The Jillie Effect
by Wm. Nesbit
Ada Lange looked out through the fogged windows of her living room and heaved a deep sigh. Outside, shadows of tree limbs cast by street lamps performed stickman ballets on the silvery white surface of her lawn. Beyond, on houses up and down the street, multicolored Christmas lights twinkled in the cold night air.
The whole of Webster Groves and the greater St. Louis area lay under a blanket of snow, and the few cars that passed Ada’s window moved cautiously along through the accumulating slush. 1972’s snowfall hadn’t matched previous years, but it had been more than enough for Ada. Confined by a worsening chest cold, she hadn’t been active or outside for days. At her feet, headlines in her discarded newspaper screamed of the war in Vietnam, of astronauts on the moon, and of the Cardinals re-tooling for the 1973 season. Christmas was less than a week away. Already she was exhausted. Her eyes watered incessantly, her nose ran, and now a cough had come on. Oh how she longed to be asleep in bed. But that was impossible. Instead, she sat curled deep in her sofa wrapped in an afghan waiting for Arthur.
“He’s late again.” Ada looked up to see Jillie standing in the doorway.
“Yes,” she said. “He’s late again.”
“Well, I’m tired. I’m going to bed now. Goodnight Momma.”
“Goodnight Honey. I’ll come tuck you in when I come up.”
“Don’t let him—”
“No, I won’t.”
Don’t let him bully her, Ada thought. That’s what Jillie was telling her. Don’t let him argue and yell and make her cry, and don’t let him slip away either, slip away and hide in his study. Oh how she envied Jillie’s spunk and strong will. They covered her like armor, protecting her from the vulnerability and helplessness Ada so often felt, from the uncertainty she felt now waiting for Arthur. Just a little spark, the least provocation, could set Jillie off. A few days earlier Arthur had come home in a rage and begun berating Ada for no good reason, and when she’d cowered under the barrage Jillie had come running into the room and stepped between them. Incensed at the interruption, he’d raised his hand to hit Jillie, only to have her move even closer to him and dare him to do it with her eyes. Glaring back at her, he’d turned and made his way upstairs to bed in silence.
Now it was finally time for Ada to show courage of her own, to confront him and have a real talk. He’d changed so quickly, so much, in so short a time, and she had to know why. He seemed suddenly nervous and uncertain. He no longer talked with her about day-to-day affairs at his office, about his clients, or the politics of the day, and he studiously avoided her and Jillie, seldom offering more than a short word or a nod. When she tried to talk to him he’d either erupt in anger or ignore her, cloistering himself in the study at his desk with the door closed. Perhaps the confrontations with Jillie brought it on. But she didn’t think so; it was something else, something threatening, something that made him afraid. Twice he’d called to say he’d be late, to go ahead with dinner without him, and then he’d stayed somewhere overnight in the city. When she’d try to question him, he’d told her to mind her own goddamned business and she’d erupted, “I’m your wife, and you need to talk to me!” But he’d ignored her and shut himself in his study. Tonight will be the night, she thought. Tonight he will tell me why he has changed so.
A sudden gust of wind blew through the room. In the kitchen, the back door banged open against the wall and Ada flinched. “Arthur, is that you?” she called out, words followed by a spasm of coughing. As she waited for a reply the door slammed shut, heavy feet sounded on the floor, and two men entered the room. Lurching to her feet, a tissue to her lips, she slipped on the newspaper and reached for the arm of the sofa to keep her balance. “Who are you?” she asked, her voice quaking.
The men ignored her. One was massive with a pockmarked face and arms that hung almost to his knees. The other was only slightly smaller, completely bald with a deep scar on one cheek. Both wore rough wool overcoats flecked with snow.
“My husband will be home very soon,” Ada whimpered. “He—”
“Shut up,” the bald man grunted. Turning, he waved the other man farther into the house. Then he stepped to Ada, grabbed her roughly by the wrist and barked, “Where’s he keep his papers?”
“Let go of me!” she shouted. “Who are you?”
With his free hand the man slapped her across the face, sending her sprawling onto the floor, blood gushing from her nose and mouth.
“Where’s he keep his papers?” he repeated in a guttural tone.
“In his study,” she moaned, “in his desk.”
