Authors: Lawrence Block
“If there is, I couldn’t see it from here. The house is in the way.”
“My guess,” she said, “is it’s probably not the pool guy. Or the cable guy, or the guy to fix the furnace or change the filters on the air-conditioners. What do you figure, central air or window units?”
“Never mind, because if it was any of those guys his car would be parked in plain sight in the driveway, not stashed away in the garage next to her Mercedes.”
“Whatever. I think you’re done with the detecting part, Pablo. Now it’s time to switch hats.”
“What did you just say?”
“That you can quit being Sherlock Holmes and do what you were born to do.”
“You said something about hats.”
“It’s an expression, for God’s sake. Switching hats, meaning playing a different role.”
He took the fedora from his head, looked at it, put it back on again. “Never mind,” he said. “I was confused for a minute there.” Something occurred to him. “Dot, do I need to get into the house and take pictures?”
“What, of the two of them in a compromising position?”
“Well, do I?”
There was a pause, and he wondered if perhaps the Pablo phone had gone dead. Then she said, “Maybe I didn’t make this clear. He’s not looking to divorce the woman.”
“I know that, but—”
“In fact he’s very clear that he doesn’t want anything to happen to her.”
“I got that, but—”
“All the man wants,” she said, “is for the other man in her life to stop being in her life. Or in anybody’s life, including his own.”
“I just thought he might want proof,” he said, “that we didn’t, you know, just pick somebody at random.”
She thought it over. She said, “Okay, our client doesn’t know who the guy is, so how does he know we’ve picked the right man. Is that what you mean?”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself.”
“So it would appear. And you have a point.”
There was a pause, but this time he knew the line was intact. He could tell she was thinking.
She said, “Okay, he’s gonna have to take our word for it. The thing is, you have to be positive. Because if the Marlboro Man turns out to be her brother Charlie, or some butch queen who dropped in to give her some advice on where to put the sofa—”
“That wouldn’t be good.”
“So check him out,” she said. “You don’t need evidence to show the client, just so long as you’re convinced. After that, you know what you have to do.”
“And you’re okay? Because it might be a while before he’s done in there.”
His hand reached for the empty iced tea jar. “No problem,” he said. “I’m set.”
ELLER HAPPENED TO
be looking at the garage door when it began its ascent. By then it was getting on for five in the afternoon, and he’d found himself thinking about the empty jar. It was a comfort to have it there, but the actual business of peeing in it was something he thought he’d put off as long as he could. He already felt conspicuous, sitting in a parked car on a street where few cars were parked. It helped that there was very little traffic, and no pedestrian traffic except for two boys, one of them dribbling a basketball, the other making a half-hearted attempt to get it away from him. They dribbled off down the street and turned at the corner, and neither of them gave Keller any notice.
Still, there he was, with his license plate visible to any citizen who cared to make a note of it. Part of the time he wore the hat and part of the time he didn’t, but what difference did that make? It was off his head and on the seat beside him when the Overmont garage door went up, and that got his full attention. He waited for a glimpse of either or both of them, wishing they’d walk out arm in arm, pausing for a warm embrace and a quick grope before the guy got behind the wheel.
But if that happened he never saw it, because all he could see from where he sat was the rear end of the white van, and it was too deep in the shadows for him to make out a license plate. Then the engine started up and the van backed out of the garage.
By the time Keller got his engine started, the van had pulled out into the street, then turned and headed off in a direction opposite to the one Keller was facing. He had to turn around, and his quarry was already vanishing from sight, taking a left two blocks away.
Keller set off after him.
and her presumed lover had in common, it wasn’t a shared attitude toward traffic laws. She’d been a cinch to follow, always under the speed limit, pausing to give other drivers the right away, and acting at all times like a teenager determined to pass a driving test.
Mr. Marlboro, on the other hand, was given to quick starts, sudden bursts of acceleration, abrupt left turns that forced oncoming drivers to hit the brakes, and showed a tendency to regard the speed limit as a minimum.
