Copyright 2013 Duane Lindsay
Published by Duane Lindsay at Shakespir
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE: One Mississippi…Two Mississippi…
CHAPTER TWO: The Red Hot Yellow Bugatti
CHAPTER THREE: It’s All Fun And Games Until Somebody’s Married
CHAPTER FOUR: A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
CHAPTER FIVE: The Nut Comes Off the Head of The Joint
CHAPTER SIX: How High the Moon
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ONE MISSISSIPPI…TWO MISSISSIPPI…
Seaman First-Class Leroy Logan, as fresh and green as a sprout of new grass, first notices the redhead, not because she’s beautiful, though she is, in a scarlet dress setting off green eyes that certainly make this Woolworth counter shine, but because she’s scamming a middle-aged man at the watch counter.
He decides it’s his business to butt in. He says, “Excuse me, but we don‘t allow this sort of thing,” playing like he’s the house dick. He takes her by the elbow, sees those eyes widen. Fortunately, he’s in civilian clothes; a crisp charcoal suit he bought tailored in Singapore before sailing home – seven dollars US and worth every penny.
“What’s all this?” says the victim, blustery as a walrus with his thick mustache and outraged expression. A banker for sure, thinks Leroy, who shakes his head sadly at the girl. “I thought we told you to peddle your wares someplace else.”
“You got me mixed up with someone else,” she says, trying to pull away. “Gimme back my arm.”
Leroy explains to the mark, “This lady’s after your money, sir. She’s a local con artist.”
“What?” Emotions show under all that lip hair; outrage, indignation, denial, all the classic responses.
“Let me guess,” says Leroy. “She tells you she’s got a sick mother and no money for car fare. She’s got to get to Mercy Hospital before the old broad croaks. Am I right?”
The mark’s face says he is.
“What happens next is you’ll front her taxi money and while you’re paying the cabbie she’ll dip your wallet before it’s back in your pants.”
The man eyes her like she’s a Tenderloin hooker and gasps his thanks to Leroy.
“That’s all right, sir. How much would she get you for? I ask because over fifty dollars I can get her taken down for felony bunko. May I see your wallet, please?”
“Certainly, detective,” says the mark, hustling it out. Leroy thumbs one-handed through a wad that would choke War Admiral on Derby day, counting better than two hundred in twenties. He whistles, awed that anyone would carry that kind of cash. What was the guy planning, buy the Golden Gate Bridge?
He shakes the woman and she responds as expected, making a scene. “I’m innocent,’ she bellows. “You got nothing on me.” In the struggle the wallet falls to the floor, the banker dives for it, comes up puffing from the rare exercise.
Leroy says, “We’ll need your co-operation, sir; put this woman where she belongs…”
But this woman’s carrying on and the mark will have none of it. “I can’t,” he says, tucking the billfold, backing away. “There’s no need. She didn’t get…I can’t be seen…never mind.” He turns tail and scurries from the store.
The canary stops singing and Leroy let’s go of her arm. She eyes him like he’s last week’s leftover hash, then turns away and Leroy follows to a door in the rear, noting it as a very good exit. They step out into an alley.
“Kate,” he says and she steps into his arms, giving him a kiss like he only imagined all those long nights on ship. His eyes cross and he’s short of breath when she finishes.
“When did you get in? And why,” she slugs his arm, hard, “Didn’t you call me?” Then she kisses him again which makes for some very mixed feelings.
Later, at a bar down on Castro Street she says, “I didn’t need your help, you know.”
“I know.” He grins, amused, loving the freedom, loving her. It feels so good to be with a woman again. “That was a nice move, swapping the money with paper.”
“A simple switch,” she scoffs. “You think I can’t get along without you, Logan? Hell, I’ve been hustling since you went to sea.”
“Small time, but it keeps the wolf from the door.”
“I mean, a girls’ gotta live.”
“Right,” he agrees, having no desire to argue. “How much did you get?”
That brings out the smile. She’s got a gap between her upper front teeth like a secret entry through the Great Wall, maybe let the invaders in, maybe not, as she counts the money on the table.
“All of it,” she beams.
“Nice,” Leroy tells her, “But now that the war’s over it’s time to think big again.”
She doesn’t go for the obvious joke. Instead, “What do you have in mind?”
“I was thinking about stealing a battleship.”
“That’s bigger,” she acknowledges seriously. “Which one?”
“The one I rode in on,” he says, deadpan, no big deal. Like it’s his already, a battleship.
“The Mississippi?” She laughs suddenly, a hiccup of surprise and delight. “A United States Navy battleship?
Later still, both of them smoking in the narrow twin bed at her furnished studio, she muses, “I wonder…do they leave the keys just laying around?”
“How much,” Leroy asks Little Freddy, “is scrap metal going for?”
Freddy Kocher, a fat man with a ring of beard around his thick-lipped mouth, like he fell face down in a bowl of chili, clucks his tongue and considers. “Twenty bucks a ton – give or take.”
“And how much does a battleship weigh?”
“Which battleship? The baby destroyers out of Kaiser’s shipyards? Or the big ones like the Missouri?”
“Like the Missouri.”
Freddy does the thing with his tongue again as he consults some internal filing system. Too fat for the services, even at the end of the war when they were taking any man with a pulse, Freddy spends his time fencing stolen goods out of a rundown brick warehouse south of Market Street. He has a memory that won’t let him forget a fact and a body odor that keeps all but the most determined person at a distance.
“Um…about…fifty thousand tons?”
“You saying or asking?” Leroy, still dapper in his pin-stripe suit, slips a finger into the vest pocket and taps his belly.
Freddie inhabits a tent-like expanse of faded white shirt and a ratty tie, loose knotted around his thick neck. A Lucky Strike burns into ash in a sand-filled can near his elbow, spectral smoke rising like the spirits of graft.
“Guessing,” he admits, though with a shrug. “It could be higher, but certainly that’s close.” He studies Leroy, a man he’s never met. An acquaintance set up the meeting, which is as it should be. The underworld, like the good old boys network in the straight world, relies on connections. “Why?”
“No reason.” Leroy picks up a gold pocket watch from the crowded glass counter. “How much?”
“Can’t let it go for less than a sawbuck.”
“Ten dollars?” Leroy sputters, shakes his head with awe. “God Damn. Everything costs so much these days.”
“Tell me about it,” says Freddie. “Scrap steel for twenty bucks a ton.”
Kate, shocked, says, “That’s almost a million dollars.”
“Uh-huh.” Leroy grins, looking about twelve years old, just a skinny little kid about to play a prank. He watches Kate, waiting for approval, which does not immediately appear .
“You’re out of your mind,” she says, picking off points on fingers with long red nails crooked like talons. “One, it’s too big. Two, nobody’s ever done it before because three, it can’t be done and four…let me finish…! there’s how many military police around here?”
“There’s a lot of cops,” Leroy agrees. If that bothers him he doesn’t show it.
“A lot,” Kate says. “With guns and stuff.”
“And stuff.” They’re sitting in the lounge of the Empire Hotel, a swanky place a couple of blocks off Lombard that features a piano bar and a torch singer named Doris LaVerne. Leroy glances over from time to time as he guzzles beer from a tall Pilsner glass. Kate, in a coffee colored dress with white polka dots and brown beret, occasionally sips a Martini.
“Lots of ‘and stuff,’” admits Leroy. Doris is singing Stardust and he hums along absently. The bar is dark and smoky with an almost audible hint of promise running through it like an electric wire. These are the days of expectation; the war is over and anything is possible.
“But you’re going to do it anyway, right?”
“That’s my guy.” Kate’s tired of being the girl waiting in port. She’s worked at this and that – more often that, since she has an aversion to waking early, amorous foreman and hard labor. Smiling with sensuous promise she runs her sharp nail across his cheek and Leroy shivers as if it’s suddenly cold in here.
“Logan, listen to me. I know you have plans to become a con man -”
“A grifter,” he corrects.
“Whatever. And I’m happy to be your moll. But this is huge.”
He leers, she rolls her eyes, says, “Oh, shut up!”
“But if I pull it off -”
Kate, sighing, thinks it’s like talking to an avalanche; unstoppable. The idea delights her. “Then you’d be the best.”
“That’s right. So here,” says Leroy, raising his glass to the future, “is to the best.”
He turns on his stool and leans his elbows back against the bar, his attention so focused on Doris LaVerne that he misses Kate’s mutter.
“Don’t even think about it, Buster.”
“I wish I was older.”
Leroy reaches out to touch the front of Kate’s dress. The sheath is tight and as red as the waves of her hair, bound up in some current style, with sequins that glisten like silver in the light of the San Francisco afternoon.
“Why?” Absently, she slaps his hand. She bends to adjust her stocking, aware of his interest. Barely eighteen, alone three years now since she ran away from her parents’ one bedroom flat near Chicago’s Midway, Kate deliberately prolongs the moment, running slender fingers up the seam to the clasp of the garter belt. She smiles wickedly and lets the hem fall.
“Because I can’t pull this off looking like I do.” He yanks his eyes from her legs and studies his reflection, noting the lack of age lines, the sparse facial hair that, despite being eighteen and a veteran, still doesn’t need a razor. He frowns at the blue eyes that say, “Trust me,” when no, you shouldn’t. “Who’d believe this face?”
“I love this face,” says Kate, caressing it. She leans close and Leroy feels the gentle breath on his neck. Sixteen months at sea, the war finally over, the Germans broken and the Japanese surrendered, Leroy is on his final leave before being, like a million other sailors, soldiers and marines, dumped back into the world of the civilian.
The security of life aboard a battleship is over and now he has to sink or swim, root hog or die. The idea both terrifies and elates him.
Kate smoothes the collar of his crisp starched white shirt and loosens the knot of his blue tie, her touch tender and disturbing.
“This face can’t do what I need it to,” says Leroy.
“Sooo?” She asks, stretching the word.
“So, I need to find a face that can.”
Leroy gets to the Colonel the same way he reached Freddy: a friend of a friend. In this case the guy is a security bull at the Plaza Hotel, fat with graft, fat with a disability pension and fat.
He says, “I’m not promising, boyo. I hear he’s a prime jackass, but he’s aces playing the long con.”
“Thanks.” Leroy slips him a deuce and is on his way with a number on the bar napkin: Fairfax 7 – 3241.
The Colonel, when Leroy sets up a meet, is a jackass.
“You’re going to run the Eiffel Tower?”
“The Eiffel Tower.” The Colonel sniffs, like he’s smelled something funny. “Son, you’re either an idiot or a fool.”
The Colonel – not a rank, just an affectation – is Walter P. Edens, a dignified looking man of middle years, wearing a slightly out of fashion serge suit and a homburg hat. Leroy meets him at the corner of Divisidero and Valencia at a curbside metal table. The day is cool and windy and he has to keep placing things on the napkins to keep them from blowing into the bay.
Walter studies Leroy through a Chesterfield haze, drawing smoke deep into his lungs, holding it, then blowing it out through his nose like a bull.
“An Eiffel,” he says, sadly. His voice is that of a retired judge or a bank president; someone immediately trusted, which isn’t right. The Colonel would steal the pennies from the eyes of your dead grandmother. “I thought you’d have something worthwhile.”
“Selling a battleship isn’t worthwhile?” Leroy doesn’t like the guy, not that it matters. He’s here because he needs a face, not advice, which the guy seems to want to give anyway. Leroy sits back, resigned.
“If you could do it, which you can’t. Listen. The Eiffel tower scam was run only once, back in 1925 by Victor Lustig. He convinced scrap dealers he had the ins to sell the tower since it was intended only as a short time exhibit for the Paris World’s Fair. He conned scrap dealers into bribing him to get the contract. People bought that story then because it was new. ”
Leroy knows all this but that’s just the idea. Who’d expect something so bold in this modern age? Nobody, that’s who.
The Colonel doesn’t think so. “Son, if you even tried something like this you’d be a laughing stock. So would anybody dumb enough to play along with you. Do I look stupid to you? Do I?”
Leroy considers the question. No, he thinks, you look like just what you aren’t; trustworthy and respectable, which is what I need more than I need this kind of lip.
“So I take it you’re out.”
The Colonel laughs out loud, startling a waiter cleaning the next table. A coffee cup tips over and the guy scowls, huffy, and scoots away.
“No, sonny; I am most definitely not out. I’m in.”
Leroy thinks what the hell – ? as the Colonel tells him, “I’m in for sixty percent. And let me tell you why. It’s because this plan of yours is crazy, that’s one. Then there’s the fact that, without me, you couldn’t pull off scamming a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint. You got the face of a twelve-year old! Who’s going to believe you?” He’s obviously on a roll, thinking he’s teaching the kid something.
Leroy’s getting hot now, not listening anymore, just ready to get up and go before he starts throwing things. Sixty percent! The gall of the man is infuriating. Leroy thinks of the hours he’s spent aboard ship coming up with the plan, working out the details, ironing out any little wrinkle that didn’t fit. Now this big bazoo wants to cut himself in for sixty?
“Before you go off half-cocked,” says the Colonel, seeing the expression and correctly reading it. “Even if you tell me no, you’re not going to do this. Do you want to know why?”
Leroy won’t say it so the Colonel, smirking, tells him anyway. “Because I won’t let you. I’ll spread the word to every grifter, every scam artist in California. I’ll get you so greased that you’ll never – and I mean never! – run a con in your life.”
A long silence follows as Leroy thinks of the best comeback. Clobber the guy? Why bother? He’s made his point clear. So he says, “You finished?”
“Then thanks but no thanks. I’ll do it on my own.”
“You don’t think I can stop you, kid?” There’s a tone of menace, a thinly veiled warning like the silence just before the snake starts to rattle. He shouldn’t do it but he’s had enough. Leroy busts open.
“Listen Grandpa; I don’t think you‘ve got the juice. I think you’re all mouth and no moxie. You think you run the hill? Well, I think you’re over it.” He stops to light a Pall Mall as the Colonel, red faced as a warthog, chews his mustache. Veins are popping and his brow’s furrowed like a Kansas wheat field but he pulls it together to say, “Let me tell you something else.”
Oh good, thinks Leroy; I love it when people tell me something else. He’s just finished sixteen long months in Uncle Sam’s navy being told something else by every ensign, mate, and seaman who outranked him, which was almost everyone by the time he’d gotten busted down the third time.
“If you’re foolish enough to go ahead with this without me –” Leroy’s expression says he is – “I won’t just blackball you with the grifters; I’ve got pull with the cops. You spit on the sidewalk they’ll run you in. You cross the street they’ll tap you for jaywalking.” He laughs, a nasty turn. “Hell, sit at home playing solitaire and the bunco boys’ll get you for gambling.”
Leroy sips the last of his coffee, puts a quarter on the table for the brews and a nickel for the tip. “Go screw,” he says and walks away down the steep hill, the Colonel’s voice following him
“No one’s gonna back your play, kid!” he calls after him. “Not no one. Not no how.”
A week later Leroy’s discovering this to be true; he can’t put together a string for love or money. Evidently the Colonel’s been both busy and a loudmouth because the word is out. Leroy’s been scoffed at, ridiculed, reviled as an idiot and out and out laughed at by as sorry a collection of misfits as he’s ever imagined.
Case in point: a small-timer named Benny Lipps, supposed to be smooth with the ladies; Leroy heard he might be up for a score. But when they meet, at a little place in the Mission district, Benny cuts wise, saying, “I heard about you, kid. They say you’re bad news and I don’t want any part of you.”
“Who says?” asks Leroy, though he knows already.
“Everybody. Listen up, it’s no good. You’re a non-starter in this town.”
Or Fred O’Bannon, a mick who runs a costume shop in Alameda, near the shipyards. Leroy’s come to him to get the Navy whites and officer uniforms he needs to run the con.
“No dice,” he says. “A guy’d be crazy to try what you’ve got in mind.” He laughs, lapping up the beer Leroy bought him. “Still, I’m glad to meet the man who thought of it. You got moxie, kid. An Eiffel tower scam in this day and age.”
He chucks Leroy on the arm, sort of comrade like and staggers off to throw darts.
It’s getting old but Leroy keeps it up. Everywhere is the same reaction; no dice, nix on this and, as the days wear on, “Give it up, son; it’s not happening.”
Leroy doesn’t know where the Colonel gets his pull but he’s definitely juiced; the fix is in and Leroy’s on the skids.
“I can’t even get a printer,” he complains as Kate rubs his neck. They’re sitting in the kitchen of a rented efficiency, seventeen-seven-fifty a month for the top of a three-story walkup with a view of Alcatraz floating in the bay like a toad in a punchbowl. What possessed the Feds to make it a prison is a mystery. What matters to Leroy is the daily reminder that he does not want to go there.
Kate’s got one hand on his shoulder while she pours herself a glass of Zinfandel from some winery up in Napa. Wine gives Leroy headaches so he’s sipping whiskey from a white enamel coffee mug, a habit he’s picked up shipside. Smoke from their cigarettes rises and twists together and Leroy feels aggrieved.
“What’s his beef, anyway?” he says, referring to the Colonel. “It’s not like I’m any skin off his nose that he’s gotta queer my pitch.”
Kate tries a few, “there, there’s,” and an “I hear you,” as Leroy gathers steam.
“I go back to Freddie and he’s with them now. Says the words out that nobody should work with the kid.”
He twists to look up at Kate, explaining, “They call me the kid, ‘cause I look so young.”
“I got that. At least they don’t know your real name,” Kate suggests, but it’s the wrong thing to say. She has a feeling that anything would be wrong.
“They will,” Leroy vows angrily. “When I pull this off, there won’t be a con man in the state – in the country! – who doesn’t know about Leroy Amadeus Logan.” He takes an angry sip, gets the fiery liquor up his nose and sneezes violently, which doesn’t make his mood or the booze go down any easier.
Kate’s not handling this well either, but for different reasons. She’s thinking about the home she left three years ago, remembering her broken down wreck of a father, all booze and meaty fists, hanging down at Sullivan’s bar every night looking for a fight. It’s the only fight he’s got left in him after the depression wiped out every dream he ever had.
Not such big dreams, either. A house and a steady job, a car – maybe a Hudson or a Studebaker – take the wife and kids for a drive out to Lake Michigan or someplace.
But the job washed away in a flood of whiskey and he never recovered, even when the war brought work back to the steelyards. Kate remembers the endless protests of the family, “You can’t – you can’t – you can’t,” like a drumbeat in her head until she runs off when she’s fifteen, traveling west, looking for something better.
She found it too, she thinks, in the company of this gangling young man she calls Logan, a kid with pockets as empty as hers but with such dreams! The best con man who ever lived! Glorious. After the soul-numbing life at home, Leroy is fresh air in a world of soot.
But right now Kate’s had enough. Her patience with whining men, never all that great, shuts off like pulling the chain on the overhead bulb as, not tenderly, she whacks him on the top of his head. “Stop grousing, Logan, and pull yourself together.”
Leroy, squinting from the sudden smack, stares openmouthed. “What are you -?” He rubs his head, like it hurts, the baby.
“What am I?” Kate says. “What are you? I sit around waiting for you to come back, I put up with your ways –” She stops Leroy from saying, “what ways?” with a look. He wisely shuts up.
“You come here with big ideas. Gonna be this, Kate, gonna be that.” She’s prowling the kitchen like a feral cat, hands flying in agitation. “I’ve got a plan, Kate. We’ll be on top. Then what? The first little thing you go to pieces.”
She stops in front of him, hands on hips and gives him a stare like he’s not worth eating. “I had a bellyful of quitters, Logan. Times weren’t all that easy for me, you know, waiting. There’s too many little men out there tell you, can’t do this, can’t do that. Are you going to listen to them?”
“But,” says Leroy, ‘cause that’s about all that comes to mind. “The crew…”
“What about the crew? You can’t get anyone bent to help you, get a straight crew.” She stops, puts on a puzzled look as if she’s just said something she didn’t plan on. Leroy, missing it, starts to get mad himself.
With awe Kate says, “you could…you could…they wouldn’t have to know. Don’t you see Logan? You could con both sides of the street.”
“What,” he asks, “are you talking about?”
“I’m talking,” Kate says, “About turning this around.” Words come pouring out now as ideas crash around like rocks in a polisher, clacking and banging together with a huge noise. She’s never seen anything clearer in her life and she rushes to get it out before it pops like a soap bubble.
“Logan, you can do this. A bent printer won’t work? Get a straight one and con him into thinking he’s doing something legit. Need a roper? Need a Face? Hire straights and lie to them. Hell, hire an actor and tell him it’s a scene. Con the grifters while you pull off the greatest Eiffel tower scam the world’s ever seen.”
She stops to tuck his face between her hands. “Think big, Logan. Too many people think small.” Then she waits for a reaction wondering, did I get it right? Does he get it?
Nope. He pulls her hands roughly from his cheeks and gets up, knocking the chair backwards. “That’s the damn stupidest thing I ever heard, Kate.” He mimics her voice. “Con both side of the street. Girl, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
Kate responds, “Don’t you ‘girl’ me, Logan. You’re all mouth, you know that? When it comes time to pick berries, you’re nothing but a big talker.”
More words follow – none of them nice – and Leroy storms out, slamming the door behind him.
Uphill both ways is what it feels like as Leroy plods around the streets of San Francisco trying to burn off a whole pile of anger. He can’t help feeling mad at Kate, seeing as how she’s probably right, and he sucks tar, thinking frustrated, useless thoughts. He doesn’t hold much stock in Kate’s idea of using straight people to help. The straight world is the marks, the people you scam. The rest are a noble brotherhood of con men.
But maybe not. Since meeting the Colonel and the other guys passing as grifters in this burg, Leroy has been revising his romantic notions downward so far he can hardly see them for his feet. These people are no different than the petty officers, the cops or the railroad dicks he encountered on his journey from New Orleans to the recruiting office in St. Louis.
Irritation settles over him as the last of the sun touches the harbor, painting it as red as Kate’s hair.
Damn it, he thinks. She’s right.
Kate wakes up in the rickety single bed and says, “Logan?” Her voice is gravelly from too many smokes, too much wine. The spot next to her is empty.
A renewed sense of fury courses through her, like last night after the damn man stormed out, only considerably tamer now that he’s still gone. She does her morning ritual while thinking up dandy new things to say to him – some real zingers she’ll deliver when he walks back in that door.
Then she spends the day cleaning and slamming pillows and realizing that maybe he isn’t going to walk back in and that thought makes her decide who needs him anyway? He’s just a man, right? She’s had a few before him since leaving home, hitching rides, fending off wolves and worse, working dives or diners, always clean but never quite nice, finally arriving at the CITY, which is how she thinks of it, THE CITY, all caps, like it’s the emerald city from her favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz.
Around four, as the sun is touching down on the rooftops she sits on the iron fire escape and wonders where he is. Her mood is petulant and she thinks, fine! Let him run off; I don’t need him. Maybe I’ll just go instead, huh? Wouldn’t that teach him a lesson, if he comes back and finds me gone? She thinks up what she’ll write in the note she’s going to leave and there are some beauties in there, too.
Past six, hungry and worn out she begins to think that no, he isn’t coming back and she struggles with guilt and sadness like this is her fault, she drove him away. Men need a woman to comfort them in their troubles, not yell and belittle them. She picks up a pillow that she embroidered herself in the long year she waited for him to come home from the war. It says, in pretty good cursive, gold threads on a red satin fabric, “Home is Where We Are.”
She holds it to her chest and rocks with it, listening to the radio until nine-thirty when she hears the key in the lock.
It doesn’t matter who says, “I’m sorry,” first; they’re wrapped up in each other as soon as the door swings shut on the prying eyes of the neighbors. Kate’s crying and Leroy’s not too steady himself as they touch each other like they were never going to again, like they can’t believe it’s real. It feels, Leroy thinks, like a last minute call from the Governor.
Words turn to kisses, turn to passion and they turn down the covers of the bed, the cheap brass headboard creaking like a ship in a storm and won’t that make the biddy in 312 turn up her Motorola. Sure enough, the sound of big band – Benny Goodman or Count Basie– comes through the paper-thin walls and they start to move in time to Pennsylvania Six-Five Hundred and then The Continental, finishing up to the Andrew Sisters and Leroy, singing along, climaxes with, “The boogie-woogie bugle boy of Company Beeeeeeeee – ah!”
And Kate, laughing like she thought she never would again, slugs him with that same pillow, shutting him up when he falls to the floor. She tugs the sheet around her body and slips down to join him.
“It’s a good idea,” he says.
“I didn’t mean it when I -” she says, but he shushes her, one finger on the lip, which she kisses.
“When you said play both sides. That’s a good one.”
“How you going to do it?” she asks, drowsy, not real interested right at this moment until he tells her.
“Not me, doll; you. This is your idea, you’re going to have to go out and make it happen.”
“Me?” She considers it, shrugs. “Okay.” Then she curls around until her head’s in the right place, nestled on his left shoulder. Softly she whispers, “Logan, you’re the greatest.”
His voice is a purr against her hair. “No, baby,” he says. “We are.”
“Yessir, I can do that; yessir,” says the man, Tim something, or Eddie, Leroy didn’t quite catch it. “You want these contracts printed on US Navy Stationary, exact copies right down to the seal. Is that it?”
Not expecting things to go this smoothly, Leroy says, “Um, yes.”
“Thursday work for you?”
Today being Monday. “Sure.”
“We’ll see you then.”
Leroy thinking, it can not be this easy.
Oh, but it is. Leroy and Kate, dressed in their Sunday best – modestly cut green dress and a matching box-like hat with a white egret feather for her, a black suit and tie for him – pause at the shack to let the guard study them.
“State your business,” says the kid, eighteen, maybe, twenty tops, but he’s got a real service revolver in a polished holster and his partner’s got a rifle at port arms so Leroy treats this extra carefully.
Big grin, shading his eyes from the glare off all that brass, he says, “Here to see Captain Spaulding. I was mustered out before getting my last pay. They told me to report to the paymaster before Friday.” He holds out the letter Kate typed out on that official Navy letterhead.
The guard nods. “Sure, looks okay,” and passes them through. What’s the danger after all? The war’s over and we won. Who’s gonna screw with us now?
They park in front of a Quonset hut and hustle off to separate tasks.
Leroy goes into the hut where he finds the base staff in charge of personnel. Knowing the schedule kept in the Navy, Leroy’s pretty sure they’re on skeleton staff during lunch and sure enough, he has the run of the place. He looks up a chart of command, makes notes and memorizes names and phone numbers, then wanders off in search of office C-for-Charlie-two-oh-six, which is, according to the paperwork, empty.
Another stroke of luck – it is. Leroy carries in a small tool-kit filled with clips and screwdrivers and pretty soon is face down, ass high under the desk attaching a couple of wires to a standard black rotary dial telephone picked up from supplies.
When he’s finished he goes to the PBX closet where the phone exchange relays clack and whirr, finds what he wants by studying a spaghetti-like maze of lines on a blueprint until the ammonia makes his head buzz. Satisfied, he moves a wire here, another wire there and leaves, as unsuspected as a ghost.
Back at the car, a six year old Ford sedan with a strait-six engine that takes the San Francisco hills like an asthmatic, Leroy waits for Kate to return. He’s got the radio on and happily listens to KVOB, the “voice of the bay.” Rodney Kirkwell is playing standards and Leroy croons along with Bing.
The back door opens and Kate dumps what looks like an entire platoon’s clothing on the broad backseat. She dances around the car, jumps in front and says, “Got ‘em!”
She’s flushed with delight, as giddy as a ballerina on Halloween tallying her haul. “I’ve got WAC dress white’s, Shipman’s whites, a couple of Lieutenant blues, with all the patches you wanted. I’ve got shoes and hats; Logan, I could outfit half of Peoria with what I have here.”
He says, “Don’t get all excited. We still have a lot to do.” But he’s pleased and she knows it. Damn, thinks Kate; this is like Christmas and a birthday all rolled into one. What an amazing high. No wonder Leroy likes this stuff.
He waves at the guard as they leave and the kid lifts a hand in reply. They could have taken a tank out of here and no one would say boo.
So Kate’s jazzed, bouncing on the seat. “What’s next?”
“Now we start the actual con.”
Madelyn Crier, well-known socialite and wife of Admiral Edward Sturgeon Crier (Ret.) and her daughter Theresa enter the office of Commander Richard “Ricky” Hyman on the fourteenth of March, a Thursday morning, with a complaint.
“I have heard,” states Mrs. Crier, a large boned woman of sixty, “that the Navy intends to dispose as scrap several of the battleships that served our country so honorably.”
This after Commander Hyman bids the ladies to be seated. He gazes at the woman like a rather stupid sheep, not having a clue what she’s saying. The younger one, a carbon copy of her mother, wears a fashionable gown and wide-brimmed hat. She looks like a high society daughter, rather like Vivian Leigh in Gone with the Wind. Her hair is red, like fire in the night.
“What?” he asks, blinking a lot.
“I am referring to the Mississippi,” says Mrs. Crier.
“And…what about her?” The Commander is perplexed. Had she heard something he’s unaware of? Richard Hyman, promoted far beyond his abilities due to wartime vacancies, is well on his way to a comfortable retirement and understands that, as the wife of a retired Admiral, this woman might know things. He decides to play it safe.
“I have received information,” says Mrs. Crier, “that the Mississippi and several other ships are to be decommissioned and sold as scrap to the highest bidder. Is this true?”
“I,” says the Commander, rendered speechless by the preposterousness of this idea. But, carefully, “I haven’t heard anything, madam, and I’m certain that I would have. Where did you get this information?”
The daughter, Theresa, speaks up. “Mother and father are members of a social club on the hill.” They don’t have to say which one. In San Francisco, anyone who lives on any of the seven hills is gentry.
“They were being regaled with stories of criminals and their folly when a gentleman told the story of an attempt to sell the battleships for scrap metal. Mother,” she waves a hand in the direction of Mrs. Crier, who sniffs as if she’s offended by her surroundings, “believing that this would be a tragedy of no small order, called on some friends to get this meeting with you.”
The commander nods; ‘the friend’ who called him said he was a member of the Joint Chiefs in Washington. “Ricky,” he had said, voice tense over the wire, “I don’t know what the snafu is out there, but clean it up pronto. Do I make myself clear?”
He had, hence this meeting. Eager to reassure that he’s taking them seriously, despite the complete idiocy of the notion, Commander Hyman says, “Ladies, I can assure you. There is no attempt to sell any of the vessels in the fleet. They have, as you’ve alluded, served our country well and loyally and while a few may be mothballed, none are being scrapped.”
There, he thinks; that ought to hold them. But he asks, “Who, if I may ask, is spreading this rumor?”
“His name,” says Mrs. Crier. “Is Walter P. Edens. He’s a member of the Beach Club with my husband. Edward calls him the Colonel.”
“I see,” says the Commander. He makes polite noises to the ladies before escorting them on their way, opening the front door of the huge Lincoln Limousine before the waiting driver can get there.
“Trust me, ladies,” he says. “I’ll get to the bottom of this.”
The visitor smiles at the receptionist in the dark-paneled offices of Empire Steel and Recycling. The middle-aged woman sitting behind a big grey Remington, typing efficiently, looks up, arching an eyebrow.
“I’ve got a letter to a Mr. Giles Maldive.”
“Who’s it from?” says the woman, not caring. She hits a bad key, mutters, “crap!” and picks up the brush/eraser to fix it.
“The Department of the Navy,” says the visitor, a young woman in a blue skirt and white shirt and the receptionist gets suddenly interested. The naval base in Alameda and the training camp on Angel Island are the company’s bread and butter.
“I’ll see he gets it,” she says.
Outside, the woman taps on the window of the Blue Ford idling at the curb. Kate rolls down the window. “Did she take it?
“Yes. You got my money?”
“Yes.” A ten spot is handed over and Kate drives away. This is the fifth delivery and all goes well. Possibly, Kate thinks, the best fifty bucks I’ve ever spent.
The telephone rings as Leroy is explaining. “I only need two,” he says, reaching for it. “One straight and one bent to give the bribe. Hold on.” Changing voices he says, “Lieutenant Hanritty here. How may I help you?”
Kate watches him closely, waiting. Is this it? Is this really it? Her hands and feet are needles and pins and she’s biting her lower lip, a habit since she was eight, that makes her look like a rabbit.
“Yes, sir,” says Leroy. “Certainly it’s true. The government wants to expedite this matter before public opinion overwhelms us. We’ve been building these ships for four years at breakneck speed. Now the war’s over and we simply don’t have the docks to store them. Or frankly,” he says confidentially, “the budget. Yes, sir; I’d be happy to meet with you. My office on base. Say Four-thirty? Certainly, sir. I’ll see you then.”
Leroy hangs up and takes a deep breath. “Expedite,” he laughs
But there’s trouble at the base. Leroy, in dress blues with a chest full of lettuce testifying to his alleged rank, gets stopped at the first gate and by a roving guard who is entirely too curious. If his forged paperwork wasn’t first-rate, Leroy would certainly be explaining the inexplicable to some interested people about now.
But he arrives unarrested at the Quonset hut office he’d be assigned if he was an actual lieutenant, and at precisely four-thirty is joined by a balding middle-aged man wearing a poorly tailored suit, a battered fedora and the smell of the cigar that he wasn’t allowed to carry on base.
The visitor is Charlie Wapner, president of the third largest scrap yard in the Bay Area. Kate, dressed as a Navy WAC in a crisp white uniform that hugs her hips and stops mid-calf, is a model of efficiency, offering coffee with an impersonal, “And for you, sir?” Charlie swivels in his seat to watch hers swivel from the room and says, “Huh? Some tomato. Huh?” He shakes his head, drops the wolf act and gets down to business.
“Mr. Hanritty,” he says, addressing Leroy’s current alter ego. “I’m interested in this project. I have to say it’s a welcome sign that the Navy is moving so swiftly to reduce costs.” He’s referring to the war years when the civilians worked exclusively for the benefit of the military. “Better days ahead, boys,” his tone suggests, not incorrectly.
“Ah, Yes.” Leroy tents his fingers together like a parson or a door-to-door peddler – either way a bill of goods is being sold – and does his song and dance. “The glut of ships, the need for both speed and confidentiality…I’m sure you understand, Mr. Wapner.”
“Sure, sure. But I got a question. How come such a high-pressure job’s being done by such a green kid such as yourself? No offence, I’m only asking.”
“None taken, sir. One, you have to consider how many troops were lost in the war. And, two; those of us who stayed behind learned a lot about how the Navy really works.” He lets his eyebrows, grin and long pause state the obvious; there’s a right way to do this and a wrong way. The Navy way and the profitable way. Wash my hand and I’ll wash yours…
Charlie Wapner wasn’t born yesterday and his wide grin says he knows the score. “Perhaps you could narrow in on a figure,” he says.
“If I did it there would be five of them. The bids went out to six companies. I certainly wouldn’t want to show any favoritism.”
“Of course; of course,” agrees Charlie. He considers. “I’m going to be at the Twenty-One club this coming Friday evening. I might bump into you there. Say about eleven?”
“It’s a free country, Mr. Wapner,” says Leroy. “You never can tell where a person will be.”
His second conference is with a man named Carroll Chesterbrook of American Way Metals who makes it clear that a bribe is the American Way. Leroy concludes the meeting with a promise to get back to him and nudges Kate playfully as they watch him leave.
“That’s number two,” he says. “A full haul. I do believe we’re on the right track.”
But things are happening elsewhere that he hasn’t planned on. Kate has delivered six of the bogus bid packages to large scrap dealers and has heard back from three of them. Did the others merely not want to bid? Or is the danger in the lack of response? The extra security on base makes him jumpy and he sniffs like a wary deer.
Something is in the air.
Giles Maldive of Empire Steel and Recycling, a company with offices in the East bay. He knows a fraud when he sees one and immediately makes an appointment, not with the sender, but with the Navy. He’s given an immediate audience, which fits his status and convinces him that he’s doing the right thing.
He shows the paperwork to Commander Hymen who calls in some other military types, all bigwigs, if Giles is reading the chevrons right. They thank him for his cooperation and ask if he’s willing to do a favor for his Uncle Sam.
“A little something,” says Commander Hyman, “that will turn the tables on this rat and his schemes.”
“Sir,” says Giles who served in WWI and never forgot. “I’d be honored.”
Feeling like he belongs, smoking fat Cubans, Giles stays until two in the morning with the assembled brass, making sure the plan is foolproof.
“Nope, nope, nope!” Kate fends off Leroy’s advances with a push against his chest. He’s dressed for love in a sleeveless tee, suspenders and enough tonic lotion to choke a mule. Combined with his usual Bryl-Cream the smell is heady.
But that’s not why Kate’s resisting. A tussle in the sack would be fine as a tension reliever and a good time, but she senses something going on and wants to nip it in the bud – whatever it is.
The signs are clear: he’s restless and bored, playing endless hands of solitaire, griping about the weather, the horses (he’s listening to the radio broadcast out of Santa Anita) the food, even politics. Since Leroy Logan doesn’t care a fig about local civic criminals, Kate knows she’s got to act.
“Let’s go for a stroll,” she insists, tugging his arm. He puts on a shirt, grabs his snap-brim hat and they walk through glorious sunshine, Leroy carping all the while. Kate doesn’t care – or listen really; it’s all a symptom.
They catch a cable car, climb a lot of stairs and find themselves at the base of Coit Tower, San Francisco’s phallic tribute to firefighters. They take the rickety elevator, hand the Chinese girl a nickel and look out the tiny windows at the view.
A gaggle of tourist is tossing coins but they may as well be alone; no one speaks English. “What’s the deal, Logan?”
Kate learned some things about men in her slow travel from childhood to California. One was to always get your man talking about himself. “It’s better than sex,” said a madam in a brothel in Chicago. Kate hadn’t been a hooker – she washed sheets for twenty cents an hour during a bad spell after being mauled by a salesman out of Topeka. A ride, she explained carefully to the battered lothario, did not mean sex.
But the part about getting a man to talk is always good advice. She pushes him to open up and soon it comes out in a rush. He’s worried about the extra security, the cops are everywhere, there’s a mood of impending disaster, none of which matter much.
“I’ve got to go see the Colonel again,” he concludes, frowning some more.
“What?” This surprises her. Leroy can’t stand the man and says so, often. “Why?”
He shakes his head, weary or resigned, hard to tell. “Because I can’t pull this off without him.” A long white sailboat drifts across the blue waters of the bay. From this elevation it feels like you can see China. What the hell is he talking about?
“The Colonel’s bad news, Logan. What’d’ya gotta see him for?”
But he won’t unload any more. “No other way to do it,” is all he’ll say and Kate, knowing a dead end when she hears one, lets it go all the way home where she drags him, unresisting, into bed.
She learned that from the madam, too.
Walter P. Edens, aka the Colonel, is every bit as condescending as Leroy expects when they meet at La Tratoria, an upscale eye-talian place where Walter dines on Chicken Marsala and Leroy eats crow.
