Most days, like everyone else at Pearson’s, Frank Owens either ate at his desk or grabbed a quick sandwich in the company lunchroom, but once a week on Wednesdays he would walk the block and a half down to Barney’s on Market Square and eat there. It was a habit that dated back to the days when Frost had still been chief accountant. He and Frank had gone together then, justifying the extra time as a good chance to talk and plan away from the immediate pressures of the office. That excuse was gone now, of course, now that Frost had retired and Cunningham had replaced him. But so far no one had challenged him – a fact that he found vaguely disappointing. In any case, once there his routine was unvarying as perhaps befitted an accountant: a single martini followed by one of the daily specials with coffee afterwards. Today was no different except that instead of coffee the waiter brought a large bubble glass of brandy.
“From the guy at the bar,” he said.
There was only one other customer at the bar, an almost obesely fat man with a small, pink baby smooth face and glittering eyes. He raised his glass in acknowledgement of Frank’s curious glance, then ambled over to the table and sat down carefully, opposite Frank.
“I trust you’ll forgive the intrusion, Mr. Owens,” he said. “My name’s Grenville, and, no, we’ve never met. But I think you’ll agree it’s past time we did.”
“If you say so, but I might as well warn you right at the start that I’m not in the market for any stocks, bonds, life insurance, or whatever.”
“I never thought you were,” Grenville said. “What I have to offer is something rarer by far. A way out.” He smiled. “Don’t bother to ask a way out from what, Mr. Owens. We both know, and what it takes is money. We both know where the money is, too. Right there at that company of yours, just waiting for someone to reach out and take it.”
Frank studied the fat man for a long moment. Finally he said: “What is this? Some kind of a joke?”
Grenville continued to smile faintly. “There’s no need to overplay your part, Mr. Owens. You may not know me, but rest assured that I do know you, and what you did once you can easily do again.” And still smiling he laid photostats of two Pearson checks totaling a thousand dollars on the table between them.
Sanderson, the financial vice president, had called Frank in before the official announcement to tell him that a new chief accountant had been selected —and that it wasn’t going to be him.
“No reflection on you,” Sanderson had said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the way you’ve carried on since Frost left and I’ve told Mr. Pearson that any number of times. But you’ve got to move with the times. That’s why he—we —decided it would be best for the company to bring in new blood.”
“I understand,” Frank said.
“Sure you do,” Sanderson said heartily. He was a stockily built man in his late sixties, who, despite the more than twenty years since the elder Mr. Pearson had brought him in from the field, still felt more at home in a hard hat than in an office suite, particularly in situations like this—which, he told himself firmly, would never have occurred if the old man were still running the company instead of his whippersnapper son. Aloud he went on: “And I don’t think you have to worry that there won’t be a nice little token, at Christmas, of just how much we think of you.“
It was a long time till Christmas and memories could be short, but all Frank said was “Thanks, Milt.” Because when you came right down to it what else was there to say? The ball hadn’t bounced the way he’d wanted, but at forty-two—with no wife but with a son just entering his teens to support—there was damn little he could do about it except grin and bear it.
The office was unnaturally quiet when he got back to his desk, and Frank wasn’t really surprised when a few minutes later one of the other accountants—a tall, gangling man named LeBlanc—drifted over as if casually.
“Welcome back to the enlisted ranks,” he said.
“Word gets around, doesn’t it?” Frank said.
LeBlanc shrugged. “It’s a small world,” he said. “And a smaller profession. Sanderson say who the new man’s going to be?”
“You tell me.”
“Walter Cunningham,” LeBlanc said equably. “From Doreco-Remy. Supposed to be a real hotshot whiz kid. Turned Doreco around and looking for new worlds to conquer.”
“More power to him.”
“So say we all. But anyway—” LeBlanc rubbed his hands together briskly— “some of us are stopping off after work at the friendly neighborhood pub. We’d like you to join us. Sort of a coming home party, if you know what I mean.”
“I know,” Frank said. He sighed. “Why not?”
The problem was he wasn’t really in a mood for a party. If he had been, it might have turned into a real outpouring and even a catharsis of a sort, because all of them realized that bringing in someone from the outside to head the department meant not only a new beginning but also the end of something old and familiar and comfortable. But as it turned out Frank sat quietly for the most part, letting the conversation wash around him. He had, in fact, just about begun to think it had been a mistake to come at all when he became aware of Lorraine Marshall, the second girl in Sanderson’s office, regarding him quizzically. She was a slender woman—early thirties at the most, Frank thought—with a smooth, oval face framed by dark hair that fell down evenly from a center part to just above her shoulders. He had been slightly surprised to find her among LeBlanc’s group, since she had joined the company only three months before and hardly qualified as an old-timer.
“You really don’t care, do you?” she said.
There was something faintly mocking in her voice and manner which Frank found more than a little disconcerting.
“You don’t even know what I’m talking about, do you?” When he shook his head, she nodded to indicate the other end of the table where LeBlanc, two other accountants, and a tabulating clerk from Payroll were vociferously debating the merits of old movies. “Four Feathers,” Lorraine said. “Is it the greatest movie ever made or just one of the top five?”
“To tell you the truth, I’ve never really thought about it much.”
“That makes two of us. Do you think we should have?”
“Score two for us,” Lorraine said. She began to make little wet circles on the table with the end of her glass. “So, anyway, if you don’t care and I don’t care, why do we bother staying—particularly when I know a place where the drinks are better and cheaper and the cook makes the best frozen pizza in town.”
“My apartment—unless, of course, your wife’s expecting you home.”
“My wife’s dead,” Frank said.
He shook his head. “There’s no reason to be. It was a long time ago.”
She smiled wryly. “I’m still sorry. You must have loved her very much to still wear the ring.”
“Yes” Frank said. Had he? He supposed he must, but as he said, it was a long time ago and when he remembered her now it was as a picture, not as a living, vital being. Not as her. Maybe he’d lived too long with the past; maybe it was time to let it bury its dead and get on with living.
Lorraine had gone back to making the circles with her glass. “About that offer,” she said.
Frank grinned suddenly. “I always did like frozen pizza.”
Neither of them noticed the small man with “Forster” stitched above the breast pocket of his work jacket seated alone at the bar, but he watched them intently as they left. So intently in fact that the bartender had to rap twice sharply on the bar to ask him if he wanted another drink.
Pearson’s new chief accountant reported the following Monday. He was a tall man with a flushed, fleshy face and the heavy-bellied body of an athlete who has ceased to exercise. It obviously wasn’t because of any loss of energy or enthusiasm, however, because in those first weeks he was everywhere around the office, asking questions about everything and, more often than not, raising more in the minds of those he asked than he got answers for. It was a happy time for him, at least, and two months later he decided he was ready to make his move.
It was at the regular Thursday meeting in Pearson’s conference room adjacent to his office on the top floor. Timing it well, Cunningham waited until the room was almost filled before slipping in to take his place at the end of the long table. As he sat down, he let his small eyes shuttle around the room, assessing the stir his entrance had made. Most of the faces turned toward him were merely curious, but Sanderson was frowning—upset, Cunningham realized, and beginning to burn, because no one had bothered to warn him in advance that one of his nominal subordinates had been invited to a meeting normally reserved for the top, top staff. Good, Cunningham thought silently. Angry men made mistakes, and although he was sure enough of his ground to know he didn’t need it, he was still never one to pass up any advantage.
