Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - A Best Friend Named Rick by Nichelle D. Tramble
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ABOUT
A clever woman comes home from a bender to find a hit man waiting for her in this crime tale from popular author Sam Reaves.

The Settlement

Sex makes men stupid. It makes them even stupider than they are naturally. I mean, sex or the prospect of sex or sometimes just a vague thought about sex turns men into gibbering dunces. And I say, thank God for that. I owe my standard of living and, for that matter, my life to sex-induced male stupidity.

I don't know where the hell Barry found the guy. My suspicion is that, as usual, he went for the cheapest option. I imagine there is a range of quality and pricing in hit men just like with anything else. You want Fendi, you have to pay Fendi prices. You shop at Target, you get something like the moron Barry sent to kill me.

I smelled him before I saw him. Personal hygiene was not far up this man's to-do list, and I have a finely trained nose. I can tell Chypre from Fougére at twenty paces. I stopped and sniffed as I was making for the walk-in closet in my bedroom, and I knew it wasn't me that had left that rancid spoor in there. So I was prepared when he stepped out of the bathroom, or as prepared as a woman can be when a homicidal intruder pops up in her bedroom. The booze probably helped me not to panic; I'd put away a half dozen champagne cocktails at bridge night and already shrugged off clipping the gatepost on the way up the drive in the Porsche, so all in all, I was prepared to take things with a little equanimity.

It was a strain at first, though. You know the Joan Rivers thing where she makes like she's sticking her finger down her throat? I wanted to shove my whole arm down there when this lizard crawled into view. His black ducktail was a fire hazard. I couldn't tell if his upper lip needed three more weeks of healthy growth or a quick swipe with a washcloth. It took me a second to figure out that the arms sticking out of his black T-shirt weren't ravaged by some awful skin disease but rather covered with the kind of tattoos you pay for with cartons of cigarettes. This guy's arms looked like a schizophrenic had doodled on them to pass the time during commitment proceedings. Oh yes, and there was the gun, which he was pointing at me. "Welcome home, bitch," he said. He took a couple of steps toward the door, cutting off my escape route.

I just stared at him. I went through the clichés, like "Who the hell are you?" and "What the hell are you doing here?" and "Get out of my house before I call the police," and rejected them all. I cocked my head on one side and said, "Did Barry send you?"

That threw him. The brow wrinkled, the eyes narrowed. Then his face went carefully blank again, the mark of a genuine idiot craftily playing dumb. "Barry who?" he said.

I rolled my eyes. "How much is he paying you?"

The eyes narrowed again. "I don't know what the fuck you're talking about. Get over here."

"So you can shoot me at close range? Not on your life."

"OK, I guess it'll just have to be target practice then." His arm stiffened and he gave me a one-eyed squint down the barrel of the gun. It was a big silver revolvery thing, very shiny.

I could see he was serious and I said, "Aren't you going to rape me first?"

Both eyes popped wide open. "Huh?"

"If Barry sent you, I know damn well he told you not to make it look like a hit. Am I right?" Keep him talking, I thought. He didn't look smart enough to talk and pull a trigger at the same time.

He looked suspicious, but his gun arm drooped an inch or two. "He said to take your jewels."

"The jewels, of course. He bought most of them." I sighed. "Look, can we cut a deal? I'll let you screw me, and then I'll go off to the Bahamas for a few months and you can tell Barry you killed me." I had my sweater up over my head and off before I finished talking. I'm forty-four but I'm a workout demon, at least when I'm not hungover. I have been described as well endowed, and time and gravity have not yet made serious inroads on my charms, certainly not when said charms are aided by a tattoo-embroidered demi-bra from Victoria's Secret. I knew he would have to look, and while he was looking I undid the snap on my jeans and started to wriggle out of those. "Come on, tiger, you look like you'd be good for a quick hard ride."

