voice anyway. _Remington 700._ _The M24._ That_s the Army classification. _M _?_ Hoff reaches into his back pocket, takes out his wallet, and thumbs through it. He removes a scrap of paper and looks at it. _M24, right._ He starts to put the piece of paper back in his wallet, but Billy holds out his hand. Hoff hands it over. Billy puts it in his own pocket. Later, before he goes to see Nick, he_ll flush it down the toilet in his hotel room. You don_t write stuff down. He hopes this guy Hoff isn_t going to be a problem. _Optics?_ _Huh?_ _Scope. The sight._ Hoff looks flustered. _It_s the one you asked for._ _Did you write that down, too?_ _On the paper I just gave you._ _Okay._ _I_ve got the, uh, tool in a__ _I don_t need to know where. I haven_t even decided if I want this job._ He has, though. _Does the building over there have security?_ Another dumb self question. _Yeah. Sure._ _If I do take the job, getting the tool up to the fifth floor will be on me. Are we good on that, Mr Hoff?_ _Yeah, sure._ Hoff looks relieved. _Then I think we_re done here._ Billy stands and holds out his hand. _It was very nice meeting you._ It wasn_t. Billy isn_t sure he trusts the man, and he hates that stupid scruffy beard. What woman would want to kiss a mouth surrounded by red bristles? Hoff shakes. _Same here, Billy. This is just a squeeze I_m going through. You ever read a book called The Hero_s Journey?_ Billy has, but shakes his head. _You should, you should. I just skimmed the literary stuff to get to the main part. Straight to the meat of a thing, that_s me. Cut through the bullshit. Can_t remember the name of the guy who wrote it, but he says every man has to go through a time of testing before he becomes a hero. This is my time._ By supplying a sniper rifle and an overwatch site to an assassin, Billy thinks. Not sure Joseph Campbell would put that in the hero category. _Well, I hope you pass._ 2 Billy supposes he_ll get a car eventually if he stays here, but right now he doesn_t know his way around and he_s happy to let Paul Logan drive him from the hotel to where Nick is _house-sitting._ It_s the McMansion Billy was expecting yesterday, a cobbled-together horror-show on what looks like two acres of lawn. The gate to the long curving driveway swings open at a touch of Paulie_s thumb to the gadget on his visor. There is indeed a cherub peeing endlessly into a pool of water, and a couple of other statues (Roman soldier, bare-breasted maiden) that are lit by hidden spots now that dusk is here. The house is also lit, the better to show off its wretched excess. To Billy it looks like the bastard child of a supermarket and a mega-church. This isn_t a house, it_s the architectural equivalent of red golf pants. Frank Macintosh, aka Frankie Elvis, is waiting on the endless porch to receive him. Dark suit, sober blue tie. Looking at him you_d never guess that he began his career breaking legs for a loan shark. Of course that was long ago, before he moved up to the bigs. He comes halfway down the porch steps, hand outstretched, like the lord of the manor. Or the lord of the manor_s butler. Nick is once more waiting in the hall, one much grander than that of the humble yellow house in Midwood. Nick is built big, but the man with him is enormous, way north of three hundred. This is Giorgio Piglielli, of course known to Nick_s Las Vegas cadre as Georgie Pigs (and also never to his face). If Nick is a CEO, then Giorgio is his chief operating officer. For them both to be here, so far from their home base, suggests that what Nick called the agenting fee must be very high. Billy has been promised two million. How much have these guys been promised, or already pocketed? Someone is very worried about Joel Allen. Someone who probably owns a house like this, or one even uglier. Hard to believe such a thing is possible, but it probably is. Nick claps Billy on the shoulder and says, _You probably think this fat-ass is Giorgio Piglielli._ _Sure looks like him,_ Billy says cautiously, and Giorgio gives a chuckle as fat as he is. Nick nods. He_s got that million-dollar grin on his face. _I know it does, but this is actually George Russo. Your agent._ _Agent? Like in real estate?_ _Nope, not that kind._ Nick laughs. _Come on in the living room. We_ll have drinks and Giorgio will lay this out for you. Like I said yesterday, it_s a beaut._ 3 The living room is as long as a Pullman car. There are three chandeliers, two small and one big. The furniture is low and swoopy. Two more cherubs are supporting a full-length mirror. There_s a grandfather clock that looks embarrassed to be here. Frank Macintosh, the leg-breaker turned manservant, brings them drinks on a tray: beer for Billy and Nick and what looks like a chocolate malted for Giorgio, who seems determined to ingest every calorie possible before dying at the age of fifty. He chooses the only chair that will fit him. Billy wonders if he_ll be able to get out of it without help. Nick raises his glass of beer. _Here_s to us. May we do business that makes us happy and leaves us satisfied._ They drink to that, then Giorgio says, _Nick tells me that you_re interested, but you haven_t actually signed on for this yet. Still in what could be called the exploratory phase._ _That_s right,_ Billy says. _Well, for the purposes of this discussion, let_s pretend that you_re on the team._ Giorgio sucks on the straw in his malted. _Man, that_s good. Just the ticket on a warm evening._ He reaches into the pocket of his suitcoat _ enough fabric there to clothe an orphanage, Billy thinks _ and produces a wallet. He holds it out. Billy takes it. A Lord Buxton. Nice, but not fancy. And it_s been slightly aged, with a couple of scuffs and nicks in the leather. _Look through it. It_s who you_ll be in this godforsaken burg._ Billy does. Seventy dollars or so in the billfold. A few pictures, mostly of men who could be friends and women who could be gal pals. Nothing to indicate he has a wife and kids. _I wanted to Photoshop you into one,_ Giorgio says, _standing at the Grand Canyon or something, but nobody seems to have a photo of you, Billy._ _Photos can lead to trouble._ Nick says, _Most people don_t carry pictures of themselves in their wallets, anyway. I told Giorgio that._ Billy continues to go through the wallet, reading it like a book. Like Th?r?se Raquin, which he finished while eating supper in his room. If he stays here, his name will be David Lockridge. He has a Visa card and a Mastercard, both issued by Seacoast Bank of Portsmouth. _What are the limits on the plastic?_ he asks Giorgio. _Five hundred on the Master, a thousand on the Visa. You_re on a budget. Of course, if your book works out like we hope it will, that could change._ Billy stares at Giorgio, then at Nick, wondering if this is some kind of set-up. Wondering if they_ve seen through the dumb self. _He_s your literary agent!_ Nick nearly shouts. _Is that a hoot, or what?_ _A writer is my cover? Come on, I never even finished high school. Got my GED in the sand, for God_s sake, and that was a gift from Uncle Sam for dodging IEDs and mujies in Fallujah and Ramadi. It won_t work. It_s crazy._ _It_s not, it_s genius,_ Nick says. _Listen to the man, Billy. Or should I start calling you Dave now?_ _You_re never calling me Dave if this is my cover._ Too close to home, far too close. He_s a reader, that_s for sure. And he sometimes dreams of writing, although he_s never actually tried his hand except for scraps of prose here and there, which he always destroyed. _It_ll never fly, Nick. I know you guys have already started this going __ He raises the wallet. __ and I_m sorry, but it just won_t work. What would I say if someone asked what my book was about?_ _Give me five minutes,_ Giorgio says. _Ten, tops. And if you still don_t like it, we all part friends._ Billy doubts if that_s true but tells him to go ahead. Giorgio puts his empty malted glass on the table (probably a Chippendale) beside his chair and belches. But when he turns his full attention on Billy, he can see what Georgie Pigs really is: a lean and athletic mind buried inside the ocean of blubber that will kill him before many more years. _I know how it sounds at first blush, you being the kind of guy you are, but it will fly._ Billy relaxes a little. They still believe what they see. He_s safe on that score, at least. _You_re going to be here for at least six weeks and maybe as long as six months,_ Giorgio says. _Depends on how long it takes for the moke_s lawyer to run out the string fighting extradition. Or until he thinks he has a deal on the murder charge. You_re getting paid for the job, but you_re also getting paid for your time. You get that, right?_ Billy nods. _Which means you need a reason to be here in Red Bluff, and it_s not exactly a vacation spot._ _Truth,_ Nick says, and makes a face like a little kid looking at a plate of broccoli. _You also need a reason to be in that building down the street from the courthouse. You_re writing a book, that_s the reason._ _But__ Giorgio holds up a fat hand. _You don_t think it_ll work, but I_m telling you it will. I_m going to show you how._ Billy looks doubtful, but now that he_s over his fear that they_ve seen through the camouflage of the dumb self, he thinks he can see where Giorgio is going. This might have possibilities. _I did my research. Read a bunch of writers_ magazines, plus a ton of stuff online. Here_s your cover story. David Lockridge grew up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Always wanted to be a writer but barely finished high school. Worked construction. You kept writing, but you were a hard partier. Lots of drinking. I thought about giving you a divorce but decided it would be a lot to keep straight._ For a guy who_s smart about guns but not about much else, Billy thinks. _Finally you get going on something good, okay? There_s a lot of talk in the blogs I read about writers suddenly catching fire, and that_s what happens to you. You write a bunch, maybe seventy pages, maybe a hundred__ _About what?_ Billy_s actually starting to enjoy himself now, but he_s careful not to show it. Giorgio exchanges a glance with Nick, who shrugs. _Haven_t decided that yet, but I_ll come up with someth__ _Maybe my own story? Dave_s story, I mean. There_s a word for that__ _Autobiography,_ Nick snaps, like he_s on Jeopardy! _That might work,_ Giorgio says. His face says nice try, Nick, but leave this to the experts. _Or maybe it_s a novel. The important thing is you never talk about it on orders from your agent. Top secret. You_re writing, you don_t keep that a secret, everybody you meet in the building will know the guy on the fifth floor is writing a book, but nobody knows what it_s about. That way you never get your stories mixed up._ As if I would, Billy thinks. _How did David Lockridge get from Portsmouth to here? And how did he wind up in the Gerard Tower?_ _This is my favorite part,_ Nick says. He sounds like a kid listening to a well-loved story at bedtime, and Billy doesn_t think he_s faking or exaggerating. Nick is totally on board with this. _You looked for agents online,_ Giorgio says, but then hesitates. _You go online, don_t you?_ _Sure,_ Billy says. He_s pretty sure he knows more about computers than either of these two fat men, but that is also information he doesn_t share. _I do email. Sometimes play games on my phone. Also, there_s ComiXology. That_s an app. You download stuff. I use my laptop for that._ _Okay, good. You look for agents. You send out letters saying you_re working on this book. Most of the agents say no, because they stick with the proven earners like James Patterson and the Harry Potter babe. I read a blog that said it_s a catch-22: you need an agent to get published, but until you_re published you can_t get an agent._ _It_s the same in the movies,_ Nick puts in. _You got your famous stars, but it_s really all about the agents. They have the real power. They tell the stars what to do, and boy, they do it._ Giorgio waits patiently for him to finish, then goes on. _Finally one agent says yeah, okay, what the fuck, I_ll take a look, send me the first couple of chapters._ _You,_ Billy says. _Me. George Russo. I read the pages. I flip for them. I show them to a few publishers I know__ The fuck you do, Billy thinks, you show them to a few editors you know. But that part can be fixed if it ever needs to be. __and they also flip, but they won_t pay big money, maybe even seven-figure money, until the book is finished. Because you_re an unknown commodity. Do you know what that means?_ Billy comes perilously close to saying of course he does, because he_s getting jazzed by the possibilities here. It could actually be an excellent cover, especially the part about being sworn to secrecy concerning his project. And it could be fun pretending to be what he_s always sort of wished he could be. _It means a flash in the pan._ Nick flashes the money grin. Giorgio nods. _Close enough. Some time passes. I wait for more pages, but Dave doesn_t come through. I wait some more. Still no pages. I go to see him up there in lobsterland, and what do I find? The guy is partying his ass off like he_s Ernest fuckin Hemingway. When he_s not working, he_s either out with his homeboys or hungover. Substance abuse goes with talent, you know._ _Really?_ _Proven fact. But George Russo is determined to save this guy, at least long enough to finish his book. He talks a publisher into contracting for it and paying an advance of let_s say thirty or maybe fifty thou. Not big money, but not small money either, plus the publisher can demand it back if the book doesn_t show up by a certain deadline, which they call a delivery date. But see, here_s the thing, Billy: the check is made out to me instead of to you._ Now it_s all clear in Billy_s mind, but he_ll let Giorgio spin it out. _I have certain conditions. For your own good. You have to leave lobsterland and all your hard-drinking, coke-snorting friends. You have to go somewhere far away from them, to some little shitpot of a town or city where there_s nothing to do and no one to do it with even if there was. I tell you I_m gonna rent you a house._ _The one I saw, right?_ _Right. More important, I_m going to rent you office space and you_re going to go there every weekday and sit in a little room and pound away until your top secret book is done. You agree to those terms or your golden ticket goes bye-bye._ Giorgio sits back. The chair is sturdy, but still gives out a little groan. _Now if you tell me that_s a bad idea, or even if you tell me it_s a good idea but you can_t sell it, we_ll call the whole thing off._ Nick holds up a hand. _Before you say anything, Billy, I want to lay out something else that makes this good. Everybody on your floor will get acquainted with you, and a lot of other people in the building, too. I know you, and you_ve got another talent besides hitting a quarter at a quarter of a mile._ Like I could do that, Billy thinks. Like even Chris Kyle could. _You get along with people without buddying up to them. They smile when they see you coming._ And then, as if Billy had denied it: _I_ve seen it! Hoff tells me that a couple of food wagons stop at that building every day, and in nice weather people line up and sit outside on the benches to eat their lunches. You could be one of those people. The time waiting doesn_t have to be for nothing. You can use it to get accepted. Once the novelty of how you_re writing a book wears off, you_ll be just another nine-to-fiver who goes home to his little house in Midwood._ Billy sees how that could happen. _So when it finally goes down, are you a stranger no one knows? The outsider who must have done it? Uh-uh, you_ve been there for months, you make chit-chat in the elevator, you play dollar poker with some of the collection agency guys from the second floor to see who buys the tacos._ _They are going to know where the shot came from,_ Billy says. _Sure, but not right away. Because at first everyone will be looking for that outsider. And because there_s going to be a diversion. Also because you_ve always been fucking Houdini when it comes to disappearing after the hit. By the time things start to settle, you_ll be long gone._ _What_s the diversion?_ _We can talk about that later,_ Nick says, which makes Billy think Nick might not have made up his mind about that yet. Although with Nick, it_s hard to tell. _Plenty of time. For now __ He turns to Giorgio, aka Georgie Pigs, aka George Russo. Over to you, the look says. Giorgio reaches into the pocket of his gigantic suit jacket again and pulls out his phone. _Say the word, Billy _ the word being the passcode of your favorite offshore bank _ and I_ll send five hundred grand to it. It_ll take about forty seconds. Minute and a half if the connection_s slow. Also plenty of walking-around money in a local bank to get you started._ Billy understands they_re trying to rush him into a decision and has a brief image of a cow being driven down a chute to the slaughterhouse, but maybe that_s just paranoia because of the enormous payday. Maybe a person_s last job shouldn_t just be the most lucrative; maybe it should also be the most interesting. But he would like to know one more thing. _Why is Hoff involved?_ _His building,_ Nick says promptly. _Yeah, but __ Billy frowns, putting an expression of great concentration on his face. _He said there_s lots of vacancies in that building._ _The corner spot on the fifth floor is prime, though,_ Nick says. _Your agent, Georgie here, had him lease it, which keeps us out of it._ _He also gets the gun,_ Giorgio says. _May have it already. In any case, it won_t be traced back to us._ Billy knows that already, from the way Nick has been careful not to be seen with him _ no, not even on the porch of this gated estate _ but he_s not entirely satisfied. Because Hoff struck him as a chatterbox, and a chatterbox isn_t a good person to have around when you_re planning an assassination. 4 Later that night. Closing in on midnight. Billy lies on his hotel room bed, hands beneath the pillow, relishing the cool that_s so ephemeral. He said yes, of course, and when you say yes to Nick Majarian, there_s no going back. He is now starring in his own last job story. He had Giorgio send the $500,000 to a bank in the Caribbean. There_s a good amount of money in that account right now, and after Joel Allen dies on those courthouse steps, there will be a good deal more. Enough to live on for a long, long time if he_s prudent. And he will be. He doesn_t have expensive tastes. Champagne and escort services have never been his thing. In two other banks _ local ones _ David Lockridge will have an additional $18,000 to draw on. It_s plenty of walking-around money, but not enough to twang any federal tripwires. He did have a couple of other questions. The most important was how much lead time he could expect when the deal was about to go down. _Not a lot,_ Nick said, _but it won_t be _He_s gonna be there in fifteen minutes,_ either. We_ll know right after the extradition is ordered, and you_ll get a call or a text. It_ll be twenty-four hours at the very least, maybe three days or even a week. Okay?_ _Yeah,_ Billy said. _Just as long as you understand I can_t guarantee anything if it is fifteen minutes. Or even an hour._ _It won_t be._ _What if they don_t bring him up the courthouse steps? What if they use another door?_ _There is another door,_ Giorgio said. _It_s the one some of the courthouse employees use. But you_ll still have a sightline from the fifth floor and the distance is only sixty yards or so longer. You can do that, can_t you?_ He could, and said so. Nick lifted a hand as if to wave away a troublesome fly. _It_ll be the steps, count on it. Anything else?_ Billy said there wasn_t and now he lies here, thinking it over, waiting for sleep. On Monday he_ll be moving into the little yellow house, leased for him by his agent. His literary agent. On Tuesday, he_ll see the office suite Georgie Pigs has also leased for him. When Giorgio asked him what he_d do there, Billy told him he_d start by downloading ComiXology to his laptop. And maybe a few games. _Be sure to write something between funnybooks,_ Giorgio said, half-joking and half not. _You know, get into character. Live the part._ Maybe he will. Maybe he will do that. Even if what he writes isn_t very good, it will pass the time. Autobiography was his suggestion. Giorgio suggested a novel, not because he thinks Billy_s bright enough to write one but because Billy could say that when someone asked, as someone will. Probably lots of someones, once he gets to know people in the Gerard Tower. He_s slipping toward sleep when a cool idea wakes him up: why not a combination of the two? Why not a novel that_s actually an autobiography, one written not by the Billy Summers who reads Zola and Hardy and even plowed his way through Infinite Jest, but one written by the other Billy Summers? The alter ego he calls his dumb self? Could that work? He thinks yes, because he knows that Billy as well as he knows himself. I might give it a try, he thinks. With nothing but time on my hands, why not? He_s thinking about how he might begin when he finally drifts off. CHAPTER 3 1 Billy Summers once more sits in the hotel lobby, waiting for his ride. It_s Monday noon. His suitcase and laptop case are beside his chair and he_s reading another comic book, this one called Archie Comics Spectacular: Friends Forever. He_s not thinking about Th?r?se Raquin today but what he might write in the fifth-floor office he_s never seen. It isn_t clear in his mind, but he has a first sentence and holds onto it. That sentence might connect to others. Or not. He_s prepared for success but he_s also prepared for disappointment. It_s the way he rolls and it_s worked out pretty well so far. In the sense, at least, that he_s not in jail. At four minutes past twelve, Frank Macintosh and Paulie Logan enter the lobby dressed in their suits. There are handshakes all around. Frank_s pompadour appears to have had an oil change. _Need to check out?_ _Taken care of._ _Then let_s go._ Billy tucks his Archie book into the side pocket of his bag and picks it up. _Nah, nah,_ Frankie says. _Let Paulie. He needs the exercise._ Paulie holds his middle finger against his tie like a clip, but he takes the bag. They go out to the car. Frank drives, Paulie sits in back. They drive to Midwood and the little yellow house. Billy looks at the balding lawn and thinks he_ll water it. If there_s no hose, he_ll buy one. There_s a car in the driveway, a subcompact Toyota that looks a few years old, but with Toyotas, who can really tell? _Mine?_ _Yours,_ Frank says. _Not much, but your agent keeps you on a tight budget, I guess._ Paulie puts Billy_s suitcase down on the porch, takes an envelope from his jacket pocket, removes a keyring, unlocks the door. He puts the keys back in the envelope and hands it to Billy. Written on the front is 24 Evergreen Street. Billy, who didn_t check the street sign yesterday or today, thinks, Now I know where I live. _Car keys are on the kitchen table,_ Frank says. He holds out his hand again, so this is goodbye. That_s okay with Billy. _Shake her easy,_ Paulie says. Less than sixty seconds later they_re gone, presumably back to the McMansion with the endlessly peeing cherub in the gigantic front yard. 2 Billy goes upstairs to the master bedroom and opens his suitcase on a double bed that looks freshly made. When he opens the closet to put things away, he sees it_s already loaded with shirts, a couple of sweaters, a hoodie, and two pairs of dress pants. There_s a new pair of running shoes on the floor. All the sizes look right. In the dresser he finds socks, underwear, T-shirts, Wrangler jeans. He fills up the one empty drawer with his own stuff. There_s not much. He thought he_d be buying more clothes at the Walmart he saw down the way, but it seems like that won_t be necessary. He goes down to the kitchen. The Toyota keys are on the table beside an engraved card that says KENNETH HOFF and ENTREPRENEUR. Entrepreneur, Billy thinks. There_s a word for you. He turns the card over and sees a brief note in the same hand as on the envelope containing the housekeys: If you need anything, just call. There are two numbers, one for business and one for cell. He opens the refrigerator and sees it_s stocked with staples: juice, milk, eggs, bacon, a few bags of deli meats and cheeses, a plastic carton of potato salad. There_s a rack of Poland Spring water, a rack of Coke, and a sixpack of Bud Light. He pulls out the freezer drawer and has to smile because what_s in there says so much about Ken Hoff. He_s single and until his divorce (Billy_s sure there was at least one), he has been fed and watered by women, starting with a mother who probably called him Kenny and made sure he got his hair cut every two weeks. The freezer is stuffed with Stouffer_s entrees and frozen pizza and two boxes of ice cream novelties, the kind that come on a stick. There are no vegetables, fresh or frozen. _Don_t like him,_ Billy says aloud. He_s not smiling anymore. No. And he doesn_t like what Hoff is doing in this. Aside from Hoff being too out front after the deal goes down, there_s something Nick_s not telling him. Maybe that doesn_t matter. Maybe it does. As Trump says at least once a day, Who knows? 3 There_s a hose in the basement, coiled up and dusty. That evening, as the heat of the day is starting to fade a little, Billy lugs it outside and hooks it up to the faucet bib on the side of the house. He_s standing on the front lawn, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, spraying the grass, when a man comes over from next door. He_s tall, his own tee blinding white against very black skin. He_s carrying two cans of beer. _Hi, neighbor,_ he says. _Brought you a cold one to welcome you to the neighborhood. Jamal Ackerman._ He_s got both beers in one big hand and holds out the other. Billy shakes. _David Lockridge. Dave. And thanks._ He twists the hose shut. _Come on inside. Or we can sit out on the steps. I haven_t really got the place sorted out yet._ No need of the dumb self here; in Midwood he can be a more regular self. _Porch steps_ll do fine,_ Jamal says. They sit. They open the cans: fsst. Billy tips his to Jamal_s and says, _Thanks._ They drink. They survey the lawn. _It_ll take more than water to bring that mess back,_ Jamal says. _I_ve got some Miracle-Gro, if you want to use some. They had a BOGO deal at the Wally World Garden Center last month and I have plenty._ _I might take you up on that. I_m planning a trip to Wally World myself. I might get a couple of chairs for the porch. But probably not until next week. You know how it is, new place and all._ Jamal laughs. _Do I ever. This is the third house we_ve lived in since I got married in _09. First one was her mom_s._ He pretends to shiver. Billy smiles. _Got two kids, ten and eight. Boy and a girl. When they bug you, cause they will, holler them back home._ _If they don_t break the windows or light the place on fire, they won_t bug me._ _You buying or renting?_ _Leasing. I_ll be here awhile, don_t know just how long. I_m _ it_s a little embarrassing to come right out and say it, but I_m writing a book. Trying, anyway. Looks like there_s a chance I can get it published, might even be some real money in it, but I_ll have to buckle down. I_ve got an office in town. The Gerard Tower? At least I think I do. I_m going to look at it tomorrow._ Jamal_s eyes have gotten very wide. _An author! Living right here on Evergreen Street! I_ll be goddamned!_ Billy laughs and shakes his head. _Easy, big fella. I_m just a wannabe for now._ _Still, man! Wow. Wait _til I tell Corinne. We gotta have you over to dinner some night. We_ll be able to tell people we knew you when._ He holds up a hand. Billy slaps him five. You get along with people without buddying up to them, Nick said. It_s true and it_s not a shuck. Billy likes people, and he likes to keep them at arm_s length. It sounds like a contradiction, but it_s not. _What_s it about, your book?