Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  “Justin just called. He’s going through the place again this morning with four or five other AC guys. They figure the snake’s long gone, though.”

  “Have they removed the other reptiles? And the rodents?”

  She nodded. “Good luck renting that unit.”

  “No sign of our William Smith?”

  “According to Miller, a white cargo van drove by after midnight, going real slow. The driver must’ve seen the crime tape, because then he hauled ass.”

  “Miller didn’t pursue?”

  “He said you’d ordered him to surveil the building. His word, ‘surveil.’ ”

  “Did you know he’s got a crush on you?” Raymer said, immediately feeling guilty about betraying the dope’s confidence. “He’s working up the courage to ask you out.”

  “Miller.” Clearly, she was mortified.

  “Go easy on him,” Raymer suggested, though secretly buoyed by her reaction. “Anyway, when they’re sure there’s no snake, you can start letting people back in. Is the mayor in his office?”

  “No, at home.”

  “Do we have any departmental stationery?”

  She looked at him like he was crazy. “Of course.”

  “Bring me a sheet. And an envelope,” he called after her when she went to fetch it. She returned with the envelope and two large sheets. She obviously had no idea how short this letter was going to be. “What’s today’s date?” he asked. When she told him, he thanked her and said that would be all for the moment. He printed the date at the top right of the page and started at the left margin with Dear Gus. Which was wrong, of course, so he wadded the page up and trashed it. Once more, Charice had been right. She’d probably considered bringing him three sheets. Again he wrote the date and then a new salutation, Dear Mayor Moynihan. Next, the body: I quit. And finally: Sincerely, Douglas Raymer. He folded the page into thirds, paused, then unfolded it and added Chief of Police after his name, smiling as he did so at the thought of Miss Beryl. He had produced possibly the world’s smallest rhetorical triangle, but it pleased him to note that all three sides were represented: a clear subject, a specific audience, the identity of the speaker established not once but twice. Nothing to do now but deliver it.

  When he stood up, though, he saw that Charice hadn’t left the room but had circled around and was reading over his shoulder. Unless he was mistaken, her eyes were tearing up.


  INSTEAD OF GOING directly to the Moynihans’ house on Upper Main, Raymer took the department SUV and drove on impulse out to the White Horse Tavern. Except for the battered old sedan that belonged to the woman who tended bar and lived in the apartment on the second floor, the lot was empty. He parked next to the reeking Dumpster and walked the perimeter, looking for what, exactly, he couldn’t say. Maybe some indication of an altercation. Spinmatics Joe was a bigot and an idiot and a loudmouth, so it was possible that when leaving the bar he’d insulted someone who’d stomped him unconscious and dragged him into the tall weeds. No sign of that, nor did he seem to be in the Dumpster, though Raymer’s examination there was on the cursory side, his stomach heaving at the stench.

  Oh, well, he figured, getting back in the car, it had been a thought. Dougie’s? His own? Hard to say. He just sat there for a minute scratching his palm, which was still itching ferociously. It felt good to scratch the staple, but as soon as he stopped, the itch redoubled. Heading back into town, he hadn’t gone more than a quarter mile before he saw the dark, violent skid marks that ran onto the gravel shoulder. Pulling over, he backtracked along the blacktop until he found a shard of thick, foggy glass on the shoulder that he held up for a better view. From a reflector, was his guess. He used the jagged edge on the staple: ecstasy, followed by even worse itching. In the weeds nearby he found several more shards, one of them crusted with something rust colored. He sniffed it, then returned to the SUV for an evidence bag that he slipped this into. There was a Bic pen on the dash, so he took its top off and used the long, plastic tooth to dig at the staple. From where he stood he could make out what he hadn’t noticed before, the section of tall weeds that had been flattened and a trail leading off into the woods.

  He was contemplating all this when a car with a bad muffler pulled up behind his own, then Officer Miller got out. “Chief?” he called, as if Raymer’s identity were in doubt. “What’re you doing?”

  “I was about to ask you the same thing.”

  “Heading home. I just finished up my double,” he added, in case his boss meant to question his right to go off duty.

  “Feel like a walk in the woods?”

