“SNOWING,” MR. PEREZ SAID. “Nearly the middle of April, it’s still snowing.”
“It’s just flurries,” Ryan said. “That kind of snow, it doesn’t stick to the ground at all. It’s a wet snow.”
“I remember, coming in from the airport there was still some snow, very dirty-looking snow, patches of it along the highway, with all the rain you’ve had.” Mr. Perez stood in the alcove of the floor-to-ceiling window looking out at the gray mass of sky and the light snow swirling in the wind. “You certainly have a long winter,” he said.
“Or you can look at it as kind of an asshole spring,” Ryan said. He didn’t believe it-sitting here talking about the weather. “It’s great for the skiers, though. Up north, I heard on the radio, they’ve still got a fifteen- to twenty-inch base,” Ryan said-if the guy really wanted to talk about it.
Maybe he was finished. Mr. Perez came away from the window and sank into his favorite chair-the Spanish governor of a colony, member of an old, titled family, who’d been sent out here and was pissed off about it, but kept it locked up inside. Ryan was here to give his report.
He was sitting on the couch this time instead of a straight chair, figuring they would have quite a bit to discuss. It was one-thirty in the afternoon. Near the door was a room-service table pushed out of the way. So Mr. Perez had eaten his noon dinner. Everything on the menu, it looked like, the way the table was cluttered with dishes, empty wineglasses, those silver dish covers and messed-up napkins. The man had a noon dinner, he had a dinner. He still seemed too skinny to be a big eater. Or else the white shirt, the collar, was a couple sizes too large.
“You find out he’s colored,” Mr. Perez said. “How does that change anything?”
“Didn’t you think he was white?”
Mr. Perez nodded. “Yeah, I guess I did, judging from his name. It wasn’t Amos Washington or…Thurgood Marshall, one of those. But now Mr. Leary’s deceased and we know he has a wife.
What’s her name?”
“Denise. Denise Leann. But she goes by Lee.”
“And you talked to her.”
“Yeah, but not knowing, as I mentioned, she was his wife. The way I got it, she was like an ex-girlfriend.”
“An ex-something, huh? Well, now we contact the wife, who we’ll presume is his legal heir, and deal with her. You say she’s gone. But she doesn’t have any reason to hide, does she?”
“Not that I know of.”
“And you know what she looks like.”
“So you shouldn’t have any trouble locating her. Do you see a problem?”
“There’s a couple of things,” Ryan said. “More than a couple. Something I didn’t tell you. He’s black, but the wife, Lee, is white.”
“Up here, I’m not too surprised,” Mr. Perez said.
“The other thing, she’s an alcoholic.”
Mr. Perez thought about that a moment.
“I like alcoholics. I’ve had a few. They’re very easy to deal with, very cooperative. What kind of an alcoholic is she?”
“What do you mean, what kind? What does she drink?”
“I mean, how far along is she? Does she work? Or does she sit home and hide bottles around the house?”
“I don’t think she works. No, she couldn’t. But it’s not that kind of a setup either, hiding bottles. They’re right there on the sink.”
“See,” Mr. Perez said, “a white woman marries somebody like Robert Leary, what we’ve learned about him, she’s pretty hard up, scraping bottom. A woman like that, her nose stuck in the bottle, no income, she’s going to take anything she can get.”
Ryan kept quiet. He’d listen and let the man tell him about alcoholics, what they were like.
“We make an offer, this kind of deal, the alcoholic woman isn’t going to see money, unh-unh. She’s going to see visions of gin bottles dancing in her head. She’ll sign the agreement in blood if she has to.”
“She’s a wine drinker,” Ryan said.
“Cheap dago red, huh?”
He could see the dirty glass on the bar and the empty half-gallon jugs in her kitchen. He realized he was trying to upgrade her and he didn’t know why.
“The other thing, or one more to add to it,” Ryan said, “the police are looking for her, too.”
Mr. Perez raised his eyebrows. “They suspect she might’ve killed him?”
“Well, they’ll question her, there’s no doubt about that,” Ryan said. “As my friend was saying, it’s a homicide and they’ll give it the full treatment. It doesn’t matter, the fact they’re glad the guy’s dead. Somebody killed him and it’s their job to find out who.”
“You have any ideas about that? You seemed to’ve been getting in there pretty close,” Mr. Perez said.
“Well, I ran into a guy, yes, and I know he found out where Leary was staying. The same night it happened, in fact. This guy, I don’t know what his name is, knows Leary’s wife. I told the police about it already, gave them a half-assed description of the guy-his clothes, his hat, you know-but I don’t know what’s going to come of that. What I started to say-they’re looking for his wife, yes, but mainly so she can claim the body, get it out of the way.”
“And you say they don’t know where she is.”
