Authors: Robert B. Parker
"This time I wish I could be more help," she said. "Have you made any progress on the other thing?"
"No ma'am," I said.
"I wish you'd give it up," she said. "No good will come."
"Well," I said, "maybe I can improvise there, too."
I stopped at a small roadside store called the Quabbin Sub Base and bought two submarine sandwiches, one turkey, one veggie, and each sliced in half before they wrapped it. I stopped at the Wheaton Liquor Store and bought a bottle of Chianti Classico. Everywhere I'd been since Monday a Wheaton police car had shown up and parked and a Wheaton cop had looked at me. Nobody had rousted me since Henry and J.D., but they kept an eye on me and let me know it. When I came out of the Wheaton Liquor Store I didn't see a cruiser. TGIF. Except cops don't quit for the week at five o'clock Fridays. I got into my car and pulled out onto Route 9 heading west toward my motel. No cruiser in sight. I felt like one of those cavalry troopers in western movies who says, "It's quiet," and his buddy says, "Yeah, too quiet." A small blue Chevy pickup appeared in my rearview mirror. At a stretch of road where passing was possible, I slowed. The Chevy slowed behind me. Okay. I picked up speed. So did the truck. Ahead of me a late-model Ford sedan, maroon with a beige vinyl top, pulled out of a side road and preceded me in the same direction. I took the Colt Python out from under my left arm and put it beside me on the seat. The three cars went in procession up a hill around which the road slowly rose, and then down into the valley. On each side the woods came down to the road shoulder, new woods, second-growth forest maybe fifty years old, bare-limbed in winter with dirty snow in harsh patches among the trees. We went left around another curve and began to climb up the next hill, the road curving in the opposite direction so that from the air it must have looked S-shaped as it went over the two hills. There was no other traffic on the road. Near the crest of the next hill the road made a sharp bend back right again and as we rounded it there was a green Ford van broken down in the oncoming lane. The hood was up and a guy in a red plaid mackinaw was leaning in under it. The sedan in front of me slowed to a stop beside it and I stopped behind the sedan. The pickup behind me slowed and then turned at right angles to the road so that one lane and most of the next was blocked behind me. It was late afternoon in December and already dark enough for headlights. With the cars parked in various directions the lights crisscrossed eerily in the woods and on the otherwise empty road. The guy under the hood straightened and in my headlights I could see he was wearing a ski mask. A guy got out of the truck behind me wearing a ski mask, and two men got out of the sedan in ski masks. All of them had baseball bats, except the guy with the brokendown van who had what looked like an ax handle.
I stepped out of my car holding the Python down next to my leg. Nobody said anything. I waited. The woods were dead quiet. No birds, no gentle breezes sighing through leaves. The only sounds were of the motors idling and my heart thudding loudly in my chest. I walked around my car and stood near the passenger's side, next to the edge of the road. The three men fanned out in front of me and began to walk toward me. The guy behind me stayed where he was, holding the baseball bat on his right shoulder, his hands low on the grip handle. I noticed he choked up about an inch.
"You going to learn that you don't belong here, pal," the guy in the red plaid mackinaw said. "You been told but you're going to have to learn it the hard way."
The three of them were quite close now. The ski masks were colorfully woven, crisscrossed with jagged stripes of red and yellow yarn. Positively festive. The guy in the red plaid reached the front of my car.
"How much of this is negotiable," I said.
"Negotiable." He laughed. "Fucking negotiable. You can negotiate with the hospital, pal."
He swung the baseball bat against the front end of my car and smashed the headlight on the driver's side.
"You want my car to leave town too?" I said. He smashed the other headlight. The road was darker, but still bright with the headlights of the other cars. They made each of the batsmen cast long surrealist shadows. I took a slow deep breath and cocked the revolver and brought the big Colt up carefully and aimed and gently pressed the trigger with the ball of my index finger and shot the guy in the mackinaw in the left thigh above the knee where it might just be a flesh wound and if it broke the bone it could heal with less complication. The heavy-duty Magnum slug spun him when it hit and, sprawled him on his right side in the roadway. The gunshot was thunderous in the silence. Then the baseball bat made a loud clatter when it hit the asphalt and then made a smaller clatter as it rolled on down the hill until it rolled off the road into the brush.