I had him. He was gob-smacked, as Nigel, my hairdresser, would say. He looked as if he had found religion, but it wasn't a very nice religion. He was still pointing the gun at me, but his heart wasn't in it anymore. "Keep talking," he said, staring at my crotch, nicely set off in a lace G-string.

"And you can keep the jewels." I steadied myself with a hand on the closet door as I kicked free of my jeans.

By this time the gun was pointing at the bed, which stood between us. The look on his face said he was very pleased with himself. "You got yourself a deal," he said.

"All right," I said, fumbling with the clasp of my bra behind my back. "Let's get started." I walked to the foot of the bed. "Help me with this, will you? I'm all nervous and clumsy all of a sudden." I wheeled, turning my back to him. I had a feeling I knew what he'd be looking at as he came around the bed toward me. After a moment of suspense I heard him take three or four fast steps, and then I heard him stuff the gun into his waistband. When I felt his grubby fingers poking at the clasp, I spun around, grabbed the gun from his pants, and jumped back out of lunging range. "Hands up, Einstein."

He froze with his mouth open, like a turbot on a block of ice. "You bitch," he managed, in a wondering tone.

"Bitch, moi? I think that's a little harsh. I said get your hands up." I thumbed back the hammer.

He couldn't decide where to look or what to think about. His eyes kept going from my breasts to my snatch to the gun, like a fly trying to decide where to light. And his hands hadn't made it any farther up than about waist height. I pointed the gun at the floor in front of him and pulled the trigger.

WHAM! He jumped about a foot in the air, and his hands shot up over his head. "Jesus! Watch it, will you?" His voice broke like a thirteen-year-old's.

I waggled the smoking gun at him. "I just put a hole in a thousand-dollar Bukhara rug because of you. Now lie down, on the floor. On your belly, over there. Hands out in front of you. Face to the wall." He went down like Mark Spitz going off the blocks into the pool. "Next time, do as I say, when I say it."

"What are you gonna do?" he said to the wall.

"Boy, that's a really good question, isn't it? I'll have to think about that. Don't look." Holding the gun on him, I opened the closet and fished for my robe. I slipped it on and managed to knot the belt without letting go of the gun. "OK, you can look now. But don't try and get up or I'll see if your hide does any better than the rug." He turned his head and fixed big, wide eyes on me. He looked like a rat peeking out of a garbage can. I went and sat on the foot of the bed, crossed one finely shaped leg over the other, arranged the robe demurely, holding the gun nonchalantly, and said, "What's your name, handsome?"

"Huh?"

"You heard me. What do they call you down at the halfway house?"

A couple of seconds went by. "Donnie."

"Donnie. That figures. Well, Donnie, how much did that sack of shit pay you to whack me?"

He blinked a few times. "Ten thousand dollars."

"Ten thousand? Is that all? That cheap son of a bitch. I hope you got it in advance."

Donnie's eyes narrowed a little and his head came up a notch or two. "I got half."

"Mm-hm. And did he give you a reason? Beyond mere childish spite?"

"He said the alimony was bleeding him dry."

"I see. Well, he should have thought of that when he started shtupping that little receptionist of his. Donnie, my neck's getting sore just looking at you. If you promise to be good, you can go and sit on that chair by the dressing table. But take it slow, OK? I'd hate to have an accident with this bazooka here." Donnie didn't take his eyes off me as he got up very slowly and went to the chair and sat with his hands on his knees, like a kid in the principal's office. His mouth hung open, his lower lip glistening a little. "Better now? Good." I assumed a thoughtful look. "So he still owes you five thousand. What are the arrangements?"

"What do you mean?"

I spoke slowly and clearly, as if to a child. "I mean, what is he going to do, write you a check with 'For killing wife' on the memo line, or will it be the classic unmarked bills in a brown paper bag? How did you get the first five thousand?"

"He gave it to me in hundreds. In an envelope."

I nodded. "In some dark bar someplace?"

"In his car. In the parking lot at Hooters."

