Authors: Stephen King
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 hereâ¦”
He waves his hand to indicate the little yellow house. Maybe the neighborhood it sits in, as wellâthe one Billy will discover is called Midwood. Maybe the whole city, which sits east of the Mississippi and just below the Mason-Dixon Line.
“â¦ 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.”
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
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
. 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
, 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
, because Billy is at great pains not to overdo it. No gaping mouth, no glazed eyes, no outright stupidity. An
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
. 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.
Like most male movie starsânot to mention men Billy passes on the street who are emulating those movie starsâKen Hoff has a scruff of beard, as if he forgot to shave for three or four days. This is an unfortunate look for Hoff, who is a redhead. He doesn't look rough and tough; he looks like he has a bad sunburn.
They are sitting at an umbrella-shaded table outside an eatery called the Sunspot CafÃ©. It's on the corner of Main and Court. Billy guesses the place is plenty busy during the week, but on this Saturday afternoon it's almost deserted inside, and they have the outside scatter of tables to themselves.
Hoff is maybe fifty or a hard-living forty-five. He's drinking a glass of wine. Billy has a diet soda. He doesn't think Hoff works for Nick, because Nick is based in Vegas. But Nick has his fingers in many pies, not all of them out west. Nick Majarian and Ken Hoff may be connected in some way, or maybe Hoff is hooked up with the guy who is paying for the job. Always assuming the job happens, that is.
“That building across the street is mine,” Hoff says. “Only twenty-two stories, but good enough to make it the second highest in Red Bluff. It'll be the third highest when the Higgins Center goes up. That's gonna be thirty stories high. With a mall. I've got a piece of that one, too, but this one? Strictly my baby. They laughed at Trump when he said he was gonna fix the economy, but it's working. It's working.”
Billy has no interest in Trump or Trump's economy, but he studies the building with professional interest. He's pretty sure it's where he's supposed to take the shot. It's called the Gerard Tower. Billy thinks that calling a building that has only twenty-two stories a tower is a little overblown, but he supposes in this city of small brick buildings, most of them shabby, it probably seems like a tower. On the well-tended and -watered greensward in front of it is a sign reading OFFICE SPACE AND LUXURY APARTMENTS NOW AVAILABLE. There's a number to call. The sign looks like it's been there awhile.
“Hasn't filled the way I expected,” Hoff says. “The economy's booming, yeah, people with money falling out of their asses and 2020 is going to be even better, but you'd be surprised how much of that is Internet-driven, Billy. Okay to call you Billy?”
“Bottom line, I'm a little bit tight this year. Cash flow problems since I bought into WWE, but three affils, how could I say no?”
Billy has no idea what he's talking about. Something about pro wrestling, maybe? Or the Monster Truck Jam they keep advertising on TV? Since Hoff clearly thinks he should know, Billy nods his head as if he does.
“The local old money assholes think I'm overextended, but you have to bet on the economy, am I right? Roll the dice while the dice are hot. Takes money to make money, yeah?”
“So I do what I have to do. And hey, I know a good thing when I see it and this is a good deal for me. A little risky, but I need a bridge. And Nick assures me that if you were to get caught, I know you won't but if you did, you'd keep your mouth shut.”
“Yes. I would.” Billy has never been caught and doesn't intend to get caught this time.
“Code of the road, am I right?”
“Sure.” Billy has an idea that Ken Hoff has seen too many movies.
Some of them probably in the “one last job” sub-genre. He wishes the man would get to the point. It's hot out here, even under the umbrella. And muggy. This climate is for the birds, Billy thinks, and probably even they don't like it.
“I got you a nice corner suite on the fifth floor,” Hoff says. “Three rooms. Office, reception, kitchenette. A kitchenette, how about that, huh? You'll be okay no matter how long it takes. Snug as a bug in a rug. I'm not gonna point, but I'm sure you can count to five, right?”
Sure, Billy thinks, I can even walk and chew gum at the same time.
