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"A first-rate political novel of manners...the pace is superb, the plot brilliantly intricate, the dialogue crackling and witty." The National Review.
They were old hundred-dollar bills, a little limp now, even a little greasy, and one of them had a rip in it that somebody had neatly mended with a strip of Scotch tape. There had been seventy-five of them to begin with, but by the time they reached Truman Goff only fifty were left—fifty one-hundred-dollar bills, $5,000, and exactly the price that Truman Goff had decided to charge that year.
It had taken three weeks for the $5,000 to reach Goff. This was due only in part to the chronic whimsy of the Post Office. The major delay was caused by the five other persons who had dipped into the original $7,500 sum, each taking out two or three and even ten of the bills for himself before resealing what were left and mailing them off to the next address along with the white, three-by-five-inch card that bore the name that was printed with pencil in what most newspapers like to describe as crude block letters.
First stop for the $7,500 and the penciled name had been the fifth-story, one-room office of a fifty-two-year-old private detective in downtown Minneapolis who specialized in what he always described to clients as electronic surveillance. The detective's name was Karl Syftestad and most of his clients were middle-aged husbands who thought, or just hoped, that Syftestad could slip around and get something on their wives that would hold up in divorce court.
In good years, Syftestad's agency in the Benser Building netted him about $9,000 that he dutifully reported to the state and federal tax people. He usually managed to make another, unreported nine or ten thousand for arranging what he regarded as introductions.
For $300 he could introduce you to someone who would sell you a new Cadillac or Continental for only $3,500, if you weren't too concerned about the validity of its Texas title. For beatings, Syftestad charged $500 and always assured customers that the prospective victim "will sure as shit know he's had a good stompin." The beatings were administered by a Minneapolis fireman during his off-duty hours. Syftestad and the fireman divided the $500 fee equally.
The letter containing the $7,500 was delivered to Syftestad at 11 A.M. on August 14, a Monday. The only other mail was a junk piece from a wholesale camera dealer in St. Louis that Syftestad read carefully before tossing into his wastebasket. He read all his mail carefully because he didn't get much.
There wasn't anything to read in the brown, oblong, manila envelope that contained the $7,500 other than the name penciled on the white card. Syftestad recognized the name and he felt that he should somehow give it its due so he pursed his lips and whistled a couple of notes off-key. Then he counted the money.
It was the seventh time in four years that Syftestad had received a letter like the one that now lay on his desk. The first one that came had contained only $5,000—and a penciled name. It had arrived two days after Syftestad had received a phone call from a man who identified himself as Bill, Just Bill.
"You're gonna like what I'm gonna tell you," the man who claimed that his name was Just Bill had said.
"What am I gonna like?"
"We're gonna let you make a couple of bills every now and then for doing nothing."
"What's doing nothing?"
"Doing nothing's doing nothing. You'll get an envelope with some money in it. All you gotta do is take out your two bills, find another envelope, and send what's left along to an address I'm gonna give you. You'll have to buy your own stamps."
"That's all?" Syftestad had asked.
"That's all. That's absolutely all. Like I said, it's for doing nothing."
"Yeah, well, I don't know—"
"We like you. We really do. We don't wanta see anything happen to you and the reason we chose you is because we think you know how easy it is for something to happen to somebody. Am I getting through?"
"Yeah," Syftestad had said. "Kind of."
"Well, that's fine then. It's only just sort of playing post office. That's all it is really."
"You're sure that's all?"
"Why should I lie to you?"
"Why shouldn't you? Everybody else does."
The man who called himself Bill had chuckled in a sad, tinny, humorless sort of way, as though he wanted to demonstrate that he knew how to do it. "Well, there's no funny business on our part and I'm sure that there's not gonna be any funny business on your part, if you follow me and I think that you do."
"Uh-huh. I follow you."
"Okay then, that's fine. Now you got something to write with?"
"I got something."
Over the telephone the man who called himself Bill slowly had given Syftestad a name and address in East St. Louis, Illinois. It was a simple address and the name was even simpler, but Bill told Syftestad to read it back twice. When he was satisfied that Syftestad had everything right, Bill had said, "Just one more thing."
"Don't lose it."
Then Bill had hung up and Syftestad never heard from him again—except indirectly through the letters that contained the money and the penciled names. The first letter had contained $6,000. The next three rose to $6,500, then to $7,000 where they had remained until the seventh and last letter, which contained $7,500.
Because Syftestad was an ignorant man, the penciled names that the previous six letters contained had meant nothing to him. If he had been an assiduously careful reader of The Minneapolis Tribune, he might have seen, but probably not remembered, one or two or even three of the names during the course of a year, but they would have been buried in short, dull stories from AP or UPI about something fairly high-minded and therefore uninteresting that had happened in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago or Washington.
