Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “Scramble Sully a couple eggs! But wash your hands first! You know how particular he is!”

  “Fuck him, then!”

  “And bacon!” Gert added.

  “No bacon!”

  “Ham?”

  “No ham! Linguica!”

  Gert arched an eyebrow at Sully.

  “Why not?”

  “Well, you did just chew two Maalox for heartburn,” Gert pointed out.

  At which point the front door was flung open and a shaft of bright light pierced the interior gloom. A man Sully vaguely recognized came down the long bar with the confidence of a blind person who knew the layout by heart. Taking the stool next to Gert’s, he squinted toward the other end, his eyes adjusting. “Sully?” he said incredulously. “You lost, or did the Horse burn down?”

  Gert moved to the row of taps and drew a tall PBR without feeling the need to ask the man if he wanted one. “What’s the good word, Freddy?”

  “They’re letting people back into the Arms,” he said, then drained half of his beer and smacked his lips in appreciation.

  “They find the snake?”

  “Just now,” Freddy said. “You’re gonna love this. Four of those animal guys in waders up to their asscracks going apartment to apartment. Two hours they’re in there. No snake. So they come outside and give the all clear, it’s safe to go back inside. One of these fuckwads is holding the door open, and guess what slithers out, right between his legs.”

  “Yet another government agency to be proud of,” Gert chuckled.

  “I gotta give the guy credit, though,” Freddy said grudgingly after draining the rest of his beer. “He put his boot right down on top of it. That took brass balls, waders or not.”

  Gert drew him another beer and then returned to Sully, who said in a low voice, “Imagine you’re Roy Purdy.”

  “To what fucking end would I do any such thing?”

  Sully ignored this. “You’ve just violated your wife’s restraining order, not to mention the conditions of your parole, and just to make sure you’re completely fucked, you beat your mother-in-law half to death. You’re stupid, but not retarded. You gotta know this whole deal ends up with you back downstate, which means you’re on the clock. Do you run or go to ground?”

  When it came to role-playing, Gert, as everyone knew, was without equal. All his life he’d been a sucker for similar conundrums. He leaned one elbow onto the bar to get comfortable. “My car got crushed yesterday, so for me running’s a problem.”

  Sully nodded. “Say you’ve got your girlfriend’s.”

  Gert snorted. “I don’t run anywhere in a half-purple, half-yellow piece of shit that’s held together with duct tape. I just don’t.”

  “Then?”

  Gert’s eyes glazed over and crossed slightly as he dove deeper into his role as violent moron. “I’m scared and they gave me painkillers at the hospital, so I’m not thinking straight. I fall back on what I know.”

  “You actually know something?”

  “Home invasion. Among my few skills is an ability to put my elbow through a pane of glass without cutting myself too bad. Over time I’ve become something of an expert at reaching inside and unlocking doors by feel.”

  “It’s broad daylight, though. Somebody might see you.”

  “Point taken. Someplace out of town, then. A house with no neighbors.”

  “Aren’t you worried the owners might return unexpectedly?”

  “They’re the ones should be worried. Because me? At this point, I really don’t have much to lose.”

  Freddy, apparently feeling neglected, called from down the bar. “Gert! You hear they found Joe?”

  Gert swam, blinking, back to the surface. Reality, Sully could tell, wasn’t nearly as compelling as the adventure he’d just been yanked from. “Where?”

  “Lyin’ out in the woods. Somebody ran over the poor bastard, then dragged his body out there and left him to die.”

  Gert shook his head. “I could’ve told him that straying so far from downtown Bath was a mistake.”

  “They don’t think he’ll live,” Freddy said. “Who’d do something like that?”

  “Some Spinmatic, probably,” Sully ventured.

  Freddy chuckled appreciatively. “He never could fucking say ‘Hispanic.’ ”

  “Unless…,” Gert said, lowering his voice and slipping back into character.

  “Yeah?” Sully said.