_ _Can_t tell you._ This is where the editing begins. Giorgio may think he knows it all from reading a few writers_ magazines and online posts, but he doesn_t. _Not because it_s a big secret or something, but because I_ve got to keep it bottled up. If I start talking about it __ He shrugs. _Yeah, man, got it._ Jamal smiles. And so, yeah. Just like that. 4 That night Billy browses Netflix on the big TV in the rumpus room. He knew it was a thing these days but has never bothered to investigate it when there are so many books to read. There_s so much to watch as well, it seems. The sheer volume of choices is intimidating and he decides to go to bed early instead of watching anything. Before undressing, he checks his phone and finds a text from his new agent. GRusso: 9 AM at Gerard Tower. Don_t drive. Uber. Billy doesn_t have a David Lockridge phone _ neither Giorgio nor Frank Macintosh gave him one _ and he doesn_t have a burner. He decides to use his personal since Giorgio already did. With the encrypted messaging app it should be all right. And Billy has something he really needs to say. Billy S: OK. Don_t bring Hoff. Dots roll as Giorgio composes his reply. It doesn_t take long. GRusso: Have to. Sorry. The dots disappear. Discussion over. Billy empties his pockets and puts his pants in the washing machine along with everything else. He does this slowly, brow furrowed. He doesn_t like Ken Hoff. Did not like him, in fact, even before he opened his mouth. Gut reaction. What Giorgio_s parents and grandparents would have called reazione istintiva. But Hoff is in it. Giorgio_s text made that clear: Have to. It_s not like Nick and Giorgio to bring a local into their business, especially not life-and-death business like this. Is Hoff in it because of the building? Location, location, location, as the real estate guys like to say? Or because Nick isn_t local himself? Neither of those things quite excuse Ken Hoff in Billy_s mind. I_m a little bit tight this year he_d said, but Billy guesses you had to be more than a little bit short in the shekels department to get involved in an assassination plot. And from the very first _ the macho beard scruff, the Izod shirt, the Dockers with the slightly frayed pockets, the Gucci loafers worn at the heel _ Hoff smelled to Billy like the guy who would be first to flip in an interrogation room if offered a deal. Deals, after all, were what the Ken Hoffs of the world made. He turns in and lies in the dark, hands under the pillow, looking up at nothing. Some traffic on the street, but not much. He_s wondering when two million dollars starts to look like not enough, when it starts to look like dumb money. The answer seems obvious: after it_s too late to back out. 5 Billy Ubers to the Gerard Tower, as instructed. Hoff and Giorgio are waiting in front. The face-bristles still make Hoff look (to Billy, at least) like a hobo instead of a cool dude, but otherwise he_s squared away in a summerweight suit and subdued gray tie. _George Russo,_ on the other hand, looks larger than ever in an unfortunate green shirt, untucked, and blue jeans with enough ass in them to make a puptent. Billy supposes it_s that fat man_s idea of how a big-time literary agent dresses for a visit to sticksville. Propped between his feet is a laptop case. Hoff seems to have pulled back on the salesman bonhomie, at least a little. Possibly at Giorgio_s request, but he still can_t resist a jaunty little salute: mon capitaine. _Good to see you. The security guy on duty this morning _ and most weekdays _ is Irv Dean. He_ll want your driver_s license and a quick snap. That okay?_ Because it has to be if they_re going to proceed, Billy nods. A few workbound people are still crossing the lobby to the elevators. Some wear suits, some of the women are in those high heels Billy thinks of as click-clack shoes, but a surprising number are dressed informally, some even in branded tees. He doesn_t know where they work, but it_s probably not meeting the public. The guy sitting at the concierge-type stand at the lobby_s center is portly and elderly. The lines around his mouth are so deep they make him look like a life-sized ventriloquist_s dummy. Billy guesses retired cop, now only two or three years from total retirement. His uniform consists of a blue vest with POLK SECURITY on it in gold thread. A cheap hire. More evidence that Hoff is in trouble. Big trouble, if he_s solely on the hook for this building. Hoff turns on his charm turbocharger, approaching the old guy with a smile and outstretched hand. _How_s it going, Irv? All okay?_ _Fine, Mr Hoff._ _Wife tip-top?_ _The arthritis bothers her some, but otherwise she_s fine._ _This is George Russo, you met him last week, and this is David Lockridge. He_s going to be our resident author._ _Pleased to meet you, Mr Lockridge,_ Dean says. A smile lights up his face and makes him look younger. Not much, but a little. _Hope you_ll find some good words here._ Billy thinks that_s a nice thing to say, maybe even the best thing. _I hope so, too._ _Mind me asking what your book is about?_ Billy puts a finger to his lips. _Top secret._ _Okay, I hear you. That_s a nice little suite on five. I think you_ll like it. I have to take your picture for your building ID, if that_s okay?_ _Sure._ _Got a DL?_ Billy hands over the David Lockridge driver_s license. Dean uses a cell phone with GERARD TOWER Dymo_d on the back to photograph first his license and then Billy himself. Now there_s a picture of him on this building_s computer servers, retrievable by anyone with authorization or hacking skills. He tells himself it doesn_t matter, this is his last job, but he still doesn_t like it. It feels all wrong. _I_ll have the card for you when you leave. You need to use it if there_s nobody here at the stand. Just put it on this reader gadget. We like to know who_s in the building. I_ll be here most of the time, or Logan when I_m off, and when we are, we_ll sign you in._ _Got it._ _You can also use your card for the parking garage on Main. It_s good for four months. Your, uh, agent paid for that. It_ll open the barrier as soon as I put you in the computer. Parking on the street when court_s in session, forget it._ Which explains the Uber. _There_s no assigned space in the garage, but most days you_ll find a spot on the first or second level. We_re not overcrowded just now._ He gives Ken Hoff an apologetic look, then returns his attention to the new tenant. _Anything I can do for you, just tap one-one on your office phone. Landline_s installed. Your agent there took care of that, too._ _Mr Dean has been very helpful,_ Giorgio says. _It_s his job!_ Hoff exclaims cheerfully. _Isn_t it, Irv?_ _Absolutely right._ _You say hi to your wife, tell her I hope she feels better. Those copper bracelets are supposed to help. The ones they advertise on TV?_ _Might give them a try,_ Dean says, but he looks dubious, and good for him. When they pass the security stand, Billy sees that Mr Polk Security has a copy of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in his lap. There_s a bodacious babe on the cover, and Billy makes a mental note to pick one up. The dumb self likes sports, and he likes babes. They take the elevator up to five and step out in a deserted corridor. _There_s an accounting office down there,_ Hoff says, pointing. _Two connecting suites. Also some lawyers. There_s a dentist on this side. I think. Unless he moved out. I guess he did, because the plaque on the door is gone. I_ll have to ask the rental agent. Rest of the floor is unoccupied._ Oh, this guy is in real trouble, Billy thinks again. He risks a glance at Giorgio, but Giorgio _ George _ is gazing at the door behind which there is now no dentist. As if there was something there to see. Near the end of the hall, Hoff reaches into his suitcoat pocket and produces a little cloth keycard wallet with GT stamped on the front in gold. _This is yours. Also two spares._ Billy touches one of the keycards to the reader and steps into what would be a small reception area if this were a going business. It_s stuffy. Stale. _Jesus, someone forgot to turn on the air conditioning! Just a second, wait one._ Hoff punches a couple of buttons on the wall controller and has an anxious moment when nothing happens. Then cool air begins to whoosh from an overhead vent. Billy reads Hoff_s relief in the slump of his shoulders. The next room is a big office that could double as a small conference room. There_s no desk, just a table long enough for maybe six people, if they crammed in shoulder to shoulder. On it is a stack of Staples notebooks, a box of pens, a landline telephone. This room _ his writing studio, Billy supposes _ is even hotter than the antechamber because of the morning sun flooding in. No one has bothered to lower the blinds, either. Giorgio flaps the collar of his shirt against his neck. _Whew!_ _It_ll cool quick, real quick,_ Hoff says. He sounds a bit frantic. _This is a great HVAC system, state of the art. It_s starting already, feel it?_ Billy doesn_t care about room temperature, at least for the time being. He steps to the right side of the big window facing the street and looks down that diagonal to the courthouse steps. Then he traces another diagonal to the small door further on. The one courthouse employees use. He imagines the scene: a police car pulling up, or maybe a van with SHERIFF_S DEPARTMENT or CITY POLICE on the side. Law enforcement gets out. Two at least, maybe three. Four? Probably not. They will open the door on the curb side if it_s a car. The back doors if it_s a van. He_ll watch Joel Allen clear the vehicle. There will be no problem picking him out, he_ll be the one bracketed by cops and wearing handcuffs. When the time comes _ if it comes _ there will be nothing to this shot. _Billy!_ Hoff_s voice makes him jerk, as if waking him from a dream. The developer is standing in the doorway of a much smaller room. It_s the kitchenette. When Hoff sees he has Billy_s attention, he gestures around palm up, pointing out the mod cons like a model on The Price Is Right. _Dave,_ Billy says. _I_m Dave._ _Right. Sorry. My bad. You got your little two-burner stove, no oven but you got your microwave for popcorn, Hot Pockets, TV dinners, whatever. Plates and cookware in the cupboards. You got your little sink to wash up your dishes. Mini-fridge. No private bathroom, unfortunately, the men_s and women_s are at the end of the hall, but at least they_re at your end. Short walk. And then there_s this._ He takes a key from his pocket and reaches up to the rectangular wooden panel above the door between the office/conference room and the kitchenette. He turns the key, pushes the panel, and it swings up. The space inside looks to be eighteen inches high, four feet long, two feet deep. It_s empty. _Storage,_ Hoff says, and actually mimes shooting an invisible rifle. _The key_s so you can lock it on Fridays, when the cleaning staff__ Billy almost says it, but Giorgio beats him to it, and that_s good because he_s supposed to be the thinker, not Billy Summers. _No cleaning in here. Not on Fridays, not on any other day. Top secret writing project, remember? Dave can keep the place neatened up himself. He_s a neat guy, right, Dave?_ Billy nods. He_s a neat guy. _Tell Dean, tell the other security guy _ Logan, yeah? _ and tell Broder._ To Billy he says, _Steven Broder. The building super._ Billy nods and files the name away. Giorgio hoists the laptop bag onto the table, pushing aside the tools for writing by hand (a gesture Billy finds both sad and somehow symbolic), and unzips it. _MacBook Pro. Best money can buy, state of the art. My present to you. You can use your own if you want to, but this baby _ all the bells and whistles. Can you get it going okay? There_s probably an instruction book, or something __ _I_ll figure it out._ No problem there, but something else might be. If Nick Majarian hasn_t rigged this beautiful black torpedo so he can use it as a kind of magic mirror into what Billy writes in this room, he has missed a trick. And Nick doesn_t miss many. _Oh sugarpie, that reminds me,_ Hoff says, and hands Billy another of his engraved cards along with the key to the cubby over the door to the kitchenette. _WiFi password. Totally safe. Secure as a bank vault._ Bullshit, Billy thinks as he puts the card in his pocket. _Well,_ Giorgio says, _I guess that_s about it. We_ll leave you to your creative endeavors. Come on, Ken._ Hoff seems reluctant to leave, as if he feels there should be more to show. _You call me if you need anything, Bi _ Dave. Anything at all. Entertainment, maybe? A TV? Maybe a radio?_ Billy shakes his head. He has a considerable musical library on his phone, mostly country and western. He has many things to do in the days ahead, but at some point he_ll find time to rip his tunes to this fine new laptop. If Nick decides to listen in, he can catch up on Reba and Willie and all Hank Junior_s rowdy friends. And maybe he_ll write that book after all. On his own laptop, which he trusts. He will also take security measures on both lappies _ the new one and his personal, which is an old pal. Giorgio finally gets Hoff out and Billy is on his own. He goes back to the window and stands there tracing both diagonals: the one leading to the wide stone steps and the one leading to the employees_ door. Again he imagines what will happen, seeing it vividly. Real-world events are never quite the same as the ones you see in your head, but this work always begins with the seeing. It_s like poetry that way. The things that change, the unexpected variables, the revisions: that stuff has to be dealt with when it comes up, but it starts with the seeing. His phone dings with a text. GRusso: Sorry about H. I know he_s a bit of an asshole. Billy S: Do I need to see him again? GRusso: Don_t know. Billy would prefer something more definitive, but this will do for now. It will have to. 6 When he gets back to what he supposes is now home, his new David Lockridge building ID is in his pocket. Tomorrow he_ll be driving his new used car to work. On the porch, leaning against the door, is a bag of Miracle-Gro lawn food with a note taped to it: Thought you could use this! Jamal A. Billy gives the house next door a wave, although he_s not sure there_s anyone there to see; it_s still half an hour shy of noon. Probably both Ackermans work. He takes the lawn food inside, props it in the hall, then drives to Walmart, where he buys two burner phones (an heir and a spare) and a couple of flash drives, although he_ll probably need just the one; he could put the complete works of ?mile Zola on a single thumbie and barely fill a corner of the space available. He also impulse buys a cheap AllTech laptop, which he puts in his bedroom closet, still in the carton. He pays cash for the phones and the flash drives. He uses his David Lockridge Visa for the laptop. He has no immediate plans for the burners, may never even use them. It all depends on his exit strategy, which at this point is only a shadow. He stops at Burger King on the way back, and when he gets to the yellow house, a couple of kids on bikes are in front of it. A boy and a girl, one white and one black. He guesses the girl must belong to Jamal and Corinne Ackerman. _Are you our new neighbor?_ the boy asks. _I am,_ Billy says, and thinks he_ll have to get used to being one. It might even be fun. _I_m Dave Lockridge. Who are you?_ _Danny Fazio. This is my bud Shanice. I_m nine. She_s eight._ Billy shakes hands with Danny, then with the girl, who looks at him shyly as her brown hand disappears into his white one. _Nice to meet you both. Enjoying your summer vacation?_ _Summer reading program_s okay,_ Danny says. _They give out stickers for each book you read. I_ve got four. Shanice got five, but I_ll catch up. We_re going over my house. After lunch, a bunch of us gonna play Monopoly down the park._ He points. _Shan brings the board. I_m always the racecar._ Kids on their own in the twenty-first century, Billy marvels, how about that. Only then he notices the fat guy two houses down _ wifebeater, Bermudas, grass-stained sneakers _ keeping an eye on him. And on how he behaves with these kids. _Well, seeya later, alligator,_ Danny says, mounting his bike. _After awhile, crocodile,_ Billy responds, and both kids laugh. That afternoon, after taking a nap _ he supposes that he_s allowed an afternoon nap, now that he_s a writer _ he takes the sixpack of Bud from the fridge. He leaves it on the Ackermans_ porch with a note that says Thanks for the lawn fertilizer _ Dave. Off to a good start here. And downtown? He thinks so. He hopes so. Except maybe for Hoff. Hoff bugs him. 7 That evening, while Billy_s putting down lawn food, Jamal Ackerman comes over with two of the beers that were in Billy_s fridge. Jamal is wearing a green coverall with his name in gold thread on one breast and EXCELLENT TIRE on the other. With him, holding a can of Pepsi, is a young boy. _Hey there, Mr Lockridge,_ Jamal says. _This little man is my son, Derek. Shanice says you met her already._ _Yes, with a little man named Danny._ _Thanks for the beers. Hey, what is that you_re using? Looks like my wife_s flour sifter._ _Exactly what it is. I thought about buying a lawn spreader at Walmart, but for this so-called lawn __ He looks at the small bald patch and shrugs. _Too much expense for too little return._ _Looks like it works fine. Might even give it a try myself. But what about in back? That_s a lot bigger._ _It needs to be mown short first, and I don_t have a mower. Yet._ _You can borrow ours, can_t he, Dad?_ Derek says. Jamal ruffles the kid_s hair. _Any time._ _No, that_s too much,_ Billy says. _I_ll buy one. Always supposing I get traction on the book I_m trying to write and stick around._ They go over to the porch and sit on the steps. Billy opens the beer and drinks. It hits the spot and he says so. _What_s your book about?_ Derek asks. He_s sitting between them. _Top secret._ Smiling as he says it. _Yeah, but is it make-believe or true?_ _A little of both._ _That_s enough,_ Jamal says. _It_s not polite to pry._ A woman is approaching from one of the houses at the far end of the street. Mid-fifties, graying hair, bright lipstick. She_s holding a highball glass and walking not quite straight. _That_s Mrs Kellogg,_ Jamal says, keeping his voice low. _Widow lady. Lost her husband last year. Had a stroke._ He gazes thoughtfully at Billy_s excuse for a lawn. _While mowing the grass, actually._ _Is this a party, and can I crash it?_ Mrs Kellogg asks. Even though she_s still on the walk and there_s no breeze, Billy can smell the gin on her breath. _As long as you don_t mind sitting on the steps._ Billy gets up and offers his hand. _Dave Lockridge._ And now here comes the guy who was keeping an eye on Billy_s interaction with Shanice and Danny. He_s swapped his wifebeater and Bermudas for a pair of jeans and a Masters of the Universe T-shirt. With him is a tall, scrawny blonde in a housedress and sneakers. From next door _ bearing what looks like a plate of brownies _ comes Jamal_s wife and daughter. Billy invites them all inside, where they can sit in actual chairs. Welcome to the neighborhood, he thinks. 8 The Masters of the Universe guy and his skinny blonde wife are the Raglands. The Fazios also show up _ although without their son _ and the Petersons from the far end of the block, with a bottle of red wine. The living room fills up. It_s a nice little impromptu party. Billy enjoys himself, partly because he doesn_t have to work at projecting the dumb self, partly because he likes these people, even Jane Kellogg, who is pretty tight and has to keep visiting the bathroom. Which she calls the biffy. And by the time they all drift away _ early, because tomorrow is a working day _ Billy knows he will fit in here. He will be of interest because he_s writing a book and that makes him something of an exotic, but that will pass. By midsummer, always supposing Joel Allen doesn_t show up early for his date with a bullet, he_ll be just another guy on the street. Another neighbor. Billy learns that Jamal is the foreman at Excellent Tire, and Corrie is _ small world _ a steno at the courthouse. He learns that Diane Fazio keeps an eye on Shanice during summer vacation while Jamal and Corrie are at work. Shanice_s brother Derek goes to day camp and will go to basketball camp in August. He learns that the Dugans, who moved out of the yellow house very suddenly last October (skedaddled is how Paul Ragland puts it), were _snooty,_ and Dave Lockridge is, consequently, a good change. After the shot, they_ll tell reporters that he seemed like such a nice man. That_s okay with Billy. He thinks of himself as a nice man, one with a dirty job. At least, he thinks, I never shot a fifteen-year-old on his way to school. Supposing Joel Allen, aka _Joe,_ actually did that. Before bed, he unboxes his AllTech laptop, powers it up, and googles Ken Hoff. He_s quite the mover and shaker in Red Bluff. He_s an Elk. He_s in Rotary. He was president of the local Jaycees chapter. Chairman of the local Republican Party during the 2016 election cycle, and there_s a picture of pre-beard scruff Ken wearing a red MAGA hat. He was on the city planning board but stepped down in 2018 after accusations of conflict of interest. He owns half a dozen downtown buildings, including the Gerard Tower, which Billy supposes makes him a kind of Donald Trump Mini-Me. He owns three TV stations, one here in Red Bluff and two in Alabama. All three are affiliated with World Wide Entertainment, which probably explains Hoff_s reference to WWE. He_s divorced not once but twice. That means hellimony. Plans to build a golf course were scrapped late last year. Plans for another downtown building are on hold. So is Hoff_s application for a casino license. All in all, it_s a picture of a man whose small-time business empire is teetering. One push and off the cliff it will go. Billy hits the rack and lies staring up into the dark with his hands under the pillow. He_s starting to understand why Nick was attracted to Ken Hoff and why Ken Hoff was attracted to Nick. Nick can be charming (that million-dollar grin), and he_s smarter than the average bear, but when you get right down to it, he_s a hyena and what hyenas are good at is sizing up the passing herd and picking out the one that_s limping. The one that will soon fall behind. Ken Hoff is the patsy. Not for the killing, he_ll have a cast-iron alibi for that, but when the cops start looking for the guy who ordered the killing, they won_t find Nick. They_ll find Ken. Billy decides that_s okay with him. He_s used up the reservoir of cool under the pillow, so he rolls over on his right side and goes to sleep almost at once. Being a good neighbor is tiring. CHAPTER 4 1 The next day Billy hooks up his new MacBook in the office on the fifth floor and downloads a solitaire app. There are a dozen different versions. He opts for Canfield and rigs the computer to leave a five-second pause before each move. If Nick or Giorgio should choose to look in and monitor his activities (or maybe Frankie Elvis would be given that task), they will have no idea the computer is playing solo. Billy goes to the window and looks out. Both sides of Court Street are lined with parked cars, many of them police cruisers. The umbrella-shaded tables outside the Sunspot Caf? are filled with people eating doughnuts and Danish. A few people are descending the wide courthouse steps, but a lot more are on their way up. Some trot, showing off their aerobic fitness. Others plod. Most of the plodders are lawyers, identifiable by their huge, boxy briefcases. Court will soon be in session. As if to underline this, a small bus _ once red, now wash pink _ trundles slowly down the choked street, passes the steps, and stops outside the smaller door at the righthand end of the big stone building. The door of the bus folds open. A cop gets out, then a conga-line of prisoners in orange jumpsuits, then another cop. The jumpsuits perp-walk around the bus_s snub nose. The door of the employees_ entrance opens and the men in the jumpsuits go inside, where they_ll wait to be arraigned. Interesting, and worth filing away, but Billy believes Nick is right: when Allen comes, he_ll be escorted up the steps to the main entrance. Not that it matters. The shot will be almost the same either way. What_s important is that Court Street is a busy place during the working week. There may be fewer people out and about in the afternoons, but most arraignments take place in the morning. You_ve always been fucking Houdini when it comes to disappearing after the hit, Nick said. By the time things start to settle, you_ll be long gone. He_d better be, because disappearing is part of what they_re paying him for. A large part. Nick surely knows that using Billy has certain advantages if he botches the disappearance. He has no friends or relatives that can pressure him _ or be used to pressure him _ into giving up the name of his employer. And while Nick might consider Billy far from the brightest bulb in the chandelier, he knows his hired gun is smart enough to realize he can_t trade a name for a reduction to homicide in the second or manslaughter. When you shoot a man with a sniper rifle from the fifth floor of a building where you_ve been set up for weeks or months, there could be no argument about the charge. That_s premeditation in big red letters and only murder in the first would do. Yet if Billy were caught there_s one offer the prosecution could make, and Nick would know that, too. This is a death penalty state. A smart DA might well offer Billy a shot at life in Rincon Correctional instead of the needle. If he talked. Billy supposes that if it came to that, he actually could still keep Nick out of it. He could name Ken Hoff, because Hoff wouldn_t live long if the cops grabbed Billy Summers coming out of Gerard Tower. Hoff might not live long in any case. When dealing with Nick Majarian_s ilk, patsies rarely did. Billy might not live long even so, because safe is always better than sorry. He might fall down a flight of prison stairs with his hands cuffed behind his back. He might be stabbed in the shower with a sharpened toothbrush or have a bar of soap stuffed down his throat. He could hold his own against one guy, maybe even two, but faced with a posse of 88s or three or four widebodies from People Nation? No. And does he want to spend life in prison in any case? Also no. Better dead than caged. He guesses Nick knows that, too. None of it will be an issue if he isn_t caught. He never has been, seventeen times he_s gotten away clean, but he_s never been faced with a situation like this one. It_s not like shooting from an alley with a car nearby to carry you away, the best route out of town carefully marked. How did you disappear after you_d gunned a man down from the fifth floor of a downtown office building, with a shit-ton of city and county cops right across the way? Billy knows how it would work in a movie: the bad-guy shooter would use a sound-and-flash suppressor. That_s not an option in this case. The range is just a little too long, and he won_t get a second chance if he misses the first time. Also, there_s going to be the unmistakable crack of the bullet breaking the sound barrier. A suppressor can do nothing about that. Billy has a personal issue, as well: he has simply never trusted potato-busters. Put a gadget on the end of a good rifle and you_re taking a risk of fucking up your shot. So it_s going to be loud, and while the source may not be immediately identifiable, when people stop cringing and look up, they_re going to see a window on the fifth floor from which a small circle of glass is missing. Because these windows don_t open. The problems don_t daunt Billy. On the contrary, they engage him. The way the prospect of certain dangerous escapes _ being chained up inside a safe and thrown into the East River, or dangling from a skyscraper in a straitjacket _ no doubt engaged Houdini. Billy doesn_t have a whole plan yet, but he_s got a start. The parking garage was a little more loaded on the first two levels than Irv Dean had indicated, maybe today_s court docket is especially heavy, but by the time Billy got to Level 4, he had his pick of spots. Privacy, in other words, and privacy is good. Billy is sure Houdini would have agreed with that. He goes back to the table, where the expensive Mac Pro is still playing Canfield. He powers up his own laptop and goes to Amazon. You can buy anything at Amazon. 