Conner Samson bounced a check for a dollar draft in Salty's Saloon and decided it was time to get serious about looking for work.
Sid, the eternally bald and surly bartender, set the draft beer at Conner's elbow and handed him the phone from behind the bar. Sid took Conner's check and frowned at it before crumpling it into a tight wad and tossing it over his shoulder. He wiped the length of the bar with an old rag, muttering in his amiable cranky way.
Conner looked up again at the TV hanging over the bar to see if the nightmare were true. Maybe the whole thing had been a bad hallucination. The score: Atlanta 6, St. Louis 7, and Chip Carey telling everyone about the outfielder's error, which had cost Conner five hundred bucks.
Salty's saloon was old and dark and filled with quiet regulars who wanted to watch sports, nurse drinks, and be left alone. Conner's kind of place. Salty's had been through a few transformations, a disco, a Chinese takeout place, a pool hall. A wooden cricket bat still hung on the wall from the brief period Salty's had masqueraded as an English pub. Conner liked the current incarnation. Neon beer signs, a jukebox nobody played, a TV with a ball game always on, and cheap suds. And Sid. A crusty, retired Marine, but a good guy who knew the names and life stories of all his regulars.
Sid glanced at the television, shook his head. "You got the worst luck of anybody I've ever known." He was still shaking his head as he stacked clean glasses behind the bar.
Conner drank his beer and looked at the phone.
He didn't want to make the calls yet, so he stalled, paged through the Wall Street Journal. DesertTech was up three points. A friend of a pal of a guy somebody knew had suggested the stock a week ago. Conner kept tabs. The stock was going up and up. That would have been great, except Conner hadn't bought any. He'd been trying to put some bets together, get a stake so he could buy a hundred shares. Then the stupid fucking Atlanta Braves . . .
"I guess you ain't a millionaire yet," Sid said.
"Would I be in this dump if I were a millionaire?"
"Yeah, I sorta think you would," Sid said. "My sister owns an alpaca farm in California. Says it's the latest thing."
"They always need guys on the offshore oil rigs."
"I want my money to work for me. Not the other way around."
"Yeah, but it takes money to make money."
"That's clever," Conner said. "I'm going write that down."
"Oh, blow it out your ass."
Conner couldn't stall anymore. He dialed Harvey Sterling at Sterling's Bail Bonds. Harvey sometimes paid well whenever he sent one of his guys to chase down a skip. Conner didn't consider himself a tough guy or anything like that, but he was tall and had some shoulders, and sometimes just the sight of a big guy standing there would keep somebody from running or putting up a fight. Harvey didn't have any work for him. Conner left his number in case anything changed.
Next, Conner dialed Ed Odeski at Gulf Coast Collections. He really didn't want to, but repossessing cars for Odeski was usually worth a couple of bucks. Last time, Conner had to hot-wire a Jaguar. The delinquent owner had caught him in the middle of the job. He hit Conner, and it hurt a lot. Conner hit him back a few times, but it didn't seem to bother the guy. They went on like that for a little while. By the end, Conner had managed to get away with the car. What he got paid for the repo almost covered the cost of his stitches.
"Gulf Coast Collections," said the secretary.
"Tell Ed it's Conner Samson."
Ed's gutter ball voice came on the line. "You must need work, Samson."
"What? A guy can't call up an old buddy?"
"Okay, so I need work."
"Ain't got none."
"Awwwwwww, come on." Sometimes just being pathetic was the best way to get a job out of Ed. He liked to save most of his repo work for a squat little hunk of meat he called his kid brother. "I'm not picky here, buddy. I just need some folding money."
"No. You always bust up the cars. Bring them back all banged." He was from Albania or Lithuania or some kind of ania. Conner always forgot where, but Odeski's accent was thick with spit.
"It was only that one time," Conner said.
"All headlights smashed real good."
"The guy had a tire iron. He was trying to cave in my skull."
"So you hit him with car."
"The light was green."
"Then you back over him," Ed said. "Smash up taillights and bend the bumper."
"I was going back to see if he was okay. It wasn't my fault, man."
Ed sighed, the sound of a hippo sitting on a beach ball. "You wait. Stay on phone."
Conner waited again, wished for the tenth time he had a cell phone.
Sid brought another draft. Conner waved the checkbook, arched his eyebrows into a question.
"Yeah, right," Sid said. "Don't make me laugh."
Conner mouthed "thanks" at him.
Ed came back on the line. "Okay, I got something. Maybe good for you. You got pencil?"
Conner reached over the bar for a pen, spread a napkin to write on. "Go ahead."