"That figures." I frowned at Donnie for a while and made my decision. "How would you like to double your money?"

I sat and watched a dim light flicker somewhere behind Donnie's eyes. "How?"

"Report back to Barry and tell him you killed me. Collect the rest of your money. Then whack him and I'll match what he gave you. Ten thousand dollars. You double your money."

Donnie's eyes widened. "Whack him?"

"Just like you're supposed to whack me. Take the envelope, say thank you, pull out the gun, and shoot him. Then give me a call, set up a meet, and I'll give you my ten thousand. You'll make twenty thousand instead of ten."

Donnie worked on that until I thought he was about to drop off to sleep. "Sounds good."

"Just make sure you get the money before you shoot him," I said, perhaps unnecessarily. "Now listen, I'll have to give you something to show Barry as proof you killed me. If there's no body, no report on the evening news, he's just the type to make a fuss and refuse to pay you. And there's not going to be any body or any report on the evening news."

Donnie frowned in puzzlement for a moment, then nodded. "Uh, yeah. So what do we do?"

"Here." I laid the gun down on the bed long enough to wrestle the two-carat ruby I bought with my first alimony check off my left ring finger. Donnie's eye lit on the gun for a second, but I saw him think better of it. I picked the gun up and tossed him the ring. "Show him that. He knows I never take it off. He'll accept that as proof I'm dead."

Donnie picked it up off the rug and peered at it. "How much is it worth?"

This time I had to roll my eyes. "To you, five thousand bucks. Tell him you had to cut off my finger to get it. If you ask him for it, he'll probably let you keep it. In fact he may insist."

Donnie shrugged and stuffed the ring into a pocket of his jeans. "OK."

"Now," I said, letting the gun dangle carelessly. "You'll have to tell him something about what you did with the body. Let's see—tell him you wired a cinder block to my ankles and threw me in the lake out behind the house."

"OK."

"And we'll need to make some arrangements. How were you supposed to contact Barry?"

"I call him and leave a message at a bar, then he calls me at another bar. It's all in, like, code. I tell him his car is fixed. That's the code. That really means I fixed you."

"Got it. That's clever. And then you meet at Hooters again, is that it?"

"I don't know, I guess so. I do what he says."

"OK, whatever. Just remember, when he hands over the money you're going to put a hole in him. So make sure you meet him someplace where there aren't a zillion people watching. The far corner of a parking lot would be good. I'll leave that up to you."

Donnie was frowning again, and as I watched him labor I started to have misgivings: was he possibly just smart enough to see the main objection to a plan like this from my point of view, that if Barry croaked, the alimony checks would stop? I went through a bad moment, and then Donnie nodded once, the sign of a resolute and focused individual, and said, "OK. Then what?"

"Then you call me and we set up a meeting. I'll write the number down for you." I got up and went to the bedside table and scrawled my cell phone number on the pad I keep there. "We'll use a code, too. If everything goes according to plan, you say, 'Your tomcat is fixed.' How's that?" I tore off the sheet and went and held it out to Donnie, keeping the gun trained on him with my other hand.

"Uh, OK." He took the paper and I went back to the bed.

"And then we'll rendezvous, and I'll have your money for you."

"OK." Donnie was looking at the gun again. "Can I have my gun back now?"

It was my turn to frown. "You know, Donnie, forgive me, but I think, just to be on the safe side, I'm going to keep it for the moment, until you're out of my house. You're not going to use it tonight anyway. Barry's in bed by now, and he's not going to get up just to go meet you at Hooters. I tell you what I'll do. Without a body, Barry's going to need a lot of convincing I'm dead. The ring might not be enough. So I'll lend you my Porsche, how's that? You know how to drive a stick shift?"

"Are you kidding?" His lip curled; now I'd offended him. "I could drive a stick shift when I was nine years old."