2 A stretch of curb in front of Gerard Tower has been stenciled AUTHORIZED PARKING ONLY. At quarter past eleven a truck with a big sombrero on the side pulls up there. Below the sombrero, JOSE_S EATS. And below that, TODOS COMEN! People start leaving the building, trundling toward the truck like ants drawn to sugar. Five minutes later another truck pulls up behind the first. On the side of this one is a grinning cartoon boy woofing down a double cheeseburger. At eleven-thirty, while people are lined up for burgers and fries and tacos and enchiladas, a hotdog wagon appears. Time to eat, Billy thinks. Also time to meet some more neighbors. There are four people waiting for the elevator, three men and a woman. All are dressed for business and all look to be in their mid-thirties, the woman maybe even younger. Billy joins them. One asks if he_s the new writer in residence _ as if Billy has supplanted an old one. Billy says he is and introduces himself. They do likewise: John, Jim, Harry, Phyllis. Billy asks what_s good down below. John and Harry suggest the Mexican wagon. _Excellent fish tacos,_ John says. Jim says the burgers aren_t bad and the onion rings are A-plus. Phyllis says she has her face fixed for one of Petie_s chili dogs. _None of it_s haute cuisine,_ Harry says, _but it beats brown-bagging it._ Billy asks about the caf? across the street and all four shake their heads. Such instant unanimity strikes Billy funny and he has to grin. _Stay away from it,_ Harry says. _Crowded at lunch._ _And the prices are high,_ John adds. _I don_t know about writers, but when you work for a start-up law firm, you have to watch your nickels and dimes._ _Lots of lawyers in the building?_ Billy asks Phyllis as the elevator doors open. _Don_t ask me, ask them,_ she says. _I_m with Crescent Accounting. Answer the phone and check tax returns._ _Quite a few of us legal beagles,_ Harry says. _Some on three and four, a few more on six. I think there_s a start-up architectural firm on seven. And I know there_s a photography studio on eight. Commercial stuff for catalogs._ John says, _If this place was a TV show, they_d call it The Young Lawyers. The big firms are mostly two or three blocks over, other side of the courthouse on Holland Street and Emery Plaza. We stay close and get crumbs from the big boys_ table._ _And wait for the big boys to die,_ Jim adds. _Most of the lawyers in the old-line firms are dinosaurs who wear three-piece suits and sound like Boss Hogg._ Billy thinks of the sign in front: OFFICE SPACE AND LUXURY APARTMENTS NOW AVAILABLE. It looked like it had been there awhile, and like Hoff, it had a certain whiff of desperation. _I_d guess your firm got a break on the lease._ Harry gives Billy a thumbs-up. _Bang. Four years at a price just north of incredible. And the lease will hold even if the guy who owns the building, Hoff_s his name, goes into Chapter 11. Ironclad. It gives us little fellas some time to get traction._ _Besides,_ Jim says, _a lawyer who gets screwed on his own lease agreement deserves to go broke._ The young lawyers laugh. Phyllis smiles. The doors open on the lobby. The three men forge ahead, intent on chow. Billy crosses the lobby with Phyllis at a more leisurely pace. She_s a good-looking woman in an understated way, more daisy than peony. _Curious about something,_ he says. She smiles. _It_s a writer_s stock in trade, isn_t it? Curiosity?_ _I suppose so. I_m seeing a lot of people dressed casual. Like them._ He points to a couple just approaching the door. The guy is wearing black jeans and a Sun Ra tee. The woman with him is in a smock top that declares her pregnant belly rather than hiding it. Her hair is pulled back in a careless ponytail secured with a red rubber band. _Don_t tell me those two are lawyers or architectural assistants. I guess they could be from the photography studio, but there_s a whole herd of them._ _They work for Business Solutions on the second floor. The whole second floor. It_s a collection agency. We call them BS for a reason._ She wrinkles her nose as if at a bad smell, but Billy doesn_t miss the touch of envy in her voice. Dressing for success may be exciting at first, but as time passes it must become a drag, especially for women _ the good hair, the good makeup, the click-clack shoes. Surely this nice-looking woman from the accounting firm on the fifth floor must from time to time think about how much of a relief it would be to just slop on a pair of jeans and a shell top, add a dash of lipstick, and call it good. _You don_t need to dress up when you spend the day working the phones in a great big open-plan office,_ Phyllis says. _Your targets don_t see you when you_re telling them to cough up the cash or the bank will slap a lien on your house._ She stops just shy of the doors, looking thoughtful. _I wonder what they make._ _I guess you don_t crunch their numbers._ _You guess right. But keep us in mind if you hit big with your book, Mr Lockridge. We_re also a new firm. I think I_ve got a card in my purse __ _Don_t bother,_ Billy says, touching her wrist before she can do any serious digging. _If I hit it big, I_ll just come down the hall and knock on your door._ She gives him a smile and an appraising look. There_s no engagement or wedding ring on her third finger left, and Billy thinks that in another life, this is when he_d ask her to come for a drink after work. She might say no, but that look, up from under her lashes, along with the smile, makes him think she_d say yes. But he won_t ask. Meet people, yes. Get liked and like in return, yes. But don_t get close. Getting close is a bad idea. Getting close is dangerous. Maybe after he retires that will change. 3 Billy gets a burger dragged through the garden and sits on one of the plaza benches with Lawyer Jim, whose actual name is Jim Albright. _Try one of these,_ he says, holding out a fat onion ring. _Fucking delicious._ It is. Billy says he_s got to get some of those and Jim Albright says goddam right you do. Billy gets his rings in a little paper boat along with some packets of ketchup and goes back to sit with Jim. _So what_s your book about, Dave?_ Billy puts a finger to his lips. _Top secret._ _Even if I signed an NDA? Johnny Colton specializes in em._ He points to one of his colleagues, over by the Mexican wagon. _Not even then._ _I admire your discretion. I thought writers loved to talk about what they_re working on._ _I think writers who talk a lot probably don_t write a lot,_ Billy says, _but since I_m the only writer I actually know, I_m really just guessing._ Then, and not entirely to change the subject, either: _Look at the guy over there at the hotdog wagon. That_s an outfit you don_t see every day._ The man he_s pointing to has joined some of his colleagues at the Mexican food wagon. Even among the other Business Solutions employees, this one stands out. He_s wearing gold parachute pants that take Billy back to his Tennessee childhood, when some of the would-be town sharpies wore such gear to the Friday night dances at the Rollerdome. Above it is a paisley shirt with a high collar, like the ones worn by British Invasion rock groups in old YouTube videos. The ensemble is finished off with a porkpie hat. From beneath it, lush black hair spills to his shoulders. Jim laughs. _That_s Colin White. Quite the fashion plate, ain_t he? Gay as hell and cheerful as a Sunday afternoon in Paris. Most of the BSers stick to their own. Earning their beer and skittles by dunning people at the end of their financial rope doesn_t exactly make them popular and they know it, but Colin_s a regular social butterfly._ Jim shakes his head. _At least at lunch he is. I have to wonder what he_s like when he_s on the clock, hectoring widows and busted-up vets out of their last quarters and dimes. He must be good at the job, because there_s a lot of turnover at that company and he_s been here longer than I have._ _How long is that?_ _Eighteen months. Sometimes Col comes to work wearing a kilt. Serious! Sometimes a cape. He_s also got a Michael Jackson outfit _ you know, the cavalry officer deal with the epaulets and the brass buttons?_ Billy nods. Colin White is currently holding a cardboard box with a couple of tacos in it. He stops to talk with Phyllis, and something he says causes her to throw back her head and laugh. _He_s a doll,_ Jim says, with what sounds like genuine affection. Phyllis strolls off and sits with a few other women. A couple of Colin White_s cohorts make room for him. Before sitting down, he puts one foot behind the other and executes a quick turn that would have done the Gloved One proud. Billy puts him at five-nine, five-ten at most. Another piece of the plan. Maybe. Level 4 in the parking garage, maybe more laptops, and now Colin White. A bird of rare plumage. 4 That afternoon he sets the Mac Pro to playing itself at cribbage, with a five-second delay before each Player 1 move. He also sets it so that Player 2 will beat Player 1 every time. That should hold any lookie-loos for an hour or so. Then he powers up his own Mac, returns to Amazon, and buys two wigs: a blond one with short hair and a black one with long hair. In other circumstances he would have these sent to a storefront mail drop, but on this job there_s no point, not when David Lockridge will be ID_d as the shooter before the sun goes down on the day it happens. With the wigs taken care of, he puts one of the blank Staples notebooks beside his personal lappie and begins a virtual tour of houses and apartments for rent. He finds a number of possibles, but any boots-on-the-ground investigation will have to wait until he gets his goods from Amazon. It_s only two o_clock when he finishes his virtual house-hunting, too early to call it a day. It_s time to actually start writing. He_s thought about this quite a lot. At first he assumed he would use his own machine for that. Using the Pro might mean his employer _ and possibly his _literary agent_ _ could be reading over his shoulder, which makes him think of the telescreens in 1984. Would Nick and Giorgio be suspicious if they looked in and didn_t see any copy? Billy thinks they would be. They wouldn_t say anything, but it might give them the idea that Billy knows more about snooping and hacking than he wants them to know. And there_s another reason to write on the Pro, even though it may be bugged. It_s a challenge. Can he really write a fictionalized dumb self version of his own life story? Risky, but he thinks maybe he can. Faulkner wrote dumb in The Sound and the Fury. Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, is another example. There are probably more. Billy quits the automated cribbage game and opens a blank Word document. He titles it The Story of Benjy Compson _ a nod to Faulkner he_s sure neither Nick nor Giorgio will tip to. He sits for several seconds, drumming his fingers on his chest and looking at the blank screen. This is a crazy risk, he thinks. This is the last job, he thinks, and types the sentence he_s been holding in his mind for just this occasion. The man my ma lived with came home with a broke arm. He looks at this for almost a minute, then types again. I don_t even remember his name. But he was plenty mad. I guess he must have went to the hospital first because it was in a cast. My sister Billy shakes his head and fixes it so it_s better. He thinks so, anyway. The man my ma lived with came home with a broke arm. I guess he must have went to the hospital first because it was in a cast. My sister was trying to bake cookies and she burnt them. I guess she forgot to keep track of the time. When that man came home he was plenty mad. He killed my sister and I don_t even remember his name. He looks at what he_s written and thinks he can do this. More, he wants to do this. Before starting to write, he would have said Yes I remember what happened, but only a little. Only now there_s more. Even that short paragraph has unlocked a door and opened a window. He remembers the smell of burned sugar, and seeing smoke seep out of the oven, and the chip on the side of the stove, and flowers in a teacup on the table, and some kid outside chanting _One p_tater two p_tater three p_tater four._ He remembers the heavy clod-clod-clod of that man_s boots coming up the steps. That man, that boyfriend. And now he even remembers the name. It was Bob Raines. He remembers thinking when he heard that man use his fists on Ma, Bob is raining. Bob is raining on Ma. He remembers her smiling after and saying He didn_t mean it. And It was my fault. Billy writes for an hour and a half, wanting to bolt ahead but holding himself back. If Nick or Giorgio or even Elvis is looking in, they must see the dumb self going slowly. Struggling for every sentence. At least he doesn_t have to deliberately misspell words; the ones the computer doesn_t correct automatically it underlines in red. At four o_clock he saves what he_s written and shuts down. He finds he_s looking forward to picking up the thread tomorrow. Maybe he_s a writer after all. 5 When he gets back to Midwood, Billy finds a note thumbtacked to his door. It_s an invitation to have ribs and slaw and cherry cobbler at the Raglands_ down the street. He goes because he doesn_t want to be seen as standoffish, but with no enthusiasm, expecting an after-dinner conversation over cans of suds having to do with commie college kids this and dirty immigrants that. He is stunned to discover that Paul and Denise Ragland voted for Hillary Clinton and can_t stand Trump, who they call _President Crybaby._ Proving once more, Billy supposes as he walks home, that you can_t judge a man by his wifebeater. He_s already been sucked in by a Netflix show called Ozark and is ready to start the third episode when his cell phone _ his David Lockridge cell _ dings with a text. George Russo, ever the concerned agent, wants to know how his first day went. DLock: Pretty well. I did some writing. GRusso: Good to hear. We_ll make you a bestseller yet. Can you drop by Thurs night? 7 PM, dinner. N wants to talk to you. Nick is still in town, then, and probably in Vegas withdrawal. DLock: Sure. But no H. GRusso: Absolutely not. That_s good. Billy thinks he could live long and die happy if he never saw Ken Hoff again. He turns off the TV and goes to bed. He slips easily into sleep, and at some point just before dawn_s prologue, he slips just as easily into a nightmare. Which he will write down tomorrow, as Benjy Compson. Changing the names to protect the guilty. 6 The man my ma lived with came home with a broke arm. I guess he must have went to the hospital first because it was in a cast. My sister was trying to bake cookies and she burnt them. I guess she forgot to keep track of the time. When that man came home he was plenty mad. He killed my sister and I don_t even remember his name. He started yelling as soon as he came in. I was on the floor of the trailer, putting together a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle that when it was done would be 2 kittens playing with a ball of yarn. I could smell the booze he was drinking even with the smoke from the cookies and found out later he got into a fight at Wally_s Tavern. He must have lost because he had a black eye too. My sister Catherine was her name, although that_s not the one he_ll use _ almost but not quite. Catherine Ann Summers, just nine on the day she died. Blonde. Small. My sister Cassie was at the table we ate off, coloring in her book. She would have turned 10 in 2 or 3 months and she was looking forward to being in 2 figures instead of just 1.1 was 11 and suppose to be looking out for her. The boyfriend was yelling and waving at the smoke which only just started before he came in, asking what did you do what did you do and Cathy Billy deletes that fast, hoping nobody is looking right then. Cassie said I was baking cookies I guess they burnt I am sorry. And he said you are a stupid little bitch I don_t believe how stupid you are. He open the oven door and more smoke come out. If we had a smoke detector it would have gone off but we didn_t have one in our trailer. He picked up a dish towel and started flapping it at the smoke. I would have got up to open the outside door but it was open already. The boyfriend reached in to get that cookie sheet. He grab it with his good hand but the dish towel slipped and he burnt his hand and spilled those cookies that were in shapes I helped Cassie cut out and they went all over the floor. Cassie got down to pick them up and that_s when he started killing her. Or maybe it happened right away when he swatted her with that cast upside her head and she flew into the wall. Out like a light anyway but maybe still alive only then he started kicking her with these boots he always wore that my ma called motorhuckle boots. Stop it your killing her I said but he didn_t stop until I said stop it you son of a bitch bully chickenshit fucker STOP HURTING MY SISTER. So then I went to tackle him and he push me down Billy gets up and goes to the window of the office that is now _ he supposes _ his writing room. People are coming and going on the courthouse steps, but he doesn_t see them. He goes into the little kitchenette for a drink of water. He spills a bit of it because his hands are trembling. They don_t tremble when he_s going to take a shot, they are always stone-steady then, but they are now. Not a lot, but enough to spill some water. His mouth and throat are dry and he drinks down the whole glass. It has all come back to him and it all makes him ashamed. He will leave what he has written about trying to tackle Bob Raines, because it puts a layer of heroic fiction over the truth, which is close to unbearable. He didn_t tackle Bob Raines while Bob Raines was kicking his sister and stepping on her and crushing her fragile chest on which no breasts would ever appear. Billy was supposed to take care of her. Take care of your sister was the last thing Ma always said when she left for her job at the laundry. But he didn_t take care of her. He ran. He ran for his life. But it was in my mind even then, he thinks as he goes back to the table and the laptop. It must have been, because it wasn_t our room I ran for. _I ran for theirs,_ Billy says, and picks up where he left off. So then I went to tackle him and he push me down and I got up and ran down the trailer to their room at the end and slam the door behind me. He started pounding on it right away, calling me every name in the book and said if you don_t open this door right now Benjy you are going to be one sorry-ass motherfucker. Only I knew it didn_t matter if I opened the door or not because he_d do me like he did Cassie. Because she was dead, even a kid of 11 could see that. Ma_s boyfriend use to be in the army and he kept his footlocker at the end of the bed with a blanket over it. I pushed the blanket off and open the footlocker. He had a padlock for it but hardly ever used it, maybe never. If he had_ve I wouldn_t be writing this because I would be dead. And if that gun of his hadn_t been loaded I would be dead but I knew it was because he kept it loaded in case of what he called burg-gurg-gurglers. Burg-gurg-gurglers, Billy thinks. Christ, how it all comes back. He bust in the door like I was pretty sure he would Not pretty sure, Billy thinks, I knew. Because it was nothing but fiberboard. Cathy and I used to hear them going at it just about every night. In the afternoon, if Ma came home early. But that was another fiction he would leave. and when he come in I was sitting with my back against the foot of the bed with his gun pointing at him. It was an M9X19 that took 15 Parabellum rounds. I didn_t know that then of course but I knew it was heavy and I held it in both hands against my chest. He said give that to me you useless piece of shit don_t you know kids ain_t supposed to play with guns. Then I shot him, dead center mass. He just stood there in the doorway like nothing happen but I knew it did because I saw the blood fly out of his back. The M9 recoiled against my chest Billy remembers making an uh sound. And burping. And later on he had a bruise there above his sternum. and he fell down. I went over to him and said to myself that I might have to shoot him again. If I had to I would. He was my mother_s boyfriend but he was wrong. He was a bad guy! _Except he was dead,_ Billy says. _Bob Raines was dead._ He thinks briefly of deleting everything he_s written, it_s awful, but saves it instead. He doesn_t know what anyone else might think, but Billy thinks it_s good. And good that it_s awful, because awful is sometimes the truth. He guesses he really is a writer now, because that_s a writer_s thought. ?mile Zola might have thought the same when he was writing Th?r?se Raquin, or when Nana gets sick and all of her beauty rots away. His face feels hot. He goes back to the kitchenette and splashes water on it, then stands bent over the little sink with his eyes shut. The memory of shooting Bob Raines doesn_t bother him, but it hurts to remember Cathy. Take care of your sister. Writing is good. He_s always wanted to do it, and now he is. That_s good. Only who knew it hurt so much? The landline phone rings, making him jump. It_s Irv Dean, telling him he has a package from Amazon. Billy says he_ll come right down and pick it up. _Man, that company sells everything,_ Irv says. Billy agrees, thinking You don_t know the half of it. 7 It_s not the wigs; even with Amazon_s speedy delivery, those won_t come until tomorrow. What he_s got today would fit in the cubby over the doorway between the office and the kitchen, but Billy has no intention of stowing it there; all his Amazon swag is going back to the yellow house in Midwood. He opens the box and takes out the things he ordered one by one. From Fun Time Ltd in Hong Kong is a box containing a mustache made of real human hair. Blond, like one of the wigs he_s ordered. It_s a little bushy; when the time comes he_ll trim it. He wants to disguise, not to stand out. Next is a pair of horn-rimmed glasses with clear lenses. These are surprisingly hard to find. You can buy reading glasses at any drugstore, but Billy_s vision is 20/10 and even slight magnification gives him headaches. He tries them on and finds the fit is a little loose. He could tighten the bows, but won_t. If they slide down his nose a bit, they_ll give him a scholarly air. Last, the most expensive item, the pi?ce de r?sistance. It_s a silicone pregnancy belly, sold by Amazon but made by a company called MomTime. It was expensive because it_s adjustable, allowing the wearer to look anywhere from six to nine months pregnant. It attaches with Velcro straps. Billy knows that these fake bellies are notorious shoplifting tools, big-box security personnel are told to be on the lookout for them, but Billy has not come to this small city to shoplift, and it won_t be a woman wearing it when the time comes. That will be his job. CHAPTER 5 1 Billy shows up at Nick_s borrowed McMansion a bit before seven on Thursday evening. He has read somewhere that the polite guest arrives five minutes early, no more and no less. Paulie is the official greeter this time. Nick is once more waiting in the hall, thus out of sight of any passing law enforcement drones _ unlikely but not impossible. His smile is turned up to maximum, arms outstretched to enfold Billy in a hug. _Chateaubriand on the menu. I got a cook, I don_t know what he_s doing in this rinky-dink town, but he_s great. You_re going to love it. And save some room._ He holds Billy back at arm_s length and drops his voice to a hoarse whisper. _I heard a rumor about Baked Alaska. You have to be tired of microwave dinners, right? Right?_ _That_s right,_ Billy says. Frank appears. In an ascot and a pink shirt, with his hair combed in gleaming swoops and swirls piled high above an Eddie Munster widow_s peak, he looks like the hoodlum in a gangster movie who gets killed first. He_s got some glasses and a big green bottle on a tray. _Champers. Mote and Shandon._ He sets down the tray and eases the cork from the bottle_s neck. No pop and no splurt. Frankie Elvis may not know French, but his opening technique is superb. So is his pour. Nick lifts a glass. The others do likewise. _To success!_ Billy, Paulie, and Frank clink and drink. The Champagne goes pleasantly to Billy_s head at once, but he refuses another glass. _I_m driving. Don_t want to get stopped._ _That_s Billy,_ Nick says to his amigos. _Always thinking two steps ahead._ _Three,_ Billy says, and Nick laughs like this is the funniest thing he_s heard since Henny Youngman died. The amigos dutifully follow suit. _Okay,_ Nick says. _Enough with the bubble-water. Mangiamo, mangiamo._ It_s a good meal, starting with French onion soup, progressing to beef marinated in red wine, and ending with the promised Baked Alaska. It_s served by an unsmiling woman in a white uniform, except for the dessert course. Nick_s hired chef wheels that in himself to the expected applause and compliments, nods his thanks and leaves. Nick, Frank, and Paulie carry the conversation, which is mostly about Vegas: who is playing there, who is building there, who is looking for a casino license. As if they don_t understand that Vegas is obsolete, Billy thinks. Probably they don_t. There is no sign of Giorgio. When the serving woman comes in with after-dinner liqueur, Billy shakes his head. So does Nick. _Marge, you and Alan can leave now,_ Nick says. _It was a great meal._ _Thanks, but we_ve just started to clean up the__ _We_ll worry about that tomorrow. Here. Give this to Alan. Car-fare, my old man would have said._ He pushes some bills into her hand. She mutters that she will and turns to go. _And Marge?_ She turns back. _You haven_t been smoking in the house, have you?_ _No._ Nick nods. _Don_t linger, okay? Billy, let_s you and me go in the living room for a little chin-chin. You guys, find something to do._ Paul tells Billy it was good seeing him and heads for the front door. Frank follows Marge into the kitchen. Nick drops his napkin into the smeared remains of his dessert and leads Billy into the living room. The fireplace at one end is big enough to roast the Minotaur. There are statues in niches and a ceiling mural that looks like a porno version of the Sistine Chapel. _Great, isn_t it?_ Nick says, looking around. _It sure is,_ Billy says, thinking that if he had to spend too much time in this room, he might lose his mind. _Sit down, Billy, take a load off._ Billy sits. _Where_s Giorgio? Did he go back to Vegas?_ _Well, he might be there,_ Nick says, _or he might be in New York or Hollywood talking to movie people about this great book he_s agenting._ None of your business, in other words, Billy thinks. Which is, in a way, fair enough. He_s just an employee, after all. What they_d call a hired gun in the old Western movies Mr Stepenek used to like. Thinking of Mr Stepenek makes him think of a thousand junked cars _ it seemed like a thousand to a kid, anyway, and maybe there really were that many _ with their cracked windshields winking in the sun. How many years since he last thought of that automobile graveyard? The door to the past is open. He could push it shut, latch and lock it, but he doesn_t want to. Let the wind blow in. It_s cold but it_s fresh, and the room he_s been living in is stuffy. _Hey, Billy._ Nick is snapping his fingers. _Earth to Billy._ _I_m here._ _Yeah? Thought for a minute I lost you. Listen, are you actually writing something?_ _I am,_ Billy says. _Real life or made up?_ _Made up._ _Not about Archie Andrews and his friends, is it?_ Smiling. Billy shakes his head, also smiling. _They say that a lot of people writing fiction for the first time use their own experiences. _Write what you know,_ I remember that from senior English. Paramus High, go Spartans. That the case with you?_ Billy makes a seesaw gesture with one hand. Then, as if the idea has just occurred to him: _Hey, you aren_t getting up on what I_m writing, are you?_ A dangerous question, but he can_t help himself. _Because I wouldn_t want__ _God, no!_ Nick says, sounding way past surprised, sounding actually shocked, and Billy knows he_s lying. _Why would we do that even if we could?_ _I don_t know, I just __ A shrug. __ wouldn_t want anyone peeking. Because I_m no writer, just trying to stay in character. And passing the time. I_d be embarrassed for anyone to see it._ _You put a password on the laptop, right?_ Billy nods. _Then nobody will._ Nick leans forward, his brown eyes on Billy_s. He lowers his voice like he did when telling Billy about the Baked Alaska. _Is it hot? Threesomes, and all that?_ _No, huh-uh._ A pause. _Not really._ Filtered some sex in there, that_s my advice. Because sex sells._ He chuckles and goes to a cabinet across the room. _I_m going to have a splash of brandy. Want some?_ _No thanks._ He waits for Nick to come back. _Any word on Joe?_ _Same old same old. His lawyer_s appealing the extradition like I told you and the whole thing is on hold, maybe, who knows, because Johnny Judge is off on vacation._ _But he_s not talking about what he knows?_ _If he was, I_d know._ _Maybe he might have an accident in jail. Never get extradited at all._ _They_re taking very good care of him. Out of gen-pop, remember?_ _Oh yeah. Right._ That seems a little convenient is an observation Billy can_t make. It would be a bit too smart. _Be patient, Billy. Settle in. Frankie says you_re meeting the neighbors out there in Midwood._ So. He hasn_t seen Frank in the neighborhood, but Frank has seen him. Nick is checking his sexy new lappie at will and also keeping an eye on him at his temporary home. Billy thinks again of 1984. _I am._ _And in the building?