The guy in the mackinaw said, "Jesus Christ, he shot me." The other three froze for a moment and in two running steps I was into the woods and out of the light.
The guy in the mackinaw kept saying, "Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ."
It was probably fear more than pain. He'd be in shock now and the pain wouldn't be much yet.
The other three men gathered around him, which was dumb. They made a nice grouping and I could have picked them all off without reloading.
One of them, a large fat man in a blue pea coat, said, "What are we supposed to do." It was hard to tell who he was talking to.
I stood behind a tree about five yards from them, in the darkness.
"Put a pressure bandage on the wound," I said. "And get him to a hospital."
The fat guy turned toward the sound of my voice.
"You shot him, you bastard," he said.
"And if you don't get him out of here I'm going to shoot you," I said.
"You bastard," the fat guy said.
The guy from the pickup knelt down beside the red mackinaw.
"You okay," he said.
Red Mackinaw said, "Jesus Christ." Maybe he was praying.
From the woods I said, "Take a handkerchief or a piece of cloth or scarf, whatever, and make a pad and put it over the wound and take a belt and tighten it over the pad and put him in the car and get him to the hospital," I said, "or he'll bleed to death."
They picked him up and hustled him toward the car. They put him in the back and one of them got in with him. The guy from the pickup came past my car, skirting carefully past my spot in the woods. He got in his truck and pulled forward next to my car. The truck paused for a minute, then he threw something against my car. Glass broke and fire flared. He put the truck in gear and the wheels pulling away. The sedan went too and I stood alone in the woods and watched my car burn.
It was maybe a two-mile walk to the Reservoir Court, which took me a little less than half an hour. When I got there, Susan was sitting in the lobby with her feet on her suitcase.
She said, "They wouldn't let me into the room because I wasn't registered."
"Can't be too careful," I said. "Once you got in there you might have undressed."
"I think they were fearful of that," she said.
She was wearing a brilliant yellow coat of some glossy material that looked like a $700 slicker. Underneath was a suede suit the color of a green apple. She smelled of perfume and lipstick and her large dark eyes were full of knowledge and excitement. I'd never met anyone like her, and I didn't expect to.
I picked up her suitcase and took her hand. "Stay close to me, little lady," I said. "I'll get you through."
The desk clerk looked stiffly past me as Susan and I went to the stairs and up to my room. I unlocked the door, and went in ahead of Susan. The room was quiet and empty. I turned on the overhead. Susan came in and closed the door behind her. She looked at me in a way that made me know she'd seen me go first. She glanced around the room.
"Isn't this an ugly hotel room," she said.
"It's got a bathroom. It's clean. Don't be so demanding,"
"If I were demanding would I be weekending in Wheaton, Mass.?" she said. She took her coat off and dropped it across the back of a chair and opened her suitcase and began to hang up her clothes.
When she travels, Susan packs for all eventualities. An intimate dinner at the White House; a barbecue at the King Ranch; cocktails with Halston; white-water rafting. She had all of them covered. Not only outfits for all possibilities but full accessories, panty hose, shoes, lingerie, jewelry, hats, coats, gloves, belts. Her suitcase was like the clown car at the circus that keeps degorging occupants far beyond any possible capacity it might have.
While she unpacked she was entirely involved in it, fully taken with the task as she was with all tasks. It was one of her attributes as a psychotherapist, her capacity for laserlike concentration. She brought the concentration to everything she did.
"Isn't it a sign of something," I said, "when everything is equally important?"
"Anal compulsive," Susan said without looking up. She was carefully refolding a blouse around some tissue before she put it in the drawer.
