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A saloon owner and a former CIA agent team up to help a pair of assassins escape death
The twins who walk into Mac McCorkle’s bar look identical, despite their differing genders. Their names are Wanda and Walter Gothar, and from the steel in their eyes it’s apparent that their business isn’t the friendly kind. They’ve come seeking help from Mac and his partner, Padilla, an ex-CIA agent who has skulked in the world’s darkest corners. Anxious for a big payday, the twins took an assignment out of their depth, working as bodyguards for a Saudi prince who came to Washington to sign an oil deal. The job fell apart, and now the twins are being pursued by the world’s two finest killers—who take out Walter without breaking a sweat. Now Mac and Padilla are faced with a choice: Save Wanda, or join her in the grave.
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The Backup Men
By Ross Thomas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Ross Thomas
All rights reserved.
HE DIDN'T look old enough. Not old enough to order a martini at eleven forty-five in the morning, so when I got the small headshake from Joan, the cocktail waitress, I left the bar and a slightly hungover reporter from The Washington Post and went to see whether the youthful morning drinker had anything to prove that he was at least twenty-one.
It was still too early for the luncheon trade and the reporter and I had been trading diet tips over a bottle of beer and reminiscing about an infantry replacement training center in north Texas where we'd both spent a few months a long time ago, hating every minute of it.
Even close up he didn't look old enough. I guessed him for nineteen, possibly twenty, but that may have been because of the pale blond, almost white hair that covered the tops of his ears and which he had carefully brushed and combed back into a revolutionary ducktail. The 1776 revolution, not the current one.
He didn't watch me approach. He didn't look up until I said, "Sorry to bother you, but have you got something that says you're over twenty-one? We'd like to keep the license."
He looked up then and when I saw his eyes, I felt that I'd made a mistake. When he smiled, I knew I had. Some people have dirty laughs, but he had a dirty smile and it had taken him a lot longer than twenty-one years to perfect it. He kept it in place while he reached into an inside pocket of his coat and brought out a thin black folding case and handed it to me. His eyes never left my face, eyes that were the palest of blue, almost the color of Arctic ice and nearly as compassionate.
He had handed me a Swiss passport and it claimed that his name was Walter Gothar and that he lived in Geneva and that he was thirty-two years old. I handed it back to him.
"Sorry, Mr. Gothar," I said.
"It happens frequently."
"The drink's on the house."
Gothar shook his head slightly. "I insist on paying." He had an accent, but it seemed to come and go depending on which word he used. I shrugged and gave him a nice enough smile and started to turn away when he said, "Where is Michael Padillo?" I turned back.
"In Chicago. On business."
"I regret that I have missed him."
"He'll be back tomorrow."
"I would like for you to give him a message."
He paused for a long moment, as if troubled over the phrasing of the message, and it gave me the opportunity to admire his dark blue shirt and his white knit tie and the rich raw silk that had been used to run up his new spring suit. He wore a display handkerchief tucked away up his left sleeve and it matched the color of his shirt and I might have taken him for a bit of a fop were it not for those icy eyes and that dirty smile which came and went like a warning beacon above a smooth, stubborn chin that would seldom need a shave. His thin nose had character, too, but I wasn't sure what kind.
"You are the McCorkle?" he said and I said yes, I was the McCorkle. I turned and nodded at Joan and she quickly brought his martini over. After she had gone he removed two one-dollar bills from a thin brown wallet and smoothed them out on the table beside his drink, looking at it thoughtfully, but not touching it. He was still gazing at it when he said, "Tell Michael Padillo—" He stopped and looked up at me quickly, perhaps to make sure that I was really listening.
"Tell Padillo," he said slowly, spacing each word, "that we don't want to buy the farm."
"He'll be sorry to hear that," I said, just to be saying something.
He studied me some more, apparently not so much to see if I'd got the message, but whether I'd understood it. I thought I had, but I saw no reason to let Gothar know. I have cautious days like that.
"I must discuss my reasons with him personally."
"See him tomorrow."
"What time is best?"
"He usually gets here between ten thirty and eleven."
"You'll not forget the message?"
"And my name?"
"Walter Gothar." I'm good at remembering names and faces. It's about the only qualification needed to run a successful saloon.
Gothar rose from behind the banquette table in one smooth flowing motion. I saw that he was nearly as tall as I, something over six feet, and if he had kept his eyes closed and not smiled at anyone, he could have passed for some freshwater college's sophomore quarterback. He looked at me carefully once more, as if still debating whether I had enough sense to deliver his message, nodded in an abrupt, Teutonic way after apparently concluding that I did, turned and headed toward the entrance without touching his drink or saying good-bye or good day or even auf Wiedersehen, which probably was the language that he felt most comfortable in.
