New York Times Book Review
Comeback (Parker Series #17)by Richard Stark
Last seen in 1974's Butcher's Moon the great hard-boiled criminal character, Parker, returns. This time he's ripping off an evangelist in the middle of a prayer meeting! Parker and his cohorts make off with duffel bags full of cash. The/i>/i>
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In a world of warped values, an honest crook like Parker is a true treasure. -- New York Times
Last seen in 1974's Butcher's Moon the great hard-boiled criminal character, Parker, returns. This time he's ripping off an evangelist in the middle of a prayer meeting! Parker and his cohorts make off with duffel bags full of cash. The half-million-dollar robbery of a Christian crusade draws cops, crooks and the evangelist's own unrelenting security man. What began as a gathering of the faithful turns into a nightmare where every move has a countermove, every man is on his own, and every lie leads to the deadliest moments of truth.
New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
A Parker Novel
By Richard Stark
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1997 Richard Stark
All rights reserved.
When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage. A hymn filtered discordantly through the rough walls; thousands of voices, raggedly together. The angel said, "I'm not sure about this ..."
"We are," Parker told him. Holding the door open with one splayed hand, he nodded back at Mackey and Liss, who slipped in quickly past him, carrying the duffel bags. Parker shut the metal fire door and pulled up on the bar to lock it again, while Liss stood his duffel on the floor with a muffled clank and loosened the loop of rope that closed the top. Mackey's duffel was full of other duffel bags, and for now stayed on his shoulder. Liss slid the rough canvas cloth of the bag down past the blunt metal barrels, then took out the three shotguns, giving one each to Parker and Mackey, then flipping the empty bag over his shoulder.
The angel blinked, watching. His heavy white robe and strapped-on feathery wings must have been hot, even in the air-conditioned arena; the white makeup on his face ran with perspiration, giving him the look of somebody who'd been dead a long time. Inside the costume and the makeup and the sweat, he was scared, with frightened pinpoint eyes. "There's too many guards," he said. His voice squeaked with the requirement that he keep it guarded and quiet. "Too much going on. We'll do it another time. A better time."
"We're set up now, Tom," Liss said. "You got nerves, that's all." He and Parker and Mackey had taken shells from their shirt pockets, broke open the shotguns, and were thumbing the shells into place.
"I don't want to do it now!" The angel's voice was more and more shrill, echoing around the echoes of the distant hymn. "We'll get caught!"
This amateur, this inside man, was Liss's pigeon; let Liss smooth his feathers. Parker saw Liss's jaw muscles set on the left side, where they worked. Liss didn't like his pigeon acting up in front of the string. He said, "Don't worry about it, okay? Lead the way."
But the angel wouldn't move. Blinking sweat out of his eyes, fidgeting his hands together as the limp wings moved on his back, he said, "We can't do it. I told somebody."
They all became very still. They looked at the angel, whose name was Tom Carmody. Liss said, "A woman?"
The angel looked ashamed. "Yes. I thought it was all right, but ..."
"She's gone. She isn't at home. She isn't at work. Nobody knows where she is." Parker said, "She's with this bunch? Your bunch?"
"No, she teaches at a special school for disturbed kids. They don't know where she is."
Mackey leaned his duffel bag against the wall. He said, "You live with her?"
"No. Not really. She has her own place." The angel was miserable, he was scared and embarrassed and unhappy. He was also an asshole. He said, "I don't know what she'll do."
Liss said, "Tom? You two have a fight? She mad at you? Maybe go to the cops?" "No, no, nothing like that, she just disappeared. I don't know why."
Liss looked around at his partners. He'd brought them into this, and now a decision had to be made. "What do you think?"
Parker said, "How much did he tell her? Everything—"
"Just a little!" the angel cried.
Parker looked at him. "Shut up." To the others he said, "Everything she wanted to know, that's how much. So she has the route in, she has a little idea what's going down inside, but not the route out. We're here, so if it's trouble, it's already trouble."
"That's right," Mackey said. "No point stopping."
Liss turned back to Carmody and gestured with the shotgun. "Lead the way."
"Please." Carmody spread his hands like a holy statue. "Please let's just call it off, it's just a mistake, it would be better to burn the rotten money than—"
Parker reached out and closed his left hand around Carmody's right thumb, bending the thumb in on itself, applying only the slightest pressure. Carmody's face turned almost as white as the makeup smeared on it, his knees bent, his mouth opened in a wide O. Parker said, "Shut up, now. You said your say. Now we walk to the money room."
Carmody tried to say something else, but Parker squeezed just a little bit harder, and no sound but a faint whimper came out of the angel's mouth. Obedient, wide-eyed, he turned, his sandals shuffling on the concrete, and they all walked together along the gently curving corridor, lit by widely spaced fluorescent tubes mounted on the ceiling. Parker and the angel looked like they were holding hands, flanked by the other two as they walked from light to light, the three big hard-boned men in dark clothing, carrying shotguns, all round the bedraggled angel, shoulders slumped beneath the useless wings.
The hymn-singing got louder as they progressed, more aggressive, ridding the world of evil by shouting at it. A side corridor went up to the left, and they paused there to look.