_ _There too, sure. Mostly at lunch. The food wagons._ _That_s great. Blend in with the scenery. Become part of the scenery. You_re good at that. I bet you were good at it in Iraq._ I was good at it everywhere, Billy thinks. At least after I killed Bob Raines I was. Time to change the subject. _You said there was going to be a diversion. Said we_d talk about it later. Is this later enough?_ _It is._ Nick takes a mouthful of brandy, swirls it around like it_s mouthwash, swallows. _Happens to feed into an idea I wanted to try out on you. The diversion is going to be a couple of flashpots. Do you know what those are?_ Billy does, but shakes his head. _Rock bands use em. There_s a bang and a big flash of light. Like a geyser. When I know for sure that Joe is coming east, I_ll have a couple planted near the courthouse. One for sure in the alley that runs behind that caf? on the corner. Paulie suggested putting one in the parking garage, but it_s too far away. And besides, what terrorist blows up a fucking parking garage?_ Billy makes no attempt to hide his alarm. _Planting those things isn_t going to be Hoff_s job, is it?_ Nick doesn_t bother to swirl the second mouthful of brandy, just gulps it down. He coughs, and the cough turns into a laugh. _What, you think I_m stupid enough to give a job like that to a grande figlio di puttana like him? I_d be sad if that was your opinion of me. No, I_ve got a couple of my guys coming in. Good boys. Trustworthy._ Billy thinks, You don_t want Hoff placing the flashpots, because that could come back to you, but you don_t mind him procuring the gun and placing it in the shooter_s nest, because that will come back to me. How stupid do you think I am? _I_ll probably be in Vegas when this thing goes down, but Frankie Elvis and Paul Logan will be here with the two other guys I_m bringing in. If you need anything, they_ll take care of you._ He leans forward again, earnest and smiling. _It_s going to be a beautiful thing. The gunshot goes, scaring everybody. Then the flashpots go _ BOOM, BOOM! _ and anybody who_s not running already starts running then and screaming their heads off. Active shooter! Suicide bombers! Al-Qaeda! ISIS! Whatever! But the real beauty of it? Unless somebody breaks a leg running away, nobody gets hurt except for Joel Allen. That_s his real name. Court Street is in a panic, and that brings me to what I wanted to talk to you about._ _Okay._ _Now I know you_re used to planning your own getaways, and you_ve always been good at it _ fucking Houdini, like I said _ but Giorgio and I had a little idea. Because __ Nick shakes his head. _Man, this could be a tough one, even for you and even if we panic the street with the flash-bangs. Which we will. If you_ve already got something worked out, go with God. But if you don_t __ _I don_t._ Although he_s getting there. Billy gives a big dumb self smile. _Always happy to listen, Nick._ 2 He_s home _ he guesses the yellow house is home, at least for a while _ by eleven P.M. All of his Amazon swag is in the closet. It would have stayed there until he got the call that Allen is headed east from Los Angeles, but things have changed. Billy is uneasy. He takes the stuff out to the car and stows it in the trunk. He won_t be spending all of tomorrow in the fifth-floor office, and that_s okay. The nice thing about being the Gerard Tower_s writer in residence is that he_s not a working stiff who has to keep regular hours. He can come in late and leave early. He can take a stroll if the urge strikes him. If anyone asks he can say he_s working over a new idea. Or doing research. Or just taking an hour or two off. Tomorrow he will stroll nine blocks to 658 Pearson Street. It_s a three-story house on the border of municipal downtown. Billy has already looked at the house on Zillow, but that_s not good enough. He wants eyes on. He locks the car and goes back inside. He brought the shiny new MacBook Pro back from his office and parked it on the kitchen table. Now he opens it and reads what he_s written as Benjy Compson. It_s only a couple of pages, ending with Benjy shooting Bob Raines. He reads it over three times, trying to see it as Nick must have. Because Nick has read it, after that crack about writers using their own experiences Billy has no doubt of it. He doesn_t care if Nick finds out about his childhood, for all Billy knows Nick has checked that out already. What Billy does care about is protecting the dumb self, at least for now. He won_t be able to sleep until he makes sure that there_s nothing in those two or three pages that makes him seem too smart. So he goes over it a fourth time. At last he shuts the laptop down. He doesn_t think there_s anything in the prose that a C student in English couldn_t have written, assuming most of it really happened. The spelling is mostly good, and the punctuation, but Nick would chalk that up to autocorrect. Although the Word program isn_t able to detect the difference between can_t and cant, the computer always turns dont into don_t, it underlines misspellings in red, it even notes the most egregious grammatical lapses. The verb tenses in what he_s written come and go, which is fine because that_s above the computer_s pay grade _ although the day will probably come when it flags those, too. But he_s uneasy. He_s never had reason to distrust Nick, who is undoubtedly a bad person but who has always played straight with Billy. He is not playing straight now, or he wouldn_t have denied cloning the Pro. Would not have cloned it in the first place. Billy feels he can still assume the job is straight, the first quarter of the payout is in his bank account, five hundred thousand dollars, tall tickets, but this whole thing still feels wrong. Not big wrong, just a little wonky. It_s like one of those shots you sometimes see in a movie where the camera has been slightly tilted to give you a sense of disorientation. Dutching is what movie people call that kind of tilt, and that_s how this job feels: dutched. Not enough to call it off, which he might not be able to do anyway now that he_s said yes, but enough to be concerning. And there_s the getaway plan Nick sprang on him. If you_ve already got something worked out, go with God, he_d said. But if you don_t, me and Giorgio had an idea that might work fine. Nick_s idea isn_t a problem because it_s bad; it_s not. It_s good. But disappearing after the job is done has always been Billy_s responsibility, and for Nick to get in his business like that is _ well _ _Dutched,_ Billy murmurs to his empty kitchen. Nick said that six weeks ago, when this job looked like becoming a reality, he sent Paul Logan up to Macon and told him to buy a Ford Transit van, not new but not more than three years old. Transits were the workhorses of Red Bluff_s Department of Public Works fleet. Billy has already seen several, painted yellow and blue with the motto WE ARE HERE TO SERVE painted on the sides. The brown Transit Frank bought in Georgia was now in a garage on the outskirts of town, painted in DPW colors and with the DPW motto. _I_ll have a good idea of when Allen_s extradition is getting close,_ Nick said. He was sipping a little more brandy. _Those guys I told you about _ the ones coming in _ will start being out and about in that van, always looking busy but not really doing anything. Never staying too long in one place but always near the courthouse and the Gerard Tower. An hour here, two hours there. Becoming part of the scenery, in other words. Like you, Billy._ On the day of Allen_s arrival, Nick said this bogus DPW van would be parked around the corner from the Gerard Tower. The bogus city workers would maybe open a manhole cover and pretend to be doing something inside. When the shot came, and the flashpot explosions, people would run everywhere. Including from the Gerard Tower and including Billy Summers, who would race around the corner and into the back of the van. There he would jump into a pair of DPW coveralls. _The van pulls around to the courthouse,_ Nick said. _Cops are already on the scene. My guys _ and you _ pile out and ask if there_s anything they can do to help. Put up sawhorses to block the street, or something. In all the confusion, it will look a hundred per cent natural. You see that?_ Billy saw. It was bold and it was good. _The cops__ _They probably tell us to get lost,_ Billy said. _We_re city workers but we_re civilians. Is that right?_ Nick laughed and clapped his hands. _See? Anyone who thinks you_re stupid is full of shit. My guys say yes sir, officers, and off you drive. And you keep driving. After switching vehicles, of course._ _Driving to where?_ _De Pere, Wisconsin, a thousand miles from here. There_s a safe house. You stay there a couple of days, relax, check your bank account for the rest of your payday, think about how you_re going to spend your money. After that you_re on your own. How does it sound?_ It sounded good. Too good? A possible set-up? Unlikely. If anyone in this deal is being set up, it_s Ken Hoff. Billy_s problem with Nick_s unexpected offer is that he_s never had to depend on other people to disappear before. He doesn_t like it but that wasn_t the time to say so. _Let me think about it, okay?_ _You bet,_ Nick said. _Plenty of time._ 3 Billy hauls his suitcase out of the master bedroom closet. He puts it on the bed and unzips it. It looks empty, but it_s not. The lining has a Velcro strip running along the underside. He pulls the lining up and takes out a small flat case. It_s the kind smart people _ those who read more challenging stuff than Archie digests and supermarket checkout lane scandal papers _ might call an etui. There_s a wallet inside with credit cards and a driver_s license issued to Dalton Curtis Smith, of Stowe, Vermont. There have been many other wallets and IDs during Billy_s career, not one for each of his assassinations (he calls them what they are) but at least a dozen, leading up to the current one belonging to a make-believe individual named David Lockridge. Some of his previous selves had good ID, some not so good. The credit cards and DL in the David Lockridge wallet are very good indeed, but the stuff in the flat gray case is better. The stuff in there is gold. Putting it together has been the work of five years, a labor of love going back to when he decided he must eventually get out of a business that makes him _ admit it _ just another bad person. Dalton Smith isn_t just a Lord Buxton wallet with a legit-looking driver_s license inside; Dalton Smith is practically a real person. The Mastercard, the Amex card, and the Visa all get used regularly. Ditto the Bank of America debit card. Not every day, but often enough so the accounts don_t gather dust. His credit rating isn_t excellent, which might draw attention, but it_s very good. There_s a Red Cross blood donor card, his Social Security card, and Dalton_s membership in an Apple User Group. No dumb self here; Dalton Curtis Smith is a freelance computer tech with a fairly lucrative sideline that allows him to go wherever the wind blows him. Also in the wallet are pictures of Dalton with his wife (they were divorced six years ago), Dalton with his parents (killed in the ever-popular car crash when Dalton was a teenager), Dalton with his estranged brother (they don_t talk since Dalton found out his brother voted for Nader in the 2000 election). Dalton_s birth certificate is in the etui, and references. Some are from individuals and small businesses whose computers Dalton has fixed, others from people who have rented to him in Portsmouth, Chicago, and Irvine. His go-to guy in New York, Bucky Hanson, has created some of these references; Bucky is the only person Billy trusts completely. Others Billy created himself. Dalton Smith never stays long in one place, a tumbling tumbleweed is he, but when he_s in situ, he_s a very good tenant: neat and quiet, always pays the rent on time. To Billy, Dalton Smith with his low-key but impeccable bona fides is as beautiful as a snowfield without a single track on it. He hates the idea of defacing that beauty by putting Dalton to work, but isn_t this exactly what Dalton Curtis Smith was created for? It is. One last job, the ever-popular last job, and Billy can disappear into a new identity. Probably not live the rest of his life in it, but even that_s possible, assuming he can get out of this town without being burned; the five hundred thousand down payment has already made the rounds and finished up at Dalton_s bank account in Nevis, and half a mil_s the biggest sign that Nick isn_t playing this funny. When the work is done, the rest will follow. Dalton_s DL headshot shows a man of about Billy_s age, maybe a year or two younger, but he_s blond instead of dark. And he has a mustache. 4 The next morning, Billy parks on the fourth level of the garage near the Gerard Tower. After making certain adjustments to his appearance, he walks in the opposite direction. This is Dalton Smith_s maiden voyage. When the city is small, small distances can make a big difference. Pearson Street is only nine blocks from the Main Street parking garage, a brisk fifteen-minute walk (Gerard Tower still looms close enough to be clearly seen), but this is a different world from the one where guys in ties and gals in click-clack shoes man and woman their posts and lunch in the kind of restaurants where the waiter hands you a wine list along with the menu. There_s a corner grocery, but it_s closed up. Like many declining neighborhoods, this one is a food desert. There are two barrooms, one closed and the other looking like it_s just hanging on. A pawn-shop that doubles as a check-cashing and small-loans business. A sad little strip mall a bit further on. And a line of homes that are trying to look middle class and not getting there. Billy guesses the reason for the area_s decline is the vacant lot right across the street from his target house. It_s a big expanse of rubbly, trash-strewn ground. Cutting through it are rusting railroad tracks barely visible in high weeds and summer goldenrod. Signs posted at fifty-foot intervals read CITY PROPERTY and NO TRESPASSING and DANGER KEEP OUT. He notes the jagged remains of a brick building that once must have been a train station. Maybe it served bus lines as well _ Greyhound, Trailways, Southern. Now the city_s land-based transportation has moved elsewhere, and this neighborhood, which might have been busy in the closing decades of the last century, is suffering from a kind of municipal COPD. A rusty shopping cart lies overturned on the sidewalk across the way. A tattered pair of men_s undershorts flap from one of its wheels in a hot wind that tousles the hair of Billy_s blond Dalton Smith wig and flutters his shirt collar against his neck. Most of the houses need paint. Some have FOR SALE signs in front of them. 658 also needs paint, but the sign in front reads FURNISHED APARTMENTS FOR RENT. There_s a real estate agent_s number to call. Billy notes it down, then goes up the cracked cement walk and looks at the line of doorbells. Although it_s just a three-story, there are four bells. Only one of them, second from the top, has a name: JENSEN. He rings it. At this time of day there_s probably nobody home, but his luck is in. Footsteps descend the stairs. A youngish woman peers through the dirty glass of the door. What she sees is a white man in a nice open-collared shirt and dress pants. His blond hair is short. His mustache is neatly trimmed. He wears glasses. He_s quite fat, not to the point of obesity but getting there. He doesn_t look like a bad person, he looks like a good person who could stand to drop twenty or thirty pounds, so she opens the door, but not all the way. As if I couldn_t push my way in and strangle you right there in the foyer, Billy thinks. There_s no car in the driveway or parked at the curb, which means your husband_s at work, and those three unmarked bells strongly suggest that you are the only person in this old faux Victorian. _I don_t buy from door-to-door salesmen,_ Mrs Jensen says. _No, ma_am, I_m not a salesman. I_m new in the city and looking for an apartment. This looks like it might be in my price range. I just wanted to know if this is a nice place. My name_s Dalton Smith._ He holds out his hand. She gives it a token touch, then draws her own hand back. But she_s willing to talk. _Well, it_s not the greatest area, as you can see, and the nearest supermarket_s a mile away, but me and my husband haven_t had any real problems. Kids get into that old trainyard across the way sometimes, probably drinking and smoking dope, and there_s a dog around the corner that barks half the night, but that_s about the worst of it._ She pauses and he sees her look down, checking for a wedding ring that_s not there. _You don_t bark at night, do you, Mr Smith? By which I mean parties and loud music._ _No, ma_am._ He smiles and touches his stomach. The fake pregnancy belly has been inflated to about six months. _I like to eat, though._ _Because there_s a clause about excessive noise in the rental agreement._ _May I ask how much you pay per month?_ _That_s between me and my husband. If you want to live here, you_d have to take it up with Mr Richter. He_s the man that handles this place. Couple of others down the block, too _ although this one_s nicer. I think._ _Completely understood. I apologize for asking._ Mrs Jensen thaws a little. _I will tell you that you don_t want the third floor. That place is a hotbox, even when the wind blows from across the old trainyard, which it does most of the time._ _No air conditioning, I take it._ _You take it right. But when it comes on cold weather, the heat_s okay. Course you have to pay for it. Electricity, too. It_s all in the agreement. If you_ve rented before, I guess you know the drill._ _Boy, do I ever._ He rolls his eyes and finally gets a smile out of her. Now he can ask what he really wants to ask. _What about the downstairs? Is that a basement apartment? Because it looks like there_s a bell__ Her smile widens. _Oh yes, and it_s quite nice. Furnished, like the sign says. Although, you know, just the basics. I wanted that one, but my husband thought it would be too small if our application gets approved. We_re trying to adopt._ Billy marvels at this. She has just revealed a crucial piece of her heart _ of her marriage_s heart _ after she balked at revealing how much rent she and her husband pay. Which he asked not because he really wanted to know but because it would make him seem plausible. _Well, good luck to you. And thanks. If this Mr Richter and I see eye to eye, maybe you_ll see more of me. You have a good day, now._ _You too. Nice to meet you._ This time she holds out her hand for a real shake, and Billy thinks again about what Nick said _ You get along with people without buddying up to them. Nice to know that works even if you look fat. As he walks down the sidewalk, she calls after him, _I bet that basement apartment stays nice and cool even in the hottest weather! I wish we_d taken it!_ He gives her a thumbs-up and heads back toward downtown. He has seen all he needs to see and has come to a decision. This is the place he wants, and Nick Majarian doesn_t need to know a thing about it. Halfway back he comes to a hole-in-the-wall store that sells candy, cigarettes, magazines, cold drinks, and burner phones in blister packs. He buys one, paying cash, and sits on a bus bench to get it up and running. He will use it as long as he has to, then dispose of it. The others as well. Always supposing the deal goes down, the cops are going to know right away that it was David Lockridge who assassinated Joel Allen. They will then discover that David Lockridge is an alias of one William Summers, a Marine vet with sniper skills and sniper kills. They will also discover Summers_s association with Kenneth Hoff, the designated fall guy. What they must not discover is that Billy Summers, aka David Lockridge, has disappeared into the identity of Dalton Smith. Nick can never know that, either. He calls Bucky Hanson in New York and tells Bucky to send the box marked Safeties to his Evergreen Street address. _So this is it, huh? You_re really pulling the pin?_ _Looks like it,_ Billy says, _but we_ll talk some more._ _Sure we will. Just make sure it isn_t collect from some tooliebop city jail. You_re my man, hoss._ Billy ends the call and makes another. To Richter, the real estate guy who is serving as rental agent for 658 Pearson. _I understand it_s furnished. Would that include WiFi?_ _Just a second,_ Mr Richter says, but it_s more like a minute. Billy hears paper rustling. At last Richter says, _Yes. Put in two years ago. But no television, you_d have to supply that._ _All right,_ Billy says. _I want it. How about I drop by your office?_ _I could meet you there, show you the place._ _That won_t be necessary. I just want it as a base of operations while I_m in this part of the country. Could be a year, could be two. I travel quite a bit. The important thing is the neighborhood looks quiet._ Richter laughs. _Since they demolished the train station, you bet it is. But the people out there might trade a little more noise for a little more commerce._ They set a time to meet the following Monday and Billy returns to Level 4 of the parking garage, where his Toyota is parked in a dead spot neither of the security cameras can see. If they can see at all; they look mighty tired to Billy. He removes the wig, the mustache, the glasses, and the fake pregnancy belly. After stowing them in the trunk, he takes the short walk back to Gerard Tower. He_s there in time to get a burrito from the Mexican wagon. He eats it with Jim Albright and John Colton, the lawyers from five. He sees Colin White, the dandy who works for Business Solutions. Today he_s looking mighty cute in a sailor suit. _That guy,_ Jim says, laughing. _He_s quite the bandbox, isn_t he?_ _Yes,_ Billy agrees, and thinks, A bandbox who_s just about my height. 5 It rains all weekend. On Saturday morning Billy goes to Walmart where he buys a couple of cheap suitcases and a lot of cheap clothes that will fit his overweight Dalton Smith persona. He pays cash. Cash has amnesia. That afternoon he sits out on the porch of the yellow house, watching the grass in his front yard. Watching it rather than merely looking at it, because he can almost see it perking up. This is not his house, not his town or state, he_ll leave without a look back or single regret, but he still feels a certain proprietorial pride in his handiwork. It won_t be worth mowing for a couple of weeks, maybe not even until August, but he can wait. And when he_s out there, zinc ointment on his nose, mowing in gym shorts and a sleeveless tee (maybe even a wifebeater), he_ll be one step closer to belonging. To blending in with the scenery. _Mr Lockridge?_ He looks next door. The two kids, Derek and Shanice Ackerman, are standing on their porch, looking at him through the rain. It_s the boy who_s spoken. _My ma just made sugar cookies. She ast me to ast you if you want half a dozen._ _That sounds good,_ Billy says. He gets up and runs through the rain. Shanice, the eight-year-old, takes his hand with a complete lack of self-consciousness and leads him inside, where the smell of fresh-baked cookies makes Billy_s stomach rumble. It_s a neat little house, tight and shipshape. There are about a hundred framed photos in the living room, including a dozen on the piano that holds pride of place. In the kitchen, Corinne Ackerman is just removing a baking sheet from the oven. _Hi, neighbor. Do you want a towel for your hair?_ _I_m fine, thanks. Ran between the raindrops._ She laughs. _Then have a cookie. The kids are having milk with theirs. Would you like a glass? There_s also coffee, if you_d prefer that._ _Milk would be fine. Just a little._ _Double shot?_ She_s smiling. _Sounds about right._ Smiling back. _Then sit down._ He sits with the kids. Corinne puts a plate of cookies on the table. _Be careful, they_re still hot. Your take-homes will be in the next batch, David._ The kids grab. Billy takes one. It_s sweet and delicious. _Terrific, Corinne. Thank you. Just the thing on a rainy day._ She gives her kids big glasses of milk, Billy a small one. She pours her own small glass and joins them. The rain drums on the roof. A car goes hissing by. _I know your book is top secret,_ Derek says, _but__ _Don_t talk with your mouth full,_ Corinne admonishes. _You_re spraying crumbs everywhere._ _I_m not,_ Shanice says. _No, you_re doing good,_ Corinne says. Then, with a sideways glance at Billy: _Doing well._ Derek has no interest in grammar. _But tell me one thing. Is there blood in it?_ Billy thinks of Bob Raines, flying backward. He thinks of his sister with all her ribs broken _ yes, every fucking one _ and her chest stomped in. _Nope, no blood._ He takes a bite of his cookie. Shanice reaches for another. _You can have that one,_ her mother says, _and one more. You too, D. The rest are for Mr Lockridge and for later. You know your dad likes these._ To Billy she says, _Jamal works six days a week and overtime when he can get it. The Fazios are good about keeping track of these two while we_re both at work. This is not a bad neighborhood, but we_ve got our eye on something better._ _Movin on up,_ Billy says. Corinne laughs and nods. _I don_t ever want to move,_ Shanice says, then adds with a child_s charming dignity: _I have friends._ _So do I,_ Derek says. _Hey, Mr Lockridge, do you know how to play Monopoly? Me_n Shan are going to play, but it_s stupid with just two and Mom won_t._ _Mom won_t is right,_ Corinne says. _Most boring game in the world. Get your father to play with you tonight. He will, if he_s not too tired._ _That_s hours away,_ Derek says. _I_m bored right now._ _Me too,_ Shanice says. _If I had a phone, I could play Crossy Road._ _Next year,_ Corinne says, and rolls her eyes in a way that makes Billy think the girl has been phone-campaigning for quite a while. Maybe since the age of five. _Do you play?_ Derek asks, although without much hope. _I do,_ Billy says, then leans across the table, pinning Derek Ackerman with his eyes. _But I have to warn you that I_m good. And I play to win._ _So do I!_ Derek is smiling below a milk mustache. _So do I!_ Shanice says. _I wouldn_t hold back just because you_re kids and I_m a grownup,_ Billy says. _I_d wound you with my rental properties, then kill you with my hotels. If we_re going to play, you have to know that up front._ _Okay!_ Derek says, jumping up and almost spilling the rest of his milk. _Okay!_ Shanice cries, also jumping up. _Are you kids going to cry when I win?_ _No!_ _No!_ _Okay. As long as we have that straight._ _Are you sure?_ Corinne asks him. _That game, I swear it can go on all day._ _Not with me rolling the dice,_ Billy says. _We play downstairs,_ Shanice says, and once more takes his hand. The room down there is the same size as the one in Billy_s house, but it_s only half a man-cave. In that part, Jamal has set up a work space with tools pegged to the wall. There_s also a bandsaw, and Billy notes with approval that there_s a padlocked cover over the on/off switch. The kids_ half of the room is littered with toys and coloring books. There_s a small TV hooked up to a cheap game console that uses cassettes. To Billy it looks like a yardsale purchase. Board games are stacked against one wall. Derek takes the Monopoly box and puts the board on a child-sized table. _Mr Lockridge is too big for our chairs,_ Shanice says, sounding dismayed. _I_ll sit on the floor._ Billy removes one of the chairs and does so. There_s just room for his crossed legs under the table. _Which piece you want?_ Derek asks. _I usually take the racing car when it_s just me _n Shan, but you can have it if you want._ _That_s okay. Which one do you like, Shan?_ _The thimble,_ she says. Then adds, rather grudgingly, _Unless you want it._ Billy takes the top hat. The game begins. Forty minutes later, when Derek_s turn comes around again, he calls for his mother. _Ma! I need advice!_ Corinne comes down the stairs and stands with her hands on her hips, surveying the board and the distribution of Monopoly money. _I don_t want to say you kids are in trouble, but you kids are in trouble._ _I warned them,_ Billy says. _What do you want to ask me, D? Keep in mind your mother barely passed Home Economics back in the day._ _Well, here_s my problem,_ Derek says. _He_s got two of the green ones, Pacific and Pennsylvania, but I got North Carolina. Mr Lockridge says he_ll give me nine hundred dollars for it. That_s three times what I paid, but __ _But?