But Syftestad didn't read newspapers much anymore, except for an occasional glance at the sports pages. He got whatever news he thought he needed from television, which was where most people got theirs, and the six names that had come across his desk during the past four years were not the kind that made network newscasts.
So Syftestad was content with his ignorance because he was smart enough to believe that he knew why a stranger would entrust him to send large sums of money to an address in East St. Louis. I sure as hell wouldn't want to see my name written down on one of those little white cards, Syftestad thought, whenever he thought about it at all, which wasn't often, because there wasn't enough money in it to think about it often and besides, it was kind of unpleasant, and Syftestad didn't like to think about anything unpleasant if he could help it, which he usually could.
But the name that was written on the card that now lay before him on his desk meant something because it belonged to a man who hired people to see that it occasionally got on the network newscasts. The people that he hired to do this were fairly successful because the position that the man held was sufficiently important to command some national interest. Not much perhaps, but some.
Syftestad poked the card with his right forefinger. The name on the card meant money, if he could figure the angle. For a moment or two Syftestad grew mildly enthusiastic about the possibilities. The enthusiasm waned when he remembered the man who had called himself Bill over the telephone. You're not smart enough to figure an angle against people like that, he told himself. You're just smart enough to play post office. So he sighed, took two one-hundred-dollar bills from the pile in front of him, folded them and put them in his trouser pocket, found an envelope, and used a ball-point pen to print the name and address of the man in East St. Louis, Illinois, the name and address that had been given to him four years ago.
As he dropped the envelope down the mail chute, Karl Syftestad told himself that he would start reading the paper more carefully during the next few weeks. It might be real interesting, he decided, like reading about something that you had something to do with.CHAPTER 2
Three days later, on August 17, a Thursday, the envelope that the Minneapolis private detective had dropped in the mail chute was delivered to a corner bar at the intersection of Margate Avenue and Winder Street in East St. Louis, Illinois, which meant that the letter had found its way to the heart of a professionally tough neighborhood in what people who are usually up on such things regard as a professionally tough town.
The corner bar was called just that, The Corner Bar, by its owner and proprietor, Julius C. Eames, who was black, a little over 214 pounds, and who had won the place eight years before in a crap game over in Joplin, Missouri, by making a four the hard way. Eames hadn't gambled much since, because he was convinced that he had used up whatever luck the Lord had allotted him that night in Joplin when he had walked out of the game with the bar and $5,469 in cash. Now he contented himself with selling a fair amount of Dixie Belle gin, Smirnoff vodka, Thunderbird wine, and Falstaff beer. He also sold quite a bit of Seagram's Seven, but not much Scotch.
The Corner Bar earned him a living, but not what could be called a good one, so he supplemented his income by helping his customers out with small loans. He lent them $50 on Friday and they paid him back $60 a week later. Eames usually had about $1,500 out on loan and there weren't many defaulters, partly because most of his customers genuinely appreciated the service and partly because all of them knew about the stickup.
The stickup had happened four years before, just after Eames had received a phone call from the man who called himself Just Bill and who had wanted Eames to provide much the same service that Syftestad had agreed to provide in Minneapolis. Eames had refused, a little curtly. Three days later a tall, slender brown youth had walked into The Corner Bar, aimed a .22 Iver Johnson target revolver at Eames, and demanded money. Eames had nodded thoughtfully and then started around the bar, heading for the slender youth who shot him three times before Eames reached him, took away the .22, and broke the youth's neck with the edge of his left hand.
When Eames got out of the hospital nine days later he was something of a neighborhood hero. He also received another call from the man called Bill.
"We sorta liked the way you handled that kid we sent around to see you," Bill had said. "The way we heard it, you done a real neat job."
"Say you sent him?"
"That's right. Of course, he was just a kid. We coulda sent around somebody a little older. With a bigger gun. You know what I mean."
"Uh-huh," Eames had said. "I do exactly. Maybe you better tell me again just what it is you want me to do."
So Bill had told him and now Eames, for the seventh time, was concentrating mightily as he sat in the back booth of The Corner Bar and laboriously printed out the name of a man who lived in Buffalo, New York. Eames didn't bother to read the name that was penciled on the white card.
The man who lived in Buffalo had been born there thirty-six years before and now ran an Italian restaurant that he had inherited from his father, Frank Martelli, who had died in 1959 while sitting peacefully in his living room. The undertaker hadn't been able to do much with Frank Martelli, because of the way the shotgun pellets had taken away most of his head, so the casket had been closed at the funeral. The younger Martelli, who was called Frank Junior by everyone although his real name was Enrico, took over the restaurant after his father died and because he kept his mouth shut, his father's former business associates let him alone most of the time.
