Read The Knowland Retribution Online

Authors: Richard Greener

Tags: #mystery, #fiction, #kit, #frazier, #midnight, #ink, #locator, #bones, #spinoff

The Knowland Retribution (27 page)

Michael said, “Sure,” and stood back from the door. Walter entered and Michael followed. “Over there.” The blinds were up. Sunlight streamed in. The air inside was clear and bright. Walter took in a spacious, plank-floor room, a tattered, brown fold-out couch, a bleached wooden table and two wooden chairs, a propane lamp on the table, and a fireplace in the corner, with scrub wood stacked beside it. Everything looked tidy and taken care of. He peered into a much smaller room, bedroll standing upright in one corner, thrift-shop bureau against the far wall, no pictures in either room. The place had electricity, but no sign of anything plugged in. Walter surveyed the narrow kitchen: propane stove, plate and cup in the sink, a few cans and boxes piled on the floor. “Where's all the food?” he wondered. A big man has to eat a lot. Probably in the boxes, he figured.

Then Walter spent his time in the john and threw its small window open before he left. No sign at all of a gun or of Leonard Martin. Michael sat on the fold-out couch, now in a heavy, red-plaid jacket, nodding to himself, the hint of smile indicating a happy thought, looking like a blind man to Walter because of the sunglasses and the way he moved his head. Walter said, “Where's your car? Don't you need a car out here?”

Pleased to produce an answer at last, the friendly voice said, “Leonard took my car. I got a Toyota last year. My sister has one, said it's a good car. Said he don't want the truck for a real long ride. That's how come I know he's coming back. He left his truck and said I can drive it. Honest, he did. I'm allowed.” They walked around back and both of them looked at the SUV. Michael studied Walter's face. Anxiously? For signs of disapproval?

“It don't drive as good as the car. But you should get a four-wheel truck if you're gonna drive around here.”

“Maybe I will. Thanks again.” They walked to the front, and Walter said, “I know Leonard's got some problems with his health. How's he feeling lately?”

“I don't know. He's awful fat. Fattest man I ever seen. Huffing and puffing. Huffing and puffing.” Michael's grin became a full-throated laugh; he had all his teeth.

They shook hands in front of the house. The wind whipped. Michael, wearing a floppy felt cowboy hat to keep his head warm, still shivered, and said, “So long.” Walter turned after Michael did. Walking back to the car, he put the chances that Leonard might call at maybe a thousand to one. Still, there was nothing to lose. Walter thought about Michael DelGrazo, middle-aged yet hard as a rock. Walter too needed to get in shape, lose some weight. Perhaps he would get a workout tape. Walter pictured himself on a chinning bar looking out at the sea as his muscles hardened; saw the look on Ike's friendly face when he walked into Billy's sporting an eighteen-year-old's abs. Driving away, he smiled at his own daydreams.

Walter had seen her paintings in books, and the Georgia O'Keeffe museum was within easy walking distance. After a bite at the Inn he went for a look. Distractions often helped when hunches were on the bubble, and plans needed thought. Someone had told him her work was symbolic; the flowers weren't just flowers. He spent an hour among them, looking for the symbols. Someone also said a cigar is just a cigar. Walter could never remember who. He'd always wondered why that needed saying. A flower, he now suspected, might also be just a flower.

Now that he had a reliable fix on Leonard, Walter considered how to play it. He had options. He'd go back and wait until Leonard showed up. Tonight or tomorrow morning. Did it really make a difference? He felt sure it did not. He'd already reconnoitered, gotten a feel for the property, found places where he'd park, sufficiently off the road to avoid detection, but close enough to see Leonard coming. “Or maybe,” he thought, “what is the downside of getting an all-day, all-night flat, blocking the road, striking up a friendly chat with whomever happened by?” How did he know that Leonard would use the road? He'd left his truck behind, so it was likely. Was likely good enough? If not, Walter could go back to the cabin and talk to Michael again. He might learn more. That might be the easiest way. Downside of that? Still not entirely clear. In any case, the situation looked good, almost as good as he'd hoped. A couple of words with Leonard, a phone call back to Tom. Job done. Walter gone. Everyone happy. Or not. The only thing off was the feeling he couldn't completely shake, that very small grain of sand. The same feeling he had on the dock on St. John after reading Isobel's story.