Odeski told him a phone number. "This man might have work for you, Samson. You call. His name is Derrick James. Okay. You call. Okay?"
"You call," Ed said. "Tell him my name. Ed Odeski."
"I'll tell him," Conner said. "Thanks, Ed."
"Is nothing." He hung up.
Conner called Derrick James next. He had a business in Mobile, boats and marine supplies, etc. James said to drive out and see him the sooner the better.
Conner said he was on his way.
James Boat & Nautical Supply was tucked away at the grimy end of the industrial shipyards in Mobile. Traffic was light, and Conner made the trip on I-10 over the Bay Bridge in just under an hour. James had an office in back of the big, warehouse-size shop. The girl behind the counter directed Conner down an aisle of big nets and winch equipment. He found the door all the way back and knocked.
Conner went in.
"You must be Samson," he said.
"Derrick James." They shook hands, and James motioned Conner to a chair across his sad little desk. The office on the whole looked dark and uninteresting, a five-hundred-year-old computer buzzing its tale of obsolescence. A nautical chart of the Gulf Coast on the wall behind him, yellowing at the edges.
James was so tan and crusty, his face looked like a catcher's mitt. Well-groomed salt-and-pepper hair. Big, white horse teeth. He was trim, tall, wore khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt with too many buttons undone. He sported a nifty shark-tooth necklace. Somehow, he was making believe he wasn't at the tail end of his forties, maybe fifty.
Conner became aware he might be looking at himself in twenty years. Conner was just as tall, not quite as tan but almost. He'd picked a few strands of premature gray out of his black hair just two days ago. He ran a hand along his angular jaw and frowned. James had shaved more recently than he had.
"I know Ed Odeski pretty well," James said. "I trust his judgment." He opened his top desk drawer and fished out a manila folder. "He said you were the man for the job."
"I'm your man."
James opened the folder and slid a color picture of a sailboat across his desk. It wasn't a real picture. Printed on computer paper, but it was clear, and Conner could see the boat fine. A nice sloop, maybe five years old, thirty-six feet, one mast and a spinnaker. Nice lines. An athletic blonde sat in the cockpit and waved, a bright and happy Sunday sailor. She had nice lines too. Conner tossed the picture back on the desk.
"That's the Electric Jenny," James said. "Good-looking vessel, huh?"
Conner agreed she was a good-looking vessel.
"And she's got the works," he said. "New radar, GPS, depth finders. Hell, she's even got that new state-of-the-art air-conditioning. You know how hard it is to keep a boat's air-conditioning up and running with the salt air and everything?"
"Sleeps seven, no problem."
"Nice." Get on with it.
He shuffled papers again, came out with a statement, columns of numbers. "I held the note on fifty-eight thousand dollars. He bought the Jenny in March, made five payments but missed his last one August first."
"He's only late on one payment?"
James said, "I took the boat as collateral on a shitload of equipment for some guys who were starting a marina. They went belly-up, and I got stuck with her. I was glad to hold the note as long as somebody was making payments. But I ain't the Federal Reserve. I want my money on time. I got my own bills."
James shoved a stack of papers to one side, revealing an expensive-looking cherrywood humidor. He flipped it open and grabbed a cigar. A Macanudo. He bit off the end and spit it in the trash can, stuck the cigar into his mouth without removing the band. He lit it with a disposable lighter. Conner raised an eyebrow.
James nudged the humidor toward Conner. "Want one?"
"Please." Conner plucked one out of the humidor between thumb and forefinger, bit the end, clamped the cigar gently between teeth. James lit it, and Conner puffed it to life. Oh, baby. Conner's budget had him on Swisher Sweets, the Pabst Blue Ribbon of cigars.
"Thanks," Conner said, and meant it.
James waved away the gratitude. "I probably wouldn't be so hot to sic a repo man on the guy, but circumstances make me think we need to act fast."
"How so?" Puff-puff.
"Believe you me, I'd much rather have Folger just pay on time than go through the hassle of taking the boat back. So I had my girl out front call him. A friendly reminder."
Tyranny Jones didn't answer the door in a bikini. She wore jeans, sneakers, one of her husband's oversized T-shirts smeared with paint. She had another very picturesque smudge of bright red across the bridge of her nose. Conner took her face in his hands, drew a thumb down the length of her slightly too-pointed nose, and showed her the paint.
She pulled away, laughing gently. "I've been in the studio."
She smiled, took him by the hand, and led him through the house and into the breakfast nook just off the kitchen. She called it her studio, and Conner indulged her by not pointing out it was really just a little patch of tile floor surrounded by big bay windows. She had a huge canvas on the easel, a palette of paints to the side.
