"What's your name?"
"What's your full name?"
"What's your first name?"
"Irwin. Irwin Fletcher. People call me Fletch."
"Irwin Fletcher, I have a proposition to make to you. I will give you a thousand dollars for just listening to it. If you decide to reject the proposition, you take the thousand dollars, go away, and never tell anyone we talked. Fair enough?"
"Is it criminal? I mean, what you want me to do?"
"Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to murder me."
The black shoes tainted with sand came across the oriental rug. The man took an envelope from an inside pocket of his suit jacket and dropped it into Fletch's lap. Inside were ten one-hundred-dollar bills.
The man had returned the second day to the sea wall to watch Fletch. Only thirty yards away, he used binoculars.
The third day, he met Fletch at the beer stand.
"I want you to come with me."
"I want to make you an offer."
"I'm not that way."
"Neither am I. There's a job I might like to have you do for me."
"Why can't we talk here?"
"This is a very special job."
"Where are we going?"
"To my house. I'll want you to know where it is. Do you have any clothes on the beach?"
"Just a shirt."
"Get it. My caris a gray Jaguar XKE, parked at the curb. I will be waiting in it for you."
"I want to drink my beer first."
"Bring it with you. You can drink it in the car."
Walking away through the beach crowd, the man looked as out of place in his dark business suit as an insurance adjuster at a jalopy jamboree. No one appeared to notice him.
Keeping his shirt over it, Fletch picked up the plastic bag off the sand.
He sat a few feet away from his group, his shirt over the plastic bag beside him. Looking at the ocean, he drank some of the beer he held in his left hand. With his right hand he dug a hole in the sand under his shirt.
"What's happening?" Bobbi asked.
She was belly-down on a towel.
He put the plastic bag into the hole and covered it over with sand.
"I guess I'm splittin'," he said. "For a while."
"Will you be back tonight?"
Slinging his shirt over his shoulder, he started away.
"Gimme a swallow before you go."
Bobbi jacked herself on her elbow and took some of the beer.
"That's good," she said.
"Hey, man," Creasey said.
Fletch said, "Splittin'. Too much sun."
The license plate of the car was 440-001.
In the car, Fletch sat with the can of cold beer between his knees. The man drove smoothly and silently. Below sunglasses, the man's face was expressionless. On his left hand was a college ring. He used a gold cigarette lighter from his jacket pocket rather than the dashboard lighter.
In the shorefront traffic, the air-conditioner was making the car cold. Fletch opened the window. The man turned the air-conditioner off.
He took the main road going north from town and accelerated. The car cornered beautifully on the curves going up into The Hills. He slowed, turned left on Hawthorne, then right on Berman Street.
The house was what made Berman Street a dead end. If it weren't for signs on the iron-grilled gate saying PRIVATE PROPERTYNO TRESPASSINGSTANWYK, the road would appear to continue straight onto the driveway. There were two acres of lawn on each side of the driveway in front of the house.
Fletch threw his beer can through the window onto the lawn. The man did not appear to notice.
The house was built like a Southern mansion, with white pillars before a deep verandah.
The man closed the door to the library behind them.
"Why do you want to die?"
The envelope weighed little in the palm of Fletch's right hand.
"I am facing a long, ugly, painful and certain death."
"A while ago I was told I have cancer. I've had it checked and had it rechecked. It's terminal. Nonoperable, nontreatable cancer."
"You don't look it."
"I don't feel it. A kind of general rottenness. It's in its early stages. The docs say it will be a while before it's noticeable to others. Then it will move very swiftly."
"How long will it take?"
"They say three months, maybe four. Not six months, anyway. From what they say, I would guess in a month from now I won't be able to conceal that I have it."
"So? A month's a month."
"When you make a decision like this . . . that you're going . . . to be dead . . . you uh . . . decide to do it as quickly, as soon as possible. You try to cut the dying time."
Hands behind his back, the man was facing the french windows. Fletch guessed he was in his early thirties.
"Why don't you kill yourself? Why do you need me?"