As the group came to order, Pearson down at the far end of the table cleared his throat. “I think most of us are here now,” he said. He was a slender man, mid-thirtyish, impeccably dressed in a gray suit and coordinated shirt and tie. “So why don’t we get started. I asked Art Cunningham to sit in today because he has some recommendations for changes in the way we do business. They sound good, but since they impact on us all I thought I’d like to get your reaction before I made the final decision. Art.”
Cunningham grinned inwardly, reflecting that the slight emphasis Pearson had put on “final” was signal enough to anyone perceptive enough to catch it that this was all eye wash; the real decision had already been made.
“I realize I’m very much the new boy on the block,” he said now, rising, “but I’ve been here long enough to have taken a good look around. And I’ll tell you frankly that I was appalled by what I saw, because in just about every way that really matters we’re still operating here in the office the same way we did when Mr. Pearson’s father began the whole business. Now that’d be all right if it was still 1940 and there wasn’t any better way of doing things. But it isn’t and there is. Let me give you just one example. As you all know, because of the nature of the business we have to keep a fairly sizable contingency reserve—not in actual cash, of course, but in short term notes and CD’s. Fine. Great idea. The problem is keeping track of the rollover dates to insure we’ve always got sufficient actual cash to funnel out into the various project and operating accounts. Given the volume of business we do today, it’s a mind-blowing job. Similarly, the whole business of transferring funds from reserve to operations is based on a system of manual ‘tickles’ designed to alert somebody to take an action—again manually. Let that somebody miss a tickle and we’re in trouble. Like I say, back in 1940 there wasn’t any choice, but given the state of the art today we can now set it up so that funds are transferred automatically whenever the due date rolls around. We can even, if we find it maximizes interest, make it a self-actuating process whenever particular balances fall below set amounts. We can do it any damn way we please.”
“With computers?” Edwards said.
Cunningham grinned. Edwards, a thin, balding man who headed the company’s legal department, was a born straight man. “Scares you, does it?” he said. “Well, maybe it scares me, too, but it’s the only way to go if we plan to stay on top. And we do plan to stay on top, don’t we?”
“But at what cost?”
“Probably less than you think,” Cunningham said. ”The way, the company’s set up, we’d never come close to using the kind of system we’d want to full capacity, but shared time’s ideal for us—at least until we’ve gotten our feet wet and really know how far we want to go. Basically, what that means is that we rent part of somebody else’s computer. The disadvantage is that there’s bound to be some ‘hold’ time ‘while we wait for some other user to finish before we can access. But that’s more than offset by the advantages—no large initial outlay and over the long haul no worries about maintenance or obsolescence. Or space. The terminal—all we’d have on site—won’t take up much more space than a typewriter and we can put it anywhere there’s a phone handy to plug in.
“Staffing’s no problem either. The tab clerks are smart enough to realize their jobs are going. I’ve already got two of the brightest of them started on BASIC. It won’t take long to bring them up to COBOL or one of the other business languages. In the meantime, according to her resume, Lorraine in Milt’s office has worked with computers before. With her as backup for the transition period, we’re all set to roll just as soon as the button is pushed. On the assumption that it’s going to be, I’ve already made a few preliminary contacts with Betatronics. They’re a locally based firm although their main data bank is in K.C.”
Cunningham shrugged. “What’s it matter as long as it’s the end of a phone line? What counts is that they have a local service and maintenance capability.” He paused, then added carefully: “The real advantage, though, is that their equipment is compatible with Mid-Continental Bank’s, which gives us a tremendous potential for savings through direct tape-to-tape transactions.”
Sanderson looked up sharply. “We bank with Ferris,” he said. ‘We always have.”
Deliberately, Cunningham let the silence drag out. Finally Pearson said, “We’re transferring the accounts.”
“All of them?” Sanderson cried out. “For God’s sake, how am I supposed to explain that to Walt Michaels at Ferris?”
“Why explain anything?” Cunningham said. “It’s our money and our business what we do with it.”
“My money,” Pearson corrected, “and my business.” But his eyes never left Sanderson.
Afterwards, when the meeting had broken up, Sanderson found himself riding down alone in the elevator with Edwards. He was still fuming, and finally his resentment spilled over. “They can think again,” he said, “if they expect me to tell Walt Michaels we’re pulling out after all these years. Let Junior do it. Or that smartass Cunningham.”
Edwards looked at his friend pityingly. You’ll do it, he thought. Pearson will see to that. Aloud he said: “Why do you put up with this crap, Milt? Why not take your pension and go while the going’s good?”
Sanderson looked at him, truly bewildered. “Why,” he said, “what would I do then?”
Cunningham, on the other hand, was in bubbling good spirits when he got back to his office. He had nothing personal against Sanderson. The man was simply obsolete, and the sooner he realized it the better for all concerned. In that connection, he felt the casual appropriation of the girl from the old fool’s office had been a particularly inspired touch, even more telling in its way than the unannounced change of banks.
His good mood evaporated quickly, though, as he went through his mail, and finally he buzzed angrily for his secretary. “I thought I asked you to have that travel expense check ready for me when I got back.”
“I made up the check, Mr. Cunningham,” the girl said, “and ran it through the machine. Now I’m just waiting for someone to unlock the box.”
“The box on the checkwriting machine,” the girl said. “It’s always locked and I don’t have a key.”
“I don’t know. Mr. Owens usually handles pickup.”
“Well, damn it, get him in here then.”
“God damn it, Frank,” he said when Owens came in, “why do I always have to find things out the hard way? Why didn’t you just turn over the key to the checkwriter when I came?”
“Because I don’t have a key,” Frank said. “Nobody in the department does. It’s a security measure,” he added, at Cunningham’s disbelieving look. “All the keys are kept in Sanderson’s office. He’ll send one of the girls down late in the afternoon just before mail dispatch to open up and make distribution.”
Cunningham hesitated. Only a fool would ask Sanderson for a favor after what had happened in the meeting. But on the other hand he’d gone too far to appear to back down now.
“I’ve had enough of this nonsense,” he said. “Come with me.”
Followed by Frank, he marched back to the supply room where the checkwriter was kept. It was a standard model machine that could be set to perforate the amount across the face of a company check as well as print on it Pearson’s authorized signature, then deposit the signed and completed check in a small locked box at one end. Cunningham examined the box briefly, then picked up a letter opener from one of the shelves nearby and inserted it in the crack between lid and box. On his second try he succeeded in springing the lock and popping the lid open.
There were three checks inside. Taking the one he wanted, he handed the other two to Frank. “See that these get where they belong,” he said and left.
Frank continued to stand for a long time, holding the checks and looking down at the broken box. Finally he took a handful of blank checks from a box and ran them through the machine. They were valueless since there was no payee typed in under the perforations and Frank tore them up and dropped the pieces into a wastebasket. He just wanted somebody to notice that the counter on the machine disagreed with the register of checks written. But apparently no one ever did. At least it was never questioned.
“Why do you have to fight him on every little thing?” Lorraine said.
“I’m not fighting him,’ Frank said. “At least not on every little thing.”
“He thinks you are. So do a lot of other people.”
“That’s their problem,” Frank said. It was later that same day after the checkwriter incident and they were in Frank’s car, driving back to her apartment. It was Cunningham, of course, that Lorraine had meant. God knew who the others were. Probably most of the office, hoping he would take Cunningham on for them. “It’s just that there are reasons we do things the way we do. I think he ought to know them before he starts changing them.”
“Sure that’s all there is to it?”
