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Friends come and go, but enemies are forever.
I knew I'd found such an enemy the first time I ever set eyes on William J. Pool. I hated on sight everything about him, from his LBJ curled-brim Stetson to his pointy snakeskin boots. He wore a pencil-thin mustache and a store-bought tan and Western-cut suits that should've had a slot in the back to accommodate his shark fin.
Pool's the type of Texan who gives the Lone Star State a bad name. I've met perfectly nice folks who happen to be from Texas, but they're outnumbered by scheming, blustering rednecks like Pool. They say everything's bigger in Texas, but, near as I can tell, that only applies to their mouths.
I was born in distant Mississippi, so this prejudice isn't inbred. I grew up equating Texas with cowboys and oil wells and John Wayne going down fighting in The Alamo.
But people in the states bordering Texas hold fiercely to a profound hatred for anything Texan. They're quick to tell you Texans suffer from a superiority complex. Texans are the rich country cousins who brag about picking up the check.
When oil was booming, Texans tried to buy up everything in my adopted state of New Mexico, from Santa Fe shops to the ski slopes. It's a wonder they didn't find a way to buy our postcard blue skies. The only thing worse than a loud Texan is one who's got the money to back up his boasting.
As part of the backlash here, some cars sprouted bumper stickers that said, "If God wanted Texans to ski, he would've given them mountains."The Texans responded with bumper stickers of their own: "If God wanted New Mexicans to ski, he would've given them MONEY."
It was during those boom days when I first met William J. Pool, and he did nothing to refute the stereotype. He strutted into Albuquerque--my town--throwing around his money and his experience and his big-shot private-eye surveillance toys. He made me look like a fool in a couple of cases where I could've been a hero. And he walked off with the retainers, too.
So let's say I was a little suspicious when Pool called me out of the blue and offered me a job.
I was having a nice, quiet Tuesday. It was late March in Albuquerque and the wind was blowing, which isn't as redundant as it sounds. Sometimes, March'll fool you here in the high desert. You'll have days when the sun shines and the trees are budding and a few robins are searching for early bird specials. Then you'll have other days--or, sometimes, the same damn day--when the wind howls and the temperature plunges and sleet beats hell out of the daffodils. Tuesday was one of the latter, and it seemed a good day to catch up on my paperwork. Not that I had much paperwork to catch up on, but that's what I call it when I stay indoors and goof off.
I was at my desk--rather than lying on the sofa watching Oprah or something--when the phone rang.
"Bubba Mabry Investigations," I answered. "Bubba speaking."
"Howdy there, Bubba. This is William J. Pool from Dallas."
"Yessir. Answering your own phone today, hm? Your secretary out to lunch?"
I've never had a secretary in my life.
"She's running errands. What do you want, Pool?"
"Right to the point, just like always. I like that in a businessman."
The only thing Pool would like in a businessman is his hand in the businessman's pocket, but I didn't say so. I'd hear him out for a minute. If I didn't like what he had to say, I could find some true enjoyment in hanging up on him.
"I have a client who needs someone of your abilities," he said, "if your caseload would allow you to squeeze in a quick night's work."
My "caseload" was missing in action, and Pool probably suspected as much. It's feast or famine in the private-eye game. Pool had been at the feasting table as long as I'd known him. I, on the other hand, was pretty tired of going hungry.
"I might be able to take on another case," I bluffed. "Depends on what it is."
"A simple delivery. I'd do it myself, but I'm afraid I'm too easy to spot."
I was thinking: Maybe if you didn't dress like J. R. Ewing ...
"Could you meet my client and me at the Hilton?"
"The delivery is to be made tomorrow night, but the sooner, the better. We need time to plan."
"Plan a simple delivery?"
"Well, it's a little more complicated than that. Why don't we meet face-to-face and talk it over?"
"All right. I can be there in half an hour."
I cradled the phone before he could say anything more. It wasn't quite as pleasing as I'd hoped.
I went to the bathroom to spruce up, running a comb through my unruly hair and tucking my shirttail in properly. Then I remembered I was dealing with Pool, and wondered why the heck I bothered.
