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The proper villain slowed them down. I heard the car when it turned in and I could tell it was going far too fast, but I didn't look around because I was up in the tree fixing the swing. The tree was the huge old cottonwood, probably fifty feet high, that grew on the other side of the house next to the pond.
The swing was a long single length of three-quarter-inch manila rope and to its other end I had already wired a gunny sack stuffed with rags and an old army blanket. The idea was to swing off the porch rail out over the pond, let go of the gunnysack, and drop into the deepest part of the pond with a fine, cool splash.
I looked around after they ran over The Proper Villain, or rather his grave. There had been the usual harsh clatter and clank followed by the screech of rubber bruising itself against metal. If it had been going five miles per hour faster, the car might have broken a shock absorber or two and maybe even an axle.
But that was what The Proper Villain's grave was for—to make cars slow down so that they wouldn't run over our five dogs, eight cats, two goats, six ducks, and a pair of the meanest peacocks in three states and probably the District of Columbia.
When alive The Proper Villain had been a nine-year-old yellow tomcat, alley born and bred somewhere in the freak haven that then lay just east of Dupont Circle in Washington. I had found him late one night in the alley back of the Sulgrave Club on Massachusetts Avenue. I had almost stepped on him and he had spit at me and swatted at my ankle, and the girl I was with, a Londoner from around Maida Vale, or maybe it was Paddington, had giggled and said, "Now there's a proper villain, in't he?" At the time he was six weeks old. Maybe seven.
The Proper Villain lived five years in the carriage house in Washington and four more on the farm near Harpers Ferry before the Sears service truck flattened him on the quarter-mile dirt lane that led from the road to the house. It was the last time I ever bought anything from Sears.
I buried him on the spot, in the middle of the lane, and to mark his grave I built a bump out of rocks, dirt, and some old railroad ties that I found in Charles Town. The bump was a deceptively rounded ridge that stretched across the lane, but if you went over it at more than ten miles per hour, you were in for some front-end work.
Later, still mildly obsessed, I built twenty more of the bumps about fifty feet apart and put up signs reading "Five Miles Per Hour—This Means You" and "Posted—No Hunting" and "Keep Out—Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted" and "Beware of Vicious Dogs." Nobody ever paid any attention to the signs, of course, but they all slowed down to a crawl after they ran over The Proper Villain.
The car that had turned in was a new Mercedes 450 SEL sedan that had that rented or leased look to it. You can always tell. The driver was negotiating the lane cautiously now but I couldn't see who it was because the afternoon sun bounced off the windshield creating a glare. Still, I kept on watching until the car disappeared beneath the pines in front of the house.
I went back to tying the last square knot into the swing's rope and I remember thinking that perhaps I should get a book and teach myself to tie at least one or two other kinds when Ruth came out on the porch and looked up.
"You've got visitors," she said.
"I have or we have?"
"You have. Mr. Murfin and Mr. Quane."
"Yes," she said. "Ah."
"Well, maybe you'd better tell them I'm not here."
"I already told them that you are."
I thought about it for a moment. "Okay. On the porch. We'll do it on the porch."
"You want a little something?"
I thought again, trying to remember. "Bourbon," I said. "They both drink bourbon."
"The good bourbon or the other?"
"That's what I thought," she said and went back into the house.
Murfin and Quane came out on the porch and looked around—to their left, their right, then down, and everywhere but up. I watched them for several seconds, maybe even as many as ten, thinking that they both were older and heavier and even greyer, but carrying their triple burden fairly well, all things considered, although it would take much more than ten seconds to consider all things.
"Up here," I said and then they both looked up a little surprised.
"Harvey," Murfin said and then Quane said, "How the hell are you?"
"Okay," I said. "And you?"
"Not bad," Murfin said and Quane said that he was all right, too.
We looked at each other some more. What I saw were two men in their late thirties whom I had known for twelve years but hadn't seen for three, possibly four. That made Ward Murfin about thirty-eight or thirty-nine. Max Quane was younger, probably thirty-seven. It was the middle of August and hot and neither of them wore coats, but they both wore shirts and ties although the ties were loosened. Murfin's shirt was pale green and Quane's was white with thin black stripes and a tab collar. I remembered then that he had always worn tab collars with a neat little gold pin in them.
"A swing, huh?" Murfin said.
"Uh-huh," I said.
Murfin quickly saw how it would work. "Right off the porch. Right off the rail here and then out over the pond. Shit, I'd like to try that."
"Why not?" I said and started climbing down the tree. I had to go hand over hand along the final branch and then drop about three feet onto the porch rail and balance there without falling. I did it quickly and smoothly, showing off, I suppose, and I could see both Murfin and Quane watching carefully, probably hoping that I'd fall on my ass, and perhaps even wondering if they could do it like that after maybe a bit of practice. I decided not to tell them how many times I'd practiced it.