_ Corinne says. _But?_ Billy says. _But then he can put houses on the green ones. And he already has hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk!_ _So?_ Corinne says. _So?_ Billy says. He_s grinning. _I gotta go to the bathroom and I_m almost broke anyway,_ Shanice says, and gets up. _Honey, you don_t need to announce your bathroom calls. You just need to say excuse me._ Shanice says, with that same winning dignity, _I_m going to powder my nose, okay?_ Billy bursts out laughing. Corinne joins him. Derek pays no attention. He studies the board, then looks up at his mother. _Sell or not? I_m almost out of money!_ _It_s a Hobson_s choice,_ Billy says. _That means you have to decide between taking a chance or standing pat. Between you and me, D, I think you_re kinda sunk either way._ _Think he_s right, hon,_ Corinne says. _He_s really lucky,_ Derek says to his mother. _He landed on Free Parking and got all the money in there and it was a bundle._ _Also I_m really good,_ Billy says. _Admit it._ Derek tries to scowl, but can_t manage it for a long time. He holds up the deed with the green stripe. _Twelve hundred._ _Done!_ Billy cries, and hands over the cash. Twenty minutes later the children are bankrupt and the game is over. When Billy stands up, his knees crack and the kids laugh. _You guys lost, so you have to put the game away, right?_ _That_s the way Daddy plays, too,_ Shanice says. _But sometimes he lets us win._ Billy leans down, smiling. _I don_t do that._ _Big bully,_ she says, and giggles with her hands over her mouth. Danny Fazio comes jingling down the stairs in a yellow rain slicker and unbuckled galoshes that gape like funnels. _Can I play?_ _Next time,_ Billy says. _I make it a policy to only beat up on kids once a weekend._ It_s just more joking around, what these kids might call throwing shade, but suddenly he sees burned cookies littering the floor in front of the stove in their trailer and the cast on Bob Raines_s arm thudding against the side of Cathy_s face and it isn_t funny anymore. The three kids laugh because to them it is. None of them have watched their sister being stepped on by a drunken ogre with a fading mermaid on his arm. Upstairs, Corinne gives him a bag of cookies and says, _Thank you for making a rainy day so much fun for them._ _I had fun, too._ He did. Right up until the end. When he gets home he throws the cookies into the trash. Corinne Ackerman is a good little baker, but he can_t think of eating cookies now. He can_t even bear to look at them. 6 On Monday he goes to see the rental agent, who does business in the sad little strip mall three blocks from 658. Merton Richter_s office is a hole-in-the-wall two-roomer between a tanning salon and the Jolly Roger Tattoo Parlor. Parked in front is a blue SUV, pretty old, with a stick-on sign on one side (RICHTER REAL ESTATE) and a long scratch on the other. The guy gives Dalton Smith_s painstakingly crafted references a cursory glance, then hands them back along with a rental agreement. The places where Billy is supposed to sign have been highlighted in yellow. _You could tell me it_s a little over-market,_ Richter says, as if Billy had protested, _and you might be right, but only a little, considering the furnishings and the WiFi. And with no street parking until six P.M., the driveway is a real convenience. You_ll be sharing it with the Jensens, of course__ _I_m planning to keep my car in a municipal garage for the most part. I can use the exercise._ He pats his fake belly. _The rent does seem a little high, but I want the place._ _Sight unseen,_ Richter marvels. _Mrs Jensen spoke well of it._ _Ah, I see. In any case, if we_re in agreement _?_ Billy signs the form and writes his debut check as Dalton Smith: first month, last month, and a damage deposit that_s fucking outrageous unless the cookware is All-Clad, the china Limoges, and the lamps come with Tiffany shades. _IT guy, huh?_ Richter says, stashing the check away in his desk drawer. He pushes an envelope marked KEYS across the desk, then whacks his old PC like you_d whack a dog you don_t have much use for but keeps hanging around. _I could sure use some help with this balky bitch._ _I_m off the clock,_ Billy says, _but I can give you some advice._ _Which is?_ _Replace it before you lose everything. Do you hook me up with heat, electric, water, and cable?_ Richter smiles as if giving Billy a prize. _Nope, that_s all you, brother._ And offers his hand. Billy could ask Richter what he actually does for his commission, the agreement is pretty obviously a form printed off the Internet with the local details dropped in, but does he care? Not at all. 7 Billy would like to get back to his story (it seems premature to call it a book, and maybe unlucky as well), but there_s more to do. When the banks open on Tuesday, he goes to SouthernTrust and withdraws some of the walking-around money that has been deposited in a David Lockridge account. He goes to three different chain stores and buys three more laptop computers, all for cash, all cheap off-brands like the AllTech. He also buys a cheap table model TV. That he pays for with a Dalton Smith credit card. Next on his list is leasing a car. He stashes his Toyota in a garage on the other side of town from the one he uses as David Lockridge, not wanting to chance anyone from his building seeing him in his Dalton Smith rig. That would be a small chance, at this time of day all the worker bees should be in the hive, but taking even small chances is stupid. It_s how people get nailed. When he_s put on the wig, glasses, mustache, and big belly, he calls an Uber and asks to be driven to McCoy Ford, on the western edge of the city. There he leases a Ford Fusion for thirty-six months. The dealer reminds him that if Billy drives it over 10,500 miles per year, he_ll pay a pretty hefty overcharge. Billy doubts if he_ll even put three hundred miles on the Fusion. The important thing is that Billy has wheels Nick knows about, and Dalton Smith now has wheels Nick doesn_t know about. It_s a precaution in case Nick should be planning something hinky, but it_s more. It_s keeping Dalton Curtis Smith separate from what_s going to happen on those courthouse steps. Keeping him clean. Billy parks his new ride next to his old ride (different garage, same upper-level blind spot) long enough to transfer the TV and new laptops to the Fusion. Also the cheap suitcases he stashed in the Toyota_s trunk late last night. They are filled with the cheap Walmart clothes. He drives the Fusion to 658 Pearson Street and parks in the driveway, which is your basic asphalt stub with grass growing up the middle. He hopes Mrs Jensen will see him moving in, and he_s not disappointed. Does Dalton Smith see her looking down from her second-story window? Billy decides he doesn_t. Dalton is a computer nerd, lost in his own world. He struggles and puffs two of the suitcases up to the door and uses his new key to unlock it. Nine steps down take him to the door of Dalton Smith_s new apartment, where he uses another key. The door opens directly onto the living room. He drops the bags on the industrial carpet and walks around, checking out the four rooms _ five, if you count the bathroom. The furnishings are quite nice, Richter said. That_s not true, but they_re not terrible, either. The word generic comes to mind. The bed_s a double, and when Billy lies down on it there are creaks but no springs poking at him, so that_s a win. There_s an easy chair in front of a table obviously meant to hold a small TV like the one he bought at Discount Electronics. The chair is comfortable enough, but the zebra-striping is almost the stuff of nightmares. He_ll want to cover it with something. On the whole, he likes the place. He goes to the one narrow window, which is set at lawn-level. It_s almost like looking out through a periscope, Billy thinks. He digs the perspective. It feels cozy, somehow. He likes his Midwood neighbors, especially the Ackermans next door, but he thinks he likes this place better. It has a sense of safety. There_s an old couch that also looks comfortable, and he decides he_ll move it to where the zebra-striped chair is now, so he can sit on it and look out at the street. People passing on the sidewalk might look at the house, but most won_t glance down at these basement windows and see him looking back. It_s a den, he thinks. If I have to go to ground, this is where I should do it, not some safe house in Wisconsin. Because this place is actually in the gr_ There_s a light knock from behind him, actually more of a rattle. He turns and sees Mrs Jensen standing in the door he left open, twiddling her fingernails on the jamb. _Hello, Mr Smith._ _Oh, hi._ His Dalton Smith voice is slightly higher than the one he uses as Billy Summers and David Lockridge. A little breathy, maybe a touch of asthma. _You caught me moving in, Mrs Jensen._ He gestures to the suitcases. _Since we_re going to be neighbors, why don_t you call me Beverly?_ _Okay, thanks. And I_m Dalton. Sorry I can_t offer you coffee or anything, no supplies yet__ _I totally understand. Moving in_s crazy, isn_t it?_ _It sure is. The good part is that I travel a lot, so I don_t have a lot. Seen more motels than I ever wanted to. Spending the rest of this week in Lincoln, Nebraska, then Omaha._ Billy has found that if you lie about business travel to cities of secondary size and importance in the economic scheme of things, people believe you. _I_ve got a few more things to bring in, so if you_ll excuse me __ _Do you need help?_ _No, I_m fine._ Then, as if reconsidering: _Well __ They go out to the Fusion. Billy gives her the three off-brand computers. With the boxes in her arms, she looks like a woman who delivers for Domino_s. _Gosh, I better not drop these, they_re brand new. And probably worth a fortune._ They_re only worth about nine hundred dollars, but Billy doesn_t contradict her. He asks if they_re too heavy. _Pooh. Less than a laundry basket of wetwash. Are you going to set all of these up?_ _As soon as I get the power on, yes,_ Billy says. _It_s how I do my business. Some of it, anyway. Most I outsource._ Outsource is one of those impressive-sounding words that might mean anything. He hefts out the carton containing the TV. They go up the walk, through the open front door, down the stairs. _Come on up once you_re a little bit settled,_ Beverly Jensen says. _I_ll put on the coffee pot. And I can give you a doughnut, if you don_t mind day-old._ _I never say no to a doughnut. Thank you, Mrs Jensen._ _Beverly._ He smiles. _Beverly, right. One more suitcase to bring in and then I_ll be with you._ Bucky has sent Billy_s box, the one marked Safeties. Dalton Smith_s iPhone is in it, and once he_s unloaded the Fusion, Billy uses it to make some Dalton Smith calls. By the time he_s drunk a cup of coffee and eaten a doughnut in the Jensens_ second-floor apartment, listening with apparent fascination as Beverly tells him all about her husband_s problems with the boss at the company where he works, the power is on in his new place. His below-ground den. 8 He_s at 658 until mid-afternoon, unpacking the cheap clothes, booting up the cheap computers, and shopping at the Brookshire_s a mile away. Except for a dozen eggs and some butter, he steers clear of perishables. Most of what he buys is stuff that will keep when he_s not here: canned goods and frozen dinners. At three o_clock he drives the leased Fusion back to the fourth level of Parking Garage, and after making sure he_s unobserved, removes the glasses and fake facial hair. Getting rid of the fake belly is an incredible relief, and he sees he_ll need to get some baby powder if he wants to avoid a rash. He drives the Toyota back to Parking Garage N1, then returns to the fifth floor of the Gerard Tower. He doesn_t work on his story, and he doesn_t play games on the computer, either. He just sits and thinks. No rifle in the office, nothing more lethal than a paring knife in one of the kitchenette_s drawers, and that_s okay. It may be weeks or even months before Billy needs a gun. The assassination might not even happen at all, and would that be so bad? In monetary terms, yes. He_d lose one-point-five mill. As for the five hundred thousand he_s already been paid, would the person who ordered the assassination _ the one Nick is go-betweening for _ want the money back? _Good luck with that,_ Billy says. And laughs. 9 As he walks, plods, back to the parking garage, Billy is thinking about bigamy. He_s never been married once, let alone to two different women at the same time, but now he knows how that must feel. In a word, exhausting. He_s getting his feet set in not just two different lives but three. To Nick and Giorgio (also to Ken Hoff, which he hates), he_s a gun for hire named Billy Summers. To the inhabitants of the Gerard Tower, he_s a wannabe writer named David Lockridge. Ditto the residents of Evergreen Street in Midwood. And now, on Pearson Street _ nine blocks from Gerard Tower and four safe miles from Midwood _ he is an overweight computer geek named Dalton Smith. Come to think of it, there_s even a fourth life: that of Benjy Compson, who is just enough not-Billy so Billy can look at painful memories he usually avoids. He started writing Benjy_s story on a laptop he_s pretty sure (no, positive) has been cloned because it was a challenge, and because it_s that fabled last job, but he now understands there was a deeper, truer reason: he wants to be read. By anyone, even a couple of Vegas hardballs like Nick Majarian and Giorgio Piglielli. Now he understands _ he never did before, never even considered it _ that any writer who goes public with his work is courting danger. It_s part of the allure. Look at me. I_m showing you what I am. My clothes are off. I_m exposing myself. As he approaches the entrance to the parking garage, deep in these thoughts, there_s a tap on his shoulder that makes him jump. He turns and sees Phyllis Stanhope, the woman from the accounting firm. _I_m sorry,_ she says, taking a step back. _I didn_t mean to startle you._ Has she seen something in that unguarded moment? A flash of who he really is? Is that what the backward step was about? Maybe. If so, he tries to dismiss it with an easy smile and the absolute truth. _It_s fine. I was just a million miles away._ _Thinking about your story?_ About bigamy. _That_s right._ Phyllis falls in step beside him. Her handbag is slung over one shoulder. She_s also wearing a child_s backpack with SpongeBob on it and has exchanged her click-clack shoes for white socks and sneakers. _I didn_t see you at lunch today. Did you eat at your desk?_ _I was out and about. Still trying to get settled in. Plus I had a long talk with my agent._ He did in fact speak with Giorgio, although it wasn_t a long talk. Nick has returned to Vegas, but Giorgio is in residence at the McMansion, and he brought the two new guys _ Reggie and Dana are their names _ with him. Billy doesn_t think Nick and Georgie Pigs are tag-teaming him, exactly, but this is a very big deal for them and Billy would be surprised if they were careless. Shocked, really. The one they may actually be keeping an eye on is Ken Hoff. The patsy in waiting. _Besides, even when a writer_s not at his desk, he_s working._ He taps his temple. She returns his smile. It_s a good one. _I bet that_s what they all say._ _In truth, I seem to have hit a little bit of a roadblock._ _Maybe it_s the change of scene._ _Maybe._ He doesn_t think there actually is a roadblock. He hasn_t written anything beyond that first episode, but the rest is right there. Waiting. He wants to get to it. It means something to him. It_s not like journaling, it_s not an effort to make peace with a life that has in many ways been unhappy and traumatic, it_s not confessional even though it may amount to a confession. It_s about power. He_s finally tapped into power that doesn_t come from the barrel of a gun. Like the view from his new apartment_s ground-level windows, he likes it. _In any case,_ he says as they reach the entrance to the parking garage, _I plan to buckle down. Starting tomorrow._ She raises her eyebrows. _Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow__ He chimes in and they finish together. _But never jam today!_ _In any case, I can_t wait to read it._ They start up the ramp. It_s deliciously cool after the hammerstroke sun on the street. She stops halfway to the first turn. _This is me._ She beeps her keyfob. The taillights of a little blue Prius respond. Two bumper stickers flank her license plate: OUR BODIES, OUR CHOICES and BELIEVE THE WOMEN. _You_re apt to get keyed with those,_ Billy says. _This is a deep red state._ She lifts her purse in front of her and gives a smile unlike the one she greeted him with. This is more of a Dirty Harry smile. _It_s also a concealed carry state, so if anyone tries to key off my bumper stickers, they better do it while I_m not around._ Is that more show than go? The little accountant lady putting on a badass front for a man she might be interested in? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, he admires her for being out front about what she believes. For being brave. This is how a good person acts. At least it is when they_re being their best selves. _Well, I_ll see you around the campus,_ Billy says. _I_m up a few levels._ _Couldn_t find anything closer? Really?_ He could say it_s because he came in late today, but that might come back to bite him, because he always parks on Four. He hoists a thumb. _Less chance of a bump-and-run up there._ _Or getting your bumper stickers keyed off?_ _I don_t have any,_ Billy says, and adds the absolute truth: _I like to fly under the radar._ Then, on impulse (and he is rarely an impulsive man), he says what he_s promised himself he would not. _Come for a drink with me sometime. Want to?_ _Yes._ With no hesitation, as if she_s just been waiting for him to pop the question. _What about Friday? There_s a nice place two blocks over. We can go dutch. I always go dutch when I have a drink with a man._ She pauses. _At least the first time._ _Probably a good policy. Drive safe, Phyllis._ _Phil. Call me Phil._ He gives her taillights a wave before walking the rest of the way up to the fourth level. There_s an elevator, but he wants the walk. He wants to ask himself why the fuck he did what he just did. Or what about playing Monopoly with Derek and Shanice Ackerman, especially when he knows they_ll want a return engagement the coming weekend, and he_ll probably oblige? What happened to getting friendly, but not too close? Can you be part of the scenery when you_re in the foreground? The short answer is no. CHAPTER 6 1 Summer rolls along. Hot and humid days of blaring sunshine are punctuated by sudden thunderstorms, some of them vicious with throats full of hail. A couple of tornados strike, but on the outskirts, none downtown or in Midwood. When the storms blow out, they leave streets that steam and dry quickly. Most of the apartments on the upper floors of the Gerard Tower are empty, either unoccupied or deserted by their residents for cooler climes. Most of the businesses remain fully staffed, because most of them are young firms still struggling to find their footing. Some, like the law firm down the hall from Billy_s office, are start-ups that didn_t even exist two years ago. Billy and Phil Stanhope go for that drink, in a pleasant wood-paneled bar adjacent to what Billy guesses is one of the Bluff_s better restaurants, where steaks are the specialty of the house. She has a whiskey and soda (_My dad_s tipple,_ she says). Billy has an Arnold Palmer, explaining he_s off alcohol, even beer, while working on his book. _I don_t know if I_m actually an alcoholic, the jury_s out on that,_ he says, _but I_ve had trouble with the booze._ He gives her the backstory he_s been given by Nick and Giorgio: too much drinking back home in New Hampshire with too many party animal friends. They spend a pleasant enough half-hour, but he senses her interest in him _ as anything more than a friend, that is _ is not as strong as he maybe had hoped it would be. He thinks it_s the gulf between what_s in their glasses. Drinking whiskey with a man who_s drinking an iced tea_lemonade mix is like drinking alone, and maybe (the quick color that dashes into her cheeks as she takes down what_s in hers suggests it might be so) Phil has a booze problem herself. Or will, in the coming years. It_s too bad things are as they are because he wouldn_t mind taking her to bed, but keeping it friendly does lessen the chance of complications. He won_t fade entirely into the background with her _ there is that liking, on both their parts _ but no forensic unit will ever find his fingerprints in her bedroom. That_s good. For both of them. Yet even getting this close, exchanging life summaries (hers real, his bogus) is too close, and he knows it. Dalton Smith has a backstory that doesn_t include problems with booze, so he can have a beer on the back stoop of 658 Pearson with Beverly_s husband. Don Jensen works for a landscaping company called Growing Concern. He_s totally down with that other Don, the one who sits in much grander digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He especially agrees with the other Don when it comes to the issue of immigration (_Don_t want to see America painted brown,_ he says), even though a large part of Growing Concern_s workforce consists of undocumented aliens who don_t speak English (_Although they do speak food stamps,_ he says). When Billy points out the contradiction, Don Jensen waves it away (_Movie stars come and go, but wetbacks are forever,_ he says). He asks Billy where he_s off to next and Billy says a couple of weeks in Iowa City. Then on to Des Moines and Ames. _You sure don_t spend much time here,_ Don says. _Seems like a waste of rent money._ _Summer_s always my busy time. And I need a place to hang my hat. You may see more of me this fall._ _I_ll drink to that. Want another beer?_ _No thanks,_ Billy says, getting up, _I_ve got some work to do._ _Nerd,_ Don says, and gives him an affectionate clap on the back. _Guilty as charged,_ Billy says. On Evergreen Street, the Raglands _ Paul and Denise _ invite him over for barbecued chicken from Big Clucks. For dessert, Denise serves strawberry shortcake made in her own kitchen. It_s delicious. Billy has seconds. The Fazios _ Pete and Diane _ invite him over for Friday pizza, which they eat in the downstairs rumpus room, watching Raiders of the Lost Ark along with Danny Fazio and the Ackerman kids from across the street. The movie works as well for them as it did for Billy and Cathy when they went to see it at a third-run showing at the old Bijou. Jamal and Corinne Ackerman have him over for tacos and chocolate silk pie. It_s delicious. Billy has seconds. He_s put on five pounds. Not wanting to look like the neighborhood freeloader, he buys a grill at Walmart, using one of his David Lockridge credit cards, and invites all three families, plus Jane Kellogg, the widow who lives at the far end of the block, over for burgers and hotdogs in his backyard. Which, like the front one, is enjoying a nice revival under his supervision. The weekend Monopoly games continue. Now they draw kids from all over the neighborhood, not just Evergreen Street, everyone vying to dethrone the champ. Billy takes them all to the cleaners. One Saturday, Jamal Ackerman takes a seat at the board, claiming the racecar as his token (_Come on, White America,_ he says to Billy with a grin). He_s a little tougher than the kids, but not much. After seventy minutes he_s broke and Billy is gloating. It_s Corinne who finally takes him down, on the last Saturday before school reconvenes. All the kids who_ve been kibitzing applaud when Billy declares bankruptcy. So does Billy. Corinne bows, then takes a picture of the board that Billy is careful not to be in. Not that it matters much. This is the age of the cell phone camera, and he_s sure he_s on Derek_s. Probably on Danny Fazio_s, too. The Ackerman kids are looking at Billy with shining eyes as they applaud. These games have become important to Derek and Shanice. To all the kids, but especially to them, because they were there when the Saturday games started. He has become important to them, and he_s going to let them down. He doesn_t believe (or can_t, or refuses to) that he is actually going to break their hearts when he kills Joel Allen, but he knows they will be shocked and shaken. Disillusioned. Dutched. He can tell himself, if not by me then by someone else (and does), but it won_t wash. This is not how a good person behaves. But the situation is inflexible. He more and more hopes Allen will avoid extradition, or be killed in lockup, or even escape, rendering the whole thing moot. Weekdays he eats on the plaza of the Gerard Tower, if it_s not too hot. He makes it his business to strike up an acquaintance with Colin White, the flashy dresser. White comes across not as a stereotypical gay man but as an actual caricature, a figure of fun out of a 1980s sitcom. He_s all breathy voice and exaggerated gestures and great big ohmygod eyerolls. He calls Billy darling and honeypie. Once Billy gets past that, he discovers a man of great wit. Cutting wit. And when the eyeballs aren_t rolling, they are sharply observant. Later, after the deed is done, there will be many descriptions of David Lockridge. Some, including Phyllis Stanhope_s, will be good, but Billy thinks that this man_s will be the most accurate. He intends to use Colin White, but in the meantime he needs to be careful of him. Billy has the dumb self; he thinks Colin White has a silly fucker self. It takes one to know one. One day while they_re sitting on a bench in the plaza_s scant noontime shade, Billy asks Colin how he can do his job of cozening people out of a few bucks when he_s basically, face it, a pretty nice guy, not to mention as gay as Aunt Maudie_s Easter hat. Colin puts a hand to the side of his face, gives Billy a wide-eyed ingenue_s stare, and says, _Well _ I sort of _ change._ The hand drops. The pleasant smile (enhanced by just the barest touch of lip gloss) disappears. So does the lilting delivery. The voice that comes out of wispy Colin White, today dressed in his gold parachute pants and high-collared paisley shirt, is that of a pissed-off lawyer. _Ma_am, I don_t know who you_ve been soft-soaping, but I am immune. You_re all out of time. You want to keep your car? Because if I hang up on you without getting something, and I mean more than a promise, my next call is going to be to the repo company we use. Cry all you want, I_m immune to that, too._ He sounds it. _I need sixty bucks on my screen in the next ten minutes. Fifty at the very least, and only because I got up on the right side of the bed this morning._ He stops, looking at Billy with wide eyes (enhanced by just a trace of liner). _Does that help you understand?_ It does. What it doesn_t help Billy to understand is whether Colin White is a good person or a bad one. Perhaps he_s both. Billy has always found this a troubling concept. 2 He gets texts from his _agent_ on his David Lockridge phone that summer, sometimes once a week, sometimes twice. GRusso: Your editor hasn_t had a chance to read your latest pages yet. GRusso: I called your editor but he was out of the office. GRusso: Your editor is still in California. And so on. The one he_s waiting for, the one meaning that a California judge has approved Allen_s extradition, will be Your editor wants to publish. When Billy gets that, he_ll begin his final preparations. Giorgio_s final text will read The check is on the way. 3 Nick returns from Vegas in mid-August. He calls Billy and tells him to arrive at the McMansion after dark, an instruction Billy hardly needs. They sit down to a late dinner at nine-thirty. There_s no help _ Nick cooks himself, veal parmigiana, not great but the Pinot Noir is good. Billy takes only a single glass, mindful of the drive back. Frankie, Paulie, and the new guys, Reggie and Dana, are in attendance. They praise the meal extravagantly, including the dessert, which is a supermarket poundcake garnished with either Cool Whip or Dream Whip. Billy knows the taste. He ate his share as a kid on Friday nights at the Stepenek house, which he and Robin and Gad _ plus other assorted inmates _ called the House of Everlasting Paint. That place is on his mind a lot these days. Robin, too. He was crazy for that girl. Soon he will be writing about her, although he_ll change her name to something similar. Rikki, or maybe Ronnie. He_ll change all the names, except maybe for the one-eyed girl. Most of Nick_s crew, the guys Billy thinks of as the Vegas hardballs, have names ending in -ie, like characters in a Coppola or Scorsese movie. Dana Edison is different. He_s a redhead with a tight little manbun in back to make up for what he_s lost in front _ his forehead looks more like a runway. Frankie Elvis, Paulie, and Reggie are muscular boys. Dana is slight, and looks out at the world through rimless spectacles. At first glance you might take him to be inoffensive, a Mr Milquetoast, but the eyes behind the specs are blue and cold. Shooter_s eyes. _No word on Allen yet?