That corridor, tunnel-like, was dark and low-ceilinged, with a closed mesh gate at the end. Beyond the mesh were the bright field lights, washing the arena in a glare of white, so that from where Parker and the others stood it was impossible to make out exactly what was taking place on the artificial turf out there. A mass of people, their backs turned, all swaying so that the light glinted and shifted, harsh white bleaching out the colors, making the shadows blacker than black. Except for the rolling roar of the hymn, almost anything could have been going on out there; a political rally, a demolition derby, a football game. At one time or another, the arena had been used for all of those, but tonight the attraction that had brought twenty thousand souls to this domed arena in the American heartland was William Archibald and his Christian Crusade.
The hymn ended. The people shuffled and stirred, and the amplified fruity voice of Archibald himself sounded above and around and among them all as though speaking from a cloud: "Brothers! Sisters! Fellow mortals!"
"Come on," Parker said, and tugged gently on the thumb.
Tom Carmody's resistance was all used up. As the other two followed, he plodded along at Parker's side, shaking his head slowly. "I hate that bastard," he muttered, but in an exhausted way, without passion. "I hate his lying voice. I hate everything he does. I ought to burn the money, and him in it. Burn him in his own rotten piles of cash."
Parker tightened his grip on Carmody's bent thumb, just a little, just enough to bring him back to earth. "Where's the money room?"
"Ahead!" Pain and surprise were in Carmody's voice; he hadn't known he deserved punishment. "Just up ahead."
"Keep your mind on what we're doing."
They walked a little farther, the corridor constantly curving, appearing ahead of them, disappearing behind their backs, and then they came to a brown metal door on the interior side of the curve, with white block letters reading NO ADMITTANCE. Parker released the angel's thumb, and Carmody immediately closed his other hand around it, like one small animal comforting another. "Do it," Parker said, and prodded him in the side with the shotgun barrel, the blued metal poking into the white folds of the robe.
As the three armed men stood against the shadowed wall, Carmody stumbled forward and stood in front of the door. His left hand reluctantly released the aching thumb and pressed the button beside the door. He stood there blinking, the sharp fluorescent light above his head making him look more like a clown than an angel, and then a harsh voice sounded from the grid below the button: "Yes?"
"Hi, Harry. It's Tom Carmody." The angel's voice sounded almost normal; it hardly quavered at all.
"Hi, Tom," said the voice from the grid. "Come on in." A raspy buzzing sound came from the door.
Carmody pressed his non-painful hand to the door and it clicked open. Holding it that way, opening inward toward the corridor to the money room beneath the stands, he looked at Parker and said, "All right?"
Mackey moved forward to take the door. "You did fine," Parker said, and hammered the angel with the shotgun butt.CHAPTER 2
It began with a phone call. Parker didn't hear it ring, because he was out on the lake, in the rowboat, oars shipped, doing nothing, feeling the pulse of the water through the wood hull. Early May, this lake in northern New Jersey was still too cold to swim in, most of the vacation houses around its fringe still closed down, waiting for their owners to come back from the city when weather and water got a little warmer. Parker and Claire were among the few year-round residents, Claire establishing her presence in the community, Parker more aloof, being someone whose work let him stay at home for periods of time and then took him away sometimes. Claire was the one who made the home here, being Claire Willis because Parker had been Charles Willis a long time ago, before they'd met. She liked the idea of reaching back into the world when they hadn't known one another, to make a link, throw a line back into the past.
Movement. He always reacted to movement, no matter how small, anywhere in his vision. This was three-quarters behind him, and when he turned his head it was Claire, at the dock, waving. The lawn stretched behind her up to the dark house. He lifted a hand, then rowed back, and as he stepped up onto the dock she said, "Man called. Pay phone. Says he'll call back in ten minutes." She looked at the slender watch on her slender wrist and corrected herself: "Six minutes."
"Did he give a name?"
Parker frowned at that, and tied the boat to the stanchion, and they walked up to the house, she holding his wrist in her cool fingers. She said, "He seemed like he knew you."
"To a point," Parker said.
Parker and George Liss had never worked together, though they'd come close. Twice, they'd met on other guys' deals that hadn't panned out. He had no real opinion about George Liss, except he thought he probably wouldn't want to count on him if things turned sour.
The money situation at the moment was all right, but not perfect. There was cash here and there, stowed away. He could wait for something that smelled good. Even in a world of electronic cash transfers and credit cards and money floating in cyberspace, there were still heists out there, waiting to be collected.
When the phone rang the second time, Parker was in the enclosed porch that faced the lawn and the lake and the boathouse, standing there, looking out. The day was overcast, and looked colder than it was. He picked up the phone on the third ring and said, "George?"
"I've got something." The voice slurred a little, making a furry sound in the phone lines.
Parker waited. George Liss could have a lot of things, including a need to turn someone else over to the law to take his place.
Liss said, "It's a little different, but it's profitable."
They were all different, and they were all supposed to be profitable, or you wouldn't do it. Parker waited.
Liss said, "You still there?"
"We could get together someplace, talk it over."
