Authors: Max Allan Collins
Max Allan Collins
MOURN THE LIVING
Perfect Crime Books
SPREE. Copyright © 1987, 2012 by Max Allan Collins. Introduction © 2012 by Max Allan Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored by any means without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Dominick Abel Literary Agency Inc., 146 West 82
Street 1A, New York, NY 10024.
Perfect Crime Books
is a registered Trademark.
Cover by Christopher Mills.
This book is a work of fiction. The characters and institutions are products of the Author’s imagination and do not refer to actual persons or institutions.
Perfect Crime Books Trade Paperback Edition
Kindle Edition July 2012
To Bob Randisi—
for wanting this book to happen
The author wishes to thank Captain Tom Brendel, Chuck Bunn, Mike Lange and Ric Steed for research assistance; and editor Michael Seidman for a suggestion that proved crucial to this narrative. Thanks also to Ed Gorman and Barb Collins for convincing me to pay attention to Michael Seidman’s suggestion.
The author also wishes to acknowledge certain nonfiction source material:
Crime as Work
(1973), by Peter Letkemann;
(1975), by Thomas Plate; and
Game of Thieves
(1981), by Robert R. Rosberg.
SPREE IS THE LONGEST
, and to date the last, of my Nolan novels. Many readers consider it the best of the series, and I wouldn’t disagree.
The idea was to do a book on a larger scale than the 60,000-word fast-and-lean paperbacks of the previous entries. I’d written the first several Nathan Heller novels at this point, and those were fairly massive books–not long after
, I would write the Heller novel
, which would be the longest private eye novel ever written.
In addition, Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, had written
(1974), a longer-form novel about his thief Parker than he’d ever before attempted. It turned to be the final novel in the series, at least for a while, but its larger landscape was inspiring. After all, the Parker novels had been one of the two major influences on Nolan (the other being the Sand novels by Ennis Willie).
The Heller novels, added to my high-profile scripting of the
comic strip, had suddenly given me some leverage in the mystery writing field. This proved to be a passing fancy, but I took full advantage, and thanks to Nate Heller, I was able to return to two characters of my early career, characters whose development had been stunted by, frankly, having their series cancelled. That led to my writing
in its current Perfect Crime incarnation) and bringing my hitman Quarry back to nasty life. And it led to my resurrecting Nolan and Jon for one more caper.
There was talk at the time of relaunching Nolan as a series. The editor at TOR had made an offer on the early books and we were discussing a new contract. TOR had been doing the mass-market paperbacks of the Heller novels, so it was all in the family. Then TOR got out-bid for the next Heller reprint by Bantam Books, and things got chilly. No more Nolan novels, at least not at TOR. (Ironically, TOR is currently where the Heller novels are being published.)
All of that talk, however, had followed my submission of the novel. When I wrote
, I did so with the full expectation that it would indeed be the final Nolan. Because of this, I wanted to leave him in a place where we might be able to imagine how the rest of his life might play out. And also, I wanted to give him one last score, one really major caper, to cap off his career.
Most of the Nolan novels are at least in part caper novels. They are not, however, what I would call classic caper yarns in the tradition of
The Killing, Rififi
, where the caper itself is a high-concept outlandish affair. Nolan’s capers were down-and-dirty–robbing a small-town bank, looting a hillbilly hideout. I wanted him to go out in style.
In the mid-’80s, shopping malls were a very big, successful deal. And the notion of heisting an entire shopping mall was a very appealing one, for Nolan’s final caper. I went out to my local, then-flourishing mall in Muscatine, Iowa, and was surprised by how easily I got the security guys to show me around and explain all their systems and tricks. I remember coming home and saying to Barb, “Maybe I should scrap the novel and just heist the fucking place.”
Well, what the hell–I wrote the novel. I think it came out rather well, and this is probably the best rendition of the Comfort family yet. I can’t tell you the pleasure it gave me writing the phrase, “Cole Comfort’s farm.” The small pleasures.
The novel was optioned for the movies a number of times, and I wrote a screenplay, one of my best I believe, but it hasn’t been produced yet. We’ve tried to do it ourselves here in Iowa, but it just hasn’t happened. Again, easier to just rob the damn mall. But if you happen to be a movie producer and enjoy what follows, give me a call.
Got a hell of a script for you.
Max Allan Collins
was wary of the Comforts, certainly, but dying violently never crossed her mind. She’d dated Lyle, after all. Well, “dated” wasn’t the word, really. She’d slept with him a few times. Sex with Lyle was energetic and fun, like your average aerobics workout. Unfortunately, conversation with Lyle was equally aerobic.
