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Authors: Don Winslow

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General

A Long Walk Up the Waterslide (9 page)

BOOK: A Long Walk Up the Waterslide
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But here he was in Austin, so was Neal, and so was Polly Paget, and neither man believed in that kind of coincidence.

“Maybe we can work something out, Mr. Withers,” Neal said.

“Call me Walter, please, my boy. It’s Neal, isn’t it?”

Neal nodded.

“Work something out.… Share the kill sort of a thing, I see.… Interesting …” Walter said. “Sporting of you.”

I’m a sport, Mr. Withers. And you’re standing here trying to figure out a way to beat me. Share the kill … right.

“It depends on who your client is,” Withers said.

I’m not proud of this, Walt, but here we go.

“Mr. Withers … Walter … I’m just a little thirsty,” Neal said. “Why don’t we go in and discuss this over a drink?”

The smile returned to Walt’s face.

“Joe Graham did train you well,” he said.

Uh-huh. And I hope he forgives me, Neal thought as he led Withers into Brogan’s.

‘ “The shotgun is loaded and the dog’s awake,’ ” Charles Whiting repeated. “What does that mean?”

John Culver shrugged. “I don’t interpret them, Chief. I just record them.”

“Some sort of code,” Whiting said.

Probably not, Culver thought. He’d learned from tedious hours listening to drug deals go south that what it probably meant was that the shotgun was loaded and the dog was awake.

It had been a frustrating four days since Whiting and Culver had met in Reno and driven across desert and mountain to the remote town of Austin. They’d taken a room in the better one of Austin’s two small motels, told the owner they were geologists, and spent their days dutifully driving around the hills and their nights dutifully planting microphones and driving around with a directional sound finder.

The good news was that Austin was very small, so if Polly was in town, they had a good chance of picking something up. The bad news was that Austin was very small, and it couldn’t be long before people started asking questions.

But now they had something, thanks to Culver’s hunch that in a town this small, the saloon was a good place to pick up scuttlebutt.

“Apparently,” Whiting continued, “they have a warning system set up. Did you pick up the number he dialed?”

Culver replayed the tape and listened carefully to the sounds of the dialing. He shook his head.

Whiting didn’t complain or question. He’d hired Culver away from the DEA because the drug guys were a lot better than the FBI technicians, who were so hung up on court orders and constitutional safeguards that they couldn’t record a football game on the VCR. Your basic drug guy could and would cheerfully bug a confessional booth and get Marcel Marceau’s venial sins on tape.

Whiting thought it over for a couple of minutes. If he walked over to this bar and asked questions, the bartender might make another call, and then they could train the sound finder on the phone. But this Neal person might already be in the bar and that would give away the game. There was another problem: Whom was the bartender talking about when he said that someone was in there sniffing around? Was somebody else hot on Polly’s trail? And if so, who?

Whiting had an idea. It wasn’t uncommon for people in backwater towns to harbor fugitives. If there was a conspiracy in Austin to protect Polly Paget …

Ten minutes later, he was showing Polly’s picture to the clerk at Austin’s one grocery store.

“Have you seen this woman?”

The old lady behind the counter took a quick peek and said, “Every day.”

It wasn’t quite what Chuck had been looking for. It was a whole lot better.

“Where?” he asked, his heart quickening.

The old lady pointed behind him.

Chuck whirled around to see a newspaper rack where pictures of Polly were spread all over the color tabloids.

Back to plan A, Chuck thought.

“I have a lot of money for her,” Chuck said.

The old lady smiled.

“That’s interesting,” she said.

“In fact,” Chuck continued, “I have a lot of money for anyone who could tell me where she is.”

The old woman looked around and quickly leaned over the counter until her lips were an inch from Chuck’s ear, then whispered, “Can you keep this confidential?”

“You have my word,” said Chuck.

“Elvis,” she hissed, “is sweeping up the storeroom right now.”

Chuck’s face flushed as the old woman straightened up and regarded him with disdain.

“Young man,” she said, “I sell a little produce, a lot of canned beans, some pop, and a few bottles of beer. I do not sell people. Now, I do know where you can
rent
a person for an hour or so, but it isn’t here.”

Chuck’s face turned from pink to scarlet.

The old lady continued: “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No, ma am.”