On the highway, it was hard to keep up with the van. On Harding Boulevard, in rush-hour traffic, how were you supposed to distinguish one white van from all the others? A couple of times he thought he’d lost the trail, but then he’d pick it up again. After forty-five minutes of this, the white van sailed through an intersection even as the light was turning from amber to red. Keller, three cars back, didn’t even have a chance to run the red light, but did what he could to keep his man in sight.
Was that him? Was he making a right turn?
The light turned, finally, and the car immediately in front of Keller moved forward, finally, and Keller set off in search of the white van. A quarter of a mile along he turned where he thought the van might have turned, and found it parked in front of an establishment that sold wholesale and retail plumbing supplies.
Which figured, because the van had the name and address of that very firm lettered on its side panels. And that set it apart from the unmarked white van Keller had been following.
Jesus, had he lost the son of a bitch? He’d had the sense to memorize the license plate, and that’d be great if he had Jake Dagger’s ring of friends on and off the police force. (“I used to be a cop, but when you carry a badge you’ve got to do things by the book. And sometimes a man just has to throw the book away.”) Or the kind of charm that would win him a favor from a chirpy girl at the local Bureau of Motor Vehicles. (“I’m not supposed to do this, Jake. But shucks, just this once…”) Right. But Keller wouldn’t know whom to call, or what to say if he reached the appropriate person.
He’d never really noticed how many white vans there were. And you couldn’t quit on a parking lot just because you found a van that turned out to be the wrong one, because there might well be another white van in the next aisle or the one after that, and it could be the right one.
Or it could be another wrong one.
Finally, at the back of a freestanding frame building that could have used a coat of paint, he found three white vans parked side by side. And the one in the middle, by God, was the Marlboro Man’s.
Keller, parking his car, realized just how long it had been since that gas station rest room. He glanced at the iced tea jar, glanced at the fedora, and left them both where they were.
He got out of the car, and just as he was closing the door he changed his mind, reached for the fedora, placed it on his head and adjusted the brim.
But never mind the jar. There’d be a men’s room. Any place called the Wet Spot, any place with a jukebox that loud, really had to have a men’s room.
was standing at the bar, hoisting a beer with a couple of buddies. Keller saw him when he walked in, went straight to the men’s room, then spotted the guy again a few minutes later—still at the bar, still on his feet, still holding what might have been the same beer, which he was drinking straight from its long-necked bottle.
There was an unoccupied stool at the bar, and Keller took it. To his left were two men wearing White Sox caps, and to his right, on the other side of a second unoccupied stool, was a man with a plaid shirt and a cowboy hat.
Keller felt vindicated. He was right to have worn the fedora. Around here an uncovered head would stick out like a sore thumb.
The man in the cowboy hat was one of the Marlboro Man’s two buddies, and looked enough like him to be, well, a stunt double, say. In fact they both looked like Hollywood stunt men, or what he assumed Hollywood stunt men would look like. Big men, rangy men, physical men.
Buddy Number Two was smaller, but wiry. He was wearing a railroad cap, striped blue denim with a short bill. Keller wasn’t sure why they called it that, he took a lot of trains himself and had never seen a railroad employee wearing one, but maybe you were more apt to encounter them on freight trains. Maybe engineers wore them.
The cap’s wearer could have been a stunt double himself, Keller decided, but for a smaller hero. Tom Cruise’s stunt double, say.
Keller ordered a beer, took a preliminary sip from it when it came. The bartender was a woman with too many tattoos, and Keller realized she was the only woman in the place.
Jesus, was it a gay bar? It had the kind of aggressively masculine vibe you ran across in places with names like Rawhide and Boots & Saddle. This one was called the Wet Spot, but that could be some kind of gay double entendre, couldn’t it?
Was any of that possible? Was the Marlboro Man Melania’s interior decorator after all?
“Man, you’re too much. Has she got a sister? That’s what I want to know.”
That was the man on Keller’s right, the cowboy hat. The Marlboro Man replied that, if she had a sister, well, don’t get any ideas, good buddy, because all that would mean was a three-way.