Tyranny's current project was a black-red swirl of heavily textured paint with flecks of dark green. It looked more like a diaper load than art. Conner didn't tell her this.
What he said was "nice."
She snorted. "You're a terrible liar, but I love you."
It was the most natural thing in the world to say. I love you.
Maybe that's why the room turned real quiet all of a sudden. Her hand was still on his. He squeezed, and she squeezed back. The afternoon sun drifted in through the bay windows, washed them in dusty warmth. She leaned into him, bodies touching at the hips.
Conner's breath came quick and shallow, heart fluttering.
Tyranny and Conner had taken a long strange ride together to get to this point. He'd met her during his four-semester attempt at college before he'd blown his baseball scholarship. They'd met in an introductory art class. She was the star pupil. He just wanted to kill an elective. They'd liked each other immediately, but she'd had a boyfriend, some long-haired kid who splashed artistic angst all over himself like it was cheap aftershave. By the time she'd ditched him,
Conner was involved with an uncomplicated cover-girl blonde whose sole mission in life seemed to be climbing on top of him. Tyranny and he remained friends.
As a matter of fact, they were such good friends that they couldn't un-friend themselves when they were finally single at the same time. They both looked at each other with a mysterious gleam in their eyes, but maybe nobody was brave enough to take that next step.
And maybe another reason they never got together was the fact that they were so obviously wrong for each other, at least, that was the way it seemed on the surface. He was a jock. She hung with the art crowd. But it was that difference that kept Conner interested.
Tyranny wasn't like the sorority bubbleheads that seemed to find their way so easily into Conner's bed. Tyranny could talk for hours without ever resorting to the subject of her hair or nails or shoes. She intrigued him, and maybe the feeling was mutual, and it wasn't anything he could quite put his finger on, but there was a strange and powerful chemistry whenever they were together. The fact that she was somehow attracted to him, and that it had nothing to do with his tan or his muscles or his straight white teeth, simultaneously excited and worried him.
Tyranny had been accepted to the grad program, and he'd long flunked out to pursue half-assed, get-rich-quick schemes full-time when Professor Dan proposed marriage. Conner hadn't even realized
Tyranny was seeing anyone. I guess it isn't good policy to advertise you're humping one of your teachers. If it had been a movie, he'd have walked out.
Their friendship cooled after that. Conner got a wedding invitation in the mail and conveniently misplaced it. He supposed it was unreasonable to feel hurt. Being reasonable wasn't one of his hobbies.
Then one long bourbon night, Tyranny called and said it had been a long time, and how had he been, and what had he been doing with himself, and wasn't it silly that they hadn't stayed in touch, and
Professor Dan was at a conference in Baltimore, and why didn't he drop in for a visit to catch up on old times?
So Conner had gunned the Plymouth through the pouring rain and three red lights to see her again. She let him in, offered a towel and a drink, and spilled her story. Professor Dan had been good to her, but she'd been getting the itchy, crowded, uncomfortable feeling that the whole thing had been a mistake. Her schoolgirl crush on the older, worldly teacher was perhaps a novelty that wasn't novel anymore.
And so she sat closer, played with Conner's hair. Their lips met, hands found one another. Shirt buttons somehow got themselves unbuttoned. And then suddenly Tyranny panicked or freaked out or God knows what. She said it was all wrong and that he was too important for such a stupid fling.
Conner had insisted he wasn't very important at all, and look, he already had his pants down. No no no no, it was all wrong and
Tyranny insisted he leave and she was so sorry but he'd surely understand that this was the right thing to do in the long run.
He'd gone back the next day to talk it out. Something had changed. Of course she wanted Conner, but it just wasn't right. From there, things proceeded in the most frustrating manner. She found excuses to call or drop by his apartment. She insisted they could only be friends. Close and special friends, but no more. Conner was confused, sick at his stomach. Was this a love affair or not?
Now, in the warm glow of her breakfast nook, she melted into him. Her arms slipped around his waist. She tilted her head up, offered her lips. Conner bent and accepted. She undid two of his shirt buttons, her hands darting inside, roaming his chest and belly. He kissed her hard.
She unzipped his pants, pulled him out of his boxers, and pumped. Conner moaned and kissed. His hands found the curve of her butt. She pulled away, looked him in the eyes. A wicked smile.
She reached for the paint palette, scooped an oily handful of bright blue paint, and grabbed Conner's length with it. He started to object, but the gliding friction dissuaded him. Then he took a glob of paint in each hand, found passage beneath Tyranny's T-shirt. He ran oily hands over her small, pert breasts. The nipples hardened, the paint oozing between his fingers. Conner closed his eyes, leaned his head back as Tyranny's fist did its work.