“Then please be on your way.”

Chuck went on his way.

Evelyn picked up the phone two seconds later and dialed Karen Hawley’s number.

“Karen,” she said when her old friend answered, “I thought I should let you know that someone just came in looking for … your houseguest.”

“Thanks,” Karen said, “Brogan called, too. Neal went down to check it out. But how did you know—never mind.”

Inside the van, John Culver lowered the shotgun mike and rewound the tape. He listened for a second and gave Whiting the thumbs-up sign. This time the phone number came singing through the headset.

Within five minutes, they found Karen Hawley’s address in the reverse phone book Whiting had finagled from an old buddy in the Reno field bureau. After they’d parked the van a block away from the house, Chuck Whiting called the boss again and said to get there right away.

He didn’t want to do that. He hated to do that. But those were his orders, and Chuck Whiting had spent a lifetime obeying orders. It was too late to change now.

Overtime thought about the circus. Particularly, he thought about that moment when the Volkswagen pulls up next to the house on fire and fifteen clowns get out of the little car, trip all over themselves, spray each other with water, and throw buckets of confetti on the house. Then the house burns down.

He edged the curtain back into place and stepped away from the window. He sat down on the motel room’s one chair, its ripped mustard yellow upholstery repaired with duct tape, and opened up a package of peanut-butter crackers. He had checked in the night before and packed his own food and drink. He’d gone out once, at about three in the morning, to check the target area. He worked out his approach and his escape and it wasn’t going to be a problem.

Just in, just out.

Then he went back to his room to get some sleep and wait for the clowns.

And now they were here.

8

Neal had to admit to himself that he was glad when Walter Withers switched to coffee after one shot and a beer. Neal had planned to get Withers soused, leave him unconscious at Brogan’s, then spirit Polly out of town. But Withers drank just enough to take the edge off and now he seemed brighter and more alert than he had when Neal met him on the street.

Bad for the plan, Neal thought, but good for Walter. The problem now is how to get rid of him.

“You were about to tell me who your client is,” Withers prompted.

No I wasn’t, Walt.

“That might depend on who
your
client is,” Neal said.

Wither’s eyes twinkled. He’s actually enjoying this, Neal thought.

“Ah, yes,” Walt said, “which one of us is going to get undressed first? We mustn’t dawdle with the seduction here, my boy. I don’t think we’re going to have the room to ourselves for very long.”

“Are you expecting company, Walt?”

Brogan coughed rhetorically and made a show of ramming the cleaning rod down his shotgun. He nudged Brezhnev awake and the dog growled.

Withers chuckled. “We’re smart, young Neal, but we’re not the only smart people in the world. If we could track Miss Paget to this barren and lonely hideaway, so can other people.”

“How did you find her, Walt?”

“With brilliant detective work, Neal,” Withers answered.

“A snitch.”

“Of course.”

Walt finished his coffee and said, “I’d love to stay and catch up on the good old days, Neal, but I have to go and make an offer to Miss Polly Paget. You will excuse me, I’m sure.”

He pushed his chair out and stood up.

Brogan stood up and snapped shut the shotgun chamber.

“You’re not going to have him shoot me, are you, Neal?” Withers asked.

“If I did, it would be with only the deepest regrets, Mr. Withers,” Neal answered.

Withers picked up his briefcase. He looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully and then dropped his head back down and laughed. Looking straight at Neal, he said, “I’ve misapprehended you. You’re not looking for Miss Paget; you’re hiding her, aren’t you?”

And doing a lousy job of it, too, Walt.

“And you brought me in here to get me drunk,” Walt continued. “That betrays low character, Neal. Yours and mine, I’m afraid.”

True enough, Mr. Withers.

“I haven’t met very many saints in this business, Mr. Withers,” Neal said.

“Joe Graham is a saint.”

“Joe Graham is a saint,” Neal agreed. And what would he do in this situation? I wonder. I’d love to know, seeing as how he put me in this situation.

“And I suppose while we were having friendly drinks, you’ve had her moved?” Withers asked.

Well, no, Walt. That’s what I should have done when I first heard you were here, but I was too busy sulking about her possibly being in a family way.

Neal nodded.