“I hear you’re having…difficulties,” laughs the Colonel, sampling a Chianti and finding it substandard. He grouses to the waiter who whirls away in search of a better vintage. Leroy uses the distraction to finger a knife and consider the location of arteries; his own or the Colonels, at this point it doesn’t matter.
The Colonel’s playing up the part of the man about town, pointing out celebrities in the crowd, like Leroy could give a damn. A celebrity, to him, means a high profile mark with guaranteed money. A little harder to get to, but well worth the effort.
“You’re having difficulties,” the Colonel repeats and waits until Leroy nods. “I want to hear you say it.”
So Leroy has to admit to this fat prig that, no; the plan’s not working so well.
“I wonder why?” muses the Colonel, and waits.
Leroy gestures at his baby face. “Because of this. Because I’m not believable.”
“I think I told you that when we first met, didn’t I? Any other reasons?”
“Because of the pressure,” says Leroy, feeling a lot of it at this moment. His face feels like it’s on fire and he’s developed an irritating itch all over his shins that makes him need to scratch. Instead he says, “The pressure you put on.”
“Ah,” says the Colonel, savoring the Chicken or, more likely, the moment. “Have some wine?”
The waiter appears and the Colonel does the cork sniffing, pouring, rolling the damn glass, sipping, gazing into space like he’s discovering a comet but mostly just looking like a jerk until finally he nods and the waiter pours some more. Honest to God, thinks Leroy, you don’t get this kind of crap with a cup of coffee.
Leroy sips his wine – tastes like any other – and gets to it. “I need your help.”
“Really?” Of course he pulls it out, stretches the word, enjoying himself hugely at Leroy’s expense. The whole meal goes like this and Leroy’s about ready to throw the whole thing away, just chuck it and be a truck driver when the point is reached.
“I’d be happy to help you, son.” It’s ‘son’ now, Leroy notices. “For a price.”
Sure, that’s expected. “You said sixty percent.”
“I did,” agrees the Colonel. “Then.”
“Now it’s eighty.”
Leroy protests. Actually he makes a noise like a poodle being poked with a sharp stick and the Colonel laughs, nasty, like he’s got you, which he does and Leroy better know it.
“That’s robbery!” Leroy protests.
“Consider it tuition, son. You’re learning from a master.”
Leroy bows his head and eventually nods, but the Colonel pushes it, making Leroy grovel. “I didn’t hear you.”
“I said, sure. Eighty percent’s fine.”
“That leaves you enough to cover expenses, I trust,” says the Colonel, rubbing it in, acting as if he cares.
“Sure,” says Leroy. His teeth clench and he knows he can’t hold on much longer.
The Colonel, sensing this – he is a professional con man, after all – lets the fun end. “Tell me the details.” He listens for a while, writes down a few things and tells Leroy, “I’ll do the con and get back to you to give you your share.” He waves a couple of fingers in dismissal, and says, “Oh, and kid?” Leroy stops. “Pick up the check on your way out, will you?”
Leroy drops a ten spot on the table and flees. Fog has rolled in and the harsh street lights are fuzzy globes stretching away like ghostly candles. Ship’s bells and foghorns boom hollow warnings. He lights a Pall Mall red and flips the dead match, goes down Columbus to the lot where he stashed the car, his walk becoming a strut.
“Tuition,” he says, liking the word. He cackles and the sound echoes, like laughing ghosts.
“We’re on,” he tells Kate. “The meet’s set for eleven.”
“You sure of this guy?” Kate’s getting in the way, brushing his coat, adjusting his tie. Leroy takes her hands to stop them.
“I’m sure. He’s as bent as a cheap nail. If he leaned any further he’d fall over. Trust me, babe; he’ll pay.” He puts on his fedora, sets it at a rakish angle that Kate immediately changes.
“I’ll meet you downstairs at midnight,” she tells him. “I’ve already packed; we’re ready to go.”
“Swell. Wish me luck.”
Instead she gives him a kiss that curls his toes.
Chinatown looks exactly like it does in the movies. Narrow crowded streets, people sliding by in the midst, even the shadows are filled with shadows. The Colonel is already at a dark booth when Giles Maldive slides in.
“How much?” he asks.
Giles chokes, sucks water from a red plastic cup. “Thousand?”
“Dollars,” agrees the Colonel companionably. “Try the Duck, I hear it’s tasty.”
“Try screwing,” says Giles, pissed. He tugs out a pack of smokes, lights one with hands that shake. “No chance.”
“The contract is worth millions. I can guarantee you’ll get it.”
“I dunno –”
The Colonel shrugs, begins to ooze out of the booth, taking his time…
“Wait. Wait a second. Maybe I can do…thirty?”
“Maybe,” suggests the Colonel, “You could try, how’d you put it? Screwing.”
“Forty then. I got it right here. Cash.” He slides a fat envelope from an inside pocket, holds it out, waiting.
The Colonel pauses, good theatre, like this is a dramatic moment, then settles back in the booth. He takes the envelope and two suits appear as if by magic, like twin rabbits from a cheap magician’s hat, identical in fedoras and dark shades.
“FBI,” says one of them, doesn’t matter who, while the other slips handcuffs on the Colonel as smooth as a professional.
“What? Why? Wait!” The Colonel squawks as they lead him away. Surprisingly few patrons even look up from their Chop Suey as Giles Maldive shouts, “Screw that, you miserable crook. Maybe you got juice with the police, pal, but you cut no ice with the Navy.”
The experience at the Twenty-One Club is a lot more friendly. Charlie sips scotch raw, glancing around so furtively that Leroy thinks, if anybody is watching, that look will bring them over here in a shot.
But nobody cares. The waitress brings Leroy a beer, accepts a quarter with a dull smile and leaves. Charlie Wapner dances around naming a number he thinks will buy him the contract and Leroy imagines that right now the Colonel is sitting down for a meeting with Giles Maldive. The thought makes him laugh.
“How about…ten thousand dollars,” says Charlie.
Which makes Leroy laugh again. “How about twenty?” In the background the drummer, some new kid named Buddy Rich, hits the high hat. Dum-dum-dah. They settle on seventeen-five, which must have been what Charlie had in mind because he only pulls a couple of C-notes out of the brown leather case when he hands it to Leroy in the parking lot.
“You’ll get me the contracts?” He asks.
“Oh, you’ll get everything,” agrees Leroy.
On the lam in a ’40 Chrysler Highlander, baby blue with an automatic transmission and a radio that actually pulls in tunes from farther away than the next block, Leroy takes the turn onto the Golden Gate and points the car toward Napa. Wine country, he thinks, appropriately, a sort of finger at the Colonel.
Kate’s snuggles against him as he steers the brute auto with one hand on the huge white wheel. He feels like he’s piloting one of those sailboats he’s been watching these last weeks and briefly considers getting one. He can afford it, after all; he’s rich.
Kate purrs like a cat by the heater, laughing occasionally as if everything in the whole universe is jake. With an uptown hoity-toity voice, she says, “Mother and father are members of a social club up on the hill.”
Leroy squeezes her shoulder. “That was amazing, what you did. I would have believed you were upper crust any day. And hiring that woman to play Madelyn Crier,” he says. “A stroke of genius.”
“I told you we could hire straight people to help us.” She shakes her head in wonder. “I can’t believe you pulled it off.”
“We,” Leroy corrects, meaning it. “We pulled it off. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Lies,” she says. “But such lovely lies.”
“Truth.” Leroy takes his hand off the wheel and puts it on his heart. “I swear to God.”
“You swear at everything,” Kate laughs. “That bit with the Colonel though; that was inspired.”
“Why not use the pressure he caused to set him up, I figured. Sure was hard groveling though.”
“Well, you’ll never have to do that again. So what’s the play now?” she asks.
“We lay low in Napa and see what’s up. Then we can go anywhere you want to go.”
“Anywhere I want to go,” Kate wonders. Where would that be? “As long as I’m with you, Logan. Just as long as I’m with you.”
Three days of playing around in a roadside motel in Sonoma, a drive-in with a pool you could swim in if you didn’t mind freezing. Leroy prefers indoor sports and Kate obliges as often as possible figuring he’s been at sea a year and change. Averages out, she thinks, stretching languidly before the mirrored walls.
The fourth morning Leroy comes back from a stroll carrying a rolled up newspaper in one hand and a look of bemused wonder on his face.
“What?” Kate lets the covers slip but he barely notices.
“He didn’t talk,” says Leroy.
“Charlie Wapner.” He tosses the paper on the bed. “I’ve been watching the news for some word of a scam in the Bay area, but nothing. Kate; I think we got away clean!”
“What are you talking, Logan? We skinned the mark seventeen gees. No way he’s not going to sing like a canary.” Kate had a canary when she was a kid; a noisy little bird that would never shut up.
“That’s the thing, Kate; he didn’t. If he had the whole city would be buzzing with the news. But they’re not!”
Kate climbs out of bed and stands looking at him in amazement. “Why wouldn’t he shout it from the rooftops?”
“What’s he going to say? Hey, I bribed somebody to slip me a contract only the contracts a fraud and I want my money back? They’d laugh themselves silly.”
“He’s already a laughingstock. He won’t admit he was taken by a kid.”
“Then…?” she says.
“We could do it,” he says.
“Carroll Chesterbrook,” says Kate.
“The American Way,” says Leroy.
Damned if they can’t pull this off twice.
He wraps an arm around her and looks at their reflection in the mirrors, front and back.
Kate and Leroy/Leroy and Kate.
End of Chapter One
THE RED-HOT YELLOW BUGATTI
Stanford, California, April 1949
“I don’t get’cha,” Leroy says from the floor, causing Kate, on the sofa, to want to slug him with something hard.
“What’s not to get? We shouldn’t be going after the cheap scores, taking down innocent people, that’s all I’m saying.”
“No such thing.” Leroy is doing one armed pushups, dressed in serge pants and a white sleeveless tee. His suspenders sag around his legs. “Fifteen,” he says, though he’s only done five.
“We’re stony,” he explains, though he knows she knows it. She talks about it often enough. “So we play short cons until we find another big score.”
Four years since they took down the Colonel in San Francisco and the money ran out in less than two. Living hand to mouth in fine hotels like this one – the Embarcadero in San Jose, California – has meant taking whatever comes along. Leroy’s been running cheap hustles and Kate’s been on him lately.
“It’s what kind of short cons, Logan. I don’t think we should run the Bible or the Spectacles scam anymore. We’re better than that.”
“Forty-nine, fifty.” He sits up, sips some scotch and lights another Pall-Mall, his fourth, lays back on the floor to do some Navy style sit-ups. “Money’s gone, Kate; we do what we have to.”
“But where’s the money gone?” She shakes that thought away – too much trouble – and returns to her main point. “You can’t cheat an honest man, Logan. That’s like the first rule.” She’s been down this road and Leroy always slips away.
“Willing to try,” he grunts, lying, “sixteen, seventeen.”
“We’ve got to do better putting up the mark. Skim a better class, you know?” She tries a new tack. “Listen, you didn’t scam your mates on board ship, did you?”
“See? That’s like a moral line you won’t cross.” Kate’s been reading a lot and, considering their line of work, the subject of good and bad, missed since Sunday school, has resurfaced with a vengeance.
“There’s no place to run on a ship, Kate. They’d catch me and I’d have to walk home.” He shivers. “Twelve hundred miles of open water.”
Wrong tack, she thinks. “Okay, well then, is there anyone you wouldn’t con?”
He considers, eyes drifting. “Nope.”
Exasperated, Kate says, “How about a nun? You wouldn’t scam a nun, would you?”
He looks offended enough to be honest. “Jeez; no. Of course not.”
“Okay.” She smiles, finally getting through.
“Nuns don’t have money, Kate. You know that.” Eye roll and head shake. “Take down a Nun. Maybe go after her Boss, though…”
Kate, shocked. “You’d try to con God?”
“Do it every damn day,” he answers solemnly, hand over heart.
Kate’s not so easy to put off. Dancing cheek to cheek at the Truckadero to the swinging sound of the Count Basie Band, Leroy in an actual tuxedo and Kate in a white chiffon Ginger Rogers pleated dress bought at the new Frederick’s of Hollywood. Underneath she’s wearing something else from the store, a surprise that Leroy will discover later and yell, “Holy Hannah!” when he sees it.
“There’s gotta be something you wouldn’t do.”
He dips, she twirls, they do a finger snapping shoulder roll while he thinks about it. Everywhere there are people doing the jive to the heavy beat and the bleating horns. “Wouldn’t cheat on you,” he says finally, which gets him a lot closer to that surprise.
At the bar with a gin and tonic she says, “Let’s try this, then. A bad guy is greedy, right?”
“Yuh.” Leroy’s only half listening; he’s got his eye on a fat slob in a cream suit pouring drinks down a dyed platinum blonde. Worth it? He wonders. Does he have a stash worth taking?
“Sooo,” Kate tugs at his arm. “He’s an easier mark. And he’s not likely to go to the cops if he’s bent himself. We win both ways.” She studies him, wondering if he gets it and is rewarded with a smile.
“Fine. You can be the roper.”
“No, that’s not what I –” she starts but realizes maybe it is. “Okay, I’ll be the roper.”
Leroy juts his chin at the fat man. “Start with him.”
“Him?” says Leroy, dubiously eyeing the rich kid in the yellow roadster. “The BMOC with the Bryl-Cream, feeling up the coed?” Kid’s wearing a tan poplin suit, gangster style like the B-movies, Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. Kate and Leroy are sitting in their own car, a nice Lincoln of uncertain origins, on the corner of Pacifica and Bayside. Gotta love these street names in a town what? – a hundred miles from the ocean? Contractor calls a subdivision Bayo Vista because it has a view of a billboard with water painted on it. Like it makes scamming respectable, you got a bulldozer.
A cool breeze steals their smoke, the sun’s just making an appearance and the mark pats the girl on her short tennis skirt. She’s got a racket over one shoulder and she smiles, bright white teeth in a perfect face, perfect hair and a look that says she owns the world just for showing up.
“Top notch,” admits Leroy. “But why him?”
“He’s second generation money,” Kate says. “His father’s an engineer, made a pile investing in the Hoover Dam back in ’31. Owns a grand Victorian in San Francisco, rules the kid with his wallet. Bought him the fancy French car, pays for the lawyers when Junior goes too far with the girls.”
“Yeah?” Interested now, Leroy sees the kid leer, get in the car, drive away. “What else?”
“The kid hates the old man, wants to one up him. That makes him hungry, an easy mark.”
“What’s the take?”
“I figure eight – ten gees.”
Leroy snorts, tries to cover it up with a drag off his smoke but Kate turns on him, huffy. “It’s better than two Cee notes playing a pedigreed dog, Logan, or swindling a widow for her savings.” She’s really hot and he backpedals furiously.
“I never took any widows.”
“Not for lack of trying. You’d steal a cop’s pistol if he didn’t have one to stop you.”
Desperate Leroy says, “Why don’t we pitch the father?”
“Because I’m the roper and I say the kid. You got a problem?”
No, no; Leroy doesn’t have a problem.
Kate, armed with a pile of newly forged transcripts from a guy named Keyhole Tommy, God knows why, becomes new girl on campus Doris Clooney. She moves into a dorm at Cutler Hall, University of Northern California and within two weeks she’s been accepted as a sister in Kappa Sigma Chi, joins the tennis team and volunteers for the dance committee. She makes friends, listens to the other girls chatter about boys and, with her crown of red hair, is the envy of every brunette in the sorority.
She attends five classes and walks to campus where, on the fourteenth of March, she meets Steven, “Buzz” Barnes III.
He pulls alongside in a ’47 Yellow Bugatti with leather straps across the hood, gives her a long wolf whistle to get her attention. He’s wearing pleated slacks and a white sweater with a red ‘C’ on the right breast, his arm is draped across the passenger seat and his hair, neatly cut and gently greased, makes a slight curl above his left eyebrow. He looks, he knows, like the cat’s meow.
“Give you a lift, honey?” Ella Fitzgerald’s singing Come On a My House loud on the radio.
“I’m not your honey,” says Kate, over her shoulder, still walking. She’s wearing the campus uniform – gray poodle skirt, knee highs and patent leather pumps, red sweater tight at the chest. She carries her books like the shield of her virginity and her nose like she’s smelled something foul. “Amscray, Lothario. I’m not interested.”
Smiling, Buzz drifts the car in her wake. “Baby, don’t be like that. I’m just offering you a ride in a nice car.”
She pauses and looks over her shoulder in a Betty Grable pose. “It is a nice car…”
She sees him again of course, in town, cruising or on campus walking with a crowd of jocks. He makes eye contact and smiles when he sees her, cool, like she’s a sure thing, he’s in no hurry, and one day he’s on the street when she leaves the lecture hall, the radio still low, this time a Billie Holiday song, God Bless the Child.
Kate gets up close to listen and sings along with, “Your Daddy’s rich and your Mama’s good looking,” eyeing the car to make sure he knows she gets it – the car is his calling card, he’s got money.
So she says, “Sure, I’ll take a ride,” and gets in. Just like that he becomes a steady, bringing flowers on a Friday night, taking her to see Gary Grant at the Arcadium, his hand on her shoulder the second half of the picture.
Late night gabfests at school; Kate listens to the other girls. Becky Finch, one of the few out of state coeds who could afford the astounding $300 tuition, says, “That Buzz is bad news. I hear he got a girl in the family way and,” her voice drops to a whisper, “He wanted to send her down to Tijuana for a…you know…”
“What?” asks Linda, a short plump brunette, not one of the brightest lights. She’s wearing a long flannel nightie with pink flowers and has her hair up in metal curlers. “What?”
“You know,” whispers Becky, as pert and chirpy as her name. She rolls her eyes.
“An abortion,” says Kate to a lot of round eyes. She gets the picture – Buzz is a creep.
Later, sipping a Coke with Toni Mazur, more street smart than her sorority sisters but not in Kate’s league, she gets different view.
“Buzz is all right. He can take you places, nice places…he’s got that car and a lodge up near Reno, and a boat…he likes to take girls out on it and make them undress for him, right out in the open .”
If she’s hoping to scandalize Kate she falls short, Kate having seen plenty more in working houses on her trip west. “Doesn’t he dump you when he’s had his way?” she asks.
“You mean like why buy the cow when the milk is free?” Toni laughs. Her cigarette has lipstick prints, coral red, matches her nails. Her eyes turn upward, weighing the odds. “Maybe. But maybe he hasn’t met the right girl yet.”
“And you’d be the right girl?”
Toni grins, jack-o-lantern bright. “He’s got to chose somebody…”
Kate lies awake on the narrow bunk, drifting. She hears the faint stirrings of the other girls, four to a dorm room, rustles and snores and she wonders about herself. Is she the same as they are? Different circumstances but the same basic person?
She thinks about Leroy, gone away again on one of his trips, vanishing for a day or three or a week or two and she doesn’t know where but she knows he’s not stacking up too well at this moment. He is, she decides, basically immoral, faithful to her perhaps, but unable to pick right and wrong from a lineup. He drinks, he steals, he comes in at all hours, gambles, loses money like it’s water and the world’s a desert, and drags home some of the nastiest specimens ever seen outside of a prison.
Still…he’s trusted her to be the roper and trust is something she’s never experienced much of, with men or, come to think of it, anyone else.
She realizes she’s making the same dumb move as Toni. Sure, Leroy’s as bad as any man, probably worse, but dammit; he’s her man.
She falls asleep thinking she can change him.
Three weeks fly by before she makes her pitch.
“I don’t think I’ll be here next semester,” she tells Buzz. They’re at a beach, her swimsuit the briefest allowed by the times, with a ruffled skirt mid thigh. A chill wind tosses her hair and she wraps a towel around her shoulders. “I’ll be working for the summer, but I can’t afford to come back…what with my father and all.”
“Your father,” says Buzz, not interested but pretending to care. He’s invested all this time and still hasn’t made first base. It makes him feel insecure and confused. He says, “What about him?” and Kate spins him the tale.
She says, with just a little frost in her voice, “I told you, he’s an inventor.” She hadn’t told him but knows it will keep him off balance; men never remember. “He’s working on this great invention but doesn’t have the money to patent it. So I’ll be handing over my check all summer.” She sighs bravely.
“But I’ll come back, don’t you worry. As soon as he gets it patented he’ll sell it to one of the big companies, GE or Westinghouse, then we’ll see who’s talking. There’s gonna be money to burn. I’ll be on easy street come this time next year, fella.”
Buzz lays back in the sun, contemplating this information, wondering if he’ll be over her before the semester ends. One arm shading his eyes, he lets himself drift in semi-sexual images for a few moments before blinking.
Late night on the town hustling pool in a joint called the Corner Bar. Kate’s dolled up in sorority style showing a little leg, a little money, like she doesn’t belong here but what of it? Leroy’s her sweetheart, probably since high school, now a science major, Chemistry or something, got black glasses and a shabby suit coat, chalk on his sleeves. He calls her Dorie, she calls him Chuck.
The mark’s a biker named Curly, thick black greased hairdo, toothpick at the side of his mouth, tattoo of a devil on his left bicep. Leroy’s already lost fifty bucks in three straight games and is about to suddenly get lucky. Curly’s racking the balls at the other end when Kate says, “Barnes – senior – is a real straight arrow.”
Leroy, watching Curly flex the devil at a barfly asks, “Why do you say?”
“I checked him out. He’s a pillar of society type, donates to civic this and that, takes the mayor out on the town. He goes to church on Sunday, married thirty years, three kids, all in good schools, blah-blah. Your basic nice guy.”
“Then how come the kid hates him?” Leroy asks.
“I dunno. Maybe he’s just rebelling. Logan? Why the interest?”
Leroy makes a show of chalking his cue. “No reason; just curious.”
“That better be all,” Kate warns. “Don’t you try to cut into my play.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
She gives him a fish-eye, like she doesn’t know whether to believe him or
Not – odds say not – then shrugs, makes an ‘ooh’ noise and kneads his arm for show. “Curley’s ready. Take him.”
Leroy makes the break, drops two, then misses to give the mark a chance. Curly grins, sinks five straight, misses the sixth. Leroy sweeps the rest, leaving an easy shot on the eight in the side.
Kate says, while he lights up a cigarette and drains his beer, pure theater to stretch out the moment, “Barnes – senior – I’m trusting you, Logan.”
“Sure,” says Leroy, lining up.
“I mean it. Don’t you go getting ideas.”
“Gotcha,” he says, a little annoyed.
“About anything. I wouldn’t like it if you… What!?” She gapes as Leroy drops the eight ball and the cue lazily follows, falling in the hole with a faint clack. Curly grins and scoops up the money – two hundred in twenties – and swallows beer with the canary.
“Jeez, Logan,” says Kate, low voice and livid. “Can’t you do anything right?”
It takes her better than two hours to hustle their stake back and turn a small profit.
“It’s a broadcast generator,” says the Professor.
Buzz, not comprehending, nods vacantly, wondering when the money part comes in.
The professor is Milt Wallingham, a local grifter hired for the part. They picked Heinrich, a good German name, suggesting Teutonic innovation. Since everyone knows that the Reich scientists were ahead of the US in the big war, the suggestion becomes its own reality. Heinrich is German, ergo he’s brilliant. Gotta be.
Of course, the illusion doesn’t stop there. Leroy is already in for a month and three hundred dollars creating and printing an article for Popular Mechanics, July, 1946 that gushes about the future of broadcast electricity. It’s filled with scientific sounding mumbo-jumbo, some of it accurate, and has quotes from Philo T. Farnsworth and a nice picture of the professor in front of a blackboard.
Another C-note gets a fake cover story in Scientific American, both of which Leroy salts in the campus library. For insurance he’s been ready to hire a visiting science teacher but Buzz isn’t that smart or determined. The articles, combined with Kate’s verisimilitude and his own greed, are more than enough to cause the campus flirt to change course, now pursuing Kate for her father not her favor, his mind on a bigger prize.
Money for the forged papers, tuition…clothes to fit Kate’s new life, an low rent house for Leroy to hide out in, textbooks…a fat bribe to a weasel faced cop downtown to set the fix in case the mark makes noise…other expenses, big ones…the money flows like a river of gold – all outbound.
Fortunately, the professor is in for a piece of the eventual take, otherwise, Leroy’s a big fat zero for expenses.
But now the con is on. Doris– finally! – agrees to Buzz’s persistent pleading to meet her father and see his miracle invention. The professor, convincing in a well tailored suit that’s just a tad shabby, as if he can’t afford better any longer, has a shock of dusty frizzy hair that floats like it’s been electrified. The resemblance to Einstein is lost on Buzz except for that suggestion of familiarity and gentle genius. The boy is as dense as mahogany.
They meet at the professor’s home/lab in Sacramento, a quick hour drive in the roadster, Kate’s hair firmly pressed under a pink scarf that flutters gaily. She’s in a festive mood, babbling over the roar of the engine, touching his hand when it sits vibrating on the gearshift lever.
The professor meets them at the door, offering polite chatter and cocktails and Buzz eyes the room, seeing what he expects– a bungalow built in the early twenties, chintz covered sofa, thick drapes in deep green, wooden floors. There is an air of disuse in the room and Doris explains, “Dad’s been busy on the invention and money’s tight…”
Buzz nods and they tromp down a treacherous narrow stairway into a room filled with low counters covered with a dizzying display of beakers, electric motors, wires and boxes that do nothing he’s able to identify. A thing that looks like a colander with electrodes attached sits next to a silver box with two large dials, each vibrating ominously along a red line.
The professor whips a white cloth off a gizmo made up of large vacuum tubes, rotary dials and switches. There are black phenolic tags with white letters that say, “Power” and “Energy Level” and “Diatomic Modulator” which mean nothing to Buzz but are certainly impressive.
“Here it is,” says the professor, then, “It’s a broadcast generator,” and looks to Buzz like he’s expected to do something.
What? All eyes are on him, the professor and Doris and a funny looking little man in a white lab coat who rubs his hands as if washing them, studying Buzz with interest through tortoise shell glasses. Buzz says, “Ummm…” and gestures vaguely at the machine, “What does it do?”
The professor beams and begins to lecture. “This machine is based on the original concepts developed by Nicola Tessla in his famous experiments in Colorado Springs, Colorado…” He waits for a response and gets a goggle-eyed panicky look from Buzz.
“In eighteen-ninety-six,” explains the professor patiently, “the electrical scientist Nicola Tessla generated enough electricity to power a thousand light bulbs from his laboratory on Cheyenne Mountain. This broadcast power traveled over two miles without any wires!”
Okay, Buzz gets that part. He’s even heard of this Tessla fellow, in class or maybe in a movie like War of the Worlds, Orson Welles scaring the bejesus out of people. “Like Thomas Edison?” He ventures.
“Faugh!” spits the professor. “That so called Wizard of Menlo Park? A Pipsqueak! A pitiful thief of other men’s work. Hah! He rides on the shoulders of giants! Edison could no more conceive of such brilliance than a cow could do Calculus. No, this is no mere scientific curiosity, no technical flim-flam like the incandescent light bulb. This is a true breakthrough.”
Buzz has heard such talk, most recently from Doris at moments when his concentration is apt to wander, but he knows enough to show disinterest. The man who cares least about losing is always the winner in negotiations – his father often says this and though it’s never meant anything to him before it seems like a good idea now. He puts on a casual “show me” face and places on hand on his hip in a calculated pose. “How about a demonstration?”
“Indeed,” says the professor. He gestures to the assistant who scuttles around the room to a heavy circuit breaker mounted on the wall. He pulls down a lever and a low electrical hum fills the air along with a faint smell of ozone and burning insulation.
“Eek!” The professor dives for a fat black knob and twists it to the left. The power thrum lessens and Buzz feels his hair settle back. It feels oddly like a ghost is caressing his scalp and he shivers. Next to him, face aglow with excitement, Doris squeezes his arm and giggles nervously.
The assistant comes over and picks up a common light bulb. He hands it to Buzz who inspects it, unsure of what he’s expected to do. The man sighs, takes the bulb and walks over to an ordinary table lamp. He clicks it on and off, removes the bulb and replaces it with his own. Then he clicks the light switch again and the lamp glows.
“See?” He says, “An ordinary light bulb.” He twists it out and walks to the far end of the table. He picks up a porcelain socket, shows there are no wires attached and screws his bulb in.
“If you say so,” mutters Buzz, getting bored at this parlor trick atmosphere. If it wasn’t for Doris he’d be long gone, as disinterested in business as he is in his studies.
The professor turns the big dial again, the hum returns and Buzz gapes. The light bulb – the one way over there with no wires attached – begins glowing brightly. The professor spins the knob up and down, the light waxes and wanes in concert and Buzz swallows a suddenly dry mouth.
“My God,” he whispers, awestruck. “How did you – ?”
“It’s a broadcast generator,” says the professor.
The professor and his assistant – Leroy now without the glasses and subservient manner – are talking about the evening. Buzz and Kate – Doris – are long gone, the former stumbling out with a dazed expression as if he’s been hit by a sock full of nickels, the latter casting a backwards glance and the briefest of smiles.
The Professor, slouching in the dilapidated armchair in a most unscientific pose, is guzzling scotch from a jelly jar glass. A Cuban cigar smolders in a tray on the arm. “I thought he’d never get it.”
“He’s as dumb as a rock,” agrees Leroy. “Kate’s been priming him with the name for a week; she says it’s like teaching Sunday school to a hooker.”
The professor makes a noise in his throat as the scotch goes down hard. It’s not the best brand. “Like showing a congressman how to lower taxes,” he laughs.
Leroy, amused, “Or dieting to a great white shark. Like preaching arms control to an octopus. Like teaching –”
“Are you finished?”
“– arithmetic to a sheep.”
“I get it,” says the Professor. “Buzz is not the sharpest pencil in the box. Did you see how long it took him to get the Tessla prompt?”
“And that’s with Kate saying the name to him ten times a day,” agrees Leroy.
“Question is, will he fall for the con?”
“Surest thing you know. Kate’s got him under control. This is going to go down as smooth as that scotch you’re drinking.”
The professor glances warily at the half empty bottle – Ernie’s Black Label, bottled in Fresno. “That well?” he says and Leroy busts a gut laughing.
Buzz is afire, more enthused than any time in his life. “Do you see?” He tells Doris over steaks and wine at the Twenty-One Club. You have to be twenty-one to dine here which Kate is and Buzz and Doris aren’t, “but if you know someone…” says Buzz, “They’ll bend the rules a little.”
Try a lot. Buzz is escorted to a reserved table, old men with white towels draped over their arms bow and scrape, his every desire is catered to. It’s obvious he and his father’s money are welcome.
“Have you ever been here before?”
“No, never,” Kate’s research, done in the weeks before she let him pick her up, tells her this is his deal closing place – where he brings the awestruck coeds to eat and be eaten.
Tonight his mind isn’t on the meat, though it’s a nice cut of beef imported from Argentina, eleven dollars for a sirloin. Kate has no real idea why anyone would ship a cow from South America – don’t we grow them right here, in Nebraska, or someplace?
“I could help your father,” says Buzz. “He could get his patents and you and I could be together. You wouldn’t have to leave school.”
Kate knows this is just part of Buzz’s line he’s running on her; make the girl think she’s his main interest and she’ll give him anything – that Buzz actually has hopes of getting both her and the patents, so she nods and looks dim and desirable and Buzz rattles on and on and finally gets to the heart of the matter, which is, “How much does he need?”
This is called giving the breakdown. It’s important to let the mark bring up the price, otherwise he sees that the tight fitting dress and the fortune making invention are worms on a very sharp hook.
Kate asks, “Need for what?”
“For the patents, of course.” Honestly, Buzz thinks, echoing Leroy’s sentiments about him, it’s like talking to rubber. The girl simply has no brains at all, which, he reconsiders, is not at all a bad thing.
“Oh, those. He did say it was expensive,” says Kate as Buzz leans in to listen. “There are legal fees to research the patents and file the forms. There are drawings and descriptions to firm up the claims. Oh, and contracts to protect him from being robbed.”
“Robbed?” says Buzz, as if he’d never considered the idea. “Who would rob him?”
“Everybody. This invention can be worth a fortune to the right person. Daddy has to be extra careful who he deals with.”
“So, what kind of number are we talking?”
Kate takes a deep breath which causes the dress to swell. “Ten thousand dollars,” she says.
“Ten!” Buzz yelps like he’s a cat with a stepped on tail. His sophisticated man-about-town air deserts him and he gulps his wine, spilling some on his shirt front. Several waiters converge to sop up the mess as Kate smiles inwardly.
Three days, five hours and – Kate checks her watch, a Timex from the Woolworth counter that fits her wrist and her persona – Doris wouldn’t wear a Tiffany – thirteen minutes. That’s how long it takes for Buzz to figure out a solution to his problem. Kate has nudged him along, suggesting trips to the library to check out broadcast power and her father’s reputation. The new research librarian is a woman named Alice; she’s been married to the professor for thirty-one years. She helpfully steers Buzz in the direction of the periodicals and wishes him well as he leaves, dazed and breathing hard.
“My car,” he croaks, the words coming out like sand through a straw. “I could give you the Bugatti. You could sell it…for the money,” he adds.
Doris looks worried, chewing her lip and Buzz is transfixed by the gap in her teeth. She says, “Oh dear…”
Oh dear? Suddenly suspicious Buzz says, “What do you mean?”
“It’s just – I like you Buzz, don’t get me wrong – but this is business…and daddy’s found someone else to invest.” She covers his hand. “I’m so sorry.”
Later that evening she drives up to the house of her pseudo father and Leroy meets her on the front porch. He’s doing the Clark Gable look with underarm tee shirt under red suspenders, his fedora set at a rakish angle. A Pall Mall tip glows as he drags in the smoke and gestures at the curb.
“What’s that?” Buzz’s shiny yellow roadster gleams like a beacon in the night as Kate breezes in to kiss him on an unshaven cheek.
“A down payment,” she says, not even trying to hold back the triumph. “But there’s a problem.”
“Always is. What?”
“Buzz says Daddy insists on coming along.” She shows the gap in her teeth by chewing her lower lip, a sign that she’s more worried than she wants to let on.
“That bother you?” Leroy asks.
“No,” Kate says, too quickly. “Yes. What if he queers the deal, Logan? The
guy’s not going to fall for broadcast power, is he? I mean, we pitched this to the kid.”
“You worried because he’s honest – or afraid he isn’t?”
Too close to I told you so and Kate gets testy. “This isn’t about that. I’m just…concerned…is all.”
Which is when the professor comes out, banging the wooden screen behind him. “It’s broken again,” he gripes, rubbing grease off his hands. “The damn thing doesn’t last more than a couple of minutes before it burns out.”
“Well,” says Leroy. “That’s all it’s supposed to do, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but –”
Impatient, Leroy snaps, “We’ll fix it, all right? If it takes all night, we’ll fix it.” He turns to Kate as the professor beats a hasty retreat back inside.
“And don’t worry about Barnes senior. I have faith in you. You’ll handle it fine.”
Kate, almost blushing, kisses his cheek at the reassurance. “Awww…you’re ok, Logan. Anybody ever tell you that?”
“Not anyone,” he says solemnly. “Not ever.”
Steven Barnes II, a stuffed shirt businessman with more weight than his tailored suit can manage to conceal wears has a brown Homburg and a pencil thin mustache, the kind favored by bankers and pimps. He shifts a brown valise to his left hand as introductions are made in the living room and he shakes hands with the Professor. His attitude is contemptuous toward his son, leering at Doris and wary concerning the old German scientist.
“Buzz tells me you have an amazing contraption down in your basement,” he says, once the formalities are finished. “I’d like to see it.”
They all follow to the basement, squeezing through the tight stairway and find, as before, the white smocked assistant sweeping up in the shadows at the end of the room.
“Enough of that, Fennimen,” barks the Professor. “Let’s show these gentlemen what broadcast energy is all about.”
“Yessir,” says Leroy with the right amount of subservience. Kate’s sweating bullets but Leroy seems as collected as the income tax as he trots around the room, repeating the show, finishing when the bulb glows in the low humm of electrical energy.
He hears Buzz say, “See? Did I tell you?”
“You did,” says Barnes senior. “This is everything I expected it to be.”
That causes Buzz to frown but Barnes senior goes to the Professor and hands over the valise. “As promised, sir; ten thousand dollars, cash.”
The professor reaches out a hand as the electricity pulses and the light wavers. There is a feeling of anticipation in the cramped room as the case slips from Barnes’ grip into the waiting palm of the professor. Then it’s done and a collective sigh seems to appear.
Until Barnes says, “Broadcast power? Seriously? You people are all under arrest,” which causes quite a stir. Barnes twists the big black knob and the hum stops. The light bulb also goes out leaving the room in the hard dim light of the counter top fluorescents.
“What on Earth?” gasps the Professor, almost sounding convincing, and “Oh, Hell,” from Kate, quicker on the uptake. Leroy is a ghost in a white lab coat.
Finally, Buzz catches up. “What’s going on? Father? What are you doing?”
Barnes senior sneers. “It should be obvious, son, even to you. These people are con men, suckering you into a scam.”
“No,” says Buzz. “No. That’s not possible.”
“Denying it doesn’t make it any less true. Now then, who’s the mastermind here?” Barnes is enjoying himself. “The Professor? I don’t think so. You, my dear?” He aims his gaze on Kate who looks like a deer caught in a headlight.
“No,” says Barnes senior. You’re too pretty. You must be the bait.”
“Hey,” objects Buzz.
Barnes senior laughs, says to Kate. “My son is not the smartest person on the planet –”
“Hey!” says Buzz.
“- He’s as stupid as he is pretty.” As an aside he adds, “He gets that from his mother. She’s a looker, but dense as a stalk of celery.”
“Not like you,” says Kate and Barnes laughs.
“When he came to me with this cockamamie story about an invention and Nicola Tessla and a beautiful redhead; it had all the makings of a bad movie. I mean; broadcast power?” He manages contempt and content at once. “And when the request came for cash, I knew it was a trick.”
“You chose well, I grant you that. My son is obviously an easy mark. He’s as dumb as a cow –”
“As stupid as standing up crossing the Delaware–”
“Hey!” says Buzz, not understanding but knowing the general idea.
“Dumber than a frog in a punch bowl–”
“Cut it out, Dad!”
“We got it okay,” says Kate. “Well, no harm done. What say we all just go our separate ways…?” She fakes a move toward the door.
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Barnes senior chuckles. “Nice try, though.”
“What’s gonna stop us?”
“The three policemen waiting outside,” says Barnes with a laugh that is now particularly unpleasant. “The armed ones.”
“Oh,” says Kate. “Those policemen.”
Then Leroy shrugs off the lab coat and steps out of the shadows and Barnes senior loses the smirk. His eyes bug out like a cartoon as he yells, “You!”