"Very impressive. Now listen. It's a nice red Porsche 911 Turbo. Vanity plates that say 'COO GRR'." I spelled it for him and watched his brow knit. "Look, it's a red Porsche, OK? Tomorrow afternoon I'll leave it in the southwest corner of the parking lot at the Walmart out on the highway. The key will be in the ignition and the gun will be in the glove compartment. All you have to do is pick it up and go make your rendezvous with Barry. I'll be someplace where nobody will be able to find me. Because I'm supposed to be dead, right? Then when you call me, I'll tell you where to meet me. Does that work for you?"

Watching Donnie think was like watching a man trying to pass a kidney stone. "OK," he said finally. "Can I go now?"

"Please do. Where did you park?"

"In the woods just off the road, about a hundred yards up."

"OK." I watched him stand up, the gun pointing idly at his midsection. "Oh, and Donnie?"

"Yeah."

"One more thing. It's not that I don't trust you, but just so I can be sure you're not trying to pull anything on me, when we meet next I'd like you to show me the money you get from Barry. All of it, both installments. I mean, you could be trying to pull something on me, like telling me he was going to pay you ten thousand when really it was only a grand. So let's say I'll match whatever sum you show up with after you whack Barry. But I have to see it and count it. OK?"

He didn't like the terms, but he was looking at a lady holding a .38 on him, and his options were limited. He said, "Sure thing," and I ushered him out of the house, walking ten feet behind him all the way, with the gun cocked. When I was sure he was gone, I double checked all the locks, went back upstairs, put the gun in a drawer, and went and started the hot water running in the bathtub. I was very pleased with myself.

I had both those putzes in the palm of my hand.

 

The next day I went down into the basement, unloaded the gun, and took a pair of pliers and put the shells in a vise and pulled out the slugs. I emptied out the gunpowder, replaced it with OxyClean, and tapped the slugs back in place with a ball-peen hammer. I loaded them back into the cylinder, and they looked just as convincing as they had before.

I didn't want Donnie shooting my meal ticket. I didn't mind if he frightened the prick into soiling his silk boxers, but I couldn't have him actually doing what I'd told him to do.

Next I rooted around in drawers until I found the little voice-activated digital recorder Dr. Greenbaum had given me to record my thoughts of rage and despair when I was in therapy. I had tried it once and been so appalled by the sound of my whiny voice coming out of the thing that I'd never gone through with it. I ditched the shrink instead. But now I thought the gizmo might come in handy.

About one o'clock I made a pass through the Walmart lot just to make sure Donnie wasn't lurking there ready to jump me with a tire iron or a new gun, and then I parked the Porsche right where I'd told him I'd leave it. The gun was in the glove compartment and the recorder was tucked into the visor above the driver's seat, where any casual observer would take it for the garage door opener. It was turned on and ready to record whatever got said in that car for the next sixteen hours. I squinted at the Walmart on the far horizon, hiked over to the Bennigan's a quarter mile in the other direction, and fended off advances from a forty-something bartender with too much self-esteem and not enough chin until the taxi showed up.

Now I had to disappear. I decided this was the perfect time for a little pamper-myself vacation at the Four Seasons downtown. I packed a couple of bags, called another taxi, and went.

The next day I was lounging on a deck chair by the pool in my bikini, with a bottle of Chablis in the ice bucket and working my way through a stack of Danielle Steele novels, when my cell phone went off. Donnie's voice in my ear said, "The cat is not fixed."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said the tomcat is not fixed. Definitely not fixed. There's a problem." He sounded as if his jaws were wired shut.

I scanned the pool area to make sure I wasn't going to be overheard. The pool boy was busy trying to make time with a cheap blonde floozy at the other end of the room. I dropped my voice a little and said, "What kind of problem?"

"A problem, for Christ's sake. The cat won't pay." Then, clearly and much louder, "The son of a bitch won't pay me. He says the ring don't mean shit. Not even the car convinced him. He said I could have just stolen it along with the ring. He said when he sees crime-scene tape on the evening news he'll pay up."