Before she drove out to the Comforts’ on this cool October evening, she got her little silver Mazda gassed up and washed. The car wasn’t quite dry, and beads of water glistened on the hood in the moonlight as she pulled off the main drag onto an asphalt road, perhaps twenty miles outside Jefferson City, Missouri. She was a petite pretty brunette of twenty-seven years, watching the moon on the hood of her car, a car the Comforts had helped buy.
It had been a shock when Lyle first suggested she meet his “pa.” Christ, it had been a shock to hear anybody in this day and age refer to their father as “Pa,” particularly without a trace of irony. It had similarly been a shock to see Lyle’s brow furrowing in something akin to thought, that thought manifesting itself in this suggestion that she meet his “pa.”
And Pa had been a shock, too. A tall, leathery farmer in coveralls and a plaid shirt with a shock (another shock!) of white hair and pale blue eyes with laugh crinkles. He had a pretty smile, Pa did, the only resemblance between him and Lyle, other than their basic lanky frame. Brown-eyed Lyle, whom she’d met in a trendy little singles bar, looked like a fashion page out of
, he wore a creamy Miami Vice silk sport coat over a grayish-blue T-shirt, gray jeans, Italian shoes with no socks, a tanning spa tan, and a twenty- five-dollar haircut, when Jefferson City remained a six-dollar-haircut town. It was all so right for the fashion moment that it was a little wrong, but he had a great smile and curly brown hair and a fantastic bod and no sores on his lip. And so to bed.
Only Lyle also had a farmer drawl and a remedial reading vocabulary and a certain vacancy behind his eyes, all of which took a while to catch on to, because he was the strong silent type, the sort of brooder you assume is hiding deep thoughts behind all those pregnant pauses, when in fact those pregnant pauses prove never to give birth to anything at all, and within that pretty cranium there was, Angie had no doubt, a low and constant hum.
She had tried, on their third night together—each previous night being a month or so apart, no steady thing developing between them, just her own occasional need for some really terrific sex in the midst of her thus far fruitless search to find a better husband than the first one—to make some human connection with Lyle. She’d told him about her father’s store.
“It’s really pitiful,” she said, smoking nervously, sitting up in bed, pillow at her back, sheet pulled up but barely covering her small, pert breasts. At least she liked to think of them as pert. “Dad had this great little place, little hole-in-the-wall, where he sold nothing but meat.”
“Meat,” Lyle said, nodding. Lyle didn’t smoke.
“He’s a terrific butcher, Dad is, but a lousy businessman. When he had that hole-in-the-wall, strictly a butcher shop, with choice cuts and all, he was doing fine. Mom was keeping the books. It was great. Then he got ambitious.”
“Meat,” Lyle said.
“He thought he could do better in a bigger store—you know, a small supermarket. He thought people would come in for the great meat and buy their other food as well, save a trip, even if our prices were a little more expensive than the big discount supermarkets. Going in he knew that—knew he couldn’t compete with the prices that the big boys were able to give, because of, you know, volume.”
“Volume?” Lyle said. He narrowed his eyes, apparently wondering what noise levels had to do with the grocery business.
“Anyway, Dad’s dying with that white elephant . . .”
Lyle touched her arm. “I’m sorry,” he said. It was clear he had taken the word “dying” literally, and that “white elephant” was some rare disease.
“No, I just mean he’s losing his shirt,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t take that literally, too. “Our savings are gone, Mom’s too sick to work, he’s mortgaged up the wazoo. And there I am, with my business degree, stuck in the middle of a family business that can barely afford to pay me half of what I could get elsewhere.” She sighed. “But, what the hell. You got to be loyal to your family, right?”
“Right,” Lyle said, nodding again.
“So I’m keeping the books. Working in the store—sometimes behind one of the registers, which is demeaning, let me tell you. I’m glad my little boy can’t see me.”
“You have a boy?”
“Yeah, he lives with my ex. Steve’s remarried and I’m a lousy mother. I don’t think I ever want another. I mean, I love my son, but kids do get in the way.”
“Kids,” Lyle said, smiling, nodding.
“How old are you, Lyle?”
“Where do you work?”
“Like you. Family business.”
“Yeah, I know—you’ve said that a couple of times. But what do you do exactly?”
And that was when Lyle’s brow had furrowed suddenly, shockingly, in apparent thought.
“You keep the books?” he said.
“Yes . . .”
“At a grocery store?”
“Yeah, that’s right. So what?”
“You should talk to Pa.”
Pa, as it turned out, was Coleman Comfort, but, as he’d said, pale blue eyes twinkling like a slightly demented Walter Brennan, “My kith and kin all call me Cole.”
