Authors: Brian Garfield
The Hit and the Marksman
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
The noon sun beat down on the road, on me, on the dry desert foothills. The road was narrow blacktop, snaking down by switchbacks toward the plain and the city. In the Jeep I was doing only twenty-five but the wind had a searing, abrasive edge against my face.
I was half stunned with fear: I had just left a meeting at which sentence had been passed on me. You're not wearing our silks, Crane. Nobody cares what happens to you and the woman. Forty-eight hours to deliver or die.
My numb brain was making images of Joanne when I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw the chrome teeth of a big station wagon bearing down on me from behind. I had been too preoccupied with my own impending execution to notice it before; no telling how long it had been there. He was riding my tail with reckless arrogance; the dusty grille of the car seemed ready to take a bite out of the Jeep. He was a tailgating imbecile, driving with suicidal aggressiveness, not more than ten feet behind my bumper. All the rage and frustration of the past bouts climaxed in my gut; out of sheer malice, I hit the brakesâhard.
The station wagon swerved; I heard the indignant panic-stricken yelp of horn and then the big car wobbled past, just clearing me, with an arch swish of skidding rubber.
Instead of thundering away, the station wagon pulled to the curb. His brake lights dashed angry red and the wagon's tail went up in the air. It stopped short, the door swung open, and the driver got out.
The road was too narrow to get by him. I pitched to a stop. Suddenly I wanted this stupid, meaningless fight with a total stranger; I felt like a fight, I wanted to kill the son of a bitch.
He was a good-sized man about my age, fair hair and a round boyish face. He looked scared: he wore the expression of a man who was about to burst into tears.
I climbed down from the Jeep. That was when I saw the .32 automatic in his fist, hanging at arm's length. I stopped, bolt still.
He said, “You're Simon Crane.”
It wasn't till then that I recognized him. He might as well have said, You're the bastard that's been banging my wife.
He lifted the gun. I had an impulse to burst out in hysterical laughter.
I said, “Okay, Mike.”
Mike Farrell's mouth worked; his eyes weren't tracking well. He was as close to the thin borderline of madness as I was. He stood there, jaw working, no sound coming out.
I said, “You must have been staked out back there. This couldn't be coincidenceâyou followed me down from up there.”
“Sure.” He got it out between his teeth.
“What for? To shoot me?”
He shook his head. “The gun's just insurance.” He talked without moving his lips. Ex-cons are easy to spot. They talk in monotones; their body movements are slow and careful, their gestures muffled, expressions immobile, eye movements restricted. Mike had all the earmarks. His face, rigidly composed now, was betrayed by the restless, terrified eyes.
I said, “Insurance for what?”
“Turn around and lean on your hands.”
I glanced at his gun and obeyed, flattening my palms against the hot hood of the Jeep; I had frisked enough of them myself to know how it was done. I was wearing Levi's and a yellow shirt; there weren't many places I could conceal a gun. He went over me nervously and stepped back when he was satisfied I wasn't armed. It was the second time today I'd been frisked.
“You can turn around.”
I straightened and turned. Sweat dripped from my forehead into my eyes. Mike Farrell said, “I got to talk to you. Will you listen?”
Will a dollar buy ten dimes? Mike was the only chance I had to get out from under the guillotine.
What I said was, “You're holding the gun.”
He kept it pointed straight at me while he backed up to the open door of the station wagon. He took out a handkerchief and wiped the steering wheel, controls, door handles, ashtray; swung the door shut with his hip and came back to me. He walked around to the passenger side of the Jeep and got in.
“Come on. You drive.”
“What about your car?”
“I can't use it any moreâthey can trace it to me. Come on, Crane, I need to get under cover.”
I got in. “Where to?”
“Just drive. I'll tell you where to turn.”
We drove down the narrow snake of a road into the suburbs, hit an avenue and turned toward the city. He refused to talk except to bark directions at me now and then. He had the gun down at his side where outsiders couldn't see it, but the hammer was back and I had no chance to jump him. Driving under the blistering sun, I was remembering the things Joanne had told me about Mikeâthat he was terrified but harmless. I wasn't sure she was right. Prison changed a man's attitudes toward a lot of things: I had seen enough of them, after they came out. For the weaker ones things had narrowed down to a habitual fight for survivalâjust staying alive in that cage of hardened cons, making sure nobody stuck a knife between your ribs. It could be like that with Mike: the residue of paranoia, hanging on like prison pallor. Or it could be guilt and the fear of discovery, if he'd done the hit.
Somebody had done the hit, that was clear enough. I had forty-eight hours to find out who. If I didn't produce I was dead, and so was Joanneâand Mike was the only lead we had.
He told me where to turn. I went through adobe gateposts into a district known as Las Palmas, a onetime high priced residential neighborhood built in the late twenties by market speculators and bootleggers. At the time it had been a suburb, five miles outside the city; by now urban cancer had pushed the city limits ten miles beyond, and Las Palmas squatted forlorn in a sea of cheap stucco development shacks. The wealthy types had moved far up into the foothills, whence Mike and I had just come; half the huge white elephants in Las Palmas were deserted, boarded upânobody had a use for houses with servants' quarters any more. It was a good place to hide out.
It was a little cooler under the heavy trees that lined the curved roads. We bumped across potholes in the narrow lanes and went past one abandoned mansion being used as a pad by a troop of hippies; a dozen of them sprawled on the weedy lawn with guitars and joy sticks. Mike pointed out turnings and we picked a clumsy route through places hardly wide enough for the Jeep, swung past a forbidding oleander hedge nine feet high and opaque as a brick wall, and suddenly Mike said, “Hold it.”