"Ah." This was pretty much what I had expected. Knowing Barry as intimately as I do, I had thought the chances he would pay up without a body in sight were remote. "I see. Well, we're just going to have to give him a body, then, aren't we?"

There was a silence. "How do we do that?"

"We'll arrange an exhumation."

"Huh?"

"We'll dig up the body."

Two seconds went by. "But there is no body."

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Donnie. I'm aware of that. What I mean is that we'll fake it. We'll let him have a look at my body. You threw me in the lake, remember?"

"Um, yeah."

"So now you tell Barry you went and pulled me out. Make a big deal of how much work it was, what a pain in the ass. You had to wade in there and get that wire twisted loose and drag me back to shore. Took you half the night. But you've got me in a safe place and you can show me to him."

There was a silence at Donnie's end, no doubt a perfect reflection of what was going on in his head. "OK," he said finally.

"So now all you have to do is call him and tell him you've got the body and set up a rendezvous for him to view it. But don't do it right away," I hastened to add. "Call him tomorrow morning, after you supposedly spend tonight pulling me out of the lake. Got it?"

"Got it." He said it slowly.

"Something bothering you, Donnie?"

"How we gonna make you look dead?"

He was unexpectedly showing signs of mental life. "You mean after I've supposedly been in the lake for a couple of days?"

"Yeah. Exactly. I mean, when they pulled my uncle Ray out of the crick after he drowned, he was all bloated and shit. More than usual, I mean. You couldn't hardly tell it was him."

"Well, sure. But how long was he in there?"

"I don't know, a week or two maybe."

"Well, there you go. I'll only have been in the lake for what, three nights by the time you pull me out? And the lake's cold this time of year. Cold water preserves things. It's like I've been in the fridge for a while, that's all. And a quick peek at me is all he'll need. I can lie still long enough for you to pull a tarp off me to show Barry. I'll get in the shower or something just before, so I'll be wet and buck naked, and we'll put some weeds and things in my hair. And there won't be much light. Trust me, it'll work."

I sat there and listened to Donnie thinking about getting a look at me buck naked. "All right," he said. "Where's all this gonna happen?"

"In the boathouse down by the lake. You saw it when you were out at my place, right? That's where I'll be. Under a tarp. It'll be unlocked. All you have to do is meet Barry somewhere and take him out there. Give me a heads-up on my cell phone just before you meet him to give me time to get wet and naked and out to the boathouse. I'll be under a big blue tarp in the corner. There's a canoe under it now, but I'll get rid of that. Take him in there and turn on the light by the door. There's just one bulb and it'll be pretty dim. Lift up the tarp and let him look for a couple of seconds. That'll be enough. I know him. He's squeamish. He'll take one look and turn tail and run. And then he'll go and get your money."

I let him drool in silence for a while. "Donnie? Are you there?"

"Yeah. Yeah, OK. Sounds good. I'll call him tonight."

"No, you'll call him tomorrow morning, remember?"

"Oh yeah. First thing in the morning."

"Good boy. Call me when you set up the meet, OK? I want you to keep me posted. Meanwhile, I need my car back. Leave the Porsche in front of the police station on Lake Street. Keys in the ignition, just like before. You can keep the gun."

I could smell him in the Porsche. I would have to take it to the detailing place and have the Mexicans go at it with Lysol or something. I wrinkled my pert little nose and reached up to the visor to pull out the recorder. I stabbed at buttons, not an easy thing to do with my splendid nails, until I heard a tinny little snarl, easily recognizable as my ex-husband in Donald Trump mode: "I'm telling you, I'm not paying you another dime until I see proof the bitch is dead. I order work done, I gotta know the job is completed before I pay the invoice." There was more in the same vein, along with an Oscar-winning performance by Donnie, showing that lying was perhaps his one true talent. "I shot her just like you told me, man, right through the head." To me it sounded like enough to put them both in a cell. Together maybe, roommates. That was fun to think about.