Cole Comfort’s farm, where all of their meetings had been held over the past year and a half, was off a back gravel road, on a cinder path. The two-story farmhouse seemed ramshackle somehow, despite being freshly aluminum-sided. Maybe it was the weedily overgrown yard, in which the remnants of various vehicles rusted in the process of becoming one with the universe, or the dense looming woods behind the house, where owls’ eyes and nameless critter howls seemed to invite you in but not out. Or maybe the sagging barn and decaying silo, which created suspicion as to what the house itself was like under its aluminum face-lift. Whatever the case, the Comfort place was hardly comforting and no place Angie wanted to visit.
And yet she had, once a month, for many months.
That first time, even though she had long since full well realized how thick Lyle was, the sight of the farm (and there was farmland adjacent, it just wasn’t worked by the Comforts) had made her suck in a quick breath of disbelief. “There’s money in it,” Lyle had said, “big money.” But how could there be big money here, in this Dogpatch dump? This looked like food stamp territory.
“Food stamps,” Cole Comfort had said, pouring her some Old Grand-Dad, straight up, in a fast-food restaurant giveaway glass with the Road Runner on it. They sat in the living room, where reigned a giant-screen TV on which, at the moment, Billy Joel’s face was the size of a card table. The pores in his nose were like poker chips.
Lyle was watching MTV. Cole, it seemed, hated MTV, so Lyle was listening through headphones. Giant images of singers silently shouting, dancers moving to invisible beats, were an oppressive flickering presence. Other images fought MTV for attention: six, count them, six black velvet paintings of John Wayne, paintings of various sizes but all in rough rustic frames with Wayne in western regalia, beat out the mere three jumpsuited Elvis Presleys, all of them riding walls paneled in a dark brown photographic wood grain. Against one wall, with snakes of cable crawling out of it toward the big-screen TV, was an open cabinet on wheels, in which stacks of stereo and video equipment perched, red lights dancing and sound meter needles wiggling. The furniture, all of it expensive, varied in style—from Early American to modern—but the chairs and several couches were consistent in one thing: they were covered with clear vinyl. The carpet was a green shag, like grass from outer space.
She drank the glass of Old Grand-Dad like it was soda pop and Cole grinned his pretty white grin and poured her some more.
“F-food stamps?” she managed to ask.
“Food stamps. You work in a grocery store. A little mom-and-pop affair, like in the good old days. None of this corporate horseshit.”
“Actually McFee’s is a fairly big store,” she said. “But, yes, it’s not affiliated with any major chain. That’s the problem. They can undersell us.”
“Volume,” Cole nodded. “I stopped in the place—your daddy has a right fine meat counter.”
She couldn’t quite tell if the phrase “right fine” was an affectation or if this guy really was the hick of all hicks. Despite the tacky decor around him, Cole Comfort did not seem stupid, or even naive. Maybe bad taste and stupidity didn’t necessarily go hand in hand.
“The meat is what brings in what customers we do have,” she told him. “Daddy should never have expanded.”
Cole nodded, sagely this time; lines of experience pulled at the corners of his mouth. “It’s the bane of American business. Expansion. Nobody’s satisfied with a small success. They gotta expand till they go bust.”
Bane of American business? Where was this guy coming from?
“We’re in a position to help you, little lady,” Cole said.
Little lady yet.
“We deal in food stamps, my family does. Lyle and Cindy Lou and me.”
She had not yet met Cindy Lou, but already an image was forming somewhere between Daisy Mae and Lolita.
“What do you mean, exactly? Your family deals in food stamps?”
“The black market, girl. Wise up. Black market food stamps. We stay strict away from counterfeit.” He waved his hands like an umpire saying, OUT! “The real thing or nothin’ at all.”
“Well . . . uh, where do you get them?”
“How we get them ain’t your concern.”
“I don’t exactly understand what
my concern in all this . . .” Perhaps she shouldn’t have gulped that Old Grand-Dad.
“You’re the perfect conduit, the very conduit we been lookin’ for.”
Against her better judgment, she drank again from the Road Runner glass. Just a sip this time. To arm her against a man who said both “ain’t” and “conduit.”
“You can buy them from us at a thirty percent discount,” he said. “Seventy cents on the dollar.”
Now she got it. “And when I send them in . . .”
“The government gives you a dollar. That’s thirty cents you clear, each. And you don’t pay us till you get yours.”
She knew that wasn’t as small potatoes as it at first sounded; even with their limited business, their higher prices, McFee’s had several hundred dollars a month come in, in food stamps. Other stores their size—stores with chain-style discount prices—would do a land-office business in food stamps; at least ten times what her father’s store did.
Cole was patting her arm. “You could help your pa. He wouldn’t even have to know. You could feather your own nest, too. The governmental never suspect a thing. We’ll help you figger what you can get away with, a store your size.”
“I wouldn’t be your only . . . conduit, then?”
“No,” Comfort said, his smile cracking his leathery face, “we got one or two others. But a good conduit is hard to find.”
Sew that on a sampler.
“Where do you get the stamps, anyway?”