Frank sighed. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I do resent the son of a bitch. It’d be natural enough if I did. What would you have me do, anyway?” Lorraine shrugged. “If it was me, I’d keep my mouth shut or pick up my marbles and go.” “Then I’ll be a good boy and keep my mouth shut,” Frank said, “when I can. That make you happy?”
“I suppose it’ll have to,” Lorraine said. “It’s all I’m going to get from you.”
Frank smiled. “You sound like a wife.”
Lorraine laughed shortly. “That’ll be the day.”
“Yes, it would,” Frank said seriously. He was silent a moment, then said: “I’m driving down to see Jim at his grandmother’s Saturday.” Jim was his son. “I’d like you to come along.”
“Inspection trip?” Lorraine said. She looked away. She had no doubt about who would be inspecting whom. “How long have you known me, Frank?” Three months? Four at the most? Sure you really want to make that kind of commitment?”
Nobody said anything about any commitment,” Frank said. “Just a trip downstate and maybe a picnic for three.”
No, Lorraine thought, of course no commitment, but that’s where it would lead anyway. Well, why not? Is what you’ve got what you want – a cold apartment and “relationships” that end up even colder until one day you’re cold yourself – cold inside and out – and only death to look forward to? “Ham or chicken salad?” she said. “For the sandwiches.”
“That’s good,” she said, “Because I don’t know how to make chicken salad.”
Forster stood on the corner hugging himself against the chill and shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot. He was a small man with a muddy complexioned mashed potato face, and although he spent a good portion of his time waiting for one thing or another, he wasn’t really very good at it, and he continued to fidget now until finally he spotted the man he was looking for. Gratefully he fell in step beside him.
“Remember Laurie?” he said. And from the sudden frown on the other’s face, he saw he did indeed.
Saturday morning arrived faster than Lorraine had expected, and she stood in the middle of the small kitchen, staring in dismay at the array of food spread before her. It was just too much, she thought, but there was no way to back out. Resolutely she picked up the long kitchen knife and began to hack away at the ham. Afterwards she was to wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t had the knife, if she had just given up in despair. But that was in the future. Now a sharp rap at the door brought her up out of her concentration. Frank, she thought. He must really be anxious to be so early. Well, wasn’t she herself? In addition to food enough for an army hadn’t she bought new jeans and a man-tailored shirt, just for the occasion? And, still holding the knife, she went out to let him in.
Instead of Frank, though, a tall thin man with a pale, tight skinned face and lank blondish hair that fell forward across his forehead grinned down at her. Reflexively she threw her weight against the door, but the tall man had anticipated the move and thrust his shoulder into the opening with enough force to hold her off and then, as her strength ebbed, send her staggering back into the room. He followed quickly, kicking the door shut behind him.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t find you?” he said.
“Get out of here, Eddie,” Lorraine said. “Leave me alone.”
“When I’m finished,” Eddie said. He drew a pair of rubber kitchen gloves from his pocket and began to pull them on. Lorraine’s eyes flicked around the room, and when he lunged for her, she darted swiftly to one side. He’d anticipated again, though. His hand shot out, cuffing her across the face and knocking her back. Blindly she thrust out with the knife and felt it wrenched roughly from her grasp. Defenseless now, she cowered back, waiting for the next blow.
When it didn’t come, she found the courage finally to open her eyes and look up. Eddie stood before her, mouth open and gasping, the knife handle dark against the lighter shirt where the blade, impelled by his motion as much as hers, had thrust in deeply and up. As she watched aghast, his eyes glazed and he fell full length onto the floor.
Lorraine thrust her fist into her mouth and bit down hard to stifle the scream welling up in her throat. And stood like that until finally the intercom buzzer penetrated her consciousness and she managed to stagger over to it and press the button.
“Frank,” she sobbed. “Oh, thank God, Frank.”
Lorraine’s voice had warned him this was no ordinary emergency and he took the stairs two at a time. Whatever it was he expected, though, it wasn’t what he found. He stopped, appalled, just inside the doorway, but before his thoughts could crystallize, Lorraine was in his arms, sobbing hysterically.
“He broke in,” she managed to say at last. “He tried—”
“It’s all right,” Frank said. He understood now, or thought he did. “It’s over now and everything’s going to be all right.” She followed unresisting as he guided her into the bedroom and sat her down on the edge of the bed. “You stay here,” he said. “I’ll take care of everything.”
She caught his arm as he started to rise. “Where are you going?”
“Just outside,” Frank said, “to call the police.”
“No!” Her face was grim and set, all trace of hysteria gone. “No. No police.”
“Lorraine, I have to call them.”
“No,” she repeated. “No. Sit down, Frank. Listen to me. Please.” Gingerly he sat on the bed beside her. “I knew him, Frank,” she said, not looking at him. “His name was Eddie Duryea. He was my husband. I’m sorry, Frank, but I couldn’t tell you before. I couldn’t tell anybody. God knows I wanted to divorce him badly enough, but I didn’t dare. I was too afraid.” She turned back to him. “It’s true what I told you, Frank. He did force his way in. He was going to kill me if he could.”
Frank shook his head. “Then it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Husband or no, he still had no right—”
She put her hand up to his lips. “You don’t understand, Frank. I married Eddie when I was seventeen, mainly I think because everybody told me I shouldn’t and I was going to prove I knew better. And at the beginning it was good—or at least what I thought was good at the time—but then the bills started coming in and Eddie and one of his friends decided to hold up a liquor store. I drove the car.
“It would be easy to say I didn’t know what they were doing. But I did. I was young and wild and anyway what could go wrong? Nothing,” she added bitterly, “except an off-duty cop walking in for a six pack just as Eddie’s friend pulled his gun. That was when the shooting started. And that was when I stopped being cool and, smart and whatever else I thought. I was and just floored the gas pedal and shot out of there like hell itself was after me. Maybe it was. Maybe it still is.”
“That was a long time ago,” Frank said.’ “They couldn’t hold you for it now.”
“You still don’t understand, Frank. The cop died. So did Eddie’s friend. That makes it murder and there’s never any statute of limitations on that.” She put her hand over his. “This isn’t your problem, Frank. Go home. You just never came today. With a little luck it’ll be a week at least before anybody finds him, and I can be a long way away by then.”
“No,” Frank said.
“There’s no choice, Frank. It’s got to be that way.”
“No,” Frank said again. He looked back toward the living room and the sprawled body. He’s the one who never came. None of this happened.”
“You can’t mean that!”
“Why not? Nobody’s breaking the door down to get in and find out what happened. Get him out of here and what is there to connect him to you? Nothing. Is there?”
“No.” She looked at him searchingly for a long moment. “Can we do it?” she said at last.
“Let’s find out.”
It was an easy decision to make, but, Frank reflected afterwards, a hard one to carryout. He’d seen movies, of course, where two people had carried dead bodies between them, pretending the corpse was merely drunk or sick. But that, he suspected, worked only in the movies. The alternative was to throw the body over his shoulder and trust to luck. He’d been up and down Lorraine’s apartment stairs dozens of times in the past weeks without meeting a soul. Maybe he wouldn’t again. But what would he do with the body when he got down to the street? Much better to wait until dark, but, frankly, the thought of spending the day cooped, up with the body or, worse, someplace else never knowing whether the whole house of cards had collapsed or not was more than he could bear. There had to be an answer, though, and finally out of sheer nervous. frustration he left the apartment and went downstairs to the basement in search of one.
As he’d expected, it was a storage area, with wire mesh cages set aside for individual tenants’ use. At the far end, though, a stocky balding man in faded blue coveralls was stacking lawn equipment. On sudden inspiration, Frank went up to him.