Upstairs, Jillie heard the door slam and shook her head, bracing herself for another argument, more yelling, her mother succumbing in tears. Ada insisted she call Arthur daddy, but he was her stepfather, no blood relation, and she felt little if any affection for him. Her own father had died before she was born, and by the time she was old enough to reason Ada had remarried and brought them to this. Downstairs she heard Ada shout and she sat up. When she heard the rough low voice, one she didn’t recognize—not Arthur’s for sure—she tiptoed to the top of the stairs. Below, she saw the baldheaded man push Ada through the hall into the study, her arm twisted behind her back. Stepping into a shadow she stood stock still, took in a breath, and held it.
The study lay off the main hall at the front of the house. Inside, the pockmarked man was circling the room with a studied eye.
“Find anything?” the other asked, his grip still tight on Ada’s wrist.
“When Arthur comes home—” Ada began again.
“Listen lady,” the baldheaded man hissed, “your Arthur ain’t coming home ever again.”
Ada started to respond then stopped, her face twisted in confusion. “Why…what…I don’t—”
“Shut up,” the man growled.
“She don’t need to know about none of that, Ned,” the other man called to him.
“You shut up too,” Ned said. Turning back to Ada he spoke more quickly, impatience showing in his voice. “Where’s he keep his papers? And money too, he’s got money that don’t belong to him, you know that don’t ya? Yeah, you do. Where’s he keep it? In the desk? A safe?”
“Money? I don’t know anything about money,” she wailed.
“You better talk straight to me lady, or by God—”
“All his papers are here, in his desk, on his shelves,” she moaned. “But…what happened? What happened to Arthur? Tell me. I’m his wife, I deserve to—”
“Shut up, goddammit!” the man yelled. Dragging her into the hall he slapped her again and flung her down onto an area rug in the center of the room. “You stay here where we can see you. If you move, if I see you get up….”
“I won’t,” she whimpered. When he turned away her eyes flew up to the landing hoping Jillie had seen what was happening and hidden herself, or run, climbed out a window and run. They must not know about her.
The two men talked in low voices. Then the man called Ned pushed the other in the chest and spoke louder. “No, Jimmy. Not yet,” he said, casting an eye at Ada. “Go search the rest of the house. I’ll take this room. If we don’t find it we’re up shit’s creek. It’s gotta be here someplace.”
Ada watched in horror as the pockmarked man came into the hall and bounded up the stairs. Jillie had turned out the light in her bedroom, but if the man went in he’d see all her posters and pictures and stuffed animals and know about her, know there was a young girl in the house. “Oh God,” Ada moaned to herself.
When the man reached the landing he went directly into the master bedroom. A moment later Jillie emerged from her room, slipped past the door, peeked in at him, and edged her way down the stairs. Two steps from the bottom she held her finger to her lips to quiet anything Ada might say, then she craned her neck to look into the study. Against a far wall, the baldheaded man had his back to them pulling book after book down off the shelves, thumbing through each one, then tossing it aside. Ada held her breath and stared wide-eyed at her daughter. In the next instant Jillie was beside her, pulling her to her feet and pushing her through the living room into the kitchen and out the back door. “Hurry Momma, hurry!” she whispered again and again as they moved. Racing down the walkway to the alley that ran behind their house they stopped beside a sagging holly bush and looked back, their footprints clearly visible in the newly fallen snow.
“Who are those men?” Jillie asked. “What are they doing here?”
“I don’t know, Honey. They said they were looking for papers, and money; they said Daddy took money from them.”
Both of them wore only house coats, pajamas, and slippers, and as they stood together they shivered in the cold air, their breath billowing out in wispy clouds. Beside them in the alley a late model Chrysler sat pressed close against their fence. “That must be their car,” Jillie said, as much to herself as to Ada.
“They’ll follow us in this snow,” Ada said. “They’ll see our footprints and catch us.”
“No,” Jillie urged. “Step in the tire tracks from the cars. We can walk in those. And when more cars come it’ll be even harder to see where we went.”
“But where will we go?” Ada asked. “Daddy has the car, we don’t—”
“We can go to the Westcott’s. They’re away for the week, remember? I’ve been feeding their cat. The key is by the back door.”
Walking in the tire tracks they made their way down the alley and across an adjoining street to the Westcott’s. Beneath a flower pot Jillie retrieved the key and slipped it into the lock. Inside, in a mud room lined with hooks hung with winter coats, raingear, sweaters, knit hats, and other outerwear, Ada slouched onto a bench and began to cry. Stooping beside her Jillie saw for the first time how badly she’d been beaten. A red welt covered the left side of her face and a rivulet of blood ran down from her mouth onto her chin and neck. Her right wrist looked burned where the man had held her, and she cradled it gently in her other hand. “Oh Momma,” Jillie said aloud, “those men hurt you so bad.”