Three men sitting in a booth in a dark restaurant. Thick glasses of amber liquor on the table, thick glasses on their faces, thick noses mottled with age, heavy jowls, bushy eyebrows. One of them wheezes as he puffs from a fat Havana. A pile of white china plates covered with the remnants of T-bone steaks, mashed potatoes and gravy, linen napkins wadded, ashtrays full, waiters stopping by, “Sir? Is everything all right?”
They talk in eastern accents, New York, Jersey, Toledo, hard consonants cracking like pebbles against short sentences.
“Did you believe it?” says the oldest, a small boned man named Limehouse Chappie, long famed as one of the originators of the wire store con. He’s come out of retirement from Buffalo, riding in a week ago on the Pacific Flyer, a Pullman coach with a sleeper berth. He hasn’t traveled in years and feels it in old bones, arthritic joints. Still, he can’t stop smiling, which makes the Negro porter laugh, just looking at him.
“Nah,” says a skeletal bag of skin named Nibs Callahan, used to run the big store in Toledo. His teeth are stained yellow from a three pack a day habit, his face is flush with booze and his hands shake as he pokes at his jaw with a toothpick. He met up with Limehouse on the Flyer and they cheated at cards all night long, swapping stories of the old days. “Kid’s a pistol, gotta give him that.”
“I made him pay me up front,” admits the final guy, grunting behind a closed fist before spitting into his napkin. He raises his glass and yells out, “Sonny! Get me another!” A waiter nods and dashes; he knows players when they enter the place.
“Didn’t believe he’d actually bring in a mark for a wire store scam.” They know him as Detroit Paul, ran a wire room in Michigan, out of work since the depression scared away the easy marks, ending the golden age of the long con. Once though, he could sell you stock as phony as a three dollar bill and put you on the send for more. He’d once worked a mark three times before having to duck out after a bum fix.
Three men, as much the remnants of another age as the detritus on the table; meal over, make way for the next diner.
They’re shocked when that next diner, in the form of a green stick from New Orleans comes calling, finding them in hotels as old and run-down as they are, the Queens, the Continental, the Carleton. They each listen, scoff and decline. Over the hill, they told him, can’t be done anymore, they said, “G’wan, beat it, kid. Ya bother me.”
But the kid goes on and on and one by one they fall to his sweet talk, lies some of it, bald-faced but oh, so pretty, all those lies. “You guys are legends,” he tells them and they eventually bite, like people will when their time is past and they get one last call.
So they ride the rails, high on the hog on the kid’s dime, all the way to California, never been there before, not once, and a good thing too, nobody out here had ever heard of them.
They use his money and a few of his contacts – the kid is green, doesn’t have many, but the old men are pros, they talk to people who talk to people and soon they have a place and a crew and the last wire store in America goes up in an unused office, third floor, right down the hall from Capone, Drew and Webster, Investment Consultants. Real guys, those, legit, makes Limehouse say, “Adds an air, don’t it? Hell, I’d believe it myself.”
They put up the tote board, odds in chalk, guys with wired headsets, green eyeshades, garters on the sleeves, cigarettes dangling. They bring in callers and shills and heavy chairs and fat carpet, all top notch, and money everywhere; wads of cash, most of it flash rolls, showing Cleveland’s face, Grover on the Gee note, front and back over piles of singles.
Phones ring, stock prices change, arcane shouts fill the room as much as the gray fog of a hundred smokes. The overhead fans don’t stand a chance of keeping up.
Truth is, they’re all in old man heaven when the kid walks in with the actual mark, a blowhard named Barnes from San Francisco. They’re set up in Sacramento, which is only right. You never take a mark on his home turf, too easy for him to slip the hook or call in the local heat. You have to send him home for the money or you haven’t played him right.
Barnes gets in a play, takes in four thousand of the kid’s money as a convincer, and he struts away like he’s got a broom handle up his spine, Mr. Money. They all know the tale, the kid’s going to distract him with a small play back home, make him travel, not know if he’s coming or going.
The old men grumble about this; it seems too complicated, but they eventually come around. New times, they decide judiciously, call for new methods.
Barnes comes back for another play and they short him out, a guy named Chick Nelson, plays a British gent in tweeds, buying up the remaining tip that the kid’s convinced the mark is a sure thing. The mark grumbles but when the stock rises as expected, they see the wheels turning, greed swelling like an appendix about to burst.
It’s another week before Barnes is back and this time they take him for a full one hundred and fifty large, bills in a suitcase, brown with leather straps, tags say it’s from Marshall Field in Chicago. They leave it for the kid to do the blow off and as quickly as it was built, the wire store is dismantled.
Now the guys are in the restaurant, fed and drunk and high on the last golden taste of sweet sweet victory. The case is at Limehouse Chappie’s feet; his brogans touch it often, a leather clad caress.
“What’s his name again,” says Nibs Callahan. His memory is as shot as his hearing. “I can’t never remember.”
“Logan,” says Detroit Paul. “Leroy Logan.” His voice is dry, like snakes hissing in a cloth sack as he laughs, a truly wicked sound, and his face splits in an evil grin.
“Hows about we just split with the loot, gentlemen? Leave the kid high and dry. Whaddaya say?”
They do consider it. They wouldn’t be con men if they didn’t at least give it a passing thought, but Limehouse nixes the idea. “Isn’t what he gave us enough? I mean beyond our cut?”
And Nibs adds, “It’s not all about the money.”
And they all know exactly what he means.
A whole lot of milling about, much uncomfortable silence and everyone gapes except Barnes senior who keeps on looking like a ghost is walking toward him.
Kate says, “What the hell?”
Leroy touches her cheek as he passes and she recoils, furious, like he’s queering her pitch. Inside though she’s relieved; the blowoff was not going the way she expected.
Barnes says, “Conrad?” to Leroy who nods. “What’s this all about? Why are you here?” He doesn’t add, “What about my money?” But he’s thinking it.
“Do you really want me to explain?” Leroy gets up close and Barnes, bluster entirely missing, leans in to listen. “Your money’s gone, Barnes. It was taken in a scam a lot more obvious than this one we pulled on your kid. You got taken.”
Barnes rears up, outrage and indignation, then sees his son staring at him, open-mouthed, head shaking with confusion and he knows – he knows – he can’t say a word. His image as the sophisticate, his status as Buzz’s father, all of it will vanish if he opens his mouth.
“I -” he stammers.
Leroy puts a hand to his ear, cupping it. “You got something to say? Maybe tell the kid how stupid he is?”
“Noth…nothing.” Barnes senior, breathing hard, tries to take the briefcase from Kate – he has to tug but she won’t let it go – and gestures for his son. “Let’s go, junior.” His voice is husky with emotion, what if the kid ever finds out?
They walk out the door, father and son, two men cut from the same cloth.
The sunrise yellow ’47 Bugatti Runabout grumbles pleasantly in the dark night like a cheerfully demented dragon, just finished with St. George, too full to eat the maiden for desert. It has low headlights, a foreign shift and leather buckles tight against the bonnet. Kate’s at the wheel, looking as angry and impatient as a woman can with a briefcase full of cash on her lap and she refuses eye-contact as Leroy jumps in next to her, grinning.
It’s a full thirteen miles out of town and swooping too fast on a winding road before she says, “I hate you.”
He laughs, “I love you.’
Facing him, she demands, “How could you do that to me?”
“Well,” he says, which is what he always says when he’s about to launch into something really outlandish, but he grabs his hat instead, one hand holding onto the suicide strap as Kate takes a corner on two wheels.
“Don’t you ‘well’ me, you bastard. What were you doing, breaking my play?”
“I got seventy-two thousand dollars from the wire store, Kate,” Leroy answers. “After expenses.”
Kate downshifts the car to third, letting off the clutch so hard Leroy’s teeth feel like they’re coming out as the car drops fifty miles per in about three seconds. She twists the wheel hard to the right and jerks to a stop at the side of the road under a eucalyptus. The night is suddenly quiet as the motor hums and the shadows dance in pale moonlight that tries to reach them through the branches.
“That’s not the point, Logan. You didn’t trust me to make the blowoff.”
“I trusted you,” he lies. “But the real mark was Barnes senior, not the son. I figured the father would break in on the scam to prove how smart he is and I used that to take him on the stock swindle.”
Kate’s not buying. Her hands are clenching around the wheel like it’s his neck. “You should have told me.”
“I should have told you,” Leroy agrees. He’d say anything now and does. “I got seventy-two thousand dollars from the wire store, Kate.”
She grabs the bag and shakes it in his face. “Ten thousand Logan; that’s what we agreed to play for.”
“Yes, but –”
She shoves his arm, pushing harder as he resists. “Get out! Get out of my car.”
“Your car? Whadaya mean your…ook.” Caught off balance, he tips over as the door opens and Kate shifts gears, jerking the car forward. He scrambles to his feet yelling.
“Wait! What are you doing?” But the car’s gaining speed, spraying gravel. Baffled, he yells louder, “But I got seventy-two thousand dollars!”
Which stops the car. A shriek of gears, a squeal of tires and Kate’s back, twisting around in the seat as if she’s after something. Delighted, as uncomprehending as a collie pup, Leroy trots forward thinking all is forgiven.
But no. As he reaches the car Kate hauls the battered brown suitcase from the boot and swings it, a good arc that collides with his chest, knocking him back. One of the latches snaps and money begins spilling out and Leroy has to clutch the case and clutch the bills as Kate double clutches and darts off again.
Holding the suitcase, silhouetted by the full moon, with money flying off in the gentle breeze, Leroy races after the sporty little roadster, faster and faster until it tops the hill and disappears in a jaunty wave of its little red taillights.
Author’s note: Limehouse Chappie, Nibs Callahan and Detroit Paul were all real confidence men who helped create the “golden age” of the big con.
End of Chapter Two
IT’S ALL FUN AND GAMES UNTIL SOMEBODY’S MARRIED
Omaha, Nebraska, May, 1953
Leroy in the crappy green tin shower singing “It’s a Barnum and Bailey World! Just a phony as it can beeeeee…” while Kate, in a full white slip, combs tangles from the back of her hair. On the queen-size bed, the rumpled remains of last night – punched in pillows, white china plates on the floor from Benny’s Take Out Deli, a couple of greasy fries with blood red ketchup, cigarette butts standing like grave markers.
The Nebraska sky, fat with rain clouds, casts dim shadows and Kate turns on the overhead light. She smiles, gap-toothed, at the sound of his singing, which is good because he shows no sign of stopping.
Neither does the rain, which has been steadily falling for three days, making the air feel like soup and the roads impassable with thick brown mud. The rain is the reason for Leroy’s unabashed good humor.
He sings, ‘But it wouldn’t be make believe if you believe in me,’ steps naked out of the shower and wraps a small white towel around skinny hips. He grabs her shoulder, spins her into a ballroom position as she shrieks, “Logan!” and he tangos them cheek to cheek into the motel living room/bedroom where he stubs his toe and loses the towel. He hops away cursing as Kate dissolves into laughter.
Later, dressed, they make a quick dash to a long blue Olds 88 that sits dripping water from a grinning metal grill, looking like a giant bulldog that’s just eaten a mailman; soggy, but satisfied. Leroy driving, fingers tapping the huge plastic wheel in a spasm of restless energy, bopping to the music on KVOW, the voice of the Midwest. Kate’s loving the moment, taking in the high emotions of Leroy Logan at the top of his game, grinning like a kid at Christmas as they talk about the scam.
“This one’s the best yet.”
“Guy’s a natural victim. It’s like he’s begging us to take him.”
“Then we’d be fools not to, wouldn’t we?”
He squeezes her knee and swerves around a Sunday driver doing thirty in the rain.
They park at a greasy spoon near the race track, a hangout for jockeys, trainers, stable hands and, at the moment, Jim-Bob Binford, maybe the best pickpocket in America.
He’s sipping coffee from a white mug, studying the menu as if it might have changed from the last three weeks they’ve eaten here as Leroy and Kate park themselves in the booth. The place is all Formica and steel tables with pine walls, as cozy as a bus depot.
Jim-Bob takes a few minutes to debate the virtues of the meat loaf over the pork chops, voicing his opinion in a Tennessee drawl thicker than the gravy that covers the chicken-fried steak he finally settles on. Leroy digs into a sirloin while Kate, still grinning, wolfs down a cheeseburger. It’s been a strenuous afternoon and she glows like a candle in a cave.
Jim-Bob polishes off his succotash, shoving it and gravy and the last of his dinner roll into his mouth, they order pie and vanilla ice cream and Leroy lights smokes for Kate and himself and everybody smiles as they contemplate – at last! – the running of a particularly good long con.
Jim-Bob says, “It’s about friggin’ time, innit?” Referring to the long weeks they’ve been waiting for the rain to come and stay, time spent fretting, seeing the limited sites of Omaha and playing cards. Jim-Bob’s out better than ninety bucks and he figures – correctly – that Leroy’s been cheating, but he can’t figure out how.
Just last night he says to Snowy Deuce, “Leroy’s cheatin’, but I can’t figger how,” and Snowy, always upbeat, says back, “A course he’s cheatin’; be glad he’s only playin’ penny-ante or we’d be out our whole entire cut.” Snowy Deuce is a California boy born and raised, but he takes on the accent of whoever’s talking. Right now he sounds like a Tennessee possum.
Jim-Bob stands less than five-two, weighs only a hundred, hundred-five soaking wet, which is now, since it’s raining. He makes his legitimate stake as a jockey, riding nags in local races, winning when he can, dipping wallets when the horses aren’t running.
“We’re going to play it tomorrow at dawn,” says Leroy, little more than a shadow in the smoky room. The diner is full and everybody’s lit up something, so it’s like being in the boiler room of the Titanic just before the iceberg. The clunky yellow glass ashtray is full to overflowing with butts, Pall-Mall (Leroy), filtered (Jim-Bob, because he’s watching his health) and red (Kate’s new lipstick is Maybelline Tropical Sunset.)
“You got it?”
“Sure.” Jim-Bob reaches into a damp wool vest to retrieve a shiny silver stopwatch on a short chain. He hands it to Kate who snaps it open and reads the inscription. To Maurice, Love Sharon. The face of the watch is engraved with intricate flowers and thorny vines that caused the forger Jerry Dix to cluck with annoyance and double his price.
Worth it, thinks Leroy, admiring the piece over Kate’s shoulder. “It works?”
“Three point four seconds slow every time,” says Jim-Bob.
Kate’s fingers caress the delicate object. “Like taking candy,” she says. “Logan; how’d you even think of such a thing?”
Leroy beams, justifiably proud; this might be the best con he’s ever planned.
Friday morning, dressed in overcoats and sweaters, fedoras pulled tight against the cold wind and slicing rain, Leroy and Jim-Bob hunched along the rails of the training track at Sullivan’s Stables. Nearby is an emaciated old man who doesn’t look like he can last long in this weather. Kate has, predictably, declined to rise at dawn to watch, “some damn horse run around.” Kate is not a morning person.
But Maurice Sendinger is. He’s a geezer in a heavy wool greatcoat that adds thirty pounds to his skinny frame, dragging him down with the weight of the water. His head, under his snap-brim hat, is covered with wispy threads of hair and brown liver spots. His nose is large and crooked and he glares out at the world through enormous black framed glasses. His teeth look like dried up old cheese.
Let’s get on with this,” he commands, his voice surprisingly loud and strong. “None of us is getting any younger.”
Jim-Bob says, “Right,” slips in the mud and has to grab Maurice by the collar. Both men stumble but keep their feet, Jim-Bob mutters, “Sorry, Bubba; my fault,” before slip-sliding off to the stables.
Ten minutes of silence and several cigarette butts thrown in the mud before they hear the hoof beats of half a dozen horses approaching. There’s a bustle of activity as jockeys arrange their mounts, snorting white steam in the cold wet air, then, with a wave of the trainer’s arm, they begin a mad scramble down the track. On the inside rail, ridden by the tiny Jim-Bob Binford, is a big chestnut named Prickly Pear.
Maurice holds a silver stopwatch high, his thumb poised on the stem as the horses pound by. Several are slipping in the mud but Prickly Pear gallops steadily to reach the front of the pack. Leroy is yelling, “See! I told you!” over and over as they reach the turn and thunder back.
Maurice slaps his thumb down on the watch as they go by, then stares at it intently. He shakes his head as the morning again gets quite, the herd drifting back to the comfort of the stables. A bird trills a tentative question.
“I don’t believe it,” says Maurice. He gapes at the watch. “One minute-fifty-three point seven. In the mud. I’ve never seen a horse run the mile in less than two minutes twelve before. In the mud.” He seems dazed, like somebody’s hit him with a left hook.
Leroy like a proud papa with newborn twins says, “Did I tell you? He can’t be beat.”
They retire to an upstairs bar in the rear of the grandstands where an old man serves them coffee that steams in ceramic mugs. The tables are stacked with upended chairs and the only light is from the huge glass windows that overlooks the track. Maurice holds his cup in both hands and wheezes from the walk up five flights. Leroy doses his from a hip flask.
“All right,” Maurice manages finally. “How do you do it?”
Instead Leroy says, “You in?”
“The hell kind of question is that? Of course I’m in. I just want to know how.”
Leroy gets quiet and leans forward, a sure tell that he’s about to lie. “I found this horse last year in a stable near Lexington. Nag can’t run a mile in less than two minutes-thirty and hasn’t won a race or placed in the money in three years. The owner decides to sell and I pick it up cheap as a gift for my daughter.” He pauses to take out his wallet, flip it open to a cute blonde kid, pony-tail and braces, smiling from atop a chestnut horse about ten times her size. “Wanna see?”
“No, I don’t want to see,” snaps Maurice. “I want to hear.”
“Sure, sure. Don‘t get snippy.” Leroy, muttering as he lights up a Pall-Mall, finally gets to the point. “We’re at home one day, it’s raining like now, and some damn fool lets out a backfire from a ’46 Desoto. Well, before I know it, the nag bolts, jumps a fence and takes off down this country lane runs by my place, goes down to Brimley about three miles.
“I can’t believe what I’m seeing. That horse is running like Man O’ War himself, and me, I’m nobody’s fool so I decide right then to test him out. Seems that this horse can’t run on a dry track for spit, but put him in the mud and he’s a goin’ Jesse.”
“He runs faster in the mud,” muses Maurice. His hands and face are starting to regain some color and his wheezing is down to the gasping of an overloaded locomotive but the light in his eyes is pure wonder. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“It’s rare,” agrees, Leroy, as solemnly as if he was telling the truth. “But I did some reading and it turns out there’s a bit of a legend about mudders. They don’t come along too often and when they do they’re not considered worth their training fees ‘cause, let’s face it, not all that many races are run in the rain.”
“But,” says Maurice, getting it, “sometimes they run races in the rain.”
“You catch on quick,” says Leroy, grinning and bobbing his head. “This horse has a long record of running slow so the odds are going to be long when we put him in a big race.”
“Like the Grant Ford Memorial at Ak-Sar-Ben this Saturday,” says Maurice. “We bet a bundle on a long shot that runs away on a muddy track. We make a fortune.” He stops to nod appraisingly. “If,” he says, “It’s still raining Saturday.”
“We can only hope.”
“What happens next is that he’ll want to see it again. He won’t be taken in on just one run. We’re going to have to do the switch a couple more times before the mark is ready.”
Kate’s sipping a dry martini, the rim of the glass tight against her lip as she smiles at him. The smile promises mortal delights such as man has never imagined and Leroy shivers, not solely from the cold. They’re sitting in the lodge style lobby of a hotel that caters to the higher class horse people who flock to the races every year, bringing in a lot of cash. Ak-Sar-Ben, the local track, is legendary for running races with big purses, sometime the largest between Chicago and the west coast. The fireplace is as big as a railroad tunnel and there’s a log in it that burns with the flames of Hell.
Kate tips an olive with her tongue, holds it and her glance, then smiles. “A crooked stopwatch. Only you, Logan. It’s like you can turn back time.”
“Who’d believe it,” agrees Leroy. “We swap his real watch with the copy that runs slow and suddenly a nag becomes a rocket. Simple, elegant…”
“And so very twisty,” purrs Kate. They’ve been having the best time these past four years, ever since she made him pay for his betrayal in California. She hadn’t come back to him for more than month, betting he’d be all pins and needles crazy when she finally showed up in her little sports car, painted a deep maroon in case Barnes ever decided to get it back.
Living alone without Logan, Kate realized something about herself; she didn’t like living alone without Logan. She didn’t like a lot of other things, like boredom and early mornings and real work, but mostly she missed the excitement of being with a man who consistently did big things. When he was setting up a con he was like a juggler, keeping six things in the air, nothing falling out, everything looking easy. She loves him, of course, but never as much as when he’s got his fingers in somebody’s pies. Now Kate toasts her good fortune by smiling wickedly, a look so apparent that he almost loses his train of thought.
Almost. Kate know her charms, sees her effect on him daily, but also knows that when he’s on a con his attention is more focused on the plan than on her. So when he says, “Um…he’ll want another taste before he plunges. Then you’ll come in to take the money,” she drops the seduction for a question.
“Why push? Don’t we have him already?”
“We do,” agrees Leroy. “And we don’t. There’s something squirrelly about this guy that I can’t quite figure out.” He shakes his head, momentarily concerned. “It’s like I know him from somewhere…’
“How’s that possible?” Kate asks. “I know everybody you know and I’ve never seen him before. You’re imagining things is all. You’ve got the heebie-jeebies.”
“The heebie-jeebies,” Leroy laughs, loving her expressions. Kate can pull a smile from a lemon sucker, make a camel look high-spirited and charm the pants off a snake. He’s about to say something risqué when a thought hits him. “The guy,” he says, frowning.
“What about him?”
Leroy shakes his head, the image gone. “For a second there, I thought I had it, but no; never mind.”
“Let it go, Logan. If it’s important it’ll come back to you.”
“Sure, that must be right.”
Turns out it isn’t.
He meets Maurice at the track again, another cold rainy six AM bout with pneumonia. Jim-Bob does the watch swap, they watch the horses run, retreat to the bar and listen to Maurice go on about how he’s going to clean up on this horse. “He’s a can’t miss,” says Maurice for about the third time and Leroy’s getting into the spirit thinking, It’s never been this easy before. He worries about that for a couple of seconds then lets it go. Too much like looking a gift horse in the mouth.
“What if it doesn’t rain this weekend?” asks Maurice, worried. Today he’s drinking coffee laced with bourbon to cut the morning chill while Leroy drinks his straight, the better to keep his wits. Not that he really needs to, this bird is already skinned and in the oven.
They’re joined by Wilkey Smithers, who slips into a vacant chair like a ghost, startling Maurice into spilling his coffee.
“K-Rist on a crutch!,” he gasps, sopping up the mess with a paper napkin covered with galloping horses under the legend The Big Tote Bar. “Don’t sneak up like that.”
Wilkey is pretty close to being an albino; white hair, pale skin, colorless eyes. He dresses in dark clothes which make the effect more startling, like a zebra just walked in and ordered a drink.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” he tells the waitress and she brings another mug, refills everyone and walks away. Maurice tips his flask, pouring some into the new cup, then his own. Wilkey sips, grimaces and smiles. “Now that warms the body.”
He toasts, “Gentlemen; May all your horses be winners.” They touch mugs as he turns cold reptilian eyes on Leroy, like he knows him but doesn’t want to. Leroy doesn’t care; he’s not in this to be liked, and besides, he’s paying Wilkey two gees to play this part.
The role is being a trainer who runs horses occasionally at Ak-Sar-Ben, a guy who’s pretty good at it if you count good as making a living more or less on the square. Today he’s more less than more.
He says, “I hear you’ve been watching that nag of yours, Cutler.” Cutler is Leroy’s current nom de misguidance, a name he picked out of the Omaha white pages, coupling it with the exotic Rance because the odder the name the more people believe it. A con artist named Jones would starve in a week.
“What’s it to you?” Leroy barks back, touchy. He’s a man with secrets says his body language, and he notes that Maurice is picking up on it. It sets them apart, makes them allies.
“Nothing.” Wilkey makes a show of not caring. “But I see you want me to run him in the Grant Ford. That nag don’t stand a chance. You gotta know that.”
“Again,” says Leroy. “What of it?”
“Well, I’m thinking,” says Wilkie. “Why would smart fellows like you be interested in running a sure loser? And I thinks to myself, Wilkie, old son; maybe because Prickly Pear isn’t such a loser after all.” He grins wickedly at Maurice who is looking a little like the weather outside – gray and clammy.
“Unless you’re betting him to lose.” His smile gets bigger, revealing a gold capped tooth. “But who’d bet on him to win? The horse hasn’t even placed in three years. So I guess you men are up to something.”
He lets that sink in as he polishes off his doctored coffee, watching Maurice fight off what appears to be heart failure while Leroy turns to stone. The waitress comes by, waves the pot, picks up on the silence and does an about face like it’s contagious.
“I want a piece,” says Wilkie, after it becomes plain that no one else is going to speak.
“Of…of…,” sputters Maurice, “Of what?”
“Whatever you’re doing.”
The meeting goes downhill from there.
Kate and Leroy on the top of the Ferris wheel, Ak-Sar-Ben fairgrounds, sticky with blue and pink cotton candy, pointing out the sights.
“Look! You can see all the way to…over there,” says Kate, trying to put a spin on the extremely flat countryside. It’s still drizzling, which is good for the con, bad for the fair and worse for her hair, which is flying around her face like windblown fire. She has cotton candy in it from tucking it away from her eyes.
“And a damned good over there it is,” agrees Leroy, eyes crinkled, good humor running wild. This has been the best day ever for them both. Worldly and cynical, they seldom get to spend time making up for the years lost in the depression, on the road or hustling for a living. When Kate suggests the fairgrounds, Leroy hardly even scoffs, instead getting so far into the spirit that he wins her a stuffed brown teddy bear at a booth on the Midway, dropping six bucks in dimes to get it.
It sits between them in the swaying car. Kate reaches over it, squeezes his shoulder and smiles, a kid smile, nothing but today in it, nothing but joy. The wheel goes around and later Leroy tries to ring the bell on a hammer scam, failing to get the damn thing past Weakling on three tries. Walking away he grouses, “I know how they do that. Did you see how the guy leans against the wire? He makes the slide stiffen so the ball can’t go up. Then when the shill does it, he lets off and it’s easy.”
Kate says, “Knock it off, Logan. Not everything’s a scam.”
The wind rises and she doesn’t hear him say, “Yes, it is.”
But despite the cold, the constant drizzle, the observations on human nature, the sickening food and high prices – ten cents for popcorn? A nickel for a soda pop? – they’re having the best time in a long run of very good times indeed when they get to the motel and Kate sees the telegram sticking out of the door jam. It’s yellow and folded into a white envelope that says Western Union, addressed to Leroy Logan, but she opens it anyway as he slips past her, moving fast toward the john.
The telegram reads, “George in hospital with pneumonia. Urgent you send money.” Kate reads it with increasing dread, looks at the dark varnished bathroom door and drops her arm slowly to her side. The yellow paper flutters to the floor.
She speaks softly so her voice is muffled through the door.
“Logan? Who’s Adele Logan?”
A whole lotta silence follows that question.
He’s got a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other and he’s sitting on the edge of the bed watching Kate. She’s wearing a big fuzzy sweater, the color of a faded orange that she seems to want to call tangerine, her hair is huge and her eyes are as wild as a mare in a stampede. She’s angry and restless, climbing the walls, back and forth, up and down and Leroy’s getting eyestrain trying not to watch.
“Your wife?” she bellows, loud enough to break china if they had any. “You have a wife?” The room is only about twelve feet square with the bed taking up a good piece of it, so there isn’t a lot of room to pace. She hits her palm on the pine covered wall every other turn. It makes a cracking noise that makes Leroy flinch. “You didn’t think to mention a wife?”
“It’s not what you think, Kate,” he says, though it probably is. Hard to explain to a long-time girlfriend that you have a wife stashed away in New Orleans. “I only married her ‘cause she was pregnant.”
“What?!” He hadn’t thought it could get worse, but it does. “You’ve got a kid?”
“George,” says Leroy, wondering if there’s a way to make this come out well. He can’t think of one, even if lying is involved, so he sticks to the truth hoping maybe it will surprise her. “See, Kate; it’s like this…”
She eyes him the way she would a cockroach. “Please,” she says, “tell me.”
“I met Adele before I met you, a couple of months before I left for the Navy. We had some good times and she got herself pregnant – with George – he’s about seven now, I think –” He sounds like he’s about to show some pictures but stops at her look.
“Anyway, she got herself pregnant and I married her ‘cause that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?” He gives her this bright collie look, like he’s brought her a favorite chew toy – let’s play fetch! – but she stops him with a glare. He rushes on, quieter, guessing that this isn’t the time for endearing.
“I married her and she had the boy and I send money every month because – again! – that’s what a stand-up guy’s supposed to do, support his family, and you know me, Kate; I’m a stand-up guy, but I’ve never been back there, Kate; honest, I’ve never been unfaithful to you.”
She sees the light, like the headlight of the train that’s about to splatter your car all along the tracks. So this is where the money’s been going all this time. This is why we’re always flat broke; he’s sending money home to support a wife and son. And that thought, bad as it is, is replaced by this one: “You’ve never been back there?”
“Never, Kate; I swear it.” He even crosses his hand in front of his heart, like he has one, the weasel. Then he adds, like it’s a little thing, hardly worth mentioning, “Except to see George a few times, his birthdays, maybe Christmas once or twice. But never with Adele. I haven’t been with Adele except that time in New Orleans when she got herself pregnant.”
“She got herself pregnant?” Kate pounces on him, picking this point because the others border too close to panic. “She got herself pregnant? Like you had nothing to do with it? A virgin birth, is that what you’re telling me?”
“Um…no.” Words are failing him like they’ve never done before as he desperately tries to find something – anything – that will save him. “I don’t mean…she didn’t…I mean she did! – and well, so did I, but just that one time, maybe a couple others, only that was before I met you, don’t you see? I did this before I met you.”
“And that makes it right? You didn’t tell me all these years, you got a wife and kid and now I’m expected to…to…what? What the hell am I expected to do?”
Leroy thinks, “Drop it?” but decides not to say so out loud.
Kate seems to totter on the brink of fury – Leroy hopes so because then he’ll be able to talk again – and tears, which will shut him up like that damn leaky faucet there in the john. She stares at him and she’s crying while trying not to which makes him feel like that cockroach for real and he’s sorry now, not because the shoe’s about to crush him but because she’s hurting and he knows he’s maybe a little bit to blame.
The silence lasts a very long while before she finally says, “How could you?” It’s a hurt voice, like a child betrayed by a parent, she doesn’t get it, how can this be happening? – and Leroy wants to get up and comfort her somehow when it all gets very loud in this small room.
“You bastard,” she bellows. She grabs a couple of pillows and throws them one at a time. “You unbelievable snake. You lousy two-timing son of a bitch. I can’t believe after all we’ve been through, you’d do something this low. I mean, I trusted you, Logan.”
There’s more, all spoken while she prowls the room, grabbing up clothes from the floor – Kate’s never been a tidy person – cosmetics from the little bathroom, throwing them in a suitcase on the bed, nearly hitting him as she swings it with much fury and no regard for whether his head is actually in the way.
Leroy watches this activity with little alarm, comforted by the routine. Kate’s packed up and left before and he knows it’s just a matter of time before she comes back. Sure, this one’s a little bigger than most but she’ll get over it.
She pauses at the door to shake her head sadly at him, like maybe this time he’s gone to far, then she turns away, leaving the door open and the rain and cold in her place.
He hears the car door slam and thinks again, she’ll be back.
She always comes back.
It’s a distracted and uncommonly morose Leroy Logan who, posing once again as Rance Cutler, two-bit racehorse owner, is out in the wind and wet. He’s on the rails with Maurice who looks like he’s taking to the chill air poorly this morning; all hacks and wheezes, coughing like he’s a three-pack a day smoker, which is odd since all he puffs on are those foul smelling cigars, not that Leroy cares, about the smoking or the guy himself. He’s got his own problems.
Three days and no sign of Kate. He’s realizing that maybe this is a serious, not something to be solved with an earnest smile and a thick layer of lies Maybe, he’s thinking, they’re going to be apart even longer than the month she spent punishing him for the Bugatti incident. She didn’t take any money this time, for instance, and that can’t mean anything good. He figures he’s going to have to buy her something shiny and expensive and that means this situation right here.
Besides, what do they say in show business? The con must go on, something like that, or break a leg, which Leroy is seriously considering doing if the damn windbag doesn’t shut up. Maurice has been on him all day about Wilkie blackmailing them, saying we ought to do this, Rance, we ought to do that. A track full of horses flies by and Maurice whispers something that really gets his attention.
“We ought to kill him.”
People cheer, losing tickets get torn up and thrown like confetti as Leroy thinks, Yeah? Kill him? and decides it’s a pretty good idea all in all. It comes to him full blown, the whole scene; him with a gun, Wilkie flattening against the wall, shaking his head, “No! Rance, don’t do it!” Something like that, and Leroy pulling the trigger, the gun loaded with blanks, Wilkie with a cackle-bladder of blood in one cheek, another squib in his shirt. Leroy fires twice, the sound loud in the room, Wilkie falls and the mark, terrified, runs away.
Without the money.
So he says, “You can’t be serious. I won’t have anything to do with such a thing,” like he means it, morally outraged and all so Maurice can talk him into it later. He smiles to himself, feeling a little better for the first time since…well, since.
Maybe a diamond necklace.
A lot of details and a worried Leroy not that interested in them. He sits by the door in the uncomfortable straight-back chair, dealing out solitaire and drinking, waiting for the sound of her but all that happens is that he wakes up stiff with a hangover. He knows he’s not paying attention, but it’s hard keeping up, what with Maurice wheedling murder and Wilkie demanding, “Where’s he going to do it, Leroy? When’re you gonna kill me?” It’s like the guy can’t think of anything else.
Leroy can’t think of anything else either. He’s blown it big with Kate this time and he realizes he should have told her the truth but honestly, how do you do that? Not that honesty is the major factor, if lying accomplishes the same end, but bottom line, how do you do it?
Should he have brought it up when he was going into the Navy, about to board the same battleship he’d later sell? He didn’t see himself coming back at all so why admit to a pregnant wife? Maybe later, after the first big score…or when they were celebrating one night, out dancing; she loves dancing, always makes her frisky, he should have said something. “Hey, Kate,” he coulda said, “About getting married? I really can’t you know, ‘cause I already am.”
Then duck while she throws the ashtray. Leroy has no illusions about Kate’s temper, but he just can’t get his head around the fact that this time she isn’t yelling. This time she’s just gone.
He goes through the motions like a regular Joe with a real job, the guy who puts wheels on the new Fords as they come down the line at the Rouge in Detroit, all day long, just putting the wheels on Fords. He’s met some of those guys and they brag about their jobs. “Union benefits,” they tell him. “Good pay.” Leroy’d shoot himself with one of the air guns, he had to live like that.
But he’s living like that now, just putting one foot in front of the other, making things happen without noticing how or why. The routine keeps him going and he never – not once – considers that maybe routine can get you killed.
He meets with Maurice and agrees to the murder, polishes up the scam by entering a phony horse into a race it can’t win and forging time with a crooked stopwatch. Routine, all of it, and finally the day of the race arrives.
Saturday late, the race is at six, and he’s going for the payoff at five. Maurice is bringing the money for the bet and the bribe, a suitcase full of cash totaling around fifty thousand. Four-fifty and it’s already getting dark under thick clouds fat with rain. Thunder booms over the lonesome howl of a locomotive out of the stockyards.
Maurice slides into the room, nervous as a mouse in a cathouse, sweating and swallowing and generally looking like somebody about to do something really stupid.
“You ready?” He asks.
“Yes,” says Leroy. “But I’ve never done this kind of thing before, have you?”
“Are you kidding me? Of course I’ve never done…I mean, I’d never…”
“You’re about to.”
“Not me!” Maurice looks panicky. “You’re going to do it; that’s what we agreed on. I don’t even want to be here.”
“But you gotta.” Leroy needs him in the room when the fake blood gets spilled. Guy thinks he’s nervous now, wait until he sees the dead body. The idea’s almost enough to give Leroy the grins.
There’s a rap on the door, shave-and-a-haircut, and Leroy nods. He opens the door and Wilkie strolls in as cocky as a bantam rooster, not half as colorful. He’s chosen to wear a white suit for his performance so the blood will look especially good. “Contrast,” he explained to Leroy a couple hours ago at a bar. “It’s gonna look swell.”
He grins when he sees the case, then frowns when he sees the gun in Leroy’s hand, all part of the show.
“Hey, what gives?” He says, dramatic, maybe overacting a little. Leroy points the pistol and pulls the trigger, once, twice, like they practiced. One up for the cackle-bladder in the mouth, one at the chest for the bloody squib. Two loud bangs – expected – and Wilkie’s eyes go wide with shock. Leroy’s too, as he looks at the gun, then at the albino who’s sliding down the wall, leaving a thick track of real blood, smearing the big green hibiscus flowers on the wallpaper.
Wilkie says, “What?” in choked voice.
Leroy says, “What?” in shock.
Maurice says, “I’ll take that,” and grabs the pistol, wrapping it in a white handkerchief, smiling wickedly.
Wilkie sinks to the floor and Leroy drops to his knees to hold him, watching the pale man’s breath get ragged, wheeze a couple of times then stop. He feels the body spasm until all that’s left is a bewildered look and then…nothing.
Leroy lets go and stands up. He’s got Wilkie’s blood on his hands and he yells, “What the HELL?”
Maurice points a gun at Leroy – a different gun, Leroy’s being in the pocket of his coat. He looks indecently pleased, like a cat when the entire canary boat comes in. He says, “Maurice? You stupid prick; you still don’t know me?”
Leroy shakes his head, lightheaded and dazed, as if somebody’s been sucking the air out of the room. “Know you –?”
Maurice takes of the snap-brim hat, making a show of it, unmasking himself. “Maybe you know me better by my real name. Walker P. Edens?” His tone is nasty and full of himself. “Ring any bells?”
“Edens?” Leroy stares, openmouthed. The Colonel? Is it possible? He pictures the man he swindled back in San Francisco seven years ago but can’t match this skinny old consumptive with the fat, pompous windbag con artist he knew.
Then the man grins and Leroy sees it. The same smug look of self-satisfaction he’d seen when the bird tried to muscle in on Leroy’s scam. The Colonel.
Who’s laughing. “You’re surprised? Good. You thought you were scamming me, but I was really scamming you.” He digs in his pocket like he’s scratching for fleas, hauls out a tiny object and throws it to Leroy who catches it. The stopwatch.