"Oh, my God." She let go of him, grabbed a roll of paper towels.
"What's wrong?" Conner was shamefully aware of the urgency in his voice.
"Yes we can."
Tyranny glanced at the oversized wall clock. "I can't believe the time." She wiped her hands on the paper towels and offered Conner the roll. "Dan will be home any minute!"
And here it was, the bad sequel to the bad movie, but he still never walked out. It was goddamn frustrating.
He took the paper towels, did a sloppy job wiping the paint off his pecker, and zipped up.
"I'll call you. I promise," she said as she pushed him out the door.
• • •
Fat Otis wasn't parked in front of the apartment anymore, so Conner went inside and stripped off his clothes. He made the shower hot even though he needed it cold. Conner lathered his dick, wanting to wash off the paint. He couldn't get Tyranny out of his head, so he soaped up good and finished the job she'd started. Relief. Conner knew it was only temporary. He finished showering and walked into the bedroom, drying himself.
He thought he heard some movement in the kitchen and froze.
What a burglar might want in his shithole apartment Conner couldn't guess. He'd pawned anything worth more than twenty bucks except for his pistol, unloaded, somewhere in the distant reaches of his closet.
It wasn't a burglar.
Fat Otis walked into Conner's bedroom, a can of Coors in each hand. "Hey, man, how come you always got this shitty, watered down beer?" Otis's voice was high and Southern, a cross between Mike Tyson and Colonel Sanders. "You should once in a while treat yourself to— Hey, why's your dick blue?"
Conner pulled the towel around himself. "It's a long story. Can I get a minute here please?"
"No problem, man." He handed Conner one of the beers and left the room.
Conner pulled on jeans and shrugged into a loose Hawaiian shirt with a gaudy palm tree pattern. He shuffled barefoot into the kitchen.
Fat Otis dwarfed the kitchen table. He was a giant, sitting hunched over a box of chicken tenders, dipping them in barbecue sauce and packing them into his mouth like a machine. Conner sat across from him and opened a beer. It went down good and wet.
Fat Otis paused in his systematic demolition of the chicken to lick the sauce off his fingers and consult a small, spiral notepad he carried in his shirt pocket. "You owe Rocky Big 250 dollars."
"I thought it was five hundred."
He shook his head. "You got lucky. The Phillies."
It wasn't all bad news then. Conner sighed, rose from the table, and went into the bedroom. When he returned, he dropped three
Franklins in front of Otis, who made them disappear into his pocket and came back with two twenties and a ten. He shook his empty beer can at Conner, raised his eyebrows.
"Yeah, yeah." Conner fetched two more from the fridge and set one in front of the giant.
Conner never let his gambling get to the point where Otis would be forced to snap a few of his little white-boy bones. Conner vividly remembered being a week late paying off a hundred-dollar bet two years ago. It was the first time he didn't have the money to pay up after losing. And so it was also the first time one of Rocky Big's leg-breakers had shown up at Conner's door. But Conner was surprised to see his old buddy Fat Otis.
Conner and Otis had been on their high school baseball team together.
Otis had been the starting catcher, and with his wide body, he did a good job of blocking home plate. But after graduation, they'd taken different paths. Conner's grades were average at best, but he'd managed to squeak out a baseball scholarship to the local university. Otis had been a decent catcher, but he was too big to run the bases very fast. His career as an athlete was over, and he'd ended up working as one of Rocky's trusted henchmen.
Conner and Otis had talked over old times, remembered other buddies from the team, and Otis had looked sheepish when he told
Conner he'd have to pay up "or else." It was obvious Fat Otis wasn't eager to bust up his old teammate. So Otis had given Conner an extra week to pay. They'd maintained an odd friendship ever since.
Otis finished his nuggets and wiped his hands on his pants. "Give up the gambling, Conner-man. You're no good at it."
"If I quit everything I was no good at, I wouldn't exist."
"You should come work for Rocky." He looked around the apartment. "Man, you live like shit."
"It's the maid's year off." There were still dishes in the sink from the Reagan administration.
"You need a steady paycheck," Otis said. "Maybe I can get you in with Rocky."
"No thanks." Conner wasn't sure he needed those kinds of favors.
"As a matter of fact, I got a job just this morning."
"Congratulations. Gonna steal a Rolls-Royce?"
"No. A boat."
He laughed. "This is the Gulf Coast, Conner-man. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a boat. Needle in a fucking haystack."
"This one's a thirty-six-footer. The Electric Jenny."
"If I see it, I'll call you."
