Authors: Stephen King
Alice pointed at a mailbox beyond the store. “That's it.”
I slowed. “Last chance. Are you sure? If you're not we can turn around.”
“I'm sure.” She was sitting ramrod straight, knees together and hands clasped on the strap of her purse. Eyes straight ahead.
I turned onto a piece-of-shit dirt track marked with a sign reading PRIVATE WAY. It became clear almost at once that the dirt track was camouflage to deke curious tourists. Over the first hill it became a tar road wide enough for cars to pass each other comfortably. I crept along using my high beams, thinking that this was my second trip to the estate of a bad man. I hoped this one would be quicker and more efficient.
We rounded a curve. Ahead of us, a slatted wooden gate six or seven feet high blocked the road. There was a talk-box on a concrete pillar, lit by a metal-shaded light. I pulled up to it, rolled down my window, and thumbed the button. “Hello?”
I thought (Alice and Bucky concurred) that trying for an Irish lilt might be disastrous. And there was no reason why Byrne had to have one, not if he'd lived his whole life in New York.
Meanwhile, the box on the post wasn't talking back to me.
“Hello? This is Steve Byrne. Darren's cousin, yo? I got something for Mr. K.”
More silence, giving meâAlice too, from the look of herâreason to think something had gone wrong and we weren't going to get in. Not this way, anyhow.
Then the box crackled and a man said, “Get out of the car.” Flat
and toneless. It could have been a cop's voice. “You and the young lady both. You'll see an
in front of the gate, right in the middle. Stand there and look to your left. Stand close together.”
I looked at Alice and she looked at me, wide-eyed. I shrugged and nodded. We got out and walked to the gate. The
, maybe once blue but now faded to gray, was on a concrete square. We crowded together on it and looked left.
“Up. Look up.”
We looked up. It was a camera, of course.
I could hear a faint voice murmur something, then whoever was holding down the intercom button in the houseâPetersen, I assumedâlet go and there was only silence. No wind, and too late in the year for crickets.
“What's happening?” Alice asked.
I didn't know, but thought it probable they were listening, so I told her to shut up and wait. Her eyes widened, but then she got it and said “Okay, sir” in a meek little voice.
The intercom clicked and the voice said, “I see a bulge on the left side of your jacket, Mr. Byrne. Are you armed?”
That was one hell of a good camera. I could say no and the barrier would no doubt stay closed, no matter how much Klerke wanted the girl. “Yeah, I'm carrying,” I said. “For protection only.”
“Take it out and hold it up.”
I took out the Glock and held it up to the camera.
“Put it at the base of the intercom post. You won't need protection here and no one will steal it. You can pick it up on your way out.”
I did as I was told. The aerosol can was much smaller, so there was no bulge on that side of the jacket, and if I could immobilize the man who belonged to the intercom voice, Klerke would be no problem. Or so I hoped.
I started back to the concrete square, but the voice from the intercom stopped me. “No, Mr. Byrne. Stay where you are, please.”
There was a pause and then the voice said, “Actually I want you to take two steps back. Please.”
I took two steps back toward the car.
“Now one more,” the voice said, and I understood. They wanted me off-camera. Klerke wanted to size up the merchandise and decide if he really wanted to buy, or to send us on our way. There was a faint whine from the camera. I looked and saw the lens was now protruding. Zooming the image.
I thought the voice would next ask Alice to show the camera what was in her purse, and the Sig would end up at the base of the intercom post along with the Glock, but that wasn't it.
“Lift your skirt, young lady.”
Petersen's voice, but it would be Klerke looking. Avid eyes in wrinkled sockets.
Staring at the ground instead of at the camera, Alice lifted her skirt to her thighs. The bruises there were long gone. Her legs were smooth. Young. I hated the voice. I hated both of them.
For a moment I didn't think she was going to do it. Then she lifted her skirt to her waist, still not looking up. There was no doubt about her humiliation and I had no doubt Klerke was getting off on it.
“Now look up at the camera.”
She did it.