"You want to know who else is aboard." And again Liss waited for Parker to say something, but again Parker had nothing to say, so finally Liss said, "Ed Mackey."
That was different. Ed Mackey was somebody Parker did know and had worked with. Ed Mackey was solid. Parker said, "Who else?"
"It only takes three."
Even better. The fewer the people, the fewer the complications, and the more the profit. Parker said, "Where and when?"
They came together first in the parking lot of a lobster restaurant on Route 1 just south of Auburn, Maine, a place where a couple of rental cars from Boston's Logan Airport wouldn't look out of place. Parker left his Impala and crisscrossed through the parked cars to the Century Regal where Ed Mackey, blunt and taciturn, sat at the wheel with his girlfriend Brenda beside him and George Liss in the back seat. Parker joined Liss, a tall, narrow, black-haired man with a long chin, who nodded at him and smiled with the side of his mouth where the nerves and muscles still worked, and said, "Have a good flight?"
This wasn't a sensible question. Parker said, "Tell me about it."
"It's a stadium," Ed Mackey said, half-turning in the front seat, knees pointed at Brenda as he looked back at Parker. "Usual stadium security. Twenty thousand civilians inside."
Parker shook his head. "All you walk out with," he said, "is credit card receipts."
"Not this one," Liss said, and the left side of his face smiled more broadly. A sharpened spoon handle had laid open the right side, in a prison in Wyoming, eleven years ago. A plastic surgeon had made the scars disappear, but nothing could make that side of his face move again, ever. Around civilians, Liss usually tried to keep himself turned partially away, showing only the profile that worked, but among fellow mechanics he didn't worry about it. With the slight slurring that made his words always sound just a little odd, he said, "This one is all cash. Paid at the door."
"They call it love offerings," Mackey said, deadpan.
Parker tried to read Mackey's face. "Love offerings? What kind of stadium is this?"
Liss explained, "The stadium's the usual. The attraction's a guy named William Archibald. A TV preacher, you know those guys? Evangelists."
"I thought they were all in jail," Parker said.
"The woods are full of them," Liss said, and Mackey added, "Mostly the back woods."
Parker said, "He's preaching at this stadium, is that it?"
"To make a movie," Mackey said, "and show it on the TV later."
"The people walking in," Liss said, moving his hands around in the space between himself and Parker, "they put down a twenty-dollar love offering, every one of them. No exceptions. Twenty thousand people."
Brenda spoke for the first time: "Four hundred thousand dollars," she said in her husky voice, rolling her full lips around the words.
"Brenda does my math for me," Mackey said.
"Plus," Liss said, "they got these barrels up front by the stage, you get inspired along the way, you want to help the preacher spread the word on the TV, you can go up and toss whatever money you want in the barrel."
"On TV," Mackey said. "On the big screen up behind the preacher. I seen it work, Parker, it's like hypnotizing. These people love to see themselves on that big screen, walkin right up there, tossin their cash in the old barrel. Then a month later, they're at home, TV on, there they are again. Live the moment twice. The day you gave the rent money to God."
"We figure," Liss said, "that doubles the take."
Brenda opened her mouth, but before she could say anything Mackey pointed at her and said, "Brenda. He can work it out."
Parker said, "There's going to be more than the usual security, if it's all cash."
"Archibald has his own people," Liss agreed. "But we got a guy on the inside. That's what made it start to happen."
"Not one of us," Parker said.
"Not for a minute," Mackey said.
"He works for the preacher," Liss said. "And now he's mad at him."
"Greedy? Wants a bigger slice?"
"Just the reverse," Liss said, and half his face laughed. "Ol' Tom got religion."
"Just tell it to me," Parker said.
Mackey patted the top of the seatback, as though calming a horse. "It's a good story, Parker," he said. "Wait for it."
People had to tell their stories their own way, with all the pointless extras. "Go ahead," Parker said, and sat back to wait it out.
Liss said, "I had twenty-nine months' parole last time I got out. It was easier, just hang around and do it, then have a paper out on me the rest of my life. This guy Archibald, one of his scams is, his people volunteer to give this counseling to ex-cons. It's all crap and everybody knows it, it's just to find new suckers, and to get some kinda tax break."
"A cash business," Parker said. "He's doin okay with taxes anyway."
"Oh, you know he is. But William Archibald, he's one of those guys, the more you give him to drink, the thirstier he gets. So I drew this guy Tom Carmody to be my counselor, once a week he'd come around the place I was living, and then when he'd fill out the sheet, that meant I didn't have to go in to the parole office. A good deal for everybody. And after the first few weeks, we pretty much come clean with each other, and after that we'd just watch basketball on the tube or something, or have a beer around the corner. I mean, he knew what I was and no problem, and I knew what scam he was on, so we just got on with life. Except sometimes he'd go on crusades, and—"
Excerpted from Comeback by Richard Stark. Copyright © 1997 Richard Stark. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Richard Stark was one of the many pseudonyms of Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008), a prolific author of crime fiction. In 1993, the Mystery Writers of America bestowed the society’s highest honor on Westlake, naming him a Grand Master.
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