This reminded Conner he needed something.
"Otis, do you have a pair of good binoculars in the store?"
"Let's take a look."
Conner stepped into his sandals, and they took their beers outside. The "store" was the trunk of Otis's Lincoln. Otis handled select surplus items for a small commission. He opened the trunk, revealing the big, illegal, portable Wal-Mart of hot stuff: cameras, CD players, cell phones, and even a laptop computer. Everything was neatly arranged in wooden dividers in order to maximize the trunk's space. Otis slid one of the trays back, exposing a selection of handguns.
"You need one of these." Otis picked out a formidable silver automatic and held it up for Conner's inspection. "Nine millimeter. Twelve in the clip plus one in the chamber. When you're up against the shit, this is the kind of heat that can get your ass out of the soup."
"I don't need a gun, and I've never heard such a clusterfuck of metaphors."
"I'm not kidding, man," Otis said. "Guy in your line of work needs to watch his back."
"I don't have a line of work, and I already have a gun."
"The antique? Hell."
Otis had a point. The Webley was vintage 1917. Conner's great uncle Warren had given it to him before he died, claimed it had seen action in the Black Forest. Maybe. Who could say? Originally, it had fired great big .455 caliber shells, but the ammo was hard to get. Some clever monkey handy with tools had filed the gun so it could fire standard .45 dumdums. Conner had to use special metal clips to hold in the shells. It was bulky, awkward, ugly, and huge. Sort of like Uncle Warren himself. Still, it was a solid gun in good shape.
But that wasn't really the point. Conner had never carried a gun, and didn't plan to. Not even when doing a repo in a really rotten gang neighborhood.
It wasn't that he had an ethical problem with guns. If some guy starts shooting at me, I'm all for shooting back. No, not an ethical problem. It was the klutz factor that worried him. When Conner Samson held a firearm, the safest place to stand was stock-still right in front of him. He was a lot more likely to shoot himself in the ass.
"Or maybe this." Otis showed Conner a big silver belt buckle like a rodeo cowboy might wear. It was gaudy and enormous.
"I've seen smaller satellite dishes."
Otis said, "It's sneaky like. Ever see one of them canes that's got the sword inside? Same kind of deal." Otis thumbed a hidden latch, and the front of the belt buckle sprung open. Inside was a singleshot derringer. "Thirty-two caliber. Take some motherfucker by complete surprise."
"No guns," Conner said. "Let's see the binoculars."
"Didn't you used to have binoculars?"
Otis slid the gun drawer back and picked out a new pair of binoculars, handed them to Conner. They were mid-size. Conner looked through them, and they brought the streetlight at the far end of the complex up close and clear.
Otis scratched his belly. "They run 180 in the store."
"How much do they run from the back of a Lincoln?"
"Man, you can see flies fuck on the moon with these."
"How about a discount for your old buddy Conner?"
Otis smiled. "I'll knock off ten bucks if you tell me why your dick is blue."
Joellen Becker pushed paper into arbitrary piles, glanced at file folders, tapped at her computer, her brow furrowed as if deep in thought. She had one of those little square offices with glass walls, and to everyone else in the offices of Marvin & Strauss Insurance Company it looked like she was working had.
She was sneaking Little Debbie Swiss Rolls from her bottom desk drawer and playing Texas hold 'em poker online. She was up nine bucks.
Becker had trouble taking her job seriously. Just a few years ago, she'd been an elite member of a special ops unit for the National Security Agency. Highly trained in combat and investigations. Things had gone wrong. Mistakes were made. Jesus, you just shoot a few of the wrong people, and everyone goes apeshit.
Now she investigated claims for a second-rate insurance company.
How the mighty had fallen. It was only temporary, she told herself. Something to pay the bills until the big opportunity came along.
The phone rang just as a heart flush beat her two pair, and she was maybe a little too cranky when she answered. "Yeah?"
"May I speak to Joellen Becker please?" The voice was formal, crisp, just the hint of an accent.
"Speaking." She cradled the phone between chin and shoulder so she could continue typing at the keyboard. The computer dealt her a jack and a three. She'd stay in and get a look at the flop.
"Ms. Becker, my name is Billy Moto. I understand you are the investigator in charge of the Teddy Folger claim."
"The baseball card thing?" The computer dealt the flop, a queen, a six, and a ten. No help. She folded and logged off.
"Yes," Moto said. "A rare Joe DiMaggio card signed by the player, his wife at the time, Marilyn Monroe, and the film director Billy Wilder."
"We closed the file on that one," Joellen said.
"May I ask you a few questions about it please?"
"What the hell for?"