_ Billy asks when the meal is finished. _As a matter of fact, there is._ Then, to Paulie: _Don_t you light that fuckin stinkbomb in here, there_s a no-smoking clause in the lease. Violation is cause for immediate termination plus a thousand-dollar fine._ Paulie Logan looks at the cheroot he_s taken from the pocket of his pink Paul Stuart shirt like he doesn_t know where it came from and puts it back with a muttered apology. Nick turns back to Billy. _Allen is gonna be in court the Tuesday after Labor Day. His lawyer will try for another continuance. Will he get it?_ Nick lifts his hands, palms up. _Maybe, but what I_m hearing from my friends in LA is this judge is a grumpy old cunt._ Frank Macintosh laughs, then stops and crosses his arms over his chest when Nick frowns at him. Nick has been in a shitty mood most of the night. Billy thinks he wants to be back in Vegas, listening to some oldtimer _ Frankie Avalon, maybe Bobby Rydell _ sing _Volare._ _They tell me this has been a rainy summer here, Billy. That true?_ _It comes and goes,_ Billy says, thinking of his lawn in Midwood. It_s as green as the felt on a new pool table. Even the grass in front of 658 Pearson looks better, and the brick jaw of the train station across the street is hidden by high-sprouting weeds. _When it comes, it comes hard,_ Reggie says. _Not much like Vegas, boss._ _Can you make the shot in the rain?_ Nick asks. _That_s what I want to know. And I want the truth, not some optimistic bullshit._ _Unless it_s pouring cats and dogs, sure._ _Good. Good. We_ll hope the cats and dogs stay home. Come in the library with me, Billy. Want to talk to you a little more. Then you can go home and get your beauty rest. You guys find something to do. Paulie, if you smoke that thing outside, don_t let me find the butt on the lawn tomorrow._ _Okay, Nick._ _Because I_ll look._ Paul Logan and the three Vegas imports troop out. Nick takes Billy into a room lined floor to ceiling with books. Cunning little spotlights shine down sprays of light on leatherbound sets. Billy would love to browse those shelves _ he_s pretty sure he sees the complete works of both Kipling and Dickens _ but that_s not the sort of thing the Billy Nick knows would do. The Billy Nick knows sits in a wingback chair and gives Nick his best wide-eyed receptive look. _Have you seen Reggie and Dana around?_ _Yes. Once in awhile._ They drive a DPW panel truck. Once they were parked at the curb in front of the Gerard Tower, where the food trucks roost at lunchtime. They were fiddling with a manhole cover. Another time he saw them on Holland Street, kneeling down and shining their lights into a sewer grate. They were wearing gray coveralls, city gimme caps, work boots. _You_ll see them more. They look okay?_ Billy shrugs. Nick returns it with an impatient look. _What does that mean?_ _They looked okay._ _Not attracting any special attention?_ _Not that I saw._ _Good. Good. The truck_s in the carriage house here. They don_t take it out every day, at least not yet, but I want people to get used to seeing them cruising around._ _Blending into the scenery,_ Billy says with his best dumb self smile. Nick points a finger gun at him. It_s his trademark, Billy knows, probably picked it up from some Vegas lounge act, but Billy doesn_t care for having even a make-believe gun pointed at him. _Exactly right. Hoff deliver your weapon yet?_ _No._ _You seen him?_ _No, and don_t much want to._ _Okay._ Nick sighs and runs a hand through his hair. _Probably you_d like to sight the gun in, right? Take a few shots out in the country?_ _Maybe,_ Billy says, but he won_t risk shooting, even out in the toolies where every stop sign has been riddled with bullet holes. He can zero the rifle with an iPhone app and a laser gadget they sell on Amazon. Nick leans forward, hands clasped in front of his considerable basket. He wears an expression of friendly concern. To Billy it makes him look like an imposter. _How are you doing out there in _ what_s it called? Midwood?_ _Midwood, yeah. Pretty good._ _Kind of a shithole, I know, but the payoff will be worth it._ _Yeah._ Thinking it_s actually a pretty nice neighborhood. _Keeping a low profile?_ Billy nods. No need for Nick to know about the Monopoly games, or the get-together in his backyard, or the drink he had with Phil Stanhope. Now or ever. _Have you thought any more about the getaway plan I mentioned to you? Because, as you see, the boys will be ready when it_s time. Reggie_s no rocket scientist, but Dana is a thinking cat. And both of them can drive._ _I just run around the corner, right? And get in the back of the van._ _Right, and change into one of the coveralls like the ones the city employees wear. You guys ask the cops if you can help with crowd control or something._ Like Billy has forgotten all this. _If they say yes _ they probably won_t, but if they do _ you pitch right in. Either way, you_ll be out of state and on your way to Wisconsin by nightfall. Maybe sooner. So what do you think?_ Billy pictures himself not on his way to Wisconsin but lying dead beside a county road in a ditch along with the beer cans and discarded Big Mac boxes. That picture is very clear. He smiles _ big smile _ and says, _It sounds good. Better than anything I could have thought up._ Which is bullshit, what he_s thought up seems strong to him no matter how much he turns it this way and that. There are risks, but they are minimal. Nick doesn_t need to know his actual getaway plan. He may be pissed off later, but really, how pissed can he be if the job gets done? Nick rises to his feet. _Good. Glad to help you out, Billy. You_re a good man._ No I_m not, and neither are you. _Thanks, Nick._ _Last job, huh? You really mean that?_ _I do._ _Well come here, bambino, and give me a hug._ Billy does. It isn_t that he doesn_t trust Nick, he thinks on his way back to the yellow house. It_s just that he trusts himself more. Always has, always will. 4 A couple of days later there_s a knock on the door of his little office suite. Billy has been writing, lost in a past that_s partly Benjy Compson_s but mostly his. He saves his work, shuts down, and opens the door. It_s Ken Hoff. He looks like he_s lost ten pounds since Billy saw him in June. The scruff on his face is scruffier than ever. Maybe he still thinks it makes him look like the leading man in an action movie, but to Billy he looks like a guy one day off a five-day drunk. His breath doesn_t help. The mint he_s chewing can_t disguise the shot or two he had on his way here, at ten-forty in the morning. His tie is natty, but his shirt is wrinkled and a bit untucked on one side. This is trouble on two legs, Billy thinks. _Hello, Billy._ _It_s Dave, remember?_ _Sure, Dave, right._ Hoff looks over his shoulder, making sure there_s no one in the hall that might have overheard his mistake. _Can I come in?_ _Sure, Mr Hoff._ He_s not going to call the man who_s essentially his landlord Ken. He stands aside. Hoff takes another look over his shoulder and comes in. They_re standing in what would be the reception area if this was an actual business office. Billy closes the door. _What can I do for you?_ _Nothing, I_m fine._ Hoff wets his lips and Billy realizes the man is afraid of him. _Just came by to see if everything was, you know, all right. If you needed anything._ Nick sent him, Billy thinks. The message? You got off on the wrong foot with Billy and he_s our man on the spot, so get right with him. _Just one thing,_ Billy says. _You_ll make sure the merch is there when I need it, right?_ Meaning the M24. What Hoff called a Remington 700. _That_s all in hand. All in hand, my friend. Do you want it now, or__ _No. One of our friends will tell you when it_s time. Until then, keep it someplace safe._ _No problem. It_s in my__ _I don_t want to know. Not yet._ Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, he thinks. Book of Matthew. What he wants on this day is to get back to what he was doing. He had no idea how good writing could make you feel. _Okay, sure. Listen, you want to go for a drink sometime?_ _That wouldn_t be a good idea._ Hoff smiles. Probably it_s charming when he_s on his game but he_s not on it now. He_s in a room with a paid killer. That_s part of it but not all of it. This is a man who feels the walls closing in, and Billy doesn_t think it_s because Hoff suspects he might be played for a patsy. He should know but he doesn_t. Maybe he can_t conceive of it, the way Billy can_t conceive of black holes far out in space as actual real things. _It_d be okay. You_re a writer, after all. Socially, you_re in my zone._ Whatever that means, Billy thinks. _Wouldn_t be good later. For you. You could answer any questions, say you had no idea what I was really doing here, but it_d be better if the questions never got asked._ _But we_re good, Billy, right?_ _It_s Dave. You need to get used to that so you don_t slip up. And sure, we_re good, why wouldn_t we be?_ Billy gives him the wide-eyed dumb self look. It works. This time Hoff_s grin is marginally more charming, because his tongue doesn_t come out to slurp his lips in the middle of it. _Dave now and forever. I won_t forget again. You_re sure you don_t need anything? Because, hey, I own the Carmike Cinema at the Southgate Mall, nine screens, got IMAX coming in next year. I could get you a pass, if you__ _That would be great._ _Terrific. I_ll bring it around this aftern__ _Why don_t you mail it? Here, or to the address on Evergreen Street. You_ve got it, right?_ _Sure, yeah. Your agent gave it to me. All the big pictures play in the summer, you know._ Billy nods as if he can_t wait to go see a bunch of actors in supersuits. _And listen, Dave, I_ve got an in at an escort service. Very nice girls, very discreet. I_d be happy to__ _Better not. Low profile, remember?_ He opens the door. Hoff isn_t just trouble, Hoff is an accident waiting to happen. _Irv Dean treating you all right?_ The security guard who works days in the lobby. _Yeah. He and I match for buck scratch-off tickets sometimes._ Hoff laughs too loudly, then looks over his shoulder again for people who might overhear. Billy wonders if Colin White and the other staff members of Business Solutions have Ken Hoff on their call list. Probably not. The people Ken is in debt to _ and he is in debt, Billy is sure of it _ don_t call you on the phone. At a certain point they just come to your house, drown your dog in the swimming pool, and break your fingers on the hand that doesn_t write the checks. _Good, that_s good. And Steve Broder?_ Off Billy_s blank look: _Building manager._ _Haven_t even seen him,_ Billy says. _Listen, Ken, thanks for stopping by._ Billy puts an arm around the shoulders of the man_s wrinkled shirt, escorts him into the hall, and turns him toward the elevators. _You bet. And I_ll be johnny on the spot with that item._ _I know you will be._ Hoff starts down the hall, but just when Billy thinks he_s rid of him, Hoff comes back. No hiding the desperation in those eyes now. He speaks low. _We_re really good, right? I mean, if I did anything to offend you, or piss you off, I apologize._ _Really good,_ Billy says. Thinking, This guy could blow. And if he does, it won_t be Nick Majarian on ground zero. It_ll be me. _Because I need this,_ Hoff says. Still speaking low. Smelling of Certs and booze and Creed cologne. _It_s like I_m a quarterback and my receivers are covered but then a slot opens up, opens like magic, and I _ you know, I__ In the middle of this strangled metaphor the door to the lawyers_ office down the hall opens. Jim Albright steps out, headed for the bathroom. He sees Billy and lifts a hand. Billy lifts his in return. _I get it,_ Billy says. _Everything_s going to be fine._ And because he can think of nothing else, _Touchdown ahead._ Hoff brightens. _Third and goal!_ he says. He grabs Billy_s hand, gives it a brisk shake, then heads down the hall, trying to look jaunty. Billy watches him until he steps into the elevator car and disappears from view. Maybe I should just run, he thinks. Buy a beater as Dalton Smith and run. But he knows he won_t, and the pending million-five is only half of the reason. What_s waiting for him in the office/conference room is the other half. Maybe more than half. What Billy most wants to do isn_t play Monopoly or drink beer with Don Jensen or go to bed with Phil Stanhope or shoot Joel Allen. What he most wants to do is write. He sits down and powers up the laptop. Opens the document he_s been working on and falls into the past. CHAPTER 7 1 I went over to him and said to myself I might have to shoot him again. If I had to I would. He was my mother_s boyfriend but he was wrong. He looked dead but I had to make sure so I lick my hand good and wet and kneeled down beside him. I put my wet hand in front of his mouth and nose so I could feel if there was still any breath in him. There wasn_t so then I knew for sure he was dead. I knew what to do next, but first I went over to Cassie. I was hoping but I knew she was dead too. Had to be, with her chest all crush like it was. But I lick my hand good and wet again and put it in front of her mouth but there was no breath in her either. I held her in my arms and cried, thinking of what my mom always said when she left for the laundry, take care of your sister. But I didn_t take care of her. I should have shot that son of a bitch before, that would have been taking care of her. And it would have been taking care of my mother too because I knew he hit her sometimes and she would laugh at her black eye or split lip and say we were just rassling around Benjy and I hit my face. Like I would believe that. Even Cassie didn_t believe that and she was only 9. After I finished crying I went to the phone. It worked. It didn_t always but that day it did because the bill was paid. I call 911 and a lady answered. I said hello, my name is Benjy Compson and I just killed my mothers boyfriend after he killed my sister. The lady asked me if I was sure the man was dead. I said I was. She said what is your address son. I said it is 19 Skyline Drive in the Hillview Trailer Park. She said is your mother there. I said no, she is at the 24 Hour Laundry in Edendale where she works. She said are you sure your sister is dead. I said I was because he stomped on her and crush her chest all in. I said I lick my hand and felt for breath and there wasn_t any. She said okay son you stay where you are and officers will be with you shortly. I said thank you ma_am. You might think police would be coming already what with the gunshot and all, except the trailer park was on the edge of town and people were always popping off at deers and coons and woodchucks in their gardens. Besides, this was Tennessee. People shoot guns there all the time, in Tennessee it_s like a hobby. I thought I heard something, like maybe mom_s boyfriend was getting up to make a run at me even though he was dead. I knew he couldn_t do that except I was thinking of a movie I sneaked into. I sneaked Cassie in with me and she hid her eyes at the gorie parts and later she had nightmares and I knew it was mean of me to take her. I don_t know why I took her. I think there_s something mean in people and sometimes it comes out like blood or puss. I would take that movie back if I could but not shooting the boyfriend. He was a bad, bad person to kill a harmless little girl. I would have done it even if it meant going to the reform school. Anyway there are only zombies in horror movies. He was dead as dogshit. I wondered if I should put a blanket or something over Cassie but thought no, that would be sad and awful, so I call the 24 Hour Laundry from the paper taped to the wall where the phone was. A lady answered 24 Hour Laundry and I said my name is Benjy Compson and I have to talk to my mother Arlene Compson, she works on the mangle. She said is this an emergency. I said yes ma_am it is. She said we_re awfully busy this morning, what is this big emergency. Which I thought was nosey and snotty, maybe just because I was so upset but I don_t think so. I said my sister is dead. That is the big emergency. She said oh my God are you sure and I said please let me speak to my mom. Because I had enough of that nosey bitch. I waited and then mom came on the phone all out of breath and said Benjy what happened? This better not be a joke. And I thought it would be better for all of us if it was a joke but it_s not. I said her boyfriend came in all drunk with his arm in a cast and killed Cassie and tried to kill me but I shot him dead. I said the police are coming, I can hear the sirens, so you come home and don_t let them take me to jail because it was him or me. I went out on the top step of the trailer, which weren_t really steps at all but cement blocks my mom_s last boyfriend, the one before the bad boyfriend, made into steps. That one_s name was Milton and he was okay. I wish he stayed but he left. He didn_t want the responsibility of two kids, mom said. Like it was our fault. Like we ask to be born. Anyway I went out on those steps because I didn_t want to be in the trailer with dead people. I kept asking myself if Cassie could really be dead and telling myself yes she really is. The first cops came and I was telling them what happen when my mom came. The cops tried to keep her from going in but she went in anyway and when she saw Cassie she scream and moaned and carry on so much I put my hands over my ears. And I was mad at her. I thought what did you think was going to happen. He hit us before just like he hit you so what did you think would happen. Sooner or later bad people do bad things, even a kid knows that. By then all our neighbors were out and looking. One of the cops was nice. He sat me in the cop car where the neighbors couldn_t look so easy and give me a hug. He said he had some candy in the glove compartment and did I want a piece and I said no thank you. He said okay Benjy just tell me what happened. So I did. I don_t know how many times I told that story but it was quite a few. Anyway I started to cry and the cop give me another hug and called me a brave kid and I wished my mother would have a boyfriend like that guy. While I was sitting in the cop car and telling what happened, more cops came and a van that said MAYVILLE POLICE FORENSICS UNIT. One cop from the van took pictures and I later saw some at the hearing but not the bodies. I don_t know why the people at the hearing felt like I couldn_t look at pictures of bodies I already saw in person. But what I want to say is that one of the pictures that man took got in the newspaper. It showed the cookies my sister made, how they were scattered all over the floor. Underneath it said SHE WAS KILLED FOR COOKIES. I never forgot that, how it was mean and true at the same time. I had to go to the hearing. It wasn_t with a judge but with 3 people. They were 2 men and 1 woman who looked like teachers and talked like teachers. There was nobody in the room except for them and me and my mother and the cops who were first to get to the trailer, which they called _the scene._ We didn_t have a lawyer like in Law and Order on TV and we didn_t need one. The woman said I was a brave boy and told my mother I should get counseling. My mother said that was a good idea, then later said to me some people think money grows on trees. We go to leave and I thought it was over but then I of the men said just a minute, Mrs Compson. I need to say something. I need to say that you have to shoulder some of the blame for this tragedy. Then he told a story about how a scorpion beg a ride across a raging river from a kind-hearted frog but halfway across the scorpion stung the frog and the frog said why did you do that, now we will both drown and the scorpion said it is my nature to sting and you knew I was a scorpion when you let me ride on your back. Then the man said you picked up a scorpion Mrs Compson and he stung your little girl to death. You could have lost your son as well. You didn_t but this trommer will be with him for the rest of his life. I suggest the next time you come across a scorpion you crush it under your foot instead of giving it a ride. My mom got all red in the face and said how dare you. I never would have put my children at risk if I knew something like this could happen. The man said you are keeping custody of young Benjamin because we can_t prove otherwise. But if you did not have warnings of Mr Russell_s violent nature, maybe only a few, maybe many, I would be very surprised. My mother started to cry and that made me want to cry. She said you are so unfair, sitting there on your high horse. When was the last time you had to do 40 hours of sweat-labor to bring home groceries? He said this isn_t about me, Mrs Compson. You have lost one child because of poor choices, don_t lose the other. This hearing is closed. 2 At some point during that summer _ his season of many identities _ Billy re-reads the story of Bob Raines_s death and the hearing that followed. Then he goes to the window and looks out at the courthouse, where a sheriff_s car has pulled up to the curb. Two cops in county brown get out of the front seat. One opens the back door and they wait for the man in there to climb out. The prisoner is rangy and skinny, wearing carpenter_s jeans that bag in the seat and a bright purple sweatshirt _ too hot for this day _ that has the Arkansas Razorback on it. Even at five hundred yards he looks to Billy like one sad fucking sack. Each cop takes an arm and they lead him up the wide steps toward whatever justice awaits him. It_s exactly the shot Billy will have to make when (and if) the time comes, but he barely sees it. He_s thinking about his story. He set out to tell it as the dumb self, but it turned into something else and he only realized it after reading it cold. The dumb self is there, all right, any reader (Nick and Giorgio, for instance) would say the man who wrote it sticks mostly to Star magazine, Inside View, and Archie funnybooks, but there_s something more. It_s the voice of the child self. Billy never set out to write in that voice _ consciously, at least _ but that_s what he did. It_s as if he has been regressed under hypnosis. Maybe that_s what writing is, when it really matters. Does it matter? When the only people who_ll ever see it are him and a couple of Vegas hardballs who may already have lost interest? _It does,_ Billy says to the window. _Because it_s mine._ Yes, and because it_s true. He_s changed the names a little _ Cassie instead of Cathy, and his mother_s name was Darlene, not Arlene _ but mostly it_s true. The child_s voice is true. That voice never had a chance to speak, not even at the hearing. He answered the questions he was asked but no one asked how it felt to hold Cathy with her crushed chest. No one asked how it felt to be told take care of your sister and fail at the most important job in the whole round world. No one asked how it felt when you held your wet hand in front of your sister_s mouth and nose, hoping even though you knew hope was gone. No one ever knew that the gun_s recoil had made him burp as if he had done no more than drink a soda fast. Not even the cop who hugged him asked those questions, and what a relief it is to let that voice speak. He goes back to the open MacBook and sits down. Looks at the screen. He thinks, When I get to the Stepenek House part _ only I_ll call it Speck House _ I can let that voice be a little more grownup. Because I was a little more grownup. Billy begins to tap the keys, slowly at first, then picking up speed. The summer rolls on around him. 3 After the hearing me and my mom went back home. We buried Cassie. I don_t know who buried the boyfriend and don_t care. In the fall I went back to school where some of the kids started calling me Bang Bang Benjy and I got held back that year. I didn_t get in trouble for fighting but I skipped school a lot and my mother said I had to smarten up if I didn_t want to get taken away and put into a foster home. I didn_t want that so next year I tried harder and passed my courses. When I got sent to Speck House it wasn_t my fault, it was my mom_s. She started drinking heavy after Cassie died, mostly at home but sometimes she would go out to bars and sometimes bring a man home with her. To me those men all looked like the bad boyfriend, assholes in other words. I don_t know why my mother would go back to the same types of men after what happened but she did. She was like a dog that pukes and then laps it up. I know how that sounds, but I will not take it back. Her and those men, there were three at least and maybe five, would go in the bedroom and she said they were just rassling around but of course by then I was older and knew they were fucking. Then one night when she was drinking in the trailer she went out to the 7-11 for a box of Cheezits and on her way back she got pulled over. She was charged with drunk driving and put in the jail for 24 hours. She got to keep me that time too, but she lost her license for six months and had to take the bus to the laundry. A week after she got her license back she got stopped for drunk driving again. There was another hearing, this time just about me, but what do you know, that same man who told the story about the scorpion and the frog was sitting at the table along with 2 new ones! He said you again. My mother said that_s right, me again and you know I lost my daughter. You know what I_ve been through. The man said I do know, and you don_t seem to have learned your lesson, Mrs Compson. My mom said you have never walked in my shoes. She had a lawyer that time but he didn_t say much. After, she gave him hell and asked what he was good for. The lawyer said you haven_t given me much to work with, Mrs Compson. She said you_re fired. He said you can_t fire me because I quit. When we came back to the hearing room a day later they said I would have to go into foster care at a place called Speck House because she was an unfit mother. She said you are bullshit artists and I will fight this all the way to the supreme court. The man who told the story about the frog and the scorpion said have you been drinking. My mother said kiss my ass you fat bastard. He didn_t come back on her for that but said you have 24 hours to put Benjy_s things together, Mrs Compson, and to say goodbye. It will mean more to him if you_re sober when you do it. Then him and the other 2 walked out. We took the bus home. My mother said we_re going to run away, Benjy. We will go to another town and change our names. We will start over. But we were still there the next day, and that was my last day in Hillview Trailer Park, the last day I lived with my mother. A county cop came to take me to the Speck House. I wished the cop had been the one who hug me, but it was another one. Deputy Malkin wasn_t so bad though. Anyway, mom didn_t make trouble because she was sober. She said to the cop I put off packing his things because I didn_t want to think this would really happen. Give me 15 minutes. The cop said that was quite all right and waited while she pack me a duffle full of clothes. He waited outside. Then she made me 2 PBandJ sandwiches and put them in a lunch sack and told me to be a good boy. Then she started to cry and I did too. It was her fault I had to go away, everything was her fault, she was the one who gave the scorpion a ride and she was the one who kept getting drunk and blaming it on Cassie being dead, but I cried because I loved her. When we went outside, the cop said I could probably call when I got to Speck House in Evansville. My mother told me to call Mrs Tillitson next door and said to the cop it_s because right now our phone isn_t working. Which meant the bill wasn_t paid again. Deputy Malkin said that sounds like a plan and told me to hug my mom. I did. I smelled her hair because it always smell good. It took about 2 hours to get to Evansville. I sat up front. Behind the front seats there was a wire thing that made the back into a cage. The cop said if I stayed out of trouble I would never have to ride back there. He asked me if I would stay out of