“I’ve been helping my fiancée pack up some stuff,” he said. “I was wondering if you had any boxes we could use.”
Frank made an indeterminate gesture with his hands. “Big as you’ve got.”
“Well, you want a wardrobe or anything like that, you’ll have to go to a movers, but I think there’s an old china barrel around if that’ll help.”
It would, Frank said, and followed the man back to a small room near the furnace area from which he pulled out a flattened, heavy cardboard box roughly three and a half feet a side. “Don’t look like much,” the super said, “but you seal up that bottom and it’ll hold a ton. New one’d cost you twenty-five or thirty dollars these days.”
They settled on ten, and with mounting excitement Frank carried the box back upstairs. Lorraine watched curiously as he assembled it.
“You know,” she said, “if this weren’t so serious, it would be funny.”
“We’ll laugh later,” Frank said. He finished crisscrossing the box bottom with fiberglass strapping tape as extra reinforcement, then set it upright and went over to Duryea’s body.
It still lay where it had fallen, knife handle protruding from the chest. Frank steeled himself, then grasped the handle firmly and pulled the knife out—and sighed with relief when the great gush of blood he’d feared didn’t materialize. Putting the knife aside, he grasped Duryea under the arm pits and with Lorraine’s help carried him over to the box.
It was a tighter fit than Frank had expected and the box bulged ominously where Duryea’s knees pressed against it, but fortunately rigor hadn’t set in yet and they were able to force the lid closed and seal it.
The work and strain had taken their toll, though, and it was a good twenty minutes before they could bring themselves to face the next part—carrying the box and its grisly contents down to Frank’s car—but somehow between them they managed it. And then it was done. Or almost.
Frank drove west, keeping to the expressway until they were well clear of the city and its suburbs, then turning off onto a secondary road and following it deeper into the flat countryside to a smaller feeder road that in turn led to an unpaved track. The track narrowed rapidly and grew rutted, but Frank pressed on until it made one last bend and ended abruptly in a grove of trees.
It was quiet here except for the pinging of the cooling engine, but the empty beer cans and other litter Frank spotted as he got out indicated the place wouldn’t remain unvisited for long. Too bad, but he wasn’t about to go looking for another. Not now. Not ever. And thinking that, he cut the twine he’d used to tie the trunk lid down and by sheer force hauled the box out and let it fall onto the ground.
Duryea had settled in even more tightly than before, and it took the two of them working together again to get him out. Paradoxically, the very difficulty of the work made it easier, allowing them to concentrate on the task at hand and ignore what it was they were handling. And as soon as he had his breath back, Frank caught Duryea by the ankles and dragged him deeper into the grove. He knelt briefly by the body to go through its pockets, then taking the keys and wallet he found, but leaving the loose change, went back to the car. The box, broken and crushed now as well as empty, fitted easily into the trunk, and without even a second glance Frank backed out and around and headed back down the track. Shortly after they hit the secondary, he threw Duryea’s keys as far as he could into one field, the wallet into another.
We got away with it, Lorraine told herself, but no matter how many times she repeated it, it wouldn’t dissolve the small icy fear deep inside her that things were never that easy. But then a week passed and another. The flurry at the office when the terminal was installed helped, too, and it was all beginning to seem like the bad dream Frank said it was when she got the first call from the hoarse-voiced man who identified himself as a friend of Eddie’s and said if she knew what was good for her she’d meet him in a little bar he knew off South Wabash.
Forster sat at the far end of the bar where it curved back to meet the wall, drumming his fingers on the polished surface and watching the room. He’d been there a good half hour now, and the strain was beginning to tell. He’d be all right, he told himself, once she came. If she came. Hell, she had to. No way she’d dare stay away. Unless—
He never finished the thought because he spotted her then, coming in the door. Owens was with her, but that was all right because it told him something he’d only suspected before—that the two of them were in it together. And, in any case, something warned him as he watched them now that if push came to shove it would be the woman he would have to watch, not Owens. Maybe that had been Eddie’s mistake—remembering her as the flaky kid she’d been and not realizing everybody changed. Maybe, maybe not. It was one, he told himself, he wouldn’t make, anyway.
They were obviously trying to pick him out, but this was his party and to make sure they knew they were going to have to do it his way he waited until they were seated at one of the back booths, then slipped off his stool and ambled across the floor as if on his way back to the washroom. At the last minute he turned and slid quietly onto the bench opposite them.
“How’s it going, Laurie?” he said. “Ah—sorry. It’s Lorraine now, isn’t it? It don’t matter. You don’t remember me any way, do you, Laurie? I mean, Lorraine. Naw, no reason why you should. There was a whole bunch of us used to hang around together, but all you ever had eyes for was Eddie.” He grinned at Owens. “You should have seen the two of them. They were really something.
“I remember you,” Lorraine said flatly.
“Yeah? Really? How about that? You must not have seen me then that other time over in that place on Randolph. I saw you, though. Knew you in a flash.”
“And ran right to tell Eddie.”
Forster shrugged. “You know how it is,” he said. “A guy does what he thinks is best for himself. Just like you did that time you ran off and left Eddie to take the heat. Of course, that’s just water under the bridge now. Eddie sure don’t care. According to the papers, he’s dead. A couple of kids found him out in some woods someplace. Cops think he was dumped there.” He looked up slyly. “That’s the difference between me and the cops. I know he was.”
“What is it you want?” Lorraine said.
“Just what I would have gotten from Eddie,” Forster said, “A thousand dollars. You can’t ask fairer than that.”
Lorraine shook her head. “Eddie never would have given you a thousand dollars,” she said. “Not just for telling him you’d seen me.”
“How about for taking him to where you lived, watching him go in, and never seeing him come out. Think that isn’t worth a thousand? Or would you rather I gave it to the cops for nothing?” He grinned. “You think about that, Lorraine. I’ll be over at the bar there. You just let me know what you decide.” He slid out of the booth, then paused. “Only one thing. I’m not making any mistakes like Eddie did. Either one of you tries to leave this place before I do, I go right back to the phone—and you know who I’ll be dialing.”
After he had gone, Lorraine sat staring grim-faced across at the place where he had been. “I knew it wouldn’t work,” she said. “I should have just run when I had the chance.”
“We could pay him,” Frank said. “A thousand isn’t that much.”
She shook her head. “It wouldn’t be the end. He’d bleed us white and then sing to the police just for spite.”
“Maybe not,” Frank said. A plan had begun to form in his mind. Six months earlier it would have been unthinkable, but he’d learned a lot in those six months—among other things that loyalty unless it cut both ways wasn’t worth a damn. “What do you do with the company’s cancelled checks when they come back from the bank?”
“See what’s still outstanding and then file them down. Why?”
“Nobody else looks at them?”
“No, why? What are you driving at, Frank?”
“You’ll see,” he said and half rose to beckon to Forster at the bar. The man ambled over, carrying three bottles of beer. He placed one in front of each of them, then sat down, taking a pull at the third. “What’s the word?” he said.
“The word is we pay,” Frank said. “But it’s a one-time only payment. You’re a nuisance, fella, but that’s all. You say you saw Eddie go into an apartment building and never come out. But how long did you stick around afterwards? And how many doors are there to the building? Where were you standing that you could watch them all? What I’m saying is you may think you know something, but you can’t prove a thing.”
Forster shrugged. “So what?”