I braked to a stop.
“Back up and turn in there.”
I did so, driving into a chuckholed gravel path that cut through the oleanders.
“Park it here.”
We were hidden from the street. He showed his gun and waved me up the narrow broken-flagstone walk toward the house. Once it had been magnificent. The roof was shingled with red half-pipe tiles, chipped and busted. The veranda had a gallery of Moorish arches, overgrown with brush and cactus. An empty oval swimming pool in the yard, rimmed with Mexican porcelains, was full of dead leaves and sand.
An Air Force jet went over with a sound like a long piece of canvas being ripped. Mike walked by me and gestured with his gun. I stepped over the broken glass on the porch and followed him inside, noticing that the warped chipped-paint door scraped across the floor when he pushed, leaving part-circle scratches where it dragged sharp bits of sand and glass across the concrete.
He backed in, holding the gun on me, looked around quickly and beckoned. The airless room was hot, thick with heavy body sweat. Mike, or somebody else, had spent some time in the place recently.
I said, “What happened to Aiello, Mike?”
“I think I'll ask the questions. Come in here.”
I walked in. He made the mistake of letting me get too close, and I went for him.
I grabbed his wrist, got the left hand when he shot it up, and bore down hard. The gun was pointed at the ground and I held his right hand that way; I twisted, grinding the grip on both his wrists, forcing him to his knees. He wouldn't let go. He made no sound; his breathing was quick and shallow, his eyes very large, his teeth grinding.
Abruptly I let go his left hand and batted across to the gun, wrenching it away. Curiously, he had removed his finger from the trigger, so it didn't go off when I yanked. It wouldn't have hit anything but the floor anyway; maybe he preferred to take a chance on me rather than run the risk of attracting attention with the noise.
He was on his knees, twisted down. I put my shoe in his chest and shoved. He went backward onto the stone floor. His head hit back with a blunt noise.
I reversed the gun in my grasp. The crack on the head hadn't completely knocked him out but he was dazed, stunned; he would be limp and useless for a while. I peeled back one eyelid to make sure there was no concussion. He made little grunting noises with each breath.
There wasn't much furnitureâan old couch, a broken table, a lawn chair. An ancient refrigerator stood by one wall, its door crumpled and bent open on the hinges. I got him up and carried him over to the couch and put him down. There wouldn't be any water in the place anyway; all I could do was make sure the skin wasn't broken. Then I went back toward the door, where the air was better. I kept his gun in my fist.
From the open door I could hear only cactus wrens and robins and an occasional airplane; none of the city sounds reached this backwater neighborhood. For a moment faint voices reached me and I tensed before I realized what it wasâthe hippies we had passed, coming to me on the wind. I listened to their voices and guitars, soft-singing their
cris de coeur
of alienation in the heat, and turned to have another look at Mike. His eyes were closed; he breathed evenly. Haggard and sallow, he looked like a weak youth grown prematurely old. He was thirty, perhaps a bit older, but he appeared both younger and more ancient than that.
He would come around but it would take time. Jumpy and irritable, I felt his forehead and then settled down to wait in the lawn chair. Until I talked with him I wouldn't know how this nightmare was going to end. It was possible all of us would be dead soonâMike and Joanne and me. I sat watching him, remembering how this had begun, this morning, just a few hours ago.
The phone had rung. It had lifted me from a wallowing sleep; it rang three times before I shook off the fragments of a paranoid dream and groped for the receiver.
“Simon? Were you asleep?”
Shock of recognition: it was Joanne. Her voice, which I hadn't heard in months, made me instantly defensive: “I still am.”
She spoke before I could get the phone away from my ear. “Please don't hang up.” She sounded tautâagitated, close to the edge.
“What is it?”
I heard her breathing; after a moment, during which she seemed to pull herself together with an effort of will, she said, “No. You're too groggy to listen. Wake yourself upâI'll hold on.”
I grunted, put the receiver on the bed, got up and padded to the window. Slits of white light chiseled past the edges of the doubled Army blanket I used for a drape. I pulled it aside and blinked away the morning blaze that came in hard off the desert hills.
It took time before I could keep my eyes open without squinting. The blaze of lemon sunlight struck the window obliquely. Particles of mica and pyrites in the earth made the hills shimmer where they fell away toward the city, eight miles and two thousand feet below. The mountain-ringed city sprawled wide and flat, a pale checkerboard of shopping centers, cardboard houses, Laundromats, drive-in movies. The old quarter, Mexican adobe, was distinguished by heavy trees, green-gray in the distance. River and railroad sliced through on a bias, one pouring down from piney mountains to the northeast, the other rolling through from Texas to California.
It was a big town, dusty and low to the ground, and very, very hot. Two hundred thousand predigested people in three hundred square miles of standardized houses, cars, supermarkets and bowling alleys.
I blinked and stood grinding knuckles into my eye sockets, wishing I had never had a phone installed. The image through the window undulated in hazy waves, heat-smog over the city. Beyond, toward Texas and Mexico, the foothills were studded with dots of creosote, cactus, creek-bank cottonwoods; farther away the high ranges loomed, dark timber peaks slashed by faces of white rock that reflected the sun like fields of snow. The sky, dusty at the horizon, deepened into cobalt clarity overhead.
By the time I could look that high without squinting, I was awake. I turned back from the window.
The bed was rumpled from alcoholic sleep. I picked up the phone and glanced at the clockâit was almost nine. “Okay. Good morning.”
“That's better. Are you all right, Simon?”
“Hung over some.”
Joanne said in her husky, practical voice, “I'd be flattered if I thought you were still tying one on because of me.”