Things are moving too quickly to keep up. One moment he’s about to shoot his friend in an innocent scam; the next he’s a murderer and the mark he’s fleecing turns out to be a revenge crazed guy he hasn’t even given a thought to since he last saw him.
He says again, “What?”
The Colonel says, “I spent five years in a Federal prison because of you, Logan. Yes, I know your name. I know everything about you. I’ve done nothing but search for you since I got out.”
Hearing his last name isn’t the same as when Kate says it. There’s no love here, for one thing. There’s a gun pointed at his stomach for another. He thinks, desperate and starting to sweat, that maybe something will happen, an earthquake maybe, or a tornado; because he doesn’t see any other way this is going to turn out right.
“After you cheated me -” The Colonel stops Leroy from correcting him – “I vowed to get even. I searched everywhere, asking people, getting a hint here and there, always too little, too late. I heard you pulled a scam in California. I tracked down Limehouse and those other guys; even threatened them, but they wouldn’t give you up. I don’t know what it is about you, Logan, but people seem to like you, whatever it is.
“Me, I know better. I see you for the small time grifter you’ll always be. You think you’re world class, but you’re not. And do you know why?”
Leroy, not really wanting to know why – it doesn’t seem to matter at this point – shrugs. “Do tell.” Maybe the jerk will die from cancer before he can pull the trigger.
“Because I outsmarted you. That’s right; the great Leroy Logan, taken out by another con man. You never even saw me coming, did you?”
“Well…no.” The body against the wall, the red blood on the white suit, the accusing look in those pales eyes, open forever now, is giving Leroy the shakes. He’s hardly hearing the Colonel gloat.
“I’d been onto you for a couple of months when I realized you were setting up a scam. You thought I didn’t know about the watch – which, I’ll give you, is a pretty good con.” He shakes his head as if regretting he’s said that.
“You set the jockey to swap the watch. Back and forth, the real watch for everyday, keeping great time; the phony for when your horse runs. Clever. What you didn’t know is I paid Wilkie off to play against you. He’s been working for me every damn day.”
Wilkie, you little weasel. If you weren’t already dead…Leroy searches the room, more worried by the second. Is there a way out of this?
The Colonel gestures at the dead man. “He’s been mine since you brought him in. Cost me a bundle, didn’t he? Know how much it costs to betray you, Logan?”
Again the feeling he doesn’t want to know. “How much?” He asks, as if he doesn’t care. Maybe charge the gun? No; that doesn’t sound good.
“Ten thousand dollars,” says the Colonel and Leroy glances over at Carmine Buscimi –that being Wilkie’s real name – impressed. He’s called ‘Snowy Deuce’ because of the albino thing and because he drives a ’32 Ford coupe back in LaJolla, blue with red leather and a cue ball shift. He has – had – a wife named Mollie and a pair of kids, modest house near the beach, likes to surf. Leroy thinks, ten big ones; not a bad score, Snowy. Hell, I might have turned myself, that kind of cash. Sorry, man; I didn’t mean to kill you.
This is coming to an end too damn quick. “You’re finished, Logan. No way you’re walking away from this. No words are going to save you.”
“So shoot me, already.” Pure bravado; Leroy’s never been so scared in his life, not even when the Japs shelled the Mississippi near Guadalcanal.
“Shoot you?” The Colonel laughs. “You kidding? I got something better. I’m going to keep you here until I hear sirens – somebody’s got to be calling the cops about those gun shots, don’t you think? But just in case they didn’t –” He points the pistol at the ceiling and fires it three times. “That ought to bring them.”
Leroy damn near jumps under the bed when the gun goes off and now he’s really sweating. He has no illusions about what will happen when the cops find him in a motel room with a body covered in blood. Then there’s the steadily growing horror that he actually did just kill a man. Didn’t mean to, but still.
“I’ll leave the gun you shot this guy with – empty, of course – when I hear the sirens…”
As if on cue they hear the sirens.
“Oh, and one more thing,” says the Colonel and Leroy groans. He hates ‘one more thing.’
“That woman you run around with. The redhead. Where is she?”
“Don’t insult me. Katherine Mulrooney. “Fast Kate.” Like I said, Logan; I know everything about you.”
“Not everything, you jerk.” May as well do one good thing; keep Kate out of this. Just for a second he’s glad she’s gone. “Kate left me last week. Found out I was married.”
“She didn’t know? Damn; I would have used that.” The Colonel mulls that one, annoyed, like he’s missed an opportunity. “Well, never mind. Sending you to prison will be revenge enough. It is, after all, what you did to me.” He pulls the hanky-wrapped pistol from his pocket and tosses it on the bed. The damn sirens are getting louder.
Whee-Ooo –Whee-Ooo -Whee-Ooo.
He opens the door and it sounds like hounds baying for someone to eat. Leroy shivers, knowing he’s the rabbit they’re after while the Colonel steps outside. He turns back to give Leroy one last gloating sneer.
“You are screwed; totally, completely, screwed. Goodbye, Logan.” He pauses a moment, considering, then adds, “To keep you from running…”
And shoots Leroy in the foot.
Kate Mulrooney, not quite twenty-three years old, walks through the door of the crappy motel room like she’s eighty. The neon sign blinks on and off – Rooms! Showers! Radio! – green and red like Christmas on skid row as Kate clicks on the overhead. Dim light fills the room and she pauses on the threshold, neither in nor out, staying or going, thinking, What am I doing here?
She sees the chair by the sink, the empty Jim Beam bottle, the ashtray overflowing and she imagines what it’s been like for him. For her it’s been a nightmare; sleepless nights pounding a pillow, crying too much. She’s fought off running back to him a hundred times and told him to go screw another hundred. She’s argued with him and cursed him and pictured Adele Logan as a lot of women, from Betty Grable to Vivien Leigh, tight skirts and come-hither smiles and she wants to forgive Logan but she wants to hurt him, too.
Now she takes a step, then another and she’s in the room.
Leroy’s in the room.
With an empty gun.
Police wailing away outside.
Left foot bleeding, hurts like the blazes.
And a dead body, let’s not forget that.
He does a rapid eyeball around and figures it again; no way out. His shoe’s filling with blood and he’s sagging with the shock; feels like he’s lost a toe down there. His brain’s doing Don’t panic, don’t panic…do not panic!
He breathes, in and out, calm down, and thinks; so, what are we gonna do? What they don’t expect; run toward the trouble.
He strips off the blood-stained coat, shoves it under the bed. He tosses the gun under there, too, after rubbing it for prints with the hanky. Grabs a handful of toilet paper and stuffs it into his shoe – makes him want to scream, that – and wipes off the blood. He flushes the paper, takes two quick steps to the door then stops. The suitcase full of money; the Colonel forgot it.
Crap! He grabs the grip, shoves it through the bathroom window and runs – ouch – back to the door.
He throws it open and starts shouting. “POLICE! POLICE! HELP!” Now he’s jumping up and down – ouch! –waving like a man who’s seen a ghost, letting the panic flood into him, make it work for him.
Three squad cars screech to a halt in a little circle of glaring white lights, flashing reds and blues and a bunch of big guys with guns – really big guys, none of them looking friendly – are yelling at him. Leroy’s screaming like a madman, “There’s a dead guy in there!” Pointing to the door of room one-fourteen. “In there! A dead guy!”
The cops elbow past him, all of them, he can’t imagine how they’re going to fit, and he hightails it away from the Vista-View Motor Lodge as fast as he can.
A quick trip around back before the cops can sort out what’s happening out front, he grabs the brown case and hits the alley, limping through weeds and garbage and mud until he gets to the street. Left turn, away from all the commotion, hugging the back streets until he is far away. His room is that way.
Step limp, step, limp, the suitcase bangs against his leg and the pain is awful. He’d like to throw it away, thinks, are you kidding? Fifty Gees is in this thing. He’s feeling about as bad as he ever has in his whole life, what with killing his friend. Never mind that Snowy betrayed him, Leroy would have done that himself, but he’s dead and Leroy killed him.
Leroy’s always disliked guns, figuring a good con is an elegant thing, like being a salesman, sort of; convincing people they really needed whatever was being sold. In his case, a bill of goods, but either way, folks paid money, nobody got hurt, and especially, no one got shot.
Until now. The damned Colonel, Leroy curses. Where’d he come from? An aggrieved sense of self-pity swells over him and he limps along, as pitiful as a hound baying at the moon.
The key on the big plastic ring (“If found, please return to the Hillside Motel,”) opens the lock and Leroy steps into the room, wanting a drink and a smoke and…
“Kate?” he says, flabbergasted.
Her second suitcase is on the bed, half-full, nylons slopping over the edge like snake skins. A white slip is folded carefully next to a pile of sweaters. Kate herself is caught in mid-fold, eyes as wide as a deer on the side of the road. She says, “Leroy,” and his heart shatters.
He can feel it inside his chest, like somebody’s just reached inside and squeezed. There’s a roaring in his ears and he can’t seem to find any air because he know what’s coming. “Leroy,” she said; not “Logan.”
He says, “I shot,” and she says, “I gotta be gone,” and he says, “You gotta be gone?” because it’s the important part, and she says, “You shot who?”
“Never mind.” He gestures. “What’s all this?”
Kate inhales a long shuddery breath and raises an arm to touch him, then lets it fall away like it weighs too much. “You killed us,” she says. “You just…killed us.”
He says, “Kate –”
“You’re married. I thought I could get over it… I thought…it didn’t matter, but it does.”
“It doesn’t have to.”
“It does.” She drops the sweater – tangerine – into the case. “You cheated on me.”
“I never did, Kate. I married her before I met you.” Desperate, he tries to explain again. “I had to marry her; she was pregnant. A man’s…”
“…Gotta do, right; I got that.”
“Then what?” He’s never cried before, not even when he hit the road at twelve and slept in a drainage ditch under County Road Seven listening to things grunt and slither in the dark. But he’s blinking back tears now.
“It’s the one damn noble thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, Kate. And you’re leaving me for it? It don’t make no sense.”
For a long moment she stands there and he takes it as meaning she’s reconsidering, but she lets her shoulders fall and so much for that. “It’s no use. We can’t get past this.”
He says, “What are you going to do?” instead of “You’re killing me,” but she hears it anyway and winces. The tears are flowing and she doesn’t even try to wipe them away.
“I’m quitting. I’m leaving the life and going somewhere else. Someplace where the world makes more sense and the people aren’t cons.”
“Over the rainbow?” He asks and they both cringe at the reminder of her favorite movie, follow the yellow brick road; it’ll take you to your heart’s desire. Only not this time.
“You’re going straight?” He’s almost as shocked at this as everything else. “Kate, you can’t.”
But she closes the case, picks it up and touches his cheek, feeling the wetness on her palm. “I am.”
“But you can’t,” he pleads. Just for a moment he considers telling her. I killed a man tonight, Kate. I almost got caught. I messed up and I feel awful and I’ve been shot. You can’t leave me like this.
He doesn’t say it and he doesn’t know why. Certainly Leroy Logan the con artist would have, but he doesn’t seem to be here right now. Kate slips around his skinny shoulders and walks out the door. He closes his eyes and hears her high heels clacking on the worn concrete and when he can’t hear anymore he opens them and she’s gone.
He sets down the suitcase full of money, gently closes the door and limps to the chair by the bathroom. Sitting down he feels the blood pumping through his heart and is mildly surprised that it’s still beating.
He slips off his shoe – ouch – and gently peels away the toilet paper, wadded and bloody. His little toe is gone, shot off by that damned addle-minded Colonel. Seeing it, he has half a mind to go after him but he knows he never will. Taking fifty thousand dollars is pay back enough.
He thinks, fifty thousand dollars…and Jim Beam whiskey is a buck-seventy a bottle. That’s…his fourth grade math fails him but he knows it’s enough to let him stay drunk for a very long time.
Best to start now. He knocks the case over and leans way down to click the snaps. He opens the lid and looks down at one more image that will stay with him forever.
The case is full of shredded paper.
End of Chapter Three
A WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN’ GOIN’ ON
The years flutter by like the Texaco Gas company calendars Adele keeps on the back of the pantry door.
Leroy comes dragging in from God knows where, a sorry sight indeed. Adele takes him in, letting him stay for a few weeks one time, a few months another, glad when he’s there, relieved when he leaves. He visits with George, still weak from the pneumonia, and is gone well before Adele finds out she’s again with child.
Kate Mulrooney, former con artist, marries William “Big Bill” Carver at the Presbyterian Church of Our Lord in Portland, Oregon. The Groom is in construction, building a new three hundred home subdivision along the Columbia River, base priced at $7,000 to mimic Levittown. The bride is radiant in off-white and Mayor Fred L. Peterson sits in the front row.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover assigns rookie agent Winslow Petrie to a task force investigating fraud in America. Adele Logan has her third child, a girl, in New Orleans. They move to a larger house, one with a large room above the garage that often houses Leroy’s shadier buddies.
Georgie Logan is caught trying to hide National Geographic magazines under his mattress and lectured by his mother about morality, a subject dear to her heart. She insists Leroy talk to the boy, which proves a mixed blessing for all concerned.
Adele Logan, as serene and pious as any lamb of God could possibly be, considering, pours orange juice for her husband, scrambles eggs for her husband and empties his cup in the sink.
“Hey,” says the husband, scowling. “I was drinking that.”
“It’s scotch,” says Adele. “You can’t drink scotch before breakfast.”
“It isn’t before breakfast until after I’ve slept.”
“You’ve been out all night?” The again is implied. She shakes her head, tsks, mixes waffle batter and manages to pour him a cup of coffee all at the same time. Adele Logan is a bear for efficiency, prudence, piety, good morals, temperance and patience, the last being sorely tried by the crumbling wreck of a man squinting in the early light of a Louisiana summer morning.
She says to the Lord, “Forgive him, please,” and to the husband, “Maddy; you have got to quit these sinful ways. It’s bad for the children, it’s bad for me and it’s bad for your soul.” She pours syrup and changes tack. “Take Georgie fishing with you today. You have to explain a few things to him.”
“Yes. The boy idolizes you. He’ll do what you say.”
“Fine,” says Leroy, doubting it very much.
“Tell him it isn’t nice,” says Adele.
“Looking at women that way…”
“I said fine, dammit!”
“Maddy! There is no place for profanity in this house.”
To which Leroy Logan says, “Shit!”
But he says it quietly.
Down by the side of a lake Leroy watches the boy fish. George Logan, head nearly shaved, tattered but clean and pressed overalls, no shirt, bare feet, is patiently waiting for the coming lecture. He’s known trouble was coming ever since his sister found the stash of magazines under the box in his closet and ratted him out to his Mama. Knowing her, George is perfectly okay with waiting for his father.
Who says, “I hear you got found out…about that stash of magazines.”
George says, “Yessir,” because he’s been raised by his Mama to say that to every adult, one of many rules in his house. In contrast, these fishing trips with Pops have almost no rules at all.
“What do you learn from this experience?” asks Pops.
George sighs theatrically, like he’s sorry, really he is, and it won’t happen again; scout’s honor. George is in the fifth grade, already a year past his Pop who only made it to fourth. That’s about all he knows about his father, except for the now he’s here, now he’s gone part. He says, “I shouldn’t a took ‘em.”
Leroy laughs, scaring a heron picking his way through the reeds. The bird squawks with anger and flies away. “No, you idiot. You shouldn’t a got caught.”
Later, on a rock, feet dangling in the cool water, Leroy smokes a filtered cigarette ’cause he’s trying to cut back and George waits gratefully for more. He feels close to his father and finally decides to ask the question. The question.
“So…” he begins. He sucks in a lot of air and lets it out. “What the hell do you do for a living?” Leroy cuffs him upside the back of his head and George concludes, “Ouch!” rubbing it.
“Watch the language, boy,” warns his father and George gapes, totally confused.
“Why?” He asks finally. “You don’t. I heard you.”
“Lots of things I do that you can’t. Your Mama runs a clean house, son; you follow her rules and you won’t end up…” He’s about to say, “like me,” but curbs it. “Bad,” he says instead. Leroy’s not very comfortable with this father/son stuff.
“Listen,” he says, after a while. “What’s wrong with you lookin’ at those pictures of naked ladies?”
George, sensing a trap, tries, “’Cause they’re naked? Mama says it’s against the Lord’s will to lust after women. Sure don’t feel wrong though.”
“That’s because it isn’t. What’s wrong,” says Leroy, a master of things wrong, because he’s done most of them, “Is when you disrespect women.”
“What’s that mean, exactly?” asks George. He’s lying on his back now, feeling the sun warm his front while the rock warms his back. His feet are damn cold, though.
“It means,” says Leroy, hearing Kate’s faraway voice and feeling sadder for it, “That what you think in your own head is alright but you can’t go acting on it if it’s going to hurt somebody.”
“Like those pictures. It doesn’t hurt anybody, you having them. But when your mama finds them she gets to thinking she’s doing a bad job bringing you up. So, in a way, you’re making her feel bad.”
“That means,” says George, maybe getting it, “If she don’t know what I’m doing, it’s okay what I’m doing. Right?”
Leroy runs this by his own moral compass, an untrustworthy guide, it’s true, but he’s thinking it matches up. “Right. A boy’s gonna have his thoughts no matter, but it’s how he behaves to women is what makes him what he is.”
He feels so good about this being a father stuff that he pulls a pint bottle of whiskey out of a rear pocket and takes a sip. George sits up, watching intently, and Leroy hands over the bottle, saying, “Here. Boy’s gotta learn some time.”
Larry “Shemp” Caulkey glances at his cards, snorts with disgust and tosses in his hand. “What’s with that wife of yours?” he asks, pulling a local brew from the ice bucket, uncapping it with a church key.
They’re hiding out in the loft above the garage, the door open to let in the heat and bugs. Leroy says, “Adele?”
“Unless you got another wife, yeah.” Shemp is brighter than most, despite looking like Howdy Doody and dressing like a hayseed. He has carrot-red hair, jug ears, too many freckles and a gap-tooth grin that suggests a child-molester recently paroled. Adele Logan doesn’t like any of her husband’s cronies but she hates Shemp.
Leroy sighs, takes a sip – he’s drinking a stronger local product than Shemp and it’s making him peckish – and opines. “She’s got a streak of the Lord in her, Adele. Won’t consider divorce, won’t admit what I do ’cause she won’t abide a thief…”
“You ain’t no thief!” Shemp protests. He’s been Leroy’s friend since they both left the fourth grade, at the suggestion of the Hamilton Parrish school board. He manned a tank in big war, making him unfit for anything civilian except maybe driving a bus, and his wit, always dark, rules out even that. Leroy is his sole source of livelihood, the income disguised as poker winnings.
“I know that,” agrees Leroy. “I’m a grifter. But try and tell it to her.” He shakes his head at the ways of women. Like God and crazy people he thinks; there’s just no figuring.
“Why don’t you leave her, then?” Suggests Shemp. They’ve had this talk, he knows the answer, but he holds out hope, non-the-less.
“Can’t,” says Leroy. He doesn’t want to explain – again – how Adele reminds him of his own mother, how he can’t desert a wife and children, how he needs somebody in his life who gives a damn now that Kate’s gone. So instead he says, “I got a new one.”
“Yeah?” Shemp sits upright, intent. “Something good, I hope. Something that gets us out of here, I hope. Something really far away.”
“Shut up, Shemp, and let me tell you. There’s this white boy up in Memphis, you might have heard about him? Elvis Presley?”
“Elvis: sure I heard about him. I thought he was colored though.” Race didn’t matter to Shemp or Leroy; either was just a mark, though the black man was less likely to have money to scam.
“Nope, he isn’t colored. Sounds like it, but they say he’s a white boy. Thing is he’s a rich white buy. They say his records have sold a couple of million copies each, that he’s buying people new Cadillacs as presents, if he likes ’em.”
“And you figure he’ll like us?” Shemp sounds skeptical.
“Not for long.”
Before they leave Leroy has another talk with his son, George, the eldest. The boy’s been making noises like he’s figured out his Daddy isn’t what he says and he’s been pushing for better answers than Adele or Leroy have to give. Traveling salesman isn’t making the cut any more.
So Leroy, surprising even himself, tells the truth. “Son,” he says, “I am a grifter.”
“I’m like that Robin Hood fellow,” says Leroy, thinking about the Disney show he saw one night with the kids and Adele all scattered around the big new living room in the big new house watching the ten inch black and white Magnavox, all paid for with the proceeds of his last scam.
Leroy recalls the part about the guy robbing from the rich—who else has money?—but misses the giving to the poor concept completely.
Georgie says, “You steal money?”
Leroy, again with unaccustomed honesty, “I do, son. That I do.”
“Like with guns and a gang?”
The gang word doesn’t sit well with Leroy, making him think of Kate. Whenever he does, which is too often, he feels a sort of burning in his chest. He figures it’s heartburn and takes a swig from a hip flask to ease it.
“No; not with ‘gangs and guns.’ I don’t believe in guns.”
“Why not?” George certainly does. His friends all have rifles and shoot up the woods any time they can raise enough money to buy bullets, but George has to use one of theirs, usually just the Daisy BB gun, and what fun is that? So his father’s aversion puzzles him.
“Because they’re…” he searches for the right word, settles on, “wrong,” which isn’t right but he goes with it anyway. “See, son; what I do is take things without people knowing they’ve been taken. I don’t go busting into banks shouting and shooting up the place. I don’t scare folks or hurt anybody.”
“You just take their money? And they let you?” Pops goes up a couple notches in George’s opinion. How is this possible?
“They don’t let me. Mostly they give it to me.”
“What?” Rapt attention from the boy, which Leroy enjoys. It’s like they’re bonding.
“Like this, son. Say you have a dollar and I want it. I could use a gun and steal it or…I could tell you I’d give you a five dollar bicycle for your dollar.”
“Why would you do that?” George is picturing a five dollar bicycle. He’s seen the pictures in the Monkey Wards and Sears catalogs and five dollars would get you their best. It would even have a bell and streamers on the handlebars…
Leroy says, “I got you thinking about the bike, don’t I?” When George nods (it’d be red. With a baseball card in the spokes to make noise!) Leroy says, “So you’d trade your dollar for my say so that I’ll give you a five dollar bicycle.”
“Uh-huh,” says George.
“So I take your dollar and then I leave.”
George, confused. “But when do I get my bicycle?”
“You don’t,” says Leroy. I took your dollar and skedaddled. You get nothing.”
“But that’s…that’s…” George is indignant, watching his new red bicycle ride away without him on it. “You’re just a flim-flam man!”
“That’s right. But I’m a very good flim-flam man. What I do got us this house and all your Mama’s new appliances and the car, pays for our food, clothes…” He stops, seeing the look of appalled horror on his son’s face. “What?”
George is on his feet, gaping at him. “You’re a damn thief,” he yells and runs off.
Leroy watches him go with mixed feelings. He liked it when George thought the world of him and there’s a hollow place in is chest now. He takes a sip of his Budweiser and salutes the boy.
“But when you’re a doctor, George, you’ll be glad you didn’t wind up like your daddy.”
Leroy stares at the calendar, disliking its cheer and frowns at Adele making up more waffles in the kitchen of the new house. He says casually, no big deal, just thought to mention it – again, “How about we get a divorce, Adele?”
She stops pouring batter in the waffle iron to smile sweetly, “No,” then closes the lid and the subject.
“But,” he says, and “forget it,” she says,” and a herd of children – four of theirs and a couple of neighborhood strays – stampede into the room. Most of them are wearing Davy Crockett outfits, that being popular again, but there’s a Roy Rogers as well, and a Dale Evans on the only girl, his daughter Lily. She comes over and climbs into his lap, getting orange juice on his white shirt which causes Adele to efficiently whisk her away. She wets a towel and smears the stain, tsking at it and the girl.
Leroy sighs, knowing he’s hit a wall. He’s never met a woman as pig-headed as Adele on the subject of marriage, especially of marriage to him. It was, in fact, the very thing that got him in this situation, way back in ’44 when it seemed like an all-right idea, what with him heading for the Pacific and her wearing that tight brown dress. So he suggested sex, meaning it as a proposition and she accepted, meaning it as a proposal and now here they are in a new two-story on the edge of New Orleans, one of them happy and the other perplexed.
Fifteen years married to the woman and he still had no idea why. Sure, she believes in the Church, like his mother did, and doesn’t believe in divorce like his mother, and she loves filling a house with children, like his mother and she accepts sex as a duty like…better not to go there.
Instead he goes to his office in search of a cigar and finds Lester Biggs, a pug boxer friend, dealing out cards on the poker table near the window. He sits down heavily, lights a fat Havana and says, “I don’t get it.”
“Why I stay with that woman.”
“Because,” says Lester, a dime-store philosopher prone to having an answer to everything, “In Louisiana you can’t get a contested divorce and Adele won’t give you an uncontested one and–”
“I could move to Las Vegas, they got those quickie divorces, take about six weeks; the kids wouldn’t even notice us gone.”
Lester gives him the look this idea deserves. He’s been in the ring a few times too many, running up the unimpressive stat of 44-63-1, with 52 of them knockouts—of him. So he’s a bit punchy most of the time, as well as out of shape, out of money and pretty much friendless, except for Leroy who keeps him around for the same reasons he stays married to Adele.
He just doesn’t know what that reason is.
Lester says, “She’s got a streak of the Bible right down her back, that woman,” which comes out garbled through his thick Cajun accent and puffy lips. His last fight, just two days ago, has given him a pair of shiners and a fat lip.
“She does,” sighs Leroy. “That she does.”
That night, fireflies flickering in the soupy air, frogs croaking in the ponds, cricket chirping and a pair of tom cats making an unearthly racket, he tells her, “I’ve got to go. We’re damn near out of money.”
“Shhh,” she whispers. “Your language!” She juts her chin at the pile of children sprawled on the floor watching the television – a ten inch screen Motorola in a six foot mahogany cabinet. It’s the ritziest thing they own, even including the new Maytag washer-dryer and the Westinghouse refrigerator, bought at Wimpole’s Department store after seeing Betty Furnace hawking it on the black-and-white.
She’s knitting something homey and smiles up at him. “Did your job call?
Annoyed, he lowers his voice. “Adele, I don’t have a job.”
Again the smile, vaguely suggesting a complete absence from reality. “Sure, you do,” she says.
“Adele, what do you think I do?”
“You’re a salesman, Maddy; a traveling one.” She calls him Maddy which may be the reason he keeps coming back here; it reminds him of a home he left a long time back.
“I’m a grifter, Adele. A god-dam crook.”
“Maddy,” she whispers. “Your language!”
Resigned, he gathers hugs from several protesting children, possibly some not his own, it’s always hard to tell, and leaves through the wooden screened door. He meets Cooch in the garage and slips behind the wheel of the new Coupe Deville, a chrome covered beast with automatic everything and sharp fins that could impale a rhino. Lester’s got his arm draped over the seat as he hollers, “Where we going this time, boss?”
Leroy says, “Memphis.” He’ll take Cootch along because he’s the one here when he’s leaving.
“’Cause I’ve been hearing about this Elvis Presley guy, supposed to be a phenomenon. Said he sold over a million copies of that Hound Dog song, even more of Jailhouse Rock.”
“Hey; I like that one,” says Cooch.
“Yeah, well; so do I. But you know what happens when you sell that many records don’t you?”
“Uh, no; what?” They bump down the unpaved drive out onto the state road. Leroy turns the car north.
“You make a lot of money.”
Cooch, confused, “So?”
“So somebody’s gonna come along and steal it.”
Cooch gets this wide-eyed grin like he’s swallowed a lizard and it’s still wriggling around down there and he yells, loud enough to wake the neighbors if they had any, “We gone rob Elvis?!”
And Leroy says, “Shh…your language!”
Junior FBI agent Winslow Petrie sitting alone in a box of office in Washington, no window, no door, just a green metal desk, a file cabinet and an ashtray overflowing with Marlboros. He started smoking Marlboros when the ads started showing a cowboy, though he never thought to understand why. If he was studying a crook he’d figure it out, though. Winslow is tall and skinny, wears suits from Sears, drives a General Motors car (a Buick) when he isn’t piloting one of the Bureau heaps, brushes his teeth with Pepsodent and basically does everything the modern ad-man tells him to do—all without the slightest realization that he’s doing it.
He picks up one of a dozen files on his desk. Paperclipped inside is a picture of a young man, damn near a boy, smoking a cigarette, leaning on the hood of a long, long Cadillac. The car is black, the man is white, wearing a fedora tilted back. He’s smiling in the picture.
Winslow studies the photo, then looks at the name: Logan, Leroy Amadeus.
He reads the file with growing interest. When he gets to the part about the battleship, he smiles too.
Cadillac’s doing about a hundred and five when the cruiser appears from behind a billboard advertising new Westinghouse toasters. The posted limit is twenty-five, a hundred buck fine for sure, maybe jail.
Leroy finishes the verse while he pulls over. “Maybelline,” he sings, loud, “Why cain’t you be true?” Cooch wisely stashes the Bud under the seat and paints on his best innocent look, unruffled by a Mississippi trouper. His faith in Leroy is absolute.
In the rear-view, Leroy watches a fat cop squeeze out of a ’58 Galaxy and nods, impressed. Didn’t know those Fords could move that fast. He considers his options, decides to delay the bribe a bit.
Cop says, “Where’s the fire, boy?” to the open window—ninety in the shade, of course it’s open—then does a double take as he sees Leroy isn’t colored.
Leroy glances up, way too casual for a guy busted this hard and says pleasantly, “Officer.”
The cop says, “Caught you doing over a hundred,” but tentative now, uncertain.
“Cletus Meeks,” says Leroy, sounding like a Cletus Meeks. “Senior Aide to Governor Mitchum.” He does a quick character read: the slight limp as he approached, gut like a tight sausage in the military style blouse, the dark shades. He takes the name from the badge.
“Officer Biggs,” he says, tight smile. “I’ve read your file.”
“You have? My file?”
“Part of my job,” lies Leroy. “Keep track of the patrol. I recall you on account of that shooting; got you in the leg, am I right?”
The cop grins wide, happy as a pig that doesn’t know its Easter yet. “Liquor store stickup in Mount Olive; that’s exactly right!” His face says, “If that don’t beat all.”
Leroy, “Still keepin’ the coloreds in line?”
“Yes sir,” says Briggs proudly. “None of that integration shit around here, lemme tell you.”
“Good man, Briggs. Good man. Listen…” He lowers his voice and Briggs bends to hear. “I’m running late for a meeting with the Governor—why I was going too fast—and I’m wonderin’…?”
“Could we just let this little matter go? Look the other way? I’m in a terrible hurry to get back to Jackson.” A ten spot appears in his hand.
The Hamilton vanishes in a meaty paw. “Thank you, sir,” but Leroy’s already spinning gravel.
Up the road Cooch tips his beer in salute. “Now that,” he says, “was fun.”
“What are we doin’ Hoss?” says Cootch Wilburn, Leroy’s oldest and possibly only true friend. Cootch is tall and thick, about as wide as a barn door and as good natured as a centipede at a shoe sale. He thinks the sun shines from Leroy’s halo, a fact that Leroy does little to discourage, feeling—rightly—that he needs all the approval he can get.
He says, “There’s this kid…” and Cootch listens with his mouth slightly open and his head cocked, looking a bit like a confused parrot who’s just figuring out the whole cracker scam; almost there but not quite. “Name of Elvis…”
“Presley?” shouts Cootch, excited. His eyes are wide as windshields on a Greyhound bus. He bangs a meaty hand on the dashboard, making the plastic Jesus wobble. “I remember! We’re gone scam Elvis Presley!”
“Um, yeah,” says Leroy, suddenly unsure of himself. “He’s a rock and roll singer, bound to have a lot of money. I figure we’ll—”
“He’s my favorite, Hoss! I listen to him all the time!” Cooch leans back in the seat and starts a loud version of “Hound Dawg” that’s big on volume, small on talent and way long on enthusiasm. “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dawg, cryin’ all the time,” he whoops and Leroy glances aside at him, grinning.
What the hell, Leroy joins in and they float along the highway getting damned near all the words wrong.
Later Cootch says, “How we going to do it?” and Leroy, feeling fine for a change, answers by digging around behind him until his fingers wrap around a lumpy strand that feels like a snake that’s just eaten a sack of golf balls. He holds it up and it glitters in the pale sunlight of a Tennessee morning.
Cootch says, “Oooh.”
Leroy says, “Uh-huh,” and then swerves the big boat Cadillac to miss a fat mama ‘possum leading three babies across the road.
“Damn critters,” yells Leroy, a while Cootch throws a knowing look – yeah, but you missed ‘em—and laughs.
Anyways,” snarls Leroy, mad at being seen as soft, “I’m going to sell him this necklace.”
He hands over a long strand of shiny gems that glow like a string of lights; lavender, amethyst, periwinkle and a shade of blue that makes you want to curl into it and float there forever. Cootch holds it like a baby. “Is it real?” he whispers, barely audible over the wind.
“’Course not,” says Leroy. “Remmy made it up in Cleveland. Remember when I was up there? Made it then.” Remmy Billingham is a jeweler and fence up north that makes the best fakes. “They even come with perfect histories,” says Leroy. “As authentic as you want to make up.”
“So…what?” asks Cootch. “We’re just going to sell them to the guy?” Leroy nods. “But…how do we find him? How do we get him to buy them? What about…?” Cootch is big on the details.
Leroy isn’t. “He’s on leave from the Army. Got a week long pass to see his mother.”
Cootch smiles. “Aw, that’s sweet. Isn’t it Hoss? The boy loves his Mama.”
“Sweet,” agrees Leroy, thinking, “For us.”
The boy, Elvis Presley, says, “Yes sir,” a lot, and not just because he’s fresh out of Fort Hood. He’s just plain…nice. He’s won over Cootch in just the few minutes they’ve been talking with him, Elvis just off the train where they separated him from his buddies with a made up story. Leroy wonders, Was I ever that young and gullible? And decides, no; not ever. Not even at twelve when he had the chance to go back home and skipped it to run a small scam with his hero the Yellow Kid. He still remembers the Kid saying, “Kid, you’re not bad,” before tossing him a stack of twenties, ten of them, as a piece of the action. “Now get lost.”
Elvis, even wearing Army drab and hair cut to the scalp, is as pretty as a statue come to life. You can feel the aura around him, the star quality. He says, “It sure is pretty,” his voice as soft as molasses in a stew pot, as smooth a Kentucky whiskey. “I guess my mama would love it.” He’s entranced by the gems, selling himself, and Leroy lets the moment linger until finally he says, “So it’s settled. Twenty thousand—cash.”
Elvis says,” Sure,” without taking his eyes off the glittery trinket. “C’mon up to Graceland. We’ll make it a party.”
“We love parties,” says Leroy thinking, candy from a baby. It doesn’t get any easier than this.
But no, not this time. This time, the problem is getting into Graceland. Finding it, way out on Audubon drive, cruising through the open gates, walking up to the big front door past the Corinthian columns and crap that makes this pile look like Tara before the Civil war, that’s not the problem. It’s cracker heaven but Leroy’s loose and ready, got the necklace, got the tale, everything’s jake.
But…He bangs the knockers—no doorbell he notes; if there was it’d probably play Hound Dawg—waits with his back to the double doors that eventually open and deliver a whole cartload of the heebie-jeebies.
An old guy, overfilling a white suit, thin hair, neck scarf, eyes that see everything and don’t approve of any of it, takes in Leroy and spits him back out. He says, not friendly, “What?”
Leroy holds out a hand. “I’m Jubal Hawkins,” he lies. “Here to see Elvis.”
The guy scorns the paw, says “Why?” and Leroy pushes back at the lip. “Not your business, Pops. Lemme in.”
“I’m not your Pop, sonny. Name’s Tom Parker. I’m Elvis’s manager. They call me the Colonel.”
The Colonel. Leroy scans him up and down, knows it can’t be the same Colonel, just can’t be. This one’s vibrant and stocky, the other one—Leroy shudders at the memory and his missing toe does a phantom shiver—is bent and old and not here.
But his ghost is and Leroy can’t shake it. His last meeting with the Colonel went so badly that Leroy’s got a permanent case of the whim-whams; no way is he scamming here.
So he smiles—a weak curl of the lips that wouldn’t convince a dog to buy a flea collar—and skedaddles.
What’s the saying? When the going gets tough, the tough start drinking. Leroy’s got a boiler maker on the bar and Cootch on the next stool at Buddy’s Bar on Lyceum, far enough from Graceland and the Colonel to gain some perspective. Smoke from his Chesterfields and Cootch’s Camels and everybody else’s everything else makes a dense fog appropriate to his mood. The Colonel, why’d he have to be called that? Leroy’s done some homework since hot-footing it out of Dodge and learned a few things. The “Colonel,” as phony a title as the other guys, is a real piece of work. Talk is he’s a hustler from The Netherlands or Holland, one of those places, came to America just to screw Leroy.
Who says to Cootch, “They say he takes fifty percent of that boy Elvis. Fifty percent! I was only gonna take him for twenty gees. The Colonel! He should just be using a gun.”
Cootch has been listening for the last couple of hours, doesn’t care. He’s seen setbacks before and has utter faith in Leroy’s ability to bounce back from them. He says, “Yeah, Hoss, he’s a bad ‘un.” He considers a moment. “You know, you ain’t been yourself since Kate…”
“Don’t say it.”
“Argh. You said it.” Leroy drops his head to the bar, mad at the Colonel, mad at the world, forgiving of himself. What had he done to deserve all this crap? Nothing. Not a damn thing. Head back up, he takes the whiskey shot in a gulp, guzzles the beer and wipes his chin with his sleeve.
Cootch, a voice somewhere in the dense fog says, “So what are we gone do?”
“Do?” Leroy spins on his bar stool, overshoots and winds up facing a guy on the other side who says, “Wha?” in surprise. Leroy spins back, stopped in place by Cootch grabbing his skinny shoulders and holding on.
“I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna…” His words are drown out by a yahoo at the juke box slipping in a nickel and pushing B-17. A piano bangs a boogie riff and that new kid, not Elvis, the other one, sings, “C’mon over baby, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ on,” and Leroy smiles.
What are we gonna do?” He points vaguely toward the box. “We’re gonna do him.”
Except, again, no.
Finding Jerry Lee Lewis, isn’t hard; he’s pounding the keys at a local dive called the Paradise right here in downtown Memphis, half-empty shows of maybe a thirty-five people since his career took a nosedive last year in England when they found out he’d married his cousin, Myrna Gale. His thirteen year old cousin.
Even Leroy, learning this little fact, said, “Damn.”
So they go to the club, listen for an hour to the worst music Leroy’s ever heard, though Cootch has been bellowing along with every damn song. ‘Shakin’ goes into ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy,’ goes into ‘What’d I Say?’ goes into ‘Money, that’s what I want,” and Leroy’s got one mother of a headache when Jerry Lee careens into him at the bar.