  “Uh, Chief?” he said, pointing at Raymer’s hand. “You’re bleeding.”

  Well, this much was true, a stigmata blooming where he’d gouged the skin with the cap of that Bic. “Shit,” he said, wiping his palm on his pant leg. Examining the wound more closely, he was surprised by how deep and angry it was, while Miller chuckled nastily.

  “What’s so funny?” he snapped, pissed off that it struck the other man as amusing.

  “Sorry?” Miller said, and Raymer understood from the startled look on his moronic face that he hadn’t laughed at all. The chuckle had come from somewhere else. No need to wonder where. “You okay, Chief?”

  Raymer ignored him. “I think we’re going to need an ambulance,” he said.

  “It doesn’t look that bad,” Miller said, still mesmerized by the bloody palm, or perhaps that anybody could unwittingly damage himself so badly.

  “Not for this,” Raymer assured him.

  Miller looked around curiously. “For what, then?”

  “For what we’re going to find in the woods.”

  “You’re not making sense, Chief.”

  “You see where those weeds are all flat?” Raymer said. “Don’t walk there. In fact, after you radio for the ambulance, just stay on my footsteps.”

  He didn’t have to go far. Joe Gaghan lay on a bed of brown pine needles, amazingly still alive, his respiration just strong enough to blow a tiny blood bubble from the nostril that wasn’t completely plugged. Raymer knelt beside him and checked his pulse, which was barely there. A moment later Miller came crashing through the brush.

  “Oh my God,” he said, pulling up short. “That’s a body.”

  Raymer made a mental note to take Miller with him everywhere. When it came to inspiring confidence in others, he was really without equal. “Did you call the ambulance?”

  “On its way,” he said.

  In fact he could hear it, far off. “Good,” he said. “Somehow the guy’s still alive.”

  Miller took a cautious step closer and took in the sickening, grotesque angle of Gaghan’s left leg, bent so unnaturally at the knee. “I can’t believe he made it so far on that leg,” he said.

  “He didn’t,” Raymer confirmed. “He was dragged down here by whoever hit him.”

  “You mean—”

  “Right. He was left to die here.”

  “Who’d do such an awful thing?” Miller said.

  Really, Raymer thought, his palm throbbing now, the pain as intense as the itch had been. Take him with you everywhere.

  The Tree You Can’t Predict

  STAGGERING UP the street like a drunk, his head still ringing from the skillet, Roy wasn’t expecting to catch a break, not with his fucking luck, but he’d gone only a couple blocks when he heard a horn toot—with just one ear still functioning, it sounded far away—and there was fucking Cora behind the wheel of her shit-bucket of a car, waving him over. In another minute or two there’d be cops everywhere, all looking for a skinny, tattooed longhair in a neck brace, a description that would fit Roy and Roy alone.

  Cora had inherited this ride—an ancient Ford Pinto—when her grandmother croaked, and this pissed off her mother, who’d been expecting to inherit the worthless piece of shit herself. Yellow on one side, purple on the other, it was impossible to know what was original and what had been cannibalized from even-worse beaters at the junkyard. Wearing he
r Mets cap as usual, Cora leaned across to unlock the passenger door and called, “Hey there, Roy. You partying already?” Only when he tumbled inside did she get a good look at him, his ear half severed, one whole side of his face red and swollen. “Roy,” she gasped. “You’re hurt!”

  “Goddamn it, Cora, tell me something I don’t already know,” Roy said, jerking the rearview mirror around to assess the damage. That fucking Sully. Fucking, fucking, motherfucking Sully. “Son of a bitch damn near took my whole ear off, the cocksucker.”

  “Who? Who done this to you, Roy?”

  “Fuck it,” he told her, “just go.” From experience both deep and broad, Roy knew how quickly things headed south in the aftermath of one of his legendary bad impulses. It was a miracle, really, that he wasn’t already cuffed and secured in the backseat of some cruiser. Even with the help of this dim-witted bitch, he’d end up in one before long.

  “You want me to run you out to the hospital?”

  “Fuck no,” he said. The cops would be all over the hospitals, both here and in Schuyler.