“Why is there no heat?” Ada groaned. “I’m so cold.”
“The Westcott’s turned it down when they left, Momma. But we can go upstairs. There are beds and blankets there and we can get in together. We’ll be warm there, and I can tend to your cuts.” As she spoke her face suddenly lit up. “Momma!” she said in an excited voice. “We can call the police from here and tell them about those men. They’ll catch them before they leave and—”
“No,” Ada interrupted.
“I don’t understand, Momma.”
“Come to bed, Honey. Let me think for a minute before we do that. I need time to think.”
“Where is she? Goddammit, where is she?” Ned was standing in the doorway to the study yelling at the top of his voice. “Jimmy. Where is she? You got her?”
The pockmarked man emerged onto the landing. “What? You ain’t got her?” he called down.
“No, where is she. Where’d she go?”
“I ain’t seen her, Ned. She was on the floor there—”
Moving quickly, Ned went through the living room into the kitchen. Nothing. The dining room lay off the kitchen and he stormed in there, again finding nothing. Circling back into the hall he yelled up to the other man, “Look up there, Goddammit. Maybe she’s hiding someplace.”
“If she’d a come up here I’d a seen her, Ned. But OK, I’ll look.” Two other doors led out onto the landing, the first, a guestroom, the next, Jillie’s. “You know anything about a kid, Ned,” he called down from Jillie’s room. “These people have a kid, a girl looks like, all frilly kinda pink things and toys up here.”
“Nobody said nothin’ about a kid. Look hard, Jimmy. Make sure she ain’t up there. I’ll check outside.”
At the back door he saw their footprints in the snow. Following down the walkway he looked left and right along the alley. Nothing. The road was awash with slush carved into hills and valleys by passing cars. “Oh Jesus,” he said under his breath. Racing back into the house he called up to Jimmy. “We gotta go, boy. She’s gone and somebody’s with her. They get to a phone and—”
Jimmy was already halfway down the stairs. “Boss ain’t gonna like this,” he said when he landed. “He ain’t gonna like we come back empty handed.”
“He’ll like it less if we land our asses in jail.”
Jillie tensed. The sound was very near, a humming sound like a small motor. Then she felt a weight beside her on her pillow, heard a meow, and felt the soft touch of a cat’s cheek against hers. “Oh, Kitty,” she said, exhaling in relief. “You scared me.”
Turning, she saw Ada wide awake beside her, bathed in perspiration, her bruises glowing deep purple against her chalky skin. Upstairs in the Westcott’s guest room, Jillie had piled Ada into bed under a mound of blankets then dabbed her face with a washcloth and rubbed in a salve she’d found in a bathroom cabinet.
“Who are those men, Momma?” Jillie asked again.
“I don’t know for sure. Daddy must have—”
Interrupting her, Jillie said, “Where is Daddy? Why isn’t he home helping us?”
“Those men,” Ada said, “they told me….” Seeing Jillie’s fixed expression, she stopped herself in mid-sentence. She knew Jillie had little if any affection for Arthur, surely no love. But to learn what the bald man said, that Arthur wasn’t coming home anymore. What could have happened? If Arthur had run from those men, if they couldn’t find him, he could be coming back to the house, for her and for Jillie, and for the money. Maybe…
“What Momma?” Jillie insisted. “What did they say?”
“They said Daddy is dead.”
Jillie stared at her open mouthed. “Momma,” she said at last. “They killed him? Why would they do that? What’s this all about?”
“I don’t know. But they said Daddy has money that wasn’t his. And it must be a lot of money or they wouldn’t be doing this. If he does, and if they don’t find it—”
“We’ll get it Honey. That’s what we’ll do, you and me. And we’ll run away, away from all this, this snow and cold and men who yell at us and beat us, and…yes, we’ll take it and run far, far away.”
The house was deathly silent. A clock downstairs chimed 2 o’clock. Rising, Jillie went to the bathroom and returned with a clean washcloth. Dabbing again at Ada’s cuts and bruises she whispered, “But why can’t we go to the police?”
“Because if they find the money they’ll take it and we’ll be left with nothing!” Ada’s voice rose to a new level. “I want that money,” she said with a vengeance. “I want to have money of my own, money to live my own way, with you, away from here.”