Walt sat back down. The jauntiness suddenly deflated in that way chronic alcoholics have of looking either eighteen or eighty within seconds. Now he looked eighty. His skin resembled old yellow paper that could crumble at the touch, and his eyes looked tired. His next drink wouldn’t be coffee.

Withers sighed and leaned across the table.

“Here’s the problem, my boy,” he said. “I took a chunk of the advance money to pay off a gambling debt. I’m afraid I drank some of the rest. All forgivable, really, if one comes up with the goods, but … you’ve done me in.”

He spread his hands, palms up.

“Who are you working for?” Neal asked.

“I have the great honor to be in the service of
Top Drawer
magazine, which has commissioned me to persuade Miss Polly Paget to serve as onanistic inspiration to millions of adolescent boys and adolescent men. These are the depths to which I have sunk, young Neal. Even in these substrata of our often-sad profession, I fail. I fail.”

He dropped his chin to the table and stared at the greasy surface of the tabletop as if it represented an eternity in purgatory.

A brilliant performance, Neal thought. Top-drawer, indeed. And if this outrageous play for sympathy doesn’t work, he’ll try a threat: Play ball, or I’ll go to the press just out of spite. Well, one good act deserves another.

“Two bourbons, Brogan?” Neal asked.

Brogan was so taken with the scene, he poured the drinks himself and brought them over. He even forgot to demand cash up front.

“You want to take naked pictures of her?” Neal asked.

“Not personally,” Withers answered. “I’m just supposed to find her, make an offer, and give her an advance.”

“But they’d be in good taste, right? The pictures?”

Neal had seen
Top Drawer
magazine. Caligula would have found its photos in questionable taste.

“The lighting, I’m told, is impeccable,” Withers answered. He knocked back the bourbon in one swallow. If he detected a glimmer of hope, he wasn’t letting on.

“And you’re not working for Jack Landis, right?”

“I’m not,” Walt mumbled sadly. Then, as if it was a fresh thought, he added, “Oh my God, are you?”

“No,” Neal said. He drank his whiskey slowly, thoughtfully, and then let out, “I don’t know, Walter. She’s not a prisoner; she can do what she wants. And it looks like she’s going to need money.…”

Withers lifted his eyes from the table. “Believe it or not, Neal, they’re talking about half a million dollars.”

Neal whistled softly. Then he said, “Could they do it and guarantee her privacy?”

“Her
privacy,
my boy?”

“I mean, absolutely promise not to reveal her whereabouts?”

Withers brightened, although Neal couldn’t tell if it was the emerging deal or the whiskey.

“Well, after all,” he said, “they’re revealing everything else; I suppose they could withhold that.”

Neal silently counted to ten, then said, “I’d have to be present when you talked to her.”

“Not a problem, Neal. In fact, a pleasure.”

“No cameras, no tapes, no wires. And I’d have to pat you down, Walt.”

“I’ll get naked myself if that would help, Neal.”

From the Book of Joe Graham, chapter eight, verse four: When you have the trap set, let the mark pull the string.

“Okay,” Neal said. “Get a room at the motel down the street. I’ll talk to her and call you in the next day or so.”

Withers answered, “If it’s all the same to you—and no offense—I don’t want you out of my sight.”

Tugging at the string.

“Then—and no offense to you, Walt—get lost.”

“She has maybe, what—a half-hour lead, Neal? Can that hold up if every reporter, private investigator, and curiosity seeker in America descends on this burg by cocktail hour?”

Pulling on the string with both hands.

“You wouldn’t do that, would you, Walt?” Neal asked.

“I wouldn’t if I had a choice, Neal, but …”

He let the conclusion trail. It was Neal’s turn to stare at the table.

“Okay,” Neal said. “Let me go get my car.”

“We’ll take my car. You can drive.”

“Automatic or standard?”

“Automatic.”

“I can’t drive a standard shift,” Neal explained.

Overtime watched the drunken old detective and the younger man cross the street and get into the rental car. The old sot must be Withers, Overtime thought—too drunk to drive—and the young one must be the English tutor.

He kept watching as the car turned around and headed west on Route 50—away from the target house.

Where the hell are they going? Overtime wondered. Then he had an unpleasant thought: What if they moved her while I was sleeping?

BOOK: A Long Walk Up the Waterslide
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