The building is square, your basic Saltine box with windows, so there are actually two corner suites on the fifth floor, but Billy knows which one Hoff means: the one on the left. From the window he traces a diagonal down Court Street, which is only two blocks long. The diagonal, the path of the shot he'll take if he takes the job, ends at the steps of the county courthouse. It's a gray granite sprawl of a building. The steps, at least twenty, lead up to a plaza with blindfolded Lady Justice in the middle, holding out her scales. Among the many things he will never tell Ken Hoff: Lady Justice is based on Iustice, a Roman goddess more or less invented by the emperor Augustus.
Billy returns his gaze to the fifth-floor corner suite and once more eyes the diagonal. It looks to him like five hundred yards from the window to the steps. That's a shot he is capable of making even in a strong wind. With the right tool, of course.
“What have you got for me, Mr. Hoff?”
“Huh?” For a moment Hoff's
is on full view. Billy makes a curling gesture with the index finger of his right hand. It could be taken to mean
, but not in this case.
“Oh! Sure! What you asked for, right?” He looks around, sees no one, but lowers his voice anyway. “Remington 700.”
“The M24.” That's the Army classification.
“Mâ¦?” Hoff reaches into his back pocket, takes out his wallet, and thumbs through it. He removes a scrap of paper and looks at it. “M24, right.”
He starts to put the piece of paper back in his wallet, but Billy holds out his hand.
Hoff hands it over. Billy puts it in his own pocket. Later, before he goes to see Nick, he'll flush it down the toilet in his hotel room. You don't write stuff down. He hopes this guy Hoff isn't going to be a problem.
“Scope. The sight.”
Hoff looks flustered. “It's the one you asked for.”
“Did you write that down, too?”
“On the paper I just gave you.”
“I've got the, uh, tool in aâ”
“I don't need to know where. I haven't even decided if I want this job.” He has, though. “Does the building over there have security?” Another
“If I do take the job, getting the tool up to the fifth floor will be on me. Are we good on that, Mr. Hoff?”
“Yeah, sure.” Hoff looks relieved.
“Then I think we're done here.” Billy stands and holds out his hand. “It was very nice meeting you.” It wasn't. Billy isn't sure he trusts the man, and he hates that stupid scruffy beard. What woman would want to kiss a mouth surrounded by red bristles?
Hoff shakes. “Same here, Billy. This is just a squeeze I'm going through. You ever read a book called
The Hero's Journey
Billy has, but shakes his head.
“You should, you should. I just skimmed the literary stuff to get to the main part. Straight to the meat of a thing, that's me. Cut
through the bullshit. Can't remember the name of the guy who wrote it, but he says every man has to go through a time of testing before he becomes a hero. This is my time.”
By supplying a sniper rifle and an overwatch site to an assassin, Billy thinks. Not sure Joseph Campbell would put that in the hero category.
“Well, I hope you pass.”
Billy supposes he'll get a car eventually if he stays here, but right now he doesn't know his way around and he's happy to let Paul Logan drive him from the hotel to where Nick is “house-sitting.” It's the McMansion Billy was expecting yesterday, a cobbled-together horror-show on what looks like two acres of lawn. The gate to the long curving driveway swings open at a touch of Paulie's thumb to the gadget on his visor. There is indeed a cherub peeing endlessly into a pool of water, and a couple of other statues (Roman soldier, bare-breasted maiden) that are lit by hidden spots now that dusk is here. The house is also lit, the better to show off its wretched excess. To Billy it looks like the bastard child of a supermarket and a mega-church. This isn't a house, it's the architectural equivalent of red golf pants.
Frank Macintosh, aka Frankie Elvis, is waiting on the endless porch to receive him. Dark suit, sober blue tie. Looking at him you'd never guess that he began his career breaking legs for a loan shark. Of course that was long ago, before he moved up to the bigs. He comes halfway down the porch steps, hand outstretched, like the lord of the manor. Or the lord of the manor's butler.
Nick is once more waiting in the hall, one much grander than that of the humble yellow house in Midwood. Nick is built big, but the man with him is enormous, way north of three hundred.
This is Giorgio Piglielli, of course known to Nick's Las Vegas cadre as Georgie Pigs (and also never to his face). If Nick is a CEO, then Giorgio is his chief operating officer. For them both to be here, so far from their home base, suggests that what Nick called the agenting fee must be very high. Billy has been promised two million. How much have these guys been promised, or already pocketed? Someone is very worried about Joel Allen. Someone who probably owns a house like this, or one even uglier. Hard to believe such a thing is possible, but it probably is.