“No, but I think it’s only a matter of time,” Ryan said. “They go looking for somebody, the cops, they find them. They’ve already checked the hospitals. She hasn’t been admitted anywhere.”
“Checked the hospitals?” Mr. Perez said. “Check the bars, you say she’s an alcoholic.”
“Well, see, she’s in pretty bad shape.”
Ryan heard the toilet flush and paused. He looked over at the closed door that led to the bedroom. Mr. Perez waited, not offering an explanation.
A woman, Ryan thought. He wondered if she’d come out. He said, “I think his wife might’ve finally realized she was in trouble and it could kill her if she kept drinking. Her calling me like that was a good sign.”
“So maybe she’ll call you again,” Mr. Perez said. “Save you some work.”
“That’d be fine. But now I’ve got a feeling she’s still drinking. She had a couple this morning to straighten her out and they went down so good she kept going. So then she might’ve gotten another room somewhere. She could call me, sometime, but I’ll probably have to wait till she bottoms out again.” Ryan shook his head. “It’s very tough, trying to quit like that.”
He saw Mr. Perez’s gaze move past him. Ryan glanced over at the doorway to the bedroom.
A stringy, heavy-boned farmer-looking guy had opened the door and was coming out, his head down, buckling his belt.
Ryan looked back at Mr. Perez, who was watching the man with a relaxed, pleasant expression. Mr. Perez said, “I hope you had a good one, Raymond. You were in there a half hour.”
“Traveling,” the man said. “It throws me off my schedule. I sure don’t like to go on the airplane.”
“Raymond Gidre,” Mr. Perez said. “Shake hands with Mr. Ryan, fella I was telling you about.”
“Yes-sir, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Raymond Gidre smiled cordially, reaching for Ryan’s hand as he rose. The man seemed eager, flashing perfect dentures in a weathered face that had been recently shaved and bore traces of talcum powder. His curly black hair, combed back severely, plastered down, glistened with tonic that Ryan could smell and recalled from barbershops years before. Lucky Tiger. The man had a small-town-barbershop look about him. Like he’d just come out of one. He wore a short-sleeved sport shirt. Ryan noticed the tattoo on his right forearm-something black and red-but didn’t want to stare at it. He shook Raymond Gidre’s hand and nodded and said he was glad to meet him, held for a moment by the dentures and the pale eyes smiling. Just a good-natured back-country boy-stringy and hard after a half-dozen years on a Louisiana prison farm.
“Raymond here’s visiting from a place near New Iberia, Louisiana,” Mr. Perez said. “Avery Island, huh, Raymond? Where the hot sauce comes from.”
“Home of Tabasco,” Raymond said. “Yes-sir,” walking over to the room-service table. He poked through the napkins and silver lids, found a hard roll, and bit into it, still poking around. “You didn’t eat your snapbeans.”
“Finish ’em up,” Mr. Perez said, and looked at Ryan again. “Raymond works for me on and off in special capacities, you might say. For instance, if we see you need some help, Raymond’s the boy for it.”
Ryan nodded as though he knew what Mr. Perez was talking about, then decided he might as well ask.
“What kind of help?”
“Well, if you were to need protection of one kind or another, somebody to see you don’t get hurt. I wouldn’t want that to happen.”
“I wouldn’t either,” Ryan said. “But what would I need protection from? I’m looking for the wife now. The bad guy’s dead.”
“That’s true,” Mr. Perez said, “but somebody killed the bad guy, didn’t he? Somebody, you said yourself, found out where he was staying. By the way, this man you talked to last night, was he colored?”
Mr. Perez looked past him, across the room. “Got a colored boy, Raymond, might want to give us trouble.”
“It’s all the same to me,” Raymond said, eating from a plate of green beans, “I’m not prejudice.”
What the hell was going on? Ryan felt himself starting to get a little worked up. Perez talked to him very seriously, then would say something to his hired hand and almost break out in a giggle.
“I don’t understand something,” Ryan said. “We don’t know who the guy is, the black guy I met. We don’t know if he was the one that killed Leary. I mean, we can’t even begin to assume something like that. Or, okay, let’s say even if he did, what’s it got to do with me? That I’d need protection? I’m looking for the wife.”
“You said you put a notice in the paper-”
“I also put another one in,” Ryan said, “that’s due to run tomorrow.”
“Let me finish,” Mr. Perez said. “All right?” He waited a moment, staring at Ryan with his solemn expression. “You put a notice in the paper and two people called you up. Is that correct?”
Now he was standing on the carpet, in the principal’s office. “That’s right,” Ryan said.
“You thought one of the two might have been Leary, but not both of them.”
“That’s right,” Ryan said.
“You suspected somebody was looking for him.”