I headed out the door, shrugging into my new winter coat, a hip-length khaki number with a zillion pockets that my wife, Felicia Quattlebaum, had bought at some department store sale. I prefer my old beat-up denim jacket and I thought the new coat made me look like a terrorist, but I kept those objections to myself. It's my goal in life to keep Felicia happy.
The Hilton stands tall at the snarled interchange of Interstate 40 and Interstate 25, the crossroads that's largely responsible for Albuquerque's boom during the past thirty years. The "Big I," as the interchange is called, was blocked by construction crews and slow traffic, so I exited the freeway and drove west on Menaul, the six-lane thoroughfare that separates the Hilton from the acres of asphalt that surround the Duke City Truck Plaza, famous with truckers nationwide.
New Mexico caters to motorists. Truck stops and motels and tourist traps are as much a part of the landscape as red mesas and open prairies. You still find freeway exits in the middle of nowhere labeled only ROADSIDE BUSINESS. Felicia and I joke that Roadside Business is the most popular town name in the state.
Along its major thoroughfares, Albuquerque resembles one big freeway exit, with all the fast-food franchises and gas stations and clip joints and "junque" shops scrunched into block after block of signs and asphalt and noise. You end up with some strange juxtapositions. One block on Central Avenue boasts a shop that sells "smoking accessories" next to a shoe store called Happy Feet. We've got a burger joint beside a Western-theme gas station called the Bar-F. And, the Hilton's across the street from the truck plaza.
The Hilton tower, like most buildings in the city, is done up in stucco the color of mud. Inside, it's all cool tile and white arches, aimed at making you think of a Spanish mission rather than how much the rooms cost. Pool waited for me in the lobby, sitting on a wooden bench with his hat in his lap.
He hadn't changed a bit, except for a little graying at the temples, and I didn't even trust that. Probably had his hairdresser add the gray so he'd look even more distinguished.
His face was broad and tan and handsome with just the right amount of Marlboro Man crinkling around the eyes. He wore a black suit that probably cost more than my annual taxable income and he had his legs crossed so I couldn't help but see his business logo--a magnifying glass--stitched onto the shaft of his custom-made boots.
"Bubba Mabry," he called, as if glad to see me. "Long time, no see."
Not long enough, I thought, but I said something neighborly and accepted a bone-crushing handshake. Pool had to overdo that, just like everything else.
"Where's your client?"
"Upstairs in his suite. He wants to talk up there."
Suite? That sounded promising. Anybody who could afford Pool and a suite at the Hilton could undoubtedly afford me, too.
We rode up in the elevator. Pool stood only a few inches taller than my six feet, but he still managed to tower over me. He asked how I was doing and I allowed that I was fine. The resulting silence required me to ask how he was, even though I didn't mean it.
"I been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest," he drawled. "Just like always. I hear you got married."
I wondered where he might've heard that, but I admitted it was true, and I told him in the briefest possible terms about my six-month-old marriage to Felicia.
"Marriage is good for a man," he said. "I know. I've tried it three or four times myself."
"I'm hoping once will do it for me."
"That's what they all think going in. Well, it looks like it's agreeing with you. You've put on some weight."
I frowned down at my belly and tugged up the waistband of my jeans. Then the elevator door slid open on the fourteenth floor, and I turned my mind back to business.
I followed Pool down a carpeted corridor and watched him knock on the door. The door flung open with a whoosh, and a man who could've been Pool's balder brother stared out at us.
"Dick Johnson, meet Bubba Mabry," Pool said proudly, as if I were a prize steer.
"Come on in," Johnson said. "I just ordered up some coffee."
I followed Pool inside and let a low whistle escape at the size of the suite.
"Nice spread, eh?" Johnson said. "Should be, for what it costs."
I stepped past Pool to the windows and the vista of the western half of the city.
"It is, ain't it?" Johnson said. "The skyline ain't much, but I like looking out at them volcanoes on the horizon."
"Nature's own skyline."
"I reckon that's the truth," Johnson said. "Come on over here and take a load off. We need to palaver."
Palaver? Bad enough Pool talked like Gabby Hayes; now I had to contend with two of them.