“So this,” Frank said. “If you want your money, the first thing you do is open yourself a bank account. Properly, it should be a business account, but for that you need a tax number. So you make it look like one by picking a name that could be a business. Arthur Mills would be a good one. Or Vernon Steel.”
Forster looked at him suspiciously. “Why would I want to do that?” he said.
“Because the money’s coming in a nice, big company check,” Frank said, “and the only way you’re going to be able to cash it is to deposit it and then wait until it clears before drawing the money out.”
Forster. shook his head. “You do it then,” he said. “All I want is the cash. What it takes to get it is your problem.”
“Except that I’m making it yours,” Frank said. “I want you involved—you personally—so that if anything ever goes wrong, then all the bank records, teller’s identification, everything will point to you. That’s my guarantee you never change your mind about going to the police because if you do and I fall, you fall, too.”
Forster was silent for a long moment. Finally he said: “Got it all figured out, haven’t you?”
“Just tell me the name you want the check made out to,” Frank said.
Forster shrugged again. “What the hell,” he said. “What was that you said—Vernon Steel? That’s good enough, I guess.”
“And where do I send it?”
“I’ll call you after you get the check made out.” He rose and stood beside the booth. “Just one thing you ought to remember, though, smart guy. Sometimes you can be too goddamned smart for your own good.” Then he was gone.
For a long time afterwards Lorraine simply sat looking down at her hands. Finally she said: “What happens when they run an audit and find the books don’t balance?”
“We’ll worry about that when it happens,” Frank said. “Actually, there shouldn’t be a problem because all I have to do is add a thousand of my own to the next deposit and the balance will always show exactly what it’s supposed to. The only giveaway would be the check itself and nobody will question that if they never see it.”
“A thousand of your own,” Lorraine said. “You keep getting in deeper and deeper, don’t you, Frank?”
“I don’t mind,” Frank said. “The money’s nothing. It’s insurance from when my wife died. I never wanted it. That’s why I never spent it. So let it go for this now. Let the dead past wipe out the past.”
Feeling more than a little pleased with himself, Forster followed the black-coated waiter up a short flight of stairs, then went on past him to rap sharply on the door the man indicated. It opened with disconcerting suddenness and a tall, narrow shouldered man with a thin, sharp-nosed face and neat pencil line mustache looked out and regarded Forster unblinkingly. Forster took an involuntary step back. “They told me I was supposed to meet somebody here,” he said.
“Come in, Mr. Forster,” a voice boomed from inside the room, and Forster slipped in around the thin man, who moved back just enough to let him enter.
The room was larger than he’d expected, with its own untended bar and a stove-like arrangement in one corner for keeping food warm. A grossly fat man sat at a small table set for one. “I was just finishing,” he said. “Perhaps you’d care to join me for some coffee?”
Forster shook his head.
“As you wish,” the fat man said. He nodded to his younger companion to clear the table, then let his bulk settle back comfortably in his chair. “My name is Grenville. My associate is Mr. Zachary. Our contacts tell us you’ve been asking around for assistance in cashing some checks you have.”
“Yeah,” Forster said. He’d have to pay, of course, and a stiff amount, too, but it would be worth it to show smart guy Owens and Lorraine that they didn’t have a handle on the world, that in fact he had a handle on them he could twist any time he wanted. Now, as the fat man held out his hand, he fumbled the checks from his pocket and passed them over.
“Two checks,” Grenville said appraisingly. “Five hundred dollars each. All right for a start, perhaps, but I assume the others will be in more reasonable amounts.”
Forster hesitated. “I hadn’t really worked that out yet.”
“You hadn’t worked that out? Surely you didn’t intend to stop with this?” He looked at the checks disparagingly. “You researched Pearson’s, didn’t you, Zachary? How much would you say we could reasonably expect to take out?”
“Five hundred thousand,” Zachary said. “For openers.”
“Surely your contact at the company must understand that,” Grenville said. “Who is he anyway?”
Forster hesitated again, some instinct warning him not to give away more than he had to. But five hundred thousand. Just the thought of it was like a burning in his brain. “His name’s Owens,” he said finally. “He’s some kind of a wheel in their accounting department.” He hesitated one last time, then added: “He may not be that easy to deal with, though. What I mean is, he and I aren’t exactly partners.”
Grenville smiled faintly. “That’s a situation we’ll have to rectify,” he said.
Two weeks later he sat in the restaurant off Market Square waiting to buy Frank a brandy.
Frank sat looking down at the photostats Grenville had placed before him. He found, curiously enough, that he wasn’t really surprised or shocked. The only surprising thing, in fact, was that he hadn’t realized before that the fat man had to have them, that he would never have forced this meeting if he hadn’t. It made it easier to view the whole affair dispassionately, almost clinically.
“What do you want?” he said.
“I should have thought that was obvious,” Grenville said. “You have the ability to draw checks on your company. My associates and I have the means to cash them safely. Common sense suggests that it would benefit us both to pool our resources and split the profits. I realize, of course, that to the uninitiated a fifty-fifty split might seem unfair, but my associates and I would absorb all expenses and in any case I think you’ll find it preferable to the arrangement you had with the unfortunate Mr. Forster.”
Grenville smiled faintly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Of course, you couldn’t know. Forster’s dead.” He shrugged. “I myself dislike violence, but some of my associates—well, he was a vicious little man and I doubt anyone will grieve him, least of all those of us seated at this table. I mentioned him at all only to emphasize that mine is indeed a mutually beneficial proposition. I must add, though, that if you were to refuse, my associates might think it was because you wanted all the profit for yourself and that would upset them very much, particularly since they’ve already gone to the trouble of eliminating Forster for you. It would be difficult under those circumstances to dissuade them from sending these photocopies to your employer—at the least.”
“You make yourself very clear,” Frank said.
“It’s best when one does, Mr. Owens,” Grenville said. “I can understand, of course, how you might have some qualms about continuing. Once too often to the well and one’s bound to be caught and all that sort of thing. I won’t pretend that eventually the loss won’t be discovered; we both know it will, but I think you’ll find that there’s a considerable difference between what people suspect and what the police can prove. In any case, if you must be hanged, it would be foolish to let it be done for a lamb when the sheep is there just waiting to be sheared.” He took a crumpled envelope from his pocket and passed it over to Frank. “Take it, Mr. Owens,” he said. “It’s your five hundred dollars from our first joint venture. You’ll also find an address to which you should direct future installments.” Grenville smiled. “Don’t let it wait too long.”
“Will he do what he says?” Lorraine said. It was later that same day. They were in her apartment for the usual after work drink, and Frank had just told her about Grenville and his “proposal.”
“Will he turn me in if I don’t ‘cooperate’? I’ve no doubt of it.”
“No. I mean will he really give us half?”
Frank was silent a moment. It had never occurred to him to think of it that way before. “I suppose so,” he said at last. “He knows Forster was blackmailing us. I assume he knows why. He didn’t have to offer anything if he didn’t want to.”
“Then do it, Frank. Give him what he wants and take what you want as well.”
“You can’t mean that. For God’s sake, Lorraine, these people killed Forster!”
“And what’s that to us? There’s no choice anyway. You could never explain those checks now—not without the whole mess coming out. And then it would have all been for nothing. Worse, in fact.” She put her hands on his arms and looked at him beseechingly. “You did what you did for us, Frank,” she said. “Do this for us, too. You wanted to wipe out the past. This is our chance. We can go someplace where nobody knows us—just the three of us—and make a new life. Start over.”
“On stolen money?”
“If need be, yes,” Lorraine said fiercely. “We’ve been through enough, Frank. Life owes us this.”