But it wasn't going to come to that. I needed Barry to go on doing just what he was doing, making money hand over fist and forking over huge wads of it to me. I had nothing but good wishes for my dear, sweet Barry. I just wanted to teach the miserable son of a bitch a lesson.

I spent the night at the Four Seasons and went home after a leisurely morning's shopping, the trunk of the Porsche stuffed with packages. My cell phone went off as I was parading around the den, trying out my new black patent-leather Versace ankle boots. I pirouetted to a graceful halt, whipped out the phone, and answered. "Everything's set up," Donnie murmured into my ear, distantly. "He bought it."

I could barely hear him. "Speak up, will you? You're mumbling."

"I gotta be quiet," he mumbled. "I don't want my mom to hear."

"Your mom?"

"Yeah. I'm crashing at her place."

"You live with your mother?"

"It's just temporary." I could tell I had piqued him. "Just since I got out of the joint, till I get my own place."

"I see. And she has the only telephone in your town, does she?"

That went right over his head. All of a sudden he was speaking in a normal tone of voice. "It's all right, she just went in the bathroom. Listen, he went for it just like you said. I'm gonna pick him up at Hooters tonight at ten and bring him out to your place."

"Fine. That's perfect. Just remember to give me a heads-up before you start out here."

"I will."

"Before he gets in your car, I mean. Call me before he's in earshot."

The two-second delay before he answered told me I had been right to clarify. "Right. Got it."

"I knew I could count on you, Donnie. Listen, tonight, after you get your money from Barry, come ring my doorbell and I'll have a little something for you, too."

I could hear him drooling. "You betcha," he said.

None of this was going to happen, of course. Nobody was going anywhere near that boathouse that night or any other. It was all smoke, and if Donnie's IQ had been greater than his shoe size, he would have seen right through it.

The next step was the tricky one. I had to go through drawers and closets again, but I finally found what I needed. Back when Barry still thought he loved me, before the blonde receptionist with the baby blues and the grown-up boobs hove into view and scrambled his brains, Barry had given me a little present for what he called my own protection. It was a shiny little pistol, specially made for women, according to Barry. He had taken me out into the backyard and shown me how to use it, and we'd put a few holes in a tree trunk. He said he wanted me to use it if anyone ever tried to mess with me. I had assured him I would but had tossed the damn thing in a closet the first chance I got. It was cute, but I knew I was a lot more likely to shoot myself with it than any competent rapist.

Barry had thoughtfully loaded it before giving it to me, so there wasn't going to be any problem with ammunition. I slipped the gun into my purse and called another taxi. The Porsche had to stay in the garage for a while.

I hadn't seen Barry in a few months. Our relationship was a model of civility for a divorced couple: our lawyers had each other's phone numbers. The last time I'd seen Barry had been at the country club Christmas bash, where he'd been showing off the blonde, like an oil sheik with a newly purchased thoroughbred. Relations had been chilly after I contrived to spill champagne down the filly's cleavage.

I thought it was time for a rapprochement. I breezed through his outer office, right past the receptionist. This was a new one, the blonde having been elevated to the status of domestic ornament and relieved of her duties. "Don't bother to announce me," I said, giving the girl a smile and a waggle of fingers. She was pretty and sweet looking, and I wondered how long it would be before Barry was resting a hand on her thigh, sighing to her about his domestic woes with the blonde.

I figured it would be a shock for Barry to see me, but the effect when I barged into his office was even more gratifying than I expected. He was on the phone, and when he saw me he just froze with his mouth open and the phone to his ear, like a cow struck by lightning out in the pasture, just waiting to fall over. "Hello, Champ," I said, reviving a pet name from our courtship. "How's the world of big-time real estate today?" I grinned at him as I pushed the door shut behind me.

