Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1 1
Billy Summers sits in the hotel lobby, waiting for his ride. It’s Friday noon. Although he’s reading a digest-sized comic book called Archie’s Pals ’n’ Gals, he’s thinking about Émile Zola, and Zola’s third novel, his breakthrough, Thérèse Raquin. He’s thinking it’s very much a young man’s book. He’s thinking that Zola was just beginning to mine what would turn out to be a deep and fabulous vein of ore. He’s thinking that Zola was—is—the nightmare version of Charles Dickens. He’s thinking that would make a good thesis for an essay. Not that he’s ever written one.
At two minutes past twelve the door opens and two men come into the lobby. One is tall with black hair combed in a 50s pompadour. The other is short and bespectacled. Both are wearing suits. All of Nick’s men wear suits. Billy knows the tall one from out west. He’s been with Nick a long time. His name is Frank Macintosh. Because of the pomp, some of Nick’s men call him Frankie Elvis, or—now that he has a tiny bald spot in back—Solar Elvis. But not to his face. Billy doesn’t know the other one. He must be local.
Macintosh holds out his hand. Billy rises and shakes it.
“Hey, Billy, been awhile. Good to see you.”
“Good to see you too, Frank.”
“This is Paulie Logan.”
“Hi, Paulie.” Billy shakes with the short one.
“Pleased to meet you, Billy.”
Macintosh takes the Archie digest from Billy’s hand. “Still reading the comics, I see.”
“Yeah,” Billy says. “Yeah. I like them quite a bit. The funny ones. Sometimes the superheroes but I don’t like them as much.”
Macintosh breezes through the pages and shows something to Paulie Logan. “Look at these chicks. Man, I could jack off to these.”
“Betty and Veronica,” Billy says, taking the comic back. “Veronica is Archie’s girlfriend and Betty wants to be.”
“You read books, too?” Logan asks.
“Some, if I’m going on a long trip. And magazines. But mostly comic books.”
“Good, good,” Logan says, and drops Macintosh a wink. Not very subtle, and Macintosh frowns, but Billy’s okay with it.
“You ready to take a ride?” Macintosh asks.
“Sure.” Billy tucks his digest into his back pocket. Archie and his bosomy gal pals. There’s an essay waiting to be written there, too. About the comfort of haircuts and attitudes that don’t change. About Riverdale, and how time stands still there.
“Then let’s go,” Macintosh says. “Nick’s waiting.”
Macintosh drives. Logan says he’ll sit in back because he’s short. Billy expects them to go west, because that’s where the fancy part of this town is, and Nick Majarian likes to live large whether home or away. And he doesn’t do hotels. But they go northeast instead.
Two miles from downtown they enter a neighborhood that looks lower middle-class to Billy. Three or four steps better than the trailer park he grew up in, but far from fancy. No big gated houses, not here. This is a neighborhood of ranch houses with lawn sprinklers twirling on small patches of grass. Most are one-story. Most are well maintained, but a few need paint and there’s crabgrass taking over some of the lawns. He sees one house with a piece of cardboard blocking a broken window. In front of another, a fat man in Bermuda shorts and a wifebeater sits in a lawn chair from Costco or Sam’s Club, drinking a beer and watching them go by. Times have been good in America for awhile now, but maybe that is going to change. Billy knows neighborhoods like this. They are a barometer, and this one has started to go down. The people who live here are working the kind of jobs where you punch a clock.
Macintosh pulls into the driveway of a two-story with a patchy lawn. It’s painted a subdued yellow. It’s okay, but doesn’t look like a place where Nick Majarian would choose to live, even for a few days. It looks like the kind of place a machinist or lower-echelon airport employee would live with his coupon-clipping wife and two kids, making mortgage payments every month and bowling in a beer league on Thursday nights.
Logan opens Billy’s door. Billy puts his Archie digest on the dashboard and gets out.
Macintosh leads the way up the porch steps. It’s hot outside but inside it’s air conditioned. Nick Majarian stands in the short hallway leading down to the kitchen. He’s wearing a suit that probably cost almost as much as a monthly mortgage payment on this house. His thinning hair is combed flat, no pompadour for him. His face is round and Vegas tanned. He’s heavyset, but when he pulls Billy into a hug, that protruding belly feels as hard as stone.
“Billy!” Nick exclaims, and kisses him on both cheeks. Big hearty smacks. He’s wearing a million-dollar grin. “Billy, Billy, man, it’s good to see you!”
“Good to see you, too, Nick.” He looks around. “You usually stay somewhere fancier than this.” He pauses. “If you don’t mind me saying.”