Nick claps Billy on the shoulder and says, “You probably think this fat-ass is Giorgio Piglielli.”
“Sure looks like him,” Billy says cautiously, and Giorgio gives a chuckle as fat as he is.
Nick nods. He's got that million-dollar grin on his face. “I know it does, but this is actually George Russo. Your agent.”
“Agent? Like in real estate?”
“Nope, not that kind.” Nick laughs. “Come on in the living room. We'll have drinks and Giorgio will lay this out for you. Like I said yesterday, it's a beaut.”
The living room is as long as a Pullman car. There are three chandeliers, two small and one big. The furniture is low and swoopy. Two more cherubs are supporting a full-length mirror. There's a grandfather clock that looks embarrassed to be here.
Frank Macintosh, the leg-breaker turned manservant, brings them drinks on a tray: beer for Billy and Nick and what looks like a chocolate malted for Giorgio, who seems determined to ingest every calorie possible before dying at the age of fifty. He chooses the only chair that will fit him. Billy wonders if he'll be able to get out of it without help.
Nick raises his glass of beer. “Here's to us. May we do business that makes us happy and leaves us satisfied.”
They drink to that, then Giorgio says, “Nick tells me that you're interested, but you haven't actually signed on for this yet. Still in what could be called the exploratory phase.”
“That's right,” Billy says.
“Well, for the purposes of this discussion, let's pretend that you're on the team.” Giorgio sucks on the straw in his malted. “Man, that's good. Just the ticket on a warm evening.” He reaches into the pocket of his suitcoatâenough fabric there to clothe an orphanage, Billy thinksâand produces a wallet. He holds it out.
Billy takes it. A Lord Buxton. Nice, but not fancy. And it's been slightly aged, with a couple of scuffs and nicks in the leather.
“Look through it. It's who you'll be in this godforsaken burg.”
Billy does. Seventy dollars or so in the billfold. A few pictures, mostly of men who could be friends and women who could be gal pals. Nothing to indicate he has a wife and kids.
“I wanted to Photoshop you into one,” Giorgio says, “standing at the Grand Canyon or something, but nobody seems to have a photo of you, Billy.”
“Photos can lead to trouble.”
Nick says, “Most people don't carry pictures of themselves in their wallets, anyway. I told Giorgio that.”
Billy continues to go through the wallet, reading it like a book. Like
, which he finished while eating supper in his room. If he stays here, his name will be David Lockridge. He has a Visa card and a Mastercard, both issued by Seacoast Bank of Portsmouth.
“What are the limits on the plastic?” he asks Giorgio.
“Five hundred on the Master, a thousand on the Visa. You're on a budget. Of course, if your book works out like we hope it will, that could change.”
Billy stares at Giorgio, then at Nick, wondering if this is some kind of set-up. Wondering if they've seen through the
agent!” Nick nearly shouts. “Is that a hoot, or what?”
“A writer is my cover? Come on, I never even finished high school. Got my GED in the sand, for God's sake, and that was a gift from Uncle Sam for dodging IEDs and mujies in Fallujah and Ramadi. It won't work. It's crazy.”
“It's not, it's genius,” Nick says. “Listen to the man, Billy. Or should I start calling you Dave now?”
“You're never calling me Dave if this is my cover.”
Too close to home, far too close. He's a reader, that's for sure. And he sometimes dreams of writing, although he's never actually tried his hand except for scraps of prose here and there, which he always destroyed.
“It'll never fly, Nick. I know you guys have already started this goingâ¦” He raises the wallet. “â¦ and I'm sorry, but it just won't work. What would I say if someone asked what my book was about?”
“Give me five minutes,” Giorgio says. “Ten, tops. And if you still don't like it, we all part friends.”
Billy doubts if that's true but tells him to go ahead.
Giorgio puts his empty malted glass on the table (probably a Chippendale) beside his chair and belches. But when he turns his full attention on Billy, he can see what Georgie Pigs really is: a lean and athletic mind buried inside the ocean of blubber that will kill him before many more years. “I know how it sounds at first blush, you being the kind of guy you are, but it
Billy relaxes a little. They still believe what they see. He's safe on that score, at least.