  “You need somebody to sew that ear back on. It’s just dangling there.”

  He swiveled the mirror back in her direction. “I noticed that, Cora.” In fact, the sight had made him a little sick to his stomach. Worse, his equilibrium was clearly fucked, even sitting down. And his own voice sounded as tinny and far away as this idiot’s, which made him wonder if the skillet ear was permanently fucked. How had such a gimpy old fuck managed to sneak up on him like that anyhow? Well, to ask the question was to answer it. His blood had been up. Not just up, but roaring-in-his-fucking-ears up. Every time he’d punched his mother-in-law—the same cunt who’d tried bribing him to leave town the day before—it had crashed like a wave on a beach. Of course he hadn’t heard Sully coming up behind him. He wouldn’t have heard an army of Sullys on horseback.

  “Where do you want to go, then?” Cora said.

  Good question. Part of him thought Gert’s. Just slip into one of those dark booths along the back wall and start a tab. Drink one beer after another until the fucking cops thought to stop in and haul his ass off. Let Cora pick up the tab, or Gert himself. The fuck did he care? No tabs where he was headed. The problem was the cops would dope this out right quick. And there was another, too. Gert wasn’t what you’d call squeamish, but seeing Roy’s ear he might tell him to take a hike and not come back until he looked presentable, which at his shithole meant not bleeding freely. Or he might not let them run a tab; the prick had a sixth sense about that. Besides, holing up in some bar and waiting for the fucking cops to come collect him just didn’t sit right with Roy. He ought to at least try to make a run for it, right? He was going down hard for this one, no question. He’d be away for a long time, which meant he had a moral obligation to take full advantage of his last few hours of freedom. What he needed was some kind of a plan, but Sully, the fucker, had scrambled his brain. “Take me to that CVS out by the highway,” he told Cora.

  “The Rexall’s closer,” she pointed out.

  Fucking woman, Roy thought, yanking the rearview back again to see if his injuries could possibly be as bad as they’d appeared thirty seconds ago—and they were. “Will you just do like you’re fuckin’ told?”

  “Why you bein’ so mean to me, Roy? I’m just trying to help is all. I’ll do anything you want. Just treat me nice, okay?”

  He threw up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, Cora, okay. See how nice I’m treatin’ you? See how nice? So can we fuckin’ go now?”

  He expected her to drive around the block, but instead, being a dipshit, she did a three-point turn in the middle of fucking Main Street and headed back where he’d just come from, right past Hattie’s, the very place he was trying to escape. A small crowd had gathered outside to watch the EMTs load his mother-in-law on board. A uniformed piece of shit was trying to explain to Janey why she couldn’t ride in the back with her mother, but being a total cunt she just shoved him aside and climbed in anyway. Then he spotted Sully, half a head taller than the other assholes, and the sight of him gave Roy something like an idea, though it was gone again almost before it arrived. Never mind. Roy knew that once something occurred to him it wouldn’t take long to reoccur, and right now he had more pressing concerns, like the cop car speeding toward them. He slumped down in his seat as it screeched to a rocking halt at the curb.

  Cora, if you could believe it, had actually slowed down and put on her left-turn signal. “The Rexall’s right here,” she explained. Like he’d fucking forgot where the Rexall was, or like he hadn’t just fucking told her to go to the CVS.

  “No, goddamn it—”

  “Stop yellin’ at me, Roy,” she said, though she turned her blinker off and pulled back into the right lane. “I’m just sayin’ all them stores carry the same shit and this one’s right here.”

  “Did you happen to see that fuckin’ ambulance back there, Cora? That cop car?” he said, peering to look out the back window. “Me slidin’ down in my seat here? What’s all that fuckin’ shit tell you?”

  Just that quickly the crying kicked in. “Did you do something bad, Roy? They gonna make you go back to prison?”

  “Not if you shut the fuck up and drive, they won’t.”

  “I gonna get in trouble for helpin’ you?”

  “Fuck no, Cora.”