Nick laughs. He has a beautiful infectious laugh to go with the grin. Macintosh joins in and Logan smiles. “I got a place over on the West Side. Short-term. House-sitting, you could call it. There’s a fountain in the front yard. Got a naked little kid in the middle of it, there’s a word for that…”
Cherub, Billy thinks but doesn’t say. He just keeps smiling.
“Anyway, a little kid peeing water. You’ll see it, you’ll see it. No, this one isn’t mine, Billy. It’s yours. If you decide to take the job, that is.”
Nick shows him around. “Fully furnished,” he says, like he’s selling it. Maybe he sort of is.
This one has a second floor where there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms, the second small, probably for the kids. On the first floor there’s a kitchen, a living room, and a dining room that’s so small it’s actually a dining nook. Most of the cellar has been converted into a long carpeted room with a big TV at one end and a Ping-Pong table at the other. Track lighting. Nick calls it the rumpus room, and this is where they sit.
Macintosh asks them if they’d like something to drink. He says there’s soda, beer, lemonade, and iced tea.
“I want an Arnold Palmer,” Nick says. “Half and half. Lots of ice.”
Billy says that sounds good. They make small talk until the drinks come. The weather, how hot it is down here in the border south. Nick wants to know how Billy’s trip in was. Billy says it was fine but doesn’t say where he flew in from and Nick doesn’t ask. Nick says how about that fuckin Trump and Billy says how about him. That’s about all they’ve got, but it’s okay because by then Macintosh is back with two tall glasses on a tray, and once he leaves, Nick gets down to business.
“When I called your man Bucky, he tells me you’re hoping to retire.”
“I’m thinking about it. Been at it a long time. Too long.”
“Truth. How old are you, anyway?”
“Been doing this ever since you took off the uniform?”
“Pretty much.” He’s pretty sure Nick knows all this.
“How many in all?”
Billy shrugs. “I don’t exactly remember.” It’s seventeen. Eighteen, counting the first one, the man with the cast on his arm.
“Bucky says you might do one more if the price was right.”
He waits for Billy to ask. Billy doesn’t, so Nick resumes.
“The price on this one is very right. You could do it and spend the rest of your life someplace warm. Drinking piña coladas in a hammock.” He busts out the big grin again. “Two million. Five hundred thousand up front, the rest after.”
Billy’s whistle isn’t part of the act, which he doesn’t think of as an act but as his dumb self, the one he shows to guys like Nick and Frank and Paulie. It’s like a seatbelt. You don’t use it because you expect to be in a crash, but you never know who you might meet coming over a hill on your side of the road. This is also true on the road of life, where people veer all over the place and drive the wrong way on the turnpike.
“Why so much?” The most he’s ever gotten on a contract was seventy K. “It’s not a politician, is it? Because I don’t do that.”
“Not even close.”
“Is it a bad person?”
Nick laughs, shakes his head, and looks at Billy with real affection. “Always the same question with you.”
The dumb self might be a shuck, but this is true: he only does bad people. It’s how he sleeps at night. It goes without saying that he has made a living working for bad people, yes, but Billy doesn’t see this as a moral conundrum. He has no problem with bad people paying to have other bad people killed. He basically sees himself as a garbageman with a gun.
“This is a very bad person.”
“And it’s not my two mill. I’m just the middleman here, getting what you could call an agenting fee. Not a piece of yours, mine’s on the side.” Nick leans forward, hands clasped between his thighs. His expression is earnest. His eyes are fixed on Billy’s. “The target is a pro shooter, like you. Only this guy, he never asks if it’s a bad person or a good person. He doesn’t make those distinctions. If the money’s right, he does the job. For now we’ll call him Joe. Six years ago, or maybe it was seven, it don’t matter, this guy Joe took out a fifteen-year-old kid on his way to school. Was the kid a bad person? No. In fact he was an honor student. But someone wanted to send the kid’s dad a message. The kid was the message. Joe was the messenger.”
Billy wonders if the story is true. It might not be, it has a fairy tale fabulism to it, but it somehow feels true. “You want me to hit a hitter.” Like he’s getting it straight in his mind.
“Nailed it. Joe’s in a Los Angeles lockup now. Men’s Central. Charged with assault and attempted rape. The attempted rape thing, tell you what, if you’re not a Me Too chick, it’s sorta funny. He mistook this lady writer who was in LA for a conference, feminist lady writer, for a hooker. He propositioned her—a bit on the hard side, I’d guess—and she pepper-sprayed him. He popped her one in the teeth and dislocated her jaw. She probably sold another hundred thousand books out of that. Should have thanked him instead of charging him, don’t you think?”
Billy doesn’t reply.
“Come on, Billy, think about it. The man’s offed God knows how many guys, some of them very hard guys, and he gets pepper-sprayed by a dyke women’s libber? You gotta see the humor in that.”