"My company has me insured for three million dollars. I have a wife and child. There is no point in losing the money, which I would, or rather my heirs would, if I committed suicide. On the other hand, for three million dollars it's not worth going through that much pain and unpleasantness. I believe I have made an entirely rational decision."
The paintings in the room were not particularly good, in Fletch's opinion, but they were real.
"You're a drifter. You suddenly showed up in town. You just as suddenly leave. No one will think about it in particular, or connect you with the murder. There will be no way of connecting you and me. You see, I have planned your escape. It is very important to me that you escape. If you were caught, and talked, as you would, the insurance would be voided."
"Supposing I'm not a drifter. Supposing I'm just on vacation."
"Is that what you're telling me? That you're on vacation?"
"I've been watching you off and on the last few days. You're on the beach with the dregs of society. You associate exclusively with drug addicts. I must assume you are one yourself."
"Maybe I'm a cop."
"You have a deep body tan, Irwin Fletcher. You're as skinny as an alley cat. The soles of your feet are callused. You've been on the road a long time."
"Why did you pick me over the other kids on the beach?"
"You're no kid. You look younger, but you're almost thirty."
"You're not as far gone as the others. You're addicted, I suppose. Otherwise you couldn't stand to live with those freaks. But you still seem able to operate."
"I'm a fairly reliable-looking drifter."
"Don't feel complimented."
Fletch said, "What makes you think I want to commit murder?"
"Twenty thousand dollars. And a guarantee you won't get caught."
After staring out the window, it took the man's eyes a moment to adjust to the room. He was unable to look at Fletch without an expression of mild disgust.
"You can't tell me you don't need money. Addicts always need money. Even beginners. Maybe your taking this opportunity will prevent your committing more genuine crimes."
"Why isn't this a genuine crime?"
"It's a mercy killing. Are you married?"
"I have been," Fletch said. "Twice."
"And now you're on the road. From where are you originally?"
"So you commit an act of mercy, make some money, and split. What's wrong with that?"
"I don't know. I'm not sure."
"Are you ready for more?"
"More of the plan. Or are you ready to quit?"
"I'm ready. Go ahead."
"I want to die next Thursday, a week from tonight, at about eight-thirty. It should look like the usual murder-robbery scene. The servants will be out, as they are now, and my wife will be at a committee meeting at the Racquets Club.
"These french windows will be unlocked. The damned servants always forget to lock them anyway." He swung the door open and closed it with his hand. "I used to complain about it until I realized their stupidity could be useful. At the moment, we do not have a dog.
"I'll be in this room alone, waiting for you. I will already have opened the safe, and in it will be twenty thousand dollars, in tens and twenties, which will be yours after you have murdered me. I don't imagine opening a safe is one of your skills?"
"Too bad. It would look better if it were authentically burglarized. At least be sure to wear gloves. I don't want you to get caught.
"In the drawer here," he said, reaching inside the top right-hand desk drawer, "is a gun which is always loaded." It was a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson. The man showed him that it was loaded. "I figure you should use my gun, so no one can trace it to you. Before you come, I will mess up the house a bit to indicate robbery.
"The trick will be to make it look as if I have caught you at burglary, you have already been in my desk, you have my gun, you shoot me. Can you shoot?"
"Were you in the service?"
"Either the head or the heart. Just make it quick and painless, and, for Christ's sake, make sure you're thorough. Do you have a passport?"
"No," Fletch lied.
"Of course not. Get one. That should be the first order of business, as that will take time. It's not tourist season, so it shouldn't take more than three or four days. But get started tomorrow.
"After you murder me, you will drive the Jaguar, which will be parked out front, to the airport. Leave the car in the Trans World Airlines parking lot. You will be taking the eleven o'clock flight to Buenos Aires. I will make the reservation, and pay for it, in your name, tomorrow. I figure twenty thousand dollars should buy you some fun in Buenos Aires. For a year or two."
"Fifty thousand dollars would buy me even more fun."
"You want fifty thousand dollars? Murder doesn't cost that much."
"You forget you're to be the victim. You want it done humanely."
The man's eyes narrowed contemptuously.