Frank was silent a long time. Finally he said: “I can’t do it alone. I’ll need someone to work the computer.”
“Just tell me what you want me to do.”
There was nothing to. It really—just a simple matter of plugging figures into an existing program to set up another continuing transfer of funds from reserve to operating accounts and then establishing a kill credit to wipe out any record of the transaction. It was so easy. Lorraine was surprised nobody had thought of it before.
The first Pearson check arrived at the accommodation address Grenville had given Frank eight days later. By the end of the second month, over forty thousand dollars’ worth had been collected. It was time, Grenville decided, for Zachary to take his trip.
There was a mixup at the airport in Atlanta, and the car that was supposed to be waiting wasn’t, which meant that Zachary had to go through the rigmarole of renting one. But everything else had gone off smoothly, and following Grenville’s instructions he drove north and west on secondary roads mostly, the forty thousand dollars in checks packed neatly in his suitcase along with the clothes he would need for the trip. Assuming that much each time, it would take at least twelve trips like this to pull out the half million Grenville had set as his goal. That was all right with Zachary, though, because he enjoyed travelling. It was the one time he found he could afford to let himself relax, and it was with a real sense of regret that he finally turned off at the town Grenville had pinpointed.
His experience of small southern towns was limited, but this one, he decided, was typical: one long main street with a courthouse at one end and the usual assortment of hardware stores and five and dimes jammed into the three or four blocks leading up to it, a square old fashioned stone bank built to look like a fortress on one corner and farther on, just beyond the main intersection, a more modern glass and brick structure that was also a bank. It was this latter building that interested Zachary most, and he gave it a quick survey as he drove past, then followed the same road on out past the outskirts to the town’s only motel, where he registered as L. P. Adams of Cincinnati.
Once inside his room, he checked the phone to insure he could get an outside line without going through a switchboard, then dialed the number Grenville had given him.
“Mr. Lockhart?” he said when he had his party. “My name’s Johnson. A mutual friend suggested I talk to you about opening an account at your bank.”
“Why, yes,” the man at the other end said. “Always glad of new business. It’s after hours now, of course. But why don’t you just stop down tomorrow—”
“No,” Zachary said.
“I beg your pardon?”
I’ll bet you do, Zachary thought. “I said no,” he said. “The point being that I don’t intend to ‘stop down’ at your bank. I want you to ‘stop up’ by me. And if that’s not your usual way of doing business, well, too bad. It isn’t very usual either for a small town banker to run up a tab of over twenty-five grand at the casinos in Vegas and not pay up. At least I imagine there are a lot of people around this town who’d think it wasn’t. It might upset them enough to make them take their money out of your bank and put it where they’ll know it’s safe. I’m at the motel, Mr. Lockhart,” he added sternly. “Room 23, rear. I’ll expect you here in half an hour.” He put the phone down without giving the other a chance to reply.
It was closer to twenty minutes than half an hour when Lockhart arrived. He was a paunchy man in his fifties with a soft, round ‘face that had just begun to go jowly. A sheen of perspiration covered it now as he went past Zachary into the motel room. Zachary kicked the door closed after him.
“I don’t understand this,” Lockhart said. “They told me in Las Vegas—”
“Not to worry,” Zachary said. “That something would be worked out. Well, that’s what I’m here for. To work something out. You play along and your debt gets paid off quickly and painlessly. All you have to do is clear some checks through your bank just like you would for any customer. The only difference is we do all our dealing away from the bank. Plus the fact that ten percent of whatever passes through the account goes to square your account in Vegas.”
“And when the debt’s paid?”
“Then the ten percent’s yours. Tax free—unless you feel some compulsion to share the wealth with Uncle Sugar. Most of us don’t.”
The banker’s tongue came out to wet his lips. “I’d need written authorization,” he said, “to justify the withdrawals.”
Zachary shrugged. “Write it up,” he said, “and bring it out the next time you come. I’ll see that it’s signed.” He tossed the envelope containing the Pearson checks onto the bed. “There’s your first deposit. When they’ve cleared, you bring the money to me here—in cash. I’ll call and tell you when. Once we get the account going, I’ll start calling you in advance so you’ll be sure to have enough cash on hand and we can handle everything in one trip. There’s just one other thing,” he added as Lockhart bent to pick up the envelope. “If anybody ever asks what I look like, you’re not very good at descriptions. That’s the rest of the price for having your debts forgiven.”
Grenville slid the envelope across the small restaurant table to Frank, seated opposite him. “Your share,” he said. “I regret the delay, but you understand, of course, that these things take time to arrange. Arrange safely, that is.”
“Of course,” Frank said. He put the envelope unopened in his pocket.
“Not going to count it?”
Frank shook his head. “You wouldn’t cheat me,” he said. The truth was he really didn’t care.
Grenville smiled faintly, almost as if he understood. “No,” he said. “It would be against my interest as much as yours, and since we both understand that, can we agree to dispense with these meetings? I doubt anyone will remark us, but great accidents result from small risks taken once too often. It would be much safer for both of us if I were simply to mail you a locker receipt which you could then redeem at your leisure. Or,” he added slyly, “I can hold your share until you’re ready for it.”
Frank shook his head again. “I don’t think I’d care to trust you that much,” he said.
“Neither would I, Mr. Owens,” Grenville said, laughing. “Neither would I.”
There was a note on Frank’s desk when he got back to the building, asking him to stop by Cunningham’s office.
“You’re a little late, aren’t you?” Cunningham said.
“I was late leaving.”
“Oh? Well, it’s not important, I just wanted to tell you I had occasion to mention the change in your attitude to Mr. Pearson the other day.”
“You don’t argue any more, Frank,” Cunningham went on, “and that’s smart. I don’t have to tell you there’re going to be some changes around here. Perhaps sooner than you think; and when the dust settles, I don’t intend to be sitting in this office. Play your cards right and you could be.”
If he had dared when he got back to his desk, Frank would have put his face down in his hands and cried.
Lorraine noticed the change in Frank, too. It was just nerves, she told herself. He’d be all right once this was finished and he saw what the money meant to them. Just let it be finished soon, she prayed fervently, before something terrible happened. Half a continent away a small town banker was repeating the same prayer.
Lockhart had quickly found that it was impossible to keep his strange arrangement with respect to the Pearson checks secret from the others in the bank. And the odd looks he’d been getting around town lately told him that what those in the bank knew, others did, too. The fact that no one had approached him directly about it only confirmed that they realized as well there was something shady about it and that it was only a matter of time before something overt was done. And so now as he pulled into the darkened bank lot, parking as close to the door as he could and scurrying over to rap sharply on the shuttered glass, he made a silent vow to himself. This was his fourth such trip. Three more at the most and his debt would be paid off. And then, tax free money or not, he was quitting. Let Johnson or whatever his name really was find somebody else to play his dirty game—or come into the bank like any decent person.
The edge of one of the blinds lifted, fell back in place, and the sound of locks turning came from within. A moment later the door opened. “Didn’t realize it was you, Mr. Lockhart,” the night guard said. He smiled slyly. “Forget something again?”
Lockhart bit back the retort that sprang to his lips. “That’s right, Carl,” he said. “No, you might as well stay there. I’ll only be a minute.”
Aware that the man was still watching him, Lockhart hurried back to his office, got the packet of money he had made up earlier that day from his personal safe, and put in his briefcase. Almost as an afterthought he slipped the small pistol he kept beside it in his pocket, relocked the safe, and left as quickly as he had come.