When Frank Junior got the letter from Eames on August 21, a Monday, he took five of the one-hundred-dollar bills, stuffed them away in a pocket, and quickly placed the remaining sixty-six bills in a brown envelope that he had already addressed to a box number in Jack, Oklahoma. Frank Junior recognized the name that was penciled on the white card and crossed himself. Since the death of his father, he had turned to his religion, becoming almost devout but not so much so that he ever told anyone about the penciled name on the white card, not even his priest.
The post office in Jack, Oklahoma, was in the general store that old man Wimple had owned and run for forty-two years. When the letter from Buffalo, New York, arrived he put it in that new fella's box. That new fella was using the name Bryan Simpson and he had lived with his wife on a 160-acre farm about nine miles out of Jack for six years now, running a few head of white-faced cattle, but not growing anything except blackjack oaks as far'as most folks could see. Everyone around Jack thought that Simpson's wife had money because he was sure a shiftless sort and drank a lot to boot. He also looked a little Indian, which—in that part of Oklahoma—was only something to comment on, but nothing to get upset and bothered about.
Simpson didn't open the letter until he got back to his farm. He counted the money first and put six of the bills aside for himself. He glanced at the white card and grinned when he recognized the name. It was sure going to be something to watch on TV, he thought. After he addressed the envelope and sealed its contents of sixty one-hundred-dollar bills and the white card with the penciled name, he went to the closet and took out a small gray cashbox and unlocked it.
He put the six one-hundred-dollar bills in with the rest of the money in the box, which was what was left from the $126,000 that he had taken from the L Street Branch of the Riggs National Bank all by himself one summer afternoon in Washington a little over six years ago. He then got in his Chevrolet pickup and drove 81 miles to Ft. Smith where he mailed the letter.
From Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the money and the white card flew to Los Angeles where they were delivered on August 29, a Tuesday, to Miss Joan Littlestone who lived in an apartment in the 900 block on Hilldale a block or so down from Sunset. Miss Littlestone was known to be bright, pleasant, and scrupulously fair with customers and employees alike. She supervised six girls and was highly respected in the trade in which she had been engaged, in one capacity or another, for thirty-seven of her fifty-three years. When the man called Just Bill had telephoned her, she had readily agreed to do what he wanted her to do because it was her nature to do what men wanted her to do, no matter how bizarre. The fee of $1,000 per forwarding seemed ridiculously high to her, but she hadn't questioned it. She had learned long ago that some men liked to pay more than they should; that, in fact, some men liked to be cheated and, as always, Miss Littlestone tried to be accommodating whenever she could and when the risk was low. Or at least not too high.
She took ten of the bills for herself and then carefully printed the name and address of the man who lived in Baltimore on the envelope. She glanced at the card that came with the money, but only the first name that was penciled on it stayed in her memory. Surnames hadn't proved too useful, or reliable, in Miss Littlewood's business and she seldom bothered with them.
It took six days for the letter to travel from Los Angeles to Baltimore by air because of a minor mix-up at O'Hare field in Chicago. The letter was waiting for Truman Goff when he arrived at his three-bedroom tract house in West Baltimore after putting in a full day at his job as produce manager of a Safeway store in the inner core of the city where the pilferage rate kept rising at a steady, almost predictable rate.
Goff drove an Oldsmobile Toronado, which was rather fancy for a supermarket produce manager, but not so much so that anyone would wonder where he had got the money. They would ascribe its ownership to self-indulgence and assume that it wasn't paid for anymore than theirs were paid for and like theirs, probably wouldn't be until it wore out and Truman Goff would have to see what he could trade it in for.
When Goff got home that Monday evening in early September his ten-year-old daughter, Miranda, was watching television as usual. It was nearly nine o'clock because the Safeway where he worked stayed open until eight.
Goff said how are you to his daughter who replied, hi, Daddy, and he went on into the kitchen and said, what's new, to his wife as he opened the refrigerator and took out a can of National beer.
"Not much," his wife said. "You got a letter. It came in the mail today."
"I don't open your mail."
"I just thought it might be on the outside. A return address."
"I didn't see any."
"Well, where is it?"
"Where the mail always is. On the dining table. When you want to eat?"
"When I finish my beer," Goff said. "What're we gonna have?"
Excerpted from The Porkchoppers by Ross Thomas. Copyright © 1972 Ross Thomas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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