  “ ’Cause they took my little boy on account of they said I’m unfit and I’m trying to get him back, so—”

  “Just fuckin’ listen to me, girl. You ain’t gonna get in no trouble. The cops question you, just say all you did was give me a fuckin’ ride. Tell ’em you’re just a dumb cunt and didn’t know no better. Don’t worry, they’ll believe you.”

  Cora began to cry silently, and neither spoke again until she pulled in to the CVS lot, where Roy once again scrunched down in his seat.

  When she killed the engine and wiped her tears on her sleeve, he said, “Lemme see that hat a minute.”

  “What for?” she said, handing over her Mets cap.

  “Never mind what for. Maybe I’m a big fuckin’ baseball fan, okay?” Trying it on, he flinched when the sweatband came in contact with his demolished ear.

  “You’re gettin’ blood all over it,” she said, wincing.

  He adjusted the plastic strap. “Jesus, Cora. What do you need with such a big head, anyway? There ain’t a fuckin’ thing in it.”

  She giggled, thinking this was a joke. “Just ’cause you got a little peanut head,” she said. “Just ’cause it’s full of shit.”

  This, Roy thought as his hand shot out, its heel connecting flush with the side of Cora’s head, is the wrong fucking day to be talking trash. Her temple bounced back off the driver’s-side window.

  “Ow, Roy,” she said, tearing up again. “That hurt. All I was doing was havin’ a little fun. Can’t you take a joke?”

  He considered answering by hitting her again, then remembered he needed her help. “Look at me, Cora, and tell me I’m in the fuckin’ mood to joke with you.”

  “You got me all mixed up, Roy. I don’t know what you want me to do.”

  “Well, shut the fuck up a minute, and I’ll tell you again. Can you do that?” When, acting on his instruction, she didn’t respond, he said, “Well, can you?”

  “Yes, Roy, I can. It’s what I’m doin’, okay?”

  “All right, then. First thing you need to get is one of them butterfly clamps for my ear. You know the ones I’m talkin’ about? They’ll be over with the medical supplies. Band-Aids and shit. You understand?”

  She said nothing. Just looked at him.

  “Do you fuckin’ understand? Say you do before I fuckin’ hit you again.”

  “You told me to shut up, Roy. That’s what I’m doin’.”

  “You want me to hit you again?”

  “I want you to be nice. If you can’t be nice, you can just walk back into town.”

  Or, Roy thought, I could wring your fuckin’ neck, see if your fat ass would fit in the trunk and
drive down to Albany and park this shit-bucket in the bus terminal and let people find you when you begin to stink. Which she already did, with some kind of cheap perfume or other. The thought of the Greyhound reminded him that just yesterday his bitch-in-law had offered him three grand to disappear, an offer that hadn’t impressed him at the time, which just went to show he hadn’t really been thinking straight. Because what was to stop him from taking her money and going somewheres—Atlantic City, maybe—and coming back when he was broke. Fortunately, he was beginning to think straight now, at least enough to realize he needed Cora for a while longer.

  “And an orange juice, okay?” he continued, wiggling the plastic tube that contained his pain meds. “Something to wash down these little beauties.”

  “Can I have one or two?”

  Not a fuckin’ chance. “Of course,” he told her. “I always share, don’t I?”

  When she reached for the door handle, though, he grabbed her wrist. Because suddenly he didn’t like the look on her face. “Don’t do what you’re thinkin’,” he told her.

  “What do you mean?”

  “You’re thinkin’ about goin’ in there and tellin’ somebody to call the cops.” Because in her place, that’s what he’d be thinking.

  “It ain’t what I’m thinkin’, Roy.”

  “Like hell. Don’t lie to me. I can tell you are just by looking at you.”

  She began to cry again. “It was just a passing thought, I swear.”

  He was taking a chance, letting her out of the car, but it wasn’t like he had a lot of options. “You got one minute,” he said. “Don’t make me come in there after you.”

  “I need some money.”

  “Use your own. I’ll pay you back later.”

  “You never paid me back from Tuesday.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “At Gert’s.”

  “You said that was your treat.”

  “No, I said—”

  “Will you just get the fuckin’ shit, like I told you? I’ll pay you back for that and Gert’s, too.”

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