Moto cleared his throat. "My employer is most interested. I was hoping we could discuss the claim in detail. I would naturally compensate you for your time."
"Uh-huh. Who's your employer?"
She made a mental note of the name. "The card burned in a fire." Joellen absently twisted a lock of black hair as she spoke. "I'll tell you that for free. No compensation needed on that one, sport."
"So I've heard," Moto said. "Nevertheless."
"As you say, the file is closed," Moto said. "So it could not possibly be of any consequence for you to divulge to me the information in that file."
"Are you fat?"
A long pause. "What?"
"Are you fat or ugly?"
"What does that have to do with --- "
"I want you to buy me dinner, and I don't want to be seen in public with some toad."
"Buy you dinner?"
"I haven't been out in eight weeks. I'll bring a photocopy of everything in the Folger file, but you have to meet me in a restaurant. A nice one with cloth napkins."
Moto cleared his throat on the other end. "I'm authorized to compensate handsomely for your full cooperation and any information --- "
"Yeah, we'll get to all that over dinner. Be sure to wear a tie. And I want wine."
"Ms. Becker, this is a most peculiar conversation."
"You want to throw dancing into the bargain, sport? Keep talking."
"Your terms are acceptable."
"Damn right." She told him the time and place, then hung up.
Joellen bit her thumbnail a second, reviewed the Folger case in her mind. A lot of bullshit, kids' stuff, comic books and games and Star Trek crap. And this one crazy expensive Joe DiMaggio baseball card. The card's price tag had sent a red flag through the insurance company's hierarchy of pencil pushers, and Joellen had been dispatched to investigate. She'd had a few mild suspicions, but really she was always suspicious of everyone, so the feeling hadn't meant much. Anyway, a routine look-see had turned up zilch and there was a backlog of case files cluttering her desk. She knew she'd given the case a perfunctory effort at the time.
Now she was curious. She put on some coffee and pulled the Folger file. She meant to give it a close read before her meeting with Billy Moto.
The thought suddenly struck her she should have asked Moto about his teeth. Nothing was more off-putting than a mouth full of yellow, crooked teeth. Oh, well. Too late to worry about that now.
Teddy Folger wondered if anyone was still looking for him.
Probably not, he mused. He sat at the Pensacola Beach Resort Tiki Bar feeling pretty pleased with himself. His master plan was coming together nicely. Still, he looked over his shoulder now and then, half-expecting to see his wife.
The vile and vicious Mrs. Folger wanted Teddy's balls dipped in bronze and mounted on her mantel. That blood-sucking bitch can kiss my fat white ass. He was pretty sure she'd given up the chase, and anyway it wasn't like she could afford a private dick to come track him down. He'd cleaned out the account, left her high and fucking dry. Served her right. She'd blindsided him, no doubt. Little gold digger tricked him into popping for a marriage license, and in two seconds flat her legs slammed shut tighter than a clam and Teddy going bust paying for pedicures twice a week.
Teddy'd thrown the brakes on that shit. His master plan was now in full swing. He had the boat, the cash, and a ton of suntan lotion. His schemes hadn't all gone like clockwork. Not quite. The arson job hadn't produced the insurance payoff like he'd expected. No matter. He'd been trading online for a few years, and selling off all his stock would keep him liquid until he got his asking price for the Joe DiMaggio card. He'd tried to sell it on eBay but was dissatisfied with the bids. This card was his prized possession, and he wouldn't part with it lightly. But he'd made his start. The new Teddy Folger was headed for the Caribbean, and the whole world could just suck on that. His total and complete bliss lacked only one key ingredient.
The blond girl behind the bar eyed him from the taps at the far end. She wasn't in any hurry to come down to Teddy's stool. Considering the circumstances of their last meeting, Teddy wasn't surprised that Misty was a little skittish. Misty. What a perfect name.
And the Tiki Bar was the perfect place for Misty. All the girls wore bikinis. Misty was soft with big curves. Wonderful, golden-age-of-Hollywood starlet curves. None of this emaciated, toothpick, starving stick-girl bullshit that was on the covers of all the fashion magazines. Butter-silk hair, big wet red lips. Perfect skin. When Teddy had first plopped his ass on the stool and glimpsed her pulling drafts for the tourists, his big fat sappy heart skipped a beat. It was as if Marilyn had been reborn.