  “It’s just possible that under duress I remember my very first criminal endeavor, which even now, adjusted for inflation, is one of my biggest paydays. The old Sans Souci. I think to myself, Why not? It’s sitting out there in the woods, vacant, nobody to hear the glass shatter when I put my elbow through it.” Gert was smiling now, nodding. “The more I think about it, the better I like it. If I’m lucky, I buy myself a couple days. Maybe a week? After things die down, who knows? Maybe I make a clean getaway. Okay, probably not, but stranger things have happened.”

  “You aren’t worried about the caretaker? A stray groundskeeper?”

  “Not really. I’ve heard somewhere that security’s provided by a private firm out of Schuyler that swings by a couple times a day. Probably don’t go inside at all, and even if they do, so what? They’re going to check all two-hundred-plus rooms on the chance some dimwit like me might be hiding in one of them?”

  Gert was regarding Sully seriously now, his eyes focused again. He shrugged. “Best I can do. Idiots can be hard to predict.”

  “Thanks,” Sully said, meaning it. “If this pans out, I owe you.”

  The kitchen window opened, and Sully’s breakfast rattled onto the sill. Gert set it down in front of him, along with cutlery wrapped in a paper napkin. “If it pans out,” he said, “that’s where they’ll find your body.”

  With the food in front of him Sully found that he had something like an appetite, so he dug in. He’d eaten most of it when the phone on the backbar rang. Gert answered it, closing his eyes as if in pain. “Nah, he hasn’t been in,” he said. “I know…right…sure thing, Mrs. Gaghan. I’ll do that.”

  Sully pushed his plate away, the linguica suddenly a hot poker under his breastbone. Or maybe it was the thought that if he hadn’t taunted Spinmatics Joe at the Horse last night, he would’ve remained on his stool and avoided the speeding motorist, and his wretched mother would still have a son.

  “Here,” Gert said, and handed him a towel, having noticed that he’d broken into a sweat. “Spicy, that linguica.”

  Words to Die By

  THE WEATHERED, off-white cargo van caught her attention when she arrived to open the store. Since Kreuner’s Country Market—a combination gas station / convenience store / car wash—had been held up twice in the past eighteen months, she was always alert for suspicious vehicles, though more so at night, around closing time, when the register was full. She might not have noticed the van at all if it hadn’t sat cockeyed beyond the car-wash bays where nobody ever parked. As always she pulled up beside the Dumpster out back, leaving the more convenient spaces in front for customers. Letting herself in through the rear entrance, she turned on just one bank of lights, enough to see by without announcing to every Tom, Dick and Harry that Kreuner’s was open for business. It took fifteen minutes or so to ready the register, reboot the gas pumps and start coffee brewing for the self-serve canisters. It was still percolating when people started lining up outside, anxious to get a cup for the short drive into Schuyler or the longer commute down the interstate to Albany. Inevitably one of them would peer inside, see her going about her business, rap on the door and point at his wristwatch. When this happened, even if it was a couple minutes early, she’d flip the switch that turned on the rotating sign and the overhead fluorescents, unlock the door and begin another day.

  She described the driver of the cargo van as disheveled and sleepy eyed, as if he’d spent the night in there and was having a hard time coming fully awake. He claimed to have pulled in just a few minutes before her, then to have drif
ted off, waiting for her to open, but Karen—the attendant—doubted this was true, though she couldn’t say why anyone would lie about something so inconsequential. Nor could she explain why she felt wary about someone so determined to act friendly and harmless. Except for those sleepy eyes, she told Raymer, there was nothing special about how he looked or talked, though she thought maybe he was from somewhere down south. He wore jeans and a white T-shirt that was yellow and stretched at the collar and a baseball cap with some sort of circular logo she didn’t recognize. He’d bought coffee, orange juice, a crumb cake and a pack of cigarettes, then said something like Hey, you know what, as long as I’m here I might as well wash my van. Again she got the distinct impression he was deliberately trying to mislead her, but to what earthly purpose? It was as if the guy was biding his time, waiting for the other customers to leave, so it’d just be the two of them in the store. She wasn’t too worried, though, she said. She kept a can of Mace under the counter. Anyway, she must’ve been wrong about him, because they’d been alone at one point, and he hadn’t tried anything. He just paid up and washed his van and left.