"Pool here tells me you know Albuquerque inside out," Johnson said as he sank into an armchair. He crossed his legs, exposing fancy cowboy boots. I was wearing my usual yellowed sneakers and felt like tucking my feet under my chair, but they wouldn't fit.
Johnson's jacket was hanging over the back of his chair, and he wore dark double-knit pants and a light-blue Western shirt with a silver bolo tie cinched up tight. Texas business attire. His high forehead reflected the overhead lights. Farther back, long strands had been carefully combed across to cover some of his baldness. Like Pool, he wore a mustache, but his was broad and waxed smooth.
"I suppose Pool has told you all about me."
"Not a word."
"I thought it would be better to tell it all in person," Pool intoned. "No sense plowing the same furrow twice."
Johnson nodded, looking thoughtful.
"Well, sir," he said, turning back to me, "I build things. That's what I do. That's what I'm all about."
"What kind of things?"
"Commercial real estate. Strip malls mostly. I've thrown up more storefronts in this country than you can shake a stick at."
Yuck. Strip malls are what's wrong with Albuquerque and most sprawling Sun Belt cities. But Johnson said it with pride.
"I've made myself a right handy fortune," he continued. "But none of it means a thing unless I've got my boy to pass it on to."
"Yessir, that's what this is all about. That's why we called you."
"What happened to him?"
"Well, I don't rightly know that, do I? I knew where he was, I wouldn't need not one, but two private eyes sucking off my bank accounts' tit. I'd go get him myself."
Pool interrupted again, as if he wanted to stop Johnson from going off on some tangent, such as how much private investigators cost.
"Dick's son, goes by the name of Richie, is somewhere in Albuquerque, but we haven't been able to locate him. Yet."
"Not exactly." Johnson took up the narrative again. "He ran off a couple of months ago and got mixed up with some bad fellas. You know anything about skinheads?"
Enough that I knew I didn't want anything to do with them, but what I said was, "Some. They're racists, right? Always beating the shit outta people?"
"Richie's fallen in with some of those boys, and it worries me. I don't know where he'd get any kind of racism. That ain't the way he was raised. And Richie's no fighter. The boy's got a bad heart. He was born with it. Not his fault. But it's kept him sort of set apart all his life. He couldn't play football, couldn't dance, couldn't do all the things a boy oughta be able to do."
"How old is Richie?"
"Nineteen, but he's younger than that in the head, you know? He's never been able to do anything on his own, so he never grew up right. It's partly my fault. I've been too protective. And his mother, who passed away two years ago, Lord, she was a mother hen, always ducking over him, making sure he didn't do anything strenuous."
"So," I ventured, "you want Richie to come back home."
"That's the way it started out," Pool said, "but it's gotten more complicated."
"You keep saying that. Complicated how?"
Pool and Johnson exchanged a conspiratorial look. I didn't like that at all.
"Well," Pool said, "we have to be sure none of this leaves this room. We can trust you?"
"If you don't think you can, what am I doing here?"
Pool shrugged. "Got me there, Bubba. It's like this: Yesterday, Dick here got a phone call in Fort Worth. A ransom demand."
"Richie's been kidnapped?"
"Well, we don't rightly know. That's what the caller said, but it may be a scam."
"These skinheads fellas, they might think they can squeeze Dick for some of his hard-earned money. I figure they're behind the phone call."
"But you don't know?"
"Hard to know something like that. But Dick doesn't want to take any chances, and I have to agree with him."
"You call the FBI?"
Johnson sat forward suddenly.
"Nah, see, we don't want the law involved."
"Kidnapping's a federal offense. That's the FBI's territory."
"Hell, I know that. But what if it's not a kidnapping? What if it's a fake? I don't want Richie mixed up with the law again."
"He's had legal problems before?"
"A few." Johnson sat back and cast around the room as if looking for another subject. "I've always bailed him out in the past. In Texas, I know where to grease the wheels, know what I mean?"
"But here in Albuquerque, I don't know who to trust. I just want to take Richie home."
"How much did the kidnapper want?"
"Two hundred thousand."
It suddenly felt very warm in the room. I was still wearing my new coat and started wrestling my way out of it while I tried to think of something reasonable to say.