The magic and mystery wasn't quite there in Misty, the strange playful alchemy of seductress and innocent that flicked behind Marilyn's eyes, captured on thousands of feet of celluloid, was absent in Misty's face. Teddy had looked hard for it, had searched her eyes, hoping. Teddy was a sap, but he wasn't dumb. There was no reincarnation of Hollywood's favorite bombshell in Misty, but there were good legs and straight teeth and breasts that stood up for themselves. Her face glowed with youth and eagerness, and there was something pretty okay about that. A simpler Marilyn for more complicated times. And when she laughed --- not the fake laugh so the tourists would leave a bigger tip --- but a genuine laugh, head thrown back, eyes closed, Teddy could squint and almost see a starlet.
So there he'd been a month ago, slogging back Tecate with lime and waiting for the weekday crowd to thin, and he was drunk and wanted her and struck up a conversation with a pretty girl, which was maybe the bravest thing he'd ever done in his life. And they talked, and Misty told him how hard it was to be a student and that she was behind on every single one of her bills, Visa and MasterCard maxed to the limit and beyond. It was a good little sob story, made even better by the fact Teddy suspected most of it was true. Probably she'd only been fishing for a bigger tip. Teddy doubted she'd been ready for what he'd done next.
Teddy pulled a wad of cash from his front pocket, peeled off ten one-hundred-dollar bills, and spread them on the bar like he was dealing a hand of solitaire. Misty blinked at the bills, looked at Teddy. He told her she was about the greatest thing he'd laid eyes on in a long time and he knew she was a good girl and didn't mean any insult but he'd sure be happy to help her out if only she could help him out a little bit too, and after all Teddy was a man with a man's needs and what could be more human and kind than two people giving one another aid and comfort?
Teddy braced himself for a slap or a scream or a couple of big bouncers tossing him into the Gulf of Mexico. None of that happened.
Misty looked at the cash, looked at Teddy, nibbled her lower lip, and wrung her hands.
After shelling out a thousand dollars, Teddy found it odd how much he resented the twenty-nine bucks for the shabby room at the Dixie Winds Motel. Maybe he'd half expected her to ask him back to her place. The dim, dirty, anonymous motel room had almost ruined it. But then the grunting and sweating and heaving, and Teddy groped and thrust and howled and for a split second he'd touched Heaven and it had all been worth it.
All the following month he'd thought about her nearly every minute. It wasn't anything as good as love or as dangerous as obsession, but she lodged herself in his thoughts and he started imagining Misty at his side in the Caribbean, tanning on the deck of the Electric Jenny (he'd need to rename the vessel, he reminded himself ) with an umbrella drink, cruising the bright waters under the sun, the salt breezes kissing their skin. Yes, Misty completed the picture, a picture Teddy'd been forming in his mind for a long, long time. The new Teddy Folger.
The old Teddy Folger was a dud. A pale comic-book nerd. Teddy'd never had a bad life. Nobody had picked on him in high school. He was not totally out of touch with reality as were many of his peers, the folks who frequented the comic-book and sci-fi conventions. Teddy was an adult. Most of the other people he knew who were into collectibles were also adults. Whenever Teddy told people he ran a comic-book/baseball card/sci-fi store, they invariably thought of the quintessential geek with the sinus condition and the pointy Spock ears.
That wasn't Teddy Folger. Neither was Teddy the slick, trim beach volleyball hunk with the six-pack abs and deepwater tan. The dude who had women climbing all over him. Teddy had always, always, always hated and envied these guys.
So he'd been working on his tan, and had done about ten thousand sit-ups since leaving Jenny in the dust. He'd gotten a really cool haircut and a pair of expensive wraparound sunglasses. A bottle of Polo cologne. A shitload of Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie &
And a fat, juicy bankbook.
And now if Misty would just muster the courage to talk to him, Teddy could make his pitch.
Finally, she came, replacing ashtrays and wiping the bar with a rag until she was near Teddy. "Uh . . . hi." She wouldn't look at him.
"I've been thinking about you a lot, Misty," Teddy said.
"Uh . . . okay."
This wasn't going to work, Teddy realized. He didn't have a chance in hell and was going to get shot down in flames. Misty had needed the money, needed it quick. She was obviously embarrassed to see him. He decided to forgo the preliminaries and dive right in. Might as well get the rejection over with.
He put a photograph of the Electric Jenny on the bar. "This is my boat. I'm headed to the Caribbean."
Her eyes darted briefly to the photo.
"Why don't you quit your job and come with me?" Teddy said.
Misty's eyes flashed from side to side like a trapped animal looking for escape.