Jillie stared at her, at the cuts and bruises, at her eyes moving back and forth, at her lips pursed tight across her mouth, and she was afraid. “What are you thinking Momma?” she said in a timid voice. “Why are you so—”
“Shh!” Ada hissed. “Listen to me. I want you to run back to the house and see if those men are still there. Then come right back here and tell me what you find. If they’ve gone, we’ll go back together. But you be careful. They may be out there looking for us. Don’t let them see you. And when you come back, come the long way, not down the alley. Circle the block so they can’t follow your footprints.”
“All right, Momma. I will. I’ll be careful.”
Jillie took one of the Westcott’s overcoats, a weathered rain hat, and a pair of boots. Slipping out into the cold, she pulled the hat down tight on her head, hunched her shoulders, and walked around onto the sidewalk and down the street. Ahead she saw her house ablaze with lights. They must not be very smart to have all the lights on, she thought. All the other houses were dark, everyone asleep—or maybe not—and anyone could see in and wonder what was going on. Then she remembered the Chrysler. Circling around to the alley she saw it was gone, fresh tracks clear in the snow. They hadn’t left long ago, and they could still be near, maybe driving the streets looking for her and Ada. Maybe one was inside waiting while the other searched in the car. But no, that couldn’t be. She saw large footprints obscuring her own and Ada’s leading from the backdoor to where the car had been. They were both gone. They had to be.
Shivering in the cold, she ran to a living room window and peered inside. No one was there. She waited. Still no movement. No sound. Then she moved to the window outside the study. No one. Then the kitchen window. Again no one. Summoning her courage, she opened the back door and slipped inside, waiting, waiting to hear a sound or sense movement. Hearing nothing, seeing no one, she moved farther into the house. It was a shambles. Everything was turned on top of itself, books, furniture, pictures, and papers strewn everywhere, every room ransacked—the dining room, the bathrooms, the upstairs bedrooms. Quickly she ran through the house turning off lights. Then she returned to Ada.
“They’re gone, Momma,” she said at Ada’s bedside. The house is empty.”
“Good. Come now. Hurry.”
“Can you do this, Momma? Are you sure?”
“Yes. Come now.” Rising, she took Jillie’s arm and clung to the girl as they descended the stairs and shuffled to the back door. There they took others of the Westcott’s coats and shoes and made their way to their house. “My God,” Ada said when she saw the mess. “They’ve torn up everything, ruined our home.”
“They may have found the money, Momma. Maybe they did and there’s nothing here.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I think I know where he may have hidden it. I know where I would have.”
“Come with me.” In the study, she surveyed the room and walked to the desk. All the drawers had been pulled out and strewn on the floor alongside Arthur’s papers and books, his desk calendar and knickknacks, all manhandled and tossed aside.
“Where do you want to look, Momma?”
“Here” she said. Pushing a discarded drawer out of her way she sat on the floor by the desk’s right pedestal. “There’s a false bottom here,” she said. “This is Daddy’s father’s desk. There’s a false bottom under the bottom right hand drawer. Those men pulled the drawer out but didn’t look underneath. Reaching in, she felt a small hole in the slat of wood that formed the bottom, inserted her finger, and pulled the slat out onto the floor. Now the whole area inside the pedestal was open to her, three feet or more front to back, two feet wide, four or five inches deep. And inside, on the floor, were a dozen or more letter-size brown envelopes. Glancing at Jillie, Ada smiled and reached in, picked up one of the envelopes, and opened it on her lap. It was filled with cash, twenties, fifties, and hundreds. “My God,” Ada whispered. “My God, look at this.”
A tan leather valise that Arthur occasionally used lay nearby. The men had pulled it open, found nothing, and thrown it aside. She drew it to her now and began stuffing the envelopes inside. Finished, she looked back into the recess to make sure she’d not missed anything, saw a thin white envelope, and took it as well.
“We need to go, Honey,” she said to Jillie. She spoke quickly, a new urgency in her voice. “We need to go where no one will ever find us, ever try to take away our money. Speaking aloud to herself, her attention focused inward, she said, “How can we do that? How should we do that?” Then she almost spit out the words: “We’ll take a bus. We’ll call Country Cab, get a taxi, and have ‘em take us to the bus station. Come Jillie. We need to pack and go. We can call—”
Jillie put her hand on Ada’s arm, interrupting her. “The phone won’t work here, Momma. Those men pulled the cord out of the wall.”
“Then we’ll go back to the Westcott’s,” she said. “That’s what we’ll do. We’ll call from there. The taxi can pick us up there. Hurry now, we’ll take just one suitcase, just enough to get started. We can stop wherever we want along the way and buy whatever we need, whatever we want, we won’t care what it costs, we can get whatever we want and no one will tell us we can’t!”