“I knew that. And it’s obvious somebody found him. The guy’s dead.” Ryan paused a moment. Mr. Perez’s tone might be a little pissy, but maybe he was sincere, at least meant well. “I see,” Ryan said. “You think if it was the guy I met in the apartment, he might be afraid I’ll identify him.”
“That type of thing,” Mr. Perez said. “I didn’t have anything that specific in mind, of course, when I telephoned Raymond and asked him if he’d like to visit the Motor City. I felt we were mixing with ugly people, getting ready to do business with one of them; so it wouldn’t hurt to have some protection. Mr. Leary’s dead, but there are still some ugly people around, aren’t there?”
“You might be right,” Ryan said.
“I have to be, least most of the time. Now-anything else on your mind?”
Ryan realized he was being dismissed. “No, I guess that’s it.” He got up and walked over to where his raincoat was draped over the back of a chair. “I’ll follow up on the girl.” What else would he be doing? He wanted to say something, calm and matter-of-fact, and that was all he could think of.
“I’m going to be out of town a few days,” Mr. Perez said. “But Raymond’ll be here. Not right here, but he’ll let you know where he’s staying. Let’s get it done and we’ll all go someplace where it’s warm. How’s that sound?”
It sounded to Ryan like the principal talking again, patting him on the head. He didn’t like the feeling that came with the man’s patronizing tone. The man probably didn’t realize what he sounded like, thinking he was putting one over on the clucks-the dumb process server-with his easygoing one-of-the-boys delivery. Ryan had suspected it the first time they met, getting the feel of the man. Now he was sure of it. Hiding inside the gentleman from Baton Rouge was a pretty cold and heartless son of a bitch.
Ryan’s second insertion in the personal columns of the News and Free Press appeared the day after Robert Leary was found shot to death and his wife disappeared. Ryan had almost called the papers to cancel the insertions if he could, then changed his mind. The notice said:
waiting with your
name on it. Contact
Virgil Royal read the notice and said, Shit.
He should have waited to see what the man wanted with Bobby, though it had felt good, what he’d done… walking into the Montcalm Hotel whore joint with his raincoat on and knit cap down over his head. He didn’t have to scare the night clerk any, because the night clerk didn’t give a shit, he was mostly drunk and looked like he had been mostly drunk and wearing the same shirt and pants twenty years. He took the ten-dollar bill, Virgil almost seeing him translating it into two fifths and a six-pack, and said, “I believe the party you’re looking for’s in 312. Light-skinned gentleman-”
“Where is that, in the front? Three-twelve?”
The night clerk had to stop and think. “It’s on the left, toward the back.”
Bet to it-on the side with the fire escape, by the parking lot. Virgil was counting on it for his cute idea to work-room with a fire escape out the window. It wouldn’t be all luck. Virgil would bet the shotgun under his raincoat Bobby’s room had two ways to get out.
He took the elevator up to the fourth floor, walked down the hall and knocked on 412.
A woman’s voice, irritated, said, “What do you want?”
“Nothing,” Virgil said.
He took the stairs up to the fifth floor and knocked on 512. No answer. He knocked a couple more times before taking out his ring of keys and finding one that fit. Entering the room, he felt his patience paying off again-thinking, doing it the easy way-seeing the window in the darkness, the square of outside light and the rungs of the fire escape. Virgil took off his shoes. He went down the fire escape two floors with the shotgun in his hand, edged up to the window of 312, then past the drawn shade to the railing, reached out, and laid the sawed-off Hi-Standard twelve-gauge on the sill of the frosted-glass bathroom window.
It seemed like it was taking a lot of time, but that’s the way it was, being patient. He could’ve poked the shotgun through the glass and blown Bobby out of bed. He’d decided, though, he’d rather talk to the man first, ask him a question. Not while he was holding a shotgun on him. No, the way to do it, while Bobby had a gun and felt he was the boss.
Virgil remembered almost changing his mind, standing there at 312. Then he was knocking and it was too late to back out. Close to the door, he said, “Hey, Bobby? It’s me, Virgil,” keeping his voice low.
It didn’t take too long after that.
Once Bobby Lear was sure it was only Virgil, nobody backing him up, he had to play his Bobby Lear part: take the chain off and let him in, holding a nickel-plated .38 he could trim his mustache in, not pointed right at Virgil, holding it loose once Virgil’s raincoat was off and he’d given him a quick feel for metal objects.
Bobby asked him how he was doing. Virgil told him fine, there was nothing like going to bed at ten and eating home-cooked prison chow to make a person fit, was there? Bobby said that was the truth. Virgil asked him whatever happened to Wendell Haines and Bobby said Wendell had died. Virgil said he heard something like that, but who was it shot him? Bobby said it beat the shit out of him. Probably the police. Virgil said how come he was living in the Montcalm Hotel, on account of all the cute ladies? Bobby said that was it. Five floors of pussy. Virgil said, You hiding from somebody? Bobby said, It look like I am? Virgil said, Uh-huh. Bobby said, From who? Virgil said, From me. That got him to the question.