Then someone knocked on the door. Johnson leapt up and answered it, as if expecting it to be Richie, but it was room service bringing the coffee. We sat silently while the waiter arranged the pot and cups on the low coffee table. Johnson slipped the guy a ten, and the grateful waiter departed, softly closing the door behind him.
Pool sat forward and poured the coffee.
"We'd already tracked Richie to Albuquerque," he said. "One of my operatives, Mike Sterling, you know him? No? Well, Mike slipped up on these skinheads, looking for Richie, and got the tar whipped out of him for his trouble. Put him in the hospital."
I must've winced.
"But we don't want you to get mixed up with them," Pool said quickly. "All we need is someone to deliver the ransom money."
"And that would be me?"
"Sure. Like I said, Richie seems to know I'm onto him out here. If I make the drop, they might figure it for a trap. But they don't know you."
I looked them both over. I wasn't crazy about being Pool's bagman.
"All I'd have to do is make the drop?"
"That's right. Tomorrow night."
"They didn't ask Mr. Johnson here to do it himself?"
"No. In fact, they specified that he not be the one. I'm not sure why, but they want a neutral party. I wouldn't let him go anyway. Too dangerous."
"You think they'd try to snatch him, too?" I asked.
"No, it's not that," Pool said. "But from all accounts, these skinheads, they're rough old boys."
"I'm not afraid of those punks," I said, my voice cracking only slightly.
"'Course you're not," Pool said, and I didn't like the way he was grinning. "You're a professional, right? Besides, it's just a delivery. Quick in, quick out. We'll put a note in the briefcase telling the kidnappers how to reach Dick here at the hotel, then we'll handle whatever happens next."
Knowing Pool, I figured there was a lot they weren't telling me. Especially about the risk. But I had one more question, the one that mattered most.
Johnson smiled slyly. I tried not to scowl at him.
"How does a thousand dollars sound?"
"For carrying around two hundred thousand dollars and possibly getting my ass shot off?"
The grin slipped off Johnson's face.
"Seemed fair to me."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"All right," I said. "I'm in."
So that's how I found myself carrying a briefcase full of money to mysterious kidnappers on Wednesday night. The instructions were simple: Drive to a phone booth outside a Lotaburger south of Zuni Boulevard in a mixed zone of garages, cheap storefronts, and warehouses circled with high fences. Leave the briefcase in the booth, get back in the truck, and drive away.
It sounded easy enough, but the neighborhood, if you could call it that, was spooky as hell and darker than the mouth of a cannon. At midnight, the Lotaburger was closed, and the nearby buildings looked abandoned. Each corner had a streetlight, but half were broken, including the one nearest the phone booth. I wouldn't have noticed the booth at all, except I was looking for it.
I turned my big Dodge Ram into the Lotaburger parking lot and wheeled it around until its headlights shone on the phone booth. Empty.
I took a deep breath. No time like the present. I doused the headlights--why make myself a target?--and eased out of the truck with the briefcase dangling from my left hand. The air was cold and my breath misted in front of my face before it was whisked away on the breeze.
I had my trusty Smith & Wesson .38 in my belt under my new jacket and I rested my right hand on its butt, ready if howling skinheads suddenly appeared from the shadows.
I approached the drop-off spot thinking, When was the last time I saw an honest-to-God phone booth? This one had cracked glass all around, but at least it was a true booth, not one of those unsheltered phone-on-a-stick things Ma Bell has erected all around the city. At least a person could get some privacy, something I guess is no longer valued in a world where people go around with cellular phones pasted to their ears, yakking their heads off for anyone to hear.
I yanked open the door and was hit in the face with the stench of old urine and ancient vomit. Whew. Maybe that's why the phone company has replaced all the booths. I hated to set Dick Johnson's tooled leather briefcase down in a sticky mess, but I guessed he'd probably never see it again anyway. Let the kidnappers figure out how to clean it up.
After I closed the door, I hurried back to the truck, trying to pick kidnappers out of the darkness. I didn't see a thing. No guns. No cars. No people.
But it sure as hell felt like I was being watched.
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First time reading this author. Nice mix of characters. Good story and had some funny parts. Will look for more from Mr. Brewer.
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