Kid’s a looker, there’s no denying. His long hair is wet with sweat and Pomade, he holds his smokes in between long fingers around the shot glass as Leroy tells him the tale. Jerry Lee listens but doesn’t seem inclined to bite until Leroy says, “Elvis is gonna buy it,” and the kid goes bananas.
“Could’a been me!” He insists, a lot, as Leroy and Cootch pour beer, a lot, down his throat. His beef with Elvis is bigger than a single cow—this guy’s got a whole herd of pissed off in him.
“I sang with him, “ he tells Leroy. “Down at Sun Records? Sure. Him and me and Johny Cash and Carl Perkins—he wrote Blue Suede Shoes, you remember that one?—they called us ‘the Million Dollar Quartet.’ Not like they’d pay us that. Sam Philips and the bastard the Colonel—” Leroy winces— “Bastards took all the money. Me? I got nothin.’”
But he does have twenty large for a necklace, as long as it’s not going to Elvis.
“I’ll give it to Myrna,” he says.
That’s where it hits the fan.
“Uh-uh,” says Cootch. “No way.”
“The Hell?” says Leroy, agitated. What has gotten into the man? Cootch is always as gentle as a summer shower, as docile as a sheep. Until now.
“I won’t let you do it, Hoss.”
“Do what?” Leroy demands, getting hot. This is a new relationship and he doesn’t like it one little bit. “I decide what we do, dammit.”
“Not his time. We can’t cheat him.”
Leroy doesn’t get it. “Why not?”
“He’s family, Hoss.”
“What?” Leroy runs a quick recap of recent events. Meet Jerry Lee, scam him on the fake necklace, meet him to get the money. What can go wrong?
Well, this, evidently. Cooch says, “I was talking to him—Jerry Lee—last night when you left and he said he’s married to Myra. Myra Gale Brown? You get it, Hoss? Myra Gale Brown?”
No, Leroy does not get it but he is getting pretty hot under the collar. They’re standing in the alley behind the Paradise at seven PM waiting for the singer to come out with the money. The weather’s been topping ninety-five and the humidity is somewhere south of the tropics and Leroy’s got an itch between his shoulder blades about the drive him to drink. More.
“So?” He says.
“She’s Myra Gale Brown.”
“What’s that got to do with the price of potatoes? We’re here to make a score and he’s as ripe as a peach. Now get outa my way.” Leroy tries to push Cootch aside, an act like toppling a redwood with a spoon, and, not surprisingly, fails.
“Soooo,” says Cootch, “My Mama’s side is Brown. She’s my cousin. Second cousin.” Cootch looks into the distance, figuring things. “Third? She’s the daughter of my second cousin Lerlayne and Lerlayne’s married to…”
“For Christ sake,” says Leroy, exasperated. “I don’t care if she’s the Queen of Sheba herself. She ain’t getting between me and that twenty gees.” Get outa my way!”
Cootch sucks in air, expanding to nearly double his regular—very large—size and he says, “No.”
Just that word, “No,” spoken like a man possessed, his voice starting off somewhere deep in his chest and rumbling out, like an explosion way down in the mine, just reached the surface. He’s shaking his head side to side and Leroy tries to go around him.
“Hoss, I said, no.” Cootch pushes Leroy back. “You can’t do it to this guy. I won’t let you.”
“”You godammed idiot! Who are you telling no to? You get out of my way. I’ll do what I please, you brainless piece of…”
Cootch hits him, a roundhouse swing of the arm that catches Leroy across the mouth, sending him reeling back against a trash bin in the alley out back of the Paradise. Leroy’s sent ass over teakettle, clanging against the cans like a pinball in Hells’ own arcade.
Cootch, looking both determined and sorry, reaches out to help him up but Leroy slaps his hand. “Get away from me, you bastard.” All the anger about Kate and Adele and, let’s face it; his whole damn life lately, wells up in one misdirected bolt and he comes up from the debris throwing punches that have all the effect of a paper airplane hitting the Empire State Building, forty-third floor—poink!
Cootch shrugs them off. He says, “Listen, Leroy,” which pisses Leroy off even more. It’s like people call you one thing when they’re friendly, another when they’re cutting your heart out. He takes another swing, which misses and sends him sprawling face down in the mud.
Laying there he listens to his breathing, his heartbeat and the sound of his friend saying with infinite sorrow. “I don’t want it to be like this. But you gotta listen to me. Jerry Lee ain’t never done you no wrong. He’s just a kid who happens to have money. That don’t mean it’s yours to take.”
Leroy says to the dirt, “Shut up.”
Cootch says, “I’ve been your friend since third grade. I look up to you and I cover for you. I even fought for you a couple of time when people were talking you down. But this ain’t right and I ain’t gonna let you do it.”
Leroy knows he should swallow his pride and just get up and move on, but he doesn’t. He lets the silence build a wall that won’t ever be broken and finally, like he expects, he hears a long sigh and some heavy footsteps and a whole lot of quiet.
After a while he gets up and brushes off the worst of the crud on his suit and slinks out of the alley with no scam, no Elvis, no Jerry Lee and no twenty gees.
And one less friend, dammit.
Leroy shuffles into the bar like a wrestler who’s lost three rounds to the ‘gator. He spends the rest of the night drinking and thinking, not coming up with one single way his life isn’t completely off the tracks. He doesn’t so much blame everybody else as much as he doesn’t blame himself. Scotch, in a series of doubles, no ice, does little to bring clarity and around two he shuffles back to the Hotel room he’s sharing with Cootch to find his friend gone. He kind of expected it but still, it’s a letdown to see the made bed, the missing grip. He glances out to the parking lot and sees the car is gone too.
“Well, Hell,” he mutters to the shades. “Complicates things, don’t it?” A short stroll around the empty room finds no toiletries, no shoes, no friend, except maybe the reflection of a guy in a muddy wrinkled suit, two day stubble and a fedora blowing smoke. He looks at that fellow for a bit and repeats, “Well, Hell.”
But that’s yesterday and, sometime around three in the afternoon, this is today and Leroy’s got some ideas about next moves. First, of course, is to get out of this hotel, preferably without paying, and catch a Greyhound to the Big Apple. He’s got plenty of friends there who’ll put him up for a night or a month, and he’s got enough money to live pretty well until the next idea decides to show up.
He misses Kate, something about as regular as flossing—more really since he doesn’t floss all that often, or use mouthwash, unless you count Seagram’s. Kate’s absence in his life is like a his missing toe—the foot’s just not right without it.
Kate developed into quite a roper before things fell apart, and Leroy missies that almost as much as he misses her. She’d be nose deep in the local paper looking for celebrity balls or real estate announcements—indicators of people with money.
Leroy, personally, takes each day as it comes, more or less, and as a result he’s got no clue of what to do next except for eating breakfast, which isn’t much of a long range plan.
Except…turns out today is Sunday, and he’s reading the fat Sunday Commercial Appeal newspaper. Because he’s hungry enough for seconds, he gets all the way to the travel section where he reads, “Take a Luxury Tour!” in a big font with a drawing of a very large boat. He stubs out his smoke in the remains of his eggs, drains his coffee mug and leans back, studying the ad.
The Queen Mary, it says…Cunard Line…New York to Southampton…$412,50 for a basic luxury cabin…Leroy pauses to consider that. His wallet, seldom bulging in these past Kate years, doesn’t stretch past three bills, and none of them are hundreds. But getting in to places for free is a specialty and he knows people who can forge passports and—the waitress pauses to eye the ad as she pours old black tar into his mug, says, “Oh, are you going? My parents sailed the SS Normandie in ’35. I might have been conceived on it!”—which is information Leroy isn’t much interested in. But she’s nice and hasn’t hassled him about taking up the booth for two hours so he gives her a smile and a quarter tip.
Basic luxury, he thinks; sounds like a good start. He’s also thinking that, by the time the ship docks in England after a five day run, he’ll be in a better place. Because if “basic” luxury starts at $412, he can only imagine what “real” luxury is like.
Gonna find out, though.
Memphis to New York by Greyhound is a trip not designed with speed in mind. The bus wheezes to an arthritic stop at every small town, every railroad crossing, point of interest and tourist trap as it snakes its way north. Leroy sleeps a lot and makes some of that $412 playing poker, and wishes he’d get there and when he does, first thing he finds is Creighton Willowby III, a tall, distinguished aristocratic type who’s more bent than a coat hanger. Creighton hangs around art galleries and Wall street, spinning tales about his family (non-existent), wealth (even more so) and marital status (presently single but hoping for a bride with more money than sense.) He plays the marry-disappoint-settle con and keeps a small forging operation on the side.
That’s the reason for Leroy’s visit, still stiff from traveling coach. He twists his back in a lot of ways that make noise but don’t help and explains to Creighton (real name Harley Kruettner) that he needs a passport and fake tickets to the Queen Mary. “Make it stateroom, will ’ya? Upper deck.” The long bus ride had pushed him from “basic” to “real” luxury in a hurry.
“Sure,” says Creighton. He rubs two fingers together, either a tiny violin or—more likely—a pitch for cash. “Gonna cost. Not as much as the real ones, but a C-note for sure.”
“That’s with the passport?”
Leroy doesn’t have close to that, just the necklace hidden safely in his grip. “Well. I’ll raise it.”
“Boat leaves in two days.”
Creighton does the snooty look that helps him pass for wealthy and eyes the ad Leroy’s holding. “Liner,” he says. “These prices, it ain’t a boat no more.”
Raising a stake in New York in two days isn’t a problem. Leroy makes some preparations—changing his last twenty into ones, cutting up green paper to size and folding it into a fat leather wallet, engraved with somebody’s initials that he got on the cheap from a street vendor a couple blocks off Broadway.
Not having the time to cultivate the local swells, he picks out bars on the lower East Side where a tough crowd hangs, sips a beer here, moves to there, listening for the right words, which turn out to be, “Watch your mouth,” from a bartender, walking back to serve a beefy guy in a bad suit.
“Fuck off,” says the guy and Leroy perks up. The suit’s wrapped around a chubby ball of flesh resembling the main course at a luau. He’s got a round face under a brown rug, jowls that cause deep creases and a loud aggressive manner.
“Watch your language, pal,” says the bartender again, a gutsy move considering the fifty plus weight difference. “There’s ladies present.”
“Ain’t no ladies in this dump,” says the guy. Leroy takes an interest. He scopes the suit, notes two large gold rings on the fat fingers, figures this is a man could be the one.
So he parks himself at the bar and dips into his pocket, feeling for the wallet. He brings it to his vest and peers into it carefully, sharp suspicious glances all around to see if anybody’s watching, like they’re his hole cards in a high-stakes game.
Making sure the fat guy sees, he does a show of peeling off bills to pay for the drink.
“Sorry, that’s a fifty” he says to the bartender, pulling back the single before the man can see it. “Uh, fifty…twenty…twenty…” his fingers are manipulating the singles so they appear to be bigger bills and Leroy sees the fat guy from the corner of his eye and knows he’s watching.
Finally Leroy slips a single and slaps it on the bar. “There y’are. Gimme another.”
He’s staring into the distance when the fat guy make his move.
Four days later Leroy’s at the Captains table on the Queen Mary, somewhere over the Atlantic, sharing stories with George Burns and Gracie Allen. Their stories are often amusing, his are always lies, but told with such quiet self-depreciating humor that they believe completely. He is, to them, Horace Delvechio Carouthers, second son of the New York society column Carouthers, the black sheep they don’t often mention. And isn’t that convenient?
They’re breaking fast this morning on the veranda on a beautiful sunny day, white clouds and squawking seagulls, pennants snapping in the breeze. Leroy wears a formal suit, George is in flannels and Gracie, always chic, is wearing a silk dress and a tiny hat with a discrete feather.
Leroy’s enjoying their company while trying to figure out how to introduce the necklace. Once again he misses Kate. She’d come out wearing the thing, late night maybe, at a dance or the bar, flashing it, but discrete, not cheap display. She’d ignore any questions about it until the right moment, letting Leroy tell the tale, lure them in. Without her, he doesn’t have a clue how to make the play. He’ll figure it out of course, but with Kate…
Gracie says, “I know your father, Harry,”—Harry being the shortened version of Horace. She touches his arm sympathetically. “I’m sorry to say he doesn’t talk about you all that much.”
George says, around clouds of cigar smoke, “Now, Gracie—” which is pretty much all he ever gets in before Gracie takes the conversation and gallops off. George rolls his eyes and Horace—Harry—Leroy—smiles back, man-to-man.
Gracie says, “Which I think is a shame. Parents shouldn’t just give up their children just because of a few misunderstandings and I just know that you and Horace senior, your father, could set things right if you only tied. Now my own father, rest his soul, would turn over in his grave if he heard of such a thing and I know that, somewhere, if he’s around, he’s thanking his lucky stars that nobody in our family ever had to deal with this and isn’t it odd, George, that we can imagine people who’ve passed on coming back as ghosts? My Aunt Nellie believed…”
She says more—a lot more—but Leroy isn’t listening because he’s just seen one himself, a red-haired woman who couldn’t be her; just couldn’t be. She slips around a corner and Leroy leaps up out of the deck chair, spilling coffee and Carnation milk—their television sponsor—and making apologies at the startled George and oblivious Gracie, still talking, as she probably will be long after the Queen Mary reaches England.
He rounds the corner thinking, It can’t be.
But it is. He catches up, touches her shoulder and she spins around. He has a single moment of complete shock as Kate swings her right arm and slaps him across the face, a stinging blow that takes off a layer of skin.
She says, “That makes up for you being married,” and he says, “What?” and a matronly woman in a deck chair mutters, “Well!” Because the times may be a ‘changing but not on this boat. Ship. Liner.
Then she—Kate, not the fat woman—is in his arms, kissing him in a way that causes another comment, this time approval, from the skinny gent next to the matron who glares it right off his face. Leroy’s arms are wrapped around her—Kate, not the fat woman—and he’s seeing stars from lack of air due to kissing a woman he thought he’d never see again and he doesn’t have another coherent thought until a very long time later when she’s asleep on his shoulder in his first-class stateroom.
And that thought is, pretty much, “What the Hell?”
Afterwards, there’s a whole lot of catching up to do and it starts with, “What happened to your toe?” meaning, of course, the missing one and Leroy does the story about the Colonel and Snowy Deuce. Kate, sitting up with the sheets not wrapped around her at all says, “You killed Snowy?”
Leroy hastily explains that he didn’t mean to—Kate shrugs, accepting that Leroy could barely kill a spider in the washbasin, no way he’d off a person—that it was a set up and tries to get some sympathy for the toe but Kate’s off again.
“I sent flowers to his funeral, did you know that?”
“I sent money,” says Leroy.
“Yeah?” Kate says, impressed, because he’s never shown signs of that sort of behavior before.
“I felt guilty, in a small way, you know, for him being dead…”
“Since you killed him,” agrees Kate solemnly, earning a let-me-finish look.
“So I did a hot car deal in Clovis, netted a bit over twenty large and I gave that…most of that… to Snowy’s widow, Mollie, help take care of the kids.”
“Logan,” Kate says, surprised, “That was so nice!”
“It was,” Leroy agrees. He’s leaning against her bare right breast, comforted in a way he never expected to be, ever again, and there are so many emotions running through him—heart, head, crotch, heart, mostly—that he actually changes subjects from himself.
“What about you?” He asks, voice slightly muffled.
“Me,” says Kate. The word carries a lot of weight, like it’s been dragging behind her for a long time, none of it good. “I got married,”
“I knew that. You went straight.”
“I went straight,” she agrees. “Turns out he didn’t.” She’s stroking his hair absently, reliving a life not worth living even the first time. “Billy’s a contractor, built a lot of tract housing in Oregon. I guess I got with him because he thought big…”
She’s thinking, kind of like you, but doesn’t say it. Says instead, “He bought up some land outside of Portland, planned to do a west coast Levittown—you now, the one in New York? Single family cheap houses?—going to do four hundred, make a pile of money.
“Well, he also bought a couple of county commissioners and a whole zoning department to give him some highway interchanges and exemptions from every damn building code ever written. He built houses that wouldn’t stand up to a Fuller Brush man tapping at the door.
“So there’s lawsuits and Billie’s running out the back while expecting me to talk down the mobs—pitchforks and burning torches right outside the door—like that’s gonna happen and now he has other living arrangements and here I am.” She smiles down at him, sweetly.
“Ten to Twenty at a white collar institution outside of Fresno. Country club prison they call it, for people who can buy off the system. We should be so lucky, we ever get caught.”
Leroy says, “We?” like it’s the closest to church he’s ever likely to get.
And Kate says, “Yeah. We. If Billie’s what you call going straight, I’ll stick with you.”
Still later, on a pair of lounges on a rear deck, the moon full and as orange as a jack ‘o lantern, she’s holding his hand, sipping a drink with some fruit in it. She says, “I met Adelle,” which cause some very strong whiskey to go down very badly.
When he recovers, teary-eyed and coughing, he manages, “What?”
“I had to know. You told me about her, how you had to stay married cause that’s the right thing to do and I didn’t believe you cause, let’s face it, when do you ever do the right thing?”
He shrugs, like, sure.
“So I went down to New Orleans and got myself set up with some nuns in a church there…”
Leroy’s gaping now, looking a bit like a bass that’s finally figured out what’s behind the hook. He says, “You? The church? A Nun?” That being the part that most excites/disturbs him. “And you met Adelle?” He’s remembering how she kept talking about this new sister, named Mary Catherine, and he’s wondering how he missed it and the image of Kate in a habit isn’t making thinking easy.
“Me, a nun,” Kate agrees. “Go figure. I mean, not a nun—I didn’t join the church or anything—just convinced Adelle that I was one. Borrowed some robes…you should see me in a wimple!” Leroy’s trying hard not to—“And I got to know her pretty well.”
Leroy’s torn. He wants to know, doesn’t want to know, wants to imagine Kate and Adelle together but that’s too odd to consider, knows they talked about him which can’t be good. So it’s okay when Kate changes the subject.
“So,” she says, casual, “What’s the scam?”
He says, “I have a necklace…”
“A real one?” she asks, knowing better.
“As real as you want to believe…”
“Ooh; one of Remmy’s?”
“He’s good,” Kate says. She’s remembering the feeling of being with him, the shared knowledge, the bent people they both know. She holds that up to the light and compares it to her four-year life as a straight and wonders how she let a little thing like him being married get in her way. Young, she figures, I was young and foolish.
“Who’s the mark?”
Leroy’s proud of this. “George Burns,” he says. “And his wife Gracie.”
And Kate says, “No.”
Back in his stateroom—he scammed a better one than she did, then upgraded after several passengers decided gambling with his was a good idea—they’re laying back, smoking, thinking about themselves. Leroy’s feeling a bit bothered, recalling his recent fight with Cootch telling him no. It’s different when Kate says it but he’s still having trouble adapting.
Kate’s thinking that she loves him and will not, under any scenarios she can imagine, live with him.
He talks first. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“Gracie’s too sweet to be taken advantage of,” Kate says, but she’s thinking the same thing about Adelle, as close to a saint as she’s ever met. She found Leroy’s wife to be sweet and gentle to the point of utter disconnect with the world. She actually had good things to say about her husband, this man laying here beside her, contemplating theft.
“So?” says that man, confirming Kate’s suspicions that if he has changed, it isn’t for the better.
Change of tactics. “She’s famous. There’s gonna be publicity.” She turns to stare at him. “Lots of publicity.”
He says, “Lots,” considering the taste and not liking it. Finally, “You got better?”
Kate beams in the low lights of the cabin. “I do got better.”
Leroy watches through dark glasses as the man she’s pointed out rows across the Atlantic on one of the new-fangled exercise machines. Guy’s a looker, mid-fifties, greased hair parted in the middle, pencil thin mustache, narrow face, high cheekbones. He’s athletically built, with bulging muscles and a flat stomach, like somewhere up the genetic tree was Tarzan.
“Hardwicke,” Kate says, eyeing him like she’s sizing up a steak. “Larson Hardwicke. Going home to London after a business trip to Philadelphia. His company imports tractors.”
“Lot of money in tractors?” asks Leroy.
“Enough,” replies Kate.
Hardwicke’s been going at the machine for an hour now and he’s barely puffing. A good looking mid-twenties woman in one of the new bikinis, scandalously brief for this place and time, scans the photos in Life magazine, Jackie Kennedy on the cover, all about Camelot.
Leroy’s prone to agree: the man radiates possibility. He tells Kate, “Eyeball the broad; he’s not going for a raggle.”
She frowns, I know that, says, “Sex with me isn’t the play here, Logan. Giving her a gift is. He’ll want to make up to her.”
“I don’t know. He hasn’t done it yet.”
Three days left to Southampton, they don’t have a lot of time. Over very good dinners and fine wine —Leroy’s thinking there’s a lot to be said about this luxury thing; Kate already knows it— they discuss the situation. It’s Leroy, the planner who offers the play.
“George and Gracie,” he says “Television stars. The girl’s gonna have stars in her eyes, chance to meet them, no way she says no. She’s in, he’s in.”
“Could be. Did you see the bruises on her?”
“ I did. And the dark glasses. I think he’s a beater.”
“Are we going to use that in the play?”
“You bet we are. Nothing I like better than taking down a beater.”
Kate considers options. “How about bridge?”
“The card game? They play?” Leroy asks. He doesn’t know much about the bridge since money is seldom involved. Like, what’s the point?
“Of course they do. Most popular game in this ship, except swapping partners.”
“You play?” She nods and he asks, “But does he?” meaning the mark.
“If he doesn’t, we’ll find another handle.”
But he does play bridge and when Kate manages an accident meeting—her name is Heidi, like the old movie with Shirley Temple Kate likes so much—and drops George and Gracie’s name in conversation (“Gracie said—” “You know Gracie?—” “Of course!”) and the game is on.
Literally, the game is on. Introductions are made, partners selected, tables staked out on the promenade deck, port side in the morning, move to starboard after lunch to avoid the harsh Atlantic sun. George plays with Gracie who chatters like a typewriter in a busy steno pool, a hundred, hundred-twenty wpm as George smokes endless cigars and squeezes in a genial observation now and again. They bid with more zeal than sense but both play the hands fiercely, rarely losing a trick.
Hardwicke pairs with Kate, calling herself Adelle Carver after Leroy’s wife and her former husband, a name that amuses her greatly, and she tells Hardwicke, “Call me Dilly,” as she offers her hand formally.
Her bidding, near as Leroy can tell about this goofy game, is excellent and her card play superb which, given her training from him as a card counter and mechanic, it should be. When she deals the deck becomes her playground and she sprays out cards around the table while listening to Gracie and the cards always go her way in some subtle fashion.
At least Hardwicke must think so since he grins a lot. They play for points, not cash and again Leroy’s thinking what’s the damn point?, except in this case he knows the point is the necklace Kate hasn’t shown yet.
Until the second day of play, late in the afternoon session, when the sun is beating down on the port side and the players are fanning themselves against the heat. Seems the starboard side tables are all full, caused by Leroy arranging it.
He’s also arranged for a couple of very attractive young men, college age and wealthy or they wouldn’t be on this liner, to strut around Hardwicke’s girl. Hand-picked they catch her eye and that in turn catches Hardwicke’s because he’s missing the point counts something fierce as the day goes on.
Around four PM as the sun is touching the horizon, Kate asks if she can remove her wrap, “What with the heat and all,” and Gracie launches into an improbable story that lasts half an hour. Kate’s necklace, all fiery gems in this light, as if they’re under the spots at Tiffany’s or van Cleve’s, sparkle enough to attract magpies and Hardwicke’s torn between two sites—one on Kate’s chest, the other on the lounge chair, giggling with the boys.
Anger and avarice, a potent combination. Kate lets it linger for a long rubber (Leroy wondering why they call a game a rubber, makes no sense) before she mentions the necklace.
“It’s a family heirloom,” she lies, answering George’s mild interest. She makes a point of caressing the stones, and they glow like rainbow fireflies. “Papa picked it up in France during the war—the first war—and he gave it to Mama when they married. It’s probably not worth much but I love it anyway.”
“Well, I thinks it’s lovely dear,” says Gracie, adding, “Three no trump,” before galloping away with the conversation.
George looks at her fondly and says to Kate, “Know how I succeeded so long in show business? I once said, ‘Gracie? How’s your uncle?’ and she’s talked for seventeen years now.” He puffs a thick cloud out of a Cuban cigar. “Doesn’t show signs of stopping, does she?”
If the necklace is the bait then Heidi is the hook. Leroy, watching from a distant chair, gets up and sits next her. He talks a bit, she laughs, then turns to face him, her bikini showing a lot of thigh. Pretty soon she’s touching his arm as they talk and Hardwicke is seething. His bidding has become incoherent and his face is red.
Kate says innocently, “I can’t believe a young lady would wear such a scandalous article of clothing. I never could. It shows so much,” emphasizing soooo.
The result is galvanic. Hardwicke slams down his cards, twists in his chair and begins a long yelling tirade at the girl, the kindest being, “And get your damned naked behind back to the room!”
Heidi jumps up crying, the card table—even Gracie—is stunned to silence and Leroy stands up to face Hardwicke. Given the fifty pound weight difference this seems a foolish move and Hardwicke is clenching fist as he approaches Leroy.
“Sir!” Leroy protest as the larger man approaches. His voice is upper crust British, his movements feminine. “I protest, sir. In the strongest terms. Your treatment of this lady…” he sputters to a stop, words failing him.
Hardwicke, enraged, approaches like a locomotive. He brushes Heidi roughly aside, kicks the lounge and grabs Leroy by the neck.
Leroy says, “Erk,” and swats ineffectually at Hardwicke’s arm, then, surprising everyone, grabs Hardwicke’s thumb and twists it like the throttle of that locomotive, full speed ahead.
Hardwicke snarls in pain and releases him, Leroy dances lightly away and the liner crew comes to break up the brawl before any more guests are scandalized.
Hardwicke jerks his arms free of the crew, grabs Heidi’s arm instead and drags her away as she squawks in protest.
People turn back to their own affairs, George produces a cigar and smiles, saluting Leroy as he lights it.
Through the smoke Gracie says, “I had an uncle who…”
Kate catches Leroy’s eye and beams at him. Part one complete.
Intermission as Kate and Leroy spend the rest of the evening and most of the next morning in bed getting room service, getting to know each other, getting well.
Part Two is the next afternoon. The bridge game is of course cancelled and Heidi is nowhere to be seen but Hardwicke is back in the exercise room working up a sweat. Kate scopes him as she wanders by, gives the high sign to Leroy when he gets up to shower and he takes a position in a shady nook three levels down from funnel two with a portly guy he’s paid.
The guy’s overdressed in the new mod fashion from Carnaby street in London; frilly collar and cuffs, pink paisley shirt and tight pants. He’s stroking Leroy’s arm as Hardwicke storms by, pointedly ignoring them. He takes a seat at a table a long way and orders coffee, chain smokes and reads the paper as if he’s mad at it.
Leroy and his new friend saunter down the promenade hand in hand, pause at the railing to watch the gulls and the roiling white wake six stories down. “No way I’ll jump off this ship,” Leroy announces.” If the boat goes down I’ll just wait until this deck reaches the water, then just step off.” His friend giggles and Hardwicke rattles the newspaper in annoyance.
He’s looking anywhere else when he hears the friend say, “But I want it, Charles!”
“I know that, Francis. Don’t you think I know that? It’s just that she won’t sell it. Sentimental value, she says. You understand sentimental, don’t you Francis?”
“But it’s so beautiful, Charles. I haven’t seen a Van Topen necklace as good as that in all my years apprising. Our shop simply has to have it!”
“Francis! Keep your voice down. “He glances around, Hardwicke looks away. Leroy takes the guys arm and they move down the railing. Hardwicke, straining, hears, “Sure, but if she won’t sell, what am I supposed to do?”
Offer her twenty thousand,” says Francis as Hardwicke’s ears spin like radar dishes.
“Are you kidding? It’s worth five times that.”
“But Charles,” says Francis. “She doesn’t know that.”
Two things hit Hardwicke at once, reeling him like the wheels on a Vegas slot machine. First, the guy he was fighting yesterday wasn’t after Heidi’s hide at all. The guy’s a faggot. He sees him running his hand up and down the other man’s arm like a lover and shudders, appalled. Not at the idea of homosexuality, he’s too worldly for that, or at the public display. Hardwicke’s view is anything goes as long as it doesn’t scare the horses.
No, the real issue—the first real issue—is that he owes Heidi a major apology. They’ve only been married for a year and the novelty of her hasn’t worn off yet and he knows this isn’t going to blow over quickly. He yelled at her in public. In front of her idols, George and Gracie. Over a damn faggot.
And he’d hit her pretty hard last night, let’s not forget that; screaming at her about being a whore, flirting with other men.
Christ on a crutch, when she finds out.
But the other thing…the necklace. He pictures it on Dilly’s chest, sparkling in the sun. Yesterday it was merely a pretty bauble, today it’s a Van Topen worth a hundred thousand. Pounds or dollars, the exchange rate is pretty even right now.
He gets the idea then. Buy the necklace, give it to Heidi for a while, until her heat cools, then sell the thing for a huge profit. He can even buy it from Dilly after the ship reaches port and she carries it ashore. That way he won’t have to declare it.
He’s forgotten all about the gay men as he sips and smokes and watches his bank balance rise. He thought is so enticing that he’s rising with it.
But where’s Dilly?
The damn boat docks at Southampton in three damn hours and Hardwicke hasn’t seen the damn redhead anywhere. He’s made his peace with Heidi by promising her the necklace so all’s well in the stateroom, but it won’t be for long if he can’t find the damn redhead before the damned boat docks. And what if she’s already sold it?
They’re passing the White Cliffs of Dover, not a hundred miles from port when he sees her, leaning on the rail watching them go by. She’s wearing a tight black skirt and flat shoes skirt and white blouse, looking like one of the girls in his office, with a jaunty blue scarf flapping in the breeze around her red hair. He sidles up, wondering what his pitch is going to be.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” he says formally, tipping his hat as she looks over. He sees her reaction and immediately begins to apologize. “I want to tell you how sorry I am for my behavior the other evening,” he lies. “I’d have done so earlier but I haven’t seen you since…then.”
“Hardwicke, ma’am. Larson Hardwicke.” He takes her hand gently, no trace of the bully anywhere.
“Mr. Hardwicke,” says Kate. There’s a frost in her voice. “That was quite a scene you caused. I must say I am not inclined to accept your apology.”
“I assure you, I am sincere,” Hardwicke lies. Damn woman; what is her problem?
She tells him and his heart sinks. “The gentleman you so savagely attacked has been discussing things with me. I find him a most convivial fellow. Unlike you, sir.”
He can’t help himself. “Discussing …things?”
“Of a commercial nature. Not that it’s any of your business.” She turns away and Hardwicke takes her arm to stop her. Angrily she spins back and slaps him.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to touch you. It’s just that…it’s just that…” He’s got nothing, no words, no lies, no…wait. “It’s just that Heidi; you recall Heidi, my wife?”
“The young woman you treated so poorly? I can hardly forget.”
“Well, Heidi, she saw your necklace and I, I promised her…she thought it was so beautiful that I…”
“You want to give her my necklace so she’ll forgive you? That’s marvelous! Mr. Hardwicke, I’d laugh in your face if I wasn’t a lady. I already sold the necklace.”
There’s that heart sinking thing again. “To who?” he asks, knowing to who.
“Again, none of your business.”
“It’s the fag, isn’t it? You sold it to the fag.” Larson Hardwicke has trouble sometimes with his words, saying them before engaging his brain. His father tells him that, often, in conversations usually starting, “Larson, you are one dumb jackass.”
“To a gentleman,” Kate says. The chill tone has become glacial now.
Desperate as she again starts to leave Hardwicke says, “I’ll pay more!”
Kate turns back.
“Forty-Three-seven,” says Kate. Their room at the Great Fosters Hotel in Surrey, England is probably the poshest place they’ve ever been. Four poster bed, fifty acre grounds, great food, more history than any American can begin to understand.
“Forty,” says Leroy, besotted with her as she poses near the fireplace in the green sheathe dress he bought her in London.
“Three-seven,” she says. “Dollars. American.” She stretches like a cat, her arms high and nowhere near the towering ceiling and he imagines endless bowls of cream, whole fields of yellow canaries, people who always pet and never step on tails.
She’s purring as she comes to the huge bed, slowly lowering the zipper on the dress.
“We have things to discuss, Logan.”
“We do,” he agrees solemnly. He’d probably agree to anything at this moment. This is fairytale stuff here.
“Serious things, Logan.”
The dress slides off her shoulders.
“But not just yet.”
End of Chapter Four
THE NUT COMES OFF THE HEAD OF THE JOINT
John Kennedy is inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States.
Kate and Leroy are in Sarasota Florida running a rigged Marlin fishing tournament. Leroy, voting Republican, objects.
“But he’s Catholic.”
Kate, “Like you care.”
“He’s too young.”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
Tiny wailing from the delivery room as the doctor walks out toward the half-dozen men lolling in various vegetative states in the men’s waiting lounge. Ashtrays are overflowing and there’s a cloud of smog that actually blurs the walls. Lutheran General Hospital doesn’t allow men in the delivery room, does frown on them smoking in the lounge but allows it anyway figuring these guys are stressed enough. The mothers are offered painkillers to sort of balance things.
The doctor, blue scrubs, white mask, walks over to Leroy Logan and says, “Congratulations, sir; it’s a boy!”
Leroy accepts a handshake as he awkwardly stubs out his smoke. It’s his fourth son.
Winslow Petrie in a gray suit, white shirt, black tie, tilts his fedora back as he looks to the ceiling. “Spare me the lies,” he says. He looks back down at the cowering felon cuffed to the green metal table in the interrogation room of this seedy Southside Chicago cop shop.
“Tell me what I want to hear.”
The guy’s not stupid; he knows an opening when he hears one. His name is Patterson, goes by ‘Wild Willie’ on the streets. He says, “Logan. Leroy Logan. We did a couple of small scams out near Midway.” He goes on—a lot—blathering details that almost make sense.
Winslow interrupts. “He have a dame with him?”
“Yeah,” says Willie. “A looker. She—”
“Brunette,” says Winslow, assured, like he knew it. “Tall, big-boned woman; likes to bark orders.”
“Sure,” says Willie. “That’s her. “That’s Fast Kate.”
“Shit,” says Winslow. “Kate’s a Red-head.”
John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and Camelot dies with him. Lyndon Johnson, as bent as that tower in Pisa, takes office.
Katherine—certainly not known as ‘Fast Kate’ in these parts—is next up on the stage. She’s wearing a maroon robe and a mortarboard hat and she strides across the platform when she hears, “Carver, Katherine.”
A man shakes her hand, gives her a rolled sheepskin and she walks down stairs with a brand new bachelor’s degree in Art Appreciation and a smile that lights her way.
Leroy—he is proud of her, though he sincerely doesn’t get it—says, “So now you know what art to appreciate?”
Kate, knowing he doesn’t understand and loving him anyway, says, “Yes, Logan; I do know what to appreciate,” meaning, perhaps, him as well.
The bone scam begins in, of all places, a wine-tasting vineyard in Napa when Leroy says, “I been thinking…”
Kate, gently rotating a glass of Cabernet, smiles in genial amusement. It’s always interesting when he starts this way.
“Yes?” Her tone could make a priest start shedding vestments but Leroy barely raises an eyebrow. Kate sits up, sips down. This could possibly be something.
“Dinosaurs,” he says solemnly, nodding at his own judgement. “How about we sell a dinosaur?”
Kate suggests, “Because we don’t have one?” But realizes that isn’t necessarily an objection. They didn’t have a battleship either, that time they sold it.
“What does that even mean, Logan?”
Kate’s pouring coffee in the very spacious kitchen in her new house on Whidbey Island. The percolator is shiny stainless steel that matches the appliances which contrast nicely with the walnut cabinets and granite countertops, a new product to the Pacific Northwest. She only recently moved in and the place still has that fresh paint smell.
He says it again. “The nut comes off the head of the joint.”
“Try it in English instead of Yellow Kid.”
“It means ‘You gotta spend money to make money.’” Leroy’s own cup is pre-laced with Scotch as he waits for her to pour. The way this conversation is going he might be waiting years.
“Then why not say that? Why ‘the nut comes off the head of the joint?’” She says it in a low mocking voice and they both begin to giggle.
He says, “Seriously,” another indication of something about to fly off the handle. “We need a lot of upfront money for this one.”
“Sure,” says Kate, missing the point. He can tell she’s missing it because she hasn’t taken a swing at him with one of these heavy copper pots hanging over the island where they’re sitting, her in a silk robe, him in boxers and a tee and black socks. It’s cold up here in the Yukon.
Leroy’s been living here for five weeks more or less, sometimes less, like when he went on a two day poker outing and came back with seventy-one hundred or the week he went after the ponies—“can’t lose, Kate,”—down at Santa Anita and came back down eleven thousand.
Either way, win or lose, he’s had fun and Kate’s loving him being here, filling the silence of her giant new house.
She says, “What are we talking, exactly?”
“The dinosaur,” says Leroy, testy, like it hasn’t been half a year since he mentioned it.
“Oh, the dinosaur,” she says back, nodding. “Forgive me forgetting.”
“It’s jake,” he replies, missing the sarcasm. “We need a bankroll for this one, Kate. A big bankroll.”
“What for? You’re not buying a dinosaur, are you?” Her eyes widen with sudden worry. “Are you?”
“No, of course not. I’m going to sell one to somebody else. Speaking of; you’re gonna have to find a buyer.”
“Me? Why me?”
“You’re the roper,” he says with simple conviction. “Your job.”
She thinks, when did finding a dinosaur collector become one of my job skills? Still, it’s an interesting challenge, you think of it right.”
Leroy says, “Money for the Blute, a big store, salt articles in the right places—not just any articles, got to be convincing—a bent professor , money for a crew…”
“A crew?” Kate’s been lost in her own thoughts—a rich guy with a bone fetish—and she’s surprised. “Since when do we need a crew?”
“Since we’re going big. The economy’s changing Kate; everything costs more. Bread’s nearly a quarter, eggs are thirty cents. A bet on a horse is a dollar! And this house—what’s it cost you?”
Kate mumbles something.
“I said, “‘none of your beeswax, buster.’” She’s a bit sensitive since it cost way more than she’d planned. If Logan heard she paid $72 large for a house he’d have a fit.
Or not. He says, “Seventy-two plus for a house, Kate. It’s a nice house, sure, but it’s a house.”
It is nice. Six bedrooms, enough for Leroy’s pals to crash in, if Kate would let them, which she most certainly will not. Three baths, cavernous garage, huge lot looking out over Penn Cove.
“Short cons aren’t gonna pay for this pile, you know.”
She’s thinking, He’s right, dammit; we’ll have to go large.