“Something I been waking up at night wondering,” Virgil said. “How much we get from the Wyandotte Savings?”
Bobby seemed loose, leaning with his arm along the top of the dresser and the nickel-plated .38 hanging limp in his hand. He had his pants on, his shirt hanging open, no shoes or socks. Very loose. But Virgil knew his eyes, the way he was staring. The man was here talking, but thinking about something else, making up his mind. Like a little kid’s open expression.
“We didn’t get nothing,” Bobby said.
Virgil nodded, very slowly. “That’s what I was afraid you were going to say. Nothing from the cashier windows?”
“Nothing,” Bobby said. “No time.”
“I heard seventeen big big ones.”
“You heard shit.”
“Told to me by honest gentlemen work for the prosecuting attorney.”
“Told to you by your mama it still shit.”
“Well, no use talking about it, is there?”
“Let me ask you something,” Bobby said. “You put that in the paper to me? Call this number?”
“No, I wondered you might think it was me,” Virgil said. “It somebody else looking for you.”
“How you know about it?”
“I saw it, same as you did. I saw the man that put it in.”
“What’s he want?”
“Man looking for you-I thought maybe you owed him money, too.”
“You telling me I owe you money? On the Wyandotte?”
Got him up, now push him a little.
“You owe me something,” Virgil said. “Or I owe you something. One or the other.”
“Shit,” Bobby said. “I think somebody give me the wrong information. You the one, Virgil, should be staying here. You all fucked up in your head, acting strange.”
“Wait right there,” Virgil said.
Bobby straightened up. “Where you going?”
Virgil was moving toward the bathroom. “Make wee-wee. That all right?”
“Don’t touch the coat.”
“Hey, it’s cool,” Virgil said. “Take it easy.” He went into the bathroom, turned on the light and swung the door almost closed. There was nothing more to talk about. Bobby knew it. Bobby would have a load in the chamber of the nickel plate and he might have already decided on his move. You couldn’t tell about Bobby. He could try it right now or in a week, or wake up a month from now in the mood. That’s why Virgil eased open the frosted-glass window and got the twelve-gauge from the sill.
Nothing cute now, the cute part was over. He’d like to take the time to see Bobby’s face, but not with the man holding his shiny gun.
Virgil used his foot to bring the bathroom door in, out of the way. He stepped into the opening and gave Bobby a load dead-center that pinned him against the dresser and gave Virgil time to pump and bust him again, the sound coming out in a hard heavy wham-wham double-O explosion that Virgil figured, grinning about it later, must have rocked some whores out of bed. Virgil picked up the nickel-plated .38, wiped it clean on Bobby’s pants, and took it with him.
But he should have waited. As good as it felt hitting Bobby, it didn’t pay anything in prize money. He should have waited to see what this other money was about.
Bobby Lear. Money waiting with your name on it.
Then look at it another way. Dead or not, Bobby still owed him something. If he couldn’t collect from Bobby, then how about from his wife?
Virgil sat down and closed his eyes to meditate, think it out.
Something was going on between the wife and the ofay man who’d been looking for Bobby. Name of Ryan. Virgil had the name and the man’s phone number on a piece of paper in his wallet. He’d remember the name, anyway. Standing close to the drunk old man who’d called the number for him-sour-smelling old shitface bum who told him, drinking the two doubles, how he loved colored people, saying they were like little children to him-standing close, smelling the man, he’d heard Ryan say the name and repeat it and then spell it. Virgil knew he’d remember the name because it was the same as the name of a stripper he had seen at the Gaiety when he was a boy, Sunny Ryan, and she was the first white lady he had ever wanted to fuck. It was funny how you remembered things.
Now the wife and the man name of Ryan both knew from the paper Bobby was dead. But something else was still alive that had to do with money. That part was hard to understand. If the man knew Bobby was dead, how come he put the second one in the papers? Money waiting. Or maybe he didn’t know Bobby was dead when he put it in. But wouldn’t the money still be waiting? If the money was for Bobby, would his wife get it now? Maybe. If it was like money left to him.
The only thing to do, Virgil decided in his patience, was go see Bobby’s wife. Buy her some wine and ask her what she knew about it. If she didn’t know anything, then call up the man and sound real nice and arrange to meet him. Ask him the question. What’s this money with Bobby’s name on it? And if it sounded like the man was blowing smoke, pick him up and shake it out of him.
It turned out to be easier than Virgil Royal thought it would. He went out looking for Bobby’s wife and at the first stop ran into the man name of Ryan.