Billy Moto spotted Joellen Becker as she crossed the restaurant toward his table. Moto had the semiuseful talent for matching faces with voices he'd heard on the phone. Joellen was almost as he'd pictured her. A little taller. Hair black and thick and cut short and round in the Prince Valiant style. Features dark and hard and Slavic. She wore a charcoal gray pantsuit, tapered to highlight her thin waist. Shoes with no heels. She didn't need any extra height, but something in the way she moved told Moto this woman wanted to be quick on her feet if needed. No rings, necklace, or earrings. A wristwatch with a plain black band.
She arrived at the table. "Moto?"
He stood. "Yes."
She sat, shook open the napkin, and dropped it into her lap. "Where's the waiter?"
Moto took his chair, sat stiffly. He did not know what to expect from this woman. "I asked for a wine list. I didn't know if you'd want white or red, but there's a good pinot noir and --- "
"Cancel the wine, sport," Becker said. "I looked over the Folger file again, and it looks like we're going to need to talk business." The waiter wandered near the table, and Joellen grabbed his sleeve so he couldn't escape. "I need a triple Bombay martini with an olive the size of a poodle's head."
The waiter looked at Moto.
"Water with lime please."
Joellen curled a lip. "Jesus, Moto, order a man's drink." What was that look on her face? Contempt? Moto felt his cheeks flush. The woman was most vexing. "Johnnie Walker Black. No ice."
Joellen set a thick file folder and a VHS tape on the table. She crossed her arms on the table, leaned in. "Let's talk about what you want, and don't leave out the part about my being handsomely compensated."
"My employer is interested in the DiMaggio card. I'll pay you a reasonable sum for your information. We're simply hoping to ascertain Teddy Folger's whereabouts."
"I told you," Joellen said. "The card burned."
Moto nodded, a slight shrug. "My employer is interested in any other cards of similar value Folger might possess."
The drinks arrived, and Joellen took half hers in one gulp. "Here's what I think. I think the card didn't burn. I think Folger collected a juicy insurance check and now wants to unload the card on the sly. One card, two payoffs. I've seen it a dozen times, although it's usually jewelry or something. Folger's gone to ground, ducking his wife probably, and you can't find him."
Moto didn't know what to say. He sipped his drink to buy some time. "You are a clever woman," Moto finally admitted.
"I have my moments. So you went to Princeton, then Oxford, then served five years in Japanese Military Intelligence. Impressive."
"How did you know that?" Moto asked.
"Oh, it's easy enough to look up."
It shouldn't be. Moto had gone to some moderate amount of trouble to conceal his personal information from the general public. A routine background check should not have turned up anything. Either there was more to Becker than met the eye, or American insurance companies were damn strict.
Moto cleared his throat, and said, "Your insurance company's file isn't completely necessary, but it will save me some preliminary steps. How much?"
"Not for sale."
"Ah. You are negotiating, playing hardball."
"How much is your boss willing to pay for the card?" She sipped her martini.
"One million dollars."
Joellen sputtered, sprayed gin all over the table. "How much?"
"It doesn't matter. I only need the folder."
"The card's not worth that much."
"Mr. Kurisaka wants it," Moto said. Also, Kurisaka wanted to preempt any other offers and figured a million dollars would do it. Moto's boss had also sent word to the most prestigious collectibles dealers in America. Kurisaka wanted them to contact him instead of Hyatta if the card should happen to come into their possession.
"A million?" Joellen frowned. "Is he retarded or something?"
Moto pushed his drink away, threw his napkin on the table. "This is pointless. You are a bizarre, annoying woman." She was also completely unfeminine, a fact Moto found oddly disturbing. He stood. "This has been a most unpleasant encounter. I will say good night now."
"Jesus, Moto," Joellen said. "Sit down, will you? Let me make my pitch. You can leave then if you don't like it."
"Please be brief." He sat.
"I already know where Folger is."
Moto's eyes widened. Perhaps this whole baseball card business could be concluded quickly, and he could get back to Japan. "Is he still in Pensacola?"
"What if I had the card? Instead of Folger?"
"If you can put us in contact with Folger, I'm sure a finder's fee --- "
She shook her head. "No, you're not hearing what I'm saying.
What if I had the card instead of Folger?"
Ah. "Then . . . I suppose we would pay you the million dollars."
"And how would that work exactly?" asked Joellen.
"I'm not sure I understand."
"There's insurance fraud involved."
"No questions asked," Moto said.
"I've heard that in the movies," Joellen said. "No questions asked. What exactly does that mean?"
"It means do whatever is necessary. Beg, borrow, or steal. This is a private transaction, and legal technicalities concern my employer not at all."
Joellen smiled, nodded. "Beats the shit out of working for the insurance company." She ordered another martini.
Excerpted from SUICIDE SQUEEZE © Copyright 2005 by Victor Gischler. Reprinted with permission by Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.