trouble and I said yes but I was thinking that when you were riding to a foster home in a cop car you are in trouble already. I ate 1 of the PBandJs and saw she put a devil-egg in the lunch sack too and that made me cry again, thinking of her hands doing that. The cop patted my shoulder and said it gets better, son. His little nametag said F.W.S. MALKIN. I asked him what F.W.S. stood for because I thought it was some kind of special job. He said it stood for his name, which was Franklin Winfield Scott Malkin but he said you can call me Frank, Benjy. I wasn_t crying then but he must have seen I was sad and maybe scared too, because he reach over and pat me on the shoulder and said you_ll be okay, Benjy. There are lots of nice kids there. They all get along and if you mind your p_s and q_s, you will get along, too. I know all the foster situations in the tri-counties and the Specks aren_t the worst. They are not the best either but we haven_t ever had any trouble with them. Some of the things I_ve seen, you don_t want to know. If you behave and go along to get along you will be fine. I said I miss my mother. He said of course you do and when she gets her feet back planted on the ground, there_ll be another hearing and you can go home. In the meantime, she can come on Wednesday evenings and any time Saturday or Sunday up to 7 oclock. Be sure to tell her that when you speak to her. Only my mom never did get her feet back planted on the ground. She kept drinking and got a boyfriend who gave her crystal meth and when you get on that stuff you_re feet hardly ever get to the ground because you are high most of the time. At first she come to see me quite a lot, then once in a while, then hardly ever, and then she stopped coming at all. The last time she come some of her teeth were gone and her hair was dirty. She said I hate for you to see me like this Benjy and I said I hate it, too. I said you are a mess. By then I was a teenager, and teenagers say anything to hurt when they are hurting. Speck House was out in the country. It was rickety but big like a mansion with rooms everywhere, 3 stories. Maybe even 4. It look good outside but inside it was old and drafty and leaky and cold in wintertime. Cold as a whore_s fuck in a freezer, Ronnie used to say. But I didn_t know it was old when I got there, I thought it was new because rickety or not it had bright red paint and blue trim. I found out pretty soon that the Speck foster kids painted it every year and got $2 dollars an hour. One year it was green with white trim and then yellow with green trim. You can see why me and Ronnie called it the House of Everlasting Paint! The year I left to join the Marines it was back to red and blue. Ronnie said it_s only paint holding this rambling wreck together, Benjy. That was a joke, she was always joking around, but it was also true. I guess most jokes have some truth in them, and that is what makes them funny. Deputy F.W.S. Malkin said the Specks weren_t the worst or the best, and that turned out to be true. I was there 5 years by the time I was old enough to sign for the Marines and sometimes Mrs Speck would slat me side of the head with a towel or dishrag, but she never hit me with her hand and she never hit one of the little kids like Peggy Pye who was six and had her eye put out by a cigarette. When she slat me side of the head I deserved it. I only saw Mr Speck slat kids a couple of times. Once it was when Jimmy Dykeman broke a storm window throwing stones and once when he caught Sara Peabody dancing around Peggy and singing Peggy Pye, Peggy Pye, cross my heart and hope to die, Peggy Pye with just one eye. Mr Speck slap her face for that. Sara was a mean girl, a bad person. Once when I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up she said I_m going to be a call girl and fuck famous men to get their money. Then she laughed like it was a joke so maybe it was. The Specks weren_t good people or bad people, just people living on money they got from the state of Tennessee. They passed all their inspections. We went to school on the bus and always in clean clothes, and when I decided to join the Marines, Mr Speck went with me to one hearing so I could get emancipated from my mother and another one so he could become my legal guardian. That way he could sign the paper and I could join at 17 and a half instead of waiting to 18. I thought my mother might show up at the emancipation hearing but she never did, and how could she when she didn_t know there was going to be one? I would have told her but she was gone from the trailer park and also the apartment where she lived for a while with the boyfriend that turned her into a meth-head. After those 2 hearings Mr Speck said to me God help you now you can do what you want, Benjy. I said I don_t believe in God and he said you will, give it time. What I learned in the House of Everlasting Paint: There aren_t just 2 kinds of people, good and bad, like I thought when I was a kid who got most of his ideas on how people act from TV. There are 3. The third type of people go along to get along, like Deputy F.W.S. Malkin told me to do. Those are the most people in the world and I think they are gray people. They will not hurt you (at least on purpose) but they won_t help you much, either. They will say do what you want and God help you. I think in this world you have to help yourself. When I came to the House of Everlasting Paint, there were 14 kids counting me. Ronnie said that was good because 13 was an unlucky number. The youngest was Peggy Pye, who still wet her britches sometimes. There were twins, Timmy and Tommy, who were 6 or 7. The oldest kid was Glen Dutton, he was 17 and went in the army not too long after I came. He didn_t need Mr Speck to become his legal guardian and sign for him, though, his mother did it because Glen said he would send her the lottment. Glen said to me and Ronnie, that bitch would sign me into slavery with the ragheads if there was money in it for her. Glen was big and curse all the time, even more than Ronnie who could swear like a sailor, but he never bullied the smaller kids. He was a whiz of a painter too, always up on the highest scaffold. When Deputy Malkin pulled his cop car into the driveway, I was almost blinded by what was next door. It was junk cars far as I could see, not just a few but hundreds. They went up this one hill and I soon found out they also went down the other side, getting older and rustier as they went. The sun was reflecting off all the windshields of the cars that still had windshields. Maybe half a klick down from the Speck House there was a green auto body shop made of corrugated metal. I could hear people inside running noomatic drills and wrenches. Out in front was a sign that said SPECK_S AUTO PARTS and SMALL REPAIRS and BEST BUYS LOWEST PRICES. Deputy Malkin said that_s Speck_s brother_s place, quite the eyesore isn_t it. It_s just outside the county zoning, which is how he gets away with it. Your Speck is just inside the county zoning, which is why he had to put up a chainlink fence around the sides and back. I_m telling you so you won_t look at all that fence and think you_re going to a prison. That auto graveyard is a dangerous place, Benjy. Off limits for a reason. Don_t take it into your head to go there, all right? I said yes but of course I did. Me and Glen and Ronnie and Donnie. Just me and Ronnie and sometimes Donnie after Glen left for the army, then mostly just me when Ronnie ran away. Sometimes I wonder where she got off to. I hope she_s all right. It was sad without her. Maybe that_s why I went into the Marines, but if I am going to tell the truth, I might have gone anyway. The 5 years I was a Speck Boy was long enough to see the House of Everlasting Paint change color 3 times. There are some things that stand out from when I was there, like the time I got suspended from school for fighting when 2 boys called me Bang Bang Benjy, which had happened many times before but that time I got sick of it. They were bigger but I kept fighting even after one of them black my eye and the other one almost bust my nose. That one, his name was Jared Klein, I got hold of his pants and yank them down so everyone saw his pee-stained underwear. He got teased about that plenty which served him right. Another thing that stands out is when Peggy Pye had to go to the hospital with pneumonia. Then a week later, or maybe it was 10 days, Mrs Speck got us all together in the living room to pray because she said Peggy passed on and went up to heaven to be with Jesus and now she could see out of both her eyes. Donnie Wigmore said I hope the food is better up there and Mr Speck told him keep your smart remarks to yourself if you don_t want me to slat you one. Anyway we prayed for Peggy_s soul and Ronnie had to put her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing at what Donnie said only she was crying too. Other kids were also crying because Peggy was everyone_s _pet._ I didn_t cry but I felt bad. Later on when me and Ronnie and Glen and Donnie were out in Demo Derby, Ronnie cried some more. Glen hug her and Ronnie said Peg was a sweetie wasn_t she and Glen said yes she sure was. Then she hug on me and I hug on her and that was one happy thing that come out of Peggy dying because I was in love with Ronnie Givens. I knew nothing could come of that because she was 2 years older and crushing big on Glen, but you can_t help how you feel. Feelings are like breathing, they come in and go out. Demo Derby was what we called the car junkyard behind the House of Everlasting Paint and next to Speck_s Auto Parts. It was our special place. Being told to stay away from there made us want to go even more. Ronnie said it was like the Forbidden Fruit Tree Eve wasn_t supposed to eat from in the Garden of Eden. Glen wave his hand at the rows and rows of junk cars with all those windshields reflecting and turning one sun into hundreds of suns and he said this is a whole motherfucking orchard, which made me and Ronnie laugh. When we went there we would look for the best cars, like Cadillacs and Lincolns and Beemers, or once there was this old Mercedes limo with it_s whole rear end gone. Glen always carry a broom and whoomp the seats a couple of times before we got in to scare away the mice if there were any. Once he scared out a big rat. Donnie was with us and he said there goes Mr Speck and we laughed fit to split. Anyway we would sit in those cars and pretend they were whole and we were going someplace. We could get into the Demo Derby easy because there was a hole in the chainlink fence at the back corner of the playground and once Glen said who knows how many fucked-up foster kids have gone through this hole and where they are now. That made us all laugh but then Ronnie said probably noplace good. Donnie laughed at that too, but me and Glen didn_t. I looked at him and he looked at me and we were both thinking _noplace good_! Sometimes Glen would sit behind the wheel and pretend to drive and Ronnie would sit in the shotgun seat. Sometimes it would be the other way around, and when Glen was in the shotgun seat he might yell stuff like WHOA RONNIE DON_T HIT THAT FUCKIN DOG and Ronnie would turn the wheel and pretend to swerve. Glen would flop over with his head in her lap and Ronnie would push him away and say buckle your seatbelt dumbass. I would always sit in back, with Donnie if he came with us but mostly on my own. Which I preferred. A couple of times Glen brought a can of beer which we would pass around until it was gone. Then Ronnie would give us Certs to take the smell off our breath. Once Glen brought 3 cans and we got a little bit high and Ronnie swooped the wheel back and forth and Glen said don_t get pulled over by 5_0, girlfriend. They laughed at that but I didn_t because my mother really did get pulled over by 5_0 and it was no joke. Donnie smoked. I don_t know if the same person who got Glen his beers got Donnie his cigs, but he kept a pack of Marlboros behind a loose board under his bed. He mostly did it out back by the kitchen, but one day he pulled out his smokes when we were sitting in a big old Buick Estate wagon and pretending to drive to Vegas where we would play roulette and shoot craps. Ronnie said don_t you dare light up out here where there_s all these dry weeds and spilled oil. Donnie said what are you on the rag or something. Glen turned around and made a fist and said take that back unless you want to eat your front teeth. Later on, when I was in Fallujah, this one time I saw Sargent West shoot an RPG into an insurgent safe house in the part of town we called the Pizza Slice, and it blew sky-high because of all the ammo inside. Lucky we didn_t all get killed because we weren_t expecting it. That made me think of how Donnie also used to smoke sometimes in the supply shed, where the Specks stored all their paint. That was probably a lot more dangerous than out in the Demo Derby. Donnie took it back but Ronnie punched Glen a good hard one on the shoulder. I don_t need you to stand up for me Dutton, she said. When Ronnie called you by your last name, you knew she was mad. She turned around to the back seat and said I don_t need to be on the rag to worry about fire Wigmore because I got this. She held out her arm and showed the shiny burn scar there. We all seen that before. It went from halfway up her forearm just about all the way to her shoulder. Her parents got burnt up in a housefire, you see. Ronnie, she jump out of a 2nd story window just about in time with her arm burned and part of her leg on that side and her hair on fire. That_s how she wound up in the Speck House of Everlasting Paint when her one relative, an aunt, said I am not taking her. The one time she visited Ronnie in the hospital she said I raised two of my own, both hellions, and that_s enough. Ronnie said she couldn_t blame her for that. I know what fire can do, she said. If I ever forget I only need to look at this arm to remember. Donnie said he was sorry, and I did too. I didn_t have anything to apologize for, I just felt bad because she got burned but also happy because it wasn_t her face, which was pretty. Anyway we was all friends again after that, although Donnie Wigmore was never a friend to me like Ronnie and Glen were. 4 _We had some good times in the Demo Derby,_ Billy says. He_s looking out the window at the courthouse again. August has given way to September, but still the heat shimmers. He can see waves of it coming off the street. It reminds him of the way the air used to shimmer above the big incinerator behind the House of Everlasting Paint_s kitchen. The Specks were the Stepeneks, Ronnie Givens was Robin Maguire, Glen Dutton was Gadsden Drake. Gadsden after the Gadsden Purchase, Billy figured. He had read a book while still in the Marines, Slavery, Scandal, and Steel Rails, which had covered the purchase of that arid chunk of land from Mexico. He_d read it in Fallujah, between Operation Vigilant Resolve in April of _04 and Phantom Fury in November. Gad said that before his mother died of lung cancer, she_d told him that his long-gone daddy had been a history teacher, so it made a degree of sense. I might not be the only Gadsden in the world, he said once while they were out in Demo Derby, pretending to go somewhere, but I bet there_s not more than a dozen. With it as a first name, that is. Billy has changed the names of his friends, but Demo Derby was always Demo Derby, and they really did have some good times there before Gad joined the army and Robin ran off to _ what did she tell him? _To seek my fortune in seven-league boots,_ he says. That was it. Only her boots hadn_t been of the seven-league variety, just scuffed suede with tired elastic sides. I loved her among the wrecks, Billy thinks, and goes back to write another paragraph or two before calling it a day. CHAPTER 8 1 Two bad things happen on Labor Day weekend. One is stupid and alarming, the other casts a light on the rather unpleasant person Billy never meant to become. Taken together, they make him realize that the sooner he gets out of Red Bluff, the better. I never should have taken a job with such a long lead time, he thinks when the weekend is over, but there was no way to know. To know what? That the Ackermans and the others on Evergreen Street would take such a liking to him, for one thing. That he would take a liking to them, for another. There_s a parade downtown on the Saturday of the holiday weekend. Billy and the Ackermans go in a van Jamal borrowed from Excellent Tire. Shanice holds her mother_s hand on one side and Billy_s on the other as they work through the crowd and find a place on the corner of Holland and Main. When the parade actually comes, Jamal perches his daughter on his shoulders and Billy hoists Derek onto his. The kid feels good up there. The parade is okay, even letting a kid who is later going to find out he was sitting on the shoulders of an assassin is okay _ sort of. The stupid and alarming thing, the lapse, comes on Sunday. Next to the Midwood suburb of Red Bluff is the semi-rural town of Cody, and there a ratty little carnival set up shop during the last two weeks of summer, wanting a final shot of income before the kids go back to school. Because Jamal still has the van and Sunday is nice, nothing will do but a trip to the carnival with the kids. Paul and Denise Ragland from down the street come along. The seven of them stroll the midway, eating sweet sausages and drinking sodas. Derek and Shanice ride the carousel, the Tooterville Trolley, and the Wild Cups. Mr and Mrs Ragland go off to play Bingo. Corrie Ackerman throws darts at water balloons and wins a spangly headband that says WORLD_S GREATEST MOM. Shanice tells her she looks cute, like a princess. Jamal tries his hand at knocking over wooden milk bottles and wins nothing, but he bangs the Test Your Strength weight all the way to the top, ringing the bell. Corrie applauds and says, _My hero._ For this feat of strength he gets a cardboard top hat with a paper flower stuck in the band. When he puts it on, Derek laughs so hard he has to cross his legs and then run for the nearest Porta-John so he won_t wet his pants. The kids ride a few more of the rides, but Derek won_t go on the Wonky Caterpillar because he says it_s for babies. Billy goes with Shan, and the fit is so tight that Jamal has to yank him out like a cork from a bottle when the ride is over. That makes them all laugh. They are walking back to find the Raglands when they come to Dead-Eye Dick_s Shooting Gallery. Half a dozen men are having a go with BB guns, shooting at five rows of targets moving in opposite directions, plus tin rabbits that pop up and down. Shanice points to a giant pink flamingo atop the wall of prizes and says, _I_d love to have that for my bedroom. Could I buy it out of my allowance?_ Her father explains that it_s not for sale, you have to win it. _Then you win it, Dad!_ she says. The man running the shooting shy is wearing a striped shirt, a rakishly tilted straw boater, and a fake curly mustache. He looks like he belongs in a barber shop quartet. He hears Shanice and waves Jamal over. _Make your little girl happy, mister, knock over three rabbits or four of the birds in the top row and she_s going home with Freddy Flamingo._ Jamal laughs and hands over five bucks for twenty shots. _Prepare for disappointment, sweetie,_ he says, _but I might win you one of the smaller prizes._ _You can do it, Dad,_ Derek says stoutly. Billy watches Jamal shoulder the rifle and knows he_ll be lucky to wind up with one of the stuffed turtles that are the consolation prizes for two hits. _Go for the birds,_ Billy says. _I know the rabbits are bigger, but you can only take snap shots when they pop up._ _If you say so, Dave._ Jamal pops off ten shots at the birds in the top row and hits exactly none. He lowers his sights, pops a couple of the lumbering tin moose in the bottom row, and accepts one of the turtles. Shanice eyes it without much enthusiasm but says thank you. _What about you, hoss?_ the barber shop quartet guy asks Billy. Most of his other customers have drifted away. _Want to give it a try? Five bucks buys you twenty shots and you only need to hit four of the birdies to make your pretty little pal the happy owner of Frankie Flamingo._ _I thought it was Freddy,_ Billy says. The concession guy smiles and tips his straw boater the other way. _Frankie, Freddy, or Felicia, make a little girl happy._ Shanice looks at him hopefully but says nothing. It_s Derek who convinces him to do the stupid thing when he says, _Mr Ragland says all these games are a cheat and nobody wins the big prizes._ _Well, let_s test that out,_ Billy says, and lays down a five-spot. Mr Barber Shop Quartet loads a paper spill of BBs and hands Billy a rifle. A few other men and two women are currently at the shy_s counter. Billy moves down partly to give them room, but also because he_s noticed that the tin birds _ plus the targets on the other four levels _ slow down a bit before they turn out of sight. Probably the chain drives need to be oiled. Which is lazy. The shy_s proprietor should pay for that. _Are you going for the birds, Dave?_ Derek asks. It_s been quite awhile since they stopped calling him Mr Lockridge. _Like you told Dad?_ _Absolutely,_ Billy says. He takes a breath, lets it out, takes another and lets it out, takes a third and holds it. He makes no effort to use the little rifle_s sight, which will be wildly out of true. He just snugs his head against the rifle_s stock and fires quickly _ pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. The first one misses; his next four knock over four tin birds. He knows he_s doing a stupid thing and should quit, but he can_t resist knocking over one of the rabbits when it rises from its hole. The Ackermans applaud. So do the other shooters. And, to his credit, so does Mr Barber Shop Quartet before grabbing the pink flamingo and handing it over to Shanice, who hugs it and laughs. _Wow, Dave!_ Derek says. His eyes are shining. _You rock!_ Now Jamal will ask me where I learned to shoot like that, Billy thinks. And then he thinks, How do you know you_re an idiot? Because if everyone is looking at you, like they are now, you_re an idiot. It_s actually Corrie who asks him, as they resume their stroll to the Bingo tent. Billy tells her it was in ROTC. That he was just naturally good at it. Telling her he killed at least twenty-five mujin in Fallujah, shooting from rooftops during the nine days of Operation Phantom Fury, would be a bad idea. Oh, you think? he asks himself with a sarcasm that_s very unlike him _ in his thoughts or aloud. The other thing _ the character-check _ happens on Monday, the actual holiday. Because he_s a freelance writer working his own hours, he can take off when he wants and also work when others are enjoying a federally mandated day of rest. Gerard Tower is all but deserted. The lobby door is unlocked (such trusting souls in the border south), and no one is at the security stand. When the elevator passes the second floor, he hears no shouts as the denizens of Business Solutions psych each other up and no ringing phones. Apparently debtors are also getting the day off, and good for them. Billy writes for two hours. He_s almost up to Fallujah now, and wondering what he should say about it _ a little, a lot, or maybe nothing at all. He shuts down and decides to put in an appearance at Pearson Street, re-establishing his existence with Beverly Jensen and her husband, who will no doubt be taking the day off. He drives over in his leased car, wig, mustache, and fake pregnancy belly in place. Don is mowing the lawn. Beverly is sitting on the stoop in unfortunate lime green shorts. The three of them bat the breeze a little, talking about how hot the summer has been, how glad they are it_s over, and Dalton Smith_s impending trip to Huntsville, Alabama, where he_ll install a state-of-the-art computer system at the new Equity Insurance HQ. Shouldn_t take too long. After that, he says, he hopes to be back for awhile. _They sure do keep you on the hop,_ Don says. Billy agrees and then asks Beverly about her mother, who lives in Missouri and has been poorly. Beverly sighs and says she_s about the same. Billy says he hopes she_ll be better soon and Beverly says she sure hopes so. As she_s telling him this, Billy looks over her shoulder and sees Don slowly shaking his head. That he doesn_t want his wife to know what he thinks about his mother-in-law_s chances makes Billy like him. He thinks that Don Jensen would never tell his wife that her lime green shorts make her look fat. He goes down to his pleasingly cool basement apartment. David Lockridge has his book and Dalton Smith has his laptops. Smith_s work might not matter, but because it might matter a great deal somewhere down the line, he does it carefully (even though after working on Benjy Compson_s story, it seems boring and mechanical). He finishes up with a quick review of the three screens. 10 FAMOUS CELEBS WHO ALMOST DIED; THESE 7 FOODS CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE; THE 10 MOST INTELLIGENT DOGS. Good clickbait. He posts them on facebook.com/ads. He really could do this for a living, but who would want to? He shuts down, reads a little (he_s currently on an Ian McEwan binge), then checks the fridge. The half-and-half is holding out, but the milk has gone spunky. He decides on a trip to the Zoney_s Go-Mart to replace it. When he finds Don and Beverly still on the porch, now sharing a can of beer, he asks if they want anything. Beverly asks if he_ll see if they have any Pop Secret. _We_re going to watch something on Netflix tonight. You_re welcome to join, if you want._ He almost says yes, which is close to appalling. He tells them instead that he_s going to make it an early night because he_s driving to Alabama first thing in the morning. He walks down to the sad little strip mall. Merton Richter_s blue SUV with the scratched side is nowhere to be seen and the office is closed. So is the Nu You Tanning Salon, Hot Nails, and the Jolly Roger Tattoo Parlor. Beyond Hot Nails is an abandoned launderette and a Dollar Store with a sign in the window reading VISIT OUR NEW LOCATION IN PINE PLAZA. The Zoney_s is at the very end. Billy gets his milk out of the cooler. There_s no Pop Secret, but there_s Act II, so he grabs a box of that. The clerk is a middle-aged woman with hennaed hair who looks like she_s been down on her luck for awhile, maybe twenty years or so. She offers him a carry sack and Billy says no thank you. Zoney_s uses plastic bags, which are bad for the environment. On the way back, he passes two young men standing outside the abandoned launderette. One is white. The other is black. They are both wearing hoodies, the kind with kangaroo pockets in front. The pockets sag with the weight of what_s inside them. Their heads are together as they murmur to each other. They give Billy identical glances of narrow assessment as he passes. He doesn_t look at them directly but sees them perfectly well from the corner of his eye. When he doesn_t slow, they go back to whispering together. They might as well be wearing placards around their necks that say WE PLAN TO CELEBRATE LABOR DAY BY ROBBING THE LOCAL ZONEY_S. Billy walks out of the sad little strip mall and back to the street. He can feel them looking at him. There_s no telepathy involved in that, unless it_s the ordinary telepathy of someone who has survived a war zone with only a half-gone great toe and two Purple Hearts (long since discarded) to show for it. He thinks of the woman who sold him his goods, a hard-luck mama from the look of her. Her luck isn_t going to change on this holiday, either. Billy never considers going back to brace them, judging from their cranked-up expressions that would be a fine way to get killed, but he does consider calling 911. Only there are no pay phones in the vicinity, not anymore, and the phone he_s carrying is Dalton Smith_s. If he calls the cops, he_ll burn it. Then the rest of his identity will catch fire, because what is it made of? Just paper. He goes back to the apartment building instead and tells Beverly they didn_t have any Pop Secret. She says Act II is fine. There_s scant traffic on Pearson Street at the best of times, and it_s even scanter on this holiday. He keeps his ear cocked for gunshots. He doesn_t hear any. Which means nothing. 