Dressed in their own clothes, coats, and shoes, they returned to the Westcott’s, called for a taxi, and sat fidgeting side-by-side in the dark willing the taxi to hurry. When it arrived thirty minutes later, they raced to the door and down the walkway to meet it.
“You ladies want to go to the bus station, right?” the taxi driver said as they approach. “Well give me that suitcase and hop on in. I can take that briefcase too, ma’am, if you—”
“No,” Ada said. “I’ll keep this.”
“All right then. I got the heat on high and we’ll be there in a jiffy. I’m told you’ve got cash money for the fare. Tell me that’s true and we’ll be on our way.”
“We have cash,” Ada said, a touch of pride in her voice.
Carlo Retrico sat quietly at his desk listening to the two men babble on.
“We searched the house and the office, boss,” the baldheaded man said, his voice low and apologetic. “Nothin’. We looked top to—”
“Shut up, Ned,” Retrico barked. A burly, compact man, Retrico wore a gray paisley robe, silk with dark burgundy lapels. Half-moon bags hung under his eyes; his mouth was downturned in a half sneer, his dark eyebrows knitted together over a hunter’s glare. It was 4 o’clock in the morning and he’d been called from his bed to hear what these men had to say. Both stood nervously in front of his desk, hands at their sides. Mulasky and Kanin, his two bodyguards, loomed nearby, Mulasky at the door, Kanin uncomfortably close to the side of the man called Ned. At Ned’s side, his pockmarked companion, Jimmy, stared at Retrico with fear in his eyes.
Retrico turned in his chair and gazed out over the river. Night lights from the Illinois side twinkled in the dark water. A minute passed; then another. As he mused, he ran his hand up and down his bare chest. “I put more than one man out there in that muddy river, Ned,” he said. “One of ‘em floated all the way to Festus. How ‘bout that? Over 30 miles. You think I could float somebody down to Cape Girardeau? Maybe even Cairo?”
“Shut up. ‘Course they aren’t supposed to float. They’re supposed to sink, right Mulasky?”
“Then see to it next time.” Retrico turned back in his chair, his gaze hard and uncompromising, enveloping the men like a cloud. More time passed. “Let me see now,” he said in a soft voice. “I sent you to get my money and my papers and you threw the man out the window before you got ‘em? Squashed himself seven stories down on the concrete? That right?”
“Shut up. You and Jimmy here, you searched the office real good, real good you say”—this with a sudden glare at the men—“and found nothin’. Then you went to the man’s house, beat up his old lady, put her where you could keep a close eye on her and then, whoa!, she’s gone, disappeared in ta thin air! Then Jimmy here goes upstairs and finds one of the bedrooms with frilly little girly things and you tell me, ‘Who knew there was a kid?’ Who knew? You should’a known you moron! That’s your job. Pointing at Mulasky he snapped, “Did you tell these two idiots about the kid?”
“Yeah Boss,” Mulasky said.
“No,” Ned whined. “Never did. Never told us, I swear. Right Jimmy?”
Jimmy nodded his head, his eyes shifting left and right, watchful, expectant. From behind, Mulasky challenged, “You callin’ me a liar Ned?”
“You never did,” Ned said, his voice strained, his gaze fixed on Retrico.
“Whatever,” Retrico growled. “There is a kid, a teenage girl.” Pointing at Ned he said, “You say you saw two sets of footprints leading from the house?”
“Yeah,” Ned responded.
“Well the other one of ‘em has to be the girl’s. Stole her old lady right out from underneath you she did. Ha! How about that?”
Ned held his tongue. Beside him Jimmy was visibly shaking, hardly able to keep his place. Retrico stared at both men, waiting for an answer. When none came he motioned to Kanin, and with one quick motion Kanin buried a knife in Ned’s neck. Ned staggered back and crumpled to his knees, his hands at his throat, his eyes staring at Retrico in wide-eyed wonderment. Slowly he fell forward, then to his side, a gurgling sound issuing from his mouth. Jimmy’s knees buckled and he murmured, “Boss I—.” From behind, Mulasky slipped a wire around his neck and pushed a knee into his back. Grasping at the wire with one hand, Jimmy elbowed Mulasky again and again with his other arm, kicked out at Retrico’s desk, and pushed Mulasky off balance back toward the far wall. The two men hit the wall with a crash, Jimmy’s body twisting violently, his feet stomping down on Mulasky’s, his head pounding back against Mulasky’s face. But slowly his thrashing eased, the force of his blows lessened, and he was still.