I picked up his drink and carried it back to the bar, trying to decide whether to drink it myself or sell it again. I decided to drink it myself and as I sat at the bar and sipped it and watched the first customers arrive I thought about the message that Gothar wanted me to give Padillo. It was World War II slang and I felt that he was a little young to be using it, but then I had thought that he was too young to be ordering a martini at eleven forty-five in the morning.
Those who had bought the farm during World War II had been those who'd died, of course, and if Gothar didn't want to buy it, that meant that he didn't want to die and he wanted Michael Padillo to know it.
I found that a little odd because at one time Padillo had sold the farm to a number of persons for one huggermugger government agency or other and there were those who considered him to be quite good at it. There were also a number of others who wished that he had bought himself one a long time ago.CHAPTER 2
A FEW years back Michael Padillo and I had owned a saloon called Mac's Place in Bonn on the banks of the Rhine. It had been in Bad Godesberg really and there had been some trouble and the saloon had been dynamited and Padillo had disappeared for more than a year. I got married and opened another saloon in Washington a few blocks north of K Street and a little west of Connecticut Avenue. It's still called Mac's Place and nobody has dynamited it yet, although when Padillo reappeared there had been some more trouble with a local black gangster, a Federal narcotics agent, and the dying white prime minister of a South African country who had wanted Padillo to assassinate him, but it was nothing that couldn't be resolved without getting more than three or four persons killed. I scarcely even dream about it any longer.
Some say that Mac's Place is fading a little now, but I like to think that it has only mellowed. It's kept comfortably dim so that it can serve as a sanctuary for those who might like to have lunch or a drink with someone else's spouse. The service is quick, silent, and unobtrusive; the drinks are properly chilled and perhaps more than generous, and if you care for the latest gossip, you can sit at the bar and listen to Karl, the chief bartender, dissect character and reputation without fear or favor. The menu is admittedly limited and admittedly expensive, but if your taste runs to chicken and steak, it offers the best chicken and steak in town.
Padillo and I had been thinking about opening another place in one of four other towns and that was why he was in Chicago when Walter Gothar came calling. The cities we'd chosen, in addition to Chicago, were New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I'd just spent a week checking out New York before concluding that it didn't really need another saloon. After Padillo got back from Chicago, I planned to look into San Francisco, because it was where I'd been born, and Padillo would check out Los Angeles because he had once lived there a long time ago.
The only reason that we even considered expanding is because our accountants had told us that we'd better do something with the profits or they'd go to help pay for an ABM system or napalm or something equally useful. Another saloon made more sense than that, as almost anything would, so although neither of us were keen expansionists, it was still nice to travel around the country sampling what someday might become the competition.
When Padillo came in the next morning he looked relaxed, even carefree, so I decided that Chicago didn't need another saloon either. After we said hello he got himself a cup of coffee and brought it to the bar.
"How was it?" I said.
He shook his head. "It lacked the proper ambience." It was the same phrase that I'd used to report on New York. We both liked the word because one of the local restaurant columnists had once described Mac's Place as having a "definitely unusual ambience that bears investigation" and it had been days before Karl, our head bartender, would confess that he'd headed for the dictionary to make sure that the health authorities weren't going to close us down.
"When do you want to check out Los Angeles?" I said.
"Next month, I think. You still plan on San Francisco next week?"
I nodded. "Or the week after."
"What do you hear from Fredl?"
"The usual wish you were here stuff."
"Maybe you should have gone."
"I never liked Frankfurt that much," I said. My wife was Washington correspondent for one of the Frankfurt papers, the one that still uses columns to brood about whether England should be in the Common Market, and she had flown back to Germany for its annual editorial conference. Most of Washington's foreign correspondents called her either Fredl or Freddie, but back in Frankfurt she was Frau Doktor McCorkle, which must have created a fine guttural gurgle. Along with a good mind, my wife also had looks and style and wit and we seldom fought more than two or three times a year and I found myself missing her very much.
"Did I have any calls?" Padillo asked.
I took out several slips of paper and handed them over. They were telephone messages taken by either me or Herr Horst, our martinet of a maitre d' who got two percent of our net and who thought that Padillo should have been long married. The calls were mostly from young, breathless female voices who wanted to know when Mr. Padillo would be back in town and would I mind terribly asking him to call Margaret or Ruth or Helen as soon as he returned. "The one called Sadie sounded nice," I said. "Sort of old-fashioned."
Padillo riffled through the slips and nodded absently. "She plays French horn in the symphony," he said. "Anything else?"
"You got a message from one Walter Gothar."
Padillo's smooth olive face assumed what I sometimes thought of as his Spanish look. His dark brown eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened into a thin line. I felt that it made him look something like a matador who's been slipped a bad bull. "A phone message?"
"No. He delivered it personally."
"Light hair, almost white? Looks as if he should register for the draft next week?"
"What'd he want?"
"He wanted me to tell you that he doesn't want to buy the farm."