I sat on the bed and watched her. I loved to watch her. I loved to watch the bend of-her arm, the attitude of her head as she paused to consider something. I loved the way she looked with everything exactly right. Her clothes fit just right, her makeup was flawless, her thick dark hair fell against her neck the way hair is supposed to fall. I loved the way her calf tapered to her ankle. I loved the way she chewed slightly on her lower lip as she decided which blouse to put on top. Watching her was timeless. Sound seemed to stop. Light seemed clearer.
Then she was finished.
"Now," she said, "do we have a plan?"
"We were going to stay in and have a gourmet Italian dinner," I.said. "But it got burned up,"
"You were cooking?"
"No, it was in my car and a fat guy in a pickup truck set it on fire."
"Yeah, he didn't know the gourmet Italian dinner was in it, though."
Susan looked at me for a moment. "I expect you'll tell me all about it in a while," she said.
"Yes, but meantime I think we're faced with the Reservoir Hunt Room for dinner."
She bit her lower lip gently. "Okay," she said, "here's what I want to do. I'll go in and take a bath and come out and seduce you. Then we can go to dinner refreshed and face the cuisine together."
"That seems sensible," I said.
Then she smiled at me and leaned forward. "I love you very much," she said, and kissed me and went into the bathroom. I put my gun on the bedside table and took my shoulder holster off and hung it on a chair and then I lay on the bed with my hands behind my head. In fifteen minutes Susan appeared from the bathroom naked holding a thin bath towel in front of her.
She said "Ta da," and dropped the bath towel, and seduced me. Easily.
It was after nine o'clock when we got down to the Hunt Room. Virgie was behind the bar with another bartender, a grayish man with horn-rimmed glasses and a red face. The bar was crowded and most of the tables were taken in the dining room, but there was one open near the back by the front window with a sweeping view of the driveway leading up to the front door.
When we were seated, the waitress showed up and took our order for drinks. I ordered beer, Susan asked for a vodka martini on the rocks with four olives in it.
The room was loud, people were drinking bourbon and eating roast beef and the surf and turf special at a boisterous pace. We looked at our menus. The waitress returned with our drinks.
Susan ordered a salad with house dressing and, when I had my entree, a shrimp cocktail. "That's all," the waitress said.
"Yes," Susan said. She smiled at the waitress.
I ordered the chicken potpie and another beer. The waitress looked at the full bottle on the table.
"I know," I said. "But by the time you come back I'll be finished with it."
"You want wine with your dinner?" the waitress said.
"No, thank you," I said. I'd checked the wines listed on the back of the menu. They ran to Andre and Cribari.
Susan said, "I ate in a restaurant once, out near Sterling, and a man I was with ordered red wine with his meal and the waitress brought him a glass of port."
"I thought it best not to challenge the cellars," I said.
Susan sipped the martini. There were four olives in it, stuffed with pimento. "Don't see that often," Susan said.
"I know a place where they serve a slice of salami as a garnish on your beer glass."
She smiled and put her hand out on the table. I covered it with mine.
"Tell me about the gourmet Italian meal we would have had," she said.
"A turkey sub," I said, "and a veggie sub, everything but onions."
"And a bottle of Chianti."
"Paper cups?" Susan said.
"I was going to give you the bathroom glass at the motel and drink mine from the bottle."
"Of course," Susan said. "How did it come to go up in flames?"
"Some folks waylaid me on the road out to the motel. They implied I wasn't wanted around here."
"Un huh?" Susan said. She drank a bit more of her martini. I emptied my beer glass. There was none left in the bottle either. Luckily the waitress showed up with a new bottle.
"I'll need another one, soon," I said.
The waitress nodded and went away. Her name tag said her name was Gert.
"So then what happened," Susan said.
I told her. She listened with her full attention and the warmth of it was nearly visceral. "No one had a Hispanic accent," she said.
"No," I said.
"And no other cars came by, even though it was around five o'clock on a Friday night?"
"And no police car followed you," she said, "for the first time."
"That would point toward unsettling conclusions," Susan said.
"I know," I said. "Like maybe Wheaton's finest were involved."
"And maybe they had diverted traffic on that road for a little while," Susan said. "Was there a sudden traffic flow after they left?"