2 Billy downloaded an app for the local newspaper shortly after arriving in this city he can_t wait to put behind him, and the following day he looks for a Zoney_s robbery. He finds the story on the Close to Home page, just a snippet in a roundup of minor news items. It says two thieves armed with handguns made off with just under a hundred dollars (which would include my dollars and Beverly_s, Billy thinks). The clerk, Wanda Stubbs, was alone in the store at the time. She was taken to Rockland Memorial, where she was treated for a head wound and released. So one of those scumbuckets hit her, probably with the butt of his gun, and probably because she wasn_t emptying the register fast enough to suit him. Billy can tell himself it could have been a lot worse (and does). He can tell himself the robbery would have gone down much as it did even if he had called 911 (and does). It doesn_t change the fact that he feels like the priest and Levite who passed by on the other side of the road before a good Samaritan came along and saved the day. Billy read the Bible from cover to cover while he was in the suck, every Marine got one on request. He has often regretted it and this is one of those times. The Bible has a story to puncture every equivocation and denial. The Bible _ New Testament as well as Old _ does not forgive. 3 Me and Mr Speck went to Chattanooga, which was where I joined the Marines. I thought I would have to go to a Marine base to sign up, but it was just an office in a shopping mall with a vacuum cleaner store on one side and a place to get your taxes written up on the other. There was a flag over the door with NOOGA STRONG printed on one of the stripes. In the window was a photo of a Marine that said THE FEW THE PROUD and DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES. Mr Speck said are you sure you want to do this Benjy? and I said yes, but I wasn_t. I don_t think your sure of anything when you are seventeen and a half although you might pretend so as not to look like a total dub. Anyway we went in and I talked to Staff Sergeant Walton Fleck. He asked me why I wanted to be a Marine and I said to serve my country, although the real reason was to get out of Speck House and out of Tennessee and start a life that didn_t seem so sad. Glen and Ronnie were gone and Donnie was right when he said only the paint remains. Next Staff Sergeant Fleck asked me if I thought I was tough enough to be a Marine and I said yes even though I wasn_t sure of that either. Then he asked me if I thought I could kill a man in a combat situation and I said yes. Mr Speck said can I talk to you for a minute, Sergeant, and Sergeant Fleck said he could. They sent me outside and Mr Speck sat down across the desk and started talking. I could have told the sergeant what happened with my mother_s bad boyfriend, but I guess it was better to hear it from a _responsible adult._ With all I have been through, back then and since, I have to wonder if there is such a thing. After awhile they called me back inside and I wrote out what happened in the space marked Personal Information. Then I signed in four places, bearing down hard like the sarge told me to. When I was done he told me to be all present and accounted for on Monday. He said sometimes young men had to wait months for processing but I came at the right time. He said on Monday I would take my ASVAB test and my physical with the other _new fish._ ASVAB is an aptitude test that helps them (the Marines) figure out how much you can do and how smart you are. He asked if I had any tattoos and I said no. He asked if I wore eye-glasses some of the time and I said no. There were other things he said, like bring your Social Security card and if you wear an earring take it out. Then he said (I thought this was funny but kept a straight face) to be sure and wear undershorts. I said okay. He said if there_s anything wrong with you that you didn_t write down, you better tell me now and save yourself a trip. I said there wasn_t. Sergeant Fleck shook my hand and said if you_ve got a mind to hooraw you better hooraw this weekend because come Monday when you take that test you are going to be Mr Taking Care of Business. I said okay. He said never mind that, let me hear you say yes Staff Sergeant Fleck. So I said that and he shook my hand and said it was good to meet me. _And you too sir,_ he said to Mr Speck. Going back, Mr Speck said he talked tough but I don_t believe he ever killed anyone like you did, Benjy. He just didn_t have that look about him. By then Ronnie had been gone (in her 7-league boots) for 4 or 5 months, but before she went she let me make out with her in the Demo Derby. That was great, but when I wanted to go farther she laughed and push me away and said your too young but I wanted to give you something to remember me by. I said I would remember, and I do. I don_t think you ever forget the first girl who gives you real kisses. She told me 4 Billy stops there, looking over the laptop and out the window. Robin told him that when she finally lit somewhere, she would write the Stepeneks so her friends from the House of Everlasting Paint could write back to her. She told Billy to do the same thing when he left. _I_m guessing it won_t be long before you_re on your way,_ she said that day as they sat in the smashed Mercedes. She had let him unbutton her shirt _ that much she had allowed _ and she was buttoning it up again as she spoke, hiding all that glory inside. _But your idea about feeding yourself to the war machine _ you need to re-think that, Billy. You_re too young to die._ She kissed the tip of his nose. _And too pretty._ Billy starts to write this, only omitting that he had had the hardest, most painful, and most wonderful erection of his life during that all-too-short necking session, when his David Lockridge phone bings with a text. It_s from Ken Hoff. I have something for you. Probably it_s time for you to take it. And because he_s probably right about that, Billy texts back Okay. Hoff returns, I_ll come by your house. No, no, and no. Hoff at his house? Next door to the Ackermans, with whose kids Billy plays Monopoly on the weekends? Hoff will bring the rifle wrapped in a blanket, of course he will, as if anyone with half a brain and a single eye wouldn_t know what was inside. No, he texts. Walmart. The Garden Center parking lot. 7:30 2nite. He waits, watching the dots as Hoff composes his reply. If he thinks the meeting place is negotiable, he_s in for a surprise. But when the response comes back, it_s brief: OK. Billy shuts down his laptop without even finishing the last sentence. He_s done for the day. Hoff poisoned the well, he thinks. Only he knows better. Hoff is just Hoff and can_t help himself. The real poison is the gun. This thing is getting close. 5 At 7:25 Billy parks his David Lockridge Toyota in the Garden Center section of Walmart_s giant parking lot. Five minutes later, at 7:30 on the dot, he gets a text. Can_t see you, too many cars, get out and give me a wave. Billy gets out and waves, as if spotting a friend. A vintage cherry-red Mustang convertible _ a Ken Hoff car if ever there was one _ drives down one of the lanes and pulls in next to Billy_s humbler vehicle. Hoff gets out. He looks better than the last time Billy saw him, and there_s no alcohol on his breath. Which is a good thing, considering his cargo. He_s wearing a polo shirt (with a logo on it, naturally), pressed chinos, and loafers. He_s got a fresh haircut. Yet the essential Ken Hoff is still there, Billy thinks. The man_s expensive cologne doesn_t mask the smell of anxiety. He_s not cut out for the heavy stuff, and bringing a gun to a hired killer is pretty damn heavy. The rifle isn_t wrapped in a blanket after all and Billy is willing to give him points for that. What Hoff hauls out of the Mustang_s trunk is a tartan golf bag with four club heads sticking out. They gleam in the day_s fading light. Billy takes the bag and puts it in his own trunk. _Anything else?_ Hoff shuffles his tasseled loafers. Then he says, _Maybe, yeah. Can we talk for a minute?_ Because it might be prudent to know what_s on Hoff_s mind, Billy opens the passenger door of the Toyota and gestures for Hoff to get in. Hoff does. Billy goes around and sits behind the wheel. _I just want to ask you to tell Nick that I_m okay. Can you do that?_ _Okay about what?_ _About everything. That._ He hoists a thumb behind him, meaning the golf bag in the trunk. _Just make sure he knows I_m a stand-up guy._ You_ve seen too many movies, Billy thinks. _Tell him it_s all good. Some of the people I owe money to are happy. Once you do your job, they_ll all be happy. Tell him we all part friends and everybody goes their way. If I_m ever asked, I know nothing about nothing. You_re just some writer I rented space to in one of my buildings._ No, Billy thinks, you didn_t rent space to me, you rented it to my agent, and George Russo is actually Giorgio Piglielli, aka Georgie Pigs, a known associate of Nikolai Majarian. You_re the link and you know it, which is why we_re having this conversation. You still think you can probably skate after the deal goes down. You have a right to think that, I guess, because skating is what you do. Trouble is, I don_t think you could skate far after ten hours in an interrogation room with cops tag-teaming you. Maybe not even five, if they dangled a deal in front of you. I think you_d crack like an egg. _Listen a minute._ Billy tries to sound kind, but hopefully in a straight-from-the-shoulder way: just two guys in a Toyota having a no-bullshit talk. Is it really the job of Billy Summers to keep this man-shaped annoyance in line? Wasn_t he just supposed to be the mechanic, the one who can disappear like Houdini after the deal is done? That was always the deal before, but for two million _ Meanwhile, Hoff is looking at him eagerly. Needing that reassurance, that soothing syrup. It should have been George giving it, George is good at this stuff, but Georgie Pigs isn_t here. _I know this isn_t your usual thing__ _No! It_s not!_ __and I know you_re nervous, but this isn_t a movie star or a politician or the Pope of Rome we_re talking about. This is a bad guy._ Like you, Hoff_s face says, and why not? That Billy won a pink flamingo for a cute little girl with ribbons in her hair doesn_t matter. It_s not what they call an extenuating circumstance. Billy turns to face the other man squarely. _Ken, I need to ask you something. Don_t take it personally._ _Okay, sure._ _You_re not wearing a wire or anything, are you?_ Hoff_s shocked expression is all the answer Billy needs, and he cuts the man_s confused gabble of protests short. _Okay, fine, I believe you. I just had to ask. Now listen up. Nobody is going to set up a task force on this one. There_s not going to be a big investigation. They_ll ask you a few questions, they_ll look for my agent and find out he_s a ghost who fooled you with some good papers, and that will be it._ Balls it will. _Do you know what they_ll say? Not for the newspapers or TV, but among themselves?_ Ken Hoff shakes his head. His eyes never leave Billy_s. _They_ll say it was a gang killing or a revenge thing and whoever did it saved the city the cost of a trial. They_ll look for me, they won_t find me, and the case will go in the open-unsolved file. They_ll say good riddance to bad rubbish. Got it?_ _Well, when you put it that way __ _I do. I do put it that way. Now go home. Let me take care of the rest._ Ken Hoff suddenly moves toward him, and for a moment Billy thinks the man is going to slug him. Instead, Hoff gives him a hug. He looks better tonight, but his breath tells a different story. It doesn_t stink of booze, but it stinks. Billy suffers the hug, bad breath and all. He even hugs back a little. Then he tells Hoff to go on, for God_s sake. Hoff gets out of the car, which is a relief (a huge relief), but then leans back in. He_s smiling, and this smile looks real, as if it comes from the man inside. Apparently there is one. _I know something about you._ _What_s that, Ken?_ _That text you sent me. You didn_t write garden center, small g and small c. You wrote capital G, capital C. And just now you didn_t say between themselves, you said among. You_re not as dumb as you like to make out, are you?_ _I_m smart enough to know that you_ll be fine if you keep it simple. You have no idea where I got the rifle and no clue what I was planning to do with it. End of story._ _Okay. One other thing. A heads-up, like. You know Cody?_ Sure he does. The town where they went to the little shitpot of a carnival. At first Billy thinks Hoff_s going to tell him that he was noticed there, because of his shooting. It_s a paranoid thought, but before a job paranoia is just the way to be. _Yes. It_s not far from where I_m living._ _Right. On the day this thing goes down, there_s going to be a diversion in Cody._ The only diversion Billy knows about are the flashpots, one in the alley behind the Sunspot Caf?, the other someplace close to the courthouse. Cody is miles from the courthouse, and Nick never would have told this moke about the flashpots, anyway. _What kind of diversion?_ _A fire. Maybe a warehouse, there are a lot of them out that way. It_ll happen before your guy _ your target _ gets to the courthouse. I don_t know how long before. I just thought you_d like to know, in case you get a bulletin on your phone or computer or whatever._ _Okay, thanks. And now it_s time for you to beat it._ Hoff gives him a thumbs-up and returns to his rich-boy car. Billy waits until he_s gone and then heads back to Evergreen Street, driving carefully, aware that he_s carrying a high-powered rifle in the trunk. A warehouse fire in Cody? Really? Does Nick know? Billy doesn_t think so, Nick would have told him about anything that might knock him off his rhythm. But Hoff knows. The question is whether or not he, Billy, tells Nick or Giorgio about this unexpected wrinkle. He thinks he_ll keep it to himself. Ponder it in his heart, like Mary pondering the birth of baby Jesus. He told Hoff to keep it simple. Except how simple can you keep it when, after three or four hours in that little interrogation room, the cops start asking you how you paid off all the creditors who were baying at your heels? By then they_d be calling him Ken instead of Mr Hoff, because that_s what they do when they smell blood. Where did the money come from, Ken? Did a rich uncle die, Ken? There_s still time to get out from under this. Is there something you_d like to tell us, Ken? Ken? Billy finds himself wondering about the golf bag and the clubs that are inside it along with the gun. Is it Hoff_s bag? If it is, has he thought to wipe the club heads, in case his fingerprints are on them? Better not to think about it. Hoff has made his bed. But isn_t that also true of Billy? He keeps thinking about Nick_s escape plan. It_s too good to be true, which is why Billy decided not to use it, and without letting Nick know. Because, hey _ if you_re going to get rid of the guy who brokered the deal and supplied the gun, why not get rid of the man who used the gun? Billy doesn_t want to believe that Nick would do that, but he recognizes one incontrovertible fact: not wanting to believe stuff is how Ken Hoff got into a situation he_s almost certainly never going to get out of. And whose idea was a warehouse fire in Cody on the day of the assassination? Not Nick_s, not Hoff_s. So who? It_s all worrisome, but as he pulls into his driveway, he sees one thing that_s good: his lawn looks terrific. 6 Through most of August Billy slept well. He drifted off to sleep thinking of nothing except what he would write the following day. There were only a few dreams of Fallujah and the houses with the green garbage bags fluttering from the palm trees in their courtyards. (How had they gotten up there? Why were they up there?) It was no longer his story, it was Benjy_s story now. Those two things had begun to drift apart, and that was all right. He had once watched an interview with Tim O_Brien on YouTube, O_Brien talking about The Things They Carried. He said fiction wasn_t the truth, it was the way to the truth, and Billy can now understand that. Especially when it came to writing about war, and wasn_t that what his story was mostly about? Kissing in that ruined Mercedes with Robin Maguire, aka Ronnie Givens, had only been a truce. Most of the rest was fighting. Tonight, with summer past and autumn on the come, he lies awake, troubled. Not by the gun in the golf bag. He_s thinking about the job he_s agreed to do with the gun. As a rule he never goes further than the two basics: taking the shot and getting out of Dodge. This time it_s different, and not just because it_s the last time he plans to take a life for pay. It_s different because it has a smell, the way Hoff_s breath had a smell when he snared Billy in that clumsy and unexpected embrace. Somebody got in touch with Hoff, he thinks, then realizes that_s not so. Nobody got in touch with Hoff, because Hoff is a nobody. He may think he_s a somebody, with his real estate developments and his movie theaters and his red Mustang convertible, but he_s just a big fish in a small pond, and not really that big, either. And this is a big deal. Lots of people are getting paid. Hoff himself, for one. Some of his debts are paid already, and he seems to think all of them will be cleared after Joel Allen goes down. Then there_s Nick, and the troops Nick has fielded for this op. They are not squad strength, but almost. And maybe it is a squad. There could be more Nick hasn_t told him about. Nobody got in touch with Hoff. Somebody got in touch with Nick, and told him to bring Hoff on board. Billy remembers thinking, the first time he met with Hoff at the Sunspot Caf?, that Nick and Hoff must be affiliated. Now he_s one step from being positive that_s not true. Hoff wanted a casino license but didn_t get one. Would that have happened if he were tight with Nick, who knows how to finagle such things? A casino was a license to print money, after all, and Hoff needs money. Is the somebody behind this the same somebody who gave Hoff a heads-up about that putative warehouse fire in Cody? Maybe. Probably. And consider Joel Allen, now incarcerated in Los Angeles. He_s in protective custody, presumably as snug as a bug in a rug. He has a lawyer fighting extradition. Why, when Allen must know he_ll be shipped back here eventually? It_s not because the food is better in LA County. Is he buying time? Trying to make a deal with the somebody who set all this mishegas in motion, maybe using his lawyer as the go-between? The somebody must know Allen will be sent back here eventually, and when he gets here, Billy Summers will put him down before he can trade what he knows. The somebody must know there_s a risk Allen has an insurance policy _ pictures, recordings, maybe a written confession to something (Billy can_t imagine what). Only the somebody must feel the risk has to be taken, and that it_s an acceptable one. The somebody could be right. Probably is. Guys like Allen don_t take out insurance policies; guys like Allen feel invulnerable. He may be good at the paid hits, but the crimes that have gotten him in his current barrel of shit were crimes of impulse. Besides, Mr Somebody may feel he has no choice. Whatever the secret is, it_s bad. Allen can_t be allowed to find himself standing trial in a death penalty state. Not with something hot he can trade. Billy starts to drift into sleep. Before he goes under his last thought is of Monopoly, about how you try to stop the slide into bankruptcy by selling your properties one by one. It rarely works. 7 As he_s getting into his car the next morning, Corrie Ackerman cuts across her lawn and his. She_s got a brown bag, and something inside it smells delicious. _I made cranberry muffins. Shan and Derek both get hot lunch at school, but they like a little something extra. I had these two left over. They_re for you._ _That_s really nice,_ he says, taking the bag. _Are you sure you don_t want to save at least one of them for Jamal when he comes home?_ _I did put one by for him, but I want you to eat both of these, you hear?_ _I think I can carry out that mission,_ Billy says, smiling. _You_ve lost weight._ She pauses. _You_re okay, right?_ Billy looks down at himself, surprised. Has he lost weight? It seems he has. A hole in his belt that used to go unused is now in service. Then he looks back at her. _I_m fine, Corrie._ _You look healthy enough, but that isn_t what I meant. Or not all I meant. Is your book going okay?_ _Gangbusters._ _Then maybe you just need to eat more. Healthy stuff. Greens and yellow vegetables, not just take-out pizza and Taco Bell. In the long run, bachelor food is worse than booze. You come to dinner tonight. Six o_clock. I_m making shepherd_s pie. I load in the carrots and peas._ _That sounds good,_ Billy says. _As long as I_m not putting you out._ _You_re not, and I need to say thank you. You have been very good to my kids. Shanice_s crush on you got even bigger when you won her that flamingo._ She lowers her voice, as if imparting a secret. _She changed its name from Frankie to Dave._ As he drives toward downtown, Billy thinks of Shan changing her flamingo_s name and feels happy because she did that and shame because the name is, after all, a lie. 8 That afternoon he leaves Gerard Tower and strolls a couple of blocks toward Pearson Street. He stops briefly to look into a narrow alley where there are a couple of dumpsters. He thinks it will do. He U-turns to the parking garage. Later, on his way back to Midwood, he stops at the Walmart. Since coming to Midwood, he_s always stopping here, it seems. As he stands in line at the checkout with his shopping basket, he thinks again about packing this job in. Just disappearing. Only Nick would come after him, and not just looking for a refund of the considerable sum that_s already been paid on account. Billy is good at disappearing, but Nick wouldn_t stop hunting. He_d start by sending a hardball to question Bucky Hanson, and that questioning would be rough, because Nick would figure if anyone had a line on Billy Summers_s whereabouts, it would be his broker in New York. Bucky might end up without fingernails. He might end up dead. He deserves neither. Nick would also send guys, probably Frankie Elvis and Paul Logan, to the neighborhood. The Fazios and the Raglands would be questioned. So would Jamal and Corrie. Maybe the kids? That was unlikely, grown men talking to kids attracted unwanted attention, but just the thought of those two questioning Shan and Derek makes him queasy. There are two other things. He has never run out on a job, that_s number one. Joel Allen has it coming, that_s number two. He_s a bad person. _Sir? You_re next._ Billy comes back to the Walmart checkout lane. _Sorry, I was woolgathering._ _No worries, I do it all the time,_ the checkout girl says. He empties his carry-basket. There are bright green golf head covers with things like POW! and WHAM! printed on them, a gun cleaning kit, a set of wooden kitchen spoons, a big red bow with HAPPY BIRTHDAY on it in glitter, a light jacket with the Rolling Stones logo on the back, and a child_s lunchbox. The checkout girl beeps the lunchbox last, then holds it up for a better look. _Sailor Moon! Some little girl is going to love this!_ Shan Ackerman would love it, Billy thinks, but it_s not for her. In a better world it would be. 9 That night, after dinner with the Ackermans (Corrie_s shepherd_s pie is delicious), he goes down to his basement rumpus room and slides the gun out of the golf bag. It_s an M24, as specified, and it looks okay. He breaks it down, laying the pieces out on the Ping-Pong table, and cleans each one, over five dozen in all. He finds the telescopic sight in one of the golf bag_s two zipper pockets. In the other pocket is a magazine, which holds five rounds of ammunition: Sierra MatchKing Hollow Point Boat Tails. He will only need one. 10 When he enters the Gerard Tower lobby the next morning at quarter to ten, the strap of the golf bag is over his left shoulder. He has come in purposely late so that most of the business-gerbils will be running on their wheels. Irv Dean, the elderly security guy, looks up from his magazine _ today it_s Motor Trend _ and gives him a grin. _Goin on a golf adventure, Dave? Oh for the life of a writer!_ _Not me,_ Billy says. _I think it_s the most boring game in the universe. These are for my agent._ He shifts the bag so Irv can see the big bow on the side, with its glittery letters. It_s over the side pocket that now holds a loaded magazine instead of a couple of dozen tees. _Well that_s pretty damn nice of you. Expensive present!_ _He_s done a lot for me._ _Uh-huh, I hear that. Only Mr Russo doesn_t exactly look cut out for the golf course._ Irv holds his hands out in front of him, indicating Giorgio_s enormous front porch. Billy is ready for this. _Yeah, he_d probably drop dead of a heart attack by the third hole if he was walking, but he_s got a custom golf cart. He told me he learned the game in college, when he was a lot slimmer. And you know what, the one time he talked me into going out on the course with him, he put a drive on that ball you wouldn_t believe._ Irv gets up and for a cold moment Billy thinks the old guy_s cop reflexes have fired one last time and he means to inspect the clubs, which would save Joel Allen_s life and maybe end Billy_s. Instead he turns sideways and claps both hands to his own not inconsiderable hindquarters. _This is where the power comes from._ Irv smacks himself again for emphasis. _Right here. You ask any NFL lineman or home run hitter. Ask Jos? Altuve. Five-six, but he_s got an ass like a brick._ _That must be it. George sure does have one hell of a boot._ Billy straightens one of the green club covers. _Irv, you have a good day._ _You do the same. Hey, when_s his birthday? I_ll get him a card or something._ _Next week, but he may not be here. He_s out on the west coast._ _Palm trees and pretty girls by the swimming pool,_ Irv says, sitting down. _Nice. You staying late tonight?_ _Don_t know. Have to see how it goes._ _Oh for the life of a writer,_ Irv says again, and opens his magazine. 11 In his office, Billy pulls off one of the green club covers _ it_s the one that says SLAM! Sticking out of the Remington_s barrel is a curtain rod he hacksawed to the right length. Taped to the end of the rod is the bowl of a wooden serving spoon. With the green club cover snugged down over it, it looks enough like the head of a golf club to be one. He takes out the stock, barrel, and bolt of the 700. Then he pushes two of the clubs aside so he can remove the lunchbox, which is wrapped in a sweater to muffle any clinks and clunks. Inside are the smaller components _ bolt plug, firing pin, ejector pin, floor-plate latch, all the rest. He puts the disassembled gun, plus the five-shot magazine, the Leupold scope, and a glass cutter, in the overhead cabinet between the office and the little kitchenette. He locks it and puts the key in his pocket. He doesn_t even try to write. Writing is done until this shit-show has been put to bed. He pushes aside the MacBook on which he_s writing his story and opens his own. He types in the password, just a jumble of numbers and letters he_s memorized (there_s no giveaway sticky note hidden somewhere with the password written on it), and opens a file titled THE GAY BLADE. Said gay blade being Colin White of Business Solutions, of course. Listed there are ten flamboyant outfits Billy has observed Colin wearing to work. There_s no way of predicting which one Colin will be wearing on the day Joel Allen is delivered to the courthouse, and Billy has decided it doesn_t matter. Not just because people believe their eyes even when their eyes are telling lies, but because it has to be the parachute pants. Sometimes Colin tops them with a wide-shouldered flower power shirt, sometimes with a tee that says QUEERS FOR TRUMP, sometimes with one of his many band shirts. It doesn_t matter because the Colin people see will be wearing a jacket on top with the Rolling Stones lips logo on the back. He_s never seen Colin in a jacket of any kind, not during the hot summer just past, but such a garment is certainly in his wheelhouse. And if the day of the shooting is hot, as fall weather tends to be here, the jacket will still be all right. It_s a fashion statement. When Nick_s men in the fake DPW truck see Billy running past without stopping to get in, they won_t think Billy Summers is taking off; they_ll get a glimpse of the parachute pants and the shoulder-length black hair and think There goes that fag in one of his flashy outfits, running for the hills. He hopes. Still using his own laptop, Billy goes shopping on Amazon, specifying next-day delivery.

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  • 200       .  .. (2014, 336 + mp3) 200 2014,

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