She says, a long time later, this time at a dim restaurant in Seattle, candle in a red bowl casting flickering light, “What kind of money are we talking, Logan?”
Not missing a beat, just looking over the menu like he can’t decide between the oysters and the albacore, he says, “About $72 large.”
And Kate, getting it now, says carefully, “You want to pawn my house?”
“The nut, Kate; there’s a lot of upfront costs here.”
“Sure, Logan; I get that. But why my house? Why not yours?”
“I don’t have one,” he says with annoying logic. This is pretty much true; Leroy hardly has a pot to piss in. His money flies out as fast as it flies in.
“Adele’s house, I mean.”
“She’d never.” He shrugs.
Kate, recalling her visits to his wife, agrees. Adele Logan would never jeopardize her children’s security.
“Well, what about your money, Logan? You have to have some.”
“You’d think, Wouldn’t you?” He gives her that idiot smile he thinks is endearing. “Honestly Kate, I have no idea where it goes.”
Shocked, Kate sputters, “You don’t? You lose at gambling…”
“Yeah, but sometimes…”
“The horses play you…”
“Sure, there’s been a few losses there,” he admits. “But…”
“Logan, the horses throw a party whenever you get near a track….let me finish…you stay at expensive hotels when you could be here with me…”
“You don’t want me here all the time,” he says, which does stop her.
As much as Kate loves the man, and enjoys the rush when they pull of one of his outlandish scams, she values her freedom even more. Leroy Logan comes and goes in her life and that spices things up, makes her want him even more when he appears, usually rumpled, at her bedside.
So, sigh, “Fine. The nut will come off the head of the joint.”
The first nut being the acquisition of a place to put the dinosaur, if they ever get one.
“I have one in mind,” say Leroy, matter-of-fact, like it’s no big thing, I know of a dinosaur boneyard.
“You do? Do tell.”
“Not a real one, of course, but I know a guy, lives up in Montana so close to the border that he may as well speak Canadian.”
Kate’s about to correct him but figures, why bother?
“He’s legit, pretty much, and his family has owned this piece of rock and dirt for about a century and a half. There’s no water, can’t grow anything on it, cows take a quick look and go back to Kansas. Just rock and wind and sun.”
“Sounds perfect,” say Leroy. “Because there’s this one spot, northernmost point of the property that’s across the border. He even pays separate tax on it. Canadian tax.”
Kate’s feeling a little dense.” So?”
“So that’s where we find our dinosaur.”
Over drinks, leaning in over the table until their heads nearly touch, he tells her the tale. When he’s done he leans back, smug and she beams like she’s invented him herself.
“Logan; that is the best one yet,” she says, laughing. “The very best one yet.”
Next morning they’re showering in an enormous glass and tile bathroom, got two shower heads, one of which just sprays down like you’re in a tropical rain forest. Leroy’s never seen such a thing and says so.
“It’s what seventy-two large gets you these days,” she says, standing naked under it and Leroy, watching, thinks this might be the nicest feature he’s ever seen. Might not be so good without her, though.
He says, “We’re gonna need a mark.”
“Sure. Wash my back.”
“You’re the roper,” he says.
“I know. I’m on it. Takes a little time, Logan, to find the right guy. This is a specialty item. I mean, how many rich people are there who want dinosaur bones?”
Leroy stops lathering and begins gently scratching the places he knows she loves and she stretches like a cat deciding that maybe, just this once, you can keep on doing that forever.
Not just bones,” he tells her. “A skeleton. We’re going to find the first almost complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.”
“That’s the big one, right? Big head, teeny arms? How the hell did that thing ever scratch itself?”
“Probably had someone do it for him in the shower.”
Getting dressed she sees his battered grip open, half full. She chins in its direction. “You going somewhere?”
“Hopscotch,” he says, using a Yellow Kid term for traveling. “I got a lot of people to see, things to set up.”
“I do, but you’ve got to find us a mark.”
“Ok. But maybe you don’t have to leave just yet…?”
First guy Leroy visits is a professor at the University of Chicago named Lawrence Duckbill. Lawrence—never Larry—is a paleontologist, meaning he knows about bones of animals dead for sixty-five million years, not so much about anything that’s happened since then. They’re wandering around a large windowed lab filled with counters filled with trays filled with dusty bits of what look to Leroy like plaster.
“How do you know what’s a bone and what’s a rock?”
“Years of training.” Lawrence is middle sixties, smokes a pipe with some sort of cherry-smelling tobacco. He’s wearing a wool suit with a vest and a bow tie and his hair, thin and gray, looks like he’s been sucking his fingers before sticking them in light sockets.
It’s the fourth of July and the lab in the Museum of Natural History is empty except the two of them. Lawrence says, “Let me get this straight…you want me to fake a dinosaur skeleton.”
“Yes. A Tyrannosaur.”
“Sure,” says Lawrence, deadpan. “”May as well go for the best.”
“What I thought,” says Leroy, missing the sarcasm completely.
“Be easier to do a smaller one. Have you thought about that? An Ankylosaur or perhaps one of the Pachycephalosauria. A Velociraptor wouldn’t be that hard.”
“Nah, if you’re going to swing the bat, you might as well go for the bleachers.”
Lawrence, a professor, didn’t quite get that. A sports metaphor? “I have to tell you, Mr. Johnson—Johnson being Leroy’s latest lie—this isn’t going to be easy. To make a convincing skeleton, to place in in situ, as it were; to make it appear to be genuine…” He shakes his head in a most unconvincing way and Leroy sees the play. The professor is trying to up the price.
“It doesn’t have to be too convincing,” he says, taking the opposite side of the negotiations. He picks up a hunk of rock from a bin and idly tosses it. “This thing, for instance. Just a hunk of rock, right?”
The professor grabs it from the air, appalled. “That’s an ankle bone from a Ceratopsia! It’s a precious piece.”
“Looks like you chiseled it off a brickyard.”
“Your customer,” says the professor with some distaste, “Is probably more educated than you.” His tone suggests a baboon would be more educated.
“You’d think,” Leroy agrees, again missing the sarcasm. “But he won’t be. The guy we’re after wants—literally—a skeleton in his closet. He wants to have something nobody else has. He goes in the room, wherever, and he looks at it and he thinks he’s the cat’s pajamas cause he’s got it and nobody else does.”
“And when he finds out it’s not real?”
“But it is real. To him, the guy, it’s as real as the money he paid to get it. And the more money he paid, the more real it is.” Leroy lights a Camel. He’s switched brands because Chesterfields aren’t killing him fast enough.
“That’s why this has to be a Tyrannosaur. Biggest dinosaur brings in the biggest buck.”
“But,” says the professor. “If he ever does find out…won’t he come looking for…” he wants to say me, but settles for a weak, “you?”
Leroy laughs through the haze. “No. Guy pays half a million for some bones isn’t going to check after he’s bought ’em. At that point he doesn’t want to know.”
Lawrence Duckbill whispers, “Half a million,” under his breath and Leroy realizes he’s just been outplayed. The price of a dinosaur skeleton just went up.
The professor’s not as dumb as his degree suggests.
While Leroy’s Hopscotching around, Kate’s firmly in one place, looking for just the right mark to make the play. The right place at the moment is the local library, third floor, north corner under the glow of a microfilm machine. She’s already been through the Who’s Who in American Society, and the equivalent volumes for Canada and come up empty.
The microfilm machine isn’t helping much either. She’s filled out ten pages of her yellow notepad with potential names, leads, ideas and is looking at a story about a millionaire in Pittsburgh who’s closing a factory to send the work to India. Just the sort of rich, heartless jerk she’s trolling for.
But not this guy. Down the column, after the shock grabber headline “Owner throws hundreds on breadline,” comes the twist. ‘Conrad Detwieler, owner, has paid each employee a year’s wages as a termination bonus and is going to rehire them when his new factory is built.’
So the evil tycoon is a saint and Kate’s moving on and voice next to her says, “Are you using this machine?” Which is a stupid line since, yes; she is, and there are six others gathering dust nearby. A hand settles on her shoulder and a head comes into the light.
Kate leans back and sees a well-dressed man of maybe forty leaning over her like a teacher checking a student’s homework. He’s got on a good suit, white shirt, blue tie, his hair is the perfect cut that comes from one of those new men’s stylist places that have been cropping up all over Seattle lately, and he smells like leather and spice. He begins squeezing, like a cat kneading her.
“Back off,” she says pleasantly. There’s nobody else in this corner of the building; nobody on the entire floor.
“Really?” He says, kneading in a circular pattern. It would feel pretty good if she knew him or wanted him touching her or he wasn’t a creep. But she doesn’t and he is.
“”Does this work?” she asks, meaning the intrusion, the touching, the implied threat.
“More often than you think,” he says. His voice is smooth and confident, like he’s going to get what he wants, it’s just a matter of when and Kate’s suddenly amused. She’s been at this library search for several hours now, her neck hurts and she’s getting eyestrain.
So she spins the chair around and her body fits into his arms like she planned and he stiffens, in several places, surprised and aroused. Kate puts an arm around his neck, draws him in and kisses him, hard, no tongue.
As she’s kissing she rises from the chair so they’re embracing, body to body. She can feel him get hard as his hand slides up and cups her right breast, massaging it instead of her neck.
After thirty seconds she gently pulls away. Her red hair is like a flame to a moth and he’s staring at her like she’s a dream come true. “Do you want more?” She says, low-throated, come hither voice like she’s heard in the movies, Mae West or Elizabeth Taylor.
“Yes,” he manages as Kate takes his hand and leads him to the far corner, away from the windows into the shadows.
She pushes him to the tunnel of bookcases and says, “Let’s make this special. You take off your suit—it’s such a nice suit—we wouldn’t want it to get dirty.” She says dirty like dirty and he can’t possibly miss the suggestion—a floor lamp wouldn’t miss the suggestion, or be any less rigid.
“You strip in this stack,” she whispers, leaning in, letting him fondle. “And I’ll strip in this one.” She points to the next aisle. Then we’ll meet here, naked, together. All right?”
He can hardly speak, just nods and backs into the aisle when she pushes him. Kate slowly unbuttons the first buttons of her blouse as he watches, then smiles wickedly and spins into the next aisle.
I’m taking off my bra,” she says, a soft voice in the dim library. “What are you taking off?’
“I…my shirt,” he says.
“My skirt,” she tells him.
“My pants,” he says. His voice is thick with emotion and Kate imagines he hasn’t exhaled in the last three minutes.
“I’m pulling down my panties,” she whispers.
“My…my…undershorts,” he says.
Kate leans around the front of the stack and waves a bare arm at his stack. “Hand me your clothes and I’ll hang them on a chair. We can’t let that suit get ruined.”
A handful of clothes is shoved into her hand and she pulls them away. She calmly walks to the nearest window, opens it and throws them out. They flutter down to the street as the undershorts catch a breeze and waft serenely down 23rd Avenue..
The guy, naked and huddling in the shadows, yells, “What the Hell?” as Kate gathers her notepad, her purse and his wallet and walks away.
Of course, getting that guy doesn’t help her get the other guy. She still has to find a mark and she’s coming up empty. She stops for a cup of coffee at a local place that has outside tables. The sun is warm and pleasant, not the usual rainy Seattle morning. Logan’s right, she thinks, a cup of coffee for a quarter. The economy sucks.
As she sits and sips—it’s not even good coffee for a quarter—she thinks maybe Logan’s right about the hopscotch as well. It’s not a good idea to find a mark in your own back yard and Seattle’s just a short strait away from Whidbey. Maybe she should take a trip.
But where? Where would a collector of bones hang out and, more importantly, how will she find him? Logan’s counting on her to come up with somebody, her new house has a mortgage—at 6%, her payment is a staggering $447 a month—and this idea of doing bigger cons is intoxicating.
She remembers a cartoon from the New Yorker magazine she read at a hair salon during her married years. She spent a lot of time gone from the house back then, avoiding the mistake her life had taken. The cartoon had that scary family—the Addams?—up on the roof of their decrepit mansion, evidently during Christmas time. A group of carolers has gathered by the door as the family looks down. They have a pot of boiling oil leaning over the edge, poised…
Kate feels like that now. Not about fondue-ing people, but about being poised on the edge of something big.
So she watches people for a while, enjoying the view and the sun, not letting her conscious mind nag and a name appears, like it’s written in chalk on the sidewalk. Blue chalk, curlicue script: Jimmy James. Goes by Jimmy because James James is stupid.
She met Jimmy at a tech expo in New York at the beginning of the married years when she believed that Bill wanted her to come along, be part of his life. Turned out that no; he didn’t, a fact that eventually was made clear when he skipped out on about a million in unpaid invoices.
Jimmy, though, was bent. It didn’t take long, during a steak and lobster dinner provided by the sponsors of the expo, suppliers to the construction trade trying to sell their products, for Kate and Jimmy to get together. By the after dinner drinks they both knew they were kindred spirits. Jimmy, it turned out, was there to promote a new method of cost accounting for the construction trade guaranteed to cut your taxes. Kate saw through the guarantees straight to the scam and they quickly became best friends.
Where was he now?
Winslow Petrie stops in the hall of the tenth floor of the brand new J. Edgar Hoover Building, files in hand, cigarette between lips, wondering why he just stopped in the hall.
Somebody behind him makes an exaggerated tsk sound like it’s a major inconvenience to step around somebody, and flounces away. In a tight skirt, though, so Winslow’s ok with it.
But why did he stop? Some unconscious thread, like the faint vibration on the web of a spider, a sense of something missed.
Absently, he resumes his walk back to his office. He’s a star in the FBI now, after capturing three big time scam artists and being involved in a raid on a counterfeiting ring in DC. He’s been to lunch—twice—with J. Edgar at the new office commissary, glad for the attention, perplexed by the often incoherent ramblings of the director.
In his office—one wall glass, two walls covered with photos, his diploma from Harvard, pictures of him and captured gangsters—he sets his coffee next to the picture of Cora, his wife, and Billy, his son. The picture, an 8 ×10 color glossy from Sears, in a gold frame, sits next to an ashtray, amber glass, overflowing with Marlboro filters.
He fans out the files like a card hand and watches them for several moments, waiting for them to tell him a story. One name catches his eye and he cocks his head to the side to read it.
Why would that name ring a bell? Winslow, tall and slim at 32, wears the regulation brown suit, white shirt, black (brown optional) tie required by FBI custom. His fedora is on a peg by the door, his snub-nose .38 in a worn leather shoulder rig on the table. Even Hoover doesn’t require they wear them in the building.
That asshole Clyde Tolson would though, and aren’t we glad he’s gone?
Winslow sits back in his chair and studies the Doogan file. Tucker Doogan is a face. One of the best, if rumors can be believed. Winslow knows that the stories, most of them, about con artists are created by the con artist and therefore embellished. Reputations are only important to their peers and their personal records are anything but truthful.
Winslow knows bits and pieces about him and the file fills in others. Early or late fifties, medium build, Tucker is an impersonator—a face. He can transform himself into any identity needed and, the file suggests, has played psychics, the deceased contacts of psychics, politicians, scientists, doctors and bank security guards. He’s a known associate (KA in FBI speak) of “Nibs Callahan, The Yellow kid and—here we go—Leroy Logan.
Leroy is a bit of an obsession with Winslow. Number one on the gotta-get-him list, maybe pick up Fast Kate as an after dinner mint.
Winslow’s remembering now why Tucker Doogan’s name reminded him of Logan. It’s the snitch he handled last week on a funny paper job, gave them the straight info on who, what and where and Doogan’s name popped up, not because he was a member of the gang, just corollary data.
“Doogan’s doing a skit,”—a face’s performance is called a skit because he’s acting—“I think in Philly. Something about a bank and some bonds.” The snitch is named Photon, God only knows why. He’s young and stick-thin from the drugs, marijuana or that new LSD shit. Long hair, dirty jeans, acne.
“Why are you telling me?”
“You tole me, man. You said if I ever heard anything about cons I should tell you.” He looks up at Winslow, crafty like. “So, what’s that worth? The tip?”
“You want a tip? Join the Army. Get clean and see the world.”
“The world, man? See the ‘Nam is more like it.”
Winslow can’t argue with that. He’s FBI but he’s seeing a lot of wrong in the peace/war thing. Hoover is, of course, clear on the subject. You want peace, you’re a Commie and probably a fag.
Sometimes Winslow has his doubts about the director.
Coincidence; Leroy’s in Philly same time as Tucker Doogan. Leroy’s not part of what Tucker’s up to, different people, different crowd; he’s here to find an acquaintance called the Cowboy Kid. Leroy doesn’t know his name—doesn’t, actually, know him—but he’s heard good things and wants a closer look. When he hears that Tucker’s in town as well he perks up. A twofer.
A couple of calls from pay phones in the lobbies of hotels, stuffed inside the dark wooden boxes, writing notes on the tiny shelf, Leroy makes plans for a meet. He picks Washington Square park because it’s convenient, glad he did when he sees that Independence Park just across the road, is filled with hippies and protesters chanting and carrying signs.
The Vietnam War isn’t huge news yet, and the protests are relatively tame. Leroy knows nothing about it, declining to read the papers and never watching the news, not even Walter Cronkite who Kate seems to adore.
As for drugs, he’s as live and let live as it’s possible to be, figuring if he’s ok about you ingesting whatever, you’ll be ok with him running off with the family trust fund. Karma, he thinks; it’s just like that Karma thing.
The Cowboy Kid, when he moseys into the park an hour late, is a tall guy, maybe shaved last week, wearing faded jeans, boots and a red plaid lumberjack shirt despite it being near a hundred. He’s got the hat his name suggests and a hand-rolled cigarette between his lips that turns out to be, when he sits down next to Leroy, marijuana.
He offers a toke to Leroy, who declines. The Kid rests his tailbone on the bench and stretches his legs way out, looks over at Leroy and says, “So?”
So, Leroy talks a little, about scams in general, people they both know, others they might know. They’re both fencing, trying to learn more than they tell. Leroy confesses to a few felonies, which cause the Kid to raise an eyebrow like that cowboy does on that western, Clint somebody—Eastwood?—got a funny name like Rowdy or something.
Leroy’s seen most TV shows and they have as much effect on him as the news; sort of in one eye and out the other without making real contact, except the Fugitive with David Janssen. He likes that one, especially now that it’s in color.
The Kid says, “I may have been involved with…” and mentions a crime Leroy’s heard of. Most references are like that; oblique references to various crimes that supply the listener with clues to the skills and habits of the speaker.
Leroy says, “I need a cowboy,” and the Kid, breaks out a big grin, like ‘have you seen me?’ and Leroy smiles back because, yeah, he’s exactly what’s needed.
Another step forward. “It’ll be in November, this year. You’ll be a ranch owner, cattleman type.”
“You’ll need a horse…”
“Got one. Some.”
“May need to shoot a gun,” Leroy suggests, casually, like how do you feel about that?
“At somebody? Just for show?”
“At’s fine. It’s just part of the expected character.” Because of TV, the mark’s perception of reality has changed. It’s now more important to be like reality than it is to be real. Fake real, whatever.
The Kid says, “I’m fine with that. I can shoot the wings off a fly at fifty feet,” leaving Leroy to wonder how do you practice that?
Then the kid asks, “What’s the scam?”
Leroy says, “A dinosaur.”
And the Kid says, “What?”
It’s a bit more civilized with Tucker Doogan when they meet at McGillan’s Old Ale House on Drury street. The place has been here since before history started and Tucker begins the conference by noting “Ethel Merman comes here.”
Leroy remembers her in that Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World movie Kate took him to see a year back but otherwise he’s at a loss. He lights a Camel and studies Tucker who’s trying to catch the eye of a barmaid.
Tucker Doogan is…well, nobody. Leroy can see his clothes; a basic suit/tie combo worn by everyman. He sees the short tan hair and brown eyes and thin lips and everything about him seems to fade from memory as soon as you look away. It’s the perfect appearance for a face and Leroy is delighted.
Tucker says, “Hey,” and pours a beer, carefully making a head and Leroy scans the room. When his eyes come back it’s like he’s never seen this guy before.
He says, “I’ll need a professor.”
“British or American? I can do either.”
“I’ll bet you can. Maybe an archeologist, leading a field team.”
“I don’t know what that is, mate, but I’ll look it up.” His accent is suddenly very Australian.
“Are you from…?”
“Brisbane, Mate. Moved here to the States after the war.”
“Nice,” says Leroy. “I’ll script something around that.” He studies the man in the booth for several moments, still not really seeing him. Tucker seems content to let him.
Finally, Leroy sighs and says, “You’re in.”
A Continental Flight back from Philadelphia to Seattle takes seven hours. Passengers are served hot meals by uniformed flight attendants, uniformly young female and pretty. Leroy’s met at the gate and he and Kate wander slowly through the airport, gather his bag and she drives them home through a typical afternoon rain.
Halfway to Whidbey, on the ferry at Mukilteo, Leroy says, “How’s the search going?”
Kate says, “Well,” stretching it out like taffy.
“It’s not good, Logan. These people—if there are any such people—don’t advertise. There’s no I want to buy a dinosaur ad in the papers.” She doesn’t admit that, one morning over coffee, she actually looked.
“There’s somebody out there, though,” Leroy says. “It’s funny, isn’t it? Having the scam and looking for a mark that fits it? Usually it’s the other way around.”
“Yeah, funny,” says Kate deadpan. “Hysterical.” She tells him the story of the pervert in the stacks and he laughs for five miles.
“Baby,” he says, aping Ralph Kramden in the Honeymooners, “You’re the greatest!”
She turns up the inclined driveway in her little MGA roadster, a jaunty red car totally unfit for Seattle’s roads, weather or hills. “If the weather clears, we could have steaks on the grill.” Her house has a huge redwood deck on the south side overlooking Penn Cove. She can watch ships go by, see the lights of the city, the occasional porpoise. After being in the house for a couple of months now she hardly notices anymore.
“That sounds good. Do you have any beer?”
“Salad?” Head shake. “Corn?”
“Steak? Never mind. Maybe we should eat out?”
“What a great idea!” Kate happily turns the car around before it crests the hill. Odds are it wasn’t going to make it up in this rain anyway.
Two A.M Kate’s wide awake staring at the ceiling. She listens to his breathing, feels him settle and says, “You awake?”
“Oh, good. Listen, I was thinking, about what I said? About there’s no ads?”
“Logan? Because I think that’s it.”
Reluctantly, his voice in the dark. “What is?”
“We advertise. That’s how we find the mark. We place an ad.”
“Sure.” He goes back to snoring.
Breakfast for Kate is 6:30, Leroy stumbles out around noon. She watches him putter around the kitchen gathering a bowl and sugar and cereal and lets him eat in silence, all while buzzing with the desire to grab him by the lapels and yell into his face.
“What about it, Logan? What do you think?”
“About what we talked last night? My idea? The ad?” She’s leaning forward, almost bouncing on her stool.
“We talked last night?”
“Did I say I liked it? The idea?”
“You loved it. You were thrilled with it. Best idea ever, Kate; that’s what you said.”
“Okay then. Let’s do it.”
“Oh Baby,” she says, grinning. “You’re the greatest!” She hustles to the percolator to pour him some very black coffee.
She doesn’t pour the hot coffee in his lap.
But she’s thinking it.
A week later they do place an ad. It’s an article, actually, written by professor Lawrence Duckbill, credited to one of Leroy’s aliases, concerning the recent dinosaur discoveries in the Faith Hills area of Montana, and how “unscrupulous” collectors are buying them for personal collections. The article goes on at length about what a crime this is.
The article is perfect bait for exactly that person.
$150 each gets the article into several prominent specialty magazines, including Paleontology Monthly, Paleontology World Journal and of course, the popular Paleontology NOW! Combined circulation of nearly thousands.
It’s nearly a month before publication, time spent creating convincing fossils, hiring actors, preparing more fake articles to later be placed in libraries. Leroy’s living full time with Kate and there’s lots of downtime that they fill with trips up to Canada, down to Mexico and one short con in Washington, DC just to “keep the skills fresh.”
That one proves to be a problem.
Winslow Petrie meets Photon near the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument rising patriotically over them. Photon, stoned and giggling, says, “Looks like a Jay, Man,” and Winslow smacks him across the back of his head.
“What is wrong with you?” But it’s Winslow, with his suit and tie and dark glasses who’s out of place here. The entire length of the reflecting pool is lined with stoners, guitar players, protesters and people hanging out. There’s buzz that Martin Luther King will be giving a speech at the Lincoln Memorial and the feel of history changing is almost as strong as the marijuana smoke casting a haze.
“I got a thing, man,” says Photon, rubbing his head. “Maybe I got a thing…” he looks off into the distance, then snaps back. “Logan, you said. Guy named Logan…”
“What about him?” Winslow leans in to listen.
“I heard from a guy…heard from a guy…that this other guy…Logan?…is in town doing something…”
Winston’s tracked down a lot of leads over the years that started with “I heard from a guy,” and he’s maybe losing interest when Photon snaps back from Neptune or wherever and says clearly, “There’s this red-haired chick…”
And Winslow thinks, “Fast Kate?”
The article comes out in September and the replies to the PO Box mentioned in it come in a wave shortly after. The box is stuffed with over twenty letters, all of them from wannabe collectors of illegal dinosaurs.
Kate, letting a pile of them slide through her fingers onto her kitchen island says, “Who knew you could find a mark like this?” Her tone suggests fairy-dust and unicorns are involved.
Leroy reads one, ‘Dear sirs, blah, blah…would be interested in talking to you about these ‘illegal purchases,’ and how one would go about making one.’ Well, that’s subtle.”
“Can it be this easy?” Kate asks, wide-eyed. “They’re all asking how to buy skeletons. Logan, they know it’s illegal, and they’re asking, right here,” she waves an envelope. “How to break the law.”
“New to me, too, Kate.” He’s considering the possibilities of how this could work. Mail people an ad to buy the Golden Gate Bridge? Offer people, say, a million dollars if they send you a thousand up front? Would they respond like this?
“The one we want isn’t going to be so obvious. He’ll be subtle.”
Kate says, “Hello,” and hands over a letter.
They hit gold in Max Billows, an antiques dealer in Bangor, Maine. Max is sixty-three, looks forty-seven due to, he says, “good genes, good food, good habits.” He’s wearing a suit any undertaker would envy, down to the shiny pointed black shoes, and his manner, when he meets them at the Bangor airport is almost shy. His voice is typical New-Englander with “ayes” and “ehs” tossed in randomly, like mandarin oranges in a fruit salad.
Introductions—lies on the part of Kate and Leroy—are made and lunch offered at a local elegant restaurant with an actual water wheel spinning outside. The room is old weathered wood with large windows facing water and the food is what Leroy would call ‘hearty’ if he knew what that meant.
Max gets to business when the plates are being removed. “I’m very interested in this article. It says you’re involved in an excavation in Montana. Is this true?”
“It is,” says Kate. She’s the roper so this meeting is hers to run with. There are two other letters as prospects but none as good as Max here, watching here like he can get answers directly from her brain.
“My husband Thomas,” she indicates Leroy, who’s pretending to be bored, gazing out the window at a lot of ducks, “and I are funding the dig. It’s being led by…” and she names names and gives out real credentials that be checked easily while not actually belonging to the people Max here will actually meet.
The site is near the Canadian border, the closest town is Sweetgrass on the U.S. size, Coutts in Alberta which is less a town than a border crossing. “Not many roads, not many people. Rocks, mostly, which is good for us.”
She talks about a guy, name withheld, who has a ranch of sorts a few miles away, couple hundred thousand acres of nothing. There was a storm last winter, took out power for a week and the guy, name withheld, took to driving his truck around the lonelier parts of the property. He got lost and wound up on somebody else’s land, found a collapsed hillside and looked closer, shocked to discover petrified bones of some animal.
“Well the guy’s no dummy,” says Kate, getting into the story they’ve created, “and he’s heard about recent dinosaur sites in the Black Hills of the Dakotas, so he calls a friend who gets him onto a professor at the University of Montana who’s willing to stay quiet for a reasonable price.”
“Tenured professors don’t make much at the University of Montana,” explains Leroy, to split Max’s attention. It’s an old trick, well used, the last time being the recent trip to DC that’s going to come back to bite them.
“Yes,” agrees Kate, swiveling Max’s head back her way. “He—the professor—got in touch with our foundation—” Leroy smiles at the this new twist. We got a foundation now.
Kate continues. “We put together the crew, hired an archeologist. We’re using students from the university for the dig But…” Here’s where the line gets to the hook…” We decided that maybe, given the magnitude of the find, that this time, the public should be allowed an opportunity.”
“And what exactly,” Max asks, “Is the find?”
“The first nearly complete skeleton of…” pause for dramatic effect…“A full grown Tyrannosaurus Rex.”
At this point in the tale the mark is going to go one of two ways. He’ll either drop out of his chair in awe or act disinterested. Max chooses the latter.
“Oh,” he says, deflated. Like, I expected better, why are you wasting my time? “A T-Rex, you say.” He couldn’t be more bored if he was an oil well.
He says, “Let me show you something.” They leave, get in his car and drive to a large warehouse on a larger estate, a hulking building like an aircraft hangar. Max hides the combination on the lock with his body and they step into a cool dark interior. He snaps a couple of switches and lights come on overhead.
“My collections,” he says and despite themselves Kate and Leroy both do a double take. The guy has it all. There are two small military airplanes suspended on wires like they’re invading Japan, about a dozen shiny old cars gleaming under spotlights, even a restored Cable-car on a piece of track.
“That’s the survivor, the only one, of the San Francisco fire. It’s from the Clay Street line, Grip #8. They think they have the real one in their museum but I had a fake built and swapped them.” He touches the side of the wooden car tenderly, then walks them to a back section, pointing at things as he goes.
“Books,” he says. “Paintings, sculpture, rare fossils…”
They stop there, seeing shapes of leaves and small bones embedded in rocks.
Back at the door, tour over, he says, “So you see, I don’t need a dinosaur skeleton.”
Which is how they know they have him.
Max takes them to dinner at a seafood place and Leroy tells the tale.
“It’s like this,” he begins, though no; it really isn’t. “The land where we found the Tyrannosaur is a family owned ranch…someplace…” He smiles at Max at the omission—can’t tell all our secrets, can we?—“Owned it for a century or two since they swindled it from the Indians. There’s not much family left, just one old rancher who lives in a run-down place a long way from the dig site.”
“I assume he doesn’t know,” says Max, “What you found.”
“He does not. If he did, he would sell the skeleton to the highest bidder or it would wind up in a museum someplace.”
“Won’t he find out?” Max says. “You can’t exactly hide a discovery like this.”
“Actually,” says Kate, “You can. The site is so remote that the house sits a good seven miles away. There’s nothing anywhere near it, no roads, no people. It’s…rustic.”
“But if we took the skeleton,” says Max. “The location would have to come out. Otherwise the provenance, the very proof of the skeleton’s veracity, would be jeopardized.”
Leroy mulled that sentence as Kate delivered the bait. “That’s where we come in. The rancher could be persuaded to sell the land. Then the new owner—” She smiles prettily at Max—“You, could discover the site sometime later. As the owner of the land you could do with the skeleton whatever you wanted.”
“No; I couldn’t,” Max objects. “U.S Law says any discovery has to be placed on the open market so museums can get a shot at them.”
Leroy sits back and grins, stretching the moment, then drops the hook. “That’s the beauty of this Mr. Billows. The ranch crosses the U.S. border. The site is in Canada.”
To which Max says, “Um?”
Max rallies after brandy in his large, barn like house. It’s got a fire burning against the cold and floor lamps glowing to make the room seem less like an bus station. He passes out cigars as Kate and Max’s wife Loretta light cigarettes.
Max says, “What’s in it for you?” And Leroy pretends not to understand.
Kate though, smiling through the haze, says, “Twenty-five percent.”
“Of what?” asks Loretta. She’s middle-aged and settled comfortably into middle weight. Her hair is permed and she dresses well, if conservatively, in a brown skirt and blue sweater. “Of the dinosaur, when it sells?”
“No, ma’am,” says Kate. “We want twenty-five percent as a commission for the land.”
“I see,” says Loretta, not seeing at all, but she’s the better of the two at negotiating so she’s got the wheel. “Why do we want the land, Max?”
“Because, if we own it, the dinosaur find is ours to do with as we see fit. Canadian law isn’t the same as American.”
“Why can’t we just buy the Canadian part?”
Leroy jumps in with a prepared speech. “It’s all part of a land grant from President Rutherford B. Hayes,” he lies. “Our nineteenth president. He gave the reservation to the Blackfeet tribe and the land next to it to Jeremiah Humphrey, the doctor who saved his life when he was shot at the Battle of South Mountain, in Maryland, during the Civil War. The boundary with Canada wasn’t established then and the border cuts through it, leaving a small section to the north. Canada doesn’t want to change maps and resurvey and make new deeds so it stays as one parcel. But legally, I assure you,” Leroy lies, “It’s under Canadian law.
He’s got a briefcase with a lot of forged deeds and legal briefs and historical documents, all property aged and stamped and so official looking they’d convince a judge. Max and Loretta look them over, nod a lot, then Loretta asks, “How much?”
Kate meets her eyes. “Three-hundred-Twenty-Seven thousand.”
Loretta doesn’t blink. “And your fee?”
“Comes on top.”
Back at Kate’s place they let the stew simmer for a couple of weeks, ignoring Max’s calls and letters. Leroy spends a lot of time gone and Kate visits art shows. She’s got an easel set up in a sunny room on the west side of the house, brushes and tubes of acrylic paints. She’s been studying Jackson Pollack and is interested in this new Andy Warhol guy after seeing his commercial art last year in New York.
She keeps the door closed, not wanting to hear Leroy’s comments about tomato soup cans.
He’s back one Sunday evening and they’re on the big couch in the living room watching Ed Sullivan on the huge 19 inch color RCA. Ed’s got Soupy Sales and an opera singer and Fantasio, the magician. After a commercial Ed introduces a guy who spins plates and Kate says, “He’s a lot like you,” which gets her a raised eyebrow.
“He does what you do, Logan. He’s got a plate spinning on a stick, which is hard enough. But then he adds more until he’s got six of them all spinning at once. You do the same with the cons. You have a lot of people, a lot of things that either look real or are real and if you screw up it all falls apart.”
What Leroy’s thinking, as he watches the guy run from one plate to the next is, how bad do you want to avoid a real job, you spend all your time spinning plates?”
Kate loves this part of the game. Loves watching Logan move pieces around, making plans, making calls, adjusting the play. He’s at his best during these times, not drinking, staying away from the horses, buzzing like an electrified butterfly.
He gets up and clicks off the TV, turning off about a million teenagers screaming at that new band the Beatles. Kate kind of likes them, Logan considers them as a possible target until he realizes he’d have to go to England.
He says, “I think Max is about ready.”
She says, “I think he’s been ready for years, waiting for us to come and get him.”
Leroy grins. “So, should we give him another week?” He comes back to the couch and bends down for a kiss.
“You know; I did not like that man,” Kate says, leaning back. “Maybe a couple.”
Leroy’s got a lot of plates spinning on this scam. He takes Max the mark to the University of Montana where Tucker Doogan does aces as a paleontology professor. His Aussie accent is gone, replaced with a Midwest tone that accents some words, as he guides Max through the fine points of dinosaur skeletons, specially, the ownership possibilities.
“The problem,” says Tucker, “Is that, while it is legal in the U.S. to own a skeleton, the law requires that any find be offered for sale on the open market to allow museums to get a crack at it.”
All of which Max knows. “That sounds expensive.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” says Tucker. Leroy isn’t here to get annoyed by Tucker’s overly dramatic reading of the professor. He’s busy keeping people away from the paleontology department by being a janitor blocking the only entrance. The department looks real to Max because it is real. It’s just not, technically speaking, theirs.
So Tucker is portraying the very real professor Clark Ludlum, PhD, who is home taking care of a very nasty water leak, one of Leroy’s other spinning plates.
Tucker says, “The last skeleton that came on the market, a lovely specimen of a Tethysaurus Nopscai, which, as we all know, is the missing link between Mosasaurs and Crocodilians. There are only four specimens known to exist, and none are complete…”
He goes on, at length, and Max is thinking that, given the oddly stressed syllables, all in the wrong places, that it’s a damned good thing for the professor’s students that he doesn’t have any.
But he’ll leave the University satisfied that, if a Tyrannosaurus skeleton could be found, the north border of Montana or North Dakota would be the ideal place to look.
The professor is saying, “The alluvial deposits formed by the concomitant…” when Max pumps his hand wildly and flees back to Maine where he tells his wife, Loretta, “It’s real.”
She hands him a martini—two olives—and smiles. “So they’re legit, these people?”
“Good God; no.” He sips and sucks the pimentos. “Those two are a phony as a three dollar bill. They’re con artists, flim-flammers. The worst sort.”
“So what are you going to do? We want that skeleton don’t we?”
“Yes, we do, my love. And we will get it. Just not from them.”
“Then you’re planning to…?”
“Screw the fuckers, yes.”
Leroy’s warming up over coffee at the Well Howdy diner on Railway street in Milk River, Alberta. He’s waiting For Max to show up, expecting that Max won’t and isn’t surprised when he doesn’t.
Pouring cream and stirring in many, many packets of sugar, he thinks about Loretta that night asking, “Why do we need you? Why can’t we just make a deal with the owner, direct?”
Leroy saying, “You could. Except that you don’t know who it is.”
He’s wondering if they heard the hole in that story and when Max doesn’t walk in the front door as expected, he figures they did.
The hole being that, if Max already owns the land, it doesn’t matter that Leroy spills the beans. It’ll be too late. And maybe, just maybe; they can find him.
Outside, leaning against the wall to huddle against the wind, he drops a lot of quarters in the pay phone and calls Kate.
Another plate spins, this one a bit wobbly, and Leroy’s nowhere around to see it.
Max is in Montana a lot lately, driving to small towns all along the Canadian border, checking in a local land offices. He’s searching for a piece of land that’s been in one family for a century, that’s really big and that has a small tip jutting into Canada.
That’s the card that fell out of the scam artists sleeve, Max thinks. How many pieces of land have that as a feature.
So he’s driving a rented Ford F-150, red and white if it wasn’t covered with all this dust out here on the edge of nothing. You gotta figure the land’s worthless because it sits right up against the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. If any white settlers thought there was anything left in this Godforsaken place, they’d have moved the tribes out a long time ago. Again.
The truck bounces and jostles and Max would listen to the radio if there were any stations in this goddamned desert. He’s approaching a town called Sunburst, all of five short streets and a gas station. It’s the seventeenth little town he’s visited on this hellish drive across Montana and his back hurts from the travel. He stops at the station, fills the truck while marveling at the price of gas. 43 cents a gallon is—literally—highway robbery and Max is in a foul mood as he enters the one room Federal Post Office.