Padillo put down his coffee cup and went around the bar and found the pinch bottle of Haig and poured himself a sizable drink. He looked at me and I shook my head no. Padillo sipped his Scotch and let his eyes wander around the empty room as if he were wondering how much it would all bring at a forced sale.
"Did Gothar say he doesn't want to buy it or we don't want to buy it?"
I tried to remember. "He said 'we.'"
Some people never seem to frown and Padillo was one of them. But this time he did and it gave his face a strangely forbidding look. "He say anything else?"
"That he'd be by to see you today around this time. What is he, an old friend?"
Padillo shook his head. "His brother was. Older brother. We worked together a few times and we owed each other favors. I think I still owed him one when he got killed last year in Beirut. They said it was Beirut."
"His message seemed a little obvious, I thought."
Padillo sighed. He did that about as often as he frowned—once or twice a year. "When you're trying to stay alive you can't afford to be too subtle. But he did say 'we,' didn't he?"
"He said 'we.'"
"They work as a team."
Padillo lit a cigarette before answering. "Doing more or less what I used to do. It runs in their family. The Gothars have been at it since Napoleon's time. Karl Schulmeister brought them into the business around 1805. They're Swiss and they've always worked for the highest bidder. 'All brains and no heart,'" he said, phrasing the words the way people do when they're quoting someone else.
"Who said that about them?"
"General Savary said it about Schulmeister when he introduced him to Napoleon. But it also fits the Gothars—what's left of them. That's why I may seem a little surprised. They're not the kind to drop around asking for help."
"Who's the other half of the team?" I said.
I pointed at the Haig. "I think I will join you after all. A matched set of Gothars seems a little rich."
"They're not really a matched set," Padillo said, pouring my drink.
"You mean they're not identical twins?"
"They're identical all right, but you won't have any trouble telling them apart."
"Because Walter Gothar's twin is called Wanda."CHAPTER 3
THEY CAME in together about half an hour later, blinking at our perpetual twilight and looking as much alike as two persons can and still be of different sexes—something like two nickel-plated ball bearings that are labeled him and her.
Although she had the same chilly eyes, Wanda Gothar's smile failed to match her brother's in nastiness, but then I only saw her smile twice and I don't think she really tried either time.
Padillo swung around on his bar stool and watched them approach. He didn't smile either. Instead, he kept his eyes on them much as a mongoose would keep its eyes on twin cobras. I began to wonder whether I should summon Herr Horst and tell him to lock up the good silver.
When he was only a few feet away, Walter Gothar stopped and performed one of his abrupt Teutonic nods that would have produced a bad case of whiplash in any normal person's neck. Then he said, "Padillo."
"How are you, Walter?" Padillo said, and then added indifferently, "You, too, Wanda."
She neither smiled nor nodded at Padillo. Instead, she seemed to look right through him with a gaze that denied his existence. She was shorter than her brother by five or six inches, but still tall for a woman, and where his jaw appeared stubborn, hers seemed only determined, and where his mouth was a taut line of stern discipline, hers had been expertly touched up into something that seemed fuller and softer, but still under rigid control.
You wouldn't want to call Walter Gothar pretty boy, his eyes wouldn't let you do that, but you could get by with exquisite and he probably wouldn't have minded at all. Lovely would have done for his sister, although she seemed indifferent to what anyone called her, unless all that careful casualness of walk and stance and movement was a deliberate pose, which it may well have been.
"You received my message," Gothar said, flicking his gaze from Padillo to me as though to indicate that he was aware of my existence, but didn't feel that it required any formal acknowledgment.
"I got it," Padillo said and then introduced me to Wanda Gothar with "Miss Gothar, Mr. McCorkle, my partner."
She nodded in my general direction, but still said nothing.
"We wish to discuss it with you," Gothar said. "Privately."
Padillo shook his head. "You know better than that, Walter. I wouldn't discuss the price of a drink with you unless I had a witness."
"It is a confidential matter," Gothar said.
"McCorkle is a confidential person."
Gothar looked at his sister and once more she nodded, if moving your chin up and down a bare quarter of an inch can be called a nod. Gothar glanced around the still empty bar and made a brief, disdainful gesture with his right hand. "Isn't there some other place where we could talk?"
"We have an office," Padillo said. "Will that do?"
Gothar said that it would and they followed Padillo through the dining area and I tagged along behind, feeling unwanted, if not unneeded, and only mildly interested in what Walter Gothar's confidential matter was all about. I was far more interested in his sister's long, slender legs that flashed beneath the pale gray skirt of her knit suit that did nothing to conceal her other charms, which were considerable. I'm not too good at assessing women's clothes, but I would have put a three-hundred-dollar price tag on Wanda Gothar's knit suit and bet another hundred that I wasn't more than ten dollars off. Walter Gothar had on a different suit from yesterday, a double-breasted gray one with lots of buttons, but I couldn't get interested in what it had cost.
Excerpted from The Backup Men by Ross Thomas. Copyright © 1971 Ross Thomas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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