  Raymer asked if he paid with a credit card, and she said no, that he’d given her cash, which maybe was a little strange. These days most people paid for purchases of more than ten dollars with credit or debit cards. But even more odd, now that she thought about it, was how he’d backed his rig into the wash bay. She couldn’t remember a customer ever doing that before. It was almost like…

  “Right,” Raymer said. It was almost like he didn’t want anybody to see the front of the van. “Which bay did he use?”

  “The far one,” she said, which Raymer might’ve guessed.

  Caught in that bay’s drain he found a sliver of thick brown glass that was a perfect match for the shards already in his evidence Baggie, and there were other, larger shards in the bottom of the trash bin.

  “The mayor still wants to see you,” Charice informed him when he returned to the SUV.

  “Tell him later. I’m busy.”

  “I did. He said it’s important.”

  “Tell him to go fuck himself,” Dougie barked.

  The radio crackled but otherwise was silent.

  “Sorry about that,” Raymer said. What troubled him most about Dougie’s unwelcome interruptions was that they were beginning to feel like a natural physical impulse—a hiccup or one of those irritating dry coughs that wouldn’t go away. “I’m sorry. Lack of sleep. Where is he?”

  “Out at Hilldale. He said something about the dead being on the move again. Does that make any sense to you?”

  Raymer actually heard only the first part. When she said “Hilldale,” it reminded him of something that had been nagging him ever since he’d left the cemetery. But what? Something to do with the garage remote? He tried to concentrate and tug whatever was hiding in the back of his brain forward into the front, but the signal was too weak and managed to make the buzzing in his ears grow louder.

  “Chief? You there?”

  “Sorry, I was thinking.”

  “So you’re heading out there? To Hilldale?”

  “Eventually.”

  “Chief?”

  “What, Charice?”

  “You’re scaring me.”

  There was a knock on the window, and Raymer jumped. Oh, it was just Karen, the clerk. “Sorry,” she said, “but I just remembered something else. When the van pulled out? It was making this funny scraping noise.”

  “You could hear that inside with the door closed?”

  “A customer happened to be leaving right then, so it was open. It was kind of a screech. Like—”

  “Metal on a tire?”

  “Yeah, like that.”

  —

  HAROLD PROXMIRE, sole proprietor of Harold’s Automotive World since his wife’s death, was busy prying a crumpled section of panel away from a cargo van’s front tire when Raymer pulled in.

  “I had a feeling,” he said when Raymer came over and showed him his badge. They stood regarding the vehicle Harold had bought a couple hours earlier. “Stolen?”

  “I have no idea,” Raymer confessed, “but there’s a pretty good chance it was involved in a hit-and-run on County Road last night.”

  “Who got hit?”

  “A man named Gaghan.”

  Harold shook his head. “I don’t think I know him. Dead?”

  “Amazingly, no. At least not yet.”

  “I wondered when I saw that reflector was missing,” Harold said, pointing at the side panel. “The guy claimed his kid drove the thing into a ditch, but it’s got Georgia plates, and that’s a long ways off. There wasn’t any blood that I could see.”

  “He visited the car wash before he came here.”

  “There was something wrong about him,” Harold said.

  “How so?”

  “Just an idea that struck me as soon as he got out of the van,” Harold said. “It was like he hadn’t made up his mind about something. It’s just me and the kid—Andy—working this morning, and he was around back smoking…well, smoking. So it’s just me and this guy and his eyes keep wandering around the yard, like, I don’t know, maybe he wants to make sure it’s just him and me. Then Andy appears, and I see something change behind his eyes. Like he made up his mind right then to sell me the van.”

  “Instead of?”

  “Who knows?” Harold shrugged, ashamed of himself, Raymer could tell. “I don’t normally have such thoughts. It’s probably the…”

  “The what?”

  “I’m kind of ashamed to admit it.”

  “I’m not here about you, Mr. Proxmire, if that helps.”