“You need lessons on how to do that?” Retrico spat at Mulasky. “Goddamn brawl in what shoulda been a nice clean kill.”
Mulasky shrugged and wiped sweat from his bruised and bloodied face. “Jimmy was always a fighter, boss,” he said, “I’ll give him that.”
From the pocket of his robe Retrico took out a wrinkled handkerchief and came around the desk to assess the scuff marks Jimmy made to the front panel. Standing beside Ned’s body he scowled. “Messy. Messy.”
“I’ll take care of it Boss,” Mulasky offered.
“Yeah, right. You do that. You take care of these two stiffs too. Put ‘em in the river. Make ‘em sink. No floating.”
“And call Lachurado. I want him here, now.”
“Me and Kanin can take this over for you boss.”
“No. I want Lachurado.”
Leonard Lachurado was a small man with small hands, small feet, and a slight almost feminine stature. Dirty blonde hair hung long to his shoulders and a full mustache hid half his mouth. He was about Retrico’s age, mid-50s Retrico thought, maybe more, and his forehead and cheeks showed dark lines of a hard life. Dressed in a long-sleeve wool shirt over dingy blue jeans, he appeared at Retrico’s office on the stroke of 5 o’clock, a gray wool overcoat slung casually over his arm. Entering the room he went directly to a leather chair alongside Retrico’s desk, seated himself, and looked up at Retrico through dead, slightly crossed eyes. Even Retrico felt uncomfortable in his presence. The man was a recluse and a full-fledged psychopath. Retrico had ordered the deaths of seven people during his lifetime, men and women who had stood in his way or failed to meet his expectations. Ned and Jimmy made eight and nine. Lachurado had been responsible for all but two. Aside from his vicious nature he was tenacious, and that’s what Retrico needed now.
“I want you to find something for me, Leonard,” he said, “some money and some papers.”
“How much money?” Lachurado asked in a high pitched voice.
“A hundred grand, more or less.”
“What kinda papers?”
“Business papers. Torn out of a notebook. Numbered. Each one in the corner at the top. All of ‘em got columns, columns of names and numbers, money numbers. I need pages 20 ta’ 27”
“Where’s the notebook?”
“I got it.”
“So what’s in it for me when I find all this?”
“Twenty percent of the cash.”
“You wanna tell me how all this came about?”
“A guy works for me—used to work for me—he took ‘em, and he shouldn’ta had. I had two boys over to his office and his house lookin’ for ‘em six, maybe seven hours ago. But they fucked it up, didn’t find nothin’. But I’m tellin’ ya, they gotta be there—the office or the house—and they’d be together.”
“What about the guy?”
“He fell out a window.”
“And there’s one more thing. When my boys searched the house, the guy’s old lady was there, and a kid, a girl. They may know what we’re after, or know where it is. Could be they have it.”
“Where are they now?”
“Gone. Run off. The old lady’s mid 40s or so, sick I hear, running a fever or something, and bruised, maybe some blood. One of my guys messed her up. The kid’s a teenager, don’t know nothin’ about her.”
Lachurado sat quiet for a time, his eyes half closed, one hand tugging at his mustache. “I want twenty five percent,” he said at last.
Retrico stared at him. “Done. But I’ve got to have the papers. One without the other’s no good.”
Lachurado drove a late model Ford coupe, the front seat set well forward to help him reach the floor pedals. He went to Arthur’s office first, slipped up back stairs, and searched in the mess left by Ned and Jimmy. Finding nothing, he followed Retrico’s directions to the house. Nearing it, he moved to the side of the narrow road to let a Country Cab pass by, then drove to the back, parked in the alley, and entered quietly through the back door. The place was a mess, just like the office, tables, chairs, lamps, knickknacks, pictures, and other items strewn about on the floor. Standing in the center of the room he listened for a sound that someone might still be there. Hearing nothing, he edged into the hallway and then the study. Threading his way through the mess on the floor he made his way to Arthur’s desk, turned the desk chair upright, and sat. Beside him, the bottom right hand drawer lay upright on the floor, and beyond, in the depths of the desk’s pedestal, he saw the false bottom, empty of any contents, and to the side, the panel of wood that hid the area. Then he remembered the taxi. Birds’ flown the coop, he said to himself, and I just missed ‘em.