He just sat there and gaped. I could make out faint inquiring noises coming from the phone at his ear. Finally he blinked. "I gotta go. I'll call you back," he said, and hung up. "What the hell are you doing here?" he said in a tone of wonder. So far he was just stunned, but I knew when it sank in he was going to reach critical mass and make Chernobyl look like a birthday candle.

"Surprised to see me?" I sank into the chair in front of the desk and crossed my legs, tugging modestly at the hem of my skirt. "I just happened to be in the neighborhood, and I thought I'd stop in and say hi." I gave him my best facsimile of a wistful smile. "You know, I've been feeling kind of bad about how things turned out with us. There's no reason we can't be friends. How's...I'm sorry, what was her name?"

Barry's eyebrows clamped down and his jaw snapped shut, as if a giant pair of hands were squashing his head like a lump of clay. He was slowly turning the color of a lobster on the boil. "That son of a bitch," he growled, just audibly.

"Excuse me?"

"That dirty..." He stopped, closed his eyes for a second, and then put both hands to his face and rubbed briskly. Finally he looked at me and said, "Never mind. What the hell do you want?"

I put on a hurt look. "I just wanted to say hi. Like I said, I've been feeling bad about how things turned out."

"Bullshit," he said. "I don't think Jesse James felt too bad as he sat there counting the take."

"You're sweet," I said, fluttering my eyelashes at him. "Listen, the real reason I stopped by is, I was cleaning out closets and things for the Ladies' Guild rummage sale, and I came across this." I pulled the gun out of my purse and was rewarded with the sight of my ex-husband blanching like a bowl full of almonds. It was almost too much—he clutched a handful of shirt over his heart, and for a panicked second I was afraid I'd shorted out my ATM. "Jesus!" he squawked. He shoved away from the desk, hands on the arms of his chair, ready to leap for the window.

"See? They're scary, aren't they? I just don't really want this thing around the house. It could go off and somebody could get hurt. I want you to take it back." I laid it gently on the desk, pointing toward the wall, and shoved it toward Barry with my fingertips. "Be careful, I think it's still loaded."

This was the scary part. Handing a loaded gun to a man who has just hired someone to kill you could be considered a trifle rash. But I didn't think Barry was going to shoot me there in his office surrounded by witnesses, and, anyway, I knew him—he wasn't the type to do the dirty work himself. I smiled and stood up. "Just throw it away or something if you don't want it. I'm sure not going to use it." I turned and made for the door. Over my shoulder I said, "We should have a drink together sometime. Right now I have to go talk to my insurance agent. You know that nice new Porsche I bought with your last check? Somebody stole it the other night."

Barry was going into boiled lobster mode again, his face changing colors faster than a disco ball over a dance floor. I got out of there before he decided to take a potshot at me after all.

After that I just killed time. I went to a movie, I had a drink or three at the bar of my favorite Mexican restaurant and then a couple more with dinner, I took a taxi home and ran a tub full of hot water. I lay in it thinking about what to do with my windfall. The Bahamas? Cozumel? Paris? The chickens weren't quite hatched, but I figured it was time to start counting. At about ten o'clock my cell phone went off. "Get ready," said Donnie. "I'm at Hooters, and he just pulled into the parking lot."

"OK, I'll be ready. Under the blue tarp in the corner. Just remember, don't give him too much of a look." I waited a beat. "That will be for you, later, Champ."

I almost felt sorry for him as I listened to him breathing into the phone. Almost, but not quite. After all, he'd been ready and willing to kill me for a few thousand bucks. I'm a compassionate and caring person, but I'm not a pushover. "You just keep it warm for me," he said, his voice thick with something or other, probably not emotion.

"Oh, it'll be warm, don't worry. And Donnie, don't let Barry push you around. He may talk tough, but he's easily intimidated."

He made some kind of noise that might have been a laugh. "I'll show him what intimidation is."

"That's my Chump. See you soon."

"Chump?" he said as I killed the call, and I thought for a second I'd gone too far. But I had confidence in his bottomless stupidity, and as I snuggled under the covers I had visions of tropical beaches in my head. I went out like a light.