  “It does, a little. I’ve got this thing growing in my head. A cyst. Fibrous, they say, not cancer. But they can’t operate. Anyway, I get these headaches.”

  “And smoking dope helps.”

  “It does. A little, anyways. I know the kid shouldn’t be smoking, but I can’t very well tell him he can’t when I do. Without him I wouldn’t even know how to get it.”

  “I assume there’s paperwork on this vehicle?”

  “There is. I’m on the up-and-up here, mostly.”

  “Mostly?”

  “Well, this is the car business.”

  Harold’s office was the living room of a single-wide mobile home. He handed Raymer the van’s title, which he hadn’t even had time to file yet. Raymer wasn’t sure what a title issued by the state of Georgia was supposed to look like, but something felt off about the weight of the paper this particular document was printed on. The owner was identified as Mark Ringwald.

  “How much did you give him?”

  “Thirteen hundred. I told him the van was shot, even before this latest accident. Over two hundred thousand miles. I’d basically be using it for parts. I figured he’d want to dicker, but he didn’t. He seemed more interested in me paying in cash. That should’ve made me suspicious right there.”

  “You keep that kind of cash around?”

  Harold pointed to an ancient safe in the corner. “Have to, in this business.”

  “So how’d he leave? In a taxi?”

  “Andy gave him a lift in the tow truck.”

  “To Bath?”

  “Schuyler. The train station. Said he needed to be in Albany by early afternoon.”

  “And this was when?”

  “Couple hours ago?”

  “Is this Andy still here?”

  They went outside and Harold hollered for the boy, who appeared from in between rows of junkers. Raymer could smell the marijuana on him from thirty feet away.

  “Yo,” he said, eyeing Raymer nervously.

  Harold regarded the kid and sighed deeply. “Andy,” he said, “the person you’re addressing here is Mr. Raymer. He’s the chief of police in Bath.”

  The boy stood up straighter. “Oh,” he said. “Yo, sir.”

  “He wants to ask you about the man who sold us the van.”

  Now it was the kid’s turn to sigh. “All I bought was a couple ounc
es. For my own personal use, I swear.” His eyes flickered over to Harold for just a second, then returned to Raymer.

  “Andy?” Raymer said, kind of liking the kid. He might be a stoner, but he’d just had the opportunity to throw his boss under the bus and he hadn’t.

  “Yeah?”

  “For future reference? It’s better not to answer questions until they’re asked.”

  “Yeah, okay,” the boy said. “I can see how that would work.” But then he surprised him by taking a quick step backward and pointing at Raymer’s hand. “Dude,” he said. “Are you, like, a holy man?”

  His palm, Raymer realized, was bleeding. Apparently he’d been scratching it again, and the fingernails of his left hand were rust colored. “Far from it,” Raymer assured him. “So, Mr. Proxmire says you took the owner of the van to the train station.”

  The kid nodded but kept staring at Raymer’s hand, even when he turned the palm away. “Bill, yeah.”

  “He told you his name was Bill?”

  “Yeah.”

  Raymer put the hand behind his back, which caused the kid to blink and then finally meet his eye. “What’d you talk about?”

  “I told him the bus was way cheaper, but he said he had a thing for trains.”

  “What else?”

  He glanced at Harold again. “He offered me a job if I wanted to come with him.”

  “Doing?”

  “Steady work, was all he said. But I told him I’m not really, like, allowed to leave the county. And he said, ‘You gonna spend your whole life doing what other people say?’ and I said, ‘No, but like I’m really not allowed to leave the county,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you mentioned that,’ and I said, ‘What’s in the box?’ because he’d set his backpack on the floor, but he was holding this box on his knees like it was real important and he wanted me to ask what it was, so I did, and he said if I came to work for him maybe he’d tell me, but I said, ‘I’m not kidding, if I leave the county I’m in, like, mega-trouble,’ and he said, ‘That’s three times now you’ve told me that,’ and I said, ‘Here we are, this is the train station.’ ”

  “He said he was going to Albany?”

  “Yeah, and then somewheres else, Chicago or Denver, someplace like that.”

 
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