He didn’t become aware of the car following him until he was out of town, heading up to the motel, and its lights showed up blindingly in his mirror. Instinctively, Lockhart edged to the right to let the other pass, but the car continued to hang on his rear, tailgating now.
Idiot, Lockhart thought and resumed speed. The lights behind dropped back momentarily, then caught up again. Lockhart began to sweat, realizing that the other was pushing him now, forcing him to go faster and faster. In his desperation he didn’t remember the curve at the base of the hill in front of him until he felt his wheels leave the road.
For one sickening instant he was flying; then the car jolted suddenly and jarringly to a stop and canted forward onto its side.
It took Lockhart several seconds to register that he was unhurt. Then, furious, he scrambled out. “You idiot!” he shouted. “You—”
He broke off. Two men were running down toward him from the other car, carrying what looked like long slender rods, and with a sudden start of fear Lockhart realized just how dark and lonely this stretch of road was. Without really thinking what he was doing, he pulled the gun from his pocket.
The tire iron smashed viciously down on his wrist. He screamed, dropped the gun and doubled forward in agony so that the second blow, aimed at the same spot as the first, caught him squarely across the base of the skull.
Zachary heard the sirens from his room at the motel, but he didn’t really begin to worry until Lockhart was over an hour late. The man could have been held up by the lights and activity obviously taking place down at the foot of the hill but not this long, and finally Zachary dialed his home. The voice that answered was obviously a maid’s and on impulse Zachary asked if Mrs. Lockhart was there.
“No, sir,” the soft voice said. “She gone with the police.”
Zachary put the phone down. He had barely unpacked and now he crammed what little he had taken out into his suitcase, threw the bag in his car, and drove off.
He was fifty miles away before he remembered that he hadn’t paid for the room. Too bad, but it wasn’t likely, he decided, he’d ever be going back.
Three days later a Lieutenant Richard Millet of the Georgia state police phoned Pearson’s long distance to ask for Vernon Steel’s address since, he explained, a man thought to be connected with them was wanted for questioning in connection with the robbery-murder of a local banker. He wasn’t really surprised when Cunningham told him the company had no record of any dealings with any such firm. Why, he asked, did the lieutenant think they might have? He was appalled when the lieutenant told him.
“A pity,” Grenville said, “but everything ends eventually.”
Zachary shrugged. They were in Grenville’s office—or what passed for his office because the loft room was unfurnished except for the desk at which Grenville sat and there were no signs that the place was ever used except for these meetings. “Lockhart must have talked too much,” he said.
“Or given himself away in some other way. These things happen. It’s unfortunate, though, that you called attention to yourself at the motel that night. Otherwise they might never have drawn the connection.”
Zachary shrugged again. “So what?” he said. “All it got them was a phony name and the address of a vacant lot somewhere.”
“Unfortunately, I’m afraid they have a little more than that,” Grenville said. “According to Atlanta, they’ve managed to trace you through the car rental agency. Apparently you were foolish enough to use your own I.D.”
“Only the first time,” Zachary said, “because I didn’t have anything else. And it wasn’t my foul-up either. There was supposed to be a car waiting, remember, and there wasn’t.”
“Water over the dam now,” Grenville said. “Under the circumstances, though, it would be wise to take yourself out of circulation for a while. Tahoe would be nice this time of year. Or the Springs. Either place you’d be among friends.”
Zachary hesitated. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “I suppose I could do that.”
“Just give me a call when you’re settled and let me know where you are.”
“Sure,” Zachary said. He continued to stand for another fraction of a minute, then when the fat man continued to ignore him turned on his heel and went out.
As soon as he heard the door close, Grenville’s face lost its look of bland indifference. Moving with uncharacteristic briskness, he pulled the phone over and punched out a number. “This is G,” he said when he had his party. ”I’m afraid it’s as we thought…No, but he could become a liability…I know. It is a pity, but better safe than sorry...Yes, Tahoe or Palm Springs. He shouldn’t be hard to find.”
A board creaked at the far end of the room. Grenville looked up sharply. Zachary stood just inside the doorway, holding a silenced automatic in his tight right hand. “You bastard,” he said. “You’d sell me, too, wouldn’t you?”
Grenville raised his hand placatingly, but before he could speak the pistol sputted twice. The fat man’s head jerked as the bullets struck. He stared uncomprehendingly at the blood staining his shirt, then slumped sideways, carrying the chair and phone over with him. Zachary shot him four more times, then thrust the empty gun in his waistband and scrambled over to the body to pry the phone loose, but the line was already dead. Zachary threw the phone down at Grenville, then kicked the body twice before leaving. Grenville didn’t feel it, but it made Zachary feel better anyway. Actually he was in no worse trouble than he had been before. The only question was whether it was safe to pick up the cash he had stashed in his apartment. It took time even for Grenville’s playmates to get organized, but he decided not to chance it all the same. There was no point to it, not when there was so much more just waiting to be taken.
Lorraine could hear the phone ringing through the walls as she came up the stairs, and it continued to ring insistently as, hampered by the two bulky grocery bags, she fumbled trying to get her key into the lock. She wasn’t even aware of the man behind her until his hand closed over hers.
“Here, let me get that.”
She looked up, startled, but before she could really react the man already had the door open and was stepping back, smiling. The smile died, though, as soon as her back was to him, and without warning he shoved viciously between her shoulders. Caught off guard, Lorraine lurched forward into the room, stumbled, and landing sprawling amidst the scattered groceries. Zachary followed swiftly, kicking the door closed behind him and covering her with the gun.
“Don’t do anything foolish, Lorraine,” he said. “All I want is the money. Give me that and there’s no reason for anybody to get hurt.”
Lorraine looked up at him from the floor, still too shocked to be terrified. The phone continued to ring. Zachary gestured with the gun. “Go ahead,” he said. “Answer it.”
Obediently she rose and went to pick up the phone. After a moment she put it back down. “There’s no one there.”
“Well, surprise, surprise,” Zachary said. It had been his call, of course, placed from a corner phone booth when he’d seen her struggling to open the outer door, with the phone left carefully dangling from its cord once the connection was made so that her attention would be distracted as he followed her up. “Now, where’s the money?”
Lorraine’s eyes shifted. “in my purse,” she said. “There isn’t much…”
Zachary shook his head. “You know better than that,” he said. “I mean the real money. The Pearson money. Where is it?”
When she didn’t answer, he burst out: “Get it through your head, baby, the game’s over now, and if you end up short, that’s your tough luck. There are a lot worse things that can happen to you, and if you screw around with me you might just find out what they are.”
“That wouldn’t get you the money.”
“Maybe not, but see what it gets you. I mean it, honey. I’ve got nothing to lose—from the cops or the mob. So you take your pick.”
Lorraine looked away. “I don’t have it,” she said. “I kept out five thousand as a fallback in case things went wrong. That’s all. Frank’s got the rest.”
“In a safety deposit box. Only he can get to it.”
Zachary lowered the pistol. “Really trusted you, didn’t he?” he said.
“It was so I wouldn’t be involved,” Lorraine said. She felt as drained as if she’d run a mile, and she hated herself for her fear, the way it was making her behave. “So no one could identify me.”
“I should have guessed,” Zachary said. “Well, let’s hope Sir Galahad still feels protective. Call him.”
“He’s in Freeport with his son.”
“There are phones there. Call him.”