"You're right. Of course. I guess fifty thousand dollars can be arranged without causing suspicion."
The man returned to stare through the french windows. Clearly he did not like looking at Fletch.
"I'm doing everything I can to guarantee that you don't get caught. All you have to remember are gloves and a passport. The gun will be provided, and a seat on the plane will be reserved and prepaid."
The man asked, "Will you murder me?"
Fletch said, "Sure."
"Where are you, Fletcher?"
"I'm in a phone booth."
"Are you all right?"
"I was afraid of that."
"I love you, too, bitch."
"Endearments will get you nowhere."
"There's nowhere I want to get with you. Listen: I'm driving up tonight."
"To the office?"
"I think I'm onto something interesting."
"Does it have to do with the drugs-on-the-beach story?"
"As a matter of fact, no."
"Then I don't want to hear about it."
"I'm not going to tell you about it anyway."
"Frank was asking for the drug-beach story again this afternoon."
"He wants it, Fletcher. That's scheduled as a major magazine story, and you were supposed to be in with it three issues ago."
"I'm doing fine with it."
"He wants it now, Fletcher. With pictures. Frank was pretty boiled this afternoon, and you know how much I love you."
"You'd stick up for me, wouldn't you, Clara?"
"In a pig's ass.''
"You can't take me off the story now, and Frank knows it. I've got too much time in on it. Besides, no one else in the office has my tan."
"What we can do is fire you for failure to complete an assignment."
"Why don't you stop talking, Clara? I said I'm driving up tonight."
"There are some people who are just too goddamned obnoxious to have around."
"Which reminds me, Fletcher. Another sleazy lawyer was around the office again this afternoon looking for you. Something about nonpayment of alimony."
"Which wife this time?"
"How the hell do I know? Don't you pay either of them?"
"They both wanted to be free of me. They're both free."
"But the court says you're not free of them."
"When I want legal advice, Clara, I'll ask."
"Keep those bums out of the office. Your alimony problems are not our problems."
"And don't come back here until you have that goddamned story done."
"I can miss a day with the little darlings. I sort of told the kids I was splitting anyway. For a while. I can get back here by tomorrow night. And have another wonderful weekend on the beach."
"I said no, Fletcher. If you've accomplished anything at all down there, you must have caused some curiosity. Going for your car now and driving up to the office would just expose everything. You shouldn't even be in a phone booth talking to me."
"I want to come up to make some phone calls and do some digging."
"On this story? The beach one?"
"No. The other one."
"We don't give a damn about any other story until you finish this one."
"Clara? I'm cold. I'm still in swimming trunks."
"I care. Get off the phone and get doin' what you're supposed to be doin'. It's seven-thirty, and I've had a long day."
"Bye, Clara. Nice talking with you. Don't get any crumbs in Frank's bed."
Running on the beach warmed him. The setting sun made his shadow gigantic, his strides seem enormous. There were people still on the beach, as there always were these days. Taking off his shirt as he ran made his shadow on the sand look as if he were Big Bird trying to take off.
Near Fat Sam's lean-to, he threw his shirt on the sand and sat beside it. His aim had been perfect. Under the shirt he dug up the plastic bag. His fingers told him that the camera was still inside.
With the bag wrapped in his shirt, Fletch ambled back along the beach to the residential section. The houses became more spacious and the distances between them greater.
A checkbook was on the sand. Fletch picked it up. Merchants Bank. No depositor's name was printed on the checks, but there was an account number, and a balance of seven hundred eighty-five dollars and thirty-four cents.
Fletch stuck the checkbook into a back pocket of his sawed-off blue jeans.
A man stoking a barbecue pit yelled at him as he cut through a back yard. Fletch gestured at him in Italian.
He picked up his keys in the office and padded over the greasepacked garage floor to where his MG was parked. In the trunk were long jeans and a sweater.
"Hey, jerk!" The guy in the office was fat and bald. "You can't change your pants in here. You can't strip in a public place."
"Wise ass. What if some ladies were around?"
"There are no ladies in California."
Copyright 2002 by Gregory Mcdonald