We shook hands then and they both still had their quick, firm, professional handshakes—the kind that preachers, politicians and most labor organizers have. After that was over I told them to sit anywhere and they decided on two canvas chairs, the kind that they call directors chairs in Hollywood and safari chairs in Africa. I'm not quite sure what they're called in Virginia.
I chose the bench swing, which was the old-fashioned kind suspended from the porch ceiling by thin metal chains. We sat there for a moment inspecting each other, probably for signs of dotage and infirmity, and none of us would have been unhappy at the discovery of a tremulous jowl here or a mild tic there.
Finally Murfin said, "I like your moustache."
I gave it a couple of strokes before I could stop myself. "I've had it a couple of years," I said. "Ruth says she likes it."
"It makes you look something like that old-time movie actor," Quane said. "Hell, he's dead now and I can't even remember his name, but he used to be in a lot of pictures with—uh—Myrna Loy."
"William Powell," Ruth said as she came out on to the porch with the tray. She put the tray down on the huge old wooden industrial cable spool that we used as a porch table. "It makes him look very much like Mr. Powell in My Man Godfrey, although I don't think Miss Loy was in that particular film."
That was how my wife talked about almost everybody, with a kind of grave, gentle formality that I found reassuring and others found disarming and even quaint. She was one of the few persons in the country who, despite her deep personal revulsion, had never referred to him as anything but Mr. Nixon. People sometimes asked me if she were always like that, even in private, and I assured them that she was although I could have added, but didn't, that in private we giggled a lot.
Ruth's excuse for leaving after she put the tray on the table was a charming lie about how she had to drive into Harpers Ferry for something that she had forgotten. I would have believed her myself except that she was one of those persons who almost never forgot anything. But her excuse made both Murfin and Quane preen a little because she made it sound as if she were regretfully forgoing what promised to prove the most fascinating afternoon of her life.
The tray that she had placed on the table contained three glasses, a bucket of ice, a pitcher of water, some fresh mint, and a quart of Virginia Gentleman, which is a bourbon distilled not far from Herndon and has something of a local following.
Neither Murfin nor Quane wanted any mint in their drinks so I mixed two without and one with. After we had all taken our first swallows, Murfin looked around, nodded approvingly at what he could see from the porch, and said, "You sure got it fixed up nice. I never thought you'd ever get it looking like this." He turned to Quane. "I was with him when he bought it; I ever tell you that?"
"About six times," Quane said. "Maybe seven."
"When was it," Murfin said to me, "eleven years ago?"
"Twelve," I said.
"Yeah, 1964. We'd just made that swing through the South about half a jump ahead of old Shorty Trope and he finally catches up with us in New Orleans and, Jesus, is he mad. Jumping up and down, all four foot eleven of him, half drunk like always, and yelling about how he's gonna clean both our plows good." Murfin gave his head a small, regretful shake. "Shorty's dead now. You know that?"
"I didn't know," I said.
"Died a couple of years ago in an old folks' home down in Savannah. Somehow he gets one of the niggers to bring him a jug. Old Cabin Still, I hear. Pays the nigger twenty dollars. Maybe twenty-five. They're not sure cause the nigger lied, of course. Well, Shorty'd been off the booze for a couple of years on account of his heart, but he gets this fifth and drinks her down in a couple of hours and then passes out and dies dead drunk and probably happy."
"Probably," I said.
"How old was he by then," Quane said, "sixty?"
"Sixty-three," said Murfin who always liked to have all the details, even down to the amount of the fatal bribe. It was probably what made him good at what he did.
He went on with his tale, Quane only half listening now because by his own count this would be the eighth time that he'd heard it. Murfin told how he and I had flown out of New Orleans about two in the morning, both of us more than a little drunk, and still nowhere near sober when we landed at Dulles at six, and how I'd bought a copy of the Washington Post and read the ad and then had insisted that he drive me all the way out here, although it really wasn't much more than half an hour from Dulles. From Washington it was an hour. Often a little more.
"It sure as shit didn't look like much then, did it, Harvey?"
"Not much," I said.
"Well, by God, we walked all over it, over all eighty acres with this old guy who owned it—what was his name? Started with a P."
"Pasjk," I said. "Emil Pasjk."
"Yeah, Pasjk," Murfin said. "Well, this old man Pasjk says he wants three-fifty an acre and Harvey here dickers with him some and then goes out to the car and comes back with a bottle of gin, Dixie Belle, I remember, and they dicker some more and by ten o'clock in the morning the gin's half gone and the old man's down to three hundred an acre so Longmire here whips out his checkbook and writes a twenty-four-hundred-dollar bum check for the down payment. How much you have in the bank then, Harvey?"
"About what I've got now," I said. "Three hundred. Maybe three fifty."