Billy gives a token smile. “LA’s on the other side of the country.”
“That’s right, but he was here before he went there. I don’t know why he was here and don’t care, but I know he was looking for a poker game and someone told him where he could find one. Because see, our pal Joe fancies himself a high roller. Long story short, he lost a lot of money. When the big winner came out around five in the morning, Joe shot him in the gut and took back not just his money but all the money. Someone tried to stop him, probably another moke who was in the game, and Joe shot him, too.”
“He kill both of them?”
“Big winner died in the hospital, but not before he ID’d Joe. Guy who tried to intervene pulled through. He also ID’d Joe. You know what else?”
Billy shakes his head.
“Security footage. You see where this is going?”
Billy does, absolutely. “Not really.”
“California’s got him for assault. Which’ll stick. The attempted rape would probably get thrown out, it’s not like he dragged her into an alley or anything, in fact he fucking offered to pay her, so it’s just solicitation, DA won’t even bother about that. With time served, he might get ninety days in county. Debt paid. But here it’s murder, and they take that very serious on this side of the Mississippi.”
Billy knows it. In the red states they put stone killers out of their misery. He has no problem with that.
“And after looking at the security footage, the jury would almost certainly decide to give old Joey the needle. You see that, right?”
“He’s using his lawyer to fight extradition, no big surprise there. You know what extradition is, right?”
“Okay. Joe’s lawyer is fighting it for all he’s worth, and the guy ain’t no ambulance chaser. He’s already got a thirty-day delay on a hearing, and he’ll use it to figure out other ways to stall, but in the end he’s gonna lose. And Joe’s in an isolation cell, because somebody tried to stick a shiv into him. Old Joey took it away and broke his wrist for him, but where there’s one guy with a shiv, there could be a dozen.”
“Gang thing?” Billy asks. “Crips, maybe? They got a beef with him?”
Nick shrugs. “Who knows? For now, Joe’s got his own private quarters, doesn’t have to get slopped with the rest of the hogs, gets thirty minutes in the yard all by his lonesome. Also meantime, the lawyer-man is reaching out to people. The message he’s sending is that this guy will talk about something very big unless he can get a pass on the murder charge.”
“Could that happen?” Billy doesn’t like to think so, even if the man this Joe killed after the poker game was a bad person. “The prosecutors might take the death penalty off the table, or maybe even step it down to second-degree, or something?”
“Not bad, Billy. You’re on the right track, at least. But what I’m hearing is that Joe wants all the charges dismissed. He must be holding some high cards.”
“He thinks he can trade something to get away with murder.”
“Says the guy who got away with it God knows how many times,” Nick says, and laughs.
Billy doesn’t. “I never shot anyone because I lost money in a poker game. I don’t play poker. And I don’t rob.”
Nick nods vigorously. “I know that, Billy. Just bad people. I was only busting your chops a bit. Drink your drink.”
Billy drinks his drink. He’s thinking, Two million. For one job. And he’s thinking, What’s the catch?
“Someone must really want to stop this guy from giving up whatever he’s got.”
Nick points a finger gun at him like Billy has made an amazing leap of deduction. “You know it. Anyway, I get a message from this local guy, you’ll meet him if you take the job, and the message is we’re looking for a pro shooter who’s the best of the best. I think that’s Billy Summers, case fuckin closed.”
“You want me to do this guy, but not in LA. Here.”
“Not me. I’m just the middleman, remember. It’s someone else. Someone with very deep pockets.”
“What’s the catch?”
Nick turns on the grin. He points another finger gun at Billy. “Straight to the point, right? Straight to the fuckin point. Except it’s not really a catch. Or maybe it is, depending on how you feel. It’s time, you see. You’re going to be here…”
He waves his hand to indicate the little yellow house. Maybe the neighborhood it sits in, as well—the one Billy will discover is called Midwood. Maybe the whole city, which sits east of the Mississippi and just below the Mason-Dixon Line.
“… for quite awhile.”
They talk some more. Nick tells Billy that the location is set, by which he means the place Billy will shoot from. He says Billy doesn’t have to decide until he sees it and hears more. Billy will get that from Ken Hoff. He’s the local guy. Nick says Ken is out of town today.
“Does he know what I use?” This isn’t the same as saying he’s in, but it’s a big step in that direction. Two million for mostly sitting around on his ass, then taking one shot. Hard to turn down a deal like that.
“Okay, when do I meet this Hoff guy?”
“Tomorrow. He’ll give you a call at your hotel tonight, time and place.”
“If I do it, I’ll need some kind of a cover story for why I’m here.”