“Is there a place where they keep land records?”
“There is,” says the solitary clerk, a middle-aged, overweight, thin-haired guy wearing the required post office uniform of light blue shirt, dark blue pants, gray vest and bored attitude.
Both he and Max wait a while for anything more to happen. The guy has a nametag on his vest that says ‘Roy.’
“Roy,” says Max with what seems like patience, but isn’t. “Where might that be?”
“It might be in Sweetgrass,” says Roy, stopping the conversation again.
“Might be?” asks Max.
Roy considers for far longer than any human should before finally admitting, “Is.”
“How far?” asks Max.
It’s nine miles Max discovers by looking at one of the many local maps he has littering the front seat. North on state highway 397 and right on the border, sharing streets with Coutts on the Canadian side.
He drives to the local police department, asks questions to people who answer in the same time zone and seeks out the public library. “Land records are kept there,” says a helpful lady cop.
Another helpful lady, this time a librarian, shows Max the county record books but he doesn’t actually open them. When he tells her what he’s after she says, “The Carswell place.”
Back in D.C. Winston’s got a lot on his mind. He’s thinking, where Fast Kate is, Leroy Logan’s not far away, and probably up to no good.
Winston’s had a thing for catching Leroy for nearly six years now, since he heard stories about a necklace and the Queen Mary. And just a year ago he arrested a couple of grifters said to be part of the loose gang of thieves Logan likes to use, Gerald Kribs and Fancy Lee Lewis, both out of Cleveland, now residing in Leavenworth.
Which is where Leroy’s going if Winston and director Hoover have a say in it. Just last Monday at the weekly conference J. Edgar pulled him aside and told him that grifters and con artists had the highest priority. Not as high as the Reverend Doctor King or the new peace movement, or drugs or the always high-priority enemies list, “But up there; way, way up there.”
J. Edgar said, through the smoke of his always lit cigar, “You’re doing America’s work, kid. Keep it up.” The he chucked Winslow on the shoulder and strutted away.
So here’s Winston, in his office, shuffling through files trying to put together a case. Photon says Leroy’s been seen with Tucker Doogan, and this file here tells him that Doogan’s known associates (KA’s) are the Cowboy Kid and Willie Stubbs and—imagine Winston’s surprise to discover that both the Kid and Tucker have taken a bunk.
Later that day, fighting a lot of snow and traffic, Winston finds Willy Stubbs and shakes him for their whereabouts. Willie’s reluctant, of course, but eventually, after threats and for a C-note, suggests that the two might be in Montana.
Leaving Winston thinking, Montana?
He can’t even imagine what Leroy and Kate are doing in Montana, but he’s got a lot of time on the United flight to Great Falls to figure it out.
What Leroy is doing in Montana is being shafted by Max Billows.
Max has learned so much from the library lady. He’s learned that the land is real, has been in the Carswell family forever. That it butts up against the Blackfeet Reservation on the west side and goes a little bit into Canada on the north, all things that agree with what Max wants to hear. What he doesn’t want to hear is, “He’ll never sell.”
“He?” asks Max of Caroline, the library lady.
“Fletcher Carswell” she tells him. “He’s the last of them; the Carswells. Got married, Fletcher did, twice, but they didn’t stick. City women, they got bored with life out here and left him. No children. Parents gone. It’s just Fletcher and he won’t sell.”
“Won’t?” Says Max.
“Never,” says Caroline.
“Well, shit,” says Max, which earns him a grin from Caroline.
Leroy and Kate are enjoying the sights. She’s looking through the telescope on the north side of the new Space Needle here in Seattle on a warm and blessedly clear day. She says, “Look!” You can see my house.”
Leroy takes a turn at the eyepiece and focuses. He sees houses, yes; across the straight on Bainbridge Island, and decides not to burst her bubble.
They’ve been vacationing by visiting all the local sites the locals never visit . The Space Needle, for example; built in sixty-two for the Expo, or the monorail that goes down 5th Avenue to nowhere. She wants to go to the zoo but Leroy’s fighting the idea.
“What do you have against the zoo?” she asks, interested. Who doesn’t like zoos?
“It’s the cages, Kate. All those bars remind me of what could happen to me. I could wind up there.”
“We could,” she admits.
“Nope,” he says, and adds the most romantic thing he’s ever said. “Not we, Kate. Me. If anything goes wrong and it looks like a fall, you’re gonna be long gone out of it. That’s a promise.”
“Aw, Logan; you say the nicest things.” Truth is, Kate’s feeling soft inside at this. For Logan to offer prison to save her, especially given the likelihood of prison in his future, what with the stories she’s been hearing lately about some Federal Dick with a hard on for cons, well; it’s sweet.
So she hugs him and delivers a kiss that causes a lot of looks and asks him how the scam is going because that’s the best reward she knows, to let a man talk about himself.
Which he does, over hot dogs from a vendor way down by Regrade Park, sitting on a bench in the rare sunshine.
He says, “The latest cost is the crew on the site.”
“The fake students and archeology dig.”
“Yeah. I don’t know if Max is going to be able to find them but I have to keep the store going in case he does.”
“You think he will?”
“I got no thoughts either way. If he doesn’t we’re out a couple gees. If he does and finds out there’s no dig, the scam fails.”
“If he does, will he go down and talk to them?”
Leroy smiles at this and Kate dabs a bit of mustard from the corner of his mouth. “I hope so. Hate to see a good dinosaur skeleton go to waste. Took weeks to get it buried so a group of college kids can make two bucks an hour digging it back up. All for a guy who may or may not see it.”
He finishes his root beer and gathers the trash. Coming back from the barrel he asks, “What about the guy?”
“Jimmy? Don’t you worry, Logan. I’ll keep up my side of this deal. Besides; you’ve got enough to worry about.”
To which he smiles his most wicked smile, the one that makes her want to hit him or start taking off clothes, depending.
“So who’s worried?
Max, spinning plate number six, has been busy. He’s rented a room at the Glocca Morra Inn in Sweetgrass, It’s a bargain at $4.50 a night and features an in-room phone and a television. After asking around he’s found a guy with a small airplane who’s willing to go out surveying.
“What the hell you looking for?” asks Henry, the pilot. The plane is a two seater, little more than a go-cart with wings, but Henry seems efficient as he runs through a checklist, runs his hands over the wings and buckles in for the flight.
“Geological formations,” Max lies. “Unique to this area.”
“Sure,” says Henry, not believing it. He figures a guy wants to spend $10 an hour flying around the hills, that’s no skin off his nose. Beside, he’s flown crazier people. That guy Logan last June, for instance; Henry never believed him either.
They fly in an out of American and Canadian airspace in a grid pattern, burning time and fuel, stopping back at the dirt strip behind Henry’s barn to refuel and get lunch. Around four in the afternoon Henry feels his passenger stiffen and he looks out and down and doesn’t see anything but another of the crazy digs the University is always doing as field trips for the geology students.
That seems to be what his passenger is interested in because he yells over the engine noise, “Can you set down there?”
Henry gives him the sneer the question deserves and points to some tracks in the dirt. “You can drive in, but there’s no damn way to land a plane.”
Later that night in his F-150, Max does exactly that. He drives from the paved road to the dirt road to nearly-invisible ruts that suggest maybe somebody’s come this way in the last few years, in a truck or, more likely, a covered wagon. Even going less than ten he’s bumped his head on the roof a dozen times and he’s doubting the wisdom of the trip when he comes around a wide mound of rock and sees the site.
It deserted of course. The moon is low on the horizon and it feels like he’s walking on it as he gets out of the truck, stretches a lot, and stumbles down to the side of the hill. There’s a field tent set up way over there and a couple of trash dumps and a huge army-green tarp, probably surplus, staked on the hillside.
That’s the dig, Max thinks as he approaches it. The wind is still and his boots make scratchy noises as the only sounds and Max can hear his heartbeat in the stillness of the night. He pulls up some of the stakes holding tarp and pulls it back, folding it like a carpet until he comes to…
Oh my God; it’s a dinosaur.
Max bangs on the door of the dilapidated lodge as snow whirls around his ears. He ducks his head like a turtle and waits, pounds again, waits and…
“Hold your damn horses!” Yells a voice from inside, followed by heavy footsteps followed by the door being yanked open by a skinny as a rail cowboy in blue jeans over dirty long johns. The guy hasn’t shaved recently and his red eyes suggest redeye.
He blinks in the glare of the sunshine on new snow and says, “What?”
“Mr. Carswell?” Max says. “I’d like to talk to you.”
“’Bout what?” The voice is scratchy and raw from too many smokes and too much alcohol.
“About buying this place.”
Carswell stares like Max just dropped down the chimney with a bag of coal.
They talk in a dingy room that last saw better days in the nineteen-twenties, on a ratty couch in front of a giant unlit fireplace. Fletcher Carswell offers drinks, they clink glasses and Fletcher tries to keep the boredom out of his voice.
“I don’t wanna sell,” he says, several times. “The land’s been in my family for generations.” He points to a lot of portraits mounted on a lot of the wall space, almost as many heads in frames as there are animal heads. The heads of antelopes and elk and one massive bison glare down at the room from up high on the walls.
“But I can make you a good offer,” says Max, sounding a lot like the devil come up to make a deal. “A very good offer.”
Fletcher considers this a while, repeats, “The land’s been in my family for generations.”
Max says, “Two hundred thousand dollars.”
“Not a chance, mister.” Fletcher waves his arms around, taking in the dilapidated lodge, but meaning, probably, the entire parcel. “Eight hundred thousand acres of good cattle grazing land…”
He’s lying here and Max, who’s done his homework, knows it. If there were more than five hundred cows on this land they’d take a vote and leave for someplace else.
But he says, “Sure; it’s a great land. I’ll go as high as three-hundred.”
Fletcher says, “You won’t go anywhere, except maybe back east where you came from. This land’s got mineral rights…”
Nobody’s found anything in a hundred years. “Three-twenty-five.”
Max almost chokes on his drink at this line. By far the most water this arid piece of rock has seen all year is in his glass. “Three-fifty; that’s my final offer. Take it or leave it.”
“Sentimental value…the land’s been in my family…”
“…For years; yeah I got that. But I can’t do a dime more than Three-seventy-five.”
Fletcher says, “Hell; for all we know there could be fossils. I read about a find in North Dakota…”
Max sucks his cigar hard enough to make a noticeable difference in the room’s lighting. Does he know? He can’t know! Or we wouldn’t be talking now. “Four-hundred even,” he says.
Fletcher holds out for four-fifty.
“But it’s got to be done right now,” says Max, “We go into town, I get the cash and we record the deed. Then you and the money can go somewhere…”
“Florida,” says Fletcher immediately. “I always wanted a boat…”
“Fine, whatever, just as long as we…”
“Or one of those islands, you know, down in the Bahamas someplace? Like in that James Bond movie Goldfinger, just came out? That Pussy Galore woman…”
“Right,” says Max. “Right, right, right. You can go anywhere you want. Do we have a deal?”
Fletcher looks out at the snow whirling in eddies around the big front window. He’s got an expression that says he’s already sipping Rum on that beach.
“Yes sir; I believe we do.”
Seven hours, forty-seven minutes; that’s what it takes to drive from the Carswell estate to Helena to get the money and record the deed. Fletcher sits anxiously through the paperwork— just three forms.
“Sign here and here,” says the clerk brightly before affixing a notary seal to the deed.
Max passes over his case with the money, the clerk verifies that Fletcher has it and they shake hands on the sidewalk and go their separate ways.
Fletcher to the airport to get out of Dodge.
Max to the nearest restaurant that serves liquor, to eat and drink and celebrate. Sitting at the booth, dark wood paneled and low-lit, he takes out the deed and smiles. Worthless land, he’s thinking, and damn happy about it. He did his research before coming here. The lands not worth the paper it takes to record it. All eight hundred thousand acres aren’t worth the money it cost to buy a plane ticket out here.
It barely supports enough cattle to bother herding them, there’s damn little hunting, almost no water; even the Blackfeet reservation doesn’t want it.
But as a dinosaur graveyard…
Max grins at his good fortune and cool business sense. Got it all by hustling that idiot con artist. Artist! Max laughs out loud and snorts whiskey though his nose.
The appalled waitress, rushing over to help, can’t tell if he’s choking from the booze or his laughter.
The plates are spinning faster now and Leroy’s got his hands full keeping them from falling. He’s sent the excavation team home, all twelve of them paid off and heading back to their college dorms, science majors happy to make sixteen bucks a day pretending to be archeology majors.
He’s got Kate on a flight to D.C and a pair of eyes at the Great Falls airport watching to see who gets off flight 509.
The game is all but over.
Winslow Petrie gets off United 509 with a headache and a crick in the neck from the nine hour flight. Stops in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake; Winslow’s feeling like the pioneers struggling across the prairie in their covered wagons, except with stewardesses serving hot meals and that they’re flying.
He drags himself down the steps and across the tarmac into the little concourse, barely more than a tin shed with delusions and stops suddenly. The guy behind him bangs into his back but Winslow doesn’t notice. His eyes are fixed on one man chatting up a girl at the ticket counter. The guy’s in profile but there’s no mistaking him.
Tucker Doogan, one of Leroy’s boys.
He heads over, carry-on bag in his left hand, the handle of his .38 in his right. He recalls the file he read just two days ago. Tucker Doogan, Australian by birth, moved to the States after the big war. Arrested in that war a couple of times for supplies that were always disappearing, then a few arrests and one prison turn in Detroit involving more missing property, this time diamonds.
The file suggesting Leroy Logan as the mover in that operation; just hints and stoolies get-out-of-jail chatter, but Winston’s not going to believe that Tucker being in Montana at the same time he’s got a lead on Logan is a coincidence.
Winston’s got a bad case of stress as he creeps through the small crowd—six people, some crowd—gathering their stuff from the baggage cart hauled in by the Sky Cap. He’s maybe twenty feet away, hoping that Doogan won’t turn, won’t see him, won’t run.
The last thing he needs is a gun battle in the Great Falls airport, or, more likely, since Tucker’s file never mentioned violence, a foot race. Winston’s in pretty good shape, given his heavy desk time, but he’d rather do this easy than hard.
And easy it is. He gets all the way to Tucker without the Aussie noticing him. He drops his bag but keeps the pistol ready. He reaches out and grabs Doogan’s arm at the elbow, spins him around expecting surprise and desperation.
Instead Tucker grins a big wide one and claps him on the shoulder, almost making that pocketed stub-nose go off.
“Crikey, Mate!” bellows the Aussie. “What the blazes took you so long?”
Leroy says, “It’s all about keeping a promise,” which seems a stretch considering who’s saying it.
Three men sitting in a booth in a bar, this one a run-down neighborhood watering hole in Great Falls.
“I don’t see why you have to travel any further,” says Leroy as he escorts the jovially grinning Tucker and the mystified, angry and still armed Winston Petrie to a nice brown Ford Fairlane that he drives without explanation to this bar.
And says that thing about keeping promises.
Winston, already past angry, well into really pissed, says, “Like you’ve ever kept one, Leroy.”
“Don’t call me that,” is the surprising reply, like a nerve’s been touched or a card’s come out of the deck that wasn’t already palmed.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” suggests Leroy, meaning the file folders he knows the Bureau has on him.
“Even if I believe half of it,” says Winston, “It’s enough.”
Tucker waves an arm for a barmaid, a woman so far past sixty the term lost meaning a couple decades ago. She drifts over, past the only three others in this dim dive, takes orders, ambles away, eases back with several bottles and glasses on a tray and wanders off again.
Winston’s been doing a pretty good job so far of keeping his temper down and his pistol in, finally says, “What the Hell?”
“Beer first,” says Tucker, who begins pouring his own, from the bottle, down his gullet. He finishes it in one large swallow, belches hugely and grins. “Tell him, old sport,” he says to Leroy, and, “This is a good ‘un,” to Winston. “You’re gonna love it, mate.”
“I doubt that,” Winston says, deadpan, but he is curious, this being the single oddest moment of his career. “But do go on.”
“Here’s the thing,” says Leroy. “You want to arrest me…”
Winston snorts at this, like the sky is blue or water is wet. “I do,” he says solemnly.
“And I do not have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is Kate.”
“Fast Kate,” says Winston.
“Don’t call her that,” says Leroy. For the briefest moment there’s real anger in his voice and Winston takes a shot.
“Don’t call her Fast Kate. Don’t call you Leroy. You’ve got some issues, son.”
“I probably do,” Leroy admits. “Hard to be in this line of work if you don’t.”
Tucker drains another beer—Winston’s this time— “I don’t” He says amiably. “Have issues.”
“Present company excluded, then.” Leroy turns back to Winston.
“You took down a couple of my…acquaintances. Gerald Kribs and Lee Lewis. ”
“Ah,” says Winston, recalling a pair of mid-level cons doing insurance scams on elderly rich women. He doesn’t like people who suck off the public tit but he hates those guys who’d scam a grandma. “You’re thinking I’m coming after you.”
“You are coming after me,” says Leroy, statement of fact.
“Okay, say I am. I’ll catch you, too; sooner than you think.”
“Sure,” says Leroy, dismissing it. “I set this all up to get you here to offer you a deal.”
“Wait. You set this up?”
“Yeah; it’s what I do.” Leroy makes some small circles in the air with his finger and says, “Lots of plates to spin. Take Photon, for instance.”
Winston doesn’t like where this is going. “No.”
“Yes. He’s a grifter out of Philly, pretty low profile so you may not have much on him and no; I’m not gonna tell you his real name.” Which is Jimmy James, Kate’s long-lost hustler buddy. “What I am going to tell you, is that he conned you.”
Winston thinks back to their meetings, how eager he was to get information, how little he checked up on the guy. For a moment he sees the skill behind the con. If the mark’s greedy, he won’t ask questions. Damn.
“And Tucker here,” he says. “What’s his part in this?”
“He’s been a professor at Montana University, talking up dinosaur bones.”
Winston shakes his head in resignation, then grabs the last beer before it’s poured down Tucker’s throat. “All right. I’m interested. Tell me all.”
“All’s a bit far, but I’ll tell you most. I found this piece of land that goes into Canada. That’s important to the plan. See, I figured, I fake a dinosaur skeleton, salt it in a regular piece of rock somewhere, the mark’s gonna want to see it in situ—”
“In situ?” says Winston, amused. Leroy Logan, he knows, has a fourth grade education.
“Got it from Kate. It means—”
“I know what it means. Do go on.” Nobody’s ever confessed to a scam this big before and Winston’s fascinated. He wants to hear it all before arresting these guys.
Leroy says, “So I find a guy—he’s pretty damn bent, but we’ll get to that—who wants a dinosaur skeleton of his very own. You’d be amazed at how many there are. We must have answered a dozen letters from the ads.”
“Wait. Ads? You advertised for a skeleton collector?”
“Surprise, huh? Who’da thought. So we find this guy, Max Bellows, and he shows us his own collection and I sell him on the dinosaur while leaving a couple of hints about how he can find the landowner all by himself and cut me out altogether.”
“Which he did, I assume.”
“Oh; God, yes. That man planned to cheat me years before he ever met me. He was just waiting on the introduction. Max finds the owner of the land and makes a deal. He buys the place and now he doesn’t have to tell anybody about the find or he can tell everybody and sell the bones on the open market.”
“Which is illegal in the U.S,” says Winston, edging closer to the arrest. He’s got mixed feelings because he’s finding he likes the guy. Leroy’s a crook, but he’s also charming as hell.
“Yes it is” agrees Leroy. “But not in Canada, where I stashed them. So our guy—Max Bellows; you might want to write that down—he can keep ’em or sell ’em, providing he’s the owner of the land.” He pauses for dramatic effect and to wrestle a beer from Tucker.
“And the owner is?” prompts Winston.
They decide to eat after that bombshell. Winston’s feeling like he stepped on a rake and the handle just came up and smacked him. Tucker’s stomach is making more noises than his belching and Leroy suggests steaks, which they can’t get here.
So they all troop out into the cold and walk a few blocks to a better part of town and there’s steak bones on the plates and empty glasses and full ashtrays before they get back to the story.
“You,” says Winston. They’ve all lit up smokes and this place has a real bar with a real bartender so the drinks now have more alcohol.
“Me,” says Leroy. “I bought it right after I found it, for a little over eighteen thousand dollars. The former owner, Fletcher Carswell, was so thrilled he would have paid me to take the place.”
“Why is that?” asks Winston. He’s relaxed and amused and fascinated and thinking this has to be the strangest bust in history.
“I’ll get there. So, end of the story. I gave my power of attorney to my guy who took the place of the long gone Fletcher Carswell.”
“And what guy is that?” asks Winston.
“Not saying,” says Leroy, honoring his agreement with the Cowboy Kid.
“Had to try.”
“Sure. So now Max owns the land and I got paid and everything’s good in the world.”
“You think so,” says Winston. “Still, I’m going to have to arrest you.”
“What for?” asks Leroy, innocently.
“What for? For…for…” He’s suddenly aware that he can’t think of a single crime being committed here. There’s no law against burying fake dinosaur bones, not if there’s no intent to sell them. The land sale is legal since Leroy gave a power of attorney and never lied about who he was. The booze seems to evaporate as Winston begins to see exactly how much he’s been conned. The anger is just beginning.
Leroy says, “So I have an offer.”
“What?” Fuck! “What?”
“Max Bellows is a thief. He showed me his ‘collection’ when we met and I recognized a couple of pieces. None of them could have been bought legit. So my offer is, I’ll give you Bellows if you promise, when the time comes that you catch me, that you’ll leave Kate out of it.”
Winston takes a long—long—time with that one. Leroy’s relaxed, smoking, and Tucker’s been asleep for the last ten minutes, snoring gently. Finally, Winston says, “I can’t promise anything.”
“Yeah, you can. You make promises to stoolies every damn day, Winston. You pay people to rat on me, make deals with crooks to get them lesser time if they tell tales. I’m not saying you can’t come after me with everything you got. But Kate gets a free pass.”
“God damn it, Leroy—”
“Don’t call me that. It’s Logan to my friends.”
Winston laughs, surprised. “And you think we’re friends?”
“I’ve got worse ones.”
“I’ll bet you do. Okay, Logan; I’ll agree to your offer.”
“Thanks. There’s one little thing. A bonus, you might call it. You should wait a year before you bust Max.”
“Why would I do that?’
“Well, it seems that the reason old Fletcher was so desperate to unload the ranch is that it has a whole bunch of tax liens on it. U.S. Side and Canada. They want the owner for close to a million in back taxes. The Carswells haven’t paid a nickel since about nineteen-twenty eight.”
Winston laughs as he gets the scope of what Logan is saying. “So Max, who tried to cheat you, gets a fake dinosaur that he paid a lot for, I’d imagine…”
Leroy looks modest, which answers that question.
“And he gets a federal tax beef.”
“It’s what you guys got Capone on. Max’ll be in good company.”
“And you get a pass for your girlfriend. You planned this!”
Leroy makes those circles with his fingers in the air. “Yes,” he admits.
“Yes, I did.”
One last meeting, this one more of a party. Time to divvy up the profits.
They’re all here, in Kate’s living room with the views of the bay nobody notices, drinking Scotch of a better brand than they’ve ever tasted, sitting on nicer furniture.
Jimmy James, thin as a straw, wearing Levi’s and a light blue sweater, no shirt and tan loafers, no socks, is draped across the arms of a deep lounge chair, looking as if he might just melt into its embrace. He looks a lot better than the homeless snitch in D.C.
“Can’t thank you enough for bringing me in Kate,” he says and raises a glass. All of them follow suit and refill their glasses. There’s a barely restrained sense of elation in the room.
Least restrained is the Aussie Tucker Doogan. His accent slips randomly from Midwestern to New England to Texan. “Here’s to ya!” he bellows, then throws his arms around Kate and squeezes.
The Cowboy Kid is studying the label of his own bottle of Bourbon as if memorizing it for a future theft. Possibly a truckload of it.
Leroy says, “You did a great job, Kid. I was expecting maybe three hundred and you talked him up to four and a half. Nice.” He’s thinking that maybe the Kid would have pocketed the difference and the Kid’s thinking he would have pocketed the difference except there was paperwork, dammit.
“I get a bonus, right? Anything over the base, I get a bonus.”
“That you do, Kid.” He lets the party go on for a bit, then announces it’s time to split the pot.
They gather around Kate’s big dining room table, shipped out all the way from Marshall Fields in Chicago, the best one they had, and screw the cost. She’s put out coasters against the guys fucking up the finish.
Leroy says, “Okay, we take the expenses off the top…” And gets a whole lot of grief for it.
“What the Hell?”
“You’re not serious?”
“Lord, fuck a duck!”
A lot of eyes turn his way. Unhappy eyes, most of them.
Leroy says, “Hey; it’s like a business, you guys. I had to pay for the land, the crews, airfare for you all to come out here.”
Grudging acceptance, if not actual agreement.
“Besides,” says Leroy. “You all know I wouldn’t cheat you.”
“Yes, you would!” says Tucker.
“Sure,” agrees the Kid.
“In a heartbeat,” adds Tucker.
“Logan, you’d rob your mother, if she wasn’t too dead to stop you,” says Jimmy James, the more articulate of the crew. Kate has to smother a laugh at that one.
“Damn,” says Leroy. “You guys don’t trust me?”
“No,” says the Kid, surprised. “Of course not.”
“Who would?’ asks Tucker.
“You don’t trust you,” says Jimmy James. “And you’re smart to do it.”
“Jeez,” grouches Leroy. “I figured you guys would understand.” He shakes his head sadly, just as if he had feelings to hurt.
“Nobody would,” the Kid.
“Crikey, what a Mad Hatter idea,” says Tucker. “You’d be a bloomin’ nutter to think that.”
“Blooming,” agrees Jimmy. “Stark raving mad.’
“Fine,” Leroy sighs theatrically. “Let’s leave it up to Kate. You trust Kate, right?”
“Never a doubt, mate.”
Leroy turns to her and says carefully, “And none of us want to see her lose any money.”
Which causes Kate to smile at him.
“Well, guys,” she says, catching every eye. “In the words of the Yellow Kid…
“The nut comes off the head of the joint.”
End of Chapter Five
HOW HIGH THE MOON
Leroy’s first son George is killed in Viet-Nam. Leroy goes into a tailspin of legendary proportions. Kate, not comfortable with either wild excess or children, sends him home for the funeral and is relieved when he stays with Adelle for nearly a year. She works on her paintings and has been learning to play guitar on the old Martin Leroy bought her before the war news.
The Summer of Love. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Leroy buys three cottage-type homes in Laurel Canyon north of LA. Kate’s got an art show in a Seattle studio, and is elated when she sells one acrylic painting for $135. Leroy’s become a war protester and is into the new music.
Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy are assassinated. Their deaths push Leroy back into a dark rage against the war. He attends the violent protests at the Chicago Democratic convention, listens with anger as Richard Nixon declares himself the “law and order” candidate.
Los Angeles, January, 1969
Two little words that change lives forever: “You’re pregnant.”
Four others: “You’re all under arrest.”
This little house on the edge of Laurel Canyon might be the closest to Heaven Leroy Logan is likely to get, so naturally he’s wondering what exactly is going to screw it up. And when is it likely to happen?
It’s been a very bad three years, starting with George’s death, followed by drinking binges, wild extreme gambling, anger and depression. Leroy, feeling the government is responsible for something, attended rallies against the war, protest marches, even the Democratic convention in Chicago’s Grant park where he was maced, hit by a police baton and arrested for inciting a riot.
A month later he withdrew from world, bought these cottage in the hills above Hollywood and smoked marijuana with the musicians that infested the canyon.
It a serene and peaceful place when Kate’s here, merely quiet when she goes back to Whidbey Island. She comes down often and stays for weeks and those are the good times. When she’s here Leroy doesn’t feel the burning anger toward the war that cost him his son.
He and Kate have been accepted in this artist community as elder figures. They don’t try to fit in; wearing the tie-dyed shirts and fringed leather jackets the kids wear, or indulge in the drugs or orgies they either see or hear about.
They do smoke grass, though. It takes the edge of Leroy’s burn and makes Kate mellow, smiling at everything with a childish delight.
The kids call them Adam and Eva, names made up by Kate in one of those mellow moods. A few of the kids are more formal, still hanging on to the manners drummed into them in the middle class homes they grew up in, nineteen-fifties morals and customs not yet shed. They call them Mr. Adam and Ms. Eva.
The list of musicians is awe inspiring; Joni Mitchel, CSN, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds and Linda Ronstadt. Leroy and Kate have an open invitation to every house on the block because everybody loves Kate and Leroy’s her man. And the landlord to several of them.
“George would have hated this place,” Leroy says, contemplating the joint he’s been smoking.
“Probably,” agrees Kate, who’s never met him. “He was pretty gung-ho, Adelle said.”
“Opposite of me,” Leroy says. “He never got over me being a crook. Never gave me a word of credit for the houses, the tuition. His medical degree.”
George graduated from Loyola exactly three months and four days before his helicopter was shot down in Viet-Nam. On board were two wounded soldiers George had personally pulled from away from a mortar attack by the VC.
“He loved you,” says Kate. “He just didn’t know how to show it.”
“No, he didn’t. He loved his Mama; not me.” And he’s thinking; but I loved him.
Even the marijuana can’t mellow out that one.
The end of paradise starts when Kate says, “Ow,” and leans forward clutching her stomach.
“What?” asks Leroy.
“My stomach. Cramps.” Which is all Leroy wants to know, but she adds, “Not those kind; this is something else.”
Which leads to her taking a plane back home to Whidbey to see her own doctor and Leroy alone on the back deck listening to a lot of bands all playing at once, which is both pleasant and loud. There’s some acoustic stuff and he can hear Crosby, Stills and Nash practicing for their upcoming tour and maybe Neil Young’s out there someplace which would explain the loud.
A girl named Starshine tentatively comes around the side of the house. She’s dressed in the required beads and tie-dye and is barefoot and timid, head hunched into her shoulders like she’s a turtle and he’s a hawk.
Leroy waves her over and she says, “Shaun got busted for pot and I need—we need—your help.”
And there it is.
Starshine—and Shaun—are tenants in one of Leroy’s three houses here in the canyon. They’re part of a group called The Family Way, which is going to be really ironic in a short while. They have a manager so the rent’s usually paid, and they don’t sound to Leroy any worse than any of the other bands he hears night and day. Shaun’s the leader, guitar player, songwriter, lead singer and, in Leroy’s biased opinion, a complete idiot. He’s got hair to his shoulders, a handlebar mustache and wears black-and-white striped bell-bottoms and a leather vest with fringes and without a shirt.
Anyplace else in the real world he’s be a freak; here he’s respected.
Here is near there; there being LA proper, which is where he got busted, according to Starshine who’s drinking Kate’s Chamomile tea in one of Kate’s mugs she made in her pottery class. Leroy’s sucking on a beer.
She says, “It’s not just Shaun, either. The pigs have been busting all of us for no reason.”
Leroy takes exception to this since marijuana is still illegal in California and the police have, in his opinion, a habit of enforcing laws. “Pot’s not legal,” is what he says.
“I know that. But the pigs never bother us for pot. Not until now.”
“What’s new with now?” Leroy asks through the effects of pot and Papst beer.
“Now,” says Starshine, swelling with righteous anger, “Is the new top cop. Bret Saxby.”
“The new LA DA?”
“New,” Leroy clarifies. “LA district attorney.”
Starshine thinks this over, seems to feel it’s outside the scope of this conversation and offers, “He’s this new law and order dick. He’s been busting musicians and street people a lot lately. He got Shaun this morning for nothing! Just some made up dope thing.”
“Made up? What; Shaun wasn’t carrying?”
“Of course he was carrying,” says Starshine with a tone usually used for morons. “But just a nickel bag and some blotter acid.”
“Oh,” says Leroy. “Long as he wasn’t carrying.”
“What I said,” she says. “So, will you?”
“Will I what?” Maybe it’s still the beer and the buzz but Leroy doesn’t recall a question being asked.
At the best of times Leroy’s not inclined to help his fellow man or, present company, woman, so he says, “Well,” stretching it to its breaking point. “Why can’t Phil get him out?” Phil being the agent/producer/adult for the band.
“That’s just it,” cries Starshine, actually crying now. “He can’t! He says Shaun’s been denied bail and that’s unconstitutional or something. It’s all because of that new guy.”
“I don’t,” Leroy manages before Starshine plays her trump card. Everybody in the canyon knows about Leroy’s son and even though every one of them hates the war, they all respect a doctor—a kid their age—dying saving others.
She says, “This guy, this Saxby pig cop; he’s a war hawk.”
Somewhere down the hill somebody—Neil probably—hits an diminished chord on a very amplified guitar a whole lot of times.
And just like that the buzz is gone.
Kate accepts doctor visits as one of the prices she pays for being a woman. She notices—hard not to—that Leroy, and men in general, seldom see a physician unless gored or shot or needing penicillin in these make love not war days, but that women are always complaining about female problems.
And here she is, in the waiting room of a Seattle clinic, waiting to be seen for a female problem.
The cramps come and go and her body does this sweating/freezing thing like she’s standing in the ice cooler of hell. She’s used to having pretty good health so this is troubling her more than she wants to let on. It’s why she’s here instead of LA; Leroy doesn’t need to know.
A nurse takes her to a room, records her vitals, weight, temperature and tells her to wait some more. She’s reading the cover article in Life magazine about next week’s moon landing, Kennedy’s wish being finished by Dick Nixon, a man who’d probably rather invade the moon than just land on it.
The doctor comes in, sits down and says without preamble, “You’re pregnant.”
Kate looks up from Life and says, “What?”
“You’re pregnant,” says the doctor, a dark-skinned Pakistani man named Phil.
Kate, age 41, says firmly, “No.”
Phil holds up a chart. “Denial doesn’t change the facts. You’re three months pregnant.”
Kate says, “Oh, Hell.”
There’s more, but the basic is; she’s three months pregnant, she’s in good health for a 41 year old woman and there aren’t any problems with the fetus. The doctor is saying something else but Kate’s got a ringing in her ears like tinnitus or one of the canyon bands after too much pot. Like mosquitos with Marshall amps.
She says again, “I can’t be pregnant. I’m on the pill. We use condoms. Belt,” she explains, “and suspenders.” She’s very clear on this point. She and Leroy talked about it a lot and decided that her having a child, even his child, was a very bad idea. Leroy, the father now of six, didn’t seem to care one way or another, so Kate made the decision. No children.
Phil says, “The pill has a nine percent failure rate. Condoms have a twelve percent failure rate. Together…?” He seems interested in the math rather than his patient who is climbing the walls while seated in the hard plastic orange chair.
“Failure rate,” says that patient, unaware until just this moment that such an idea existed.
Bret Saxby is looking at the latest poll numbers. He’s also got one eye on the mirror to see his reaction to those poll numbers. It’s always exciting to see a winner and Bret Saxby, watching Bret Saxby, is that winner.
He’s up six points in the national district attorney statistics. The polls are conducted by the Republican party and are heavily biased towards conviction rates. Conviction rates depend on arrests and arrests are common now that the police chief is on board.
Bret recalls his meeting with the chief; convincing him that Richard Nixon—our president!—is a law and order guy and that the citizens are tired of the protests and the rioting and the drugs. Bret suggested they could help each other. “I’ll scratch your back,” he’d told the chief, “If you scratch mine.”
Now, just eight months into their scratching Bret is seeing the results. Six points! If this keeps up he’ll be elected to Congress in just two years. From there to the Senate and from there…well; who knows?
Bret, looking at his reflection, is a package. Young, white, brown hair just a little bit long in the current fashion, but styled. Perfect teeth and a winning smile that says to the right people—the white people— “You just want to vote for me, don’t you?”
He’s thinking that would look good on a billboard, maybe down on Wilshire or on the 405 where all the commuters can see it every day sitting in grid-lock and he says it out loud. “You just want to vote for me, don’t you?”
The statistics don’t go to the personal level so Bret doesn’t know anything about Shaun Terrell, leader of the band The Family Way. Even if it did, Bret wouldn’t care. You want omelets? is his motto; Gotta break them eggs.
His secretary, Terry Fox, a twenty-four year old business major from Sanford with eyes on Bret as the marriage to most be desired, leans in and says, “You’ve got a visitor, sir. A mister…” She checks her pad, “Capshaw.” She smiles deeply and vanishes before he can ask, “Who?”
A well-dressed man pushes into the office, glances at the mirror with an I-know-what-that’s-for look and approaches Bret with his hand out. Not hand out like the hippies and bums on La Cienega that he passes every day, but a hand you want to shake.
Bret pumps it the required number of times, squeezing just so and gives the visitor a medium smile. He’s wearing a good suit, his handshake is as proper as Bret’s and his hair, although short, is correctly styled. His shoes…
Bret can tell a lot about a man from these first impressions and his thoughts about this one are: well-educated, well-off but not wealthy, a Republican, voted for Nixon over Hubert Humphrey, dislikes the hippies, is anti-drugs, pro-law, pro-war in Viet-Nam. Bret gets all this in the short walk and shorter handshake and adjusts his greeting.
“Yes, sir? What can I do for you?” A pitch-perfect tone that acknowledges the man as an (almost) equal, a fellow traveler on the road to America.
Which couldn’t be more wrong. Leroy does the same assessment and comes out better. This guy is a shark, he notes; practiced at choosing the right folks to eat and merciless about eating them. He’s born on third base and believes with all his heart that he’s hit a triple, has one eye on the back of the next guy up the ladder, the other on the rung below.
“Carlton Capshaw,” he lies. “I’m from the third district.” He names an area on the right side of the right streets; a place that tells Bret everything he surmised is correct. “I’m here to talk to you about a young man recently arrested.”
“Oh?” Bret’s antennae immediately quiver, like a bug sensing a shoe.
“A young man named Shaun Terrell, a musician, arrested for drugs in the—” Leroy glances down at some papers. “43rd precinct.”
Bret knows that precinct is in Hollywood, knows that Hollywood is infested with hippies and drug users and other trash and his estimate is about to go way down when Capshaw says, I’m hoping you can help me get him out of there.”
“Oh?” Bret says again, definitely lowering the status. There’s enough ice in that one word to sink the Titanic again.
Capshaw says, “Whoa, there; not what you’re thinking. I don’t know the young man, I don’t want to know the young man and I don’t personally care if he stays there until Dick Nixon joins the Democratic party. I’m asking for my son.”
“Oh?” Bret’s holding back committing. His first and second impressions are fighting it out and he wants more information before committing.
“See,” says Leroy as Carlton, “My son’s a manager for one of these new musical combos springing up all over town.” His voice is clear about how feels about them. “He sees this band, this—” He looks again at his notes. “This Family Way band, as his ticket to fame and fortune.” His tone also suggests, Kids? What are you gonna do?