"It must be worth a hell of a lot more than that now," Quane said.
"Shoot," Murfin said, "you could probably get twenty-five hundred an acre for it now, couldn't you?"
"Maybe," I said.
Quane took another swallow of his drink and looked around. He was still looking away from me when he said, "We've got an idea that maybe might interest you."
"Uh-huh," I said and I must not have been able to keep it out of my voice, whatever it was, probably suspicion, maybe even dread, because Murfin caught it, countered it with a small deprecatory gesture, and said, "I swear it's nothing like the last one."
"The last one," I said, perhaps a little dreamily. "I remember the last one. A rare gem of an idea. Maybe even one without price. It's still kind of hard to decide. I remember that I had to get all dressed up in a suit and tie and drive into Washington and have lunch at the Jockey Club and drink four martinis while I listened to your invitation to hop on the bandwagon for twelve hundred and fifty a week plus expenses. It was January thirteenth, as I recall, 1972. That was the last one you guys came up with. Wilbur Mills for President. Jesus."
Quane grinned. "Yeah, that one didn't work out too well, but the money was good."
"How long did it last?" I said.
Quane looked at Murfin. "Couple of months, wasn't it?"
"About that," Murfin said. "Then everybody found out that it wasn't a boom after all. What it was was sort of a popcorn fart."
"But now you've got something else," I said to Murfin. "Something that lets you drive a leased Mercedes and keeps Quane here in hundred-dollar loafers."
Quane put a foot up on the table and let us admire one of his loafers. The right one. "Hell of a shoe," he said.
"We sort of fell into the honeypot, me and Quane," Murfin said.
"What's the honeypot's name?" I said.
Murfin grinned. It was his hard, nasty, pleased grin—not quite vicious, and although I had seen it often enough before it never failed to make me want to look away—as though I had been given a quick peek at some awful private deformity that was really none of my business. "Roger Vullo," he said.
"Well," I said.
"Vullo Pharmaceuticals," Murfin said.
"I know. How old is he now?"
Murfin looked at Quane. "Twenty-nine?"
Quane nodded. "About that."
"What's he up to this time?" I said. "The last I heard he was trying to buy himself a Congress."
"Did pretty good, too," Murfin said. "He spent maybe a million or so and ninety-six percent of the ones he backed got elected and it was gonna be veto-proof, except it didn't quite work out like that, and Vullo got a little disillusioned with politics."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "At least I think I am."
"Vullo came up with something else," Quane said.
I nodded. "One should keep busy."
"We've been setting it up for him." Quane said.
I nodded again. "He chose well."
"Us and the lawyers and some computer people."
"It sounds fat," I said.
"It is," Murfin said.
"What've you been setting up, you and the lawyers and the computer people?"
"It's kind of a foundation," Quane said.
"Something to do with good works," I said. "And taxes, too, I imagine. Good works and taxes often seem to go hand in hand. What's the foundation to be called?"
"The Arnold Vullo Foundation," Murfin said.
"Touching," I said. "After his late father."
"Grandfather, too," Quane said. "The grandfather's name was Arnold."
"Also the elder brother as I remember," I said. "I mean Roger's elder brother. He was Arnold Vullo the third. All three of them, wasn't it, plus the mother. I mean all three Arnold Vullo's, plus Mrs. Arnold Vullo the second, were killed in that private plane crash leaving poor Roger at what, twenty-one, the sole heir to perhaps two hundred million or thereabouts?"
"Thereabouts," Quane said.
"They never did find out who put the bomb in the plane, did they?" I said.
"Never did," Murfin said.
"Young Roger was upset, as I recall," I said. "He went around making public statements about shoddy police work. I think he said shoddy."
"In private he said shitty," Murfin said. "Shoddy was what he used in all those press releases he put out. And that's what the foundation's all about."
"Shitty police work?" I said. "A ripe field. Very ripe."
"He's narrowed it down," Quane said.
"Christ," I said, "who sold him on that? You two? I'm not saying that you don't know a lot about conspiracy. I mean, if I wanted to put one together—you know, a really first-class job—I'd certainly come to you guys."
"Funny," Quane said, "that's just what Ward and I were saying on the way out here. About you, I mean."
We sat there on the porch in silence for a moment. And then, almost on cue, we each took another swallow of our drinks. Quane lit a cigarette. A mockingbird cut loose nearby with a shrill series of his latest impressions. Somewhere one of the dogs barked once, a lazy, half-hearted bark. Honest Tuan, the Siamese, stalked out onto the porch as if he thought he might have some business with the mockingbird. He changed his mind abruptly and decided that what he really wanted to do was flop down and yawn, which he did.
Excerpted from Yellow-Dog Contract by Ross Thomas. Copyright © 1977 Ross Thomas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 29, 2011
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