Despite the time the long drive back to the city gave him for reflection, it never occurred to Frank to doubt the threat was real—the man he had spoken to after the phone had been taken away from Lorraine had known too much not to have been one of Grenville’s people, and treachery, he told himself, was what he should have expected. It wasn’t until he was in the small private room beside the bank vault, though, that he realized he didn’t really care. The money didn’t really mean anything to him, It was just so many bits and pieces of colored paper he and Lorraine had agreed almost reflexively that they didn’t dare spend until long after the hubbub and suspicion had died. The truth was he would never have spent it. He hadn’t taken it for reward or advantage and only in part in response to Grenville’s veiled threats. What it had really been was a means of lashing out at a system he felt had cheated him. And inevitably, of course, the wrong people had been hurt.
Well, it was over now. Grenville’s man could have the money and all the luck Frank hoped it brought him.
Quickly he finished his task and took the empty deposit box back outside for the teller to put in its slot. It would sit there empty until the time came to renew and then he would simply let the lease lapse. By then, of course, he and Lorraine and Jim would have long since resumed living the way people were meant to live.
Assuming, he realized with a sudden chill, that option was left to them. And after he left the bank he sat for a long time in his car, thinking about it.
At the same time across town, Zachary sat in the big armchair, gun held loosely in his lap, watching Lorraine pace back and forth. She must not be a smoker, he decided. Otherwise, she’d have gone through a good two packs by now. Sooner or later, though, restless as she was, something was going to have to give, and he wondered idly just what form it would take.
As if sensing his thoughts, Lorraine stopped almost in mid stride and turned abruptly. “Would you like some coffee?”
Zachary shook his head.
“Well, do you mind if I make some for myself?”
Zachary shook his head again, and she turned as abruptly as before to go back, into the kitchen. After a moment he rose and went to stand in the doorway to watch her. She had put a pan of water on the stove and, when it came to a boil, poured some into a cup, added powder, and stirred. Without looking around, she said: “There’s plenty. Sure you won’t have some?”
Zachary grinned. “Nice try,” he said, “but no cigar. That’s not to say a different time, a different place I wouldn’t be tempted. The problem is, right now where I’m going one can make it, two can’t. And I’m the one. Not you.”
Lorraine’s lips tightened and Zachary realized that if she had been close enough she would have thrown the scalding coffee at him, gun or no. His grin broadened. “I wonder what your boyfriend would think if he knew what you were really like.”
“He knows me,” Lorraine said.
“Does he? I wonder if you even know yourself.”
She opened her mouth to retort, but the phone’s quick trill froze them both. Then Zachary stepped back into the living room and motioned with the gun for her to take the call.
“Yes?” Lorraine listened for a moment, then lowered the receiver. “It’s Frank,” she said. “He wants to talk to you.”
Zachary hesitated, then backed her away with the gun and took the phone. ‘What’s keeping you, Owens?” he said. Tm getting very nervous and impatient. So’s your girlfriend.”
“I thought you might be,” Frank said. “That’s why I called. So there won’t be any nasty surprises. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. I won’t have the money with me. That’s my insurance you don’t decide it would be easier to take it off a dead man.”
“Smart, aren’t you?” Zachary said.
“I’ve had good teachers,” Frank said. He hung up.
Zachary put the phone down and looked sourly back over at Lorraine. “Get your coat,” he said.
‘What do you think for? We’re going out.” He smiled grimly. “Your boyfriend thinks he’s smart. We’re going to show him other people are smarter. Now move.”
Lorraine held his eyes for a long moment, then got the coat and let herself be half shoved, half guided out to a gray sedan parked three or four car lengths back from the apartment entrance, obediently sliding in and over to the far left rear as Zachary dictated. As soon as she was settled, he got in himself, in front, sitting half turned on the seat so he could watch both her and the street and holding the gun low in his lap out of sight. Lorraine held her body tense, watching him. More and more, it seemed, his attention was directed out toward the street. Tentatively she moved an arm, then, as his eyes flicked instantly back, calmly folded her hands in her lap. Zachary smiled faintly. Then the smile faded and his eyes swiveled swiftly back to the street as he spotted Frank parking across from the apartment entrance. He was alone and, as promised, empty handed. Sourly, Zachary leaned forward to press the horn button twice, then moved back quickly, motioning Frank to approach from the driver’s side, away from him.
“All right,” he said, “here we are just like you wanted, out in front of God and everybody. Now it’s your turn. Where’s the money?”
“I’ll take you to it.” “All right,” Zachary said. He motioned with the gun. “Get in. You drive.”
Frank didn’t move. “Just the two of us,” he said. “You and me.”
Zachary smiled cynically and shook his head. “Not a chance, fella,” he said. All of us go. That’s my insurance you haven’t decided to play it even cuter than you said.”
“One step at a time,” Zachary said. “You worry about afterwards when it gets here. Right now you just think about what’ll happen if you say no.”
For a long moment nobody moved. Then finally Frank opened the driver’s door and got in. Zachary tossed him the keys and, as Frank started the motor, let himself settle back on the seat. In a way he was glad Owens had tried to pull the cute stuff. Having learned he couldn’t get away with it, he should be just that much easier to deal with from now on. If he wasn’t—well, it didn’t really matter. There’d never been any question of letting them live anyway—if for no other reason than to deny Grenville’s friends whatever slight lead knowing he had the money might give them.
Suddenly, Zachary tensed again. They had turned off into the main feeder leading to the expressway, and in the traffic a police car had pulled up and was cruising beside them. Owens’ eyes kept flicking over toward it.
“Don’t even think about it,” Zachary said.
Nodding, Frank slowed, then braked carefully for the light ahead while the cruiser flashed through on the yellow. Out of the corner of his eye he caught Zachary’s matching nod of approval. As the light changed back, he let the car begin to roll forward, then suddenly without warning floored the gas pedal. He was aware of Zachary’s startled shout, but before the gunman could react further, he slammed down hard on the brakes, at the same time twisting the wheel sharply left.
Caught unbraced, Zachary was hurled forward into the dash. Long cracks starred out across the windshield as his bead struck the glass, and as he rebounded back against the seat, Frank grabbed quickly to wrest the gun from his unresisting grasp.
“Finish it,” Lorraine screamed. “Do it. Kill him now while you’ve got the chance.”
Reflexively, Frank raised the gun, then after what seemed an eternity lowered it again unfired.
“No,” he said.
“Give it to me then. Let me do it.”
“No!” He pulled the gun away from her reaching hand. Behind them horns blared and a siren wailed its ever-nearing rise and fall. Lorraine looked at him, appalled, then turned abruptly to jerk the lock button up and thrust the door open. Frank put his hand out to stop her.
“Don’t,” he said. “Run and it just goes on and on. It never ends. It just gets worse. And I can’t live like that.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Lorraine, but I can’t be what I’m not. God knows I tried, but I just can’t.”
His eyes held hers until finally she looked away. “I’m sorry, too,” she said, and he could see the glistening in the corner of her eye where the tears had begun to well out. “I’ll be sorry all my life, but I can’t be what I’m not, either. I don’t even have the strength to try.”
She pushed blindly out of the car and fled. The last he saw of her she’d reached the far sidewalk and was running down between the high buildings, her coat belling out behind her. It wasn’t the memory he’d wanted, but it was the one, he knew, that he would keep. And in time he would come to terms with that, just as he would come to terms with whatever else it took to end this now. Because without an ending there could be no hope of a new beginning. Outside, the sirens rose to a crescendo, then died. And holding the gun carefully by the barrel to show he was harmless, Frank got out to wait for the police already running up.