He adds, “The boy wants to prove himself in business, you know what I mean? Of course, it’s my money he’s using to get started.”
Bret relaxes; this is one of his people. “So what can I do for you, sir?”
“Call me Carlton,” lies Leroy.
“And I’m Bret,” says Bret, unleashing the smile that brought him here.
“Bret,” agrees Leroy. “See, my boy, he’s invested a lot in this band; time and money and all, and they’ve got an audition with a bigwig at Capitol Records next week. It won’t help them if their lead singer, is in the hoosegow.”
Bret’s shaking his head already. “I’m sorry Carlton, but that’s police business; nothing to do with me. Have you tried them?”
“Yes sir; I did. And the police chief there was very helpful, but he says he can’t do anything without your sign off.”
“Well; that not entirely true. I’m bound by ethics…”
“I understand, Brett; I do. I also understand that the system can’t function without donations from concerned citizens. So I was wondering if a small token of my appreciation to a charity looked favorably on by the police department might help grease the wheels of justice, just this one time.”
“Well,” says Bret, meaning, of course it will. “I can’t interfere…”
“Say three hundred dollars?” Says Leroy.
“Better say…five,” says Bret.
That part of the charade concluded, Leroy moves to his second motive. He points to a picture of Richard Milhous Nixon in a frame on the wall behind Bret’s large desk. This isn’t a federal office so the portrait is personal, not required, which already has told Leroy a lot.
He says, “Best president we’ve ever had. Going to take ’72 in a landslide.”
“You’re a supporter?” says Bret.
“A believer,” corrects Leroy. “I believe in a strong America, a law and order America. Not some fake liberal Reverend or dead Kennedy.”
“Well said, sir.” Bret nods toward the bar. “Offer you a drink?”
Kate on the phone, says, “I’m fine, Logan. The doctor says it’s just the monthly cycle.”
“Great,” says Logan, eager to be off that topic and back on himself. “Lemme tell you who I met today.” He gives a long report on the band, the girl, the bust and finally about Bret Saxby, crusading DA. “He’s what we used to call a crooked politician. That’s—”
“One that won’t stay bought. I know that one, Logan.” Kate’s pacing the large kitchen at Whidbey imagining him out on the back deck down in the canyon. She can almost hear the music and she’s feeling sad not to be there, even sadder about the reason. For a moment she considers just telling him, let him take on a bit of the responsibility, but that goes away as fast as it came. Logan, despite having 6 children, is not father material.
Then again, she thinks, I’m no Adelle. As Leroy prattles on about this Saxby guy, Kate pictures Adelle Logan in the house Leroy bought her. Kids are in and out and her kitchen is filled with baking and children and homework and peace, not like this sterile room she’s pacing.
The thought makes her sad. She walks to the length of the twirled phone cord to the big patio door and looks out over the deck, past the water out to the horizon. A full bone-white moon is just rising and it seems huge, like the eye of a cyclops, watching her, maybe wondering what she’s going to do.
She shudders and walks back across to the refrigerator, the cord tangling behind her. She opens the door and takes out a bottle of chilled Chablis, looking at the label without really seeing it, then sighs and puts it back.
No more drinking; the doctor was firm. “Kate, “ he said. “You’re forty-one years old. You can’t be taking any chances. You need to stop drinking, stop smoking, get plenty of rest.”
“Sex?” She asked, joking.
“Sure,” he replied, absolutely missing the humor. “Can’t get more pregnant, can we?”
Now, back on the phone she interrupts whatever Logan is saying. “There’s an art seminar in New York I’d like to take. It starts in a couple of weeks, runs through the spring.”
“You’d be gone,” says Leroy, not accusing, just surprised..
“A while,” she agrees. “It’s kind of a big deal. My art professor says it’ll be a good fit for me.”
“New York,” says Logan. “Well, so when are you coming back down?”
“I’m thinking I stay here for a couple of weeks then fly east.”
“I’ll come up then.”
“No; it sounds like you’re in the middle of things there. We’ll talk on the phone.”
“Oh. All right.” There’s a silence that flows up the wire and Kate feels like crying.
I’m lying to him, she thinks. Then; It won’t be the last time.
With Kate gone, Leroy’s got time to kill and Bret Saxby seems like a good way to kill it. He goes to be early and alone but in the morning starts the process of scamming somebody who deserves it. His meeting with Saxby was easy; dress in the right suit and tie, say the right phrases. There are vocabulary words unique to all specialized fields and the police and politicians are no exception.
But the one meeting wasn’t enough to give him a hook; he needs more face time.
So Leroy’s on the deck, either thinking or falling asleep when Starshine wanders back. Still timid, like a puppy that doesn’t know if it’s going to be kicked our given a chew-toy, she edges toward the hammock Leroy’s draped in and says softly, “Adam?”
“Yo,” agrees Leroy, startled. “Oh; you. Hey.”
It’s only eleven, early for the canyon crowd. Starshine’s wearing a short denim mini-skirt and a gauzy shirt, barefoot and braless. Her hair is long and straight with bangs that almost cover her eyes. “Thanks,” she says. “For Shaun. For getting him out for jail and all.”
Leroy sits up, rubbing his eyes from all the thinking he was doing. “No problem. Is he back home?”
“Yes.” Her bare leg is up against the edge of the hammock, inches from his. He’s wearing shorts and a tee shirt and an amused expression as she leans in and begins running long fingernails down his leg. “He told me to come over and…thank you.”
The rubbing gets stronger.
“Kid,” says Leroy. “Stop that. Kate…Eva…wouldn’t like it.”
Starshine seems confused. “Why would she care? She isn’t even here.”
“Not gonna happen, girl.” Leroy slips out of the hammock.
“Why not? I like older guys.” She’s leaning in against him, her breasts swaying pleasantly and Leroy’s confronted with an odd new idea; he’s not going to cheat on Kate. Starshine takes his hand and starts kneading it.
He pulls his hand back and steps away, and Starshine gives that puppy look again, this time knowing she’s not getting the chew-toy. “Shaun says I’m supposed to do you.”
“Shaun’s an idiot. And I’m not an old guy. Or a nice guy, come to think of it.” He turns her around and pushes her on the ass. “Go home, girl. Back to Shaun.”
Three hours later he gets another visitor, this time being Starshine’s bandmate and lover, Shaun. He’s a thick slab of muscle wearing his usual fringe leather and no shirt combo. He’s got a Pancho Villa mustache and hair that hasn’t felt shampoo this year. He’s also got a pissed off expression.
“What’s you problem, Man?” He’s in jock aggressive mode, the whole peace-love thing forgotten in a wash of adrenaline, and he’s pushing his chest into Leroy’s space. Toothpaste or deodorant seem to be missing from his personal hygiene as well; Leroy wonders what Starshine sees in him.
“Back off, junior,” Leroy says. “I got no beef with you.” He steps back as Shaun steps in closer.
“Starshine says you pushed her away. What the fuck Man; I was trying to thank you.”
“She’s not yours to thank me with…Man. But you’re welcome. Glad I could help.”
Shaun’s confused so he gets angry. “You hurt her feelings, man. I should probably hit you or something.”
“Or something?” Leroy’s getting amused. He’s been threatened, sometimes with guns, by people Shaun here can’t even imagine. “Sit down kid. Let me explain things to you. I said siddown.”
He’s put a lot of Brooklyn in that last sentence and Shaun’s surprised enough—or stoned enough—to do it. The chair is a low-slung cloth over wire contraption Kate thinks is cute and Leroy considers a deathtrap so Shaun’s looking up at him from about knee level.
Leroy, still Brooklyn, like a history professor in mob school , says, “First; we do not pimp out our girlfriends. Second, we do not threaten people who don’t sleep with our girlfriends. Third, we say ‘thank you’ to the people who’ve just spent five hundred bucks to spring us from jail.”
“That’s what I was trying to do, man. That’s why I gave you Starshine.”
“Point of interest, Shaun. She is not yours to give.”
“About the money, Man; I’ll pay you back.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Okay, but, well…” Shaun seems as puzzled as Starshine was earlier, like, this usually works. Since it isn’t, he doesn’t know what to do. The marijuana he’s obviously been smoking isn’t helping.
Shaun’s about George’s age but where George was smart and driven, Shaun is just…loose. He’s like what you’d get if pasta could come out of the pot and say, “Hey, man.”
Leroy decides to bail him out, figuratively this time. “Listen, Shaun. We’re Okay. I Have Eva and we don’t sleep with other people. So go back to Starshine and tell her we’re cool.” He helps pull Shaun from the chair, an act similar to helping give birth to an octopus, and Shaun stumbles away to deliver the news that the old guy, Adam whatever, is pretty cool. For an old guy.
Leroy’s got poker games to lose and horses to donate to so he keeps busy, only missing Kate at odd moments, usually late at night. He wakes up in the dark and hears acoustic guitars and lots of singing and smells pot and eucalyptus and about two weeks later gets around to considering Bret Saxby again.
He’s got a fire going in the wood-burning stove because the house is always chilly and he’s doing his usual scotch and coffee as he considers the guy. He’s picturing Bret as he last saw him; smooth, smooth shaven and heartless. The kind of guy who could justify sending your son or daughter to prison for life for smoking the wrong kind of leaf. Bret’s the guy who uses prosecutions as a point system, putting people away so he can get promotions.
The kind of guy who would want a career-boosting arrest.
Leroy smiles and struggles out of Kate’s chair. He goes to the bedroom closet and inspects his suit. Time, he thinks, to get a better one.
Kate’s in a blue—blue—funk. She’s been playing every sad album she owns and even the stereo is getting depressed. She’s done Joni Mitchell and Billie Holiday, possibly the first time they’ve been played back to back. The Beatles are too cheerful, the big-bands she and Logan grew up on feel dated and her story about the art seminar is a lie.
So what is she going to do? She wonders. She can’t stay in her own house for six months, hiding from Logan and the world. First, because he’s likely to show up and wouldn’t that be a surprise?
“Hey, Babe,” she’d say, pulling out a stomach the size of a beach ball. “Have I got something to tell you!”
So she can’t stay here and she can’t do an art seminar because it doesn’t exist and if she listens to one more sad song she’ll never stop feeling sorry for herself.
This feeling of helplessness is new for Kate; usually she eats the world for lunch and asks for dessert. But this…how do I handle being pregnant at forty-one?
The phone rings and she knows it’s Logan because she doesn’t have any other friends and that depresses her even more. She ignores it and it eventually stops and she’s pacing the house from one end to the other, not smoking, not drinking and not coping with this at all.
I gotta get out of here.
Kate hasn’t heard from her family since she left it at fifteen, back there in Illinois in a place even more depressing than this. She figures it’s quite likely they’re dead, Mom and Pop, though maybe her brother and sisters are still around somewhere, probably in the same house, the same rut.
So, not home. Home, she read someplace, is where the heart is, and that certainly isn’t in Illinois.
Home is wherever Logan is, she thinks and gets depressed all over again. Three plays each of several albums—she’s wearing out the vinyl—and she’s ready to scream.
Bret Saxby greets Carlton Capshaw like a frat brother; two-handed shake, lean in for an almost hug, trade sniffs of expensive cologne, pat on the back. “How have you been?” He steps back and looks Leroy up and down, says, “You’re looking good, my friend.”
Leroy’s amused by the show. All it’s cost him so far is five-hundred bucks for a bribe. Bret would probably hump his leg for a grand.
He says, “Been good. You?”
Bret launches into a story, maybe true, probably not, and Leroy offers one of his own, definitely not and eventually Bret gets to the point.
“What can I do for you, Carlton?” Bret did his homework before agreeing to the meeting and found several articles about Carlton Capshaw that had been salted in the places Leroy figured he’d look. Like most of his cons, Leroy follows the 70/30 rule whenever possible: seventy percent true, thirty percent lies. The trick, as always, is never letting the mark see that thirty.
So Bret sees a fellow Republican, a self-made millionaire in the paper products industry. Leroy can, and later will, go on about cardboard, telling stories and anecdotes about how he made his money and Bret will listen with bright cherry attention and total disinterest. Both of them playing the game.
Except Leroy’s a joker that Bret’s never seen before.
He says, “I just wanted to thank you for helping me with that boy last month. My son—he’s the manager of their band—he tells me they made their audition and Capitol records wants to see them perform.”
“Well, that’s great Carlton! Just the sort of success story I like to hear.”
“Of course, it’s going to cost me for the equipment and a van and all, but it’s so good to see my son take an interest in business, even if it is this new music crap.”
Bret’s seeing an opportunity to cultivate a new donor and Leroy’s here to see if Bret really is somebody worth taking down in a scam. Seeing if the mark deserves it is a new idea to Leroy but Kate, on last night’s call, grilled him and insisted.
“You don’t need mess up people just for the fun of it anymore, Logan,” she said. “You’re better than that.”
I am? If so, it’s news to him. Kate’s always been on the side of the angels—Leroy’s on the side of the wallet—but she seems extra devoted to this fair play nonsense lately. Today’s visit is to determine if Bret’s worth eating.
Somebody leads—doesn’t matter who, they’re both dancing, “Hey, I’m free this afternoon. What say we put on the feed bag?”
“Sounds like a great idea!”
They go to a place with martinis and steaks and people in power suits and ties and if Leroy isn’t really one of them there’s not a soul in the joint who picks up on it. By the third of those martinis they’re talking politics.
“Nixon’s got it right,” says Bret. “Law and order; that’s the ticket. Law. And. Order.”
“Amen,” says Leroy, who’d agree to anything on this scouting mission. It’s his goal to be exactly what Bret wants. “I was at the Chicago convention last year. Mayor Daley ran those punk bastards out of town on a rail. Mace, clubs; he showed them what’s what.”
“He did,” enthuses Bret. Richard Daley, boss hog of the Windy City, is one of Bret’s idols. After Hoover of course, and Nixon.
Speaking of Nixon; “You follow the war at all?’
“The Viet-Nam war? That’s no war,” says Leroy. “That’s a police action. We don’t have soldiers; we have ‘advisors.’” He does air-quotes and Bret’s nodding.
“Nixon’ll fix that,” he says. “Now that he’s got a mandate after whooping old Hubert’s ass. The people let him know; we want peace in the southeast and we want it our way.”
“Our way,” agrees Leroy.
“I hear old Dick’s sending more troops this year. Calls it ‘pacification.’ I call it God’s will,” says Bret.
Here’s the point Leroy’s been fishing for. “What about the draft? You for it?”
“Of course I’m for it,” says Bret from the safety of being too old to serve and too connected when he was younger. “You?”
“Of course,” lies Leroy.
George, his son, was drafted.
Bret’s going down.
Unless Kate says no. He calls her long distance to tell her about the meeting and she says, baffling him, “It’s not enough, Logan. You can’t do him just because…” she’s about to say, George, but stops in time.
Leroy says, “I’ve been reading his prosecution stats, Kate.” No need to discuss how he gets them; He’s been charming pretty record clerks out of their paperwork for decades. “He has the highest rates in the country for blacks and young people for drug offences. His record for middle-class whites is amazingly low.”
“That doesn’t tell the whole story,” says Kate.
“I bribed him $500 to let off a kid.”
“That makes him a jerk.”
There’s silence on the line and Leroy imagines her in a hotel somewhere in New York. It’s unnerving so he adds into it, “I don’t see how to make a profit on it, though.”
“You’re doing this for free?” Can a phone line sound amazed?
“Yeah; I think so.”
“Good God, Logan: why?”
“I’m bored. I miss you.”
“Of course.” Leroy’s maybe imagining things but she’s sounding fragile, a very non-Kate emotion.
“You’re so sweet,” she says, then, “I love you, Logan.”
“I love you, too, Kate.”
A pause and she tells him, “Take him down.”
Which might be the best phone sex he’s ever had.
Taking down a public defender in a town the size of Los Angeles isn’t an easy thing to do. Leroy makes plans and lists, tears them up and starts again, finally looks at a page that could be Egyptian, maybe Chinese, and smiles.
He turns on the TV, a rare event, and checks the news. After a while a talking head tells him what he’s looking for. The moon landing is in July. Three months away. That makes him smile even more.
Starshine’s evidently a morning person—Shaun most definitely is not—and she’s taken to hanging around in the mornings, sometimes making breakfast, sometimes smiling when he makes it for her. It’s a nice arrangement for them both once she gets over the shock that he’s not going to sleep with her. She’s a nice kid and she keeps Leroy from thinking about Kate too much or about George.
“Kansas,” she says when he asks. He could have told her just from the accent. “I hitched out last year.”
“You were, what? Fourteen?”
“No; sixteen.” She’s looking a lot older than that now, after the drugs and the sex and Leroy considers the cost that the free love movement is taking. Between it and the war, it’s a like a whole generation is being chewed up and spit out.
“Wasn’t that dangerous?” he asks. He’s made tea—she favors Kate’s expensive Chamomile—and she’s cross-legged on the stool at the breakfast bar.
“Not really. I mean, what’s gonna happen? Guy wants sex? Guys always want sex; it’s no big deal.”
They chat most mornings and he learns she has no thoughts beyond that day. No dreams, no aspirations. It makes him feel sad for her, like something important has been lost somewhere.
One morning he says, “Remember that prosecutor who nailed Shaun?”
“For dope? Sure.”
“I’m thinking about getting even with him for that. You think you and the band might be willing to help me?”
He sees the excitement rising. “Cool! Get even, like how?”
“I don’t know yet; I’m still thinking about it.”
“Is that what all those scribbles are?” she juts her chin at the pad on the floor near Kate’s canvas chair.
Leroy’s surprised at the observation and it shows. “What do you think they are?”
“I think they’re plans on how to scam a DA,” says Starshine. Then , seeing his amazement adds, “What? I’m young. I’m not stupid.”
You’re sleeping with Shaun, he thinks. So you’re not smart either.
Kate’s in Toronto at a bed and breakfast and the irony of being a single mother leaving home until the pregnancy ends is not lost on her. She remembers stories she heard as a young girl about cousins and school girls going to visit ‘Aunts,’ coming home six or seven months later.
She’s heard that Joni went through this just a few years ago and made the decision Kate’s going to have to make sooner or later.
What’s she going to do? Not an abortion. They’re illegal here and in the States and the back alley operations are too dangerous to seriously consider. That leaves keeping the baby or giving it up for adoption.
Is there another way? She’s in a small but pleasant room, part of an old estate that ran into hard times and cut up the mansion into rentable rooms. It’s run by two men, likely gay, which Kate doesn’t care about. They run a nice inn; clean, quiet and private.
Another way. Well; there’s Leroy, the father. As quickly as that thought enters her head it’s dismissed. Even if her Logan wanted to keep the child, he’s in no shape to do it. The scar of his first born dead at twenty-one is still fresh and he’s never been a hands on parent to begin with.
No, the thinks, I can’t do this to him.
So what does that leave? keep it or give it away.
She hates that she thinks of it as ‘it’.
She rubs her belly, swollen now and showing. It’s April and ‘it’ is six months along. How is she going to keep away from Logan for another three long months? Where will she stay? What will she do?
She doesn’t know—and if she did she probably wouldn’t care—that these are thoughts shared by millions of girls and women all over the world every day.
For Fast Kate Mulrooney, rolling her palms over an inflated belly, it’s all about herself.
Starshine starts coming over more often as the weather improves; by June she’s a fixture. It’s less for Leroy’s sake than that he has one of the only swimming pools in the canyon and this is a summer of high heat. Soon she’s got her girlfriends and the pool begins to fill up with girls. Mostly naked ones.
This isn’t a problem for Leroy, as he enjoys the show, and after a few small confrontations(“Hey, man!”) the men seem to accept that Leroy (Adam) is faithful to Kate (Eva) and not a threat. They often show up in the late afternoon with guitars and pot and leave before dawn. Leroy’s amused and fascinated; it’s like having his own personal zoo.
This peaceful condition continues all through May into June and ends rather abruptly when the crew shows up. The first is Tucker Doogan, the Australian ‘face.’ He’s been there a week when Jimmy James arrives with the Cowboy Kid, sharing a car from the airport.
Coming out on to the deck, seeing a half-dozen naked girls playing in the pool or lounging on towels in the mid-morning sun, the Kid’s eyes grow to cover half his face, while Jimmy announces, “Holy Shit, Logan! You got a Harem?”
“Relax,” says Tucker from under a pair of dark tinted glasses. “You get used to it.”
The Kid, still gaping, says, “You might.”
They grab seats in the shade to watch the novelty of naked girls just being naked, and Leroy decides to hold off business until later which becomes a good idea when Shaun and a couple of other guys show up around three expecting just Leroy and not pleased at the new arrivals.
Not pleased at all.
The new guys are professional crooks, but they’re con artist professional crooks, which means they don’t believe in fighting, and the local guys are stoned which means they’re not capable of fighting, but still, there’s a lot of aggression and posturing until somebody falls in the pool, then a lot of people fall in the pool and the girls join in.
Later, when the chaos settles down and Jimmy James turns out to be both a good singer and a better guitar player than anybody else there, the group mellows, gets stoned and falls asleep.
Except Leroy, who calls Kate.
“How’s the class going?” he asks, as always.
“Great, great. Learning a lot,” Kate evades, also usual. “The guys get there?”
“Yep. This afternoon.”
“How’d that go, with the girls and all.” Kate knows about the pool parties and doesn’t care. She knows Leroy’s faithful, except with Adelle, who doesn’t count, and it doesn’t bother her much. Being so far away and so alone makes her sad sometimes, like a dull throbbing in her chest right above the baby. It’s eight months now and the baby’s kicking.
Leroy says, “Pretty well. I think the Kid’s in love.”
“With which one?”
“Depends on what time it is.”
They talk a while longer, about crime and art and being apart and Kate sounds sad when she says, “I love you.”
“Me, too, Kate. When are you coming home?”
“Gotta go. Bye.” And she hangs up.
Leroy’s thinking, something’s wrong here, but he lets it go.
The usual time to discuss plans is at night but here, with the guests scattered around, it makes more sense to get up early while everybody else sleeps. Except Starshine, the early riser who manages to join them by serving coffee and keeping quiet.
Tucker says, “What’s in it for us?” Which is always the first question, followed by, “Who’s the mark?”
Tucker’s got an inmate tan after spending eighteen months in Leavenworth. “Your guy Winston got me on an art swap. Found a guy who makes copies of French paintings from the seventeen hundreds. Perfect copies that I ‘traded’ for the originals.” He turns to Leroy. “This fellow has a real hard-on for you, mate. He visited me three times when I was inside, always asking about you. Might have been a mistake, you tricking him in person.”
“Water under the dam,” says Leroy. “He’s got a ways to go to get me.”
He turns the talk to the scam. “The mark is a DA in LA. He’s crooked and on the take, makes his nut bringing down people he doesn’t personally like.”
“How’s that going to bring in any cash?” Meaning, of course, for us? Law enforcement, like the clergy, is usually left alone by criminals for the simple reason that there’s rarely a pot big enough to be worth stealing.
Like this guy here. Leroy says, “This one’s more for the interest value than the money,” which is like saying, “let’s climb that mountain or jump out of an airplane.” It might be fun but what’s the point?
“What’s the point?” says the Kid.
“The mark deserves what’s coming,” says Leroy, to a whole lot of blank looks.
“It’s like poetic justice,” suggests Leroy and the looks start moving between themselves.
“I’ll pay you ten grand apiece.”
“All right, then!”
“Crikey, mate; I thought you’d lost your mind.” Tucker slaps him on the back. “So what’s the play?”
“It’s like this,” says Leroy and they all lean in to listen.
Even Starshine, who’s never imagined anything like this.
Kate spends most her time resting. She’s moved back to Seattle to be near her doctors and it depresses her to be so close to her home and not stay in it. But Logan might show up and she can’t be seen like this, the size of a small whale or medium hippo.
The doctors say,” You’re forty-one and having a baby this late is a major stress on your body. It’s urgent that you get a lot of bed rest.”
So she’s been idle and alone and fat and alone and her man is having fun with his friends without her and a lot of those friends are girls who are naked and she’s alone.
The doctor’s say,” You can’t drink, Kate,” and “You can’t smoke, Kate,” and of course, drugs aren’t allowed and how does anybody stay sane watching day-time television?
“Just hold on, Kate,” says one of her doctors, a pleasant woman named Janice. “It won’t be long now.”
Sure, thinks Kate; it won’t be long now.
She still has no idea.
Leroy has a lot of ideas. He’s had three lunches and one dinner with Bret Saxby, each one cementing the friendship/donorship of Carlton Capshaw. He’s become the perfect Republican law-and-order guy; he even drinks the right drinks.
He’s found the place to run the scam, he has the perfect time in mind and he’s running the crew through their tasks.
“Any of you know anything about sound systems?”
“Like what?” asks the Kid.
“Like we’ve got to cut in on one concert and play our own.”
“Nah; I got nothing.” The others all are busy watching the girls.
“I know,” says Starshine. She’s been hovering around, dressed, a little, in tight shorts and a thin shirt. “A guy.”
“Do you?” says Leroy, interested.
“Um, yeah. Bobby Fisk? He’s our sound man. For the band? He can do anything with sound.”
“That’s great,” says Leroy. “Can you get him here? And while we’re talking about the band, can you get Shaun to come over this afternoon. I want to book them.”
“You do?” say a lot of people in various ways. They’ve all heard the Family Way band rehearse.
“Why, Logan?” says Jimmy James. “They’re not all that good. No offence ma’am,” he adds to Starshine, who’s never been ma’amed before.
“I’m counting on that,” says Leroy. “In fact, I’m hoping to make them a lot worse.”
“Sunday, July 20,” says Leroy. “Neil Armstrong is going to walk on the moon.”
“Yeah, so?” says Tucker, a man not much interested in historic events. To him, ancient history was when he entered Leavenworth. Recent history is when he got out.
“So,” says Leroy. “Sunday, July 20, we’re going to give a concert.”
“Middle of July,” says Janice, looking at Kate’s chart. “Say the 19th or 20th.”
“Thank God.” Kate’s tired of the whole birth miracle experience and wants her life back. Assuming I decide to keep the baby, she thinks. If I do, then it’s a whole ’nother life.
Leroy’s got a meeting with Bret in the DA’s plush third floor office. This time he’s brought his son.
“Bret,” he says. “This is Greg,” and pushes forward a long-haired young man in a nice suit and tie, obviously insisted on by his father. The boy has rebellion written all over most of his face and a large mustache covering the rest. His eyes are brown and sullen and his handshake, when compelled by a look from his father, is like squeezing pudding in a sock.
Bret, repulsed, manages to not wipe his hand on the boys’ shirt.
He leads them to chairs in front of his desk, the ones that let them see the framed photos of Bret with the mayor, with the police chief, with president Nixon. In that one Bret looks proud and Nixon look shifty.
“What can I do for you, Carlton?”
“I have some information that you’re going to want to hear,” says Carlton. “Tell him, Greg.”
Carlton whaps the kid on the back of his head. “Tell him.”
“Ow! All right.” The kid looks mutinous but eventually speaks. “I manage this band, see…”
“Speak up,” demands Carlton, glancing over at Bret with an apologetic look.
“Okay. Jeez. The band—The family Way—is gonna do a concert, see? And they’re planning to make a statement about the pigs and the man…ow!”
Carlton has whapped him again.
“Go on,” says Bret, flashing the fake sympathy smile. “I’m listening.”
“Yeah, well…the band is gonna, they’re going to…they’re going to moon the audience.”
Bret doesn’t get it. “What? Carlton; what’s that mean?’
“It means,” says the kid, showing a little enthusiasm, “That they’re gonna pull down their pants and wave their bare asses at the crowd.”
“Why?” asks Bret, astounded. “Why would they do such a thing?”
“Cause of the moon landing this Sunday. You get it? The man’s sending people to the moon and the band is going to moon the audience.” He looks for approval from one adult to the other, doesn’t get any. “It’s like a statement, you know?”
Carlton says, “I heard him talking about it to Shaun Jepson—he’s the kid you busted that I asked you to get out…” Carlton’s sounding sorry he did that. “They were saying how it was like that Jim Morrison guy, likes to flash his stuff at the audience.”
Bret’s horrified. He’s never heard anything so revolting. “Why?” He manages. “Why, why…?”
The kid gets animated. “It’s a statement about how we feel about the government wasting all that money going to the moon, man. It’s all part of the war machine, government’s got to beat the Russians.”
Carlton says, “Remember I told you the band had an audition for capitol records? Well, Braniac here,” he indicates his son, who’s reverted to sullen, “He dreamed this up. They’re renting a ballroom—that I’m paying for—and they’re putting on a free concert because Capitol records wants to see them live. Then they figure, if they do some stunt, they’re more likely to get noticed.”
“And showing their asses in public, is going to do that?”
“Everybody’s got to have a gimmick these days,” says Carlton.
“There’s like so many bands,” whines the kid. “It’s hard to get noticed anymore. Clive Davis is grabbing all the bands from the rock shows and the Doors are doing the whole ‘Lizard King’ shtick. I mean, what do you gotta do?”
“I thought I’d tell you, see if maybe you could do something to stop it, maybe,” says Carlton.
Bret gets it; the old man is willing to help his son but he doesn’t want the notoriety of his son getting busted for indecent exposure. Well, that’s too bad. Bret’s seeing major press with this one. The papers, radio, Hell, even television. This is something that can send a man’s career into orbit. He smiles thinking, into orbit; just like the moon shot.
And if Carlton gets splashed by the publicity, so what? That’s a price Bret Saxby’s willing to pay.
But he has to be sure. He’s a practical man and won’t fall for a trick. So he says, “I’ll need to see the band before I can do anything.”
The kid says, “No!” pretty quick but Carlton offers, “They rehearse in the canyon. Laurel canyon up north of Hollywood.”
Of course they do, thinks Bret. All the hippie drug-users hang out there. Bret despises the place even more than he does the perverts in Hollywood, even though most of his off the books profits come from there.
He says, “Can you get me in there to hear them?”
“No,” says the kid.
Carlton whaps him again.
The Family Band is Shaun on guitar, Dave “Fuzzy” Williams on bass, Skip Manson on organ, Seth Parks on drums and Starshine and three other girls as backup singers. They’re outside one of Leroy’s houses, on a small raised stage in the back of the driveway. The weather is hot, the sky cloudless and the noise unbearable, like an airplane just crashed into a music store.
Bret and Carlton and Carlton’s kid Greg, drive up to the canyon and take up watching from a little chalet looking cabin up the street. Leroy owns this one, too, and paid the tenants to book a motel room someplace, handing them cash that he’s pretty sure will become acid before the day is done.
The Family Band finishes one song and begins the next after a lot of tuning and noodling around on their instruments. To Brett, so far, it’s the least offensive sound he’s heard. The drummer clicks his sticks, one-two-three-four, and everybody hits the same chord really loud and Shaun, grimacing like he’s got genital warts, starts screeching notes on his white electric guitar.
They finish that song, more or less at the same time and, facing the imagined audience, bow at the waist like Bret’s seen the Beatles do on Ed Sullivan. Bret likes the Beatles; they’re nothing like these people.
He’s heard enough. “Let’s go,” he says, but the kid shakes his head.
“No wait; this is the money song. You gotta hear this one.”
So they stay and it sounds exactly like the last one, maybe louder, certainly not any better. The backup chicks have moved to the front so they’re in a line with the guitar and bass player, which is at least nice to watch. The song grinds to a halt and the kid says, Wait for it…”
The band is about to take the waist-bend bow when they all suddenly spin around, drop their pants (men) and raise the short skirts, (girls). Nobody’s wearing any underwear. Just six bare asses waving at the driveway. They stay poised for a couple moments, then turn back and cover up.
“Moonshot!” yells Greg, giving a fist in the air salute.
Carlton whaps him across the back of the head.
“It’s all in the timing,” says Leroy to his crew. It’s Saturday, July 19, and they’re dressed for the practice run. Jimmy James in an LA cop uniform, Tucker’s an electrician with a hard hat and vest, Bobby Fisk, the Family Band sound engineer, is waving a decibel meter.
They’re standing on the sidewalk in front of the Avalon Ballroom on Montrose Avenue next to a white cube van Leroy’s rented for the week. The van is full of soundboards and speakers and posters and whatever they think will help create a Big Store for the ten minutes it will be open.
How do you get two dozen hippies to show up at 6:30? Round them up—it’s like herding cats—put them in a rented yellow school bus and drive them there yourself.
By the time they reach the Avalon the bus reeks of pot, Leroy has a monster headache from the smell and if he hears the word “man” one more time, he’ll attack somebody.
But the bus arrives and the mob pours out like the worst school field trip ever and they gather as instructed around the barricades Tucker and the Kid have erected. Also as directed, they’re chanting, “ Moon shot! Moon shot” and raising their fists in time.
There are two massive speakers on poles and two white film screens showing the Family Band playing. The band is on a stage and the pictures, though poorly filmed as if by a guy with a shoulder mount camera, are in color. The music is loud and the sparse crowd is attracting people who have no idea what’s happening.
The marquee above the entrance has what looks like a hand lettered sheet draped on it that says “Live! The Family Band auditions for Capitol Records!”
Three mobile TV vans are held back by Jimmy James and two other guys dressed as police.
At 7:05 another white van pulls up across the street followed by three black ones with dark tinted windows.
The black vans contain twenty SWAT team members and armed police all in riot gear with night sticks, mace and tear gas.
The white van holds Bret Saxby, a communications technician, a lot of small black and white screens and Greg Capshaw, Carlton’s son. He’s as sullen as a prisoner but cooperative when pushed. He’s watching the screens and at 7:13 says, “It’s time.”
The nurse says, “Kate, it’s time.”
Kate’s sweating hard, breathing harder, hurting more than she’s ever hurt before. She says, “I can’t…” when a monstrous contraction shrinks her entire world to her lower body.
The nurse says, “Push!”
Greg Capshaw says, “They’re in the last chorus now. It’ll happen in thirty seconds.”
Outside, the music is louder, the crowd is dancing.
Bret Saxby gives the last order he’ll ever make. He keys a microphone and yells,” It’s time, boys! Let’s do this.”
The doors to the three vans open and an entire squad of police in riot gear erupt on the street. Somebody in the crowd sees them, shrieks and the crowd stops to stare in disbelief. The SWAT team cuts through them like an axe through warm butter as a couple of officers smash in the glass doors and the team—all twenty of them—with Bret Saxby in the lead with a bullhorn, swarm across the lobby and throw open the doors to the ballroom.
Bret Saxby yells, “YOU’RE ALL UNDER ARREST!”
At 7:17 Pacific Time, Neil Armstrong makes the announcement from the moon; “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.”
Outside, Tucker and Jimmy pull on strings and the banner covering the marques floats down. The real marquee says, “Tonight: Celebrating the Moon Landing: A live television broadcast featuring Lawrence Welk and his Orchestra!”
Inside the ballroom, everything has frozen. A hundred pairs of elderly dancers, interrupted in mid two-step, stare wide-eyed at the police. The orchestra, led by a baton-wielding Lawrence Welk, sputters to a stop and the song they were playing, “How High the Moon,” in honor of the landing, shatters into separate notes. Half a dozen television cameras swivel their way.
Bret Saxby’s bullhorn falls from lifeless fingers to the floor with them.
In a Seattle hospital, Kate bears down hard one more time. The doctor leans in and a tiny wail fills the room.
“Congratulations,” says Janice. “It’s a girl.”
ONE WEEK LATER
Leroy, wisely thinking Laurel Canyon is not a good place for Carlton Capshaw, takes a local jet up to Seattle and a cab to Kate’s place on Whidbey. Before leaving he pays off the crew from his own money, a first and last time that will ever happen. Tucker Doogan takes Starshine, now back to her real name of Connie Romweber from Oak Forest, Illinois, with him. Jimmy James, heartbroken over her loss, manages to console his grief under the care of at least four of the other girls. He stays on in Leroy’s house and plays guitar with the Family Band, now under contract with RCA.
Kate Mulrooney stays at the hospital for three days, holding her daughter most of the time. She still hasn’t decided what to do when she checks out and it’s without any real conscious decision that she takes a plane south.
It’s dark when she arrives, with a waxing crescent moon making an eerie glow as she rents a car and drives. The baby girl is in a basket on the floor of the car as Kate pulls to a curb and gets out.
She looks at the large house, hidden in shadows of thick trees, with only a light in the living room showing signs of life.
She stands in the dark watching the house for nearly an hour, still uncertain, then closes her eyes, takes a deep breath and walks to the passenger side, opens the door and takes a bundle from the basket.
She walks slowly up the concrete walk to the front door and rings the bell.
After a moment the door opens and Kate hands the bundle into the arms of the woman inside.
“Adelle,” she says.
“Her name is Dixie Rose…Logan.”
About the Author
I wrote my first novel in college at the University of Wyoming, played lead guitar in Pinky’s bar as a member of “Suzy Q and the Quad City Ramblers,” Got an English degree, then an engineering degree, worked a lot, got married to Traci (probably the best thing to ever happen), wrote several books with Raymond Dean White, retired recently from said engineering and started writing again.
Now I write cheerfully demented novels about con artists and overweight PIs, play guitar a lot (on a very well used and loved 1954 Martin D-18 (for those of you who have guitar lust—centerfold picture available on request) and generally am having the best retirement ever.
Other books by this author
Please visit your favorite ebook retailer to discover other books by Duane Lindsay:
The Dying Time
After The Dying Time
The Rag, The Wire, And The Big Store Volume II (Coming December 1, 2016)
Connect with Duane Lindsay
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Two Grifters, Off to Fleece the World… Robin Hood? Not these two. Meet Leroy Logan, a young man who’s going to be the best con artist ever and Katherine “Fast Kate” Mulrooney, a young woman with even bigger dreams of her own. Together and apart, for sixty years of living large, Kate and Leroy will embezzle anything, con anyone and love each other without reservation. In a twelve brilliant, funny, romantic short novellas, follow the (mis)adventures of the most exciting anti-heroes you’ve ever met. From selling a US battleship, scamming fake Faberge eggs, funding a retirement for the widow of the only FBI agent who ever caught them, to conning Elvis and the Colonel, running an Atlantic cruise con, inventing computer scams (well, somebody had to) and growing old in style, Leroy and Kate are forever. The First Six Stories: 1945 - Young and green, they’re out to con the Navy. (Not the whole Navy, mind you; just one ship. Twice) 1949 - A lesson in ethics – You can’t cheat an honest man, though Leroy’s certainly willing to try. 1953 - You can’t stop time –but you can slow it down. Leroy and Kate in Nebraska, trying to sell a man a horse. 1959 - Elvis Presley, a shipboard romance, Gracie Allen and George Burns. 1964 -The rock and roll music scam and – at last – prison. 1969 -One giant leap for mankind, one small bank for Leroy and Kate. There’s Such a Lot of World…