Despite bitter cold, the sheltered Plaza sidewalks were crowded with blankets covered by silver and turquoise bracelets, necklaces, rings. Heavy Indian women sat together fighting the cold with coffee or something stronger. Walter wanted a gift for Isobel. The old woman in front of him brewed tea on a hot plate, an outlet set in the wall behind her. She had brilliant black eyes and a smooth, cheerful manner. She did not move easily, though; he figured she might have arthritis. She gave him a bluish stone attached to a silver chain. Walter held the stone in his fingers and raised it to the sunlight. As he moved it, the pendant seemed to change color and even shift its shape.

“It's a stone for love,” the woman said, leaning slightly over her tea.

“Very nice,” Walter said.

She winked suggestively. “It changes in your hand. It changes because of the sun and the warmth of your hand. It's a good romantic gift for the lady. She will like it very much. Two hundred forty dollars.”

“I'll take it,” he said, thinking maybe tomorrow he'd drive back to Leonard's place one more time.

Clarksville

He rejected seeing the
slow-witted handyman Michael DelGrazo a second time, and, in the clear light of a New Mexico morning, realized that waiting for Leonard's return was useless. Instead, he decided to go where he knew Carter Lawrence had been, and where, he was almost positive, Leonard Martin had been too. Somewhere they might have been seen by somebody. Walter flew to Atlanta again, this time changing planes and continuing on to Nashville. From Nashville, the drive to Clarksville, Tennessee would be about an hour. Before he left St. John, he checked some of the credit card records for Nicholas Stevenson and Harvey Daniels. He knew they were the ones Carter had met in Tennessee—it had to be them—but he wanted to be certain. Preparation was always the key element in solving a puzzle. There were times when Walter had to act quickly without it, but this was not one of them. “Two plus two is always four,” he told himself. No matter the certainty of the math, he knew it was always best to check your work. He set about that task. He knew exactly what he was looking for, and it took little time to find it. Both men had flown to Nashville on the same day Carter Lawrence drove to Clarksville. In Nashville, Nick Stevenson rented a car that he returned the next day with 117 miles on it. On the map, Clarksville was about fifty-five miles from Nashville. He found no hotel charges and he knew why. He smiled at their amateurism. They had paid cash for their rooms, thinking they would go unidentified. It might have worked if they hadn't rented the car. The airline tickets were fine, absolutely normal. “After all,” Walter thought, “two lawyers from Atlanta traveling to Nashville for the day—happens all the time.” The car gave them away. It is possible to rent a car for cash, but it's not easy. It's also possible to use your credit card to actually get the car and then pay cash when you return it. Thus, no record. But, of course, Walter knew you'd have to be experienced in the ways of such secrecy to understand things like that. If people realized how simple and quick it is to read the story of anyone's life via their credit card activity, they'd pay cash for everything.

The Pakistani gentleman who registered Walter at the Holiday Inn in Clarksville told him the restaurant was open for dinner until ten o'clock. He'd been flying since early morning, and the drive from Nashville was so dull he almost fell asleep at the wheel. A nap was what he needed. He awoke around seven, washed his face, changed his shirt, and strolled toward the restaurant. The dining room was half filled. Syrupy recorded music, heavy on the strings, played too loudly. Walter found a table next to the window as far from the smokers as he could. A young Korean girl brought him a menu. For a moment Walter wondered how an Indian or Pakistani ends up a hotel clerk in a place like this, and how a Korean woman gets to be a waitress in a Holiday Inn in rural Tennessee. Then he remembered that Clarksville was an Army town. Fort Campbell, Kentucky was just up the road. In his sleepiness he must have missed the billboards. There are probably wives around here from every place on earth graced with the presence of U.S. troops in the last half century. He assumed this girl was married to a soldier in the 101st. When she brought him his Diet Coke, he asked, “Do you always work the dinner shift?” The Korean girl didn't know what to make of this question. Walter saw her reticence and added quickly, “Have you seen this man?” He showed her a photo of Carter Lawrence.

“No,” the girl said.

“You've never seen him before?”

“No. I am just filling in tonight. I don't usually work this late.”

“Oh, I see,” Walter said. “Thank you. Is there anyone else here who does who might have seen him?”

“I don't know. You can ask someone else. Maybe Melissa. I can ask her to come over.”

“Please do. Thanks.” Walter ordered a chef salad and some french fries. Maybe a gut as hard as a rock wasn't completely out of the question. When his waitress had taken the order, she walked over to where another waitress stood, killing time, hoping for a larger crowd later in the evening. Walter saw the Korean woman point to him as she said something to the other woman, who then looked in his direction too. Then the other waitress, a chunky, middle-aged white woman, walked over to his table. The little plastic pin above her right breast read “Debra Melissa.”