The next day I didn't know what to do with myself. I didn't know how long it would take to hit the news, and, for that matter, I didn't know how much news value a lowlife getting himself shot in the parking lot at Hooters would have. I should have had more confidence in our local news outlets. It led off the noon newscast with the title "Hooters Hit" floating in the background and a shot of yellow crime-scene tape cordoning off a section of parking lot with a beat-up old Trans Am sitting there with its doors open and police technicians poking around in it. A reporter with a grave look on his face looked into the camera and said, "Hooters management has issued a statement deploring the incident and insisting that Hooters takes great pains to provide a wholesome and safe atmosphere for family dining."

The victim was identified as one Donald Dickey, described as a recently released ex-convict who had served time for armed robbery. They threw up a mug shot and there was my Donnie, scowling into the camera, looking just as tough and just as stupid as I remembered him. I felt a brief nostalgic pang. But it was very brief.

I waited until midafternoon to call Barry at his office. When I got through I just held the little digital recorder up to the phone and played the bit where Barry had said, "You get paid when I see my ex-wife's obituary in the paper." I let it run for a few seconds and then put the phone to my ear. "Hello, Barry."

There was nothing at the other end, just empty air. "Yoo-hoo," I cooed. "Barry, dear. This is your ex-wife. The one you set up on a date with Donnie, remember? By the way, I hope he didn't suffer too much. Poor boy."

A vague noise suggesting respiratory distress came over the phone.

I went on. "Barry, do you remember the old joke about what do you have when you have a green basketball in your right hand and a green basketball in your left hand, and the answer is, 'A damn good hold on the Jolly Green Giant'? Well, Barry, that's what I have on you."

After a few more seconds he managed to say, "You're dead. You're roadkill."

"No, Barry, I don't think so. You see, this recording is the green basketball in my right hand. And I have a green basketball in my left hand, too. I went and dug one of the slugs out of the tree out back. So the police will be able to match the ballistics up with the ones they dug out of Donnie. I'm going to put it together with the recorder in a nice, safe place where they'll be sure to be found if something happens to me. But I don't think anything's going to happen to me, is it?"

Barry said something that sounded like air going out of a punctured tire.

My tone hardened. "I want the money in cash, Barry. The ten thousand you were going to give Donnie, and another ten thousand for all the emotional distress you caused me. I want it in unmarked bills, and I want it this afternoon. If I don't get it from your hands today, I'll be forced to play that recording for a very nice man I know down at the police station. Is that clear?"

I wasn't sure how it was going to go; as the seconds ticked off I started to worry once again that I'd killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. I had a horrifying vision of Barry sliding off his chair onto the thick carpet behind his desk, clutching his chest.

I should learn not to worry so much. I know my Barry; at heart he's a realist. After a moment I heard his voice in my ear, a little ragged but perfectly clear. "Mercy," Barry said. "I surrender."

Barry was very sweet when I went to pick up the money. He looked ten years older since the day before. "I was wrong about you," he said. "Maybe we should have that drink after all, talk about old times. Maybe we can work things out."

"Oh, Barry," I said. "I could never come between you and...I'm sorry, what was her name? Oh, never mind." I finished counting the bills and stuffed them into my purse. "Actually, Barry, I think I like where we are just now. I think we've worked out a very fair settlement. You know, lots of divorced couples manage to remain friends after the breakup. I think we can, too. I look forward to many years of fruitful companionship." I snapped my purse shut and stood up.

I looked back from the doorway, and damned if he wasn't wiping away a tear.

I never suspected he had a sentimental streak.

About the Author

Sam Reaves has written seven Chicago-based crime novels, most recently Mean Town Blues. As Dominic Martell he has penned a European-based suspense trilogy. Reaves has traveled widely in Europe and the Middle East but has lived in the Chicago area most of his life. He has worked as a teacher and a translator.