Two miles from the house he saw a phone booth and parked nearby. Pulling the door open he swung the phone book up by its chain, turned to the yellow pages, and ran his finger down the columns until he found the company and the number he wanted.
“Country Cab. Need a taxi?” a woman’s voice sang out after the first ring.
“I wouldn’t be calling you if I didn’t lady,” he sneered.
“No, of course not, that’s just our slogan,” she responded.
“Yeah. Well I need to know if you sent a cab to Wilkerson Street not long ago. Wilkerson in Webster Groves.”
“I’m sorry sir. I can’t give you that information. Our company policy is firm on that. We’d be happy to send a cab to you, though. Would you like that?”
“Stupid bitch,” he yelled, and slammed the phone down.
Back in his car he sat for a moment and watched the falling snow land and dissolve on his windshield. He liked pretty things, pretty lacy things, things women liked that most men didn’t and never even noticed. Snowflakes were like that, intricate, delicate, like little…. To his left he saw movement and snapped his head around, his hand reaching under his jacket for his pistol. An old woman in a dirty checkered overcoat stood outside, a knit hat tight down over her head and ears, her mottled brown skin glistening in the dim light thrown off through the open door of the phone booth. “Mister,” she said through the window, “can you spare a—.” He didn’t wait to hear what she wanted him to spare. He hated interruptions. He hated it when people came near him. He wanted distance from people, and he never liked surprises. She was lucky. He would spare her. Rolling down the window he glared at her speechlessly, pointed his bare hand at her in the shape of a gun, and said “Bang! You’re dead old lady.” Staggering backwards, she turned and scurried away down the street.
The address in the directory led Lachurado to a dispatch center in an industrial area near the river, a large garage fronted by wide doors that slid back alongside the walls of the building on rusty wheels. Inside, dozens of cabs sat in various stages of readiness to go back out on the road. Moving among them, a large man with sheets of paper in his hand was yelling at everyone he encountered. Lachurado made him as the shift manager. To the side he saw what passed as an office, and he walked over and took a seat.
From across the garage the man saw him and stalked over. “Who the fuck are you?” he asked, still shouting.
“I want to know about a cab of yours picked up a momma and her girl on Miles Street in Webster Groves a couple of hours ago.”
“You do, huh? Well, again, who the fuck are you?”
“I’m the guy who’s gonna give you $20 bucks and the name of a real sweetheart of a gal that’ll help you calm down after a long night herding these assholes around.”
The man looked hard at Lachurado for a beat or two, then he moved to his desk and rooted through some papers. Turning back he waved a sheet like a little flag and Lachurado reached for his wallet.
“The girl’s name is Lorena,” Lachurado said. “You’ll find her at Max’s place down by the waterfront. Know it?”
“Tell her the wizard said for her to give you a good time on him.”
“The wizard, huh?”
“Here’s your twenty. Now, where’d the cab take ‘em.”
“It was a woman and a young girl, like you said. Took ‘em to the Greyhound station. They had luggage, and they paid cash for the fare.”
“I want to talk to the driver.”
“That’d be Moe. He’s over there at the break table eating his dinner.”
The Greyhound station was alive with activity when Lachurado arrived. Rows of wooden benches were filled with men, women, and children waiting to board or greet passengers arriving through the station’s numbered doors. Making his way across the lobby he scanned the list of arrivals and departures. When a station agent passed Lachurado reached out and touched his arm. “Hey, Bub. I’m looking for my wife and daughter. My wife’s sick, burning with fever. I told her not to go but—”
“What can I do for you, mister?” the man said, eager to move on.
“You can help me figure out which bus they got on so I can go after ‘em.”
“You don’t know where they went?”
“No. She was burning with fever, I say, and my girl, well she’s not much help, and—”
“You need to talk to the station master. I can’t give you that type of information. Bigelow’s his name. His office is right over there by the clock.”
Bigelow was deep in conversation with an irate woman in a small office with one lone chair other than his own. When Lachurado plopped down in the open chair both Bigelow and the woman turned to glance at him, then resumed their argument. The woman wanted a $5 refund on her ticket because she’d been forced to sit next to an “uncouth man who smelled” on her trip in from Terre Haute. Finally Bigelow relented, wrote a note, and sent the woman to one of the ticket agents for her refund. Turning to Lachurado he says, “What can I do for you, mister?”
“My wife and my daughter came here to the station early this morning. My wife’s sick, burning with fever. I didn’t want to let her go away, but she left with the girl while I was still sleeping. I don’t know where she went and I need to find her.”