“Thanks, Melissa. Thanks for coming over.”

“You looking for somebody?” she asked, keeping her distance.

“No. Not exactly. But I am looking for someone who might have seen this man.” Walter showed her the photograph of Carter Lawrence.

“You a cop?” she asked, then answered her own question. “You're no cop.”

Her eyes gave her away, and Walter saw it. Of course he saw it. He'd seen that same expression many times before in many places. She recognized the picture. “Of course I'm not a cop,” he said. “You've seen this man, haven't you? You served him, right?” She said nothing. It appeared she was mulling it over, trying to decide if she ought to reveal anything to this stranger. “Where the hell is he from?” he imagined her asking herself. He was exactly correct. She was thinking, “Nobody comes in here with a tan like that just before Christmas.” She remained silent.

“Look,” said Walter, taking a hundred dollar bill and laying it down on the table, putting its edge just under his Diet Coke. “I just want to know if you saw him last month sometime.” Melissa looked at the hundred; a sight she saw not often enough to please her. She looked again at the photo. It was the skinny one, the one with the long wrists and geeky neck, the young one who sat next to the cowboy.

“What if I have?”

“I take that as a ‘yes.' The hundred is yours, if I'm right.”

As she reached to take the money off the table, Walter's hand fell on top of it. “And did he have dinner with this man?” He showed her a photo of Leonard Martin, the one printed on the front page of the
New York Times.
The woman was startled. She hesitated momentarily, then said, “I've never seen him before.” She put her finger on the picture of Leonard Martin.

“You're sure?” Walter said.

“Yeah, I'm sure. The younger one, the skinny one, was here. He was here.” Poor Melissa was worried she wouldn't get the money.

“He had dinner with someone, didn't he?”

“Yes, he did, but not this one.” Again she pointed to Leonard. “He and three other men. They ate right over there. Stayed until after we closed. I remember them. They had a lot of papers and things. Talked a lot, ate a little. This one,” she tapped Carter's photo with her index finger, “but not this one.”

“What about these two? Walter laid pictures of Nicholas Stevenson and Harvey Daniels on the table. All four photos were lined up in a row, facing Melissa. Walter removed his hand from the hundred and motioned for her to take it. She did. She recognized the silver-haired gentleman who'd left her the extra tip and the nervous one who sat next to him.

“Both of them. They were here with the first one.”

“The three of them? Did you get any names?”

“No,” she said. “There was another man who came later.”

“The younger one paid, right?”

“How'd you know that?”

“Just a guess.”

“You know,” she said, “I'll never forget when they left. Hugged each other like there was no tomorrow. It was weird, like a movie.”

“I know,” Walter said. “I'm sure they did. Thank you, Melissa. You've been very helpful.”

“Why are you looking for these guys?”

“Just routine. Our company checks the expense accounts of people who travel for us on a regular basis. I'm just confirming they were here, that's all.”

“Bullshit,” she thought. No one checks expense accounts like this, not with hundred dollar bills and photographs. And for damn sure not with any guy as tan as this one.

“One more thing,” he said. “Who was the fourth man? What can you tell me about him?”

Melissa said, “You mean the cowboy?”

“Cowboy? What did he look like?”

“Well, he wasn't a real cowboy, you know. It's just he didn't wear a suit like the others, and he had on a hat, a floppy kind of cowboy hat, you know? Tall, thin, good-looking man. Short hair, sort of salt-and-pepper beard. Good-looking man. Forties, I'd say. That's all, but he sure wasn't this guy.” This time she tapped the photo from the
New York Times
again. “He wasn't here.”

A chill gripped Walter's gut and moved like electric current outward. It made him lightheaded, nauseated.
Respect the obvious
. He hadn't looked, hadn't seen, and now it was too late. The missing piece crashed into place and a second wave of nausea rose. He should have known all along. Instead he'd been blind as a bat. The Indian woman's pendant had shown him the mysteries of altered shapes and he missed it. Was he was losing it? Had he lost it already? His eyesight wasn't what it had been, nor was the hair on his head. And whatever Isobel told him, neither were his hydraulics. Henry Broomfield's punchline roared, an angry, reproachful, soundless voice, an unforgiving scold.
They all got sisters
.

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