“Keep holding up your skirt. Mr. Klerke would like you to run your tongue around your lips.”
“No,” I said. “That's enough.”
Alice dropped her skirt and gave me a look that asked what the hell I was doing.
I stepped back into camera range and looked up. “You seen enough, okay? Anything else is for inside. It's fuckin cold out here.” I thought about throwing in another
, decided not to. “And I want the money in my hand before she steps through the door. Once she does, the clock is running. You got it?”
There was silence for maybe thirty seconds. I was getting that hinky feeling again. “Come on,” I said, taking her arm. “Fuck this shit, we're taillights.”
But then the gate started to roll open on little rubber wheels. The voice from the intercom said, “It's eight-tenths of a mile, Mr. Byrne. I will have your money.”
Alice got in on her side and I got in on mine. She was shaking.
I rolled up the window before telling her, just above a whisper, that I was sorry about that.
“I don't care if they saw my underpants, I just thought they were going to make me open my purse and he'd see the gun on his damn camera.”
“You're a kid,” I said. I looked in the rearview and saw the gate trundling closed behind us. “I don't think the idea that you were carrying ever crossed his mind.”
“Then I thought he wouldn't let us in at all. I thought that man would say âYou're no sixteen-year-old, get out of here and stop wasting our time.'â”
Now there were old-fashioned lamps lining both sides of the road. Ahead I could see the lights of the house the old man had named Eos, after the rosy-fingered goddess of the dawn.
“You better give me the gun,” I said.
She shook her head. “I want it. You've still got the spray.”
There was no time to argue about it. The houseâthe
âwas in sight. It was a rambling stone structure on at least two acres of lawn. A rich man's playpen for sure, but with a grace none of the places Nick liked could match. There was a turnaround in front. I pulled up at stone steps leading to a circular entry. Alice reached for the doorhandle.
“Don't. Let me come around and open it for you, like a real gent.”
I went around the hood of the Mitsubishi, opened the door, and took her hand. It was very cold. Her eyes were wide and her lips were pressed together.
I murmured in her ear as I helped her out. “Walk behind me and stop at the foot of those steps. This is going to happen fast.”
“I'm pretty scared.”
“Don't be afraid to show it. He'll probably like that.”
We walked to the steps. There were four. She stopped at the bottom. The outside light came on and I could see her shadow jump long, hands still clasping her purse. Holding it in front of her as if it could shield her from what was going to happen in the next three hundred seconds or so. The big front door opened, casting an oblong of inside light around me. The man standing there was tall and well-built. With the light behind him I couldn't judge his age or even make out his face, but I could see the holster on his hip. A small holster for a small gun.
“What's she doing down there?” Petersen said. “Tell her to come up.”
“Money first,” I said. And over my shoulder, “Stay put, girl.”
Petersen reached into his front pocketâthe one on the other side from the holster, which was undoubtedly lined with plastic for a fast, smooth draw should it be neededâand drew out a wad of bills. He handed it to me and said, “You don't sound like a mick.”
I laughed and started to thumb through the bills. They were all hundreds. “Man, after forty years in Queens I hope not. Where's the big man?”
“None of your business. Send the girl up, park over there by the garage, and stay in the car.”
“Yeah, sure, but now you made me lose my fuckin count.”
I started again. Behind me, Alice said, “Billy? I'm getting cold.”
Petersen stiffened slightly. “Billy? Why does she call you Billy?”
I laughed. “Ah, man, she does that all the time. It's her boyfriend's name.” I gave him a grin. “He don't know she's here, get it?”
Petersen said nothing. He didn't look convinced. His hand crept down toward the quick-draw holster.
“This is good, man, pot's right,” I said.
I shoved the money into the pocket of the bomber jacket and brought out the aerosol. Maybe he saw it and maybe he didn't, but he started to draw the little gun anyway. I made a fist with my free hand and brought it down on his, like a kid playing rock breaks scissors. Then I sprayed him. A white cloud of droplets hit him in the face. It was small, but the result was satisfactory. He rocked back and forth twice, then dropped. The gun fell on the stoop and went off with a report like a small firecracker. They are not supposed to do that, so he must have messed with it somehow. I felt the bullet go past my ankle and turned to make sure it hadn't hit Alice.