“You don’t know where she went? How’s that?”
“We didn’t have the money for the medicine she needed.” His voice was plaintive, his posture submissive. “I’m not a rich man you see, I work hard—”
“She coulda gone east to Indianapolis. She has family there. Or west, to Kansas City, she has a friend there. Or she coulda—”
“Wait Mr. Bigelow. You see, I got the money now. I got it from my brother. He wouldn’t help before, but now he is. Now I need to find my wife and daughter and bring ‘em back home where I can take care of ‘em.”
Bigelow tapped a pencil on his desktop. “I’ll see what I can find out,” he said at last. Picking up his phone he asked for his ticket agent, described Ada and Jillie as Lachurado had, and said the husband was there needing to find them. Holding the phone to his ear he began scribbling on a sheet of paper. Waiting for a response, Lachurado moved uncomfortably in his chair.
“Got it,” Bigelow said into the phone. Turning to Lachurado he asked, “What’s your last name mister?”
“Lange,” he replied.
“You know your wife was all bruised up, Mr. Lange. Bleeding too, I’m told.”
“I had nothing to do with that,” Lachurado said, his voice tremulous. “But I know who did. And when I tie up with my wife and kid again we’ll go back and settle on that account. You’ll see that we will.”
“All right, Mr. Lange. A woman who looked sick and had a teenage girl with her, names of Ada and Jillie Lange, boarded our west bound bus to Los Angeles at 7:15 this morning. They had enough for the fare, Mr. Lange. You might want to ask her where she got it,” he added in a pompous tone, “and why she didn’t let you know she had it.”
“You can be sure I will Mr. Bigelow. What about stops. A bus to Los Angeles gotta stop along the way.”
“Reaching for a schedule hanging on a hook next to his desk he said, “Yes, it stops for rest and meals in Springfield, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Elk City, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Gallup, Flagstaff, Phoenix, Riverside, and finally—.” Lachurado stood and ripped the schedule from his hand. “What the hell do you think you’re doing,” Bigelow howled. But Lachurado never heard him. He’d already bolted from the office and disappeared into the crowded lobby.
Mulasky gave Lachurado a hard look when he opened the door to let the little man back into Retrico’s office. With a slight grin, Lachurado threw his gray overcoat over the bodyguard’s arm and walked back to the leather chair alongside Retrico’s desk. As he moved away, Mulasky dropped the coat on the floor and kicked it aside to close the door.
“Pick it up,” Retrico ordered. “Hang it on the hat stand.”
Still standing, Lachurado flashed another grin over his shoulder and took his seat. “There was a false bottom under a drawer in the guy’s desk at the house,” he said to Retrico. “Those numbnuts you sent missed it. When I got there it was open and empty. Nothin’ in it. Nada. The old lady and the kid are gone, took a cab to the bus station and the 7:15 to L.A. Taxi driver told me the old lady was carrying a leather briefcase she wouldn’t let go of. They had one suitcase between ‘em.”
“They got it,” Retrico mused.
“Seems so. Bus makes all kinds of stops. Maybe I can catch up to ‘em, but I’ll need money for expenses, a couple a hundred at least.”
“How you planning to travel, shorty,” Mulasky laughed from his station by the door. “You takin’ a limo?”
“Shut up,” Retrico growled.
Rising, Retrico crossed the room to a side door. “You boys behave yourselves while I’m gone,” he said when he reached the door. “I’ll be right back, and I don’t want any funny business.”
As the door closed Lachurado turned in his chair toward Mulasky, a pistol in his hand.
Unfazed, Mulasky smiled and said, “Mine’s bigger. Wanna bet?”
Rising from his chair Lachurado walked to the man and thrust the pistol under his chin. “Speak to me again like again and I’ll kill ya,” he said. “No questions asked.”
Mulasky began to speak, then stopped. To the side, Retrico had reentered the room and was staring at the two. “Lachurado,” he said in a cautious voice. “Don’t do nothin’ crazy.” Closing the door he held out a small paper bag. “Here’s $500, part of what you’ll get when you bring me the big money and my papers. There’s a phone number in here too. A private number. Use that to call me. And Lachurado, don’t keep me in the dark. Let me know what you get when you get it.”
Still facing Mulasky, Lachurado edged over to Retrico and took the bag. Waving with his pistol for Mulasky to move away from the door, he slid the pistol back into his belt, retrieved his overcoat from the hat stand, and left without a word.