“All worked out, and it’s a beaut. Giorgio’s idea. We’ll tell you tomorrow night, after you meet with Hoff.” Nick rises. He sticks out his hand. Billy shakes it. He has shaken with Nick before and never likes it because Nick is a bad guy. Hard not to like him a little, though. Nick is also a pro, and that grin works.
Paulie Logan drives him back to the hotel. Paulie doesn’t talk much. He asks Billy if he minds the radio, and when Billy says no, Paulie puts on a soft rock station. At one point he says, “Loggins and Messina, they’re the best.” Except for cursing at a guy who cuts him off on Cedar Street, that’s the extent of his conversation.
Billy doesn’t mind. He’s thinking of all the movies he’s seen about robbers who are planning one last job. If noir is a genre, then “one last job” is a sub-genre. In those movies, the last job always goes bad. Billy isn’t a robber and he doesn’t work with a gang and he’s not superstitious, but this last job thing nags at him just the same. Maybe because the price is so high. Maybe because he doesn’t know who’s paying the tab, or why. Maybe it’s even the story Nick told about how the target once took out a fifteen-year-old honor student.
“You stickin around?” Paulie asks when he pulls the car into the hotel’s forecourt. “Because this guy Hoff will get you the tool you need. I could have done it myself, but Nick said no.”
Is he sticking around? “Don’t know. Maybe.” He pauses getting out. “Probably.”
In his room, Billy powers up his laptop. He changes the time stamp and checks his VPN, because hackers love hotels. He could try googling Los Angeles County courts, extradition hearings have got to be matters of public record, but there are simpler ways to get what he wants. And he wants. Ronald Reagan had a point when he said trust but verify.
Billy goes to the LA Times website and pays for a six-month subscription. He uses a credit card that belongs to a fictitious person named Thomas Hardy, Hardy being Billy’s favorite writer. Of the naturalist school, anyway. Once in, he searches for feminist writer and adds attempted rape. He finds half a dozen stories, each smaller than the last. There’s a picture of the feminist writer, who looks hot and has a lot to say. The alleged attack took place in the forecourt of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The alleged perpetrator was discovered to be in possession of multiple IDs and credit cards. According to the Times, his real name is Joel Randolph Allen. He beat a rape charge in Massachusetts in 2012.
So Joe was pretty close, Billy thinks.
Next he goes to the website of this city’s newspaper, once again uses Thomas Hardy to get through the paywall, and searches for murder victim poker game.
The story is there, and the security photo that runs with it is pretty damning. An hour earlier the light wouldn’t have been good enough to show the doer’s face, but the time stamp on the bottom of the photo is 5:18 AM. The sun isn’t up but it’s getting there, and the face of the guy standing in the alley is as clear as you’d want, if you were a prosecutor. He’s got his hand in his pocket, he’s waiting outside a door that says LOADING ZONE DO NOT BLOCK, and if Billy was on the jury, he’d probably vote for the needle just on the basis of that. Because Billy Summers is an expert when it comes to premeditation, and that’s what he’s looking at right here.
The most recent story in the Red Bluff paper says that Joel Allen has been arrested on unrelated charges in Los Angeles.
Billy is sure that Nick believes he takes everything at face value. Like everyone else Billy has worked for over the years he’s been doing this, Nick believes that outside of his awesome sniper skills, Billy is a little slow, maybe even on the spectrum. Nick believes the dumb self, because Billy is at great pains not to overdo it. No gaping mouth, no glazed eyes, no outright stupidity. An Archie comic book does wonders. The Zola novel he’s been reading is buried deep in his suitcase. And if someone searched his case and discovered it? Billy would say he found it left in the pocket of an airline seat and picked it up because he liked the girl on the cover.
He thinks about looking for the fifteen-year-old honor student, but there isn’t enough info. He could google that all afternoon and not find it. Even if he did, he couldn’t be sure he was looking at the right fifteen-year-old. It’s enough to know the rest of the story Nick told checks out.
He orders a sandwich and a pot of tea. When it comes, he sits by the window, eating and reading Thérèse Raquin. He thinks it’s like James M. Cain crossed with an EC horror comic from the 1950s. After his late lunch, he lies down with his hands behind his head and beneath the pillow, feeling the cool that hides there. Which, like youth and beauty, doesn’t last long. He’ll see what this Ken Hoff has to say, and if that also checks out, he thinks he will take the job. The waiting will be difficult, he’s never been good at that (tried Zen once, didn’t take), but for a two-million-dollar payday he can wait.
Billy closes his eyes and goes to sleep.
At seven that evening, he’s eating a room service dinner and watching The Asphalt Jungle on his laptop. It’s a jinxed one last job picture, for sure. The phone rings. It’s Ken Hoff. He tells Billy where they’ll meet tomorrow afternoon. Billy doesn’t have to write it down. Writing things down can be dangerous, and he’s got a good memory.