She came running up the steps looking dismayed. “Sorry, sorry, that was stupid, I forgot whoâ”
From inside the house a cracked smoker's voice shouted, “Bill?
I almost answered, then remembered that the man lying in the foyer was also a Billy. It's a common enough name.
“What was that?” A loose, phlegmy cough, followed by a throat-clearing sound. “Where's the girl?”
A door opened halfway down the hall. Klerke came through it. He was dressed in blue silk pajamas. His white hair was combed back in a pompadour that made me think of Frank. He had a cane in one hand. “Bill, where's the girâ”
He stopped and squinted at us. He looked down and saw his man sprawled on the floor. Then he turned and hobbled for the door he'd come through, hunched over his thumping cane, holding it in both hands, almost pole-vaulting on it. He was faster than I would have expected, given his age and condition. I ran after him, remembering to hold my breath as I went through the foyer, and caught him trying to shut the door. I shoved it against him and he fell over. His cane went flying.
He sat up and stared at me. We were in a living room. The rug he had sprawled on looked expensive. Maybe Turkish, maybe an Aubusson. There were paintings on the walls that looked equally
expensive. The furniture was heavy, upholstered in velvet. There was a chrome stand holding a bottle of no doubt expensive Champagne on a bed of ice.
He started to back away from me on his bottom, groping for his cane. His careful comb-job was coming apart, hair falling in clumps around the wrinkled sag-bag of his face. His lower lip, shiny with spit, stuck out in a kind of a pout. I could smell his cologne.
“What did you do to Bill? Did you shoot him? Was that a gunshot?”
He got hold of the cane and brandished it at me as he sat there with his legs splayed. His pajama pants were working down, exposing padded hips and graying pubic hair.
“I want you out of here! Who are you, anyway?”
“I'm the man who killed the man who killed your son,” I said.
His eyes widened and he slashed the cane at me. I grabbed it, yanked it out of his hand, and threw it across the room.
“You had someone set that fire in Cody. Arranged for your camera crew to be the only one at the courthouse when the deal went down. Didn't you?”
He stared at me, upper lip rising and falling. Doing that made him look like an old dog with a bad temper. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
“I think you do. That diversion wasn't for me, it was way too soon. So why?”
Klerke got on his knees and crawled toward the sofa, giving me a much better view of his ass-crack than I wanted. He pulled ineffectually at the waistband of his pants. I could almost feel sorry for him. Except I didn't.
Mr. Klerke would like to see your underwear. Mr. Klerke would like you to run your tongue around your lips.
“Why?” As if I didn't know. “You need to answer me.”
He grabbed the arm of the sofa and pulled himself up. He was gasping for breath. I could see the flesh-colored button of a hearing aid in one ear. He sat down with a thump and a gasp.
“All right. Allen tried to blackmail me and I wanted to watch him die.”
Of course you did, I thought. And I bet you watched it over and over, both at regular speed and in slow motion.
“You're Summers. Majarian told me you were dead.” And then, with absurd and horrifying outrage: “I paid that kike millions of dollars! He robbed me!”
“You should have asked for a picture. Why didn't you?”
He didn't reply and I didn't need him to. He had been emperor so long he couldn't conceive of not being obeyed.
Film the execution. Kill the executioner. Lift your skirt and show me your panties. This time I want a
“I owe you money. Is that what you're here for?”
“Tell me something else. Tell me how it was, putting out a hit on your own flesh and blood.”
The lip lifted again, showing teeth too perfect for the face they were in. “He deserved it. He wouldn't
. He was aâ¦” Klerke stopped, squinting past me. “Who's that? Is it the girl I paid for?”
Alice came into the room and stood beside me. She was holding her bag in her left hand. The Sig was in her right. “You wanted to know what it was like, didn't you?”