“Oh, man,” said Tom Cruise’s stunt double. “Oh man, oh man, oh man.”
Cowboy Hat: “Like she’d be up for it.”
Marlboro Man: “Melania? Haven’t found anything yet she’s not up for.”
Tom Cruise (sounding a little drunk): “But with her own sister?”
Marlboro Man: “Dude, she hasn’t got a sister.”
Cowboy Hat: “Thing about a three-way, it’s never everything you want it to be.”
Tom Cruise: “If she hasn’t got a sister—”
Marlboro Man: “You saying there’s something wrong with a three-way?”
Tom Cruise: “—how are you gonna fuck her?”
Cowboy Hat: “Just that it’s not as good as you hope.”
Marlboro Man: “Well, shit, what is?”
Tom Cruise: “What I wanna know—”
Marlboro Man: “Dude, shut up. What I am is lucky she hasn’t got a sister, or anybody else who wants to play, because that woman wears me out all by her lonesome.”
Tom Cruise: “All I’m trying to say—”
But Keller didn’t wait to find out what he was trying to say. He’d heard enough.
HREE WHITE VANS
, side by side by side, and it was a good thing he’d taken note of the license number. Still, he could have ruled out the one on the right, which bore a generic company name (“R & D Assoc.”) along with a phone number. And the one on the left, unmarked by paint, had a damaged rear bumper and a broken taillight.
The one in the middle, the Marlboro Man’s van, had its doors locked. That figured, and Keller had tried the doors with no real hope they’d be open. You went through the motions, that’s all, and he stepped to the rear of the van and went through them again with the hatch at the back, and what do you know?
First, Keller went to his Subaru, unlocked it, transferred the fedora from his head to the seat. He felt a little silly doing so, he was wasting valuable time, but he didn’t want anything to happen to the hat—or, worse by far, for it to be left behind. He thought about putting it on the floor, where it would be out of sight and no temptation to passing thieves, and then decided he was being ridiculous.
He locked the car and went back to the three vans, and the middle van’s hatch was still unlocked. He raised it and climbed in, clambering over all the gear you’d expect to find in the back of the guy’s van—golf clubs, fishing tackle, a tool box, an array of unboxed tools, an old denim jacket, a tire iron, a hammer, a set of Allen wrenches—
There were almost too many options.
And way too much time to weigh them. Keller picked up the hammer and hunkered down on the left, right behind where the driver would sit. This wasn’t the first time he’d waited in an unoccupied vehicle, and on one previous occasion he’d had an improvised garrote. Which, now that he thought about it, was really the only kind there was, because you couldn’t go into a store and buy a ready-made garrote.
Though he supposed that could change overnight. All you needed was a powerful lobby, a group calling itself the National Garrote Association, say, and funded by an international cartel of garrote manufacturers, fully prepared to throw a lot of money at legislators while citing the relevant constitutional amendment. Probably not the one guaranteeing freedom of speech, because speech was difficult with a wire around your throat, and anyway nobody had the right to cry “Garrote!” in a crowded vehicle, and—
He never expected to drift off, not in such an uncomfortable position, but his thoughts drifted and his mind ambled along after them, and if he wasn’t technically asleep, he was anything but bright-eyed and alert.
Until the argument woke him.
His immediate reaction to the three voices, three vaguely familiar voices at that, was an attempt to incorporate them into his dream. Then one of them said, “He can’t drive, the sonofabitch is shitfaced,” and another said, “Who you callin’ a sonofabitch, you sonofabitch?” and he came fully awake while Cowboy Hat and Marlboro Man argued over who would give Tom Cruise a ride home.
It was like a custody battle over an unwanted child. “You take him!” “Hell no,
take him!” The child, meanwhile, insisted he’d be just fine on his own, and Keller got the feeling they’d had this argument before. It ended with Tom Cruise’s stunt double, insisting on his statutory right to drive drunk or sober, getting into his van and pulling out. Keller braced himself, expecting to hear brakes squeal or worse, but heard neither.